Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Twenty-three—At Harry’s

Pen whistled up Prince, who was slumbering under the sink. The great tail swung into action, banging against the door. Pen picked up the leash and hung it around his neck. “We’re going for a ride, boy.” Man and dog, the two walked back to Cousteau’s where Prince, without preamble, jumped into the back of David’s station wagon.

They made it as far as the corner. “Stop here, I’ll get us some beer.”

“Good thinking. Get a case. Keeping Harry free and at large is a problem requiring lubrication.”

“I’ll get an extra case of Seadog in case we have to bribe our way in. Or out.” The prospect of a confrontation with a madman weighed on Pen as they drove the thirty-odd miles to Harry’s.

Pen’s abandoned house was across the ledge and cat-a-corner from Harry. “We’ll hang out at my place, plan our attack, then walk over casual like. Just visiting on a whim.” David cut the engine conspiratorially and they rolled in.

“He’s home.” Smoke curled up from Harry’s metalbestos chimney.

“It’s your place, you lead.” Morrissey picked up a double handful of beer and eased out of the Volvo.

“Shit!” Pen put a foot through a rotten board on his porch.

“Got the key?” Morrissey set down his two six-packs and hefted a massive and rusted padlock attached to an equally rusted hasp on the front door.

“Don’t need one. Here.” Pen levered up the sash of a broken front window. He eased himself in and David handed through the beer.

They sat and talked and drank. They talked around the problem, giving it the synoptic scrutiny of a museum viewing of a rare specimen. Clearly, they were messengers of destiny. So many possible permutations were examined, each new avenue opening on yet further complexities, that in an hour they were lost in fine points of logic and more than moderately drunk.

“Time for Harry,” said Morrissey, trying to stand. “Perhaps if we viewed the body in its native habitat. Go to the source: get back to basics.” He sat abruptly. “Maybe another beer.”

The deputation concluded, after some few beers more, that they were in no shape to safely negotiate the quarter mile of wild hedgerows and slippery shale of the windblown bare spots separating Pen’s house and Harry’s house. They piled into Dim Light’s old Volvo and drove next door.

Morrissey pulled his station wagon to the side of the road, half in, half out, wedging Pen’s door shut against the rear bumper of Harry’s truck. Pen climbed out over the gearshift and stood, beer in hand, as Morrissey’s vintage Volvo wound itself down with dilatory sputters after the ignition was turned off. Puffs of oily blue smoke exited the tailpipe, gradually subsiding.

They examined the road for clearance. “Enough room if someone really wants to get by. They can honk, what the hell,” David stumbled and caught at the roof rack. Equilibrium restored, he pocketed the key. “Not enough yard to park in and just enough road to get by.” Morrissey had parked straddling the ditch.

“Jesus, would you look at that.” Harry seemed to be playing basketball. And ignoring them. He had a hoop hung on the side of his house on the side facing the road, bolted through the cedar shakes just under where the weather board met the eaves. Basketball was a posted land for Harry, approaching religion in the winter months. Harry was showing off his stuff. There was that field goal in the state tournament. Folks remembered. The golden boy of high school sports when Ford was president. Once a week the basketball from atop Harry’s bureau would get a palpating, a bladder squeeze, perhaps a thoughtful, expert grunt, and he would unclamp the bicycle pump from the Sears 5-speed languishing in the yard with both tires flat, suck the sphincter dimpling the ball’s bladder—get it good and wet—and stick in the syringe. A few flys on the pump handle, then into the road: some bounces, a nod of approbation for correct inflation, proper feel, then some basket shooting.

Elapsed time five minutes. The legend was satisfied.

Their breaths effervescent, Pen and Morrissey approached Harry, feeling leading men in one of life’s dramas. David leapt ahead to the reason he and Pen had not negotiated the tangles of alders and runaway roses over the ledge to Harry’s place, began fumbling out an explanation why they had taken the car, but let it drop. His face was rosy and flushed.

“Harry, we want you to know right off that we are friends, right?” That should set the tone: begin at the beginning, a good start. David breathed easier.

“You are making excuses and you haven’t done anything—yet. What’s up?” Harry squinted suspiciously. “Morrissey, are you going to tell me that I am a sympathetic character again?” Harry was wise in the ways of Dim Lights Morrissey. “David, you are a fool. Shut up. Have you been drinking?” This from Harry, who should know. “You sound guilty, give it a rest. Hiya, Pen.” Harry was going one-on-one.

“Put down the ball, Harry. We come as friends.”

“Pass then, friends, but as a friend I would remind you that in my hands this basketball is a dangerous weapon. One false move and it’s stand and deliver. Remember always you are guests in the tents of my people.”

“High five, Harry.” Pen held both hands out, elbow length, palms up, and got the double slap from Harry. Harry kept the ball under control in the crotch of his right arm, ready in case of hostile action.

“I was wondering if you guys were going to show up,” Harry said. “For cronies, pals, you fellas haven’t been over too much lately. You have been remiss in exercising your social obligations.”

Morrissey said something about how it had been winter. “‘Tents of my people.’ Harry, have you been watching old movies?”

“Lots of them, David. Hundreds. We’ve been grinding away at it for a month. The VCR just crapped out.” Harry did not look sad over this.

“We?” Pen picked up on the plural pronoun. Spots of high color rose on Harry’s cheekbones. “Did they make you Pope, or have you got a girlfriend hidden away? Talk to me, Harry, tell me true; have you finally connected with Alma Nightingale?”

The flush grew deeper. Harry is blushing, thought Pen. A man now sober is having to defend something he did drunk and can’t remember, but is convinced he is right all the same.

“Not the Pope. A bishop, maybe a priest. But I didn’t know. See, it was all a mistake...” Harry shuffled and mumbled into his beard.

Morrissey pressed the attack. “Harry Pease, you have about as much brains as that basketball under your arm. You have blown your cover and now everyone will think you’re nuts. Some of us had reserved judgment. With Libby angling to get you into a strait jacket, you put that damned thing in the paper and signed it.”

This was not what Harry had been talking about. He looked puzzled and turned to Pen. “Now, Pen, you know I am not crazy. Libby looks after me; she wouldn’t do tha...”

Morrissey handed over the clipping. “Harry, get this straight—the word is out, your sister has seen the lawyers. She wants you to rumba in a rubber room for the rest of your natural life.”

Harry studied the paper closely from all sides, approached the thing warily—a cat stalking in high, dry grass, winterkill. He turned the clipping over, hoping to find enlightenment or at least a coupon on the back. “Sounds like something I’d do drunk. But I didn’t.” A petulant tone entered his voice. “Party or parties unknown are jamming my reception, could be telepathic powers. My satellite is fucked all to hell, too. Blew me away smack dab in the middle of the NBA playoffs. Could be space people.”

Morrissey faced Pen and spoke in a stagy aside, as if Harry weren’t there. “Space people. Okeh, I’ll let that one pass. Visitations—a working hypothesis. As a phenomenon, ‘visitations’ is a more user-friendly term. Alright, suppose Harry has visits from space aliens...”

“Space people,” injected Harry.

“Space people. Fine...” Morrissey continued, ignoring Harry. “Suppose I am a county magistrate and Libby comes before my bench with a brace of suits and depositions averring that her brother is entertaining space people. The conventional wisdom is that, lucid moments notwithstanding, crazy people are crazy all the time. Libby says Harry has fairies at the bottom of his garden—space aliens living in his teapot as you so colorfully put it, Pen. This has lowered her stock at the Daughters of Milo, Eastern Star and the bridge club and she feels—rightly or wrongly, it doesn’t matter—that she is the big chuckle at the checkout counter of the Red and White. Add to this the question of Harry’s solid waste. Well...! To Libby, Harry is worse than a threat, he is an embarrassment and, short of hiring a Sicilian hit man, packing Harry away downstate is the answer to all her troubles. She seeks the comfort of the law. Exhibit A,” Morrissey intoned, waving the clipping under Harry’s nose.

“Yep, this could be me,” said Harry, studying it again. “‘There are strange things done ’neath the midnight sun...’ Shooting of Dan McGrew, Robert Service. I read a lot in the winter when I’m not so drunk and tied up in knots that putting my socks on is an all day job. But not lately, not drunk, and I don’t remember doing it. This went in last week.”

A medium-sized spotted pig strolled out from behind a stack of snow tires, paused to sniff a 55 gallon drum that had a rotary crank kerosene pump rusted on, then continued on past an array of stove grates to where they were standing and plumped herself down. The pig looked like she had something to say. “Harry, old muffin, the knotted skein of your sanity or lack of same is only the surface message here. The question before the court will be whether you are fit company for children and pets, running loose on the city streets. Well... hello there.” The pig, self-aware in the way country pigs were not, studied a trotter in the center of the triangle of Morrissey, Harry and Pen.

Harry blushed again. Hmm, Pen thought, second time today. Pen Harrington, smooth talker, was at a loss for words. Harry’s got something on the fire. Makes you wonder what’s going on between these two—interspecies hanky-panky? “Ah, Harry. Is this your space alien by any chance?”

The pig cocked her head and looked quizzically at Pen. “You, gawky person with the open mouth—yes, I am speaking to you. Are you conscious?” This pig hadn’t come to have her ears scratched.

The pig had asked him a question and common politeness called for an answer. “Uh, I guess so.” Pen looked around, taking stock. It was nice to know where you were in the last moments before they led you away. Pen had always liked Harry’s dooryard. With no effort whatsoever on Harry’s part, it blossomed anew each spring with high-stalked lupines, daisy-eyed cosmos, and the spiky bloomstalks of purple-flowered veronica. The flowers were not yet up and Pen stood in a winter-brown slush, slightly drunk and talking to a pig. Morrissey had not moved an inch; he was staring pop-eyed and looking like he would strangle. He turned slightly purple and delivered a sudsy belch.

“I shall interpret your carbonated effulgence as a deferential courtesy. You may call me Morgana, Mister Morrissey.” There was a trace of an accent that was hard to pin down. The pig studied a trotter and looked to Harry, as if waiting on the amenities. Harry’s fierce flush approached the cheery glow of Harvard beets fresh out of the can. “I can’t wait for a proper introduction all day, Harry. You nice men wait right here while I go and powder my nose.” She trotted behind the oil drum.

“Harry...” said Morrissey, sounding like a swimmer calling for a rope.

“Now, guys, this isn’t at all like it looks.”

“I know what it looks like. I want to know what it is.”

“So help me Jesus, we are talking to a medium-sized spotted pig with a curly tail.”

The pig reappeared after a minute or so and paused to admire herself in a detached bureau mirror that leaned against a stack of tires. She turned her head like a schoolgirl checking her hair in a soda fountain mirror. She trotted back, her tail bobbling and flouncing. She had large ears, way out of proportion. This pig could do a lot of listening, if so inclined.

“Now,” she said, “...are any of you,” she swiveled to stare at Pen’s knees, “the proprietor of a large yellow dog? He broke his chain and followed you here—I had to zap him. I put him under the porch; no one will see him till he wakes up.”

“You’ve killed Pen’s dog.” Harry sat down with a stunned look, right where he was, folded, sort of. “Mister Harrington here’s mighty attached to Prince.” He looked to Pen, distancing himself from the deed of murder.

The pig sat down in the dirt in front of Harry and licked his face. She spoke softly, conciliatingly. “I have feelings, too. If some dumb pooch sticking his nose in your ass is your idea of romance, just you try it sometime, Harry Pease.”

Harry really does have space aliens living in his teapot, thought Pen Harrington. “Harry, are we really seeing this—the talking pig. I mean, really?”

“You are Mister Harrington,” the pig said thoughtfully. “Prince has told me so much about you and Mister Morrissey. He says you quack when you are confused. You are quacking now. Please stop quacking and talk like a normal, sensible human being or I shall be forced to zap you, too. There’s lots of room under the porch.” The pig had appropriated Harry’s left foot, sitting on the toe. A warrior princess prepared to dispense justice.

“Now, Morgana...” Harry started.

Pen had no doubts about his dog being able to handle himself in a scrap. Prince’s strategy when attacked was to roll himself into a heavy ball and defy all attempts to budge him. Any medium-sized pig looking for a brawl would have to bring a forklift. “Prince is a lover, not a fighter. Come to think of it, he isn’t much of a lover, either.”

Her smoky voice grew softer, intimate. “Harry...” she breathed, “Harry, scratch me between the ears. Please.”

Harry looked pole-axed. “You killed Pen’s dog.”

“Oh, Harry, you’re such a worrywart. I said I just zapped him. He’ll wake up.”

“Ohh...” said Harry.

“I can see that it’s time for some straight talk,” said the pig. “First of all, I am not a space alien and I do not live in a tea pot. I am what you think I am, but you do not yet know what you think. I have been scrutinized and approved by the local fauna.” She flipped over and whiffled at the base of her tail. “The fleas love me. With the exception of you three, every being I have thus far met had regarded me as a blood donor, thrown a stick for me to fetch or tried to fuck me. Pardon my French, but this is becoming tedious. Sorry about Prince, Mister Harrington, but I am running with a short fuse.”

“You’re not from around here,” posited Dim Lights.

“Very perceptive, Mister Morrissey. May I call you David?”

“You’re not from another world? You didn’t land here with your spaceship? No insult intended, but you look a lot like a pig though you don’t act like one.”

“I am a sentient being: more intelligent, perhaps, than the three of you put together including your dog, Mister Harrington, and the assembled players of Harry’s National Basketball Association. It had been a long, cold, lonely spring. One of my aspects has discovered a career in stenography, forgotten who she is and is bumping into things—pathetic. I have had to cut her loose to make her own way. I want to go home and, yes, I put that notice in the paper.”

“Lady, Morgana, I didn’t for one minute dream you were so desperate. I thought we were having a fine time...” Harry idly rolled the basketball between his palm and the ground.

“You’ve been a wonderful host, Harry, but life here is so... unfulfilling, if you know what I mean. Here I stumble through a forest I know not.”

“You put the ad in the paper,” Morrissey said, repeating her words.

“I put it in. Here, I watch old movies. It was fun at first. Then, there is the daily assault by fleas, always a high point.”

“But how...” This from Harry.

“Don’t fidget, Harry,” said the pig. “As charming as our Harry is, I decided I needed help. Harry said you two were always coming over to spend a day, pop a brew and schmooze. But week after week went by and you never came. I had to take measures. Evolution is a continuing process; I understand that to be an article of your faith as well as mine. Unfortunately, I did not have the necessary eons to wait. From the resident victims of natural selection, I chose you.”

Harry flagged down a passing dependent clause and sat on it. “You say you are not a pig, but if you were you would be from another world?” His eyes narrowed with the cunning of a born gamesman. “What about the fleas?”

“I am quite definitely from and of this world albeit exiled to another world, but you are not ready to hear about that. The pig is a, a... disguise. Yes, that does it nicely: a disguise. The fleas are symbolic of a universal brotherhood—the free lunch. They represent an epistemological joy which myself as a pig might share, but frankly, the reality sucks. Hence the ad.”

“But how?”

“The phone, Harry dear. I punched in the paper’s want ads number and said I was Holly calling for Fletch Davis over at the law office and that it was all right, that this was a genuine legal notice and they should charge it against Fletch’s account. This, gentlemen, is a quest, and I have summoned you because you are possessed of the skills to bring my plan to fruition. To wit: a communications specialist and a trained thinker, an academic.”

At this point, thought Pen, a contribution is called for from the most level-headed of the assembly. Me, God help us. “What you have got, Miss Piggy, is a broken-down bartender and an adjunct from the State U. Extension. What it looks like is that you are making it up as you go along. You’ve got our attention and everybody else’s. A casualty of which is likely to be Harry’s continued at-liberty status.”

Pen squatted before the pig, who settled back comfortably on Harry’s foot and looked him unflinchingly in the eye. “You look like a nice piggy. Why not make the best of what you have here? Why not settle down and raise many litters of talking pigs? Our immediate concern is Libby—and Harry’s elevated profile, thanks to you. Right now any diversion is just a lot of unnecessary bullshit.” Pen never finished. “Oops...” He had been waving a finger in the pig’s face when he went stiff and toppled forward, his arm sinking elbow deep in the soft mud.

“Mr. Harrington was becoming obstreperous,” announced Morgana. “You remaining gentlemen may help put him under the house with Prince, or join him in his condition until all of us are prepared to continue our discussion in a calm, rational manner.”

Pen was lying on his face like a toppled statue in some uproarious Balkan coup. His limited field of focus was a blur of mud, brown snow, and melt rivulets. “This doesn’t happen in real life...” a small voice, recognizably Harry, whimpered.

“Hmmm, uh, Miss Pig?” Morrissey.

“Morgana. Yes?”

“This ‘zapping’ you do so well. Can you un-zap also, or must the effects run their course?”

“Ah, the analytical mind at work. The Morrissey magic. I have my magic, you have yours. You were indeed the right choice. I concede a point.” Pen blinked, mopped himself off and sat on the ground next to Harry. “This is a gesture of good faith,” said the pig, “We will talk, but don’t try to bamboozle me. I feel my threshold for trivia shrinking.”

They spoke of Libby. As Elizabeth Profitt Pease held the potential for a nearer and more imminent catastrophe than the cessation of the universe at a date yet to be announced, Morgana sat down and listened as they argued around the problem.

*  *  *

You’re alone enough; you hear voices whistling through the flue, everyone did. Having to be alert enough to chuck more sticks in the stove every two hours lest you freeze and die was a basic, vestal fellowship with the flame, and the feeder of the fire was pulled into its rhythm. So why not aliens singing in the chimney?

Somehow, somewhere, word that her brother might be entertaining visitors from another planet got back to Libby Pease. That Harry received ETs for tea was privileged information, known only to David and Pen and filtered through the boozy fumes of good fellowship. Whether Harry had actually seen and talked with them was hard to pin down, but on one thing he was adamant: sojourners from the astral planes made Harry’s place a regular stopover on their passage from wheresis to whatever. He had seen their spoor: strange messages on the uninhabited channels of his TV, usually in the early morning hours when the decent, Christian stations were turned off.

When he was sober, Harry tended to be less certain about the details. He sometimes laughed them off as hallucinations. Harry’s visitations were tolerated because he didn’t advertise them; Harry was a private drunk.

Now here was a space alien demanding to go public.

“Your sister has animadversions on the strange, the new, and she will be hostile to you because of me. Well, time to get to work.” The pig rose and shook herself.

“Would it be too much to ask you to let us in on your plans?” The pig had an attitude, Pen figured, but there would be time to work on that later. “Just what are you going to have us do?”

“Why... go to town,” she replied, surprised, her head a half turn over her shoulder. “We are going shopping at Walmart. I’ve seen all the films Harry could find to rent and I have a good grasp on the way things work here. But you two go first and get me a collar and some tags so I’ll blend in. Hmmm. Green nylon, I think.” She primped at her reflection in a puddle. “Harry and I will stay here tonight. CSI Miami is on and it’s a continuing story.”

She’s casting us as John the Baptists, her advance men to soften up the yahoos, mused Pen. He recalled how the Baptist had finished up his assignment—the patron saint of press agents, the Baptist was beheaded. “Harry, I still have two years left to pay on my car.”

“You’re a good boy, Pen. Run along now.” They were dismissed. “Make that red nylon,” called Morgana, “Red I think will go better with my eyes and personality and, yes, Pen, I know I have an attitude problem. We’ll work on that later. And don’t worry about Libby, I can handle her.”

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