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This blog was created during a momentary lapse, a period when I'm stuck in my writing and trying to jog something loose in my brain or push myself so close to deadline that I can kill, without remorse, the beloved opening or headline or quote that is keeping me from moving forward. Most of my posts here will have to do with writing, including occasional Favorite Writing Quotes (FWQs). Please share yours, and your comments, too.
DOUBLE TAKEWe were about five seconds away from being arrested and all I could think about was how sexy Dillon looked in lederhosen. Not many men, not Americans anyway, could carry off those leather shorts with the embroidered suspenders and fancy strap across the chest, not to mention the knee socks, but my guy was one of them.
Mulroney’s tongue swirled against his own molars. He still had the full set, with three Army-issue fillings courtesy of a bored dentist in Panmunjong, just before the armistice in ’53.
“You know the first thing I ate when I got that sucker out?”
“Sir?” Mulroney cocked an eyebrow.
“Peanuts, out at Griffith Stadium. The rookie, Killibrew, hit a homer, but what I remember most is the crunch of those roasted ballpark peanuts.” Witte laughed. “That’s how I cracked the damn tooth. But if you asked me then, is it worth it? I’d say, ‘Hell, yes, and toss me another bag of peanuts!’”
Witte slapped his fingers against the arms of the dental chair. With the linen towel clipped to the chain around his neck, he looked like a middle-aged tyke about to be force-fed his Malt-o-Meal. “Get that dentist, Mulroney. I’ve decoded microfilm in less time than he’s taking with those X-Rays.”
“You know I can’t leave you, sir.” The man was nervous, Mulroney realized. Witte was a legend who’d spent ten years spying on the Nazis and behind the Iron Curtain. The Reds thought he was their double-agent in D.C. But the guy was anxious over a routine dental procedure.
“National security? Screw that!” Witte snorted. “I won’t be out of it. No laughing gas, no ether. Just a local painkiller.”
“If things go as planned, sir, that’s true.”
“This is bullshit. I’ve got no secrets left to spill.”
“It’s procedure, sir.”
Witte resumed the hand-slapping, a complicated rhythm that reminded Mulroney of a heavy bombardment or an old western cavalry charge.
Swift footsteps approached the doorway. Mulroney thrust his hand through the slit of his leather bomber jacket and grasped the butt of his automatic. He’d cut the pocket away when he jumped from the service to the civilian-run CIA. He drew back just enough to feel the slide of metal against polished leather.
The dental assistant, a large-boned woman in starched white uniform and cap, carried in a covered tray as if she were serving hors d’oeuvres at the Officer’s Club. Mulroney nestled the weapon back into the holster and dropped his hand to his side.
“Dr. Malcolm will be with you shortly,” she told Witte with a crease of the lips that served as a smile. She set the tray on a metal table and wheeled it next to Witte’s chair. Water swirled in the porcelain spit bowl on the other side, and the rest of the room was dominated by a squat column sprouting dental appliances like so many misshapen branches. The assistant side-stepped Mulroney and left the room.
Witte lifted the towel off the tray of instruments. He selected what looked like a small pliers and worked the jaws open and closed. “You ever have a tooth pulled?”
“Once, sir, yes.”
“Hurts like a bitch, doesn’t it?"
“It was half out anyway.” Mulroney allowed himself a slight smile. “Took a real bastard of a punch to loosen it up, though.”
Witte seemed not to have heard. “The Nazis pulled the teeth from the corpses. In the camps. They wanted the gold fillings, of course. One of my guards in Lefortovo was with the Soviet army at Auschwitz. He carried dice made from Jewish molars.”
Mulroney twirled his tongue over his back teeth. They were all still there.
Witte picked up another instrument, bent at the end with a thin point. “This one is for picking and scraping at the teeth. On a healthy tooth is one thing, but you dig this point into a soft spot…”
Mulroney cringed, remembering the probing and drilling by the Army dentist in Korea.
Witte tossed the instruments back on the tray. He started the rhythmic slapping again.
“I could take the beatings.”
Mulroney said nothing.
“I could take the stinking prison and the bad food and no sleep. I took the darkness.” Witte’s fingers curved into his palms, hard enough to leave nail marks. “More than a year without light, without another human voice. Alone. I took it.”
“I know, sir.”
“But you’re thinking, why couldn’t I take the rest? You could take it, right? You’re tough.” Witte shook his head. “You’ve got no imagination.”
Mulroney’s jacket seemed too tight, his body too warm in the cramped room full of picks and probes and drills. The chair looked like it ought to have restraints, binding Witte in place. Mulroney pulled down on his jacket, felt the weight of the pistol on his hip.
“You took their money, sir.” Not much, Mulroney knew. Not enough to blow the story of rescue and escape back to the West. Not enough for a big house and fancy car, a glamorous woman or expensive vices. Just enough for the occasional ballgame and a bag of roasted peanuts.
“Don’t kid yourself.” Witte stared at the dental lamps, hanging over him like two dead eyes. “It was never the money.”
Mulroney squared his shoulders. “It’s not what you took, sir. It’s what you gave them.”
Witte drummed on the armrests. “I lied about the cyanide capsule. It makes a good story, but back then? I never had such a thing, no way to end it, anytime.”
He flashed Mulroney a sad, secret smile. “This is not a filling, Mulroney.”
Witte laughed, and Mulroney glimpsed the spymaster still operating inside the disgraced and humbled shell. “A little drilling to hollow out the tooth, then they pop in the capsule and a rubber plug. I hear it’s quick. Ten grains, two minutes.”
“I wouldn’t know, sir.” And Mulroney was damned if he’d let any government dentist near his molars again.
“That was my price.” Witte drummed on the armrests. “I’ll play this double game for them, but if I’m compromised again?”
Witte clenched his teeth.
# # #
This story was originally written as my first assignment in the NYCMidnight Writers short-short competition. My group had to write a 1,000-word max story in two days with a designated Genre (open), Primary Location (rooftop of a skyscraper) and Object to include in the story (video camera).
I decided to take advantage of the Open Genre to try something more artsy-craftsy than my usual style. I spent much too much time on the opening (and had to cut most of it), then had to rush the ending. The result was a total head-scratcher.
I liked enough about the story to work at it, though. This is the revised version. Enjoy.
Summary: When a celebrity platypus comes to call, Craig and Miriam find the best view from the tallest building in New England is from the outside looking in.
Craig leaned on the parapet of the John Hancock Tower, arms wrapped around Portia, his wind-chapped features creased in an idiotic smile. Miriam panned left, filling the frame over his shoulder with a clutch of sailboats bobbing and weaving on the Charles.
“Did you get it?” Craig shouted over the roar of the rooftop ventilation units.
“I didn’t get much of Portia,” she screamed. “You’re too close.”
He stepped back half-a-step and Miriam zoomed in on the stuffed platypus—taxidermically-stuffed, not some plush cuddle toy—framed against the view across the river to Cambridge. Portia’s broad front feet, webbed between the curved claws, rested on the parapet. Her duck-billed snout pointed to the Great Dome of MIT.
“Got it!” Miriam slipped the camera into the pocket of her shoulder bag. “Now let’s get out of this blasted wind!”
Craig gathered up the platypus, belly-to-belly, one hand cradling the skull, the other cupped just above the tail. He followed Miriam across the roof to the relative shelter of the elevator shaft. She dropped down, knees raised, back to the wall. He eased down next to her. Portia’s glass eyes, spaced wide on either side of a duck-billed pout, glared at Miriam as if blaming her for the indignities of the past three days.
Portia the Exploring Platypus was a celebrity, a world-traveler with a website chronicling her jaunts around the globe by llama, pedicab and catamaran, jetpack, polar icebreaker and Humvee. The latest video showed Portia snowboarding in the Alps. (There was no record of her subsequent flight from Zurich to Boston, tucked under a seat in Craig’s carry-on tote, nesting on a pile of dirty shirts and boxers.)
“How much time do we have?” Craig draped the platypus across his lap, a position Miriam had yet to occupy after two week’s separation. “When does Frank have to lock up?”
Miriam’s cousin ran the Hancock’s maintenance crew, one of the few people with access to the highest rooftop in New England. They’d been up here before, and it had been her idea to pose Portia against the view in each direction.
“We’ve got till four, more than an hour. We got all the good stuff.”
“Let’s see.” Craig shifted closer to Miriam, his chin tucked against her collarbone as she flipped open the screen on the videocam.
She ran the tape from the beginning, a shot of them sitting on the floor of their cramped Brookline apartment, Craig waggling Portia’s front feet at the camera.
“Hello, this is Craig and Miriam from Boston,” he said. “And this is our famous friend, Portia the Exploring Platypus. She’s visiting us after a lovely holiday in the Swiss Alps with our friend Gerhard. Come with us as we go exploring with Portia.”
The shot cut to Craig holding Portia, the Hancock Tower looming in the background. “That’s our first stop,” he said. “We’re going 800 feet up to the top of the biggest freakin’ mirror in New England.”
Miriam paused the video. “You’ve definitely got a future in TV—sales.”
“Everyone’s a critic. Keep going.”
“Okay, here’s the first side, the northeast. There’s the State House in the distance...”
“Bo-ring. Nice and shiny, though, huh, Portia?”
“See, a little closer in, the Public Gardens? See through the trees?” Miriam pointed with her little fingernail. “That’s a swan boat.”
“I bet she’d love that.”
“Here’s the southeast...”
“The way to escape—planes, ships, trains and automobiles.” Craig wiggled his butt. “There’s a beach on Cape Cod, Portia, calling our names.”
“Speaking of escape…”
“Whoo-hoo! Fenway Park.” Craig boosted the platypus to the level of the video screen. “Hey, Portia, want to take in a game while you’re in town? Or look! Sailboats! That’s cool.”
Miriam froze the screen and lifted the camera closer to Craig. “You look goofy. Cuddling a platypus.”
“I’m not cuddling her, it.” He eased the platypus off his lap and took the camera from Miriam. He studied the image of himself, arms around Portia, gazing across the river. “You’re right. I look goofy.” He flipped the power switch and the screen went black.
“We’d better go.” Miriam rocked to her feet and for the first time sensed the tower swaying under her. She stared at her shoes till the rooftop stopped moving.
Craig stepped out from the shelter of the elevator shaft. His eyes swept the roofscape lined with mechanical hulks, bristling with coils and antennae, and crowned with a satellite dish. “It just hit me,” he said. “This is the view nobody ever sees. I’ll take the camera this time.”
Miriam held the platypus out stiff-armed against the backdrop of generators, ventilators and whatfors, the life system of the sleek façade. Then she turned sideways, cuddling Portia belly-to-belly, one hand cradling the back of her skull, the other cupped just above her tail.
“Craig!” she called. “You didn’t look goofy. You looked happy.”
“Yeah?” Craig crouched behind a capped pipe large enough to hold the camera. “Sit down against that square gray thing!” He crossed to her side. “I’ll take Portia.”
Miriam’s smile stiffened. She dangled the platypus by one paw. “If you want.”
“Don’t move.” Craig jogged back to the camera and propped Portia up on her hind feet against the pipe. The Record light flashed on.
This time, when Craig dropped down by her side, he pulled Miriam onto his lap. “I think I can cut back on my travel,” he said, smiling and waving at the camera. “The new guy’s ready.”
“That’s great.” Miriam waved at Portia. “I think I’m ready, too.”
There’s a new portrait on the website of Portia the Exploring Platypus. She’s hunkered down by a rooftop elevator shaft, in a pile of clothing, nesting.
# # #