DELIGHT

 

EPISODE 51

So together, hand-in-hand, Howard and Betty Slack passed through the cemetery and arrived at the scene of the fire; a sweltering labyrinth of fire hoses and Lieutenants in their black raincoats, yellow helmets and bullhorns.

"You, there!" one such bullhorn ordered. Howard turned his neck, both to the left and to the right, but could not see any speaker. "Back across the street, with all the other rubber neckers! Off the field! Get off the field!"

Spot broke loose and began to run in circles, barking.

"Dog on the field!" the bullhorn roared. "Dog on the field!"

Two raincoated and helmeted apparitions grabbed Howard and propelled him bodily towards the road, which was full of saw horses, charred boards and the bust of Waldo's owl... somehow rescued from his study. The road was full of ringing telephones and disembodied voices on walkie-talkies, speaking in the intervals between the pealing fire sirens. Now and then a fireman picked up a telephone and shouted comments, orders and reports, none comprehensible. And then, behind the line of saw horses... the rubber neckers; cheering on the fire or the firemen. And, with them, came the music of the ice cream truck and, too, the faint reprise of the approaching Bloodmobile.

Then, the firemen handed Howard over to the Civics.

"Here's another trespasser," they said. "Must be drunk," one added, "to go running around at a fire scene like this!"

"Well if he is," the Civic vowed, "that's just the sort of thing a drunk would do, and we're sworn to prevent. We'll fix him."

The Bloodmobile grew louder, but abruptly came a terrible garble of nonsense. All eyes turned to the driver, cursing and swatting at something mechanical under the seat. Suddenly, a pile of recording tape swelled up and out the window, overflowing down the side of the pickup truck and into the road.

The Bloodmobile fell silent. "Will you look at that?" wondered Howard.

The Civic spat into the road and grabbed him by the collar. "I'd rather look at that than look at you. Disgusting how a man can fall... well, you'll have your fair chance at the obstacle course. If it were up to me, I'd shoot you now!"

Howard yelped in pain. He turned his head in the direction that the Civic held him and the pain decreased, but didn't go away. The rest of the Civics were building a patchwork, matchstick maze of sawhorses, cut lengths of fire hose and burned boards.

Betty arrived, shoes still in hand. Blood still dripped from one high heel.

"Officers," she cried, "stop... it's not fair! He wasn't even driving!"

"Watch your tongue, lady." Howard saw black stumps of teeth and smelled the Civic's hot, uninsured breath. "That may be the case, and it's for a judge to decide... and if he fails, then he won't lose his license. But he'll still have to spend four weekends at the morgue, watching autopsies." And the rest of the Civics roared with stupid, angry laughter.

"Bring him on up!" the Civics called. A barrage of contemptuous comments followed from the rubber neckers in the road as Howard was marched by the scruff of the neck towards the hasty, shaky, charred obstacle course and crowned with a fool's cap of an orange, plastic traffic cone.

"Fires always bring out juvenile delinquents," the Civic leered at Timmy Gray, as he twisted Howard's shoulder spitefully and laughed. "An opportunity to wash their cars for free!"

Sure enough, a dripping sponge flew out of the hooting crowd and smacked Howard wetly on his chest. Covered as he was with tunnel and graveyard dirt, the missile left a downwards trail cleaner than his clothes had been before.

"Wash him!" the crowd directed.

"If you listen to them," advised the mean Civic, "you'll fall off for sure! And then, you're ours." His grip shifted from Howard's shoulder to his ear. "Rabbit ears?" he smirked, and twisted painfully. "Here's the beginning... go!"

He booted Howard towards some cantilevers of burnt wood and hose and sawhorses, the plastic dunce cone toppling off and bouncing back against his shin. Howard stumbled blindly up an incline... boards cracking and hoses bending behind him, windmilled his arms and lunged forward until a charred beam snapped, pitching him down into a mound of regurgitated Bloodmobile tape. Another sponge flew at him, from the crowd, and then... as juvenile delinquents found their range... more sponges, ice-cream cones and bars of soap and more derisive jibes. The amateur astronomer plowed by him, kicking up a cloud of tape.

"Can't you do more about your fire?" he berated the Civic, shouldering his telescope like some fearful weapon. "Your smoke is obscuring the stars!"

"It's not my smoke," the Civic bullishly insisted. "Not my fire! Not my job," he added.

The astronomer turned and departed in a huff as Betty helped Howard out of the recording tape and soap and ice cream.

"Howard... are you alright?" Fierce pain shot through his left ankle and his tailbone. The tape hadn't done a very good job of breaking his fall.

"You'd better leave," the Civic ordered Betty, before he could reply. "The police are here, to take him in for processing." A black maria had backed up, next to the Bloodmobile, cutting off Howard from the hooting juvenile delinquents. Uniformed police broke through the fire line.

"Here's another one for you," the Civic told the officers. "Drunk and trespassing. I bet you'll know what to do with him."

"It's unfair!" Betty protested, nearly in tears. "That wood was burned... and it was double jeopardy. He's already been tested before, once, tonight, and passed. He passed!"

"He'll have his day in court," one policeman promised, grabbing Howard by the neck, another seized his injured ankle and he was thrown bodily into the black maria, crashing on his already aching backside. The back door was slammed behind him like hammer, crashing down upon the devil's anvil.

"Be fallen de angel ob de realm again!"

The darkness in the black maria was black as that of the tunnel... within came scufflings and coughings, then the voice from Howard's past. He ached and remembered. "Althea?"

"Oh de darkness reign triumphant for a little spell, as ol' man Adams prophecy. First de en'less dark and den de light, an' now de dark again. De life an' def ob man..."

"Elias?" Howard would not be cheered. "You'll find out soon enough. In life," he moped, "there is nothing but melancholy and starvation on the television, but in death..."

"Well Massa Howard," said Elias, "what you got to do is dream!"

"Dream?" Howard wondered. "Yes, I see them all... before my dreaming eyes..." The greedy faces of the dead salesmen bobbed up before him like perverse balloons, rising through the dark and through the roof of the black maria with their wives trailing behind, complaining. And the boss... a black balloon that didn't rise much, rather lingered before him... reaching out with a Santa Marta Eight to pop Howard's head. "Help!" he thrashed against his metal confines.

The rest of his musings were interrupted by the starting-up of the black maria. Noxious clouds of gasoline fumes welled up while, from outside, muffled voices and bangings resounded... suddenly the door was opened and the trembling and blinking prisoners hauled out into the light of fire engines, fire and the moon.

"Come out, Howard Slack!" boomed a familiar voice as Howard stumbled blindly forth, trying to favor some of the more hurting places in his body, finally tumbling to his hands and knees."

"Waldo?" he croaked. The boss was standing by the black maria. And, with him, was Marlene.

"The Police Chief is a friend of mine," said Waldo. "A client. You've been released to my custody."

Betty took Howard's hand and helped him out of the black maria.

"It's all been arranged," said the Civic, suddenly deferential. "You won't have to be processed. But you will have to spend four weekends watching autopsies in the morgue, beginning with those..." and pointed to the fire. "That is, if anything is left to autopsy."

"That's the law," Waldo nodded.

"Yes," said Howard. "Yes, sir. Yes... I've learned my lesson.

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