(Disclaimer–I really thought I was done with this travesty, but seems like it’s not done with me yet. Or at least something isn’t. All these august personages belong to the Westlake Estate, wherever it be, yet somehow they belong to all humankind, a most ingenious paradox indeed. Perhaps this will shake me from my torpor. Or deeper into it. One way to find out…..come on and Zoom Zoom Zoom a Zoom…..)
IN A DARKENED ROOM, SOMEWHERE IN NEW YORK, a digital screen flickered to life–emblazoned upon it was the narrow-nosed visage of Andrew Kelp, looking even more pleased with himself than usual. He spoke as though he addressed the multitude, having just supplied it with loaves and fishes, presumably not half-baked or raw.
“Hey guys! Can you all see me? It’s time we started the meet. Since we’ve never done this before, I’m gonna call the roll, make sure we’re up to speed. Remember to keep your mikes turned off until it’s your turn to speak. John? You there?”
Nothing happened. Kelp waited as long as courtesy required, then changed tack–“Okay, John will be with us soon, I’m sure. Stan?”
As though invoked through arcane incantations, there appeared the cheerful countenance of Stan Murch. His hands were gripping a steering wheel, and his eyes were switching back and forth, as if his attention was divided. A light hum that could be interpreted as a running engine was audible in the background. Kelp, his face taking up half of the now-split screen, asked the logical follow-up.
“Stan, are you driving now?”
“Just nicked this brand-new Enorma with superfast connectivity and a high-def display. I’m on the way to Max’s. If I get there before the meeting’s over, I can idle in the parking lot before going in. I may watch an online movie release before I hand over the keys. This screen is huge! I think there’s a popcorn machine in here somewhere.”
Now returned to full screen status, with a dubious expression, Andy tried to regain control of the online colloquy. “Stan, I don’t know as you should be working the same time you’re attending our meet. We have important planning to do here, right John?”
The screen buzzed and fizzled a moment, as if someone was trying to contribute something, but hadn’t quite figured out how, what, or possibly why. Then silence once more.
“John, we’ll come back to you in a jiff. Maybe ask May to help you out there. So Stan, I respect your enterprise and all, but I think you should chime in once you’re parked somewhere. You wouldn’t want to have an accident and the cops show up. They are not in a good mood lately. By the way–does it have MD plates?”
“Yep! Vanity plate says “I Doctor” so opthalmologist, I guess–I see what you mean, Andy–super comfortable. I may steal one of these every time we have a meeting.”
“I’m happy you found a nice score, but I still think…..”
“I can multi-task here, no problem at all–better than a home office. And you wouldn’t believe how easy it is to get around now. Nobody on the roads! Every creampuff in the city just sitting there waiting for me! This eye doc won’t notice his ride is gone for weeks, and I can make it across town faster than you could walk to the corner store and back. I won’t even tell you what route I’m taking, because it doesn’t matter anymore! Clear sailing everywhere! It’s The Golden Age of New York Driving. I’m blessed to have lived to see it.”
Stan’s eyes grew misty, contemplating the limitless vistas of near-empty asphalt ahead, like a movie cowpoke surveying the open prairie from his trusty cayuse, while yodeling softly to himself. Fenced in no longer under starry skies above.
“Great, but just to be safe, turn off your mike until you’re parked, and focus on the road. You are present, let’s move on. Tiny?”
The monitor flickered once more, and a head roughly the size and shape of a now-defunct rock formation that once served as a pretext for tourism in New Hampshire, loomed across it, albeit incompletely. Only Cinerama could have encompassed both the face and the ominous black mask covering much of it. Zorro crossed with Pantagruel, only without a trace of rakish good humor.
A voice sounding much like the ill-fated rockslide that put an end to the Old Man (Not to worry, New Hampshire, you still have autumn foliage and maple syrup–although those are under siege as well) rumbled through, muffled somewhat by the mask. “Why am I seeing your nude face, Kelp? Do I have to chastise you as well?”
“Tiny, you don’t mask at a video chat. That’s the point of a video chat. Nobody catches anything from anybody. That’s why I went to the trouble of setting this up.” Kelp looked more hurt than intimidated, though he was both.
Even behind the dark mask, Tiny’s darkening scowl was made manifest.
“You think I’m scared of your germs, Kelp? They wouldn’t last two minutes in here. It’s a matter of principle. If I have to wear one, so does everyone else. It’s just good manners. I’m out walking yesterday, Upper West, this guy goes right past me, inches away, mask hanging down around his neck, gabbing away on his phone, his droplets spewing all over.” Tiny’s voice dropped dramatically–“You want to guess where that phone is now, Kelp?”
“I get it, Tiny.” Andy’s tone was notably meeker, but he still had a rebuttal. “Obviously he should have been wearing it out there on the street, but we’re not on–”
“Oh that reminds me, this other guy, at the OJ, who was ahead of me to pick-up takeout–”
“–The OJ is doing takeout?–”
“Are you interrupting me now, Kelp? As I was saying, he was there ahead of me, chatting up this broad ahead of him, and he had no mask on at all, not even around his skinny neck. I asked him, very courteous-like, to please get it out, and he says he forgot it, big deal, what business was it of mine anyhow, we should let the virus run free, survival of the fittest, and then we’ll all have horde inanity, something like that.”
“I have a hard time imagining anyone saying that to you, Tiny.”
“He was caught up in the dame, who I will say was cute, even behind her mask, so he didn’t look back to see whom he was talking back to.”
“You get the picture.” Tiny allowed a pregnant pause, before continuing. “So the long short of it is, I found a way to solve his problem. You’ve heard of the wedgie, right? Regular and atomic?”
“That’s right,” Tiny concluded, with grim satisfaction. “Even though he didn’t think he had a mask, he did anyway. Lucky for him he wasn’t going commando. The skirt looked relieved he’d stopped chatting her up. Pretty sure I saw her wink at me.”
Kelp had been fumbling around for something, and all of a sudden there was a camo-patterned mask on his face–the type with valves on it. Made him look like something out of an old war movie, with gas, barbed-wire, trenches, etc.
The masked marauder was not propitiated. “You know those valve things only protect you, right Kelp? I think that may be ruder than not wearing one at all…..”
“I did not know that, Tiny. This was a freebie from MyUncle, after I dropped off some flatscreens there. I’ll get one without valves. ASAP. As soon as the meet is over. We good?”
A noncommittal grunt being his only response, Andy felt at liberty to unmask and proceed. “Herman? How’s tricks?”
There then appeared the suave sentient silhoutte of Herman X (he had brought back the ‘X’ due to popular demand), their lockman on the job they were perhaps someday going to get around to discussing. “Yo, Andy. Been a while.”
“You look good, Herman. We appreciate you coming in on this–it kind of links up to your other thing, anyway.”
“Oh, you might say that, Andy.” In what might be considered an implicit pun, Herman had dropped into an exaggerated Amos&Andy drawl only he could have gotten away with at the present time. “Massa Fairbanks and me, we just don’t see eye to eye, sho-nuff.” (He smiled in a way that would have made the erstwhile progenitors of Amos&Andy look for the nearest available exit, hoping their feet would not fail them now.)
“How’s all that going, anyway? You’re with that BLT gang, or whatever?”
“Close enough. Like the song says, Everything Old is New Again. I came out of retirement to give these kids the benefit of experience. And trust me, they need it. Oh, they have some good ideas, don’t get me wrong. Great spirit, can’t fault them for that. They just need to learn how to know how to tell the good ideas from the stupidass ones.”
“Oh yeah? How so?” Noting the failure of their string leader to materialize thus far, Andy figured he’d stall for time. Anyway, he always liked hearing what Herman had to say.
“Just to name one particular–this ‘Karen’ thing–it’s getting out of hand. Karen this, Karen that–it started as a way to tell off snooty white chicks–don’t ask me why they couldn’t pick a man’s name, since that’s where most of the really bad shit comes from–and now basically anybody on the fence about this or that plan of action– say there’s some folks questioning the wisdom of pulling down statues of the half-dozen or so white people from the 19th century who weren’t racist–as a protest against racism–Karens!”
“That does sound a bit random…..”
“It’s become a catch-all, and the thing about catch-alls is that they get repurposed. They like it as a way of shutting folks up, so they can go on doing what they like–like some bored brother is setting off M-80’s in the middle of the night because why not, some Dominican nurse yells from the fourth floor she has to work tomorrow–in a ward full of sick people–Karen!”
“But if it’s about privilege why would he call her…”
“Translation–“My life sucks, so I don’t have to care about your problems.” Works pretty much the same way as all the shit folks call us, though I suppose a genuine Karen wouldn’t use that word–just think it. While calling the cops on her cell. Cops don’t need to call anyone names to get their points across.”
“Why did they pick ‘Karen’?” Kelp was fascinated. There was a growing danger of him forgetting what they were virtually gathered to discuss, which the renewed buzzing and fizzling from the screen might have been trying to get across to him, but he ignored it in favor of becoming still more woke.
“The etymology is obscure, which is pretty much always the way. The basic idea is sound–make whitey finally feel what it’s like to have an effective slur directed at him. One with teeth, since ‘honky’ never worked. Not over-specific, like ‘guinea,’ ‘kike’, ‘taig’–at this point, we’re all so assimilated, melanin content is all anyone sees, unless you’ve got some kind of religious garb on.
“And that would mainly be the people you don’t want to piss off.”
“You got it. We need something relating to content of character, but still strictly for the ofays. However, since ‘Karen’ is really more about hating on women, the execution is half-assed, all the more since misogynists like using it as well–possible that’s where it started, which would be ironic. Well, we’ve had so much less practice than you with this shit. We’ll catch up. My question is, why not try ‘Fairbanks’? Unisex, and that sure has teeth now. Nobody wants to be a goddam Fairbanks. Except him, naturally.”
Deeply moved by Herman sharing all this with him, Kelp felt an expression of professional solidarity was called for. “The cops have been pretty tough on you guys lately.”
Herman’s shrug was eloquent. “Sure. They’re cops.”
There being nothing to say to that, Andy opted to move on in the queue. Dortmunder had still not made his entrance. Time to call in tech support.
“Wally? We can’t seem to get John. Could you maybe look into that?”
As a djinn from a bottle emerged the plump bearded countenance of Wally Knurr, whose informal position within the gang was roughly homonymous with his name.
“Already on it, Andy! I think there’s a problem with the…” (technobabble ensued, which Kelp pretended to follow–interested as he invariably was in gadgets of all kinds, he never worried overmuch about terminology).
“Great, Wally! I’m sure you’ll have John up to speed in no time. There were bound to be a few hiccups the first time, right John? (Buzzing. Fizzling. It didn’t sound happy, but then, how could it?)
Kelp made a valiant attempt at condolence, not normally his strong suit. “Wally, how’s Myrtle doing? I heard about her mom…..”
“Still pretty sad, Andy, thanks for asking. I proposed marriage, and somehow that didn’t cheer her up, but I got a hug, anyway.” Wally looked pensive a moment, then went back to pecking at his laptop. A sconce later–“There! That ought to do it. John, could you try again?”
The display changed once more, and this time it was indeed the saturnine sad sack visage all had been awaiting. Andy Kelp cried out, in unparalleled delight, “John! At last! Welcome to the Digital Age!”
John Dortmunder gazed upon all virtually assembled, with a mixture of scorn, exasperation, and incredulity. “What is any of this crap supposed to accomplish?”
A question he was not alone in asking, but the answers to these and other questions would have to wait a while longer.
TO BE CONTINUED