Gus

Gus

By Richard M. O’Donnell. 

Part I – The Phone Call

Bernadine Immaculata Ritter woke up and lit the lantern beside her bed.  On the bedstand lay her father’s gold, hunter-case pocket watch, opened with a round wedding picture of her parents; the clock’s hands read 3:21 a.m.  Her parents’ faces, as always, revealed nothing. They had been Quakers and lived each moment as if attending a silent meeting until a fire consumed their homestead and her childhood.

She got up, made her bed, and then packed her grandfather’s carpetbag with a change of clothes.  She shed her white, cotton nightdress, the one with the heavy linen pleated front, lace cuffs and plain collar, a gift from her Nana Mac for her bridal shower five years ago, and after carefully folding it, added it to the carpetbag.  The bedroom door squeaked open a crack and her three-year-old son, Augustus, dressed in his a nightshirt, stared for the first time at her nakedness.

“Ma?”

“Get dressed, Augustus,” she told him as she slipped on her panties.  Holding the edges of her bra cups, she leaned forward and filled them with her modest breasts, and then standing up, she slipped her fingers along the sides until she found the clasp.  She fastened it with minimal effort. “Put on your blue jeans and T-shirt.”

Augustus yawned.

“Socks and shoes, too.”

Augustus pushed the door open with the toes of his left foot.  “Gee whiz.”  Even at three, the soles of his feet had calluses from going everywhere on the farm barefoot.

Bernadine slipped her arms into the sleeves of a button-front, blue print dress with a panel front forming a pleat that wrapped her four-foot-eleven frame at a three-quarter length.  “Don’t fret.  I’ll help you tie the laces.” As Augustus turned to go, Bernadine added, “And no pissing out the window.  You’re killing my begonias.  Use the chamber pot.”

“Ma!”

Augustus disappeared down the hallway and into his bedroom, his footfall uncomfortably loud at the early hour.  Soon, fumbling sounds echoed from his bedroom as he dressed in the dark.  Bernadine looked out her bedroom window.  The starlight filtered through the glass while out on the meadow beyond the barn moonlight shone.  The crickets, disturbed by her light and the earlier movement, regained their courage and began to chirp again, a sound so common in rural Benedict Fall County, Ohio, she did not notice as she sat down at her vanity and continued her toilet by brushing out her auburn hair.

Her hand quivered ever so slightly because the gold handled comb was part of a set, a gift from her husband, William Sydney, “For no other reason than I love you, honey.”  A roustabout, he went from oil rig to oil rig, wherever the job was. “I saw them in a shop window in Austin,” he told her, “just like Della did in The Gift of the Magi.”  Bernadine was not surprised.  The brushes were a natural gift for him to give; after all, his mother named him after O. Henry, the author of the story.  As a boy, she read to him nightly until his father returned from sea and burnt all her books.

However, the real present he gave Bernadine came when his best friend, Willard, Jr., confided to her last Christmas that Sydney had stayed sober the whole time they worked in Texas. “No matter how hard I tried to drag him into a bar. He about drove me crazy ‘cause he would usually stand me the first round.”  Willard, Jr. looked for a place to spit his tobacco juice, but Bernadine wasn’t one to suffer such stains in the house, so he opened a window and spat into the new snow, which ruined her view of the birch woods until the next flurry came.  “But Bernie old girl…”  He went to slap her on the butt as he did to barmaids, but her glare stayed his hand. “…the demon drink can’t tempt Sydney when he’s got his sights set on you.”

That Sydney loved her unconditionally was never an issue, and no hardship even today’s adversity could not take that from her. Others would not be so fortunate.

Bernadine paused in her primping to open the side drawer of the vanity.  She removed a Big Chief, wide space, writing tablet made with newsprint paper.  She wrote five short sympathy letters in pencil, sealing and addressing each in turn.  The last one she addressed to Mrs. Willard Miller, Sr. Willard, Jr. had never married.  Finished, she put the letters into her carpetbag to mail when the bus made its stopover in Charleston, West Virginia.  If she mailed them in town, the gossips would see the postmark and tongues would wag.  The kids at school might even throw stones at Gus the way the children had when she was his age.  Someone might even set fire to the house.

She shuttered as she remembered her father’s unnatural screams as he stumbled out of the house with his clothes on fire, unnatural even more so because of his stoic silence. When he came home from the hospital full of drugs and booze and with a heavy hand, her mom told her, “The flames just burnt God right out of his soul.” Bernadine rejoiced the morning he left for the merchant marines. Her mom cried. Bernadine sat up straight.  She needed to remain in the now.  “And if I’m to make the bus connections in Cleveland,” she told herself, “I must leave as soon as Elder Roberts arrives.”  Tongues would wag that she was dressed and ready, but that would not produce the ire if they knew she had already written the letters.

Though it was only Thursday, she put on her Saturday-go-dancing makeup.  As she applied the eyeliner, the lamplight caught the beginnings of laugh lines in the mirror.  She glanced at her father’s watch and the photograph.  Folks often told her she was the spitting image of her mother, Anna, a Benedict Falls County Fair queen. Anna had aged well and everyone expected Bernadine to do likewise, especially after her father drowned off the coast of Virginia.  A German U-boat sank his ship, the O. B. Jennings, on Bernadine’s fourth birthday, August 4, 1918.  The artillery exchange took only 22-minutes.  That morning, her Momma and she overslept, did minimal chores, and then picnicked under the Great Cave by the west falls in Benedict Falls.  A perfect day they treasured.  “No more bruises,” her mother promised, though Bernadine didn’t believe her until the telegram came a week later.

Bernadine fixed Augustus his breakfast, completed minimal chores, and then sat on the porch steps with her carpetbag on her knees and a red sweater draped over her lap.

“What we waiting for, Ma?” Augustus asked.

“The phone call.”

Augustus kicked off his shoes and socks. “We ain’t got no phone.”

“That’s correct,” she answered.

August kicked the grass with his toes. “Ain’t you gonna milk the cows?”

“No,” she answered. “Mr. Jenkins will take care of the farm while Mrs. Jenkins will take care of you.”

“Oh.”  Augustus shrugged and ran off to play a game of invisible friends in the barnyard until the horizon turned orange and Kelso, their rooster, crowed.  The cattle, horses and pigs began to stir, and Augustus tossed chicken feed to the clucking hens out of sheer boredom.  Then movement over by the birch wood caught his eye and he ran to Mama.

“Ma, someone’s coming.”

“That would be Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins and Elder Roberts.”

“Oh, he talks too loud.”  He meant Elder Roberts of course.

“Mind your Ps and Qs,” she said. “He thinks he talks to the Lord.”

“We pray, mama.”

“It is easy to pray, Augustus,” said Mrs. Ritter, “but it is hard to listen.”

Augustus ran to the edge of the house and peaked around the corner.  “They’re coming, mama.”

By 1951, most folks had party lines, but many in rural Ohio still lacked electricity and plumbing.  A phone was still a luxury. “Besides,” Pa often pointed out to Ma and Augustus, “if letters were good enough for Post Master Benjamin Franklin, then they’re good enough for me.”

In ’42, just before Pearl Harbor, their neighbor, Mr. Peter Jenkins, paid an outrageous sum to have a line strung out to his dairy farm.  No sooner did he hear his first dial tone than folks who wanted to make a call began to knock at his front door, side door, and back door.  He met neighbors he didn’t even know he had.  The knocking was especially incessant on Sundays when the whole country stayed home.  On the plus side, Elder Roberts discovered that so many heathens came to use the Jenkins’ phone that he dubbed the Jenkins’ farm his ‘fishing pond’ and set up a soapbox in the barnyard to preach.  Then, after the bombs fell in Hawaii, the Farr Creek Civil Defense appointed Mr. Jenkins the zone leader for the township.  He took his civil duties seriously, even after the war.

As for his wife, Doris, a shy woman by nature, she had never been so popular.  She came to enjoy the socializing, but even more so, she loved the horseback riding between the farms on an old, gray, plow horse named Rutherford B. Hayes. Once she mounted, Hayes became a thoroughbred and she transformed into none other than Sybil Ludington, that lovely feminine Paul Revere of Revolutionary War fame, reborn to save the nation.  For Doris, aka Sybil, all that was missing was an invasion of Nazi paratroopers or a U-boat spy dropped off on a Lake Erie beach.  As she rode, she often chanted stanzas from Berton Braley’s poem Sybil Ludington’s Ride:

 

Danbury’s burning,’ she cried aloud.

The Colonel answered, ‘Tis but a cloud,

A cloud reflecting the campfires red,

 So hush you, Sybil, and go to bed.’

 

After her first ride, she swore no one would ever hush her again.  Peter on the other hand preferred to walk, unless the message was urgent. Then, when he thought no one was listening, he would sing Walt Disney’s Heigh-Ho at the top of his voice.

However, as the war progressed, Peter and Doris became more somber. Telegrams came, Gold Stars appeared in the windows of neighbors’ houses, and occasionally a sailor or soldier would phone home only to discover a buddy’s loved ones had yet to hear the tragic news. That’s when Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins decided to team up with Elder Roberts: Peter to represent a grateful nation, Doris to represent all things good and wholesome, and Elder Roberts to represent God.  Mostly, they came together to give each other the backbone necessary to do what needed to be done.  Meanwhile, at church, or at Watson’s Hardware, or even on the streets of Farr Creek, anytime the three congregated together, folks from the township turned around and hurried in the other direction.  The trio continued to minister after the war to the few telephone holdouts that still relied on them for communications.  However, nothing during their war years prepared them for when they came around the side of the Ritter house and discovered Mrs. Ritter waiting on the front porch step, packed and ready to go.  Mr. Peter Jenkins, an ex-Catholic, made the sign of the cross.

“Mrs. Ritter,” asked Elder Roberts as tactfully as his eighty-three years allowed.  He had a Shenandoah beard like a married Amish man, but wore suits from Sears & Roebuck.  “You had plans to travel today?”

“No, Elder Roberts.”

“Then, what are your waiting for?”

“You.”

The trio flinched.

“But Bernie?” asked Doris. “Then how did you know we were coming?”  Although Rutherford B. Hayes died soon after Truman became President, Mrs. Jenkins still shunned dresses, wore riding jeans and denim blouses, and relied on Sybil Ludington for strength.

Mrs. Ritter did not answer her.  Instead, she stood up with her carpetbag in her right hand and the red sweater draped over the left elbow.  “Doris,” she said, “I’d be much obliged if you watch Augustus ‘til I get back.”

“Of course,” she said.

“And Mr. Jenkins, the cows needs milking.”

Peter Jenkins walked backward several steps, and then hurried toward the barn at a near run.  A thin, rail of a man, he wore overalls that were always too wide and ruffled when he moved, a sound much like sheets on a clothesline in the wind.

“Ma,” asked Augustus. “Where you going?”

“To fetch your father home.” She turned to Elder Roberts. “Though I don’t know the particulars of the accident.”

“Best for grownup ears,” he said and went to take her arm, but she said, “Nonsense” and her glare stayed his hand. “Last week you commended Augustus for having the courage to drown a litter of feral kittens.  He’s almost four and a farmer.  Tell us.”  Elder Roberts bent a knee in front of Augustus and took the boy’s hands in his.  “The long and short of it is this, son.  The oil rig your father was working on in West Virginia exploded, but your father was thrown clear.”

“Was he hurt?”

“Yes, but as your mother said, she is going to fetch him home.  Good home cooking and plenty of rest will make him well in no time.” Elder Roberts smile gave Augustus a moment of hope, but then when the Elder glanced at his mother, his eyes betrayed his fear.  Augustus’ tears welled up. “But what about Uncle Willard?”

Elder Roberts shook his head. “I’m sorry, son.  Willard, Jr. and four others died instantly.”

“But he was going to teach me how to play poker!”

Augustus began to bawl and Elder Roberts threw Mrs. Ritter an, I-told-you-so look.  He pulled out a handkerchief, opened it, and went to ask Augustus to blow, when the boy took off running into the meadow beyond the barn.  They watched him until he disappeared into the tree line along the Farr Creek.  After Bernadine’s mom bought the farm with her father’s life insurance, Bernadine also enjoyed hiding down by the creek under the roots of a tall elm.  Gus would do fine.

Elder Roberts escorted Mrs. Ritter down the long driveway to the dirt track that led to Route 20.  There she caught the bus to West Virginia.  A month later, she brought her husband, Sydney, home.  The explosion had blown him over eighty feet into a swampy field.  When the roustabouts pried him out, the bone of his left forearm had snapped at a right angle from the hand.  Since the doctor assumed he would die of internal injuries, he didn’t bother to set it.

Sydney lived for two years isolated in his bedroom and in constant pain.  Augustus’ only memory of his father would be of a man he never saw, but heard screaming constantly.  When the time came, Bernadine buried him down by the creek in the family plot.   No visitors were invited.  At the graveside, Augustus asked, “Ma, do you know everything before it happens?”

“Of course not, honey,” she answered. “It’s just that my Grandma was a Wolfe and sometimes we Wolfe women see things before they happen.”

“Like papa blowing up?”

“Goodness gracious, no,” she said. “I’d about drop dead if I saw something like that.  No, I heard Mr. Jenkin’s phone ring before it rang and…” She shrugged. “I just knew.”

“Mama?”

“Yes, Augustus.”

“Do Wolfe men sometimes see things, too?”

Bernadine put an arm over her son’s shoulder and drew him into her.  “What did you see?”

“That I’m going to be with you when you die?”

She squeezes him tight. “Seen that, too, but that day is years and years away.  I know you will be very, very brave, like you were with the kittens.”

“Yes, ma,” whispered Augustus. Then, straightening his spine the way boys do in the movies, he added, “Don’t worry, Ma, I’ll take care of it.”

The two remained silent for a while until Augustus could not stand still any longer.  “Can I go now?” he asked. “Please?”

“No,” Bernadine said. “This is the way Papa wanted it.  We owe it to him to see it through to the end.”

Good to her word, Bernadine Immaculata Ritter, with her son by her side, waited by the shallow grave until her beloved husband, Sydney, stopped screaming.  That evening, the two picnicked in the Great Cave by the west falls in Benedict Falls, Ohio, where she shared with him every wonderful story she remembered about his father.

Part II – The Last Time We Spoke

I woke and picked up the phone before it rang.  The bedside flip clock read 3:21 a.m., never a good sign. “Hello?”

“Damn, Dad!” yelled my daughter, Zelda. “I hate it when you answer before the phone rings. It freaks me out.”

“Sorry, kiddo,” I mumbled. It felt as though I had been apologizing to her my entire life. Had I received this call when she was a teenager, I would suspect she needed me to bail her out of jail.  Around town, the police called her the Redheaded Terror or the Green Eyed Monster.  Then she met and married Steve, an auto mechanic, and they gave me my wonderful grandson, Ernie. However, I barely had a chance to hold him before they whisked him away to California ‘to live on the beach.’  It seemed to me they couldn’t get him away from me fast enough.

“I have some bad news,” she said.

I braced myself. “It’s best just to say what it is, honey.”

“Ernie fell down the stairs.  He’s dead.”

My heart crumbled and I found myself kneeling on the floor, struggling for breath as I wept.  Zelda had just put her life back together, finished rehab, got a good job in Silicon Valley.  What could I do to help her?  What could I say?

Then I heard Zelda laugh. “April Fools, dickhead!”

My anguish turned to anger mixed with disgust and disappointment. I glanced at the digital clock.  Beneath the time, it read 4/1/1990. I was about to explode, when I heard Zelda say with satisfaction, “I made him cry.”

“I thought it would,” said Steve in the background. “Now call your…”

Click.  The phone went to the dial tone.

Now call your…? “Oh my God!”

I quickly dialed my ex-wife’s number, but it was busy.  “Shit! Shit! Shit!”  I pressed redial for what seemed like an eternity before she answered.  She was crying.

“It’s me.  Did Zelda just call you?”

“You bastard!  Bad enough you had her call me and break my heart.  Now you have to gloat.  I cut you once, and I’ll do it again if you ever speak to me again.”  She slammed the phone down so hard I feared she shattered it, and the cleaver scar that runs across my shoulders itched. It usually does when I think of her.  I rubbed and rolled my shoulders until it passed.  I still can’t sleep on my stomach anymore. I left them soon after that when she asked me to fixed a leak under the kitchen sink and found a can of gasoline and a box of wood matches.

Sometimes I see things people don’t want to know.

That was eighteen years ago.  I can understand that telling my ex those bad visions about her father were a mistake, but what did I ever do to drive Zelda away?  I’m a plumber and make a good living.  For her first fourteen years, I was home most nights.  Read her bedtime stories and took her on trips to the park, told her she was daddy’s little girl.  Then came the drugs and the lying started.

Perhaps, my ex was right.  I wasn’t open enough.  Watched too much TV, spent too much time fiddling with projects in the garage.  Maybe Zelda never forgave me for cancelling our vacation to Yosemite to lend a hand to move my mom into her new home when the old family farmhouse burned down.  Isn’t that what families do?  I did drink too much after the divorce, but never on Zelda’s weekends.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have bailed her out all those times or pay off the police with free plumbing.  Did that thing they called Tough Love.  I don’t know.  I just don’t know.

Then yesterday afternoon around two-thirty, I got this premonition that my grandson was calling me on my cell phone, but instead of picking it up too soon, I waited for it to play my ♫Think of Gus when you Flush♫ ringtone. “Gus Plumbing,” I said.

“Hello, Grandpa? This is Ernie.”  My heart soared because I’d been right, and I didn’t scare him off with my whoodoo-voodoo premonition. “I’m to deploy to Afghanistan”,” he told me, “and I will be passing through Farr Creek at noon tomorrow. Can we meet at the bus station?”

Of course I could.  I would climb mountains to see him.  I became so nervous that I couldn’t sleep last night, so I decided to sit down and write this out to clear my head.  Not that I would share with Ernie anything his mother did to his grandmother and me.  For all I know Zelda turned into a wonderful, loving parent.

I wrote the note above to myself three weeks ago and let it sit on the kitchen table untouched. Then I called Mom and talked to her about what happened next.  She suggested I finish the story.  That it would be therapeutic.  I did keep a journal in eighth grade.  Stuff I had premonitions about. I liked the writing process.  I think the word is introspective.  Listening to my own words made me feel good.  Then some kids found my journal, too many things came true, and Mom had to transfer me to a private school.  Oh well, customers sometimes tell me that I talk to myself while I work. Writing to myself is kind of the same thing, right?

Anyway, I couldn’t stand waiting for Ernie any longer in the house, so I drove over to the bus station six hours early.  To keep from going nuts, I took my tools into the men’s room and struck gold when I found several sinks had drips and one had a leak.  Since it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission, I set to work without telling the manger.  I fixed the sinks, but I still had hours to go, so I checked the toilets.  I was flat on my back tucked beside a toilet bowl as I tightened a tank bolt when the vision of my daughter as the redheaded, green-eyed monster hit me like a migraine headache.  Zelda stood on the pier overlooking the seals in San Diego as she dialed my phone number into her cell.

My guts churned.  I knew something terrible was about to happen, so I answered the call before ♫Think of Gus when you Flush♫ could play. “Hello, Ernie,” I said, trying to stay calm.  Not all my premonitions come true. Perhaps Zelda hadn’t just handed him the phone. “Can’t wait to see you.”

“Damn, Mom,” cried Ernie. “You’re right. He is a freak.”  Then to me he added, “April Fools, dickhead.” I glanced at the date on my cell phone.  It read April 1, 2008.  “Got him good, Mom. He’s crying like a baby.”  Click.

I held the phone in my hand and waited for my ex to call. For the first time I dreaded to hear my own jingle play.  Fortunately, I had closed the stall door, so my crying did not attract too much attention.  “Tears and bus stops are old friends,” my Mom says.  I shook my head, more frustrated than sad.  Both my ex and daughter could put any runway model to shame, yet on the inside… The scar running across my shoulders began to itch.

Think of Gus when you Flush.

I answered the phone and said, “I didn’t tell him to do tha…”

“You bastard!” my ex screamed. “I…”

I hung up.  Every plumber knows you have to turn off the spout before you can fix a leak. Meanwhile, there was nothing left for me to do, but do what I do.  I finished repairing the men’s room plumbing, and then called the customers I cancelled on to see if they still needed me. They did.  They always do. People don’t care you’re an oddball when their toilet’s clogged.

 

Part III – Dear Son Augustus

With her own arthritis screaming and her patience running out, Ms. Sandy Bennet hated to attend Mrs. Ritter, a terminally ill octogenarian.  Not that Mrs. Ritter was a mean old biddy, just the opposite.  She was sweet.  However, Mrs. Ritter would not let her do her job.

“Mrs. Ritter,” Sandy would say, “I need to give you a bath or you’re going to smell to high heaven.”

“No-no!” she would snap back at her. “My dear son, Augustus, will take care of it.

But of course, Dear Son Augustus never did. A plumber who was always on call, a stopped up toilet was more important than his mother was.

“Mrs. Ritter, the furnace is still broken.  Winter’s coming on.  You’ll freeze.  Let me call a repairman.”

“No-no!  My dear son, Augustus, will take care of it.”

Again, Dear Son Augustus never did.

Worse than Augustus’ absence, was his presence on the radio where he ran an ad that ended with the jingle, ♫Think of Gus when you Flush. The damn thing played over and over again in Sandy’s head.

“Mrs. Ritter, the bottom leg of your bed is still propped up with encyclopedias.  I can get you a new frame from the Salvation Army.”

“No-no!  My dear son, Augustus, will take care of it.”

Frustrated, Sandy reported each incident to her boss, Mr. Dunn, who passed on the complaint to Mrs. Ritter’s next-of-kin, Gus, with predictable results.

Think of Gus when you Flush

Nothing got done!

Think of Augustus when you Flush

After three months, Sandy couldn’t sit down to relieve herself without getting angry.

Then one cold October morning, as Mrs. Ritter lay in her lopsided bed, huddled beneath a faded pink quilt of dancing cherubs, Sandy asked, “Mrs. Ritter!  Who slapped you?”

“No one,” she said.

“I can still see the hand-print across your cheek.  We need to call the police.”

“No-no, my dear son, Augustus, will take care of it.”

“But he doesn’t!” Sandy exclaimed.

“He just has a lot on his mind,” said Mrs. Ritter. “Takes time for him to do what must be done.  Be patient with him.”

“But he slapped you.”

“Now Ms. Bennet,” said Mrs. Ritter as a schoolteacher might say to a child. “I did not say that.  Augustus will take care of everything in God’s good time.”

Sandy went outside to the front porch and prepared to press speed dial for the Ohio Department of Aging, but hesitated. She knew Mr. Dunn would fire her if she did not report the incident to him first.  Every caregiver she knew lived from hand to mouth, most a paycheck away from being homeless.  At stage 4, Mrs. Ritter’s cancer would soon send her to hospice.  Sandy returned her cell to her pocket.  Later, she caught Mr. Dunn leaving the office.

“If Mrs. Ritter says Gus will take care of it,” said Mr. Dunn, “then it is no longer our concern.”

“But this time Gus slapped her.”

“Can you prove that?”  Of course, she couldn’t. “Will Mrs. Ritter press charges?”  Of course, she wouldn’t. Mr. Dunn dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

Furious, Sandy slid into her car seat, slammed the door so hard the side view mirror rattled, and when she started the engine, the radio blared ♫Think of Gus when you Flush♫.  She lost it and beat her fist numb on the steering wheel.

That night in her trailer, she tossed and turned until an idea, simple in its brilliance, stuck; “I will break Mrs. Ritter’s toilet. Then Gus will have to come over.” Re-energized, she sat up half the night writing down a list of chores for him to do. Once he was in the bathroom, she would use her considerable girth to barricade the door.  “Perhaps…” she smiled to herself. “I’ll pin the note to his shirt like I did to forgetful preschoolers when I was an aid for Head Start.”

The next morning, armed with her note and a safety pin, Sandy arrived at Mrs. Ritter’s with a new resolve, but was immediately surprised to see Gus’s red, plumber’s van out front.  Perhaps he was finally fixing the furnace.  Even so, she needed a new plan to foil any getaway. She glanced up and down the quiet, tree-lined street.  No one was about. Quickly, she found a twig and flattened not one, but two of Gus’ tires by leaking the air out of the tire values.

Satisfied that even with his spare Gus could not escape, she marched into the house. “This time I’ll make him face the music!”

However, she did not find him downstairs or fixing the furnace in the basement.  Instead, she found him dressed in his dingy overalls and a bright white T-shirt, crying tears into his gray-pepper beard as he held a Bowie knife with both hands an inch above his mother’s heart.

“Gus!” screamed Sandy. “Stop!  I’m calling the police!”

Mrs. Ritter lay on her lopsided bed atop a plastic drop cloth, speckled with white paint, while the pink cherubs beneath it on the quilt danced. She wore her favorite blue print, cotton nightgown.  Startled by Sandy’s voice, Mrs. Ritter looked around the blade and smiled at her. “No-no,” she said to her. “My dear son, Augustus, will take care of it.”

Gus plunged the knife into his mother’s heart and held it there until the life seeped out of her.  Then he picked up the bedside phone and called the police.  When he hung up, he removed the knife from his mother’s chest and slit his own throat.

As his body slumped atop a plastic drop cloth spread out across the floor, his foot kicked the encyclopedias holding up the bed frame and volumes U, V and XYZ slipped out. The corner of the bed fell and spilled Mrs. Ritter’s body atop her son as if in an embrace.

Trembling, Sandy called Mr. Dunn at the home office.  As the phone rang, the jingle, ♫Think of Gus when you Flush played in her head like a needle stuck in the groove of an old vinyl album. She wondered what she would have done if her terminally ill mother asked her to kill her.  “I’d probably try to slap some sense into her, too.”

Mr. Dunn picked up. “Well,” he asked, “did he keep his promise this time?”

“Yes,” she said. “Dear Son Augustus took care of everything.”

Photo by Matt Lemmon.

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