Jacob returned from the library, carefully closing the door behind him so that all of Waldo's guests could hear the lock snap back. He held aloft a dead mouse in a trap.
"Hooray for Jacob!" Karyl cheered. A stony silence followed.
"Well, what are you going to do with it?" asked Betty.
This question seemed to disturb the hero. He brought it to the television, and turned the volume back down to but a whisper. Then he placed the trap atop the set, so near to its edge that the tail of the dead mouse dangled down over the screen. A man in a white shirt daubed filthy grease across his palms, and smiled. The quivering, dead tail waved back and forth across his scalp as though it were a metronome, or a particularly skinny toupee on a windy night.
"Well," Jacob said, "it's Waldo's mouse. We'll leave it for them! Waldo and Marlene are just so goddamn smart, we'll let them figure out what to do with it!"
Howard glanced away from the television. Ferdinand was squatting by the lamp and Karyl, losing interest in Jake's conquest, brought one of Marlene's forks to him and asked, "do you think this pattern looks like roses?"
"Gosh," said the former chaplain, "I thought that it was some sort of ivy."
"Hey... anyway..." Jacob announced, raising his voice to be heard across the room, "this is supposed to be a business meeting."
"You can't have a business meeting here without Waldo," Harvey complained.
Howard turned this over in his mind. Indeed! "Aren't we the ones whose living is dependant on our policies?" he spoke up. "Of course we are. Now, has anyone a suggestion about what to do with the Canadians?"
"You don't really have to ask," Wayne snorted. "Compulsory insurance... auto, life, health, property over, say, five hundred... once the government and the police are in the ball game, they'll be looking out for their own. They'll have those Canucks running, howling, back to Montreal... tails between their legs!"
"What a drag!" the beatnik cut in, unexpectedly. "What if all our tragic heroes had to have insurance? Lincoln? Hamlet? Why, our culture would have been a wasteland. Would you have written up a policy for Huckleberry Finn? Or for General Stonewall Jackson?" He turned to Howard. "You?"
"Ahh... but I've got you there," Wayne gloated and Howard nodded with him. "The answer, my mushbrained friend, is that it wouldn't make a wooden nickel's worth of difference. Who of us can predict war, runaway slaves or John Wilkes Booth? Not even Hartford! Anyway, their beneficiaries would invest the monies received... probably in securities or precious metals, as the age dictated, but certainly the greater portion of it would have been recycled into newer, up-to-date policies. That's how it would have gone!"
"But not for me," reminded Mrs. Harwood. "I'm going to spend all that money on myself! Furs and jewels and a sports car... and a closetful of shoes that never pinch!"
"Don't say that," Betty warned again. "What would Waldo and Marlene think of talk like that, in their own house?"
"Who'd tell them?" the widow challenged. "And, even if someone did, what would it matter? Think a little... when Waldo took that call from Hartford, he said it was in a different time zone. It was... it was in an earlier time zone. It's later there than here, and it's later than you think! Lies... all lies! I don't work and I'm not afraid of Waldo anymore. Not like certain other people... yes, I'm talking about you. Look at you! Why I bet there's not a one of you here who ever broke the law."
"That's not true," Jacob declared, pointing past the television. "I have mysterious talents. Remember, I broke into Waldo's library and removed that dead mouse."
"That's nothing," Harvey blurted out. "When I was seventeen, I killed the next door neighbor's dog. I used my brother's shotgun... they never even suspected. He got whipped for it," he added proudly.
"You never told me that," Ruth said, with a derisive cough.
"Well, I forgot..."
"But when you're seventeen," Mrs. Harwood objected, "well... that doesn't count. Every adolescent is a criminal. I'm talking about now. For example... all those chairs, and that sofa with the tags you can't remove. What if a poor widow needed one?"
"Just look at me!" Jacob said, still smarting at Harvey's one-upper. He gulped his champagne for confidence, got on his hands and knees, and reached beneath the sofa. Howard saw his arm begin to twist and jerk and then there was a soft, parting sound. Jake came up with the tag, holding it aloft, like the winning ticket in the Irish Sweepstakes.
"I can do that too!" said Ferdinand, and dashed from chair to chair, tearing off the forbidden tags. When he had three, presented them to Mrs. Harwood like a bouquet, and she kissed his forehead. Everyone applauded except for Jacob, Ruth and Mimi. Harvey even gave a condescending little nod, like a criminal mastermind appreciating the work of a promising juvenile delinquent.
"If I'd known you were a murderer," Ruth said, puncturing his bubble, "I would never have married you. I'd have married Wally Finch, instead."
Harvey exploded. "In the name of Jesus Christ, it was a dog, a goddam dog, a mutt... not even purebred. Now cut it out. Don't push me! Last night, after we came back from Toy Sun and you said that you were tired, like you always do... do you know what I did? I made a list. A list... of all the people who torment me. And, do you know who was on top of that list? You!"
He turned to Mrs. Harwood.
"You look at me like I'm Henry, don't you... like these other bums out there, with their cushy, bum jobs? Her relatives!" he added, glancing over his shoulder at Ruth. "Bums!" he accused the salesmen. "Waldo, too, and all those people at the country club. Well, look at this!"
He snatched the illegal tags away from Mrs. Harwood so angrily that two of them floated away. The third, he placed in an ashtray on the coffee table. He took a small yellow and blue can from his pocket and squirted lighter fluid over it, damping down the "Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law" side, and then he touched his lighter to it. Within seconds, the tag was no more than a cinder.
The beatnik snapped his finger. "Crazy, man..."
Betty pulled Howard from the circle. "Darling, I think Harvey's drunk," she whispered.
"What?" he answered. "Drunk? No... gee..." and Howard looked over his shoulder, his voice dropping to a softness beneath even that of the television. "I've seen Harvey drunk. He gets a little wild, sure, sorry for himself most of the time, but not so... irresponsible. Tonight is different!"
"I think you're right," muttered Betty. "And it isn't only Harvey."
A second mouse darted across the rug... gathering up, with it... all of the phony joie de vivre of the salesmen and their crimes and celebrations. Now the guests stood here and there, alone, wearing sour smirks of resignation.
"Let's face it," Jacob spoke up, in their common gloom, "we're sunk. If any of us were going to be Vice President, Waldo would have invited him along to the fire. Henry Harwood always went to Waldo's fires. Waldo goes alone. Ergo, Waldo goes outside the company. Maybe even gives the job to some dumb Canuck... who gives a fuck? We're shafted... and there's not a damn thing any one of us can do about it!"
The salesmen moped in moments of intolerable, murky silence. Howard stared down at the carpet, over which green and yellow feathers, raised up by the rodent's dash, still eddied.
"Well, there's something I can still do," Wayne said. "I can get smashed!"
"And on Waldo's wine," said Karyl. "Now that's justice... fill me up, too..."
Betty put her hand over her mouth. "Maybe," she suggested meekly, we could listen to some nice music..."
But the suggestion was greeted with contempt. Harvey, in his eagerness, knocked over a still half-filled bottle of champagne. Howard pointed to the carpet. "Somebody," he declared, "should wipe that up."
"How about you," scowled Wayne. "Or let Waldo bring in the Canucks to deal with it. I'm through kissing his ass!"
Zack shuffled towards the stain, which was emitting a sizzling sound and a nacreous pink and purple smoke that drifted, six inches above the carpet. He knelt, cocked his head and sniffed. He put his glass down on the carpet, bent lower, sniffed deeper and twisted his neck, as if following the contour of the spreading stain. "No, leave it lie. Dig on those colors, man, that's what you call, you know, art." He grasped his glass. "Just needs a little shading, over this way." And, holding three fingers across the glass, he splattered champagne across the fringes of the stain. New clouds arose. "Perfect!" he declared, drinking the residue. "Just like Picasso, naturally from his ah... blue period?"
The widow snapped her fingers. "Here! Here!"
"Why don't you get a pair of scissors," Mimi Kull suggested, "and cut it out? You could hang it on the wall. Right over... there!"
All eyes followed her finger towards the space up on the wall next to the stairs, where rested Waldo's proud collection of wooden African masks. Harvey seized the nearest, held it to his face, and jumped on the sofa.
"Bongo, bongo, bongo... wanna go go to da Congo!"
"Me Tarzan," Wayne roared. "You Jane!" and his gaze wandered around the room, as if he didn't quite know to whom this should be directed. Meanwhile, the rented beatnik had mounted a chair, crouched and began to scratch his armpits through the corduroy beatnik jacket, howling like a monkey. Harvey stepped off of the sofa and navigated an unsteady course through chairs and lamps, stopping to glare at Betty. In the hollows of the mask his eyes burned, insinuating tropical fires..."
"Ca...caca..." Harvey sputtered, "...cowabunga!"
He began a disoriented dance, but quickly lost interest. With a harmless shrug, he tossed the mask aside. It bounced beneath the coffee table. Howard gripped Betty by the shoulders and steered her towards the stairs.
"We have to go to the bathroom," he explained over his shoulder. "Excuse us!"
"Together?" Beatrice giggled.
When they were a part of the way up, Howard paused and scratched his ear. "Something strange is going on here... I can feel it. Gee, if only Waldo hadn't gone. He'd know what was going on... and what to do about it."
"Darling," Betty whispered, "...maybe Timmy? Maybe he would know?"
And Howard's eyes widened, blinking like red lights on a pinball game. "We'll do it! We'll ask Timmy!"
å å å å å å å å
RETURN to “DELIGHT” HOMEPAGE