Potluck

 

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Norm

 

    When Norm’s wife Pansy left him she told him he would never again find a woman as good as her. Norm believed her. And, in his loneliness, a certain madness crept in. He haunted his own walls. He was sunk into himself as surely as a snag in a bog. He wandered his rooms like a stink. 

    His friend at work, Phil, asked Norm if there was anything he could do. 

    Together they were working the line at FedEx. 

    “She’s been gone over two months now, Norm. And you’re better off without her if you’ll let me voice an opinion. No one liked Pansy.”

    “I did,” Norm said. “Once upon a time.”

    “Listen, why don’t you come to dinner tonight?” Phil asked. “Donna misses you.”

    “Another night perhaps.”

    That night Norm ate a TV dinner. When he was a kid he thought TV dinner fried chicken and mashed potatoes was about as good as cuisine got. He was trying to revive something lost when he stopped at the Quickie Mart on the way home and bought one. It tasted like salty, boiled newspaper. He went to bed early, too depressed to sleep and too exhausted to stay awake. The night was spent in a twilight sleep of semi-unconsciousness, full of dreams of frustration and disconnected energies. 

    In the morning he felt as if he had a hangover; he felt pixilated and choleric, angry at the world. 

    He started the coffeepot and went outside to get the paper. The paper was at the bottom of his sidewalk but what arrested Norm first was what lay at his feet on the porch. It was a single woman’s shoe. He picked it up. For some creaturely reason he put it to his nose. It smelled faintly of leather, and faintly of foot. 

    He craned his neck around and looked up and down the street. Ashamed to be caught sniffing shoes he also sought a clue as to whose footwear this could possibly be.  The silent street offered no clue.

    He took the shoe inside with his newspaper. He put the shoe on the dusty stereo console in his living room. This unit, this monstrosity, was a gift from his parents, alas now deceased, and it still held an Engelbert Humperdinck record on its spindle. 

    That day went about the same as the day before. Phil was solicitous. Phil asked Norm what he did the night before and Norm lied and said he went out to the movies. Phil didn’t pursue it but invited Norm to dinner again. 

    Instead Norm went home alone, but, instead of a rotten TV dinner, he cooked himself a small piece of salmon with some instant rice. It was good. 

    He slept a little better that night and his dreams were not so fierce. 

    The next morning, still groggy, he passed the console. The shoe resting on it looked as out of place as a chainsaw in a kitchen. Norm smiled a fractured smile. 

    And when he opened the front door there was the other shoe in the same place as the previous shoe. 

    This time Norm made a more active search of the street. What the hell? he thought. He took the other shoe in and put it next to its mate. 

    That day at work he told Phil about the shoes. 

    “That’s queer, isn’t it?” Phil said. 

    “You’re not doing this, are you?” Norm said. He meant to grin alongside the question but, emotionally, he was out of practice. 

    “Why would I do that, buddy?” Phil rightly asked, slightly peeved. 

    So, when Norm went to bed that night he had a puzzle to mull over. It was like giving an out of work gumshoe a case. Norm became engaged. He tried to imagine the joker responsible for such an inane jape. He fell asleep in mid-ponder and slept well, undisturbed by the vagaries of capricious vision. 

    The next morning, when he found two gorgeous, dark, thigh-high stockings, neatly placed on the step, he ceased wondering about the practical joker and began wondering instead about the owner of the cast-off clothing. He ran the stockings over his hands. They were as soft as a girlish cheek. And there were two of them, paired gifts this time. They seemed to Norm to be slightly indecent. Who wore thigh-high stockings? Certainly not Pansy. 

    He didn’t tell Phil about the latest offerings. He was not sure why he didn’t. 

    That night, on the way home, Norm got some to-go food and an inexpensive bottle of wine. He watched a Hitchcock movie on television. By the time he went to bed he was pleasantly drowsy and fell asleep at once. 

    He woke before the alarm and, after jabbing at the coffeemaker to turn it on, practically ran to his front door. He barely glanced at the stereo where the nylons had joined the shoes; they formed an almost obscene tableau. 

    This morning he was not disappointed. On his stoop he found a white silk blouse with opalescent buttons. The next morning a short skirt of some exotic fabric and tasteful hues, with a zipper that ran up one side. Now Norm spread the clothing on the living room carpet. He posed the pieces in the shape of a woman. 

    That night Norm slept in fits and starts. And, in the middle of his witching-hour thrall, it occurred to him that he should set up surveillance in his living room during the night hours in hopes of catching his intriguing visitor. 

    He moved himself to the couch by the front window. He made a small gap in the drapes. It was almost dawn when he fell asleep. He woke when he realized the faint buzzing in the other room was his alarm clock. In a panic he arose and, with his head full of bees, Norm jerked open the front door. He was not disappointed. There at his feet lay a lacy, lilac-colored bra. Norm picked it up quickly and brought it inside. 

    He put it against his face. It felt warm, almost alive. Norm momentarily contemplated taking it into the bathroom with him, but, instead, he gently opened the blouse on the floor and placed the bra on top of it. This representation pleased Norm. 

    That day at work Phil asked him if he ever found out who owned the shoes. 

    “No, of course I didn’t,” Norm huffed as if he were being accused of something. 

    “Did you ask around the neighborhood?”

    Norm hadn’t. He didn’t know his neighbors and, really, what would he say?

    That night Norm vowed to stay awake all night. Surely this would be the last gift and the piece de résistance. He took some Vivarin and set the TV on TCM, muted.  There was an Andy Hardy series playing, one after another, a circus train of puppy love. 

    Around 3 a.m. he heard a noise coming from across the field opposite his house. Beyond the field one of the newer subdivisions was being built. The noise sounded like a low whistle. Norm turned the dumb TV off as if to hear better.

 Perhaps he had imagined it. 

    No, he heard it again. And then he saw something unnerving, something that he could not explain. There was a small, white, ghostly chimera moving through the air, like a lost cloud. But it was going in the opposite direction. It was moving away from his house. 

Norm, still dressed, bolted out the front door. He almost missed the pair of lilac panties, as delicate as the wings of a small bird, which had been placed on his porch. He picked them up, put them to his nose. It was intoxicating.     

    He almost lost sight of the apparition moving swiftly away from him. He, as they say, could not believe his eyes. Perhaps he was really asleep on the couch in his living room. Surely, this was the mischief of dream.

    The small white ghost, no bigger than a toaster, caught the glare of streetlights in the new subdivision, allowing Norm to follow its curious flight. 

    As he entered the newly paved streets of the opposite neighborhood, which seemed a cleaned-up, modernized mirror image of his own, he was winded and stopped to put his hands on his knees. There were only a few occupied homes on the street. Off to his right was one such home. A blue Civic sat in its driveway. The wee ghost had stopped at this home and seemed now, in the dim luminescence, to be waiting on this house’s doorstep. 

    Norm approached quietly. What would he say if someone saw him?

    As he got closer he realized that what he had been chasing was not a ghost, or not any kind of ghost he’d ever heard of. No, what he had been chasing was a pair of men’s white jockey shorts. 

    In a stupor he walked right up the front steps and picked them up. They looked familiar. 

    Just then the door jerked open. An angry woman with a small bat in her hand startled Norm. 

    He almost tripped taking a step back. 

    “So, asshole,” the woman said, her pretty face circumscribed with wild red hair, “you’re responsible for putting the clothing on my sidewalk every night. What kind of a pervert are you?”

    Norm answered as if a logical reply was needed. “Not any kind,” he said. 

    “Just stay right there while I call the cops. I certainly don’t want your used underwear.”

    Norm looked at his hands. He was looking at a pair of his own jockey shorts. 

    “Wait,” he said, feebly. 

    The woman did. She stood staring at Norm, her bat raised. 

    “Well,” she said. 

    “I followed these here,” Norm said, on the first try. 

    The woman tightened her grip on the bat. 

    Norm was trying to think. Then a question occurred to him. 

    “You’ve gotten other clothing?” he asked. 

    “As if you didn’t know,” she said. 

    “Wait, wait,” Norm said. “Has it been one item a night, all men’s clothing?”

    “Yes,” the woman said. She was, just possibly, relaxing a bit due to the sincerity of Norm’s query. 

    “Except the socks came together,” she said. 

    “Right! May I see the clothes?” Norm asked. The woman was cogitating. “Please,” he added. 

    “Step inside.  But just inside. And leave the door open. I’ve still got this bat.”

    Norm stepped inside. The woman turned on a pole lamp. There on her davenport she had arranged Norm’s clothing. 

    “Holy cats,” Norm said. 

    “These—these are all yours, right?” the woman said. 

    “Yes,” Norm answered. He stood there uncertainly. His mind was racing. 

    “You have to trust me,” Norm abruptly said. 

    The woman re-tightened her grip on the bat. 

    “Wait. Will you take a walk with me?”

    “Not on your life, buster,” the woman said.     

    “Are you missing any clothing?”

    “What?” The woman tightened the housecoat around herself. Under it she was dressed. She had been sitting stakeout just like Norm. 

    “Shoes,” she said.

    Norm nodded as if his case had been substantiated. 

    “If you will walk with me across that field--see that blue house in the next block, the one with the Chrysler in the driveway?”

    The woman squinted. “Yes,” she said. 

    “Walk with me that far?”

    She hesitated but stepped outside. She looked up and down her deserted street. It took a leap of faith but she leapt, for now she was intrigued. Locking her house behind her she walked a few paces behind Norm, across the ragged field, bat still in hand. 

    When they reached Norm’s house Norm’s door was open. 

    “Do you always leave the front door open?” she asked. 

    “No,” Norm said. 

    He went inside and said, “Now, just look.”

    When he turned she was not there; she was still on the sidewalk. Norm returned outside. 

    “A few steps more. Please,” he said. 

    The woman shuffled forward and Norm moved away from her, giving her wide berth so she would enter. She stepped inside the door. There on Norm’s living room floor a complete outfit of her clothing had been assembled. The lilac bra under the shirt caught her eye. She briefly felt exposed. 

    “What’s going on?” she said. She seemed dazed and she let the hand with the bat in it fall to her side. 

    “I don’t know,” Norm said. 

    They both stood still and stared at the clothing laid out in the shape of its owner. Its owner felt as if she were staring at her own grave. 

    No. Not a grave. There was a different kind of magic at work here. Bit by bit, like a soporific taking effect, the woman grew more tranquil. 

    “This is a mystery, isn’t it?” she said. Unexpectedly she trusted Norm. She knew him. 

    “Norm,” Norm said. 

    He was holding out his hand in a courtly fashion. 

    “Fran,” the woman said placing her small, supple hand in Norm’s. Norm let it lie there like a baby bird in a nest. 

    They were quiet for a while. 

    “These are yours also,” Norm said, emboldened. He brought the lilac panties out of his pocket. 

    “Put them there,” she said. “There.” She nodded toward the figure on the floor. 

    Norm, with great ceremony, placed the panties on top of the skirt. He took a moment, bent double, to also run his hands down the thigh-highs. Fran sighed. He stepped back to see. 

    Fran smiled and stepped in. She unzipped the skirt and positioned the panties inside. “That’s better,” she said. They seemed almost to glow.

    “Oh. Oh my,” Norm said. 

    They both stood reverently aside. Fran slipped her hand back into Norm’s. 

    “Do you have any coffee, Norm?” Fran asked. 

 

 

 

 

Corey Mesler has been published in numerous journals and anthologies. He has published 8 novels, 3 books of short stories, numerous chapbooks and 3 full-length poetry collections. He has been nominated for a Pushcart numerous times, and 2 of his poems have been chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He runs a bookstore in Memphis.