ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Ninteen)

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER NINETEEN- The trap is sprung (one of them).

The following week was a busy one for Ray Meadows. Before he could build a potential cage for a climber, he had to run some tests: How would the cage be put together? How would he fill the pipes with cement? How strong would this thing be when it was done? And how heavy? He had settled on building a partial mock-up of one side of the cage. Something he could test his construction methods with. And something he could try to tear apart once it was done. He reasoned, accurately or not, that if he could tear it apart, so could a climber. There were evenings divided between trips to the hardware store and messy experiments in the basement. Cement, both dry and wet, was proving to be a less than neat and precise medium for construction. The dry dust went everywhere and the wet slurry hit the floor with unfortunate regularity. He kept the vacuum and mop close by. Even brought home one of those painters' masks from the Big Prank at work.
In addition to his work at home on the cage, this was the week for the "tenting" at work. The flyers were done, and the first ones were already distributed. The yellow tape was being handed out and its application explained. All this kept Paul Scoggins far busier than it did Ray Meadows. Ray, of course, also had to manage the diversionary prank- the fake fish in the water coolers. Everyone was expecting them to do something- and hopefully that same everyone would think that the fake fish were it. A great big sleight of hand. And it was all keeping Ray Meadows at a dead run.
Tuesday night saw all the windows in Granville Tower One sealed from the inside with yellow vinyl tape. Only a small handful of employees with window offices had any questions at all. People were sheep. Of course, the bit about everyone wearing those masks for three days did raise some eyebrows. But people are sheep. Only a very small percentage of the staff took the easy way out- and took three days off. Better safe- and somewhere else- than sorry. Come Wednesday morning, both Ray and Paul knew that they were going to have a tough time keeping a straight face watching close to a thousand people try to work with masks on. Good thing they'd be wearing them, too. A last minute phone call between Ray and Paul after hours Tuesday confirmed that everything was in place. All the masks had been handed out and every question courteously answered. No problems, no dissention. People were indeed sheep and about to be fleeced.
In the Meadows' basement, the Big Cage Experiment was close to its first step. Ray had assembled a test piece and poured the slippery wet cement into the maze of PVC pipe the night before. It should be dry tonight and ready for testing. Three feet square, with two cross pieces, the test pattern's bars were more widely spaced than what would be needed in the final cage design. Ray was betting that a climber could slip through a foot wide opening. Better make the real ones six inches apart- at the most. This one would have to do for testing. After dinner, Ray headed for the basement. It wasn't exactly the final exam. More of a pop quiz. And he wanted to see if it would pop.
The test piece was resting flat on the floor on top of a square of thin, clear plastic. The cement slurry had spilled all around it, some on the plastic and some on the floor. Ray looked at the mess and decided he would clean it all up later. After the test. He hefted the collection of pipes and was amazed at the weight. It was not a light item. This cage was going to weight a ton. Maybe literally. Bracing it against his work bench, he tried to bend it. And tried again. Nothing. No flex, no bend, no break. So far, so good. Ray leaned it up against the work bench and tried stepping on it. After a couple of tentative steps, he tried to really bear down on it with his foot. It slid from the side of the work bench and went crashing to the floor. A terrible racket, but a good test. Luck for Ray his other foot wasn't under it. He picked it back up and checked it over of any breakage. None. It held. Say, this thing might just work.
One more test: Ray slid out two milk crates and rested the cage sample between them. Suspended a foot above the floor by its end pieces, the cement filled collection of PVC pipes was about to become a bridge over troubled concrete. Ray stepped gingerly up onto one of the upturned crates. He slowly eases his weight out on to the white plastic pipes. They held. Slowly- and every carefully- he shuffled the short distance across to the other milk crate. It held. He walked back. Still, no snap, crackle or cement popped. The test was an unqualified success. Ok, make that a qualified success. It did work, it didn't break, but there was one thing worrying Ray Meadows: This thing weighed too much. Judging by the weight of this test piece, the finished cage would weigh in at well over a thousand pounds. Was that going to be a problem? Ray wasn't sure. It would be resting on the floor. That was a given. He just had a problem with the logistics after that initial capture. Assuming there'd be an initial capture.
Ray Meadows went over the anticipated sequence of events in his mind as he cleaned up his little corner of the world: With the proper safety equipment, like those heavy rubber gloves, someone- probably him- would hang out in the back yard and snag a climber. It sounded like the first ingredient in Bear Soup: First, catch a bear. Ok, with that done, what next? They'd have to get the climber into the cage. That's going to be a real laugh-fest right there. Ray could just picture the thing, writhing and hissing, trying to break free and/or fry Ray as he ran in the back door and down the steps with this thing to put it in the cage. Keep the camera rolling, Barbara, we could win some money with this one. If by some minor miracle he does get the thing into the basement and into the cage, what next? Close and lock the cage door were right at the top of Ray's list about now. And then? Then what? With a climber caged in the basement, who you gonna call? Ray was figuring on calling Steve Vaan, and Steve could call Arthur Crutchfield. He might just leave Merry Old England for this one. And then? Who? The Indianapolis Zoo? The Smithsonian? How about Weekly World News? Maybe Geraldo. That's where the plan got fuzzy. No, that's where the plan got really fuzzy. Ray decided that they (Ray, Barbara and Steve) were going to have to have another major meeting to figure all this out ahead of time. Nothing like a plan. And this was nothing like a plan.
Wednesday morning started in high gear for Ray. He had to get into work amazing early to put those fish in the water coolers on every floor. The fake fish were safely snug in his brief case, all pre-weighted and ready to go. He could do this. Ray was up before Barbara, dressed and ready to head out the door when the alarm went off. Barbara got up in time to see her husband off to work. Then, wise woman that she was, she went back to bed. Ray's late nights in the basement had kept her up, too. Now was her chance to catch up on her sleep. She took it.
Ray had the car parked and was inside Granville Tower One before 6:30. He and the sun were the only ones up. Traffic had been non-existent and his was the first car in the parking lot. Ray started right in on the first floor. A quick tip and lift and the water bottle was off the first cooler. As quick as he could, Ray stuffed a weighted fish into the bottle and put the whole mess back in place. Ok, on to the next one. Ray found that if he was really quick, no water was lost in the move. He who hesitated got wet feet. Ray got good at it quick. He had to. By 7:30 he was done. All the water coolers in Tower One were now a bit fishy, in a fake sort of way. By the time the first employees began filtering in around 7:45, Ray was safe in his little office. It only took the first employee walking past his door for the panic to set in. Ray had forgotten one thing: It was Wednesday. The first day of the 'tenting', and he didn't have a mask. He was the only one who didn't have a mask. This joke was almost over before it even began.
Ray ran. Out of his office, down the hall and down the back stairwell to the basement. No one saw him and he saw no one. The stairwell was deserted this early in the day. Furthest from the main entrance, few people used it to get to their offices in the morning. By ten o'clock there'd be a steady stream of workers using it as a short cut between floors, but that was later. This was now, and it was empty. Ray plunged down the flights of stairs as fast as he could. Had any one actually seen him, they would have assumed he panicked because he didn't have a mask. Ok, yes, they'd be right. But for the wrong reason.
The scene at the main entrance was truly Orwellian. Security guards in little white paper masks were making sure that everyone entering the building also had little white paper masks. They'd help someone adjust one here, or hand one to a visitor there. Most employees were walking in with their masks in place. Halfway through the foyer, everyone had one. It was an odd scene. It would get more so as the day progressed. Ray missed this little vignette of weirdness. He was busy running through the basement, looking for Paul Scoggins. Too bad Paul wasn't there. He was busy putting the finishing touch on The Big Prank. Something Ray had overlooked.
Along the back side of Tower One, not too far from where Ray's dummy had hit the ground just four months before, a huge truck was backing into position. Huge venting ducts were being attached to the truck and run through an access panel in the building that led to the basement. After all, if you're going to tent a building, you're going to want to pump something into the tent. Ray had never thought of that. He was happy just getting the people to wear the stupid masks. Paul knew the joke would never hold for three days unless everyone saw something being pumped into the building. And it helps to have friends in low places.
Paul had called in a favor from an old friend who really was in the exterminating business. Could he just park one of his big trucks by the building for a couple of days? That's all it took. Paul faked a hook-up to the truck with some old air conditioning ductwork and ran that into the basement. He even continued the ducting right up to the main air handler, just in case anyone got curious. Now for those fool enough to question whether or not any thing was going on, Paul had another trick up his overalls: Industrial strength concentrated air freshener. He had always dribbled a little bit into the air system to combat the inherent mustiness in all those ducts. A little floral sent went a long way. All he had to do was change the scent, and pour it on. From a light flowery aroma that everyone was used to- and no one really noticed- Paul went to a heavy-duty cinnamon. Sharp and heavy, you couldn't miss it. There was definitely something in the air. Better keep that mask on. Like the truck, Paul planned on keeping the new scent around for a couple of days. By Friday, the truck would be gone and they could say they were in the "airing out" phase.
Ray couldn't find Paul, but he found Paul's office. He must have a spare mask around here somewhere. Didn't he pull out a box of them awhile back? Where were they? Back behind his desk? Ray searched the office frantically and finally came up with a small box of masks. Relief. He slipped one on and hung on to a couple more. Just in case. Now, where was Paul?
The morning went from busy to absurdly busy. Between trying to maintain two pranks and get some real work done, Ray and Paul never got together until noon. By then, everyone had left for lunch. No one was eating in the employee lunchroom. No one dared remove their mask. That sharp spicy smell had to be death on the wing. Best to go out for some fresh air and food. Something healthy, just in case. Ray knew better and made his way back down to the basement. Paul was at his desk this time, mask pulled up to his forehead and eating a sandwich. Ray's arrival prompted Paul to drop the sandwich and lower the mask.
"Relax, it's just me. As you were."
Ray's mask was pulled down around his neck. Paul pulled his own mask back up to continue eating.
"I can't believe we're getting away with this."
"Me neither. I'm amazed that everyone fell for it."
"No questions, no stubborn hold-outs, nothing. Like sheep."
"What you got there? Looks good."
"Mutton, lettuce and tomato. Seemed appropriate."
"A what?"
"Just kidding. Meatloaf sandwich. Want one?"
"Yeah, ok. Beats going out for lunch. And I don't think anyone's eating in the lunchroom today."
"Yeah, that's the downside. We cost them a bundle."
"Hey- we never said you couldn't eat lunch here."
"Just don't take your mask off in the building."
"Oh, yeah."
"They'll get over it."
"Hope so."
"How'd the fish thing go this morning?"
"No problem. A little messy, but I got it done."
"You know, funny thing about that."
"What's that?"
"No one's going to drink the water today. Or tomorrow for that matter."
"What? Why is that?"
"The masks, Ray. We've got them all wearing masks and they're terrified to take them off for anything. Even a drink of water."
"So maybe this is working too well?"
"Maybe. We'll see what this afternoon brings. Hopefully everyone will come back after lunch and not just phone it in."
"Oh boy."
Ray took the meatloaf sandwich Paul had offered and washed it down with water from a fishless cooler. It wasn't much, but it was lunch. Leaving Paul to his subterranean refuge, Ray made his way back up to his office well above ground. He had noticed the odd sharp smell, but never figured out what was going on and who was responsible. He never saw the truck out back, either. Ray Meadows sat down at his desk. Maybe it was time to do some actual work around here today. Then he saw the message on his desk. Maybe the actual work would have to wait. J. P. Granville wanted to see him as soon as possible. So much for actual work. Time to head upstairs. And time to ask himself the Big Question: Had they gone too far this time?
Down the hall and in to the elevator, Ray was glad he was wearing that mask. The entire scene was too absurd. Everyone was trying hard to go through their normal daily routine with that silly mask in place. Tough to talk to anyone, almost impossible to answer the phone. It would have been silly if it hadn't been taken so seriously. Ray made his way through the outer executive offices and past J. P.'s masked receptionist. No reason to smile, and Ray was still wearing his. Once in The Big Office, J. P. wasn't hard to spot. He was the one with the mask. He stood up from behind his desk as Ray walked in. J. P. Granville didn't have to say a word- and he didn't. He just pointed to his own little white paper painter's mask with both hands and then shrugged. No words needed. Ray didn't have to respond with a word as well. All he had to do was what he did: He took his mask off and tossed it on the desk. Keep that big smile, Ray. It was all a joke, right? Ray smiled his biggest, broadest good ol' boy "it was all a joke" smile. Did it work? J. P. Granville ripped his own mask off and threw it on the desk. Saints be praised- he was grinning from ear to ear!
"I knew it! I knew it had to be a joke! It had to be you!"
"Well, sir, I can't take all the credit- Paul Scoggins had a hand in it, too."
"I knew it. I knew it the minute I saw that truck pull up this morning."
"Truck? What truck?"
"Why, the exterminators- WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'WHAT TRUCK'? Isn't that part of the joke sitting right down there?"
J. P. Granville was torn between pointing out the window behind his desk and trying to grab the mask he had just removed to put it back in place over his face. Maybe this wasn't a joke after all. Ray walked behind the desk and looked down to the ground far, far below. Great view from up here. Yep, there was a truck down there, all right. Must be a pretty big one, too. And some sort of lines running from it into the building. Ray kept his smile. Ray should have done community theater.
"May I use your phone, sir?"
"By all means. This was your prank, right?"
"I thought so. Let me just check with Paul to make sure."
"You do that."
J. P. Granville paced around his office nervously, mask in hand. Ray hadn't put his back on, so J. P. wasn't about to look that concerned. If Ray wasn't worried, he wasn't worried. Still- Paul, you'd better be there. The phone rang once, twice and then it was answered. By Paul.
"Hey, Paul, it's Ray."
"Yeah, I think it's going great. So great I'm standing here in J. P. Granville's office right now trying to reassure him that it's all a great joke."
"That's what I said. But then he happened to point out an exterminator's truck parked out back. You know anything about that, Paul?"
There was a long silence on Ray's end of the line as he listened to Paul explain about the truck and the cinnamon smell in the building. Of course. The smell. That's what he couldn't put his finger- or nose- on all day. That sharp, sweet smell that wasn't here yesterday. Ray went from a worried frown back to his big smile and right into laughing out loud. Paul had truly put the finishing touches on this prank. He'd be a tough competitor next April. Better keep him as an ally. Ray thanked Paul for his efforts and hung up the phone. J. P. was able to sense that the situation was not at all lethal. But what was it?
"The truck belongs to a friend of Paul's. He was willing to just park it back there for a couple of days. Paul thought we needed it for effect. The truck is empty and the hoses go nowhere."
"Good effect. It kept my mask in place."
Ray took a deep, deep breath. Yep, there was a definite scent in the air. It was cinnamon.
"Smell that?"
J. P. was a bit apprehensive about that last question. If this was a prank, what should there be to smell? He sniffed the air. There was something there. He took a deeper breath. Yes, something- but what?"
"Paul followed through by changing the air freshener this morning. Apparently, he always pumps some sort of light floral scent through the air ducts to combat the inherent mustiness. Today we're getting a strong cinnamon scent for a change."
"That's what that is- cinnamon! I thought it was the bug spray."
"That's the whole idea. If anyone took their mask off, that new smell would convince them to put their mask right back on."
"You guys are amazing."
"You can thank Paul for the detail work- he never told me about the truck or the scent."
"Clever. Now how long am I going to have to walk around looking foolish?"
"Just today and tomorrow. We told everybody the building would be airing out Friday and it would be safe then."
"And when are you going to tell them it's all a joke?"
"I was thinking about sending an e-mail to everyone right before lunch on Friday."
"That's good. That's spectacular. I wish I could sic you on our competition."
There was no way Ray could suppress a smile now.
"That might be something to look into."
J. P. Granville thought about that one for a minute. Imagine that: Bringing your competition to its knees with a series of practical jokes. It really was something to think about. And he was.
"I'd say keep up the good work- but I'm not sure you need the encouragement."
"Carpe Diem, sir."
"How about 'Carpe Comedia? Seize the joke?"
"Oh, I like that. Maybe I could get T-shirts printed up for Friday."
"Good idea- Glad you thought of it!"
"But- I... you-"
"It was your idea. I'll swear to it. Now you see to it."
"Yes, sir."
Ray was half way to the office door when J. P. Granville called him back with a "Harrumph". Huh? What? Did he forget something? Yes, he did. His mask was still sitting on J. P.'s desk. Can't have that. One step out that door and the party's over. Or the joke, at least. Sheepishly, Ray went back and retrieved the mask. He had it on and in place before his hand ever reached for the door knob. Be prepared. With his smile safely hidden, Ray made his way back to his office. He'd have to call Paul Scoggins and let him know that ol' J. P. was in on it. No problem there. Even if the whole thing had fallen apart under Granville's stern scrutiny, the prank had been played. Making it run for three days was a heavy layer of icing on the cake. So far, the first six hours had gone well. Everything was intact and the joke was still running.
Back at his desk and safe in his office, Ray closed the door and sat down. Then he went back and locked it. Now he could take his mask off. No sense in taking any chances. Maybe others were doing the same. He had, now that he thought about it, noticed a lot more closed doors today. Bet that was it. Now safe, and comfortable to boot, Ray Meadows surveyed his desk and the problems of the day. Hmmm. Not bad: He had a desk, but no problems. No systems to check, no problems to solve. Easy afternoon. He could pay Paul a visit, but why risk stirring up anyone's curiosity? If too many people saw them together, they'd know something was up. And it wasn't just the fish in the water coolers. Which, by the way, were starting to disappear. Ray was hoping that people were (no pun intended) fishing them out of the coolers. That had to be it. Unless they were water soluble. Now there was a happy thought for the afternoon. After that momentary contemplation, Ray turned his thoughts to something more terrifying than fake fish: Catching climbers. He knew he'd have to have the beginnings of a plan that weekend. No sense in letting it fall by the wayside now that they were (more or less) committed. Or should be.
Time to work out the schedule, if he could call it that. How to catch a climber- a step by step guide for the complete idiot. And that would be Ray. With the sample cage piece being such a success, he knew he could build the entire unit over the next weekend. Easy enough. Messy, but easy. Then it would be up to someone (probably Ray?) to try to grab one and stuff it in the cage in the basement. Ray had a flash: Maybe the cage wouldn't be in the basement. Maybe it would be in the garage. He could build it there and save a lot of grief. That would work.
A cage in the garage, although harder to hide from the prying eyes of the neighborhood, would be much easier to use when the time came. Then again, Ray realized that they hadn't actually established the Meadows' yard as the best possible site for this little caper. Maybe Steve Vaan had someplace else in mind. Were the climbers around Lyndon going to be any easier to catch? There was a thought. Maybe they'd make a week-end road trip of it. And how would they transport that cage? Problem there. It could be made to fit great in the back of a pick-up truck. Too bad Ray didn't have one. Hmmm. Maybe Paul Scoggins knew of one they could borrow. Of course he would. Paul's a pick-up truck kind of guy. Ok, they could move the cage to Lyndon. And put it where? They certainly weren't going to be able to lug it up the stairs to Steve's second floor apartment. No way. Leave it in the truck and throw a tarp over it? That seemed so undignified. So uncouth. There had to be a better way, but Ray couldn't come up with one. So a truck and a tarp were added to the list. Now, what else didn't they have?
Ray thought about it off and on throughout the afternoon. What did he need? What had he overlooked? What could go wrong? That last one produced by far the longest list. What could go wrong? Everything. Name it. They could get lost in the woods. The truck could get stuck in the mud. Maybe they wouldn't get close to a climber. Maybe it could break free. Maybe it could kill someone. Yeah, this could go wrong. Big time wrong. Fill out the police report wrong. County Coroner wrong. But, what if it worked? What if, through some major series of miracles, they were actually able to put a climber in that cage- and hold it there? Whew. Exciting stuff, but then what? Ray went over the possibilities and options based on them succeeding. It was far-fetched, but a remote possibility. They had better be ready for it. Nothing worse than an opportunity lost because you weren't ready for it. They'd be ready.
Based on his initially thoughts on the subject, Ray Meadows had always considered the Indianapolis Zoo to be his first choice on what to do with the thing if they did in fact manage to catch one. The zoo was close by, and big. Surely, they'd want the ultimate exotic animal for their collection. Especially if it had been caught right there in Indiana. Except, now that he thought about it, Lyndon was still in Illinois the last time he looked. Hmmm. Was that a problem? Possibly. Was there some sort of law about transporting captured exotic animals across state lines? And wasn't there an old joke about that? Transporting lions for immortal porpoises, or something like that? Was there really a law to be broken here? That was something Ray was going to definitely check out- in detail- before they went any further. He might be a stupid man, but he was not a brave one. He saw no need to go to all that trouble just to be arrested. Better check the law.
By five o'clock on that Wednesday afternoon Ray Meadows had a long list of questions to go with his long list of things to do before a climber could be caught. He could see that it was going to keep him busy evenings and weekends for awhile. If everything went smoothly- and it was legal- he could see where they might be able to begin their hunt as early as the weekend after next. It all hinged on the law and a pick-up truck. I'm sure you know the feeling.
Leaving work that night, Ray watched his co-workers removing their silly little painter's masks as they left the building. Maybe these people would appreciate the value of fresh, clean air before this joke was over. They certainly did right now. Most of them left the windows rolled down in the cars as they drove home. Something nice about that breeze, after all. Even in early August. Ray Meadows labored under no such illusion. His windows were up and the air conditioning was on. He was still not and outdoor kind of guy. Not yet, but soon.
Dinner was good, and Ray was stuffed. Too much to eat on a warm Summer evening and Ray found himself collapsed in a lounge chair in the back yard. Whew. Would this week ever end? It was only Wednesday. Three down, two to go. Barbara joined him in the back yard as the evening progressed from daylight to dusk. Nice night, for a Wednesday. They had pulled their lawn chairs toward the middle of the back yard. Away from any view of the street in front of the house and away from any of the trees. This was not to be a night for bravery. Barbara was curious about Ray's progress on two fronts: The climbers and the Big Practical Joke. First things first, though:
"So how's the masked ball going at work?"
"Good, but scary. I'm amazing at how easily people can be manipulated."
"No surprise here. I've seen the Home Shopping Channel."
"Uh-huh. But have you seen about a thousand people struggle through their work day wearing silly little painter's masks?"
"No, I can't say as I have. What's it like, O learned one?"
"Tough to keep a straight face. Glad I was wearing a mask."
"So it's going well?"
"Too well, I think. J. P. Granville called me up into his inner sanctum today to find out if it was all a joke or not. It had him worried."
"So maybe you went too far?"
"That's what I thought at first. But no, not too far. Not this time, anyway. He's trying to figure out how to sic Paul and I on our competition."
"Wouldn't the FTC rule that an unfair trade practice?"
"At least. But only if we were caught."
"You aren't seriously considering it, are you?"
"I'm not. J. P. might be."
"Now that is a scary thought."
"Yeah. Funny, though."
"I'm laughing on the inside."
"Not to worry. By next Monday, it will all be a dim memory."
"And with that out of the way- what about The Project?"
"By 'The Project' I assume you mean us trying to catch a climber?"
"Well, I don't know. I guess we're close to ready. The sample cage thing I built withstood everything I heaped on it, so I could have one built by the end of next weekend, I guess. But I've still got some questions."
"Such as?"
"Who, when, where and mostly why."
"You left out what."
"I thought we sort of knew what: climbers. What ever climbers are. But who's going to try to catch one, when are they going to try and where?"
"What about why?"
"Why is the philosophical question. The others are physical. Let's leave the why out of the equation for the time being."
"Ok, who would probably end up being either you or Steve."
"Why not you?"
"Because you two are bigger and stronger."
"Female chauvinist."
"And besides, I'll be the one with the gun."
"Say what?"
"Some one's got to cover you if it gets out of hand- so to speak."
"And that would be you?"
"Hey- I'm the one with the experience. I don't see you packing no heat."
"Me- packing no- what?"
"You haven't done much shooting."
"Well, no- but-"
"I have. I'll cover you."
"Somehow, that's not nearly as comforting as I'd hoped it would be."
"You don't trust me?"
"Oh, I trust you, all right. But I'd like to review my life insurance first."
"Don't worry, I already have."
"Oh, boy."
"So the who is either you or Steve. What about the when?"
"I figure maybe the weekend after next at the earliest. The cage will be built and tested by then."
"Ok, where?"
"That's really the big question, isn't it? The cage will be here, and there are climbers here. But is this the best place?"
"It's either here or Lyndon, isn't it?"
"Or Croydon."
"What? You mean along that stretch of Interstate?"
"Yeah. Steve was pretty anxious to check it out. If climbers are as curious as we think they are, the ones out there would have had the least exposure to humans at any distance, and therefore more likely to want to get really close to the first ones they see in the woods."
"After dark, of course."
"Of course."
"What about around Lyndon?"
"He's certainly seen them there, but he's also the only one that's seen them there."
"Meaning that maybe the climbers around Lyndon are more wary of humans."
"Or just less curious. Steve's never really said how close he gets to them or how often he sees them."
"Good point. But either other location has the same big drawback."
"Which is?"
"The cage, when it's built, will be here. We'd have to get it there."
"How could we do that?"
"I'm thinking pick-up truck here."
"That would work great, if only we had one."
"I think Paul Scoggins might be able to help us out there. He seems like a pick-up truck kind of guy."
"Yeah, he does. So you think we could borrow a truck from him?"
"Yeah, maybe for a weekend. That shouldn't be too hard. Worse comes to worse, we could always buy one."
"Pardon me? Earth to Ray, Earth to Ray…"
"Come on, Barb- a used pick-up? How much could it cost?"
"I don't know- it just seems like a big expense for a single project."
"Like we couldn't use a second car?"
Barbara thought about it. He was right. They had made do for years with one car because… well, she forgot just why. But they did. Never seemed to need a second one. Maybe now they did. Ok, a second car that's a truck. That was starting to make sense to her.
"I guess- now that you mention it, it does make sense. But it's only a one car garage."
"An old used truck? I think it could stay outside. Can you drive a stick?"
"I learned on one, but it's been years. How bad could it be?"
"So maybe we'll be on the lookout for an old truck this weekend?"
"Ok. Maybe."
With that said, and nothing else spoken, both Ray and Barbara left their lawn chairs and headed for the back door. The sun was setting and they were headed inside. That had been a trend with them lately. It was nice to be outside in the evening, but not after dark. Neither had said anything to the other, but the both wanted to be inside after dark. They made sure they were. Ray had already put larger bulbs in most of the outside lights. Had he crossed that line between prudent and paranoid? He didn't think so. Not yet anyway. But he knew he could see paranoid from where he was and that bothered him. At what point would he consider calling a halt to all of this? Would he be able to draw the line and say no, it was time to stop? Back off and get one with a normal life? He had wanted very much to do just that. Then Barbara walked out on the porch late one night and the situation changed. One climber too many. Maybe they would have to catch one here. Wednesday night became Thursday morning with the Meadows fast asleep. It had become their unspoken rule: A night without climbers was a good night.
Thursday saw The Big Joke progress. It was still going entirely too well and both Ray and Paul were starting to wonder how all these people would take to the news that they had been duped. Ray knew he'd have to be very careful about how he worded that Friday e-mail letter exposing the ruse. Maybe he could get J. P. Granville in on it and use his name on the letter. The whole event was his idea. By noon Thursday, Ray started feeling a little better about one small aspect of their joke: Those fake fish were starting to turn up in the oddest places. So they weren't dissolving in the water coolers after all. They were turning up in the toilet bowls, though. That'll get you moving. No great loss there- Ray hadn't really counted on being able to retrieve them anyway. At least they were being put to good use. And they were cheap. Just watch where you sit, folks. Ray contacted J. P.'s secretary about the letter. She would check. Hopefully, he'd have an answer by Friday morning. Ray knew the letter would have to be posted on the network by about ten-thirty. It would take some time for it to run through the system and out to every e-mail address in the building. No answer and it would have to be Ray and Paul's names on that thing. Not bad, but J. P.'s would be better.
Thursday saw everyone walking around just as they had the day before. Little white masks in place, struggling to mumble through the paper to be understood- but never, never taking them off inside the building. Not where anybody else could see, anyway. Still a lot of closed office doors, though. Ray got a hold of Paul Scoggins that afternoon and pointed out one thing that he thought they'd overlooked: The lack of dead bugs to show that the "untenting" had worked. Paul was way ahead of him on that one. Paul's friend- the one that had loaned him the exterminating truck- was going to drop off a big bag of bugs (yes, dead ones) when he picked up the truck that evening. Paul would make sure they were evenly distributed early Friday morning: After the cleaning crews made their rounds, but before anyone actually showed up for work. And certainly before Ray's letter went out on the wire. May as well make them sweat one last time. Ray knew it now: Paul was a dangerous genius with a practical joke. He was impressed.
By five o'clock, Ray had his answer: He could put J. P.'s name on the letter, but only in conjunction with both of theirs. Ok, share the blame. Nothing wrong with that. And Mister G. wanted to see the letter before it went out. Of course. Wouldn't you? Ray knew he'd have to get in early Friday to get that letter sent up to Granville's office in time for it to get back to him (hopefully) mid-morning. It was going to be another busy day Friday, but only after a busy Thursday night.
Ray high-tailed it out of the office at five and made for the expressway. Home, dinner and the hardware store. Time to start buying the bits and pieces of PVC pipe that would make up that cage. He wanted to have it ready to be filled with cement by Saturday evening. It should be done and dry by Sunday night. Ray made good time getting home, surprising Barbara in the kitchen. Dinner was not quite ready, so he took the time to change out of his self-proclaimed "monkey suit" and into jeans and a T-shirt. Ray's monkey suit was not as bad as most. Sort of Primate Casual. Just a collared long-sleeve shirt and nice pants. No jacket, no tie. So he didn't really have it so bad. It's just that the T-shirt and jeans were so much more comfortable when he got home. With his clothes changed and a pair of old tennis shoes on his feet, Ray was ready for an evening at the hardware emporium. Life was good and dinner was ready. So was Ray.
Dinner was, as always in the Meadows household, a pretty straightforward affair. No fancy multiple courses laid out in timely succession, no having to figure out which fork went with what unidentifiable item. Basic food, basic utensils and lots of filling conversation. Ray filled Barbara in on the day's events at work and the current status of The Prank. Barbara related the news of the day, gleaned from both the television and the neighborhood. By the time desert was scooped out of that little box in the freezer, the topic of conversation had shifted to plans for the evening.
"So what's on tap for an evening of excitement and adventure?"
"How about a trip to the hardware store?"
"On a Thursday night? Aren't we the frisky one."
"I just thought I'd get a jump on the cage project- maybe have it ready to go by Sunday night. If I get the stuff I need tonight."
"Well- It's a little kinky- not even Friday night and all- but I guess that sounds like fun. How can a girl refuse? I mean, the hardware store and all."
Ray finally caught the sarcasm of it all. He was a little slow sometimes, but he eventually got there.
"Ok, ok. So it's not a night at the opera."
"Or a day at the races. But that's alright."
"We could look for a truck along the way to haul this thing in."
"Whoa- will the excitement ever end?"
"Not if I can help it."
With the table cleared and the dishes washed, everything was left to dry as Ray and Barbara went out the back door and out to the car. Ray had left it out in the drive, anticipating the trip to the store. Easy enough to get in and get gone. And they were, in no time at all.
There were several ways Ray could have driven to get to the hardware store. Over the years, he had tried every one of them. The quick way, the slow way and the way you take back from the store when the car's trunk is seriously overloaded and you can't see out over the hood. He knew them all. Since it was just early evening, and still quite light, he took the long way out to the main road- in case there were any trucks for sale along the highway. He could see that their inability to haul the cage might be considered a serious handicap before much longer. Empty or occupied, this thing would probably have to be hauled someplace. And there was no way the completed cage was going to fit in the trunk of the car, no matter which way they drove home. They needed a truck. Something old. Something cheap. Something ugly. (It would be cheaper that way.)
No trucks surfaced on any of those streets and the Meadows pulled into the deserted parking lot in front of the store. It was, after all, Thursday night. You know about Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights at the hardware store. What about the rest of the week? It's not like they're closed Monday through Thursday. They are open. People do go there. Two kinds of people: People in a screaming panic because the water pipes just burst or their AC caught fire. These people are easy to spot- especially in the parking lot. They're the ones that leap out of their car before they actually put the car in park and run madly for the automatic doors that don't open fast enough. After bouncing off the front door of the store they slow down just long enough to wonder what fool is driving slowly across the parking lot in a car just like theirs. No matter- they're in a hurry. They sprint down the aisles- the wrong aisles, of course- reminding every employee in sight that it's time to take that two-hour long fifteen minute break they'd been putting off. The store is suddenly devoid of any and all help. It's their fault, and now you know why. Dealing with a panic-stricken maniac wasn't in their job description. Break time!
The other sort of person in a hardware store on a Thursday night is the complete opposite and just as maddening. They're there because that's about all they could think of to do on a Thursday night. It's their idea of a Big Night Out. Sad, isn't it? Don't laugh, we've all been there. Ray, technically, falls into that second group tonight. He didn't have to be there. There was no great emergency over at the Meadows' house. He was just bored and trying to plan ahead. Maybe get a little jump on that big weekend project. No hurries, no worries. Drives the employees crazy. There must be a happy medium. There is: It's called Friday Night.
Ray went right for the plumbing aisle with a shopping cart and began to load up with PVC fittings, PVC cleaner and plastic pipe cement. He was mentally trying to tally up all the fittings he would need. Of course he'd be back. You can't do that in your head. Not with hardware store music playing in the background, anyway. Barbara went about her own little search, through the garden shop and on to home decorating. So much to see- so much she wanted to do. Where to start? While Barbara pondered tile and wallpaper borders, Ray was busy trying to figure out how to carry ten foot lengths of large diameter PVC pipe on a standard three foot long shopping cart. A precarious hobby at best. He was half way to the check out lanes when he remembered the cement. Had to get cement. Oh, boy. Dilemma City: To buy or not to buy, that was the question.
With a full cart and an unwieldy cargo, Ray had to decide: Check out now and come right back in? Or turn around now and rumble through the store like some weird plastic hook-and-ladder fire truck? For once, Ray made The Right Choice: He trundled that load right up to the check out counter and decided to go on through and come on back. Checked out and in the lot, Ray was faced with another Stupid Guy Problem: Ten foot sections of PVC pipe versus the standard American sedan. It did not have a ten foot interior. After a few minutes of window cranking and pipe wielding, Ray got the load of plastic pipes in the car. Now if only there were room for Barbara. This was going to be tricky. She probably wouldn't want to ride on the roof, even on a nice, warm summer night like this. And the trunk was right out. Oh, boy: Another dilemma.
Unbeknownst to good ol' Ray, he wasn't going to be able to sneak anything past Barbara. Not that this situation would be any different from the rest of his life. She was usually two steps ahead and always had a better view. But he really wanted to figure out how to get her home inside the car before she saw that there might be a problem in the area of human conveyance. Too late. From her vantage point in the garden shop, she had seen the whole thing. It had been like watching a silent movie in color: Here comes the star- probably Chaplin- with a huge load of something to stuff in a very small cart. It won't fit. He tries another way. It still won't fit. He tries a third way and the cart falls over and the something spills out everywhere. Everybody laughs. He scratches his head, picks it all up and stuffs it all back in. Now it fits but the cart's about to burst. Then it hits him: Where's he going to ride? No room in the inn and the manger smells like a barn. Looks like he's going to have to walk alongside the cart as he follows the horse home. Except, of course, the horse gets excited and breaks into a trot, leaving our hero running for all he's worth at the other end of the reins. Ah, sweet comedy. Barbara has watched all this with great mirth. Poor Ray. She really should go out there and help him. Or maybe just stay here and watch. Looks like he's finally got it. Now what? What's he looking for? Barbara decided it was time for her to go hide in home decorating before he looked up and saw her.
Ray still hadn't come up with the answer of where to put Barbara when he did remember one thing: He still had to go back in and buy cement. He rounded up the shopping cart and pushed it back into the store, continually looking back at the car. It was filled to the roof with pipes sticking out of the front passenger's window. The drive home was going to be interesting, even without Barbara. He could call her a taxi. Yeah, that's it. Geez, Ray. How insulting. How about she drives and you walk home? It would serve you right.
Out in the fence post, stone and cement area behind the garden shop, Ray was faced with sacks of cement. Which ones? How many? With or without the little gravel stuff? Ray priced this sack, that sack and that sack over there. He stood around looking at those bags like they actually made sense to him. Then he did what ever red-blooded home fix-it guy does: He bought three bags of the cheap stuff instead of two bags of the pricy brand. You just can't argue with volume. He was so absorbed in the selection, he never saw Barbara walk up behind him. Never sneak up on a man in a hardware store. It's just good common sense. Unless you mean to have a little fun scaring him. She did.
"Hi, there!"
"WHAT?? Did I scare you?"
"Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Why? It's so much fun."
"Not in a hardware store, it's not."
"Why not?"
"'Cause it's a hardware store! If a guy can't feel safe here, he's not safe anywhere."
"A guy thing?"
"Uh . . . . yeah. I guess. Just please, no more surprises."
"I won't if you won't."
"Ok- I, uh- ok. "
"What's the matter, Ray?"
"Nothing- just buying some cement here. Thee bags should just about do it, don't you think?"
"Oh, sure. Three bags full. What about all the plastic pipes and stuff?"
Ray started to feel unnecessarily smug- before he could stop himself.
"Already got it- out in the car."
"And it all fit? I'm impressed."
Barbara decided to play the innocent bystander for just a little while longer. It was fun to watch Ray squirm. And so easy, too.
"Well, yeah- sort of."
"It sort of fit? Did it fit or didn't it?"
"It did. Almost everything did."
"What didn't?"
"What's that? Didn't quite catch that, Ray."
"Ah, well, you see- the pipe fit. All of it fit in the car, but there's sort of a little kind of a problem."
"And what would that be?"
"I'm not sure there's room for both of us in the car now."
"Only room for the driver up front, eh?"
"Yeah, that's kind of what it looks like."
"No problem, O sturdy husband of mine."
"It isn't?"
"Of course not- it's a nice warm evening. The walk will do you good."
"You might even find a pick-up truck on the way home."
"Oh, um… ok… yeah, you're right. I might."
Barbara let her husband, however sturdy he might be, stew in those juices for a few minutes while they went ahead and checked out with the bags of cement. She purchased a fresh pair of gardening gloves and an odd plastic garden trowel. One of those new one-piece items made from recycled milk jugs and soda bottles. It had an odd swirled color to it, but looked heavy enough to last for years. Only one way to find out: It was a cheap enough test. She waited until they were standing right at the car before she pointed out the obvious to Ray.
"Ok, so you've got all the pipes going out that front window."
"That seemed like the best way."
"Looks like the only way. What's all this stuff in the back seat?"
"Joint fittings, PVC cleaner, plastic pipe cement- stuff like that."
"And couldn't stuff like that go on the front seat- under those pipes? Maybe even on the front floor?"
Ray brightened considerable. This might work after all.
"Yeah it could- but what about all this cement?"
"Is the trunk full?"
"Ah, no. The trunk is not full."
"So we could- in theory at least- put those dusty leaky bags of cement in the trunk, right? We haven't lost the keys to the trunk, have we?"
Barbara made no attempt to hide her smile while Ray was fast going from feeling bright to feeling stupid. It was a short trip.
"Ok, Missus Einstein, we could put the cement in the trunk and the fittings in the front and you can ride in the back seat."
"Not good enough."
Ray went from stupid to dumbstruck. This mind trip had more stops than a city bus.
"What? Why?"
"I solved the puzzle, I get the prize. You ride in the back and I'll drive."
"Fair enough. I know when I'm beat."
Ray loaded the cement in the trunk and climbed into the back seat as Barbara moved the bags of pipe fittings to the front and settled in behind the wheel.
"Relax, this'll give you a chance to look for trucks."
"In the dark?"
"I thought men could smell trucks."
"Oh yeah, I forgot. Sure."
The ride home was uneventful, but weird. Neither Barbara or Ray could remember ever having to sit like this- one in the front and one in the back. They had always been side by side. Joined at the hip, but we won't speak of that here. It was an odd ride for both of them. In the darkness and odd seating arrangement, Ray made no attempt to look for trucks. He didn't even sniff the air once, just to make Barbara happy. For her part, Barbara was a great driver- Ray really never worried about her driving. Some husbands panic when the wife takes the wheel. Not Ray. Happy to let her do it. More power to her. She wheeled the car down those side streets in the dark and never once clipped off the four feet of plastic pipes sticking out the right side. Not even close. Even missed the jogger. She wheeled the big car up into the drive and had it shut down and turned off before Ray knew they were home. Riding in an odd seat can be very distracting.
Ray hopped out, opened the garage door and turned on what lights he could to make the unloading go easier. The neighborhood was quiet, so neither of them felt inclined to make much noise. Ray got the wheelbarrow out and loaded the bags of cement from the trunk in that. He was able to keep everything nice and quiet- right up to that first turn. With all that weight, the barrow took an unexpected dive to the side in the turn and hit the driveway with a loud ringing clang of steel. So much for a nice quiet neighbor hood. Ray looked around like a thief watching the porch lights come on all around them. Barbara was holding a nice quiet bag of plastic pipe fittings. Lucky her.
"Hey- smooth move. I think my ears are ringing."
"Sorry. It got away from me."
"I guess. So much for stealth."
"Yeah. Oh well. Fun while it lasted."
Ray sat the wheelbarrow upright on the drive and reloaded the cement- carefully this time and further back by the handles. Barbara put the fittings down in the garage and came back out to start unloading the long PVC pipes. The cement, still in that noisy wheelbarrow, ended up in the back of the garage by the wall. Ray knew he wouldn't need to get to it for a couple of days. It would be plastic pipes and fittings first. Then fill them with the cement Saturday evening. The pipes were laid along the side wall and there was still room to get the car in the garage. By Saturday night, there might not be. If that cage took up too much room- and Ray suspected that it would- the car would have to stay outside for awhile. How long? Until they caught something? Or just gave up? And then what would they do with the cage? Make a heck of a bird feeder.
With the cargo stashed and the car put away, Ray made one trip to the basement to round up a few basic tools. He had no intention of starting the assembly that night, but he wanted his tools out there for tomorrow, when the real work began. A saw, file, tape measure and some markers found themselves out of the basement and on a small bench in the garage for the first time in years. What else would he need? Like the hardware store, Ray Meadows knew that any job not being done in the basement would always require a minimum of three trips back to the basement for additional tools. Always. Ok, that was trip one. He could relax for the rest of the night. What there was left of it.
Friday morning shone upon one sore Ray Meadows. He wasn't an outdoor guy, and he wasn't really much of a physical guy, either. That little bit of lifting and hauling the night before left him hurting- especially in the shoulders. Most of his aches and pains could be traced back to that runaway wheelbarrow full of cement. Never try to stop it, just let it fall. Ray didn't know that. He tried and fail and ended up sore to boot. He went through his Friday morning routine without the usual Friday gleam in his eye. May as well be Thursday again, Ray. Barbara tried to cheer him up, but could see he was walking a little stiffly down those stairs. Poor guy.
It was D-Day at the Granville Corporation. Ray Meadows had a joke to finish before noon. Way before noon. His first order of business was to leave a message with J. P.'s secretary- he needed confirmation on J. P.'s name on that letter as early as possible. From his office, Ray made his way before eight o'clock down to Paul Scoggins area in the basement. Better to make sure all your ducks are lined up.
Once again, Ray almost blew his own joke- almost walked out of his office without that silly little white paper mask. This close, Ray, this close. Paul's area was curiously devoid of anything to do with the "untenting". One cool operator, that Paul. A serious prank contender. Both Ray and Paul knew that at this point in the joke, the only thing left was the punch line. It needed to be delivered, with or without J.P.'s name, some time between the morning break (about ten) and any early lunches about eleven thirty.
Ray was hoping to punch the SEND button on that particular piece of e-mail at precisely ten thirty. It would be lost in the system for up to fifteen minutes before the main computer started spitting it out to all those electronic mail boxes. By eleven o'clock it should have been delivered, and some people should have already started reading. From there it would be a ripple effect. Or rather, a tidal wave effect. All in theory, of course.
By the time Ray and Paul hashed out the final details of The Big Finish, Ray's answer was waiting for him in his office: J. P.'s name could be added to the letter. Go for it. Ray called up the letter's file and had one last look as he added the C.E.O.'s name to the two already at the bottom. Not bad: One typo, two spacing errors and about three commas too many. Within thirty seconds all was fixed, the file saved and the letter was ready. Nothing to do now but wait. And maybe do a little work. There's a thought.
Outside his own office, Ray still had to wear that mask. Everyone else was. The whole thing had gone from silly to serious to really, really annoying. He was very glad that hadn't settled on making this a week long prank. He, for one, couldn't have lasted that long. Three days was more than about it. Ray made his rounds, fixing hardware here and software there. Some programming changes needed to be made on one of the upper floors and someone on the first floor forgot their own password. It happens. Ray looked down at his watch and couldn't believe it: Ten forty. He was in the wrong office on the wrong floor and ten minutes late for his own joke.
Stay calm, Ray- keep cool. Just fix this password glitch and get yourself out of there. He kept his cool until he was out of that office and made a mad dash for the stairs. No time to play wait for the elevator. He took the stairs two at a time and was in his office, door closed and mask off, by ten forty five. Screen saver off, e-mail on and letter up. Snag that major employee grouping- like everybody in the whole building- and hit the send button. No hesitation, no ceremony. Too late for all that. That ridiculous hour glass started its spin on the screen. Now the last question: Where should Ray Meadows be when all this brown and squishy hits the revolving blades? He knew he had ten minutes to be somewhere. Where? Ray took his cues from all those hardware store employees: When faced with a panicked customer, take a break. Ray left his office bound for the lunchroom. Mask still in place, for now.
Ray cruised through the food line and picked up a ham sandwich, a bag of chips (Bar-B-Qued) and an ice tea. A big snack for a mid-morning break, but it would give him something to do until the letter was read by one and all. Ray picked out a table far from the door and out of the normal line of sight. Then he got brave. He took off his mask, put it on the table and started in on the sandwich. He could hear the mumbling and muttering from the kitchen staff- still behind their masks. What was this guy up to? Was he nuts? It never had dawned on any of them in there that they had spent the last three days preparing food in that "poisonous" atmosphere and were letting the food sit out unprotected. If the air was bad, wouldn't the food have been bad as well? Never occurred to them. Very few ex-NASA types in the industrial food service field these days. Ray was enjoying his sandwich, chips and cold drink when the first unmasked employee came through the doors shaking his head in disbelief. He didn't see Ray over in the corner. Neither did the next one through the door or the one after that. What started as a trickle of employees into the lunchroom turned into a flood of people by eleven o'clock. And for some bizarre reason, they were all hungry.
What is it about the end of a tense situation that makes every one think the same thing: "Say- Whatcha got to eat around here?" Whether it's the end of a war, the end of the year or the end of a really bad date- it was time to munch. The human response to the removal of tension: Calories, and lots of them. Before Ray could finish his big snack and/or early lunch, the lunchroom was mobbed with loud hungry people. And more than a few of them found Ray Meadows, the perpetrator in residence. At least they weren't mad. He had timed that much of the joke just right. By the third day, they were all quite relieved to be done with it. Timing was indeed everything.
Paul Scoggins, who normally ate his own quiet lunch at his desk in the basement, was also drawn like a moth to the flame of food in the lunchroom. So maybe it was more than food? Maybe it had something to do with everybody munching out together? Maybe so. That would explain a lot about our society and the commercial success of franchised restaurants. Either way, Paul walked in and found Ray to be the center of attention- until that center saw Paul. With a sudden shift of enthusiasm, the crowd circled Paul and Paul didn't really care for it. He was still too used to being by himself down in that basement- Never seeing more than a few other employees at a time. And never all of them at once, so up close and personal. Ray could easily see that Paul was having a tough time with crowd control. Time to make that save of the day. Ray reached in and pulled Paul out of the crowd. With one hand firmly on Paul's shoulder, he directed his recently indicted co-conspirator out the lunchroom door and down the hall to-where? He wasn't sure just yet. But out of there.
By the time Ray slowed down with Paul still in tow, they found themselves down the hall, out the door and standing outside facing the parking lot. Ray decided he must be taking Paul to lunch, in spite of the fact that he had just eaten. Still hungry. Let's eat again. Paul wasn't about to argue, but did request that they go far enough out to miss the bulk of the Granville employees that did go out for lunch that day. Easy enough for Ray. They found his car and pointed it up on the expressway. In fifteen minutes they were closer to Ray's house than they were to work. Halfway there, Ray settled on Monty's, the Italian restaurant not far from home. Worked for dinner- must work for lunch. Maybe this time Jake Jacobson wouldn't be there.
The restaurant had a small crowd for lunch that day. It was never as packed as those downtown establishments that are standing room only and two hundred decibels from eleven to two every day. They got in, they sat down and got served. Can't ask for more than that. Paul was starting to look a little better. Not quite the deer in the headlights. Ray had to look after his friend.
"You ok?"
"Yeah, I guess. It just all caught me by surprised when I walked in there."
"I know the feeling."
"I mean, I only came in to get a quiet something to eat before lunch. I got hungry and thought it seemed like a good idea."
"Everybody else did, too."
"So I gathered. Were they all in there waiting for you?"
"No, no. Not at all. I got there first. I sent the letter and thought I might like to get a little something before lunch. I was halfway through my sandwich when the people starting wandering in."
"And then?"
"And then the flood gates opened up and every employee in Tower One decided they were hungry. Weird, huh?"
"Yeah, very. So how do you think the whole thing went?"
Ray pondered that one for a moment. How did this one go?
"I think it went well. We got everyone to wear a stupid mask for three days, we terrified the C.E.O. and we got him in on the punch line to cover our sorry backsides in case no one thought it was funny. I think it went very well."
"So what do we win? Do we win?"
"I have no idea. I can't remember if J. P. even committed to any sort of prizes or anything. The whole thing was just to stir everyone up about and shake off the summer doldrums. Get people talking and moving."
"Which it did- but money would be nice."
"We weren't tarred and feather- that's nice, too."
"Ok, yes, that's a plus."
With the arrival of the day's real lunch- two heaping plates of double-meat, double-cheese lasagna and a huge pile of garlic bread, Ray took the ensuing silence of feeding to change the subject. Just as soon as he could get his mouth empty.
"So listen, Paul, I've been thinking about buying an old truck."
Paul had not bother to wait for that empty mouth opportunity to respond to Ray's opening statement. Could you tell? Luckily, Ray had not yet stuffed another major portion of pasta in his own mouth before he could respond to this.
"Excuse me? In English that would be what?"
"What did you have in mind? What kind of truck are you looking for?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe an old pick up truck. Just sort of a second car for Barb and I."
"That's true, you do have only the one car. How do you do it?"
"Easy- Just never bought another one."
"What do you think about pick ups? What should I look for?"
"Full size or small?"
"What's the difference?"
"The big ones get lousy gas mileage and the small ones don't hold enough."
Ray thought about that one. Paul sure knew his trucks.
"How about a big truck with a small engine?"
"Tough to find. Most of them come with big honking V8's. It's like nobody wants a slow truck any more. Or one that gets more than about ten miles to the gallon."
"Ouch. You're kidding, right?"
"I don't know. I sure don't need a lot of power to just noodle around town at thirty miles an hour."
"Then why do you need a truck at all? Why not get a small Japanese car? Great mileage and they last forever."
Ray almost blurted out why he needed that truck. Almost told Paul what he was going to start building in his very own garage that night after work: A cage for tree climbing aliens. But he didn't. Something held him back, for now. Discretion or fear. Pick one.
"I'd like something I could use to haul yard stuff in- maybe pick up a load of dirt or mulch, timbers and stuff."
"Yeah, they sure do come in handy."
"So what do you recommend?"
"You might want to look for an older full size truck. Sometimes you can still find one with a six cylinder engine. They aren't too bad on gas, but most of those older sixes were used in construction and pretty much beat to death. They can be kind of rough."
"Not a problem. Any leads I could follow?"
"You might try Smithfield Motors over on the north side of town. They're right by the Interstate and specialize in commercial trucks. They should have something."
"I'll have to check them out. Maybe this weekend."
"Why the rush? If you need a truck for anything, you can always use mine. Gets great mileage."
Lunch had gone well, and they were only a little late getting back to work. Lucky for them no one had missed them- but every one was looking for them. The letter Ray had e-mailed before lunch had done its job well- Those odd little white paper masks were nowhere to be found, except in trash cans throughout the building. People were indeed much happier that Friday afternoon. It had been a good joke, and even better now that it was over. Both Ray and Paul found tons of congratulatory notes on their desks and in their e-mail. Including a very nice one from J. P. Granville. So all went well. No mention had been made of any prize, but Ray didn't mind. It was the thrill of the chase- such as it was- that he went for. Paul, however, was still wondering about the cash. And oddly enough, no one ever figured out where all those fake fish had come from. Or where they all went, for that matter.
That afternoon saw Ray Meadows trying to do some real work, and being thwarted at every turn be well-wishers and fellow pranksters wanting to know all the finite details of the job well done. He got a little bit done, but he could see now that Monday was going to be a bear. Ray considered, but only for a moment, staying late that Friday night just to get some of the smaller jobs out of the way. But it was Friday night, and he was out of there at five like every one else. So much for the best of intentions. Besides, what would he tell Barbara?
Friday night traffic in any major metro area is not a passive spectator sport. It's more like a game of football where every player weighs about two tons and there's no time outs. So it was south of Indianapolis, where Ray Meadows was busy making that blessed transition from work to home on a Friday night. Rush Hour Traffic. In capital letters. Hard to believe anything moving that slow can be that frantic, let alone actually be called “rush hour”. Stuck in the crawling bumper to bumper metal soup on the Expressway (now there's a laughable term tonight), Ray had plenty of time on the way home to think his way through his weekend project: The Cage. By the time he got off the elevated road and back down on the surface streets, he had his plan.
He'd cut all the pipes he'd need first. All of them. Then he'd finish off the ends, smoothing them and making sure every piece was the right length. Next, each piece and each joint would be cleaned and primed for the cement and assembly. He'd bin the parts by size and shape. Did he have enough empty boxes lying around to do that? Hmmm. Have to check that one. After that, it would be a simple job of slapping pieces into joints. Cut the pipes tonight, and maybe smooth the ends as well. That would give him a chance to clean up all the plastic grit and dust tonight and do the priming and gluing in a clean environment Saturday morning. Good idea, Ray. By the time he pulled up into the driveway, he was a man with a plan. And this time, it was one that just might work.
Dinner that Friday night was an experiment in salad. Must have been time to clean out the 'fridge and too hot to cook. Ray sat down face to face with what could have been a triple meat beef, chicken and shrimp extra vegetable taco salad- without the big tortilla shell bowl. What this salad lacked in definition in more than made up for with sheer bulk. This was one big salad. There would be no quick meal and out the door tonight, Ray. Sit down and eat. All of it, or no dessert. Like there's going to be room for dessert. Ray dug in and the more he eat, the more he liked it. What ever it was. The chilled dinner rolls offered an odd surprise: Barbara had stuffed some butter in them and microwaved them just enough to melt the butter inside without warming the rolls on the outside. Weird. Kind of a really cheap baked Alaska. Good, though.
After an hour at the trough, Ray mopped up the last of the salad dressing with the last of the rolls. He was stuffed. So much for the quick jump up and out the door. All he could do was sit there, eyes bulging and belt undone. It had been a very good meal. And maybe in a week or so he'd be able to stand up and leave the table under his own power.
He was away from the table in less than a week. He had to be. Things to do, places to go. Like the garage. After just a few minutes in quiet contemplation of the virtues of moderation, Ray Meadows forced himself up on his hind legs and out the door. The garage awaits. Barbara had the kitchen cleaned before Ray was out the door. For all its size, a dinner salad doesn't leave much of a trail of dirty pots and pans through the kitchen on its way to the table. An easy night. Barbara watched Ray open the garage door, and could see the ends of those white plastic pipes poking out into the driveway. Ray was going to be a busy boy tonight. She could relax and maybe read a little before the inevitable TV.
Out in the garage, this project started the way every project started: Ray was sweeping the floor. It's always a good idea to start with a clean floor. You know you're going to drop stuff, may as well make it welcome. After a reasonably thorough brooming, Ray had a PVC pipe balanced precariously across a bench entirely too small for the job. This had been the original work bench back when they bought the house. At the time, it seemed huge. He thought he could tackle any job on a bench this size. It was big until suddenly one day it was small. Ray's field of operations moved to the basement, where he built a much larger work bench. The basement offered some great advantages: Mainly, it wasn't in the garage. Warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer and it almost never rained in the basement. The lighting was certainly better at night. The only drawback? He couldn't (or rather, he shouldn't) build anything bigger than the basement door. Best of all: No neighbors to walk in on you while you were working. Not without considerable warning, anyway. Out in the garage you never knew who might be sneaking up on you while you worked. Like Jake Jacobson, for instance. Like right now.
"Hey, Ray-boy! Whatcha working on?"
Oh, boy. Here we go. Ray knew the truth had its place in life, and this wasn't it. Feeling very much like a large green Chuck Jones drawing, he knew he'd have to think up a lie and think it up quick. He did:
"Hydroponics, Jake."
"Say what?"
"Hydroponics. Saw it on the Disney Channel. Growing plants without dirt."
"Ok. How?"
"Simple: Just put the plants in these pipes here and dribble water over the roots. All the nutrients and fertilizers go in the water and the plant gets everything it needs without needing the dirt. Fewer bugs, too."
"And you plant these pipes in the ground?"
"No, no, no. Stay with me here, Jake: the pipes are above ground. The whole idea here is to grow plants without dirt. Hy-dro-pon-ics."
"So you said. Does it really work?"
"I guess so. Saw a big special about it on TV the other night. They showed a bunch of plants at thing in EPCOT down near Orlando. They had some sort of big dirtless greenhouse with boats floating through it. Big plants everywhere growing like this. Thought I'd give it a try."
"Where you going to put all this?"
"Oh, probably out along the side of the garage here."
"Only if it works."
By now, Ray was thinking that maybe he'd be better off if he really was making a hydroponics rack. Sounded much safer for all concerned. Especially for him. Jake walked around the project, in and out of the garage. Ray was grinning from ear to ear. The more he looked around, the more pleased he was with his own lie. Man, it was a whopper. But a good whopper, and it worked. Jake had no idea that he wasn't looking at what he was looking at. Hydroponics? That was real enough. And if you ever find yourself in EPCOT, go for the boat ride in The Land. It's all there, and Ray Meadows may indeed have seen it on the Disney Channel. He just couldn't remember when. But he didn't make it up, exactly- It just wasn't what he was doing. The Grinch would have been proud. Now all Ray had to do was give little Cindy Lu Jake a glass of milk and send him on his way. Say, not a bad idea. Might work. Ray gave it a go.
"So- Jake, you want a glass of milk?"
"What are you on, some sort of health kick?"
"Yeah, kind of. Barb has us eating lighter in the Summer. I feel better. So: skim milk?"
Jake started back pedaling for the door, looking for a way out. Skim milk? Jake? Not very likely. Not in his lifetime, anyway.
"Nah, I've got to be going. Just thought I'd stop by and say hi."
"Let me know how this thing works out, will you?"
"Oh, yeah, I'll let you know."
Jake found the door and the driveway and made his way out of there without once looking back. Skim milk? Ray's drinking skim milk? Has he no sense of male decency? Jake was stunned. He made a mental note to not go wandering back up that driveway until he saw Ray drinking something out of a can. Anything.
By eleven o'clock on that warm Friday night, Ray Meadows had all of his pipes cut and the cut edges smooth and ready. He made a half-hearted look around the garage for boxes- he'd need those first thing in the morning. No luck. There were one or two, but they were torn, oil stained and filthy dirty. They wouldn't do it all. All this PVC stuff was shiny white and brand new. No need to get them grungy before he tried to glue them together. Ray gave up for the night and had the lights off and the door closed by eleven thirty. Not a bad night. Maybe a little TV and he'd be ready for bed. Then again, he thought as walked across the yard for the kitchen door, maybe he'd just get cleaned up and hit the sack. Lots to do tomorrow. The yard lights clicked on at his approach, dutifully lighting the way and keeping the creatures of the night at bay. If there were any out there. Ray was too tired to care. It would be tomorrow soon enough.
Inside the house, Barbara had given up on the TV in the living room and gone upstairs to watch the Friday night late show from the comfort of being snug in bed. It was almost the national pastime, and with good reason: The price was right, the food was better and no one ever went out on strike. Ray wandered into the bedroom to find his wife sitting up in bed, pointing and laughing at the TV screen across the room. One look at the screen told him all he needed to know: A wild night in a TV studio in L.A. meant a late night here in the suburbs of Indy. Oh, well. He could always sleep in.

To Be Continued.....

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Copyright 1996,2010 Chip Haynes