Leaf It To Herb
Death/Dark Humor Henpecked (Hĕn’-pĕct): Dominated or harassed (usually a man by a woman) with persistent nagging; Herb.
It is sometimes difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy the exact moment when a man loses it, succumbs to the inner evil that lurks within, and crosses over to the dark side. Is there a point where a single drop of water can sink a ship, one more degree of temperature causes the pot to boil over, or one more screeching syllable from the tormentor pushes a man over the edge? Let’s find out.
“You figure out what you’re going to get Mabel for her birthday?”
“I thought about sky diving lessons, but I doubt if the plane could get off the ground with her on it. Then I thought about getting her a trip to Pamplona for the Running of the Bulls, but she’d probably scare the bulls away.”
“That’s not very nice, Herb. I understand how you feel, but you should at least get her something she can use.”
“You’re right. Maybe I’ll go with the Weight Watchers Gift Certificate or a Planet Fitness Membership. That’s something she could sure use.”
“Still not nice.”
“I know, but like they say, you need to walk a mile in my shoes…but not in the house or you’d hear about it.”
It appeared that Mabel believed turning “Herb” into a two syllable word carried more impact, especially when delivered with volume and laced with an abundance of animosity. Herb also considered the possibility that she inherited a special, rare gene, a yet to be discovered “nasty” trait, first found in Atilla the Hun, and passed down through the ages via the likes of Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible.
“Did you pick up all the dog crap in the backyard yet?!”
“Not yet, dear.”
“Well, you better get on it! Grandma’s coming over tonight, and I don’t want her to step in another musher.”
“I’ll do it right now, dear.”
God, I hate that dog, maybe as much as I hate Grandma.
It was like Pavlov’s dog. After twenty-seven years of constant bitching, just hearing her approaching footsteps set Herb’s blood pressure skyrocketing into the danger zone. The mere sound of her voice was like shards of glass being jammed under his fingernails. Pin cushions and tackling dummies had a better lot in life than poor Herb.
He was so worn down, so drained of life, so hopeless, that he threw in the towel a long time ago. He even stopped thinking about how he could have married her in the first place. Herb had reached the point of utter despair, and he now accepted his fate.
“So, Herb, what did you decide on for that birthday present? And don’t tell me it’s a pet tarantula or a rattlesnake.”
“No, they’d be afraid of her too. I got her a new rake.”
“Wow, Herb, nice choice, practical and romantic.”
“It’s what she wanted.”
Herb couldn’t have known the role the gift selection would play in his life.
“Her-erb! Did you remember to pick up my toe fungus cream?!”
“Uh…I was just leaving to go get it, dear. I had to stop home to…to pee, yeah that’s it, I had to stop home to pee.”
“Well, you better get moving. These little piggies are sure squealing tonight!”
Little piggies. Toe fungus. Dog crap. Grandma. I about can’t take it anymore.
Herb languished in his misery, a beaten man, sapped of the strength to resist, lacking the energy to even attempt a change in circumstance. He was as trapped and hopeless as Ben-Hur chained to his oar in a Roman galley, or Edmond Dantès staring at the stone walls in his cell at Château d’lf, all three suffering at the hands of an evil taskmaster.
But wait a New York minute… Ben-Hur and Edmond both found freedom through remarkable twists of fate. Might a similar moment of good fortune await poor Herb? Sometimes deliverance is right outside your window.
Herb’s oasis of relief, although providing only temporary moments of escape, was watching college football on TV in the fall. Years later, as Herb reflected on the moment that changed his life, he still did not know what it was that caused him to turn from the TV and gaze out the window. The stars were aligned. The first half of the game had just ended. Perhaps a glint of sunlight reflecting off a picture frame on the window’s ledge caught his attention. And outside the window, Mabel, her shiny new rake, and a pile of leaves. Not an ordinary plie of leaves, but a humongous pile of leaves, the likes of which the neighborhood had never seen.
For reasons unknown to anyone, Mabel had a thing about raking leaves. She didn’t cook, clean, or do laundry, (In deference to possibly overly sensitive readers, comments relating to Mabel’s personal hygiene regimen have been omitted.), but she raked leaves like the greenskeeper at Augusta. She was so obsessed with ridding her lawn of leaves that she wouldn’t even let Herb near a rake as his previous efforts to comply with her directives had proven woefully inadequate. Raking was her thing, her only thing, and her new rake put her on overdrive.
Their property was heavily wooded, and every fall brought tons of fallen leaves. Mabel had been out there for some time, putting her new rake to good use, and hauling cartloads of leaves to the back lot line.
As Herb peered out the window, he was first impressed by the sheer magnitude of the leaf pile, many times the size of Mabel, which is saying a lot. And then the moment. Mabel stumbled, turned, and stepped on the claw end the rake which sprung up and smacked her in the forehead. Mabel spun around, fell, and disappeared into the pile of leaves faster than the girl was sucked below the surface of the sea in the opening scene of Jaws.
Herb was stunned. Mabel had disappeared. It didn’t seem possible. Where did she go? Herb left the house (It was halftime of the game.), and hurried to the back of his yard where he saw the massive leaf pile, a cartload of leaves, and the rake, but no Mabel.
Oh, my God, Mabel was in the leaf pile!
He didn’t hear a sound. There was no movement of leaves. Could a blow to the head by a rake kill someone? Maybe she had a heart attack first. Whatever it was, the scourge of his life had at least been rendered unconscious and was now buried beneath a mountain of leaves.
Herb stepped toward the pile and reached down toward the leaves. But then that moment……reflection…inner struggle…teetering on the line that separates Good from, well, Not-So-Good. Who was it that said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste?” And then those voices, temptation and conscience, began their debate.
“Herb! This is what you’ve been praying for! What a break!”
“No way, Herb! You can’t just leave her there! She could still be alive!”
“Don’t be a fool, Herb. You may never get another chance! You didn’t do anything. Just walk away.”
“Herb! She’s been your wife for twenty-seven years! You’ve got to help her!”
“Yeah, twenty-seven years of abuse and misery. That’s why you leave her in there. Save yourself!”
Herb looked around. All was quiet, not a soul in sight. Could he just walk away, leave her there in the leaf pile? Be free of the constant torment that had been his life? Never again tense up at the sound of her screeching voice? Be able to wear his shoes in the house? He didn’t do anything to her, not that he hadn’t thought about it a thousand times. Maybe he was mistaken as to what he thought he saw out the window. Really, how could someone, even a person with some heft, fall into a leaf pile and disappear? Maybe she just ran off. Rationalization, the second strongest drive of the human experience.
Herb made another quick scan of the area. There was still no one in sight. He grabbed the cartload of leaves and dumped it on the pile. He quickly raked up a few more cartloads and dumped them on the pile. He was back in his easy chair before kickoff of the second half.
Herb finished watching his game, and then another game. He would occasionally peek out the window to check on the leaf pile. Nothing. That night he looked out his bedroom window at the leaf pile glistening in the moonlight. Nothing. He was troubled by the day’s events, but he did enjoy a restful, peaceful night of sleep.
The next morning, as Herb sipped his morning coffee, he surmised there would be inquiries. He had watched his share of mystery crime shows, and he knew someone would eventually show up wondering where Mabel was. He knew Grandma would call.
“Oh, hi, Grandma….I’m fine, and how are you doing?...You found your teeth! That’s wonderful….The last place you looked? Isn’t that always the way….Mabel? No, she’s not here. I thought maybe she was with you.”
And so it went. Search parties and law enforcement investigations predictably all turned up nothing as no one thought to check the leaf pile at the back of the yard. Herb experienced occasional tugs of conscience, but they were decisively overshadowed by the great sense of relief he felt ever since the great fall into the leaf pile. He could breathe again, relax. One night, Herb was so overjoyed with his new life that he suddenly began dancing around the kitchen (shoes on) and broke into a boisterous but off-key rendition of “Ding Dong the Witch is Gone!”
On the fourth day, two boys with rakes showed up at Herb’s door.
“Hello, young fellows, what can I do for you?”
“We live down the street, and we do chores around the neighborhood, like washing cars, mowing lawns, raking leaves. Do you need any help with stuff like that?”
“As a matter of fact, maybe a little help with the leaves. You can see I’ve got lots of them.”
“For sure. Five bucks each and you won’t even see a leaf in your yard.”
“What do you want us to do with the leaves?”
“Why don’t you just dump them on the pile at the back of the yard? You’ll see it.”
And so it went. Year after year, the two kids raked Herb’s lawn, and Herb’s confidence that Mabel would never be found grew with every cartload of leaves added to the pile. Mabel’s disappearance remained a mystery, though there were lingering suspicions.
“Come on, Herb, what did you do with her? You can tell me. You know I’d never tell a soul.”
“I didn’t do anything with her, Barney.”
“What was it? Did you give her the old cement shoes and deep six her in the lake?”
“Oh, God, I hope it wasn’t the wood chipper like in that Fargo movie.”
“For Christ’s sake, Barney, knock it off.”
The two boys grew too old to do chores in the neighborhood, and their two younger siblings took over the task of raking and dumping Herb’s leaves. Then their two younger siblings took over for them as the years passed by.
The knock at the door told Herb it was time to grab his wallet and settle up with his lawn care crew.
“Here you go, Susie. Where’s your brother?”
“We’re going fishing tomorrow so he’s digging for worms in your leaf pile. My Dad says that’s a good place to find worms.”
Herb bolted past Susie and headed for the leaf pile. Too late.
“What’s wrong, Billy?!”
“Mr. Herb, Mr. Herb! There’s a skull and a bunch of bones in your leaf pile!”
Think, think, think.
“Oh, you must have found it!”
“We had a fake skeleton that we would put out every year at Halloween, and it disappeared years ago. Let’s take a look.”
With Billy and Susie cautiously following behind, Herb walked to the leaf pile. There she was, Mabel, sticking out from the leaf pile from the waist up and looking a bit more trim than when he last saw her. Fortunately for Herb, the worms had done a number on Mabel. After years in the leaf pile, skull and bones were the only thing left.
“Yep, that’s it alright, our Halloween decoration. I can’t imagine how she, I mean it, got here. It must have been here all this time. That’s almost fifteen years.”
“It scared the bejesus out of me.”
“Yeah, scared me for years.”
“It looks so real, Mr. Herb.”
“Yes, very lifelike. It cost me a bundle.”
Herb and his two helpers extricated the rest of the skeleton from the leaf pile, all the while Herb half expecting the remnants of Mabel to deliver one final tongue lashing.
“Mr. Herb, since you haven’t been using it, do you think we could have it? My Dad goes all out for Halloween, and this thing would look awesome on the bench next to our house.”
“Sure, Susie, that’s a fine idea. Someone should get some use out of it.”
The kids’ Dad won the town’s Best Halloween Decorations Award that year, largely due to the very lifelike skeleton staring at all who passed by. The leaf pile having served its purpose as a cloak of concealment, Herb now saw it as a business opportunity. He set up a little stand in front of his house and sold leaf worms to local fisherman. Herb smiled with every sale as he couldn’t help but think that every time he handed a plastic cup full of worms to a customer, he was parting with yet one more small piece of Mabel.
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Nice tale, Murray. I hear this tale was banned. I can't see why.
A very enjoyable read, in a dark way. You have created such an engaging character, providing ample evidence to support his position, if you will. Nicely done.
I appreciate your reading the story and you comments. Thanks!
Murray, I found your point of view, and your voice in this story bang on and consistent throughout; the conflict and rising action were well set up. The climax was grand. Herb was very fortuitous in that his wife enjoyed raking leaves. All the elements of the short story were there, and it was concise. This is an excellent dark-humoured short story. Anyone can relate to the henpecked man. (not that I am one of those wives!) Poor Herb, I felt terrible for him. But Mabel's untimely demise was timely and apropos for Herb. It was an act of omis...