12. To the Barest
Emmanuel Rubin said in a scandalized whisper, "He offered to pay for the dinner." He glanced with owlish ferocity at the guest who was attending that month's Black Widowers' banquet.
"Yes, he did," said Mario Gonzalo casually.
"And I suppose you accepted," said Rubin.
"No, I didn't, though I don't see why he shouldn't if he wants to. If someone is anxious to pay for the privilege of dining with us, why not let him?"
"Because we would be selling our freedom of choice, you idiot, and that is without price to the rest of us. Do you think I'm willing to eat with anyone who'll pick up my check? I choose my companions. Damn it, Mario, if he offered to buy us that should in itself instantly disqualify him as a guest."
"Well, it doesn't, so why not calm down, Manny, and listen? I've told the others already and saved you for last because I knew you'd rant away. He got in touch with me. . . ."
"Do you know him?"
"No, but he introduced himself. He's Matthew Parcis, and he's a lawyer. He knew of the Black Widowers. He knew I was to be the next host and he wanted to see us professionally, all of us. He asked to join us at our banquet and offered to pay if that would help. He seemed like an interesting guy, so why not?"
Rubin said discontentedly, "Why should professional matters intrude on the banquet? What does he want to do, serve us with summonses?"
"No," said Gonzalo with an affectation of eye - rolling impatience. "He represents Ralph Ottur. We still send Ralph invitations, and that's how this guy, Parris, knew I was the next host. He got in touch with me at Ralph's instructions. I suppose you remember Ralph."
Rubin's eyes flashed behind his thick - lensed glasses. "Of course I remember him. I'm surprised you do. I didn't know you had become a member before he left."
"Memory decays with age, Manny."
Rubin ignored that. "That was twelve, fifteen years ago when he left us, when the Black Widowers were just beginning. That was before we met at the Milano - before Henry's time." He looked in Henry's direction with a smile and said, "It doesn't seem possible we could have had meetings of the Black Widowers without Henry. But then, in those days we wouldn't have believed it possible to have dinners without Ralph. It was in '65 he went to California, wasn't it? We were kids then."
"I believe," said Geoffrey Avalon, who had drifted toward them, his neatly bearded face solemn, "that you and I, Manny, were fortyish even then. Scarcely kids."
"Oh well," Rubin said. "What does Ralph want with us, Mario?"
"I don't know," said Gonzalo. "Parris wouldn't say. Have you heard from him lately?"
"Not a word in years. He doesn't even send in a refusal card to the invitations. Have you heard from him, Geoff?"
"No," said Avalon. 'Tom Trumbull says Ralph is teaching navigation at CIT but has had no personal communication."
"Well, then, Geoff, what do we do about this lawyer Mario has dragged in?"
"Treat him as any other guest. What else can we do?"
Henry approached, his smooth and unwrinkled face radiating the efficiency that was characteristic of this best of waiters. He said, "Mr. Gonzalo, we are ready to begin dinner if you will be so kind as to call the meeting to order."
The dinner was quieter than usual as Matthew Parris somehow absorbed the attention of the others. He seemed oblivious to that, however, his smooth - shaven face shining pinkly, his graying hair slicked smoothly back, his smile wide and unaffected, his speech precise and with a flat midwestern accent.
At no time did he refer to the business at hand, but confined himself to discussing the Middle Eastern situation. The trouble, he said, was that both sides were playing for time. The Arabs felt that as oil supplies dwindled, world hunger for energy would bring victory. Israel felt that as oil supplies dwindled, Arab influence would dwindle with it.
To which James Drake said somberly that as oil supplies dwindled, civilization might break down and the whole matter of victory (quote, unquote, he said) in the Middle East or anywhere else would be irrelevant.
"Ah," said Parris, "but your fiery ideologue doesn't care about trivial things such as survival. He would rather win in hell than lose in heaven."
Mario Gonzalo, who had put aside his rather blinding pea - green jacket and was eating veal cordon bleu in his striped shirt - sleeves, leaned toward Thomas Trumbull and whispered, "This whole thing may be a practical joke, Tom. I only met Ralph two or three times before he left. He was a peculiar fellow as I recall."
Trumbull's bronzed forehead furrowed under his white thatch of hair. "So are we all, I hope. Ralph Ottur founded this club. We used to eat at his house during the first two or three years. He was a widower, a gourmet cook, an astronomer, and a word buff."
"That's what I remember. The word - buff bit."
"Yes," said Trumbull. "He's written books on acrostics and on novelty verse of all kinds. Conundrums involving word play and puns were a specialty of his. He's the one who got Roger Halsted interested in limericks."
Gonzalo laughed. "How did you stand it, Tom?"
Trumbull shrugged. "It wasn't the sole topic of conversation, and I was younger then. However, Ralph remarried, as you probably remember, went to the West Coast, and we never heard from him again. Then Jim Drake and I found the Milano, and the Black Widowers has been here ever since, better than ever."
Henry refilled the coffee cups, and Gonzalo played a melodious tattoo on his water glass with his spoon.
"Jim," he said, "as the oldest member and the one who best knew Ralph Ottur in the old days when even Manny claims to have been a kid, would you do the grilling honors?"
James Drake lit a fresh cigarette and said, "Mr. Parris, how do you justify your existence?"
"At the moment," said Parris, "by attempting to make you somewhat richer than you have been hitherto. Or if not you, Dr. Drake, then another one of you."
"Don't you know which?"
"I'm afraid not, gentlemen. In order to know, I must complete the reading of the will."
"Will? What will?" Drake took the cigarette from his mouth, placed it in an ashtray, and looked uneasy.
A heavy silence descended on the rest of the table. Henry, who had been serving brandy, desisted.
Parris said seriously, "I was instructed to say nothing concerning the matter till I was a guest at a Black Widowers banquet and till I was being grilled. Not till this moment."
Drake said, "It is this moment. Go on."
Parris said, "I'm sorry to have to tell you that Mr. Ralph Ottur died last month. He had been pretty much of a recluse since his second wife died three years ago and, at his request, no announcement of his death was made. Though he had made a clean break with his life in New York after he left for California, he did not, apparently, forget his old friends of the Black Widowers. He asked that I hand out one of these to each of you, provided all six were present, and you all are."
Envelopes were passed out to each of the stunned Black Widowers. Each bore the name of a Black Widower in careful India ink lettering.
Drake muttered, "There's his monogram." Each envelope bore a stylized sketch of what was unmistakably an otter with a fish in its mouth.
Trumbull said, "Did we each get the same?"
Gonzalo said, "Read it and we'll see."
Trumbull hesitated, then read in a low monotone, '"Well, don't sit there like idiots. There's no reason to get into a mood. Remember, "mood" spelled backward is "doom." I've been with you in spirit every month since I left, even if you haven't heard from me, and I'm with you again now, ready for our last game.'"
"That's what mine says," said Gonzalo.
There was a murmur of agreement from the rest.
"Well, then," said Parris briskly, "I'll now read the will - not the entire will, you understand, but only that portion that applies to the club. If you're ready . . ."
There was silence and Parris read, "It is my further wish and desire to make a bequest to the Black Widowers, a club I helped found and for the members of which I have always had a profound affection. Therefore, I wish to leave a sum of money, which, after taxes are paid, is to come to ten thousand dollars. This sum is to go to one of the following gentlemen, all of whom were members of the club at the last meeting I attended and all of whom, I believe, are still alive. They are: Thomas Trumbull, James Drake, Emmanuel Rubin, Geoffrey Avalon, Roger Halsted, and Mario Gonzalo."
Parris looked up and said, "For the record, there are six of you at the table and I believe you are the six whose names I have read off. Are there any discrepancies?"
Gonzalo said, "There is a seventh member. Henry, our waiter, is the best Black Widower of them all."
Halsted said, "He wasn't a member in Ralph's day. Hell, I can't believe he's dead. Do you remember that time he asked us to find a common English word that contained the letters "ufa" in that order? It kept us quiet all that evening."
"Yes," said Drake, "and it was you who got it. That's why you remember."
Rubin said, "Quiet!" His straggly beard bristled. "I demand silence. The will hasn't been read yet. What does Ralph mean that one of us will get the money? Why only one and which one?"
Parris cleared his throat. "I don't know. It is at this point I have been instructed to open a small envelope labeled, 'One.' Here it is."
"Well, don't open it just yet," said Rubin violently. "Mario, you're the host, but listen to me. If any bequest were left to the club or to the six of us in equal division, that would be all right. To leave it to only one of us would, however, create hard feelings. Let's agree, then, that whoever gets the money sets up a fund for the use of the Black Widowers as an entity."
Gonzalo said, "I'm willing. Any arguments?"
There was none, and Gonzalo said, "Open the envelope, Mr. Parris."
Parris opened it, withdrew a three - by - five card, glanced at it, looked surprised, and said, "It says, "To the barest.'"
"What?" said Trumbull indignantly.
Parris looked on the other side, shook his head, and said, "That's all it says. See for yourselves." The card was passed around.
Avalon chuckled and said, "Don't you get it? He said in his note there would be a last game and this is it."
"What kind of game?" said Gonzalo.
Rubin snorted and said, "Not one of his good ones. Go ahead and explain, Geoff."
Avalon looked solemn and said, "In the Greek myths, the sea nymph Thetis married the mortal Peleus, and to the wedding all the gods and goddesses were invited. The goddess of discord, Eris, was overlooked. Furious, she appeared unbidden and, into the happy throng, tossed a golden apple, then left. Hermes picked it up and noticed a small message attached. What it said was, 'To the fairest.' Three goddesses at once reached for it - Hera, the queen of heaven; Athena, the goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. The quarrel that resulted ended in the Trojan War."
"Exactly," said Rubin, "and I suggest we not play Ralph's game. I don't know what the hell he means by the barest, but if we start arguing about which one of us qualifies for ten thousand dollars we will end with every one of us aggrieved, winner and losers alike, even if we put the money into a fund. Earlier, Mr. Parris said that ideologues valued victory above survival, but I don't. I don't want to see the Black Widowers come to an end over the question of who wins ten thousand dollars."
"Hear, hear," said Gonzalo. "Even you say something sensible now and then, Manny. Let's agree that each one of us is in a six - way tie for barest, take the money, and put it into the fund."
"Excellent," said Avalon. "I don't see that there would be any objection to that."
Again, there was a silence, but Parris said, "I'm afraid my instructions were to allow discussion and then to open another small envelope marked Two.'"
Gonzalo looked surprised and said, "Well, open it."
Parris opened the second envelope, removed a folded piece of paper, and unfolded it to find a single - spaced typwritten message. He glanced over it and chuckled.
He said, "Here is what it says: 'I have no doubt that Geoff Avalon, in his endearingly pedantic way, will have by now explained the connection of the message with the apple of discord at the wedding of Thetis and Peleus. . . ."
Avalon, having flushed to his hairline, said stiffly, "I have never denied that I have a touch of pedantry about me. I trust that I have never been offensively so, or if I have, that I may count on my outspoken comrades of the Black Widowers to tell me so."
"Don't get defensive, Geoff," said Trumbull. "We're all pedants. Go on, Mr. Parris."
Parris nodded and said, "'. . of Thetis and Peleus. It may also be that someone, possibly Manny Rubin, will suggest that the game be refused and that the money be shared. Not so! Sorry to insist, but only one person gets the money, and that person will be he who can demonstrate himself to be the barest to the satisfaction of the executor of the will. Failing that, no one of them will get the money. I dare say Geoff can explain the appropriateness of this, if he has not already done so."
Avalon cleared his throat and looked harassed. "I don't think it's necessary I do so."
Rubin said, "It's all right, Geoff. I'll take over. Everyone knows I'm no pedant."
"Not bright enough," muttered Gonzalo.
Rubin, glaring briefly at Gonzalo, said, "As Geoff said, three goddesses claimed that apple. Hermes, who had picked it up, could see at once that this was no place for an innocent god, and he absolutely declined to make a decision. One by one, the other gods also declined. After considerable discussion, someone suggested that some poor mortal be stuck with the task. The one selected was a shepherd boy on the slopes of Mount Ida near Troy.
"The three goddesses appeared to him in all their magnificence, and each, fearing she might not win in a fair contest, attempted to bribe the judge. Hera offered him world conquest; Athena offered him the crown of wisdom; and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful girl in the world as his wife.
"The shepherd boy was young enough to find the third bribe the most attractive, and chose Aphrodite. Undoubtedly, she would have won in a fair contest of fairness, but it was a disastrous choice just the same. The most beautiful girl in the world was Helen, queen of Sparta, and the shepherd boy some years later carried her off with Aphrodite's help, and that started the Trojan War.
"The shepherd boy's name was Paris, and he was one of the fifty sons of Priam, king of Troy. The decision among the goddesses is a favorite scene among artists and is commonly referred to as 'The Judgment of Paris.' Clearly, Ralph couldn't resist playing on words and setting up The Judgment of Parris' - two r's."
Parris smiled and said, "I seem to have the worst of it. Instead of choosing among three glorious goddesses, I am faced with deciding among six not particularly attractive men."
Rubin said, "You're not faced with any decision at all, actually. Ralph can't make us play the game. If the only way we can get the ten thousand dollars is to compete for it, then I suggest we let the whole thing go. Ten thousand dollars is something we can live without - we have lived without it all these years. What we can't live without is our mutual friendship."
Halsted looked regretful. "Well, now, we can use the money. It could defray part of the costs of the banquets. What with inflation, I, for one, am finding it difficult to cover the expenses. Since I'm the most nearly bald member of the group, can't we say I'm obviously the barest and let it go at that?"
Gonzalo said, "We could decide that "barest' means 'the most nearly nude.' Then I can strip to my underwear, collect, and we'll set up the fund."
"Oh God," said Rubin. "Look, I'd pay you ten thousand dollars, if I had it to spare, not to strip."
Drake said dreamily, "If we were ecdysiasts, it would all be simple. A nice six - way tie."
Parris said, "Now, gentlemen, wait. This is serious. I disapprove of wills such as this one, but I am the executor and I must treat it seriously. I don't know what Mr. Ottur means by the "barest,' but it is undoubtedly something that is first, not obvious, and second, compelling. If one of you can demonstrate what is meant by "barest' and then show compellingly that one or another of you is "barest,' I will release the money. Otherwise I can't. Baldness and, for that matter, nudity, do not strike me as clever explanations of the meaning of the phrase. Try again."
"No, we won't," said Rubin. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Roger, for that baldness suggestion. If you need money that badly, I'll contribute to the payment when it's your turn to host."
Halsted turned red and he pointed an angry finger at Rubin, "I don't need money that badly; and I wouldn't come to you for help if I were starving."
Avalon said, "Well, the apple of discord is beginning to do its work, obviously. Manny is right. Let's let it go, while we're still on speaking terms."
Halsted frowned as he passed the palm of his hand over his high forehead, but he kept quiet.
Rubin muttered, "Sorry, Rog. I meant no offense."
Halsted waved a briefly forgiving hand.
Parris said, with considerably more than a trace of apology, "My instructions are that after you have had time for discussion, I am to open the small envelope marked, Three.'"
Drake said softly, "How many envelopes do you have, Mr. Parris? This can go on all night."
"This is the last envelope," said Parris.
"Don't open it," roared Rubin. "There's nothing he can say that will change our minds."
Parris said, "I am compelled to open and read this third message by the ethics of my profession. I can't compel you to listen, of course, so if any of you wish to leave the room, you may."
No one did, however; not even Rubin.
Parris opened the third envelope and this time he looked grim as he scanned the message.
"I think you had better listen," he said. "The message reads, "I think it possible that the group may decide to turn down the bequest rather than play the game. If they do so, or if they play but do not solve the riddle, I do will and bequeath the money, unconditionally, to the American Nazi Party."
There was a unanimous wordless rumble from the Black Widowers.
Parris nodded. "That's what it says. See for yourselves."
"You can't do that," said Halsted.
"I am legally compelled to do so," said Parris, "if you refuse to play the game. I am just a sluice through which the money passes. I cannot take independent action. Of course, any or all of you may contest the will, but I don't see what grounds you can possibly have - what legal grounds, that is. A man can do as he wishes with his property within certain clearly defined legal limits, and those limits don't seem to be transgressed here."
"Then let's play the game," said Halsted. "I say I'm the barest because I'm the baldest. I don't say that to win the money, Manny; I say it to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis. Now if you'll agree to that, Mr. Parris, you can hand over the money, and we'll put it into the fund, and that's that."
Parris hesitated. "I'd like to. I would really like to. The trouble is I can't."
"Why not? Do you want the money to go to the Nazis?"
"Of course not," said Parris, with some indignation, "but my only duty here is to respect the will of my client, and he wants one of you to demonstrate that he is the barest in so clever and unmistakable a way that I will be compelled to accept it and to select one of the six of you as the winner. After that, the money is the property of the winner and he is free to do with it as he wishes - keep it, divide it equally among the six of you, set up a trust fund for whatever legal purpose, or anything else."
"Are you sure?" said Trumbull. "No more clever little notes?"
"No more," said Parris. 'The reading is complete. I must remind you now that it's a case of The Judgment of Parris. You have to convince me of the validity of the solution or I have to give the money to - to - I have no choice."
Gonzalo said, "According to Manny, Paris - the original Paris - was bribed into giving his judgment. Does that mean ..."
Parris said seriously, "Please don't finish that remark, Mr. Gonzalo. It will not be funny."
Rubin said, 'Then we have no choice. We have to play the game. Who's the barest?"
Halsted says, "We can't answer that until we find out what the old b - Well, nil nisi bonum and all that. What does Ralph mean by 'barest,' if he doesn't mean baldest?"
"He may mean 'poorest,' the person who is barest of money," said Gonzalo. "I think I'm in the running for that."
"Or shortest," said Avalon, "the one who most nearly barely exists, so to speak. That's you, Manny."
"You may have eight inches on me, Geoff," said Rubin, "but that could be eight inches of solid bone. How about the one with the smallest wardrobe, which eliminates Mario, or else the lowest 1Q, which puts him right back into the running again?"
"Gentlemen, gentlemen," interposed Parris, "none of this sounds in the least convincing. Please be serious."
"You're right," said Rubin, "this is too serious a matter for fooling, but I hate this thing too much to be able to think clearly about it. I say we get Henry into the thing right now."
Henry, who had been standing at the sideboard, listening attentively, now shook his head. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but that would not be fitting. The deceased did not know of me, did not consider me a member of the club, and I do not qualify to play the game."
"You're a member now," said Trumbull gruffly. "You may not qualify to inherit the money, but you qualify to advise us as to who may. Go on and tell us, Henry."
Henry said, "I don't think I can, Mr. Trumbull. If I am a member of the Black Widowers, I am the only member who has never met Mr. Ottur. I do not know the cast of his thought."
Trumbull said, "There's no mystery there. You've heard us discussing him. He was a word nut. Come on, Henry, if you didn't know Ralph, neither did he know you. He didn't know your faculty for seeing the simple things."
Henry sighed. "I will do my best, sir. May I ask some questions? For instance, am I correct in taking it for granted that the deceased was not a Nazi sympathizer?"
"Hell, no," said Rubin with a snort. "Quite the reverse. During the 1950s he was in trouble because some people thought his views were too leftist."
"Then he doesn't want the money to be left to the Nazis?"
"Of course not."
"So he expects you to win."
Avalon said, "He expects us to do so, but he may overestimate our abilities."
Henry said, "Do you suppose his eagerness to have you win would extend to his giving you a hint?"
Gonzalo said, "What kind of a hint?"
"I'm not sure, Mr. Gonzalo, but let us see. Is Mr. Ottur's name spelled in the usual way?"
"You mean like the animal?" said Trumbull. "O - t - t - e - r? No. It's spelled O - t - t - u - r. With a 'u"
Henry said, "I believe that when the preliminary envelopes were handed out, Dr. Drake said something about Mr. Ottur's monogram."
Drake said, "I meant this sketch on the envelope."
"Yes. I had thought that might possibly be so. Has he always used that monogram, Dr. Drake?"
"As long as I've known him, and that goes back a long time."
Henry said, "I can understand the otter, which is a clear reference to Mr. Ottur's name, in a punning sort of way. May I ask if it is known whether the fish in the otter's mouth is a trout?"
There was no reply at first, but finally Avalon said, "I don't know that I gave that any thought. It could be a trout, I suppose. Why do you ask?"
"Only because trout, t - r - o - u - t, is an anagram of Ottur, o - t - t - u - r. The two words consist of the same letters in different arrangements. An otter holding a trout is a double reference to his last name by way of a pun and an anagram. Does that fit his character?"
"Absolutely," said Rubin. "The otter was obvious to all of us but I never thought of the trout. He never explained that, as far as I can recall, but then he never explained anything. He wanted everything worked out. But what does all this have to do with the problem facing us, Henry?"
"It seemed to me, gentlemen, that the preliminary message was not really a necessary prelude to the will and might well have been omitted. Furthermore, I saw no point in giving each one of you an identical message. A single message read out would have done as well, as in the case of the three messages in the three envelopes that were part of the will.
"Looking at it in that fashion," Henry went on, "it occurs to me that he was really handing out his monogram and making sure that each one of you got a good look at it, and will therefore perhaps think of using it as a clue to the nature of the game. The monogram is a pun and anagram on Mr. Ottur's last name. The solution to the problem facing us may ret in just that - puns and anagrams on last names."
The six Black Widowers looked thoughtful at that, each in his own way, and finally Drake stirred.
He said, "You know, that sounds like Ralph, and if so, let me point out that d - r - a - k - e can be rearranged into r - a - k - e - d, and a piece of ground that has been raked is bare, so say nothing of the fact that it is only one letter removed from n - a - k - e - d, which is certainly barest."
Parris said, "'Raked' doesn't sound compelling to me, and 'naked' is completely impermissible. I don't think we would be allowed to substitute letters."
Rubin said, "Let me offer a pun, then. We don't have to rearrange the letters r - u - b - i - n. Just change it into two words, r - u - b i - n, 'rub in.' Cold cream, which is rubbed into the skin, appears to vanish and leave the skin bare. How about that?"
"Even more farfetched than 'raked,'" said Parris.
Gonzalo said, "g - o - n - z - a - l - o can be rearranged to a - z - o - l - o - n - g, which is 'a so long' in a German accent. A good - bye, in other words, and when everyone says good - bye, you're left bare of company."
"Good God!" said Rubin.
"I can't think of anything else," said Gonzalo defensively.
"If we're going to misspell," said Halsted, "my name can be rearranged into s - t - e - a - l - d - h, which is a misspelling of 'stealth,' and if people steal away, the place is left bare."
"Worse and worse," said Rubin.
"I'm worst of all," said Trumbull, scowling. "The only vowels in my name are two u's, and I can't do anything with that." Parris said impatiently, "You are still not serious, gentlemen. None of this is worth anything at all. Please! If you want to keep the money from falling into vile hands, you must do better."
Avalon, who had had a tight smile on his face for the preceding few minutes, now hunched his magnificent eyebrows down over his eyes and let out a satanic cackle. "But I have it, gentlemen, and I'm delighted to be able to say that Henry, our unexcelled waiter, has overlooked the key clue. No matter, Henry. Even Homer nods."
"Far less often than I do, Mr. Avalon. What clue did I overlook, sir?"
"Why, in the preliminary message, there is not only the monogram, as you correctly pointed out, Henry, but also a reference to the fact that m - o - o - d, spelled backward, is d - o - o - m. That statement is rather a non sequitur, and we have a right to wonder why it's brought in at all."
"Because that's the way Ralph thinks - or thought," said Drake.
"Undoubtedly, but if you will take the trouble to spell Avalon backward, you have n - o l - a - v - a. No puns, no rearrangements, just do as Ralph did in the message."
Parris clenched both hands in excitement. "Now, that's the most interesting thing I've heard yet. But why 'no lava'?"
Avalon said, "A piece of ground over which lava has not flowed is bare."
Parris considered this and shook his head. "We might just as easily consider that ground over which lava has not flowed is rich in vegetation and is not bare. In that sense, it would be land over which lava has flowed that would be bare."
Avalon said, "Very well, then, we can rearrange the letters slightly and we have o - n l - a - v - a. By Councilor Parris's argument there would be no vegetation on lava, and that anagram represents bareness."
"What about the reversed lettering?" said Gonzalo. "Mood to doom and all that."
"Well," said Avalon, "we'll have to eliminate that."
Parris said, "I liked 'no lava,' but it was not convincing. The reason I liked it, though, was that the backward spelling did seem to be a reasonable solution. 'On lava' without the backward spelling has nothing to recommend it."
There was a moment of silence and Rubin said, "You know, this is getting less funny all the time. Are we going to end up giving the money to the Nazis, even with Henry's help?"
Gonzalo said, "Well, let's ask him. What are we doing wrong, Henry?"
Henry said, "I'm not sure, Mr. Gonzalo. It does occur to me, though, that so far we have been punning and anagramming our last names - that is, the potential answers. Ought we to be working the question as well?"
"I don't see what you mean, Henry," said Avalon.
"It strikes me, Mr. Avalon, that the phrase "to the barest' might just possibly be punned into 'to the bearest'; that is, b - e - a - r - e - s - t, the Black Widower most like a bear."
Trumbull said, "Terrible! It's a terrible pun and it's a terrible suggestion. I don't see how we can get any one of us to be clearly most like a bear anymore than we can get any one of us most bare."
Gonzalo said, "I don't know, Tom. You've got a terrible temper. You're the most bearish."
"Not while Manny is alive," said Trumbull hotly.
"I've never lost my temper in my life, damn it," shouted Rubin, just as hotly.
"Yes, like now," said Halsted.
Parris said, "Gentlemen, this is getting us nowhere either. Unless someone can think of something, we'll have to give up."
Henry said, "But we now have our solution, to my way of thinking, Mr. Parris. If we take the challenge to be that of finding the Black Widower most like a bear, may I point out that if we change the position of but one letter in r - u - b - i - n, we get b - r - u - i - n, the common name for the bear in the medieval animal epics, and still used today. I believe there is a hockey team known as the 'Bruins.'"
Parris said energetically, "I'll buy that. It is a clear solution that fits and is unique."
The Black Widowers broke into applause, and Henry turned pink.
Rubin said, "Since the money is mine, then, I will set up the trust fund with directions that the earned interest be turned over to Henry as an honorarium for his services to the club."
There was applause again.
Henry said, "Gentlemen, please don't. I will be overpaid."
"Come, come, Henry," said Rubin, "Are you refusing?"
Henry considered, sighed, and said, "I accept, sir, with thanks."
To the Barest - Afterword
I don't want the Black Widowers to be part of the real world. In the case of the Trap Door Spiders, deaths have occurred, and new members have been elected, but I don't intend to let that happen to the Black Widowers. No one is going to die and no new member is going to be elected.
Nor is anyone going to age. Henry was "sixtyish" in the first story, and though nearly a decade has passed he is still "sixtyish," and he is going to stay that no matter how long I live and the stories continue. Avalon will continue to stare down from his seventy - four inches of height, and Rubin's beard will continue to be straggly.
And yet, the exigencies of the plot and the tug of nostalgia lured me on to introduce Ralph Ottur as the founder of the Black Widowers and to depict him as having died. Of course, the Trap Door Spiders were founded by science - fiction writer and naval historian Fletcher Pratt, who died over twenty years ago, and is fondly remembered by all who knew him. "To the Barest" appeared in the August 1979 EQMM. With that, then, I will say farewell to my Gentle Readers - with my usual promise to keep on recording the proceedings of the Black Widowers while life and breath do last.