Authors: Frances Lockridge
Curtain for a Jester
A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery
Frances and Richard Lockridge
Wednesday, April 1: 8:45 PM. to 11:46 P.M.
Pamela North came from her bathroom and said, “Rubber spiders.” For a moment, Gerald North continued to look, with reproach, at the reflection of a black bow tie. He sighed; he pulled a tie end, prepared to start over. He said, “At least rubber spiders,” and Pam moved so that she too was reflected in her husband's mirror. Jerry turned with pleasure, regarded her and said he could see she was all ready for the party. “I am, really,” Pam said. “Everything that takes time's done. Putting on clothes is nothing.”
She sat on an ottoman in front of her dressing table and began to put on stockings. “Snakes, too, with springs in them,” Pamela North said, clipped the stockings to a garter belt, put on spike-heeled slippers and, teetering on first one foot and then the other, stepped into white silk pants. “You've got to start with the ends even,” she said. Jerry, who had started with the ends even, said, “Um-m-m,” looped, pulled through and straightened. “You're sure Mr. Wilmot was the one about the windowpanes?” Pam said, and put on a bra. “I remember it as somebody else.”
“Somebody helped him, of course,” Jerry said. He decided the bow would do, and turned from the mirror. “Even with two, it must have taken most of the night.”
“The trouble people will go to,” Pam said, from under her dress. She came out the top of the dress. “Just to embarrass people. Turning mirrors inside out.”
It had not, Jerry told her, been done with mirrors, although Wilmot had been, in his day, quite a man with mirrors. It had been done with special window glassâpanes of glass through which one could look without being looked at, from one side normally transparent, from the other opaque. Wilmot and his associate, working at nightâafter bribing a watchmanâhad reversed three such panes in the steel frames waiting to be installed in a building under construction. The building was a dormitory at a New England college for women. The windows had been planned for, and were duly placed in, a communal shower room on the first floor. It had been some daysâsome sidewalk-crowded daysâbefore the prank was discovered.
“Still a lot of trouble,” Pam said. “And what have you got? Zip.”
Jerry moved to his wife's back. He zipped. He found the two tiny hooks, the incredibly fragile loops of thread, and joined two and two, feeling his fingers monstrous. “A joke,” he said. He kissed the back of Pam's neck, lightly. He said, “Zipped,” and was thanked. “Of course,” he said, “they were both young then. Wilmot and whoever it was.”
“It's not enough,” Pam said, and moved to look at herself in the mirror in the door. She turned from side to side, looked over the left shoulder, over the right. “You still like it?” she asked. Jerry nodded. “They do go to more trouble when there's a man along,” Pam said. “Although Miss Shapiro is wonderful even if there isn't.” She faced the mirror again. “It doesn't too much?” she asked. “I mean, I'm not on television.” She was told it was fine.
“I do keep thinking of rubber spiders,” Pam North said. “I like you in a dinner jacket. Your tie's a little crooked, though. Right ear, just a touch.” Jerry straightened the tie, while Pam sat at the dressing table, twisting bright hair into final arrangement. She said, “Um-m-m” and, with tissue, adjusted lipstick. “I still don't see why he invited us,” she said, and turned her back on the mirror. “Don't really see. Or quite why we're going.”
“Because he's long wanted to meet us, and I quote,” Gerald North said. “Because it's the sort of party that we, especially, might find interesting. Because you want to wear the new dress.”
“Why we especially?” Pam said, not denying the new dress. “Do you suppose, authors?”
She made them, Jerry told her, sound a little like rubber spiders. She might be right, of course. It was conceivable that Mr. Byron Wilmot, tenant for some months of the penthouse which topped the apartment building in which the Norths also lived, thought that party association with authors might be especially interesting to a publisher. Or, obscurely, Mr. Wilmot might be having one of his little jokesâhis famous little jokes. They had, Jerry mentioned, been over it already.
To that Pamela North agreed, although noting that going over it was one thing. They had been going over it, at intervals, since Mr. Wilmot's polite note of invitation had arrived three days before. A party to be given, honoring All Fools, on the night of the Day of All Fools. And Mr. Wilmot thought that the Norths, of whom he had heard so much, might find it the kind of party in which they would be especially interested. Before they accepted, and afterward, they had still gone over it. It was conceivable that Mrs. North's new dress had been the deciding point. But curiosity had undeniably entered in.
They had seen Mr. Wilmot only once, and then had merely smiled in the vague manner of tenant meeting tenant in an elevator. The Norths had been in the elevatorâwhich Pam considered semi-automatic, since it had an operator by dayâexcept when tenants called him to other dutiesâand was tenant-manipulated by nightâand a plump man, who was about to become a fat man, entered. He beamed impartially; the operator said, “Good evening, Mr. Wilmot.” The Norths smiled noncommittal smiles. This association continued to the fourth floor, where the Norths seeped around Mr. Wilmot, who obligingly pulled himself in, or made motions of doing so. The elevator then bore Mr. Wilmot to more remote, and expensive, heights.
“So that's Wilmot,” Gerald North had said, putting key in lock. “Wonder if he's ever thought of writing a book?”
As a publisher, Gerald North was interested in people who might consider writing books. They at once attracted and repelled him.
“Why?” Pam asked, when they were in their apartment, when she was crouched on the floor, surrounded by Siamese cats who had been left too long, and wished to talk clamorously of a lonely afternoon. “Th' Teeney, th' Gin, th' Sherry. Th'
” (The cat Martini hissed moderately and slapped her blue-point daughter on the right ear, for impenetrable reasons of her own. Sherry drew back, remained bland.)
“If it's the right Wilmot,” Jerry had said, “and I did hear some place he'd moved in here, he's a legend. Byron Wilmot. The life of the party. Remember?”
Pam remained among the cats, but looked up. It came to her, then. She said, “
Wilmot.” She considered. “You mean,” she said, “he's still alive?”
He appeared to be, Jerry told her. Alive, and in good flesh. He granted that it was as if a myth walked.
“Because,” Pam said, “it's all soâI don't knowâtwentyish? Was he the ditch across Fifth Avenue?”
Jerry thought he was not, but that he must have envied those gay spirits who, in the gayer past, had procured barricades and “Men Working” signs and suitable clothes and tools, and had dug a trench at least part way across upper Fifth Avenue, while a cooperative policeman diverted traffic around them. Wilmot had been, no doubt as he grew older and less inclined to jokes so physically strenuous, one of the busiest employers of comic waiters, famous spillers of soups, quarrelers with guests. It was Wilmot, notoriously, who had briefly transformed a bootblack of his acquaintance into an Italian nobleman; he who, with an accomplice and a life-sized doll, had so realistically simulated baby snatching that, in the ensuing turmoil, his accomplice had been slightly shot.
Since a certain tolerance surrounds the practical jokerâa tolerance most evident, of course, in those not butts of his jestsâByron Wilmot had achieved that affectionate, if wary, regard commonly bestowed on large puppies. He was, it was widely considered, always good for a laugh. What
Wilmot would be up to next was beyond anticipation. (That it was also very nearly beyond tolerance was the conviction of only the dourest of spoil-sports.) It was by many considered the cream of the jest that Byron Wilmot had not only had his little jokes, but in the end had made them pay. Beginning in his college days as the purest of amateurs, he had subsequently turned professional. Mr. Wilmot, increasingly jovial as he grew older (and increasingly rotund), became also “The Novelty Emporium.” The motto of the Novelty Emporium was “Anything For A Laugh.”
And for those who laughed at boutonnieres provided with cold running water, explosive cigarsâMr. Wilmot did not hold himself superior to the obviousâhighball glasses which leaked, and others which, on being touched, subsided disconsolately into wrinkled monstrosities, toilet-paper holders which played tunes as they turned, simulated ink spots, fountain pens which spit back, hideously lifelike tarantulas of rubber and snakes which writhingly propelled themselves, daggers with retracting blades and bladders of a fluid which uncomfortably resembled blood, toy pistols designed to frighten the innocent, toilet seats contrived to embarrass the modestâfor such devotees of the authentic belly-laugh, the Novelty Emporium did provide everything. Amateur magicians could find there numberless devices of illusion. Those who fancied alarming facial masks could make of themselves monsters to terrify the young, and costumes of repulsive grotesqueness were available for purchase, or might be rented.
Not a few of the more ingenious of such novelties, Mr. Wilmot had himself designed. Some of them, as a subsidiary of himself, he manufactured. As he flourished, not an inventor of realistic glass eyes (to be found by someone in a bowl of soup) or of artificial scars (to be affixed when the purpose was to revolt) but went first to Mr. Wilmot, confident of backing. Salesmen of horrendous puppets beat a path to his door.
Among his objects of trade, Mr. Wilmot himself was often to be found, and when he was found he beamed. Displaying collapsible cutlery to favored customers, Mr. Wilmot would shake with laughter; one was left feeling that he could hardly bring himself to barter away objects of such infinite delight. (His predicament a little, some could not help thinking, resembled that of Omar KhayyÃ¡m's vintners.) But Mr. Wilmot could be brought to sell and his staffâwhich had grown considerably by the 1950'sâsold with alacrity. Business was only slightly seasonalâthe days before April first were, of course, the best, but the Novelty Emporium did well, also, before Christmas. Toys were heavily stocked at the latter period, and not all of them were designed to throw children into convulsions.
In short, Mr. Wilmot prospered, the roundest of pegs in a perfectly rounded hole. He had, in the truest sense, made jokes practical. “âLaugh, and the world laughs with you,'” Mr. Wilmot said now and again, when in a philosophic mood. For the privilege, a sufficient part of the world was willing to pay. So Mr. Wilmot ran to penthouses. He ran to penthouse parties.