Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 152 - Michael Pelc


In your whole life you've never been happier.

It is not yet dawn, and so she is still in bed. You move hurriedly about the kitchen, whistling the theme from "Man of La Mancha." The soles of your slippers scuff noisily across the linoleum floor, making a sound like oowhhirp-oowhhirp-oowhhirp. You know that the linoleum, like your slippers, needs to be replaced. Its edges are torn and they curl up here and there along the baseboard, but you don't concern yourself with such mundane matters this morning because this will be your first breakfast together, and you want it to be special. You put two slices of bacon in the frying pan. One for you and one for your wife.

Your wife. The words strike you as funny, odd, uncomfortable in a way. You wonder how long it'll take you to get used to saying them. A week, perhaps. Maybe two at the outside. You let your mind play with the thought as you take the bacon out of the frying pan and set it on a paper towel.

Eighteen days, you decide, though you don’t know where the number came from. It just sounds right somehow. In eighteen days, you figure, you'll be used to calling her your wife. You suppose it could happen faster than that if you practiced, but even before Joliet you were never the romantic type. Making her breakfast in bed is pretty much your limit in that department. With one hand, you crack open an egg on the edge of the skillet and pour it into the frying pan. Your mind goes back to thinking about the eighteen days. You decide that that's too soon for a bachelor of twenty-seven years. You tell yourself – convince yourself, really – that a month'll be plenty soon enough. Hell, a month ago, you didn't even know that this woman existed. Four days ago, she was a nameless blonde in a black cocktail dress who, for all you knew, just happened to be standing next to you at a roulette table in Vegas.

You put some bread in the toaster and your mind wanders back to Vegas.

Vegas. The casino was a jumble of activity and noise that overwhelmed the senses, and so you weren't sure how long it was that she'd been there, standing beside you. It was her scent – her perfume – that first got your attention. She smelled like sex. Like Wanda Bukowski in the back seat of your father's Packard after the senior prom. You stole a glance out of the corner of your eye. She was no Wanda Bukowski. Everything about her said that she was out of your league. Her clothes, her jewelry, the way she carried herself. Women like her don't give men like you the time of day, even when they don't know about your record. But hell, this was Vegas, and you were just passing through anyway.

You'd been doing well, winning here and there at the tables and on the slots. You were up a couple hundred bucks and so you had money to burn. House money, they call it out here. You were feeling lucky and decided to try impressing her. You put a hundred dollar chip down on black. She watched you, then reached across the table and placed her bet. Her arm brushed against you, and you wondered for a second if she did it on purpose. But you looked and saw that she played red, so you didn't think so. You lost. She won.

Acting like it didn't hurt to lose a hundred bucks, you put down another chip. You played odd this time. Like before she waited until after you'd made your move. She put hers down on even. Again, you lost and she won.

You forced a smile and a laugh and blew a smoke ring with your cigar. You thought you remembered somebody doing something like that in a movie you saw once when you were in prison. Cagney, Bogey, somebody like that. Somebody smooth with women. You doubled your bet. Two chips. Two hundred bucks. This time, you went with high. You acted like it was nothing, like you did this sort of thing all the time. She doubled her bet as well, only she played low. The result was the same. You began to think that she was stealing your luck, that she was some kind of witch and that she was somehow sucking every bit of luck you ever had right out of your body.

You did the math in your head. If you doubled your bet yet again – four hundred bucks - you could break even. You'd just lost three straight times on a fifty-fifty bet, so you figured the odds were in your favor. Your mind wasn't working well. You put everything you had left on red. Four hundred bucks. A week's wages. A month's rent. By then, you didn't have to look to know how she would bet, but you watched anyway because you couldn't help yourself. The witch stacked all her chips on black.

You went bust and turned to leave. You felt someone grab your sleeve. Instinctively, you tried to pull your arm away.

"Don't leave," you heard her say.

You wanted to chew her out for shadowing your bets and stealing your luck, and you came damn close to doing it, too, but when you turned around you came face-to-face with those eyes. Her eyes. Blue. Deep blue. Like melted sky. You'd never seen eyes that color before. They reminded you of a kind of precious gemstone, but you couldn't think right away what it was called.

"Please," she cooed. Her voice was soft and oh-so-irresistible. "I'd like to buy you dinner, if I may."

"Only if you marry me," you told her, half-joking.

She laughed. It wasn't the kind of laugh you were used to getting from women. Oh, women laughed at your jokes all right, but really they were just being polite, that's all. Enduring the awkwardness of your company and trying not to hurt your feelings. Yet all the while they were secretly calculating how much longer it'd be before you took them home and ended the misery of the date they never wanted to go on in the first place. No, her laugh was nothing like that. Her laugh was genuine, from the heart - a lover's laugh. You couldn't turn down a laugh like that.

Over a dinner of prime rib and baked potato, you learned that her name was Martha, that she was a recently widowed schoolteacher from a little town in Iowa and that she'd never even gambled before let alone been to Vegas. The trip was her sister's idea, she said. Set up to help her get over the grief of having suddenly lost her husband in a farming accident. Martha and her sister were going to do it together until her sister's boy was struck by a car and broke his leg. That left Martha with a plane ticket and a hotel reservation and a sister who insisted that she go ahead without her. She did, she said, and you could tell by the way she said it that she was proud of how she was re-establishing her independence and getting on with the rest of her life. You sensed in her a kindred spirit. Two souls trying to erase their past and begin life anew. You forgot you ever thought she was a witch and reached across the table and took her hand in yours.

It was the first time the two of you had touched, and you were amazed at how small and delicate her hand was. You felt like you were cradling the trembling heart of a wounded bird, and you found yourself fighting the impulse to tell her you loved her.

But you were never very good at resisting impulses – you had the rap sheet to prove it – and three days later, which was yesterday, you found yourself in the express lane of a drive-through wedding chapel.

The toaster makes a dinging sound and the bread pops up. The noise brings you back to the present, back to the kitchen and the breakfast you're making.

You wipe the dust off a serving tray and set her breakfast on it. You wish you had a freshly cut rose to complete the arrangement. The occurrence of such a tender thought makes you think the prison years are fading ever farther back in time. This woman will be good for you. You just know it.

She giggles like a school girl when you take the tray in to her. No one has ever made her breakfast in bed before, she tells you. Her joy and her innocence are contagious. You sit on the edge of the bed and bounce up and down each time she tries to take a bite of food. She laughs at your boyish antics, and you promise to behave and never do it again, but it is another one of life's temptations that you cannot resist. Again and again, she tries to eat, but it's impossible for her fork to find her mouth. Her face becomes smeared with eggs and butter and toast. Exhausted, and with ribs aching from laughter, you collapse in each other's arms. You feel your eyes welling up with moisture. It is then that you decide to tell her.

"I did time once, you know." You try to say it matter-of-factly, as if it's no big thing.

At first, she says nothing. Her eyes, those mesmerizing liquid blue eyes, stare blankly off into space. You dab at her face with a napkin, hoping that the act of wiping away the eggs and the grease and the butter from her chin will somehow take the edge off the bombshell you've just dropped, but she remains cold and distant.

The way you figure it, there's no point in holding anything back now, so you start telling her all about it. About the bar in Evanston and how it was really more of a misunderstanding than anything else. A couple of guys tanked up on brews, and how one thing led to another with neither one of them sensible enough or sober enough to back away and not take everything so damn personal, except, of course, that neither one of them did. And the next thing you knew this lawyer that they assigned to you was advising you to plead to manslaughter and do the time. Five to ten guaranteed is better than putting your ass on trial for murder and risking twenty to life, he told you. And what the hell did you know because, at twenty-two, you were still a kid dumb enough to think that lawyers who work for free have your best interests at heart. You'd give your right arm, you tell her, if none of that had ever happened, except that, what with life being fickle the way it is, chances are the two of you would never have met if either one of you came into this moment with even a slightly different history.

You try to explain to her how life is like that. Like some great big jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces have to fit into these tiny little places exactly. You had to kill that guy, you tell her, just like she had to lose her husband and her sister's kid had to break his leg and all those other things, like prison and roulette, had to happen to the two of you along the way, just so you could meet when you did and get to this point where you are right now.

She doesn't look like she's buying it, so you reach out for her hand, but she pulls it away.

"Give me a minute," she says. She pushes aside the tray, gets out of bed and runs into the bathroom. You know she's crying in there. And you know that it's your fault. You feel badly for what you've done and decide to give her some space. You don't know what else to do. You take the breakfast tray downstairs and start cleaning up the kitchen.

When she comes down, she's dressed as she was when you first met her, in the black cocktail dress – except this time she's holding a gun. She sits down at the kitchen table and motions for you to do the same.

"Carl," she says, "do you love me?"

Of course you do, you tell her.

"How much?" she asks.

You're not sure how to answer this. The gun staring you in the face makes it hard to think. You stumble all over yourself trying to find the words, the right words. The words that will make her put down the gun.

"Carl," she interrupts, "do you love me as much as I love you?"

You have no idea how much that is – not anymore, not with that gun in your face – but you tell her that you do because you want to go on living.

"That's very good, Carl," she says. "Because, you see, I hate your guts."

You ask her if that's because you didn't tell her about your past, about how you did time in Joliet.

"No, Carl. That's not it. I already knew about that. In fact, I've known about it for five years now."

Five years? How could this woman know something about you from five years ago? You just met her last week. You ask her if she's sure she's right about the time.

"Yes, Carl, I'm sure. Five years and seven months, to be exact. Ever since my husband was killed in a bar fight."

Something's not right here. You remind her how she told you her husband had been killed in a farm accident of some kind back in Iowa.

"Carl," she says as she gets up from the table and walks around behind you, "let's try to put two and two together here, shall we? I lied to you, okay? It's as simple as that. Why, I don't even know as I've ever even been to Iowa."

Suddenly, it all becomes clear. What you thought was a chance meeting in Vegas – and everything that followed; the roulette wheel, the dinner, the wedding – was really by design. The woman had been stalking you. Hunting you. And now that you've figured it out, it's too late. You hear her cock the hammer. You prepare yourself for the final seconds of your life here on Earth.

Except that it makes no sense that she should pretend to fall in love with you and marry you and then turn around and shoot you. You ask her why she didn't kill you outright when she first saw you.

"Oh, Carl, don't you understand? I'm not going to shoot you. You see, the pain is not in the dying. The pain is in having to go on living. That's where the pain is, Carl. In having to go on living without the one person you ever truly loved. Believe me, Carl, I know. I know that pain. And that's the pain I want you to feel for the rest of your life."

You want to tell her that she's wrong. That she's wrong about you, and about life and pain and love and everything else you can think of. But, before you get a chance to speak, the gun goes off. The noise of it explodes in your ears, and you wonder for a moment if you're still alive. You're relieved when you feel her arm brush against you. You turn around and see that her body has fallen to the floor. Blood flows out from under the back of her head and forms puddles on the warped linoleum. Her eyes, her lifeless liquid blue eyes, remain open. Caught in a beam of early morning sunlight that comes through the window above the sink, they sparkle like precious gemstones – like sapphires.

BIO: Michael Pelc lives on the west coast of Florida with his wife and the obligatory black cat (un chat noir). His stories have been published on various websites including A Twist of Noir, MicroHorror, Crimson Highway, and Thrillers Killers and Chillers.


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I enjoyed that and the twist got me - I figured she'd shoot him but then I couldn't see the point of the wedding and so forth. And then when the twist came it all made perfect sense. A great little story.

Christopher Grant said...

Michael really put the fatale in femme fatale with Martha, didn't he?