Lady Luck dropped by this morning. I caught a fleeting glimpse of her when I opened my front door to get the newspaper. She gave me a shy smile, then flitted off into the wooded hills.
She’d brought the spring with her. It had been a long, snow-filled winter, and I’d begun to ache for the warmth of the sun. Instead of running atop my tired treadmill, I was able to sprint outdoors through the sweet mountain air. Lady came too. She darted in and out of the trees beside the trail, always staying in my peripheral.
After the run, she tagged along for my trek into work. She sat quietly on the passenger side, a prim and proper co-pilot, hands folded on her lap. Our fifty-mile commute along I66 into Manassas, Virginia, was devoid of heavy traffic: a rare and delicious treat. The car ran at a steady seventy-five, windows open, sun caressing our skin. A cocktail of exercise-induced endorphins and Starbucks-fueled caffeine coursed through my veins, pulsing to the beat of the stereo.
On the way to the dealership, after exiting the highway, I stopped for more coffee. Andrew Jackson greeted me from the parking lot asphalt. I pocketed the crumpled, wind-blown bill and glanced back at the car. Lady waggled her fingers in a friendly salute, and I nodded back before entering the store.
The 7-11 was an every-day stop for me. The clerk, a young kid with neck tattoos and eyebrow studs, typically offered no more than a grunt as acknowledgement. Most days, he was too busy telling his coworkers—and everyone else within earshot—about how drunk he’d been the night before. Today, though, he was undistracted. Polite. He thanked me and called me sir.
My trip yielded one final pleasantry, in the form of a parking space right in front of the dealership’s busy lot. It seemed invisible to everyone else, like it was waiting for our arrival. Lady threw back her head and laughed.
The spring she’d brought infected my step as well; I bounded from the car towards the showroom. By then, I knew Lady would follow me inside and sit for a spell. Her fickle affections were known to turn on a whim, but she’d neglected me for so very long—I had a hunch that today, she was here to go the distance.
That was this morning, and it seems I was right. Lady hasn’t gone anywhere and since arriving at work, I’ve sold three cars and am writing up a fourth. Lady has made herself more than comfortable. She’s sitting next to me now, and as my pen scratches the form she tousles my hair. I jump when she puts her hand on my knee.
I’m still riding my early-hours adrenaline rush. I feel as if I’ve been swept up in a fast-moving current of good fortune, with Lady at the helm. And for once, the course is holding steady. I’m almost sad this is to be my last day on the job. Even the sting of watching my homemade “movie” is gone, replaced with relief and a giddy sense of freedom. The video, as vile and hurtful as it is, is my salvation: no matter what happens to Carolyn in her studio today, I’m free.
Carolyn, the little beast, is my wife of four years. We’d met in California, while I was still in the Army, and our story is about as old as the Army itself—lonely soldier meets pretty girl in off-base bar, whirlwind romance ensues. Then, six weeks after a missed menstrual cycle and eight weeks before a scheduled deployment, a hasty wedding is held in the base chapel with a cheap reception in a nearby VFW hall.
Of course, there hadn’t been enough time for us to really get to know each another. People tend to keep their demons chained and out of sight during the blissful first stages of a romantic relationship. Not long after our nuptials, however, I realized that the perky, easy-going and engaging beauty that I’d been sold was in reality a brooding, temperamental malcontent, incapable of seeing a silver lining in any cloud. Or sunny day, for that matter.
She miscarried a month after the wedding. By then it was too late to just walk away. She immediately went on the pill and has since refused to discuss the issue.
She was twenty-four at the time, three years my junior and a recent graduate of a nearby art college. I’ve always liked to think that the loss of the baby was to blame for her perpetual sourness. But when I’m being honest with myself, I admit that even in the beginning her dark side had sometimes flared, momentarily breaking free of its bonds to allow tiny glimpses of who she truly was.
Now, finally, I’m able to accept the truth. She’s simply one of those people who are happiest when they’re unhappy—which is all of the time for her, no matter the circumstances.
Take my car accident, for instance. It happened shortly after our wedding. A hit and-run driver forced me off the road, nearly causing me to plunge over a sheer canyon cliff in the California hills. Instead of falling to my death, I plowed into the last five feet of cliff face, totaling my Jeep and dislocating a few vertebrae. I was in bed for months, but it could have been worse.
At the time, I had been grateful to be alive and tried to maintain a positive attitude. Carolyn, on the other hand, was silent and reserved throughout my recovery, tending to me quietly, almost with hostility, as if I was to blame.
I thought that was bad enough, but the worst was yet to come—the incident forced me into an early retirement from the Army. Painful back spasms had persisted even after eleven months, and the Army doctors decided I would never again be “war ready.” Serious back injuries were like that, they explained to me: once you’ve had a bad one, you’re much more susceptible to another.
My discharge after ten years of service coincided with the death of Carolyn’s widowed mother, Ellen. As a result, Carolyn inherited Ellen’s sleepy mountain homestead, which was nestled in the hills of Front Royal, Virginia, about eighty miles west of Washington D.C. Two weeks after the funeral, I took off my sergeant’s stripes for the last time, loaded up a small U-haul, and we headed east. Still mourning the loss of my military career, I had tried to make the best of the situation. After all, it would be a fresh start, and even back then we were in need of one. I had no idea how badly.
None of these thoughts have registered on my face.
I hand a pen to my last buyer of the day, my last buyer of any day, to consummate our deal. A glance at my watch tells me that it won’t be much longer now: Carolyn’s probably been back from D.C. for at least two hours. Time enough, I think.
Lady pats my hand to reassure me and snuggles closer. I can feel her warm breath on my neck. Through the Plexiglas of my enclosed cubicle, I see that a knot of grave-faced sales managers has formed outside. One of them is Jimmy Lorenzo, my friend and mentor.
Jimmy is a master salesman who makes the craft look easy. He has often observed my technique and critiqued it later, over a beer at our favorite dive. His most recent advice has played a large role in the situation I find myself in today.
About six weeks ago, we discussed a failed negotiation from earlier in the afternoon. What had seemed like a sure deal with a nice young couple went south at the last minute.
“The woman was clearly the dominant partner, right?” Jimmy asked, and I nodded. Every couple has a dominant partner, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it’s just barely recognizable, even to themselves. Other times it’s a huge imbalance, obvious the minute you meet them.
“And she was ready to buy, but the husband still needed some work?”
It wasn’t really a question, but again I nodded.
“This situation doesn’t come up very often, because usually it’s the dominant one who doesn’t want to buy. You’d agree with that, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, then, you should have just let the woman do your work for you,” he continued. “Had you made an excuse and left them alone for five minutes, they’d have had their checkbooks out when you returned.
“The point,” he said quietly, leaning forward, “is that every now and again, things have a way of just working themselves out. And the best thing to do is simply stand back and let it happen. The trick is being smart enough to know when that is.”
These words came back to me last night, outside Carolyn’s studio. The “studio” was actually a small, dilapidated barn that sat at the rear of our two acres. Carolyn had all but moved in. Most days she spent painting through the morning and afternoon, then writing bad poetry into the night. Over the past six months she’d begun to sleep there too, on the dusty old futon she had thrown in the corner. Three days ago, I went into the studio at Carolyn’s request, to caulk along the frames of the grimy, drafty windows. From the top of a stepladder, I saw an overflowing ashtray that had been stashed on top of a stereo speaker, above eye level.
Neither one of us smoked.
I descended and sat heavily on the rotting floorboards of the barn. Sad, angry and hurt, I was surprisingly not surprised. I must have known in the back of my head that it would come to this, for one of us.
For the next half-hour I indulged myself with various scenarios of confrontation, none of which offered the slightest degree of satisfaction. Then I began to think more practically: I finally had an excuse to give up on our loveless marriage. Over the past four years, I had resisted the growing temptation to seek a divorce. My parents had split when I was twelve, and I’d always promised myself that once I married, it would be for good. But there I was, forced to admit I had done no better than they had.
The next morning, I installed a tiny “nanny cam” in the studio. I knew I couldn’t count on a fair, amicable separation of our limited assets; if wanted to walk away with anything more than the clothes on my back, I’d need evidence of the affair. Carolyn, go-getter that she is, didn’t disappoint. One day later, last night, I sat down to watch her pornographic debut. With her was the owner of a local art gallery I’d met once or twice, a fat little weasel who had taken some of Carolyn’s work on consignment.
I don’t know why I watched the whole tape. And I don’t know why I didn’t turn the sound off. That was the worst, I think—worse than seeing her on her hands and knees, breast swaying, as he moved in and out of her from behind. No, the sight of it wasn’t quite as bad as hearing Carolyn moaning and talking like a cheap whore.
Each slap of his pelvis was a sucker punch to my gut. Every moan speared my heart. For a moment, I thought I felt betrayed. Then I realized that the taste in the back of my mouth was self-disgust. She’d made a chump of me, and I should have seen it coming.
The sex was laughably short. I remained sitting on the living room couch after they finished, in front of the TV and VCR. The tape continued to roll. On the screen, he lit a cigarette. I barely noticed. I was a million miles away. Then—
What the fuck did she say?
I snapped back to myself and rewound the tape for a few seconds.
“… that fucking pothead out in California was too stoned to get the job done right. Meanwhile, I was out ten grand, and I had to wait on the invalid for months while he was laid up in bed. I will not go through that again.”
“It’s cool baby, it’s cool,” soothed the Two Minute Wonder. “It’ll be easy.” Then, just like in the movies, they went over the plan one more time. It didn’t take long. They were going to make it look like a mugging gone wrong next weekend in D.C., when I accompanied Carolyn to the opening of her new show.
“Son of a bitch,” I said out loud. Not only was she planning to kill me, she’d already tried it once, right after we got married. The car “accident” that had cost me my Army career was nothing but a sloppy attempt to collect my $250,000 Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance Policy. A policy I still held.
The tape ran for another ten minutes in the background as I considered the situation. I now had a guilt-free out from the marriage. And I could probably expect to get an equitable split of our savings, as modest as our nest egg was. On the other hand, I wasn’t so sure of the house, since Carolyn had inherited it. Even more disheartening, spousal murder-for-hire plots tend to make local newscasts. To be “that guy” from the news—no, I didn’t want that.
Numb from emotional overload, I headed back to the barn to dismantle my hidden camera, its purpose more than fulfilled. I was unsure how to handle things from that point, and part of me figured it a good idea to erase any evidence of my intrusion. Mostly, though, I think I just wanted something to keep me busy.
When I flicked the light switch, the bulb in the studio died with a ting and a flash of blue. Still, the flicker of light managed to show me, from just inside the doorway of the barn, what was to become the answer to my problem.
It slithered in front of my feet and into the shadows near the futon.
I turned and ran back to the house, crunching through the remnants of what this morning showed to be the last of the season’s snow. I returned with a flashlight and moved into the room slowly, my heart pounding strange rhythms through my chest and head.
A battered nightstand sat next to the futon. At its base was a small hole in the floorboards, into which the snake had disappeared. Very slowly, and very carefully, I slid the nightstand about two feet to the left, revealing a large area of rot. Carolyn must have placed the piece of furniture there to cover it up.
The hole in the floor was roughly twelve inches long by eight inches wide. I should have been able to see the ground after moving the nightstand, about a foot below the floor I stood on. Instead, I saw a writhing mass of timber rattlers, just beginning to stir from a long winter’s hibernation.
I stood still, barely daring to breathe. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen such a sight. During our first winter at the house, I’d disturbed a similar, albeit much smaller nest, out in the woodpile. Surprised to find rattle snakes this far east, I researched the creatures on the internet. Turns out, they’re quite common in this area. And when they wake in the Spring, they’re far less interested in eating than they are in mating. It’s when they’re most aggressive.
All of which meant that, as of right then, and for a few more days at least, the snakes wouldn’t be interested in leaving the studio to find food. Rather, they’d prefer to stick around that cozy little nook and party for a while, much like my wife. Wanting to do nothing so much as run, I gathered my courage and slid the nightstand back to its original position. The resulting “hole” was just as I found it: not an inch larger, not an inch smaller.
Still fighting the urge to flee, I backed out of the barn, my eyes never leaving the floor. Once in the doorway, I scanned the room again with the flashlight. There! Along the baseboards, something glided away from the beam and slithered behind a stack of canvases leaning against the wall. And there! Another one slipped gracefully behind a trunk full of art supplies. And good God, right there, curled on the futon, not six feet from where I’d stood, was a big one. The flashlight put him on the defensive. He rose a bit, then cut loose with the rattle that millions of years of evolution had programmed to spark a fear response in all mammals.
Hands shaking, I stepped out and latched the door.
Carolyn would be back tomorrow, I thought. My wife. My supposed soulmate, who had once tried to kill me for the insurance money. Who was going to try again.
A smile appeared on my face at the thought of insurance, the first in days, inspired by the recollection of my brother’s most recent visit. David was an insurance agent from New York. Last year he’d been on the market for a new truck, so naturally he came to me. We made a weekend of it. David end up with a great deal and I pocketed a commission. Grateful for the business, I returned the favor by taking out a quarter-million dollar policy on Carolyn’s life, to match my own. Just two salesmen scratching each other’s backs, that’s all.
Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
And then there was the house, completely paid for, worth about the same amount. A half million will last a good long time in some places. Warm places. Places without rattle snakes, or pain-in-the-ass customers, or wives who turn out to be batshit crazy. Just white sand and palm trees. Tranquil blue waters, and young women baking their exposed breasts in the sun. I could buy a boat, maybe run a small charter fishing business. Maybe I’d become an amateur treasure hunter. Or a by-God pirate! Then again, maybe I’d do nothing more than watch the breakers and drink Margaritas, letting the sound of the surf lull me into a continuous string of siestas.
“Every now and again, things have a way of just working themselves out. And the best thing to do is simply stand back and let it happen. The trick is being smart enough to know when that is.”
I decided to wait one day before taking my videotape to the police.
After all, what were the odds she get bitten and die?
Not good, I had decided. Not good at all.
Very long odds.
Impossibly long odds.
But that was last night. Before Lady licked her lips and blew on my dice. Today I think differently. Today I know differently. And Lady agrees.
The first two buttons of her blouse have come undone, and her skirt has ridden far up on her thighs. She leans into me and slides her tongue, warm and wet, into my ear. She moves her hand from my knee to my thigh, and higher, until her nails lightly rake the fabric at my crotch. She has a speck of dried blood on the cuticle of her naked ring finger.
Outside, my coworkers stare at me through the window. Jimmy waits until the customer finishes signing before cracking the door open and asking if he can see me for a moment.
I look up at Lady, breathe her in. Her scent is an opiate, a hint of coconut oil carried on a salty, tropical breeze. She pouts, but stands with me. We both know she’ll be gone soon. She has many other lovers. And I will long for her in her absence, as I always do.
But not quite yet.
Outside, the sky is turning purple as the sun slides beneath the horizon. I know we still have a few hours together. This time, she’s come to go the distance.
I excuse myself from my client, and leave the little office for the last time, bracing myself for the good news.
Arm-in-arm, with my wonderful Lady.