After Mendel Schlossman returned from the hospital, where he’d been treated for the food poisoning he contracted at his retirement party, he and his wife invited me over for dinner. This was a very nice gesture, especially considering I’d been in charge of the party. Apparently a little diarrhea wasn’t going to come between us.
I’d met Mr. S. five years earlier in a Jiffy Lube waiting room. We bonded over the free doughnuts and coffee. He asked what I did for a living and I told him I was taking a couple classes at the junior college.
“I can teach you how to become an accountant better than any school can,” he said. He was halfway into his forty-second year at Hampermass, Ludnick, and Bernstein, and spoke with pride about outliving all except the stubborn Ludnick.
“I’m studying to be a dog groomer,” I told him. “I’m not even sure what an accountant does.”
“Perfect!” he said, spraying a mist of powdered sugar onto my sweater. “You’ll start with a fresh mind.”
Mr. Schlossman’s persistence, combined with a bad experience involving a Maltese, convinced me to give his offer a shot. Five years later I’d gone from Assistant Bookkeeper/Party Planner to Junior Accountant/Chair of Special Events. My career was humming right along. On the way to his house I stopped at a Turkish discount store to pick up a gift. I was concerned that Mr. Schlossman’s retirement had suffered a rocky start and that I bore some of the responsibility. I rifled through a bin of laundry supplies, such as a spot remover guaranteed to get rid of blood and vomit (that would have been handy at the retirement party) and saw a bag of walnuts with a red “90% Off” sticker. You don’t have to be a Junior Accountant or Chair of Special Events to recognize a good deal like that when you see one. I bought the nuts and a two-liter bottle of brown soda pop (flavor unknown) for the Schlossmans, along with a tin of mints for myself.
I turned onto a quiet cul-de-sac and parked my car in front of their modest two-story home. Before turning off my lights, I noticed a sign on their front lawn that read “Neighborhood Watch Command Post.” This seemed odd because this was a very safe neighborhood and Mr. Schlossman wore the thickest glasses I’d ever seen. Once I asked if he could get thinner lenses, and he told me something weighty on the bridge of one’s nose helps keep the head down.
I rapped a couple times on the kitchen door, where Mr. Schlossman had said he liked to receive friends and family, as well as packages. Nothing stirred inside the house so I pounded a couple times with my fist.
“Don’t come in!” I heard him yell. “I have a gun!”
I took a step to the side just in case Mr. S. blasted one through the door. “It’s me,” I said once I was out of the line of fire. I never knew Mr. Schlossman to own any firearms, but maybe it was a new hobby he’d taken up in retirement.
“Who’s ‘me?’” he called.
“Marvin,” I said louder. “From Hampermass, Ludnick, and Bernstein.”
“I never want to hear those names,” he said. “Puh, puh, puh.” He made spitting sounds when he didn’t want to jinx something or when he heard something that offended him greatly, such as unlicensed tax preparers or restaurants that charge for sharing. Maybe he was still upset about the firm cutting off his health insurance and sticking him with the $47,000 hospital bill from the retirement party.
He fumbled with the lock and then yanked the door, but a chain stopped it after a couple of inches. He muttered “for Chrissakes” and shut the door. I could hear some monkeying with the chain and then the door opened. There was Mr. Schlossman, wearing a royal blue sweat suit decorated with thin white stripes down the legs and sleeves. It was the same one he wore to work when he wasn’t feeling well.
“Welcome, Marvin,” he said.
We shook hands and he took my coat. I was reminded of a time from my youth, nearly twenty years earlier. It was a hot summer day and my father had taken me to Lake Elizabeth, just over the Wisconsin border. He rented a rowboat and we spent a whole day meandering around the lake, just talking, eating sandwiches we’d packed, and catching the occasional fish. Toward the end of the afternoon my father’s line jerked and, after a ten-minute struggle, he reeled in a big, bloated and extremely ugly fish. He said it was a carp – a garbage fish – and he wouldn’t eat it, but he knew somebody down at the newspaper delivery station where he worked who would. My dad wrapped it in the style section and threw it into the backseat of our car. During the two-hour drive back home, in the ninety-degree heat in a car with no air conditioning, I asked him why the fish smelled so bad. He told me the fish looked a little sick, like our Uncle Sol, who had the gout and an unclean house. That smell still came back to me from time to time, and not just when visiting Uncle Sol. It was like some sort of post-traumatic olfactory flashback.
“Are you making carp?” I asked Mr.Schlossman.
“Carp?” he asked. “Would I feed you carp?”
I wasn’t sure, but something sure smelled carpy.
“No,” he said. “You’re in for a real treat. Mrs. Schlossman picked it out especially for you. She said you looked like the kind of boy who would enjoy a nice piece of flounder.”
Flounder? Did people even eat flounder? He shut, double-locked and chained the door, then hollered for his wife to come downstairs. She yelled back that she’d be down as soon as the Tylenol kicked in.
“Is she not feeling well?” I asked.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Just a little fever and vomiting.” He pushed his glasses up his nose a bit, providing a good workout for his index finger.
“Not from the party,” I said. It was ninety-percent statement, but Mr. Schlossman responded to the other ten percent.
He shrugged and held his shoulders up there for a moment longer than necessary. “Who knows?”
I knew. The party was two weeks ago. In addition to Mr. Schlossman, twelve people had gotten moderately to severely ill, five requiring medical treatment, four treated with over-the-counter medications, and three needing their entire cars steam-cleaned. But they were all better now. Every single one was back to work, with the exception of Chester Skolnik, who was dead. That had nothing to do with the food poisoning, though, unless one of the symptoms was walking in front of a snow blower.
“How are you feeling, Mr. S.?”
Another shrug and shoulder pause. “I guess you can say that I’m on the mend. Yesterday I had a solid stool.”
“Terrific,” I said.
“Today, not so solid. Barely solid at all, Marvin.”
It was difficult for me to read the look in his eyes, especially with all the glass in front of them.
“We’ve gone through four packs of toilet paper in less than a week,” he continued. “And these are warehouse packs, Marvin. The size they make for schools and bus stations.”
This is when I began to question exactly why the Schlossmans had invited me over for dinner. Was it because we’d been close at work and I’d visited him in the hospital and we wouldn’t be seeing each other as much now? Or was it because they blamed me for the party and the hospital stay and bill that resulted from it? Just as I was doing the calculations, Mr. Schlossman pointed at the bag in my hand and lifted his eyebrows expectantly.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Just a little something for you and Mrs. S.”
I handed over the bag and he peeked inside. “What is this?” he asked. He pulled out the two-liter of brown soda. “Is it wine?”
“Turkish soda,” I said. “Flavor unknown. Straight from a real Turkish discount store.”
“Exotic,” he exclaimed. He placed the pop on the counter and pulled out the nuts. “And this?”
“Walnuts,” I said. “The best.” Fortunately I’d remembered to pull the 90% off sticker from the bag.
“You shouldn’t have,” he said.
“It was nothing,” I said.
“No, I mean you shouldn’t have. Sylvia is very allergic.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. To all nuts?”
“Just filberts,” he said.
“Well, these are walnuts,” I pointed out.
“Yes,” he said. “It probably says so on the bag and maybe even by the Turk who sold them to you. But Marvin, no offense, your judgment in these matters is not so good. Am I right?” He held the bag at arm’s length and lifted his glasses to focus in on it.
In these matters? What exactly was he referring to? Was he suggesting I had previously been misled by another nut salesman? Did I have a blind spot when it came to transacting with Turks? No, this was directed at my work on the party and it only made me more suspicious regarding the motives behind his dinner invitation.
“I’ll take them back,” I said, reaching for the bag.
He pulled his arm back. “Don’t be silly,” he said. “Why waste good nuts? I’ll put them somewhere where she’ll never find them.” He opened a cabinet next to their utility room door. I saw bottles of laundry detergent, boxes of fabric sheets, and two mousetraps baited with peanut butter. He shifted a couple of the bottles around and put the bag behind them. The nuts had come full circle now that they were back mingling with laundry supplies.
“I do the wash,” he explained. “The only time she ever goes in there is if we get a mouse. Puh, puh, puh.”
The fish odor was making me a little woozy and maybe fogging my thinking. I headed to the living room. I was six steps in when his wife shouted, “Make sure he takes his shoes off,” from upstairs. Could she have heard me step onto the shag carpeting AND known I was still wearing my shoes? Mr. S. was on me before I knew it, bending down to get a look at my feet and see if, in fact, they were encased in shoes. Instead of walking back into the kitchen, where there were other shoes but also the smell, I stayed where I was to remove them. I turned them over to Mr. Schlossman, who looked like he wasn’t sure what to do, but he eventually took them into the kitchen as naturally as a salesman returning an ill-fitting pair to a stockroom.
I drifted as far from the smell as I could and took a seat on the plastic-covered couch. Mr. Schlossman called, “Make yourself comfortable while I check the fish.” I heard the oven door open and pictured more of the smell floating into the house. The only way I was going to make myself comfortable was by getting some fresh air, maybe by throwing the fake Faberge egg on the coffee table through the plate glass window.
“You’re in for a real treat, Marvin,” he said. “We’re making this especially for you.”
Especially for me? Was it possible that this was some sort of payback for the party? That was crazy. He wouldn’t invite me over here just to feed me rotten – possibly poisonous – fish. After all, Mr. Schlossman and his wife were presumably going to eat it, too. It’s not like they had some sort of suicide pact and they planned on taking me with them. Of course not. Although they were getting up in years and Mr. Schlossman had that big hospital bill to deal with. Maybe there wasn’t much left to look forward to.
I tried to steady my breathing and do something about the smell. Maybe I could mask it with a mint. I pulled one from the tin in my pocket. It was off-white and sort of cube-shaped and when I stuck it in my mouth my eyes began to water. This was one strong mint. I’m not sure if it was peppermint or spearmint or some kind of mint you only get in Turkey. I think there was even some menthol in it because my sinuses began to clear, which unfortunately made the fish smell even stronger. My nostrils were an open river and the flounder was swimming upstream.
The oven door closed and Mr. S. stepped into the living room. “Do you need tartar sauce for the fish?” he asked. “Or just ketchup?”
“Whichever way you’re going to have it,” I said.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I have leftovers.” He went back into the kitchen.
I definitely wasn’t going to eat anything I didn’t see him stick in his mouth first. I might even play nurse and ask him to open his mouth to make sure he swallowed. I began to feel faint. This fish odor was like ether. If I passed out I’d be much easier to poison. They could just shove all the fish they wanted into my mouth. Well, I wasn’t going without a fight. Maybe I just needed to change my tactic. I took the mint out of my mouth and rubbed it around the ring of each nostril. I sniffed. Better, but not great. I needed to get inside. I pushed the mint into my right nostril. My nose burned as I slid it around.
“Hello, Marvin,” I heard. I quickly pulled my finger from my nose, leaving the mint lodged somewhere between the opening to my nostril and the entrance to my brain. Mrs. Schlossman was at the top of the stairs. I gave a little wave, trying to act like that’s why my hand was up by my face. I rose to greet her and we exchanged a half hug at mid living room.
“I’m sorry you’re not feeling well,” I said. Maybe if I appeared sympathetic and concerned, she wouldn’t poison me.
“Acch,” she said. “This too shall pass. But what about you? You sound like you have a cold.”
The mint was completely blocking my right nostril and making me sound congested.
“Allergies,” I said.
Mr. Schlossman came out of the kitchen holding three small glasses filled with something dark. He distributed the drinks and we took seats, me again on the couch and the two of them squeezed into a love seat to my left.
Mrs. Schlossman examined her glass. “Is this our good bourbon?” she asked.
“Marvin brought it,” he said. “Turkish soda pop.” Then he raised his glass and said, “To your health,” while looking straight at me.
“And to yours,” I said, and quickly added, “And to forgiveness and moving on and not holding grudges.”
We all took a drink. Mine tasted like mint, possibly because of the one stuffed up my nose.
“Mmmm,” Mrs. Schlossman said. “Sort of like a cross between prune juice and cough syrup.”
“With a little spritzer,” Mr. S. said, smacking his lips. “You can almost taste the Black Sea.”
I needed to do something about the mint, which had become very uncomfortable. I tried to find an opening where I could excuse myself, but they wanted to talk. We stumbled around for a subject that had nothing to do with work, the party, the hospital and/or the hospital bill.
“I noticed the Neighborhood Watch Command sign out front,” I said. “Is that something new?”
“The sign’s just for show,” Mr. Schlossman said. “We’re hoping it might keep our new neighbors on the straight and narrow.”
Mrs. Schlossman shielded one side of her mouth with her hand and softly said, “We think they might be trouble.”
“Do they look like trouble?” I asked.
“The man rides a motorcycle and his wife – or girlfriend – has a tattoo,” Mrs. Schlossman said.
“I’m not sure you need to worry,” I said. “I know people who ride motorcycles. One’s even a doctor. And tattoos are really popular. Even for women. My cousin, who’s a woman, has one of a bunny rabbit on her ankle.”
“This one’s a swastika and it’s on her forehead,” Mrs. Schlossman said.
“That might be different,” I allowed. The mint was making my eyes and nose water, and every time I sniffed in it got wedged a little higher up into my nose.
Mrs. Schlossman must have noticed the tears and interpreted it as fright. “You needn’t worry, dear. She has an ankle monitor and has to be in the house by six.”
I wiped my eye and scrunched my nose around, trying to shift the mint into a more comfortable spot.
Mrs. Schlossman turned to her husband. “How’s the fish coming?”
He kissed his closed fingers and then snapped them open. “Beautiful. Just like you like it. Nice and crispy.”
“I still say we should have taken the head off,” she said. “I don’t trust that fish’s eyes.”
“Nonsense,” Mr. Schlossman said. “It’s a fish. What are you going to do that it hasn’t seen before?”
“How do I know what that fish has seen?” she said.
“I could tell by looking at it,” Mr. Schlossman said. “It’s seen lots, this fish. This was no angel fish.”
We were all quiet for a minute or two, maybe out of respect to the fish. I wondered, though I did not ask, why Mr. Schlossman would want to leave the head on in the first place before sticking it into the oven. Did he have a sadistic side under all that polyester? Did he enjoy looking into the eyes of those who would suffer by his hand? My own eyes were tearing more now, though I wasn’t sure if was because of the mint or because of fear.
“Marvin, what is it?” Mrs. Schlossman said. “Is something wrong? You look as if you’re in pain.”
I couldn’t tell her there was a mint stuck up my nose or that I was afraid they were about to poison me. One would make me look like a fool and the other might hurt their feelings. Even if they were going to poison me, I’m sure they would have preferred it to be a surprise.
“I have toothache,” I said. “And it’s quite painful.” I’m not sure where I came up with that, but it quickly became apparent that it might make a useful excuse to skip dinner.
“Let me get you something for it,” she said, and started to get up.
“No,” I said. It would be much easier to poison me, or at least knock me out, with a pill. “I’ve already taken something. Don’t want to mix, you know. Could be dangerous.”
The two of them looked at one another and Mrs. Schlossman sat back down.
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “It’s one of my wisdom teeth. I think it’s impacted.” I was now committed to taking this route away from this house. “My dentist has been after me for years to take it out. He said it’s only going to get worse and worse, and sure enough, it has.”
“Dentists,” Mr. Schlossman said. “I don’t trust them. And why are they called ‘Doctor?’ I refuse to call mine that.”
“What do you call him?” Mrs. S. asked.
“I call him by his name. Phil.”
“His name his Leonard,” she said.
Mr. Schlossman rubbed his chin. “No wonder he’s light on the gas.”
The mint shifted a bit and set off a burning/tickling twinge. I pressed a knuckle against the side of my nose as if I had an itch and tried to maneuver the mint, but the menthol had made things slippery in there and I couldn’t find a comfortable spot to park it. I must have slid it over some sort of trip wire because suddenly I sneezed – a giant shotgun of a sneeze – and the mint flew out of my nose and skittered across the coffee table.
Mrs. Schlossman held her hand to her mouth. Her eyes were wide and unblinking.
“Gesundheit,” Mr. Schlossman said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“That was one hell of a sneeze,” he said.
Mrs. Schlossman pointed at the mint on the table. She looked too scared to speak. Mr. Schlossman bent over to look at what she was pointing at. He pulled a mechanical pencil from his sweat suit pocket and poked at it.
“Did this come out of you?” he asked, looking at me.
Mrs. Schlossman nodded so many times and with such force that Mr. Schlossman eventually noticed. It would do me no good to disagree.
“Yes,” I said.
They looked like they were waiting for me to explain, and I gave the first explanation that came to my mind.
“It’s my tooth,” I said. I grabbed it and put it in my shirt pocket.
“But… but – it came out of your nose,” Mrs. Schlossman said.
“I told you it was impacted,” I said, as if sneezing a tooth out of my nose proved it.
Mrs. Schlossman said she felt a little light-headed and needed to go back upstairs and lie down.
Once she was up there and her door was closed, Mr. Schlossman looked at me. He slapped his hands on his thighs and said, “So, should we eat?”
I said that under the circumstances, with Mrs. Schlossman not feeling well and my tooth being recently extracted, I should leave. Mr. Schlossman said that the only way he was going to let me out of the house was with a doggy bag, so he got out a plastic bag and snapped off the top half of the fish for me. I took the bag, thanked him for a lovely evening, and held my nose when I tossed the fish to a chubby raccoon on my way to the car.
The next day Mr. Schlossman called the office and asked how I was doing without my tooth. I told him that I barely missed it and I asked about him and Mrs. S. He said that earlier that day they were heading out to get some groceries, and just before getting into the car Mrs. Schlossman screamed like she’d seen a ghost. He came running around to her side of the car and there, on the driveway, was a fish head. Mrs. Schlossman couldn’t be calmed. Mrs. Schlossman identified it as belonging to the very same fish they had cooked. Mr. Schlossman said that while the fish did indeed look familiar, he couldn’t be certain that it was the same fish. He told Mrs. Schlossman that there are lots of fish in the sea, but she wouldn’t listen. She said she knew that was a no-good fish and now it was going to haunt them.
“I told her that maybe it had slipped out of your doggy bag,” he said.
So that’s why he was calling. He didn’t care about my tooth. I considered telling him that even his neighbor’s raccoon didn’t like that fish. Instead I told him that I had brought the fish to the office and had, in fact, eaten it for lunch that very day. I waited to see if he’d ask how I was feeling, but he didn’t. Instead he returned to the fish head and said the whole thing was a real mystery. I told him that maybe it came from the neighbor with the swastika as some sort of warning. You know, I said, like this is what happens to nosy neighbors. There was a minute of silence and then Mr. S. excused himself so he could call the police. I hung up, took a bite of my tuna sandwich, and went back to planning the firm’s Groundhog Day party.