By Andrew Paul Grell
“Hey, Jim Bakker! Check this out! Did you ever see socks like these?” We called him Jim Bakker ever since his stint as a real estate agent. It was a little easier than his real name, Eustacius Bretagne, Stashy for short. Like the eponymous “Preacher,” he quickly figured out how to sell the same condo to three or more people at once. From physicist to charlatan to crashing in a spare bedroom entirely decorated in a New York Mets theme. I had hope for him. Teaching, researching, or not, he would always be a physicist and always have potential. He opened the door the rest of the way and I could see he was still in a phase of collecting redheads. Natural redheads.
“Socks like what? Let’s take a look,” he managed to get out, despite his chronic morning dry-mouth.”
“You might want to tell Jessica Hahn there to cover up. Here.” I handed him the pair of socks which were inside an envelope the UPS guy just dropped off. They were incredible, they were beautiful, they had the delicacy of silk and the texture of cashmere. They were the color of old-growth forest earth. The ankle parts each depicted one of those twisty trees you see on National Geographic. The foot parts displayed root systems. Stashy took the hosiery and gave the pair a good sniff, a gentle feel, and a very close look. But then he started scratching his hands, and fished out a pair of lab gloves from his physicist box
“Pete, I think these threads are gold. Let me check this out. Is there coffee?” Another item on my resume’ after actuary and reserve officer: hotelier. Stashy went for his science kit and I got some eggs and coffee going. Jessica Hahn came out wearing one of my friend’s button-down shirts. She offered me her hand.
“Jessica. Jessica Cohen. Stashy and I were colleagues when we were both teaching at Carmody University.” Amazing how that works out sometimes. Not part of the current collection. I shook her hand warmly, gave her a welcoming smile, and told her that my house was her house. I was deciding whether to remind Stashy of the Droit de Seigneur rule of the house when Fafner, my black and white Decker Rat Terrier, alerted by breakfast sounds and smells, came bounding over holding his leash in his mouth. He licked us both and I handed Jessica the spatula and took my dog for a walk. It was late autumn, trees in brilliant technicolor, temperatures dropping. I could actually use a new pair of warm socks. Fafner began his patrol, always counter-clockwise around the split-level ranch, looking for signs of trouble and for anything dead. This morning, it was one poor sparrow fallen from its nest, already covered by ruby and amethyst leaves. I pocketed a few crisp apples and the dog curbed himself by the trash cans left on the devil strip and we went back in to, finally, eat.
Stash had led his old friend to the dog food and she prepared a nice plate of it topped with the frying pan caking from the cheesey-eggs. How did she know about cheesey-eggs? My friend was hunched over a milliammeter, an eye-dropper, and my socks. If he had it tail it would have been wagging faster than Fafner’s smelling Jessica’s breakfast.
“The yellow threads are gold. 24K. But here’s something. The dull silver threading in the leaves is didymium. The rejected element. Funny, it’s only used in welding glasses.” I could see him morphing back into a physicist, skipping real estate entirely. He went on.
“Did you order these? Do you know where they came from? Is there a manifest? Packing list? Note from Grandma?” I showed him the paper—more likely parchment—that had been wrapped around the socks. It looked like something on TV when they show a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Runes.
“As a professor trained in lab safety, I highly recommend that you do not don these socks until we can read that piece of paper. You know, it took a while for Apple to figure out the whole conductive-surface, insulated gloves thing. We don’t want any accidents or infections, toelio or kneesles.” Good on him. He could do physics and he kept a sense of humor. It took 30 minutes to confirm that Microsoft Office didn’t have a Runic font. Then 30 seconds to download one from Google. Then another half hour to convince Microsoft to allow the font to be imported. Twenty minutes pecking while looking at the font’s keyboard map, then another minute for Google Translate to tell us what was on the paper.
Well, it was addressed to me. I vocalized for a few seconds to bring up my command voice and started in.
“Hail Commander Doctor Peter Munchen,
“You have been chosen to be the next wearer of the Tarnhosen. Donning them confers upon you a great gift but also a far greater responsibility. How you were chosen, by whom, or why, is not important. If you are reading this missive, you are the correct recipient.
“The Tarn has changed over time, and the gift it bears changes from wearer to wearer. It is up to you to discern the gift. You may use it to gain power or use it to work from the forest deep and dark. The Tarn’s purpose is to move the world forward. And this remember always. In fire, in mire, on the bog in a fog, the Tarn ne’er retires till loosing its ires in gallop or slog.”
I had to break in or I would bust.
“Is this a new campaign strategy? Anyone heard of this? Any thoughts on left or right? Jim Bakker? Jessica? Fafner?” Fafner held up his left paw, but that’s what he always did to tell me he had a calorie deficit, as opposed to just wanting a snack. No help there. “Jessica, any more remains of the cheesy-eggs?” She elbowed Stashy and he grabbed his plate and added a deer-antler marrow treat. That should do him for a while. I returned to the letter.
“Commander, above all else, you must not allow the feet of those who would despoil its purpose to be bound in the Tarnhosen.
“The Tarn knows when this letter has been read. The Tarn knows when it swaddles feet. When the sun passes the meridian, if it is not on your feet or replaced in its packet, it will immolate. If you object to the use of the Tarn, it is your right to let this happen. It will take time, but their will in due course be a new Tarn.
“Salute, Commander Doctor Peter Munchen. Find your gift.” There was a simultaneous three-way “Wow” followed by some looking at each other and the socks. Jessica ranked about as high in literary academia as Stashy had in physics. She went into the kitchen for the egg timer, turned it upside down, and co-analyzed the letter and the socks.
“I make it 21 minutes. The egger timer runs out in ten. That gives us 11 minutes to see if we can pull any information out. She took a close look at the socks.
“The tree is an ash, Yggdrasil, the World Tree. The rhyme is classic story-cycle. It’s a riddle for a specific place and a specific way of getting there. You can get there very fast or very slow, but nothing in between. As to the place… well… we know there is a place. If you do this, there will be a real thing to accomplish and a way to do it. That’s something, I guess. As for the gift, who knows? The classic Tarnhelm was about invisibility and shape-shifting. Deep dream material. What do you dream of, Pete?” Stash fielded that question.
“He dreams he can be like me and get women as hot as you. Pete, I told her about the Droit de Seigneur deal and she still stayed.” She balled up the socks and threw them at Stashy. “Think fast, Jim Bakker!” It was just a pair of socks, but it raised a welt on Stash’s arm. It didn’t do that to me when I was playing with them. I looked at Jessica’s hands. No welts. Maybe it had to do with velocity, a Tarn speed limit. This was enough. It would just kill me if I didn’t do it.
I picked up the balled socks from the floor, went upstairs, and ‘donned the Tarnhosen.’ The mirror showed me to still be visible, but perhaps I would still be able to see myself even if others couldn’t. I’d have to ask Jim Bakker about that. I went downstairs to test me dumb hypothesis, and of course it was confirmed. I had to stand there while they tried to get me to change into every conceivable kind of animal.
I ran through an assortment of super-powers, from comics to myths presented in a literature elective I once took. Flying should probably be tested last. Strength was common but cheap. Knowing what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Too much like cheating. I had the idea that the sock people expected a clean fight. X-ray vision? That could be tested immediately. All I saw was a wall. Miniaturization? Didn’t work. Foresight? Cheating and also paradoxical. I knew enough physics from college and then bunking with Stash to know that would be a problem. Then I thought of one I liked, Glamour from the TV show True Blood. Same class as charm, charisma, and grace. This one seemed fair. Sort of like boring out the cylinders on a used Pontiac Goat to get some additional speed, but still good for bringing stuff home from Cosco.
It looked like what I was looking for would have to be found outside my house. On an offhand chance, I lifted the trash bins, one in each hand. It was the day before collection, they should be 60 pounds each. I hoisted the two of them easily enough and thought that maybe strength was the gift. Until I felt my triceps getting ready to unravel. I dropped the cans, which luckily remained sealed. Luck. Maybe that was the gift.
Home base being played out, Stiffy’s West would probably be cricket to start out. Everyone at the bar would likely already be there to be charmed by something. I hopped on the bike and pedaled across the village. The bar’s sign, “Stiffy’s West – Everything but Dwarf Tossing” was still up despite the regular protests. I entered the comforting dark, found an empty stool, and ordered a Presbyterian; Stash would chide my safety precautions if I initiated an experiment while inebriated. Stiffy knew to put a swizzle stick in the drink despite the lack of alcohol.
I gave the room a quick 360. A plurality of the company was sun-not-over-the-yardarm drinkers, as should be expected. There were a handful of quick-snort suits, middle management men and women from our village’s brilliant economic initiative: a towering edifice with cheap space for assorted corporate back offices in a place with cheap rent. They were the type who could be pitched and had a little something to invest. It was a tossup between a guy with a New York Mets tie pin and a woman with natural pearls and a ladies’ Rolex. I asked Stiffy to pick a number under ten. Naturally, he had to pick Pi. Pi was less than five, so I went with the guy, winging it all the way.
“We don’t see a lot of Mets fans out here. Peter Munchen.” I offered my hand and he shook it reflexively but looked annoyed. Not a good start. “I’m from Elmhurst.”
“Really? Which side, Nassau or Queens? I’m originally from Lynbrook.”
“We were in the Republican half.” I couldn’t believe I was saying that, but it looked like a little traction was happening. “Any thoughts on whether Wright will show up in a game before the season ends?”
“The Wolpons still need to scrape some cash together after the Bernie Madoff thing. Think of the gate if he’s scheduled to play, even if they’re out of contention. Hey, I haven’t seen you at the Edifice. What line are you in?”
“I’m an actuary, it’s easier for me to prognosticate from somewhere quiet. And a Reserve Colonel at MaGoo Base, about ten miles out of town.” Here we go. “And an investor. When an actuary invests, he’s starting out on third base.”
“Really? Any good tips?
“Ever hear of didymium?” That did it. He looked at his watch, hoped he’d see me around again, but had to get to a meeting. Business glamour was not in the cards. Perhaps some of the mommy-looking women, catching a gentle buzz before picking up their little monsters from school might succumb. I hit the head and came back to sit one empty stool away from a likely mommy.
“Martini for your thoughts, Ma’am?” Boy, how did I ever get laid if I’m this lame?
“Look. I’m sure you’re a great guy, loves kids and dogs, champ in bed, but my life is very complicated.” Glamour was neatly folded up and safely stowed.
It took another week, but eventually I found the gift. It was my turn for the monthly poker game to support whatever needed to be supported in the village. Jessica was still here and still redheaded, so we went with Texas Hold’em instead of the traditional draw poker. Three hands in, I was the big blind, my hole cards would likely get me a flush. Debbie the druggist was betting big, and then I saw a blue light floating over her head. Did it mean she had a hand or that she was bluffing? I went with the latter. She wound up one card missing to fill either a straight or a flush and lost it all. To me. The socks and I were in business.
We had a grown-up style meeting when I got home, the four of us around the table, or rather, three around and one under, to figure the best way to move forward. Interrogation support was the obvious choice, nailing bad guys, getting information on violent plots, tracking conspiracies and collusions. But you can’t just walk into a DA’s office and introduce yourself as Svengali. We googled our respective classes and found three fellow alums with careers in intelligence: CIA, DIA, and the Texas Rangers. We kicked it around. Nobody wanted the Rangers. I thought the DIA was less sloppy and the CIA and was non-political. Fafner put up a paw in support, or maybe he wanted some cookie crumbs. Jessica agreed with us, but Stash kept insisting on the CIA. He looked at Fafner but got no help there. I was the natural one to make the call to my classmate Dina Jacobs at DIA, it would be Colonel to Colonel. We scraped together whatever ID we had, diplomas, citations, my commission, anything that would get us clearance; we found a dog-friendly Virginia motel and loaded up the car with human and canine snacks. On a whim I took my Class A uniform, with he Grenada campaign ribbons and my Purple Heart and folded it neatly in the trunk. Off to the Swamp. Being true to the story-cycle reminder, we took local roads, slowly.
Dina must have liked me more than she let on when we were in Grad school together. What a loser I am to have not picked up on it, it’s a wonder I ever got laid. Her husband was a lucky man, after four kids she was 100% Army trim. Trim, what a waste of trim. She shepherded the experimental protocol and our clearances, vouching for me as the smartest guy on campus 20 years ago, and that any friends of mine would be okay; Stash had been a high-powered physicist and Jessica was moderately renowned as a semiotician, which would come in handy in an experiment like this. The four of us went through the scanners (we had to take Fafner’s collar off) and after more salutes than I had ever received at MaGoo we were in the brain of the United States Armed Forces.
The deal was a bunch of people would sit on one side of a table opposite a subject. There would be five trials; four with DIA personnel, and one with a low-value detainee borrowed from the spy agency up the road a piece. I would sit quietly with a notebook and mark a plus (true) or minus (false) next to the number of each question. I would have to correctly mark every DIA question and pick out the real bad guy. If I passed, they wouldn’t shoot us for gaining entry under false pretenses. I suspected that was spy humor. The rest of the party filed in, then a smaller group a minute later. Dina looked perturbed and Jessica, the empathetic one in the bunch, looked perturbed at Dina’s perturbation.
“Who are these folks? This is a classified interrogation, NTK only.”
Her CO calmed her down. “They’re okay. Dr. Bretagne recommended them to back him up if there was any physics involved in addition the men staring at goats stuff.
My blind great-aunt could have picked the first subject as Army just from the way he adjusted his chair before he was handcuffed to it. True he wasn’t gay, if the blue light was any indication, true that he did have one homosexual experience in the 5th grade, false that he never pilfered anything from work, blah, blah, blah. The funny part was that Fafner put his right paw on my shoe before each blue light showed up over the subject’s head. Number two was just too theatrical, a central-casting villain. Not even worth marking the answers, but I did anyway. Three was interesting. The CO passed pictures to the subject and asked the man in the Armani suit and John Kerry haircut if he knew who they were. I knew who they were from a security briefing at Magoo last year when they were suspected of being in that part of the state. I marked him as the real bad guy. Four looked sincerely afraid; he smelled of fear, so much so that Fafner went and sniffed him. Left paw. Another ringer. Before the final interview, Fafner looked at me and gave me teeth… his danger, be quiet signal. Three seconds later, Stashy’s “recommendations” had their guns drawn and pointed straight at me. Fafner’s bark and the CO’s threw them off a split second, in time for me to hear, from under the table, Jessica’s voice.
“Use the socks, Pete! Use the socks!” I remembered what happened when the socks touched Jim Bakker. Some friend. Faster than a boot camp graduate, I had my shoes off and a sock on each hand, rising from under the table, windmilling furiously. Just like Kung Fu movie, bullets shattered in my palms; contact with the socks left acid burns on the infiltrators. The CO smiled at Dina; she earned quite a few brownie points today, and I could cross of Hotelier from my resume and replace it with “sleuth.”
The three of us were a bit stunned on the ride back to the village. Jessica let me know that she was my “trainer” for a few months until I got acclimated to the Tarnhosen. She reached over and gave my right thigh a little squeeze, and Fafner managed to get his right paw on my shoulder.
“We haven’t had a breach since Truman was president. But at least I can confirm that you were the right choice. I hope you like redheads as much as Jim Bakker. You’re not going to find another woman who’s okay with you knowing whenever she lies.”