Harold and Forest
During the summer of his junior year at Bucknell, Bert had been conscripted by his father, Dr.William Emmerling II, DVM, to spend his summer in a productive manner, cleaning up the farm. This was to be in lieu of his getting yet another of what his dad referred to as: dumbass-summer-jobs.
Bert was quick to accept what sounded like an easy summer of farting around, sweeping, having a beer, and watching a little TV. It had to be better than the year before when he’d sold Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door.
“Hello, my name is Bert.”
“Hi! I represent Electro….”
Play that ditty fifty times and you had a typical day selling vacuum cleaners.
On that particular morning however, Bert’s father had watched the weather and discovered that, not only was it going to be the hottest day of the summer, it just might break the record set back in 1896. This information triggered a knee-jerk response inside William Emmerling Sr.’s head.
“Let’s start with the attic,” William Sr. said, packing a wad of Captain Black into his pipe. He lit it and smiled benevolently at his son through the blue smoke. “Ya think you can handle it?”
Bert, who had just celebrated not being a teenager, didn’t pick up on the twinkle in his father’s eye.
“Stowin’ some boxes, sortin’ through some old crap, a little sweepin’. Yeah, I think that’s within my capabilities, Pop.”
“Fine,” William Sr. said.
“Fine,” Bert agreed.
Later on that afternoon, when the sweat was no longer dripping, but gushing in streams down his forehead, it occurred to Bert what the twinkle had been about. It was then, in the 128-degree attic that he swore two things: First, he would never let himself become a sadistic humorless old sonofabitch. Second, he would never, ever, ever become a vet.
For reasons unknown, those two proclamations came to mind as he opened the door to the waiting room. He peeked out and looked around, Nope, never gonna be a vet…you dumb sonofabitch.
“Okay, who’s next?” he asked, his voice deep and serious, his eyebrows knitted in a comfortable glower.
It was a small waiting room, with colonial chairs with brown and mustard cushions, and a cherry table with tattered fishing magazines strewn around. On the walls hung eight-by-ten photos of his cows. In the chairs sat a handful of utterly unrelated people holding a small assortment of animals. One woman sat with a large cardboard box that was making serious scratching sounds.
An elderly man with a Gordon setter cleared his throat. He looked at Bert and then nodded across the room at a little boy in a blue velour pullover sitting with a dachshund. The boy was keeping the dog erect, though with great difficulty.
“I’m next,” the man with the Gordon said. “But I think this young man needs to go first.”
Bert looked at the boy. “Okay, son. Looks like you’re next.”
Instead of putting the dog down on the floor, the boy carried it upright, like a vase that might spill at any moment. Bert held the door.
In the examining room, Bert’s voice changed. “Okay, so who’s your little buddy?”
“His name is Harold,” the boy said solemnly.
“Hello Harold,” Bert said, “and who are you?”
“My name is Forest.”
Under different circumstances, Bert would have indulged in a little word play. But Forest’s face was grim and, Forest, himself didn’t look terribly healthy. His hair was cut too short and he had dark circles under his eyes. He stared up at Bert, serious and unblinking.
Bert gently took the dog from him and put him up on the stainless-steel examining table.
“No,” the boy said. “He’s gotta stay upright.”
Bert immediately picked Harold’s front end up and cradled him. The dachshund began to shiver. Its round eyes became larger.
“Okay,” Bert said. “Tell me why he’s gotta stay upright.”
“He throws up if you put him down.”
“He throws up his food?”
“He throws up verything.”
Bert had had a dachshund when he was twelve. He knew how to hold them, so they wouldn’t hurt their backs. He knew where to rub the inside of their ears. But this one was scared shitless and shivered as if it were sitting in an icebox. The clinical side of Bert’s mind ran down the options. None of them were good.
“How long’s he been doing this?” Bert asked.
“A week,” Forest said. “Is he gonna…”
Bert had never been good at this. “We need more information,” he said, but he could feel his face flush. “There’s a little flap in the esophagus… in the throat,” he corrected. “Sometimes it gets damaged. It opens up when it’s not supposed to.”
“Can you fix it?” Forest asked.
A long moment passed. Forest’s eyes stared at him.
He was going to say, ‘It’s problematic’. “It’s…risky,” he said instead. “And even then, there’s no guarantee.” Harold had begun shivering so badly that Bert motioned the boy to come over and hold him again. “I can take some X-rays,” he said. “By the way, where are your parents?”
This was the first time the boy looked away. “My dad doesn’t like dogs,” he explained. “Harold is my responsibility.”
“I see.” The bell on the waiting room door jingled as another patient entered. “This might take a little while. Do you have to go home and do homework or something?”
“No,” Forest said. “I can stay. I can stay as long as it takes.”
The man with the Gordon was next. Forest and Harold sat in the X-ray room and waited. In between waiting on customers, Bert did as much as he could, prepping Harold and taking X-rays.
The lady with the cardboard box was next. Bert tried to keep things lighter and airier than usual. He knew Forest was listening. “And what do we have here?” Bert asked before attempting to open the box.
“It’s a squirrel,” the lady said. “I accidentally backed over him in the driveway.”
Bert listened to the box. It was quiet. He tapped the side of the box. It was still quiet. He motioned the woman out the side door with him.
When he returned, it was without the woman or the box. It was beginning to turn into one of those days that veterinarians hate…a losin’ day.
He managed to take Harold’s x-ray, though it was difficult with him shivering so much and he had to retake it twice.
The next patient was an older woman with a fat mutt that looked to be about her age in dog years. The dog had seen better days. It looked vaguely familiar, though.
“And who is this?” Bert asked.
“This is Queenie,” she said.
Queenie was large and Bert kneeled down on the floor for a pre-exam. Queenie was grey around the snout and missing some teeth. One eye was cataract blue and while he was petting her, Queenie let loose with a resounding fart that was bad enough that he had to open the back door. In the next room, Forest looked over, his eyes still fixed and serious.
“Ahhh, is Queenie having a little trouble with flatulence?” Bert asked, grinning, trying to retrieve the day.
“It’s become…unacceptable,” the woman said.
“What do you feed her?”
“It doesn’t matter. She’s become…a machine that generates bad smells. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to…”
Bert ruffled Queenie’s fur. The dog woofed and licked the air, trying to find a face or a hand to clean. “Well, she seems happy enough. She’s not in any pain.” Queenie began licking his hands.
“I’m in pain,” the woman said. She reached in her pocketbook and retrieved a checkbook. “How much?”
“Ma’am, I’m not in the business of…putting dogs down, just because they fart once in a while. What if some big creature wanted to put you down, just cuz you farted…or were nasty?”
“I’m not accustomed to being spoken to in that tone of voice,” the woman said.
“Really?” Bert said. “Now that’s a surprise. Out ya go,” he said, opening the side door. “Put your checkbook away. You can leave Queenie with me.”
He held the door for her and glared. When she was outside and going down the walkway to her car, he called behind her, “Don’t come back here. And don’t ever have a pet again. You don’t deserve one.”
The rest of the afternoon was, thankfully boring. Distemper shots and heartworm medicine, rabies shots, and a dog that had gotten a soup bone stuck in its upper palette. He had to use a pliers to get it out.
At the end of the day, Harold and Forest were still sitting glumly in the next room…waiting.
Bert came in with the new X-ray. “It’s not what I thought it was,” Bert said.
“Is that good?”
Forest had a peculiar way about him. It was more like talking to a grown-up than a child. “It’s…frustrating,” Bert said, his voice slightly different again.
Harold had been quiet most of the afternoon. Now, he became agitated and stamped his feet to get down. “He has to go,” Forest said.
Bert opened the door and Harold ran out. Twenty feet away, Harold circled once, twice, three times before going into his quarterback squat.
“Well, at least the rear end works okay,” Bert said, trying to find something, anything to cheer the boy up. Harold’s tail crimped downward like a fishhook as he relieved himself. He stared straight ahead. As soon as he finished, he took three steps and did a small dry heave.
“Hold on a sec,” Bert said. He walked over to the pile of dog poop and squatted down next to it. He removed a pencil from his shirt pocket and began pushing the poop around.
“What are you doing?” Forest asked.
“Just playing a long shot,” he replied, still moving the lumps back and forth.
“By any chance, do you play Scrabble?” he said, standing up.
“No.” Forest looked at him. “My mom does.”
Bert looked down at him. “Well, she’s missing a W and…it looks like a T.”
“Is that good?”
Bert looked at him. “Yeah. That’s very good.”
He looked like a chimp dressed in a business suit. Joe Kodesta, her potential future boss sat behind his desk, fiddling with the TV remote. It looked like at any moment he’d climb up on his chair and start throwing things.
“Be with you in two shakes,” he said, fiddling with the fast-forward.
“Two shakes,” Charlotte McKeon repeated. “I haven’t heard that since…” Her eyes rolled to the ceiling. Since I was two, she thought. You must be about fifty or a hundred.
Kodesta’s eyes reflected tiny images from the screen. “We’re almost there,” he said, jabbing the fast-forward again. His eyes darted to hers. “I’m not boring you, am I?”
Her eyes got suddenly round. “Oh—not a bit,” she said. “I didn’t take the red-eye all the way from Tucson to…”
“New Jersey,” Kodesta said. “It’s all right. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not a dirty word.”
Charlotte had prepared for this interview with surgical precision. She’d pulled her hair into a severe ponytail to look more studious and she wore the obligatory navy suit, with matching shoes and bag, though the hem seemed about four inches too short by Jersey standards. She pressed her knees tightly together to compensate, but it was cramping her thighs. Last, but not least…the make up. Weather girls were supposed to look wholesome, not lethal. Weather girls… her mind repeated, How ‘bout we all wear kilts, pom poms, and sweaters with smiley faces that say, I LOVE WEATHER! She tried to remember if she’d ever worn saddle shoes.
“Okay—here’s the part I want you to see,” Kodesta said. His eyes darted to hers. They were beady and twinkling…but intelligent, like the eyes of a nasty kid, who makes fart sounds in the back of the classroom…then aces the final.
Kodesta leaned back in his chair as the DVD flickered to life. Charlotte watched from the hot seat as a pretty young girl on the screen began doing the weather. It was impossible not to watch and compare. Perfectly streaked hair in three shades of blonde, and perfect teeth, so white they looked faintly blue on the screen. And the ear-to-ear smile, that made her look like she was capable of swallowing a cantaloupe or worse. She was every model who’d ever been on the cover of Elle… and blonde, her brain repeated. There must be something about all the peroxide. It must kill brain cells.
More seriously, the girl moved with robotic precision, pivoting, pointing out towns and temperatures on a blue-screen weather map that only the viewers could see.
This had proved to be Charlotte’s Achilles’ heel out in Tucson. More than once she mixed Arizona up with New Mexico. The switchboard went instantly to meltdown and she had to apologize to both states. Toward the end, she’d had enough. “C’mon everybody,” she said to the TV camera. “You’re two pink squares on the map. Okay…New Mexico has a little noogie on the bottom, but give me a break. The rest of the states think you’re a different country. C’mon…get a life!” This didn’t go over well with the New Mexicans.
Kodesta and Charlotte watched in silence, with only the weather girl’s voice softly effusing between them. Charlotte cleared her throat and examined her fingernails.
Kodesta seemed to sense the awkwardness of the situation as well. He gazed toward the ceiling and sniffed like a prizefighter. He yanked out the DVD and lobbed it Frisbee-style toward the trashcan. It hooked badly, hit the wall, and skittered under the filing cabinet.
“Crap,” he said with no inflection. It was hard to tell whether he was critiquing the blonde with the blue teeth or his throwing ability.
“Okay,” Kodesta said with renewed cheer, “I got two more I want ya to see. Then we talk. Okay?”
Charlotte stared down at her fingernail. There was a ragged spot on the corner of her thumbnail and she fought the urge to chew it off. “Sure.”
The next DVD was a perky oriental girl with straight jet-black hair and a non-stop smile. She wore a short black skirt and red silk top, that matched her lipstick. The only points off: too much eyeliner and she said everything with exactly the same smile. So solly… Big typhoon come…wash away ALL Manhattan…hee, hee, hee.
The third DVD was the Channel 5 gal from New York (national news and an extra zero in her income), red-haired and vivacious, with pearlescent coral lipstick and pale blue eyes that twinkled in the TV lights. Charlotte nibbled on her thumbnail and frowned. Contact lenses. That’s what’s making them twinkle.
She knew what was coming, of course. It was an old strategy: show off the creme-de-la-creme… make you lose your confidence, then come in with a low-ball offer. She could feel herself going stale and dark inside.
Kodesta yanked the last DVD out of the slot and Frisbeed them both toward the trashcan in one shot. In mid air the plastic disks parted company. The oriental girl with the pasted-on smile arrived first, hitting the edge of the can, and bouncing. For Kodesta’s sake, she hoped something would make it in the can. The oriental hit the rim, and went in. The New Yorker grazed the edge of the can and fell to the floor. The fluorescents buzzed in the ceiling. Something inside the DVD player whirred and went silent. She imagined a Simpson’s tumbleweed rolling slowly across the floor. It was all hopeless.
“Now, the first gal you saw,” Kodesta said, “is the gal I just canned. The other two are national. One is Amy Banks in New York. And the Chingy-Lingy is…”
“Lee Mitsuko,” Charlotte said, the flatness palpable in her voice. The Ice Queen.
Kodesta grinned. “That’s right. Only around here, we call her Chingy-Lingy.”
Charlotte’s eyes dilated as she stared at him. The sullen darkness inside her began to transform to a thin jabbing pain just behind her right eye. It felt like someone was jamming a knitting needle in it. “Chingy Lingy…”
“That’s right. Now I want you to listen up because I have kind of a trick question for you. Ya ready?”
“What? Oh, yeah sure…a trick question. I love trick questions.” She didn’t bother trying to hide the fact that she was pushing her knuckle into her eye to make the pain go away.
“Good. It’s in two parts. First— I’d like you to tell me in your most expert opinion what each of those three gals have in common. Second, and here’s the tricky part, I want you to tell me what was wrong with each of their performances.”
Something hiccupped inside her head. She hadn’t been expecting a pop-quiz. She’d been paying attention, but not that kind. Her focus had been on Kodesta, trying to decipher him and trying not to imagine him eating a banana and throwing his feces about the room. Her mind spooled up, replaying all three clips at high speed inside her head, trying to find something that all three had done wrong. Aw crap. As far as she could tell, they hadn’t done anything wrong. Their performances, at least at first glance, appeared flawless.
“Well…” Charlotte drawled, buying a little time. She looked at her thumbnail and fought the urge to suck on it. “Okay, Much as I hate to admit it…all three of them are fairly attractive.”
“Oh, c’mon,” Kodesta said. “Fairly attractive? You put a G-string on any one of em and they could model for Vicky’s Secret. C’mon, they’re gorgeous.”
Charlotte glared. She’d been right about him after all. He was a knuckle-dragging-feces-throwing-banana-eater. “And… They carried themselves well,” she continued. And yet, out of pride, her mind continued to race, waiting for something, anything to pop up to at least solve the riddle, and save a little face. “And I believe that all three of them did a good job cross-referencing from the monitor… good eye contact, they didn’t look at the map all that much.”
She could feel whatever scheme he was using beginning to tighten down and squeeze her like an invisible boa constrictor. Another ten seconds and she would downshift into her famous fuck-everything mode. It was Tucson all over again.
“I give up,” she sighed. “As far as I can see, all three were pretty much letter-perfect.” She could tell her eyes weren’t even trying to twinkle anymore. From an early age, her father had told her, ‘never play poker, Charlotte. I can read you like a book.’
Kodesta grinned a wide toothy grin. His teeth weren’t good. They were yellow and there were gaps between them. At least she wouldn’t have to look at them for the next five years. It was a cinch that whatever plot he had in mind, she was walking right into it. “I agree,” he said. “Now, answer me one more itty-bitty question. This one’s for the sixty-four bucks. Which one of those gals would you watch?”
The pain in her right eye had reached crescendo. Ginger Baker doing a paradiddle along the length of her optic nerve. “Oh… Good question,” she said on autopilot. She dabbed her eye with tip of her finger and pressed hard, trying to make the pain go away. “I guess if you put them all in G-strings, it probably won’t matter much.” She glanced at the TV as if the toothy trio were still there. “But then…Chingy-Lingy probably wouldn’t fair too well on account of her rather diminutive…” She stopped. She blinked and retrieved two aspirin tablets from her blazer. They were covered with lint. She wiped them off and popped them in her mouth.
“Am I giving you a headache?” Kodesta asked, his eyes appearing even smaller and closer together. Now he looked, not like a chimp, but an angry pig. She decided she liked the chimp better.
Charlotte glared at him. “No, just a touch of jet-lag.”
Kodesta scratched the top of his head, the one part that didn’t have any hair. “Okay, tell ya what,” he said. His voice sounded like he’d already won the war. “I’ll answer for you. How’s that?”
“…great,” she said, though it was more of a squawk.
Kodesta’s eyes noted the irony in her voice. “Okay—the answer is, there is no difference. They’re all more or less perfect. If you asked me which one I’d watch, personally, I’d have to say the red head. Mostly because her tits are bigger and she’s the one most guys would like to boink.” …another tumbleweed rolled past… Kodesta cleared his throat. “Uhmm…I should rephrase that. With the red head, there was a certain physical chemistry…”
Charlotte sighed. “Okay, her tits are bigger. Do you think we could cut to the chase?”
Kodesta relaxed back into his chair, seemingly content that he had accomplished whatever it was he’d wanted to accomplish. “The truth is, the big three all have a budget big enough to sink a battleship. In fact, a whole fleet of battleships. They can hire the most beautiful gals on the planet…and they do. So where does that leave me? What do I do? Do I try and compete and if I’m lucky, maybe end up a distant fourth? Be happy with the scraps? To tell ya the truth, I’ve been using that strategy for the last three years. Let me tell ya… it ain’t workin’. That’s why I asked you to fly out.” He picked up the one remaining DVD from his desk and inserted it into the player. Grey wiggling confetti filled the monitor like an animated Jackson Pollack. Then a wavering image began to vibrate behind the confetti. It was a person. Wait a minute. That’s me. Oh, Crap.
Charlotte began rubbing both temples in earnest. This was, indeed, the worst interview of her life. Of all things to throw in her face. It had been an innocent prank she’d tried to pull in Tucson. It was supposed to be short and sweet and funny.
The weather had been so boring for so long that to boost ratings she had the crew make a cardboard cutout of herself—life-size and in the world’s skimpiest bikini. Then they covered it with a girdle, long underwear, poor-boy sweater, her ski boots, goggles, and finally a fuzzy parka. The way it was set up, for every week the weather didn’t change, she had to take off one article of clothing. Arnold, her director, computed the worst-case scenario based on twenty years of Tucson weather forecasts. At the very most, she’d end up without the parka, boots, and shovel. The audio began to run.
Hi there fellow Tucsonans! Well, we’re looking at still… ANOTHER beautiful day in glorious Tucson! If you’re thinking of a little golf or tennis, better get it in early while it’s still cool so your balls don’t melt. Temperature now at six am is eight-five. But you can count on it being up in the nineties by ten and then hitting those good ole triple digits by noon. Isn’t this fun?
Afternoon’s high should be in the teens…plus a hundred, of course. But remember… it’s DRY HEAT, folks and we all LOVE dry heat! This is your weather gal, Charlotte McKeon saying… Have a Great day! Oh and by the way, for every week that it goes over a hundred, my doppelganger here is gonna take off one more item of clothes. Who says KVOA doesn’t get down and dirty?
Then for the next 35 days the weather hung tough and hot and threatened to remain that way forever. UPI got wind of it, then The Tonight Show. Jay Leno loved it. The Tucson Chamber of Commerce didn’t and a special meeting was called. The first board room question was: “Are you naked under the parka?”
Charlotte answered no, but then the questions got ugly.
Kodesta yanked the DVD from the player with the same vigor he had given the redhead and Chingy-Lingy. He tapped the disk thoughtfully upon the edge of his desk. She wondered if he would lob it over-hand or throw it like a Frisbee. Maybe she could grab it in mid-air and at least save herself symbolically. Instead, he slid it into the bottom drawer of his desk. “So,” he said, gazing at her seriously now.
A distinguished silver-haired man with black horn-rimmed glasses poked his head in the door and looked around at nothing in particular. He had that perfectly coiffed look of an anchorman and even with just his head in the door, it looked like a performance. She’d noticed it out in Tucson as well. With the cameras on them all the time, and their celebrity at every pub and restaurant, they all acted like there was a hidden camera lurking above the bar, inside a potted plant, or in the urinal. The anchorman caught her eye for a moment, but then ignored her. It didn’t feel like it was personal. It felt more professional. They hadn’t been introduced, therefore she didn’t exist. “How’s it goin’?” he asked.
“It’s goin’,” Kodesta said. “Later, okay?”
“Ya goin’ to lunch?”
“Yeah. But not with you. Go away and leave me alone.”
The silver-haired man’s eyes drifted back for a moment to her. They crinkled to a smile and then the head disappeared quiet and turtle-like back out the door.
“That’s Allan,” Kodesta said. “He’s our head anchorman…smart as a whip.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but then he stopped. “Did you want a glass of water with that aspirin?”
“Sorry.” His eyes had changed again. They looked almost intelligent, like one of Jane Goodall’s great apes. “I believe we’ve established what I don’t want.”
“Yes. But…what I do want is…” He did a slow spin on his executive chair and timed it perfectly. The chair came to a stop right in front of her. “PIZZAZZ.”
Charlotte smiled, trying to make her mouth like the girl who could swallow a cantaloupe. She gave up. “Yes, well of course. Pizzazz. How silly of me. Pizzazz. …Just for the record, you’re not trying to say pizza, are you?”
Kodesta continued to stare at her. “Do you know what I mean?”
“I think so. You want pizzazz.”
“That’s right. I want something different. Not just the weather, I want…WEATHER!” The hairs in his eyebrows knitted together in thought. “Do you get what I’m trying to say?”
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “We’re not talking about G-strings, are we? I already did that, and I can tell you, it’s not all that great for ratings.”
“No,” Kodesta agreed. “I want them get up every morning and tune in…just to see what you’re up to. What…” he looked down at her resume, “What Charlotte McKeon is up to. Do you think you can do Pizzazz?”