“What we need,” I said, “is a consultant.”
We were sitting in the living room area of our new suite. Phone conversations with my mother and sister had left me feeling shaken, inadequate.
“But Hank,” my mother had said, bafflement in her voice, “I thought you were looking forward to working on your dissertation over Spring Break. Isn’t that what you should be doing? Can you afford a trip to Washington, D.C.?”
“What are you doing, Hank?” my sister had wanted to know. “Consultant to a couple of foreign businessmen? This makes no sense. We don’t even have a cousin Mary. Tell me you haven’t been forced to work for terrorists who are holding Anita hostage. That Elvis guy is downright creepy.”
“I wouldn’t cross the street to save Anita from terrorists,” I’d muttered as I turned the phone off.
“Good for you, Hank!” Elvis had said. “She can’t break your heart anymore. You will find another baby soon, I know. There were many dollies at the press conference.”
Now, he said, “But Hank, you are our consultant, isn’t that right?”
I shook my head. “I’m not a Washington insider. That’s what we need. Pretty soon, some enterprising individual in Homeland Security or the F.B.I. is going to wonder how and when you entered the country. And when they can’t find an ‘Elvis Preston’ or a ‘Lawrence Smith’ on any of the airlines’ passenger lists, they’ll get curious. It might not happen today or tomorrow, but it’ll happen. And you know what happened the last time people got suspicious.”
Elvis nodded. “Larry died.”
I was confused. “Wait, he died? I thought he just got shot.”
A look passed between them. “Very unpleasant, I’ll admit,” Larry said. He couldn’t get used to the glasses, which were parked on top of his head. “I wouldn’t mind avoiding that, if I could.”
“But we did a good press conference, didn’t we?” Elvis said.
Elvis liked praise as well as the next robot, and I didn’t mind giving it to him. But the truth was, he was too charming not to excite interest. I’d hoped we could bore our audience. No such luck. As soon as he gave them that lopsided smile and drawled his first “ma’am,” I watched the room divide into Elvis fans and skeptics. Both groups would be working overtime to find out more about him.
“Don’t worry, Hank,” Larry said. “I recognize that our time is short. But if we could manage another twenty-four hours even, I’d be grateful. I’m learning a great deal about your people and your culture. Perhaps I’m beginning to understand the mistakes I made last time.”
The phone rang. It was Alex.
“Sorry to bother you, Hank, but there’s a gentleman here who insists that he’s an old friend of Mr. Smith’s. He’s very persistent, and claims that he’s been holding some mail for Mr. Smith, which appears to be true. He also claims that if he could speak to Mr. Smith for just a moment, he could establish his identity, and Mr. Smith would want to see him. What should I do?”
I turned to look at Larry, sitting next to me on the couch. I was slouched and my feet were on the glass-topped cherry coffee table; his posture was impeccable and his legs were neatly crossed. “Put him on,” I said, and passed the phone to Larry.
I didn’t hear what the caller said, but I saw a smile of pleasurable recognition spread across Larry’s face.
“Robbie!” he said. “How good to hear your voice. Oh, I—.” He paused, and then seemed to put a mental finger on an entry in his lexicon. “Can’t complain, I guess. How are you?” He listened, then said, “And you’re just downstairs? Oh, yes, do come up. Let me talk to Mr. Otaryan.”
The arrangements made, Larry hung up and turned to me in what, for him, passed as excitement.
Elvis was on his feet. “Our Robbie? Was it really our Robbie?”
“The Cub Scout, right?” I said. “The one you hung out with when you came before.”
“Yes,” he said, and seemed genuinely happy for the first time since I’d met him.
“What did he say to you?”
Larry smiled. “He said, ‘Klaptok zisto, you old son of a gun.’”
“Oh, he remembered!” Elvis’s voice was thick and his eyes glinted. Clearly, he’d been designed with tear ducts as well as emotions. He turned to me. “That means, ‘I come in peace’ in our language. We taught Robbie how to say it.”
“He will have changed,” I said gently. “He’s aged fifty-six years.”
Larry sighed. “I know,” he said. “I’ve changed, too—and I don’t mean that my appearance has changed. Well, we’ll see.”
The man he ushered into the room a few minutes later was something of a surprise. It wasn’t his age; he looked perhaps ten years younger than his age—mid-fifties rather than mid-sixties, I would have said, but still, his youthfulness alone wouldn’t have surprised me. No, it was his type. Never having met the guy, I had no business with preconceptions of any kind, but nevertheless I’d expected the fresh-faced Cub Scout to have turned into a retired executive in a suit, or maybe leisure slacks and a golf shirt. Robbie Donovan was an aging hippie. He had white hair pulled back from a bald crown into a ponytail and a rather scruffy white beard. He wore capacious sky-blue patterned cotton trousers that tied at the waist and a tee shirt whose message I couldn’t read under his gray hooded sweatshirt. On his feet he wore brown socks and leather sandals ugly enough to be original-model Birkenstocks. He was carrying an unbleached canvas bag that touted a local health food store. His grin stretched across wide cheeks. He had an arm slung across Larry’s shoulder. As he entered, I caught a whiff of patchouli.
“Just look at you, man,” he was saying. “You don’t look a day older. Where you been keeping yourself? Outside time?”
“Something like that,” Larry said.
Robbie slapped him on the back and said, “That’s okay, man. No need to explain. Be over my head, I’m sure.”
Elvis and I had stood up, and he noticed us now.
“Hey! That can’t be—. No, no way! Is that the Yarpster?”
“Yes,” Elvis said, fluttering his hands against his chest the way he did when he got excited. “Yes, it’s me.”
“No way!” He looked Elvis up and down with sincere wonder and admiration. “Well, it has to be, of course. How many seven-foot robots could you fit on that ship?” He threw his arms around Elvis for a long hug, then stood back and examined him again. “But look at you, dude! You’re too much! What’d you do with the old Yarp?”
“I redesigned him, Robbie,” he said. “Do you like my new look?”
Robbie shook his head in wonderment. “Far out,” he said.
“And this is our friend, Hank,” Larry said.
I was a little worried that Robbie Donovan might regard me as an interloper, someone who had taken his place, but he took my hand in both of his and shook it warmly. “Pleasure, man. So what do you think of these two characters? They’re a trip, aren’t they?”
He threw an arm around Elvis again, but could only reach to the middle of his back.
“How’s that pitching arm?” he asked. Then he turned serious. “But listen. You guys got no idea how glad I am to see you. Last time I saw you—.” He seemed to choke up. “Well, Mr. S., I didn’t know whether you’d make it or not. If only I’d taught you how to read smoke signals, dudes, I could’ve warned you.”
“Since we are such old friends, Robbie,” Larry said, “I think you should call me ‘Larry,’ like everyone else.”
Robbie laughed. “Sure thing, dude. Whatever you want. You’re the boss.”
“No skin off your wazoo, right, Robbie?” Elvis said.
This made Robbie laugh harder.
“I’ll call you whatever you want, dudes.” He laid a hand on Elvis’s arm. “Just send me a news flash, bro, if you decide to change your name again to Mick Jaggar or Justin Timberlake or Beyoncé.”
I was really starting to like this guy. What our team needed was a little levity. This business of saving the Earth—I’d been letting it get to me. Now that Robbie was here, the atmosphere in the room was effervescent. He didn’t appear a likely candidate for the aid and advice we needed, but humor was no small contribution.
“Did you get your merit badge for aviation, Robbie?” Elvis asked.
Robbie made a dismissive gesture. “Nah, after all the parents went apeshit, I decided they weren’t ready to digest a photograph of me standing in front of a flying saucer. But I appreciated what you did for me, and I still got the picture.” He beamed at them, shaking his head. “Un-fucking-believable that you’re here and I’m here, right here in Washington, D.C. I never thought I’d see you two again. Must be chuktok, huh?”
“I have to ask you something,” I said to him, as he wiped his eyes. “How did you know who they were?” I indicated the Elvis look-alike and the incognito Larry.
“Oh, shit, I can see what you mean,” Robbie said, regarding them. “It was something about the way Mr. Smith—Larry here—was standing. Can’t explain it. His thinness, the set of his shoulders. One of the news reports showed him in the back of the room, you know. And I felt this weird sensation, like somebody tugging on my ponytail. I said, ‘Who is that guy?’ And somebody said, ‘Elvis.’ And I said, ‘No, the other dude.’ And then the news crawl gave his name—Lawrence Smith. And I thought, ‘Far fucking out!’”
“But what are you doing in Washington, D.C., Robbie?” Elvis asked.
“I got a gig in a music store near Dupont Circle, sometimes run sound for local bands,” he said. “Old story—I followed a chick here and just never split. Don’t ask me why. Probably chuktok.”
“Are your parents still living, Robbie?” Larry asked. He asked politely, as anybody might who hadn’t been shot by one of the parties in question.
“My mother is,” Robbie said.
“I liked your mother,” Elvis said. “Betty was cool.”
“She always liked you guys, too,” Robbie said. “Well, it didn’t hurt that you helped her bake cookies that one time, Yarp, or that you fixed her washing machine.” He laughed again. “Wish I had a picture of you in that apron, dude.”
“How is your mother, Robbie?” Larry asked.
“She has her good days and bad days,” Robbie said. “She’s got an assisted living apartment in Bethesda—in fact, we’ll go see her. She uses a walker and plays Bingo most days, you know. She’s forgetful, but she’s still got most of her marbles. Probably more than me, come to think of it. I’ve smoked a lot of weed over the years—a lot of weed.”
“Marijuana,” I said. The clarification was automatic.
“A controlled substance in this country, isn’t that right, Hank?” Elvis said. “Isn’t smoking marijuana illegal, Robbie?” As usual, Elvis wasn’t accusatory, just curious.
Robbie winked at him. “Only if you get caught, man. Only if you get caught.”
I imagined Robbie a potential bad influence on Elvis, but I still couldn’t help liking him. Not that I hadn’t smoked grass myself, but Elvis had too few inhibitions as it was.
“So what have you been doing with your life since we saw you, Robbie?” Larry asked. He gestured for Robbie to sit down. Robbie sat, slipped his sandals off and crossed his legs.
“Oh, man, what have I been doing?” he said. “A little of this, a little of that. Those diamonds you gave me could have set me up for life, you know, if I’d been more interested in making something of myself and less interested in farting around. Dropped out of college, to my mother’s dismay. Would’ve run off to Canada, if my number had come up in the damn draft, but it never did. Got certified in TM—.”
“Transcendental meditation,” I translated.
“—Traveled to India and Nepal, went to Senegal in the Peace Corps, played in some bands, managed a head shop and a music store. Oh, and for a while there I did sound for bands on tour. ‘Sound consultant’—that’s what it says on my tax returns.”
“Hanks says we need a consultant,” Elvis put in.
“Yeah?” Robbie said. “You taking the act on the road?”
“Tell him, Hank,” Elvis said.
So I did. I had no illusions that a former head shop manager with an aptitude for acoustics was the answer to our prayers, but he listened attentively.
“So you need, like, a campaign manager?” he said at last.
“Kind of,” I said. “Someone who’s politically savvy, knows Washington, and has experience in public relations or advertising, something like that.”
“I know just the person,” he said.
“You do?” I was skeptical. I was afraid he’d bring me the head shop customer who’d silk-screened his tee shirt.
“Yeah, I do. Name’s Ginger DiAngelo, a real fireball. She’s run several political campaigns, worked with lobbyists, lots of shit like that. Don’t know if she’s busy, but I can give her a call. But hey, you’re not going to give her that crap about representing a foreign manufacturer, are you? That was really lame.”
“Can we trust her?”
Robbie had already pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and was dialing it.
“Yo, Ginger,” he said, “it’s Robbie. What’re you up to these days?”
He listened for a while, and then said, “Well, hey, I hate to spoil your fun, but I’ve got kind of an emergency situation here that demands your attention.”
I was mouthing, “Don’t tell her over the phone,” but he nodded at me and gave me a high sign.
“I’m at the Wardman Park Marriott.” He laughed. “Yeah, that one. Uh-huh. Okay, babe, I’ll give your name to the front desk. Bring your I.D.”
He flipped the phone closed and grinned at us. “She’s on her way. You’d better call the front desk, Hank.”
As I reached for the phone, he said, “Oh, hey, I forgot. I brought you guys some of your mail. Mom’s been collecting it all these years. She always said you’d come back for it.” He reached down for his canvas bag. “I, uh, took the liberty of pitching all of Mr. S—Larry’s—junk mail when I moved her out of her house five years ago. So most of the mail is Yarp’s. Don’t worry, big guy, I saved your Reader’s Digests. Oh, and your secret decoder ring.”
He emptied the bag on the coffee table.
Larry was puzzled. “This is all for us?” He turned to Elvis, who wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Hey, by the way, you still got a few of those diamonds, don’t you, Larry?” Robbie said. “Reason I ask, Ginger’s fees are pretty steep. I mean, she might give us an hour or two as a favor to me, or, you know, for the good of the cause and all that, but if we want more than that, we’ll have to pay her.”
“That’s not a problem,” Larry said.
“Oh, look!” Elvis was holding up a letter. “My application for a Diners Club card was approved in 1952!”
“Far out!” said Robbie.