Kidding the Buddha
I lounged on a hammock made of wind and momentum. Squinting wasn't enough to survive the glare from the dreamy, blue sky. It forced me to look in the direction I was avoiding. Where fangs strained for me. Yellow fangs and saliva and gray hairs too short and bristly to call fur. Dog stubble.
The one thing I regretted at that moment was that I was going to die without ever trying Campari with Capri Sun.
I never liked the taste of Campari. It was the first bottle that caught my eye when I was standing on my tippy-toes on a step ladder in front of the fridge, trying to see what was in the tiny cupboard over the fridge. Behind the bottles of Jim Beam and Jagermeister I caught a glance of some letters, C, P, R, I and thought it was leading up to spell "Capri Sun." God, was that ever wrong. Campari tastes nothing like fruit punch.
They'd probably taste okay mixed, but I never got around to trying it. Never would.
The thing that extended my life for a few more seconds was that the dog didn't move to where I was going to land. You know how dogs do when they jump up to the spot where the frisbee is going to be, and that's where they catch it? This dog stayed at the fence and craned its neck to watch me fly over its head and come down on its back.
Instead of tearing me to pieces, the dog yelped and ran out from under me. I knew it wasn't going to go very far before coming at me. I tried to run around the nearest obstacle, the four foot tall walls of a portable pool with a wide rubber rim around the top.
I jammed my hands in the pockets of my shorts, which made it harder to run. A plastic egg, a little, green Army guy, the velvet box containing the psychic jewel, the wadded up page of math homework with coded dropoff instructions, two raisins, some lint and a tube of breath freshener spray. One of these might slow down the dog, but which one?
The moment I felt the dog touch the back of my thigh, I would have wet my pants except my bladder was empty. Instead of tearing into my flesh, it felt like a pinch. I pulled loose, ran to the fence and tried to pull myself over. Jaws clunked after me, finally clamping onto my ankle when I slowed at the fence.
Was I numb from so much pain or so much adrenaline? The jaws felt like a hand wrapped tight around my heel. Still no feeling of teeth or anything breaking the skin. It hurt, but only because of the pressure.
My left hand slapped at the dog's eyes. My right hand snaked into my pocket, scooping out everything I could find. The dog lunged back from the fence, taking me to the ground. I felt the slippery tube of breath freshener in the dirt and whipped the tiny cap off. The dog pounced at my face. I caught the beast square in the nose with a blast of minty, peppery freshness.
The mint is supposed to linger around the tiny bottle of breath freshener to disguise the fact that it's actually pepper sprary. It never worked very well. I mean the pepper spray worked fine but the mint never masked anything. I hadn't stopped the monster's momentum. He still pushed his face into mine and slobbered on me. I saw glistening pink and black gums like a ring of bubble gum and licorice around its mouth. Inside was a cavern of flattened bubble gum and tarpaper. No fangs. The only thing that looked like it was supposed to be there was the massive tongue trying to escape out one side of the mouth.
If he had contacted anywhere other than my cheek, I probably would have been bawling from the pepper too. But it was a glancing blow. Then the dog ran straight over me, snapping and snarling at the air, stopping to paw at its nose every few feet before yiping, leaping at full speed in a different direction.
Somewhere behind me I heard the woosh of a glass doorwall opening. A round bellied dude came into the light. Dark brown mutton chops covered most of his cheeks. Wavy chunks of Ted Koppel protected his scalp. A rubbery-looking yellow curtain covered the doorwall from the inside. The Bronsons were gone.
He ran straight past me and grabbed the dog's collar. "Carlos, Carlos, stop! Are you okay? What did you do to him?"
"I sprayed him with mint breath spray. Just wash it off."
The man scooped up his dog and threw it in the pool. After a minute, the dog stopped biting at the air and started swimming around the rim of the pool, blinking and whining.
I cried and rubbed my ankle, but it seemed okay. "There were two-" I stopped and coughed, which gave me time to embellish my story, "two high school guys threw me over the fence so your dog would get me. What's wrong with his teeth?"
He waited for the dog to come around again and grabbed its collar. After wiping water out of its eyes and holding the dog above water so it could blast snot all over the pool a half dozen times, the guy said, "Jaw cancer. We had to get 'em all removed. I gotta puree all his treats and table scraps now so he can digest 'em. When I heard him yelp, I figured he was trying to chew up another bunny and it disagreed with him."
He kept rubbing Carlos's face. "I'm so sorry."
"It's okay," I said.
He turned to me. "Oh, are you all right? I got some Neosporin if you want some, or a Coke?"
[Insert rum and Coke joke here.]
"I'm Buddha, by the way. Like the Great and Powerful god." He took that moment to tuck in the black string hanging down from the front of his swim trunks, which were covered with neon green skulls.
"Sorry about falling on your dog. I better get my bike and go." I stood, dusted off my uniform shorts, limped toward the yard with my bike in it, then walked normal when I realized my ankle didn't hurt enough to limp.
"Sure, hey, I'm not going to stop you. Just long enough to tell me a joke."
I stopped at the fence. "What?"
"Tell me a joke and we'll call it even."
"Call what even? Those guys threw me over a fence to get attacked by your dog."
"You were just minding your own business in the middle of the school day and those two girls pulled you away from your science class or your soccer game, chased you a mile from your school and threw you to Carlos? I think not. You're too young to be cuttin' class. That's something that would go down on your Permanent Record if a person were to phone the Truant Officer about it."
He must have seen the girls running away or something. But it was funny how he said a mile from school. We were only two blocks from St. Luke's. It would be more likely that a kid from St. Luke's would be running around his neighborhood than a kid from Fowlerville Elementary, which really was a mile away. Plus the uniform was a dead-giveaway for the Catholic school. No uniforms at my school.
"Now tell me a joke." He folded his arms. Wispy tufts of brown hairs poked out over his nipples, curling up like eyelashes.
"As serious as a person who knows the Truant Officer's phone number off the top of his head. You know what a Truant Officer is?"
He would have been less threatening if he just tried to beat me up. I knew at least eight techniques to incapacitate him within eight seconds. But he would wake up eventually. How could I defend against an adult reporting me to the principal?
I looked for some smirk or twitch on Buddha's face to show he was pulling my leg. He hadn't moved a bit. His nipple lashes rustled in a gust of wind, but his face was set.
I said, "A mushroom walks into a bar-"
He said, "Heard it."
I sighed. "Come on, I'm not a jokebook."
I said, "There was once a kingdom full of tiny people called Trids. They were ruled by a wicked giant who loved kicking them around."
"Yeah, yeah. Silly rabbit, kicks are for Trids."
I said, "Damn. Okay, wait." I scrambled for the joke that my mom always told, a groaner, the only joke she remembered. My little brother Ray had heard it often enough, he knew to laugh when she finished, even though he couldn't understand the punchline. "There were two clams who were best friends: Joe Clam and Sam Clam. Joe Clam died one day in a car accident and became an angel."
"He visited Earth for a big party and then returned to Heaven singing I Left My Harp in Sam Clam's Disco. I'm about to make the call."
"Wait!" I thought about bolting through the doorwall, just getting away. Would the Bronsons be waiting for me in front of the house? Buddha uncrossed his arms and leaned against the rubber wall of the pool. I said, "I never seen a picture of Buddha with a beard like that."
"So? That's not Buddha." He slapped his swollen gut. "This is Buddha!"
I looked at the dog, who was floating easily, resting his blubbery maw over the rim of the pool and waiting for my joke.
"Okay. This will make you laugh: I'm actually a member of a secret society of children fighting to stop a bloodthirsty cult, also comprised of children, from dominating the entire tri-state area. Those twin girls you saw killed a second grader less than ten minutes ago."
Buddha squinted at me. He said, "Huh!" The dog sneezed. "All right, that's acceptable. Go back to school."
I put my best foot forward into the chainlink. In the meantime, Carlos had floated around to face away from me. When he heard the chainlink rattle, he woofed, scrambled to look my way, then stopped.
I straddled the top of the fence for a moment. "You're not going to call my school?"
Buddha chuckled, "What, come between you and an ancient evil? The Doublemint Twins of Death?" From the way he carried on, it sounded like he could only find belly laughs from his own jokes. Or maybe I had primed him to laugh this hard.
"I didn't say they're ancient. They ripped off the name and logos from an old group," I said, trying to balance on the fence, "and even the original group is only one or two hundred years old."
Buddha stuck out both arms and waved his hands up and down, the way you'd do with a hankerchief if you were wishing someone farewell as their train pulled away. The gesture kinda fit with his antique facial haircut.
I sat on the floor in the Green Room waiting for my rendevous with Ronnie. Don't look around for serving tables lined with bottled water or platters full of yellow M&Ms, or anything else that you'd see if you were waiting to go on the Tonight Show. Look for a deep storage closet lit by a clamp lamp, cord draped across the entrance for you to trip and land on the old backdrops depicting castles and dragons or Our Town. Calling it the "Green Room" is Mrs. Cardo's idea of teaching the real lingo to kids who are theater-bound. The younger kids my age are mostly scared to go in there. With the older ones, you can tell which ones are only dabbling in theater by the fact that they'll stand around outside the door of the Green Room during productions. Fifth graders with theatre in their blood, the kind who describe themselves as "bitten by the acting bug," are the ones cramped together in the Green Room at show time, trying not to spill punch on the props.
I got to the Green Room before 11, so I had plenty of time to worry about what it all meant. If the Psychic Jewel was worth killing Francis for it, why didn't they take it as soon as they caught me? Maybe they had already stolen the real jewel and replaced it with a fake. But then there would be no point in chasing or killing anyone. It didn't add up.
Why was I the middle-man picking up this thing and delivering it to the next step? Why couldn't Francis take it to the final destination? Because they were on to him. Francis needed to hand it off, and our superiors hoped that OTO could be thrown off the trail by a skilled operator like me.
What did the note mean? It's not like I've ever "terrified" anyone or acted like much of a warrior, but "dry" really shook me. Obviously Lisa Reinhart's minions found out about my drinking problem and how I was trying to keep sober.
Why would the Bronson twins stuff a note in my pocket and then throw me to a dog? I'd never get to read the note if the dog killed me. Either they were careless or they knew Carlos couldn't gum me to death.
I could tell when noon rolled around because I could hear squeals and stamping feet and "Stop running in the halls!" Everyone heading to lunch. When my watch showed quarter after twelve, I pushed my aching little body out of the corner and stepped out of the dark Green Room, into the dim backstage. I gave up on Ronnie and made a beeline for the bathroom.
Whoever designed our auditorium had put more thought into it than Mrs. Cardo. For an elementary school, you don't need a Green Room for the kids to hang out between performances. You need a potty. I really needed a potty about that time. It was a helpful landmark for when Mrs. Cardo tried teaching "stage right". She might as well have taught them "stage potty" instead. It's smaller than the Green Room, but no props or backdrops taking up space. Big enough for us.
I heard a boy's voice as I was about to flush. I flicked off the light, felt for the doorknob, spent about a minute and a half slowly turning it. The damn thing still clicked loud enough to wake the dead. I eased the door in toward me and stuck my ear to the gap.
"Gus? Come on." It was Ronnie somewhere stage left.
I flushed and came out to meet him behind the back curtains. When I got to stage left, I heard rustling and a slam from the direction of the bathroom.
This time I came across the middle of the stage. The front curtain was open to a hundred dark seats. The backdrop for today was a mountain side, gray and jagged. Actually it wasn't bad. I would have put a moon up in the black space next to the mountain, but this was all gray and black. My idea would have looked hokey. The mountain slanted down toward the bathroom, so you'd have to climb up stage left to get to the top of the mountain
Up near the front of the stage were low clumps of paper-mache rocks. A cone of firewood balanced in the middle of the stage surrounded by a ring of small stones. A few flaps of orange plastic hung down the back of the campfire. They would have looked fake as hell with a little flashlight pointing up at them as a fan blew under them, but that's as close to a campfire as you're gonna see in grade school.
I said, "Ronnie, what's-"
There was no need to finish the thought when I saw Ronnie come out of the side curtains with Sonia Bronson. I backed away, trying to watch for those paper-mache rocks and the edge of the stage, wanting to turn full around and look for the other Bronson, but I couldn't let this one out of my sight either.
Ronnie said, "Can I go now? Hector is saving his brownie for me."
Sonia dug her fingernails into his t-shirt right around the front pocket and twisted. Then she crouched like she was going to keep me from making a layup and started toward me. Ronnie stumbled offstage crying.
Keeping my eyes on her wouldn't help if she just kept coming. I turned and ran for the opposite curtain. First stride I managed to catch my foot on the stupid campfire and fell flat.
I heard crackling, then something in the darkness over the stage broke loose and came at me. It sounded like girders shredding under extreme stress, like the Hulk bending a tank turret or something. Whatever it was, it came down on me like a ton of rocks.
* Don't miss Chapter Three: Crushed Gus
(c) 2005 by Rob Northrup