Albert J. Manachino
“I wish that you would speak to those people next door.”
Vera’s lips were tightly drawn into their habitual viselike pout. They had been, ever since she decided that she had gotten a rotten deal in marrying me. I disclosed my face from behind the newspaper.
“What have the people next door been doing now?” I asked.
“You know what they’ve been doing – don’t deny it. You can’t be that dense. That … brontosaurus they keep in their back yard!”
“It’s their back yard,” I pointed out in as reasonable a tone as I could muster.
She exploded, as I expected her to, “I knew it! I knew it! You have no consideration for my feelings – always the other people. You don’t care that I can’t sunbathe on that side of the house with that thing … you don’t care that …”
I interrupted. “Why can’t you sunbathe on that side of the house?”
“The ugly thing looks over the hedges.”
For a moment I had to consider whether she meant the bronto or the neighbor. I took a chance and decided she meant the bronto.
“It can’t very well help it. My understanding is that they are at least three stories high.” Actually, she meant that it looked in on her and her boyfriend’s hanky pankys. “Is this your complaint or is it Harold’s? Because, you know, he can very well bring it up with the neighbor himself.”
Her temper boiled over like a forgotten tea kettle on an open flame. “Who said anything about Harold? What has he got to do with this?”
“Well, you mentioned how sensitive he is.”
“Of course he’s sensitive; he’s an artist. How dare you suggest he speak to that uncouth … that lowbrow … that …? Do you want his artistic creativity ruined? Is that what you want? He won’t be able to do anything after …”
“He doesn’t do much now,” I objected.
Harold was ten years younger than Vera and hung around mostly for the free meals and occasional handout. She was deadly serious, but he always went into shock whenever she brought up their prospective futures together. He hadn’t earned a hundred bucks since the army kicked him out as a congenital incompetent. From my viewpoint, he didn’t have much of a future even as a bagman and my dear wife’s tastes were geared to something a little less modest.
“You’ve always disliked him, haven’t you?” she rambled on. “Because he is something you’ll never be.”
“Not to split hairs,” I said, “I didn’t dislike him before he came into my life. You’re right about one thing, I’ll never be a bum and a loafer.”
She ended the argument by storming out of the room.
But that wasn’t the end of it. She brought up the brontosaurus again later, insisting, “It’s an eyesore. It shades the house and its breath smells awful.”
“Its breath smells awful? Surely, not any worse than Harold’s?”
“And it’s dangerous,” she almost screamed.
“Why dangerous? You said Al kept it tied up.”
“I knew it! You haven’t even looked.” There was a well cultivated sob in her voice. “Some day, those two bratty granddaughters of his will go too far and it will eat someone.”
“You mean they tease it? That’s nonsense. Brontos are vegetarians … herbivorous, I think the word is.”
Later I looked up “brontosaurus” to verify my statement. It was on page 700 of the National Encyclopedia, under “dinosaurs”. It was estimated to weigh twenty tons. A giant lizard of the Jurassic period. Its feet were plantigrade which meant it walked flat-footed instead of on its toes. It left footprints the size of swimming pools. The article ended with, “…estimated to be extinct at least 110,000,000 years.”
I don’t know why Vera carried on the way she did. She was not pulling my leg as she has no sense of humor whatever. Anyhow, there was no such thing as brontosauruses … or was it brontosauri? To be doubly positive, I went around to the back yard. It was getting dark but I scarcely needed a magnesium flare to see by. My neighbor’s yard was empty. True, there was a big iron stake driven into the ground, but that was undoubtedly for that big gluttenous animal that passed itself off as their dog. Nor did I hop the fence between our properties to look for swimming pool sized footprints. I’m not in the Sherlock Holmes business.
Harold was the next to bring up the subject. I’m fat and balding. I’m near-sighted and sloppy, but one look at him makes me realize I’m not that badly off. Which is the only reason I tolerate him. He appeared before me unexpectedly, kneading that cuspidor-shaped hat nervously with hands that still had to see their first wash. He began the interview with that nervous laugh I detest,
“Mr. Klambiter ….”
I laid my cigar aside and looked up. He was still the same blown-out, ragged tramp he had always been. Not that I expected changes. His clothes were too small and the gaps and rents in them threatened to reveal that which public decency laws prohibit. He was unshaven, unwashed and smelled like a gorilla in heat.
“What is it?”
“Sir …” He gave the hat a twist, “That animal next door …”
I presumed he couldn’t pronounce “brontosaurus”.
“Vera says that if you don’t do something about it, she will.”
“Ah! I assume she motivated this interview?”
“Err … well, yes, she did.”
“Harold,” I said decisively, “have you seen this ‘animal’?”
“Well … err … no, I can’t say that I have, Sir.”
“Just as I thought! Have you ever considered that my wife, as artistic as she is, may be a victim of unbridled imagination?”
“Oh, no, sir!” He was genuinely horrified. “I think that she really sees something.”
“Well, you know how it is with women, their minds run in convoluted channels. What did she say this creature was?”
“A bronto … a bron …..”
“Yes! That’s it!”
I opened the National Encyclopedia to page 700 and showed him the page. “What does it say there under dinosaur?”
Harold read laboriously. “…extinct at least 110,000,000 years.” He looked confused.
I explained. “That means there isn’t any such critter. Not now, anyway.”
He seemed relieved, as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The thought crossed my mind that Vera had browbeat him into sneaking next door and unshackling the bronto so that it would wander away and get lost.
Harold left the room twisting the cuspidor hat in his hands. I could see he was fairly bursting to unload this information on my wife. But, I didn’t think that he would get off that easy.
Vera, you can imagine, did not drop the subject. Once she gets her teeth into something, she does not let go. She opened our next conversation with, “So you aren't going to do anything about that creature?”
“You mean, Harold?”
“The brontosaurus next door,” she corrected me in a frigid voice.
“My dear,” I responded pacifically, “I looked. There is no brontosaurus next door that I can go to the civil authorities and complain about.”
“A fat lot you see. The twins were training it to bring in the newspaper, two hours ago.” The twins she referred to were our neigbor's offspring.
“Now, that’s ridiculous. How can a twenty-ton animal get through the door with a newspaper?”
“He sticks his head through the window.”
“Even if there was a bronto next door,” I protested, “there is no law against owning one.”
“All right, if you won’t do anything, I’ll have Harold take care of it.” With such dire ultimatum, she left.
Harold did not show up the next day. Nor the next, and the week that followed. My next-door neighbor met me at the fence.
“Hi, Goldy,” he said. “Do you recognize this?”
He offered Harold’s cuspidor hat on the end of a stick, for my inspection. I had to admit that it looked familiar but hedged my reply by adding that I couldn’t remember for sure.
I shook my head and replied, “No doubt it belongs to some degenerate kid. I can’t imagine anyone in their right mind wearing anything like that.”
My neighbor shrugged his shoulders as if the matter was of no concern, and, no doubt, it wasn’t to him.
“OK, I’ll chuck it into the garbage can. It looks as if it was worn by someone who changed engine oil for a living.”
This was the whole of my conversation with Al. In case I’ve neglected to mention it, that his name. His wife called him in to lunch at that moment. He’s really something. If anyone could come up with a dinosaur, it would be him. He even found something rarer, a wife that can cook.
Naturally Vera fussed and fretted over the missing Harold, that to me was like lamenting a chancre. She seemed to accept my suggestion that his disappearance was caused by an acute case of ankular pneumonia terminating in cold feet. She ignored my suggestion about the missing person’s bureau.
I promised her, “He’ll show up again when he needs a meal or a small loan.”
Seriously, I doubted that he ever would show up again, as the stains on the old hat did not look like engine oil to me.
The dinosaur became an obsession with Vera. She seldom thought or talked about anything else. This evening she stormed in and complained that the twins were teaching it to roll over and play dead and to catch Frisbees. According to her, the girls started originally with a baskeball but the dinosaur either swallowed it or punctured it.
“So what’s wrong with that? Kids are supposed to have a close relationship with their pets. It makes them better citizens.”
“Do you understand what twenty tons of reptile can do when they make it roll over? And when it jumps to catch a Frisbee?”
This sounded ridiculous. A brontosaurus has about one hundred feet of neck. Why would it need to jump to catch anything? I went to the window and looked out. There wasn’t so much as a sparrow to be seen fluttering around in my neighbor’s yard. The grass was trampled but that was to be expected when you turn a couple of hyperactive pre-teenagers loose in it. I’m no fanatic about manicuring lawns and shrubbery until they look like magazine layouts.
“So, where’s the bronto?” I asked.
“They took it around to the other side of their house,” Vera said in a thoroughly exasperated voice. “Aren’t you going to do anything I ask you to?”
“I’m thinking.” I opened the window and inhaled the aroma of roast beef and gravy that came from their kitchen. With a sigh, I shut the window again. “What’s for dinner?”
“All you think of is your stomach.”
“Somebody’s got to think of it. I’ll ask you again; what’s for dinner?”
“What we always have, cottage cheese and raw carrot sticks.” She ripped off the ornamental apron she wore when she wanted to give an impression of a martyred housewife. “It looks as if I’ll have to take things into my own hands.” Which was as good an exit line as any.
The next day, Al presented himself at the front door with an aluminum baking pan – the throwaway kind. He held it out to me.
“Know what this is?” he asked.
I have to admit I wasn’t sure; it was so long since I’d seen a cooking implement in my house. I ventured a guess. “It looks like a baking pan.”
He smiled. “That’s right. Do you know what’s in it?”
I hadn’t the faintest idea. The contents were a mess that looked like bread left to soak overnight in water. I sniffed the pan and moved to stick a finger in it. Al moved it away.
A frown formed on my face. “It smells like rat poison.”
I think it is. There were a couple of dead squirrels beside the pan where I found it.”
“ I was only guessing,” I hastened to disclaim any pretense of expertise. “I though rat poison was a slow acting thing – gives the rats time to get back into their nests before they croak.”
“Well, there are rat poisons and there are rat poisons. Some of them won’t give you enough time to belch.”
“Where did you find it?” I asked.
“In my back yard … about where I found that hat. I even found a bow and a quiver of arrows there.”
I reasoned that Vera had had more than one crack at the brontosaurus. “Do you think your wife knows who this pan belongs to?” he inquired.
“We can always ask.” I turned toward my house and yelled for Vera. There was no response. I knew she wouldn’t be sleeping at this time of the day. I offered as a suggestion, “Maybe she went shopping?”
“Her car is in the garage.”
“It is? Well, that means she must be around somewhere. Come on in and make yourself comfortable while I look.”
I led him to the kitchen and gave him a bottle of celery tonic to keep him amused while I searched for Vera. The search was unsuccessful; she wasn’t home. I did stop off in the gameroom to ascertain that her archery set was missing.
“The garbage cans are at the curb,” I hinted delicately as I steered Al to the door.
“All right, I’ll drop it into one of them,” he said agreeably.
Vera had not returned home by midnight. Of course, I did a bit of speculating. It was no strain on my imagination to picture her sneaking up on an imaginary brontosaurus in the dead of night with a pan of poisoned bread. She shouldn’t have been in any danger, even if there had been a bronto. Brontos were herbivorous, weren’t they? Or, were they. The thing is, there could not have been a dinosaur there to begin with, so what was she trying to get rid of? I’ll probably never know.
After a lapse of several months, I placed an ad in a singles newspaper, to the effect, “Personable male in his forties desires to meet personable widow or lady in approximately the same age group. Must be serious-minded and a non-smoker. Must like pets and be able to cook.”
Albert J. Manachino
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The Albert J. Manachino Series