87. The Only Question

I looked around. I closed my eyes. Not much difference there, the underworld being what it is.

Brimsnod stood stock still beside me, staring into the immense gray void, not blinking, not breathing. Suddenly she shook herself.

“Here they come,” she said.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“You’re not tuned in. Not yet.”

Finally I footsteps swishing through the grime.

Doris was bracketed by Pimlipper and Duke.

All I expected from Duke and Pimlipper was deception, that being their line of work. Alternative theories, possible versions of reality. But Doris. I imagined that after all these years I could sense her line of thought. An arc of her brow, a tug at her lips, a next-to-imperceptible squint — there were a thousand clues. So subtle that I did not read them so much as feel them. Maybe I had always been flattering myself, claiming powers that I did not possess. Now I looked at her and all I saw was a blank.

“Fatman,” said Duke. “We got certain matters to discuss.”

“Related you could say to due diligence,” Pimlipper added. “Matters that maybe didn’t receive as much attention up front as they should have.”

“I was thinking short term,” I said. “Those reporters. We wanted to escape. We pop down here, we pop up somewhere else. Under our old Summit Avenue joint, for instance.”

“Sometimes the short term and the long term aren’t so different,” said Duke.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let’s ease into this,” said Pimlipper. “You think about your big-time product reps. Charlie the Tuna. Mister Clean. Aunt Jemima. Betty Crocker. Mister Whipple.”

“Not Whipple,” said Duke. “He was an actual guy.”

“You get the point.”

“What do they have in common?” Duke asked.

“They’re all corporate tools?” I said.

“I suppose,” said Duke. “But that’s not what we’re getting at here.”

“They’re not real. Except Whipple. The toilet-paper squeezer. Forget about Whipple. The rest of them, they’re illustrations. Cartoons,” said Pimlipper.

“No offense,” I said. “But what’s the point?”

“Maybe Pimlipper’s not putting it right,” Duke said.

“Your big time operations use cartoons for a reason. Your Tiger Woods, your OJs, your Lance Armstrongs, you got their face on your product and in the end what do they give you but grief?” said Pimlipper.

“You know what these guys are talking about?” I asked Doris.

I studied her face again for the familiar signs. A tic, a grimace, a grin, anything.

Nothing.

She looked at me like she had never truly seen me before.

“The thing about cartoons,” said Pimlipper. “They’re never living, they’re never dead. Betty Crocker, she’s forty years old forever. You give her a new hairdo every ten years, you’re still in business. Aunt Jemima, one year she’s a husky gal with a scarf wrapped around her head, next thing you know she’s got an Afro and she’s dropped fifty pounds.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m being thick-headed. I don’t see…”

“Think!” Doris said suddenly. “What the difference between you and a cartoon?”

“I’m three D, baby, I’m not a piece of paper. I’m human. Mistakes, sure, I make them. But I get some things right. I’m the usual human mess.”

“You live,” said Duke.

“You die,” Pimlipper added.

“Sooner than we thought, unfortunately.”

“We didn’t think to check, that’s what we’re getting to.”

“Ironic,” said Duke. “Considering the product line.”

“As much as we got an excuse, it’s that you’re a healthy looking guy. Overweight maybe.”

“Obese even.”

“But you carry it well.”

“So it slipped our minds,” said Duke. “Embarrassing. But there you have it.”

“Are you telling me…?”

“For the public face of Know the Time, we could have made a better choice,” Pimlipper said.

“At least we haven’t ramped up the media campaign.”

I felt my stomach drop, which is saying a lot.

“You know my time? My day and hour?”

“Of course we do.”

“And it’s…”

“What’s a day?” Duke asked. “How long is an hour? It flies by. It lasts forever. It’s definite, it’s arbitrary. You’ve got to free up your mind here, Fatman. That’s my advice.”

“Five minutes?” I said. “Five years?”

“You want to know?” Pimlipper asked. As usual his expression was stuck between amusement and disgust.

“Charles!” Doris said. She threw herself at me. She grabbed my lapels. She pulled herself up off her feet and gave me a shake.

She said, “It’s a heartbeat. It’s a lifetime. We can use it. We can waste it.”

“What are we…?”

“Thirteen days. There! Thirteen days!”

“That figures,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said, almost viciously now. “It doesn’t matter. The question is the same as ever.”

“What is the question?” I asked her.

She pulled herself up further now, right into my face.

“Charles,” she said. “The question is, How do you want to live?”

— The End