Believe You Me

by J. T. Townley

 

I’m woozy from the gas fumes as I sidle across the parking lot and through the automatic doors into Bucky’s.  I wend through a melee at the Beaver Nuggets display, then cut across the gleaming floors toward America’s Cleanest Restrooms, never an easy task with all them distractions.  You been there, Earl.  You know what I’m talking about.  Eighty soda fountains, thirty-one different jerky flavors, walls and walls of Bucky’s brand snacks and candy.

Gotta see it to believe it, right?

You never get used to them restrooms, do you?  Half a dozen sinks, thirty-some-odd urinals, them Purell dispensers every three feet.  But the crown jewel’s them stalls, right?  Must be twenty of them, every single one fresh-cleaned twenty-four-seven.  Don’t ask me how they manage, amount of traffic them thrones get, not that I’m complaining none.  I slip past the gents standing at the sinks and head toward stall No. 7.  The door’s locked.

“Invalid,” says the occupant.  “Try maybe someplace elsewhere.”

Sounds funny, like one of them James Bond villains, but I don’t think nothing of it at the time, Earl.  Ain’t like I got the ESP or nothing.  I just find myself another stall.  When I’m done, I get this hankering for a snack, so I meander a little ways down an empty aisle, counting fifty-seven flavors of trail mix and trying to ignore the Seventies Muzak.  Kids’ voices echo in the huge space, enthusing about Bucky’s t-shirts, caps, and sweatpants, all with that little beaver logo.  Ain’t long before I hear a familiar voice.

“Welcome, Joe Amerika!”

I glance behind me but there ain’t nobody there.

“Nyet, nyet!  This direction only!”

I take two steps toward the wall, leaning in against a display of mixed nuts.  I smell something dank, almost gamy.  Then I make out a pair of wet black eyes.  A shiny black nose.  Huge, white buckteeth.

“Too much close, Joe Amerika!”

He’s right, but I realize it too late, recoiling from his rank breath.  Wilted roses and rotten apples and dirty Smirnoff.  I stumble back a couple steps and wait.  I expect a Bulgarian circus midget to emerge from behind his curtain of nuts, Earl.  Maybe a drunken Polish gnome.  But I’m wrong.  I couldn’t be more wrong.

It’s Bucky Beaver.

“What the—?!”

“You have seen maybe ghost?” he says.

“I—”

“But we have not time for chitchat.”  He scans the ceiling and corners.  “They everywhere have cameras.  Looking always, listening always.”

“I don’t get it,” I say.

“This for you is maybe constant state?”

He scans the ceiling again, then shuffles two steps to his left, then another half-step.  As if into a blind spot.

“You’re a goddamn beaver,” I say, wondering if I’m still woozy from the gas fumes.  “You’re the company mascot.”

Bucky folds his beaver arms across his beaver chest, wagging his head.  He’s got on that little red cap, just like on the logo.  The excited voices of customers by the hundreds echo and swell.  I can just make out the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love?” buried under all the noise.

“You listen perhaps on radio?  Special someone deposed?  Where-to-find unknown?”

“Afraid you lost me.”

Bucky fidgets and works his teeth.  I imagine him gnawing through the bark of a willow tree.  “Damn of god, Joe Amerika.  Are you ass-dumb like hell?”

That tickles my funny bone, but Bucky don’t like it.

“Not matter of laughing!” he hollers, but the place is already so loud nobody notices.

“Simmer down, Buckster.  Everything’s gonna be alright.”

Then it hits me:  They probably got hidden cameras recording this whole entire thing.  And I ain’t about to let them fatcats in the corporate office humiliate me on TV, no matter how much money they throw my direction.  I ain’t nobody’s stooge, Earl.

“You will maybe help, Joe Amerika?”

“Ha ha, real funny,” I say, scanning the aisles for camera crews.  “Y’all can come out now.”

Now Bucky’s face drops.  “What in damn-hell you talking?”

“And you can take off the beaver costume, okay?”  I exaggerate a head-to-toe appraisal.  “Don’t look real anyway.”  Then, raising my voice, I say, “Shame on you for exploiting midget labor.”

“Dear Joe Amerika.”  Bucky’s voice sounds shaky.  “You please will give to Bucky ride far away, yes?”

I force a smile.  “I ain’t ass-dumb enough to fall for any of this,” I say.  Then I give him a little nod and lope toward the front entrance, my Redwings clomping against the industrial linoleum.  I detour over for some teriyaki jerky and a Dr. Pepper, then head for the checkout.  The girl’s tendering my change on a twenty when I hear Bucky shout:

“Joe Amerika!”

I count my coins, then fold the bills into my wallet before I look up.  I just know them cameramen are lurking about, zooming in for an embarrassing close-up to cut into their next Bucky’s commercial.

Though maybe I’m wrong, Earl.  Because Bucky throws me an evil type grin, then grabs this blonde co-ed in a Longhorns t-shirt by the ponytail, forcing her to her knees.  He’s got a Glock to her temple.  Someone yells, “He’s got a gun!” and folks scatter, sprinting for the exit, diving behind cast iron skillet displays, fleeing toward the restrooms.  The checkers duck beneath the counter.  You can hear half a dozen people calling 911 at the same time, only what are they gonna say?  A Serbian beaver’s taking hostages?  Don’t ask me why, but I just stand there, watching everybody run for cover.  In less than a minute, I’m the only one left.

Not including the secret agents.

Least, that’s who I assume they are.  It’s just like in them movies, Earl.  They’re sporting tailored suits and look like NFL tailbacks.  All but one’s got a Glock in his right hand that looks just like Bucky’s.  The one without his gun’s got a busted lip and a limp, plus his left eye’s swollen shut.  He clutches a knife with a six-inch blade in one hand, a pistol-grip 12-gauge in the other.  They’re all coming for Bucky.  It’s six against one.  Things is fixing to get ugly.

I hit the deck, dragging myself across the spotless floor, and take cover behind a display of Texas-shaped waffle irons.  I can’t get to the door, but at least my view’s only semi-obstructed.

Before them agents is within twenty yards, Bucky flicks his wrist, and a shiny, metallic something glints for a moment beneath the humming fluorescents.  An agent drops with a thud, a knife in his right eye.  That goddamn beaver don’t even flinch.

Emergency sirens Doppler toward us from the interstate.

By my count, there’s still a couple dozen of us in the store, including the UT coed who sprinted for cover soon as Bucky was distracted.  We’re lucky nobody opens fire, Earl, or we might all be done for.  What in hell do these guys want with a three-foot midget Slav in a beaver suit?  Ain’t none of it clear.

But one thing’s for sure, Bucky don’t screw around.  That sumbitch knows him all kinda martial arts, kung fu, karate, goddamn jujitsu or whatever.  Executes hatchet chops and flying kicks, back flips and foot sweeps and I don’t know what-all like we’re in some ninja movie.  You oughta hear everybody gasp with horror and delight.

Bucky’s got them agents disarmed in a matter of minutes.  Ain’t clear if they’re alive or dead or somewhere in between, and Bucky don’t seem to belabor the issue none.  Goes about his business with practiced efficiency, stashing their firearms, gagging them with their silk pocket squares, hogtying them with nylon cord he filches from the hardware aisle.  The whole time, he’s singing some kinda anthem way back in his throat.  Real patriotic.

When he’s done with the agents, he corrals us together at the back of the store, away from the exits and windows.  Although we’re a couple dozen strong, and more than one of us must be thinking the same thing, meaning we outnumber the little rodent and could probably take him, after what we just witnessed, ain’t nobody gonna chance it.  Bucky sets us all down in a row on the spotless linoleum.  He walks the line, staring everybody down, muttering in what could be Russki.  Then he marches all but half a dozen of us up toward the front entrance.  He gets on the P.A. system, which I guess has outdoor speakers, and says:

“Hello, figures of authority people!  Do not maybe shoot civilians!”

Then he cuts them loose.

All that’s left is a forty-something couple and their two daughters, somebody’s granny, and me.  How’d he choose us, Earl?  And why?  We sit there, gazing up into the fluorescents, gleaming floor hard against our butts, wondering what Bucky’s got in store for us.

“Welcome to hostage party,” he says.  “Too much simple rules.  Do not to talk.  Do not to move.  Lift arm for saying Cleanest Restrooms of Amerika.  Very much clear, yes?”

We throw each other furtive glances, then slowly nod.

“So much good, party people!”

“We won’t stand for this, Bucky Beaver,” says the granny, who must be seventy.  Her silver-blue hair shimmers in the hard glare.  “We got rights!”

Bucky grins and winks, then disappears, apparently to the hardware aisle again, because he returns with two giant rolls of duck tape.  Also, a new pack of tube socks.  Without a word of reproach, he stuffs a sock into the granny’s mouth, then covers it with duck tape.  He also tapes her wrists behind her back.

“Some person also?” he says, holding the socks and duck tape out to us.  “Maybe yes?”

Obviously, nobody says a word, Earl.  We ain’t morons.  Course, that ain’t no way to treat somebody’s granny, but everybody seen what he done to them secret agents.  No telling how quick he could send us to meet our Maker.

“How works too much simple,” Bucky explains.  “Mostly waiting.  Pig of police call telephone, ask demands.  We say to him.  Pig of police make friendly, tell fat pig lies, drag of feet.  We show maybe our too much serious.  Pig of police red-faced, make unfriendly, tell fat pig lies.  Down-break door maybe, shooting of everywhere.”

Bucky pauses, listening.  Commotion in the parking lot.  Likely cops setting up barricades and perimeter lines, a police negotiator arriving on the scene.  Maybe the SWAT team, too, assessing the structure, planning a possible extraction.  Given the secret agent factor, no telling who else might be out there, Earl—Rangers, Seals, military snipers with laser scopes on high-powered assault rifles.  I mean, Fort Hood’s within spitting distance.  Bucky scans our faces, gnashing his buckteeth, probably just an involuntary kinda thing.  Before he can continue his explanation, a phone up at the checkout counter starts warbling.

“Right of schedule, yes?” he says.  “All thumbs skyward.”

He waits.  We eventually take the hint and give him thumbs-up—all but the gagged and bound granny.

“Joe Amerika!” shouts Bucky, then motions I should follow.  I have to jog to keep up with him, which ain’t easy in boots.  He points to the beige telephone:  “Say only, ‘Call to Cleanest Restrooms of Amerika.’”

I nod, then pick up the receiver and repeat what he’s told me word-for-word.  Sounds crazy coming outta my mouth, Earl.  Bucky pats me on the back, then we jog back to the others.  I’m doubled over and sucking air, but he don’t seem winded.  Spry little sumbitch.  Phone on the wall at the entrance to the bathroom starts chirping before I can catch my breath, but it don’t matter because now Bucky does all the talking.

“Hello, Pig of Police.  Too much thanks for telephone calling.  Every hostage safe, only agents bound up and dead maybe.  Self-defense, yes?  Talk now the turkey, like says Joe Amerika.”  Bucky glances over at me and winks.  “Demands too much simple.  One limousine, black of jet Rolls Royce.  Takes to closeby waiting Learjet, also black of jet.  Understand, yes?”

Nothing happens right away, as you might imagine.  Our ass is in a sling.  Them cops ain’t gonna give Bucky nothing for free, meaning they keep trying to swindle him, just like he predicted.  Maybe he’s done this before, I don’t know.  Thing is, he’s gotta ante up.  That’s when me and the family man drag them hogtied agents out the front door.  Bucky don’t lift a finger.  If he steps into sightline, one of them snipers is gonna take him out, I guran-damn-tee you that.  Anyway, them cops is full of shit and Bucky knows it, so he don’t give all them operatives up in one swell foop.  Instead, we set out half of them, one by one, and the cops carry them off to medical attention, which they all sorely need, considering the ass-kicking Bucky give them.

Now get this, Earl.  Outside, they got news cameras everywhere, filming the whole entire thing.  What I want to know is, what happened to all that videotape?  It couldn’t have just vanished into thin air, right along with the security footage, if you take my point.  It’s gotta be somewhere—locked in a vault, stowed beneath a mattress, hidden in a box in the basement of CIA central.  Goddamn somewhere.

When them cops realize they been shortchanged, the telephone starts ringing off the hook.  Bucky takes his sweet time answering it, too.  What I can tell, they demand the four remaining agents, Bucky demands a limo, there’s a lot of shouting and hanging up.  Goes on like that for a good long while.  Sometimes Bucky don’t answer.  It’s back and forth and back and forth—which is kinda irritating.

After a spell, Bucky and the cops finally cut a deal.  Bucky’s got them over a barrel, since it ain’t like they can lay siege to us or nothing.  This is Bucky’s!  Got all the food and drink you could hope for, so there ain’t gonna be no bugged pizza deliveries like in the movies.  I even pull off granny’s gag and feed her some wasabi jerky, only she starts up again with her threats and insults.  We all agree the gag goes back on.  Anyway, it takes a little more time, but the cops secure the limo—a jet-black Rolls Royce!—and park it right out front.  In exchange, me and family man lug the other four hogtied agents out to the sidewalk.  Everybody figures that’s the end of it.

Everybody but Bucky.

Bet you seen that coming, right?

Once them cops clear off their last four buddies, Bucky says, “Go now, Joe Amerika.  Look tires, oils, gauge of gasoline.  Snoop under at bombs, yes?”

Although I take a look at everything Bucky asks about and then some, digging through the trunk and checking the engine over, rifling through every cubby hole in the cab and crawling up under that beautiful automobile with a mini-Maglite between my teeth to examine the chassis, I don’t find nothing suspicious.  Tank’s full.  Tire pressure’s perfect.  Car’s so new, it’s probably never needed an oil change.

Back inside, I pitch Bucky the keys.  “You’re good to go.”

His eyes shimmer in the fluorescent glow.

But Bucky ain’t going nowhere fast.  Mean time, cops try to smoke us out by shutting off the power, meaning no lights, no AC, no fountain drinks.  Only it ain’t real effective and only pisses Bucky off.  Gets pretty nasty, Earl.  I’m convinced for a time them SWAT boys is gonna repel off the roof, kick through the windows, and mow us all down.  It’s a tense half-hour.  But Bucky diffuses the whole thing with more back-and-forth on the phone.  In the end, them cops just want to be certain the “hostage party” ain’t turned into a bloodbath.

“Why we not do more better?” says Bucky.  “Give to Pig of Police all pretty people, yes?”

I’m here to tell you, when me and the other hostages hear them words, we all breathe a big sigh of relief.  It’s music to our ears, believe you me.  Specially since the Muzak’s been stuck on a Fleetwood Mac loop for the past two hours.

Bucky gives us a collective onceover and must not like what he sees.  “Go primp to yourself,” he says, pointing toward America’s Cleanest Restrooms.

When we’re done sprucing ourselves up, Bucky ushers us toward the front entrance.  He uses the checkout counter for cover, keeping it between him and the automatic glass doors.

“Listen how goes,” he explains.  “Exits lady of blue hair.  Out of door, straight to fat Pig of Police.  Wait, wait.  Wait more.  Exits girl with mother.  More wait.  Exits girl with father.  Hear clapping hands and relieving sighs, Pig of Police bullhorn orders and jackboot slappings of pavement.  Shots maybe, yes?”

Butterflies flutter and dance in my gut.

“How bout me?” I ask.  “How long should I wait?”

Bucky gives me a sidelong glance and chuckles.  “You drive to airport Bucky,” he says.  “After we see.”

I ain’t got no livery or nothing, but I get Bucky situated in the back, then I hop in behind the wheel and fire that baby up.  Engine purs, I put her in drive, we pull out of the Bucky’s parking lot.  I don’t really know where I’m headed, since to my knowledge there ain’t nothing like a real airport between here and Austin.  But we got an escort all the way:  patrol cars up front, motorcycle cops to either side, couple-three military Humvees pulling up the rear.  All I gotta do is follow.

We’re barely outta the parking lot when Bucky lowers the privacy partition.  He’s got a vodka tonic in one hand, bottle of Grey Goose in the other.  “Freedom and liberty for all, Joe Amerika!”

“Uh-huh,” I say.

I ain’t about to correct him, Earl.

We head west and a little north, maybe thirty-five or forty miles.  Little ways into the drive, Bucky tells me this crazy-ass story.  It’s tough to swallow, sticks in your craw.  I know that.  But if what he said ain’t the genuine article, if what I’m telling you ain’t the gospel truth, how is it I wind up at a Russian airport, without no boots or passport or return ticket?

“Know how spelled is treachery, Joe Amerika?” asks Bucky.

I glance at him in the rearview.  “How?”

“Three letters only.”

“I ain’t sure that’s quite right, Buckster.”

Bucky grins.  “CIA.”

“The Central—”

“Agency of Intelligence, yes?  Same guilty for deposing and abduction.  Same guilty for incarceration in capitalist wasteland gulag.”

I clear my throat.  “So you’re saying, and I’m just trying to get the facts straight, that you ain’t actually a beaver mascot for a regional chain of gas stations?”

Bucky shakes his head and mutters to himself.

“You’re actually some fancy political bigwig?”

“Biggest wig of Mother Russia.”

“And you were—what?  Kidnapped by American spies, then turned into Bucky Beaver and incarcerated in central Texas?”

Bucky glares at me like I’m stupid.  “Of what act is not your CIA possible?”

He’s got a point, I guess.  I chew on it a minute, then say, “So you’re that—hold up a sec, don’t tell me.  You’re that President What’s-his-butt.  Am I right?”

Bucky stands up in the backseat, throwing his shoulders back, stretching himself up to his full height, like some kinda little Napoleon.  “Vladimir Vladmirovich Poutine,” he intones.  “But please, Joe Amerika.  Call to me Vlad.”

Airport ain’t nothing but a windsock and a few hangars alongside an airstrip.  Nothing commercial, nothing military.  Right up Bucky’s alley, Earl.  Got a makeshift sign on the gate reads “Liberty International Airport,” though that must be specially for Bucky, since I bet you can’t even get to Acapulco from here.  Soon as we drive out onto the tarmac, them cops peel off, lining up way down to the other end, everybody giving Bucky a wide berth.  This hostage crisis ain’t over just yet.

I pull the limo alongside the only plane in sight.

“We ask jet of black, yes?” says Bucky.

This thing’s more like midnight blue.

“Close as you’re gonna get,” I say.  “Short notice and all.”

Bucky mulls on it in silence, staring out the window.  Likely calculating the odds of this whole thing blowing up in his face:  secret agents onboard, bombs in the cargo hold, navigation gear sabotaged.  Honestly, there’s no end of horrific possibilities.

I’m counting my lucky stars this fiasco’s almost over.

As with the limo, Bucky has me inspect the plane.  Now a Rolls is one thing, but a Learjet’s something else altogether.  I don’t even know where to start.  At this point, I still think Bucky’s flying solo, so I ain’t real thorough, peeking into the cockpit, glancing at the bathroom, peering under chairs.  Mostly, I’m admiring how the other half lives.  Lighting’s warm.  Interior’s soft and spacious.  Whole plane smells of cologne and new leather.

When I slide back into the limo, Bucky ignores me, staring off into space.  After a long couple-three minutes, his face puckers.

“How looks bird, Joe Amerika?”

“All systems go, Buckster,” I say.  I rub my stubbly chin, wondering how to bring up a touchy subject without getting kung-fu chopped.  “There’s just this one thing, is all.”

“Let to me a guess.  Thing is problem, yes?”

I force a smile.  “Well, there ain’t no pilot.”

Bucky can’t contain himself, though I ain’t said nothing funny.  He snickers and chuckles and goddamn guffaws, and it ain’t long before he’s hacking and trying to catch his breath.  Sounds like a two-pack-a-day cough to me, not that I ever seen him light up.  Maybe it’s all that vodka.  When he finally gets a hold of himself, he grins at me, black eyes twinkling.

“Before to president and KGB,” he says, “Vlad makes ace pilot of MiG.”  He waits, for what I don’t know.  “Know what is MiG, Joe Amerika?”

The wheels start turning, but slowly.

“Similar of F-16 jet of fighter, only too much better.”

“Is that right?” I say.  “Better how?”

Bucky chugs from a bottle of Stoli.  He seems to give off this smug, golden light.  “Russian,” he says.

I don’t say a word, just let it hang there in the vodka-saturated air.  After a spell, I extend my hand and say:

“Well, Bucky—Vlad.  It’s been interesting.”  We shake.  “But it’s about time for you to mosey off into the sunset.”

He downs the rest of the vodka, adjusts his bright red cap, and works his choppers a little.  Then he says, “Not me only, Joe Amerika.”

He takes me with him, Earl.  From that little airstrip in the middle of nowhere all the way to Moscow—the one in Russia, not East Texas.  But what in hell for?  He won’t explain no matter how many times I ask.  Just gives me that bucktoothed grin, mutters something in Russian, and closes the cockpit door.

My first time in a goddamn plane, so once I get over my terror, I can see Bucky’s point of view, almost.  That takes about three hours of double-fisting, mostly chilled bubbly wine.  The fridge is chockfull of the stuff.  I down a vodka tonic whenever I mix one for Bucky, maybe every half hour or so.  Says they keep him sharp.  Maybe they do.  Ain’t like he’s slurring or weaving or throwing the jet plane into a flat spin.  More he drinks, more focused he seems.  Maybe it’s a Russian thing.

When I finally get the nerve to take a peek, lifting one of the window shades I shut tight before takeoff, first thing I see’s not puffy clouds or flocking geese or whatever’s supposed to be up here at thirty-thousand feet.  It’s a fighter jet.  U.S. Air Force.  Make that two.  I shimmy across to the other side of the plane and take a gander.  Two more.

Think about it, Earl.  You scramble jets for a military escort, there’s gotta be flight plans, right?

Otherwise, the trip’s pretty uneventful.  After a while, I get hungry, but I can’t figure out how to work the nuke-u-wave, so I scarf crackers and caviar.  Salty stuff, Earl.  Bucky won’t eat nothing but vodka tonics.  They got a big screen for entertainment, but the only movie I find is Die Hard, so I watch ole Bruce Willis do his thing till I can’t keep my eyes open.  Then I lean into the soft, fragrant leather and crash out.

We land somewhere in the night, probably for fuel.  Heavy truck engines growl.  Guttural commands, the slide and thud of hoses.  I’m in and out, no concept of time.  Click of the latch, open, shut.  Clink of full bottles, cardboard sliding over carpet.  Ignition whines, jet engines roar.  As we taxi away, I slide the window shade open a crack:  a row of uniformed men standing at attention under amber arc light, saluting.

Don’t tell me there ain’t some kind of documentation, Earl.

Still, I’m dead to the world again before we’re airborne, likely owing to the stress and strain and all that bubbly.  Plus, it’s the middle of the night.  Time I wake up, we’ve landed again.  I blink and blink again, trying to focus.  I should be stiff, sleeping in my chair, only I’m sprawled out on a little bed in the back of the plane, blankets and sheets and everything.  No idea how I got here.  Don’t matter, I guess, but puzzling all the same.

Acrid smoke wafts in through the open cabin door.  Animated voices, too.

“Bucky?” I say.

No answer.

I slip between the chairs toward the front of the plane.  “Bucky?” I repeat, leaning out into the hazy morning.  Only there’s no three-foot beaver idling on the tarmac.  Four men in navy uniforms with berets and shiny boots glance up, faces blank.  I stare at them.  They stare back.  Before I can ask if they know where Bucky is, they drag me down the steps and pin me to the tarmac.  Don’t even let me get my boots on.  They’re yelling and hollering, whacking me on the head, punching me in the back.  Seem pretty pissed-off, Earl.  Take me inside to a windowless interrogation room, put some questions to me—or so I deduce, since it’s all in Russian.  They pretend not to understand a word of English.  Then they beat on me some more.  When they get bored, they lock me up in the room alone.

Ain’t sure how long I’m there, Earl.  Feels like all goddamn day.  Place is rank with stale smoke and B.O.  Some point, this woman comes in, blonde, blue-eyed, mid-twenties.  Sight for sore eyes, lemme tell you.  Smells fresh, like flowers and honey.  Some kinda officer, I guess.  Speaks English better than you and me both.

“Passport,” she demands, rifling in a leather attaché case for some papers.

“Ain’t got one.”  I watch her check boxes and fill in blanks.  “See, there was this whole hostage situation at the Bucky’s outside of Temple and—”

She lifts a slender hand to cut me off.  I expect her to ask more questions, but she continues scribbling on her forms.  When she’s done, she checks her work over, then hefts a leather duffle onto the table.  Looks heavy.  She must notice the question in my eyes.  “Open it,” she says.

I do what she tells me.  Inside, I find stacks of hundred dollar bills.  No shit, Earl.  Just like you see in the movies, with them little green wrappers and everything.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“President Poutine requests that you please accept this token of his gratitude.”

“You talked to Bucky?”  I don’t know why I’m so excited.  “Is he alright?”

She gives me this doubtful look, then lights one of those harsh-smelling cigarettes.  Maybe they’re military issue, I don’t know.  She leans back in her chair, crossing her legs, smoking, watching me.  I just sit there, waiting, though for what I ain’t exactly sure.  After a good long while, she says:

“The terms are acceptable?”

I ain’t gotta mull it over, Earl.  “No problem on this end.”

“Excellent,” she says, already at the door.  “I will inform the president posthaste.”  She pinches her cigarette out, slipping the butt into a uniform pocket.  “Have a safe journey.”

 

Some soldiers give me a lift to the regular airport in an armored personnel carrier.  Takes forever and a day.  Blondie must let them in on my secret because I gotta pay them two-hundred bucks each for the ride.  Highway robbery, but what can I do?  The ticket home costs a pretty penny, too.  Then I gotta buy some shoes, since I can’t go around in holey socks, but the only thing on offer are thousand-dollar Italian loafers.  Goddamn feels like I’m hemorrhaging money.  Everybody wants a cut, especially airport security and customs and immigration, since I ain’t got no passport.  They lock me in another rank little room till I’ve paid off every Boris, Sergei, and Mikael with a hankering for U.S. legal tender.  I almost miss my flight!

Lucky for me, it’s smooth sailing all the way back to the U.S. of A.  In them Italian loafers, I fit right in with all the Eurotrash.  And don’t nobody pay a lick of attention to my leather duffle, since now it’s just your average carry-on.  Only it don’t last.  Calm before the storm, like the feller says.  Soon as we land and the scanner tells them airport officials I got cash out the wazoo, plus they see I got temporary traveling papers issued by the Russians, it starts all over again.  Feds gotta have their cut, not to mention state and local.  Make it sound like taxes, fees, and penalties, everything aboveboard, when point of fact they’re robbing me blind.  Least the Russians were straight about their extortion.

Hell, you know the rest, Earl.  Interrogation, intimidation, flat-out threats to my health and well-being.  Like I ain’t already suffered enough!  Whole thing whitewashed in the media, too.  No telling how many palms them Feds have to grease.  Spin the whole thing so I look like a complete nutjob.  You seen what the papers say:  PTSD, psychotic break, international larceny.  That ain’t right.  They should be singing my praises, since I was the key to averting an international scandal of epic proportions.  Risked my goddamn life, and for what?

Thing is, everybody’s tight-lipped, Russians included, which don’t make sense—though you probably heard them rumors about U.S. involvement in a botched, what’s it called, coup.  Don’t even ask me how them Russians change Poutine back.  I still ain’t figured out how the CIA turned him into Bucky in the first place, but there’s no telling what-all hi-tech gizmos they got at their disposal.  I don’t even want to think about it.  Anyway, don’t nobody want none of this getting out.  They gotta have their scapegoat, and that’s yours truly.  Whole reason they got me locked up in this place:  white walls, screams in the night, pills by the boatload.  Still, it ain’t like I just made it all up.  What would even be the point?  I was there, Earl.  I saw everything.  It all happened.

You believe me, right?

 

[Check out Jeremy’s back porch wisdom here]