E
Oct/Nov 2001 Fiction

Mustard Gas

by Jurgen Fauth


Art by Bob Dornborg

 

His name was Wilson Babylonia, and he was selfish and handsome.

Wilson worked at the bank, at the desk behind Beatrice's. He listened to soft rock all day long. He lived with his mother because he didn't have enough courage to leave and live on his own. His mother was a kind and meek woman who did everything for Wilson. That's what made it so hard for him to leave. He was lazy and leaving would have meant doing everything by himself: the laundry, the dishes, the shopping, the cooking, the mopping, the cleaning, the bed, the taxes. So he stayed, dredged on to the bank everyday, taking his chair on the desk behind Beatrice's, clicking the radio to the soft rock station. Grooving to Phil Collins.

At night, Wilson Babylonia liked to read in bed. He read history books: books about World War I were his favorite. His greatest dream was to go to Europe to see the battlefields of the Great War, Verdun and the Somme, the Belgian No Man's Land. One time, he tried to concoct mustard gas in the bathroom, but it didn't seem to work and he got tired, so he left the toxic stew in the bathtub to catch a nap. When his kind and loving mother came into the bathroom, she almost died from the poisonous fumes. Wilson had to call the ambulance and explain what had happened. His mother survived, but the burns on her face never went away. Wilson used some money he embezzled from the bank and bought her a twenty-five CD changer for her classical CDs, and his mother seemed happy again.

After the accident with the mustard gas, Wilson's mother never went out much. She was embarrassed about what had happened to her face, and she didn't want the neighbors to know that it was her own son who had harmed her like this.

"You'll have to go shopping from now on, Wilson," she told him. She never directly addressed the fact that he caused the acidic fumes that had burnt her face, or that she could have easily died in a mustard gas cloud if Wilson had been any better at chemistry. She was one passive-aggressive mom, never letting her resentment show through the polished surface of kind and loving mother. But she refused to go out, to do the dishes, to wash and fold and iron Wilson's clothes, or to leave the house at all. All she wanted to do anymore was sit by the fireplace and put her CD player on shuffle play, listen to opera all out of sequence.

"It's to see what kinds of stories the CD player comes up with," she explained. "Sometimes, it starts with the overture from Othello, then jumps to Carmen's final aria, then a chunk from the Nibelungenlied. I try to figure out how these songs relate."

"They don't, Mom," Wilson would say. "It's just random. Why don't we listen to this new Lionel Richie CD I bought?"

"No, no," the old lady answered from her chair, wrinkled fingers gently tapping the CD changer's remote control. "There's a plan to all of this. What would Desdemona think of Carmen? Can you see Don Carlos fight the dragon with Siegfried? There's an intricate pattern to all of it, and the way the harmonies clash makes for another story altogether." Wilson's mother picked at her forehead, where a big red scab still festered.

"Well, all right, Mom. Just as long as you don't play with the karaoke function anymore. But what are we going to eat?"

This was a true problem. Wilson Babylonia was all right with his mom cranking up the opera because he was at the bank all day anyway, listening to his own gentle soft rock station. Music wasn't the problem, food was: Sometimes Beatrice asked him for lunch at the diner across the street, or he sent one of the tellers for a burger, but when he came home at night the refrigerator was empty. Wilson Babylonia, lazy as he was, couldn't fall asleep with an empty belly. He was so selfish that it never even occurred to him that his mother didn't get to eat anything because she never left the house. She was starving in her chair by the fireplace. She was so hungry, occasionally she couldn't help herself and took little bites from the scabs of skin she peeled from her forehead. That's how hungry she was, but she wasn't going to complain to Wilson. She held her anger and frustration at his selfish ways inside.

Only once, after a particularly powerful combination of Verdi and Rossini had made her lightheaded and hopeful, did she address the problem of her hunger and asked Wilson to buy groceries. She was wasting away in her chair, far too weak already to get up and feed herself, subsiding only on dry scabs of facial skin.

"Wilson," she said, "do you think you could pick up some yogurt on your way home from work today? I'm in the mood for some yogurt."

Wilson looked up from the heavy biography of Baron von Richthofen he was reading over breakfast. "I think not," he said. "Grocery stores upset me. They smell, the lights are much too bright, and people greet you with silly smiles. And yogurt is bad for you anyway. What you need is some lotion, some old-people make up or something. Just look at yourself. All bloody in the face, and thin like an eel. What you need is some meat, not yogurt."

"Yes Wilson, you are right, of course, I'm sorry I asked." Thus was Miss Babylonia's motherly love for her lazy and selfish son Wilson. She sank back into her chair and began to nibble on her thumb, which seemed quite juicy to her. The prisoners' choir from Rigoletto wailed away on the stereo.

 

Beatrice, the gentle if slightly overweight assistant manager who worked at the desk in front of Wilson Babylonia's, was a sad and lonely woman. She had three cats, Pee-Wee, Gizmo, and Chablis, who kept her warm on rainy weekends, but Beatrice knew that what she really wanted was the company of a man. A strong man: somebody with facial hair and thick arms; thick male arms attracted her. Whenever she had a chance to, she sneaked glances at Wilson's arms. At night, in bed with Pee-Wee, Gizmo, and Chablis, she liked to imagine Wilson's arms wrapped around her. Every now and then, Beatrice invited Wilson out for lunch, very careful not to do so too often as to not arouse suspicion. Men balk easily. She had chased others away before.

Beatrice and Wilson talked about work, about their grouchy branch manager, about the food. Sometimes Wilson would tell her about the book he was reading, on General Sherman or the treaty of Versailles. His monologues could be boring, but Beatrice always feigned perfect attention. This was another thing she had learned about men: they like nothing more than attention. Not even sex compared to an attentive woman.

Wilson seemed nice to Beatrice, which was all she was looking for. She had given up on love a long time ago. As long as he wasn't mean to her cats, any man would do. And Wilson did have beautiful masculine hairy arms, arms that she could imagine chopping firewood or driving a race car, or reaching around her from behind. She could put up with lectures about World War One—still better than late night TV, better than the shopping channel. Better than sleeping alone.

Beatrice wanted Wilson to ask her to the bank's annual Halloween Ball. It was three weeks away, but Beatrice started to get nervous. Recently, it had appeared to her that Wilson was more and more eager when she asked him out for lunch. Yet once they were at the restaurant, he hardly talked to her at all—he seemed to care about nothing but the food, which he devoured at an amazing speed. Whenever they went to the Chinese buffet, he spent more time on return trips than on talking to her. He was eating with a single-minded determination that made her laugh to herself nervously and shake her head.

"You seem like you're starved," she said jokingly when he came back with an unseemly heap of beef and pepper over rice, his third plate.

Wilson picked out three beef strips and ate them. "Well yes," he said. "I'm so hungry I could eat everything on the menu. This is all-you-can-eat, ha ha. Little Chinese fools. I'll eat all they have."

"It's important that a man your age have enough food," Beatrice said.

"Tell that to my mom," Wilson said, chewing. "She refuses to go out anymore, and the refrigerator is empty."

See, up to that moment, Beatrice hadn't even known that Wilson lived with his mother. Of course, alarm bells should have rung in her head right then. The man was in his late thirties! And still living with his mother! Complaining she wasn't feeding him! But Beatrice was lusting after Wilson's masculine arms, which spoke to her of power, strength, and raw unchecked energy. She did not suspect that they belonged to a lazy man who refused to shop for his weak and mustard-gassed mother. She trusted in the good in Wilson. There are people in whom one should not trust at all.

"It must be difficult to care for her," she said.

"Difficult? Frankly, my dear, it's a bitch. Her face is diseased. She can't get up from her chair, and she's hard of hearing. She cranks opera to the max."

Why do generous people so often offer their help to those who least deserve it?

"If you need me to," Beatrice said, looking earnestly into Wilson's eyes, "I might could help out every now and then. Get groceries for you, or maybe even cook."

Wilson stopped eating. "Would you? Can you come tonight?"

 

And so it happened that Beatrice started to do the groceries for Wilson and his mother. For three weeks, Beatrice pushed two shopping carts through the grocery store simultaneously—no mean feat—and followed the picky and detailed lists that Wilson had written out for her. Every time she delivered the groceries to Wilson's mother's house, she hoped to be invited in, but Wilson never asked her inside, just thanked her and gave her the exact change for the bill. But the third week of her deliveries was the last week of October, and Beatrice had still not given up her hopes of being invited to the Bank's annual Halloween costume ball. Beatrice loved to dress up and she knew that if she could get Wilson onto the dance floor and make him take her home drunk, his arms would be hers.

 

But no invitation was forthcoming. That year, Halloween fell on a Saturday. Wilson had not wanted to go to lunch with Beatrice on Friday since now his refrigerator was stocked again. On Saturday morning, Beatrice went shopping during the worst rush of the week, just so she could show up with her bags at Wilson's house before lunch and offer to cook for him and his mother. She had steaks, she told Wilson at the door, and she would make delicious potato salad to go with them.

He did not want to let Beatrice into the house, but greed and hunger got the better of Wilson.

"Well, okay," he said, as if he was the one doing her a favor. He stepped out of her way and let Beatrice enter his mother's house for the first time.

"Smells funny in here," Beatrice said. She hesitated in the hallway, waiting for Wilson. She expected to be introduced to his mother. An aria, unmistakably Wagner, was playing in the back of the house.

Wilson pointed to the left. "Kitchen is that way," he said. "I'll help you with the bags." His hairy arms grabbed four grocery bags at once and he pushed past her.

Beatrice marinated three steaks in Worcestershire sauce and garlic and prepared a generous bowl of delicious potato salad to go with them. The dishes were dirty, so she had to wash up. Then she cooked the steaks.

"Looking good," Wilson said when he came back into the kitchen to check on Beatrice. The smell of steak was rising up from the pan. The steaks were juicy. The potato salad looked delicious. Beatrice put twice the usual amount of mayonnaise in it: that was the secret.

"How does your mother like her steak cooked?" Beatrice asked.

"Oh," Wilson said, "Mom won't have any steak today. I like mine rare."

"Are you sure? It's extra-tender."

"Nah," Wilson said. "Mom isn't up for it." He whispered: "I think she might be turning vegetarian. She hasn't eaten any meat in weeks." He rolled his eyes and pointed vaguely in the direction where Beatrice suspected the living room, the direction from which she heard a crescendo of violins, rising, rising, as if they were urgently trying to tell her something...

"So if you don't mind," Wilson said, pointing at the sizzling T-bones, "I'd very much like mine now, before they're too done."

Beatrice nodded and forked two steaks onto a plate. Wilson helped himself to potato salad and began to eat in the kitchen, standing up, while Beatrice watched her own steak. She liked it medium-well. Just a moment longer...

"You know," she said, "the bank is having the big Halloween party tonight."

"Yes," Wilson said. He was cutting his steaks into peculiar strips, long even strips of meat, before he ate them. "I like Halloween. It's my favorite holiday."

"Well," Beatrice said. "Why aren't you going to the party then?"

"Oh," Wilson said. "I am. Do you know Suzy from Loans? I'm going as the Kaiser, she as the Empress. We will make a fine couple. She does my laundry."

The words echoed in Beatrice's head. She concentrated on her sizzling steak and swallowed quickly to fight back the tears. She should have known better. Pee-Wee, Gizmo, and Chablis would never have treated her like this.

"Wilson!" Mrs. Babylonia screeched from the living room. "I smell meat!"

With the courage of a woman spurned, ignoring the half-formed syllables with which Wilson was trying to hold her back, Beatrice went into the living room. What she saw made her gag. The old woman sitting in the armchair by the fireplace was thin and shrunken, her parched skin tight over bulgy, knobby bones. Arms thin as paper clips held a blanket. The woman's eyes were white and large, the only bright thing shining out of the dank corner to which Mrs. Babylonia was confined. Her fingers, Beatrice now noticed, were scabbed, and the woman had no lips. Her face was covered with scars. Beatrice let her plate sink and dropped her steak and potato salad onto the floor.

"Hello, dear," Mrs. Babylonia said. "I am Wilson's mother."

Beatrice did not know what to say. She glanced over her shoulder, but Wilson hadn't followed her and was still eating in the kitchen. Her glance returned to the mustard-gassed face of the starving woman.

Mrs. Babylonia pointed with her remote control. "Is that a steak?"

Beatrice nodded and kneeled down to clean up the mess she had made. The splattered potato salad was thick with hair and dust from the dirty carpet. She heaped everything back up on the plate.

"May I?" Mrs. Babylonia said. At another time, she would have been ashamed to be seen in this state by a stranger, a younger woman, much less asking her for the half-eaten food from her plate. But Mrs. Babylonia was past shame, past humiliation. Mrs. Babylonia could feel nothing but hunger.

Beatrice handed her the plate. Without a word, Mrs. Babylonia ate.

 

"What are you two up to?"

Wilson had finished both of his steaks and eaten all of the delicious potato salad. He walked back into the living room, making a show of checking his watch.

"Time to get ready for the ball. Thank you Beatrice. Lunch was delicious."

"Sure thing, Wilson, no problem," Beatrice said. She was sitting on the carpet next to Mrs. Babylonia's chair, Indian style.

You could tell that Wilson felt strange about having his colleague from the bank at his house, talking with his neglected starving mother. He was not as sure of himself as usual. But he played it well, masking it, laughing, asking, "Did you two have a good time? You know, mom, Beatrice is the best when it comes to customer interaction. Whenever there are complaints, we send them to Beatrice, and she takes care of them beautifully."

"Is that right?" Mrs. Babylonia said.

"Well, heh heh, so much fun to have you here," Wilson said, checking his watch again. "But it's really time for me to get ready for the ball. The fake moustache glue alone needs half an hour to dry."

"Sure," Beatrice said. "Sure." She got up.

"I would like you to stay here, honey," Mrs. Babylonia said, clutching Beatrice's hand. "Keep me company. Maybe you can get some candy and give it to the trick-or-treaters tonight."

Purposefully avoiding Wilson's eyes, Beatrice answered. "Certainly, Mrs. Babylonia. Candy. I'd be glad to." She ducked out of the room, wishing Wilson a good evening without looking back.

 

When Beatrice returned, she brought big bags full of candy: Snickers bars, tiny bags of M&Ms (almond, peanut, and plain), Crunch bars, party size peanut butter cups, Baby Ruths, Mars bars, Almond Mars, Twizzle Sticks, Hershey's Kisses. And Beatrice even brought some wintergreen candy to Wilson's mother's house that Halloween night. She also brought her cats, Pee-Wee, Gizmo, and Chablis. She made sure not to return before Wilson had left for the bank's annual Halloween ball, dressed up in a blue-and-gold uniform, with a pique helmet and a saber, and a foot-long fake moustache that somehow made a heartlessness and vileness appear in his otherwise vacant, usual face that had before been absent. When she saw him leave his house from a distance, waiting in her car, it suddenly was very clear to Beatrice. Wilson was a crook. The soft rock should have tipped her off.

The women hugged when Beatrice came back. It took Beatrice three trips to carry all the candy into the house. Mrs. Babylonia took Chablis onto her lap and the other two cats ran around the house, eager to explore the new surroundings. Beatrice pushed Mrs. Babylonia's chair close to the door. They put Brahms in the CD player, because that was the scariest death music Mrs. Babylonia knew.

"That's a nice stereo," Beatrice said.

"Yes," Mrs. Babylonia said. "Wilson got it for me with some money he embezzled from the bank. He doesn't think I know, but I know everything about Wilson. It's a 25 disc changer."

"Really? Embezzled? That's a serious crime."

"I know. People get put away for it."

Beatrice nodded. "For years."

Pee-Wee crawled onto Mrs. Babylonia's lap and got comfortable. Soon it got dark, and when the first trick-or-treaters came, Beatrice opened the door without showing herself, and the sight of Mrs. Babylonia, scabbed and scarred and without any lips, frightened the children silly. Many did not wait for their candy and just ran. The women laughed and laughed.

For every piece of candy they gave away, they ate two.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece