Exit from Xanadu

by Gerald Budinski


Harold was courting danger in the Xanadu that was Myrna’s new kitchen. He had been out mulching leaves and now desperately needed the kitchen sink to rinse the dust from his burning eyes. Reaching blindly to his right for a paper towel, his flailing hand struck something hard and he heard a loud clatter across the tiled floor.

There was a premonition of disaster and his stomach churned as he hurriedly wiped his eyes. He had already broken one rule: one washed one’s face in the bathroom sink upstairs — the kitchen sink was for dishes, period. And now to assess the damage. What could have fallen when nothing was allowed on the peninsula except the cutting board — and Myrna’s measuring cup?

Oh well, a simple matter to find it. As an engineer trained in mathematics he found it easy to reason that the cup must have shot off in a particular trajectory and could have traveled only a certain distance. Clickety, clack — he had heard only two bounces — yet there was nothing on the floor within view. The cellar door was open, but the cup couldn’t have gone down there; the stupid thing would have made a terrible racket. It was just gone, obliterated.

He was in trouble. Myrna used that cup for everything, even measuring their morning juice to a precise six ounces. Two servings each for four days — typical of her compulsive disorder — but now wasn’t it he who was obsessing over a stupid cup? The only sensible thing was to forget it — things often disappeared and then showed up later.

Harold went to the living room and began to read his favorite stories, science fiction. One short piece conjured up an entertaining notion. Could the cup have fallen through some fourth-dimensional warp? Maybe the old house had a wormhole to an alternate or time-shifted universe. He wondered what a mirror-image Myrna would be like in a parallel world of constant civility. Or one in which he had made other choices, like sweet little Penny Snodgrass.

He even deduced a rationale for the preposterous notion. For fifteen years they been content, adapting themselves like invited guests to a house that was more than a hundred years old, succumbing to its history, its structure, its mores — traditions not to be disturbed.

Oh, the previous kitchen hadn’t been that archaic, but had evolved to nurture each generation in a setting proper to its time. A landmark, a home, an organism until Myrna in some fit of midlife outrage had ripped out its very womb, replacing it with something resembling the bridge of the starship Enterprise. Why did a stove need more than five simple knobs?

Or, if the warp weren’t spiritual, it could be geometrical. When the contractors tore up the kitchen floor they had found a rotted joist — worms of course — and worse than that, it was a main support beam. The workmen weren’t the brightest of crews and he had actually felt the house shift violently when they removed the old beam. Now if you dropped a marble it would head due north, and fast. Certain places upstairs made you feel dizzy just to stand there.

“Old houses should have some character,” the contractor said when Harold complained. Thirty thousand dollars for a character disorder? But perhaps they had added some cosmic aberration as well. Harold dozed off contemplating the possibilities.

It took three minutes in the kitchen for Myrna to notice the cup was missing. “What have you done with my measuring cup?”

“It’s the strangest thing, Precious. I inadvertently knocked it off the counter and it just disappeared.”

She glared at him. “What really happened?” she demanded.

“I’m telling you, it was the weirdest thing. You’d think there was a wormhole in here.”

He wound up sweeping the kitchen floor and cellar stairs, inventorying all the cabinets and searching the basement. No measuring cup.

“I’ll get you a new one.”

“No, I want to know what happened to the old one. You can’t buy things like that anymore.”

“It was just cheap plastic.”

“It was green, to match the counter. I planned the whole kitchen around that shade of green. What really happened?”

“OK. You caught me. I used it to pour some oil in the mower, then it dissolved when I tried to clean it.”

“So that’s it. Why do you even try to lie to me? You always get caught.”

Then the usual escalation. Somehow losing things reminded her of the children and why they hated him. In truth they had all married young or moved to another town because Myrna drove them crazy, too. Now she was exploring new realms of crime and misdemeanor.

“If you lie once, how can I believe you about anything? All those nights you supposedly work late. God knows what you’re up to.”

He tried to protest his love, be romantic, but to no avail. A closing time rush to K-Mart earned him a clear plastic cup but no pardon or recompense. The next morning he was portioned only five ounces of juice while she got seven. “This thing doesn’t measure right,” she said, but there was peace for a while.

* * *

Sunday afternoon, Myrna was out shopping again and Harold saw his opportunity. The incident with the measuring cup was still driving him crazy. There must be a way to test the wormhole theory: the dog’s ball.

Fluffy, part Westy and part Cocker was a bit like Myrna, but the dog’s only obsession was her solid rubber ball. For the mutt it served two purposes. She would chew on it upstairs in the family room or play fetch with Harold in the basement. Fluffy couldn’t judge trajectories well, but with bounced balls she was a pro. And Harold had become adept at bouncing. They would easily win an Olympic man-dog slimy-ball event.

While the dog was dozing in the family room, Harold snuck her ball into the kitchen. Rather than try to recreate the fall of the cup from the peninsula, he just tried to simulate the bounces. He took the clothes basket from the laundry room and put that on the first rise of the steps to catch the ball.

After about five tries he was getting perfect at getting the ball into the basket but was beginning to feel foolish. Fluffy heard the noise and entered the kitchen with a look of shock. Bouncing balls were only allowed in the basement.

All right, thought Harold, one more try and that’s it — just a bit further out. The ball bounced once, twice, but it never reached the basket. A brief blinding flash and it was gone. The dog let out a yelp and scampered back to the family room.

My God! Harold’s insane hypothesis was confirmed. But how stupid he had been. He should have set up a camera, brought in a witness. He tried to envision himself trying to tell someone at NASA or even at the local College, but could only picture Myrna’s probable reaction on a grander scale. He could buy a dozen balls and practice so that the phenomenon became repeatable. But there was no way Myrna would put up with his antics. There was still hope that his senses had deceived him.

He stood staring down the cellar stairs, knowing a search would be futile, yet after a while something — a brief flash of light? — caught his eye. Harold decided to give it a try.

Nothing — no ball, no cup, no thing to be found beyond the useless clutter most basements seemed to nurture. Harold was about to give up when something told him to defy logic and look underneath the basement stairway. And the answer was there. The flash he thought he had seen was hovering before him, waist-high like a mystic grail.

It was like a shard of broken glass, an elongated triangle, dangerously sharp. But no image was reflected or transmitted, just an emptiness obliterating the dull greenish-gray of basement floor. Yes, there was something to see — no, not.

Harold moved around like a pigeon, bending and bobbing his head as the apparition came and went with the promise of a revelation should the precise viewing point be found. It seemed to have a strange curvature; was he viewing it on edge?

He had read about this — was it Asimov, Gamow? — about what a three-dimensional object would look like to a two-dimensional man: just a 2-D specter changing shape and size. And with what implications of space and time? Harold moved around and finally for just an instant glimpsed a view of the night-time sky, the Milky Way and beyond.

If a spillway to the cosmos was in one direction, what was in the other? Harold crawled onto his back and attempted his viewing dance from there. His efforts were rewarded.

Through the glowing, cosmic crack he saw — the kitchen! No, not Myrna’s pâtisserie palace but another — the original, before she had hacked its heart out. As through a jagged window he could see a cupboard counter and on it — what? — the measuring cup! And something in it. Paper?

Mustering courage, Harold raised his hand — the opening was just big enough for that — and snatched at it just before the portal closed from view. He got not the cup but the note within it:

Harold, how sweet of you to have found my cup. Look for your reward in the usual place. — Penny

Harold sat in the living room to collect his thoughts. Had he been hallucinating about the life he had chosen? Myrna had been strikingly beautiful — Penny just pert and cute; Myrna shapely and sexy, Penny sweet and kind. Yet peer pressure had turned the tide. “Va-voom, Harold, are you kidding?” But to return through a four-D crack? He had surely gone insane.

Yet the measuring cup made sense. It came with him — his mother’s wedding shower gift: a “box of necessities” including strainers, ladles all sorts of things a young couple would never think to buy. Everyone but Myrna had thought it brilliant.

In the repose of his easy chair, dark thoughts intruded — how to trick Myrna into the wormhole. Was it a channel to a better life, or annihilation? That was silly of course, and he shouldn’t blame poor Myrna. Ninety percent of the time she was pleasant enough to live with — well, maybe fifty. It was just that when anything went wrong she was impossible for days, and she just couldn’t let anything go. Oh, damn, he had forgotten about the ball.

He was still sitting in the living room collecting himself when Myrna came home. Fluffy kept a low enough profile for the next couple of hours, but the reckoning was inevitable. They had had dinner, and as if the dirty dishes weren’t enough scrubbing, Myrna had to start a project. She was washing all the knives from her expensive German gourmet set. He wished she would get rid of it. The wooden rack occupied most of the left-hand counter and the knives, he feared, were a tantalizing temptation.

Harold heard the dog’s clickety steps on the kitchen tiles. Myrna called, “That poor dog is disturbed about something. Aww, poo Fwuffy. I think she lost her ball. Help her find it, Harold.”

He shouldn’t have come into the kitchen but he hated to shout. “The dog knows where her ball is better than I do. It’s either in the family room or the basement.”

How did Myrna do it? Did his nose actually grow longer, or did his ears turn red?

“What did you do with the dog’s ball, Harold?”

“Heh, heh. I’m afraid it was the wormhole again.” Of course she didn’t laugh. “Don’t worry I’ll find it.”

“That ball cannot be replaced. It was Fluffy’s first toy, it’s what she teethed on. How cruel of you to lose it! You’ve always hated that dog.”

He hated the dog? He was the one who walked her, played with her, and fed her most of the time.

But Myrna wasn’t finished. “I know what you’re doing — Gaslight!”

“Gaslight?”

“That old movie with Ingrid Berman where her husband tries to drive her crazy by hiding things.”

The best defense was a good offense. “That’s crazy. I said I’d find the ball. And why are you wasting time on those silly knives? They take up that whole counter and there’s only one we ever use.”

He pulled the only useful carving knife out of the sink to show her. Unluckily — or fortuitously — he held it by the blade.

“Give me that.” Myrna snatched it back, inflicting searing pain. “And stop trying to change the subject. Now I am sure you’re trying to drive me crazy.”

It wasn’t so much the pain of his cut hand that immobilized Harold but more the germ of an idea, just now incubating. He made a fist and watched the crease fill with blood and drip slowly onto the tile floor.

“Eeeek! You’re dripping blood all over my beautiful new floor,” screeched Myrna.

“I’ll get a band-aid in the powder-room,” said Harold calmly.

“Nooo. You’ll drip all over the house. Go... go... to the garage and wrap it in a rag or something.” She snatched two paper towels off a dispenser, tossed him one and went to the floor with the other.

A rag? Harold stood in the garage watching scarlet droplets peppering the cement floor. He looked at his car, a sensible Saturn sedan, then at Myrna’s a sporty new SUV. Ah, Myrna’s car was a rolling warehouse.

On occasion, profound ideas are crafted by careful analysis, on others they are forged by a cascade of accidents. Harold returned to the house, hand wrapped in a threadbare dustcloth, to see Myrna still on her knees wiping the floor.

She screamed again.“Eeeek! What are these black marks on the floor! It’s rubber! It will never come off. The ball! You were bouncing Fluffy’s ball in here, weren’t you?”

The black marks would make it easy — he would want the pair closest to the cellar stairs.

“Yes, Myrna — you’ve caught me. But watch carefully. I’ll show you how it’s done.” Harold opened the basement door.

The first jump was easy but it took more than a little courage to thrust himself into an abyss that was more ponderous than the dark, gaping stairway.

* * *

Of course Myrna had to invite the detectives into the living room — they all had such nice jackets and ties — but she was glad when they declined coffee.

“Mrs. Solway, we were called by the company your husband works for. He hasn’t missed a day in years and now he’s been out four days. They say your explanations to them were... well, strange,” said the oldest detective.

“Mind if we look around a bit?” said a nice young detective. She couldn’t say no. The third detective left with him.

“And, frankly, if, as you say, your husband has been missing for four days, it’s surprising that you haven’t called us before they did.”

“As I said, I haven’t seen him since he left for work on Monday. I think he’s involved with a woman at work. That’s what it is,” said Myrna, playing a game with her fingers.

“You say he left for work but his car is still in your garage. We just saw it as we came in.”

“Sometimes he walks before he leaves. She may have picked him up down the road.”

“Alright then. What do you know about this woman? Did you see any strange cars out in front that morning? Does it look like he packed a bag?”

The young detective came in from the kitchen. “Mrs. Solway, I see you’ve been washing all your knives. Is there a special reason for doing that now?”

Of course the knives were still in the sink. She had been afraid to go in the kitchen since Harold disappeared. She had been surviving on takeouts after work each night.

The young detective whispered in his superior’s ear but Myra could hear him. Something about blood and the trunk of her car. There was nothing else to do. When things get complicated, the only thing for it is to tell the truth.

She cleared her throat and said, “Very well, I’ll tell you everything — but it may seem very strange at first. You see, there is this wormhole in the kitchen and...”

“Mrs. Solway,” the elderly detective began, rising and reaching into his coat pocket. “You have the right to remain silent ...”


Copyright © 2006 by Gerald Budinski

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