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Alice’s letter came through the mail slot the same day I murdered my husband again. In fact, the soft slap of the letter tumbling onto the floor followed so closely after the last breath of my spouse that, for a fat moment, I thought it was the sound of his soul exiting his body. I am not religious. However I do have an excitable imagination, allowing me the momentary belief in a soul, pruned of any religion, squirming out of my husband’s sealed skin and plopping to the floor, froglike, before making its mind up as to which pole to set its journey by. Stepping over my husband’s corpse, gingerly working my way toward the door as if his soul were as invisible and delicate as a lost contact lens, I retrieved her letter.
I recognized her handwriting on the envelope, the bold script that used to adorn all those notes on my door in college.
“Gone to the Rat for a pint of philosophy. Care to come?… A.”
Or if she was already full of philosophy:
“There’s a bomb hidden somewhere in my room. Come down and help find it before it explodes… A.”
Alice was English. Alice was a lesbian and it had been Alice who had taught me how to lie. She’d said that dykes and fags were better than anyone at it since their whole formative years were an exercise in deception. “Sometimes their whole lives,” she’d said. “We live in mendacities, cities where the streets are paved with bullshit.”
I was still turning the envelope over in my hands when I heard the creaking in his study.
“Anything interesting come?”
“Just more catalogs, dear.”
Alice had said that three uncorrected lies to any person meant you could never have a real relationship with them. She never explained why one or two was acceptable or what she meant by “real.” My husband and I passed the three mark a decade ago and only a few of any value have been corrected.
One was after I’d transferred three long blond hairs from one of the pillows of our bed into a lemon-carrot soup I served him that night. My husband is a tenured professor at the University of Ohio. He’s a great hit at faculty parties for his skill in producing quotations to suit the moment, particularly in plucking from the Romantics, whom he dislikes but is still compelled to teach on occasion.
That dinner he’d pulled one of the hairs from his teeth and held it taut between his hands as though he were going to describe a fish. Instead, he’d produced a quote from Blake before folding the oiled blond hair into his napkin and finishing his soup.
I’m a brunette and, truth be told, something of winter has touched my curls. In my own rule book an unforced truth almost cancels out an uncorrected lie. You certainly wouldn’t have pictured the gray unless I’d let on about it. Very well, yes, I began our relationship badly. I didn’t murder my husband. He’s alive, pushing out pipe smoke like an old Ford in his study this very moment. So now you have a corrected lie and an unforced truth from a woman who can only murder her husband between thoughts of tofu possibilities and the wages of menopause. If Alice could see me now.
My relationship with Alice began with an unforced truth and a corrected lie, too. The lie came first. I, not knowing Cumbrian from Cockney, had believed her on our first meeting when she’d told me she was a distant cousin of the Queen. The other came at a party.
In the bathroom. She bursts in on me while I pee. Then freezes, standing, swaying slightly, she stares at me. “What’s this?” She demands. She comes forward and squats down in front of me and begins wiping off my heavy lipstick with her shirt continuing to say, “What’s this? What is this?” Every syllable blows mists of beer in my face. I’m drunk, too. In that fuzzy reality where there doesn’t seem to be anything especially strange about having a stranger rubbing off your lipstick while you sit peeing, and where the best response I can muster is a wholly concrete one.
“It’s Autumn Blaze. Revlon.”
“It’s bullshit,” she says. “Gild on a lily,” and gives my lips a final dab from her shirttail then moves her own, un-enhanced mouth, onto mine. Unforced truth.
The lie was corrected months later in bed. We share a cigarette in the dark. I ask her what the Queen is like, as a person, while the cherry end of the cigarette glows bright, giving a faint hint of Alice’s face. She sputters out a cloud of smoke. Laughing, her face unseen again.
“How the hell would I know? I turn off the telly if I see that bloated cow on it.”
“You told me you were a relative.”
She laughs harder this time, holding the cigarette out to me when the laughs turn to coughs. I give her naked back a couple of slaps, too hard. The laughter stops. Matching my quiet, she sends a blind finger out toward me and, finding my nipple, circles it.
“Jesus, Ann, I was taking a piss. Joking. My R’s and O’s couldn’t even fit through the palace gates. I mean, the only queens I know have testicles and chest hair.”
She shifts her weight and I feel her mouth where her finger had been. I grab her head in my hands and pull her off me. I try to fill in the details of her face in the dark, what expression she has settled on. I bring my hands around to feel it, running them over her features like a potter. She kisses my hands, then stops. “Words of wisdom, Ann.” She takes my thumb in her mouth and bites down. “Don’t be so bloody trusting.”
But I’d never lost the knack. Maybe it was the curse of my imagination. I could learn to lie, but never to detect the lies of others. Even the shakiest ones could build houses of truth in some corner of my mind. It was one of the tricks that sustained me through twenty years with the centaur in the study—half man, half chair—as his broadening ass spread into the leather creases of his desk chair.
It wasn’t just the obvious ones I could work with and reshape—the late office hours or working lunches with his secretary. There were the ones I had to help him build, holding the frame while he embroidered in the busy details of the center. The who, what, where, and how’s of it. The inverted pyramid of deceit. I even helped his penance along. The perfunctory fucks and the long silences after, even when I knew those two adjectives were misplaced. I’d busy myself with the tangle of all the remaining threads, my hands flying to assemble his excuses. Juggling one taut cloth hoop after another into the air:
“He just came inside you, rolled off like a log, and without a word has slipped into those goatish snores.”
“But it’s the beginning of the new semester and that always takes its toll.”
“Twenty-two years of marriage.”
“Some couples probably don’t even have sex anymore.”
I was proud of my ability to juggle in the dark. He slept. Those snores rising and falling with the same hills and valleys of his speech. Always like he was lecturing, even at the breakfast table disenchanted with the phone bill. He slept the sleep of the just. I worked. Eyes up, keeping it all aloft.
Of course everyone with an attic knows that cobwebs grow in the corners. Nowadays it takes a husband who keeps his wife in a torture chamber to turn heads, or a wife who endures beyond endurance and finally sets fire to her husband to make one think at all. I think about these things all the time. Especially when they bark up at me from the television or my tablet. All these talk shows like one giant confessional, or an all-out wrestling match, but the shows never make me feel better. Instead I always end up thinking that somehow these people are lucky. Lucky because their lives have reached a climax, something out of the ordinary, even if it’s horrible.
I suppose that’s how I started the murders. Not from hatred or malice toward him—he’s a good enough husband as far as they go, no rustier or dented than the average model. I think I started them because I had the smoldering desire for something extraordinary to happen. I’ve lost count of just how many there’ve been but I’ve covered most of the possibilities: hangings, poisonings, stabbings, ingenious accidents involving electricity or loosened boards, drugs in the coffee before his morning commute or nightly bath, I could go on. But I don’t want to make you think I’ve lost all sense of right or wrong or, even worse, to bore you.
And I won’t bore you with the details of our meeting, falling into a comfortable kind of love, marrying, and falling further into a kind of complacent march toward death or divorce. If you want to picture him at all, I’ll give you two choices:
1. The dashing, mercury-tongued pedagogue, dazzling the wide-eyed nymphs with fire and ice in his blood. The book open before him but, his memory serving him perfectly, no need to glance down at it and break his stride. His eyes bore into theirs, they can’t hold his gaze, their mascara fluttering, fighting back a tear. His words liquefy them in their seats, “She walks in beauty like the night.”
That’s my gift to him. I do owe him something, I suppose. But without trying to swing your vote one way or the other I’ll tell you that I prefer number two. Shorter and simpler:
2. That look of dumb surprise creeping over his leaden, always perfectly composed features, when the poison hits his gut and he knows it. There are no lecture notes or thoughtful expressions practiced in the mirror that could prepare him for that moment of utter truth and nakedness.
So you see I am not stuck in the past. I’m always looking forward, to the possible. I’m still holding Alice’s letter unopened and I realize it’s something I learned from her. She had told me how all her past was like so many floors in a tower.
“Upon the top I stand,” she says. “All the catastrophes of parents and predatory blokes falling into place beneath me, they serve a purpose. I throw them in the mix and build another floor. Me and time, we’re partners in erecting this tower, and from here I can see clear and tomorrow a little higher up and even a bit clearer.”
And when she said those things here eyes would fix on someplace outside the window. I never doubted her words or her gaze, as if she really was seeing things from a different height. From her vantage the air must be thinner; the eye must travel farther. One could see past the thin clouds others hide behind, the way she saw through mine. The first time she stole that drunken kiss and the last time I saw her. The day I told her I was marrying him.
I’d said it quietly, then waited for that blade of sarcasm she wielded so well to the make the final cut between us. It would be something from her arsenal of weapons against men, or something about me, I’d thought. She’d called me a L.U.G. once before: “Lesbian Until Graduation.”
But it doesn’t come. She lets my words settle and swirls her beer as if a few landed there and she’s trying to dissolve them. She lifts her glass, winks, gives me a hoarse “cheers,” and drinks off the last of it.
I read her letter.
She will come for dinner the day after tomorrow, if she’s welcome. The note is scribbled on hotel stationary and she’s circled the hotel’s phone number. Next to it she has written the room number. Pragmatism or an invitation? I feel like a forties’ film star when I fold the letter, placing it back in the straights of the envelope and tucking it in my bra.
She never wore one. But that was more pragmatism than politics. She was small-chested. So much so that I felt almost bovine when we pressed our bodies together. Perhaps she had planted the seed, calling my breasts “udderly divine,” once.
I loved her body. It was smoother than any man I’d been with. Satin-white skin. When I felt her on me it had been like mercury over glass. Everything she did to my body was a lesson. A lesson that I would practice and perfect on her. I came to know the topography of her body as I knew mine only in a mirror. Better, because the parts I could not see of myself I could explore in her; and that was her gift to me. To understand that a lover knows their partner’s body as the partner can never know themselves.
I had spoken with her only once before in all those years. Then, I’d gotten the phone number from her publisher and dialed all but the final digit of the number three or four times, several days in a row. Finally I’d pecked it out quickly and settled into the couch, fighting the urge to slap down the handset and start over from the beginning.
That hanging vowel always turned up into a question on the phone. As though she said, whoever it is, I was doing quite all right before you called, so it had better be worthwhile.
I’d told her I loved her poetry. She’d wanted to know about me.
“How is Ann?” So many questions and only after we’d said good-bye, exchanged addresses, and made some vague promise to keep in touch did I realize that neither she nor I had mentioned any of the other people who were in our lives. Through all those miles of transatlantic wire, and its winding route through ocean and cities to the North of England, it was still just us. No different than the island we’d created in her room, back down the thin wire of the distant past.
My husband would be out that night. She should bring wine. Red. No, I didn’t drink beer much anymore. Eight o’clock. Yes, I’ve missed you, too. Yes, I can’t wait to see you again, too. No, I’m not nervous, just excited.
My husband would catch us making love in our bed. Lost in her I would not hear the door. There would be awkward silence, our breath slowing. He would choose the role of a punishing satyr. He knew about us already. I’d told him once when he’d called me a prude. His leer would pin us. He’d strip off his tie and jacket.
After he came and rolled onto his back, we would not say a word. Our hands would touch then separate. We would grasp each end of the pillow and lower it onto his bearded face, then bear down. His struggle for life would be surprisingly brief and weak and Alice would say so.
No. I have not moved. My husband, in his study, pushes out pipe smoke like an old Ford. I opened her letter.
Underneath the big snake of her signature was a map. I read the letter, read it again, then tucked it into my bra and drifted into the kitchen to start dinner. I dug into the back of the freezer. Through the frozen artifacts of meals eaten together and alone, I found the steaks. The marble on the meat lost beneath frosted plastic. I swayed there, holding those beef wedges, my head in the misty cool of the freezer till tiny icicles came.
The next day or, maybe, it was the day after that… I thought I might murder him again, something extra grisly. But I didn’t. I didn’t have the energy. I had only enough for a note. I gave him the Blake quote back to keep:
“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
In the taxi to the airport I tried to imagine his face when he read it. His frown of effort while he puffed his pipe and tried to explicate it, deconstruct it, break it down to the raw phonemes and morphemes and put those in his pipe next to twenty years. Twenty years, 5 months, 6 days. But I couldn’t really give the quote back, like I owned it and I had to put it on my own scales against all I was. Everything. Even the tiny hum of a vacuum in a doctor’s office more than fifteen years ago. Even there where it was a paradox. A Chinese box.
She’d booked me first class British Air. I knew she’d have done it, so I drank mimosas until the whole cabin started to spin and the downward rush of the plane made my head feel like a gyroscope. The stewardesses all British accents and sharp noses like hers. She’d called hers her spade. “Always finds treasures, my love. Between the pages or your legs.” My pearl pinned beneath it, while Duchamp’s Mona Lisa gaze down its mustache from her wall. That enigmatic smile was an emblem for Alice. It spoke of all the things that women knew that men didn’t even know they didn’t know.
I took a cab to Victoria Station. It was strange to be in a country where everyone talked as Alice did. I knew there were differences, dialects scattered all over the island, but I couldn’t detect them. To my ears, everyone sounded like Alice. The words of the ticket seller crisp and hurried. The coffee vendor sounding like Peter O’Toole when he asked if I wanted cream. I felt my foreignness acutely. Like all those faculty parties where a misplaced modifier or wrongly quoted author evoked subtle frowns. Like those faculty parties I felt a growing desire to be clever, clever like Alice was. So I said nothing, only pointed and nodded like a primitive, gesturing at a raspberry scone and a cheese sandwich shrouded in plastic.
I’d never been out of America before and as we left London behind I told myself that the fields and hills rolling past were just like Ohio or Indiana. But I ran out of familiar ground. I had no ready antecedents to the moors or the stone fences that traversed the green hills like old scars.
I thought of the tough hands that had carried the stones, one by one, fitting them into the perfect niche. I imagined Alice, a young Alice with a still-unsure smile, struggling with a stone as big as her head, rolling it toward her father. Offering it up to him and giggling with satisfaction when he silently nodded and laid it by his own. I imagined her imagining the children she later knew she’d never have, or want, picking at the moss that would grow. There, in the chinks so narrow not even wind could pass.
I couldn’t know the truth of this. She hardly talked of parents or anything else you could hold on to from her past, except where I was going now. But I held the image and polished it a while. She was English and that made her a part of all this. Everything, as it hurried past my window, from the rough and wasted looking fields to the standing stones I knew lay out there somewhere like graves for forgotten folk, everything was Alice.
No one met me at the station. I waited for awhile, I don’t know why, then stepped down from the platform. A dog peed on the tracks. I glanced up into a sky that looked bruised and immobile. Yet the smallest light seemed to hit my center. This would be another secret between us, a meeting of which no one else would know.
The town was tiny, over before it had even had a chance to begin. Her map led me from the station. Down cobbled streets, past the lone pub, the meat shop, I walked. Already I could see the small church just as she had marked on her map. I let my breath go, a little amazed, as I always am, when things seems as though they will work out.
She’d walked these streets once. A child choosing each cobblestone to step on. A teenager following boys into the woods and cutting her names into trees. The first beer of thousands maybe drunk off in that tiny pub I’d passed.
I followed the path behind the church and into the woods. It was a narrow strip of packed down dirt that I knew her little child’s feet had traveled. I didn’t have to imagine this, knowing because she’d told me of this path and the spot that lay beyond.
“At the top of the hill, past the wood, there’s a clearing,” she says. “I used to sit there with my knackered copy of Keats and lean on the old wooden fence. Most of it is rotten and fallen down, but there’s a spot where a piece of wood sticks straight up like a handle, that’s what it is, see. Somebody, a hundred years ago or more, put a square nail to it, put it in place so they’d have something to hold on to while they went over.”
She’d told me that the same hands had touched it so many times that it was smooth and polished like desert bone, and the oil from all those thousands of passes had finished it dark, too. She told me of this when we’d been in bed so long with the curtains closed that we couldn’t decide if it was day or night outside. She’d told me that the wood was how she thought love should be. The love by a single pair of hands. Hands that know you without looking and touch you in the same way a thousands times or more, until even the coarsest piece of woods becomes a thing of polished beauty.
I came into the clearing and found the fence. The handle was there, smooth as driftwood, jutting above the collapsing boards. I stroked it, following the grain that wove along its surface, and wondered where Alice had held it when she went over the fence. Which was the impression in the wood that a thousand passings of her hand had left? Then I read her letter aloud to the clearing, as she had told me she had done with Keats and Byron and Emily Dickinson.
I built my tower so high, until I could see nothing. I’m afraid to look down at the edifice, I know it’s cracked. I’m afraid to turn my eyes up, because I don’t believe there’s anything above where I stand but empty sky. I’m frozen here, my mind wandering desperately to what went wrong in the construction, which is the piece that made the tower crumble? And I think of cornerstones. Maybe in there lies the hope of all buildings. A thing of dreams, a creed in stone, but there was something ugly in mine, I think, when I started all of this. So long ago buried under floor after floor and I want to believe that I can change it, dig it out and rip it open without having the whole thing come toppling down. To open it and tear out that thing that makes me crumble from the bottom up. I want to put this place into it instead and you, Ann, I want you to lie there, too, curled up in stone, holding me toward the heavens. That is why you must hold me up and say good-bye.
And that is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering.
Though the sedge is withered from the lake
And no birds sing. ….A.
That’s all there was. Her words and the smallest slice of poetry.
I spoke her name and kissed the wood. But I could not say good-bye. I could hardly move my mouth to speak her name again into the darkening wood.
A tiny spark, the smallest, protected dot of hope inside me, that this was all a misunderstanding or a joke or my thickness in interpreting her letter was in her name as I let it fly from my lips. I spoke her name as one speaks the names of the living and not the dead, and the moment I let it go from my lips the spark was gone. I could not lie to myself. Not here, where the ground seemed to be hallowed.
I found my way back down the path, feeling for roots and stones in the dark, my feet nudging out ahead of me. When I reached the level ground I felt a stab in my bladder and peeled down my jeans and underwear. Without even checking to see if I was alone, I squatted in the cool grass and felt the steam from my urine rise up and touch my skin. Only when I had pinched out the last few drops from my body did I realize that I was peeing in the yard of the church. Something between a giggle and a shiver passed through me as I thought this is a gesture that Alice would have appreciated.
Just a few lights burned in the windows as I rejoined the stones of the street. I passed the doors of the pub and then stopped, cocking my head to listen to the noise from within. I heard voices loud with drink and a high female laugh rising above them and beneath it all music. I would give myself one last pleasure. Alice was in there. I knew her laugh as one knows their way through their own house in the dark. I did not need to see her to say hello, it was enough that I’d heard her. I allow myself that last lie.
Maybe you can’t see me in that empty street, the sun long gone now. But that’s where I see myself… until I can’t.
It’s true that there is much left unsaid. So much that I cannot say. Yes, at least three uncorrected lies stand between us, with no real hope of a hereafter. But I have my own concerns. I’ve mendacities to build, streets to pave with trips that never were and are never to be. Sham murders to commit, over and over, until they stack up like towers out of sight. I must find the lies to move me from this ground. I must move. My husband, in his study, pushes out pipe smoke like an old Ford.
The freezer door is still open. The meat half-thawed in my hand but still cold, very cold. A dead woman’s letter by my heart, I can not move.
About Michael Harris Cohen
Michael Harris Cohen’s work is published or forthcoming in various places including Conjunctions, On Spec, Catapult’s Tiny Crimes, F(r)iction, The Dark Magazine, Necessary Fiction and numerous anthologies. He’s won several writing contests and is a recipient of a Fulbright grant and fellowships from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, The Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation, Jentel, The Djerassi Foundation, The Blue Mountain Center, and OMI International Arts Center. His first book, The Eyes, was published by the once marvelous but now defunct Mixer Publishing. His forthcoming story collection, Effects Vary, will be published by Off Limits Press in 2022. He lives with his wife and daughters in Sofia and teaches at the American University in Bulgaria.
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