Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Twenty-two—The Ministry of Responsibility

Elizabeth Profitt Pease thrived on challenge. Although but two years younger than Harry, Libby the kid sister cast a proprietary shadow over her brother since she was able to walk, form the necessary words and claim her place under an admonitory sun. Her brother was hard to control, a scapegrace, a challenge. Sixty years later and she still battled the forces of darkness for Harry’s soul. Harry grew wild and big in the shade of sister Libby’s intent. The arrival of Maggie, an amnesiac with a clean slate for Libby to write on, proved a welcome distraction for her brother. Libby found Maggie’s Upper West Side Manhattan accent exotic and therefore suspect. She took it upon herself to instruct Maggie in the niceties of social intercourse—when is a doily an antimacassar, which fork to use for salad and why lime jello with diced chicken parts and green grapes with an aerosol whipped cream topping is favored at covered dish suppers—things a savage islander would need to know to survive.

Over the passing months Libby’s suspicions that the young woman might be a Papist faded. “Everyday people,” as Libby said, giving Maggie her stamp of approval. “Down-to-earth,” “Amnesia,” said Libby’s compeers in The Daughters of Milo as they went about their good works. Libby’s affections were natural and unforced: here was a fresh challenge. Brother Harry rejoiced. That Libby Pease would open her heart to a voyager from parts possibly beholden to Rome—certainly foreign, the pink places on the map and therefore suspect—was less celebrated by Pen Harrington than it was by Harry.

The women planned things together and Pen, while grateful, felt left out. Not that there was jealousy as such, but a distancing: You go to your church, I’ll go to mine; but we’ll walk along together. Elizabeth Profitt Pease and Maggie Granola flourished rosy-cheeked in the starshine that was the younger woman’s reflected love—not quite young, certainly middle-aged, but nonetheless passionate.

“Well, now that Libby has after all these years found a new project,” David Morrissey had offered one afternoon at EAT, “It would appear that the heat is off for Harry.”

*  *  *

EAT. Cousteau McClonaghy thought that said it very nicely, a lure to gear-jammers, evocative of golden fries and truck stop mamas. We Serve Salada Tea was flocked into the screen door; the screen stayed up all winter, all summer, twelve months a year. The Salada Tea Company bought him the door 30 years before—a usufruct of cooperative advertising, he’d be damned if he’d take it down. Maybe some paint. Its highway department green was flaked down to the bare wood. Next year for sure. Cousteau was more poet than cook; his mom had named him after The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a daily event on the only television available during her confinement. It had been a long labor.

“Welcome back to the land of paper towels and howling bowels, David,” said Harriet Hopwood, playing the flirtatious waitress as she cruised their booth. “What’ll it be—coffee, tea or me?”

“I sense some tension here, but we are resigned to our mates and real people don’t do things like that except on TV. Besides, my wife’s father would have my guts on toast.”

Pen studied the daily specials. They really changed daily, but what Cousteau served up in the realm of desserts and entrees demonstrated no relation to what the public might want. The specials changed with no discernable pattern but the flow of the zodiac: Cousteau makes it, you eat it. You don’t eat it, Cousteau chucks it in the big green dumpster out back and is grumpy all next day. An organic farmer paid him twenty-five dollars to haul away the dumpster twice a week for composting. The specials were Dutch Apple, Cheese Cake, Date Squares, Grapenut Pudding, Bread Pudding. Pies: Coconut, Toll House. Lobster Roll $9.85. The lobster roll was mayonnaise salad with lobster meat on a toasted hot dog bun. The sign hung over a collection of the extra large styrofoam takeout cups with the waitresses’ names magic-markered on where they dumped their tips.

“Harriet, level with me, has anyone ever, ever in all your years of slinging hash in this excellent establishment, has anyone ever ordered the Grapenut Pudding?” Pen ordered coffee and a toasted English, Morrissey covered his half empty cup with his hand and waved Harriet off with the other. “Yes, indeed, the heat is off Harry. Probably for good and all; and there’s a story, probably apocryphal, making the rounds...” Harriet leaned close as Dim Lights went on with a conspiratorial stage whisper, “...that when Libby surprised the kids screwing on her parlor sofa, she was so enthralled by the spectacle of young love triumphant, she just slipped a doily under them to save her upholstery and made away to the kitchen to busy herself shucking peas until they were finished.”

“Be that as it may, she has let the papers lapse on Harry’s competency hearing and Harry’s shooting baskets and swilling beer as in time past, unmolested. A happy man.”

*  *  *

“Pennn... Hey!” Maggie splashed along the sidewalk, driving her overshoes with the balance of a cross-country skier. “Golly, Pen, wait up; I’m all out of breath.” She grabbed at Pen’s ears and, drawing down his face, kissed him roundly on the mouth. She exuded the crisp, tangy glow of health children have after playing out of doors. “Phew! Oh wow. Golly, Pen, nice spring day, eh?”

It was the next day and Pen was recovering from a night of bachelorhood; Libby being busy working out the kinks in Maggie’s bowling technique. Pen was in love with a woman who had no past, except for a little history inferred from a bus ticket issued in New York City—mocking laughter from a broad, answerless void. He checked on what little information they had and was stonewalled by the bus company. The ticket had been bought over the counter at the Port Authority, not from a travel agent. “We sell upward of sixty-thousand a day. You see what I’m saying?” Pen saw. The welter of indifferent humanity whose interlocking lives held the secret of her past had flowed together behind her, filling in her footprints. The threads of Maggie vanished into a transcontinental anonymity. It seemed too easy; the world had forgotten her. Did that mean she was his to keep? With so many places to look, why look anywhere?

Lost in the marvel of their couplings, his head pillowed between her breasts, he wondered at an odor of chocolate and mint.

“When I met you...”

“Yes.”

“You said something about a mission. And a Voice.”

“Did I.”

There had been a fishing-about for her new glasses. Swearing she had never worn glasses, Maggie had held out for less than a week, crashing into, down, and over obstructions till Pen packed her off to an optometrist. He figured her old glasses were languishing unclaimed somewhere in the visceral convolutions of the Atlantic BusWays Company. With some fussing she got them settled on her nose, stood on tiptoe and stared him in the eye.

“I guess I did. I remember that. I wish I knew what I meant by it, but don’t worry.”

Pen thought of Maggie as a gift tagged for some deserving soul, and here, gratifying his own worthless flesh. Intercepted, gone astray, a gift of the gods, perhaps unintended, her being here with him was a karmic miscarriage; too many questions might be apt to call this to the attention of donor or donors unknown who would surely want her back. A dark ferment of doubt struggled to make itself known, but Pen suppressed it. She smelled great right out of the shower.

“I was afraid I’d miss you.” They hadn’t seen each other for four hours. She had left him sleeping to go to work: new life, new job, the first week. “How’ve you been?”

“Holding back the ravages of middle age, which I choose to regard as an aphorism rather than a fact. Fifty years and holding.” Pen held his arms out and did a turn. “The demographic spike is right behind me, the doctors, dentists and accountants comforting in their numbers. But they are closing fast.” He kissed her again. “I’m headed to the gym.” On the days he was uninterruptedly sober, every day since the advent of Maggie, Pen was at the gym pushing the weights around.

A carload of cruising adolescents approached, sending up a tsunami of slush. They slowed and whistled. Maggie turned, smiled and waved back. The kids, partly paralyzed by six-pack beer and unused to receiving a response, slowed further to avoid splashing Maggie and Pen. They smiled, waved gaily back, and tooled off around the courthouse corner, sending up a shower on Bob Sawyer, the Happy Time Bread man.

Another kiss. “Can’t do lunch today, Pen. Dr. Morrissey is typing a report. Maybe I can slip away later.” David Lewis Morrissey, a.k.a. Dim Lights Morrissey, wasn’t doing the typing, Maggie was. And it was not a report; it was David’s Ph.D. thesis disguised as grant proposals. He was two years late getting it in. David used the ‘Doctor’ as a courtesy while he produced his overdue homework on company time with company employees doing the grunt work. Maggie worked at a word processor at the university extension. She had fallen right into the job and made herself at home, a natural.

“David Lewis Morrissey, almost Ph.D. Right-O, sweetheart. See you tonight.” A peck on the lips, and Maggie crossed the street.

Pen watched her retreat to the office with dreamy delight. Pen liked to look at Maggie. In an age of one-size-fits-all panty hose and shrug-in brassieres, Maggie favored silk stockings and a garter belt, usually with knit sheaths. On her they looked good: straps and harnesses in bas-relief, a grand and reassuring sight. In a seamless world it was a solace to catch glimpses of female foundations.

Pen slopped across Main Street through the salt, gravel, and loose brown ice mix and hiked the two blocks toward Canada on the sunny side of the street. Maybe some coffee. Sure. Hold the Danish.

Slop, slop—galoshes on a sidewalk wet with spring ice melt. Willipaq, Maine: a sleepy border town, population four thousand souls. The big excitement in Willipaq aside from the arrivals of the new rental videos on alternate Wednesdays was an infrequent hot pursuit by the Mounties. Canada and the United States maintained a tentative mutual presence at three bridges and two ferry landings. Drug sniffing dogs and excise officers alike grew fat on takeout food.

Penfield Harrington slopped along, collar up, chin hunkered down into his mackinaw, with the isolation of his thoughts and his own galoshes’ noise. Pen stopped at the curb and reconnoitered, listening to see if there was anything catching up with him. He ducked behind a light pole and avoided a shower of slush as the bakery truck passed. He checked the other side of the pole where, shoulder high, slush trickled dispiritedly back to the gutter. The Mounties got their man no more often, nor less, than the Happy Time Bread man, and they, too, were courteous and friendly.

The Happy Time Bread man warped his tonnage into a hubcap-deep berth in front of the Cousteau Diner. The driver was Bob Sawyer, part-time deputy, a county mountie. “Hiya, Pen. Sorry about that. I saw you duck behind that pole. Did I get you?”

“Hiya, Bob. Missed me this time; I am developing a sixth sense. How’s the basketball?”

“Just great. Game Tuesday night. Come on out.” He swung down from the high cab.

“We’ll see.” Bob always asked; Pen always deferred—the worn convivialities of winter with the earth not yet warm but the smell of spring in the air. Bob undogged the back latch, rolled up the gate, and slid out a stack of wire racks. Pen balanced on the running board and leaned into the cab; Bob’s badge was pinned to the truck’s sun visor, his gun belt rolled up under the high seat. “Just checking to see if you’re armed. Glad to know you’re on duty.”

“I’m always on duty.” Thirty years and he had never drawn his gun outside of pistol practice. He delivered babies and talked drunks out of trees, the kind of cop that made folks comfortable just knowing he was around. Violent crime seemed to resolve itself before anybody thought of calling the sheriff. Either that or the State Police showed up; they had the radio cars and the base station. And a good pension plan. Deputies had been known to lust after the dispatcher’s job.

Bob shouldered his load and turned toward a flashing blue neon sign. EAT. “Going to Cousteau’s?”

“Yep.” Pen hopped down.

Bob Sawyer weaseled his toe under the Salada Tea screen door and pulled it open with his foot. Pen caught it and held it for him. Bob and his bread passed through.

Pen stuck his head around the door hoping for a clear shot at the geezer’s table. Cousteau and his cronies held forth there from 7:30 to 9:00 every morning but Sunday, spilling coffee and shoveling eggs, deciding on how the world would go. Cousteau McClonaghy had a table radio always on by the cash register, an old five tube AM set that had heard Roosevelt declare war. He had had it rewired so the jukebox piped through the speaker. The geezers listened and pondered. Public opinion never slept. Cousteau was sensitive to the pulse of the street and he and his pals programmed the jukebox by what their old moms liked to hear, country tunes, Lawrence Welk, and light classical. The geezers had adjourned and the field was Pen’s by default.

In gumboots and tweeds Dim Lights Morrissey straddled a stool at the counter. Morrissey was a very married man—a walking advertisement for stir-fry veggies, watching the cholesterol and regular exercise on the bicycle to nowhere, doing situps and leglifts. With his hawk-like features and shock of distinguished graying hair the coeds just loved him. “Hiya, Pen.” Morrissey rumbled from deep in his abdomen, putting elbows to the formica. He sported leather patches at the elbows of a tweedy Norfolk jacket, English country house weekend shooting wear.

“Hiya, David”

“Jesus!” A shout accompanied by a crash of crockery. A tray of dishes and a slippery melt spot on the floor had connected and sent Cousteau flying ass-over-teakettle.

“We’ve got trouble.” Morrissey caught a motion in the corner of his eye and winced, abruptly changing the subject—whatever trouble there was, was private business. Pen brightened considerably at the prospect of trouble. If Morrissey had a worry, things were looking up. Before Maggie the catalog of his life had achieved a stultifying sameness which, when he thought about it, slid him into a brown depression. Trouble, eh? Manageable trouble, the kind talked around by friends at a diner counter? They could handle it. He was ready.

Morrissey winked to announce the arrival of a public nuisance and swung a wide tangent in mid-sentence. “...that here we face the elements unafraid and scratch a living from the unyielding soil by hunting, fishing and trapping small foreign automobiles which, just as in the big cities, we strip for parts. Oh, hiya, Barney. The parts go in the freezer against future need. We are good stewards of the land.”

“Hiya, Pen.” Barney Tinker, the local redneck. The hunting season was months past, but now as then, Barney was aggressively cruising the tables hoping for a little action. His shooting iron set by, he stalked with but mother wit and guile, exercising the mystique that clings to a moose lottery winner. Barney crept up on wary diners, singling out likely prey, loners, the weak and aged. Suspecting a jibe, Barney gave Morrissey the sugar-frosted, glassy stare that meant David had used more than one subordinate clause in direct address. Last October after his ticket had come up lucky in the moose lottery Barney went everywhere with a Marlin 30.30 in a cloth-suede bag and wearing a blaze orange cap. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Bambi. Seventy thousand entries, but only one thousand were picked to fill the air with bullets during the one week allotted to plugging the emperor of the woods. Barney was not known for a crack shot and had returned mooseless. There had been an incident with a snowmobile. Barney said the sled had surprised him and he had taken it out by reflex. The occupants survived.

Morrissey bypassed the snub. “How much magic can one man stand? Hiya, Barney.”

“Magic, huh? You doing ventriloquism tricks today, Pen?” He didn’t get it. He never did. “That dummy next to you is talking and I didn’t see your lips move.” Barney Tinker taught Drivers Ed. and coached basketball at Willipaq High. An ambitious man, he had his sights on a larger franchise, maybe lunch room monitor.

“Hey, Pen,” he interrupted himself, a bad habit formed with captive listeners in Drivers Ed. He forgot what he meant to say and yelled at the proprietor, “Hey, Cousteau, I hear you got some Canadians working over here, that true?”

“Been memorizing license plates again, Barney?” asked David. David turned to Pen to explain. “Barney is exercised about foreigners taking jobs from sons of the native soil. He sees a slippery ladder to tenure as attendant faculty in the lunch room.”

Barney continued relentlessly. “You play some real American music on that radio and those Canucks will stop eating here and they’ll get the UCLA after you.” Barney was a big basketball fan, and they got his drift. He meant The ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, not The University of California at Los Angeles.

“Heh. Heh.”

Morrissey and Harrington laughed along with Barney, acknowledging his zinger. “It’s a free country, Barney, you’re welcome to your opinion.” The appeal to patriotism worked. He moved on.

“Not bad,” said Morrissey, “But he still thinks it’s the UCLA.” He handed over a clipping. “Get a look at this item. Let this be my entry into the morning’s compendium of comfort and joy. Space aliens are after Harry Pease.”

He handed over a quarter column display ad from the Willipaq News, published twice a month.

REWARD
For information leading to the arrest and cooperation in the prosecution of: The Person(s) whose telepathic control and surveillance of my mind, body and home totally deprives me of liberty and does and has subjected me to slavery, peonage, house arrest and imprisonment, mental and physical assaults and injuries and systematic deprivation of my civil, political and human rights: $1000 (one thousand dollars). Serious inquiries about the conditions for payment of this reward will be answered promptly. Letters should include a stamped return envelope. Collect phone calls will not be accepted.

Harry Pease, Esq.

“They said Einstein was crazy and he discovered relativity. And then they said Harry Pease was crazy.”

“And, sure enough, Harry was,” rumbled Dim Lights.

“Well, I dunno, space aliens living in my teapot would get me a mite distracted, too.”

“Harry Profitt Pease is truly one of God’s innocents and a good basketball shot to boot. Something is very, very strange with this. More than beer and booze.” Morrissey grew pensive. “A finely disorganized mind of Harry’s quality would never pull a stunt at this level.”

“Well, his sister ‘looks in’ on him two, three times a week to see if he has frozen or starved to death, or fallen down drunk and let the stove go out. You are arguing that we shouldn’t go over and reconnoiter Harry’s condition?”

“Hardly. This,” Morrissey smoothed the clipping, flattening it out on the countertop, “speaks of serious mental problems. Our Harry has gone over the edge. If he is seeing space aliens or whatever and starts taking potshots with that cannon of his, that’s all his sister needs to have him put away. A personal visit is called for.” David was not impressed by Pen’s assessment of their potential danger. “Could be delirium. Harry gets blind, stinking, falling down drunk when he kills pigs—about a six-pack of half-quart cans per pig. At that rate he can’t have enough brain cells left to wind a watch. He needs help, Pen.”

“Booze has its own rhythm; when he hits his limit, he passes out. Suppose we go? We burp him, then administer psychotherapy?”

“This,” David tapped the clipping, “is a call for help. Drunk or sober, Harry loves company and is amenable to reason.”

David smoothed the clipping again, then folded it, halving and quartering it with the edge of his hand, ironing the creases. He flashed Harriet a sign for more coffee. She returned a dazzling toothpaste smile and retreated to the kitchen. Coffee would come in its own good time.

“On a second reading, Harry is nuts.”

“Harry is nuts and a friend. This is a problem calling for a creative solution. Are you suggesting we should drop a sack over Sister Elizabeth and let Harry go on his merry way?”

“Harry is nuts but harmless. Even if Libby doesn’t see this notice in the paper, her phone will be ringing off the wall. Libby has been trying to get Harry declared incompetent for years, and now her well-wishers will be on the horn to rub her nose in it. Libby is sensitive to public opinion.”

“He’s an embarrassment and she wants him locked away downstate.” Morrissey dropped a donut in his cup and placed a saucer over it, demonstrating incarceration. He tried spearing the donut out with his fork, but it disintegrated.

There were premonitory clatters and rustlings from behind the swinging kitchen doors. With the self-absorbed balance of a whitewater rafter—a forward lean with one shoulder high, a calculated swing of her pelvic girdle that pulled her center of gravity along the line of her forward momentum—Harriet hit the door. Her hips shot forward, a contained writhing, knees slightly flexed. There was a breathless instant with everything on hold, her heavy tray piled with steaming crockery high in the air. The tray as wide as the door glided forward; this was Harriet’s moment. Miniature hydraulics buried in the doors wheezed; the laws of physics were in abeyance. A rearward calculated slap with a hip, a forward nudge with a knee, and the swinging doors paused open, just wide enough for Harriet and her tray. The tray moved forward on a perfect horizontal line parallel to the sum of all her motions, never wavering, the acme of precision. With Harriet safe on the other side, the doors swung shut. One defiant, final thrust and she snapped her hips back to catch the closing doors, quieting their return. Harriet shouldered forward with the overfull tray, steaming mounds of pancakes, ham and home fries erupting tiny geysers through the vents of silver domed lids.

“I am a man with a happy home life, but I never tire of watching Harriet.” Morrissey leaned forward over the counter and fumbled for the garbage barrel. He dumped his coffee with the wreckage of the donut into the trash. “From time to time the inner man requires stronger medicine than is served up from an electric wok.” He signaled for a refill on the coffee. Harriet caught the sign and nodded. She executed a pirouette and set the tray down at the coffee service to load up for the rest of her trip. Morrissey sighed. “Poetry in motion—stick a strobe on her ass and you’d get perfect lazy-eights.”

Pen, too, was appreciative. “Consummate balletic performance, the Roller Derby in sensible shoes.”

“Freeze!”

Harriet was on her hands and knees, slapping at the floor.

“Don’t anybody move!”

Evoking SWAT teams from prime time TV, even the superb Harriet was captive to the human condition.

“Contact lenses!”

Harriet caught up with her dropped lens and retired to the back to rinse it off.

“We have been witnesses to perfection: flawed and poignant, but perfection, nonetheless. Even the divine Harriet has her vulnerabilities and flaws, but a dropped contact lens doesn’t get her into Harry’s league. Harry Pease is going for the big time.” David helped himself to coffee and spooned in sugar. “This could be serious. This thing in the newspaper will be all Libby needs for hailing Harry into court.”

“Are you suggesting that you and I assume a ministry of responsibility to see that Harry remains at large?”

“A committee of two.”

“Okeh, we go visiting. First I go home for a shower and a shave. I’m still grubby from the weekend. Meet you back here in an hour?”

“You’re on.”

Bubbling with news and smelling like a new Spring day, Maggie avalanched into the restaurant. When it was break time and Dim Lights wasn’t around, she just turned on the answering machine and closed the office. “You know,” said Maggie as she insinuated herself into the booth, eager to share. “You know that Harry Pease has a new pet?”

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