by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“This place is falling apart,” Mildred Hibble said. It was Friday night.
“Mm-hmm,” Brian Hibble said.
“Did you see where the countertop is coming away from the cabinet?”
“Would you at least do me the courtesy of looking at me when I’m speaking to you?”
That edge was creeping into Mildred’s voice. Brian forced his gaze from the Swift account. “Sorry, what?”
“Or is eye contact too much to ask during a conversation?”
“No. It’s just that you know I brought the Swift account home so I could work on it over the weekend. The client’s changes are—”
“Clearly more important than me.”
“Certainly not.” How like her, Brian thought, to frame it in that way. Must Mildred always be the victim? “But, darling, my work on the Swift account has already been handed back to me twice. The client keeps changing her mind after the work is completed.
“For some reason, Mr. Gilton regards this as my fault. He said today that if the work is handed back again, he will give it to someone else, most likely that loathsome young Kerby. Therefore I have quite a job of work to do in the next two days.”
Mildred looked at him and made no reply.
He said, “Do you see, dear, that if I fail to do this job in a satisfactory way I may lose it? And if I lose my job I will make no money with which to pay for new cabinets and countertops. You do see that, don’t you?”
“Of course, but...” She paused.
It was rather, her husband thought, as if she expected to be interrupted. &Melodrama, he thought. Mildred must have her melodrama.
“But what?” he said.
“That’s no excuse for treating me like I’m bothering you when we’re having a conversation.”
Disrupting a person’s work with strident complaints is not having a conversation, he thought. He said, “You knew I had to do this work. You agreed to...” How to phrase it? Not You agreed to leave me alone, certainly, even though that was how she had in fact put it. To give me peace and quiet? No, that was worse. “To respect my need to concentrate,” he said. That was rather good, he thought.
“What’s the point, when it’s only going to be handed back to you? Answer me that, Brian. Without mansplaining.”
“It won’t be handed back to me, Mildred. It will be taken away, and I will have failed in Mr. Gilton’s estimation. Now do you see the urgency? Do you see that my focusing on the Swift account is in no way an act of discourtesy to you?”
For a moment, Mildred wavered. Brian watched for the exhalation of breath that would allow her bosom to resume its normal dimensions and position. He had taken to calling her indignation-inflated chest her “battle puff” in the privacy of his thoughts. I wonder, he thought now, if she could sustain this pitch of righteous ire if her lung capacity were reduced? Is such a thing possible? How might one find out?
“You said the client keeps changing her mind.”
“Her mind. So this Swift is a woman.”
“Is she pretty?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“Haven’t you even met her face to face?”
“Yes. But I did not take particular note of her appearance.” Here Brian lied. Carly Swift’s smile could melt the Bering glacier.
“What’s she selling? Quilted toaster covers in the shape of chickens?”
“The latest line of slutty clothes for underage girls?”
“Swiftech funds the development of inventions and innovative technology. It also participates in developing these things, and attempts to keep prices low when they reach the market. This fiscal policy limits the company’s ability to carry out humanitarian work such as distributing their products free of charge to people that might benefit from them. They are working on a line of items they hope will appeal to the general shopper, and that is where I come in.”
“What sort of items?”
“Here.” Brian selected a sketch from the papers on the kitchen table and passed it to her.
“A soap bottle,” she said. “What next? Bread that’s already sliced?”
“Observe the concave slope at the bottom that lets the soap collect at the mouth of the draw tube.”
“The standard pump-action soap bottle has a convex bottom, so the last of the soap runs away from the draw tube and is lost.”
Mildred peered at the sketch. “You hope to sell these bottles to consumers, who will then pour soap from the brand bottles into them.”
“At first, yes.”
“The soap lost in switching bottles will defeat the purpose.”
“Our bottle mouth is wide, so the brand bottle may be upended into our bottle and held in place. Left overnight, all the soap should drain into our bottle.”
“All this for a the last few drops,” she said.
“It bothers some people,” he said.
“I guess there’s always another bus full of suckers who’ll buy anything.”
He suppressed a sigh. “We hope the Swiftech bottle will prove popular enough that big brand companies will want to adopt the design, which will mean more profits for Swiftech.”
Mildred’s lips drew back over her teeth in amusement. “Unless the competition doesn’t feel like paying for such an obvious thing and steals it. Rather than ride the sucker bus.”
“Then it becomes a legal problem.”
“What else?” Mildred said. “Something less ludicrous than your soap bottle.”
“Swiftech is attempting to develop a TENS unit that is cordless, with longer-lasting adhesive on the pads. They are also working to shrink the machinery itself. It is hoped that eventually the pad will be its own TENS unit, and charge between uses. Eliminating batteries will save the consumer money and reduce waste.”
“A minuscule amount.”
Brian shrugged. “Every little bit.”
“And she changes her demands every time you submit a layout.”
“Thus far, yes.”
“Maybe I should talk to her. Woman to woman.”
Dear God, thought Brian. Reaching for his coffee mug as a pretext, he hunched over the layout papers where he’d spread them out on the kitchen table, in case some means of reaching his client should be visible. Curse this house for not having a den!
But Mildred had already left the thought behind. “This isn’t the first time a female client has put you through your paces. I can recall at least two other such episodes. Does Gilton give all the women to you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You just get saddled with the impossible ones. How can you have such bad luck?”
“It is a mystery, my dear.”
“No,” Mildred said, with sudden vehemence. Her eyebrows flattened out over wide open eyes, a disconcerting effect. “It isn’t a mystery, and it isn’t luck. It’s Gilton. He does this to you on purpose.”
“I’m sure that isn’t the case, dear. He just—”
“He ‘just’ what? Gives you the women because you handle them so well? Bosh. You aren’t the least bit comfortable around women; I’ve seen you with our friends. It’s deliberate malice on Gilton’s part. And you keep letting him. You keep riding the sucker bus.” Color suffused her cheeks.
“I thought your ‘sucker bus’ was meant for people who buy the products I—”
“How dare he imagine he has the right to treat my husband this way?” she said. “That fat piece of filth. He needs to be taught a lesson.”
“Now, Mildred, there’s no need to do anything drastic. Or indeed anything at all.” Having Mildred on his side was somehow as terrifying as having her for an adversary.
She had begun to pace. The battle puff, he noted with dismay, was bigger than ever. He thought: “So now I have two problems: The Swift account and a wife who may go gunning for my boss, in the metaphoric sense. Or perhaps not metaphoric.” An image flashed into Brian’s head:
A camera follows Mildred pushing through a set of wooden swinging saloon doors of the type popular in western movies. The doors close in diminishing sideways arcs. The camera shifts to show Mildred as she appears to the saloon. She is wearing a dun poncho, hat brim pulled low over glittering eyes, spurs jingling, black Colt Frontier six-shooter slung low on her hip.
The tinny piano stops mid-note. The saloon falls quiet except for the corpulent lout at the poker table. Sitting with his back to the door, a bad tactical move, he continues to laugh around his foul cheroot at his own coarse joke. It is Gilton. Finally noticing the silence, he stares at the faces of his stooges. He registers the fear in their eyes. The folds of his fat, red neck shudder as he swallows.
“Is it... Mildred?” he mouths to the nearest man. The chicken-necked flunky nods. The color drains from Gilton’s face. Suddenly, with surprising agility, he whips out a Derringer .22, spins his bulk off the chair and pulls the trigger. Crack! Mildred topples to the rough planks. But Mildred has also fired! When the dust settles the two adversaries lie still on the stained saloon floor. An upset spittoon drips brown. The camera holds a moment, then the scene fades to black.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Eh? Was I?”
“Grinning like a loon. Honestly, Brian, how do you ever expect—”
* * *
That night, as he lay in bed, Mildred snoring beside him, Brian mused on his marriage. It was not the first time his meditations had run to this subject, or the second.
She is devouring me, he thought. Not my body, perhaps, although my tension headaches have become nearly continuous, and I feel punchy with fatigue more and more often. Indeed, I drag through the hours of the day, but cannot sleep when I crawl exhausted into bed.
He sighed and tried vainly to get comfortable. No, it is my soul that Mildred is consuming, he thought. I wonder how it tastes? How long will it be until I am completely ingested? He let his mind roam. Finally, on the cusp of sleep, he thought: I wonder if mine is the first soul she has devoured?
Brian’s eyes snapped open. He slipped out of bed and crept to the bookcase. Taking down a volume, he carried it to the kitchen and sat down at the table. I am going to have a den before I die, he thought.
It was true that the house had a second bedroom, which was to have been given to a child when the time came. Then, when it became apparent that the time was not going to come, Mildred had claimed the smaller bedroom, calling it her sewing room on one day, her coping retreat on another.
He found the entry he sought, and read:
Succubus. Malign female spirit that has sexual intercourse with a man while he sleeps, draining his life essence. First recorded...
He read it slowly, going over certain passages several times. That’s not it, he thought. Not quite what I’m after. A draining, but not with sex.
Brian then carefully replaced the heavy old book, taking a moment to savor its musty scent. Afterward, he poured himself a glass of skim milk and drank it with a slice of the cherry pie he’d bought despite Mildred’s protests. When he returned to bed he lay staring into the darkness for a long time.
* * *
Over the two days of the weekend, Brian would look up from his work surreptitiously and watch his wife. He took particular note of her interaction with others. While little of this took place where he could see it, as the Swift campaign kept him housebound while Mildred went out, what he observed troubled him.
When a neighborhood boy knocked to ask if they wanted their lawn mowed, Mildred stood in bare feet in the open front doorway, arms crossed, questioning him for some minutes before declining his offer. Did Brian imagine the slight stoop to the boy’s body as he left, in contrast to the confident stride of his approach as seen through the window?
That was Saturday.
Sunday morning, a fine, black pedigreed Mooncusser from the next block got loose and wandered into the yard. Mildred kept the dog there until her owners came for her. The Harveys were full of apologies and thanks, and offered Mildred money, which she graciously refused, saying she had enjoyed playing with the dog. It had given her a brief interlude of company, she said, while her husband worked through the weekend. She hinted darkly concerning the consequences of disturbing the master of the house “when he gets this way” but repeated that the dog had uttered nary a peep. She actually said “nary.” Mildred offered the Harveys refreshment, but they said they had to be getting back.
Later that day, the phone rang while Mildred was out with the car. Hearing his voice, Dell Harvey apologized and would have rung off, but Brian asked genially what he could do for her.
With some trepidation she asked if he or Mildred had noticed anything amiss with Augie — “That’s our dog’s name: Augie, short for Augustina” — while in Mildred’s care.
“Mildred didn’t mention anything,” Brian said. “Why?”
“It’s just that Augie hasn’t been quite herself since we brought her back. Oh, well, I’m sure it’s nothing but the hot day telling on her. Thank you anyway. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“You’re not a bit of bother. Shall I have Mildred call you?”
“Oh, no, that’s all right.”
She can do it to animals, too, Brian thought. Mildred, devourer of souls.
He shook his head. Brooding thus was amusing, but the changes to the Swift account weren’t going to make themselves. And it was just amusement, wasn’t it, if of a rather grim nature?
Fantasy fueled by self-pity, that’s what Mildred would call it, Brian thought. Well, she would, wouldn’t she? Anyway, what of it? No harm done.
* * *
“Hibble, come in here.”
His stomach knotting, Brian took the long walk down the hall to Gilton’s office. “Yes, John?”
John Gilton always looked faintly affronted when Brian addressed him by his first name, even though Gilton himself insisted upon the informality. Brian, sensing this awkwardness, had gone back to calling him “Mr. Gilton” and been gruffly corrected; not when it was just the two of them, but later, during a staff meeting. Would you prefer it if I called you fatassed son of the owner? Brian had thought, reddening.
Gilton had crammed his gut behind his desk. “Just a few concerns in re those changes you made. You know Carly Swift, of course.” Carly Swift sat in one of the two chairs opposite Gilton’s desk, one shapely knee crossed over the other. Gilton had not offered the other chair to Brian, so he remained standing.
“Of course. How are you, Ms. Swift?”
“Always a pleasure, Mr. Hibble,” Carly Swift said.
“We’re not formal here,” Gilton said. “Call him Brian.”
Carly Swift turned ice-blue eyes on Gilton. “Did I ever tell you about my father, John?”
“Your father? Ah, no.”
Copyright © 2019 by Max Christopher