Henry F. Tonn

Mortimer Winklehouse stood in line at the supermarket, patiently waiting to buy a box of prunes. His eyes were glazed over in a vacant stare, and he was contemplating nothing in particular. Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a beautiful girl in a tiny bikini staring at him. She had a flat stomach, beautiful tan, and generous breasts that spilled abundantly over her colorful red top. She wasn’t real, of course; she adorned the cover of a magazine, but her lust for him was unmistakable. Feverishly, his mind began to conjure up lurid details of past desires that had never come to fruition. He became weak-kneed and faint. He staggered out of the store and drove directly home, where he took a long nap. For the rest of the evening he was punchy and lethargic. He forgot to bring home his prunes.

Episodes like that had been happening a lot to Mortimer lately. Sex seemed to follow him everywhere. Pornographic websites beckoned on the internet, beautiful women promised unspoken delights on billboards, G-rated movies featured Pamela Anderson look-alikes. One evening’s recent viewing of television had almost convinced him of what a repulsive creature he was for not using five different dandruff shampoos, four teeth whiteners, three breath fresheners, two armpit deodorants, and one heavenly-smelling, extra-strength aftershave lotion in a sleek, curvaceous bottle. He became so depressed he was forced to double his Prozac.

“Sex is like air,” somebody once said. “You don’t think about it unless you’re not getting enough of it.” Well, Mortimer tried not to think about it but he felt downright inundated. It seemed like everybody wanted to talk to him about it. They called him on the phone, accosted him in restaurants, and wrote notes to him on pilfered hotel stationery. He felt overwhelmed by this constant harassment.

The next evening Mortimer was standing quietly in front of his house watering several azalea bushes he had just planted when he spotted his next door neighbor, Hazel Hempelwright, making her way gingerly across the grass in her pink bedroom slippers. Hazel was a wizened little woman, a widow, who was on social security disability and who rarely ventured out of her home unless she was wearing a hair net, a thin blue bathrobe, and her instantly recognized pink bedroom slippers. She was one of the ugliest women Mortimer had ever met, with white hairs sprouting from her chin and the top of her nose. She never had anything positive to say about anybody or anything, and Mortimer, unfortunately, was the preferred object of her diatribes. This was due to that well-known law of propinquity: he was her nearest neighbor.

“Hello, Mortimer,” she greeted him, circling in like a barracuda stalking its prey. “I see you’ve planted some new azalea bushes.”

“Good evening, Harriet,” he replied, being cordial despite a rising sense of unease. “How are you this evening?”

“Not too well,” she sighed, wrapping her bathrobe more closely around her emaciated body and leaning toward him. “I think it’s the sex.”

“I beg your pardon?” Harriet tended to launch into diatribes with little preamble, and sometimes Mortimer had trouble getting on the same page.

“Too much sex,” she repeated. “I think there’s just too much sex.”

“Too much sex?” he reiterated.

“Yes, Mortimer. Everybody seems to be naked these days.”

“Ah!” he responded, nodding his head carefully while scrutinizing the results of his irrigation process on the azaleas.

“That’s right,” she confirmed. “They’re naked on HBO and Showtime and Cinemax and all those stations I get. They’re always doing it. I just don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“Well, Harriet, maybe you shouldn’t subscribe to those extra stations if they bother you,” he suggested helpfully.

“I have to,” she insisted, getting even closer to him and lowering her voice. “I have to know what’s going on. I want to be an informed citizen, though it pains me to do so.”

“I can imagine. It must be a terrible sacrifice for you,” he observed soberly. She was practically touching him now and he did not cherish the close proximity.

“I remember the good old days,” she continued, shaking her head. “When sex was a private affair. You did it in the bedroom, with the lights out, and under the covers. I used to keep my eyes closed, too, Mortimer, just in case. That’s one of the advantages of having the lights out: they can’t see you with your eyes closed.”

“I’d never thought of that, Harriet,” Mortimer offered, all the while suspecting that Harriet’s partner had probably kept his eyes closed too, since seeing her naked would have had a catastrophic impact on the whole forthcoming event.

“When I first got married to Delbert, we lived out in the country and had no running water. I had to take a cold bucket bath and say my prayers before we went to bed. After we did it, I had another bucket bath and said my prayers again. That’s the way it should be, Mortimer, a cold bucket bath and prayers. If these people nowadays had to do all that, they wouldn’t do it so much.”

Mortimer was at a loss to respond. He wondered if turning his hose on Harriet and watering her down would help matters any.

“Don’t you agree, Mortimer?” she asked, poking him with one of her gnarled fingers. Her breath smelled like the bubonic plague.

“Yes, ma’am, I do,” Mortimer responded quickly, moving sideways and around to the other side of his bushes. “Lights out, under the covers, followed up by prayers and a cold bucket bath. I’ve got it.” He gave her the A-OK sign.

Harriet obviously wanted to follow but was afraid of besmirching her pink bedroom slippers. “Thank you, Delbert, I’m glad you do. You’re the only person in this neighborhood who truly understands me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Mortimer said again. He didn’t bother to point out that she had just called him by the name of her dearly departed husband.

The next evening Mortimer was on the other side of his house, away from Harriet’s view, watering his oleanders and several adolescent pecan trees when his other next door neighbor, Harry Higgenbaumer, waddled over for a chat. Harry was a large man, tipping the scales at over three hundred pounds, with a booming voice, and a cigar perpetually stuck in the side of his mouth. Harry was as opinionated as Harriet, but in the opposite direction.

“Morti, buddy, how’s it goin’?” he boomed as he got close. Nobody called Mortimer “Morti” except Harry, who was born and raised in Brooklyn and tended to shorten all names whenever possible—a predilection that no amount of subtle prodding on Mortimer’s part could alter.

“Fine, Harry. How are you this evening?”

“Fine. Fine. Couldn’t be better, Morti. I see you’re taking good care of those pecan trees. Some day we’re going to have baby pecans all over the ground, aren’t we? ”

“Well, that’s the plan.”

“Yeah, babies,” Harry went on, puffing busily on his cigar and letting tiny wisps of ash fall on to his protruding belly. “That’s what makes the world go ’round, you know: babies. People. Animals. Trees. The world’s just one big baby farm. Ever thought of that, Morti? One big baby farm.”

“Well, actually, I hadn’t ….”

“Yeah, babies. Babies and sex, sex and babies. Thank God for babies or there’d never be any sex. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, there ought to be more sex than there is, as far as I’m concerned. People complain about all this porn and stuff. Getouttahere. There oughtta be more porn. More! How can it hurt you? Can you get AIDS from porn? Nah. More porn and more sex, that’s what I say. Like McDonald’s hamburgers: instead of quickie lunch breaks we oughtta have quickie sex breaks. Gets your blood flowing and keeps your weight down. Besides, you won’t ruin your health eating all those hamburgers. Get my drift, Morti? More sex, fewer Big Macs. Make you slim and trim. That’s how I got so fat, you know. Quit having sex and started eating Big Macs.” He patted his belly fondly and let out a long burp. “It’s the bane of society, Morti, I’m telling you. Too many Big Macs and not enough sex. That’s what I say.”

“I got you,” Mortimer confirmed, nodding wisely while waving some of Harry’s drifting cigar smoke out of his face. “Too many Big Macs and not enough sex.”

Harry stepped over the hose and bumped up against Mortimer with his big belly. He took the cigar out of his mouth and held it out of the way while he leaned forward. “Tell me something, Morti,” he said out of the side of his mouth. “Do you know of any prostitutes in this area? You’re a single guy, I figure you oughtta know the scoop. I been feeling kinda raunchy lately and the old lady isn’t, well, you know.” He eyed Mortimer hopefully.

A severe coughing spell besieged Mortimer momentarily and he was forced to pause while clearing his throat. He then noted that he was dripping water on his shoe and took advantage of this discovery to sidle away from his ponderous and horny neighbor while energetically stomping his foot.

“Why don’t you try McDonald’s?” he finally offered. “I hear that’s a real hotbed for prostitutes.”

“You think so?”

“Absolutely,” Mortimer assured him. “Go down there and check it out. You’ll notice a lot of young women there just hanging around drinking Cokes and not doing anything. Flash some cash at them.”

“McDonald’s,” Harry said thoughtfully. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He stepped over the hose and began making his way back toward his house. “You know how it is, Morti. An organism a day keeps the doctor away. It’s a health issue.”

“That’s orgasm, Harry.”

“Say, what?”

“Orgasm,” Mortimer corrected. “It’s orgasm, not organism.”

“Whatever.” Harry took a deep draw from his cigar and smoke briefly enveloped his face. “Porn and prostitution,” he said, mouthing the words in a lingering, sensual manner. “Good for the health.” He nodded his head and gave Mortimer a thumbs up.

“Good for the health,” Mortimer echoed, twisting the nozzle and beginning to mist his oleanders. “Have a nice evening, Harry.”

“Same to you, Morti. Same to you.” Harry wandered back to his house humming to himself.

The following afternoon Mortimer was on the back patio of his home planting some tomato seeds in a box when suddenly both Harry and Harriet appeared from around the corner. They were obviously agitated, and the source of their agitation soon became evident. Somehow they had fallen into conversation concerning their worldviews and each had used Mortimer as the supporting authority. Recognizing quickly that something was amiss, they decided to seek him out and extract his final and irrevocable opinion. Trapped like a wimpy dog, Mortimer prayed for a miracle. He fantasized becoming a bureau and merging in with the surrounding furniture. But he knew they would probably rummage through his drawers for the answer. He quickly realized there was nothing to be done but resign himself to his fate.

They moved in like linebackers on a professional football team. Harriet lunged and grabbed him with her gnarly hands and stridently accused him of being a traitor. Her breath was so strong it seemed to emanate in waves of putrid color. Harry, cigar planted implacably in the corner of his mouth, bumped against him ponderously with his massive belly and insisted that he give “the old bat” the dose of reality she really needed. The names they called him set new standards in scatology, and would have embarrassed a lifelong veteran of the United States Navy. In the end, the combination of pungent cigar smoke and the bubonic plague proved too much for Mortimer’s delicate constitution, and he fainted dead away.

It has been said that religious people undergo transcendent feelings of peace and serenity when approaching their ultimate demise, and while Mortimer was not a particularly spiritual person, he definitely found the state of unconsciousness to be accompanied by certain elements of tranquility. Unfortunately, this newly discovered quietude was impaled all too quickly by an abrasive and insistent voice, which demanded—obnoxiously and repetitively—that he return to the real world. Since he had only recently entered this new form of repose, and felt it only fair that he be allowed to explore it more leisurely, he resisted the invitation with the greatest of vigor. But, ultimately, cold water was applied to his face and neck, and his upper body was jostled about in a most unceremonious manner, and it soon became evident that remaining seemingly comatose under such conditions would be virtually impossible. So, heaving a great sigh of resignation, and suppressing several unsavory words that bubbled up from some nether region of his mind, Mortimer reluctantly allowed his eyes to flutter open.

“Ah! You’re back!” a happy voice greeted him. He could not make out the face, but the voice sounded familiar.

Mortimer sat up woozily and focused his eyes. He discovered he was semi-reclined on his living room sofa. Ensconced opposite him was none other than Dr. Erroneous Farmer, board certified psychiatrist, and Mortimer’s neighbor from the end of the block. Dr. Farmer was an easily recognized character in the community because of his distinct resemblance to the late comedian, Groucho Marx. He possessed the same bushy eyebrows and large, dark moustache, and tended to walk in the same exaggerated, bent-over fashion. This peculiar gait was exacerbated by the monstrous Saint Bernard which invariably preceded him, affectionately named Tiny, a phlegmatic animal which sallied along at its own pace—i.e. a half step faster than Dr. Farmer’s—and which never met a tree or bush that it did not feel obligated to bless with some small measure of fluid from its massive kidneys.

“So, there you are!” Dr. Farmer said happily, giving Mortimer a munificent smile. He was an upbeat and happy person, known to converse with anyone at any time during his daily sojourns.

“How did I get here?” Mortimer inquired, pressing a hand weakly to his forehead.

“Your neighbor, Harry, and I carried you in here while Harriet nobly held the door. I was just passing by with Tiny when they called me for assistance.”

“I see.” Mortimer quickly surveyed his living room and was relieved to find no sign of his pernicious neighbors. Tiny, he noted, had taken up a space near the fireplace and was regarding his new environment with an air of detachment while depositing copious amounts of drool on to the carpet.

“I assured Harry and Harriet that there was no need to remain here once we got you settled.” Dr. Farmer continued, “They were relieved that nothing untoward had befallen you.”

“I’m sure,” Mortimer replied. “What exactly happened?”

“Nothing to worry about. You probably fainted from the vapors.”

“The vapors?”

“Yes. Things oozing up from the ground from all that planting you’re doing. The vapors. The ground has vapors, you know.”

“I was only planting tomato seeds in a box. There were no vapors.”

“In that case, it’s probably psychological,” Dr. Farmer opined, waving his hand in the air as though conjuring up an ancient genie. “Have you been under stress lately?”

Mortimer debated briefly on how candidly he should respond to this question. “Yes,” he finally admitted.

“So, there it is,” Dr. Farmer replied, waving his hand again in that peculiar manner. “The mind is perpetually ruling the body. Would you care to talk about it?”

Mortimer paused and contemplated exactly how to explain his dilemma without sounding like a certified nut case. “Too much sex,” he finally declared.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Too much sex. It’s everywhere. I can’t get away from it. Too much sex.”

“Ah, yes. Of course.” Dr. Farmer jiggled his bushy eyebrows up and down and pursed his lips. “The old sex syndrome. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays.”

“Do you think so?”

“Oh, absolutely. It’s the kind of society we have now. It’s not like the old days when things were in better perspective. I mean, if Dante wandered across the land today he would give Lust the new starring role in his list of deadly sins. Not necessarily Pride anymore. He would probably ignore Gluttony altogether because everybody else does. Society agrees, of course, that we shouldn’t eat so much, but we do anyway. There’s no conflict here. The subject just isn’t interesting. Do we isolate fat people in low rent districts? Do we cover our children’s eyes when some big slob waddles by? And when was the last time a gourmet magazine was banned in Boston? The conclusion is obvious: we’re apathetic about obesity while we’re obsessed with you-know-what.”

Mortimer shook his head. “I’m not sure I follow you.”

“It’s Sigmund Freud,” Dr. Farmer explained, getting up and raising his arms into the air. “He’s the culprit. He gave up a promising career in cocaine to marry and have children, then gave up sex at forty. He gave the world his psycho-sexual theory and good society was ruined. He talked about penis envy when people weren’t willing to admit they had one. Then he died and left the world in complete turmoil. No one knew what to do with this … thing … that emerged from the closet. So, while we’re all having nervous breakdowns, Freud is having an eternal restful sleep. What does he care? In fact, if he were alive today, what would he recommend for all these people, for this mess he created? I’ll tell you what: a good psychoanalyst. But you can’t get a good psychoanalyst anymore because managed care health insurance put them all out of business.”

“Um, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Mortimer responded, now beginning to wonder if Dr. Farmer was missing a few cylinders in his motor.

“What you need is a good enema,” Dr. Farmer concluded.

“A what?”

“A good enema. Psychologically speaking, of course. An enema for your mind. Wash it out. Get a rest. You know, go somewhere where there’s no sex and just relax for a while. It would do you a world of good.”

“Like a monastery?”

“No. No. No. Somewhere that you’ll enjoy. Like…. Ah, I know just the place. There’s a beach resort in Uruguay that has the ugliest women in the entire world. They’re all short and squatty and have that burnt, wrinkly skin. God, it’s perfectly revolting even to contemplate them. I should know; I met my wife there. You can’t look at these women and think about sex at the same time. The two are mutually exclusive activities.”

“It sounds like my kind of place,” Mortimer agreed.

“You should make arrangements immediately, then,” Dr. Farmer said. “No reason to dally. Get right on it.”

“I’m afraid my boss would never approve,” Mortimer pointed out glumly.

“Not a problem,” Dr. Farmer said, waving his finger. “I fully understand the gravity of the case and I am willing to intervene in your behalf. I will recommend a medical leave.”

“Really?” Mortimer queried incredulously. “You’d do that for me?” He was adding up the number of sick days he had accumulated and was aware that the number was considerable.

“Of course.” Dr. Farmer walked over and patted Mortimer affectionately on the shoulder. “It’s the least I can do for a neighbor.” He jiggled his eyebrows up and down.

One week later Mortimer was writing a picture post card to his boss. The card showed a pristine beach with palm trees and a brilliant, orange sun setting over peaceful blue waters. The caption read: “Welcome to Uruguay!”

Dear Mr. Malosha, Mortimer wrote. Just a short note to assure you that I am getting along quite splendidly. The women here are as ugly as advertised and none of the tourists are under sixty. I have decided that I agree with Lord Chesterfield who said, in regards to sex: the pleasure is fleeting, the expense is damnable, and the position is ridiculous. Or, to slightly alter Robert Hutchins’ dictum: every time I feel the urge to have sex, I quickly lie down until it passes over. Right now I am lying in a beach chair under a beach umbrella drinking a fruity drink with an umbrella in it. So is everyone else. This is a good place.

Be assured that I will endeavor to return to work as soon as possible. But it may be a while. I need a lot of rest.

                                                                                                            Yours sincerely,
                                                                                                            Mortimer Winkelhouse

P.S. My bowel movements are excellent, but if I need any prunes I will send the cabana boy into town to purchase them. There is no sense in taking any chances.

And with that, Mortimer placed the card on the table beside him and took a deep swallow from his fruity drink. He then sank back deeply into his beach chair and let out a long sigh of contentment. He had never felt so relaxed.

Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist whose fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and literary reviews have previously appeared in such publications as the Gettysburg Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Bewildering Stories, and NewPages.com. He has spent the last four years writing a memoir with the wonderful title of I Never Met A Paranoid Schizophrenic I Didn’t Like, but still hasn’t gotten it right, and will likely be working on it for another four years, or until he gives up the ghost, whichever comes first.

“The front porch for the first six years of my life was 1345 Jerome Street, Philadelphia, a half block from Hunting Park. All social life on the street was conducted from the porches, and I loved the place. I returned to the street for the first time in 60 years this past June after being warned not to go there because the neighborhood had deteriorated and was considered dangerous and my life surely would be in peril. I went anyway, and chatted with a very large dude who occupied the steps of my old porch. I asked if I could go inside and check the place out but he just shook his head quietly and stared at me. I thanked him for his cooperation and took my leave. Discretion is the better part of valor.”