"Elwood. Elwood, dear. Where's my sweet little rabbit?"
Ah yes, bunny indeed. If only she wouldn't intrude.
"Elwood. Oh Elwood, please. Have mercy."
Intruding . . . as usual. If he only could simply tune it out. There. That one cuticle. Just that amiss. SHE wouldn't, couldn't? There. Now. Now, he was nearly free of her.
"Come to momsie."
Come to . . . there. There. Loveliest of sounds, silence.
He was gripping an ice cold Dr. Pepper.A plastic straw protruded from the upper notch. When he raised the can, he could feel the crenellations on the elbow of the smooth tube. Elwood sipped very carefully.
"Elwood.Come to momsie poo."
Above, light like phlegm spread carefully toward the screen. Elwood shifted to one buttock and felt the tight smooth Dacron on the left leg, further back on the ham. He felt the smooth slats on the very clean chair. He settled down.
A very special girl on the screen waved to a kindly old man smiling benevolently at the helm of a very old Pontiac. Elwood shifted to the other buttock. The girl entered an imposing building. Elwood felt the material along the raised leg, the chair. Within the building dozens of very clean people rushed up to the perfect little girl and gathered about with utter joy and exhilaration. Elwood settled down.
Elwood raised the Dr. Pepper and took a small taut sip. He frowned momentarily and tugged a clean handkerchief from the pocket of his smoking jacket. He dabbed the lips carefully.
"I'm so ashamed."
Elwood Siever was immaculate but 42.
"I'm SO ashamed."
Elwood Siever was wearing a maroon smoking jacket of virgin wool. He was wearing Dacron lemon bell trousers. The cotton handkerchief had been a good buy at Gimbel's.Elwood Siever loved Dr. Pepper soft drinks, and he loved the very special girl who glittered at the end of the phlegm.
"Please, Elwood.You come here this moment."
Elwood did not love his mother's voice. Elwood did not love his. . . . Vexed yes, but in fact Elwood Siever felt that he loved his mother more than anything else in the world with the possible exception of ice cold Dr. Pepper soft drinks and Shirley Temple, the perfect little girl at the end of the phlegm.
"Elwood.Oh this is terrible.Please come, dear."
Elwood carried the Dr. Pepper to the wall. He took one last moist look at the special little girl. He flicked the light. He flicked off the projector and then the little fan that cooled the bulb.
He stood over the sink and sipped from the very smooth tube. In the glass was Elwood's face, very round, florid, crested with short-cropped wavy impeccable hair. He held the beaded can just to the right of his head and smiled with small perfect teeth. The reflection took one last sip with the little burp that signaled the end of anything, but in particular the end of the can.
Elwood rinsed out can and straw and dropped them into a stainless drum by the sink. He screwed on the lid until it was airtight. He leaned over, grunting lightly, and inspected the surface of the lid. It seemed satisfactory. He washed his hands thoroughly and patted them dry with a fluffy broad towel that seemed very precise there against the cinderblock.He ascended the steps.
Gladys Siever in the living room had just finished watching the Billy Graham Special.She would not watch television again until the Oral Roberts Special in November.Gladys was a big-boned woman with very bad legs. She had not been given to use her legs since the birth of her first and only child, Elwood, December, 42 years past. Gladys Siever had not been given to control her urine since that same December. Gladys Siever was waiting for Elwood in her soiled undergarments.
"Mother. Oh I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. But you'll feel so much better after your tubbing."
"Yes dear. I'm very sorry, dear. I had been having so much fun."
Elwood leaned down carefully and kissed his mother's forehead with tight lips. He wheeled her into the downstairs bathroom.
Elwood Siever inclined at the broad sink and washed his mother's undergarments—the pale slip and the light blue panties with the crimson ruffles. He washed them and rinsed them fastidiously and hung them carefully in the small corridor leading to the bedroom.He took the charcoal pleated old woman's dress from the small vanity and shoved its volume into a stainless drum. He screwed the lid down airtight and sighed.
Elwood was a powerful man. He derived his power from lifting Gladys Siever, his invalid mother, to the glossy steel hand grips above the tub, from lifting her into bed, from lifting her to the toilet. Elwood sat patiently in a very small green chair, impeccably clean, and stared at the shower curtain. He listened to the gurgle and slurp for about twenty minutes.
"Now Elwood. Now you can get my bottom."
Elwood closed his eyes painfully tight and groped the curtain left. He gripped Gladys under the pits and lifted her to the stainless grips. He grunted horribly, lifting Gladys Siever, and then felt for the big soft brush.
Gladys Siever, a mass of glistening varicose flesh, held tight while Elwood scrubbed her thighs, her knees, her ample blue bottom. She listened to the slurp of the tub as it drained.She felt the nap of an utterly clean and puffy towel. She felt the hands again. She was seated on a big white board over the edge of the tub. She felt the quilted nightgown.
"Mother. I'm going to ask you again. Must you doodoo?"
"No. Not at all, Elwood. Not a single stool."
Gladys on the wheelchair brushed her handsome teeth rub a dub over the sink. Elwood sat carefully on the big white board and inspected his fingernails. Gladys winked, and Elwood managed his best smile. He tried not to hear the curdle of the soapy saliva into the drain. He focused on his fingernails. There was that cuticle problem with one of them.
"This is the best part of the day for me. Getting the teeth pearly and clean. This is the best part of the day for me."
"I'm happy for you, mother. Pat your lips now thoroughly dry. Don't forget the smallest smidge of moisture. They might chap."
"Yes. They did chap once. I remember that."
Elwood laid his mother down gently on the protective cloth. He tickled her just a small paddle of his fingers, and she sighed gratefully. He pulled back the covers and nudged down for a tight kiss on the forehead. One last look at the spotted face and the Bible beside the bed, and he stepped out.
In the upstairs bathroom was a generous supply of three-ply tissues. Elwood chose the green.He spread them neatly around the rim of the toilet and raised up. He inserted his flushed small hand into the carton of surgical gloves, removed one neatly, and slipped it on. He knelt at the toilet against the three-ply tissue and inserted a gloved index finger far back in his mouth. He depressed the tongue and vomited with some care and refinement.
It was fun to flush the tissues, the glove and vomit. The next sequence was even to some degree more good fun. Elwood brushed his teeth with deliberation and gargled with a popular mouthwash. He stepped under the shower and applied the best scented soap to the pits and the other areas.
He rinsed and stepped out into his slippers and patted dry. Across the hallway were soft pink cotton pajamas with nice snug elastic at the wrists, ankles, and waist. It was good fun to slip them on.
Under the covers it wasn't very fun.
Under the covers Elwood feared it coming—the terrible progress toward him of something unclean, untidy, disheveled, something vague and unsettling that he didn't want to name anymore. He didn't want any of it anymore, just this utterly clean luxury of the sheets and his very real dream of a little friend to help him through the rough spots, to keep him happy. But the vagueness kept coming, peering through the walls, and he didn't want it that soon, not until the little friend. Don't let the other come too soon, dear sweet Jesus, too soon too soon amen.
At Elwood Siever went down for a Dr. Pepper and sat there in utter darkness till morning.
Elwood Siever glanced about nervously and leaned over to inspect the plastic bar on the shopping cart. He removed a fresh crisp handkerchief and wiped it carefully. There was a terrible crush of brightly-clad people milling over the terrazzo. He hoped none would notice. He gripped the blue plastic and plucked the cart from the long mesh column, wincing at the abrasive clatter. Carefully, steadily, in impeccable lemon trousers, Elwood Siever threaded a precarious path through thrashing avarice toward the meat counter.
Elwood was very careful with the chicken. There among the lesser offerings was the three pound package of cut-up fryers, succulent and tempting—the slightest effusion of pale blood draining in the Styrofoam tray. You couldn't be too careful with chicken.
The bacon was a bit gray. Was it his imagination? Elwood Siever demanded a fresh bit, just a chunk for the proper tang. The big gray man grinned viciously and thrust it up with a bloody hand from beyond the window. Elwood blanched.
Elwood pushed his cart with utter care and deliberation to Produce, flashing a stunning smile at Mrs. Klurgel. Mrs. Klurgel was a friend of Gladys, Elwood's invalid mother.Mrs. Klurgel had just had her third tumor removed in April. Mrs. Klurgel was dying of cancer.Mrs. Klurgel was a whiz at flower arrangements.
"Hello there, Mrs. Klurgel. This is pleasant."
"Yes. This is wonderful. This is the big day then."
"Well I think so. I'm going to get my certificate."
"You're such a good boy. I wish my Frederick would have grown up to be such a pure and lovely boy. You're keen, Elwood. Everyone says it. All the girls say that very thing.They say Elwood's such a dear. Elwood's keen."
"Where IS Frederick now, Mrs. Klurgel?"
"Oh. They transferred him to Greystone after the lobotomy."
"Well. It's been very pleasant. I'm off for the mushrooms."
"Have a happy. You deserve it."
Elwood selected a half-pound of fresh mushrooms with little beads of steam under the cellophane. He found the onions, a pound of snug little things secure in the Styrofoam.Some wretched little boys stood over by the tomatoes and pointed and snickered. A big woman grinned with very large teeth. Elwood threaded laboriously through the clutch of them toward a twelve-pack of Dr. Pepper and at last some Great Bear Chianti.
The little hussy at checkout stared him down. She was wearing one of those awful stiff brassieres that made them stand out like aluminum cones. It was a terrible thing that they started growing when they were still quite young. Elwood placed each item carefully on the counter and watched the register. On some of them they never stopped growing.Elwood knew that this young one would try to cheat him, so he watched the register.
Elwood Siever's automobile was a 1961 dark green Mercedes, upholstered in black Leatherette. His father had bought it two months before he passed on, leaving Elwood and Gladys with a sizeable pension. Harvey Siever had been an executive with Peabody Smythe Security Systems until his untimely heart attack at 53 when choking on a large bolus of prime rib of beef at Lauberdorf's Pit in Montvale.
Elwood firmly settled in the cockpit with the coarse paper sack stolid at his side, nudged on the machine, and backed. He worked the transmission with utter care and deliberation.Edged slowly past diagonal parking onto Route 17.
Elwood Siever set the sack at the precise center of the kitchen table. He pulled out the contents carefully and wiped each item with a damp sponge. He washed his hands thoroughly in the sink and patted dry. Elwood was humming a little song about roller skates and a brand new key as he worked on the bacon.
"Elwood dear. Dear Elwood, can I come in?"
"No mother. Not at all. This will be a surprise treat."
He heard the scuttle of wheels on the hardwood and then silence.
Elwood browned the bacon and set it with some deliberation on a side dish. He dried the chicken thoroughly in a towel and browned it in the hot bacon fat. He covered the pan and set it to cook slowly. There was a small bottle of cognac in the cabinet by the sink.
"Elwood dear. Dear Elwood, you must tell me. I'm on pins and needles."
"You'll just have to wait, mother dear. This is for you."
When he ignited the cognac, it was very frightening.
He poured the wine in and added bouillon. He stirred in tomato paste, garlic, and herbs.He set the chicken to simmer.
"Elwood, what is it dear? I'm just corking."
"It's a little treat for you. Now don't excite yourself."
Elwood prepared the onions thoroughly and calmly, setting them at last to simmer. He worked on the mushrooms, removing the base of the stems. He washed them rapidly in cold water. It was very pleasant to watch them browning in the pan. They were little nuggets of delight.
Elwood drained the cooking liquid from the chicken. He blended the butter and flour and beat it in with a wire whip. He added the onions and mushrooms and at last was satisfied.Elwood cleansed all but the serving dishes and deposited the refuse in a large steel drum, which he screwed down tight. He sat at last with an ice cold Dr. Pepper.
Gladys Siever was at the end of a long mahogany table. The table was covered with white linen. It was laden with Elwood's treat, a fine serving dish with the succulent chicken in a welter of pungent colors, in the special delicate sauce into which he had put so much care and affection.
There was a steaming bowl of parsley potatoes, a generous dish of buttered green beans.The Great Bear Chianti had been emptied into fine goblets. Elwood sat with his head inclined and waited for Gladys in the blindfold to speak up in the pause after grace.
"Now Elwood. Dearest Elwood, can I take it off?"
"Yes mother. But don't let yourself become emotional."
Gladys reached veined spotted hands to the black cloth and removed it carefully over her silver permanent. Her tight lids fluttered open and aghast. A shudder of extreme shock and delight rippled up from the sagging bosom to the cords of her neck, and the pressed lips parted as if pried open with a carbon steel chisel or in fact the gust of air that propelled her exclamation.
"Oh sweet savior, it's unreal. Coq au vin."
"Yes mother. Savor each morsel."
Elwood and Gladys fell to that abundance with tight small nips, each delicacy affording to them real if qualified pleasure. Elwood was to some extent happy there in the waning light through the large windows giving onto the parking lot of the Purver-Henly Funeral Parlor, adjacent to the Siever home. Gladys, a good sort, was experiencing feelings however attenuated by the effort she was making to avoid soiling herself.
"We'll take the underpass by Simmon's Lumberyard."
"Yes. That is a pleasant drive. I want you to enjoy this evening."
"Yes. You know it will be my first diploma since grammar school."
"Yes. All our friends were rooting for you. Even that lovely Gurging girl from across the street in Marvey's duplex."
"Is her divorce final? Wasn't there a divorce?"
"Yes indeed. It was final Monday last. Alone with two boys."
"What should I wear, mother? You pick it out."
"Why your maroon trousers with the white belt and the white shoes and one of your best print shirts and the lemon jacket."
"Which lemon jacket, mother?"
"The one you bought in March. That lemon jacket."
"And which tie, mother?"
"Wear the maroon, the good one with the little tinkling bells woven into the fabric. The one you wore to church Sunday. Oh Elwood, it's simply your best tie. You've gotten such good comments. I knew it was going to be a good one when I picked it out. It was such a good buy. You look so distinguished. Oh dear."
Elwood Siever pushed Gladys carefully toward the bathroom.
When Elwood had Gladys totally into the front seat, he collapsed the wheelchair and shoved it in the trunk. It was very dark in the garage, twilight as he backed into the drive.When he turned, the street lamps flared suddenly like a string of beads.
The houses were tidy on Princess Avenue. Shrubs jutted over the clipped yards like glossy granite. The trees themselves seemed carefully rooted, stationed over the careful earth like stop signs. Elwood sighed moistly down the long street in the dark green Mercedes, patted Gladys on the knees with a dry hand.
"What do you think you will do with your certificate, Elwood?"
"Well. Well I imagine I will hang it down in the basement."
"No. I mean that's a splendid idea, but I was referring to the skill that little diploma attests to. Will you seek work?"
"Heavens no. Right now I have a little project in mind."
"Really. Oh how exciting. You're going to panel the kitchen."
"No. Not at all. I have a little project for the spare bedroom."
They passed the Simmon's Lumberyard, swimming softly in darkness.
"Over there is everything I need. Everything."
"Will it be expensive? Will it break the budget?"
"It will probably run us under $700, I imagine."
"What will it be, Elwood? You're so mysterious."
"Mother. I'd like to call it my little playroom. Yes. I like the sound of that, you know.Elwood's little playroom."
They exited 17 and drove over three little hills to the little town. The Mercedes hummed through the bright center to fork right, down relative darkness and the old brick building flaring light from two stories under even shades. Elwood wedged in tight behind a Subaru and lifted out the wheelchair. People in bright shirtsleeves and flashing prints stood about on the broad walk under the steps and smoked filter cigarettes, their voices drifting toward Elwood and Gladys like scraps of paper in the heated night. Elwood tried to ignore them up the walk and turning to draw Gladys in the wheelchair a step at a time, Elwood in the lemon jacket.
"I wish they wouldn't stare. I feel like such an insect."
"They're not refined, mother. They're not polite."
Elwood pushed her through the large glass doors and across the tile to the small auditorium. He patted her spotted hand nervously and locked the chair inside the center aisle. He walked very carefully down to the stage and entered a padded door to ascend to the tiers of padded metal chairs, recognizing here and there from the lessons a hostile coarse face. He dusted off several flecks from the cleanest available seat and settled down with his eyes averted from the others. He gathered up some of each trouser leg to free the knees from possible abrasion against the fabric and settled down further, finicky into the seat.
After much milling and confusion, the curtain drew to applause and gleaming eyes like pinholes in a shroud. Elwood, on the fourth tier, looked down to the tiny dark man who detached himself from a row of squat blond chairs to more applause and took the podium.The hair on the little man was brushed forward in slick black strands over the glossy skull.The little hand glittered with the gestures.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, friends, all you lovely people. Tonight, as we all know, is the occasion of the annual Adult Education Summer Session of the HolbrookRegionalHighSchool District. Our speaker is Dr. Clinton P. Moorgard, Jr., our beloved Superintendent of Schools. Dr. Moorgard will hand out the diplomas, a special honor for all of us.Dr. Moorgard?"
Elwood shifted to the left buttock and felt the fabric on the right ham. He shifted to the right and felt the left. Elwood knew beyond the salvation of his soul he needed a Dr. Pepper.
"Thank you. Thank you. My remarks will be brief. Just glancing down the syllabus I see such offerings as Wood Shop, Metal Enameling, Spanish, Dried Flower Arrangements, Karate, Dog Obedience Training, Five String Banjo, Defensive Driving. Ladies and gentlemen, what an offering. And what enthusiasm. What verve. Education is moving ahead. Gentlemen. Ladies. This is just the beginning."
There was an enthusiastic round of applause. Elwood Siever listened intently, trying to kill his thirst. A fat man one tier down was sweating profusely and rubbing a large pimple on the back of his neck.
"Ladies and gentlemen, what this community needs is enthusiasm. A genuine surge of well-being and wholesome excitement for the good things in life. And our little program is the shot in the arm. Look back there at those happy faces assembled to receive their diplomas. Clean good people. We've had a ball."
Elwood found himself murmuring in the din. Just one cold frosty Dr. Pepper. One tangy chill sip from the smooth pale tube. Dr. Moorgard was hollering into the microphone and jerking back feverish at their response, his eyes lolling in the precision built skull.
"Tell your friends about this program. Tell your friends about the HolbrookRegionalHigh School. Get the action going. Create jobs, hobbies, refinement. Yes, good people, launch a movement. More education for this happy community now. I repeat now. Now.Now. Let's hear it. Education now. Now."
Elwood listened mutely to the hysteria. He could just barely taste the soft drink. A Dr. Pepper was within reach.
"Carlotta Juarez. English for the Foreign Born."
Carlotta, in a crimson sheath, scalloped deep down a pitted back, waddled down from the second tier. A pitter of applause rent the calm of her progress like beef on a side car toward Moorgard, who handed her a certificate and grinned like a keyboard. Elwood squirmed on the seat, raised a white Stetson, and examined the sole.
"Jim Baker. Wood Shop."
Jim lunged down from the back tier and squared off massively in a plaid shirt rolled up at the sleeve to accommodate a pack of Camels. The applause rippled as he strode forward in the yellow work shoes. Dr. Clinton P. Moorgard, Jr. flashed the big grin and the dry lean grip. Jim Baker joined Carlotta in the wings, sidled up, and gave her a good hug to a scatter of titters like broken glass.
It went on that way for 21 minutes. Then:
"Elwood Siever. Wood Shop."
Elwood reached into his jacket for the surgical glove. Thrust it on and descended to the stage floor. He walked very carefully in the lemon jacket and the maroon bell trousers across the glossy hardwood toward the podium. Moorgard's grin was massive and impeccable. He reached out the diploma and groped for the hand. Elwood Siever's hand felt like a cluster of prophylactics drawn over unmentionables. The grin went, and Moorgard jerked back filled with repulsion. Elwood in his confusion backed off and tripped over the microphone cord and fell headlong, tangled in the cord, the sound of his body contending with the larger sound of the initial impact of the microphone and its abrasive clatter over the hardwood. The audience roared. Elwood, disentangled, bolted for stage rear and sank sobbing behind a large stack of scenery left over from the production of CITIZEN KANE that April. He wept for a very long time.
"Elwood. Elwood dear, where are you? I'm frightened."
The voice, bellowed from the rear of the auditorium, seemed to come from the end of an extremely long tunnel. Elwood raised up from his damp hands and listened. Strained to listen.
"Elwood. They want to turn the lights out. They want to close the building. Elwood, I've soiled myself."
Elwood crept out through the entanglement of props, barking his shin on a metal cabinet.He edged toward the dim light through the curtains and plunged his head into brilliance, like a species of larvae there blinking myopically in the light.
"Elwood. Oh Elwood. You poor dear. Come to mother."
The light cancelled all but the flare in the lobby, just enough with the gleam on the steps and the tile up the center aisle toward Gladys Siever, who had watched them all file out toward home. Who had watched them scorn her lovely perfect son.
"Well. You have your diploma. You have that."
"We won't talk about it. It was just too mortifying."
Outside in the lobby, a squat man in work clothes nipped one nostril with a finger and snorted into a pail of steaming water. A larger man, also squat, nudged closer and looked in the pail.
"What's holding it up, Mr. Cramer?"
"Some lady in there, crippled, waiting for her weirdo son."
Elwood Siever entered the Simmon's parking lot at . He rather liked the big aluminum sign with the red letters. He sat for a minute in the Mercedes and looked at the sign. He walked across the asphalt very carefully, skirting a large musty puddle with the white shoes.
Inside, a number of florid men sat around in the big space by the counter. Some of them were smoking cigarettes. One was picking his nose and rubbing it off on the bottom of his chair. They seemed to be having a good time. Elwood wished he could have a good time. Elwood stepped up to the counter and pulled a nearly lettered file card from his lemon jacket. The man on the other side grimaced and stabbed a look at the men who were having fun. It was suddenly very quiet.
"My name is Elwood Siever. I want some lumber and things."
"My name is Wayne Hubler. I think I can help you."
There was a small spasm of humor from the other men. Elwood shifted his weight several times and tried to control tears.
"I want 1200 square feet of half inch plywood."
"Oh dear.I don't know.I'm going to paint it."
"Unfinished then. We could sell you finished."
"No. That's perfectly nice of you, but I'll take the unfinished.'
"What size sheets then?"
"I don't really know. Big ones."
There was some more laughter from the other men. Wayne Hubler laughed, a big pink cavern that made Elwood queasy.
"Four by eight? Four by six. Four by ten? You name it, buddy."
"Is that feet?"
There was some more laughter rattling like phlegm.
"I'll take four feet by ten feet. And I'll take 600 feet of two by fours. And I'll take five pounds of four inch nails. And I'll take 1200 square feet of Fiberglas in the rolls."
"Hold on there, Elwood. Let me get it down."
"That's the Fiberglas insulation. Do you have paint?"
"We have some. That's 1200 square feet of Fiberglas?"
"Yes sir. And three gallons of Sapolini's Flat'n Satin 979 Bone white latex paint."
The group in the chairs drifted off into conversation. Elwood blew his nose a small honk and shifted his weight in the white shoes. Mr. Hubler was figuring on a brown paper bag.There was a pop machine in the corner. Elwood examined its contents. He inserted a quarter, winced at the clatter, and pulled out an ice cold Dr. Pepper. He wiped off the can and notched it, pulled a plastic bag of straws from his jacket, inserted one into the opening. Elwood felt very strong sipping the tangy special drink.
"Listen here. That's going to run you 626.36 with the tax. Anything else you might want to add on there?"
"No sir. I have a certified check here for 700 dollars."
"You got a truck out there?"
"No sir. I want everything delivered to my home in yburg. I want it in my garage."
"That'll run you another twenty and change. Let's see. 647.29."
"212 E. Princess Avenue, yburg. Elwood Siever."
When Elwood walked out, Mr. Hubler turned to the others.
"Wonder what the deuce he's building."
"Well Wayne, whatever it is Art Simmon going to be happy."
"Ever seen him before?"
"I don't know. Jim Baker over in Montvale told me about a guy like that. Said he wore them rubber gloves look like condoms to wood shop. Said it took him three weeks, learning how to pound a nail. Said he cried a lot. Hell, I don't know, Wayne."
"Well. I just get the feeling he ain't building no chapel."
At 2:45 PM Elwood Siever parked his Mercedes in the big lot. He reached into the back seat for a large plastic envelope and pried open the three snaps. A large gray raincoat billowed down in folds. Elwood found the sleeves and entered the raincoat. He inspected the windshield. There were three insect cadavers which he removed with his handkerchief.
Fussy brutal matrons fed their cars from large shopping carts. A clutch of ruffians before Mr. John's wolfed pizza wedges and smoked aggressively. A heavy man in a Gran Torino swung in by the bowling alley with five American flag stickers on the rear window. A sallow teenager exited the pharmacy with a small brown bag containing his mother's oral contraceptives and a glossy paperback containing the life stories of people with strange appetites.
Elwood threaded his way through the crush of children glutting the entrance to the Beeterbury cinema. He paid carefully and refused the change. He climbed to the balcony.In the uppermost row he sat beside a little balding man also in a raincoat. The little man was 35 and had graduated from high school at the age of 23. The little man had been called Wimpy all his youth. No one from that period knew his real name, but some guessed it to be Lester. Elwood knew his real name because the little man was his only friend.
"Hello, Lester. It's going to be splendid."
"Yes. You wore your raincoat."
"Yes. Well enjoy it because I'm not coming back."
Lester Harder burst into tears and pleaded incoherently.
"No. I'm not coming back. And I don't want you to call me anymore. And don't you ever visit my home."
"But we could do it just once. Or twice. It's been such fun."
"Lester. I'm going to change everything. It's going to change."
"You have a new friend. I just know it."
"No. Not at all. I'm just going to change. My life will be different. And it's almost too late. The other day I looked into the mirror, and I knew it was time. Lester, I'm 42."
Lester Harder had a long difficult cry. Elwood wished Lester Harder would not cry so terribly. He wished it would soon be over. It was awful that these things were so emotional. He had just known there would be a scene. Perhaps he should have called it off, but then he had wanted this last thrill.
A great cheer went up in the darkness as the light sprayed from the big box over and above. He would just watch the show and forget about Lester. Perhaps Lester Harder would calm down.
After about 21 minutes, Lester was quiet. Elwood reached in his pocket and handed him the surgical glove. Elwood felt him grope his hand through the raincoat, and then he was in paradise for about three perfect minutes.
Elwood was very careful with a fresh handkerchief.
"Elwood, please come back on Saturdays. Please, Elwood."
"Lester, shush now. We're going to watch the film."
"I'll give you things. One of my models. I'll give you a model jeep."
"Lester, I'm putting this behind me. Now hush up."
"Please come back, Elwood. You're my only friend."
"You're being a nuisance, Lester Harder. Now shush."
Lester, once Wimpy, rained his fists suddenly, violently on Elwood's impeccable face.There was a mild stir from the pitter of knuckles as children turned and snickered.Elwood thrust back the little man and stalked out majestically. There was a thin line of blood from one nostril and the eyes were puffy. Elwood dabbed and preened, entered the street. Above the Beeterbury cinema white aluminum backed the large letters proclaiming the current feature—BAMBI.Lester Harder lay broken in the uppermost aisle.
Elwood opened the locker, removed the long white robe. He inspected the locker interior, dusted a bit, and hung his lemon jacket carefully on the hook. He patted it into place.Elwood grimaced under the smooth fabric as he pulled the robe down. He held his breath until his face popped through the opening and then took it in small taut doses, aware of the dust in the corridor.
Little Billy Preston was watching him a dozen lockers down. Little Billy had his own little robe in place over Converse sneakers. He dug in one ear and inspected his fingernail. He watched Elwood, finicky with the sleeves, detecting a bit of gray on the hem where it might have rubbed. Billy Preston liked Elwood Siever, but since they had been working together had only once talked to him at length, and that was about stepping on frogs with his bare feet.
Elwood reached into the locker for the long pole with curving metal at the end, which contained the adjustable wick. He could hear the organ faintly as he joined Billy and climbed to the chancel east. There was a nice dark bench where they sat until Mr. Prissbottle, the organist, nodded, and Elwood lit the two wicks, and they headed very slowly across the carpet.
Elwood Siever was the oldest acolyte in northern New Jersey.
When they were safely back at the bench, Billy showed Elwood a very large balloon. He asked Elwood to blow it up. Elwood's mother was very far back and couldn't see him blow up the balloon for Billy Preston. She was sitting in the wheelchair, hoping she wouldn't soil herself.
The opening hymn was very unfamiliar to Elwood. He watched the choir high up beyond Mr. Prissbottle. Billy was rubbing the balloon and making little squeaking sounds that popped when he let it go.
Pastor Rimrock ascended and conducted the liturgy with a sonorous baritone that made Elwood nearly cry. He knew that his mother, Gladys, was very happy.
When the sermon started, Billy Preston showed Elwood a very small alligator cadaver that had been stuffed carefully, with a zipper in the belly. The alligator had a very red open mouth and glass eyes. Billy thrust it into Elwood's face and startled him into nearly wetting his pants. Billy giggled tightly and patted Elwood on the hand, and Elwood nearly cried.
Pastor Rimrock's sermon was very appropriate for yburg. Elwood Siever began to pay attention after at last recovering from Billy's little shocker.
"I speak above all of purity. The purity of a perfectly running machine. A lawn mower, a sedan, an electric shaver, a power tool. These are the perfections we can all appreciate.These are the source of sustenance. And our savior himself would have known the utter sanctity of our concerns. What this community, this pure and unsullied universe, needs is better purer machines, perfect and innocent devices to take the filth from our living. To give us the time to pray to our redeemer for even greater implements of progress toward a harmonious universe where the bestial passions are tamed. Consider the well trimmed lawn of your souls, parishioners. Consider that each untidy seedling must be trimmed to the utter perfection by that implement, that device you have won for yourself by your industry. Order, cleanliness and prayer."
Elwood closed his eyes very tight on the tears and wept inwardly. He felt a little pat on his hand. Billy Preston was smiling up with warm bright eyes. The little boy lifted a very large marble to within an inch of Elwood's moist nose and turned it carefully in his hand.Within the glass was trapped a very large fly. Elwood blinked rapidly and lunged back against the stucco, dislodging a large piece of abrasive cement. Billy took the marble in two fingers and popped it into his little mouth. He swished it from side to side, bulging the cheeks. Elwood fainted.
They were all around him when he awoke—the whole choir. Mr. Prissbottle was holding a small covered ampoule just over eye level, thrusting it at Elwood's nose again painfully. Billy, poking his head between Pastor Rimrock's legs, had mirth and fear and the same bulge in the cheek. They had Elwood up on the bench, and he was quite all right and said so, and then the choir was back again high over Mr. Prissbottle, and he could hear Pastor Rimrock trying to collect his train of thought above the congregation.
"Billy. You really should be careful. You know that."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Siever. I didn't mean to scare you. You're a keen guy no matter what they say."
"What do they say, Billy? Who are THEY?"
"Everybody. Just about everybody says it. I hear them."
"What do they say? Oh, this is dreadful."
"They say you're an old lady."
"Well I don't like that. That's simply not true."
"That ain't all they say. They say things very mean."
"Gracious. What do they say? What do they say, Billy?"
"Big Pete Vieders says you're a homo. But he wouldn't tell me what that is. Is that something bad, Mr. Siever?"
"Billy Preston, I'm going to tell your mother. That's a terrible thing to say. You should wash your mouth out."
"I didn't say it. Big Pete Vieders said it. I'm sorry."
"Well just be quiet. I'm going to listen to the sermon."
Pastor Rimrock had lost some of the original fire, but it ended strong. Gladys Siever was weeping at the final metaphor—a great computerized cross in the sky that would wink the Lord's Prayer 1776 times nightly in Morse Code in that final millenium when the savior himself was resurrected in the hearts of all the faithful, totally clean, and efficient congregation throughout a perfect earth. That last image of the great flashing magnesium alloy cross in the clean night and everywhere millions worshipping in air conditioned comfort was too much for her poor crippled body to bear. Gladys Siever soiled herself.
Elwood walked carefully toward Gladys at the rear of a deserted church. She smiled tautly and lifted a spotted hand to his face. He unlocked the wheels and spun her toward the foyer and Pastor Rimrock, who detached himself from a handful of very clean youngsters.
Pastor Rimrock added the right smile to his careful face. He knelt to Gladys Siever and murmured something warm and reassuring. He straightened and groped for Elwood's hand, getting a fish shake and a grimace. Elwood was very conscious of the odor of his mother's undergarments.
"Your son here gave us quite a turn. Isn't that right, Elwood? That little Preston boy up to his tricks. Right?"
"Yes. It certainly is a lovely day."
"And a lovely sermon. Right, Elwood?"
"Thank you, Mrs. Siever. I'll say a prayer for you. You're both such clean people. So immaculate. So tidy. Oh yes."
"Well mother soiled herself and we must go home."
"Oh how embarrassing. Oh Elwood. You're a devil."
"Well I always say. Candor and honesty. That's the ticket."
"Goodbye, Pastor Rimrock. And God bless you."
Outside, the concrete flashed blond on the broad steps carefully with Elwood grunting little burps of moist sound. It was so cheerful and bright down the walk to the Mercedes.Elwood stuffed his mother into the front seat and collapsed the chair. The sky was just the color of a baby's undergarment, so spotless and radiant up there high over their small concerns. In another month the gray would set in, and things would start dying. In another year the blue would return for a little while, and maybe something exciting would happen.Maybe the room, Elwood thought, but nothing was certain, just these tedious little installments leading past a number of amused pedestrians toward nothing. One soiled garment to another. There was simply no way to remain utterly utterly clean.
A surgical gloved hand reached over the workbench. It clenched an Eastman power saw.Elwood Siever ascended to the landing, entered the garage. There on the stacks of plywood were his yardstick, his steel rule, the handsaw, a precise inventory of tools, legacy of Harvey Siever, deceased.
It was very bright beyond the opening, past the green Mercedes. Sunlight glinted on the asphalt. The Gurging boys tossed a rubber football under distant leafy trees. Elwood stood as a giant in the rubber galoshes, the white overalls snugged tight with elastic at the ankles and wrists, with his surgical gloves, the broad straw hat under the white netting that enclosed his face and gathered in tight at the neck. Elwood was ready.
Elwood sawed foot studs and carried them up to the empty room. He carried up the nails and hammer and squatted in exhaustion. He flexed several times and proceeded to nail the two by fours at intervals across the north wall. He repeated this process with the other walls and the floor. He went down for the ladder and lurched up two flights. He nailed five studs to the ceiling and relaxed with a Dr. Pepper.
Downstairs in the garage, the oldest Gurging boy was playing with the tape measure, pulling out the steel band and zipping it back to snap dead in the aluminum casing.Elwood forced it from the small flushed grimy hand and stamped a galosh petulantly.The two boys giggled and scurried around the stacks of lumber.
"Elwood Siever's a fatso. Elwood Siever's a fatso."
"You just be quiet. Shush now. You get out of my garage or I'll put you in the washing machine. I'll suds you clean."
"What you making, Mr. Siever? You making something?"
"You mind your own business, you little wretch. Scoot now."
Elwood carried the big rolls of Fiberglas up and nailed them between the studs. It was so hard to do the ceiling, and after that was finished he had a good cry. He sat there, shaking on the little green chair in the overalls and the big netting over the broad hat, and wept utterly, but when he emerged in the garage, he emerged triumphant.
The Gurging boys were back under the trees with the football. Elwood stood very tall and viewed the street and trees, milk white through the netting. The little birds would soon cease chirping, would leave for their winter homes. One little bird would chirp all winter.Would chirp above in the empty room.
Elwood Siever finished the first layer of plywood and descended to prepare lunch for Gladys, who had been sitting all morning by the window examining the texture of the Purver-Henly parking lot.
"Elwood dear. You look so radiant. So happy."
"Well mother. I've been looking forward to this for a long time."
"I've often said you should have some exercise—a rigorous hobby."
"Well I've always had the photography—my little dark room and things. But I'm simply out of things to photograph. It's become simply a bore. This room is what I've always wanted, a secluded little place to entertain myself."
They were seated at the dining room table. They were very rigid. Nice clear bowls of ruddy tomato soup steamed briskly into the clear crisp air under their averted eyes.Elwood broke off a tangy bit from his grilled cheese sandwich and munched it carefully.Gladys sipped the soup from a handsome spoon. There were little croutons soaking like nuggets on the smoky surface.
Elwood sawed five studs and carried them upstairs to the empty room. He nailed them on the north wall and went down for more. He covered every surface with Fiberglas and sawed the plywood to even lengths and nailed the sheets to the studs. All that remained was the door.
He pried off the hinge bolts and carried the door down and nailed on studs and plywood to build it to the thickness of the new wall. He attached large hooks to both sides.After some adjustments, this new very heavy door fit snugly into the opening. Several two by fours drawn down into the additional steel hooks would secure it at either side. Elwood squatted in this special room and drank a Dr. Pepper.
Gladys Siever was in the living room, staring through the window at the parking lot. You could never tell who was going to be buried this year.
"Mother. I'm going to go upstairs, and I want you to listen and tell me if you hear anything. I'll be down in a minute."
"Elwood. Oh Elwood. Are you finished?"
"Not quite. I want to make this little test first."
"Elwood, I'm bored. All I've heard since early morning is that horrible pounding. I need someone to talk to."
"Well mother. We'll have a little chat after dinner. How's that?"
"Yes. Well you go up there and mother will listen."
Elwood climbed to the special room. He removed the netting and hat, slipped the bars down over the hooks, and stood trembling in the center of the room. Elwood Siever launched himself with a mighty shriek toward the wall, gaining momentum to smack like thunder with his head and sink stunned. He gathered up and pounded with his feet on the floor.He lunged toward the far wall to detonate massively and sink like butter.
He scrabbled over the floor, barking like a rabid dog. He yowled and grunted, battered his fists on the plywood. He kicked and thrashed and set up a terrible cacophony of sound like the scrabbling of a dozen drug-crazed dervishes thrashing toward oblivion. He leaped and fell fetal loud bonks with startling resonance. He bolted for the walls, braining himself repeatedly until at last he sank exhausted to the floor, wailing piteously like a small child.
Downstairs Gladys Siever was watching the sun slant low shadows over the asphalt and little shrubs and the '71 Cadillac hearse, so brilliant and promising against the big white pillars at the service entrance. A little man in a black suit was inspecting his fingernails.
"Well mother. Did you hear anything?"
"Elwood. You startled me. Why you're all winded. You're sweaty. This is upsetting."
"Did you hear anything? Please mother."
"I heard the Gurging dog bark. The big shepherd."
"But you didn't hear anything else. Not a peep."
"I heard little Michael Gurging singing one of those wretched Beatle songs. It was very faint, but I heard it."
"Nothing from upstairs then. Please mother."
"No Elwood.I heard nothing."
Elwood painted the room carefully, all but the notches for the vent and light fixture. The latter he touched up nicely with a bit of red from his father's supply.
He stood in his fluffy neat bedroom and removed the soiled garments. He deposited them in a steel drum and screwed it tight. He stood in the light of the hallway and examined himself in the full-length mirror. It was a terrible thing there dirty at the juncture of his legs, and the back part wasn't very pleasant either. In fact his whole body looked very repulsive, pitted rosy flesh in sagging undulations from the creased neck. It was a terrible thing to have a body. They were so smelly no matter what you did to them. He could smell his perspiration and the paint and the dust, and he could even smell the nails. The nails had such a dead smell between his fingers when he hammered them. He remembered the nails, and he remembered his father's coffin and his father's cadaver when they had the viewing next door and he stood there over him and cried so hard because all he had ever wanted since he could remember was to see his father's cadaver, and there he was, and it wasn't even fun.
Elwood went on in and soaked in the large hot tub.
Toward dusk, Elwood Siever entered his dark Mercedes. Elwood Siever looked very bulky and strange. He was wearing a rabbit suit. He sat behind the wheel for a very long time. He was terribly excited. He removed the big fluffy head with the pink creases in the ears, and sat there in the twilight, and tried to control his stomach. It was very quiet in the garage. He hit the button on the dash and winced at the terrible clatter of the door back up under the roof.
Out in the gray street, with silhouettes of houses so slow and quiet over the asphalt, Elwood watched the walks. He drove for about a half hour, watching the walks, as the sun eased down further toward darkness. He passed a playground and a paint shop, and there were no little people on the streets.
And then in a leafy clean lane up toward a notch of distant sky, climbing slowly, he saw someone quite small walking quite fussy to miss the cracks, and he pulled past about half a block and nosed for the curb. He lifted the rabbit head and settled it down over and tried to control his trembling. He tried to remember what he had practiced in the mirror with his heart now fluttering so tight and very hot. And the little person came on large in the rear view mirror, and he stabbed for the door, and she turned and walked fussy up a narrow walk to a dark house with pleasant muted light in the windows.
Elwood sat and cried for about twenty minutes.
It was desperately dark as he set out through the quiet tidy streets. Elwood with the headlight flare was wrenched with utter disappointment and pain. Elwood was quite lost, squinting into the dark spaces, the hedges and trees, for perhaps the smallest chance that luck hadn't deserted him. And his mind was confused in the tidy tunnels under the great dome past crisp bright windows and happy families, who had gathered in their little ones for the night.
On the corner of Park Lane and Melbrook in a strange town, Elwood pulled the Mercedes over by a small tavern. He would enter with as much dignity as he could summon and inquire directions.
Elwood knew it wouldn't be pleasant. There was one of those terrible neon beer signs in the window. He attempted to peek through a small opening in the black paint. There was a plaid shirt split over a pink hairy belly, which slid left and afforded a view of the bar.He knew the sort that frequented these places—ruffians. Probably most of them were laborers who beat their wives. Elwood entered.
The fumes were ghastly, and the voices made him tremble. Several hardy types were slushing grimy disks along a long strip of hardwood. A big man with a polka dot hat was scratching his bottom. Bleary hostile eyes were riveted on a color television suspended from an oily ceiling. A big blonde in a red satin dress was digging into her bosom to adjust a sagging mamma. It was awfully hard to breathe, just like sucking on an exhaust pipe.
"Hello. I'm Elwood Siever. I'm looking for yburg."
It was dreadful. They just wouldn't hear him in the din.
"I say. I'm Elwood Siever. Here here. Please now."
Elwood Siever stamped petulantly on the floor and hollered.
"Hello hello. I need your undivided attention. There. Now. I'm Elwood Siever, and I've been driving all night, and I feel just icky, and I want to go home. How do I get to yburg?"
Elwood was greeted with a gale of coarse laughter that dislodged a beer sign and spurred more laughter and much back slapping and quick chugs with all those feverish eyes over the rims. A little man spun his stool a horrible clatter and raised out a grimy hand to snare Elwood's shoulder and pinch like metal tongs.
"Give Brer Rabbit a drink, Fenson," a larger man said.
"I'm sorry but I need your help. This is terrible."
"Give the big weirdo a drink, and if he don't like that knock him cold."
A big doughy face swum into view, growing larger.
"Your name Siever? You sit down here with Fenson and me."
"This is very kind but I'm just icky. I feel plainly icky."
"You set your ass up there on this stool, hippy. Hear?"
Elwood climbed up to the dark mahogany and pulled his hands free of the fluffy rabbit mittens. A lot of the eyes were back up left of his shoulder at the television. Some were still staring through the fumes like lizards squatting in a greasy pool. A fat Italian-looking man came on large and grinned with large yellow teeth.
"What's your poison, Siever?"
"I would like an iced and fruity Dr. Pepper."
The Italian-looking bartender snorted one long strand of mucus, laughing, and wiped it off with the back of his hand.
"You just set up a shot and a draw, Fred, and keep them coming. Get what I mean?"
Fred, the Italian-looking bartender, grinned repulsively and winked like a Caesarean section. The little guy, known as Fenson, rattled obscenely and coughed up a big hawker and spit it on the floor. Elwood weaved queasy on the stool.
Elwood closed his eyes tight. They fluttered open to a little oily shot glass brimming with aldehydes. The beer was draining on the dark surface. He felt a big tight hand on his neck. The doughy face swam close and chortled, an ugly slash of bad teeth.
"You toss them down real quick, hear? That's it. Just throw them down."
Elwood gagged on the whiskey, spilled beer to his burning lips. The two flavors were utterly foul and plebeian. He drank down the beer rapidly with the big hand like pincerson his neck.
"Fred. Get your guinea ass over here and pour Elwood another round. Fenson, this one's on you."
The second round went down a queasy esophagus and rumbled there noxious and foul in Elwood's churning stomach. The beer signs went bright and then dim, and the sounds seemed under water.
"Elwood. This here's Oggle Fenson. Oggle's a tool and die man over in Hacker's Petro.You give old Oggle a good shake."
The little man smiled like a slit of incandescence under a slimy rock. Elwood looked back at the hardwood. There was another of those terrible little glasses and a beer like an open scab. Big Fred, who had enjoyed being called a guinea, was leaning close with frightening intensity. Elwood felt the grip again on his fleshy neck and went for the whiskey in a blur of tears.
"Elwood. Oggle and me knows the score, see. You come cruising in here in the suit, we figure you coming from a pretty hot party. Right?"
Elwood adjusted his buttocks on the stool and dabbed his eyes with the rabbit sleeve.
"You just let old Oggle and me in on the big secret. Where you been tonight?"
Elwood spun from the stool, took three steps and hit the deck. It was very quiet, uterine dark for a very long time. And then there were a lot of faces and the beer fumes and the smell of vomit, and the big man with the doughy face was asking him about the party and about some other terrible things, and he didn't really know what he was replying, but then he was out in the clean dark night, and somebody threw him in the back of a pick-up truck, and there was the motion of the bed of the truck and the starlit night swimming with the weaving silhouettes and trees and it all so very muddled as he lay there in his own vomit.
On Elwood's night out, Gladys had some of the girls over for a few fast rubbers and a bottle of cream sherry. Mrs. Klurgel was there as usual and little Doris Henning, who had to give up embroidery because of the arthritis. Bitsi Momow brought her slides from her trip to North Dakota for the capper, and everyone was very relaxed and talkative.
"One club. That's a short club, Gladys. That means if you don't have anything bid a diamond."
"Doris dear. You're just too aggressive."
Mrs. Klurgel snorted and bid a spade. Everyone passed. Mrs. Klurgel smiled wolfishly and scooped up the first trick. Bitsi Momow, the dummy, wandered over to the coffee table to have a peep at the LADIES HOME JOURNAL.
"Where's Elwood tonight, Gladys?"
"Oh he went out to see one of those Agatha Christie thrillers at the drive-in. It's not like him, I assure you."
"Gracious. That's pretty raw stuff you know."
"I know. It was just terrible. I couldn't talk him out of it. He said mother, every boy needs a night out."
"You watch him, Gladys. My Morgan Q. started that way. Before you knew it he was a drinker."
"Well Elwood doesn't drink, dear. Just a nice fruity glass of wine once in a while of a dinner."
Mrs. Klurgel made her bid. Bitsi Momow returned to the table and shuffled desperately.The cards snicked professionally over the pale green vinyl, as Doris stifled a yawn.
"How's Frederick doing now, Ruth dear?"
"Oh. Just the other day I told Elwood. They shipped him to Greystone after the lobotomy."
"And how is YOUR problem, my dear? Is there hope?"
"Well Dr. Fervor at the Polyclinic gave me probably seven months to live. It was a real bonanza, girls. I'll have ample time for the big project."
"The big project? What's that, dear?"
"I'm drying all the flowers from my garden for the last big arrangement. It will be sandwiched between twenty by twenty foot glass plates of a quarter inch thickness and housed in steel casings. My garden will be preserved forever and ever. Isn't that exciting?"
"Extraordinary. Where will dear Paxton keep it then?"
"Oh it's not for Paxton. I'm willing it to Trinity Evangelical over in CliftonLakes for the south crypt. Isn't that exciting?"
"Extraordinary. I open with a diamond."
Mrs. Klurgel went to two no trump with the Momow woman, and everybody passed, and it was swell, watching her make her bid with the overtrick.
"Bitsi dear. What's Henry doing now? I suppose he's making a fortune."
"Well not exactly. Henry is going to the Smithfield Chiropractic Institute. He matriculates in the fall."
"Really? How exciting."
"Yes. Henry grew tired of all those sordid dinner clubs. His reasoning was sound. Finish school, and gain a good sound practice, and THEN compose music. You know I knew there was a change in the making. Two months ago he sold his best candelabrum. And you know Henry. He's always been good for a back rub. Such a dear, Gladys."
"Well Henry's still young yet. He'll make out."
"Yes. Henry's only 48, and he still has his hair, and everyone trusts a man who has all his hair, and he'll go far."
"Is he still troubled? With the migraines and that awful diarrhea that plagued him so terrible?"
"No. Not at all. In fact his last headache was nearly a month back. His bowels are absolutely regular, Gladys. And firm. Just the other day he showed me."
"You know I wish Elwood wasn't so terribly secretive about such things."
"Gladys, don't carp. Elwood's a blessing. Yes indeed."
"That's right, Gladys. Elwood is simply a prince."
"Well I'll say this. He can do a whole load of laundry and have it ironed just lickety-split.And he dusts every day. Imagine that. And he's a chef. I mean that. Just the other day he cooked me a French dish with chicken and a lovely sauce, and girls, it was so scrumptious I wet myself. Succulent and delectable. And he never fusses. Never once. I'd be embarrassed for everyone just to mention some of the terrible things he simply must do to keep me tidy and fresh. Why just tonight, he did up this outfit for me special, because he knew I should look my best."
"That is a lovely jumper, Gladys. Exquisite."
"Yes. But he's never shown me a single stool."
"Don't let that bother you, Gladys. You're a lucky girl."
"Gladys. I'm just itching to see those slides."
"Well girls. We're hardly into the second rubber."
"Well I'm just corking myself. I'm so impatient."
"Well I guess we could. I suppose we could. Couldn't we, Bitsi?"
"Oh this is wonderful. I was just breathless."
Bitsi Momow gathered up and fished around in the corner for the portable screen.Everyone was fairly in palpitations, gathering up the cards and setting the table back a bit to accommodate the carrousel projector and a case of slides about the size of a two suiter.Mrs. Klurgel went in for the dip Elwood had generously prepared and a bowl of crackling chips. There were icy Frescas and 7-Ups in large steaming tumblers. A general hush descended as Bitsi trained the light against the granular screen.
"This one's a shot of the IowaState capitol in Des Moines where we stopped on the way out. This is a lovely slide, very crisp and firm. Notice the dome. It is utterly golden like the sun."
"Bitsi. This is utterly moving. I'm nearly overcome."
"Now here is a shot of a Howard Johnson's, probably in South Dakota. We took a number of these shots, and I must confess this restaurant could be in Indiana just as well.Notice the architecture, the fine texture of the orange roof.Again, this is a lovely slide, very crisp and firm."
"Oh Bitsi. That's so real it makes me faint."
"Oh what I wouldn't trade for a nice fruity shake."
"Eat your dip, dear.Savor those chips."
They were poised in the dark like ancient harpies before the prospect of a large steaming cadaver under a brilliant night with the stabs of light toward that screen pulling together their combined frustrations and needs into an ancient litany of crunching, munching, pittering ingestion. Everyone felt the purity of the moment.
"You know. I just wonder what's keeping Elwood."
Suddenly, rude and bestial shoes came scraping on the porch steps, a thunderous clamor on the door. Some boorish lout was hammering and calling out what seemed to be Elwood's name. The girls were terrified. Bitsi started, upsetting the projector a terrible clatter, stabbing light through the spokes of the wheelchair. Gladys pulsed in terror.
At that moment, a huge lumberjack of a man with a bloated face smashed through the locked door, dragging Elwood. A sinister small man slithered in after in the moonlight, and the big man hollered:
"All right ladies. I got ten hot inches for every one of ya."
Ruth Klurgel sprang to her feet with the wrath of an avenging angel. Brandishing a five inch hat pin from the recess of her ancient bosom, secreted there among her scented mammae for such terrible urgencies, she went for the big man, stabbing like the prongs of hell itself, and the big man was weaving for the door in agony with the little man startled and then terrified as Bitsi launched the second wave. Wrenching a leg from the coffee table, she swooped on the hapless Fenson like a pterodactyl, braining him a dozen good solid hits with the splintered end. And the little man was out and down those steps likesome horrible shuddering affliction, toward the pick-up, toward safety. And the light flared within on triumph and the fallen—Elwood Siever heaving unconscious in the sodden rabbit suit, a puddle of fuming vomit on the spotless rug.
Elwood sat finicky at lasagna. Gladys popped in a small succulent bit and reached to her Chianti. She just wasn't going to say anything. He knew it. And he had tried so hard to get it delicate, just right.
"Mother. Is it pleasant? Is it tangy and delectable?"
She sat there with crenellated lips and examined a spotted hand.
"Mother, I was so careful with the oregano. Just the touch."
Gladys Siever was trembling with indignation.
"Mother. I'm sorry. I wouldn't go at all, but it's THE FOUR MUSKETEERS."
Gladys Siever was sitting in a soiled undergarment. She would just let him stew. It was better to let him stew than to feel the smooth soft stretch of clean undies.
"Mother, I've been so unhappy. I want you to know that. They seduced me. They poured those terrible things down my throat. They weaseled out our address. It was utterly humiliating. Oh how, I've suffered. Forgive me."
Finally she couldn't hold it. She was beside herself in the most painful of fashions, and she had to let him know.
"A week. Just a week, and you're going back out there."
"To a film, mother. Oh dear, this is terrible."
"You have a woman. You have a scarlet woman. A hussy."
"Oh heavens. Oh this is terrible. You must believe me."
"You'll catch it. Believe ME. You'll catch one of those social diseases. You know what happened to your uncle Ned."
"Mother. It was a horrid mistake. I asked directions."
"You entered a tavern. A gin mill. You entered a veritable cesspool."
"I was lost. Mother, please believe me. I'm broken."
"And those two brutes smashing our good door, and you were in that repulsive suit and covered with your own spew. I was mortified."
Elwood stood abruptly and stamped his foot. He gathered up his supper and carried it to the sink. He stood above the water whirling down the dark rubber slit, as the disposal chewed up the pasta and sauce. He heard her shrilly:
"You must might as well take mine. Just take it."
Elwood rushed into the dining room and knelt at her lap.He groveled there in the dim light against the damp fumes from her garment.
"Stay home. Please stay home, Elwood. I'm so afraid something will happen. You could be captured by hippies."
"I'll just park in a secluded corner. I'll have some popcorn."
"Some ruffians will spoil you. You'll end up on drugs."
They clung together for a moment, moist and sobbing. Elwood stood and eased her into the chair toward the bathroom. He raised his mother to a padded bench, and slipped off a bright pair of bloomers, and washed them in the sink. He hung them in the corridor and filled a basin. Raising the knobby legs high to expose the private area, he sponged it off carefully with his eyes pressed tight.
"Elwood. Dear Elwood.I'm afraid."
"It's nothing, mother. Just a little treat for your little boy."
"I heard there was sex. I heard it was a raw picture."
"No mother. Believe me. It's as chaste as Mickey Mouse."
Elwood patted her dry with a nice fluffy towel and slipped on a fresh and lovely pair of quilted briefs. He lowered Gladys gently into the chair.
"Stay home, Elwood. Just for tonight."
"Mother. I'm determined."
The living room was so cheerful. He settled her by the window and gathered up a large crisp stack of the LADIES HOME JOURNAL. Elwood prepared a little pot of peppermint tea and a bowl of crackling chips. He returned to the living room.
"Elwood. Next door. One time they brought this man in. They had him in a big cloth sack, and the sack was dripping blood."
"Oh, that's awful. That's simply terrible."
"Mr. Purver showed me how they fixed him up. He looked absolutely handsome. I was so thrilled."
"Well Mr. Purver is a remarkable man."
"Elwood. Please stay. Stay with momsie."
Elwood leaned down and kissed the spotted forehead.
"I'm off dearest. I'm off to THE FOUR MUSKETEERS."
Upstairs he dressed in the freshly laundered rabbit suit. There were some pesky stains he simply hadn't been able to remove. But the suit was fluffy and becoming, and he looked so pert in the mirror. He tried a smile, but that came out wrong. He descended to the Mercedes.
Elwood Siever backed out into a quiet street with his body trembling. He drove into gathering dusk, trailing fumes, on carefully toward adventure. He sipped an ice cold Dr. Pepper. The houses began to flash bright windows down the street, and the sky was a purple haze over Warbuck Paints. Wires dangled in sodden arcs from the sturdy poles, that stabbed upwards as if impudent. He drove silent toward a distant town, a distant street, a quiet nook or playground, still and silent into gathering night.
Elwood, on a dark street in a dark car, watched the rear view mirror. He was trembling so terribly that the little girl came on in shudders, and he was having trouble holding his urine. And he had the bunny mask on with the splendid ears brushing the ceiling, and, when she was close enough, he flicked a little pocket light on the fuzzy face and managed:
"Excuse me, madam. But have you the direction to Norwood?"
The little one skipped up tight to the open window and grinned.
"This IS Norwood, mister. Why are you wearing that big rabbit suit for? That's pretty keen, you know. My uncle Burke used to dress up funny like that and then they sent him away."
Elwood would have had trouble reciting his own name. He managed:
"How old are you, little girl? Are you very old?"
"I'm seven. I got a brother's twelve. How old are you?"
"I'm 42. Yes, I guess I'm 42."
"You don't even know how old you are?"
"Well I do know really. You see I'm confused."
"I bet you got something in there, and you want me to have a look at it. That's what Uncle Burke used to do."
Elwood was shaking horribly and couldn't get his wind. And then he had it, and it came out like a corpse under water.
"Well I do have something. I have something here."
"What kind of car is that? Is that a Pontiac?"
"No. This is a Mercedes Benz. It's made in Germany."
"My uncle Burke had a Pontiac. I bet it's soft in there. You got some switches?"
Elwood turned away sick and leaned against the door. A car swung past slow at the corner and wound on down the street. It was so utterly quiet and desperate, like a fly trapped in a Lucite cube, in a marble, stunned and dying.
"Hey mister. You got some switches in there?"
Elwood turned and opened the door to the flare and then dark, just a flash of a plain little freckled face and plaited dark hair, scrambling over the seat. She was sitting there, very quiet under the small dome of his desperation and sickness, as he tried to still his breathing and reach for the ether.
"What's this one do?"
She turned the ignition and jumped the car about a foot, and then it was quiet again as she pawed the dash. He could smell her hair clean as a spring rain in the dark Mercedes, and he was turning the canister lid, and he had the cloth out and against her face, holding her there through a small struggle, until it was UTTERLY quiet, and he wept in the ether silence.
Elwood Siever lifted his glistening mother to the grips. He soaped her with the big soft brush. He soaped her with his lids painfully tight. He rinsed her and gripped the pits. He lowered her to the board. He drained the tub. He knelt there, patting her dry, with his heart so tight in his throat that he thought he would surely die. He lifted her to the chair. He tried terribly hard to control his hands when he touched her. He sat on the board and watched her brush her teeth so utterly slowly with the inward shudders pulsing him into tight brittle fragments, thinking of someone very small. Gladys Siever gargled harshly and turned with a bright sharp grin.
"Elwood, you were just perfect tonight. You're so calm."
"Yes, mother. That is perfectly true. And well said."
"Were there any hearses at the drive-in? You know I like hearses. Were there any hippies driving hearses? Did they accost you? Were they impudent? Was it a quiet evening?"
"Mother. There were no hearses. I saw a Subaru."
"Was it pretty, Elwood? Was it a pretty Subaru?"
"It was a lovely shade of lilac and very clean. Nearly perfect."
He wheeled her down the corridor to the bedroom. It was very dark in the corridor. It was very bright in the bedroom. He lifted her into the soft crisp linen. His hands were trembling, and he hoped terribly she wouldn't notice. She lay there spotted and homely in the nightcap. The cords in her neck were like phlegm, like worms, long soft ugly worms.He smiled like a diseased pigeon at rotten feed. She was gripping the covers like talons or petrified sausage links.
"Elwood. I was so worried. I had thought you were turning into an ugly person. I was terrified. I lay awake every night stewing horribly. I was so terribly flatulent. Perhaps you noticed."
"I noticed only your radiance. I noticed only your charm."
"But I barked at you. I wet my undies frequently on purpose."
"Mother. You were absolutely wonderful about the whole thing. It was a brief bitter episode, and it caught us unawares. The years have been so utterly wholesome and bounteous. They will not fail us if we have hope and serenity. The marriage of our hearts is preserved in reverence and sanctity."
Gladys Siever gathered Elwood down into her moist face and held him gratefully. They shuddered there in a sodden clump, until at last Elwood had her down tight, and he was in control of the terrible dark urge, and he straightened, and forced an ugly smile, and turned as she blew him a small taut kiss.
And he was free in the corridor checking his haste.
Elwood Siever nipped two frosty Dr. Peppers from the big Amana. A pack of straws and a bag of crackling chips from a knotty pine cabinet. He clutched them, trembling to the landing, and climbed to the soundproof room.
Elwood lifted the wooden bars and removed the door. He carried the chips and soft drinks to the bed. The little one lay sleeping, utterly without blemish, limp in a tidy dress, her pigtails crisp against the white coverlet. He replaced the door and secured it with the two bars. He straightened the pleated cushion on a tidy chair and inspected for small bits of lint which might have adhered to his trousers. He seated himself very carefully and looked down at the freckled little face.
It was so fuzzy and perfect.
Elwood Siever opened his Dr. Pepper, wincing at the shredding aluminum, and popped in a plastic straw. He sipped contentedly and observed the legs. They were so comely, a trace of dirt on the protruding kneecaps, a barked shin—demure and innocent. Careful in maroon smoking jacket and lemon bell trousers, finicky yet content, the florid neck crenellated under a spotless countenance, he watched her suddenly awake.
"Don't cry. It's simply not necessary to cry."
"What are you up to, mister?'
Elwood managed his most cheerful smile and held up a frosty can. She looked at it distrustfully, rubbed her eyes and sat up in the bed. Elwood felt a tremor at his cheek, short taut tugs.
"You must be simply parched. Here is an iced and fruity Dr. Pepper. I hope you find it as perfect as our little room."
"My uncle Burke Peterson used to drink Frescas with his gin, and he talked the same way, and he's in Greystone."
She reached out, and he opened the can. She sat there intent on the notched aluminum with the plastic straw. She kicked her little legs beneath the bed. Her kneecaps protruded and withdrew alternately with each flex. Elwood watched her moistly.
"I'm going to write a letter tomorrow to your mother when it comes out in the papers.I'm going to explain that you are perfectly safe. A nice man was very lonely, and he needed a friend. It will be a good time, I assure you. We will play games, and drink Dr. Peppers, and just chat. If you're a good little girl, I'll show you things, interesting and exciting things. I could show you my pictures. I bought pictures of the Grand Canyon.Maybe we could even watch television or something."
"You talk a little funny. You got a cold?"
"Well no. Well many people have told me that. You see I've not made much of a success of my life. If this doesn't work out I don't know what I'll do. I've needed someone very little who wouldn't make fun of me. I've needed a friend to chat with. I went to school nights to learn how to make the best possible little place to have a good time, a little place that was waiting for you. You see life hasn't been very kind to me. I'm a dropout too. I failed gym three times, and I won't explain why. But I have some pretty things, and maybe you'll like them. But you'll have to promise me you'll be very gentle, and not play nasty rude tricks, and be always kind and considerate."
"You sure you ain't got a cold?"
"When I was in high school, they used to take the handle grips off my bicycle, and, when I couldn't get them back on, they'd laugh and make rude jokes. One day in gym, they gave me the football, and I ran the whole way for a touchdown, and they said they let me do it, and everyone laughed and made fun of the way I carried it. But I suppose I'm boring you."
"What's that over there? What do you got over there?"
"That's a dresser."
"I know it's a dresser. I ain't stupid. What's in it?"
"The dresser is simply empty. All but one nice fluffy pair of pajamas. The pajamas are just for you."
"That's all? I bet there's other things."
"No. I assure you. But perhaps there may BE things. Even tomorrow."
"What kinds of things?"
"Anything you want. Simply anything."
"Anything I want? You're not trying to pull something."
"Well almost anything. I mean that."
"Maybe I could have a Guerilla Joe. You think so?"
"A Guerilla Joe?"
"Yeah. Like my brother Larry. What's this under here?"
"That's a bedpan. It's made of bright clean enamel. I want you to take your little potty now, and then you can put on your fresh pajamas, and then I'll tuck you in. For the night."
"You ain't going to watch me like Uncle Burke."
"Heavens no. I'll just sit here on this chair and turn my back. I'll sit over there in the corner."
Elwood slid the chair over and sat down in the smoking jacket. He heard her scraping around, and then it was silent. He sat there for a while, studying the latex paint. In fact, he was sitting there very patiently in the smoking jacket, when the little one crept up and laced him a good one with the edge of the bedpan. He grabbed his ear and howled piteously, squatting and flexing on the balls of his feet like a crippled toad. He saw the little one giggling through the veil of his tears. Elwood was broken, tortured beyond martyrdom at the injustice and pain.
"That was very unpleasant. It was simply cruel."
"I saw you, mister. You were peeking around."
Elwood regained the chair and sat sobbing. At last he was quiet. When he opened his eyes, he saw the small gap in her upper teeth and the little lips, pretty and pink. She was standing there, rubbing her nose and looking up at him as only small things ever looked up at him. She reached up and touched his ear.
"That was just in case you ever ain't nice to me."
"Elwood dear. Your ear is horribly swollen."
"Yes. It was a freak accident. I dropped a tie clip into the recess of the top drawer of my walnut dresser. I took my little penlight and thrust my head in for a look. I lost my footing and fell awfully, and my head was wedged in the drawer. The pain was immediate and excruciating. I confess I blacked out for a moment."
"Elwood. This was a terrible accident. Why you might have broken one of the vertebrae in your neck. You might have choked to death among the garments. The edge of that dresser could have thrust your larynx back into the nerves and caused incredible damage or even a painful death."
"Yes mother. I am very grateful that it was just my ear. I am very grateful to be with you this morning."
Elwood wheeled Gladys Siever into the dining room and lodged her in the chair. He entered the kitchen and returned with a large tray of succulent eggs and crackling bacon.Gladys was radiant there before her little glass of V-8. She nipped in small fruity drams, her lips a fussy wrinkle over the pale rim. Elwood served her up a generous portion and set to his own with genuine relish. Lacerated yellows oozed like abscess over the perfect plates.
"Today is grocery day, mother. How about some of those lovely Martel glazed doughnuts? Or a German chocolate cake? Or a pint of Pensapreme Frosty Delight? Can I tempt you?"
"Yes, oh terribly. And some of those lovely Meltaways."
Elwood ground some fresh pepper into the leaking eggs. It dotted the surface like iron filings. He inserted his tines and lifted a sodden bit, popped it in and worked it down past a lump in his throat.
"You refer to those lovely little mint patties. Oh they were such a treat. Yes well I might just stop off on my way out."
"Don't make a special trip, dear. You're much too generous."
"Mother. Nothing I might ever do on your behalf would ever pose the slightest inconvenience. This bountiful day beckons to thoughts of kindness, small tokens of deepest affection."
Elwood nipped off a shard of his English muffin from the tidy stack and munched contentedly. Gladys sipped at a generous mug of Sanka coffee. Her spotted hand was like a cluster of large insects at the handle. The lips over the rim pinched and fussed, withdrew to a slash of teeth clotted with marmalade.
"Then treat yourself, dear. Have a soft ice cream at Grant's. Treat yourself to a large fruity double dipper."
Elwood made it as far as the kitchen and vomited in the sink. He watched it suck down through the slit and washed his mouth out with Putrex. He went back in and dismissed his mother's concern with a ghastly smile and a brief toss of the shoulders.
"It was nothing, mother. Just a brief tug of indigestion."
"Perhaps you've caught something. Perhaps a touch of flu."
"Mother, I'm fit. I feel ready for just about anything."
"Put me by the window, dear. I've just about eaten to the brim. I'll be perfectly happy there. There's a viewing this morning."
Elwood settled Gladys Siever and returned to the dining room. He cleared the table rapidly and shoved the dishes in the washer. He cleansed his hands carefully and gargled again with Putrex. There was a small tray in the overhead cabinet. He filled it snug with a bowl of corn flakes and a nice plate of muffins, a tidy glass of V-8. He took the side door to the landing, ascended to the soundproof room.
Elwood set the tray down precisely on a green stool and removed the door. His breath was coming in shallow rapid tugs. The little one was sleeping under the white coverlet in the white room with the red notches. Elwood nearly spilled the V-8, setting the tray on the dresser. He replaced the door and sat at the foot of the bed, very primly, very erect, pausing to examine the soles of his Stetsons for any tacky nuisances which might have adhered on the way up the stairs. He cocked his head. She was stirring.
"Good morning, little one. I don't even know your name."
"My name is Janet, and you better brought me some Fruit Loops."
"Well. Well I have corn flakes here, and they're crisp and crackling, but if you don't soon consume them, they'll be limp and nasty."
"Well I want Fruit Loops from now on. I save the coupons."
"Certainly. Of course. How are you this fine morning?"
Janet didn't answer. She sat up and looked around, rubbing her nose. He set the tray on her lap and watched her moistly.
"Drink the juice, dear. It develops strong bones and healthy teeth. It keeps you regular and fit. It adds to the natural gloss of the hair and feeds nutrients to the growing process.V-8 is simply the finest juice in the whole world."
"My uncle Burke used to drink it with vodka. He gave some to my cat one time, and she threw up. But I like it all right I guess. These muffins are pretty good too, but I want grape jelly the next time. You all right, mister?'
"Oh I'm just fine. I took some aspirin, and I feel perfectly all right, except for a bit of indigestion. I slept well. I had a perfectly lovely dream. I fixed breakfast for my mother.I washed my hands several times and gargled with Putrex. The weather is perfect, and you're here, and I guess that's the most important thing I can think of just at this moment.Thank you for asking."
She ate very rapidly and handed him the tray.
"I mean what you got planned. This ain't exactly Disneyland."
"Well I'm going shopping now, and when I come back there will be nice things for both of us. Do you like Uncle Wiggily? I simply adore Uncle Wiggily."
"Uncle Wiggily's all right. I like Twister pretty good too."
"And you'd like a Guerilla Joe. I remember that."
"Where you going shopping? Can I go along?"
"Janet, if they saw us, they'd take you away from me and put me in a big building with bars on the windows and a locked door, and I'd sit around in a big room, and people would sit around and stare, and every day at six there'd be pills, and some of them would go to the bathroom in the drinking fountain."
"What kind of place is that now? Is that Greystone?"
"Yes. That's where they sent your uncle Burke."
"You ever been to Greystone, mister?"
"Well yes. Well yes. They sent me there when my father died."
"Why'd they send you there, mister?"
"Nothing very cruel or bad. I felt very horrible, and I took a lot of my mother's arthritis pills, and I got sick, and I vomited and did some other things. They said I was depressed, but I didn't feel depressed. Sad like? I felt like I was terribly lonely, and I didn't feel like anything at all."
"What's that in your jacket? It's bulging out."
"That's in case you have to go potty. Do you have to go potty?"
"Kind of. But not right now."
"Well this is like Putrex, only it's for your potty. You go potty in the bedpan, and then you spray it with this stuff, and you put the bedpan in one of these plastic bags and twist the end with one of these little wires and seal it, and it won't smell the room up terribly, and everything will be pleasant and clean."
"How do you work it then? Let me see it."
"You just press the button here on top. See, look."
Elwood slipped out the bedpan and sprayed it carefully a short burst. The room suddenly smelled of large rotten flowers.
"Let me try it once. Give it here once, mister."
"You must be very careful, Janet. Point it away from your little eyes."
"Like this, mister?"
Little Janet sprayed Elwood Siever a sudden burst of harsh disinfectant in the face. He reeled back, choking horribly, thrashing against the wall, clawing at his neck, heaving coarse spasms of gathering phlegm. He tripped over the chair and went sprawling, a clump of twitching misery, helpless as a dying insect. Little Janet hopped about, giggling small bell-clear peals of merriment over his prostrate body, and then had a go at the door. She struggled with the lower bar, and then gave that up, and walked over, and looked down at Elwood, and for a while it was very quiet.
"That was wretched. I'm very disappointed."
"You ain't said I wasn't to spray it toward you, mister."
Elwood Siever eyed the big velvet ropes dangling like sausages from the chromium poles. White tile receded like a big bleached glossy tongue. Repulsive noisy people milled at the ropes, digesting hasty breakfasts. A ferret-faced man flitted about as if addled. He was wearing a polo shirt and iridescent trousers. He seemed to hate Elwood Siever. Elwood shifted his feet and guarded his wallet. There was a sudden buzz from the loudspeakers, and a very pleasant voice announced:
"Good morning. It is , and the store is open. Welcome to Stein Brothers. We hope you have a pleasant day."
A pasty-faced man in shirtsleeves grinned with even teeth and removed the ropes. People rushed in, some in pin curls, some running. Handsome ties splayed on a counter like bladders. There were large bins of over-priced shirts. Made-up women, flashing like neon signs, leaned over stacks of cosmetics. Elwood proceeded with finicky deliberation down the swath to the candy counter stuffed with promise.
The clerk in the coarse bouffant was bloated but quite charming. She was intensely on the phone, but concealed her displeasure as Elwood cleared his throat. Down by Russell Stover a little old lady in black lace bared a thigh and winked.
"I simply can't find the Meltaways. Pardon my intrusion."
"Down to the left in the big tub. They came in Wednesday."
He stood again at the register.
"Don't tell me now, you're certainly somebody very important. Haven't I seen you on television?"
"Gracious no. I'm Elwood Siever, and I'm buying these for my mother."
"Come on now. You've been on Merv Griffin. I bet it was just last week. I know. You're a writer. All the writers come here. You're Truman Capote."
"Madam. I have never been, nor ever will be Truman Capote."
Feverish among the polyesters, the welter of cottons, Elwood pursued the right buys for his modest budget. Perhaps a blue, certainly a green, and a little pleated thing with circus bears in tiny print tripping across his retinas. Elwood selected six lovely crisp ones of various texture and hue. He found some with lace and others with bell sleeves, some formal, some toward plain. And he danced about in the tidy aisles over the orange carpet among the level hoops clustered so brightly, happy as a kitten at a Christmas tree, inviting strange and hostile looks, which he scarcely noticed.
A dozen of the little things with their undershirts, and then the pajamas, snug bands at the waist and ankles. He rushed at last to the counter, where it was suddenly sordid.
"I was just talking to Jayne McCullough this morning. It's just terrible. The Garvey girl, Janet, has simply disappeared. The police are out looking, but everybody's terrified. You know little Janet. Her parents are separated, and the mother's living with a hairdresser over on Piligrew Drive, and he beats the children simply horribly, and it's just been awful.Well the little one didn't come home last evening, and it's probably some pervert, cause the parents don't have money. He's probably doing horrible things to her right now. You know the kind. They rape, and molest, and touch the little bodies, and force them to do sick and disgusting things, and the little ones simply scream in pain, and then the pervert gets upset, you know, and he strangles her, and cuts her into little pieces and leaves her out in some parking lot in a leaf bag. It makes you sick just to think about it."
Elwood Siever managed to pay but was blind through a blue haze of shapes. He found himself trying to go down the up escalator and stumbled and barked a shin. There was nowhere to turn. He drifted with the crowd past stationery, pausing to fiddle with a calculator, a specimen of quartz. He turned. The little lady in black lace was following him with a vague look and hitching her skirt. Elwood bolted.
It was safe at the base of the shifting steel among the toasters and cutlery. Beyond was sporting goods. Some young men smirked. He moved on. There it was, a bright scatter of toys past a stack of ping pong tables and a fat lady splayed on the corner.
"Have you Uncle Wiggily? And Twister perhaps? Yes, Twister."
The thin man looked up with dead eyes. As if gathering himself in disconnected shards from a remote and painful past, he raised a sodden arm and gestured toward the far wall.The arm fell like a large link chain and slapped against the counter, jolting the register to buzz and go silent.
Elwood lifted the glossy Uncle Wiggily in the smooth impeccable carton. The Twister was there, and a large Monopoly set, and parchesi, and checkers, and he hoarded it all like a mother gathering in her children.
There was a perfectly beautiful Dolly Gorgeous in curly blond locks. There was a Guerilla Joe. There were Pick Up Sticks, a clean cylinder. He found Slinkies, and Silly Putty, and a Jack in the Box, and so many other lovely exciting things he nearly burst his heart, reeling among the shelving. At last exhausted, he squatted, sobbing like a glossy toad.
"I got a place over in Englewood Cliffs where we could have a real party. I'm pretty old, but I still got nice legs, and you know what they say now, don't you. You turn them upside down . . . ?"
Elwood cringed. She was standing there with her hip thrust out grotesquely, patting a thigh. Her face was scarlet with blusher, and her lips were painted large over the natural pink in a horrible caricature. She reached down, and chucked him under the flab of his chin, and winked like a black steel soundproof door on a very large oven.
"Madam, I find you perfectly obscene. You're torturing me. You're invading my privacy.This is just horrible."
"Don't be coy, young man. I saw you had it for the lady at candy. You were hot. I know your type, and I'm going to follow you down to where you rest on the bottom, see, and we're going to get it together."
"Madam, if you don't simply vanish, I'll thrash you."
He was half-way through check-out, when he felt the call of Nature. He had it all in a big leaf bag with the garments, and he was shifting from side to side and pressing his buttocks painfully, as the thin man with the dead eyes fumbled with the register and rang it up for the third time, finally getting it right. Elwood was in great pain. He refused the change and sprinted for the escalator, holding it in with maximum effort, fearful of soiling himself.
Elwood lurched into the men's room, wincing at the stench. A dark man was sweeping up small bits of toilet tissue, a dozen pulverized butts, and some chewing gum into a black hinged dust pan on a grimy pole. Elwood rushed for the stalls.
There were three locked doors. Two read OUT OF ORDER. A third was occupied.Elwood careened dizzily from wall to wall and ended at one of the sinks, careful of his fingers. It was utterly silent, all but a low quiet hum from the conditioning vent and some mournful obscene grunting from the occupied stall.
Suddenly there was hope. He heard one last fearful moan and a sugary sigh of frightening proportions. There was a pause of utter quiet and the click of the latch. A large coarse man lumbered out with his fly open. Elwood bolted for the stall, tugging at his belt, delirious with the promise of total surcease from the biting pincers in his lower torso.
There sitting sobbing quietly was Lester (Wimpy) Harder.
"This is UGLY. Good . . . good . . . God, Lester."
"I missed you terribly."
Trudy Burgle, one flight down, was stalking another man.
Elwood, very erect, examined the pressure of his fingers. Elwood, in impeccable lemon trousers, noticed little points of light. He heard the faint rustle of fabric and shifted his buttocks in anticipation. Elwood was very clean. His fingers were smooth and warm, and he could feel the tug of the maroon jacket across the back of his shoulders and hear the rustle. It was nearly quiet, and he could feel the elastic of his boxer shorts. Elwood Siever was queasy with anticipation. He could hear the rustle and the soft abrasion of her cotton socks on the white floor, and he could feel the cotton straps of his undershirt and the loop at the neck. And at last in the clean smell of the garments and the room, he heard her voice:
"Ain't you got a mirror, mister? Go ahead, look. It's all right."
Little Janet Garvey was standing in a glitter of cardboard and wrapping paper, in a scatter of all the lovely things he could afford for her, in the rustle and charm and splendor of all he had given her, pulled from the big leaf bag. Little Janet was standing in a shimmer of green, in pleated satin, in ruffles and lace, in bell sleeves so crisp and snug on the slender limbs, in the clean and perfect party dress he had saved for last, pulling each treasure tearfully from the orange bag. And Elwood, turning, felt his heart go warm and sweet, and he felt so faint and clasped his hands in awe. And little Janet Garvey stood there quiet, and she wasn't disappointed.
"Ain't you got a mirror, mister? It's no fun without a mirror. My mother has a big mirror all over her bedroom, and sometimes I stand there for hours, and there are thousands of me everywhere, and it makes me feel funny inside, but she don't like me in there when Mr. Folger's in the house, and these days he's mostly in there. This is a real perfect dress, mister, and I really need a mirror to see my face right on top and the way my arms look.I want to thank you, but I guess there really ain't the right way, and I hope you don't care, cause you seem like a real keen guy, that you like me to buy me this. I wish Prissy Phillips could see me just like this, maybe with some shoes.You know you should of got some shoes, but that's all right.My sneakers will do.You think we could go somewhere?You think we could go for a ride?"
Elwood sat struck, wringing his hands, and couldn't force his answer. He had not known there could be such good feelings, and that life wasn't all dirty and ugly, if you didn't use enough soap and take a lot of care. He didn't know that it would be this perfect. She was so utterly soft and gentle, like looking at the altar before he went through finding about the ugliness.
"You think we could go for a ride, mister?"
"If we go for a ride, you will jump out of the car, and you will run down the street, and someone will grab you, and you will tell them about a man who took you away, and our little visit will be over. And there will be no more nice times for us."
"All right. All right for now. You fix my dress in the back, and then we'll play Uncle Wiggily, and if that don't work maybe some Twister."
They were on the white coverlet with the bright board between. Elwood's hands had fumbled at the dress, but he had set the board down with some precision. He hoped it wouldn't be too exciting, and that he could control himself properly.
"'Nurse Jane Fuzz Wiggily says you must take a red card.'"
"That's not fair. Every time I start I get a red card."
"Janet. The red cards are so often very good. Let's just see. 'Jimmie Wibble Wobble the duck boy takes your Uncle Wiggily two hops forward.' See. It WAS nice. It was very pleasant, and it's my turn."
"Let me read it. Oh it's not fair. 'Each time you pick this card up so your bunny gets five hops you know.'"
Elwood marched his red piece forward briskly and sighed with utter contentment. It was so pleasant on the bed with her little pigtails swinging over the board and the frown of her concentration.
"See over in the corner here? See that, mister?"
"Yes, Janet. That is the Bad Pipsisewah."
"See, his mouth's open. Why's his mouth open?"
"Because he wants to eat Uncle Wiggily. You see this is a very important game.Everyone tries to get to Dr. Possum, and everyone tries very hard, but every so often these little rabbits are gobbled up, perhaps by the Skillery-Scallery Alligator or the Fox, but especially the Pipsisewah. Janet, I've played Uncle Wiggily all my life, and I know very well what a terrible thing it is to try with all your might to get to Dr. Possum."
"Well it ain't THAT important."
"But it is. It IS. And sometimes you're almost there, maybe just two steps out, and the Bad Pipsisewah opens his mouth, and you're swallowed up, and you lose horribly, and everybody laughs and makes fun of you. But there's such a joy when you win. Yes, and that's why you keep on trying. You want to win so badly, and you draw the wrong card, and it's over, or the right one, and it's total victory, and the rest of them just sit and stew.But Janet, I know the Pipsisewah, and what it can do to you."
"I don't know what you're talking about. Come on."
"No. I mean it. Little girls and boys are all afraid."
"Well who's the Pipsisewah? Someone made him up, right?"
"Janet, the Pipsisewahs have always been around."
"Come on. Look here. 'The Uncle Wiggily Game by Howard Garis.'"
"Howard Garis was a very great man because he knew."
"Come on, this is stupid. Ain't it? Whose turn is it?"
"It's yours. I remember now very clearly. It's yours."
"'Two hops for your Uncle Wiggily now. He'll take off his hat and make a bow.'"
"'Now a red card you must draw. In this game it is the law.'"
Elwood trembled reaching for the card. How he trembled.
"'It isn't my fault, but your Uncle Wiggily must jump back three hops so the buzz bug won't bite him.'"
Little Janet giggled horribly and moved Elwood's piece.
"You see that's the whole point of it. I've had a misfortune, and you laugh at it. You enjoy seeing me move behind you. And if I were to draw the Pipsisewah, you would find that funny, amusing. People like to play games, because it's fun to see people lose horribly."
"I don't know what you're talking about. You make me feel funny."
"Janet, when I was a little boy, we had the only house on the block. I suppose I was seven, and I had a kitten. My mother gave it to me, and it was soft and fluffy and gray and white, and it was utterly clean and generous and quiet and cuddly, and it was everything in my world. And then one day, they were mowing with a big machine that sliced the weeds, and I was sitting on the porch with my little friend, Peter Fenzenhagen, and we were watching them slice the weeds, and it went very loud, and the big man was brown from the sun, and you could see the sweat on his skin, and it was running through the weeds, and it happened too sudden, and it was over with Mitsi coming over the weeds, crying like the little ones do, and the tail was gone, and the bottom of the legs, and she was running on the stumps with the bottom parts dragging up to the white porch smears of her bright and red and terrible, and I was screaming stop it stop it, and Peter, little Peter Fenzenhagen, started giggling, and I had the cat and the blood on me, and I can still hear him giggling sometimes in my sleep."
"But don't.No, that's ugly."
"Janet, that's the Bad Pipsisewah."
The living room was of the color of the reading lamp over his mother's shoulder. It was muted and warm in rose shades and deep browns and golds against the shelves and the big soft chair. And Elwood sat distant in the relative darkness of the large bay window and watched her with the JOURNAL, and the lilac brocade at her neck, and the touch of lace, and the spotted hand lifting like a blur of smoke to moisten an index finger to reach for the next page in utter silence. And he loved these moments with his mother even now with the ochre warmth, and the rustle of the crisp paper over into silence, and her face so intent upon something relatively innocent and careful. And he studied his fingers against that light and thought of something pleasant there transfixed, Janet like a butterfly poised on a current forever and ever in an empty room, with the scent of her like jasmine into the permanence of every perishable thing, so quiet.
"I suppose you read the RECORD, Elwood. You had a look."
"Of course. I always give it a look. Sometimes there's nice things."
"Well I suppose you read about the little girl. Little Janet Garvey over in Norwood. You know that's not far away. I want you to stay home nights now. You can't be too careful.You just won't go out alone, and that's absolutely final."
"But mother. What would anyone want with me? Besides, it was a little girl, and it's probably something we haven't discovered. She might be off on a visit. It could be perfectly innocent and nothing to worry about."
"Well I don't want you to go out alone. Someone just might get a strange idea. There are very ugly people on the streets, and this little Janet Garvey could be in their clutches. And it could be a kidnapping. And if you were kidnapped, I just couldn't pay it up, and it would be just horrible waiting for them to find you cut in little pieces like that Getty boy with his ear gone. They might mutilate you, cut your little penis off."
"Mother. That's absolutely disgusting. How could you?"
"Well you just can't tell what's on their minds, dear. You can't."
They lapsed into silence in the muted light, rich over her silver hair, a pool on the rich brocade, on the JOURNAL, clicking past like finality toward the heavier cover, and the stack to her left. Gladys Siever absolutely adored the JOURNAL, but her most rewarding experience with that august magazine was the article on Truman Capote's paperweights, and she kept that in the top drawer of her dresser next to the Holy Scriptures for a quick read on nights when she was utterly afraid or constipated.
"Mother. What were you like when you were a little girl?"
"Elwood. Why on earth would you ask that? You absolutely know I don't discuss such things. These things should remain buried. Childhood is horribly unpleasant and often unclean, and there are many ugly thoughts not worth repeating."
"Yes. But there must be nice thoughts, mother. Nice things."
"Well yes. But they all turn out horribly."
"But you could tell me. You could tell me something. Something that starts nice. So many things start nice."
"Elwood. You're just too terribly persistent. You've always been that way. Gracious.You just overwhelm me."
"Come on, mother. A nice tubbing now, and you can tell me. You can tell me while you're soaking. A nice tubbing will loosen you up, and a little story will set you just right for bed. It's good to express yourself. Father always said that, even when he was flatulent.Remember? He used to break wind an awful clap, and then you would raise a fuss about it, and he invariably said the same thing—Gladys, it's good to express yourself."
"Yes poor dear. He COULD put things well. That's for certain."
"Well now. Upsy daisy."
Elwood settled her into the chair and wheeled her into the downstairs bathroom, careful over the carpet. He fumbled with the good clothes, fumbled terribly assisting her, until he had her slick into the warm water beyond the curtain. He could hear the gurgle and glug and the slosh as she hummed prettily, the way she had when he was a boy and had his own tubbing, with the hiss of the bath bubbles down to a faint white milky haze skimming the surface.
"Elwood. I believe I was seven, and it was time for the Gruber family reunion out on Fass's acres near Thompsontown. And it was a treat, helping my mother with the potato salad, and the big strudel it was her custom to prepare for that occasion. And I remember climbing into the big Packard with little Elmer John, my older brother, and driving off through a fine mist that broke toward sunlight over by Ickesburg, and we drove on that way, and father was singing SILVER THREADS AMONG THE GOLD, and some of those others that made your heart simply flutter. And mother was in a new bright dress of real linen, and, when we arrived, there were horse shoes, and quoits, and swimming in the big creek, with a little shanty for the girls to change. And all the Grubers were there in their best clothes, with so many good and succulent things to eat. And I remember most the bratwursts, which were so warm and juicy, roasted on the big fires they had built in the outdoor pits. And we all sang some songs, and the children played and swam, and there was a big chestnut with the swings from one branch, mind you. And we played hide and seek, and tag, and hid in the woods, and flipped dandelions, and it was such a lovely day, I thought my heart would simply burst."
Elwood reached in to lift her to the grips, the flesh so slick and creased, and the stubble of the armpits, and he had his eyes tight to even the merest glimpse of those varicose veins down the legs like little blue wriggling snakes, to the pitted blue buttocks and the darker skin between the legs, as he aimed with the brush and soaped the lower parts.
"And then, mother. And what then?"
"Well that's it. That's simply the whole story."
"But there must be more. Riding back perhaps. The evening. You said it always ended so ugly. That's a beautiful story."
"Well there was something more, dear Elwood, but it's not for innocent ears."
He settled her over the white board, and listened to the water suck and gurgle down the drain. He pulled over the nightgown and opened his eyes. He lifted her to the chair.
"But mother. What was it?"
"Well this little Janet Garvey. It puts me to mind."
Gladys Siever bent to the task of brushing her sound teeth.
"What is it, mother? I'm simply a quiver."
"Well Uncle Silas was there at the reunion, and he was one of those ugly people that might have got the Garvey girl."
"But what happened, mother? This is just terrible."
Gladys Siever's words came on gurgling with the white paste:
"Well he was holding me on his lap in front of a couple of the others, the good ones, and he took my little hand, and then he did something horrible I'm not going to ever mention to anyone."
"But mother. Please don't torture me."
"You swear over your good father's body you won't tell?"
"Not anyone. Not even Mrs. Klurgel."
"Well he took my little hand and put it on his pants to feel, and I thought it was one of those hot steaming bratwursts we'd had, the big white ones he'd put in his pants, and I got sick and screamed, and Clabor Gruber saw it, he was teller at the bank there in Thompsontown, and he and three of the others beat up old Silas, who was 73, and a pervert, and old enough to know better. And I never did know what it was in those pants, until your father conceived you in the big north bedroom where you have YOUR special room now that one night, and, when it happened, I was so SICK I thought I'd never quit throwing it up, that whole first dinner I cooked for us our first night in the new home."
Gladys Siever gargled and spit a big clot of paste into the sink. It was very hot in the room with the steam on the mirror, and that sound in the drain, and Elwood quivering with utter repulsion and nausea, until finally he gathered himself.
"Mother, that was the most touching story I've ever heard."
She turned around with the white foam clotted teeth.
"Well it's true. Every particle is true and unadorned."
"Mother, I think . . . I'M . . . going to be . . . sick."
"Yes. Well you just say a little prayer tonight for Janet Garvey."
It was near-utterly-white and quiet over Janet's head. The colors below were mobile and innocent. The hair—plaited and dark over the pale of the face and little even teeth, so white opening to the darker pink, as she giggled again at Elwood on the straight chair, fussy on the pleated cushion, and made little I don't believe you gestures with the slender hand, flutters from the wrist. The crimson of the dress with the yellow pale descending—that fabric jiggling as Elwood called to mind another face and scratched, silly Elwood making the monkey in the silence under the white ceiling and the utterly-red notches like the stump-leaks of kitten blood over a white-washed porch.
"Do the rabbit again, mister. With the big teeth."
Elwood bared his upper teeth and chewed the air.
"No, that's the beaver. Do the rabbit. The little bunny."
Elwood nibbled and twitched his nose, quivered nervously.
"Wait till I tell my friends about you. Wait'll I tell Prissy."
Elwood blanched suddenly and shifted on the cushion, inspected his fingernails as if something cryptic were written on the clear gloss. It was suddenly as totally silent as an airtight magnesium lid down over his own airtight, totally dead body.He cleared his throat and examined the ceiling.
"The little birdlings of the air are utterly clean. They bathe daily in fresh bubbling brooks.The air cleanses them as they thrash nobly through the sky. The fishes of the sea are clean. They bathe in the freshest depths to maintain their purity and cleanliness. Little kittens are clean and pure, washing constantly with their pink little tongues, so clean that even their most private parts and areas are given daily, even hourly ministrations by that same vehicle. I speak of all the little feathered creatures of the earth. I speak of all the furred creatures and those with even the lowly scales. All are utterly clean and perfect.Only the human breaks into pustules and suppurations from the vilely clogged pores of his rank and putrid anatomy. Only the human itself sits naked in its own stench. And cleanliness, which in the animal kingdom is a fact of nature, has been deigned a virtue by the human family. A virtue so often neglected. Consider the hippies themselves."
"I know what you're talking about. You want me to take a bath. I know what you're after.You make all those big words and things and talk so strange, I feel jumpy, and you just want me to take a bath. I know you pretty good, mister. You want me to take a nice long bath, cause I stink. I guess I know you pretty good, right?"
"Janet, it HAS bothered me horribly. I must confess."
"I take baths, mister. Every time my mother says so."
"Yes, but there's a problem. It's not just that simple. You see MY mother is downstairs sleeping, and we might wake her up. We would have to be utterly quiet and . . . Janet, I'm not certain I can trust you. I hope you aren't offended. After all, you did try to get out that one time, now, didn't you? I don't want to offend you. I hope you understand."
"Mister, I'm not going to do a thing. Cross my heart."
"You see they would take you away from me. But to see you fresh and crisp, shiny and scrubbed, I would take that risk. Just to see you restored to your original mint condition, so to speak, fresh as a tubbed little puppy, cute and innocent, clean and crackling."
"You hide your eyes, and I'll get ready. That's what you want, ain't it?"
"You promise me now. I MUST trust you. It's utterly everything."
"I'll get ready right now. Don't worry about a thing."
Elwood waited in the corner with a dry throat, his eyes pressed tight into waves of light, with the rustle of fabric and the pad of her feet on the painted plywood. And then he felt her little hand and cocked his head, and she was there in the quilted little morning coat, so soft and delicate, so small and innocent, so pale there trusting up toward his feverish eyes.
"See. I'm all ready. And I'll be quiet as a mouse."
Elwood had the door open, and they were in the corridor, and he could feel her little hand so soft as they eased along toward the distant bathroom door.
"Where is it, mister? Where's the bathroom?"
"It's the big white door on the end. Whisper, dear. Be utterly quiet."
"I feel so shivery. Think she might hear us?"
"Well I checked her an hour ago, and she was sound asleep."
"Well I'm going to WAKE HER UP."
She hollered that and bolted for the door with Elwood struck, clutching his heart and then pursuing, as she flashed screaming and kicking through the white and slamming the wood, and he could hear the bolt snick in a gap of her screeching, and he was full steam the length of the hall to splinter the door and pull her, thrashing, down the hall into the soundproof room to state hoarsely in his exhaustion, as he thrust her forward to her knees in exasperation.
"You are evil. You are a wretched child and a disappointment."
And he shoved the door tight, and secured it, and waited with his heart burning and his mind dancing wild blurs of light and confusion in the silent corridor for his mother's voice:
"I thought I heard voices, confusion. Is something amiss?"
"No mother," he called out. "It was a dream. You go back to sleep."
"Good night, dear. Sleep well now."
"Yes mother. Good night."
And Elwood Siever sank sobbing gratefully to his knees.
He measured the bathtub finally with the tape from the bottom drawer of his dresser and descended two flights to the basement. There among the scraps of lumber he fashioned a flat wide U of two by fours, cutting them carefully, quietly, with the handsaw. He attached two extra hoops that he had saved from the soundproof room and carried the contraption into the large section of the basement, the finished section, where he found the flat small canister with the rag. Ever softly climbing, he ascended again to the corridor and waited against the door for three-quarters of an hour. He cracked the door and peered in. Little Janet was sleeping in the white room under the white coverlet in her soft pajamas, utterly quiet and innocent.
Elwood barred the door and entered the bathroom. He fitted the wide U contraption down into the tub and ran in lukewarm water with a dose of bath fizzies of the lavender scent.He removed his jacket and tested the water with his elbow. He entered the corridor.
Elwood Siever removed the bars and pulled the door back. She was lying utterly soft and quiet. He reached into his trousers for the flat canister and opened it carefully. He removed the rag and held it ever so softly, prepared for the struggle, over the little one's face. It didn't come. He sealed the rag in the canister and breathed freely in tight spasms.He lifted Janet Garvey and carried her limp body down the corridor to the bathroom. He laid her on the floor very carefully and removed the pajamas. His eyes were partly shut, so that he could only see the outline of her body, and that indistinctly. He gathered her up, fearful of the contact, and settled her down into the tub with the arms hooked back over the flat U contraption. He sat back breathing heavily.
At last he was ready. He soaped up a small cloth and leaned in over the tub, dizzy at last with the lavender. It was so utterly quiet with the soap and cloth and her flesh there indistinct against the enamel, so white and utterly quiet with her arms hooked back, and her pigtails in the foam, and the white, and working over the face and neck, and at last the torso, and so white and so more clearly visible, as at last everything was bright and clear and so white, and the flesh slick with the soap of his ministrations. And he was soaping her at last with his hands, for that was really the only way to get her totally clean, so good to know that she was so clean and pure. And as his eyes focused to the clear sharp image, that was so much more real than he had ever in his wildest fantasies imagined, the clear sharp image of her body, he felt a warm sweet liquid feeling, so giddy with the first faint stirrings of something he had never ever truly known, and having never known, could not truly identify, the first faint queasy stirrings of desire.
Elwood Siever pulled into the garage and thumbed the dash button to lower the door. He sat breathing heavy and reached right, to a large carton in clear cellophane. Inside was a perfect treasure—a three-foot teddy for little Janet. There in relative darkness, the glass eyes glittered black and green against the pale fuzz face. He swung out with the package and stood on the concrete, feeling in his mind for her response. Everything was so unpredictable. And then, unmistakably, he heard the squeals and thunder of little boys from somewhere above, and Elwood dropped the package and rushed for the door, tearing his cuff on the bumper. Raced to burst through onto the landing and stand quiet for a moment to make it certain. Yes, the Gurging boys were upstairs in the hallway.
Elwood bolted up the short flight, trembling with the agony of fear. They had the first bar off, and little Michael Gurging was trying to open the door. Larry, the older, had pulled the stool under and was climbing for the second bar. Elwood hollered a great hoarse death rattle that startled them horribly to back off from the door as he rushed at them, flailing his fists. Little Michael scooted through his legs and stood struck at the stairs. Larry cringed, his terrible baby flab quivering toward tears, and they heard their mother shrill from below:
"Larry, Michael. You get down here this instant."
The older one walked gingerly past and rattled down the stairs. Elwood could hear them both now, thundering in the living room, and Mrs. Gurging shrilly:
"You two behave. This is disgraceful. Now go outdoors."
The door slammed, and it was silent for a minute.Then:
"Elwood dear. Judy Gurging's here for a visit. Come on downstairs and have a nice bit of German chocolate cake."
"Well yes. Well of course, mother. It would be pleasant."
Elwood trundled downward like a bag of padded sticks and entered the living room. Mrs. Judy Gurging sat bloated on the good couch, with two massive pale legs thrust primly down from pressed knees, and the face like a bag of offal under a very short permanent.She was grinning and flustered, with the fatty slit-eyes darting up and down and grazing Elwood's groin. He looked down at himself, but his zipper was snug. He settled fastidiously into a wing-backed chair and examined his Stetsons.
"We've just been discussing the Garvey tragedy. Have you examined the morning RECORD?"
"Well not yet, mother. I was going to get to that shortly."
"Well it came at 3, and I've just been on pins and needles for your return. There's a transcript of a letter that some maddened pervert wrote to poor Janet's mother. Here, let Judy read it to you. She has such a good flair for these things."
Judy Gurging arrested on the battered front section and licked her lips, just a dart of the tongue over their pitted surface, with the iridescent orange lip gloss, a small pink mucid node or suppuration.
"It says: 'My dear Mrs. Garvey: Your Janet is in safe hands, I assure you. She is having a splendid time, playing Uncle Wiggily and Twister, and just simply chatting, and trying on new crisp garments. She is in a little white room, utterly sanitary and hygienic. She is off on a small visit with a discerning gentleman, who hasn't the simplest notion of malice or ugly intentions. Yes, Mrs. Garvey, I have borrowed little Janet for a short time to give her the sort of treat every little girl deserves. Refrain from sadness. The world is at utter harmony and peace. Janet's sleeping. Yours, Lincoln Prissy. P.S. Don't try to track down the name. It came from my vivid imagination. P.P.S. Consider me a distant kindly relative. P.P.P.S. Tomorrow she will eat sunny side eggs and crackling bacon.'"
"Isn't that disgusting, Elwood? Isn't it nauseous?"
Judy Gurging looked up with utter voluptuous ardor and rephrased the question:
"Isn't that sickness? I'm shocked beyond definition."
"Yes, Elwood. When I read that I absolutely soiled myself. Don't worry. Judy here's a licensed practical nurse, and she arrived just in time to change me. And then we sat down to this chocolate cake. Here. It's absolutely scrumptious."
Gladys Siever cut a small wedge into a small white paper boat and nudged it over the coffee table. Elwood crossed to raise it and pinch off small portions, forking his little finger. All was silent, just the pitter and slosh of his ingestion.
"Isn't that the most sick and disgusting thing you've ever heard?"
"Well yes. I must confess I'm terribly ill."
"Well Judy has some definite ideas about the whole thing, but most of them aren't for innocent ears. Isn't that right, Mrs. Gurging? Yes, Judy said many things, but the most chilling thing is that these horrible perverts sometimes like to sniff around the garments in the shopping centers. I was absolutely appalled."
"Well yes. That is distressing."
The bigger one leered horribly and darted glittering looks from the fatty slits, primarily toward Elwood's lower torso there over the white satin. The tongue flicked over the orange gloss and articulated a trembling indictment:
"You see I've seen these types in my work at the PascackValley psychiatric ward. They sit around with erections, and try and get the others to fondle them, and sometimes they urinate in the water fountains. This one here's probably very refined, probably has the little one beat him with a little pink rod on his buttocks, and then he cries and tries to watch her bowel movements. And he probably has his fingers on her already, and is digging at her, and then her hymen will be broken, and she'll never get a good husband, cause she's Catholic."
"Well I don't believe he'll do that. Not from the letter."
"I know these types, Elwood. Your mother simply agreed. He'll make her sniff some of his garments, and maybe sniff some of hers that are soiled with body wastes or even other things such as discharge, and then maybe he'll make her masturbate him, and sing something very soft and innocent, while he watches her go to the bathroom. And then he'll get around to eating some of those wastes, and he'll rape her, and murder her, and tie her up in a closet with the legs spread and violets in the groin, and leave a note for the police, and the whole thing will be just too much for the sergeant in charge, and he'll break down crying, even though he might be a big brute, and the mother will commit suicide."
"Isn't it utterly terrifying? Isn't that sickness, Elwood dear?"
Elwood was sitting with a smudge of cake left on his fingers.
"Mother, I believe this isn't the whole story."
"Oh there's worse things, dear. You haven't HEARD the whole story. Mrs. Gurging left out the rough parts."
Judy Gurging gathered forward and tried to stand. She made it to her feet on the third attempt, rocking on the edge of the couch, and finally erect, and smoothing her black skirt.Her pumps had been split carefully at the shoemaker to accommodate the girth of the feet splaying over the black patent leather.
"Well I hate to rush off, but Michael's scheduled for an appointment at to check his circumcision. Enjoy the cake. Just remember our little agreement, if you will, Mrs. Siever.About tonight."
"Certainly. I'm sure there will be no problems."
Elwood accompanied Judy Gurging to the door, where she slipped out sideways, and darted a last look to his lower body, and darted the tongue, and waddled down the steps like pudding in large magnesium canisters toward the boys, who were trying to set fire to the magnolia bush. The door clicked tight, and Elwood lumbered back to Gladys Siever spotted on the chair.
"What was this agreement about, mother? Are you keeping a secret from me with that horrid woman? What do you have planned?"
"Elwood dear. You're taking Judy to the drive-in tonight."
"Hold the teddy ever so closely and smile. Smile pretty."
Elwood knelt at the chair and gripped the camera over the back. She was very crisp through the aperture in yellow crinoline with her three-foot friend. She wrinkled her nose and grinned, squinted in the light from the utterly white ceiling, giggled and stuck her tongue out just a flick, squirmed on the white coverlet. Elwood flashed off the first photograph and cranked in the next frame. He raised up for a different angle, flared her brilliant with the electric flash, as she squirmed and nuzzled the teddy. There was just too much to capture, every little twitch of her innocence, the perfect plaited hair, shiny and crisp, dangling to glossy pink bows.
"Now give teddy a nice moist kiss. Pucker nice, Janet."
She giggled utterly, little quivers of the pigtails, and nuzzled the soft warm fuzz and the black button nose. Elwood flashed off a dozen shots and reloaded. He returned to the tripod and seated the camera, focused for a shot of the upper torso, set the timer and scrambled toward the bed. Janet and Elwood sat pretty together, as the camera flashed.
"Now you put it up please. Set up the board."
"I get the doggie piece. You can have anything else."
"I'll take the horse. I'll take the little horsie."
Janet Garvey knelt at the Monopoly set and opened to the powder blue board. She pulled out the cards and divided the money into neat stacks. Elwood focused the camera and reset the timer. He scrambled to the floor and grinned back into the aperture, catching the flash in his dazzled eyes.
"That's enough pictures, mister. Let's play now nice. Okay?"
"Just one more, Janet. You sit there with the dice, and smile very pretty, and maybe giggle, and I'll get a good shot over here."
Elwood moved the chair to the corner and climbed unsteadily. He cranked in another frame, and flashed her radiant face with the teeth so bright and pretty, another with her laughing at his monkey grin. It was all utterly permanent, clean and joyful and frozen suddenly in the film forever, all her bright innocence.Elwood began sobbing, teetering on the chair, and nearly lost his balance.He settled on the floor beside her and refrained from patting her knee.The dice clacked hollow over the glossy board.
"Eight. I'm on Vermont Avenue, mister. I want to buy."
"That's $200. I suppose you can afford that."
Elwood had to pay $200 income tax. Little Janet rolled five and bought State Avenue for $140. Elwood landed in Chance.
"'GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL. DO NOTPASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200.'"
"It's simply not fair. You have two properties already."
Janet rolled a six and bought New York Avenue for $200.
"It's not fair. Now you have three."
Elwood paid his $50 and rolled a seven. He landed in Community Chest. Little Janet scrambled for the yellow card and giggled horribly at Elwood sulking, quiet in the lemon jacket.
"See. It's going to be nasty. I knew it would."
"'DOCTOR'S FEE. PAY $50.'"
Elwood Siever gathered up bulky and quivering and lay down on the bed. He had a terrible cry against the coverlet, as she rattled the dice on the board, and moved the piece, and rattled the dice again, squealing like a deviate at a sex film. He could hear her spasms like a ripple of utter contempt over his suffering.
"It's a five, mister. You're on Chance again. You want I should read the card? It's not a very pretty one."
"I'm finished. I always lose. My life is a nasty bust."
"'YOU HAVE BEEN SELECTED CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD. PAY EACH PLAYER $50.'"
Elwood gushed into utter spasms of pain and remorse against the coverlet. The world was closing in. And then he heard her quiet, and felt her hand against his shoulder, and there was hope.
"Janet. Do you care for me?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean do you really care for me? Are you my friend?"
"I'm your friend, mister. But I don't even know your name."
"I can't tell you my name. I couldn't take you back there. To your mother."
"Maybe I don't WANT to go back there. What's your name, mister?"
"You don't want to go back home?"
"Well I know but I ain't saying."
"But I have to know. It's important, Janet."
"Just stop crying, all right? And telling bad stories about the Pipsisewah and other things.I think I like you. I think I like you a lot. You're better than Mr. Folger. Mr. Folger always beats us and says ugly things. It hasn't been right since daddy left."
"Was your daddy a nice man?"
"He's all right, I guess. I don't think about it that much. I guess I don't like the way he cried all the time, and that's what you do. You're such a big baby, mister."
"Well things don't go well. I had this all planned, and it's not what I expected. So many things work out that way. You plan for them, and they go wrong, and there's not much you can do about it. You're a nice little girl, but you can be mean. You squirted me. You hit me with the bedpan. You tried to get away. You did that twice. But then sometimes you're so nice like now, and I don't know what to think. Maybe you want to go back. Is that it? You don't really like me that much. Is that right, Janet?"
"I like you, mister. I like you a lot. You're pretty strange, but you are nice to me. I like the Guerilla Joe and the other things. I like them a lot. But you cry all the time, and you act like a big pain every time something don't work right, the way you screamed at me when I made a big joke on you with the bathroom. Like I was bad or something.Something awful. Don't you know some nice stories? Everything's so sad. YOU'RE old.You should know something good to listen to."
"Well I know a few, but they're not very interesting."
"Tell me one. If it's too corny, I won't let you finish."
"Well there is a story I wrote myself when I was twelve."
"Let's have it."
Elwood rolled over and squinted toward the light. Elwood wasn't very good at stories or practically anything else. He would try to make this one good, and then maybe things would work better. Maybe they would laugh a little and be joyful. If it got too tight in the room, he knew he would simply start screaming, and he didn't want that right now, just wanted her presence near him.
"There was this kingdom called Woggleland."
"Well I'm not finished. There was this kingdom called Woggleland, where all the Woggle people lived. And all of them had big feet, because they had been kicking their dogs over a good many years. And then one summer Boggle Woggle, who was the emperor of Woggleland, kicked little Murgy Pug, who was the smallest dog in all of Woggleland, and Boggle's foot swelled up as large as a circus tent, and wouldn't go down, until Boggle Woggle passed a law that there would be no more dog kicking, and the foot went back, and all the feet went back, and everyone looked pretty normal for Woggleland and even the surrounding countries, except that the Woggle people continued to have hare lips, just that, and they erected a large bronze statue of Murgy Pug, which was placed in the town square of the capitol of Woggleland, and which was called Zeek, and everyone comes to that square in February to erect a snow statue of Boggle Woggle, which melts in the spring."
"What's a hare lip?"
"That's when you're born with a bad split in your upper lip, that won't go away."
"Why'd you put that in?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it's a pretty good story except for that part."
"Well I don't know.That's the way I wrote it."
"You sure are funny, mister."
"Don't say that."
"No, I mean it. You make me feel funny sometimes."
"I can't help that."
"Don't start crying again. You were feeling good for a while. Just don't start crying, because I don't like that much."
Janet suddenly burst into tears and leaned forward, and he felt her arms around his neck, and he didn't know what to do with his hands, so he stretched his arms up and back and held them there with her arms around him, and then it was over, and she was sitting over in the chair and looking at his camera.
"Why did you stop? Just like that? Why did you go away?"
"I did that to Uncle Burke one time and he felt me up."
Elwood, in his impeccable best, entered the street under a grimy sky toward the big yellow house and an appointment he hadn't languished to keep. He mounted the porch, in his best lemon trousers, and pressed the buzzer. There was an awful chaos within. A haggard sitter leered from beyond the storm door. He entered. Little Michael Gurging was choking a big gray tabby by the television. Larry, the elder, was eating a big slice of watermelon with a wet face and spitting the seeds on the rug. A toilet flushed, and Judy Gurging entered massively in a black sheath with much of the bust showing, a pneumatic jiggle under the layers of neck.
"You kids behave now, or I'll give you each a good kick in the private area. You listen to Janice, and take your baths, and clean up, and be in bed at , or you'll hear from me.Michael, leave that cat alone."
"Good evening, Mrs. Gurging. Shall we take my car?"
"There's some meatloaf in the refrigerator for Larry when he gets hungry, and a pound of salami, and some of those big German sausages you can warm up. Don't let him touch the leftover spaghetti. That's for tomorrow night."
"Is there anything else, Mrs. Gurging?"
"No. I guess that's it. I gave you the number of the drive-in. If things get too bad just give them a buzz, and they'll page us."
Elwood and Judy Gurging stepped out on the porch. The street was utterly deserted, except for an old Packard that had pulled in down the block.
"Shall we take my car, Mrs. Gurging? The Mercedes."
"You don't got a lot of bugs on the windshield, I guess it's all right. Last time out, there was three or four moths all mashed up at eye level, and I got a migraine, trying to figure out who was wearing the jock strap."
Elwood twitched and went very queasy across the asphalt. They ascended to enter the garage, and he held the door for her, and climbed in and hit the dash button. Mrs. Gurging lit up a Virginia Slim and crossed her legs, baring a lot of thigh below the sheath, and they were backing out into gathering dusk, and probably into utter night, something terribly ghastly and insidious. Elwood adjusted his buttocks on the seat, as they entered Princess Avenue.
"Take the fork left to 17 and head north."
"Well yes. Well I thought we might be headed for the Barkley on Ridge Road. There's a rerun of THE SOUND OF MUSIC. It's a little raw in spots, but we can close our eyes."
"You take the fork left. I got better things in mind."
When they nosed into the grade and killed the light, Elwood was prepared for the worst.He cranked down the window and hooked the speaker box inside. There were other cars pulling down the lanes and stabbing the gravel, like iridescent jackals toward carrion. The big steel sign had prepared him for an utterly trying experience—LAST TANGO of sorts in Paris. He sat there fidgeting, while the music rasped, and thought of Dr. Peppers on a terrace with Janet over an emerald sea. And at last it was dark, and he closed his eyes and waited for the feature.
"You're going to like this one, Elwood. From what I hear, there's a juicy shot of Brando shoving it in from the rear."
A dark Packard nosed into a vacant space some yards over. Elwood opened his eyes a slit. There were people walking over a bridge. One of them was Marlon Brando. Another was a rather wanton hussy. Elwood knew there was something terrible afoot.
"The girl in the outfit is Maria Schneider. It takes a while now till they get to it, but they say it's worth the wait."
Elwood heard an empty clatter on the gravel and turned up the volume.
"Mrs. Gurging. I think I just might be ill. I'm not used to excitement. Perhaps a trip to Carvel for a nice shake. I'm sure there wouldn't be much of a crowd."
"Just hold on there, Elwood. Here's where she has a look at the apartment. I don't want a shake. Here. You won't believe this. Trendy Minkenheimer told me to watch for it, cause they talk a lot, and you might get bored and miss the action. God, what a hunk of man.See. He's going to be waiting for her."
Another empty clattered on the gravel. Elwood was shifting on the seat, trying to contain himself. Over in the Packard, a swarthy hulk of a man leaned back in and notched a 12 ounce can. Elwood, twitching desperately, noticed at last the car and the ugly man grinning behind smudged glass. When he looked back at the screen, there were two people in a fairly repulsive room, eyeing each other and saying things he didn't bother to translate with the help of the subtitles.
"All right. Get ready. He's going to lay some pipe."
Elwood sank down in the seat, as far left as he could press, and trembled. He closed his eyes tight and knotted his breath. Suddenly, there was a lot of honking, and some squeals, and Judy Gurging's elbow in his ribs, and he lurched forward to ghastly obscenity, Brando in the overcoat with the woman splayed, pumping motions so utterly foul and perverse as to wither a Marquis de Sade.
"Oh God. Oh Marlon. Oh Jesus, Marlon."
Elwood Siever was in the cold pincers of utter agony, as Judy Gurging thrashed on the seat beside him, squirming the big white thighs like sides of beef, the rasp of rayon and the tug of skin a horrible cacophony against the muted horns and the beer cans rattling on the gravel. Elwood lurched sideways to train his eyes on some remote innocence, and the Packard opened, and the swarthy hulk stepped out, and bared his genitals like a big hang of manicotti, and stood there, slugging down a beer and urinating on the gravel.
Judy Gurging pulled Elwood's head down tight toward her sulfurous mouth and murmured anxiously:
"Elwood. That's Grunt Gurging, my former husband."
Elwood Siever kicked on the engine and went shrieking out of there with the gravel spraying like bats from the apocalypse. Swerving, snaking through the maelstrom, with the speaker ripped loose from the pole, and trailing wire, and somebody screaming, and Mrs. Gurging in a big sweaty heap and twitching, laughing HAH HAAH HAAAH into his maddened injured senses, and he heard the exhaust go, and the metal trailing sparks onto 17, gunning toward traffic, on and on madly, feverishly pushing the Mercedes for another mile or so, till he finally pulled over, shrieked to the side, and he was pounding down asphalt and neon, sobbing, gathering inward at last to a small puddle, to wish it all away, away forever.
Elwood lay in uterine silence for an utterly long time. He lay fetal on the asphalt, clutching his knees with the hiss of cars coming on ever slowly, the flash of neon ever slowly, and at last a swath of rayon coming finally sharp into bloated legs under a black sheath skirt. The knees were frayed and pitted with dark abrasions. There was a smoky blur at the hem. There were abrasions on the patent leather shoes. And the bloated legs inclined and widened horribly with the descending black, and he was suddenly staring into a great cleavage of bloated dimpled flesh, back toward something else, something sharp and fringed with wiry hair, so that he thought suddenly, awfully, he might be absorbed by that void, so deep and viscous, reaching back from where he had first come.
"I didn't mean for him to scare you like that, mister."
"Just go away. Leave me in peace. It's so quiet down here. You go call a cab or something, but leave me in peace."
"I wired up the exhaust with a coat hanger out of the back seat, mister, and we can both go home. You can drive me home."
"I want to die. I want to die. Maybe I'll die."
"Well Grunt's gone, and I'm going back. I'll stop over in Petro's pizza and call a cab.But I don't like you laying down there like that. Why don't we just drive home, and maybe next time we'll go see SOUND OF MUSIC?"
"Just leave me alone. Just let me die."
"As you wish, mister, but you ain't going to die. Not for a very long time."
Elwood sat up on the coverlet like a big pink rubber doll, watching his fingers. It was so utterly quiet in the white room. Janet, at his feet, poked a finger through the notch by her big toe and scratched at the plywood floor. She raised the finger to the light and turned slowly on her bottom, like a figurine on a music box, and her laughter tinkled. Elwood shifted and looked down at the plaited hair. His sigh was the dead innocence of snow shifting in an April thaw, somewhere very cold and white.
"Remember what you said about the Pipsisewah?"
"Yes. I remember that."
"Well I was thinking about that. And I was trying to decide the one you was. I wouldn't ask my mother. She'd say the Bad Pipsisewah. And I guess a lot of people would. But I think you're Uncle Wiggily."
"Why is that, Janet?"
"Well you're soft like Uncle Wiggily. Your neck is soft. Your hands are soft. They're pink and very soft like rabbit hands. And you're soft inside. I can make you cry just like that. Everything hurts you. You try so hard to be nice, and I think you are nice. And soft."
"I don't know whether I like that."
"Well it's true. And there's another thing. You picked me up in a rabbit suit, and you were the biggest rabbit I ever seen. Well almost. I saw one in a parade at the shopping center, and he was big as a house. And then you're always getting all nervous, like a rabbit nosing around over some turnips or other things. And I guess that's it."
"Janet? Have you ever been to Stein's?"
"I don't know. Is that the one at the shopping center?"
"Yes. You know every Christmas, there's a big pink and white booth at the shopping center, at Stein's where I bought you your clothes and things. And on the top was a pink little girl manikin turning to tinkling chimes. And sometimes, looking up, I thought that the little girl manikin was turning there just for me. And that all those lovely figurines there, turning on the glass case, were just for me, the innocent porcelain children. And then I found you, Janet, and I know that maybe somehow it was true. Because maybe you're just for me."
"Well that's pretty deep. You'd have to be my teacher, and my father, and my mother.And you'd have to be little Prissy Phillips down the block, and I don't think she'd like that."
"But I could try, Janet. You could stay here forever just for me. And I would be just for you forever, and we would be the best of friends, and I could show you how to cook and do other things, and we could play house and invite friends over even, if there were friends, and you wouldn't be lonely. You wouldn't ever be lonely."
"That's still pretty deep. Would you be my brother?"
"I could be your brother."
"Could you be my priest? Could you be my priest ever?"
"I've been an acolyte. I could be a priest."
"Well if you could be a priest you could be anything, just about. About anything, but one thing, and I ain't saying it."
"Yeah. That's one thing you could never be, even though you lived to be 128 and didn't change."
"But I am your boyfriend. I'm your friend."
Little Janet Garvey squirmed and hooked her finger against the light, until it looked very small and soft. And then she lowered her hand to her lap, and scratched herself, and tugged at her undergarment. Elwood stared fascinated at her fingers tugging like little worms.
"That's not the way I meant it. Cause then you'd be like Uncle Burke, and then they'd really put you away."
They sat there very quiet listening to the silence. Elwood went over to the dresser, and tidied up the drawers, and went back, and sat on the bed, and no one said anything.Elwood felt something in the room, like staring into a fireplace or a Christmas tree. He reached down tentatively, and grasped a pigtail and let it run through his fingers like water, and she looked up, and smiled like water, and it was so clean. And suddenly, he was crying again, and he hated that, because he knew she hated it, and she started to fidget, and turned away, and what he felt was gone.
"What do you do, mister? What do you do when you ain't here?"
"I buy things. I take care of my mother. I go places. Last night I went to a drive-in. I didn't enjoy it much."
"I mean what do you do? Do you work or something?"
"No. I live off my mother's pension."
"That ain't right. You have to work, you know."
"Well not really. You see I am really very busy. I clean the house. I wash the dishes. I cook and make the beds. I change my mother when she wets herself. I do the ironing, and the laundry, and the shopping. These are important things, Janet. You must know that."
"Well I think you ought to get a job."
"For heaven's sake, why?"
"I don't know. Maybe you'd work construction, and come home dirty, and I would like that. And you could tell me stories about all the weird guys at work, and you could take a nap and put your feet up. And it would be fun, you see."
"Well I couldn't do construction. It's very hard."
"Well what could you do?"
"I could be a photographer, I suppose. But the children would tease me. I could start a little pastry shop, but ugly people would come in and finger the doughnuts."
"You could put them back in a case out of reach."
"Well perhaps. I don't know, Janet. You see I'm very happy just staying here at home for our little visits."
"You don't seem happy. You seem like you're very sad. You cry horribly and make terrible sounds when things aren't going right. You know, when you cry, it sounds like something pretty terrible. It sounds like you're burning up, like somebody set a match to you, and it makes me cry inside to hear it, and that's a bad thing, you see, and, maybe if you got out and took a job, you'd get tough and mean, cause I hate to say this, but you're kind of a sissy."
Elwood's lip trembled. He stammered getting it out under the tears that were coming again despite himself so ghastly.
"But that's what you like about me, Janet. You said I was Uncle Wiggily. You said I was soft, and I didn't like that, but the way you said it was nice, and I liked that. And that's the way I am. I'm not a toughy, Janet. I need little friends to be nice to me. Please be nice to me. You were being so nice to me."
Janet sprang up and stamped her bare foot, horribly, on the plywood.
"I am nice. I am being nice. I'm nice and nice all the time, and it makes me want to kick you, cause you're just a big sissy, and you can't take a joke, and all you want is a big Dolly Gorgeous that's pretty all the time. You're a big son of a bitch. That's what you are.You're a big son of a bitch, and a sissy, and you make me want to kick you, and that's what I'm going to do. Quit it quit it quit it. I'm mad, and I want you to stop being such a big cry baby."
Elwood bolted for the door in the first lull, and shoved it back in tight, and pressed his ear to the wood. There was the faintest sound of her screaming again, beating, and screaming, and kicking at all their lovely things, and it was so unbearable with his ear to the wood at her clawing and thrashing at last on the floor. And HE sank to the floor into sobbing dry spasms, and he lay there coiled for a very long time in the immaculate corridor leading down from his last friend on earth, his little Janet Garvey, down, down to his mother, sound asleep in her own urine. And leading ever to his mother asleep in her urine, and asleep and in her urine, totally and inescapably forever and ever amen amen amen.
Elwood found her perfectly asleep under the white coverlet. Her little fingers were curled over the edge, and her feet poked toward the base. She was very asleep, very quiet, with the freckles like petals on fresh snow. He edged close and took the chair to look down at the little pressed lids, and just the trace of a crease there on her utterly smooth forehead.A strand of the dark hair curled down from the part. Her lashes were long and straight.He pulled out the canister, and removed the lid, and gathered her into the cloth with the room going very bright, and there was not a sound, not even the slightest hint of a struggle, just the paler look of her face in narcotized sleep.
Elwood Siever removed the covers and observed her fragility in the pajamas. Some day she would be very old and ugly, and she would die. She would die in an empty room, with senile warts, and spots on her skin, and rheumatoid arthritis, and perhaps she would sag, yes surely sag, and hang in folds, and surely die. Elwood Siever removed the little top and the bottom, and she lay there pale and smooth against the white. She would die someday, fall back from her knitting with her face torn with agony of fear, and die, clutching her heart, that suddenly went tight like fire.
He gathered her into his arms and carried her to the bathroom. There was pale white foam over the lukewarm water and the bubbles hissing down slowly. He slipped her down into it, the white creeping up the column of pale flesh toward her tiny flat chest, with the arms hooked back on the apparatus. Her little head draped forward toward a gentle crease, where the water reached, and the slick moisture was left from the lapping swells, as the water shifted back down toward an even plane. In the white glossy tile, Janet lay slumped under Elwood Siever sectioned by the panes. Elwood reached for the scented soap.
"You are utterly beautiful, Janet Garvey. You are the wind through the trees beyond my window. You are hope in a tree of lollipops at the end of a candy counter. You are clean and white. You are water. You are a kitten at the base of a Christmas tree with a little pink bow, mewing at some tinsel. You are clean and perfect. When I was a little boy, I went into a room and sat on the bed, and I lifted my knees and saw myself, and I knew I was ugly. But you aren't ugly. When I was older, I found that it became stiff, and the things that draped beneath were somehow connected, and that, if you rubbed the stiff thing, the liquid from the draping heavy things would come out through the end. And I knew I was ugly. But you aren't ugly. And I know that as I know my hands, which are always clean. You are the light on a steel roof in autumn, when the dogs bark at a distance, and the breath comes white. When you walk the furrows on the stiffened ground, and there is no scent but the evergreen and the leaves dying gold and lilac. You are clean. One day I rubbed the stiffness, and I became very sick with feeling, and the white liquid came, and it was ugly. I was ugly. And for years I rubbed it so often, and it came the same way, and I thought about it. The world wasn't clean anymore, because I had to rub it, and it wasn't clean. But you're clean, Janet. And you're perfect."
Elwood Siever rubbed lavender slick onto the nap of the washcloth in the brilliant antiseptic white of the bathroom, over the white foam hissing, and the pale blond flesh, the plaited hair parted at a white cleft, where the pores themselves were perfect and clean. He soaped the cloth and lifted the head ever carefully and cleansed the face of the slightest trace of effluvia which might have been secreted there since the last occasion over the foamy water. He washed the neck, the soft firm shaft over the gentle splay of the shoulders, with the hollows at the shoulder blades. He ran the cloth ever gently over the column and squeezed carefully for the feel of the cleansing, knowing the purity of those murmuring little cells beneath, the gentle tick of the blood that fed her.
"There are many ugly people, and they want you, Janet. They will want you all their lives.They will wish to speak with you. They will wish to touch you and penetrate with you, and these people will always be there waiting. They will have large dirty genitals that are fierce and hard, and they will wish to give you them as if they are a gift or a blessing.And perhaps they will touch you so brutally, you will cry in pain. And you will think dirty thoughts of them, and you will lose your innocence. And you will be a slave to the dirty thoughts and the stiffness and the other white, the only ugly white, the white from their genitals. It smells terribly, Janet, and it stiffens when it dries, and you can never get it out.And they will sit in dark rooms with your photograph or your memory, and they will rub the stiffness, and the white will come, the other white, and it will dry on blankets or seats, or even the photograph, and stiffen. And you will become their slave, Janet, and the slave of the other white, and no one will cleanse you. And someday you will conceive with the wet white, and a baby will grow and rend you. And the baby will grow, and become stiff and ugly, and desire you, and everything will be old and ugly, and everything will die, surely die, and rot, and become dirty in the steel coffin, and you will never be clean."
Elwood reached for the drain and let the water sink slowly with the foam, a crease of it inching down over the pale white ribcage, at last to the belly, until the swell of the thighs emerged glistening, and he could hear the suck of the water gurgling at the base of the tub.She draped there with the foam and the glistening swells of the thighs, and the cleft there between them, and the shards of white hissing in toward the skin, and Elwood soaped the cloth, and leaned tight against the tub, and cleansed her torso, down ever down to the thighs. And from the feet to the thighs. And from the arms, to the shoulders and torso, and ever to the thighs, and ever at last to the cleft, which he touched only through the nubs of the cloth, only tentatively touched, until at last he took his hand away and muttered, took his hand to his face to feel the slick of the soap and skin and muttered:
"I won't let you die, Janet. I will find a way. I will keep you clean. You will be water forever, and the white of soap, and never ever die. You will be the surgeon's steel in an autoclave, ever perfect and smooth and unyielding, and, if you ever conceive, it will be absolutely pure. You could conceive, and you could. You could be clean. I'll pray for that.I'll find a way. Perhaps we could watch television, and it might be a commercial, even for Putrex, and the seed would enter you as if from the rays of the screen, in a dark room with just the rays. And I would be your midwife, and the son would be strong and never die.And nothing would ever die ever again, and nothing would ever rot and die, and it would be perfect. There must be a way, Janet. I'll pray for it. Nothing will ever touch you. You will lie in the great white room forever under clean white sheets, and if your belly blossoms, it could be the white petals, and there will be no blood. There will never be blood and death. Nothing will sap you."
Elwood Siever, kneeling at the tub, opened his trousers and pressed up tight against the slick white enamel. He reached his hand into the foam, and gripped Janet Garvey's calf, and squeezed terribly hard, and removed the hand, and pressed it to his mouth. He reached in again, and gripped the calf, and returned the hand to his mouth, tasting the slick and skin. He reached again, and gripped the calf, and flattened his hand against it, and felt the warmth and the texture, and returned the hand to his mouth, and pressed against the slick white tub with his open trousers, and reached again to the calf, and pressed, and reached and pressed, and reached and pressed, until, at last in his utter agony, he shoved the fingers far back into his mouth and wriggled them, and at last it was over, and he was doubled fetal on the tile and sobbing, and he wanted ever so much to die, ever so much horribly, and he hoped it would be soon over.
Gladys Siever looked up from her knitting and smiled like a smear on a peach, or a trail of urine on fresh snow. Her smile was full of teeth, and the teeth were good, but the smile wasn't good. It was full of decay under the rayon shade, and the hands paused, spotted, to twitch a bit aimlessly as she cleared her throat. Elwood gave her his best smile, as if hanging on that silence between one utterance and another. She thought better of it apparently and went back to silence, just the clack of needles fussing at the wool that hung in skeins like entrails.
"Could I move you closer to the light, mother?"
"Elwood. I'm practically against it, and I can see utterly clearly."
"Are you comfy? Are you quite comfortable?"
"Yes. Emphatically. I feel very peaceful, Elwood, and I feel warm inside, because we're here together, and it's a quiet evening and you've been just perfect all day. What time is it, dear?"
"Well let's see. It's . Now it's ."
"Well it's going to be soon time for me to pop off. I'll just lie a bit after my tubbing and read something from MATTHEW. I just adore MATTHEW."
"Yes, mother. You always were fond of MATTHEW."
"And LUKE and JOHN. Yes indeed. Elwood, you know you haven't mentioned a word about your night out with Judy Gurging. You've been so silent, so secretive."
"Mother, you really shouldn't pry."
"I thought perhaps you could leave me off tomorrow night at the Klurgel's, and perhaps you could have another little date with Judy Gurging and then pick me up after our usual three rubbers. I could call you."
"Well, mother. I really think I'll spend that evening alone, perhaps with a good book. I might just spend some time reading, maybe in the Grimm anthology, or something Gothic."
"Well suit yourself, dear. But you know you're no spring chicken. You're getting on, you know. I won't be here forever. You'll be wanting to settle down, raise a family, and Mrs. Gurging has a good income now since her father passed on."
"You mean her father is dead?"
"Yes. He's quite dead, I assure you."
"How did he die then, mother?"
"Well it's a very sad story. You know he had his business, one of those Colonel Sanders chicken places. In fact I think they had about three of them down in the Trenton area, and one day his wife bought a can of Gribbet hair spray, and tried it out, and didn't like it, and so she threw it in the receptacle. And then after a while she thought better of it, because she came around to thinking that when the trash men threw it in the incinerators they use it would explode, and someone would be hurt. And so she sprayed it down the toilet. Mr. Prieder came home, Judy's father, about after a hard day's work, and went directly into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet. And he was smoking a cigarette, and he thought I suppose he'd snuff it, and so he lifted up just a bit, and dropped it in, and the whole toilet bowl went off, and scorched his bottom and his other parts horribly, and he lunged forward, and brained himself on the bathtub, and never regained consciousness."
"Mother, you fabricated that whole thing."
"No, I assure you. It's the unadorned truth. It was a very tragic matter, Elwood."
"Well I hope she sued. Mrs. Prieder sued, didn't she?"
"Why yes. That's the interesting thing. They settled out of court for $35,000, and Judy netted a tidy sum together with her share of the Colonel Sanders interests."
"Well set your mind at ease, mother. When the right girl comes along, your Elwood will be an ardent suitor."
"But Elwood. That's not like you."
"I think I'm trying to say that Judy Gurging is simply not my cup of tea. I must admit she's a handsome little thing, but perhaps just not the right sort. I'll admit this. She has a marvelous sense of humor, and her politics are right, and she's quite sensitive, and cultivated, and simply first rate. But not my cup of tea, mother, that's for certain."
"Well Elwood, what more could you want? You're not exactly Omar Sharif, dear. And you're not Michael Baker, Jr. and you're not George Wallace. What do you have in mind?"
"Mother, I want someone just like you. I mean that."
"Mother, don't make light of it. Please, mother. Gracious, there's someone at the door.Mother, stop laughing."
Elwood left his mother under the lamp, doubled up in her own urine, and threaded his way to the front door. He flicked on the porch light, and opened the door a crack, and peered out. Lester (Wimpy) Harder was standing there in a rumpled raincoat with one button open below the waist.
"HAH HAAH HAAAH HAAAAH HAAAAAH."
"Lester Harder, how could you dare? What are you doing here? Are you intoxicated?You look horrible."
Elwood stepped out onto the porch and closed the door, muting the horrible wheezing clamor. Lester Harder was standing there, trembling in the raincoat, whimpering terribly, incoherent. He looked as if he had been dragged fifty yards by a tractor trailer down gravel and soaked for ten hours in petroleum ether. His eyes were little moist orbs of utter agony and grief, shining pink globules of fawning adoration, nuggets glowing there feverishly like a zealot before a shrine.
"I had to come, Elwood. I couldn't stay away. I tried. It was too horrible. Please forgive me. Take me back. Just one more time, Elwood. Just one more time with the rubber glove."
"Lester, you're repulsive. You're no more than a clump of worms. You're a maggot.You disgust me. You go back out there and hide in your slimy little hole and forget about me."
"Please. Elwood. Couldn't we just be friends?"
"You sir, are scum. Good night."
Elwood stepped back inside and bolted the door, fastened the security chain. Gladys, his invalid mother, was practically comatose from her last emphysematous spasm of laughter. She lay draped on the chair, clutching her heart and gurgling, a trail of phlegm down over her bosom. Elwood crossed the carpet, and took her wrist, felt that the pulse was still strong, prepared to wheel her in for the tubbing. A terrible rattle and pounding erupted at the locked front door, whining and thrashing muted through the wood. Gladys Siever bolted upright, twitching, her eyes protruding in terror. Elwood stamped his foot and lunged back to the chain and bolt and thrust open to Lester Harder struggling and clawing, thrashing past his arms.
"Save me. Have mercy. Save me, Elwood.Please. Hold me, save me. Take me back.Oh, I'm burning."
"Begone, you repulsive reptile. Don't touch me."
"You can't do this to me. You're horrible. You're cruel and a meanie. You're a big blob of shit, and I hate you. I'll fix you. I'll do it right now. Take that and that and that. Oh my."
Lester (Wimpy) Harder rained limp blows onto Elwood's impeccable face through the blur of his weeping. Elwood backed off, and protected himself from the thrashing, until he could no longer contain his repulsion and anger. He gripped Wimpy Harder at the waist for a terrible mighty bear hug, and lost his balance, and they both went over, scuttling and crashing down the porch steps into the yard, clawing and screaming with fury, over into the magnolia bush till they were broken in a clump, entangled in the wasted shrubbery.They lay there through the hoarse pleading from the open door and Gladys in the chair peering out at the darkness. And then it was very quiet, and a car started in the street, and an old Packard pulled out from the Gurging's and headed down the block.
Elwood on the pleated cushion itched at several Band-Aids on his face and fluttered his fingers careful of tacky nuisances. Janet Garvey slipped on a new pair of patent leather pumps over the white ribbed stockings and stamped her feet on the plywood. She was wearing the best party dress, with her hair free of the pigtails, long and dark, wavy down to her shoulders. She smiled prettily and reached to the dresser for her cold Dr. Pepper and sipped from the plastic straw. Elwood clapped his hands and stood, hooked his arms back, clawing for the light so warm and blond over the litter below. He lifted at last the bars and turned with the second two by four prodded like a cane against the floor. The burp at the base of the soft drink came like a clearing throat.
"You'll have to be quiet, Janet. No one's at home, but the neighbors were very upset about last night, and if there are any more disturbances we'll be under police surveillance."
"What happened last night?"
"It's not for your ears, Janet. It's really very beastly."
"Ah, come on."
"A very sordid ruffian attacked me on the porch and frightened my mother witless. She's simply not talking to me. I suppose she thinks it was all my fault, because she hasn't said a peep since early this morning when she cried for the bedpan."
"I suppose you beat him up then."
"Well it was pretty even. We cried a lot, and then he went away, but you can't really tell when he might be back. Nothing's certain anymore. We must be very careful, and yet, even when we are careful, life can treat us to some very unexpected turns. But let's not think about that."
"Yeah. You're going to show me where you live."
"Yes Janet. This is going to be a special treat."
Elwood opened the soundproof door, and they entered the hall, careful on the carpet.Elwood felt her neat little hand very moist from the Dr. Pepper and gripped it, and they entered his bedroom with the lovely pleated rose spread on the big poster bed, and the prints of laughing clowns and sad clowns, and the good oak dresser, and the rack of white Stetsons in the corner, and the closet tidy with maroon and lemon jackets.
"This is where I sleep. Sometimes I sleep on the sofa in the living room when it's very late and I'm afraid of dreams. Mother often wakes me up and it's not as far to go."
They entered the bathroom with the slick white tub, and stainless drum, and the bright mirror on the medicine cabinet.
"This is the bathroom. You know the bathroom. I just love the bathroom. There's another downstairs for my mother, but it's not this pretty."
"What's that funny looking thing in the tub?"
"Oh that's just something I built. It's not that important."
"What do you got in the cabinet?"
"Well look. Here's Putrex, and dental floss, and some paste, and my surgical gloves. And I have a nail clipper, and my Track Two, and several deodorants, and Gribbet hair spray, and Band-Aids, and emery boards, and well just about everything. I keep the toilet paper in the sealed can on the bottom shelf so it isn't soggy."
They descended to the landing, and he lifted her up to peer through a small pane of glass.
"There's my car. It's very pretty and clean, but I have to get the exhaust fixed. It's wired with a coat hanger. Otherwise, everything is in perfect running order."
They turned and descended to the living room with the good satin chair, and the stack of LADIES HOME JOURNALs on the coffee table, and the big television console, and the rose carpet, and the white cupboard with the commemorative cups, and the big stainless drum.
"Mother sits here and knits. Sometimes she looks out the window."
"What's your kitchen like?"
"It's in there. This is the dining room, and mother sleeps through that door. I guess we'd better skip that. There's also the other bathroom and a small hallway."
"Let me see the kitchen. I'm kind of hungry."
"Here's the kitchen. See all the cupboards? See the dishwasher? It's an industrial unit.And here's the refrigerator, and there's lots of good things to eat right there, but I think there might be something downstairs you might like a little better."
"Yes. In the basement. You see I really want to show you the basement. But first I have to blindfold you, because it's a terrible surprise. I mean it's a lovely surprise, and I want you to see it all at once and be filled with wonder and joy because this IS a special day, Janet, and there won't be many days like this."
"But I'm afraid to be blindfolded."
"Don't be afraid. It's going to be the perfect treat."
Janet and Elwood descended the stairs quietly, carefully into gloom. It was utterly dark for Janet, just the small glow of a night light in the corner for Elwood Siever. He could barely make out the big laden table over past the screen and feel the paper brushing his temples, as he steered her to a little chair and placed her hands at the edge of the cloth.She was giggling, and squealing nervously, and shivering under his hands, and he crossed to the small refrigerator and removed two large bowls in the sudden flare of light.Elwood Siever set the bowls on the table, and felt that everything was just perfect, and crossed to the switch at the base of the stairs.
"Janet dear. You may take off the blindfold now. Please, little one."
Janet Garvey removed the blindfold and squinted through the gloom.
"I can't see, mister. You playing a trick on me?"
Elwood Siever flashed the light, and suddenly before Janet was a heaping mound of vanilla ice cream with fresh halved strawberries and whipped cream. And all around her were the other goodies, baskets of crackling chips, Bavarian pretzels, a large tart cake with seven little candles, Graham crackers, lollipops, muffins, a gallon pitcher of frosty lemonade. And everywhere were the bright streamers curling from the ceiling, and the noise makers, and pretty paper hats, and Janet Garvey was sobbing with gratitude as Elwood rushed forward dizzily, scattering several chairs, and knelt to lift a creamy morsel of ice cream to her pretty mouth.
"It's for you, Janet. Utterly for you."
"Mister. You're making me cry."
"But it's yours. It's all yours. Savor every moment."
"But this is a party."
Elwood rounded the table and strapped on a paper hat. He took one of the noisemakers and blew a loud honk that curled out a big tongue of white and snapped back in with a little clack. Blew again, and grinned horribly, and tooted another, and set to his ice cream, generous spoonings that worked creamy in his feverish mouth. Elwood's eyes were like Lester's, burning orbs of manic adulation.
"Mister, you make me feel so terrible."
"This IS your special day, Janet. Treasure it forever."
"I don't understand."
"Janet. I've decided to take you back. You're going back home."
"Really? When? When am I going home?"
"Tomorrow evening I'm going to drop you off at a playground, and then I'm going to phone your mother, and you'll be home safe again. There's nothing to fear, you see. You don't even know my name."
"But won't we be able to visit?"
"Sometime. When the statute of limitations runs out. That just means we have to wait till they don't put me in jail. And then we'll be good friends like anyone else. Here. Take your bowl. I've got something you'll really like."
Janet settled down in a blond chair, as Elwood flicked the switch into sudden gloom.Above, light like phlegm spread gently toward the screen. Elwood adjusted the focus and settled down beside her with his frosty bowl and shifted his buttocks. He felt the tight smooth Dacron on the left leg, further back on the ham. He felt the smooth slats on the very clean chair. A very special girl on the screen waved to a kindly old man smiling benevolently at the helm of a very old Pontiac.
"Who's that girl, mister?"
"That's Shirley Temple. She's all grown up now."
"Like me some day. Right?"
"Absolutely, Janet. Right as the precious rain"
Elwood sank Janet Garvey into the lukewarm water and hooked her arms over the contraption. She looked curiously holy, draped against the wood with her long hair cascading toward the water, the white foam hissing against the longest strands that lay against her pale white chest, so utterly smooth. He sat there for a moment, studying the glossy crease of the water and the pale of the flesh, because he wanted to get it right for his memory, and he wanted to savor these final moments together and lock them tight and permanent in the corridors of his being, the striated chambers of his heart, until they too passed on, and there was only the other tightness, the grip of his own sure absence.
"Janet. I'm sorry about the last time, and I'm very sorry about this time, which is the last time, but there is no other time but this time, and I hope you'll understand and accept that.You're going to be very clean you see, and this time, which is the last time, is the only time and the only perfect time for us. But I must tell you a story, a very terrible story which you really shouldn't hear, and I'm going to suds you with the cloth, and you will listen. Can you hear me, Janet?"
He studied the draping head, and reached to lift it up, and studied the tight lids with the straight dark lashes so innocent, and it seemed that she understood. He let the head down softly and soaped the cloth, and raised the head, and pressed the scented slick cloth against the smooth white of the forehead, careful to dab and rub.
"You see when I was eleven Mr. Fenzenhagen took Peter and me and some other boys fishing, and it was a clear Saturday morning and crisp and utterly perfect, and I was very happy sitting in the back seat of Mr. Fenzenhagen's old sedan, and everyone was talking and giggling, and when we got there Mr. Fenzenhagen went on up stream, and I got scared of the worms and wouldn't put in my hook, and the others laughed horribly, and got me down, and took something, and shoved it in my mouth, and I squirmed, and fought, and couldn't get it out of my mouth, and I vomited, and I still couldn't get it out of my mouth, and I went off by myself under a dark tree the rest of the morning, and we went back in the old sedan, it might have been a Packard, and I can still taste what they put in my mouth, and sometimes when I abused myself I would think of what they put in my mouth, and the more I thought of it the more pleasurable it became, and that's the end of it."
"I think I understand, Elwood Siever."
He had her head with the cloth, and she was unconscious, and hadn't even trembled, and yet he had distinctly heard her. His fingers quivered, and he let the head sink back down and knelt at the tub trying to calm himself, while the foam hissed inward toward Janet's slick flesh in utter quiet. And he was kneeling there trying to pray, when he heard a horrible clatter and pounding below, and he heard his mother's voice.
"Elwood. It's terrible. There's someone at the door."
Elwood Siever lunged erect and slammed against three walls, trying to control himself, while the little one lay mute in chest high foaming water. The pounding came louder, enough to splinter the wood, and Elwood slammed against the door frame in utter bewilderment and terror.
"Elwood, you must answer that. It's probably something urgent. They woke me up. You come down here and answer that."
Elwood wiped his hands on his jacket and took one last look at Janet dreaming in ether silence. He gathered himself toward the corridor, the landing, down at last into his mother's muted whining, and the clatter again on the heavy door. God, let them not come for me. Let it be Lester and I'll make it up forever.
Elwood slipped the bolt and opened a crack to a massive swarthy man in a Forties zoot suit, with the immense lapels, and the key chain, and pegged pants over enormous patent leather shoes. There was a foul stain over the lace shirt front, and the DA was visible, greased dark and back, as the man, who seemed familiar, reached up, with a slight turn, a pint of blended whiskey and swigged in the porch light.
"I'm sorry. It's very late. Can I help you?"
The big man gripped the edge of the door and thrust it inward, shredding the security chain like a string of yarn. He put one great hand on Elwood's chest, and shoved him back into the room, and came on, swigging from the bottle. He hawked up a good one, and teetered there in the dim light of the living room, and spit it on the rug.
"I'm Grunt Gurging. Where the deuce is Judy?"
"Well this is distressing. Look. I'm in a bit of a hurry."
"Listen, sweet chips. I'm looking for my ex, and you better come up with something good, or I'll pound you through that wall over there, and out the other side, and step all over what's left. See these shoes. There's little nails on the bottoms for gripping and other things, and I can make meat out of you not too pleasant for the cooking. I seen you out at that drive-in watching porno with her, and I seen you take off scared, and I know you're up to something."
"Who is it, dear? Is that Judy's husband?"
"Go to sleep, mother. Please. Mr. Gurging, I'm very sorry, but I'm in a bit of a rush, so you'll simply have to leave. I've had one date with Judy, and I find her absolutely repulsive, and I don't mind telling you that. She's no better than a maggot, for all I care."
"Listen you son of a bitch. Don't you insult my Judy. You're just a creep, and I don't know why she goes for you, but you better watch your mouth, or I'm going to tear you a new asshole. Where you hiding her?"
"She's not here. And she's a big fat blob of shit, and I hate her, and I hate you, and I hate her, and you, and the whole steaming garbage can you crawl around in. Now get out of here, and that's it."
Grunt Gurging stood back, and leveled off, and delivered one good shot to Elwood's face, that spread him backward. He stepped forward rapidly and kicked Elwood Siever in the groin, and Elwood doubled, and he hit Elwood with two hard crunching rights as he sank to the carpet. And he kicked him again and hawked again and spit on the rug and walked out of there, slamming the door.
"Elwood dear. Oh mercy. Are you all right?"
Elwood Siever was totally unconscious on the rose nap. He was stone cold for what seemed thirty minutes, while his mother cried and wailed to dead ears. And then, finally, there was a small point of light that expanded to the size of a dime, and grew, and filled his whole skull, until he opened his eyes to escape it and saw it fill the room utterly, until suddenly it went black, and then he saw the room, and heard her hoarse from the bedroom:
"Elwood. Please Elwood. Are you all right? Are you dead? Speak to me. Please speak to me. Just a word or I'll die."
Elwood Siever gathered up on all fours and made his way painfully over the carpet to the stairs. He climbed with the burning ribs, and the aching face, and another fear that masked even the pain of his groin and constricted his heart to a tiny pulsing nugget. He made it to the landing at great cost and slumped there for a moment to gather the last ticking hope.He climbed to the corridor, scuttling like a crippled roach. And along the corridor, the very white corridor, so slowly scuttling with the pain of it at last to the bathroom door.And inside she was lilac, and deep in the water, and he thrust his arms in for the last effort, dragging her to the tile with a smear of foam and the slick of her body, and holding her there, and trying to kill the repulsion, as he tasted her lips, and forced the air there, and tugged at the torso to make it breathe, and tugged, and forced the air with the soap of her lips, until he couldn't do it anymore, could only lie there with her sweet scent, and the soap, and her silence, and his mother muted from the bedroom below.
"Please speak to me. Just a word or I'll die."
Elwood was down a very long corridor with a very small light, and the light was fluttering, and he could hear her footsteps with the scent of incense, and, when he turned a sharp bend, she was standing fragile in a very bright room, and his mother was there, and his father, and Peter Fenzenhagen, and just about everyone he had ever known, and they were sitting around a big barrel of Kool-Aid, drinking with long clean straws. And the liquid rose in the straws like the liquid in thermometers, and there was that sweet scent, and everyone was giggling, as he took her hand, and walked softly to a space at the great barrel, and knelt to sip from a straw, knelt with her at the Kool-Aid, with the others among the laughter and incense, and the music like the tinkle of bells at a very bright shop. And he opened his eyes, and he was still holding her lilac corpse.
It was utterly quiet and still, and her body was turning cold, and he wondered about the time, for the time was important, but he couldn't find his watch. There was simply no way to know in fact if there was enough time for what simply had to be done. There was only the slick of Janet going chill, and it was so hard to accept that he laid her gently on the tile, and stood with the pain of her there, and the other pain from the beating. Elwood stepped carefully past the cadaver and opened the cabinet for the surgical gloves.
With the gloves on, he took the wet wash cloth with the slick and rubbed them carefully, the sheathed hands, and knelt to the stainless drum. He screwed open the lid and looked in. It was very empty, just the bright broad shaft down to the glossy base, where he saw his face mirrored in a blur. Elwood reached in, and rubbed the base where his face was, and rubbed the sides carefully up to the rim. He gripped the drum, and rubbed the outer surface, and tilted it, and rubbed the bottom. He went carefully over the lid in the same fashion.
Janet was sleeping utterly on the dark tile, the gloss of her skin so changed with the other color he had seen there, scuttling through the bathroom door. But he wouldn't try to remember this last image of her lying where he knelt to gather her up and sink her still soft into the base of the drum, so that the crest of her matted hair protruded slightly beyond the rim. He wouldn't try to remember her doubled there fetal into her shadow as he lowered the lid, and the flick of that image lost, as he seated it and screwed it on airtight.
Elwood lifted the large drum with the pain in his ribs and groin, and carried it, swinging leaden in front of his lemon trousers, with the big wet stains along the corridor and down to the landing. He set the drum softly on the hardwood and descended to the living room, finding his watch on the carpet. It was exactly . He entered his mother's bedroom, and listened intently, until he could hear her breathing, and left her there asleep, and returned to the landing, and carried the drum out to the Mercedes, and set it on the front seat.
Elwood thumbed the button on the dash, and waited for the last tug of the door up into the ceiling, and cut on the engine, and backed out quietly with the flare of the lights on the big white garage and on the shrubbery and asphalt, back to turn at the curb. And the flare of the lights was on a deserted street, an asphalt lane past tidy houses, and shrubs, and even trees, so quiet and precise, as he moved on to take the left for the underpass beyond the lumberyard.
He drove north on 17 with the lights flaring and the cars shuddering past into red points, watching him careful in the Mercedes at the speed limit, hoping there wouldn't be an accident, or the brakes fail, or the exhaust give way, or the clutch cable snap, or any of that, when it really didn't matter, mattered only to Gladys asleep in her urine, with no one to change her, in a parade of days, when they took him away, and put him in the ward, and everything they would say to her finally in the rest home with the ugly people knowing that her son had murdered.
She (Janet) would like where he was taking her, and she would be quiet there until they found the drum and pulled her into the harsh light. She would lie there among the careful trees on a bed of needles, with the wind right and so utterly quiet in the airtight drum. He would try not to think of the rest. Not the narrow enamel table, with the dials and tubing, and the scalpels probing to see if he had entered. On a brief rise beyond Ringwood he nosed left down macadam for just under a mile and halted at the shanty and the big chain.
Elwood lugged the big steel drum 300 yards into the woods and set it down in darkness.He knelt to get his breath and listened quietly with his face against the chill steel undulations. There was only the wind through the trees, and the hoarse taut spasms of his breathing, and the tick of his arteries pulsing against the steel, in a total absence of sound he could never articulate. Like the lid screwed down and the vaster lid above, pulse of light in slate, winking indifference so utterly remote from his tiny concerns as to chill them with the stiffening flesh as if they had never really been, had never been anywhere or thing or person, seeds in a very dry pod.
The car caught, and he backed to turn, and he turned, and cut the lights on through a gully of trees, until he reached the highway, and he turned into the other corridor and drove for the lights flaring, sucked down into movement alone toward movement, and finally 17 and the Ford plant swimming left in darkness, and there was traffic again, and the wink of tail lights and the shudder of cars, all pressed down hermetically, feeble against the lid and yet utterly precise, as if slides from a carrousel projector with a tiny metallic voice under the hum of the fan inexhaustibly muttering, inexpressibly puny, an irritant just barely felt in the greater rush of torment.
Elwood would never articulate, would mutely feel it coming, measureless hours of tedium, with the scent of stale bodies, and ash and smoke and jasmine, into silence. And then at last formaldehyde, a grinning corpse under the wisteria, and quiet weeping, and dirty hands, and suppurations on the lips, and a belly swollen toward flatulence, small taut burps from the universal coffin, music of decay, at with another winter down a private labyrinth. Could it weave just a tree of lollipops, and braided hair, and a freckled face, rushing forward toward her, scarcely contained, with his mother in bed?
Weave only the crease in the Leatherette, a smooth taut arc left by the stainless drum.And a room full of toys and pretty dresses, and a white coverlet with the impress of her body. And a banquet for the little one in the cellar he'd have to tidy up, that he'd only done it sooner. So many times toward suffering, so many turns chasing down an alley of hedges, hoping for her tiny voice.He traced the arc to a seam and again to a seam, and the arc returned on itself by the time he had reached the exit. And though the arc was broken, it always returned on itself. And the sun would finally rise.
Up a small taut grade on Princess Avenue, he thrust the Mercedes into a dark hole and climbed out. It was bright in the living room, yet he couldn't hear her voice, only her breathing, as he stood at her door. He found the axe in the basement beyond the streamers and the laden table, and he found a Dr. Pepper in the cooler, and he had that first with a crenellated straw, and the Dr. Pepper was very cold, and it was quite good with the burning in the stomach he felt for the old lady at the top of the stairs. And he heard the last gurgle at the base of the cylinder, and he opened the drum and tossed that in, and climbed slowly, with the axe, to the bedroom door, softly over the carpet where she lay, and he raised the axe in his trembling powerful arms and teetered there, writhing, with the shadow of his body cast on the distant lilac, with the shadow quavering with his own agony, and still she slept, with the quavering shadow of his pain, and his grunting fury, and the axe went slick and soft in the confusion of his senses, as he draped like rubber at last to the floor.
Toward , he entered to stand at her bed, to kneel at the bed by her spotted hand, and waiting, suddenly he felt that hand on his feverish head, and yet she was asleep and hadn't stirred. And he saw the swell of her body under the spread, and the lilac wall, and he could smell that she was soiled, and he knelt there by her side as time ticked on in soundless increments, and the light was pale through the curtains so white hanging down past the sill. If she could only understand, could usher out the pain with infinite wisdom, small glittering sparks of cool flame from the compost of her aging body waiting for death. Just the hand, and longing for her face, a gust of air through the slit at the casement, swelling the curtain that hung on it in careful undulations billowing in toward slack.
"Elwood.Is that you? Are you there, Elwood?"
"Yes mother. It's been simply horrible but I'm here."
"Elwood, I cried myself to sleep. That brute. He beat you terribly. Why your face. You haven't shaved. That's not like you. It's swollen. Elwood, you've been drinking."
"Mother. I had some of that Muscatel left over from Labor Day, when the Hawkers visited last year. It was a simple draught to ease the pain."
"I thought I heard the car start, but I wasn't sure. Were you out in the streets?It must have been past 3."
"Mother, in your confusion I might have been anywhere. But yes. I bought some salve at the all-night Brider-Mart for my bruises. I assure you. It was a terrible thrashing. I'm not sure I'll ever be the same. But come. Let me tidy you up, and we'll have something succulent and tender for our breakfast."
"You're so thoughtful. Perhaps a few breakfast sausages piping and crisp. Two whole eggs fresh and cleaved and bubbling in fat—sunny side up like this brand new day. It's so good to be alive."
"Yes. You put that well. Life IS a treasure."
Elwood slid his mother onto the chair, and wheeled her to the long narrow bench in the bathroom, and removed her nightgown. He cleansed her bottom carefully with the legs hooked back and aided her in her morning armaments. It was quiet in the bathroom, just the abrasion of the rayon bloomers ruffled at the crotch, the good back brace, the taut ribbed cages for her breasts that pulled them into conical perfection, the nylon garter belt, and the shimmering slip, and the heavy brocade. She sat in the kitchen, while he fried up the sausage, and ground the coffee into the white filter for the white pot, and snapped down the muffins like slugs in the chromium toaster with the Bakelite handles.
"Elwood, you know it's nearly summer's end."
"Yes mother. We have the fall to look forward to. Isn't that splendid?'
"Elwood, you realize we haven't had a proper vacation in 25 years? And the last one was simply repulsive. We went down to Seaside in our old Pontiac, and it rained for seven days, and all the ugly people sat out on the terrace of the motel, and clattered beer cans, and displayed their genitals."
"Mother. I don't want to think about that."
"Elwood, I've been thinking about this ever since that other ruffian scrapped with you.It's not a good neighborhood anymore. Perhaps we should take a nice vacation, just the two of us, and while we're gone there will be peace and quiet, and we can think about it.You see, we could make a handsome sum on this old place and move into one of those condominiums up by Englewood Cliffs."
"I wouldn't like that, mother. I'd rather stay here."
"Even after they thrashed you?"
"Yes mother. Even after that."
"Well some pretty nasty things have been happening. No one's safe anymore. Why you might be corrupted, Elwood. You might have impure thoughts. You might masturbate."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you. I've got the ticket. How about a nice trip to Niagara Falls? We could take our time up there, and we could stop in a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge, and even have a nice fruity shake, and one of their ice cream shortcakes, and it wouldn't be terribly expensive, and we could see the Falls, and buy a bust of John F. Kennedy and some other tasteful souvenirs, and drive back the scenic route through Oil City and see the derrick."
"I don't know, mother. It might be very sordid."
"Elwood, you've simply not seen it."
"I've seen pictures. I've seen your scrapbook."
"From the honeymoon?"
"Yes. You didn't look very happy, mother, and there was always a little man in the background grinning, and he had no teeth. And the pictures are all a little out of focus, and it looks all very sordid and unreal."
"Well we were both suffering from the trots. We had them for three days after the reception in Clinton at Saint Paul's Evangelical. Everyone did. Someone said that Marv Peterson laced the wedding cake with a purgative, but I think it was the turnovers or perhaps the cider. Everyone talked and laughed for about an hour, and then it was very ugly and not worth repeating."
"Well who was the little man in the background?"
"I couldn't say.I never noticed the little man."
Elwood Siever ladled the eggs onto good china and shoved them into the oven with the sausage.
"Would you rather eat in here, mother?"
He saw them glistening through opaque glass, and saw his hands fluttering like larvae grubbing on the enamel of the stove, and he saw his reflection in the glass, and he saw his hands, and he turned to her, nipping a bit of muffin in the wheelchair, intent on him with glazed eyes.
"Would you rather eat in here, mother?"
"I'm sorry. It was so crisp and delectable, I couldn't bear it. Yes. Why don't we eat plain this morning?"
He eased her down to breakfast at the glossy walnut table, with the lilac mats, and the clean white pot of coffee, and the good cups, and the rest. And he entered the eggs with his fork, and the yellow drained, and he entered the sausage with the crisp clear bubbles of juice thickening on the plate. And he entered the muffins and V-8 in little glasses perfectly erect on the lilac mats, and ate silently and with difficulty, hearing the quiet pitters of her relish in silence, and suddenly his tears were on the surface of his face that was wrinkled like a child's in pain, and he was sobbing tautly and painfully, with the texture of the food that caught on his tongue, and his mother blurred beyond the table, and he couldn't control it.
"Most of us are sad, Elwood. It's unbearable of you to show it."
"I'm sorry. I was just thinking about something. And then I was thinking about father at breakfast, when it was quiet all but his voice that explained very carefully what the weather would be, and the traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, and the other places like the George Washington Bridge, if we even had it then, and one time I picked up a whole glass of milk and drank it down with relish, very proud that I could handle the whole glass, and perhaps I interrupted his train of thought, but he reached over, and gripped my face, and he said, 'Elwood. We know that you're alive. We know you're alive and you don't have to prove it.' And he let go of my face, and went on about how it would probably rain toward early afternoon, and it was quiet all but his voice, and it was always quiet after that during breakfast."
"Yes, Elwood. I remember that very well. But you can't hate him. That milk cost him 39 cents the quart."
"Yes. But do you really think he meant it."
"I think he was peeved."
"I mean do you think he ever really knew I was alive."
"Elwood. We've discussed this often enough."
"You mean the birth. That you were crippled."
"Elwood, I've been crippled for 42 years."
"Maybe that's what I was crying about."
"Eat your eggs, dear. Pretty soon they'll be stiff."
"They found her this morning, Elwood?"
"Little Janet Garvey. It's in the RECORD."
"Well I don't want to discuss it."
"Don't be so finicky. They found her up by Shepherd's Lake in dense woods in a big ash can, and she was naked, bare naked, and there's going to be an autopsy this afternoon, but Dr. Fervod from the Morris Clinic is pretty sure she lost her innocence. And there's a story on page thirteen about the molester, the kind of man he probably is, and it's awfully distressing. They brought the FBI in last week, you know. They said there were no marks on the body, but she was bare naked, not a stitch of clothing. And no fingerprints on the can, so I guess it's going to be pretty hard to track him down. They have it tied up with that other tragedy in FairleighTownship about twelve years back, because they say a lot of things match up. And there might be more of the same thing. You never can tell, Elwood."
"Mother, please don't talk about it. I don't want to think about it. I'm not sure it even happened."
"Elwood, it's in the papers. I want you to drive in to the Brider-Mart for me and buy the TIMES and the DAILY NEWS if they're not sold out. I'm sure there's more to the story."
"Mother. I'm not going to discuss it further. Give me that newspaper. I'm going to dispose of it."
"This is MY copy. It's always been my copy. Go buy your own, but I'm going to save this. I don't know why you're behaving like this. You act like it's your own daughter.It's the Garvey girl, Elwood. Janet Garvey. And somebody with a twisted mind did her away, and it's the only excitement in this area for months, and you're not going to ruin everything by sulking."
"I'm not sulking."
"Are you constipated?"
"Well then why are you behaving like this? Judy Gurging's due any minute, and you're blubbering there like a baby. Why don't you go into my bathroom and freshen up a bit?Elwood, it's not like you. You haven't shaved. You smell horribly. You've been upstairs in that new room of yours more than ever, and when you come down you're still blubbering, and it's just unbearable. When was your last bath, Elwood Siever?"
"I don't know. Maybe yesterday. I'm not certain."
"What do you mean you're not certain? Gracious, this is going to be the better of me. Do you know what you smell like? You smell like your father's old hunting jacket when he came back from the North woods the year he died, and they'd been partying, and he threw up on it and slept in it in a smoke filled cabin for three nights without a bath or even a deodorant for the pits, and they hauled him in here to the front porch with a bag of dead pheasants that were stiff and rotting, and there was another dead one in the back sleeve of the jacket, and he crawled around on the floor saying 'Creedin poisoned me, mother' and passed out in the corner. That's what you smell like."
"Maybe if I gargled with Putrex."
"That's not enough. Now you go somewhere and tidy up a bit."
Elwood was in the downstairs bathroom, looking at urine eyes, and a bleary stubbled face, and his hair matted, and the stains on the jacket, when he heard the hussy knocking as if to raise the dead, and he stuck his head under the faucet and held it there through the knocking and the horrible cackle of his mother at the door, as Grunt's wife lumbered in with the split pumps, and they started on the Garvey tragedy. He snorted under the stream, and came up for air, and went for the towel. There was a lot of nasty laughter, as he combed his hair with the dirty fingernails and lurched out to greet them.
"I was just saying to Judy that it was a terrible thing to be penetrated by an absolute stranger in the sweet young innocence of life, and then shoved head down into an ash can with the privates showing, and carted off to rot for the savior knows how long, till they found her."
"Your mother has a way with words, Elwood."
"Yes, it's probably the most degenerate and repulsive chapter in the history of our lives to be living within twenty minutes of it, perhaps within walking distance of a sex offender.A sadist and degenerate, Elwood, and an absolute heathen who doesn't even have the decency to bury what he's destroyed by his own hands."
"Yes well perhaps it's over and done with."
"Well I'm not going to forget about it."
"I'm just beside myself to see tomorrow's edition. I'm sure there's going to be photographs. They wouldn't hold those back."
"Mrs. Gurging brought over the DAILY NEWS, Elwood. Maybe you'd like to have a look."
"We'll never know everything, will we, Mrs. Siever?"
"Well yes. That much is true."
"I'm sorry to be rude, Mrs. Gurging, but I have a little unfinished business to attend to.Perhaps you could excuse me."
"Quite all right, I assure you. You know you're not looking well."
"Yes. I'm in a bit of a foul temper with the weather and everything."
"Elwood, the weather's fine."
"Yes. Well I suppose it is now, isn't it?"
Elwood Siever gripped the canister in his pocket through the fabric. He crossed to the stairs and climbed to the garage. There was a large rack of tools, his father's, high above the dark Mercedes. Elwood seldom used them. In fact he hadn't used them for as long as he could remember. Little Randy Morphew down the block had always attended to the yard. He was now big Randy Morphew, and he had fairly nasty acne and perhaps scrofula, and Elwood didn't like him now with the acne, and scrofula, and the way he always dug in his buttocks and surreptitiously smelled his fingers. Elwood reached the spade carefully from the clips and pulled it a dull thwong of metal down scraping the hood. It would do nicely.
He entered the rear yard by a little gate, and shoved the spade down into the thick sod, and pried up a large wedge of earth. He knelt on the lawn and crumbled the dirt in his hands.There were some nice fat worms Peter Fenzenhagen had called crawlers, and there were more in the second wedge, enough to fill the canister. He walked off, with the dirt in dark clumps in the sunlight and the rag of ether a damp puddle on the even grass. He entered the garage, and shoved the spade back up high in the rack, and climbed to the sound-proof room. He removed his jacket, and draped it on Janet's bed, and squatted to clear the floor utterly to a swath of even white. There was not a particle of dust there on the plywood, for he had always been careful of that, and now there were no toys, in fact not a trace of her. He lay down carefully on his stomach and twisted to open the canister. He emptied the big glossy earth worms on the white plywood and lay there with the side of his face against the plywood, shivering, until he thought he could hear the voices, their laughter, as he struggled by the river bank. He closed his fingers on the clump of worms, and the grass, and earth, and shoved it far back in his mouth, and lay there writhing with the severed crawlers in his closed mouth for about an hour. Below in the living room, Gladys Siever was corking herself over Mrs. Gurging, her stunning imitation of Barbara Streisand in the low slant of sun through the big window giving on to the Purver-Henly Funeral Parlor. Judy Gurging was such a dear. Maybe it wasn't too late. They might still bear a grandson.
Lester (Wimpy) Harder sat quietly in the lilac Subaru that he had bought just last Thursday when they found the Garvey girl, bought with the savings of supervising 163 paper routes and small boys, and smaller boys he couldn't talk to or watch without palpitations and a very dry throat.He was watching the Siever home now past on a deserted street. No one had entered, and for the last three hours there had been no lights on the ground floor. There were no lights in any of the houses, not even the Purver-Henly Funeral Parlor where the dark sedans slept quiet for the night.
Lester Harder in the Subaru had a very bad itch, and the itch was internal, and the only way to scratch it was to cross that street and see for himself. And at last he checked his Accutron at , and opened the door to flash on the bald spot, and stepped out, and closed the door a precise click. He studied the street and crossed to the porch with his feet utterly careful on the concrete and up the listing steps, fighting the impulse to bolt and forget about Elwood Siever forever.
He tried the door, but had no particular luck with that, as far as his stomach or good judgment would permit. It was sound and tight as a drum. And he tried the window and had no luck with that, as he thought, until the last tug broke a fingernail and raised it a quarter of an inch. And he raised it further, and listened, and then enough for his body, and listened, and stepped in over the couch, his penny loafers doubling on the soft cushions.And when he was safely sitting and hadn't heard anything, he reached into his poplin jacket for the small pencil flash and stabbed it weakly into night, a milk white oval against the white cupboard, and the satin chair, and the carpet, and at last the hardwood stairs.
If he was up there in his room, if he was up there with someone, he'd surprise him. There was no other explanation for that cruel brush-off and that terrible brutality over the shrubbery—Elwood had a friend. He would just confront him with it, and then maybe, if he didn't have Elwood back, at least he would have some tangible source for that flood of suffering that had battered him so mercilessly over the past few weeks. That certain knowledge would clear his mind, and ease the itch in his heart, and who could know, release him. After all, he was still young, and there were other fish if he could just find the right fat worm to hook them.
Lester crossed in increments, pausing to listen to the silence. He set his feet carefully onto the ascending steps, climbing toward the oval of his flash as it snaked over the lacquer.He paused to listen at the landing. He climbed to the corridor. There was a thread of light from the soundproof door, just the slightest crack ajar, as he knelt to peek through and satisfy the ache in his fevered belly.
He didn't like what he saw. He didn't like it a bit. In fact he had to constrain himself from thrashing right there at the plywood with his clenched hands, from screaming and thrashing and kicking with his penny loafers, as he doubled down toward his hands and scratched at his face in his grief and fury.
Elwood Siever was sitting disheveled on the white coverlet with a large plastic doll dressed in Janet's clothing.
"Elwood. Help. Police. Elwood. There's someone in the house."
Elwood was utterly unaware of the tempest beyond the heavy door. He was clutching his big smooth doll with the braided hair and nuzzling against the cheek. He was too deeply imbedded in oblivion, in a tight surcease of pain, to sense anything beyond her smooth doll cheek, let alone impending disaster, even a rage of sound, as Lester Harder gathered up, and lunged at the door, and lunged again, and then lumbered down the stairs in pursuit of some maddened release. Who was that hussy screaming in the night?
"Elwood. He's coming for me. I'll be pregnant."
Battering his way without the flash, barking his shins on the coffee table, Lester (Wimpy) Harder blundered through the living room toward the voice:
"Elwood. I'll be raped. I'll be penetrated."
Lester (Wimpy) Harder found his way to the corridor in blind rage and reached for the door adjacent to Gladys Siever's bedroom where she lay in paroxysms of terror, wheezing for mercy. And the last thing he heard before vaulting through the gulf was:
"He has me, Elwood. Elwood, I'm being ravished."
And he plunged down the flight of stairs onto the basement floor, and lay there bruised and semi-conscious with Gladys muted, and the chill of the tile, and everything going dark, and light, and finally dark, as he found his senses, and crawled about, searching for the switch. Scuttling on the tile like an insect, reaching for a wall, raising up to feel the cinderblock, and at last a flood of light on streamers, and a party table, and his fury coming on toward madness, as he lunged forward, wailing and screaming, to upright the laden table, to topple the projector, to rip apart the screen, to thrash about hideously among the gathering carnage, until at last he swept the final decorum from a metal cabinet and saw the contents splay on the floor, the large black book with the photographs and clippings that caught his eye suddenly, and he knelt feverishly and took it up, and saw so irrevocably the source of his terrible pain. Page after page of her—the total hideous effrontery and rage—Janet Garvey, the doll, the plastic insufferable doll, smiling smiling smiling in the soundproof room.
"Elwood. Elwood, I've been ravished. Elwood. I'm going to have a baby. The shame.Elwood.It's rending me."
Lester (Wimpy) Harder gathered up the book and raced for the Subaru. There was something wrong, something terribly terribly wrong.
"Elwood. He's penetrated. My innocence. It's finished."
Stirring from a dark ether trance, from a pit of undulations, from the very night itself, Elwood had the certain unmistakable impression of Gladys Siever's voice:
"I'm finished. I'm raped. I'm violated. Elwood, it's too late. He's taken my very hymen."
So faint but so suddenly real.
"Mother? Janet? Mother?"
Elwood raced headlong down the steps and hit the switch. He rushed like a madman through the harsh light toward Gladys's room. She was lying there in utter shame and agony, holding her groin with her face twisted toward him helplessly in a blur of tears and suffering. Elwood rushed to the bed and knelt there, gathered her into his arms and murmured softly, gently, words of assurance and compassion, kind chaste words to sooth her aching heart:
"Mother. You're pure. It was a dream. There was no one here. It's merely a distortion of the senses. You're merely damp. You've soiled yourself."
"But he was here. There was a terrible clamor. I heard his voice. I'm going to have a baby, Elwood, and I'm 72."
"There was someone here? You heard it?"
"Yes. A horrible brute. When he was finished, he wiped himself on my nightie and headed for the basement. He fell down the stairs, and there was quiet, and then horrible noise, and then he came running up, and out the door. It was just minutes ago, just seconds. I'm bleeding."
Elwood thrashed erect and bolted for the cellar. There it was at the base of the steps—his films strewn horribly, the table, the projector smashed. Everything in terrible disorder as if at the Judgment. But there was something even more terrifying, something that chilled him, sorting through the scattered rubble. He couldn't find the scrapbook. He couldn't find it, groveling on his hands and knees over the littered tile, and he couldn't find it for a time that went on desperately searching for an end, and he couldn't find it and he doubled fetal on the floor, for he couldn't handle it anymore. There HAD been a sound. There HAD been an intruder. He couldn't handle any of it anymore, none. Not any of it. Dear sweet Jesus, none of it there in the litter with them knowing. With his mother knowing.With Mrs. Klurgel knowing. With little Billy Preston knowing. With everyone knowing. With the whole world knowing. And he wrenched himself to the stairs, and entered the living room, and doubled up on the floor beside the telephone. Had it been Lester? Dear Jesus, let it be Lester. Dear sweet Jesus, let him call.
"Elwood. This is repulsive. You could at least sit on the furniture."
Elwood had his knees gathered. He was slumped with a three-day growth of beard against the wallpaper. He had never liked the wallpaper, but had never realized it until now. Everything was so abrasive, and if she kept quite still he wouldn't notice most of it.Utterly still, he wouldn't notice much of anything.
"Elwood. This is despicable. Get up off the floor."
If only her tireless voice would cancel into the other silence.
"Elwood. I've had it. You've been groveling since Thursday."
She was screaming again. If only she wouldn't scream.
"No one's going to call you. We haven't had a call for weeks. Elwood, you get up now and take a bath. Cleanse yourself. A warm tubbing will perk you up and you won't smell.Elwood. This is horrid."
"They took my scrapbook."
"Quit blubbering. I forbid you. Get up off the floor."
Elwood gathered up to his knees and rubbed his clammy face. He inspected his fingernails and gathered up further to stand slack like a bag of refuse. He stepped sideways and collapsed on the sofa, with his head up tight against the telephone stand.The walnut was very cool and smooth. Perhaps he was getting a fever. He lay there fetal, sobbing tightly toward the ribbed fabric. And then the phone rang. It rang miraculously, and he was thrashing for the dark receiver until he had it to his face the wrong way, and then the right way, and clearing his throat:
"Hello. Hello. Hello. Is that you, Lester?"
"Yes. It's Lester Harder. Remember me? I have your scrapbook."
Elwood felt a burst of joy and then crushing anxiety.
"You have it?"
"That's absolutely correct. Meet me at the matinee in 25 minutes. Our usual place."
"But what do you want from me? What do you want me to do? It's unbearable, Lester.I'm so depressed. I haven't slept. I'm suffering horribly, and I have nowhere to turn."
"25 minutes, Elwood. That's all the time you have left."
Elwood heard the click. He heard his mother shrieking horribly, a wall of sound after that tiny click. He had himself up, and was fumbling for the keys, and they were there indefinite with the wall of sound, and he lumbered for the stairs, and he was all the way to the Mercedes, when he checked himself. He reentered the sound, and fumbled in the closet, and ripped it out, and left the sound, left her raving in her urine, and stood in the twilight of the closed garage, and pulled on the raincoat.
Elwood Siever rounded the dark Mercedes and stabbed three keys at the ignition. He hit the starter with his head swimming, and yanked into reverse, and backed up, forgetting the button.
There was a terrible squealing wrench of the closed door, and the engine stalled, and stalled again, until he had it in neutral and at last pulled up with his head feverish and his eyes glittering bright beads in the darkness.
He hit the dash button and listened to the motor straining above against a taut belt, and the door wouldn't raise, and time was running, and he had to get out, and he pulled ahead about five feet and slammed it in reverse, and there was a terrible howl of the tires and a terrible clamor and rending as the dark Mercedes exploded through the calm white wood that burst outward into shards above the grass and asphalt, and he was howling down the drive and into the street.
He was somewhat in control now. He had it forced down, sitting there with the engine idling, had the thing forced down in his belly. And he moved off quietly down Princess Avenue past the faces popping out of doors or pressed in blurs at windows. And he made the underpass and he was headed for the Beeterbury cinema with the pain and the palpitations. And the houses chattered past like faces leering through opaque glass, and the neon still, and the traffic building, until he was finally on 17 to the exit. And he negotiated the hills, and the relative quiet, with the palpitations and the fear forced down, and his breathing tight to a small taut nugget of burning pain in his entrails.
At 2:47 PM Elwood Siever nosed into the big lot and slid in by a Subaru. He worked out over the Leatherette, and skirted a microbus and a Gran Torino, and made the sidewalk past the matrons and some acne on a cadaverous old man smoking a Silva Thin. A haggard youngster in a dark blue shirt, and a clutch of ruffians by Mr. John's, and he worked his way into the crowd of children under the white aluminum and didn't notice the feature. And he paid his way in and ascended to the balcony and Lester (Wimpy) Harder quiet in the very last row, up under the ceiling in a raincoat, and the scrapbook wasn't there.
It took a very long time to reach him down the dark row. It took nearly 42 years.
"Lester, you promised me. You led me to believe."
"Elwood. I'm going to keep the scrapbook, but I'm not going to torture you. I'm going to be very kind to you."
"But what do you want? I haven't got any money."
"I don't want your money. I want just a very small thing from you, and I think it won't hurt you, and I think you will be very satisfied and not hate me."
"What do you want? In God's name, what do you want?"
"I want our matinees back. That's all I want."
"That's all you want?"
"Yes Elwood. I want them to last forever. Every Saturday, Elwood, until the very end of time, there will be just the two of us in this back row. And you will be very clean and fresh like before, always as before, and you will bring the rubber glove. You forgot it, didn't you?"
Elwood searched his raincoat.
"I didn't know. I didn't know you cared."
"You didn't bring it."
"No. I never thought you cared for the glove."
"I care, Elwood. It's part of you. It's part of the very lovely creature you are. Elwood, I love you."
"Don't say that.It's simply not true."
"Elwood, I've always loved you precisely as you are. And you never knew, and I could never tell you, and I wouldn't want you any other way. I'm very good for you, Elwood.I'm your best friend."
"You mean you actually liked the glove? All this time."
"Yes. That was my little secret."
"And you won't tell on me? You won't blab to the police?"
"Elwood, all you have to do is spend your life with me. Just a very small special part of your life. I understand you have commitments. That wretched thing that was yelling, it was your mother, wasn't it? You know she actually thought I was going to rape her. No, Elwood. You have your life, and I just want our Saturdays, and I want the glove back."
"But what do you want now?"
"Here, Elwood. I was hiding this under my raincoat. It's for you. It's a small token of my deepest affection. Don't fuss with the wrapping. Just tear it open. Oh dear, you're trembling. Don't worry. It's not the scrapbook."
Elwood Siever wrested the package from Lester's hands. He found an edge in the thick paper with the little American Beauty roses winking like nuggets in the gloom. And he tore it open. And there against the gray poplin of his lap was a virgin carton of Trueton 400000000BX latex surgical gloves.
"Yes, Elwood. We won't have to wait until next week."