Friday, October 8, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 591 - Fred Zackel


Earl Eggers’s wife was saying something, but drowsy from his medication Earl had no idea what she was saying.

But he knew he was still in the Mayo Clinic. Still in ICU.

Still fresh off his heart attack, he was stoned out of his mind, conscious but helpless. He was powerless to move. He could neither walk nor chew gum. Hell, he couldn’t even open his eyes. He was sweating and freezing at the same time.

He kept his eyes closed. He lay there in fragments that would need to gather together before he could be made whole or even conscious.

In the distance he heard his wife Annette groaning in disbelief, or maybe groaning in appreciation of a story being told well. Then she groaned again, even louder.

Annette was in ICU with him. With somebody else, too. He heard that voice, too, but he couldn’t tell if it were male or female.

Earl knew if he could open his eyes his wife Annette would be at his bedside. She might be watching him: her lazy cornflower blue eyes, her perpetually sideways grin, that wonderfully long platinum-blonde hair, a sunflower yellow summer dress, probably a brand-new white cowboy hat, and her crimson pseudo-cowboy shoes from Nordstrom.

He still loved her so. Lord, he loved her. He knew the truth: She never loved him, but in exchange for child support, she had kept him comfortable.

Annette was saying, “How’s your new lover working out?”

“He makes me feel like an oyster being shucked.”

She coughed. “Jessie, you should write that down.”

He could just barely open his eyes. He saw only his sister-in-law leaning forward in a chair. Horsey face, shallow and snobbish and very long fingers. Anorexic by nature and by constant book publicity tours, she still had chubby legs that looked like inverted bowling pins.

She wasn’t looking his way. Neither of them was.

He had a splitting headache.

He noticed her black pinstriped pantsuit.

Was she in mourning?

She kept on talking, but the words did not register. She was braiding her curls with her fingers. She had terminal boredom, he understood.

Everybody thinks of killing their in-laws, he thought.

But where would I hide her body?

He moved his head. Fractionally. And saw his wife in a chair opposite her sister.

She was playing with her curls. And her left leg was bouncing up and down; her concentration would be elsewhere. Earl understood that she was bored. He had seen those tells before. Thirty-eight years ago she had them at their wedding reception. Back then he hadn’t known any better.

He kept his eyes closed. I don’t want to look at them.

His parents tried to warn himself against marrying Annette. But with the confident righteousness of those men perpetually guilty of something or other, he pressed on, stubborn, plowing like an icebreaker in the Arctic through the frigid ceremony and then plowing through these past thirty-seven years, as though each day had never been that much of an obstacle to conquer.

They came west after the marriage. In the early 1960s, her older sister and her husband moved out to Phoenix to both work in an aerospace plant.

Annette loved Phoenix, especially the sunsets. She would sit for hours, sun tea in hand, as the night came and deepened around her. The dry lightning brightening the black of night in the hills to the east. The pools of irrigation water under the lemon trees out front in the morning.

“Tell no one where we live,” his wife said.

She kept a gun under her pillow.

He never learned why. Still, he told no one.

In Arizona, Annette had her sister. Earl found he was alone. Phoenix, to Earl, was not a desert town but a desert island. He found it hard to make friends, hard to share with others, felt lost as if he was in the hall of mirrors. He found himself alone, without friends, without companions, alone even at home.

With little comfort anywhere, he threw himself into work and self-improvement. Yes, even though his incredibly well-paying, glamorous job as president of a Phoenix advertising agency was always precarious, he himself had survived, if not triumphed over the obstacles of his life. If his life was a staircase he was climbing, he stood close to the top of the stairs.

On the other hand, their marriage had been a rougher journey. He slept in no one’s bed but hers. His mistake, of course. The price I paid, he thought.

At times, her needs were as great as his. At least at first. At least for a while. But the longer they were married, the more she changed her mind and that was when she resisted as violently as she could – every time.

She would break it off and shove him.

Twenty-seven of those thirty-eight years together she would undress with the lights off and come to bed in a flannel nightie that reached her ankles.

The sex they had came with the lights off.

But she refused to divorce him.

Now they were middle-aged and overweight and tired, and now there was an emptiness about her, like a woman who had lost her child, and he was thinking how he could not move on.

So much had changed. When we bought our first place, he thought, we were on the north side of Camelback Mountain. Rattlesnakes and creosote and tumbleweed. Now it’s part of the downtown city.

The city limits had moved twenty miles north.

And we moved south, across the mountain.

For most of the years of their marriage, Earl and Annette Eggers lived in a 1950s yellow ranch-style in Arcadia, a suburban blur between Phoenix and Scottsdale, near 40th and Indian School Road. He did miss that place. The house was old and tired and the property was small and pinched. But he had an orange tree and a lime tree in his front yard and two lemon trees in his backyard, flanking his tiny sea-foam green swimming pool. He had put that lawn, those trees, in himself. He had a carport that creaked in any stiff wind from the north, or the monsoons from the southwest. He had always loved the house, love at first sight, and she had always hated it.

Now they lived in this brand-new, custom-construction, this McMansion once again north of Camelback Mountain, in Cougar Estates, an enclave on the north slope of Camelback. Truth be told, Arizona never had any cougars in the desert. But the concrete walls that kept them in were built on fears, like the Great Wall of China.

Outside, the house was bright pistachio green; inside it was bright salmon pink. The size of the mortgage gave him pause. Dear Lord, let me live long enough to pay off my debts.

In truth, even that debt didn’t matter. Before his heart attack, Annette and the bank manager had him sign some kind of survivor’s insurance that, if he died, she owned all this house free and clear.

In truth, he might be worth more dead than alive.

Earl kept his eyes closed. From the scratchy sounds he heard along with her grating voice, his sister-in-law was both talking and writing furiously in the small green notebook she always carried.

Earl always assumed she was keeping track of her sexual fantasies so she could turn them into best-selling fiction.

Before he met his future wife, Annette was one of two sisters, fraternal twins but both girlish. One sister was taller while the other had darker eyebrows. They resembled each other so much. The shorter one had a slightly thicker neck, while the taller had a face slightly less wide. Both were brunettes.

But almost forty years had passed.

Now they were both hard-boiled blondes.

His sister-in-law Jessie -- a sixty-year-old cataract of peroxide blonde curls surrounding a hard-bitten, hard-ridden face -- wrote best-selling erotic romances about a feminist sex kitten fighting for power in a world of hard knocks.

The sex kitten’s name was always different, but their stories were all the same. Hard-boiled Cinderellas who never lost a match.

Jessie was a New York Times best-selling writer. Women bought her books like they were tampons. No man had ever heard of her or her books. But then men didn’t bother reading anymore.

He caught a whiff of her perfume.

He hated her smell. His sister-in-law smelled like an apple orchard of windfalls. The heavy smell of apples about to ripen.

Recently she had married her third husband.

For his soft slow hands, she claimed.

Even now she was saying, “This morning we lay naked together. Oh, I was pleased how closely he held me. My nightgown was knee-length, but it was pushed up around my boobs.”

Earl dimly heard his wife’s grunt of sisterhood.

Co-conspirators, he thought, in women’s pornography. He didn’t care what they fantasized about. Like all women, they were stuck with the men in their lives.

Punishment enough, he thought, amused by life’s ironies.

Her third husband. The first two dead, their fortunes left behind.

What else did he know about the empty, soulless bitch?

Earl drifted in and out of consciousness.

Annette’s sister’s name was Jessie.

“Short for Jezebel,” she bragged, which it wasn’t.

To Earl, Jessie was a blood-daubed mummy in a wig.

She had let her hair grow to nipple-length and parted in the middle. She had treated it too many times with toxic chemicals and then ratted it.

The result, in a woman in her mid-sixties, was hideous.

She had deep-set eyes that she kept slathered in kohl-like eyeliner, until now her eyes look like a raccoon’s. She had hollowed checks and a pointed chin. A long boney nose, on a skeletal frame, a long stringy chicken neck and a head too big for her narrow shoulders.

Her eyebrows, Earl knew, were tattooed in place.

Her mouth was like a bloody razor’s slit.

Look up the word garish and her picture was there.

Once, he had joked, “She’s so ugly, the state gave her a handicapped sticker for her dashboard,” and Jessie walked in on the conversation.

Luckily for Earl, his sister-in-law was so oblivious to him, she didn’t realize she was the butt-ugly subject of his joke. With a sidestep or two, and one of his trademark charming smiles, she too laughed at the garish picture. She then wrote it in her notebook. She used it in her next book.

Once, Earl looked at her high school photographs in his wife’s yearbook. His sister-in-law was the only girl in the varsity cheerleading team wearing a pearl necklace to the photo shoot. The bitch.

She loved money. Drop a fiver in front of her, he once joked, and she’ll spend it before it touches ground. Annette had smacked him across the face for that crack. The sting still lingered.

Hold her hand and she’ll steal your ring.

Her goal in life, if she had one, was to break up happy marriages.

She chewed her cuticles and wrote entirely in green ink.

Earl drifted back their way. I could buy her calendars, he mused.

The Hallmark store sold calendars of her books’ covers.

Annette’s sister was very vain, especially after her last plastic surgery, and now there were mirrors everywhere in her sunset pink Camelback castle. Just taking off her jewelry, she needed to see herself in a mirror.

“She’s famous,” a secretary at his agency once said.

Back then, Jessie was a beautiful woman but even back then she had the cunning of an ugly one.

Jessie was saying, “He had reached in under the hem and had grabbed hold of the far side of my night gown. Even though he was still fast asleep, he had my naked flesh gripped tightly against his naked body.”

Earl thought about opening his eyes to shut her up. But he couldn’t quite open them yet. Besides, then he’d be an accomplice in their conversation, a fate worse than death. As whacked out as he was, Earl knew that, if he were to come awake, no way he could come out on top here. Not even a tie. Not with these two sisters.

His goal was to get these two women out of his ICU.

“Tedious bitch,” he muttered.

No one heard him.

His wife said, “Are you going to marry this one?”

“Of course I am. He’s got girth where it counts.”

Annette told her sister, “You’re falling for the wrong guy again.”

“I won’t admit it. Not yet. Oh, I’m lying.”

His wife laughed. Then they both laughed.

Earl would have groaned if he could.

Annette’s sister was still bitter over her last divorce. Earl didn’t know why. She took the Poor Bastard by the jaguar and stripped him down to penniless poverty. She resented that the Poor Bastard couldn’t face her grotesque body anymore. Earl felt for the Poor Bastard. Some women should be grateful any man schlepped them for any length of time. Didn’t they look in the mirror and see what they had become? Count your blessings, ladies.

“So tell me about your love life and I’ll turn you into fiction.”

“He watches me dress like a dog watches me dress.”

“Does he bark?”

His wife burst out laughing.

“Keep going with the animal imagery.”

“Earl mounts me like I’m a horse.”

Earl was hurt, but not resentful. I think I always knew she bad-mouthed me behind my back. But, geez, why does she lie? We haven’t had sex in months, maybe even more than a year. Until this moment Earl had blamed himself for that neglect. Now, at age sixty, he realized he would whack off.

Earl drifted like a stick on the ocean and then heard his wife saying, “He loves his blowjobs. Not that he's any good at getting one. All I have to do is put my lips on it, bam, there he comes.”

His sister-in-law said, “Positive efforts need to be rewarded.”

Earl decided he had heard enough about that.

He swam upwards towards the sunlight.

All he had to do was speak and they’d shut up for good.

“If Earl knew how much you hate him, his hair would stand on end.”

Adding to the cruelty, his wife had to add, “What hair he has left.”

The two sisters didn’t bother to laugh. They had matching dirty snickers.

He slowed, stopped, floated near the surface.

“I’m scared, Jessie,” his wife confided.

“Consider yourself lucky, Annette. The long term care in a nursing home is forty grand a year. Talk about impoverishing you or his estate.”

Why should he subject himself to her neurotic mood swings?

Better to remain in doubt than find out the truth.

Annette said, “He still refuses to make his own bed.”

He had heard as much as he needed to hear.

“Once he can no longer get an erection, he can always lick it.”

“He could read your books and get it up.”

“I caught him reading one of them.”

“Shall we get down to business, sister?”

“And you’re sure we’ll get away with this?”

“If you don’t do this now, I’ll use it in a book, and you’re never get free.”

His wife said, “Tell me again.”

“An overdose of insulin in a diabetic is like a heart attack.”

Jessie climbed up onto the bed and sat on Earl’s chest.

“When he’s unconscious, then we inject the insulin.”

Earl opened his eyes as the pillow came down around his face.

Annette said, “An overdose of insulin in a diabetic is like a heart attack.”

Then Earl felt the prick.



Jane Hammons said...

damn this is good!

jrlindermuth said...

Oh, those scheming blondes. Good stuff.

Joyce said...

Poor Earl; having to lie there and listen and just know what was coming. Absolutely outstanding story. Had me stuck to the screen from word one to the very end. Superb!

AJ Hayes said...

Last line is perfect. Double entandre if you count Earle, triple if you throw in the gals and if you count the horse, quadruple. Great ramping up the that last line. Cool!