Looks like I'm going to be doing Cope's column for a week or two. At least a week or two. Last night, he comes running out to my camper, prancing from one foot to the other like he had to pee in the worst way. "Bob, Bob, Badger Bob ... you gotta take over my column! Pleasepleaseplease!"
"What is it this time, Cope? You get an owie on your typing finger?"
"I'm going on sabbatical, Bob. Like a leave-of-absence or something, only I might not come back. I gotta do it. I need time to find myself again. The real me, know what I mean?"
I just stared at him, waiting. Yeah, a nice guy would have asked what had happened that got him lost in the first place. A nice guy would have asked if he needed to talk it out, a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board for the inner turmoil that was wracking his soul.
But I've been around Cope long enough to know he was going to tell me whether I asked or not. He can no more keep a lid on his inner turmoil than little girls can keep from squealing when they see a baby duck.
And besides, I'm not a nice guy.
"The thing is, Bob, everybody hates me now. I got all these people mad at me and saying awful things about me ... I ... (sob) ... I just don't think I can take it anymore. I want people to ... (sob) ... to liiiiiiiiike me!"
I popped a couple of Keystones and handed him one. I hate the crap and so does Cope, but it's the only kind I keep in the mini-fridge. That's how I make sure he's not sneaking in here, stealing beers from me when I'm gone. "OK, Billy. Tell me why you think everyone hates you."
He took a big swig and gives me his Is this the best beer you got? look, and I give him my look that says Bums ... even bums wracked by inner turmoil ... can't be choosy. "See, all the Libertarians hate me because I called them loony. Some of them even wrote back and tried to make me sound loony because I called them loony."
"Golly, Cope. That hardly seems fair."
"I'm glad you said that Bob, because it doesn't seem fair to me either. The way I see it, either they're loony, or I'm loony. We can't both be loony. And I said it first. But it got worse. I made all the young people hate me because I wrote how the music they listen to is cruddy, and how old people like you and me don't trust them to act like grown-ups if they don't get their Obama like they want. One young guy even wrote a whole guest column about how me and Hillary Clinton suck because we grew up to be exactly the kind of people who sucked back when I was his age. Can you believe that, Bob? They hate me because I'm too conservative?"
I nodded. "Billy, it's hard for me to believe anything you're telling me."
"Yeah, that's what I think, too. But then the absolute worst came a coupla weeks ago when I called all the gun nuts 'gun nuts.' Gosh darn, Bob, you'da thought I'd said something everybody doesn't already know. And those gun nuts were writing in from all over the country. From New Mexico and Virginia and Arkansas and Connecticut and all over, and they were saying the nastiest things about me, Bob. Like how I'm a Hitler and a worm and a bigoted jerk and a 'pathetic, morally bankrupt, ignorant coward.' I suppose I should be happy to know so many people read my column way down in Arkansas and Virginia, but now they all ... (sob) ... they all haaaaaaaate me!"
"I think I can explain all those comments you got from the gun nuts. You know when you e-mail, you can send the same message to everyone on your list?" Cope had a blankness in his eyes that told me he had no idea what I was talking about, but I went on. "The paranoid weenies are always on the lookout for anyone who calls them 'guns nuts,' see? Then they spread the word."
"Sooooo ... that means if one person hates me, he can get all his friends to hate me, too, just by flicking on this e-mail thingie?"
"Yup, that's how they do it. It's like one of those church prayer chains, only it's a lot faster, gets to a lot more people, and instead of trying to help, they mean to rip your guts out. But here's what has me curious, Cope. You've been called worse things than 'worm' and 'pathetic jerk.' Hell, I've called you worse than that, myself. So after all these years of insulting conservatives and religious idiots and hillbillies with virtually every word you write, why is it you're suddenly so worried over whether they like you or not?"
Cope took his chin in his hand and propped his elbow on his knee. I'd bet a dollar to a dog turd he wanted to give the impression he was thinking, deeply, like in Rodin's sculpture. Instead, the impression I had was of a man on the toilet, wishing he'd brought something to read.
"The thing is, Bob," he sighed, "when you get to be my age, you start to think about the footprints you're leaving in the sands of time. Know what I mean?"
I started to remind him that I got to be his age some 15 years ago, but he kept talking. "I mean, what am I? Am I the badness some people might hear in my words? Or am I the goodness that compels me to speak so badly of those who can't see the goodness that is hidden beneath so much badness? This is my dilemma, Bob ... am I, in my heart, a peacemaker who agitates to promote a better world? Or an agitator who will never find peace because of people like me?"
"Want another beer?"
"Cope, does this mean you're considering giving up all the demeaning and dismissive and insulting stuff? That you're going to sweeten up and treat hillbillies and conservatives with respect?"
He jerked up with a genuinely shocked expression on his face. "Good Christ, no. Might as well ask me to chew off my own tongue, Bob. I just need to figure out a way to insult them and to have them like me for it. It'll take time. A year ... maybe two ... but I'll work it out somehow and then I'll be back. Maybe. You got me covered, right?"
So that's it. This week ... maybe next ... I've got him covered. Who knows how long it will take him to pull his head out of his heinie ... if indeed he ever pulls his head out of his heinie. In the meantime, don't be surprised to find him squatting on the corner of some major intersection, holding a beat-up, cardboard sign. "WILL SAY ANYTHING YOU WANT TO HEAR FOR FOOD."