Angelynn came in from getting the mail, studying a picture postcard.
“The Frinkls are in Europe,” she said.
“Leon’s in Europe?” I said. Leon Frinkl and I had run a roofing business, years back. We’d given it up because we didn’t like traveling to the out-of-town jobs.
The card showed a big castle where Portugal buried its kings and queens. On the back, Leon’s wife Sylvia had written, “Not having the time of our life in Lisbon.”
I studied the picture. “I wonder if the kings are buried separately or in the same bedroom as their queens?” I asked Angelynn.
The next postcard was of gondolas in Venice. “Have never not enjoyed ourselves less,” wrote Sylvia.
“Sylvia can be hard to please,” said Angelynn.
“Those boats could use a coat of paint,” I said.
The third card came from Athens. On the back, Leon had written, “The most fun we haven’t had since Lisbon.”
“The Frinkls don’t seem to be enjoying their trip,” said Angelynn.
“That Parthenon’s impressive,” I said, “but there’s one just like it in Nashville.”
From Sydney we got a postcard of the Opera House.
“Next time, Australia’s the first place we’ll choose not to go,” the Frinkls wrote.
“It’s winter in Sydney,” said Angelynn. “Maybe they’d like it better in summer.”
“That building looks like bowls stacked in a dish drainer,” I said.
“Makes the whitecaps look like soap suds.”
“Don’t it, though?” I said.
The card from Venezuela threw us. “We’ll not travel here again soon,” Leon had written, Sylvia adding, “Absolutely lovely!”
“Did they like it or not?” asked Angelynn.
The picture was a tall, skinny waterfall coming off a mountain into a jungle.
“Looks like water coming out of a garden hose,” I said. ”Make it wider and shorter, you’d have something.”
“You’d have Niagara Falls,” said Angelynn, still puzzling over the back of the card.
Three days later, the Frinkls showed up in our driveway, dressed like tourists, with deep tans and a cardboard box of souvenirs.
“We enjoyed your postcards!” said Angelynn, inviting them in.
“How the hell’s an ex-roofer afford a trip like that?” I said, mixing drinks.
“Oh,” said Sylvia, “we didn’t actually go any of those places.”
“Hell, no,” said Leon. “We never left the house.”
I stopped in my tracks with the tray of drinks. Leon half rose so he could reach his and Sylvia’s.
“We found this place,” Leon said, “the Knott Travel Agency.”
Sylvia slurped at her vodka tonic. “They had this Five Destination, Three Continent package.”
She handed us a brochure from their box. The front of it read, “Why pay to travel places? You can Knott Travel anywhere for a fraction of the cost!”
“We picked a departure date,” said Sylvia, “and they sent us the itinerary.”
“Made from real airline schedules,” said Leon.
“And on the correct days, they would send us a package of souvenirs and stuff from the country where we hadn’t just arrived.”
Leon dug in the box. “Look,” he said, “here’s a koala bear cigarette lighter that we didn’t buy in Australia. ”
“And here,” said Sylvia, “is a cocktail napkin from the hotel lounge in Venice where we didn’t have drinks. That stain is real Italian wine.”
Leon held out a boarding pass stub. “ATH to SYD. Twenty-four-hour flight. In the comfort of our own home!”
“But the postcards,” said Angelynn. “They had foreign stamps and postmarks.”
“Each packet had blank postcards,” said Sylvia. “All we had to do was fill them out and FedEx them, pre-paid, to a person…”
“An operative,” corrected Leon, “They called them ‘operatives’, like in a spy novel.”
“To an ‘operative’, in the city where we weren’t,” said Sylvia, ”who would mail them for us.”
“You may wonder,” said Leon, “if we didn’t actually travel to any of these places, how did we get these tans?”
“It had crossed my mind,” I said.
“Show them the receipts,” said Leon. “The deal included free passes for a tanning salon.”
“But they were only good if it was sunny that day in the place we weren’t,” said Sylvia.
“Man, I tell you,” said Leon, “You really felt like you weren’t there.”
Angelynn fidgeted and sniffled. She had never traveled, and cherished getting postcards. She’d pinned the Frinkls’ to a world map, a piece of red yarn leading from each card to its city.
Sensing Angelynn’s disappointment, Sylvia handed her a bulky envelope.
“Here’s the snapshots we took,” she said. “We made copies just for you.”
Angelynn took the envelope, tipping her head to the side, “How could you have taken…?”
“It was a vacation!” said Leon, nudging Sylvia. “We had to take pictures!” They drained their drinks and watched expectantly.
Angelynn and I looked at the first few pictures, shuffled quickly through some more, then threw the Frinkls out of our house. The snapshots were of the Frinkls going around the world, all right, but in their own bedroom.
I Lysol’d the sofa they’d shared, sprayed foam on the carpet they’d walked on, and put their glasses in Clorox to soak. Angelynn snipped the red yarns with scissors, and fed the world map and postcards to the shredder. She shredded the snapshots wearing a blindfold.
In the uproar, the Frinkls had left their souvenirs. I dumped the box into the Weber grill on the deck. I streamed charcoal starter onto the tanning salon receipts and set a match to them. The Frinkls’ trip went up in a whoosh of petroleum-laden flames.
We still could not escape the feeling of taint. To Angelynn, the postcards were lies and nearly as repulsive as the snapshots. To me, the cards were harmless jokes. But I’d roofed with Leon Frinkl. We’d worked twelve-hour days in ninety-degree heat, tearing off old roofs, nailing down new ones, and I could never forgive him coming into my house with a tan he hadn’t earned.
Joe Alan Artz wrote his first story when he was seven. It was about Mickey Mouse doing his taxes and he said, “Darn these numbers.” He first published a story, at 54, and in it, a suicide swings by a sign that reads “Not Responsible for Accidents,” thus proving to himself that growing up sucks. In the years between, he ended up being an excellent father and a really good archaeologist with a very long curriculum vita and a stack of started and stopped stories. Since publishing one, however, he’s been writing more. He’s published fiction in the Wapsipinicon Almanac and the University of Iowa’s Daily Palette.