I wonder why there are suicide notes and murder confessions, but not vice versa. Whoever heard of a murder note? Not me. Sometimes a smell brings to mind a song. Sometimes a song brings to mind a memory. But a memory never conjures up a smell. Something should be done about that.
My wife. She’s done a lot of things I regret. Irresponsible. Reprehensible. Clandestine. Told a lot of lies. Fudged a lot of truths. While I spent all night searching in Constantinople, she was banging in Istanbul. Such bull. It’s not as much fun as they make it sound.
Once, early in our relationship, we lay abed watching a pornographic videotape I’d discovered in the abandoned house next door. ‘Next door’ being three miles down the gravel road.
On the video, a man and woman made frenzied love while a wriggling blanket of cockroaches swarmed over their naked, writhing bodies. The only two things that will survive a nuclear war are cockroaches and pornography. Count on it. These cockroaches were skittering everywhere, as if they were looking for somewhere to hide. I was clenched up tighter than a guy hoping to create a diamond from the lump of coal (or at least a relatively presentable cubic zirconium). It can be done, but usually it’s just dung.
Dung beetles. Now that would be something to see. But no. We had cockroaches in the scene, cockroaches on the screen. One raced across the glass and dropped onto the cigarette burn-scarred bureau. Another explored the upper reaches of the rabbit ears I’d placed atop the set.
The thin woman on screen shivered, the cockroaches skittered. They parted on the man’s back. I imagined Moses parting the Red Sea, and briefly considered parting my hair down the middle as well. My wife turned to me then, and spit a cockroach onto my chest. Damn woman drove me batty. I thought that’d be a good thing, since bats eat bugs, but I struck out again. Bats eat certain bugs, but cockroaches are not on the menu. Not part of the batting order. Three strikes with my useless bat and I was out.
Out of sorts. Out of ideas. Out of commission. Out and about seeking commiseration.
On the gravel road (out and about seeking…) an invisible beam pulled me backward. My inner workings were infused with a sensation of exhilaration, like a child on their first carnival ride. A voice from somewhere in the distance said, “Leave your canes and walkers, you won’t need them now.” I saw a sun-bleached tennis ball and a ghostly afterimage of a skinny old farm dog. As I sped past, I reached down, picked up the ball, and threw it. The dog chased it, retrieved it, worried it, and presented it, but by then I was far out of reach. The dog would have to find someone else to play fetch. I wished I could encounter a young lady whose lips looked very fetching. But I knew I wouldn’t, not way out here. What had I been thinking when we purchased this rural relic? Solitude and privacy? Instead, we have decrepitude and insanity.
At last, the beam pulling me backward slowed and I stopped my journey (not that it came to an end, per se) near the city limits. I turned to see a wall of television screens in a shattered store window. “Technology cannot help you,” the newscaster on TV said.
“Coat Hanger Alley.”
“Excuse me?” I asked. Christ, this corner is crowded.
“Coat hanger alley.” Someone else stood nearby, his face covered in enough grime that only the whites of his eyes and the yellows of his teeth showed clearly.
The newscaster onscreen looked irritated. A problem with the contrast left him looking irradiated. Or like his colon needed to be irrigated. Then: (colon) I paused to assess the situation and idly wondered how asses had backed back into the back of my mind again for the first time.
“Religion can’t help you.” This from the man on the multiple screens.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me (sell me) but—”
“Coat Hanger Alley is where your (her) problems began and begin, over and over again.”
“I don’t know what you…” I looked again at the TV newscaster.
I looked away. He stopped.
“Time most assuredly does NOT heal all wounds.” The filthy-faced man danced a lick, widened his stance. “But time DOES wound all heels.”
I turned back to the newscaster to see if he’d seen. He scowled. “Psychoanalysis can’t…”
I looked at the dancing man. He kicked his heels, twirled around a lamppost that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Christ, this corner is crowded! This observation cluttered and crowded my thoughts. And to think earlier I had resented the desolation.
“…can’t help you. Damn it!” The newsman said. “I can’t help, if you don’t pay attention!”
I gaped at the newsman. On screen, he was waxing wroth.
“NO MORE HANGERS!” The filthy-faced dancing man howled into my face. My cheeks rippled like an astronaut in a g-force simulator. The television screens shattered and went dark. The grubby man spun on his heel and departed for parts unknown. The grime from his face still hung in the air, like a lingering trace of a backward glare.
A great number of people are seated just behind me but it’s no use looking. When I turn my head I know they’ll be gone. My wife drinks. Drink, drank, drunk. She drowns her sorrows, her yesterdays, and her tomorrows.
Once, I looked over to see her trapped. She’d been trying to suck out the last drop, no doubt about it, and no bout adout it. Built up so much air pressure that she ended up getting pulled inside the bottle as a result. She tapped on the glass, a helium baby doll voice crying in the desert to avoid her just desserts.
I’m nothing if not a devoted husband. I smashed the bottle. I had to get her out, didn’t I? But the police didn’t like the bruises on the side of her melon (melon balls soaked in Everclear, by watch and warrant) and I spent six days behind bars. She spent six days in them.
It’s gotten so bad I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone who contributed to her constantly aching jaws. My life is a funhouse mirror maze but none of the reflections are of me. I can’t look anybody in the eye anymore. I’ve tried to take the high road; she got high. I went down the rabbit hole but all I found were snakes. I tried to find the needle in the haystack; she got pricked. Yet she’s always on the offensive. I scurry to avoid confron…
(wait for it)
(wait for it…)
(here she comes)
(“Brace yerself, laddie!”)
She does the crimes while I do the time. I can’t find any sense in that. No damn sense at all. What all of this has to do with hi-balls, happy endings, and the high cost of living, scholars have yet to determine.
We have a son. Never have I felt so all alone. I’m certain he’s mine, but she’s not convinced he’s hers. I would try to tell her it doesn’t work that way but it does no good to add peanut butter to cotton mouth, and I find I cannot speak.
His name is Weird because he was born with a short tail. (But that’s a short tale for another day. And a good day it will be. As my Lakota friend, Alvin, would say, “Wašte.” This is not pronounced ‘waste,’ rhyming with ‘haste,’ but instead sounds like ‘wash day,’ which is a good day indeed.)
If my wife gets her wish, the boy will change his name from Weird to Ward. Middle name: ‘Of the State.’ I don’t wish to be rid of him, but I do admit that’s a strong sounding name. It brings to mind the dignified cold of marble steps, the bite of stale coffee, and the gentle clatter of fingertips on keyboards. Perhaps I’ll suggest the name change in my murder note. Or my suicide confession.
He got a ride home from school with some strangers who held a slightly different set of values; they threatened to remove one of his eyes with a grapefruit spoon and blinded him with empty rhetoric and glittering generalities during the long drive.
Wind shrieked through impassive barbwire fencing as Weird sat at the cluttered kitchen table wrestling with numeric values. Of his mother, we saw no sign.
“What’s seventy plus—never mind.”
“One hundred and forget it.”
“I see.” Clearly, he did not. But I (eye) did.
“Tell me the Who, What, When, Where, and Sometimes Y of your future, Weird.”
“I hear dogs mocking.” My son leaned back, traced one open palm with a bleeding hangnail finger. “They’re warning me to warsh my hands. Lather up with hot, soapy water to kill all the snakes and germans. There’s so many germans on my fingertips they make me feece. I’m afraid to bite them because they’ll bite me back.”
The little liar. “What elts?”
“I won’t have to hang out with kids who are toby, or act like toeballs. I will get rich and crich and sit behind my own monogamy desk kicked back and smoking a bick. Girls will line up to show me their pollypeetings.”
I understand his words, but not the sentiment. I masked my stupidity with a grin. “What elts?”
“There is no ‘t’ in else, Father.”
I put my smile away for a more suitable occasion. My son, restless, always in motion, had become imprisoned within his chair. I could see him behind the bars. But they called them slats. Wide ones are known as splats. That’s what they said anyway. ‘They’ being the police. The slats were for Weird, the bars were for me.
I was angry with my spouse, but took that anger out on my offspring. Smack-smack with a broken slat. I nearly died under the avalanche of remorse. Some days, I wish I had. Déjà vu all over again, for the first time.
Eleventy-teen years later they released/sentenced me to be a prisoner of the Real World. We tried to rebuild, my wife and I. Big Shot and Miniature Man. We had a full house, what with me, myself and I, all our collective demons, plus her and all her baggage squeezed in under one leaky roof.
We had the perfect place. It had a trap door and a sinister-looking painted portrait with the eyes cut out. We took turns standing between the walls staring at each other.
I learned to avoid most of the ugliness. I just back away. Backtrack, backpedal, back down, back off.
For better or worse, we stayed in our old house outside of town: The Slanted Mansion, a dysfunctional domicile.
I made a habit of staying up late. I’d stare at the menacing sky, wondering where the sun hid itself until it dawned on me. Then I’d stumble to bed only to wake to shades of grey, the bed heaped with blankets, pressing me down. I try so damned hard to find hope and happiness, but I’m Noah without an ark, treading water, writhing and twisting in sweat-soaked sheets.
We’ve draped ourselves in shawls of sorrow. When they begin to fray, we’re torn between letting them unravel and fastidiously mending them. Our son? He’s dead.
My wife hosted a reception the day Weird died. We didn’t know yet, you understand. She was aflutter, a social butterfly, black widow and praying/preying mantis all in one. I suppose that was to be expected. Men and women I did not know had congregated in a room separated from the rest of the house by a vault-like door.
A ghoulish face atop a baggy suit stood at our door. The boy, he explained, had done something wrong. Perhaps a sin of pride or anger though I didn’t ask and never knew for certain. The punishment had already been carried out. He said we had to “(Self) Identify (with) the body.” I could read between the lines.
My wife seemed to be enjoying her moment so I bore the news alone. The face atop the suit drove me to the morgue. The journey itself lasted one thousand years, give or take a century. Thanks to that visit—an experience branded white-hot onto my scarred soul—I now have ensconced in my psyche the exception to the rule: a memory that conjures up a smell. The chemical stew of strong cleansers and the trace odor of cinnamon gum on his lips as I kissed him goodbye fill my nostrils every time the memory returns.
At home, I revealed to my wife the devastating news only after the last of the party’s attendees had departed.
We grieved. We raged. We wept and worried. I clung to the last vestiges of sanity, with unclear results. We still had our skeletons cohabitating in crowded closets. Sometimes we dragged them out to gnaw at the gristle hanging from the bones.
“Hey, Dial Tone, you’re phoning it in.” My wife said.
“Then stop answering my calls.”
Eat. Work. Sleep. Repeat.
“I didn’t like your beard at first but it grew on me.”
“You daft cow, it grew on me.”
Earn. Over-spend. Borrow. Repeat.
“Don’t be jealous because he’s huge. It felt like getting filled by a bar stool.”
“You would know.”
Wash. Rinse. Spit. Repeat.
Now she’s smashed all the light bulbs in the house. Thinks that will stop me from having any bright ideas. Au contraire. I can do what I need to in the dark.
It’s our anniversary—nineteen years: a special date. Am I in the mood to celebrate, or to suffocate under a pillow of self-hate? I don’t want to eat the crow that’s on my… my… serving dish.
Both glasses are filled with wine. “I’d like to propose a toast.”
Both glasses are filled with whine. How our cups runneth over!
Both glasses are filled with strychnine.
ICD-10, enough poison to kill a mischief of rats. Poison enough to kill a nest of mice. Or a murder of crows, were they to eat the poisoned rats or mice. As I already stated, I don’t want to eat crow, but I will drink from my cup. The poison my farmer father purchased to kill moles a decade before they changed the active ingredient to zinc phosphide. My wife has moles. I hate them so! Or rather, I hate them, so…
“I propose a toast, my Love, my Loathing, my sun and moon and stars. Hush, now, and chug-a-lug! No, don’t look at me like that.”
I’ve seen more intelligence in the eye of a live chicken, but there is also a glimmer of suspicion. I am in stasis, like an insect in amber, as my wife considers. She suspects. She… hopes? Yes, she sees the truth in my eyes. She knows. She drinks, and so do I.
“Finished, my love? As am I. And so, we are both finished. Roll the credits. I’ve composed something to mark the occasion. Not a sonnet, nor a poem. Not even a dirty limerick. It’s a murder note. Or is it a suicide confession?”
“Read it quickly, before the spasms begin, before the convulsions kick in. Soon will come the lockjaw and risus sardonicus, muscles twisting our faces into garish grins.
“It feels so good to finally have a reason to smile again.”
About the Author
Adrian Ludens’ fiction has been published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and several dozen anthologies, the newest of which is Violent Vixens (Dark Peninsula Press). A Murder of Storytellers LLC published his short story collection, Ant Farm Necropolis, and his newest collection, Bottled Spirits, is forthcoming from Dark Owl Publishing. Professional sales include Blood Lite III: Aftertaste (Pocket Books), The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories (Running Press), and Gothic Fantasy Science Fiction Short Stories (Flame Tree Publishing), among others. Adrian lives with his family in the Black Hills of South Dakota where he works as a rock radio host.