Lost in the Cornfield

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Chapter 4: A Strange Eruption in Accents Terrible

As dusk drew near, ghosts and goblins, ninja turtles, Simpsons, and toxic crusaders wandered the Earthy Delights Development as lost souls, seeking candies and goodies, everywhere except Center Lane.

Preparing for dinner at the Peregrines, Helen lamented only briefly that she had nothing to bring. Considering those Peregrines, she thought, bringing herself was more than sufficient. By the end of the night, she’d probably dole out hundreds of dollars of “free” therapy, even if on an informal basis.

She peered out of her window and thought it was around dusk. The eerie quiet which had gripped the development continued, although a breeze had stirred up. The sky had darkened considerably in the last several minutes like the onset of a thunderstorm. The unseasonable warmth persisted.

“Think we’re in for rain,” said Henry suddenly through the screen door. Helen jumped a little and then shook her head, wondering when she had last been this jittery.

“We’re in for something,” she said, regaining her composure.

“Pardon?” he asked as she came out. “Oh,” said Henry as if remembering the answer from a game-show quiz. “You mean the Peregrines?”

“That’s O.K., I understand,” she said, comforting, in her mind at least, the bewildered. “From what we’ve seen so far, they’re difficult to speak of, or even acknowledge.”

“Oh no, not really, Dr.--Helen. I just didn’t get you at first. I’ve come to learn to be prepared for anything. Bishop Thomas always told me to be prepared. I’m certainly prepared for anything.” (While in your profession, it sounded to Helen, you are really prepared for very little).

“Anyway,” she continued as they began to walk across the cul-de-sac, “I hope as dinner hosts they’ll be somewhat better behaved.” She eyed Henry from head to foot and smirked with self-assurance, “It must be difficult for someone like yourself to deal with their kind.”

“No doubt about it. Do you know anyone who might be able to help with their particular problem?”

That stung Helen, but she couldn’t tell from Henry’s innocent demeanor whether or not he intended the comment.

Henry had begun to shake his head in a preoccupied manner, “Isn’t that awful about the children?”

“What? Oh yes.” Well, it seemed natural for Henry to react that way, but Helen prided herself on remaining detached in such situations, allowing her to remain cool and objective, able to analyze the possibilities in solving a problem in a crisis. So much suffering and loss and one could only treat the symptoms with therapy and medication. She felt she had trained herself well. For a second, however, she winced, and the missing children reminded her of her dolls when she was little, the ones whose heads she had removed on that horrible night. She hoped everyone would not dwell on this topic tonight. Perhaps, depending on the outcome, she should visit the families and leave behind her card, the one that still read ’Fleize”. But, no, she had an overstocked case load as it was.

As they began up the long winding stone path which led to the Peregrine’s front door, they could hear thunder. Distant lightning flashed to the west, beyond the corn field illuminating the scarecrow, who dangled high above the corn, condemned to hang and sway--except on certain nights--appointed overseer to the rustling emptiness which filled the rows of stalks. A sudden gust of wind loosened the scarecrow’s head so that it turned in the direction of the Peregrine’s house, perking up, attentive to the arrival of the dinner guests.

“I forgot my cell phone,” said Helen. “That’s all right. Normally, I don’t like patients calling me during off hours.”

“I left mine back at the house, said Henry. “No one calls me anyway.”

She held her purse with both hands. “I just hope these people don’t smoke all over us. I just spent a small fortune on this program to quit.”

“That’s good. Good for you,” said Henry, half-concentrating. “Should we press the door bell?”

“You want me to?”

“No, that’s O.K.”

When Henry tensely jabbed at the button, a woman’s piercing scream filled the air. Henry jumped, but Helen grinned, almost prepared for it.

“Relax, it’s a joke. A gag. A recording. Remember that sound system? I’ve been to parties where they’ve done stuff like this.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Henry, almost stammering. “We had our share of pranksters at the seminary,” he added, recalling Terry and Rudy who would have loved the idea.

“I’ll bet you did,” said Helen, growing more annoyed with Henry by the moment.

The front door opened slowly and Marvin Peregrine stood before them. “What do you know? Trick-or-treaters. A doctor and a preacher. So, hello you two,” said and then he stood silently.

“We heard that recording of the woman screaming,” laughed Henry nervously. Right up Terry’s and Rudy’s alley, but he found the joke in poor taste, especially after today’s earlier performance and the fearful anxiety which had gripped the development, although perhaps not on this street. Helen didn’t think the joke was tasteless so much as uninspired.

“What recording?” asked Marvin. “She always screams like that when I try to choke her.” The guests smiled, humoring Marvin, but he remained impassive. Finally, he continued, “We like to kid around.” He made it sound as though he were speaking of an entirely unrelated subject. “Ernie’s run off upstairs somewhere. Probably planning a good one. It’s her turn. Why don’t you go on ahead, and I’ll see if Ernie left us anything for cocktails.”

Attempting to appear decisive, Helen led Henry down a hallway, filled with an impressive combination of paintings, vases, Victorian-style lamps and tables, a restored settee, and other assorted bric-a-brac. The walls were richly finished with dark maple paneling. Somehow, it reminded Helen of the entrance to the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland.

When they rounded a corner, they passed a wide stairway to their right. Helen was the first to glance up and see a pair of legs apparently suspended from the second floor landing. At first, she smiled in a puzzled way, until the image fired off an association with her trail of nightmares, which led all the way back to the tree house. Her senses absorbed conflicting signals as she struggled to remember that this had nothing to with any of her experiences. Instead, this was just a quaint joke, none too original, rather sophomoric, for she recalled similar stunts from her sorority days. On the other hand, she couldn’t imagine the solid Ernestine holding on to the unseen ledge above and hardly swaying. She looked to Henry who had shuffled on down the hall, not even noticing.

Marvin suddenly appeared behind her. “Oh my God! She’s finally done it! She’s finally done it!” He slipped onto the settee, his hands over his heart, staring wild-eyed.

Helen tried not to accept the signal Marvin was sending. “Come on, Marvin, I’ve seen this gag before. I used to--”

“No, you don’t understand,” Marvin wailed. “See the rope? She’s pulled this stunt before, but never with the rope! She’s really done it!”

Henry came back, took one look, and began to mount the stairs. Remembering she was an M.D., Helen, stepped in front of him, trying to take charge. “Help me get her down. I’ll try to resuscitate her and you call an ambulance!” What kind of place is this Earthly Delights anyway?

Squeamishly, Helen went up to peer at the ledge and as she did, a coil of rope dropped and struck her on the head and she screamed. Ernestine had indeed been holding on to the ledge, possessing more strength than one would have believed. She climbed up, turned, and came down. Half-way down, she paused with her hands on her hips and laughed like a loon.

“Pretty good, huh? I’ve been setting Marvin up a long time for that one. I’ve always done it without the rope. I knew the psychopathic darling would notice a little detail like that.” Marvin was just now catching his breath. “It’s easy. I’m only forty-six. I used to be a gymnast when I was younger.”

Marvin wiped the perspiration from his face and stood slowly. He spoke deliberately, almost with respect. “Not bad, Ern, but we’ll weigh the results at the end of the night.”

“What is everyone drinking?” asked Ernestine, ignoring the comment.

“I’d like a vodka martini,” said Helen. “Better make it a double.” Henry had his hand over his mouth, still pondering the imponderable. “Perhaps Henry here would like a club soda or ginger ale.”

“Actually,” said Henry in a quavering voice, “I’d like a scotch.” He felt rising emotion in his throat, more at Helen for her patronizing manner which had begun to get on his nerves than for the mean-spirited jokes of the Peregrines.

“Ern,” said Marvin, regaining some of his earlier glibness, “you’ve pulled down a man of God. With water? Soda, Reverend?”

“Ice, please, and it’s Father, but call me Henry.”

“And call me Helen, not doctor,” said Helen.

“What makes you think we were going to call you anything but your names?” Marvin sounded off in an offended tone.

“We’ll have a short cocktail hour,” said Ernestine, “since dinner’s almost ready.”

“What are we having?” asked Helen.

“What else?” replied Marvin. “Pork chops. Pork chops with my mystery stuffing. And corn. Lots of corn. You’ll be sick of corn before the night’s through. Mark my words.”

Ernestine bustled off to the kitchen toward the back of the house, while Marvin led the guests to a sitting room with a wet bar, where he prepared the drinks and checked his watch. The room contained more of the same odds and ends found in the hallway with one notable exception: there were literally dozens of table picture frames, some with fuzzy black and white snapshots, others with studio-quality color prints. All the photographs were of children.

“That must be some large family,” said Helen, seating herself with her drink at the dining table. “I hesitate to say grandchildren. Nieces? Nephews? Children of your own?” Helen felt she was touching on a delicate subject, but it was too late to stop.

Ernestine hovered near her chair, waving her half-filled drink in a pensive manner. “Children?” she said distantly, barely concealing emotion. For half a second she glared at Marvin, who handed Henry a scotch.

“Never had kids,” said Marvin. “Never will.”

“Then what were all those--”

Henry unexpectedly jumped in. “You mean you couldn’t have children?” Ernestine looked away. “I know. Were those children who had been dear to you, possibly foster children?” Helen hoped this to be the answer.

Marvin ignored the second part of Henry’s comment. “Ernie ruined herself when she was young,” he said matter-of-factly. Everyone froze for a few moments and then Helen and Henry laughed.

“What’s so damn funny?” said Ernestine.

“Well,” said Henry.

“We thought you guys were funning around again,” said Helen, believing that there had been more than a little truth to what Marvin said.

Ernestine put her drink down and placed her hands on her hips. “And who ruined me?” she said, almost baring her teeth, before stomping off to the kitchen. “Dinner’s ready.”

As Marvin opened the wine and filled the glasses, Helen’s fertile imagination began to run wild. She half-expected to find the remains of all those children in the photos in the coal bin in the basement, not to mention the bodies of the newest victims. She glanced uneasily at Henry, who seemed to understand her anxiety.

Helen had to ask the next logical question, to test the emotional reaction of their hosts if nothing else. “Isn’t that awful about the neighborhood children?”

Marvin, who had been staring at his ring, slowly looked up and from his expression, the guests could tell it was not a subject he wished to discuss. He continued to study his hands, his fingers, and Helen thought he was checking his fingernails for signs of some unwholesome evidence that he sought to conceal.

Ernestine appeared with a tray and Marvin began to serve the food as Ernestine returned to the kitchen for side dishes and condiments, and the salads. Henry offered to say grace, but Marvin perked up and said he’d do it.

“For what we are about to receive,” he paused looking at Ernestine, “we are grateful.”

“Whatsamatter?” said Ernestine, who had poured herself another drink and had placed it next to her filled wine glass. “Is Marvin starvin’? What is Marvin starvin’ for?” she taunted.

“These pork chops are quite good,” said Helen, genuinely impressed.

“Sure,” said Ernestine, lightening up, “we were just kidding before--about the trots.”

“Yeah,” said Marvin, “we were kidding.” He snorted a laugh as he gulped his wine.

Everyone continued eating in silence, ingesting steaming mounds of creamed corn. Marvin got up several times to fill everyone’s wine glass. After dinner, he served brandy and offered Henry a cigar, which he accepted reluctantly. Ernestine got up, left the room briefly, and returned with a cigarette.

“I only smoke after meals,” she said, lighting up.

Helen, mellow, misgivings having receded, full of vodka, pork, corn, wine, and brandy leaned forward. “Could I trouble you for one?”

“No trouble at all,” said Ernestine getting up again.

“Helen,” said Henry, puffing on his cigar, “what about your program?”

“Few people quit cold turkey,” she replied, glaring at the minister. She thought it must be the meal and drink, but now she felt more at ease with the Peregrines and annoyed again with Henry.

Ernestine handed Helen a cigarette and Marvin jumped up and gave her a light with an gold lighter. She noted the inscription, “To Marv, Love E.”.

“How lovely,” she said, feeling more relaxed than she had all day. Perhaps once you got to know these people, they’d seem practically normal. After all, she seemed to be adjusting easier than Henry. The cloud of cigar smoke which lingered about him provided a good metaphor for his state of bewilderment. Helen stifled a giggle when she thought of him at seminary: The Brothers of Perpetual Confusion.

“We’ll save dessert and coffee for later,” said Ernestine.

“Dessert will definitely be later,” said Marvin, who now appeared deep in thought, staring at the bones from his pork chops. Finally, roused from contemplation, he leaned back in his chair and waved his cigar like some executive in a board meeting. He glanced peremptorily at Henry.

“The clergy, I presume, must take a dim view of suicide.”

Henry glanced at Helen and Ernestine, but all he could muster was, “Well....”

“What are you talking about, Marvin?” asked Ernestine, raising her voice.

“I’m recalling that gag of yours--hanging yourself from the stairs.”

“Where do you get suicide? It could have been murder.”

“By me?” Marvin shook his head. “You’re too athletic. You could resist.”

Ernestine beamed. “You’re damn right I could have resisted. Like I said before,” she addressed the guests, “I was a gymnast.”

“Ernie always liked to wrap her thighs around things.”

“Don’t start up,” Ernestine countered. “Maybe Doctor Helen has something to say on the subject.”

“The subject?” Helen didn’t want to become more than a spectator in this game of character assassination, which the Peregrines seemed to have perfected to an art form.

“Suicide.”

Helen felt as if she were being called to the podium to deliver a public lecture. “Suicide is most often a cry for help. Victims frequently don’t want to die; they want attention. Others want to kill themselves, but do so in a flamboyant manner to make those left behind feel guilt for driving them to take their own lives. And then there is a small number who really do wish to succeed without being discovered.”

“Sounds familiar,” said Ernestine, looking at her fingernails in a bored way. “I think I read all that in the National Enquirer.”

“Yeah,” said Marvin, “There was somebody on “The Tonight Show” who said something like that.”

People Magazine ran a piece on that not too long ago.”

“Merv Griffin.”

“Dick Cavett.”

Helen was about to say something about the nature of those sources as authorities on the subject when Henry cleared his throat.

“You know,” he began as he emptied his brandy glass, “I find it difficult to take much of that seriously when, if you’ll pardon me Helen, it comes from a profession that has the highest suicide rates amongst its practitioners.” As soon as the words escaped, Henry had no idea why he’d said them.

“So,” said Marvin, assuming the role of mediator, “what is the church’s position?”

“Well, the church doesn’t try to rationalize it away.”

“Henry,” said Helen, still smarting ,”you’re evading the question.” Why had he turned on her like that?

“Look,” said Ernestine, “let’s be fair. Maybe we should examine a high incidence rate of something with members of the clergy. Let’s see, what would that be?”

“How about celibacy?” Helen shot out.

“Apples and oranges,” said Henry. “Besides, I’m not Catholic, so I am certainly not celibate, that is would not be celibate, could not be celibate if I got married.”

Marvin leaned forward. “But premarital sex is out,” he said.

“Naturally,” said Henry as the brandy glowed warmly within making him feel as if he were in control. “The church doesn’t condone that for anyone.”

“What about post-marital sex?”

“I beg your pardon,” said Henry, suddenly feeling the control slipping.

“Come on Marvin,” said Ernestine, “you’re being obtuse. That could mean after marriage, or after divorce.”

Marvin shrugged.

“Divorce,” repeated Henry, as if being enticed into a street fight, “what does your learned profession have to say about that?”

“Father, I’m surprised at you.” Helen tried to stay calm, hardly expecting such an assault from the meek Henry. She had to maintain her professional detachment, objectivity. “You’re not only attacking my profession, but me personally as well.” She must have mentioned her husband, but she couldn’t recall doing so. “You’re obviously suffering from some kind of repressed hostility. We’ll have to discuss your childhood some time.”

“Sure,” said Ernestine, almost unnoticed, “Potty training can be very revealing.”

“Doctor,” said Henry, rising angrily and none too steadily, “your condescending smugness is insufferable!”

“And,” said Helen, grasping her wine glass by the stem, “you are a milk toast, butter wouldn’t melt in the mouth, purveyor of guilt, shell of a man who’d know what it really means to live if you’d just once get laid!”

“I have gotten laid!” Henry lied. “Before I joined the ministry! You psychoanalytic fake!”

“Fake? You fire and brimstone boob!”

“Psychobabbler!”

“Hopeless unvirile drone!”

“Babylonian trinket!”

Helen flung what remained of her wine in Henry’s face. Father Pauley promptly seated himself.

“An unholy baptism,” shouted Marvin.

“Blessed are the boors,” said Ernestine.

“Blessed are the piqued,” said Marvin.

No one moved or spoke for a few seconds. Marvin and Ernestine looked at each other and then stood together and applauded. Both Henry and Helen had turned pale and broke out in cold sweats.

“I don’t feel well,” said Helen.

“Neither do I,” said Henry.

“Maybe that’s good,” said Marvin, “because you both looked like you were ready to knock the stuffing out of each other.”

“The mystery stuffing,” added Ernestine.

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