Down into the sward
Raised up a blade of grass
Hoary and dirty in the winter rime
Holding it near his lips he exhaled honest life
The blade shivered
The ice thawed
And rolled down
Like a tear on a petite cheek
Very fresh and green
The true Higgins
Not the one we would like to know
But have to know
He grew bored with his plaything
Flung it back down to the frosty mat
Where it stuck in the tangle
To ice over even colder
And now unmoored, plucked and uprooted
To wither whither, brown and die
Henry Oaker shifted uneasily in the seat of his compact car. The small car always made him squirm—his long legs and barrel chest were constantly sweating and straining against the plastic and steel confines—but today he was especially nervous. An official looking piece of paper sat in the passenger seat. It was marked with grandiose signatures and intricate stamps: all in triplicate. Henry’s right temple twitched delicately as a bead of sweat rolled over it. His eyes started to wander over to his silent passenger. Resisting the urge, he stared fixedly at the road instead, like a horse with blinders on.
It was a sunny day. Folks were ambling out of their enviro-friendly grass covered houses. Fathers were tossing Frisbees to their sons. Wives serenely pinned up the laundry as daughters ran through and reveled in the waving white sheets. Henry’s head drifted to the left to view these picturesque scenes whizz by in a blur of smiling faces, grass stains, and cans of soda. For a moment the families seemed like lab mice, running through the same maze of summer games as they had the day before. He jerked the wheel hard, realizing he was driving. He looked around. It didn’t matter; no one else was on the road. He had been driving uphill for a while. Now his little car was puttering over the crest. Henry craned his neck forward, looking expectantly in front of him. The hill leveled off sharply and suddenly the immense black form of the Happy Faces Center sprang into view. The building had a gloomy, solemn power. Henry pulled his head back into the headrest. From the vantage point Henry had on the lip of the hill, he could see an entire plane filled with trees, and the bumps of other hills off in the distance. The Happy Faces Center was planted in the very center of the plane. Its hulking, rectangular pillar rose high above the tops of the green trees, like a single black domino standing erect in a field of grass. No other structures were visible in this plane, but Henry knew there were thousands of humble grass covered dwellings hidden in the forest below him. The scenes of summer which Henry had just passed were being secretly replicated in the sprawling forest below him.
Henry began to descend the gentle slope onto the plane, the Happy Faces Center looming higher above his head all the time. In no time, Henry was pulling into the Happy Faces Center’s parking lot. The sun glinted off the other parked cars, and even the Center sparkled through its darkness, as though it were made of freshly laid asphalt. Henry pried himself free of his car, taking the print-laden form with him, and leaving a small sweat stain on the headrest. His blonde mane seemed to radiate with heat. With his hand still resting tentatively on the door he shaded his eyes and looked up at the tower before him. The Center was made of a granular substance that was a shiny black, but rain had created white streaks on the outside. The building was a stack of separate floors—a new one for each year—so each level had a unique set of white streaks. Henry remembered a moment in his youth when his father taught him how to count the rings of a tree trunk. Henry figured the Center was about twenty years old, and he could see the heads of men bobbing on the top floor, working on the twenty-first.
Henry slammed the car door shut and strode towards the automatic glass doors at the base of the Center. A line of people snaked out of the entryway. Sometimes the doors made a feeble attempt to close before sensing the line and then meekly retracting. Henry walked past the people on the line. Each of the people queued up was holding a small metal canister. The canisters had a sticker of a cartoonish, red angry face at the bottom and, at the top, a glass window through which could be seen a black liquid. Every so often, the line shuffle forward. No one on the line smiled or frowned or spoke, but they all held the same simple expression which seemed to say, “Oh well. What can you do?”
Henry entered the building. It was air conditioned inside, very cool. A long row of stalls filled with Center employees was accepting the canisters from people through glass partitions. Each time a canister was slipped through the hole in the glass, the employee would scribble on a set of forms, stamp them, rip them in two, hand half back to the person, and smile. The canisters were piled onto an industrial sized elevator platform behind the employees. Henry made for a kiosk which read, “HELP”
A young woman dressed in a suit looked up from a stack of papers and beamed at Henry as he approached. A pair of sleek glasses sat crisply on her pointy nose. Her pony tail bounced as she spoke, “Need help? Information? Directions?”
“Yeah,” said Henry gruffly as he slid his form through the glass.
She took the form and scanned the small print quickly, nodding knowingly, “Mhmm. Mhmm. This form seems to be in order,” she glanced at the clock on the wall. Her smile wavered minutely, “You are a couple of minutes late Mr. Oaker, but luckily the Number Twenty Manager has no other appointments today. So Mr. Oaker, proceed to your left and show this form to the guard. Then take the elevator to the top floor.”
She slid the form back.
“Thanks,” shrugged Henry.
“You’re very welcome sir,” she smiled, and then bent back over her stack of papers.
Henry walked over to a broad shouldered guard who stood next to an elevator and wore a black uniform with shiny boots. Perched atop a thickset, blank face was a yellow helmet with a black smiley face painted on it. Slung across his chest was a high-tech submachine gun. Henry eyed the gun as he handed the guard the form, explaining, “I have to go to the top floor.”
The guard looked briefly at the form and handed it back without looking at Henry, “Very good, sir.”
Henry pushed the button to call the elevator. The doors opened promptly, and he stepped inside. He examined the panel of buttons. Buttons filled one wall of the elevator from the floor to the ceiling. Most of the buttons were blank, but in the middle of the wall was a segment that ranged from -21 to 21. Henry had never realized the Center had basement floors. He looked at the negative numbers and licked his lips. He glanced towards the main lobby, and his heart jumped into his throat as he was greeted by the vacant face of the guard peering into the elevator. The smiley-face helmet smiled angrily at Henry. Henry pressed 21, hesitating no longer. As the doors closed, he noticed that the other elevator filled with the canisters was slowly starting to rise through the ceiling of the lobby.
A low hum filled the elevator as buttons flared up in glows consecutively until 21 were lit. The doors opened and revealed a scene of commotion and noise, all bathed in resplendent sunlight. Workers in smiley-face hard hats darted busily past the elevator, cradling canisters in their arms. Other workers were patting chest high lumps of black material with gloved hands. Some were busy working the lumps with complex and bizarre machines that whirled cotton pads or slammed pistons against the black material. Still others were gathered around a cranking machine which consumed canisters and spit them out empty along with a tiny pile of the black material that the Center was made of. The sun beat down and some of the workers paused to raise their t-shirts to mop their glistening faces. Somewhere in the crowd a shout went up, “New batch of evil just come up! Everybody grab a canister!” The throb of activity increased in pace after this call. In the middle of the pandemonium was a young man in a suit and hard hat, boisterously waving his arms in the air like a conductor directing an orchestra of construction workers.
Henry weaved a path through the busy bees and approached the young man. He handed the form to the Manager saying, “You requested a meeting?”
The Manager stopped waving his arms and shouting for a moment and looked down at the form, “Eh?”
Henry shoved the form towards him, “It says here…”
The man swiped the form from Henry’s hand and held it up to the sunlight. He smacked it energetically with the back of his hand, “No, no, no! I’m the Twenty-One Manager. This form came from the Twenty Manager. You gotta go down a floor.”
He thrust the rumpled piece of paper back at Henry. Henry looked at the form as though for the first time, “But the lady downstairs said…”
The young man shouted at a group of workers and rushed over to them, “You lot! Those go to Section C, you’re in Section F.”
He herded the group away with his arms at full wingspan. He clapped his hands and shouted, “Come on boys, this evil won’t pack itself!”
Henry returned to the elevator and pressed the button for the twentieth floor. While waiting for the elevator’s cogs to start spinning, Henry spotted a single oasis of calm on the twenty-first floor: two tall men stood at the parapet of the Happy Faces Center, scouring the plane below with their slender fingers wrapped around binoculars. Their sweeping, high-necked overcoats made them look like a pair of perched, black hawks. One of them spun his head quickly in Henry’s direction. Henry felt a stab in his chest as the two dark-ringed, iceberg eyes narrowed. The doors closed and shut out the eyes. Henry shivered. The sounds of mayhem drifted away as he sank down a floor.
This time, the doors parted to reveal a completely different situation. Although the outside of the Center was smoothed out, the walls and ceiling of this floor more resembled a cavern than a building. It looked as though a giant worm had carved a system of catacombs through the sparkling black substance. The different tunnels were lighted by electric lanterns that were pinned to the ceiling and connected by electrical cords. Henry could see men in white lab coats calmly examining sections of the wall. Some were in groups, quietly, but excitedly, whispering over small chunks of the black matter. A few steps in front of the elevator a middle-aged man in a three piece suit sat at a glossy desk, absorbed by a computer screen. The desk seemed out of place, an object of a business office stuck inside a dark cave of sparkling evil. Next to his desk was a trolley that held a machine that resembled a small plastic sink attached by three tubes to canisters with angry faces on them. The machine was facing the chair in front of the man’s desk.
Henry stumbled as he started towards the man. The man looked up and smiled at Henry as he closed the rest of the distance. Henry opened his mouth, but the man spoke first, “Mr. Oaker. Please, have a seat.”
Henry slid into the flimsy chair. The man pushed his computer out of the way and leaned his elbows on the desk. He tapped his fingers together, happily.
“This shouldn’t take too long Mr. Oaker. I just have a few questions for you.”
Henry reached into his jeans for the form.
“Here,” he said with a hoarse voice.
“Thank you,” said the man, taking the form. He searched the drawers of his desk, looking for a place to file the wrinkled piece of paper. The man had a wolfish appearance. His sideburns almost ran down to his chin and his canine teeth looked sharp. His eyebrows were thin and grey, and moved very little. His starched white collar choked his long neck.
“You are Twenty Manager, right?” asked Henry.
“Yes,” said the manager, drawing out the word into two syllables. He continued rifling through the drawers.
“So have I done something wrong?” said Henry in a voice that was stronger than he felt.
The manager paused for a moment, “Of course not Mr. Oaker. I merely have a few inquiries before I let you go about your day.”
He resumed searching.
“Ahhhh!” he said at last, raising a petri dish out of a drawer and setting it on the desk between himself and Henry. Henry looked from the dish to the man, confused. The manager looked at him intently. Henry shifted in the small seat. Abruptly the man pulled out a pair of tweezers and a magnifying glass. He lifted the top off the petri dish and pinched a small grain out of the dish with the tweezers. He held it beneath the magnifying glass, his eye blowing up into a cartoonish bloodshot eyeball through the magnifying glass.
“Here, take a look,” he said handing over the utensils to Henry. Henry observed the small fleck.
“Notice anything different about it? Different in comparison to the walls we are surrounded by, I mean,” asked the manager, still smiling.
“Well,” Henry strained his eye, “I guess it looks like it’s got some white in it.”
“Very good, Mr. Oaker!” grinned the man, “It’s often hard for non-Happy Face employees to spot a good bead.”
“A ‘good bead’?” asked Henry, confused.
“It’s what we call a fleck that comes from a canister that had good poured into it.”
“Oh,” said Henry. Pools of sweat were leaking through the armpits of his grey t-shirt.
“We believe that the canister came from you, Mr. Oaker.”
“Really?” asked Henry, weakly. His eyes felt like they were popping out of his skull. How could they possibly find it in all this? he thought as he looked away from the manager to the black walls.
“You do understand the process of cleansing, don’t you?”
Henry said, “of course,” but the man proceeded to explain, “When you activate the cleanser,” he pointed to the white sink to his right, “the user must cooperate mentally with the machine and let negative energies course through them for the cleansing to be completely successful.”
“Yes, I understand,” Henry said, annoyed, but still sweating.
“Well I’m simply making sure Mr. Oaker, because it appears,” at this he put on a simultaneously sad and concerned face, “that you gave us a faulty sample of evil matter.”
“Right, well it’s never happened before,” responded Henry quickly.
“Well that’s the thing Mr. Oaker,” the manager said with the same pitying and disappointed face, “the Nineteen Manager has notified me that he too has found a faulty sample that originates from you. It’s not as contaminated as the one I have, but nevertheless, this is a very startling trend.”
Henry threw the fleck on the floor and leaned in, menacingly. His blonde hair was now stained brown with sweat. He growled, “Look. Just what is this all about, huh?”
The manager leaned back in his chair, looking comically surprised, “There’s no need to get angry Mr. Oaker.”
“What is the purpose of this inquisition?”
“We simply cannot keep receiving contaminated specimens, Mr. Oaker.”
“I don’t see why I have to give any specimens at all!”
The manager’s eyes widened, “But Mr. Oaker, the law requires you to give specimens!”
“We have a unique opportunity, not to repress our negative feelings, but to extract them for good. Just look at the strides we have made with the Happy Faces program! No more murder or crime; there is a sense of community and sharing that has solved every problem from international conflicts to global warming. And of course, we cannot forget the happy faces which are now everywhere,” he swept his arm grandiosely across the desk, “We can create a perfect world Mr. Oaker, but we need everyone’s help and everyone’s samples to ensure the everlasting bliss and happiness of mankind.”
Henry slammed his fist on the desk, “Well what about my own happiness? Maybe my brand of happiness is different. Maybe sometimes I’m happy being angry. Maybe sometimes I’m happy pushing the gas pedal all the way down and speeding, and feeling a little scared and nervous.”
The manager shook his head sadly, “This is distressing.”
He pulled up his computer and rapidly typed on it.
“What’re you doing?” asked Henry, flattening his fist out on the table.
“I’m afraid you’re way past the law’s time limit for handing in a canister.”
“The law’s time limit? Who makes these rules? You all have forgotten but this one right here still remembers reading some history textbooks, and I remember what it was like to have nations, and opinions and art, man. Art! There used to be true energy to the world!”
Suddenly four sets of hands gripped Henry’s arms from behind.
“Hey!” he shouted, twisting around with fury etched in creases across his face. Four guards with empty eyes were picking him up off the chair. The smiley face helmets swam before Henry’s eyes as he tried to buck the guards off and rip free. They shifted him, bodily, over to the cleanser and shoved his face into it. Henry continued to scream although the sounds were muffled by the plastic sink. With a little pucker of suction, the screams vanished completely. Henry continued squirming underneath the four guards in the now silent room. Slowly the canisters underneath the sink filled up with a dark juice, and slowly Henry’s squirming slowed. By the time the second canister was full, Henry was patiently twiddling his fingers behind his back.
The managers signaled to the guards, “That’s enough.”
They flipped a switch and Henry pulled back from the cleanser, red-faced but smiling, streaks of black juice dribbling down his chin. The manager walked around his desk, and pulling out a handkerchief with a flourish, wiped away the dribble, as a mother would a baby. He handed Henry a glass of water, “Make sure to keep hydrating for the next twenty-four hours; that was a lot of evil to lose in one sitting.”
Henry nodded tamely, “I don’t know what I was thinking. But I feel much better now.”
The manager smiled paternally, “that’s very good. Now go home and get some rest, and I’ll see you in a week for a checkup.”
A guard approached the manager with the two filled canisters, “Should I bring these up a flight, sir?”
The manager shook his head, “No, these should provide some excellent samples. Take them straight down to the boys in Negative Twenty One,” he pointed at the canisters enthusiastically, “I heard that they’re on the brink of finding out the secret behind this stuff. It shouldn’t be long until we can do away with these ghastly forced-cleansings.”
“May I go now, sir?” interjected Henry, leaning in with a half-bow.
The manager waved him away, “Yes, of course.”
Henry rode the elevator down with the four guards, smiling all the way. He got off at the lobby, but the four guards continued downwards. Henry walked across the parking lot with a spring in his step. He stopped by his car and sighed, “I got a long drive ahead.”
He looked at the long line of people still waiting to deliver their canisters.
“At least I didn’t have to wait on line!”
The long hallway was completely deserted save for the flotsam and jetsam of past customers which littered the tiled floor. The body of an electric sign which read “Forest Hill Super Mall” lay broken and dark in a corner. The only sound was the whir of a dusty air conditioner which buffeted the scuttling newspaper clippings of “THE END IS NIGH!” with blasts of canned air. Even Randy was silent as he pondered his figure in one of the mirrors of a Super-Gap. He twisted slightly to see his backside. He turned to a mannequin beside him and asked earnestly, “What do you think?”
The mannequin’s plastic eyes reflected the soft folds of Randy’s face. Randy nodded vehemently, “I totally see where you’re coming from. These jeans do make my butt look big.”
He started to take off a pair of tactfully shredded jeans, his gnarled old fingers fumbling with the tiny zipper on the crotch. He quickly slipped on a pair of sweatpants which read, “JUICY” on the seat of the pants. He wore them backwards. He was tightening the elastic band when something crashed in the hallway outside the store. Randy rushed to the hallway, pausing to grab his skater-boy Volcom hat off the mannequin’s hand.
Peeking timidly from behind the massive plaster columns which framed the Super-Gap’s yawning entrance, Randy saw a young woman in hiking gear cocking her arm to throw a rock at the glass window of a Forever 21 store.
“No!” rasped out Randy’s voice before he could cover his mouth. The woman looked over, could only see a tuft of snowy white hair and two blue eyes, and shined a smile as she dropped the rock. She started to walk over. The butterflies in Randy’s stomach started churning a stew of anxiety which he hadn’t felt in many years. Her echoing footsteps halted before him, at last and she thrust a dirty hand towards Randy, “Hi! My name’s Christie Candle.”
Randy lowered his eyes to the grimy hand and said simply, “Hi.”
Christie withdrew her unrequited hand and pointed enthusiastically over her shoulder, “You like that store?”
Randy raised his eyes with a gleam of defiance and screwed on his hat, “I love it!”
Christie shrugged, “It doesn’t have much for survival. You should check out the LL Bean on the other side of the mall.”
Randy sighed, “LL Bean, more like LL Has-Been. Forever 21 has one of the best selections of tops I’ve ever seen. I go there almost every day.”
Christie laughed and shot him a quizzical look, “Every day? You mean you live in this dump?”
“I have lived here for 50 years and it is not a dump.”
“But they’re no windows! Don’t you want to see what it’s like outside? It’s certainly not the way it was when you came in here. My mom told me everything used to be gray, but now everything is just bursting with green. You ought’ta see it! It’ll probably blow your mind, man, come on!” she said tugging at his arm.
“Don’t want to”, sulked Randy.
Christie’s smile faded. She put a hand on each of the old man’s slumped shoulders and said sympathetically, “Don’t you ever get lonely? There’s nobody around here anymore.”
Randy looked around. The mannequins were all frozen in their poses, serenely strolling in Capri shorts and petting stuffed dogs. He turned back to Christie, “It hasn’t changed that much. I’m no lonelier than when I came in here,” he paused and stared off into space “, no less either.”
“How old are you?” asked Christie.
“65 and a half,” he responded proudly.
She hit his shoulder “, C’mon you’re gonna die soon! You gotta see how the parking lot is full of grass. I saw a tree that had grown right on top of a car, bending the car into a “V” almost. It looks like the tree just hopped right up and squashed the thing like it was a bug,” she pressed a finger to her lips “, in fact, I think it was a Volkswagen Bug.”
“What?” Randy craned his wrinkled neck.
“I said you’re gonna die someday, you might as well go out now!” she shouted, exasperated.
Randy took a step back “, No! That’s impossible!”
“No, no. The air’s all better now. Just look at me,” she did a jumping jack.
Randy wagged a finger at her “, It simply is not possible. I have too much shopping to do today. Besides, Everfre$h gets a new line of perfumes tomorrow. And in only a month, Best Buy gets the first shipment of PlayStation 5’s! By the way, I’m dying to see how it compares to Microsoft’s new console. Microsoft always has great games, but I like the feel of the PlayStation controllers. Don’t you agree?”
This time Christie took a step back. She tried to put on a smile “, Ok. Maybe next weekend.”
“But next weekend the new…”
She was already striding down the hallway, navigating around the trash on the floor, moving down the neon-lit tiles toward a red exit sign.
Randy Smiled and waved “, Bye!”
Randy stared at the wall for a moment. Everything was quiet again. He went back into the Super-Gap and took his mannequin by the wrist “, C’mon!”
The pair of them shuffled across the vast hallway, plodding slowly towards the shining gates of Forever 21.
On the eve of Halloween, otherwise known as The Night of Mischief, Steve was rummaging around his pumpkin patch. He examined each orange orb, carefully trying to find the plumpest one for his beloved hobby of pumpkin carving. His wrinkled hands and gnarled knuckles tapped each shell with a workman’s care. Steve fancied he saw a good specimen in one of the un-trodden corners. He approached, and was disappointed to find that it was actually quite small. There was, however, an enticing glow of healthiness about it. Steve shrugged, plucked it and carried it into his lonesome cottage.
Alone in his dark-wood study, Steve carved the pumpkin into one of his smiling masterpieces by the light of a sole reading lamp. He held it up to the light and nodded approval, the corners of his mouth twisting downward. Steve snapped his fingers as he remembered the last ingredient. The grandfather clock ticked closer to midnight as Steve fetched a candle from the pantry and lowered it into the Jack O’ Lantern. He lowered a lit match to the wick just as the grandfather chimed midnight, and the beginning of Halloween. The old man jumped back in surprise as the lifeless face grew animated and the glowing mouth broadened its grin. The pumpkin was alive! What is more, it began to speak to Steve, a crackling, warm voice, as though they had been friend for ages. Steve brought the pumpkin into the kitchen and they talked happily all through Steve’s dinner. Not one soul came to Steve’s remote house for candy for the entirety of Halloween, but Steve didn’t mind because he had a shining new friend.
Halloween day ran its course, and when Steve awoke the next morning, the Jack O’ Lantern was silent, dead. Steve tapped its shell and told his friend to have sweet dreams. Each Halloween for the rest of Steve’s waning life, the pumpkin would wake up and shed light on the darkness of Steve’s loneliness.
Mr. Cullen bought the house in the hopes of spending his retirement solitarily. The little house was nestled deep within the woods, in its own cleared patch of land: a neat house at the end of a neat dirt road. By the door, a rusty axe head was sunken deep into a moss blanketed stump. The wind whistled eerily through the hole the axe’s wooden peg had vacated. Mingling with the whistling was the creak of a dilapidated weathercock.
Forbidding to some, the house seemed to fit Mr. Cullen’s simple needs perfectly. As he stood on the front porch with Autumn’s red leaves tumbling over his feet, he took off his glasses and polished them, smiling, with a polka dotted hanky. Mr. Hauser was standing in front of him, speaking in his drawling voice, holding the house keys in his hands like a guarded prize.
“So wolves and foxes pretty much steer clear if you spray some of this around…”
Mr. Cullen was not really listening. Mr. Hauser seemed to be a nice man, but he always appeared a little over-anxious and edgy, especially when he talked about the house and its upkeep.
“Now, Mr. Cullen…”
He waited for Mr. Cullen to respond
“Yes?” Mr. Cullen answered mildly, clamping his glasses back onto his nose.
“Now, Mr. Cullen, I gotta warn you about the boiler. It’s a tad finicky, and of course I’ll be coming around once a month to check up on it, but sometimes it makes noises. Now, don’t go downstairs and try and fix it yourself cause the machinery’s too old, you might damage it, or yourself. You just call me if it starts acting up and I’ll drive right over. I’m only fifteen minutes down the road remember.”
“Sounds fine, Jim. I’ll call you if I have any problems.”
“You do that”, said Mr. Hauser, trying his best to look penetratingly at Mr. Cullen.
“So everything’s set up inside? I’m eager to up my toiletries and sheets.”
“Everything’s all set up.”
The two stood looking at each other, silently. Mr. Cullen rolled from his toes to his heels, raising his eyebrows and nodding his head. Mr. Hauser eyed Mr. Cullen oddly. The weathervane creaked behind Mr. Cullen.
“So… the keys Jim.”
“Oh yes” said Mr. Hauser hastily. He outstretched his hand over Mr. Cullen’s. Mr. Hauser hesitated for a moment, as if parting with a family heirloom, and then he let the bold iron key ring clink into Mr. Cullen’s soft palm. Mr. Cullen watched Mr. Hauser stump back to his red truck. Mr. Cullen waved calmly as Mr. Hauser started the old motor. Mr. Hauser began to pull away and then pausing, he thrust his haggard face out the window and called, “Don’t forget, don’t touch go down to that boiler, you might lose a finger even. And”, Mr. Hauser’s tone grew softer, “take good care of the house. God knows I’d stay in her if I could afford the mortgage. See you round.”
Mr. Cullen nodded affirmation and waved a little harder. As the dust from Mr. Hauser’s truck grew distant, Mr. Cullen pondered the nature of such a queer man. A chill breeze descended suddenly on the clearing, however, and drawing his woolen sweater around his neck, Mr. Cullen retreated back into the house. The axe head whistled vehemently outside as the sun shrunk below the mangled black tops of the trees.
For some time, Mr. Cullen enjoyed his stay at the neat little house. Apart from feeding the fire and dusting the book shelves, there was little strenuous activity for Mr. Cullen, and he grew accustomed to the country life quite easily. He twiddled his socks by the fire and read the books he’d never had time for when he was working on Wall St. Mr. Hauser came over monthly with a tool kit to work on the boiler. He never took long, and Mr. Cullen was happy to find that these monthly visits, along with the New York Times and the occasional letter from his nieces or a money seeking cousin, were his only links to the world outside his little cabin in the clearing. Even the electricity bills were surprisingly low. Everything was as Mr. Cullen had planned.
He was sitting in the living room one evening, enjoying a particularly cozy book, when he noticed a sound apart from the crack and pop of his fire. He perked his ear and stared up at the ceiling, but the sound did not repeat and he resumed reading with a dreamy sigh. He found his place on the page only to hear the sound again, this time louder and closer. This time he set his open book firmly on his corduroy knee and twisted in his chair t survey the expanse of the living room. The room was dim save for the flickering beams cast by the fire. Flickers of light danced on the wall opposite the fireplace, but the room remained silent, and Mr. Cullen began to wonder if he was hearing things. Just as he was about to give up on the sound, he heard it again and saw a lump raise up under the carpet at the far corner. He strained his eyes looking for the lump to resurface. But it did not reappear in the same spot. It rose up closer to Mr. Cullen’s chair. He rose from his seat, fearlessly awaiting a mouse to scurry along the wall near him. He waited in vain. No mouse came, prompting Mr. Cullen to fold his arms over his chest with a perplexed frown. Suddenly his foot was hit hard, from beneath, sending a shockwave rippling from his ankle to his knee. He hopped around in surprise and pain. Another lump burst from the floor near his other foot. Soon the frequency of the bumps increased, until the floor was a tumultuous sea of bumps and pounds. The sound was like a chorus of drums, growing ever louder.
“My God!” exclaimed Mr. Cullen. He leapt over to the lamp and clicked it on. Light flooded the room and the thumps subsided, abruptly. The rug was once again an unbroken plane of beige. Mr. Cullen rubbed his nose and then bent to the floor. Propping his lenses on his balding head, he examined the floor closely. There were no marks, no signs of damage. He rose to his feet, and then stomped on the floor. He was surprised to find the floor give partially beneath the impact of his foot, as if the floor were made of rubber. He eyed the floor warily and moved slowly towards the phone. He rang up Mr. Hauser.
“Hello, Jim. You wouldn’t believe, the strangest thing just happened. The floor started to have big bumps all over it, like it was a pot of boiling water.”
A crackling voice replied over the line, “Oh darn! That’s the boiler acting up. I’ll be right over to fix her up.”
“Are you sure it was the boiler? There were physical bumps popping up all over the place.”
“Yep, the pipes bang something fierce.”
“The pipes”, said Mr. Cullen incredulously.
“Yep, I’ll be over soon. Don’t try to fix it yourself.”
The phone clicked off on the other end and Mr. Cullen looked from the phone to the floor. He settled the phone back onto its hook and then sat rigidly in his chair, eying the floor like it was a sleeping child who might reawaken and cause further mischief. He sat there until Mr. Hauser’s head beams shown in from the front windows.
Mr. Cullen rushed to the front door and let Mr. Hauser in. Mr. Hauser stepped inside, brushing a red leaf from his coat.
“I trust you didn’t touch the boiler?”
“Of course not, but this is very strange Jim. The floor was bending and-”
Mr. Hauser said enthusiastically, “I designed the floor myself. It keeps the boiler safe and sound; when the pipes clanged against hard wood it hurt the boiler something terrible.”
“Jim, I’m afraid you don’t understand. The entire floor was thrashing about like an ocean”, said Mr. Cullen exasperatedly.
“Steam and pipes, that’s all. Now if you don’t mind Mr. Cullen”, Mr. Hauser hefted and tapped his trusty toolbox, the instruments inside shifting and squeaking, “I’ll just start the repairs and the boiler won’t bother you no more.”
Mr. Cullen raised a finger to make another point, but Mr. Hauser brushed past him and stomped down to the boiler room. Mr. Cullen placed his hands on his hips and looked down the dimly lit, winding staircase which led to the boiler room. With a shake of the head, Mr. Cullen put the whole incident behind him and went back beside the fire.
Mr. Cullen began to feel drowsy and approached the door to the basement with the intent of delaying the repair until tomorrow morning. He was nearly to the door, when Mr. Hauser emerged smiling and drooping his toolbox on his finger like a schoolboy dangling his books from a string.
“The old bugger’s all fixed up”, he said cheerily.
“Indeed? Well if you don’t mind”, Mr. Cullen brought his watch to his face with an extravagant flourish.
“Sure, I’ll be out of your hair now”, said Mr. Hauser he swung his toolbox all the way to the door, again reminding Mr. Cullen of a giddy schoolboy. Mr. Cullen ushered him out the door, wishing him a good evening.
“You have a good night too, Mr. Cullen”, said Mr. Hauser widening an ivory smile from his bronze face.
Mr. Cullen leaned against the front door massaging his temples, and reminded of how grateful he was that country life provided very few instances of such disturbance. He slipped into his silken robes and washed up for bed. The boiler did not bother his sleep for the entire night.
Two weeks passed and it happened again. Mr. Cullen stood quietly observing his living room floor get pummeled with a cup of steaming coffee. He sighed, and slurped his black coffee. He looked at his watch: 8:30. Mr. Hauser may have been out to dinner, but it couldn’t be helped. Mr. Cullen stepped intrepidly out onto the carpet and walked towards the telephone. His hand was outstretched for the phone handle when a blow came from below his foot, very similar to the shock he had received on the previous occasion. His mug flew from his hand and smashed against the wall. Mr. Cullen howled in pain and clenched his leg looking furiously at the coffee stain running down the fine wooded wall and into the crack where the floor met the wall.
He turned with a wild rage towards a nearby chair, picked it up, poised it above his head and flung it at the nearest lump. The chair hurtled at the spot and broke up into splinters. Mr. Cullen stood hunched over and huffing the room silent. He slapped his knee, and did a little jig.
“Ah, hah! “Finicky” my ass! All it needs is a good smack and it falls into order!”
Mr. Cullen’s celebrations were interrupted my a disturbing sound, something like a muffled groan was barely audible from spot between his very own two feet. Mr. Cullen cocked his head, suddenly very stern. He believed he had even hear a child’s sob for a moment. He listened intently, but nothing more was to be heard. Suddenly, the floor bumped again, this time violently, taking Mr. Cullen’s legs out from under him and sending him sprawling to the floor. Mr. Cullen rose shakily from the pulsating floor, his glasses eschewed and his face a livid purple. He stormed from the room, and flung open a closet door. He withdrew a heavy wrench, nabbed his key ring from a shelf and walked towards the cellar door with a purposeful mien. Mr. Cullen was ranting and raving against the boiler with indignation within his mind. It was as if he took personal offense at being treated so by his own machine. So absorbed was he with his own thoughts that he did not notice that the thumping had ceased of its own accord.
Mr. Cullen was busy creaking down the old staircase, further irked by the first pang of old age creeping into his knees. He dared not grab onto the railing twisting down beside the winding staircase; the railing was a rusty pipe, barely clinging to the crumbling plaster walls with screws that jutted out and trembled with each of Mr. Cullen’s footfalls. A dank smell rose from the base of the staircase. Mr. Cullen’s impetus bore him headlong into the plume of rancid air. His tasseled loafers submerged into a green puddle, sending speckles of slime onto Mr. Cullen’s corduroys. This puddle, no doubt to Mr. Cullen, was the source of the horrid stench. Mr. Cullen cursed silently to his prized loafers and then lifted his head.
A broad, engraved door barred his path. Despite the fuzzy growths splotched on it’s edges, the door had clearly been a labor of love for some craftsman. Etching of flowers and woodland creatures flowed across its face. At one time, the door had been a colorful display of life, but before Mr. Cullen it looked like a melancholic old man. Its skin was brown and leathery. Only a few patches of reds and blues remained as a memory of its youth. Someone had repurposed the door and slapped a bulky iron padlock by the latch. The gaping keyhole stretched open forebodingly at Mr. Cullen, like a silent shriek.
Mr. Cullen wasted no time observing the door. He flitted through each key on the ring, shoving each one at the admonishing padlock. With each new key, his anger rose. He reached the final key, and the padlock remained closed. To Mr. Cullen, it appeared to be mocking him. Mr. Cullen mopped his brow with a newly sooty hand and, determined to either fix or destroy his boiler, raised his shiny new wrench above his smudged bald scalp and then crashed the head of the wrench onto the lock. The circuit snapped surprisingly easily. He inspected the lock in his hands briefly, noting that it had been worn through with rust and use, and then tossed the stocky sentry into the puddle.
Mr. Cullen examined the door a little more closely. Apprehension wormed into his mind for the first time as he realized just how silent the base of the staircase seemed to be. The boiler was not showing any sign of being on at all. All of the sudden, something about what Mr. Cullen was doing seemed reckless. Perhaps Mr. Hauser had a true reason to forbid Mr. Cullen from entering the boiler room. Mr. Cullen hesitated for a moment, on the cusp of turning his back on the whole affair and walking up to his bedroom to enjoy a piece of cheese and a glass of wine before climbing into bed. Mr. Cullen brushed aside his fears, dismissed them as foolish. Nevertheless, it was with a ginger push and a wary step that he passed by the beautifully sad door into the boiler room.
Mr. Cullen squinted his eyes into the dimly lit room. Many of the corners of the room were cast in darkness. All six sides of the room were padded with some coarse material, scratched at points. Mr. Cullen thought of an insane asylum with a shudder. As far as he could tell, the padded walls wrapped around the room uninterrupted except in one spot. On the far wall from Mr. Cullen, a giant industrial machine was bolted to the wall. It looked as if someone had taken the rusty innards of a watch and nailed them to a wall of buttoned down cloth. Mr. Cullen could see the hulking machine clearly because stuck to the wall beside it was a blinking light bulb. A metallic cord wound from the base of the bulb and twisted into the maelstrom of cogs and screws of the machine.
Mr. Cullen approached the shuttering light and machine with a hint of trepidation. His feet padded softly over the soft floor. It was so dark he could barely see the path to the machine except when the light bulb flashed brightly for a moment. He groped onward. His foot crunched through something brittle. Mr. Cullen looked down to find his foot lodged in the smashed chest cavity of a mammoth rat skeleton. He cringed a little and extracted his loafer from the jagged clutches of the dead rat’s ribs. He scattered the remains with a flick of his ankle and continued towards the machine which he supposed to be the boiler.
Mr. Cullen drew up next to the machine at last and, raising his spectacles, looked intently at the machine. He was surprised to find that there were no pumps or gauges. There were no pipes at all, only a series of wood handled cranks and levers. He touched one of the handles tenderly with his soft, pink fingers. The wood was worn smooth and black. Mr. Cullen looked up at the winking light fixture. He turned the crank slowly, curiously. To his sudden delight, the bulb burned a little brighter. It quickly faded down, however. Mr. Cullen was highly amused at the contraption now. He placed his wrench and key ring down and put both his hands on the handle, readying to give it a real turn. Like a giddy schoolboy with a new toy, Mr. Cullen beamed as he felt the smooth wood underhand, listened to the gentle whirring of the machine, and watched the mesmerizing, twirling cogs and wheels.
Mr. Cullen chuckled happily and turned from the machine to the room, now completely awash in resplendent light. His smile drifted away. Standing in the corner was a chalk white, naked man, standing beneath a brown stain on the ceiling. His bony spine was facing Mr. Cullen, but he could tell the man was catching droplets from the brown stain on his tongue. Mr. Cullen stood transfixed beside the machine. The lanky man became aware of the new light in the room, catching it on his spindly fingers before his face. He pivoted slowly around on the spot wear he stood, jerkily shifting his feet so that his body moved closer and closer to facing Mr. Cullen’s. Mr. Cullen’s jaw dropped in dismayed astonishment, his hands hung limp by his sides.
Finally, the man was facing Mr. Cullen, and it became clear that he was no man at all, but a creature. Although hobble, the creature’s head nearly grazed the ceiling. Its body was like a bundle of sticks held together by knobs of papier-mâché and sinews of tight muscle. Its skin was pulled tight across its face. Its entire face was consumed by two black, shining wells for eyes, and a gigantic grin, moist with spittle and drool. A sound resembling the curious gurgle of a baby emanated from behind his set of jagged yellow teeth. Mr. Cullen mimicked the sound absurdly, fearfully. The creature’s nose and ears were pressed flat against its skull, which was bald except for a few wisps of dry black hair sprouting up from brown splotches on his scalp.
To Mr. Cullen’s terror, it began to lurch toward him, swaying its elongated arms down by his knees, wading through a sea of newly visible rat carcasses. With each step, it stumbled down, its knobby knees buckling under its own weight. Then it rose, jerking its body up suddenly, for its next step. It seemed to be perpetually tumbling down towards Mr. Cullen, like an avalanche in slow motion. The light was flickering again. With each new flash of light, the thing loomed closer, its beaming, tiny head towering higher and higher over Mr. Cullen’s. Mr. Cullen found himself lost in the creature’s gleeful eyes. He could see his own pitiful figure mirrored in their inky recesses.
The creature was almost upon him. Mumbling something incoherent, Mr. Cullen ducked sideways and sprinted for the stairway. He flew past the ornate door, a tingling sensation brushing at his lower back, pushing him to go faster. He leapt up the stairs nimbly on his toes, not daring to peek backwards. He sped through the living room, skidded around a corner and ascended quickly up to his bedroom. He slammed the door behind him, but it drifted ajar, defiantly. He rushed to the edge of his bed, looking out the window nervously. He fumbled for the phone and punched in Mr. Hauser’s number, straining his ears for any sounds behind him. Mr. Hauser picked up the phone, answering groggily, “’Lo?”
“Mr. Hauser! There is a man in the boiler room”, stuttered Mr. Cullen, still in alarm.
“Oh dear”, said Mr. Hauser cutting him off with some tsk-tsk’s. “You’ve found Radley, I’m afraid.”
“Radley?” exclaimed Mr. Cullen.
“He’s my child. He was always a little troubled. Damned near killed Mrs. Hauser on several occasions, but she wouldn’t hear of sending him off to some institution so we kept him in the cellar.”
Mr. Cullen did not remember seeing Mr. Hauser’s wife. “
“What happened to Mrs. Hauser?” he asked suspiciously.
“Well, Radley never did kill her wholly, but he did do a number on her face. She spends most of her time in bed now, her mind went with the incident. I’ve been left to do the caring for Radley, bringing him rats for food– he likes live food best– and pitchers of water.”
Something crashed downstairs. Mr. Cullen twisted in his seat, looking fearfully at the beam of light peeping in through the open door. The sound was distant, probably from the living room. Mr. Cullen imagined the tower of skin and bone shuffling happily around in the cozy living room, his pale skin standing out against the oriental carpet and fine china. Mr. Cullen shuddered at the thought of such an out of place monstrosity in his own cozy living room.
“Mr. Cullen? Harry?”
“Yes, yes. I’m here. And what the hell am I supposed to do with him?” whispered Mr. Cullen urgently.
“Don’t go near him! I’ll leave in a moment, but there’s something you should know”, Mr. Hauser paused, “ I designed that entire room myself you know. The walls were a simple fix to keep Rad from hurting himself, but the machine, the machine remains a source of pride.”
Mr. Cullen could fairly feel Mr. Hauser puffing up with pride on the other end. Mr. Hauser continued on, “the boy had so much energy, god knows from what, so I put it to use. That machine provides practically all the electricity for the entire house. He never gets tired of cranking on the old thing, except of course, when he gets hungry. That’s when he pounds on the floor to let me know. But anyway, he’s out of the boiler room now, so obviously he isn’t pumping electricity into the house.”
Mr. Cullen groaned, “Are you saying that this place could black out?”
“Yes, I am. If that happens you’d better hide cause he’s used to it, but you wouldn’t have much chance running or fighting in the dark.”
Something creaked in the hallway. Mr. Cullen listened intently. Nothing more. It was an old house, it creaked even when there weren’t criminally insane nudes prowling its corridors. Mr. Cullen turned back to the phone, “So what am I supposed to do then?”
“For god’s sake hide.”
“Well, the outhouse would be best. Or perhaps just one of the closets. Oh, but do not hide in the bedroom. When Rad was a child he always knew to come find me there. He never did like the pantry but…”
Mr. Hauser’s voice grew distant as Mr. Cullen grew aware of a sensation on the nape of his neck. He turned his head slowly over his shoulder. Poking through the door at an angle was Radley’s grinning face. The door began to swing slowly open, pushed by the pressure of Radley’s bony shoulder. Radley began to enter the room, the same unflinching look of happiness plastered on his face.
Mr. Cullen rose from the bed, the phone resting loosely in his trembling fingers.
“Mr. Cullen?” a voice crackled from the earpiece.
“He’s in my room right now”, Mr. Cullen breathed into the mouthpiece, his chest heaving violently.
Radley began to walk towards Mr. Cullen again. This time his gait was less pronounced, more agile. He was closing distance quickly. Mr. Cullen backed towards the corner of the room, letting the phone drop from his hand and dangle like a pendulum over the bedside table. Radley’s beaming face eclipsed the ceiling light, the rays of light enveloping the devilish green and sunken black eyes. The hallway light flickered and died. The light in Mr. Cullen’s room wavered in turn. Mr. Cullen pressed himself flat against the wall, his wide eyes following the Radley’s path.
A voice shouted from the phone, “I’m on my way, Harry! Get away from him! Run away! I’m…”
The line went dead. Radley’s face was suddenly curtained in darkness, leaving only the moonlight from the window illuminating the creature’s fawn colored nails and grubby hands as they reached out for Mr. Cullen. Outside the axe head shrieked vehemently. A fierce wind blew around the house. The weathervane spun slowly on its axis, groaning mournfully in the dark.
My most recent obsession was Batman, so when Halloween loomed around the corner, I naturally turned to my mother and pleaded with her to tailor me a Batman costume. My begging was unnecessary as she warmly consented and promised to have it ready by the 31st. The days up to Halloween passed by slowly and my anticipation built like the steam in a pressure cooker. The day arrived at last and I burst from underneath the burdening weight of my bed’s duvet. I spread my hands out wide and pressed my forehead on the chilled glass of the window. I could not imagine a more suitable day for Halloween then or since.
I turned back to my bedroom, rubbing my hands together with a fervor of expectations for the loot which I would soon procure from my neighborhood’s residents. The shadowy contours of the batman costume lying on the floor caught my eye, and in a single bound, I was upon it: holding it up to the light, feeling the sleeves and checking its quality like a wine connoisseur scrutinizing a fine wine. With a final turn over, I decided it passed all my tests except one: fit. I slipped it on with great apprehension, and was gratified to find that it fit me like a glove. I examined my stately figure in the mirror and with great bravado I whirled my cape around me like a cocoon.
Yes indeed, my mother was a fine craftsman. She had ingeniously used a black balaclava for the helmet and pasted black triangles on it for the ears. The only issue was that there was no mask over my eyes. My round face was exposed like a pale full moon cloaked in a black outline. No matter, I thought, the rest of my outfit was so true to Batman’s that I felt capable of his great feats just wearing this costume, nay, artwork. I flew down the stairs with all the haste my hero would have used to give my mother my felicitations on her handiwork.
She accepted my thank-you’s graciously and patted me on the back, urging me to be off to school. I trotted away happily, with my backpack slung around my shoulders. I must admit that I had swagger about me all through out the day as I showed off my impressive apparel.
My strutting lasted until my sister made fun of my unmasked face before we embarked on our trick-or-treating mission through the town. My mother hushed her into silence, however, and I wrote off my sister’s galling comment as jealousy. The stiffness between my sister and I disintegrated as myself and my two sisters lapsed into the comfort of Halloween trick-or-treating. We hit all the major candy holders one by one. Our bags were practically bursting with plunder and goodies. The streets didn’t know what hit ‘em after we rolled through. We had all but visited every house around when I suggested we make one final stop. My mother and sisters were against it, but with persuasion I swayed their opinion in my favor.
My older sister approached the house first and rang the doorbell. The old lady who answered and my sister went through the usual routine of “oh my! What an outfit”, “What’s your name?” and the classic, “and what are you supposed to be?” Yada-Yada, I thought. Finally my sister fell back with her bag bulging slightly more. I stepped up, rosy faced and breathing heavy clouds of mist from my moist, red lips. I held out my bag expectantly but the old lady bent over with a wide smile painted in wrinkles across her gentle face. She was about to launch into the same old conversation. Yes, yes, I thought impatiently, just dispense your candies, crone, and I’ll be on my way. I kept on smiling as she leaned in real close to my face, even once I caught a whiff of her coffee breath. She swept her hand up and down, gesturing to my costume, and still with that unmistakably kind smile said, “And what are you supposed to be, little girl?”
My breath froze. My smile waned and plummeted into a horseshoe frown that twitched ever so slightly. Little girl? I was Batman! Bat- MAN. She was confused by my change in demeanor but remained undeterred and quietly said goodbye as she dropped some colorful candies into my bag. I looked, flabbergasted, into my bag at the sweets which now seemed to be drained of their joyous hues.
Sullenly, I walked back to my waiting family. They were all beaming at me as they beckoned and said that we should go home. I could feel my eyes starting to well up with tears. My closed lips were beginning to quiver. I couldn’t hold it in. I dropped to the ground and bawled with gushing eyes as I threw my head back. My mother rushed over and knelt beside me, putting a comforting arm around my shoulder.
“Now, now. Batman doesn’t cry”, she said.
I looked at her blurrily and wrenching the foolish balaclava from my head I held it before her as proof, “People don’t think Batman is a girl.”
Bertha was twirling the phone cord around her pudgy fingers. She was listening to the babbling voice on the other end with rapt attention, occasionally pinching her red lips together and purring affirmations.
“So what did he say?” she asked after a long monologue on the other end. Bertha was tapping one of her precious pink nails against the counter fast enough that her manicure was chipping away. The answer came down the line, and it was what Bertha wanted to hear. She squealed with delight.
“I just knew it! I know him like the back of my hand!”
She whacked her open palm against the counter, creating a sound like a slab of ham hitting the floor. She looked at the fat, slug-like veins on her hand as if she could see his face written in the tangle there. Bertha heard the front door knob clicking behind her.
“Oh, I think that’s my Thomas now. Toodles!”
She slammed the phone into its receiver on the wall like a child hiding the wreckage of a misdeed. At the same time, the front door swung open, a little more slowly and heavily than usual. For a moment, the tall, gangly form of Thomas stood at the threshold to his home. Still in the drizzle, his tired eyes observed his plump wife consuming the space behind the kitchen counter, beaming at him. Her red cheeks looked as though they might explode and squirt into her own beady eyes. Thomas took a step inside, head bowed, and as if he had triggered some mechanism, Bertha immediately sidestepped the counter with surprising agility. She sprung towards him with open arms.
“I’m wet”, Thomas said.
Instead of hugging him she peeled off his overcoat as though it were Caesar’s cape, and she his slave. He grunted a thanks and stepped out from behind the partition which served as their mudroom. He looked at the dining room, which was really just an extension of the kitchen with a rug thrown over the floor to hide the tiles. They lived in a one story suburban home; there was no need for superfluous walls. Underneath a cheap, sparkling chandelier lay the dinner table. Bertha had stacked it with more cheap and shiny objects, some for eating and some for eating upon.
Thomas knew Bertha’s food was choking his arteries slowly, but he couldn’t deny the pleasure he took from it. The table was adorned with everything Thomas had read was destructive to his body: the greasy breasts of fried chickens, the drifts of buttery mashed potatoes, the pyramids of biscuits, and of course the cornucopia of cartons of wine. All this prevented Thomas from starting the diet he was sure was right around the corner, and yet he couldn’t help but think of Bertha as the beneficent steward of his appetite, a veritable guardian of his belly. As a chef, Bertha seemed unparalleled to him. If it weren’t for Thomas’ freakish metabolism, he was sure he would have ballooned to Bertha’s size.
Thomas wandered over to his chair and did a rigid shuffle around it, pretending to observe a nick on the wall, when really he felt awkward sitting without Bertha.
“Well sit down before my dinner gets cold, you silly man!” exclaimed Bertha as she bounced over, or rather as her gelatinous breasts and stomach bounced over.
Thomas noticed that Bertha was wearing her red fanny pack, which looked ridiculous to him as it protruded from the fanny pack of flesh it was girdled to. When Bertha reached into the pack, it seemed as though she were reaching out from her body to grab something off a counter instead of slipping her hand into an extra pocket around her waist. Normally, Thomas would try to convince Bertha that fanny packs were out of style—which they were—but today he decided to forgo the usual inconclusive and unproductive argument in favor of shoveling the table’s morsels onto his plate. Besides, no point in arguing over that tonight, he thought.
Bertha sidled into her seat and smiled ingratiatingly at Thomas. She did not mirror him and begin gorging on the food, which Thomas knew meant she had been “snacking” before his arrival. He could even see the evidence written in gray stains on her front. Thomas often wondered if she ate early because she couldn’t bear her hunger or if she thought it would impress him to eat dinner methodically and moderately. He didn’t really care, either way.
“Why don’t you put on one of your old records, Tommy?” suggested Bertha prettily as she plucked a breast of chicken from the platter.
Thomas stopped chewing and looked up at her distrustfully from his hunkered position above his plate. This was an unusual invitation. Bertha hated his records.
“Go on”, she motioned with a bone.
Thomas felt he should investigate the cause of her good mood, but he was overwhelmed by his excitement to indulge in his records. He didn’t like to show Bertha that he was excited for anything, however, so he shrugged, folded his napkin on the table, and walked casually to the antique record player collecting dust by a broad window. He even paused to gaze out the window at their modest suburban lawn. He thought this was a nice touch, just to prove how truly relaxed he was. Lightly nabbing up the fronts of his trousers, Thomas knelt down next the record player and flitted through a box of records with his spindly, nimble fingers.
He felt he was taking too long and quickly settled on “The Magical Mystery Tour,” by the Beatles. He caressed the dark vinyl briefly and then nuzzled it onto the player. He started up the turntable and dropped the needle. It crackled at first, as if its muscles were popping while they limbered up. And then waves of warm music budded in the room. Thomas’ skin went cold.
Bertha called to his back from the table, “Turn it down, dear. I can’t hear myself think.”
Thomas licked his teeth in annoyance, but he obeyed, lest an argument eliminated the music altogether. He returned to his seat, the music much quieter, but still sweet. To Thomas, The Beatles had been aged to perfection. They were old enough to be comforting and inoffensive, and new enough to avoid seeming quaint and boring.
Thomas was perfectly happy to eat dinner alone with The Beatles, but Bertha began discussing her day and her week as she always did. He let her ramble. Did he like the nail polish? He nodded. Did he know Cindy had finally found a husband? He nodded. The new neighbors? Nod. The shrubs? Nod. Restaurant? Nod. Food? Nod.
He looked out the window at the rain. He remembered something.
“Who were you talking to when I got home?”
“Naturally I said…what’s that?”
“Who was on the phone before?”
“When I came in.”
“Oh that!” she slapped her forehead, a little too forcefully. It left a red mark that made it look like she was blushing, or very hot.
“That was a friend of mine from the beauty parlor.”
“What’s her name?”
“Oh, you haven’t met her, Tommy.”
“Maybe I have. I’m always being introduced to your friends when I already know them. You’re the one who forgets which ones I know.”
“But she’s a new friend, deary.”
“That’s how you introduced Sharon to me the last time she came over. So what does your ‘new’ friend look like?”
Bertha shifted in her seat, “She’s hard to describe.”
Thomas was looking down intently at his plate, stabbing bits of chicken with his fork and devouring them. He was barely listening to Bertha, but he kept asking questions. He was delaying something, just speaking to build himself up to say something important, but Bertha couldn’t notice.
“Is she pretty?” asked Thomas, without looking up.
“I suppose so”, Bertha said in a high-pitched voice as plumes of rosy jealousy colored her cheeks.
“That’s good. You ladies spend so much time at that beauty parlor.”
“Yes we do.”
Thomas suddenly balled up his napkin and threw it on the table. Bertha didn’t like the way his mouth was twitching and the way his eyes were reeling around like he was trying to understand where he had landed. She swept up the dishes and left Thomas still trying to form a sentence that was undoubtedly important to him.
“Here’s desert!” proclaimed Bertha as she shoved a big bowl of red Jell-O in front of Thomas. The quantity of Jell-O in the basin Bertha called a dish was absurd. The way it swayed and nodded in front of Thomas made it look like she had served up a crimson, plump baby with a spoon wedged under the rolls of its buttocks. Bertha smiled rosily, albeit forcibly, at Thomas and turned away from the table. He grabbed her thick wrist and she immediately wrenched it away.
“God darn it, Thomas!”
“We’re getting a divorce, Bertha!”
She took a step back and propped her fists on the rolls around her waist, “Excuse me?”
Suddenly Thomas felt like he was pleading, and he straightened up in his chair, “I firmly believe that we should get divorced.”
Bertha snorted and put her piggish face right next to Thomas’, “Oh really? Where do these firm beliefs come from all the sudden?”
“I met someone today. I was tempted by her in a way where the only thing holding me back from getting involved with her was that I felt… a moral obligation by our marriage not to be unfaithful. I feel that a marriage should not be held together simply by a sense of duty.”
“Is that all?”
“I guess so.”
“So tell me, Thomas, are you planning on going back to this special lady?”
Thomas sniffed delicately, “Maybe.”
Bertha started to laugh loudly. She paused, red-faced, and bent even closer to Thomas with a bitter, malicious smile, “You clod. You absolute clod. You wouldn’t survive a day without me, you dunce. You think you’re some kind of bachelor or something? Jesus Christ, Tommy, you’d be nothing more than a sniffling child if it weren’t for me.”
“Even if that were true,” Thomas stiffened further, “it wouldn’t matter, because I’ll find someone else.”
Bertha blew a sarcastic “Oooooooh” out of her cheeks and said, “That’s right, I forgot all about the mystery woman.”
The Beatles were still playing softly and Thomas looked around awkwardly, feeling very silly and unsure of what to say.
“I guess I should go then”, he said, half rising.
Bertha pushed him back bodily into his chair, “You sit and eat your dessert you piece of trash, ‘cause you aren’t going anywhere.”
“Look here, Bertha-”
“Shut your mouth!” she snapped, “And you look here. That woman I was on the phone with when you came in. Her name is Mary, and she’s the delicate flower you thought you had plucked today, you dolt. She wouldn’t so much as look at you in a million years.”
Thomas frowned and looked out the window.
“No, I think she likes me.”
Bertha mimicked Thomas, “Uh, ‘NO.’ I think she pretended to like you because I put her up to it.”
Thomas blinked. Bertha pointed at the red Jell-O bouncing merrily in front of Thomas, “Eat it!”
Thomas said, “But you have no reason to do that,” but found himself inexplicably spooning Jell-O into his mouth.
Bertha put a fist on the dinner table and raised her other hand in the air, “I believe in giving surprise tests every once in a little while.”
At this moment, to Thomas, she really did look like his third grade teacher. And he hated her. But instead of saying anything, he bent his head and kept a steady stream of Jell-O flowing from the plate to his mouth.
Bertha took her fist off the table and began circling the room, “And you failed! You failed this test, you complete idiot! You are worthless! To think that I cook for you every night and this is what I get in return!”
She continued ranting, and Thomas said nothing. Finally she stopped spluttering insults and boiled into a scream. She rushed over to the record player and ripped the album off right in the middle of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” She snapped it over her knee, and the pieces that were left in her hands, she hurled at the wall. Thomas looked at the shards on the ground out of the corner of his eye. Bertha stepped in front of his view, “How did you like that, you clod?”
Thomas looked up at her with docile eyes, and then slowly turned back to his dessert.
“That’s what I thought, you spineless clod.”
She waddled over to the door of their bedroom and said, “I’m going to bed.”
With that, she opened the door, slammed it, and then everything was quiet with Thomas. He remained seated, dipping into his Jell-O and slurping it up. He kept at it; dipping into the Jell-O, eating, and repeating without a pause. Jell-O. Eating. Jell-O. Eating. Jell-O.
Thomas’ spoon clattered against the bottom of his dish. He was done. He stared at the empty bowl for a moment while a voice in the back of his mind, barely part of his conscious, asked where the Jell-O had gone and if it would come back. It was quickly assuaged by an equally distant voice, which assured whoever was listening that there would always be more Jell-O tomorrow.
Thomas rose creakily from his chair and brought his plate to the kitchen sink. He looked at the dirty dishes Bertha had left next to the sink and sighed. He put them all in the dishwasher. If he didn’t, he and Bertha would fight again tomorrow morning, before he went to work. He shuffled over to the remnants of his favorite record and stared at them between his feet. Somehow, he couldn’t force himself to bend over and pick them up. He considered crying over them, as though they were the broken body of a lost child. He realized how silly it was to debate whether or not to cry, and finally scooped up the record. He tossed the pieces in a trash can.
Thomas washed his hands. He flipped the lights and, in the dark, stumbled towards the bedroom. There was now a very sudden burning at the base of his eyeballs which was begging to be doused with tears. He shook it off. The idea of crying was no longer attractive to him. He drove his slumped shoulders toward the bedroom door, dragging his feet all the way. He was reminded of a night when he was a young boy. He had broken his mother’s favorite vase, and later that night, after his mother’s tempest had driven him to bed, he walked blindly through the dark hallways of his house until he found his mother’s room. There, he nestled in next to her breasts and wept.