We all went over to Pauline’s to admire her breasts. She was the newest member of our swingers group. For her coming out party she was hosting an afternoon barbecue at her place. A small, yellow-brick ranch on a cul-de-sac over off of Primrose.
When I got there, five or six members were wandering aimlessly in the back yard, drinking beer or soda pop direct from the can. I walked up to Pauline and kissed her on the cheek. Her chin-length weedy-brown hair smelled of coconut crème rinse, transporting me momentarily to a tropical shore. As I stepped back, her baby blues flashed wickedly.
“That’s a cool T-shirt you’re wearing,” Pauline said. It was a Smith’s T-shirt commemorating one of their albums. I’d bought it at a local indie record store.
“I wish I could say the same about yours,” I replied. I couldn’t because Pauline was naked as a wombat from the waist up.
We were standing at the brick grille in her back yard. Below her exposed belly button she sported a pair of camouflage micro-shorts two sizes too small (and camouflaging nada). The erotic ebb and flow of her ankles, the delicate arch of her feet and her toes tipped with tangerine-painted nails were displayed in orange flip-flops. Her breasts hung full and languid and translucent as a tide-worn shell.
“So, Bill, what do you think?” she said.
“Spectacular,” I said.
Apparently satisfied with my response, Pauline turned and began flipping the row of beef patties riddled with hormones sizzling on the grill.
When the burgers were done, we all lined up and helped ourselves to deli potato salad, Heinz Boston baked beans, garlic toast and an assortment of condiments. After dinner everyone got undressed. Six guys; five women. By then there were too many mosquitoes, so we adjourned to Pauline’s living room and had a rousing good time. Pauline did all the guys one way or another.
Afterwards people casually climbed back into their underwear, then the rest of their clothes, brushed their hair in the mirror above the sink in the single bathroom and left with a smile or a frown, depending on their psychological bent.
In the end there was just Pauline and I and Drew Baker.
Drew was drunk and high on some pills he’d scored down by the Greyhound bus station. He couldn’t find his pants anywhere. Staggering back and forth in a vain search, he stumbled over the end of the sofa and rolled onto the carpet, where he lay laughing his ass off at nothing in particular. Through the picture window behind him the sun’s fiery orb exploded in climax upon a cloud-strewn sky.
Pauline sashayed into the dining room, ostensibly to fix herself a highball and maybe put on some clothes. I watched her reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror on the opposite wall of the living room. Leaning over the brilliant surface of an old walnut table, a family heirloom, she hoovered up the last two lines of blow.
Moments later, still starkers, she walked back across the hall and stood in the arched entrance to the living room, holding a pair of medium gray slacks. Looking at her, I started to get stiff again.
Scrunching the pants into a ball, she threw them in my direction.
“These must be dickhead’s,” she said.
Her throw was way off. As the slacks arced toward the floor, I made a wild grab. And came up empty. Except my hand hit something solid in one of the pockets, knocking it loose.
The falling object was a white business envelope, stuffed to the gills with something solid. The envelope landed face down on the hardwood floor. Ka-thud. Fat, dumb and happy.
Kneecaps popping, I scrunched down on my heels like a dishdasha-clad Ali Baba waiting to be executed at the side of a dusty Mesopotamian byway and flicked open the unsealed flap of the envelope. An etching of Benjamin Franklin looked up at me.
I stared back, my blood quickening. Picking up the envelope, I ruffled through the wad of currency like a blackjack dealer with a new deck of cards. They were all brand new hundred-dollar bills. I guessed around ten thousand dollars worth.
I looked at Pauline and made a gargoyle face. It was a lot of money, ripe for the taking. Her eyes glinted with greed.
Drew stopped laughing and pushed himself up on his elbows. Suddenly he was completely sober.
“I’ll take that, please.”
Before I could respond, from out of left field Pauline vaulted across the room and, using the side of her foot just like a Manchester United goalie blasting the football into midfield, kicked Drew in the head.
Drew spoke nary another word. His body slumped sideways, head lolling at an odd angle.
What the fuck? I thought. What I said was:
“Where’d you learn to kick like that?”
“My three older brothers all played soccer,” Pauline said.
She looked down at her toes, at her nakedness, which suddenly seemed totally out of place. “I need to get dressed,” she said, “but I need a drink first”
Quickly she walked across the dining room and pushed through the swing door into the kitchen. I stared down at Drew. He looked like a goner. Which was a big fuckin’ problem. My brain, emptied of any thought, drifted like a circling vulture high above the Serengeti.
A scream echoed through my head. Then I realized it wasn’t just something my mind had dreamed up. It had come from the kitchen. Followed by a heavy crash, the shattering of glass, a harsh exhalation of breath. Then utter silence.
I tiptoed to the kitchen door and pushed it partway open before it struck something unyielding. The door was open enough for me to crane my head around the edge and peer into the kitchen. Directly below, Pauline lay face up on the linoleum floor, a sleeping naiad, a stoned-out party girl, a dead duck. The florescent lights exaggerated the royal purple capillaries entwined beneath her snow-white skin like veined marble from a gothic tomb. Her head acted as a blunt doorstop.
Near one twisted foot a melting clump of ice glinted in the overhead lighting. To the right of the body, a shattered glass-windowed display cabinet door hung from one mangled hinge. She must have slipped and fallen backwards against the cabinet with her full weight.
A splintered segment of wooden cabinet frame had pierced Pauline from back to front, its jagged point defiling the symmetry of her chest. A line of crimson spiked downward from the exit wound like the graph of a stock in freefall. Eyes wide open in an endless stare signaled the end of the line for Pauline. A pool of dark blood oozed from beneath her cadaver.
Two dead in less than five minutes. One the result of drug-induced random violence; the other a household accident gone rogue.
My brain whirled.
No one was going to fucking believe this. No one in law enforcement for sure. Not coming from the lips of a convicted felon, even if I’d paid my dues to society.
Well, officer, it’s like this. I met this woman at a swingers’ party. Afterwards, for no reason that I know of she kicked one of the participants in the head and broke his neck. Next moment, before I could do or say anything, she slipped on an ice cube on the kitchen floor, impaled herself on a sharp stick and died instantly. It’s God’s truth, officer.
Playing out this little scenario in my head, I located my boxers and slipped them on, followed by a pair of khakis and my Smith’s T-shirt. I hefted Drew’s envelope of money, then shoved it into my front pocket. As I did so, I wondered what he’d been doing with so much cash? Who it really belonged to?
What I needed to do first was get rid of the bodies.
A half hour later both stiffs, wrapped in blue recycling bags, lay in the trunk of Drew’s navy blue Volvo. I mopped the kitchen floor with Spic and Span. Wiped the dining room table clear of any coke residue I wasn’t able to snort.
The dead pair could have been ill-starred lovers from a work by James M. Cain, except they were all too real. So was the sweat that had soaked through my T-shirt. And the fear that burned at the bottom of my stomach like battery acid.
Through the entire clean-up job I wore a pair of suede garden gloves I found in Pauline’s pantry. I was still wearing them as I drove too slowly down Primrose. The Volvo steered like a fuckin’ Sherman tank.
Get a grip, I thought. Drive normally. If a cop pulls you over, you’ll have a hell of a time explaining the gloves. On further consideration it occurred to me that the gloves would be the least of my worries in the event of a traffic stop.
Once I’d merged onto Nolensville Road and blended with the usual early evening traffic, I dialed Suzie on my cell. She answered on the third ring:
The sound of her voice made everything relax, as though my psych meds had suddenly kicked in. The red-hot nails in my shoulders turned to ice. Everything is going to be okay, I thought.
“Hello!” came Suzie’s voice again, edged with irritation. “Is somebody there? Who the fuck is this?”
“Suzie. It’s Bill.”
“Hey Bill. Swell of you to call. How the fuck have you been?”
Before I could come up with a retort, her screaming voice exploded across the ether and into my ear.
“WHERE THE HELL ARE YOU?!”
Why is she being so adversarial? I wondered. We slept together; shared bodily fluids. Ate scrambled eggs and whole-wheat toast sitting across from each other in the breakfast nook, reading sections of the local rag. When had things gone south between us?
“I told you before, sweetheart. I’m showing some out-of-town clients around the better neighborhoods.”
“Yeah, right. I know you, Bill. I can smell it. Pussy juice. You’re at Chez Pussycat again. That’s exactly what you’re up to.”
“Suzie, I know it’s late. Just bear with me. I’ll be home soon.” I felt the fat envelope of money pressing against my gonads. “And I’ve got a surprise.”
“What kind of surprise?”
“The kind that dreams are made of.”
A silence descended as Suzie pondered my plagiarism. She didn’t have a clue.
“Bullshit,” she snapped. “You always talk in riddles. A fuckin’ James Joyce you are.”
Suzie had taken a couple of lit courses at the local community college. In fact, that’s where we’d met. Reading and discussing Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent. Suzie preferred Colette.
“Maybe this once I’m not bullshitting you.”
But she had lost interest.
“Have a good time at Chez Pussycat, Bill. Be sure to catch a life threatening social disease. And on your way home pick up some OJ at CVS.”
The line went dead.
I tossed my cell phone on the passenger seat and slammed my hand against the steering wheel. Ow! No fucking surprise for you, baby, I thought.
Soon I pulled the Volvo onto the soft shoulder in front of a half-built McMansion I knew of. I’d tried to sell the house a few times. But there were no takers in this market.
It was one of a dozen or so derelict construction sites located in an abandoned subdivision south of downtown. These crumbling, half-built homes prevaricated like street people waiting at a bus stop after the last bus has gone. The power company had turned off the electricity to the streetlights a long, long time ago.
When I stepped out of the car, my shoes scrunched on gravel. Peanuts grinding on molars. The sound of traffic far off. The squawk of a nighthawk overhead. I lit a roach I’d found in the ashtray and inhaled deeply.
A prefab shed surrounded by knee high weeds sagged in the open field behind the half-built house. Its corrugated roof cast the hard shadow of a Nazi officer’s cap. The sky behind was a deep purple bruise on a black woman’s thigh.
The shed had been dragged there from somewhere else, so there was no foundation, just a dirt floor.
When night swallowed the world, I eased the Volvo up a rutted dirt track as close as I could get to the shed. I left the Volvo’s lights off. Where a ditch cut the driveway in two, I stopped the car. From there the shed was maybe a dozen feet away.
I carried the bodies one at a time from the car to the shed. A bazillion stars, each colder than the diamond solitaire in a porn star’s bellybutton, provided enough light so I didn’t break my neck. Pauline I held in my arms like a bride. Stepping over the threshold, I dumped her nude corpse on top of Drew’s.
After depositing the bodies inside the shed, I bolted the door with the padlock I used for my locker at the Y. Tomorrow I would be back with a shovel and a couple of bags of lime.
Returning to Pauline’s neighborhood, I parked the Volvo behind a vacant office building four blocks from her place. Careful to take the leather gardening gloves, I left the doors unlocked and the key in the ignition slot. If I got lucky, someone would steal the car. Take it on a joyride to Chattanooga.
Minutes later I slipped behind the wheel of my Lexus, tucked the garden gloves under the seat and drove. I thought about stopping at the Tip-Top Lounge for a vodka tonic and a cheeseburger. They served ‘til two a.m. But I knew I had to get home and settle things.
I pulled into my usual parking space behind the aging apartment building where Suzie and I lived and killed the engine. On a cautionary note I slipped the Smith & Wesson slide action .45 from the glovebox into the back right-hand pocket of my khakis.
When I walked into the apartment Suzie lay sprawled on the living room couch, her robe askew, nothing under. An MTV reality show at full blast.
She looked at me like I was a hallucination.
“Did you get the OJ?”
“Let’s go to Paris,” I said.
Her eyes bored into me, reading the tea leaves of my soul like a laser on a bar code. Her finger hit the mute button.
“Fuck the frogs. Let’s go to New York,” she said.
“You just want to see Wayne again. Personally I hate New York.” We’d lived there for a disasterous six months.
“Wayne? Wayne who?”
“Wayne the used car salesman.” I paused for emphasis. “Jesus Christ, Suzie. I’m talking about Wayne the happy hour bar guy at Frag’s. The creep you boffed in the third-floor linen closet of the Chelsea. When you told me you were visiting your girlfriend Ida, who lived there.”
Frag’s, on the eastern edge of Soho, mimicked the décor of a Saigon brothel circa 1972. The waitresses and waiters wore baggy black PJs with nothing underneath. Maybe it was a brothel.
“I’ve never been to Frag’s,” Suzie asserted. Suzie suffered from selective recollection discontinuity disorder.
Before I could raise the argument to the next level, the need to take a wicked whiz gripped me by the nads.
“Gotta go! Gotta go!” I shouted, dashing down the darkened hallway to the left. Funny how you always have to urinate after a fuck. Or disposing of dead bodies.
Afterwards, I looked in the mirror over the sink and saw a steaming pile of dog crap. Sex residue, sweat and fear wafted from every pore and crevice. In desperate need of a bath, I throttled on the hot water spigot of the ancient clawfoot tub.
Waiting for the bathtub to fill, I rolled a jay from the stash in the medicine cabinet. Behind me hot water gushed from a rusty spout. I tossed in a few bath toys, some lemon-scented oil. Steam clouded my glasses and the mirror; lay thick as dew on every surface. Moments later I lay suspended in amniotic bliss, the jay smoldering between my lips.
There was a knock.
The door opened partway and Suzie peered around the edge. A look of sly cunning played across her face. Lime green baby doll pajamas rustled lasciviously under her robe as she entered.
You know you’re in trouble when, upon your arrival, your girlfriend puts on clothes instead of taking them off.
She pushed the toilet cover over with her foot. Old and heavy, it slammed down. BAM! Echoes ricocheted across the porcelain bowl. The seat’s loose brass fittings jingled.
Suzie rested her butt on the throne and stared at my privates. For a second or two I wondered if she had a retractable sashimi knife tucked in the pocket of her robe. Then she scanned upward to my face.
“You look comfortable, Bill.” She smiled, fake as false teeth. “So, where’s the surprise?”
Squinting through a tendril of blue smoke, I lowered my shoulders into the water and smiled up at her. “Just kidding,” I said.
“Don’t try to bamboozle me. On the phone you were for real. Your voice sounded different from your usual I’m-lying-through-my-teeth voice.”
“My clients today were a complete pain in the ass,” I said.
“Don’t change the subject.” Stoned lightning flickered in each eyeball. “I know what it is. You sold a house.”
“No, of course not. Why would I even think that? You haven’t sold a house in a fuckin’ year. I’ve been subsidizing you for as long as I can remember, dancing in that jerkoff bar.”
She looked at my clothes scrunched in a heap on top of my new Diesel sneakers she’d bought for my birthday. Leaning down, she rummaged through the sweaty pile. Found the envelope. Why hadn’t I hidden it somewhere?
Found the Smith & Wesson.
Awkwardly clutching pistol and envelope in her left hand, she thumbed through the block of cash.
“Wow, Bill. Looks like you hit the jackpot.”
I sat up, water dripping.
“Just give me that before I kill you,” I said.
Her brow darkened. She switched the .45 to her right hand and pointed it at me.
“You’ve got it backwards, stud.”
At that moment my hand touched one of the toys I’d tossed in the bath. A smiling yellow duck with a blue sailor’s cap bobbing on the ebb and flow. Driven by self-preservation and instinct, I scooped up the plastic duck and pitched it sideways at Suzie as hard as I could. An instant later I leaped up and over the side of the tub.
The toy hit Suzie straight in the eye. The money hand cupped the injury; the envelope fell to the octagonal tiled floor. Half blind, ravaged by sudden fear, Suzie lurched backward.
By then I’d ripped the toilet-seat cover from its hinges, raised it over my head and now brought it crashing down on Suzie’s noggin.
She crumpled to the floor, the .45 spinning across the tiles. For an instant I thought about hitting her again. Finishing her off.
But I wasn’t the killer type. Never appealed to me. All I wanted now was out. Out of that crummy apartment. Out of our stale, end-of-the-road existence.
Suzie was still breathing, her chest rising and falling. On my knees I retrieved the pistol from where it had skidded under the tub, scooped up the cash, my glasses, the stash of weed, my sweat-sodden clothes and bolted down the hall and out the door. At the top of the stairs, I stopped long enough to lurch into my duds, then hightailed it down four flights, sprinted to my Lexus. The transmission squealed as I drove helter-skelter into the night.
Driving through the empty streets, I began to shake. Fear pounded in my head like a stampede. The packet of money burned in my pocket. The owners would be back for it. Back like a bad dream of raging biker mayhem. And what about Suzie? Would she leave town, go to stay with her sister in Memphis? Or, consumed by revenge, hunt me down?
At two in the morning I found myself parked at the curb outside Pauline’s place. The emptiness of the house seemed to call to me.
I spent the rest of the night tossing and turning on her sofa, a sheet spread over the scratchy velvet, the .45 close at hand.
Too soon the September sun, spewing through the living room’s picture window, slapped me awake. I’d forgotten to pull the drapes shut. Exhausted, I lay there, contemplating all the shit hitting the fan, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Then it occurred to me:
Technically, I thought, the sofa isn’t Pauline’s anymore. None of this is.
Pauline was out of business.
Standing at the picture window gazing at the front lawn, I noticed a folded copy of The Tennessean wrapped in plastic lying on the front walk. Panic flared. Rushing outside, I retrieved the newspaper and tore it open. But there were no front-page photos of Drew and Pauline’s bodies stretched out on gurneys at the City Morgue. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Coincidentally at that very moment Pauline’s neighbor appeared out of nowhere. One moment she was in absentia, the next clipping dandelion heads in her front yard. As I stood at the curb flicking through the newsprint pages, she sauntered in my direction. Fifty-ish, forehead a maze of tiny wrinkles, brushed-steel hair tied in a bun. Her soft nose and olive skin looked Spanish. She wore a white tube top and the tightest pair of peach-colored capris I’d ever seen. Her lips held a piquant smile.
“God’s given us another beautiful day,” she said.
“Praise the Lord,” I said.
“On a trip,” I said. “I’m looking after the house for her.”
“Nice deal for you,” she said.
What did she mean by that?
“Great meeting you,” I said.
“My name’s Rose. Come over for a drink some time.” She turned away and I watched her peach-shaped buttocks wend their way blithely up the curved walkway, until they disappeared into the chiaroscuro of her front porch.
I wondered how much Rose knew about Pauline’s sexual predilections?
Finding a carton of OJ and a bottle of Freixenet in the fridge, I made a pitcher of mimosas. Then lit a jay and smoked it at the kitchen sink, staring into the back yard. What I needed to do was disappear, change my spots, become the invisible man.
An hour later I parked my Lexus next to the tool shed in the deserted subdivision. A shovel and three bags of lime lay in the trunk. Bought at different stores. Paid for in cash.
In the sauna of the tool shed, I worked like seven devils to dig a trench for the bodies. I wore the gardening gloves. Sweat ran in rivulets from my body. The odor of decaying flesh made me gag, taste acid on my tongue.
When I was done, I collapsed in the front seat of my car for a while. I must have fallen asleep. My watch said eleven o’clock when I called the office and resigned over the phone. “Opportunity down Tampa way I couldn’t pass up,” I said.
Finally, I drove the Lexus to the customer parking lot of the bank where I’d financed it. I put the keys in a business envelope along with a note saying I was moving to Thailand, wrote my loan officer’s name on the outside and left the envelope with the security guard in the bank’s lobby.
I took a bus back to Pauline’s.
The second night I slept in Pauline’s bed, the Smith & Wesson tucked under the pillow.
A week went by. I grew a beard.
I decided not to use Pauline’s car, which was parked in the attached garage. If she was on a trip, she would be using it. A small Latino supermarket was within walking distance. I bought some nondescript clothes at a nearby thrift shop. I avoided Rose at all costs.
After a month, I put a For Sale sign in the front yard.
During the period of adjustment to my new identity, I slept no more than two hours a night. A pair of psychos haunted my dreams. One tall and lean and cold as outer space. The other a steroid hybrid of rippling muscles and zombie eyes. They burst through the front door, screaming obscenities, demanding the money, wielding high-tech weaponry, razor sharp Special Forces knives. I jolted awake, drenched in sweat and stayed up until dawn.
Other times it was Drew and Pauline chasing me through the empty streets of the abandoned subdivision, fetid flesh dripping from their bones, moans escaping their decaying lips. Hollow eye cavities inhabited by swarms of evil wasps.
And sometimes it was my buck-naked swingers group laughing and pointing as I ran in circles, my hand on my swollen dick, begging for relief to no avail.
Without sleep, I had no appetite. Steak, chicken, any kind of meat or fish made my stomach crawl. I was barely able to swallow a few boiled vegetables. A dry slice of multigrain bread, a bowl of brown rice. Chamomile tea.
A shot of booze left me retching in the sink. A snort of blow sent me raging around the house chased by giant carnivorous insects. Weed brought waves of paranoia.
Once my raison d’etre, sex now repelled me. The thought of it called up visions of Pauline’s voluptuous corpse lying in a shallow grave covered in dirt and lime dust.
To keep busy I started taking yoga classes at a storefront studio next to the Hispanic grocery. The instructor, an aging blonde with the lithe body of a twenty-year-old, lent me books by the Anglo Zen Masters. Charlotte Joko Beck and Alan Watts. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Gary Snyder’s poems. On sunny days throughout the winter, I sat in the lotus position on the back deck contemplating my fucking navel.
In March I paid a corrupt acquaintance at the Registry of Deeds three hundred dollars to file a forged warranty deed transferring Pauline’s property to my name. The house had belonged to her mother. The mortgage had been paid off long ago.
To celebrate I went for a salad at a nearby health food co-op. As I approached, Suzie burst out of the bar next door. I’d lost close to fifty pounds eating vegetarian fare. My bearded face, framed by shoulder-length hair, had grown thin and ascetic. My thrift shop clothes matched the simplicity of a holy man -- or a stumblebum. Suzie walked right past me without a glance and climbed into the passenger side of a slick BMW idling at the curb. The guy behind the wheel sported a John Waters pencil mustache and a dimpled chin. I wished him luck.
By the time spring rolled around, with new green leaves, hopping robins and cooing doves, my nightmares had mostly stopped. Surely whoever owned the ten grand had taken a write-off. Attributed the loss to force majeure. I never went back to the tool shed. R.I.P. Pauline and Drew.
The only dream that kept coming back was the one where my sex club pals were laughing at my swollen schlong. The women rebuffing my entreaties, refusing to grant me the relief of a quickie or a handjob. A nightmare version of Shunga woodblock porn. I knew if I could rid myself of this last haunting from my past, I would be safe, flying under the radar.
One morning I sat at the picnic table in the back yard sipping a cup of green tea and reading the classified ads in the free alternative newspaper. And there it was, the answer to my prayers:
Tired of living on the ragged edge of sex addiction?
Give Swingers Anonymous a chance.
Meeting every Thursday, 7 p.m. at Zion Hall.
All who are afflicted are welcome.
Who can understand the twists of fortune, the dharma that brought me to this point in space and time? But one thing my mother told me: never look a gift horse in the mouth. Everything was going to be fine.
Jonathan Woods resides in Dallas, Texas. His book of noir crime stories, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem, was published April 20, 2010 by New Pulp Press. New York Magazine called Bad Juju: "Hallucinatory, hilarious, imaginative noir." Jonathan's stories have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Dogmatika, Plots with Guns, Pulp Pusher, Thuglit and other web literary zines.
Jonathan's website is at www.southernnoir.com Watch the book trailer for Bad Juju on YouTube.
Copyright 2010 Jonathan Woods