Lost in the Cornfield

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Chapter 2: Getting Acquainted

Moving day was bright and sunny. For the new arrivals the day bore great promise. The neighborhood’s typical Saturday exuberance had been muted, buzzing with an undertone of shock and concern as news circulated about the four missing boys. Children anxiously watched their parents, hoping trick-or-treating could go on as planned. A patrol car limped past the turn to Center Lane, avoiding a tipped over trash can. As it passed near the curb, streamers of toilet tissue grazed its side when it moved under the branches of a small tree.

Neither of the new neighbors on Center Lane had heard a word about it, even on the radio as they drove in to the Earthly Delights Development. Only three houses had been built on Center Lane and they were at the end of the lane where the street opened up into a neat cul-de-sac. Two of the houses, facing one another on the left and right, were small plain two-bedroom ranch homes, distinguishable only in color--one was green and the other blue. In between these houses, at the rear of Center Lane and set back a little, was a sprawling white colonial whose backyard disappeared into the corn field. Its front lawn unfolded like a green carpet. For some time, up until today, the colonial had been the only occupied residence on Center Lane.

Around eleven a.m. a variety of vans, station wagons, and U-hauls turned into Center Lane. Father Henry Oliver Pauley got out of a battered Chevy and clasped his hands and smiled. He had dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, but still wore his clerical collar. Some of his new parishioners and also one or two of his friends were helping him move. He strode over to the blue ranch, remembering that he wore his house key about his neck.

Father Pauley (they called him Hoppy at the seminary) had been a member of the Episcopal clergy for twelve years. He had fallen into disfavor with his last congregation, the First Episcopal Church in Highland, some seventy miles upstate.

In one of his rare attempts to assert himself in his career, Henry proposed longer sermons and less emphasis on upcoming fund drives and meetings and sagebrush dances and pancake brunches and Yankee baked bean suppers. His parishioners complained and got him in trouble with the Bishop. Not only did the Bishop caution him to limit his sermons to eight minutes, but the service was lengthened for even more announcements. After about a year, just when he felt he had gotten the hang of it, he was reassigned to a smaller church about two miles from Earthly Delights. Demoralized and disillusioned, he finally decided that he hadn’t tried hard enough. Bishop Thomas had said, “we have to maintain a certain perspective on things.” Henry wondered, but didn’t inquire about the man he was replacing, and the Bishop offered no explanation.

For most of his adult life Henry guiltily sought the pursuit of spirituality, as a refuge, a haven. So far, he had failed to realize that such a pursuit was not possible without the strong conviction of one’s beliefs.

Henry came to Center Lane at low ebb, in melancholy spirits, at a loss to decide where to turn for help or guidance. He called his old mentor, Fr. Carson Knight, whom he secretly referred to as his “tormentor,” for advice. Fr. Knight was less than helpful, hardly remembering a student named Pauley until Henry told him that he was the one who stumbled through his sermon and the liturgy and the communion whenever Fr. Knight evaluated him from the back pew. “Oh yes, I remember now: the “pastor of disaster.”

It wasn’t exactly a crisis of faith these days. God was still in his heaven. But Henry, one of his poor caretakers on earth, wrestled more and more with his loneliness, his inability to connect with people. He considered his congregations, social events, and programs over the years, concluding that he had been mostly going through the motions.

Across the court, Dr. Helen Fleize emerged from a new gray Volvo and was about to be assisted by some of her more successful patients with whom she remained in contact. Both Father Pauley and Dr. Fleize shared a vague awareness of the novelty that the “other” new owner had arrived at the same time. Helen marched up to the green ranch and, about the same time as Henry, became perplexed when her key would not unlock the front door. Henry experienced the same difficulty.

Helen looked at the ground and shook her head. She must really cut back on her case load, she thought. Of course there had been the pressure of the divorce. Well, a little pressure anyway. Adjusting wasn’t much of a problem. Her husband, whom she had met at a cross-counseling session, was also a psychiatrist. In addition to, in Helen’s view, failing as a life partner, he had not achieved much professionally. Helen wanted to restore her maiden name to her practice, but hadn’t yet found the time. “Fleize” was everywhere: letterhead, business cards, her office door. Her husband was still an unwelcome presence, but he had provided her with one advantage: his mediocrity enhanced the perception of her own competence and, in some cases, had even contributed to the advancement of her career. Still, Helen felt it had never been easy. There had been the failed affair with the British doctor at medical school. She finished only in the upper 25% of her graduating class (still higher than her eventual husband).

As if the stress of managing a mental health career plus a shaky marriage weren’t enough, a series of nightmares continued to plague Helen. These terrifying dreams left a broken trail all the way back to her childhood, to a single day of unspeakable horror, at least for the child she had been. Yet, the memory of it haunted her as though she were still a child. During periods of stress, the memory came back to her in her dreams, as vividly as if it happened yesterday. She shook herself free from her thoughts and squinted at the gangly fellow across the way who appeared, to say the least, confused.

Henry tapped his forehead with a fist and smiled self-deprecatingly. He really did need the Lord to watch over him, he thought. The two looked across the court at each other as they realized their error.

“Hi,” Henry called. He started to cross over as Helen met him half way. Henry was tall and gawky and had crusty, flaky skin. Although only forty-two, he could have been taken for fifty. By contrast, Helen, about the same age, was short and smooth. Her face glistened with an array of facial moisturizers and make-up.

“I get the green one,” said Henry, laughing. “Isn’t amazing that we both made the same mistake?”

“I suppose it is,” said Helen, maintaining a cool detachment, “but what probably happened was that one of us--I don’t know which--made the error first and the other sub-consciously reacted to it by going to the other house.” Helen wanted to bite her tongue. She just couldn’t keep her mind off her work.

Henry ignored the comment and then lamented that he hadn’t given it more consideration. “I’m Father Pauley. Call me Henry. I was transferred and now they’ve gotten around to moving me to the town of my parish. I begin services a week from tomorrow.”

A distinct cloud passed over Helen’s features. A man of the cloth, she thought, staring at his collar, someone who would be infuriatingly certain of everything. “How do you do? I’m Dr. Helen Fleize. I’m a psychiatrist.” There was a cold edge to her voice, but she was conscious of it. She felt she had to be like that with people who didn’t or couldn’t possibly view things her way. Maybe the people in the colonial would be more interesting. Henry was unperturbed by her attitude, if he even noticed.

“After we get settled later,” said Henry, “we ought to have a little supper. Together. I like to cook. My treat.”

Or trick, wondered Helen who regarded Henry with amusement. What could this bachelor-minister have in mind anyway? It must have been a long time since he--well, never mind, thought Helen. She considered for a few seconds and decided she’d take him up on his offer--out of professional curiosity. Besides, she hated to cook.

“Lovely neighborhood, isn’t it?” said Henry, scanning the cul-de-sac and noting the leftovers from last night’s Mischief Night orgy: scraps of toilet paper, egg shells, spent stink bomb shells. He paused when he noticed tufts of straw here and there, skittering along the sidewalk and street in the early morning breeze. When he turned to face Helen, she was staring at the white colonial.

“Know anything about them?” Helen nodded.

“No, actually. Did you see them when the realtor showed you around?”

“No, I think he told me they were away on a long vacation.”

“Funny, I was told the same thing when I was here last month.”

“I first came to see the place back at the end of the summer.”

Just then, the bustling sounds of the moving crews were swallowed up by a stereo blasting the opening sequence of ‘Night on Bald Mountain’, not the very beginning, but a few seconds in, at the climax of the first crescendo. It sounded as powerful as the trumpeting of the Apocalypse.

“God,” said Helen, “that’s some sound system.”

“Oh my, it is rather loud,” added Henry, checking his watch. “Mussoursky, I believe.”

“Of course,” Helen added meaninglessly.

As suddenly as it had come on, the music abruptly ended with the sound of someone dragging the stylus across the surface of the recording. This was followed by a deep moan, a thump, and the breaking of glass. Seconds later, the front door flew open and out stomped a woman, late fortyish, in a flowing pink night gown. Her features were puffy, almost swollen.

It had gotten so quiet--all the movers had stopped to look--that everyone could hear the tinkle of ice in the short stubby glass she clutched. She marched down the front path, stopping every few seconds and turning to look back as if trying to put a measured distance between herself and the house. When finally satisfied, she set her glass, having spilled not a drop, on a post with a horse’s head, and began what seemed like a planned performance.

“Marvin! You realllly sicken me. You’re a lousy fat worm. Good for nothing! You hear me, Marvin? A lousy stinking maggot fat worm. A rotten lousy stinking fat useless fucking worm!”

“Jesus!” a voice cried from inside, “you want to shut that oral cesspool of yours? What did I do?”

“You’re a worm, that’s what you did.”

“And you’re a drunken bitch, Ernestine,” said the voice wearily.

“Drunk?” The woman turned about to face the new neighbors, the vans, wagons, and the odd dozen or so movers who stood spellbound. When Ernestine took notice of the audience, she perked up even more. “Drunk?” she repeated more shrilly, her eyes filling with tears, “you got me started with that ‘sophisticated’ crowd you hung out with. A bunch of old cocks guzzling themselves blind and,” she paused, drawing a bit closer to the audience, “passing dope around--those impotent geezers. Can you believe it?”

“How do you know they’re impotent?” cried Marvin.

“You’d know better than me, you swine. Don’t think I don’t know what went on all those Saturday afternoons at the Club in that private room. ’Do Not Disturb”. It’s a wonder I haven’t picked up AIDS.”

“That should be easy. You pick up everything else.”

“You’re such a pig, Marvin. Where’s the old gang, Marvin. The old farts you hung out with?”

“Speaking of hanging out, how about those skimpy outfits? At your age--they all got tired of looking at you hanging out. It’s enough to make a grown man gag.”

“You scum!” Ernestine marched back a ways toward the house. “Better lock your bedroom tonight. I’ll come in and cut off your ‘club member’--if I can find it!”

“Take up with a junkyard dog if it’ll have you.”

Marvin appeared by a side door near the garage. He was a short squat man with a sizable belly. He had a deep tan and wore a red polo shirt and a captain’s hat. He quickly waddled over to a red sports car, plopped in, and tore out of the driveway, tires screeching wildly. Marvin slowed for an instant as he bounced out into the street, and Ernestine hurled her glass at him. Everyone watched a watery trail of vodka and ice as it glimmered momentarily in the sunlit brightness that was high noon. The glass did not explode into shards, but, instead, struck the hood with a dull thump, remaining intact. It twirled briefly, finally spinning off to rest on a soft spongy curbside lawn. The sports car zoomed down Center Lane and on out to Winding Way. Ernestine cringed and whimpered, staring after Marvin until she remembered the new neighbors, who still gazed at her, transfixed.

Ernestine put her hands on her hips and said with a sneer, “What? Do you think you can help?”

Helen and Henry responded in unison, “Us? Why no.”

Three

The Summoning

By mid-afternoon, a freak warm front had moved through and almost everyone opened their windows, although not too wide. No sense in inviting in the malevolence which lurked about, the one that could steal children from their homes. It had gotten hot, dry, and dusty, with an occasional breeze carrying a faint scent of livestock and of fertilizer from the corn field.

The movers had completed their tasks and had disappeared as quickly and quietly as possible. In Helen’s new home, boxes were piled all around. She decided she wasn’t going to do much today. Maybe a little straightening. She did find solace in filling her teak bookcase with her favorite volumes without delay. Freud occupied nearly a whole shelf. Following the ritual, she sat on a reclining chair and held a small glass of white wine, nearly room temperature, waiting for the valium to take effect.

Helen had passed a tense evening the day before, hoping the move would go all right, trying to relax after the closing that afternoon. She tried to remain focused, but everywhere she looked were the reminders of Halloween: decorations in storefronts, mall displays. She shuddered at the thought of little children with their costumes being dragged about the streets and yelled at by their mothers and coming to her front door. They even had pumpkins at the realtor’s office where the closing was held. A warm Halloween, like today, so many years ago, a bizarre accident, couldn’t happen again in a million years, or so her father and uncle had said. Her brother, sister, and cousins went trick-or-treating that night, but she remained within, staying in her room. A few of the neighborhood kids, after hearing what happened, came to her window after dark and tried to scare her. They succeeded quite well, she recalled, even now remembering the feel of tepid urine running down her leg as she screamed herself hoarse. The memories could flare up at any time but, as she knew too well, traumas liked best to revisit their victims on their anniversary.

Anyway, she hoped Father Henry would make good on his promise concerning dinner. But, she hoped he would come to escort her to his house, even though the front door was only thirty yards or so away. She really didn’t want to venture out alone into Center Lane after that exhibition. Not long ago, she thought she heard the tentative rumble of that sports car easing into its long driveway. She jumped a little when the door bell rang. Must be that Henry, she thought.

She opened the door and there was the short man in red. The worm. The inadequate husband. The club member. His belly pressed inward on the screen door.

“Trick or treat?” he piped out merrily.

“Yes?”

“Dr. Fleize, I presume?” His voice was gravelly and reeking of authority. Helen convinced herself that he had been a high-ranking military officer.

“Yes?” she repeated, wondering if he and his wife were getting professional help.

“I’m Marvin Peregrine. Pronounced Perry Green. My wife is Ernestine. Kinda rhymes.”

He paused for effect rather than like someone who didn’t know what to say next. Helen assumed it was all part of another scripted performance and she braced for the pitiful apology she believed he was sure to recite, but it never came.

“Welcome,” he continued, sweeping his arm towards his house, “to the neighborhood. Or, should I say the corn fields which surround our little domain like some alternate universe--with its own set of natural laws.”

Helen blinked. “Thank you.” He acted a little drunk, she thought, but she couldn’t smell a drop. She blinked again and drew back slightly when Marvin casually opened the screen door and admitted himself.

“I would like,” he began deliberately, placing his hands in his pockets and jiggling coins, “to really welcome you to the neighborhood.” Helen tensed when he placed one hand on his belt buckle. He turned to face the open door and squint at his house. “You see, my wife and I have spent a lot of time recently trying to get in touch with our feelings. Any time. Anywhere. About anything. We’ve studied up some and we think that’s the best way to come to terms with our feelings. And guilt, too, I suppose. I don’t know where we’d be if we didn’t express ourselves from time to time. We’ve got to explore the layers of our personalities. Our psychosexual profile is definitely high-tension.”

Helen didn’t know whether to smile or recoil from this speech. “Did you know I was a shrink?”

“Really? Isn’t that interesting? Anyway, the missus, the wifey, the chief schnook and bottle guzzler, the apple of my ire, and yours truly would like to make it up to you.”

Helen stared at him blankly.

“I’m sure our little display, our little dispute, was a trifling unsettling for someone new to the neighborhood. Caused you no small trepidation. Knocked your socks off, honey--”

“I get the idea, Mr. Peregrine.”

“Please call me Marvin. Or better yet, Marv.”

“O.K. So?”

“So what?”

“Making it up.” Helen couldn’t believe she was reminding him. Oh well, this Marvin and his shrewish Ernestine, she thought, are probably a couple of teddy bears. Under the surface, they’re probably the best of neighbors.

“Oh yeah.” Marvin had now moved away from the door and was peeking out the window from behind the curtain. “Making it up,” he repeated a little louder. “You know, doing it up. Raising our spirits! Getting our spirits up,” still louder. Finally, “GETTING IT UP!” he shouted, loud enough to be heard in the corn field. “So how about dinner at my place? It’s a rule here. New neighbors on Center Lane don’t cook for themselves first night here.”

“Have there been a lot of new neighbors?” Helen bit her lip, fighting off a blush. “I mean, that rule must have been around a long time.”

Marvin jutted out his chin. “I just made the rule up now. What do you say to that?” he challenged with a sneer.

“Dinner at your place,” Helen repeated. “Yours and Mrs. Peregrine’s,” said Helen.

“Ernie-pooh? Yeah, she’ll be around somewhere. If she hasn’t fallen down the steps to the wine cellar.”

“Well, Mr.--Marvin, as a matter of fact, Henry across the street, has already invited me to his place.”

“He has?” asked Marvin, throwing his shoulders back and turning to look through the screen door in the general direction of Henry’s house. “Who does he think he is breaking the rules like that?”

“Maybe he doesn’t know the rules,” said Helen with more than a little hint of impatience. “But even if he does, he asked me first.”

“He’ll goddam know the rules before he’s through.” Marvin turned back around and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I assure you both that you’ll find out all there is to know.”

Helen mulled this over for a few moments, concluding that this could not be genuine menace, rather an eccentric way of stating one’s territorial supremacy.

While Marvin paid his little visit to the doctor, Ernestine, not to be outdone, dashed over to see Henry. First, she changed into khaki shorts and a flowery print blouse, leaving as many buttons undone as decorum would allow. Henry’s breath caught in his throat when he saw her, hardly recognizing her as the puffy teary woman on the front lawn, who had thrown her drink at her husband’s red sports car.

“Yes, you’re uh--”

“Ernestine Peregrine from the white house. I don’t know how to say it, but I want to apologize for my husband and I. For our shameful display.” Ernestine pouted her lips and batted her eyelashes. “We’re really not as bad we seem.”

“Why, that’s all right,” said Henry, not meaning a word of it. An act of contrition, wondered Henry. The performance had been so flagrant, so outrageous.

Ernestine drew close and Henry took a strong whiff of perfume. She took his hands and her eyes grew glassy. “Thank you so much, Father, isn’t it?” she asked glancing at the collar. “We’ve all got to start out on the right foot and my husband and I didn’t do such a good job of it, did we?”

“Well-uh...”

“You’re so understanding. I’d really like to show my appreciation.”

As Henry smiled blankly, Ernestine, still holding his hands, pulled him close and kissed him on the cheek. This so unnerved Henry that he broke into a sweat.

“My husband’s across the street trying to make amends with our other female neighbor,” she said, gritting her teeth. “Why don’t we go join them? Perhaps we can all have dinner at our place.”

“But--”

“It’s no trouble, I assure you. Now, let’s go.”

Henry recalled his dinner promise to Helen. His gas still had not been turned on. “Well, but--OK, I--uh, need to put on my shoes.”

Henry sat on his bare mattress in his bedroom, staring at his shoes. It wasn’t just a peck on the cheek like he’d gotten over the years from assorted church lady cronies. It was a hard kiss, passionate, even if on the cheek. It reminded him of the time, near the end of high school, when he announced his decision to major in religion in college and go on to seminary. Some of his “friends” invited him to a party, where the parents were away for the weekend. They chipped in for a hooker to come to the house. After telling Henry they had a surprise for him in the bedroom, he waited there with the lights off as instructed, not something he liked one bit. The hooker was admitted, went right up to him and kissed him full on the mouth. The others waited outside, giggling. After a few minutes, the hooker came out. He remembered the exchange.

“Well, what happened?” everyone shouted.

“Nothing that’s what. Or, let me put it this way: nothing was able to happen.” Everyone laughed. Henry was so embarrassed that he crawled out the window and went home. But, as he sadly recalled, more pranks awaited him, even at the seminary. The worst was that Halloween night they took him to the graveyard. Henry chided himself for being so caught up in his past failures. Perhaps in the role of peacemaker, he could do some good here on Center Lane, he thought as Ernestine dragged him across the cul-de-sac.

Helen almost heaved a sigh of relief when they heard a knock at her screen door. In came Ernestine tugging Henry along and clinging to his arm. When Marvin noted the trace of lipstick on Henry’s cheek, his face turned almost as red as his polo shirt. Mechanically, yet cozily, he slid an arm around Helen’s waist.

“Why, dear,” said Ernestine, “is that a knee-jerk reaction?”

“Who would know better about knees than you,” said Marvin.

“And who would know better about jerks?” she responded. “You’re not going to get one leg up on me.”

“Up his leg? Why Ernie, where’s your sense of decency?”

Helen was certain these lines had been said before as she looked over at Henry, hoping for some confirmation of her thoughts, or at least an acknowledgment of her discomfort. Henry kept his gaze fixed on the tips of his shoes, beginning to believe that the ordeal had barely begun.

“That is,” Marvin continued, addressing Helen and Henry, “nothing gets past Ernie. She’s really better, though, at reading between the knees--I mean lines.”

“Look,” Helen piped out, feigning assertiveness, “Henry said he’d make dinner for me.”

Marvin and Ernestine looked at one another as though they had just sprung a trap.

“My gas isn’t turned on, I’m afraid,” said Henry apologetically.

“Well, that clinches it,” said Marvin, “you’ll have plenty of gas after Ernie’s cooking.”

“Oh yeah?” said Ernestine, taking her cue, “Turned him loose in the kitchen once. He made stuffed pork chops for some dinner guests. They had the trots for days.” Helen glanced in the direction of her kitchen. “Forget it, dearie, your gas isn’t turned on, either.”

“We don’t want to put you out,” said Helen, her resolve beginning to crumble. Why didn’t this preacher help her protest? An evening with these rowdy boors and she’d be back up to ten milligrams a day. After all, it was clear that just living on the same street with these world-class neurotics would be no picnic.

“Don’t worry about putting us out,” said Ernestine, dismissing the serious tone Helen had attempted to convey. “I’ve been all through that with the parson, which is what El Jefe des los roving manos was supposed to be doing with you.”

All but defeated, Helen said, “Henry and I could go to a restaurant.”

“The nearest one is a half hour drive,” said Marvin.

“Half an hour?” Helen brightened. “That’s not so terribly far.”

“Trust me, dearie, they’re all terrible anyway.”

“They’re not all that terrible,” countered Marvin.

“They’re not all that good,” said Ernestine, raising her voice.

“Well, then, they’re all generally mediocre,” said Marvin with slightly less conviction.

Ernestine shook her head. “I wouldn’t exactly put it that way.”

“Neither would I,” Marvin grunted from the side of his mouth.

“All right!” shouted Helen. “I give up. Henry?”

“I already said O.K.,” he said sheepishly.

“What time?” asked Helen.

“Dusk,” said Marvin.

This seemed to catch Ernestine off guard. She released her hold on Henry and grimaced, looking into Marvin’s eyes for a moment and then nodding to the others and leaving without uttering a word. She folded her arms as she slunk back to the white colonial.

Marvin also left silently, but he did smile broadly, an odd kind of triumphant smile, reminding Helen of a glaring jack o’ lantern with a ragged mouth, like some she had seen outside front doors of several houses when she drove into Earthly Delights that morning. Marvin got back in his red sports car, which he had left parked in the middle of Center Lane with the engine running.

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