"Stop laughing. You're supposed to feel sorry for me, you prick," Ralph Adogg bemoans melodramatically, laying his 47-year-old, blond-haired head on his desk.
Phillip "Flip" Montano just can't. He tries to hold his breath; it explodes in a spray of spittle and a round of bah-hah-hah's.
"You, ha, ha," Flip sputters, clutching onto an FBI case file, "look like you spent the weekend, ha, ha, locked in a cage with a horny gorilla. And you friggin smell like it, too. Wah-hah."
"Amelia left me, damn it. That's not funny," Ralph confesses, the tone articulating his pain more powerfully than the words. He stares into a framed image of himself, Military-trained strong and wedding-grin happy, its arm wrapped possessively around its bride while the ha-ha-ha's peter out.
"Okay. Not funny. But really, man — '' Flip sniggers then belches as he connects butt to chair. " 'Scuz me," he says, settling in. "Okay. You want me to ask? What happened?"
Ralph morosely lays the frame face down then leans over it, bringing his lips close to Flip's ear. "Happiness," he whispers, nodding slowly and shrewdly. "It just started and it wouldn't —"
"Happiness," Flip states flatly, considering the concept
"— stop. I couldn't control her any more. It changed her. All I did was love her! I still love her, so much - it hurts." Ralph pauses, such a pure vision of perplexity and pain, Flip considers buying into it, but checks himself. He's been through enough with the arrogant misogynist to know better.
"All I ever did was help her. Everything I ever did was for her, for us. She's the love of my life, for Christ's sake. And she stabs me in my back. Happy for no reason. Laughing at me. Took the dogs, won't let me see 'em, and, look, no clean clothes, you know?" Ralph mutters, proffering a view of his soiled cuff.
Flip could see the shirt had serious laundry issues.
"Like wanting me to go to counseling. Won't let me touch her. Like there's something wrong with me. It's all her fault."
Ralph's gaze seems to beg Flip for something. Answers? Praise? Pity?
"It was that damned book club. They brainwashed her or coerced her – it's a man-hating cult. They did a whatchamacallit on her brain, you know, laproscomotomy —"
"Lobotomy?" Flip suggests.
"Or shot her full of drugs—"
"A man-hating book club brainwashed your wife into leaving you?" Flip asks, peering into Ralph eyes. Ralph's light-green orbs are hangover-bloodshot, not drug-glassy or dilated. They otherwise seem normal, except for something cold, like the subzero frigidity at the core of an iceberg.
"No. They brainwashed her into being happy. Too happy to play by the rules. She does what she wants when she wants and nothing else. She quit following orders. She went AWOL."
Flip plucks the word from the place it's been tickling the edge of his mind. "Subversive. That's it. Subversive happiness!" He thinks out loud: "A person could be so happy that they quit caring what anybody else wants from them, what society wants from them. They live for the sake of life! It's like Rumi said: having a body is pure ecstasy. But a book club doesn't make that happen. Not unless there's something else. Not a cult, but a person. Might it be," Flip carefully picks his words, "Someone else?"
Ralph freezes. Except for short, shallow bursts of breath, his body seems as unmoving as a statute, stone eyes staring into its lap for eternity. Suddenly, it bolts out of its seat and, with a spasmodic shiver, shakes his entire body, like a big wet dog throwing off water.
"Passive/aggressive bitch," he spits with hatred and derision. "I put up with her for too long. She's just like all the others. Head full of shit." He grabs the frame and violently introduces it to the trashcan. It fractures and splinters with a violence so appeasing it restores Ralph's sense of rightness with the world and his own place in it.
"Tell me how you really feel," Flip comments softly, his pulse racing, hands sweaty, muscles twitching in flight or fight response. He's thankful for the transfer tucked in his pocket.
"I'll go wash up," Ralph announces unapologetically, seemingly unaware of his own inexplicable behavior and it's nasty effect. "Get that file laid out. Another interrogation?"
Flip nods and prepares.
* * *
"You're telling me that, that – old lady in there," Ralph points at the figure behind the one-way glass, "is the FBI's Most Wanted? Seriously! "
"Middle-Aged," Phil retorts. "You saw the file."
"It's un-friggin-real," Ralph comments. "For 40 years, she's brainwashing sixth-graders and recruiting them into her cause?"
"You saw the file."
"And those sixth-graders grow up to be some of the most influential world leaders? They're purposely undermining the system? Secretly creating a gynarchy? Blasting us from the inside? Unbelievable! X-files in real life. Look at her."
She looks like a hip Mrs. Claus, fit physique ensconced in a red tracksuit, topped with snow-white hair, and sporting MBTs. An elfin quality, an inexplicable earthy "aliveness," emanates from her. It surrounds her, filling the room, like steam fills a sauna bath. She appears relaxed, except for a prankish smile hiding behind closed lips. She winks at the one-way mirror and the smile jumps out to play. Both men step back reflexively and look at one another.
"She can't see us," Flip assures his partner.
"I know. I was just getting ready to, ah, finish the interrogation," Ralph states.
"She's completely cooperative. Get 'er done," Flip exclaims.
* * *
"I was 12," Mrs. Russell begins, "and walking in the woods. This energy – a column of light – surges suddenly from the earth and down from the heavens. It shot through me – " she stopped. "What time is it?"
Ralph switches on the recorder and makes an identifying entry, ending it: "11:22 am. Continuation of interrogation."
"I can't describe it, except to say it was pure bliss. I disappeared into it, but that's not quite right. More of a merging. It's inexplicable. But there you have it," she chuckled. "It's all inexplicable, really."
"How does this relate to your recruitment, your brainwashing?"
"I do nothing except be myself. There are 3 elements. When I have a child's full attention, this energy that is now me and more than me, it awakens them. It activates the DNA. It wakes the entire brain. That's the first element."
"Right. And the second?"
"The child must have a deep feeling connection toward me."
"Right. We'll come back to that. Now, give me the names, ages, and professions of your "children."
Mrs. Russell complies. After a time, Ralph becomes suspicious.
"Why are you so cooperative?" he asks.
"You think the FBI brought me here? Hah. I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to be doing," she admits.
Ralph guffaws derisively. "I'm interrogating you. You're my prisoner, if you hadn't noticed. Not the other way round. You're as off-your-rocker as my wife."
"Amelia said you'd be difficult, yet here we are," the prisoner declares.
"Amelia? You've spoken to her?" Ralph blurts angrily, his mind churning. A terrifying thought coalesces. "You!" he screams exploding from his chair. "You're responsible! You're the book-club bitch." His eyeballs bulge with an animal rage that scents his breath vomity-sweet.
"You brainwashed her. You made my wife leave me."
"Firstly, she's not your wife. Secondly, you kicked her out of her own house. You convinced her to give up everything to you, but - "
"She's a damned pathological liar. She's a passive/aggressive vengeful hateful bitch," Ralph interrupts. "She'd cut my balls off if she had half a chance."
"But," Mrs. Russell continues, "you never married her as promised. You convinced her into bankruptcy. You took everything material away from her and then you started attacking her soul."
Ralph's rage boils more fiercely, pushing him beyond denial. He shuts off the recorder and laughs cruelly. "She's such a stupid bitch, she deserved it. She was soooo easy to trick. So tiresomely gullible. But, she knew, really she did. She liked it. Now that I've got you, you're going to like it too. This will be fun," he confesses.
He switches the recorder on, his sense of domination restored. "What is the third element?"
"Oh, that would be the 42 minutes."
"The time it takes for the energy to complete the transformation. I have had your full attention, haven't I?"
Ralph checks his watch. Exactly 42 minutes. He begins to sweat. "You got me there, granny, 2 out of 3, but even if your magic trick works, you're never going to get a deep feeling connection out of me."
"Hatred is a deep feeling connection," she reveals, then rises and heads toward the door. Flip opens it, greeting her with a hug, which Amelia seconds.
Flip turns back. "The case file is phony – true, but phony. "
Ralph begins to laugh.
Ma Sankalpita Nithya lives in Pecos, New Mexico with her three dogs. After some negotiation, the Pecos Wilderness has agreed to their frequent exploratory excursions, for which she is exceedingly grateful and enjoys.