A Simple Twist of Face
… in which Mrs. Mock finds a basement surprise.
Will and Mary dozed peacefully in the back seat. The radio played “Silent Night.”
Mrs. Mock left the motor running. Without heat in the car, the children would freeze to death on a night so cold.
Will and Mary were too gangly, too heavy, to drag up three low steps and through the back door. Mrs. Mock’s lower back knew this fact now without any question.
Frozen children – popsicle children – weren’t part of the deal with Mr. Wood. He counted on picking them up warm and toasty.
Mrs. Mock glanced at the back seat.
Visions of sugar plums. The kids looked like holiday angels, even that little hell-raiser Will. He still clutched a whole crumbled cookie in his right hand. What a greedy little boy.
Mrs. Mock quietly opened her driver-side door. The overhead light flashed on, and her hand darted to turn it off.
In case she’d forgotten the outside temperature, the cold of the solstice night nearly knocked the breath out of her. Thank goodness Lafayette didn’t have this cold-weather curse more than a week or three every winter. How did people live through winter in places like Minnesota and North Dakota?
Mrs. Mock flinched when she stood, her hand grabbing her lower back.
Loading the dead weight of two unconscious Rogers children had aggravated her chronic condition. Mrs. Mock’s sacroiliac would need hot-water bottles. Maybe physical therapy. I know, she thought, brightening, I can schedule that handsome Dr. Shack. He might do a woman a lot of good with a massage or two …
Mrs. Mock exhaled, her breath as white in the night air as an escaping soul. She managed to straighten her back completely, but she waited before doing more.
On the radio, “Silent Night” ended, and the local announcers breathlessly resumed chattering on about The Jolly Holiday celebration in downtown Lafayette. The giant tree! The 30-Santa parade! The floats and marching bands! Carved wooden Rudolphs with blinking red noses! Dozens and dozens of them!
Mrs. Mock finally eased the car door shut. She could no longer hear the giddy baritone radio voices, but she could clearly make out the artillery roll of snare drums and the oompah of tubas blocks away across town. She heard an occasional wild cheer too, like on a fairground when a big Ferris wheel lunges earthward and everyone screams at the same time.
The Jolly Holiday, Mrs. Mock mused. What a thing for Lafayette! I might still catch the parade if Mr. Wood shows up on time…
She looked at her new gold wristwatch. Diamonds twinkled around its face. A gift. From you-know-who.
Why on earth did that mysterious man want to pick up Will and Mary Rogers at her home tonight? And why did he want it to be such a secret?
Mrs. Mock entered her house through the back porch, a laundry room. She switched on the light. It showed off her prize African violets, artfully arranged on special shelves.
She passed into the kitchen, lighting it too. As always, the appliances and surfaces gleamed, spic-and-span. Beyond, in the front of the house, Mrs. Mock’s tri-color lamp changed her aluminum Christmas tree first blue, then yellow, then red. The room changed color, too.
They made things different, those changing colors. The parlor felt a little mysterious. Even a little spooky.
Mrs. Mock went into the parlor and poured herself a sherry from a cut-glass decanter she kept inside her cherry china cabinet. The lovely glass in her hand changed to blue, then yellow, then red in winter wonder-light.
Mrs. Mock indulged herself. A fantasy.
After Mr. Woods stopped by tonight, she would catch the last of the parade, then drive straight to Atlanta. She had always wanted to spend the night in that famous hotel with the restaurant on top that revolved so diners could see the big shining city of Scarlett O’Hara in 360 degrees. Mrs. Mock would order a lobster, a whole one. And a chocolate soufflé for dessert. She would buy a bottle of champagne, too, and drink the whole thing by herself. After that bubbly, she would have a different one – a bubble bath in a huge porcelain tub filled to her shoulders with hot water.
She would sleep naked in a giant hotel bed with too many pillows. The next day, she would buy a ticket and fly to Paris and live at the Ritz-Carlton for a month.
Mr. Wood had looked her in the eyes and promised that tonight he would change her life.
All she had to do was bundle two sleeping children into his car and watch them all drive away.
* * *
So Mrs. Mock’s old life, scraping and scrabbling for money and jockeying and envying for social status, would end.
Let people envy her now.
She glanced at her watch again. The diamonds twinkled like little stars of Bethlehem. Just a few more minutes now.
Mrs. Mock knew above all else that Mr. Wood would be prompt. He had been a stickler about time from their first meeting.
This very night, he opened his office door at the exact moment the cuckoo clock in his office sang out six times. He handed her the overstuffed cookie basket to start their liaison, and he gave her fastidious instructions about its delivery. He made her repeat them twice.
Then he let her play Little Red Riding Hood for him.
Oh, my, Mr. Wood. What big hands you have! What big teeth you have! What big … everything … you have!
A hot memory on a cold, cold night. Mrs. Mock would not forget their last adventure together.
She softly smiled and let a sherry sip roll down her tongue. She felt its soft hot explosion on the back of her palate. Her eyes watered just a little.
Blue. Yellow. Blood red.
Mr. Woods had dominated her. He could have eaten her up …
Blue. Yellow. Blood red.
What was that?
Mrs. Mock heard a sound. In the basement.
She put her nose once again in the sherry glass. Mrs. Mock glanced through the picture window past the Christmas tree.
Empty driveway. Mr. Wood’s car was nowhere to be seen.
She thought maybe that noise …
Mrs. Mock glanced at her watch a third time.
He was late? Mr. Wood? With those nasty kids waiting?
She felt uneasy.
What made that noise under her floorboards?
It had not been her imagination. Mrs. Mock knew this. Why, all her life she’d be told she didn’t have any imagination...
She went to the telephone. Then, she hesitated. Mr. Wood wouldn’t be happy, she knew. He had given her strict orders … and stressed them dramatically, repeatedly … to never, ever, dial his number except on Friday after dark. After his signal.
Only at the appointed hour.
Mrs. Mock drank more sherry, this time a gulp.
She calmed herself with a reminder that Mr. Wood would pull up the driveway any second. She could ask him to take a quick look around in the basement.
Mr. Wood was big, and very strong. He could take care of any problem.
How unusual that he ran late. This night, of all nights …
Mrs. Mock jumped. She nearly gave a little yelp. Her heart pounded like the drums she could hear off in downtown Lafayette.
No mistaking. Something loud moved … or fell … in her basement.
Could it be an animal? A big ugly raccoon? She hated raccoons! A wharf rat? Even worse! Could it be some nasty creature with rabies?
Mrs. Mock slowly pulled open a kitchen drawer. She lifted out a 100-year-old butcher knife.
Her knife had a history.
Its story had come down for generations. A great-great-grandmother had mortally plunged the knife into the yellow belly of a Yankee who dared enter the Mock family house in Macon, way back when. Ever since, the Mock women made sure their husbands heard that story.
She quietly set down the empty sherry glass on the kitchen counter and moved slowly down the hallway. The basement door waited on her left. She gripped the knife in her right hand, adjusting it this way and that, seeking the right grip, the right heft. If she had to use it, she would use it right.
The metal grill over the floor furnace made an aching, hissing sound when she stepped onto it.
Mrs. Mock stopped walking. She listened with all her might for any new sounds from below her feet.
The furnace light stared up her red dress with an unblinking blue eye.
Mrs. Mock’s skin crawled. She suddenly remembered making fun of Mary Rogers last year when that sickly little child got scared some scary old devil lived in the furnace.
Mary’s fear didn’t seem so ridiculous all of a sudden.
BUMP. BUMP. CLATTER.
Oh my God! Mrs. Mock thought, her terror soaring now, the knife raised over her head. There really is something down there, down the basement stairs! Something moving …
She stared down past her red shoes and into the furnace. Mrs. Mock felt her breath coming in and out in quick pants, like puppy breathing on a hot day. She clenched the knife handle so tightly it cut off the flow of blood to her fingers.
She held the knife. It protected her family in the war. It would protect her now.
BUMP BUMP BUMP.
Mrs. Mock reached the basement door in the hallway. On the other side, a rickety wooden stairway led down into that darkness. Awful place. She couldn’t remember the last time she set foot on those stairs. She always made the hired help carry boxes down and bring boxes back up. If something bit or attacked the hired help down there … well, who cared about a housemaid anyway?
Mrs. Mock placed her trembling left hand on the cold doorknob. A draft below the door licked her ankles. Her heart pounded so loud she could actually hear it, physically pumping, inside her chest.
She readied the knife. She jerked the door handle. The hinges shrieked.
Nosound at all came from the darkness below.
Mrs. Mock yanked a hanging cotton string. It lit one bare light bulb over the stairway. Dust showered down in the gloom.
An enormous shape, something like a man, stood robed in black shadows at the foot of the stairs. The figure moved slightly in the feeble light, and Mrs. Mock could see it wore a hat and a pale fringed jacket.
She made herself speak over the fearful lump in her throat.
“Dolores,” said Mr. Woods calmly. “Step down here. You’ve got to see this thing I brought you. You won’t believe it.”
Mr. Wood had never used her first name before. He pronounced it like a spell. Do-lor-es.
Dolores Mock lowered her butcher knife. She felt an ecstatic gush of relief.
It wasn’t some monster. It was Mr. Wood.
She lowered the shining blade in her hand. She put one red heel down on the top stair step. She put down a second red heel, a second step down into the darkness.
Mr. Wood ascended the stairs to meet her, the wooden slats groaning under his weight. His face smiled warmly up from under the brim of his hat. He spread his arms wide for an embrace.
He met Mrs. Mock when she was one-third of the way down the stairs.
Mr. Wood’s wide embrace narrowed. Instead of a hug, one massive hand now clasped Mrs. Mock’s face on the left side, and the other hand clasped her face on the right. He smelled sherry on her breath.
Mrs. Mock felt a beautiful tenderness in his touch. She’d never felt that before, not even once.
Such sweet tenderness...
Then Mr. Wood snapped her old head to the right, one violent motion. Mrs. Mock’s neck broke instantly. It made a muffled sound like a bone crunched in a hungry animal’s mouth.
Her petite body fell limp, and Mr. Wood let her go.
Mrs. Mock banged down the stairway, flopping three or four steps, rolling slightly sideways, coming to rest with her red riding hood dress hiked high over her hips. Her pale bottom showed.
“Those steep basement stairs,” Mr. Wood breathed loudly, excitement musking his voice. “They certainly were a safety hazard, weren’t they, Mrs. Mock?”
Her lifeless body sprawled at the base of the stairs. Mrs. Mock should have been face down, but her head was turned completely around, and her face stared up, grotesquely, eyes wide open and surprised. The rusty pipes and electric wires and cobwebs of the basement ceiling stared back at her.
Mr. Wood felt a swelling hardness in his pants.
Was there any feeling better than seeing the life disappear from a pair of human eyes, like dirty water down a drain?
Mr. Wood picked up the useless butcher knife. After a short search, he carefully hid it inside a big cardboard box filled with fuzzy yellow chicks and multicolored eggs. He chuckled out loud. Mrs. Mock must have used those silly things for Easter decorations.
Mr. Wood covered the knife over in plush yellow chicks, sealed the storage box, and tucked it away in a corner many feet from the fallen body.
He left the basement through the scuttle hole on the dark side of the house. Mr. Wood carefully closed its partly rotted wooden door behind him. As he emerged from the bushy azaleas around the entrance into the cold solstice night, he brushed a little dust and a few spider webs off his white jacket.
Though he wouldn’t be in town to see it, Mr. Wood could imagine the headline in The Lafayette Legend in a few days, when someone finally noticed Mrs. Mock’s absence from the community and came to check on her:
Socialite Dolores Mock Found Dead After Fall in Home
She would smell horrible by then, Mr. Wood thought. Just horrible.
* * *
On his return to the big white Chevy king-cab parked on an empty side street, Mr. Wood stopped to pick up Will and Mary Rogers.
Mr. Wood first switched off the engine of Mrs. Mock’s car. The heater and the radio simultaneously died, the latter smack in the middle of an important announcement: Our Jolly Holiday live coverage resumes after this brief word from Mayor Baker and The City of Lafayette, our generous sponsor of our city’s inaugural holiday event...
Mr. Wood left the car keys swinging gently in the ignition.
Just like Mrs. Mock would have done any night she returned home a little tipsy from some tea party or Garden District event.
Mr. Wood lifted Will and Mary effortlessly from the back seat, one child under each arm, like two sacks of sugar.
He walked 30 yards through Mrs. Mock’s landscaping, then came out onto the empty street. He snuggled the twins down in the back seat of his king cab. They rested with rosy faces close together, each pair of little feet touching a different side of the truck.
Mr. Wood spread a warm woolen blanket over them. It had a big green Christmas tree design, with a golden star on top.
Will and Mary slept in innocence as the white truck rumbled to life, then pulled out for a short trip into the long night of the winter solstice.