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Black death on the living-room floor.


Back yonder in the Jurassic Age when I was courting her in the hammock-lands of South Florida, she told me the story of The One, You Know, Who Ate the Doily.

This remarkable incident, which demonstrates one of the special vagaries of the human race, dated back to her high-school days in a small town in middle Missouri. There was an afternoon party for girls of the sophomore class. One girl--let us call her Myrt Bagnell--achieved irrevocable immortality at that party, solely through accident. There were small plates, and in each plate a tiny lacy-edged paper doily, and on the doily a mound of strawberry ice cream. Miss Myrt Bagnell came of good stock--quality, you might say--but she was a high-strung, nervous girl, self-conscious in public yet eager to make a good impression. So she ate the ice cream, and then she ate the doily.

From that unhappy day forward she was often pointed out, especially to visitors in the town. Everyone knew the story, and she was often referred to as The One, You Know, Who Ate the Doily. She was, in a sense, the town's celebrity. That's the way it goes in life--one little no-account doily, and a girl is marked for life.

I did not visit my wife's hometown until many years later. When we did finally make it, I expected to find a community of retired rubes and snuffdipping chawbacons. Not so. It was a neat, trim, well-ordered town of neat, trim, well-ordered people. They gave a party for us at the home of a prominent businessman, and after things had started rolling, a handsome woman came up the granitoid walk and entered the house. Immediately people began congregating around me and whispering, "Here she comes. The one, you know, who ate the doily.' They knew I had expressed an interest in this lady, and so I made her acquaintance and found her to be witty and intelligent and charming. I confess that I felt some compassion for her, because I knew that the misadventure of the doily would follow her unrelentingly to the grave.

Still, down through the years I continued to josh my wife about the caliber of the people who lived in her hometown, with special reference always to The One, You Know, Who Ate the Doily. Then I began, in a figuratives sense, to eat a whole series of paper doilies.

One of the first incidents was The Awful Night of the Ball-Peen Hammer. We were living in a small house in a commuter town snuggled up against the Hudson River. One night I was awakened by a noise below stairs, a rattling sound as if someone were trying to force open a door. I got out of bed and went to a window and noted that no wind was blowing. I thought of wakening my wife, so she could witness my heroics, but I didn't do it. I crept down the stairs in my bare feet, made a left turn into the kitchen, gentled open a closet door, groped inside and came out with a ball-peen hammer in my grip. I hefted it a couple of times, noting its nice balance. What a weapon! Armed with that hammer alone, I felt that I could have won for Custer at Little Bighorn.

Now I heard the rattle again, and I moved slowly into the living room and glanced toward the front door. There was a quarter moon. I could move about without banging into furniture, and I could detect shadowy objects outdoors. The front door was a full-length sheet of plate glass, and as I fixed my eyes on it, I detected something moving on the porch. I moved slowly across the room, hammer poised, ready for a skull-shattering blow.

As I inched closer to the door I was able to get a better idea of The Presence outside. It was a man, all right. I could only see him as a blob of ectoplasm, but he was there. He was not aware of the trap that was being set for him, because he was now creeping up close to the door. I continued moving forward. Never before or since have I displayed such magnificent courage. I shudder and chill today just thinking about it.

I now arrived within a couple of feet of the plate glass, and he was within striking distance on the other side of the door. I thought I saw his hand move toward the doorknob. I began talking in a low voice, something on this order: "All right, you dirty so-and-so, you asked for it.'

I poised myself on the bare balls of my feet, moved the hammer backward a couple of inches to increase the murderous arc, took a deep breath, tensed my muscles and--

Somebody grabbed my arm from behind and cried, "No! Don't . . . Don't . . . do it!'

I almost fainted. I let out a yowl of pure fright and turned, and in the dimness saw it was may wife. I shrieked at her and whirled around to tackle the intruder on the porch. My wife now yelled at me: "There's nobody out there! You were about to hit your own reflection in the glass!'

I couldn't believe it for a moment, couldn't believe that I had been so stupid, but then I saw that it was true. I had broken out in a cold sweat and I was trembling. I turned on the light and went to the kitchen and fixed a beverage. Not tea.

After that, whenever I maligned my wife's native town in company with the tale of The One, You Know, Who Ate the Doily, she would retaliate with a detailed account of The Awful Night of the Ball-Peen Hammer.

It was a sort of game, and I didn't particularly enjoy playing it. I knew I had a job ahead of me. I had to catch her in one, a real good one, a classic piece of domestic blundering. But years went by, and although her mistakes were beyond numbering, they were all quite minor-league. Mean-while I, the perfect man, embarked on a series of bumbling botcheries that could only be explained by eccentric sunspots, voodoo or a heady infusion of strontium 90. I remember especially painfully the case of The Red Rain from Outer Space.

One day I was sitting on a stone wall beside the driveway when I noticed that the top of the wall was sprinkled over with a strange, brownish, granular substance. I picked up a few of the grains and examined them, and crumbled them, and I now saw that they were spread evenly all along the top of the wall. It was obvious that they had fallen from somewhere, rained down on my premises. I thought back to Charles Fort and his theories about teleportation--rains of strange objects from outer space. The more I speculated on the phenomenon, the more I found myself thinking in Fortean, supernatural terms. I walked around to the kitchen door and spoke to my wife.

"Look at these,' I said, extending my hand. She looked at them.

"Most astonishing thing,' I said. "This stuff must have rained out of the sky. I've eliminated every other possibility--and I'm the guy who poked fun at old Charles Fort.'

"Where did you find it?' my wife wanted to know, unimpressed.

"It's scattered all over the top of the stone wall,' I told her.

She started laughing. "You are a dope,' she said. "What you've got there is nothing but stale Grape-Nuts. I sprinkled them out for the birds.'

I thought I'd never be able to live that one down--me, the raucous crusader against superstition in all its forms. I still hadn't trapped her in a single misadventure that could compare, in dramatic quality, to the mounting list of my own. And then just recently I added another. We were watching a play on television. The telephone rang, and I picked it up and said, "Hello.' Nothing. Nobody. A dial tone. My wife leaned back and howled with laughter. It had been, of course, a phone ringing in the TV show.

Later that same evening it happened. I recall that I went to the kitchen and got a thick slice of watermelon and brought it back to the living room. As I savored the melon's rich and juicy sweetness, I considered how things had been shaping up. I could never win. I was trying in my mind to formulate the terms of an armistice. I would never again kid her in public about the I.Q. of those people in Missouri, about The One, You Know, Who Ate the Doily.

Our house is surrounded by meadow and deep forest. We are continually subject to invasion by small varmints --field mice, little black spiders, small crickets of an ebony color, occasional beetles. Whenever we spot one of these creatures parading insolently across the floor, we move fast and pounce. We swat them, or slam down a sheet of tissue on them. If they are moving fast we stomp them.

So, suddenly my wife put her book aside and stood up. She had spotted a dark invader off to her left. She moved swiftly and stomped. "Got him!' she said, and stomped hard a second time, and then a third just to make certain. Now she grabbed a piece of tissue, picked up the corpse and examined it. Her expression of triumph faded. It was a shiny, black watermelon seed that had somehow squirted away from me. I had her at last. Oh, how I had her! The armistice is now in effect. I am no longer to mention The One, You Know, Who Ate the Doily. She in turn is not to tell of The Awful Night of the Ball-Peen Hammer, or of The Red Rain from Outer Space.

And finally I have solemnly agreed that I will never tell about The One, You Know, Who Stomped the Water-melon Seed to Death.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:satire
Author:Smith, H. Allen
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1985
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