The sofa or the bed?
Richard opens the door and finds Vickie on the sofa, watching TV. Disappointing.
“I aced the final,” he says.
He waits for her to say something. She doesn’t; she keeps both eyes on the TV. It’s a cable movie that she’s watching, one of those ones in which every five minutes the hero comes running toward the camera and then you see a big explosion behind him. Vickie hates them.
“Why are you watching this?” he asks.
Vickie is cute, with long black hair, big green eyes, and nice hands. Since losing his position as King of England, Richard has learned many things, and one of them is that he is really very attracted to women with nice hands.
But Vickie’s best feature is her voice. It has a rich, warm, clear tone, deep and sexy. If she is standing behind him and speaks unexpectedly, he’ll shiver. Vickie doesn’t know it, but Richard once enjoyed a reputation as being hard-hearted—back in the old days he sent half of his extended family to their deaths so that he could be king—but one phrase from Vickie and he’s all tears, overwhelmed by beauty. On several occasions he has suggested that she exploit her gift by auditioning to narrate car commercials.
“ I think I aced the final,” he repeats.
“ Swell,” she says. She uses the remote to change channels.
“ Nineteenth-Century American Humor. Remember? Not that funny, actually. Lots of drinking and cruelty to animals.”
“ Uh huh.” She changes channels again.
He gives up, sits down next to her with his hands on his knees. In the past, he was mean and charming. Famous for it. He once dispatched several members of a woman’s family and then made a pass at her while she was tending to the coffins. Her name was Anne. Back then he had a hump, a limp, and a withered arm. He talked to Anne in such a crazy and insistent way that she agreed to meet him secretly. (Charming.) Later, he and Anne were married, but he soon found he needed to get rid of her for political reasons. Richard tried to let her down easy, giving her the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech, the “We’ve grown in different directions” talk, and promising they could still be friends. Then he executed her. (Mean.)
He looks at Vickie. She knows nothing about his past. She doesn’t even know he’s English—he’s worked hard to learn contemporary American diction and a flat, from-nowhere-in-particular kind of accent. His day job is selling paint and wallpaper. She’s a manicurist.
He takes the remote from her and mutes the sound on the TV.
“ Am I mean?” he asks.
She looks at him steadily. “No.”
“ How about charming?” He puts his head on her shoulder. “Am I charming?”
When he comes home from the final exam for his other class later in the week, Vickie is again on the sofa, watching TV. Vickie doesn’t live with Richard—she lives with her Mom—but she likes to be at his house when he comes home from night school. He gave her a key. Vickie says people Shouldn’t live together Before Marriage, that it represents a Half-Assed commitment to the relationship (Vickie tries to capitalize certain words when she’s talking, you can tell). She insists that he walk her home, no matter how late it is. It’s Only Two Blocks.
When Vickie started the habit of letting herself into his apartment, Richard didn’t mind—most of the time he’d find her naked on the bed when he returned. It has now been nineteen days since Richard has seen Vickie naked.
“ It’s been nineteen days since I’ve seen you naked,” he says. (Mean.)
“ You’ll Live.”
He throws down his textbook—The Experience of Poetry—near her feet. “Look. What’s wrong?”
She turns slowly towards the textbook. “I hope for your sake that that was not Aimed At Me.”
His immediate reaction is to apologize, but he hates it when she overdoes the capitalization, so he bites his tongue. Let her wonder.
She clicks off the TV. She stands. She puts her hands on her hips.
“ I’ve Decided,” she says.
“ I’ve decided I’m Not going to Waste My Life with someone who just works as a Clerk In A Paint Store.”
Time passes without anyone saying anything. Then Vickie turns and heads for the front door. She’ll walk home by herself.
Richard gets the last word: “It’s a Home Improvement Center.”
Mead. That’s the stuff. Hard to get nowadays, special order. The looks he gets at the liquor store. But he wants a sweet wine to get drunk on, and there’s nothing sweeter. Spiked honey.
His king days were long ago, but he hasn’t forgotten.
He takes another drink, this time straight from the bottle.
When you’re the King, even your enemies—men enemies, that is—treat you with respect. But not the women. No. Even the ones he charmed into bed ended up hating him. Possibly something to do with all the murders. Hey, he was God’s chosen representative, blah, blah, blah. Still, a propensity for the ruthless execution of innocents makes a guy hard to warm up to on a personal level.
What would he do without Vickie? The voice, the hands. He drinks a swig as a toast to Vickie’s hands, then changes his mind and drinks nine more swigs so that each of her fingers is honored separately.
When he stands to make his way to the bathroom, Richard wobbles and falls headfirst into the piano. The piano lid is up, and his head plays an ugly chord, which reverberates disagreeably in the air. Lying on his back beneath the keyboard, drunk and in pain, he feels an aside coming on:
Richard: At Bosworth I fell.
Laid at last upon the ground,
Undone, uncrowned, and unloved,
I bade Death drop her veil.
But even Hell would not have me;
Stabbed to death, I died not.
Mead hangover: not recommended. Richard awakes in the morning still under the piano, his head cradled by the sustain pedal. The underside of the keyboard when he opens his eyes looks to him like the dark wooden ceiling of the cell in which he slept for many decades, and for a minute he is fooled into thinking he’s back there, in the monastery, where he rose every morning to live his life happily unchanged while generations of monks around him aged and died.
He rolls over onto his face. The floor beneath him gyrates. He burps and tastes honey-flavored vomit.
“ Good morning, Your Majesty,” Richard says aloud.
After a minute, he manages to lift his head and survey the living room. It’s amazing how much damage one lovesick drunk can do. He should be careful—the furniture is not his. It came with the apartment. The piano, which Richard is learning to play now that his arms have become the same length, was included.
“ Richard of Gloucester shall rise again,” he says, and pulls himself to his feet using the piano for support. Then he runs to the bathroom and throws up.
After his stomach settles down, Richard checks the clock: five-thirty. Still plenty of time before he has to go to work, so he decides to take a bath. Although an innately adaptable creature, Richard is not yet able to warm up to a few modern inventions, including DVD’s, ball-point pens, and digital clocks, but he has grown to like the ease of simply turning a knob to run a bath—Americans clean themselves almost continuously, it seems, and Richard has taken up the habit.
Lying in the tub, he begins to feel the effects of the hangover lifting. He looks down at himself. His body is, well, beautiful. It’s still surprising to see it this way; he was misshapen for centuries. Not that he’s had any surgeries or anything—no, he couldn’t risk that. When Richard finally made it to America, it was his intention to keep a low profile, and simply live the exalted life of an average American citizen. Soon after landing here, however, almost from the first moment, he was wracked with various terrible pains in the ugly parts of himself—his withered arm, humped back, and spindly leg. An illegal immigrant, Richard lived on his savings for weeks in a cheap motel, writhing in agony, unsure what to do. Then he realized that his small, twisted arm was hurting so much because it was actually growing and untwisting. And his back was straightening, his weak leg getting stronger. From that moment, he welcomed the pain as a friend.
America was his cure.
His King of England days are long past, and his burning ambition to ruthlessly rule the entire civilized world ebbed away centuries ago. So the question now is: does he have enough drive left to achieve a more modest goal, say, becoming manager of the Home Improvement Center? And would that be enough to induce Vickie to stay with him?
Changing jobs is too risky to consider. As an illegal, Richard was fortunate to have been hired by Baron Paint and Wallpaper. The Human Resource Department (one semi-retired guy named Mel) just assumed Richard was American, and forgot to ask him for the paperwork required to prove it.
He thinks about how he got ahead in the old days. Back then, Richard had two brothers: Edward, who was king, and Clarence (called George—don’t ask why), who was next in line. What Richard did when he decided to usurp the throne was tell Edward, who was never, as they say, the sharpest knife in the drawer, that he, Richard, had had a dream, a dream in which Edward’s reign was to be ended by someone with the initial “G.” Technically, this was not a lie, since Richard was also called “Gloucester.” But Edward, superstitious, predictable Edward, made the leap Richard wanted him to, and had George drowned in a vat of wine. Richard moved one step closer to the throne.
The manager of the Home Improvement Center is named Paul Saddell. The assistant manager is named George (coincidence?) Krauth. When Richard arrives at work that morning, he immediately goes to Paul’s office and tells him he’s had an important dream.
“ What?” the manager says, blinking rapidly, looking at Richard as if he’s crazy.
The day has just started and Paul already seems exhausted. He’s a big old guy who doesn’t take wallpaper orders or mix paint colors or put away deliveries or wait on customers anymore. He just sits in his office and drinks coffee and talks on the telephone. At lunchtime, he opens one of the right-hand drawers of his desk and takes out takes a brown bag containing a tuna or peanut butter sandwich that his wife has made for him.
“ I said I had a dream last night, Paul. A dream in which your position is usurped by someone with the initial ‘G.’”
Paul stares, uncomprehendingly.
“ What does ‘surped” mean?”
“ Usurped. It means ‘taken away,’ you know, ‘stolen.’ I dreamt someone whose name begins with the letter ‘G’ is after your job.”
Richard lifts his eyebrows empathetically.
“ So?” Paul says. “I’m retiring next week anyway.”
Okay, the ouster of Paul was effected in an unintended way; that is, it wasn’t effected by Richard at all, but the result is the same—Paul is out, and Richard possibly one step closer to ascending the glorious throne of paint store—home improvement store—management. The logical person to replace Paul—provided no one is hired from outside the store—is, of course, George, the assistant manager. The remaining employees, Richard’s rivals for George’s soon-to-be-vacated assistant manager position, are Marshall, a jovial young man from the Cayman Islands, Vince, a college student more interested in flirting with the female customers than in selling them paint, and Sandra, a brassy lady who runs the wallpaper department.
Richard thinks he should be chosen over these other contenders, although they all, except for Vince, have about the same amount of experience. But Marshall is too laid-back, and Sandra too female—paint stores are one of the last places to hide if you’re a male chauvinist. The problem is that George will get to pick his new assistant, and George hates Richard.
George is a short, stout, doughy-looking man who suffers from that disease that makes people hairless. He has not one hair on his head, not even where his eyebrows should be. He’s in his late thirties, but still lives at home with his parents and older sister, and sleeps in the same bed he used as a kid. His resentment of Richard began the day six months ago when he returned to work after a family trip to Europe. George was showing the vacation pictures—twelve rolls worth—to his co-workers when Richard noticed that the photos were bereft of people. There were seventeen pictures of the outside of the gift shop at The Tower of London (Ah, memories!) but none showing a person going in or out. Richard made this observation out loud, meaning no harm, but everyone laughed, and George, deeply embarrassed, flushed a deep red and never forgave Richard, whom he seemed to half-like previously.
The following week, on his last day of employment, Paul is given a little party on the loading dock. Everyone sits around on five-gallon paint cans and drinks ginger ale out of Styrofoam cups. There’s a cake. There’s a picture of a paint can on the cake and the paint can has a little face and the little face has a speech balloon coming out of it that says, Good Luck, Paul!
The regional manager is there and he gives a speech. He talks about how Paul joined the company before he, the regional manager, was even born. He says that when he was first hired he used to see Paul throwing five-gallon cans of joint compound (62 pounds each) up on a loading dock one after another, for hours at a time.
Richard looks over at Paul, perched uncomfortably on a bulging plastic container of Latex Interior Primer, and tries to imagine him lifting something heavy. The regional manager has given Paul a gold watch, which he’s wearing; he took off the one he normally uses and put it in his pocket. In his right hand, pinched between two fat fingers, he holds the ornate crimson box the new watch came in. He doesn’t know what to do with it.
The regional manager continues his speech by pretending he wishes he could retire too, like Paul. He mentions golf. Richard looks at Paul again and tries to imagine him playing golf, and that picture seems even stranger than the one in which he lifts something heavy, and sad too.
At the very end of his speech, the regional manager announces that George will be the new store manager. Marshall will be the Assistant.
At the beginning of the following week, Paul is gone and George calls Richard into what is now his office. Richard does not feel well. Knowing Vickie’s mother was out of town—on a cruise—he tried to contact Vickie last night. He dialed her number repeatedly and listened to her shapely recorded voice tell him that she was currently Unable to Take his Call. The extravagant beauty of these vocalizations did not quite fully compensate for the ugliness of the fact they implied: Vickie was not, and continued not to be, at home. All night.
After Richard enters the office, George closes the door behind him. An awkward silence follows.
“Congratulations on your promotion,” Richard says at last.
“You’re fired,” George replies.
Richard knows he’s beaten. He rises, makes his way to the door, then stops when a thought occurs. Unlike most former kings of England, Richard of Gloucester is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.
“Wait a minute, George,” Richard says. “You can’t just fire me like that. You have to have provable cause for the union.”
George sighs. “You’re right. I’ll work on that.”
He puts his face close to Richard’s face. “In the meantime,” he says, “I want you to know you have no future here. I’ll get you out one way or another.”
Richard has spent centuries trying to eradicate every ounce of competitiveness and violence from his nature, partly to atone for the harm he caused earlier, and partly because it was a way to keep a low profile once he realized that—for whatever perverse reason—he was going to live an artificially long time. Now with George’s fat hairless face pressed within inches of his own, and the man’s hot yeasty breath fouling the air between them, Richard feels the return of his old impulses.
He looks around the office for a rapier.
Never one around when you need it.
“Get back to work, ” George says.
Richard knows he bought some time with his threat to go to the union, but also knows George will find a way to fire him if he really wants to; Richard will have to act quickly.
To achieve his kingly objective in the past (after Edward conveniently died), Richard and his pal Buckingham (his temporary pal—he had to kill Buckingham later) together engineered a stunt to have the Lord Mayor of London offer Richard the crown while behind the scenes Richard and Buckingham were discrediting some of the other candidates and beheading the rest. Well, in this case, Marshall was the next person in his way, but beheading Marshall wasn’t an option—it was too messy and hard to get away with in America’s “politically correct” climate. And he liked the fellow—liking the person you’re beheading, Richard found, always made it less fun. (Though it was true that Marshall had taken to his Assistant Manager duties with more crack-the-whip enthusiasm than Richard would have preferred or predicted.)
Lying in bed that night, unable to sleep because of back pain, Richard has an idea. Marshall speaks a suspicious amount of French for someone supposedly born in the Cayman Islands, which is, after all, a British colony. Speaking French is, or course, not uncommon in the Caribbean, but Richard has a feeling Marshall is not who he says he is. He’s probably another illegal hired by Mel.
Richard gets up, logs on his computer, and, after checking for E-mail from Vickie (without finding any), accesses the website for Homeland Security. There he gets an idea what the department’s letterhead looks like, and within a few hours he’s printed out a fairly persuasive-looking document addressed to the Baron Paint Store manager, containing such phrases as “Marshall Bodden, a person in your employ,” “investigation into illegal immigration,” “deportation,” and “prison sentence.” These phrases were meant for Marshall’s eyes alone; one of his new duties as Assistant Manager is to open the store mail.
Two days later, Richard looks up from mixing custom colors for a customer and sees the postman handing Marshall the mail. Richard thinks he spots the letter he sent—with its colorful stamp—in the stack.
“Oops,” Richard says. He was so intent on watching Marshall that he accidentally squirted four ounces of green colorant into the pink paint he was supposed to be making.
This gets the customer’s attention; people don’t like to hear the person making their expensive, non-returnable custom colors say “Oops.” Richard hammers the paint can lid closed, puts the can with the store’s other “Oops” paint, and starts over with a fresh can, the customer now hovering over his shoulder. After the cans are shaken, the customer insists that Richard open them and paint out samples to be certain all the colors match.
After the customer is finally satisfied and leaves, Richard goes over and peers into the store office to see if he can watch Marshall open the envelope he sent. But Marshall is not there. Richard enters and examines the stack of mail, which was left on the desk. About half the envelopes are opened; the one he sent is missing.
Richard surreptitiously searches the store premises. Marshall is not on the loading dock, not in the bathroom, not in the ladder room.
Two days later, George approaches Richard as he is putting away stock and says, “I guess Marshall’s never coming back, so I’m making you my Assistant Manager. On an interim basis. Understood?” He walks away before Richard can reply.
That night, Richard dials Vickie’s number again. Normally, he just listens to her lovely, lovely recorded voice telling him I’m out screwing someone else (not literally—it’s implied) and then hangs up without saying a word. Tonight, at the tone, he speaks: “I got promoted,” Richard says.
The machine declines to respond.
Richard took pleasure in forcing George to promote him right after threatening to fire him, but knows he isn’t out of danger yet. His elevation was the result of there being no other credible candidate—Vincent was simply too young and Sandra wouldn’t have taken the job even if it were offered, as she liked being, as they called her, “The Queen of Wallpaper.”
Richard waits two days to hear Vickie’s reaction to his promotion. Then he waits one more day. Then he walks over to her house at night and peers through the blinds. No one is home.
As he walks slowly back to his apartment, Richard again tries to think of a way to get rid of George. It is enjoyable to have such a specific goal once more, to again revel in the ecstasy of good hate, but he is paying a price: within the last fortnight all of his famously bad parts began aching anew, his strong back bending, his flawless arm furling, his thick leg shriveling. He’d better eliminate George before it is too late. If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly, he tells himself, knowing well he is thinking of the wrong play.
Two nights later, Richard dials Vickie’s number and someone answers. It’s her mother, back from the cruise.
“Is Vickie home?” he asks.
“You know she isn’t.”
“Where is she?”
“On her honeymoon,” Vickie’s mother says, and hangs up.
Richard looks for the mead.
An hour later, the ghosts appear. These are same ghosts who appeared to him before he fought at Bosworth, and periodically after that for the last five hundred years. They’ve pretty much lost their power to frighten over that span, but they haven’t given up.
Enter the ghost of Prince Edward.
Richard: Here we go.
Prince Edward: Let me sit heavy on thy soul!
Richard: Sez you.
Enter the ghost of Henry the Sixth.
Henry the Sixth: My anointed body by thee was punched full of deadly holes!
Richard: Yeah, and?
Enter the ghost of Clarence.
Clarence: Let me sit heavy on thy soul!
Richard: Can’t. Edward’s already sitting there.
Enter the ghosts of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughn.
Ghosts: Despair and die!
Richard: Who are you, the Three Stooges?
Enter the ghost of Lord Hastings.
Lord Hastings: Bloody and guilty, guiltily awake!
Richard: Not really. I was watching Conan O’Brien.
Enter the ghosts of the two young princes.
Ghosts: Let us be lead within thy bosom Richard, and weigh thee down to ruin, shame, and death!
Richard: You and what army?
Enter the ghost of Marshall.
Marshall: Yo, Rich! Why’d you do me like that?
Marshall: I never did you no harm.
Richard: But…you’re not dead.
Marshall: Yes, I am. I was fleeing ’cause of your phony letter and blew out a tire on I-95 while going eighty.
Richard reaches for the bottle.
Richard awakes under the piano again. This time he is not fooled into thinking he’s back at the monastery—no happy feeling asserts itself, even for a second. Marshall’s death, as Clarence would have it, sits heavy on his soul.
Five hundred years. Five hundred years he’s lived virtuously, hoping to redeem his place in heaven, but now he’s ruined it, fallen back into his old ways. For the love of a manicurist.
Richard sits up. He feels awful, and not just because of the sick, dehydrating mead hangover. His arm, his leg, his spine: all have reverted to their original twisted state.
The army surplus store.
“Do you have a rapier?”
“What? A rapier?” the man says.
“Yes. You know, a slender, two-edged sword with a cup-like hilt.”
“Well…we have some swords in the case over there. Look, you’re not planning to stab anybody, are you?”
“Just my boss,” Richard says. “Through the eye. Out the back of his fat skull.”
“I’m kidding,” Richard says. “It’s for a play I’m performing. Richard the Third. Do you know it?”
In the end, Richard chooses not to purchase a sword. Too conspicuous to walk around with these days. Instead, he buys a more easily concealed blade called a tanto, a foot-long Japanese knife used—as the clerk cheerfully explains—in the disemboweling suicide ritual called seppuku. That’s the advantage of multiculturalism—weapons from all over the world.
Richard, blade secreted beneath his coat, limps into his workplace. Sandra is there.
“Rich. What happened? You’re all bent over.”
“I was sent before my time into this breathing world, scare half made up.”
“Back spasms. I took an Advil. Is George in yet?”
“In the office.”
When Richard reaches the doorway of the office, he finds George on his knees, paying homage to the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, his precious fat hairless bulging neck rather obligingly displayed for beheading.
George is oblivious to the presence of Richard, who draws his knife, wishing he had gone for a full sword instead of the shorter blade. The tanto is for stabbing.
Richard raises the blade high, preparing to bring it down on George’s neck with all the force he can muster. He pictures the manager’s noggin severing cleanly, spinning for a moment in the air, then dropping—a surprised look still on the face—into the open cabinet drawer, which, impelled by the momentum of the head, slams shut with a satisfying thunk. Richard imagined leaving it there, filed under “W,” for “Who ain’t got no head?”
Richard’s brief reign as king of England ended when his army was defeated by Richmond’s at Bosworth. The main problem was motivation. Richmond’s army was willing to lay down their lives for what they saw as a just cause; Richard’s army was comprised largely of mercenaries. Money and glory are no match for righteousness.
Richard walked away from the office and hid the tanto, unused, behind a display of extension poles. His current quest for paint store power was over. There would be no beheadings, no poisonings, no drownings in vats of wine. His motivation was gone.
That voice. Nearly a year has passed since he heard it.
Richard turns to find Vickie behind him in a movie line. She’s with her mother, who gives Richard a dirty look. No husband in sight.
“Vickie. How are you? I heard you got married.”
She says nothing, but waves a hand under his nose. The ring is nice; the hand is nicer. Richard nods.
“Here alone?” Vickie’s mother asks.
“No. She went back to get something from the car.” This is a lie. He is alone.
“You look well,” Vickie says. This is true—Richard’s body returned to its ideal shape once he let his ambition die.
“You too,” he says, and this is also true. In fact, Vickie is fairly glowing with health, beauty, and happiness.
When Richard’s turn comes, he buys two tickets, then steps aside as if waiting for his date to re-appear. Vickie and her mother take their turn and Vickie forces her mother to go inside without her so she can talk to Richard some more.
“I never properly explained,” she says. “Steve was someone I knew for a long time. When he came back into my life, I felt I had to make a choice.”
“Are you all right?” she asks.
“I’ll survive,” he says. “I always do.”
She kisses him on the cheek, then goes inside.
He watches her go, watches the door glimmer as it settles into place. Soon he feels another aside coming on:
Richard: Wed new to another, made beautiful by bliss,
Her voice singing his name, her hands entwined with his!
Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever a woman in this humor won?
James W. Morris was born in Philadelphia and attended Central High School and LaSalle University, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published numerous short stories in literary magazines, and for a time worked as a joke writer for Jay Leno. Lately, he has turned his hand to playwriting, and his first play, Rude Baby, was produced earlier this year by The City Theater Company of Wilmington, Delaware.