Charlie in the House of Rue For a moment he stands there as though amazed, slap-shoes splayed, baggy trousers bunched up around his waist and tattered jacket fastidiously buttoned, there in the middle of the gleaming chandeliered hallway near the foot of a broad staircase, its polished balustrade winding above him like the frame of a formal portrait. Then he blinks, his eyelids flicking shut and open under his black derby like camera shutters. He flexes his bamboo cane, his elbows, his knees, glances around, his patch of scruffy black moustache twitching with anticipation. He bends from the waist, sniffs the large leafy plants that bank the staircase, lifts box lids, peeks behind paintings. He raps with his cane the nose of a wide-antlered deer's head mounted over a door near the stairwell, smiles toothily into the hall mirror, then tips his hat forward and dances an adroit flatfooted hopscotch on the floor, a brightly waxed checkerboard of black and white marble squares. The floor, the surfaces of the paintings, the mirrors, the polished balustrade and the crystal chandelier, all glitter with a bright sourceless light. Charlie swaggers jauntily through this light, challenging a hat tree to a fight, blowing his nose on a tapestry, doffing his derby to a suit of armor. He hooks his cane in his vest pocket, offers the armor a small cigar from a box on the hall table. No? Well. He offers himself one, accepts it, thanks the armor with an ingratiating smile. He pats his jacket, reaches deep into his trousers, pulls out the pockets: nothing but holes. He asks the suit of armor for a light. No response. He leans forward, knocks on the breastplate with his cane, jumps back in alarm, at the same time clapping his hands on the breastplate to still the reverberations. He presses his ear to the armor, sniffs its armpits, lifts the visor, peers in. He looks down. Up. Deeper down. He shrugs, drops the visor: it chops off the end of his cigar. He rolls his eyes at the truncated butt, scowls, then reopens the visor and tosses it in, leaping back as though to escape a trap. He helps himself to a fresh cigar, and on second thought to yet two more, one for each ear. He is about to pocket box and all when he discovers, on the stair landing high above him, a beautiful but strangely baleful young woman dressed in a long white gown. Abashedly, he offers her a cigar, while hiding the one in his hand behind his back. She gazes past him, unseeing. He returns the box to the table, pats it, smiles apologetically up at her, then returns the two cigars tucked behind his ears and seemingly the one behind his back as well, and, bowing and bobbing, tipping his derby, backs away into a doorway and out of the hall.
He presses the door shut, wipes his brow, produces a neatly palmed cigar, and, planting it smugly in his mouth and looking about for a light, discovers himself in a large kitchen. There are cupboards, sideboards, larders, pots and pans, open shelves stacked with sparkling dishes, white teacups hanging on little hooks. They gleam brightly in the heavy shadows that seem to hover in the kitchen like the spectral haze of failing sight. Sausages, onions, and bunches of herbs are strung from overhead beams, and in the open hearth there is a fitfully blazing fire, over which an iron soup kettle hangs from a pothook. Nearby: a stack of split logs, fire tongs, a poker, a straw broom. THERE'SNO PLACE LIKE HOME says a tiled plaque on the wall. Freshly baked custard pies have been set out to cool on a counter, next to a set of kitchen scales and a wooden rolling pin. Charlie, counting these things as if they had fallen somehow from his raggedy pockets, is not alone in the kitchen. At a table in the middle of the room sits a large bald-headed man with thick moustaches, wide suspenders, and a bright white napkin tucked under his double chin, staring lugubriously at a steaming bowl of soup set before him. Charlie approaches the man by a circuitous little sidestep, then, still at some distance, asks simperingly for a light. The fat man does not even look up from his bowl of soup. Charlie, rocking back on the heels of his slapshoes, studies the man, the soup, the man. He tiptoes forward, sniffs the soup, wrinkles his nose. He starts to stick a finger in the soup as though to taste it, pauses, daintily removes one fingerless glove, then does poke his finger in -- he jerks back in pain, pops his finger in his mouth and sucks it tearfully. A pensive look crosses his pale face. He studies his finger, sucks it again, more appreciatively. He smacks his lips, sits down beside the bald-headed man. He sprinkles a bit of salt into his palm, sniffs it, tosses it over his left shoulder, then sprinkles some into the soup. He borrows the man's spoon, slurps up a spoonful of the hot soup, adds a little more salt, tosses the salt shaker over his shoulder. He tests the soup again: still not just right. He snatches up the pepper shaker, sprinkles a bit into his palm, sniffs it -- and is quickly overtaken by the urge to sneeze. He struggles against it, pressing to his upper lip his finger, then his sleeve, the pepper shaker, the spoon, the man's finger -- the sneeze explodes. The soup flies up into the bald man's face. The man continues to stare sullenly at the half-empty bowl, his thick moustaches dripping now with steaming soup. Charlie, looking ill with fear, wipes the soup spoon on his tie and replaces it, slithers off his chair and backs away, tipping his hat, then turns and runs as though pursued through the nearest door.
He pulls up short. He is in a lady's boudoir. There is a profusion of mirrors and flowers and fancy clothing. A beautiful young woman, perhaps the one he has seen before out on the stair landing, is standing beside the rumpled bed, removing her negligee. Charlie, bowing and scraping, covers his eyes with one hand and tips his hat with the other, then wheels around to exit the way he came in -- but smacks up against the wall: the door is gone. He staggers back, pinching his nose as though to restore its shape, gaping in amazement at the wall. He glances surreptitiously over his shoulder: the young woman is gone. In her place, a maid in a crisp black uniform with a frilly white apron and white lace collar is bent over, making up the canopied bed. Charlie blinks, shrugs his little shrug, tips his hat debonairly to her posteriors, then, sporting his bamboo cane, struts playfully around the room. He kicks through the shoes and garters and flimsy underthings scattered over the floor, preens in the mirrors, pokes in the drawers, examines the framed photograph of a child on the dressing table, sprays the armpits of his tattered jacket with an atomizer, sprays the backside of the busy maid. She is bent over still, ignoring him, tucking in the linens. He twirls his cane and, glancing skyward, catches her hem with it and lifts her skirt. She straightens up -- Charlie whips his cane away and pretends to scold it. The maid pays him no heed, bending over once more to plump up the pillows. He bobs his eyebrows roguishly and hooks the skirt again, watching it climb slowly up her glowing white thighs like a theater curtain. The lights go out. When they come on again, Charlie is standing as before, holding his cane out stiffly in front of him, the maid's skirt hanging from it like a black banner; the maid herself is now over by the dressing table, her hands crossed in front of her thighs, a big O of mock surprise on her plump lips, her soft white bloomers reflected several times over in the triptych of hinged mirrors behind. Charlie gapes at his cane and its catch, spins around to stare at the bed, the maid, the mirrors, the room. His eyes narrow. He squares his thin shoulders, hitches his baggy pants, steps forward, and the lights go out again. When they return, they find Charlie still in midstride, though with jaw gaping and eyes apop, the maid back making the bed once more, her skirt, riding up her thighs, hooked by his cane held out behind him. She is bent nearly double now and, peeking coquettishly between her knees, is twitching her behind at him. The room seems to be getting brighter and brighter. Even as he completes his stride, Charlie pivots on the planted foot and, watching the maid with wide-eyed terror as her skirt rips away, backpedals frantically out of the room.
And right on over the gleaming second-floor balustrade into the vestibule far below, snatching frantically, as his feet arc helplessly up over the railing, at anything that might save him. What he catches hold of is the end of a ribbon, tied in a bow around the waist of the pale lady on the landing -- it comes unknotted like a package being opened, spooling him downward in his fall. He bounces off the mounted deer's head, jabbed in the rear by the antlers, and bellyflops onto the balustrade, sliding down it headfirst, his cane stuttering along the balusters like a policeman's billy rattled on a wooden fence. There is a large porcelain vase at the bottom of the balustrade which Charlie sends flying as he plunges past, but which he somehow manages to catch, just inches from the floor, even as he falls. He clambers to his feet, sets the vase safely back on the balustrade, mops his brow, straightens his tie, leans back in exhaustion, and knocks the vase to the tiled floor, where it shatters into a thousand pieces. He gazes innocently off in the opposite direction, kicking the pieces back out of sight under the stairs, then steals a glance up at the lady. She has noticed nothing. She stares off into the distance as before, as though crushed by grief, or regret, her loosened ribbons hanging down like hopes abandoned. Charlie scratches his head, leans toward her, leans away. He waves. He blows her a kiss. He whistles through his fingers. He jumps up and down and flings his arms about. Nothing. He twirls his derby on the end of his cane, then rolls it down his arm, pops it on his head, tips it from behind. He smashes another vase. He bangs on the suit of armor. He dumps out the cigar box, puts ten cigars in his mouth at once, eats one whole. But her sad abstracted expression remains the same. He plucks a rose from a broken vase, kisses it, and tosses it up to her. It falls short, striking the balustrade below and dropping onto the deer's severed head. He snatches up another, winds up and pitches it overhand, but again it only hits the balustrade. In frustration he grabs up an armload and heaves them all at once: this time a few do reach her, but bounce off unheeded, one of them snagging in her long white skirts. He picks up one of the fallen roses and bounds up the stairs to offer it to her: he smiles, he bows, he mugs, he pleads, all to no avail. He puts the rose between his teeth, dances a wistful little arabesque around her. Unexpectedly, she reaches out dolefully and touches his face -- he ducks his head shyly, steps back, and finds himself somersaulting backwards down the stairs.
At the bottom, he discovers he has swallowed the rose, thorns and all, and is no longer in the hallway. There are Oriental carpets now on the floor where he sprawls, bulky leather chairs and sofas nearby, pedestal ashtrays and classical statuary. Perhaps he has somersaulted on through another doorway. Instead of staircases, bookcases: it seems to be some kind of library. He burps, crosses his eyes, coughs up a rose petal. A chandelier with milky hemispheres like bowls of soup hangs from the molded ceiling above him, casting a shimmery glow on the rows of leather bindings, the thickly draped windows and arched doorways, the large dark paintings in their gilt frames, the blank faces of the room's multitudinous clocks. Over by the fireplace, at a two-tiered ebony trolley, stands an old man with a long white goatee, dressed in a formal black suit, pince-nez, and silk top hat, drinking alone. Charlie, plucking a thorny stem from between his teeth, considers the drinks trolley wistfully, all aglitter with its rich array of glasses and bottles. He feels the top of his head, looks around for his hat, finds he is sitting on it. He pops it out, retrieves his cane and gloves, withdraws a bent cigar from his watch-fob pocket. He tucks the cigar in his mouth and, flicking specks of dust off his shabby jacket and baggy pants, swaggers over and joins the old rnan at the bottles as though invited. The old man has finished his drink and is pouring himself another. Charlie simpers, dips, doffs his derby, hangs it on his cane over his shoulder, holds a glass out hopefully, but the old man, his pale face desolated by some inconsolable sorrow, ignores it. He tips back his own glass, sets it down heavily for another refill. Charlie bobs his eyebrows, purses his lips, directs the old man's attention up to the chandelier, switches glasses on him. The old man picks up the empty glass, Charlie the full one, Charlie toasts the old man, tosses down his drink. The old man studies his empty glass, sets it down, fills it up again. He glances up at Charlie over his pince-nez, and Charlie switches glasses again. He toasts the old man, flops down on the arm of the overstuffed sofa, gulps down his drink. He reshapes his bent cigar, the old man pours out another drink, Charlie switches, reaches at the same time into the old man's pocket for a box of matches. He toasts the old man, strikes a match on the seat of the old man's tuxedo trousers, tosses down his drink, lights up the cigar, drops the match into his freshly emptied glass, switches, blows a smoke ring. The old man stares dismally at the empty glass with the sodden matchstick at the bottom, as Charlie returns the matchbox to the pocket, flicking his ash in after it. The old man, sighing heavily, picks out a clean glass and fills it, Charlie making a quick exchange, loosening his tie, stretching his legs out. His big toe pokes out from a hole in the sole of his shoe: Charlie wiggles it about contentedly and, switching glasses once more, falls back into the cushions of the sofa in bleary self-satisfaction. This time, however, the old man does not stop pouring. He gazes down at Charlie through his pince-nez, his old eyes adroop with rheum and misery, and continues to empty the bottle. Charlie stumbles to his feet, grabs up another glass and holds it under the flow, drinks down the full one just in time to thrust it back under as the new glass brims over. The old man, as though transfixed, continues to pour. Charlie thrusts more glasses under the gurgling bottle, drinks off some, pours others into the old man's pockets, some into his own, empties still others over his shoulders, into the ashtrays, the fireplace, his hat, the old man's hat -- but he cannot keep pace, the liquor is bubbling out of the bottle onto the trolley, the sofa, dripping down his pant legs, the old man's pant legs, puddling here and there, staining the pillows and the Oriental carpets, and all the while the old man gapes at Charlie, his frail shoulders bent, his lower lip thrust out mournfully, his eyes slowly filming over like clouded lenses. The bottle falls from his hand. Charlie, awash inside and out, grimaces confusedly. He picks up his soggy cigar, tips his hat which is not there. He locates it, after turning around two or three times, on the end of his cane. He clutches at it but he cannot reach it. He staggers about, pitching and weaving, puffing futilely on his wet cigar, trying to reach the elusive hat on the far end of his bamboo cane. Vases fall and smash, statues tip, their heads falling, paintings tilt. Drunkenly, Charlie grabs a bookcase for support, pulls the whole thing down on him. He climbs out, hauling himself hand over hand up the cane until he reaches the hat. He struggles with the cane as though the hat were snagged by it. The old man is standing at the trolley, emptying out another bottle. Charlie frees the hat at last and claps it sideways onto his head. He lurches through the room on all fours, smirking foolishly, the hat bobbing loosely on his uncombed curls, trying to make it back to the old man and the drinks trolley, but the floor keeps tipping him in the other direction. Finally, it tips him backwards right out the door, the old man in his top hat and pince-nez receding like a forlorn leave-taker on a train platform, Charlie rising to his feet and waving his wet cigar at him in befuddled farewell.
He strikes something as he pitches backwards, his feet fly higher than his head, his derby hovering in midair momentarily before following its owner into what proves to be an empty bathtub. Charlie struggles boozily to right himself, slipping and sliding in the enameled tub. He clutches a soap dish, but it breaks away. He hauls himself up by the plug chain, grabs the edge like a man clinging to a cliff, finally heaves himself over and onto the floor, gasping for breath. But where is his hat? He peers tipsily into the tub: there it is, sitting on its crown as though inviting the toss of pennies. He shrugs, takes a grip on the edge, and dips forward into the tub headfirst. His feet arc up, kick frantically at space, his baggy pant legs wrinkling to his knees, exposing bare sockless ankles. His toe waggles out the hole in the sole as though seeking something to grab on to. At last his feet come back down, his head up: the derby is mashed down over his nose. He staggers about blindly, wrestling with the hat, bumps into somebody. He apologizes, backing away, and nearly tumbles into the tub again. His hand touches something, feels its length: a toilet plunger. He holds it over his head, brings the rubber suction cup down with a blow that makes his knees buckle, lifts: it sucks the hat from his head, lifting his feet a few inches off the floor as it does so. He blinks, gazes woozily around him: the person he has bumped into, he now sees, is a burly helmeted policeman with a large handlebar moustache and a gleaming five-pointed star on his chest. The policeman is sitting on a little stool in his stocking feet, fishing with a bamboo pole in the toilet bowl. Charlie recognizes the pole: it is his own cane. He tries to take it back, but the policeman resists, puffing his cheeks out. As they struggle for possession of the cane, the line comes up out of the toilet bowl: there is a huge crab on the end of it. The crab whirls around the room on the end of the fishing line, gnashing its pincers, sweeping medicine bottles off the glass shelves, cracking the bathroom mirror, batting the dangling overhead bulb and setting it swinging, causing shadows in the room to reel and leap. Charlie and the policeman are still fighting for the cane, but they are also trying to avoid the flying crab. To no avail: with one pincer it captures the policeman's nose, with the other Charlie's. Round and round they go, frowning cross-eyed at the crab, their mouths puckered up under their moustaches, their startled faces falling in and out of the wheeling shadows. Charlie finally lets go of the cane, using both hands to pry the pincer loose from his nose. He looks for something else to attach it to, finally lifts up one of the policeman's stockinged feet and clamps the pincer to the big toe. The policeman hops about now on one foot, helplessly hooked by the other to his nose, surrendering the cane so as to hold his foot up and save his nose from being torn away. Charlie twirls the cane victoriously, brushes himself off and straightens his hat and tie, primps drunkenly in the broken mirror, struggling to find himself in the multiple images and whirling shadows. As, burping, he turns to leave, he spies the toilet plunger. He picks it up and with a tender inebriated smile shows it to the hapless policeman. Perhaps the policeman hopes for a rescue. He seems to nod, his foot bobbing with his head. Charlie lifts the policeman's helmet off, raps him on the head with the plunger handle, sets the helmet back in place but over the policeman's eyes. He stamps on the hopping foot and tickles the other, then lifts the policeman's flopping coattails and whops the plunger onto his backside, where it sticks fast, wagging about like a stiff wooden tail, signaling Charlie, smugly chewing on his wet cigar, toward his exit.
In the next room, the kitchen, as it happens, he weaves over to the fireplace, where the soup kettle is still on the boil, and, bending primly from the waist, pokes his face into the fire to light his cigar. When he pulls back, his face is smudged and his moustache and eyebrows are smoking, but the cigar remains unlit. He scowls muzzily at the soggy butt, wrings it out, shrugs, mashes it out on the nearest clean white surface to hand -- which turns out to be the bald pate of the fat man at the kitchen table: he slumps there as before, staring darkly at his bowl of soup, seemingly seething with fury, the wet cigar smeared like a tatty toupee across his barren dome. Charlie twitches in several directions at once, as though trying to run but not knowing which way to go. In desperation, he snatches up the straw broom and sweeps the cigar off the man's head. It falls in the soup. Charlie stares in horror at the thick lump of mangled cigar floating in the man's soup. He hurls the broom over his left shoulder into the dish cupboards, grabs up the soup bowl, lurches drunkenly to the fireplace, throws the contents into the fire, ladles out another bowlful from the kettle, pouring hot soup down his pant leg in haste, hops back anxiously on one foot, trips and falls, spilling the soup, scrambles to his feet and rushes back to the kettle, refills the bowl, returns cautiously, bowl shaking in his hands, spills it in the fat man's lap, dashes back to the kettle, beginning to delight now in all this to-ing and fro-ing, returns to spill soup all over the table, hippety-hops back giddily for another bowlful, hardly pausing at the kettle, dances to the table and pours the soup on the man's head. He whips the napkin out from under the man's chin and towels the dripping pate, blowing on it and polishing it with his sleeve, then returns for more soup and, with a graceful flourish, the napkin folded crisply over his arm, plants the steaming bowl in front of the man, pirouettes with outflung arms, whacking the fat man in the back of the head, crosses his ankles, and bows. The man, meanwhile, has not stirred, has not even ceased his dark sullen stare. His bulbous nose seems to fill up his face with a kind of thickening gloom, under which his moustaches hang lifelessly as though from a gibbet. Uneasily, Charlie tucks the napkin back under the fat chin, pats it down. He slides the soup bowl nearer. The man stares past it. Charlie pushes the bowl back into the line of his stare and stands there scratching his curly head. He strolls past nonchalantly and bumps into him, breaks as though to run, stops, frowns. He prods him with his elbow. He snaps the man's heavy suspenders. He raps him on the head with his cane, turns and kicks him with the back of his heel. He cocks his fists like a boxer, circles the man, punching at him with light jabs. He pulls his fat nose. He assumes a fencer's stance and thrusts at him with his cane. Nothing. Charlie shrugs irritably, turns away, spies the custard pies cooling on the counter. His eyes light up. He hefts a couple, judging their weight and balance, chooses one, turns to throw it. The fat man is as before, slumped heavily at the table, glowering into his bowl of hot soup. Charlie sidles up to the table, shows the man the pie, imposing it between his face and the soup, then hurries back to the counter and winds up to throw it. The man stares sullenly at the soup. Charlie's shoulders sag, he lowers the pie. The sparkle is gone from his eyes. He shakes himself. He squares his shoulders, dances closer, raises the pie again. He hops about aggressively, making faces and brandishing the pie, but all to no avail. He bangs on the table. He kicks the man in the shins. He bares his teeth, closes his eyes, and slaps the pie into his face. But when he opens his eyes he discovers, to his horror, that it is not the fat man he has struck, but the beautiful lady on the hallway landing. Her pale melancholy features are smeared with custard and pieces of pie are splattered over her long white gown. For a moment Charlie seems frozen with shock, his hands clutching his curly hair, his mouth agape, eyes popping with disbelief. Then he gives a little leap and goes dashing about frantically in search of something to use as a towel, discovers some heavy drapes on a window. He grabs up a handful and rushes back, reaches the drapes' length, and gets snapped backwards into a pratfall. He scrambles to his feet, tangled in drapes and pullcord. He lurches toward the lady, tears springing to his dark-lashed eyes, only to get jerked back again. The more he tries to free himself, the more entangled he becomes. The lady stands there by the balustrade, high above the checkerboard marble floor below, gazing off vacantly, wistfully, her face crusted with custard and pastry flakes. Bits slide slowly down her cheeks, dropping off her chin onto her bosom like melting candlewax. Charlie fights his way out of the curtains at last, dragging the pullcord with him. He unwinds himself from the cord in a speeded-up sequence of little twirls, leaps, and pas de chat, then bounds forward to wipe the_ lady's face, first with his hands, then his hat, the drapes, his jacket, his tie. She blinks inside all the paste, her lashes clotted with custard. He pulls out his shirttail, dabs gently at her eyes.
Which are not her eyes at all, but the old man's. Charlie is standing in the library, dabbing at the old man's rheumy eyes with his shirttail. The library is a shambles, the books spilled from their shelves, the paintings slashed and fallen, ashtrays tipped, vases and statuary smashed, glasses strewn, mirrors shattered, clocks split open, their works springing out like wild hairs. The old man is standing amid all this debris by his writing desk, tears running down his pale lined cheeks and into his white goatee, his top hat crushed, his hands in his pants. The ink bottle has been tipped over. The ink stands in a glossy black puddle, perfectly outlined against the desktop as though it might be made of rubber, like a child's practical joke. The old man, his goatee dripping with tears, gazes imploringly at Charlie, his hands moving funereally inside his black trousers. He wears a black armband, and his pince-nez dangles at his chest, the lenses fogged with a thousand tiny fractures. Charlie, dabbing still at the old man's eyes as though unable to stop himself, knocks one of the eyeballs loose. Slowly it oozes out of its socket, squirts free, and slides down his withered cheek, hanging there by a slippery thread. Desperately, Charlie tries to push the eyeball back in place, but it is difficult even to hang on to it: it keeps popping and slithering out of his grasp. And then the other one begins to ooze from its socket.
Charlie cries out and claps his hand against the extruding eye, only to find that what he has clapped is the maid's round white bottom. She is bent over, making up the crumpled bed, her bloomers around her ankles. Charlie recoils, staggering backwards, trips over his own cane, hooked in the bloomers, and tumbles into a stack of hatboxes. The maid peeks around at Charlie, past her radiant buttocks, then, reaching back and spreading her cheeks at him, purses her lips and blows him a kiss. He gasps, scrambles to his feet, wheels around and slaps up against the wall. He gropes his way in blind panic to a door, her bared behind flashing at him in a dozen mirrors, the walls turning soft as flesh. The air seems to be full of fluttering lingerie. He fumbles clumsily with the door handle, which keeps slipping out of his grasp as though greased, finally throws his shoulder against the door and crashes out of there.
Only to find himself back in the kitchen again. The large bald man, however, is no longer sitting at the table. His chair has fallen behind him as though kicked away, and he stands now, pissing sullenly into his soup bowl. Charlie picks himself up and, trembling, hunched over his bruised shoulder, backs away. He bumps up against a counter, puts his hand back to brace himself, plants it in a custard pie. The fat man buttons up and shuffles over to the door. He kneels, scowling darkly, and peers intently through the keyhole. His broad suspenders are stretched taut over his heavy body, the napkin dangling under his chin like a signal flag. Charlie, licking the pie from his hand, edges over toward the man. He tries to peek through the same keyhole, but the hole is too small and the fat man is immobile before it, utterly spellbound. Charlie pushes and shoves from all angles and finally, his ear pressed to the fat man's ear, gains a glimpse. What he sees throws him into a state of whey-faced alarm. He tries frantically to drag the door open, but the fat man is a dead weight before it. He kicks him, punches him, pulls him by the ears, smashes a chair over his head, but he cannot be budged. Charlie pounds his own head in despair, then pauses. A light seems to have dawned. He searches under his coat and shirttails, finds the large safety pin holding up his pants: he unfastens it, rams the point deep into the fat man's behind. Slowly, as though receiving a distant but utterly dismaying message, the fat man rears up, his mouth commencing gradually to gape, his face to twist and darken, his heavy moustaches to bristle, his eyes to gather focus. Charlie, holding up his unpinned pants, dashes past him out the door.
In the hallway on the stair landing, the lady in the white gown has fashioned a noose out of the pullcord Charlie dragged down from the drapes. She has tied the loose end around the broad railing of the balustrade and is fitting the noose itself around her neck. Her face is still smeared, her dress blotched, with custard cream pie. Charlie bounds toward her, holding up his baggy trousers with one hand, waving the other frantically, but the noose is already necklacing her pale throat. He pleads with her, he blusters, he cajoles, but the woman, leaning dangerously against the polished balustrade, gazes past him, down into the empty hallway. Charlie reaches toward her, but something in her dark clotted earnestness holds him back. He hops and dances around her, biting his nails, whimpering, his eyes filling with tears. He presses his palms together beseechingly, his pants fall down. He yanks them up, but sees that the woman has turned to look at him at last. Taking heart, he twirls his cane for her with one hand, then tries in vain to tip his hat and hold up his pants at the same time with the other. As he grabs for his pants, hat, pants, hat, her melancholy expression seems to soften. He prances around her in a frenzied teary-eyed imitation of glee, taking pratfalls, bumping his head, dropping his pants, losing his hat, attempting all the while to lure her away from the balustrade. She remains, leashed by the pullcord, but seems more and more caught up in his act. He juggles his hat and cane, plays peekaboo with her through a leafy potted plant, eats one of the leaves as though distracted by her beauty, executes a cartwheel without losing either hat or trousers, fiddles a tune on a barometer snatched from the wall. The woman wipes a blob of custard pie from her cheek as though brushing away a tear, seems to have forgotten the rope around her neck. Charlie, eyes darting about as though running out of ideas, removes his hat to mop his brow, discovers an old cigarette butt tucked inside the band. His face lights up. He puts the bent butt in his mouth, pats his pockets for a match, holding his pants up first with one hand, then the other. He shrugs, snaps his fingers, plucks an imaginary match out of the air, which he proceeds to strike on his backside. He jumps up in the air as though having set the seat of his pants on fire, then hops about fanning out the flames. The woman clasps her hands together in front of her face, peering at him over her fingertips. He struts up and down the landing, puffing on the bent cigarette, blowing imaginary smoke rings. He uses his vest pocket for an ashtray, stubs the butt out on the sole of his shoe, loses it momentarily in the hole there, pretending to have given himself a hotfoot. He finds the butt again, winks, flicks it over his shoulder, kicks it high with his heel, catches it in his hat. The lady seems fascinated now and, though she has still not smiled, watches him intently. Encouraged, Charlie plucks the butt out of the hat, holds it up before her, breaks it in two pieces, hitches his pants high, pinching them in place with his elbows, and flicks both bits of cigarette over his shoulders: he leaps up with both feet and kicks the two halves in the air at the same time, simultaneously dropping his pants. He catches one piece in his hat, lurches, shackled by fallen trousers, for the other, crashes into the young woman and knocks her over the balustrade. At first he cannot even grasp what has happened, spinning about frantically in search of the woman as though she might have vanished into thin air. He peers fearfully over the railing and discovers her there below, twisting and jerking at the end of the pullcord, struggling in vain to free herself. Charlie, aghast, tries to reach her, cannot, tries to pull her back up, lacks the strength. He fumbles with the knot around the balustrade, but his hands are shaking. He races down the stairs, tries to reach her from below, but she is hanging several feet above him, her feet twitching, kicking. He drags a chair over, leaps up on it, tries to hold her up by pushing on her feet, but her knees keep buckling. She kicks him in the ear, and knocks him off the chair. He scrambles to his feet, clutching his curly hair in anguish, spies the suit of armor. He tries to wrench away its halberd, but it seems permanently locked into the gauntlet. He cannot stop to consider alternatives: he hauls the whole apparatus, clashing and bouncing, up the stairs with him. He props the armor against the balustrade, takes a furious backswing with the halberd, and the suit of armor follows, crawling up his face and bowling him over. He struggles out from under, his face striped by cuts and scratches. He is no longer even trying to keep his trousers up, but neither does he have time to kick them off. He lifts the armor on his shoulders as though carrying a wounded warrior, takes another mighty backswing over the knotted pullcord, and the blade of the halberd flies off, disappearing through an open doorway. He dumps the armor off his back, grabs up his pants, and chases after it.
In the next room, however -- the bedroom, as it turns out -- the halberd blade is nowhere to be seen. He fumbles through perfume bottles, hatboxes, scattered clothing, finally turns to race out again without it, draws up short: the maid stands before the closed door, writhing provocatively, wearing nothing now but her bright white apron. She reaches beneath it and, pursing her lips, draws out the halberd blade, dripping with blood. Charlie gasps, whirls, and dashes pell-mell out another door.
He collides with a large leafy potted plant and goes sprawling across the brightly polished floor with its alternating black and white squares, slams into the stairway, and for a moment just lies there, holding his head. Then suddenly it all comes back to him -- he starts up, looks one way, the other, straight ahead, up: the young woman in the white gown is directly above him, kicking feebly against her long skirts, her hands digging at the pullcord noose around her neck. Charlie jumps up and down, trying to run in all directions at once. He clambers up the balustrade, cannot reach her, jumps down, pushes a chair under the mounted deer's head, hops up and grabs the deer's nose, his pants falling around his ankles. He holds on with one hand while pulling his pants back up with the other, finally succeeds in throwing one leg over an antler and hauling himself up on the head. He stretches out toward the struggling woman, gives her a little push. She swings away from him, then back: he leans out and gives another push, harder than before. She swings further away, her skirts fluttering, her feet kicking, then back: he reaches out for her and at the same moment disappears from sight as the deer and antlers rip away from the wall and crash to the marble floor below. He disentangles himself from the wreckage. Soft shadows flicker back and forth across his terrified face, thrown by the swinging lady above him. He kicks the deer's head in bitter frustration, discovers the door behind it, gives it a try.
His face lights up when he finds himself in the bathroom. The policeman is in there, arms folded on his chest, standing near one end of the tub, which is now filling with water. Charlie grabs him, tries to drag him toward the hallway. The policeman, his helmet set square over his broad brow, his brass buttons polished and handlebar moustache neatly groomed, spreads his legs slightly, plants both fists on his hips, and squints down at Charlie, as though considering an arrest. Charlie is jumping up and down frantically, pointing at the door, mimicking a hanged man, begging the policeman to come with him. The policeman strokes his burly jaw thoughtfully, then squares his shoulders, slaps his billy-club in one big hand, and gazing past Charlie toward the challenge beyond the doorway, strides manfully forward. He steps on a bar of soap, his feet fly up in the air, and he falls -- splat! -- to his backside on the bathroom floor. He looks around in puzzlement, gets slowly to his feet, steps on the bar of soap, and falls -- splat! -- to his backside on the bathroom floor. He scowls, glances from side to side suspiciously, leaps quickly to his feet, steps on the bar of soap, and falls -- splat! -- to his backside on the bathroom floor. Charlie tries to help him up, but the policeman belts him with his billy, a blow that sends Charlie reeling and wheezing across the room. The policeman rises cautiously, steps on the soap, and falls -- splat! -- to his backside on the bathroom floor. Charlie, still doubled over by the policeman's blow, is staggering back and forth from door to policeman to door to policeman, tearing out his hair and trying to keep his pants up. The policeman stands, steps on the soap, and falls -- splat! -- to his backside on the bathroom floor. Charlie is weeping, banging on the wall with his fist. The policeman is standing, slipping, falling -- splat! splat! -- over and over again. Charlie turns and stumbles despairingly out of the bathroom, face buried in his sleeve.
He trips over the crumpled suit of armor: he is back in the hallway but now up on the landing once more. He wipes away the tears, pulls up his pants, leans over the railing: whatever he might have hoped, she is still down there, hanging by her slender neck at the end of the pullcord, swaying gently from the push he has given her. Her hands, though fallen to her sides, continue to scratch weakly at the air. He tugs again on the cord, tries to bite through it with his teeth, saw it in two against the railing. All in vain. Her body, still twitching faintly in its long white gown, turns slowly round and round below him at the end of the rope, her eyes staring up at him in black anguish, her long flowing hair tangled and pasty with custard pie. Charlie beats his brow in dismay. The light dims as though she were spinning shadows with her feathery turnings. Her mouth opens slowly as if to speak, her swollen tongue emerging like a final stiff rebuke. Charlie gasps, yanks up his trousers, and plunges blindly through another door in search of something with which to cut the cord.
It is, though through a different door, the boudoir again. He starts to turn away, but then does a double take: over on the dressing table, among the vials and sprays and spilled jewelry boxes, there is, aglow as though spotlit, a pair of silver scissors! He rushes toward the table and the lights go out. When they come on again, he is sprawled on the floor near the table, one leg over a silk-cushioned chair, the thick carpet about him littered with shoes, perfume bottles, pale twists of flimsy underthings, glittering bits of broken glass. The scissors are gone. Across the room in front of a mirror, the maid is standing in her bloomers and apron, snipping the buttons off the front of her vest with the scissors, then tossing them over her shoulder and kicking them high in the air with the heel of her shoe. Charlie pulls himself painfully to his feet and, in a rage, hurls himself at her, but even as he plunges it is into darkness as again the lights go out, returning to find him bang up against a wall, blood running from his nose into his black moustache. The maid peeks coquettishly at him from behind the bed, its canopies hanging obscurely now like weighted webs, there and not there: it is as though there were a new distance between them, a graininess in the space that was not there before. She pops out, legs spread, and, whipping her bodice open, flashes her breasts at him. They glow in the gathering dimness as though lit from within, pimpled by dark little nipples like pupils of frightened cartoon eyes. Even as Charlie pushes away from the wall, the lights blink off and on again. Though the maid is still there in the same place, wearing only her apron like a frilly dinner napkin, the bed is gone -- in fact, the whole room is turned around. Terrified, Charlie turns to flee -- but no, it was a mirror image: he crashes into her and they fall together onto the unmade bed. He struggles to free himself but becomes entangled in the bedclothes. He loses his derby. He burrows into the linens to recover the derby, loses his pants. He recovers his pants, loses a shoe. He leaves it, staggering away toward the door, dragging the canopy with him -- but the maid blocks the way, squeezing her bare breasts at him, swaying her white aproned hips, smirking provocatively. He threatens her with his cane, but she only turns her backside toward him in open invitation. He spins away toward another door, but there she is, holding her apron out in front of her, shaking it at him as though taunting a mad bull, the scissors between her teeth like a rose. He backs away, tripping over the debris on the carpet, bumping into things in the deepening haze. Only she is bright, brighter than ever, her eyes sparkling, her flesh glowing, the black shaggy patch of pubic hair winking at him from behind the fluttering white apron like the negative of a sputtering lightbulb. His hand closes around a doorknob -- he whips it open and leaps through, but it is only a closet: he thumps up against the wall, falls back in a thick bind of knotted gowns and petticoats, straddled by the grinning maid. He clambers to his feet, losing his derby between her squeezing thighs, and tries to escape, but she backs him up against the wall and, standing on his trousers, rips his shorts away. He opens his mouth to cry out: she stuffs it full with one of her plump breasts, then, pushing his derby down around his ears, her knee jammed between his legs, commences to trim away his little moustache with the scissors. He closes his eyes, shudders: the maid slips and the scissors jab his nostrils. He gasps in pain and seems to get the maid's breast caught in his throat. He staggers about, gagging and snorting, crashing into things, taking pratfalls, dragging the startled maid with him. Tears are streaming down his puffed-out cheeks. The maid is pushing on his face, hanging on to his ears, prying at his jaws, her own mouth agape with torment and effort. At last the breast pops free and they fall apart, somersaulting away from one another as though spring-loaded. The maid, clutching her breast, crawls over by the dressing table, tears clouding her darkly lined eyes. Her belly has gone soft, the soles of her feet are dirty, her hair is snarled. She tosses him the scissors as though breaking an engagement, crawls under the table. He twitches what remains of his moustache, takes up the scissors, and, watching the maid warily, hitches up his pants and backs out of the room on his hands and knees. The maid seems to have shrunk. She is curled up under the dressing table, her thumb in her mouth, like a small tearful child, like the child perhaps of the faded photograph on the table above her, abandoned, some promise broken, in a studio boudoir festooned with rumpled clothing and jagged mirror fragments like sequins, its flowered wallpaper already starting to peel.
Charlie turns around and finds himself in the bathroom once more, one shoe off and one shoe on, gripping not a pair of scissors but a limp douche bag. The policeman, fully uniformed, is sitting in the bathtub, chest-high in water. His stern manly features are lined now with worry, his rugged jaw is grimly set, his eyes asquint. Charlie wipes his face with his sleeve and, still on his hands and knees, crawls over to plead with him once more, but the policeman ignores him, his gaze narrowed instead upon a small flock of rubber ducks floating between his legs. His uniform is black and ripply beneath the surface, the brass buttons appearing to float free. Water has crept up through the wool of his coat and laps darkly now at the edges of his untarnished badge. Suddenly his arm flashes out of the gray bathwater, his fist clutching a billyclub: he brings it down with all his might -- pow! -- on one of the rubber ducks. Water geysers out of the tub, splattering Charlie, the walls, the floor, even the overhead light bulb, making it fizzle and pop, but the duck bobs placidly back to the surface. Again and again the policeman smashes at the duck with his club, but always the duck bobs back. The policeman's shoulders slump, his arm goes slack. He looks up at Charlie. Water is dripping off the edge of his bell-like helmet, off his nose and the tips of his handlebar moustache. Charlie points to the door again, tears in his eyes, clutching the douche bag as though in offering, but receives only a blank stare in return. Then, slowly, the policeman begins to smile. The smile spreads, showing his teeth: the two in front are missing. Charlie blinks in disbelief. The policeman's eyes cross. He bobs his eyebrows, waggles his tongue. He snatches Charlie's douche bag away, peers inside, gives a squeeze: it is filled with ink which blackens the policeman's face. The tips of his moustache fly up, his helmet spins around, steam shoots out his ears. He bops Charlie on the head with his billy, bops himself on the helmet. Everything seems to be speeding up. Buttons fly off the policeman's coat like popping corn. He stretches his lower lip up over his nose, his badge shoots sparks, his ears flap. He gives Charlie his douche bag back, points him toward the door, bops him with the billy again. He gives himself another blow on the helmet and sinks into the water, his eyeballs -- stark white now behind the black ink -- rolling round and round, the rubber ducks bobbing.
Charlie creeps miserably away, holding the douche bag to his thumped head: the policeman has sent him into the kitchen where the large bald-headed man with the napkin under his chin is waiting for him. The man tears away the douche bag -- no longer a douche bag, in fact, but somehow now a rabbit with its head cut off -- and swats him with the bloody end of it. The blow sends Charlie tumbling head over heels into a sideboard stacked with white dishes which come clattering down on him. Charlie struggles dizzily to his feet, his trousers binding his ankles, peers around for his hat and takes another blow from the rabbit, a ferocious stroke across the shoulders that rockets him into the woodpile, sending the logs flying and splintering, bringing down fire tools and pots and pans, cracking the tiles in the wall. The fire has died down and shadows crowd up around him. Out of these shadows now rocks the fat man, swinging the beheaded rabbit menacingly by its hind paws. Charlie scrambles toward a table, but before he can slip under it he is caught with a blow that whips him upside down, a kick to the belly that doubles him up, another to the face that arches him backward and sprinkles the tablecloth with a spray of blood. The fat man yanks at the tablecloth, bringing everything on top of it down on Charlie: a buffeting avalanche of plates and glasses, mashed potatoes, soup and custard pies, knives, forks, and butter dishes, mustard pots, gravy bowls. Charlie, his face puffing up, lies there in the garbage, almost unable to move. The fat man rises over him now like some bloated colossus in shirtsleeves and suspenders, his bald head high above, near the ceiling somewhere, lost in the shadows. The man rears back and brings the headless rabbit down punishingly on Charlie, pounding him again and again, up and down his ragged body, Charlie rolling around in a syrupy tangle of trousers and tablecloth, soup, piss, and pies, unable even to defend himself now, the blows raining down -- not so much separate blows, as a single blow repeated over and over as though on an endless loop: the mighty backswing, the whipping downstroke, the bruising wallop and splattering blood, each backswing a kind of reverse of the downstroke, the rabbit seeming almost to suck back its own blood on the upswing, replenishing itself as it were for the next blow, Charlie jerking spasmodically from one side to the other as though in the grip of a violent fit of hiccups, his own blood and tears ebbing and flowing with each spasm, the debris around him sliding back and forth as though choreographed. The only difference from one blow to the next is the increase of anguish in Charlie's eyes, the intensifying of terror. Slowly, even as the blows fall steadily, almost mechanically, small changes begin to occur: One of Charlie's arms pushes sluggishly out of the pattern. His body gradually rotates until he is on his side, on his belly, on his hands and knees, struggling upwards. One foot strains forward under his body, knocks a dancing fork askew. The fat man's strokes continue as before -- up, back, forward, down, up, back, forward, down -- but Charlie, as though clawing his way through an atmosphere as thick as custard pie, is gradually dragging himself out from under, gaining an inch here, reaching out two inches there, slowly picking up momentum, until at last he is able to wrench free, snatch up his pants, and hurl himself through the kitchen door.
He lies there for a while in the next room, choking and wheezing, his battered limbs awry. The room is dark, lit only by a few distant candles, but he can see that he is back in the library again. It is immaculate, everything in it -- everything except himself -- restored to its former condition. The books are in their shelves, the paintings back up on the walls, the mirrors whole and ashtrays upright, the Oriental carpets unlittered. Even the clocks are all working again, the old grandfather clock's brass pendulum flashing rhythmic pinprick signals as it reflects in its steady swing the soft flickering glow of the candles. The candles surround a closed coffin. Agleam with high polish and candlelight, it is the only object clearly visible in the darkened room. Beyond it: a faint thin fog of gray light from a far door ajar. Charlie, unable to stand, drags himself toward that door across the tightly woven carpets, but as he nears the coffin, he freezes, his bloodied mouth agape: the lid is opening! Just a crack at first, a quivering suggestion merely of something about to happen, but slowly the crack widens, releasing the blackness within, a kind of pool of absolute darkness leaking out, making the candles dip and gutter -- and then a hand: white, gnarled, emaciated, tremulously pressing the lid back. Just that hand, and the blackness, and the rising lid. Charlie watches, stupefied, as the head emerges, weaving unsteadily as if unhinged. It is the old man's head with its white goatee, wearing its top hat still and its gleaming pince-nez, but greatly shrunken, white as chalk, and with empty shadowy craters where its eyes should be. The head swivels stiffly as though trying to locate itself, the lips drawn back in a rigid grin, exposing the spiky teeth -- then suddenly the hand loses its grip: the lid comes crashing down, severing the head from its neck. The head drops to the carpet. There is a dim candlelit pause. Charlie holds his breath. Then, once more, the lid begins to open. Again there is a leakage of blackness from within, again the appearance of a pale shriveled hand. Again the candles flare and dip. This time the lid opens all the way back, spilling flowers and dousing candles in the final clumsy arc of its fall. The headless body of the old man rises from the casket in its formal black suit. It moves stiffly, ceremoniously, lifting one limb out and then another. It lowers its feet to the floor, stands rigidly free from the casket, tipping from side to side. It reaches out blindly, lifts its foot, steps on its own grinning head: the head rolls, the body's feet fly up in the air, and it falls -- splat! -- on its backside on the Oriental carpet. Charlie, eyes squeezed shut, arms and legs churning, reaches the half-open door and, without looking back, pitches on through.
He is back where he began. But the checkered marble floor where he lies is dulled now with dust, the hallway itself suffused in a granular, almost unearthly, pallor. The mirrors reflect nothing, there is no sheen on the broad balustrade, and spiderwebs now loop and raddle from the chandelier, the staircase and potted plants, the hanging lady. He peers up at her through swollen eyes. She dangles limply from the pullcord noose, inert and wizened, though still disquietingly beautiful, wrapped in long tangled skeins of hair and the lacy moth-eaten gown. Has so much time passed? Charlie shudders. He grips the doorframe, pulls himself to his feet, then shuffles, shackled by his fallen trousers, to a table in one corner, taking loose swinging swipes as he goes at the dusky nets of web and dust. With great effort, he drags the table out of the corner, pushes it under the woman. He leans wearily against the table a moment, looking around, spies a chair tipped over near the fallen deer's head, the head mossy now, its glass eyes furred with dust, its antlers enmeshed in cat's cradles of ropy webs and dried rose stems. He hauls the chair out of the debris, stirring puffs of coiling dust, sets it on the table. Then he pulls up his baggy trousers, crawls up onto the table himself, steadies the chair, mounts it. He can reach the lady now, but not the noose. He sighs, steps down again, his movements sluggish and ungainly. He finds a plant stand large enough to hold the chair, dumps the dead plant to the floor, sets the stand on the table. He climbs up, lifts the chair onto the plant stand. But there is not enough room for him now on the plant stand, so he lowers the chair to the table, crawls up on the plant stand, brings the chair up after him. The light in the hallway has been fading, as though losing itself in the dust and webs: it is hard now to see more than a few feet away. Even as he clambers up on the plant stand, the table is disappearing into the gathering dimness below. He hesitates, weaving dizzily, but braces himself, sets the chair on the stand between his legs, and crawls up on it, the whole apparatus rocking dangerously with each movement. He kneels up there for a moment, unable even to open his eyes. Then he does open them and, gazing fixedly at the hanging lady, rises totteringly to his feet. He reaches for the noose. A chair leg wobbles to the edge of the plant stand, tips over. Charlie grabs the woman, his pants falling to his ankles. The chair falls away into nothingness, the plant stand following after. The lady's dress gives way: Charlie slips to her waist; reflexively, he locks his knees around her as well. He can see nothing below him -- nor above him: the balustrade too has vanished into the deepening shadows, the darkness irising in on him like the onset of blindness. He can see only the hanging lady whose ravaged white gown in his desperate grasp is flaking away like pie crust and whose neck is stretching in its noose like stiff taffy. He clings to her, pants adroop, tears in his eyes, shadows creeping over his face like bruises, gazing out into the encircling gloom with a look of anguish and bewilderment, as though to ask: What kind of place is this? Who took the light away? And why is everybody laughing? One Moment While the Operator Changes Reels