Wednesday, November 25, 1998

Eye of the Beholder

"...O God, I thank thee that I am not like the rest of men..."

                                                        Luke 18.9

Bill Moses eases the Mercedes close to the long, curved, Belgian-stone path that leads to the Holingwoods'  front door.

"Will you come in for a nightcap?" asks Elsie Holingwood from the back seat as she unbuckles the seat belt.  Her husband John is already out of the car and holding open the door on her side.  "Yes, do come in for a bit," he says.

"It's late, Jane Moses says.  She glances sideways at her husband to catch some hint that he agrees.  Satisfied that they are of one mind, she hurries to add, "but  we'll take a rain check on it.  It was wonderful to be with both of you."

"It sure was," Bill says.  "And thank you for dinner.  Next time it's our treat, and you can do the driving."

Bill waits until the Holingwoods are inside their house and have flicked the porch light on and off two times in farewell before he slowly backs the Mercedes down the driveway and onto the street.  "Nice people," he says.

"And such dear friends," she says.  "Let's not allow that much time to lapse again between get-togethers.  Life's too short."

"And getting shorter.  Speaking of which, John's all-of-a-sudden showing his age, isn't he?  Tonight he really looked like an old man."

She nods.  "But you look good for your age, Bill, so maybe it's just the contrast.  And hasn't Elsie aged, too!"

"Well, there again, honey," he says, "it could be the contrast between you and her."

She snuggles against him as much as the seat belt permits, and sighs a happy sigh.  "We do okay, don't we Bill?"

"Yes, we do, honey.  If  I say so myself, we sure do!"

The Mercedes hums along.  At home, she knows, their house will be warm and welcoming.  A full moon shines above.  Life for us is still very good, she thinks.  

The germ of a question nags at her.  But how much longer will we stay youthful?  

She squelches the worrisome thought aborning.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Elsie Hollingwood, at her dresser, removes an earring from one earlobe and then one from the other.  "Did I look okay tonight, dear?"

John comes to stand behind her.  Their eyes meet in the mirror.  "More than okay, honey;  you looked lovely tonight,"  he says.  "By the way, was it just my imagination, or is Bill suddenly old?"

"Um," she says,  "and Jane too.  Oh, John, it's sad to see dear friends age so.  

Thank goodness we're still holding our own."

He nods.  "Some days I feel no more than fifty."

She hasn't yet pulled the draperies, and moonlight bathes the bedroom in amber light, enhancing their reflection in the mirror.  We're a youthful-looking couple, she thinks, and sighs with contentment.  Life is still very good.  But how long before we too start to show the ravages of time?  She refuses to worry about it.

Wednesday, November 4, 1998


She had vowed nevermore to let her morning walk take her on that street again, but now, lost in thought, before she even realized it, there she was, not more than five paces from the corner where his house stood.

Oh please, she thought, don't let him be sitting on the porch!  That filthy yellow couch!  If that couch is a reject from his living room, what must the inside of the house be like?  

She shuddered and in her mind, saw him again as he had looked the morning she had first become aware of him, when, even in the early light, she noticed his scowl and the grubby stubble of beard covering his chin.  A shot gun rested across his knees.


He had mumbled something she had been unable to hear over the music coming through the earphones attached to her pocket radio.  She had chosen to keep on walking.

"Take them goddam things off your ears and listen to me!" he shouted.  This time she heard his every word.

He bolted to his feet, holding the shot gun, its nozzle pointed downward.  Fear replaced  indignation, and she tried to run, but her feet seemed frozen to the pavement.  He followed the path from his porch to where she stood.  

Dawn was already blossoming into day, and in the brighter light, his red-rimmed eyes examined her face closely.  "You're not the one," he said at last in a quieter tone.  "I thought you was that smart-mouthed little shit that walks by here to the school bus stop, name-callin' me.  And those two stupid pimps she's with -- all three laughing and hooting at me.  'Ain't that right, Pop, ain't that right, old man,'  she keeps saying.  The little bitch!  But no, I see now you're not the one."

He must be crazy, she thought.  How could he take her for a school girl?  It was the earphones and a trick played by the first light of morning.

The voice that had deserted her returned, and shakily she said, "I'm a grown woman.  No way am I a young girl!"

He nodded.  "Yeah," he said.  "A mistake.  Didn't mean to scare ya."

He turned his steps back to the porch.  "Well, that means you live.  That other one, she dies!"

Her heart pounded, but at last her feet obeyed, and she ran.  

She wondered if she should tell someone in authority about this.  Suppose she read in the paper someday how he had shot a kid.  How would she feel?  Yes, she decided, I am my brother's keeper.  I MUST tell.   Later, at home, she phoned the police station and asked to speak to Chief Barrelli.

"Ah, he's nothing but an old kook," Barrelli said.  "Been living there for years. Keeps to himself.  He's probably harmless, but we'll look into it."


Not meaning to, but unable to help herself, she glanced up now in passing, to see if he still sat there.  To her surprise, she saw that the house was boarded up.  Yellow plastic do-not-enter strips barred the path to the porch.  An official-looking sign was on the front door:  THIS BUILDING HAS BEEN CONDEMNED.

As she pondered this, she noticed a young man across the street.  She switched off her pocket radio.  "Good morning!" she called.


"Excuse me, but do you know anything about this?"  She pointed to the house.  "It's condemned?"

The young man crossed over.  "Yes," he said.  "Poor old guy.  Some of the kids used to taunt him terribly.  Too bad.  He never really bothered anybody.  His lawn was always a mess, and the place a real eye sore, but he was a lonely, pathetic old thing, and we all just ignored it.  One day the cops came about some complaint or other.  He refused to let them in to talk to him, so they got a warrant.  I guess what they found inside was pretty grim.  The Health Department came and condemned the place."

"What happened to the man?"

"Apparently he wouldn't leave, so they came and carried him off.  There was a big ruckus, him kicking and screaming and shouting some pretty foul stuff.  I think he's over at Mayview now -- the funny farm."

- - - - - - - - - -

What I did, she thought, was no more than my duty. So why then did she feel like crying?

Wednesday, October 28, 1998


He walked up the path, cursing his luck, and pressed the bell rather more forcefully than he had intended.  There were no sounds from within.  Looking around, he saw that the farm was thriving and the house certainly looked occupied.  There were curtains at the windows, and the porch was scrubbed clean.  He peered in through the glass at the door and rang again, and at length saw a woman come into the vestibule.

She opened the door, and he removed his hat and smiled.

"Well?" she asked.

"I wonder, madam, if I may trouble you for the use of your phone?   My car...."  He waved over his shoulder in the direction of the road.

"Step in," she said, and he did.

"Don't have one."

"You don't have a phone?" he asked.

"Don't believe in them."

He groaned, for he had seen no other sign of habitation for miles.  "My car has broken down," he said pitifully.

"Well, don't cry about it!  Only thing I know to suggest is you borry the horse and buggy and drive into town.  Jed Waterbury runs a service station of sorts there."

"I'd be very grateful..." he started to say, but she waved aside his thanks.

"Might as well come in the parlor and set," she said.  "Bathsheba has the buggy and won't be back 'til dinner."



"I see."

"She's my niece.  Gone over to the next farm.  Elroy's poorly again."



"Does he have a phone?"



"Elroy?  A phone?  No!  He don't have one!  What would he want with a phone -- poorly as he is?"

She pushed him into the parlor ahead of her, then pulled him over to the couch and gave his chest a hearty shove.  "Well, set!" she said.

He sat.

She turned from him and walked to the fireplace, whistling a tune between her teeth, and bent over a can of paint in front of the grate, stirring its contents thoroughly.  He saw her in profile, smirking to herself.  "Huh!" he heard her say, "And Nedda told Bathsheba it wouldn't!"

In spite of himself, he asked, "Wouldn't what?"

"Look nice."

"Look nice?"

She straightened and put her hands to her hips, the stick she had used for stirring still in her grasp, dripping blobs of gold on the moss-green carpet.  "What are you anyway?" she asked.  "Some kind of parrot?"

"What wouldn't look nice?"

"The balls!  I'm trying to paint them balls on them andirons over there gold.  Now look what you went and made me do to the carpet!"

"I'm sorry."

For a long while, she painted and he watched.  The monotony of the tune she whistled, and the closeness of the parlor, its heavy draperies drawn tight against the heat of the afternoon sun, lulled him into a kind-of trance.  He seemed to have no control over the motion of his head, back and forth, like that of a spectator at a ping-pong match, in synchronization to her brush's movement from andiron to paint can, to andiron, to paint can.

The sound of footsteps descending stairs stirred him from his mesmerized state.  Looking over to the archway between hall and parlor, he saw another woman, younger than the first, but still in her fifties at least -- a wizened little woman, as small and fragile as the other was large and robust.  Nedda or Bathsheba? he wondered.

"Nedda, " said the older woman, in answer to his thoughts.  "My father named her that.  He named me Rhoda.  We're sisters, as if you couldn't tell!"

He couldn't tell.

"Hello!" Nedda said.  Airy as a white-haired dandelion seed in the breeze, she pirouetted in the middle of the room and swept to a graceful bow directly in front of him, her chin almost reaching her knees.

He marveled at the agility of a woman of her years, and checked himself from applauding.

"Don't you just ADORE violin music?" she asked, flopping down beside him on the couch.

"Violin music?"


"Well..." he said.

She hugged him.  "Oh!  So do I!"  She jumped from the couch, pirouetted again and waltzed out of the room, her arms outstretched behind her, fingers fluttering, chest held high.

Her sister finished one andiron and started on the other.  "She's a silly show-off!" she said.  

He said nothing in answer to that one, but sadly contemplated a mad dash to the front door, just visible from where he sat.  Before he could act on it, though, Nedda was back, a violin tucked under her chin.  She raised the bow and brought it down across the strings, and the strings seemed to screech their protest.

Rhoda painted on.

"That was an original composition," Nedda announced.  "Now for my next number..."

"Tell her to put that damn thing away!" shouted her sister at the hearth, not turning around.  "Tell her I mean it!"

He smiled in apology to Nedda.  "Your sister," he said, "asks that you put that damn thing away.  She says she means it."

Nedda thumbed her nose at Rhoda's back.  "Well, tell that fat-rumped sister of mine," she said, "that I can play anytime I want!"

"She says," he began...

"Tell her I said cool it!" the older one interrupted, the rump in question still turned toward them.

He shrugged his shoulders to Nedda.  "She says," he began again....  But he couldn't see it through.  "See here, this is becoming a little foolish, wouldn't you say?  Look, suppose I not trouble you two ladies any longer.  Just point me in the direction of town, and I'll walk."

He rose to go, but Rhoda, throwing her paint brush onto the hearth, where it made a speckled design on the brick, with two great strides barred his way.  "Set!" she said, pushing him back down, but he missed the couch by the merest fraction of an inch, and his tail bone hurt where it met the floor.

Nedda helped him back up to his seat, and joined him on the couch.  She smoothed back the hair that had fallen across his forehead.  "Never you mind, dearie," she whispered.  "But answer me this if you will.  Do dead people bleed?"

"Dear God!" he said, shaking himself loose from her touch and wondering what demon had ever possessed him to venture out to see a little of the countryside.  He looked at his watch, and seeing that it was approaching the cocktail hour, longed for his uncomplicated friends at the club.  But here he was, alas!  Doomed to "set", until dinnertime at least, with the unbelievable Rhoda and Nedda, the latter of whom, violin and bow across her knees, looked up at him for an answer.

"No," he admitted hoarsely, "I don't suppose dead people bleed."

"Aha!" Nedda said.  "Then come with me!"

Pitching her violin and bow across the room in so accurate a manner that they landed squarely in the center of a loveseat under the window, she took hold of his hand, and rising, swooped him from the couch.  His impression was that his feet barely skimmed the floor as he was forced to follow her, up the stairs to the second floor, down a long hallway, through a door at its end, and up another stairway.  It was, he decided in the course of his flight, unsettlingly ridiculous.

At the entrance to a large room at the top of the second flight of stairs, she released his hand and slumped against the door jamb to catch her breath.  He looked around him.  At the far wall was an out-sized double bed, a four-poster.  Beside it stood a dresser and vanity.  An old-fashioned wash stand was to the other side, and African violets grew out of a gold wash basin.  He cringed at the clash of gaily printed purple window curtains against the bright pattern of the wall paper.  But it was nothing to the shudder which shook him when he realized, as his eyes became better adjusted to the brightness of the sun-filled room, that the print of said curtains was an overall design of green hearts, each pierced with a silver dagger, from each of which dripped three yellow spots.  By contrast, the wall covering consisted of tiny white, naked cherubs, unquestionably male cherubs, dancing on a background of vivid red.  And everywhere, everywhere, he saw evidence of Rhoda's artistry in gold -- the aforementioned basin, the bed posts, the tables, the bases of lamps.  One entire wall behind a music stand was boldly striped with the same brilliant paint, so that the cherubs seemed to dance in and out bars of a golden cage.

"Rhoda's quarters?" he asked.

Nedda shook her head.  "We share it," she said.  "The house belongs to Bathsheba.  Of course, she gives us the run of it, but out of respect for her privacy, we're up here a good bit of the time.  Elroy, you know."

He didn't know, but he could surmise.

"She and I sleep here," she added.

"Then what," he asked, pointing to a man in work clothes stretched out across the bed, "is HE doing here?"

Nedda simpered and covered her mouth with a veined but dainty hand.  "Finley," she said.  "That's Finley.  He's...well...he's sort of my fella."

Finley looked to be no more than thirty.

She led him to the side of the bed.  "See here," she said.  "I want to prove something."

Finley, eyes closed, mouth open wide, did not stir as she lifted his arm and let it flop back onto the coverlet.  She took a straight pin from the collection on the lapel of her blouse, picked up Finley's limp hand and separated his middle finger from the rest.  "I take this pin so," she said, "and prick his finger so."  A bead of blood came forth.

"Voile!" she said in triumph.

"Actually," he said, with as much tact as possible, "I believe you mean 'Voila'.  From the French, you know.  V-wa-la.  As a matter of  fact, the word you used, 'voile', is a sheer dress material, usually of silk or..."  He stopped in horror.  Dear God! he thought.  What the hell am I going on about?  It must be contagious!

"Voile, voila, or whatever!" she said, oblivious to his consternation.   "The main point is that dear Finley here DOES bleed.  You admit he bleeds?  Well, then, he canNOT be dead."  A note of doubt tinged her voice.  "Can he?"

The attic was stifling.  The cherubs seemed to close in on him.  "Your hypothesis is correct," he gasped.  "May we go downstairs now?"

Rhoda, hands on her hips, met them at the foot of the stairs.  "Dinner is ready," she announced.

"I'm terribly sorry," he said.  "I find I cannot stay for dinner.  You see, I..."  

She ignored his protestations.  "Hurry along into the dining room now.  We're eating while it's hot.  Not waiting for Bathsheba another second!  She knows what time dinner is and that I don't like my food cold.  What's she think I'm running here?  A restaurant?"

"You mean she's not returned yet with the buggy?  Oh then really, I must be on my way.  Just point me in the direction of town, and I ...."

"Shut up," Rhoda said, propelling him into the dining room.  "Set!"  She shoved him into a chair at table.  "Bathsheba won't be much longer.  She's late enough as it is, lord knows.  It ain't right her trotting over there to Elroy's anyhow.  Makes folks talk...him poorly and alone like he bed most of the time.

He thought of Finley upstairs in their bedroom, but logic by now seemed out of the question.

The ladies stood at their places at table, and seemed expectant of something from him.  "Oh!" he said, jumping to his feet.  "So sorry!"  With one hand he held out Nedda's chair for her, and with the other, Rhoda's.  Rhoda rapped him smartly across the knuckles, and he removed his hand from her chair and had a childish desire to cry.  He felt dangerously close to the breaking point.

"Where's your upbringing, young man?" Rhoda scolded.  "Don't you know you're to stand first for grace?"

He hung his head in shame, then bowed it for prayer.

When Rhoda spoke again, it was in a deep, elocutionary voice.  "Tonight, in thanksgiving for the food we are about to eat," she said, "we shall sing the first and last verses of 'America the Beautiful'."

Nedda tittered.

"Young man," Rhoda said in her normal voice, "tell my silly sister to mind her manners!"

"You're to mind your manners," he told Nedda, and thought that when he finally got away from here, it would be useless to try to tell his friends about it.  They would never believe him.  To Rhoda he said, "Why 'America the Beautiful'?  I mean...."

"In case the FBI is about, Stupid!  We want them to know we are loyal!"

"Yes, of course."

She resumed her pulpit voice.  "Now then, raise your right hand."  She nudged him with her elbow.  "Tell her, too."

He turned to Nedda.  "Raise your right hand."

"And sing along with me," Rhoda said.  

The walls reverberated with the sisters' voices, but he only mouthed the words.  When it came to the last verse, he refused to even pretend to sing.  He had never learned that verse, and almost  nobody ever sings anything but the first verse of "America the Beautiful" anyway, he thought.

Dinner consisted of one course -- a lumpy, runny, undefinable mixture that tasted, he decided, rather like mouse.  That is, of what he imagined mouse would taste like -- if one ATE mouse.

"Awfully good," he lied, pushing a mouthful down his throat by force.  "What, if I may ask, is it?"

"Mouse," said Rhoda.

Two tears at long last gave way and rolled down either side of his nose, splashing into his dish.

Nedda, to the other side of him, tugged at the sleeve of his jacket.  "You don't have to, dearie, if you don't want to," she whispered.

"Don't have to what?"

"Don't have to eat it.  Slip it on my plate while she's not looking."

Rhoda slapped the table hard with her palm, and water glasses and silverware leaped and re-settled.  "What's all the buzzing about?" she shouted.

"Why-a," he said, "I was just asking Miss Nedda here....I mean, I just wanted to know...."  In desperation, his mind grabbed at the thought that had nagged him since they had sat down to dinner.  "Doesn't he eat with you?" he managed to ask at last.

Rhoda's eyes narrowed.  "He who?"

"Why-a, Finley."

She pointed an accusing finger at Nedda.  "Did she tell you about Finley?"

Nedda was unperturbed.  "Oh, tell my fat sister that I did indeed tell you, and that what's more, I took you up to see him, too.  And tell her that you agree he does so bleed, and that you also agree dead people don't bleed, and tell her...."

Wearily, he turned to Rhoda.  "Finley," he said, "is NOT dead."

"I don't care if he's dead or alive!" Rhoda said.  "But tell that simpleton sitting there beside you that she oughtn't to go around taking strange men, who she's only just met, upstairs to our bedroom.  How did she know she wasn't going to get in over her head?  Ask her that!"

"How did you know," he addressed Nedda, "you weren't going to get in over your head?"

"Oh, hell!" said Nedda.  "Tell her pish-tish!  Tell her she's a good one to talk!  Tell her I know all about her and that gold paint of hers!"

For the first time since he had come, Rhoda spoke directly to her sister.  "Nedda!  You shush up!  You hear?"

"Oh, I'm wise to you, Rhoda!"  Nedda said.  You think you're so clever!  But I'm on to it all, Rhoda!  You and your inventions!  I know all about why you go around slapping gold paint on everything!"

He was half afraid to ask.  "Why?"

"It's her secret formula," Nedda said.  "It seduces, that's what it does.  One touch, even after it's dry, and you're helpless!"

His fear was justified.  He thought about Finley upstairs.  Was he, after all, really Nedda's fella, or...(the thought chilled him)....had he been seduced and reduced to a stupor by Rhoda's formula?

He jumped up and, not even attempting to keep his hysteria in control, shouted, "Don't try to stop me!  I warn you, don't try to stop me!  I'm getting out of here NOW!"   He bolted from the table.

Much to his surprise, it was dainty Nedda who calmly tripped him as he passed, and threw herself on the floor atop of him, wrestling him with amazing strength, digging her nails into his arms as she held him pinned to the floor.

Rhoda merely sighed deeply and left the room.

He was just managing to best Nedda, and in fact had his fist poised to land her a solid blow to the jaw, when he saw Rhoda return, paint can in hand, and advance toward him.  Fear gripped his soul, and with one mighty thrust, he shoved Nedda from him.  She rolled nimbly across the floor, head over heels, and cracked her head smartly on a table leg.  She smiled a silly smile and lost consciousness.

He dealt Rhoda the blow then he had meant to bestow on Nedda.  He heard a crunch as his fist made contact, and saw her totter an instant on her toes, then fall face-forward with a crash that resounded throughout the room.  Her paint can had come flying from her hand in her descent, and now sailed straight toward him.  He ducked and watched it land with a dismal plop, bottom-up, in the middle of the mouse casserole  Gold paint merged with grey gravy, and the sight of it set his Adam's apple to bobbing.  He covered his mouth tightly and ran -- through the dining room, the parlor resplendent in its newly-decorated, deadly andirons, through the front hall, and out the door, never pausing to pick up his hat from the hall table.  He took the front steps with one olympic leap, and continued in like haste all the way down the path, until he reached the road, where at last he was forced to stop and catch his breath before continuing in what he hoped was the direction toward town.

About a quarter of a mile farther on, he came upon a man in white trousers and white jacket.  The man, standing beside a parked van of some sort, was scanning the countryside in search of something.  A companion, similarly dressed, was doing the same on the opposite side of the road.

Thinking he might ask them how far to Jed Waterbury's Garage, he approached them, and the closer he came, the more they looked familiar.  He searched his memory, fully aware that after such a shock as his senses had just undergone, his mind might not be working to full capacity.  He knew, in fact, that it would take him days, maybe weeks, to recover from today's ordeal.

"I beg your pardon," he said, tapping one of the men on the shoulder from behind.  "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

The man turned.  "Well I'll be a son-of-a-gun!" he said.  He called to his companion.  "Hey, Bill!  Over here!  I found him!  He walked right up to me!"

The one named Bill crossed the road to help.  They pinned his arms behind him and slipped a jacket over his head and laced it up the front, securing it with a tight knot.

"Poor devil!" he heard Bill say.  "I wonder what wild tale he'll have for them this time?" He remembered them now.