The Distinguished Mr. Fife

by Robert Vella


It was raining.

It was dark, it was cold, it was wet, it was raining. The droplets fell like bodies over the celestial plague cart. They broke on his windshield and generously scattered their remains without a hint of consideration. While the no-good, lazy wipers did their good-for-nothing best to clear away the gore, moaning and screeching all the way through. God, if only he had a home to go to, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad.

He had a wife, kids. A bitter old harpy and the unwanted fruit of their sin.

They were, like everything, good-for-nothing. The wipers were good-for-nothing. The Honda was good-for-nothing.

The good-for-nothing road to the good-for-nothing suburb with the good-for-nothing potholes that the good-for-nothing mayor of the good-for-nothing town had been promising to fix was... ARGH!

The world was good-for-nothing.

God was good-for-nothing.

Life was good-for-nothing.

He was good-for-nothing.

He drove his family car like a caged bird on the yellow brick road to the electric chair. He glared, with beady eyes, at nothing in general and everything in particular. He hated his polyester shirt, hated the wool sweater his wife made him wear that morning, and the fact that he had refused the offer of a raincoat. Volatile thoughts filled his weary mind, he never saw it coming.

Were it not for the impact, and the blood, he would not have seen it at all. It was not unlike a silhouette. With the speed with which it hit the windshield and slid off the hood though, it could have barely been described as a blur. The back of his neck moaned, as did his ribcage, with the rebound of the seatbelt. His mind was drunk with shock and his vision hazy. Yet, he would have run out of the car and emptied the day’s emotional bile on his victim, were it a pedestrian or a vehicle and not, as the thing’s bass yelp soon reminded him, something completely different.

He cowed, uncertain, in his seat. Fear made his pores bleed sweat. His mouth shivered and dried, as the mound in the middle of the road became clearer. Still his vision tortured him and he did not quite know what it was, except it seemed to be covered in fur or velvet.

As was his nature, his mind cleared away a measure of instinctual terror to allow for more modern concerns. Now more than ever, he regretted his life, his decisions, his existence, which seemed then to be at an end. He was utterly paralyzed with fear, guilt and self-hatred. He was mesmerized by the bestial mountain that lay motionless a mere nine feet away.

Then he heard a knock.

Something wooden on hard plastic, above the beating rain and distant thunder, to the right. He turned his head towards the passenger window.

The man smiled, raising his cane from the window to whimsically lift the tip of his bowler hat. A greeting so strange and antiquated that it completely diverted the driver’s attention from his death, leaving him staring at the new attraction with deer eyes. The only coherent thought he could muster was that the stranger’s manner and clothing reminded him of a vaudeville actor, while his face reminded him of an aging Michael Caine, as did his voice.

“Would you mind, friend? It’s getting rather chilly out here.”

The driver found the man’s mild behavior utterly disconcerting and he remembered why. But a quick glance confirmed; the mound that had lain a few feet away, and the blood on the windshield, were now nowhere in sight. He had no scruples left for wisdom. Nodding his head towards... whoever he was... he unlocked the passenger door.

The man entered nonchalantly, without care or humility, like a merchant king entering his personal limousine. His smile remained friendly, almost condescending. It addressed the driver with a patronizing air of school teacher superiority.

“What’s your name then?”

“Richard,” answered the driver.

“Richard!” said the man, almost singing his name, “that’s an honest British name for an American.” He peeled a white latex glove — ‘Mickey Mouse gloves’ thought Richard — off his right hand, which he offered to the driver.

”You can call me Mr. Fife.”

Richard carefully raised a quivering hand from the steering wheel. He expected to touch thin air but instead grasped a clammy human hand. He realized that either this was actually happening or he had gone completely insane.

“So tell me Richard,” said Mr. Fife, withdrawing his hand, “do you happen to have a surname?”

“Yes,” answered Richard, succinctly and without life, like the pre-recorded blurbs of a machine. “Singer.”

“Singer, lovely!

”Now listen carefully Mr. Singer,” he said, his face promising sweets for good children, “I’d like you to drive straight down the road, then turn at the second exit to your right and keep going until I clap my hand on the dashboard.” He gave an experimental tap. “Am I understood?”

Richard nodded.

“Good,” said Mr. Fife, “please hurry.”

* * *

Mr. Fife struck him as harmless, odd but harmless. Yet an occasional malignity seemed to darken his eyes above that ho-ho cheerio have another cup-a-tea smile.

Richard was tired. It had been a long day. He just wanted to go home. He would have eaten his dinner. Listened to the yelling, the whelping and the crying. Then gone to bed with a headache and the assurance that he was sane or, at any rate, mediocre.

The clap was sounded and Richard skidded to the curb. He turned off the engine and, more out of habit than anything else, looked out the window. His surroundings were familiar, in a way. They looked like part of the suburb, just like every part of the suburb, but not one he had ever driven through. It seemed normal enough, a cluster of bland homes with obnoxious mail-boxes. They waved in the wind as the rain battered their tacky decorative shapes with vindictive outrage.

“I’d like you to get out of the car please, Mr. Singer.”

“What?” Richard exclaimed as he turned, almost hearing the rain outside increase with anticipation.

“I asked you to get out of the car.” The surprise on Mr. Fife’s face almost made his request sound reasonable.

“You want me to go out there?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“It’s extremely important that you get out of the car now.”

“Are you kidding me? You want me to catch pneumonia or something?” His voice raged with the boiling emotions that had suffocated his chest through the day and he spat the next question with much vehemence.

“Who are you anyway?”

“I told you, my name is Mister —”

“Don’t toy with me buddy!”

Silence followed.

Mr. Fife sighed. “I’m a scientist of sorts. Although applied philosopher would be a far better term. I travel, quite a lot actually, to far flung locations so that I may test my theories.”

Even more silence followed, below the awaiting storm, and then Richard spoke, his anger robbed from him by the thief of bewilderment.

“What kind of experiment?”

“Get out and I’ll show you.”

Richard raised his finger and opened his lips as if they were the accursed gates of hell. Yet not a single curse followed and so, with much ire, he opened the door and got out.

The rain did not part for his exit but, as was expected, drenched him with impish glee. He lifted his hands and let them fall to his side, admitting lunacy to God.

As Mr. Fife approached from the other side, a jolly great grin on his face, the rain seemed in reverence to avoid tarnishing his immaculate stage outfit. Not a single wet patch was on him, not now nor, Richard remembered, when he first entered the car.

“As a child,” said the Stranger, his wooden cane resting on his shoulder and his finger pointing in his subject’s general direction, “and even as a young man, you dreamed of becoming a baseball player, is this correct?”

Richard looked both ways, then he nodded.

“Yet your efforts to follow this dream were marginal.” Mr. Fife began pacing closer, waving his finger in beat with the tapping of his shoes on the wet pavement. “You played very few games as a child and never entered the children’s league. You were referred to by your High School coach, a Mr. Warfax I believe, as an average athlete with very little motivation. You even missed an important game to attend a local concert. And yet still...”

A thespian look of surprise gathered around his face, his finger touching his lower lip.

“Yet still you were an avid collector of baseball cards.”

He stared into space.

Richard didn’t give the narrator of his life time to think this through.

“Your point?”

“My point...” He didn’t break from his contemplative poise but slowly turned his gaze towards Mr. Singer as he spoke. “Is that the actual sport wasn’t the focus of your deep love. Not the batting, the pitching, the sweating, but the fame. The fame you so desired. The fame that drove your father to re-mortgage his home, and go bankrupt, over a signed Mickey Mantle baseball card.”

He leaned on his cane and gave a great big huff.

“He probably loved that card more than you. But that didn’t embitter you, it inspired you. You could have made it big. But you just had to miss the semi-finals to go to that concert with your new girlfriend. And you just had to get her pregnant.” He paused and smiled profoundly. “Now you’re an office clerk.”

Mr. Singer wasn’t enjoying this.

“So what?” he howled, “you’re a shrink now? A psychic? You’re going to tell me that smacking me in the bottom was just my dad’s way of saying—”

“No Mr. Singer, I’m merely setting the stage, you see.”

“For what?”

“Look behind you.”

He turned.

* * *

He saw...

Number Twenty-One of the New York Yankees on the Pitcher’s mound, playfully tossing the baseball in his glove up and down. The crowd chanting.

“Number Twenty-One.” “No Home Run.” “Number Twenty-One.” “No Home Run.”

The batter looks cocky, he’s not scared of some has-been. The home team will be chanting his number soon enough. He lets the bat fall on home base, filling the air around him with dust and chalk, forcing the Umpire to wheeze and cough. He lifts the bat. ‘I’m waiting for you Number Twenty-One’. He looks the pitcher in the eye, straight in the eye and into the deepest recesses of his mind. All of a sudden he’s not so cocky, he’s not so sure.

Just the opening number Twenty-One needs. He spits on the mound, winds up for the pitch and...

“Strike one.”

A perfect curve ball. Oh wait, here comes the—

“Strike two.”

The batter didn’t even see that one coming.

Number Twenty-One smiles.

This is it batter, the Red Sox need a home run to win the game. Concentrate... Concentrate...

“Strike Three, yer out.”

What the... He didn’t even see him throw the pitch. He thinks about calling it a ‘Spit ball’, maybe punch the Umpire in the face, maybe...

Oh God damn it all, he violently throws the bat down and goes back to the bleachers.

Number Twenty-One stands perfectly still for a moment. All you can hear is the gentle thump of his baseball as he bounces it in his glove.

Then he throws his cap in the air, the sunshine making the plastic adjuster glint in the heavens, as he raises his arms to the crowd and they cheer his name.

“Singer.” “Singer.” “Singer.”

* * *

The illusion shimmered, stirring the reality around it like a tablespoon in a miniature cup of tea. Richard Singer closed his mouth, then opened it again, hoping for the words to dive from his limp tongue.

He closed it again... opened it again.

From his current existence, and above the enveloping applause pouring from the other, came Mr. Fife’s voice. “Wonderful game that,” he said. “The Yankees went on to bring yet another Commissioner’s trophy back home, and the Red Sox added yet another year to their legendary curse.”

“You mean?”

“That’s right.” Mr. Fife placed a hand on his subject’s shoulder, his smile broadening as he pointed towards Number Twenty-One. “That’s you at the 2004 World Series.”

“But I’m...”

“Right here. I know, but,” Mr. Fife whispered in his ear, “I’ve got friends, very old friends, who owe me very big favors.”

“I can put you there,” he said, “I can take away your children, I can take away your wife, your job. I can whisper into your youthful self’s ear, make him turn away from the crooked steeples of lust, make him take it seriously. I can drop opportunities on your lap you’ve never even dreamt of. I can do that, all of that, all you have to do is take...

One,

Step,

Forward.”

Richard didn’t say a word.

He merely stared into the whirlpool of dreams. While he spoke, Mr. Fife had been slowly pushing him forward. Until he could almost touch Number Twenty-One’s kit. Until he could see the droplets of sweat and glory explode in the air, like gamma rays, as his team mates tackled him and lifted him on their shoulders. He could smell the brilliance, he could taste the fame.

It was only one step away.

“One catch,” Mr. Fife continued, drawing Richard’s eyes away from his dream. “you will lose everything in this life. Everything you’ve ever hated, and everything you’ve ever loved. You will be stepping into an uncertain and alien existence at a very late stage, unfamiliar with its hidden thorns. You will experience the latter moments of being a champion and go straight to the happy ending.

After that it’s all up to you. No blank pages in the life of men, only death.”

Richard took a deep breath and sighed.

“You mustn’t ask me anything,” said Mr. Fife, the malignity creeping from his eyes and through his lips, which were no longer smiling, “nor speak to me at all. Either take a step forward or drive home. Those are your choices and this is the experiment.”

For a moment, they only gazed at each other, but not in the eyes. Mr. Singer was staring at Mr. Fife’s bare teeth and the visceral way in which they reflected the moonlight.

Mr. Fife grinned.

“Make your choice, Mr. Singer.”

* * *

Make your choice, Mr. Singer.

That’s it?

Either leave my wife and kids or turn my back on my dreams?

Who does this guy think he is?

I can’t just leave Casey. What about Ben and Carrie?

They just won’t exist anymore?

The Berkley account, the Weisler account, the Burman account.

The lawn, the trash, the plumbing, the bills.

The bills, the bills.

Ben’s really looking forward to his sixteenth birthday, the whole family’s going to be there. I’m not looking forward to it but... why am I not looking forward to it?

What have they ever done to me?

Mum’s great, you know, she didn’t turn her back. And Casey.. Casey.

It took me two weeks to talk her out of getting an abortion. I promised her, I promised her I’d love her.

I’d take care of her, of our child. I’d shape up, get a job with my uncle.

My uncle, through all the screw-ups, through all the drama, the tantrums, the late mornings and early afternoons, he never once threatened to fire me. He was there for me, for mum, when dad...

When dad...

When dad...

Casey, Casey. I told her to keep the baby. ‘It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay’.

I can’t believe we’ve made it.

I can’t believe we’ve got a house in a nice neighborhood.
I can’t believe I have the money to send Ben to college.
I can’t believe I had the money to buy Carrie a piano.
I can’t believe I didn’t jump off that bridge when we were drowning in debt.
I can’t believe I’ve always made the payments.
I can’t believe I got a raise.

I can’t believe that I, of all people, kept four mouths fed.

I can’t believe we’ve been through that.

I can’t believe we’ve made it.

I...

* * *

“Thank you” were Richard’s last words.

He heard the low growl rise from the deepest range of human perception. His chest tightened as the acidic taste of panic crept up his throat. His pupils dilated, and his eyes widened eons before they turned towards their predator.

He couldn’t believe how big it was. He couldn’t believe the malice radiating from its gross mass. An impression came to him. Of gnashing teeth like Mountain peaks and great rolling hills of fur.


Copyright © 2009 by Robert Vella

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