I call my neighbor Gummo the Spy. I call him Gummo because he looks like Gummo Marx. I know he looks like Gummo Marx because I once mistyped “Gunno” while doing a Google search for Norwegians of the Civil War (long story) and inadvertently retrieved a picture of the obscure Marx brother. Why I call him “the Spy” is a bit more complicated.
It started as a joke. I'm retired and live in Miami. I spend a lot of time relaxing at our community pool. Occasionally, Martin (“Gummo's” real name) stops by to chat, and sometimes he will drop gossip about our neighbors into the conversation–weird stuff that sounds made up. That Mr. Trent in 145, for example, a retired Air Force major, salutes himself in the mirror every morning. Or that Mr. Samson in 102 is a paranoid, always sweeping his apartment for electronic bugs. Or that Mrs. Tyndale in 257, a widow, is superstitious about stepping on thresholds, and moved here because of a misstep at her former residence.
Finally one day I said in jest to Martin, “How do you know all this stuff? Are you a spy or something?”
He responded with that tired old line “If I answered that, I might have to kill you!” But he was only half in jest. I could smell it.
It was then that I started to observe Martin more closely. He often got visits from a chubby man with a combover who always dressed the same—gold satin jumpsuit, white sneakers, dark sunglasses. The man would knock on Martin's door, be admitted, and always leave within ten minutes. Once, when he spotted me looking at him, he took off his sunglasses and fixed me with a stare that said “I own you”—like I was a peacock and the gated swimming pool was my (his) pen.
Another curious incident happened on a day the chubby man didn't show. Three young women (family?) visited Martin at his place. Eventually, he and the women all left, at three-second intervals (the door opening and closing each time), like Beatles or Monkees in a series of jump cuts, and headed for the parking lot. They seemed to be scanning for snipers on the way.
Then one day I ran into Martin at the mailboxes. He was intently examining a picture he said one of his brothers had just sent him, taken the last time they were all together some thirty years ago. When he showed it to me I struggled to hide my shock—his two brothers (a third had taken the picture) looked like Harpo and Chico! Behind them was a straw hut with a sign on it that said “Viet” between two of the brothers’ heads. Martin told me the sign said “no smoking” in Italian (Italy being the brothers’ homeland). But it could just as easily have said “Vietnam.” Could they all be spies, I wondered, hiding in plain sight? I mean, who would suspect Marx Brothers lookalikes of being spies? Genius!
That night I had a dream. A more elaborate dream than I'll describe here, one involving handcuffs, a spare, dimly lit room, a metal table and chair, and a number of photographs and documents. To make a long dream short, though, I'll simply say I found myself being interrogated by “Harpo,” who demanded I tell him everything I knew about the brothers and and ordered me to stop using the moniker “Gummo the Spy” or face unpleasant consequences. I myself asked only two questions during the session:
“So, you can speak?” (A rhetorical question—Harpo had already been grilling me for five minutes.) And, “So, you guys are really spies?”
And with this second question Harpo reached inside his trench coat and, saying “You have asked one question too many” proceeded to bring his giant wooden Harpo mallet crashing down on my head.
Since then I'd had nothing but questions. Was it a dream? Or did it really happen and I was drugged? Is any real Marx Brother still alive? (Answer: “no”). Is two questions really one too many if you’re an interrogatee? Who is that chubby guy, who continues to show up all the time, anyway? Is Mr. Samson really paranoid? Is my apartment complex a nest of spies? Are the Norwegians somehow involved? Where's Groucho? Did he take that picture?
So I decided the next time I saw Martin I'd try to shake some information loose, and the opportunity presented itself a week later. I was on my way to the pool and he came out of his door as I was passing. After a few pleasantries I mentioned my dream and, not wanting to be too specific, said I also had been seeing people lately that reminded me of old-time movie actors.
“Don't you think that's really strange?” I asked. That's when something weirder happened than anything that had gone before.
Martin grew very serious for a few moments and fixed his gaze solemnly, almost threateningly, on mine, before his mouth suddenly broke into a wide grin and he released his gaze and started dancing what I can only describe as a sailor dance, and singing some nonsense song about chewing gum and taxes and infidelity interspersed with exclamations of “Pop goes the weasel!”
Then, almost as if on cue, the whole complex became a mashup of Duck Soup: Mrs. Tyndale burst out of her door singing what sounded like some sort of aria. Mr. Trent came out of his door below with a tray slung over his shoulders, holding up a small bag and shouting “Peanuts! Peanuts!” Some guy on a white horse and in a tri-corner hat rode across the courtyard and through an open door of an apartment without dismounting. A guy wandered around the courtyard drunkenly with a plain white porcelain pitcher over his head on which was drawn what looked like a five-year-old's version of Groucho. Everybody on the third floor landings came out of their doors and started throwing inflatable dolphins into the swimming pool. And some guys in track uniforms ran in from the parking lot, took a lap around the pool fence, and exited back to the parking lot.
After five minutes or so Martin abruptly stopped dancing and singing and everyone returned, again as if on cue, to their apartments or the parking lot, and the only visible signs left of the chaos were the dolphins floating around in the pool, with a few lying on their sides on the pool deck. (That's when I noticed something I hadn't before. The guy in the gold jumpsuit had been surveying the scene from the second floor landing directly across the courtyard from us. Draped on the railing before him was a flag with a big script “F” in the middle surrounded by a circle of palm leaves.)
“Now that,” said Martin, ”was strange,” as I stood there with my tongue hanging out.
So there's no doubt in my mind now. Martin is a spy. Who else but someone backed by an all-powerful agency could orchestrate such an elaborate diversion just to avoid answering a simple quuestion?
That, and what happened next, convinced me. Martin again looked me straight in the eye and said, “I've been wanting to say something to you but was hesitant up til’ now because it might sound insensitive.”
“Go right ahead,” I said. “I'm a grown man.”
Martin responded, “It's funny, really, but somehow you remind of Buster, one of those talking, walking dogs from the Dogville Comedies popular in the '30s.
Man he's good. He'd seen right past my fake beard and moustache and Clark Kent glasses.