THREE SHORT, SHORT STORIES. 2-28-11
Number One – VISITING RITES.
The Rev, David Crosston took a long time to get settled into his new parish and it was a full year before he got around to visiting the homes of all of the members of his church.
He was relieved when he thought that he’d completed that task but the next Sunday morning his wife, Miriam, who filled out his journal to be able to keep track of his expenses, pointed out to him that he’d yet to visit with Mrs. Mabel Proust.
He was vexed with himself because the lady in question attended his services three times on Sunday and the Bible Study every Tuesday and the Fellowship on Friday and so there was no way that he should have left her off his list and his only excuse was that since she always sat alone in the farthermost reaches of his church and was always drably dressed and was quiet and unassuming it was easy indeed to overlook her very presence.
He stopped Mrs. Proust as she was slipping, unassumingly, past him after the evening service, and he asked if he could visit with her in her home sometime in the coming week.
To his surprise she became flustered and she stammered out that such a visit, “While very welcome at some other time I’m sure Reverend,” would be inconvenient for her in the next week and would he be kind enough to postpone it for a while?
The Rev agreed, of course, but when he got the same reply the following week and again on the one after that he figured that her evasiveness was due to her being ashamed of her home.
On reflection, he figured that it was his duty to go around there anyway and he was confident that once she saw from his manner that he was well acquainted with poverty, and even with hovels, she’d let him in and would listen to what he had to say and then offer him some tea and he’d offer up prayers in exchange.
So, the next Wednesday, on his way home after his official weekly hospital visit, he stopped off at the Proust’s apartment building and he went upstairs and rang the bell.
Mrs. Proust answered the door but she didn’t look a bit pleased to see him standing there and instead of inviting him in she started to tell him that, “I’m sorry, Reverend but this isn’t a . . . “ when a gruff male voice called out, “Who is it Mabel? What does he want?”
The reverend, now exasperated with the stubborn woman and with the way that she was treating him, took the opportunity to slip past her and, once inside he found Mr. Proust – he assumed – coming towards him along the hallway. He was a heavily built man who was in his shirtsleeves.
He introduced himself and offered his hand and he figured that seeing that he was already inside they could hardly throw him out and he’d be able to see what squalor his parishioner was trying to hide from him.
Sure enough, the man gestured that he was to go ahead of him into the living room, and when he got there he saw a peculiar set up indeed.
The large room seemed to be divided in two.
One half, the carpeted half, had gilded frame paintings of pastoral scenes on the walls and it had a comfortable looking easy chair that had a large, flat screen TV in front of it and its fireplace was surrounded by bookcases that were full of recently published best sellers and many paperbacks by authors like Elmore Leonard and James Patterson and over to one side was a cocktail cabinet that was crowded with bottles of gin and vodka and bourbon and scotch and there was a table that had a cigar box on it along with a gold lighter and an expensive looking, cut-glass ash tray.
On the other side of the room there was only an austere looking rocking chair that sported one thin cushion and there was a small hessian mat on the bare floorboards in front of it and the only other thing was a home made – used bricks and slats of wood – bookcase in which were several beat up Bibles and some religious tracts and a few paperbacks that all had a religious theme.
The Reverend didn’t know what to say. He’d never seen the like in all of his experience.
Mr. Proust broke the awkward silence by explaining; “This separation of hers is what happened when she got religion in a big way a few years ago. She hasn’t allowed anything that’s comfortable, not to mention luxurious, in her life ever since then.
“Well,” he went on, ”now that you’ve seen the living room you might as well see the rest of the place.” And with that, he led the bemused clergyman into the dining room.
The big table in there was divided too. At the far end was a cushioned armchair and in front of it was a nice tablecloth with a place setting of heavy cutlery and embossed plates and the usual accoutrements.
At the near side of the table was a hard wooden bench seat and in front of it, on the bare wood of the table, was a thick china bowl with a well used soup spoon at its side.
Mr. Proust, gesturing to that end, said, “That’s where she sits and eats. Mostly gruel.”
He led the way into the bedroom and it too was divided. The side that had the window was carpeted and there was a comfortable looking full sized bed there which had a thick, lambs wool mat at its side and on the bedside table was a reading lamp and a radio/alarm clock and against the wall was a dressing table that held the usual male articles including a brush and comb and mirror set.
The other side of the room was uncarpeted and there was a wood and canvass camp bed there that had a thin mattress and a small blanket on it, and no pillows, and there were a few plain cotton and sackcloth items sitting in an orange crate to one side. Also, religious tracts and a thick, well-worn Bible were sitting on the floor.
When the Reverend had regained control of his tongue he said, “But this is astonishing. I can’t believe what I’m seeing no matter about understanding any of it.
“Surely marriage for Christians is supposed to be about sharing and love?”
Mr. Proust – who was a union man who worked on the assembly line of a large appliance factory and who hated all ‘suits’ whether they were Managers or Supervisors or, especially, Efficiency Experts and all Do-Gooders – saw his opportunity and jumped in with alacrity and answered, “Ah yes. Sharing and Loving. Yes indeed, we did have a problem with that when she first got religion in a big way. She kept putting me off, saying that now that she was through menopause and had to give up on any hope of conceiving a child there was no point to it! Can you imagine?
“Well, it came to me, after a few weeks of suffering from building frustration, that the thing to do was to fight fire with fire, as it were, and I decided to do some research by reading one of her Bibles and so I started in on one of them. Well, can you imagine how happy I was when after getting through only three pages, there it was – all that I needed.
“So now, here’s how it works – because I always have a lie-in on Sunday mornings she joins me in the big bed when she comes home after your early morning service and we meet up on the mattress in the spare room on Tuesday evenings when she gets back from your Bible Class and in the same place again on Fridays after your Fellowship Meetings.
“My plan works because I guessed, correctly, that she’ll be feeling pious when she gets home on those three occasions and so I smooth away her scruples, and her reluctance, by putting one of her Bibles on the table in the hallway – where she drops her keys and her purse – and I open it to Genesis 2; 24 – the part where it says something like, ‘The man shall cleave unto his wife and they shall become one flesh – – – – ’ well, you know the rest of it so I won’t quote anymore.
“I’ve high-lighted that verse in all of her copies and – Ha! – it works every time.
“She calls our sessions, ‘Carrying out my Christian duty,’ and I call them, ‘Giving it to the poor.’ ”
Number Two –
THE FINEST THAT THERE IS.
Eugene Ascot spent most of his time painting portraits but it was out of necessity rather than preference.
Usually the subject was rich and handsome and beautifully dressed and, if a family group, the children were always unnaturally well behaved. Sometimes the subject was ugly and short and fat but it was a given that he or she was rich and the children were always well behaved.
Poor people, attractive or not, never sat for him and so it didn’t matter much to him whether their kids were or were not unruly although he suspected that they were.
He was forced to do portraiture because it paid well – all of his three ex-wives had had good lawyers – but what he really wanted to do, full time, was to paint birds and fish and, to that end, he kept three large tanks in his apartment that were all stocked with several varieties of exotic fish. Also, numerous canaries and budgerigars and one large parrot had the run of the downstairs area.
All of the free time that he had was spent painting his fish or birds and over the years his name became well known among the connoisseurs in that somewhat narrow field.
They all sold well but even so he himself was never fully satisfied with any of his bird paintings because no matter how diligently he searched he could never find a brush that had hairs fine enough to let him paint the ends of their last tiny tail feathers realistically – that is, in his own mind.
He went to extraordinary lengths to find the perfect brush and he was sold some that were made from the hair on some pretty weird and exotic private parts of some pretty weird and exotic animals.
None proved to be just right and he continued to be exasperated and, to add to his continuing dismay, was the fact that he had a friend named Armand Lupins, also a painter, and the fine feathers on his birds’ tails were always portrayed perfectly. Although they’d been good friends for many years Armand always rejected pleas to reveal his secret because it was the one single thing that he could do better than Eugene.
When Eugene had accumulated enough money from his portraiture to be able to quit doing them altogether he did so with vast relief and looked forward to many happy years of indulging himself by staying at home and doing nothing but paint his beloved birds and fish.
Clearly, at that point, his search to find the perfect brush became more important than ever so he exploited the knowledge that he had about Armand’s precarious personal finances by extending an invitation to him to come and live in his house – rent free and with full room and board and with unrestricted studio privileges – if he’d agree to share his secret technique.
Armand, who had been living one jump ahead of bailiffs for many years and he hadn’t jump quickly enough dismayingly often, accepted immediately and when he’d moved all of his personal stuff into the spare room, and his easel and all of his painting paraphernalia into the second best spot in the studio, the time came to meet his part of the bargain.
He started in on doing a portrait of the parrot that was chained to its perch, which he’d repositioned to catch the light just so, but he only outlined its tail in pencil – to get the proportions right overall – before getting on with painting the rest of the bird in well chosen and vivid colors.
Eugene became very excited when it got to be time for Armand to work on the tail.
He used finer and finer brushes as he progressed downwards and then, knowing that Eugene was holding his breath in anticipation, he paused before addressing the crucial tips because this was his finest moment and he wanted to relish it for as long as possible, but, of course, not for too long because he knew that doing so might well endanger his new-found free accommodation pact, not to mention his health.
When he judged that he’d milked it all that he possibly could he walked behind the parrot and he pulled out one of its tail feathers and used it to finish the painting.
Number Three –
A CLOSED DOOR POLICY.
Robert Roldan developed a persistent and worrisome cough when he was twelve years old. It was traced to an infection in his bronchial tubes and it defied his doctor’s attempts to cure it and baffled everyone as to its source.
It’s most annoying symptom – as far as the rest of his family was concerned – was that, by around four o’clock every morning, mucus in his lungs would have built up so much that it almost completely blocked his airways and he’d wake up very frightened. He’d then be very vocal when he’d fought back against it enough to be able to call out.
That would, of course, wake up everyone in the house and his mother would run in to help him by getting him to lean over the side of the bed and then she gave some serious thumping to his back until he’d dealt with the clogging mucus.
The best advice that a specialist could come up with – after admitting that he, along with all of his predecessors, couldn’t understand why the antibiotics that he was being given weren’t working – was to put a humidifier in his room that was filled with some tested and approved medication mixed in with the water so as to supply a mist of soothing balm for his lungs. His thinking was that seeing that it would be inhaled with his every breath it couldn’t help but do a lot of good.
His mother saw to it that the best humidifier on the market was delivered and installed in his room and was filled and plugged in and was switched on before the end of that same day.
They tried it for several days but poor Robert didn’t get much relief from it and when so informed the same specialist asked several questions and then recommended that they keep the door to his bedroom closed through the night to allow the medication in the air inside to concentrate.
His mother objected that if she closed the door she wouldn’t be able to hear her son if he shouted out for help and the specialist’s reply was that she was forgetting that the concentrated humidified air would do its job and so the boy wouldn’t need help. He pooh-poohed her next concern which was – what would happen if the humidifier stopped for some reason or the liquid got to be all used up or if “the, uh, spigot thing got blocked somehow” by saying that modern humidifiers don’t stop and they have a tank that easily lasts all through the night and that their “spigots” don’t get blocked and so she shouldn’t worry.
Robert lay in bed that night with his humidifier turned up high and his door closed tight and he couldn’t go to sleep because of his dilemma regarding the catastrophe that might present itself: What if the humidifier did stop, or didn’t help him for some reason, and he woke up, as always, just before being strangled by his own body fluids – anyone who has ever nearly drowned will know how petrifying that feeling is and will know that no fault can be levied on anyone for fearing a repeat – and what if that did happen for some reason and no one could hear him calling for help seeing that his door was closed?
After thinking about it for an hour, or so, he reached the conclusion that it was impossible to ever find a solution and that fact quite took his breath away.