By Katrina M. Barnett
The streets are empty tonight, but to me they feel crowded with ghosts of a dead day.
I call it a dead day because it was one of those 12 hours in a person's life where the sky is more than just cloudy, it's heavy. Sometimes the fog can weigh a ton, sometimes it can press down on you with the kind of force that a thunderous rainstorm wished it had. Sometimes the weight settles on your head, trying to shove you down as low as you'll go, and even once your nose meets the concrete you've got farther to fall. Sometimes, though, you can feel it in your chest, like sand filling in the space where they say your heart's supposed to be, and you know something dark is going to go down, and it's gonna be bad, and it's gonna be your fault, and nobody's gonna care when you tell them it was just the weight of the dead day that did it. I've seen myself through so many of those damn days; someone should name me heavyweight champ.
Began like any other day, I guess. Me, flickering like a match at 3AM, watching the lights in the city do their business from our chipped window. I used to average about 5 cigarettes in the morning while I sat there and waited for Ronnie to stir. Every time I got down to the nub the thought of waking him with a burn to the shoulder was always such a crack up that I had to make myself stick to just one- four more chances gets to be too much of a temptation. I guess it makes the smoke a lot more enjoyable anyhow, like sucking a lemondrop down to the last bit before you bite into it. I used to watch the smoke sort of slither away from me and soar out the window, and I used to envy it, I really did. But today the smoke seemed to be filling my head instead, and as I studied the sleeping lug I'd married six years ago I counted his breaths. In and out, in and out. Totaled about 50 before I lost count, when I finally decided I'd like to get that total down to zero.
Ronnie's not a bad guy, never has been. Nice to his folks, swell to my family, clean to his business, keen on me, and not too shabby to any other Tom Dick or Harry that comes along. But God in heaven (if there is one) he's despicable. His walk, like a heavy-set camel on his way to someplace important, or his stupid laugh, like a hyped-up jackass choking to death is enough to make any person wish him a good time in hell. You're shaking your head, I know you are, but spend every night next to this bag of rot that's so stuck on you he won't raise a hand against you when you're out for blood, so proud that you're his gal that he'll do anything except stop being himself and there's nothing you can do about it—spend every night next to this guy and you tell me if you don't boil just a little.
Ronnie likes to joke that everyone is on pretty good terms with my legs, even though my ankles are as thick as the bratwurst that the warty porker sells down the block. Ronnie's right about the thick part- just about the only thing about me that anyone could pick on, I've gotta be fussy about my heels. But no matter how much Ronnie has churned my stomach I've been picky about who gets to know their way around my stockings. Hosiery isn't cheap these days, and I don't let rip for just any good-time Charlie. That's why when Davey walked into Ronnie's gym I knew things were headed for a change.
Davey isn't too tall, just an inch or so more than me, but his shoulders are broad as a barn and his arms could fit around me twice. He has a tough jaw, just the opposite of Ronnie's fat, droopy one, his eyes are small and slanted like a lizard on the sly, and his dark hair has a rogue curl to it. His handshake, when he offered it, could make anyone weak in the knees. When Ronnie introduced us, Davey the new fighting champ and me the boss's wife, Davey looked me up and down and responded with a grunt to my traditional apathetic greeting, as if to say I'd do. And I did.
Can't say I ever came close to loving Davey, but my guess is I got as close as I ever will. At least the lunkhead knew what to do with me half the time. The first time he hit me it was a goof- he was drunk and I was vile and he smacked a mug into my face when I told him not to drink anymore. Woke me right up, let me tell you. Suddenly I saw all the mistakes that Ronnie had ever made, why I ragged on him so much and never got any get-up-and-go out of him. Made me see the difference between a real man and a winge. Broke the mug, too, but those are cheap- I bought him another one.
Ronnie knew what was going on, he had to. But besides spending one or two dollars worth of worry over a couple bruises he never said anything other than "Don't get bent out of shape, Doll." He was always saying that. As long as I can remember every time I ladled out any thought of my own Ronnie'd suck it up, spit it out, and tack on a healthy dose of don't get bent out of shape, like he figured that'd fix it, like my figure was so perfect that any bending would do it injustice. Well, that was just the point- I was bent and I had to go on being bent.
That's what I was thinking about this dead morning while I thought about subtracting his breath away.
The big fight was going down at The Lew, and there was a big fuss about it. It was Davey, naturally the best this side of town, against the Dain, pretty much the burliest from the other side. The Dain was rough around the edges but everyone crossed their fingers for Davey- no one was hot in the ring like him. Which was why Ronnie in all of his fat-headed glory had told Davey to take a fall, and take it hard in the 2nd. And he had agreed, he had listened, my stupid chump of a stud had listened to Ronnie, and he was gonna go down just like they told him to.
As I continued my imaginary breath subtraction and began to feel the weight of the day sneaking up on me this morning, I made up my mind that I was going to fix everything. Davey was not going to go down in that fight, he was going to do like I told him for once and beat the Dain to a pulp like I knew he could, and we were going to make a haul. No, I was going to make a haul- my own dough instead of Ronnie's cast-offs. I watched Ronnie take a deep breath and listened to his vague mutterings and thought about what a swell guy he was for just a second, then stabbed out the last of my cigarette, knowing that by tonight, by the time it came over the radio that the Dain and not Davey had gotten pally with the dust, by that time Ronnie himself would be friendly with the quiet dark.
The sky was already grey and clingy when I went to see Davey. Halfway up to his apartment I found him in a stairwell, crouched in that way that only the tough and the hung over can manage. I used my toe to wake up his knee and he glared up at me. "Keep comin back for more, you crummy weak thing?" he was almost slurring, which was good enough for me. I rested myself on the step above him so that he got a front row seat to my yams. "Listen, Davey," I murmured soothingly, leaning in to his stench and filth, reminding myself that I had to love everything foul about it. "Listen, you're not going to throw the fight tonight. You're gonna win." He flinched and gently swatted in my general direction. "I don't wanna hear it, honey, you're always making plans… always with your crazy plans… well this time I've got a plan and you can just follow along.." his swatting subsided into a calm stroking of my knee and promoted itself from there to fondling the fringe of my skirt. "I know you do, Davey, sincerely," I watched him absent-mindedly at play, all the while I wondered if someone like me could ever find a happy medium of a man. Someone with real grit like Davey but who might also have half a brain. Maybe those didn't exist- maybe I didn't want to be happy; even- isn't 'happy' just lukewarm in the long run anyway?
While Davey was pleasantly distracted with the enigmas that are my Sunday stockings I brought out a flask from my coat. I brought it to soften Davey, but from the looks of it he had lower things in mind. I took a good hard gulp and let it slip down, my skirt following in its general direction. While I let Davey have at it I tried to tell myself that the weight pressing down on me was all him, the pressure against my back was just the splinters of the scuffed up stairs that so many lowlifes had clambered on, and here I was, just a part of the scene, just a no-good trying to strike it rich with her guy. I tried to tell myself that because I knew Davey would do exactly what I wanted him to do, just like he always had. And I wasn't sure what that made me.
I rushed home later with a bruise on my neck, a pain in my lower back, and a plan making the rounds in my head. No more room for smoke. I had to convince Ronnie to stay home from the fight tonight. We'd have a quiet dinner around the radio- a good dinner, chicken and dumplings, Ronnie's favorite, only this time we'd have it with cheap wine. The funny tasting kind. The kind that smacks gently of poison. With any luck he'd be out before the Dain in round 2. Then I'd pack up the goods, pick up Davey in the Bentley, and we'd take off for the hills and have our winnings wired to where ever we landed.
My only shaky moment came after Ronnie sheepishly agreed to stick around. I started shaking out the tablecloth for dinner until I realized it was my hands that were shaking like leaves about to make their drop and I let loose. Ronnie looked up from the newspaper he had resting on his fat whale of a stomach and grinned at me. "Catch a spider, kid?" My hands stopped shaking. "A whopper." He chuckled to himself, that damned stupid choking laugh, and rested his eyes while I set the table, all the while telling myself this was it. This was all of it. My fingers were strong as I handled the wine glasses in the kitchen, and I told myself to feel a twinge of pity but none came. It was getting dark outside. The fight was starting on the radio.
"Hey, hon," the lardbucket called to me from the den. I took out the vial that I'd been holding close to my heart for a long time and opened it. "Yea, Ronnie?" He exhaled heavily, depressed-like. "There's no moon out tonight. It's all dark." "Stars?" "Some." I let the liquid slide to the bottom of the glass before I let the wine go. "Good enough for me."
I gracefully joined him at the dinner table with a heaping serving of All-American Sap food, just the way my husband liked it, and when I put his glass in front of him I knew I was cool as ice. There was no going back now. He grinned his big silly grin at me and chuckled senselessly for what I prayed would be the last time. Finally, he took a good sip while I nibbled at a biscuit and pretended to listen to Round One of what was supposed to be Davey's dark night. Everything seemed still as Christmas Eve in the snow as Davey placed his nearly empty glass on the table and made a funny expression. I turned up the sound on the radio. Ronnie started to cough a little and looked across at me questioningly. "Is that some cheap wine, hon?" I nodded calmly. "Dirt cheap." He sighed and coughed a little more. "Well now, is that any kind of way to be.." he adjusted his collar and took a bite of dumpling. I knew he had to be feeling it by now; else he'd have already downed fifty dumplings. He kept coughing and adjusting but nothing gave. And here we were, already in round 2 and Davey was showing no signs of backing down. And Ronnie kept eating and coughing and smiling at me to let me know how swell I was, how keen I was, and what a lucky bastard he was to have me around to buy him cheap wine. How swell, how keen, how lucky. How swell- and then the Dain bit it. He was down and Ronnie was up and fired, hollering his lungs empty at the defenseless radio and I kept counting his breaths down to zero until I realized I wasn't sitting at the table anymore, I was up and I had what felt like Ronnie's pistol in my hand and sand in my heart and I knew the day was pressing down on me again and I couldn't back down now, not ever. He looked at me and fell quiet and gazed at me and knew. He knew it was coming as I stood beside the window with the darkness, my only partner in crime, creeping in.
And all Ronnie could do was gaze at me, even with the bullet speeding towards him, all he could do before he crumbled was gaze with that same keenness at me and speak the words, "Dadgum, Charlotte. You are the moon."
I don't know which feeling was stronger- that of disgust at his tenderness even now, when he knew I wanted him gone, or the intense elation, the electrical charge running through my head when I held the pistol against his bloated face. I wasn't happy to be killing him, or holding a gun, or even thinking about living without him. No, the joker's smile I was wearing wasn't about contempt anymore; it was just because I was so goddamn happy to be feeling anything at all. As I felt my inexperienced finger brush the trigger I knew all of Davey's roughness couldn't excite me more than the feeling I had just then, having a weapon in my hand capable of ending everything. And no man could ever make me make me feel the way I did the moment it was done and half of Ronnie's face was wall décor.
A lot of times you'll read stories about folks that stuck it to someone, and how all the killer could think of was the pleading look in the victim's eyes and the remorse they felt later. I don't even remember much of what Ronnie looked like, aside from that keenness which I'd never see again, and that funny feeling I got when I looked at the gun nestled in his cheek; I couldn't help thinking it was kind of like a kid's head on a pillow. And then I thought how grand it was that I never had any kids. That's all. Maybe Ronnie was already dead, in a way he died to me a long time ago, so long that I can't remember what his last words were or what he was ever really like if he was ever like anything. All I think is that I killed Ronnie and left him. And it felt good.
After, I smoked one last cigarette in honor of all those 3AM thoughts, grabbed my coat, touched up my lipstick, and went out to find Davey. I was in such a fog that I didn't even get into the Bentley, I just made use of my camel's ankles and wandered towards The Lew- but I was stopped in my tracks about halfway there by a celebratory mob, with none other than The Dain parading front and center. I let myself gape as they went by, and I knew there was no pretty thinking left. The Dain had gotten up. Davey had lost. Probably gone down around the same time as the radio got smashed. He didn't have it in him. I wanted to beat myself for ever thinking he did. I kept walking until I saw him cowering in the shadows, his friends leaving his side, a huge half-filled bottle in his hand. "Look, hon, I tried…" he started to say as soon as I got close. I sized him up quickly, trying to make myself think of his hands against my face, the anger I could always sense inside of him, his funny curls slipping like butter between my fingers, but now all I could see were his eyes, looking at me with keenness that seemed all too familiar. I knew then, I knew I had to walk away for his own good before I felt too strong for him, before I took him over. "Keep drinking," I heard myself say, "Stay in the stairwells and alleys and maybe if you watch yourself you can keep the rest of the rats company. I don't need you anymore." It came out cold and certain and I knew he was scared because he had been found out, and I was more than he could ever take. I let him listen to my shoes say goodbye as my steps echoed down the street, and kept my eyes ahead on the only flickering lamp post left alive in this god-forsaken place.
And now it's now, and all I can think of is how good murder feels. Now all I can think about is how sick it is that after finding something that brings me joy of that kind of purity I can't ever have it again. I'm like a white bride on her wedding night; there's blood on the sheets but it's all over and you better remember how it felt because it's gone for good. And that leaves only one last thing, one last thrill, one last way to bring back the buzz- but it's different, and it's quick, and it's curtains.
So here I am, wandering the back alleys like a mangy cat in a swank coat, not even a wolf in sheep's clothing- I wouldn't even go so far as to pay myself that respect. I can still feel the cold metal against my body and I shiver with dread and expectancy to know that there's two bullets left, and that soon it's gonna be my well-polished, sweet face splashed on the dirty walls of the city. Good, I think. This town could use a little something pretty.
Up ahead I see a gangly bastard looting through the garbage can like a cat nosing for a junebug. He looks up at me and gives me the go-over. I touch my hand to my side. Two bullets, right? At least I won't be alone.
I guess all I can say is that I hope when they find me and what's left of the schmuck that I take down with my ship, I hope they don't care. I hope they chalk it up to the sand in my heart, the fog, the ocean, the gun that made me feel like a real woman. I hope they don't think about it too much. I hope it's two pudgy police detectives that stand over me, and I hope one says to the other when they see me lying in the red, "Seen it all before, Joe. It was just one of those dead days."