The Care Heirs
by Kjetil Jansen, January 10th 2023
Jebediah Callender had inherited from his father Jeremiah a mahogany cane with an ivory Janus-head handle, both sides grumpy. He had also inherited a fortune, the family mansion, and Bear Creek`s largest and only brownstone building, with one hundred and thirty-six tenants, a number he had doubled. He found his way to the breakfast room and brought the cane down on the long table.
"Josaphat. Tarquin. Let us parley in the library. Wesley and…others, you stay."
They passed through winding corridors and the antechamber in silence. His secretary Secry opened the library door.
"Father. Sir." said Josaphat. "Women are not allowed in the library."
"She is not a woman. She is staff." Josaphat and Secry gave each other a look.
Inside, three walls lined with books. The fourth decorated with an oil painting of Jeremiah making a point of not reading one, using a wolf as a footstool. Jebediah got the lapels on his white morning suit in order.
"Many of the tenants have ridiculously small windows, due to how we sectioned up the flats. I suggest a refurbishment."
"As they constantly break down, I suggest we double the number of toilets from one per floor to two. The water pressure is also extremely low. Isn`t it strange how poor people smell of cabbage?"
Jebediah controlled his ire. Succession. It is never easy. He snapped his fingers. Secry hurried out the door, plaid dress swooshing, bringing back a tall, gaunt man in a brown corduroy jacket with elbow patches, carrying a doctor`s bag. "Your Tiffany lamp vestibule is a feast for the eyes," he smirked.
"Boys." said Jebediah. "You remember doctor Edelfleisch. Totally unrelated to your reports, he has kindly put upon himself to cure your fear of water once and for all."
"How wonderful of him," said Tarquin.
Edelfleisch began to pace the room, building momentum to get his voice shrill. "As children, under my supervision, Josapath was the one with the aquaphobia. As an exposure therapy specialist, I decided to waterboard him extensively. Tarquin, not a sufferer, how he swam and laughed, I also waterboarded, but with milk. You must have a control group. That, and the willingness to experiment, is the basis of all science."
As he got more agitated, he began to kick at books. "This fear. This fear must be eradicated. A wealthy man`s spawn not able to enter a yacht or attend a regatta. Inconceivable. No more fear!"
"Please don`t hurt the books," said Secry as she reached beside a shelf.
"Did a woman just speak?"
"Never mind her. Josapath! Lift it higher, Secry. This is the original surfboard used during the filming of the 1959 classic Gidget. After watching it in its entirety on a DVD-cassette in the parlor atrium, you will venture to Bear Creek Beach and start surfing. I want to see noodle arms, so don`t be a paddlepuss!
"Yes father. Sir."
"The waves are your friends," Edelfleisch roared after him.
"Tarquin. You will travel to Niagara Falls and swim in the rapids leading to the waterfall. Don`t wince and don`t interrupt. You are more apt to be hit by a derelict hidden in one of those stupid barrels going over the top, than getting hurt by the stream. Just before the water breaks, there is an eye of the storm, a lagoon of calm, blue and inviting, yes where the local young girls often frolic, comparing breast sizes as girls do. Arrangements have been made. Leave."
"Thank you, father."
"Any fears, woman?" said Edelfleisch.
"No. I`m good," said Secry.
The doctor began to circle her. "Let me guess. High anxiety. Rats. Snakes. I have a tiger python in my bag. I will let you touch it."
"No, thank you."
"It is not slimy, as you think. It is dry, and smooth. Don`t give in to your fear. Touch my snake. Touch my snake!"
He embraced the bag, fumbling with the lock. He looked inside and lost his stride. "In future, I will avoid snake and rat together. Rest in peace, Tony Danza."
"What kind of doctor are you anyway?"
"That was never proven!" He stormed out.
"If you don`t mind me asking," said Secry, "why are the books all identical? Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham."
"They are not identical, as anyone can see. They are all different editions, languages even. My dear father, bless him, collected them all, believing that somewhere there was a version that contained bondage. Maugham, that fraud! I am happy Edelfleisch kicked them. Sometimes I do it myself. Here. The Pocket Books` Cardinal 1952 edition, 4`th printing, June 1954. 'With a new introduction by the author written especially for this abridged edition'. Yeah? Take that, you coward! Why didn`t you expand it, with some real action. Secry, why are you still here, I need to do my kicking alone."
Secry left him to it, returning four hours later, finding Jebediah asleep on top of a pile of books. "Mr. Callender. There is something on the television entertainment center you need to watch."
Jebediah caned himself past the ice art room to the parlor atrium. The tv showed a spectacled and bearded beatnik in puffer vest and flannel shirt standing on a stone wharf in front of the up hoisted carcass of a hammerhead shark. He was talking to a reporter off-screen.
"Usually, sharks target menstruating women, but this brutal and cynic attack shows that no-one is safe, even not surfers with retro wood boards, innocent and looking for fun, something these evil and atheist monsters of the sea will not stand for."
"Not for me to contradict a marine biologist, but Josaphat Callender was reportedly killed by a great white."
"Aha! That`s what they want you to think." The beatnik smiled, revealing some great white pearls of his own.
"My research shows there is only one kind of shark, or none at all, as they are shapeshifters from Gnarlamox, a cube formed planet inside Jupiter."
"I see. With such a structure and such a name their intentions are sinister?"
"What`s your name?"
"You catch on fast, Ralpfh."
Jebediah found the way to his chambers, changing into a grey, double-buttoned suit. As his father, he believed a man`s clothes ought to get progressively darker as the day went on. He felt a touch of fatigue but chased it away. The culling must go on. He used to have four brothers himself, but this is how a family business survives, you cannot divide and dilute the power.
He needed a bowel moment but found no time. The day such an action becomes the highlight of your day, is the day you should retire. He passed through the catacombs and the vomitorium to the dining room. As at breakfast, there was a bit of a crowd he didn`t quite understand.
"Yes, father. We seem to have a mold problem spreading from the damp basement to the lower floors at a rapid rate. I suggest we move the tenants around while we deal with this situation. You know, I saw a small girl sitting on the front steps eating a juicy slice of cabbage. I thought she had a birthmark on her face, but it turned out to be dirt."
"Interesting. Let us parley in the greenhouse gazebo at once. No, Secry…and others, you sit. Enjoy your oatmeal and oysters."
They sat down in the gazebo. "Wesley, my Wesley. As this problem surely is cabbage related, I will send you on a mission. Up north, past the fields of Tornadoville and Trilbardou, a legend lives, the legend of the mold healing golden cabbage. Bring me one. You leave at sunset."
"Sunset it is, father. I`ll bring you the bestest cabbage, you`ll see."
"He fell for it," Jebediah said. No answer from the greenhouse walls. "Secry! I can see you, behind the cycad."
"Yes, fall he did. Your fiendish ruse he saw through not. Heh-heh-heh."
"Nice one, Secry."
My sojourn five days in, I reflect. The corn fields, so wondrous to pass. The simple farmers giving me rides in their tractors and combine harvesters. Too often, other simple farmers fail to get away from the advancing combines and get caught in the threshers. The combines are programmed to play a jaunty calliope tune to ease their deaths. At a Friday night barn hootenanny, I heard the melody expanded. It even had a title. I am being crushed by something, and I hope it`s only Love. The joint was jumping.
I don`t read music, but as I travel on, I hear variations. Honkytonk. Bluegrass. Minor discords. Bold use of what I believe is called the tritone. There must be some sort of cross-pollination between the individual farms, also some feed-back to the combine manufacturers, creating unique confluence. The longer caught under a tractor songs are laments, reminiscing a time when you were not caught under a tractor and at the same time looking forward to rescue or death. They tend to use John Deere/My Dear/Dear John Letter/I once shot a Deer wordplay.
I intend to come back doing field recordings after I have accomplished my golden mission.
"You know, the frolicky lagoon was a bit deserted and streamy that day. Lucky for me, I hitched a ride in a barrel as it went over. I say, what a rush."
"Oh Tarquin. We must celebrate your return. Secry! This is the original surfboard from Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Use it. Like now."
"At the beach the cool kids call Boardbite Beach? Already there."
Other circumstances the same, the hammerhead was bloated and covered with flies.
"Gnarlamox, you better watch out. Humans are coming. Death and destruction!"
The biologist scratched his full beard as others would a goatee. "Well, we should. In the meantime, every woman should stop having sex with others and start having sex with me."
"You must be a cult leader to rule that."
"Right. I`ll make a note of that. Start…a…cult. I guess I must get myself a house."
"A compound. Cults have compounds. And you should have the cult up and running before you do the sex move."
"Yes. You are so helpful, Ralpfh!"
As Ralpfh did the back to the studio thing, the hammerhead exploded, just as the anchorman said, "Take my wife, please!"
Passing Trilbardou, I noticed the first spots of cabbages among the corn. As days went by, the spots became clusters, and now no corn, only endless fields of cabbage. The simple farmers are so simple they harvest by hand. In their strange patois, they feign ignorance about the legend. Always a little further to sojourn to someone who might know.
Now, off the map and off the grid, I find myself in a spot of bother. I am caught between two rivers of cabbage, unable to cross. I managed to kill one, but before I could skin it, the flies spoiled the meat. As I weaken, my thoughts blur together, but I also have moments of profound clarity. Oh, if I had something to write on and something to write with, I could reach mankind with my newfound wisdom!
Flies circling. Very weak. Didn`t find golden cabbage, perhaps golden cabbage was inside me all the time. I take my leave……tilt!
"What a zap!"
"Don`t mind me, Secry. I was thinking about the old Batman television broadcast. Sound effects right there on the screen! Really the golden age of television. Not to be confused with the gilded age of television when television didn`t exist." He did the cane bang. "Well. No more sons. Time to sell out."
Secry coughed. "You do have two more sons, Mr. Callender. At this very table."
Jebediah did a double take. "Yes, I have wondered about those chaps down at the end. I assumed they were the resident chimney sweeps or a result of my stints with some charwoman or chamber pot chambermaid. Speak up! You, the pretty one."
"I am Gork."
"And I am Pnpp, your most youngest child. And she is Syb."
"Why are you pointing your silly hand at Secry? Syb? The daughter child? I thought you were just skulking and brooding somewhere in the mansion. Why this masquerade?"
"I was skulking, yes. Tired of you mumbling something about why did we give them the right to vote every bleeding day. When I interviewed for secretary, I had a wig made, I put in brown contact lenses, I even changed my perfume. As weeks passed, I slowly changed back to my old self. You didn`t even notice."
"All three to the library. Now."
Climbing the escher stairs, he got them to repeat their names. "And is Syb short for Sybil?"
He shook his head. "Your mother really lost it near the end."
"Perhaps not. Perhaps she was tired of having children. She met you at thirty-six and was not prepared to be your heir machine. She tried to send you a signal."
"You women and your signals. Well. Here we are. No. I want to talk to Syb only."
"Father, please how is mother?" asked Pnpp. He looked like he wanted to pee.
"Pnpp. How common of you to speak out of turn," said Gork.
Pnpp brushed him off. "Is she still at the farm where women with tired wombs go to rest?"
"Yes, son and she is very happy."
"Is she close to the farm where Sparky is?"
"They are adjacent."
Jebediah closed the door with force. "The future looks bright," he rumbled.
"Send me to the brownstone," said Syb.
"My dear Syb. I have watched you all these years. Your absence of virtues is repelling. You have an aquiline nose. You can`t sing. If you oversaw the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, it would end up the size of a postage stamp. You roast a turkey less well than another turkey would. You make the clavichord sound like the harpsichord!"
"Nose? Yet you admire Gidget."
He caned a Maugham. "Gidget was just for…recreational purposes. Spunky women are hot. "
"Strong, demure, defiant, accommodating, easy, difficult. Able, non-able. We can`t win."
"What is there to win?"
"Oh. So now you pretend there is no game." A silence passed between daughter and father. "I did hide for a while. In the room with the old model railway. The power disconnected. Dust. You haven`t even bothered to cover it up. My only clear memory of mother. Laughing. Pointing at the trains. So many, so fast. Almost crashed, but never did. At night I fantasized about trains gliding, with that beautiful wispy noise they make, through the house with tracks leading to my room, bringing me treats, keeping me company."
"I abhor sentimentality."
"Yeah, I have noticed. Have a look at this." She handed him a Maugham. "I found it."
"What do you mean you found it?"
"This library is not a collection of failure; it is a concealment of victory. I searched through old papers, and already in 1922, seven years after Of Human Bondage was published, I found correspondence between your grandfather Joshua Callender and Maugham, culminating in a letter of payment of the sum of four hundred and fifty guineas.
"He made him write it. And you found it."
"Already on page four, Emma the nurse will be quite hot under her bustle. There is a style clash, and I suspect he used a ghost writer, it could even be a young Noël Coward. Funny, as you called Maugham a coward, remember. A close dialogue comparison-"
"Syb! How dare you!"
"Very well. But take Gork and Pnpp with you."
"Nice to see you in a white dress this morning. The eager beaver snatches the worm from the early bird."
"Good morning, Papa. There will be plenty of time for dark wear in the days to come, believe me. No caning today?"
"With only two at the table, why bother. Report."
"I have given this a lot of thought, and I think my brothers were right. I will add fixing the wiring and the rotten floorboards and making stairs instead of using a system of ropes. During the estimated four years of reconstruction, we will install our tenants in available apartments and hotels, covering the bill, after deducting our rent."
"Interesting. I so wanted to keep the surfboard from Big Wednesday. What do you say? Some gnarly waves today. Wait. That is your mother`s smile. Report."
"Just after midnight, we locked ourselves into the building. Armed with a bucket of gasoline provided by the insurance company, we set the place ablaze. Alas, as he was leaving, Gork took a stumble and his foot got caught in the not as empty as it should have been bucket. Him not being able to keep still made the situation worse. He sauntered down the street as the fire licked at his body. His flesh began to ooze and fuse with his clothes. Still on his feet, he was fatally hit by a trolley, as a movie company was rehearsing a shot for The Trolley Problem. His screams will haunt me. Inside, Pnpp fell through the floor and into the basement, to land backside first into the jaws of a mechanical white shark."
"Poor people often have peculiar hobbies."
"Yes. As he struggled to get free, he hit a mechanism and the jaws began to chomp and grind until teeth met teeth. He screamed too."
"What about the tenants?"
"Their cabbage diet has made them nonflammable. Well, kind of. They are still among the ruins, sifting through their burnt stuff, moaning to reporters. The fire department and the police have ruled the fire an act of Baby Jesus. What do you say we combine our dear departed into a cost-effective mass funeral?"
"It is what they would have wanted. This Secry and Syb merger. It is not unbecoming. Could you pass me the deep-fried rhubarb?"
They finished a hearty meal as the sun crept the table. Jebediah belched in a way that made Syb chuckle. "I am curious," he said. "How did you become the capable one?"
Syb took a moment before answering. "I realized it is not about hating the poor or showing off to other rich people. It is all about leisure. To be able to afford a room filled with the same novel, or clavichords, if you so want. The poor are just a means to this end."
"On that note, I think I will retire for a couple of hours."
Syb grinned. "With a spunky book?"
"Perhaps I should grab one of the originals. I have never read it, and it might make the spunky version more enjoyable."
"Worth a try."
He got to his feet. "And later, we can make plans to add some more railway tracks, perhaps have a second train room and connect them. Trains coming through in the most unexpected places."
"Oh daddykins, I could kiss you! But I won`t. I didn`t say that."
"See you in a bit, kiddo."
Dressed for bed, he unscrewed the top of the cane. The hidden dagger. Ice pick sharp. Syb. Better be prepared. The next culling could be his. He laid down on the sheets, steel hidden among the pillows. A minute later he changed his mind and put the dagger back into the cane.
The natural order is for children to die before their parents, but not if the children is your only child. And heir. He smiled. It took him back, all those years sleeping with one eye open. Come what may. Syb? Or the poor, pitchforks in hand? He began to laugh into his pillows, bellows of mirth. That will be the day!