The Smiths’ house was unnaturally quiet. Mrs. Smith, Leona to the housewives and children in the neighborhood, was still at the party at the Flemings’ house down the block. Roger, the Flemings’ obese eleven year old boy had had a birthday. The children had celebrated all day, consuming pounds of cake and gallons of ice cream and countless quarts of root beer. The adults had been celebrating all night, consuming the left over cake, some sort of strange cheese Hors d’Oeuvres with meat and sour cream and held together with a toothpick stabbed through them into a small piece of sourdough bread, and countless gallons of bourbon, gin, vodka and Schlitz beer.
Crackers, the dog chained to the white post of the carport, looked up when a dim light went on in the Smiths’ bedroom.
When the phone rang again Sgt. Smith leaned over the girl and reached for the receiver.
“Maybe you better not,” she said.
“I don’t see how it makes a helluva lot of difference at this point,” said the stubby haired sergeant.
It rang a third time.
“It might be Archie.”
She grabbed his wrist and held it, keeping his hand an inch or so from the phone.
“It’ll look a helluva lot worse if I don’t answer it.”
She stared at him coldly. Her brown eyes were dimly visible in the light.
They stayed fixed and unmoving, and seemed somehow like the eyes of a cat reflecting in the lights of an oncoming car.
The sergeant freed his wrist from her grip, picked up the receiver, and pulled it past her so the cord was stretched over the white sheets. “Hello?”
“Yeah. Who’s this? Archie? That you Archie?”
“Yeah, it’s me. Did I wake ya Mike?”
“No,” he said reaching for his glass on the bed table next to the little blue lamp.
“Ya sure? Cuz if I woke ya or somethin’ I can–“
“Hey, if you’d a woke me, I’d a said so. Ya didn’t wake me.” His back to the bed table, he continued to grope for the drink.
“Well, the reason I called was… Are you sure I didn’t–”
“Hey, 1ook, I was just layin’ here readin’ is all, Okay? I’ve been readin’ those damn tech manuals all night. A human voice is a welcome relief.”
“Well, I just wondered if you’d seen Madeline is all.”
The sergeant found the glass and raised it to his lips.
“Madeline?” he said as the bourbon flowed down the glass. “No.”
The cigarette he’d forgotten he’d put out in the glass slid between his lips and he sputtered and spat it out. “Christ!”
Madeline giggled quietly at him, and a hint of a smile crossed her thin red lips.
“Whatsa matter?” came the distant voice on the phone.
Crackers paced dutifully up and down next door, but stopped when he spotted something moving in the bushes outside the Smiths’ bedroom window.
He stretched his chain across the white carport and watched the figure emerge. It walked slowly across the yard. It had a feline step and an enormous tail which it held daintily just above the grass. It arced slightly upward near its end and fanned out a bit all the way along itself.
Crackers’s deep black tongue came out of his mouth and darted quickly up to his nose and then slipped back inside.
“Nothin’,” said the sergeant. “I just swallowed wrong.”
“Well, anyway, didja see Madeline t’night?
“No. Why? Isn’t she home with you?”
“Hell, no. I swear to God I oughta leave her. You know that? I mean, what I oughta do, I oughta just pack up my goddam bags -“
“All right, all right,” the sergeant said. “Calm down. Willya do that for me? Will ya just calm down a second?”
“Christ. I’m calm. I’m all right. I dunno.”
“Ya know what I bet?” He jangled his glass in front of the girl’s face and put his index finger inside, indicating he wanted another drink. “What I bet, seriously now, I’d give ya a hundred to one here,” the girl took the glass from his hand, “I bet she got all social with the Harrisons. That’s what I think. I’d give ya a hundred a one they all went some place or other. They’re probably at some club on ‘O’ Street bein’ Socialites or somethin’.”
The girl got out of bed, glass in hand.
“Susan,” the little girl said. “Where are you going?”
The stringy haired little girl, Susan, stood near the door of the tent. For a moment she said nothing and the sounds of the crickets chirping filled the dark green walls.
“I dunno. I think I want some Ovaltine.” Her voice squeaked a bit on the first syllable.
“Ya don’t need no stupid Ovaltine,” said her brother, Schroeder.
“Schroeder,” said Jan, the short pony – tailed girl who’d spoken first. “If Susan wants a glass of Ovaltine she oughta have some.”
“If she goes inside,” said Schroeder, sitting up in his sleeping bag, “she’ll wake up your parents and they’ll come out here and holler at us and tell us to go t’ sleep.”
The sergeant took his finger away from his pursed, silent lips and the woman shrugged an apology. She set the bottle quietly back down on the dresser, being sure not to let it clank against the glass again. The light from the bathroom where she’d rinsed out the dirty glass played in her thick brown hair and the man looked at her admiringly. “No, really Archie,” he said into the phone, “she’ll probably be home any minute. I wouldn’t let it bother me. I mean, if I wuz you, I’d just have a Schlitz or somethin’ and not even let it bother me. You know what I mean?”
She took a few dainty steps across the soft ground toward him. Crackers took a couple of confused steps backward and his chain slackened. The figure moved within twenty feet or so and was still obscured by the shadows of the trees. It went to the edge of the shadow, staying just out of the pool of moonlight in the freshly cut grass. Crackers stared at the glowing eyes and the tail which now had curved over thebody and above the head. He growled softly.
“Are you tryin’ to scare me?” Horace, the chubby boy, picked up his clown again.
Schroeder got out of his sleeping bag and made another shadow figure on the tent wall, this time of an enormous alligator. He curved his middle fingers in to create teeth and he roared quietly.
“Tick… tock…tick… tock,” said Jan in a hushed voice, which, quiet though it was, resonated within the thin walls of the tent. “I’m coming to get you Captain Hook.”
The alligator’s jaws moved up and down and all three older children began growling and hissing and roaring, while the youngest boy clutched his clown and cowered in the corner.
“I’m coming,” repeated his sister. “I’m coming over there.”
“What?” He sipped the drink the woman had brought him. “Now?” The woman crawled back into bed and laid her head on the sergeant’s bony shoulder, her hair creating a sort of a pillow for her.
“Wouldja mind?” asked the voice on the phone.
“No, I mean you’re always welcome and all. But what I think is, I think you oughta stay there and wait for ol’ Madeline. I mean you know she’ll be there any minute and if you’re not there she’ll think –“
“Ya know what? I never shoulda married ‘er. Ya know that? Ya know I never shoulda married ‘er? I mean, I knew before I ever married ‘er what she’d be like. Ya know how sometimes ya just sorta know? Like when you get one of those premonitions or something? That’s what ya call it, isn’t it? Or is it precognition?”
“No, I think it’s premonition, but listen -“
“One time, I’ll never forget this as long as I live. One time when me and ol’ Dmitrov were still livin’ together, Madeline came by.”
“Dmitrov?” He sipped his drink again. The woman began to run her fingers over his bare chest. “I don’t remember…” He knocked her finger away with the cold glass.
“Sure ya do. Mark Dmitrov. He was a stoner mechanic. Smoked dope like practically all the time.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember.”
“Anyway, one time when him and me were livin’ together ol’ Madeline came by late one night when I was already upstairs in bed.”
She began kissing his neck now, and he hit her in the chin with his elbow.
“Oh, that didn’t hurt,” said Schroeder.
“Did too.” Susan removed her finger from the alligator’s jaws and the shadows fell to the ground. “You crushed it,” she whined.
“What a baby,” said her brother. Schroeder looked over at the trembling little boy. “Tell the Golden Arm, Jan,” he said grinning at Horace.
“No,” whined the boy in the corner. “You know I get too scared.”
“It’s just a story,” said Jan.
“But I get scared.”
“Tell it,” said Schroeder and Susan Smith.
“Well,” Jan got out of her sleeping bag and moved to the center of the tent, her shadow enormous on the opposite wall. “There was a lady who worked in a factory during World War II. And one day she was putting big slab of steel on the conveyor belt.” She took a baby step toward the boy.
“I’m not listening,” he said with just a touch of defiance in his voice.
“And then it went into a box where…..WHAM!!!” She slapped her hands together, and the boy started. “The steel was cut by a huge blade.”
“Yeah,” said Schroeder. “Tell about the blade.”
“Well,” she knelt on the fat boy’s Batman sleeping bag. “One day she wore a big flowery dress to work with long red sleeves. And so there she was. She picked up a slab of steel and set it on the conveyor belt. She picked up a slab of steel and set it one the conveyor belt.. And then…”
“Really! I’m not listening!”
“She felt a little tug on her arm.”
The woman looked over at him. “What?” she whispered.
He held his index and middle finger in the air making a scissor – like shadow on the wall to indicate he wanted a cigarette.
“Anyway,” said Archie, his voice now becoming closer, “I woke up cuz there was this cat in my room.”
“You never owned a cat, did you?”
Madeline lit the pair of cigarettes in her mouth and her face took on an orange glow.
The figure moved into the moonlight and began to stroll closer to Crackers, who growled a little more loudly now.
“No, never. So I turned on the light over my bed and I looked over at the door. Cuz I always, ya know, shut my door when I go t’ sleep.”
“So? Was it shut?”
Madeline went back to the bed and handed him his cigarette. She stood over him.
“Yeah. So I sorta wondered, ya know, how did this cat get in my room? I mean a cat can’t just stroll through a closed door or somethin’ right?”
“WHAM!!!” yelled Jan. “The blade came down and cut her arm off.”
“No! I don’t wanna hear this!”
“Blood came spurting out of the machine and the boss ran down the stairs and the lady said she’d sue him. The blood squirted the boss’s face -”
“Oooh!” said Schroeder and Susan.
“So he said he’d get her a Golden Arm to replace the one she’d lost. Then he decided to marry her to get it back. She said she’d marry him only if he promised to bury her with her Golden Arm.”
The boy squirmed nervously.
“The man said, ‘Okay, and then her hand reached out,” Jan moved her hand to the boy’s throat, “and she grabbed him by the neck,” Jan did what she narrated, “and said, ‘If you don’t, I’ll come back … and get it….'”
“Stop it! Stop it!”
“And when she died,” continued Jan, releasing his throat, “he dug her up and stole her Golden Arm.”
The animal walked to the edge of the yard, only a couple of feet from the nervous dog.
“So I got up to get the cat out, and I heard noises downstairs.”
“It was the woman,” said Jan, staring with enormous eyes into the horrified face of the fat little boy, “coming back to get her Golden Arm.”
“So, what’d you do?”
The woman began dressing at the edge of the bed. The sergeant looked quizzically at her and reached out to grab her arm. She pushed his hand away without turning to look at him.
“So I went downstairs,” came Archie’s voice.
“Where’s my Golden Arm?” moaned Jan.
The chubby boy pulled the sleeping bag up around his neck.
The animal went over to Crackers and stood within an inch or so of the dog.
“And there she was,” said Archie.
“She held the ax over her head,” said Jan as the boy dove inside his sleeping bag.
Crackers began to bark his throaty, spitty bark at the intrusive animal.
“She was makin’ out on the couch with ol’ Mark Dmitrov.”
The animal licked the dog’s nose and began to run across the yard. Crackers barked furiously at the animal and snapped his chain.
“And she brought it down and….”
Madeline stood up and began to walk across the room.
The animal had had a few feet of head start and reached the tent, and raised its tail, at the same moment Crackers arrived. The dog leapt through the air and both animals crashed through the tent.
“Cut the man’s head off!” hissed Jan, just before she was knocked over by the invading animals.
The chubby boy let out a blood curdling scream as the skunk fired its spray.
A moment or so later lights came on up and down the block in the master bedrooms of the duplexes lining Walker Drive.
The door of the Smiths’ house opened and the woman walked quickly and deliberately to her red Mustang.
“Hang on a sec’,” the sergeant said into the phone. “Somethin’s wrong.”
In another moment lights appeared in the windows and on the front porches of the houses. Flashlights appeared in front doors and began bouncing up and down as they approached, but it was the headlights from the car driving down the block that exposed the skunk a split second before it was smashed under the wheels of the Mustang.