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[personal profile] joegoda
Painting is done, and I've been gone for what? 3 days? Dammit, I'm behind. Anyway, here's the next bit.

Up at the front, amiably chatting with Debbie was M.E. Johnston. M.E. Johnston was a longtime customer who had attached himself to John, for reasons unknown. M.E. would show up at odd times and spend hours talking with John about music and art and philosophy. He would talk about the old days, before WWII, which he pronounced doubleya doubleya two. He would talk about current affairs, stem cell research, Alzheimer, cancer research and gay rights.

It seemed there was nothing that M.E. didn't know about and would to talk about with his good friend John. M.E. was a skinny drink of water, standing about six feet tall and his age would be listed as unreadable. He was somewhere between sixty and Methuselah. He always wore a fedora, grey, with a tiny multicolored feather stuck in the black headband. He always wore an expensively tailored pin striped, double breasted suit, regardless of the temperature, and the man never seemed to sweat. He always had a smile and a warm firm handshake.

At first, John was put off by the older man's attentions, and tried, politely, to explain that he had work to do and could not afford to spend hours just visiting. M.E. nodded in agreement and told John that when work was there to be done, M.E. would find something else to do, go visit some other store, or read one of the many handyman magazines that were up at the front, or bother Lou back in his office.

True to his word, when the day got busy or a customer needed John's expertise, the older man would disappear. Sometimes for hours, sometimes for the rest of the day, and John never had to grumble at him or ask M.E. to leave. M.E. just seemed to sense that it was time to go, and so he did, sometimes with a cheerful tip of the hat and a "Till next time" and sometimes with no word at all.

John had suspected M.E. of being one of the true Watchers, rather some Watcher lackey. There was nothing to support the suspicion, other than the man's oddity. Still, M.E. did make the time pass quickly, and the conversations were never dull. M.E. seemed to have the grasp of what was interesting to talk about and what was not. He never spoke about his own life, unless it was to talk about some of the experiences he had encountered and what he had learned. His personal life, though, was never brought up. John had ventured to ask once or twice, probing just a bit into uncharted territory. M.E. had waved such questions away with a smile and explained, "If it was something important, if some part of my personal life was relevant, then surely you would know, John. A man is more than his life at home. A man is the sum of what he says and what he does and what he thinks."

There were some slips, however. M.E. had let slip that he was married, or had been married at one time. That he had no children, no heirs, and had worked as a teacher for a few years before deciding that it was not what he wanted. "People don't want to learn any more, John. It's as if their curiosity has been snuffed out. What do you think?"

M.E. found John's memory fascinating. "So, on the one hand, you can remember things months from now that you can't remember five minutes from now. On the other hand, if I wrote it down and you looked at what I had written, you could remember it for nearly forever?"

"That's stretching it, M.E.", John explained. "If I read it, I could remember it, in detail, for months and months, but the details might get muddy. However, if it was say… a script for a play or something like that where I had to memorize it, for just one purpose, then once that purpose was gone, I'd be lucky to remember a single line of it."

"Now," John continued, "if you told me some deep dark secret… say you robbed a bank or something like that, in fifteen minutes, I'd have forgotten the whole conversation. You could ask me what we were talking about and I wouldn't be able to recall any of it. If you went on about it, jogging my memory about the conversation, I might be able to pull up bits and pieces of the conversation, but never the whole thing. And fifteen minutes after that, I'd have forgotten that we had a conversation about the conversation."

M.E. was silent for a moment. "That must be very useful in your friendships, John. You could never stay angry at anyone. Fifteen minutes, eh? Sounds like you've timed it."

John gave a sad smile. "That's as accurate as I can get, M.E.. I've never been able to know if there was a threshold or not, because I can't remember. For example, it's not been ten minutes since we started talking about this and I can remember pretty much all of it. Ask me again in about five minutes."

"As for being angry, I've always had a problem with that and others. I don't have many friends, you see, and those that have stuck around don't have many problems with me. I imagine we've had words once or twice. Everybody does, nobody agrees all the time. Still, if there's been a cross word, I don't remember them, even if the other party does. It's caused some troubles and some friends I once had, I don't have any longer, and I don't even remember why."

"But," the older man said, "you remember them? The people that are no longer your friends?"

"Oh yes," John acknowledge, nodding his head. "I never forget a person I've met, if the meeting last longer than a nod on a sidewalk. There's always something about them I remember. The color of their hair, or their eyes or the shape of their chin. Something, always. Rarely their name, unless they tell it to me again and again. I never forget a face, but a name… that's another matter. I may need to ask them a second or a third time."

"You've never asked me my name," M.E. said. "I've never had to repeat it to you."

"That's true," John admitted. "I don't know why, but yours was easy to remember. M.E. Just two initials. And you show up frequently enough that it's hard to forget it. I guess you're the lucky one, M.E.."

Today, M.E. met John in the specialties section. He was looking, he said, for a particular light bulb. "It mustn't glow too red, and it mustn't glow too blue." He was searching the shelves of colored lights. "It can glow a green, but I'd prefer a yellow."

John thought for a moment. "It sounds like you might be looking for a grow light or something like that."

M.E. nodded and smiled largely. "Yes! That is exactly what I need. I'm growing indoors this year, John, and what I'm growing needs green or yellow light."

John thought for a second and directed M.E. to the gardening section. "I know it's an odd placement for a light bulb, but this is where you'll find what you need. Are you growing a lot of plants?"

M.E. nodded. "I'd say I'm going to be growing a lot of plants, John."

"Do you have a green house?" John asked. "Maybe you need tube lights, rather than just bulbs."

"Oh my no, John. Nothing so elaborate." M.E. dropped his voice down to a whisper. "I'm growing them in my basement."

"Basement?" In this part of the country, people didn't usually have basements. "Where do you live?"

"Oh, just a bit North of here," The older man said. "And just a bit West as well."

"It's just that the soil around here is so permeable and unstable, a basement isn't a usual thing for a house to have." John said. "This whole town was built on a landfill."

John led past the nuts and bolts section, through the heavy hardware – table saws, miter saws, impact wrenches and air compressors– and walked into the part of the store where the planters and mulch, garden hoses and sprinklers were kept.

"It's an unusual house, John," M.E. explained. "Sits high on a hill all by its lonesome. I can see around me for miles and miles and the nearest road, if you don't count my drive way, is half a mile away. I can see anyone coming minutes before they see me."

"Sounds like a bunker, taking the high defense, M.E." John chuckled. "You're not growing marijuana up there are you?"

M.E. put on a face showing shock, although it was so cartoonish John knew he was being kidded. "Oh no! Nothing so nefarious, my young friend. Just wanting to try my hand at hydroponic tomatoes. At least…," M.E. dropped his voice conspiratorially, "that's what I tell the local fuzz." And he winked dramatically to make the idea of any wrong doing seem even more ludicrous.

"Here we are, M.E." John waved his hand at a rack filled with light bulbs and long tubes, all proclaiming on their packages to be the thing for growing indoors. "Now, this one," John said as he lay his hand on one of the tubes, "would be good for growing tomatoes indoors. According to the package, it give of more of the green and yellow spectrum than the red and blue."

M.E. got up close and peered at the packaging. "Yes, it does say that. And the price, young John?"

"Forty dollars for four, M.E." John said. "But for a longtime customer such as yourself, I bet we can work out a deal. How many did you want?"

M.E. took off his fedora, revealing a ring of thick black hair surrounding an island of bald pate. "I think I'll need about…" He paused to calculate. "Forty-eight." He nodded. "That's about right, John. I'll need forty-eight of them." M.E. grew a large smile. "So… what sort of a 'deal' can you give an aging, longtime customer such as myself?"

John laughed. "Tell you what, M.E. You stay here, let me talk to Lou and we'll just see what sort of deal I can get you."

"I'll wait right here," M.E. said. "I've got lots to look at."

"I can't imagine you haven't seen it all a million times," John called over his shoulder. "Be right back."

John moved quickly through the store to the very back, towards Lou's ugly office. John wasn't sure if he could work the deal for M.E., but he was willing to try. He pulled his pad out of his pocket and wrote as he walked. 'Forty 8 tubes. 48 x 4.' He scratched that out and wrote '48/4 x 40'. That still didn't look right. 'Grow tubes. 40 4 4. 12 pks x 40. 480.'

He rocketed around the corner and was close to Lou's office when he noticed two odd things. A light was coming from somewhere in the back of the storage space and the heavy metal rollup door was open, about three feet from being closed. Lou's door was open, and there was light coming from there, too. Lou never left his door open when he was in his office.

John slowed and was about to call out for his boss, when he heard Lou's voice, somewhere deep in the storage racks. That feeling of bad was back, too. Stronger and darker.

"You knuckleheads have got to be more careful. The kid almost made you." Lou's tone was soft and growly.

"Yeah?" Another voice, softer and deeper than Lou's. "Well, we didn't know if we should come in the front way or find some other way, and we didn't see no back entrance to this place." The voice was male, and radiated irritation or frustration. "We hadda drive around the friggin building till we found it. And then we hadda drive back out again. What sorta stupid building designer hides delivery lanes like this?" We hadda go through some dumb back alley through a neighborhood to get here."

"It's because, you moron, it's not a delivery lane." This was not the Lou that John knew. This Lou was harsher, more vocally violent. This felt wrong, felt bad. John wanted out of there. "That's the trash lane, cuz the lot owners don't want their pretty lot messed up by the trash trucks."

"Well," said the other voice, now contrite, " you coulda warned us or somethin'. How's were we to know the kid would be right there, watchin' us." A heavy sigh, followed by a phlegmy cough, and then, "We're not the morons here, bud. This ain't like how it is downtown."

A different voice, even softer, so soft that John had to strain to hear, said, "Gentlemen. It doesn't matter who did or didn't know. The subject will forget that he ever saw the van, correct? He is still suffering from the dysphasia, correct?"

Lou's voice; "Yeah. The chowderhead doesn't remember anything after a while. There's no worries there."

John heard that and wrote on his pad. 'Chowder head doesn't remember. Lou means me?' Not much, but enough to fill in a hole in his memory. Maybe. So he wrote 'Bad at the back of the storage. Rats in the walls.'

And he read it. Twice. This wouldn't fall out of his head.

The softer voice, obviously the head of whatever this was, said, "Good. Then he's still malleable. Louis, we're going to move to the next phase tomorrow. John will need to be fired."

John gasped, loudly.

"What was that?" the deeper voice asked. "You sure we're safe?"

"Hold on," Lou said.

John ducked back out the door, flew down the row to where the shop brooms were hanging, and appeared to be arranging them when Lou stuck his head out the double doors.

Lou smiled and asked, "Say, John. Have you seen anybody come in here? In the last few minutes, I mean."

John, heart beating a million miles a second, tried as calmly as he could to walk over to Lou. He felt that he was shaking all over, and swallowed a couple of times before answering. "No, Lou." His voice had a quaver to it, dammit. "I didn't see anyone. I did have a question, though."

Lou's eyebrows rose and he crossed his arms. "Oh? Shoot. What's your question?"

"You know Mr. M.E. Johnston? Comes in here a lot and talks to me sometimes?"

Lou thought for a second. "No, I don't know him. Should I?"

John, puzzled, thought everyone knew M.E. "Older guy? Always wears a fedora?"

Lou shook his head. "Nope. Can't place him. Why?"

"Uh. Well…" John looked back to the garden section, where M.E. was waiting. "He wants to buy forty-eight Sunlight tubes for a garden he's putting in. I told him for such a large order, I'd check with you and see if we could cut him a deal."

Lou frowned. "A deal?" He scratched a jowl. "What sort of deal?"

"I, uh, I was thinking maybe ten percent off?" John was sweating, hard. "I mean, I see him a lot and he does shop here often. I figured for a longtime customer and all." He was talking so fast he was afraid his tongue would break off.

Lou stared at John for what seemed like an hour. "You feeling all right kid? You having an episode? You need to lay down?"

John swiped his hand across his forehead. It was dripping. "I'm not feeling my best, Lou, that's true." He forced a shaky smile. I wasn't feeling that well when I came to work, I don't think. I don't remember it too clearly.

Lou, frowning still, placed his hand on John's shoulder, concerned. "Dammit, John. You should have said something when you got here." He pulled his hand away, quickly. "It's not contagious is it?"

"No, uh." John thought quickly. "It's just something that popped up all of a sudden. I think it was some bug spray I sprayed last night. Might have inhaled some of it."

"Bug spray, huh?" Lou's eyes narrowed. "You need to be more careful, John. Focus on what you're doing. You could get hurt, okay?"

"I will Lou." John swiped another handful of sweat, and he was suddenly cold. "It was just one time. I'll make a note to be more careful in the future."

Lou, all fatherly smile, said, "Okay, then. I don't want to lose one of my best workers." He paused, as if in thought, then, "Sure. Give Mister what's his name that discount. If he's as good a customer as you say, then it'll just generate more business. But make it five percent, okay? And that's stretching my generosity."

"Okay." John was freezing. "Thanks, Lou. I better get back to him." John started to move away. "Thanks again."

Lou watched John move away and muttered to himself, "Chowderhead. Even if he did hear anything, he'll forget it before lunch."


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