I did my best to pay attention but I spent every other moment scanning the room for the hidden camera. I checked the clock, the phone, the walls, the dropped ceiling, the video display unit, and I scanned suit buttons. There didn’t seem to be a thing out of place. If they were playing with me it was going over well. The whole group occupied themselves perfectly by pushing papers around and filling me in on the joys of, among other things, selling polish.
They didn’t need the projector.
And after an hour and a half of mind-splitting monotony the hoax theory seemed to grow more and more plausible. All those rugs flailing around the room like skinned monkeys and not one of them had anything to say about it - It just couldn’t be. It had to be a put on.
I watched closely for sly signs. I figured they had to be teasing one another somehow. I dropped my pen and quickly hunched under the table to see if they were nudging knees or tapping each other’s shoes in delight.
They were good, I had to give them that. At one point Bob actually gave his toupee a great big smack and then, with both hands, adjusted it on his head as if it were a football helmet. Then he looked me right in the eye, shrugged, and put on a wry smile. That’s when I figured it was over.
I laughed. It was a snicker-laugh, a chortle. I looked straight at Bob, hunched my shoulders and lightly mimicked the helmet routine.
I laughed again.
Bob had little reaction. He gave a small wince, picked up his pen and turned his attention back to the presentation. But an instant later, almost imperceptibly, he blinked a quick eye my way. It was a game.
I shook my head slightly and put on a broad smile. Bob caught it and winced again. Buzz, catching the moment, interrupted the presentation.
“…Have a question for us?”
“Me? No. A question?” I replied, maintaining the silly grin.
Chuck was in animated mid-sentence during the interruption and paused. Like dominos, each member of the group turned to face their attention towards me.
Buzz took a slow breath and said, “Just thought you were trying to get Bob’s attention there for a second.” Then he shot Bob an authoritative look and rested his hand, palm down, on the coffee pot. Bob shrugged and winced a third time.
“Chuck, you were saying?” said Buzz, pushing forward.
That’s when I began to think that the hoax angle maybe wasn’t the prize-winning thought of the day.
All I wanted to do was fly into town, make people smile, take them to lunch and go home. I didn’t bargain for the geek show; I wanted out. There was no way that I could hold a serious conversation with any of these guys, and forget about lunch. I wouldn’t be able to eat. At that point, sitting there in the conference room, I just wanted to go home - hidden camera or no hidden camera.
I sat there and thought about how to escape. My mind began to wander. Buzz promptly brought me back to reality.
“So boys, are we ready for lunch?”
Lunch! I screamed to myself, shocking the last of the circus thought off the bar.
“Lunch?” I said, perhaps a bit too wide-eyed. I hadn’t prepared. I only had the two votes from Rudy and May. The toupee thing had me so distracted I completely forgot about arranging lunch.
“Yes lunch.” Said Bob, still visibly questioning my character after the awkward moment earlier. “You do eat lunch?”
“Ah, lunch. Yes, I do eat lunch...” I rolled open my notebook as casually as possible. What was it? What was it… The Pink Heifer? The Black Cow…
“I’ve heard the Red Pony is a fine place?” I asked, more than announced.
“Why sure is!” declared Willie and Chuck in unison. The other men shook their disastrous heads in agreement.
“Well, lunch is on me today, gentleman. It’s the least I can do for the hospitality you’ve shown me!”
I was in a terrible bind. There we were, about to go into the public realm - the country circus sideshow and me. I’m not good in the public forum. I choke up, I’m quick to bouts of paranoia – I say and do stupid things. The backs of my knees were already sweating. That spelled trouble. The sweaty knees are just a warning.
Before I knew it, we were racing down the road in a company van. George had the wheel and he wasn’t kidding about it. I always thought that people in the country took their time about things. George apparently didn’t think so. He had his foot anchored on the gas pedal the whole ride into town. There was no slowing down for curves and I’m guessing that stop signs are optional out here in the sticks. No one else seemed to mind getting flattened against the passenger windows each time George raced around a bend in the road. All I could think of was slamming into a tree at seventy miles an hour - how it would have been a blessing.
The van skidded into the parking lot of the Red Pony. Before any of us even had the doors open four more vans and trucks had skidded up in a similar fashion. Everyone was skidding.
There was a riot for the door. Men and women of every shape and size clamored along the wide pathway from the parking lot to the restaurant entrance. It seemed the whole town made it to the Red Pony for lunch.
There were loud greetings, heavy, dusty slaps on backs, walloping handshakes and the hoots and hollers of friends and relations.
A large man with a cowboy hat, followed by another troupe of local patrons greeted Bob.
“Beat us this time Bobby-Boy!” He doffed his hat and when he did I was mildly surprised to find an ugly, little toupee beneath it.
One at a time I scanned the heads of the other patrons. Sure as hell – the whole damned town was covered in rugs. But before I could swallow that beautiful realization I was shoved through the swinging doors into the well-regarded eatery.
It was a bar; a honky-tonk bar filled with smoke, beer bottles, a working fireplace, old couches and some dusty animal’s heads on the wall. The place was littered with signs for Budweiser Beer and a bunch of wooden tables that had been lacquered too many times. I counted two, no three, dartboards near a kitchen where burgers and ribs were being rocketed out the door by two very good looking waitresses, whom by the way, seemed to have long and natural blond hair. These waitresses were delivering sky-high piles of food and beer to tables filled with loud and animated men and women. All of the men in the place, every last one of them, wore a toupee.
“I’ll have a Bud,” I remember saying to the waitress.
Five beers later we were still waiting for our food. Somewhere after the third beer it occurred to me that all the racing in the van had indeed served a purpose; it bought beer time.
By the time the food came I was laughing with the whole gang. The fact that the whole male population of the town was riddled with toupeetosis went floating to the back of my mind on a wave of cold foam.
Three of the lower managers were hilarious when drunk. Maybell showed up at the end of the third beer and did her best to catch up. They teased her about her quirky speech and she, in turn, teased them about their own little foibles; but nowhere along the line did anyone mention the rug-jobs.
end of part 3