/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Do You Love Your Wife?

Jack Ketchum


Jack Ketcum. Do You Love Your Wife?

“Sometimes I feel like you’re… I don’t know, not really there anymore,” she said. “Like no matter what I do, it wouldn’t make any difference, would it. Know what I mean?”

They were lying in bed. He was tired and a little buzzed from the scotches after work. Greene’s The Power and the Glory lay open on her lap. He was halfway through Stone’s Bay of Souls.

She was right. Stone could obviously rouse himself. He could not.

She was heading to California in a few days, leaving behind the chill of New York and his own chill for a week or so. Her ex-lover beckoned. Perhaps he’d become her lover all over again. Bass hadn’t asked.

“I’m not complaining,” she said. “I’m not criticizing. You know that.”

“I know.”

“And it’s not just you and me. Seems like it’s everything. You used to write. Hell, you used to paint. It’s not like you.”

“It’s like part of me obviously.”

“Not the best part.”

“Well. Maybe not.”

She didn’t say the rest of it. Even after three whole years it’s still her isn’t it. She hadn’t the slightest urge to hurt him with it. She was simply observing and leaving him an opening should he wish to talk. He didn’t. It wasn’t precisely the loss of Annabel that was bothering him these days anyhow. It was what was left of him in her absence. Which seemed to amount to less and less — a subtle yet distinct difference. He continued to feel himself rolling far beneath the whitewater wake of their parting. Way down where the water was still and deep and very thin.

“Confront her,” Gary said.

“Annabel?”

“Yes, Annabel. Who else?”

“After all this time?”

“My point exactly. You’re not getting any younger.”

“It’s easier said than done. She’s married now, remember?”

“So are you and Laura. In your very odd way.”

He was referring to Laura seeing her old lover again. Gary didn’t approve and didn’t mind saying so. It was four in the morning. They were closing The Gates of Hell. It was a hot summer night and the thirtysomething crew had come at them fast and furious despite the nine-dollar well-drinks.

“Confront both of them then, what the hell.”

“I don’t even know him. We met once when she was bartending for all of about five minutes. I’m not sure I’d recognize him if he were sitting right in front of me.”

“So maybe that’s part of the problem. You don’t know the guy. So you don’t know what he offers her. You don’t know why him. I mean, sometimes you meet the other guy and he’s not all that much, you know? Brings her down a notch. Sometimes that’s just what you need.

“You miss her and you think you’re missing this… enormous personality. But you’re only seeing her in the context of the two of you. You’ve got no perspective. You’re in there yourself, churning things up. Messing with the perspective. You think you know somebody but you don’t — not until you either live with them or see them in some whole new situation, like with somebody else. That’s my take on it, anyway. And I still think you’re fucking crazy letting Laura fly away to some clown in California.”

He ignored the last bit. He couldn’t tell Laura what to do and wouldn’t want to anyway. He had to figure that she knew what she was doing.

But he thought it possible that Gary might be on to something regarding Annabel. When she left she’d insisted on cutting him off completely. No phone calls, no e-mails, no letters. A clean break she called it. He remembered wincing at the raw cliche.

At first he didn’t believe she was capable of such draconian thinking — not when it came to them — so he tried anyway. But it became apparent that no confrontation, no follow-up of any sort short of appearing at her apartment was about to happen.

He knew where that little visit would lead. Access to her home was by invitation only. It would only earn him the humiliation of having a door once wide open to him slammed shut in his face.

The very last e-mail she’d sent him was calm and deliberate — informing him that she’d thrown out all her photos of them and suggesting he do the same. That it would speed up the healing process. Yet another cliche but he let it pass. Three months later she’d married a guy she’d known and dated off and on for a long time before they met and that was the last he’d heard of her.

He’d been angry, hurt and surprised over both developments. First the cutoff and then the marriage. But there was to be no court of appeals nor any use howling in the wind. It had seemed intolerable to simply stop, to surrender all communication. For a while Bass damn near hated her.

Yet three years later he felt no anger anymore. He could only wonder where it had gone. Because back then you’ll get over it in time along with making a ckan break of it and speeding up the healing process had seemed the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost of useless psychobabble. They disgusted and infuriated him.

But maybe in the long run they’d obtained after all. Victory through inanity.

Because here he was.

Curious in a passive sort of way about what if anything could possibly wake his dead ass up again, ressurect his sense of engagement in Life After Annabel. But the operative word was still passive. Confrontation? Three years ago, in a minute. But now he wasn’t even sure he had the energy anymore. It was possible that the time for explanation and understanding and that most odious of all suspender-and-bowtied words closure had simply come and gone.

He’d never thrown out his own photos.

So he went through them for the first time in a long time over a corned beef on rye for lunch the following day. He felt a brief twinge looking at them. The pinch of a muscle you could stretch a moment later and be rid of.

Still it was something.

He decided to search her out on the Internet. He’d thought of doing that before but resisted it, wary of any further humiliation.

He punched in her maiden name and got nothing. Then tried her married name. What came back was a single photo. A wedding picture two and a half years old — Annabel and her husband, Gerard, standing smiling beneath a canopy of healthy green palm fronds in front of some old New Orleans hotel. Annabel looking lovely in a pale green shoulderless gown, her husband slightly shorter than she and balding, wearing a white silk short-sleeved shirt, lopsided grin and a crisp new panama hat. She gazed not at the camera but into the sky. And that was exactly like her. Annabel was a painter and the sky was her true north, her canvas.

It was the only thing familiar.

The caption read INTRODUCING MR. AND MRS. GERARD POPE AT MARDI GRAS. LOOK WHAT WE WENT AND DID!

The photo was off her husband’s Web site. Bass had no reason to think he even had one. No idea that what he did for a living was write detective novels — fairly successful ones from the look of it. He roamed the site. Book covers and reviews and a bibliography and message board and quotes from Publishers Weekly and Lawrence Block. Not too shabby at all. He had a series character who’d appeared first in six paperback originals and then more recently in two hardcovers, presumably with paperbacks forthcoming.

There was that twinge again.

Possibly the twinge was jealousy. Bass had seriously hoped to write one day himself — the bartending was supposed to have been temporary.

Or perhaps it was the fact that she and Bass had talked about New Orleans together too, while the farthest south they’d ever gotten was Cape May in the spring their very first year.

But more likely he was beginning to experience what Gary had talked about.

Context.

Here she was, Annabel embraced within the photo. Another, different Annabel. Far beyond the scope or influence of that entity which had once been Annabel and Bass together. With a man he barely recognized, to all purposes a total stranger. And in this man’s presence — on that day at least — she was happy.

So it seemed that she could be perfectly happy without him.

He’d known that of course. Any cerebrum worth its salt could fire up that conclusion. But he thought the twinge came not from there but from some less apollonian area of the brain. The part men shared with snakes and birds and dinosaurs. That part which holds a single thing above all self-evident — eat or be eaten. Take or be taken.

Just a twinge.

But enough so that when a few days later Laura smiled and kissed him good-bye at the door to their apartment and lugged her bags downstairs to the taxi headed for LaGuardia, it began — unexpectedly — to move from twinge to throb. To leak through into this brand-new second void in his life created by her absence like a beaver dam broken slowly apart by a heavy upstream rain.

Its immediate focus was Gerard, not Annabel. Which seemed strange to him because, Web site aside, he had no idea who Gerard even was. Bass bought one of his paperbacks but he hated thrillers so beyond reading the first few pages to ascertain that the man was capable of handling line and paragraph with more than meager skill he delved no further. So how could he feel such a growing animus — because that’s what it was — toward somebody he’d never shaken hands with? Whose habits, tastes, voice, wit or lack of wit he knew nothing of?

How could you begin to dislike what amounted to a human abstraction?

Good question, he thought…

But his dream life wasn’t asking.

And Gerard was beginning to show up there on a pretty regular basis.

In one dream he and Gerard were trying to decipher blurred-out cooking directions printed on a bag of frozen food — some kind of stuffed Italian bread. They needed to know the oven time and couldn’t read the damn thing. It was very frustrating.

In another they were playing chess. Pieces kept disappearing. A pawn here, a bishop there. Bass suspected himself of cheating.

In yet another they were seated beneath a shade tree in Central Park watching a little girl play on the monkey bars and the little girl was Annabel. This did not seem strange to either of them. Bass lit a Winston and inhaled and Gerard leaned over smiling and plucked it from his lips and tossed it. Annabel laughed and jumped off the monkey bars and crushed it underfoot. Bass was furious with both of them.

Then there was the really bad one.

There’s Gerard, seated in front of an old bare country-style oak table, massive, and he’s tied to a heavy wooden armchair. His legs are tied to the chair legs and his arms are tied to the chair arms. Annabel is nowhere to be seen. Gerard stares at Bass, his brow furrowed with anxiety. Bass asks him, do you love your wife? He nods in the affirmative.

Then suddenly there’s Annabel, similarly tied to a similar chair at the other end of the table. Behind her is a screen door open to the starry night. Moths drift through the doorway, attracted by the light. A luna moth, the color of her wedding dress, settles on the knuckles of her right hand where it grips the chair. Bass brushes it away and his carving knife immediately replaces it, big and sharp and elegant in its way and poised to sever all four fingers and maybe the thumb too for good measure.

He asks Gerard again, Do you love your wife? and presses the knife gently to her flesh.

He nods yes and Bass sees that he is gagged now, as is she.

Bass lifts the knife off her fingers and transfers it to Gerard’s right hand and asks him a third time, Do you love your wife? and he nods again slowly, sadly it seems, almost a polite bow to him and full of understanding. He reaches over to place his free hand on top of the knife and push suddenly down and the screams behind the gag and the sound and feel of knife breaking through bone are what wake him.

He replayed the dream off and on all night long at the Gates of Hell. He didn’t court it. It just wouldn’t go away. Should Gary have asked him even so much as a how’s it going? he’d have told him about the dream in an instant in as much detail as he could muster but he didn’t ask and Bass couldn’t very well blurt it out between banana daiquiris and bijou cocktails.

It was the dream though and dwelling on the dream that goaded him into action the next day.

The Official Gerard Pope Web Site carried no e-mail address but it did have a message board where readers could discuss his work, swap observations and opinions and Bass noted at first visit that Gerard tended to log on once a week over the weekend and answer whatever questions had been put to him. He was regular about it.

His style in these messages was encouragingly open and unaffected. He was even funny. Approachable. Bass reflected that though Annabel had forbidden him any contact with her she’d said nothing about Gerard.

Bass sat down, lit a cigarette, took a deep drag and dropped him a line Thursday night after work.

Good photo. She looks great in green. I like the far-away sky-look, of course. Know it well. Care to catch up on old times we never bad? If you’re curious, e-mail’s above. Bass

By Sunday he had a reply.

She’d probably kill me for doing this but yeab, I guess I am curious. You still on the West Side? If so, bow about 1:00 Tuesday, lunch at the Aegean? Best, Pope

So he used his last name too. Interesting.

He e-mailed back saying Tuesday was fine.

Monday night he dreamed about something else entirely. At least he thought it was about something else entirely. It was a bright beautiful day and he was driving along a highway when another car pulled up alongside him and Bass and the driver glanced at one another. The driver was a woman, a blonde, slightly overweight he thought, but she gave him a gap-tooth smile that simply beckoned.

The next thing he knew he was in her car, in the passenger seat, and the next thing after that they were parked along the roadside and the car had become a trailer and they were naked on her bed making love and even though her body had a fleshy quality it was pretty good, really — not bad at all. It got even better when she morphed into a slim beautiful brunette, the model Paulina Porizkova, who Bass had wanted since he first laid eyes on her. And she kept doing that — morphing from Paulina to the blonde with the gap in her teeth and back again.

“I think maybe you should stay the night,” she said as the blonde.

He said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

He woke with barely enough time to shower and shave and grab a cup of coffee along the way.

The Aegean was doing a moderate lunch business and there were plenty of open tables but Pope was at the bar at the corner facing the door. He immediately smiled and offered his hand. “Gerard Pope,” he said.

“John Bass. How’d you know it was me?”

“What? Oh, the photos.”

“Photos?”

“Yeah.”

“She kept the photos?”

“Some, I guess. I don’t know how many. I just know you from the ones she showed me. Cape May, mostly. You know how it is with the ladies — the ones she looked really good in.”

He smiled and shook his head. “Damn.”

“What’ll you have?” said the bartender. Pope was drinking an O’Doul’s non-alcoholic.

“Amstel Lite.”

“Coming right up.”

“I thought she destroyed them all.”

“Annabel? Annabel can’t throw away a burned-out light bulb.”

His beer arrived complete with frosted mug and they asked for menus and talked trivia, about his Web site for the most part, which Bass said he admired and which was handled for him by a fan in Colorado in exchange for collectables, first editions and such and they ordered and then gradually the conversation began to get more personal and Bass learned that they had moved twice in three years into larger better apartments from Hell’s Kitchen to the West Side and finally to Soho. He learned two of Pope’s books had movie options but that Pope wasn’t necessarily counting on anything to come of them. He learned that Annabel was working in mixed-media now, seascapes like stylized beachcombings and that they were selling fairly well out of their Soho loft. They were currently working on a Web site to promote her stuff too.

By the time he’d finished his broiled squid and calamari salad and Pope his chicken lemoni Bass realized something that didn’t make him happy at all. He kind of liked the guy. What a pain in the ass. And he guessed that Pope could see it on his face because he laughed.

“Disappointed? That I’m not some prick you could just keep on hating?”

“I never….”

“Come on. If you didn’t hate me you were sure working on it. Look, I’m a writer. I’m good at body language. There was a definite poker up your ass when you walked in. You only just relieved yourself of it a while ago.”

He thought of the dream, Gerard’s sad nod to him that was almost a bow. He was pretty good at body language himself. But he only now realized what the nod was telling him. Not resignation to the knife, which was what he’d thought it to be the following morning. Recognition. Recognition of the Other.

In his mind he spoke the dream words do you love your wife? but what came out of him was “You love her, don’t you.”

“Of course I do. She’s pretty damn easy to love. Which you of all people ought to know. She was trying to do you a favor, Bass.”

“Oh yeah? How so?” He hoped it didn’t come out as bitter as it sounded.

“Telling you she’d thrown out the photos, for one thing. Telling you to do the same. But cutting you off. That was the main thing.”

Cutting you off. He thought of his dream and suddenly it clarified and almost startled him. He realized that in the subtle inversions dreams will make it hadn’t been Gerard sitting tied to the chair at all. It was Bass. Unable to move or defend himself, unable to speak or argue his position. Waiting, nodding sadly in recognition of Gerard. And finally cut off at the very moment of awakening.

“She knew it wouldn’t work. She was trying to do you a kindness by not letting it go any further. And herself a kindness too. Me, too, of course.”

Bass thought about it. Finally he nodded.

“I had a dream about you,” he said. “I lit a cigarette. You took it from me and threw it away.”

“Pushy little bastard, huh?”

“No. It was for my own damn good.”

They split the bill.

“You asked me if I loved my wife,” Gerard said — though he hadn’t, exactly. “If you love her you’ll do the same as she tried to do for you. Metaphorically at least, throw those damn pictures away. Tear them into little pieces. Maybe someday when we’re old and grey, you can take a new one.”

“Or maybe not.”

“Or maybe not. Nice meeting you, Bass. This never happened but I’m sort of glad it did, if you know what I mean.”

Bass ordered another beer and sipped it slowly, thinking things through.

A little while later he switched to scotch.

Midway through the second one he stepped outside for a smoke and watched the street life. Nannies and brisk young mothers with double-wide strollers. Truckers delivering paper goods and dairy. A woman across the street jogging in place at a stoplight and shouting furiously into a cellphone. A guy in a mohawk, moccasins and fur earmuffs, stripped to the waist, all buff and tanned. What’s with that? he wondered. Tonto Nuevo? Earmuffs in August? It seemed there were people out here way more strange and obsessive than he was.

He went back inside and finished his scotch and had another. He sipped this one for a long time. The bartender made no effort to engage him in conversation. Sometimes they just knew.

He paid for the beer and scotches and headed home

Home was as he knew it would be. Empty. Empty of Laura, mostly.

He poured himself a final scotch he certainly didn’t need and sat back heavily on the couch and sipped it and he supposed he must have dozed for a little while because the next thing he knew his face was wet with tears, he was crying in his sleep now for chrissake, that was different and he thought of the dream and what the dream maybe wanted him to do so he went to the kitchen and opened the drawer and took out the knife.

He looked at the long heavy blade. It needed honing but he guessed it would do the trick. He looked at his fingers spread out on the counter. A symbol, he thought. That was what dreams were all about, weren’t they? Symbols for what still needing doing in your life? He lit a cigarette and thought about it some more. Nah, he thought. That’s more loco than the earmuffs. Not even the tip of a pinkie. You didn’t want to take this dream terminology too damn literally.

Besides, something else had occurred to him. In his dream, the end of his affair with Annabel was loss, pure and simple. Symbolized by a few missing fingers. He thought it was more complex than that.

You lost something, sure. But when you did you added something too.

Scar tissue.

He could live with that.

He put down the knife and stripped off his shirt, pulled deeply on his cigarette and then pressed it slowly to the flesh directly over where he imagined his heart to be. He wanted the burn to last. Here’s to you, Annabel, he thought. He smelled his chest hair burning and another sweeter smell beneath it and felt something like a hornet’s sting, sharp and abrupt and then fading to a bright throb as the ember gutted out.

He tossed the butt into the ashtray and headed for the bacitracin.

Roughly seven years later preparatory to Annabel and Gerard’s tenth anniversary party he stepped out of a steaming shower and admired the pale white circle that stood out plainly against his glowing flesh.

Laura was already waiting, dressed and ready to go.

She always was a bit ahead of him.