"Well, that is that," sighed Karyl, "and Zack's gone with then. Gone... to a better situation in one bold stroke." Then, her voice turned hard and bitter. "That's the way a real man gets ahead in the real world."
"He would have chosen me," Jacob protested. "He could have taken any of us, if it hadn't been for... Harvey!"
Harvey looked up at the mention of his name. He'd meandered only as far as the porch during Bill Blood's escape, then turned back towards the potted palm with someone else's glass of blue champagne, fingers already digging, compulsively, at Howard's drying vomit, which had a passing resemblance to lobster newburg. The plastic palm fronds waved and susurrated in disgust.
Ruth knocked the glass from his fist, only succeeding in watering the palm. "Don't you ever have enough?" She backed away, with a gesture of loathing. "I cannot even contemplate what detestable lunacy should have caused me to accept your marriage proposal..."
"You were pregnant, remember?" he retorted. "And the boy doesn't look anything like me, does he?" Harvey beseeched the guests.
"Well, I've got a story, too," Beatrice replied. "Wayne... the great war hero. That's what they all believe... well, let me tell you, he was nothing but an errand boy for a corrupted Colonel, miles from the front. A cheap black-marketeer! Do you know how we save our money for Wayne's guns and ammunition? He's still got a forged ID for the PX out by Bingham's Ferry..."
"Well, a black-marketeer is a criminal," Karyl said, "and a criminal's, at least, a man. It's in the genes. But Jake, here, he's so cool he could keep a whole Good Humor truck of popsicles and cherry sundaes stiff with what he's got below the belt."
"But Ferdie..." Mimi Kull protested, glancing round the room. No Ferdie. "Ferdie?"
"I don't think that was William Blood, either," Howard told Betty, drawing her away from the rest of the humiliated salesmen. "It looked sort of like the man on the TV, but where was that wart? It wasn't there."
"They do all sorts of things with make-up," Betty answered. "Howard, there are secrets only women and politicians know. It's something that you shouldn't even ask about."
"Well, alright," Howard, "but I don't think I'll vote for him." He sighed. Gloom had settled in, the guests sulking and glowering. Harvey, finding nothing to eat but dirt, champagne and vomit, touched a cigarette to the guttering candelabra.
"Whatever were his faults," said Ruth Swan, with a wave to take in all the salesmen, "Zack showed initiative. Like Waldo. Either one is worth the lot of you."
"Tell me about it," Mimi seconded, still looking around corners for her husband, peeping out the window. "When I hear Waldo talk about insurance, well... my insides just go soft and creamy."
"I've even had dreams," yawned Karyl, "all about that owl statue that he keeps in his study..."
"Enough!" somebody shouted and the others all looked, bewildered, for it was as if another voice was speaking... someone's middle name. "I've had it!" sneered Harvey. "No more! No more fish sticks, overtime, and no more low-tar Hit Parades for me!"
He yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and hurled it into a wastebasket, stuffed with wadded, crumpled-up Civil Defense forms.
"I'll be the next Vice president," he vowed. "Just watch my smoke! Then watch out, Waldo, I'll take over. I'll be boss! I'll have a secretary and a news ports car and the rest of you had goddam better get out of my way. Ruth and I... we're local people, not like all the rest of you. We graduated from high school! It's been torn down, now, that doesn't matter. They had motto, which we believed in... "Invenimus Vimit Facimus".
Jacob, standing by the restless potted palm, sniffed and look down. When he looked up, again, the frond that had been by his chin was brushing his nose. "Venom, voodoo, vomit..." he muttered, through his drink.
"Is that Latin?" asked Beatrice.
"Damn straight," Harvey replied. "And it means 'we will find the way... or we will make it!'"
He raised his right hand to his neck and tore off his shirt and tie in one abrupt and savage move, then turned his back to all. Their gasps and cries even drowned out the hi-fi.
Harvey had tattooed his back.
The Waldo Gray Insurance owl ruffled its feathers with his every breath. A web of cherubs, serpents, hearts pierced through with daggers, devils, telephones and naked women fanned out towards his biceps. He posed and flexed.
And Betty's nose began to twitch.
"Look!" she pointed. "A fire!"
Harvey's cigarette had set the papers in the wastebasket on fire. Dark, blue smoke wafted up.
"Oh my... my..." worried Ruth, "first the battery ran down and then you made a fool of yourself before all my relatives. And, now, we have a fire! And those... those terrible tattoos, Harvey, they weren't there the last time that we... did you get them after work? Have you been sneaking off to Ziggy's?"
"Never you mind!" he retorted, grabbing a half-filled bottle of champagne. "Nobody asked me what my middle name was. I don't care, now. I won't tell. I'll prove it, instead!
He poured the champagne into the wastebasket. There was a thunderclap, a fireball and Harvey staggered back. His pants were burnt to tatters and the owl tattoo to a smoky and leering buzzard. Leaping blue flames nuzzled Waldo's drapes.
"Fire!" Betty cried again, just in case someone had missed it the first time.
"Someone call the firemen," Howard called out.
Jacob stretched his lanky frame and smiled, sadly. "They wouldn't give us the time of day, not after Waldo cancelled their insurance policies. Besides, who's afraid of a little fire? Not me..."
He pulled Wayne's gun from the pocket of his blazer, swaying slightly as he pretended to take a careful aim. He fired. A tongue of wounded flame jerked across the bottom of the windowsill, igniting the other set of drapes.
"Stop him!" warned Beatrice. "Wayne, he's drunk. Get a hold of yourself! I'll bring you some of Marlene's hot espresso coffee," she decided, pushing through the guests back to the dining room. "That will wake you up..."
"I don't drink espresso," Wayne said, dreamily, staring at the fire. In its shadows and cavortings, immeasurable Canadian evils presented their possibilities. His eyes dropped to his hand, whose fingers twitched, as if to hold the gun. Where had it gone? He'd heard a shot! But the only sounds now were the muted hi fi, the chatter of the guests and a distant hiss from the Italian machine.
"Betty," Howard dictated, "help me look for a fire extinguisher. There has to be one in Waldo's library. These people aren't going to be of much use," he added.
The big stuffed fish regard both Slacks with bemused and tired gazes as they searched all the shelves and crannies of the library. In Waldo's desk, Howard found drawers of rusty nails and screws and bolts, dead spark plugs, pens that didn't write and stubby, used-up candles. He gave the metal safe a shake, but it protected its contents. Betty, on her hands and knees, crawled underneath the table.
"Darling," she cried out, "there are some wires here, and metal boxes. Is this a new kind of safety contraption?"
Howard bent and peered under the table. "Christ, Betty," he swore, "it's a Norwald Group Thinkometer. That conniving Waldo!"
"What?" asked Betty, scooting backwards from the table so as not to bump her head when she stood up.
"It's a device that measures thinking," Howard told her. "You attach it to the armrests of somebody's chair. The pressure people give off while they talk about themselves tells you whether they've told the truth." He was backing up slowly, following a tiny wire across the carpet and up the wall to a six foot swordfish with a little button, just under its bill. "Watch!" he said and pressed the button.
The side of the fish fell away. Within, a teletype was clicking, and torrents of graph paper with a host of zigzag lines tumbled to the floor.
"Results!" he said triumphantly.
"None of this has anything to do with safety!" Betty warned. "Howard, I'm frightened! We should leave this place."
"We'll leave," he vowed. "I've found out all I need. The boss makes people who want to buy policies sit in his office, where he's got another one of those... things!" Betty cringed. "He asks them about their bad habits and, then, sometimes sends them out. I've lost a lot of commissions that way. And now, turns out he's had this one all along... for us!"
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