Chapter 22: Car Trouble
“Chris?” a soft voice beckoned to Chris from the quiet soft womb of his sleep. “Chris? Baby, wake up.” Chris felt a soft, feminine hand gently shake his shoulder. He simply rocked in the cradle of his dreams. “Chris, baby?” the voice persisted. “You need to wake up, now.” The voice, Sherry, was not doting or overly gentle, and becoming more insistent with each syllable. Chris’s slumber began to shake from a gentle cradle rocking to an earth quake. His breath caught in his chest as he snorted and was being roused.
His exhausted mind went from the tired hibernation of a dreamless sleep to a kind of restful alertness. His mind was becoming active before his body, and he entered a kind of panic mode. ‘What was happening?’ his consciousness vaguely wondered. Were they home yet? But if so, why the urgency in Sherry’s voice? Were they in some kind of car crash? Doubtful, Sherry was starting to nag him, but she’d be screaming if it were a real emergency. Perhaps he was wetting in his sleep again, only now without the protection of an adult diaper to shield the upholstery of Sherry’s car. That made sense to Chris.
‘But wait a minute,’ Chris wondered to himself as his body unconsciously shifted with each of the gentle shakes his girlfriend was administering him, ‘I don’t really have that problem, that’s just the story I’m going-‘
“NOW!” Sherry’s voice practically shouted, breaking Chris from his train of thought. It wasn’t a half-second later that Christopher Cole IV opened his eyes.
“I’M NOT A BABY!” Chris shouted at the top of his lungs as he sat forward. His eyes for at least the second time today glanced down at his crotch expecting to see a spreading wet spot or feel the bulkiness of a diaper between his thighs. When he was rewarded with neither sight, he was met with a slight giggle coming from Sherry.
“Hon,” Sherry chided with a condescending chuckle, “It’s been like, 10 minutes, tops.” She shook her head in amusement, the sound of concern in her voice completely erased. “Nobody wets in their sleep THAT quickly. Well maybe a baby, but that’s less like bedwetting and more like going to the bathroom one last time before bed.” Chris shrunk down in his seat little, Sherry’s words hitting closer to home than she realized.
“Oh, yeah, right,” Chris said, trying to shake the cobwebs out of his head. “So why’d you wake me up?” he asked still bleary eyed. He looked out the passenger side window of Sherry’s car and noticed that the scenery wasn’t moving. The car wasn’t moving either, he noticed as his senses started to wake up with the rest of him. The air wasn’t on, and there wasn’t the low hum of the engine slightly and subtly reverberating through the floor.
Chris gave a big audible yawn that echoed through his head right as Sherry started talking. She was definitely going to have to repeat that. “We ow a ass,” Sherry sounded like over his yawn. But that didn’t make much sense, did it? Damn, but Chris was drained. He had pulled more than his fair share of all-nighters studying for exams and finishing term papers, but the following day was usually a walking crash waiting to happen. Wait…
“Did we just crash?!” Chris asked, the blood beginning to pump through his veins again; a small shot of adrenaline racing to his brain. Sherry, for her part just shook her head as if he had asked one of the world’s dumbest questions.
“Does it look like we had a crash?” she gestured around. They were on the side of the road, but other than the car being immobile and definitely off, there was no sign of a collision. Chris’s eyes beheld no car, nor semi, nor tree, or even a ditch.
“I said,” Sherry paused for emphasis, “We’re out of gas.”
“Oh,” Chris replied almost stupidly. “How did that happen?”
“The tank read as full,” she told him, “I think my gas gauge must be broken.”
Chris heaved a sigh, now becoming weary once the threat of immediate danger had been disproved. “How far to the nearest gas station?” Chris asked, already unbuckling his seat belt. He was going to have to walk to the nearest one, buy a can to fill up with gasoline so he could walk back and fill up the car. It was a great topping on the shit sandwich that his last few days had been since waking up in a psych ward.
Sherry placed her arm on his chest to stop him from moving.
“Whoah whoah whoah, easy babe,” Sherry said looking into his eyes, a sympathetic smile lining her lips. “I’ll go get the gas. I was only waking you so that you wouldn’t be freaked out if you woke up in a hot car and I wasn’t there.”
“Seriously?” Chris asked, guiltily feeling a little relieved that he wouldn’t have to trek down the road and back.
“Yeah,” Sherry confirmed, “You look like you feel terrible. I’m not letting you do that to yourself. I mean, I’d normally like the company, but I don’t think you’d be up for making the trip. Besides,” she added, “the nearest gas station is only like a mile, mile and a half away. So it’s not that far.”
Chris was too tired to pull any macho but-I’m-the-man stunts. Laying back in a car with a window opened for the time it would take Sherry to reach a gas station and back would suck, but it wouldn’t drain the life out of him like making the journey himself would. His eyes were already closing of their own accord when Sherry said…
“Wait, what’s that noise?” Sherry asked, her head tilting to the side.
“What noise?” Chris asked, not hearing anything.
“Just listen”. And so they did.
At first Chris couldn’t hear anything. He had to open the passenger door and take a step out to even hear anything outside the car. Sherry had already taken similar initiative. The stretch of road that they were on was unusually placid this time of day. Either lunch hour traffic had just ended, or had yet to truly begin. Then, faintly, Chris heard it. It was quiet at first, and then louder, and louder.
Putta-putta-pop-putta-putta-pop-putta-pop-putta-pop-putta-pop-pop-pop-pop! It was a bubbling, burbling noise that was almost cheery or whimsical in nature. It was the sort of perfect, not quite real bubbling sound that was in the background of every fake mad scientist’s lab in every cheesy kids cartoon.
Pop-pop-pop-putta-putta-pop-putta-putta-pop-putta-pop-pop-pop-pop! It was almost happy, like whatever contraption, and it was a contraption, somehow Chris knew this, was built more as an amusement than for any practical reason.
Then, on the horizon, the vehicle came into view. “No. Way.” Sherry giggled in disbelief. “Chris, you gotta see this!” Chris fixed his gaze where Sherry had been looking and made out the shape of a car. But it wasn’t anything even close to modern. It looked like a polished up, near mint condition, Ford Model-T, all steel boxes with four wheels on the bottom. It didn’t vroom as much as it chugged along the highway, and Chris thought that it looked more like it belonged in a vintage cartoon, than a history reel. It seemed to sway as it moved, with a gentle rocking motion, almost as if the thing were alive, and jauntily bobbing its head. The car wasn’t driving, as much as it seemed to be taking a stroll.
What really caught Chris’s eye, though, was the driver. He was old, at least eighty if he was a day. And even from this distance, Chris could make out the devilish goatee and the shock of white hair coming out from under the top hat that completed his silhouette. Chris’s mind flashed back to what had only been a few days ago and remembered the mall.
“Oh no,” Chris said before opening his door back up to slide back inside the car. “Oh no, no, no, no!”
“Chris, we need to flag him down,” Sherry insisted.
“Sherry, this guy is trouble, trust me!” Chris practically yelped.
“How could he be trouble?” Sherry replied incredulously, “He looks older than my grandpa, I think we could take him.” Chris was having none of this and shut his car door, and actually locked the door as though that might accomplish something. “Also,” she added, “poor people don’t drive in cars that poor people drove like a hundred years ago, rich people do. Maybe he can help us.”
“He’s crazy!” Chris shrieked with rising panic.
“When you’re rich, it’s called eccentric!” Sherry countered. Sherry just didn’t understand. There was something off about this guy. He had run across this guy in the mall just the other day, and the looks he gave Chris, the conspiratorial winks; the slight ribbing and the way he had phrased things to Bri and Roxanne. Chris had known somehow, that the old man in the mall with his goofy getup and magic tricks had seen Chris for what he really was, and past the lie. He had known that Chris wasn’t really a baby, but a young man in diapers. That thought alone made Chris want to piss himself, and not in the fun way.
Chris was about to retort when his own thoughts were drowned out by the ‘putta-putta-pop-pop-putta-pop-putta-putta-putta-pop’ of the strolling jalopy that had pulled up right behind Sherry’s car on the side of the road. He had pulled over! Chris couldn’t stop himself from mouthing the words ‘oh no’ again and again.
He glanced in the rear view mirror, as the Model-T’s ignition shut down and ‘putta-pops’ ceased. The old man was out of the car, and walking forward. Chris made out the baggy black pants with the purple stripes, and the white wingtip shoes. He tilted the mirror to take in the red and yellow checkered shirt, covered by the red and black polka-dot vest. Sherry had ignored Chris’s warnings and was already walking toward the crazy old coot, oblivious to the danger he must present.
He whipped his head around to see with his own eyes and suddenly spotted Wubby in the back seat. The bear, who hadn’t been there before, Chris knew, was silently smiling up at him with its thin thread stitching and mismatched ruby and sapphire eyes. Furthermore, it was now holding the bag of psychiatric medications that had been prescribed to him in his stuffed stubby arms. The unexpected surprise, combined with elements that were increasingly becoming beyond Chris’s ability to control, sent him into a minor panic attack.
“Shit!” Chris jumped, and then practically hurled himself out of the car, face first into the dirt. It was as if Chris had thought the car was moving at 100 miles an hour with no breaks and was about to crash and the only way to save himself was to fling himself from the hurtling metal casket. It would have been slightly amusing if it hadn’t been so sad.
Chris oomphed as he landed almost directly on his face and felt the wind knocked out of him. The world came up in spots and flashes. A whining ringing sound filled his ears and his chest hurt as he tried to breathe. He felt Sherry’s gentle, feminine hands grab his shoulder and start to lead him to his feet.
“Young man, are you alright?” a voice of a concerned old man came through the ringing. Chris’s vision cleared, and he found himself staring face to face with that all too familiar face.
“Wizard!” Chris sucked in his breath. The codger winked at him in return.
“Not quite,” the whispered in a tone that Chris was sure only he could hear. “Why Mister Cole,” he spoke up in a voice that both Sherry and Chris could hear, “It’s so good to see you again. How was the hospital?”
Sherry was by Chris’s side and engaging. “Chris, you know this guy?”
“Oh, I’ve known Chris since he was in diapers,” the strange old man replied, his cat-that-ate-the-canary smile coming into full bloom. “Why it seems like just a few days ago, earlier this week in fact.”
Chris just stuttered and stammered, utterly flabbergasted. What could he say? ‘Sorry hon, but the last few days I’ve been flipping back and forth from being normal and being a giant baby. This guy’s in on the secret for some reason. I think he’s magic’. Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.
“What?” Sherry voiced her own disbelief. “Chris, you never told me you knew this guy. Is that why you didn’t want to see him?”
“Um..er..um,” Chris stuttered. His own whimpering was drowned out by the old man’s laughter.
“Bwahahahahaha!” the old man chortled before wiping his eyes. “I’m terribly sorry about that, young man,” he said in his not-quite English accent. “I didn’t mean to put you in a spot with your lady-friend.” He turned to Sherry. “I’ve never met this young man in my life. I’m just an old humbug having fun at a young man’s expense.”
“But how?” Sherry asked, letting her question hand in the air
“I do believe introductions are in order,” the ridiculously dressed man spoke, carrying all the pomp of a performer about to go into a spiel. “My name is Professor Bumble, owner and proprietor of Professor Bumble’s Very Humble Auto Shop and MAAAAAAAAAGIC EMPORIUM” the last words echoed out into the open air. He flicked his wrist and produced a business card. Chris eyed the ring on his finger, and saw that this time it was a sparkling blue sapphire.
“You’re a..” Sherry searched for the word.
“I’m a magician,” Professor Bumble helped her, “I magish.” Sherry returned the joke with a short polite laugh through her nose. Chris didn’t even favor him with that much.
“Yeah…but- “ Sherry started to say.
“How did I know?” the magician interrupted, “Well as L. Frank Baum pointed out, most magic is the result of clever observation and the manipulation of perception.” He gestured towards Chris. “I deduced Mr. Cole’s name because I was fortunate enough to glimpse the name on his basketball jersey.” He stroked his beard in thought. “I don’t recognize the colors, so I’d guess that is your high school jersey, but that you’re not in high school anymore. You’re not tall enough to play college ball either.”
“Wow, you’re good,” Sherry complimented the strange figure in front of them.
“How’d you know about the hospital?” Chris found himself being drawn in. He desperately wanted to believe this was all coincidence, but couldn’t allow himself.
“It’s the only major landmark within miles of here.” Professor Bumble said with an admittedly professorial tone. “That, and I noticed the bear with the prescription medicine in the backseat while your girlfriend was picking you up off the ground. You’re a little old for a Teddy, but that looks like a boy’s bear to me. I’m presuming it’s a childhood toy to comfort you during your stay.”
Sherry was about to open her mouth to ask something, when a withered hand was raised to cut her off.
“I’m an old man, my dear,” Bumble smiled, not unkindly. “I’ve been around long enough to notice how a young lady looks at a young man. Friends and relatives don’t look at friends and relatives like you did to him when he tripped and fell on his way to meet us. There’s attraction there, and more than a little love.”
Sherry didn’t blush as much as she lightly glowed, and shrugged her shoulders. “Meh, fair.” Then she looked down at the business card in her hand. “So you’re a magician,” she paused, “….. and an auto mechanic?”
“It’s admittedly a niche market,” Professor Bumble replied, “but you’d be surprised how popular it’s becoming.”
“I thought you ran the arcade at the mall,” Chris jumped in. He immediately felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He turned to Sherry. She had already cocked an eyebrow to ask him the question. “Bri told me about the new arcade. The name Professor Bumble kind of leaves an impression.”
“Played like a true player of the Game,” the Professor remarked; his grin going from catlike to shark smile in an instant. Chris’s ears pricked up. His brain heard the capital G in that last word.
“What game?” Sherry and Chris both asked simultaneously.
“Why Game of magic!” the codger chuckled. “It’s all about altering perceptions! You remembered something that you heard, and presented this information at the right time so that it seemed you were more informed than either I or your lady friend assumed. As soon as your audience believes you know more than you really do, you’ve already got them half way entranced.
“Yes,” he went on, “I am the proprietor of that establishment as well. Get them hooked on magic young, get them hooked on magic old. Young or old, it doesn’t matter in my eyes. Young or old. You’re a little bit of both, aren’t you Mr. Cole? Oh yes. You, Mr. Cole, you’re a regular ‘Whizzzzzzard’!” And then he began to belly laugh at a joke that only he and Chris could possibly understand. His laughter was cut short as a flock of white doves burst from his top hat, fluttering and flapping into the sky.
“Damn,” he swore. “I need to stop losing birds.” He removed his top hat from his head and shook a pillow’s worth of feathers out. The awkwardness of the situation just spread with the feathers in the air.
“Ummm…you said you were an auto mechanic?” Sherry prompted. “I think my gas gauge broke. My car won’t work. Any chance you could help us out?”
“Oh…of course!” The old man lit up, before reaching into his hat and literally taking out a lit light bulb. He pointed to it with his free index finger, his eyebrows mugging for the young couple. “That just gave me an idea!”
Chris couldn’t take much more. This was getting more ludicrous by the moment.
“OKAY!” Chris blurted out. “We get it, you’re a magician, now can you please stop clowning around?!”
The old man stopped, and the bulb went dim. Chris heard a quiet thunder rumbling in the distance. “I am NOT…” the bulb exploded in the old man’s hand, “a clown.” Chris and Sherry just stood there, eyes wide, both uncomfortable, with only Chris suspecting that there was more going on here than an eccentric old man with a magic act. There was a pause, and all was dark. Then sunshine seemed to come back into the world.
“Now, let’s see about getting you two back on the road and on the right path, shall we?” Professor Bumble smiled walking towards their car. Chris and Sherry only looked at each other in disbelief as the hood to Sherry’s car was popped open.
“Now let’s see what seems to be the problem,” Bumble said putting his face under the hood. Jets of purple, yellow, and green smoke blasted out from under the hood. Sherry’s car engine had just become a pyrotechnics display at a rock concert. The old man’s head snapped back, and he began coughing and sputtering.
“Seems like a clown to me,” Sherry whispered to Chris.
“Shhhh!” Chris hissed at her. “He’ll hear you.”
Professor Bumble stumbled out of the techno-color display, his face now tie-dyed save for his ivory beard and mustache. He coughed a bit, and snorted green and purple smoke from his nostrils. He seemed to have his a fist full of wadded pieces of paper.
“Well, I found your problem,” the old humbug said, “It seems your engine was clogged with” he coughed, “Monopoly money.” He held out his hand as though to prove it. Sure enough, he had wads of ‘500’ ‘100’ and ‘50’ dollar bills, all colored yellow and blue and more than paper-thin. “Go start your car.”
“Seriously?” Sherry asked the old man. “I’m pretty sure it’s the gas gauge.”
“Go try it,” he gestured, “if it doesn’t work, I’ll pay for a tow truck myself.”
Sherry looked at Chris. Chris nodded his consent, and Sherry walked back to the driver’s seat. The old magician leaned in and spoke quietly to Chris
“The Game is very confusing, I realize,” Professor Bumble spoke confidentially, almost comfortingly, “but if you’re going to play it, you need to figure out the rules.”
“What game? And what are the rules?” Chris asked. Finally, this guy was being upfront.
“I can’t tell you right now. Otherwise I’d be breaking the rules,” the Professor answered. “Figure out the basics first, then come to me when you’re ready.”
Sherry’s car roared to life while she turned the key. “Hey, hon!” Sherry yelled over her car, “Don’t ask me how, but it worked!” She waved to him. Chris waved back. The old guy was starting to talk straight, now was not the time for interruptions.
“Awesome!” Chris waved back. “I’ll pay him.” He turned to the geezer. “How the hell do I figure that out?” Chris whispered.
Professor Bumble did a half shrug. “Take your time, and pay attention instead of getting wrapped up in everything. In the meantime,” he placed the crumpled play money in Chris’s hands, “go play with your sisters; perhaps as the big brother, this time. Monopoly’s a kids’ game, but not for babies I’d imagine.”
Chris knew a hint when he heard one. “Ooooooookay,” he said. “How much do I owe you for the car?”
“Oh nothing,” the magician waved off the question, “this one’s on the house. Remember, you have my card when you’re ready.” Chris instinctively reached behind his ear and grasped at nothing. He looked at the old man. “You must not be ready yet,” he said. Safe travels, my boy. Safe travels.”
Then the old man abruptly ran back to his Model-T, started it up, and sped off. This time, there was no “putta-putta-pop”. This time the car did not sway back and forth like it was on a leisurely stroll. Instead it zipped off like a racecar with an engine that roared like a lion.
The adrenaline from seeing the old man once again, vanished as quickly as the Model-T did on the horizon. Chris was tired again. Perhaps more tired than he had ever been. But he had work to do. It was only a clue, but he felt he was on the verge of a breakthrough of making sense of the madhouse his life had turned into.
Completely numb and emotionally drained, Chris dragged himself to the car and slid into the passenger side seat and buckling up.
“That was really weird,” Sherry told Chris.
“I know.” Chris agreed.
“No wonder you wanted to avoid that guy.”
“Yup.” Chris sucked on his top lip.
“Did we just get punked or something?”
“Well, what do we do now?” Sherry asked.
Chris sighed, “Let’s go home. Maybe play some Monopoly.”
OCTOBER 17, 1859 SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA.
“YOU HAVE HAD YOUR MOON!” the two voices boomed in the streets of San Francisco. “NOW CHOOSE!” Joseph Abraham Norton stood in the street, dripping in a cold sweat. It was time. He had known it was coming, but did not want to decide, not yet. Please not yet.
To one side of him on the street was a crown, glowing red with the heat of the San Francisco summer. He knew that if he put that crown on his head, he would reign as Emperor Norton the 1st of America. He would rule over America with plans to conquer both Canada and Mexico. Soon an entire continent would bow to him. Better than that, no one would ever seem to remember that it should be any other way.
To the other side was a simple wooden cross, painted blue, with the paint already peeling, and from it came the chill of a rainy night. The life that simple cross offered was the exact opposite of salvation. His life had been ruined, his business in shambles, and people thought him a gibbering madman. At best, he was a town mockery. Why did the damn idol take the form of a cross? Was it mocking him, and his Christian sensibilities?
Damn his idleness, and damn his daydreaming for wanting something bigger than being a businessman. Damn him for thinking, wishing even, that things be different than they are. This world was no place for dreamers, it turned out, lest those dreams find a way to haunt you.
He licked his lips in temptation and leaned towards the crown. Then he thought better of it and withdrew.
“No,” he declared. “I have lived as Emperor. But the war I’d unleash would be too much. Too many people would die so that I might reign supreme. I might make a good ruler, and fix this blasted country, but too many would suffer for my vanity. I will not have that on my conscience. I will not have that on my soul!”
Joseph reached into the air and plucked the pauper’s cross from it, holding it to his bosom.
“This is my cross to bear. If I must choose between being Royalty or ruined, so be it. Better me than an entire continent. I’ll keep up this act.” And then the world conformed to his choice, as Joseph Norton’s clothes became the rags of a ruined pauper, and people passed him by, pointing and laughing about the article he had “written” proclaiming himself Emperor. He shed a single tear, and then smiled. He had a lot of work to do.
And so that Game was played:
Though he was a pauper. “Emperor” Joseph Norton became a curiosity and even tourist attraction of his age, claiming to be the rightful Emperor of the United States. Local restaurants accepted money that he made himself as legal tender, and he dressed in fine clothes given to him by the local government to enhance his reputation and stature.
Once, when he was arrested as a madman for his claims to the throne, the Police Chief released him, saying “that he had shed no blood, robbed no one, and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” From then on, the policemen of San Francisco were required to salute him as he walked by.
When he died, it is estimated over 10,000 people attended his funeral.