28 June 2007

The Cheating Husband Cure, or Some Notes on Re-reading Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Morning was always Marge Drosselbart’s favorite time of day. She loved the first rays of sunshine through the kitchen window and the last moments of quiet before the house woke up. She began each day by sweeping, mopping, dusting, scrubbing, and scouring the entire house. She did the mending, and the baking, and the canning, and the washing, and the gardening. Noisier chores, such as running the vacuum cleaner and chopping firewood, could wait until later in the day. Then she sat down to churn the butter.

This was the time she could linger over a cup of coffee, listen to her favorite radio program, One Gal’s Backstage, and read the newspaper before George and their children Roscoe, Myrtle, and Phoebus got their hands on it. She had never imagined that four people could take so little time to destroy an entire newspaper. Sometimes she could only stand back and marvel. Her mother had never warned her that married life could be quite like this.

This morning, however, Mrs. Drosselbart sensed that something was different. She hadn’t heard George’s gentle snoring in the bed beside hers when she woke up this morning. She didn’t want to turn on the lights, for fear of disturbing him, but even in the dark she could see that his bed looked remarkably empty. This was curious. George was as reliable as the rain, she thought; surely he was in the bed, somewhere, because in bed was where he was supposed to be at 6:30 in the morning, every morning.

It was a relief to hear the door slam. "Is that you, George, dear?" she asked in a whisper just loud enough to be heard over her butter churn. It was still a few minutes before Roscoe, Myrtle, and Phoebus were due to wake up.

"Me, dear," George mumbled. "Sorry. Late night at the office. Big client. Going to catch a couple hours sleep before work. Kiss-kiss. Love you. Have you put on weight? Good-night."

He made an unsteady march from the front door to the bedroom, calling to her over his shoulder as he passed by, and slamming the bedroom door just as the alarm clocks went off in the children’s rooms.

"How strange George looks!" thought Mrs. Drosselbart. "But the kids will be late for school if I don’t start making breakfast."

"MOTHER!" shouted Myrtle, "Roscoe stole my backpack!"

"Did NOT!" shouted Roscoe. "She stole my pencil box!"

"Did NOT!" shouted Myrtle. "It was MY pencil box in the first place! YOU stole it from ME!"

"Children, children," called Mrs. Drosselbart. "Please keep your voices down. Your father is trying to sleep. Where’s Phoebus?"

"Oh, he’s locked himself in the bathroom AGAIN," said Myrtle at the top of her lungs. She clattered into the kitchen and sat down at the breakfast table.

"Yeah, AND he’s wearing Myrtle’s underwear," shouted Roscoe, taking his place at the table.

"On his HEAD," yelped Myrtle.

"Yeah, on his HEAD," crowed Roscoe. "He sure is WEIRD."

"Hush, hush," said Mrs. Drosselbart. "Have some bacon with your sausage." She placed seven strips on each plate. "How would you like your eggs?"

"Can I have extra gravy with my hash-browns this morning, Mother?" asked Myrtle.

"Where’s the cream? I can’t drink cocoa without cream," said Roscoe.

Little Phoebus shuffled into the kitchen. He was still wearing his footie-pajamas, and Myrtle’s panties were still over his head. "Phoebus!" said Mrs. Drosselbart. "You must hurry, or you’ll miss breakfast and be late for school. It’s important to eat a good breakfast."

She didn’t really expect him to answer. Phoebus had quit speaking at the age of five, ever since George had lost his job at the chemical-processing plant. Phoebus merely cast one baleful eye at Mrs. Drosselbart through one of the leg openings of Myrtle’s panties, and shuffled back to his bedroom.

By the time the children were fed and on their way to school, Mrs. Drosselbart had almost forgotten about her husband’s strange behavior. But now, as she washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen, she began to worry. For, now that she remembered it, George hadn’t had a job of any kind since he’d left the chemical-processing plant. So how could he possibly have been working late? How could he meet a client?

Since George was still sleeping, she couldn’t run the vacuum cleaner or chop the firewood yet. So she went to the telephone to call her friend, Mrs. Crippen.

"Cupola?" said Mrs. Drosselbart. "I’m worried about George."

"What’s he done?"

"Oh, it’s nothing, really. It’s just that he came home very late last night. In fact, it wasn’t last night at all-- it was this morning. He seemed disoriented, said he’d been working late, and went straight to bed. He had strange, lip-shaped red marks on his cheek and neck, and around his collar. Do you suppose he could have sustained a head injury?" Mrs. Drosselbart had read an article on head injuries in one of her women’s magazines, and it seemed a really severe head injury could be the cause of almost any ailment you cared to name.

"For goodness sake, Marge, don’t be a sap," said Mrs. Crippen. No one called Mrs. Drosselbart "Marge," and for a moment she didn’t realize that Mrs. Crippen was talking to her.

"What do you mean, Cupola?"

"I mean that George hasn’t sustained any head injury." Mrs. Crippen paused dramatically and then said, "Marge, what you have is a Cheating-Husband."

"Oh, no, my goodness me," said Mrs. Drosselbart. "What do I do?"

"Well, you have called the right person, dear," said Mrs. Crippen. "I remember when my husband Winthrop-- rest his soul-- had Cheateritis a few years ago. I gave him the Cheating-Husband Cure."

"What’s that?" asked Mrs. Drosselbart. "Is it painful?"

"Oh, not at all," said Mrs. Crippen. "It’s a special powder given to me by an old friend from obedience school. It’s white and very innocent-looking."

"Oh, yes," murmured Mrs. Drosselbart, "like everything white."

"Tell him it’s a sugar-substitute. You just pour a little in his coffee every morning, and within a few days," said Mrs. Crippen, "I guarantee you will notice the difference. He’ll never cheat again."

"How wonderful!" said Mrs. Drosselbart. "It sounds like one of the magical cures for misbehaving children in the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald! How I used to love those stories: ‘The Crybaby Cure,’ ‘The Answer-Backer Cure,’ ‘The Never-Want-to-Go-to-Bedders Cure,’ ‘The Thought-You-Saiders Cure.’ What a comfort to know that there really are such magical solutions to adult problems in real life!"

"Er... yes," said Mrs. Crippen. "Luckily I happen to have just enough of this... magic powder left over. Shall I send over little Arugula with a packet after school?"

"Oh, yes, please," said Mrs. Drosselbart. She was so relieved that she could hardly keep her mind on her chores, and she barely noticed when George left to go to his office around noon.

"Can’t be late," said George. "Big client. That dress looks awful. Closing a very big deal. Can’t you do anything about your hair? Must go. Love you. Kiss-kiss. Good-bye."

The children came home from school at four o’clock, with little Arugula Crippen in tow. "Hey, Mother! Arugula’s selling DRUGS!" shouted Roscoe, grabbing the packet of Cheating-Husband Cure out of Arugula’s hand and waving it in the air.

"Am NOT a drug-dealer!" said Arugula. "YOU are!"

"Okay, so I’m a dealer, so SUE me," said Roscoe. "You’re nothing but an addict."

"METHADONE!" shouted Arugula. "It doesn’t count."

"Mother, I think I’m pregnant," said Myrtle, while little Phoebus sat on the kitchen floor and picked his teeth with a switchblade. But Mrs. Drosselbart hardly heard them. She snatched the packet of Cheating-Husband Cure away from Roscoe, and served each of the children a big slice of fresh chocolate cake with triple-fudge frosting. She cut an extra slice for George, and sat down to wait for him.

She was still waiting at ten o’clock that night when George walked through the front door: "Sorry, dear. Late night. Big client. You look like a horse. Shouldn’t you be on a diet? Off to bed. Love you. Kiss-kiss. God, am I tired. Good night."

"Dear," said Mrs. Drosselbart, "couldn’t I tempt you with a slice of chocolate cake?"

"You couldn’t tempt me with a cattle prod," said George sleepily. "Oh, you mean just to eat. Sure, I guess."

"And how about a nice cup of coffee?"

"At this hour? Are you nuts, on top of ugly?"

"It’s decaffeinated, dear," said Mrs. Drosselbart.

George sat down at the kitchen table and began to eat. Between mouthfuls, he made conversation: "Could’ve married a dozen other girls if I’d wanted. Only married you because we had to. Never thought Phoebus looked anything like me. Moving to Tahiti next week, leaving you behind. Whyn’tcha put a bag over your head, do us all a favor?"

Mrs. Drosselbart was used to his saying such things. What worried her was that he wasn’t drinking his coffee.

"That cake must be awfully dry going down," she said helpfully.

"It’s all right," said George. "You’re ugly and stupid, and you’re a bigger disaster in the kitchen than you are in the bedroom, but at least your cooking tastes better than your coffee. Maybe a glass of buttermilk."

Mrs. Drosselbart had never disobeyed her husband before, so she went to the refrigerator and poured a glass of buttermilk. Still, she didn’t know how to get George to take his Cheating-Husband Cure. She could always stir some into his buttermilk, but Mrs. Crippen had specifically said to put it into his coffee. What if buttermilk spoiled the Cure?

Mrs. Drosselbart shrugged her shoulders and poured the entire packet into the glass when George wasn’t looking. If it didn’t work, she could always ask Mrs. Crippen for more, and try again tomorrow. She stirred the Cure into the buttermilk and set the glass before her husband.

"Here you are, dear," said Mrs. Drosselbart.

"God, I can’t stand the sight of you any longer," said George. "Did your mother mate with a warthog, or what?"

He took a long sip of his buttermilk, then turned bright red, began to splutter, and fell over backward in his chair. Mrs. Drosselbart knelt beside him and looked carefully.

What wonderful magic! The Cure had worked perfectly! George had no pulse, he wasn’t breathing, and there was a glassy expression in his eyes and blue foam around his lips.

Mrs. Drosselbart smiled. George would never cheat again. She would have to call Mrs. Crippen in the morning, to thank her. She would have thanked Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, too, if only there really were such a person.

She went to the cupboard to get the little hatchet she used to chop firewood. The weather report predicted snow, and she thought a big pot of stew would be just the thing in cold weather. George might be a little tough, she thought as she chopped, but slow cooking would take care of that.