Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Devil's Food; Part 2

A green man has taken over the family bathroom, and owner Brian McKinley is taking action.

Bat in hand, McKinley inched toward the bathroom door.  The boys had settled down for the night.  Mrs. Cosgrove’s outburst had faded, like the echo of a cannon.  Connie sipped some soup and gone back to sleep.  Darkness had swept over the house.  Most of the tax returns had been completed and e-mailed to clients.  Mr. Jenkins, as expected, had squealed about the results and made several threatening comments — a mild concern since he lived close by — but finally quieted when McKinley offered to redo the numbers in case a small error had crept in.  He would have to fudge something.  There wasn’t much choice between claiming to have made a mistake or conceding that a client owed far more than anticipated.  McKinley figured that if the IRS questioned one of the dubious deductions, he’d concede the mistake and pay the penalty himself.  No reason to lose a client over a few hundred dollars, certainly not one with the clout and affiliations of a Mr. Jenkins.
Besides, the return was almost accurate.  Everyone cheated a little anyway, McKinley rationalized.
Finally, as the boys settled into bed and Connie stirred uneasily, McKinley had a moment to consider the strange claim about a green man in the small bathroom.  That’s when he got Gerald’s Little League bat.
He pressed an ear against the bathroom door.  Nothing.  He waited.  There was a murmur of water running, but only briefly.  He felt his palms begin to sweat.  The bat was hard.  He slowly reached over with his right hand and carefully turned the knob.  He agonized over each slight movement until the lock clicked open.  Inching forward, he allowed the door to swing open a crack and peered inside again.
“Hi,” a well-modulated, calm voice said.
McKinley closed the door much faster than he opened it.  His heart was beating wildly.  He looked behind him.  No one was around.  It had to be 11 p.m.  No one else was awake.  No one else should be in the house.
Somehow, the alarm system hadn’t worked, he decided.                                      
He tiptoed to the phone in the kitchen and dialed 911.  A few whispered comments brought a promise of immediate help.
He hurried back to the bathroom and stood guard outside, in case the creature trapped inside decided to escape.  He didn’t feel comfortable in the role of a sentry, but gripped his bat and consoled himself that his family would appreciate his effort.
A chunky policeman named Fred Waverly arrived surprisingly quickly.  McKinley heard the patrol car pull up and met the officer at the door.  Waverly seemed pleasant but serious.  He listened gravely to the complete story, eyeing McKinley’s bat.
 “An intruder in the bathroom?” he asked. “How’d he get in?”
“I don’t know.”
There were other questions about possibly entry, location of the bathroom, other occupants in the house and the like.  McKinley waited until the end to tell the officer the awful truth.  “He’s green,” he gulped.  “The boys say he’s green.”
Waverly gave a sour look, as if pondering about a possible drinking problem.  “Did you see him?”
“No.  Yes,” McKinley gulped.  “I just looked in.  That’s all.”
“Is he green?”
“What did he do?’
“He just said, ‘Hi.’”
“Hi.”  McKinley said firmly.
“This is very strange,” Waverly decided.
He walked to the bathroom door and opened it.
“Hi,” the creature said very pleasantly, as though he often greeted people while resting in a bathtub.
Waverly looked stunned.  He drew himself up, adjusted his belt and collected his thoughts.  “You’ll have to leave,” he told the green man.
The creature stretched and stood up.  “I was just getting comfortable, but all right,” it said casually and nicely.
Waverly had his notebook out.  The green man did not seem dangerous.  In fact, he appeared surprisingly genial with a generous smile and a cheery expression.  Waverly wrote down his impressions: about 6 feet tall; dressed in a green suit with green skin; a round face with no noticeable scars or markings; short green hair neatly combed with a part of the right side; horns; a tail; and long arms with manicured fingernails.  Waverly wasn’t concerned about the color: several required classes in cross-cultural appreciation had muted any potentially racist thoughts.  Besides, Daytona Beach was a magnet for derelicts and bums, all of whom looked reasonably strange, especially late at night.
“How did you get in here?” Waverly asked in an undaunted manner.  Probably a transient who had found a place to sleep for the night, he decided.
“The boys brought me,” the creature said.  “Gerald, I believe, did the honors.”
Waverly paled.  He stopped writing in his notebook.  “Your boy named Gerald?” he asked McKinley.
“Yes,” McKinley managed, “but …”
“Bradley was here, too,” the creature continued.
“Bradley your other son?” Waverly said a little colder.
McKinley nodded weekly.
“Actually,” the creature continued, “Mr. McKinley was so kind to bring me home from the supermarket.
Waverly spun and glared at McKinley.  “Is that true?”
“Definitely not,” McKinley squeaked.  His voice trembled.
“Oh, you are such a little fiend,” the creature said with pretend hurt.  “Of course, you did.”  He reached over and picked up the brown cake box that Bradley had left by the basin.
“What?” Waverly asked.
“Ooh,” McKinley moaned as recognition set in.
“What?” Waverly repeated sharply.
McKinley just shook his head.  “I bought that box,” he said.
“Well, he’s too big to fit inside it,” Waverly said angrily.
“Brian!” Connie yelled.
“Who’s that?” Waverly asked coldly.
“My wife,” said McKinley, who was beginning to feel ill himself.  “She’s sick.  We have to be quiet.”  He put down the bat and tiptoed to the bedroom door.
The green man put his finger to his lips.  Waverly just glared at McKinley’s retreating back.
“What time is it?” Connie asked dreamily.
“Late,” McKinley told her.  “Go to sleep.”  He bent over and kissed her forehead.  She was cool and damp.  The fever must have finally broken.
“Who are you talking to?” Connie asked.
“A client,” McKinley said.  “Go to sleep.”  He tucked the cover under her chin. She smiled slightly and closed her eyes.
McKinley slipped out.  He gestured at the others and led them into the living room.  “She has the flu,” he said.
“I’m not feeling well myself,” said Waverly, who was holding the bat.  “Wild goose chases make me sick.”
“I hope you’re not getting ill,” the green man said solicitously.  Even in the dark living room, backlit by dim security lights on a neighbor’s house, he seemed to glow.  “Maybe some warm cake would help.”
“Thanks,” Waverly waved the suggestion away.  “I’ve got donuts in the car.”
He glared at McKinley and snapped his pad shut.  “Mister,” he said in his most authoritative tone.  McKinley hung his head like a little boy.  “I don’t know what kind of gag this is, but this man was obviously invited into your house.  If you’re prejudiced, that’s your problem.  Get some counseling.  But this is not a police matter.”
He handed the bat to McKinley.  “Be careful with this thing,” he cautioned sarcastically.  “You might hurt yourself.”
He hitched up his belt again, then glanced back at the green man.  “Nice color,” he said.  “Very floral.”
The creature beamed.  “Thank you so much,” he said with a slightly bow.
Waverly saw himself out.
McKinley simply sat down, holding his bat like a child’s security blanket.  The creature patted him on the head.  McKinley turned away.
“Are you all right?” the creature asked solicitously.  “You’re not getting sick, too.  There seems to be an epidemic in this house.”
McKinley shook his head.  He gathered himself and stood up, still holding his bat.
“Who are you?” he hissed.
“Shame on me,” the creature said, “we have not been formally introduced.”  He made a slight bow and waved his hand in a small curl.  “I am known by many names,” he said, “but I have always liked Mr. Scratch.”
“It has a nice, noncommittal ring, don’t you think?” Mr. Scratch said.
McKinley’s mind was reeling.  He felt so weak; he could barely hold the bat.  He sat down in the rocking chair.  Mr. Scratch sat across from him on the bench next to the dining room table.  His face seemed to shimmer.
“That’s better,” he said.  “I do like a tub, but don’t want to monopolize the bathroom.”
McKinley took a deep breath.  “You’re the devil,” he said, not believing the words coming out of his mouth.
“Oh,” Mr. Scratch said.  “I do hope you are not biased.  So many terrible things have been written about me.  I am really a nice fellow.”
The devil, McKinley thought to himself.  He felt as though a deep pit had opened beneath him.  What an awful situation.  He had brought the devil into his home.  Was it possible?  Did the devil really exist?  McKinley wished he had spent a little more time in church.  Actually, he couldn’t believe any of this.  What was the devil doing in Daytona Beach, Florida?  The devil?  What nonsense.
“What’s with the green shade?” he asked.
“I’m into my medieval period,’ Mr. Scratch said.  “Do you like it?  I like the horns and tail.  I feel like Pan.”
“Pan,” Mr. Scratch corrected.  “He’s the Green god of the fields.  People in the Middle Ages thought the devil wore green and had horns and a tail.”
“You don’t normally?”
Mr. Scratch laughed.  “Of course not.  I look just like everyone else.”
McKinley felt his head ache.  “This is a bad dream,” he announced.
“Thank goodness,” Mr. Scratch said.
“I’m going to bed,” McKinley continued.  “I’ve been working too hard.”
“You poor dear,” Mr. Scratch said.  “You get plenty of rest.  Don’t worry about me.  I’ll get up when you do.”
“Good, good,” McKinley mumbled.  He headed for the guest room.  In a moment, fully clothed, he was lying down, clutching the pillow.  It was so quiet, with just a distant hum of an electric clock. 
He didn’t dream of green men or anything.

In the morning, the Florida sun already burning the dew from the lawn, McKinley stumbled outside to pick up the Sunday newspapers.  His house had an L-shape.  The top, where two bedrooms were, faced west.  The bottom, which ended with the garage, faced north.  The crotch held the entrance.  As a result, when he emerged, he could not see the street, but had to step along the concrete walkway, between the hedges to the driveway.
He did so unthinking in his usual manner, going to retrieve the newspapers left at the bottom of his long driveway.  He got two dailies: The Orlando Sentinel for the news and the Daytona Beach News-Journal for the New York Times crossword puzzle.  He discarded the rest of the local paper, known locally with muted affection as “the mullet wrapper,” and which mostly of was a mishmash of bad editing, poor writing and execrable news judgment.
He picked up the papers, stripped over their plastic sheathes and glanced at a headline.  Nothing seemed particularly exciting.  He glanced around and marveled at the lovely morning.  Blue skies, fluffy clouds.  A couple cowbirds on the telephone lines.  A squirrel nattering about something in a palm tree.  This is why he moved to Florida.
He smiled contentedly.
Then, he noticed someone nearby, someone whose presence had been hidden by his house’s design and the row of small palms along the northern border of his yard.
“Mr. McKinley?”
Immediately recognizing the sweet sound, McKinley smiled warmly at Sunittra Wilpong, a young, attractive woman who had moved next door with her husband about a year before.  Like most Floridians, she had come from somewhere else.  In her case, Thailand.  McKinley understood such migrations: he was originally from New Hampshire, until the allure of a warm winter drove him south.  Wilpong, too, enjoyed the heat, which evoked memories of her native Bangkok.  She was thin with short, dark hair and an ever-present smile on her pleasant face.  She and McKinley would talk occasionally in the yard, keep an eye on each other’s houses when the other was away, and share an occasional bit of advice about gardens or a tool.  McKinley figured in time he would do the books for her small construction company.  It was only a matter of a few more pleasant conversations.
“You look very well this morning,” Wilpong said gently with her soft accent.
“Great day,” McKinley replied.  “A couple additional tax returns, and I’ll be done for the season.”
“Did you hire an assistant?”
McKinley looked puzzled.  An assistant?  No.  He did have a secretary and a rented office, but there wasn’t need for an assistant.  “Are you looking for a job?” he asked.
Wilpong gave an embarrassed smile.  “Oh, no,” she said.  “Not me.”  She laughed.  “I am very busy teaching.  No, Mrs. Cosgrove said you had a strange man in your house, and she asked us to keep an eye out.”
Wincing, McKinley looked up the street toward the Cosgrove house several houses north and across the street.  What was that woman doing?  “No, no,” he said quickly.  “Just the boys.  They can be strange, I guess.  Mrs. Cosgrove was acting pretty weird herself yesterday.”  He backed away quickly, clutching the newspapers under each arm.  “Heh, heh,” he managed.  “Funny how rumors start.”
Wilpong watched curiously.
McKinley realized she was in a bathrobe, indicating she had rushed outside in hopes of talking to him.
“Stay away from him!” a voice came roaring across the front lawn.
McKinley looked up with a start.  Mrs. Cosgrove!  She was striding towards him like a small, two-legged tank with arms swinging, fists clenched and her hard face rigid and cold.  She hadn’t bothered to comb her white hair, which straggled in the breeze she created with her determined march.
Suddenly, McKinley decided, the day didn’t look so pleasant.  In fact, the inside of his house was far more appealing.  “Nice to talk to you,” he waved at Wilpong and retreated back to his garage.  The front door was very visible and attainable from there.  It looked very inviting.  He tried to remain calm.  He wanted to maintain his composure and be professional.  Wilpong would remember that when he made a pitch for the family business account.
“You’re not getting away that easily,” Mrs. Cosgrove thundered. 
“It’s been a pleasure talking to you, too,” McKinley said tersely.  Mrs. Cosgrove had previously moved beyond criticizing the garden to accusing him of trying to “control” the neighborhood and being an evil influence. He could see her opinion hadn’t softened much over time.
McKinley deliberately turned toward his friendlier neighbor.  “Everything is fine, Sunittra,” he said with a careful, steady voice.  “Don’t let someone spreading false rumors cause trouble.”
Wilpong nodded and slipped away.  She picked up her pace as distance increased until she darted into her house.
“I trust you will be departing, too,” McKinley said to Mrs. Cosgrove.
“You …” Mrs. Cosgrove stopped flat.  Her eyes bugged out.  Her mouth stayed open.  She could only point.  No words came out.
McKinley turned.
“Hi,” Mr. Scratch said, stepping out of the house.  He took a deep breath.  “Nice day,” he said.  He gave a little wave at Mrs. Cosgrove.  “Don’t let me interrupt,” he told McKinley.  “Are you hungry?  I’ll make breakfast.”  He walked back into the house and closed the door.
“What was that?” Mrs. Cosgrove demanded.
“Nothing, no one,” McKinley stammered.  Mrs. Cosgrove was staring at him.  Her face had lost all its color.
“The devil,” the woman hissed.  “And, a week before Easter, too!”
“Mrs. Cosgrove,” McKinley tried.  His heart was racing.  He felt light headed.
“Don’t you talk to me,” Mrs. Cosgrove shouted.  “Bring in the sheaves.  We’ll all be rejoicing, bring in the sheaves,” she sang.  Heads poked out other front doors.  Curious neighbors began to meander down the street.
“Nearer my God to thee,” Mrs. Cosgrove began, her voice wailing into the soft morning the way a gale suddenly can spring up from nothing.
She locked arms with a woman who lived across the street.  “Sing, child,” she ordered.  “The devil must be thwarted.”
“Where is he?”  Another neighbor asked.  He hastily tucked a shirt into his shorts.  McKinley only knew him as a retired doctor who lived across the street.  He walked his dog faithfully twice a day, making sure the dog only defecated on someone else’s yard. 
“Him!” Mrs. Cosgrove pointed at McKinley.
Beginning to tremble, McKinley took a deep breath and tried to calm down.  He could see maybe a dozen neighbors straggling over.  “Good people,” he said shrilly.  “Please, let’s not get hysterical.”  Working virtually alone in a quiet office had hardly prepared him for riot control, although coping with two active sons did offer some practice.
He held up his hands.
That didn’t worked.  He became aware of complete silence.  People were gaping, slack jawed, eyes bulging. McKinley had never seen such overt hate so clearly outlined on so many faces.  For a moment, he felt frozen in place.  Then, his inner strength broken, he ran inside the house and locked the door behind him.
“Your breakfast is almost ready,” Mr. Scratch announced, poking his big green head around the corner of the kitchen as McKinley stepped inside the front door and closed it rapidly.
“You can’t do that,” he breathlessly told Mr. Scratch, who was holding an egg in preparation to adding it to another one already cooking in a skillet. 
“You don’t want two egg?”
McKinley groaned.  “You know what I mean,” he said.
“Brian!” Connie called.
McKinley hurried to the bedroom.  His wife was sitting up.  “Why can’t anyone keep quiet?” she demanded.
“You look better,” McKinley tried.  “Do you feel better?”
“I feel like leaving and going someplace a little quieter, like Mardi Gras or the middle of Spring Break,” she said.
She cocked an ear.  “What’s going on outside?” she asked.
Loud singing was clearly audible, along with honking cars and the banging of pots and pans.  “Block party,” McKinley said.
“This used to be a quiet neighborhood,” Connie announced, as though that observation would somehow reverse the situation.
“Yes, dear,” McKinley said.
“Stop the ‘dear’ stuff,” Connie cracked.
“Dad!”  Bradley was calling.
Blindly, McKinley hurried to his son’s side.  Bradley was sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes.  Bradley lay next to him, still sleeping.  An atomic bomb couldn’t rouse him.  “What’s all the noise?” Gerald asked.
“I don’t know,” McKinley said.  “Go back to sleep.  It’s only 8 o’clock.”
Gerald managed a half smile.  “I smell something.  Bacon.  Who’s cooking?”
McKinley shook his head.  “You don’t want to know.”
“I’m hungry,” Gerald decided and scrambled to the kitchen.  The green chef carefully put bacon and two fried eggs on a plate.  Gerald simply took it.
“Wow,” he said.  “Thanks!”
“I have yours ready, too,” Mr. Scratch told McKinley.
“I don’t have an appetite,” McKinley said sourly.
“I’m sorry.  I hope you aren’t getting the flu, too,” Mr. Scratch said, sounding generally concerned.  “Can I make you something else?  I know, a fruit smoothie.  I’ll mix some bananas, strawberries and ice cream together.  That’ll perk you up.”
McKinley shook his head.  The cacophony outside was getting worse.  He sighed and headed for the guest bedroom, which he was using while his wife was ill.  It was located on the northwest corner of the house, the section closest to the street.  He could look out the window there and see the whole street.
He carefully raised the blinds.  A man’s face was inches away, squinting at him.  As soon as the blind opened, the man retreated, screaming.
Behind him, the entire city seemed to have descended on this little street.  Normally, first-time visitors could rarely find the place.  Apparently, that was no longer a problem.  People were walking on the lawn, singing, talking.  Someone had started a small lemonade stand.  Someone else had rolled out a grill.  Smoke was drifting along in the light breeze.  McKinley’s garden had already been trampled.
From somewhere came the thunder of drums.
“My god,” McKinley moaned.
He heard his son squirm next door and hurried into that bedroom.
“Dad,” Bradley mumbled, “turn off the radio.”
“Sure,” McKinley said wearily.
“Thanks,” Bradley said with a yawn, curled up with his blanket and fell asleep.
The doorbell rang.
McKinley raced down the hallway, not sure if he’d need Gerald’s bat again or something more lethal.  A young woman with long black hair, painted black fingernails and an earnest smile looked at him.  She had a notebook in her hand.  “Are you Brian McKinley?” she asked sweetly.
“Yes,” he managed.  “Who are you?”
“Betty Whimple, from the News-Journal,” she said.
“Not now, not now,” McKinley said, starting to close the door.  He could feel hundreds of eyes on him.
“Just a few simple question,” Whimple said quickly.  McKinley hesitated, his hand ready to slam the door.  She looked so nice.  “I can talk to the people outside,” she added, “but you’d like your side in the story, too, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes ... no …” McKinley tried.  “There aren’t two sides.”
“Oh,” Whimple said.  She wrote something down.”
“Don’t quote me,” McKinley demanded urgently.
“ ‘McKinley refused to comment on claims he was harboring the devil,’"Whimple read aloud from her notebook.
“No,” McKinley said quickly.  “I …”
“‘He seemed very confused,’” Whimple continued to read.
“I am not confused!” McKinley shouted.  He slammed the door and lay against it, panting.
“No use hiding, Brian,” Whimple called through the door.
McKinley shuddered.  He tottered back into the kitchen.  Mr. Scratch was cheerfully squeezing orange juice by hand for Gerald.  “Want some?” Mr. Scratch asked.
“I just want you to leave,” McKinley moaned.
“Dad, not until after breakfast,” Gerald objected.  “Then, he promised to help me with my reading assignment.”
McKinley gasped like a fish deposited on dry land.  “Reading?’ he whimpered.
“My best subject,” Mr. Scratch said proudly.  “That, and science.”
‘You know, Brad has a science fair project he needs help on,” Gerald noted eagerly.  “You could help him.”
“You bet I could,” Mr. Scratch agreed enthusiastically.  He immediately strode down the hallway to the bedroom to discuss the possibility with the sleeping teenager.
McKinley waited for his half-awake son to erupt in his usual burst of anger at having his sleep disrupted.  Instead, he came out of the bedroom and almost rushed into the kitchen.  “Where’s the eggs?” he asked.  “I want to finish that darn science project.  Greenie has a great idea.”
“I do a lot with fire,” Mr. Scratch said modestly, trailing behind Bradley.
He pushed around Bradley.  “How do you like your eggs?” he asked.
“Sunny side up with pepper and salt,” Bradley said.
“Salt isn’t good for you.  How about some of my special spices?” Mr. Scratch suggested.  “You’ll like it.”
Bradley scratched himself.  “I guess so.  I’d better get dressed.”  He almost sprinted down the hallway to his bedroom.  McKinley watched him with bewilderment.  Most mornings, Bradley awoke with the temperament of a disturbed grizzly.   This morning, he was as docile as a kitten. 
“Do you have some returns to finish?” Mr. Scratch asked McKinley.
“Ah, yes,” he quavered.
“Well, then, you’d better eat something.  That’s a lot of mental work.  You need some vitamin C and some protein.  No bacon for you.  Bad for the arteries.  Let’s get you a vegetable juice mix and some soy mix.”
He busied himself while Bradley’s eggs crackled gently on the stove.
McKinley simply sagged in the middle of the kitchen.  There was a large green man cooking breakfast.  He could see him, but he didn’t seem real.  Nothing did.
Outside, the Rev. Hardy Goren pulled up in his white Cadillac, surveyed the burgeoning crowd and worked his way to the curb.  He climbed up and held up his hands for silence.
“Let us pray,” he announced.

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