When the limousine pulled lazily up to the curb and honked, I realized immediately that it was my friend Garfield Mayfield Witherspoon. He was, in fact, the only person I knew who would ride in a limousine, much less pull up to my curb and honk. In fact, Witherspoon may have been the only person in possession of a limousine who would dare make an appearance in the neighborhood in which I live.
Being a writer, as most people are aware, can many times offer the financial status of a temporarily out-of-work part-time dishwasher. Such was the case with me, although I rarely complain of the fact. Many times I have vociferously denied any desire to be a wealthy, thoughtless, pompous, bastard like my friend Witherspoon. Nothing personal, of course.
I hadn’t been expecting him to visit, so his arrival set off quite an explosion of thoughts in my weak and — some will say — addled mind. Was he making a personal visit in order to tell me of a whimsical decision to purchase one of my manuscripts? That would have been the best thing, of course, understanding correctly that my next rent payment was due on the first of March, and it was now nearly July. Not that my rickety apartment was worth the four hundred dollars I paid — or was supposed to pay — for it each month. Both sinks leaked with a glorious vanity that is usually only found in movie stars or four-star generals, and the shower spigot refused to operate at all. The two windows that actually opened were cracked with no screens, and I had yet to dispense the necessary funds for curtains or blinds, being naturally afraid that the disease with which the window glasses were infected would become contagious, turning any decoration that I might purchase into a clump of unhealthy fabric. More abject comments could righteously be made regarding my domicile, but it would be pointless, and my space is limited. Besides, I would rather not think about it.
Returning to my questioning state of mind, it briefly occurred to me that Witherspoon, in his constant state of having nothing important to do except waste his massive inheritance, might be just out on a drive or shopping spree, and was desirous of my company. This brings up the matter of my dubious acquaintance with this pretentious billionaire. How could someone in my state — a poor, struggling writer with no pedigree of which to gloat, and only a partially completed “higher” education — become friends with someone in Witherspoon’s state — the only heir (nephew) of a blatantly filthy rich electronics industry magnate, descended in most part from a long line of entrepreneurs in trades which may or may not have intrinsic moral value? The story is not long or difficult, so I will briefly describe it to you.
Once, when I had sold my first manuscript — to a magazine with slim funding capabilities, yet nonetheless paying more than I could have dreamed — when I had received this seemingly large amount of money, I decided, on an impulse, to celebrate by having a few drinks at a nearby pub. As often happens in similar situations, the few turned out to be many, and I found myself located in a far distant corner of the tavern, discussing my life history with several ruffians without restraint.
Feeling an impatient tap upon my shoulder, I looked up to see an exceedingly large mountain of manhood looking sternly at me. “Mr. Witherspoon will see you now,” he said in a monotone.
“Who the he—” I started to ask, then my dissipated eyes wavered to a point beyond the bulky man-hill, and I saw a young man motioning at me to come to his table. He was so skinny; it would not have been difficult to imagine that his head merely sat atop a highly starched set of clothes. I must admit that I am no aficionado of fashion; therefore, I had no idea that the suit wrapped around his skin and bones had cost more than I had made in the previous two years — I merely thought they were too big for such a small man.
Bidding farewell to the herd of miscreants at whose table I had been sitting, I walked — or, rather, I sagged drunkenly in the arms of the giant who had tapped me, as he shuffled me easily to “Mr. Witherspoon’s” table. Plopping into the empty chair with an air of slovenliness, I nodded at Mr. Witherspoon.
“How ya’ doin’?” I blurted, wondering if perhaps a trickle of saliva had evaded the corners of my mouth, which were meant to ensnare such drainage.
When the skinny man before me nodded elegantly in reply, I suddenly realized that here was a rich man. It was more than his courtly nod, I must admit with some measure of embarrassment. Perhaps it was the startling fact that the giant man had moved to a protective position just behind Witherspoon, indicating that he was Witherspoon’s bodyguard, not merely a bouncer in the tavern. Perhaps it was the fact that the table was so neatly arranged, and uncluttered with ashtrays or ashes or American beer bottles.
“Whatchya want?” I asked him.
Witherspoon smiled kindly, and the absolute absence of wrinkles or ‘laugh lines’ instantly impressed me that he was young, perhaps even younger than myself. “I must apologize,” he intoned clearly, “for stooping to the villainous level of actually eavesdropping on your conversation.” As he said it, he nodded toward my previous seating location.
He grinned sheepishly. “Many things, kind sir, which I would not care to repeat in a civilized country. The point of interest that most assuredly aroused my curiosity, however, was the statement by yourself that you are a writer.”
He leaned forward slightly, and lowered his voice, so that I could barely hear it above the insanely popular yet insanely stupid song that skittered out of the jukebox nearby. “I’m a very rich man, from a very rich family.” He smiled knowingly.
I sat, waiting.
“And I want to hire a writer to chronicle my ridiculously extravagant life. Are you interested?”
I sat, waiting for the punch line.
He looked disappointed. “Come now, kind sir,” he implored me, “I can see from your manner of dress and speech that you are not yourself a wealthy man. Surely the amount which I intend to pay you for your time will not be offensive to a man of your tastes.”
I considered that for a fleeting moment. He was right, of course. Any amount that I could receive for any piece of writing would be more than welcome in my lonely and insolvent budget.
That conversation was, as all publishers know, the last instance in which Witherspoon referred to the project of chronicling his personal history, or of the small matter of moneys that I had expected to change hands soon thereafter. I was, however, never inclined to mention the matter, for Witherspoon and I soon became close friends.
I realized within a few more minutes of speaking with him in the smoky tavern that he was insane. Not mentally ill in the sense that he would someday load his automatic rifle and walk into a fast-food restaurant and begin firing. Not mad, in the sense that he intended to take over the entire world or even just the relatively large city in which I lived. Perhaps insane was not the proper word — perhaps unrestrained would fit his temperament more accurately.
Because of his relative youth, and the explosive addition of expansive riches, he knew very few boundaries. Orphaned as a youngster, and being taken in with his distant uncle, who was rising rapidly in the world of consumer electronics, he had early forgotten the meaning of hardship. Any food that he wanted, he ate. Any clothes that he wanted, he wore. Any destination — he went there.
After more than a dozen months as his “friend”, I finally realized that he was merely lonely. He had picked my humble personage to be his friend, purely by coincidence, driven by whim, and taken with the (mistaken?) thought that a writer would make a great friend.
So, he soon dropped into the habit of dropping by my place of habitation without warning, at random intervals on the calendar, just wanting to ‘hang out.’
This, I decided, was his intention now, as his limousine waited, its motor running smoothly, at the curb adjacent to my crumbling apartment building.
I hurriedly threw a dust cover — an old shirt — over my typewriter, which held a half-full page of nonsense, as usual, grabbed my jacket, and headed down the stairs. Halfway down, I remembered that I had not locked my door, so I stopped, and almost returned. Hesitating there in the stair, I considered that the total worth of all my belongings amounted to less than half of what Witherspoon’s investments earned each and every second. I decided that if something were stolen, I would just mention it to him, hoping he would offer to replace it. As it was, the time it would have taken me to return and lock my door was less time than I spent, standing there, deliberating.
Once I clambered into the back seat of the limousine, and the car was rolling, I looked up at my friend.
“I want to meet Millal Ba,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“Wha—” I started.
“I have nothing better to do today,” he interrupted easily, grossly over-accustomed to having people listen to him, “and I have heard so much about him that I cannot wait another day before I meet this enigma you refer to as your ‘best friend’. So, we’re off!”
“Wai—” I started to say, then realized that the automobile was heading in a direction extremely dissimilar to that which would lead us to Millal Ba’s humble home in New Bedfordcastleshire. I had been intending to attempt to dissuade Witherspoon from such an excursion, with many various reasons, but instead, I found myself giving directions to the driver, who U-turned the large automobile immediately. A motorcycle police officer noticed the offense, and began following us. Soon, however, he turned away. Most likely, his computer had told him that the car belonging to the license number he had called in was not to be followed.
Suddenly, Witherspoon jerked his head around to face me. “You were saying something!” he ejaculated loudly. “Did I perhaps interrupt a moment of writing inspiration or another, more personal activity?”
His exclamation had startled me, so I took a moment to gather my thoughts. “Uh, not exactly,” I said. “It’s just that I never visit Mr. Ba without an invitation.”
“Oh.” Witherspoon appeared downcast for a minute, and I presumed that he was considering aborting the long drive. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I forget that you are a member of a lower societal class.”
That careless remark almost set my ticker to ticking, but before I was fully ticked off, I merely shook my head in disbelief. “You think Mr. Ba will just open his doors to you unannounced, because you’re filthy rich?”
He looked at me with some measure of confusion. “Why not?”
“Maybe you haven’t been listening to all the things I’ve told you about him,” I said, fuming. “He’s not like other people. He’s not like me, or you, or… or Bruno, there.” (For “Bruno” was the name of Witherspoon’s long-time bodyguard and trusted aide.) “Besides that, he may not even be home.”
“Oh.” Witherspoon seemed to take that into account. Then he brightened like a simmering coal receiving a fresh blast of oxygen. “Then we’ll just have a nice drive into the country,” he said. “We’ll do some shopping in the quaint little village you’ve described to me more than once. Heck, we may even buy the whole town.”
“Why not?” I answered flippantly, “Kim Basinger did.”
Witherspoon smiled at that. “That’s one of the things I like about you, Red.” (He had always called me ‘Red’, although none of my names suggested it, and my hair is decidedly dark brown.) “You’ve always got a sense of humour, even when the situation’s not going your way.” I could hear the “u” in his pronunciation of “humour”, even though I knew he was not British.
“That may be,” I asserted, “but I’m having a difficult time trying to think how it will be funny when we show up, and Millal Ba’s not ready to see us.”
Witherspoon snickered in the way that only a filthy rich young man can snicker — snidely. “Why do you worry so about Millal Ba?” he wondered. “Has he ever – just once – shown you that he had a temper?”
That question gave me pause. I thought about it as I poured myself a much-needed drink from an unlabeled decanter in the limousine’s refrigerator.
“I guess not, Art” — Witherspoon liked to be called ‘Art’, short for ‘Artemus’, although neither ‘Garfield’ nor ‘Mayfield’ suggested Artemus — perhaps he just liked the name — “but he has been known to be — how shall I say? — flighty.”
“ ‘Flighty’?” repeated Witherspoon. “But that’s why I think I’ll like the old chap. I’m a little flighty myself, in case you haven’t taken time to notice.”
“But in a different way than you,” I continued, insistently, gulping at the odd liquor I’d found in the unlabeled decanter. “Strange things happen when I’m around him, as I know I’ve told you on multitudinous occasions. I don’t know about this.”
Less than an hour later, by the gilded grandfather clock in the limousine, we were winding our way through the wooded hills outside New Bedfordcastleshire, and I directed Witherspoon’s driver to the appropriate driveway, barely discernible from the old country highway’s edge. There was, as I had expected, no mailbox, nor any sign designating that any human habitation existed beyond the immediately visible forest.
Witherspoon’s driver, having grown accustomed somewhat to his employer’s whimsical whims, appeared to have no apparent difficulty navigating the elongated vehicle through the perilous turns of Mr. Ba’s driveway. Upon arriving within view of the sprawling and interminably growing cottage, with its unmatched windows, three-level porch, oddly positioned bay windows, and multi-colored brick and stone work, Witherspoon gasped.
“It’s just as I imagined it!” he exclaimed, pressing his face up to the inside of the window glass.
Before we had fully made our exit from the limousine, I heard a familiar voice, coming from behind the cottage, “Come on around!”
Witherspoon was practically dancing like a schoolgirl who just won her spelling bee, and I wondered how precarious was his control of his bladder. Bruno, the overgrown protuberance of a man, dressed in his casual, mafia-style sports jacket, with the characteristic sable silk shirt underneath, stepped lightly behind us. The driver, as per his job description, stayed in the car. I realized then that I’d never seen the driver exit the vehicle, nor had I ever been introduced to him, nor had I overheard Witherspoon call him by name. I filed these observations away for future consideration.
When the three of us rounded the house, Millal Ba got up from where he had been kneeling in his vegetable garden. As always, he was dressed in an old-fashioned suit made of something resembling tweed, complete with waistcoat, leather shoes, pocket watch, and – and then I noticed that he was beardless. Wonderingly, I shook my head at his ability to lose and grow a beard within a few days’ time.
“Mr. Ba,” I began, “I hope we didn’t come at a bad time for you, but my associate, Witherspoon,” I gestured toward my affluent friend, “insisted upon seeing you today.”
Millal Ba patted the knees of his trousers, disenfranchising the particles of dirt that clung to them. He was about to reply when Witherspoon butted in.
“Please accept my apologies, Mr. Ba,” he smiled, thrusting forth a hand, which Ba accepted, “but my friend ‘Red’,” and here he indicated me, “has told me much about you, all in good taste, and I could not bear another day without making your gracious acquaintance.”
After releasing Witherspoon’s hand, Millal Ba smiled, replying, “I assure you, sir, that all is well, and —” He paused, confused. “Did I hear you call him ‘Red’? I was sure his name was—”
“He likes to call me ‘Red’,” I interjected quickly.
Then full introductions followed, including Bruno, who bowed his iron block of a head politely. Then Millal Ba invited us all inside for a drink.
“So,” he said, once we were all seated around the table in his spacious dining room, sipping brandy, “tell me about yourself, Witherspoon.”
“ ‘Art’,” Witherspoon said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Please call me ‘Art.’ Short for ‘Artemus’.”
“Oh. Okay…” Ba looked at me askance, then resumed his line of questioning. “So, Art, tell me about yourself.”
Witherspoon beamed above the rim of his brandy snifter. “Well, sir, there really isn’t much to tell. I am a well-educated young man without a care in the world who suddenly and unexpectedly inherited a vast sum of wealth. I travel, make friends, learn what I can when I can, and try to enjoy life.”
Millal Ba sipped from his glass. “That’s it? No hidden crimes? No dark secrets? No Third World arm deals?” He said it with absolute sincerity, not intending to be humorous.
Witherspoon eyed the older man carefully for some time before responding. “I’m afraid not, sir. And you?”
Bruno shifted carefully in his undersized seat.
I cleared my throat.
Millal Ba answered carefully, “No, Art, I have no secrets of which I am ashamed, nor have I ever assassinated any leader of a Democratic nation.”
I drew in a sharp breath at the obvious bait.
“What about non-Democratic nations?” Witherspoon asked.
“Not in this century,” Ba replied calmly.
Witherspoon waved a hand in the air, a clear sign to change the subject. “I’ve often wondered how you became financially secure, seeing how you have no visible means of support.”
(This was one of the very questions I had often longed to ask of Millal Ba, but had either been distracted by one odd event or another, or had simply basked under the illimitable wisdom of Ba.)
Mr. Ba sat back in his chair, looking into his dark drink. “Well, I sold a few things, accrued some interest here and there, and it all just worked out.”
It was at that moment that we heard the elephant’s trumpet-like call, and bolted for the door.
Allow me to interject for a moment that I have become accustomed to strange and varyingly odd occurrences when on the premises surrounding Ba’s estate. In addition, while speaking at length with my elderly friend, many bizarre and inexplicable similes and metaphors have sprung unbidden to my mind. So, normally, I am somewhat prepared for unusual incidents when near him. On the day in question, however, I was still somewhat flustered by Witherspoon’s unanticipated appearance, so much so that I was actually disturbed and, to a certain degree, flustered by the appearance, or rather, the sound of an elephant.
As Bruno halted in the half-open front doorway with Witherspoon squirreling around behind him, trying to get a view of the elephant. I was behind the two of them, trying to decide which front window would afford me the better view of the elephant, completely unknown in this part of the state — or, indeed, in the wild at all in our nation.
That’s when I noticed that Millal Ba had not moved from his seat.
I turned in dismay, with a question on the tip of my tongue, for in my bewildered state of mind, I had forgotten the many unforeseen episodes through which I had survived at Ba’s cottage, most of course with much fear, trepidation and consternation. I almost asked him why in Heaven’s name and in the name of all the righteous saints above — why wasn’t he making a mad and silly dash for the door?
He was looking at us with a half-surprised, half-confused, half-worried bemused expression riding haphazardly upon his bespectacled visage, and his short-but-wiry gray hair standing askew as if he had recently been attached to an electrical outlet. One of his hands was waving back and forth in the air above the table, in excellent impersonation of a man waving off a cloud of mosquitoes. His other hand still held his brandy snifter to his lips.
As I stood there, unsure of myself, or my future actions — indeed, unsure if I would draw my next and most necessary breath of God’s oxygen, Bruno allowed the front door to close, and turned back into the room. Witherspoon, who had not quite managed to peer around his bulkier associate, looked back and forth between us rapidly, and I wondered if his head would detach itself from his shoulders, or at least go past its normal stopping place and spin all the way around.
Millal Ba, his motley expression unchanged, set his brandy glass on the table, ceased fanning the air, and reached behind him. A candle appeared in his hand, and he proceeded to light said candle. Within minutes, the sweet scent of vanilla pervaded the room, and we resumed our broken conversation.
As I later sat behind my crumpling and nearly interred desk, searching amongst various scraps of paper and belated utility bills for my typewriter, I wondered about the whole situation. For nearly thirty minutes, I stared intently at the burned out and wax-smeared glass shell of a cheap scented candle that sat on my encrusted kitchen counter. I squinted at it. I moved it so I could see it from different angles.
Then, at long last, I began to laugh. I was still laughing forty-five minutes afterwards, as I reheated some refried beans for my inexpensive bachelor’s supper.
This story is entirely true, according to the author. Only the names, places, dates, facts and events have been changed, because the truth about “Mr. Ba” is far too insane to actually print.