Monday, October 26, 2009

Fiction: Fertilizer

Creative Commons License
This work by Jonty Kershaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

    They asked me to come here today to talk to you about terrorism and to tell you the story of how a middle-aged account executive could find himself on a bus filled with fertilizer and nails lodged in the side of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Personally, I’d rather just forget the whole incident, but they tell me it’s important in these deadly times for everyone to understand their role in national security.

*   *   *

    I don’t know where to start. I first suspected my neighbor was Australian…well, I’m not sure when I really started to be suspicious. I think it started with little things tugging at my mind. Like his driving. Every morning at seven fifteen sharp he would back out of his driveway into the left lane. At the time, I thought he was just a careless driver – not unusual in the suburbs – but it bothered me on some subconscious level. Another thing that bothered me was the way he pronounced the word “Beer”. I’ve never been to Wisconsin, and for all I knew they pronounced it “beeah”, but it still bothered me in some way I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
    I think the biggest clue of all back then was the way he would always talk us out of eating lunch at the Outback Steakhouse. He always had some excuse – he wanted us to try the new Canadian restaurant in town, or he didn’t like their selection of beeah, or he had eaten there the day before. Somehow, we always ended up driving past. I should have noticed the way he and the guy taking out the trash would nod solemnly as though they knew each other.
    The day I truly began to take my suspicions seriously was a Saturday. I was sitting at home watching a documentary about the Australian-American War. There was a clip of the State of the Union Address right after we took Brisbane. Jeb was saying something about how the back of their armed forces was broken, but how the Australians were a weaselly bunch of cowards like the Iraqis, and how we should all be vigilant of more terrorist attacks and not, in his words, “Throw another shrimp on the bahbie and celebrate with a beeah just yet.” President Bush’s imitation of an Australian got a round of polite laughs from the press corps at the time.
    Somehow it stuck in my head for the rest of the afternoon. I just kept muttering to myself “Throw another shrimp on the baahbie”. I think I wanted to practice it and use it as a joke at work on Monday.
    That afternoon I was sent to the supermarket to buy some salmon. There in the seafood department I bumped into my neighbor. He was shopping for the barbecue he was throwing for the subdivision the next afternoon. I had completely forgotten and I was distractedly trying to think of what I was going to make to take over to really think about it. I decided on the potato salad.
    As I said, I was too distracted to think about it at the time, but later that night as I lay in bed trying to get to sleep, it struck me: If he was throwing a barbeque, what was he doing in the seafood department?
    All my stray suspicions slammed together in my mind. Beeah, driving on the wrong side of the road, conspiratorial nods at the Outback Steakhouse…
    My next-door neighbor was an Australian Spy!

*   *   *

    I spent the next two hours on the Homeland Security website researching terrorism and compiling a list of telltale signs of Australian terror cells. In hindsight, I should have called the authorities right then, but I… I guess I thought it was my civic duty to find out for myself. I took a sleeping pill and tried to get some sleep before the barbeque.
    My neighbor and his family were always cheery and friendly, but as I arrived at the party I saw it all in a different light. His laugh and his wave now came with their own sinister soundtrack. His wife’s hug of my wife was an opportunity to plant a tracking device, and the Slip-and-Slide could have been a frighteningly efficient way of infecting the entire neighborhood’s children with a genetically engineered virus. I felt sick. I had to brace myself before I started my mission.
    The first stop was the beer cooler. Just domestic beers and no Fosters. Damn. My second target was a success. There next to the grill – a really nice gas grill, by the way, with multiple burners and even a place to boil… anyway, there on the table next to the grill was shrimp. A mound of enormous shrimp the likes of which no American would have thought to buy for a barbecue.
    Now came the difficult part of the mission. I spent a nerve-wracking hour-and-a-half chatting with my now sinister neighbor, trying to trip him up with clever conversational tricks. If you’ve never tried it, you can’t imagine how hard it is to turn a casual conversation to topics such as the last letter of the alphabet, which I’m told they pronounce “Zed”, or the lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda”. I was about to pack it in when he asked me how I liked my steak. “Medium rare”, I said. His offhanded reply was “Fair d-d-deal”. I had him! He had almost said Fair dinkum”.
    Our eyes locked. I tried nervously to smile, but I was sure he was on to me. After the longest moment of my life, he looked away and started to prepare my steak. I made a feeble excuse about needing to use the bathroom, and he laughed and said “Fair deal, neighbor”, this time with no hint of a stutter.
    So now here I was, alone, in his house. Three more things to check before I called the cops. As I carefully searched his cabinets and closets for Vegemite and didgeridoos, I found another sign I had not thought of. A leather cowboy hat with holes around the brim. Holes that surely once held string with corks on the end. I hurried to the bathroom and locked the door.
    This was it. The final test. I flushed the toilet. I watched in horror as the water circled down the hole… in a counter-clockwise direction. An Australian commode. My family was in grave danger!
    At that moment, the door crashed open. There, standing before me, was my neighbor. The last words that I heard before the didgeridoo cracked me on the head were “Yaw steak’s ready…”

There will now be a two-hour intermission for lunch. Please return to your seats by one thirty at the latest.

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