"May I at least finish my cereal?" I inquired, indicating the bowl full of sweet, fruit-flavored spheres I'd just poured milk over.
"Silly Robert. Trix are for fat kids with sugar-induced hypertension," he said, putting a savagely frank twist on the beloved brand's theme line. "Take him away. "
Two men in dark suits flanked me, each gripping one of my arms. As I gauged the breadth of their shoulders, the size of their arms, their overall bulk and brawn, I was certain of just one thing: They hadn't bought off-the-rack.
The suits moved me roughly through the foyer, out the front door and out onto the porch. "But what do you want with me?" I asked. "What have I done?" The sun was barely up and the painted wood of the porch stairs was cool on my bare feet, as if I were wearing archless, topless shoes made of painted porch wood.
"What do you think you have done?" he responded.
"I can't imagine," I said, all the while wondering if the plans I had for the upcoming evening might be construed, in the strictest legal sense, as "conspiracy to commit drunk and disorderly," and, if they could, when I would have found the time to inform on myself. "I lead a very ordinary life."
"Yes, perhaps," he said, as I was forced into the back seat of a black sedan and bound tightly, inescapably, to the seat by a strap that not only diagonally crossed my torso but traversed my lap then clicked tightly into a steel buckle. "But you would do well to remember that you are dealing with people who are very well informed."
We spent the next two hours driving in circles, trying to find a way out of my housing development.
Inevitably, we arrived at headquarters. There, a uniformed guard led me to a small, windowless chamber with a high ceiling and plain white walls. A single, bare lightbulb hung in the center of the room. The bulb was overbright for the stark, confined space; I wondered how many suspects had been forced to sign confessions here and how they could possibly have been expected to read them over beforehand with so much harsh, reflective glare.
Spread beneath the fixture was a plastic sheet covered in large, multicolored polka-dots; I recognized it as the "game board" from the game of Twister. I recoiled at the inhuman and humiliating possibilities.
As if reading my thoughts, the guard said, "The hardwood floors have just been refinished and we're using that to keep the scratches to a minimum till the rug we ordered is delivered," whereupon he brought a hard, straight-backed chair into the room, set it on the plastic, left and locked the door.
I sat. Alone. With little choice but to consider precisely how much a few potted plants might soften the room's look.
I'd been sitting, waiting for nearly an hour when the door opened. A bespectacled, middle-aged gentleman in a drab suit entered. My anxiety rising, my mind racing, I wondered if interrogations at Scotland Yard were conducted by inspectors in drab kilts and what a drab kilt would look like, exactly.
The man was followed into the room by a woman in her thirties carrying a note pad and pencil, obviously his subordinate. Their faces were in stark contrast: his grim, hers smiling. Or so I thought. After a moment, I realized the bun in the woman's hair was pulled and twisted so tightly at her crown that it drew the corners of her mouth up and back.
The guard reentered with two more chairs, beanbags this time, plainly determined to protect the room's pristine floor. He placed the limp, voluminous, vinyl furnishings opposite mine and left, closing the door behind him.
The man and woman lowered themselves deliberately into their chairs. Before long, he cleared his throat and began to speak, whereupon she immediately started taking notes. This is all some sort of bizarre nightmare, I thought. Who would hire a full-time stenographer when a $20 tape recorder could do the same job?
The man introduced himself as Inspector P--. "I have several questions to put to you," he said. "When you have answered them to my satisfaction, you will be free to go. Answer them in less than 60 seconds and I'll fly you and a companion to Las Vegas where you'll stay at the fabulous Caesars Palace where guests are entertained nightly by singer extraordinaire, Celine D--. "
You have nothing to hide, I told myself. Cooperate fully. Yet nagging, gnawing at my very essence was the reality that in all encounters with the authorities, caution is one's sole protection.
Only grief, misfortune, and misery could possibly come from any collaboration. I'd learned that lesson only too well when I was a junior in high school and, at my father's urging, had adopted the Maytag Repairman "look."
"W-- is an Arab name, isn't it?" Inspector P-- asked.
"Um, Swiss, in fact," I informed him, neutrally. My interrogator removed his eyewear, then folded and slipped them into the soft leatherette case protruding from his shirt pocket.
He looked younger without his glasses, a compliment I decided to withhold until I might really need it. After a moment, he took some documents from an inside jacket pocket and shuffled through them methodically, unhurriedly. I tried to read the reflected pages in his pupils but found the text too small, too backward and, when I really thought about it, none of my beeswax.
Suddenly, he lifted his eyes from the papers and fixed them on me. His gaze was heinous: icy, punishing, cutting, withering. I prayed he would not turn it on my penis.
"Can you account for your whereabouts on February 2--, 200--?"
"Um, well, uh, let's see, I, uh, that, er...," I stammered, as if teaching a graduate course in stammering. "February 2--, 200--, you say?"
"No. I said, 'February 2--, 200--,' " he corrected.
"Oh, so sorry," I replied, all courtesy and ass-kiss. "In that case no, I'm afraid I can't account for my whereabouts. But only because that's a week from next Thursday."
The Inspector accepted my answer without reaction. He again looked through his documents: reading, shuffling, reading. His tongue slid slowly between his lips, as if to say, "Could anyone else eat a Slim Jim right now?" Without looking at him directly, I watched him tug on his left earlobe, spin (twice) the gold wedding band on his ring finger, then wind his watch. The artful bastard. My chance to see Celine D-- was ticking away with his blasted tics.
At this point, Inspector P-- struggled out of his beanbag and, gaining his feet, circled around me, coming to a stop directly behind my chair. I didn't dare turn around. Abruptly, he launched a belligerent barrage of rapid-fire inquiries, making me feel both assaulted and a-peppered.
"You own an Afghan hound. Does he have ties to terrorists?"
"No, he's destroyed all my shoes and carpeting without any organized support network."
"Do you favor the views of Ayatollah Khomeini or Ayatollah Sistani?"
"The one who never smiles and has the beard."
"Have you had any associations with the Axis of Evil within the past year?"
"Absolutely not. I would never go to a Yankees' game or a Walmart store."
"What celebrity looks most like Yasser Arafat?"
"Do you want to spin or solve?"
"I'll have to spin, Inspector. Come o-o-on, big money..."
Then, silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for the pencil scratches of the stenographer as she noted the complete and utter silence. Minutes passed. Time dragged. Soon, I found myself imagining a pocket watch immersed in a jar of molasses buried deep in permafrost, something I rarely do when I'm not talking on the phone with my Mom.
Finally, The Inspector spoke again. "You're free to go now, " he informed me, dismissively. With that, he walked over to his subordinate, helped extricate her from the beanbag chair, and both strode smartly across the room and out the door, which they did not close. I was left alone. Apparently free.
And whether I'd been illegally detained in the first place or released in error, the important thing right now was that the system worked.
My relief was deep. Staggering. Yet a lingering sense of desolation remained. And that, I knew, was there to stay. But a bowl of milk-swollen, wasted Trix waiting at home will do that to a person. ©