“Sentiment was against the poisoned insect. The city of Minsk had decided that to flog a chewink would be punishment enough. Nothing upset the ink more than a clumsy hand.”
The authoress surveyed the product of her hand. Too much Valium, they say, isn’t good for a hysteric. The wife of the milkman wrote because she needed to “express herself.” There seemed to be no stopping the dowdy woman. She cried over dead sparrows and loved her cat. Life in this part of Connecticut, the Bridgeport-like working-class ghetto part, strains those cloistered nerves. Fortunately, groceries could be ordered over the phone and delivered to the door. The husband left for work at 4:00 a.m. and returned at 3:00 p.m. A Korean veteran, his wife’s unsightly madness was shouldered by the bottle man with coarse-mannered and understanding stupidity.
An idea. Let’s go on a picnic. Breathe some air. Estelle told her uncultured husband that a picnic was a must and that at 6:15 they would start off for Rocky Neck State Park to picnic on the beach where there were no ants.
“Only the two of us?” Jake, the short, bald, strawberry-complexioned husband, asked.
“Merquill can come if you don’t think she’ll get lost or drown,” Estelle replied.
“I’m not takin’ a cat to the beach,” Jake proclaimed, folding his chubby arms. “Besides, pets ain’t allowed on the beach.” Jake’s proud logic did not fit easily into Estelle’s sedately foggy head.
“Can’t take Merquill?” she said most distressedly, “Can’t take a harmless cat to the beach!” Estelle estrangedly shrieked.
“Then we won’t go,” she said with a rock hard calm which could have unsettled a less experienced man than Jake.
Was Jake still sexually intimate with his moody partner? That’s not known. The couple was, by their own mutual admission, childless, although Estelle often managed to swell up with a false pregnancy a few times a year (in deep winter and during July is how the pattern ran).
Enter, a vacuum cleaner salesman. The unmowed lawn and chipped pink paint on the split level ranch house have refused to dissuade the older, quite resolute and desperate, Porky Pig faced little gentleman from avoiding Estelle’s door.
Estelle had been watching “The Edge of Eternity” on her mind-screen for the last six hours and a kitchen knife to end all her cares is in her hand when the doorbell chimes. Merquill scoots away under the magazine strewn, orange couch. Estelle contemplates sticking the knife tip into the electrical outlet unfortunately occupied by the toaster plug a moment before walking off to answer the vacuum cleaner man’s ring.
They say that within any world with which we can communicate, the direction of time must be uniform. Estelle was wrapped inside a moth eaten blue housecoat when she opened the door. Frank Lear, the salesman, thought himself to be looking at a lonely and easy mark.
“Yes?” Estelle said, fluttering her eyelashes and donning the reserved smile of the matron pictured on her favorite plastic bottle of skin care cream.
“Good afternoon Madame!” Frank sailed sappily. “Do you have the time today to allow me to demonstrate to you the wonder midget/giant of one of the world’s finest vacuum cleaners. With each demonstration,” he said without pausing, “I am authorized to give you a free vial of French perfume at no obligation to buy.”
“May I see the perfume?” Estelle asked. Mr. Lear put down the pudgy black imitation leather cases he had just hoisted upon expecting to be asked inside and sweetly replied, “Why certainly.”
Frank was forced to open his sales cases on the front steps. The indignity troubled him not a naked twit.
“I’ll have it in a minute,” Lear said without looking up at the lady who was poising a butcher knife over his blue suited back. Estelle put the knife behind her when Frank’s arm hoisted the bottle up to her from where his head was bobbing around inside the opened cases for more samples. Frank noted, and his searching fingers confirmed the fact, that the vial he had handed up to this dyed-blond dumpy muffin was his last.
Estelle had unscrewed the top of the perfume bottle and dropped it. The top took a hop down the steps and rolled into the profuse weeds. Mr. Lear had seen the object out of the corner of his eye making its escape, but the reflexes were such that when he turned to observe the direction of the top’s trajectory, the suitcase slammed on one of the hands he had left curled on the case’s bottom lip. The salesman belched a cry of hurt and panic. The injured paw collapsed on the concrete. The other hand came hurriedly to the rescue. A vigorous massage, Frank hoped, would cure.
“I’m so sorry,” Estelle gasped in an overacted performance of amazement, “but this perfume isn’t me.”
“Fine lady, fine,” Frank said without having caught the crass gestures that were the best part of Estelle’s show of indifference. The man had arthritis and the pain now in his fingers was monumental.
“Could I please have some ice wrapped in a towel?”
Estelle turned slowly so that she could move the knife from back to front without letting it be seen and disappeared inside, stabbed the knife into a flowerpot. Merquill was missing (she couldn’t see the cat anywhere–where was the cat?) and the cat came first. Estelle didn’t want the cat to get by her, get out of the door– the door needed to be shut as quickly as possible. Returning to the front steps, Estelle discovered Frank fumbling through the weeds after the fugitive cap.
“For God’s sake, come inside,” Estelle commanded. “I’ll let you give me a demonstration if you’ll only come in immediately.”
Mr. Lear looked up, puzzled. A question of some kind tried to come from his lips but could not form itself. Instead, the salesman straightened his back and hurried in order to please and satisfy this odd customer. Estelle slammed the door and, grabbing the strands of some loose ends of hair, blurted, “My poor pussycat!”
“My ice,” Frank retorted. “The joints are swelling. That’s really a terrible sign.”
“My cat’s more important than your joints,” Estelle cleavered. “Help me find her.”
“I’ll help you find your precious cat as soon as I’ve wrapped my hand in some ice,” Lear replied calmly. “Where’s the kitchen?”
“Where kitchens usually are,” chopped Estelle.
Mr. Lear, less perplexed by his hostess now that he was inside her house and surrounded by the mess she had constructed through diligent and daily labor, strode bitterly through a pair of swinging doors that led fridgewards.
The cat box had not been cleaned, the litter changed, for some time. It was located right by the refrigerator door. Lear moved the box with the toe of his shoe while fingers tightly held the nostrils closed. The fridge was older and not “frost free.” If Lear wanted ice he would have to dig out the trays.
“Merquill! Where are you, baby?” Estelle’s voice wafted from an upstairs bedroom.
Frank rummaged through the cupboards, unable to find more than a butter knife. Paper plates and plastic forks and spoons were all the couple was using. An argument several weeks earlier had caused the removal of all the dishes and utensils in the house.
“I think I’m goin’ out tonight,” Jake had said while gazing vacantly at the Monday night football game.
“Stop and get some cat food before you come home. A twenty-five pound bag,” Estelle ordered from where she was greedily reading about the dismembered bodies stuffed under a quietly respectable murderer’s house in a suburb of Mexico City.
“They have their own sort down there,” Estelle told herself. “Not as handy with an ax as some of ours though,” she thought, eyeing the back of Jake’s stubby neck from where it appeared above the football addict’s armchair.
“I won’t be in any shape to haul home cat food,” Jake said after a few more sips of the whiskey he had in hand.
“Then you can’t go out,” Estelle proclaimed.
“Watch that mouth of yours honey,” said Jake, turning around in his chair and fixing his eyes on where the cuckoo sat examining the photographs of the mass-murderer. “I say what gets done around here.”
“I’ll get you somehow if you don’t come home with Merquill’s cat food tonight,” Estelle promised.
The next day (even though Jake had returned with a sack of cat food) Estelle called the Salvation Army promising them a haul of three rooms of furniture if they could come over that noon. The driver and his two mover companions were shocked by Estelle’s lack of remorse when she handed over to them no more than four medium-sized boxes with weak bottoms stacked with her creations–goobered dishes, crudded up forks and spoons.
“We didn’t drive all the way out here to pick up this crap,” the driver of the Salvation truck was bold enough to complain as he stood before the petulant shrike.
“Yes you did,” replied the haughty little bird to the bullfrog bellied belligerent and slammed the door.
Frank’s struggles to free the imprisoned ice trays went for naught. The sockets were empty. Mr. Lear contented himself by rubbing loosened chunks of permafrost over his knuckles. The salesman’s mind was bobbing in rough seas when Estelle entered with the cat slung under her arm.
“What’s that smell?” Frank queried.
“I’ve used your perfume,” Estelle cooed. The whole bottle.
It was the smell of cheap perfume meshing with the odor of cat excrement that Lear found jammed into his nostrils. Headache.
“There are ghosts in my veins,” Estelle chirruped nonchalantly as she regally led the promenade back to the living
“There are bats in your belfry,” the imaginatively cliche ridden salesman mumbled to himself as he rolled after.
Pleased to have an audience for which to display her learned witlessness, Estelle acted bouncy-beautiful, insisting that Mr. Lear seat himself next to her on the couch.
“I have a lot of calls left to make today,” Frank clumsily protested.
The queen did not hear. This explorer, returned from regions heretofore unexplored with his ship laden with gold pirated from the Spanish, would tell her of his adventures. What savory savagery Frank must encounter on his travels–barbarisms too subtle to be thought: native women on the sands of white tropical beach.
“So you’re a vacuum man?” Frank heard himself hear. “Isn’t that a miserably degrading occupation? Hard on the feet as well as the nerves,” Estelle analyzed.
“Ha,” Frank laughed, “I’ve got a brother-in-law who’s a car mechanic. He never gets the grease off. At least I can go home after a hard day and be myself. He gets rotten skin, I get tired feet. We both make the same money, so–what’s to choose?” Frank shrugged.
“You’d look daring in a grease monkey’s uniform. In a suit you look dull and abused,” Estelle observed. There was a pause. No one moved, not even the cat. Frozen. An instant. Mother Estelle animated all again by saying to Lear, “You go ahead and spill whatever you use to show me what a miraculous machine you have. I’m going into the kitchen and I’ll be back with some coffee in a few minutes.”
“I don’t know if . . .” Frank was saying as he buried his head in his equipment and began the assembly. Estelle had left the room so Lear carried on alone. The fluffy gray cat watched as Frank snapped the hoses into place. What clever, empire building, home preserving, fingers. Attach a mouth, a few eyes, you’re organized.
In the kitchen, purple snakes with red eyes flushed out of the ends of Estelle’s fingers.
“What do you want?” Estelle said sharply. She hadn’t seen them for over a week.
“We want a sacrifice,” the ten of them hissed in scissor clipping unison. The fingers hurried into the housecoat pockets of the unprotected wife and came back with the vials of prescribed poison. The pills contained therein became the official agents of the queen. Tyranny must be defended. Death to the innocent.
“Let the hills nod as we slake our thirst in defiance of the gods,” the middle fingers darting slithered.
The pills into the coffee now, quick! The birds of prey have left the sky, have come swooping to the ground. “There’ll be dog for lunch boys if anyone’s hungry!”
Frank was feeling light-hearted and forgiving by the time his hostess returned. What a short memory Lear had! He’d put out of his mind what a fright the lady of the house was. One sale too many.
As Estelle swung swaying through the kitchen doors, Frank, noting her unsteadiness of gait, gentlemanly helped by taking it upon himself to carry the tray. Estelle’s head was cocked disastrously to the side. A malicious smile could be seen under the lipstick which had been applied eschatologically. A mild tremor of madness recognition wove through Lear’s brain. His impulse was to begin packing, forget apologies, and disappear. Social convention prevailed upon him not to take such a cowardly role. He was a man.
“You’re a real porker!” the bugs in Estelle’s mind daffily bleated.
“We’ll have coffee first,” said Estelle to the waiter she saw bending to put down the tray before her. A “Very good, madame” would have charmed her perhaps. Lear’s policy was appeasement.
“The Lord Chamberlain may be seated,” Queen Estelle said in accompaniment with a sweeping hand gesture of supreme grandiosity. The pig chortled slightly and found himself amused.
“You’re not drinking,” Frank objected after guzzling what slicko salesmen were referring to as “gas” these days. Frank’s not so slicko though.
“Too hot for me yet,” said Estelle daintily patting the side of her cup.
Forgotten of the maps and wild with error, the little demons sing to Estelle in joy of enticing her to the terror. The hostess had made a deal with the snakes in the kitchen that they were not to show themselves until the victim had passed out. The snake, however, in her right hand’s index finger broke its promise. Estelle, to avoid discovery, bit off its head. Frank could not understand why the lady had begun to chew her cud and smile so ferociously at him. The eyes in the woman’s head rolled listlessly and every third or fourth calm second, she would begin
to gnash her teeth as if attempting to break apart something very hard. Snake skull Mr. Lear. She won’t be able to get through that. You’re starting to lose motor control now. Try concentrating on the edges of things. Soft. Everything looks soft to you doesn’t it Lear? That’s too bad.
In a heroic effort, Frank pushed the cup away from him. It was do or die to the door. Call for help. What? The mouth won’t move? “Tie your hands, tie your feet, throw them to the sharks– Make you sink, make you scream, make you wish you’d never been,” is that how it felt Frank?
“Don’t forget your bags,” the salesman heard a voice a few light years behind him say. No. He would not be fooled. Wouldn’t re-enter that universe. The door is my destination. Prurient products disgorged by a century malign You shall never satisfy a heart like maiden mine. Good! “Get the heart,” the nine rampant snakes hissed. The tenth stub bled. Estelle could not swim. The drops of blood dripping out of Estelle’s fingertip collapsed and reformed into enormous pools. The salesman had his fist on the front doorknob. Estelle put her hand on the butcher knife she had stuck in the flowerpot. It had always been meant for the salesman’s back!
God, through his demon helpers, knew all.
Frank fell into Jake’s surprised arms as he stumbled out of the house. Jake looked up and saw the wife with the knife who seemed intent upon taking a life.
“Did you bring home any cat food!” Estelle screamed at her spouse.
“No!” he barked back.
“Then this is for you!” she wailed, lunging forward. Jake dropped Lear’s inanimate body on the steps in time to receive the butcher knife into his bosom. Jake took a somnambulistic step backwards, tripped over Frank, and tottered off to oblivion. Frank was hauled, by the falling body, into the weeds where his drunken eye came in close contact with the formerly lost perfume cap.
It wasn’t over. Estelle was trying to turn the body of her husband over to retrieve her tool.
“That’s mine!” she scraked kicking the stubborn lump. “Give it back if you know what’s good for you!”
She had the milkman turned over. Wasn’t that the sound of the blade scraping against some bones as it was being drawn out of the chest? Nobody out this time of day. Oh why couldn’t he move!