Monday, December 31, 2018

Buddies (A Mark Flyleaf Story)

The door swung open, and a small but severe young man in a gray, secondhand, pinstriped suit sauntered in. Behind him, filling the doorway, was a wall of a man, six-and-a-half feet tall if he was an inch. He clasped his huge, calloused hands respectfully in front of his genitals over faded denim overalls. He had to duck to get through the door, showing the top of his navy blue newsboy cap that, though it was probably the largest size they made, seemed two sizes too small for his cinder block of a head.

Mark stood. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t expecting two of you. I’ll have Janice bring us another chair.”

The smaller man waved his hand. “No need,” he said. He turned to the larger man. “Have a seat, Lennie.”

Lennie the giant nodded silently and slipped into the chair, head bowed. The two men were now eye-to-eye.

Mark sat down and quickly read the application. “So, you must be Lennie Small.” The giant’s head bobbed up and down. “And you would be . . . ?”

“My name is George. George Milton. I’m Lennie’s friend.” George’s accent was difficult to place, somewhere between Bronx and Boston, but somehow decidedly Midwestern. “I’m just along for, uh, moral support. Lennie’s kind of, uh, special, you see.”

“Oh, I see.” The world of fiction was full of unique characters and creatures, so that special as a general term for a person held no real meaning. In Mark’s experience, special was used to describe a certain type of person with limited intellect. From the giant’s demeanor, his nervous, averted eyes, and the way his mouth never quite closed, Mark was certain that’s the type of special George was talking about.

George put his hand on Lennie’s massive shoulder. “Hat, Lennie.”

“Oop!” Lennie yanked the cap from his head and wadded it up in his lap. “Sorry, George.”

“Well, good morning to both of you. My name is Mark.”

Lennie waved hesitantly. “Hi, Mark,” he said.

“So, I understand that you are looking for some literary work.”

“Huh?” Lennie said, looking at George.

“That’s right,” George said. “We want to find Lennie a nice, comfortable story to work in.”

“Well, that’s why I’m here,” Mark said. “What kind of things do you like to do, Lennie?”

Lennie shrugged and hummed an approximation of ‘I don’t know.’

George spoke up. “Lennie’s a big boy, obviously. He can lift and push and, you-know-what-I-mean, manual labor.”

Lennie stared into his lap, his lips etched into a frown.

“Do you enjoy working with your hands, Lennie? With your muscles?” Mark asked.

Lennie shrugged again.

“What do you like, Lennie?”

“What, you don’t like working?” George asked.

Lennie paused for a moment, then shook his head.

“All right, Lennie. Then tell the man what you like?”

Lennie hummed and screwed up his face in thought. “I like . . . umm,” he continued to hum.

Mark scanned the application. Not much information there, so he tried a new tack. “Do you like cars?”

Lennie shook his head.


Another head shake.

“How about animals?”

Lennie’s face smoothed. His eyebrows went up, and his lips widened into a smile made of adorably crooked teeth. He nodded his head ferociously.

“Good. Animals,” said Mark. “So, are we talking horses? Or elephants? How about dinosaurs?”

Lennie’s smile disappeared. “Nuh-uh,” he boomed, shaking his head.

George lightly struck the meaty part of his hand to his own forehead. “Animals! Why didn’t I think of that?! He loves animals. He’s got his own pet mouse at home that he takes care of, don’t you Lennie?”

Lennie’s great head bobbed up and down once more. “Uh-huh. His name is Burnsey.”

Mark turned to his computer and executed a search for roles that included animal companions. “So you like mice, eh? They can be awfully cute, with their little twitching whiskers.” The search returned a large number of possibilities. Mark added filters for adult roles, which eliminated many, but still left him with a lot of options.

One of the last options on the search screen was a field called “Character Intellect,” which could be set to “Genius,” “Average” (the default), “Below Average,” or “Low.” Mark had used that filter only once, and that was only because a client, a Mister Ignatius Reilly, insisted that he change it to “Genius.” He considered setting this field to “Low,” but it didn’t feel right somehow.

He looked up at Lennie. He was one of the largest non-supernatural men he had ever seen. He could have made a good boxer, or warrior, or human forklift. But one look at Lennie’s face was enough to know that he wasn’t suitable for fighting or simply as a strong arm. The crooked teeth in his un-self-conscious smile, his wide, unassuming eyes, and the way he rumpled his hat in unabashed excitement made him look like not so much a man, but a large boy, still innocent, naive, and hopeful. Mark felt wrong labeling him as a dullard, even if it was just to a computer database.

“Let’s see what we get if we just cut to the chase, shall we?” Mark added mouse NOT mickey to the search terms. To his surprise, the new search resulted in two possibilities, both absolutely suitable for this particular client. “I think we’ve found a winner!” Mark exclaimed.

Lennie clapped his big hands and bounced in the chair. Mark couldn’t help but smile.

“Watch ya got?” George asked.

Mark filled out a contact card while he spoke. “According to the description here, you, Lennie, would be the subject of a scientific experiment that could make your life a lot better.”

“What about the mouse?” Lennie asked. “You said there would be a mouse.”

“The mouse will be going through the same process that you will, so you’ll get to spend a lot of time with it.”

“What’s his name?” Lennie asked.

“Who? The mouse?”

Lennie nodded.

Mark scrolled down the screen. “It looks like the author, a Mister Daniel Keyes, is still trying to decide what name to give the little guy, but he’s narrowed it down to either Algernon or Kanye.”

Lennie clapped his hands again and his grin grew by inches. “I like mice, George. They’re so soft and cuddly.”

“I know, Lennie, I know.”

Mark passed the contact card to George. “Here is the information you’ll need, and make sure you take this card with you. Simply contact Mister Keyes and set up an appointment to meet with him to see if Lennie is the right man for the role. I can’t imagine you’ll have any problems, though, if this description is accurate.”

“Thank you, Mister Flyleaf,” George said.

“But what about George?” Lennie asked.

George and Mark exchanged a quizzical look.

“What about me?” George asked.

“I don’t want to do this by myself. You’ll come with me, won’t you George?”

“Sure, I’ll come with you to meet Mister Keyes.”

“And then, if he likes me, you’ll come with me to the story, too, right?”

George sighed. “We talked about this, Lennie. We’re just looking for a place for you right now. I’m up for the lead role in a novel myself.”

Mark’s curiosity was piqued. “Oh, congratulations! May I ask what novel that might be?”

“Oh, this guy named Frank Fitzgerald is thinking about putting me in one of his books. The Great Milton, it’ll be called. If I get the part, anyway. It’s down to me and this other guy, Jay something-or-other.”

“Can I come with you to that story, George?” Lennie asked.

“Now Lennie, we talked about this before we came. That would be my story. We’re trying to find you your story.”

“But I don’t want to do my story alone!” Lennie looked on the verge of tears. George looked to Mark for help.

Mark shrugged and glanced at the screen, more to break uncomfortable eye contact than for any other reason, but the other listing there caught his attention and gave him an idea.

“Hold on a minute,” Mark said. “Here’s another story that might work for both of you.”

Lennie’s mouth opened in surprise. He grabbed the front edge of the desk and leaned forward. Mark tried not to worry that the man’s weight and strength might collapse the desk.

“Do you like rabbits, Lennie?”

“Rabbits?” he said slowly. “Little fuzzy ones with big ears?”

“The very same.”

Lennie’s gape became a grin. “Would I get to feed them?”

Mark scanned the posting again. “Hmm, doesn’t say that specifically, but maybe.”

Unable (and unwilling) to control his excitement, Lennie bounced in the chair and clapped his hands. “I wanna feed the rabbits, George!”

George sighed and shook his head. “You said this might work for both of us?”

“Right,” Mark said. “The author is looking for a pair of characters quite a lot like the two of you. It’s a buddy story, of sorts.”

“But this other novel . . .”

“Think of this as a backup plan,” Mark said. “Do you know when your current employer, Mister, uh . . .”


“. . . Mister Fitzgerald will be making his final decision about your role?”

“Supposed to be this weekend.”

“Perfect.” Mark started filling out a second contact card. “In the unfortunate event that you do not get that role, you can contact Mister Steinbeck about hiring the both of you. And, of course, if you do get the role with Mister Fitzgerald, you can still contact Mister Keyes about this role just for Lennie.”

George stuck out his chin and nodded his head. “Sounds like a good plan, Mister Flyleaf.”

Mark handed him the contact card and stood up. “I wish you luck gentlemen. Don’t forget to take these cards with you when you meet the authors.” Mark extended his arm and shook George’s hand.

“We will. Thank you, Mister Flyfleaf,” George said.

Lennie stood up, flopped the hat back on his head, and grabbed Mark’s hand in a crushing handshake. “Yeah, thank you, mister.”

“Good luck, Lennie,” Mark said through gritted teeth.

Lennie followed George back out the door, talking the whole time. “I can’t wait to feed the rabbits, George. Do you know what rabbits eat, George? Do you think I’ll be able to take Burnsey with me to the story? Can we get some ice cream, George?” And then the outer door closed on their conversation.

Mark had not seen such uncontrolled joy in a long, long time. It’s days like this, he thought, massaging his hand, that make this job worthwhile.

He sat down at his desk and pushed the intercom button. “Janice?”

“Yes, Mister F?”

“What does my schedule look like for the rest of the day?”

“You’ve got a Miss Havisham coming in at two-thirty, but it’s otherwise clear.”

Mark smiled. “That’s great, Janice. Why don’t you take the rest of the day off?”

“Really, Mister F? What’s the occasion?”

“I was just reminded of why this job is important. This whole fiction business, really.”

“And why’s that?”

Mark collected his thoughts for a moment. “Even though there’s plenty of hurt and fear and anxiety in the world — both the real world and the fictional ones — there’s also joy. And it’s that joy that comes from friendship, from family, from sharing, from . . . well . . . love that connects us. It isn’t the fear or the hurt; it’s the love. Fiction teaches us that.”

“You aren’t going soft on me, are you, Mister F?”

Mark chuckled. “Janice, just for that, I’m taking you to lunch, too. Get your things together. I’ll be out in a minute.”