- Continued -
“I, we, wouldn’t have considered any offer, wouldn’t have even talked, had there been any plan to undermine the very people whose hard work and deter—”
“We come in Monday or not?” the same voice heckled. Only one ridiculous guffaw responded this time, from a man named Sleeves, the office drunk. Someone told him to shut up.
“Of course we can’t dictate policy to the new owners,” Randal practically whispered, “business just doesn’t work that way.” He smiled, enjoying his hold on them. “But their management team assured me, assured me, and I want this to be absolutely clear, that no,” he began underlining the words for emphasis, “changes are anticipated for the foreseeable future.”
The few relieved flutters were limited to a minority of wishful thinkers; everyone else looked less satisfied.
“Now, this isn’t anywhere in writing, and I can’t point to such and such line in the contract, but a top man, and I’m not mentioning names, told me he didn’t see any reason to make staff changes for at least two years. Said it would take them that long just to learn our way of doing things.” Somebody howled “Aw ri-i-i-ght,” and Randal basked in clamorous applause. “So it’s up to you, guys!” he cheered. “Show them how we do things at Groton Realty!”
A shout went up, a champagne cork popped and ricocheted off the ceiling. Jasper scampered after it, and the laughter this time was genuine. A hand came to rest on Randal’s shoulder.
“You bullshitting?” Albert Keene said into his ear, quietly.
Without turning to face him, Randal said, “Absolutely not.” He shrugged from under the hand.
“That include me?”
As he smiled and nodded for his audience, which had formed into a sort of procession to pass before the throne, he noticed Albert’s wife, Beryl, hovering just behind him. The two-headed monster’s other head, he thought malevolently, the toxic brunette with all the brains. Albert could be fatuous or dull, sometimes chatty, otherwise he was only blond. Magnificently blond.
“You’re in writing,” he assured him, “the only one. I absolutely insisted on that.”
Joy Love bubbled up in line and Randal turned his full attention to the good-natured lady from Personnel. Albert knew this was meant to dismiss him, but he stood there until she at last bubbled away again.
“Thanks, Rand. Really.”
Suddenly, Beryl coiled around her husband and struck at Randal’s cheek with her lips. “Hiya Randy,” she crooned.
“Beryl,” he said dryly. She was thanking him. He’d spared her husband’s job.
He knew that was why they came, all of them. Jobs. And he knew they didn’t give two hoots whether he had a “happy early retirement” or fell in front of a bus. If anything they were envious, resentful of his success at Groton. The only reason he’d put a word in for Albert was— was what? He hated to think he owed him anything. Keene’s allegiance was for sale, and Randal had always paid. Without Beryl pushing from behind, Albert would be a nonentity, a nothing, instead of chief financial officer of a successful firm. He despised people like the two-headed monster, who made it their life’s work to sniff out and befriend the rich and well-placed. Anyone with eyes could see them toting up, sorting, and occasionally crossing off some “friend” who’d outlived his usefulness. Randal wondered if he would at last be shed of them now that he’d left Groton. There was always hope.
“Uh, Mr. Paxton? Tommy Gunder.”
Submerged in his own thoughts, Randal had almost lost consciousness of the well-wishers who shuffled past his throne; in business one wasted so much time in small talk. He’d learned to smile and utter pleasantries, even feign interest in vacations and children and golf while his mind toiled elsewhere. Mouths formed words, one perfume assaulted the next, hands clasped and unclasped his own; all a dull blur until Randal held what felt like a warm, raw steak in his palm and looked up to see Tommy Gunder.
“Mr. Paxton, sir,” he mumbled apologetically, “I wanted to give you something for…”
Randal withdrew his hand from Tommy’s and stifled the urge to wipe it on his trousers. Gunder, hulking oaf, the clod…
“The employee of the month!” Randal said, grimacing. “I never congratulated you, Gunder.”
“Everybody knows how busy you are, Mr. Pa—”
“Not at all, not at all.” Randal remembered the upholstered arms of his chair and gave his palm a good scrub. The idea had been Keene’s to award Tommy the honor, as part high humor and part slap to a female underling who, however deserving of the prize, had spurned a Keene flirtation.
When he learned he’d won, Gunder, the artless buffoon, wept.
“Here,” said Tommy, holding out a small, gift-wrapped box between huge thumb and index finger. Randal looked sick. Gunder was so preposterously without guile he failed even as a toady. But every company needed one; some large sponge to soak up abuse, a rube to send out after unpromising leads no one else would follow.
“Why, thank you, Gunder. Perhaps, though, I should, ah, open it later.” It would be just like the idiot to give him a watch or jewelry, thought Randal with dismay, something extravagant in its inappropriateness.
Tommy’s face sagged with disappointment. “Sure,” he said, morosely. He turned to slump away and almost tripped over Jasper. There was a little frightened shriek, but before Tommy could stoop to clap his massive hands on him, the dog sprang into Randal’s lap. Out of harm’s way, it fidgeted from knee to knee, tail stub vibrating.
“Oh, no, Mr. Paxton, oh, poor little doggy.”
“It’s all right,” said Randal irritably. With Gunder there was often a scene. Around the room, heads were turning.
“My feet are so darn big.”
Jasper had already put the incident behind him, his every nerve excited by the glittering foil-wrapped item in his master’s hand. He struck like a weasel and vaulted free.
The dog skidded into the forest of legs. A delighted gasp went up and then pandemonium as “catch the dog” replaced the tedious game of celebrating someone else’s success.
“It’s his favorite trick,” Randal told Gunder. “He opens packages.”
“You should see him at Christmastime.”
Jasper dodged and darted, just out of reach, taunting them with his glossy prize. The foil bow trailed by a length of ribbon, and Sleeves had the drunken inspiration to stamp on it. But the ribbon only came off the package and Sleeves required the assistance of two coworkers to remove the flattened bow from the bottom of his shoe. Jasper continued to circle his audience at a majestic, high-stepping trot like a tiny Lipizzaner stallion.
Randal’s Porsche roared up the ramp and into the glare of the still-bright afternoon. After having cornered Jasper in a service elevator, he dismissed a posse of flush-faced volunteers, assured them he would return as soon as he’d dealt with the dog, and quietly took the elevator to the parking garage. On the way down, he ordered Jasper to “release” and inspected the soggy remains of Gunder’s present. There was a sizable hole in the box, some tissue, and nothing else. Damned if he were going back to search for it. Maybe a hotel employee would find whatever it was and turn it in.
Driving home he worried, fleetingly, about sneaking away from his own party. Until Jasper had shown him the perfect escape, he’d assumed he was trapped until the last boor departed, condemned to recite warm farewells to the same idiot’s parade to which he’d only just recited hellos. To make up for disappearing, he’d mail a few key organizers thank-you notes.
Or, then, maybe he wouldn’t. Certainly, he didn’t plan on seeing any of them again.
“You saved me, buddy,” Randal crooned, giving Jasper’s tail stub an affectionate pinch. The dog usually rode in his lap, but with the top down he preferred to lean out the passenger window, ears flapping in the rush of air. Randal smiled paternally. If his great aunt hadn’t acted on a ridiculous whim, there wouldn’t have been a Jasper.
Aunt Amelia bought him as a pup because she was lonely. “If you won’t come see me,” she would pout on the telephone, “I’ll just have to find myself another friend.” Randal pictured something blind and deaf with a walking stick, not the hyperkinetic little acrobat on four legs. Then, less than a year after his purchase, the old lady died, leaving a small fortune, and Sweet Pea (Randal renamed him), to her great nephew. Dear, daffy Aunt Amelia.
But it was only after the interment, and the inheritance, that Randal began to think of her as “dear.” Before that, she’d just been a nuisance. A spinster well into her dotage, it was she who had adopted him when his father left his mother, and his mother left him “for the weekend.” He remembered, vaguely, postcards from Zurich (Kisses, my darling. Love, Mummy”).
The Porsche barreled off the freeway and decelerated onto a wide, sun-dappled boulevard of flowering trees where lawns rambled and fountains plashed. Yards like city parks spread down from hilltop cottages the size of public libraries. Built in the Thirties, the neighborhood’s architecture might be described as Gargantuan Elf; storybook houses with steep roofs and giant stone chimneys; leaded-glass windows and front doors on rustic, “hand-wrought” hinges. The exception to this overblown fairyland had been built by a hosiery distributor in nineteen seventy-four. After demolishing the original structure “because it looked too German,” he erected what horrified neighbors referred to as the Swinging Mortuary. It went on the market when the old man died, and Randal bought it for a song with some of Aunt Amelia’s bequest.
Turning into his cobbled driveway (a relic of the original motif) he activated the automatic gate and sped recklessly down the gentle decline to the garage. He tapped the brakes and felt the pedal go a little mushy. Startled, he pressed down again and the pedal went to the floor. The garage rushed forward, its automatic door only beginning to shudder open. There were concrete wheel stops inside, but at twenty miles an hour, the car would bounce over them, hurtle through the back wall and into the deep end of the swimming pool. Tires squalling, Randal steered a hard right into a border of flowering azaleas. The bushes, and the bed of deep compost in which they grew, slowed the car considerably, but it was his neighbor’s sandstone wall which brought it to a full stop. Randal bumped his head on the steering wheel; thankfully, the air bags did not inflate. Jasper, who had been thrown to the floor, scrabbled back onto the passenger seat and gave his master an accusatory glare.
“Fluid musta squirt out all at once,” said the mechanic, who had serviced the brakes only a week prior to the accident. With the car up on the rack, he showed Randal a pinch in the lining that “shore couldn’t been there before.”
Unimpressed, Randal called his attorney to see if the mechanic might be liable.
The neighbor, whose sandstone wall he’d thumped, blustered and strut, took aim at Randal down his long florid nose and swore he could see where the wall had “shifted.” The man was an ex city councilman, used to throwing his weight around. Dissatisfied in retirement, he lurked in his austere fairy house like a spider, waiting to catch some interloper in his web. He’d flattened tires on cars parked under “his tree,” terrorized the paper boy, an immigrant in his sixties, and was suspected in the demise of a neighbor’s Abyssinian because he kept a pond of koi fish in his back yard.
Just in case, Randal dialed his attorney again.
Opening night arrived with the Porsche still in the shop, so Randal took a cab to the opera. He considered, briefly, asking someone to go with him but then got the inspiration of scalping the extra ticket; maybe both of them. The Keenes were the only people he could think of to invite, but the two-headed monster wouldn’t fit in one seat, would it? Besides, until he actually stepped into the waiting cab, he hadn’t really made the decision to go. The closest he’d ever come to opera had been evenings of Andrew Lloyd Webber, courtesy of Aunt Amelia, and he doubted the real thing could top that.
Aunt Amelia… Why, of late, had she begun to haunt him?
Caught up in the stream of tuxedos and evening gowns flowing into the opera house, he dropped the idea of selling his tickets. Scalpers brazenly hawked their wares up and down the box-office line, but Randal let himself be swept along with the already-ticketed herd cramming the entrance. Inside, he was directed by an elderly usherette to his seats and realized for the first time they weren’t orchestra but mezzanine. Some gift.
He waited sourly while the musicians warmed up and the auditorium filled, peering down at the luminaries below. He suspected his employees had purposely stuck him on the rail, his nose, as it were, pressed against the glass. Especially infuriating, he began to recognize people he knew. One was a man he’d gotten the better of on a four million-dollar office deal, then screwed outrageously on a seven million-dollar house. But there he was, in an orchestra seat, his repulsive shaved head bobbing like a balloon caught on its string; a pink balloon on which someone had scribbled a ridiculous handlebar mustache.
The house lights began to blink, the orchestra fell silent and footsteps hurried up and down the steep, carpeted aisles. The mezzanine had filled to groaning, Randal noticed uneasily, but there still remained an empty seat on either side of him. If at the last moment someone unpleasant came to fill the left one, he could always shift to his other ticketed seat, though that would place him next to a woman who kept blowing her nose. At least he had the option
The lights had just flickered out when a thing dark and amorphous, like a minor nebula, came to hover in his peripheral view. Constellations of blue sequins twinkled against wide black space like tiny stars. It was a woman, a very big woman, and she was fitting herself into the seat on his left. When she had settled in, a sizable portion of her billowed into Randal’s personal space.
The orchestra struck into a romping overture, the curtain began to rise. Randal prepared for the switch. Without looking, he reached to fold down the seat on his right and placed his hand rather perfectly on a man’s crotch. When the victim abruptly lurched, the perpetrator was thrown against the fat woman, which caused her to utter a surprised grunt and fling her program to the floor. Horrified, Randal sputtered apologies to a chorus of shushes from the entire section. The orchestra played on.
A full minute passed before he allowed himself a lateral peek. With relief, he noticed the man had become absorbed in the music. But his wife, the nose-blower, shot him such a hostile glare Randal turned abruptly to the left— and came face to face with the fat lady.
“Would you please hand me my program?” she said with authority, and nodded to where it lay, between the man and his wife.
There was nothing to do but lean forward until his buttocks lifted off his seat and grope the floor with his right hand. Whatever he did, he did not want his fingers to come in contact with the man’s shoes. He said, very submissively, “Excuse me, please” but the man either ignored him or didn’t hear. With his cheek pressed hard against the rail, he contorted himself sideways and tried to drag the program nearer with his foot. The music swelled, a great, bearded baritone strutted onto center stage in a feathered cap. When the program was at last within reach, Randal heard something go “ping,” and the rail, on which most of his weight depended, suddenly gave way.
Out of the thousand fleeting images which followed, what he would recall most vividly was the bald man’s face, gaping up in astonished recognition.
“So did your whole life flash before you?” said Albert Keene, chuckling deep in his throat; a sound Randal particularly detested. It was a noise he likened to a gurgling sink trap, or maybe a snake swallowing a toad. Beryl eyed him from over the rim of a large snifter of Cognac she held in both hands.
After some nagging he’d finally agreed to meet them for dinner because, though he was loath to admit it, he needed to talk to someone, anyone, about the accident. It had quite frightened him. He still had the jumps and a canvas brace on his leg.
“Went over head first,” said Randal, shuddering. “If that woman hadn’t grabbed my ankle, well, that would’ve been that.”
“Mmm-mmm,” said Albert, consolingly.
They sat in a small room of only six tables, the last party in a restaurant called La Chaise. A pricey designer had succeeded in making it look like a corner of a parking garage: walls of gray concrete, metal furniture done in peeling blue with ersatz rust tones. Dinner was over before Randal let himself be coaxed into talking about the accident. The maitre d’ and single remaining waiter had long since retired to the kitchen where they took turns peeping out the door at them.
“Dangling. By a leg. I almost blacked out.”
“Must’ve been quite a gal,” said Albert.
“A three hundred-pounder, and strong. I actually thought my foot would detach. I mean, there I am, upside down, thirty feet in the air, and almost wishing she’d let go. I don’t think my ankle will ever heal.”
“How embarrassing for you,” said Beryl.
“Everything fell out of my pockets, my shirttail came out of my pants and hung over my face. Of course, they turn on the house lights, the orchestra screeches to a halt. All the blood’s rushed to my head, I mean I’m upside down, right? And the sounds! I’ll never forget it. This big moan wells up, only I’m hanging there picking out all the tiny separate noises, the shrieks and gasps and squeaking chairs; stuff that all together just made this big, dreadful moan.”
Albert empathized with a moan of his own.
“And down below, panic. I’m hanging there, knowing I’m going to die, and they’re scrambling the hell out of the way. Climbing over each other like rats.”
“Didn’t want you splattering their gowns,” offered Beryl.
“After what seemed like an hour, the idiot sitting the other side of me lent a hand. He and the woman hauled me back over the ledge.”
“Saved by the full-figured gal.”
“She was Wonder Woman to me,” sighed Randal. “Of course, if she hadn’t asked me to retrieve her stupid program, none of it would’ve happened. If that man hadn’t taken my other seat.”
“It’s like a hex,” Beryl said brightly. “First your brakes, then someone loosens screws in a balcony rail.”
Randal couldn’t tell if she were kidding or not.
“You have upset a few people…”
Albert’s drainpipe gurgled apprehensively. “Dea-rrr,” he cautioned.
Randal looked from Albert to Beryl, back to Albert. “What? Because I sold Groton?”
“Nothing,” said Albert without conviction.
Beryl’s snifter thumped down, and she leaned across the table. “Because the day after your going-away party, everyone but the cleaning crew got laid off.”
Randal clucked, “Oh, that.”
“So you knew!”
“There was nothing I could do. It’s their company.”
“And Albert?” said Beryl, stonily.
“Albert?” Randal gave the impression of being surprised.
“Y-you told me you had written me into the deal,” Albert mumbled, pushing a breadcrumb around with his finger, “that keeping my position was, you know, in the agreement.”
“Of course it was.” He escaped Beryl’s hot glare by craning in the direction of the kitchen.
The kitchen door slapped, the waiter came running.
“Will that be all, then?” he said, desperately. He stared hard at the leather check folder in front of Albert.
“We’d like to see the dessert cart,” said Beryl.
“Dea-rrr,” said Albert.
The waiter looked nauseous. “But you’ve seen it, ma’m. You said you didn’t care for—”
“The gentleman prefers dessert,” she said aiming an accusatory finger at Randal. His oversized head retracted into his jacket.
“I didn’t want anything, Beryl.”
“The gentleman would like to try the BLACK BOTTOM PIE!”
Randal flapped his hands. “No-no, not me. I’m full.”
The waiter stalked back to the kitchen.
“They’ve already put everything up,” Randal pleaded. “In fact, we should go.” He didn’t reach for the check.
The kitchen door flew open, the waiter charged across the faux stone floor with pie buried under a comical heap of meringue. He swooped in over Randal’s shoulder and banged it onto the table in front of him. In the other hand he brandished a gleaming fork.
“But sir, it’s a house specialty,” said the waiter, startling him by popping a fresh napkin in his face. He draped it over Randal’s knee and grinned wolfishly. “Enjoy.”
“But I didn’t order pie!”
“Oh, go ahead,” said Beryl in a nasty tone.
“I’m full, I don’t want it!”
“Eat the goddamn pie!” the waiter screamed.
“I beg your—” Randal began haughtily, but the waiter had the pie in his hand, presumably to remove it. “Yes! Take it away! Thank God!”
Then everything went black, the color, as it happened, of the pie’s bottom. Randal’s chair overturned, the faux stone cruelly met the back of his head. Choking for breath, he sucked meringue high into his sinuses.
“It’s like a hex,” Beryl had said brightly. “First your brakes, then someone loosens screws in a balcony rail.”
Then attacked by a psychopathic waiter.
Randal wasn’t entirely without superstition, but he refused to entertain a belief in anything as silly as hexes. There had been runs of luck, good and bad, in the realty business so he determined to chalk up these events to the natural ebb and flow of destiny, in his conscious mind, anyway.
Subconsciously, he wasn’t so sure. Subconsciously, he worried that he had screwed one too many suckers, that the big seesaw was finally tipping the other way. “You have upset a few people,” Beryl had warned.
The phone trilled causing him to jump and utter a little cry. Except for telemarketers he never got calls at home, and it startled him to realize he was afraid to pick it up. He hadn’t been sleeping well, his nerves were edgy. Finally, he got up from his recliner and limped on his ankle brace across the den to answer it.
His attorney’s loud voice greeted him, with a progress report on his suits against the Porsche mechanic and the restaurateur. “He’s begging for an out-of-court,” he brayed, referring to the latter. “Fired the waiter and maitre d’, wants to settle real bad.”
Randal pictured the attorney rocked back in his chair, zippered boots on the desk, probably scratching himself. An asshole, uncannily fit for his job.
“Made up your mind about the Opera Society? Clear case of negligence. They’ve got the bucks, too. You see who’s on the board?”
“Negative,” Randal answered hastily. “Their hands are full just keeping the season afloat. Wouldn’t dream of bothering them.” Translated, this meant Randal had indeed seen who was on the board and knew better than to tangle with them.
“Wasn’t aware you were a music lover, Paxton,” said the lawyer, smelling a rat.
“Oh, yes…” He trailed off uncertainly.
“Got my boys investigating the ex councilman, should that party raise a stink about the wall,” he said with renewed enthusiasm.
“Oh, very good…”
The lawyer had no patience with listless clients. “Maybe we should discuss this later, okay?” He hung up.
Randal suddenly felt depressed.
It was odd, being home at eleven in the morning. He wasn’t even dressed, still padding about in slippers and voluminous monogrammed bathrobe. He’d pictured retirement as a stream of pleasant activities: planning cruises, picking spots on the globe to build second houses, snooping into new investments. Instead he felt besieged.
On the way back to his chair, he went to the entertainment center and turned on the stereo. The Compleat Andrew Lloyd Webber had arrived in the mail, a twelve-CD set. He picked one at random, which turned out to be from the play about Jesus becoming a superstar, and before the first verse of the opening number had sounded, he began to sob. Aunt Amelia had taken him to a dinner-theater version of that instant classic, and the long forgotten strains pierced his heart.
Aunt Amelia... How he yearned for her tentative embrace. They used to converse in baby talk whenever he felt blue; it never failed to set him right. And though her solicitude was often as not repaid with scorn, Aunt Amelia, dearest Auntie A, never once complained.
Randal blubbered on.
His conscious mind scolded him. “Why are you crying? Get a grip!” it said. His subconscious knew why: his life was a joke. All alone in the Swinging Mortuary, he felt abandoned, forsaken. The only one who seemed to be on his side was the attorney, and his affections cost three hundred an hour. Through a blur of tears, the den—white sofa, white entertainment center, white walls—became a forest clearing in a blizzard, Randal, a babe lost in the snow. He clutched himself, shivering.
“I’m sorry!” he cried to the heavens, or at least to the flocked, white ceiling.
Friendless. Not one friend.
He had been happy at Groton, at least he thought so, and there, “friend” meant anything that wasn’t obviously an enemy. His subordinates were “friends” he ordered around and manipulated. Clients were “friends” he cheated in real estate deals. Colleagues were “friends” he tried to put out of business. Of course, Jasper was his friend, but he was just a dog and absent at the moment, probably upstairs eating the bedspread.
The sobbing became bawling, from the gut. He slid off the recliner and onto the floor. He writhed in the snowy wall-to-wall shag, making strange, ugly sounds. His eyes fluttered and rolled. He heaved, he dry-retched.
How long had he lain there? A minute? A day? Probably not a day, because the CD he’d put on was still playing, this time a song in praise of somebody’s amazing Technicolor coat. But when he blinked his eyes and raised himself onto his elbows, he felt like a cicada crawling out into bright sunshine after ten years underground. He felt purged, refreshed.
A fortnight passed, and part of a day. A few minutes after three pm the telephone rang.
“Who’s calling, please?” inquired Miss Mundy.
“Come on, Rand? What’s with the—”
Miss Mundy thought she heard another voice besides the caller’s, distinctly female. “I’ll have to ask you to identify yourself, please,” she said primly.
“Okay, ha ha,” Albert said, “can we get serious now?”
“Goodbye,” said Miss Mundy.
“Wai—hold on there. This is Albert. Albert and Beryl, as in Albert and Beryl? Have I misdialed?”
“Possibly,” said Miss Mundy.
There was the faint click on the line as an extension lifted.
“Then, may I please speak to Randal? Please? Whoever you are?”
“I still need your last name, Mister— Albert.”
“It’s all right, Martha,” Randal cut in, “I know who it is.”
Albert caught his breath.
“I’ll be ringing off, then, Mr. Paxton.” There was another click as Miss Mundy hung up.
“No way,” Albert exclaimed, “I thought it was you!”
“Yes. Well. I’ve employed a live-in.”
“A live— A live-in what?”
“Housekeeper, maid, personal assistant. She cooks, too. Quite a good cook, actually.” Randal thought he heard the door chime. He’d mail-ordered something and was anxious to see if it had arrived. “Ah, I’m rather tied up, Albert. Is this important?”
“I hope it is, Rand,” said Albert. “Beryl and I want to apologize.”
He needs a job reference, thought Randal.
“For the other night. At the restaurant.”
“You planned that?”
“What! That waiter? The pie, you mean?” Albert giggled frantically. “No-no, apologize for bringing up all that stuff about Groton letting me go. She, we, were still a little, you know, shocked. It was such a surprise… But, hey, we know you did everything you could. I mean, there wasn’t anything you could do…”
This time he was sure he heard the chime. Where was Miss Mundy?
“She, we, just wanted to stay a little longer, that’s all. So we could, you know, discuss it and everything. Are we forgiven, buddy?”
Randal suddenly thought of a new name for the two-headed monster: The Shewee.
“Well,” he said, exhaling into the receiver, “Why not.” The door chime sounded again.
“Awww, that’s great, Rand. You’re the best.”
Before he could hang up, Beryl came on the line.
“Hi, Randy,” she said, smokily. “We miss you.”
He pictured Albert’s chin propped on his wife’s shoulder, listening in.
“We want to make it up to you. Something really nice.”
“Has Albert found a new job?”
“In fact he has. Well, practically, anyway.” She mentioned the name of a large real estate firm.
With as little enthusiasm as he could muster, Randal said, “Congratulations.”
“You’ll probably get a call,” she mentioned casually, as if in passing. “We named you as a reference.”
Randal came downstairs when he was off the phone, looking for Miss Mundy. Passing a window, he saw Jasper race across the lawn with something in his mouth.
“Martha,” he called out, a little annoyed, “who was that at the door?”
Through a hall window, he saw Jasper scamper by again from the opposite direction. He reached the foyer, freshly paste-waxed that morning by Miss Mundy, and swung open the door. There was a little yellow notice from UPS stuck to the frame. Scratched across the “Comments” line were the driver’s initials and a message reading, “Left package in planter, 3:18.” The planter held only a tired aspidistra. The dog rocketed past again, and this time Randal knew what was in his mouth.
Jasper traced an exuberant circle in the grass and careened off in a new direction, toward the line of flattened azalea bushes.
“Little bastard! Jas-perrr!”
Hearing his name, he spun round and galloped back towards his master and the open door. Randal lunged as he blurred past but slipped on Miss Mundy’s fresh wax and fell hard on his knees. The dog’s feet drummed up the carpeted stairs.
Randal hauled himself up to the second floor three steps at a time to where Jasper lay at the top of the stairs happily ripping into the brown wrapper. A piece of heavy tape with which the package was secured went pop! in the dog’s teeth.
Amused by his master’s stealthy, crouching approach, he simply reversed in equal increments; paper and bits of cardboard continued to fly. When his spotted rump met the banister, cutting off retreat, he charged— back down the stairs. The contest resumed outside for a couple more turns around the swimming pool until Jasper apparently had had enough and squatted down by the azaleas.
“Stay!” Randal gasped, clutching his knees, panting. The whole yard throbbed with the pounding of his heart. The dog stayed. As Randal inched nearer, Jasper dropped the package.
But at the last moment, he snatched it up again for a last defiant side-to-side shake. Something bright flew out and together they watched it arc into the intense afternoon sky. It flashed once against the sun and dropped somewhere behind the ex councilman’s sandstone wall. There was a minor splosh.
“Bad dog!” Randal growled demonically. “Bad, bad, baaad!”
Jasper saw something murderous and cold in his master’s eyes and slunk double-time for cover, hastening to the safety of some secret place behind the garage.
Shortly after his minor breakdown, his petit mal in the den, Randal had advertised for a housekeeper. Martha Mundy had been the first to apply. When he invited her inside she went meekly to far edge of the sofa, sat down and almost disappeared. A gray, featureless woman, she wore a plain suit and the expression of one who has accepted, if not embraced, a dull life. There was nothing to be gained from further interviews. She was perfect.
Of course she must be trained. Accustomed to more conventional employers, she hadn’t yet grasped the behavioral peculiarities he required, nor did she seem fully to accept his insistence that she, not he, make the household rules. When he scoffed at or disobeyed something they’d agreed on earlier, she tended to apologize and reverse herself.
“No, no, no!” he would cry, petulantly. He was reluctant to come right out with it, she would think he was nuts, but he wanted rules; rules governing practically everything so he could gratify his need to flout them. Why was that so hard to comprehend? He wanted scolding, he wanted threats of discipline which would never be carried out. That was the way She had done it. That was the whole idea.
The first glimmer of Miss Mundy’s coming around occurred when he spilled some breakfast milk on the kitchen floor.
“You spilt that on purpose, young man,” she said, trying her best at the new role, “I think you should clean it up.” Her voice wavered, Randal noticed with approval, she gnawed a knuckle. So far, so good.
“Aw screw yourself,” he shouted, smearing the puddle with a stockinged foot.
He stamped out of the room but then stayed in the hall, spying. Miss Mundy crept to the broom closet and got out the sponge mop.
But the psychology was more complicated. Randal needed Miss Mundy to love him. He bought gifts. He complimented her lack of hairdo. He left little bouquets of azaleas in her room over the garage. One day, as he perused a stack of mail-order catalogs—he’d begun leaving the house less and less—he spied a locket similar to the one his great aunt had worn. Inside, it had carried his picture and a snippet of hair. Randal called the company and ordered it. Such a thing would seal their relationship, he believed fervently, like an amulet. It would be the magic stroke, completing the transformation from Miss Mundy to Aunt Amelia. But if he were not mistaken, the locket now reposed at the bottom of the ex councilman’s koi pond.
Keys jangled in the door. He waited until he heard it open, then began clomping loudly up the stairs. “I’m mad at you!” he shouted from the landing. He paused and listened to Miss Mundy bustle about in the kitchen. Cabinets opened and closed, biscuits slid out of tins, the refrigerator door sucked open. When the tea kettle began to wheeze, he went quickly up to his room and got into bed. By the time she came in, flustered and out of breath, he’d worked himself into a pique.
“And where were you?” he demanded.