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This story grew out of a conversation I had at college with a young woman who told me that her relatives were involved in the Mafia. Our relationship was short lived.
Growing up in the Mob
My shrink says that I have a morbid fascination with death. Who wouldn’t? I can’t remember when I haven’t had nightmares about death. Some kids went to the cottage in the summer. My family went to funerals. We had a special wardrobe for funerals. And a special car. The black Cadillac that waited like a hearse in our garage. My mother kept an album of Mass cards for the bereaved. No doubt it would have been worth quite a bit of money by now. I burned it after my father’s death, like I burned everything that had anything to do with that time in my life.
The whole family were animals. At least the men were. My uncles ate with their mouths open like cannibals, snorting and belching. Hairs grew out of their noses and on top of their knuckles and sometimes you could spot bits of food stuck in the hairs. I used to have nightmares that I would grow up with hairs growing on my breasts. It was like living amongst the beasts of the jungle. Of all my uncles, Uncle Bert was my favorite. He was a bit of a kid himself always ready to play games. Uncle Bert was short one finger. This was quite a mystery to us kids. Later I learned that the lost finger had been payment for a loan he had reneged on. But that was not the story he told us kids. He told us kids that one evening after working all day in the fields he was so hungry he’d sliced his finger off and swallowed it before he realized it wasn’t a sausage.
All our Sunday afternoons started in the kitchen with my aunts cooking and criticizing aunts who weren’t there. Once they had completed gang banging the absent aunts, it was time to eat. The tables were always filled with more food than anyone could ever imagine being eaten at one sitting, but each dish had to be finished off so that none of the aunts would have cause for insult regarding their contribution to the feast.
Once everyone had gorged themselves, the men would be sent off and the women would clear the tables and wash the dishes. Talk turned on the husbands. All my cousins, the girls, would sit around and listen. In Aunt Marge’s kitchen the talk centered on Uncle Peter’s insatiable sexual drive. At Aunt Bernice’s we all retired to the laundry room where Aunt Bernice complained that Uncle Joe never changed his underwear, which we had all suspected. Uncle Joe was getting something on the side and if Aunt Bernice found out who the slut was she would cut her tits off. At Aunt Rosa’s it was obligatory to kneel down in front of the chapel she created for the Blessed Virgin and say a prayer for her mother, her mother’s mother, down a long line of mothers. Death held no dominion over Aunt Rosa. No one ever mentioned Aunt Clara. She was English and had been Uncle Bill’s first wife. Apparently she had been caught with one of my uncle’s drivers. None of us kids knew what happened to Aunt Clara and the driver, but mother always blessed herself when we drove passed the new bus terminal.
As a shy rather unattractive girl I spent many of those days sitting in a chair, my hands neatly piled in my lap, listening to my aunts and uncles bartering for the airwaves with shouts and laughter. The boredom drove me into my own thoughts. I daydreamed. And what I dreamed about most often was death. One particular dream stalked my thoughts.
I am standing on a railroad trestle, staring down at the black curling water below. The poor little moon is spinning around in an eddy, fighting not to be sucked under. I’m thinking of throwing myself off the trestle onto the rocks in the creek below. I feel the railroad tie beneath my feet vibrating. I look up and stare down the tracks into the darkness. I see nothing but I can hear the faint sounds of a train coming closer and closer. And then I see the train headlight like a light at the end of a long dark tunnel. I scream, realizing that I don’t want to die. I begin to run, desperately trying to reach safety. I trip.
I was so happy when I got accepted at the University of Windsor. Finally I was away from them. I never expected to be so lonely, far from home, living on my own for the first time with people who didn’t understand my background. And why should they? They’d all come from normal homes where courtesy and politeness and niceness were the rule. When I tried to explain what I had been through, when I told stories about my uncles, they’d sit there with their mouths open in disbelief. Word got around the campus and I was labeled a loony. Only my good friend, Mary O’Hara, believed me. But the loneliness drove me deep inside myself. I fantasized about new deaths.
I am in my room alone, as I usually was most evenings sitting at my desk by the window. I take the bottles of aspirin out of my school bag and set them up on my desk in front of the window. Turning the lights out in the room I look out at the cool evening sky. Windsor looks like a Christmas tree from the seventh floor of Electa Hall, the girl’s residence. Across the street out back of the married residence I can see someone throwing a frisbee. A dog is barking. I empty all the aspirins onto my desk and open a bottle of coke. Lighting up a cigarette, I consider a suicide note. Who would I write it to? My father? That son of a bitch! Mother? She’d feel guilty. I couldn’t stand that. O’Hara, my best friend? Too presumptuous. I’d only known her a few weeks. I wonder what the funeral would be like. That was always one of the great joys of considering suicide. Would my mother make all my cousins dress the same? Should I ask to be buried in the wedding dress mother was keeping for me? I felt as if my suicide would help fill out the family’s social calendar. I took a handful of aspirins and then reached for the coke. In the darkness I knocked the bottle of coke over. I began to choke. The aspirins became lodged in my throat. God, I didn’t want to choke to death! I stumbled across the room toward the door to call for help. In the darkness I couldn’t find the doorknob.
Most of my life at university was study. I had entered sociology; I wanted to become a social worker. Maybe I felt guilty for my family’s crimes and wanted to undo some of the harm they had committed. There were boys but nothing very serious. I got the impression that my reputation as a loony had preceded me; most of the boys I attracted were psychology majors more interested in getting into my head than into my pants. I tried to have sex with one boy but it was a disaster. He wet his pants than wiped his sticky fingers on my sweater. My aunts were right about sex. It wasn’t worth it.
In my senior year of college I was called home. Lumps had been found on mother’s breasts. My mother was a saint. She had taken the family’s sin upon herself and they were killing her. I spent most of the year running back and forth between school and home. Mother and I became very close, like girlfriends. She told me how she had met my father. It had been an arranged marriage. She had fallen in love with another boy from a neighboring village but her parents had forbidden any alliance with his family and forced her to marry my father, a boring and homily lad by her account. But she did not regret her choice reminding me that she had three lovely children. On her deathbed, mother smiled at me, told me her time was up and wished me well. Then mother closed her eyes and was gone. Mother was buried in May. It was so hot the day of the funeral. There were thousands of grasshoppers in the cemetery. Father cried all through the service and didn’t stop for days.
Now that mother was free, my father wanted me to come home and keep house for him. Fuck him! I thought. Let him hire a maid. I was going to graduate school. Father bought me a small car, a Toyota, so that I would come back to Toronto more often. He never bought my mother a car, never trusted her out of the house. I should never have accepted the Toyota. It was bought with blood money and I was to suffer for it with a new nightmare.
In this new nightmare I am motoring along the Macdonald-Cartier Expressway, moving the Toyota into the passing lane and slowly passing a transport. The driver looks down from his cab into my car and throws me a kiss. I move abruptly into his lane forcing him to hit his brakes. I laugh, give him the finger then move briskly along leaving the truck far behind. I roll down the car window and relax. The sun smells like clover. In the sky white billowy clouds tumble over each other like kittens frolicking in a toilet paper commercial. I slip into that warm tub of dreaming that always comes over me on long drives. Reaching over, I turn on the radio. One of my favorite tunes is on and I hum along and grab a cigarette. When I reach over to push in the cigarette lighter, I spot a hornet resting on the knob. I swat at the insect, turning the steering wheel sharply. The car flips over and slides on its roof like a curling rock down the highway, the metal roof screeching, spitting out a volley of sparks. I freeze, hold my breath and begin to pray. Finally the car comes to a stop. Hanging upside down, I fumble with my seat belt. It is stuck. A truck’s horn calls out. I turn my head and see the big transport barreling down the road toward me, its brakes screaming, its gears grinding down.
I liked to pick up hitchhikers on my trips back and forth between Windsor and Toronto. I loved Michael the first time he stepped into my Toyota, his long red hair in tangles, his backpack thrown so thoughtlessly into the back seat. As we drove, Michael explained that he was a draft dodger, that he was in the country illegally, that every month he returned to Toronto to pick up money from a special account his parents had set up for him. His parents lived in Texas. His father was a well-known lawyer in Dallas and had worked on Lyndon Johnson’s Senate race. We pulled into a service center. While Michael went to use the washroom, I filled the gas tank then pulled into a parking space. I don’t know what came over me. I walked up to the washroom, knocked on the door, pushed Michael inside the room and began to undress him. The expression on his face still makes me smile.
Michael and I became lovers. I didn’t care what my aunts would think of me; Michael treated me like a princess. Some days we spent all day naked, making love, eating, laughing, smoking dope, making love. I loved everything about Michael, his wavy long hair, his rough strong hands, the curve of his back, his soft blue eyes, his ears that stuck out when I pulled his hair back, the curve of thick white cock, the sound of his breath by my ear when he was inside me.
Michael moved into my Windsor apartment over a 7-11 convenience store. While I worked on my Master’s thesis, Michael organized an anti-war group. Our apartment was a hub of activity. There was a constant flow of people sharing ideas and organizing protests. I reveled in my new life. In the midst of saturation bombing of North Vietnam and the secret war in Cambodia I had never felt more alive. Michael told me over and over again that I was beautiful. We even talked about getting married one day. My nightmares were gone.
Then it ended. One day when I returned from class Michael was packed and departed. I must have been crazy. I actually believed that when I left home I could make a place for myself in the world. My father must have had me watched. He didn’t approve of Michael, didn’t approve of someone who wouldn’t kill. Death had always been the acid test of manhood in our family. No one knew where Michael had gone. O’Hara said that the last time she saw him he looked like he’d been scared out of his mind. I raced back to Toronto and begged my father to let me have Michael. He said that he had nothing to do with Michael’s departure, denied knowing anything more about Michael than I had told him. But there were other boys, he said. He would find me one. I never saw Michael again.
There was a new nightmare. It is my wedding. I take my father’s arm and walk slowly down the church aisle. The packed crowd in the church turn their heads. A wave of smiles washed over the congregation. I glance at father. He smiles, pats my arm. Up ahead I see my husband to be, waiting nervously with my cousin Billy and Father O’Reilly.
“Your mother would he proud of you, Christiane,” father whispers as he releases my arm.
My fiance reaches out for me. I reach into the bouquet of flowers I am holding, pull out a revolver, put it to my father’s head, and pull the trigger.
Time passed. I threw myself into my work. Never saw any of my old friends. There were other men in my bed but all I could think of was Michael. Soon I gave up on men altogether and concentrated on my work. Except for special family occasions, father and I never exchanged a word.
Years later I showed my old school friend Mary O’Hara around my apartment in Toronto. She was very impressed. The tour ended on the balcony where the two of us sat down at a garden table. Around the table there was a jungle of plants and trees.
“This place is incredible,” O’Hara smiled.
“I’ve got a herb garden set up on the roof,” I smiled. “And look at the view you get of the city.”
O’Hara shook her head.
“You’ve done well, kid.”
“You want a drink?”
“White wine okay?”
I stepped over to a small white table where a number of glasses and bottles of liquor were set up.
“How can you afford all this on a social workers salary?” Mary laughed.
“Father died, He was loaded.”
“I didn’t know about your father,” Mary sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. Father was lucky though. He died of a stroke in his sleep. Got off Scot-free. I hope he burns in hell.”
“Christiane!” Mary gasped.
“Father used to say that you can’t leave your family. They’re the luggage you carry through life. I hated him.”
“You hated your father?”
“I hate the whole family. They’re all monsters. I thought that when I saw him lying there in his casket that I would be rid of him. But now I’ve got all his money. It’s a curse.”
“You could give the money away.”
“Wouldn’t matter. I dream about him every night.”
O’Hara lit up a cigarette.
“When did you start smoking?” I laughed.
“After Michael left me,” Mary laughed. “I picked up a lot of bad habits after that louse ran off.”
“Remember your old fling. Months after you left Windsor, Michael returned from Texas. His father had died and he had to sneak back into the States for the funeral. He was a wreck. God, I guess I felt sorry for him. He lost his father; you two had split up. He was suicidal. We ended up getting married. That was a mistake. It was like living with a stranger. Even after we had Sandra, he was distant. And then he disappeared. Without a word.”
After O’Hara left I gathered up the dirty dishes from dinner and piled them into the dishwasher. Feeling an attack of gas coming on I took a tablespoon of Maalox. Checking out the time and the television guide, I sat down on the couch and watched a rerun of a Barbara Streisand movie. About half way through the film I fell asleep and dreamed about a photograph of my cousin’s wedding. Sixteen flower girls. Four hundred guests. All my aunts and uncles were there. My cousin Billy stood beside his new wife smiling. Everyone in the picture was smiling. Father looked at me. He was laughing. When I awoke the television was snowy. I checked the time on the stove. It was three-thirty. In the distance I heard a dog howl. Stepping onto the balcony, I threw myself off.
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He Started To Laugh
It looked like a bomb had been dropped on it. Papers were scattered helter-skelter like flotsam over the top. Styrofoam coffee cups lay on their sides, coffee spilling out in small brown lakes. An ashtray was brimming over with butts. Folders lay sideways hanging precariously over the edge of his desk. Some had fallen onto the floor. Some had perhaps jumped.
As soon as he fell into his chair, he lit up a cigarette. I could smell death sloshing around in his lungs and then seeping out of his nostrils like some nauseous fumes from a sewer grate.
“Mrs. Wallace?” Detective Brown muttered, smoke scaling the yellow walls of his teeth and falling over his smile. He had mustard stains on his tie. The buttons on his shirt were misplaced and his gut hung loosely over his belt. There were yellow cigarette stains on fingers whose nails had never been properly manicured. He was nothing like my Harold.
“Isn’t that against the law, detective?” I asked gesturing to the stiff like slug that dangled in his lips.
“I will not jeopardize my health, detective,” I said, crossed my arms and clamped my jaw shut. I will not put up with a man who does not listen.
Detective Brown paused for a moment. Then he chuckled, pointing his cigarette at me.
“You are a funny lady,” he said shaking under a deluge of machine gun like coughs.
I did not smile. There was nothing amusing about death.
“Don’t point that thing at me,” I barked.
He looked affectionately at his cigarette.
I continued to speak:
“Do you know, detective, what the statistics are regarding second hand smoke? My Harold smoked for twenty nine years until he gave it up last spring when he caught a touch of flu, but never in those twenty nine years did he smoke a cigarette in my presence, did not even smoke in our house, not even on our lot. He smoked out on the sidewalk, on city property. That’s just the type of man my Harold was. I expect no less from you, detective.”
Detective Brown blushed, shook his head, than butted out his cigarette.
“Thank you,” I responded.
“Would you like a coffee?” Detective Brown asked as he rose from his seat.
I shook my head. I could only imagine the diseases that were festering in the coffee made by a man with mustard on his shirt. My mother had always counseled me not to accept food or beverages from sources that I had not personally inspected. This put something of a crimp on Harold’s and my social life, restaurants, cafes and bars were out of bounds, but I felt that these precautions greatly added to our quality of life. We had avoided all germs, illness of any kind for thirty some years until Harold caught the aforementioned virus the previous spring.
When Detective Brown departed I glanced around his office. It duplicated, even multiplied the destruction on his desk. The doors of his file cabinet were open, files sticking up from them like tongues out of the mouths of dead beasts. Papers and notices stuck to the walls had long ago yellowed. There was a skin of dust on the photographs that hung on the wall, one of which was a photo of a much younger Detective Brown receiving some sort of award from a well dressed official, I believe it was our late mayor. The plants that sat in a holder on the windowsill had long since expired, their dried and withered stems having fallen over the sides of their prison. The garbage can hadn’t been emptied in ages. There were red stains on the floor. I hoped it was ink. The place reeked of death.
Detective Brown returned to the office, placed his coffee on his desk and once again plopped into his chair.
“Did you wash the cup?” I asked.
Detective Brown gave me a puzzled expression. I repeated my question.
“I don’t wash my cup every time I use it,” he finally responded.
“My Harold does. And each evening he lets the cup sit in bleach overnight.”
“I hate bleach,” Detective Brown muttered.
“That is odd,” I responded.
“What’s odd?” Detective Brown asked looking up from the folder he had just opened.
“Not liking bleach. I think it is one of the saving graces of civilization. If every household on the planet would only scour their quarters with bleach we could rid ourselves of evil and all its manifestations.”
I carried on for some time about bleach. Detective Brown listened patiently, nodding as he read the folder in his lap. He wasn’t paying attention to me. I hate that in a man. When I speak to Harold, he puts down whatever he is doing and looks me straight in the eyes. In that way there is no misunderstanding between us. Harold may have his shortcomings, he has no sense of humour – the man hasn’t cracked a smile in thirty years, but he does pay attention.
“I’m sure Mrs. Brown uses bleach to get out those stains in your white shirts not to speak of other unmentionables.”
Detective Brown looked up.
“There is no Mrs. Brown. What unmentionables?”
“You’re single? That explains your terrible posture. If you’d sit up in your chair, you’d greatly improve the impression you’d make on people.”
“Divorced,” Detective Brown explained though I had no interest in his personal life and would have said so if he hadn’t added, “These are very serious charges that have been laid against you, Mrs. Wallace.”
Detective Brown looked up at me from over his glasses and beneath eyebrows that jutted out of his head like small horns. I said nothing. How I loathe the condescending attitude of public officials. My Harold worked for the Works Department of the city for thirty years and not once in that span of time did he speak so irreverently to a member of the public. As Harold told me on more than one occasion, ‘the public pays my wages’.
“Corporal Jason reports that you approached him at 11:30 yesterday evening at Quinn’s Bar and Grill.”
“I thought he could be trusted,” I spat out and turned my head away. “I see now that my good faith was misplaced.”
Detective Brown continued:
“Corporal Jason initially presumed that you were soliciting him for the purposes of sexual favours.”
“Sexual favours!” I barked. “Do I look like the sort of woman…?” I began but sputtered out, exhausted by indignation.
Detective Brown looked up from his folder, appraised me for several moments then spoke.
“No. I don’t know what could have clouded the corporal’s judgment. Perhaps the lighting in the bar was a factor.”
“It’s quite outrageous that police officers would make such an accusation. If this gets back to my dear Harold, he will certainly be meeting with our solicitor.”
“You weren’t charged with solicitation,” Detective Brown responded.
“How could you come to work with that tie?” I asked. It was a dreadful looking tie, red and green with the imprint of a golfer or some male wielding a club of some sort.
“You don’t like my taste in ties,” Detective Brown said smiling, raising his tie in front of his eyes.
“You’ve got mustard stains on it,” I pointed out. “My Harold would never go to work dressed so disheveled. Harold takes some pride in his appearance. Harold has a tie for each day of the week, neatly pressed.”
“Mrs. Wallace, we have more serious issues to resolve than my wardrobe. The corporal reports that you tried to hire him to assassinate someone.”
I sighed deeply.
“What possible business is that of yours?”
“Then you don’t deny it?”
“Could we get this over with, detective. I have to get home and get my Harold’s dinner on the table.”
“It’s against the law to hire someone to murder someone else,” Detective Brown smiled. I could see that he had had extensive dental work done and then for reasons that were still unclear to me, abandoned the project. The detective leaned back in his chair and fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it up.
I was about to protest when he raised his hand.
“Don’t say it!” he barked. “This is a very serious charge, Mrs. Wallace. The only reason that you are sitting here now talking to me and not behind bars is that I cannot fathom why a middle-aged woman from a well-to-do household is out trying to hire an assassin.”
“Well-to-do household!” I cried. “I have three grown sons. Do you have any idea how much money it takes to feed a household with four adult males? Of course you don’t! You’re one person living on a detective’s salary while we struggle along on Harold’s meager wages from the city. Harold hasn’t had a raise in five years!”
A tear ran down my cheek. I took a tissue out of my bag and dabbed at it, careful not to ruin the makeup I had so diligently applied only hours earlier.
“But why would you go looking for a hired killer?” the detective asked.
I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. He was such a stupid man.
“Because I couldn’t bare to do it myself!”
There was silence. I looked up at the detective who stared at me, his mouth hanging open.
“When was the last time you saw a dentist?” I asked.
The detective remained speechless.
“Buddy,” I continued, “Buddy is my youngest, Buddy needed some bridge work done. Five thousand dollars is what I was quoted. Harold’s dental plan does not cover bridges. On top of that Frank needs a new computer. Frank is the oldest boy. He started college and we had to put a second mortgage on the house to pay his tuition. Walt is the middle boy. He’s married. We’re supporting him and his wife, Louise. Louise is a lovely girl if only she’d lose some weight. I don’t know how many times I’ve told her that she’s eating herself right into a divorce. I know Walt and he likes a good figure on a girl. And my poor Harold is supporting all of this. The man is a saint. He never complains. He’d give his life for those boys.”
Smoke billowed out of Detective Brown’s mouth like the back end of a city bus.
“I’m afraid you’ve completely lost me, Mrs. Wallace. Answer the question, please! Why did you try and hire a killer?”
“The bills keep mounting up,” I replied.
“The insurance money,” I sighed. “Harold and I purchased these wonderful life insurance plans years ago. Harold is so thoughtful. In the event of his passing, he did not want me to be left destitute.”
The detective stared at me for a moment, then butted out his cigarette.
“Maybe we’d better get your lawyer in here,” he said rising from his chair.
I shook my head.
“We can’t afford a lawyer,” I said.
“Mrs. Wallace, these are very serious charges. You’ve tried to hire someone to kill your husband for his life insurance.”
“No!” I cried. “How could you think that I would have my husband killed for money? It was just fortunate that Harold had the foresight to make arrangements.”
The detective looked puzzled.
“Why did you want to kill your husband then?” he asked towering over me like a skyscraper.
“Do you believe in evil, detective?” I asked.
The detective slid back in his chair. Smoke curled up from the smoldering cigarette butt in the ashtray, tickling his eyelids. He blinked.
“It was such a lovely morning, the sky clear and blue. I heard the news on the radio. An airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Terrible accident, I thought to myself. I was making breakfast for Harold. He was having a shower. I switched the television on; we have one in the kitchen. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like a Hollywood movie. I fell into a chair. How could anyone do such a thing? I asked myself. All those innocent people! The screams for help, the broken glass, the twisted metal. Pure evil had taken over the souls of those terrible men.”
“Yes, a horrible deed,” the detective nodded impatiently.
“Those men were evil. Someone should have noticed, should have stopped them before they… There must have been signs. No one did anything.”
Detective Brown interrupted me.
“What has this to do with you trying to hire someone to kill your husband?”
I looked at the detective. He didn’t understand. How could the man be so stupid?
“He had to be stopped. Harold, my dear Harold, had to be stopped.”
“Stopped from what?” the detective cried, his voice rising in indignation.
I continued: “The toast began to burn. The smoke alarm went off. Harold came running in from the bathroom just as the second tower was struck by the second plane.”
“What has this to do with your husband?”
I looked at the detective. For a moment I hesitated. I dared not bare this awful truth about my Harold.
“What?” the detective cried.
I swallowed deeply.
“My Harold… he started to laugh.”
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I knew her before she was famous. We met one afternoon at the Silver Dollar, a bar that specialized in extremely cheap beer. I was working at the Ministry of Correctional Services as a file clerk. It was a temporary position while I worked on my painting. Some afternoons I would leave work feigning illness and this caused some concern at the Ministry where my superiors became alarmed at my failing health. I spent those afternoons either painting or drinking depending upon my mood. Some afternoons I did both which usually led to a terrible hangover and frightful canvasses the next morning. It was a time before air-conditioners so that all government workers were let go early on hot days in the summer. It was on one such afternoon that I first met her. I headed for the Silver Dollar, a bar on Yonge Street that served cheap beer during the day. The place was always packed but I knew through experience that if you made your way into the dark chasms at the back of the room you could almost certainly find a seat.
Marcus, an old high school friend, cried out to me as I stepped through the gauntlet of tables. There was no mistaking Marcus’s voice. He sounded like the television actor who played Wally in the Leave It to Beaver sitcom. I saw the girl beside Marcus right away. There was always a girl beside Marcus. It wasn’t that women were anymore attracted to Marcus than to other men, but they felt comfortable with him. The women were almost never his lovers. Not that Marcus didn’t have lovers but he seemed to keep them stored away someplace for family gatherings and other public social events. Marcus was associated with many of the theatre groups in the city. His sister was a member of Second City and would become a renowned actress.
“Michael,” Marcus said after I had slid into the booth the couple occupied. “This is Penny.”
“For my thoughts,” I smiled.
“Oh, I like this one, daddy. Can I have him?”
Marcus laughed and slapped Penny playfully on the hand.
“Now be a good girl. Michael is one of my old mates from Michael Power.”
Marcus turned to me. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She’s an actress. Simply can’t stand not being paid attention to. Ignore her and she’ll have her panties around her ankles in five minutes. Guaranteed.”
“Marcus!” Penny cried. “You’re making me sound like a brazen hussy.”
Marcus roared with laughter.
“Did you hear that?” Michael cried giving Penny a peck on the cheek. “You are stupendous.”
At that moment the waiter arrived and I realized why Marcus had called me over. He was not always so generous with the company of his female friends. Marcus was broke. He needed my purse to cover his expenses. Marcus told the waiter to fill the table. I took out my wallet and flashed some money at the waiter. And then Marcus began to regale us with a story about his most recent adventures with the police. Marcus was always in trouble with the police, not that he was a criminal but he seemed to skirt the edge of the law. Now he was in the process of operating an after hours club and he needed to devise methods of warning patrons when a cop had been spotted in the place.
As Marcus talked I watched Penny. She had a strange sensuality about her mixed with a schoolgirl innocence. Her blond hair was pulled back tightly into a pony tale so that her high cheekbones and large blue eyes dominated her face. When she smiled I noticed her eyeteeth that grew out of the tops of her gums.
“I’m a vamp… pire!” she giggled when she noticed me staring at her.
“I’m sorry for staring,” I said.
“You’re still staring, darling!”
She had noticed my eyes reaching for her blouse whose buttons were undone revealing white milky skin and full braless breasts. The look in her eyes gave me such a fright that I choked on the beer I was drinking.
“Watch it old boy,” Marcus cried with delight as he patted me on the back.
I took another swallow of beer.
Penny leaned back in her seat, sipped on her beer and began to give me the once over. In her beauty there was arrogance. She knew that I was hers, and she wanted me to know that she had no interest in me. Perhaps I was being defensive, but I felt like the defeated prey in the hunt, submitting to the great beast. As I lowered my eyes, Penny lunged at me with her smile.
“Don’t give up so easily!” she laughed knowing that she had conquered me.
“Otherwise,” she added, “you’ll fall madly in love with me.”
I tried to smile.
“He already has,” Marcus laughed.
We drank for some time. I paid for another round. Marcus continued to talk about his after hours club, which he insisted I attend. Penny was quiet until Marcus began talking about her career. She had a bit part coming up in a C.B.C. drama. She was playing a slut in a story about a high school girl who accuses one of her male teachers of rape. Penny was playing the best friend of the girl who is raped. At some time in the evening Penny and Marcus departed and I was left behind to finish the beers on the table. When I finally staggered out of the bar, it was well into the evening.
I met Marcus again the next week, but he was alone. I asked about Penny. He said she was working and had gotten another offer, a big offer to do a bit part in a film by an important American director. Marcus gave me the address of his after hours club and I promised to attend one evening.
Months passed. One evening as I sat spinning the channels on my black and white I saw Penny. She was sitting on the hood of a ’64 Buick in cut offs and a tank top. The drama was forgettable but she was electric on the screen. The eroticism that I’d only had a glimpse of that night in the bar was all over the small screen. She was only on the tube for a few minutes but I could not get her out of my mind.
It was almost Christmas when we met again. I was sitting at the window of a Croissant shop that I frequented each morning before reporting to work when I spotted her. She was standing at the curb of the street ready to cross, dressed in a beautiful white mink coat. Even though I could only see her in profile I knew it was Penny. Beside her a short fat fellow with long stringy hair turned and stared at her. He began to speak. For a minute she attempted to ignore him. Then she gave up and turned away and looked right at me. When our eyes met I knew that she had recognized me as well. What I didn’t expect was the smile that followed. A minute later she was sitting beside me.
“I didn’t think that we would ever meet again,” she smiled.
After I got over the delight of meeting her again, I noticed for the first time that her makeup was smeared. I offered to get her a coffee. She asked if I would get her something to eat. When I returned to our counter with several buns and two coffees, she ate like she was famished.
“I’m starving,” she smiled.
I laughed. She was more beautiful than I had remembered. But still I wondered about the makeup.
“It’s warm in here,” I said. “Why don’t you let me hang up your coat?”
“And get arrested,” she smiled, cradling a cup of coffee in her hand.
I must have had a puzzled look on my face because she leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“I’m stark naked under this thing.”
My mouth dropped.
“Boyfriend. He kicked me out. This was all I could grab. The bastard threw my clothes out the window.”
“Oh,” I said as if this was a story I heard all the time.
“They must have blown all over downtown by now,” she laughed. “His apartment is on the thirty second floor.”
“Well, you’re taking it awfully well.”
“I’m just lucky I met you. I don’t have a cent on me and thought I’d have to walk all the way to my apartment. Can I borrow cab fare? I’ll pay you back.”
I rooted in my pocket and handed Penny a twenty.
She laughed again.
“Somebody might think you’re paying off a hooker!”
We talked for some time. She told me how she had gone to the theatre the evening before with her boyfriend, who was also a big time producer in the city, and who was also married. They had a fight over his wife. Penny didn’t want to be his mistress. She was afraid that every time she auditioned now she would have to do so on her back. It was important she said not to get labeled in the business. The next week she was off to Hollywood for a small speaking part in a movie with a well known though aging actor. I asked if she was the love interest. She shook her head and laughed.
“I have to be pregnant all through the movie. I have no idea how to play someone who is pregnant.”
“Well don’t look to me for advice,” I responded.
We both laughed.
“Marcus said you were a painter.”
I nodded and then explained that I was struggling to produce work and to find a gallery that would show it. Because she seemed interested I talked about painting for some time although the longer I spoke I detected a growing boredom in her eyes.
“Would you paint me some time?” she asked.
“Well…” I hesitated.
“You don’t find me interesting enough?” she asked. She looked hurt.
“No,” I said and blushed. “You’re beautiful. I’m not sure my skills would do you justice.”
Penny smiled and leaned over and kissed me gently on the lips. I sat there frozen, afraid to move; afraid that anything I might do or say would be the wrong thing.
“You’re wonderful,” she smiled. “But I’ve kept you too long. You’re probably late for work as it is.”
“No,” I replied. “I mean, I’m late but who gives a shit!”
“Well,” she laughed. “Well, I have to get going. This was a terrible morning until I met you. Don’t forget me, Michael. And thanks for the money. I’ll make it up to you.”
And then she left, once again disappearing out of my life. How could I forget her? Every time I had a silent moment, thoughts of Penny would fill the void. I tried to paint her from memory but it all turned into garbage. There was something about her beauty that I could not seem to capture on canvass, something in her smile, a seed of something ugly. Occasionally her name would appear in the entertainment section of the papers. She was seen with this actor in this restaurant on these occasions. Hers was a different world than mine and I was resigned to never meeting her again. Life went on. My temporary position with the Ministry ended. I painted most mornings and went to the Silver Dollar late every afternoon. I became involved with a woman named Mary. Mary was working at the Toronto Central Library and attending night classes at George Brown College. I thought I was in love.
Mary met Marcus one Friday evening at the Silver Dollar and they were immediately close friends. Marcus insisted that we visit his after hours club. I hadn’t gone to the club and had no intentions of visiting it. Marcus was someone I could only take in small doses, but Mary insisted. So we tramped off to the club, which was nothing but a boarded up store on King Street near the Don River. Once inside the house, the place was much more interesting. There were sofas and couches everywhere with some rooms filled with mattresses. Marcus had several refrigerators set up in the kitchen where he sold bottled beer at outrageous prices. The place was dark and noisy and smoky. Music played throughout the house. And it was packed with people. I got Mary, myself, and Marcus a beer. Even in his own establishment Marcus was not picking up the tab. We walked around and as we entered each room, Marcus introduced us to people including a couple of comedians from Second City. On more than one occasion we were offered a joint, which I passed on to Mary who was like a vacuum cleaner when it came to smoke. Finally I decided to take root on a sofa and encouraged Mary to continue her tour with Marcus.
The room was so dark and filled with smoke it was difficult to make out the people in it. There was a woman across the room, dressed in a sleek skintight skirt smoking a cigarette. She seemed to be looking my way but it was difficult to tell much in the room. I looked away. Near a window I spotted someone I knew from the Ministry. It was one of the girls who worked in the Minister’s office. Someone sat down beside me on the sofa.
“Penny?” I said. She was the girl in the skintight skirt.
“Of course, you silly,” she laughed. “Did you think it was your mother?”
We talked. I could tell by Penny’s voice that she was stoned. I asked her about her trip to Hollywood. Everything had gone well. The movie had been released to great reviews. Penny asked if I had seen it. Embarrassed, I had to admit that I had not. Penny scolded me and made me promise to see it. She took a joint out of the handbag she carried over her shoulder. Even in the light I could see her nakedness under the dress. I didn’t want to smoke but could not see how I could refuse.
“You still have to paint me,” Penny giggled.
“I’m not much good at portraits,” I confessed.
“Would you paint me naked?” she asked. “I’ve always wanted to be an artist’s model. You read about all those models of Degas and Picasso and it sounds so romantic.”
“A lot of them were hookers,” I said.
“What do you think I am?” Penny snapped. It was strange. I thought I was with a happy beautiful woman one moment only to be revealed to something different the next, a hurt wounded animal.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Penny shrugged, shook off her mood, and turned back to me once again the beautiful gregarious actress.
“I missed you,” I said and then began to speak like someone in a panic afraid that I might never get to utter these words again. “I’m not sure why. We hardly know each other. The morning I met you at the coffee shop, I thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever met. A guy like me doesn’t have much of a chance with someone like you but I couldn’t get you out of my mind. You were like a vision, a miracle.”
“A vision!” she laughed mockingly, smoke curling out of her mouth.
“You’re angry?” I said wondering what had made me open up like that. I meant nothing to her. That was clear to me now.
“No kidding,” she barked and then noticing my reaction to her remark added, “This isn’t fair to you. I got some bad news.”
“Oh,” I said. “You want to talk about it?”
She looked at me and broke into a hysterical laugh. Everything I said seemed to set her off. I supposed she found it comic that someone in my station in life would presume to counsel a movie star on show business.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to invade your privacy.”
“Oh,” she smiled and patted my knee. “You are so sweet. Sweet and stupid. Did anyone ever tell you that?”
“Not in that combination,” I smiled.
Penny leaned over and hugged me, then running her fingers through my hair, kissed me on the lips. I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.
“I’ve never met anyone like you,” I said. I felt so weak sitting there beside her, waiting for her next move, afraid to raise my hands and touch her.
Penny did not respond. She finished the joint she was smoking and then stuck the roach down between the cushions of the couch.
“Take me someplace,” she whispered in my ear.
God, she was beautiful. I leaned over and kissed her on the mouth. Her mouth opened as her tongue reached into mine. Her hand slid up my trouser leg and over my groin. I grabbed her hand and we slipped out of the house. All the way in the cab to my apartment she was all over me. There was a frantic desperation about Penny that was frightening but very exciting. There was no protest from her when I slid my hand beneath her dress. We had just turned up Church when she slipped my cock out of my pants and into her mouth. I looked up into the rear view mirror where the cab driver was smiling. It was like that all night. When I woke up the next morning I turned over in my bed expecting to find Mary and remembering that I had come home with Penny. There was no one there. On the kitchen table under a cup of coffee, half empty, now cold, there was a note. It read: I’m sorry, Michael. Go to a doctor and get an AIDS test. I’m HIV positive.
I never saw Mary again. I was tested and everything came back negative, but for months I wanted nothing to do with women. I couldn’t explain it to Mary, couldn’t tell her what had happened that night with Penny, couldn’t tell her that I thought that I might have AIDS. How do you tell someone that death sleeps inside you? I felt angry, violated. I destroyed most of my work. It all looked so trivial.
Penny was arrested several months later and charged with the attempted murder of dozens of men. No one charged the man that had infected her. I looked at the pictures in the paper. She was beautiful but there was still the suspicion of the illness in her face. Or was I just reading into her face? They talked about her case on all the networks. Debate raged on both sides. Some said she was a cold calculating serial killer. Others said that she was a righteous avenger for all the women that had been abused by men. Larry King interviewed her. Who was she? he asked. Lizzy Borden or Joan of Arc? Two thoughts kept crossing my mind. Why did she do this to me? Had I hurt her in some way? Was I just one in a long list of her victims? A second thought also haunted me. Why did I still love her?
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