"There!" Betty whispered. "That's the sickness."
At least a dozen bottles were on the coffee table, now, and more on the floor... having multiplied like proverbial fishes and loaves. The salesmen and their wives milled here and there in anxious, rodent haste. Ruth Swan looked up, towards the balcony, and the three spies sank lower, groveling against the hard, cold wood of Waldo's second floor. She was holding a bottle of champagne, and popped the cork right up towards them. It bounced off the wall and struck Howard on the back of his leg. Wayne and Ferdinand were flipping business cards for the same dollar bill, which became progressively grimier with each exchange. Mimi was drawing foreign monsters on the wall, just underneath the masks, with frosting from Waldo's deflated, feathered cake; Karyl and Beatrice were removing their shoes. Beatrice heaved the left pump into Waldo's fireplace. Karyl jammed her right, heel down, into one of the empty bottles. They disappeared beneath the balcony, walking in a hincty-dincty, offsides tandem... shouting, spitting while, behind them, Waldo's magnificent carpet sprouted a Rohrshock of blue foam and dying bubbles.
"I don't think that we ought to go down there," Howard determined.
"Then what do we do?" asked Betty.
Howard reached up to scratch his head, and then remembered their situation and jerked his fingers down. "We watch!"
Beneath them, Harvey staggered from the dining room under a load of leftovers from dinner; cake frosting and lobster, pineapple and vitamins and feathers all smeared together in a common paste over his hands, which he sucked at as he walked, exuding a greedy skein of farts and hiccups. Jake and the beatnik were disputing something. Maybe poetry. The doorbell began to chime.
Beatrice, despite her up-and-down gait, still beat Mimi to the door and opened it. A young woman, smartly attired, entered with a briskfulness of purpose and a vinyl sample case. She set it on a chair, removed her gloves and announced herself.
"I'm Laura Ashbrooke. Avon calling!"
Then she looked about, seeing, for the first time, Harvey... bearing his greasy victuals... the beatnik and disheveled suits and panting salesmen's eyes, the women in identical "Fall Fantasy" dresses without shoes, masks, the rug... the bottles...
"Is this a party?" she asked bravely.
Harvey accosted her with a business card caked with greasy lobster newburg and green and yellow feathers. Ferdinand elbowed him out of the way, and tucked his card down her bodice. Back shrank Laura Ashbrooke. Wayne closed the door and stood against it.
"Don't..." cautioned Ferdie... "we're insurance salesmen. See my card? By the way... are you married?" He raised his arms, a gesture of peace compromised by the champagne flute he was holding. "Strictly business..."
And then, moving so rapidly that Howard lost the gesture in a blink, he charged and pinned the Avon Lady to the wall. She moaned and dropped her sample case and Ruth Swan attacked it.
"Look, Bea... this new creme, remember? That I told you about, Thursday?"
She opened a tube and squirted pale green jelly onto her hands, squeezing and squeezing and squeezing until the tube was empty, and a big, green creamy mountain occupied her palm. This, she wiped across her neck and hair. The Widow Harwood, rooting through the exposed case, pounced upon a small apothecary jar.
Anne squealed. "It's make-up!"
Twisting the cap off the jar, she daubed a heavy, violet smear across her brow, one more stripe for either cheek and Laura Ashbrooke, pushing Ferdinand aside, broke free and charged her, shrieking. Anne stepped back and tossed the jar to Karyl as the Avon Lady stopped to change course. Karyl tossed it back.
"Salugg!" she howled, defiantly. Mimi attacked the case.
"Here's blue mascara!"
She began to make up, using her reflection in an empty champagne bottle as her mirror.
Wayne tackled the Avon Lady. "No fair!" Harvey protested as they rolled across the filthy rug. "Penalty! Penalty!"
And he zipped another of his soiled business cards at Wayne, striking him above the knee. A second clipped Wayne's nose and, with a chorus of oaths and laughter, the rest of the salesmen loosed their cards in a buzzing, biting swarm. Laura raked her assailant's face with long, primly decorated nails and slipped beneath his shoulder, scrambling out the door.
"See what you made me do?" Wayne cried out, standing up amidst the whizzing cards. Three long, red welts were rising, from his ear to chin.
"She was mine," Ferdinand complained.
"Nonsense," Jacob dissented. "Mine!"
The foiled salesmen, muttering, swigged blue champagne and kicked each others' cards across the carpet. By contrast, their delighted wives burrowed ever-deeper into the sample case, with grunts of pleasure and discovery... with oaths and elbows. Cautiously, the spies raised up their heads.
"I think it's blue champagne that's doing it," said Timmy,
"Because it's crazy." Ruth looked up from the sample case and all three ducked again. "Besides, it's Chinese," Timmy offered. "People shouldn't drink it. It's for killing fish!"
"For killing fish?" Howard repeated, slow to understand. "Chinese?"
"Timmy, how..." asked Betty. In the living room beneath them, Mrs. Harwood, blocked out of the looting of the Avon Lady's wares, had put a record on the hi-fi. "Ohhh!" she interrupted herself, "it's Nat King Cole. Let's all go downstairs and dance!"
"No, it's too dangerous," said Howard, firmly. "Go on, Timmy. Tell us what you know about the blue champagne."
"Well, Mr. Slack," he started, with a deep breath, "it began the other day, when Dad drove me home after scouting. We stopped at the Chinese place..."
"That's it. So I am sitting in the car, the back seat, just like always, and I watch Dad going in. He's in the Chinese place five minutes and I didn't think of anything, as if he's getting take-out? No big deal. Then, he comes out and there are these two Chinamen with boxes and they open up the trunk. I don't see what they're doing."
"That's because the trunk is up?" Betty deduced.
"Right! Then I see another little old Chinese man come out, only he's like all of us, you know, in clothes like us? The one that bows when you go in to eat in his restaurant, in his silk jacket and funny pants? And takes your money, when you leave?"
"The boss," Howard nodded, sagely. "Toy Sun!"
Timmy thought this over. "Probably. He could have been the boss, because I saw him shaking hands with Dad, and then Dad gave him money. Lots of money! Anyway, you should have seen what it did to the goldfish."
Betty frowned. "The goldfish?"
"Boy, that was fun," remembered Timmy. "Dad got this goldfish bowl and goldfish from the Five And Ten and opened up a bottle... that's the first time that I saw it was blue. He poured some into the water, in the goldfish bowl, and that turned blue, too. Then the goldfish, which is swimming round and around, real boring, like fish always do, starts swimming crazy. Up and down and up and down, and finally it jumped out of the bowl!"
"And then, what happened?" Betty asked.
"Oh... it died. Kept on swimming faster and faster, and it jumped out of the bowl and on the table. Then, it got enormous!"
He glanced out, over the balcony, and when he as certain that none of his father's demented dinner guests were watching, flung his arms out, wide as they could go. "Like this! But even bigger, bigger than the table! It fell on the floor and flopped around, and then it died, and Dad dragged it out into his workshop in the garage. I didn't see what he did with it because it was time for the insurance history show, with the big rock.
"I think I know about that part," Howard said. "But... are you sure it really was Chinese?"
Betty was indignant. "Honey," she hissed, keeping her voice low enough so nobody downstairs would hear them, "he just said that he was, all of those men. That little old man was Toy Sun... Mrs. Bowden knows him, and they have a daughter in the parochial school. Or maybe it's a granddaughter, I don't remember. He was just wearing American clothes that day, that's all."
"I didn't mean Toy Sun," Howard said, through gritted teeth. "I meant the champagne! Don't you have the intelligence to comprehend a simple question?"
"I'm sorry," said Betty, looking like she was going to cry, except for the fact that the people downstairs would have heard her, so she had to satisfy herself with little sniffles, strung together like a string of little Christmas lights... with some of them going bad and winking on and off, ruining everybody's Christmas.
Howard sneered and turned his head so she wouldn't see as he winked towards Timmy. "Broads!" he said, expressing soft, sincere bewilderment. "Now, were you absolutely sure that it was blue?"
"Of course! I said so!"
"What I meant to say was that... was it Chinese?" Howard made a fist and pressed it to the floor. "I cannot understand why people just don't listen to me."
Betty and Timmy remained silent for a long, embarrassed moment. "Sure," the boy finally said. "Sure... I'll show you. Down there!"
He jerked a thumb in the direction of the place over and beneath his father's balcony.
"There was Chinese writing all over the boxes. I can show you. They're all in the kitchen... in the garbage!"
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