“What’s she doing?” Ernie interrupted. He was piping hot with fury.
“Saying grace,” Irene said.
“Dear God….” Shirley Anne began again.
“Shut up. Shut up.” Ernie went ballistic. He stood, threw his napkin onto the floor, and began howling. “Arrrrg. Ugggh. Grrrh. Arrrrg. Ugggh.” If there was one thing that irked him, it was being fed Christian gobbledygook.
Nellie and Irene looked at each other in horror and bewilderment. Ernie sounded like a deranged demon. Then he hightailed it out of the room. They heard the basement door slam and Ernie’s stompers going down the steps, followed by more shrieks of anguish. “Arrrg. Ugggh. Arrrg. Ugggh.”
“For heaven’s sake! That was quite a display.” Nellie was embarrassed and felt like crawling under the rug.
“It was plumb strange, but that void coupon of yours has always had splinters in his head.” Irene was always happy to condemn her sister’s heel of a husband.
“Hush your mouth, Irene. You shouldn’t say such things. He’s never done this before. I just don’t know what’s come over him lately. He has such wild mood swings.”
“Arrrg. Grrrh. Ugggh.” Ernie’s voice echoed through the house.
The two women picked at their food. Irene decided to keep her trap shut for fear of pushing Nellie into a tailspin. Shirley Anne gobbled down her lunch, oblivious to the tension.
“Arrrg. Grrrh. Ugggh.”
“I’ll put on some music.” Nellie went to the radio and turned on “Stormy Weather” by Ethel Waters. Then she reclaimed her seat. “He’s gotten angrier this past year.”
“He should see a doctor,” Irene said.
“He doesn’t like doctors.”
The women took a few bites in awkward silence.
“He’s been stealing from me too.”
“What?” Irene was horrified. “You never told me about this.”
“My pink hat’s missing. And I’m pretty sure he stole my lipstick.”
“Jeepers creepers. What would he want with them?”
“You think he’s a homo?” Irene was mortified.
“Ernie’s a swish.” Shirley Anne giggled.
“I don’t think that could be right. He’s not freakish.” Nellie shook her head. “Maybe he’s just in a springtime slump.”
“Arrrg. Grrrh. Ugggh.” Ernie’s moans drowned out the sound of the radio.
“A springtime slump?” Irene could no longer hold her tongue. “You need to file for divorce. I’ve told you at least a hundred times.”
“I know, but he doesn’t want a divorce. He gets all upset when I mention it.”
“All upset? Oh, take my long johns down the river,” she said sarcastically. “And what’s he doing now? Acting peachy?”
“I can’t get a divorce if he won’t give me one.”
“Yes you can. Be a tough canoe. Lay down the law.”
Nellie thought for a second. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Arrrg. Grrrh. Ugggh.”
“Maybe we should be going.” Irene put down her fork. “So you can tend to him.”
“That would probably be best.”
After Irene and Shirley Anne were gone, Nellie shut off the radio. She was unsure how to proceed. Part of her felt brash and able-bodied, but another part felt like a white flag waving in the wind. She placed her ear up against the basement door. She listened hard but could not hear a thing. There was a lull in Ernie’s moans and shrieks.
Then, Nellie placed her hand on the knob. She was rattled when it turned. He had forgotten to lock it. Ernie had left his sacred place unsecure. His precious scythe room was an open highway to strangers and prying eyes.
Nellie was tentative. She hemmed and hawed. She was beside herself with confusion. Should she tiptoe downstairs or not? Should she try to soothe Ernie or leave him be? Should she bring up divorce or wait until he was chipper? She went back and forth, under and over, here and there about what was best. She did this for a full ten minutes.
Finally, her curiosity won out and she convinced herself that she needed to go in the basement. It was her duty to be at her husband’s side, to help him through the hodgepodge of emotions. Never mind that he had made it clear that his secret place was forbidden. Never mind that he was foaming at the mouth like a can of spoiled whipped cream.
Nellie removed her shoes and tiptoed down the staircase, hoping the creaky steps would be her pal rather than a stoolie. She heard one more chorus of “Arrrg, grrrh, ugggh,” during her short but strained journey into the dark and damp basement.
When she got to the bottom of the steps, she froze, petrified. It was a nightmare, a bloodcurdling jolt, a “knock-me-for-a-loop” shock of a lifetime. Nellie was eyeball-to-eyeball with a carnival of horrors. To her mind, the room was like one of those traveling freak shows, featuring sword-swallowers, man-monkeys, bearded ladies, and deformed dwarves. Nellie felt sick to her stomach. She noticed lit black candles, devil-worship books, a horned gargoyle, knives, broken crosses, her missing lipstick, disfigured dolls, the child-sized hand, and the drawings of pentagrams on both the floor and walls. But that was not the worst of it. She was most horrified by the noose hanging in the corner and the creepy life-sized doll. It was her spitting image and wore the stolen pink hat.