You may be under the illusion that 3 of these articles are revealing every word, pause, comma, dash to the reader. Not so. Remember, there are 100 Malicious Little Mysteries within, and I’m highlighting only a handful. It’s unusual for me to enjoy that many short stories within one large volume and because of that–I am forced to share. Don’t blame me, it’s the demand of the universe.
Maxine O’Callaghan provided the biggest surprise in An Insignificant Crime. The story is thin, on the surface. A store owner in the late 1900s is ready to call the authorities finally, and have the well known customer arrested for her habitual shoplifting. His employee son-in-law keeps at him to drop the idea. Narrated by the employee, he points out that the customer isn’t stealing for money, or in malice, it’s something she apparently has no control of. The son-in-law lays on the line that the customer’s father has a lot of influence in the community, and that the father would not tolerate the humiliation his daughter’s arrest would bring. His argument concludes asking the storekeeper why he doesn’t simply charge the customer’s father’s account, like all the other times?. But his father-in-law is obstinate. The clerk thinks:
“The old fool can’t see beyond the end of his thin quivering nose. He would sacrifice the business and our future, his daughter’s and mine, and feel smugly sanctimonious. And for what? An insignificant little crime that would hurt nobody.”
Things come to a head when they both witness the customer’s shoplifting choice for the day, and the shopkeeper is hell bent on reporting her. His son-in-law then uses his only card. He desperately wants the store when the older man dies, so he gambles, stating he’ll quit the store and take his devotion and hard work elsewhere. The shopkeeper gives in, and when the customer is paying for insignificant penny nails, “he accepted payment without a world or a look at her large shopping basket where the hatchet handle was plainly visible. He even managed a stiff nod and a “Good afternoon, Miss Lizzie,” while I breathed a shaky victorious sigh, and made a note to charge the stolen ax to Mr. Borden’s account.”
The next story is particularly interesting for those who work in the publishing industry. Co-Incidence, by the wonderful late Edward D. Hoch, explores a small publishing house that struggled before Rosemary took over the reins. She’s a mathematical genius and has increased the sales of the cheap reprints astronomically. The story is told in the voice of a employee, recounting his past professional and personal experience with Rosemary. In the beginning of working with her, everything was fantastic. Only one thorn tortured Rosemary’s side, her superior, who as most superiors go, has less experience, knowledge, and work ethic than his lowly subordinate. Mason, jealous of Rosemary, is making her life a living hell in the workplace. But again, as these things go, the powers that be never recognize nor do anything about the incompetency of their management staff. It finally becomes too much for Rosemary, and she muses about certain time spans and cars racing below and stopping at the light. Weeks go by, and she continues her mathematical calculations. One night, she calls Mason into her office at the exact moment he habitually leaves, speaks to him for an exactly 55 seconds and abruptly ends. The narrator and Rosemary watch as Mason begins crossing the street and a speeding taxi hits him head on. The narrator explains how he left the company soon after Mason’s funeral, not convinced that anything untoward had happened, yet relieved he hadn’t fallen hard for Rosemary and married her, wondering the rest of his life if she may stop him for exactly 55 seconds at some point.
Hunting Ground by A. F. Oreshnik opens with Wilson Block reflecting on how ‘cheerless’ cemeteries are–and he should know, he’s buried 40 wives. He bemoans the lack of ornamentation these days among tombstones. He’s watching a widow put a wreathe on her recently deceased husband’s grave and bides his time. As the story progresses, we see him reel the widow in, and within weeks, marry her. But he’s pleasantly surprised by this one–she’s undemanding, knows her place, makes him comfortable, thinks about HIM. He decides retirement is a good option, with computers and things getting better every year, chances of staying off the radar lessens, and he’s not getting younger. He settles into a nice routine with his newlywed. After three months of contented bliss, he’s carrying garbage out when he slips on a neighbor kid’s roller sate on the back stairs and smashes his head on the concrete bottom. Betty, his widow, hates cemeteries, “during her 41 years she had buried over 15 husbands, so she was an expert on cemeteries–but she didn’t like them.”
A Night Out With The Boys could be turned around if you substitute Girls–I believe in equality of marital discord. A long married couple move to a new area and the husband is invited to join a club of some sort. He doesn’t really care what it is, getting out of the house and away from his harpy of a wife, is fine with him. The men at the meeting one by one start describing how awful their lives are with their wives. When it comes time for the new guy to speak, he goes all out, complaining about every little horrible thing he feels his wife has done and is doing to him. The group takes a vote as to who has the worst wife, and he wins. He’s elated to have found a sympathetic group. He notices one man didn’t speak. He asks another member why that was. The fellow explains that the silent man is a widow. He was last year’s winner.
There are so many great stories in this book, and I wanted to share some more, but I fear I will be accused of plagiarism if I do, because almost every story is repeatable, they’re that much fun. So–if you need some short term memory stories, or low attention span ones–grab a copy, and hunker down for oh, around 2 minutes or less.