UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Key To Happiness
On the morning of his fiftieth birthday John McGillen pauses before his lathered reflection and delivers the final verdict.
“You’re a loser Johnny-boy,” he levels with himself. “You haven’t a pot to piss in.”
“What’s that dear?” Doreen calls from the bedroom. He pictures her smoothing the sheets on their still-warm bed.
“I’m done in Doreen. Just once I’d like to sleep till noon.”
“You’re running late, John. Don’t you have a meeting this morning?”
“Let ‘em wait,” he growls. “What’s punctuality to a man without a pot to piss in?”
The ensuing silence is difficult to interpret. It has long been Doreen’s job to console John, to assure him that a plethora of pots are his to piss in. Failing that she’s obliged to expound on his non-negotiable qualities. His punctuality, for instance, the watch she gave him for Christmas serving only to rub his face in it. A watch he could never afford and will sell at first chance, glinting gold in the bathroom light. Subtract the hours spent waiting for the world in general, and Doreen in particular, and he’d still be in his forties. In time one of them will suffer a coronary and this domestic charade will mercifully cease.
“A massive coronary,” John mutters to himself.
He blames his bad mood on his birthday. Barring some miracle his best days are behind him. The most he can hope for is a few uneventful years before the chest pains and tumors. He didn’t think he would take it so hard. Normally he stumbles through the morning routine without a thought. He and Doreen angle around each other in silence, broken only by the sliding of drawers and the click of light switches. A casual observer might conclude that they loathe each other, but this is not the case. Doreen’s devotion to her husband is as blind as it is baffling.
“Are you wearing the blue suit or the gray?” her voice crackles like static.
“What difference does it make?”
“The blue will set off your watch.”
“Jesus, Doreen, clear your throat, will you?”
John feels a pounding at the back of his skull, last night’s bourbon or the onset of stroke spreading behind his ears and along his brain stem. He thinks to complain but any words would have a ring of prophecy. “My head is splitting”, or just “where’s the aspirin” muttered to Doreen’s fluttering concern. He’ll die in silence rather than grant her that, so he says nothing and just like that the pounding subsides. He runs the razor over his chin and thinks of his way out, odd in itself. Late evening is John’s usual time for reflection. It is only then, braced by his nightly bracers that he can face the failure and fix the blame. McGillen’s Mini Mart, McGillen’s Launderette, McGillen’s Video. Three solid ventures starved for capital, the story of his life in eleven chapters. Now six years wasted at Educational Testing Services, so much bile under the bridge.
And who refuses to make even a token investment in her own daughter’s future? Who pisses away more money on shrinks and quacks and the goddamn Catholic Church in one year than he makes in ten? His mother-in-law, the eternally afflicted but seemingly immortal Mrs. G (her preference). John is convinced that the old girl’s single goal is to bury him. Only when he is firmly interred will her grip on life be loosened. Only then will she succumb to one of the chronic, but not-yet-life threatening maladies that plague her. Doreen will get it all. Rich, widowed, easy pickings for the first freeloader who can make her forget the past 27 years.
Well she won’t get away with it. John McGillen has a plan.
In a way he will be acting in self-defense. Mrs. G lives only to keep him from all that capital, whittling down his time of prosperity day-by-day, year by year, simply by not dying. He will never have those days and years again. Her every breath is a victory at his expense. She knows it drives him nutso and he knows she knows it. In the meantime she taunts him with gestures of generosity. In a week she and Doreen will be flying to the condo in Florida. She made the offer knowing John would decline. Who knows what sort of Palm Beach greaseball she’s grooming to replace him? In the late evening John can convince himself of anything.
Until recently the process of Mrs. G’s elimination had eluded him, his experience with crime being limited to casual observer and victim. His innate cowardice and declining physical condition precluded violence. The trick would be to kill her without touching her. Last week it came to him out of the blue.
John’s bad mood begins to fade. Funny how a moment of premeditation can lift the spirits. Even the sound of Doreen humming in the next room cannot provoke him. Visions of dead mother-in-law burn in brain and he uses them to calm himself. A life of bad decisions and poor judgment can yet be salvaged. There is still a glimmer of hope.
He towel dries his thinning hair and studies his reflection. Somewhere in there he can still see the young John McGillen, brash and ambitious, a natural born world-beater. After all the wrong turns and near misses he can still hear the wheels turning.
“Are you going to eat something, dear?” Doreen nods hopefully in the doorway. “I could fix you a grapefruit.”
“I’ll grab something at the office,” he hangs his towel on the rack and slips past her to the bedroom.
“Don’t forget, John. Mother’s coming tomorrow. You always forget then pretend I didn’t tell you.”
He does not want to have this argument. Advance notice of mother-in-law visits is not much to ask. The old bat has a way of dropping in when he’s half sloshed or in the middle of giving Doreen the silent treatment. This is a particularly thorny issue for Doreen to be broaching this early in the morning, but John lets it pass.
Driving into the city he thinks about the plan. He sees it as a precious thing, an object of weight and substance nestled in his brain like a pearl. He will simply sneak into Mrs. G’s house in the dead of night and turn on the gas. What could be easier? Getting in will be no problem. He has a key, or rather Doreen has one stuck away in her secretary desk. And such a key! Big and brass with two gap teeth and a shamrock head, like the key to a castle or treasure chest. The house is secluded. No pets, no alarms. Even better, the soon-to-be-departed Mrs. G’s valium martinis keep her in a perpetual night time stupor.
What can go wrong? She will be blown to bits or asphyxiated, it’s all the same to John. There will be no suspicion. Mrs. G’s mental lapses are a matter of record as is her hefty prescription portfolio. People will wonder why it never happened before.
The plan really did come out of the blue. It hit him one day as he bent to light a smoke on his own gas range. The circle of blue tripped a homicidal impulse and the plan appeared, fully formed in his head.
At work he concentrates on being himself and is startled by his own limited range. He greets the people he normally greets and ignores the people he usually ignores and the day unfolds just like any other. No one mentions his birthday. If and when the police start asking questions they’ll get nothing much from this bunch.
He accepts an invitation to lunch with Fred Fenner even though the image of Fenner unraveling into his scotch is always unnerving. They talk baseball, or rather Fenner talks baseball until he’s loose enough to talk about his wife. John’s face performs the standard responses. His demeanor before the fact must be pure McGillen, vague, forgettable. The notion that he is tricking his colleague just by being himself is strangely amusing, like pretending to speak French to someone who doesn’t speak French. To the casual observer he and Fenner are conversing over lunch. In fact, Fenner has long lost the ability to discern when it is people tune him out and John is a master at pretending to listen.
As Fenner prattles on John contemplates the plan. For a moment he believes he will actually do it. Tonight. Doreen’s bridge night. No, not tonight, too soon. He must proceed with caution and eliminate every risk. Frankly, there’s nothing in John’s history to suggest he can pull this off. Part of turning fifty is the realization that you never had what it takes.
* * *
The house is set off the road in a grove of willows. John drives by, sees a light in the bedroom and a spotlight over the garage door. He’s reminded of nights long ago, necking with Doreen in that very driveway. The light flicking on and off when Mrs. G figured they’d been at it long enough, the old man still alive and turning a handsome profit, the face behind the grimace on those “Mr. G” billboard ads. It was the appliance king’s fortune that convinced John to marry Doreen and his untimely death two years later seemed to confirm the wisdom of that decision. Now John has spent his youth and a good part of middle age waiting for the other shoes to fall.
John tries to picture his father-in-law but the billboard leer is the best he can do. Appliance King my ass! A real go-getter would have cornered that market years ago. Had he, John, assumed the mantle, that death’s head grin would be plastered across newspaper supplements from here to the Pacific. The old man was strictly small time, writing him out of the business like he did. A single unauthorized withdrawal and the “G-man” goes off like a two-bit peddler. If only the old goat could see him now!
His heart races as he turns into the high school parking lot. Circling the outdoor basketball courts he parks in back near a row of dumpsters. Mrs. G’s spotlight shines through the trees. John cracks the window, lights a cigarette, and waits. It is not necessary for him to do anything. It’s enough just to come here, to put her in danger. But now that he’s within striking distance he feels no compunction, none of the anticipated pangs of doubt.
And then he is walking across the football field. He feels the grass soak his cuffs and hears crickets chirping in the distance. As he draws closer a strange sense of detachment comes over him. It’s as if with each step he’s shedding the old McGillen. Bits of lifelong loser with no pots to piss in falling away in heavy, wet chunks, a leaner, meaner version emerging in a bold stride through the end zone, around the home team bleachers and into the willows. Pausing at the edge of the yard, he takes the key from his pocket and runs his thumb over the shamrock. He tries to imagine what the deed will feel like and is surprised to find he has no fear. Staying clear of the spotlight, he moves through the trees in a low crouch. How easy! He reaches the rear of the house and edges toward the door. The key slips cleanly into the lock and the door swings open without a sound. Mrs. G’s refrigerator hums in the corner of her kitchen, beside it, the range.
Adrenaline and the shadowy stillness send him into motion. Hands brushing over counters and sink, feet sidestepping over polished floor. He’s been in this kitchen a thousand times but he feels his way slowly and does not falter. The range is different from his own, newer with a chrome control panel. He fiddles with the dials. The far right one releases a whisper of gas from the front burner. Just one to make it look like an accident. He wipes the dials with his handkerchief, steps back across the room, wipes the doorknob and locks the door from the outside.
He passes through the trees like a shadow then across the football field in a touchdown trot. But midway to the parking lot something clicks in his conscience and a cold dread settles into his gut. He slows to a stagger. The black square of the school maintains it’s distance and John has the sensation that he’s passed into a nightmare. His own life spinning away as he enters the world of the cold blooded killer. He didn’t give this part of the plan a lot of thought. The point of no return. The point where he will suddenly be hailed by an acquaintance or stumble upon some teenage tryst that will involve an explanation, something off the top of his head that will sound like a lie. A story so lame he will lay awake poking holes in it. How the perfect plan probably would not include stashing the getaway car in a big empty parking lot or leaving his footprints in the victim’s pachysandra.
But John’s luck is holding. There’s no one around. He forces himself to walk at a normal pace, ignoring the scrotal itch of anxiety. A few minutes more and he’ll be home free. That single thing still to be done, exit before someone spots him. Shivering now as he enters the shadow of the building. Not too fast, but fast enough to bounce him off the first dumpster. A solid bonk to the elbow that doesn’t hurt but scares the crap out of him. Lucky really. Might have killed himself there.
He knows this will be the worst part. Where his blood turns to ice and time is compressed and he hasn’t been caught yet. Only one way out and already he can feel the terror building. A thousand yard of blacktop with nowhere to hide, a moment of vulnerability so sublimely dreadful his teeth chatter in anticipation. He can just make out the dark shape of his car. Pulling the keys from his pocket he hears something hit the ground. Before he hears it, he feels it kick off the top of his shoe. It is, of course, the key of Mrs. G. He drops to a squat and runs his hand over the slotted grill of a storm drain.
Oh, he goes through all the motions, searching his pockets front and back, searching the pavement with a cigarette lighter, searching his pockets, front and back. He finds a new pack of matches in the car and drops all twenty into the drain, one by one, each flashing a brief reflection before hitting the water with a blip. He searches the grate for a seam or a hinge but it’s one solid piece embedded in concrete. For some reason one of the slots is wider than the rest, wide enough to take his arm to the elbow, deep enough to wet his fingertips. He pictures them waving just above the key.
McGillen sits in his car sorting through repercussions. Whatever happens, Doreen will soon discover that the key is missing. At first she will deny the implications, but in light of the consequences the seed will be planted. A key that’s missing is unresolvable. The key to a house where a woman was killed, the kind of loose end the TV detectives pounce on. And Doreen will be able to tell he’s lying. And then she’ll wonder why he’s lying. And then she’ll put it together.
And what if Mrs. G awakens in time to save herself? For an instant he considers returning to the house, turning off the gas before something happens. Then he remembers he has no key.
The grate is stamped with the name of the manufacturer. E. Kilton Foundry, Gulfport, LA. He curses Kilton, his progeny, the south in general and Louisiana in particular. Are there no local foundries that could fill the bill? And why Kilton? A man whose slots will easily accommodate a key, but not the arm that strains to retrieve it? And why make them impregnable, for fucking Christ sake? What is it we are seeking to prevent here? Why not something lightweight and easy to remove? Anthropologists will be digging these things up for centuries to come. What are we saying to the future? Our schools systems went belly up but our storm drains are forever.
John pounds his fist on the grate. He crouches like a weight lifter, takes a firm grip on the bars … then thinks of his hernia. A corresponding injury would only focus attention. Still, it would be just his luck not to try and then have the damn thing pop right off. Why set it in concrete? Who would take it? So he crouches again and heaves with a determination so fierce he is genuinely surprised when the grate doesn’t budge.
He rests his weight on the crow bar, elbows locked, feet suspended above the blacktop. He has already wasted considerable time at this but what else is to be done? When he bought the crowbar so many years ago it was with brute strength situations in mind. How unlike him to have the right tool on hand, not that foresight will get him anywhere. In twenty minutes he has managed to raise two blisters and ruin a shirt. Sweat drenched and wheezing badly, he hurls himself onto the crowbar, arms trembling, legs flailing. What must this look like?
Working in a blind fury now, he jams the crowbar in the wider slot and pulls down from underneath. He sees a slight bulge in the rim or thinks he does, so he tries again, putting all his strength into it, feeling his neck lock in a cramp. Again and again, grunting like an animal. He stumbles away with a hand to the neck, kneading and poking, working his jaw to try and loosen it. So like him it makes him spit. With a low growl of rage he drops to his knees, shoves his arm into the slot and with one painful lunge forces it through.
An hour passes. Two. Doreen’s long asleep by now, so barring a miracle he’ll be here until morning. The inside knob of his elbow is scraped raw and the strain on his back forces him to lie on his stomach. He thinks of the G house filling with gas.
By 2 AM it’s raining steadily. John lays with his face to the grate, shivering in grim resignation. The water in the drain is wrist deep and tepid. Chunks of things bloated brush passed his knuckles, fur bearing flotsam, squishy and foul smelling. There are monsters in these tunnels, bottom feeders with no eyes and razor teeth, mutant strains of life’s lower forms, slathered in toxins and riddled with disease. Not to mention microbes and parasites, corrosives and raw sewage. He pictures tomorrow’s on-lookers shrieking in horror as his arm pulls free, black and smoking, gnawed to a nub. He knows better than to think things can’t get worse.
And so they do.
From not far off comes a roar of machinery, than the mournful bark of what sounds like sea lions. A minute later lights sweep over the football field and he hears the faint strains of a pedal steel guitar. The trash truck enters the lot, downshifts past the row of dumpsters and into reverse. John calls out to him but the radio and the growl of the motor drown out everything. He tries to yell louder but his throat seizes up like it does in a nightmare. He sees the flare of a cigarette inside the cab but the truck is angled so he can’t see the mirrors.
The sounds come in sequence. A blast of compressed air, the backup beeper, the chirp of brakes, Patsy Cline falling to pieces. A single backup light flickers like a candle. John waves his free arm and screams, but a bullhorn couldn’t cut through the racket. He scrambles to his knees and pulls mightily, but something snaps in his shoulder and he’s face down again. Blinded by pain, unable to move, tires crunching asphalt as 50 years pass before his eyes.Tom Larsen has been a fiction writer for fifteen years. His work has appeared in Newsday, New Millennium Writing, Antietam Review and Puerto del Sol. Tom's short story “Lids” was included in Best American Mystery Stories – 2004. His novel FLAWED was released in October.
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