Home Sweet Gnome


By Margi Desmond



A rusted beige sedan backfired, sputtered, and died in a cloud of black smoke at the curb in front of a small cottage. The vehicle, an eyesore in the quiet tree-lined neighborhood, was an item of contention with disgusted neighbors.

Weary from his ten-hour shift at the customer service call center, Walter Deedlebaum climbed out of the clunker and cut through the immaculate lawn to the cottage's front door. The thin middle-aged man dressed in his father's ancient hand-me-downs ran a hand through his thinning hair as he glared at the cheery garden gnome situated beside a colorful pot of impatiens. He stuck his tongue out at it. There was nothing happy about this home, and Walter despised the gnome's taunting smile. He'd like to smash the stupid thing to oblivion, but having to listen to her mouth wouldn't be worth it.

The front door flew open before he'd had a chance to grab the doorknob.

"How many times do I have to tell you not to walk on the lawn?" Velma Deedlebaum scolded.

"Mother..."

"Don't 'Mother' me. I've told you time and again to use the walkway. I take pride in my lawn and don't need you wearing a path from that old junk heap to the front porch." Looking up to the heavens and doing the sign of the cross, Velma continued, "Your father — God rest his soul — would be appalled by your lack of respect for our home."

Oscar Deedlebaum passed away more than twenty years ago. The doctor said it was a heart attack but Walter knew better — Mother nagged Pop to death.

Walter pushed past her.

"Don't forget to take off your shoes."

"I'm taking them off." He kicked his scuffed Dansko clogs across the entryway.

"I don't want you traipsing dirt all over the house."

"I know."

She poked him in the belly and got in his face. "If you know, then why do I have to keep reminding you?" Her breath — a foul mixture of coffee and old dentures — made Walter want to gag.

He took a step backwards. "You don't."

"Yes, I do."

"Look! They're off," he yelled, pointing at the shoes.

She wagged a finger at him and scowled. "Don't get fresh with me."

Walter rolled his eyes. "I'm not getting fresh."

"Don't sass me, young man."

Walter was hardly a young man. The forty-year-old felt ninety. "Where's the mail?"

"Don't worry about that right now. It's time to wash up for dinner. I made your favorite: country-style steak, mashed potatoes, gravy, and Brussels sprouts."

"Brussels sprouts?" Walter made a face. "Mother, you know I can't stand those things."

"They're just little baby cabbages."

"No, they're not. They taste like biting into spherical pieces of hell."

"Quit being dramatic. They're delicious with a little bit of butter and parmesan cheese."

"We go through this every time you serve them." Walter shook his head and trudged towards the bathroom, stubbing his toe on the umbrella stand. "Son of a..."

"Language!" Velma scolded.

After washing his hands, Walter shuffled to the kitchen and found a pile of mail on the counter. While Velma dished the food onto plates, he sat at the table and opened the first envelope.

"Walter, get that nasty mail off the table. You'll spread all sorts of germs near our supper." Velma sat, still holding the plates. "I'm not setting these down until you put away that filthy stuff. We could catch impetigo or anthrax."

Walter wanted to rub the mail all over her face and make her have a stroke, but instead he tossed it on the floor. "There. Satisfied?"

She scowled and set his plate in front of him. "There's nothing in there but rejections anyway." She took a bite of mashed potatoes.

Walter sprinkled salt and pepper on his food.

Velma slammed her fork down and glared at him. "How do you know the food needs more seasoning? You haven't even tasted it yet. That's considered insulting the chef."

"It always needs more salt and pepper," Walter replied.

"Annoying, that's what it is. You expect the worst. Nobody likes pessimistic people, Walter."

"Pessimistic? You're calling me pessimistic? How about your assumption that there's nothing but rejection letters in my mail?"

"There's a difference between being pessimistic and realistic, Walter. You've been chasing this ridiculous dream of becoming the next Stephen King for years and it's not going to happen. The sooner you face it, the better."

Walter shoveled a blob of mashed potatoes into his mouth. "You don't know that. Every writer gets rejected at first. Even Stephen King did." Bits of potato flew out of his mouth and across the table.

Velma wiped the table with her napkin. "You've always been a dreamer, Walter. Remember when you wanted to be a famous actor? You joined that stupid little theater group."

"I was good. They said I had potential."

"They? Who's 'they'? The dementia patients at the old folks' home? What did they know? They sat in soiled diapers and drooled all over themselves, waiting to die."

Velma ate a Brussels sprout. Walter imagined her choking on it.

"We only appeared at Sunset Acres once, Mother. We performed at many other legitimate venues but you made sure to ruin that opportunity for me, didn't you?" He forked a piece of the steak into his mouth and chewed. Tough, as usual, and it needed more salt.

Velma pointed her knife at him. "I did no such thing. I couldn't help that your friends didn't know how to take constructive criticism."

Walter glared at her. "You came uninvited to closed rehearsals and constantly interrupted with negative comments."

"What about the nursing degree? Remember that?" She ate another sprout. "What a disaster that turned out to be. You took all the classes and then couldn't stomach the clinicals. You threw up on that poor patient. Good lord."

"Mom!" Walter remembered how she'd filled his head with gruesome thoughts and crippling doubts, causing him extreme nervousness and nausea.

"Now, this writing thing." She threw her hands up in the air. "Don't quit your day job, Walter."

I wouldn't dream of it, Mother. It's the only time I get to spend away from you.

He stood, grabbed the mail off the floor, and stomped to his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.

* * *

"Suicide hotline. My name is Teresa. How may I help you?"

Walter took a deep breath. He didn't know where to begin. "I...it's just that...um..."

"You're feeling helpless?" She had a soothing voice.

"Yeah."

"Alone?"

"Yep."

"Well, you're not. I'm here for you."

Walter felt a twinge of relief. "Thanks."

"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

"I've heard that before."

"It's a quote from Phil Donahue."

"Oh." As a child, every day he came home from school his mother was watching Donahue. Now it was Dr. Oz.

"Let's get to the root of your problem."

"Okay."

"Usually it's the mother's fault."

"Bingo." The woman was a genius.

"I'm listening..."

For the first time in his life, Walter had a person waiting for him to speak. She wanted to discuss his problems and offer advice. His heart pounded. "I hate my job. I hate my life."

"What would make you happy?" Teresa asked.

"To be able to quit my job and get my novel published."

"You're a writer?"

"I'm trying to be but it's hard with a full time job." He took a deep breath. "And then I have to come home and listen to her."

"Her?"

"My mother. All she's ever done is hold me back."

"Explain."

"I received a college scholarship and planned to study creative writing."

"That's impressive."

"But Pop died and Mother said I couldn't leave her. She manipulated me into staying with her and attending the community college."

"How unfortunate."

"Then I wrote a play for my local theater group and had an opportunity to tour through several southeastern states with them."

"Ah."

"The day before we were scheduled to leave, Mother threw her back out and I had to stay behind to care for her. Every time I have a chance to get away, she reels me back."

"Ever think of getting rid of her?"

"You mean sending her to Sunset Acres? She'd never go for it."

"No, I meant killing her."

"I wish..."

Walter awoke from his dream with Velma standing over him. "What are you doing?" he bellowed. "You're supposed to knock before barging into my room!"

She grabbed the letter he'd been reading before he dozed off. "Ah ha, another rejection letter, just as I suspected. Let's see what this one says. Hum. 'Stilted, unrealistic and unbelievable...wishing you luck in the future...keep us in mind for your next project...blah, blah, blah.' Basically, you stink."

"Leave me alone." Walter snatched the letter from her.

"It's time for Chinese checkers."

"I don't feel like playing."

"We always play Chinese checkers on Wednesday nights."

"So? I don't want to play." Walter rolled over, facing the wall.

"What's wrong with you anyway? Are you having a mid-life crisis or something?"

"No!"

"Dr. Oz was discussing mid-life crises on his show today. Do you know that over half —"

"Get out!" Walter tucked himself into a fetal position and hoped he'd die in his sleep. He didn't know how much more he could take before he snapped.

* * *

"Innovative Cellular Systems. This is Walter. How may I help you?" Walter spoke into his headset as he sat slumped over his keyboard, staring at the computer monitor.

"I received my bill and —"

"May I have your account number, please?" Walter placed his hands on the keyboard, ready to input the information. "It's located on the top right corner of the first page of your bill."

The customer recited the number as Walter keyed the information into the system. "What I was saying is —"

"Can you please confirm your address?" Walter followed the company's procedure to verify the customer's identity.

"Will you just listen to me, damnit? My plan allows for unlimited calls and texting, but I've been billed for going over 250 minutes. I'm not paying you a thousand bucks for a bill that's supposed to be sixty."

"I'll be glad to assist you; however, I must verify your address."

"What you 'must' do is adjust my bill."

"No, I need to verify your address first."

"Don't you argue with me."

"I'm not arguing with you."

"Yes, you are. Lemme speak to your supervisor, you lazy piece of —"

A hand reached from behind Walter and hit the disconnect button. "Oops. Looks like the call was accidentally dropped. Good thing, though, because Mr. Peppers needs to see you." Peppers' snippy uptight secretary, Bronwyn, rolled her eyes and stomped back to her cubicle.

Walter strode to the call center manager's office. What had he done? A summons to Mr. Peppers' office meant trouble. He'd written Walter up twice after violations of receiving personal calls from Mother.

Peppers glared at Walter as he entered the office. The ex-Army drill sergeant straightened his tie. "Have a seat, Wally."

Walter sat across the desk from his supervisor. "What can I do for you?"

"We have a problem, Wally."

"Yes?"

"This call center has the responsibility of handling a large volume of customer calls, and, therefore, we have established policies to ensure efficient and prompt customer service. You understand?"

"Yes, Mr. Peppers."

He leaned back in his chair, folded his muscled arms, and continued, "One of those policies, as you well know, is that we prohibit employees from receiving personal phone calls. When employees are yakking with their friends and family, they're not available to answer calls from our customers."

"Yes, Mr. Peppers." Walter fidgeted in his seat. "I spoke with Mother and she promised she wouldn't call me at work again."

Peppers shook his head. "Well, Wally, she didn't pay attention to you. She called this morning and became verbally abusive when Bronwyn refused to patch her through to you."

"I'm sorry." Walter felt his face grow hot. Damn Mother.

"I'm sorry too. Although you have a superb attendance record and satisfactory phone skills with the customers, this is your third strike, Wally. I have to terminate your employment."

"But it was my mother."

"But nothing, Wally."

"I understand." Walter rose and turned towards the door.

"And Wally, take my advice — get away from that crazy battle-ax. Nobody likes a Momma's Boy."

* * *

Walter watched his mother. She sat mesmerized by the day's episode of Dr. Oz who warned viewers of the dangers of processed foods high in nitrites, including certain brands of hot dogs. It took her a moment to realize that Walter was standing beside her Barcalounger.

"Walter, what are you doing home from work early? I didn't hear that old heap drive up to the house."

"It wouldn't start. I left it in the parking lot at work."

"I needed you to pick up denture adhesive on your way home, but that no-good secretary of yours must not have given you my message. You need to fire that tramp."

"I told you not to call me at work."

"Go fetch the Polygrip. I'm listening to Dr. Oz."

"You'll listen to me." Walter walked over to the television and hit the off button.

"What do you think you're doing?" Velma grabbed the remote, but Walter snatched it from her. Through clenched teeth, he told her he'd gotten fired.

"Fired? Now that beats all. How do you get fired from a stupid call center job that any idiot could do? I swear...wait...Walter, why did you bring in Mr. Chuckles? You know he's not to be moved."

"You sabotaged me again." He inched closer to her.

"What are you talking about?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about. You knew if I received another personal phone call they'd fire me. You did it on purpose."

"Don't you dare blame me!"

"You couldn't stand the few hours a day that I was able to spend away from you. You couldn't stand that I was making a little spending money. You want me dependent on you so you can dictate everything I do."

"What a stupid —"

Walter tightened his grip on the garden gnome and smashed it down on her head.

* * *

"Fans from around the globe flock to his book signings. Praised as a spellbinding tour de force by a literary genius, his best-selling debut novel, Mother: Where Art Thou?, continues to break sales records. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome my special guest, author Walter Deedlebaum!" Oprah clapped, as members of the audience, each clutching a copy of his novel, roared in a standing ovation.

Walter took a deep breath and walked on stage. Oprah greeted him with a hug and kiss on each cheek, causing him to blush.

Once the audience's cheers subsided, Oprah started her interview. "Mother: Where Art Thou? brought tears to my eyes. This tender coming of age novel about a mother and her son is phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal."

Walter smiled and nodded his head. "Thank you, Oprah."

"No, thank you. Thank you for writing the best book I've ever read." Oprah tenderly touched his hand.

"Fans want to know where you got the idea for this story."

"Well, Oprah, my mother disappeared the same day I was fired from my job. I spent my empty days keeping a journal of my feelings as a way of coping. From that journal, the novel was born."

"We find out what happens to the character's mother in a gut-wrenching ending." Oprah leaned forward, closer to Walter. "If you don't mind my asking, do you know what happened to yours?"

"No, Oprah. I don't," he hesitated, "but the nightmares haunt me."

Walter thought of Velma buried under the flourishing rose garden in the back yard. A chipped and faded Mr. Chuckles marked the grave. His smile continued to taunt Walter, who was tied to the house forever lest new tenants would discover the gruesome secret six feet under the nasty little garden gnome.


MARGI DESMOND is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Royal Society of Literature. She earned a career diploma in Private Investigations in 2010 while conducting research for her first novel length manuscript, Driven to Murder. Ms. Desmond has written more than 100 articles for eHow/Demand Studios and Suite 101. The ezine 69 Flavors of Paranoia published her first short story "Customer Satisfaction" in Menu 13 (August 21, 2011).


Copyright 2012 Margi Desmond. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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