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26

TUESDAY, HAL MELLON said, a man walks into a bar with a carrot stuck in his ear. You make the next right.

Chester made the next right. A lot of these Pennsylvania towns straddled rivers, and so did this one, so now Chester was driving across a small bridge.

The bartender, Mellon said, thinks to himself, oh, a wise guy, Im supposed to ask how come you got a carrot in your ear, and hes got some smart-aleck answer. Okay, he thinks, Im not gonna be his patsy, Im not gonna ask. And he doesnt. About two blocks down here, youll see the big sign, Astro Solutions, thats where were headed.

Right, Chester said.

So Wednesday, Mellon said, the same guy comes in, with another carrot in his ear. The bartender thinks to himself, this guy doesnt give up easy, but I am not gonna ask him about that damn carrot. And he doesnt. Thursday, Friday, the guy comes back, always with a new carrot, the bartenders going nuts, he refuses to ask the question. Finally, Saturday, the guy comes in, hes got a stick of celery in his ear. The bartenders thrown completely off. Without thinking, he says, How come you got a stick of celery in your ear? and the guy says, I couldnt find a carrot. We turn in here, visitors parking.

So they turned in, Chester parked facing the low light-green aluminum-bodied building, and Mellon said, Ill be back with my shield or on it. But thats what he said every time he got out of the car, so Chester no longer made any response to the line. Mellon, who didnt need a response, got his sample case from the backseat and bounced toward the building, loping along on the balls of his feet.

Chester got out the book he was readingThe Road to Oxiana, by Robert Byron, a quirky recountal of a trip from England to Afghanistan in the early 30s, mostly by car, some of it by charcoal-burning carand settled in for half an hour of peace.

Basically, this was a good job. Mellon paid him well, did no backseat driving, and Chester had plenty of time, like right now, to read, a habit hed developed in prison. If it werent for the jokes, it would be perfect.

It was salesmans jokes, thats what it was, and it just poured out of Mellon like cold water out of a spring. He didnt seem to have any control over it, and he didnt require any reaction from Chester, not a laugh, not a groan, nothing.

Chester did react, of coursehe had tobut his reactions were silent. The jokes were tedious, and it hardly mattered if they contained any actual comedy or not. What Chester found himself concentrating onunwillingly, but just as helplessly as Mellon himself telling the jokeswas the setups.

Why were that priest, that rabbi, and that minister walking down that street? Where were they headed? How had they happened to come together? What odd chance had put ex-presidents Bush, Clinton, and Carter on that same plane? Why do so many talking animals have nowhere to go except some bar?

The worst part of every days driving was immediately after Mellons return from an appointment. A salesman among office lugs, he would have sprayed his jokes on them like a male lion, and they would have sprayed a bunch of their jokes back at him. And when Mellon returned to the car, springs in his feet, sales in his salesbook, guess whod get those jokes next?

Chester wasnt sure how much more of this he was going to be able to stand. He was dreaming some of those jokes, the stewardesses in the elevator, the astronaut in the mens room. When would Andy Kelp and his friends make their move against Monroe Hall? They were still going to do it, werent they? But when? How much longer would they leave poor Chester all alone out here, at the mercy of Hal Mellon?

And here he came. Sample case into backseat, Mellon into the front seat, pointing: We keep on now the same direction, maybe twenty miles.

Right.

A Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew are on Mount Everest

It was twenty to six when he finally reached home in Shickshinny. He walked in, thinking a drink might be called for along about now, and Grace met him in the living room to say, Your friend Andy called.

They decided not to do it! Heart in his throat, Chester said, What did he say?

Call him.

Thats all?

What more do you need?

Youre right, youre right. He hurried across the room, picked up the phone, looked back at Grace. Youre right, he said.

Ill get you a scotch, she decided, and left the room. It was the girlfriend, Anne Marie, who answered, but when Chester identified himself she said, Oh, Andy wants to talk to you. Hold on.

He held on. How could he convince them not to quit? Grace came in and stood with a short thick glass in her hand.

Chester?

Listen, Andy

Looks to me, Chester, Andy said, were gonna need housing out around you. Just till we get hired, right? But its a hell of a commute from the city.

Youre gonna do it?

Sure, whadya think? Its just we need billets.

Stay here, Chester told him, happier than hed been in a long time. (No more missionaries and no more cannibals.) We got plentya room.

He and Andy chatted a little longer, while Grace gave him a skeptical look, and when he got off the phone she handed him his drink and said, Weve got plenty of room? Where?

Itll work out, Chester said. Theyre gonna do it, thats all, thats all that matters. He lifted the glass in a toast. Monroe Hall.

She looked aghast. Monroe Hall?

May he rot, Chester said, from the head down.

Oh, she said. Right. Lemme get my own glass.


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