The colossal C.O.D. swindle
WARNING TO HUSBANDS
JOHN I. KEASLER
J. HORACE VAN VELAY, a small, well-pressed man of past middle age, with trusting blue eyes and an unobtrusive mustache, lived quietly in a suburb of Winnipeg with his wife, Katherine, and the neighbors regarded him as a retired broker. Consequently it was by dint of great moral stamina that Horace refrained, when pressed, from giving his neighbors advice in financial matters. He was retired, all right, in a manner of speaking. He was a retired confidence man.
He and Katherine had moved to this locale, where they were strangers, a couple of years previously, to embrace respectability. The past lay buried—they fervently hoped—in various files of various bunco squad filing cabinets in various cities. He had met Katherine many years ago, while they were both selling stock —on a good grade of bond paper—in the same rather nonexistent oil company.
They were compatible. They married. Together they had labored. They accrued a goodly nest egg, but in the latter stages of their careers they had agreed they were becoming dangerously dated—the old flamboyant methods were passing. Thievery was becoming more legal, and a lot of the fun was gone.
When Horace narrowly missed taking a one-to-five-year fall in Montreal, where he was assiduously selling uranium mining rights to some land he had neglected to purchase, they gave it all up. (They could afford to—he had sold a great deal of the land.)
So now they clung to respectability on the prairies, and if Horace found it dull he nevertheless saw the wisdom of it. If he itched when the fat marks lay temptingly around him, then he simply refused to scratch.
Then he was seized with his great idea, the idea we will duly
note. It happened on a Friday. Friday was the day Katherine went shopping each week, and to her club. In her retirement she belonged to a club and did good works. Friday was the day Horace was left alone to take care of the house.
“Be sure and pay the egg man if he comes,” Katherine said on this particular Friday as she went out the front door.
“Yes, dear,” said Horace, and lay back on the sofa, nipping at a glass of rather good rye he had won in a rigged bet with his next-door neighbor, a captain of industry.
He lay on the sofa and he thought of the salad days. He was nostalgic today. He sighed. Retirement, as always, palled on him, and he thought of the treadmill turn of his prosaic life. Practically the only fun he had any more was thumb-nailing the aces in the poker game down at the firehouse. What I need in my retirement, pondered Horace, is a hobby.
A knock sounded at the front door and Horace opened it. He found himself facing a dull-eyed individual wearing a deliveryman’s costume. The deliveryman said wearily, “I put the grass seed in the garage with the gladioli bulbs.”
“Huh?” said Horace. “I beg your pardon?”
“That’ll be seven-eighty, counting the hose nozzle,” the man said.
“Oh,” said Horace, paying the man, “Oh yes. Hose nozzle.” The things that go on around this house, he thought, as he went back to the sofa. During the afternoon he was interrupted by a man who brought a C.O.D. order, a man who brought an unexplained box of light bulbs from the hardware store—Katherine liked to have a lot of light bulbs—and the egg man.
About three o’clock the florid-faced man came to the door.
/ do wish Katherine would come home, Horace thought, like untold numbers of husbands before him.
“I am your Friendly Flavors representative,” the florid-faced man boomed, unloading merchandise into Horace’s unresisting hands. “Little lady out for the day, eh? Well, tell her I’ll bring the thyme next week. That’ll be five-eighty, and here’s your new book of Stampie-Savies. Do you know if she wants the ivory napkin rings?”
“Er,” said Horace. “Ivory napkin rings. You better ask her, I guess.”
As the man left, Horace stood there staring blankly. He held a large tin of coffee, the economy-size flagon of vanilla extract, various spices rare and exotic and what the man had explained was a Friendly Flavors premium -the Akmi-Dandee Nutmeg Grinder.
What a strange realm of business and commerce goes on to make up this household, Horace mused confusedly -and his mind stirred convulsively.
He stood there shaken with the enormity of his vision. He saw a nation of husbands completely docile, and unknowing under the never-ceasing onslaught of the men who come to the door !
He was transfixed at the thought of immense hordes of husbands like himself, who didn’t know which end was up when it came to what went on in their own homes—but who would fight to the bitter end before admitting this to a deliveryman, the stranger who brings the hose nozzle, the wall mirror, the thyme. (Thyme?)
He thought of these husbands, the great blank-eyed tribe that accepted, limply and without questioning, grass seed, C.O.D. orders, literally anything from the men who come to the door and J. Horace van Velay, a man with a vision, was a man obsessed.
He would be a man who comes to the door . . .
DURING the time Horace was busy transforming himself into a man who comes to the door he was happier than he had been since the old days.
Let us understand it was not solely a latent, thirsty larceny in his breast
that brought about his decision. It was the inability of the scientist to resist experiment. Even more, it was the soul of the artist, the creative worker stricken with a beautiful concept, an idea of such beautiful simplicity that the execution was irresistible. It was the old firehorse hearing the fire gong; the craftsman faced with a job, the challenge of new frontiers to the explorer. Besides he needed a hobby.
He didn’t tell Katherine of his vision, as he worked his route up, slowly, over the weeks. It would serve no purpose to tell her—she would disapprove, he was certain. She would think he had become a backslider, she would find it hard to believe he was simply conducting a great experiment as his hobby.
Of course, he amended, the experiment must show a slight profit or it would not be the real thing. This is why he busied himself purchasing items to take to the doors.
He made up a list, after a great deal of thought, of things which would be the most liable to come to the door, things the average wife might have sent out. He started with five items, chosen on the basis of his own experience.
1. Pepper mills shaped like animals.
2. Unbelievable hats for women.
3. Chafing dishes.
4. Odd-shaped bowls with no purpose.
5. Plant food. (Enriched.)
He thought of hose nozzles but discarded this because of the obvious low price, and the resultant small markup. The others, however, were perfect in all respects—they were compact and could be placed in the cardboard boxes he purchased; they were confusing; they were exactly what any husband thought bis wife spent her time buying, and they were vague in value and could be priced to individual situations.
He purchased these items as cheaply as possible and concealed them beneath the seat of the family station wagon —hid them in the rear of the garage until time to start his route. Working up the actual route turned out to be easier than he had anticipated.
This consisted of driving completely across the city to points where he was entirely unknown and ascertaining the day off from work of a few husbands at a few definite addresses. He did this through various means, involving mostly a little leg-work, striking up casual conversations in various barber shops where he got shaved, and simply listening. In what seemed like no time he had the addresses of ten houses where the husbands could reasonably be expected to have been left alone while their wives went out to spend their incomes.
To obtain more than a dozen names, Horace felt, would have been both unnecessary and unsporting. These husbands were simply for the test run —afterward, Horace was sure, it would all boil down to a matter of observation and instinct, both of which he was laden with.
“Dee deedle dee dum, dee deedle dee dum," Horace sang one evening before supper as he walked out into the kitchen where Katherine was compounding a casserole. He did a short buck and wing.
“Horace,” Katherine said suspiciously. “What have you been up to? Why have you been so happy these past few weeks?”
“Why, my dear,” said Horace, kissing her on the cheek. “Whatever are you talking about?”
“I don’t know, you’ve been acting funny, so happy and all,” said his wife, eyeing him sternly. “Tell me honestly, dear, are you stealing something from somebody?”
“I’m shocked,” said Horace. “Utterly shocked.”
He was so happy, that particular evening, because he had been in the bedroom trying on his deliveryman’s costume and it looked wonderful. Simple, functional. Horace had purchased a peaked cap, and one of those almost-uniform jackets which deliverymen wear. He bought a black tie.
By a stroke of great good fortune he found just the cap badge he had in mind. It was a large, copper-colored badge with the number ‘18’ stamped
impressively, if rather senselessly, on it. He pinned the badge on the cap. He surveyed himself in the mirror. He knocked on the mirror; stood there, bored and impatient, holding his package. Perfect, he thought.
Oops, he said to himself. I really must get one of those large metalbound books deliverymen write those mysterious things on. I’ll do that first thing in the morning. (And a pocketful of pencils, he added.)
For tomorrow was the great day; the day he started going to the doors . . .
HORACE waved good-by to Katherine—he’d told her he was going downtown, and might go to a movie later—as he backed the station wagon down the drive that afternoon. He drove down to a secluded spot in the park and, choosing a stencil from one of several he had cut, he lettered GRINDLE’S, LTD. on the stationwagon door. He donned his cap and jacket and black tie and drove across town to 888 Maple Drive where one R. L. Poobly, a certified public accountant, was sitting around the house waiting for his wife to come home from her club, and taking cat naps in the process.
Horace rapped on the door, and soon Mr. Poobly appeared, sleepy-eyed. “Grindle’s,” Horace snarled. “Hmpf,” Mr. Poobly said, rubbing his eyes. “Grindle’s.”
“C.O.D. six-forty,” Horace said, shoving a box at Mr. Poobly and writing a receipt in his metal-bound book.
“Yes,” said Mr. Poobly. “Grindle’s. Six-forty. Thanks.”
Horace pocketed the money, and, as Mr. Poobly stumbled back to his sofa, carrying his packaged pepper mill shaped like a Kodiak bear, Horace walked down to his station wagon, whistling. He delivered a hat to a Mr. Grantham, at 1623 Mockingbird Lane, and a box of plant food (enriched) to a Bertram Miller, who was taking down the storm windows at 2914 Circle Drive.
At 3422 Bronson Boulevard he noted in time that Mrs. Arthur O’Gleason hadn’t gone out after all, and kept driving. By three-thirty or so, he felt he had done enough route work for the day and totaled his collections. He had fifty-three dollars and eighty-nine cents. His outlay for the delivered items, including cost of the cardboard boxes, had been eight dollars. He was not a greedy man, and this was, after all, merely a hobby. He quit for the day.
(In only one case had the husband opened the box to see what was costing him five-ninety-eight. It was a bowl with no apparent purpose. The husband, a personnel supervisor, shook his head and exchanged a sympathetic look with Horace. He said, “Why do they buy these damn things?” Horace said it beat him. They parted friends.)
“How was the movie?” Katherine asked, as he drove back into the drive, after stopping by the park to rub the painted GRINDLE’S, LTD. off, and to hide his uniform under the seat.
“Fascinating!” said Horace, exuberantly. “A touching commentary on contemporary times. It renewed my faith in human nature.”
“Would you go down to the store and get me a box of vacuum-cleaner bags?” asked Katherine. “The Hodson Products man didn’t come today.” “Delighted,” said Horace. Everything delighted him today. He had found the touchstone; he was back in the saddle, he was that happiest of all mortals, a retired man with an interesting hobby.
It would prove too technical to chronicle the improvements J. Horace van Velay made in his hobby over the next few weeks—in no time at all he was prepared for any eventuality, up to and including the appearance of an unexpected wife at a door. (He would give her a handbill advertising a white sale.)
He stopped laying extensive groundwork to isolate husbands left alone
it was too much like shooting fish. He got them on the wing, for he came to the point where he could, with a high degree of accuracy, merely sense the presence of a lone husband in a certain house. Many hunters are familiar with this sensation—a tangible thing, an uncanny facility which allows one to pass up a dozen clumps of underbrush, then stand poised before the one that contains the only grouse in the field.
Anyhow, the weather was getting warmer and folks spent more time outside—happy was the day when Horace, his every sense tingling, could deliver a package to a husband on the front porch while the wife was in plain view in the back yard.
He wondered, but had no means of finding out, what the reaction was when wives came home and found, say, an unexplained, paid-for chafing dish. He suspected strongly there was very little reaction; that such items were accepted, like manna, or that the wives thought dimly that maybe they really did order it. (Anyhow, they had needed one. )
The greatest problem faced by Horace was not in the technical aspects of his delivery route. Far from it. As a matter of fact, things got so simple bordering on boredomthat occasionally he went back to a former customer and delivered a second pepper mill to the same husband.
Or, if a husband appeared adequately blank, or showed his absolute unawareness of domestic affairs by a certain belligerence, Horace would merely present him with a bill for four dollars and sixty-three cents and not give him any package at all. So, then, what was Horace’s problem?
A universal one—the inability to let well enough alone; the overconfidence which comes with even a modicum of success. Horace became badly overconfident. This led to a drop in his guard, a lack of observation and, consequently, the end of his story.
IT HAPPENED on a Saturday.
Saturday was always a good day. Horace was driving down Elm Street, eyeing the houses and thinking granrl thoughts. Being a creative man, he prided himself on his originality. That is the thing to remember.
For quite a while he had been resisting the yearning to expand. Big ideas were coming to him. By proper choosing of employees, he was sure, he could branch out he could hire route men to cover other territories.
“1 could even grow to having regional offices,” Horace thought this afternoon, as he drove along. “Brandon, Regina, Saskatoon—there’s no limit.”
He applied brakes sharply as he saw an undershirted man, pushing a lawn mower, bid farewell to his wife who was striding down the front walk, dressed for shopping. Fie let her round the corner.
“Nonesuch Products,’’ Horace barked at the husband. He had adopted the name this very morning, being in a whimsical mood. “Here’s your package. That’s eight-fifty-four.”
11 was somewhat of a shock when the two men clasped his arms as he opened his station-wagon door. His heart sank. Bunco-squad boys. He knew the breed, too well.
“Let’s go downtown,” said one of
the plain-clothes men, a Sgt. Beevil, in a weary tone. “We got you cold, buster—we been following you for hours. I wouldn’t have believed it, I really wouldn’t have believed it.”
In the police car, Horace sat aloofly, silently, on the way to the station.
“What’s the charge?” he demanded, at the desk.
“Well,” said Sgt. Beevil, “we’re having a little trouble on that right at the moment. We’ll think of something.”
They booked him for investigation and they put him in the holdover cell. Sgt. Beevil shook his head as he watched the small deliveryman with the trusting blue eyes being led away.
Sgt. Beevil went to the telephone and called his wife.
He cupped the mouthpiece, and he said, “Honey, listen. Last Saturday afternoon while you were shopping some fellow brought a box to the door and I paid him six bucks and it was a bonbon dish. I put it on the sink. Did you really order that? You did?” Sgt. Beevil’s eyes grew alarmed as the voice on the phone became angry, strident. He said rapidly, “No dear. No, I didn’t mean that at all. Of course you have a perfect right, dear. Yes, I know it was a bargain. I just wondered, that’s all. That’s right, honey. Listen honey, I—listen honey, I — listen. Listen . . .”
And so back to durance somewhat vile came J. Horace van Velay, and as he sat in the holdover while the cogs of justice whirled and they finally decided what official types of larceny to charge him with, he wondered and he puzzled. How did they single him out from all other men who come to the door?
He couldn’t figure it out. He hadn’t figured it out when Katherine came down to go his bond. She eyed her husband as he walked from his cell.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said, and he was -sorry that his great and original idea had been nipped so cruelly. He had to know the cause. Fie turned to Sgt. Beevil and asked, “Who tipped you? Who fingered me? I must know.” “Anonymous caller,” said Sgt. Beevil. “He said he recognized you as a customer of his. He said he had delivered things to your house, and recognized you when you brought a pepper mill to his house.”
11 How ironic," Horace breathed, and it was. He had proved, repeatedly, that nobody ever remembers what a deliveryman looks like and sure enough, he hadn’t known one of his own deliverymen.
“He said to tell you he was your Friendly F’lavors man,” said Sgt. Beevil. “That mean anything to you?” “He’s that fellow you order all that stuff from,” Horace muttered to his wife.
She looked at him and said, “Who?” “Your F’riendly Flavors man,” Horace said, impatiently. “He brings your herbs and stuff on alternate Fridays. You know.”
“I wondered why you were buying all that thyme and vanilla,” said Katherine. “Why, 1 never heard of a Friendly Flavors man in my life . . .” J. Horace van Velay and Sgt. Beevil, two husbands of a great tribe, looked at each other and they paled, as the terrible thought dawned. What vast plan lay behind these men who came to the door, what far-flung syndicate was Horace, a small businessman, trying to buck? They looked at each other and they were sad, for a great faith had been shattered. Never again could they answer the knock, which sounds like a drum over the land, and meet the man there with childlike faith. F'or who knows from whence he really came? Who, indeed ... ? 9c