The Surprise

1.

When (and because) she felt lonely, Angela would take to kicking her husband’s slippers and shout at the furniture in his absence. In his presence she was supposed to function as a professional sunbeam that was to gleam and allay his gloom after his tiring workdays. But as certain celestial bodies absorb light without reflecting any of it, so Mr. Larson kept unconsciously robbing his wife’s life-force without reciprocating. What used to resemble Nora’s doll-house at first, slowly turned into an over-clean surface, sterilized both of dust and affection. While contracts were written and business agreements signed, the tops of drawers were polished and the tassels of carpets smoothed away with her bony hands for the thousandth time.

She could be seen in the little city’s little shopping mall doing groceries on Monday mornings, with the artificial blondness of her wig-like hairdo, her tall skinny figure amongst the rows of tins and spirits and boxes of cereals, moving without haste, but with the efficiency of the routinist. Once a long-distance runner, her dry frame was still surprisingly strong, and she was known in the shop for being able to carry three-four bags in each of her long veiny arms at a time.

2.

On that particular Monday an additional item, at variance with her custom, was also traveling home in one of her numerous shopping-bags. The breasts of an unfortunate goose, young and promisingly plump, lay within the plastic wrapper, destined to become the highlight of Mr. and Mrs. Larson’s dinner; it was their seventeenth wedding anniversary, a fact kept in mind only by the latter, the bright side of which was, still according to the latter, that it gave one the opportunity to turn it into a candlelit surprise. Mr. Larson just had to give his word well in advance not to be late for dinner just this once.

3.

It was always the clopping sound of her high heels on the marble of the ante-room that announced her arrival. A Maltese lapdog, a bundle of bleached-white hair, recalling Angela’s hairdo on four tiny feet, ran bobbing up and down on the slippery marble towards the overloaded frame of its owner. With a faint gesture of welcome and a shadow of a smile, she responded to the somewhat over-joyous reception given her by the little wig-like creature.

The abundance of marble, impersonal and everlasting, and the high ceilings resulted in a home always cold. Though there were only a few pieces of furniture so as to keep the rooms elegantly airy, the shadows of tables and chairs—reflections on the mirror-like marble—peopled the place and made it seem almost crowded. The mirror-image of Angela’s fuzzy soul-mate looked large and shapeless, as the dog kept sniffing around the shopping bags that she had placed on the shiny kitchen floor on her way to change into something cozier. Only the rattling-rustling sound of the plastic-bags and the monotonous clicking of the huge grandfather clock were audible after she had taken off her high heels and walked back noiselessly to the kitchen with only her stockings on. While the dog was accustomed to the sight of Mrs. Larson wearing nothing more than a single black pantyhose suspended with an alluring lace garter-belt, it was not the case with Mr. Larson, who left too early and arrived home too late to see his wife in anything but a baggy tracksuit fit for housework and sleep.

4.

Slippered, tracksuited, and aproned, a half an hour later she reappeared in the kitchen ready for work. She took the goose-breast from the bag and wiped the counter, which didn’t need wiping. Then, she placed the body on this operating-table of hers where the required tools and spices had already been prearranged. She methodically seasoned the meat and carefully crimped the thick white skin with steady hands. Her movements were so precise, so utterly devoid of uncertainty, that an onlooker would have thought it was a surgeon scarifying human skin. But however hard she tried to pass the time, she got ready too soon; it was only three o’clock.

She lit a cigarette and started pacing up and down the living-room, the dog’s eyes following her steps. She caught sight of the big Chinese vase, a potbellied overkill, standing in the corner. It was the wedding-gift from her former lover, who, according to her wish, had introduced himself to the bridegroom as a distant relation; an uncle of a second cousin or something. It was a slapdash cover-up to which nobody ever bothered to give a shake then or since, so it ended in standing the test of time and settling into a stately enough mischief to deserve the status of a secret. Angela’s only secret about her only lover.

Mr. Marsh was a millionaire by now; he had made his fortune in the shipping business not long after the happy union of the Larsons. Having already retired, he spent his days on a very big yacht with a very young wife.

The marble, on which Angela was lying by then, proved to be too unfriendly a surface to let her fall into a muse for longer than half her cigarette lasted; and, throwing the remainder in an ashtray, she stood up and stretched her long limbs.

5.

Mr. Larson was a man of a tolerably big heart and very little imagination. He was proud of his country, of his work, and of his wife as well. It took him time and liquor to unwind, but if he did, it was believed to be to his advantage; he would become mellow and quite affectionate, never aggressive or quarrelsome. With the earnest desire to be entertaining, he would tell a couple of well-acquired anecdotes, good-naturedly irrespective of the possibility of having told the same story to the same audience several times before. It was with the same kind of earnest intention that he aspired to be a true citizen, an exemplary boss, and a good husband. Unfortunately, it was coupled with the same obtuseness towards other people’s feelings and opinion that lay under the polite mannerisms of daily business and private intercourse. Whether he took flowers of speech and commonplaces literally, or he pretended to in order to forego complications and a necessity for afterthought, was a puzzling question to everyone who knew him.

The five o’clock Monday afternoon found Andrew (How do you do? I’m Andrew, Andrew Larson. It’s jolly good to meet you.) at his desk, looking over some of his documents with heavy eyes. He had just come back from an unnaturally late lunch—a thick stew and two stale buns—and his bowel movements reminded him of his wife and his (rashly) given promise to attend the dinner (A sure thing my darling, don’t worry yourself about it!). It seemed nauseatingly close to the heavy sauce and the multitude of beef-chunks swimming in it that he had gulped down with the greed and haste of a very hungry person just fifteen minutes before. With a lot of paperwork to finish anyway, he began to toy with the thought of calling Angela to put off a warm dinner and to ask her not to wait for him with anything cooked. Then he thought of her sulky face, the preparatory bangings of cupboards and drawers, followed by a mute dinner with the ticking of the grandfather-clock as the only audible noise accompanying the cold cuts and radish. Such a prospect was even more nauseating than the heavy stew, so he decided to show up on time, but to bring a guest to enliven the evening, to shield himself from possible eruptions of wifely wrath, and to delay the act of eating itself with aperitifs and cigars.

6.

The candles are lit, the table is set. It’s five to eight. The oval-shaped dining table is decked with all earthly goods. Carving-knife, napkin-rings and wine-glasses are arranged meticulously. The buns are covered with a crisp white cloth, and the thick dark wine is breathing in the decanter. The goose is patiently waiting in the oven; the delicious fragrance of juicy roast meat permeates the place. The atmosphere is decidedly friendly and its proud creator is cheerful and expectant. She is sitting by the table in a plum-colored evening-dress, pearls around her long white neck. Despite the relaxed attitude with which she seems to be sitting around, she still has to keep track of the time to baste the goose every once in a while to prevent it from drying out. Waiting can be a wonderful state to be in for a while; the anticipation of something good that will soon take place; nothing decided yet, options open, opportunities there, nothing spoiled yet. Angela is smiling.

7.

Half past eight. The goose has been basted three times. It is still tolerably juicy, but as to its size, it has shrunk visibly. Angela is still sitting at the table, fidgeting with her napkin. The fragrance of meat mingles with cigarette smoke. The little Maltese is sitting by the chair of its soul-mate, its muzzle resting on its tiny paws. The grandfather-clock is ticking monotonously. She stands up again and places the salad-bowl back in the fridge to keep the lettuce fresh and cool.

Now the light is turned on in the staircase, the sound of approaching steps is heard, but it soon recedes; the old lady next door has probably come back from her evening stroll with Walter, her boxer.

8.

Mr. Larson is still sitting at his desk. An important phone-call that he received at seven thirty is still keeping him, although the topic has by now mellowed; they are discussing the objectionable attitude of one of their employees with his business partner. Mrs. Sheen has repeatedly been seen leaving the office around four o’clock in the last couple of weeks. Intolerable. Mr. Larson is comfortably seated in his chair, puffing on a cigar.

The first signs of unease are detectable on his face when his assistant leaves without his having the chance to invite him over for a drink as he intended. The creeping suspicion of his being late for dinner enters his mind, and he starts squirming on his seat, occasionally emitting sounds of approval (Aha,… yes, indeed,… certainly,… I see your point, hmmhmmm) to his partner. Mr. Larson thinks of the “force of circumstance,” and of his being a busy man after all. How much more comfortable it is to sit on the couch in their elegant apartment than working late hours in a neon-lit office. She’ll have to understand.

9.

Nine fifteen. The molten wax is dripping on the table. First, like a hot, transparent teardrop, then it quickly cools and becomes dumb and opaque on the shiny table. The air is stale with cigarette-smoke, and apart from the eternal ticking of the venerable grandfather-clock, an unpleasant clicking sound joins in. It is Mrs. Larson’s wedding ring, loose on her bony finger, knocking against the wooden table as she sits by, drumming on it with her hard pointy nails. Then she gets up and walks to the oven, opens the oven-door and bastes the goose, which has shrunk to the third of its original size. It is a sad sight to behold. But instead of any show of emotion, say a healthy outburst to give vent to her frustration, her face is strangely rigid; unfeeling. Her movements are that of an automaton as she mechanically closes the oven-door, wipes her hands, and places the baster on a plate nearby.

Then, as she sits back to the table, hotness finally mounts to her cheeks and the red flush and the stale air become so intolerable at once that she violently pushes her chair back and rushes to the bay-window of their living-room. She rips it open and sticks her head out first, then half her torso is hanging out. She is glaring at the pavement six stories below, breathing in and out, in and out, fast and intense. The little dog is uneasily scratching her legs, reaching only knee-high.

10.

Mr. Larson’s steps are hastier than usual as he leaves the office-building and hails the cab that has been waiting for him. As the car is getting nearer their home, he is already equipped with soothing plans for the weekend to smooth away the wrinkles on her wife’s brow that have most likely gathered there by now. As tokens of expiation, he can always promise her to go on a golf-trip in the country or buy her a new evening-dress.

When he enters the apartment and the door shuts behind him with a loud bang, the silence of the place strikes him more friendly than hostile. There is the set table and the (still) burning candles. Though no dog is there to greet him, the sight of his home and a gradually gathering appetite encourage him. He kicks off his shoes in the dining-room and walks into the kitchen. Angela is probably there.

She is not. But the light of the oven attracts his attention and he carelessly opens the oven-door to peep in. Hot air issues forth and he quickly withdraws his face from it with a burning sensation in his cheeks, and a blur on his glasses.

He walks into the living-room and sits into an easy-chair, expecting his wife to come out of the bathroom or something. After a few “Angelaaa!…AAAngelaaaa!Hulloooaahh!”s in vain, he thinks she may have run down for a bottle of wine, or has taken the dog for a short walk. Then he becomes aware of the cool draft and notices the open window and in the back of his mind congratulates his wife for thinking about airing the place so as to get rid of the intense smell of cooking.

11.

Brooding and waiting for ten minutes is pleasant enough but after that it starts to bore him so he walks to the window to catch a glimpse at passers-by. It is very dark outside, only black shadows of trees and bushes can be seen, and a drunk leaning against a lamp-post. In the vague aura of the neon his soiled coat is visible, and so is his hat that has fallen to the ground next to him. Then, as Mr. Larson strains his eyes a little more, he discerns a strange bright spot, half sunk into the middle of the tall hedgerows that surround the parking area of the house. He is very much surprised. The spot is not really a spot, more of a big bundle of something; clothes or bags or “What the dickens can it be??.” Short-sighted, he cannot tell for sure. It resembles a bundle of hair, an old bleached wig. With half his body he is leaning out of the window, his glasses sliding down his nose, straining his eyes, when a sudden sharp bang coming from behind surprises him. He loses his balance and lets go of the window-sill.

12.

Angela, more or less refreshed after a cold bath, walks out of the bathroom, automatically directing his steps towards the oven. As she reaches the dining-room, she stumbles in her husband’s shoes that lie scattered around on the floor, taking her by surprise. She doesn’t fall, but regains her balance. After basting the ridiculously shrunken, shriveled remains of the goose, she closes the oven-door and walks back to the living-room.

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