In Which My Friend Alan Saved the World,
(or at Least the City of Nashville, Tennessee,
[but We Aren’t Really Sure])
It is no small task to define a friendship, or to pinpoint a precise moment in which one could say this or that chum became said chum – there are no (or very few) origin stories for camaraderies, in other words.
Not so with me and Alan Goffinski.
In my advanced age, I can no longer say with certainty which year it was that I first met Alan; what I do recall is that I spent the better part of it willfully confined to a rural Indiana town while he toured the nation as a traveling musician. Each of us remained unaware of the other until, as the year came to a close, we found ourselves living under the same roof. He had deigned to slow down and enjoy a quiet, relaxed existence in quaint, calm Indianapolis. I had dared to upend the solitude I held so dear and immerse myself in the utter chaos of bustling, terrifying Indianapolis.
At the time I believe I knew about seven people, two of whom were my parents. So who the hell, I had to’ve wondered, was this guy moving in with me and my new roommates, and where was he procuring all of these dozens of bags of expired potato chips every night? Our earliest exchanges are lost to the ether of memory fog, on my end at least, but the real story of this friendship’s forging began when – rather unexpectedly – Alan (and future Mrs. Goffinski Alida) invited me to tag along on a trip to Nashville, Tennessee.
I hadn’t left the state in years; I hadn’t taken time off from work in months; and I hadn’t been alone in a room with Alan and/or Alida for more than an hour. There was some deliberation before I said “yes” and put my life in Alan’s hands. I had heard stories about Tennessee, believed none of them to be true because logic dictated they could not be.
Alan had arrived in Nashville a day ahead of me to get a head-start on recording his latest musical endeavor, a bluegrass album that was the raison d’être for the entire journey. Upon my own arrival I was rewarded with a tour of the RCA recording studio whose hallowed sound-booths had once served the likes of Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash (I guess), and, I don’t know, Natalie Imbruglia at some point or another. As an old man I now confess it was something of a thrill to be in this environment, sheltered as I was. I liked the music Alan and company were playing, to boot, so early on I considered the trip a success.
That first evening our group – consisting of myself; Alan; Alida; Alida’s friend called K.P.; and assorted banjoists, vocalists, and harmonicants, went searching for food down Broadway Street.
At some point we found ourselves gaping (to my chagrin) at an inebriated middle-aged couple in the throes of what I suppose was amorous passion, or else a life-and-death resuscitation, just outside a nearby tavern. When I could stand to look no more and Alan was still saying, “Hang on, hang on…” I happened to notice the others were absent. At some point during our amateur voyeurism they had disappeared.
“Should we try to find them?” I asked, straining to see down an ominous alley.
“Nah,” Alan said. “They’ll be back. Let’s get something to eat.” And he stepped into the ominous alley. Then he jumped into a dumpster in the ominous alley.
Saying nothing, I followed as far as the side of the receptacle, peering in through narrow slats on the side. Alan made quick work of digging through its contents, coming up now and then to toss a bag of Doritos or a packet of Chips Ahoy biscuits to me, none of which I successfully caught.
“This one’s loaded!” he said, and it made sense now why our refrigerator back home was overflowing with expired Odwalla juice bottles.
I was just contemplating joining Alan in the dumpster – which would have been a first – when I heard footsteps he could not. A panhandler I’d seen a few blocks back had turned into our alley, murmuring to himself.
“Excuse me, sirs?” he called. He looked nice enough, and I was jealous of his full and hearty beard right away. Alan poked his head up from the garbage can like a mole. The man said, “Wanna sticker? Stickers for a dollar.”
“Ah, that’s cool, man,” Alan said. “That’s all right. You keep those.” He nodded at the sheet of kitten and puppy stickers the man had drawn from his coat lining.
“Just a dollar,” the man said, eschewing Alan’s attention for my own. For my silence I received a face full of glossy Pomeranians. “C’mon, man. Everybody needs a sticker. Write your name on it. Tell the world who you are.” He pulled back his coat to reveal a big, curling name tag with baby rabbits all over it. In purple marker there were the smeared letters: JFK III.
“J.F.K. the Third?” asked Alan, having caught a glimpse. He was still up to his armpits in wasted-but-perfectly-good-nonperishables.
“S’right,” said the man. “S’me. J.F.K.3. My poppa was JFK Jr., my mom was Princess Leia, I’m the king of it all, man.”
“Right on,” Alan said and ducked back down. He nipped back up, red box in hand, and asked John the Third if he cared for some Cheez-Its.
“Hell, yes,” the man said, taking the proffered crackers up and tearing into them. With a mouthful of the things, he said, “Whatchoo’ doin’ in that trash, man?”
“You’d be surprised what people throw out,” Alan said.
“You in on this racket, too?” This question was directed at me. I shrugged. “Well, damn,” said JFK III. “I’ll be damned.” Another fistful of crackers went into his mouth. “I mean, shit, man.” He laughed. I wiped away the soggy orange crumb he’d sprayed onto my cheek.
Then JFK III tore off his name tag to reveal one of another sort: a policeman’s badge. He straightened his spine and stood with arms akimbo. “And by the way, gentlemen, you’re under arrest.”
Alan’s head once more popped up from the confines of the dumpster. “What’d you say?”
“For the theft of private property,” the man said, “I’m placing the pair of you under arrest. Step out of the trash bin, please, sir.”
“I knew this was a sting,” Alan said, swinging a leg over the side of the dumpster just as the incognito officer set about handcuffing me – which, by the way, was another first. When my arms were secured, Alan was back on solid ground holding out his own wrists in anticipation. The cop dug out another pair of cuffs, and Alan said, “Would it be out of line to ask for your badge number? Or your real name?”
“Damn you,” said the policeman, elbowing my accomplice in the ribs. “My badge number is three. And I told you my name. Listen. I won’t say it again: I am John F. Kennedy III, and I’m the King of It All, so shut your mouth and come quietly, bucko.”
We were quiet and compliant as he prodded us toward his half-concealed squad car. Once we were inside, Alan leaned over and whispered back to me the portion of the policeman’s speech that had managed to get under his skin:
Officer Kennedy III pulled the car over after what felt like a day-long drive. My mouth was dry, my heart hadn’t stopped palpating since the arrest, and my eyes burnt with a constant pool of tears.
“I’m still hungry,” Alan said.
“I can’t believe this,” I said. “Arrested across state lines. What if I lose my job?”
“He could’ve at least let us keep a box of Nilla Wafers. Where do you work?” Alan scratched his nose against the metal grating that separated us prisoners from the front of the car, his hands being indisposed.
“Bank teller,” I said.
The back door sprang open and there was the policeman. He pulled us both out and dragged us by our shirt collars to face the police station – only, on my life, I swear it couldn’t have been a police station.
It could hardly be said to have been a thing at all.
The building appeared as though it had been hung like a painting, if the sky were a wall. It shimmered in the moonlight, blinding at certain angles and invisible at others. It was not so much architecture as it was vapor.
All the same, the officer shoved us through the doors.
“Inspector MacManaughan’s asked to see you knaves straightaway,” he said. I noticed he was biting his lip so hard as to draw blood. “He doesn’t take kindly to your particular brand of skullduggery. God help you.” No one else was in the station. Every desk was empty, though each bore a steaming coffee mug – just no one to drink it. Clocks ran the length of the corridor in a line. None of them worked.
We had reached a door. On it, no plaque, but someone had carved the word INSPECTOR with a knife. Kennedy pounded upon it until it creaked open on its own. I shot Alan a look, wondering if he was okay because I was not at all. He seemed bizarrely at peace. A bit annoyed or inconvenienced, that was all. He saw me looking over and smiled.
I gulped and watched Alan step inside of his own accord, just before I had to be shoved in by the officer. Our captor did not follow us in, and instead the door slammed shut and we were left alone in a fog of tobacco smoke. I coughed and then gave a single sob.
I heard Alan say, “It’s all right, dude.”
Beyond the smoky haze, at the whitish rectangle I supposed was a window, I could just discern the outline of a man, or what was the shape of a man but twice the size of one.
We heard a voice. It was so harsh that even Alan jumped.
“The moon is sick,” it said – in a brogue as Irish as Irish comes.
Alan stepped forth. Shaking, I followed. Moonlight poured in through the window, but it was not until we were within arm’s reach of the beast that we could see him at all well. He was massive. It would take four or five of me standing side-by-side to match his width. The rolls of flesh spilling over his shirt collar were bright pink. His navy blue uniform was dripping wet and torn in several places. If he wore a gun holster, you’d never know with that gut hanging over his beltline.
“What?” Alan’s brow sank. He turned one ear to hear him better.
“I say the moon is sick,” the man said, staring up and out. “And if that Obama had any sense, he’d buy the Eiffel Tower, pump it full of antibiotic serum, and launch it into space until the pointy end stuck right into the old girl. The moon, gents, she needs medicine. It is no secret, it is no riddle.”
He turned around. I thought this couldn’t be a man – had to be a walrus wrapped in an ill-fitting human skin-coat. His ginger mustache wiggled over teeth too big to be contained by his thin lips. A fat stogie hung there, smoldering. He spoke.
“Inspector MacManaughan,” he said, bumping Alan with his belly. “That’s me. And you. You, you, you. You are the treacherous bandits my Officer Kennedy has delivered unto me? Yes.” He sniffed and huffed, cast another forlorn look at the moon. “Yes, you are, you are.”
“Look, sir, we’ll pay whatever fine there is for the dumpster diving. We’re really sorry,” said Alan. I wheezed. “Just tell us how much and we’ll get out of your hair.”
As if he had not heard Alan, the Inspector inhaled and said, “Gents, there is a blight on this city. It is a tremendous pancake, a real humdinger. I have my best men on it day and night and still we cannot abate or suppress this terrible threat to peace and honor.”
Alan looked at me, his eyes wide.
“Our garbage, you see,” said MacManaughan. “The dumpster out back. Each Monday morning we report to our assigned posts only to find the garbage, it’s gone. Slipped right through our fingers. Now you tell me, how can a man feel safe when his very refuse isn’t secure?”
“Well,” Alan said, “surely that’s waste management?” The inspector took a deep breath, expanded to twice his size. Alan took a step back.
“No, no,” said the Inspector. He punched the wall, his fist going clear through it to create an opening into the evening air. “It is a despicable terrorist bent on upending law and order. A sinister and most extraordinary pussycat, absconding with our most treasured trash and even recyclables. She is a most adroit thief, and an expert of disguise into the bargain. Look.” He pointed at a “Wanted” poster hanging on the wall. It bore a crude artist’s rendering of what was unmistakably a raccoon.
The Inspector drew from his cigar. “There is our suspect,” he said.
“All due respect,” Alan said, “but it seems to me you’ve just got a raccoon problem. Maybe put a brick on the garbage can lid.” He shrugged, his hands still bound behind him. “Boom. Problem solved.”
The Inspector thought on this. He stubbed out his cigar on the windowsill and rubbed his massive mustache. At last, he let out a great guffaw and smacked Alan on the back.
“Haw!” He bent him arms and wiggled his hips. We took another step back from him. “Boom, you say! MEGA-boom, I say!” Another loud burst of laughter. “Now that,” he said, “is exactly the type of expert thinking I hoped for from a diabolical criminal mind such as yours! Good show, gents! Good show!”
The giant police inspector waddled over to his desk and flung open a drawer, taking from it a small key that became microscopic in his fat hammy hands. Clutching it between his thumb-and-fingernails, he released us from our shackles and scooped the pair of us up in a crippling bear hug.
“You’ll have the key to the city for this, of course,” he said. “Heroes, you are. Oh, but won’t the Chief be thrilled!” His bone-crushing grip released and we fell to a heap on the floor. As Alan helped me up, the Inspector said, “I don’t suppose you have any expert remedy in mind for the moon problem, do you?”
Alan dusted off his shoulders. “You mean like a cure for moon’s ‘disease?’”
MacManaughan’s mustache quivered.
Alan shook his head. “No, sorry, fresh out of ideas on that one, sir.” He rolled his eyes, but I think only I noticed.
Bottom lip flopping, the Inspector cast his gaze at the floor and he said, “Aye. It is an especially confounding pancake. Poor, celestial beauty. I fear she is not long for this world.”
Casting about in his desk drawer with those catcher’s mitt-sized hands, he retrieved a bottle of Scotch and wrapped his lips wholly round it, guzzling. He held out the bottle, offering us a sip. We both declined. “Still,” he said, “you have done the city a benevolent kindness tonight, and you shall not go un-thanked. Come, come.” He drank again and held out a wide palm in the direction of a narrow door, almost undetectable in the far, dim corner. “I want to show you something.”
He stomped over to the door, opened and squeezed through it, the foundations of the building creaking at his forced entry.
What could we do but follow?
While Inspector MacManaughan lit a torch – the door led us into a long, narrow, stone-walled corridor with only firelight to illuminate it – Alan Goffinski slapped a hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t think I told you yet,” he said, his face orange in the torchlight. “Thanks for coming down here to hang out.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said, and he slapped a spider the size of a silver dollar from my shoulder.
“Just a little ways yet, fellows!” The Inspector was on hands and knees now. Alan and I had to crouch a bit near the end of the cave-like hall, but soon enough the hapless monster of a policeman had his hand wrapped around a tiny gold knob and pushed open the oak door attached to it. “Through here, and be lively in the doing. I’m eager and imagine so are you gents.”
Now in a cavernous, windowless, snow-white chamber, Alan and I took in the surroundings. Our footsteps echoed up to the skylight overhead, where moonlight poured in – moonlight MacManaughan was careful to sidestep, lest whatever lunar disease it was suffering from was catching, I guess.
There was a mahogany table in the dead center of the vast and otherwise empty room. Upon the table, a miniature model play set, like a diorama or a dollhouse. The three of us approached it, and I realized soon enough it was a replica of the very room in which we stood.
“It is my prized creation,” said the Inspector. “On lunch and tea breaks I come in here to make adjustments and tweakings. A work of art is never done, so they say.”
“Into models, huh?” Alan bent over, hands on the tabletop. He squinted, and in a moment all the color had drained from his face. He said, “Dude.”
Stepping closer, I leaned in. What I saw nearly floored me.
The model of these quarters was spot-on, a perfect miniaturized copy. And within it, standing around the table, were three tiny figurines that looked exactly like MacManaughan, Alan Goffinski, and me.
“Fine detail, is it not?” said MacManaughan. “I am not one for boasts and trumpeting, but I have no shame in the pride my hobby here gives me. Talent is talent, there’s no denying.”
“How…?” Alan said. “How did you…?”
“And look!” The Inspector jabbed a fat sausage finger at the miniature replica table in the model. I pulled closer; upon the tiny table was a tiny model set, a replica of the replica of the room. Inside that were three even smaller figurines of us.
“Holy shit,” Alan said. “There are more.” His voice was hoarse, missing the joviality I’d grown used to from him.
He was right. As far as the naked eye would allow, one could make out a series of models upon the models, each of them as far as I could tell perfect replications of the room, the table, the play set, and us.
“That’s not possible,” I said. “How can this even exist? Uh, sir?” But the Inspector was too impressed with himself, too entranced by his handiwork, to hear me. Something tugged at my shirtsleeve. I looked to my left, where Alan was pointing up at the skylight overhead.
Now I did fall, losing balance in sheer horror. Above us, beyond the glass dome ceiling, were me, Alan, and the Inspector – only giant-size. Our mondo-selves peered down through the skylight, pointing, oohing, and aahing.
Alan sat down next to me and buried his face in his hands. I copied him. He said to the floor, “I don’t understand. If you made the model in here, and all the smaller models – and even that I don’t get – who in the hell made those up there?”
“Ach, that’s easy,” said the Inspector. “There is another Inspector MacManaghan, even bigger than that one up there. He made that set.”
“Shit.” I’m not sure if it was me or Alan who said that.
“Did they… did they make us?” Alan said. “Is that what you wanted to show us?”
“It is an incredible pancake,” said the Inspector, up to his knuckles in his own mustache. “One can never say for sure.”
“Does it just go on forever in both directions?” I asked. The words I forced out like a cough.
“Now that is a real corker,” said the Inspector, his booming voice reverberating off of the widespread walls. “It is one of the most perplexing and insoluble pancakes I have ever known. Not even the Chief can hazard a guess at that and I reckon you’d lose your mind trying to suss it out, into the bargain.”
Alan’s voice quivered: “Why did you show us this?”
“Because it is your privilege,” he said, “and my honor.” He scooped us up, one arm for each of us, onto our feet. “To know such a secret, even one as unknowable such as this, is a rare treat indeed – and you’re very welcome, gentlemen. Now would you like to know another secret?”
“I don’t think I can handle it,” said Alan.
The Inspector ignored the hint, or maybe just plain didn’t catch it. Instead he rubbed our shoulders with those unforgiving mitts and said: “There is a song. The Chief, our great and fearless leader, sat with me as I built my play sets. And he recorded this song, in this chamber. Now as you can no doubt surmise, as the Chief played his song, so too did a hundred billion other Chiefs overhead and under nose. The sound that resulted, which has been captured on tape, as I say, is known to drive perfectly sane men perfectly mad.”
Alan leaned on the table, looking anywhere but at the scale model there. “I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying, man,” he said. “Can we just go? We don’t need any more reward. We just wanna go.”
“Tonight,” said MacManaughan, grinning, “the Chief broadcasts his song over the local FM station.”
Alan shot up. My knees buckled until I pressed them together.
“Why?” I said. “If that’s even possible or true: why?”
“When this town entire has gone mad,” said MacManaughan, “then maybe someone will listen to my outlandish-but-true concerns re: the moon. She’s so very ill, gents, and this is bigger than any of us.”
This is when Alan Goffinski turned hero that night in Nashville. At the Inspector’s blood-curdling pronouncement, Alan kicked a leg of the table with the models-within-models on it, sending it toppling. As a bewildering result, the very room in which we stood turned on its side, and all three of us were sent tumbling to the new center of gravity, which had once been the west wall.
MacManaughan got the worst of it. He landed at an complete one-hundred-eighty degree angle, square on his head. This would have knocked a normal man unconscious, but the Inspector was far from normal, and so was rattled at worst. Alan, however, took advantage of said rattling, standing firmly on the wall with his foot on the policeman’s considerable gut.
“Where?” he said. “Where’s the broadcast going to come from? Where is it?” I thought it an impeccable imitation of Christian Bale’s Batman, yet another talent of his.
Gagging, MacManaughan squeezed out the words: “Double-you Eff Tee Ess,” he said. “Local… country station.” His tongue lolled out. His eyes closed. And the Inspector slept.
Alan helped to me climb up the floor to the exit, using the grooves between floor tiles for footing. Together we left the mirage of a police station and didn’t look back.
“WFTS,” said Alan, hopping into a squad car as if he’d done so every day of his life. Keys were waiting for him in the ignition. Without thinking I hopped into the passenger seat and buckled up. Alan switched on the radio.
“You’re listening to WFTS,” said the on-air DJ. “Coming up we’ve got a special treat from our local Police Chief. I’m told it’s a doozy, folks, so stay tuned for that. Up next, though: Clint Black!”
Alan turned the radio off.
“We have exactly one Clint Black song to get to that radio station,” he said, putting the car in drive. “I just hope to God it’s a ballad.”
It was a ballad, and in a stroke of luck it was followed by a lengthy commercial break. If not for that Shane and Company ad, I don’t know that we would have made it in time.
Alan drove like a man possessed. To this day I do not even know how he:
a.) managed to hit only green lights;
b.) didn’t get pulled over for speeding; and
c.) knew where the hell the radio station was in the first place.
At any rate, we were there in minutes, he several yards ahead of me as we ran in to stop the police chief from playing his sanity-eroding song on the air.
We ran through corridors of flickering artificial light, past posters featuring weathermen and Joe Diffie. Alan swung open every door on the way, but for our troubles we were greeted at each turn by nothing but an empty room full of sound equipment.
Until that last room, the big studio suite at the end of the long, long hall. By process of elimination we knew this must be where the diabolical police chief was, gearing up to broadcast the death of reason as we knew it. Alan, with trepidation, pushed the door open with his fingertips. We went in.
The room was unlit. Alan gave me a thumbs-up, despite the uncertainty on his face. Behind an ancient sound board sat a man in black, done up with a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots, his back turned to us in a swivel chair.
“I s’pose you boys come to stop me,” he said.
“You’re the Chief?” said Alan. His hands formed fists.
“I am at that,” said the Chief. “What you gonna do? Kill me? Throw me out the win-der’ there? What?”
“We just want to talk,” said Alan. “You can’t play that song.”
“Ah, stuff ‘n nonsense,” said the Chief. He spun himself around by the steel toes of his boots to face us, the badge on his chest shining even in the dark. “I done played ‘er two minutes ago.”
I felt my mouth drop open. Alan stumbled backward. I couldn’t be sure if it was the Chief’s revelation or his appearance that shocked Alan so. The man in front of us was the spitting image of the late Johnny Cash.
Except, I’m pretty sure he actually was Johnny Cash.
“Fact o’ the matter is,” he said, “I’m playin’ ‘er through a second time right now.”
Alan went to the sound board, started pulling plugs and flipping switches. Chief Johnny Cash only sat there, observing, playing with his bolo tie.
“What do we do?” I said.
“I was you, I’d be prayin’,” said the Chief.
I looked out the window. All was calm – for the moment.
“Wait a minute,” said Alan. He kicked the console. “This stuff isn’t even wired up to broadcast. It’s just… a hollowed-out box with buttons all over it.”
“That’s rich,” said Cash.
Alan went to a speaker system on the other side of the room and flipped it on, fiddling with the dial. He put on a set of headphones and cranked the volume.
“Al, wait!” I said. Too late. He was listening to WFTS’s live broadcast. I watched him for signs of psychosis, checked for an eye twitch or a string of spittle dangling from his mouth. After a minute it seemed clear he was just going to stand there like a normal person, after all, tapping his foot a little and nothing else. He took the headphones off, held them out.
“Check it out,” he said. “Taylor Swift.”
I held up my palm. “No thanks,” I said.
“Y’all just aren’t listenin’ right,” said the Chief. “Or yer’ pullin’ a fast one.”
We said nothing, but I could make out the sounds of Taylor Swift’s melodious Southern drawl spewing from the headset in Alan’s hands.
“I… I can hear it,” said Cash, still seated. “My apocalyptic caterwaul, my soul-rending masterpiece. I hear it right now, dialed up ta’ ten.” With a knuckle he tipped the hat up on his forehead. “Don’t you?”
“Let’s go,” said Alan. “He’s nuts.” He put the headphones down. Together we headed for the exit.
“Am not,” said Police Chief Johnny Cash. “I am not nuts,” he said. “Just dead, is all.”
We were a few steps out of the room when he called out to us. “Come back!” he said. “I’m callin’ you boys out! Git back here!”
But we kept walking.
And that was our adventure for the evening. We did the only logical thing (and a logical thing, at this point, was a refreshing one): we drove the squad car back to the street corner where we had initially been arrested, where we had last seen the others in our group. We approached the tavern just around the corner from the dumpster where Kennedy had found us. The homely couple were still leaning against the wall there, making out.
And coming toward us were our friends: Alida, K.P., the rest of Alan’s band. Alida held out her arms and called out to us.
“There you guys are!” she said. “We lost you.”
Alan ran to her, gave her a hug. “Oh, man. The night we’ve had. How long were we gone?” he said.
“Um,” said Alida, raising her eyebrows at Alan’s warm hello. “About thirty seconds. What, were you checking the dumpster there?”
Alan laced his fingers behind his head and flared his nostrils. He stammered. “Uhh,” he said, “well. Maybe I’m, uh, maybe I’m crazy, but—”
“Yes, we had a look at the dumpster,” I said. “But nothing good in there. Let’s keep looking.”
“Good deal,” Alida said.
And we all kept walking down Broadway, past the bluegrass bars with open entrances, spilling live music out into the street. Alan squeezed my shoulder and nodded a silent thanks. I shrugged and looked up at the full moon.
It looked fine to me.
One other thing: that moment I mentioned, when I knew Alan Goffinski and I were going to be lifelong friends? I suppose I ought to clarify. It wasn’t at the police station, or even at the radio station. In fact it didn’t happen until a day or so after our dystopian experience.
It was on the drive home to Indianapolis. About two hours in, Alan quoted a lengthy monologue from the film The Big Lebowski. I countered with the other half of the scene, and we proceeded to recite lines from the movie for another solid ten minutes.
We’ve been friends ever since.
I have yet to return to Nashville, by the way. Unless Alan invited me, I don’t suppose I would ever want to.
– Ryan E. Felton,
Indianapolis, IN; November 2013
(with apologies to Flann O’Brien,
and best wishes to my pal Alan G.)