For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do. –Isaac Watts
It is not true that life is one damned thing after another
it is one damn thing over and over.–Edna St. Vincent Millay
Life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the universe. –Alfred North Whitehead
June Waverly watched and waved as her husband drove away, smiling and touching the spot on her cheek where he had kissed her goodbye. The metallic blue sedan glinted in the morning Sun and June shielded her eyes from the glare.
Wiping her hands on a primrose-covered apron, she whirled around, marching into the house like a private on parade. June paused at the foyer mirror and ran a hand through her hair and up over the ears—grateful for the easy yet elegant upsweep that had cut her morning-ready time in half– while still maintaining the look she needed.
The marching continued into the kitchen, where a tumble of dirty dishes lay in wait. A glance at her watch revealed a time entirely too late to still have dirty breakfast dishes, so she set upon them like a lioness–picking each up and decimating its insides. Pieces of egg and bacon went flying as June the dervish took care of the morning clean-up.
“Mom, chill out. Holy Cow! Mom!”
It took June a moment to realize someone was speaking to her. She stared, uncomprehending, at a Cornell glass dish before setting it down and turning her concentration elsewhere. Elsewhere, of course, being toward her seven-year-old son, David.
He was standing in the doorway, blond strands of hair escaping from a New York Yankees baseball cap. His small left hand was twirling a baseball bat, (Southpaw. His daddy was so excited!) while his right hand held an already much-worn leather glove–a present from his grampa.
It was only an hour after breakfast, but David had obviously found a pick-up game somewhere in the neighborhood. His knees were bloody, and grass and dirt stains crawled up denim shorts and a white t-shirt to stop at his chin, which was also bloody.
Blood and mud couldn’t hide his enormous grin, though. He swept the bat underneath his small body as he took a grandiose bow, like an opera star at his standing ovation.
“Hey, yo! I made a home run…brought two guys in with me, too! It was awesome. I’m coo-ol, oh yeah I’m cool…” David paused, assessing his appearance. “…looka me now though. Pretty messy, eh?? Gotta go wash up.” With this announcement, he traipsed through the kitchen past his mother and through the living room toward the stairs that led to his bedroom.
“That’s great, son…” his mother replied absentmindedly “…but wait! Where are you going in those muddy shoes? You’re dripping! You can’t! Shouldn’t! Wait! Aaaaauuughh . . .” June’s voice trailed off as she watched the brown stains appear, as if by magic, in the gray plush pile carpet as David walked through.
He whistled, unconcerned, as the brown blobby pockmarks followed him across the living room and navigated up the stairs behind. She followed them, stopping at each to frantically scrub at the marks–at length realizing her efforts were only driving the mud further into the pile. She sat back on her knees to wait for the mud to dry so she could vacuum it out.
* * *
June stayed in the kitchen to clean for the rest of the morning, sometimes peeking apprehensively through the doorway to the living room. The mud changed colors, went from brown as dried blood to gray like the hair of a vigorous old man. When it reached this state, she inched out of the kitchen and approached the downstairs closet doorway.
She didn’t walk directly toward the door, but rather advanced from the side, as if whatever was in there would be surprised and immediately retreat. Instead of opening the door, she yanked at it with fierce strength and a bloodcurdling squeal.
Still, there it was–the vacuum cleaner.
When she was in high school, June was forced to read a book called Something Wicked This Way Comes. The book interfered mightily with her understanding of the workings of the world–she preferred Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. But she never forgot the names the two boys had created to describe the slimy, crawly things that hid under the bed: goffs and ulners.
Ray Bradbury seemed to get into her head with these monsters, lubricious and nibbling in the dark. The name with which she christened the vacuum cleaner was The Gulner. It stood upright in the closet, but always listed just slightly forward, as if prepared to crumble down onto all fours (all eights?) and go on a man-munching spree.
Its black shiny exterior always reminded Jane of an octopus (she didn’t know why. Weren’t those things green, or gray, in real life?), but it seemed an accurate description when viewing the tentacles of hose and cord that flung themselves all gnarled and squiggly from its sides.
The Gulner represented everything June filled her days with, and thus everything she despised.
When she let it out of its black hole in the wall, it mashed and crunched and tyrannized everything in its path–a good little Gulner. But then she turned her back and it seemed to regurgitate all the dust and slime it had just inhaled. Another day came, and she had to set it free from its hideout once again.
She had started thinking of The Gulner as her abusive husband, having read once that smart abusers would hit you in the lower back because it hurt worse and couldn’t be seen by outside prying eyes. By the time she was finished vacuuming just one room, her back ached and stabbed like her kidneys had flung themselves at her spinal cord and done a maypole dance around the stacked vertebra.
Oh, the dishes were one thing–not much fun to rinse, but she had her sweet little dishwasher (Emma) to do the real slishy-sloshy mashy icky work. And dust? Well, that super Hepa filtration system she had batted her eyes and flipped her hair to receive seemed to work wonders on dust–she found herself pulling out the Pledge only rarely.
But dirt!! No matter how often she sprung The Gulner from his hateful hole, the dirt just kept coming BACK. Her husband walked in after work, a worn, tired look around his eyes to go with his irritated voice demanding dinner, and she sympathized–she really did–but couldn’t he pull those leaves out of his shoes before he came in the door?
Of course, her neighbor Betty was a complete ANGEL for bringing her famous tuna casserole over, but it seemed she walked through multitudinous piles of slop and swill to get it here. Betty’s cooking apron actually looked like it had food on it, for heaven’s sake! Ugh! June shuddered with remembering.
And, finally, her son: a seven-year-old darling, to be sure; but possibly the sloppiest bedraggled and begrimed little boy she’d ever known. Not that she’d known many, but…
And the dirt just kept coming back.
* * *
June Waverly had just gotten the nerve up to pull The Gulner from the closet when the doorbell rang. Thrilled at anything that might delay her daily bout with perpetual gunk and debris–even a stray Jehovah’s Witness–she practically skipped to the door.
The door opened to the strangest looking man she had ever laid eyes upon. He was maybe five feet tall, with a voluminous head belonging on a man twice his size. Great brown frog eyes sat closely upon a gin blossom nose that had veins following out from its center like rivers from an estuary.
Lips that pouted in rosy plumpness sat directly underneath that cherry nose. His cheekbones were high, which would have been a plus, had his face not narrowed into a peaky point that likened the overall effect to a reddened Valentine’s heart with a great mush of melted chocolate-covered cherries n the middle.
He had Ross Perot ears, which made June giggle since she was pretty sure that was who her husband liked–she didn’t care much for politics, personally.
Little curly red hairs sprouted along the tops of his ears, and she presumed around the back of his head; which wouldn’t have been particularly strange were it not for the utterly straight red hairs he had combed over from the right ear to the left.
He wore a powder blue suit and a light blue shirt with ruffles, like a boy who’d missed his 1978 prom and was now returning a few decades later to make it right.
This visitor’s strange appearance almost led June to slam the door and continue her housework, except for one thing: his smile. Crimson juicy lips shot open, the fissure revealing the straightest, whitest teeth she had ever seen outside of t.v. advertisements. Even a dimple appeared on one cheek. The smile disarmed her completely, and she found herself tilting toward the doorframe to listen.
“Hello! May I help you?” she said flirtatiously, then stopped up short. Why was she flirting with this man in powder blue? Didn’t she have work to do? Didn’t she have a perfectly good husband who was at work right now bringing home the bacon so she could have this house that needed to be CLEANED all the time that she…
”Oh, hell! Come on in!” and with that, she flung her door wide and ushered Perot-ears in her house.
“Good afternoon, ma’am.” (This with that incredible smile!) “My name is Nicholas Langbromide. I thought you might be needing me.”
June wasn’t sure how to take this comment. She scrunched her nose a little like she was thinking seriously about what Mr. Langbromide had said, but really was trying to figure out how to keep him from seeing those footprints that pestered and infested the carpet.
The man walked right past her, and to her horror, strode straight toward the nasty little marks. He leaned down and touched them, even! Great Christ almighty, she thought she might keel over and die from the shame of it.
“Ah, footprints! Have a little one, do you?”
“Um, yes. He’s seven. He played baseball today. Blonde hair…southpaw. His daddy’s very proud of that…not the blonde hair, I mean his father’s a brunette, actually. I mean the southpaw. That’s left-handed, which is really very good for baseball…it’s all my husband talks about, ‘his son, the next Micky Mantle….’”
He’s really a very good boy, mostly, but …” she thought she might continue this inane patter forever, or at least until her head fell from her neck, and then the dirt wouldn’t be such a crucial topic anyway.
“He sounds like a fabulous child!” The red lips parted to reveal that toothpaste grin again. “However, judging from these footprints, it sounds like you’ve got yourself quite a handful with the cleanin’, and all. Maybe you could use some help?”
At this observation, he grinned again; only this time the grin was different. It seemed to June that the shadows of his teeth had moved–had gone from sitting outside of the smile to standing straight up and attaching themselves to each tooth.
She figured it was just a reflection from the gray carpet, but it made her a little shivery, anyhow–so she looked away. When she returned her vision to the man, his face seemed back to normal; well, as normal as that face could be, so she spoke:
“Oh, so you’re a salesman? Or are you a housekeeper, like those Merry Maids who come to clean houses? I must tell you that I am a stay-at-home person, so I wouldn’t be able to have someone come in to help me.
My husband would never allow it. ‘Silly,’ he’d say, ‘why do I work so hard? I’m not just a sugar daddy, you know. You must contribute!’” Her face closed like a nut, trying to imitate the look Martin got when he lectured.
“No, no,” he chuckled, a baritone marionette chuckle. “I mean real help. How would you like it if you never had to vacuum this house again??”
With this dramatic statement he stopped and positioned himself like Napoleon, feet splayed out and one hand inside his jacket. June supposed it would have been a humorous pose if she weren’t in a traumatized stupor from the words that had just issued from the small man’s poochy lips.
Never vacuum again? Keep The Gulner in his dungeon forever, never again to mangle and sully her poor kidneys? Impossible!
Yet here he was, this funny-looking little man with a movie-star smile, posing like a conqueror and telling her with all seriousness that he could assist her in her plight.
June struck a pose of her own, one she hoped would contain the intensity she felt about this proposal: “Yes! Oh, yes….” Her voice trailed off, because she didn’t feel she had an adequate vocabulary to express how much she wanted this. Mr. Langbromide’s Colgate smile returned, and he untied himself from the pose and turned to go out the door.
“Wait! Oh, wait–“ June’s voice was almost a whimper. “Didn’t I say something right? I’d really. No, I mean REALLY like to see the product you’re selling.”
“No worries, Mrs. Waverly. I’m just going out to my car to get it.” Upon these words, June released a breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding in a whoosh, and gratefully watched the salesman’s back as he trotted down to a light blue Chrysler.
She noticed the man was seemingly absorbed by the car as he went in–the blue of his powdered tux matched the color of the car exactly. Another breath of relief was released as he reappeared with what looked like a spray can clutched between his fingers.
The salesman’s ears seemed to bounce and jiggle as he trotted back up the walk to the house, and June followed him inside like a puppy dog whose master was carrying real meat, not just those particle-board dog chews. She had to restrain herself from snatching the can from his grip, instead, she sat down primly–on top of her hands–to wait for Mr. Langbromide’s spiel.
He handed her the can and started spieling with gusto:
“Now you’ve heard of Scotchguard, right?” She nodded slightly. Was that what this was about? She’d had her carpets Scotchguarded repeatedly and it hadn’t done much good. It certainly hadn’t released her from the torturous requirements of The Gulner, in any case.
Her smile floundered and she could feel her perfect hairdo collapsing in protest. The salesman caught her look, smiled a benign reassurance.
“Well, this, my needy Mrs. Waverly, is called WoeBeGONE! A simple trip around your floors with this wondrous spray guarantees you will never have to vacuum again! You can toss that Gulner out the window if you want, or put a padlock on the downstairs broom closet for all anybody cares.
Your husband will come home to the same sweet wifey and the clean little abode he’s come to expect. Only you, you, Mrs. Waverly, can spend the days doing anything you please! Soap Operas your poison? Ingest and enjoy! Maybe the mall is your first love…go ahead, liquify your brain at Dillard’s. You’ll have time for it all!! Guaranteed!”
June was turning the can over in her hands…it was a nondescript blue that looked like any air freshener one could see in any grocery store anywhere in the country.
The words “WoeBeGONE” were printed in calligraphic black script across the front. June was so fascinated by the possibilities of the can and of her life as a free woman she barely registered Mr. Langbromide referring to her vacuum as The Gulner.
She thought back to a time she might have mentioned that name to the salesman—to anyone, for that matter—and could remember none. She tried to remember introducing herself at all to the funny little man. The black lettering of the can wavered before her eyes as she brought her attention back to the blue container she was holding.
He took it from her hands and walked over to one of Danny’s footprints, shook the can and sprayed. What came out looked like hair spray, or Pledge, or anything else one would buy at any grocery store anywhere in the country. But the footprint…changed. The dirt which had dried iron-gray turned transparent. The chunks of mud took on a waxen hue and trembled–a vaporous crystalline jello-monster agitating in the bowl.
Then the dirt just…disappeared.
No, not exactly disappeared, more like it was sucked into the carpeting. One minute the jello-mud-globs were there, the next they were absorbed into the floor.
June knelt to the space where the footprint had been, and found only beautiful gray pile. Her hands ran over and over where the footprint had been, and felt nothing but beautiful, very expensive, carpet. When she looked back up at Mr. Langbromide, her eyes were watery, pleading and supplicant.
“ . . .Guaranteed?”
“Guaranteed, little missy! If you have to use the vacuum cleaner EVER, for any reason, you get a full refund, no questions asked.” The salesman nodded ferociously, ears bobbing and straight red hairs flipping off his head from one ear to hang down over the other–little red worms conglomerating around the earlobes.
June was briefly captivated by the strands, as they seemed to wriggle and convulse around his face–almost as if they were absorbed in and then out of the pallid skin of his cheek. Her morbid recording of this activity was quickly dissolved and forgotten as another thought occurred to her.
“A complete refund. Oh, of course—this must cost a lot. Um, ah, what does it cost, exactly? I have a very specific budget since my husband is supporting us. Which is hard, in this day and age, isn’t it? I mean, having only one income–almost no one does it anymore. So they say I’m really lucky…of course I am! But the budget, you know, so, um, how much is it…?”
June’s question which she couldn’t voice as a question twined around the unspoken air and plopped down, a looming elephantine maw, on the floor between them.
Mr. L. (she’d started thinking of him as “Mr. L.” because his last name seemed cumbersome and hard to remember) patted her shoulder, and the grin returned–the one with the shadows–but it made June feel better anyway.
“No worries, Mrs. Waverly. WoeBeGONE is a special product, for our special customers only. We really want your worries to disperse. The only cost is . . . your firstborn son,” but he quickly put his hands on both of her shoulders in a solid and comforting grip. “Just kidding! You only have to pay what you can afford.”
June squiggled her nose as she thought about it. What could she afford? To get rid of The Gulner, well, she felt she could afford anything. But the salesman couldn’t possibly know how much she had in her secret coffee tin in the back of the pantry, so she thought she’d start low and see how cheaply she could get the miracle can.
“Hmmm,“ her nose now scrunched up like a rabbit sniffing alfalfa. She hoped she looked like she was summing up all possible financial outlets, “Fifty dollars?”
Mr. L. slapped his knee and moved the worm-hairs back up over the top of his head. “Fifty dollars it is! I think you’ll enjoy your new life, Mrs. Waverly. You got yourself some kinda bargain, that’s for sure!”
With this proclamation he took the can back from June and shook it with gusto. “Shake well, now, and spray it anywhere you don’t want to clean up again. I’d advise you just start with the carpets, however–see how you like it.”
She ran to the kitchen and furtively took fifty dollars from the bulging coffee can at the back of the pantry. Mr. Langbromide took it, handed her the precious can, and bowed with a flourish. “Enjoy your day, June! Remember The Gulner in your dreams!!”
The shadow-smile came out from behind his red lips and his ears waggled with glee. He seemed to skip down the walk and was again absorbed into the light blue Chrysler, which coughed and sputtered and finally took him back the way he had come.
She sat on the front room couch and gazed at the can; desire flooding her vision.
* * *
June Waverly then took her shoes off and set to work. After about 45 minutes of frenetic spraying (especially the corners; oh how she hated hooking up a Gulner-tentacle to its body and dustmongering on her hands and knees), she fell back on the front room couch with a satisfied sigh.
Imagine! That was possibly the last time she’d have to extend herself so enormously to keep this place clean. The dirt was never coming back!
Oh, she had to pinch herself to believe it! She tried to think of all the things she could do with her new-found free time. She found she couldn’t think of much, but chalked it up to the excitement of the day.
She then reclined her body into the front room couch, languorously stretching and unfolding herself like a trusting dog under the hand of a master. Old habits were hard to break, though, and she figured it wouldn’t hurt to put her shoes away before any relaxing.
Her feet dropped from the couch cushions and went in search of the shoes she’d dropped prior to the spraying frenzy. Her feet didn’t feel the shoes, so she reached fingers to the floor to search around and under the couch. While this shoe-search was in progress, David came down the stairs.
Freshly scrubbed and in new shorts and t-shirt, he looked almost as good as when she dressed him herself. The Yankees hat still crouched upon his head, though, and made the clean blonde hairs stick out in tufts around his ears.
No more baseball today, but David carried the bat and glove around like permanent trophies. “Hey, mom. I’m goin’ to the rumpus room to play video games, k?” Her hand made an impatient gesture of dismissal at her boy, so he walked toward the basement.
Her shoes…where were her shoes? They were a lemon-yellow pair of pumps purchased by her husband. Couldn’t lose those shoes. She stuck her head all the way under the couch as she kept a grip on the couch cushions. Nothing. She hung over the back end of the couch to search under the back–still no lemon pumps. In dismay and consternation, June moved over the couch back so she could sit down to think.
Her head flew up from its hang down position and in the process, one of her earrings flew off and out onto the carpet. It was a clip-on earring, because her husband didn’t approve of holes in her body that weren’t God-granted. Pretty little thing, too–primrose, to match her apron.
The earring soared through the air, over the coffee table, and landed flower-up on the carpet. June started to pick it up, then sank back onto the couch, flabbergasted.
The earring was changing–first, it lost all its color, appeared as cool crystal jello, the petals bobbing back and forth. Each petal was then gobbled into the gray pile carpet…schloop! glut! gurgle! Then….gone. She ran to the spot where the earring had been, and, balancing her arm on the coffee table, touched her fingers over the area. Nothing but gorgeous gray rug.
June poised one finger where the earring had been, as if she could summon it back up from the…from the depths of…from wherever it had gone. The tip of her finger went dead all of a sudden, and June watched in horror as the fingernail turned to glass.
She plucked it off the carpet and held it under her eyes, terrified, as the blood vessels at her fingertip turned to clear glass noodles. A gentle poking revealed the skin and nail to be squishy, spongy–a worm under the hand of a three-year-old. She shook it voraciously, but to no avail—it didn’t spread, but it didn’t go away, either.
Tempted to suck it as if it were a paper cut, but frightened as she envisioned jello lips and mushy teeth, June held the hand out to the side of her body and jumped on the couch. But wait…she’d been walking all over the WoeBeGONE and nothing bad had happened.
She breathed a sigh of relief as the realization came: you had to be still for it to eat you! Immobility–the earring. Inactivity–her finger. Her shoes! Their motionlessness outside of her feet must have been the reason they were gone, too.
June felt vaguely proud in the midst of her fear and anger, just because she had figured it out. Anger, you betcha! That Mr. L. was a bad man.
All she wanted was some relief from the tedium and banality of her life, and the DIRT that always came back. Was that so wrong? And now she had to deal with a killer carpet to add to her weariness. What would her husband say??
It looked like they would have to purchase a whole new houseful of carpet, or maybe a new house, even. June touched her upswept hair gingerly, making sure not to touch it with the jello finger.
Well, she thought, maybe I’ll get a job. The thought almost pleased her, although she didn’t know why. Her husband would never allow it, anyway.
Suddenly her head shot up. Hadn’t she seen David earlier? Something about the rumpus room….oh, please, please, say he wasn’t going to play video games. They had a video game system set up on the floor, the floor! Great Christ almighty, that game was played on the floor while the TV set perched on a small dresser.
June had been in there many times to remind David to take his shoes off if he was going to spread himself out on the carpet. She sprinted down to the basement rumpus room, screaming at herself and for her boy the whole time.
The rumpus room is supposed to get dirty, isn’t that what the word means? Why did she spray it there? Didn’t she spray it doubly thick since it was a very messy place?? Oh God, oh God…..David!!
Flying down the stairs, shouting David’s name the whole time, June burst into the rumpus room. A Yankee’s baseball cap was sitting on the floor, changing color.
She threw herself forward and grabbed at it, gibbering incoherently, hair flinging every which way, apron twisted around to her back like a winging tetherball cord. The cap was already halfway melded to the floor, but adrenaline-fueled her grip.
The cap came loose suddenly, and she was spit backward holding a brim and a button, sprawling on her husband’s favorite chair. June sat in the chair, sobbing, and twisted the material which once had been navy but was now a sort of pale dingy gray; and stared at her very beautiful, very expensive, very clean and empty carpet.
* * *
June Waverly trudged up the basement stairs and sat, looked around her front room. In one hand she held a piece of dirty, strange-looking material. In the other, she held a powder blue can with black lettering; the kind one might see at any grocery store, anywhere in the country.
She gingerly placed both of these on the couch and walked over to the closet. Slowly, unwaveringly, she reached in and drew out a big black vacuum cleaner.
She laid it in the middle of the floor, moving the coffee table away so that she could lay down beside it.
* * *
Martin Waverly had had a tough day. His boss was a real jerk, and he was utterly tired of feeling about as appreciated as a plantar’s wart. He drove into the driveway, and his metallic blue sedan glinted in the setting sun. Well, sort of glinted, anyway.
Martin sighed, thinking it was just about time to wash the damn thing again. He’d done it just the other day, but then, of course, there was that freak rainstorm. Figured. He sighed melodramatically.
Oh well, at least he had that cute little wifey of his who would for sure have dinner ready when he got home. He could enjoy some parts of his life, at least.
Martin got out of his car, grunted, and headed into the house.
a short story by