Friday, October 3, 2014

Element of Doubt

By Bettyann Moore

“Darn it, here he comes,” Kitty Nesbitt said, peering through the living room blinds. She let the slat fall with a shuddering clatter.

“Oh, you don’t know that he’ll stop here,” Pete said. “He could just as well pass us by and go to the Johnson’s or Muriel Flat’s.”

Kitty snorted. “I know for a fact,” Kitty told her husband, “that Muriel Flat hides in the laundry room where there are no windows or doors. I admire her for that.”
Pete was rooting around in the junk drawer, looking for a tiny screwdriver for his glasses; he was sure he saw it there just last week. He pushed up his loose glasses with his middle finger and bent closer. Something was keeping the drawer from opening all the way. He yanked on it, then yanked harder. He really needed to get to work, Kitty’s paranoia about Ralph Kussler notwithstanding.

“Muriel’s doomed,” he managed. “You know what they say.” He gave a final yank on the drawer, sending it and its contents flying. It barely missed his feet.

“Goodness, Pete!” Kitty cried, dropping to her knees to help pick up the mess. “Kussler’s only a block away; he probably heard that and will stop for sure now! You’ll bring the Kussler Curse on us for sure. Oh, there’s my toenail clippers!” she cried happily.

“You don’t actually believe all that stuff that they say about the ‘Kussler Curse’ do you?” Pete asked. While Kitty was dropping items back into the drawer that was still lying on the floor, Pete was sweeping his hand through the jumble of junk, still hopeful.

“Doesn’t matter what I believe,” Kitty said. “It’s irrelevant, especially to the poor Parker family.”

“Oh, that,” Pete said. “That’s all just circumstantial.”

“Then there’s the Norwood clan,” Kitty reminded him.

Kitty paused for a moment, considering. What had happened to the Norwoods was a crying shame, that’s what it was. But was it because they wouldn’t open their door to the neighborhood snoop and gossip? And the Parkers … well that was an accident waiting to happen, wasn’t it? All she knew was that it was a good day when the police tape had finally been removed and the neighborhood could begin healing.

“I’ll never find it and I’ve got to run,” Pete said, using the kitchen counter to pull himself to his feet.

“What were you looking for anyway?” Kitty asked, looking up at him.

“That little screwdriver. You know, the one with the red handle?”

“Well, why didn’t you just say so?” Kitty said, knees creaking as she stood. “It’s right here.” She pulled open a utensil drawer that was rapidly becoming junk drawer number two, plucked it out and handed it to him.

Pete groaned. He shoved the tool into his suit jacket and gave his wife a peck on the forehead just as the front doorbell rang.

Kitty’s eyes went wide. “Shhhhhh,” she said. “Maybe he’ll go away.”

“Kitty, I’m late enough already. I’m not hiding out in the kitchen until Ralph Kussler goes away. He’s going to notice the garage door opening and the car heading down the drive. Just answer the door already. What’s a couple of hours?”

It was Kitty’s turn to groan. “Fine,” she said, “you go to your plush office and I’ll entertain Mr. Know-It-All.” She strode to the door, stopped, gave her behind a sassy wiggle in her husband’s direction and took a deep breath.

“That’s my girl!” Pete said. He grabbed his briefcase and headed out to the garage, chuckling.

Hand on the doorknob, Kitty watched him go, sighing. After almost 25 years of marriage, her husband still turned her on. The doorbell sounded again. Kitty reminded herself that Ralph Kussler was just a lonely old man seeking the comfort of good conversation with his neighbors. It was just too bad that it was hard to get a word in edgewise while he pontificated, unless he was fishing around for juicy personal tidbits, of course. She smoothed back her hair and ran her tongue over her teeth, hoping to dislodge any bits of breakfast that lingered.

“Why, Mr. Kussler!” Kitty cried, acting surprised at the sight of the stooped old man on her stoop. The thought made her smile. “How nice to see you!”

“Mrs. Nesbitt,” Kussler said by way of greeting. He seemed to be staring at her slippers, kitty slippers, naturally, though they were so old it was hard to tell just what they were. Kitty blushed until she realized that he really was that stooped.

“Won’t you come in?” she said, holding the door wide open.

“Don’t mind if I do,” the old man allowed. He leaned heavily on a brass-headed cane to negotiate the threshold.

“Please,” Kitty said, as Kussler headed toward the kitchen, “let’s sit in the living room. It’s so much more comfortable there.”

Uncannily, though, he made a beeline to the junk drawer mess on the floor. It’s like he knows, Kitty, thought, even if it’s hidden behind the counter.

Kussler made a clicking sound with his tongue. Or maybe his dentures rattled, Kitty wasn’t sure.

“We had a little accident, I see,” he said, shaking his head sadly back and forth.

Kitty rushed to his side and surveyed the strewn junk. “Oh, that,” she said, “the drawer was stuck and Pete needed a screwdriver ...”

“A place for everything and everything in its place, I always say,” Kussler intoned. “Does one really need all those twist-ties?” he asked. “And batteries? Used, no doubt.” He harrumphed. Kitty had never actually heard anyone harrumph before.

“Excellent point, Mr. Kussler,” she said. “I just made some apple turnovers and the coffee’s fresh. Can I get you some?” Anything to move the visit along and get off the junk drawer topic, Kitty figured.

“Some what?” Kussler said, moving out of the kitchen and wandering toward the living room, head bent and neck craning to take it all in.

“Why, some coffee and turnovers,” Kitty said, wondering if the man had gone senile.

“Yes, but you didn’t specify what ‘some’ meant in your initial inquiry, Mrs. Nesbitt,” Kussler declared, his cane raised over his head. “Some coffee? Some turnovers? Some of each?”

Kitty turned her back to him and rolled her eyes. It was going to be a long visit.

“Mr. Kussler,” she said brightly, turning back around. “Would you like a cup of coffee? I also have fresh apple turnovers. Would you like one of those as well?”

Kussler nodded. “I would quite enjoy a cup of coffee,” he said. “Two creams, one sugar. No turnover at this time,” he added.

The “at this time” worried Kitty. Just how long was he planning on staying?

She hurried to the cupboard, nearly twisting her ankle when she stepped on a loose battery while Kussler continued his survey of the house. He actually paused at the hall entryway and peered down the corridor to the master bedroom. He wouldn’t dare, Kitty thought. The bed’s not made and it probably reeks of sex.

“So,” she said, loudly, “I guess you’ve heard all about poor Mrs. Abernathy, haven’t you Mr. Kussler?” She splashed some coffee into a cup and practically ran toward him, using her other arm to corral him to the living room. She knew he could be sidetracked by neighborhood gossip, even if – no, especially if – he already knew all about it.

Kussler allowed himself to be led to the living room where he lowered himself slowly into Pete’s recliner.

“Terrible business, that,” he said, shaking his head, one palsied hand on the top of his cane.

Two hours later, Kussler was still droning on. He’d drunk four cups of coffee and eaten two turnovers. “A bit dry,” he’d said. “The Kirchbaums serve the most divine kugel.” Kitty had gotten up to pee three times, but Kussler seemed to have a hollow leg.

“Or Depends,” Kitty said. She clamped a hand over her mouth, realizing she’d said it aloud. “Uh, it depends,” she said, trying to cover. The look Kussler gave her could have melted a candle. He sat back in the recliner, looking for all the world like he was settling in for a few more hours.

“Where’s Pete these days?” Kussler said, shifting his eyes. “He never seems to be around whenever I drop by.”

“He works, Mr. Kussler,” Kitty said. “At an office. Full-time.”

“I see,” the old man said. Then he launched into a tirade about the government and how the original fascists would be proud of the progress being made in countries the world over. Kitty, whose interest in politics extended about as far as her local city council, found herself nodding off, despite the coffee.

“People will believe anything,” Kussler said. “Tell a big enough lie and the people will buy it hook, line and sinker. Just introduce an element of doubt and one can lead them anywhere. You can mark my words on that.”

Kitty snapped to. A former psychology major, she had a few opinions about that.

“I don’t know, Mr. Kussler,” she said. “I think people have core beliefs … a value system as it were … that prevents them from following blindly. They won’t compromise that.”

The old man’s eyes gleamed. He slowly crossed his legs, exposing a pasty white shin above his black socks.

“Is that so?” he said. “Is that what you believe?”

“I do,” Kitty said, ready to defend her position. Surprisingly, though, Kussler abruptly dropped the subject. Yay! Kitty thought, one point for the good guys!

Kussler uncrossed his legs and leaned forward in the chair.

“Mrs. Nesbitt,” he said. “I do so worry about you.”

“Worry? About me?” Kitty couldn’t have been more surprised. “Whatever for?”

The old man leaned on his cane and raised his eyes skyward, thinking.

“I’m sure Pete’s a good man,” he said, still looking at the ceiling. “But men are men. You get my meaning, don’t you?” he looked Kitty in the eye.

“Nooooooo,” Kitty said, “I’m not quite sure what you mean at all.”

“He works long hours, yes, your Pete?”

“Well, yes ...”

“Comes home exhausted, distracted, yes?”

“Well, sure, especially with this new account …”

“Works night maybe? Weekends? Has to go on business trips?”

Kitty finally caught on. “Mr. Kussler!” she said. “What are you insinuating?” Of all the nerve, she thought.

“Me?” the old man said, shrugging. “I’m just an old man. I look, I see. And sometimes, I just know.”

Kitty stood up, fuming. “Mr. Kussler,” she said, “I really do have a lot of housework to see to. I think it might be time for you to say good-bye.” She was firm, but polite, though what she wanted to do was boot him in his Depends-covered derriere and send him on his way.

With a great deal of huffing and puffing, Kussler rose from the chair. By the time he got up Kitty was already waiting for him by the open door.

“Pay an old man no attention, dear,” he said, patting her hand as he passed. “Thank you for the repast and for the conversation.”

It was all Kitty could do not to slam the door behind him.

“The nerve!” she said aloud, but not too loud in case he was still just outside the door. She peeked through the blinds to see where the old coot was heading. He seemed to be making a beeline to Muriel’s.

“Ha! He’ll get no satisfaction there!” Kitty punched the air like a prize fighter. Full of anger-fueled energy, she started tackling the chores. First things first: the contents of the spilled drawer.

Her first instinct was to continue as before, just scoop up the stuff and throw it back inside. Kussler’s stupid cliché “A place for everything and everything in its place” echoed through her head, though, so she started sorting. It took longer, but once she was done, junk drawer number two had become unnecessary. Why did she save all those dead batteries and twist-ties anyway?

Next was the laundry. Kitty stripped the bed, drinking in her and Pete’s commingled scent before shoving the sheets into the washer. If she hurried, there would still be time to hang them; she so loved the smell of air-dried linens. While she was at it, she figured it was high time to gather up the dry-cleaning as well. She could drop it off at the cleaners on the way to the local hardware store where she could recycle the dozens of spent batteries she’d unearthed.

Kitty found three of Pete’s suits and two dresses that could use a good cleaning. Whatever happened to her vow to never buy things that she couldn’t just throw in the washer? She folded the dresses and put them into the bag the cleaners provided; she would have just tossed in Pete’s suits as well, but she knew better. She smiled as she went through each of the pockets. He was like a little boy who collected found items and shoved them into his pockets. She half expected to find a frog one day. As it was, there was a smooth, shiny rock, several paper clips, coins that added up to $1.23 and a dozen receipts. She sorted through them, tossed a couple that didn’t appear business related in the trash, then stopped. A receipt from Destiny’s Garden Flower Shop for $95.22?

Kitty sat heavily on the bed. “Oh, for crying out loud, Kitty,” she said, “it’s probably for a new client.” Their 25th anniversary was coming up; maybe he pre-paid for a nice bouquet. So why, she wondered, did Kussler’s intimations ring in her head?

She went slowly through the other receipts. One was for the new Cajun restaurant she has been wanting to try … $42.19. It was time-stamped for 1 pm the day before the flowers were bought. Heck of a nice lunch. Again, she admonished herself, it was probably business. But why hadn’t Pete mentioned he’d gone there?

“Oh, just stop!” Kitty cried, standing abruptly. She put the receipts on top of Pete’s bureau, shoved the suits into the dry-cleaning bag and went to find her purse and keys. She lugged the bag out to the car and was about to pull out of the garage when she remembered the bag of used batteries.

“Damn Kussler,” Kitty hissed as she hustled back inside. She grabbed the bag, threw it onto the passenger seat and put the car in reverse. She was so distracted, she was half-way down the drive before she looked behind her. She stomped on the brakes, coming within a couple feet of running down Kussler himself.

He didn’t bat an eye, though Kitty’s heart was pounding wildly. He inched his way across the drive, never turning to look at her. He did, however, raise his cane in apparent salute.

Her errands took much longer than they should have and Kitty cursed herself for missing a call from Pete. She pressed ‘play’ on the answering machine.

“Hey, it’s me,” Pete said. “I, uh, know it’s Friday and all, but I’m going to have to work pretty late tonight. I’ll grab a bite in the cafeteria. Don’t wait up!”

Don’t wait up, he says, Kitty thought, sinking into Pete’s recliner. If I want to wait up, I will.

She was still in the chair when Pete tiptoed in after midnight. He barely noticed her there with nothing but the streetlight shining through the curtains.

“Kitty?” he said. “Is that you? Why are you still up?”

“Pete,” her voice said from the dark corner, “we need to talk.”

Two days later, Kitty nearly bowled over Ralph Kussler as he was coming up the walk.

“Oh!” she cried, dropping her suitcase to steady him. “I didn’t see you, Mr. Kussler. I’m so sorry!”

The old man looked dazed for a second until his eyes lit on the luggage.

“Going somewhere, dear?” he asked. “Remember, slow and steady wins the race.”

Kitty grabbed the suitcase by the handle and dragged it down to the curb as she talked. “Not in this case, Mr. Kussler,” she said, huffing and puffing. “The taxi will be here any minute.”

“Taxi?” Kussler stepped off the walk as Kitty barreled back inside where another suitcase waited.

Kitty propped the screen door open with her body as she wrestled with the bag. Its wheels caught on the threshold until Kitty gave it a mighty shove. It skidded down the steps and came to rest near Kussler’s feet.

“Yes, a taxi,” Kitty said, hauling the bag to a stand. As she rolled it to the curb, a Yellow Cab pulled up. She ran past Kussler, who backed farther onto the lawn, afraid she’d knock him down. Kitty grabbed her purse and another small bag, then locked the door, letting the screen door slam behind her.

As the taxi driver loaded the two suitcases, Kitty stopped in front of Kussler. He shrank back as she reached out to hug him.

“Thank you so much, Mr. Kussler,” she said, “for opening my eyes.”

“Eyes?” He seemed to be at a loss for words for a change.

“Yes!” she cried, “for opening my eyes to Pete’s possible indiscretions! I would have gone on, blithely unaware without your pointed hints.”

“But, I was only ...”

“No, no,” Kitty said, backing down the walk toward the taxi, “No need to be modest. You saved my life!”

“So … so … he was actually cheating?” Kussler sputtered.

Kitty waved her hand in the air. “Well, he could be,” she said. “I’m not sticking around to find out. The element of doubt is enough for me!”

“But, but ...”

“Sorry, Mr. Kussler,” Kitty said, “I really must go; my plane takes off in just a couple of hours. Bye, now!” She climbed into the car and gave Kussler a little wave as it pulled away from the curb.

“Oh dear,” Kussler mumbled. “Oh dear, dear, dear.” He leaned on his cane for a few minutes, gathering his wits, before he shuffled down the walk, in search of someone else to visit. He stopped abruptly, then turned back toward his own house. An old man gets tired with so much drama.

Kitty plunked herself down into the cushiony first-class seat and sighed. She took out a book and her reading glasses from her small bag before stowing it beneath the seat. Even before everyone had boarded, she held a glass of champagne and a warm cookie in her hands. What a great way to travel, she thought.

“Is this seat taken?” said a deep voice beside her.

“Why, no, no it doesn’t seem to be,” Kitty said, coyly.


Kitty looked out the window with a smile on her face and tucked her book into the seat pocket. Her smile grew when a large, warm hand came to rest on her knee.

“Happy anniversary, darling,” Pete said, giving his wife’s knee a squeeze.

“Happy anniversary to you, my love,” Kitty said, leaning in for a kiss.

“How’d it go at home?” Pete asked.

“It was perfect!” Kitty said. “Kussler came by just as I was leaving. If he hadn’t, I would have had the taxi stop at his house before I left. I hope he feels good and guilty.”

“Well,” Pete said, accepting a glass of champagne from the flight attendant, “I doubt it. He’s a narcissist and they’re never, ever at fault.”

He held up his glass and Kitty clinked hers against it.

“Here’s to 25 more years, and to the end of the Kussler Curse,” Pete said.

“I’ll drink to that,” Kitty said. She took a sip. “I wish I could be there to see the look on Kussler’s face when Bridgett shows up.”

“Ah, sexy cousin Bridgett,” Pete said, waggling his eyebrows. Kitty dug an elbow into his side.

“I told her to play it up,” Kitty said. “Housesitting can be such a drag, but if Bridgett gets to use her acting skills playing the other woman, she’ll have a ball.”

“Kussler will never buy it,” Pete said.

Kitty tapped her chin as she looked out the window while the plane backed away from the terminal. “Oh,” she said, “as long as there’s an element of doubt, I think he’ll buy it.”

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