Coupon Special


Albert J. Manachino

During WWII, I became pretty sharp at identifying flash cards. You old vets will remember — a projectionist would throw an aircraft silhouette on the screen for a fraction of a second and in that second, you had to tell him whether it was a Zero, or a Zeke, an ME109 or a friendly.

Similarly, I became an expert at identifying brand logos out of the corners of my eyes. June might be examining an item from the supermarket shelf and the old mind computer fed me the info … "Hellog's Frosted Corn Flakes, 15 oz. box, $1.49." Or, she'd be looking at a can … "Hampton's Pork and Beans, 15 1/2 ozs., $0.31. All this in a fraction of a second. I don't know if the Vulcans have supermarkets but I can make Mr. Spock look like an amateur in the identification game.

This particular box triggered an absolute zero. Evidently, the product hadn't been entered into my memory banks. It was a plain white cardboard box that rustled like dry cereal when June shook it. There was no colored design, no reassuring logo … nothing but ordinary black print that might have been scissored out of yesterday's newspaper. I haven't seen that plain a package since June's cousin from Maine visited us.

I growled, "Put it back!"

I had for too long been the guinea pig for her culinary experiments. My wife used to brag, "I never taste anything until it's ready." Why should she ruin her own stomach with me available?

If I'd kept my big mouth shut, the chances were good that she'd have returned it to the shelf. As it was, she interpreted my remark as an ultimatum.

"I will not! Look, they're giving away a discount coupon with each purchase." She bent and took a slip from a plastic coupon dispenser attached to the shelf. "That means we pay only 27 cents for it … whatever it is. Where else can you buy something for 27 cents?"

June is incapable of resisting a bargain. Our garage is loaded with supermarket white elephants.

It was useless to complain that "It'll cost me more than that in antacid tablets."

"Don't be a spoilsport." She fumbled her glasses on straighter and read, "Dried nightmare." There was no mistaking her expression … bewilderment. "Have you ever heard of it?"

I don't watch TV so if an ad for "Dried Nightmare" was aired, I missed it.

"No! Probably it's something everyone's supposed to know about like the Mussolini's Revenge Hero." June had never heard of "Mussolini's Revenge." I took the box from her. The Print read, "One dried nightmare, 14 ozs." She'd gotten it straight all right. "I don't believe it."

She said, "Packagers don't make mistakes. My uncle Bernard has been in the business twenty years and in all that time, he never — "

I interrupted. "Well, they made one this time."

The listed ingredients and weight did nothing to enlighten me. Involved and repetitious instructions on the preparation of the contents used up the remainder of the print. Boiled down, we were advised to "soak it in water and vinegar. Add (Here followed a list of spices and the warning, "On no account use salt as it spoils the contents.")

I tried to sneak it back onto a shelf near the checkout but she caught me.

The package lay forgotten in one of the kitchen cabinets for about a week or ten days because June didn't have the slightest intention of using it. On arrival home from the supermarket, we'd had an argument. I wanted to put it with the janitorial supplies. Again, she had to show me who was boss in the kitchen.

The chances were good that if our daughter Julia hadn't gotten into the act, it wouldn't have resurfaced until the cabinets received their Spring cleaning. Not that June is forgetful but with her, it's "in the cabinet, out of mind." More things have disappeared in our kitchen than at a kleptomaniac's annual convention. By Spring, of course, it would have been adjudged "spoiled" and given the old heave-ho. Unfortunately, Julia ran across it while looking for a can of automobile polish.

Our biggest pot, the one we use to boil elephants in, sat on the table when I walked into the kitchen. Julia had filled it with water and I distinguished the sharp pungent tang of vinegar. She's a culinary alchemist. Julia can no more resist the urge to experiment than her mother can resist a bargain.

"It was a coupon special," I informed her. When Julia registers bewilderment, she looks exactly like June.

"The label's got to be mistaken," she remarked shoving her hair out of her eyes with a vinegar-soaked hand. I wondered where I'd previously heard that comment.

"Packagers don't make mistakes," June repeated over a cup of instant coffee. That sounded familiar too.

Julia inserted her thumbs under the top flaps of the Package and pried them up. "There's only one way to find out." She turned the package upside-down and an object wrapped in opaque paper fluttered out. It made that dry rustling noise, like a paper python slithering through Autumn leaves. It landed on the tabletop, bounced once and lay still.

Annette, the albatross around the family neck in the form of an aged and obese Weimaraner, got up and growled.

"She doesn't like it," June remarked somewhat unnecessarily.

Which meant that it wasn't edible. More than that, Annette was afraid of it. A strip of her coat, from the base of her neck to the root of her tail, was erect. She refused to be pacified when I patted her. I told her, "It isn't as if you're going to be asked to taste it when it's done, old girl." No, that job went to me. Her fur remained erect.

June seemed to be having second thoughts. "Maybe we ought to throw it out?"

By then it was too late. Julia tore the wrapping off. The contents resembled a large desiccated sweet potato covered with hairs and roots. Among the roots, as if attempting to conceal themselves, were a few nodules that resembled dried warts.

"Most things that ugly taste delicious," Julia remarked. But she wasn't able to convince herself, much less us.

I disagreed. "If you think I'm going to put anything that looks like that in my mouth, you got another guess coming. I wouldn't feed it to a dog."

For which, Annette looked grateful. Normally she ate anything that couldn't get out of her way.

Julia persisted."Don't be ridiculous, dad. It's something on the order of a truffle … I think."

She didn't have the faintest idea of what a truffle looked like. I noticed she used the sugar tongs in picking it up and immersing it in the pot. She reread the directions: "Add sage, thyme, pepper, and oregano … sounds like pizza … do not add salt."

I said, "Let me know when it's done so that I can go out to eat."

"I'm going with you," June added.

"And leave our daughter alone with this … ?"

One of the fibers plopped out of the water and dangled over the side of the pot. Annette began to growl again.

"It's got to soak overnight," Julia said, putting the empty box back on the table.

Which was good news as there was a possibility it might drown. I was having an awful time restraining Annette. She gave every indication of wanting to attack the pot. She all but foamed at the mouth. Finally, I turned her loose in the yard. But she lurked in the vicinity of the screen door and continued to snarl and whine.

I got my magnifying glass and examined the package hoping to find some small print that explained everything. Only, I didn't find any explanation. The fine print merely repeated the big print. Namely, "don't use salt".

Sid Hooks, who managed the King Crest Supermarket, where we'd bought the damn'd thing was an old pal so I had no qualms about calling him up, even though I knew that this time of the day, he was busier than a forest fire in a paper factory.

"Sid," I said, when he finally came to the phone, "what's this stuff you're passing off as dried nightmare?"

"I beg your Pardon!" He sounded as if he didn't know what I was talking about. "Al! Can't you wait till evening to do your drinking?"

I went into a long-winded explanation.

Sid excused himself. He was back in five minutes. "I searched that whole area. We don't have anything like that in stock and never did. Are you certain you got it at this store?" His voice implied we couldn't possibly have.

"In a town like Hicksville, how many King Crest Supermarkets are there?"

"OK, you say you got it here. I can't find it and no one knows better than me what's in this store. Where you told me to look is where we got the canned peas. This is a grocery supermarket, we don't carry anything like that. Maybe you dreamed it all up?" He sounded as if he wanted to get back to work.

After promising him I'd be at the usual place at the usual time for the usual poker game, I thanked him and hung up. Julia made up her mind.

"I'm going out to eat with you and mom. You aren't leaving me alone … not with only a thin aluminum cover between it and me.

When we returned, Annette was cowering under the kitchen table. Evidently, during our absence, she decided discretion was the better part of valor. Some guard dog! The pot was overturned on the table and empty. The water had disappeared. It hadn't been dumped on the floor, it had disappeared. A trail of dampness led to the sink.

"God! What a stench!"

It did smell as if every potato in the world had died and rotted away in our kitchen. I noticed the roll of paper toweling was gone. The trail of dampness led to the bathroom.

Annette recovered her courage to the extent that she followed us … behind the women. The bathroom door was shut. We heard water running into the tub. Something splashed and hooted and whistled … the kind of hooting and whistling you hear when someone blows into an empty whiskey jug. Cautiously I opened the door.

Our "sweet potato" had grown — oh, how it had grown! It now was as large as Annette and still swelling as it absorbed water.

"I told you," June remarked triumphantly, "packagers don't make mistakes."

It was almost too large for the tub. One of the dried warts had grown into a long, sharp nose and what I'd thought was a blemish had developed a mouth big enough to hold inflated balloons. Five of the longer fibers were now arms and legs and a long nondescript tail. Two particularly prominent nodules had become horns. It peeled back a flap of dust colored skin and revealed a single blood-shot eye.

"What did your Uncle Bernard do in a case like this?" I asked her.

For once she had no answer. The thing stuck three feet of tongue out at me. It picked up the roll of toilet tissue on the way back to its mouth. Modestly, it drew the shower doors shut. I wouldn't have wanted anyone to see me either if I looked like that. I recalled the toweling missing in the kitchen.

"It seems to like paper. Maybe we can get rid of our old newspapers and magazines by feeding them to it instead of having to tie them up and lugging them to the curb."

"Don't be funny," June snapped. "What are you going to do?" Notice? She said "What are you going to do?" And she's the one who overrode my objections and bought it in the first place. Julia added, "When is it going to stop growing?"

"I don't know to both questions," I said. "How about bringing it back to Sid Hooks for a refund?"

"I didn't keep the register receipt," June responded seriously.

"I think it's kind of cute," Julia remarked. "It's only a baby." She cracked the shower door open enough to reach in and turn the water off. The nightmare looked at her reproachfully. She chucked it under the chin and beckoned. "Come into the kitchen, Fido. I have a nice surprise for you."

Fido's expression brightened. He managed to extricate himself from the tub and blundered past us. June and I could only stare at each other. Annette hid behind the clothes hamper. In the kitchen, Julia began feeding him old brown paper shopping bags. And then she began making him beg for the next bag and to lay down and roll over. This went on until the bags were all gone.

"I think you're right," she told me. "All we have to do now is keep him away from the money and important papers."

The phone rang. It was Sid calling from the store. "I asked the night clerk about what you said. He remembers that the stuff was left at our place instead of the Crest Occult Supply House. One of the stock boys put it out by mistake."

"That's great," I responded sarcastically. "In the meantime, I've got a nightmare on my hands. What'll I do with it?"

"How long have you had it?" He knew how long we had it. "Two weeks."

He managed to sound regretful. "Sorry. Our money back policy extends only to ten days. You should have brought it back sooner." He hung up.

Fido came pre-housebroken … thank God! He gave us less trouble than Annette had and seemed to enjoy a fuss being made over him. My principal complaint was that he got at the newspapers before I did. I was surprised the international and local news didn't give him indigestion. And, June missed the coupons.

We still hadn't decided what to do with him by bedtime. I had a strong suspicion as to how the neighbors would react when they saw him.

Fido remained oblivious of our problem. He sat at the TV and happily munched an old telephone directory we had been using as a door stop. Television fascinated him … especially that program, and ad really … you know the one I mean. It shows a nice looking old coot squeezing rolls of toilet paper in a supermarket.

Night fell and I bid him "Pleasant dreams!" before turning in. "Here's where you sleep." I pointed to the couch firmly.

He seemed to understand. I turned to June. "Maybe we'll think of something by morning."

But next morning, Fido was nowhere to be found. We searched high and low and all that turned up was some more of June's bargains. Our first thought was that he'd escaped and was roaming the neighborhood without so much as a license. Then Julia had a thought.

"How long do nightmares last?"

I grasped her meaning. "The duration of one night's sleep."

She nodded.

We sort of miss him but so far have restrained ourselves from visiting the Crest Occult Supplies House for a replacement. The next nightmare might not be as easy to get along with as Fido. Lastly, I notice that June has become a very careful shopper.

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Copyright by
Albert J. Manachino

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The Albert J. Manachino Series