Mrs. Rahlo's Closet and Other Mad Tales


By R.E. Klein

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Mrs. Rahlo’s Closet: It was a simple request, really. All the aged landlady asked of the young medical student who rented a room in her decaying home was to refrain from opening the closet door. Yes, a simple request. And an impossible one . . .




A s kids, we played Bashball and Dogdance, Vaudrigo and King-Happy, Pontoon Bridge and Cowpants. These were indoor sports, performed in isolated groups, usually one girl pitted against one of us boys, though I have heard of two or more girls "ganging up" on one boy.

The girls I knew were creative and uninhibited, especially Nancy Yellen, who initiated the games one day after an experience with a baby-sitter named Estrelita. Older than the rest of us—say twelve or thirteen—Nancy introduced us smaller boys to the perilous pleasures of Lick-thigh; it was what she wore, though, as well as what she wielded, that provided the excitement of the thing. I've never forgotten Nancy.

Similarly, Brenda Epcott reigned the specialist in Over-the-Bathtub—but these were rudimentary; it was the other games that developed in time—Bashball, Dogdance, Vaudrigo, King-Happy, Pontoon Bridge, and, eventually Cowpants—that give my life its coloring, so to speak.

The games went on long after Nancy's baby-sitter left town following an animated lesson in Under-My-Bedsheet. In time, the other boys dropped out to take up football, and I had the girls all to myself. Life was wonderful for me—Herbie. I had math at school, good programs over the radio, the matinee on Saturday. But the games were what I lived for.

The games ended in our adolescent years. The girls who titillated my childhood either moved away or affected to outgrow the old games, dismissing them as "juvenile." Life dwindled to dullness. These were the days of corsages and ponytails and sock hops. (I went to one sock hop because of the name; I thought it would be, well, like Dogdance. I never went to another.) I supposed there would never be another girl who relished the good old games.

I was nineteen when I met Roseanne. It was at the library, of all places. I was amusing myself one afternoon by looking into Krafft-Ebing. Roseanne sat in the same section, copying passages from Sacher-Masoch. She was a large creature, with ample everything. I could tell she meant no good by the tight, short dress she wore, and by the defiant way she peered at me, her eyes predatory with mascara. She spoke as if from some forbidden part of her body.

"Hold my books," she ordered. From the way she said it one could have substituted any number of interesting alternative nouns.

Of course she had to be obeyed; that was the way of the old games, especially Vaudrigo. To refuse was to graduate to the more challenging complexities of King-Happy and, eventually, if the inspiration proved constant, to soar to the raptures of Pontoon Bridge. But we were in the library.

I sank my teeth into the cover of her book. My heart raced. Could she know the games, her a stranger who had not grown up in our close and clannish neighborhood? Eagerly, I put my lips to her ear, licked the lobe briefly, and whispered, "Cowpants?"

Her reply was more succinct than the words I use to convey it. Basically, she said it was forbidden to name such secrets aloud, and that she was very angry and intended to give me something that would indelibly impress upon me the necessary amount of smarting consequent to such precipitant speech. We walked over to her house and played Cowpants till my trousers barely fit over the swelling. It was wonderful.

I saw Roseanne a lot after that; each time the welts began to heal, the vision of her standing erect with arched brow and amused smile haunted me unmercifully, till I crept around once more to lick her doorknob, impatient for those wonderful games. She never would tell me where she learned them. I wondered if she, too, along with Nancy Yellen, had been babysat by Estrelita. Roseanne. I would still be with her, perhaps even have married her, had she not died.

It happened this way.

As a birthday present I gave her a volume of Tolstoi, at that time my favorite author. At first she demurred over the main story, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," saying she probably wouldn't read it. The next time I saw her, she talked of little else, saying she was on her second reading and contemplating a third. "It suggests dark and dreamy possibilities," she whispered.

A few days later, on a rainy afternoon, I found her in bed with a volume of Keats. She barely gave me a frown, even after I polished her high-heeled boots. She just lay there reading over and over a line from the "Ode to a Nightingale," not the good part about the "magic casements," but that eerie stuff about being "half in love with easeful death." She made me recite it unremittingly. I derived little satisfaction from the experience, even though she had me bending over a chair at the time.

"Care for a hand of Dogdance?" I asked innocently.

"I crave a more stimulating diversion," she mused, "darker and sweeter." She paused to inspect her net stockings. "Emily Dickinson," she suddenly commanded. "There, on the shelf; bring it to me. Poem number two-eighty." It was the one beginning, "I felt a funeral in my brain." From this we passed to "I heard a fly buzz when I died." After this came Gray's "Elegy."

"Mistress," I cried, "would you not prefer a love story, or perhaps a song of mirth?" She flicked me with the business end of what she was playing with in her hands.

"'Thanatopsis,'" she rapped. "Hurry."

Weeks passed. The games forgotten, I crouched beside her for many a session, reading her favorite death poems while she moaned joyfully about "ecstasies of intolerable pain." Forgotten were the flail, the towel, the shovel, while the crowbar slowly rusted by the bathroom sink. I wasn't present when she took the poison. The newspapers called her the happiest-looking corpse on record. She was happy, all right, but I had no one to play with.

Life dragged wearily by. I got a job stuffing newspapers for the local Times dealer, uninteresting work that paid little. Television had come in now, radio demoted to a purveyor of dance music. The movies, too, declined. I took up chess.

It was on the beach, by one of those warped wooden tables with permanently mounted chessboards, that I first saw Gabrielle. All I saw at first was a thighful of bulging white flesh escaping from a metallic blue swimsuit. I glanced up from my Ruy Lopez opening to behold a broad bland face framed in long frizzy blond hair. Gabrielle was one of those German Bierfrau types fresh from the farmlands. Her amused, aloof expression left no doubt that she preferred other matters to chess.

I outraged my opponent by immediately conceding the game in order to pursue her. She turned her back on me and swaggered toward the ocean. I followed close behind. When she was mere yards from the wet sand she turned suddenly.

"I spread this big towel on the ground," she said—her accent smacking of the Wehrmacht—"and will lie on my stomach. You will take this plastic bottle of tanning cream and spread the soft cream on my legs."

Few beginnings were so promising. I found much surface over which to apply the cream and made a thorough and good job of it. When I had finished she readjusted her position, so that she now reclined upon her back.

"It is well for you that you spread the lotion evenly on the backs of my bare thighs; otherwise, I would have been angry. Now, if you are sufficiently humble, you may apply more lotion to the front of my shapely thighs."

It was almost more than my excited juices could bear—after all, we were on a public beach. But I did it, more efficiently, I think, than I had done the other side. By now my fluids had assumed the state that in heating water is known as "crabfroth," e.g., the point just before the boil, when the water begins to resemble a miniature maelstrom. I could stand it no longer. Bending my lips very close to her ear, I whispered the word:


Her brow wrinkled with contempt; then it relaxed. She seemed for a moment to chew the word, gurgitating it, bringing it up. Her brow began to work again, her cold blue eyes to narrow. Then, in a moment, her manner changed; a slow, cold smile animated her lips.

"Ah," she said. "Die Ku-u-u-h-hose." I began to wonder then if Estrelita had invented the games after all. Well, they were all there—der Hundetanz, der Knallball, die Königsfröhlichkeit, Vaudrigo (untranslatable into any language), and die Pontonbrücke. Oh, times were merry in Gabrielle's parlor. We had the music of Kurt Weil, the sketches of George Grosz, and, best of all, those wonderful games. Gabrielle asked me once how I discovered them, and I told her from Nancy's baby-sitter Estrelita. She laughed and said she had met Estrelita in Germany, and learned from her also. I told Gabrielle not to tease.

This idyll persisted for most of a year, until Gabrielle began to introduce new games. Some were odd. There was, for example, Apehead and the Ballerina, a curious amusement. Sometimes I got to play Apehead. After a while she took to substituting her experimental innovations for the games I loved. Eventually she abandoned the old games altogether, protesting they were "insufficient," and sought out more demanding diversions.

I made halfhearted attempts at first because I loved her—getting through Knee-Kick and Rugburn without much physical damage—but when it came to Branding Iron my refusal was complete.

"Then Skinsplit," she argued; "we play Skinsplit instead." So strongly burned my love for her that I lost two days of work. The very day after my recovery she had me over her dining-room table in a roaring match of Slip-My-Disc. I missed three more days of work.

The progression continued unabated, each successive game improving in mayhem. Still, she would smack her lips after each bout, contract her brow and ingest, chew and then regurgitate what had become her favorite word. "Insufficient!"

The last night I saw her, Gabrielle wore the same outfit I first saw her in at the beach: a banquet of flesh emerging from a metallic blue swimsuit. Both of us stood in her bathtub. Her big blond face blushed beams and smiles as she separated me from the tweed suit I had on.

"Herbie, kleines Bubchen," she purred. "I know at last what is . . . sufficient." She left momentarily for the bedroom in order to hang my garments on the coat hanger we formerly used for more romantic purposes. Familiar with her inventions, I did not think it strange when she reappeared a few minutes later wearing a fireman's suit and one of those opera helmets with horns stuck on either side. She concealed something behind her back.

"Happy surprise." She laughed. "See!" and brought forth a gasoline can. "Is sufficient!"

I did not wait for her to light the match, and barely caught her anguished cry as I raced for the bedroom, grabbed for my clothes, and went sailing into the street.

"It was good enough for Wotan!" she wailed petulantly.

So Gabrielle was gone along with her so-called games. She never played the real ones, anyway, except at first—I mean the ones I doted on. Too bad. I think she loved me a lot.

There I was, without a game, without a girl. The nineteen sixties had come upon us; if the girls had improved with their miniskirts, they had retrogressed in their stockings, for they didn't wear any but disfigured their once grand gams with panty hose.

I worked now in the shipping and receiving department of an electrical parts supply house. I was in my late twenties and found feminine consolation only in the garment sections of the mail-order catalogs. There had been one or two attempts at establishing associations with pretty girls, but whenever I broached the subject of the delectable games, the girls proclaimed outrage and disgust, particularly on the first date.

Then, for the first time, I fell totally in love without a thought of garter or lash.

Her name was Angelica, and she was slim and blond and willowy and wore white that first night I saw her in the park. It was during a band concert, and the moon's white rays lit her delicately like a muted spotlight as she sat in her folding chair, listening to Verdi. By good fortune the chair next to her was vacant, and it was only a matter of moments before I engaged her in playful badinage.

Oh, she was wide-eyed and moon-sweet as, in my nervousness, I very nearly spoiled things by asking if she were dominant or submissive. She giggled uncontrollably when, apropos of nothing, I dilated on the virtues of a hard leather strap; then I took hold of myself, and it was all innocent and playful as we chatted and giggled and rustled our programs there in the moonlight, while the band played soft strains from Traviata. We stopped for ice cream after the concert, and I walked her home—though we were too shy to kiss good night.

The next few nights with Angelica, an invitation for Pontoon Bridge from the Women's Army Corps could not have deflected me from my seraphic thoughts. I would not have traded them a moment, not even for a champagne enema.

Angelica was the first girl ever to call me by my real name.

"Herbert," she would say, "come sit by me and whisper the secret stirrings of your heart." And we would coo together through perfumed nights as the stars sang overhead.

It was likewise Angelica who expressed dissatisfaction with my career in shipping and receiving and suggested I go to college to study statistical analysis. Thus fate does shape our fortunes. Sometimes I indulged in the feverish speculation that Angelica could be apprised of the games and in time could take an interest in them. If only I could have both Angelica and the games. But I could picture her childlike brow wrinkle as she sought to understand, then the doelike eyes opened wide in horrified disbelief, finally the curled lip of contempt. No, it was Angelica or the rapturous games. I chose Angelica.

It was during an early-afternoon visit to the community playground, as we watched the children playing soccer, that Angelica delicately proposed that we take up sports.

I suggested croquet. Well, we played a few rounds of that, but far from expressing pleasure she only shook her head and smiled sweetly and requested something more challenging. We tried badminton a few days later, and then tennis and finally basketball. But after each session she would only smile sweetly and shake her head and propose still more rigorous sports. In the weeks that followed, in Browning's words, "all smiles stopped together." In desperation I turned to tackle football: she was cold; to kick boxing: she was contemptuous.

The one innocent romance of my life, I told my sympathetic pillow, as I wept alone through arid nights, is a girl to whom the world is a decathlon.

Well, Angelica left me; that was all. She had somehow learned of my lifelong infatuation, I told myself, and tried to wean me from it with wholesome sports. And I had let her down. I turned more determinedly to my studies of statistical analysis and wept for the innocence that was nearly mine.

I took my degree the day before the letter came.


I am marrying one who can gratify the delicious imperative that has obsessed my life. From your remarks at our first meeting I throbbed with the expectation that it consumed you, too. I was misinformed. When I proposed we take up sports, you spitefully and contemptuously suggested croquet!

Herbert, you knew all the time what I wanted. Oh, if you had condescended to play Cowpants only once a week, I would have been yours forever!

She who was yours, but is now another's,


The next years I spent between the leaves of scholarly books or in compiling lecture notes. I was a professor now of statistical analysis, and published articles in learned journals, with now and then a textbook that few cared to read. Oh, the girls still ran in my thoughts, the girls and the games. The likeliest partners were my students, but I learned a lesson early on. Girls involved in statistical analysis seldom take an interest in Dogdance.

I am well into middle age; the once fertile scalp that sometime sprouted bumper crops is shiny now and fallow. My eyebrows are become a profusion of grotesque wires. My stomach bulges convex. I am lost without my reading glasses. Yet I am happy without let or measure, for I at last have found her.

It happened six years ago on campus. The students had got up some sort of festival in honor of Cinco de Mayo


On Sale
Jul 15, 2001
Page Count
272 pages