More Schmaltz In Cedar Bend

January 23, 1994|By Kevin Cowherd

The Trivandrum Mail was crowded. Michael Tickedoff elbowed a pregnant woman aside and wedged himself into a seat next to a man with three squawking chickens on his lap. Goats wandered the aisle of the train. A dirty-faced boy with violent curry breath punched his shoulder and demanded: "You got American cigarette, Joe?"

"Beat it, you little thug," Michael snarled, swatting the boy with a rolled-up newspaper.

Never again, he told himself. Three days searching the teeming south of India for the woman he loved. The sweltering heat, the stomach-turning food, the beggars . . . he had just about had it.

How does it all begin? Who knows? The old Darwinian shuffle. Something primal, something way back and far down. He walked through a kitchen door in Iowa in the summer of his 42nd year and a woman's voice bellowed: "Hey, you live in a damn barn?! Close the door! And wipe your feet, for crissakes! I just scrubbed that floor!"

Jelly Roll Braden, the one and only. As the train pounded out of the jungle and into Villupuram Junction, his thoughts drifted back over the years. . . .

An autumn reception for new faculty in Cedar Bend, that's where they met. Professor James Lee Braden III and his wife Jelly Roll were the hosts. She wore a pale blue suit with fitted jacket over a superb body along with a cool patrician smile, and smelled vaguely of Lysol and furniture polish.

Michael Tickedoff wanted her. Wanted her more than his next breath.

His eyes followed her everywhere that night. He watched as she made a big show of spraying Glade in the direction of the accounting professor just returned from a quick smoke in the driveway, as she berated the dean for not keeping his drink on his coaster, as she made a 17th-century lit prof's wife retrieve an errant piece of Ritz cracker from the carpet.

"Friggin' people are unbelievable!" Jelly muttered at one point, glaring out from the kitchen, Quik-Vac in one hand.

Michael, sitting on a nearby sofa, winked at her. For a moment, Jelly Roll's features seemed to soften. Then she said: "Mister, you got to the count of three to get your big fat feet off that coffee table. . . . "

The truth was, though, that Jelly Roll Braden found herself equally captivated by Michael Tickedoff, big-shouldered and brown-eyed tenured professor of economics.

In the following weeks, she stopped by his office often, mostly just to talk and do a little light dusting.

Michael would feel a swelling in his groin and raise his eyes to the heavens and think: "Oh, Absolute, give me Jelly Roll Braden." And then one day . . . a tapping on his door at 8 in the morning. Jelly Roll standing there in the gray sunlight, faded jeans, flannel shirt, a bucket crammed with non-abrasive cleansers and disinfectants.

"Jim's going to a football game," she announced, brushing past him.

Michael felt his hands shake. She insisted on tackling the toilet bowl first with a huge scrub brush and Comet, even though he pointed out there was Sani-Flush in the cabinet. Later she was pouring Lemon Pledge onto a soft white cloth in the dining room when Michael suddenly pulled her toward him.

"This table really needs pol . . . " she said before he pressed his fingers to her lips.

"It can wait, Jelly," he said, his voice thick with desire. He kissed her deeply on the neck.

"Fine, live in a pigpen, see if I ca . . . " but now Michael had clamped his whole hand over her mouth and was leading her gently into the bedroom.

It was obvious this was a woman who had gone before into sensual frontiers where Jim Braden never ventured.

Something about how she moved freely and uninhibited beneath him, Michael thought, how she touched him with hands that were practiced in what they did, how she leaped out of bed immediately after it was over and began vacuuming the hallway.

Two weeks later she was gone from Cedar Bend. The phone rang one day and it was Jim Braden, distraught. Something terrible had happened: All the cleaning supplies in his home, everything from mops to whisk brooms to Brillo pads, had vanished.

"Plus Jelly's run off to India," he said. "You don't think the two are connected, do you?"

"Why India, Jim?" Michael nearly shouted.

"Something about finding a new all-purpose . . . Michael, I can't tell you! I just can't!"

By nightfall, Michael was on a British Airways flight out of Kennedy in New York, bound for Madras via London. He had an aisle seat next to an insolent 3-year-old who kept sticking his tongue out at everyone and laughing. The boy's mother occupied the window seat.

When the mother seemed engrossed in her book, Michael pinched the boy hard and then quickly pretended to be asleep. Now here he was on a crowded train in the high country of southwest India. It wasn't hard to guess where Jelly was headed: The International Household Cleaning Products Expo was going on all week in Thekkady.

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