For my money, the high point of the afternoon occurred when two I.N.S. agents showed up with handcuffs, a photographer, and a Colorado congressman who’d made his reputation as an advocate for tougher immigration laws. The older of the two agents looked sheepish. We’d been tipped off by our early warning system, and Alex followed them into the room. He looked more amused than concerned, which made me wonder what he knew that I didn’t.
The older agent politely asked Larry and Elvis if he could see their passports.
“What does it look like?” Elvis asked.
This created a diversion, because of course nobody in the room was carrying one, so a fairly lengthy description was in order, and the two agents delivered it as a tag team.
When they’d satisfied Elvis’s curiosity, he said, “No. I don’t have one of those. But I have Diner’s Club.” He produced his card with a flourish, and then showed his disappointment that they weren’t more impressed.
The older agent asked if they had any papers to confirm that they’d entered the country legally. Then he asked if they’d ever filled out any forms requesting to enter the country.
“No,” Larry said. “As you know, we came on a diplomatic mission from a place where the forms are not available.”
“But we can fill them out now,” Elvis said, “if you help us.”
“It’s too late now, buster,” said the congressman, baring his teeth for the photographer, “as you damn well know. You’re going to be seeing the U.S.A. from behind bars, until we ship you back to where you came from.”
Larry smiled at that, but Elvis said, “My name isn’t Buster. It’s Elvis.”
“Yeah, right,” the congressman snarled. “You got any proof of that?”
Elvis held up his Visa card.
The younger agent had his hand on his cuffs. The older agent was palming his forehead, but I saw a smile twitching at one corner of his mouth.
Dave the masseur chose that moment to arrive, and Alex let him in.
“Is this a bad time, Hank?” he said.
“No, Dave, it’s a good time,” I said. “These two gentlemen are I.N.S. agents, and they’re about to arrest Larry and Elvis here as illegal aliens.”
“Oh,” he said, and walked out. He hadn’t even set his briefcase down.
“Let me ask you something,” the younger agent said, addressing Larry. “What was your port of entry?”
The older agent rolled his eyes.
“Into your airspace, do you mean?” Larry asked. “Or where did we first land?”
“Where’d you land?”
“In Bloomington, Indiana, isn’t that right, Hank?” Larry said. “Somewhere in the vicinity of Charley’s Bar.”
The younger agent had his hands on his hips. “You just flew across the border, and got as far as Indiana. Running lights? Air traffic control contact?”
“No, we had a security shield up,” Larry said. “It makes us invisible, both to human eyes and to your radar.” He didn’t say anything about pigeons, I noticed.
“And if that doesn’t sound like a terrorist, I don’t know what does,” said the congressman.
“I wasn’t aware that terrorists liked to congregate at Charley’s Bar,” Larry said.
I exchanged a look with Jillian. Larry as comedian? This was something new.
“You can tell that to the judge, bozo,” the congressman said. “Go ahead, agent. Cuff him.”
Now the boys from Spartan Security got into the act. A Hispanic guy built like a cement mixer stepped in front of Larry.
“I wouldn’t do anything foolish,” he said. He had some kind of Southern accent.
“You wouldn’t, huh?” the congressman said. “Maybe we should check your green card, amigo.”
The Hispanic guard turned to the congressman. “My name isn’t ‘amigo,’ it’s Francisco Alejandro Díaz de Cortez—Cisco to my friends, which doesn’t include you. I grew up in a neighborhood in San Antonio where calling somebody out of his name could be a capital offense. My people fought with the Texans against the Mexicans at the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. Now, I’m a peacekeeper. And so I’m just warning y’all, if he takes those cuffs off his belt, we’re going to have us a breach of the peace here, and we Texans know what to do about that.”
Ginger said, to nobody in particular, “We do not have time for this.”
Alex answered a knock at the door and a new player entered. He was an older man in his sixties, with thin gray hair and a general air of weariness. He made eye contact with the older of the two I.N.S. agents.
“Agent? May I speak to you a moment?” he said.
I don’t think the agent knew him, but my guess is that he recognized the type, and, with an air of relief, went to consult with the older man. The younger agent stayed where he was, cuffs still on his belt, and joined the congressman in glowering at Francisco Alejandro Díaz de Cortez.
The older agent returned and said to the younger agent, “Okay, we’re done here.” He turned to Larry and Elvis, “Sorry to have bothered you folks.” He shook their hands.
“That’s okay, man,” Elvis said. “No skin off my tush. You’re just doing your job.” They exchanged one of those cop-to-cop smiles.
The younger agent was directing his resentment at the older man, but not conspicuously enough to get into trouble over it.
The congressman, however, was beside himself. “You’re not going to arrest them? They’re illegal aliens.”
“No, sir, they’re not,” the older agent said. “They’re guests of the United States government, which makes them legal aliens.” He waved a hand at the rest of us. “You folks have a nice day.”
The congressman followed them out in high dudgeon, but the photographer lingered long enough to confirm the spelling of Francisco Alejandro Díaz de Cortez.
Dave reappeared, briefcase in hand. “Hank,” he said, “how about that massage?”
Two hours later, my back was relaxed but the rest of me was bored stiff. I called down to the hair salon. “Jeremy, I need a disguise. I’m desperate to get out of here.”
“There’s only so much I can do,” he said, “unless you get rid of the beard. Or we can dye it black.”
I thought. “Can I keep the moustache?”
“Better not,” he said.
What the hell, I thought. I could always grow it all back.
“Who do you want to look like?” he asked.
“Nobody in particular,” I said. “Look, I don’t want a makeover, I just want to be able to walk around without being recognized—you know, like Madonna or Angelina Jolie.”
“That’s easy,” he said. “Remove all your make-up, and don’t wash your hair for a few days. Wear sweat pants. Leave your bodyguard and your kids at home.”
He arrived half an hour later with his shaving gear and a collection of wigs and sunglasses. Elvis was busy working on his blog with Howard, Anna was returning phone calls from all the people who were suddenly returning her phone calls, Ginger and Larry were sitting at the table working on opening statements for different venues, Jillian was off running errands, a filmmaker named Anil was microwaving a cup of coffee and reading some papers he held in one hand, and the three bodyguards were watching NASCAR racing. Jeremy and I retired to the bathroom.
It was weird to be reintroduced to an upper lip and chin I hadn’t seen for at least five years. I touched them with my fingers, and even though I was watching myself in the mirror, I was startled when the fingers made contact with bare skin.
Jeremy was also watching me in the mirror. He now produced a wig of wavy, longish, light-brown hair, dyed to look a little sun-bleached.
“This one’s my favorite for you,” he said, and slipped it over my dark blond hair, which was intended to be short but rarely achieved its intended length because I lacked either the money or the time to get it cut.
He fussed with the wig until it looked more natural on me.
“Voilá!” he said. “You could be Leonardo DiCaprio.”
I replaced my wire-rim glasses, and studied myself in the mirror. Let me just clarify, there was no way I’d be mistaken for Leonardo DiCaprio. For one thing, in spite of the regular basketball games and fair-weather biking to campus and home, I had the lumpy, solid look of a guy who spends his days reading books and grading papers, with the beginnings of a beer belly, or more accurately, a beer-and-pizza belly. I looked like Leonardo DiCaprio after a three-month strike by his personal trainer maybe at a stretch and from a distance of fifty feet with a crowd of people obscuring your view. I looked like an aging Beach Boy. Leo had nothing to fear from me.
“Gee, thanks. I think.”
He handed me a pair of dark glasses. “How blind are you?” he said.
It felt good to get outside and walk around again. The rain had stopped, but the air was thick with moisture. This was the kind of thing you noticed when more of your skin cells were making contact with the atmosphere. You also notice it when you aren’t wearing your glasses and are having to depend more on your other senses for information about the world around you.
After I’d walked about half an hour, I sat down on a bench in a small park and watched the kids on the playground—or rather, I watched the moving shapes that I took to be kids. There was a time when you could do this without feeling like a sex offender, but those days were long past, so I looked at my watch as I sat down, resolved to stay no longer than fifteen minutes. I also wanted to convey the impression that I was waiting for someone. As I looked around, I noticed a dog park farther along, and thought I could probably get away with dogwatching, if I needed to change venues.
The bench was cold and damp, and the rainwater seeped through my jeans. I collected two alert glances from passing moms, and decided that the sunglasses were no help to my clean-cut image, so I took them off and stuffed them in the pocket of my sweatshirt. Squinting probably didn’t do anything for my image, either. I tucked my hands into the small of my back and leaned back against them, for which my back seemed to be grateful. Then it occurred to me that I looked like a pervert who was trying to restrain himself, so I silently apologized to my back and removed my hands and crossed my arms. I was pondering my lot in life, trying to work up some enthusiasm for logging some time at the Library of Congress, or maybe going back to the Smithsonian to look at the Betty Crocker kitchen I’d been rushed past the day before, when I became aware that someone was sitting on the other end of the bench. I smelled her before I saw her—a faint whiff of some light, fruity scent found its way to my newly unobstructed nostrils. I adjusted the angle of my head to expand my peripheral vision.
She was tall and thin, wearing jeans, a denim jacket, and trainers. She had long hair, platinum blond. She wore glasses. She was reading a book. I coughed to cover another head adjustment. Oh, shit. She was reading Douglas Adams’s A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Surely I’d been busted.
But she continued to read, seeming to take no notice of me. She was actually turning the pages. So my fifteen minutes turned into twenty as I sat waiting to see what she would do. I watched a little boy slide down the slide a dozen times, emitting the same squeal of delight every time, and a little girl being pushed on a swing by an older sister. It was odd to see the world so out of focus, as if I were under water. I heard occasional small explosions from my right indicating stifled laughter. This, too, was a good sign. If she’d been reading War and Peace, it would have made me suspicious, but Douglas Adams certainly warranted a few chuckles.
The next time my eyes slid in her direction she was eating an apple. She was close enough so that I could see she had nice, healthy teeth. A pair of toddlers started fighting over a Big Wheel in front of our bench, and she looked up. She smiled at them, shook her head, went back to her reading. Soon she was chuckling again.
I couldn’t stand it. “What part are you reading now?” I asked.
She looked up as if startled, looked around, found me. “What?” she said.
I pointed at the book. “What part?”
“Oh,” she smiled. “Ford’s Hitchhiker’s Guide entry for Earth: ‘Mostly harmless.’”
“Yeah,” I said. “His revision of the previous entry, the summary of all he’s learned in fifteen years of living there incognito.”
She laughed. “Adams cracks me up,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s thought-provoking, you know? And kind of, you know, like, visionary. I mean, he wrote this back in the seventies, and here it turns out that right now, today, we’re being visited by space aliens.” She shook her head. “Amazing.”
“Well, some people say we’ve been having visitors for years,” I pointed out.
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” she said. “But I never really believed that stuff, did you?” She closed the book around her index finger, and scooted one scoot closer to me. “The way Mrs. Humphreys explained it—that was my seventh-grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Humphreys—all those flying saucer sightings? They were really Soviet aircraft, testing a lot of advanced weaponry.”
“But you believe these new aliens—Lawrence Smith and Elvis Preston—are from outer space?”
“We-e-ell.” She glanced down at the book in her hand. “Not exactly. I mean, I don’t know what to think.” She chewed her apple thoughtfully. “I heard someone on the radio say that this super-Elvis is the reincarnation of the real Elvis,” she said, “and I don’t believe that for a minute. He could be just a guy with a good plastic surgeon who took too many growth hormones.”
“But you don’t think these guys are Soviet agents?”
“They could still be Russians,” she said. “Or maybe Osama bin Laden sent them.”
“If Osama bin Laden sent them,” I said, “and got them into the country without anyone knowing about it, why not just have them blow up the White House or the Pentagon? Why have them hold a press conference to say they don’t care about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?”
“Maybe he’s just messing with our heads,” she said. “He likes to do that. Or he wants us to let our guard down, and buy into world peace, and then, blam! He’ll blow something up.”
I felt a little of Larry’s impatience rising in me. What was our chance of survival if Earthlings never got the message right? “He said they don’t care about world peace,” I objected. “I mean, isn’t that what he said?”
“Well, yeah, he said that,” she admitted. “But didn’t he also say something about non-aggression? I kind of thought he meant Iraq and Afghanistan when he said that, didn’t you?”
“No,” I said between clenched teeth. “Since he specifically said he wouldn’t take a stand on those conflicts, I took him at his word.”
“Well, you don’t have to get all bent out of shape about it,” she said. “I’m just telling you what I thought. I’m entitled to my opinion and you’re entitled to your opinion. It’s a free country, right? So unless you’re going to tell me that you talked to these guys on the phone and you know exactly what they were thinking, your opinion is just your opinion.”
“Sorry,” I said, “you’re right. I don’t know why I get so worked up. It’s just—well, it’s possible that if we don’t believe them, the Earth will be destroyed. That kind of upsets me.”
She shrugged and looked away. “Well, it upsets me, too, but it’s going to happen anyway, one way or another. We’re destroying it ourselves, and we know we are, and what are we doing to stop it? Giving tax breaks for hybrid cars, handing out tips on weather-stripping your windows, blathering on about ‘clean coal,’ an oxymoron if there ever was one, and falling all over ourselves to drill for oil in the few places left on the planet that we haven’t totally screwed up. We won’t fucking sign the Kyoto Accord—no, that would be way too extreme. I’m sorry, but it’s all going down the toilet, anyway, and who knows? Maybe a blast from some kind of super laser would be quicker and less painful than the way we’re doing it.”
“I see what you mean,” I said.
She set down her apple core, wiped her hand on her jeans, and offered her hand to me.
“I’m Charlotte,” she said. “Peace?”
“I’m all for it,” I said. “Hank.”
“No kidding?” she said. “Hank. That’s the name of the guy who’s hanging out with the spacemen. You related?”
“He’s my twin brother,” I said. “He’s Hank One, I’m Hank Two.”
She grinned. “You don’t look like him,” she said.
There were two mothers now sitting on a bench opposite ours, one with a baby in a stroller. Both had toddlers of indeterminate gender in tow. As we watched, one toddler offered the other a cookie. The second kid crossed his eyes to focus on it, then snatched it, and with only a little prompting from its mother, mumbled through a mouthful of cookie something that could have been “thank you.”
Charlotte nodded in their direction. “It’s not as if humans can’t learn to share.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe we should send our world leaders back to kindergarten.”
“Some of them skipped kindergarten altogether,” she said. “I’m convinced.”
“Or maybe we should just encourage more public crying,” I said. “Maybe if world leaders just let everybody know when their feelings were hurt, the bullies would be shamed into behaving better.”
“I’m pretty sure that one’s been tried,” she said. “Turned out there wasn’t enough shame to go around.”
We fell silent.
Then she said, “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“No, I just moved into the neighborhood,” I said. “You live around here?”
“Not too far,” she said. “What do you do?”
“Oh,” I said, and made a vague gesture. “I’m a consultant. You?”
“I’m a writer,” she said. “I walk around the city, looking for inspiration and material.”
“Find anything good lately?” I asked.
She cocked her head. “Maybe. Hard to say. I like to leave my options open. I might put you in a story, for example.”
“Me?” I was astonished. “Boy, would that be a mistake! I’m totally boring.”
“Really?” She eyed me in mock surprise. “I’ll bet you’re not. The people who think they’re boring are never as boring as they think they are, and the ones who think they’re fascinating are usually much more boring than the ones who think they’re boring.”
“I’m boring, and I know it,” I said.
“Come on,” she said. “What do you consult about?” She said this with the air of an investigative reporter on a mission.
“Oh—.” I hunched my shoulders and moved restlessly on the bench. “You know—management kinds of stuff.”
“Well, like, anything to do with time management,” I said. “Like, I consult with food packagers about how to make the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time in terms of package design. Did you know it only takes consumers an average of forty-seven seconds to choose a brand of a product they haven’t bought before or don’t regularly buy?”
“That doesn’t quite sound like time management to me,” she said.
“It is, though,” I said, “because the package design is also impacted by the time it takes to produce the package and the time it takes a consumer to open the package, what we in the industry call ‘openability.’”
“Openability,” she echoed. “No shit.”
“So what kinds of things do you write about?” I said. “Do you write stories or essays or what?”
She was rummaging in her bag now, out of sight on the bench on the other side of her. “Whatever I feel like,” she said into her bag. “Sometimes stories, sometimes essays.” She brought out something small and shiny. She tossed it to me.
It was a granola bar in a purple metallic wrapper.
“Okay, so let’s say I made this wrapper, and I consulted you,” she said. “What would you tell me?”
I scrutinized the wrapper. “Well, right off the bat I’d tell you to change the typeface and maybe increase the size of the font on the word ‘delicious.’ ‘Delicious’ comes second after ‘power-packed,’ but it should come first because it’s the most important criterion to consumers, even athletes and health nuts—what we call the ‘deal-breaker.’”
“And you think I wouldn’t get as far as ‘delicious’ in forty-seven seconds?”
“You might, but why take chances?”
“Okay, tell me more.”
“I can’t tell you more without opening the package.”
“So, open it.”
I looked it over, then tried to insert my index finger under one of the flaps. She scooted closer to watch me.
“This is called the ‘chimp test,’” I said. “If a chimp can open the package within ten seconds, it’s a good package—strictly from the time management and marketing points of view, you understand.”
“Yeah?” she said. “How many chimps you got working for you?”
“I’m not the boss,” I said. “If you’re asking about my co-workers, only two are chimps.”
I’d tried both flaps, both sides. Nothing doing. I tried my teeth. You’d have thought the damn wrapper was made out of Kevlar. I expressed my frustration by making high-pitched chimp sounds, baring my teeth, and flinging the package away. The two mothers across from us ducked, and looked at me wide-eyed.
Charlotte’s eyes followed the arc of the package, then returned to my face.
“You’re so full of shit,” she said.
I raised my eyebrows. “It’s the truth,” I insisted. “That’s just what Schmo would have done—except that his aim would have been better. Which is why he makes big bucks at his job.”
She went to retrieve the package. The mothers were herding their toddlers in quick retreat.
She stood in front of me, holding up the package. “Regardez,” she said. She inserted a fingernail into a flap and had the thing open in well under ten seconds.
“That’s why we hire chimps and not women,” I said. “You see, women designers often forget that half of the world’s consumers don’t have fingernails like theirs. You add in the kids and the women who bite their fingernails, we’re talking about more than half. I’m not complaining. It’s more work for me when companies design bad packaging, and then wonder why their sales tank.”
“Must be a revelation to them when the chimp rejects their package,” she said.
“You have no idea,” I said.
She glanced at her watch. “Well, I gotta be going. Listen, you want me to show you around the neighborhood some time?”
“Well,” I said. I hesitated. “I’d really like that, but I don’t know when I’m going to be working.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” she said. She stowed Douglas Adams in a canvas tote bag that she hung from her shoulder. “If you work on Saturdays, you’ve flunked your own time management consultation.”
“Can I call you?” I said.
She found an ATM receipt in her bag and scrawled a number. She handed it to me. “I’ll show you all the best places to shop for chimp gifts.”
“Great,” I said.
I watched her walk away, still undecided. Did she know who I was or didn’t she? Was I developing an exaggerated sense of my own importance?