Fall 1989, Volume 6.2
William R. Kanouse
Procta and Gimble
William R. Kanouse (M.A., Rutgers U; M.F.A., Temple U) teaches at Temple University and Rutgers University. His most recent publications have appeared in San JosZ Studies, Nebraska Review, Proof Rock, Alaska Quarterly Review, Footwork, Midway Review, and Oak Square.
"Yes, he thought he was Satan on earth; that he had to purify the air. Says he was placed here to do the devil's work; that's why he burnt down those houses with the people in them in Levittown. Problem there is all the houses look the same. A man walks out the door and sees the same houses, the same lawns, the same trees starin' him down everyday. Then suddenly he decides—'I'll be Satan, purify Levittown.'"
Tom Sedgwick saw that he was an old man—a very old man—who had been old for a long time. He wore thick bifocals and had a bent nose and big ears that reminded Sedgwick of clown's ears. So the seated bantam-sized man was joined by another elderly gentleman, this man trudging through the diner with the aid of a black cane. He had a puffed face and a balloon-like body. His nose was big and red and he had a half-inch hole in the middle of his forehead like he had been shot. He gave Sedgwick the impression of once having been a big man with ample shoulders. Yet a big man who never did anything with his size, a man who floundered throughout his life to adjust himself to his size. Perhaps much smaller men had taunted him. Sedgwick couldn't be sure. One thing both men had in common: they had little hair, although the bantam-sized man wore a toupee that was slapped on his head much as one might belatedly slap cheese on an already cooked hamburger. The other, the one who had trailed into the diner, had a few stray strands of tired gray atop his head. Still, what hair he had left on his sides and down the back of his head was neatly in place. Sedgwick suspected that the big-foreheaded man with the red dots on his bald skull still used a barber.
"Straighten out that cabbie, Roger?" The seated man toyed with the bigger man.
"It's two miles from our apartment to the Blue Comet. Never was three, Henry." He wallowed his lumbering, gray-suited body into the compact stool like a man being cherry-picked in. Sedgwick speculated that it would take even more exertion for the florid-faced man to extricate himself from the seat.
"Know what, Roger? Next time the cabbie picks us up he'll take us for a long ride, a ride right around the bend. He'll throw us right in Salisbury Creek and nobody will know we're missing until our landlord doesn't get the next month's rent. You see, we're very vulnerable. Your cane gives our age away." Henry followed up this repartee by smiling at the clear-faced waitress who wore a navy blue uniform with a sparkling white collar. She had her dark hair tied up in a neat bun and had good-sized, mushy breasts. Or so Sedgwick decided, that they were soft, opulent.
"Coffee, Roger?" And she poured it before he could reply. Henry, the hawk-nosed one with the dark-gray toupee, already had his.
"So what's on the menu tonight, Maurleen? I mean . . . besides you." Henry had the menu under him but needed to hear Maurleen review it. Sedgwick saw the routine unfolding, saw where he could be drawn into it. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to be pulled into it, but Mutt and Jeff combos always intrigued him. He didn't know why, though Mutt and Jeff had been two of his favorite cartoon characters.
"Senility! That's on the menu," Roger snapped.
"Fish's good!" Maurleen interjected.
"Just plain fish?" Henry inquired.
"It was good, I had it," Sedgwick injected. He was two stools to the left and awaited rice pudding, which came with the dinner. He was in no particular hurry, as he had half of the editorial section of the Friday New York Times flat on the counter, the paper functioning as an impromptu paper mat. He had gotten the paper for fifty cents from a machine outside the Blue Comet. The diner was located in East Lansdowne, a pocket-sized town which straddled Baltimore Pike, East Lansdowne no more than two miles from Salisbury.
"If I'm to order fish, I want it nice and dry," Henry pronounced. "Butter is strictly off limits to me."
"So, that's bluefish dry." She scribbled it onto a small, greenish dupe book. Her fingers were chunky, not quite formed. "What vegetables, Henry?" Her patience was being tested, or so Sedgwick thought.
"I don't want fish tonight," the other announced. "Every Friday we eat fish. Let's do something different tonight."
"He doesn't want fish; he's a ball-breaker."
"Shut up, Henry."
"Roger, you're exasperating Maurleen, and that's why us Senior Citizens are a nuisance in restaurants. We can never make up our minds when it comes time to order." The waitress still managed an even face and Sedgwick deduced that she was used to the old men's routine; that she was part of it. He mused: waitresses, especially in diners, perform a vital social function.
"How's the coffee tonight, gentlemen?" Maurleen got between them like a referee at a TV wrestling match.
"Ah! Maxwell House! 'Good to the last drop!'"
"I couldn't live without coffee," the beacon-nosed man affirmed.
"I'm Procta and you're Gimble and we both live on coffee," Henry expounded.
Sedgwick, who had been cruising an article about the use of mustard gas on the Iraqi-Iranian front, returned his attention to the elderly gentlemen when he heard the giant soap company's name sashayed, albeit butchered, into the conversation.
"So, what will it be, boys?"
"I'll take you. How's that, Maurleen? We'll do the town up royal, set it on fire. Understand, I can fox-trot with the best of them on account of I once had a cup of coffee with Arthur Murray during the Depression."
"That's ridiculous, Henry! It makes no sense at all."
"I'm Procta, Procta with an 'a,' and you're Gimble."
"How about the meat loaf? It was made fresh today."
"Certainly, Maurleen! We don't want any meat loaf that was made fresh yesterday."
"Do we get two vegetables? Both of us?"
"We always give you two vegetables."
"And what are they, if I might inquire?" Roger inserted.
"Spinach, lima beans, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, green beans, and succotash!"
"Succotash!" Henry repeated it slowly. "I like the way she said that, Roger. And during the summer they serve corn-on-the-cob!"
"Did we order it? I forget."
"Course not! Little kernels get stuck in our teeth!"
"They don't care; nobody cares!"
"Boys!!!" Maurleen's patience had been taxed, and another customer in a green Philadelphia Gas Company's uniform was clamoring for more coffee. She shuttled down the counter and poured him a cup, and with the Pyrex still in tow she rapidly filled Henry's cup and then Sedgwick's. Apparently she remembered that the broad-shouldered Sedgwick didn't get his rice pudding, which he had ordered at about the time Henry sat down. She turned and scooped a serving out of a round aluminum container and laced off the modest-sized dessert with a dash of Reddi-whip. Now she confronted her two steady Friday night customers again.
"Okay! It's now or never!"
"Baked and spinach," an intimidated Roger ordered.
"Same thing! But no butter on my baked," Henry uttered. "And no gravy!"
"Have I ever served you gravy, Henry?"
"The other waitress did."
"I don't believe that."
"Yes, my old flame, Nancy!"
"He's dreaming. She never gave him the time of day."
"I heard about Henry and Nancy," the waitress frolicked.
Henry thrust his beak-nosed face toward the medium-boned waitress. "What time do ya get done, Maurleen?"
"Same arrangements as last week?"
"What were they?" the heavy-armed woman asked.
"If your husband's home, blink the porch light."
"Whatever you say, Henry."
"Or better yet, we'll utilize a cheap motel. One with beds! One where they don't ask questions! One that keeps an oxygen tent handy in case of emergencies!"
"And an ice machine!"
"Who said anything about ice, Roger? I'm talking straight sex. Nothing kinky, right Maurleen?"
The dark-eyed waitress grinned, pivoted and made coffee, and then rotated her meaty body through the swinging doors to the kitchen. Sedgwick observed that she carried herself well for a fleshy woman.
Henry swung his attention toward Sedgwick, indicating the younger man's flattened newspaper. "The New York Times! Hear tell that it's a helluva paper, that they even read it in Missouri." The big-eared man chuckled, for he was attempting to get a rise out of the serious-faced Sedgwick. "Understand, nobody in Salisbury reads the New York papers. So one hand washes the other. New York don't pay no attention to Salisbury, and Salisbury don't pay no regards to New York. Yet Salisbury, historically speaking, is a very important town."
"I don't doubt that," Sedgwick inserted.
"Listen! A lot of prominent Quakers are buried in Salisbury. The likes of the Buntings and Bartrams and Powells are planted in the old Quaker cemetery that sits on the high ridge off Main Street. And some of them were pals of Ben Franklin, and everybody has heard of Ben Franklin. Do you see where I'm going with this line of discourse?"
The sharp-nosed man awaited an answer from Sedgwick, and for lack of anything better to say he asserted that Franklin was a jack-of-all-trades. The old man then started in on how George Washington had marched right through Salisbury on his way to Yorktown; that Washington's horses had watered in Salisbury Creek; and that Washington had paid a return visit to Salisbury after the war to see a young woman who lived on Salisbury Pike. The chapped-lip man would have gone on, but Maurleen arrived with the dinners. Somehow, Sedgwick observed, the plates looked naked with only half a portion of meat and no gravy. It looked like pigeon food. Food for two pigeons.
"Thanks, Maurleen, for dividing the meat. Some waitresses get uppity when we ask them to split a platter and then throw an extra potato in. They get so bent out of shape that they go and tag a plate charge onto our bill, from which a dispute ensues, as we always claim senile rights—the right to be obstreperous. Understand, we're not cheap," and he paused to attack the meat. "The situation is that we're on an extended budget. And I refute those two words: curmudgeon and old codger. I've heard them used in reference to myself. They're blasphemous."
"More water, please?" Roger had completed cutting his meat and was in the process of cutting his butterless baked potato into neat wedges.
"More water! That's why, Roger, old folks get a bad rep in diners. They're always asking for water and diners don't wanna give up water in these up-tight times. And I read where if the Colorado goes dry, this country will be in bad shape." He again hee-hawed his own humor, Sedgwick listing that he really enjoyed himself.
The double-chinned waitress poured more water and then returned to her task, which was wiping down the glass case that fronted the panorama of pies and cakes. She offhandedly replied that some waitresses did get annoyed when customers pestered them for water, but that she was flexible. Henry stated that he found that comforting, her flexibility, because too many women had high expectations, which prompted the saucy-faced waitress to say that Henry had a one-track mind. Another waitress hailed a not-too-busy Maurleen, asking her to cut a piece of strawberry shortcake for her, and this got Henry, much to Roger's dismay, started on strawberries.
"You might not believe it, but strawberries once grew in Salisbury. My uncle had a field, and I helped pick it every May. Stoop labor!"
"Now he'll do a half-hour on his uncle's strawberry field," Roger blandly asserted as he ate his food slow-motion-like.
"What's his bit about strawberries?" Sedgwick inquired.
"The strawberry field leads directly to Teddy Roosevelt."
"Theodore Roosevelt?" Sedgwick said, startled. Why was he startled? He didn't know, though his own grandfather used to talk about Theodore Roosevelt as if he knew him.
"I can't bear to sit through it one more time—how you shook Teddy's hand."
"It so happened," Henry boasted, "that T. R.'s train makes a brief stop in Salisbury on its way to Philadelphia. Teddy steps onto the rear platform and my father bolts forward with me on his shoulder and Teddy reaches over and grabs my hand. I can still feel the strength in his hand today. 'Walk softly and carry a big stick,' that's what he tells me. He's a big fellow, a bull moose. Was once a Rough Rider."
"A Rough Rider! Is that what you said, Henry?"
"Like that, huh, Maurleen?"
"I think he was short."
"Historically you're speaking. I'm talkin' about how he looked to me up on that platform. This's 1912!"
"In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt bucks the GOP and Wilson gets in."
"I don't believe that, that Wilson got in," Henry gamely remarked.
"Woodrow Wilson! The President of Princeton!"
"That makes him President of the United States? Because he's President of Princeton! That's the most fantastic thing I ever heard." The old man guffawed, his head bouncing up and down like it was on automatic pilot.
But Roger, his pouchy neck blown up like a frog's, broke in. "If you're going to start, I'll go to the bathroom."
"Teddy Roosevelt and strawberry fields and the Blue Bell Tavern and Fels-Naphtha!"
"And while you're in the toilet, Roger, purchase some rubbers for me. Or what are officially known as condoms, which were named after Colonel Cundum of the royal guard."
"What's the joke, Henry?"
"No joke! Prevention's the best medicine!" And he stuffed two quarters into Roger's hand.
"Whatever you say, Henry!" Roger, cane in hand, promoted his sluggish body down the narrow corridor to the men's room.
"So, where were we?"
"Teddy Roosevelt!" Sedgwick replied.
"You see, my grandfather came to Salisbury in 1868 to raise horses; brought twelve pacers with him from Virginia. And every morning he'd walk up to the Blue Bell for two shots and a beer. What do we start off with? Coffee! That's no real kick. At the time the ferry moved right up the crick. You might say creek, but in Salisbury we say crick."
"The ferry came right up Salisbury Creek?"
"They channeled that crick too many times, channeled it right out of existence. It's just one big drainage ditch to the Delaware these days with all that crap washing down it."
"Salisbury Creek's been dead for fifty years. Even more!"
"Understand, young man, everybody thinks Salisbury's a dump, a little nothin' town just the other side of the city. Why I remember when William Fels had a mansion right up on Water Street. They just tore it down six years ago. It had set empty for years—a ghost. For fifty years a spinster lived in it: a virgin spinster who never saw the light of day. She was in the will—old man Fels's will. And Procter and Gamble guaranteed that old woman's residence due to the fact that Fels-Naphtha and Procter and Gamble are one and the same."
"I don't think so. Procter and Gamble are not the same as Fels-Naphtha," Sedgwick stated flatly.
"When the banks close down that soap factory the town goes dead like somebody shoots it in the back."
The waitress intervened and asked Henry what kind of dessert he would like. But Henry said he'd take his rice pudding when Roger got back, that they were like Procter and Gamble—they did everything together.
"I go by Procta and he goes by Gimble. We got tagged with that name during the war years and it stuck to us. Stuck to us like glue."
"We were both inspectors and we'd be always chitchatting and somebody said we were like a team, like Procter and Gamble. But somehow it became Procta and Gimble, and I'm not sure why." He paused. Sedgwick saw that he was truly puzzled. "Maybe it was because a foreigner, a Hungarian who worked at the factory, came up with the name. I'm not sure."
"And that's it?"
"Well, we did provide entertainment during the war years; even did a skit during a bond rally at the Moose Hall in 1943. And in those days Fels made soap for Procter and Gamble. That old lady who lived in the mansion was a Fels. I used to wave at her everyday. You see, she sat at the window like Whistler's Mother, and I'd nod at her with my umbrella. Actually, we never got beyond a wave. After all, I was only a soap inspector and she was a Fels." He made a calculated pause; Sedgwick sensed there was something he had to get out. "In those days I had a lot of time on my hands. I had been married, but my wife left me during the Depression." He stared at Maurleen's thick back. "Never knew I was married, did you, Maurleen?"
She was cleaning one of the twin coffee urns with a hard-bristled black brush.
"What's that, Henry?"
"I met her in Quebec and brought her down here and she didn't like it because nobody spoke French in Salisbury. Ah . . . the French, the real French are funny that way. And was she ever pretty! Like out of a Paris post card! And very petite. Didn't weigh more than ninety pounds in her stocking feet! In my time, Maurleen!" He excitedly waved his right hand. "In my time!"
"A lie, Henry! A big fat one! And it's so much of a lie that you believe it." Roger had bulked his body upon the stool. Sedgwick noticed that he nervously clutched something in his age-riddled left hand.
"What's that, Roger?"
"She left you for another man. A bigger man! And she was a French girl from Vermont—Maquam, Vermont! You told me yourself. She had French blood, but was not a French-Canadian!"
"You're stabbing me in the back," Henry posed, flailing his arms about. "Who's behind this conspiracy?"
"No one!" And on that note Roger flung a fistful of prophylactics on the counter like a man rolling jacks. Sedgwick counted five packages of Turkish Delight, the packages flaming a platinum-blonde with overhanging bangs, swollen lips, protruding hips, and upright, extended tits.
A stunned Henry was clamped quiet, yet Sedgwick could observe that he was gathering a response to Roger's prophylactic ambush.
"That represents quite a sizable investment, Roger." He continued to stare at the obtrusive packages, struggling to get an ingenious response out. "Those . . . those rubbers represent a perilous risk in these times. Ah . . . what kind of return can we get on them? And what would your good mother say? A Christian woman who never missed the services on Sunday."
"Henry!" Something official suffused Roger's soft voice. "I don't want to play these sex games in public places anymore. I'm tired of them, been tired of them for years. And rice pudding for both of us, Maurleen. Hold the whip cream." He finished with a flourish, with authority. The other was subdued, as if somebody had knocked the wind out of him.
. . . . .
How many more Blue Comet patrons witnessed the prophylactic outburst on the formica counter? Sedgwick, out of the diner and into his car, wasn't sure. The waitress had a front row seat and was initially amused by the five packages of Turkish Delight that adorned her station. But when she saw Roger was serious, she grabbed the condoms and dumped them into a bus bin. Tom judged that a midget at one end of the counter definitely witnessed the exhibition whereas two busboys at the other end did not because they were too busy counting their tip money.
He drove to Salisbury and went into the Parker Bar, which occupied part of the remains of the old Parker movie house where he had once auditioned with a harmonica for a Saturday matinee talent show. At one time Salisbury supported two movie houses and the Buttonwood Hotel. Certainly Procta and Gimble had seen many a movie at the Parker, Sedgwick stated to himself. And he further speculated that they had dined at the Buttonwood, which was pretty much run down when he was growing up. He knew that Washington had not passed through Salisbury on his way to Yorktown, Washington having shipped to the headwaters of the Chesapeake where he rendezvoused with the French forces out of the West Indies. Washington had ridden through Salisbury many times in a carriage because in Colonial days the main route south went smack through the town. He thought to himself, "Procta more so than Gimble knew what had happened to the town, his disintegration mirroring that of the town's. Why even I remember when the decaying Buttonwood was a beehive of activity because I used to peek through its swinging doors and see cards and red and blue chips on the table and tight-skirted women with aggressive hips at the long bar. At one time the mills roared around-the-clock. Now they are silent, tomb-like. And if I live another thirty I'll be in the same boat they are in now. My past will look disjointed, splattered, like ink on a blotter. I must think about Egypt, about King Khufo and King Amenemhet. They will get my mind off . . . off . . . ."