by Ben Small
My best friend’s named Al. Formal version is Alfred, but after “Fred”, “Freddy”, and “Alfie”, we mostly settled on Al.
Mostly. And no, you don’t know Al.
I’ve known Al since our sophomore year in high school. Lotta tracks in the trail between Al and me over the years. Al even met his wife at my house, after I’d roped some buddies into coming to my sister’s sixteenth birthday dance party.
My dad’s idea.
Man, I called in every favor I had. I bargained, threatened, begged, and even bribed a guy. Me, desperation's seed. See, I knew my dad's meaning: no guys, no double date-night weekends.
My social schedule was at risk.
But I got 'em there, enough for all my sister's dorky friends. One big happy night, me and my buddies dancin' with girls with braces.
And Al fell in love. Yeah, one of my sister's friends.
Imagine my shame.
Al? The guy's been down for the count ever since.
The things Al and I know about each other, the jokes we’ve played, the fun we’ve had together and at each other’s expense, well, the memories floweth over. Neither Al or his poor, long suffering wife will be pleased that I'm telling our stories, but so what? Not the first time I’ve busted his chops.
Besides, Al can tell his own stories. Mean as you may think I am to have put such clever tortures upon Al, rest assured each one was payback for something worse that he'd done to me.
Perhaps, the best-and-longest running gotcha started at my lake place years ago. Al and his family were staying the weekend. Two women, two men, four male children aged between seven and twelve. Three days of boys, boats, booze, and blather.
One of those weekends you recover from on Wednesday.
Late Saturday night, after wives and children had tucked themselves in, and with the spa was still running, Al and I put down our fishing poles, grabbed some brandy and snuck out to the spa. Our swimsuits were chilly, still wet from a long day in the water, so we didn’t wear them.
We sat out in the lakeside spa until probably three. Lots of world problems solved.
When we’d suitably withered…and run out of booze, we staggered inside, Al leading the way. His oldest boy called out to him, and Al turned.
A camera’s flash, the telltale shutter clicks.
Full Frontal Freddy.
Laughter among the boys.
Now, this was in the day before digital cameras, so Al’s camera had film. And when Al’s family left come Sunday evening, their camera stayed behind.
No, I did not steal it. I borrowed its film.
Now, Al’s family had just returned from Europe, and I knew they wanted their missing pictures. So before I returned their camera, I planted a new film pack, and clicked off some blank exposures. They’d think their camera had mis-fired. The real film went to a camera store. I asked for a double set of prints, the negatives, and an 8 X 10 blow up.
You can see where this is going.
When the pictures printed, I dressed myself up. Long black London Fog overcoat ― this was a hot Midwestern summer, mind you ― a long brim dark leather hat, black gloves and black boots. I was masked. My wife’s red bandanna belt worked well, and when I walked, its trail flowed behind me.
I looked cool in the mirror. An urban Zorro. Yeah, Zorro with a flair.
I strolled over to Al’s house, three two-story middle class homes between us. My fingers clutched an envelope. Inside, Full Frontal Freddy, normal print size, and a pasted-letter note.
The note said: “$1 or public humiliation.” It was signed. “Red Zorro.”
Al and his oldest boy were working outside in the yard. They saw me approach and put down their tools. Al was to my far left, his son back further toward the planted berm marking their property line. They stood watching me.
I pulled down the mailbox lid and inserted my note.
Al picked up his shovel and waved it in the air. “Hey!”
Already running, I headed to the right, toward the rear of the first house between my place and Al’s. My arms were pumping, and I was doing that silly knee-high run that girls and Richard Simmons do. Oh yeah, and I cackled, too.
I had a big lead; I could be as silly as I wanted to be.
About that time, the neighbor on Al’s left pulled in, saw Al and his son in chase of a hooligan wearing a flowing London Fog and red bandanna. The newcomer jumped out of his Beamer and joined the chase.
I made it home, and ran upstairs. My breaths were coming in heaving waves. I heard my wife say, “I’ll get it,” when the doorbell rang.
She took her time ― a good thing; I was really out of breath. She bought me so much time, I managed to compose myself before I was called downstairs. Yeah, I was still sweating, but sweat’s normal for a Midwest summer day.
I played dummy. (Yeah, it comes natural. So what?) What? Who? When? I didn’t know anything.
Later, in the early twilight, Al’s son, wearing one of Al’s hoodies, dark sweatpants, and dark gloves, placed an envelope in my mailbox.
Inside was a crisp dollar bill.
I donned my gear and walked once more over to Al’s mailbox. No one yelled at me this time, as I inserted a dot-matrix-printed blackmail note into the dark metal hole. On the note, I’d typed something like, “Two dollars, now.”
Three days later, USPS dropped a stamped envelope in my mailbox. Made out to “Occupant”, it listed my address. Inside was a type written note: “Red Zorro, I have great dignity and honor. Do your worst.” It was unsigned.
A dare. Al was asking for it.
Several years passed. One of our secretaries got some mail delivered to her office address. Lots of us did that in those days. Easier to pay bills. Anyway, included in her mail was a magazine subscription for Playgirl. There was a letter in the package. On Playgirl stationary.
Too good to pass up.
I called Roger, a New York friend. Playgirl had a NYC address. For maximum impact, I needed someone there. Roger knew Al, too. I told him my plans. He was happy to help.
I copied the stationary, so I had a blank letterhead to play with. Black and white, yeah, but Al wouldn’t know Playgirl’s colors. I mailed the second regular size photograph, along with a business letter from a fictional Playgirl art department vice president to Roger, with instructions to mail the stamped, addressed envelope I enclosed.
A few days later, Al came into my office. He bent over laughing, red in the face. He handed me the package I’d sent him through Roger, and he clapped me on the back. “Good one,” he said. He burst out laughing again.
I showed serious curiosity. Knotted brows, a tight mouth. I’m a lawyer, after all. Gotta look lawyerly.
I picked up my reading glasses and made a production of looking first at the letter and then at the picture. I frowned. “Al,” I said, “you should be ashamed of yourself. Playgirl Magazine? What were you thinking?”
I dug my fingers into my palm to keep a straight face, and I read the letter out loud, as my secretary and a few other in-the-know departmental folks listened in my doorway. “Dear [Al], Thanks for your photo submission. We regret to inform you that our centerfold team has determined the only part of your withered body our readership might find interesting would be covered by the staple. We are therefore returning your photo. Signed, Hope B. Dash, Vice President, Art Department.”
Al’s face colored like a steroidal beet. I handed him back his package and said to the room. “Maybe Al should try surgery.”
I’ve never admitted that the Playgirl mailing was a put up job, but Al knows the truth. I gave him the Europe pictures and negatives his family thought they’d lost. Told him I’d found them at our house, that he must have left them there sometime. Yes, he asks me once in a while if I really sent the picture to Playgirl, and I play along, denying all knowledge. But Al’s also swearing he’ll get even some day, so I think he knows.
Every once in a while, Al’s wife will look at me and say, “You sent that Playgirl letter, didn’t you?”
I just look away.
And, yeah, I still have the 8 X 10…