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René Houtrides

Gremlin on Halloween


     In Flossie’s family of dog lovers, no one liked Mama’s Japanese Chin—a lap-size black-and-white spaniel with a mushed-in snout through which he snivel-snore-wheezed; of the requisite two eyes, one that wandered (typical of his breed); a feathery tail; an enthusiasm for drooling; and a stubborn temperament. Flossie read the literature about its being a noble dog but wasn’t buying the story, any more than she would have agreed to the purchase of the dog itself. But Flossie hadn’t been there the day, several years ago, when Mama, on her own, procured the pooch from a pet emporium after an “oodgie- boodgie-sweetie-pie” moment at a storefront window. If Flossie had been there, she would have stopped Mama. Flossie would have clocked the red-flag warning of the dog’s sneaky drifting eye, staring out at passing pedestrians, on the lookout for a sucker. Not that Flossie blamed the dog. He was the product of a puppy mill and had never been properly socialized. 

     Mama had never had a dog before, had opened the gate (just a crack?) to the senility garden, and was in absolutely no condition to develop, all of a sudden, the capacity to train an animal—especially not a willful one with developmental challenges. So, the family was set up for a perfect storm, a la canine. Carol, Flossie’s sister, who lived in Westchester, had intervened long enough to (by some miracle) housebreak the critter. 

     The dog’s name. Gremlin. Bad choice. Mama’s. 

     Flossie had scheduled a sorta-kinda family reunion, to take place in her Upper West Side apartment on a Saturday, coincidentally Halloween. Flossie’s boyfriend (odd formulation for referring to an adult male), name of Hugo, had originally planned to be there. But he’d been called out of the country unexpectedly. He was a television journalist and, therefore, subject to sudden assignments—in this case, attending the funeral of one of the world’s flamboyantly assassinated autocrats. With Hugo not around to help, and in order to reduce the number of chores that had to be accomplished on the day of, Carol had gone to Mama’s house in Bronxville the evening before (Mischief Night, Devil’s Night) and had subsequently deposited Mama for a sleepover at Flossie’s. 

     “Mama forgot one of her hearing aids,” Carol blurted out just as she was leaving Flossie’s apartment. 

     “Whoa. Whoa. Wait. Wait a minute, what do you mean?”
     “I mean she forgot one of...”
     “No. I heard that part. I’m not the deaf one. How am I supposed to communicate with her?”

     “She has one of her hearing aids. It’s just the other one that she didn’t bring.” 

     “So, I can talk to her?”
     “If she puts the hearing aid in and turns it on.”
     “Yeah, she doesn’t really like to wear it all the time. Bye, Flossie.” 

     And Carol had disappeared. 

     Flossie filled a shallow bowl with water for the dog. As she leaned down to place the bowl on the floor, Gremlin gave her that cross-eyed look, the one that would have alerted Flossie had she been present on the day the dog had gulled Mama. He growled at Flossie. 

     “Hey!” Flossie said. “No!”
     “He’s not growling,” said Mama. “He’s just talking to you.”
     Flossie begged to differ. She refused to refer to Gremlin’s vocalizations as “talking.” 

     The dog radiated another sneer. Flossie opted for ignoring him.

     “How about a little dinner, Mama? You just sit down and relax, and I’ll fix us something.”

     Flossie put on music while she made dinner. Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie II” and then Segovia playing some Shubert. Meanwhile, Mama napped, sitting upright on the couch. Gremlin also snoozed, curled on the rug, until Flossie made her next selection—a Mozart Rondeau. With the first note, Gremlin rose to his paws, vigilant, cocked his muzzle jauntily to one side, and sang. Sang, meaning sang. To call what he was doing “howling” would have cheapened what was happening. The dog was clearly moved! Moved to sing. He was not wailing, yowling, barking, or whining. He certainly was not hollering. Flossie felt a twitch of wonder. What was emerging from that fake-ruby-collared throat was a weeping moan, a passionate melody that matched Mozart’s air. It continued throughout the next four minutes of the piece. 

     “He likes Mozart,” said Mama, who’d been awakened by the concert. 

     “Only Mozart?” 

     “Only Mozart. He doesn’t care about other music.” 

     This was a theory Flossie had to test. She put on the Beatles (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”). Gremlin went back to sleep. Next, she tried a chunk of the overture to La Traviata. Nothing. Reggae (“Many Rivers to Cross”). No reaction. Snippets of Joni Mitchell, Zydeco, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bach. Gremlin snorfled in his sleep. Flossie put on Mozart again, a symphony this time. Gremlin bounced up and crooned. It was the only beautiful thing about Gremlin that Flossie had ever seen or, rather, heard. She observed the dog with new respect. She went over to pat him. He scowled and yapped obnoxiously at her. 

     After dinner, Mama looked tired, so Flossie offered to take Gremlin on his final walk of the day. When she approached the dog with his leash, he nipped at her hand. 

     “He likes it better if I put his leash on,” said Mama.
     “Fine with me.”
     On the elevator, Flossie realized, in a state of new post-Mozart empathy, that, to Gremlin, an elevator must be a paranormal event. You walk into a room. The door closes. When the door opens again, you’re in a different place. Mysterious. Sci Fi. 

     Out on the street, a woman and her preschooler drew near. The little girl leaned off of her mother’s arm, eager to reach the dog. 

     “Does he like children?” the mother asked.
     “I can’t say that he does.”
     “Can I pet him?” asked the child.
     The mother looked at Flossie. Flossie shook her head. Gremlin grumbled. 

     “Maybe next time,” said the mother, removing her daughter. 

     The minute Flossie returned from her outing with Gremlin, Mama concluded that it was time for the day to come to an end. She indicated her decree by tapping Flossie on the shoulder and announcing that Flossie was, without delay, to “go beddy- bye.” It was barely 8:30 p.m. 

     “Did you just say ‘beddy-bye’ to me?” 

     “Nighty-night,” Mama offered as a compromise, having sensed Flossie’s objection to ‘beddy-bye.’ 

     Flossie was, like her “boyfriend” Hugo, a journalist. In addition to their relationship, they each had careers that mattered to them. That was one of the reasons they got along so well. Even in light of the mutual support she and Hugo relished, Flossie considered herself reasonably self-confident and self-reliant. Sometimes those two things were difficult. Very difficult. As her reward, Flossie felt entitled, at minimum, to the full benefits owed her for her independence. And one of those benefits, by God, was that Mama could not come into Flossie’s house and tell her, at 8:30, that it was bedtime. Flossie was 50 years old! The vehemence of her emotional response to Mama’s mandate sent Flossie the unavoidable news that, despite worldly competence, she was still a toddler around Mama. Flossie rebelled. She stayed up until 11 p.m. 

     The first thing Mama said the next morning, as she emerged from the guest bathroom—Flossie had heard the toilet flush but did not hear any subsequent handwashing—was, “Flossie, the shower is very small.” 

     “Well, I thought you’d like to use that shower, Mama, because it’s a stall; you don’t have to climb over a tub to get into it.” 

      “It’s a very small bathroom. It’s not really a bathroom. It’s more of a water closet.” 

     “I’m sorry. If it’s too small, you should use the larger bathroom. It’s roomier. The only thing is you’ll have to step over the tub to get into the shower, if that’s alright with you.” 

     “I don’t want to bother you.”
     “It’s no bother. I want you to be comfortable.”
     “No, I’ll just use the small shower.”
     Count to ten is the archetypal counsel.
     “OK. How about coffee, Mama?”
     “Yes, please.”
     “How many cups would you like?”
     “Oh, don’t make coffee just for me.”
     “That’s how I make coffee. I always make fresh cups. How many cups should I make for you?” 


     “Just one?”
     “Just one.”
     “Should I take Gremlin out for a morning walk first?”
     “No. He waits until after I’ve had breakfast.”
     “And what would you like to eat for breakfast?”
     “Oh, don’t worry about me. I don’t need anything special. Just a hard-boiled egg.” 

     “It’s no trouble, Mama.”  

     “Mm huh, just a regular hard-boiled egg. You know how to make a hard-boiled egg?” 

     “I believe I do,” Flossie said, noticing that her own voice had a higher pitch than usual. 

     “Yes. It’s simple. You boil the egg for four minutes and 23 seconds and then you put it immediately in cold water.” 

     “Uh, OK. I’ll set the timer for four minutes.”
     “No! No! Four minutes and 23 seconds.”
     Flossie, in her bathrobe, wondered if she owned a stopwatch. Or maybe Hugo had one? Stashed in the night table by the bed?

     “And then immediately in cold water,” said Mama.
     Flossie did set the timer for four minutes and, after it buzzed, stood over the bubbling saucepan, obediently chanting, “One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi. Five Mississippi...” 

     After 23 Mississippis, as Flossie plunged the high-maintenance egg in cold water, Mama tottered in, carrying her empty cup. 

     “Flossie, is there any more coffee?” 

     “Um, I thought you wanted only one cup. You want another cup? I’ll make some.” 

     “Oh, don’t make coffee just for me.”
     Flossie made two more cups of coffee and watched Mama drink both of them. 

     When Flossie retreated (to the large bathroom) to get washed and dressed, she ascertained that Mama had been in there, had left the toilet cover up and, having also opened the medicine cabinet, had accidentally dropped several items from the cabinet into the open toilet. Flossie retrieved a submerged bottle of aspirin, an immersed tube of hand lotion, and an inundated deodorant stick that belonged to Hugo, and threw them in the trash. 

     On her transition from this mission, Flossie heard a clattering coming from the direction of the kitchen cabinets. Mama was up on her tippy toes. Even pre-shrinkage Mama had been a tiny woman and, if her current pace continued, was guaranteed to attain microscopic. She was stretching for a dish on a way-too-high shelf and had managed to budge an entire stack forward. The dishes hovered and rattled at their center-of-gravity fulcrum, about to crash to the tile floor. Flossie scurried over. 

     “Mama, I already set the breakfast table. Your plate is out there waiting for you.” 

     “No thank you. I’m going to use this plate.”
     “OK. OK,” Flossie said, liberating Mama’s plate of choice, which bore a suspicious likeness to ones Flossie had already set out.

     By the way, the toaster oven was on fire. When questioned, Mama denied having so much as touched that appliance. Flossie beat the flames out with a potholder.

     On her way to the table, Flossie passed the wall of family photos. There was Mama, a youthful woman in a picture taken pre–WWII. Mama, before she was a mother. A stylishly art-deco beauty in Katherine Hepburn slacks. The totality was a far cry from this morning’s slope-postured disheveled old woman clomping behind Flossie in fuzzy slippers. Flossie couldn’t understand how anyone as diminutive as Mama could clomp. But clomp, she did. In fuzzy slippers. If Flossie had taken sacks of meat and slapped them, step to step, down steep stairs, she could duplicate the energy with which Mama clomp, clomp, clomped. Of course, Mama wasn’t sacks of meat; she was Mama. But in her corporeal life she had become, by now, mere dull flesh. 

     Carol showed up, with her teenage son, Tony. She was just in time to accompany Mama on Gremlin’s morning saunter. Flossie stayed home, screamed silently into the kitchen sink and then tried, without luck, to phone Hugo. She longed for a dose of his easy-going tact or a smidgeon of transglobal commiseration. Flossie’s nephew, Tony, had also opted out of the dog walk and (possibly) oblivious to any household friction had wedged himself into the sofa in a position that looked to Flossie to be anatomically impossible. He wore his recently purchased cellphone and earpods and was swinging one long and newly hairy leg. 

     As Carol and Mama re-entered the apartment, Carol said, “Mama, I forgot to ask you. How are you enjoying your little visit so far?” 

     “Your visit. How are you enjoying it so far?”
     “Mama. Where is your hearing aid? MAMA! MAMA! WHERE IS YOUR HEARING AID?”

     Carol was discovering what Flossie had already learned: that it’s virtually impossible to yell toward someone without yelling at them.

     “My what?” 

     “I can’t find my hearing aid.” 

     “On the table.
     Flossie looked.
     “It’s not here,” Flossie said.
     “FLOSSIE SAYS IT’S NOT THERE,” said Carol. 

     “I wrapped it,” said Mama. 

     “Wrapped it?” Flossie asked.
     “WRAPPED IT IN WHAT?” bellowed Carol.
     “In the paper napkin I used.”
     “Oh, no, I cleared the table already,” Flossie said and then fished the coffee-grounds-crusted hearing aid out of the garbage.

     “What were you saying before?” Mama asked, once the cleaned yellow hearing aid had been installed in her equally yellow ear.

     “I was asking how your visit is going,” said Carol, defeat in her voice.
     “The shower is too small,” said Mama.
     “Why don’t you use the larger shower in the main bathroom?” Carol said.
     “I don’t want to be a bother.”
     “Alright,” said Carol.
     “The shower is very small,” Mama perseverated. “Very small.”
     “What time are Flappy and Laura getting here from New Jersey?” Carol asked Flossie, shifting the discussion.

     Flappy (nicknamed for his big ears) was their brother. Laura was his wife. 

     “Flappy said he’d be here by four. But you know Flappy, he’s always late,” Flossie said. 

     Mama, who had a record of perfect auditory acuity on matters pertaining to Flappy, came to her 56-year-old first-born baby’s immediate defense. 

     “Flappy is always prompt,” she said, overlooking decades of evidence to the contrary. 

     Carol and Flossie rolled their eyes at one another.
     “Mama’s in a huff,” Carol said.
     “In a huff. That’s an economy-size car, isn’t it?” Flossie said, starting an associative jag. “As opposed to ‘leaving in droves’—which involves piling onto a tour bus.” 

     “You’re absolutely right,” said Carol. “A huff is more like ‘being in a snit.’” 

     “A snit’s a foreign car,” Flossie said.
     “Correct,” Carol agreed. “Very fuel efficient.”
     “How about leaving in a fit of pique?” Flossie asked. 

     “A fit of pique is a two-seater convertible,” said Carol.
     “Ah, a muscle car. I get it,” Flossie said.
     Flappy and Laura arrived, two hours late, carrying a single box of cookies— maximum weight, by Flossie’s assessment, 5 ounces—in a triple layer of plastic shopping bags. And, as a gift for Flossie, a poster of a kitten suspended by one claw from a laundry line and, judging by its facial expression, mewing pitifully. “Hang in There” the poster recommended. The gift poster (also triple-plastic-bagged) evidenced a complete and total disregard for Flossie’s tastes and personality. She hated the expression “hang in there” precisely because it conjured images of some creature (human or otherwise) clinging desperately to a cliff (or some such) by its fingernails (or some such). Plus, Flossie had concluded that there were two kinds of people in the world: people who dressed chimpanzees in little suits and people who didn’t. Ditto on people who thought it fun to dangle kittens in uncomfortable poses and people who didn’t. One of the things she adored about Hugo, for example, was that he could be depended upon never to clothe a chimpanzee in a waistcoat. 

     “I have a poster just like it,” said Laura. “And I love it. It’s a real conversation starter.” 

     Conversation starter when, thought Flossie? The 1970s? Along with disco music and pet rocks? Did Laura own a mood ring? 

     Greetings, hugs, and kisses, all around, and Flossie returned to her culinary chores. 

     Laura sighed herself down in the rocking chair, kicked off her peep-toe-slingback- leopard-print stiletto heels and called out cheerfully, “It’s like a restaurant here. What’s on the menu?” 

     “Roast ham, sweet potatoes, and salad. And some other side dishes,” Flossie said. 

     From her station at the stove, Flossie could hear Laura continue the carte-du-jour review with Flappy. 

     “What else is Flossie cooking?” Laura wondered.
     “Beets,” said Flappy, who’d caught a glimpse of Flossie’s activities.
     “Beets! Who the hell eats beets?” Laura said, not bothering to lower her voice. “Beets, for Chrissake. Maybe it’s because she’s a spinster. Spinsters eat beets.” 

     Spinster. What a nasty word. In the modern century, no less. Why not go full tilt to the phrase old maid? Laura’s vocabulary had vaulted over anything that might smack of feminism, choice, desire, or preference and had, instead, fastened itself to an insulting narrative of pathetic inadequacies. To boot, Laura was discounting everything she knew of Flossie’s relationship history. For instance, what about the current bond between Flossie and Hugo? What about genial Hugo? If Hugo had been the one laboring in the scullery, Laura wouldn’t—not on your nelly—have said, “Beets! Who the hell eats beets? Beets, for Chrissake. Maybe it’s because he’s a confirmed bachelor. Confirmed bachelors eat beets.” Flossie was steamed—like the beets she was cooking. Particularly since, in Flossie’s evaluation, Flappy and Laura had the kind of marriage that was no model for psychologically wholesome matrimony. 

     Carol hadn’t fared any better, conjugally. Her husband’s midlife crisis had been classic. It began with his out-of-the-blue petition for an open marriage and culminated in his absconding with his 20-something (Barbie-breasted) paramour, in a fit-of-pique. Convertible. A two-seater. One seat for him. One seat for her. 

     Flossie tried to come to her senses by assuring herself that Laura’s perception of Flossie’s “unattached” status had nothing to do with Flossie’s own opinion of herself. Sure enough, logic was utterly ineffectual. It always was in these matters. So, rationality having failed Flossie, she quelled her ire by indulging a detailed fantasy of ripping off her apron, marching directly to her sister-in-law, lifting her up off the ground via her lacy bra straps, and flinging her out of the apartment with the instruction that she was no longer welcome and should never ever ever ever ever return. Through the playing out of her imaginary scenario Flossie pierced the beets viciously with a fork. They were destined to appear on the serving platter as the vegetable avatar of arrow-impaled Saint Sebastian. 

     Flappy had commandeered Flossie’s living room phone. She could hear him talking. “Hey! You’re in town? That’s great. We’d love to see you. How about tomorrow? Oh. Well, in that case, why don’t you come over here? Now. Sure. No, not our place. We’re at my sister’s. She’s cooking a big dinner. No. Don’t be silly. You wouldn’t be intruding. There’ll be plenty of food. No problem. Anytime. Write down the address. Really, it’s fine. Honest. Plenty of food.” 

     Flappy, elated, gave Flossie the news, “You remember my friends Jenkins and Michael?” 


     “Well, they’re in town. Just for the day. Spur of the moment. I told them they could come by here.” 

     “Excuse me,” Carol intervened, wrangling Flossie away from Flappy, who, delighted by the imminence of his friends, was already scampering to share the happy bulletin with his sprawled spouse. 

     “But . . .” Flossie started, as Carol guided her back toward the kitchen. 

     “I know. I know,” said Carol. “However, is this the battle you want to fight right now?” 

     “All I asked, two weeks ago, was who was going to show up. And what time they were going to show up. I asked that two weeks ago!” 

     “I know.” 

     En route back to the stove, Flossie tripped over her teenage nephew’s sneakered feet. Tony, having at some point furtively forsaken the sofa, had settled himself on the floor, smack-dab in the middle of the apartment’s major traffic lane. After averting an impressive Buster Keaton pratfall (for which her coordinative abilities would have been ill suited), Flossie paused to gaze at the gawky origami that was her nephew. How had she not seen him there, with his omnipresent earpods affixed to his skull? How did teenagers do it? You know—that stage when they turned into enigmas. Fresh-faced cryptic ninjas. Baffling shadows. Distant. Unsociable. Just plain weird. 

     “Sorry, Aunt Flossie,” said Tony, folding his giant feet toward his rump. 

     Brother Flappy rematerialized. He was carrying a book.
     “Hey, Flossie, have you read this biography of Stalin?”
     “Actually, yes, I have,” Flossie said. 

     “It’s very good. You really should read it.”
     “I have read it,” Flossie said.
     “You should read it,” Flappy insisted. “I’ll get you a copy for Christmas.” 

     “Flappy, did I hear you say something about Stalin?” Mama called from the part of the living room farthest from the kitchen, her hearing mind-blowingly clear as a bell. 

     “You did, Mama.” 

     “Your father was a communist, you know.”
     “Yup. We know that,” said Flappy.
     “What?” Laura, a straight-down-the-line Republican was shocked. “FLAPPY, you never told me your father was a communist.” 

     Mama breezed past Laura’s alarm with, “But, Flappy, did I ever tell you that your father always talked about taking Flossie and running off to live in the Soviet Union?” 

     “What?” It was Flossie’s turn to be shocked. 

     “Yes,” Mama said. “Your father said he would take Flossie, and they would go live in Russia. Paradise, he called it. ‘Flossie and I will live in Paradise.’” 

     “Dad said that?” Flossie was practically squealing. 

     “Um. Hmm.”
     “Why me?”
     “Because you were the youngest.” 

     “What does that have to do with. . .? Dad? Our Dad? Your husband?” 

     “Yes. He thought the world of Stalin.”
     “Stalin!” Flossie could hear her own exclamation point.

     “You’re telling me that our Dad, Mr. Paranoia, our schizophrenic father, who was wary of everyone, was a fan of Stalin, the killer of millions?” 

     “Yes. Big time.” 

     “Oh, that sounds just great,” Flossie said, having left astonishment and immigrated to kicked-in-the-teeth flabbergasted. “Stalin’s Paradise?! A country where we would have had to wait seven hours on a very long line for a roll of toilet paper. That’s a situation where I’m at my stellar best.” 

     “Sometimes I thought he would do it,” Mama concluded. “Your father wasn’t always stable, you know.” 

     “Oh, that’s an understatement,” Flossie said. 

     “There was mental illness on your father’s side of the family. All you have to do is travel through his family tree to see it.” 

     “Mama, the only way I want to travel through either side of my family tree is swinging on a vine and screeching the entire way.” 

     Riffing off of the issue of mental health, Mama segued to medical matters of the physical variety. She achieved liftoff into a Joycean litany of “I had to go to the dentist for this tooth back here” (while pointing a manicured index finger at a second molar), from there to in-depth listing of her medications and their side effects, followed by a prolonged fixation on gastrointestinal noises, and leading, thence, to constipation woes. All excruciatingly itemized. 

     Flossie had withdrawn, posthaste, to the foxhole safety of the kitchen, abandoning Carol to weather the catalogue of ailments. Flossie felt guilty about the desertion, but not enough to endeavor a ransom. If Hugo had been there, instead of in a third-world nation, he would have been the one to step in and find a jovial solution. In his absence, it was left to Carol to try detouring Mama to some other, any other, business. Flossie pitied her sister, whose brave attempts resembled someone struggling to avoid an accident on an icy road after her vehicle had lost its power steering. 

     “Need any help?” said Flappy, poking his head into the kitchen. 

     Flappy had superb instincts for volunteering only where and when he wasn’t needed. Generally speaking, he was as useless as mediaeval armor on a ballerina. 

     “Flappy, don’t tire yourself out,” Mama intervened. “You work hard all week. Let your sister take care of the meal.” 

     “OK, Mama,” said Flappy. 

     By all means, don’t fatigue Flappy. Leave it all to Flossie, who, solo, had been cooking enough food for . . . too many people (including, she’d just been informed, the nebulously remembered Jenkins and Michael). The beets having already been abused beyond recovery, Flossie vented by giving the ham a spatular whack. 

     “You always watch out for me, Mama,” Flappy said, pecking the mother hen on the cheek and then adding (victoriously), “I found a parking spot right across the street.” 

     “Oh,” said Carol, relieved at the switch of focus away from infirmities, “That’s not a legal spot.” 

     “It’s Halloween,” said Flappy. 

     “Doesn’t matter,” said Carol.
     “It’s after 6 p.m.,” said Flappy.
     “No Standing Anytime,” said Carol. 


     “Because buses can’t make the turn down the street if someone is parked there.”

     “Nobody’s going to give me a ticket.”
     “Alright,” said Carol. “Just so you know, it’s a hefty ticket, assuming you don’t get towed. If you do get towed, it’ll cost you more than $100. Also, it’s conceivable a bus will smash into your fender.” 

     Flappy said, “$100!” made a dash for the apartment door and, before exiting, said, “Laura, honeybun, is there anything you want me to get for you while I’m out? There’s a Starbucks three blocks away. How about a decaf, tall, skim, eggnog latte?” 

     “No, sweetie, I’m good.” 

     And Flappy vanished, not having asked if anyone else might want a decaf, tall, skim, eggnog latte. Or a double nutmeg espresso. Extra foam. 

     Laura, made anxious by the spousal detachment (you might as well have temporarily removed her liver), rushed to the window, from where she could track at least a fraction of Flappy’s expedition. When she could no longer see Flappy, she turned her attention to the objects in Flossie’s apartment. Laura picked up an oversized art book, returned to the rocking chair (adjacent to which her discarded stiletto heels still lounged voluptuously), then rose in order to move a standing lamp eight feet from its appointed site to where she deemed it would provide her with better light. In order to transfer the lamp, she had, first, to move an end table to the opposite side of the couch, which displacement necessitated further action, namely, moving the aforementioned rocking chair—to a spot at which it could not be rocked without causing damage to a glass-fronted antique bookcase. When Flossie heard a sotto voce snarl, she knew it hadn’t originated in Laura. So, she assumed Gremlin was the source. But she was wrong. Gremlin was slumbering (no Mozart was playing). The sound Flossie heard had come from her own larynx. 

     Fifteen minutes later Flappy returned, full of grievance at the injustice of bus routes.

     Dinner was ready. 

     Mama’s first sentence once dinner was served was, “What do you want to eat, Flappy?” 

     Flappy’s first sentence was, “What do you want to eat, Laura?” 

     Flossie knew there were words for all of this. Dysfunctional. Enabling. Codependent. If this was what motherhood, or marriage, was, that would explain the covenant she and Hugo had so readily struck. It would also explain Flossie’s “spinster-ness”—her old-maid-dom. 

     Gremlin sat in Mama’s lap and ate from her plate. He was already overweight. Unapologetically. 

     On the other hand, although youngster Tony gobbled down multiple portions of everything, the boy was skinny as a rail. Unapologetically. 

     When Jenkins and Michael appeared halfway through the meal, Carol warbled “Incoming!” in Flossie’s direction. 

     Jenkins and Michael each spoke so loudly that Mama could have heard them even if her hearing aids had been vacationing in Katmandu. In rapid and majestic sensitivity toward his friends’ ease and comfort, Flappy dragged Flossie’s desk chair and the piano stool to the dining table, while Flossie arose to prepare plates for the two guests who’d been invited out of the blue. Flossie was notified, at full volume, that Jenkins was diabetic, and that Michael was a member of The Vegan Society. Neither of those dietary restrictions jibed with anything Flossie had cooked, a statistic that may have contributed to the short stay of Jenkins and Michael. Or, then again, their hasty departure may have been the result of their having parked at a fire hydrant. The remaining original cohort managed to survive a noisy and tasty dinner without slaughtering one another. 

     Flossie had invited one of her neighbors over for dessert. The neighbor lived with her own very elderly mother, who, to return to a previous theme, resisted bathing in any size shower (or tub). Flossie had gotten the bright idea that maybe her neighbor’s dodderer and Mama might be pleased by another’s company, have something in common. Nope. The two old women snubbed one another. Although, truth is they did have one thing in common. They were both hard of hearing. 

     A fact that caused Mama to wiggle her head toward the other oldster and confide to Flossie, conspiratorially and ad infinitum, “She’s deaf.” 

     Oh, one other thing the two women had in common. They both sported dyed hair that frizzed around their crania like cheap haloes. 

     Flossie served blueberry pie, with the option of ice cream on top. Who wanted dessert? Nephew Tony did—a heaping double helping. Carol did. Mama did. Flossie’s neighbor and the mother did. Flappy did. Laura didn’t, but ate Flappy’s piece of pie once it was set before him. Who wanted coffee after their dessert? Everyone except Tony and Laura. 

     But no sooner were all the filled mugs on the table when Laura reneged, ogling Flappy’s cup and saying, “Oooh, that does smell good.” 

     “You can have my coffee, dear,” said Flappy, making the sacrificial transfer. 

     “Oh, you need your coffee. Here, my love,” said Mama, surrendering her own coffee to Flappy, the son she had always coddled. 

     Flossie stayed out of it. It would have been easy if everyone had simply and candidly stated what they wanted. That’s how she and Hugo proceeded. But who was she to say? Apparently, the hard way was the right way. It was a multigenerational disease that Flossie wanted cured. If it couldn’t be cured, she wanted to be inoculated against it. Flossie looked around. Everyone, including Gremlin, was full of blueberry pie. People at various angles of sated reclination occupied the apartment. 

     “How’s school?” Flossie said, turning her attention to droopy slumpy Tony. “Any interesting . . .?” 

     “I’ll have another piece of pie,” Flappy interjected. “And some more coffee. With cream, instead of milk.” 

     “It’s time for Gremlin’s evening walk,” said Mama, swaying herself forward and back in a bid to extract herself from the padded armchair. 

     “I’ll walk him,” proposed Carol.
     “No, I’ll do it,” Flossie said, “if you’ll just get Flappy his coffee.”
     Flossie needed out as much as, or more than, Gremlin or Carol did. The autumn air would be good for her. Remembering yesterday evening’s interaction with the dog, Flossie handed Mama the leash. Flossie wasn’t about to try placing anything on Gremlin’s neck. Once nearly bitten, twice shy. 

     “Before you go, you might want to know,” said Flossie’s neighbor, “the people in 5F are having a Halloween party, and it’s gotten out of hand.” 

     “Out of hand, how?” 

     “Well, word spread through the neighborhood somehow. Strangers are showing up for the party. Nobody really knows who they are. Some of them are rowdy. Carousing.” 

     “The people in 5F shouldn’t let them into the building,” Flossie said. 

     “Yeah, but the intercom isn’t working,” said the neighbor. “So, unless the people in 5F go down to the lobby every couple of minutes, they can’t tell whether they know the person they’re letting in until that person shows up at their door.” 


     “I’m just saying, the elevator is pretty crowded.” say the least. Flossie pushed the button and, when the elevator door opened at her floor, she was staring into a space that was jam-packed with sinister clowns, zombies with knives protruding from their tracheas, multicolored aliens, unpopular politicians, stitch-faced freaks, beasts with extra skulls, and, yes, gremlins. A creature from the black lagoon lurched toward Flossie with a loud hiss, and Flossie dropped her keys. Somehow, as she bent over to retrieve them, Gremlin’s (the dog Gremlin’s) leash slipped from her grasp. Gremlin jogged onto the elevator without Flossie, the doors closed, and he was gone. Flossie thought to run down the stairway to intercept him but was pretty sure that whatever would happen would happen before she arrived in the doorman-less lobby. So, frantic, she punched repeatedly at the elevator button. She could feel panic skittering around inside her. She wasn’t thinking well. She just kept stamping her finger into the elevator button. Where was Gremlin?! 

     Flossie heard the elevator jangle its way back up to her floor. The door opened, and there, thank God, was Gremlin, sitting, completely still, surrounded by several vampires and an orc. His strabismic eye was wide with paralytic wonder. He, like Flossie’s father, had never trusted people. In the monster-teeming elevator, Gremlin had just received verification that his misgivings about humans were not only true they weren’t the half of it. Flossie reached in, grabbed Gremlin’s leash (he didn’t growl) and yanked him toward her. She took the stairway down to the street. Back in the apartment, after the walk, Flossie made no mention of Gremlin’s adventure. 

     Laura had relocated to Flossie’s bedroom. On the bed. Laura was communing with the TV. She was listening, with the volume waaaaay up, to smarmy voiced admonitions on how to alleviate stress. Flossie did take one of the overheard advice morsels to heart. It was something about gratitude. Flossie was grateful that the evening hadn’t turned disastrous, what with Gremlin’s flirtation with trick-or-treat misadventure. Flossie had been spared having to plaster “Lost Dog” notices on every lamppost within a 20-block radius. 

     The evening was working out after all, that is until the neighbor’s mother, in a moment of amiable miscalculation, reached down to stroke what, by appearances, was Gremlin’s silkily welcoming coat. Once again, as was the case when Gremlin was bought, Flossie was not in the immediate vicinity and, therefore, was incapable of thwarting calamity. She was in the adjoining room, loading the dishwasher. What Flossie heard, as she slanted one more cup into the top rack, was a low reverberation followed immediately by Mama’s denial of Gremlin’s prickly nature. 

     “He doesn’t bite. He’s just talking to you.” 

     That was Flossie’s cue. She leapt. But not quickly enough. The first thing Flossie saw was Tony. Carol had given the lad the job of keeping track of Gremlin. So, Flossie’s loose-limbed gangly nephew, nonchalant but dutiful, had a hold of the dog’s leash. Tony was wearing sunglasses. It was now deep evening. How the hell could Tony see anything with his sunglasses on in a relatively dark apartment? In addition, Tony was, as usual, plugged into his cellphone. His bowed chest was bobbing so deeply and vigorously to the music that he looked a lot like an ostrich running a marathon. The music was loud. Flossie could pick up the pummel of percussion. From Flossie’s vantage point, Tony was merely a collection of juvenile body parts moving in not-very-close formation. She assumed he was missing in action. But she would soon learn that she underestimated him. 

     Gremlin clamped his crooked little teeth down on the elderly guest’s hand. She emitted a yelp so doglike that for a moment Flossie truly thought that Gremlin had broadcast the sound. And then, within the shortest interval imaginable—the phrase Planck time surfaced instantaneously and inexplicably out of a memory file in Flossie’s brain (from the story she’d covered on particle physics, and where she’d met Hugo)— yes, in a time rift that miniscule, Gremlin flew across the living room at the end of his leash, propelled, seemingly horizontally, by an appended-to-a-cellphone adolescent male, i.e., Tony. 

     Fortunately, Flossie’s neighbor was a nurse. And an exceptionally good sport. She examined her mother’s bleeding wound, gamely determined that it wasn’t all that bad, and raided Flossie’s medicine cabinet for antiseptic and sterile bandages. 

     “Gremlin doesn’t bite,” Mama said, as the gash was attended to. “He’s just being friendly.” 

     “What?” said the neighbor’s mother, who looked intently at her injury, cognitively lost for an explanation as to how she might have acquired a jagged lesion. 

     “She’s deaf,” said Mama, gesturing (from behind her screening hand) to Carol. 

     “Shhh,” said Carol.
     Flossie’s neighbor said, “We should go,” gathered up her lacerated mother and returned to her own apartment.

     That left Flossie, Carol, Tony (who had recommenced his ostrich dance), Mama, Flappy, and Laura. Mama chose this time to bring up the topic of funeral arrangements. 

     “Catholic Mass,” Mama said. “At Saint Joseph’s. I want the priest to give me extreme unction ahead of time. And, naturally, there has to be a wake. Make sure. The whole thing.” 

     “Of course, we’ll do whatever you wish, Mama,” Flossie said. “Thanks for being so clear about it all.” 

     “How about you?” Mama asked, zeroing in on Flossie. “What do you want?” 

     “Oh, no last rites,” Flossie said. “Just bury me. No preliminary embalming or anything like that. If people want to have a get-together, that’s OK. But no religion.” 

     “You mean you don’t want a Catholic funeral?” 

     Mama hadn’t noticed, in all the years Flossie had been her daughter, that Flossie didn’t consider herself Christian? Or any alternative religious identity for that matter? 

     “No, Mama. No Catholic funeral.” 

     “What?” said Mama.
     “No Catholic funeral.”
     “Why not?” 

     Flossie acknowledged a small surge of appreciation when Flappy sprang to the rescue with, “No Catholic funeral; that’s what she’s saying.” 

     “What is Flossie saying?” said Mama.
     “She’s saying no Catholic funeral and that, instead, she’d like. . .”
     Based on Mama’s blank expression, Flossie said, “I think Mama may have, just this second, turned off her hearing aid again.”

     Flappy aimed his index finger at Flossie and laid down the law, “You interrupted me. Don’t interrupt me. Ever.” 

     “Don’t interrupt your brother,” said Mama. 

     Was there anything to be gained by Flossie’s indicating Flappy’s lifelong penchant for issuing interruptive demands? Was there anything to be gained by the recurrence of Flossie’s fantasy, earlier aimed at Laura, of picking Flappy up (by his ears, rather than a bra strap) and flinging him out the door with the command never to return? 

     “I’m taking the recycling down to the basement,” Flossie said.
     And she did.
     When Flossie returned, Laura was fiddling with the TV remote. Flossie knew what that meant. It meant that, once everyone left, Flossie would have to engage in her own fiddling efforts to re-access her own television. It meant that after almost an hour of frustrating failure Flossie would have to call her cable provider for step-by-step corrective guidance from a customer-service representative. A representative Flossie would reach only after no-less-than 40 minutes on hold. 

     For now, Flossie escaped to the bathroom—the larger one—for a bit of peace. As Flossie sat on the toilet, Mama flung the door open. The architectural design of Flossie’s apartment was not flawless. The door to the bathroom—the larger one—opened toward the living room. Flossie squeaked at being revealed ignominiously to the room’s occupants. 


     “Why didn’t you lock the door?” said Mama, standing there, with the door still open. 

     “Because there is no lock,” Flossie said, fumbling in vain for the doorknob, which was beyond her arm’s reach. 

     Mama walked away. Without closing the door. It was Carol who saved Flossie from further embarrassment. Flossie sat for a while longer. Who couldn’t grasp that a closed bathroom door indicated that someone was in there? Or that a closed door warranted a knock? Who couldn’t? Mama couldn’t. 

     By the time Flappy and Laura announced their intention to leave, Flossie was at her wit’s end, a finish line, which, it turned out, was closer than Flossie could ever have guessed. 

     Halfway out the door, Laura noted, in farewell, “I didn’t bring a dish to the dinner. I probably should have.” 

     Carol laid a restraining hand on Flossie’s wrist. Carol was being good. Before she and Tony headed home, she walked Gremlin. She would be back in the morning to transport Mama, who was going to stay one more night with Flossie. 

     After everyone had left, and Mama had gone beddy-bye nighty-night, Flossie felt as if some 11th–century Chinese emperor had spent the day singling her out for torture. The phrase “death by a thousand cuts” seemed apt. Exhaustion plumped Flossie into the sofa. She felt so depleted that she figured fresh news of world catastrophes might calm her, assuming that, after Laura’s adjustments, Flossie could get TV reception. 

     But Laura had done Flossie one better than the predicted phone call to the cable provider. For starters, Flossie couldn’t find the remote. It wasn’t on the coffee table. It wasn’t under the pile of magazines. It wasn’t on the couch’s arm, on the radiator, or on the air conditioner. Or underfoot. Flossie searched farther afield. The remote was not in the hallway, on any of the windowsills, near any of the houseplants. It was not resting on the toilet seat of the “too small” bathroom. It wasn’t in the shower of either bathroom. It wasn’t near the computer or its pal the printer. It wasn’t in the basket of winter gloves or tucked in the cushions of any of the armchairs. It wasn’t in the refrigerator (yes, Flossie looked in the refrigerator) or with the junk mail or in the pencil cup. It wasn’t in any of Flossie’s coat pockets (yes, Flossie looked in her coat pockets). It hadn’t made it into the drawer where Flossie kept cloth napkins and placemats. It wasn’t in Flossie’s bedroom bureau, or under the green comforter, or slouching on one of Flossie’s bed pillows. It wasn’t in the medicine cabinet with Flossie’s Tums stash or prescription bottles. It wasn’t in the toothbrush holder or the tooth-care tumbler. It wasn’t in the linen closet or pantry cabinets. It wasn’t hiding with Flossie’s underwear or scarves or socks or pajamas or sweaters. It wasn’t lazing flat with her towels. It wasn’t having a tete-a-tete with Flossie’s jewelry box and hadn’t formed a close relationship with any of Flossie’s figurines. It hadn’t cozied up to any of the tissue cartons scattered throughout the apartment. It wasn’t perched anywhere. It wasn’t with the as-yet-unread portions of last Sunday’s newspaper. It wasn’t with Flossie’s as-yet-unpaid bills. It wasn’t next to the chicken-shaped timer or in the toaster oven that had been on fire that very morning. It wasn’t leaning against the cereal cannister. Unlike Mama’s hearing-aid excursion earlier in the day, it had not jumped into any garbage receptacle. It was not keeping company with the candleholders, vases, teakettle, trivets, butter dish, paperweight, playing cards, Scrabble set, cookbooks, cutting board, or salad spinner. It hadn’t moved in with Flossie’s yoga mat or childhood stuffed bear (Smoky). It wasn’t concealed under Flossie’s New York Yankees baseball cap. It wasn’t pretending to be one more spice in the spice rack. It wasn’t rolling around in the wok or the colander. Flossie gave up. (She would find it, by accident, the next day. In with the cutlery. Flossie couldn’t recall Laura’s ever having been near there.) 

     TV being unavailable, and even though she knew success was unlikely, Flossie tried, once more, to get a call through to Hugo. She pined for him. But the time difference proved insurmountable. Hugo was probably deep in uncomplicated-by-kinfolk doings. He’d be home in a few days, bearing, in his solid hands, a bouquet of her favorite flowers. Stout and gentle, his softhearted eyes looking into hers. She liked his face. 

     Flossie hung up the phone and contemplated the family-photo wall. Mama, young, was still there, her lips a pair of coy rose petals. And there was pinko Dad, holding the handlebars of a bicycle on which Flappy sat, regal. And Carol, in pedal- pushers, lolling on a grassy hill. And Flossie, six years old, in a snowsuit, in Mama’s arms. Flossie had turned just as the picture was snapped. Her face was blurred. 

     By now, it was midnight, the witching hour. Family visits. Christmas. Thanksgiving. Holidays. These years, they made Flossie feel more, not less, lonely. And families? What was there to say about families? That they were a series of carnival events. Funny distorting mirrors. Genuine laughter. Target practice for a kewpie-doll prize. Breath-clutching trips on a roller coaster. Shrieks in a scary tunnel (of love). Bumper cars (snits). And, obviously, haunted houses. 

     Just then, Gremlin trotted in for some rhythmic slurping from his water bowl. Gremlin, who—after his own carnival-ride-via-nephew—had landed (lock-stock-and-barrel and unharmed) several feet away from where he had initiated his attack on the old lady from next door. 

     Mama was already fast asleep, with her hearing aid removed. Unreachable by sound. Flossie had an idea. She wanted to be healed and knew just the trick for that. She selected Mozart’s Requiem–Lacrimosa. At the sound of Lacrimosa dies illa. Qua resurget ex favilla. Judicandus homo reus. Lacrimosa dies illa, Gremlin raised his bug-popped face. In the absence of Hugo, Gremlin would console her. No, Flossie needed a word more archaic than console. A word a spinster or an old maid would use. Consolate? Yes, that was it. Gremlin would consolate her.

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