When Things Got Too Weird For Ripley (Believe It Or Not)
Notwithstanding the fact that he still received more letters every year than anyone on earth, including Santa Claus (Believe It Or Not), his sinking fits of despair started to occur with frightening regularity, after the war. On his way to the far East, for the first time since Pearl Harbor Day, he stood on the naked, turkey-breast hull of the sunken battleship Arizona, looking down at his own well-shod feet as though the rolled steel were transparent. He could see the innocently disarrayed skeletons of the young men entombed inside (Believe It Or Not). His full, delicate lips, firmly closed, covering his distinctive, protruding teeth. He was speechless for the first time, in fifty-odd years.
Oddly, he couldn’t take his mind off his Tibetan skull-bowl, back home. He felt the hinged roof of the bowl under his cold fingers, he tasted warm, sacramental blood and wine, mixed in equal parts, sharp and bitter against the roof of his mouth like the blade of a rusty, iron sword. For the microphones, he read aloud the notes he had with him, but his voice wasn’t Ripley’s anymore, it was the gentle, quavery voice of an old, old man.
Since his first success, he had been a hard-working, hard-playing man, with the immodest tastes of an oriental emperor. He earned a million dollars a year, and knew how to spend it. On better days, he’d have six smart, well-dressed women under his roof, for energetic conversation, for private fun and games. Out on his secluded spit of land in the middle of Oyster Bay, they’d barbecue whole pigs, split sides of beef, and the flavor of the smoked flesh he tore into was marvelous, marvelous.
Later that day, continuing his flight from Hawaii to Japan, he lost track of where he was for a few moments, and through his puffy, heavy lids, the woman bending over him with the pitcher of pink lemonade looked exactly like the love of his life, dead ten years that month of cancer. Dear, sweet, Ola, he almost said, but caught himself. Though his temples sweated copiously, he refused to soil his handkerchief, letting his shirt become wet, stiff with his salt.
His live radio broadcast, next morning, from Hiroshima’s approximate ground zero, wasn’t easy, not with him sitting at a card table, fumbling with watches frozen at the moment of detonation, staring at a vaporized child’s wool-and-silk-ribbon slippers, retrieved intact from the dunes of sticky ash (Believe It Or Not); the only artifact to survive the blast for many thousands of square yards. He haggled over price and bought it for his newest museum, opening the next month in Las Vegas.
As long as he could remember, he’d been happily locked in an embrace with the whole odd, eclectic world, savoring each one-of-a-kind moment his physical bulk passed through. Here at Hiroshima, for the first time, that innocent enthusiasm which had brought him so very far from Riverside, California seemed to encircle his tired neck like one of the great unwieldy money-stones of New Zealand, giving little joy.
Upon reaching his final destination, Shanghai, he saw his dearest, most beloved city in a panic: everyone knew the Reds were marching down from the hills. It was only a matter of time before the soul of China became engorged and insensible with Mao’s revolution. Voracious appetite of old absent, he forced down a quart of sticky rice with Seven Delicacies for show, for form, so as not to upset his agent.
A week later, back in New York, for the second time he faltered while on the air, then passed out, slithering to the floor in his fine wool suit like a large scrubbed potato, hands scrabbling against the studio floor, grasping the taped microphone cords with a syncopated rhythm, his young female assistant staring at him like a ritual mask, her mouth a lipsticked slash of fear, babbling nonsense until they thought to turn the mike off: the perils of live broadcasting.
That very night, Rip called his next-door neighbors from the hospital; I’m getting out of here tomorrow morning, he said. I’m taking us on a long vacation, God knows we all deserve it. He hung up the black phone and leaned back, dead before his head touched the pillow. Years later, his dearest friends all said it was a blessing he didn’t live to see how the world changed. The world changed and made his collection of physical oddities seem, by comparison (Believe It Or Not) warm, safe, what we dream of when we dream of heaven, not one of us doubting for a minute, anymore, that fact is stranger than fiction.