‘Elmer Bank’, Emily Capettini

Illustrations © 2012 Laura-Anca Adascalitei



 [ Street, © 2012 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] Elmer Bank had never taken a wife. He maintained that it was not for lack of available women—there were, after all, brothels to satiate a man’s most primal need. It was because he lacked the time, busy as he was. The women with whom Elmer had flirted and attempted to take out to dinner would tell you differently. Sandwiched between clothes and a haircut twenty years out of date was a resourceful and industrious mind, but not one that made enough money to keep a contemporary woman comfortable.

Elmer was very much aware of his unpopularity as he walked down the street, glancing over at the young things striding by on heels that stretched thin their already scrawny legs. Mismatched, thought Elmer, adult shoes on a child’s feet.

One turned and sneered at him, looping an arm through her friend’s as they disappeared around a corner.

“Bank!”

Elmer turned away to see a handsome, lanky man striding his way.

“Douglas.” Elmer had hoped he could sneak off before Douglas clocked out. He sighed and waited for Douglas to catch up.

“How are you, old man?”

Elmer was rewarded with a hearty clap on the back and a firm handshake. Patrick Douglas never skimped on enthusiasm, Elmer noted with some distaste as he covertly wiped his palm on his pant leg. And that was all well and good for those who didn’t bruise easily.

“Not bad, thank you... and yourself?”

“Fantastic, just fantastic.” Douglas slung an arm over Elmer’s shoulders. “What do you say I treat you to a pint, and we discuss my day?”

“Well, I—”

“Splendid!”

And Elmer had no choice but to follow. He wasn’t a fan of Douglas, who was always using words like “splendid” and “pint” and other sheer nonsense only understood in Europe. Douglas liked to talk about himself a great deal, yet he was always the one with women on his arms, no matter the setting—even at his own mother’s funeral for Christ’s sake.

“Never liked the old witch,” Douglas had confided later. “Wouldn’t let me have a puppy as a kid—what kind of mother doesn’t let her only son have a puppy?”

“Did you hear about one of those South American countries?” Douglas interrupted Elmer’s thoughts. “They actually made a truce with their women! A truce between them and us, can you imagine?” Douglas hooted, shaking Elmer.

“Well...” Elmer floundered. “They’ll learn what we did, soon then, won’t they.”

Douglas laughed again. “That’s what I like about you, Bank! Simple, straight shooter!”

Elmer said nothing and allowed himself to be dragged inside the bar. He could use that drink after all.

The women flocked to Douglas from the moment he set foot inside. It was a younger crowd this time of the day, and Elmer knew this was why Douglas wanted a drink. The women, just barely old enough for marriage, hardly glanced at Elmer. His smartly-parted hair glimmered in the dim lighting, and he was sneered at next to Douglas’ kilowatt grin and three-piece Italian suit. The man positively reeked of money and the promise of luxurious living. While Elmer and Douglas didn’t have the same income, Elmer preferred to tuck it away, a sturdy little amount in a sturdy little savings account. As a matter of fact, Douglas would be out of a job, if Elmer weren’t around. Why, just this morning, Elmer had pulled Douglas out of a scrape because the idiot hadn’t bothered to crunch the numbers he’d been assigned. Ruined the paper crane Elmer had been folding when Douglas stormed into his office. “Too busy looking for a missus,” Douglas had claimed. “The boss ought to be proud of me, really, keeping those women in their rightful place! Sowing my wild oats and all that!”

“I’m not sure... does the boss... approve?” Elmer had tried.

Douglas gave him a withering look. “Just crunch the numbers for me, Bank.”

Elmer sighed and returned to the instructions on screen. Some new kind of defense, he assumed, even though the war had been over for some time. There were still rumbles of insurgency in the women-friendly corners of the nation—knitting circles, book clubs, that sort of thing.

Elmer smoothed out the wrinkles where he had crunched the paper in surprise and delicately pulled. The paper crane sprung into shape.

“Origami?”

Elmer jumped. “Oh, hello, Emma.”

“Didn’t think you were much of an artist, Elmer.” Emma was a small woman with dark hair twisted into a bun at the back of her neck, as was standard issue for all female workers. Emma had only been his secretary for around a year—since the war had come to a close—but she moved around the office with an easy grace that Elmer envied.

“It’s nothing.”

Emma had walked forward then and taken the paper crane. “Well, I think it’s lovely.” She toyed with it for a moment, refolding. Emma tugged on both ends, and its wings flapped obediently. “There.” She set the crane down on the desk and placed a cup of coffee next to it. As she reached down to wipe up something, Elmer caught a glimpse of the elegant, tawny lines winding around her wrist and up her forearm, disappearing into her sleeve. It had indicated her rank, once.

“Um. Thank you.”

“Of course, sir,” Emma said with another tight smile. She walked back to her desk with the soft-footed movements of an assassin, the barcode tattooed on the back of her neck grinning at Elmer as she went.

“Bank! Those numbers!”

Elmer set the crane on top of his monitor and, with a smile, went back to work. He didn’t even frown when Douglas barged back in and knocked aside the graceful creature, calling Elmer a useless sentimentalist.

“Bank!” Douglas yelled, snapping Elmer back to the present. “The ladies were just asking me... what do you do with all your money?”

Elmer looked into his drink and waited for the laughter to pass.

He didn’t know what Douglas did with his income, but from what Elmer had seen of his wardrobe and his car, there was probably not much left by the end of the week. Confirmed bachelor was the popular term for it. Imbecile was likely more appropriate. Economical sense was not something Elmer could parade around, wearing it on the sleeve of his thrift-store suit. Women needed someone to support them; their wages were hardly anything to live on, something instituted to keep them more firmly in one place this time around.

Elmer left not long after, driven away by the hordes of women crushing in on Douglas. No wonder they had lost the war, Elmer thought with a grumble, silly things were blinded by a heavily-bleached smile. Mosquitoes to the bug zapper.

The street stretched in front of him, clusters of dimly-lit windows staring down at him. There were movements in the windows and several were open. It was almost the hour of business for this area of town. The sun was low in the sky.

“Lookin’ for company, mister?” the girl called from her window, one pale shoulder peeking out from her leopard-print ensemble, a wolfish glimmer in her eyes.

Elmer shook his head and, with a hunch in his shoulders, scurried further down the street. He ducked through a dank alley, rushing past several other prostitutes. It was foolish of him, Elmer knew, refusing prostitutes when it was commonly accepted and normal to hire their services. There was something about it that unsettled him. The payment part, he supposed, or the barcodes, the way they’d all been categorized and stamped.

“Think of it as a dowry, if you’re that uptight about the whole damned matter,” Douglas had scolded once, when Elmer refused a girl who had approached. “Can’t have love without money, old boy.”

Head spinning, Elmer emerged onto a quieter street, better lit.

Half-priced reprints! proclaimed a smiling advertisement. PAPER WIFE—REDUCE YOUR COST OF CLOTHES—EASY TO USE. PERFORATED, JUST PUNCH OUT AND ENJOY.

A bright arrow beamed at Elmer, pointing to a small building with clean, simple lines. Elmer hesitated a moment. He had never been able to afford one when they were in demand...

The salesman that greeted him was far too eager, far too enthusiastic when gripping Elmer’s hand. He was a short man with thinning hair.

“What can I help you with?”

“I, er... saw your advertisement?” Elmer felt utterly foolish.

The salesman revealed gums lined with yellowing teeth, a broken down amphitheater with no one left to mop up the grime. He directed Elmer to their extensive selection: Blonde, brunette, redhead, tall, short, curvy, thin—any and everything a man could ask for. Reasonably priced, too (never pay for dinner again! said the box).

“Are you looking for someone in particular?”

Elmer glanced over at the salesman, slouched near the almost full shelves of Bottle Blonde. He let his head roll to the side.

“Any... preferences?”

Elmer looked at him again. For a brief, uncomfortable moment, he could see the frayed edges of other people’s fantasies sticking out from the cracks in the salesman’s teeth, collected and ferreted away. Elmer turned back to the wall and blindly grabbed a box from the next shelf.

Raven-haired beauty, it read. Aquamarine eyes, freckled, docile.

The purchase was slipped into an opaque plastic bag and Elmer was wished, rather sarcastically, a good time. So, on that dreary evening, Elmer Bank went home and made himself a wife.

The instructions were flexible, encouraging Elmer to choose the shape best suited to his needs, as well as a hairstyle. However, read the instructions, please be sure to do all editing before total assembly. G.B. Shaw, Inc. is not responsible for any damage done to you, your household, or the product.

Here goes, thought Elmer, brandishing a pair of scissors.

He wasn’t sure what he was looking for as he cut shape and length into the hair. The hard part would be twisting and shaping the tissue paper, fashioning a body type that would support itself and stand up in a slight draft. As Elmer clumsily sculpted the soft paper, he brushed off a growing anxiety. This might have been a very terrible idea.

He needed a drink.

The paper wife was waiting for him when he returned with a tumbler, propped up against the sofa and staring blankly in his direction. Elmer lingered in the doorway, giving it—or her, he supposed—a critical eye. He sipped at his drink. She remained motionless.

You complete idiot, Elmer scolded himself, what did you expect? A welcome?

With a firm clink, Elmer set his empty glass down on the nearest table. He crossed the room, aiming to throw out the packaging and ridiculous female art craft before any of his neighbors saw. As he bent to gather up the remains of the box, something swept close to his ear. Elmer yelped, dropping the box and whipping around.

The paper wife’s head drooped to one side, staring at Elmer with factory-printed eyes. She retracted her arm, turning it bonelessly, and Elmer shuddered. She frowned, crinkling, and reached for him again.

“Stay—stay back!” Elmer snapped, panic bubbling in his stomach.

She swayed forward, feet shuffling, fluttering in a draft from the kitchen. Her arms flowed forward in some kind of gesture. Elmer glanced down and grabbed the owner’s manual lying at his feet. He ducked behind the sofa and flipped it open.

Rule number one with your paper wife: do not panic. Remember, she is your wedded wife, and you must take excellent care of her.

Elmer skipped ahead.

Rule fifty-four: once your wife is awake, she will only be able to speak words that you have taught her. Simply press down the tab located on the back of her right shoulder to record.

Rule fifty-five: be sure your wife knows the connotations of the words. We at Shaw® do not, in any way, promote vulgar conversation in public.

In the back of the manual was a glossary of gestures and signs. Elmer peeked over the back of the couch.

Hello, his wife gestured, how are you, husband? The overhead light illuminated the freckles on her face.

Docile, Elmer told himself, she’s docile, remember. Dociledociledociledocile. Get up. Slowly, now, no sudden movements; don’t want to frighten her. She might tear something, thought Elmer, swallowing a hysterical giggle.

She stared at him blankly, waiting.

“H... hello,” Elmer said.

She crinkled again. Elmer wondered if the folds counted as dimples.

“I, um. I’ve never done this before.” Elmer winced. “I mean! I’ve never paid—no! Well, I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean...

The paper wife continued smiling, and Elmer swore he saw her hide a giggle behind one smooth hand. He clasped the back of his neck; this was not going to plan.

“What’s your name?”

She tilted her head, frowning.

“You... haven’t you got a name?”

She made another arm movement, pointing at the user manual.

Elmer opened it. You are free to name your wife. We at Shaw® know the importance of a name and we encourage you to choose a believable name, suitable to the sort of woman you would bring home to your parents. The use of Internet name generators is acceptable, but discouraged.

“Portia,” Elmer blurted out. “How about Portia?” Then, Elmer reached forward and shakily pressed the tab along the back of her shoulder. “Portia,” he said, slower.

“Portia,” she repeated obediently.

Elmer let out a breath. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad. He reached for the tab again. “Hello.”

“Hello!”

“How are you?”

“How are you!”

Elmer laughed, feeling his hysteria dissipate. His wife grinned at him, and there was an endearing toothy quality to her smile. Elmer found himself cautiously touching her elbow as he taught her phrases.

The front doorbell rang. Elmer froze, panic creeping up along his spine. He glanced wildly about the room, looking for something to hide Portia behind. Elmer flung back the dusty old Oriental rug on the floor.

“Quick!” he blurted, motioning.

The doorbell rang again.

Portia was silent and unmoving. Elmer seized her by her shoulders and swung her around. She looked startled when Elmer knocked her legs out from under her and tugged the rug over her head. Elmer ran to get the door and yanked it open.

“Mrs. Baker!”

“Oh, good, you are home, Elmer!” Mrs. Baker enthused, inviting herself in and shoving a pan of baked goods Elmer’s way. “I saw your car in the driveway, and I had hoped I would get a chance to talk to you. Not very neighborly, the way you’re always rushing inside without even a wave in my direction.” She smiled at him and seemed about to pat his cheek. “Why, you’d think you had something to hide!”

Mrs. Baker smiled pleasantly at the stunned look on Elmer’s face and bustled into the kitchen.

“Oh, don’t mind me, dear. I won’t ask what kinds of defense and weaponry you’re cooking up at that government job of yours.”

Elmer stared after her. He could hear her opening the refrigerator and rooting around inside. Soon, a steady stream of soft thunks drifted down the foyer to where Elmer was standing.

“You really ought to keep an eye on these things.” Mrs. Baker called. “This milk is nearly a week old!”

“Mrs. Baker, you don’t have to—”

“Of course I have to! Who else is going to take care of this? And no buts, you just make sure the vacuum’s brought here so I can vacuum up what you’ve swept under the rugs.”

Elmer bolted from the kitchen, frantically gathering up Portia and the paper wife packing materials. He then ran up to his bedroom and slammed a door behind him. Elmer leaned against the closed door for a long moment, trying to catch his breath. Mrs. Baker was a sweet, neighborly woman who had murdered her no-good husband.

Better find that vacuum for her.

Much calmer, Elmer came down the stairs and fetched what she asked for.

“Here you go, Mrs. Baker.”

“Thank you, Elmer. Now don’t mind me, you just go back to whatever you were doing.” Mrs. Baker pointed at him with the nozzle of her cleaning spray. For a moment, Elmer could see her finger on a trigger, safety released.

Elmer felt the color drain from his face. He smiled weakly.

“Oh, my! Are you sure you’re eating enough, dear? You look as though you may just drop where you’re standing!”

“Yes, I’m... er, fine. Thank you.”

Elmer fled. Again, he sprinted up the stairs and back into his bedroom. Elmer appreciated Mrs. Baker’s good intentions, especially after his parents had passed away when he was hardly out of school, but sometimes... well, it was difficult to forget. Mrs. Baker was one of the women known for kicking off the inital fighting for War of the Sexes. Her husband was a gambling cheat and she, fed up with serving, cooking, cleaning, and hiding her precious little money in a tin can in the basement rafters, had calmly tottered downstairs, retrieved the silver pistol he had been given upon retirement, and disposed of the menace in her life. Reports had piled in after that: lying, cheating, abusive, manipulative—no man was safe!—and as things often do, the sudden outbreak of women not taking it anymore erupted into war.

A long, bloody war. Nearly ten years and the women had stopped at nothing—assassins, secret agents, spies, ambushes, and guerilla warfare were only the humble beginnings to their schemes. A miracle the men had won, really. “Just like ol’ Lafayette and Washington scraping together a country!” Douglas had proclaimed on the day their victory was announced, spilling lager down Elmer’s front. Elmer remembered being impressed; he often forgot that Douglas had had an excellent (and very expensive) education.

Portia crinkled from where Elmer had left her, crumpled on the floor. Elmer hurried over to unfold her, nervous apologies on his lips.

“Sorry. Didn’t want rumors getting started. You wouldn’t believe how things travel around here.”

She made another motion.

Elmer scrambled over to the packaging debris, tearing through the pile until he found the manual again.

Would you like me to make you dinner, husband? she signed with a smile.

Elmer felt more of that hysterical laughter bubble up in his throat. “I shoved you away like a piece of trash and you want to make me dinner?” he paused. “How can you cook? Won’t you incinerate?”

Portia motioned again with a glare, and Elmer paged through the manual.

“Hello,” Portia snapped after a moment.

Elmer looked at her, startled. A giggle slipped out. “I suppose I ought to teach you more words.”

Elmer spent the rest of his afternoon locked up in a room with his paper wife, teaching her phrase after phrase. Were anyone else looking in on them, Elmer would have thought himself insane. Buying a wife was normal enough now. Paper wives had been rare during the war, a marker of status for those rich enough to purchase them, but intended only to be replacements until the real women were brought under control.

Mrs. Baker left, as she always did once she was done cleaning cobwebs from the corners of Elmer’s house, and by the time Elmer noticed life outside of the cozy room, the sky had darkened to a sleepy aubergine.

“We’ll start again tomorrow?”

“Yes, husband.”

Her voice was soothing with a plush undertone. Elmer swept out of the room to prepare for bed with a silly grin plastered on his face.


Portia did not sleep, Elmer realized later, she shut down. It was a practical issue, he supposed. He had a mental image of Douglas switching off his paper wife and stuffing her in the closet to have a night out with the chums.

Nevertheless, Elmer made sure Portia had a place to sleep every night. When he did a little research, he found that she was able to read, and shortly thereafter, he decided to fill her room with bookshelves.

“What are those?” she asked him.

“They’re books,” Elmer replied, as he wrestled a box into the room. “My mother’s, mostly. She was the reader in the family.” He rubbed at his nose. “They’re, um—well, you can’t really buy books like this anymore. These are ones my mother saved before they went electronic.”

Portia tilted her head in a way that still gave Elmer a chill down his spine. Maybe he could talk her out of doing that.

“You want me to start reading, husband?”

“If you want to,” Elmer told her, shelving. “You don’t sleep, so I thought... maybe... and you’re made of paper...” He trailed off, foolishly, and shrugged.

Portia was silent a long moment, and when she spoke again, it was without the affectation with which she had been packaged. “Thank you.”

Embarrassed, Elmer had bidden her goodnight and retreated to his room.


The next morning, Emma entered his office with his morning coffee, hair loose around her shoulders.

“Good morning, sir,” she greeted.

Elmer cleared his throat, looking up from some spreadsheet detailing explosives and their range. “Your hair—”

“Oh, do you like it? I just got it cut,” Emma interrupted with a little smile. “And you’re looking well today, sir.”

“I am?” Elmer blinked.

“Happier,” Emma clarified.

“Ah. Well.”

She leaned against the doorjamb, sweeping her hair behind her shoulders.

It was a breach of strict protocol, Elmer reminded himself. All women were to wear their hair up, smoothed away from their identification numbers. It was a cautionary measure, meant to facilitate recognition scans.

“Found yourself a wife, have you?”

Elmer really should have said something to her, but instead: “I... er, what?”

“A wife,” Emma said again, watching him carefully. “I overheard Mister Douglas going on about it. Says you must have found someone, the way you’ve holed yourself up in your house.”

Elmer could feel the blush curling up from his neck. He should have anticipated Douglas would jump to such a conclusion—just because the man had four spare wives didn’t mean... well, Elmer corrected himself, most other people did. Elmer just wasn’t comfortable with the concept.

Marriage was an outdated practice, dissolved by the government just after the war. Sentimentality, they had said, had no place within a world power such as them. Marriage had been a woman’s domain and anything with that marker would be removed from societal values. Now wife referred to any woman who was content to be persuaded and plied with gifts and money.

“I, uh. That is... no, Emma. No wife.”

Emma’s expression changed, just for a moment, but she had been Elmer’s secretary long enough that he could recognize a shift in her mood.

“Would you mind running these files up to Douglas?”

“Certainly, sir.”

Later, Elmer found a bright blue crane resting on his desk near a fresh cup of coffee.


A week later, Portia came downstairs with a book weighing down her right side. She dropped it on the breakfast table and Elmer jumped at the noise. He peeked out from behind his newspaper, staring at the thick, leather-bound volume Portia had nearly thrown in his eggs.

“You want me to swallow...” and she motioned.

Elmer stared at her. “I beg your pardon?”

Portia made that motion again, the one that said, I don’t know this word.

Elmer felt his face heat and dropped his eyes to the book, half-desperate. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, read the worn-out spine.

Seeing his confused embarrassment, Portia flipped open the book to The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. “In here,” she said, pointing.

Elmer frowned. Why would Portia—

Oh. He motioned Portia forward, depressed the tab on the back of her shoulder and said, very clearly, “Hot. Coals.”

“Hot coals,” Portia repeated. “You want me to swallow hot coals.”

“No!”

“She has my name.”

“But... no, no hot coals.” How to explain this? “I just... gave you a name I liked. That I thought you might like.”

Portia blinked. “You don’t want me to imitate her,” she said slowly, as if making a note to herself about it.

“No! Please.”

Portia nodded.

“There’s another one, you know.” He reached for the book and turned to The Merchant of Venice. “This Portia is... well, she doesn’t kill herself over a man. Maybe you’d like her.”

Portia slipped her hand under the volume and lumbered away, presumably to read.

Elmer returned to his newspaper, resolving to take more care with names next time he had to give one to something that could talk back.


Later that evening, Portia came up to Elmer again, this time without a book. She sat next to him on the sofa and waited patiently for him to finish the work he had brought home with him.

“Something wrong?” Elmer asked.

“I want to learn more.”

Elmer sighed. “I know, but I have to finish this before tomorrow or the boss will have my head.”

Portia pouted and slumped. She reached for a slim volume sitting on the coffee table and slowly flipped through it, her fingers slipping on the pages.

Elmer watched her. “Do you understand all those words?”

“Yes.”

“I have an idea.” Elmer got up from the couch and returned with a dusty roll of duct tape. Portia looked worried, but Elmer tried to give her an encouraging smile as he depressed the tab and taped it into place. Elmer returned to his seat next to Portia to finish up the work that Douglas hadn’t bothered to do while Portia built her vocabulary quickly and efficiently.

Not bad for modern technology, Elmer marveled.


Not long after, Elmer went into work early. His office door was unlocked. He frowned; Elmer was sure he had locked it last night... or was that the night before? He shook his head and went in.

Well, at least there’s nothing valuable in here, Elmer thought with a humorless smile. He set his briefcase down on the desk and was about to unbutton his coat when he spotted something silvery glinting in the low light.

An earring?

Sure enough, it was. Elmer picked it up and placed it on his desk.

“Oh, good morning, sir.” Emma appeared in the doorway with a polite smile. “Is there anything I can get you?”

“Oh, ah, no, Emma,” Elmer replied. He held up the earring. “I don’t suppose this is yours?”

She jumped at the sight of it. “Oh! Where did you find it?”

“Just here, on the floor.”

“Oh, I’ve been looking for it everywhere!” Emma blurted. She pocketed it with a hint of happiness in her usually bland smile. “Thank you.”

Her hair was down again this morning, and Elmer found it easier to watch her return to her desk without a reminder of who she had been during the war.


A few mornings after the name incident, and after Portia had finished reading up on her more flattering namesake, Elmer was making himself some breakfast with Portia watching from a safe distance. The cooking question had never been resolved and Elmer thought it safer to keep her away from open flames. Portia had protested, but when Elmer insisted, she backed down obediently.

The doorbell screeched, piercing their peaceful morning. Elmer glanced over at Portia. He made a motion for her to sit, even as she rose to answer the door.

How odd, this playing hostess. Probably due to that Emily Post nonsense she’s programmed with, Elmer recalled from the manual.

The doorbell rang again.

“Bank, open up! I know you’re there!”

Elmer stopped short, staring at the front door in horror. Douglas? What on earth was he doing here?

“Bank! Come, come, I haven’t all day!”

Elmer unlocked the door and opened it just a crack, peering through the opening. “Good morning, Douglas,” he said with a poorly-concealed frown. “What can I help you with?”

“You can let me in for starters! It’s bloody freezing out here, I’ll have you know.”

“I don’t really—”

But Douglas, taller and broader than Elmer, pushed his way in, shaking unseasonable snow from his overcoat. He raked a glance over Elmer with a bit of a sneer on his face. “You aren’t going in that, are you?”

Elmer glanced down at his clothes, meant for doing work around the house. He blinked. “Going where?”

“To the club! To find you a proper date for this business dinner in a few weeks.”

Ah, Douglas had said something about that as Elmer was leaving work last week, he remembered now. Elmer didn’t think he agreed to such a venture, but that was irrelevant. Protesting was pointless. It was worse than arguing with a stone statue; stone statues didn’t spit.

“Husband?” Portia’s voice slipped from the kitchen.

“What’s this now? ‘Husband,’ eh?” Douglas slapped Elmer on the back in a distinctly “attaboy” manner. “Never thought you one for a bit of vice, old boy!”

“It’s not... what you think.” Elmer protested lamely.

“Oh ho ho, of course it isn’t.” And then Douglas winked.

Elmer was in trouble.

“I’ll just go in and... greet the missus, shall I?” Douglas swept past Elmer, down the short hall to the warm kitchen.

Elmer ran after him, knowing it was useless to try and stop Douglas, but at the very least, he could implement some kind of damage control. He briefly entertained the idea of hitting Douglas over the head with a frying pan once he was in the kitchen and claiming that Portia and everything else was just some insane fantasy. Perhaps Portia had some kind of defense mechanism programmed into her, though likely not. Docile, Elmer reminded himself. Probably just blinks her doe-eyes and that’s the end of it.

“Oh! Well, hello there, young lady!”

“Hello,” Portia replied with a doubtful expression.

Elmer watched surprise flicker across Douglas’ face. Then he grinned. “Ah, one of those classic paper wives, eh, Bank?”

Elmer said nothing and watched Portia.

“So then. What’s your name, dollface?”

“Portia.”

“Portia,” Douglas repeated skeptically with a scowl in Elmer’s direction. “Sounds like your choice of a name, Elmer. What’s that, your friend Shakespeare again?”

“Would you like something to eat or drink?” Portia interrupted.

Douglas turned a charming smile on her. “Do you take rain checks?”

Portia glanced over at Elmer, fluttering in confusion.

“She doesn’t know that word,” Elmer told Douglas shortly.

“She doesn’t know ‘rain check’? What else doesn’t she know?”

“Whatever I haven’t had a chance to teach her yet.”

A new smile crept onto Douglas’ face, one that made Elmer flush in anger. “You get to teach her words? Why, that’s the greatest thing I’ve heard yet!”

An overpowering sense of dread settled over Elmer. He wracked his brain—there must be some way to get Douglas to leave.

“... Bank! Bank, are you even listening?”

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“I asked what you’d already taught her.” Douglas slapped Elmer’s shoulder and shook him. “I have faith in you. Now! Tell me, ‘husband.’”

Oh God, that wink again.

“Douglas, I don’t really have the time,” Elmer snapped, feeling stretched thin and overstressed. Weren’t the paper wives meant to alleviate that, to have a relationship without the stress? “Do you have a reason for being here, or are you just lingering?”

Douglas stared at Elmer. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said—”

“Oh, I bloody well heard what you said! I’ve come to do you a favor, to keep you from moping over that silly little brunette secretary of yours—don’t look so shocked, you really have no sense of discretion, and are you mad, man? You know she was a top assassin during wartime!—and this is the way you treat me? Your only friend?”

Elmer flushed, and a jumble of thoughts tumbled through his brain. Perhaps it was unfair to snap at Douglas—but he was just so overbearing—and Portia—Elmer sighed. He would give Douglas the benefit of the doubt over his good intentions.

“No need for the temper flare. I won’t steal your new toy.”

“Yes, of course,” Elmer replied. “I suppose I’ll go get ready.”

Elmer went up the stairs to find something suitable to wear, digging through his sparse closet. Near the back, tucked under a pair of old sneakers, he found a blue gift box. Elmer vaguely recalled this being given to him at some office party a few years ago; clothing, he remembered. Elmer pulled out the box and opened it.

It’s about time you started dressing up for the country club! My treat, old man. Wear it with confidence.

Of course it was Douglas who had given it to him, Elmer thought with a sigh. Reluctantly, he dressed and returned downstairs.

“Come on, dollface. It’ll be fun,” Douglas’ voice drifted out from the kitchen.

“No thank you,” Portia insisted, and Elmer could hear her feet shifff against the tile floor.

“You want to please your man, don’t you?”

“That is not your business.”

“Believe me, sweetheart, it is my business. Why, before I came along, the old boy was a Prufrock!”

Elmer peeked around the corner. Portia was giving Douglas an appraising look, but a glare lurked in the shaded corners of her eyes.

“You know... in the room, the women come and go—”

Talking of Michelangelo, yes, I’ve read it,” Portia snapped.

Douglas was clearly even more taken aback than Elmer. “Read it? How can you have read it? Someone painted on your eyes!” He floundered for a moment before sputtering, “Or even understood it! A book, the marker of all men’s brilliance! You haven’t even got a brain up there!”

Portia pointed at herself and said, quite firmly, “Paper.”

Douglas gaped. “You mean to tell me there’s some kind of psychic link between species of paper? That you and some book have a connection and understand each other?”

Portia’s frown creased deeper, and her hand crumpled into a fist at her side.

Elmer decided it was a good time to interrupt. He strolled into the kitchen, shooting a suspicious look at Douglas. “Lively conversation you two are having.”

“Er... yes, well, the old girl has some spark in her!”

Elmer glanced at Portia. She smiled warmly.

“I should hope not,” Elmer replied with a smile in return. “She’s made of paper.”

Portia giggled and shuffled away.

Douglas was giving him that look again, a look that seemed to say, whatever has gotten into you, I don’t like it.

“Well, then. Are we ready?”

Douglas turned and silently strode for the door. Elmer followed. He made no attempt at conversation, and they rode in silence until they reached the club.

“She’s a bit too sassy if you ask me,” Douglas said, finally. “A woman you paid for should know her place.”

Elmer shrugged, allowing himself a private smile. He glided in after Douglas, humming happily as they took the scenic route. Douglas paused to greet and charm every well-dressed person they ran into. Sometimes he introduced Elmer, though on occasion, Elmer introduced himself. It made the vein in Douglas’ forehead stick out, Elmer observed with giddy amusement.

They emerged into a lounge area, where several of Douglas’ cohorts were slumped about. Old cigars and empty brandy glasses peppered every flat surface, and smoke hung lazily along the high-vaulted ceiling. After various greetings and several disdainful glances in Elmer’s direction, Douglas held up his arms for their attention.

“Gentlemen, I have some news!” he clapped Elmer’s shoulder with a grin that made Elmer nervous. “Old Bank here has bought himself one of those paper wives.”

“Ah, splendid!” said one.

Another grinned, raising his glass. “Bet you’re having fun.”

“Ran through three of those, I did! Number four’s made of stronger stuff, it seems!”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, you haven’t hear the best part yet.” Douglas paused. “She reads.”

“You don’t say!”

“Why, how quaint.”

“Well, you’ve got to do something. The blasted things aren’t exactly built to withstand what they’re meant for.”

This was a terrible, terrible idea, Elmer thought. How on earth did he get talked into this?

“Did you say you’re on your fourth, Thomas?” Douglas interrupted.

“Oh, yes. They don’t cost much and I just set up the new one in front of ‘James Bondage’ while I’m at work, and by the time I get home, she knows all the words needed.”

“Well, there you are, Bank!” Douglas grinned. “No need to have her read all sorts of outdated nonsense.”

“Ah, and if you’d like her to last—”

“I don’t think—” Elmer cut in.

“Oh come on, old boy, it’s just some friendly advice.”

Elmer opened his mouth to argue otherwise (he was severely doubting any “good intentions” now), but his protest was lost.

“Like I said, if you want her to last, you have to make sure you use protection!” The rest of the men around Thomas murmured in agreement. “Oh, and Elmer, you have to be gentle with her, remember. She isn’t like a normal woman; she won’t heal. Something I’ve learned the hard way, I’m afraid!”

“Oh, ho ho ho! There you go, old boy! It’ll be time that you invested in some glue!”

Elmer, unfortunately, wasn’t quick enough on his feet to be anything other than a part of the crowd. His exit was hardly graceful, but an exit was an exit, and Elmer would take a dumb, stuttering one over remaining in that room any longer.

He took a long walk home, the rapidly-cooling afternoon air calming him. As the walk cleared his head, however, Elmer began to mull over what Douglas and his cohorts had said. Perhaps this wasn’t as smart of an investment as he had originally thought—a little company, that’s all he had wanted. Portia was a piece of paper that was walking, talking, and perhaps not breathing, but she was intelligent enough to realize that herself. Paper! Flimsy paper! And unless he laminated her...

This was a problem. More than a problem. A catastrophe.

Elmer paused by a park bench and, after a moment, sat. There were children playing across from him in the park, kicking a soccer ball back and forth, while a dog ran between them. Elmer tipped his head, watching. He had wanted children when he was younger, but there had been too little time, too much career, and a war with which to contend. And now Portia...

Elmer saw a paper child enter the game, a happy, painted-on smile stretching wide across her face. The other children welcomed her, and she nudged the ball around the circle.

Elmer smiled. Perhaps he was being too pessimistic. Maybe it could work out. Paper wives were catching on, now that they were affordable. Portia wouldn’t be anything new to the neighborhood. Why, she was positively charming. Everyone would adore her and—

The neighbor’s dog had reentered the circle. It barked and bounded for the paper girl. She shrieked happily, playing. The other kids ran over. One yelled for his mother. The little girl’s shrieks grew louder, panicked, and the sounds of ripping paper tore through the beautiful day. A man dashed towards them, presumably the father, and pulled the dog away. The dog yapped playfully, wet scraps of paper stuck to its muzzle. Half of the little girl’s face drifted around Elmer’s feet with wide, blank eyes and a frown torn in two. The face was crumpled and curled in on itself, a jagged rip where her nose should have been.

“Sorry,” said one of the kids as he grabbed the scraps of paper. “Didn’t mean to litter.”

Elmer watched, something twisting in his stomach, as the children laughingly chased scraps of their little friend around the park and then shoved her remains into the nearby recycling bin.

Recycle, reuse, said the bin and it had pictures: newspapers, tin cans, glass bottles and... an outline of a female form.

Elmer felt the bottom drop out of his stomach. He scrambled up from the bench, hurrying home. Elmer raced up the steps and slammed the front door behind him.

“Portia?” he called shakily.

“In the kitchen, husband.”

Elmer tossed his coat to the side and found Portia. She smiled at him from behind the counter and next to her...

“Emma? What on earth—”

“I brought the files you asked for. But you weren’t home and Portia and I started talking...”

“I’m making you dinner!” Portia said brightly. Something chirped and Portia turned. “Oh, there it is.”

“I—dinner?”

Emma had hurried around to the oven as Portia stepped back. Emma wrapped a dishtowel around her hand and pulled out the casserole. Elmer blinked at the pair of them, watching as Portia cleared the bowls into the sink, and Emma went to wash them. Surely he must be imagining this scene.

“Why so shocked, husband?”

“Well... nothing, I guess,” Elmer answered. There was something peculiar here, he felt, but there was no evidence that he should be as suspicious as he was. Odd.

“I invited Emma to stay for dinner.”

“Oh. Wonderful.”

“Is that all right, sir?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” he fidgeted. “and, er... I suppose you ought to be calling me Elmer.”

Emma beamed and turned to carry the heavier things to the table. As Portia set out the silverware, glasses, and plates, Emma turned off the oven and the burners. Elmer watched them work around each other in the kitchen, smiling as Emma smoothly avoided hitting Portia when she stumbled into Emma’s path.

Perhaps the world was on to something with this spare-wives thing, Elmer thought. Having Emma around might mean children after all... but no, this was only dinner.

But wait. It was dinner. Didn’t that usually bode well when a woman cooked for you?

“I hope you’re not thinking about work, Elmer,” Emma said shyly as she placed a tumbler of brandy in front of him. “It’s important to relax during mealtimes.”

“She’s right,” Portia agreed. “Wouldn’t do for you to not be hungry for all this food we’ve made you.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to,” Elmer began, though pleased. His face must have shown it, for both women smiled at him and took their seats at the table in the dining room, which had previously been covered in all kinds of graphs and charts—more work that Douglas had dumped on Elmer.

The food was exquisite, and Elmer took seconds, gulping his brandy.

“This is delicious,” he announced, feeling warm and content. “And the brandy! Where did you girls dig it up?”

“Special recipe,” Emma winked. “Would you like some dessert?”

Elmer, feeling bold, leant over the table and replied with a bit of a leer, “Maybe I ought to give you a hand in the kitchen.”

A strange expression crossed over Emma’s face, but before Elmer could consider it, she had tossed her hair and laughed, almost haughtily. She retreated to the kitchen, and Elmer watched the movement of her hips. He made to get up from the table—

“That’s odd,” Elmer commented. But, it wasn’t commented, so much as... slurred. The ground swam under his feet. He grabbed for the edge of the table, and it slipped in his sweaty grip. “Portia,” he started. “I. Something’s wrong.”

“That’ll be the special recipe, husband.”

“Emma?” Elmer strained to stay upright as the sound of her heels approached.

“I am sorry to do this to you, Elmer.” Emma sighed. “You were one of the more tolerable ones, didn’t even take advantage of the mistress clause in my secretarial contract.”

“Or your poor, helpless wife,” Portia added, coming to stand next to Emma.

“You two—together?” Elmer squeaked.

“Not initially,” Emma told him. “I had originally planned on staging a fire, but then I properly met her. Not quite the model I saw during the war.”

“You shouldn’t have let me read all those books. Why name an obedient paper wife after a woman who uses wit and cleverness to take the power she deserves?” Portia tilted her head. “Didn’t Douglas tell you how we learned women are dangerous?”

“You even let her see your research and calculations, leaving them carelessly about for anyone to take. Awfully nice of you to let us see the prototype weapons before they can be used against us.”

Elmer’s knees shook and ached. “How... Portia, how... I thought you...” His legs gave out, and Elmer sank to his knees. His thoughts splashed and blended together. Portia, a woman who infiltrated a man’s world and turned the tables in her favor.

Portia, Elmer’s head spun as he stared up at his paper wife. Should have gone with the hot coals bit after all, he thought.

I never did repent for doing good, nor shall not now.” Portia smiled fondly. “Goodbye, husband, thank you for the books.”

 [ Special recipe, © 2012 Laura-Anca Adascalitei ] “We won’t kill you,” Emma soothed. “And Douglas won’t even blink when you tell him two guerilla fighters got the better of you.”

“We do like you, you know,” Portia added.

“In another time, things may have worked out.” Emma bent, and her lips swept against his cheek. “War has never been a good time for happy endings.”

Elmer scrambled for something, anything. “But... you won’t be able to read them—the charts—they’re in code—”

Portia’s hand stuck to his sweaty cheek. Elmer focused on her face, fighting for consciousness. Her mouth curled and she said one word before Elmer lost the battle—and possibly, the war:

Paper.”


© 2012, Emily Capettini

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