Oswald Blood is the perfect gentleman. He has spent the past seven years and eight months cultivating the art of polite pleasantries and inoffensive repartee. He is in near perfect shape, which is admirable really given the gray in his temples and his gourmand tastes. He is learned enough to keep the cocktails flowing before the maid rings the supper bell; and yet, when stated, his own opinions are never so pointed or hard edged as to challenge the visiting diplomat or man of letters. To the extent that the dignified guests remember him at all he is a “good chap,” or perhaps even a “real fellow.” If he could, he would fade into the white and yellow floral wallpaper. He has no desire to make an impression. He only desires to remain in the good graces of his wife, Anastasia, who is reputed to be a Romanov and who signs his allowance checks every Tuesday morning while pouring cream into her tea.
Actually, the maid pours the cream most of the time. When Anastasia is cross enough, she will insist on handling the matter herself, but then her palsy will get the best of her porcelain, white and yellow floral, cream pitcher. The result is a mess on her tray and, to a lesser extent, upon the carpet beneath her wheelchair. The maid is happy to clean up the spills, of course, and as is characteristic of her menial race and class she does so while enduring without protest Anastasia’s worst insults. The maid has spent her life tiptoeing from one spill to the next. She too understands who signs her check every week. Turning the other cheek is now one of her indelible traits, and given the lowness of her birth it probably always has been.
Or so Oswald presumes. In reality he knows nothing about the suffering saint in the black, ruffled skirt and blouse. He is not even sure he recalls her proper name. The first time he stepped inside Anastasia’s “Romanov Flowers” mansion was when he and his bride returned from their honeymoon on the QE2. His new wife was able still to stand with the aid of a walker, and she hobbled over to the maid to introduce her to her “newest husband.” Oswald nodded, and then directed the maid to the big, Victorian, steamer trunk beside Anastasia’s Rolls. He has not heard her name stated since. There has been no need to do so. Indeed, even verbal commands are generally superfluous. For the most part, Anastasia and Oswald tell her what needs to be done with an arch of an eyebrow or an extended finger.
Oswald is careful not to demand much. The maid has been his wife’s servant a lot longer than he has been her “newest husband,” and when push comes to shove old relationships always prove thicker than upstart lovers or spouses. Still, for all of his caution, Oswald is mindful of the fact that “the help” constitute a strictly defined lower caste in the household. He should know, for most of his adult life he had been one of “the help.” His name had been Oswald Dimmer, and he had been employed as a handsome butler in another mansion further down the floral dappled banks of the Manchester River. His actual occupation had been far less important than how well he had pressed his uniforms (his monthly reviews routinely including lofty phrases, such as “immaculate creases” and “acclaimed starch”) and how deferentially he had responded to his superiors. What mattered most of all was maintaining the outward appearance of a very distinct and lowly caste, and on that front Oswald had excelled.
He had also been younger, more physically alluring, and blessed with a large, but also dexterous, tongue. Marjorie Glamour, the woman of the house whose main occupation consisted of setting up tournaments on her estate for her Proper Ladies’ Tennis Club, recruited Oswald’s tongue almost as soon as he started to work as one of the butlers there. Like a well hung stallion brought in from the stable, he serviced her daily, while she lay with her legs apart on her perfumed, carpeted, boudoir floor like a spoiled, long haired Goldilocks. For Marjorie, a large part of the sexual arousal was the routine. It always happened the same time each day (just after lunch, when her husband, George, took his afternoon nap in the old library). It always happened on the same spot upon her floor (a yard from her Oriental dresser mirrors). Though not exactly the same amount of time on each occasion, it would take her on average from fifteen to twenty-two minutes to climax, and her orgasms (“O, Yippee! Yippee! Yippee!) were always the same intensity. The routine reinforced in Marjorie’s mind her higher perch on the Great Chain of Being between God at the crest of the grassy mountain and an indigenous peasant down there with the lizards. Oswald was very happy to oblige. He did not care about the sex one way or another, but he loved that he was an indispensible part of Marjorie’s daily life. He mattered. It also helped that she fattened his Christmas bonus every year over what the other servants received.
All in all, Oswald would have been happy to remain among “the help” within the Rococo halls and chambers of the Glamour House, but fate had a different plan in store for him. One afternoon, shortly after Oswald had serviced his wife, George told him in his hoarse, cigar stained voice that he was being dismissed immediately from his employment. George offered no explanation, and Marjorie did not bother to give her regards as Oswald retrieved his bag from the manservant’s closet and exited out the back door. Had the old man with the cleft lip and the bad stutter caught Oswald in the act with his wife? Perhaps. Notwithstanding his portly frame and his awkward gait, George often sneaked down the halls and glared at “the help” through the many peepholes scattered around the mansion. He may have awakened early from one of his afternoon snoozes and made his way to his wife’s boudoir just in time to see the handsome butler burrowing his tongue into the bush. Or perhaps, his dismissal had nothing to do with the illicit behavior. After all, a defining trait of the well bred since the first caveman lorded over another caveman is his arbitrary perniciousness. The best people do not have to answer for their decisions, certainly not before a human judge, and they suspect not before God either. Regardless, in the span of a few hours, Oswald went from servicing Marjorie in her boudoir to hitchhiking back into town.
Oswald learned a hard lesson that afternoon. Life is a mercurial friend who is by your side nonstop for many years or even decades, but then out of the blue leaves you stranded on the side of the road. With that life lesson in mind, he stumbled into a bookstore, and picked up a biography of Cary Grant. Never before had he paid any attention to the long deceased Hollywood star, but it seemed that the same fate that conspired to kick him out of the Glamour House wanted him to read that little book. He did, and in so doing he learned that the former Archibald Leach started off totally poor and homeless in America. He did not exhibit any of the glamour and charm that would become his trademark in later years. By all outward appearances, he was just another young man on the streets of Los Angeles going nowhere. Then, one day, the destitute man cobbled together enough pennies to buy a good suit, and he practiced over many months how to walk and to talk like a debonair gentleman. He spent the rest of his life developing the charm and the elegance of “Cary Grant,” and the rest is history. Oswald knew exactly what to do the moment he finished reading that book.
Within months, Oswald had a new wardrobe, a stolen Rolex, and a doctorate in “applied management services” from a university with an unpronounceable name in the Middle East. He also had a great backstory: He had lived in “Arabia” for years as a “consultant” but had returned to the United States when his aunt died. After he took care of her estate, he decided to settle into Greater Manchester to pursue a life of learned leisure. He had never been married, but would love to settle down with a “well bred woman” as committed as he is to a life of “finer things.”
Oswald started to make the rounds of society parties. He was careful to check the invitee list for each party ahead of time to make sure the Glamours would not be in attendance. In time, he found out that the Glamours are largely pariahs among the “best families” along the Manchester River. The society wives castigated Marjorie as a gold digging, blonde hussy, and they suspected that George is a Jew. With the Glamours out of the way, Oswald felt free to mingle and schmooze. It did not take very long for the most eligible bachelor on the circuit to be introduced to the aged “Romanov” widow looking for her “newest husband.” There was never a spark of love, but what does that matter when there are overlapping aspirations? He needed a home and an allowance. She needed to be counted again among the “wives” (not the “widows”) of the Greater Manchester Society. Also, she needed a younger man to take care of her; though because of her considerable pride she downplayed that fact in her own mind.
There was never any question that Oswald would take Anastasia’s surname. Though the “best families” accepted his credentials as a “doctor,” everyone knew his stature would rise substantially more in taking on the Blood name than Anastasia’s in discarding hers for the Dimmer name. In society, status trumps tradition, and for Oswald the thought of being counted among the long line of Bloods added a certain enthusiasm to his steps he had not known previously. For a while, he really enjoyed being “Mr. Anastasia Blood,” even if his wife’s entitled crankiness would have worn down even a saint. What mattered was that he was now officially in the higher caste and, absent divorce, would remain that way. Presuming the old bat died before him, he would be “Mr. Anastasia Blood, the Widower,” or something along those lines. He would stay in good standing but would have the added bonus of heartfelt sympathy.
Oswald remains committed to the stature his wife provides, but over the past several years his enthusiasm has been petering out like the rotted air from a pricked balloon. Apart from an unsavory moment on the QE2, he has had no sexual intimacy with his wife. A normal man in his condition would take a mistress, or at least rent a hooker now and then, but Oswald knows better. Anastasia may be enfeebled and, for the most part, confined to her wheelchair inside her mansion; but she still has many contacts with the outside world. She is on the telephone daily, and her gabby society friends keep her abreast of all the filthy secrets. Oswald cannot even go into town to be fitted for a new suit or to get his manicures without someone observing him and giving his wife a play by play. Anastasia then harangues him for the rest of the week about how he is “sneaking around” and “giving away her money to lowlifes.” He has learned not to defend himself. Her bitterness subsides much faster, if no one squirts gasoline on the flame. Still, Oswald is getting tired of the celibate life. He will accept that he is in essence a married gigolo, but he never signed on to being a weak monk.
Last Saturday, Oswald went into town to get his watch fixed. Since he told his wife ahead of time, he figured he would be in the clear. After dropping off his watch, he checked out the storefronts on Main Street. He did not want to go back home any faster than necessary. So long as he got back before dark, there would be no quarrel.
He was strolling down Main Street when suddenly he looked to the side, and he saw a storefront he had never seen before. He was pretty sure a real estate office had been in this same spot just the week prior. Businesses come and go so fast, and he was starting to think how smart he had been to marry into status and wealth. His marriage is far from ideal, but at least it keeps him out of the economic rat race that afflicts most other people.
He looked up at the words painted in red over the storefront window: “Finer Things.” That caught his interest, and he forgot all about how fortunate he had been to marry Anastasia. He felt the very same impulse to take a look that had driven him years ago to buy that Cary Grant book.
He tried the door, but it was locked. How strange that this place is closed on a hot Saturday afternoon. The other Main Street merchants are doing robust business.
He was about to walk off when the spotlight over the front display clicked on.
“I can’t believe it,” Oswald muttered.
The spotlight illuminated a life size mannequin dressed in a white and yellow floral skirt and blouse. The outfit was all Anastasia; but the face, the sexy figure, and the blonde hair looked a heck of a lot like Marjorie. He had not seen her in years, but he remembered her body like he had just serviced her on her perfumed carpet. Even the haughty smirk on the mannequin’s creamy white face reminded him of Marjorie just before he would dip his face in between her legs. Every time Marjorie looked up at him, and smiled like perhaps Cleopatra would have done before squishing an ant.
Oswald placed his eyes up against the glass to get a closer look. There was no way to deny it. It was like Marjorie herself had modeled for whoever constructed the mannequin. More precisely, it was the Marjorie from over seven years ago. Does she look the same today? Has she put on weight? Is her tight and tanned skin starting to wrinkle? Oswald let those questions pass. After all, who cares what she looks like at this time? What matters is that this tall mannequin is what she had been back when he was an important part of her daily routine.
And back when he had a real sex life…
The storefront door opened suddenly then, and a diminutive, round, old lady stepped out from inside the dark space. She had a peculiar, wrinkled face that called to mind a Cabbage Patch Kid, but even more unsettling were her oversized, owl like glasses perched on a button nose. Her large eyes seemed to glare into whatever she observed even when she offered up a friendly smile, and as a result she came across as insincere and vaguely menacing. She kept her long, white hair in a granny bun. A pencil in her hair acted as a pin, but could be used as necessary to jot an order or an invoice on the spot. She wore a red gypsy dress with a dragon print over her obese, bosomy frame. Long gold chains, hippie love beads, and a Hawaiian lei dangled over her torso. There was a price tag on everything she wore, including even her loosely fitted dress. Only her owl glasses and pencil seemed to be off the market. She was a consummate saleswoman who never deviated from her pitch. Although repulsed at first, Oswald could not help but be intrigued with what she had to offer, and what it would cost him. He had fallen into her net already, and she had not even spoken yet.
The old lady looked up at Oswald and smiled. She stood no higher than his waist, but her presence seemed to loom over him like a vicious matriarch over an unruly boy. She licked her lips, like she could taste the cold fear that snaked down Oswald’s spine the moment she caught his eyes. She spoke with a high, screeching voice that called to mind that strange psychic in “Poltergeist.” The voice unnerved Oswald, and for a moment he had a vision of squealing rats down in a hole.
“I can see she tickles your fancy,” the old lady remarks.
Oswald is speechless. He just looks down at her like he is not sure what the heck he is seeing. The old lady seems accustomed to this reaction. She tries to put him at ease by widening her smile, but that just makes her glaring eyes that much more menacing.
“Does the cat have your tongue?” The old lady asks.
The old lady says “cat,” but Oswald hears “pussy,” and in his mind the dark, squealing rats give way to a memory of Marjorie’s bush heaving red. When it is this red and wet she is about to have an orgasm. He thinks of this as her “burning bush.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Oswald mutters.
“Of course, you do,” the old lady replies. “You may have had your head in the bush, but it was never in the sand.”
The old lady looks at the mannequin in the spotlight. Oswald follows her gaze and again beholds the plastic woman that had grabbed his attention. She looks even more like Marjorie now. Moreover, her skin seems less plastic and more fleshy than it had been. Is that one of those models who stands perfectly still for hours at a time in a display window? Could that actually be Marjorie? She certainly would not need the paycheck, but she can be self-indulgent. Perhaps, she took up modeling as a lark.
“She is for sale,” the old lady says.
“What?” Oswald mutters.
“Only this afternoon, though,” the old lady continues. “If I don’t make a sale, I am going to put her back in storage tonight. I want to update my display for all those holy rollers coming into town tomorrow.”
“Holy Rollers?” Oswald asks.
“The Sunday Special,” the old lady says derisively.
Oswald looks down at her without comprehension.
“The Pentecostals come down Main Street after screaming their ‘Halleluiahs’ and flapping around like a baited fish,” the old lady explains. “I put out my perfumed prayer rugs, neon crosses, a snot rag that Oral Roberts used…”
Oswald does not hear the rest of her list. Instead, he fixates on the “perfumed prayer rugs.” He recalls how Marjorie’s boudoir carpet smelled. It always tickled his nose when he got down on his knees.
“Make me an offer,” the old lady says.
“I don’t know,” Oswald mutters.
He definitely wants it. He cannot say why, and yet he feels as if he simply has to have it. The problem is that he cannot just carry it back home. Like Mother Bates, Anastasia will be seated in her wheelchair in front of her upstairs bedroom window as he returns. She will see him walking up the long driveway from the gate. Although he has much deeper pockets on account of his marriage, he is pretty sure he will not be able to hide a life size mannequin inside one of them.
“I understand your predicament,” the old lady says. “Don’t want to surprise the lady of the house.”
“You could say that,” Oswald says.
“So here’s what I’ll do,” the old lady continues. “If you agree to buy this off of me within the next five minutes, I’ll get it delivered to you in one piece without your better half ever being the wiser.”
“I don’t think that’s possible,” Oswald says.
“Her eagle eye is no match for mine,” the old lady remarks with a sly grin. “In my years on the road I’ve pulled the wool over nosier bitches than Anastasia Blood.”
Oswald steps back. His eyes open wide.
“How do you know?” Oswald asks.
“I make it a point of knowing all my customers,” the old lady responds. “It is the personal touch that separates the true saleswoman from a thrift shop peddler.”
The old lady steps forward. Her eyes sparkle as she peers deeply into his, and he folds before her pointed gaze like a slab of butter on a sizzling pan. Her little nose twinkles, when she sees him surrender whatever reservations he still may have had.
“Make me an offer,” she says firmly.
Oswald feels Marjorie climaxing on his tongue. He is indispensible to her. He matters more than anyone else at this very moment. If he could just remain here in between her shaved, spray-tanned legs, he would without hesitation.
“Anything you want,” Oswald says with conviction.
“That’s the best offer,” she remarks.
“So what is it you want?” Oswald asks.
“I want you to come back,” she answers.
The old lady looks over Oswald every which way. She fixates on his wedding band. Since he handed over his watch already to be fixed, it is the one item he has on him that is valuable.
“Give me your wedding band,” she says.
“She’ll notice…” Oswald starts to mutter.
“Tell her you’re getting it resized,” she interrupts. “You’re ring finger is fatter than it used to be. It’s from sneaking all those chocolate cupcakes from the pantry in the dead of night.”
Oswald is embarrassed. He is also more than a little startled. It is one thing to recognize him as Anastasia’s husband. Some people keep up with society, and so it is very possible that a shopkeeper in town would recognize him. How would she know he has been sneaking into the pantry after hours? Did the maid catch him in the act? If she did, would she spread the gossip when she goes into town? Why would that be a story worth telling?
“I’ll hold your band as collateral,” the old lady explains. “You’ll come back for it when necessary.”
Oswald stops thinking about the cupcakes. Instead, while removing the band from his index finger, he remembers how Marjorie’s pussy tasted all those years ago.
He barely notices that he has handed his band to the old lady. He looks at the mannequin again. Perhaps, it is his imagination, or a trick of light, but she appears to have winked at him. She is luring him back to her boudoir, and he really wants to go.
“You’ll get her within the week,” the old lady states while pocketing the band.
Oswald barely nods. He is too fixated on the mannequin.
The old lady steps back into her store without making another sound. Within seconds, a “CLOSED” sign appears on the inside of the glass door, and the spotlight is switched off. The storefront is dark and, strangely, feels like it has been abandoned a long time. Even that “Finer Things” sign that had snatched Oswald’s attention at first is now faded gray almost to the point of being unreadable. The store is dead, and the feeling is that it will remain that way until Oswald comes back for his wedding band.
* * *
Several days later, Oswald is standing in Anastasia’s bedroom, while the maid is on all fours cleaning spilled cream off of the carpet. Anastasia is in her wheelchair close to the window. Her red face is full of angry tears. She pounds the tray over her lap, and as a result more tea splashes out of her cup and onto the floor. She is glaring at her husband and berating him for having handed his wedding band to “a jeweler in town who hasn’t been vetted.”
Oswald had assumed she would get a little pissed when he returned from his excursion into town without his band. He had not anticipated the level of venom she unleashed, and is beyond dismayed that she is still bringing it up. He has decided to go back into town this afternoon to find the shopkeeper and to get back his wedding band. He just told her that he is going back to see “the jeweler,” but Anastasia is not at all mollified by his surrender.
Oswald sits in a small chair in the far corner. He folds his arms in front of his chest, and stares down at his shoes. He learned long ago that this is the best posture to assume until the storm passes. Like any child victim of an overbearing parent, he knows that outward resistance is futile.
By the time the maid is done cleaning up the mess, Anastasia has finished her temper tantrum. She stares out the window in silence. She may be lost in thought, or she may not have a clue what she is doing. It is hard to tell the difference sometimes between introspection and senility. Regardless, within a few minutes of looking out the window her chin dips down, and she starts to snore.
The maid removes the tray without comment. Oswald steps out of the room.
He walks down the hall toward the dressing room. It is a nice day outside, but he does not want to leave without putting on his Panama. Undoubtedly, one of those well-bred gossips will see him strolling down the riverside lane toward town. If he is not sufficiently coiffed, his wife will hear about it. He is not in the mood right now to do his hair, so the Panama will do just fine in concealing it.
He opens the dressing room door, and switches on the light. He is startled to see the Marjorie mannequin lying on the carpeted floor. She is a yard away from his wife’s dressing mirror. She is wearing the same white and yellow floral outfit as she did in that storefront window. The difference is that the skirt is pulled up above her waist. Her plastic legs are open, and there looks like curly pubic hair between them.
Oswald steps back in fear. He clasps his mouth shut with his hand, in order to conceal his brief scream. He looks down the hall to see if the maid noticed, but she is not to be seen. Nor does he hear any approaching footsteps. It seems that his scream had not been detected, and he sighs in relief.
He looks back inside the dressing room. The mannequin’s head is now tilted upward. She is staring at him. A contemptuous smile appears on her plastic face. He has seen that look before; and though the grin still looks like something stitched on a doll’s face, he cannot help but to recall Marjorie just before he kneels on the floor.
He steps inside, and he shuts the door behind him. He has forgotten all about the Panama. Nor does he remember or care about picking up his wedding band. This is his chance. The trysts have resumed, and he is an indispensable figure in her game.
But this is not Marjorie…
This is a goddamned…
Oswald shuts down that inner voice. Does it really matter if this is a life sized, plastic doll? There is plastic everywhere in society: Plastic credit cards in fat wallets, plastic injected into oversized lips, plastic and inoffensive repartee while passing the caviar from one guest to the next. With her bleach blonde, her spray tan, her lotions, and her makeup, Marjorie had been more plastic than human. She was the model of wealth and status well cloistered from the concerns of the real world, a blonde doll really only alive when playing out her fantasies. Is this thing on the floor actually all that different? Is this not an opportunity for him to reclaim finally what he has lost?
Oswald stares into the mannequin’s eyes, while slowly dropping down to his knees. He smells the perfume that Marjorie used to spray over her boudoir carpet. It tickles his nose, and he smiles like one of those debonair lovers on the cover of a hot romance novel. Marjorie likes it when he smiles this way. He has learned it well, for he does it the same each time.
Oswald wets his lips with his tongue. He lowers his face in between her legs. He tickles her pubic hair with this tongue. Marjorie loves it when he teases her that way, but only for a while. Then, he needs to get down to business, and he has timed it so that he stops teasing her at just the right moment.
As Oswald caresses Marjorie’s vagina with his lips and tongue, he senses the plastic transforming into flesh. Or at least it feels that way. The soft, fleshy scent and touch could be a figment of his overactive imagination. So what if it is?
Marjorie is starting to writhe in pleasure. In Oswald’s mind, he is back there on that boudoir carpet. It is over seven years ago. George is asleep in his old library, and he will not dismiss him afterwards this time.
The dressing room door opens. The maid always opens it wide when pushing Anastasia inside. Otherwise, that cumbersome wheelchair will not fit, and if the door so much as taps on Anastasia’s foot there will be hell to pay. She is surprised that the light is turned on, but that is nothing compared to what she and Anastasia view next.
* * *
Anastasia dismisses Oswald before evening. Surprisingly, she keeps calm the whole time. All of her bitterness is contained in her steely gaze. She loathes what she saw, and she has no stomach anymore for her “newest husband.” The family lawyers will take care of the paperwork over the next few weeks, but the bastard is going out the door before dark.
Oswald exits out the backdoor. He has a bag of personal items in hand, but he will have to fight for the rest of his things in court. Even worse, the old bat refuses to sign a parting paycheck, and she calls the bank to make sure he cannot use his debit card. He cannot even get a motel room for the night, as he makes his way into town.
It is dark. Oswald is consumed by his thoughts. He is not even aware that he is walking down the middle of Main Street beside storefronts that have closed their shutters for the night.
All except for “Finer Things,” that is. It remains a solitary beacon on a quiet downtown street. The front door is ajar, and a light shines out from the showroom inside. Oswald recalls that his wedding band is in there. He will get it back, sell it to the local pawnshop, and find a room for the night.
He walks toward the shop. Just as he arrives the door is opened wide, and the old lady stands in the doorway. Because of how that soft showroom light illuminates her from behind she looks strangely ethereal. One might even say ‘angelic,’ but she is too menacing to come across that way for very long. She smiles like the Cheshire cat at her returning customer, and Oswald feels iced cold terror snaking down his spine. He wants to run away, but he is rational enough to know that he has no viable choice but to ask for his collateral back.
He stands in front of the door. Before he can speak, the grinning shopkeeper removes the wedding band from in between her breasts. She seems to have a lot of oddities stuffed down there, including Kleenex, Post-It notes, and even Tarot cards.
The old lady holds up the wedding band. In Oswald’s eyes just then, it is the most valuable piece of jewelry ever conceived, and he does not even try to conceal his desire for it. The old lady sees his reaction, widens her grin, and stuffs the band back inside her bosom. It is clear that Oswald will need to do more than just return to get it back. The sparkling red eyes magnified by her big owl glasses confirm that.
She waves him inside. He hesitates a moment, but then follows.
She closes and locks the door behind him. She turns off the light.
Oswald has a new woman to serve. What that entails specifically, and to what lengths he will go to make her happy, are sordid details best left hidden in the night.