While a contrite Howard clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, Betty rolled her eyes. The Civics smiled. Waldo and Marlene smiled.
The firemen smiled… the fire blazed on…
“But Mr. Gray... sir… your, your h-house..." Howard stammered…
Waldo frowned, glancing towards the fire. He removed a pair of glasses from his pocket, wiped them on his shirt and put them on.
"Why there it is, it is! Well, how about that... after all these years. Marlene... we'll never have to put up with that rickety washing machine again. How about that, Howard... finally burned up on me! After all these years. Well, all that I can say is burn, you bastard... burn!"
"Mr. Gray!" Howard protested. "It's your home, how can you..."
"All insured, young man," the boss assured him, "all insured. I'll build a better one... in fact, I'll start tonight. Marlene!"
Mrs. Gray, in her old brown coat and pearls, provided Waldo with one of the fire department telephones. Waldo removed a cigar, lit it, and traced a Chinese dragon across the sky.
"Get me my contractor," Waldo ordered. "Not the guinea... Robinson! Wake him if you have to! I want his newest continental model... and order aluminum siding and, especially, the all-fluorescent lighting."
Marlene saluted and began to dial. A fireman approached.
"Beg pardon, sir, we've saved a few of your things." He motioned over his shoulder. "This way, boys."
A queue of firemen with their hands swathed in protective rags proceeded to offer up tribute to the President of the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency. The first held a scorched, black box.
"The accounts and policies of the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency," Waldo cried, gleefully. He opened the safe with the key that he kept around his neck, held up a fistful of papers and the juvenile delinquents and rubber neckers cheered. "Saved... saved, through the miracle of insulation! Next!"
Another firefighter handed Waldo a smaller, black box, as outwardly burnt as the other.
"The silver! Good silver is second only to insurance as a keepsake and investment."
He opened the box... which had not been insulated. The Grays' dinnerware had melted into fantasmic shapes and parallelograms. "Well, so is abstract art... I think." He passed the box of silver abstract art to Marlene and picked up the receiver.
"At once, Robinson! Yes... I'll be writing myself a check this very evening."
He returned the telephone to Marlene. A fireman lay the last, unopened bottle of champagne at his feet, another brought forth the alabaster Owl; two more tugged his rocking chair forward.
"Set it up the other way," Waldo pointed. "Towards this wonderful fire."
"Good man. Marlene," he called, "...bring some of those calendars we have in the trunk. They still have two months to run."
As the grateful firemen pretended to squabble over his insurance calendars, Waldo settled in his rocking chair to watch the fire.
"Bye bye, house," Marlene said, behind him, as a blue smoke ring blew past. "Bye bye, Timmy."
"But Timmy's safe," Betty informed her. "He was in the cemetery with us, I think he's around, somewhere..."
"Oh! How... nice," Mrs. Gray said with an abstracted frown.
The house collapsed with a roar and a shower of sparks. Blazing mice raced across the lawn in every direction, firing up the lawn. The lieutenant called to his firemen...
"Stomp them out!"
And Waldo watching, blowing another ring of pure, blue smoke. "And that's the last of my Santa Marta Sixes, too," he noted, shaking his shaggy head. "Next fishing trip, I'll be casting for a case of Premium Eights and, for the special occasion, I hear that those Cuban people have developed Number Tens!" He blew another smoke ring, and Howard nodded.
"All of them, lost!" Betty said, confronting one of the firemen, who had turned his back to her. "The salesmen and their wives... and Mrs. Harwood, too! Who cares? Do you?"
The fireman turned, and sympathetically extended her a wooden stake, on which was impaled a sizzling haunch of flesh. "It sort of tastes like lobster. Good! There's lots of it around... want some?"
"Go stomp mice!" Betty snapped, and returned to Howard's side.
"Why it's as simple as baseball and Ballantine," Waldo was explaining, and motioned the Slacks closer. "Now listen, Howard... Betty... there's no reason for alarm. They may all be gone..."
He paused to blow a great smoke ring, enclosing them within a moon of blue trust.
"...but every one of them had life insurance! Their beneficiaries... even Ferdie's new kitten... all will be cared for in the manner of their custom and the dictates of their estates for the remainder of their natural lives, Betty, and this is all made possible under the terms of their insurance policies. These policies need never fear that they may lapse again! They have been paid to the capacity of their beholden. Do you, for a moment, think the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency such an ephemera as to be lain low by the loss of an auxiliary office and a few of its salesmen? No, Betty... it is more than that! Why, do you know that, if headquarters downtown were to be taken from us, yes, were even we, ourselves, enveloped by the Reaper's cloak... the policies of the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency would remain in full force and effect! Stop, it is true... were the town itself to vanish, this would not be changed, nor even all of Hartford... for, you see, the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency is buttressed by the powers of insurance everywhere and, beyond that, by forces such as we dare not even comprehend. So let the fire have their play, the elements their day, I say... here's one last bottle of champagne. A toast!
Waldo raised the bottle and aimed it at the reddening moon. Five red, loud, hot explosions answered, punctuating the night.
"The cars!" a fireman called out. "We couldn't save them. All the doors were locked."
"Quite reasonably," said Waldo, setting the bottle down with visible regret. Yours was insured, wasn't it?"
A voice intruded. "Mr. Slack! Mr. Slack!"
"Who is that?" said Howard. "Paula? What are you doing, here?"
The baby sitter was holding a big, wooden box, with pictures of cabbages. Something inside, covered by blankets, rustled and yawned.
"Here are the babies," Paula said. "I saved them from the fire." She glared accusingly at Betty. "They say your old hi fi couldn't handle my Elvis Presley record."
"Glory be," said Howard, "...safe! You'll get another album, and a fine, big tip for this! Just wait... oh, my wallet was in my coat, and my coat was... well, I'll pay you as soon as..."
His outstretched hand dropped slowly, as through pudding. "Wait a minute... Paula... this is the fire!"
"The other fire, young man," Waldo corrected from his rocking chair. "The fire at your house! But with these..." he gestured to the blackened box of policies... "you'll shortly be resettled. And Marlene presented Howard with his hat.
"We found it by the side of Deer Point Road, rolling and rolling along on its merry little way; no doubt towards your residence. It would have been disappointed, poor thing, or even burned to a crisp, so we picked it up."
Howard brushed it off on his trousers, and placed it on his head. And then, as if electrocuted, began to shake, and fell to his knees before Waldo.
"Mr. Gray," he coughed, "sir, all the others... I don't think they made it out..."
"So I gather," the boss concurred. "Well, I guess this means that you are our new Vice President! Congratulations, Howard. You'll find an extra twenty dollars in your envelope, come Friday."
The news struck him like a second jolt, and pitched Howard to his belly, where he groveled before Waldo like a viper.
"But... but..." he slithered, "...sir, I don't deserve this..."
"Howard," Betty warned. Her expression was icy, as she pounded the bloody heel into her palm. Howard rose to one knee.
"You see," he said, "I've done a foolish thing. I bought a Canadian insurance policy. This lady charmed me, the saleslady. She caught me in a weakness." Howard bowed his head, and slapped his knee for emphasis. "And, dammit, she sold me!"
Waldo extended a hand, snapping his fingers. "I trust you have the policy? Hand it over!"
"Certainly. Certainly." He dug the policy, crumpled and sooty, from his pocket and handed it up to Waldo. The boss glanced at the first page, flipped through the small print to the signatures, squinted, nodded... and returned it to Howard.
"A bit damp, but looks fine to me. I guess, with all that extra money," Waldo grunted, "you'll be moving up to Haddon Heights sooner, rather than later. That's a good neighborhood for the up and coming sorts, like you. Smart investment, Howie... just the sort of thing that I'd expect from a Vice President. I'll fix things up with Hartford so you won't have to attend any more liability seminars... there are better things to do with life. Like fishing!"
Marlene winked at Betty.
Howard leaped up, triumphant.
"Gee, Betty, did you hear that? We'll have a house in Haddon Heights... on the bright side of the street. A new car and a color television! Thank you, Mr. Gray, thank you..."
"Why don't you accustom yourself to calling me Waldo," the boss remarked. "And don't thank me... you're merely earning your keep. Beginning at once! Here are some of Henry Harwood's old business cards. All of these people here... some are the clients of tomorrow!"
"Gee Mr. Gray... Waldo... a Vice President doesn't sell insurance, not to people like those." Howard gestured towards the rubber neckers, Civics and the juvenile delinquents. "He delegates authority, to the sales force. But without a sales force... Waldo, what about Mr. and Mrs. McKee, the slaves whom I met in the tunnel? They will need jobs. Can you use your influence to get them out of jail? I want to hire them."
"Former slaves?" Waldo raised an eyebrow. "A woman?" He raised the other, pondered, blew a great, blue smoke ring that drifted towards the fire. "Well... why not? The winds of change are breaking, and we must stay up to date. Marlene... a telephone! Get me the Chief of Police..."
"Mr. Gray," said Betty, firmly, "I have to..."
"All in time," Waldo put her off, taking the telephone, "...all in due, due time. Hello, Chief... yes, those vagrants whom you've picked up at my fire? Yes, I'll vouch for them... have them brought right back! See you Tuesday morning at the Country Club. What's that... yes, I've a candidate in mind. Good night!"
"I'll let them pass out my business cards until they have cards of their own," Howard suggested. "That way, nothing goes to waste."
"Capital!" Waldo agreed. "A Vice President must be mindful of economies. Statistics, accounts, economies... these are the number we live by, as surely as the ancient wise magicians of Chaldea lived by the movement of the stars. The fundamental nature of a system is that its performance is never merely the sum of its parts; rather, it is a consequence of the interaction of these part... the idea, the man, and his tools of the trade."
He removed an object from his pocket and delivered it up to Howard, who held it against the moon as more fire sirens pealed.
"This is a calculator, Howard, by which the tedious percentages of commerce may be swiftly and accurately resolved. If it had existed in poor Henry's time, perhaps he would have lived a longer, more productive life." Then Waldo chuckled. "Actually, I've had it for months. But why teach an old dog new tricks?"
"Thank you, sir," said Howard. "You won't regret it."
The sirens began winding down, and Howard observed they were not fire engines but police cars and, in their midst, rumbled the black maria. The back door was unbolted and, surrounded by surly police, the slaves gingerly approached Waldo and Howard. Waldo raised his hand in a gesture of dismissal, and the police melted away.
"Welcome to the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency," he said, extending a hand upwards to the slaves. "Work hard and cheerfully and, some day, you'll be standing in my shoes... or sitting, rather, in this fine old rocker! Perhaps, before that time, you'll be promoted," he added, with a sideways wink that Howard found disconcerting. "Say, what are those medals that you're wearing?"
Howard stared, despite himself. He had only seen the slaves dimly, inside the black maria and, before that, by matchlight in the tunnel.
Elias fingered his medal. "That me makumbah!" he said, softly. "It protect us from de evil eye..."
Waldo nodded as he unlocked his strongbox, removing a sheaf of blank policies. "I understand perfectly, I understand! Have either of you ever seen an insurance policy?" he asked. "No... of course not. Well, think of this, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, as merely one more makumbah. A talisman against the darkness and unknown, which you have been authorized to sell to all those people, out there in the night."
Waldo gestured outwards, then brought his fingers together in a snap. "Howard... the business cards!"
"Thank you, Massa Howard," said Elias and Althea. "Thank you! We sell up dese paper makumbah to de people out dere... eat 'em up right quick!"
Armed with their policies and business cards, the freed slaves left to begin their careers. Waldo reached into his pocket.
"Howard, you look like a man who could use another cigar. I foresee a future for you, even, ahem... an expense-paid vacation in a year or two..."
"Really, sir..." Howard objected.
"I'll warn the fish in advance. Why, I feel so happy," Waldo stated, rising from the rocker, "I could play the xylophone." He knotted his eyebrows. "But, it's gone! No matter... it was covered. Instead, I'll buy a saxophone! Let the salesmen pass out business cards and knock on doors. You'll play golf with doctors, bankers and the people who invest in real estate. That's where the real money is." He tapped his finger to his nose, three times.
As Howard was agreeing, perhaps too enthusiastically, the tape had gradually been snuckering back up into the Bloodmobile; consumed and digested by corrective machinery in the front seat. Presently it was working again... first haltingly, and then in firm, confident cadences.
'Vote for William Blood, Incumbent, who will never confuse a healthy moderation with the interests of this community for firm and forthright representation. And now, in his own words… here's Bill Blood..."
The politician's disembodied voice beguiled fire-watchers as the police shepherded two bedraggled men with long, black beards and broken, snuffed-out lanterns towards the black maria, wherein the slaves and Howard had so recently reposed.
"Look!" said Howard. "Those are the bounty hunters who attacked us, under ground! They followed us out of the tunnel!"
"Well it serves them right," said Betty, and she put her palms to her lips. "Hooray for the police!" she shouted.
Waldo sat back down in his chair and blew six intertwining smoke rings. "Well, that may be so. All the same, they were only trying to make a living in a manner perfectly consistent for the circumstances of their upbringing."
"Golly, sir, you're right!" Howard realized. "They should have the same chance as the rest of us!"
Waldo smiled as Howard whistled for Elias McKee.
"Go tell those police," he told his salesman, that we understand the Slakers, and we want to rehabilitate them. If they wish, the brothers can join our sales staff... that will restore it to its former strength... almost," he added, counting his fingers. "Give them business cards, and show them what to do."
Elias left to confer with the confounded, thrice-disappointed army of police. Again, they reluctantly opened up the black maria. Peaked hats in hand, the bounty hunters shuffled back towards Howard.
"Ah sure wish to thank you for yo' trouble, suh," said Jared Slaker. "Most folks would stay vengesome but, next to Gen'rals Jackson and Lee, Augustus an' myself esteem you the most honorable man we ever have done met. Now, we'll try to do the best we can, an' be civil for the former slaves, as well. We will lay aside our brotherly oaths and mythological abominations, and try to get along with other folks."
"Indeed, do so," Waldo advised. "And be sure to set aside a portion of your pay for policies of your own!"
August Slaker begged Betty's pardon. "An' ah don't blame you, ma'am for the having to put out my eye. We wuz just trying to do our job..."
"Well, that's that!" Betty answered. "And someday, if it all works out, we'll all go back down in the tunnel, just to reminisce... and then we'll have a picnic."
Their hell-hound, Caiphas, trailed behind the Slakers, followed close by a sniffing, excited Spot.
"Do you see that, Betty?" Howard nudged her. "Looks like our ferocious Caiphas wasn't nothing but a she-bitch!" Spot barked, delightedly, and mounted the Slakers' dog. "Getting ideas?" Howard nudged his wife.
"Oh shut up, you!" Betty replied.
Far across town, the church bells tolled the hour.
"Midnight!" Howard solemnly declared. "Tomorrow's here."
"How true! How true!" said Waldo, settling back into his rocking chair, beneath which he had stashed the blistered box of policies. "There is the full moon, watching, like an onion in an ice-cold martini. And the Red Cross, with their coffee and those jelly donuts, which I love so dearly. Beneath us, the bedrock of insurance and, before us... this delightful fire!"
And the boss picked up the last, unbroken bottle of the blue champagne, again, as Marlene tapped the Civil Defense triangle.
"Mr. Gray," said Betty, "I am overwhelmed and pleased by all that has occurred, but there are things I feel it is my duty to point out. You see... we found a box with Chinese writing in your kitchen. And there was a pile of poison ivy... two piles, a bird and radio, and lobsters, too, so... Mr. Gray... are you a Communist?"
"A Communist?" laughed Waldo. "Why, of course not... I am an insurance man. That champagne comes from Good China, a gift from Toy Sun, one of my oldest, dearest clients. And here's the last of it! We'll drink to risk. To risk!"
The cork popped upwards, and passed in an arc across the sky, towards the moon. The amateur astronomer erupted from his garden, aiming his telescope, but too late... too late! The Red Cross, with their donuts, closed in. Waldo beckoned with his cigar towards the Red Cross ladies as Marlene passed out paper cups of champagne.
"And now," he said, "let's eat... and drink!"
"If I may, sir..." Howard interrupted.
"Call me Waldo," snapped the boss, distracted from the promise of the Red Cross donuts. Nonetheless, he held his cigar up for Howard, to touch to his own, and both accepted paper cups of blue champagne from Marlene. Betty glowered, but accepted champagne, too.
Then Waldo, rising from his rocker, raised his cup.
"A toast!" he proclaimed. "A toast, to all of us. To glory! Glory! And to the world, and God, and to the Waldo Gray Insurance Agency!"
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