This story is by Retta Bodhaine and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Yellow, diffused street light filtered through floating dust motes as the dirty, pamphlet covered bar door swung open. A glimpse of a brown leather bomber jacket, worn jeans, and a grey cabbie hat appeared in the flash of light, but they were lost to the darkness when the door shut again. The man’s work boots announced his approach as the sticky bar floor tried to trap their soles.
He walked the full length of the bar and took the last seat, in the darkest corner. The red backlights of the mirrored liquor shelves and the tea lights vainly trying to shine through dusty, rust-colored votives did not reach him there. The sagging bartender set a chilled bottle of Macallan and a whiskey glass in front of the man. They were the only spotless items in the bar.
The man poured himself a double without removing his leather gloves and passed the bottle back to the bartender. She put his bottle back in the mini fridge below the bar and passed him a small stack of mail. At the top of the stack was an elegant, floral stationary envelope addressed in shaky cursive to his first alias, Benny Russo. He jerked his chin up in acknowledgement of the bar tender’s efforts; she tilted her head down in response. He sipped his whiskey and analyzed the room.
The young hotshots were surrounded with lackeys and scantily clad girls by the pool tables. Their clothes were too loose; their weapons were too prominent. He frowned at their lack of subtlety, but wasn’t surprised by it. The local gang members had all the faulty confidence that comes with keeping like-minded company.
His eyes moved past the coarse youths towards the tired locals sitting at the other end of the bar. They didn’t notice anything besides the glasses in front of them. In the flickering candlelight, their frown lines dug deep, elongated, contours into their tree bark skin. Their shoulders were hunched with the weight of their laborious years. Even breathing seemed tedious for them.
Sitting at the tables near the windows were a few of the neighborhood folk who came to the local hole for microwaved buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks. This was their night out. It was no better than staying in their apartments except for the change of pace. They held low conversations and avoided acknowledging anyone else in the bar. They defended their burstable bubbles fiercely; no one here would be allowed to shatter their delusions.
His whiskey glass emptied, the man vacated his barstool and snaked his way around the pool tables. The typically territorial youths shuffled to let him by. He let them keep their pride by ignoring their existence. He passed by the doubly-occupied, unisex bathroom and went onto the hidden flight of stairs behind the utility closet. He climbed the stairs no one else touched and opened the door to his Spartan, brick-walled apartment.
After securing the door and storing his gear, he moved to the kitchen where he served himself a bowl of Coq Au Vin from his slow cooker. He savored his meal in silence.
Then, resigned, he opened the envelope.
Removing the parchment from the envelope released the warm plastic and vanilla scent of her house, a distant world he’d visited in 1978. His eyes closed as the scent transported him back to that day.
“Thank you so much for coming!” said the brightly smiling middle-aged woman standing in the open doorway. His eyes swept from her flawlessly feathered hair, down her simple yet stunning sundress and on further to the perfectly polished nails peeking out of her open-toed, small-heel sandals. The more he looked, the more his brow furrowed.
She ignored his perturbed face and continued, “Come on in. I’ve made lavender lemonade.”
“I’m sorry,” he stopped her, “but there’s been some kind of mistake.”
She waved her hand at his ridiculous comment, “Of course there hasn’t been, silly billy. Now come on in.” She took his hand and led him into the foyer where she stripped him of his jacket and hat. She went to put his things in the coat closet, and he studied the alien surroundings.
When he’d turned into the upscale, suburban neighborhood of matching bungalows he’d started to get a funny feeling. Parking next to the wood paneled station wagon had only made the feeling grow. Now, standing in the foyer looking at the green shag carpet, and plastic-covered orange furniture he knew something was wrong. The walls were covered in pictures of smiling people. The windows had billowing yellow curtains. Everything was drenched in sunlight and doilies.
This was no place for him.
The woman emerged from the hall with a tray of lemonade and home-baked oatmeal cookies. She walked right past him and set the tray down on the coffee table before taking a seat on the couch. She looked up at him and patted the seat next to her.
“I think you have the wrong idea. You see, I don’t exterminate household pests.” He paused as he tried to figure out a gentle lie for the unwitting housewife.
“I never thought you did.” She replied serenely, “You kill people, right?”
He stared blankly at the creature before him.
“For money?” She prompted.
He started to get suspicious now. His eyes scanned for wires as his mouth said, “Look lady, I’m not sure how you got my number, but I’m not who you’re looking for.” He turned to leave.
“I got your number from my uncle Carl, Carl Civella.” She said before calmly taking a sip of lemonade.
He stopped dead in his tracks and whirled back around. “You’re Carl ‘The Cork’s’ niece?”
She patted the seat beside her again, and this time he walked over and sat down. “Not really. It’s more that he’s a close family friend, and I just call him Uncle. He seems to be okay with it though.” She handed him a glass of lemonade. He absently set it down.
“Would you mind using the coaster please, young man?” she asked sweetly. “We don’t want water marks.” He moved the lemonade, then frowned. This broad had him off kilter, and it was past time to take back control.
“So someone’s giving you a problem?” He asked her to get back on familiar ground.
“Um – no. I’m the problem.” He was tired of being confused and motioned for her to explain herself.
She used tongs to place a cookie on a small plate and handed it to him. “You see, my mother,” her voice caught and she cleared her throat, “my mother just passed, but I really lost her about ten years ago.” She wrung her now empty hands.
“Mom had always been a bit flighty, but then she started forgetting a lot of things. About a decade ago, she’d forgotten so many things that she wasn’t even herself anymore. With mom gone, dad started slipping too. He’s still alive, but he only has a good day every so often. Most days he’s angry, confused, and scared, just like she was.”
She stopped talking and dabbed at unfallen tears from her perfectly powdered eyes. She gave herself a shake, plastered her radiant smile back on her face, and picked up a cookie. “I’m sorry to get maudlin. It’s not important that you know all of that. What you need to know is, I never want to be like that. I’ve spoken to my doctor, and he says that these things tend to run in families. So, I’d like to hire you to kill me if I get lost too.”
“This isn’t my kind–” He started.
“Uncle Carl says this service costs $5,000.” She cut him off and he stared at the strangest client he’d ever had. “For the job and the time, I’ve pulled $10,000 from mom’s estate and put it into a safe deposit box at the local Savings and Loan.” She pressed the key into his hand. “My family can never know. You’ll need to make it look natural, and we can’t have direct contact until it happens. If you give me an address – now don’t worry I don’t need your address, just an address you can pick up mail at – then I’ll send you a letter once a month. When the letters stop making sense, you’ll know it’s time.” Her painted ruby lips flashed pearl white teeth. “Now, do you have any questions?”
The memory faded with the scent. He opened his eyes and read the third and final nonsensical letter from Mrs. Anita Coleman.
He stood and walked to his bedroom closet. He placed the letter in the wooden box on the top shelf with all the others she’d sent over the years. He removed the clothes of his world and donned the garb of hers. He mentally checked off bifocals, sweater vest, khaki slacks, loafers, and a small vial with more than enough foxglove to grant this final client a natural-looking release.
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