“And nobody knew me in New York, and if I ran into anybody I knew I’d tell them the marriage didn’t work out, that Penny left me and never said where she was going. Of course her parents wouldn’t know where she was, and they’d get to wondering, but I had that figured out, too. I’d beat them to the punch by calling them with an address for them to give to Penny when they spoke to her. In case she wanted to get in touch, I’d say, sounding like a man with a broken heart.”
“Wouldn’t they eventually go to the police?”
“I suppose, but it would just be a missing person, not a homicide, and nobody would know where to look for her. They certainly wouldn’t have any reason to start digging in a cornfield in Kansas.”
“You were going to bury her in a cornfield?”
“I figured that was perfect. If you pick a recently plowed field, and go do your digging at night when nobody’s around, all you’d have to do was make sure you dug deeper than they plow. The body could stay there forever.”
“You had it all figured out.”
“I couldn’t fall asleep. I sat there in that piece-of-shit motel room while she was lying there asleep with her mouth open—”
“Which is always attractive.”
“—and I thought about killing her. I didn’t want to make anyone at the motel suspicious, so I had to avoid getting blood on the sheets, anything like that. I thought about strangling her or smothering her with a pillow, but suppose she put up a fight?
What I settled on was I’d knock her out first by hitting her on the head. There was a tire iron in the trunk I could use, and if I wrapped a towel around it there’d be less chance of breaking the skin and causing bleeding.”
“This is getting awfully real, John.”
“Well, how real was it? This was twenty-five years ago, more than half my life. I can remember being in that room, working it all out in my mind, but how accurate is that memory? And how close did I come to flat out doing it?”
“Did you go out to the car for the tire iron?”
“No,” he said, and frowned. “Hold on, I think I did. Jesus, this is weird. I remember it both ways.”
“Wait a minute,” she said. “Hang on here a minute.”
“John, I read this story.”
“Yeah, I wrote about it. Turned it around some, the way you do, but that’s where the story came from. The Yale Review turned it down and then Prairie Schooner bought it. I’m surprised you remember it.”
“How would I not remember it? I published it, for God’s sake, it was in Edged Weapons. Give me a minute and I’ll come up with the title.”
“‘A Nice Place to Stop.’ It was the motel’s slogan. In the story, that is, but either I made it up or it was some other motel’s slogan.
It seemed to fit the story, but I’m not sure it’s the best title I could have come up with.”
“It’s not bad. In the story—”
“In the story the guy does go out for the tire iron, and he wraps the towel around it and swats her good, and then he realizes he can’t go through with it. Strangling her, like he planned to do. And it dawns on him that he can just leave, he’ll give her all his money and the car and say goodbye and hit the road, and what can she do? So he waits for her to wake up and he’s going to tell her all this. He’d like to just split and let her figure it out for herself when she comes to, but he knows he’d better wait and tell her.”
“But he can’t, because she’s dead.”
“Right, the blow with the tire iron was enough to crack her skull and kill her, towel or no towel. So now he has to go through with it and bury her in a field the way he planned, and he does, knowing it’s all unnecessary.”
“And he gets away with it, doesn’t he?”
“Well, we don’t know that,” he said. “He’s still free and clear at the end of the story, but maybe that’s just because they haven’t caught up with him yet. But even if he gets away with it, what we get is that he’s not really getting away with anything after all, because he’s got her wrapped around his soul the way the Ancient Mariner had the albatross around his neck.”
“Maybe the title’s better than I thought.”
“Yes, I see what you mean. When did you write this one, John?”
“Not right away. Maybe a year, two years after the divorce, I started running it through my mind and it started to turn into a story. And of course I changed tons of things, and the guy in the story wasn’t me and the woman wasn’t Penny. But that’s why I remembered going for the tire iron, and also remembered not going for the tire iron. One memory was from life and the other was from the story.”
“Writers are strange people.”
“You’re just finding this out?”
“No, but I keep forgetting, and people like you keep reminding me. Oops, there’s a call I have to take. Will you be around for a while?”
“Where would I go?”
“Nowhere for the next hour or so, okay? I’ll get back to you.” H O W C L O S E H A D H E come to killing Penny?
It wasn’t hard to remember the story’s immediate origin, not where it came from but the spark that got him to write it. He was in New York, living in this apartment, and he was seeing someone new, a trainee copywriter at an ad agency. He’d decided he was getting more involved than he wanted to be, and made plans to tell her that he felt they should both be seeing other people. The person he thought she should probably be seeing was a trained psy-chotherapist, but he didn’t figure he had to tell her that part.
He didn’t look forward to the whole business, but at least it was early days for the relationship, and he’d be wise to nip it in the bud before he found himself married to her, and looking for ways to get rid of her.
Like, Jesus, that insane moment in the motel room when he’d actually contemplated killing Penny. And just suppose he’d taken the fantasy one step further, suppose he’d gone out and come back with a tire iron . . .
From there his imagination just ran with it. Striking the blow, Jesus, he’d regret it immediately, and the minute she came to he’d—but wait a minute, suppose she didn’t?
The story was essentially complete in his mind by the time he sat down and started putting it on paper, but it morphed and evolved as he wrote it, the way they always did. Once it was done, though, all it needed was a word changed here and there and a fresh trip through the typewriter and it was done. He sent it out and it came back and he sent it out again and it stuck.
He thought of that blond bitch from the DA’s office, had an Italian name. Fabrizzio? Hadn’t wanted him out on bail, wanted him stuck in a cell at Rikers.
Would she think to read his books?
Well, if she didn’t somebody else would. “A Nice Place to Stop” was just another story, a little more violent than most, maybe, but violence was often present in his work, and he’d already found himself wondering what the prosecution would try to do with that, and what a jury would make of it. People in the business knew to separate the writer from the writing, knew that the author of a sweet little juvenile book about cuddly bears and talking automobiles might indeed be a plump grandmother who smelled like cookie dough, but could just as easily be a grizzled old drunk with tattoos and a bad attitude. But were jurors that sophisticated?
They might be, here in New York, where everybody was an insider, at least in his own mind. Still, it would be easier all around if they didn’t happen to know the precise origins of “A Nice Place to Stop.”
He went to the refrigerator, gnawed at a slice of leftover pizza, took out a beer, hesitated, put it back. Sat down again and booted up the computer, opened the thing he’d been working on when—
Christ, a million years ago, it seemed like—when those two refugees from the Jehovah’s Witness Protection Program had turned out to be cops.
He read some, scrolled down, read some more. Shook his head.
Nothing wrong with it, really, and he sort of saw where he was going. But it felt like something he’d been working on in another lifetime. He was the same person who’d written these pages, he was in fact the same person who’d written “A Nice Place to Stop,” the same person who’d stood in that motel room and contemplated—hell, call a spade a spade, forget contemplated—who’d planned murder.
The same person throughout, but he felt further detached from the writing on the screen than from that ancient short story. He frowned and tried to find his way back into it, writing a sentence to follow the last one he’d written. He looked at it, and it was all right, it fit what preceded it. He took a breath and let himself find his way, batted out a couple of paragraphs and stopped to look at them.
Nothing wrong with them. Still . . .
He went to the fridge, reached for the beer, put it back, checked the coffeepot. There was a cup left. Cold, but so what? He took it back to his desk and closed the file, opened a new one. Without really thinking, he let his fingers start tapping keys.
Fifteen minutes in, MS Word asked him SAVE NOW? He clicked the Yes box, and, when asked for a title, keyed in Fucked If I Know and clicked to save what he’d written under that title. Not quite in the same league with “A Nice Place to Stop,” and maybe he should call this one A Nice Place to Start, and maybe it was. But Fucked If I Know was okay for the time being, and God knows it was accurate.
He reached for the coffee, found the cup empty. Couldn’t even remember drinking it.
He put his fingers on the keys, went back to work.
R O Z S A I D , “G I V E M E a reality check, will you? It wouldn’t be for a couple of years yet, but do you think I ought to enroll Hannah in Hebrew school?”
“You’re a lapsed Catholic,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking of converting to Judaism?”
“No, why would I do that? I rather enjoy being a lapsed Catholic.”
“And Hannah’s Chinese,” he said. “But you said Hebrew school.”
“Well . . .”
“If I don’t send her,” she said, “isn’t she going to feel left out?
She’ll be the only Chinese kid in Park Slope who doesn’t have a bat mitzvah.”
He said, “Is that from some comic’s routine? Did Rita Rudner try it out on Letterman last night?”
“I’m serious,” she said. “At least I thought I was serious. Is it really that ridiculous?”
“What do I know? I don’t live in Park Slope.”
“Well, I’ve got a few years to think about it,” she said. “How come you picked up before the machine? I thought you were screening your calls.”
“Phone calls haven’t been a problem lately. Maybe my fifteen minutes of fame are over.”
“Don’t count on it, honey.”
“No,” he said, “I guess not. When the case goes to trial is when it starts in earnest. Unless they catch the prick before then, and then the phone’ll really start ringing off the hook. Not just reporters wanting to know how it feels to be vindicated, but the department head from the New School saying of course they’ll want me back in the fall, plus all the old friends I haven’t heard from, telling me they knew all along I was innocent. Jesus, I sound like a cynical bastard, don’t I?”