What is a civilized response to adultery?
The soft electric dome of the city was easily visible in the distance. Light, and life—ambition, chatter, and fascination. Only twenty minutes away at freeway speed.
He’d be back there in not too long. Among people.
But, right now, he had a job to do, on his own—carefully backing up the car to the mouth of the mine shaft—leaning out of the driver’s side door twice to make sure the tires weren’t too close to the edge. When he couldn’t risk getting any nearer, the bluish beam of the headlamp amplified all his movements outside the car: its harsh light sweeping over the rocks and dirt—now bouncing over the shiny flanks of the vehicle—now lost in the omnivorous darkness that led up to the stars.
He’d paid more for the headlamp than he should have. It was the one rated highest. Now he noticed how thoroughly it was defeated by the open sky: which effortlessly absorbed the beam in the same way as the deep void inside the mine shaft.
The quality of the night out here: how the darkness in the Earth contradicted energy. Light just seemed to go up to the abandoned shaft—and stop. Something physicists should investigate, he thought.
Maybe black holes were closer than anyone thought. Not in some galactic corner light years away. But maybe here, right in front of him—and many, many more of them at the end of these impromptu roads drawn on the desert. The mines where prospectors had worked for years: the landscape honeycombed with hard luck attempts to locate something of value.
Something of value. Gold. Silver. Lead.
All that was underground—so people dug holes. But there was nothing that said they had to fill the holes back up again once their fortunes were made (or mostly unmade). So far from civilization, no one saw any danger in just leaving them there. But they were dangerous, in fact, for the unwary.
No sensible person would be here in the middle of the night.
Still, he considered himself sensible. Just a matter of understanding where the ground ended, and the hole began.
After the trunk lid pivoted up, and away, getting the body out required at least four distinct movements. He couldn’t do a “dead lift” because the trunk floor was too deeply recessed: creating a bad angle. he could miss his grip, or overcorrect. With the mouth of the mine shaft—three shades blacker than black—just a few feet away, it was easy to imagine how foolish he would feel if he lost his grip on the package, then lost his balance, and then went over.
They’d find his car—eventually. And figure out everything after that.
He’d not only feel foolish, falling helplessly through space. He’d look foolish in the newspaper the next day.
So: not a question of reckless lifting. He tugged the heavy package until it overbalanced out of the trunk—falling to the ground on its own—then chose careful angles to drag it to the edge of the hole—then one, last gentle push when it was in position.
A very unceremonious nudge, since he had no words to say over her.
No prayer to make. No urge to offer a moment of silence. No expletives, even.
It was over. Let it be over.
She went over—and in—and down—ending with the scratching of loose gravel, and a soft pop a few seconds later marking her impact at the bottom: coming to rest on top of the other one. Companions now: although not quite in the same way they’d been together in life.
But together again. With her on top (always her preferred position during the sex act).
The drive back to the city from the desert was uneventful: reminding him that they’d been out in the car on the day he’d put it all together.
With a little help.
Because she’d spent her time on the passenger side: behaving, in retrospect, as though she couldn’t wait for him to coax a confession out of her, so she could share the news of her new love. Worshipping her phone during the short trip—gazing at the screen—facial expression constantly changing as she read the constant stream of messages.
Now aroused. Now tender. Now smiling. Now sly.
On another planet. One, perhaps, where her husband didn’t live at all. Where they’d never gotten married. Where they’d never met. Or perhaps where he’d never been born.
After a few minutes, he’d given her an opening to admit what was going on.
‘Those must be some messages you’re getting….’
She waved it all away: ‘Nothing. Just some chit chat. Girl-type stuff.’
Waved it away. Too soon to tell him everything, he guessed. Trying to be a little bit careful—with him an arm’s length away—but reckless enough to make it clear that, even if he knew, she didn’t care. Their marriage had reached the point where she considered herself a free agent, and she was going to do what she wanted.
Arriving home, that same day, she’d gone upstairs and closed a door to continue the conversation on the distant planet where she was living—while he sat at the kitchen table, putting together a Project in his mind. he was famous for being a very highly organized person. When he estimated that he’d be able to put something together in two weeks, two weeks was exactly what it took.
In the basement. Because she didn’t like the basement and had no reason to ever go down there.
“The Kingdom of the Trolls” she’d called it once. So the noise and the clutter of the Project didn’t matter. She wasn’t even home that often: honeymooning with whoever it was who was dropping all those messages into her smartphone.
When the time came for their “serious conversation” about the third person in their marriage, he wanted it to be in a public place. She was sensitive to the opinions of other people, and her response to questioning in a public place would be muted and controlled. he hoped she would be candid. But, if there was lying to be done, they would be done much more efficiently during a nice dinner.
Not a special occasion, he told her. Just something that a man in love with His wife might do on the spur of the moment. The expensive wine got her into the mood (she’d never been much of a drinker)—and he started out playful. Teasing. Bantering.
‘You’re always looking at your phone. What is it that’s so fascinating?’
‘Nothing! I keep telling you! Nothing!’ she laughed it off again.
‘It’s obviously something.’
‘It’s just the little things that come through for everyone who has friends. Friends who see things, and think things are funny.’
He hoped she understood, from his body language, that he didn’t believe her: ‘Seems like there’s more to it than that.’
She wanted to change the subject. But he didn’t let up. As the meal continued, it was self-evident: her eagerness to let him know. Her eagerness to share. To spill the whole thing and get it out into the open. he even knew what argument she’d offer after the confession: after telling him everything, so they both understood exactly where they stood.
He could see it coming: knowing what she’ before she said it.
‘Please...surely we can be civilized about this!’
Aside from whoever she was having her affair with, she was in love with the idea of being “civilized”. All their furniture of their marriage was civilized. All their books. Their friends. Their neighborhood. Their car. Their marriage was a display case of civilized life: up to, and including, the bone china dinnerware she’d bought from England. So thin, and light, it was like congealed breath, painted with a delicate and civilized design.
Her halting, sniffling confession came before they finished dinner and, afterward, they continued dining in civilized way: during which he learned that she’d been unfaithful for almost three months and remained desperately in love with Spenser.
Spenser. Someone he knew. (Or thought he knew).
After the cleansing confession, she was tearful with relief. ‘I’m happier now that you know. It’s nothing personal. It really isn’t.’
‘It’s not “personal”? Is that what you said?’
‘You know what I mean….’
‘And what’s Spenser giving you that I’m not?’
She’d emptied most of the bottle of wine all on her own, and was slurring her words a little. ‘I don’t know. Or maybe I know. Or maybe I don’t know. No one can explain these things.’
There was someone she didn’t seem to think about until he asked: ‘And what about Spenser’s wife? Is she an odd one out, too? She and I don’t seem to have places to sit, now that the music’s stopped.’
‘He’s working himself up to tell her.’
‘The cart before the horse, since he’s already fucking you.’
That was her only response to his edge of temper. What it meant was: we don’t use the word “fuck” in civilized company.
She leaned on him a little as they left the restaurant, since she was cordially drunk, and felt that confession had been good for her soul. They knew the truth now—and the truth would set them free.
She was certain that everything had been talked through and went—unsuspectingly—down the basement stairs when he said he had something to show her. Unsteady as she was already, putting his foot in the middle of her back sent her tumbling down to the bottom: where she lay, groaning and confused. But not all that badly hurt.
Not part of the original plan. That light, little push.
It was just something he felt like doing.
He would have been impatient with himself if he’d killed her too quickly. It all worked out, though. she went into the cage drunk, and bruised, and dazed—without a fight, without a struggle.
Beginning Phase One of his Project: which went pretty much as expected.
She wouldn’t shut up, at first. But it was a detached house. Their neighbors weren’t close: either in personality, or in distance. She was just hurting her throat, crying out for help hour after hour. As far as his own convenience, he bought new batteries for the noise-cancelling headphones she’d given him for Christmas. And those worked beautifully.
There was one, indispensable job that needed to be done during Phase One: so he was a little pressed for time at the beginning. Then he was busy fielding continuous inquiries from people who couldn’t mind their own business. Wondering where she’d gone. Why she hadn’t told them she was running away with someone not her husband. Why she hadn’t told anyone where she was going.
The note he’d forged persuaded most of them. Her rounded handwriting was easy to forge. Then writing a farewell on some of her stationary before dripping some water on it gave him a tearful message that he could show around.
That note declared she had run away for “love”. It didn’t say where she was going. Just that she was in a hurry and might not be in touch for a while.
Thus: Phase One.
Quite a bit of effort, but some calm returned as he picked up the threads of his routine and tried to keep life inside the house civilized and secure. He’d purposefully built the cage around the half-bath they’d added in the basement as part of the remodel. It was a spartan, but meant that hygiene wouldn’t be an issue. She got three meals a day. Plenty of food for anyone. He took the trouble to come home for lunch, fix a tray, and slide it under the wire—coming back silently to collect it after half an hour, or so.
After the first few days screaming for help, she started talking. Thinking it was like all the other times she’d fallen short of his expectations.
He knew he had to be careful about that. Conversation was the thin end of the wedge: to separate him from his resolve. Once they started to talk, he would falter: and end the Project without accomplishing anything.
As the days passed, he wanted to make it clear—in every way possible—that no more words would ever be exchanged between them. The moment he answered her whimpering would be the moment she’d start wiggling out of her situation.
He actually moved to Phase Two of the Project more quickly than he’d planned. Just to get her to be quiet. He thought 11x14 would be the best size for the placemats he’d made, and one of those started to appear under her plate at every meal.
They all featured Spenser: her partner in the recent affair. Spenser having coffee alone. Spenser in his car. Spenser in the park with his wife. She got one with each tray: so she wondered what those pictures could mean.
Of course, that had to wait for Phase Three: when the placemat under her English bone china dinner plate was a portrait of Spenser deceased: his face a mask of blood, and the zipper of the body bag just visible below his chin. Also new for Phase Three was the amber bottle of pills he placed on the tray before sitting down to watch his wife’s reaction to the picture: happily anticipating an emotional hurricane. The payoff for all his effort.
She would storm and rage, he thought—while he showed no emotion at all. He would be all icy coldness. Proof positive that he didn’t care.
Instead, as she held the photo in both hands, what he got was the sorrowful tilt of the head familiar from pictures of the Pieta, the Madonna, before she slid the picture back under the wire. At first, she spoke so softly he could barely hear.
‘I know how eco-friendly you are. I imagine I’ll be seeing this at every meal, so I’ll save you the trouble of printing any more. Waste not, want not.’ As she stared at him, it was difficult to meet her eyes as majestically as he wanted. ‘A good, and loving man,’ she continued. ‘But a death sentence, because I loved him. Isn’t that right?’
Ignoring the food on the tray, she examined the bottle of pills.
‘And a death sentence for me? Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what these are for? A living death in here? Or giving you a perverted little victory by taking these? Isn’t that right?’
She gave the bottle a shake.
‘You’re such a careful little planner. You must have been saving up. The end of my so-called life. And all because I loved you for five minutes. Because I felt sorry for you. Little boy lost….’
He was furious that she hadn’t played the scene right.
Without a word, he stormed upstairs—brought a garbage bag back down—and dumped the whole contents of her meal tray into it: including all the pieces of her cost-no-object china. Since she had no choice but to watch, she watched him stomp it all to fragments—until the only sound in the basement was his labored breathing.
She didn’t play the scene right. And he didn’t, either. He’d wanted to be icy cool. All passion spent. But she was the one who was remote, and away. She was the one who didn’t give a fuck. Holding the bottle of pills in her fist, she smiled at him.
‘You’re wrecking your own things, now. Ruining what will belong to you. I won’t need any of that stuff where I’m going. Isn’t that right?’ Then her voice followed him as he hurried back to the stairs. ‘Little boy lost. Who in the big wide world will pay any attention to you after I’m gone?’
So he had to consider Phase Three of the Project a failure. His only re-assurance was that she had only two choices left, and breakfast—about three weeks later—found her unmoving on her cot. Motionless. Her eyes closed. Still fully dressed. Not visibly breathing.
But he trotted back up the stairs to get a softball bat, just in case.
Going into the cage, he was able to confirm that Phase Three was close to complete. No pulse at the neck. No vapor of breath on a mirror.
Moving on to Phase Four: he wrapped the body in a biodegradable way and wrestled it into the car in the dead of night. Then there was the long, anxious drive out into the desert (he could not, under any circumstances, take a chance on being stopped by a suspicious trooper). Then the heavy labor of putting the package into the mine shaft—working in that heavy, velvet darkness. Then returning to the basement and dismantling the cage, before taking all the components of it out to the landfill.
A burst of effort. And then the satisfaction of all elements completed—all boxes checked.
The house was quieter. He noticed that. And, every now and then, he stumbled over something else that he needed to get rid of. But now he could turn his attention back to online gaming during every minute he could spare from work.
Although he should have guessed, he was surprised that new versions of almost every game had been released during the time that he’d been distracted by his marriage.
He was still in the process of catching up with it all when he was contacted by his former wife’s mother.
He’d only met his mother-in-law a few times. His wife had never given him the impression that mother and daughter were that close. It was three months after his second visit to the mine shaft that the older woman e-mailed to say that she’d be in town. Not to see him particularly. She was attending a conference of some sort, downtown. But she did want to drop by his house for a few minutes—if that would be convenient.
He could’ve said “no”. But didn’t. He set a time: opening the door, and even shaking hands, as she arrived.
He seemed to amuse her, he remembered suddenly, as she started moving through his house. She’d always seemed surprised that someone like him could have gotten married, could have a house, could have a job—could pretend to be a normal person.
He gave her coffee in his kitchen, and she also seemed bemused by the impossibly delicate English cups: holding one carefully up to the light: ‘I heard about what you said happened.’
He smiled much too quickly in response. ‘What I said happened?’
‘You said she left for love.’
‘I said that, because that’s what happened.’ A little edge of impatience crept into his voice, although he didn’t want it to.
His visitor didn’t nod. Didn’t agree. ‘But you’re the only one trying to sell that story,’ she said, sharply. She caressed the expensive cup. Held it up to the light, again. ‘My daughter left these behind, did she?’
‘Of course. I explained all that.’
The old woman carefully put the cup back on the table.
‘Cost a small fortune. The set of them. All the way from England.’
Now he thought he could afford to let his impatience show.
‘I remember how much the stupid things cost.’
‘And she left the whole set behind? And all of her clothes? Everything? Just like you said? What you want people to believe?’
Nothing he could do but shrug, then. He wasn’t used to close questioning. He’d played dumb for months, and no one else had doubted the story at all. To tell the truth, most everyone felt sorry for him.
‘I guess her decision was a spur of the moment kind of thing,’ he ventured. You know love.’
The old woman broke a cookie in half, looking around the kitchen.
‘Yes—I know love....’
She held some sort of executive position—some sort of manager, his wife had told him—even though, that afternoon, she seemed dressed for gardening. Blue jeans, and even a blue denim jacket that emphasized her broad shoulders: setting off her gray hair. He also remembered that she was proud of the fact that she’d never needed glasses.
He didn’t wear glasses either, of course. So there were no lenses between them as she turned to him and looked steadily across the table.
Not amused, now. Not entertained. Not bemused, at all.
‘Everyone reaches the age of self-knowledge,’ she began. ‘And everyone has priorities in life. I’m not the brightest bulb in the box, and time is not my friend. I also don’t have as much money as I’d wish....’
He shrugged off all that: annoyed that he was struggling to be clever in conversation.
‘Not sure what you mean.’
Now she once again found him comical, for some reason.
‘I don’t know how you did it. But I want you to know that it’s not done.’
‘Done? What’s done? What’s not done?’
She spoke slowly, as though she was talking to a child.
‘I want you to understand. Are you listening?’
‘Of course I’m listening. But what the hell are you saying?”
‘You’ll pay the price at some point. In some form—in some way. I blame myself. I can’t help it. It’s force of habit, you know. Maybe the way any mother would think—to blame myself—even though I did everything I could. Everything I could do to keep her from ruining her life by mingling her future with yours.’ The old woman leaned closer to him. ‘You think you’re some kind of deep, dark riddle. Some sort of mastermind. But you’re not a mystery to me. And you never will be. Not the kind of mystery I’ll be to you. All you need to remember is that you’re not getting away with this. The books will be balanced. Somehow. Some day.’
Disoriented by her vehemence, he began to stammer.
‘I have no idea what you mean. And can’t we even be civilized—’
With majestic calm, she took one of the heavy, sterling silver forks from the tabletop and—before he could react or even imagine what she was going to do—lifted it high, and drove it into his hand as it rested on the tabletop.
Every ounce of her strength was behind the motion: and the tines went almost completely through the flesh. Launching him up out of his seat and across the room. Screaming.
‘You fucking cunt! You fucking cunt! What are you doing?’
His mother-in-law looked back at him with curiosity: as though nothing had happened, at all: ‘“Civilized” was our word. You don’t have the right to use it. You never will.’
Energized with pain and fury, he pulled the fork out of his hand as the woman rose from her chair. He awkwardly flung the silverware in her direction—and missed.
‘Get out of this house! Get the fuck out of this house!’
She had every intention of leaving: making a vague gesture toward his wound.
‘You’ll need to get that looked after. Who knows where that fork has been?’
It would have been more civilized, he thought, if she’d driven him to the hospital.
Instead, the old woman left without another word, and he was forced to drive himself—just one good hand on the steering wheel—and work his way, alone, through the comic opera sequence of the nearest emergency room: explaining he’d been injured in a freak accident. Three different people questioned him—all acting very solemn, even though he couldn’t manage a consistent version of events. He paid the deductible and understood, by the time he left, that everyone in the facility would be talking about him—because no one there believed his story of what had happened.
They didn’t know about the old woman. But they knew what had happened wasn’t an accident.
Making it back home, one hand on the wheel again, he mixed the pain pills from the pharmacy with some wine he had lying around and hoped that the mood of pain and fury that had come over him would moderate a little.
When it didn’t, he got an easy feeling of closure by loading all the precious English china into a duffle bag and beating it into hopeless confusion with his softball bat before sunset found him back in his kitchen with the recognition that Phase Five of his very successful Project was underway.
A new randomness in his life: since his Phase Five was someone else’s Phase One. Now someone else had a goal. Now someone else was assembling plans. Someone else was considering what she should do—and when she should do it.
She had already surprised him with agonizing pain. Now the machinery of her intentions was just starting to turn, and—not knowing her very well—it was impossible for him to say what might come next.