THE PERFECT ANGEL - J.R. LINDERMUTH
Originally published at Mouth Full of Bullets in December 2006
"My wife's been a perfect angel since I killed her," Dickie Tobin says.
Dickie's a regular at Donovan's but he's not one of us, if you know what I mean. He's always hanging around but it's like he's one of the bar stools, the juke box or the smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke. Like, he's not from the neighborhood. He just don't belong.
So nobody pays any attention the first time he says it. Maybe some of the guys don't even hear, he's so soft-spoken and what with the click of pool balls, the TV blaring and the normal bullshit you have in a place like this.
When he repeats it I'm standing right next to him, tossing darts with Clive. I stop with my arm in the air, turn around to see if I heard right. "What're you mumblin' about, Dickie?"
He sips his Martini, swivels on the stool and looks up at me with eyes big as an owl's behind those thick glasses of his. Dickie's the only guy I know would come in Donovan's and order a Martini. That's what he does, though. Nurses two of them through the best part of the night, then he's gone as if he was never here. "You don't believe I killed her, do you?" he asks with a smile.
"Fuck you talkin' about, Dickie?" Jimmy Spinosa says from the next stool over. "I just seen you and Rae Jean night before last and she looked as live-lee as ever."
Dickie nods. "She's a perfect angel now."
I don't know about the killing part, but angel describes the way she looks. Rae Jean is the kind of woman stops a man dead in his tracks when he sees her no matter what he's doing. If there was a woman like her waiting at home I know I wouldn't be hanging around Donovan's.
"You gonna throw or what?" Clive says, nudging me on the shoulder with his finger tips. He's the kind don't like to be kept waiting when he's involved in something. Even simple things like darts he takes serious.
"You hear what Dickie said?" I ask.
"Who gives a shit?"
"Says he killed his old lady," Jimmy puts in.
Dickie gives him a glib smile. "Been a perfect angel since," he says in that meek little voice.
Even Donovan sidles over now, pretending to wipe the bar, which is bone dry. Aside from drink and food orders, the old man usually don't pay attention to any talk except his own.
"You gonna throw?" Clive asks, impatient.
I toss, but my mind's not on it. Normally I'm pretty good, but I have to be concentrating. Right now I'm thinking about Rae Jean and Dickie.
We've known her since grade school and we've all wanted her since we were old enough to think about those things. Rae Jean was always a tease. Once she let me cop a feel; nothing more. Far as I know, nobody else scored either. Clive says he did, but I don't believe it.
You've got to know Clive to understand. Clive always has to be the one does what nobody else can. I mean, not that he's a bad looking guy and doesn't make out with a lot of women. But this is Rae Jean we're talking about. I just don't believe it. We've been best buddies forever; at least that's how I feel about it. Clive, he don't need nobody. But I know him as well as anybody. And I know her.
Anyway, we all got the hots for her and what does she do? Up and marries some nobody from across town.
I mean, Dickie's an accountant, for crissake. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But he's the stereotype of accountants, meek little guy always buttoned up in a suit and tie, couldn't give her one real night, let alone a lifetime of loving.
"Come on," Clive says, irritated. "Let's shoot darts. Little guy's just lookin' for attention."
"That's what you would have liked, isn't it?" Dickie says, stars of light shooting off his eyeglass frames as he turns his head.
Clive spins around and I thought he was going to deck him. But he doesn't. Just stands there, glaring.
"Think I don't know?" Dickie says. "You were always coming on to her. Even in front of me, like I didn't matter. But you didn't get anywhere, did you?"
"Give me another beer, Donovan," Clive says, leaning on his big forearms over the bar.
"Truth is, she despised you. Couldn't stand your arrogant manner, the grease under your fingernails. Said you smell like the inside of an old car. She told me how you tried to take her in high school and she kneed you and you couldn't stand straight for a week."
Clive grips the bottle so hard I thought it would bust. "That's not..."
Dickie raises a hand, smiles at him. "You weren't the only one." He glances around at us, that shit-eating grin still on his face. "I think she got off getting men aroused. Sometimes she got me so hot I couldn't stand it. Then she'd shut down cold and I'd have to do what little boys do. But not anymore. Had a good one before I came down here. Might have another when I got home."
Clive takes his beer and walks over to the jukebox, back to us.
"Thought you said you killed her?" Dan Krenshaw asks, stepping away from the hot game of pool he's been having with Ed Fenwick. I mean, everybody is listening now. Donovan even turns down the TV.
Dickie nods. "Give me a pack of Winstons," he says in a louder than normal voice.
"Never knew you smoked," Donovan says, sliding a pack across the bar.
"Only after sex," Dickie tells him, peeling off the cellophane. "Just like in the movies." He fingers out a cigarette, clenches the filter between his teeth and strikes a match. The flame glows twice its size reflected in his glasses as he lights up. Then he giggles. "Guess it never became a habit because I smoked so seldom."
"You're just puttin' us on, ain't you?" Krenshaw says. "You didn't really kill her."
Dickie blows a smoke ring and pushes his glass over for a refill. "Oh, but I did."
"Yeah, so how'd you do it?" Spinosa asks. "Beat the shit out of her? Stick her with a butcher knife?"
"Actually, I drowned her."
"Was you foolin' around in the tub?" Donovan says.
Dickie reddens, takes a drink and another drag on his cigarette.
"I've heard enough of this bullshit," Clive says, striding back and slamming his empty bottle down on the bar. His beefy paw shoots out and grips Dickie around the throat and lifts him from his seat.
"Clive, no!" I shout, putting a restraining hand on his shoulder. Spinosa takes him from the other side and we pull him off.
Clive stands there between us, panting, face twisted up with anger, fists clenching and unclenching at his sides. Dickie sits down as if nothing has happened, adjusts his tie, picks up the cigarette that has fallen onto the bar and snuffs it. Then he lights another.
Spinosa looks at Clive and me, shakes his head. Firing up one of those Italian stogies he likes but can't smoke no more in his hack because of the health laws, he slides onto his stool again. "Clive didn't mean no harm," he tells Dickie. "He just don't like to be fooled with."
"Who does?" Dickie tells him. He twists his neck around to face Clive. "I understand and I accept your apology."
"I didn't make none," Clive growls.
"Let me buy you a drink."
"Let me buy everyone a drink, Donovan." He pulls out his wallet and plunks down some bills.
Dickie faces Clive again while Donovan is doing what he does best. "She hurt you. She hurt me." He glances around at the rest of us. "Hell, she hurt all of us."
We hang our heads, toy with our drinks, embarrassed. No one says anything for a while. I guess nobody wanted to believe Rae Jean was as bad as he said or that he was capable of doing what he said he'd done.
"Why are you givin' us all this shit?" Clive asks. "What guy in his right mind is gonna kill his wife and then come braggin' in a bar like he's just won a bet on the Phillies?"
"You still don't believe me, do you?"
"Hell no. I don't believe it."
"Well, it's true."
"So, why are you tellin' us?" I ask, still doubting.
"Because I wanted you all to know. I done it for all of us."
"You little prick," Clive says, face ashen. "I oughta."
"What? Call the cops. I don't care. I expect I'll be seeing them soon enough."
Fenwick - he's always been an asshole - lays down his cue and walks up, rubbing his hands together, swiveling his head back and forth, nervous-like. "Maybe we oughta get out of here before we become, whadya call it? - accomplices after the fact."
"Screw you," Krenshaw says. "Leave if you wanna."
"None of you have to worry. I'm the one did it."
"But why, Dickie?" I ask again.
He looks up at me with the saddest expression I've ever seen on a man's face, his big eyes glistening with tears. "Because I loved her."
I still don't want to believe, but it's starting to sink in now, hard, that he really has done what he says. Woman torments a man enough, I guess she could drive him crazy and make him do what he wouldn't ordinarily. Looking at him I have this vision of him humping away over her dead body, getting what she withheld too often while she was still breathing.
"Said she was going to leave me," he said, quietly.
We, guilty I guess, looked at one another. But, Dickie shook his head. "Not with any of you," he said. "She didn't say with anyone; just that she was going to leave me. I should have been glad. Maybe I was at first. I mean, she made my life miserable. She spent every cent I made, never was nice to me, made me do things I didn't wanna, always raggin' on me. But I loved her, you see." He looks at us as though in search of sympathy.
"They're gonna fry you, man," Fenwick says. "You know that, doncha?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Why didn't you just beat her up?" Donovan puts in.
"I thought of that, but she still would have gone."
Jimmy Spinosa shrugs his narrow shoulders. "So? She's not the only woman in the world."
Dickie looks over at him and a strange little smile twists his lips. Then, he goes on. "I was washing her hair when she told me. Oh, that wasn't something she made me do. I loved doing it. She had such pretty hair. Got me all excited, soaping it up and running my fingers through it. She liked it, too. It made her lazy and vulnerable. Sometimes it helped me get her sweet for a little while - like she was when we first got married. It was while I was rinsing her hair she told me she was leaving."
Dickie pauses, takes a long final drag on his cigarette, then grinds it out. When he speaks again, it's from behind a thick veil of smoke and his voice sounds like it comes from another place deep down inside.
"I don't even really remember doing it. But after a while, there I was straddling her, my hands still around her throat and that beautiful hair spread out like a wreath on the water encircling her white face."
"Bullshit! I don't believe it," Clive says.
"I don't care what you believe," Dickie answers, looking for the first time like a man capable of almost anything.
No one speaks, not even Clive, for what seems an awful long time and it's as still and quiet as I've ever known it to be in Donovan's.
BIO: J.R. Lindermuth is a retired newspaper editor/writer and has published six novels, including three in the Sticks Hetrick mystery series. He has also published short stories in a variety of magazines, among them Mouth Full of Bullets, A Cruel World and Crime And Suspense.