Friday, October 24, 2008

Plagiarized Fiction: Why I Eat Don’t Regular at the Same Place

I had picked a bad night to go to Jimmy’s, the up and coming nightspot down the street from my office. The food was terrible, but so was the food everywhere else. “It’s because of the war,” everyone said. And why not? Show me something in 1944 that wasn’t the way it was “because of the war.” Now, a cynic might point out that prior to the war, restaurant food in Los Angeles wasn’t anything to write home about either. Bowls of prewar chicken soup, where the chicken was just an idle and unfounded rumour, certainly didn’t get any less chickeny just because the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Screw Bill O'Reilly (metaphorically speaking, of course). The real Papa Bear is Mr. Raymond Chandler.

As a matter of plain fact, that self-same cynic wouldn’t be far wrong by pointing out the only real change to restaurant fare since the war, was that enterprising proprietors charged an extra two bits for everything—and got all morally indignant if anyone noticed. But I’m not a cynic; mainly because in the circles I travel, it’s an awfully fine line between “cynic” and “subversive.”

Jimmy’s place was crowded, loud, and getting louder. I don’t like loud places, and neither does Bob, the guy I was having dinner with. Bob hates noisy places more than I do, but he hates paying for his own meals worst of all. I was paying.

I’m Johnny Dalmas, a private investigator. What do I investigate? Whoever and whatever comes through the door of my office with money attached to it. You know that radio program, “Have Gun, Will Travel”? Me—I travel, gun or no. Which is why I was paying for Bob’s dinner. Bob is a good person for people in my line of work to know, because Bob knows lots of people—and more importantly, lots of people know him. He gets things done: a fixer who either puts fixes in or takes them out. Only not in the corridors of power, where most the real fixers, grafters, and hard money boys make both their mark and their scratch. Bob is some kind of a labor guy; he is deliberately vague on the details. He’s so vague, I can’t even be sure his name really is “Bob,” not that it matters. My rolodex lists him as “Bob the Labor Guy,” he comes when I call, and can get me information and stuff that no one else can. That’s the kind of guy I’m happy to buy meals for.

We have dinner once a week or so, and I like to think it’s because we enjoy each other’s company—even though I always pay. Still, I’ve seen Bob brush off lots bigger fish than I’ll ever be, so there has to be some other reason he sees me, above and beyond the buck and a half I drop for his dinner and beer. Life is funny that way.

That night, I didn’t have anything particularly pressing. My plate was full with domestic cases: two wives angry at their husbands, and three husbands suspicious of their wives. Not exactly cases of the century, but following all of them for the next week or so would keep me in eating money. So my dinner with Bob was going to be a social occasion. Or it would have, except Jimmy’s was plenty noisy and more crowded than I’d ever seen it.

There was a big banner stretched across the wall, reading Welcome Class of . . . something or other. Lots of loud talking, loud laughter, back slapping—I really hate that stuff. Someone had started shouted above the din about “Professor Know It All, who knew all.” Bob and I were sitting at the bar, wondering if a table was going to open up, or if we should just give up, and go somewhere else. We hadn’t decided fully, when a chunky, red faced man plopped down beside us. He was upset about something, and wanted us to notice. I tried my best not to notice, but Red Face would not be denied. “That pompous bastard,” he cursed. I didn’t say anything, probably because from where I sat, pretty much the entire crowd more or less fit that description. No reason for me to spend time dicing degrees of bastardness and pomposity.

Ms. Ava Gardner. She does not appear in this story.

Not Bob, though. For some reason, Bob leaned across me and said to the red faced man “Which one?”
“Professor Know It All. He does this every time. I hate the guy.”
“Who is he, and what does he do?” Bob asked, sounding genuinely interested.
“George,” Red Face said, gesturing with his chin. “That guy in the white shirt. He always sets himself up as “Professor,” and challenges the rest of us to ask him questions. He claims he can’t be stumped.”
“Do you want to stump him?”
The chunky man’s face got redder. “Do you want to know what I really want? Someone to show him just what’s what. Someone who can shut him up good, so we never have to listen to him again.”

Bob started to smile that very little smile of his—he never was a big smiler. “Would it be worth ten bucks for you shut him up? I mean really shut him up?” Behind us, we could hear Professor George Know it All start to pontificate: “The largest of all animals on the planet we call earth is the Blue Whale. A mammal, and not a fish, this denizen of the deep lives on virtually microscopic plankton and algaes.” Our new friend, just at the sound of the Professor’s voice, his face screwed up as though his last drink was losing ground on an impacted wisdom tooth. Pieces of paper and pencils were handed out through the club, for people to write questions for the Professor. A self-appointed emcee of sorts had started reading questions aloud to the Professor.

“The single greatest Shakespearean play, in terms of structure and drama is not Macbeth, as most people assume, but Richard III. . .” The red faced man cringed again.
“Did you really say ten bucks?” he asked Bob.
“I need five for expenses,” Bob told him, sipping on his beer—actually his third. Bob is a fast drinker, especially when he wasn’t paying.
“While most people consider George Washington, truly the Father of our Country, as our greatest president, or Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator—what few people realize are the many and valued contributions of our twelfth President, Mr. James K. Polk!”

Ms. Cyd Charisse. She does not appear either, which is a shame, because the story would be much better if she had.

Bob flinched. "Some 'professor'," he mumbled.
“You really think you can shut him up for ten bucks? Forever?” Red Face sounded hopeful.
“With five of that as expenses. I’m pretty sure, but I can’t promise it. You know that.”
The Professor had started a new question. “Of the five great races identified by Sir Charles Darwin, by far the most numerous and prolific are the Chinese . . .”
“If I give you the money, and it does shut George up, will I be able to take credit for whatever it is you do?”
“I don’t see why not—if you want to.” Bob was nothing if not accommodating.
“Barkeep!” shouted our new-found friend, loud enough to get Jimmy’s attention. “Get me two fives for this ten!”

With a fin in his pocket, and the other sitting on the bar, Bob took a piece of paper, briefly licked the end of a pencil, and told Mr. Red Face to start telling me his life story. I shrugged, bought another round of beers. Seeing that Red Face’s money would be paying for our dinner—maybe--I thought picking up the beer was the least I could do.
The redness in Red Face’s face was starting to fade, leaving him more an unhealthy pasty color. He didn’t look any better, but he started to look happier, especially as he drank more of the beer I paid for. “My name’s Charles Smith, and I’m not drunk enough for you to call me ‘Charlie.’ For the last eighteen years, I’ve run an office importing some stuff and exporting other stuff. The work is maddeningly dull, and the corruption endemic, but I make a reasonable living. I guess that’s what really counts.” Meanwhile, Bob had made a few notes on a piece of paper, and was staring off into space. Charles continued. “Of course, with the war and all, rubber, tin, copper—all that’s supposed to be impossible to get.”
“Hey Johnny—does the phrase ‘three way’ have a hyphen in it?” Bob interupted.
“How should I know? Does it matter?” I said, and turning back to my new friend Charles, and to needle Bob a little, asked him if he had any union troubles.
“Oh, I got troubles all the time with everyone. But those union goons, they’re not any better or worse than anyone else.”
Meanwhile, Professor Know it All was just hitting his stride: “Bolivia, who has the capitol of La Paz, is one of the chief exporters of tin in the world today. Paraguay, her neighbor to the east, is an important source of beef in the world economy . . .”

Writing fake Raymond Chandler stories without even
a token appearance by Ms. Lauren Bacall is a class
B felony in twelve states.

Bob cringed. “East—Uh huh.” He was still scribbling notes. “Johnny, how do you spell ‘orangutan’?”
“Spell what? What are you writing?”
“Don’t worry about it—just spell ‘orangutan’ for me.” I gave it my best guess, and turned back to Charles.
“I’ve heard those dock workers can get kind of tough,” I said, but Bob wasn’t paying attention.
“You’re not kidding,” Charles coughed after taking to big a swallow of beer. “But if you treat them right, you’ll get what you pay for. But only if you first let them know who’s boss.” Bob snorted.
"Hey Johnny,” he asked, “which do you think makes a more compelling victim: an African elephant, or an Indian elephant?”
I set down my beer. “What are you asking me now?”
“Which makes a more compelling victim, an African or an Indian elephant?”
“A victim of what?” Charles asked, which was what I was thinking, but didn’t want to ask.
“Don’t worry about it—just tell me what you think.”
I took a sip of beer, and pondered. “Well, elephant victims are not the kind of stock in trade that come across my desk, but if I had to pick---I’d guess a baby Indian elephant, because they have those little floppy ears.”
Bob looked relieved. “Of course. I should have known that. Oh, do you know if it’s called ‘round the world’ or ‘around the world’?”
Charles looked puzzled. “What’s called what?”
“I don’t think I matters,” I said, quickly putting my oar in troubled waters, “but ‘round the world’ has a better ring.”
“That’s what I thought too. Thanks.”
Charles was starting to look worried. “What is he doing?” he said, gesturing at Bob.
“Honestly? I have no idea,” I said, “but then again, I seldom do. So Charles, got any big plans after the war?”
Charles looked down at his feet. “Well, I do have this one idea, but everyone I tell it to looks at me like I was crazy.”
“Excuse me Johnny,” Bob interrupted again. “What’s that called when you bite on a guy’s ass while giving him a reach around? A dirty sanches?”
Charles started to stand up. “Wait---what are you doing?”
I took a swallow of beer. “No, that’s a rusty trombone. A dirty sanchez is when . .”
“What are you guys doing to me?” Charles interrupted.
I shrugged. “I’m not doing anything; I'm just the swamper on this route.”
Bob smiled his little smile. “I’m just trying to shut Professor Know It All up, like you asked me to. Maybe for good. We’ll see.”
Charles wasn’t convinced. “But…but…you’re not going to embarrass me, are you?”
“What? No, never Charles,” Bob tried to assure him, “I said you could take the credit, if you wanted to. But you don’t have to. You can always remain anonymous. Johnny, what animal species is more disgusting: marsupials or amphibians?”
FYI -- This is not a rusty trombone.

I thought for a moment. “I actually think amphibians are, but marsupials sound far worse.”
Bob looked thoughtful, then nodded slowly. “Wow, I had no idea you were so good at this kind of thing,” he said, and went back to writing.
“Um…” Charles said, “I think I’d prefer to be anonymous on this, if you don’t mind.”
“It’s your show,” Bob said, starting to re-copy his note in the plainest block lettering he could muster, “but it’s not too late to change your mind.”
“I won’t,” said Charles, and taking another large swallow of beer, and this time not coughing.
“I think that’s probably wise,” I offered, even though no one asked.
Bob took his now finished note, and carefully folded it into thirds with the five dollar bill inside. He caught the eye of one of the busboys, and directed the kid to hand the note to the volunteer emcee, who was still reading questions for Professor Know It All.
“Let’s go someplace else,” Bob said to me, after the busboy left.
“You don’t want to stay to hear your question asked?”
“Not particularly.”
I turned back to Charles. “You want to come with us, or do you want to stay?”
“I don’t want to go with you guys. I think . . . I think I’ll kind of stay here.”

Baby Indian Elephant. Offered as a public service, allowing you to judge for yourself.

“Suit yourself,” Bob shrugged.
By now, I saw the emcee had the note Bob had written, and with a deft move, the five disappeared into the emcee’s pocket, unbeknownst to Professor Know it All.

Bob and I were just heading out the door, when I heard the Emcee start to say “Professor, I have a new question for you. Which of the following, if any, should disqualify a man from holding high elected office. First, engaging in multiple three ways with . . .” I didn’t get the rest of the question, because there was suddenly a lot of yelling, the sounds of glass breaking, and I think I heard a woman scream. But I couldn’t be sure.

Inspired by and for Hilltop High School Class of 1978 -- and written for someone who knows who they are.

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