“I don’t understand,” said Mrs. Brain. “The scatter rug wasn’t yellow yesterday.”
Mrs. Brain had long, shiny hair dangling from the sides of her head. Just the day before, she and Mr. Brain had before given in to fashion of having the plastic dome atop their head be clear acrylic, rather than colored polyethylene. The visible brain look was irresistible. Mr. Brain’s number of illicit affairs had tripled since adopting the style. Mrs. Brain had been invited to four more coffee-drinking contests around the neighborhood — more than she could manage, in truth. Yet she had accepted all calls.
She phoned Mr. Brain at his office at Doughnut Investors Trust building.
“I told you not to wear those glasses!” said Mr. Brain.
“I’m not wearing glasses. I traded eyes with Mrs. Noggin, but she swears her rug has not changed color. So I’m not sure it’s an eye thing. I think the rug has actually turned yellow.”
“I told you not to buy that rug!” said Mr. Brain.
“You bought it for me,” she said. “Which makes it a greater mystery.”
The rug, in the meantime, was in the breakfast nook asking for sugar in its tea.
“You never wanted sugar in your tea before,” said Mrs. Brain, having satisfied herself that Mr. Brain was feeling better. He had left that morning out of sorts with the world.
“I am tired of the usual ways,” said the rug, flipping back its fringe. “Oh, I long for a better life. I long for the sun. Do they have sun in Acapulco? Maybe I will go to Acapulco. I long for exotic nights. Do they have exotic nights — where? Tell me, Mrs. Brain. You have been so good to me for these past years. Where are the nights exotic?”
“They are exotic in Denver,” she said. “It’s in all the latest magazines.”
Since tickets turned out to be cheap for people traveling with their scatter rugs, Mrs. Brain decided to go along.
“Should we tell Mr. Brain?” said the yellow scatter rug.
“But he is feeling so much better,” Mrs. Brain said.
The alarm buzzer on Mr. Brain’s desk began to beep.
One long, two short, two long, four short beeps. He recognized the code and sprang into action. An agent of the Doughnut Investors Trust was ever vigilant.
His splendid brain flashed and chugged for all the world to see. Gone was his peevishness of the morning. He grabbed his doughnut hole in one hand and slipped through it, emerging almost immediately onto the Island Of Lost Socks. A bracing sight it was, no matter how often he experienced it.
As far as the eye could roam, tube socks and argyles, fluffy booties and honest woolen knee lengths: all lay in stacks, in mounds, in small hills. Socks misplaced in a million laundromats. Socks swept away by fast currents as they were being pounded with rocks in clear streams. Socks hidden under radiators and abandoned in moments of passion in the back seats of Studebakers. Socks fell from the sky in a flappy, multicolored blizzard.
Once on the ground, they were normally gathered and sorted carefully, matched when possible – which was rarely. But not on this occasion. This time, Mr Brain observed, the gatherers, the sorters, the graders and matchers sat about drinking tea out of saucers and soft drinks out of cans, talking and arguing, singing songs their grand-mothers had taught them and flicking the odd monogrammed black silk formal stocking off their neighbor’s shoulder. Not a one was doing his or her proper work.
Vainly did Mr. Brain remonstrate and cajole. They ignored him. They laughed at him. The clear Lucite that covered the top of his head fogged over from the steam inside. It was almost impossible now to observe the splendid machinery of his thought processes.
Finally Mr. Brain found the president of the Island Of Lost Socks, a woman whom, barely a week before, he had endorsed for office. She sat on a pile of black nylons with runs in them, eating a chocolate Wing Ding and gazing off into space.
When he had her attention and demanded to know what had happened, she made a dismissive gesture.
“Go away, you silly man,” she said. “We can do our jobs without you.”
The steam inside Mr. Brain’s head became tinged with pink. His eyes rolled out of control. Then he recovered and seizing the donut hole in one hand he jumped through it to a time a bit more than a week before. There he took a deep breath, removed a pink ankle sock, size four, with the name Mary Jane embroidered on it from the top of his head, and withdrew his endorsement of the presidential candidate.
When he went forward to the same moment where all had been chaos before, he observed order and good workmanship and was pleased. The steam inside his head disappeared. He smiled and nodded and went back up the donut hole.
Back in his office, he looked at the time and picked up the phone to tell Mrs. Brain that he would be a little late for supper.
She would be a little late in answering the phone, he learned.
Starlight filtered through Mrs. Brain’s eyebrows, which she had lengthened for the evening.
Smog-eating guppies, numerous now after having escaped a household Smogarium decades before, flitted between the leaves of ivy covering the arbor.
The crowds at the balconies, having cheered the daily train wreck, dispersed. A festive spirit infected the crows picking through the colorful wreckage.
“It will rain soon,” said the yellow scatter rug. “I feel it in my corns.”
“Mr. Brain will call any moment now,” said Mrs. Brain. “He always picks the most irritating times.”
“I nurse desires of which I have never spoken,” said the yellow scatter rug. “I wish to have weevils in a lukewarm soup, for instance.”
“I was hoping to see a well-lubricated policeman with a pained expression. This place is famous for them.”
“We are so full of unfulfilled potential.”
“Watch this mouse,” said Mrs. Brain.
She set the small animal on the table. It ran for the condiment tray and ate a small pickle. The flesh over its head peeled away, to reveal a very realistic fish head, with one gleaming eye turned upward.
Mrs. Brain’s extended eyebrows hummed in the light breeze.
“Dare I ask are Mrs. Brain and the scatter rug linked amorously?” said the Detective.
The windy day had turned from bad to worse. Even so, for a windy day, the wind was acting with restraint, only tearing off the uppermost portion of the roof. Even so it made the investigation more difficult. Suspect items kept moving across the floor.
“Or by business?” said the Detective’s faithful lampshade in return.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the scatter rug was once the Pastry Inquisitor. Don’t you think the Pastry Inquisitor’s office would be interested in the doings of Mr. Brain, and might hope to gain access through an interlude, romantic or not, with Mrs. Brain?”
“Why, thank you,” said the lampshade quietly.
“You’re trembling,” said the Detective, moving nearer.
“It’s the wind.”
“I shouldn’t bring you to places like this.”
“I’m all right.”
“But you might get blown away.”
“Dare I ask — ?” said the lampshade.
“You had feelings for the scatter rug, you once told me,” the Detective said gruffly.
“That was so long ago,” said the lampshade, “in another time, under a different title, one never posted. And the scatter rug was not then yellow. You remember, Detective. Tell me you do.”
The Detective heaved a sigh, inaudible below the hooting of the wind through the house.
“But if we are correct in our surmise that the scatter rug plans to murder Mrs. Brain, once it has achieved its aims,” said the Detective, “then am I to fear you plan to do me in, too?”
“But I have no fringe,” said the lampshade. “I have only tassels.”
“How true,” said the Detective, with narrowed eyes.
The bare spot in the downstairs hall and the absence of the sound of Mrs. Brain’s flutelike voice, the sight of the enchantingly off-kilter arrangement of the hemispheres under her plastic dome led Mr. Brain to the conclusion that his wife had run off. A common tale, and sordid. Mr. Brain had heard it often enough. But never had he imagined it happening to him.
His brain pulsed against its clear plastic cover. He stood in the midst of his disenchanted living room, casting about in all directions with his doughnut hole. Smoke the color of blue indigo seeped from the kitchen amid the chatter of the electric appliances, the ambient noise of the stairs, the snickering of the settee behind him.
“It is ironic,” this piece of furniture said snidely, “that one of great brilliance, one who can make the elephant lie down with the mouse and the singer become the song, is subject to the whims of minor accessories.”
Mr. Brain peered down the doughnut hole. A long way off. In another dimension, two men, one young one old, one a priest, one packing a gun, stood in a parking lot at night. “Now,” said Father MacGonigal to a burly man named March, “give me the gun. Then you’ll drive us home slowly. It’s my guess that we’ve given him the slip for tonight.”
No sooner had he spoken, then Mr. Brain saw a thin figure, slight as steam, wavering in the neon lights of a shopping center. A very familiar ghost. March, the young man with the gun suddenly drew it out of his jacket and let fly with a slug. “Jesus Christ on crutches,” said the priest. “You’re going to get yourself locked up. Now give me that gun and get….”
Mr. Brain paid no more attention to the two men. The ghost had been shattered like a plate. As the two men drove away, it began to re-assemble itself. As it did, Mr. Brain, an expression of incredulous joy on his face, his cranial fluids flowing briskly, prepared to jump down the doughnut hole. He had just recognized Fred Stansberg, his best friend from college.
“Wait!” said the Detective behind him. “I have information!”
“A smart thing your friend did,” said the coffeepot to the Detective. “Having the ghost jump here, instead of him jumping there.”
“But the transformation was startling.” The Detective’s face still looked white with shock, hours later. “Maybe a ghost can only be a ghost in one plane. In any other … ”
“I understand,” said the coffeepot in a low voice. “There was a mug, once – ”
“You should have seen Mr. Brain’s face,” said the Detective, covering his eyes. “It was the ghost of his old friend, Fred Stansberg, flying up toward the doughnut hole. But as soon as he reached the doughnut hole, Stansberg changed into Dr. Frankie Flysmudge, the long-lost, merciless coffee-drinker who once brought Mrs. Brain to shame.”
“That mug,” said the coffeepot, “I thought I knew that mug, when I was looking at the reflection in the restaurant window – ”
“Which gives me the chills,” said the Detective.
“But then the mug came in the door – ”
“Because Mrs. Brain will never face Dr. Frankie Flysmudge again. And only she is good enough to issue a challenge.”
“But the mug,” said the coffeepot. “It wasn’t the same, after all. It was – empty.”
“So who, who, will face him?” said the hollow-faced Detective.
“Guy, what the hell are you doing crawling around in my parking lot in the middle of the night?” asked the proprietor of Sammy’s Pizza in Rumprumble New Jersey.
Mr. Brain made no reply. With his doughnut hole screwed into his eye like a monocle, he crawled about with his face close to the parking lot. Every so often he stopped, picked up a small, translucent fragment and popped it into the empty coffee can he had, with enormous foresight, thought to bring from home.
“OK,” said Sammy. “I’m calling the cops.”
Mr. Brain ignored him and went on working intently. The sirens were far in the distance when he stopped, stared into the can, and stood up.
“Fred,” he said into the can, “Pull yourself together. I need your help.”
He shook the can gently as he spoke. “Come on, Fred. I think you really came through. You’re in there.” Mr. Brain knew Flysmudge had stolen the opportunity to return to this dimension, when Mr. Brain had opened the doughnut hole and called Stansberg through. Flysmudge had to shatter Stansberg to do it.
Luckily, Stansberg had started off shattered. He was no Humpty Dumpty.
The flashing lights were barely visible when a human form, thin, white haired, and slightly wild-eyed, appeared from within the can. “Brain! Augustus J. Brain!” Dr. Frederick Stanberg exclaimed. “What are you doing here? What am I doing here?”
“Fred, I need your help.” He explained his problem.
The siren cut off. Doors opened and slammed.
“There he is, the one in the hat sitting on the ground talking to himself,” said Sammy.
“What if I told you the answer was on the Island of Lost Socks?” said Fred.
Mr. Brain gasped, took the doughnut hole from his eye and promptly tumbled through.
Fred Stansberg rose and turned to meet the approaching police.
“Take me away, boys,” he said, with a shimmering smile.
“I need the strength to drink ten coffees,” he said at the Office of the Secretary of the Coffeetariat, Island of Lost Socks Branch No. 202.
“Do you have an appointment,” said the bored secretary.
“I’m Mr. Brain.”
“Isn’t that nice. Mr. Brain was a sweet man who had promised to arrange for me to rule this island. Did he come through? Nah, and nah again. This place – it’s too tidy. It needs an administrator who can make it live up to its name.”
“I don’t have time for this,” said Mr. Brain. “I need a special sock. I know you have what I need. I need the strength to drink ten coffees.”
“Like I said, maybe you need whatever. But you got an appointment? No? Well, we don’t have a sock for you or anyone else that looks like Mr. Brain.”
“Look,” said Mr. Brain. “I could arrange something . .. ”
She listened. “I could get sweet on a guy like you. But you guys are never good as your word.”
“Make a mess of this place, like you promised. But get me that sock.”
“You make those arrangements,” she said.
When he returned:
Tube socks and argyles, fluffy booties and honest woolen knee lengths: all lay in stacks, in mounds, in small hills. Socks misplaced in a million laundromats. Socks swept away by fast currents as they were being pounded with rocks in clear streams. Socks hidden under radiators and abandoned in moments of passion in the back seats of Studebakers. Socks fell from the sky in a flappy, multicolored blizzard.
“I am so happy,” she said, with the vacant look of the missing-sock addict.
“The sock,” he said.
Dr. Frankie Flysmudge met Mr. Brain, as pre-arranged, at 7:30 a.m. at the Mr. Bean’s Coffee Clotter, which had a specially designed seating area for coffee-drinking contests.
“I have no second,” said Mr. Brain coldly.
“I have brought my penguin,” said Dr. Flysmudge.
“Let us commence.”
“I will avenge the affront you did my coffee cup!”
“I will justify the offense by showing my superiority at sipping!”
The formalities out of the way, they began.
Three cups into the contest, Mr. Brain’s eye was caught by fleeting forms across the street of a glistening-headed woman and a scatter rug.
The woman’s eye caught his. He heard the scatter rug flapping pleadingly behind her.
“You cheat!” roared Dr. Flysmudge, pointing with his free hand. “When you turned your head I saw the doughnut hole you have hidden in your collar!”
“As if your penguin is not helping you drink your coffee!”
“I demand reparation!”
“I will do you better.” Mr. Brain removed the doughnut hole and set it on the table. “There. But you may keep your penguin.”
He ordered more coffee, tremulously aware of a glistening-topped presence peering from the park down the block.
Within two hours, Dr. Flysmudge keeled dead over the table from coffee ingestion.
Mr. Brain stood and walked toward the park, his one sock sloshing in his shoe.