Sunday, August 17, 2014
Travel with Welly Banks
Welly’s clothes were dripping, but not sodden. Which made no sense, as he had only recently emerged from the water. But perhaps that was a small thing among greater impossibilities, Johnny reflected. The blue-skinned youth (if youth he was) put on a professorial air as he continued his speech to Roger.
“Let’s get the contractual stuff out of the way first, shall we?” Welly started the drywashing thing again. “I am an opener, not a pathfinder. I open where I’m told, and am not responsible if the way opens into the heart of a supernova or the jaws of a tyrannosaurus rex.” Roger nodded impatiently; Johnny turned to Aidan to ask him if this was likely to occur, but the water priest shushed him. Welly continued. “I will accompany you wherever you wish to go within the confines of Breen Lagoon, as long as your journey takes no longer than 7,919 minutes.” (Johnny looked at Larissa; “one minute short of five and a half days,” she supplied under her breath.) “But I cannot accompany you wheresoever you travel beyond the borders of the Lagoon. You agree that you will not attempt to compel me to do so?”
Roger spat in her hand and thrust it out to Welly. “Square deal,” she said.
Welly glanced at her hand with some trepidation. “Er, yes,” he said, clutching his hands to his chest. “I’m happy to take your word. No need to exchange, um ... bodily fluids.” He sniffed again.
Roger clapped him hard on the shoulder. “Excellent, me boyo!” She turned back to her crew. “Aidan! Can I get me clothes back now?”
Inside of an hour, The Sylph was back on the open ocean—or open lagoon, as the case might be—and moving along at a decent clip. Johnny had given Roger a general direction and was feeling ahead of them every now and again to make sure they stayed on track. Currently Johnny and Larissa were leaning on the railing, watching the gentle waves flash by. The little blue snake around Larissa’s wrist uncoiled itself, scampered up her arm, circled her neck once, slithered down the other arm, and recoiled itself around her other wrist. Johnny heard someone pacing behind them and turned around; it was Welly.
“I’m Johnny,” Johnny said, putting out his hand. Welly kept his hands clasped together and sniffed again. Johnny was beginning to get the impression that sniffing and sighing were Welly’s two major modes of communication. Johnny lowered his hand.
“So ... you’re Welly, right?” Welly just stared back. “You’re the ... opener? What exactly does that entail?”
Welly sniffed. “I open, of course.”
Johnny felt the lunatic grin returning to his face. “Of course. And how does one go about ‘opening’?”
Welly sighed. “One merely reaches out and ...” He shrugged. “Opens.” His webbed hands gave a little flourish, as if to say: just so.
“So I could learn to do it, then?” Johnny asked.
Another sniff. “You don’t learn to open. You either can, or you cannot. Given where you’re from, I would suppose that you cannot.”
Johnny’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “You know where we’re from?”
Welly glanced over at Larissa briefly, almost furtively. “I know where you’re from,” he said. It was obvious he was excluding Larissa from his declaration.
Johnny decided to let that slide. “How do you know?”
A sniff. “I’ve been there, of course.”
Johnny was puzzled. After a week or so with Roger and a few years with Larissa, this conversation should have been old hat, but still he was feeling a bit lost. Did Welly mean he’d been to DC? “You’ve been where?” he asked.
“Some call it the Terrable Way,” Welly said.
“The Terrible Way?” Johnny frowned.
Welly sighed. “You said ‘Terrible Way,’ didn’t you?”
Johnny was confused. “Isn’t that what you said?”
“No, not Terrible Way, Terrable Way.”
Johnny looked towards Larissa for help. “Those both sound the same to me ...” He shrugged.
Larissa gave the tiniest shake of her head, but said nothing.
Another sigh. “Not ‘terrible,’ with an I,” he said. “’Terrable,’ with an A. Isn’t your world called ‘Terra’?”
Johnny blinked. “Well, I guess ...”
“There you go.”
“So it’s just a coincidence that it sounds like ‘terrible’?” Johnny asked.
Welly’s sardonic half-smile flickered on the left side of his face. “Oh, I wouldn’t go that far.”
Larissa finally spoke up. “That pun would only work in English,” she pointed out.
“Hey, yeah,” Johnny said, feeling a light bulb go on over his head. “How come you speak English?”
Back to sniffing. “Are we speaking English now?”
Johnny looked baffled for a second, but Larrissa replied instantly: “Yes.”
Another sniff. “Yes, I suppose we are, right this second. I learned it when I visited the Terrable Way. How else could I have studied your great comics?”
“Comic books?” Johnny was confused.
Welly gave him a haughty look. “No, comics. Performers.”
This was getting weirder and weirder. “You came to our world? to watch comedians?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, and I studied the great masters. Henny Youngman, and Jack Benny, and Jackie Mason, and Bob Hope. Also, some of the younger crowd: Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart, and Rodney Dangerfield.”
Larissa intervened. “Rodney Dangerfield has been popular for over 35 years, and performing, off and on, for 61.”
Welly shook his head sadly. “Has it been so long? I lose track of the time ...”
Johnny said, “You don’t look that old.”
“The secret to staying young is to eat slowly and lie about your age.”
Larissa frowned. “Lucille Ball,” she said. “But she also advised that one live honestly.”
Welly seemed to grow wistful. “Lucille Ball, yeah, she was one of the greats too.” Another sigh. “That honest living thing was never for me though.” Then he turned and shuffled off.
The days went back to melting together as they lapsed back into everyone sleeping and eating whenever they felt like it. The open expanse of water never changed significantly—there was always mist off in the distance, although they never seemd to get closer to it, and an occasional island would appear, very far away, but mostly it was just open, calm water. Apparently the light never changed in the Lagoon any more than it did in the swamp, so it became impossible to keep track of how much time had passed. Or, at least, it was impossible for Johnny. He had a feeling that Welly knew exactly how much time was passing, down to the minute. And when his internal counter reached 7,919, Johnny knew somehow that he would just jump overboard and swim back to the hideous mermaid creatures.
“Why do you suppose it’s 7,919?” he asked Larissa at one point.
Larissa shrugged. “Perhaps because that’s the one thousandth prime number.”
Johnny grinned. “Sure,” he said. “I’m sure that’s exactly why.” Then he laughed raucously, startling a passing Bones.
At another point, he asked Welly why he worked for the mermaid creatures. “The scalae?” Welly sniffed. “Well, I suppose you have to work for someone, eh? My employment options are somewhat limited around here.” His pale ghost of a smile came back. “You know the secret to success, don’t you? Get up early, work late ... and strike oil.” He looked at Johnny expectantly.
Johnny cast about for a suitable reply and came up with: “Um, Benjamin Franklin?”
“Joey Adams,” Larissa supplied.
Johnny blinked. “I don’t know ...”
Larissa spoke up immediately. “Joey Adams, born Joseph Abramowitz, January 6, 1911. Humor columnist for the New York Post, author of The Borscht Belt, ...”
Johnny knew better than to let her really get rolling. “Right, sorry. A bit before my time, I think. But, you were saying? about the scalas? or, scalae, or whatever?”
Welly shrugged. “What’s to say? They need an opener, and I open. It’s not much of a gig, but it’s what I do. Keeps me in fishes while I hammer out the act.”
“Fishes?” Johnny asked. “Is that what they pay you?”
Welly arched an eyebrow and waved out at the unbroken expanse of water. “Common currency around these parts, as you might guess. What do you think we eat around here?”
Talking to Welly made Johnny feel a bit dim. “Uh, sure, that makes sense. But couldn’t you just catch your own fish?”
Welly sighed. “I know I must cut a dashing figure in this outfit”—he gestured at his yellow-trimmed jacket, which was still dripping on the deck, although it must have been days since he’d come on board by this point—“but the fact of the matter is, I have a lethargic nature. That is, I’m somewhat leisurely in my approach to piscine acquisition.” Johnny blinked at him, and Welly sighed again. “I’m like this horse I bet on one time: it was so slow, the jockey kept a diary of his trip.”
Johnny turned back to Larissa for help. “Henny Youngman,” she put in.
Pretty much all the conversations with Welly went like that. Which is why Johnny almost felt relieved when, after what he guessed was three or four days of travel, Roger called out from the flying bridge: “Oy! sea monster ahead!”