COLLECTOR - SALVATORE BUTTACI
The sleepy, just-waking-up voice aroused him. Once he heard it, even when it was adrenaline-pumped with terror, he was a goner and he knew it. Knew it better than he knew how dangerous it was to break into strange houses, tiptoe to the bedroom of women who lived alone. He knew it. That was all there was to it.
He stretched his body down the bedspread length of the double bed. Easy now. Mustn't wake her just yet, but even his breathing, which he tried to control, caused a dull vibration beside the woman tucked dreamily beneath the spread. It hurt to turn his head sideways, but he had to gaze at her face in the slash of white/black symmetry cast by a friendly moon eavesdropping at the open window. The shade fluttered like a fledgling trying out its new wings. The woman lay on her back, still as night.
Martin breathed in the perfume that wafted from the woman asleep beside him. It was her hairspray, he guessed, so he poked his nose into the locks of mousy brownness flowing to her bare shoulder and found he was wrong. Brazenly, he rested his nose against her cheek and inhaled deeply. How beautiful she smelled! He admired her taste in perfume: “Red.” Strong enough to last the day and night.
Once, when he was a boy, he had kept a scrapbook of perfume ads he'd scissored out of fashion magazines. At the time, he knew them all by name. He would match the names with the scents, spending Saturdays at perfume counters where he'd spray circles on his arms in the places assigned for each name.
He prided himself in his ability to recall each perfume scent as easily as most boys his age back then called to mind the names of baseball players. Martin had no time for foolish ball! He did not know why it was so important to commit perfume scents to memory, but he made it his business to store the scent and its name inside his head, to resort to these olfactory memories when a particular day heavy with the stench of failure or the bad smell of defeat or the reeking odor of abandonment weighed heavily on his chest. It was then he would breathe deeply, clear his lungs of life's contaminations, and inhale the memory of “White Shoulders” or “White Diamonds” or “Poison” or “J’Adore”––whichever eau du ciel--oh, he liked that! Eau du Ciel, “heavenly waters”––he believed would clear the air of his discontents.
Now, lying beside this woman, he needed only to thrill himself breathing her. A mixture of “Red” and nighttime perspiration. A fine heady combination. How gentle she looked! Mimicking her sudden smile, Martin felt one widen on his own face. He looked at her and wondered, Are you dreaming you are safe and warm? At peace? Then she stirred, coughed, and rolled on her side away from him. He knew it was not her intent to offend him, but her maneuver offended him nonetheless. How dare you turn away!
For a few dark moments, he stared at her exposed shoulder, the fall of her hair upon the bedspread, the wavy ends reaching out to his extended hand. Touching him. Again, he smelled her hair. He moved closer to see the hair fall gently away to reveal her bare neck and allow his lips like a fly to alight against her skin.
He clamped his eyes shut till they ached. His lips quivered at her neck. He pretended he was desert-dry and she was the drink to quench his thirst. When lightly he licked a line across her neck, she moaned unintelligibly, then slapped her neck as if to rid herself of some pesky flying thing that had survived the heyday of summer this late in autumn.
Martin jerked his face away. She moaned again. Then giggled at some dream anomaly. Then fidgeted her body in quick twists and turns left and right. Punched her pillow. Crammed it under her head, faced him again.
All during her sleep moves, even when she kicked her leg under the sheets and nearly rolled Martin onto the floor, he held his position at her side. Maybe she’s nightmaring, he thought to himself. Maybe behind those rapid eye movements she was trapped somewhere in the dark forest or rooted to the sidewalk on a night-city street peopled with monsters and she’s looking to break loose. But that wasn’t it at all, he decided, because the woman was giggling again. Mumbling. Both of them lying now like obedient subjects in a still life.
There wasn’t much time. Martin raised his arm in slow motion, turned his wrist so he could read his watch. Five o’clock. It was taking too long. Day was hanging over him. So many faces he had committed to memory. Sleeping women with their stale breath, their arms and legs akimbo, their faces devoid of make-up because, here in their beds, who was there to impress? Lonely women in big houses that swallowed them whole. Women doused in “Passion.” “Obsession.” “Red Door.” He could take those smells to the bank in his head and spend them one by one like pieces of gold.
It was late. Outside, the moon was on its last legs. Soon enough, it would roll itself somewhere else prepped for night. And the sun would shine bright enough to open her eyes. It was now or never.
For a brief moment, he would once again be the prince who wakes the sleeping princess. In a flash, he played back a kaleidoscope of women in beds like this one. Soft young faces. Sprawling bodies to die for. Wrinkled old faces.
Bodies lying still as coffin sleepers. They were all up there in his head, like those good books people read over and over again. They were all the women he smelled and lightly touched and lay beside while they dreamed in his company.
He stared intently at the sleeping woman. He tried to memorize the tilt of her face resting on her arm. The tangle of her hair. Imagined the tiny sand drifts in the corner of her closed eyes. Those lips he would never forget, the way they separated ever-so-slightly to expose a hint of white teeth behind them. He would collect these memories and savor them. Martin would save them forever.
It was always something he loved doing. Collecting evidence, making sense of all life’s intangibles, pinching the wings of the elusive that once were beyond easy detection but now could be capped within a tight-lidded jar. It made him feel as though a person truly was the sum of all the things that made her what she was––the simple things like the smell of her body, the texture of her hair, her sleepy-time voice, even the music of her snoring.
These were pieces of the puzzle that he was adept at assembling and conserving somewhere in his memory or in the little ring boxes he had constructed, each one with a name he'd given each woman. Not her birth name nor the one thrust upon her in marriage, but the name he––Martin!–– had given her to set her apart from all the other women locked away in their own little boxes. One was labeled "Tiny Laughter." Another "Sleep Talk." He wondered what name this one who slept beside him would earn tonight. He had without words vowed to each of his women a love that would never die.
Twelve boxes of them he’d hidden away. Why not stop at an even dozen? he'd asked himself, but he knew better. Why not thirteen? Fourteen? Why not a little village of little boxes? So many boxes filled with mementos undetected by the human eye. Intruders would see only emptiness inside. It would mean next to nothing to these outsiders. Martin saw it all as a kind of mystery that even he himself as creator was not completely privy to.
For excitement, he fantasied their intrusion into his basement, their discovery of his many little boxes which he had so painstakingly hidden behind the base of the sheetrock wall. “What are these boxes?” one of them would ask. “Open them,” his partner would say. And like two boys on a treasure hunt they would lift the top off each of the little ring boxes and find no rings, no messages, no single hint of their purpose.
He imagined the two detectives shaking their heads because now they'd have to work for their pay, if they intended to decipher the mystery of these boxes. Why are they empty? Were they once full and someone took their contents to destroy incriminating evidence? The new detectives. What a laugh! Martin would envision himself a fly on the sheet rock, high on the rim of the dim light fixture hanging from the ceiling. He would rub his legs together, stretch out his antennae, stare at those two cretins with his green compound eye, taking in every dumb move, every word bounced off his flickering wings.
How could they find what was not there? The investigation will be a failure: The boxes are empty. One detective will scratch his head; the other will tug at his chin. All these boxes handled with delicate care, arranged in groups according to the perfume of the women. Not chronologically, not spatially, not most valuable to least valuable. For Martin they were all dear to him. Not one box's contents on a higher plane than the next. He loved them equally because each woman, preciously unique, was worthy of his love.
Bolder than ever before, Martin touched the woman’s bare shoulder. He imagined how good it felt, pretended her heat radiated through his black glove and healed whatever ailed him. If only just once he could shed the gloves, touch flesh to flesh! But he had worked the business much too long to weaken now. He knew too well those who played it safe got away with all the crimes that went unsolved. Only fools who walked blindly through their paces, unprotected against the snares of sharp cops like himself who knew what to look for, uncovered precisely those clues that sentenced perpetrators and closed cases.
No, the gloves would not come off. Later, in his own bed, Martin would replay this night. He’d imagine alternate scenarios as if common sense and his fear of a one-way ticket to death row did not matter. He would imagine that this one time he had tossed caution aside and stripped off his gloves, and the plastic sheet wrapped around his shirt and trousers.
This time, he’d pretend tonight he had left the black ski mask deep in his pocket. This time, he would remember a fabricated tale of how he stripped himself of all his clothes, lay naked as a honeymoon husband beside the soon-to-awake lady. This time, in the aftermath of his visit, when it was over, he would pretend he had wriggled himself under the sheets, pressed his bare leg against hers, looked under the covers for a glimpse of the sleeping woman, breathed in the scent of her until his lungs threatened to implode.
He would imagine reaching over to her side of the bed and kissing her so passionately, she would wake up and say something sweet in that wake-up voice he loved so much. And the two of them for years to come would brag how they met, how they came to fall in love. Who would believe them? And despite it all, they would live happily forever and all those boxes, all those women whose spirits lay invisibly within them, could be left behind. It would not matter anymore. Martin could finally call it quits. Be a man released of his perfume demons. A free man.
But, as he lay there in gloves and plastic, he knew damn well it was too late. To slip up now was suicide. Those same guys who admired his knack for solving crimes would turn on him. They’d want his blood.
He donned the black ski mask. He’d done this a dozen times and could predict with uncanny accuracy when the woman would open her eyes.
Number Thirteen mumbled in her sleep. Then she woke up and turned her head the way she might have turned her head in the throes of nightmare. Her eyes were blue; Martin loved blue eyes on a woman. Brown eyes, black eyes––they were for men, but eyes blue as the sea or the sky filled Martin with pride in his choice of woman tonight.
The woman screamed and screamed and screamed. Martin stood over her now at the side of the bed. “Scream all you want,” he said. “Nobody can hear you. You live alone. There ain’t no houses for blocks and blocks. Go ahead and scream.”
She let herself sink back into pillow. “Please, please,” she said and he closed his eyes to savor that voice he had always loved. He had waited hours to hear the sleepy-time voice again tonight and it was well worth it. Eyes closed, he inhaled the smell of perfume and sweat and fear. “I don’t want to die,” she pleaded. Now she lay there as if paralyzed, not a muscle stirring.
For a second, Martin wished he could this once let her go. He wished he could fold up the knife, put it in his pocket, and simply climb out the same window he had climbed in. He could say something that would make the woman’s day: “Ok, tell you what. I came here to hear you breathe and talk. Watch you sleeping there so peacefully. Smell your perfume. ‘Red’, isn’t it? I’m leaving now. You can go back to sleep or get on your knees and thank God I had a change of heart.”
But he didn’t. He had brought along little box #13 and though he hated that number, knew damn well wiser men than he had a lot of badmouthing to do about that infernal number, what else could he do? He had put twelve of them to rest; this one was number thirteen and that was that. He needed to fill that little box with her smell. He needed to save within it the air that flowed from some of the words she was whimpering. He needed to come up with a name for the box. Martin was leaning towards “Almost Free” because she’d been the only one of his women whom he almost let live.
It was getting late. Detective Hogan and the captain expected a lot from him, starting with getting to the station on time. They had their hands full with clueless homicides and maybe he could help and maybe he couldn’t.
The radio clock on the night table read 6:00 A.M. The sun had beaten out the moon. It was a new day, but only for Martin. Like a father to a child, he said to the woman in the bed, “Don’t cry.”
Then he stooped down and sat on the side of the bed, his leg against hers, the bedspread between them. He took the little box and held it against her blue eyes and imagined he had captured one of the woman’s last tears. Next, he inhaled deeply again, but this time he held the box against his lips and very slowly exhaled the scent of her to be treasured forever within the security of box 13 and shut it.
“I won’t say anything,” she bargained with him and he nodded because he knew she was telling the truth. “I don’t know anything,” she added and he nodded. Again, he listened to her truth, then put the little box safely back into his pocket.
For a few seconds, they stared at each other. She didn’t know it, but it was Martin’s way of not saying goodbye. He stood up, moved away from the woman in bed. “I’m sorry,” he said, then turned away in a sadistic playacting as if he’d decided to spare her life. With his other hand, he slit her throat.
BIO: The poems, letters, and stories of Salvatore Buttaci have been published in The New York Times, Newsday, U.S.A. Today, The Writer, Cats Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and widely elsewhere in America and overseas. His newest book, A Family of Sicilians, is currently available for purchase at Salvatore Buttaci's Storefront - Lulu.com. He was the recipient of the $500 Cyber-wit Poetry Award in 2007. Buttaci has lectured on Sicilian American pride and conducted poetry workshops and readings.
A retired teacher, Buttaci lives in West Virginia with Sharon, the love of his life.