Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine
I never understood a single word he said, but I helped him a-drink his wine
(And he always had some mighty fine wine.)
– "Joy To The World," by Hoyt Axton/Three Dog Night
“Seriously? You haven't met Jeremiah?” Cecil asked, handing Carlos a dripping plate. They were doing the dishes; Carlos was drying.
“Never even heard of him,” Carlos admitted, towelling off the plate and setting it on the “clean” stack.
“Oh, we'll have to fix that!” Cecil chortled. “You'll love him. He's a little eccentric, but he's always talking about science.”
“What sort of science?” Carlos asked. He was already sold on the idea, since the mental image of what Cecil might consider “eccentric” was mind-boggling, to say the least, but he was curious about what to expect.
“Stars and planets and things,” Cecil said, waving his scrubbing brush vaguely around in the air by way of illustration. “To tell the truth, I've never understood what he's talking about. Not a single word. But he's a really nice guy, so I just smile and nod.”
Carlos couldn't help grinning. Cecil was always so sincere in his enthusiasm; the man could have been a devastating used-car salesman if he hadn't been destined for radio journalism. “I'd love to meet him,” he said.
Jeremiah was a regular at Big Rico's Pizza, as it turned out – but only on Thursdays, which was why Carlos had never encountered him before, despite having a lab right next door. Thursdays were Special Topping Days at Big Rico's, and the “special” toppings weren't usually something Night Vale outsiders found appealing.
This Thursday was no exception. “Fresh Local Whip Scorpions! Grilled cholla slices – extra spiny!” said the dry-erase board behind the cash register. Cecil opted for a slice with the scorpions. Carlos, as diplomatically as possible, ordered plain cheese. Big Rico looked disappointed, but didn't say anything when he rang up their order.
Carlos had to admit, biting into his pizza slice (it had been a long day at the lab, and he was hungry), Rico had finally nailed his gluten-free crust recipe. If Carlos hadn't known better, he'd have sworn it contained wheat (or at least wheat by-products). He followed Cecil through the restaurant, weaving between tables full of familiar small-town faces. Hiram McDaniels was working on five different pizzas at the same time, but still taking time to schmooze like a pro via his heads that weren't actively chewing. A cluster of Sheriff's Secret Police were at a corner table, pretending they weren't there, and everyone else was humoring them. Tak and Herschel were there with their daughter Megan (resting on a pillow in a booster seat), and Carlos recognized several more kids and parents from his special science classes.
Way in the back was a small booth, just large enough for four or five people, and sitting there alone was Jeremiah. Carlos's first thought was, Well he's a fishy character. Literally.
Jeremiah was completely bald – even his eyebrows had gone AWOL – his eyes were large, glassy, and bulging, and his skin texture was so ridged, wrinkled, and warty his age was impossible to judge, though Carlos got a sense of great age. There was an undertone of pasty gray-green to his complexion, but not quite enough to be outright unhealthy. Jeremiah's hands, folded on the table in front of him, were long and narrow, with clawlike nails and a hint of translucent webbing between the digits.
What's he doing in the desert? Carlos wondered, but Cecil was already saying hello.
When he saw Cecil, Jeremiah's face lit up, a wide grin crossing his face, rubbery lips parting to reveal small, pointed teeth. It should have been revolting, given the man's overall appearance, but there was an underlying warmth that was disarming.
“Jeremiah – this is Carlos. He wanted to talk to you about stars. He's a scientist,” Cecil said by way of introduction.
Jeremiah, smiling even more widely, said something friendly but completely incomprehensible, and extended a hand.
His flesh was squishy and clammy when it clasped Carlos's, but the handshake was firm beneath that, and Carlos gave his best smile in return. “Pleased to meet you,” he said.
Cecil had already slid into the booth opposite Jeremiah and Carlos followed suit, settling his plate and napkin in front of him. Jeremiah held up a “wait a minute” finger (especially impressive, given his anatomy) as he rummaged beneath the table. He produced, in swift succession, three glasses and a bottle. The bottle was an old, odd style, made of dark, bubbly glass. What might have been barnacles encrusted one side, but the liquid that poured out was clear and bright.
Carlos raised an internal eyebrow at that – after all, Rico's already sold a variety of beverages, including wine, but a surreptitious glance around showed nobody batting an eye, and Cecil seemed unfazed, so Carlos held his tongue as Jeremiah filled the glasses. Rico must not mind people bringing in outside consumables. That, or Jeremiah had a special permission.
Carlos accepted his glass without hesitation. “Cheers,” he said, when they all raised glasses and drank.
The wine hit his tongue with a burst of flavor: sweet, clean, and with the faintest hint of sea salt in the finish. “Wow,” he said, without thinking, and Jeremiah positively beamed.
What followed afterwards was an odd but enjoyable experience, as Jeremiah held forth with gusto and all three of them drank sweet-salty wine. There were grand gestures, much hand-waving, and painstaking diagrams drawn out in ballpoint pen on napkins (at one point Carlos got up to get more). None of it was in English, though at times there were teasing bits of sense among it all. Carlos absorbed, without understanding quite how, a story of great change in the world, a promise of freedom and joy, tangled up with the paths of stars, comets and planets, plus a few indescribable things above and beyond the merely celestial. There was an almost evangelical fervor to the presentation, as if Jeremiah felt he had a special mission to share his version of the Good News.
As the wine filled his brain with waves and sparkles of inspiration, Carlos asked questions (always answered with good cheer, if not with full comprehensibility) and drew his own diagrams in response. Jeremiah, visibly moved by this level of engagement, burbled with delight and made corrections that were almost helpful. Cecil made various interjections, mostly along the lines of being so impressed with SCIENCE, which made Carlos exchange glances with Jeremiah, before breaking into mutual laughter.
Finally, Rico pointedly, if good-naturedly, pushed a broom past their booth, breaking the spell. When Carlos glanced around the now-empty restaurant, he realized many hours must have passed and it was late. Beyond the plate-glass windows there was nothing but darkness, broken by streetlights.
“Looks like they're kicking us out,” Cecil said. “Jeremiah – a pleasure as always.”
Jeremiah burbled cheerfully in return, and somehow Carlos knew to respond, “I'm sure we'll stop by again. Thank you.”
Another clammy handshake, another of Jeremiah's wide, warm smiles, and then Carlos and Cecil were reeling out the door into the night, half supporting each other in a wobbly, happy haze.
“You were right,” Carlos said. “Definitely worth meeting.”
“Toldja,” Cecil said, pleased.
They made it around the corner, and into a conjunction of buildings that blocked most of the streetlights; Carlos, by reflex, looked up – and there were the stars. So many, so bright, in this small desert town. He knew he was drunk, and that some of the stars' looping movements were a result of the wine, but beyond his own compromised physiology there was a sense of motion: of great wheels turning, of time counted and gears moving into place.
He glanced over at Cecil, who was leaning into him for mutual support; Cecil was looking up, too, even his third eye (which was usually half-closed and sleepy at this time of day) open and engaged. There was such an unguarded, vulnerable look of wonder on his face, Carlos's heart melted. While Cecil's adoration of science might have an ulterior motive, it wasn't all a put-on. He didn't have the training or the words, but he felt the beauty and mystery of the world all the same.
“I wonder if he's right,” Carlos said, and Cecil's eyes blinked – all of them – and focused on him. “I wonder if the stars are lining up, if everything will change.”
“I thought you'd know,” Cecil said.
“Nope, no idea. Not the faintest clue,” Carlos said, and laughed at the notion of his own omniscience.
Cecil giggled. “I guess it's good to have something to look forward to, anyway.”
“Definitely,” Carlos agreed, taking in Cecil's newly-familiar features with a fond smile.
Cecil met his eyes, and there was a breathless stillness, a tiny moment of perfect synchronization, the universe condensed, focused down, turning around a pivot point set between just the two of them. It was dizzying and wonderful, as significant in its own way as the rotation of galaxies.
And then, because they were drunk and newly in love, they both began to giggle helplessly, leaning on each other for warm, solid support in the dark.
A song that had been playing on the retro-cool jukebox at Rico's ran through Carlos' mind, and without thinking, he was humming, and then singing, “Joy the world . . .”
Cecil joined in, his trained broadcaster's voice somewhat the worse for wear but still a mellow baritone accompaniment, as they resumed their journey home, wobbling but determined. The song continued for half a block or so, until the verse,
If I were the king of the world, tell you what I'd do:
I'd throw away the cars and the bars and the war
And make sweet love to you!
Carlos slowed, and sang the words for real, meaning every word of it to Cecil, right there under a streetlight – in front of God, the Sheriff's Secret Police, the Arby's lights, the Glow Cloud, and everybody. Cecil blushed and kissed him, and it was pure stardust.
When they pulled apart Cecil (always stronger than he looked) spun Carlos in a joyful circle, then on they went, the god of drunks and small children looking after them as they walked and sang, so they didn't fall through any dimensional rifts on the way.
Far above and all around, the stars hummed to themselves, counting the time.