Born Under a Bad Sign
(c) 2001, 2021 Darin Miller
Some folks have a run of bad luck; a plague of misfortune if you will. I believe my birth must have been signified by some extraordinary unholy alignment of the planets, the like of which happens only once in a millennium. That night, as the skies filled with lightning and thunder, and rain poured forth, I’m sure a jackal laughed, somewhere far in the distance. I really believe I must have been born doomed.
My name is Matthew Roderick Gentry.
My mother had died during childbirth. You go ahead and try to tell me that isn’t a horrific burden to bear from the moment of your first innocent breath up to and including the present day. My father has silently blamed me from the beginning. It was always the look in his eyes. I don’t recall him ever actually putting it in words, per se, but the look in his eyes was unmistakable. I had two older brothers and an older sister. He never looked at them that way. I had taken his beloved wife away, and the resentment he felt for me had always burned the air between us. For the most part, I steered clear of him, learning those lessons early in life and keeping a low profile until after I graduated high school. I never saw him much afterwards. He now sits in a retirement home where he’s been for the past fifteen years, rocking in a chair, staring out the window. The home’s probably not five miles from here, but I don’t see the point in going. I went once, early on in that first year, because Garnett, my sister, and Nina, my wife, had tag-teamed me in the kitchen one morning over breakfast.
“The doctors say Dad’s best chance for recovery is for us to spend time with him. Talk to him or read to him. I know it seems strange, like he doesn’t even know we’re there, but the doctor said we could be getting through subconsciously,” Garnett said as she sipped coffee. “Roger and I have gone with the kids no less than three times a week, and Jack and Larry have been by several times with their families and grandkids, but I really think you’re the missing link.” She fixed her eyes on me.
“Honestly, Garnett,” I said. “You make it sound like we’re having a séance over the old man to bring him back from the other side.” It was lame and pretty cold, but I really didn’t know what else to say. Garnett, Jack and Larry had never understood the void between Dad and me. They thought I was imagining it, martyring my own cause. Surely, my father’s serious medical condition could only worsen. The man was seventy-five and had suffered a series of strokes. For heaven’s sake, I was forty-six myself and pouting like a petulant child who hadn’t gotten his way in decades. My entire family believed this about me, and I was ashamed of the man I had become.
“Matthew,” Nina said, her voice cutting the morning air like ten-inch fingernails across a mile-long blackboard. “You’re being an ass. Grow up! Your brothers and sister need your help, and so does your father. You’ll go.”
And that was that. Nina had spoken, and I would go. And go I did, that very evening. But only once. I didn’t care what they thought of me after that.
My father sat in his wheelchair, aimed as always at the window. It was raining that night, too, I think. Funny how the soundtrack of my life so often seems to be borrowed from some cheesy old horror flick. I hadn’t been in the same room with the man since my wedding. He sat at the back of the church, not in front with the family. I found that disturbing. Wouldn’t you? That had been twenty-six interminable years ago. What was I supposed to say?
I don’t remember exactly what I did say. I’m sure it was some prattle about the weather, or “How ’bout them Browns?”–something equally vacuous and meaningless. It was the breadcrumbs with which we turn a half-pound of ground beef into a pound-and-a-half of meatloaf.
The sight of the old man was disturbing. He seemed to have shrunk, and not just a little. His once powerful arms were thin and spindly with loose flesh sagging beneath. His once firm and chiseled face was lined and hollow. His eyes had sunken into his head, and he had no teeth, real or otherwise. He had had his own teeth at my wedding, I think. I can’t really remember.
Anyway, I turned his chair around to get a good look at him. A bolt of lightning had lent a brief pulsing light to his profile. I really couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t say a word, or blink an eye once for yes, twice for no—oh no, nothing like that. Instead, his face was frozen in that look! The only communication he could offer to the whole wide world was directed at me and only me. It was a reminder I wasn’t off the hook yet.
I left immediately. To hell with Garnett and the others. Once the bad seed, always the bad seed. I haven’t seen my father since, but he has thus far refused to die, so I suppose he still sits in the window, beaming that look out in search of me.
I really hadn’t wanted to go home. Nina would be there. She was always there. Why I had ever married that woman, I’ll never know. The only thing about our marriage I still enjoyed was our anniversary. This was because each year, in celebration of that black day, I have tried to kill her. Each year she had avoided the Grim Reaper, and each year I would try again.
Oh, no, not at first, I suppose. If it had been this horrible in the beginning, I would never have subjected myself to her interminable whining and bitching. We had met when we were in college. Nina had been a voluptuous girl, studying theater. She had large breasts, full hips and a slender waistline, just the sort of woman featured in movies and on magazine covers. Her mousy brown hair had been bleached to a Marilyn Monroe blonde and styled similarly. She was self-confident and self-assured. She was going to go to Hollywood and be the next Big Thing. The problem was, she couldn’t act. I wasn’t much better myself, fake plastic smiles painted across my face whenever she would ask for a critique of any of her completely uncharismatic performances.
We were cruelly pulled together by the Fates one fall semester by, of all things, a play I had written. It was my purpose in college. I had daydreamed my childhood away. My fantasy was to become a writer. No one needed to know anything about me. In my writing, I could become someone else, maybe someone with a mother. Having never met my own, there has always been a cold, empty space deep inside me, a space that should have been filled with memories of the woman who would protect me with her life, if necessary. This space for me was a black void. I had always envied the other students just a little. Okay, maybe a bit more than a little.
Nonetheless, Nina was the star of my little piece of claptrap, and she had been difficult from the onset. She frequently wanted to change her lines because she had not felt her character would say such things. I often wondered if it was because she could not pronounce such things, but I was green, and she was the star. Even if it was just a community college theater production, it was the most important thing in the world to me at the time. It’s funny how we can convince ourselves we are far more important in the Grand Scheme than we truly are. Here I was, this twenty-year-old kid, thinking I was on the fast track to the Big Time. I had actually successfully completed a play and was certain anyone with any connections whatsoever who read it or saw it would run screaming to New York declaring its insightful brilliance. Surely there was bound to be someone with connections in the audience at least one night during the play’s run.
I’m getting off track. Nina worked with me on these last-minute script changes almost nightly. She had been such a hard ass with everyone on set, but with me, in private, she flirted and batted her eyes and cooed like a sweet little bird. She asked if I wouldn’t mind too awfully terribly if she changed this or that, and I told her, “Shucks, ma’am, you just do any old little thing you want.” I was cattle being corralled.
On the opening night of the play (which, by the way, received a rather chilly reception), Nina and I ran into each other at the cast party. The party was lively enough, considering Caroline, the woman who played Nina’s mother, had forgotten roughly half of her lines, and Nina had chewed the scenery into submission. The champagne that the cast and crew collectively purchased was free-flowing, and there was a certain heat in the air. Nina and I found comfort with each other that night.
The play closed after only two weeks. I didn’t see Nina for a while afterward. I had sequestered myself in my dormitory room, seeking inspiration for my next work. I had been savaged by the critics, the thin skin of my ass still baring fresh bite marks. I truly believe my creative self committed suicide one of those evenings. I haven’t had an idea worth putting to paper since then.
I really never expected to see Nina again. I knew our night together had not really meant anything. It had been alcohol inspired. Hell, Nina had probably already forgotten my name. So, I was very surprised to see her standing at my dormitory door one stormy afternoon, about four weeks after the play had closed.
She looked terrible. Her blond hair was hanging around her shoulders, dripping rainwater in the hallway. She had applied mascara earlier in the day, but it had bled into skidmarks under her eyes. I couldn’t tell if they were caused by the rain or her tears, but she had been crying. The skin beneath was puffy and red.
“Nina?” I asked. “Are you alright?”
“Do I look alright?” she snapped. “No. I’m not all right. You’re not all right. Nothing is ever going to be right again.” Her eyes were dull and empty, and tears were flowing again.
I smiled stupidly at her, unable to grasp the depth of her despair. “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.”
“Not that bad?!” she shrieked. “Our lives are over.”
My stupid smile would just not go away.
She went on, “I’m pregnant.”
Pregnant. My smile finally bid adieu.
There was no question whatsoever of what to do. In those days, a man took responsibility for his actions. I had no desire to disgrace Nina’s family nor my own, so we quickly made wedding plans.
I didn’t return to college after that semester, and neither did Nina. Our individual fates had been unexpectedly altered and jammed roughly together. I had taken a job as a milkman for the local dairy while Nina sat on her ever-widening ass and watched television all day long. We barely made enough money to keep our heads above water. Our finances were more an obstacle course than a budget, and I had no idea how we were going to manage once the baby was born.
It was a needless worry. During the sixth month of Nina’s pregnancy, as a particularly angry thunderstorm raged against the night sky, Nina had gone into premature labor. She had been in excruciating pain. Since we could not yet afford our own, I had to borrow my brother’s car and drive through sheets of rain with Nina screaming in the backseat the whole way.
By the time we had reached the hospital, we knew things were going terribly wrong. The doctors worked feverishly, but the baby was stillborn, and Nina had almost died from hemorrhaging on the table. In the end, the doctors had been forced to do an emergency hysterectomy to save her life. The hysterectomy became my second albatross. Nina’s career was over. Nina’s chance of motherhood was over. It was all my fault.
At first, the bitterness toward me wasn’t apparent. Oh, sure, Nina had a blue spell when she first returned home from the hospital. But then we had what was probably the most satisfactory period in our entire marriage. Nina’s need to be a mother and my own need to know the mother I never had perverted into a single need to fulfill a parent-child relationship. Nina had taken care of me, and I had allowed myself to be taken care of. It was kind of nice. Of course, it didn’t last.
I really thought I was keeping my end of the bargain. I plodded off to work every morning, eventually becoming a supervisor at the dairy. Nina had discovered how to spend proportionally to my income, and you know, I really didn’t care. Nina could have everything if she would just take care of me.
It started with the nagging. Her warm, theatrically trained voice had given way to a nasally sort of bark. “Matthew! For heaven’s sake, stop leaving your underpants on the banister!” Or “Matthew! I damned well nearly broke my foot on this bowling ball of yours. Why can’t you put anything away?” She always said my name as if it were two words, and it frankly irritated the hell out of me.
Everything had an assigned place in the house. The underpants belonged in the hamper, and the bowling ball belonged on the top shelf in the closet. The newspaper belonged in a wicker basket beside my recliner, not around the base of the toilet. The dirty dishes belonged in the sink, not tucked under the edge of the couch.
I really don’t want to give the wrong impression. I wasn’t born a slob. But these funny little habits develop if they’re allowed to, and in the first five years of our marriage, Nina’s maternal sheltering had enabled me to turn into a rather lazy fellow. Oh, sure, I see it clearly now, but then I had been completely oblivious.
It was at our fifth anniversary party when I received quite a rude awakening. We rarely had company over, but Nina had gone all out. She invited my brothers and sister, my boss and several co-workers. She invited her bridge club and several women whom I did not know. Our little house was filled to capacity. We had rented one of those eight-foot folding tables and set it up in our living room, pushing all of our threadbare furniture back against the walls.
Dinner, I believe, was roast turkey and all the things you might expect with it. My sister had commandeered the kitchen and wouldn’t let Nina do a thing. As we settled at the table, Nina had tapped her fork against her wineglass, and everyone quietened. Through the table’s pressed wood surface, I felt the rumble of thunder rolling outside.
“I would like to make a toast,” she said. She raised her glass and looked down at me. I had never seen her look at me quite like this, with such disgust; it was very reminiscent of the gaze my father had so perfected. “As you all know, Matthew and I are celebrating five long years together.” She had paused and looked at me, a smile borne of pity playing at her lips. “I have high hopes for the coming year.” She patted me on the shoulder. “I hope this is the year you get the promotion that cheap bastard of a boss won’t give you.” She smiled smugly at Mr. Penrod, my boss, who was deep crimson red from the collar of his shirt to up and over the top of his bald head. “I hope this is the year we can afford a flat screen television. I hope this is the year you learn to stop peeing on the rim of the toilet. I hope this is the year you stop using the banister as a tree for hanging your filthy underpants!” Nina slammed her wineglass down and stormed off to our bedroom, leaving in her wake a roomful of stunned guests and one mortified spouse who had just decided that his wife must die.
You might wonder why I wouldn’t just divorce her and be done with it. Nina was born and raised a devout Catholic. The concept of divorce was an abomination. We had made a vow, and we would see it through. Until death us do part.
It isn’t as easy as they make it look in the movies. I am really a very quiet and gentle man. A man like me doesn’t suddenly become homicidal overnight. It wasn’t as if I had immediately headed to the basement to load my shotgun and emerge in a blaze of gunfire. No, instead, I decided to carefully ponder the possibilities. I would make a bit of game of it.
Three hundred and sixty-four days a year, I was my normal, meek self, plodding off to work on weekdays, bowling on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, listening to Nina pick and pick and pick at my many failures every day. But on that one magical day per year, our anniversary, I would attempt to kill Nina. It would be an annual venture until I finally got it right.
Anniversaries six through ten, I tried the same method, which was inspired by Russian Roulette. Early on the mornings of those anniversaries, I crept into the kitchen and emptied the silver saltshaker from our dining room table. I refilled it with rat poison and returned it to its normal position. Then I had waited. Nina frequently salted her food and would surely use the tainted receptacle. However, each of these five anniversaries had gone by without incident. The morning after each, I had emptied the poison, washed the container, and returned its normal salt content.
Of course, I would have been caught had the poison succeeded. I didn’t say I was any good at this. But at this point, the part of me that wanted her dead was willing to sacrifice the part of me that would serve the sentence. After five failures, I needed to pause and regroup.
I have to admit, by then I was a little obsessed. I decided with a full year to plan, it was ridiculous to needlessly expose myself to prosecution. I had been an imaginative fellow once, and surely, I could do a better job of trying to protect myself. I began going to the library regularly, reading every murder mystery I could get my hands on. Reading these bits of pulp revived a specter of the writer in me. Many of the devious plots were too complex for consideration. A surprising number I found entirely implausible. Ultimately, I decided I should script my own plot, in perverse tribute to my former ambition.
In theory, this is all well and good, but I was still suffering from the same blasted writer’s block that ended my career so many years beforehand. For the next several years, every scheme I cooked up had been so riddled with holes I found myself at the last minute swapping the contents of the salt container when the exalted day arrived. Again, I realized should my plan succeed, I would undoubtedly be caught, but Nina had an unerring knack for being particularly cruel in the weeks before each of these anniversaries. I didn’t care if I got caught. It would have been worth it.
Nina and I had been married for twenty-five years by the time I finally had a decent idea. I determined that whatever happened, it should appear to be an accident, of course. Anyone who has read anything knows the bereaved spouse is always the first suspect, should the corpse be bullet-riddled, strangled or stabbed. Although brutal, random murders most certainly do occur, as a motive, they constitute a relatively small percentage of all homicides. Apparently, the larger percentage is committed by the very same person who had once loved the victim with all of his or her heart. I find that ironic.
At a glance, accidental death may seem to be an easy undertaking. It surprised me how many factors played into an “accidental” death. It wasn’t at all like those old cartoons, where an anvil would be precariously perched atop a cliff ledge to be sent plummeting to the earth just as that crazy Roadrunner came zipping up the road underneath. The question was where to place the anvil, if you will. I could suspend an ax from a hook over the front door, rigged to swing down when the door was opened and plant itself in her now-plump midsection as she entered the house. But you tell me, how many houses have you been in where an ax is suspended by hooks in the ceiling by the front door? Me, I don’t think I’ve seen one. It was a matter of plausibility. Every detail had to seem natural. The accident had to seem like a cruel twist of fate and nothing more.
Just last year, the day before our twenty-fifth anniversary, I realized I had been overcomplicating the whole process all along. The more elaborate the plan, the easier it would be to fail. On that morning, I got out of bed a little earlier than usual, reaching the downstairs before Nina. We had maintained separate bedrooms for some years by then. It was a Sunday morning, and I knew Sunday was Nina’s normal day for doing laundry. Our machines were located in the moldy and damp basement, another source of annoyance for Nina. I decided to take a length of very fine fishing line and stretch it across the path of the rickety stairs. Nina always trundled down the stairs with the clothes hamper in front of her. She would never see the line and, with any luck at all, would break her neck when she tumbled to the concrete floor of the basement below. I would creep up to my own bedroom and go back to bed, waiting for the colossal disturbance of Nina’s girth bouncing down the stairs. Once I heard the joyous sound, I would race down to the basement, quickly remove the fishing line and then continue down the stairs to my poor sweet Nina’s aid. It would be deemed an accident and I would live in blissful peace for the rest of my days, a mourning widower. I sigh to this day just thinking of the simplicity.
Ah, but nothing ever goes according to plan, does it? After stringing the line and giving myself a smug pat on the back, I crept back up to my room with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.
As the next half hour crawled by, I sat on my bed, awake and alert. Then came the sounds of Nina shuffling out into the upstairs hallway, dragging the clothes hamper from her room. She was getting closer to my room, so I slipped back under the covers and feigned slumber. She threw the door open and entered briskly, stooping here and there to collect my various garments which were strewn across the floor. She muttered under her breath the whole time as she tossed them into the hamper and slammed the door behind her.
I pulled myself out of bed and pressed my ear to the closed door. I almost held my breath, waiting for that last glorious shriek. It occurred to me I would not have to shed crocodile tears at her funeral; my tears would be real tears of joy.
And then it had come. There was a shrill cry followed by a series of thumps. I froze in place, unable to fully comprehend what had just happened. After all these years of planning, after all my failed attempts, was this finally the year I succeeded? I was afraid to check. I stood there giggling softly.
After what I’m sure was only a few minutes, I found my arms and legs again, and exited my bedroom, heading toward the downstairs with what I hoped was a look of concern on my face. The look fell away quickly enough once I reached the bottom of the stairs. Nina was lying on the floor near the door to the basement, a rather angry red spot forming on her shin. She was propped up on an elbow, her dirty dishwater blonde hair spilling over blazing eyes. Clothing was scattered in all directions and the hamper had nearly slid all the way down the long hall to the kitchen. Tangled at her feet was my bowling ball.
“Do you see what you’ve done?” Nina asked pointedly.
I stood there stupidly. She was supposed to be at the bottom of the stairs, her head staring back at me, grotesquely and at an impossible angle. Yet here she was, fixing me with that look.
“I have been telling you for twenty-five years to put this bowling ball in the closet where it belongs. Can’t you just do that one little thing right? When I think of everything my life could have been, everything that I could have had. Sometimes I think the only rest I’m ever going to get is when I kick the bucket,” she said, struggling to her feet. Oh, if only she had known... “You can do your own damn laundry, mister. I can’t be near you right now.”
She left then and didn’t come back for two days. I gathered the clothes, put my bowling ball on the top shelf in the closet, unstrung my fishing line and then proceeded to turn all my whites a bright pink in the wash cycle.
I had been so sure of myself. I couldn’t believe things had gone so horribly astray. I was miserable, and many months passed before I even had the inkling of an idea for this year’s diabolical plot. As a matter of fact, so many months passed that my anniversary was practically upon me, and I was about to revert to the old standby, the spectacularly unsuccessful rat poison scenario. It’s hard to believe that was just last week.
I was on my way to work Monday morning when the brake light in the instrument panel of my old Chevy blinked red. It really pissed me off. Our mortgage was due, and it was the worst possible time to need car repair. I dropped the car off at a service station across and up the road from the dairy and walked back to work.
After I punched out that night, I walked back to the station to hear the verdict. It wasn’t pretty. The master cylinder was leaking brake fluid with each pump of the brake pedal. The burly, greasy mechanic said a new master cylinder would be required and when he told me the price, I laughed hysterically.
“Buddy, there’s no way I can afford this right now,” I said. “You guys offer any kind of E-Z payment plan?”
“You kiddin’? We don’t even take checks,” he had replied. “I don’t recommend you drive it any farther, though. If the cylinder goes dry, you won’t have any pressure behind your brake pedal. You won’t be able to stop the car.”
“I’ll have to take my chances,” I said. “Top it off with brake fluid, and I’ll take a couple extra quarts for the road.”
“Whatever you say, Mac. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” The mechanic then headed to the rear of the shop to retrieve the brake fluid.
On my drive home, something kept niggling at my subconscious. A new plan was forming, and I didn’t have much time before our next anniversary the following Monday. I spent the next several days testing the speed with which the car was expending brake fluid. By the fourth day, I determined it wasn’t losing fluid quickly enough. I decided to throw caution to the wind and help it along a little.
Three days ago, on Sunday, I went out to the garage as I frequently do when I’m of a mind to avoid Nina. Nina was particularly unpleasant on laundry day. This time, however, I had a mission. I slipped into an old set of coveralls I wear when I change the oil in the cars. I used a pair of pliers to loosen the line from the master cylinder. I tested the reaction by pumping the brake pedal and was rewarded with substantial oozing of brake fluid at the point where the line was coupled to the cylinder. Now I just had to ensure Nina would use my car instead of her own.
Nina had been doing volunteer work with Meals on Wheels for the past several years. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she took trays of unappealing slop to the elderly in nearby convalescent centers. I suppose it gave her some sense of purpose. She had an old VW station wagon in which she tooled about town. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening, I had to listen to Nina complain about what a bomb the car was. Truthfully, it was a sad sight. Rust had dined on all of the wheel wells, and what had once been shiny dark green paint had dulled and peeled in the many years since we had bought the car, secondhand even then. The engine was reliable, however, but that little fact was entirely overlooked by Nina, who was far more focused on how embarrassed she was for her friends to see her piloting this glorified lawn mower.
“I know we can’t afford a different car. Hell, you barely make enough to keep the roof over our heads,” Nina had said. “But for heaven’s sake, don’t you think I could at least have a decent radio put in the car? I spend all afternoon in that heap, three days a week. I have sung to myself until I am sick of the sound of my own voice!”
Aren’t we all, dear?
The radio in the station wagon was original AM equipment. It emitted a high-pitched squeal through the tinny little squawk box imbedded in the dashboard. You could tune it until your arm dropped off and only receive varying pitches of static and interference.
I decided I would tell Nina I needed to swap her cars on Monday so I could have her anniversary gift installed. I had a buddy at the dairy who had been trying to sell an old radio for some time. He advertised it on a small index card posted in our break room. It wasn’t very nice, but it came with two little speakers and could at least pick up a station or two. Most importantly, it wasn’t very expensive. I would need to buy the radio and have it installed just in the off-chance Nina might survive the crack-up in my car. The terrain of our little town was very hilly, and I hoped it would stack the odds in my favor she would not. Nina drove like a bat out of hell, too, which further increased my chances for success.
Have you ever had the feeling that you know something big is going to happen? Well, that’s how I felt about my anniversary this year. In the past, I had hoped my plans would come to fruition. This year, I knew I would succeed.
On Sunday evening as we sat down to dinner, I told Nina, “I need for us to trade cars tomorrow.”
“What in the hell do you need my car for?” she demanded, one eyebrow raised suspiciously.
“I’ve got a surprise for you,” I said while blowing on a steaming forkful of Hungarian goulash.
“Matthew,” she whined. “Don’t you think you’re a little old to be playing stupid little games with me?” I raised my eyebrow in response. “If you want my car, you’ll tell me what this nonsense is about.”
“Well, if you really must know, I’m having a radio put in tomorrow, just like you wanted. It was going to be a surprise for our anniversary, but I guess not now,” I said with exasperation. I can’t help but feel any other woman might have found the suggestion of an anniversary surprise to be romantic. Not, Nina, though. Oh no.
“Well, finally,” she said. “It does have a cassette player in it, doesn’t it? It would be awful to be at the mercy of those foulmouthed deejays all of the time, playing the same songs over and over.”
I lowered my head into my hands and began to laugh. The radio I bought didn’t have a cassette player. Of course. And if it would have had one, then she would have expected a compact disc player. And if it had one of those, she would have wanted a goddamn band in the back seat, taking requests. I wanted to snatch up the iron doorstop that sat beside the door to the basement stairs and bash her head in with it. I wanted the experience of pounding the life out of her. But no, I would wait...
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“‘Does it have a cassette player?’” I mimicked savagely. I was surprised at both the venom and volume of my own voice. “No, it doesn’t have a cassette player! It’s just a simple radio. Wanna know why? That’s all I can afford! I have listened to you go at me, time and again about what a failure I’ve been to you, how I’ve disgraced you to both your family and friends, how I never apply myself at work and how I’ll never make enough money to see middle class with binoculars. Well, I’m sick of it! Do you hear me? Sick of it! Has it ever occurred to you that our station in life could be dramatically improved overnight if you actually went out and got a job? You do all this volunteer shit anyway, so you might as well get paid for it. Oh, but no, that would taint this saintly image of yourself you have constructed for the sole benefit of impressing your friends. Gracious lady, volunteering her assistance to the poor and the elderly. Well, I hate to tell you, but we are the poor and the elderly,” I slammed my fork down and stood abruptly from the table, glaring down into Nina’s shocked expression. “You will accept this damned radio with all the phony graciousness you can muster in that cheesecake-bloated body of yours. I will leave my keys by the door in the morning.”
With that, I stormed upstairs to my room and slammed the door. Inside, I was all atwitter. I had never said anything so bold or forward in all my life, and it felt better than I had ever imagined. I was surer than ever my plan would finally succeed this year!
The next morning, we ate breakfast in silence, Nina never once looking in my direction. It was just as well. I was afraid she could peer into my eyes and see what I really had planned. I left for the dairy in her old rattletrap, hoping and praying I would never have to lay eyes on the woman again.
It was a glorious day. The sun shone bright and warm as I dropped Nina’s VW at the service station to have the radio installed. I had purchased the radio the day before and brought it with me.
The mechanic remembered me from last week. “Did you get your brakes fixed?” he asked.
“Not yet. Soon,” I replied, handing him the radio from the rear of the wagon. “I’ll just pick the car up on my way home tonight.”
“Roger dodger. It’ll be ready,” he said, already climbing into the cabin of the car.
At work, Mr. Penrod was in an especially good mood, complimenting my reorganization of the delivery routes. He intimated I might be up for a salary increase very soon. For the rest of the day, I went through the paces of my normal routine with a big dumb smile on my face. Quitting time seemed days away, but it eventually arrived, just as the sky began to cloud over.
By the time I collected the car and drove home, rain had started falling, first softly before gaining momentum. Lightning and thunder pierced the evening sky as I pulled the VW into the driveway. The Carpenters were singing wholesomely over the tinny twin speakers that had been installed.
Immediately, I knew something had gone wrong when I opened the garage door. My Chevy was still parked where I had left it that morning. I cannot describe the disappointment I felt just then. I felt so helpless. I would never be free of this woman. I suspected if I were to actually succeed in offing her, she would simply reincarnate and reattach to me like a poltergeist, whining and hounding and nagging me until I was cold in the ground myself.
I unlocked the front door and peered into the dark house. The living room was immediately to the left, and straight ahead was the hallway which led to the kitchen. Both were inky black. It was unlike Nina to leave all the lights out. As a matter of fact, it was unlike Nina to leave any of the lights out. The electric bill was not her concern. As I closed the door behind me, I pulled the chain of the standing lamp just inside, which filled the area with artificial light.
I was startled to find Nina, lying in a heap in the hallway. Her arms and legs were splayed out unnaturally, and she was not moving. I crept closer and could soon see her head was resting atop the iron doorstop that held the basement door open. Her head was bloody and pulpy, and the doorstop seemed to be slightly implanted. The top of her scalp was lacerated, too, with little ribbons of blood streaking through her hair and down her forehead. In one clasped hand she held my car keys, and in the other was a set of jumper cables. I noticed my bowling ball was in the back floor of the closet, a tiny bright red splotch covering the giant “B” for Brunswick.
I impulsively reached for the ball and pulled it out. It suddenly became clear what had happened. Nina had been ready to leave this morning, and my damned car wouldn’t start! She had come back into the house to get the jumper cables we keep in the top of the closet and probably to call one of our neighbors for a jump-start. When she had pulled the cables, she had inadvertently pulled my bowling ball down, too. For once, I had put the ball into its rightful place. It had come down on her head, knocking her senseless. When she had fallen down, she had finished the job by impaling her temple on the doorstop. The house filled with my convulsive laughter. Nina was dead, and I hadn’t done a thing!
I dropped the bowling ball back into the closet with a start, realizing I shouldn’t tamper with anything. After I felt sure I could suppress any inappropriate giggling, I called 911 and an ambulance was dispatched.
At last, I was free.
When the emergency squad arrived, they confirmed her demise and transported her body away. The police appeared on the scene somewhere during the squad’s resuscitative efforts and a Sergeant McElroy asked a seemingly endless stream of questions. I had the newfound confidence of innocence to bolster my ability to play the part of the bereaved husband as I proffered my theory of what had happened. When McElroy left, he offered perfunctory condolences and some mumbo-jumbo about how most deadly accidents happened at home. If there were any further questions, he would give me a call.
I slept the night through like a peaceful baby. No more would I have to listen to the sound of that woman’s voice, telling me how worthless I was. It’s hard to believe that was just last night.
This morning, I ate ice cream for breakfast, right from the container. I changed clothes and left my dirty underpants on the banister. I said to hell with the toilet and peed right into the bathtub. I phoned work and told Mr. Penrod what had happened, and he told me to take however much time I needed. I was entitled to five paid days off, and I planned to take them all. I spent the early afternoon driving the VW around town, the crappy little radio blasting its happy songs from the little soup can speakers and me singing off-key the whole while.
When I returned home about an hour ago, I was surprised to see a black-and-white parked in the drive. Sergeant McElroy was waiting in the driveway with a younger man who I found out later was Deputy Loomis.
“We’d like to ask you some more questions about your wife’s death, Mr. Gentry,” said the sergeant, in a most officious manner. “Can you come down to the station?”
Although surprised, I couldn’t imagine I had anything to fear. After all, I hadn’t done anything. “Certainly, Sergeant McElroy,” I said. “I don’t need my lawyer, do I?” I added with a laugh.
Sergeant McElroy wasn’t laughing. “That might not be a bad idea.”
I was stunned. I didn’t say a word as the officers directed me to the cruiser. What was going on?
I was taken downtown and placed in the small holding room where I am now sitting, waiting for the next round of interrogation. The room is a white box with a window looking out over the parking lot of the police station. I was read my Miranda rights and have, for the moment anyway, waived my right for legal counsel. I don’t want to appear guilty, you see. I didn’t do anything!
Sergeant McElroy entered the room, his dour expression still in place. After reactivating the tape recorder with which he had been recording my interview, he took the seat across the table from me and stared, long and hard.
“You and the missus didn’t get along terribly well, did you?” he asked after a lengthy silence.
“I suppose we got along as well as anyone who’s been married for as long as we have,” I said, unable to control the fidgeting I was beginning to do.
“Hmmm,” he said, his eyes fixed and unblinking. “Why did you take your wife’s car yesterday morning?”
My confidence was fading, but I desperately needed to retain the appearance of innocence. “It was our anniversary,” I said. “I was having a radio put in Nina’s car.”
“Hmmm,” he said again.
I wasn’t sure what the sergeant was driving at, and my patience was running thin. “You can’t tell me you think I killed her,” I blurted out.
“That’s exactly what I think,” he said.
“How in the world—? I was at work all day! You can call my boss, Alan Penrod, at the dairy. He can verify that,” I protested.
“Oh, we have,” the sergeant said. “We’ve been checking out quite a few things, actually. You and the missus had quite a row the night before the ‘accident,’ didn’t you?”
I remembered yelling those vindicating phrases at Nina as she had interrogated me as to why I needed her car. How could the policeman know this? Tentatively, I answered, “I wouldn’t say it was a row, Sergeant. It was an animated discussion.”
“Well, your wife apparently thought it was more than that. When it was over, she called a Mrs. Abernathy,” he said, consulting his notes. Mrs. Abernathy was the coordinator of the Meals on Wheels crews. She and Nina had been close friends for decades. “Your wife told Mrs. Abernathy she had never seen you in such a state. She said she was afraid for her life.”
“Afraid of me?” I asked incredulously. “She has never been afraid of me!”
“Funny, that’s not what she told Mrs. Abernathy. She said she was afraid you were going to kill her. Mrs. Abernathy thought your wife was being overly dramatic, although Nina had spoken frequently to her about how unhappy your marriage had become. She’s kicking herself right now because she didn’t take Nina’s story more seriously,” he said.
“All right, sergeant,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me just exactly what it is that you think I’ve done.”
“Do you know anything about car repair?” he asked. I could feel the color draining from my face.
“I suppose I’ve picked up a thing or two,” I said.
Sergeant McElroy sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “You wanna know what I think? I think that you wanted your wife to use your car because you knew it wouldn’t start. The interior light had been left on and drained the battery. You knew when she went for the jumper cables in the closet, she would pull down the bowling ball you had perched on top of them. C’mon, now Mr. Gentry. Who puts his bowling ball on the top shelf of a closet?”
“That’s ridiculous!” I exclaimed. “That is totally circumstantial, and there’s no way you can prove a crazy thing like that.”
“Perhaps not,” the sergeant said. “But I think your plan was a little more complex. I don’t think you had confidence that the bowling ball would definitely do her in. I think you had a backup plan, an insurance policy, so to speak. I’ve spoken with a mechanic at Bill’s Auto. You ever use Bill’s Auto?”
“Yes,” I said indignantly. “That’s exactly where I had the radio installed in my wife’s car.”
“And it’s also where you were informed last week that your own car had developed a nasty little braking problem. This was the very same car you instructed your wife to use yesterday. Did you have the car fixed? No need to answer. We’ve examined the car. The brake lines have been loosened,” the sergeant continued.
“How does this implicate me?” I asked.
“Let me ask you a question. Do these coveralls belong to you?” he asked, holding up the protective gear I always kept in the garage. There were a series of drip marks on the right sleeve, running toward the elbow. “Do I need to tell you that these stains are brake fluid? Mr. Gentry, I think you should call your lawyer.”
The fight had left me. As badly as I wanted Nina dead, as surely as I would have done it myself, I truly was innocent.
As I wait for my court-appointed lawyer to arrive, I see the evening sky fill with lightning. There is a crash of thunder, and the rain is falling, yet again.