UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2011
A CRIME OF OPPORTUNITY
Eric Mann sat on the hardwood floor, legs crossed, an elbow jabbed into each knee, bearing down, hovering over the telephone.
I’ll call you right back, his wife, Cynthia Mann, had said. He waited.
I promise, she’d said. And now, crouched like a predatory alley cat, he waited.
And watched the phone without blinking.
Eric woke when his wife slid into bed beside him. The clock said two-thirty. She had not called. He lay silent, motionless. Eyes open in the dark room. He lay waiting.Nick Medina is a young author from Chicago, Illinois. Since 2009 he has been published in print, online and audio formats by magazines, journals and short story anthologies in the United States and the United Kingdom. To read more of Nick’s work, or to contact him with questions and comments, visit https://sites.google.com/site/nickjmedina/
She wore that smell.
Then he heard her deep, slow, satisfied breathing.
As he stared into the darkness, her voice wormed inside his head: “If the situation were reversed—if I were a man,” she liked saying, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” And she was right. There was no arguing The Waving Girl’s success. The restaurant’s Savannah-theme interior and long waiting lines had attracted food critics at The Washington Post and Southern Living. A franchise deal was in the works, she said, a sure thing, she said, only months away. She was an insider, management, ground floor. “Never turn your back on a sure thing,” she’d said with that inflection he recognized as Carl’s, the bartender. A new life. An irresistible opportunity, she called it.
She reeked of fish, liquor, cigarettes and foreign sweat.
While she slept, his oscillating physical need for her and disgust for himself turned again, as always, to self-loathing. Yet on those nights when she would reach for him—when it pleased her and served the convenience of her will, he always and thankfully responded. They both knew these things, and the knowing made him hate his neediness--and his wife as he lay awake beside her. She could smell his want. And in her qualified giving and pernicious withholding and in her every act of calculated indifference, she said to him, I can leave you. I am going to leave you.
Eric pushed back the covers. He couldn’t stop the endless dadaistic footage inside his head or diffuse the power that she exercised over him, even as she slept. He reached for the stair rail in the dark. It was the least and the most he could do.
Standing before the kitchen window, he felt the dull, receding tide of bourbon, the vagueness of his presence. Behind him on the floor beside the breakfast table, her bra and panties lay. Her purse and jacket, which would smell of barbecue smoke and grouper, would be somewhere in the living room, her skirt and blouse in a crumpled pile in front of the toilet. Even after she’d called him a nag, he’d continued picking up her things. But not anymore. Now he left them where they fell, sometimes for weeks. The whole house had that smell. He turned to look again at the panties and bra. Then turned back to the window.
Across the street the neighbors had put up a pilgrim cutout, a bale of hay, and a pumpkin. Thanksgiving was two days away.
Eric dozed past the 7:00 alarm. He quickly showered. No time for coffee. He stuffed a tie into his jacket pocket while taking the stairs two steps at a time. At the foot of the stairs, he didn’t see his briefcase. He locked up on his way out and hurried down the cement walkway toward the garage. Maybe he’d left the briefcase in the Honda. He glanced up at their bedroom window and felt for his keys. When Cynthia first took The Waving Girl job, he kissed her every morning on his way out, even as she slept. Eric seldom passed up an opportunity to remind her of those kisses, of his goodness, of his sacrifices. Months later, he glanced over as he pulled from the garage to see her standing naked at the kitchen window, arm raised to catch his attention, to at least say good-bye. Later, when he looked, there was no one there.
The acrid smell of damp autumn leaves reminded him of squirrel hunting when he was a kid, of sweat and the taste of a month-long bloody nose his last college football season. His briefcase was not in the Honda. He pulled the trunk shut, turned and rested back against the car. It took a minute for him to put two and two together.
Yes, that was a trampoline in the neighbor’s yard. Yes, that was his wife’s open purse on the trampoline in the neighbor’s yard, its contents spewing out. Farther back near the fence, his open briefcase. He felt the nausea rising and that taste of metal at the back of his throat.
He slammed the backdoor so hard that she was calling to him, depriving him of shouting her name, of demanding that she rise this very second, that she report downstairs this instant.
Holding the stair rail and wiping the sleep from her eyes, Cynthia moved cautiously down the steps.
“Call 9-1-1,” he shouted. Then he was in the next room.
Cynthia answered questions in the den while Eric stood behind the detective in the foyer. Another officer who wore thin disposable gloves tested the front door area for fingerprints. Drawers and closets stood open, their contents plundered.
“Any guns? Knives? Any firearms of any kind?” the detective asked.
“No,” Eric said. He looked back at his wife. She was receiving a light from one of the cops. He had no idea where the cigarettes had come from, where she had hidden them. Cynthia looked up at him, pulled hard on the cigarette, then turned away.
She had left the front door unlocked.
The detective asked Eric to walk him through it. Outside, he showed the cop where he’d found the purse, his briefcase, how everything had been. He considered the contents of his bag, credit cards and financial records. There would be fallout at the credit union where he worked. Cynthia would tally the jewelry and earrings, a watch, her wedding rings. None of the larger items, TVs, computers, or wedding silver had been stolen.
The detective stopped and looked into Eric’s eyes. “Sometimes it takes a while to discover what you’ve lost,” he said, studying Eric’s face. “We’ll have a car in the neighborhood as often as possible,” the cop said. “If you discover anything else missing, let us know.” They were near the unmarked cruiser now. “And of course if you see or hear anything, don’t hesitate a second, day or night.”
“What do you mean? Do you think they might come back?”
“Not likely,” the cop said. “But this was the work of a single individual, an opportunity crime. He came into your house between 4:30 and 6:30 in the morning, knowing that the house was occupied. He was either very bold or very coked-out, which is sometimes the same thing.” “Does that mean he’s dangerous?” Eric felt the cop’s eyes on him, gauging his reaction, sizing up his fear.
“Could mean now he knows what there is to steal and comes back with help. That, in my opinion, is not likely. But you ought to know that sometimes—not usually—but sometimes, it happens. Especially during the Christmas season. Sometimes when they know what you’ve got, they come back and wipe you out.” The detective gave a dismissive wave to the black and white unit pulling away from the curb. “Victims Services will be in touch with you and your wife in a few days,” the detective said.
Cynthia was sitting at the kitchen table, her housecoat gaping open, one breast exposed, whispering into the phone when Eric walked back into the kitchen. She glanced up at him, pressed out her cigarette, stood and walked into the living room, shutting the door behind her. As he drifted from room to room, he inspected the contents of their lives, scattered and strewn, the soil and stench of some man’s hands on everything. She must be talking to the credit card people, Eric thought.
He stood outside the spare bedroom door looking in. The top dresser drawer lay upside down on the floor. He walked into the room. Eric sensed the shadowy presence of the burglar. His smell. A savage, primordial force inched up his spine. He thought that he had a name for it, the appetite for another man’s blood. But that is not the word that formed inside his head. That word was fear. And the smell was his own.
Eric suddenly turned, startled by a sound behind him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Cynthia said over and over. She turned her face away. “How could I have left the door unlocked?” she said, not looking at him. “It was so late. Carl and I, we had to close out the bar.” She buried her face in his neck. He stroked her hair. Then he felt her body stiffen.
“He took my panties,” she whispered, pushing away from her husband.
In the kitchen, they stood looking down at the bra on the floor, the spot where her panties had been. Neither spoke. She lit another cigarette, then turned and left the room.
When Eric came in from the grocery the Saturday after Thanksgiving, there was a message on the machine. An officer from Victims Services. He listened, then reached for the phone.
The hostess at The Waving Girl said she’d been instructed not to put him through, so Eric left a message. He would wait up for his wife, he said. Could his wife please call to say when she would be coming home. Eric lowered the phone. Beside the answering machine lay his keys. For more than a year, his wife had insisted that he not come into the restaurant again. There had been accusations, followed by a violent, fiery exchange, an ugly one between him and Carl, the Waving Girl’s bartender. And when Carl refused to serve Eric another drink and closed out Eric’s tab, the restaurant’s owner had been summoned. The police arrived. Carl stood with his folded arms across his chest, Cynthia in his shadow at the register, as Eric was escorted out of the bar.
On the night of July fourth, she’d not come home at all. The next morning Eric left her a note. Get your things and get out, it said. At five that afternoon, she was on the sofa in her bathrobe reading a magazine when he walked in. Without speaking to her, he’d taken a beer from the refrigerator, drained it. The note he’d written lay in the trash. This had been the last six months of their marriage.
When she switched on the end table light to check the messages, Cynthia gasped . She dropped her purse. It was nearly 3 A.M. Eric sat at the end of the sofa with a glass in his hand, a bottle at his feet. A steal claw hammer lay in his lap. He was looking down at her bra in the open purse.
“Jesus!” she said. “What’s wrong?” Reaching for a cigarette, she tucked the bra deeper into her bag. “You scared the—"
“Didn’t get the message.”
“When did you start smoking again?” Eric said.
“What’s up with the hammer?” She looked away from him, then down at the answering machine. “Did somebody call? Who called? Nobody is to call here.”
“Want a drink?” he said, still looking at the bra in the open purse.
“Who called?” She was looking at the machine.
He lifted the hammer, then set it down. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said, reaching for the bottle.
“Who called? What did they say?” she demanded, looking up at him now. “What’s this about?” His eyes hadn’t left the open purse, her bra inside.
She lit the cigarette, pulled on it hard, looked for a place to set it down, gave it another hard pull. She shifted away, tapping her front tooth with the tip of her red fingernail. The smoke snaked through her damp hair.
“A little late to be taking up carpentry, huh, Eric? You never were much with your hands. Who called?”
“The guy from Victims Services,” Eric said in a flat voice.
She dropped her jacket over the open purse.
“Who?” she said. She paused, tilting her head as Eric’s words sank in. She glanced into the mirror, then pushed up the hair above her ear. “Oh,” she said. Cynthia shook off her shoes, lifted her skirt, stripped off her pantyhose, and tossed them on top of the shoes. When she saw that he was still staring at her purse, she stepped over and lifted the jacket and pulled out the bra. “This thing was killing me,” she said.
“When you go into the kitchen to spread your debris, you’ll see that I nailed your panties to the floor,” he said. “You have a knack for losing them.”
She started down the hall for the bathroom. Her matted hair lay flat, and in the dim light her face looked flushed and lightly glazed.
“Victim Services? That’s for you,” she said. “You’re the one who’s afraid of the boogie man.” Then she shut the door behind her.
Eric hadn’t been inside a gun shop since he’d graduated college. A football injury had slightly damaged the vision in his right eye, and he couldn’t see well enough to shoot small game, ducks, quail, or doves. He had never owned a handgun. He stood looking down into the glass showcase at a Smith & Wesson .357, when the man beside him spoke.
“Now that’s a handful of home protection, there.”
The man’s face was both familiar and not, like someone in a dream, someone you know but who wears the wrong face.
“Statistics claim that having a firearm in the house is more dangerous than not having one,” the man continued. Eric took a step back and forced an awkward smile. The man smiled brightly, looked around the room, then leaned in confidentially. “Kind’a like having a big ole shlong,” he whispered. “If you don’t know what to do with it, you’re probably better off without one.”
The face, the voice, yes, but the name and context wouldn’t come to Eric.
“My guy says he’s been trying to reach you,” the man said, shifting into a professional voice. “Victims Services?”
“Sorry to say he’s been spending a lot of time in your subdivision. Guy who hit your house, he’s been busy. Got himself a partner.”
“The guy,” Eric said, “you mean he’s been going back to the places he robbed?”
“Hasn’t needed to so far.” He studied Eric’s face. “You sure you want that?” he said gesturing toward the glass gun case below the counter. The detective waited for a second, but Eric didn’t have an answer. “If you like that one,” the cop said, pointing at the .357, “let me know. I might be able to get you a better deal.”
Eric felt the tightness in his throat, the dampness in his palms.
The salesman behind the counter spoke and offered the detective his hand. Eric turned for the door.
“No kidding,” the detective said to Eric. “If you buy a cannon like that, make sure your wife gets some firearms training. You don’t want to know some of the things I’ve seen.”
Eric’s hand was on the door when the detective called. “Happy holidays,” the cop said.
At the credit union Christmas party, Eric waited at the bar, then glanced back at Sal and Johnson, two accountants, who huddled over the new Accounts Receivable, Rita, a young angular woman with an excited, animated manner. The four had been talking college bowl games and exchanging off-color Christmas jokes. Eric was taking his turn getting drinks all around. He lifted the plastic glasses carefully from the bar and negotiated his way through the thinning crowd. Sal and Johnson tilted their faces near Rita’s, conspiratorially, as the young redhead whispered an unseemly punch line. The three roared in laughter, Rita’s gesticulations resulting in a kind of group hug. Eric offered her a drink.
“Last one,” she said to the men, taking the glass. “You guys are making me woozy,” she said, smiling up at Eric, reaching to milk his tie. She wore a thin, black sweater with a red fluffy collar, a red leather mini-skirt, and black riding boots.
The DJ was packing up his gear. Johnson suddenly announced that he was going to the restroom, bowed grandly and invited Rita to join him, then disappeared.
“You nasty boy,” Rita said. She dispatched Sal for her coat.
“Walk me to my car,” she said to Eric.
Outside, she stopped and took Eric’s arm. “Look,” she said, “I can see my breath.” When they got to her car, she handed him her coat and felt inside her purse for keys. “What were you?” she said, looking down in her bag. “Offense or defense?”
“Defense,” Eric said.
She looked him over, holding the keys suspended for a second. “Really?” she said, feigning surprise. “I had pictured you as offense. You look like you could carry the ball.”
“Defensive back,” Eric said.
“Too bad,” she said. She steadied herself, leaning against the car. “If I’d been a man, I’d have been quarterback,” she said. She smiled up at him. “Since I’m a woman, I have to settle for tight end.” She laughed. “Goodnight, Eric.”
Eric was sober enough to know that he should drive straight home. DUI checkpoints were common during the holidays. But he turned in the other direction.
Only a few cars dotted The Waving Girl lot. Some people had sense enough to know when to call a cab. He saw his wife’s car parked in the space beside the bartender’s black Explorer.
At home, he left the Honda parked in the drive. Getting it safely into the garage, he knew from experience, could be risky. Pellets of sleet tapped the sidewalk like nervous fingers. Approaching the door, Eric dropped his house key. He steadied himself before stepping inside.
He looked down at the machine, then pressed the blinking number 3. The prerecorded voice of a man offered debt consolidation. When Eric returned from the bathroom, a second man was soliciting funds for the State Trooper’s Association. Eric turned down the volume on the machine, then hit the stop button.
In the kitchen, he poured himself another drink. He wanted to sleep, but he was inside his head again. Maybe this one would do it. From the windows behind him the cold wind seeped through, climbing like a spider up his neck. Time passed. He sat on the sofa in the living room and pondered the soft patterns of red and green Christmas tree lights on the wall. He made himself another drink. He pulled the drapes shut all around.
He woke just as the empty highball glass began sliding from his fingers. Eric was sitting up in his chair. He set the glass on the floor with care and slowly stood. He remembered the Christmas tree lights, the threat of fire. Victims Services.
When the phone rang, he was on all fours under the tree feeling for the plug. Eric let it ring. He heard the machine pick up, but he’d turned down the volume. Let them call back he thought. Let them call back during business hours. His fingers found the plug to the tree lights and he pulled. He might be preventing something terrible from happening, a real disaster.
He stood looking down at the end table light beside the phone, feeling the floor rise and fall in swells below him. When she’d first begun to leave him, Eric intentionally left all the living room lights on as a welcome home gesture. Over the months in coded messages, he had cut them off one at a time. Only one remained, the light above the phone. Standing above the blinking machine, Eric realized he was at the bottom of a diminishing arsenal of pettiness. He reached for the lamp switch.
Startled by the total blackness in the room, Eric felt his equilibrium suddenly give way. He reached out and steadied himself on the arm of the sofa, then lifted a hand. Only the dim light from the answering machine blinked up at him. After a few seconds, Eric found his bearings and, with hands extended like a blind man’s, he slowly drifted toward the switch on the wall, the light leading upstairs to their bed.
There was no explaining why his eyes should fly open with such startling suddenness, why his pulse hammered against his throat--even before he knew where he was, or why a kind of white-hot keenness should seize his senses. He lay alone in their dark bed without breath, eyes wide, his head bent toward the door.
The stirring downstairs was less sound than vibration. Perhaps it was his wife; there was no telling. But then why this sudden awakening, he thought, this innate alarm, this feeling of danger that sent his adrenaline racing?
Eric couldn’t remember locking the door.
He closed his eyes and held his breath, listening for any certainty that his wife had come home, hearing instead only the blood rushing inside his ears. Silence. He gathered himself to speak, to call her name. Then: unmistakably a murmur, a voice, almost imperceptible, yet undeniably a man’s voice. He lay electric with fear, his every nerve charged, quivering. Then he felt footsteps moving down the hall toward the back bedroom. He tried to measure the steps, thinking they should sound familiar, but they didn’t. He would know his own wife’s movements, he thought. A man’s voice at this end of the hall. Steps at that end of the hall.
He lifted the heavy pistol from the drawer. On the dark stairs, he held the rail tightly with one hand and took the steps two at a time, quickly but with delicate agility, softly touching the ball of his foot on the wooden step while supporting his weight on the rail, stopping and listening after each long step. He told himself to take his finger off the trigger. When he was halfway down, he heard the intruder moving back up the hall, toward the living room, past the doorway that led upstairs. He stopped. Then descending, slowly now, he felt the urge to whisper her name.
Suspended in weightless fear, he crouched, pointing the pistol through the doorway into the darkness of the living room. If they left through the back door, he told himself, then that’s just the way things turned out. He’d let them go. Call the police when they were gone. If they tried to leave through the front, then he’d have a clear, protected shot. He would empty the cylinders. If, then. Either, or. One or the other, he thought. Fifty-fifty. His hunched back pressed into a corner.
The footsteps that began in the den stopped near the front door. Eric held the .357 at arm’s length. Both hands were required to steady it. In the blackness, he strained to see the outline of the man, or to catch a pure scent, or to pinpoint a single undeniable trace of the other man’s exact position in his house, in his life. Eric’s thumb pulled back the hammer; then he thought of its loud click, and eased it down.
He waited. Eric shuddered when he realized how firmly his finger held the trigger. He awaited only a clear sign. Held his breath until his lungs burned.
And then his request was answered. There, at the end table. His finger tightened on the trigger.
The sound of a soft click.
Cynthia stood naked in the stark light. She could not see him, was unaware of him. Her hand moved to the answering machine. Her finger touched the lighted button. He lowered the pistol. The hushed voice concluded by enumerating the advantages of debt consolidation.
As he looked up again, Cynthia pressed the delete button. Then while slowly raising her left arm high, she lifted her breast with her right hand. Her eyes fell upon the breast as she tilted into the bright light. She ran her fingertips over a reddish-purple mark the size of a rosebud beside the brown areola. The shape of a man’s lips.
His head hung like a fawning dog’s. Eric looked down vacantly at the heavy, loaded pistol in his hands, at his finger still on the trigger. His body softly convulsed. “Oh, Jesus,” Eric whispered faintly. “Oh, Jesus.”
His wife stood rigid as iron, eyes wide, one hand covering her left breast, her other arm extending high above her head, the hand as loose as a rag. She stared into the darkness, unmoving--waiting. He was there but she could not see him, small and hidden, hunkered in the corner of the dark stairwell. Eric’s lips moved to speak but no sound ushered from them. His chest constricted so tightly he closed his eyes, waiting for her to say something, to call his name. Then Eric was moving inside his head again. “No way,” he whispered faintly. “No way.” That smell. The taste of dirty copper curdled at the back of his throat.
He lifted his head. She stood defiantly erect in the light. Everything seemed to rest upon an urgent, unequivocal judgement, hers, his. Her face was half light, half shadow: redemptive confession, irreconcilable contempt. Light. Shadow. The decision was upon him. Still she stood motionless, sensing he was there. Her lips moved, forming a smile neither cruel nor kind. Contrite. Contrived. Empty.
Eric quietly levitated from the stairs. She didn’t move. He took the last step down. Out into the dim light.
“Goodbye, Eric,” she said, reaching for a cigarette.
He moved closer, without sound, into that smell, slowly. So that she would get a good look at him. He wanted her to get a good look.
She saw the pistol hanging loosely at his side. “What is this? Put that down,” she said, then drawing hard on the cigarette.
“This is firearms training,” he said, lifting and lowering the pistol, feeling its weight.
“What are you doing?”
“What I’m doing,” he said, letting his words linger, coming so close she was forced to step back. “What I’m doing is giving you a close look. At me. Before you go. Do you know what they call this look, Cynthia?
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s the drunk Eric look.”
“Close,” he said. “But no cigar. At this range, it’s called ‘point blank’.”
“Get away from me,” she said, reaching for her bra and panties. “Get away from me.”
“Put your stinking clothes on,” he said.
She paused and slowly looked up at him, eyes wide. He seemed to tower over her. He yanked up her dress and flung it against her. “That smell,” he said. “Fear. Yours not mine.”
As she dressed, Eric slowed back from her, retracing his steps toward the hallway. She sat on the sofa and pulled on her shoes. When she looked up, he was gone. She lifted her purse. Something stopped her. An echo, the sound of a dull click. Her trembling hand slowly reached for the door. His whisper resonated from the dark stairwell.
“Never turn your back on a sure thing,” he said. “A new life. An irresistible opportunity.”
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