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A Spirit of Fun

by Edna C. Horning

Spence hated that bowl. It had been a present to his wife from her sister, and it was a mishmash of hues found nowhere in nature and a design nowhere else in art. Madge had opened the gift in Eleanora’s presence and praised it as “millefleur,” a critique Spence considered far too charitable. “Vitrified vomit” was more like it.

Madge kept it displayed on an ornate, three-footed brass trivet in the middle of the dining room table. Unfortunately, even when relaxing in the den, Spence could still see it, if barely, due to the house’s open floor plan. He’d considered dropping a bug in Madge’s ear about the universal strategy of stowing hideous gifts in closets and attics and displaying them only when visits from the donor were expected. But no. Eleanora had a way of popping up unannounced, which vitiated that stratagem.

Spence did not actively dislike Eleanora. He just thought her a trifle balmy, and this assessment did not rest solely on her taste in ceramics. Through the years, other factors had helped shape his perspective, a couple in particular.

There was the family cookout a couple of summers previous when Eleanora had been holding forth on psychokinesis as delineated in some book she was reading. Spence snorted a little too audibly. Most days he might have held it in, but he had just drained his second bourbon and branch — his third, truth to tell, because his first had actually been a double — and his inhibitions were straying. And Madge was not present for the moment, having just gone inside for more ice.

Eleanora had stopped mid-sentence and looked him straight in the eye. “You and your jeering derision, Spencer. The existence of PK has been confirmed many times in controlled laboratory experiments, but even though you think yourself highly educated and well-read and all that, I’ll bet you couldn’t name a single one with a loaded gun at your head.”

“And I’ll bet you couldn’t produce a single, convincing, real life PK effect with a loaded gun at your head,” he rejoined. And then he raised his thumb and pointed his forefinger in her direction, imitating a pistol. “Bang!” he exclaimed, laughing, and then blew away imaginary smoke.

Ever the family peacemaker, Eleanora had quickly reprised her role. Smiling beatifically, she reached down and lifted a kitten onto her lap. “Poontang—”

“Pussy Willow,” he corrected.

“Right. Pussy Willow, I dub thee Witch’s Familiar as Foil to Spencer’s Mocking Pseudoskeptic. You are hereby charged with leading him back from the wrong road he’s going down.” And she lightly tapped the mewing Siamese on its head.

Spence mined his brain for a snappy retort, but all he could manage was a burping, inebriated hiccup.

And then there was that time a few weeks after Eleanora and Madge had buried their mother. The sisters were at the breakfast bar, sipping coffee and reminiscing with tears and smiles when Spence entered in pursuit of a snack. He wasn’t eavesdropping as such but nonetheless heard Eleanora say she was considering consulting a psychic “who specializes in postmortem communications and is supposed to be quite good.”

Sober this time, and with head half-hidden in the fridge, Spence said nothing, but he rolled his eyes and left empty-handed for fear of uttering some crack that would incur Madge’s wrath and drive a permanent wedge between him and his sister-in-law.

But every coin has two sides. Whenever Spence recalled this incident, he derived, alongside patronizing contempt, a redeeming degree of amusement from visualizing Eleanora in some spookily-lit storefront tricked out in clicking bead ropes and fringed lamp shades while a turbaned woman sporting fake jewels and an equally fake Caribbean accent “gets in touch with those who have passed over.” Now that he thought about it, maybe that’s where Eleanora had found the bowl. It fairly screamed “voodoo freak show.”

For the foreseeable future, even if he could tune out Eleanora when necessary, Spence was still stuck with the sight of the bowl. He recalled with fond regret that promising afternoon when the cats were engaged in one of their mock-aggressive, you-chase-me-and-then-I’ll-chase-you derbies where they raced from room to room bouncing off walls, furniture and appliances until some exasperated human decided enough was enough and put an end to their divertissement.

On that particular day, Poontang had been gaining on Pussy Willow when the latter pulled off an especially energetic grand jeté that carried her straight upwards onto the polished, slick-as-glass surface and knocked the monstrosity off its perch. The bowl continued the momentum and slid to the very edge, coming to rest with not a millimeter to spare. A trifle more, and it would have been all over.

Madge had been alerted by the racket and entered from the kitchen to set things aright while murmuring, “Naughty kitties,” and “Mustn’t break Auntie’s present,” in a cooing voice better suited for affection than reproach.

Spence had other feelings. “Almost, Ladies, almost,” he told them in a conspiratorial whisper that evening as he spooned extra helpings of their favorite food into their bowls. “Give it another whirl tomorrow.”

* * *

Saturday afternoon, and for the nonce Spence was alone in the house. Madge had been invited to a bridal shower, and going out the door she reminded her husband that their son and daughter-in-law would be dropping Carter off later while his parents paid a sick call and did some shopping.

Spence had not forgotten but smiled anyway at the mention. Carter was the only grandchild on either side — so far — and he and Madge were in unspoken but friendly competition with the other set over which could indulge the boy more.

Not content with the college fund they had established the day after Carter was born, they were also contributing substantial sums to his current edification. Seth and Frances wanted nothing but the best and, to that purpose, had recently moved Carter from public school to a private institution which, though fairly new, had quickly gained an impressive reputation facilitated by impressive fees. Madge and Spence had, without being asked, offered to help defray the expense, and their offer was accepted.

Spence was quite happy to shell out because the school’s prospectus claimed to emphasize critical thinking skills and a thoroughly rationalistic approach, principles that served him well and truly in his engineering career and in life. When, on Grandparents’ Day, he had seen “The Bentwood Academy: Where Matter Matters” emblazoned on the marquee as Motto of the Month, he had gestured an enthusiastic thumbs-up.

He had scant patience with any variety of flapdoodle and cared not whether it called itself numinous, mystical, supernatural, paranormal or what have you, as evidenced by his cautious relationship with Eleanora. Matter — blind, deaf, and dumb — was the only reality, and he had instructed Madge, “If I predecease you, please have ‘Facts, not Fantasy’ chiseled on my headstone.”

Spence sighed. It was only the beginning of the third quarter, but his team was far enough ahead to induce a drowsy complacency. He adjusted his easy chair backwards a couple of notches and was soon snoring until his nap was cut short by the doorbell. Half-asleep, he shuffled into the foyer.

“Granddaddy!!” screeched a childish voice as Carter raced through the door and into Spence’s open arms. They were still hugging when Seth said, “We shouldn’t be later than five or so. Any change, and we’ll call. Thanks a lot, Dad,” and Frances had given her father-in-law a quick kiss as the couple were leaving.

Hand in hand, Spence and Carter ambled to the den and, after Carter dropped his backpack to the floor, Spence set the child half-on, half-beside him in the roomy recliner. They discussed school, his new dog, the twin girls who lived next door — “I’m pretty sure Angela likes me; Aubree’s trying to make up her mind” — and what he would be wanting for his birthday.

At this mention of presents, Carter leaned over the side and pulled from the backpack a toy gun he’d received the previous Christmas from Fran’s parents. It had no bullet or projectile of any kind but made a grinding, ack-ack noise when the trigger was depressed.

“Granddaddy, it doesn’t work anymore,” Carter explained, and to demonstrate, he pulled the trigger. Nothing. “Can you fix it?”

Spence seized the opportunity for a mite of self-aggrandizement.

“You see all those?” He gestured at a wall partially covered with framed diplomas, certificates, and licenses. “I got them for knowing how to make and fix things. We engineers, along with other scientists, measure the universe and everything in it. Like your school teaches, matter matters. It is calculable and therefore predictable, and it has taken humankind many centuries of thought and effort to tease out its secrets. There’s very little left we don’t know about.” He paused and smiled. “So hand me that blaster, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Spence had to admit the plaything was no piece of junk. Made of sturdy material, its parts were assembled with screws rather than snap-fastened tabs. Using one of several screwdrivers he always kept handy in the console, he removed a panel and peered inside. The problem became apparent almost immediately.

“The coil’s come loose,” he explained to Carter who was following his grandfather’s every move, their heads almost touching. “Do you know what needle-nose pliers are? You’ve seen me use them before.”

“Yes!” Carter exclaimed. “I remember!”

“All right, go get them from the drawer in the laundry room.”

Scarcely thirty seconds elapsed before he ran back with the requested item. Spence proceeded to reattach the spiraled end of the pulley that activated the audio mechanism, deftly giving it an added twist and crimping the end for greater security.

“Is it fixed?” Carter asked.

“Well, till we know for sure, there’s no use closing it up; so let’s try it out. What shall we blow to bits?”

Carter’s expression briefly revealed mild alarm. Then he gently chided, “Granddaddy, it doesn’t shoot anything. It just makes a noise.”

For all his agnosticism, Spence would allow that, if done in a spirit of fun, dipping an occasional toe into a pool of nonsense couldn’t drown anyone.

“Oh, I don’t know, young’un,” he rejoined. “Some claim there’s such a thing as mind over matter. So why don’t we test the notion for ourselves? Give it its day in court.”

Spence’s eyes swept the larger scene from side to side pretending to search for a suitable target when in fact he already had one, and only one, in mind.

“I have it!” he exulted with fabricated surprise. “You see that bowl?” he asked, pointing.

Carter squinted into the distance. “The one on the table?”

“Yeah. That one,” Spence chuckled, vaguely sinister. “Let’s blast it to smithereens!”

Carter started to take the gun from his grandfather’s hands, but Spence was too quick for him. Grinning broadly, he aimed it and pulled the trigger.

The gun went ack-ack, and the bowl exploded in a clattering shower of shards.

The two observers sat frozen to the spot until their dumbed senses could recover. Scarcely remembering to breathe, and not daring to look at each other, they rose as one and walked to the destruction scattered across table and floor.

The trivet had not budged an inch.

It was Carter who finally broke the silence. He tilted his head up at his grandfather, and in a frightened whisper he said, “That was Grandmother’s favorite. What are we going to tell her?”

Spence placed an arm around his grandson and gently drew him closer. His shoulders sagged, and he suddenly felt older than his actual years. “The same thing we’re going to tell ourselves,” he replied in a shaky voice. “The cat did it.”

Pussy Willow, who had been dozing in the closet, chose that loaded moment to rouse herself and pad into the room. In the effortless way of felines, she sprang onto the table and surveyed the multicolored mess with purring satisfaction.

Copyright © 2019 by Edna C. Horning

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