Migrant Man

by

Michael Edwards

 

And Cloris Leachman came in and said "It's time."  It was so early; they were all sleeping so soundly.  But she nudged them, each in turn, and told them it was time.  Their day was to begin; her job was to let them know.  No one watching wanted her to go in there and wake them; but the people themselves knew they had to be awaken.  They wanted to be awaken, even if they did groan and try once or twice to drown out her voice; they wanted to be told it was time: it was real for them, their lives depended upon something happening, as it happened every day, as it must happen, though it  disquieted, even saddened, the people watching their story unfold on television.  CBS put it on; it was called "The Migrants" and it starred Cloris Leachman as the wife of a migrant worker, the mother of migrant children, the one whose task it was to arise each morning earlier than anyone else, early enough to awaken the others in time to begin the day's picking.  CBS had also produced the documentary report on migrant workers called "Harvest of Shame."  Toni Hauser just vaguely remembered having seen that: a young wife now, she had been a young girl then, and documentaries were somewhat lost on her, though she did recall very distinctly having gotten a crush on the reporter, Edward RA Murrow; and she recalled crying when she heard a few years later of his death.  She had been a teenager and had already tried her first few cigarettes; when she heard of Mr Murrow's death by lung cancer she swore never to smoke again.  She felt a funny kind of personal involvement with the great reporter, not because she was a child of television, not because she watched him every week on his "Person To Person" show, not because she confused the flesh and blood abstracts brought electronically to her living room with real, live, accessible and touchable people who knew of her existence and could respond to her - not for any of these reasons did she feel for Mr Murrow, but for that simplest of all reasons: he appealed to her, he was somebody she wished could somehow be made to exist in her real world, so that she could give him her first kiss.  Not as a celebrity did he appeal to her, but as a man, sort of the way a handsome model in a cigarette advertisement in a magazine might strike her as just the perfect lover, except that after his death she ceased being attracted to the Marlboro Man who, on horseback, looked so detached, so forbidding, so painfully inaccessible - far more inaccessible to her than even the great news reporter and commentator, since he at least spoke and moved and blew smoke whereas the Marlboro Man sat impassive, imprisoned forever on the back cover of Life Magazine.  She had had that print on her bedroom wall, but when Edward R Murrow died she took it down; she did not tear it up or throw it out, but simply folded it up and put it away in a drawer along with various childhood mementoes she felt, at thirteen, too old to keep in plain view any longer.  Even so, she called the implacable cowboy a murderer.  She understood that just as a television celebrity was less real somehow than someone she could reach out and touch, so too was a model playing at being a cowboy for a magazine ad less real than a man, smoking a cigarette, reporting to the nation the legacy of shame.  So when Cloris Leachman came in to tell everyone it was time, Toni Hauser found herself wanting to tap her on the shoulder and ask if she knew a documentary had been produced concerning the migrant workers, or if she had even heard of Edward R Murrow, or knew he had died, or was this taking place even before his time?  That is, if a character in a drama can have any awareness of the real world.

"Ah Cloris," Toni whispered, "the woman you're playing: I can't believe her heart wouldn't break if she'd known.  I think you sensed that, that's why you've made her someone whose heart would break a little.  You're a great actress, so you're bound to know that people have room in their hearts for so much more than just those around them.  Are only actresses able to show that though?  Ah Cloris, I hope that's not the case.  But who can I ask?  Not Stephen.  He wouldn't understand, he'd only think I was reading Modern Screen or something like that.  He'd think I was fantasizing about being a movie star.  Ah Cloris, you don't know how lucky you are."

Finally, a baby was born to the migrants, a new hand to be awaken when it would be time for the child to go to the fields.  The child's grandmother would do the awakening.  It could not be any other way.  Everyone rejoiced, and the credits soon blotted out their faces.  Produced by - there went one face; directed by - there went another.  Costumes provided by - and another; music scored by - and still another.  Until they were all obliterated behind a crisscrossing web of lettering, that the viewers might see what had made it all possible, the entire pageant eventually fading into a bright eyed young housewife having trouble selecting the correct vitamin for her family: what's a mother to do?

"I'm home!" called Stephen Hauser to his wife.  She had not heard the door open, or her husband come in.  Now here he was, standing before her, his sport coat flung across his shoulder, his striped tie loosened, parts of his shirt about to be pulled free of his trousers.  Even his hair was tousled just right, falling a little lower over one ear than the other, a few loose strands escaping at the front to hang low over his forehead, almost to the point of touching his brow.  His free hand was in his trouser pocket.  It was a retail catalog pose, pure and simple; he knew it was, but instead of being embarrassed or uneasy mimicking something designed to stylize real life, he felt sanctioned, his own stance authenticated by the picture in his store's catalog he was copying.

A song was playing on the radio; it had begun a moment earlier, but only when the television was turned off did it become audible.  The radio had been left on all evening, but the volume was turned low and while the television, which was turned loud, was on, it could not be heard.  It resumed serenading Toni now that the show was over.  "Elusive Dreams," the song was called, and was about; the kind of song the ultra-sophisticated would call sentimental, banal, slick, but the kind of song that has the rare quality of touching one's soul directly; nothing was required of the intellect, so to the superficial there was no intelligence, no wisdom, no artistry about it.  Only to those rare few who could understand that all knowledge, however obscure or profound or rational, was ultimately subjective, did the song have anything to say: and what it said to them was bound up in the feelings it evoked in them.  The capacity to feel is the very least trite or banal or slick of all things comprising human experience, and nothing which summons feelings is to be taken lightly.  If the song told of never finding what one was looking for, and if the listener experienced the truth of that statement, then what did it matter if the criteria specifically laid down for creating sublimity had not been met?  The profoundest work of art still rests upon somebody's subjective experience of it; and just as profound art reaches out to enrich even the barest soul, so too do profound feelings reach out to ennoble even the slickest of art.  It isn't the work at all - or in any way the reality one encounters - which dictates the worth of a human soul, but the other way around.

"I didn't hear you come in," Toni said to her husband.  She was what is called curled up on the sofa, with an afghan over her legs.  One arm rested on the back of the sofa; her fingers began stroking the gray velveteen fabric.  "How was your day?" she asked.

"Great!" Stephen Hauser announced.  I'll tell you all about it later, in bed."  He stressed the words "in bed."  "How was your day?" he asked, still standing with his body catalogued.  She began explaining about the movie she had just seen, telling her husband, not the plot, not even the birth of the baby or the part where everyone had had to be awaken, but about the sadness underneath the requisite platitudes congratulating the human spirit and the striving for an ideal and the perseverance: not that these were unimportant, but that they had become customary, almost built-in  elements of fiction - almost trite; and as such had little direct meaning, the sadness and the ultimate futility of it all, which anyone must somehow interpolate as the foundation out of which they arose, these happy things, the only thing giving them meaning.  She told her husband that Cloris Leachman could not mask the sorrow, great an actress as she was.  Then she thought a moment, while her husband stood smiling down on her, and she realized that it was probably because Cloris Leachman was such a fine actress that the sorrow came through so clearly, and that it took a lesser actress to portray joy in the abstract, the way television and all popular fiction generally supposes joy to occur: joy utterly free of despair.  Awkwardly, she tried to tell her husband these things; not to instruct him, but only to show him that she was capable of looking a little deeper than surface reality.  He kept smiling.

"That's nice," he said softly, encouragingly, as one would give encouragement to a child whose little triumphs of the intellect, while of no great moment, must nevertheless not go unrewarded.  Toni felt a little embarrassed by her husband's patronization, partly because it seemed misplaced but also because she was afraid perhaps what she took to be deep, even a little profound, was in fact only trite and could not help being regarded as such by someone, like Stephen, more worldly.  Stephen made a gesture suggesting he supposed her to be about to say something further, but she nodded no.

"How about," he said, "if we go to bed now?  I had a big day and...well: and."  He took his coat and gave it a toss; it landed somewhere to the left of the sofa.  Then he removed his tie the rest of the way, straightened it out, took it as if it were a lasso and flung it behind his wife's neck.  "Come here gorgeous," he said, pulling her closer to him.  Stephen Hauser was an urban replica of Toni's Marlboro Man: thinner, paler, better dressed, less rugged, more refined; except there was no Marlboro Man in real life, so comparisons, while called for, were unfortunate and terribly unfair.  Toni let herself be raised from the sofa, and since Stephen's eyes were shut as his mouth drew near hers, he could not perceive the awkwardness of her movement.  She nearly lost her balance trying to all at once stand up on legs which had curled over the sofa; fortunately she was able to keep upright so as not to spoil the grace of the moment.

"How beautiful love can be," Stephen murmured between kisses, and though his breath was stale, of beer, of cigar smoke, of onions, Toni kissed him in affirmation of his declaration.  And when he said it again, in bed, when they had finished making love, Toni let a tear be her answer; for the world she would not have complained of his underarm odor or the oilyness of his body or the tiny specks of lint on his shoulders.

"Be right back," he said, going to take a quick shower.  Toni had taken her shower earlier in the evening.  When he returned, clean, smooth, fresh smelling and ready for sleep, or talk, he asked her why she had been humming while they were "doing it," as he referred to having sexual intercourse.  He looked hurt.  She tried to explain that she was not even aware of it, that she had not been distracted, that her full attention was on their expression of love.  She referred to sexual intercourse as "our expression of love"; but in her heart she felt embarrassed at using so saccharin an expression; besides, she was not sure it expressed anything.  Her answer did not satisfy him.

"How could your mind be on such a dumb song at such a time.  It embarrassed me," he said almost in a whisper.  "Here I was moaning like a sick dog and you were there humming about your 'Elusive Dreams.'  It just didn't feel right, honey.  It makes me feel like a sex maniac or something, like those God damn fags that suck each other off."

"Oh Stephen -"

"Well that's what they do!  You should hear some of the stories they tell about those queers!"  Then, as he was about to laugh, he drew himself very close to his wife, hugging her, whispering instead, as if the impulse had given him the courage to say what he really wanted to say.  "It's not that I'm not man enough, is it?" he begged in his wife's ear to know.  His body trembled once or twice.

"Oh no," Toni assured him, "oh God no, anything but that.  Stephen, oh Stephen, it was love for you that made me hum.  That's all it could have been."  The fears which moved his body filled her soul; she had room for his as well as her own, just as she had earlier made room for his love.  God only knew what the respective progenies would be.

Reassured, Stephen Hauser rolled back from his wife.  "What is it?" he asked, somewhat startled by a sudden movement she had made.

"Oh nothing," Toni answered, "just a reaction.  A little spasm.  A little touch of palsy maybe."  That was how she felt constrained to characterize her having reached out to him to grab him, to pull him back, when he rolled over, so that the moment - her moment - might not end prematurely, as it always did.  She thought of something and smiled.  Stephen had once been worried of premature ejaculation; he had read everything he could find on the subject, he had even worked up sufficient courage to purchase, in a drug store in another city, some kind of lotion which was supposed to help.  Eventually the fear went away, and with it the problem itself.  It had never really bothered Toni, and she had always wondered at his preoccupation with what seemed to her almost trivial.  She had felt rather superior to him, until just now when he pulled away from her so abruptly, and she had blindly reached out to keep him from leaving.  Now she understood the anguish of losing the moment's pleasure too soon; she saw that perhaps it had not been so much Stephen's fear of being unmanly as the underlying frustration of having his pleasure cut short.  She doubted if she would ever again find it amusing should it reoccur.

"You ready to hear it?" Stephen asked, sitting himself upright and standing his pillow up behind her.  "About my day?" he added.  Toni looked up at him and nodded yes.  She propped herself on her elbow, but had her elbow in the middle of her pillow; Stephen made a face, as if to remind her it was not good for the pillow to have one's elbow like that, so she adjusted herself in consideration of the foam latex.

"You are now looking," Stephen Hauser announced, "at the new manager of the Paint Department."

"That's wonderful," Toni congratulated her husband.

"Wonderful?" he teased.  "Just 'wonderful?'  Hell, it's great - g-r-e-a-t: yay me!  I'm a stupid jerk male egotist and I love it, I love it!  I wouldn't trade it for all the sensitive souls with all their holy sacred poetic fires on earth!  Give me the fight, competition, business any day!  I'm a fighter, I'm an aggressor.  A leader - yeah, that's what it is: I'm a leader!  Sort of an asshole too I guess but I've never said that to anyone else, and never will, 'cause you can't let the world know it or they won't respect you.  Let 'em think it, Toni, if they want, but don't let 'em know you think it too.  Oh hell, Toni, I'm so excited I don't know what the hell I'm saying, calling myself an asshole!  Would an asshole even get to be a manager?  And not only that baby - not only that - but in a year there's a damn good chance I'll get merchandiser in some rinky-dink out of the way little C&D level store out in the boonies somewhere!  Hard goods, baby: that's where it is.  That's a real man's world, not like the soft goods where all the fags get in.  You know we've got a man manager in Cosmetics: a guy - can you believe it?  A real first class fag.  Real sweet.  You won't find no fags in 75!"

"Seventy-five?" asked Toni.

"Paint!" Stephen sounded a little annoyed at having to point out.  "I've told you that.  Christ Toni, don't you care about my work?  Every department's got a number.  Paints is 75, just like Cosmetics is 53, and so on.  The hard goods are higher numbers - just like you might say a real man has a higher number!  Course I shouldn't make too much of that maybe, cause 10," a look of pride came over his face as he said it, "is the Dress Department!  Anyway, me, I'm Paint: 75!  God you don't know how that makes me feel Toni.  I beat out three other guys for that promotion.  Course being a staff trainee helps - I knew beating my brains out for four freakin' years listening to those dumb asshole professors'd pay off sooner or later!  BS in Business Administration.  God some of those dumb jerks, taking pussy stuff like English or Sociology - might as well take basket weaving or crocheting, if they think there's any money to be made in those fairy lands!  Christ, they're all women's subjects.  They're just there for the girls to have something easy to do while they're looking for husbands!  Anyway, forget about that crap, just thank God I don't ever have to crack another book as long as I live - except for my Ad Planner, my Merchandise Condition Report, my Markdown book and my Department Manager's Manual!  I know, I know: right now I might as well be speaking Greek as to throw out those names, but believe me by the time you get finished hearing me complain about them you'll be as sick of them as I will!  Anyway, forget about that too for now."

Unable to resist making another physical statement about his good fortune, Stephen reached over and took his wife in his arms, hugging her as he would if, standing, he were to lift her off her feet and swing her around; then he released her.

"That's why I was late getting home," he explained.  "Me and some of the guys went out to grab a couple beers to celebrate.  And baby when I say some of the guys, I don't just mean the monkeys I'll have working for me - my fellow monkeys till today, but thanks to the Old Man I'm no longer a monkey - but my merchandiser plus the Operating Manager plus the A&B merchandiser!"

"A&B?" asked Toni.  "You have both letters and numbers?  How does everyone ever keep them straight?  Is there an accountant? a philologist? are they separate departments?"  She hoped her husband would not take her remark as sarcasm, but only as light heartedness.  But she quickly saw there was no cause for concern, as he took it absolutely literally.

"It's not as confusing as it probably seems," he took the time to explain.  "See, the letters refer to the soft and hard lines: A&B are soft lines, except for Cameras and Housewares, which are in with the hard lines, only they usually have women managers so they're not as important as the real hard lines.  And C&D are the hard lines: D is Appliances, C is all the other hard lines.  The numbers are the individual departments.  Even the offices upstairs have numbers - I don't mean room numbers, but department numbers.  And speaking of rooms, we call the different lines 'rooms' - like all the C lines are together and they're the C Room.  You'll go crazy though if you try to understand all of it - believe me, it's all I can do to keep it straight!  Anyway, you should have seen the look on some of the other department managers' faces when they saw me heading out with the staff!  That's what we call the merchandisers, the Old Man - store manager, that is, but we all call him 'the Old Man' - and the operating manager, and the store controller and the personnel manager: we call 'em staff.  And God you should have seen the envy when we all walked out together!  I loved it - I loved it!  I was in my glory!  That's what a man likes, you know, that's what motivates him to achieve: knowing he's got something everyone else wishes they had!  And I don't care how many pussy faced wimps write and say how disgusting it is, that's what life is all about, and if they don't like it they can just go blow dead buffaloes!  But forget about those stupid assholes, nobody takes them seriously anyway.  Anyway, Ed - that's my merchandiser - told me I'd probably be out of here in a year.  And that only means one thing: it means I'm on my way up!  Naturally I'll have to go the full circuit before I land in a store like this one - I mean we're number one: did you know that?  Baltimore's the number one district we have, and Towson's the top dog in the district!  Course when they open the Route 40 East store it's gonna hurt some, but by then I'll be long gone.  We'll be stuck in some hole of a store out in some one horse town maybe in Pennsylvania or upstate New York or who knows? maybe even one of the other regions.  We're region one - number one, that's us!  Did you know that?  Even Chicago, the headquarters, is region two.  Bet old Aaron's spinning in his grave!  I can just see the old bastard now: oops, there goes a hip bone, rip there goes the casket lining; his old skeleton head grinning like he just ate shit.  And me: riding high and tall in the saddle!  Hey I wonder if there's anything left of his penis?  What do you think?  Does the penis turn to dust too, or is there a bone inside that stays to remind eternity how much or how little a man had?  Christ, I'd hate to think the guy with half what I've got'd end up looking like he had just as much!  What a bum rap!  Ozymandias, they name is Cock!  How 'bout that, babe? old Philistine asshole me, Stephen J Hauser quoting the great Percy Bysshe Shelley?  Or is that Pussy Whipped Shelley?  That's the only fuckin' thing I remember from English class, that one poem; and only the name at that.  I might have learned to like it, but we don't live in Never Never Land, we live in the real world - and I'm fuckin' glad too, 'cause I'd sooner have my balls cut off than go around like some God damn pussy reading poems all day long!  But fuck it, forget about that shit, it's only for fags.  And maybe Jews - they're about the only ones can go around spouting poetry without looking like fags - no, no, forget I said that, I like Jews okay, I don't have anything against them.  Blacks neither.  See, that's a good sign right there: I call them blacks, not like a lot of guys, that just come right out and say 'niggers.'  Not me though.  I stopped calling them niggers the day that one of them saved my dad's life.  Risked his own life pulling my dad out of that car.  Thanks to him I had my dad three more years.  He didn't live to see me a father yet, but at least he lived to see me a married man, which he wouldn't have if that fuckin' car'd blown before that ni... - before that black guy - could pull him out.  God Toni I still wake up sometimes in a sweat thinking about it.  I do feel sorry for blacks though, I really do - even if we weren't supposed to I would anyway.  They don't fit in somehow, you know?  You try your best; and still there's just something different about them that keeps them from fitting in.  And I don't mean their skin.  Well, not entirely their skin.  It's hard to pinpoint.  I know we have some blacks at work.  I mean, some janitors sure; but also some staff trainees - and you gotta be a college graduate to be a staff trainee.  And these guys aren't dumb either, but they just don't quite fit in.  It's like - it's like they're not team players, you know?  We're all members of a team: store's like a great big locker room, you know?  We have the fans - that's the customers; and the cheerleaders; and then we have us, the jocks, the managers.  Only the blacks don't seem to be on the same team, or else they aren't too keen on the rules or something, I don't quite know what.  They don't even move the same - and I don't mean they shuffle or anything like that.  But they're more, I don't know, they're more attuned to people and not to rules.  Like if their friends came in, they just stop what they're doing and start shootin' the shit, right there on the sales floor!  Or, worse yet, maybe walk off to go get a coffee!  Hell, Toni, don't they know you can't do that?  You can't just drop everything for people - Christ, where'd we be if everyone did that way?  You have inventories to keep up to date, and stock to put out, and a God damn ton of paperwork to get done Toni!  But they don't seem to understand that.  It's like they're off in their own little dream world and the whole world around them disappears.  They're not geared to time the way we are.  They're into feelings and personal contact and things like that - I guess that's why they commit more murders: they get so involved they pull out a knife and stick it in someone's guts!  I can tell you, Toni, most of the blacks we have aren't going anywhere in that company - and it ain't our fault cause we bend over backwards to meet all the government quotas and everything!  And you can't talk to them Toni, that's the thing.  Like if we sit down in the Buffeteria to take a break and get a conversation going, then if one of them joins us - and we don't care, Toni, we never say he can't - we have to kind of talk just about the weather or sports or something.  There are just some subjects you can't discuss in mixed company, you know?"                    

Toni did not wish to inquire which subjects could not be discussed in racially mixed company.  Nor would she jeopardize her husband's present elation with a lecture on prejudice.  She cared for the plight of those against whom intolerance was directed, the insidious kind disguised as acceptance as well as the open, brutal kind; but she cared more for her husband, even if that meant ignoring his frailties, or even if it meant condoning them.  I didn't marry the world, she constantly reminded herself; I married Stephen.  And if I didn't exactly set my ideals aside when I came to him, I did agree to keep their rough hewn side turned outward from him, so that if ever I should find myself having to use them against him he'll only feel their soft, polished side.  While she thought, she missed his brief "good night"; she missed his yawn; she caught only his movements as he lay both himself and his pillow back down.  Before she could get the words "good night" out, he had fallen asleep, or at least fallen into that state of pre-sleep, where one, while not yet oblivious to the outside world, is powerless to react to it.  She bent over and kissed him, first on the forehead then on the shoulder; he seemed to feel it, and a smile momentarily broke the solemnity with which he approached sleep, then the smile faded: the parting of his lips remained, but the smile which had parted them was gone.  Toni's smile also left; she lay back, on the pillow spared by her husband's caution from her elbow, and eventually fell asleep.

Another striped tie graced Stephen Hauser's chest the next morning; another shirt, but one equally stylish; another jacket and another pair of trousers.  From a different page of the Spring & Summer catalog.  The breakfast of champions finished, his teeth brushed, mouth rinsed, nose blown, off he went to begin managing the Paint Department at the Eudowood Plaza store.  He walked to work; the Eudowood Town apartments where the Hausers lived was across the street from the shopping center.  He left the car and walked, but only if the weather were beautiful, so he could say if spotted walking across Joppa Road and through the parking lot that it was just too beautiful to resist, especially being so close.  But it had to be beautiful: men on the way up needed an excuse to walk from place to place, when status so clearly defined the role of the automobile.  Only nobodies walked: kids hitchhiking, old men staggering home from sleazy bars, slightly retarded or shell shocked veterans coaxed with a small monthly stipend into private homes, and the underprivileged, the poor - the dispossessed.  One did not ride so much out of laziness as out of self-conscious adherence to the status system.  But on a beautiful day, and living just across the street - especially if one engineered things at work so as to have required an attaché case the night before, as Stephen had, claiming he needed to look over the various data related to managing a department - on a beautiful day one could effect a walk which did not seriously damage his reputation.  Now in the evening, of course, things were different.  If one had a dog to lead or children to oversee or a wife to stroll arm in arm with, then one might walk with utter abandon.  And of course, one could always jog without looking like a member of the lower classes.  Occasionally Stephen did jog, occasionally he walked with his wife; he had no children or pets.  But only on beautiful mornings could he be seen coming from his apartment building, crossing the little bridge-like walkway covering the alley below, pausing at Joppa Road, which the second story opened onto, thanks to the bridge, then crossing the divided highway, heading down hill to the Eudowood Plaza Shopping Center, and going into the huge red brick building housing the number one store in the number one district in Region number one, the Towson Store.

He was early, purposely early.  The employees congregated in the cafeteria, or Buffeteria, as it was called; there they waited, over a coffee, for the signal to proceed to work, the hour of nine-thirty when the store opened, nine-twenty-five when employees could go upstairs to punch in on the time clock.  Some of the tables housed department managers, most housed sales clerks.  Stephen walked to a table in the corner, where his merchandiser and one or two fellow managers were gathered.  At first an awkward moment, it soon became clear to the others that he was entitled to such a presumption.

"You guys know Steve's now 75 manager don't you?" said the merchandiser to the managers, sensing their reaction at encountering an impropriety.  They evidently had not yet heard; upon hearing, however, they made haste to congratulate him and welcome him into their circle.

"We'd heard it was in the wings," one manager noted.  Everyone laughed.  The merchandiser shook his head.

"The Old Man's always the last to know," he observed wryly, then he muttered "rumors, rumors," with a sigh.

"We're always one step ahead of you, Ed, you know that," said the hardware manager, who did know of Stephen's promotion, and had been with them last evening at Souris's to celebrate, and consequently was not surprised at his seating himself at their table now.

"Hey!" cried Stephen suddenly, though almost in a whisper, pointing to the counter where customers got their food, "there's that broad I was telling you guys about.  Look at those tits man!  Wouldn't you like to get into that?"  They all agreed they would.  Someone asked where she worked.  "Upstairs," said Stephen, "in Invoice Records.  She just started yesterday.  I happened to be up there checking orders.  Man I thought I'll fall right off my chair.  Even so," he said with a grin, "I couldn't have gotten right up.  At least most of me couldn't have got right up!  Man oh man what a piece.  You talk about a boner, man did my old lady get one last night!"  Everyone laughed.

By now people were starting to get up: it was twenty-five after nine, they could go punch in.  Stephen and the other managers arose just a moment or so after the regular employees.  Next Monday, at the weekly department managers' meeting, the newest manager would be formally introduced; for now, the protocol, plus the gossip, would serve.  When he punched in - for managers too had to "hit the clock" - he did so as other than the man he was yesterday: no longer a "monkey" but a "cheese"; not the "big cheese," but a cheese still.  When he walked through the Paint department, it was not the same place it had been yesterday; no longer a prison, he its slave, it had become an empire, if but a little one; he its master.

"You're late," were the first words he spoke in his new domain.  His employee, just yesterday his fellow employee, had, as always, arrived five minutes late; but where before they had laughed over it and tried to obscure it - had regarded it as a kind of personal joke between them: a contest to "put something over on" the boss - now it was altogether different, and the cessation of laughter must come at once, the result of forceful leadership, clean division within the hierarchy.  Stephen Hauser's claim to superiority hung in the balance, and if he were to advance, to use this promotion as the necessary first step in the sequence designed to bestow upon him one day the awesome title of Old Man, he must be seen effecting a strong image, that of a forceful, aggressive leader.

His employee grinned and, winking, agreed that yes, he was late.  Tom, or Jim, or perhaps Bob - his name was something like that, the designation Mr Stanski being all that was on his name badge - knew he was this morning addressing his boss, not his fellow employee and co-conspirator; but he had no idea how great a leap of faith was required of him to adjust to that change.  Stephen repeated himself.

"I said you're late," he again informed Mr Stanski, who once again grinned, but with less conviction.  Stephen for a moment looked as if he would say more, his look at the point of being harsh; but the look dissipated prematurely, whether in response to a growing look of uneasiness on Mr Stanski's face or for some other reason, and he said nothing further, though a certain hard gleam in his eye suggested his possibly having made a mental note of some sort, the sort one files away till a more opportune moment.  A customer approached; Mr Stanski was summoned to wait on her.

"I'll be in the back," Stephen exclaimed, pointing to the rear of the store to indicate that he meant, not his small storeroom behind the counter and through the door which said on it "Employees Only," but the warehouse and dock area, where most of his stock was kept.  It was, or had been, his place of escape, temporary escape from his enslavement, the place he could steal away to with the excuse of getting more paint to bring onto the sales floor; a place where for a moment he could relax with a quick smoke, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or more of the porters who, on their way to or from the trash dumpster, might stop likewise for a refreshing whiff.

The paint came in boxes of four gallons each; they were stacked fourteen high, these brown cardboard boxes, in rows against the walls.  An area roughly fifty feet by twenty feet held the bulk of Department 75 stock, most of which consisted of gallons of paint, but a few rows of quarts, also four to a box, stood apart.  All along the two walls meeting at right angles the boxes stood, plus four more rows within the area, an aisle way of some foot and a half between each row.  It was quite a reach to take the topmost box, and sometimes the boarded configurations - the pallets - on which the paint stood afforded a less than secure base.  Once or twice it had happened that a careless stock boy had come close to pulling an entire row of fourteen boxes down on him; once or twice a smaller stock boy, having to climb a box or two, if they happened not to be stacked one directly atop the other, to reach the topmost box, came close to falling.  Nothing had really resulted in anything more than a skinned arm or leg though.  So there was occasionally damage; but while there was, there was also a sheltered space where one could go and, hidden from the rest of the store, lean back against a pillow of boxed paint cans and light up a cigarette.  Of course it was a no smoking area, as all stockrooms were; but there were butts in every aisle, not a few of them Stephen's.

"It's all mine," he whispered.  Then he heard something in the next aisle, a sound he knew and had once loved but now resented.  This was part of his kingdom now; this was no longer a shelter.  He walked around the paint.

"How's it going?" asked a middle aged man with a graying crew cut, a thin, rather haggard man with liver spots on his face.  He had just lit up a cigarette and, having put the pack away, withdrew it to offer Stephen a cigarette.  No motion further was made until the porter, sensing that Stephen was not going to take the offered smoke, put the package in his shirt pocket.  "Got in at five again today," the porter sought to get a little conversation going, but got no feedback.  Stephen stood there as if waiting - as if hinting - for him to put the cigarette out and go; but he failed to take the hint.  Finally it was pointed out to him that there was no smoking allowed in this area.  The porter winked and said he knew it, at which the injunction was repeated to him.

"I'll have to ask you not to smoke here," Stephen came right out and said, adding, as if to give weight to his request, that "the Old Man's on the rag about that."  The porter looked suddenly uneasy; he dropped his cigarette and stomped it out, but before he could go he was given to understand that butts were not to be left scattered on the floor.  "Can you kind of clean this up?" Stephen asked.  So all the butts were taken out and crushed in the dumpster.  Stephen shuddered as the crunch of the compactor reached him.  Some of those butts were his; now the whole area was, and they were pulverized, at his request.

"Your break is fifteen minutes," Mr Stanski was reminded before being relieved to go have a coffee.  Has it ever been doubted how long one's break was?  One's break was always - always - just long enough to make it uncomfortable to abide by it; that way there could be no doubt that to observe its limits was an act of deference, of submission to a higher authority.  In every way possible the hierarchy must be reinforced - otherwise why divide people into managers and employees?

"I said fifteen," Mr Stanski was told upon his return from his break, five minutes late.

"Hey Steve," said Stanski, "don't you think you're overdoing this manager bit just a little?"

Stephen seemed amused by the question: it represented so incomplete an understanding of the true role of management.  Now surely he knew if he ever would know why he had been chosen while others were passed over.  "It isn't a bit," he replied somewhat condescendingly, "and it can't be overdone, and furthermore, Ted, I'd like you to start calling me Mr Hauser, not Steve.  You just do your work - that's what you're here for - and stick to the rules, and you'll do okay.  If not, then I'll have to get someone who will.  Do I make myself clear?"

Ted - his name, as it turned out, was not Tom, or Jim or even Bob but Ted - Stanski nodded his agreement.  "Yes," he said, then he took that back and said instead "Yes sir," always an awkward retrieval.

"Good," said his new boss, adding just one thing: "Don't be late again, or it'll be your last time."

Late in the day, on an impulse, Stephen went back to the dock.  His part time clerk had come in, had been duly informed of the proper procedure, and Stanski had been sent to replenish the supply of paint that was on sale that particular day, their best latex semi-gloss, article number 3300: Life.  It's name was Life.  Stephen decided to check upon Stanski and when he crept up to the aisle where the Life was stacked he found exactly what he surmised he would find: Stanski had lit up a cigarette and was halfway through it.

"This is a no smoking area," he informed his employee, who was about to drop his cigarette and stomp it; but Stephen quickly perceived this next train of events and like a light halted it.  "Not here," he said, "take it out there."  Causality was thwarted in an instant.  That was power.  When the cigarette had been disposed of and Stanski had returned to gather stock, Stephen laid a hand on his employee's shoulder and gave him a little lecture.

"You're a good worker, Ted," Stanski was told, "but you've got faults.  Hell, Ted, we all do!  But when you come to work, you've got to leave your faults at home; this is no place for them.  This is a good company to work for, good benefits, good hours, good working conditions.  Don't blow it, Ted.  I don't want to have to fire you, but I will if it comes to it.  Paint may not be the most important thing in this world, but by God when you're working for me, I expect you to act as if it was.  So I'm putting you on probation, effective tomorrow.  Think it over Ted."

Presumably Ted thought it over; and just as his boss was going to supper, he approached him.  "You're an asshole," said Stanski.

"And you're fired," said Stephen, who informed his part timer to look extra sharp till he got back from supper; then he left his department for a bite to eat in the Buffeteria.  Stanski also left and, after punching out - a courtesy he felt he owed the store - passed the Buffeteria on the way out, where Stephen had already gotten his supper and was just seating himself at his merchandiser's table.

"Where's he going?" asked the merchandiser.  "You give him off?  Pretty lenient, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I gave him off," answered Stephen, adding one word to qualify his statement: "permanently."  Then he went on to explain.  "The asshole quit.  I put him on probation - had to.  Had to let him know who the boss was."  The merchandiser said nothing: he would have, except that the new woman in Invoice Records walked by, it being four-thirty, the supper hour and the time also when office clerks went home.  He silently half-whistled; Stephen followed suit.  Both men grinned.

"What I wouldn't give," said the merchandiser, Ed, "to be the one who broke her cherry!  What about you?"

Stephen at first shuddered, then quickly covered the involuntary movement with some or another suggestive gestures.  Both men laughed.

The only cherry Stephen had ever broken was his wife's.  He had been with dozens of women before being married, though even so he was barely twenty-one when he and Toni were married.  Always before, he had feared getting the girl pregnant, so he shied away from having intercourse with any girl he took for a virgin; with others he was less cautious, at least at first, until he discovered that something his father had once told him had been somewhat untrue.

"It's the man that breaks the cherry that has the kid," Stephen's father had advised him.  It had not occurred to Stephen until much later as he related to some friends at work in a kind of confessional bull session where they each told of their secret embarrassments, that his father had been speaking somewhat metaphorically and meant only to suggest a correlation between being the first man a girl slept with and the one accused if she got pregnant; he took his father's meaning to be that only if the girl were a virgin could she conceive.  Perhaps it was being an only child that kept him from noting the simple illogic of this interpretation.  Once he discovered his mistake, he became more careful.  Eventually he worked up enough self-confidence to inquire of his dates, at the appropriate time should it present itself, if they took birth control pills.  Everyone had laughed at this.

He had hurt Toni.  "I didn't want to," he told a friend at work not long after his honeymoon had ended; this, he did not relate in a bull session but in private, to a close friend.  The newlyweds had gone to the Eastern Shore, where the Maryland and Delaware beach resorts were: Ocean City, in Maryland; Rehobeth Beach, in Delaware; and those in between.  They had reservations at the Carousel in Ocean City; they stayed in something akin to a Bridal Suite.  The sound of the surf entered into their honeymoon rites; the gritty feel of sea air abraded their skin; the cackle of sea gulls awoke them at dawn so that sleepily they might re-enter each other's embrace.  Every night was bliss except the first, which was ecstasy.  And torment.  And dominion.  Toni had been hurt that the proper hierarchy might be established.

"I hurt her bad when I took her cherry," Stephen had confessed to his friend between two rows of Life paint, smoking the cigarette offered him.  "I know it's supposed to hurt when the guy breaks it.  I didn't really want to, but I had to, you know? it's supposed to.  I was the man: I had to, it was my right; but also my duty.  She asked me no, please, not to, don't do it, not all at once, it hurts, it really hurts.  It'll weaken, she said.  Does it?  Then the third or fourth time it'll break more easily, and it won't hurt so much.  Is that right?  That's what she said.  She pleaded with me not to.  But I had to.  I had to establish myself right at the start as the boss; you know: the boss, the lord and master, the king, the dominant partner: the Old Man.  See what I mean?  I had to, I had to show her who it was who wore the panties and who wore the jock strap.  You know?  Only - oh Jesus Christ I hated doing it, man I hated it!  Hell I almost lost my erection.  But it had to be done, and I had to be the one to do it.  I don't know, it's sort of like breaking a horse, you know?  You respect it all the more afterwards, because it makes you feel so great - you know?  And she - oh Christ man, she screamed - Jesus, she just screamed.  I mean, only once.  But she screamed.  And I well, you know, I sort of cried out in a sort of way myself - you know: when a man: you know - kind of at the tail end of her scream - you know?  I came too soon, but I just wanted to get it over with so I didn't even try to hold back.  And you know what? it was funny, because that's still the most intense orgasm I ever had.  I mean, it felt like the whole thing was gonna split right open - you know?  I hope it wasn't because I hurt her - God I hope that wasn't why.  I mean, I don't want to be a sadistic monster, I just wanted to establish my dominance, right there and then, so there'd be no question who was boss.  You know?"

His friend had said he knew, and Stephen had thanked him for that.  Then one day the friend didn't show up for work, and after calling his house, Stephen had gone to find him, took off from work to go find him.  He did not seem to be home, but just as Stephen was leaving the apartment building he heard a commotion out behind the building in an alley way.  He went to see what it was, and there, slumped beside a garbage can was his friend, covered with blood.  Apparently he had been mugged as he came home from work the night before, robbed, and knifed, sometime during the night, probably toward early morning the coroner reported, he had died of his wounds.  Stephen ran to him and, calling to him, fell to his knees beside him, desperately wanted to take him in his arms; in the end, though, he only put his hand on his dead friend's shoulder.  The murderers were caught and, as everybody anticipated, they were black; they insisted however that they were not the ones, that yes they had robbed him, but that he had already been knifed and all they did was take him for a dead man, feel his pockets for money, rob him, and leave him to way they found him.  What good was money to a dead man? they maintained as a kind of justification.  Besides, they tried to throw the blame still further, maybe the guy was queer and some hustler he picked up killed him.  Stephen Hauser heard of their allegation and cursed them for it.

"No friend of mine's ever been queer!" he swore.  "God damn niggers!"

Now there was no longer a special friend to share his promotion with, or to go in back and have a quick smoke with, or to discuss his innermost thoughts with.  The "No smoking in this area" sign loomed large and clear and beautiful before him; he smiled up at it.  "You're right," he whispered to it in acknowledgement of its absolute truth.  "You know what's best for us."

Ed the C&D line merchandiser reported on Stephen Hauser's progress as department 75 manager to the store manager at the regular Friday morning staff meeting, where each week everything considered pertinent to the conduct of the store's business was gone over, plus any juicy items of current gossip, plus a remark or two about this or that employee, there always being a few who at any given time were considered eccentric.  Stephen's firing of Ted Stanski was brought up and discussed at length, Ed and the personnel manager leading the discussion till finally the Old Man looked up from his coffee and, in a voice almost awesome, handed down a bit of executive wisdom on the matter gleaned from his many years of experience at the managerial level.

"He should take it a little easy at first," said the Old Man, who then went back to his coffee while the others talked of other things, his interest again piqued at the mention of the new woman in Invoice Records.  The Old Man grinned, held up his coffee as if putting it on display, and asked who they thought had gotten his coffee every morning for the past week.  The staff of the Towson store all laughed.

Toni was standing in front of the living room window when her husband returned from his first day as a manager.  Their apartment was at the front of the building, so from the window she could look across Joppa Road to the shopping center; she stood watching her husband's store which as the largest portion of Eudowood occupied the central place in her viewpoint.  It was dark and even though the street and parking lot lamps and the glow from the store could not illuminate individuals well enough from that distance to make out their separate identities, Toni fancied she saw Stephen come out and start across the parking lot on his way home.  She noticed the attaché case, the dark colored suit - he had worn a suit, his only suit, a charcoal gray pinstripe, three piece vested suit, to work - and the casual yet determined walk: noted these things as distinguishing Stephen from everyone else coming out of the store.  Then she lost track of him somewhere in the parking lot, amidst the cars and lines and dark patches, almost as if he were crossing, or trying to cross, some great bog and all of a sudden sank down into the morass, perhaps never to be seen again, or if he did reappear it was as someone else.  It made her think of the movies about Africa, and the stretches of Nile where the river got lost in a tangle of swamp, and also of the old horror movies where something horrible always stalked the English moors; her mind juxtaposed these two seemingly unrelated things and superimposed the resultant configuration over the macadam at Eudowood.  Her mind was still on the morass, she was still half waiting to see her husband float to the surface, when he passed right under her.  He saw her and waved, but she failed to wave back.  Then suddenly the door opened and in another moment there he stood, in front of the window too, taking her in his arms, but drawing her from the window before kissing her.

In time she asked how his day was; in time he told her, giving first the enthusiastic platitudes then, gradually, the underlying qualifications.  Toni often wondered, and wondered once again now, if Stephen understood how little of life actually warranted or existed in these fantastic exclamations, or how much of what filtered through the "it was great" and the "best thing that ever happened" and the "everything's A-OK" represented the more exact dynamic of existence.  Perhaps he did, she decided; but as he seemed so little aware of the workings of his own mind, it was beyond anyone's power to fathom it.  She knew that if she was patient she could in time have a more complete picture of her husband's day than simply his first superficial "it was great!"  To her, there was no such thing as life without some constant undercurrent of sadness: even the calmest water has an undercurrent which, if it caught one off guard, could prove a threat.  Finally Stephen laid his reservations before her.

"Maybe it's not all it's cracked up to be," he concluded.  "All I know is if I don't make those who don't have it envious, it won't be worth as much.  I don't mean just that I want their envy; maybe I do, for my ego.  But I want it more for the job.  It does something, their envy.  Somehow, through some weird chemistry, it actually makes the job more important.  And I don't mean just the way supply and demand works, but it's almost mystical, as if this envy provides some kind of kinetic energy that, well, in a way elevates the job.  Who knows."

For a moment they said nothing further.  Stephen had said all he evidently had, or wished, to say about work; and although Toni could easily enough start a conversation about anything, just at the moment she did not wish to, and Stephen seemed unable to initiate talk which did not center around his work, even if he could carry on a conversation once it was initiated.

"Anything happen today?" he finally asked, but Toni simply nodded that nothing had happened.  "What about the news though?" he then asked.

"I didn't watch it this evening," said Toni.

"Oh," said Stephen.  "Hey what do we have for a snack?  I'm starved!" he asked.  He was led to the kitchen, where some ham left over from two nights ago turned up, behind a milk carton, inside an old Cool Whip container.  "This still good?" he asked.

"It should be, ham keeps," Toni explained.

"Wonder why Jews don't like it," Stephen mused.  "Think maybe it causes cancer?  Maybe they knew it a thousand years ago.  They're pretty shrewd people.  Wonder if they really are the chosen people?  No, they couldn't be, could they?  Else why would God let them be shoved around?"

"Maybe He's not all that nice."

"Who?  God?  Not all that nice?  You've got to be kidding Toni: He's the greatest thing there is, or ever can be, or ever could be.  What's it they call that Toni?  The posterior argument?  And the other one's the a priori.  Philosophy 101.  Talk about posteriors: there was this one girl in class - wow what an ass on her!  That was before we were married, don't forget, or I wouldn't mention it.  I'd never even notice her today though, 'cause I'm a married man.  God's been super deluxe with cherries on top to me, man! so I know He's just about the nicest dude since, since - since who Toni?  Since Adam? since G W Washington?  Is that right: G W?  Anyway, I love God and I'd love any supreme deity who could make you babe!  You know we got nothing but old women at work?  It's true; at least through my eyes it is, 'cause whether they're young or what I see 'em as old dried up prunes!  Hey, when do you want to take our vacation?" Stephen asked abruptly as he shoved a big piece of ham into his mouth and, after one or two quick chews gulped it down.

"It doesn't really matter," she said, "whenever you're able to get away." 

Stephen belched, excused himself, then let Toni finish speaking.  "Are we still going to the ocean this year?" she asked.

"Do you still want to?"

"Yes, very much so, Stephen.  I love the ocean."

"Memories, eh?"

Toni nodded.  "Partly," she said, "but also just for itself.  Stephen, of all the places on earth we might have spent our honeymoon, I would have preferred just where we were.  You seemed so disappointed we couldn't go to Niagara, or the Bahamas; but all I cared about was being beside the ocean, where I could look out and see -"

"See what?" Stephen interrupted.  "What's to see but water, and a little foam.  But no end to it, nothing to frame it, or put it into perspective.  I know what you mean about water, Toni, I love it too, but that's why I wanted to go to Niagara.  That's how I like water.  Flowing and contained and powerful, full of energy and vitality.  Full of life!  Not just limp and still and dead, like the ocean."

"The ocean?  Not alive?  It's more alive than all the Niagara's in the universe."

"Ah, I get you," said Stephen, "you're talking symbolically, like about the male and female roles, and the way they see life and all, the woman deep and feeling and passive, the man quick and strong and dominant."

No, Toni thought, I'm not.  I mean it quite literally, and I'm satisfied with the literal level of things.  It's not womanhood I'm talking about, it's the ocean, the limitless horizon.  Womanhood?  Is there such a thing?  Or manhood?  Is that how you tell a man from a woman?  The man is drawn to the falls, the woman to the ocean?  And the ocean is always depth, the falls always strength?  Ah, my, isn't our God a wonderful God to have made life so simple for us?  All we have to do is our duty by Him.  Raise every little girl by the sea; every little boy in a raft shooting the rapids.  No, my darling husband, love you as I might, I can't accept your quaint view of things.  But having nothing of my own to put forth, I won't dispute your view.

"Let's do go to the ocean though," Toni finally echoed her preference.

"Then the ocean it is," Stephen agreed.  "Providing I can get off," he added.  He ate some more ham, then got a beer from the refrigerator, taking a gulp so big he almost got choked.  "Boy was I thirsty," he explained.  "That ham's too salty, where'd we get it?"

"Maybe the Giant, I don't really remember."

"Don't get no more," Stephen advised.  "Hey Toni," he asked after a while, "what do you think about girls who go around in real low cut dresses?  You think that's cheap?"

Toni thought a moment.  "If they can't afford the extra material," she observed somewhat dryly.  She did not particularly appreciate a woman's mode of dress being evaluated solely according to the reactions of the men who watched her.  She thought it unfair that women should be expected to dress to appeal to men sexually, then called cheap for doing so, while those who did not do so were considered unfeminine.  Did that mean, she wondered, that femininity was always at root something cheap?

"Well let me ask you this," Stephen persisted.  "Don't you think a woman has a responsibility to her husband, if she's married, not to let other men see what's his by right?  I mean, if the bra fits wear it right?  Not like those idiot girls going around burning theirs!  I mean, it's unnatural, don't you think?"

"I'm not sure nature's all that great," said Toni.

"What?" Stephen asked incredulously.  "Nature not all that great?  Hell, it's old mother nature makes those great big gorgeous breasts isn't it?"

Toni smiled.  "It's also nature who lets them sag."

"That's just my point, Toni: nature wanted women to have to wear bras, that's why their breasts do sag!  God, Toni, nature is just about the greatest!"

"What about getting pregnant?" Toni asked.  "Aren't I going a little against nature taking birth control pills?"

"No, of course not.  Nature doesn't mean for you to have a baby till your husband can afford it, that's why they invented birth control.  No, Toni, I tell you, just leave the logic to me, women's minds don't work that way.  And I just don't like women's lib and I never will.  The man likes to be the boss, that's his nature; and women like to be told what to do.  You can't change nature Toni.  Speaking of nature, I got to go see a man about a horse.  And it wouldn't hurt me at all to come out and see you in your negligee.  No sir, not one little bit!"

It was a sheer negligee, two layers of fabric, as if, in attempting with the second to hide the body beneath the first, it were intended to accentuate it.  It was a pale green, and Toni's dark brown hair touched lightly at the neck.  The first time she wore it, she had felt somewhat self conscious; so she had worn a brassiere.  It had been all her husband could do to keep from laughing.  "A bra, with a negligee?" he had asked in the manner of a priest addressing a penitent in sackcloth.  She never made the mistake again.

A record was playing on the radio, a Beatles song: "Will you still love me when I'm 65?"  She thought to herself: will you still like me in my negligee, sans bra, when I'm 65?  No, she thought, nature and God may be perfectly fine within their limited range; but they are anything but nice from our point of view.

"Now that's what we like to see," Stephen announced upon coming from the bathroom.  "A woman's never more beautiful than when she dresses to please a man."  With these words, Stephen proceeded to get undressed.  Naked, he pressed up close to his wife.

And a man, Toni wondered, is he never more handsome than when he undresses to please a woman?

Stephen was too tired to take a shower before going to bed tonight.  As he rolled over, he asked Toni to set the alarm a half hour earlier.  "I'll take a shower in the morning," he said, "I'm just dead after inventorying all that paint today."  He fell asleep, and in the morning climbed out of bed and found his way to the bathroom.  When he emerged, clean and shaven and fresh and vibrant, he took a light breakfast, got dressed, and took off for work.

"Oh hell," he grumbled, "I'll have to drive.  I forgot my brief case.  Meant to bring it but I left it at work.  See you at five-thirty."  They kissed; he left for work; she watched him drive off.  I too could work, she observed as the morning sun reflected up at her from the streaks of polish on her husband's car's roof.  The sun rose where it could not be seen from their apartment.  Once a week, faithfully, Stephen Hauser washed and polished his car.  And of course polish streaked, even the best polish, most conscientiously applied; but only in the morning sun could the distortion be detected, only on the rooftop.

I too could work, but is that the answer?  Is it "business and earning a living" as Ayn Rand says it is?  Is that life's highest, noblest purpose?  That, any more than conception and bearing a baby?  Is there a purpose?  Or should I not even be thinking these things?  Should I not leave them to the man of the house?

"That's what hurts most," she mused aloud.  "Not that my sphere of work is so limited, but that the range of my thoughts is so proscribed.  Don't I have the same right as anyone to be troubled by existence?"

She smiled at the irony of wishing to exchange the little everyday anguishes to which women were allowed to be subject for the great metaphysical anguish supposed to fill men's minds.  As if the two were not reflections of the same thing.  As if it took one kind of mind to consider the one, another to consider the other.  As if putting lace around a structure or scaling it down changed its essence.  They put existence on a little doily when they served it up to a woman, and they imagined somehow it would sit forever like a little lap dog for her to pet, never dreaming the fearsome dimensions it assumed the moment she dared reach out and touch it.  In their minds if they disguised it sufficiently, in just the precise way they believed a woman best suited to perceive, and sugared and spiced it and everything niced it, then it, and she, would from that moment forth be tamed.  They held the great infinite world to be too much to deal with, even for a man, so they took just that part of it they felt able to control and relegated it to the care of their women to be nurtured and bronzed and prettied up that they might be able to hold dominion over at least some part of existence.  But when it inevitably outgrows them, they are dumbstruck and drop dead of a coronary thrombosis!  Leaving the women to contend with the unshackled beast.

"Ah Stephen, poor Stephen: do you really imagine you can shackle such a beast with lace and sheer nylon?  Ah my poor dear helpless Stephen."

It rained the entire day before their vacation was to begin.  According to Stephen, this weekend was the choice, USA grade number A-One great weekend of the year; the very hardest one to secure time off from work for; but he had managed to get it, new as he was at the managerial level.

"You don't know what this means, baby, you just don't know!" he informed his wife.  "You should have seen a couple of the guys when they found out I - I - was the one who got the weekend off!  Fourth of July here we come!  They were green with envy.  That's what comes from being in with the boss.  It pays, it does.  Okay maybe I'm a little late getting home some nights, maybe I go out driving with Ed a little too often - and there's some talk about him being sort of an alcoholic, though you'd never know it to look at him: he's smooth, I mean smooth!  Maybe all of that - but more than just maybe I got off for the fourth: I do have off!  And you and me are heading to Ocean City the minute I get home from work Friday night."

It rained Friday night.  "We better make it tomorrow morning," Stephen decided.  Saturday morning they got up early and, although it was still drizzling when they looked out, they both thought they detected signs of clearing, Stephen especially.

"It's gonna clear," he swore, "it's gonna clear."  When somebody repeats something, that's always a good omen; it seems to increase the chance of its coming about.  Toni happened to think of this principle and hugged her husband, as if thanking him for taking charge of the weather like that, and wishing it could be so easy.

By eight they were off.  The drizzle had stopped, but the clouds showed little interest in dissipating; and a slight fog was beginning to settle near the ground.  At intervals along the way, Stephen would point out to Toni what he took to be an opening in the clouds.  "You'll see a big ray of light come shimmering down any minute now," he advised her.  They took U.S. Route 50 eastward, picking it up just south of Annapolis.  Soon the spires of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge rose up in the distance; but as the fog and the clouds had given way to an almost blinding haze, the bridge's entire span could not be seen from here, just the nearest parts, so that it seemed to trail off into nowhere.

"Spooky," said Stephen.  "Maybe the great white whale got it.  You know Toni: I kind of wish it would.  That's sick isn't it?  Wishing some great technological wonder like this would get eaten or knocked down by some great Moby Dick lurking somewhere out in the Chesapeake.  Really sick.  'Cause look at all the people it'd put out of work.  The lady who collects tolls: Margaretta.  I don't know why but toll ladies have always seemed to me like they should be called Margaretta, even if it's not their names.  The cops who patrol it.  Everybody.  The whole world out of work.  And me too.  Just sit around all day and drink beer.  And I'd get a big fat old beer belly and my dirty tee shirt'd ride up over it and I'd be so gross you'd kick me right out of bed.  Toni, I'm scared of getting old and fat and ugly and bald and all.  But yet I want to.  Isn't that weird?  I got a sick mind sometimes Toni.  Like now.  You know what I was just thinking?  I'd like to be an arrow and get shot from spire to spire, like they were great eternal bows.  For the rest of time, just ricochet back and forth.  For the rest of time."

"Gothcha Margaretta!" Stephen called to the toll lady as he handed her his money.  When they drove away he began laughing.  "Did you see the look on her big ugly face?  God I love to embarrass people I'll probably never have to see again!  Makes me feel like I own all this - this whole rotten cesspool, far as the eye can see!  Oh I know; it's not a cesspool.  I'm just ticked off, I wanted so much for it to be nice weather.  Oh well, at least I got off this weekend - that's what counts; guess you can't have it all, can you?"

"No," said Toni, "I guess not."

Almost two hours later they arrived at Ocean City, to the smell and the feel of the ocean, and the sound of the surf.  At the far end they were able to park their car, another car luckily pulling out of a space just as they pulled up to it, otherwise they would have had to drive around, like the other cars not lucky enough to be at the right place at the precise time, endlessly perhaps, in search of a niche.  Not that the lot was too small: it was huge, affording perhaps hundreds of cars a place to park; ordinarily this would be sufficient space, but not on this holiday, along with Memorial Day and Labor Day, one of the three biggest weekends of the season.  The beach and the jetty sandwiched the parking lot in at right angles to each other.  Mid-day there were no fishermen on the jetty, but plenty of people out stepping from rock to rock; and a superabundance of people on the beach.                            

"They say you can get a sunburn even when the sun's in," said Stephen.  "Hey, let's get our swimsuits on, right here in the car - nobody'll see.  Then later we can get a room."  They changed into their swimsuits under cover of a beach blanket, in Stephen's case wrapped at the waist, wrapped about Toni's shoulders.  They walked the beach, laid in the sand, strolled the jetty, finally returning to their car.

"Hey pal!" somebody called out a car window the moment their feet touched the parking lot.  "You leaving?"

"Yeah, we are," Stephen called back.

"Where you parked?" the voice asked.  Stephen pointed; the car sped around to stand waiting for Stephen to pull out.

"Thanks!" the voice from the other car called back as Stephen and Toni left.  Stephen waved a "you're welcome" wave.  Toni found herself wondering what age man the voice had belonged to.  From where he was positioned, the sun visor had blocked his face from them so that it seemed as though they had been speaking directly to the automobile, without having to go through the intervening human medium.

"Let's try the Quality Court," Stephen suggested, so they tried but there was no vacancy.

"Okay, the Dunes."  No vacancy.

"The Santa Maria."  No.

"Harrison Hall."  Sorry.

"Hello, Chamber of Commerce?  Is there anything available?"  Nothing.  "Thanks."  Anytime.

"Looks like we head north," Stephen resolved.  There was nothing in Ocean City.  Fenwick Island was next, but that was primarily a closed community, not really for overnight tourists.  Then Bethany Beach, which was also temporarily out of order unless one had a reservation someplace.

"We'll find something," Stephen said reassuringly ever few miles; and each time he said it, Toni smiled at him and nodded in agreement, even though she knew they would find nothing.  Though this was the Ocean Highway, and ran parallel the shoreline; though just over the dunes, forming into drifts with prickly vegetation, something out of a desert, growing on them, was the sand, the beach, stretching the entire length of the shore; though every once in a while the cackle of a sea gull could be heard, the white of its wings seen: though they were this close, they could not hear the surf.  And across the street, separating the highway from an inland river, was marshland, out of which menacing looking stalks grew everywhere, so tightly packed it almost made one gag to see them.  What if we fell in? Toni thought.  What if you'd been climbing the dunes and, not realizing, crossed the street and started in?  And what if it was twilight?  And you suddenly started to sink.  And you grabbed hold, but the stalks all gave way, they couldn't support your weight, so you fell headlong into the mire.  Can this be the same place where we spent our honeymoon? she wondered.  Is it a trick? is that it? do they do something to gloss it over, like in science fiction, so you don't see it as it really is?  Is it only when you can't find shelter you begin to notice it?  Oh I hate the swamp, I hate it!

"Yes dear, of course we will," she agreed with her husband's assurance of finding something once more.  How, she wondered, did mankind's ancestor's - that curious beast who first made its way onto land - how did it manage to stay once past the beach?  Surely the swamp must have overwhelmed it, driven it back.  Did it keep trying?  In spite of all obstacles it kept trying so that, so that -

She burst out laughing.  They had just come upon a huge plant of some kind tucked away behind the dunes on the beach; it was one of those ominous looking buildings one never exactly discovers the function of and never quite cares to, but it had the look about it of being a sewage treatment facility.  Perhaps it was, perhaps not; but it certainly merited a laugh, whatever it was, coming up as it did at so delicate a point, so noble and spiritual and hallowed a point in Toni's thoughts.  Man - the noblest beast of all - had against all odds struggled and striven and suffered and unfettered his spirit and in thanks and tribute had here upon the shores of the Atlantic made a monument to it all, and this - this bizarre structure straining like a galvanized gnat against the horizon - this was it, man's monument.  Why?  Because it just happened along at the opportune moment.  Had it been St Peter's in Rome or the Pyramid at Giza or the Capitol in Washington, it would have ended her train of thought on a high note, one of profound inspiration, even exaltation.  But it was none of these; it was not even a high rise condominium.  It was a nameless, shapeless blob of a thing that looked like a collection of old abandoned stereotypes stuffed into a cement mixer.  That, the train of events of the moment gave her as the great burning ambition driving man's soul to strive ever onward, ever upward, to ever greater and glorier heights.

"I should have preferred St Peter's," she whispered.

"Yeah, me too," Stephen muttered absently, neither making it clear if he understood her nor letting her know if he had even heard her words qua words or simply as sounds.

They had driven along another few miles before he asked what she had found so funny "back there."

"Just that building," she replied.  Stephen too gave a perfunctory laugh and said "Oh yeah, that was funny."  This entire stretch of beach was part of the Delaware National Seashore.  Every once in a while a road veered off to the right leading to a parking lot, beyond which were dunes and, at the bottom of the dune cliffs, the beach.  Some of these were posted for fishing and swimming, some just for fishing, some did not appear to have anything posted: God and the state of Delaware and the National Park Service only knew what one did at those places, presumably neither fish nor swim.  Perhaps contemplate man's remote ancestor ascending from the water.  There was a Haven Road, and even a Halfway Road.  Halfway where? one wondered.

A long ways back they had passed, just outside Bethany Beach, a place called Nomad Village; it seemed to be a community, all by itself, isolated from the rest of the world.  A small community, with a number of individual cottages, some buildings which appeared to have the general characteristics of a motel; and a restaurant.  In a way Toni wanted to stop there.  She liked the name especially.  But now it was miles back.  Who knows, she thought, when we get to Rehobeth and find nothing there either, maybe we can go back and try it?  Nomad Village: a good place for vacationers without reservations for the 4th of July.  But perhaps it too was all filled up; in fact, the chances had to be staggering that it was: how many millions of Nomads must there be roaming about loose and unaccounted for on anybody's reservation check sheet?  One surely did not wish to undertake such a census.

Each parking lot along the Delaware Seashore - even Halfway Road, which had nothing specific posted - was filled with cars and campers, evidence of day trippers, those unfortunates who had nothing reserved and had no idea of finding anything or who had no money for overnight lodging.  Not that they could stay where they were overnight either, for the various lots, representing the various roads, were blocked off at twilight.  Be out of town by sundown, the state and the park service seemed to be saying.  Undoubtedly experience had left them no choice in the matter: give people an inch, they'll take a mile, especially the unfortunates of this world.  A sad story.

Up ahead was Dewey Beach, which had nothing vacant, nor was expected to, it being but a kind of outpost of its bigger neighbor, Rehobeth; so it was quickly passed.  Last chance: that was Rehobeth, if coming from the south.  If one did not secure lodging here, one was pretty much out of the picture.

Stephen Hauser, in a voice tinged with awe, exclaimed to his wife "Behold the Behemoth."

"I love it," he went on to say.  "That name kills me: Rehobeth.  I love it, it's like something out of I don't know what.  And I love it."

But even so, there was no room for rent in the town.  "I love your town," Stephen told the final desk clerk of the final motel he tried, something like desperation in his voice.  The clerk thanked him but only expressed that much greater regret at being unable to accommodate the nice young couple.

"What do we do now?" Stephen asked when they had returned to the car.

"Just spend the day," replied Toni.

"Hell, we've practically done that already - looking for a place!  Seriously, what should we do?"

"Let's go back to Halfway Road, or one of those roads," Toni suggested.

"Yeah," Stephen agreed, "may as well."

There were more people at Halfway Road than there were flies; doubtless that was a good omen for vacationers, as it suggested the possibility of any one person going without being bitten.  These were not house flies, they were aggressive and they bit, and one swelled up where they had bitten just as if they had been mosquitoes.  It had been half facetiously suggested that they were in fact mosquitoes in disguise.

"In drag," somebody said.  "You know: like they've got tons of mascara on."

They managed to bite Stephen, but Toni seemed able to elude, or repel, them.  Incredibly - and not without a measure of guilt for the self-righteousness it implied - Toni happened to recall an old comic strip she had once seen in the Sunday paper: Brenda Starr.  In this particular one, the villain - a red head like Brenda, but with long, svelte straight hair to Brenda's all-American bob curls - had murdered her twin sister, had escaped to, of all places, the Arctic, had been pursued by Brenda, had overpowered Brenda, had been on the verge of killing Brenda when a sudden pack of wolves attacked and drug her off, screaming, thus saving Brenda's life.  In the very next scene along came a passing Eskimo who explained away Brenda's bewilderment at being left unharmed with the eternal truth of the Arctic: "The wolves only devour bad flesh."  Oh.  And the flies too?

"Let's get the hell out of here," Stephen suggested after a brisk walk along the beach, slapping his arms and legs intermittently almost every step of the way.  Toni also had to shoo away the flies, but whether she was more vigilant to approaching danger, or her reactions quicker, or simply that her skin was less appetizing to the flies, she managed to keep them at bay.

"Mind if we stop at Dover?" Stephen asked.  Toni nodded no, she didn't mind, it was fine with her.  "Thanks," he said, "I just don't feel like driving down the coast again.  So we'll lay over for the night - unless Dover's full up too! - and take the long way back.  It's a nice ride though.

It was growing dark when they arrived at the outskirts of Dover.  They passed Dover's Air Force Base.  A huge plane sat hovering above a field off to the left side of the road; it looked ready to plunge to the ground at any moment, yet it remained, immobilized, ominous and seemingly dangerous.  Long after it grew dark the plane could still be seen, its lights eerie and becoming fogbound, its wings like white gel.  Then it rose and flew away.  Inside the motel where they were bedded down for the night, neither Toni nor Stephen Hauser saw the plane departing its perch, though they spoke of it: neither had ever seen anything quite like it before.

"It was like a balloon," Stephen began working its shape into his words, "But it was a plane.  But it looked bloated, you know?"  Toni agreed.  Every odd sound they heard prompted the same remark from Stephen: "Was that it? do you think that was it?  Let me just go check."  So he would get out of bed, go to the window, naked despite Toni's warning that he could be seen from outside - "oh, I don't think so," he would answer her warning - and look out after opening the curtain part of the way.  The third or fourth time, he caught sight of some people outside, below his window, pointing up in his direction.  Quickly he closed the curtain and, laughing, returned to bed, insisting to Toni that "they loved it, those old ladies!  I should have stood there playing with myself!"  One brief yawn and he fell asleep, just as yet another strange noise sounded overhead, this one really close and really eerie.  Toni got up and, in darkness, went to the window where, once the curtain was pushed back, she caught just a glimpse of lights flitting past overhead, but too high up to identify as anything very definite.  She let the curtains fall back into place and returned to bed, lying very close to Stephen, whose breathing seemed for a moment so faint to her that she half feared he had died.  Then, relieved when it picked back up again, she lay her head against his shoulder and, with her lips parted, fell asleep.

"No love lost," said Stephen as they drove away from Dover.  For people who live in Northern Maryland, nothing can compare with this route to and from the ocean: US Route 40 East to Delaware 453 or else to Wilmington and US 13, in either event then down to Delaware 1, the Ocean Highway; while to anyone from Southern Maryland, anything but US Route 50 East is something to be slightly embarrassed about.  Baltimore being in the middle, both routes were equally appealing though, owing perhaps to the designation of the Northern Route as the "back way," there was some prejudice in favor of the Southern.  Stephen grumbled occasionally over being stuck on "these miserable back roads," the very same roads Toni found more satisfying.  It gave her the feel of a human presence, and if because of this presence one had to lower one's speed, she considered the cost fair and equitable.  There were clearly communities here, therefore an underlying sense of isolation.  One could not really feel isolated traveling on a divided highway, through a kind of no man's land where all the communities were off to the left or right, as if it were in bad taste to make travelers aware of local residents' existence; but on the "back roads" - except for US 13 and large stretches of Delaware 1, which were divided highways, but constituted barely half the distance - there were signs of everyday life, of people being situated here: here, in what for every traveler must for always remain an indistinct nowhere.  That was its sadness, that these people going about their lives were destined to appear to every passer-by as poor helpless aliens trapped in some hopelessly remote outpost, the center of things being of course always wherever it was the traveler called home.  No wonder the people along the Southern Route wanted themselves hidden from public view.

But it's as it should be, Toni reminded herself.  There is no possibility of seeing other people, in their towns, without feeling sorry for them being so lost.  One wouldn't want to live there, nor they where we do.  So in essence, taking it all into one great abstract equation, no one really values anywhere as a place to live.

"Except of course the White House," she mused aloud, only slightly aware of having spoken.

"Phew!  Talk about it!" exclaimed Stephen somewhat heatedly.  Toni made no attempt to inquire what Stephen was thinking, or thought she meant; and no attempt to explain her statement.  But she noted that the car was going faster, and Stephen was tapping his fingers impatiently on the bit of dashboard directly behind and beneath the top of the steering wheel.

They were passing Middletown, Delaware now.  And if one swore on a million oaths not to let the word "quaint" slip, he may just as well bite his tongue now and be done with it, for there was no way around that adjective.  In places, there did appear to be signs of deterioration, offering some hope perhaps of the town's escaping its quaintness - but probably not a very worthwhile trade-off ultimately.

Toni began thinking of the ocean; so simple a thing as a sudden thunderstorm set her off.  Not the ocean as it was yesterday, but as it was when they were first married, she and Stephen, and on their honeymoon.  It was - had become, she had allowed it, even sentenced it to become - the standard for all possible vacations at the ocean, a kind of Golden Age.  She was aware of the obvious psychology involved: that we always look to the past as some kind of paradise from which we have been, or chosen to let ourselves be, driven.  But also she was aware of the deeper aspect, the one which went beyond the predilection for reconstructing the past to make it seem so much better - or worse, depending upon one's motive - than it really was.  She was aware that it was no more the past than it was one's imaginative reconstruction of it, but that it was the feelings evoked in the present - the way one felt recalling the past - which constituted the foundation of its Goldenness.  And in that sense, that it had the power to engage one's emotions a lifetime later - the past was as real, as alive, as meaningful and as relevant as the latest, most up to date moment of one's existence.  Not because what one did thirty or thirty million years ago determines or even influences what one is now doing, but purely because one might right this instant choose to laugh at it or cry at it, is its importance.

"Feelings are timeless," said Toni, this time intentionally to be heard.  Stephen laughed.

"That's a woman for you!" he said good naturedly.  "Ah but we love you, we men!  You gals got dibs on the emotions, we had to settle for the more physical and the more mental activities, no argument there."

"Men have no emotions?" asked Toni, perhaps a bit deceptively, a bit baitingly.

"Not many," Stephen was compelled to admit.  "But then we don't need them.  See, a man's got to be more objective.  Like about having a kid: the woman wants to be a mother, it's her emotions, her instincts drives her on - in that sense she's closer to nature, like the lesser animals: not that there's anything wrong with that, because there's not, being a mother's one of the most awesome things there is.  But not the man, he takes the objective view; he waits to have a kid till he's in a good position to give it everything a kid's supposed to have.  You see now what the difference is, don't you?"

Say no: for once say no, call his bluff, make him have to try and defend his statements: please say no, Toni begged, but apparently would not yield to her own pleading.  She said nothing at all; she merely smiled.  What does he have without his silly platitudes? she was compelled to remind herself.  It's maddening, she thought, because they're not really him, they're only beliefs, even if he acts on them every minute of his life, if that were possible; and yet: and yet, they do act on him, they do circumscribe him in some way.  Not to change him as a person, but only to change - oh, I don't know: his roles maybe, if anything can be more stupid than the idiocy of covering people over with Man Roles or Woman Roles or Mama Bear Roles or Papa Bear Roles.  And do you eat your young? you might ask.  Uh no, we're Human Roles, thank you, so we don't.  Okay, whatever you say; but you do treat your young in the prescribed manner don't you?  Merciful heavens, of course we do!  We put the boys in blue, the girls in pink, the hermaphrodites in tin foil!  We are, after all, Good Humans!

It occurred to Toni, trying to envision wrapping an infant in tin foil, that she did not really want to have a baby; not just now.  She had wanted to right at first, perhaps just to get it over with; but Stephen had chosen to put it off till more fortuitous times, and she had agreed, his arguments seemed at the time so logical, so practical - and, besides, they gave her a kind of respite, which she had not realized, until the decision was made to postpone the blessed event, that she really wanted, perhaps needed.  Then it had occurred to her that she had never really wanted a baby, she had simply nurtured the idea of having one - the idea her husband had implanted in her.  So we had our baby already, she realized: he impregnated me with his dream of my becoming through his agency a mother.  Then he gave me a reprieve.  Now the time will be fast upon us when that dream, which has supposed to have remained in deep freeze with me, will be thawed out and substituted for my birth control pills, to be taken in doses sufficient to unite the wondrous sperm with the awesome egg so that yet another Role may come tumbling out of our lives, so that it can be molded and squeezed and squashed until it cries "Mama" "Dada" "Ga-God" and "Ka-Kuntry."  And what an adorable little angel you have Mrs Hauser, they'll all say: oh excuse us, how clumsy of us to kick his little head in like that, but look - just look! - it fits that little helmet ever so much better, don't it though Mrs Hauser?  Oops, didn't mean to kick him in the crotch - but he must learn who's the boss, mustn't he now Mrs Hauser?  We all must be taught, mustn't we Mrs Hauser?  Property rights, you know Mrs Hauser: property rights.

I really don't want a child, Mrs Hauser concluded.  Not that I don't wish to cuddle something in my embrace, or feed something with my lifeblood, or care for something, or worry over something, or take the responsibility for it, or love it: because I do.  But I don't especially like what little I'll be able to give him - what little they'll let me give him.  More than just in the obvious way.  I don't particularly relish his being taught to look down at the values he will be brought to believe are mine; but this wouldn't prevent me from wanting to have him.  It's not only as his mother, but as his parent, that I will be denied the right to regard him as my child: he'll be, as we all are considered, everyone's child.  Least of all will he be his  own child.  I would give up my claim to be in recognition of his own claim to himself; but that will never be, for he'll never - never - be permitted to be his own person.  Why should I bring one more person into the world to be crippled?  To be hobbled, to be cast into servitude to the faceless, mindless mass of humanity.  By what right does anyone expect so much of me?  By what right?

By no right at all, it became perfectly clear to Mrs Hauser.  In a universe, like this, predisposed as it is against all life - or at least, against all living entities - there is nothing short of sacred persuasion - the very sacredest persuasion - able to induce people to reproduce.  Thoughtful people anyway, people who do not live entirely for their romantic interludes, people who are not motivated solely by whatever is considered cute: people who can sense the essential hostility of the universe.  In the state of nature, a woman should have twenty offspring so that perhaps three will survive, and in surviving will establish their fitness to survive.  But here's the catch: in the state of nature they never think to ask why it must be.  In the beginning, they don't question; but we, now, do.  We know more, we have lost our innocence, such as it was.  We finally know why we are born: so that a species may persevere.  And what is more sacred than A Species?  Unless it would be a Phylum, or a Genus.  In the beginning they believed absolutely that Man Must Not Perish; now, near the end, we can only shrug and ask why it was so important.  Nor can we go back, however much the idiots around us may insist upon it: Return to Morality, Revere the Old Values; this will rehabilitate you.  True, our view is peculiar - it's peculiar to us; and naturally those at the beginning of a cycle could not comprehend it any more than a child really comprehends death.  It's no one's fault, it's all determined by when you live.  How do you get rehabilitated from truth, even if it's just the truth of the immediate moment?  If I had lived an age ago, I would no more question bearing a child than I would my own existence, because I'd have had no basis for such a question.  But living now, knowing all there is available to anyone who chooses to see, I must question it.  Not because there is today an organized movement afoot to permit women to pose such questions, and to help legitimize each woman's answer; but because we are at the end of an age, and can look back at all that's gone before, and can see the futility of helping preserve at all costs what is essentially no more than a sophisticated Dodo Bird.  We are the only ones who pine for the Dodo; we are the only ones who would pine for our own extinction.  We have mythologized every attribute we have come over the years to ascribe to our species: our Spirit, our Determination, our Perseverance, our Everything.  We have almost reached the point of extinction already: for practical purposes we have.  Everything we came to regard ourselves as being is gone, it exists only in legend.  We, as we really are, are a different species from that exalted half divine race we depicted ourselves as.  Our Image, our Ideal - our Dream - of ourselves no longer exists, only its fossilized remains: us.  Like a skull in a limestone sediment: we know something of us is gone, we know there had to be more at one time - and there was; but this is all that's left.  An imaginative species without its illusions.  So of course - of course - we have turned morbid.  Morbidity is not a sin, or a degeneration: it's only a phase, a transition.  A migration of souls.

"Deep thoughts for a woman" Toni mused, almost inwardly.  Even so, it was overheard by her husband, who evidently thought she had been reflecting all this time on the concept of men having fewer emotions than women, and had spoken in reference to that, for he immediately took that subject up again.

"I know it's hard to figure out how men can get by with fewer emotions," he encouraged her to persevere, "but you just keep in their plugging away.  You'll come to it in time."

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome," he replied.

I love you Stephen - I adore you - she said to herself; so when I seem to be making fun of you, I'm really not.  I don't care that I see so much more than you; I don't care that you don't see me as being able to comprehend much of anything: I love you.  I love you exactly as a woman who would have wanted only to be your child's mother would have loved you: I love you as if we were both the first of our kind, and knew no better than to find the entire universe in each other, and had no eyes for anything beyond the immediate moment.  I love you just as I would if an entire age had not come almost full cycle to show me the absurdity of investing so much energy in something so fleeting.  I love you just as I would if I were the mindless china doll you thought you had fashioned to crystalize your world into something manageable.  I love you as any lady Dodo bird worth her salt would have loved her mate: I love you mindlessly, blindly, on impulse, and on instinct.  But underneath that love - that perfect love - runs a sea of knowledge which is there even if I choose to ignore it; but which I choose not to ignore.  I don't need my beliefs, Stephen, or my insights, if that's what they are, or fantasies, if that's all they are: but I need to feel what I feel for you.  I need to love.  So you see: I don't have to laugh at you.  I gain nothing from it.

"Hey, since we're here," Stephen announced, let's stop into the Bel Air store, I'd like to see old Bill Snodgress - remember him?  Used to be 75 manager couple years back, got a promotion, now he's personnel manager at Bel Air.  Let's see if I remember the way: right onto Emmorton Road, then on into Bel Air, till you come to Route 1.  Yeah, that's it.  I never forget a route."

Half an hour later they drove into the parking lot of the Harford Mall shopping center, stopped and parked beside the store, and went in.  Toni felt ridiculous ending her vacation at a department store twenty-five miles from her home; but Stephen wore a look of pride, almost of gloating, as if he wished everyone here to take notice of him.  He made his way directly to the Paint Department, Toni alongside him.

"Hey where's the boss man?" he asked the sales clerk.  In the back, he was told.

"Get him," he ordered.  The manager of the Bel Air Paint Department was summoned; and, after a little ribbing by Stephen, who pointed out he was off for the holiday, despite his only having taken over that very week, and a little makeshift conversation, the Bel Air 75 manager disappeared once again into his stock room.  Stephen had the Personnel Manager, Bill Snodgress, paged and, after a little more gloating, said his goodbyes and left the store, Toni by his side.

"They're green with envy," Stephen gloated in the car, "and I loved every minute of it!"

Perhaps they didn't understand envy, Toni thought.  "I feel sorry for them," she said, "if they envied our vacation."

"It's not anything we did Toni," Stephen explained step by slow careful step, "it's just that I got off and they didn't.  You see, it isn't what you actually do with you...your...what's the word, Toni?  Your clump - your clump of status: it isn't what you do with it that counts, it's just your having it that makes you an object of envy.  See?  So that even if they find out what a miserable time we really did have, and how we may as well have not even lived these past couple days as to have lived them as poorly as we did, and that they were probably better off working, and they still have their time off to look forward to - and even if they laughed right in my face over it; the fact would still remain: I got off the 4th and they didn't.  And that's all that counts.  See?"

"Our lives don't count, Stephen?  Our time?  Just our standing?" Toni asked.  At first hesitant to speak her mind, she decided she must say something this time or become an accessory to this most sinister kind of debauchery.

"I know it's complicated," Stephen admitted condescendingly, "so don't you trouble your pretty little head with it."

"Surely it's not that complicated, is it?  Doesn't it all come down to that same old thing: which is more important, reality or its appearance?  Almost a cliché, isn't it?"

"Hey, I thought you're the one who's always talking about being unable to be happy, and there's always sadness underneath everything - so surely you of all people know how important it is to appear to be happy!"

"That's not what I meant, Stephen."

"Well," he said with a note of finality in his voice, a note Toni chose to honor, "it's close enough for me."  With this, he flicked on the radio, as if the brisk movement of his wrist were an exclamation point at the end of his decree.  The car was filled instantly with a melody rapidly engaging a crescendo to be swept toward a cliff from which it would slowly plunge into a cavernous whirlpool where it would bob gaspingly until at last engaged by another, a final crescendo, which would take it still whirling to be dashed upward against the roof of a cave, breaking into a million ashen drops which at first vanished then reappeared as a new melody to be bound in lyrics.  "Now you know how nice it feels/Scatter good seed in the fields/Life's ours for the making/Eternity's waiting, waiting/For you and me."

"From their 'On the Threshold of a Dream' album," the disc jockey broke right in to announce the song barely before the last note had bound itself to the last word, "the Moody Blues."  Next came a series of commercials, first one asking people to try a new sausage, next something warning parents against drug pushers in their schools, then something about upcoming concerts at various local arenas.

"Business and earning a living," Stephen noted.  "Just like Ayn Rand says.  It's a great life," he added almost solemnly.  "Not that I see myself as some sort of John Galt.  John Galt wouldn't be after status like I am.  He's the Immoveable Mover, whatever that is.  Me, I'm just a man on the move.  On my way up.  Gonna climb to the top of the heap if I can help it.  So sing your song Moody Blues, and then sell a little bit of soap.  It's good for your soul - isn't it, Toni?"

"Is it?" she wondered.

"Keeps it sad - keeps it sad!  Go you there, Toni!"  They both laughed.  Not that Toni needed to justify her love for Stephen Hauser - she was not an Ayn Rand heroine, and had no need to be, therefore she did not have to rationalize her every feeling, or analyze whether its object was worthy of it; she was free to experience the feelings whole, undissected.  If there was a twist and a turn to her soul which made her experience an exalted feeling prompted only by an insufficiently exalted object, she welcomed the flaw, for it meant that her feeling was doomed eventually.  Sabotage and failure, thy name is Humanity.  Let the Great eschew anything less than Perfect Bliss, let them live solely for their ideals.  Me, I'm a simple migrant woman.  I'd sooner be Cloris Leachman nudging everyone to tell them it's time, than Dagney Taggert watching the sign of the dollar being traced in space from the peaks of Atlantis.  I'm sorry, but I've seen the legacy of greatness, I've watched its smoke eating the sides of buildings, its soot covering the skin of too many citizens.  The world has tasted far too much of perfection already.

They were home.  The rest of the long 4th of July weekend was spent getting various odd jobs out of the way.  The laundry had to be done; the weekly wash and wax job had to be performed on the car; the floors had to be vacuumed.  What started out Friday morning as an ideal vacation ended Sunday night with a perfectly routine setting of the alarm. 

"Fantastical," was the way Stephen Hauser described his weekend Monday morning sitting at the table in the Buffeteria with his fellow managers.  "We decided to stop at Dover on the way back, and I heard this really weird noise, like something hovering just above us like some kind of space ship, you know; so I went to the window to see what it was, and I was stark naked.  Well, it just happened there were these old ladies gathered just below my window and, man, you should have seen their eyes light up!  Like they'd never seen nothing like that before - they loved it, man they loved it!"

"Hey Steve," Ed the C&D Line Merchandiser asked abruptly, "you tried what I told you yet?"  A blank look greeted the question.  "You know," Ed refreshed his Paint Manager's memory, "the one about letting go with a big fart in bed then holding the sheet up over the little woman's head?  Toni'll love it - guaranteed: hell, my old lady kicks and claws and gags like a stuffed pig - it's great: she loves it, she loves it, and so will Toni!"  Ed laughed all the way through telling it, and by the time he reached the end of it everyone at the table was laughing, Stephen too.

"I'll try it tonight," he promised, then added, "just remind me to get franks and beans for lunch!"  Everyone roared over this; Ed even had to pound the table with the percussion side of his fists, the strain of his laughter was so great.

"Oh my aching sides," he confessed as they all got up to begin the day's work.  Just then the store manager happened along, on his way to inspect the various departments in anticipation of a visit from the district manager: The Caravan, this visit of the district manager and his various district merchandisers was collectively known as, a visit lasting two days as a rule, productive of much hullabaloo, though perhaps not much else - it was all predicated along the lines of an "IG" in the military, this Caravan: indeed, much of the organizational structure and functional procedure paralleled the military; and although normally such a visit preceded rather than followed a holiday, this had proven an exception, there having been whisperings in the winds of an impending visit from the Regional Vice-President and his staff - now there was a Caravan worthy of the name!  The store manager, just catching the waning peals of laughter, observing his C&D Merchandiser's red face and overall tenor of disorientation, inquired what was going on.  When informed that Stephen Hauser was ready to try "the old sheet trick," this worthy personage, so aptly dubbed The Old Man, seemed about to dig deeply into his vast store of insight gleaned from countless years of experience to pull out some wise and true observation; but he merely shrugged and walked on, shaking his head.

The Caravan proved a great success: great for the new Paint Department Manager in that his first full scale inspection, scarcely more than a week after assuming charge, resulted in his being highly praised by his district merchandisers, despite his having been merely given the credit earned by his predecessor, it being the way to lay blame when it fell due upon the departing authority, praise upon the arriving authority; and a great success for the Towson store in general in that it failed to prove the harbinger of the anticipated Regional Caravan.  Everybody was exceptionally pleased, and Stephen Hauser's name was quietly, without fanfare, put into the appropriate ears along the ascending hierarchy so that he might be considered for promotion into one of the outlying stores.  All summer he waited for word, but all summer the word eluded him. 

Labor Day was good, business brisk, the weather splendid beyond anyone's expectation.  October saw the advent of Storewide Week, an extraordinary sales event, held bi-annually: one in October, one in April, each time preceded by a little skit put on for the benefit of the employees during which the staff let down their hair, played at looking ridiculous, and endeavored through their shenanigans to boost the store's morale.  "Sales Fever," the skit this time was entitled, and it featured the store manager in the role of a wise old country doctor whom everyone called "Doc."  Ed the C&D merchandiser played a male nurse, complete with lisp and limp wrist as befit the stereotype; everyone laughed at his silly mincing, and everyone came away with the stereotype a little more firmly implanted in their minds.  The A&B Lines merchandiser played a female nurse, in drag, hairy blonde legs and all; everyone enjoyed his slinky walk immensely.  The skit opened with someone asking "What's up Doc?" to everyone's extreme delight; and ended, on a truly stunning note of wit, with old Doc making the eternal observation that "An apple a day keeps old Doc away!," thus raising the amusement to a fevered pitch before dispersing the employees from the Furniture Department where the skit had been performed. 

They sold like crazy that Storewide Week; some swore, if fatuously, that they'd sell their very souls too if the price were right; some great wag ran directly, half a dozen fellow managers in tow, to the Shoe Department to ask if the shoe salesmen would also "sell their soles."  Everyone laughed.  Someone began singing "Oh Solé Mea."  It would have taken something mighty somber to stop them now; and indeed this Storewide Week proved when it was over and all the tallies were in to have been the most successful ever in the history of the company.  Prizes were handed out all around at the Awards Banquet held at a local banquet hall, the Fountain Bleu on Bel Air Road in Baltimore.  And as a kind of grand summation of it all, in an aside barely audible, the Old Man informed Stephen Hauser of two things: first, that he wanted Stephen to chair the store social committee in planning this year's Christmas Dance, and second, that it looked like there would soon be an opening in a little store for a Merchandiser, which just might be what "the Doc ordered" for Stephen.  The Old Man winked; Stephen smiled from ear to ear.  The band played on, the last award was handed out, everyone went home happy.  The Fountain Bleu was locked up for the night.

"Guess what?" Stephen informed Toni the next morning; she was asleep when he got home.  He had stared at her for a long while, a puzzled look on his face, as if he found it incomprehensible that she should be asleep, even at so late an hour.  "I'm going to be in charge of the Christmas Dance this year," he said.  "Remember how much fun we had last year?  Well, triple that and add some cackleburros and you'll get some slight idea how great it'll be this year!"  He waltzed her around the house after making his prediction, as if to give her this much of a taste of what was to come.  Then, realizing it was growing late, he left off waltzing and hurried in to shave and get dressed.  In fifteen minutes he was out the front door, in another ten he was punching in for work. 

He planned carefully, working with the staff assigned to the Social Committee.  He had his treasurer budget with as great a circumspection as was possible to a tractor salesman; he had his assistant plumb his sporting goods mind to incredible depths to come up with fresh ideas.  "Let them wear jock straps!" the sporting goods manager concluded, "and fish netting for the ladies!"  It was voted down, and its sponsor reprimanded for his lack of concentration.  And where would the dance be held?  Last year's was at the Fountain Bleu: surely they could do better.  How about the Eastwind on Route 40?  They looked, it was available, they booked it; then went about raising money with raffles and what not.  Some objected to the Eastwind: it was bigger and fancier and costlier than they needed, they felt, but they were over ruled.  Stephen Hauser made it quite clear to his Social Committee that the Old Man had hinted at the Eastwind, and as far as he was concerned that was that.  The store provided some of the funds, from the prize winnings of the Storewide Week contest; and of course the employees and their guests would have to be charged: nothing so fine could be had for free; but the lion's share came from the various raffles: in a word, from the employees themselves.  What were you if you didn't take a chance on one of the raffles, a spoil sport?  This kind of intimidation especially appealed to the vice chairman of the Committee, the sporting goods manager.  In one last great raffle the chairman, Stephen Hauser, showed his colors: "Paint the Town Red" the raffle was called; it was entirely his idea, and the prize was a night on the town, but not just anywhere: a certain very special part of town: The Block, the section of Baltimore, roughly analogous to a Red Light District, along Baltimore Street, known as "The Block."  The winner of the raffle - and it was assumed it would be a male employee who would win, or at any rate if a female won she would transfer the prize to a male friend or relative - would be taken on a whirlwind tour of The Block, his admission and first drink paid at any five night clubs of his choice, plus five dollars in quarters to be used viewing such films as might happen to be playing at the booths at the rear of any of the various adult book stores.  "A night to remember," the raffle was billed as; and it proved a great success, if only for its novelty.  It brought in the most of any raffle so far; it fizzled only at the end, when the winner, a young lady, despite all cajoling, refused to relinquish her right to accept her prize or to delegate it to some male acquaintance.  She claimed she had entered the contest only in hopes of embarrassing its instigators for their tastelessness; but they were anything but embarrassed: to them it was her poor shortsmanship which was embarrassing.

"It's all in good clean fun," Stephen pleaded with her, but she refused to yield, so there was no choice but to cancel the entire raffle and return everyone's money.

"If you didn't intend to give the prize, you shouldn't have held the raffle," the young lady, who worked in the Invoice Records Department upstairs, noted.

One or two other raffles were hastily constructed to try and regain some of the revenue lost when the "Paint the Town Red" raffle fizzled, one giving away a set of tires, the other a free meal for two at some local restaurant; neither bringing in much added revenue.  The steam had gone out of the whole business, and everyone on the Social Committee felt relieved that the Dance was almost at hand.  "Be glad when the God damn thing's over!" they all agreed, although no formal vote was actually taken.  The store manager, stopping by to give the Committee a little pep talk and to thank them for all their effort, dismissed the failed raffle in a voice at once profound yet humble.  "You can't win 'em all," he mused, taking the cigar from his mouth as he spoke the words.  Awe and a stale smell of smoke filled the air for several seconds, traces of the latter lingering for awhile after the former had dissipated.

The day before the Christmas Dance Stephen, upon arriving home from work, made straightway without a word for the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, where his wife's birth control pills were kept.  He reached in, grabbed the pills up, and in a gesture of great bravura dumped them into the toilet and flushed it.  The pills had looked like snowflakes spiraling earthward as they fell in a stream from the little amber plastic container.  Stephen then crushed the container in his palm and dropped it into the waste basket.

"That's that," he said upon completion of the task.

When later that evening Toni asked if he knew what had become of her pills, Stephen laughed with carefree abandon, grabbed his wife up to whirl her around, and proudly informed her they were no longer needed.

"They have become superfluous, my dear: obsolete, gone-with-the-wind, shoo-fly-don't bother-me, so-long-it's-been-good-to-know-ya, and a dozen other good-bye blues hello good times things thrown in - all covered with a healthy wholesome generous sprinkling of good old Johnson's Baby Powder!  Don't you see, don't you see - oh baby, oh baby don't you see?  I'm in - I'm in now!  My promotion: it's come through!  It's here!  We can have that baby we've always wanted now!  Hot damn, hot damn with sperm on it!  Gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight!  We gonna cook us up a baby, baby!  Hot damn - hot damn!"

Once he had calmed down somewhat, Stephen explained that just before he left work today, the Old Man called him in, had him close the door and sit down.  Then the Old Man, with a sly grin on his face, offered Stephen a cigar - and Stephen knew what that meant: the only thing it could mean: promotion.

"Congratulations," the Old Man said, "here's to the proud papa!  That merchandiser job we talked about?  Well, Stephen my boy, it's your baby.  It's all yours.  Yours to clean and wipe and dry and powder and then do it all over again, and again, and again, 'cause that's a baby that ain't never learned to keep itself clean.  There ain't no small store, nowhere, that's ever been potty trained.  Still, we gotta keep sending men out there to try.  That's our job.  You leave right after inventory.  It just might end up, son, that you've got a real bastard on your hands, but you can handle it, I'm counting on you.  By the way, did you ever try the old sheet trick like Ed said you were going to?"

"So we gonna make us a baby," Stephen echoed his earlier conclusion.  "The Old Man done give me the go ahead, the all clear, the green light, the slam-bam-thank you ma'am!  And slam, bam, thank you ma'am!"

Of all the things Toni might have said, or asked, out of all the things going through her mind, the only thing she could think to ask was "When is inventory?" even though she vaguely recalled it being sometime in January or February.

"Last of January," Stephen answered.  "Then it's good-bye Department 75, hello C&D!"

Toni could hardly believe her pills were gone.  She found the remains of the container but, there being no trace of her pills, she assumed they had been flushed away.  She could hardly believe it could be that simple to change one's way of life, and done so quickly, so irrevocably.  Well, only irrevocable if she chose to let the change stand.  Not having a child had become a way of life, a comfortable routine, which was now, suddenly, ended, because...because of a promotion, because a department store had through the agency of one Old Man given the go ahead.  While Stephen held one job, did one kind of work, it was best to intercept the chromosomes with a daily little white pill; now that his job had changed, the erected barrier had collapsed as easily as removing one peg from a tinker toy structure.  Why, she wondered, did people speak of lifestyles, of ways of living, even of routines when this was all they amounted to.  An Old Man blows cigar smoke and as if the act were one of dispensing precious incense before an altar, everything that existed vanishes and a new order is inaugurated.  Transubstantiality.  Oh hell, she thought, everything changes, there's no getting around it no matter how trite it is.  Our way of life is just another transient, locked up for the time being on a charge of vagrancy; then it's either released or it escapes or it's set free by some outside agency.  Yet we propose - how often? - to live and die for it!  How absurd.                                

They came from every direction to sit in the Eastwind's ballroom, one of a number of banquet rooms for rent.  It had grown dark outside, but the parking lot was nicely lit and there were a few street lamps along this section of Route 40 and a fine neon glow from Baltimore penetrated the thickening clouds above the horizon.  They had gotten into their cars with their finest attire, had driven the distance, had pulled in, or were pulling in, and were filing into the huge white stucco building, or contemplating doing so, the plate glass at and around the entranceway and the glimmering chandeliers just inside the foyer irresistibly soliciting their entrance.

"I could stay here forever," someone observed, while another expressed the same sentiment this way: "I'd like to move in."  Most everyone spoke, or perhaps thought, similarly, even if they did not actually believe the Eastwind to be the world's most beautiful building or even necessarily the most beautiful they had ever entered.  It embraced more than the building, it was a sense, an aura: a frame of time which ensnared the Eastwind and its pilgrims, like a huge hazy dome - an Indian Summer's bubble - wound around to hermetically seal everything within from without, for the duration.

One or two of Stephen Hauser's subordinates on the Social Committee - it was difficult for the entrants to pinpoint the number, so many minor problems in seating arising that there was never more than one at a time - standing behind a makeshift table collecting tickets and advising everyone where his or her or their table was, if asked.  In one way or another, by the time the buffet was to be served, everyone had been ushered in, deposited beneath the great ballroom chandeliers, each at his own designated place, given an opportunity to get a before dinner drink, and in general made to feel welcome.  Some people seemed to take right to the setting; others would need time to feel as comfortable now that they were inside as they had felt excited beholding it from outside.

The buffet was announced.  To preclude everyone stampeding to get their food (if such elegantly attired people could ever be thought of as likely to stampede), guests were called table by table, each table having been assigned a number.  It had fallen to Stephen Hauser to do the policing; but as it was a task conferring a certain leadership quality, he felt no regret.

"If you'll excuse me," he said to the Old Man and Ed the merchandiser as he got up.  He was seated at the Old Man's table, a distinct honor for just a department manager.  Turning to his wife, he said he would just be a few minutes - an estimate which proved off by nearly three quarters of an hour.

"That man of yours," the Old Man informed Toni by way of conversation: "he's going places."  Toni smiled and agreed with the assessment, though something in her manner conveyed the impression that she was answering the literal statement.  Ed the C&D merchandise's wife turned to Toni and asked how she thought she would like "Small Town USA," as she called it.  She said she was not sure, thereby reserving judgment, although she made it sound as if she had taken the question seriously and that somehow it actually mattered - or could actually matter - whether or not she did like it, when in fact Ed's wife had merely made conversation.

"I know just what you mean," Ed's wife said after a somewhat awkward pause, as if - particularly as the wife of an up and coming company man - she felt called upon to defuse Toni's seriousness.  "I always go absolutely through the roof," she confessed gingerly, "when I find out I have to just up and start packing.  And all the friends you've made - why it just breaks my heart leaving them.  Oh men: you know, they'll never see we girls' point of view if they live to be a million."

"Or a billion," Toni helped her along, but without the ginger, which almost made her remark sound sarcastic.

"Speaking of millions," the Old Man spoke up in that special tone of authority calculated to quiet any and all dissension before it has a chance to arise, "when's that hubby of yours going to make his first?"  This question was addressed to Toni.

"Oh, not till he becomes merchandiser, anyway," Toni replied, just a hair too dryly for it to have been the the usual meaningless boast whose emptiness cushions its absolute impossibility.  Everyone at the table laughed anyway, as if that might cancel out any irony intended or at least cushion everyone from the implications.

Just when the Old Man was beginning an off-color joke, presumably a last resort, his table was summoned to the buffet.  He quipped something about soup being on; everyone laughed and get up.  Toni laughed also, and genuinely, since this was a harmless cliché and as such warranted appreciation.  The Old Man saw her, and heard her laugh, and a look of extreme delight came over his face.  On the way to the buffet table, he whispered to Ed "Underneath it all she's okay!  She's just subtle."  The other ladies, too, gave the impression they simply misunderstood her; they gave a quick look of approval at each other directed, with a motion of their eyes, at Toni. 

Everyone found the buffet to be everything it was supposed to be.  Spread before the guests, in various styles of serving utensils, were chicken parts in a white sauce, Swedish meatballs, roast beef au jus, various vegetables and breads, butter, and two kinds of gravies, the guests each dishing out their preferences onto thick china plates bordered in red and pink flowering something or another, perhaps bayberry.  Not long after they returned to their table Stephen joined them.  They all sat and ate, the gentlemen occasionally glancing at the ladies, the ladies at the gentlemen, everyone at the Old Man every once in a while, the Old Man at Toni occasionally, Toni at everyone and no one in particular, more at the food on her plate than anything else.  Presumably the food glanced at nothing, autism something of a concomitant state with inanimate being.  In due course, the plates were taken away and any leftover food dumped; only the most fanatically atavistic would have bemoaned its fate.  Now the band came upon the scene; the Dance began.

It began slowly, grew to moderation, then to fast, finally returning to slow.  It drew the people away from their tables as if a thief whose accomplice would then rob them of their unattended belongings; it caused them to gyrate in every conceivable pattern, some to flap their arms like overgrown birds no longer able to fly, others to stomp up and down as if eager to mate, some merely to stand and sway as if caught in a cross-current, a few to slip and slide their way over the entire ballroom floor.  And when they were not dancing, the guests were busy moving from table to table; they were like lost fledglings seeking their own nest.  Everyone said a word or two to everyone else before moving on to their own table; everyone who could, or dared, stopped a moment at the Old Man's table to bid him happiness and much health, and not a little wealth, a few actually seating themselves and their escorts wherever a seat or two permitted.  Introductions were made all around as if after tonight no one here would ever meet again, or as if, like an elegant Babel, all former identities here would henceforth become lost, confused or altered beyond recognition.  So many men introduced so many "little women" to the Old Man, it would almost seem like Mrs Alcott had hosted; and each one the Old Man was utterly charmed to meet.

But there was a tension and an awkwardness.  Toni sensed it, as did others.  They recalled last year's Christmas Dance, a lesser affair, held at the Fountain Bleu, but somehow a more satisfying affair, much easier going, less strained.  It was impossible to say why the difference was evident or what its basis was.  Perhaps less had been expected last year; perhaps knowing the possibilities for enjoyment were greater this year induced everyone to try too hard to wring every drop of delight from the evening; perhaps no one wished to trust his happiness to the chance spontaneity of the moment.  Perhaps gloom and skepticism are the indispensable prerequisites of enjoyment: making enjoyment exactly what most people always knew it was anyway: a contrast, neither more nor less.  Toni remembered very clearly her own mood then, her reserve, her lack of any clear expectation.  It had been her first Christmas Dance at this company, her husband had not wanted to attend until he felt like a man on his way toward something greater, which he had felt like then, for the first time, even though he was still only an assistant department manager.  She remembered too the other people, or at least a good many of them, and what she had perceived as their reserve, their somewhat gloomy skepticism.  And not expecting much, everything enjoyable became for them a quite literally unexpected delight.  Nothing chases away happiness or dampens it so much as expecting it as if it were one's due.  It should be one's due, but it isn't, not in this universe.  We needn't rush with open arms to embrace our happiness, Toni thought watching couple after couple come and greet the Old Man then trudge on back to their own table, their huge smiles, smiles so big she found herself fearing for their jawbones, drooping into flaccid folds of what came to appear as useless skin.

Last year there was more color in the lighting, and the lighting was dimmer; perhaps the dimness of a prism's interior, where one might look out to see the color generated within: it's always a blur from its source, it's only outside that it takes on sharpness, clarity, crystalinity: vibrancy.  There was an elegance last year: only quietness breeds elegance; too much movement, too intense excitement ruffles it till it looks like a float in a parade.  It was quieter last year, people took that direction in their uncertain stumbling; this year they were loud, garish, their uncertainty unbecame them, as bravura generally unbecomes.

But perhaps, Toni reminded herself, this is all only because I happen to see it this way.  She thought a moment, then smiled.  "That's good enough," she murmured.  She had become in these few minutes oblivious to the others at her table.  The Old Man, hearing her comment, if only just barely, cooed contentedly and nodded his acquiescence.  Evidently the statement coincided with something he had on his own mind at the moment.

"Hey baby!" Stephen suddenly announced to his wife, "they're playing our song!  Let's show 'em what dancing feet were put here for!"  With this, he got up, roused Toni from her thoughts, led her to the dance floor, and began to dance.  The music was bright and cheerful as its lyrics; a popular song, something under the auspices of Rock and Roll, if not truly Rock as the term had come to be abbreviated, its title was not without irony.  "Joy To The World" it was called, whether or not after the old Christmas Carol no one could say; it was nothing like the Carol, however, except in its being upbeat, if possessed of less dignity.  Unlike the "Joy to  the world The Lord has come" of the original, this one began "Jeremiah was a Bullfrog, was a good friend of mine."  Not the awaited Messiah, not even the great prophet, but a pet frog; but where dignity left off, where the subject matter faltered in stature, truth appeared, and like all earthly endeavors was highly suspect.  Doubtless a frog could be named Jeremiah, perhaps even trained to respond to it, but could it be someone's good friend?  It presented a problem little less intriguing or monumental than that supposedly settled in the Christmas Carol.

The dance was sprightly and everyone joined in, even the Old Man.  Mrs Old Man was swung till her nose nearly bled and her ears did pop: she suffered intermittently with high blood pressure.  Stephen and Toni demonstrated the etiology of dancing feet; and if everyone taking turns, taking time out from their own dancing to watch indicated something to be good, then the Hausers were superb dancers.  Toward the very end of the song, the Old Man relegated his wife to the care of Ed the C&D merchandiser, who in turn released his wife to John the A&B merchandiser, his slightly junior staff member, whose wife, left without a partner, had to retreat to the table but fortunately was spared the indignity of becoming a wallflower by Stephen Hauser, whose wife the Old Man had initiated this sequence of events in order to dance with.

"May I?" the Old Man asked with a tap on Stephen's shoulder.

"Of course," said Stephen, who twirled Toni straight into the Old Man's arms, beat a hasty retreat, and just in the nick of time caught up with Mrs A&B Lines to save the few remaining bars of the song from dancelessness.

"So this is your song," the Old Man inquired.

"I suspect Stephen confused it with the Christmas Carol," Toni replied.  Otherwise, she thought, how could he walk away from it?  The Old Man chuckled and made some comment about it being the thought that counted.

It's not my song anyway, Toni conceded in silence.  He knows my song - our song.  "I followed you to Texas," that song began.  Of course, she reflected as her feet danced and her body swung, there are any number of wandering songs: one need not make too much of having found just the right one.  There's a whole range of Folk songs, and any number of spirituals; but these are different, they speak only of the traveling, not really of the chasing, or if so then not of the genuine conviction that something exists out there to be found, and can be found, and will be found.  That's why they may be my song but never our song; because I'm not a believer, only Stephen is.  It's life giving, his faith; it's absolutely irresistible.  Even though what he believes in will always elude him.  His is the dream, mine the reality.  I need his dreams even if I don't believe in them.  I need to feel a part of it, though I can never be a part of it.

"How does this Dance compare to last year's?" she suddenly asked the Old Man on their way back to their table.  He thought for a moment then he said, with a sly wink which for all her perceptiveness Toni could not interpret, that there was no comparison.  It intrigued her that he could have meant it either way; in that flash, that brief instant, this man - this Old Man - whom she had up till now somewhat looked down upon, has risen enormously in her estimation.  Perhaps the man is much bigger than his role, she speculated, but could not decide if that were encouraging or discouraging.

"Whew!  I'm exhausted!" Stephen was saying.

"So are we all, all exhausted!" said Ed the C&D merchandiser.  Everyone laughed.

"And so, as the man said, are we 'all all honorable men' - do you agree Toni?" the Old Man asked.

"To the sentiment, yes," Toni replied.  "Overlooking the irony, I don't see how it's possible not to be."

"Toni!" said Stephen, almost in a shocked tone, "Listen to what you're saying!  Surely you don't mean everyone's honorable - everyone!  You have to be careful Toni: words have a precise meaning."  Here he turned to the others and noted "I got that from reading Ayn Rand."  They laughed.  Stephen went on.  "I mean, like take for instance murderers or rapists or fags: you can't mean to suggest that they have any honor can you?"  Toni nodded yes.  Everyone was shocked, till after a moment had passed the Old Man expressed the belief that what she meant was honor among thieves.  Everyone went "Ah," very comprehendingly.  That was not what she meant though; she meant precisely what she said.  Everyone had his own code of standards, and everyone was loyal to it, no matter what its structure; so if what one man's code declared dishonorable fell outside another's code altogether, it did not follow that the latter suffered a loss of his honor if he did it.  Putting it in that perspective let Toni better see the true worth of Honor, for in that light a mass murderer could be as honorable as a saint - words, as always, having their precise meaning, as is their wont.

"Well, as for me," Ed's wife was saying, "I think rapists should be castrated!"

"As for fags," Ed added in a humorous tone, "that's superfluous!"  The gentlemen laughed, the ladies batted their eyes coyly.

"Do they both belong in the same category?" Toni asked in general.

"They're both sex crimes, aren't they?" Stephen observed with a mischievous grin.

"Don't forget Toni," Mrs Old Man noted in her usual soft but firm voice, "God forbade homosexual acts."

"He wanted to keep it for Himself?" Toni asked innocently.  Everyone was almost horrified at the blasphemy, Mrs Ed even going so far as to suggest it as such, though discreetly.

"Is is blasphemy?" Toni speculated; Mrs Ed assured her it was.  And when this God of yours sets down a mess of do's and don'ts irrespective of the forces which drive a human being, apparently for no better purpose than that the universe can rejoice that here, on earth, there lies so wondrously obedient and self-effacing a being, one who willingly and even gladly enforces the most senseless and bizarre and even perverted rules, purging from his ranks those who disobey the great codes, or killing them, or torturing them - when this hideous sequence is set in motion, you find no blasphemy?  Is it a sin only against God, never by Him against us?  Perhaps so.

Toni smiled.  "A child shall lead the way," she said softly.  Everyone was much soothed by this remark and immediately forgave her her blasphemy, the underlying irony evidently lost on them.  A child is a human entity, not a divine entity.  And God made His son human - but apparently and conveniently left all human emotions out of the boy's makeup, so that in the Messiah all one really had was an automaton.  Indeed: an automaton is all the Almighty can even see humanity as - something which has no life of its own, something to be eternally manipulated from above and from below, something with a free will to choose between its manipulators, but certainly not something capable of damning both interferences in its life.

"Speaking of," Stephen hastened to add, "any day now I expect we'll be having good news to report!  The pill is dead - long live the egg!"

Everyone seemed to wonder if it was too soon to offer congratulations.  Is it appropriate? the expectant look in their eyes seemed about to say, or prompt them to say.  No one said anything however; they just smiled contentedly.

It was Sunday, tomorrow was another working day, and a department managers' meeting faced them first thing in the morning.  Somebody quipped "Etae missa est," but it was said too quickly for anyone to pinpoint it.  Several turned toward the Old Man but he merely shrugged, as if to say "Not I."  But he did make it clear, by getting up, saying good night to the party at his table and, in the company of his wife, leaving, that he agreed with the sentiment.  Soon everyone was getting up, saying good night and leaving.  The last clink of ice in the last cocktail glass resounded its last few audible feet, then it was all over.  Not even a clean-up man was there to embrace the abrupt emptiness; everything was left till morning.  Someone, from inside some office, began hitting switches and inside the Eastwind ballroom darkness was bounded off the walls and dashed against the ceiling, trapping what few final sparks of light were left flickering when the great chandeliers gave out.  Some kind of psychic aftermath lingered a while in the stale darkness then dissipated; with it went the event: the Christmas Dance.  Stephen and Toni Hauser drove home and went to bed, Stephen babbling as he tried ineffectually to make love to his wife about the baby it was not time to make.

"Tomorrow night," he was forced to compromise.  "Tomorrow night," he repeated several times until he fell asleep.

Toni had never evaluated sex against the arbitrary standard of performance.  She had had bad sex with her husband and enjoyed it more than some of the good - even the best - sex they had ever had; it all depended on the moment, and on the intensity of her feelings, not on how nearly some physical ideal was fulfilled.  If Stephen had said or done something earlier in the day to stimulate her joy in being with him, then it mattered little how well he performed.  She wished it were possible to tell him this, and perhaps it was; but not tonight, not when she had had cause to feel only contempt for him.  Tonight's bad sex was saved only by her repugnance: had he performed his self-appointed task perfectly, it would have been a hideous experience for her.  "Let's make a baby" might be a lovely sentiment over an after dinner drink with friends, but in bed with just the two of them, it was an abomination, almost perverse, like having sex in front of one's own child, deliberately.  She was glad nothing came of it.  I can resign myself to having a baby, she thought, but not to making a baby with my husband.  To make a night's love reach out nine full months, to let a future expectation circumscribe the present moment, is to destroy that moment and lose that love forever.  If in having our child we destroy what love we have, we'll hate the child.  But: we can now afford it, we're on our way up.  Courtesy of the retail world.

"Inventory," explained the Old Man at his weekly staff meeting "is like a fine limbed young thing with soft round hips and boobs: you get on top of her, and you stay right with her till she comes across for you!"  A few ashes from his cigar fell into his coffee while he exchanged homilies with his subordinates; everyone saw them fall but said nothing: suggesting that the secret pleasure of watching him sip them in with his morning coffee outweighed the merits of warning him they were there.  He seemed not to taste the difference, or else there was no difference.

The last day of January was inventory; the store was closed - as were all the chain's stores - until five P.M.  Everyone showed up in jeans and leisure shirts or blouses to help with the counting; even the Old Man had on a blazer and wore his shirt collar open.  It was a big day, a hectic day, everything was hustle, everyone was engaged in his or her assigned task, while upstairs, in a big room, one used for fashion and modeling classes, along a matching set of long tables sat, on either side, the various ladies of the Invoice Records and the other offices with adding machines in front of them; these ladies, under the general supervision of the store comptroller, were adding the various columns of the inventory sheets: the number of each count, the dollar amount, sub-totaling, totaling, cross-checking, and then setting the completed sheets into numerical sequence, by department, according to the control number at the top of each page.  By day's end it was pretty well known whose inventory was good, whose was bad.  Every department manager sweated out the results, since in March it would be time for their performance appraisals, and how they fared on inventory was the biggest single factor considered.  Some would do so poorly they would have to be demoted to assistant manager; others would do splendidly, coming out with a factor of 100% in what was known as Inventory Recovery, an abstract amount over and above the breaking even mark: if one simply broke even, then in fact one had a shortage vis-a-vis the abstract Inventory Recovery figure - a complicated process but an inestimable boon to metaphysics, as is anything that ascribes and equal power to the non-existent; most department managers, though would fall somewhere between the two extremes, while a few would have too good a Recovery: there can be too much even of the unreal.

Stephen Hauser was informed by day's end that his inventory had come out nearly perfect.  "Good man," he was complimented all around, and sent home early to have a much deserved rest before returning that evening for work.  He had worked hard, had climbed all over his stacks of paint in his effort to get the very best and most accurate count; once he almost tipped over a stack of paint altogether to get at the article number printed on the outside of the box.  He cursed the warehousemen for their sloppy handling of the cartons: "Who but a God damn jackass," he wondered aloud and angrily, "would stack these things with the number facing the wall?"  Luckily they did not fall, but only teetered a precarious moment above his head.  In his deep concentration on counting the rows of paint cartons, he had unconsciously reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then before he could even get it to his mouth he remembered his own directive and crumpled it in his hand; but as he did, he almost lost his balance, almost pulled the topmost carton, the one he was maneuvering into revealing its hidden article number, down on himself.  He cursed his cigarette and hurled the specks of tobacco into the next aisle; then he copied down the article number.

It snowed all the day the Hausers left Towson.  Everyone had said farewell the evening before at a little get together at Ed's house.  "Looks like snow," they all said as they left.  It looked like snow the next morning, when the Hausers arose; and it did start snowing by the time they left.  Everything had been packed and sent ahead to their new dwelling; they slept on the floor their last night.

"Lucky thing," Stephen had told everyone, "'cause we sure couldn't go at it tonight!"  Laughter infiltrated the news Stephen Hauser had just related, replacing the coos of delight, the congratulations, the pats on the back.

"You just happen to be paying your respects," he had informed Ed's guests a moment earlier, "to the newest prospective mommy and daddy on the block!  We just got the word yesterday: Toni's pregnant!  Long live the diaper!  Aha!" he raised an admonishing finger, thought I was gonna say diaphragm, didn't you?"  Everyone laughed.  "Toni," he called, "come on over here, say a few words to the good people!"

"We appreciate your good wishes," Toni said.

"And that," added Stephen, "says it all!  God night everyone.  We won't say good bye, just adieu!"

"Adieu! everyone called back to the Hausers.  Toni, particularly, relished the form their final farewell had taken.  It seemed appropriate.                        

The snow gathered along the deep treads of their rear tires, went around, and was spun off onto somebody's windshield; then more snow was similarly picked up, given a brief ride, thrown back with the rest.  Over and over, until it had become too packed down to cling to snow tires, or had melted where the traffic was heaviest.  Little by little, that way, the Hausers made their way from Towson to their new home, snow the entire distance accompanying them, even if when they arrived their tires bore no trace of its accompaniment.

They had bought a house in Cumberland.  "Don't worry about it," Stephen had reassured his wife, "they always buy a house, staff members, when they move; then turn around and sell it for a profit when they move again.  Ah! sweet inflation! keep up the good work, and I'll get double what I paid for it!  That's what you want: you want it low when you buy, then sky high when you sell, then back down again when it's time to buy your next house.  And that, my dear, is economics."

"And this, my dear," he said as they got out of the car, "is our new house.  Our first real home.  Like it?"  They tramped through the snow to their front door; neither had ever seen the house before, there had not been time to make the trip, or to handle the arrangements personally.  "Surprise us," Stephen had exclaimed when asked if he wished a picture of the house sent to him.  His fellow staff members had assisted the realtor in arranging the purchase: a courtesy they extended their new comrade.  The financing, the titling, the telephone and electrical hookup, even the delivery and positioning of the Hauser's furniture had all been handled without their participation; Stephen's signature on the various papers the only thing required of him, "and this, my dear, is our new home.  Our first real home.  Like it?"

Stephen was full of anticipation; it showed on his face, in the tapping of his foot against the packed snow, in the brisk movements of his fisted hands.  Toni hated the place, but saw no reason to say so.  Why disappoint him? she asked, especially when it doesn't matter.  It's not our first home, it's not a home at all.  It's like a shed, one of those tin sheds sitting on the store's patio.  And when we get inside, it'll be like living in the Furniture department.  What's the number?  Ah what is it?  She looked at Stephen.

"What's the number of the Furniture department?" she asked.

"Sixty-six," Stephen answered.  "Why?"

"Sixty-six," Toni mused.  That'll be our house number, she thought.  Sixty-six Department Store Lane.  She smiled, her smile so big it almost became for a moment a laugh; and she said "I love it Stephen."

Stephen shut his eyes, as if in great relief; a look of great happiness spread over his face, and he laughed, loudly and for a very long while, then he picked his wife up and, struggling manfully to unlock the door, his key fortunately in his hand, carried her across the threshold.

"To the victor belongs the spoils!" he exclaimed and began laughing all over again, this time Toni joining in.  Stephen slammed the door behind him with his foot.  He carried her into the bedroom; this was was a one story brick rancher with pretty much every thing one expects in a brick rancher.  He lowered her gently onto the bed then, while she lay there fully clothed, he began to undress, parading around the room as he did, strewing his clothes, piece by piece, everywhere, making a kind of imitation crowing noise and occasionally flapping his arms like wings.  When he was naked, he lay down beside Toni and took her in his arms.

"Don't got to see a man about a baby no more," he said.  "Still the same," he added, "I want to see someone, about something."  It was not long till he began shivering; something had first caught his attention upon entering and prompted an "Oh yeah!"; but the words his "Oh yeah" prompted never left his lips.  The furnace had not yet been turned on.  He went and did so; Toni slid under the covers.  Her clothes were strewn all over the room too, each separate piece having been thrown to the left or right or behind as Stephen removed it.  When he returned and climbed under the covers and pressed his cold feet against hers, and lay his head against her breast, she shuddered a deep warm shudder.

"You just now?" Stephen asked in a surprised voice.

"Not only now," Toni answered.

"Twice?" he asked in great amazement, as though it were the most incredible thing he had ever heard.

"Twice," she said.

"Whew.  Me, I'm only good for one at a time.  Hey you don't think anything's, you know, wrong with me do you?  I mean, like...well, you know, like a loss of virility?  Or loss of elasticity?"

"No," said Toni.

"God I hope not," said Stephen.  Then he sighed deeply and fell asleep, as Toni caressed him and stroked his slightly sticky blonde hair.

"I feel a little nervous," Stephen admitted over breakfast the next morning, his first day at his new job.  "I think I've got the runs.  The old plague.  God damn it you'd think I was no better than some little fairy scared of his own shadow.  Oh God damn it!" he exclaimed angrily as he got up.  "Excuse me."

The first thing upon entering his new store, he headed straight for the bathroom, which was still being cleaned in preparation for the workday.

"Sorry pal," he said in a somewhat sarcastic tone as he headed into one of the  stalls.  "God damn nigger," he muttered under his breath as he started to reach for the toilet paper only to discover there was none.  "Hey pal!" he called out, but no one answered: the janitor had already left.  "Of all the God damn rotten luck!" he cried.  Just then the door opened and someone walked to the sinks, presumably to wash his hands or comb his hair.  Stephen could see the man's shoes well enough to know they were not those of a janitor.  "Hey," he called, "whoever you are: help, I'm stranded in here.  No toilet paper.  Can you get some?  Is there any in the next stall?  If there is, how about sliding it under the stall?"

There was no answer, just a chuckle, then steps, which went right by the stalls and on out the door.  "God damn stinking bastard!" Stephen cried.  "I'll get you for this, you turd sucker!"  Stephen looked at his watch, it was nearly nine-thirty, already several minutes past when he was supposed to report to the store manager.  Too desperate now for niceties any longer, he pulled his pants far enough up to permit him to get down on his hands and knees and, crawling almost on his belly, to get under the wall dividing his stall from the next.  Once inside the next stall, he quickly shut the door, sat up on the toilet, and unrolled a huge wad of toilet tissue, then another, and yet a third.  He left without flushing either toilet.  He combed his hair and hurried on out and made his way to the rear of the store where the offices were.  It was a one story building, one of the small regional stores, one having only hard goods plus housewares, cameras and linens.  On his way to the store manager's office he stopped cold.  There, not ten feet ahead of him, was the pair of shoes he had seen enter the restroom and leave again without stopping to assist him.  On his lips was the silent word "Bastard" and his right hand curled instinctively into a fist when suddenly a third party came along and began introducing the two.

"Steve," the man said, extending his hand.  It was an acquaintance of Stephen Hauser's, a man about the same age, who had worked as a department manager at Towson when Stephen was an assistant manager and was now operating manager at this store.

"Bob," said Stephen as he shook the man's hand," how've you been."

"Ah," interrupted the man whose shoes had so incensed Stephen, "so this must be my new merchandiser.  Glad to meet you, Steve - may I call you Steve?" the man asked as he extended his hand.

"You may, yes, you may," replied Stephen awkwardly as he took the hand.  He had gone pale and was sweating a little at the temples.  "You must be - he started to say, but was cut short.

"That's me alright," the man said.  "I'm the Old Man around here," he said with a wink.  "Your new boss."

"P-pleased to meet you, Sam," Stephen said absently then, realizing his mistake, blushed.  "I - I -" he stuttered.

"Sam?" the Old Man asked.

"I - I meant to say 'sir,'" Stephen explained.

"Sir?  And it comes out Sam?  What you been doing with your tongue boy?  Not been licking anywhere you oughtn't to, have you, I hope not?"

"No sir," said Stephen, then repeated himself, as if swearing an oath, "No sir."

"Good man," the Old man congratulated him and started walking away then, stopping, called back to Bob, the operating manager.  "Show the new boy around," he ordered, "and when he's seen all there is to see, page me, I'll most likely be in Hardware checking out the new set of tits."

Bob put his hand on Stephen's shoulder and advised him not to worry, he would get used to his new boss in time; but Stephen countered by saying he seemed like a nice guy to work for, or at any rate one who knew his business pretty well.  Stephen excused himself a minute to go to the restroom before being shown around.  Inside the stall once again, the same one he had been in earlier, only this time there was toilet paper, and the toilet had been flushed and the door, which he had left locked from the inside, had been unlocked - inside and seated and alone, he shut his eyes and leaned as far back as he could before touching against the plumbing.  He had a wad of toilet tissue in his hand, but instead of reaching behind with it he pressed it to his forehead and wiped away the sweat, then to his eyes.

"God damn sweat," he muttered, "gets in your God damn eyes and everywhere!"

"Yes sir, I think I'm going to like it," he informed his new boss later that day, grinning nicely from ear to ear.

It was so hot.  It was cold there where Toni was, but in the small Texas town it was hot.  The slip clung when Cloris Leachman tried to take it off; the boy watched, waited.  She could barely get it over her head.  A moment later the bed began creaking, as if it wanted to warn someone the boy did not belong in it; though in truth there is nothing to recognize inanimate objects as moral beings.  Toni watched the movie spread out across the Texas countryside; she saw two friends attack each other, the one then going to war somewhere, the other returning to Cloris Leachman.  She was there: whatever else there was, she was there, and she told the boy it was alright.  He had told her it was finished between them yet he returned, and she said it was alright.  What else is there in life to say? Toni vaguely wondered.

The movie was making the rounds of prime time television, "The Last Picture Show," with Cloris Leachman and various others.  She was not telling anyone it was time though, but rather that it was alright.  In a way they meant the same thing.  Toni had watched the night Cloris Leachman received an academy award for her role in this movie.  Before then she had never really followed Miss Leachman's career.  What had particularly caught her attention, in the acceptance speech, was a reference to "the cliché," something about having tried to fight the cliché all her life.  I too, Toni had thought at the time and again occasionally, have attempted to fight it.  She wondered now if she ought not add to her claim the disclaimer "unsuccessfully."  I have not been successful entirely, she admitted.  And Ben Johnson, who ran the movie house, and who also won an academy award for his role, died in the movie one weekend.  No one saw him die though; the audience was just told that he had died.  There is a sense of involvement here, when a character in a movie dies unobserved by the audience, greater than if everything were seen and experienced.  The incompleteness of it, and the feeling of dissatisfaction generated, make it more real and draws the audience farther into the movie, makes it seem as if it had occurred in real life, to a celebrity well-known to the audience but too removed to be nearby at the moment of death, so the audience only hears about it through some third party, the way they heard of Ben Johnson's death in "The Last Picture Show."  Or perhaps death can never be real, regardless how nearby it occurs; it leaves no tangible evidence.  It is the only of life's great experiences which cannot be shared, no matter how close one is to the dead.  But Cloris Leachman, who knew Ben Johnson was dead, who knew the boy she had seduced had been hurt by his friend in a fight, and who knew the fight had been over the very girl he had broken off his affair with her for, said it was alright and took him back.  It doesn't matter where one goes, one always comes back; and somehow or another it always manages to be alright.

"It was a beautiful film," Toni said when Stephen came in from his first day's work.  He was late, he had gone out with his friend Bob, the operating manager, for a beer.  He could have had no idea what all had gone on the two hours prior to his return; whether or not it would have mattered to him if he had known, only he could have said.

"That's nice," he said reaching over to give his wife a kiss.  He almost lost his balance but caught himself in time; but instead of kissing Toni on the forehead as he seemed about to do, he kissed her belly, right over top where the baby would be growing.  "And baby makes three," he said, then belched.

"How was work?" Toni asked.

"Piece of cake," Stephen boasted.

"But is it really going so well?" Toni asked.  Stephen looked at her as if shocked at her question.  At first he made no reply; when he finally did answer, his voice was low, barely audible.

"It has to go well," he said, then added "you know that.  Nobody expects you to get used to things, Toni; you have to already be used to them.  Nobody comes along and takes your hand and says 'let's just sit a spell and wait till we've grown accustomed to it, then we'll move on.'  You go in feet first, just as if all you were doing was returning somewhere after an absence.  It don't have to go well, to go well.  'Going well' is an evaluation, and you don't have to mean it, you only have to say it and you've done your duty.  And," he said with another belch, "speaking of doing your duty, I either: a) go pee or b) wet myself or c) burst.  Which shall it be?"

Stephen Hauser burst out laughing.  "Guess which I've chosen?" he asked in a voice trembling with laughter.  A darkening stain spread down his pant legs and trickled onto his shoes and down in spots onto the carpet at his feet.  "Stevie goed pee pee," he said jokingly.  "Stevie decided he'd pee himself.  And he loved it.  It felt better than anything I've done since God knows when too!  Not that I plan to make a practice of it, but I wouldn't take anything a whole chain of stores had to offer in exchange for the uncomfortable, miserable, disgusting feeling.  You know what too?  I may not take a bath tonight either.  I might just sleep in it, and get all chafed and raw.  Except," he noted after a moment's pause, "I have to get up early tomorrow, got to be at work extra early, won't have time to take a bath, I'll take it now.  Yeah, me, a grown man, gotta go take a bath 'cause I wet myself.  Mother may I?"  He turned and left the living room, but returned in a moment, naked, before taking his bath.  "I threw those pants out," he said, "I don't want nothing more to do with them.  So," he indicated his body below the waist, "here's what a man who's peed himself looks, and smells, like.  Not half bad, is it?"

"It's alright," Toni admitted, wishing in a way that the irony of her words could be shared.  It seemed to mean a lot, a very lot, to her to have found a moment so opportune, so quickly, for fitting the sentiment a character in a movie had expressed not half an hour ago into her own life.  But it had to remain, like that famous woman's deodorant, her "Secret."  Hers, and hers alone.  "Strong enough for a man - but made for a woman."  Oh Cloris, Toni half implored, I know you can't have meant to say something only a woman could understand.  It would have been accepting the cliché, wouldn't it have?  And you've struggled against it, as we all have in our own way.  Oh Cloris, it's a lot to have to say when you say "it's alright," isn't it?  What you're saying is "I will compromise another bit of my soul now, in order that I might move on to the next crisis."  If it could never be "alright," then it would never move aside, never end up a memory; it would forever remain an obstacle.  Oh but it doesn't all reduce to simple resignation, don't even think it's no more than that.  Saying "it's alright" is not saying "I accept it" or "I am resigned to it."  It's merely saying "I will allow it, so that it may pass."  Otherwise it too would be no more than a cliché.  Two or two billion wrongs don't make a right, but can be made enough into a right to deal with.  And they must.

Before he left for work the next morning, Stephen retrieved his still wet pants from the waste basket he had tossed them into.  He made a face as he sniffed them.  "Think I'd better keep these," he mused as he stood looking at them.  "Might come in handy some day.  Pants.  Pants-o-mine Quiz.  Used to be.  A lot used to be.  I used to be virile," he continued musing.  "I mean really virile.  Really a hunk.  Always took charge.  Now...now I take the store's charge: Charge All.  Like to open an account with us ma'am?  Or would you rather open my fly?  There was a day," his voice trailed off, while his life moved silently, picking up again with the words "Now they only want credit.  Hey Toni!" he suddenly called, throwing the pants into the closet; they landed in a dark corner where a tiny winter spider - an indoor, a year-round spider - had spun a dusty web.

Toni came from the kitchen to the bedroom.  "Did you say something?" she asked.  In her hand was a crisp slice of bacon, half eaten.  She took another bite while she waited for her husband to reply.

"Yeah," he said.  "Did you ever watch that old show on TV, Pantomime Quiz?  It was like in the late 50's or something, maybe early 60's.  I used to watch that stupid show; well, it wasn't stupid I guess.  They used to have that fat guy on there.  Kind of British.  You know.  What was his name?  Sebastian Cabot!  That was it.  I think he died not long ago, or else he's going to, something like that.  He was alright, old Sebastian Cabot.  Had a beard.  That was a cool show.  I always remember, somebody sent something in once saying "Who stole Mike Stokey's trousers - or - Pants-o-mine Quiz!  Mike Stokey was this guy who owned the show.  They even had a game out called Pantomime Quiz.  I used to try and act out some of the things.  I guess I was kind of a fairy in those days - I don't mean a real fairy though, just a goof off, you know?  Not a fag, just a clown.  I used to clown around.  Well, gotta go.  Old Aaron's going to be dug up today.  Gonna make some Bone China for a special upcoming sale.  You know: old Aaron was the first retailer to offer money back guarantees.  I'll go down on my knees to that.  As a supplicant; not a queer.  Dearest Aaron, may God grant me the strength to give you your money back.  Amen.  Love and kisses, Stevie.  Bye now, gotta run."

Mrs Hauser was kissed good-bye.  The little house was kissed good-bye.  "I love you," Mr Hauser told his wife.  "You're my everything," he told his house.  He had a twenty-five year mortgage on the house, though it would have been impossible to remain here anywhere near that long, at least not if he expected or wished to continue moving up the ranks of the corporation.  One did not stay still and move; to move, one moved.  "Going up" meant "going south" or north or some - any - direction; one moved - had to be moved - with the prize, the Golden Apple, whichever turn it took.  If "Two roads diverged in a wood," one took the one marked "To The Top."  One could see, or fancy seeing, if one looked hard enough, moss growing on the old timers, those who had spent all their lives at one location, one job, one plateau, usually ascentless; see it too starting to grow on those embarked on a similar course.  The Ideal is the only home men on the move know; and after a fashion they kiss it good-bye too.

Toni got sick, the new little life growing soporifically in her belly made her vomit.  She never called it morning sickness, however; she called it by its right name: motion sickness.  Her husband always gave her an odd sort of look when she said it, the kind of helpless look one gives someone who has just told a joke that has no trace of humor or has just made a quip apropos of nothing whatsoever.

"Let me ask you something," he asked the store telephone operator, "you're a woman, you have kids.  When you get morning sickness, has the baby grown big enough yet to start moving around?"

"I don't think so," the telephone operator replied.

"I didn't think so either," Stephen agreed.  "I was just curious," he explained.  "My wife calls it 'motion sickness.'  That's odd, isn't it?"

"Oh, I don't know," was the reply, "it's sort of nice.  Poetic.  I like it."

Stephen shook his head when he had gotten past the reception area.  "Women," he said.  "Women."

"Like that?" someone tapped him and asked.  He jumped a little at the abruptness; but he turned, first in the direction of the speaker, then toward whatever was being pointed out.  He laughed.

"Like that!" he agreed.

"Good, we see eye to eye," said the store manager.

"Or rather: eye to tit!" Stephen quipped.

"I do like tits on a woman," the store manager admitted.  "Just ain't a good lay without big tits."

"Know what you mean," said Stephen.

"Your wife got big tits?" the store manager asked.

Stephen looked embarrassed.  He grinned and answered "Yes, she does."

"Good," said the store manager approvingly.  He walked on.  Stephen walked on too, in the opposite direction.  Halfway across the store he encountered an employee entering, apparently trying to remain undetected.  He motioned the man over to him.

"I'm Stephen Hauser, the new merchandiser," he introduced himself.

"How do you do, I'm Jim Stan -" the man was about to introduce himself when Stephen cut him off.

"I'm doing well, pal, but you're not.  You're late.  And you know what else you are?  You're fired.  Get your ass out of her."

"For what?" the man asked.

"How about for being late?  It's almost ten.  Store opens at nine-thirty."

"I'm not late," the man insisted, "I'm not scheduled till ten!"

"Then how about because I don't like your looks?  Beat it!"  The man turned and, as unobtrusively as he had entered, left the store.

"If he'd have fought you," Bob the operating manager informed Stephen over mid-morning coffee in Bob's office after being related the incident, "he'd have won, and you'd have been knocked down a peg or two.  Take a little friendly advice Steve: when the Old Man gets on you, don't take it out on the employees.  Grin and bear it - that's pretty much what you get paid for around here."

"But I'm a merchandiser, God damn it!"

"That doesn't mean you can fire someone just because you damn well feel like it!  The Old Man's a bastard, but he's fair, in some ways.  If you do your work, you're okay.  You've just got to ignore his off color remarks, that's all.'

"They don't bother me," Stephen insisted.

"That's good, because they'll get worse before they get better," Stephen was informed.

"That's fine with me," said Stephen, "I like a tough boss.  I don't go for creampuffs who all the time worry about everybody's feelings.  That's for women to worry about.  That's what they're here for, isn't it?"  Bob smiled.

There was not much room at Cumberland for Storewide Week, not like Towson, or any of the bigger stores.  There was no furniture department where all the employees could gather before work on the appointed day, the start of the Week, and take a seat to enjoy the entertainment; still, there had to be the customary presentation wherein the staff made itself for those few unguarded moments appear ridiculous, if only by design.  The largest overall area was the Lawn and Garden Department, department 89; it had the floor space to accommodate most of the store's employees even if some did have to crowd a little close to the others, and it even provided a certain measure of seating; not for all, but for some.  They sat on the riding lawn mowers, of which there were perhaps twenty - easily as many as there had been on display at the Towson store: this being an essentially rural area, a ready market existed for such conveyances.  The other employees, not early enough to get a seat or, as they referred to it, "a ride," stood about, many with their feet directly beneath the mowers, a few seemingly anxious about the probability of some sort of divine mechanical interference.

"They can't start, there's no gas in them!" the department 89 manager chided the doubters.

"Then what's that?" somebody said as he unscrewed the gas cap and lifted it to reveal what might have been two gallons of gasoline.

"That's a demonstrator," someone tried to dismiss the accusation.

"What do they demonstrate on?  There's not even a carpet," somebody else pointed out.

"It ain't no demonstrator!" the 89 manager nipped this spurious claim in the bud.  "It was returned.  It can't start no matter if it had a million gallons of gas because it don't run, the God damn thing's no good!"

"Why'd you sell it then?" some consumer minded individual asked.

"It's my job to sell, that's why!  And anyone who don't like it can just step outside and I'll pull my zipper down too if you know what I mean!"  Some of the ladies expressed an objection or two to the drift of the conversation.  However, just as things looked about to disintegrate, the show was announced.  Out came the store staff, all in wild looking attire, each one sporting a wig which descended to his shoulders and sunglasses.

"Hey man," drawled the store manager.

"Like wow," wailed the operating manager.

"Dig those colors," cried the merchandiser.

"Got a joint?" begged the personnel manager.

It was a small store, there were only four staff members, so for the purposes of this presentation two department managers were added to the cast.  They spoke their lines with no less enthusiasm than the others had, their lines drawing almost as big a reaction from the audience.  For some five more minutes the six paraded around reciting the litany of the times, a cacophony of "groovy," "far out," "out of sight man," "way out," and anything else anyone could ever recall having heard anybody on television say.

"Now we gonna say for you's," said the store manager, "we's all what they call hippies you know that, and we call ourselves 'Old Man Among Asses.  Get it?  It's a play on words.  Hippies: Old Man Among Asses.  Hip: Ass - get it?  Old Man Among Asses!"  The laughter was stupendous; there was the constant threat hanging over their heads of someone falling off his lawn mower, bowled over with laughter.  The Old Man motioned to someone a little ways off, with his hand; momentarily a flunky appeared carrying bongo drums, a guitar, tambourines and harmonicas.  Across his back, for the Old Man had him turn around to the audience, was in big letters the word "Flunky."  Everyone roared at the big, somewhat slow witted dock hand as he took his bow and left.  Now the song began.

"The old home town looks the same," they wailed, "as I step down from the train.  And there to meet me is my mama and papa."  A slow wail went up.  Then, as they got to the refrain, they began jumping around agitatedly so that by the time they reached the song's title they had primed the audience for their big finish.  At various points during the song, they touched hands to lips as if inhaling on a cigarette as they "touched" and finally as "they lay me down beneath...the green, green grass of home."  It was a riot.

"Get it?" everyone nudged his neighbor and chuckled, or giggled, or belly laughed.  "Get it - do you get it?  Grass: grass!  Now do you get it?"

Yes, now they got it.  Storewide Week was off to a great start.  The Old Man Among Asses took its bow amidst great applause and cheering and, as slow and slinky as they had come onto the scene, they left the scene.  And did everyone get that, too?  Yes, everyone got that too.

"You should have seen us," Stephen Hauser later that evening dangled before his wife all the marvels she had been so unfortunate as to miss this morning.  "We were terrific!  Oh daddy-o were we ever terrific!  Got ourselves all made up, like a pack of stupid hippies - you know: long hair, beads, signs that said 'Peace' and 'Love' and all that jerky stuff.  Man you should have seen the Old Man, Toni - was he ever done up great! looked just like a rock singer.  And we were a band, a real true to life rock group: 'Old Man Among Asses' we billed ourselves.  Oh - oh yeah, I almost forgot the best part.  After we came on, and just before we began our song, we had old Ernie - remember? I was telling you about him: the retard? about six foot three, maybe two hundred fifty pounds, and dumb as a stick - I mean, really dumb, almost like a true to life moron.  Anyway, we had him bring our instruments out to us.  And see, what he didn't know - now get this: we had a special shirt made up for him in the sign shop, and we asked him to wear it.  Only - and get this, get this! - only we told him it said 'Mr Cool' on the back, but we wouldn't let him see it.  So we conned him into wearing it, and we told him 'Now Ernie, when we give you the cue, you turn around to let everyone see what's written on the back of your shirt.'  And he did!  The dumb jerk did just as we said, only what he didn't know was it didn't say 'Mr Cool' like he thought it did: it said 'Flunky' on it!  Can you believe it?  It said 'Flunky.'  So here was this big dumb looking retard showing off like a God damned peacock thinking he was 'Mr Cool' when in fact he was 'Flunky.'  Man they roared - they roared!"

Stephen Hauser paused a moment as if to give his wife a chance to savor  the prank, then paused a while more, looking more puzzled with each passing second.  "Toni," he finally asked, "what's wrong?  Don't you feel well?  It ain't morning Toni, you can't have your morning - a, that is, your motion sickness.  Can you?"

"Oh it passed," Toni answered.  "For a moment I thought I'd be sick, but it passed."

"Yet," said Stephen, "it's like the man with colic once said: 'This too will pass.'  And so it will.  The Old Man: he'll pass.  The retard too.  So will I.  We'll all pass into one common cistern.  And the fine noble breath of heaven will deodorize all.  I guess it wasn't such a great time after all.  But it's what we do.  Toni, it's part of what it means to be a merchandiser.  To be a man on the move.  More like on the prowl, isn't it?"

Stephen got down on his knees and drew close to his wife.  "Toni, let me hear our baby.  Let me know something good's going to come of all this."  He listened.  "I don't hear nothing, Toni!" he said in some panic, "you don't suppose he's dead, do you?  Stillborn, even before he's born?"

"It's too soon, Stephen.  It's not time yet.  I'll let you know when it's time.  That's my job, Stephen, to let you know when it's time."

"You mean he hasn't started kicking around yet?"

"He probably doesn't have legs yet," said Toni.

"Who?  Him?  Our son not have legs?  You've got to be kidding, Toni.  I could never make no deformed kid, you know that.  How can you even think such a thing?"

"Stephen, he's barely two months old.  They don't really start to develop for awhile yet."

"Ah, that's where you're wrong!" Stephen exclaimed.  "I've seen pictures of babies that've been aborted, and they did too have legs, tiny little wobbly looking legs.  You know, that group that's against legalizing abortion: well, they have those pictures, they have them, don't you worry about that, they have them alright.  And those babies: they've got legs.  Even a little penis.  Though I don't know if I saw any testicles or not.  God, you don't think they have to castrate them when they abort them do you?  Maybe the forceps get caught - God, that's horrible, isn't it, Toni?"

"Cruelty?  Yes, Stephen, it's always horrible."

"Yeah," Stephen agreed rather absently, "me too."

Storewide Week was a success at Cumberland: not spectacular, as everyone had hoped, but a success.  Sales were up from last year's event, but only a climb, not a jump.

"We did well," the store manager emphasized to his fellow staff members at the weekly Thursday morning meeting.  "I don't want to minimize our effort, it was acceptable, and the results reflect it.  But just as clearly they reflect the absence of anything outstanding.  Now Hauser, as merchandiser, even though you're new, I'm holding you responsible for us not doing better.  I think you've got potential and I think you can do better, which is why I'm expecting you to do better come October.  Now last year's April Storewide Week was a full seventeen percent above the previous year.  This year we only hit twelve.  It's not enough.  Now October's last year was only eleven percent above the previous year; I expect at least fifteen percent above last year, come October.  And I'm looking to you Hauser to put us over the top, so to speak.  Can I count on you?"

"Yes sir, you sure can!" replied Stephen, with all manner of enthusiasm coating his words.

"Good man," the store manager praised him with almost as much enthusiasm.

The closer it got to July fourth, the more it became apparent that Stephen Hauser, store merchandiser at Cumberland, would not be able to  take the holiday off.  He was needed, the store manager informed him; in fact, they were all needed.  It was the biggest day of the year around these parts, especially if it rained.  Even if it did not rain, the big parade down Main Street would not begin till five, and the store always closed early the fourth, by six o'clock.  There would be air conditioners to sell;  there was scheduled to be a fantastic paint sale - every paint in stock was on sale, ranging from ten to twenty-five percent off, all brought into inventory at the sale price: Type 5 merchandise it was called, merchandise for which no markdown need be taken, in contrast to Type 2 or regular stock, charged into inventory at the regular price, and which may be marked up after the sale was over to the regular price: altogether a good piece of merchandise, Type 5, versatile and profitable; and there would of course be the usual mid-season replacement of worn out lawn mowers, tractors, and tillers.  All in all, July Fourth promised to be a day worthy of its venerable name.  A day also, when no one could afford to take a vacation, and, as the store manager made explicit, no one would.  No one.  So no one did.

It was hot, and it had gotten sticky, and it threatened rain.  No one really wished to be at work, even though the store was air conditioned, more or less, by an ancient unit sitting on the rooftop reaching its tentacle-like ducts in all directions and pouring down into the store air which fluctuated between ice cold and steamy, being on the average lukewarm.  Some parts of the store felt like a furnace, some like an ice box; nowhere did it feel comfortable.  No one failed to sigh whenever a customer mentioned the mountains; they seemed all to be pining to get to the mountains: The Great Smokey Mountains, where more or less everyone around here took their vacation.  Air conditioners went; it was not unusually hot, but air conditioners always went.  Freezers and refrigerators went.  Lawn mowers, tillers and tractors went, as did paint.  The paint especially kept everyone busy, the merchandiser and even the store manager having to help keep the stock coming from the warehouse in back to the sales floor.

"Paint is going to be the death of me some day," augured the store manager, "you just watch and see.  One of these days, when you've moved way up, to maybe regional vice-president - and that's not impossible, you know - you'll read in the Forward or else hear through the grapevine about old Jenkins the scourge of Cumberland being either run over by a paint truck or being drowned in a vat of the stuff - you mark my words, it'll happen!"  The "Forward" was the monthly newsletter put out by the store; it contained news of almost everything significant going on in the store hierarchy, plus personnel awards, and various personal items concerning the employees. It was in these pages, interspersed with reports of births, marriages and promotions, that one day the store manager of Cumberland predicted the appearance of his obituary.  Stephen tried to laugh off the suggestion.

"Don't worry," he assured the Old Man, "you'll outlive us all!"

July Fourth was a spectacular success, owning almost entire to the weather.  The rain forecasted made its appearance, no one could do anything, all - plans - picnics, tournaments, even the big parade - had to be cancelled or postponed, so they all went shopping, expectant and disappointed swimmers, sunbathers, athletes, marchers, cheerers, spectators: the whole town turned out at the stores.  Anything that was not bolted down was up for grabs, and most everything was sold; nothing the store really wanted to see sold remained.  Sales for that day were up forty-five percent over the previous year; it was phenomenal.  August's Forward had a smiling picture of Jenkins, the Old Man of Cumberland, very much alive, and doing very well judging by the report.  "Best July Fourth On Record!" the headline read, the report backing up that claim en toto; no other staff member was mentioned in the article.  By mid-August, just before Stephen was to begin his vacation, Jenkins the scourge of Cumberland received notification of his imminent promotion to a much bigger store, right in Chicago, the home office.  No one failed to congratulate him, and no one's congratulation was more enthusiastic than his merchandiser, Stephen Hauser.

The drive was long, but it was a vacation, so traveling became almost like an astral projection of one's soul out from one's body; under such conditions the soul wanders of its own volition and one is barely conscious of movement.  The car might sputter to a near standstill before one realized it needed gasoline, or the oil might burn away in a pale bluish emission, or the tires might wobble constantly, or any number of other telltale signs of wear appear on the automobile conveying the traveler, yet the traveler himself bears no outward signs of having covered any distance at all.  He might have just as easily been stepping from his car before leaving his own driveway to go check something.

They stayed at Gatlinburg, in Eastern Tennessee, crossing daily into Western North Carolina, down US 441.  They veered one day long enough to visit Tennessee's highest point, Clingman's Dome.  Mostly, though, they spent their days at Fontana Lake, North Carolina Route 28 taking them to within walking distance.  Below Fontana Dam were small stretches of beach: almost anyplace there was water, there was beach.  Some pine trees stood nearby at water's edge; one or two branches from dead trees which had been felled, probably by lightening, floated by.  Toni waded out to one branch, where the lake was shallow.  For a moment she held to it, then let it go on by.  She wondered if the tree had known what was hitting it, or if any sensibility trees might have had been dulled by the peaceful seclusion.  There has to be turmoil, she felt it impossible to deny, or else awareness of the outside world ceases.  But if the turmoil is too great, self-awareness ceases or death results in dead limbs floating downstream.  Why is it, she wondered, that everything even remotely encouraging is trite?  Is it because man has spent so much time trying to convince himself there is hope that he's stretched every proverb so tightly they all snap whenever anyone goes to touch them?  You can see right through them to the bottom.  The lake too is clear.  If you muddy your stream a little, maybe it isn't, as Nietzsche said, to make it appear deep but only to hide the bottom.  By the time you reach this far along, everything's trite.  One can only observe it a little.

In time, they had worked their way to a waterfall, not on the lake but on one of the streams, which fed into it, and not a big fall, only a trickle over a ledge and down a smooth obelisk like rock into a set of rocks which made the splashing, spraying water seem much greater than it really was.  The Hausers stood under the falls laughing and reaching up to meet the cascading water, as if they were models in a TV commercial; they reveled in the sensuous luxury a brief moment then moved on to let the next vacationers stand under it.  There were a lot of people on vacation, and it seemed as if everyone had the same wish to stand under the same waterfall.

"Just like the surf, huh Toni?" Stephen exclaimed as they were moving out from under the falls.  Toni smiled.  No, she said to herself, it's nothing like it.  You don't have to move aside, there are enough waves for everyone to have his own place to stand.  Except if you stay in your place too long, the undertoe'll pull the sand right out from under you and you'll keep sinking.  You have to keep moving no matter where you are.

"No rest for the weary," Toni said as they climbed down to the bed of the stream.

"You tired out already?" Stephen asked.  "Oh, wait a minute," he corrected himself, "I get it: it's just an expression, isn't it?"

"And a good one," Toni replied.

"Hey, you do like this vacation, don't you?" Stephen asked.  "I mean, I kind of planned it especially with you in mind, seeing how you love the water and all - even though it is a waterfall and not the ocean surf.  Bob told me about it, he and the missus come here on their vacation.  He's right too: it's a great place.  You can't beat it for being inland."

It was still very much with her, even if it did seem to be receding quickly, this memory - this Golden Age: their honeymoon.  A good memory, but a horrible standard.  It isn't fair perhaps to the present, she admitted, to judge it against some other moment, especially one by its very nature unrepeatable.  But then this can never truly be my vacation.  I would not have come here.  Can it be said to be Stephen's either?  What choice did he have?  No, it isn't our vacation, it's a retail vacation, determined by a store, arranged by them, and, yes, paid for by them.  We are their proxy, we stand-in for them because, unlike God, they cannot be everywhere at once.

"They are not omnipresent," Toni murmured.

"God damn the bastards!" Stephen exclaimed in reply to his wife's observation.  He picked up a pebble and hurled it, but evidently it hit someone.

"Ouch!" some kid deep in the woods cried.  "Mom!  A bee stung me!  It did, it just came out of nowhere and hit me!  And now I'm venomous.  Mom, you'll have to..."  The child's voice trailed off as he ran toward his family's tent in the woods, leaving the action his mother would now have to take indeterminate.

Stephen shrugged his shoulders.  "Who knew there'd be anyone around?  Christ, we just got through saying they weren't present, didn't we?  And now here some more of them go and turn up.  God, what a rip off - you know?  People everywhere.  God, don't they have anything better to do?"

They made love their last night in Gatlinburg.  In the middle of it their attention was caught by something moving around outside their cabin.

"It's a bear, I think," said Toni.

"Good man," said Stephen, his love making evidently re-arranging his wife's words a little.  He kissed Toni passionately, mumbled "He's just making his rounds," then kissed her again.  It had been a while since he exhibited this much passion.  Toni was concerned about the presence of a bear so near; an incredible thought flashed for an instant in her mind: that the bear might somehow perceive what was going on inside their bedroom and, in a rage, storm in and claw Stephen to bits and carry her off.  For that brief instant she experienced a terror greater than any she had ever felt; even so, she said nothing further, and made no effort to repel her husband.  She knew, because she knew him so well, how much this renewed passion meant to him and how desperate he had been to experience it again; so even under such a powerful if improbable threat as that posed by a ravenous bear, she did nothing to disrupt her husband's love making.  She responded as intensely as she could and, if when it was over, she felt very little physically, she was elated at the renewal it had given her husband.  She yearned to tell him this.  And she yearned to have him just once display an equal concern for her well-being.  I give him self-confidence, she thought, and he in return gives me a baby as his proof to his boss that he's a good investment.  For just one brief instant she half wished the bear had realized her fears, then she clutched at her belly, as if to protect the baby from such a thought.  She looked over and saw that Stephen was asleep.  Outside, the noise retreated; the bear had either found what it wanted or else given up looking.

The mountains, as the Hausers gradually descended on their journey home, seemed at every approaching turn about to display some grand magnificent panorama, something the approach only and vaguely hinted at, something deep and majestic, some incredible gash in the flow of mountains, as if one had been uprooted, through which would come pouring the golden rays of sunset; but the turn was made, each and every turn, and nothing augured appeared.  There was only the same unbroken chain of tree covered ridges; where it seemed a great gap would appear, framed by sheer cliffs on either side, there was only a tuck in the mountains where one folded almost behind the one trailing it, as if visualizing the cliché about going two steps backward for every step forward.  The mountains made such a progression look not only easy but inevitable.  But no, Toni thought, it isn't backward really, it's a side step, so you're not going into the past in losing those two steps, just like the mountain isn't folding in upon its predecessor, but to the side.  There is no right way to lose time or space, it never brings you out to a good moment or a good spot.  It's always somewhere new, but only new because you had never been there: something new to you but really old because it was going on while you were elsewhere.  It isn't your past, and that's what's so maddening: you can travel to the past, any past but your own.  Another cliché: you can't go home?  But I never said it before, how can it be a cliché?  Because others have said it, it can't be new even for those who have never said it?  Our lives terrace with others; somebody, somewhere gathers the harvest we weren't even aware of.  We're not paid even so much as sharecropper's wages.  We all sidestep each other, and while to us it looks like we've bumped, and sealed all intervening space, from the outside its clear, as it's clear once you've rounded the turn and see the Great Smokey's in true perspective, that there is space between us, space that can be worked toward or given yield.

"Stephen," Toni asked as they were descending the Great Smokey's, "they know exactly what to expect from us: did that ever occur to you?"

"Damn right it did!" replied Stephen almost angrily as he speeded up.  In a moment he slowed down a little and asked "Who?"

"Just them," said Toni.

"Oh!" he said and speeded up again.

Oh Cloris, Toni thought, you really had your work cut out for you if you've always fought the cliché.  It's almost everywhere; we're nearly saturated in it.  What in the world will people do at the end of time, when everything will have been said and done before, and written down, and they'll have the writing to prove it?  It isn't just that it's all happened before; that isn't so bad: it's that we know it.  That's what hurts.  We know there's nothing we can tell anyone or even think to ourselves that won't make us feel mediocre.  It almost makes you think it's cruel for a civilization to endure forever; if it disappeared, people would start over again, and it would all be fresh and new - and really would be fresh and new.  What will they do at the end of time if this goes on till then?  There can be no more art: everything will be banal and trite as art.  No more buildings.  No more clothes, or hair styles.  Or colors.  Or at any rate, there can be no content to anything, only the form.  It can't be good for people to have to hide their great discoveries as something which would only shame them if revealed.  How sad to come running with "guess what I've just figured out?" and carefully, excitedly reveal it, only to be told "Yes, we know, we've always known, it's already been figured out."  The day will come when there will be nothing more to be figured out, and that - that day - will be the end of all time.  But the imagination, the sense of awe, the curiosity, the pursuit of knowledge - the human spirit - will have already become extinct, from a thousand million people having to be told "It's already been done."  Is that Mr Frost's "Ice" I wonder?  "Some say the world will end in fire/some say ice...."  I, Mr Frost, tend to hold with those who favor ice.

Isn't that enough reason not to want to bring a new life into the world?  If he is only average, his discoveries will all have to be dismissed as "trite"; and if he's a genius, he will only formulate some one of the final few discoveries left to be made, and thereby cause some future genius who would have discovered it too to be dismissed as "born out of his time: too late to do any good."  Whose fate is worse: those born ahead of their time, whose discoveries were not understood, and who were perhaps burned at the stake for making them? or those born too late, whose discoveries will be common knowledge, and who will perhaps be charged with plagiarism?  Is knowledge more important than human existence?  Wouldn't it be better if knowledge could be left secret so that it could keep on being discovered?

"Oh who knows?" Toni exclaimed.  "Who knows?"

Stephen looked across the car seat at his wife and winked.  "The Shadow knows," he informed her cryptically.  "And," he added, "the President knows: certainly does if anyone does.  And the Chairman of the Board - of all the boards: they know.  And the General of the Army knows.  All the Old Men know.  Toni, they all know.  And someday when I get there, if I get there, I'll know."

"But know what?" Toni asked, suddenly grateful to her husband for having put her thoughts in perspective by showing her that not quite everything was known yet.

"I don't know!" he exclaimed.  "That's the God damn shittin' truth, pardon my French.  I don't know what it is they know that none of us can ever know.  That's why I want to get there.  Don't you see?  I'll be omniscient.  Toni: I'll be like God once I get to the top...if I ever do.  If I can do.  Can do.  Do-da-do-da-oh-do-da-day!"  He ended on a melody.

Along about the second week in August an old man was discovered wandering about in the store, first in one department then in another, and so on, right around the store.  "Can I help you?" everyone took turns asking the old gentleman, who mumbled some vague reply each time, usually the same reply.  He was very well dressed, but seemed a little feeble; his step was slow, but more the slowness of caution than of deliberation, and his hands shook every once in a while, and whenever they did he would slip them into his trouser pockets - but the back pockets, not the change pockets on the side, as most people seemed to do.  A whisper began behind his back and grew until it had filtered into every department.

"Who is that strange man?" everyone asked everyone else.

"Who was that masked man - I'd like to thank him!" quipped one of the Appliance salesmen, a very heavy set gentleman named Bill.  The quip was evidently in reference to the dark bags under the old gentleman's eyes which, when coupled with his bushy eyebrows stretching the span above the bridge of his nose, did rather produce the effect of a mask.  Everyone within earshot laughed.

"Me, I'd like to take him home with me and sit a spell, he's so doggone cute!" insisted the extremely buxom blonde who worked in the camera department.  Stephen Hauser, the store merchandiser, who just by chance happened to be browsing around the Camera display case, looked over and laughed.

"That offer good for anybody else?" he asked.

"Anybody over sixty," the lady said with a wink and a big grin.  "Specially," she went on to add, "if he's all gussied up like a sugar daddy the way that old cuss is!"

Still, the old man kept wandering, and the more he did the more it began to appear he was searching for something specific, yet not anything in the way of store merchandise; he kept glancing at every open stock door he came to.  Finally, Stephen expressed himself as wondering if perhaps the old gentleman was looking for the bathroom.

"I'd better go show him before he does it right in the middle of the floor," he told the camera lady.

"Tell him, honey," she replied, "he can do it in the middle of my floor any time his little old heart pleases!"

Just as Stephen was approaching the old gentleman, along came Jenkins the store manager, in the company of Bob the operating manager.  The old gentleman's face brightened up and he reached his hand out, but it began trembling so he stuck it in his back pocket.

"There you are," the old gentleman said.  "I've been looking for you."

"And there you are," echoed the store manager, "I've been expecting you.  What the devil kept you?"  The store manager had been standing unnoticed in the Paint Department stock room and had been watching the old gentleman the whole time.

The old gentleman grinned but said nothing.  Finally, he got his hand to take that of the store manager, at which happy occasion everyone in the store was summoned to come stand around.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the store manager announced, "allow me to introduce Mr Jensen, your new boss!  Right here, standing right in front of you, is my replacement, your new store manager."  Everyone kind of waved and said "Hi!"; the old man vaguely waved back and mumbled some sort of salutation, then quickly stuck both hands in his back pockets.  "Now this here," Jenkins, the departing store manager went on to quip, "is a real Old Man!"  Everyone laughed; Jensen the arriving store manager strained a bit in the direction of the man he was replacing as if waiting to have a joke he did not quite get explained to him; but as no one seemed about to offer such an explanation, he ceased straining and simply stood there with a slim little crescent of a grin on his face.  "Well," said Jenkins after a moment's stillness, "back to work.  You'll all get your chance to see the new Old Man in action soon enough, so begone with you's!"  He said it in a manner almost good natured, but with just a hint of warning lurking somewhere.  Everyone returned to his post.                    

"Life is a series of clustered images, young man," Jensen the new Old Man advised his merchandise, Stephen Hauser, when the flurry had all died down and the staff was conducting itself to the store manager's office.  "Yes sir," he went on to expound, half to himself, "it happens in clusters.  One day, you'll get, let's say, a military image, and everything you encounter that day clusters like a riff.  Then tomorrow something else, and everything seems to cluster around that.  Last Thursday - no," he corrected himself after a short reflection, "I mean to say Tuesday: it was belly buttons.  Yes sir, it was,  Everything seemed to be belly buttons.  First my little grandson came in with his all red from picking at it I guess.  We had to scold him and reassure him.  Then my nephew - that'd be my younger sister's boy - he's going on fifteen - well, sir, he comes in - oh," Jensen interrupted himself, "here we are, looks like.  This is my office?" he asked and was told it was.  "Ah," he replied.  "So he comes in," he went on with his story as he stood in the doorway, "and he asks me if he can ask me something real private, so I say yes, of course you can, you know you can, so he takes his shirt off and asks me if I think he should start wearing his pants real low down on his waist below his belly button.  Well, I had to think awhile - be right there!" he called to the departing Jenkins.  He ended his story here abruptly and went in.  "Oh yeah," he added, "later that same day I was taking a bath and noticed some wet lint in my own belly button.  You see what I mean?  Life comes to you clustered around a different image every day.  That's how it progresses.  A man's a fool if he goes around still looking for yesterday's belly button."  The old gentleman chuckled at his little quip, then he looked up and mumbled something about the man chuckling lightest who chuckles alone.  Then he was shown to his seat.  The next day the store was all his; Jenkins had moved on to his new assignment in Chicago.  Jensen officially became the Old Man.

"I've been with this company going on forty-five years," Jensen said one day at his weekly staff meeting.  "I've been everywhere," he explained.  "I've got a lot to show for it.  Certain things come only with experience.  Respect is one of them.  Yes sir, it's been a good life.  I fought in two wars.  I seen many a good man cut down.  Lots of wars for the young, always was.  Lot of trouble in Vietnam, don't you think?  Lot of trouble there.  I'd like to live long enough to see a store go up in Saigon, and one in Hanoi.  Yes sir I would.  Seems like only yesterday my little grandson was showing me his red belly button and pulling up his shirt to show off his muscles to the girls and now he's over there, way out there in Arlington somewhere.  Forty-five years I've been at it, and proud of every one of those forty years too."

It was all Stephen Hauser could do to restrain a laugh.  He covered it with a cough and his face was blood red from the strain.  "Sorry," he apologized, covering his mouth with his hand.  "Better get some water," he said.  "Excuse me," he said as he got up to go.  Outside the Old Man's office he burst out laughing.

"This guy's a jerk," he informed his wife that evening after work.  "You should hear him, the way he goes on about belly buttons - the man's got a thing for the omphalos, I'd say! - and all the time yapping about his grandson, or his nephew: hell, you can't tell which is which or if they're even different people!  A real jerk, Toni, I mean it.  He'll run this store clean into the ground.  In fact, I got to talking to one of our salesmen, Bill - he's been around and, man, he's got stories about anyone who's ever worked for the company.  Anyway, he says this guy's a real loser, screws up everywhere he goes, but he's got connections way up on the Board, if you know what I mean; so they just keep sending him from store to store every couple years hoping he won't run any one store completely into the ground.  You know what the jerk does?  First thing he does, every place he goes: he gives everyone a rose!  The man's a lunatic!  A real ass.  He's never made a real profit in his life, the best he ever does is break even.  And baby, I'm with Ayn Rand all the way on that one: the most obscene thing a man can say is he's never made a profit in his whole God damn life!  Man, I can't wait - I mean I can't wait - till Mobil buys us out!  It can't come too soon for me, let me tell you.  They'll know what to do with that old turkey - they'll put his ass out to pasture soon enough, don't worry about that!  Damn it Toni - damn it all!  Me with a kid on the way, and here I end up with this old buffoon!  Hell, there goes any chance for a bonus this year.  They say - and get this, Toni, get this: that tells you what kind of a fool we're dealing with! - they say he always divides his yearly bonus equally among his staff!  I mean, here's a man who's the Boss, and he don't take his half or two-thirds of his bonus, he splits it up evenly!  How can you reason with someone like that, Toni?  How can you deal with him?  Not that there's ever much of a bonus to split up anyway, 'cause there's not.  In fact, some years - get this! - some years he don't make any bonus whatever!  It's unreal Toni, it's like being trapped in a vacuum cleaner with a lint ball or something - yeah, a big lint ball that you can't pull out of your belly button!  It's just plain scary, Toni.  How did someone like that slip through?  I mean, Toni: if one could, maybe more could.  What if the whole God damn world ends up getting run by asses like that?  There won't be a safe place anywhere.  Don't worry though Toni, Mobil'll fix all that once they take over.  Just don't you worry.  There'll be food to put on our kid's high chair yet.  Gonna be lean for a while, but either I'll get out of here or else Mobil'll take over; either way we'll be saved."

Either way we'll be saved.  Toni thought it over, worked it like some kind of a dough, back and forth in her mind, first thinning it out then rolling it back into a ball, then spreading it out in another direction.  "A woman's symbols," she recalled having read some place, "should reflect the highlights of her life.  Cooking, for example, or house cleaning.  Where she lives, and how she lives, should circumscribe her expression.  She has a wealth of material at her disposal.  Quaint, and lovely.  Yes," the testimonial ended up conceding, "I enjoy being a girl."

- So ladies: roll that dough, tote that pail, stew that 'tater.  God bless you. -

Toni did not smile, but was herself enfolded in the soft half smile of night as the bedroom light was extinguished and the dark gathered about the rods - or was it the corneas? - of her eyes to absorb what traces of light still remained.  Always at the top hand corner of one's vision did the light linger, never at the center of darkness, to form an inverted crescent - a Happy Face little smile which seemed to pursue one on into bed.

Stephen was at her belly, listening for his child and feeling for tiny hands, deep under the covers.

"I hear it," he whispered.  Then "Shh," as if inviting his wife not to attempt to speak just yet.  Then he was alongside her, her body the full length of his, his breath in her ear.  "If you wan to," he whispered seductively, "you can hear my belly.  It won't be a baby, only the gurgle of indigestion.  Gas.  The heartache of gas burn.  Assburn.  Remember that, from when you were a kid, Toni?  Or maybe you never said it.  Whenever anyone would mention 'aspirin,' the kids always giggled and, behind the grown-ups' backs, whispered 'assburn,' and giggled some more.  Good old assburn.  Words were so much fun in those days, you know?  You never had to fool with what they meant, let alone worry over it; it was just having fun, and words were almost as much fun as anything, and you'd get to laughing, and maybe let off gas, then laugh all that much harder, then maybe end up peeing yourself.  Sometimes that wouldn't stop you; but it usually would.  Hey, I peed myself not long ago, didn't I?  I'd almost forgotten that.  Guess our kid'll be a bed wetter for sure, won't he?  So: want to listen?"

"Hey pop!" Stephen Hauser called to Mr Jensen, the new store manager, as he walked past the open door to his office.  Jensen looked up; evidently he did not see Stephen at first, so he looked to the right and to the left of his desk.

"Over here!" Stephen called.  This time he waved; Jensen smiled big and waved back.  "Hey pop," Stephen repeated himself, then, as he passed through the doorway, he asked teasingly "Poppy doppy - can I call you 'poppy-doppy.' poppy-doppy?"

"You already did," Jensen pointed out in a weary tone of voice which suggested the impossibility of preventing the thing from being done.

"So I did," Stephen agreed cheerfully.  "You got a minute?" he asked.  The Old Man looked at his watch.

"It's quarter to four," he informed Stephen, who looked at him slightly puzzled.  "You wanted to know the time?" Jensen asked meekly.

"Well, actually," Stephen explained, "Mr Jensen, sir, boss, sir, I wanted to know if it was er possible, that is, er sir," he mumbled and stumbled over his words like a browbeaten employee, though the look on his face was of a rather contradictory nature: God only knew which represented his true standing vis-a-vis his employer.  "That is," he continued, "if I can, sir, I'd like to have a word with you, sir.  Er."

Jensen smiled benignly and offered his merchandiser a chair.  "Just like my godson," he said with a chuckle.  "He was always so respectful when he had something private to ask me."

"Sir," Stephen interrupted, "if I may be so bold, sir, as to inquire: did he ever, sir, wish to confer with you on the state of his belly button?"

Jensen thought for a moment.  His bushy gray brows seemed well suited to capturing his thoughts and holding them for a time in the deep furrows between them.  Then he replied "Why yes, now that you mention it, he did.  I hadn't thought of that in years."

"And sir," Stephen went on the ask, "had he also fought in the war and ended up in Arlington National?"

"No," Jensen replied thoughtfully, "that was my mother's boy."

Stephen Hauser turned away and feigned a great attack of coughing to help hide his seemingly uncontrollable laughter.  Jensen asked repeatedly if his merchandiser would be alright.  Stephen replied that he would be alright, so long as his belly button did not give way.

"It's always been fragile," he managed to force between a fresh wave of laughter and coughing he tried to cover it up with.

"As an image, you mean, especially," the Old Man took the liberty to suggest.  Stephen nodded affirmatively.

"You were asking me about the time, weren't you?" the Old Man asked.

"In a way," Stephen replied.  He seemed to have regained control of himself.  "What I wanted to talk about was Storewide Week."  The Old Man looked puzzled.

"You don't have merchandise for it?" he asked.

"Oh yes, yes," Stephen assured him, "plenty.  It's the show I'm concerned about - you know: the Storewide Week show.  It's only a couple weeks away."

"You mean the October Storewide Week, don't you?" Jensen asked.  Stephen nodded.  "October," the Old Man reflected.  "When the frost is on the pumpkin," he recited.

"I'll tell you my idea for the Storewide Week show," Stephen interrupted the Old Man's reverie.  "I'm going to call it 'A Drag Show."  But it won't be about car racing.  See, what I was thinking was if we all dressed in drag - you know, in women's clothes.  You know: like a bunch of fags.  See, then -"

"I don't know about that," Jensen interrupted.  "I don't think it's right for a man to dress in a woman's clothes."  He thought a moment.  "No, it's just not right," he concluded.

"It's only for a gag," Stephen explained.  "See, all the great comedians do it.  You know: to poke fun at the fags and all, and get a good laugh."  The Old Man chuckled.  "Yeah," Stephen encouraged him, "that's it: just to get a laugh."  The Old Man repeated his chuckle.  "See, what I had in mind was this: we'd wear wigs, and high heels, and each one a dress, and carry handbags.  And we'd call ourselves 'The Sassy Cissies.'  And we'd come out and sing a song, and maybe swing our hips and dance around some.  You know, just for a laugh."  Again, the Old Man chuckled.

Everyone on the staff regretted the lack of space adequate to the scope of this fall's Storewide Week show.  They all maintained it to be the best, most original presentation they had ever worked on; and the Old Man assured them his experience with these presentations went back quite a ways - clear back to a time, he insisted with a wink, "when belly dancing was still the rage."

The stage was set, the staff had worked all morning getting it ready; an empty paint pallet was boxed in by one skid on each side, making an area roughly eight feet across by four feet deep.  Normally used to transport heavy goods from place to place within the store, the skids, as these flat cart-like things which were pulled by a detachable handle were called, were to serve this time to "transport the good people of Cumberland to the most sophisticated spots on earth, without them having to move a muscle."  This was how Stephen put it in the advertisement he had mimeographed and distributed to the employees.  Of course, the mimeograph machine was old, nearly worthless, so the advertisement came out distorted; it read something like "tra  p  t the goo  p op e o C mbe  nd to the m st sophi i ted  pot on  arth."  Nevertheless, everyone seemed content with the message; and everyone showed up the morning of the show.

A backdrop draped across a clothesline running from a display rack - or bay as they were called - in the Lawn and Garden Department to a bay in the Sporting Goods Department hung behind the stage; on it were the words "Thay fella!' and a wrist showing itself limp, its hand drooping like the stem of a withering flower.  Everyone laughed, and applauded when they saw it; everyone tried to scramble onto the precious few lawn mowers remaining, without much success for most.  A few people actually tumbled onto the floor, but no one seemed to be really hurt.  Somebody called their attention to the fact that "summer's over: you can stop mowing now!"  One or two laughed as they picked themselves up from the floor.  Eventually everyone got situated; most people ended up standing or at least leaning against whatever bays were available: as it turned out, those of the toy displays were in the process of being set up, so most everyone was accommodated.

Then it got real still.  For a moment no sound was heard, then all of a sudden the show began; the players sprang upon the stage from the middle of the backdrop, which had permitted them to sneak up, in stocking feet, undetected; and the audience burst into applause, raucous laughter, and wolf whistles.  Once on stage, the players slipped into their high heels and stepped to the front of the stage.  The stage shook slightly; the skids refused to stay perfectly still despite their wheels being braced and the trundle at the front giving added support.  Every time the players moved, the planks set on top the pallet to cover the gaps likewise moved.  It seemed precarious, but no one seemed concerned.  Up front, the players began their performance.  First Stephen introduced the group.

"Hi," he said in a voice which tried to lisp every letter it possibly could, "I'm Cissy, and these are my Sassy Asses.  We call ourselves The Sassy Cissies.  Say, by the way, is there a sailor in the house?"

Everyone roared.  Each of the Sassy Asses, in turn, were introduced and took a bow.

"And this old Queen," said Stephen alias Cissy, referring to Mr Jensen, the new store manager, "is little Fatima-Totta the foremost belly dancer alive!"  Jensen took his bow.  He wore a bleached blonde wig and a black lace and nylon two piece outfit.  Upon a cue from Stephen, he pulled up his blouse to show his belly, and did a few half hearted gyrations; then he took another bow, to an immense peal of applause.

"And now girls," said Stephen, "it's time for our grand finale.  Our big number.  What should it be, girls?"  Somebody in the audience shouted out "I Enjoy Being A Girl!"  Everyone else seconded that.  "There is Nothing Like A Dame!" another requested.  "Yeah!" they all said and began stomping their feet madly.  Whether it was the vibration or purely a coincidence no one could say, but as the audience was engaged in stomping their feet, one of the skids drifted off just enough to the side to spill one of the players onto the floor, about a foot and a half drop.  It was Jensen, the new store manager.  His wig flew off and his shirt flew up and he made quite a racket falling, but while everyone stood holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen, when he was finally helped back on stage, it was apparent he was relatively unhurt.  He seemed unaware of having lost his wig; and his face, even under the gaudy makeup, displayed an ashen white behind its frightened look.  Nevertheless, he rallied enough to insist that the show must go on.  Everyone cheered his courage.

"Now there's a real trooper!" someone said.

"Where?  Where?" Stephen took advantage of the comment to quip.  Everyone laughed.

"Now," said Stephen, for our finale.  A-one-and-a-two-and-a-go-down-on-my-shoe."  With this conductorial encouragement, the Sassy Cissies began their finale.

"The party's over," they sang, "it's time to take off your makeup," they each pulled out a little jar of cold cream and began smoothing it over their faces.  Fortunately, the Old Man's jar had not been broken in his falling.  By the time the song was over, almost all their makeup had been removed, so they took their bows and, with the thunderous standing ovation ringing in their ears, they paraded out to the tune and words of that great patriotic hymn "The Ballad of the Green Berets."  Everyone saluted their exit; everyone stood at attention; everyone was happy.

"Toni," Stephen Hauser announced to his wife that evening after work, "Toni, Toni, Toni you should have been there!  You would have seen us girls, we was the bestest - make that bethteth - little old group of fags anyone's ever laid eyes on!  And Toni - Toni! - you should have seen the Old Man!  It was a riot, Toni - a riot!  That old turd was made up to the hilt - to the hilt!  And - get this Toni, get this! - we even had him show his belly like he was a belly dancer or something!  See: sort of like this."  Stephen pulled his shirt from his trousers and tied it up above his belly.  "Just like that," he explained.  "Then he removed his shirt and gave it a toss; it landed in the waste basket, its sleeves hanging down the outside as if trying to keep from being sucked in."

"And then - oh yeah, get this Toni! - then the old fart slipped and fell!  Apparently one of the skids gave a lurch forward - that was our stage: two skids and a paint pallet covered with planks: we rolled the planks, Toni - anyway, one of the skids moved and - wham-o! - next thing I know there goes the Old Man down between the skid and the pallet!  It was all I could do to keep from laughing.  Then we all finished up and got out cold cream and took off our makeup.  Hey, I wonder what cold cream feels like on - hey!  I'm going to try it!  Ah shit, Toni I left my cold cream at work.  Hey!  You got any?"

"No," said Toni.

"Damn," said Stephen.  He had already unbuckled his belt and unzipped the fly of his trousers; he left them that way.  "I tell you, Toni: working there can make you stage struck!  Damn straight, girl, if I ain't getting to love the theater!  Hell, girl, all us faggies do, you know that."

Suddenly Stephen's entire face lit up and he burst out laughing and began clapping his hands wildly.  "Alright!" he cried out so passionately it made Toni move back as if she were afraid; she held her belly, as if instinctively.  "Alright!  Alright!" Stephen shouted again.  Then he ran across the living room to the record cabinet and began searching frantically.

"Oh what was that?" he said to himself.  "What was that?  What the hell was that?  Don't tell me, now don't tell me, it'll come to me.  That song you were playing last night.  Oh what the hell was that?  Had a real gorgeous broad on the cover, just the neck up though.  Something like Venus rising.  Botticelli.  Someone like that.  Ah where is it?  You know, that song by the German guy, that Nazi; or no, not a Nazi, but a transmission belt - yeah, that was it, that was what Ayn Rand called him: a transmission belt carrying that late great Hegelian dialectic and old Nietzsche's super man down into the twentieth century.  Oh hell, you know: what's that guy's name?  Vagner: that's it!  Old man Vagner.  With a W.  And he wrote a song about - ta da!" Stephen exclaimed at last as he finally discovered the record album he was searching for and with a great flourish pulled it from among the other albums to hold it triumphantly above his head.

"And now, ladies and gentlemen!  For your pleasure!" he announced.  "Ah! but first!" he added, "before we service your every need, your wildest fantasy, your deepest desire - first, we present, for your edification and your disgust, Stephen the Cissy fag Hauser doing his famous death defying striptease, while he sings in falsetto 'I enjoy being a girl!'"

Stephen sang; and while he did, he finished removing his clothes.  For a moment, standing naked in the middle of the living room, he looked as if he were about to cry; or at least, as if he were pleading with his wife for something.  His lips moved, and though no sound came forth, Toni read in his movements "Make me a man again."  Then, in a voice if only a whisper, he added one word: "Please."  Then he dashed toward the bedroom and was gone a few minutes.  When he returned, his face was again bright; and he was wearing a pair of his wife's pantyhose, while thrown across one shoulder was some kind of heavy satin looking material, an off white color.  The pantyhose were a medium beige, perhaps something one might call taupe; they reached halfway between his groin and his navel, and that far up only by being drawn as tightly as they could.  He took his satin from his shoulder and, whirling it its full width to reveal it a long flowing cape, the kind which might accompany a woman's formal evening gown, took a deep bow before his wife, who had sat down on the sofa, utterly exhausted.

"And now," he announced, his bow completed, "the show begins.  Ladies and gentlemen, boys and/or girls - or hermaphrodites, if that's your choice: we are now pleased to present, for your enormous, immense and spectacular excitement, pleasure, terror and delight, the greatest show on this planetoid or anywhere else in the universe.  Right here, on our stage, in glorious living coloreds and whites - and even an Injun and a Chink or two! - the show of shows, 'The Life and Times of Toni Hauser' staring the queen of queens, the king of kings, the ass of asses, the prick of pricks, Mister Lead Turd Nobody.  You've heard of Leadbelly?  Well, now meet Lead Turd."  Stephen took another bow.  "Thank you," he said.  "Choreographed by Toni Houser.  Directed by Toni Hauser.  Produced by Toni Hauser.  Edited by Toni Hauser.  Lighted by Toni Hauser.  And staring - the greatest actress of all time, Toni Hauser - but taking her part - in the role of Toni Hauser - her understudy - her husband - the late great Lead Turd Hauser!  Merci bien, si vous plait.  I do play.  You do play?  I do play.  With yourself Lead Turd?  Comme si, comme me.  Comme, comme, comme.  And here, ladies and gentlemen, in his brand new re-designed, latest Paris original creation wardrobe is the star of our show!"

Stephen Hauser took a third bow.  "Yes, ladies and gentlemen," he announced, "see him standing here, watching, and growing, and growing, with his little kazoozebar showing through his pantyhose where the home of the free and the land of the brave meets the blue of the sky and the crotch of the night and you can tell 'em I'll be there - but it can't get through.  Folks, watch the great feat as it struggles valiantly and madly and desperately to break through the walls of Hauser's hymen hose but can't, can't, can't.  Go back, kazoozebar, go back; back to where ye came from.  Back to where you came and came and came from.  There was a kazoozebar, who tried to travel far, but ended up in a jar, har har har-di-har-har!"

Stephen Hauser stood there grinning sheepishly.  His eyes were still bright, but most of the fire had receded from his other features, and his eyes seemed as much glazed as vibrant.  Toni felt a very deep pain inside her belly somewhere.  She wondered if it was possible to distinguish anguish from the beginnings of labor.  She felt for her baby, trying so foolishly to get born; and for her husband.  She tried to cry, but found it impossible.

"Oh God!" Stephen cried, then immediately followed the cry with the words "What a show!" in a much brighter voice.  But it pierced Toni's womb and shot up past her baby.  The "What a show" kicked more fiercely at the back of her womb than the "Oh God" did.  This is how a miscarriage would have felt, she mused in a dumb, almost terrifying stupor as her husband went on with the show.  For, as all - all - men know, it must go on.

"And in the audience, ladies and gentlemen," Stephen announced, "we have with us tonight a woman who et one or two many watermelon seeds.  Don't get up, missy, don't take a bow - let your protégé take it for you."  Stephen bowed.

"And now, he said at last, "one moment of silence for the late great lamented duck billed Platypus.  Let us all bow our heads and pray.  Dear God, we beseech you, let all the extinct animals smell their way back home.  Make them a trail out of the innards of your humble player.  Amen.  And now, without further ado, while we anxiously and insanely wait to begin talking about the first thing that pops up, if it ever does again, which it doesn't look like it will - meanwhile, ladies and germs: On With The Show!"

Stephen removed the record from the jacket, put it on the record player, and let it begin.  Another terrible pain tugged at his wife's belly, as if trying to get her attention away from the performance; but her eyes, and her entire concentration was focused only on the dreadful show covering her living room.

The music began.  Stephen Hauser threw his wife's cape around his shoulders and began moving, at first with small, careful steps, then gradually more frantically, faster paced, taking great strides which looked as if they would cause his groin to split.  He wandered the living room, one chair and rug and coffee and end table, nearly climbing lamps, disappearing behind the draperies then re-emerging at the window's other end; all the while searching, his hand visored over his eyes to depict the intensity of his search, while his other hand reached down inside the crotch of his pants.

"My dreams," he would say occasionally, "stalking my dreams."

"Stalking my dreams."

"My elusive dreams."

He wandered on, over magazines, and past bric-a-brac; and every new doily which rose up in the distance drew him on, ever on, toward its beckoning form.  But every one reached, was one more disillusionment, only reached to send him packing again, his cape drawn ever more tightly about him to shut out the gathering chill of unfulfilled dreams.

"Begone ye cursed dreams," he cried from time to time.  His audience was mesmerized by the slow, pulsating gyrations of his journey, sharp and dull pains, both, unfelt, unreal, the imminent birth of Toni Hauser's baby powerless to break the spell.  On his second - or second hundredth, or second thousandth, or second millionth - round, the wandering hero of The Life and Times of Toni Hauser failed to cut a corner close enough.  His foot caught the stand which held the record player, and jarred it, throwing the tone arm and needle somehow back across the record, skipping from the tail end of the Overture to the middle of the Bacchanal.  The spell was broken.

"Curses, curses!" Stephen cried.  He ran to the phonograph and, with his hand trembling so hard he could scarcely lift up the tone arm and set it down again where he wanted it, finally managed to restore his place at the end of the Overture.  Trembling from head to toe he hurried across the room, his movements so awkward he almost appeared to be skipping or prancing, and, just as the final strains sounded, he fell into Toni's arms and then to her feet, crying out "It is consummated.  I am done."  And he closed his eyes in death, only to open them again abruptly in terror.  His wife had cried out.

"It's time!" she cried.  "Oh God: it's time!  It's time!"

On various occasions, Stephen Hauser had informed his wife that he had a fairly good idea how to go about preparing for the "crisis of labor," as he had called it.  According to him, one always had a suitcase ready, though whether it was packed or not was optional; the main thing was to have the suitcase someplace readily available, such as under the bed or in the closet, preferably next to one's traveling shoes.  Next in importance was to have have the items one would need together in a separate place so they could be gotten at "with all dispatch," as he put it.  Now came the test.

"Get out of there you bastard!" Stephen cried.  The suitcase had gotten lodged against a leg of the bed.  Finally it was freed, pulled out, thrown onto the bed and opened.  Stephen took a tissue and went over its interior, as if it had gotten dust inside; then he got his wife's items and put them in, slowly, deliberately, smoothing each piece out and, with a faint grin on his face, humming some combination of tunes.

"Stephen," Toni could not help quipping, "he won't be born in there; probably we won't be putting him in there at all for a while."  Her belly hurt, and under its pressure she found herself laughing almost wildly at her own quip, or at her husband's almost comic performance: his going around still in her pantyhose getting everything ready for the birth of his child, or at just anything - laughing, and feeling painfully stupid for doing so.

Finally Stephen had everything ready and he took her arm to lead her away to the hospital.  Another sharp pain took hold of her belly, but was quickly subdued by another burst of hysterical laughter, a laughter so powerful it knocked her off her feet onto the sofa.  All she could do was point at her husband: he still had on only her pantyhose.  He made a face almost like he would burst out crying and ran off to put a pair of trousers over his outfit and throw on a plaid flannel shirt which he did not take the time to tuck in.  Toni had stopped laughing and sat there, angry at herself, wishing to God her baby would kick her or something.

"I'm sorry," she begged, then she burst out crying.  All the way to the hospital she kept repeating "I'm sorry I laughed," over and over, till finally Stephen laughed and took her hand and pressed it to his lips.

"I love you," he whispered into her cupped palm; and she felt his breath.  It soothed her, and when the next pain hit she barely noticed it, her whole being concentrated upon the faint tickle of Stephen's breath reverberating against her palm, as he breathed in and out as if taking oxygen from a bag.  At last they were there, and she could give birth properly.  Toni shut her eyes as she as wheeled into the delivery room; Stephen leaned back against the wall outside the room and shut his eyes.

"This way please," he was told by a nurse.  At first he seemed not to comprehend; he just stared.  So once more he was instructed to leave this area and go to the waiting room.  Wandering down the corridor, he peeked in every doorway that was open and asked, of no one in particular, "Here?," until he came to the right place and went in.  The only other person there was an old woman; she too had on a flannel shirt, the tails draping over a skirt.  She smiled at Stephen as he took a seat opposite her.

"Your first?" she asked.  Stephen nodded that it was.  "I thought so," she said.

"Why would you think that?" Stephen asked.

She pointed to his feet.  "No shoes," she noted.

"Who don't have on shoes?" Stephen started to ask but, glancing down, interrupted himself.  "Oh," he said.

"You got somebody being operated on?" Stephen asked after trying first to read some magazines.

The old woman nodded that she did not.  "My granddaughter," she explained.

"What about her?"

"She's having a baby."

"Jesus Christ!" Stephen exclaimed.  "Isn't that a little young?  A granddaughter?  Where's her husband?"

The old woman smiled.  "She has none," she explained.  "Her mama was thinking about an abortion for her, but I talked against it.  Not that I'm against it, but I talked against it."

"Why?" asked Stephen.

"Just the perverseness of human nature, I guess," the woman replied.  "We've always seemed to do things mainly out of impulse, my husband and me.  He left the other day; he just took off and left.  Said 'I'll see you when I see you' and left.  Don't know why he did or nothing.  Said he liked it here, as good as anyplace.  We've been here a week.  Colorado: that's where we came from.  You ever been there?"

Stephen nodded that he had not.

"Most beautiful spot on this earth, I think.  Me and him both thought it was.  The day we first saw it, forty years ago; and the day we last saw it, a week ago.  We were from around the East, you know: along about New Jersey.  Had a little truck farm.  One day we got in the car, as I recall it was to get a fly swatter uptown.  We just kept going; neither of us said a word.  Neither did our two kids in the back seat.  I happened to think of the bathroom light; I'd left it on, but try as I might I couldn't remember why I left it on.  I never said a word about it.  We only stopped to eat and to go to the bathroom; but none of us said a thing.  About three days, I guess it was, we came upon the Rockies.  Near Denver.  We couldn't none of us believe there could ever be anything so beautiful; and we all said so, and those I think were the first words any of us spoke since we left home.  I won't describe it to you because I can't.  But it was beautiful alright.  We stayed.  He parked the car in the driveway to a little house that had a for sale sign on it, and we managed to buy it, and lay in a mortgage.  Forty years we were there.  And not once in all those years did we tire of it either.  The beauty never waned; we never got so used to it we didn't relish the sight of it each new day.  We could have gone on easily another forty years.  You never tire of beauty.  Last week though we all just up and left.  Same way we came.  Started out for something.  Jar of honey I think.  And just kept going.  We just all decided we'd stayed long enough.  It never - it didn't enrich our live for all its beauty.  We none of us spoke a word on the way here.  Not that we knew it was here we were headed.  We were just going.  My granddaughter began having cramps in her belly so we decided we'd gone far enough.  We pulled up the first driveway we saw a for sale sign.  We got us a lease, mortgage pending.  We moved in.  We were there two days when he up and leaves, set out walking.  This here's his shirt.  Kind of a chill in the air; I thought it'd be warm, but it isn't.  Flannel's supposed to keep you warm, but this one don't.  Maybe the colors are off or something.  Now I'm just waiting to pick up and go home.  The baby's been born and already died.  They saw she took one gasp and that was all.  They want to keep my granddaughter a couple days more; I guess that's the right thing.  I think my husband headed for Florida but I can't swear to it.  I'll stick around here awhile I guess. Maybe sell the car.  Then, I don't know; I might set out to hitchhiking somewhere.  I wouldn't mind getting back to the sea.  Oh, not New Jersey; but somewhere with a coastline.  Maybe Texas.  I wouldn't mind living to see a hurricane sometime along the Gulf Coast maybe.  Two hundred mile an hour winds.  Take you clean out of this world.  Well," the old woman said, indicating the door with a nod of her head, "looks like you're a papa.  God help you.  Me, I guess, I'll hang around here a minute more then I'll hit the road.  Good luck to you, young man.  And if you ever get to Colorado...."

The old woman did not finish; she was stopped in mid-sentence by the awakening of Stephen Randall Hauser Junior, whose birth elicited a hearty yell from him, which was taken up by the delivering physician in the form of a "Bravo!," was echoed by the nurse who assisted in the delivery, was taken by yet a third nurse from the delivery room and passed on to the receptionist, who broke in just as the old woman was speaking, with a "Congratulations, Mr Hauser, your wife just gave birth to a six pound two ounce baby boy!"  Stephen yelled for joy at the good news.

"Ya-hoo!" he cried, and cried it twice more then ran out of the room asking excitedly "Can I see him?  Now, can I see him?  When can I see him?  Is he alive?  Does he have moving parts?  Interchangeable?  Huh?  Where is he?  What'd you do with him?  Is he circumcised yet?  You'll be careful won't you?  Don't want him to cry high pitched, do you?  Who does he favor?  Does he have a hare lip?  Huh?  What's the matter, Toots, cat got your tongue - huh?  And what's a cat doing in the delivery room anyway?  Is he sexy?  Like his old man?  A real hunk?  Huh?  Want to see me flex my muscles - I'll do a hand stand if you want - do you want me to?  You should see my belly muscles - man oh man do they ripple!  But hell, when you should really have seen 'em was a couple years ago!  Even longer.  In college.  I was on all the teams.  And I even was in the class play in high school.  And I modeled for the art class too, did you know that?  I did.  In the nude too!  Wow you should have seen me then.  Man oh man what a hunk I was.  And I mean I had all the girls that were fit to look at too - and even some who weren't!  What a life.  Man oh man.  That kid don't know what's in store for him, but if he - if he did, I guarantee you one thing: you wouldn't have no trouble circumcising him, I can tell you that.  Not if he takes after his old man you wouldn't!"

Stephen Hauser grew calmer by the time he was admitted to his wife's chamber to look - just look, and just for a moment, but don't touch, not yet, just look - at his son.  He smiled, and for an instant his eyes started to water; then it was time to leave.  His wife needed her rest.  Stephen ought to go home now; he would be summoned when it was time for his wife and son to come home.  And he could visit, during regular visiting hours, until that time.  He could come and say hello to his wife and look at his son; then he could go; then come again; then go; then, on the third day, he could return one final time. 

He threw a rock at his wife's window the first night, but missed and only hit the side of the building; he stood for a moment, trembling, then ran to his car and sped away.  He spat up at the window the second night when visiting hours were over and he had to leave.

"Good bye," everyone at the hospital waved to baby Stephen, as his father, the third day, took hold of the boy's hand to wave back at them.

"Good bye," Stephen Hauser Senior said in a baby's voice.  And the family was gone.

"How old should he be before we start setting rules for him?" Stephen posited early the third morning after bringing his family home.  "Or should we delay it at all?" he added.  The tone of his voice did not specify a response from his wife; rather, he seemed to be simply thinking out loud.  "I'll have to really think about it, won't I?" he mused.  "I've got to set up a regimen of proper discipline that goes without saying of course.  It won't be easy for you following through with it, but we owe it to our son.  It'll take a good bit of discipline on your part too, but I think you'll show your true colors.  You'll come through for me, I just know you will - just like you did having my child in the first place!"

"I had your child in Memphis," Toni began singing.  "You heard of work in Nashville.  We didn't find it there so we moved on."

"That's that song you like so much, isn't it?" Stephen asked.  "What the hell's it called?  Now don't tell me, I'll get it.  It's right on the tip of my tongue.  Oh, what is that?  Something about schemes - inclusive: my inclusive schemes.  Well, who cares, it's a stupid song anyway.  Sentimental mush.  It could only appeal to a woman - no offense of course.  Anyway, you're not really a woman any longer, you've progressed: now you're a Mother.  Higher even than a Wife.  My wife - but someone else's mother.  The highest thing you have in you to be...you give to a stranger, a kid you've never even seen before.  And I'm left behind.  Hey," he reassured his wife, "I'm only teasing, you know that!  Don't you?"

Toni Hauser, Woman alias Wife alias Mother, still a bit shaky after her recent apotheosis, nodded that yes, she knew that he was only teasing, while in her heart something truer to her own self read in her husband's look and in the intensity of his voice that no, he was anything but teasing her; and this split in what her head reported and what her heart actually saw made her cry.

"Ah," said Stephen with great tenderness, "I've gone and made you cry.  But it's true: you are a Mother now, you're not just dreaming it: you really and truly and actually are a Mother - a real, live, honest to Goodness Mother!  You're lucky babe: at twenty-four you've achieved everything the world expects of you.  The rest is down hill, you can just sit back and coast.  And leave the driving to your old man!"

At work, it was cigars for the gents, candy for the ladies.  Stephen took off a couple days when his wife and child came home, to, as he put it, "help the little woman out when she needs her man most.  The time off was granted without contest.

"I love my work, and oh you kid and all that," Stephen had informed Mr Jensen, the store manager, "but my family comes first.  That's just the way I am.  Hell, you know what I mean: you're a family man yourself."

At first a surprised look came over the Old Man's face; then he grinned big.  "Family man myself," he mused.  "The extended family," he further mused.  "Nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins -"

"Belly buttons," Stephen interrupted to add, his tone of voice making the additional item seem a perfectly natural extension of the Old Man's train of thought.

"Belly buttons," the Old Man picked up Stephen's additive to insert into his chain of relations.  "Ah, you make me think of my little third cousin, that'd be my aunt's son's grandson, you see.  He once tucked a firecracker in his belly button.  Or am I confusing that with something else, I wonder?  Maybe I just read about it and it was someone else's little third cousin.  It's so sad though when they do something like that, isn't it?  People don't seem to know what goes where or what it's for, do they?"

"Cigars - cigarettes - candy - ju ju bees!" hounded Stephen Hauser on his return to work.  After presenting a cigar to each of the staff members, he began making the rounds throughout the store, stopping first at the camera department to offer the buxom blonde her choice of his wares.  "And if you don't find what you're looking for there," he said with a sly wink, "we can go in the stockroom and look elsewhere!"

"This'll do me fine, honey!" she replied as she extracted a mint frappe from his box of candies.

"You like the taste of candies?" Stephen asked.

"Sure do," the blonde answered.

"You like the taste of...a lot of things?" he asked.

"Long as it's fresh," she explained, adding as a disclaimer, "and new, and innocent, and I do like the taste of cherries - got any?"

Stephen did not reply; instead he began examining a camera in great detail.  "Person could get some good nude shots with this one, couldn't they?" he mused.

"For those who like nudes," the blonde salesgirl said.

"I'm said to cast a pretty good figure," Stephen pointed out.

"Excuse me, honey," the salesgirl apologized, "I got me a real, live, honest to goodness paying customer over there I'd better go wait on."

On his hand was a bandage, under the bandage a red mark where he had burned himself on his son's formula.  It began to throb and hurt him.  "Son of a bitch that hurts!" he cried to Bill, the Appliance salesman.  "Feels like I'd been bitten."

"Well," said Bill, "a bite and a burn's similar, so they should feel the same."

"You're right.  Hey!" Stephen exclaimed.  "I bet we can work that up into a joke or something and go spring it on the Old Man.  Yeah, I bet so.  And throw in something about a belly button too, just to twist the needle a little.  Let's see now.  Got any ideas?"

Bill thought and thought: this much was evident because he scratched his head; and when he arrived at a workable joke it was clear still that much thought had gone into making it.  "How's this sound?" he asked.  He tried several makeshift jokes, Stephen scratched his head and grimaced several times; then an idea hit Bill.  "Hey!" he cried, "I've got it.  You want to play a trick on the Old Man?" he asked.  Stephen nodded eagerly.  "Okay then, here's what we do: we make up a non joke; you know: something that can't possibly be funny.  Then we go tell it to the Old Man.  Only here's the catch: we get maybe several guys in on it, and when I tell it, all the rest of you burst out laughing like it is the funniest God damn thing you've ever heard in your lived!  How's that grab you?"

Stephen burst out laughing.  "Perfect!" he nearly shrieked.  "Perfect!  Perfect!  Oh God yes!  Perfect!  Perfect!  Purr fict!"

At the appropriate time, when Jensen was making his rounds, Bill signaled to Stephen, who in turn rounded up several department managers to casually just happen to congregate in the Appliance Department.  They had all just gotten their second raises since Jensen had taken over the store management, so they made that the pretext for their having gathered.  When Jensen came into the department, Stephen mentioned to him how much they all appreciated the raises.  Jensen smiled, as if he were the one grateful.  Then Bill walked up.

"Got a joke for you gentlemen," Bill announced in his soft spoken voice.  Everyone gathered around him eagerly.  He looked around.  "No ladies around, are there?" he added cautiously.  He was assured there were none.  "Good," he said.  

"Okay now," he began.  "Man walks into a bar, pulls his pants down, says to the barmaid 'Bite me!'  So she does.  He pulls his pants up and leaves.  Goes into a second bar.  Pulls his pants down again.  Lights a cigarette, gives it to the barmaid, turns around to moon her, says 'Burn me!'  So she does.  Pulls up his pants and leaves.  Walks on down the road, twitching in his pants, don't know which to scratch:  his front or his back.  Goes into a third bar.  This time, instead of pulling his pants down, he lifts his shirt up, runs as hard as he can into the bar, falls down, twitches, gets up again, says to the barmaid 'Honey, I don't know which hurts worse: a bite or a burn or a belly up to the bar boys!"

Everyone roared.  Everyone simply roared.  It appeared they had never heard anything so funny in all their lives.  It seemed they all might very well fall down dead laughing, right there in the tri-numerated Appliance Department, where 69 followed 68 but jumped to 85: 68 was ranges, 69 refrigerators, 85 washers.  It would have taken a janitor of great fortitude to have swept up after that; but fortunately they did not die nor did their sides split open, as also seemed a possibility.  Everyone managed to survive.  The Old Man laughed moderately, more a chuckle than an actual laugh.

"You know boys," he said when they had quieted down, "I think I've heard that one before."  With this, he resumed his walk through the store.  Everyone puzzled over his observation, but only after a round of laughter the minute he was finally out of earshot.

"What a jerk!" they all agreed.  "He's heard it before!  What a fool!"  Some more laughter followed, then it eased up; and when it did, everyone seemed left with a look not of amusement, but of puzzlement.  "Why did he say that?" they wondered aloud.  "What do you suppose he meant?  That old turd: do you suppose he was trying to put us down?"

"Put us on, not down," it was pointed out it should be.

"Nah, he's too dumb," it was concluded.  To seal the conclusion they broke into another round of laughter.  Stephen Hauser the store merchandiser pulled his shirt up and feigned running into the protruding edge of a dishwasher.

"Belly up to the bar boys!" he said.  Once again, everyone laughed.

"Oh, by the way, Stephen," said an old man's voice from out of nowhere.  Evidently Jensen had circled around in his wanderings and happened upon the group again; the sound of his voice, whether because of the suddenness or perhaps some other quality, made Stephen jump.  "I want to see you tomorrow morning first thing," Jensen finished his statement and walked on.  Stephen tucked in his shirt and hurried on back to work.  A faint tinkle of garbled laughter, high pitched from being suppressed, trailed after him from the Appliance Department.

"What the hell can the old turd want anyway, God damn him?" Stephen asked Bob, the operating manager.

"I don't know, Steve, he doesn't confide in me," Bob replied.  "You're his favorite.  Not me."

"I guess it's nothing," Stephen concluded.  "Hey, by the way: how's old fatso Bill been doing lately?  His sales up? down? the same? what?"

Bob looked at him and shook his head.  "You should know, you're his boss.  Besides, you shouldn't have to ask: he's Bill, he's been around since day one, knows every possible trick there is to know, he can sell anyone anything, he's led the company - not just this district, or this region, but the company - in sales every year since '52, when he joined the company.  If you're looking for fat to trim from your payroll, Steve, I think you'd better look elsewhere."

"I'm just making conversation, man!  For Christ's sake!" Stephen said in a whining sort of tone.

"What does that old turd want, God damn it!" Stephen exclaimed to his wife before supper that evening.  "He wants to see me first thing tomorrow morning - what the God damn hell for?  I wish somebody'd stick a live grenade down that old turkey's pants!  He does nothing but go around sneaking up on people to see what they're saying.  I guess the old bastard's paranoid, thinks we're plotting to castrate him or something!  Shit, who'd waste their time.  So, anyway, now that I got the stink of work off my chest, how's my favorite little wife?"  Toni Hauser said she was fine.  "Good," said her husband, "that's what we like to hear.  And the kid?  Asleep?"  Toni said yes, he was.  "Oh," said Stephen.  "Well, I'll go clean up.  What's for supper?  Sure smells good, don't it?"

Toni looked up.  "Life under glass," she said, then returned to her work.

An odd look came over Stephen's face.  "Life under glass?" he muttered abstractly.  "Hey, you ever heard a joke about a man who - no, I guess not," Stephen answered his own question and went to clean up.

It was life that Toni Hauser claimed to be serving up for her husband this evening; but it was under glass.  He can see everything that way, she thought as she emptied first one then another saucepan of its contents: all of it, right before him.  He won't have to wonder what's cooking, ever.  He'll have no doubts, no hesitation, no anxieties.  Only a little wife and a little child, like miniatures which when he manipulates convince him he's the master of his destiny.  A man's not a man till he's mated; and when he has the proof, and perhaps without a child they're never entirely sure of him, he can begin his climb.  Oh he can begin anytime, and even with their blessings - so long as there's at least a child implicit in him; but without a menagerie in his loins to manage, he goes it alone, without their help.  It's not enough to be a stud - it isn't a sexual man they want: it's a social man.  When they ask for proof of his manhood, they're asking not about his sexuality but about his role.  Sexual identity be damned, it's the provider they're after, the gatherer, the hunter: not his maleness, but his manhood.  But no, they say, it's his nature which makes him so different from a woman, it's what's between his legs - but what's between his legs be damned it's what's between his ears they're after.  Not his...Toni Hauser smiled...not his kazoozibar, but his ideas, his sense and notion of self-identity, his understanding of his role.  He could dangle cardboard, his maleness could be polystyrene, inter-changeable, removable, detachable, he could hang it on a hook at night or soak it in brine for all they care.  It's what he's been taught to believe about himself and about his place in life and about life itself - it's how he sees things that they care about.  That's the man, the essential man; that's what and that's all they mean by the term.  What side does he button his coat on: that's the be all and the end all, that's what separates the men from everyone else, that's the essence of his manhood.  And so long as he can be taught and can remember to button from left to right instead of right to left, manliness shall ever remain the driving impetus of human civilization.  Almost religious, isn't it?

"Almost religious," Toni mumbled as she finished carving the goose for Stephen Hauser's dinner.

"Amen to that," said Stephen solemnly as he approached the table for his dinner.

"I've got good news and bad news," Jensen the store manager informed Stephen the first thing next morning.

"Ah, how nice," Stephen observed a little sarcastically.

"I'm leaving," Jensen told his merchandiser.  "Now for the good news," he added after a slight pause.  He chuckled once.  "You're leaving too," he said.

"Who's leaving?" asked Stephen.  "Not me, baby!"

"Yes, you."

"No way!"

"Yes,  the Old Man persisted, "there is a way.  But you're a doubting Thomas I see.  Just like my cousin's boy.  He couldn't believe he actually got accepted in the Green Berets.  Couldn't believe it when he actually got to go over and fight.  Couldn't believe it when the enemy charged him with war crimes.  He's still over there I think.  You know: sometimes I'm the one who can't quite believe it.  Anyway, you are definitely leaving.  Heading north.  All the way to the Erie, Pennsylvania store.  Bigger than this one.  Mid-size store.  Grosses about five million.  Pretty nice store as I recall.  You're to be the new A&B Merchandiser.  You know: you'll need A&B, and Operations too before you can be a store manager.  Good opportunity for you.  Happened real quick.  A&B merchandiser up there lost his mind.  Just like that - something the matter?" he asked Stephen.

"No, why should there be?" Stephen said in a defensive tone of voice.

"Just an odd look you had a minute back.  Anyway, he just cracked.  Just last week - at the Storewide Week Show.  Took his clothes off, right there in front of the whole store.  Performed an obscene act right there on stage.  I guess they had a stage.  Next time we do a Storewide Week Show here we ought to use a stage - don't you think?  Then when he got done he let out a scream and took off running, went right through a plate glass window.  Cut himself awful.  Slit his belly open.  Took, I don't know, maybe two hundred stitches.  It'll be awhile before he's back at work.  Never will as a manager, of course.  It's sad.  His name was Pete, I think."  The Old Man chuckled.  "Maybe that's who they mean when they talk about 'Sneaky Pete.'  I guess his name will continue to be Pete.  Your name is the last thing you lose, and you don't lose that till your gravestone crumbles.  Actually I was kidding a little bit: my leavings not all that bad.  I'll be going back east.  Rocky Mountain state.  North Carolina.  Beautiful country; well, so's this, but it's nearer Arlington back there.  I can visit my grandson's grave from time to time.  His cousin too, I think: seems to me his cousin's there too.  I looked once.  I thought, well, since they were related their graves would be nearby.  Don't know where he is.  My half sister's boy, that would be.  Death and taxes.  So patriotic, all my family.  Now I can't even locate some of them.  But they did what they were told; took their orders.  Little sealed envelope.  They went to Fort Bragg, I think: it's at Fayetteville, North Carolina.  I always kind of made a little joke of it: Fateville, I always called it.  They were good boys.  I forget what they died of sometimes.  Must be getting old.  Anyway, you'll be going next month.  Hate to lose a good man with Christmas coming up, then inventory, but...fate calls."  The Old Man chuckled.  "Meow," he said, and chuckled again.  "That's the kind of call fate gives you: a catcall.  Good luck, Pete, you'll need it."

Stephen Hauser had the appearance of a man shaken to the very core of his being as he got up and left the Old Man's office.  He let the door slam behind him, or caused it to: one or the other; it would have been hard for an observer to tell which.  And there were two observers: the telephone operator and Bob the Operating Manager; one swore Stephen had purposely slammed the door, the other insisted it slammed of its own weight, volition, impetus and so on.  Had they fought a war over it, they still would not know which: the smoke would have cleared, the rubble and debris been revealed, but neither a door nor an answer found anywhere.  And wars, it appears, have been waged over matters of far less import.

Storewide Week was a huge flop; some inherent contradiction in life between being generous and being successful seemed to have entered unseen into the store, the plans, the big sales of the tiny Cumberland store to make a disaster of it.  The Old Man expressed surprise, but at the same time confessed that the drop in sales, in place of an anticipated gain, seemed to fit an overall pattern he had noticed for sometime; but he could not quite put his finger on the problem.  By mid November, Stephen Hauser was gone from Cumberland, Maryland, headed, with his wife and month old son, to Erie, Pennsylvania to replace Pete, the mad A&B merchandiser.  It was raining heavily when they left their house, and it rained the entire trip northward.  Toni swore she had heard thunder deep in the night before they left; but Stephen dismissed her assurance with a warm, loving smile reinforced by a good natured remark about the fancies of a woman's imagination.                    

"No woman likes to up and leave her home," he reminded Toni.  "Of course she imagines she sees all manner of terrible things going on all around her.  It's only natural.  Women are stationary beings, that's why we men love 'em so, everybody knows that.  Just like little pipsqueak there: he wheezes once or twice and you think he's got pneumonia or something: that's because you're a mother, and it's right you should overreact, otherwise your hubby won't have anything to moderate, he won't be able to strike a balance between hysteria and the impersonality of the world.  A man's gotta see both sides: the cold, rational, indifferent side and the over concerned, irrational, sentimental side.  That's how he discovers the right thing to do; that's why a man's an acting being, a moving being.  He doesn't scream and shout, he doesn't stick his nose in the air - he does, he acts, he moves.  And that's how things get done."

Baby Stephen, as if to underscore his daddy's remarks, or to second them, orchestrated a sort of movement of his own.  The car had to be stopped at the first opportunity and the little pipsqueak ushered off to the ladies' room with his mother to be changed.  A canopy over the gas pumps of the service station provided cover from the rain as Toni made for the restroom.

"Pee-u!" Stephen told the attendant at the Wayside Gasortium as he put down the windows to air out his car.  "Great kid on the outside," he said, "but look out for the insides!"

"Yeah," the attendant agreed, "know what you mean."

"You know," Stephen said to his wife when they resumed their journey, "I'm really glad to be getting out of that store.  'Cause that jerky Old Man all but ruined it for me.  You screw up Storewide Week and man they don't ever forget - or forgive.  Least that's how I see it.  But with me gone, the flack's gonna fall on someone else.  I can let on like I wasn't even there.  Yes siree, I want to get as much distance as I can between me and that old turd!  The bastard's a jinx.  I want to get someplace where there's some real - real - hot shot, super duper, gung ho, go getter store manager!  Not some dried up old turd."

At various points Stephen Hauser had to pull off the road, the rain was driving so fiercely his wipers could not keep the windshield clear.  Usually the other cars were likewise pulled off to the side, but occasionally someone would keep on going.  "Look at that jerk!" Stephen would say.  "Hope the show off has a wreck!" 

"Maybe he has no choice," Toni suggested, "maybe he has to be somewhere at a given time."

"No job's that important!" Stephen dismissed the subject.

I didn't necessarily mean a job, Toni thought to herself.  She wondered, or half wondered, if the tone of her thought, assuming thoughts capable of having tonal qualities, or any qualities, were defensive or ironic.  Probably both, she concluded.  It was hard to tell with thoughts.  Spoken words were easier to analyze.  Am I a quiet person? she wondered.  Introspective?  Shy?  Withdrawn?  Schizoid?  It isn't that I'm afraid to argue, or that I don't know what I believe, or even that I might lose him.  I just don't know how you breach a twenty-five thousand foot thick wall of solid stone with maybe a soft hot center.  There is no way for him to doubt his own beliefs.  I don't know why he believes as he does; and dialogues are impossible.  If I say something unquestionably intelligent, I will simply appear to him as some species of idiot savant, a mutant, a rarity, a one of a kind freak of nature doomed to extinction.  I'm hardly in any danger of losing him when nothing I say is to ever be taken seriously: one does not storm out and abandon a child simply because it challenges one's opinions.  Or must I storm out?  Toni smiled in admission of irony.

"Neither are you a child," she whispered.

"The God damned stinking bastards better never say so either!" Stephen exclaimed, all of a sudden banging on his horn and blinking his high beam lights on and off.  The car up ahead pulled off to let him pass.  He shrieked a quick laugh as he passed the car.

It was still raining when Stephen Hauser pulled in front of the Lake Erie Motel on the outskirts of Erie, Pennsylvania; it had slacked up somewhat though.  He got his family registered, got them all bedded down for the night, but stayed up long into the night.  He did not feel tired, he explained to his wife, so he would sit up awhile and "keep watch," as he put it.  He sat down in a chair - the vinyl coated kind of nondescript "modern" which one always finds in motel rooms; but then he jumped up and went over to the nondescript plastic veneered desk one likewise encounters in such places, took the shade off the table lamp sitting on it, unplugged the lamp, at no little difficulty, and grabbed the lamp off the desk.

"It's my gun!" he exclaimed to his half asleep wife in a bright voice.  With a further chuckle, and with his eyes big and bright, he again sat down, sitting the lamp across his knees as if he were a guard on a stagecoach and the lamp his shotgun.  In almost no time he was asleep.  A noise from outside, as of someone tampering with the doorknob, aroused him, but only slightly.  He did not stir, he only listened; then, as the noise seemed to fade, he went back to sleep.  He awoke to hear his son softly cooing.  He went over and lifted the child, smiling and winking; in turn, the child laughed back.  "You're safe kid," Stephen told his son, "you don't need to worry.  Thanks to your old man you're safe."  He smiled again and replaced the child in his mother's arms, where the boy fell asleep once more.

For some time, later that day, Stephen Hauser stood on the sidewalk outside the medium sized store in Erie, looking at what appeared to be a makeshift seam in the plate glass window.  The rain, which had trailed him all the way from Cumberland, had finally stopped, though the sky had not cleared.  The clouds seemed heavy, as though something above were pressing them down and, despite the updrafts, would soon have them squatting on the sidewalk, dripping down the window and standing poised on top the store like great gargoyles deceptively merry-faced.  The window had obviously been recently breached and, while it had evidently been repaired, there seemed something eerie about the repair; the seam, where the new pane had been fitted, though almost invisible, nevertheless looked like a scar.  Stephen reached to run his finger tips across the place; he shivered.

"That there," somebody behind him said, the abruptness of the voice causing him to start.  "That there is Pete's Place, we call it."  Stephen did not ask for a further explanation; he simply smiled at the person and walked on around to the employee's entrance.  The man followed him.  "I'm Tim," the man said, "I work in shoes.  You're new, aren't you?  Where do you work?"

"I'll be your boss's boss," Stephen replied rather coldly.  "For as long as you're here, that is," he added.

"Oh I'll be here forever, I guess," said Tim; "I kind of like it here."

"You like it - but ah! does it like you?" Stephen asked.  Tim laughed and said he hoped it did; Stephen said nothing further.

Stephen was met at the door by Sam, the personnel manager, a friend of Stephen's from the Towson store.  There was a protocol and a hierarchy among the staffs of the stores, the personnel manager being lowest among the denominations.  If it could be ascertained that the position was only a temporary step on the way upward, then the inequality could be ignored; however, if it became clear that this was as high as someone was likely to go, then condescension was not only appropriate but virtually obligatory.  Sam was an older man; he had been with the company nearly twenty years and while at one time he had almost secured a merchandiser position, he had never again come even close.  So this was it for him; it was expected he should stand at doorways awaiting his new fellow staff members, should make them feel at ease, should usher them to the store manager's office, then carefully fade into the background.  He did it with admirable expediency, first chit chatting a bit with his younger and less experienced colleague, then making the proper introductions.  First stop was the C&D merchandiser, a big burly man named Clarence Coe; together they proceeded to the operating manager's office.  A little man, thin and wiry, extended a tiny bony hand to Stephen.

"Covill Claire," the operating manager introduced himself, "but," he cautioned, "don't call me 'Coe' or we'll all be up shit's creek!"  Everyone laughed.  "I'm sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry - I always say it five times! - I'm genuinely worried the Old Man's not here to greet you himself, but, well, he's - let's just say he went to see a man about a new home!"  Clarence Coe and Covill Claire both chuckled at this; Sam did not.  Stephen did, politely, as one chuckles when he does not know the joke, yet wishes to express his camaraderie with the jokesters.  "Sam, my man," said Mr Claire, "how about showing our young colleague around his new departments.  And last but not least - not least but last - show him our new girl in TV and stereo."  Mr Coe and Mr Claire chuckled.  "Got a set of titties on her," said Mr Claire, "that won't quit: and if they do quit, I quit!"

"Me three!" exclaimed Mr Coe.

Stephen looked at Sam, then back at Mr Coe and Mr Claire.  "Then it's me four," he said, adding after a brief wink and an ever so slight toss of his head in Sam's direction, "we'll just skip two."  The three staff members laughed.

In the course of their rounds, Stephen inquired what kind of house it was that the Old Man was in the market for.  Sam looked somewhat embarrassed as he advised Stephen to let the matter be.

"I wouldn't say anything if I were you," Sam told him.

"I know you wouldn't," Stephen replied; "that's how you got where you are today."

The manager of the Shoe Department, a Mr Tongue, who often came in for a certain amount of ribbing from the store staff, proceeded to introduce his employees.  When he came to Tim Stancill, and made the introduction, Stephen turned his back and walked off, leaving Time with a hand ridiculously extended.

"Yes," said Stephen coldly as he turned, "we met already."  Stephen motioned for Mr Tonue to follow him; once out of Tim's earshot, Stephen informed the manager of the Shoe Department that "the guy's a creep, I want him fired."

"But why?" asked Mr Tongue.  "He's my best worker."

"Tell me," Stephen asked, "what do you need most: your best worker - or your job?  Do I make myself clear?"  Mr Tongue nodded.  "Good."

"But I can't just fire him," Mr Tongue pleaded.  "I've got to have a reason.  You don't know the Old Man, he's one of those sticklers for facts, and if what you say doesn't jive with what he knows, you better hide your ass or he'll tan it."

"I don't care what you tell him or how you do it, just get the bastard out of here, that's all.  Say he's queer or something, I don't care - yeah, say he's queer: nobody's going to care if you fire a fag.  Got no place for fags in management, they can't hack it; first little thing goes wrong, they'll throw up their little fairy hands and go crying to mommie.  Just get him out, and that's that."

"Okay," agreed Mr Tongue.

"That's the spirit," Stephen commended him.  "You got a lot of cheek there, Mr Tongue!" he added with a chuckle.  "Hey, speaking of," he said, "that reminds me, Sam: what about that broad over in TVs with the big tits: she got a big ass too?  Huh?  Cause me, I'm an ass man.  And a tit man.  And a leg man.  Ah! but most of all I'm a crotch man!  So we'll see you around, Tongue - do you groove?"

Sam deposited the new A&B Line Merchandiser in the TV and Stereo Department - which were D lines, so not officially under Stephen Hauser's jurisdiction; then he discretely disappeared through a stockroom to emerge someplace else, leaving Stephen with Miss Margie, the saleswoman.  She was bending over a TV on a slightly raised platform writing something.  Stephen stood in front of her looking into her bosom.

"Huh-uhm," he muttered.  The woman looked up a second, held his glance, then lowered hers again to her paperwork, leaving Stephen free to lower his again to her bosom.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" she asked as she wrote.

"You already are," Stephen replied.  "It's like old Mike Stokey and his 'Pants-o-mine' Quiz - and oh! these pants o'mine!  how tight they are growing!"

"Ah," the woman suggested, "maybe you've got a size too small.  Like my husband: sometimes I get him a size too small, I buy his clothes sometimes, and, just like a woman!  I always forget just how big a man he really is!  Why, he stands six feet four and weighs in at two twenty.  Used to play football, professionally.  Once broke a man's back for looking at me the way some little creeps do.  Yes sir, he's got everything I need.  And when his pants grow tight - brother: they really do grow tight, and there's no mistaking it, nobody has to say it's happening: you know it's happening, brother!"

Stephen Hauser turned and walked away; it took him a moment to retrace his steps back out of the TV and Stereo Department - Departments 63 and 62 respectively.  The woman looked up a moment whispered "Bye now."  A peculiar, embarrassed look was on Stephen's face the whole distance to the Shoe Department, where Tim Stancill, perceiving his dismisser, made what evidently was intended as a friendly comradely remark.

"Uh-oh," cried Stancill, "looks like you've been Margie'd!"  He laughed good naturedly and lightly slapped Stephen on the back.  "She got to old Pete too!  So better watch out for plate glass!"

Nobody told Tim Stancill why he was being dismissed, only that he was.  That very afternoon.  The process had been speeded up when Stephen informed Sam, the personnel manager, that Stephen had patted him "somewhere very private" and had made what could only be taken as a lewd suggestion.  Stancill kept a smile on his face the whole time, although he nearly broke down and cried at one point in the stock room.  He had gone to take a kind of unofficial final inventory to make certain his boss had enough in stock to cover the big "Vice-President's Sale" coming up the following week.  He counted to his satisfaction; he looked in a couple shoe boxes and muttered something about fitting like a glove; then, getting ready to leave, standing there surrounded by the merchandise he handled, he let his face twist into the grimace one usually makes when beginning to cry: the half fighting back the tears, half struggling to wring them out of the muscles and bones and tendons look which signals the simultaneous success and failure of the attempt.  Just at that moment his boss walked in, so he quickly straightened the folds and wrinkles from his features; he eyes still watered, but there were no real tears.  Two days later he was back on the job, as manager of the Shoe Department, Department 24; Mr Tongue was transferred to the Cosmetics Department where, owing to his being a man in a traditionally female department, he quickly became the subject of a flurry of rumors, all concerning his sexuality.  Within a month, seeing no chance of reinstatement into his old department or transfer out of Cosmetics, Department 53, he resigned from the company to take a job with the government counting the number of copies of some important form submitted for some kind of disbursement of goods and services to make sure no fewer than fifteen were present.  The instrument of this sudden and unforeseen turn of fortune in the lives and careers of Mr Stancill and Mr Tongue was one Mr H. G. Hazelton, store manager and reigning Old Man of the Erie, Pennsylvania store.  When he returned from his brief absence and heard about the dismissal and could get no better reason for the loss of one of his best and most loyal salesmen than that certain "private parts of the new A&B merchandiser had been touched, and that certain lewd suggestions had been made" he reversed the tables till the setting better pleased him.  Then he summoned his new A&B merchandiser.

"Morning boss," said Stephen brightly, cheerfully, self confidently.

"Have a seat," Mr Hazelton ordered politely.  Stephen thanked him as he sat down opposite the desk from him.

"So you're the new A&B Line merchandiser," Hazelton mused.  Stephen smiled and nodded.  Hazelton smiled too, but his mouth twitched and his upper lip got temporarily stuck on a huge yellow eye tooth.  One might forget and take that designation - eye tooth - too literally looking at H. G. Hazelton.  His eyes were both yellowish, and looked hard and very dry, as if they were not attached to tendons but rather skewered onto metal prongs.  He stared a moment at Stephen.

"I hear you've been out looking at real estate," Stephen said in the manner of simply wishing to make conversation.  Hazelton smiled again, and a wisp of almost soundless laughter escaped between his teeth, but there was something sardonic about it.

"Why was Stancill fired?" he asked.  Stephen shrugged and said he had no idea.

"Sometimes," said Hazelton, "it's wise to have no ideas.  Pre-conceived or otherwise.  Pre-conceived," he mused, then asked if Stephen believed in reincarnation.

"Do you?" Stephen asked.

"Ah, that's right," Hazelton recalled, "you have no ideas - and having none, must wait till your Old Man gives you some.  You'll go far, my young friend.  Even if I chose not to ignore your reference to real estate - which I will ignore; but even if I chose to pin your tail to the wall, I think you'd bounce back.  You're good, Stephen Hauser.  You have what it takes."

Stephen smiled, and at the same time sweated.  And he was aware of a peculiar, annoying discomfort: having urinated just before this meeting with the Old Man, he evidently did not get it accomplished very effectively, with the consequence that he now dripped urine every time he moved or squirmed in his seat - not a great amount, just a few drops, but enough to be uncomfortable.  When he stood up to leave, particularly, a tiny stream was expelled.

It was not for another month, at the Christmas Dance, that Stephen Hauser discovered the nature of his faux pas in mentioning real estate to the Old Man.  Everyone feared the dance would have to be cancelled.  It snowed three days before the date set for the dance, and on top of that there came an ice storm two days away, which helped in some respects: the ice crusted over the snow and made traveling a little easier where the snow had lain packed; but hurt in other respects: electrical lines were felled as weak places snapped beneath the ice, sending tiny sparks of fire through tiny chips of crushed ice onto the crusted ground.  Trees and shrubs were coated, as were windows and roofs of homes and cars.  One day before the Christmas Dance the clouds broke and the brilliant winter sun, like a long distance runner with gangling arms akimbo breaking away the finish ribbon, sent the rays down every ice coated feature of the landscape.  Before the ice all melted, the most beautiful jewels girdled by light shimmered against a background of white glaze below and blue everywhere else.  Little by little drip the jewels, more ephemeral than cheap rhinestones, fell upon the ground and were lost underfoot; with each melt, fabulous colors of the spectrum dissolved, reflected colors, dissolving once again into pure light which could reveal but itself no longer be seen.  Little Stephen Hauser Jr, whether he knew what he saw or not, sat on his mother's lap looking out for a while at the spectacle till he fell asleep.  Toni Hauser feared this ice might never come again where she could experience it close up; she ached to go outside; to photograph the play of light; to angle the limbs and the few shoots of old harvested plants to somebody's garden across the way; to take - as one does when photographing - this beauty from its huge, overwhelming context which no one could truly take in or comprehend, and to frame it into a different, a smaller and a more understandable context; to change her perspective of ice and bare light and sky.  She took moving pictures, eight mm; she knew the innermost secrets of art: that there is no stillness, that everything moves, that nothing is without its microcosm, that even the mutest stretch of concrete will in time reveal movement of some sort, that one need only find the one context which will reveal a thing's innermost being - and for this, no one picture was enough, it needed as many as one could possibly get.  There may be only one frame in a thousand feet of film which showed the thing's soul; but without the rest, it could never be seen from the perspective needed to make it intelligible.  Toni ached to go scratch the immensity of ice and light in order to get at what she wanted.  She smiled and kissed her sleeping baby on his forehead and, whether or not he was aware of it, he stirred in her lap.

It's too easy, she thought.  There may be an art to child rearing, but it's a minor art.  I need only sit here to be a mother.  My highest purpose in life, not to move but only to give off body heat to lull my child to sleep.  And in remaining still, my man appears by contrast a meteor.  He would melt all the ice, or seem to.  Oh Stephen: can't we soar together, or sit both still as mice?  Must I always drag behind you, an artificial burden?  Can you only move if someone's trailing?  I want you to move - oh God Stephen I don't want you to stop, I don't wish you to be less than the concrete roadway.  But must I endure being always this pull, this rudder, this balance?  Is that the only way I can love you?  Ah Stephen: look at the ice melt, and me here unable to move.  The water is aborting its ice.  All beauty melts away, Stephen.  Warmth is not all there is of value.

It was not easy getting Toni Hauser to the Christmas Dance; but her husband Stephen showed a determination to give his wife this all important night out.  Being so new in town, the Hausers had no knowledge of the local baby sitters: who was respectable, who was not, and so forth; nor were they entirely willing to take the word of Stephen's fellow workers since they too were largely unknown quantities - but, as Stephen pointed out in their favor - company men, a thing greatly in their favor.  Naturally, Stephen consulted no one below the staff level in so important a matter as finding someone to "guard my future," as he expressed it.  At last, the proper combination of recommendations had been secured: the C&D merchandiser and operating manager, Messrs Claire and Coe, both agreed on a local matron - "short on looks and brains, but big on boobs and good as shit with kids."  Fortunately, the lady was available for duty the evening of the Christmas Dance; somehow neither Coe nor Claire had required her to sit with their own children.

Toni was watching television when her husband came to her with the good news.  Most of the ice was gone; the roads were increasingly passable; and the temperature had actually risen through the evening.  She was watching a suspense movie.  She had not planned to watch it; she had had no TV Guide, Stephen had forgotten to get one early in the week, and now, by Saturday, they were already sold out; so she had had to play it by ear, and evidently would continue to all next week, unless they remembered to get a Sunday paper, not that she particularly liked the TV section in the paper.  It was an immensely pleasant irony that brought her favorite actress to her, being slowly, methodically placed in a position where her own husband would try to murder her.  Cloris Leachman was on the jury; a young man was being tried for a murder which her husband had actually committed.  She began linking pieces of evidence to her own sphere of life; she was being led to a fuller understanding of the man she had married.  And in the end, she barely escaped with her life: literally, he could not accept being seen from this new perspective.

Did you know when you were making the movie, Cloris, Toni wondered, that you were making a statement much greater than simply the resolution of a mystery?  I wonder too: will the critics pan you this time? will they say it's beneath you to lend your talent to suspense?  Or will they know better?  I hope so; I think they will.  How sad though when you must try and learn the killer's identity; and he must - must - try and kill you to keep you from knowing.  It makes you doubt that everything can work out alright.  But Dagney Taggert: she looked for a killer, in a way: a destroyer; only she found him a savior, his crime simply an illusion.  Her search was more profound than yours, Cloris; but your discovery is truer, I think.  There is no doubt that Ayn Rand's novel will be read long after your movie is forgotten; but a great truth will be lost.  Man will not let the human spirit be identified; he will not turn loose of that one final crutch.  He can therefore never be free.  You can see the human spirit only in retrospect or at a great distance; from that perspective it always appears larger than life, larger than those it proceeds from and eventually absorbs.  But undoubtedly you've heard this before.

"Well," Stephen Hauser proudly announced to his wife, "we got the old bag!  So put on your dancin' shoes baby 'cause tomorrow it's look out here we come!  Get out your slinkiest, sexiest evening gown - so long as it's not too low cut - and come Sunday evening we is gone gone gone!"

Nobody could quite believe it: they had florescent lights.  The ceiling was a checkerboard of high bluish white light alternating with unlighted squares.  Everyone expressed their disbelief: who ever heard of a ballroom florescently aglow?  It was strange.  Yet no sooner had the couples been seated at their various tables than everyone began expressing confidence that once the buffet actually began the florescence would be replaced by lighting more appropriate to the occasion, or at least that some of the lights would be turned off; and most certainly by the time the dance itself began something would be done.  Everyone took turns casting subtle glances up at the ceiling; every so often someone could be seen pointing upward.  From all appearances, it seemed that those people, the store employees of the Erie Pennsylvania store, believed they were being watched from above, spied on.  Their movements seemed inhibited; they ate and especially they drank less.  If the management had deliberately set out to save money, to stretch the price of each couple's ticket to its limits, the maximize its profit, they could not have come up with a better plan than the lighting for doing so.

Mr Covill Claire was heard to say he felt perfectly at home here: it was like being at work, he claimed.  Everyone at his table laughed and toasted him.  Mr Clarence Coe then admitted actually feeling more at home here than in his own home; again everyone laughed, again they toasted.  At no other table was anywhere near so much liquor consumed, certainly not in toasts.  Nowhere else did anyone confess to feeling very much at home.

"The guy's a genius alright," the store manager, Mr H. G. Hazelton, admitted, although his voice sounded more bitter than admiring.  "What's his name again?" he asked someone at his table.  Both Covill Claire and Clarence Coe rushed to provide the name. 

All the staff members and their wives were seated at the Old Man's table.  Except for his new A&B merchandiser, Stephen Hauser and Mrs Hauser, he knew all the people at his table.  His manner toward the Hausers was not especially friendly; even so, he glanced frequently at Mrs Hauser.  Occasionally she held and returned his glance; occasionally she avoided it.  She read in it something deeply troubled, and she sensed that he saw in her someone who might understand or possibly even care what was troubling him.  His wife evidently noticed something in their exchanges also.

"Harry, for heaven's sakes," chided Mrs Hazelton, "don't stare so at the poor woman, you'll embarrass the poor thing: why, heavens, she'll think you're a dirty old man!  And, God knows, you're anything but!"

Before anyone could respond, Toni proposed an abrupt toast.  "To wifely duties," she toasted, lifting her glass high and dipping it, like a fine curtsy, in Mrs Hazelton's direction.  Everyone was obliged to join the toast.  An awkward look came over Mrs Hazelton's face as she returned Mrs Hauser's ceremonial curtsy.  Stephen Hauser, as if taking a cue, and presumably oblivious to the irony of his wife's toast, in turn proposed a toast "to husbandly duties."

Mr Covill Claire, before anyone could return the toast, asked of Stephen if he could be more specific.  Stephen blushed and mumbled something about to him who knows, no explanation was needed, to him who doesn't, none was possible.

"Truly profound," observed Mr Hazelton.  He returned Stephen's toast, everyone else naturally joined in.  Stephen beamed.  "And now," said Hazelton, "I propose yet another toast: to the profound."  This time, he dipped his glass in a solemn bow toward Mrs Hauser, who returned his toast; the others joined in, but appeared to be simply going through the motions, as if they sensed something about this moment which precluded them and, while in obedience to custom knew they must participate in the ceremony, felt little heart in the act.

"I liked that toast," Stephen Hauser admitted.

"Then please feel free to make it again if you feel up to it," Mr Hazelton suggested.  Stephen, however, declined the honor, declaring himself all toasted out.

"Or better still," suggested Mr CLarence Coe, "all washed out."

"Or all washed up," suggested somebody else.  Stephen looked at his wife as if he were completely stunned.  For a brief second he began to pout; but first Mr Hazelton then all the others at the table began laughing good naturedly at Toni's remark and poking playful fun at Stephen, so he brightened up and began laughing too.

"Ooh, she gotcha good!" said Covill Claire.

"Gotcha good!" echoed Clarence Coe.

"Yeah," agreed Stephen Hauser, "she gotcha me good."

"Marvelous syntax," Mr Hazelton observed in a somewhat sardonic tone of voice.  Then everything came to a standstill beneath the deathly white florescent light so lavishly profitable to the management.  No one seemed to have anything to say.  The hiatus made Toni Hauser think of a dish some obscure relative somewhere had once made: a jell, pale amber like the color of rich animal broth, containing pig's feet; she had refused the food but always wondered if the jell were sweet or had to taste of lard.  It looked like orange Jell-O with maybe pineapple or lemon diluting its color: it looked tasty, except for the pig's feet.  But then, she was forced to admit, everyone had their own idea of a delicacy; doubtless, one could in time develop a taste for anything, particularly if it became part of some sacred ritual: take cannibalism for instance.  Toni thought of a famous comic routine by a famous comedian, Henny Youngman, where he would say "Take my wife - please, take her!"  Take my cannibals, thought Toni, half smiling.

"Please, take them," she whispered.

"Oh, I'm sorry," apologized Mr Covill Claire, seated beside her.  He began extending his hand to take the proferred items Toni apparently no longer wanted; then, upon receiving nothing, he began awkwardly rummaging among the various wares in close proximity to her dinner plate to try and locate the offenders.  It took a second for Toni to realize what was happening; when she did, she let Mr Claire stop at her salt and pepper shakers, indicating to him with an incline of her head that yes, these were the ones, these her set of brown cardboard packaged miniature salt and pepper shakers.  Everyone had their own: it saved money in the long run.  Mr Hazelton began laughing at the episode, which in turn made Toni laugh.  Just as everyone else was joining in the laughter, the music began.

"First dance?" Mr Hazelton asked of Mrs Hauser.  Mrs Hauser indicated with a nod her pleasure.  While the two of them danced, and perhaps chatted, the others at the table, evidently not ready to dance quite yet, began a conversation.  Mrs Hazelton spoke first.

"I will soon be a widow," she said with a deep sigh.  Everyone nodded knowingly; Stephen Hauser likewise nodded.

"And this has something to do with the Old Man," Stephen half asked, half stated.

"It would be proper, yes," replied Mrs Hazelton.

"I thought we told you already," Clarence Coe addressed Stephen.

"Well, no," was the reply.

"Good God, I hope you didn't say anything to him about real estate," said Covill Claire.

"Well, I -" Stephen tired to mumble some sort of reply.

"Good heavens, surely you knew we were only kidding," Mr Coe insisted.

"Well, I -"

"The only real estate my husband is looking for," Mrs Hazelton informed Stephen, "is one that extends some six feet into the ground."

"Well, I -"

"You what?" inquired Mr Hazelton all of a sudden, he and Toni Hauser having finished dancing and returned to their table.

"Well, I, I just feel," said Stephen Hauser in a confused tone, "I feel there's plenty.  And it's better to have than to have not.  Yeah, that's it.  And that's why I'm in retail, don't you see: so that I can help everyone to have.  That's my, that's my -" Stephen faltered slightly.

"That's your ideal is probably what you mean to say," Mr Hazelton prompted his new merchandiser.

"Yeah - God yeah!" Stephen agreed with the intensity and the passion with which one is wont to express his deepest, strongest, most sacred beliefs.

"I propose one final toast," said Toni Hauser on the back of her husband's declaration.  "Not that no one else is at liberty to propose further toasts," she added, "but this will be my final one, and the greatest one of all."  She lifted her glass; the others at the table followed suit.  She let them remain with their glasses lifted the briefest instant before she made her toast; then suddenly, in a powerful voice, she declared: "To God!" and her toast was made.  Solemnly, everyone sipped their drinks.  No one spoke for a few moments afterward, as if everyone had been rendered speechless by the event just transpired; they sat there, beneath the great omnipresent white glare.  Finally, Mr Covill Claire spoke up.  Lifting his eyes heavenward, he reaffirmed his earlier judgment.

"I still say the man's a genius," he informed everyone seated at his table.  "A man like that'll always be turning a profit.  You can mark my words on that.  God what a genius!  Here everyone else builds a great hall of fluff to dazzle everyone and shine and sparkle and glow and make the guests never want to leave, and they end up barely making ends meet - but this man, not him: God what a genius!"

"Should we toast him?" asked Mr Clarence Coe.

"Seems to me we already did," replied Stephen Hauser.

"Then let us toast, instead," suggested Mr Hazelton, "that great unsung hero of history, that masterful toiler whose work is never done, that being without whom the world could not constantly renew itself -"

The Old Man was interrupted by Stephen Hauser, who evidently thought he knew who was being toasted.  "The average housewife," Stephan said solemnly.

"The gravedigger," the Old Man corrected his impatient new merchandiser.  Stephen blushed and, in a moment, when the toast was over, tried to make a joke out of it, striking some vague parallel between the two; but his pitiful laughter seemed unconvincing.

"We are gravediggers in our own way," Toni Hauser's observation seemed  to please her husband; presumably it helped him save face.  I won't say whose it is we dig, Toni made a silent note: it's far too trite; of course we dig our own.  It might be interesting to say it though.  I'm tempted to think it would appear profound to, at least, Mrs Coe and Mrs Claire, if not their husbands also.  Not Mr Hazelton though.  Who knows? maybe it is profound and only because everyone has come to see the profundity is it denigrated.  It is profound if only the rare few can see it; the moment everyone sees it, it becomes banal.  Let Shakespeare declare all the world a stage and we but poor players, and it staggers our minds that anyone could devise so perfect an idiom; yet let the corner hack say it, even if he means it, and never heard it before, and his banality irritates us.  We are, thank God, omniscient that we can tell at a glance truth from artifice, and being so we never have to think things through.  What will my child ever do?  All his fine little discoveries, the world has long ago tired of; every stone he finds he'll think a diamond, he'll hold it up, his proud offering.  The world...well, what else but brush it aside can the world do?  There are no more discoveries.  World: I just found Cloud Nine out there barnacled to the hydrogen bubble's underbelly!  Tsk, tsk: we've been there.  The only discoveries from here on out are to be subjective: a brief flash of this or that, a geometry of blinking lights, conveying rays of the transcendental.  Must we all become drug addicts? Toni Hauser mused silently.  Will there be enough opium for everyone?  Or will all the hallucinogenics too have been taken up and every individual spark but somebody else's old hat?  There's no retreat...when a culture dies.

"Is there?" she mused aloud.

The party was now over.  Everyone left; and on the way out Mr Hazelton managed to enough separate he and Mrs Hauser from the others that he could speak to her in private.  He declared himself in love with her and asked her to run off with him; he only had a short while left and wished more than anything on earth to share the remainder of his life with her.  Would she?  She could only nod.  He admitted that he had not thought so, and hoped she was not offended; but he had had to ask no matter what.

"I can die now," he said, "as I've lived."  Something about the way he said it made Toni take it almost personally.  On the way home she wondered if one day her husband too would find his life a waste.  What moves them? she asked herself again and again.  They must know, they can see it in others: they must know where it's heading; yet they rush madly.  All anyone wants to be is successful: one more cliché under the belt.  It scares me.  Anything anyone can think of has been noted already: we must be no more than a step away from the end.  Toni looked over at her husband.

"The end is near," she informed him.  Almost as if she had known what to expect, almost as if her husband Stephen Hauser were merely responding to a pre-programmed cue, she watched him abruptly speed up.  His foot gunned the gas pedal.

"The bastards!" he cursed.

"Who?" she asked.  Stephen turned to her, letting his car slow down to the 55 MPH speed limit.  He seemed puzzled.

"Who what?" he inquired.

"So true," said Toni, turning away.  Stephen likewise turned away.

The baby sitter smiled when they told her good night; she said she would gladly sit for baby Stephen anytime.  They thanked her and paid her.  When the door closed behind her, Stephen beckoned his wife to come to him.

"I'm super in bed you know," he whispered in her ear.  He looked over and winked as he led her to their bedroom.  He undressed, first himself, then his wife.  "Hey," he said, "wonder if we should check the child first?  Why don't you go ahead, I'll wait up - if you get my drift."  When Toni returned, she found her husband asleep, so she adjusted his covers, as she had her son's, then went to bed herself.

It was always slow after Christmas; the biggest transactions seemed to be the refunds and exchanges.  This store, like all retail outlets, experienced January exactly as one experiences any hangover; still half drunk, reeling and almost staggering under the efforts of the fabulous hustle of the Christmas season, the rapid turnover of goods, the eventual depletion of stock by mid-day of December 24th, the store almost visibly suffered the after effects.  A damp staleness seemed to have nestled beside the remaining goods; one wondered if things might start to mold, and if they should be boxed up and stored until the ailment had passed.  A kind of exhaust fume seemed to turn up every few sales; people went about sniffing the air, moving away, sniffing again until finally finding some reasonably fresh air.  The lights even looked peculiar; and of course the lovely Christmas decorations had had to be stripped off the columns and from around the counters and torn from the ceiling the very day the season officially ended.  Artificial trees were bereft of their trimmings and folded into their boxes, the ends of which were taped; the boxes then set onto skids to be hauled upstairs to the warehouse, the manager of Departments 48 and 89, Toys and Lawn and Garden, with a straight face, warning the huge, somewhat slow-witted porter under no circumstance to smoke: they'd go up like tinder, these trees.

"You know how trees get after Christmas," the manager reminded.

"Oh yeah," agreed the warehouseman, "do I ever.  My dad got fourth degree burns once from our tree."

"Ah," the manager reflected.  "Was it spontaneous combustion?"  The porter looked puzzled a moment, then said no, it was not, it just started burning.  Somewhere behind a counter a laugh was muffled.  A moment later the C&D line manager, Clarence Coe, and the A&B merchandiser, Stephen Hauser, poked their heads over the counter, looked around to where the porter and skid was just disappearing through the set of swinging doors leading to the dock area, and began laughing.  Stephen was helping straighten the Lawn and Garden Department, even though he had no official business in this, a C&D department.

"Hell," he had said, "let those jerks of mine take care of it.  I got old Tongue kind of supervising for me: make the biggest jerk top dog and you can't go wrong!  All the other jerks'll follow his lead like a pack of fleas!"  A few more minutes work, and Stephen excused himself.  "Got the runs today," he said.  "Must have got something rotten to eat last night."

"Uh-oh," exclaimed Coe, "don't tell me you're double jointed!  Hell," he added after a pause, "a dog can lick himself - why not a man?"

Stephen went to the restroom, for the third time that morning; and for the third time he read the graffiti scratched on the stall above and around and below the toilet tissue dispenser.  On the door facing him, someone had sketched a couple having intercourse.  He searched for and found a pen in his shirt pocket, with which he added a little something to the wall.  "For the best blow job in town," he wrote, "call..." and he filled in his boss, the Old Man, Mr Hazelton's home phone number.  He chuckled as he put away his pen.  He then reached for the toilet tissue and gave a good hearty pull; barely two full squares from where it was glued to the cardboard roll.  He looked around, but no other roll was there.

"Shit!" he exclaimed.  Just then he heard the porter come in with a fresh supply of tissue: the huge clumping feet identified the intruder, the rustle of wrapping identified the toilet paper.  At first his mouth opened as if he was going to call out, then his mouth shut and he finished up and flushed and left.

"Pee-u!: exclaimed the porter good naturedly to him.

"What's your problem?" Stephen asked.

The porter held his nose, pointed to the stall, and said "Not mine," then laughed.

February, business started picking up a little, mostly though in the D lines, where the annual Trainload Sale had begun, a month long promotion of appliances.  It was still sparse though in soft goods; a few things for Easter were beginning to be set out, and cautiously a few summer items; but it was lean, and business slow, and lay offs heavy.  From a work force of some hundred and fifty full and part time employees, barely half saw anything like regular work.  The Old Man spent fewer days at work, and few hours on the days he was there.  He had altogether abandoned working on Saturdays and evenings, and about every other day he left early.  He spent a great deal of time in the restroom, vomiting.  Since Christmas, his weight had dropped appreciably, his eyes were perpetually glazed and blank, his skin was a kind of pale orange yellow except were it was blotched and with liver spots.  Rumor had it he had been asked to resign but had refused.  No one knew exactly what part of him was being eaten away, or if perhaps everything was; a kind of lottery had been started, where people could bet on which organ the cancer had settled in - something like a football pool, designed so that at certain points on the board various combinations of organs could be played, and with one square, at the very center, labeled "Omnes," in case anyone happened to think everything in him was being devoured.  Every square had been taken, at $5.00 a square.  The winner would share fifty-fifty with the store social committee - unless one of the four "Free" spaces, worked in to allow for the possibility of something other than the Old Man's cancer becoming the cause of his death, should happen to prove the winner, in which case the committee got all the money.  But it would be used for next year's Christmas Dance anyway, so no one objected very much to the "Free" spaces except one or two purists who felt that in a football pool every chance of winning should fall to the players, none to the "house."  The lottery had been the brainchild of Stephen Hauser.

"I miss you guys," Stephen told a very tall, very skinny salesman in the Major Appliance Department.  "Yes sir, Will," Stephen emphasized his statement, "I really miss dealing with guys like you.  I hate those fairies we have over in A&B lines, and especially I hate having to manage those women managers - bra lady and the purse lady and the coat and dress lady and the cosmetics lady and the linen queen.  You can have them.  You can't joke with them, can't talk with them, can't holler at them or they might start bawling.  No way you can have an intelligent conversation with them, is there?"

Will the tall skinny salesman shook his head no.  "Unless you put a bag over their head," he added with a sly wink.

The Old Man summoned his staff that afternoon.  "Two things," he began.  "First: does anyone have change for a five?"

"I think I might," said Stephen.  He checked his wallet, and sure enough, there were five dollar bills.  He made the exchange with his boss.

"Good," said the Old Man.  He handed two of the bills back to Stephen.  "I'd like to put two dollars on the lottery.  Any date that's open'll do."

"Lottery?" Stephen asked in an odd sort of voice as he looked around to the others and repeated his question.  They all shrugged; Stephen shrugged.  "I don't know of any lottery, but I'll check around.

"You do that," the Old Man ordered.  "Now then, second thing: Storewide Week.  Specifically, the Show.  Got any ideas?" he asked.  Everybody appeared to be thinking: they were quiet, no one looked at anyone else, their features gravitated toward the scowl end of the facial spectrum; they tapped a little, in turns, on the Old Man's desktop.  Each one looked up after his tapping as if to see if it were alright to be doing that; apparently it was.

"Well?" the Old Man asked finally.

"Wonder what the other stores are doing?" the personnel manager asked, but no one took up his challenge.

"Let's try to be original," the store controller suggested, somewhat hesitantly.

"Yeah, agreed Mr Coe, the C&D merchandiser, "but not too trendy."

"Good thinking," Mr Claire commended his colleague.  "We want something not too trendy.  Something, oh, you know, something -" Mr Claire made some gesture with his hands here, where he spread some of his fingers and cupped some others and moved his hands a bit.  Evidently he failed to convey very much to his fellow staff; they all went back to silence, perhaps introspection, the searching of the soul to its very depths for something "not too trendy."

Stephen Hauser looked up and tentatively inquired what sort of things were not trendy just now.  A list was rattled off.

"Caramel," somebody said, and though technically correct, it did not appear a very good response.

The Old Man put the official lie to it.  "I doubt if we can work up a Show around the theme 'Caramel,'" he confessed.  It was generally agreed to be too peculiar an undertaking.

"Maybe we could just pass around some caramels," the personnel manager recommended.

"Stephen: what do you say to that?" the Old Man asked, adding that Candy was one of his departments, was it not?

"Yes sir," Stephen owned, "good old Department 54.  We're going to be pushing salt water taffy though - something new for us."

"Well," Mr Peppersen, the store Comptroller, noted, "they're both chewy."

Finally, following a round of things ranging anywhere from the bizarre to the merely inapplicable, somebody happened upon something which immediately appealed to everyone.

"Magic," said Mr Claire.  "Pure, simple magic."

"Sure," agreed Mr Coe, "a magic show.  That's perfect."

"But what does salt water taffy have to do with magic?" asked the personnel manager.

"Good point," said Stephen Hauser.

"Well, look at it this way," offered Mr Peppersen, "if your taffy's good, and you pass it around - voila, like magic: it disappears!  See?"

"Okay," the Old Man indicated to his personnel manager, "you'll be in charge of distributing taffy.  "You," he pointed to Mr Coe, and "you," he pointed to Mr Claire, "you'll be in charge of special effects.  Hauser: you can be my lovely young assistant.  Wear a jock strap or pantyhose or something - whatever turns you on."  Hauser chuckled somewhat nervously.  "And Peppersen: I want you to be the subject from the audience when I call for a volunteer.  Now gentlemen: let's get to work!"

It was billed as "Houdini and His Who Done-Its."  Posters showing a man's head emerging from a puff of smoke were tacked to the bulletin board next to the time clock; the caption under the show's title read "Houdini Busts an Ass, Rises from the Grave, Finds His Killer."  And, in parentheses, the words "Magic Show.  Be There.  There'll be Taffy galore.  Amen."  While some employees secretly expressed their distaste for what they regarded as an inappropriate theme, the majority seemed to eagerly await the Show.

"But we know the Old Man's dying," declared Mr Stancill, one of the best shoe salesmen, over morning coffee in the Buffeteria.  "It just don't seem right to have a show where he comes back from the grave, that's all."  When no one seemed willing to agree with him, he got up and left, bumping the table by accident, one of those pedestal tables; somebody's coffee spilled on the rust colored carpet.  Stancill went and got some napkins to clean it up.

"What about my coffee?" Will the appliance salesman hinted.

"You get a refill," Stancill reminded him.

"Yeah, but it's the principle of the thing," said Will; so Stancill slapped thirty cents down on the table.  "Moochas grachas," said Will.  "What an ass," he told the others when Stancill was out of range.  They laughed.  "Now me," Will said, "I intend to relish every second of that magic show.  And when the Old Man rises from the grave, I'm gonna toss a little cherry bomb onstage, maybe yell out 'Go back!  Go back!'"  Everyone laughed.

It was held in the Buffeteria, the Storewide Week Show, and was held in the evening, after close of business; this was something new the Erie store was trying.  Beer and pretzels were served - and of course taffy, the personnel manager in charge now of all three foodstuffs.  The money had come out of the social committee's Christmas Dance fund: a lot of employees had made it clear they had no desire to attend next year's dance, even though it was only April.  Apparently the hall, the catering and nearly everything else attendant to the affair had turned people against the tradition of a store dance.  There were a number of suggestions that the store drop the dance and instead have a picnic sometime in the summer; the social committee was looking into the possibility.

Nine-thirty the store closed, locked its doors, prepared for the big show.  The stage had already been set up, at the rear of the Buffeteria, a rectangular room against the plate glass windows.  A microphone and sound system had been installed by the Display manager, who proved himself something of an all purpose handyman.  Rather than skids, which were normally used as a makeshift stage, something more like an actual stage was used.  Upstairs, in a special area where charm and finishing classes were held for teenage girls, two collapsible platforms which when placed lengthwise together offered the graduate girls a stage to model their homemade fashions on were stored.  These had been brought down to the Buffeteria and set up during the day.  A backdrop too had been set up: muslin dyed black and stretched across a lightweight wooden frame.  In the center of the stage, where the two platforms were joined, was a large cylinder; from beneath it a hose extended under the stage to a small generator attached to another cylinder: this was the set up for creating the puff of smoke which would signal Houdini's rise from the grave to avenge his death.  Carbonation propelled it, the same force which pumped Coke into people's glasses; the generator helped bridge the greater distance.  Something like dry ice was used to create the smoke.  By nine forty-five everyone was seated at their tables, and the beer and pretzels and taffy had been distributed.

"Let the show begin," announced, from the center of the audience, Mr Peppersen, the controller.  Somebody in the back of the room started a phonograph record playing; a fanfare began.  Mr Peppersen, the moment he perceived the entrance of the players, began applauding; the audience generally followed suit, though there were a few catcalls and boos.  Against the eerie backdrop, two blue spotlights shining on it from off to either side where the Display manager had his assistant position them, the shadows of the players lengthened proportionately as they neared the center.  The three staff members - Mr Coe, Mr Claire and Stephen Hauser - wore black robes, something like graduation gowns, and pointed caps.  In the center of the stage was a big black box intended to serve as a coffin.  Around it the three magician's apprentices walked, chanting a popular song as if it were an incantation.

"And now," they chanted somberly as they paraded, "the end is near/and now I take the final curtain.  My friends, I'll say it clear/I'll state my case of which I'm certain."

At this point the parade stopped; each apprentice in turn came to the front of the stage and stated his case.

"I'm a great magician," said Mr Claire.  "But alas," he lamented, "my Old Man the master magician made me shackle my talents till now all I can do is this poor magician's trick."  With this, he began his poor performance.  He shuffled a deck of playing cards, from which he pulled one and, without letting the audience see it, put in up his sleeve.  "Pick a card," he cried.

"Ace of hearts!" cried Peppersen from the audience.

"You see," said Claire in desperation as he pulled the card from his pocket to reveal it, "he guessed it.  I am finished, all washed up.  So what did I do?  What did I do?  I washed that old man right out of my hair and sent him on his way!"  Mr Claire took his bow and resumed his place alongside the coffin.  He was applauded.  Next Mr Coe came to the front.

"I am a great alchemist," Coe insisted.  "But alas," he lamented, "my old man the master alchemist made me bury my gifts till now all I can do is this poor alchemist trick."  With this, he began his poor performance.  He very carefully removed his hat from his head, turned it upside down, tapped it with his hand, and reached in.

"We want a white rabbit!" cried Peppersen.  "Yeah!" everyone else in the audience cried, "a white rabbit!"

"It might have been," Coe explained dolefully as he extracted a plucked chicken, by the neck, from his hat.  Everyone roared.  "But as a transformer, you see, I'm finished, all washed up.  So what did I do?  What did I do?  I washed that old man right out of my hair and sent him on his way."  Mr Coe took his bow and resumed his place alongside the coffin.  As with his colleague, his performance was applauded.  Finally the third apprentice, Stephen Hauser, came forward; but unlike the others, he tore loose from the established pattern.  He ripped the regimen from him as surely as he ripped off his pointed hat and his robe.  No longer a droll apprentice, as his two colleagues had been, he revealed himself a strong man, in a leopard skin, something like a stereotype of a caveman.  Everyone applauded wildly at the transformation; and even a few wolf whistles were heard.

"And me?" Stephen asked.  "Little old me?  Who, me?  Me heap loyal lovely young assistant to great white old man magician.  Him gone into sky.  Him killed...me sad...boo hoo.  Him say he know way get back earth.  Him tell me rub private parts hard on coffin, count three and wait.  So I do, but you no peek."  With this, Stephen, his back to the audience, walked to the front of the casket. rubbed his crotch a few times against it, counted to three, and waited.  In a moment a rumble deep beneath the stage was heard.  In another moment, a huge puff of smoke arose from directly in back of the coffin, and just as it did, Mr Hazelton made ready to make his grand entrance.  Just then, also, from the audience, Will the skinny Appliance salesman, having a moment ago, at the first rumblings, withdrawn his cherry bomb from his pocket, lighted it and with a kind of whooping cry tossed it on stage, right in the center of the smoke.

"I am -" exclaimed Hazelton, but was cut off by the loud blast.  First Will, then everyone else began laughing wildly.  Not until the smoke finally cleared was it known what had happened.  The Old Man lay sprawled on stage in back of the coffin, his head thrust backward through the backdrop.  A gasp or two represented the audience's only reaction, followed by absolute stillness for the remainder of the Old Man's stay on the stage floor.  Eventually, though no one - certainly no one from the audience - seemed able to organize their thoughts, let alone put any thoughts they might have into action, although it did appear that the two magician's apprentices on stage, Coe and Claire, to their credit, extended their arm, hands and fingers toward their fallen fellow showman as if to offer an assistance of sorts and the third apprentice assistant as it turned out, Stephen Hauser, lovely young thing, took a step or two in the Old Man's direction - eventually, the crisis passed of its own accord.  The fallen Hazelton roused, having at last to extract his head from the backdrop, as little blackish strands of muslin stuck to his nose and ears, and little by little levered himself up into the outstretched limbs of his operating manager and C&D merchandiser, who then finished the job of lifting him to his feet, Stephen Hauser all the while inching toward his boss to help out as best he could.  When Hazelton was finally upright and seemed able to move and even speak, exclaiming himself "Come all the way back from the grave," the audience broke its silence.  Cheers and applause greeted the Old Man's near brush with death: after all, he might have kept right on going, his head might not only have crashed through the backdrop but traveled the extra foot and a half or so to crash through the plate glass Buffeteria window.  When the applause had died down, the Old Man asked what the hell had happened.

Some wag in the audience stood up and pointed to the side, to the signs over the counter where customers got served, to one sign specifically: one depicting a little stylized man wearing a pointed cap and, just above his head, in a caption, "Winkers says have a Coke and a Storeburger."  Everyone's attention directed, the wag cried "Little Winkers did it!"  Everyone laughed, and applauded.

"Then," exclaimed the Old Man ominously, "Little Winkers' ass has had it!"

"You mean," asked someone from the audience, "his ass is grass?"  Again, there was laughter.

"That's precisely what I mean," replied the Old Man.  "His ass is grass as sure as I stand here - and I do stand here, make no mistake about it.  "Or," he suggested, "whoever's ass it was.  Now," he said in a change of voice, "back to the show!"  Everyone applauded.  "I have come back from the grave."  Again, applause and cheers and laughter.  "And I shall seek my revenge."  The backdrop was still in place despite the tear halfway down its middle and the gaping hole at the bottom.  In what must surely have been a fortuitous coincidence of improvisation, both Coe and Claire, the wicked apprentices who had washed that old man out of their hair and sent him on his way, got down on their hands and knees and began crawling, as fast as they could for that big hole in the backdrop, evidently to make their escape.  The audience roared and applauded wildly.  But just as the villains reached the hole, and would have presumably had to have tried getting through it, one at a time or simultaneously, their nemesis the resurrected Houdini stepped in front of it to block their escape: he was, understandably, closer to it than his apprentices, who had not just recovered from a fall through the backdrop.

"Oooooh!" Mr Coe and Mr Claire moaned and groaned.  "We're doomed, doomed, gone for good, oh dear oh dear, whatever shall be our fate?"

"Arise, ye murderous scum!" the old man ordered in a voice full of wrath.  The villains scurried to their feet.

"Oh please master spare us, spare us!" they pleaded, but the old man turned a deaf ear to their pleas.

"Wait!" cried Stephen Hauser, the old man's lovely young assistant.  "I beseech your worship to intercede in their fate, forgive them, let them go."

The old man softened.  "You are kind, my loyal assistant," he told Stephen, "but they must be punished."

"Oh your worship: they shall be."

"How?" the old man insisted upon knowing.

"By assisting you in your greatest trick of all time," replied Stephen.

"You mean -"

"Yes," interrupted Stephen.

"Very well then," the old man relented.  "Sing out!" he ordered.  "Maestro!" he called.  Silently, a hand from in back of the room began a record playing.  On stage, the four principals gathered round the coffin and began singing the grand finale of their show.

"Make the world go away," they sang in harmony, each extracting a wand from his robe pocket and tapping at the air with it, "and get it off of my shoulders.  Say the words I long to say, and make the world go away."

They took their bows, left off singing, and made their exit, to a wild happy cheering and a huge final puff of smoke.  When it was over, and the players came out to join their audience for a beer or two, Stephen Hauser insisted he knew who had created the disturbance earlier by throwing what by now had come to be determined a cherry bomb, its remains unmistakably identifying it.  He named the shoe salesman Tim Stancill as the culprit.  Will the Appliance salesman, happening to overhear the accusation, interrupted to tentatively agree with Stephen.

"I can't swear to it now," he modified his agreement, "hell, I was having such a good time for all I know it could even have been me who threw it!"  Will laughed good naturedly.  "But I think - repeat: I think - I saw old Stancill tossing something.  Of course," he added, looking around, "he's very conveniently, if you'll pardon the pun, disappeared just now, so we can't be sure.  Hell, he could just as easily say now he wasn't even here and, in all this confusion, who could swear otherwise?"

Mr Hazelton looked at Stephen, his A&B line merchandiser, and as such overseer of the Shoe department.  "Fire the bastard," he ordered.

"Yes sir," said Stephen eagerly.  "First thing tomorrow."

"You didn't let me finish," the Old Man pointed out as he stared into Stephen Hauser's smiling face.  "Fire the bastard - and I fire you."  With this Mr Hazelton got up and left.  Tim Stancill, the Old Man's best shoe salesman, had knocked at his door at four thirty and asked to speak to him.  All the staff members were at supper in the Buffeteria.  Tim explained to Mr Hazelton that he was quitting, as of today; he gave as his reason that he could no longer work in a store which could put on what seemed to him so callous a presentation as the Storewide Week Show they were planning for this evening: it did not seem right to him to mock a dying man that way, he explained nervously.  Hazelton's assurance that the mockery was reality's, not theirs, failed to persuade him or change his mind.

"I hate to lose you," Hazelton told him, "but perhaps you're right: perhaps you don't belong here.  You've got to be able to laugh - as well as speak - out of both corners of your mouth.  If you laugh along with others when they're laughing at you, then you've pulled the rug out from under them."  When Tim Stancill insisted that that only cheapened oneself, Hazelton smiled ironically and asked if he knew of anything that didn't.

"Perhaps it was someone who only looked like him," the Old Man concluded to his A&B merchandiser.

"Yeah, that must have been it," Stephen Hauser agreed, "someone who looked like him."

"Who?" the Old Man asked pointedly.  Stephen smiled and sort of shrugged.  The Old Man repeated himself, with emphasis.  "Who?" he asked.

"Maybe no one," Stephen confessed.  "Sometimes," he went on to explain, "you see something at the time it happens, and then you say so.  Then other times, you kind of...oh, well, you know: you kind of see it afterward, when you hear someone talking about it, but not actually at the time maybe - although it seems to you at the time, this later time -"

"When you only heard about it," the Old Man prompted.

"Right!" Stephen declared emphatically.  "When you only heard about it.  And it seems so clear in your mind you could just almost swear you really did see it.  But you didn't."

"And if some innocent bystander gets hurt, that's just the breaks."

"Right," said Stephen.  "I mean," he hastily corrected himself, "that is: it wouldn't be actually a break, would it?"

"Not for the bystander, no," agreed the Old Man.

Half the people had left.  The beer and pretzels were gone, and the other half of the audience looked ready to leave.  Plenty of taffy remained, however; and the personnel manager could be seen going about even at this late hour, almost a quarter past eleven, recommending it to whomever would listen, though most of them simply waved her away before she could speak.  Every now and again someone could be heard warning a companion of her approach with a "Here she comes!" or simply a "Duck!"  So long as a single guest remained, she pursued her assigned mission undauntedly.  "How's it going?" the Old Man asked her on one of his rounds past his table.  She smiled, said it was going fine, offered him and his companions a piece, then walked on.  Stan, the Personnel Manager Stephen had known, had retired and was replaced by a Miss Leggins.

"Don't look so glum," the Old Man told Stephen Hauser.  "Smile."  When he got no response he repeated himself.  "I said smile, and I'm not asking: I'm ordering you: smile."  The Old Man stared hard at his new merchandiser.  Stephen looked to the right and to the left.  Coe and Claire and Peppersen were staring at him; the men at Will's table all turned around to stare.  The Old Man began tapping his fingernails, very long almost talon like fingernails against the table top, stopping only when at last Stephen Hauser broke out in a smile.  "Good," the Old Man complimented his subordinate.  "This is a party," he explained, "we want everyone to have a good time, to be happy - to smile.  And to smile like they mean it, Stevie: like they really and truly mean it.  Not like they've got a turd on their tongue.  Like they mean it."  Stephen smiled again, this time like he meant it.

"Now you know," said the Old Man with a wink, "why men would sell their very souls for a little power.  There's nothing else like it.  Admittedly one need not be quite so crude in the exercise of it, but the result's the same.  Only assholes don't want power."

"And women!" exclaimed Will.  Everyone laughed, some very loud, some only mildly.  Stephen Hauser roared, almost hysterically.                        

"The God damn son of a bitchin' bastard turd face fag's demented!" Stephen cried to his wife when he got home.  They had a home, and it had a white paneled front door with tiny pale blue lines bordering each indented square, four such squares below the arched windowpanes set into the door at eye level, two above.  The door was only half way open, Stephen only half way through when he began cursing his store manager.  "I tell you the bastard's demented!" he repeated himself.  The door was still not shut all the way.  "He's crazy!  God damn his eyes he's crazy!  A loony-tune, a God damn Dodo bird!  Yeah," he concluded as he finally shut the door behind him, "yeah, that's it: a Dodo bird, that's what the son of a bitch is, a God damn fricken Dodo bird.  And like the Dodo, the bastard's gonna be extinct - and I'm gonna laugh my ass off too! you just watch if I don't God damn it!  If I don't laugh over his grave I give the whole shittin' universe leave to rip me cell by cell to shreds and stuff it all down my throat!  I'm gonna laugh my head off, and you can make book on that too!  You ought to have heard the way that foul mouthed turd spoke to everyone, it'd make you sick to have heard it, hell you'd have thought you were back there having morning sickness again.  That's just how I felt, I know that.  Oh man you should have seen the old turd, you should have seen him!  Old Will tosses a cherry bomb onstage just as the old fart's making his entrance.  Pop!  Bang!  Boom!  And the old asshole falls right through the backdrop - oh man it was great, great, just great!  I just wished he'd have gone on back another couple feet and his head would have gone right through the plate glass window - just like old Pete!  And man, that would have been the end of him for good!  Yeah: it would have cut his old sick demented head right off.  And you talk about laugh, man: they'd have had to carry me out of there I'd have been in so many God damn stitches!  But my day'll come, don't worry about that: my day'll come."

One month later, H. G. Hazelton had to be rushed to the hospital, in the middle of the workday, with internal hemorrhaging; from  the signs, the para medics expressed doubt that it could be stopped.  Into a small white ambulance, parked alongside the dock, they slipped the almost lifeless body of the store manager; then they got in and the ambulance sped away, sirens and flashers everywhere.  A huge crowd of on-lookers, gathered, watched the sleek white thing streak into the horizon, like a spray of cloud and a ball of sun was soaking in.  Stephen Hauser, on the dock, waved bye-bye.  Mr Coe and Mr Claire summoned a burly young porter to try and clean up the blood which had bubbled from Hazelton's mouth onto the dock as his stretcher was lifted into the ambulance.  The boy snorted and grumbled something about having to distribute bags to the check out counters, but nonetheless did as he was told.

"Gonna wash that old man right out of my hair," Stephen half sung, half mumbled.  "Guess that's the last we'll be seeing of him, huh?" Stephen observed.

"Don't count on it," replied Claire.

"Hell, you ain't seen nothin' yet," said Coe.  "Last time this happened -"

"Last time?" interrupted Stephen.

"This isn't the first time for this you know," explained Coe.  "It's - what: what is it?  Fourth time?  Fifth?"

"Yeah, something like that," Mr Covill Claire answered.  Stephen Hauser kind of moaned, then went back in to finish the day's work.  By evening, it was reported that Hazelton had rallied and was apparently out of immediate danger, taken off the critical list.  They managed to get the bleeding stopped by reworking what little flesh remained around the malignancy; they were fine sculptors called upon to stop a breach in an earthen dam, but they had just about run out of earth.  Three days later the Old Man was sent home for the last time; everyone knew the next attack would kill him.  At work, the last remaining open spaces in the store lottery were taken.  Everyone was on pins and needles wondering who would win.  A Mr Hoolikan, whose name for several days everyone mistook for Hanoraka, was appointed acting store manager until something definite could be resolved.  It was rumored that this was it for sure, that under no circumstance would Hazelton be reinstated into the company hierarchy this time.

"He's out," everyone said.  "Long live the Old Man."  In truth, however, the outcome was far from certain.  No sooner had Hazelton regained consciousness than right from his hospital bed, he called his attorney to inform him to get ready if need be for a court fight.

"They'll try again to put me out to pasture," he half said, half gasped.  "But I won't let them."  By the time Hazelton was released from the hospital, his attorney had drawn up the necessary strategy.  It was far from certain that the Old Man was out.  Hoolikan laughed heartily when asked if he would be made Hazelton's successor.

"God forbid!" he declared in good humor as he leaned back in his chair and raised his legs in an effort to get them onto the desk top, a feat he had attempted off and on throughout his life, never with any success.  He was enormously fat, and his limbs acted as much like separately willed entities as like parts of a single body whose movements he could control.  He let his legs down gently.  "I'm a numbers man," he said in a slurred kind of voice; all his letters seemed like syllables of one continuing word.  "God forbid I should have to sell or be sold!  Me, I'm getting into RMS at ground zero.  Data base.  Computers.  Retail Merchandise System.  Company's jumping in head first.  We'll need district and even regional people to man it.  That's where I see my niche, and by God come hookey or crookey I'll slither my way in or my name ain't Hoolikan!"  He laughed.

"Hoolikan?" his listeners, the members of his staff, all asked.

"Thought it was Hanoraka," one of them explained.  This brought a great burst of laughter from Mr Hoolikan; it was a good five minutes before he quieted down, at which point he pulled a handkerchief from his jacket's breast pocket and wiped his face.

"That's good - that's good!" he noted.  "That's a good one alright.  Just between us two," he explained in a loud voice as he motioned his staff a little nearer, "don't be surprised to find old Hazelton in this here chair come this time next week.  Unless, of course," he added with a great wink, "they can't get me unstuck!"

They were discussing Hoolikan's prediction, weighing the pros and cons of Hazelton's return, at their table in the Buffeteria, over their afternoon coffee, when they all noticed a strange group of customers entering the side door, the one between the Buffeteria and the Catalog department.  It appeared to be a family: a man, a woman, seven children ranging, it seemed, from about fourteen on down to perhaps a year of age, the youngest child carried in the woman's arms.  They were poorly dressed, almost uniquely so, and were unkempt, obviously dirty.  None of them looked as if their hair had ever been combed, and rarely washed; their fingernails were almost black, and all the younger children had sticky looking patches around their mouths and on their cheeks.  Among the nine of them there was not one single pair of shoes, of whatever pairing, free of holes or scuffs severe enough to approximate holes.  Nor was there an item of apparel without tears somewhere.  They looked to be as ill at ease here as their persons seemed ill suited to these surroundings.  This was not a luxury store, it deliberately appealed to the lower and middle income patron; still, its modest decor hopelessly shamed these nine customers.  Had it been a palace hall they could not have appeared more out of place.  They all took turns, almost as if by design so synchronous did their movements appear, looking around and then glancing down to the floor.  Their eyes, whenever it became their turn to look around, thus visible to onlookers, seemed frightened, though not really hostile.  And there was a look of deep embarrassment, almost of guilt, on each of their faces, even the smallest children, except for the infant, who lay asleep in the woman's arms.  They seemed in a great hurry as they progressed past the Buffeteria, on their right, and the Catalog desk on their left.  Everyone on either side was staring at them.  A few muffled chuckles could occasionally be heard; each time, the two littlest children walking grabbed hold of the woman's skirt.

When they had passed - "passed in review," as some wag put it - a din of sound abruptly arose on either side of the aisle as people commenced talking about them or else simply returned to their casual afternoon chat over coffee.  Stephen Hauser, Clarence Coe and Covill Claire burst out laughing.

"What in God's name was that?" asked Mr Coe.

"The last of the Mohicans?" Mr Claire posited.

"Or the great migration of the clucks?" Stephen Hauser suggested.  There was some laughter.  "Now I could see it," Stephen proceeded to explain, "if they were black, or even wet backs - but hell, they were white: just as white as you or me or any of us."

Here Will, the Appliance salesman, added a qualification to Stephen's assessment.  "Not as white," he said, "as old H. G. Hazelton, I don't think!"  The gentlemen of the staff laughed.

"For two cents," said Stephen, "I'd go follow those clods and see what they're up to.  They're probably robbing the store blind right now, what do you think?  Maybe we can go help Chas catch him a thief, huh?"  Chas was head of security at the Erie store; his name was Charles, but having witnessed him once abbreviate his name, Mr Coe, his boss, began calling him Chas.  The nickname took.  "Yeah," Stephen boasted, "I'd like to go tackle me some clod busters right about now.  I'm feeling, like my man Dylan said about his man Frankie Lee, 'low and mean.'  Yeah, I'd sure like to go rumple some cluck feathers.  What do you say men?  Should we have a go at it?"  Something of a debate ensued, everyone expressing an opinion concerning the role of the citizen in helping promote and maintain law and order, the weight of opinion leaning toward greater activism.  "Then men: let's move it!  Let's show these bean pickers who's who around here and who ain't!"

"Hey look!" Mr Coe exclaimed, pointing down the aisles deep into the heart of the store."

"What?" asked Mr Claire.

"Over there," Coe replied.  "Over in Hardware: see?  There's old Chas now.  Bullhawk: that's our man alright.  Got the eyes of a hawk and when he opens his mouth he's full of bull!"

"Oh yeah," said Claire, "I see.  What's he doing?"

"Bird watching, of course," said Stephen Hauser.  "Let's keep loose, men, we may have to run to his aid before these clucks are through."

A moment of watching Chas the head of security at work passed when the nine shabby customers became again visible, just having passed through the Lawn and Garden department on their way, it would appear, toward retracing their steps back out of the store.

"Hey look - look!" cried Will.  Chas ducked behind a counter to mimic a customer lost in shopping, just as the nine brushed past his perch.  They did not look back; he began following them, moving stealthfully from aisle to aisle, counter to counter, until he too was out in the open, nearing the juncture of the two main aisleways.  The nine had already started down the aisle between the Buffeteria and the Catalog desk: if they had shoplifted, they had better be apprehended now or else it would be too late.  At the far end of the aisle where the nine were headed, a woman carrying a baby was just entering.  She smiled upon looking into the Buffeteria, then her attention was diverted to the party approaching her.  She stepped slightly aside and paused to let them pass; as they did, with eyes lowered, her baby laughed, reached out and touched, just ever so slightly touched, the rousing baby in the shabby woman's arm.  For that infinitesimal second the two babies exchanged looks, smiles and some unknown chatter; each watched the other as long as they could, till the distance between the one retreating, the other standing still, had widened beyond their power of comprehension, at which point each ceased to exist for the other as abruptly as it had come into existence.  For as long as they remained visible, the woman entering the store stood watching; not once though did they turn back to watch her.  Then she made for the Buffeteria, where everyone said hello, commented on how big little Junior was getting, and offered her a seat.

"What are you doing here?" Stephen asked.  Something in his voice seemed anxious.

"I had some shopping," Toni Hauser replied.

"Well, you two love birds take care," said Mr Coe when he and the others left.

"Of all times to come shopping," Stephen Hauser told his wife.  "Hell, those cruds practically ran you down.  And hell, Toni, where's your mind?  God, didn't you see our son practically touch that woman's kid?  Jesus, Toni, he could get anything from scum like that!  It's bad enough they're allowed to come around where people congregate, let alone having our son get near enough to actually touch one of them.  You'd think they'd have some sense of decency, wouldn't you?  No, not them though - not their kind.  Filth, pure filth and trash.  Jesus, Mary and Joseph it makes me sick to think about it.  But I can't get over it Toni; God, I just can't get over you.  Couldn't you have moved or something? or gone back out and in some other door when you saw them approaching?  You had plenty of time.  Honey, sometimes I wonder about you, I swear I do.  Now, I know you're as smart as most any woman: you'd think you'd know right off to keep away from people like that, Toni.  I mean, it's a question of judgment - don't you see that?  And it comes right down to what I've always said, and my dad said, and his dad, and God knows as many dads as there's ever been have said it too: a woman, I don't care how smart she might be on paper, it's just on paper because she just doesn't have that one crucial ingredient.  Discrimination.  Without that, intelligence is useless, it never becomes judgment.  And I love you - Toni, I love you with all my heart, I swear I do.  But when it comes right down to it, honey, you're still a woman; there's no getting around that.  Which is precisely why you need a man: to protect you; to make your major decisions for you - I mean the really important ones, you know, the ones that can affect your whole life; in a word, Toni, to dominate you.  Don't you see, it's so simple, Toni; I don't know why it's so hard for some women - and hell, even some men - to see it!  A man needs to dominate.  And a woman needs - I don't mean just wants, but needs: deep in her bones and her soul - to be dominated.  And it's got nothing to do with what's right or just or good - even though it is right and just and good too.  But it's even more than all those things.  I mean, first of all, a man needs - he's got to have, he needs - a woman to dominate so that he can feel - and be, not just feel, but be - equal to his peers, Toni - equal to his peers.  And a woman shines when she sees her man standing shoulder to shoulder with his peers; that's what makes her beautiful, because she knows she's helped make it happen.  Don't you see how important that makes her, Toni?  Don't you see it?"

I've always seen it, or something like it, Toni thought to herself.  Oh God yes: how I've always seen it.  And my mom, and my mom's mom, and as many moms as there ever were; they too have seen it, though not perhaps for what it is.  And baby Stephen: will his little woman see it one day too?  And baby Stephen's baby Stephen's little woman's baby's baby?  Is there in fact anything else in the world to see?  Strange, how of all things tyranny alone never becomes trite, or banal, or a cliché.  It's always fresh, and always vital.  One of the truly artistic things of life.  So be it.

He was looking for work, that was all; for the off season.  He had come here looking for work; not that he had had some notion that such a thing as seasonal work existed at department stores, unless it might have been at Christmas, and this was late April.  He had no clear notion how retail or any other kind of permanent, year-round work was handled; neither did he have much of an idea what kind of work he should expect, if given a job, other than that people sold things here so perhaps a salesman's job.  The woman was his wife, the seven children his by her.  They had not worm their best clothes; no sooner were they in the door, however, than the man began wishing they had.  It was clear to him they stood out; they did not seem to belong here, they were too different.  He criticized his carelessness in letting his children come here unwashed: I should have known, he thought.  This is a good place, it is warm and elegant and it is filled with very well groomed people.  Perhaps, he concluded, they would not wish to buy from one so poorly groomed as myself: I shall have to keep this in mind if given a job.  I shall have to be on my best manners to help offset the poor impression of my appearance.  Why do the bastards stare?  At me: I am a man, I'm used to such things.  But my woman, and especially my children: to stare at them, to make them feel shame.  I could rip their filthy eyes from their sockets with little spoons, as in a book they did when a boy looked with great lust at their wife.  But no, it is not given me to do justice to those who defile my family.  I will content myself with merely wishing their eyes plucked from their heads and mashed into the ground.

"I'm sorry," the man was told by the Personnel manager, "we have nothing vacant just now.  But we'll keep your application on file, if you like.  We can keep it for up to three months, and if we have an opening on our janitorial staff, we'll give you a call.  Is there a number you can be reached at?

No, there was no such number.  But he thanked the manager anyway, collected his family and left.  Again he cursed the people for staring, again he wished vengeance upon them.  A beautiful woman, with dark hair and eyes and lovely smooth skin, stood up ahead, at the door the man and his family had entered and must now go out.  He stared very hard at her, from a ways off, then, with his family, lowered his eyes and made for the door.  She moved aside.  That baby you hold, the man thought: I would pull it from your breast and crush its skull against the pavement, and rape you, and you would feel and smell every inch of me, then I would slit your throat and let the blood drip down your breasts and into my mouth.  You are filth, and good only for desecration.  Outside, the man spat upon the pavement.

Stephen Hauser, Clarence Coe, Covill Claire, Mr Peppersen and the acting store manager, Mr Hoolikan, all laughed when they heard that the shabby man with seven children had come here looking for a job, tears actually forming in Mr Hoolikan's eyes, wetting the bags under his eyes but proceeding no farther down his face.  The Personnel manager smiled but refrained from laughing.  She explained, when asked if she did not find it funny that such a man should imagine himself employable and why didn't she if she didn't and how could anyone not, that she was afraid of him: really, truly afraid, almost, so he insisted, to the point of terror.  This of course was dismissed by the rest of the staff with a good humored shake of the head, his fear attributed entirely to her being a woman.  She too found himself laughing.

'Wait till you run into somebody like that who's queer," she warned, "then see if you don't get the willy's when he looks at you."

"I'd bust the bastard in the mouth if he looked at me like that, the God damned fag!" Stephen Hauser swore.  "And after that," he added, "I'd have the son of a bitch arrested: it happens to be against the law to look at a man that way!  And that's one blankety blank fag'd spend the next five years in jail too, you can count on that!"

"Methinks he protests too much," observed Mr Hoolikan.  Everyone laughed.

"No," insisted Stephen, "some things you can't protest too much."

"I don't understand," Miss Leggins, the Personnel manager, confessed, "why is it alright for a woman to be stared at but not for a man?  Don't I have a right to lust too if I want?"

Everyone agreed that certainly she did.  "It's in bad taste for a woman to stare that way at a man," Stephen patiently explained, "but you have the right.  What I'm talking about is another man staring at a man: that's the part that's wrong."  Miss Leggins readily agreed, but still seemed not quite satisfied, so Mr Hoolikan went, put his arm around her shoulders, and ushered her back to her office, insisting she not worry her "pretty little head" about such matters.  When he returned to the rest of the staff, Hoolikan praised Miss Leggins for being "cute as a little Dresden doll."

"Kind of like my Toni," Stephen noted in a very pleased voice.

Hoolikan screwed up his mouth and his eyelids spread a ways over his eyes.  He seemed to be reflecting on Stephen's remark, then he spoke.  "Me, I'm an RMS man," he explained, "and son I know a computer when I see one.  You've got a lovely wife, my boy - but a Dresden doll?  A Sperry Univac maybe; but a Dresden doll?  Sorry Charley, take a hike."  Hoolikan laughed and slapped Stephen on the back.  "I gotta go now," he said.  "down to TVs," he added.  "Gotta see a man about a dog." With this, Hoolikan lifted his head and feigned baying at the moon.  "Except that ain't no dog - that's my best salesgirl!  So long gentlemen, been good to know ya.  I'm gonna try to get my socks wet, yes sir I am - and call Tongue: I 'spect ma shoes'll split wide open on me, yes soh I do soh."  Mr Tongue had been brought back to replace the departing 

"I like him," Stephen admitted to his fellow staff members.

"Hey, listen what the fatso said today," he told his wife over supper.  "He said you weren't like a little Dresden doll but more like a computer - a Sperry Univac!  Talk about your inability to read people, huh?  Hey, too bad he didn't say a Sperry Rand, isn't it?  Then you would have been in a round about way compared to Ayn Rand.  Not that you'd want to be compared to an intellectual Jew from Russia - who in God's name would?  Still, it's better than a computer!  Not that that's all bad, but I mean when you think about a computer, what do you think about?  You think about a super sharp man whose mind works like one of those calculators, don't you?  Sure; everyone does.  You don't think about a woman, for Christ sake.  A woman's sexy, and slinky, and soft.  The three S's.  But he's okay, the Old Man.  Acting Old Man, I better make that.  He's okay though.  Like lately: he's taken to mimicking old Sachmo - I told you about Sachmo, didn't I?  The nigger who's our new staff trainee?  I mean, not that his name's really Sachmo, we just call him that.  Sort of kid him, you know, give him a nickname.  He's a jerk of course, but he's kind of cool, for a nigger.  He's not going to make it though.  I mean, we've got some like real light skinned ones, and they do okay, but I don't think he'll make it: I don't think any company that would promote me would promote him too, do you?  I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm not prejudiced, and hell I like the guy.  I was talking to him the other day, old Sachmo; he sat down at our table, kind of by mistake: I mean, he's new, and I guess he didn't realize being a staff trainee doesn't make him on the same level with the staff members.  I kind of said something to him afterward, you know, to set him straight so he wouldn't embarrass himself.  But he's a nice guy, he really is - and not a bit prejudiced against us, either.  He's the first one - and I mean this Toni, so help me God I mean it - he's the first one to admit the black man has to prove himself to the whites before he can stand as their equal.  He don't believe in no handouts.  He knows it's going to take his people a long time before they'll be ready to be really trusted with the kind of responsibility we take for granted.  He's a damn good man.  And you know, we got to talking the other day about, well, about the size of a man's penis - of course, when we men talk, we don't call it penis, but in front of our ladies we do.  Anyway, he explained it's all a myth about black men having larger penises.  See, what it is: theirs don't expand any when they get an erection like ours do.  I mean, that's the kind of guy he is, Toni, that he can admit something like that and make us know we stand equal.  Cause a lot of white guys are hung up about that.  And like, he proved to us how wrong we were in being so concerned.  I mean, the guys who were concerned.  I guess some of them were, I don't really know.  I tell you, if old Sachmo was a little lighter skinned, I could almost see him some day as a store manager, I really could.  But, well, that's the breaks I guess; and just between me and you he may as well head back to the watermelon patch.  Like my man Hoolikan says 'Yes soh, yes soh, dat's right soh, sho nuf is, soh!"

Stephen laughed.  Early after supper he played with his son, as vaguely in the corner some movie about tobacco farming rolled across the television screen; every once in a while he glanced at it.  He would lift baby Stephen high over his head and bring him abruptly to touch his forehead, each time the child squealing with laughter.  Stephen too laughed each time.  The movie, called "Parrish," detailed the path of its hero toward manhood; it told of his getting a tobacco rash from the fields, it was hard work, and of his torrid loves.  A handsome young actor named Troy Donahue starred; he was like a model, strong, brooding, blonde, something boyish in his face, something gentle about him, as if he had always been and was doomed to always be a Parrish, his name in the movie.  More like a single picture than a movie, his image, without progression.  One might fold the screen and tuck it away in a drawer somewhere, freezing the motion at any frame.

Toni Hauser sat in a little coffee colored armchair in the baby's room, reading.  There were blue curtains on the window, a little out of place in a medium beige room with an earthen decor, but Stephen had insisted upon them: "He's a boy," it was explained to Toni.  She listened as she read, once in a while laughing at something said on the television, coming into the living room at one point to see what Parrish's tobacco rash looked like.  The man she saw at the store, the shabby man with so big a family, had gotten her to thinking; she drew a copy of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" from a small bookcase and re-read certain passages particularly vivid in her memory, not expecting any of it to frame the man exactly, though certainly he had seemed to be a migrant worker and this was the great migrant novel of American literature so it could not have been entirely inappropriate to his life, its various parameters wholly unalike, nor expecting to get any greater insight into the peculiar look in his eyes just before he lowered them or any further grasp of the feeling of utter repulsion which had come over her when her baby reached out and touched his baby.  She simply read.  No one can read this anymore, she thought as she read. Except perhaps in Literature Class, the kind which surveys the various trends comprising the history of the American novel.  It has become trite; the social novel passé.  So only if we claim to be archivists can we openly read such things.  But even as the most modern literary creation is coming off the press, it's becoming trite.  You no sooner say something new than it's heard everywhere, it's already known, its ramifications already beginning to be felt.  If our culture were a world, it would be spinning at such a rate as to break apart.  And the world must end for the one tiny reason that no one can read Steinbeck any more.  Not as John Galt has said: that when the lights of New York are extinguished; but simply that everything has dwindled to banality.  Even so, if you listen, really listen, to what is being said, and ignore the format, you can still find fresh life.

"I am a migrant man," Toni murmured just as, on television, Parrish was kissing Connie Stevens, who played a loose girl connected somehow with the tobacco farm.  That I don't tell anyone it's time to awaken doesn't alter the fact, she said to herself.  We are - and listen to this now - we are what we are.  She set her book back down, got up, and went to watch Parrish.

"You think he's good looking?" Stephen asked.

"No more so than he has to be," Toni replied.  "You wouldn't expect a Parrish not to be, would you?"

"Do you wish you'd married him instead of me?" Stephen asked.

Parrish was saying something on television coincidentally similar to what Stephen had asked, the tones of the two voices were alike, and for an instant Toni Hauser puzzled over who had asked the question.  She half turned to Parrish before turning to her husband to tell him no, she did not wish she had married Parrish instead.  He smiled, as if relieved - as if relief for such competition was needed.

"He's not real," Toni said.  Whether it was just in the natural course or prompted by Toni's reply, Stephen's smile faded.  He went back to playing with his son; Toni went back to read some more.

The Hausers had prepared a nice vacation the fourth of July; Stephen had managed to get the prestigious holiday off, something he had not managed for a long time.  They had made reservations at Le Chateau, a lakeside resort, had charted their route to Niagara, the vacation paradise of the Lower Lakes region, had even bought new clothes just for the trip.  Le Chateau had disseminated brochures everywhere; inside were pictures of the lodge - an outside overall view plus the rooms themselves variously posed: each room had its own fireplace, knotty pine paneling, and beamed cathedral ceiling, they were called chalet rooms and they faced either Lake Ontario or else the Niagara River.  There were vague hints of an Olympic sized pool, which the careless vacationer might take to be indoor: it was outside though, inside was a lobby and a few vending machines.  What the brochure could not capture was the lackluster gloss, the motel smell - every motel has a characteristic odor, something one might liken to that of an office or the reception desk of a factory - or the grittiness of the carpeting.  "Some rest for the weary" was promised on the front cover, and, as if to illustrate, on the back cover a person lay sleeping under the covers of a queen (or king) sized bed, a nondescript form, unisexual, ageless, a stylization of humanity, resting peacefully.

For hours at a time the Hausers seemed to be taking turns staring at that covered form from Le Chateau.  At some given point Toni Hauser sat with it on her lap, looking down; then some other point shifted the brochure onto Stephen Hauser's lap, a lapse of time implied in the transition only somewhere indistinctly, as if someone had taken a trick moving picture where the camera is stopped, the subject leaves, and while the camera stays aimed at the exact same scene, another subject takes the first's place: for the effect, usually amusing, though not this time.  They would have gone on their vacation, it might have been one of them slumbering in Le Chateau's chalet room, or both of them curled up in love, one half-buried in the other's arms; but they had to cancel their reservation.  It was awkward for the manager to advise them of Le Chateau's refund policy, but, well, it was his job, and while he was genuinely sorry at their loss, he was comfortably duty bound to keep one-half their reservation charge.  Luckily they had been able to give more than fifteen days notice or they would have forfeited the entire amount. May 14th was when the child died, at approximately nine fifteen P.M.

It was having to call and cancel the reservation that had put Toni in touch with the brochure.  She had had to get the phone number, it was on the front cover.  While she called, she toyed absently with the pages, opening them with one finger, shutting them with another; and when she hung up, and went to sit down in the beige armchair, she still had the brochure, but it had gotten turned to where the back cover was showing, so she stared at it.  Perhaps the sleeping form made her think of her son, she was not sure why it first caught her attention, or perhaps she was not even aware of any resemblance other than the commonplace parallel between sleeping and death.  When she had seen it enough, she laid it on the chair's arm and got up; in a while Stephen came along, sat down, and, the brochure already being there, where he was about to sit his arm, picked it up and looked at it then let it fall onto his lap.

Baby Stephen was fine when they put him to bed at eight.  There was no sound.  It was only when, before retiring, the Hausers looked in on him that his stillness was discovered.  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome it was called, SIDS for short; once it had been called simply Crib Death.  The breath just seemed to stop: that was how it was broadly described.  Somebody suggested they give the baby's body to medical science so that future infants might be spared.

"No," Stephen had objected, "it had to be a virus: my son would never just quit breathing.  He was a whiz, I mean a whiz, smart as they come, he'd know better.  It was a pheumo-coccus alright.  I guess.  I'm sorry we ever found out about viruses now: who'd have guessed it would unleash all this?  We'd have been better off not knowing.  God damn Louie Pasteur, he's the son of a bitch I'd like to get my hands on, I'd kill the God damn bastard!  Kill my son with his shittin' microbes will he, the bastard!  I'll show him!  It's gonna be a shittin' cold day in hell before I ever drink pasteurized milk again, you can count on that!  And if I ever so much as see a cow around here again I'll skin the pig alive!  Who needs cows - who the hell needs 'em anyway, huh?"

Toni reaffirmed at least the "no" part of her husband's response; no, the baby's body would not be turned over to medical science; at least that much of it.  She stopped short, however, of vowing never to again take pasteurized milk.  Some vague hint was made that the day would come when medical science would order, not ask, for bodies to be turned over to their research: we owed it to future generations.  Somebody was quoted as saying life was a trust, something about a life being not really one's own, something about a common bond.  By accident, though no one knew it but him, the undertaker, in preparing baby Stephen to meet his maker, dropped the child onto the floor; but, retrieving the body, found there to be no apparent damage; and a moral principle was then and there born on the man's lips: "Just goes to show you," he said, "they're tough as nails once they're dead."  Toni Hauser noticed a slight scrape on the baby's ear rim but said nothing.  It was hot and everyone seemed almost too occupied perspiring to pay much attention to the ceremony.  The preacher at one point gurgled; there was fear he would strangle, he had apparently a history of getting strangled when over agitated; but he recovered.  Toni wanted no preacher, no religious ceremony, in fact no funeral at all, just a burial.

"My God," Stephen wailed, "just dig a hole and drop him in? like a dead goldfish? or a salamander?  My God.  'Down in the hole' - is that it? from Godot? let the gravedigger use forceps? huh?  My God.  My God.  My God wants it done right, or not at all.  He may as well have stayed alive for all the good his death would do.  My God, my God.  I wouldn't have let him die if I'd have known this - shit! shit shit shit!  Why?  Why and shit!  And shit and why!  And why the shit and shit the why huh huh huh?"

Stephen Hauser, after the ceremony, refused to speak to the preacher.  He simply called him bastard, said something about any man who could bury his son being no friend of his, repeated that no, he would not speak to the bastard, and left.  Toni, who despised preachers, thanked the man for his help, expressed some little concerns for his health, then left too.  The perspiring gathering left, the hearse left, the preacher left, asking himself if he thought to remind the bereaved parents that life goes on; everyone left; from behind a tall hedge, watching closely, the gravediggers made their move.  One of them opened the casket to get a look at the deceased, shook his head, closed it back.

"And now we've left Alaska, because there was no gold mine; but this time, only two of us move on."

"You just had to play that, didn't you?" Stephen asked.  Toni nodded yes.  Yes, I had to, she told herself.  "Why don't you tell me what you're saying, instead of just telling yourself all the time?" Stephen asked, a bit sadly.  "I'm not an ogre, Toni," he explained as he took her in his arms and held her close, "I won't make fun of you.  I know I tease sometimes, but God Toni you shouldn't take me so seriously, you're not stupid, you're as smart as any woman.  Don't be afraid - how else are you going to learn?"

It seemed to Toni Hauser as good a time as any to let herself cry.  Stephen held her, comforted her.  "It's what a man's for," he whispered tenderly.  And she cried all the more.

In the middle of August Stephen came home looking as pale as a ghost.  His mouth hung open.  He slowly shook his head from side to side, his head cocked ever so slightly to the left.  His eyes were blank.  When he finally spoke, all he said at first was "He's in limbo," then he went and sat down in Toni's beige armchair.  In perhaps an hour he muttered "Anonymous soil.  He's in anonymous soil," then fell silent again.  Eventually he told his wife what had happened: he was being transferred, promoted; an opening for an operating manager, something he needed to put him in line for a store manager's position, had occurred.  Stephen had been recommended for the promotion and, also unknown to him, he had been selected.  The first of September he was to report to Montgomery, Alabama.

"They're moving me, God damn them, they're sending me away.  Toni: you can't let them!  My baby's here, he's still here.  This is not his birthplace, it's not even his home.  Toni, you have to stop them.  I won't let them Toni, I won't, I'll fight them, I swear I will, I'll kill them if I have to, I will Toni, you know I will too, so stop them, do anything you have to but stop them.  I'll dig him up Toni, I swear I will, and you know I will, I'll dig him up, and take him with us and a little dirt too, some of his anonymous soil, only then they'll call him a vampire, believe me I know people: they'll call him a vampire alright, you know damn well they will, only I don't care!  He's going with us Toni, you know he is, if I have to put his bones in my back pocket he's going, and I'll put him down inside my drawers, I swear I will too, and he can rest Toni, he can rest right where he came from, you know? dust to dust, and ashes to ashes Toni, and dirt to dirt and filth to filth.  I swear it, I swear it Toni!"

Stephen Hauser looked like a warrior, fighting some horrible enemy.  His face was blood red, his cheeks twitched valiantly, and his eyes grew puffy and wet; but no tears flowed.  His hands gripped the arms of Toni's beige chair, the backs of his fingers were white and bloodless.  His mouth dripped saliva.  He began singing.  "Make the world go away," he sang, every couple of words sliding crescendos rising above their fellow lyrics as though his voice were an invisible roller coaster and they were little trains.  "Get it off my shoulder."  He left out superfluous words and word endings.  Then his song began changing into a version of "Gonna wash that man right out of my hair" and ended up with the "Green green grass of home."  He feigned a puff on a cigarette every time he sang the word "grass."  Eventually his song ended; he got up and turned on the television.  Some comedy was being rerun, which featured a lovely big breasted blonde, the plot causing her to have to bounce up and down a great deal.  Stephen laughed at almost anything she said or did, pronouncing it afterward the best show he had ever seen - "better than any shittin' artsy-fartsy crap!"  In the bedroom, he found his wife reading Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath."  He slapped the book out of her hand; it flew across the room and landed, as chance would have it, on the very shelf Toni kept it on when not reading it.

"How can you read that trash at a time like this?" he asked.  "How can you bear to take your mind off our son like that?" he asked in a pitiful voice, then he grabbed her and pulled her to him and began unbuttoning her blouse.  "Oh God," he begged, "make the world go away."                                

They were good headlights,  they were not discarded, the fog only appeared to have taken them and hurled them into space, the winding road only made it look as though they were irretrievable, headed on a diagonal over some mountain ledge into the Abyss.  And they were being constantly changed from high to low beam, the fog one moment seeming to disperse enough for the greater beam to pass, then the next moment reassembling to reflect the glare back through the windshield.  It was hilly, by not truly mountainous; the road was winding, but not treacherous; the traffic was slight.  Neither in the trunk nor the back seat of the Hauser's car was there any trace of graveyard, or of bone; but in Stephen Hauser's pants pocket was a small handful of soil which had been scraped from the tiny mound of earth marking his son's grave, gotten very late the previous night.  The Hausers had been given a little going away party at the home of Mr and Mrs Hoolikan; Stephen had slipped away unnoticed, driven to the graveyard to get his soil sample, and returned.  No one knew he had the dirt.

"Here's for all you fog bound lovers sitting beside the window watching the night disappear," the voice on the car radio was saying.  Then the song came on, starting slow and with an eerie sound like a drum roll; the drum roll persisted, even faintly behind crescendos of violins and brass.  "Nights In White Satin," the Moody Blues sang.  "Never reaching the end."  The glare came and went, lights here on a tree, there on the ground, lights going off into space, going up hills, slithering down hills, over the ledge, up the fine mist of fog, a climber, then lying broken, dying to be run over by the car wheels.  "Beauty I always missed, with these eyes before."  A bird flew into the front grill, a little thud, flapping sounds, silence except for a whistle of air.  A tiny opossum scaled the runged lights, crossed unscathed the paths of these travelers, eyes half shut in the venomous glare of headlights poised like fangs and dripping milky mist, and was gone, down a gully.  "Just what you want to be, you will be in the end,."  Moths to their doom; and somewhere, hovering, what looked to be a dragonfly, sitting on the antenna, wrenching sounds from the radio, as though a ghoul siphoning the vitality of music.  Nimbo stratus, the fog, layered as by a hair stylist using the latest razor cut: so thick, one could cut it with a knife.  The weatherman had forecast it; unknown to everyone, he was busy at this very instant preparing his I told you-so for tomorrow's forecast.  "Just what the truth is, I can't say anymore," the Moody Blues confessed, and just as they finished confessing, a row of lights began inching their way nearer, big, tall, bluish arc lights, the kind which mark the approach of an interchange along a freeway or of a city.  Up ahead, the fog had already began dripping.  By the time they reached their destination across town, the Hausers were free of fog but being rained on.  Eleven fifty nine P.M. they pulled into the driveway of the house which had been rented for them temporarily: their new home.  "We know you'll like it," they were told by the staff of the Montgomery, Alabama store, "your predecessor lived here, and he and his family loved it.  Now he's a store manager up north."  Toni Hauser wondered if that meant the house was enchanted: cottage, she corrected herself.

"Will we need a wand to get in?" she asked.  Her husband looked at her oddly and asked merely "What?"

"Just a thought," Toni answered.  It was a small white frame cottage, aluminum framing, two stories, two distinct sections of roof coming together at a perpendicular - "L" shaped, somewhat - to give rise to twin gables, one facing frontward, the other sideways.  All the trim was dark red, almost a burgundy; there were shutters at the front floor windows, a tiny porch where one piece of roofing overhung the right angle, and two porch lights, which were on already when the Hausers arrived.  The key sent to Stephen Hauser opened the door.  Inside, the Hausers were greeted by a huge sign on poster paper: "Welcome" it said in big red letters, followed, in green smaller letters in parentheses directly beneath, by an injunction to "Read On."  "We figured it'd be late when you got here so we left the lights on," a drawn hand pointed a drawn finger to the body of the message.  "There's coffee in the kettle, dishes under the sink, and frost on the pumpkin pie (ha ha!).  We've turned your bed down (the rest is up to you - ha ha!).  Sleep tight, don't do nothing we wouldn't do (ha ha!), see you on the morrow, and may the good Lord above shine down on you (or drop green cheese ha ha!)."  The message was signed simply "Us."  Stephen laughed happily and informed his wife, in a voice full of pride and hope and confidence, that they were going to like it here.

"No," he corrected himself, "we're gonna love it here!"  ha ha!

"They leave nothing to the imagination, do they?" Toni asked somewhat rhetorically.

"Yes sir, these are first rate people alright!" Stephen noted, presumably in response to his wife's question, admiration in his voice.  He had to laugh once more before retiring: a little note was pinned to the pillowcase, a drawn finger pointed  to its message.  "Your predecessor loved fleur de lis - we figured you would too: it's like making love on a bed of roses! ha ha!"

"Yes sir," Stephen repeated, "we're gonna love it here.  At last," he added.  They had put a big wall mirror up in the bedroom, there was no note of explanation though, no finger pointing to its message.  Stephen, after undressing, walked to it and stood looking at himself.  There were small pockets of a kind of flab, though not really fat, just slackened and sagged muscles: the bellies of his various muscles, made more prominent with the loss of youth's tightness.  He had put on a few pounds, and he had practically ceased formal exercise, although in his work he got enough exercise to keep fit.  Dressed, he still retained his fashion model's trim physique; but naked, his losses stood revealed: at the waist, his upper arms, his hips where they met his thighs, his calfs.  He had lost his tone.  He looked disgusted as he picked at the various little paunches, mumbling at the feel of each, "One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes, four."

"Hey Toni," he called, "no more potatoes, and that's an order.  You don't want your man to lose his virility, you know."  When he returned to bed, before getting in, he asked his wife if she thought his testicles hung any lower.  "You know," he explained, "like maybe a tumor or something?"  She said no.  He seemed satisfied.

In the morning, Stephen wiped himself with fleur de lis toilet tissue: no note to explain the pattern's goodness or his predecessor's predilection for it though: presumably one explanation was sufficient.  He ate a hearty breakfast: it was very good, he said.  A note on the refrigerator door had directed, with pointed finger, Toni Hauser's attention to a recipe book which lay on a small cabinet to the right of the refrigerator, open to a particular page; on that page was a recipe for eggs Benedict.  Toni tried it, Stephen liked it: the judgment of the store staff had been vindicated.  When they know more, Toni thought, it's only right they should tell you what to do.  The thought would have troubled her had she not intended it ironically.  Who was his predecessor, she wondered: John Galt?

Stephen kissed her goodbye and drove to work.  He wore a light beige suit trimmed in a darker beige threading; he wore a pale yellow shirt, a brown tie with a green and beige pattern, dark beige belt and shoes the color of oxblood, only more in the brown than the red vein.

The store sat off to itself, with a shopping plaza nearby, the two connected by a covered corridor which was known locally as The Tunnel.  The plaza was the newer of the two buildings, it was a kind of stone; the store was brick, an older kind of brick, almost but not quite brown.  As Stephen approached nearer, he could see faint traces of what looked like moss growing around the mortar at certain places: near the corners and just beneath the window ledges, the windows being themselves quite a curiosity - not huge plate glass windows, although these were there too, at the first floor level, but regular windows, the kind one might find at an office building; and in fact these windows did mark the existence of offices, on the upper two stories.  There were not that many windows, only four on the side Stephen could see from his approach; they were covered with bars.  The building itself, naturally, was almost square; and on top, turret like structures were built to house and help protect from the elements the air conditioning and heating units which sat on the roof.  It was located in an area of heavy industry and of fierce winter winds; between the corrosive fumes and the wind, the company felt the sensitive climate control equipment needed a measure of extra protection not generally afforded.  These turrets rose to a height of twenty feet; otherwise, being clustered about the center of the building, where the equipment was, they would probably have gone unnoticed from the ground.  They were darker too than the building, having a kind of tar covering which would also, had they not been so tall, have tended to obscure them from below.  The air was heavy, Stephen appeared to be struggling at first to get a good breath before going in, though only for a moment; by the time he had crossed the parking lot he was breathing more naturally.

"Hell," he said, "all those assholes going around complaining about clean air: just take a little deeper breath, that's all.  Shit, look at all the perfume flowers put out: that's got to be chemicals too - right?  Pollution.  Probably just as deadly as steel dust or coal or any of it.  Yeah, yeah, that's good, I'm going to remember that, and the next time I hear some idiot complaining about pollution, I'll remind the jerk flowers pollute as much as factories - and I don't hear the environmentalists going around advocating cutting down all the flowers, just shutting down all the factories.  Hell, without factories we'd all be nothing but a pack of jerk water bean pickers going around place to place sniffing out bean poles!  Hot damn, wouldn't that be some life!"

He entered by way of a small metal door, painted rust, on the far corner, this being the rear of the building and void of customer entrances, unlike most other stores he'd worked in: most had no special employee entrances; to get in and get to work, employees customarily used regular entrances.  This was something new in Stephen Hauser's experience - or, if the building suggested a time frame, something old perhaps.  Directly inside was a foyer; against one wall was a time clock and the stack shelving of time cards.  Then a stairway had to be ascended; this rear entrance was at a level lower than the actual work area.  On the wall, just above the time clock, someone had etched the words "Torquemada was here" into the plaster.  Stephen laughed, reading it.

"That's my company!" he exclaimed proudly.  Then, halfway up the stairway, he paused, as if reflecting.  "Son of a bitch!" he said in a contemptuous tone.  He descended; he returned to the time clock; he stood staring at the inscription, his face angry.  "I better never catch any of you bastards defacing company property," he said in a threatening tone, then he resumed his ascension.  A foul odor began collecting at the top of the stairs; it became fouler the further Stephen progressed: the staircase opened onto the receiving platform - the dock, which opened out onto the side of the building for receiving goods.  It seemed to be centered someplace, not a random stench, but exactly where would have been difficult to pinpoint.  One of the warehousemen, a small but burly young man with thick black curls and a beard, perceiving the look on Stephen's face, made the remark to him that it smelled "like death warmed over."  Stephen acknowledged the young man with a nod but walked on without commenting.  Once through the doors and into the store itself, Stephen relaxed his face.  The smell had vanished.  Stephen took a huge gulp of air and walked briskly onward.  He made his way for what appeared to be a gathering up ahead, near what apparently was the Candy department, Department 54; but the nearer he approached, the more his face began once more to draw into an aspect of disgust.

"Phew-ee!" he muttered.  "This whole place stinks!"  Still, he walked on toward the people.

"Hey!" someone from among the group cried out.  "Look what God sent!"  Everyone laughed.  "We asked for a boon, and we got a...boondoggle!  ha ha!"  The man withdrew a little from the group to greet Stephen.  He outdistanced everyone else in height, he looked as if he could have simply reached over his peers' heads to shake the visitor's hand.  He was thin though, and nearly bald headed, his head an almost olive tan, the ring of hair reaching almost the entire circumference of his scalp a light brown.  He had bushy eyebrows but was very smooth shaven; thick tufts of reddish brown hair covered his hands and fingers.  His thumbs were very tiny but very thick, and the lowermost portion, or phalange, of his fingers noticeably larger than the other two, the topmost so small as to at first appear nonexistent, perhaps amputated in some accident.  Stephen's hand was grabbed immediately and covered in handshakes.

"You've got to be Jake's successor!" this tall man informed Stephen, nodding his head as he spoke.  Stephen joined in nodding.  "Welcome to our little store," the man announced, adding, as he looked vaguely over his shoulder at the others, "don't happen to have a snake on you, do you?"  Everyone laughed.  Stephen smiled.

"What he means," someone started to explain as the man brought Stephen closer.  The odor got stronger, as if it were this group of people giving it off.  It was a smell of sewage, and, as Stephen soon discovered, it arose from a drain in the floor, behind the candy counter, where a wash basin emptied out.

"He knows what I mean," said the tall man curtly, "he's just come from C&D lines - hasn't he?" he asked Stephen.  Stephen nodded that he had.  "What's the matter," the man asked, "dead cat got your tongue?  ha ha.  By the way, my name's Munnikysen, call me Zweil - that's right, you heard me right: Munnikysen.  And, to boot, I'm comptroller of this store - how do you like that?  Too much of a coincidence you say?  You're absolutely right.  I'm here by design, not chance.  I set out deliberately to get into some line of banking, or at least accounting: something to do with money, if only by way of robbery; and here I am.  ha ha.  Comptroller par excellence - best in the business - the Munnikysen of the money business - or is that monkey business?  ha ha.  A real moneykins - or as I like to say, a Zweil Munnikysen.  Get it?  Good."

"Zweil?" Stephen asked.  "Is that your real name?  Zweil?"

"You don't think I'd choose a handle like that do you?" Munnikysen asked with a laugh.

"Well -" Stephen started to say.

"Well, well," Munnikysen interrupted, "you just well me no wells, young whipper snapper, but sewer me some sewers how about it?  ha ha.  No," he agreed, "you're right: it is the kind of name I just might pick - and I'm just the man to pick it, but I didn't.  Truth is my dad picked it.  From where: your guess is as good as mine.  From a sewer you say?  Maybe.  God knows.  God knows."

"What's the trouble here?" Stephen asked, indicating the drain.

"Backed up," replied one of the other men.  "By the way," he said, "I'm John, A&B merchandiser.  John Johnson."

"But you doesn't have to call him Johnson!" Munnikysen quipped.  Stephen looked puzzled.  "You know," Munnikysen explained, "the guy that does that routine on the tube?  'Oh, you doesn't have to call me Johnson!'  You heard it?"

"I guess I must have sometime," Stephen answered.  "I guess I just forgot."

"Hmm," mused Munnikysen, "that's two: one more I guess and you'll be our guest - permanently!  ha ha!"

"It's a shame to have so pretty a store plagued by a backed up drain, isn't it?" Stephen noted.

"That depends," said the man who was busy inspecting the drain at close range.

"He's the plumber," someone explained.

"Oh," said Stephen.  The store did look nice, Stephen had not exaggerated.  Everything looked new, the carpeting especially, where there was carpeting; and of course it could not all be seen from the Candy department, where there was no carpet anyway, though just down the main aisles, Department 54 being what management called a "Traffic" department, one which, though never showing much profit or a huge volume of sales, brings a good many customers into the store - the Candy department was situated at the intersection of two main aisle ways, so that just down from it, in all four directions, could be seen departments which did have carpeting: Shoes, or 24; Mens, or 35, and across the aisle from it Boys, 33, with the Teen Shop, Department 34; TV and stereos, 62 and 63.  The Center of the Universe, people in the store jokingly called the Candy department.  It was managed by a former school teacher who often warned of just such a catastrophe as a tainted drain; it was back breaking labor, carrying boxes of candy from the cool storage area against the wall, and sometimes peanuts would tumble into the drain, although in point of fact the nature of the labor had nothing to do with the wantonness of the peanuts; they were simply both attributes of Department 54, dangers which the Candy Lady - "Sweet Old Candy Lady" as she was affectionately called - often but fruitlessly pointed out to the store staff.  Now the drain was clogged; the plumber pooh-poohed the idea of peanuts causing the catastrophe.

"They'd be sucked down there just like a jock strap in a turbine," the plumber insisted.  It was pointed out that as there might be ladies listening in, he might have selected a less colorful metaphor.  "God damn it!" he stormed, "I ain't talking about none of your sissified straps, your blues and your purples or your Kelly greens!  No sir, I mean just plain old fashioned straps!  You know, dirty white so's when you sweat you can't tell no stain!"  Oh, they said.  He went back to work.  "Peanuts my ass!" he snorted.

"I'll take you later on to meet the Old Man," Munnikysen was telling Stephen.  "First, we have to get this drain unstopped -"

"Unclogged," the plumber corrected him.

"Yeah, unstuck -"

"Unclogged!" the plumber again corrected.

"My good man," said Munnikysen good naturedly, "you never correct the man who pays the bills!"  He laughed.

"Alls I know," said the plumber, mostly to himself, "if I go calling things by their wrong name, I ain't never gonna get my job done.  Just like if I see a turd a-comin' up this drain and go try calling it 'peanuts,' sure as shit the good Lord's gonna curse my labors.  You go look it up in your Bible if you don't believe me."  After this, the plumber said no more, as if his audience had simply vanished.

"I guess strictly speaking," Stephen Hauser observed, "I'd be the one to pay the man for his work.  I mean, to authorize it.  As operating manager."

Munnikysen smiled big and patted Stephen on the shoulder.  "That's what your predecessor thought too," he said, pausing a moment before adding, "at first."

"By the way," said another bystander, "my name's Harve - Amos Harve.  C&D manager."  He and Stephen shook hands.

"Him," explained Munnikysen, "you does have to call Johnson - as in Mrs Johnson."  Everyone laughed.

"I don't get it," said Stephen.  Again, everyone laughed.

"It's a long story," Amos Harve explained, "and not worth telling."

"Yeah," John Johnson added, "just forget it."

"What it was," Munnikysen pointed out, giving the two merchandisers what appeared to be a cold stare; they both moved away a little.  "Last year for our Storewide Week Show, we did a funny little bit on women's lib, kind of a parody.  Now me, I'm all for women's lib, but a good parody's a good parody.  Harve here dressed up like Johnny Johnson's little woman you see.  And, you know, one thing led to another, till finally what you had was old Johnny taking off his trousers - he had on boxer shorts of course so as not to give the ladies a chance to talk about the first thing that popped up, don't you see - and while he was doing this old Harve was busy taking off his skirt - had on bloomers, you see - and what you had then was the wife taking the pants, the husband the skirt.  Funny as hell.  It was my idea, they'll tell you.  The Old Man was a little, you know, kind of squeamish about it at first, so I had to convince him.  First he wouldn't take part in it, so I simply told him 'Listen boss, it's your store, it's you gonna suffer if no one takes an interest in Storewide Week, so don't blame...Desenex!  My words exactly - get it?  Don't blame Desenex?  Ever seen the adds on TV?  They've got that man sticks his foot up and everyone around him faints dead away.  Great ad!  I love it.  So anyway, that's the geneses of Harve's new name.  It's not for being homosexual, and the two of them homosexual lovers - not that there's anything wrong with that, but you don't really want that kind of thing in an executive: creates a bad image, don't you see.  It's just strictly for that one episode we call old Harve Mrs Johnson.  And like the boss says: you does have to call him...and so on."

The smell began fading, and just in time, for the employees were now heading to their stations.  It was nine twenty-five, five minutes till store opening; Norword the chief of store security had just motioned to his men to begin unlocking the doors, a build-up of customers could be seen stirring behind the door.  A huge smile covered the plumber's face as he arose from the drain; all the stink had been dispatched - no one need know how compromised the Sweet Old Candy Lady's wares had for a time been.

"Yes sir," the plumber was saying as he closed up his tool chest, "I knowed I'd have to rope her and haul her out or either vacuummate her on down that pipe.  Now your turds a funny thing; it's best to get 'em on down if it can be done.  I was lucky.  I'll be going now.  My job's through.  I'll be going.

"About your bill now -" Munnikysen started to inquire, but was cut off.

"Got no time to chat," the plumber declared, "I got me a drain across town's about to stink the whole apartment house out.  They say it stinks like something dead.  I'll be damned!  I'll be damned!"

"Quite a character," Stephen Hauser commented.

"What do you mean?" asked Munnikysen.

"You know: character, a real honest to God eccentric, one of a kind.  You know."

Munnikysen stared up at the ceiling a moment as if considering Stephen's comment.  "I never really thought of it," he finally said.  "Come on," he said in a moment; he motioned as he started walking for Stephen to follow.  "I'll show you around.  Give you the lay of the land.  It's a good land too: this land is your land.  But mostly: it's my land.  After awhile I'll take you to meet the Old Man, but right now he's too busy, this is month end, I've got reports to get out, and I can't get them out till he gets his sales figures complete.  So like I say: the Old Man's off limits right now."

While underfoot everything was exquisite, immaculately groomed, and richly hued, overhead the age of the building, together with all the wear and tear such a quantity of years brought, showed plainly.  The ceiling tiles were yellowed and stained, the lighting was beginning to sag and warp, in places some of the wiring poked through where breaches in the tiling permitted.  The walls had the distinction of seeming to begin in the present and end in the past, an unkind construction inflicting an interminable distance between baseboard and ceiling.

"Needs work," Munnikysen was pointing out a few particularly noticeable corruptions in the structure.  "This one goes way back, this store does: way way back.  Walls are good; floor - ahh; ceiling -ahh.  Good carpets though.  Good merchandise.  Let's head this way, there's someone I want to show you."

They made a left off the main aisle just as it ended in the Furniture department - Department 66, one of the B lines; this led them to where a rather buxom young lady was doing something with a Bunsen burner and some plastic wood to the scratched edge of a china cabinet.  She was tall and very blonde.

"Just about got that technique down?" Munnikysen asked.

"Honey," the woman replied, setting her tools aside, "I've got just about every technique down - to a fine art," she added with a seductive wink.  "Speaking of fine arts," she indicated Stephen Hauser.

"This here's Steve H, our new operating manager," Munnikysen introduced the two, "and this is - you ready for this? - this is Miss Eglin Eglin, our top furniture salesperson, not to mention our number one handy person."

"Handy?" mused the woman.  "Sure, you bet: hand, mouth, anything."  Again she winked, again it was seductive, only this time it was aimed at Stephen, and after it was over, she stared at him a moment longer, taking time to inspect some regions more closely than others.  "Did you know," she asked Stephen, "that furniture people are the horniest people in the store?  It's true.  Behold," she gestured toward the beds and mattresses lined up just beyond where she was working.  Stephen grinned.

"Opera - operan - operating managers: they get to be, they, they always, sometimes, they're horney - horney - too," he muttered.  "I bet," he added.  "This is a nice department," he complimented Miss Eglin.

"And I'm a nice girl," she said.  "You know what they say: a good girl goes to a party, goes home, goes to bed; a nice girl goes to a party, goes to bed, goes home.  I'm a real nice girl.  Want to have a party tonight?"

Stephen mumbled something about not being able to make it tonight.  Miss Eglin expressed concern.

"Just don't ask her where she was born," Zwiel Munnikysen said after a few awkward moments had passed, though the tone of his voice suggested no feeling of awkwardness on his part.

"Why not?" Stephen asked.  His voice was loud with a sudden enthusiasm.  Little reddish blotches could be seen at various points on his face and neck.  Both Munnikysen and Miss Eglin laughed, while Stephen seemed to be waiting for a reply, which apparently was not being offered.  "Okay," he said, "I'll bite: where was she born?"

"Got wax in your ears, son?" Munnikysen asked good naturedly.  "I said not to ask!"  All three laughed, two of them with conviction.  "Let me just put it to you this way," Munnikysen explained, "her old man was a pilot for the Air Force."  Stephen still looked puzzled.  Munnikysen and Miss Eglin winked at each other.  "Better explain the facts of life - and geography - to you, son!"

"When you do," Miss Eglin rejoined, "send him back!"

They had walked around to the Carpet and the Drapery department - 72/73 and 71 respectively - and, going swiftly past the Fabric department, Department 16, being dismantled, its sales having made a pitiful showing for the last time, its bays and display racks being loaded onto skids to be taken elsewhere, its manager, a deeply religious young woman, supervising its dismemberment - once well past this flurry of activity, Zwiel Munnikysen at last spoke to his companion.

"One more thing to bear in mind," he informed Stephen: "her bite's every bit as bad as her bark - maybe worse! ha ha."

Down the aisle, they passed the Jewelry department - 45 - where the diamonds were just being put into their display case; a tiny woman had taken them from the safe where they were kept overnight; the lights were arranged to try and make them sparkle, but at their size a sparkle was a hopeless dream.  Some new watch bands lay in the side counter awaiting display; Munnikysen stopped to inspect them, but with a discerning grimace dismissed them and continued on.  Stephen looked back once.  Now the C&D lines and then the tour was complete.

"Too bad Old Blow Hole's not here today, I'd introduce you," said Munnikysen.

"Blow Hole?" asked Stephen.

"Yeah.  Sells microwaves.  Great salesman."

"Why do you call him Blow Hole?"

Munnikysen scanned the ceiling, as if seeking a cue.  With a puzzled look on his face, he replied "I don't know, we just do" to Stephen's question.  "Well," he finally said as they neared where the main aisle ended in two little paths, one going to the executive offices, one to the loading platform and up to the warehouse, "ready for your first job?"

"As operating manager?" Stephen asked, placing emphasis on his title.  In the scheme of things, a store's operating manager was higher up than the store comptroller, and did not as a rule receive instructions from his inferior fellow staff members, or expect to: Stephen's tone of voice made it seem he might have been alluding to this, though if so it was evidently lost on Mr Munnikysen."

"Do you like to get someone fired?" Zwiel Munnikysen asked.  "Because if you do - and I certainly hope so - now's your chance."  He went on to explain that there was a certain "recalitrant employee whom "the Old Man wants out: Old Stinky.  The man's got to go, he's a liability, a handicap, he doesn't pull his share of the load, he's a trouble maker, a shirker.  Yes sir, the man's got to go.  And you, sir, have just been charged with seeing that he does.  He won't quit, that's been suggested already and he's made it clear he intends to stay.  He's one of your people: a porter, kind of a janitor, does some work on the dock once in a while - if you can call it work.  Hateful man, just plain hateful.  Yes sir, Old Stinky's got to go."  Munnikysen pointed toward the dock.  "You'll find him right through there.  Except for going to lunch, going to the bathroom and going home, he never stirs from behind those doors.  You might have noticed that place stinks out there - well he stinks too and he's got to go.  Yes sirree.  So go to it, and may God be with you."

"I'm not afraid to fire people, I like to fire people," Stephen explained, though by the time he said it there was no one around close enough to hear him.  He pushed open the doors and entered the dock.  Right away the odor of death converged on him; he looked around, and just ahead, where on one side of the dock the paint was stored, opposite the doorway leading to the dumpster, an elderly man stood puffing on a cigarette.  The man seemed to have sensed Stephen's presence; he turned around, then flicked his cigarette beyond the dumpster.  He approached.

"Hi," he said, smiling, "my name's Stinky, or that's what they call me."  His voice was smooth and calming.  "It's being here, I think, that gets me the name.  There's something dead here.  I've seen, God knows, I've seen everything here at some time or another, you name it: bat, rat, cat, bird, all manner of bugs.  Something's crawled into a hole back there behind those pallets of paint, or else gotten wedged under a pallet maybe.  Anyway, whatever it was, it died.  That's what we're smelling.  Just plain old decay.  It makes you think, doesn't it: as bad as a tiny animal smells, imagine what if a man got lodged under one of those pallets and died, crushed, and lay there till he rotted.  Just imagine that.  But me?  No, I don't stink, no more than any; it's just from being here.  Someone's looking for me, they find me, well, they find me here most of the time, and it stinks, so I guess they think it's me.  But it isn't.  I like this place though.  To me it's - to me it's like the soul of this place.  I love it here.  I relax, I see things happening in my life, maybe take a smoke.  Just think.  It's great.  I know, I know though: they've kind of been wanting me out.  I've been expecting it for a long time now.  But, hey, look at me: I've been doing all the talking and no listening - and you look like, well - well you're a new guy here, I can tell that - and you look as if you could use a good ear.  I was young once; you guys don't have it as easy as TV and all makes it seem.  By the way, my name - my real name's - Marion Randolph.  Marion S Randolph: I stress the 'S' because I go by my middle name.  Not Stinky: Stan.  Just plain old Stan.  And you can call me Stan.  Oh you can call me Stinky.  Hell, you can even call me Marion.  Or Randy.  Or Adolph.  Yeah: some people started trying to call me Dolph, but they didn't like it, so they added an A and made me Adolph - especially during the war: can you imagine? calling someone Adolph, and that not even his nickname? and right when old Adolph himself is butchering half of Europe?  Takes all kinds I guess.  I'm sorry though, I didn't even let you introduce yourself: that's old age for you though: just stand here rattling on while you stand having to listen.  I know they're going to fire me.  I know it.  You're a good man, but I'm not going to ask you to stand up for me, that's why I'm telling you all this.  It's - well - it's because, well: you're deep.  I know people.  I know people.  I always could read people.  You've got a soul that runs...very, very still.  You've got a beautiful soul.  Oh I know, I know, I sound like an old man being sentimental.  But I can't help it; you, well, you remind me, well, of my boy.  He died giving birth to a son.  I know, I know: sounds screwy.  But listen up a minute.  He was over in Vietnam.  He married a Vietnamese girl.  Together they had a son.  The boy was born just as the Cong moved in.  My boy saw his wife couldn't give birth alone, so he stayed.  With her.  The Cong breathing down his neck.  Just when the baby was born, and before he had a chance to even hold his new son, he stepped back, so's not to jeopardize his wife and son.  He took up his gun like he was going to shoot them.  The Cong burst in.  They had machetes.  They cut him down.  Cut him to ribbons.  My boy died giving birth.  You put me in mind of him just now: I thank you.  I was almost beginning to forget, well, what he was like.  I'm in your debt young man.  I'm in your debt."

For a moment Stephen Hauser stood there, very still, his eyes fixed on Stan, his eyes not moving.  Something like three feet separated the two.  Stephen moved a step closer and, putting his hand on the old man's shoulder, swore he would not let him be fired.

"May they be damned first, the bastards!" he proclaimed in a voice bursting with indignation.  "As I live and breathe," he promised, "I will not - repeat will not! - let them do this to you!  And they had the gall - the gall! - Jesus what bastards!  To ask me - me! - to expect me - me!  Jesus what bastards!  Well you can depend on this: you're staying right the hell where you are!  There ain't no one getting rid of you, and that's a promise you can...Jesus: a promise you can carry to your son.  And then him to his son.  You have my word on it.  I'll fight the bastards on this one - I'll fight them to the death!"

As if they were carbonized, these words seemed to propel Stephen Hauser out the door, his hands brushed the big double swinging doors aside as if they were child's doors on a child's toy house and he left the dock to carry out his mission, almost slipping on the freshly waxed patch of linoleum, but he did not seem to notice.  The doors flapped, once, twice, then, slowing down to a standstill, three quarters of a third time.  Dusts flew inside the door, but beyond, in the store, there were none.  At first a muffled crescendo while the doors sealed and unsealed sound, a laugh burst forth when they came to rest.  A laugh inside.  It was a dock hand's laugh, it was a big burly laugh, from a stocky young man with handsome features suspended somehow between delicacy and brutality, with fine straight hair, mostly dark, and rather thick hands.  His laugh was hard but not too well controlled.

"Stinky, I've heard everything, man - everything - but this takes the cake!  Who was that guy?" the young man asked.

"Him?" the old man gestured.  "Just another jerk."  The old man grinned.  His young companion seemed uneasy.

"He seems okay," the young man said.  "Who is he?"

"Like I said, Testi: just another jerk.  Sent to fire me.  His name's Stephen Hauser - our new boss, yours and mine."

"Oh yeah, the new operating manager."

"The new jerk you mean."

"What a line you gave him," the young man said, "man, what a line."

"You size 'em up," the old man explained, "then you play it as you go.  I got no intention of giving up this job, I got it good, got it easy.  I've been here forty years and ain't done a turn of work yet - and don't intend to start now.  I've seen 'em come and go, Testi, and every one of 'em's tried to get rid of me.  And every one of 'em's failed.  I was out witting those jerks when your daddy was wiping off your behind - and probably when his daddy was doing the same for him too.  Enough of that though: let's hear about your women.  Get any this weekend?  Give me a butt!"

Stephen Hauser walked the aisles, there was indignation, even anger, in his steps.  He seemed to be looking for something.  He saw a woman approaching, and as he neared he opened his mouth as if to speak, then abruptly turned to the left and headed through the Giftware department - Department 77.  Plastic flowers and feather flowers, out of place, some waiting to be put into stock, some set aside to be marked down for clearance, some simply strewn about for no apparent reason - plastic and feather created an artificial undergrowth, as in a dense jungle, through which Stephen had to maneuver.  Once he even had to brush some big reddish brown stalks aside with his hand to keep them from striking his face.  When he had passed through this aisle, four tiny strands of feather still clung to his suit, a green and a blue on his pants, a red and a yellow on his coat.  He made his way next through a very tightly compressed aisleway, made so by a row of glass and chrome tables standing along the entire length of the display bays some eighteen feet.  They had just been set out and the Department 77 manager was off trying to find a place for them; situated as they were, they not only nearly choked off the aisle, they made it impossible for anyone to get at the lovely earthen wares on display.  Under the ceiling lights they gave off an almost liquid gleam, the glass tops allowing the light to penetrate, the chrome borders and legs catching the light to reflect it back safely upward, as if this aisle were a pond Stephen was walking through, and the pale blue Fenton vases were fishes, both big and little, floating along, the crystal vases little whirlpools, the whites and pale pinks coral reefs, the deep greens seaweed.  Almost to the other side, Stephen felt a tap on his shoulder.  A song, without words, was playing on the intercom, an easy listening arrangement of a popular song, by Neil Diamond, a song called "I Am I Said," a melody only: being, with essence: if he was, he was not saying so this time around.  Stephen jerked when tapped.  A woman laughed in a husky voice.

"It's not the devil," Miss Eglin Eglin of the Furniture department pointed out.  She had been the one approaching when Stephen turned from the main aisle into Department 77.

"Oh hi," Stephen said, "I didn't see you."

"You didn't?" Miss Eglin asked.  "You almost walked right into me."

"I guess I wasn't really watching too closely, I didn't see all of you, just a side view."

"Well," she said, "we'll have to correct that, so you can see all of me, won't we?"  She drew him aside.  "I'll show you a good time," she told him.  "Tonight?" she asked.  "I mean, you do fool around don't you?"

"Of course I do!" Stephen insisted.

"Good," said Miss Eglin.  "I was sure you did.  Six?"

"Huh?"

"Six o'clock<" she explained.  "Shall we make it six o'clock?"

"Sure," agreed Stephen.  Then he walked away.  Miss Eglin went after him.

"Don't you want my address?" she asked, then proceeded to write it down.

"Oh yeah, guess I better.  Oh," he said in a different tone of voice, after depositing the address in his pocket, "there he is!  Gotta run, see you later!"

"At six."

"Yeah.  Hey Zwiel!" he called, running after the huge form he had caught sight of heading up the main aisle across from the one he had just come from.  It took awhile to catch up to Munnikysen, who, though he seemed to have heard Stephen call, did not slow his pace.  Stephen was a little out of breath when, at the Jewelry counter, he came abreast of him.  "Listen Zwiel," he began saying, but his words were coming out slurred.  "Listen: I'm the operating manager - right?"  Munnikysen nodded in the affirmative.  "Okay then: and Stinky - I mean Stan: he's my man, right?"  Munnikysen again nodded.  "Okay, good, so I'm not about to fire the man, he's a good worker, I like him; nor will I be told to fire him because I'll stick up for him, I want that understood.  Okay?"

Munnikysen nodded a third time then, slowing up a moment, mused, mostly to himself "I kind of thought so," before continuing on.

"And I'll tell the Old Man that," Stephen persisted.  "I'll tell anyone that.  The Chairman himself - and you know I would too.  Even the old founder: I'll unearth his bones to give him the word too if need be.  So are we straight on that."  Munnikysen laughed, not unlike the way an adult laughs at the preposterous boasts of a child describing his latest encounters with a monster.

"Laugh me no laughs!" Stephen said in a firm voice.

Munnikysen patted him on the shoulder and advised him against over straining himself, then left, trailing him far behind.

"God damn string bean!" Stephen cried out in a soft whisper.

It was past eight thirty when Stephen arrived home.  He fumbled at the door with his key, dropped his key, tried again, only to have the door suddenly open.  He jumped; some kind of a noise escaped from his throat, something between a gasp and a scream.  "Oh it's you," he said.  His wife, once he was in, shut the door behind him.  "Sorry I'm late.  Had to end up working over after all.  Got away as soon as I could."  He walked through the house, sticking his head into every doorway as if looking for someone.  With a puzzled look he confronted his wife with the question "Where is he?"  She asked who he meant.  "Our k-k-k-"  He paused, a look of utter shock, almost horror, on his face.  "Oh God," he murmured, repeating that phrase several times, part of the time shaking his head from side to side, part of the time just staring ahead.  "I forgot," he barely whispered.  He looked for a moment as if he would cry.  "Where did I put it?" he finally asked.

"Put what?" asked Toni Hauser, but her husband simply shook his head and proceeded to his room where, in an envelope in his dresser, beneath his underpants, was the dirt he had brought from his son's graveyard.  He licked his finger, picked up a few grains that way, put them to his tongue and shut his lips and a second later his eyes.

After work - he had gotten off at five-thirty, as he was scheduled to - he pulled the note from his pocket and looked at the address Miss Eglin had given him.  He drove in the direction the instructions said to, making the appropriate turns, the correct stops, the proper distances.  Yet by six-thirty it was apparent he was lost.  He would stop at every intersection, stare both ways, then stop halfway between blocks, look around some more, then drive a little farther.  Suddenly a flashing red and blue signal caught his attention.

"God damn!" he muttered, pulling his car to a stop.  The policeman got out and approached. 

"What seems to be the problem?" the policeman asked.

"Problem?" Stephen asked.  "There's no problem.  Should there be?"  He sounded embarrassed.

"Maybe you better step out."

"Why?" 

"Just do it," the policeman ordered.  Stephen got out.  The policeman asked him to take a few steps then return; Stephen did as ordered.

After checking his driver's license and registration, the policeman again asked Stephen what the problem was.

"Well," Stephen admitted, "I'm kind of lost.  I was trying to find a friend's house.  Kind of my boss.  Invited for dinner.  You know."  Stephen showed the address.  The policeman chuckled.

"You must be a furniture salesman," he said, winking as he did.

Stephen laughed.  "Yeah," he said, winking in return.  "I'm in plastics."

The policeman whistled a telltale whistle.  "Woo-wee, ain't we all now and again!" he said.

At last, with proper directions, Stephen pulled up in front of Miss Eglin's house.  It was seven o'clock.  He sat in the car for some fifteen minutes before getting out.  The curtain was drawn but at the end there was a space.  Stephen walked silently to where he could look into the living room.  At first he saw nothing but could hear noises; laughter, and talking, or almost like hollering, and a bouncing noise, as if someone were dancing.  Something began to grow visible, something low, about waist level, and the color of flesh; then more came into view.  A man's head, then his shoulders.  Something was on his back, reddish brown, leathery.  Then a naked leg and foot.  Then the rest.  It was Miss Eglin, naked, riding a naked, bald headed burley man with a saddle strapped across his back.  In her hand was what looked like a strap.  Stephen quickly backed away from the window and leaned back against the wall, letting his head fall back with a light thud.  He took several gulps of air then began running toward his car, though halfway there his legs began to visibly wobble and he had to almost inch his way the rest of the distance to his car, managing after several tries to finally get the door unlocked and get in.  He immediately drove off, turning, it appeared, at random, until once again the flashing lights brought him to a halt.  It was the same policeman.

"I saw you weaving and looking for sure like you were lost," he said to Stephen.  "Must have been a good one - must have blown the socks off you.  Check when you get home if your shoes aren't split!"  Stephen laughed, as if it was the funniest thing anybody had ever said to him.

"Check my shoes," he kept repeating over and over on his way home, bursting out laughing each time he said it.  His hands and legs trembled as he walked to the front door.  His hand at first got caught in his pocket when he tried to bring out his keys.  He looked down at his shoes, and made a face as if he were about to throw up.

"What's on tonight?" asked Stephen.  "Anything good?"

"Not that I know of," said Toni Hauser.  So it's not enough, Toni thought as she and her husband sat watching television.  It was an old movie, something from the 1940's, a musical, an appendage of the war effort; some GIs were in town, some pretty girls were awed by their uniforms, inevitably a romance ensued: utter nonsense, but it eased many a man into the uniform society had given him, evidently wanted him to wear, and for the unfortunate few it helped ease the transition from life to death.  Careless ditties, Toni had once heard these World War II musicals referred to as: it isn't so bad to create a mindless jingle to sell soap powders, or even cigarettes; but to sell a war? she wondered.  To get men to see fighting as something unusually appealing? to persuade them to base their self-image, their sense of manhood, their worth as a person, their sense of duty on taking up arms? to have them relinquish their judgment, to hope they'll do so - all on account of a song and dance number?  It's madness, she concluded.  And not enough.  I could have told him that.  As a woman, I could enrich his life forever; as the little woman, I'm destined to become an utter bore.  Not allowed to know me, he has to look elsewhere.  Will he now take a mistress?  Is our love to end in that most banal of all clichés?  Fooling around?  I don't care if he fools around, other than out of jealousy: why should I fashion my life to suit an ignoble sentiment though?  I find no lofty ideal, no great virtue involved.  Perhaps loyalty.  I doubt if he'll find more in another woman than he could find in me, if he were willing to look.  It's so senseless.  To satisfy some ridiculous notion of our relationship, it's been proscribed to the point it's starting to compress.  It can never grow.  We still love one another, yet our life together is almost over, for no better reason than that an ugly modifier has captured his imagination.  For him to be a man at all, let alone a big man, I must be the little woman.  That he might characterize me in this repulsive manner, a beautiful thing must be sacrificed.  They call it chauvinism?  I should think idolatry would be a better word.  We are people - men and women: there should be no false gods before us.

"Honey," said Stephen, "you turned it on.  But you don't seem to be watching.  Don't you like it?  You turned it on.  Don't you like it?"  Something in his voice sounded hurt.

"I thought something else was on," Toni explained.

"Oh?"

"A movie.  I thought it was on; I guess they changed it.  About a little girl raised in the backwoods: something like that.  I thought that was on."

"Yeah, I remember," said Stephen.  "That was last week, because I remember hearing some people talking about it.  But it was last week, Toni.  I remember that.  They were really talking.  But that was last week."

"Oh," said Toni.  There should be no gods before us at all, she thought.  Together, cattycorner to each other, they sat, watching World War II unfold happily before them, or pretending to watch.  Stephen seemed to be, Toni seemed not to.  Stephen glanced at his wife just after a particularly bright dance number had ended; his face was one with the big palookas in the starched uniforms: one huge smile, every pore receiving goodness and light, emitting cheer.  He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shook his head, his face vanishing from among those on TV, showing up again back in his living room.  He made a sound, something like "ding-a-ling-a-ling," then lifted his hand to his ear.

"Hello, who's calling?" he asked.  "Who? who do you want?  No, she don't live here no more.  Ah she sends a message now and again, but it's cryptic.  What? spell that? T-H-A-T - of course!  Oh, spell cryptic.  I can't, I'm too stupid.  I can only tell you what it means: it means 'in code.'  What?  What code, you say?  God if I know.  Dear God above if I know."  Stephen Hauser feigned throwing down the receiver.  He fell on his knees and crawled to his wife's chair.  "Oh Toni," he moaned as he reached her.  He laid his head on her knees.  While there, he slowly unbuckled his trousers and let them fall.  He had no underpants on: he had gone into the bathroom just before leaving work, had gone into one of the stalls.  As he finished and was about to get up he abruptly removed his pants, then his underpants, then resumed getting dressed, stuffing his underpants between the toilet and the wall behind it.  He was grinning when he left the stall, and beads of sweat dripped from above his lips into his mouth. 

He looked up into his wife's face and whispered "Play me."  When the television was turned off and they were about to get into bed, Stephen put a record on the stereo.  He moved the tone arm to begin at the third to the last song.  A Neil Diamond album, he played "Play Me."  He hurried to his wife as if everything he had to do must either get done before this third from the last song was over or else would never get done.  Some kind of noise suddenly and momentarily filled the room, as if a bird had flown into the window; then it died.

When, along about mid-September, it was proposed to create a show for October's Storewide Week around some aspect of the Vietnam War, Stephen Hauser alone objected.  Zwiel Munnikysen first thought of it, and in this initial conception it was to be "like a paen to the glorious memory of our gallant boys who died for so ignoble a cause."  He insisted he was serious; he was, and by his own admission had always been, one hundred percent against this unfortunate military venture.  He seemed to give the lie to a theory very well thought of: namely, that if one were against evil and inhumanity, he must ipso facto be good and humane in his own sphere - because, attesting to this lie, in secret polls conducted among the sales clerks he never failed coming out the meanest man in the district.

"No," Stephen half insisted, half pleaded.  "For God sake no!  We can't.  Not that.  The wounds are still fresh, and there are too many wounds.  Just in our own store alone.  Stan, for instance," he noted.

"Stan?" asked Munnikysen.  Several others looked puzzled too.

"You know: Stan - on the dock," Stephen explained.

"Stinky?  You mean Stinky?" asked Munnikysen.

"I mean Stan," Stephen Hauser stuck to his guns on this point.

"What about him?"

"His son," said Stephen in a reverent, a lowered voice.  "He lost his son."

Munnikysen burst out laughing, and threw out the disclaimer "Oh that son!  Sure, I forgot that son!  Heavens, I was still thinking of the one got murdered marching to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr!  Or no, was it the one shot down in a U-2 plane over Sitka in the Antarctic?  Well, no matter: it's all just one big happy family!"  Munnikysen laughed some more.  Stephen got up and stormed out of the office, vowing to have nothing to do with the show.

"I'll boycott the God damned thing, you'll see!" he threatened.

"What?" called Munnikysen, who took off after him halfway down the aisle outside the classroom where the meeting was being held.  "Boycott the Storewide Week Show?  And jeopardize your future?  Risk missing that big next promotion?  Come on, Steve, come on now, let's not get temperamental now."

Stephen Hauser did not turn around, though he did come to a complete halt.  He looked as if he were about to cry, or faint; he was very pale.  Then he started walking again.  He was hurrying.  As he walked through the store toward the dock he muttered to himself.  "I'll ask him.  I'll ask Stan.  I'll ask.  He'll say.  He'll know and he'll say if it's alright.  If it is alright, if he won't be hurt.  No, I still won't do it.  I still won't."

"Won't do what honey?" a voice suddenly beside him asked.  "Won't come to mama?"  Miss Eglin Eglin had joined him.  "Where were you week before last?  You haven't been avoiding me have you?"

"Huh?  No.  Huh?  Who?"  Stephen seemed confused.

"You, that's who."

"No, I just, you know, got tied up," Stephen explained.

"Ooh," said Miss Eglin, "sounds like fun.  Can I try it?  Tonight maybe?"

"Oh yeah sure.  Huh?"

"Six o'clock.  Maybe that's more to the mark, huh?  Be there this time.  I'll show you the best time in town honey.  Six.  Be there.  No ifs, ands, or buts about it!"  She patted his rear end as she said this.

Stephen was sweating when he made his way through the double doors onto the dock.  It was like the store suddenly turning inside out, the doors closing on a sculptured, painted, nicely appointed place where finely dressed people came to shop to open onto a dingy, dirty, smelly place where men in grimy overalls admitted freight and where, it was rumored, rats came to die.  In droves they came, to this their ancient burial ground, so legend had it.

"Those redskins are a bunch of jerk offs!" Stinky was advising his young protégé, Testi.

"No, I tell you man," Testi held his ground, "it's no lie.  This place here, right here where we're standing man, right under our feet, was sacred ground to the Algonquin Indians and man I know 'cause this chick I balled was descended from the chieftain of all the Algonquins, and man she looked it too, son of a bitch did she have a set of tits on her - man oh man! whew!  And God damn it Stinky don't stand there and argue with me 'cause she told me this very store - and I showed her this place, you dig? I showed her this very dock where I work then I showed her something right down here that rhymes with it and buddy don't you ask what either and she said - and she swore it, man, I mean she swore it on her mother's papooska too! - this very ground used to be the sacred burial ground of all the tribal rats!  So don't tell me they don't come here to die - God damn it Stinky they do!"

At this point Stinky began assuming a pious expression, and he coughed a little, the way one coughs to signal the approach of someone not meant to hear what's being said.  Testi looked around, smiled big, and said "Ah his boss!  I was just telling old Stinky here about this Indian broad I balled.  Man what tits - I mean man what tits!  And let me tell you something, Mr Boss Man: she said the same thing about my pants I said about her titties.  You dig where I'm at man?" Testi flashed a big grin, winked, and returned to his work.

"I don't like his calling you Stinky," Stephen Hauser said to Mr Randolph.

"Ah," said Randolph, "it's just being a kid I guess. He's got all that youthful vitality.  You know.  Like my boy had."  Stinky lowered his head.

"That's what I want to talk to you about," said Stephen, drawing Randolph aside.  "They're planning a Storewide Week Show about Vietnam -"

"Hey!" said Stinky.  "That doesn't sound half bad."

"You mean you don't mind?"

Stinky looked puzzled.  "Mind?" he asked.

"What with your son and all."  Stinky still looked puzzled.  "Being killed in Vietnam."

"Oh," Stinky recalled.  "Yeah, I see alright.  But no, I just have to try and live with it.  I don't mind."

"Well," Stephen explained, "it's up to you.  Because if you do mind, I swear on my life Stan I won't have anything to do with it."

"Ah no, Mr Hauser, you go ahead and do what you think's best.  Let your own best judgment guide you.  Don't worry about me."

"It won't offend you?"  Stinky nodded no, he did not believe it would.  Stephen patted him on the shoulder and went away; but his features still seemed troubled.

"Had a change of heart, have you?" Munnikysen inquired two days later when, at the next scheduled meeting of the Storewide Week committee, Stephen Hauser showed up.

"Something like that," Stephen admitted.

"Good for you," Munnikysen congratulated him.  "Now let's get started."  People walking outside the class room could hear peals of laughter coming from behind the closed door, and occasionally what sounded like singing, followed each time by still more laughter.

"I waited," Miss Eglin Eglin had come alongside Stephen to say.  "And waited and waited and waited."  Stephen was going around to the big ticket departments - Appliances, TV and Stereo, Furniture, Carpets - to personally check that their service records were up to date: he had gotten word that when the district "caravan" came in a day or two to inspect the store, the various district officials would be paying particular attention to the big ticket departments.  "And you never showed. Again," Miss Eglin added.  "I'll tell you what honey: you pick a time.  A day, an hour.  And make damn sure you show this time."

"Maybe," he hesitated a moment.  "Maybe after Storewide Week.  I mean, like I'm really busy right now."

The caravan did not go too well for Stephen; fault was found at just about every turn.  Service contracts, which came under his jurisdiction, were way down; the warehouse and dock were pronounced disgraceful; the store was declared dirty; in fact, every facet of the store's operation except for its financials was severely criticized.  Vague threats were made against Stephen Hauser's future prospects with the company; he was held fully accountable for the poor showing the store made.  He tried to say something about not having been there long enough to create all those problems, but was silenced by a series of dirty looks from the members of the caravan.  When he was dismissed from the meeting, he made straightway for the Furniture department.  He found Miss Eglin dusting etageres in a corner.

"Six fifteen," he told her.  "Tonight.  And be alone this time."

He had no difficulty this time finding her house.  It was six fifteen exactly when he pulled up in front, six eighteen by the time he rang her doorbell.  It took them both twelve minutes to get undressed.  At six thirty he was on his hands and knees, breathing hard and covered with sweat; the sweat dripped from his chin onto his hands, first the right then the left.  At six thirty-two the saddle was thrown across his back.  Miss Eglin laughed, Stephen made some nondescript sounds.  She climbed onto the saddle, crying out "Giddy-up boy!  Giddy-up!" and whacking Stephen across the rear end with her strap.  But he did not move.  Instead, he began shaking his head from side to side and in a voice which rose in cadence crying out "No, no, no."  At the end, when his voice reached a crescendo, he rose up and threw his rider.  "No, no!" he screamed.  "I ain't a horse!  I'm no beast of burden!  I'm no donkey!  I'm no donkey!"

"Honey, you sure as hell ain't hung like one either!" Miss Eglin cried out as she got up.  She was unhurt in the fall, having perceived what was coming in time to jump free, though she did catch her foot somehow and trip.

"You want me to go?" Stephen asked.

"Go?" she asked.  "Honey, do you always think in antonyms?  It isn't 'go' I want you to do!"

"What do you want me to do?" Stephen cried.

"Well honey," Miss Eglin explained, "since you can't be a horse for me, and you ain't cut like a man, why don't you be a boy.  Take hold, and do what a boy does, and I'll watch."

It was late when Stephen got home.  He had driven around, had run out of gas and had had to walk to a station to get more.  He had left Miss Eglin's at six forty-seven.  He had driven through the sections of town referred to as "seedy," the places where sex could be gotten, for a price.  He parked next to an alleyway where teenaged boys were strolling back and forth watching every car going by.  He pulled his pants down.  He motioned one of the boys over; the boy started to get in but he drove off just as the boy reached for the door.  He laughed, almost hysterically, looking into the rear view mirror at the boy's gestures flung at him.

"You loved it!" he cried, as if at the boy, who could not possibly have heard him.  "You loved it and you know you did!"  Then he pulled his pants up and went home.

"Where's the Old Man?" Stephen asked.

"Couldn't make it," was Zwiel Munnikysen's reply.  The Old Man had gone through the motions during the rehearsals; Stephen assumed he would take part in the actual show.

"Got called away," John Johnson, the A&B merchandiser, added.  Everyone sort of laughed.

"Yeah," said Amos Harve, C&D merchandiser, "always a bride's maid, never a bride!"

"That's our Old Man alright," the personnel manager, a Mr Lacey Shacz, observed.  Again, they all laughed an almost soundless laughter.

Stephen Hauser looked puzzled.  "I don't get it," he said.

"Don't worry about it," Munnikysen ordered, "just get your makeup on.  And all of you: break a leg!"                        

A big crowd awaited this autumn's Storewide Week Show.  For the first time in the Montgomery store's history, each employee could bring a guest; those with families could bring their children too if they wished.  "Come one come all!" was the catch phrase around the store for the two weeks prior to Storewide Week.  The Show itself was hailed as "The Great War," sub-billed "The War to End All Wars."

"Get your red hots!" somebody said in the audience, somebody at first indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd, tucked away somewhere along the fringes of the Buffeteria, where every possible chair was placed to accommodate everyone, every chair taken long before the show began.  Then it was repeated, and as it was a young man in a long trench coat stood up.  He looked all around; he looked nervous, very tense.  Suddenly, letting out what some swore afterward was an authentic Algonquin war whoop, he threw of his trench coat, jumped up on his table where he did a brief mock war dance, then, still naked, ran off through the store.  Quickly pursued by the store security guards, three beefy young men in Tee shirts, each with a set of pectorals on him which rippled like lava in a lava light when he moved, the flasher was quickly apprehended and, a lady's house coat hastily thrown over his shoulders, was taken to the store security office, just inside the store from the dock.  Everybody was in an uproar over this, there being two schools of thought: those who were scandalized and spoke indignantly, and those, amused, even pleased, even impressed, who laughed and applauded.  Soon - and the show had not yet began - the local police came and took the flasher away.  As it turned out, he was not an employee or a guest, so really he should not have been there anyway, it was pointed out to the police.  That seemed to make them a little bolder in handling him.  "Beautiful - beautiful!" Testi was saying to those at his table.  His friend Stinky took exception, insisting he did not like it: it was trashy.

"Then wait'll this show's over, man, 'cause you gonna be seeing live right here on this table Trashy Two and his trashy ten, if you dig where I'm at," Testi warned.

"You do sonny and I'll whup your ass!" Stinky warned.

"We'll see," said Testi.

"God damn right we'll see," said Stinky.

They provided beer, draft beer, the store staff.  By the time the show was ready to begin, three-fourths of the kegs were drained.  A few of the audience had apparently fallen asleep, or passed out; a good many more were becoming increasingly rowdier.  Some of the people with small children had left, some in disgust; others were talking about leaving if things got any more out of hand.  From the tones of some of the conversations, it almost seemed as though some of the people were trying to start a fight.  Beer and pretzels and potato chips as well as cigarette ashes and butts were beginning to litter the floor as the crowd got more and more careless.  From first one then another sector awkward sounds, quickly followed by still more awkward odors, arose, in most cases followed by a loud laugh.

"Ah!" one would say, "smell the aroma!"

"They love it!" another would say.

"I ate the grossest food I could think of for lunch," somebody explained proudly, "'cause I knew I'd be here tonight: I knew!"  Everyone at his table roared, then, a moment later, sort of gagged, then roared all the harder.  "What'd I tell ya? huh?" the man said.

The show began.  The audience hushed its clamor, for that brief moment when everyone knew it was time even though nothing had happened yet - a faint stirring as of a wind behind the backdrop their only clue.  A huge backdrop, it permitted all the players to stay behind stage and not be seen until it was their time to enter; though, owing to its being mostly cotton muslin, dark so no one could see through it but a flimsy fabric subject to the slightest flutter of motion, their presence would be sensed by the audience; and what was sensed now was a definite shift in the pattern of motion reflected onto the muslin, a shift which signaled the start of Storewide Week.

From backstage came an odd sound; at first no one seemed able to identify it, then, as it grew, both in volume and duration, it became familiar.  It was oriental.  It was some kind of refrain being played on a mandolin; vaguely it hinted here and there of scores from popular musicals: Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," "The Flower Drum Song," plus a little original music.  Zwiel Munnikysen was doing the playing.  Then, one by one, the players proceeded from behind the backdrop, first just peeking their heads around, as if spying or watching for enemies, until, satisfied the coast was clear, they finally made their way onstage, each taking a separate place.  The audience applauded and laughed intermittently.

Everyone on stage, the music stopped.  Zwiel Munnikysen stepped from behind into the spotlight.  He was dressed as an American army general, all the other players were dressed as various kinds of soldiers: John Johnson a Viet Cong, Amos Harve a Cambodian, Stephen Hauser an American G I, Lacey Schay a Frenchman.  There were a number of other players, all dressed indeterminately: they were off by themselves, the chorus.

"Ladies and gentlemen," General Zwiel Munnikysen announced, "we have, tonight, for your enjoyment, for your edification. for your enlightenment, and for your just general everything -"  When he said "general," everybody onstage stood at attention and saluted him, after which he said "At ease," to the immense delight of the audience, judging from their response.  He continued: "We have for you ladies and gentlemen the great, the grand, the glorious, the duty, the honor, the country: the War, the War of Wars, the War to end all Wars!  And now: let the fighting begin!"  He bowed and stepped to the side.

A humming arose from the chorus, something like the tune from an old 40's ditty, "Oh I's Jus a Little Rabbit."  Amos Harve stepped to stage front and center, took a bow, began to sing.

"Oh, I's jus a little Cambodian," he sang.

The chorus ceased humming to join in: "Oh-ho-ho-dian...Bo-ho-ho-dian."

"Oh I's jus a little Cambo-ho-di-ho-di-bo-di-oh-dian," Harve sang out.

"Oh ho-ho-dian...Bo-ho-ho-ho-ho-dian," the chorus sang out.

"Sittin' in the middle -" Harve.

"Iddle-iddle -" chorus.

"Of a rice pad-dy -" Harve.

"Pad-dy-ad-dy-ad-dy-pad-dy-ad-dy-pad '" chorus.

"On a keg -" Harve.

"Keg-gy-eg-gy-eg-gy-keg -" chorus.

"Of dy-an-o-mite!" sang Harve.

"Di-di-di-dy-id-dy-di-dy-id-dy-o-mit-ty-it-ty-di-dy-id-dy-mit-ty-it-ty-o-dy-an-o-mite!" sang the chorus.

And a big finish, Harve and the chorus both together: "Dynamite!"

All took their bow.  The applause was great, as were the mock sounds of dynamite blasting off.  Loud talking began, some of which sounded like "Kill the gooks!  Cut off their balls!  Kill the yellow bastards!"  Amos Harve returned to his place.  Lacey Schay came forward, smoking a cigarette in a long holder; he wore a beret and, at this throat, an ascot, and he carried a riding whip.

"Allo, mes amis," he said with a French accent.  "I am ze great Pierre la Poosh, ze won man who can keep yer jungle free from ze Communists, no?"

The chorus began to sing, to the tune of the old favorite Mairzy Dotes: "Pierre la Poosh, and all the French, and little Indochinie, shouldn't we save our land, wouldn't you?  Shouldn't we save our land, wouldn't you?"

"Ve vill fight till you die!  Thes es our pledge!  Vive la France!"  Lacey Schay, alias Pierre la Poosh, chimed out his pledge then took a bow, in concert with the chorus, and returned to his place.  Some mumbling went on in the audience; no one could tell if it related to the skit or not.  Somewhere a glass, or a plate, or an ashtray, either fell or was hurled from a table, making a shattering noise; laughter and loud voices ensued.  Somebody got up and called somebody else a "son of a bitch"; the second person likewise got up.  They began to push at one another, till a couple security men came and convinced them either to sit down or go outside.  At first they sat down, then in a moment they got up and went outside; several others followed.  From just outside the Buffeteria the sounds of scuffling, shouting, eventually fist fighting could be heard.  The security men rushed out and broke up the fight, sending the combatants home, each in his own car.  The noise of screeching wheels taking off cut through the plate glass window and through the muslin backdrop as if someone had used, first a glass cutter and then a knife.

Next came John Johnson, the Viet Cong.  With a sly, an almost satanic leer on his face, he took his bow at stage center.  He kept the leer on his face, kept perfectly still, and waited as the chorus told his tale.

They hummed and hummed and then they sang, and as they did, at the far corner of the stage Stephen Hauser, the American G I, began stirring, moving his head up and down, at first slow then faster, something like a bull readying to attack, moving his legs next, as Stephen began a noise something like the "Choo-choo-choo-choo" one makes in imitation of a train; in time with the chorus's progression through their song, the noise of Stephen's grew in cadence, till by the time, near the end of their song, when he made his move, his mad lunge toward the Viet Cong, it had grown to an almost shattering pitch.

The chorus sang.  "A little Viet Cong...Viet Cong......Cong-go-gong-go-gong...sittin' on a railroad...railroad...ailroad...ailroad.  Heart all a flutter...flutter...utter...utter...utter.  Along comes a train...train...rain...ain...ainny...ainny...train-ny-ain."

And here Stephen started off.

"Uh-oh" went the chorus as the choo-choo neared and reached its mark, "Viet Butter!"  Stephen plowed right into the Viet Cong; both fell down.  Neither got up for what seemed to the audience an eternity.  They lay there, the Cong and the choo-choo, both in ruin, both equally derailed.

For the most part the audience was perfectly still, as if afraid something terrible had really happened; a few catcalled.  Then suddenly the Viet Cong began stretching, as if awakening; then he got up.  The audience gasped and a few moaned, but in a second its sounds all came together in one stupendous cry: it was booing the Viet Cong's resurrection, booing like crazy.  A few in the audience stood up, a few raised their fists, a few took a step forward.  Just then the supreme commander, General Zwiel Munnikysen, stepped forward and held up his hand and exclaimed "Be gone!"  Like a flash, the Cong darted to the corner of the stage where he knelt down and cringed.  The audience went wild cheering, but stopped when with his hand the General again signaled silence.  He approached the body of Stephen Hauser sprawled on the floor.  He stretched out his hand over that lifeless shape and commanded it to "Arise!"  He seemed to be lifting the form with invisible strings tied to his fingers.  Eventually the choo-choo was resurrected.  It stood stock still at attention, it saluted; it relaxed only upon the order "At ease!"  All during this resurrection the audience was half mad with cheering and clapping loudly, so that by the time the General took his bow, the house was all but brought down around him.  Then the rest of the players, at his signal, came forward and took their bows.  The applause was deafening.  The players, finally taking their last curtain call, departed the stage.  The applause was dying down.

By the time it was quiet again, Testi, perhaps unnoticed in the excitement, had finished stripping and, with a sudden war whoop, leaped naked onto his table and began the Algonquin war dance, with chant, stopping only to give the audience a better look at him.

"Get down from there you punk!" cried Stinky.

"You mean: get up here, you old turd!  Let's see what you got, huh?  See if it's half what I got!  Look at 'em - look at 'em: they love it!  See if they'd love your old straw dog, huh?"

"You vile punk!" screamed Stinky.

"Punk?" screamed Testi, jumping onto Stinky's shoulders and wrapping his legs around the old man's neck.  "Who you calling punk, huh?  Want a taste?  Huh?  Do you?"

Stinky stood up and in doing so gave Testi a hurl backwards off his shoulders.  The boy hit a table top, but fortunately not hard enough to do any damage; he cried out though, and, getting right up, ran and tackled Stinky, who was beating a hasty retreat.  The two wrestled for a time, and it looked as if Stinky would surely be strangled to death until he managed to sneak a hard kick with his knee into Testi's groin.  The boy screamed in agony, grabbed his testicles and began rolling around, whimpering, until the security guards came and helped him up.  Stinky in the meantime stood nearby shaking his head and muttering "I didn't mean to hurt him, the bastard!  I didn't mean it."  The security guards could not free Testi's hands long enough to get pants on him, so they had someone go get a trench coat and threw it over his shoulders and led him away to their office, where somebody who claimed to have paramedic training examined his injury.  In a while the boy stopped crying and was sent home, with the understanding that he go see a doctor tomorrow.  The show was over, the set was struck, the lights were turned off; everybody went home.

"How about that creep?" Mr John Johnson said the next morning, over coffee, before the store opened.  He and the other staff members were gathered at their usual table; a couple of the up and coming department managers were there also.  One in particular, a young man recently married, just made manager of the Hardware department, seemed to be a favorite with the store staff.

"Yeah," Mr Amos Harve agreed, "how about that creep?  Comes in here, sight unseen, nobody knows the bastard, doesn't belong here any more than a shop lifter -"

"Hold it right there," observed Mr Zwiel Munnikysen.  "Never say a shop lifter doesn't belong where there's wares displayed!"  Everyone laughed.

Amos Harve said "Touché," then finished his observation.  "At any rate, the son of a bitch doesn't belong here, so what does he do, the bastard?  He gets up - on one of our tables! - stark naked, does an obscene dance, exposes himself, indecent as a God damn fag in a boy's locker room, then gets his ass hauled off to jail!  I hope they lock him up and throw away the key!  Hell, we don't even know his name, God damn pervert!"

"Don't forget old Testi!" Stephen Hauser reminded, with a big grin on his face.

"That's different," Amos Harve insisted.

"That's just Testi," John Johnson pointed out, "it's just his way.  He's still a kid, he's still full of pranks.  This other one was a grown man, he should have known better.  And besides: no one saw him take a drop of beer - not one drop!  A man does funny things when he's drinking, you've got to allow for that.  But by God if he's not drinking, and still does it, then there's something the matter with him and the bastard ought to be locked up!"

Everyone finished up his coffee and made for his duty station.  Stephen Hauser and the young Hardware manager walked together a ways.  A few steps after they parted company and as Stephen continued on toward the Appliance department, he was joined by Miss Eglin, who mentioned something about the young man from Hardware stopping by her house later that day.  She invited Stephen.  At dusk he stood outside her window, watching the young man, naked and on all fours, being saddled up; watching Miss Eglin climbing on; watching the young man, after a feeble turn about the room, rear up and throw her; and watching the young man hastily get dressed and run out, almost touching him as he passed.  From inside a voice called out "Next."  Stephen too turned and ran.  On an impulse he followed the young man, to a tavern where, after a discreet interval, he too went in and, feigning surprise at their meeting, joined the young man for a drink.  They tried to converse, but each seemed so ill at ease in the other's company they ended up just sitting, drinking, until they left, each insisting he had never had a more enjoyable evening.

Toni Hauser was in an arm chair reading from Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" when her husband came home.  "You still reading that?" Stephen asked.

"I can't seem to put it down," Toni explained.

"Honey," Stephen Hauser went down on his knees before his wife to very carefully, patiently explain, "they only say that when you can't stop reading till the book's finished.  It doesn't mean not to be able to finish it.  See?"

Toni admitted that yes, now that he had pointed it out to her, she did see, and how easy it was now.

"See," he said, "your man is good for something.  You know," he said after a moment, "I saw this film.  Some of us stopped over at the Old Man's after work, he had some porno flicks.  It was a riot, Toni.  This young kid goes into this whore's place, you know, and he gets down and lets her saddle him up.  It was weird, Toni, real weird.  And the guy was just a kid, you know?  And married too - a newlywed!  You know, like any one of those guys on The Newlyweds on TV?  Really weird, Toni.  I mean, you wouldn't have thought a kid would have had so much...so much...whatever...in him - you know?  I mean, you'd think a kid would be too self-assured to let himself be treated like an animal, you know?  Don't you think so?"

Stephen looked up in his wife's face; he seemed to be pleading with her for an answer.  She merely smiled, as if utterly exasperated and unable to fight any longer, and she shrugged her shoulders and replied "I'm only a woman, dear, I wouldn't know about such things."  Stephen seemed to be spending a moment reflecting on what she said.  Finally he said he was not so sure, but said it with a hint of condescension in his voice.  Then he laid his head on Toni's knees and let her stroke his hair.

"Now there's one thing," he admitted, "I am so sure of!"

The day after Thanksgiving all the Christmas decorations had arisen to perch above the shoppers like watchful guardians; garlands were strung everywhere in the Christmas section of Department 48-89: Toys and Trees and Trimmings.  A huge rectangle of balsa wood, painted green, hung from wires; tiny red and green alternating flags dangled from the wooden frame.  And lights, and mock candles, and Santa's faces; some angels, lots of angel's hair: what one would expect to find, one found.  There were no surprises, not at Christmas time.  Empty cartons, always plentiful, abounded, so much so that one full time and one part time boy had had to be hired just to break them all down and stuff them into the dumpster.  The full time was quiet, almost delicate with his boxes.  The part time was an angry boy who ripped the boxes with all his might and stomped up and down on the ones which refused to give; in no case though would he use his Stanley knife, the kind with the retractable razor edge, to slit the shipping tapes; if he used his Stanley at all it was to attack  the most recalcitrant cardboards as if he were butchering someone.

Stephen Hauser seemed to like the part time boy, but to dislike the full time boy; both worked indirectly under his supervision, since the chief of maintenance, their immediate supervisor, came directly under him.  One day he asked the part timer to save him a nice carton, about yea big, one in good condition.

"Here!" the part timer snapped as he handed the required carton to the full timer.  That day, a Saturday, they had switched hours so that the former came in earlier, the latter later.

"What's this for?" asked the full timer.

"For little Stevie jerk off," was the reply.  When the box was handed to his colleague, the part timer left.  He was met downstairs at the time clock by a lady friend, Miss Eglin Eglin.  Arm in arm they left the store, whispering to one another and laughing very loudly.

"Did he know who you meant?" Miss Eglin asked.  The boy shrugged.

"He didn't ask, so I guess so," the boy replied.

"And now," said Miss Eglin, "let's go see a man about a horse!"

"Whoa-ha!  Ride 'em cowgirl!" the boy cried out at the top of his voice.

"This is for you, Mr Hauser," the full time box masher said as he handed Stephen the carton.  "Bobby said to give it to you, sir."  A guilty look was on Stephen's face as he took the box; he blushed slightly.  When he had gone, to put it in his car, his dock worker, Stinky, who had been watching the entire incident and who, in part, had earlier informed the full timer who it was he was to give the box to, approached, laughing, and asked if Stephen were going to use the box "to take a shit in."  The full timer said nothing; he merely shrugged and returned to mashing cartons.

Late at night, when Toni had gone to sleep, Stephen Hauser took out three small candles which he had put beneath his underpants in the top drawer of the dresser, and three small brass holders from beneath his undershirts.  Fitting the candles into their holders, forcing them since they were a bit too big, he placed them on the carton, which he had hauled out from the corner of his closet to stand half hidden behind the bedroom door.  He lit the candles then knelt and, with his head bowed, remained there, silent, for some fifteen minutes.  Once or twice he mumbled the words "baby Stephen."  When he looked up, he said, in a whisper, "Pray for baby."  He proceeded to put everything away again before returning to bed.  He was trembling and he sighed deeply, as if in great relief, as he pulled the covers up to his chin.  Soon he was asleep.

Every night he repeated this routine, always making certain his wife was asleep, always trembling as if from a chill when it was ended, always sighing a great sigh before falling asleep himself.  The trail of wax leading from the little moveable altar to his underclothes gave him away every morning, but every night the trail was gone; always at night a fresh trail to undo the morning's discovery, as if two distinct boarders lived here, everything the one was doing remarkably coinciding with what the other did, so that neither was revealed to the other.  Parallel dimensions as in a science fiction.

One night, just before Christmas, the altar caught fire, and before Stephen could put out the flames it had vanished into a noxious vapor which choked him and awakened his wife.  This was the second time a spark or an especially hot wax drip had ignited his altar; the other time he had just returned from his store's Christmas dance, he had been a little drunk, and still upset from earlier in the evening.  Simple carelessness on his part had caused the first fire; this, the second fire, the one which put an end to his nightly vigil, was of unknown origin.

The Sunday before Christmas, the store had its Christmas Dance.  The ballroom - and it was truly a ballroom - was palatial, the most magnificent in the city, and of course the costliest.  The Montgomery store had won so much prize money in Storewide Week contests that year and such large bonuses had been given the store staff that, at the suggestion of Mr Zwiel Munnikysen, it was decided to heavily endow the social committee's Christmas fund.  Munnikysen himself picked the site and arranged the evening's rentals.  The Black Tower, a huge building housing expensive suites, chic restaurants and two ballrooms, one dubbed The Black Room, the other The Tower Room, stood at the far end of the city's business district, on an incline.  People thought of a medieval castle when they approached.  The store had actually gotten a discount; Mr Munnikysen was one of the building's owners and had an apartment on the top floor.  Even so, the cost of one evening's rental was enormous.  The Black Room staff arranged everything; no detail was overlooked.

Toni Hauser wore a low cut evening gown of black velvet.  Her husband wore a tuxedo.  But he was furious; at first he refused to go: he would not take his wife looking like that.

"No wife of mine's going in there with her boobs hanging out her dress like some tramp!" he roared.  He threw off his jacket and began fidgeting with his cufflinks to try and loosen the fasteners.  "You can either change that dress or we're staying home!" He delivered his ultimatum: "Which is it going to be?"

"Neither," she said.

A peculiar look came over Stephen's face.  "What do you mean?" he almost gasped.

"I don't suppose I mean anything," Toni explained.  "We're going," she added after a moment's pause.  "I'm wearing what I have on."

"What? you got beans in your ears lady?  I'm your husband - remember?  I said I wasn't taking you like that, and that's that, that's final, finis, all there is to it.  Got it?"

"We're going Stephen: just as we are.  We're going."

"Says who?"

Without a word, Toni approached and re-fastened Stephen's cufflinks, then she picked his jacked off the bed and handed it to him.  He took it and threw it on the floor.  She reached down, picked it up, handed it to him again.  He threw it out into the hallway.  She retrieved it.

"You don't understand," Stephen Hauser tried to explain.  He looked to be pouting.  "It's for him - for him!  Now do you see?  I can't - Toni I can't - let you go looking like that!  Don't you understand?  Men stare when they see a woman dressed like that.  They stare Toni.  You don't know men like I do, Toni.  They stare, and they think - bad, dirty, awful thoughts.  And they hunger.  And worse still, they make jokes behind her back!  I won't have that Toni, I won't have them giggling like schoolboys at my wife.  I won't Toni.  And that's - Toni: that's not all.  It's for his sake Toni: baby Stephen.  In honor of his memory Toni.  I can't - Toni, God, I can't, I just can't let his mother - his mother! - go out half naked like that!  I can't Toni - I can't!  Don't you see? don't you see?  It would blaspheme his memory.  It would mean, Toni, that every - every - last single trace of him is gone from your life Toni.  It would mean that, that's just what it would mean Toni.  And he's so precious Toni, so precious.  And everything he did - everything he ever did!  Remember Toni, huh?  Remember?  Do you?  When he peed in my face Toni when I was changing him?  Huh?  And how he laughed?  And when he got his dirty diaper all over him, and how he stunk?  Huh?  Remember that?  And he was just laughing about it.  And how I'd powder him?  Remember that too?  And how I'd pretend it was snow?  And he'd laugh.  And laugh.  God there's nothing finer than Johnson's Baby Powder, he loved it, he loved it.  And by God no God damn son of a bitch better ever try to tell me it causes cancer either or I'll stuff the God damn bastard's ear lobes inside the can and twist the bastards off!  And you God damn know I'll do it too!  I ain't full of shit either, not for nothing; no I mean, not 'not for nothing,' not for something.  Cause I could really twist those cans too.  I could break beer cans too if I wanted and you know it too,  And I don't care if the whole God damn world says not to, I'll do it either; no not either: too - I'll do it too!  And when he was sleeping?  Huh?  Remember?  Huh?  And when he was dead - oh God.  He's not really dead Toni.  He's just sleeping.  And we have to pray to him.  He can't be dead Toni or I'll be too.  Oh God Toni, don't let him be!"

No amount of force was enough.  The eyes and mouth and nose and chin - the whole face of Stephen Hauser looked as if it would implode; but as much pressure as he seemed to be applying to hold his tears in, it was not enough.  They pushed past his features as if they were papier maché, they unhinged his eyelids and wrenched his jaws loose and straightened his nose and they relaxed his chin.  His will was broke by the saline solution it had sought to damn.  He burst into tears.  He reached out to Toni, she reached in turn to him; but at the last moment, as if there was something wrong with crying on his wife's low cut bosom, he turned away and, going down on his knees, he bent over the bed and buried his face in the mattress to cry.  In time he grew still.  He looked up into his wife's face.

"That's all I've ever asked you for," he said.  "Just to watch after my baby.  To guard him, to protect him, to keep him alive.  That's the only thing in this whole world you've ever had to do was just to watch one tiny, helpless baby.  My son.  My life.  And my future.  My future, Toni.  I've never asked you to do anything in this whole wide world but guard my future!  I am unarmed now.  You have unarmed me.  You've let my future slip right out of your hands, and that was the only thing on this earth anybody ever gave you to watch after.  And you wonder Toni - you wonder why I have to look down on you, why all men have to look down on you women?  One simple little thing you're charged with - to safeguard your husband's future - and you couldn't do it.  You couldn't even do that much! that infinitesimally little thing, and you couldn't do it.  And you want to be free, and equal!  Well, har-di-har-har!"

Stephen arose.  He collected his jacket, put it on, offered his arm to his wife, who took it; and together they left for the Christmas dance.

The band played on, as they were paid to do.  The drinks were served, the buffet was readied; the lights enchanted the gathering.  Everything was perfect, except that somehow a bug - the virus, or salmonella - had crept into the food and, the next day, for a full twenty-four hours, almost everyone there suffered from nausea and diarrhea: never has disease been so elegantly contracted.  One solid wall of the ballroom was of black marble, as polished as a mirror.  Around the ceiling, where it joined the walls, was a sculptured canopy.  And when it was over, and everyone had left, the janitors, who up till then had, along with the cooks, remained hidden, came out and cleaned up.  They were black.  The Hausers and the Munnikysens were last to leave, and as their departure coincided with the janitors' arrival, an opportunity presented itself for Stephen Hauser to invite everyone's attention to how contented the janitors seemed, a condition he imparted to their not having to worry with important work.  No one answered him.

He laughed when his altar caught fire, and with the sleeve of his tuxedo jacket quickly extinguished it.  But on Christmas Eve his eyes were full of tears when, as he knelt naked before his altar, it ignited.  By the time he connected the smoke he smelled and the heat he felt very near his skin to the sudden bright blur he saw through the film of tears covering his eyes it was too late.  Muttering a terrified "Oh My God!" he jumped up to get something to extinguish the fire; but when he returned, all he could do was to save the rug, more or less flame retardant anyway.  He fell to his knees, on the very spot where a moment ago his altar had stood, and he wept.  Toni came and, with her arms about him, made him rise and get back in bed; then she cleaned up the mess and, making sure nothing was left smoldering, returned to bed herself.

Stephen Hauser spent most of his time on the dock.  As store operating manager, it was his responsibility to oversee warehousing transactions - indeed, as Zwiel Munnikysen pointed out, that was why God had given him the name Hauser; to supervise both the receiving dock personnel and the upstairs warehouse handlers; and to make certain the maintenance crew did its job properly and efficiently.  He appeared to relish the task.  Several staff members, even a few department managers, commented at various times how nervous Stephen seemed when on the sales floor, or in the Old Man's office at the Friday staff meetings, or at the Monday morning department managers' meeting in the classroom, even in the Buffeteria for morning coffee - anywhere, in fact, but on the dock.  One morning, the day after Christmas, when they had their daily coffee, and all during Zwiel Munnikysen's assessment of Christmas returns and exchanges, which he collectively christened "Forgive and Forget," everybody caught Stephen staring at something on the table, his eyes almost wild, and an ugly sneer on his face.  Finally, just as nine-thirty neared and the employees began getting up to go punch in - always an awkward situation among them owing to the ancient architecture which put the time clock a flight of stairs down from where the Buffeteria was - Stephen reached out and grabbed whatever it was he was staring at and crushed it in his hand.,  A relieved look came over his face and he let a crumpled piece of paper slip from his hand as he walked away.  Everyone made for the paper but Zwiel Munnikysen made it first.  Oblivious to the pleas of his associates, he put it in his pocket and walked off; no one else saw it, though a little perceptiveness might have easily identified it.  On every few tables was a little placard exactly like the one Munnikysen retrieved from the floor; one side was blank but on the other side was a drawing of the Buffeteria mascot: little Winky Wand, a stick figure with a smiling face and a three cornered cap, something like a dunce cap.

Stephen Hauser made his way to the dock, muttering once or twice "God damn fairy."  The stink of whatever had died and rotted hit him.  "I'm gonna find that bastard," he swore, "if it's the last thing I do."  He walked past Testi, the dock manager, who with bowed head stepped quickly out of his way as if he were a general and Testi a lowly private.

"Excuse me sir," Testi apologized.  The young man had not been the same - had not, according to everyone in the store, "been himself" - since the Storewide Week show.  Someone hinted that tumors had began growing inside his scrotum, their growth, the person said, prompted by the trauma of being kicked with Stinky's knee.  Someone else suggested that Testi had been rendered impotent and had on at least one occasion tried to hang himself.  A number of sources agreed that he would soon have to have at least one testicle removed.  He had become very sullen, and almost never spoke except to apologize to someone for something.  In a cubbyhole over his desk was a Bible, something which had never been there before.

Stephen Hauser scarcely noticed Testi as he walked past.  Stinky came up and started to say something to Testi, calling him by name; but the boy shook his head.  "You mean Testi-less," the boy politely corrected him.  Somewhere a radio was playing; one of the dock hands swore it was an incoming radio, still inside its packing case, playing.  At first the song belied identification; it was muffled - as if it really were coming through a layer of Styrofoam.  Gradually, though, it began to grow clear: Stephen Hauser had discovered the radio and turned it louder.  The song was a replay from the 1960's, not a big hit but a respectable hit.  "Back on the Street Again" it was called; a group called The Sunshine Company sang it.  Stephen smiled listening to it.  He sang along, but changed the words slightly, from the title to say "I'm back on the dock again," but followed the rest of the song faithfully.

"Gotta stand on my own two feet again."  He tested his stance; he spread his legs.  He smiled.

"Got a tear in my eye again/Reminding me that I might cry again."  He smiled all the more.

"Once I used to think the world belongs to me."  He lost his smile.

"Now it belongs to someone else."  He looked down, and all around where he stood, he even lifted his feet to look there, as if his smile might have simply fallen and if found could be retrieved.

"Till the day I can be again/Remberin' when."  But it wasn't there.  The song was over, and still he had not found his smile, or whatever it was he was searching the dusty cement floor for.

The day after New Year's day the maintenance crew came in, as they always did, very early to clean up.  They found Testi's naked body hanging from a rafter on the dock.  Apparently he had hidden himself New Year's Eve and, after everyone had gone home, had strung a piece of binding tape - the black metal kind used to bind packages for return shipment - over a rafter and tied it somehow around his neck.  An overturned chair was found a few feet from his body.  The tape had cut deeply into his neck and he was covered with blood, some of which had dripped onto the cement floor.  The coroner was unable to determine for certain whether he strangled or bled to death; the only definite finding was that his neck, while broken, was not broken in such a way as to have been the immediate cause of death.  The coroner, when pressed for something more definite, merely quipped that death was not an exact science and let it go at that.

Everyone was shocked at Testi's suicide; everyone had a theory.  Someone insisted it was the vengeance of the Algonquins visited upon the unlucky boy for having mocked their dance; it was established almost definitively that the exact spot where Testi's blood had stained the dock was the site of ancient Algonquin ceremonies.  Somebody else suspected the rafter Testi used of having once been the sacred "tree of Algon," but when pressed to explain the term the person recanted.  Somebody else pointed out that the rafter - all the rafters - had come from the Pacific Northwest anyway; they were not local.  Almost everyone had noticed Testi's recent depression, but only a few linked it causally to his death.  As one person put it: "People who are depressed generally sleep a lot but rarely hang themselves."  Another went so far as to say they never hang themselves, and for a good reason: it was physically impossible, in a state of deep depression, to raise one's arms above one's head high enough to tie a noose around one's neck; this tantalizing proposition, however, had few adherents and many tautologies.  There were a number of people who maintained that the boy was high on drugs; an almost equal number saw it as purely an accident.  According to one among the accident proponents, Testi had been attempting to repair a crack in the rafter and, becoming inextricably tangled in the binding tape, had accidentally kicked over the chair he was standing on; but when it was asked why he would attempt such a repair naked, there was no reply.  Every theory, however bizarre, seemed to find some acceptance save for one. 

Only Stinky's was dismissed out of hand by everyone.  In his his view, Testi had not died at all, had not even tried to die; and the body taken down from the rafter was that of some migrant who had gotten inside the store, fallen asleep in some dark corner, and, in despair at being unable to get out New Year's day, took his life.  And where, he was asked, was Testi?

"At the drag races," Stinky replied.  "The Datona 500.  That's where you'll find him: where it's warm, and the cars are hot, and life's fast.  I got a card from him just today.  He wants me to join him."  To everyone's amazement, he produced it: a picture postcard showing the beach at Datona, Florida, addressed to him, signed with Testi's name.  All it lacked was a postmark.  Stinky showed it to everyone, but Zwiel Munnikysen alone seemed to have noticed there was no postmark; at least, he was the only one who brought that fact to Stinky's attention.  Stinky said nothing; he simply returned to the dock, muttering something about heading south as soon as the weather broke.

Stephen Hauser had trouble getting to sleep lately.  He would lay in bed at night with his eyes wide open, sometimes turning over or rolling a little to first one side then the other, but usually remaining perfectly still, on his back with his hands crossed over his heart.  He tried to make love to his wife almost every night, as if he were acting out a routine prescribed by someone to induce sleep.  Once in a while he would comment aloud while trying.  Toni tried to respond, and tried to seem convincing.  She never once thought that Stephen was not the man she married or that he had changed.  What astonished her was the conclusion his actions forced her to make: that he really and truly was the man she had married; that exactly what it had appeared at the time she was getting was exactly what she did get; that the bravado and the immediacy - the superficiality - of his sexuality. of his life itself, were not masks he had assumed in order to impress her, or himself, with his masculinity, but were real and, far from an act, constituted the determining characteristics of his existence; and that it was only the outside world's inhibitions gradually closing in on him which was destroying, not just his virility, but his very existence.  It stunned her to realize that Stephen Hauser was exactly as he had always appeared to be, neither more nor less, and that there was not, as she had always thought, another man inside trying desperately to emerge from the rigid shell he had constructed around it, to contain it.  Here, all along, had been the man she married, the most scrupulously, almost religiously, honest man who ever lived.  He did not simply believe what he professed to believe, nor did he simply act on his beliefs: he was his beliefs, and above all else, they were his and his alone, not forced on him but freely and willingly and eagerly and gladly and even proudly assumed.  Not circumstance but his own soul had made him a company man; and it was only because he had run up against what seemed an insurmountable obstacle that he was turning inward on himself, feeding on his own exterior to keep the interior it so faithfully reflected alive.  He was not suffering because he had become disillusioned or because his beliefs and his life were being challenged, or because he could not now change, having gone too far to try a new direction, but because - and only because - he had reached a structural impasse.  It was not his career that was destroying him, it was merely this one particular store, this one chance set of circumstances he had had the misfortune to encounter.  His suffering was nothing more than a servant helping him make the best of the life he had sought out: his proof of loyalty.  He genuinely wanted no other life but the one he had gotten.  To end one's life in Towson and be reborn in Cumberland, then end it there only to begin it again in Erie and again in Montgomery, and so on, had always been his idea and his only idea of regeneration.  To cease being Mr X...to become Mr Y.  And now he was Mr Z, trying desperately to impregnate his wife.  A hopeless task for a man who moved so frequently.

It was a bitter cold winter.  The winds seemed to carry the polar ice cap on their backs; perhaps they moved so fast thinking to meet their end in the sun belt.  Why then did they choose to whirl, when a straight path would have been quicker?  Or were they cosmic winds, from a place where, time and light the only maxims, not a straight but any conceivable manner of crooked line was the shortest way somewhere?  The temperatures they whipped up fell even at mid-day well shy of freezing; and at night the wind chill would range anywhere from five to twenty-five below zero.  When it snowed, it became automatically a blizzard; the mayor's office let stand an open ruling that at the very first sighting of snow, schools would close for two hours and city government for one hour.  State and federal authorities could do as they saw fit.  The store had a contract to have its lots cleared, but on at least two occasions the contractor breached it even as he was fulfilling it, the snow and wind such that he could not keep his removal paced to their arrival; by noon of the worst day his vehicle was three-fourths covered and he had to abandon it or perish.  Except for that one day, however, the store remained open, though after opening as much as three hours late and closing three hours early.

Toni and Stephen Hauser had a snowball battle the day the store was closed.  Neither had ever laughed so much or seemed to be so happy; eventually, though, the cold drove them inside.  They undressed and hung their wet clothes across the bathtub.  Still laughing, still with looks in their eyes as of an immense vitality, still appearing overjoyed, they began pawing at one another, as if neither had ever seen another human body.  There, on the bathroom carpet, a bright yellow, they lay for the afternoon.  Neither of them spoke till the clock finally rang its alarm: Stephen had set the alarm, as he always did, for nine-fifteen, but it had failed to ring in the morning; the electric had been off nearly six hours, the clock had not been reset.  Now, at three in the afternoon, the alarm went off.  They got up, got dressed, got dinner ready.

Stephen Hauser had his own theory of Testi's death, which he revealed, for the first time, over dinner, to his wife.  "He was a man obsessed," Stephen informed his wife.  "He was tracking it down.  A man with a mission, Toni.  Just like me.  I'm going to carry on his work," he resolved.  "He gave his life trying to find that stink, to root out the source of that smell of decay on the dock, and to eradicate it.  Toni: it's destroying that store.  If we don't stop it, in time it'll spread.  It'll infect every store first in the district, then the region, then it'll spread to the other regions.  The whole chain'll become infected.  And they'll have to put it out of its misery, like you would any other sick creature.  But it didn't start here, Toni; it started back there.  The touch of death.  That migrant, at Erie, Pennsylvania.  I can say no more just yet, but before long I'll have it all worked out.  This will be my ultimate contribution to society.  My main claim to fame.  Toni: I am a company man.  I swear it.  On all that's holy, I swear it."    

"God it stinks!  God how it stinks!" Stephen would declare every time he entered the dock.  He would carefully sniff, pause, try another direction, and keep sniffing this way until he had covered the entire area; then he would be there the very next day, or sometimes later the same day - three or four times if he got the chance - trying to sniff the decay from the dock.  He swore it was a dead animal, but refused to accept anybody's suggestion it was a mouse, or even  rat: it had to be something bigger to rot so slowly and so offensively, he insisted.  He would argue the point with anybody, except for Stinky, who, he said, had linked himself with the forces of evil by taking that name.  Zwiel Munnikysen laughed in his face when offered this reasoning; the other staff members were more restrained.  Miss Eglin Eglin, when told third hand about Stephen's assessment of Marion S Randolph, alias Stan, alias Stinky, smiled, as if pleased, almost as if hopeful.  She nodded and, as she returned to repairing a stain on a coffee table, mumbled something about having to get her saddle warmed up.

Stephen Hauser took every opportunity to have the dock rearranged, and whenever no one else had time, if he did have the time, he would go at it himself.  Sometimes he would sing, rarely the same song twice in a row, presumably whenever a song came to him, whatever it was, he would go with it; though usually he was silent as he worked lifting, moving, rearranging cartons, especially cartons of paint.  His songs when he worked in the paint section of the dock seemed brighter, happier, and his voice louder if not more melodious.  If any one song recurred more frequently than any other, it was "Back On The Street Again," always sung with the word "dock" substituted for "street."  Only rarely did his singing coincide with whatever song was playing on the public address system, which could faintly be heard on the dock, or even with whatever the radio, which was on every now and again, was broadcasting.  He sung while he worked, seeking out evil to destroy it, to banish it from the Company, and to carry on Testi's holy mission.  Occasionally he suffered a slight mishap, as from a carton falling; though they were always slight, under the wrong conditions they might have proven otherwise.  His concentration, fortunately, seemed awesome, almost total.  Once Zwiel Munnikysen stood for a full ten minutes attempting to get Stephen's attention before registering.

"Oh," said Stephen, looking up from his work to catch sight of Munnikysen from the corner of one eye, "I'm sorry, I didn't know anyone was there.  You wanted something?"

"Well," said Munnikysen, "I was just here in Stink City visiting, so I thought I'd stop by, say hello, see how things were.  How are things?"

"I'm getting there," Stephen answered.  "Slowly but surely I'm getting there."

"Well good," said Munnikysen.  "Hey, by the way: look at this.  Miss Eglin brought it in.  See what you think of it."  Munnikysen handed Stephen a picture, a Xerox copy of a drawing.  In it, from left to right, were: a clock, its hands reading five till four; a bottle of gin turned upside down with its last drop pouring into a glass; a barmaid at the bar, with her left breast and nipple exposed above the lowered bodice of her dress; and a toilet.  Underneath the picture was a caption: "Do you know your baseball?  What's the score?" it asked.

"I don't get it," said Stephen.

"Too bad," said Munnikysen.  He started to go then turned back to remind Stephen to be in the classroom right after lunch.  Stephen looked puzzled.  "April's fast approaching," Munnikysen explained, but Stephen continued looking puzzled.  "Storewide Week!" Munnikysen pointed out.  "We've got to fix on a Storewide Week Show.  I have an idea already, just a general area I want to go with; but I want to get everyone's ideas first of course.  Then we'll go with it."

Stephen had his shirtsleeves still rolled up after lunch; when he removed his sport coat a couple of people gasped.  Everyone in the classroom laughed.

"Been plumbing?" someone asked.  Stephen looked puzzled.  In turn, his interrogator began to convey puzzlement to the group.

"Rats," Zwiel Munnikysen explained.

"Who?" asked Mr Amos Harve.

"Rats in your pants?" Mr John Johnson inquired of Stephen.

"That's ants baby: ants!" Mr Stacey Lacey, the personnel manager corrected his associate.

"Baby ants?" somebody else asked, but evidently either the question or the questioner was out of place here.  No one even smiled.

"Deacon," Zwiel Munnikysen said to the questioner, "you finished?"  The Deacon, in actuality only a sub-deacon, and of a small congregation, a salesman in the Home Improvement department, Department 74, had come to the classroom to eat his lunch in privacy, and to kneel and pray.  He was just finishing a prayer, his Bible in both hands, when the reference to ants had been made.  He nodded to Munnikysen, arose, and, chuckling softly to himself and commenting "Baby ants - ha! that's a good one!  That's a gooder!" finally departed.  The entire Storewide Week squad nodded their heads behind the Deacon's back.  No one liked him, but no one could outsell him either; so, despite the number of customer complaints against him, he stayed on.

"Pius hypocrite, that's what I say!" Mr Johnson said.  "He'd cheat the pants off you - and if you had on skin tights, he'd flay you to get them!"

"Then pray over your grave till his eyes watered every blade of grass!"

"Uhm," murmured a soft feminine voice, "sounds interesting."  Miss Eglin Eglin, the only non-staff member present, had spoken.  The skit Zwiel Munnikysen presented his associates for their approval required a woman, and there being no woman on the store staff, he chose Miss Eglin for the part.

"It wants an ingénue," he had told her earlier.

"Ingénue?" she asked demurely.  "What's that?  Something you wear or something to eat? or something you beat hinnies with?"

"I thought what we'd do," Munnikysen stood while everyone else got seated, "is this: we want something modern - right?"  Everyone agreed that something modern was called for.  "Good," he commended their choice.  "And what is modern right now?  Any ideas?"  There were plenty of ideas.

"The hully-gully," Mr Johnson claimed.

"The hustle - the hustle!" Miss Eglin corrected him.

"Honey," said Johnson, "I got a hully here that's just right for your gully!"  Everyone laughed.

"Don't flatter yourself," Miss Eglin warned.  "Why, honey, your hully'd get lost in the underbrush 'for it could ever get halfway near my gully!"  Again there was laughter.

"Fish and chips," the Personnel Manager offered as his idea of something modern.

"You want to go join the Deacon in a prayer?" Mr Amos Harve asked with a laugh.

"Yeah," said Stephen Hauser, who up to now had remained quiet, as if he were only vaguely aware what was going on around him, "let's do get on our knees and pray."  No one seemed able to detect any irony in his tone of voice or his expression, though everyone appeared to be studying him for some sign of it; consequently, no one laughed, or responded, except Miss Eglin, who said something about it being a hot time out behind the barn when the teenage boys, whom she called "peenie boppers," a corruption of the slang term "teenie boppers" presumably, got down to pray.

"Their prayers travel," she noted, "oh, sometimes five feet, sometimes they land back in their own faces!"  Stephen Hauser looked very puzzled by her remark; he seemed to be making an effort to understand what she was saying.  Everybody else was busy giggling, except for Zwiel Munnikysen, who simply stared at Stephen as if he was a painter studying his subject to find the best pose.  A few more speculations on what was modern were encouraged by Munnikysen before he cut off further discussion.

"You're all on the right track," he complimented his associates.  "Old is new.  You've got it there.  And what, pray tell, is older - or for that matter newer - than young love!"

"You want to run that by me again?" Miss Eglin insisted.

"Young love," Munnikysen repeated.  "No frills, nothing fancy, no revolution, armchair or otherwise, no coup de grace, bloodless or otherwise, no great flights of fantasy - just plain, simple, old-fashioned love at first sight."

"You mean you want me to fornicate right there on stage?" asked Miss Eglin.

"No," replied Mr Harve, "he wants us to gang bang you!"

"Honey," she told him, "you and your whole gang couldn't bang a drum if it was smack in the middle of a douche bag!"  The Harve gang all roared.

"What I want," said Munnikysen when the crowd died down, "is this: I want to work up a skit around a young couple in love.  Let me put it to you in even more specific terms: what I want is a young couple with a definite Company slant, flavor if you will - and no comments from the peanut gallery!  What we're talking about here is one thing and one thing only, because there's only one couple meeting all the criteria.  And they, my friends, are, very simply: Wendy and Winky, the company mascots.  That's my idea.  Comments?" he asked.

A strange look came over Stephen Hauser's face: he turned pale and began shaking his head slowly from side to side.  Everyone else, though, appeared at ease, even pleased, at any rate satisfied with the proposal.  Only Stephen seemed to object, and in fact he alone voiced an objection, if a subdued one.

"No," he said, his voice barely audible to the others.  He tried repeating himself, but seemed unable to raise his voice.  Eventually, as the discussion progressed, without his participation, he slowly and quietly got up and made for the door; but he was stopped by an authoritative voice calling his name.

"Stephen," Zwiel Munnikysen called to him, "we want you.,"  Stephen looked puzzled.  "We want you," Munnikysen repeated.  "Come back."  Stephen slowly returned to his seat.  "Now what about our theme?" Munnikysen was asking.  Stephen evidently thought he alone was being asked; he became very reflective, then, right in the middle of someone else's suggestion, shrugged, admitted not knowing, and got up to leave.  Once again he was brought back with an authoritative "We want you."

"I know," Miss Eglin was expressing her opinion, "let's call him, not Winky, but Kinky.  And let's have him prance around, all in leather, then -"

"That'll do," Munnikysen interrupted.

"No Kink?" Miss Eglin asked in a little girl's voice.  "No Kinky Winky Dinky?"

"No Kink," Munnikysen ruled in the voice of the little girl's daddy.

"I got it!" exclaimed John Johnson.  "See how this sounds: The Life and Times of Winky and Wendy! How's that?"  Everyone made a face, as if to indicate in mime being deep in thought.  Some liked it, some did not not; Munnikysen was among the latter.

"Okay," Amos Harve tired his luck, "try this on for size: Trials and Tribulations: The Unending Saga of Wendy and Winky.  What do you think?"

"Never," someone suggested.

"What do you mean never?" asked Harve somewhat defensively.

"I mean The Never Ending Saga - not Unending."

"Oh."

"Still stinks," Munnikysen pronounced.  "What I had in mind," he went on to say, "was something more like this - just plain and simple: The Further Misadventures of Wendy and Winky.  Pure and Simple."

"Why misadventures?  Why not misfortunes?" the personnel manager inquired.

"I like it better," was the only explanation, and presumably the only one needed.  Once it was officially agreed upon, Munnikysen offered his justification: "It has an existentialness to it.  I like the word Further in particular: it gives continuity, it endows it with a sense of the real."

Miss Eglin sighed a deep sigh.  "Too bad," she confessed.  "That'll be the only endowment about it."

So it was settled.  And Stephen Hauser, it was decided at a separate meeting, one he was not present at, would be Winky to Miss Eglin Eglin's Wendy.

"What if he don't agree?" someone asked Zwiel Munnikysen.

"He will."

"Yeah but what if he don't?"

Mr Zwiel Munnikysen spelled it out to the doubters among them - literally.  "C," he began, continuing on, letter by letter, until he had spelled out for them the word 'Career.'

"Ah," was the awestruck reply; though someone else, stressing that he was only playing the devil's advocate, noted that, actually, such a thing as an appearance in a Storewide Week Show could not be held over one's head, indeed carried very little weight in determining one's career potential.

"And yet," Munnikysen rejoined, "one is expected to be a team player, is he not?  Besides," he seemed to be switching to another ploy, "he just might very well be next in line for a store of his own.  I hear there's one up Albany way - small store, but a store.  I have it in my mind from somewhere that Hauser's name's been linked to it, that he's being considered."  Munnikysen winked as he said this.

"Is he really?" someone asked who had failed to notice the wink.

Munnikysen shrugged and almost laughed.  "Who knows?" he said. 

"Then why'd you say it?"

"Because it has to be said - first to you people, so you can swear you heard it, then to Hauser.

"But why?"

"We need a Winky - and he's it!  Can you think of a better one?"  Everyone laughed.

The nearer the time drew, the more often Stephen Hauser could be seen hunting among the cartons on the dock, and the more frantic his search seemed to become, as if he possessed a dread of what was approaching too enormous yet too indistinct to be expressed in any other way.  All the talk, almost all the activity in the store had been skillfully directed toward Storewide Week - "When all America shops and saves" - and, in particular, toward the up-coming show.  Never had such interest been shown any particular theme, not in the store, not at least if the store staff was to be believed.  They agreed to a man: "There's never been anything like it!"  The old timers in the store held more or less the same view.  The characters, the theme had caught everyone's imagination.  A small fortune, it was quickly discerned, could be saved on posters: everyone already knew about it, word of mouth had spread the news like a fierce wind fanning some great conflagration ever nearer some unsuspecting ultimate victim lounging idly somewhere.  "The Further Misadventures of Winky and Wendy": it was possessed of a magical ring which none could withstand.  Stephen Hauser alone seemed uninspired; all the rest of the store had ascended the pinnacle of their enthusiasm and awaited the moment.

"That was his last song," Stephen Hauser paused his search long enough to have a cigarette, listen to the radio in the distance and make his comment.  He offered a smoke to Stinky but the old man refused.

"Never smoke while I'm on duty," Stinky said.  Stephen, a bit awkwardly, as if embarrassed by each puff, kept smoking.  "Don't like it," Stinky indicated he meant the song.  "It stinks."  He drew close to Stephen and, lowering his voice, explained: "A nigger song.  Can't stand 'em.  Now I know there's people'll tell you they have nothing in the world against niggers.  Well, not me, 'cause I do.  It was them stole the Algonquin war bonnets from the museum.  That ain't all they did."  Stinky became silent a moment.  Stephen listened to the song.

"Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay": the last song recorded by Otis Redding before his death in an airplane crash.  It seemed on the verge of something, this final song, like some next evolutionary step which had had to be stopped for being about to be revealed too soon; as if Otis - the Big O - had glimpsed the future and, though killed before he had time to report what he saw, managed to leave behind a clue.  Something in the music perhaps.  The words were plaintive, soulful; Otis Redding was the King of Soul.  Some, at the time, said it was a suicide note to the world; no one really knew.

"Sittin' in the morning sun," Otis began to sing upon the ebb of the surf.  "I'll be sittin' when the evening comes.  Watching the ships roll in, and I watch 'em roll away again."  He went on to explain how he was "Sittin' here restin' my bones" and that "this loneliness won't leave me alone."

Stephen seemed to be listening with an attentiveness unlike anything he had ever seemed capable of.  He shuddered from head to foot when Otis sang how he had left his home in Georgia to head for the Frisco Bay.  Gulls were somewhere in the background.  "Two thousand miles I roamed, just to make this dock my home."

-"Watching the tide roll away."

Stephen gestured toward where the music seemed to be coming from, more with his fingers than his hand.

"Yeah I know 'em alright," Stinky was saying.  "White slaves.  Carried off my little buddy.  Good 'ol Testi."

-"Wasting time."

"We used to go nigger baiting.  We'd beat the shit out of those black bastards.  Good 'ol Testi.  We knew they'd take their revenge.  God damn them.  Yeah, him too.  The Big O.  Yeah.  Not that I keep no nigger in my mind.  But it's the same as a cigarette and I remember."

-"Looks like nothing's gonna change."

"Oasis.  Menthol brand.  Didn't last long.  Too mild.  But they had a catchy ad.  Used to sing: 'Smokers' who know now smoke the Big O.'  That's what they sing.  Testi used to laugh his head off when I'd sing him some of those old cigarette adds.  Used to stand almost this very spot, and he'd be about where you are, and I'd sing 'em out."  Stinky sang: "Smokers who know now smoke the Big O."  He laughed, but soundlessly.

-"I can't do what ten people tell me to do, so I guess I'll remain the same."

The Big O whistled the tune to bring his final song to a close.

"Jesus God could he whistle!" Stephen Hauser exclaimed.  His eyes filled with tears, but did not lose any.  Stinky looked at him funny, then shrugged and turned away.

"Got no time to praise no niggers," Stinky muttered to himself as he disappeared through a doorway.  In a moment Stephen returned to his work.

Stephen overhead two porters talking.  "They was gonna cut his balls and his cock off," one was saying.  "That cancer was all over him."

"All because Stinky couldn't stand watching him make a fool of himself.  Hope they cut off Stinky's racist balls and cock too!"

Stephen shook his head.  "They don't know," he whispered.  "Only I do.  That's why I gotta carry on Testi's sacred mission."

The fateful day arrived, when Stephen Hauser would officially become little Winky for the evening; when in the minds of his fellow workers his identity stood a good chance of becoming fused to the little stick man with the three cornered cap on the placards sitting on every few tables in the Buffeteria; when, for the chance at a promotion invented on the spot for no other reason than to persuade him to accept the role, he would accede to the persuasion of his peers and assume the little stick man's identity.  In the morning, sitting on the toilet in his bathroom, surrounded by fleur de lis, Stephen began fashioning from sheets of toilet tissue a little Winky doll; he gave it a likeness not too dissimilar from the real thing, allowing for his not being a sculptor anyway.

"Present arms!" he commanded, and, answering the command, he made two little arms, spat here and there and, mixing in a little soap, got the arms attached to the body.  Next were the legs, then finally came the head, with its three cornered Napoleon's cap: a sheet crushed into a ball for the head, one carefully folded for the cap.

"The clothes make the man," Stephen insisted.  A little splash underscored this precept.

"Why look!" he exclaimed, holding up his doll.  "It's a fairy!"  He laughed.  "It's that internationally renowned drag queen Winky Hauser!  Take a bow, maestro!"  There was no time, however, for a bow; Stephen was finished, and, his doll being toilet paper, he made good use of it.

"You know something?" he said to his wife on the way out, "I think you've grown since I've known you."

There would be no beer this time, not after the last Storewide Week Show.  Zwiel Munnikysen had refused, as store comptroller, to authorize the purchase.  It did not seem to matter though; the beer was not the big drawing card, not this time, but rather the show itself, and especially the part taken by Stephen Hauser: everyone wanted to see little Winky come to life, and said so.  Everyone who worked at the store vowed to be there, and, judging from appearances at least, had kept their word.  The Buffeteria was pack jammed; chairs from the classroom now had to be brought down to help accommodate the turn-out: everyone declared this to be most appropriate in view of the show's subject, and some even applauded the otherwise syncopated mixture of the red Buffeteria chairs and blue classroom chairs, the former vinyl against black wooden frames, the latter fabric set into gray metal frames.  There were enough tables - square, on a pedestal base, with wood grain tops - to accommodate 180 persons: five rows, three and two on either side of an aisle down the middle, or roughly the middle, nine in the back row.  The carpet was red with a black pattern.  The night had been misdiagnosed.  A huge black sky carried one's gaze past whatever configuration is generally meant by the indistinct term "universe" - well past these arbitrary limits, past this fantasy, past this pretentious word.  On the wall of a stall in the ladies' room was written "there is no top and bottom, only a middle: therefore, the universe is but another hoax"; beneath it, in another hand, was written "and the big bang is just another myth created by men to demonstrate their superiority over women" - parts of the latter statement circumferenced the toilet tissue dispenser.  The employees of this store, as if unhinged from the rest of humanity, as if adrift, or seeing themselves adrift, in or as interstellar dust, spelled out cosmic careers instead of ordinary concerns.  In the men's room, on a wall in a stall there, someone had written, whether in tandem with a female conspirator or not, no one could say "the thing is it neither contracts nor expands nor pulsates - and to call it universe would leave me intestate"; and in another hand the couplet was cloned, though not in kind: "the ends of time are not a gate, the universe is not your mate."

The local weatherman on the nightly TV news had called for rain; he swore there would be clouds, and no one would see the moon.  His clouds misaligned heaven.  On the wall beneath the cosmic poetry in the men's room was the remains of a first line of traditional verse: "Her I sit pen in hand"; nothing followed, it had been erased.  Philosophy had taken over the bathrooms, along with nicotine stains and a feeble mildew.  The night sky, far from proscribed by the weatherman's clouds, went on.

The stage too was huge and black.  A man who worked in the Lawn and Garden department said he hated the equation of black with evil; he swore it was racist, till one night, a night like this, on his way to his car, he was attacked by an unseen assailant and, while not wounded, was robbed and pushed to the ground.  He claimed, from then on, to see a connection between darkness and misfortune; but he still continued to express a hatred for the original equation, even if he could no longer dismiss it as racist.  The backdrop reached to the ceiling; on it, practically invisible at first, clouds were drawn near the top.  The hour was fast approaching; the "hands of time" were "bearing down" upon the scene; the "stage was set"; "what would be would be."  At home, at the exact minute it happened, Toni Hauser was thinking about the universe, and deciding it was no more than a cliché inside a cliché inside a cliché.  The Crab Nebulae, she thought, blew themselves up because they could no longer bear repeating everything that had gone before.  The Andromeda has on pursed lips the force of a thousand thousand split atoms: the words I exist; while their fingers are reaching little red buttons around which are written "close me last."  Orion's Hunters are just now learning to leap upon pogo sticks; time is still on their side: they don't yet know it has all been done before.  Pray they never find that out.

Stephen Hauser had been busy swatting flies.  "Spring flies," he called them, to their faces.  "Leftovers," he scorned them; "last year's flies, trapped inside here, just now reawakening."  Even so, he watched them intently, about five in all; they appeared to be swarming.

"They're going for it!" he cried.  "They're going for it!  That's it, little vermins, just keep on, keep going, you boys direct me, you know where it is, you'll find it, you'll lead me to it, you boys can locate death blindfolded.  There's something rotted here, and you just keep moving, just as you are, and I'll follow, just as I am."

The flies did seem to be gearing their movement toward some very definite objective; while they would light here and there, they never stayed anyplace long before moving on to the next stop, always in the same direction.  There was a column of discontinued paint stacked some fourteen cartons high in a corner; Stephen had long had his eye on it - he had almost narrowed his search for the source of the smell down to it even before the flies led him there.  They hovered, then by turns swooped - to the extent flies can be said to swoop; they marked the spot of ground indelibly as the source of that stink, that evil Stephen Hauser had set about exorcising.  He had followed their lead; now he stood before the column, looking up as at a Goliath needing his head cut off.  He raised and shook his fist, but at the same time he grinned and shrugged his shoulders.

"Unhand its soul!" he demanded of the enemy.  "Let it be at peace!"  He laughed and shook his head.  Turning to just a certain angle, he happened to glance up at a clock on the wall above a doorway leading to where the trucks unloaded.  It said nine thirty-seven; Zwiel Munnikysen had scheduled the show to begin at quarter to ten.  Stephen grew visibly nervous.

"No way!" he insisted, without actually specifying an antecedent.  No way...what?, one might wonder if anyone had heard him.  He turned back to his enemy.  Some of the cartons were so old, so dusty, that their identities had been all but obliterated: they might have held any paint, or none.  Stephen was able to make out one carton.  "4612?" he asked in disbelief.  "Hell, we did away with that stuff years ago for God sake!" he declared in a voice almost angry.  "What do they mean keeping that shit around?"  Stephen pulled a cigarette out of a pack without removing the pack from his shirt pocket, and lit it; he took a deep puff then slowly exhaled.

"My kingdom for a smoke," he whispered.  He looked for a second almost relaxed, as if he were about to ender a reverie, deeply, follow it to its source, slumber beside a memory, or a dream, or a hope.  Something distracted him, though: a voice, as of something scratching, or minutely pillaging where the cardboard was.  He listened, or seemed to; then he pointed.

"There," he said, his voice a perfect replica of definitiveness.  "Right there.  There you are, you bastard."  His fingers came to rest on paint carton 4612, the only discontinued paint identifiable.  A fly lighted near his finger.  There seemed to be a gnawing from inside the carton.  "I'm gonna catch me a nigger," he said.  "A black devil.  It isn't niggers I hate: I hate a world that has niggers.  I hate a world that makes it so easy to hate people.  They didn't need to be black; then they wouldn't have stood out.  You can't miss a God damn nigger.  He doesn't have to beat his brains out or work his tail off or stand on his head or turn flip flops or kiss anybody's ass to be noticed.  The whole rotten stinking miserable world notices a nigger.  You can't help but notice them!  They're as near to a complete thing there is.  You see a God damn white man, he looks like he needs a coat of fresh paint.  You see a God damn nigger, you hate the sight of him.  He's like one great big giant finger, just there pointing at you, like you were something decayed, to be covered and buried, gotten out of the way, hidden.  Buried.  Big old brown cow's eyes - yeah: all God chillen' got cow's eyes!  All of them.  All God's chillen.,'  I wish they did.  I wish to God they really did.  So I could stop hating them.  Cow's eyes in a nigger's head: he'd be incomplete, you wouldn't have to feel so small.  You could love him then.  He damns me and I hate him and he don't mean to damn me and I don't mean to damn him and still we do."

Stephen Hauser began the ascent.  The 4612 carton was fifth from the top; if he were to get at it - if he were to get at the source of the evil he had devoted so much time and effort to finding, and his protégé Testi had given his life for - he would first have to remove, one by one, each of the four cartons above it.  There was space for a tentative footing; he could climb to where he could reach the topmost carton.  Arriving at his destination, he found himself encumbered: his right hand still held his nearly spent cigarette butt.  The carton could not be maneuvered with one hand taken up in holding a cigarette butt, not if he were to steady himself during the descent also.  It had to go: it did not belong here on the dock.  He gave it a toss, it flew across the dock; but in hurling it, he threw himself off balance, almost lost his footing.  He grabbed - reached out his arm, his free arm, his left arm, and grabbed.  The cartons, stacked, like a pillar: he grabbed hold.  He held firm.  His footing held firm.  But the cartons gave.

Not slowly, not so he had time to jump down, jump free.  But quickly, all at once, all in unison.  Perhaps his weight, perhaps the very irregularity of the column which gave him a foothold: something, whatever it was, brought them down on him.

Having nothing solid to hold, his support given way, he fell backwards.  He hit the cement of the dock.  Characteristically, there was a "thud," and the sudden gasp of escaping breath.  And a volley of noise on its heels, the crunching of bones and tendons, and an involuntary scream, but a muted one, a very deep, very moist scream as the topmost cartons, all four together, like laughing acrobats onto a trampoline, bounced on Stephen Hauser's chest and abdomen, but, like fooled acrobats mistaking one thing for another, bounced no farther, they just lay there, broken and maimed, on the man's body.  Poised high above was number 4612, teetering between falling and staying, as if it were reeling, dying with the sight of victory, shaking with laughter at the ruined warrior lying at its feet.  Stephen Hauser's holy mission had ended in defeat.  A couple flies began buzzing, hovering near the spilled blood.

He looked up; from the angle his head had struck the cement, he could not see the 4612 carton hovering over him, he could only see straight up.  "Hi," he said.  He smiled.  "Some fix I've gotten myself in, isn't it?"  He gagged, as though on his words.  He panted for breath.  "Hurts when I talk," he said, as if offering an explanation.  His speech was slow, each successive phrase, and he spoke only in phrases now, eventually only in single words, each more slurred than its predecessor.  "Give a hand?" he asked.  "I'll push.  You pull."  Another try for breath, and breathing was all the motion he was capable of.  "There," he said.  "Thanks.  That was heavy.  Feels better now.  Don't," he began, but gasped again.  "Don't," he tried again, more slowly, "strain yourself.  Just set it.  Over there.  Good.  Thank you Toni.  Love you Toni.  Over here now.  Please.  There.  More comfortable.  Can't shout."

Here he coughed up a quantity of blood.  He could barely speak afterward.  "Love you.  Toni.  I.  die. happy. man."  He could speak no further, talking so much had tired him out.  He yawned.  Slowly he shut his eyes.  A fly supped at his lips, but he did not disturb its tranquility with his breath, nor ruffle its tiny gossamer wings.  He let it alone.  In such a universe, kindness always flows from death.  It was ironic, his speaking of death earlier this his last day alive: the death of his little woman, her emergence into something bigger, his recognition of it; and the death of his own self image, if only by implication, the image of the invincible protector, now no longer needed.  Like a stalk, when the vitality goes out of it, the body is useless.

They came for him.  The show must go on, be it tragedy or melodrama.  Caped, for his role, Zwiel Munnikysen led the procession.  The dock was a whirl of banality, as every trite image handed down, deliberately or not, from father to son since time immemorial - and everything which is or ever was or ever will be becomes sooner or later trite, except for living beings, who gracefully never endure long enough - every image, high or low, impelled as if by the irresistible attraction of blood, impinged upon the scene, gathered about the corpse, dined with fine spring flies on the deceased.  La cousine interminable.  Delicious.  Parfait.  E plus de parfait: even in another tongue, banality can be rendered.  For, as all men and all cultures discover, there is only one escape from it.

Everyone was aghast.  They had come to laugh at the further misadventures of their mascot, little Winky.  This was not what they had been led to expect, this the mangled remains of their principle player.  In time they got the cartons off and, very lightly, deliberately, returned them to their perch above 4612.  They summoned the paramedics to remove Stephen Hauser's body; then they went home.  Go, the show is ended.

The funeral seemed like it would never end.  It stretched into weeks, then months, then half a year: thank God someone had the presence of mind to bury the corpse; the widow was said by everyone to be in deep mourning.  The funeral could not, and would not, be said to be over while she still grieved.  The wife of the store manager took Mrs Hauser under her wing, spending more time with her than the Old Man ever spent with his operating manager; with her, this was not an entirely empty metaphor, not merely a cliché.  The woman, in her early fifties perhaps, mother of three living children and two dead, had a face and, in fact, a body also which some people swore reminded them of a pelican; if people's natural habit of seeking and, of course, finding similarities between people and other creatures, or between people and things even, were not enough, this lady had fallen into the unfortunate habit of wearing dresses - from the missus rack of Department 14, the Dress department - having huge sleeves which hung draped from her arms like a big bird's half folded wings.  She wore also, almost every place she went, a little hat, not always the same hat but always the same style, with a tiny feather in it; the color varied according to her outfit.  And although she was a rather matronly figure of a woman, she happened to have very thin legs, and her ankles were barely more than stalks, the result of a childhood polio which she had valiantly overcome.  Perhaps her most singular aspect, though, was her smile - ironically, the least birdlike of her entire person, and the least synchronized with her behavior.  She had a very nervous smile, almost what one might call a mean smile: a sneer.  Yet there seemed a genuine kindness in everything she did.  The most she seemed guilty of was assuming misery and woe everywhere, in everyone, which she would then, once it was identified, set about comforting: people had to be miserable, that she might show them kindness.

"My dear," she told Toni Hauser, "your whole world, I know, has given way beneath you.  No one knows this better than I."  She smiled.

"My whole world disintegrated," Toni mused aloud, completing her thought in silence: and I am unscathed.

"Well actually," the store manager's wife corrected her, "given way is a better description.  Disintegrate is like, oh, like, well almost like quick sand."

"Given way is better?" Toni asked.  The lady smiled and nodded.

Then, Toni thought, given way it is.  Less shattering than a disintegration; either way I feel almost no loss.  No real loss.  I would have contented myself to remain Stephen's wife, watching while the role grew gradually smaller till it vanished altogether; but I do not grieve its loss.  His loss, yes; but not the loss of my place in his life.  My place in life.  For something like one of those collapsing walls in the horror movies, where one is trapped between the two walls coming together, I can't claim to have suffered any from the experience.  There is no sense of relief, or release.  There is no such thing as a woman anyway, not certainly in any book, her identity is defined solely in terms of men: she is, by definition, not a man.  To the definition a lot is added, for embellishment.  She must be laid out in such a way as to accentuate manhood.  In a world where size and strength are the standards, no matter if they are not needed, she must spend her life emphasizing smallness and fragility, and their inherent inferiority.  She must be hairless so the hair on his body will stress his masculinity; but she must have luxuriant hair on top, to counterpoint his close cropped hair.  All the rest in kind, from plucked brows - no thought can be found on such brows - to high heeled shoes which accentuate the hopelessness of her eternal quest to be as big and as brawny as he is: she must try to keep pace, or else his being bigger is no more significant than Everest being taller than Godwin-Austin.  This is all known; to me as well as to everyone else: nothing more than another cliché to pass one's time considering.  But I seem to be here for no other reason than consideration.  There are no actions a woman may take, only those a man is conditioned to take.  Should I fume and rage that I cannot swagger, that I cannot boast, that I cannot bully, intimidate, aggress against others? that I cannot take up arms? that I cannot attack the enemy on all fronts? or ascend the corporate ladder? or that I am constrained to only feel instead of think? to only react? to only submit and not dominate?  Would any being in its right mind wish or seek to trade places with a man? the way his life is laid out for him? the way his soul is ironed flat as a board and stood straight and tall and upright? the way he is pitted against every other of his kind on this earth? the way he is stuffed into the code of values he is expected to accept?  This - for this! - I should rebel?  I should carry placards?  I should give up the chastity belt for the gray flannel suit?  When in fact, it's all as hopelessly convoluted, and people so irreversibly trained, that nothing can ever be done to alleviate the mess we're in.  I should fight and die that my life may be redefined in terms of my alter ego? my alter gender?  I should engage the world in combat that it allow me the honor of becoming a man when that strange unnatural creature is no less an illusion than a woman?  I should pine away for being locked in one role when the only alternative the world offers is an equally undignified role?  They're both utterly repulsive, and equally fruitless.  So a woman is defined in psychological terms - is given a set of characteristics - which if displayed in a man would get him classified neurotic?  So a healthy, normal woman is by definition a diseased man?  So what!  The man, who ascribes to this nonsense, is an unworthy adversary, beneath contempt.  Oh yes, he may compel me to accept his tedious little child's play, but he cannot negate the sheer idiocy of it.  Oh yes, he can make me accept a second rate existence; but it's only in his eyes and in the eyes of fools that such things, or such difference as his tiny creed supposes, exist.  Oh yes, he can lift me into my box then climb into his, mine a corset, his a chain mail; but he can't hide the stink at the bottom, where the garbage has decayed and where the vermin gather.  He can't completely make his point of view stick, any more than those women who in their mindless worship of something they call their femininity sit on the sidelines rooting their men on to victory can make their inferiority believable.  They are inferior, these fluff headed creatures - but not for being women: for being dupes and willing victims.  For a few paltry shackles they have sold their souls to the highest bidder and for the rest of their lives languish at the master protector's feet.  I should beat my head against the sky crying Which To Choose? dear God Which To Choose?  When there is no choice, only degrees of insanity?  I should regard either dung heap as desirable, when both reek to kingdom come?  Or rack my brains and soul and body to extract a little from each, label it The Best Of Each, bottle it, distill it, drink it? only to choke on it?  I should expect to find a Best bit of comfort in a compost heap?  I should expect to find anything of value hidden inside a skeleton?  Death and destruction and the threat of total obliteration is the legacy of manhood and womanhood - and I should hope for anything nice from such a legacy?

Given way is better, Madame Mrs my defunct husband's boss?  Anything you say, my dear.  If others can believe we are defined in terms of our difference from one another, then I can believe in Given Way being superior to Disintegration.  I can believe my world did not crumble but simply gave way.  I can believe anything: I am woman, I am not, as a man, bound by facts.  You see?  I am free - am given permission - to ignore reality, to look elsewhere for my beliefs.  I am of the realm of fantasy, and wallow in a bag of sentiment, and calculate the parameters of my existence with eyes, ears, nose and mouth closed.  Only my fingers know for sure, as I am Sentience alone.  I grope and feel my way along.  I am woman.

"I know just the thing for you, my dear," the boss's wife made bold to propose.

Bird watching? Toni felt like asking, instead asking a simple "What?"

"The idea is to bring you out of your depression.  Your grief is great, God in His wisdom sees to that, it's His way."

Any minute Toni half expected to hear God referred to as "The dear old thing."

"He tests us all, in His own way.  We girls especially.  We have our own little crosses to bear, which are ours alone, we couldn't possibly get our men to understand - women's things, you see - and we wouldn't burden them with our little problems for the world anyway, they have such momentous things to copy with.  But they're cute, aren't they?"

She stopped speaking and stood with her mouth opening into a dry smile, as if waiting for a reply to be stuffed in, like the right key into a magnetic lock: where the key does not have to be turned, just shoved in, a kind of cue or a pat response to a "Knock-Knock" joke.  Toni, in turn, smiled; the boss's lady smiled, all the bigger.  Toni could not resist it.

"Knock-Knock," she said.

"Beg pardon?" the boss's lady asked.  She was losing her smile.

"You know," Toni explained, "those old jokes: they always begin 'Knock-Knock.'  I just happened to think of one.  Knock-Knock."

The lady looked nervous.  Her smile had slipped almost entirely from her mouth, almost visibly lying about her chin now, rather like when false eyelashes come loose and for a second remain on one's cheekbones before tumbling off.

Toni had to repeat herself, indicating with a nod of her head and with a beckoning motion of her fingers for the lady to take the bite.  "Knock-Knock."

"W-Who's there"  The lady looked around after saying it, as if to see if someone actually were there, as if a real encounter with a real visitor could sanction this feigned encounter.

"Madam," said Toni briskly.

The lady looked even more nervous as she asked "Madam who?"

"Madam foot's caught in the door!  Knock-Knock," Toni began a second round immediately on the heels of the first.

The lady was blushing slightly, and evidently trying to smile.  "W-Who's there?"

"Mother."

"M-M-Mother who?"

"Mother damn foot's caught too!"

The boss's lady tried, it was evident she tried, but she failed to bring it off; she could not laugh, it came out, to her discredit but exactly as Toni expected it would, as a cackle.  Soon after that she left.

"Last show of the series," Toni read from her TV Guide; she read it out loud this time, now that her guest was gone and the needlecraft, the knitting, the crocheting, the rug making - the things brought into her living room to amuse her, or distract her, to cheer her up, to calm her down - had been taken up and removed, the boss's lady, a big carpet bag full of womanly wonders strapped across her arm, letting herself out with an "I know the way, dear."  The TV Guide had been in her hand at least an hour, her thumb marking the place she read from, in silence, every once in a while; she had picked it up almost the instant her guest ceased trying to laugh at her Knock-Knock jokes and returned to demonstrating the various womanly arts stored in her carpet bag.  Monday night, eight P.M., "Phyllis" would cease production, its producers' final effort would be revealed.  Cloris Leachman would be out of a job.  No, Toni corrected her too hasty assessment, there's always a place for talent.  But it has to be a little like being evicted, doesn't it? even if you're glad it's over and you can move on now to something else.

"Are you glad?" Toni asked.  "Is it all just another job for you?  I don't think so Cloris.  Like all of us, you're looking for something.  Perhaps you thought, or hoped, you had found it.  Now you know you hadn't.  Oh Cloris: can't you find the food you want either?  But I wonder.  What if you knew I was musing like this?  And still more, if you knew how radical - even repulsively radical - my views were: what would you think?  Would it offend you that your progression in your career mirrors, at least seems to me to mirror, my own progression? that the roles you take each speak to the course my life has taken?  I suspect for all your movement you're far more settled than I am.  Don't ever let them deceive you into thinking standing still is the same as being settled; it isn't.  I still think of the first show I saw you in.  Oh Cloris, they should have given you an Emmy for that.  You were robbed.  Just as I was robbed.  Just as we all were robbed.  Just by being born.  With always the very same MO, Cloris.  Omission.  Not what they take from us, but what they withhold from us.  I think that's the difference, Cloris, between men and women: men are robbed overtly, something they have is taken from them; whereas with women it's a covert activity, something being denied, some potential always left unfulfilled.  I hope, even if you would feel compelled to condemn my more radical views, my reduction of all sex roles as worthless rubbish, that at least you could see the sense of my theory of thievery.  I lost a husband to the censor board.  He was rated masculine, when in fact he was human.  You have to aim for the right audience, Cloris, or you're bound to lose.  His soul, Cloris - and I wish you could have known him - his soul was too big for the body they allowed him.  Sometimes I almost felt as though I could read his mind, but I could never make it distinct enough to put into words.  But I won't try to evaluate him; his life doesn't need my evaluation.  Those who saw him and knew him...saw him and knew him.  He wore brown socks, a pair of yellow bikini briefs, a white V-neck undershirt, a tan shirt with some kind of indistinct pattern, a brown necktie with orange in it, a brown sport coat and a pair of medium tan slacks with a touch of blue to work the day he died.  I had him buried in them.  Cloris, if you were to ask me to tell you everything I knew about my husband, that's what I would tell you: how he was dressed when I last saw him.  I even left the blood stain that could not be removed.  When he ceased living, I ceased knowing him.  I do wish, though, I had the authority to present you an Emmy; but I don't.  I have only one final thing to say to you, Cloris: I hope you find the part you're looking for.  But I have my doubts.  A lesser actress could be more easily satisfied, I think; she would take the first part that's given her and make it hers for life.  But tell me: is the world fortunate that there are only a few great actresses? or is it cursed because there are so few?"

The house Toni lived in would have to be vacated eventually; Stephen Hauser's replacement would be moving in soon.  Toni was asked not to feel pressed to move out: the kind of thing no one would think to say unless he was getting anxious to have the place vacated.  The new man, and his family, had arrived and were temporarily quartered in a small apartment in the center of town; it was stressed that their household goods would not arrive for another two weeks: plenty of time to get out, without feeling "pressed."  The vacancy had drawn the new operating manager and his family from their home almost overnight; a phone call started things moving.  The children were taken out of school, the little woman said farewell to her friends in the sewing circle; a party was hastily drawn in the man's honor.  Then they were on their way, their furniture soon to follow: furniture requires delicate handling, each piece is precious, it must be moved with care, not simply tossed out into the night.  The least child, unperceived, urinated into an empty dresser drawer, for whatever reason; the movers were undaunted.  When the time arrived for Toni Hauser to leave, when the new family's furniture heralded their movement from temporary storage in the tiny apartment to permanent quarters in the house, a perfect arrangement presented itself.  Toni simply switched residence with the family: she to their apartment, they to her house.

"You'll love our city," she was guaranteed on her way to her new apartment.

"What's it called?" she inquired, just as any new resident might.  They smiled, but did not reply.

She was no sooner established in her new quarters than the boss's lady took her aside and, almost in a whisper, said to her "I'm going to take you downtown tomorrow.  There's something I think you should see, and I know you'll find peace there.  It's an organization, one that every woman should belong to.  You'll see.  You'll thank me, my dear."

Ten A.M., the boss's lady drove up to get Toni.  "My," she said approvingly, "I like what you've done with this place already."  Nothing had shifted the slightest from the night before, so it must have been something other than the place itself the lady found suddenly so appealing.  Together they rode to what looked like an abandoned church, the kind one often encounters in some cities, a place which during its lifetime changes its identity every decade or so, first perhaps a theater, then a social hall, or a union headquarters, next perhaps a church, then a pastry shop, or a gun shop, finally a vacant spot which anyone may rent, for any purpose.  Though it looked vacant, it was in fact being used currently.  An organization of women, calling itself Women For Life, had recently rented the place, vaguely renovated it, though the work was incomplete as yet, and held meetings there every Tuesday morning.

In the car, driving over, the boss's lady had carried on a little conversation with her passenger.

"I just hope," she said in a somewhat desolate tone of voice, "we won't have to change our name."  Toni found it necessary to beg the lady's pardon.  "To Jessers," the lady explained.  Toni had to beg her pardon a second time, though in slightly different words and from the slightly different perspective this last remark had entered into the talk; one does not beg in exactly the same fashion twice in succession.  The lady explained what she meant.

"That's our store in Florida - Jessers.  I don't know where the name comes from."

"Why should you have to change to that?" Toni asked.

"All the discount department stores!" the lady replied, as if the connection were self-evident.  "All those horrible discount stores!" she added, as if getting a terrible weight off her tongue.  

"You mean we can't compete?"

"With discount stores?  How could anyone?  We'll have to change.  Zwiel saw it coming.  He's told my husband 'You must change' - and, my God, my dear, when a man like Zwiel says it, what can you do but go along?  Some men were born to know such things.  They're born leaders.  We must follow - what else can we do?"

"What if there were no leaders and no followers?" Toni mused out loud.  The lady looked aghast; she peeked out the window and up at the sky, as if watching out for a sudden thunderclap.  She breathed easy again only when the car had stopped in front of the rented building.  It had a marquis, and it had something at its summit vaguely like a steeple.  The lady quickly emerged from her automobile, and when Toni joined her, together they entered.

From the inside, one thing which was not apparent from the outside but which quickly became apparent was the volume of doors.  There were nine, encircling the front entrance; above three were exit signs, but the others had nothing.  Way in the back was a kind of stage, not very deep though: a pseudo-stage, like one finds in some older movie theaters.  It might, too, have once served for a pulpit, or a podium, at least as a base for some kind of narrow platform.  Old pock looking marks pitted the flooring where there was no carpeting; there was a very slight incline down toward the back, and the back was somewhat narrower than the front - although, if this had once been a theater, then the back was actually the front, and where one entered was the back of the building, not its front.  One was spun around, by history, when entering here, the way a new initiate to some cult is spun around before and after being blindfolded.  What was, together so close to what is, disorients a person, as it disorients someone in a playhouse to hear what is clearly on his right described as stage left: it isn't how you see it, it's how the principles see it that identifies it.

"Welcome!" a very tall, regal lady called out.  Where the hell are you? Toni felt like asking.  The lighting was uneven; parts of the place were brightly lit, parts were excessively dim, and there appeared to be no pattern to the imbalance: a recognizable pattern could suggest an electrical problem, such as faulty wiring, or blown fuses or tripped circuits.  Neither was it comfortably random; it did not seem as though lights had simply burned out.  There seemed a reason for it, but not a rational one.

The lady who had spoken moved a step, making herself visible.  "I was over there," she said, as if explaining her sudden appearance.  She wore white.  Her hair was coal black.  Her eyes were big and so deeply blue as to appear almost black.  She was very thin, and seemed, beneath her loose cut dress, almost disjointed.

"We want to do our best," she explained, though in response to no particular inquiry.  "Look behind you," she said ominously.  Toni looked.  Above the entrance, but recessed so that it did not protrude, was a balcony, evidently built into the marquis, since the entrance was itself flush with the building's front facade.  Draped over the railing was a huge banner which, in red and blue alternating letters on a white background, read "Women Will Be Women."

Without anyone first asking for an explanation, without in fact any comment at all being made about the banner, the tall lady began, as if she were reading poetry but with the earnestness of giving a cherished recipe over the phone, to explain its genesis.  

"We all remember the saying 'boys will be boys.,'  How we all had wished we had had a saying of our own.  How we little girls envied our bigger brothers their advantages.  We all swore - woman: womankind, womanhood: women - we swore when we got big we'd get our fair share.  We'd become equal - as nearly equal as women can.  When we started this organization - even before: yes, even before! - we had a place to meet, or even any prospect of a place, we made this banner.  It became our hallmark.  Our motto.  Our creed.  Yes, our source and our means of obtaining equality with all those little boys we so envied so very, very long ago.  When we were in pigtails and pinafores and at heaven's gate stood Raggedy Ann and across from her Betsy Wetsy, on guard.  Women - know it, know it! - women will be women!"

Toni toyed with her fingers and her nails and both her thumbs.  Should I applaud? she wondered.  Her palms were moist.  Should I applaud?  No, better not.

It suddenly began to dawn on her - and it stunned her to realize - that there were more than just the three women present.  Besides herself, the boss's lady and the tall lady, there suddenly appeared a multitude of forms, shapes, heights, weights, hair color and styles, dress patterns and cuts, each representing a human being: a separate, a whole woman.  There was no reason not to have noticed at least some of them before now, they had not all just this instant, as if on cue, stepped from the shadows; some had already been where it was light, if perhaps toward the rear - the front - of the place.

"Ladies," the tall one addressed her fellow members, "say hello to our new member, Mrs Toni Hauser."

"Hello Toni," they all cried out together.

"Hello girls!" Toni cried back.  Several giggled; but upon their leader displaying a stern look, the giggles stepped discretely back into the shadows.

"We don't like to call one another 'girls' here," Toni was reprimanded.  "We're 'Women for Life.'  We're in favor of life, Toni," the tall one said in an elevated tone.  Toni toyed with the idea of gasping at such a stunning admission, but chose not to.

"Oh yes," the tall one said solemnly, "we are very much opposed to abortion."

"Very much," all the ladies echoed their leader's last words.  Toni thought for a moment it might be nice to faint dead away here, in light of such a revelation, coupled with such unanimity.  But she did not.  For the next ten minutes the tall leader delivered a solemn statement of total opposition to the aborting of fetuses; all the ladies nodding their heads every few sentences, the discredited ones who had had to slink into the dark even coming out for a round of nodding then retreating to their dark corners.

The ceiling was very yellowed, as if this place had once been a prize fight arena or a tavern or a laboratory where cigarettes were tested for nicotine and tar.  The walls were of no color whatsoever; they looked as if one could press a hand or even walk right through them into some other dimension.  They were the exact counterpart in tone and hue and texture to the sound of the word 'non-existence.'  Nothingness.  Paul Satre had clearly been the architect.  Do you know Mr Satre personally? Toni almost asked, but did not.

"Oh yes," the leader summarized, "we know of abortion.  The horrible things women are forced to do, the murders they are compelled to commit, at Satan's behest, and for so useless a thing as their foolish notion of being free, of being the masters of their own bodies.  Carry to term woman: that's how to master your body.  Every one of these women could tell you herself of the horrors of abortion.  They all know; we all know.  And you," she pointed to Toni.  She had not stood perfectly still as she had been speaking, but rather she had moved, step by slow step, until now she stood almost in the center of the building, surrounded all over the floor by its pits and surrounded from above by the cacophony of lights, and surrounded by her followers, some visible, some invisible.  "And you Toni," she asked, "what of you?"

"What of me?"

"Yes, what of you?  Do you know of abortion?"

"Abortion?" Toni asked.

"Abortion."

"Yes," said Toni, "I do know of it.  I know of it well.  Shall I tell you all I know of it?"

The chorus rang out: "Oh yes, yes, do, please do!"  The leader raised her hand.  The chorus became silent.

"Then tell us all you know of it," the leader ordered.

"I can spell it forward and backward," Toni said.  A couple ladies back in the shadows gasped.  Their leader cried out "Silence!  Let her speak!"  She continued speaking.

"Oh yes," Toni said, "I know abortion alright.  I know it first hand.  I know it intimately.  You see, girls, I aborted my whole life.  Yes: I aborted my whole life!"

From the shadows were deep gasps; a couple shadows teetered as if there had been an earthquake.  One or two ladies stepped from the light back into the dark.  The leader raised a pointed finger, lowered it, raised it again, began working her mouth as if words lined it and could be scraped off.  She began to move, at first only a step or two one way, then back to her original spot, then to the other side; but gradually her sphere grew larger - grew to become something of a sphere.  She weaved, at times wobbled - but didn't fall down!; but her pattern was regular, as fixed as a planet's ellipsis.  Her skirts gathered dust as she went.

"Horrible," she first declared.  "Just horrible."  It looked for a moment as if Toni's mentor, the boss's lady, would come to her aid; but before she could ready her mouth to issue whatever apology or defense she may have felt appropriate, she was cut off by a third, a much louder and fiercer "Horrible!"  This was followed by a brisk "Horrible Woman!", directed at her ladies.  Some came from the shadows nodding their heads, then hurried back.  A low chorus of "Horrible!" went up, died away, arose again, died again: a feeble chorus, forgetting its line in no time at all.

"All aborted - all of it!" Toni insisted.

"Horrible Woman!"

"And I did it myself!" Toni boasted.  Someone screamed.  Someone swooned, but was saved in time from hitting the floor; the lady was taken to a chair.

"I want her out!" the leader demanded.  A noise accompanied her, something like a hiss.

"All by myself!"

"I want that creature out of here!"

"I took a knife -"

"Bad woman!  Terrible woman!"

"- but I won't say what kind of knife it was, it would embarrass you girls!"

"Horrible woman!  Make her leave!  Someone make her leave!"

All the ladies moved, as if on command, but all fell back, this time all into the shadows at what they heard next.

"A symbollic knife!" Toni threw the words at the Women for Life who were about to attack her.  The boss's lady too stepped back a little, but then tried again to get her words spoken.

"You don't understand," the boss's lady declared, "she doesn't mean -" but she was cut off.

"Silence!" the leader commanded.  "She must go!  She is the daughter of Satan!  God love and forgive her, but she must go now!  Go!"

"A phallic symbol!" Toni cried out.  There was a thud; a lady had fainted somewhere.

"Dear God - dear God: help us!  Save us!"

"I butchered my life with it."

"She will go, she will now."

"I aborted it."

"Make her go, horrible horrible woman, make her go."

The boss's lady drew near and whispered to Toni how dreadfully sorry she was this had happened.

"It's alright," Toni assured her.

"She's so touchy about these things," the lady explained.

"It's alright," Toni insisted.

"She thinks you actually had an abortion.  Oh please let me go explain everything to her.  She's just a little touchy, that's all.  I'll just go explain -"

"It's all right!" Toni cut her mentor short.  Even so, the lady made for her leader.

"You're all butchers," Toni whispered.  Above the entrance the banner had come loose a little, as if from the noise; its words, though, were still intact.  Everyone but the tall lady, the leader of this women's group, and the boss's lady, the mentor of Toni Hauser, seemed to have disappeared; but the sounds of whispering and of crying and of sighing and of an occasional outburst filtered out from the darkness like an electrical hum, staticky, a background noise, a residue of some big bang.  Then, a moment later, somewhere a door closed; there were so many doors in that place it was impossible to tell which one it was.

 

The End