“Time Sensitive” By Merrill Hatlen

If I’d known Robert Mueller lived in the neighborhood, my wife, Kat, and I would never have bought this place. Seduced by the real estate agent, who told us that this quiet cul-de-sac was populated by a “bunch of bureaucrats and lawyers” I thought I’d found hog heaven. As a writer, I need peace and quiet above all. How was I to know that Mueller played drums and would have much preferred to be the next Keith Moon?

         Trying to be neighborly, Kat and I invited them over for dinner when we had settled into our Cape Cod house, by far the smallest place in the hood. We had no idea who they were, which seemed like a good reason to meet them. So I was taken by surprise when Bob asked us to sign a non-disclosure agreement, specifying that anything he or his wife said was off-the-record. That should have set off alarm bells, but we thought, hey, maybe this is the standard operating procedure in the beltway. We had just moved to Alexandria from Indiana, so what did we know?

         Although I can’t tell you what he said, I can reveal what he did, since there was nothing in the disclosure agreement about deeds, just words. I may not be a lawyer, but I consider myself a wordsmith, so I saw some wiggle room in the agreement we signed. While I can’t divulge his explanation, I can tell you that when he entered our house he pulled out a gizmo that looked like a cross between a meat thermometer and a barometer. He scanned our kitchen and living room, obviously checking to see if the place was bugged. While I found it off-putting, Kat and I knew we had nothing to hide, so we just rolled with it.

         I can’t talk about our dinner conversation, except that we steered clear of politics and religion. That didn’t leave much to talk about, so I showed them our record collection. Bob seemed impressed with all the vinyl Kat and I had acquired over the years. He was especially impressed by our Who albums, which is how I know that Keith Moon is his idol. For the record, Mueller didn’t admit to being a fan, but when he held the album in his hands with such loving care and read the liner notes out loud, I drew my own conclusions.

         After dinner, we asked them if they played cards, and we ended up playing a few hands of Hearts; I’m glad it wasn’t poker or I would have lost my shirt. In response to a series of Bob’s penetrating questions (which I can’t divulge), I explained that we had moved to Alexandria because Kat got a job as a psychotherapist at the NSA. Pinned down by Bob’s inquiry, I admitted that I was essentially a kept man since I hadn’t sold any novels yet. Sensing my discomfort, Kat pointed out that I had been a successful businessman before becoming a writer, so I could afford to indulge my fantasy of becoming a novelist. Pressed for more detail, I admitted that I had made my fortune as the inventor of Puppy Pops, “The healthy between-meal treat for your pooch.” It was the only time I heard Mueller laugh.

         I suspect that Bob may have been trying to distract me with his questions, because, before I knew it, he had managed to shoot the moon. I did my best to thwart his run, but the cards fell his way. You make your own luck, as they say. In any case, the Muellers didn’t reciprocate our hospitality, which is not to throw stones. They are obviously very busy people, which I can attest to as a keen observer of people and dogs, which make better company.

         One of the things I love about being a writer is that I get to watch people going off to work each day, while I stay home, wearing my robe and slippers. That’s how I know that Bob’s an early riser, often heading off to work before the sun rises. He used to walk his dog but hired a kid in the neighborhood to walk Napoleon, a French Poodle whose name I know because I heard Bob calling him (well before the non-disclosure agreement).         

         At first, there were just brief interludes of drumming, usually on the weekends, when our house would shake from the vibrations coming from across the street. I can only imagine what it must be like to live next door to him. As his Russian Doll investigation went into high gear, however, the drumming began happening at all hours of the night. Obviously, he needed to blow off steam, but it threw off my rhythm. Not because he doesn’t have a good sense of timing, but because of the media frenzy.

         Fortunately, I write during the day, getting up bright and early to record my dreams before working on my novel. From my office I have a clear view of Mueller’s house, which became a magnet for reporters. At first, there were just a handful, parking up the street so that Mueller had to pass them on his way to work. That seemed absurd to me, since he wasn’t going to stop and talk to them.

         I finally figured out that it wasn’t just reporters, but paparazzi, hoping to get a shot of him. But what was the point, I wondered. Who’s going to want to see a photo of a guy getting in his car to go to work? Kat explained to me that the media were looking for clues about Mueller’s mood, like reading tea leaves. “You can tell a lot about a person by their facial expressions. I wouldn’t be surprised if some enterprising photographer has shots of Mueller’s face posted on a wall, to create a composite of him, in the hope of revealing his level of anxiety.”

         As coverage of the investigation heated up with talk of witch hunts, the drumming picked up, at all hours of the night. We had to start wearing earplugs to get some rest, and Sartre’s Troubled Sleep took on new meaning for me. Even the kids in the neighborhood became agitated, not by the drumming, but by the steady stream of cars on the street that kept them from shooting hoops. Close to my heart, as a Hoosier.

         So when the drumming finally stopped, it seemed eerie on our block. The next thing I knew, the paperboy stopped delivering the Post, and there was no sign of Mueller. I figured he must have moved to a hotel or some kind of safe house. According to Kat, “The Beltway is riddled with hideaways, let me tell you, but I can’t.” What really irked me is that the media didn’t back off in the slightest. They practically camped out on our street, hoping to get a scoop. I wanted to tell them, “When he’s ready to talk to the press, I’m sure he’ll let you know. You can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

         I suspect that the dog sitter finally got through to Mueller, to let him know that his disappearance was only making things worse in the neighborhood. I would like to think that our hospitality helped him appreciate how fortunate he is to live in such a supportive neighborhood, but it must have dawned on him that he could spare his neighbors from being invaded by the media. I expect that he weighed the evidence carefully, trying to decide whether to let the media know he was in hiding or stringing them along until he was good and ready to break the news they hungered for.

         I was not a bit surprised when I saw that he had posted a sign on his front door. He must have come in the middle of the night, because I was writing up a storm, staying up till all hours to try to keep up with the torrent of words pouring out of me. How he slipped past me, I’ll never know. I must admit that I felt a twinge of writer’s envy when I walked over to read the sign because Mueller’s message was short and to the point. “GONE FISHING.” Who says Robert Mueller doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Merrill Hatlen paid his dues as a writer by typing his first novel on a manual Smith Corona. He subsequently embraced the digital age as a filmmaker, photographer, and writer. The course of his life was altered by spending three years in France, inspiring four novels and a screenplay.


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