My community was understandably on edge. The news had come through the neighborhood pipeline of yentas and gossips that Mr. Gorney, the mild-mannered sales associate who lived at the end of the block, was dead.
We congregated at the edge of his property, curious, afraid for ourselves, steeped in speculation as the medics and police went in and out of the house. We wanted to know how he died so we could figure out if the rest of us were in danger. The possibilities were endless. A burglary gone bad. Random killing by ruthless maniac. Family fight gone out of control. A disease, possibly transmittable. Was it just an accident? Who was Mr. Gorney? Did he lead a high-risk lifestyle? Was it just bad luck? Did he have it coming? What was the appropriate level of dread and terror that the rest of us should harbor, and how long should we harbor it?
The word came around that he had hanged himself. Suicide. We relaxed, collectively, our postures going all loose and casual. Some people cracked a few jokes. We were safe, or so we thought. Then Mrs. Drago, the most feared busybody in the pit of our quiet residential swath demanded to know what the poor fellow had used to hang himself with. We all paused.
“Some type of fabric, I guess,” said our retired cop neighbor who had friends on the inside.
“What type of fabric, specifically?”
“I can’t say.”
“Can’t, or won’t?” she demanded. The force of Mrs. Drago’s question, almost an accusation, quieted us down. We wondered why it mattered.
“Probably just some bungee, or a hemp rope?” someone offered.
“A piece of silk or velveteen? A leather belt?” said someone else.
“A rubber tube? A canvas strap? An extension cord? The possibilities are endless.”
“I always knew this guy was no good,” said Mrs. Drago. “With a name like Gorney.”
I wondered what was wrong with the name Gorney. I supposed it sounded too much like horny, or thorny, or porny, even though I didn’t think porny was actually a word but it sounded close enough to something lewd. He was an affable neighbor, friendly from a distance. We all came to the conclusion that nobody had ever really spoken to him. Even so I could feel people turning on him, Mr. Gorney, this familiar yet unknown man of secrets, waving amiably from his driveway while harboring inner demons, exposing our quiet suburb as a shiny patina of desperation and death.
“When a man is hanged it almost always produces an erection,” said one of my neighbors for lack of anything better to add, or maybe to lighten the mood. “Something to do with the stanched blood flow.”
“What type of fabric did he use?” demanded Mrs. Drago. “To hang himself.”
“I think it was some type of sheer fabric,” said the ex-cop.
“Kind of embarrassing, a dead man and a live erection,” someone offered.
“He is avoiding the question,” said Mrs. Drago.
“A lightweight cotton cloth of sorts.”
“Why won’t you say it?”
“What’s it called again,” he said, fingers snapping to jog the memory.
“We have every right to know.”
“Muslin!” said the ex-cop. “He strangulated himself with muslin.”
Everyone began to panic. People retreated to their houses. A few couples went out to buy guns. The ones who already owned them loaded them. Over the next few days the streets were strangely vacant. The curtains were drawn on all the windows. Abandoned bicycles and children’s toys littered the empty lawns. Cars sped through without stopping. Traffic signs and signals were ignored.
A week later, at the neighborhood association meeting, the air was tense. Mrs. Drago seized on the palpable fear and stood to rally the crowd.
“We cannot let this go on,” she yelled. “Look what muslin is doing to our community!”
Some of the other association members called for calm. “Most muslin is harmless,” a woman pointed out. “We have it hanging in our sunroom. It adds a nice flourish.”
“We use it to accentuate our pergola next to the patio,” added another man. “And it is nice in our gazebo during those hot summer months.”
“About 7,000 suicides each year die by suffocation,” added the retired cop. “Only a small portion actually use muslin fabric to strangulate themselves. Maybe we should try to gain some perspective.”
Mrs. Drago wasn’t having any of it. She insisted that she would not tolerate a population that just rolled over and allowed the thin cotton fabric to infiltrate the sanctity of our homes. She made mention of our front windows, the light sundresses our girlfriends and wives wore, our decorative bath curtains, our parquet tablecloths. “You, Paddy the Duke,” she said to me, “that comfortable button-down shirt you wear during those sweltering summer afternoons. Did you ever realize? Do you understand the danger? In short, the threat of muslin is everywhere. Wake up you bastards.”
I shrugged and insisted I always had a fine relationship with all of my clothing and that I wasn’t really concerned with the material so much as maybe an outdated style, or whether the shirt or pants in question no longer fit the way they used to.
“You’re missing the point!” thundered Mrs. Drago. “Today it is a pleasant, billowy fabric highlighting our homes and wardrobes and tomorrow the muslin is wrapped around your neck, cutting off your oxygen, killing you, giving you an absurd erection, which is ridiculous under the circumstances. You can’t control it, your body goes limp and your pee-pee goes hard and your dead and the muslin is all the whole time around your throat, constricting and laughing. The muslin doesn’t have to play by the same rules and so it is going to win if we don’t wake up and do something. You ask that dead old Mr. Gorney what he thinks about muslin. Oh wait, you can’t, because he’s fucking dead!”
On the way home I had to drive around the reams of fabric that had been thrown out in the middle of the street in protest. Some people burned their curtains in effigy. Once home I sat out in the backyard, surrounded by the darkness, with a beer and the dogs at my feet, sniffing the air in curiosity. The big fella whined, clearly put off by the smell. I wondered what the bigger offense for him was, the aroma of scorched cotton or the aroma of fear.
More Alembics to come.