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"The Cool Light of Reason"
Title: The Cool Light of Reason
Author: Virginia Plain
Genre/Pairing: Mike/Peter (TV)
Warnings: I can’t seem to help writing Mike as a potty-mouth, but otherwise it’s just fluff.
Disclaimer: This story is purely the result of my imagination (which should probably
worry me) and not at all any claim to ownership of these TV characters or their real-life
Summary: Two messy little lives are in need of some objective guidance. And a good kick in the pants.
Author's Note: I love Dr. Sisters in “The Monkees Get Out More Dirt.” That is all.
“All right, all right!” Micky held up his hands. “Anything to keep the peace. Jeez.”
“I still don’t see why you’re making three of us return one library book,” Davy was still arguing, “especially since you checked it out in the first place.”
Mike folded his arms across his chest, tipping his head back in what he hoped was a convincing impression of Julius Caesar. “Because I didn’t cost us a fifty-cent fine when our last book was overdue.” Davy thrust his fists in his pockets and began an intent study of the ceiling. “And I didn’t use the pages to test my latest ‘invisible’ ink formula.” Micky coughed and inched closer toward the front door.
“And,” Mike’s imperious gaze settled on the hitherto silent member of the trio of miscreants, “it wasn’t me who used it to stamp out the toaster fire from a certain somebody’s attempt at making fried ice cream.”
He couldn’t see Peter’s face—the guilty one had already ducked his head so much that he looked like that walking mop on the Addams Family—but Mike knew his audience and knew that Peter was turning bright pink under that sandy camouflage. Peter’s next, barely breathed words confirmed it:
“I’m really sorry about that, Mike. Really, I am.”
Well, even Julius Caesar believed clemency was a good policy—as Mike now knew, having finished reading the guy’s biography. He made a conscious, deliberate effort to relax his stance. “Just take the book back, fellas, and we’ll forget all about its exciting stay at Chez Monkee. Deal?”
“Deal,” Micky agreed at once, pushing Davy and Peter toward the door. “Hey, Pete, give me that thing. Davy, you mind driving? I want to read it on the way, looks like a good one. Ancient Rome, you know, raping and pillaging and all.”
“You sure you don’t mean you want to make sure your latest magic eraser formula didn’t turn the pages green overnight?” Davy smirked as he accepted the car keys from Micky.
“Of course not!” Micky protested, all wounded virtue. “Well, not entirely…”
“Out!” Mike pointed.
“We’re going, we’re going!” Micky laughed. “Jeez…”
Peter trailed after Micky and Davy, pausing at the threshold. “Mike, I’m really sorry about the toaster thing—”
“I didn’t ask if you’re sorry,” Mike snapped before he could stop himself. “If you’re really sorry, then don’t burn down the damn house next time!” Oh, shit—not good, Nesmith. This clemency bag sure don’t come easy.
He turned his back so he wouldn’t have to see the stricken look in those eyes, counting the seconds until Peter silently slunk away.
At last! Damn, it’s getting harder and harder to clear them three out of the fuckin’ pad. What am I gonna come up with next time—send them all down to the clinic to donate blood? I’d have to make a bet which one of ‘em faints first…
Well, maybe there wouldn’t need to be a next time. Maybe, if he could be sure the post office hadn’t delivered his letter by elephant, if God would stop dicking around and have mercy on him…
He glanced at his watch—barely a minute to go!—and locked the front door. He leapt over the couch and coffee table, sliding like an Olympic skier to the television, flipping it on and flopping down in the easy chair. Except that he didn’t feel “easy” at all. In fact, he felt distinctly uneasy—glancing this way and that, paranoid that someone might be lurking on the patio, where the big windows looking into the bandstand would give them the perfect view of his guilty little secret…
“This is Dr. Lorene Sisters,” a husky voice intoned over the crackle of fireplace logs, “here to offer the cool light of reason and guide all you lonely hearts along the tortuous path of love.”
Mike glanced again at the windows behind the bandstand. God, if anyone sees me watching this shit I’ll die… or have to kill them…
“Before turning to our first letter, I would like to discuss a certain cliché that has unfortunately misled generations of tiny, addled little minds like your very own: namely, that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Dr. Sisters puffed on a pencil-thin cigar, fixing her audience with a look that probably could have sterilized half of them. “You would be better served by committing to memory the simple axiom that the way to a man’s heart is through the breastbone, preferably with a sharp implement.”
“Damn, lady!” Mike growled at the TV set. “I didn’t know I wrote for advice to the fuckin’ Black Widow of Malibu.” He reached for the switch, ready to give up his hopes yet again.
“Now then, our first letter is from–“
Carlisle Wheeling. His hand hung in mid-air over the TV set. Come on, God. Help me out here. Come on, lady, say that there letter in your icy cold hand is from Carlisle Wheeling—
“—‘Worried,’ who writes, ‘Dear Dr. Sisters, can I ever hope to win the woman of my dreams when she loves cooking fresh vegetables but broccoli does some not very nice things to my system…’”
“Aw, hell.” Mike dropped back into his seat, trying to tune out the sordid details of today’s showcase dilemma. After stewing a few minutes, he went to the bandstand to collect his guitar and sat back down with it. He strummed a few chords mindlessly. He had been working on a song, but… it was such sentimental slop, not something he really wanted to share with the guys—at least, not one of them—but he could at least fool around while waiting for Dr. Sisters to deal with the latest soul in pain. “Broccoli,” he sang, trying to drown out Dr. Sisters’ recommendations (something about roughage) to this loser. This is what my life’s come to, I’m singing about broccoli! No, gotta be something more pleasant than that. Something less… gross. Apples? “Yeah, that’s it. Apples.” He strummed some more. “Apples, peaches…”
“Our next letter is from—“
His guitar fell into his lap.
“Carlisle Wheeling!” he shouted at the TV.
“Unrestrained shouting is a symptom of repressed childhood,” the husky voice and icy stare pierced him, “possibly a result of psychological trauma associated with chronic nocturnal micturation.”
“Nocturnal Micky what?! Lady, be glad you ain’t sharin’ a room with him!”
“Our next letter, if I may continue without further interruptions from the Cro-Magnon segment of our species, is from ‘Shy.’”
Goddammit! Did she ever even get my letter? I sent it at least a month ago! Well, maybe two weeks ago. Or maybe a few days ago—but still, I musta sent mine before any of these chuckleheads she’s wasting her air time on now.
He was almost ready to turn off the TV again—really turn it off and never watch her crap show again, ever—but something stopped him. Maybe because the name of the letter writer was so simple. “Shy.” Huh. Guess they are, if that’s all they’re calling themself. Still, at least it didn’t have anything to do with vegetables.
“I see that ‘Shy’ writes with a hesitant hand, betraying a sincere lack of confidence. I also see that ‘Shy’ writes with an equal lack of spelling, grammar, syntax, and presumably brain cells.” Dr. Sisters stubbed out her cigar. “The letter reads, ‘Dear Dr. Sisters, I’m sorry to bother you again—‘“
“Again?” Mike wondered aloud.
“Don’t interrupt,” the husky voice reproved. She resumed, “’—but you were such a big help recently, and I feel like you’re the only one who can help me now, or at least the only one I can talk to who won’t make fun of me.’”
“Boy, did you come to the wrong person,” Mike laughed without mirth.
“You think you’d do any better, cowboy?”
Mike flinched back from the TV screen.
“’Shy’ continues, ‘A while ago I thought I was in love with a wonderful girl, but it wasn’t real. I should have been sad about that, but I wasn’t because there was someone else who had been there all the time. The most amazing person ever. The smartest, strongest, most talented, most caring—just the most everything. Whenever they’re around, I just feel like I have a nice glass of water after being lost in the dessert.’”
Dr. Sisters paused, squinting at the letter. “Yes, it does say ‘dessert.’ But I take your meaning, ‘Shy.’”
Mike felt a bit envious. Dessert or desert, it must be nice to have somebody think of you that way. Damn.
“’My problem,’ says ‘Shy,’ ‘is that all these wonderful things they are, they’re everything I’m not. It’s like I’m just taking up space, cluttering up their life. Maybe even holding them back, because they could well make it on their own. I’m afraid they’re just putting up with me, and I can’t blame them for it. They deserve a lot better.’”
Mike almost couldn’t believe it, but as Dr. Sisters read the letter it seemed that her usually pitiless gaze softened.
“’So my question is, how do I get over loving someone who has no reason to ever love me back?’”
Life and the world seemed to stop. Even Dr. Sisters’ fireplace had stopped crackling. Mike didn’t realize how tightly he was gripping his guitar until a string cut into his finger.
Dr. Sisters turned squarely to face the camera and her unseen, aching supplicant. “My dear ’Shy,’” she said solemnly, “before you make a decision you’ll probably regret, understand this one thing: you cannot hope for another person to love you if you do not love yourself. If this person is all that you think they are, then they know their own mind far too well to just ‘put up with’ someone they consider worthless. You’re around them because they want you around them. You must believe that, and believe in yourself. Only then should you decide if you want to give up your dream. You may be surprised.”
“Really?” Mike frowned. It was just that simple? Heck, it ain’t even my question… but it is kind of useful. Makes sense—aw, who am I kidding? It don’t make no sense at all! “What a load of bull!” he snorted.
“Our next letter is from ‘Bull,’ who writes, ‘Dear Dr. Sisters—’”
The front door slammed open, bouncing against the wall and smack back into the faces of the returned prodigals. Micky rubbed his nose but didn’t lose the grin plastered from ear to ear.
“Guess what, Mike! Davy’s getting married!”
“Hey, I only just met her!” Davy protested.
“Whoever would have thought it,” Micky cackled, “our very own Don Juan-let here has fallen for, of all things, a librarian!”
“Well, how was I to know that when she said ‘let me stamp your book’ she really meant ‘give me a snog’…”
“You’re paying for the reception, Mick,” Mike called after them as they headed off to the kitchen.
Peter lingered near the spiral staircase. “Um, Mike… I’m afraid they made us pay for the burn marks on the book. And the polka dots—“
“Polka—oh, never mind. Micky’s magic eraser formula, am I right?”
“Yeah… we had to take it out of the gas money. I’m really sorry.”
If he doesn’t knock it off with that “sorry” shit, I’m gonna… What? Just what are you gonna do, Mike Nesmith? Haven’t you already dished out enough of your ornery ways to Peter? Keep on like that and he’ll think you hate him, and it ain’t that at all…
Peter looked everywhere but at him. “I hope you don’t mind, but… since we won’t be driving anywhere for a while, I thought maybe you’d want something to read.” He held out a book. Mike looked at the cover.
Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars.
Almost against his will, he felt a small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. For a moment he tried hard to summon up a Scowl of Justice, but somehow it just didn’t seem worth the effort.
He gently took the book from two slightly shaking hands. “Well, um—thanks, Pete. I think maybe this will indeed tide me over for a bit.” He watched, fascinated, as the flawless face before him morphed from sheer terror to utter contentment.
“You’re welcome, Mike.”
Any cost to his dignity was repaid by the relieved smile beamed his way.
Hmm. Okay, Dr. Sisters, maybe you got something there. So I’ll give you one more chance. I need some answers, dammit! If you don’t read my letter on your show tomorrow, I’m gonna come down to that studio and make you EAT it.
Peter felt his way through the darkness, taking care not to bump into the stairs or crash into the icebox. He pretty much knew the way by now, since he’d been doing this for several nights running. That first night, though… for a second he’d been utterly terrified that he might step on Mike’s precious guitar, and that would have been The End of All Things. Actually, he mused sadly, that would have solved my problem right there…
With a sigh of relief he reached the TV set. Before turning it on, he twisted the volume dial as far left as it would go. Satisfied that all sound would be muted, he angled the set so that not the slightest glare from the screen would shine into the downstairs bedroom and wake Davy. Crossing his fingers, he switched on the TV and hesitantly turned the volume back up to the merest of hums.
Please, please let Micky skip his late night snack. Let Davy stay asleep and dream of his librarian. Let Mike have a break from his insomnia—not just because I’d die if he caught me watching this, but because he really needs the sleep, he spends so much time worrying about us and we never do anything for him in return like he deserves—
“This is Dr. Lorene Sisters,” the calm, soothing voice whispered from the screen, “here to ease the pain of your aching hearts and assure you that the world has enough love in it for you, too.”
It had been almost by accident that Peter discovered the late-late-night edition of Dr. Sisters’ show. She had been so helpful to them all, back when they lost their heads over April Conquest. Even though it hadn’t worked out with April, Peter still felt a lot of respect for the smart lady on the TV who understood everything and had a touch of the poet about her. And he was now convinced that she was the only person who could help him through a love that was also something of an accident, but that dwarfed whatever he’d felt for April and was even more hopeless. It had taken almost every ounce of courage he possessed to write to Dr. Sisters, and what few remaining scraps he possessed to watch her late show, hoping she would answer his letter and praying the other guys wouldn’t discover him.
“Our first letter,” breathed Dr. Sisters, “is from—“
Shy. Please, let it be Shy. Except… it probably won’t be. That’s such a dumb name, why couldn’t I think of anything better? It’s too dumb for such a smart lady, too boring for television—
“’Dumb.’ ‘Dumb’ writes, ‘Dear Dr. Sisters, who watches your stupid show other than fat housewives eating bonbons while waiting for the next episode of their stupid soap operas—‘” Dr. Sisters glared at the paper in her hands, then balled it up and tossed it into her fireplace. She lit a pencil-thin cigar, blowing smoke into the unseen face of her heckler. “Well, ‘Dumb,’ I suggest to you that my audience is perhaps different from the programming you usually enjoy, which no doubt features muscle-bound athletes in tight nylon pants who handle tiny balls and hug and grope each other to celebrate their latest ‘score.’”
Peter almost laughed aloud, but stifled it by chewing on his knuckles.
“Our next letter is from –“
Shy? Please? Pretty please?
“’Carlisle Wheeling.’” Dr. Sisters arched an eyebrow. “This is certainly original. Pretentious, nonsensical, and most likely completely unrelated to the content of his letter, but original. And yes, I am quite certain this letter is written by a ‘him,’ as men are generally far too easily impressed with their own cleverness.”
Peter frowned. That seemed like an awfully harsh judgment of someone she didn’t even know. After all, Mike gave his songs unrelated titles all the time, and he was never impressed with his own cleverness. Although he had every right to be. He was the smartest person Peter had ever known. Well, some would say that didn’t amount to much, but it didn’t change the fact that Mike was brilliant and Peter wasn’t happy that Dr. Sisters almost seemed to be insulting Mike by proxy.
“Maybe he had a good reason to call himself that,” he whispered to the TV.
“Let’s see if Mr. Carlisle Wheeling offers any reason for his posturing,” the calm voice whispered back. “He writes, ‘Lady, I feel like the biggest fool in the world writing to you, but you seem to know your stuff so here goes. I’m in love and I shouldn’t be. That’s the long and short of it. I can’t even say when it happened. Just, one day I noticed someone who was always there, and it was like I saw a precious thing come into view. And I’ve been fucked up’—ahem, disturbed—‘ever since.’ Naughty, Mr. Wheeling, very naughty. You’re fortunate this is the late edition of my show.”
In spite of his own torment, Peter had to chuckle at that. Mike was always “fuckin’ this” and “fuckin’ that,” but somehow it never sounded vulgar coming from him. Maybe it was the drawl, maybe it was the passion of a man who believed things could be better but was constantly frustrated trying to make them so. Whatever the case, Peter never wanted him to change.
“Naughty,” Dr. Sisters repeated, “but surprisingly heartfelt. Perhaps, Mr. Wheeling, you are not quite as boorish as you first appeared. You continue, ‘My problem is, I got a temper and I take it out on the wrong people, especially him.’” Her eyes bulged behind her glasses. “’Him’? Was I mistaken?” She grabbed the envelope, scanned over it, then studied the letter again intently. “No, I’m quite certain this is written by a man. Well, Mr. Wheeling, without even finishing your letter I believe I can guess the rest of your problem.”
Peter had bolted up straight in his chair at the personal pronoun as well. This was a man, in love with a man? Thank you, God! You kept me from embarrassing myself with my own dumb letter and gave me the answer anyway. Thank you!
Except that he hadn’t heard the answer yet…
“But let us continue to hear what Mr. Wheeling has to say. Again, I must say how fortunate we are to be on the late edition. He goes on, ‘I know it doesn’t say much for me, but I think I’m hardest on him because I know anyone else would tell me to go to hell’—Mr. Wheeling, you KNOW I can’t say that word—‘but no matter what I say or do he’ll just take it like a goddamn’—ahem, gosh-darn—‘puppy and love me anyway. As a friend, that is. He doesn’t deserve my shit’—ahem, ordure—‘and I don’t deserve his friendship, let alone his love. He already thinks so low of himself, and I’m just adding to it.’”
Peter became more depressed with each passing word. At first he was disappointed because Carlisle Wheeling’s problem was very different from his own. Similar in that he didn’t deserve Mike’s love either, but very different in how they reached that conclusion. Peter never gave Mike shit. He would never even dream of giving Mike shit. But he did often feel like he was in Mike’s way, no matter how unobtrusive he tried to be, and he worried every day that the only reason Mike didn’t tell him to leave the pad and go waste someone else’s time was simply because Peter wasn’t worth the energy of dismissing.
Yet the more Peter listened to Dr. Sisters’ whispered recitation of the letter, the more he found himself feeling so sad and so sorry for Carlisle Wheeling. He would bet anything that Carlisle was being far too hard on himself, making himself out to be worse than he really was. If the person—the man—he loved still loved him as a friend, then Carlisle was probably a friend worth loving. Too bad he didn’t believe that…
“’So my question is, do I just give up on all this horseshit’—ahem, horse doots—‘or lay a wet one on him and say something sappy like “Well, darling, now’s the time for the phoenix of our love to flap its silver wings”?’”
The sadness Peter felt evaporated, chased away by the irrepressible musician in his soul. That would make a good lyric for that song Mike’s been working on…
“Mr. Wheeling,” Dr. Sisters intoned to the camera, “I would recommend you utter such drivel to the object of your affections only if you are determined to FAIL at winning his love.”
“But it would make a good line for a song!” Peter protested, much more loudly than he meant to.
“A song, perhaps. A declaration of love, absolutely not.” She dropped the letter and faced the camera squarely. “Mr. Wheeling, I have no doubt that most people form an impression of you as an overbearing son of a bitch—and yes, I can say ‘son of a bitch,’ late edition or not. It’s my show. However, I believe you know, and the one you love knows, that your jackass—I can say that, too—behavior is but a shield for a hurting soul who doubts his own worth. You must find another way to deal with your insecurity. For instance, try telling the one you love that you are hurting. Go from there. You may be surprised.”
Peter considered her words. Even if Carlisle’s predicament wasn’t the same as his own, could he use this advice too? Would it help if he just told Mike all his fears—that he felt like a burden, that even though he often felt like a fool and probably seemed like one, it was more important to him that Mike feel appreciated and loved?
It was hard to see such a conversation ending well. Either Mike would laugh in his face or punch him in same… or was he judging Mike unfairly, just like Dr. Sisters had done to Carlisle?
What to do, what to do…
Peter leapt into the air with a shriek. Upon landing back in his chair he looked up to see a madly grinning Micky brandishing a stick of salami like a samurai sword.
“Micky—you nearly killed me there!”
“Sorry, Pete, just felt like having a snack when I saw you. You were so wrapped up in the tube you didn’t even notice me. What’re you watching, anyway?”
Panicked, Peter snapped off the TV. He hoped the sound had been too low for Micky to hear.
“Nothing… I just, you know, the test pattern kind of helps me sleep…”
Micky clearly wasn’t buying it. “Who knew,” he laughed, “first we’ve got Davy mooning over a librarian, now innocent Peter is watching late-night blue movies! What’s next, is Mike forming an intimate relationship with a Texas Longhorn?”
“Micky—“ Peter pleaded.
“Hey.” A comforting hand patted his shoulder. “I’m only teasing. Sorry if I went too far.”
Peter relaxed slightly. “That’s okay. Um, actually I think I’ll go to bed now anyway. There’s nothing worth watching, really…”
Maybe I should talk to Mike. Maybe Dr. Sisters is right. But, she was giving that advice to Carlisle, not to me… Maybe this is a sign, though. Maybe my letter is coming up next? I’ll have to tune in tomorrow…
Mike glanced at his watch for the fiftieth time in two minutes. Only half an hour left to go. Goddamn, are they EVER gonna leave the pad?
“Mick, man, you’ve been hogging the TV since 9 AM! Other people want to watch stuff too, ya know.”
“He can’t stop now,” Davy called from the kitchen table—where, Mike noticed, he had somehow managed to place a padlock on the phone. “What?” he asked at Mike’s inquiring-just-bordering-on-exploding look. “Nobody can tie up the line. I’m waiting for a call from my librarian.”
“If you’re that bent on talking to her, why don’t you just call her yourself?”
“I can’t do that. She’s in a library, it’s supposed to be quiet. I’d get her in trouble if I set her phone off ringing and clanging and disturbing everyone.” Davy grabbed the phone and hugged it to himself, as if expecting Mike to yank it from him and toss it out the window—which Mike felt very tempted to do.
“Great. Guess you’re not going anywhere for a while. And where the hell is Peter, anyway?”
“Went out,” Davy shrugged, cautiously setting the phone back on the table.
Peter went out? Alone? Mike quickly crushed the feelings of worry and concern. Don’t start getting soft now. Pete going out just means one less of ‘em to get rid of.
“Anyway,” Davy said, “you can’t interrupt Micky. He’s doing some very important work.”
“All I see him doing is sitting on his damn ass all day!”
“I’ll have you know,” announced Micky, “that I am engaged in the highly pressing task of solving our transportation problems. I’m on the tenth episode of a twenty-four-part marathon. The show teaches you how to make a whole new kind of internal combustion engine that doesn’t need gas. It runs on a kind of fuel that we have more than enough of around here. In fact, once I get this baby built, we’ll be sitting on the equivalent of an oil well!”
“This I gotta hear,” Mike sighed. “Okay, so what’s this super fuel we’re sitting on?”
Micky flung his arms wide in a hallelujah-daddy gesture toward the beach. “Sand!”
Was it even worth pointing out the absurdity? No… but Mike’s stubborn streak wouldn’t let him give up without trying. “Mick, there is no way an engine can run on sand—“
“Sure, they all laughed,” Micky sniffed. He melodramatically swept his arm over his eyes, all pained dignity.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Davy admonished. “Anyway, he needs to keep watching this show so he can build the engine.”
“Well, I don’t see him building anything!”
“I can’t yet.” Micky had quickly recovered from the blow to his professional—if that was the word—pride, all bubbling schemes again. “I can’t start building it until I have all the parts.”
Mike glanced around the pad, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. “All of the parts? I’m not seeing any parts.”
“Exactly! I won’t know what parts I’ll need until I finish all twenty-four episodes.”
I’m gonna kill him. No, I’m gonna kill ME!
“Fine,” he folded his arms. “So what do you suggest I do while you’re soaking up inspiration here and keeping me from the TV?”
Micky twisted his face in thought; Mike could almost see the gears turning. “Hey, I got it,” Micky finally said. “Remember when Babbitt cut off the power during the last game of the World Series? We went to the Sears store downtown and finished watching it there.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Mike growled. “I also remember the store manager almost had us arrested for loitering ‘cause we weren’t buying anything.”
“I’m glad you talked him out of it,” Davy said. “If I’m going to jail, at least let me have fun committing the crime. Your baseball games are dead boring.”
“I don’t fuckin’ believe this,” Mike ranted. “To think my own friend is making me go to the electronics department of Sears, instead of just letting me watch my own damn show in my own house on my own TV, and my other own friend thinks that’s all fine and dandy.” He folded his arms and tilted his head back. “I see a distinct lack of discipline in the ranks here, I think. Caesar is not pleased.”
His minions looked distinctly unimpressed. In fact, between their fascination with the TV and the phone they weren’t looking at him at all.
Seeing there was nothing for it, he picked up the car keys… then dropped them with disgust. Gas had to be rationed, and there was no money for the bus. He glanced at his watch again—damn!
“Gotta run,” he muttered, shooting out the front door.
“Hey, Mike,” Davy called after him, “beware the Ides of March.”
“Fuck you,” was their leader’s leader-like response, muffled by the slamming of the door.
Peter glanced at his watch again. He was never quite sure how accurate it was, being a beat-up old thing that he didn’t have the heart (or the cash) to replace. As near as he could make out, there were still ten minutes to go. But best to be sure.
“Um… Ma’am?” he tentatively approached the widest woman he had ever seen, all scary lipstick and curlers under a headscarf. “Do you have the time, please?”
The frightening creature of pink and plastic fired a withering ray of scorn at him. “Young man,” she hissed, “you do realize this is the electronics department?”
She pointed to the clocks of many colors, shapes, and sizes surrounding them, all tick-tick-ticking away. The ticking seemed to grow louder the longer Peter stood there in misery, convinced that everyone in the store was marking him as a thing too stupid to live. I wasn’t—I didn’t—it’s because I’m distracted, not because I’m dumb, he wanted to tell all these scary people, but he knew they wouldn’t listen.
He hated going out anywhere by himself. This kind of thing always happened; better just to avoid it altogether. Of course, he didn’t have to be here now. He could have waited again for the late edition of Dr. Sisters… but somehow, for some reason, he was convinced that her next episode, the afternoon one, would be The One. He couldn’t miss it, he couldn’t… but then Davy had been parked by the phone and Micky parked in front of the TV and Mike pacing the pad, mad as a wet cat. None of them were going anywhere, any time soon.
Only once, during a commercial break in Micky’s do-it-yourself show when Mike had stalked off to the bathroom and Davy had gone off to find a padlock for the phone, did any relief appear in sight. For that was when Micky, being the good pal he was, reminded Peter of how they’d finished watching the last game of the World Series together at Sears. “It’ll be fine, Pete. Your show has got to be shorter than six innings. Just get up every now and then and look like you’re interested in buying a blender or something, and nobody’ll hassle you.” It was a good idea, and the World Series was a good memory… except that he’d felt bad for Davy, who had tagged along in the spirit of the thing but just couldn’t dig the national pastime. Peter had tried to make it up to him by watching the World Cup with him. It had been a little tough—soccer was kind of boring—but worth it for a friend.
A loud harrumph from the large woman brought him back to the present and reminded him that the good idea wasn’t working out too well so far.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am,” he tried to offer his tormenter, “I was just—“
“Just doing that LDS, I expect!” she huffed. “I’m shocked that such a fine store would allow such a long-haired degenerate—“
“Lady, he said he was sorry. Now scooch.”
Peter almost fell over at the sound of that oh-so-familiar commanding tone. Mike! It’s Mike… thank God. No, wait—no, no, what am I thinking? He can’t be here, not now!
He turned around to see Mike in the familiar pose, arms folded, head tilted back, towering over everyone. The scary woman had no chance against him. She scooched.
“Thanks, Mike,” he mumbled.
“Peter, what in hell are you doing here by yourself?”
Peter winced at the sharp question. It made sense, he supposed: now that the immediate threat was dealt with, Mike could focus on the sorry, embarrassing excuse for a friend he was lumbered with.
“I just… “ He scrambled for a lie, much as he hated lying to Mike. “I came to look at, um…” His eyes darted about, finally noticing a small console of polished walnut. “Radios!” A passing customer—this one a man in plaid shorts, black socks, and deck shoes—glared at him. “I mean,” he added more quietly, “I just thought I’d check out their radios.”
He felt like a thief waiting for the judge to pass sentence. Would Mike see through the lie? Would he get mad, which would be bad, or disappointed, which would be worse?
“What’s wrong with the radio we already got?”
Peter blinked at the reasonable question. The normal question. As if what Peter had said was a reasonable, normal thing anyone might say, rather than a stupid Peter thing to say. It was a shame to have to answer such a nice question with another lie…
“Well… nothing. At least, nothing right now. But Micky was talking about using it for parts for that sand engine thing…”
“Oh, yeah.” Mike wasn’t quite smiling, but the dark eyes seemed a little less brooding. Maybe even a little amused. It was a nice thing to see.
“What are you doing here?”
Just like that, the storm was back in those eyes. Peter could have kicked himself for upsetting his friend… except that those eyes were doing a very un-Mike-like thing. Just like Peter’s a few minutes ago, those eyes were bouncing around with a speed that seemed almost frantic. “I, um—well, ya know, I thought I’d look at their… hats!”
A little girl clinging to her mother’s hand screamed. “Quiet!” the mother snapped, dragging her away. Peter wondered if she’d been scolding the girl or Mike.
“Hats?” he repeated. “You’re going to replace your hat?”
“Well, yeah,” Mike looked as though he were trying to relax but not quite pulling it off. “This old fella”—he gestured to the familiar green friend atop his head—“is about ready for retirement. I keep trimming the fuzz off him, ya know, but lately I’m taking off more wool with it. One more trip through the wash and he won’t have anything left. So I figure it’s about time to trade him in for a new model.”
“You could always not wear one,” Peter said before he could stop himself. Oh God, I didn’t—stupid, Peter, stupid!
Mike looked as if Peter had suggested Frankie Catalina was a serious Oscar contender. “Of course I need to wear one,” he said. “We can’t all have the smooth hair like you, Pete. I got hair like a field of kudzu. Gotta keep it under wraps, else I’ll frighten the children.”
“That’s not true!” Shut up, Peter, shut up… Or should he? Maybe this was his chance—the opening he needed to take Dr. Sisters’ advice and let Mike know how special he was, and how much he was loved, even by a loser like himself. “I mean—you look fine without a hat. And you’re still you, whether you’re wearing a hat or not. Anyone who thinks different… well, they just don’t know you.”
Two pairs of brown eyes locked, one set darker than the other, one full of conviction and the other full of questions, neither comfortable with the reversal of their usual roles.
Mike and Peter both jumped away from each other. They turned to confront a scrawny little man with a bad toupee and an even worse suit.
“Do you two gentlemen—or is that ladies—intend to buy anything, or shall I have to call security?”
Peter watched in silent admiration as Mike effortlessly took control of the situation. “Whoa there, now,” he told the skinny little guy, manner quiet but deadly. “We aren’t hardly barbarians storming the gates here. Me and my friend aren’t doing you or your store any harm. We’re just looking at your fine selection of”—he glanced at his watch—“televisions!” He lunged for the nearest TV set, a medium-sized one that stood as part of a wall displaying at least a dozen others. All of the sets were already switched on, all of them on the same channel. Some boring press panel show. Peter blinked at the winking wall of the same image repeated in different sizes and colors, in some cases no color at all. It was like viewing a funhouse mirror through a kaleidoscope.
“Ah, you have a good eye,” the skinny little man beamed, all previous objections to their presence forgotten. He adjusted one of the tuning knobs. “This RCS beauty represents the absolute pinnacle of American manufacturing, guaranteed to give you years of—“ The knob came off in his hand. “Perhaps I’ll just leave you gentlemen to explore its features for yourselves? Please flag me when you’re ready to make your purchase.” With a brief nod, a tug at his toupee, and a red face, he hurried as far away as possible.
Mike was too preoccupied with changing the channels. “Let’s see what we got here… Oh, well, look at this. Isn’t that the Sisters chick who told us how to win April’s heart?”
For some reason Peter was almost afraid to look at the screen. He couldn’t help thinking that his guilty secret was stamped on his forehead, that Mike somehow knew Peter had been pouring his heart out to Dr. Sisters on the quiet.
“Some coincidence, huh?” Mike asked.
Something in his voice, something forced, something uncertain, something so not-Mike, gave Peter the courage to look at the screen.
“—want to fulfill your pitiful, delusional little fantasies, my dear ‘Conflicted,’” the husky voice intoned over a crackling fire, “then you must first confront and accept the fact that you are what is technically known as a putz.”
“That’s her,” he said softly.
Mike didn’t know whether to feel relieved or concerned. He had been about as unsubtle as he’d ever been in his life—Well, golly gee, what a coincidence, it’s that Sisters chick!—but Peter had fallen for it. Mike felt a bit bad about that. He didn’t really think of Peter as dumb, just too trusting. That people used that trust for their own ends said more about them than Peter. He just hated it when he was the one doing the using. But he had to, damn it! The stakes were too high.
They’d missed the start of the show. No surprise there. But they weren’t missing much, just more lecturing to “Conflicted,” who seemed to think that her dream man having detached earlobes was a serious impediment to a relationship.
“Hey, Mike,” a soft voice hesitantly intruded into his messy thoughts.
Mike glanced at Peter, who was keeping his eyes firmly screwed to the TV. “Yeah?”
“You know that Julius Caesar book we returned to the library for you? I looked at it. I didn’t try to read it, it’s too much for me, I was never too good at reading anyway… but I skimmed it. It just looked like it was all, ‘Caesar fought this battle, then he wrote this book, then he passed this law.’ You know, all he-did-this-and-he-did-that stuff. Is that right?”
Mike wondered where this could possibly be going. “Pretty much, yeah. He did this and that, then he got twepped by a bunch of guys in skirts.”
Peter laughed quietly. Even in profile, Mike could see that special smile. But then the laughter and the smile faded. “Hey, Mike?”
Patience. Must be patient. “What, Peter?”
“Did you read the Twelve Caesars book I checked out for you?”
“Man, you only gave it to me yesterday.”
“Oh yeah… Well, I skimmed that one, too. And it looked different to me. It talked about … little things. Like the food he liked, the times he got sick, the jokes he told. It was like I was reading about a person instead of a statue, you know? And…” Peter glanced at him nervously. “There was even a little thing about how he was losing his hair and tried to hide it under a … hat. Or something, whatever Romans wore on their heads. It really bothered him, going bald.” He turned back to the TV screen. “I just thought that was something we don’t hear so much about, and maybe we should. I mean, that even the strongest and smartest guys have things they don’t like about themselves.”
For a moment, Mike no longer heard the carping of Dr. Sisters or the buzz of the wall of other televisions or the chattering of the other customers milling around.
“I reckon you might be right about that,” he finally said.
The silence dragged on. Mike was only vaguely aware of Dr. Sisters saying something to “Adventurous” about bomb shelters being a less than ideal choice for a first date.
“He must have been really lonely,” Peter said presently.
“Julius Caesar. He must have been a lonely guy.”
“How do you figure that? He was surrounded by his soldiers, his servants, the people. Heck, he probably couldn’t even take a crap without half the known world at the time wanting a blow-by-blow.”
“Yeah, but…” Peter glanced at him again. “He wouldn’t have tried to hide being bald if he’d had friends to tell him they loved him whether he had any hair or not. Or whether he had anything at all or not. That they loved him just the way he was.”
It was completely ridiculous, of course. Any historian would have laughed such a theory out of the classroom. But, damn it all, Peter had something there…
“Our next letter,” Dr. Sisters interrupted, “is from ‘Desperate,’ who writes, ‘Dear Dr. Sisters, I want to end it all, goodbye cruel world…’”
Mike watched Peter watching Dr. Sisters. Just taking him in, thinking about his thoughts. Peter has a different way of looking at things. He should speak up more. He grimaced to himself, recalling the advice Dr. Sisters had given “Shy” yesterday. Two guesses why he doesn’t.
“Ya know,” Mike said, clearing his throat, “I think maybe it wasn’t their fault. That he didn’t have any friends. I think maybe it was his fault.”
Peter looked at him with big questioning eyes.
“Maybe,” Mike continued, choosing his words carefully, “they were afraid they weren’t good enough for someone as smart and strong as him, and he let them think it. ‘Cause he knew he wasn’t really all that smart or strong. And he was afraid if they got too close, they’d see through him. So he pushed them away.”
“That’s… that’s really sad, Mike.” Peter shook himself, as if banishing Caesar’s unhappy ghost. “I mean, it’s sad that he would think of himself that way.”
Mike nodded. “Sad that they’d think of themselves that way, too. Life is fucked like that, ain’t it?”
Peter smiled again. This time Mike didn’t hesitate to return it with a grin of his own.
“You really love that word, don’t you,” Peter chuckled.
“I sure as fuck do.”
They both laughed together, then turned back to the television in time to hear Dr. Sisters inform “Desperate” that “…this is the fifth such letter you’ve sent me in the last two months, and I’m on to you, missy. I won’t have my show monopolized by drama queens. The next piece of paper I get concerning you had better be your obituary.”
“Whoa!” Mike reached to turn off the television. “Guess she’s hit her limit for the day. Tetchy thing.” Somehow, it didn’t seem to bother him so much anymore. So she’d never read his letter or given him advice. Well, he seemed to be managing well enough on his own now...
“Hey, wait,” Peter stopped him. “She still has five minutes left.”
Mike looked into those eyes, seeing bright hope where he’d been so used to seeing sad apologies.
“Okay, man. Let’s hear what she’s got!”
Dr. Sisters lit a fresh cigar. “Our last letter,” she announced, “is rather exceptional in some ways. My usual correspondents are lone souls suffering their torments in isolation, looking to me and my vast knowledge and experience to calm their own storms of love. This letter is not. Moreover, I would normally save this letter for my late-night edition—“
“Late-night edition?” Mike asked with surprise.
Peter started to explain… then thought better of it and just shrugged.
“—yet I feel it invites some points worth making to a larger audience.”
Peter tensed up. Shy?
Mike stiffened. Carlisle Wheeling?
“Therefore I bring you our last letter from ‘Baron von Tesla and Don Juan-let.’ They write, ‘Dear Dr. Sisters, you’ve helped us out before, and we need you again. Our two friends have completely flipped for each other, but it’s going nowhere because one is too stubborn and the other is too shy. It’s tough on them because they’re too similar. Not their personalities, but what you might call other ‘parts’ of them are just kind of too much the same. Most people would say it’s wrong for them to be together.’”
“I’m gonna kill ‘em both,” Mike said calmly.
“They continue, ‘Something has to be done, not only because they’re driving us crazy mooning and sighing and brooding all the time, or because they keep hijacking our TV to watch your show on the sly, but because they’re our friends and we want them to be happy.’”
Peter wiped a tear from his cheek.
“’So our question is, will you please just flat-out say on the air that it’s okay if Mike and Peter want to snog’—I suppose I can say that word on the daytime show, unless there happen to be any British citizens in the audience—‘each other, because we’ll still love them and always be there for them no matter what anyone else says or thinks?’”
Dr. Sisters stubbed out her cigar. She set the letter aside and stared straight ahead into the camera.
“Mike. Peter. I shall say this only once.”
She took off her reading glasses, removing the only shield between Mike and Peter and her stern, probing, unyielding gaze.
Only then, as the floor fell out from under his feet, did Mike become aware that they’d attracted a small crowd round their television. The hideous woman with the plastic curlers, the old duffer in the shorts and deck shoes, the mom and the kid, the scrawny salesman with the bad rug. All of them were looking at Mike and Peter as if they’d materialized out of thin air, like in Micky’s favorite science fiction show—probably with pointed ears, too.
He looked to Peter, expecting to see sheer terror in those eyes.
A beaming smile lit the room, brighter than the whole wall of blaring televisions combined. “You heard the lady, Mike.”
“Yeah, Peter.” He gently cupped Peter’s face in both hands. “I guess we all heard her.”
With a defiant wink to their audience, he leant down and pressed his lips to Peter’s. He felt an answering pressure, but there was nothing rushed or questioning about it. He felt Peter’s arms reach up, clasping his shoulders. The kiss grew, slow and sweet. Mouths slowly opened, tongues slowly met and explored. ‘Life was meant for moving slow’… a lyric of Peter’s came to mind, a song Peter had never finished because he didn’t think it was good enough. Well, it suits me just fine. And just like he’d felt that brief moment yesterday, it seemed that life and the world had stopped. Oh yeah, flapping on silver wings…
The blood rolling in his ears almost drowned out the sound. Almost, but not quite. Is that really—cheers? Someone’s cheering us? What the—?
Without breaking the kiss, Mike opened his eyes. There they were—their little audience was applauding! Fuckin’ hell, has everyone lost their shit?
Peter’s hand was on the back of his head, gently pushing him to look back at the TV screen. What Mike saw almost made him want to let out a victory cry of his own.
Not just one TV. Not even just the wall of a dozen TVs. Every single solitary goddamn screen in the whole Sears electronics department was broadcasting their kiss! Big-screen Mike and Peter, small-screen Mike and Peter, black-and-white Mike and Peter, color Mike and Peter—all of them were smooching in unison, in stereo, in perfect harmony.
“How the heck—“
Mike and Peter jumped apart, nearly knocking over several TVs at once.
“Micky, I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!”
“Baron von Tesla” was sitting atop a display counter, pointing a camera straight at them. “Don Jaun-let” was minding the connecting wires. Both of them were grinning madly.
“It was his idea!” Each pointed at the other.
“Clemency,” Peter whispered to Mike, snuggling back into his embrace and laughing helplessly. “That was something else in that Caesar book. He didn’t… uh, fuckin’ kill people who helped him, even if they were nuts.”
Mike squeezed him tight. “Well now, I guess you got a point there. You two,” he aimed an imperious finger at a wholly unrepentant Micky and Davy, “hereby get a fuckin’ reprieve.” And a thank you, Peter’s eyes commanded him. “And, um… thanks, guys. Really.”
As the little crowd dispersed and the skinny store guy started reading Micky the riot act over the camera, Mike considered the great good fortune that had somehow landed in his arms. He would never openly admit it, but it was really turning him on to watch them both in a clinch on the TV.
“Ya know,” he said, “there was one other thing about Caesar. Maybe you saw it when you were doing your skimming, maybe you didn’t.”
Trusting eyes shined up at him. “What’s that, Mike?”
“Peter,” he said seriously, “you’re not dumb. Come on, man: guys in skirts. Do the math.”
“What’s math got to—oh…”
Mike watched in utter delight as the expression of shocked comprehension on that perfect face amplified on every TV screen around them.
The studio lights had dimmed, the artificial fire dampened, the last cigar laid to rest in the ashtray. The latest batch of letters was headed to the incinerator, now that she had solved their composers’ petty little problems and righted their miserable little lives. Another day’s work concluded to the satisfaction of all. Perhaps her chief failing, she sometimes reflected, was that she was simply too awesome.
As she pushed her chair under her desk, a corner of white paper under the ash tray caught her eye. She lifted the tray, pulling out not just one but three letters. Oh, these three… They still remained, more than a week after she’d straightened out their tangled web. She’d felt an unusual reluctance to dispose of them after they’d provided so much grist for her mill.
Shy, Carlisle Wheeling, Baron von Tesla, Don Juan-let.
She had not needed to be told they were all linked. No, indeed; the bond of friendship had fairly leapt off the pages.
Too often her correspondents were so focused on finding the thrill of romance that they forgot the slower, steadier connections that truly sustained life. It made the awareness of these four friends, the value they placed on their bond, the lengths they would go to see each other happy, even more stark and remarkable to her jaundiced eye.
To a trained observer of human nature, the foibles of the human psyche, it had been obvious that the separate sagas of these three letters and these four friends would come together in some way. It was not only her job, but her moral obligation to see them through the valley of the shadow to the green pastures they deserved. Her work was its own reward.
Of course, the scorching hot security camera footage of “Mike” and “Peter” that she’d bribed from the Malibu Sears manager wasn’t too shabby a payback either…