UNDER PENALTY OF LAW
Harry’s middle-age spread filled the seat of his worn recliner. He seemed almost a permanent fixture, as much a part of the furniture as its collected food stains, as the weekend’s football games were displayed on the flickering screen before him, hour after hour with no apparent end. The special, super-deluxe, command center remote control in his right hand allowed him to do everything he could conceive of doing from his chair, so he almost never released his grip on it. During a game, that only happened when he had to actually get to his feet to go to the bathroom. Everything he ate or drank was handled with his left hand. Getting everything he ate or drank to his chair was handled by…
“Estelle! Estelle!” Harry shouted. “Bring me another beer, will ya? Awww, geez! New York’s getting stomped.”
Harry scratched his forty-seven-year-old belly, the most significant movement he had made in the last hour, through his white, cotton T-shirt. The shirt fit him snugly, long ago stretched tight by his often enthusiastic, but usually mindless, consumption habits. He ran a meaty hand over his thinning grey and black hair.
The doorbell rang. Several seconds passed and the bell rang again. Rusty trotted into the living room from the kitchen. The small, tan mutt paused at the front door for a moment. He let out an uncaring bark that sounded like a huff or a belch or some combination of the two before walking over to Harry’s easy chair and curling up at the sluggish man’s feet.
“Hey, Estelle,” Harry called out, “you gonna get the door or what?”
“You get it,” Estelle called back from the kitchen. “I’m on the phone with my mother.”
“And I’m watchin’ the game,” Harry said. “And bring me another cold one, will ya?”
Whoever was outside the front door switched to insistent knocking which quickly came to border pounding. Estelle finally emerged from the kitchen, shuffling to the front door in fuzzy pink slippers while mumbling about beer, football, home runs and television. She had left her mother chattering away about the week’s soap operas, but figured she could get back to the phone before her mother noticed Estelle’s absence. One hand pulled her yellow terrycloth robe shut while the other fussed over her new perm, making sure she was presentable before opening the door.
“I’m coming! I’m coming!” Estelle said, reaching for the door knob.
Two men, sporting neatly cut black hair, jet-black sunglasses and equally black suits, ties and shoes stood motionless on Estelle's stoop, their shadows falling over the housewife as she looked up at them. Their faces were as expressionless and inscrutable as mannequins.
“Well?” Estelle asked impatiently. “Salesmen, angry neighbors or Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
“That‘s classified, ma‘am,” one of the men said.
"Oh my gawd," Estelle said, her eyes lighting up. "You sound just like...and you look...Are you...Jack Nicholson?"
"No, ma'am, he's not," the other man said.
"Oh," Estelle said, getting confused as though trying to work a puzzle, "you sound like him, too. How come you both sound like--? Are you two brothers?"
“What do you think, partner?”
“Fits the description,” the other man-in-black said, his voice disturbingly similar to his partner’s.
“What‘re you talking about?” Estelle asked.
“Bag her,” the first stranger said.
“Right,” the second acknowledged, throwing a heavy black sack over Estelle that quickly covered her from head to waist.
Rusty lifted his head just enough to make another huff belch, but lowered it again as the black-clad pair yanked the wriggling Estelle out of the house and closed the door. Only a single fuzzy pink slipper remained to mark Estelle’s passing.
“Hey, Estelle,” Harry called out. “Hurry up with that beer. This one’s almost empty.”
The heavy sack was yanked away to allow a hot, bright cone of light to shine down on Estelle’s naked face. She tried to lift a hand to shield her unprotected eyes, but one of her captors reached from the surrounding darkness to slap it down.
"OW! What'd you do that for?" she asked, rubbing her hand.
“Naughty, naughty,” one of the men said, slightly amused. “Just sit tight, lady. We’ll be right with you.”
"If you want me to sit here for long, I'm gonna need a better chair," she insisted. "This is too hard. It's not comfortable at all."
Estelle could see only shadowy figures in the darkness beyond her cone of light. She listened for any sound, but heard nothing. She began to worry and fidget.
“M-My ma’s gonna start to get real concerned if she notices I ain’t there no more,” Estelle said. “Wh-Wh-What’re you gonna do with me?”
“Do you like living in this country, ma‘am?”
“Huh?” a puzzled Estelle responded. “Well, yeah, a’course. What kinda question--?”
“Are you a communist?”
“Or a liberal?”
“Who‘d you vote for in the last five elections?”
“I--I--I--” Estelle stammered.
“Looks like she‘s going to be difficult,” one of the men said.
“Should I get the equipment?” the other asked.
“Looks like you’d best, partner.”
“Equipment?” Estelle parroted. “What equipment? What’s going on? What's with all these personal questions?”
“Don’t think you can play games with us, you commie pinko subversive maggot slime.”
“We know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice,” the tag-team badgering continued.
“We see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake.”
“We know when you’ve been a filthy, law-breaking maggot, so come clean for goodness sake.”
“About what? I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Estelle protested. “I ain’t done nothin!”
“Oh, really?” one of the men asked, rolling his eyes behind his obscuring glasses. “Don’t tell me you’ve never seen...this!”
A swiftly moving hand passed into the light, flinging a small plastic bag into Estelle’s lap. She picked up the clear, sealed bag and looked at the piece of white paper contained within. Smooth on three edges, jagged on the fourth, the torn scrap of paper bore bold print that read: UNDER PENALTY OF LAW THIS TAG NOT TO BE REMOVED. The frightened woman’s eyes widened and her jaw grew slack. As swiftly as before, a hand darted back into the light to snatch the evidence bag from Estelle’s trembling fingers and disappear with it into shadow once again.
“I suppose you’re going to try telling us you’ve never seen that before,” one of the men said with a chuckle.
“And that you didn’t tear it off the bottom of a chair,” the other added.
“But me no buts,” one of the agents said. “We’re on to you!”
“The jig’s up, Lillian,” his partner said. “You’ve done the crime and we’re going to do the punishment.”
“Crime doesn’t pay, lady,” the first one said, leaning close enough to show his toothy grin.
“I warned you…” one of the agents said, the clicking of switches being flipped and the sound of a whirring electrical motor spinning up to speed penetrating the blackness.
"Now you wait just one doggone minute," she said, defiantly shaking an index finger at where she thought someone might be.
"Waiting time's done," an agent said. "You had your chance to confess."
"Now," the other told her, "you're going to find out what happens--"
“My name’s not ‘Lillian’.”
“What?” the men asked in unison.
“My name’s Estelle,” she told them.
“That can’t be right,” the agent said, losing his grin.
“If you’re trying to pull a fast one, lady,” the other man said, “I’ll warn you now--”
“So you’re claiming you’re not Lillian Dumont?” the other asked her.
“Well, no,” Estelle told them. “I mean, yes…”
“Which is it, lady?”
“I ain’t her,” Estelle clarified. “She’s at 123 Oak Street. Me and Harry are at 132 Oak Street. Oh, that woman’s just awful. I could tell you stories...and she thinks she's so high class...Have you got any gum?”
There was a long silence in the dark, finally broken by the nervous shuffling of papers and a dry cough. A half-empty pack of gum flew out of the dark, landing in Estelle's lap.
"Thank you very much," she said, taking a stick of gum.
"Keep the pack," one of the voices instructed.
“Well…damn,” one of the agents said. “You know how many forms we’re going to have to--?”
“There’s been a mistake ma’am,” the other man told her as more switches clicked and the electric motor whirred slower and slower.
“Sorry about the commie, pinko, subversive…Well, all of it,” the other agent said.
“Yes, completely our fault, ma’am.”
“Oh…it’s OK, boys,” Estelle said. “I guess there’s no real harm done. After all--”
The front door flew open as Harry flicked a bottle cap at the television. Estelle tumbled into the house in time to hear Rusty huff belch and Harry grumble something unintelligible at whatever game was on the screen. Still shaking, Estelle closed the door and wriggled her bare foot back into its forlorn slipper.
“Harry,” Estelle said.
“Estelle, you got my six-pack, baby?” Harry asked her, his eyes never leaving the game.
“But, Harry, I--”
“Could ya hurry it up, Estelle? I’m dyin’ ovah here,” he told her, “and the game’s goin’ inta overtime and…Holy--! Would ya look at that?”
Estelle shuffled off into the kitchen. She picked up the phone, still where she had left it on the counter and held the handset to her mouth and ear. Her mother was still talking and had only gotten as far as Wednesday’s soaps. Estelle put the phone handset back on the counter and sighed at the sticky mound of dirty dishes that looked like they were growing larger in the sink. She turned to the refrigerator, opened it and took a cold six-pack of beer from inside, then closed the door again. Setting the cold cans on the kitchen table, Estelle reached for one of the padded metal frame chairs. She tipped the chair back and looked at the underside of the seat cushion with an odd smile.
“Estelle! Geez!” Harry bellowed from the living room.
“I’m coming! I’m coming!” Estelle responded, hurrying in from the kitchen.
She stopped beside Harry’s recliner and set five of the beers on the table next to her husband, handing him one. Harry took the can, already anticipating the refreshing feeling of having it in his mouth as he heard the hiss of opening it.
“Ahhh…that’s good,” he said as he suddenly noticed that Estelle was still standing over him. “What? You want a medal? Dinner ain’t gonna cook itself.”
“Sorry, Harry,” she said, taking a last glance at the little table before she left.
Looking past the waiting beer cans, Estelle’s gaze focused on the torn piece of paper she had placed next to them. She smirked once more as she read the bold, black words “UNDER PENALTY OF LAW” and felt a little bounce in her step as she turned to saunter off to the kitchen to decide what she would have for dinner while waiting for the doorbell to ring again.