“I guess so.”
She put the plate down. “But I really feel great,” she said. “Niche and looshe and everything.”
“Alcohol has that effect sometimes.”
“It’sh really great.” She extended her arms, beaming. “I’ve got a really wonderful idea.”
I tried explaining it to her. I don’t suppose I did a very good job of it, being still half in the bag myself, but I tried to make her understand about my need for a well-ordered life, my plans to marry and settle down and acquire a power mower and a mortgage. What I said may or may not have made perfect sense, but in any case Plum couldn’t make head or tail out of it, a cliché which, now that I think about it, has particular relevance under the circumstances. Her reply was nonverbal; she took off her clothes and unbuttoned my shirt and rubbed up against me.
“And besides that,” I said, shifting verbal gears, “we don’t have the time. It’s not safe to stick around here, and we should have left a long time ago.”
“You’re right,” she said.
“I’m glad you realize that. So-”
“We should have left lasht night, and we should have left when the shun came up this morning, and we shouldn’t have shtopped to have breakfast, and you shouldn’t have gotten drunk lasht night, and I shouldn’t have gotten drunk this morning. But we did all thoshe things wrong, and we’re shtill here, and it would be fun to make love, and I have all my clothes off, and you have most of your clothes off, and, oh, Evan, put your hand right here for a minute-”
And what I thought, since the human mind is well-equipped for letting ego figure out reasons to give id its way, was that this could serve as a line of demarcation between the old and the new. A final fling with Plum now at the apex of our adventure, and then we could head back the way we came just as I headed back to the life of the new Evan Tanner, the upright suburban Evan Tanner. One final taste of Plum Pudding and tomorrow the diet would begin.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I sighed a long and lazy sigh and rolled over onto my side. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of morning – the wind in the tall grasses, the flies swarming in the other buildings.
“I think I am not drunk any longer.”
“Neither am I.”
“That was very nice, Evan. Does it always make one sober to make love?”
“We should dress now.”
“We should leave at once.”
“Yes,” I said. I sat up. “We really should.” I reached for my clothes. “We wasted far too much time already. Not that it was exactly a waste, but we should have been out of here hours ago. Fortunately it hasn’t done any-”
I didn’t say anything. “Evan? You stopped in the middle of a sentence.”
She was facing the opposite way, her back to the doorway of the building. She couldn’t see what I saw.
“I was going to say harm, it hasn’t done any harm. But I think it has.”
“Don’t turn around,” I said levelly. “Stay where you are, stay calm, don’t turn around-”
So of course she turned around.
And saw what I saw:
Three men, black as power, naked as truth, and tall enough for pro basketball. Three huge naked black men with polished bones through their septa and bone rings on their fingers. Three naked black giants with their genitals painted bloody red.
Looking our way, and grinning.
The thing to do, I thought, was not panic. This thought didn’t do too much good. The thing to do when mountain climbing is not fall, and the thing to do when swimming is not sink, and the thing to do when menaced by three naked black giants is not panic. Sensational.
One of the giants pointed at me. “ Uganda,” he said, more or less. “Mobutu Kasavubu Casaba Curare Montego. Uhuru Godzilla Colorado. Antigua.”
I kept my eyes on the three of them and reached blindly to my left, where I had left my pants. I fumbled in the pocket and found the Swiss Army pocketknife.
“Matilda. Piranha Daktari Laconic Malaysia Tomorrow. Llewellyn Otsego Decatur.”
I opened the knife as surreptitiously as I could under the circumstances, which were not as conducive to that sort of thing as I might have wished. I got the can-opener blade first try. That wouldn’t do at all. Next shot, I got the blade you use for punching holes in belts, if you’ve either lost some weight or stolen a fat man’s belt. I decided it would do for punching holes in people as well, and that I didn’t have time to search for a more conventional weapon. Besides, the belt-hole maker was certainly more useful than, say, the nail file. Or the tweezers.
I held the knife in my right hand and groped around with my left until I latched onto one of the forks with which we had been eating the lamented eggs. While all of this was going on the Modonoland Globetrotters held their ground, saying things like Toyota and Kon-Tiki and Mechanic to each other, and laughing their heads off between phrases. The humor was over my head, but I hoped they would stay amused. I had the feeling that the minute their sense of humor failed them they would turn ugly.
Surprise, I thought. The good old element of surprise, that’s what we had going for us. They figured that we were paralyzed with fear – an understandable misconception, that – and the last thing they expected was an attack. True, there were three of them and one and a half of us. True, they were large enough to astonish a Texan. But they seemed to be unarmed, whereas I had a knife and a fork. Well, a belt punch and a fork. Well, that was something, wasn’t it?
“ Corona,” said the one in the middle, approximately. “Melina Kandinsky Mercouri. Gowanda Kenosha Cunni-”
I did everything at once, because I had the feeling that there would be no second take, that all of this had to be done correctly first time around. I sprang to my feet and charged at them in one fine liquid motion, arms extended and weapons held high, face contorted in my most hideous snarl. I tore the air with a shriek designed to curdle the blood of my opponents and freeze them in their tracks. A phrase came unbidden to mind, a line from the advertisement of a factory-to-you discounter. “It’s time to cut out the middle man,” a voice spoke inside my head, and I sprang at the middle man, fully prepared to cut him out.
The next thing I knew I had left the ground and was flying ass over teacups through the air. It was the damnedest thing ever. I never even had the sensation of physical contact with the man. Obviously he did take hold of me and throw me, but it happened so very suddenly and with such ease and precision that I was never aware of it. I even thought for a moment that I had taken flight, or that there had been an earthquake, or that the world was coming to an end. Nor was I convinced that the three possibilities were mutually exclusive. But I didn’t have too much time to work things out in my head because almost immediately I hit the wall with it and crumpled up on the ground.
I got up again as quickly as I could, which wasn’t very. They looked quite as they had looked before, standing in a row taking things easy, the only change being that they had turned to face me. Behind them Plum was posing as an allegorical statue representing Surprise. The man in the middle was saying things like Salami and Horizon and Montezuma.
So I charged again. This time I started out once again for the man in the middle; then, halfway there, like any suburbanite I drifted to the right. This, see, was strategy. I seemed to be charging blindly ahead at the man who had sent me flying, but that was just to give the man on the right a false sense of security. To lull him into inattention.
It didn’t work. This time I landed on the floor instead of hitting the wall, and this time it took a few seconds longer to shake the errant confusion out of my head, and this time when I got to my feet I discovered the Swiss Army pocketknife was missing. I still had the fork, though. Otherwise everything was as before – the same extraordinary sensation of flight, the same utter rout for our side.
The man in the middle was talking again. Or maybe it was the one on the left, or the one on the right. I couldn’t be sure. Nor could I catch what they were saying. Before the words had been meaningless enough, but now I couldn’t even pick up on the sound. I suppose I was as close to sleep as it is possible to be while walking around, and closer than I had been in twenty years.
I looked around for my breath and couldn’t quite find it, and then the one on either the right or left said something, and the one on either the left or right giggled and took a step forward, and I gathered that the third time was going to be the charm. My man thrust one foot forward and planted the other at a right angle to it. His hands assumed the traditional posture, one up in front of his face, the other just in front of his shoulder. His face, so loose and composed before, was now drawn and deeply seamed.
I did not attack this time. He was not waiting for me, either. He took small steps toward me, extending the lead foot, bringing the rear foot up, constantly maintaining the stance. I tried arranging myself similarly, wondering at the same time why I was bothering. He was going to cut me up and use me for bait and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
And the hell of it was that I was never absolutely beyond redemption in hand-to-hand combat. They gave me lessons in it before they shipped me to Korea, and a couple of times on those numbered hills I had a chance to show what I had learned, and it went well enough. I was never great but I was never awful, either, but these three clowns were good enough to make my old judo instructors look like barroom brawlers.
The man came closer, and I looked at him and at the others, and I glanced among other things at his bright red genitals, and at the others’ bright red genitals, and I thought again of the judo instructors and my last thought in that connection, and something clicked.
I dropped my hands. I opened my mouth and, loud and clear, I shouted out, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!”
The three of them took the news in diverse fashion. The one approaching me with murderous intent stopped in his tracks, which was good, and blinked, which wasn’t bad either. Another just stood around looking puzzled, although my statement must have made as much sense to him as his dialogue had to me. And the third man – the man in the middle, the tallest and broadest and blackest of them all – paused only long enough to register recognition, surprise, and resolution.
Then he moved. One arm lashed out, palm flat and fingers extended, swinging in a sure backhand stroke that caught the standing-around-looking-puzzled man full in the throat. As the blow landed my man was already striding forward, his other hand reaching out to the man with murderous intent. The hand caught a shoulder and spun, and the other hand, no longer busy with the puzzled man’s throat, bunched its fingers and stabbed at the midsection, burying itself in the solar plexus and thrusting upward.