Ernest Jacobson had committed murder, plain and simple. The crime hadn’t been detected. His wife, Bernadette, was dead and in the ground, and they’d called it an accident. The police weren’t bothering him. Nobody blamed him. In fact, what few acquaintances he had sympathized with him. Poor old Ernest. An accident and now he was all alone. Plain and simple. That was the kind of murder it had been and that was why it succeeded.
The only trouble was, Ernest Jacobson dreamed.
The first dream started with the murder. It was so clear, so detailed, and so accurate, that it was just like committing the crime all over again. Once had been bad enough.
“Tom, I’ve got to have a new washing machine.” It was a whine of complaint, like everything she said.
He let his newspaper fall to his lap and glanced up at his wife. She was standing there, wringing her hands as usual, her pale face sad, wisps of gray hair falling over her forehead; scarcely forty and already looking like an old woman.
“What’s the matter with the washing machine?” he asked her, and he didn’t try to make the question sound friendly.
“Take a look at it, will you, Tom? I got another shock from it today. Honestly, I’m going to be electrocuted some time for sure.”
He went down to the basement unwillingly. The washing machine loomed out in the dim light, high and huge, like an old Model T. There were more places where the paint had chipped off, he noticed. Obviously Bernadette hadn’t taken proper care of it. He squatted down to take a preliminary look and he saw what the trouble was right away. The wire was worn, just where it went under the machine to the motor. The insulation had dried and cracked, that was all.
What should he do? Replace the cord? No, just some electrical tape. He went to the tool chest and rummaged around. No tape. He remembered now. He’d asked for some at the hardware store, and when he found out how expensive it was for a skimpy little roll, he’d refused to buy it and walked out. He wondered now if it was worth even a dollar ninety-nine to keep Bernadette from getting electrocuted.
Then he knew the answer to that question.
She was only an expense. If he tried to divorce her, he’d have to pay alimony. He was tired of the nagging, the complaints: fix this, buy me that, this is so old, that’s worn out. He wanted silence, blessed silence.
His preparations for murder were simple and straight-forward. The machine was unplugged, so he could work with the wire in safety. He bent it back and forth dozens of times at the place of wear, then scraped it patiently on the bottom rim of the machine, till the copper strands gleamed bright and bare. Then he wedged it up under the rim so the wire would be in contact with the metal of the machine itself. Finally he plugged it in. Now the whole washer was “hot,” waiting. Last of all, he doused water on the concrete floor. The “ground” was waiting too.
Near the bottom of the steps was the pair of old shoes his wife always wore while washing in the basement where she might get her feet wet. He picked up the shoes, examined the soles. Both, he saw, were almost worn through. Calmly, carefully, he dugh at the thin, crumbling leather with a fingernail. He kept at it till there was a clear hole the size of a nickel.
After that, it was only a matter of getting her downstairs to try the machine. She was difficult, as she often was.
“I think I’ve fixed it and I want you to try it,” he called up to her.
“I wasn’t planning on washing tonight . . . “
“Well, I want you to try it anyway. If it doesn’t act right, then we’ll think about replacing it.”
The promise, vague as it was, lured her. She came obediently down the stairs. Her legs he noted were bare. Automatically she changed into her work shoes. With her mind on the washing machine, she seemed unaware that the skin of the sole of her foot was in direct contact with the floor.
“How’d everything get so wet?” she asked him.
“I was testing,” he assured her.
He knew his plan wasn’t a sure thing. Electrical shorts are tricky, unpredictable. She mightn’t be killed, only injured, or possibly not harmed at all. But he felt lucky, somehow and about time!
He watched her. She approached the machine gingerly, as if doubtful or even afraid. Her feet were in the film of water that cluing to the floor around the drain. She reached out to touch the machine with both hands, like a child exploring a new toy. He waited in an agony of suspense, the moment elongating into a near eternity.
Then her hands were gripping the rim of the metal tub, gripping it and could not let go. Shudders and spasms racked her body. What sounds did he hear? Did he actually hear the crackling of the electric current? What sounds came from Bernadette? A scream or a moan? Or did she make any sound at all? Was it his own voice instead, uttering an inarticulate cry of triumph? On and on . . .
Until another sound interrupted it, louder and more insistent, a buzz like a terribly swift jackhammer, clamoring right in his ear. He reached out a hand, partially to ward off the sound, partially to stifle it. Finally, he did the latter. His groping hand found the alarm clock on then bedside table, his numb fingers reached the button and pressed it.
By that time he was fully awake, wide-eyed and shaking and sweating, with the clock in his lap, pulled to the full length of its cord. Tremblingly he replaced the thing on the table, then wiped his perspiring face with a pajama sleeve.
But it was a time since he recovered from the experience. Afraid of getting a chill, he burrowed back under the blankets, and stayed there until his quivering body was still. This was the way he had reacted when he saw Bernadette die,, he remembered now. His body had jerked and shuddered just as hers had, the two almost in rhythm.
It had been only a dream, hadn‘t it? But how could a dream of a murder, real as it might have seemed, affect him more deeply than the actual murder itself? Anyway, the thing was over with now. Done. Finished. He was safe again in the waking world. He smiled.
Ernest Jacobson’s day was busy, ordinary, untroubled, work-filled. In the evening he watched television, which was more pleasurable now that he didn’t have to argue with Bernadette over the selection of programs, and went, at last, to bed.
He wasn’t expecting a dream.
But it happened. A dream . . .
“Ernest, I’ve got to have a new washing machine” . . . till Bernadette’s body shuddered in the grip of the electric current. Her cry–or his.
What then? Yes, he had gone upstairs. As he was going now. In a voice broken by grief and terror, he called a doctor, an ambulance, and the police.
The last arrived first, two uniformed officers in a patrol car who acted with efficiency and compassion of men who had seen things like this before. It was one of them who told him his wife was dead.
The policemen handled everything. Ernest stood dumbly by the front door and watched the sheeted corpse being carried out on a stretcher. He answered a few questions automatically, stunned.
In all the time between the death and the funeral, the only one who seemed unkind was a plainclothes officer named Lavander. Leon Lavander had a sharp face, thick brows, and under them, black piercing eyes.
Lavander hinted that Ernest Jacobson should have known about the condition of the washing machine, and Ernest kept answering that he certainly would have attended to it had Bernadette ever mentioned the matter. Then an accusation finally came out in words. “You know, Mr. Jacobson, I’d call it almost criminal negligence on your part.”
He didn’t crack. He didn’t even start guiltily. “Do you think I haven’t thought bout that myself? Don’t you think I’ve blamed myself? That washer was pretty old. I should have checked it over once in a while. But it never gave any trouble . . . “
“Okay. Okay, Mr. Jacobson. I’m not trying to make a case out of it.” Lavander’s face looked very sharp, honed like an axe blade, his eyes glittered malevolently, and he added a strange remark. “Not that I wouldn’t like to.”
What was ringing? The phone? The doorbell? Ernest tried to rise from his chair, anything to escape from Lavander’s accusing stare. His hands reached, to clutch something to help him . . .
And he was wrestling with the alarm clock again, pulling at it, almost pulling it out of the wall. But now, as he awakened, he knew enough to press the button to shut off that persistent noise.
Shaking in every extremity, sweating profusely, he sought refuge like an animal in its lair and dove under the blankets. But in the warm dark it was a long time before the shaking stopped and his sweat dried.
“Criminal Negligence.” What was it anyway? Maybe something you accuse a homicidal driver of, or maybe a doctor who was careless during an operation. But him, Ernest Jacobson, for harboring a beat-up washing machine? He laughed.
But at the bank that day, he made a mistake that took him hours to locate. In the evening he watched television grimly, until the last late-late show was finished, until the weather report, until, the screen went gray. Then he stared at the static for a while.
He succumbed finally, however. Weariness forced his surrender. He staggered into bed, letting his eyes close, hoping he wouldn’t dream.
“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine . . . Your wife is dead, mr. Jacobson . . . Criminal negligence . . . I’m not trying to make a case . . . not that I wouldn’t like to.”
A knock at the door. It had happened before . . . A dream? He didn’t know who was knocking. Too late to run. The house was surrounded.
“Hello, Mr. Jacobson. Sit down, Mr. Jacobson,” Lavander smiled when he opened t5he door. Two other plainclothesmen came in and disappeared somewhere on mysterious errands. T6hopmas sat down, but he sat on the edge of his chair, fearfully. Lavander sat in the easy chair, made himself comfortable, and took a long time in lighting a curved-stem pipe.
“I’ve just remembered something, Mr. Jacobson, a circumstance of your wife’s death. I know the memory is correct because I checked with several other people who were on the scene. It’s been bothering me all this time, but just today it started to make sense. A funny thing. Very funny.”
“What’s funny? What . . . “
“When we found your wife, the cement floor of the basement was all wet. Do you know what was funny about that? Just this. Your wife hadn’t been in the middle of doing washing. No wet clothes. The inside of the tub wasn’t wet either. Only one thing was wet. The floor.”
Why hadn’t he thought of that?
“can you explain that Mr. Jacobson?”
He tried to speak, but had no voice. But even if he had, what was he to say?
One of the other plainclothesmen entered from the bedroom. He was carrying Bernadette’s old shoe, and he handed it to Lavander.
“I remember looking at your wife’s corpse,” Lavander went on. “On the sole of her foot there was a deep burn, about the size of a nickel. Yes, this was the shoe she’d been wearing.” Lavander turned the shoe over and was staring at the bottom of it. The hole was there, about the size of a nickel. “A very curious hole this. Looks like it’s been picked at. Looks like someone was trying to enlarge it. This hole was manufactured, Mr. Jacobson. It’s perfectly obvious.”
Ernest mouthed words, silent, voiceless, futile words.
Lavander tossed the shoe to the man who’d brought it in. “Label that ‘Exhibit A.’ “
Now the second plainclothesman appeared, coming from the basement. “I’ve checked the washing machine, Leon.”
“And what did you find?”
“Jacobson’s fingerprints all over it.”
Lavander chewed happily at his pipe stem.
“Not only that, but Jacobson’s prints are on the frayed wire, too.”
“Yes? Yes? Yes?”
“And there’s been some funny business with that wire, Leon.”
“I think that should be enough,” Lavander said. “More than enough. Label that washing machine ‘Exhibit B.’ what do you say now, Mr. Jacobson? Ready to confess?”
“No!” His own scream burst inside his skull. Did anyone else hear it?
Ernest leaped out of his chair and tried to run. But quickly strong arms seized him from either side. The front door opened, uniformed cops flooded in. a great mass of hostile bodies bore him to the floor by their very weight.
He reached out, groping, searching. He had it, wrestling with it in his bed as if it were a living thing, until his eyes were fully open and he realized, with a vast sense of relief, that he was awake again. He was awake and the clock was ringing. Fumbling he found the button, pressed it.
But he didn’t let go of the clock. This little box was his savior. The cord going into the wall was his lifeline. He cuddled the clock like he would an infant. He waited there, fondling it, waiting for the awful fear to subside, for reality, the undream world, to establish itself once again.
What a frightening difference between this dream and those preceding it! The first two dreams had repeated events which had actually occurred. But this last dream was a fiction, an imagining. These things hadn’t happened.
Lavander hadn’t connected the wet floor with the lack of wet clothes yet, but he might think of it in the future. If he did, he might come to look at the shoe and the washing machine. Warning . . . Well, I’ll do something about that!
Gleefully he hopped out of bed, replaced the alarm clock, got dressed quickly, ran down the basement stairs. Yes, there were the shoes.
It wasn’t until then that he realized how fortunate he was. The shoes hadn’t been carted away with the body. They had somehow dropped off, and then just lay there. He stuffed them into his pockets.
The washing machine wasn’t so easily handled. Wrestling it into the car trunk took a lot of doing, for Ernest wasn’t a big man. But he managed it because he had to. The trunk lid closed down far enough to conceal the contents, and he tied the handle to the bumper. Then he backed the car out and started driving.
He knew of only one sure place, the old quarry beyond town. The pit had filled with water, which people said was thirty or forty feet deep. Ernest drove there and found the place abandoned. No one witnessed his strange actions, he was certain, as he lifted the machine out of the car trunk and pushed it over the cliff. It made a tremendous splash and sank reassuringly. He tossed the shoes in after it.
He was late in arriving at the bank that morning, but nobody questioned him. He worked so cheerfully and diligently that day he didn’t fall behind in his job.
“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine.” Her face, Bernadette’s face, leering accusingly down at him; her voice, not whining, but shrieking vindictively . . .
“I’m innocent!” he shrieked in return.
But the white-haired judge, Lieutenant Lavander in black robes, only sneered down at him from his high bench and the twelve stern people in the jury box shook their heads in disbelief.
“Was this your wife’s shoe?”
The lawyer–he was Lavander, too–shoved the incriminating object in front of his face. Attached to it was a large tag, “Exhibit A.” There was no sole to the shoe at all, no sole and no heel.
Then came the washing machine, carried into the courtroom by two men wearing diving suits. The machine was rusted and still dripping with weeds and slime. Affixed to it was a clean, fresh tag saying, “Exhibit B.”
“Mr. Jacobson,” Lavander said, ‘your fingerprints were all over it, and on the wire where the insulation was scraped off.”
“Impossible!” he shouted at them all. “This is a frame-up!”
But the twelve men didn’t listen. Like a chorus they stood up together, and like a chorus, speaking with one voice, they announced their verdict, “Guilty!”
The judge beckoned Ernest to the bench. He hadn’t the strength to move, but the police dragged him, inert, like a gunnysack pf straw. Judge Lavander extended a long arm, and the forefinger wagged in Ernest’s face. “I sentence you to death . . . in the electric chair . . . “
But there was a bell somewhere, very distant, ringing, weakly, forlornly. Ernest reached for it . . . the alarm clock . . . more with his desperate mind than with his helpless body; he leaped . . .
. . . And got it. Somehow . . . a little metal cube with rounded edges that had an insistent noise inside it.
“I love you . . . I love you . . . “ He was saying it to the clock, and covering the cold metal with wet grateful kisses. He didn’t want to press the button to silence the thing. The sound was too precious, too beautiful, too reassuring.
The bell will wear out! No . . . no . . . reluctantly, almost fearfully, he did, at last, press the button . . . and then trembled in the dreadful silence that followed.
A dream, that’s all it was, Ernest Jacobson, you imbecile, you idiot. Don’t you know the difference between waking and sleeping? Between dreams and reality? This is the real world, the real thing, right now, right here. You’re in bed, alone. Bernadette’s dead, but they didn’t find you out. They didn’t really. The shoes are gone and the washing machine is gone, just like Bernadette, gone. They can’t come back . . .
The electric chair! Now they were going to get even with him and kill him with electricity.
Who was going to do that? Who was they? The police? The police couldn’t touch him. No evidence. The shoe, the washing machine, the fingerprints . . . And they’d convicted him! They were going to send him to the electric chair! Would their electric chair be real?
It would only seem real. After all, it was a dream . . .
Which was the dream?
He didn’t know!
“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine.”
He looked around for somewhere to run. Anywhere to escape that shrill, nagging voice.
“Ernest, I’ve just got to have a new washing machine.”
When he tried to run, he was stopped by the bars. No, not bars–cords, electric cords–a maze of electric cords enclosing him like a fly in a spider web.
“Take it easy, fella, you don’t have very long to wait now.”
“Let me out!”
“there’s only one way out of here, fella. For you, that is. Through that door. Just five more minutes. Can’t you wait? What’s your hurry? Why can’t you wait?”
They came for him. Two huge guards. He screamed and cringed into the farthest corner. But they dragged him out of it, yelling and writhing. The door opened, and it was a basement door, the door to his own basement. There was the chair . . . somehow like a chair . . . but really . . . a washing machine!
“Relax, fella. That’s all you have to do. The electricity will do the rest. As long as you stqand in this water on the floor . . . “
“Strap too tight, fella? It’s just to keep you here till the juice comes on. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t last too long.”
“Bernadette,” he shrieked, “does it last long?’
But she didn’t answer. She was already dead. Dead and gone.
“left arm okay. Now let’s have the other arm.”
No, don’t give them that other arm. Reach out! Reach hard! Reach far!
“Come on, fella . . . Boy, tat right arm of his is strong. What’s he trying to reach for? What’s he trying to hang onto? Trying to pull the cord out of the wall? Come on, fella, give up.”
“No! no! give me my alarm clock!”
“Give it to him, boys.”
It’s just a dream. That’s all it is–a dream. This is my alarm clock, my own . . .
Lieutenant Leon Lavander looked down at the twisted, contorted body, and the stopped to untangle it. From the very middle of the tightly wrapped ball, and after prying away the rigid grip of the fingers, he drew an electric alarm clock. While the others looked on, he patiently examined the thing.
“Worn wire right at the terminal,” he explained, showing them.
“Looks as if,” said another plainclothesman, “he didn’t let go as you ought to when you get a shock. He was holding on for dear life. You wouldn’t call it suicide would you, Leon?”
“Accidental death,” said Lavander.