Karl and Eleanor
Karl used to joke he’d married her because of her skill with a floormop and duster. He’d say it in company, not caring how he sounded, braying with laughter like a common longshoreman; he’d say it in her hearing, usually with a wink in her direction and a glass in hand. She was sure he said it to anyone who’d listen, and that those who heard it believed it.
She’d learned, years ago, how to smile through a mouthful of bile.
But she’d married Karl so that she’d never have to mop a floor again. Why else would she have accepted him, an out-of-towner? He’d swept in when she was barely seventeen, chrome-shiny car and slicked-back hair, smelling like opportunity. She saw a life of socials and smiling, pearls and aperitifs, and she’d taken the chance.
But he’d made a series of bad decisions, of which she had been the first.
They’d rubbed along together okay while Karl Jr was young; he’d been such a sweet boy, always trying to please. They’d corrected him as gently as they knew how, and he’d grown to be a fine young man, a better business mind than his father, a discreet player in his private affairs. But he’d moved away, and coming for a visit was always too much trouble.
‘Next month, Ma. I promise. You wait and see!’
So, she began to think about ways to loosen her shackles. Divorce was too long, too expensive and too shameful. She wasn’t about to leave with nothing, either, simply pack a valise and raid her emergency fund for the bus fare to Virginia. Her sister would turn her around the second she landed on her doorstep, of course, and the fact that she had nowhere else to go filled her belly with cramping panic.
She knew there was another way, and it sang to her at night.
Getting her hands on what she needed was easier than she’d thought. ‘Oh, wow – you mean you don’t got one of these already? Jeez, ma’am. Let’s get that fixed, right here.’ The salesman in the tiny shop, the name of which she forgot as soon as she slid her falsified documents over the counter, couldn’t have been more helpful. She paid him extra, and that was that.
It took her a while to get used to the weight, but she was a fast learner.
She picked the day, and planned accordingly. Kiss Karl off at the door by 8.10 a.m., refresh the house till 10.30, take some coffee with Clever Housekeeper magazine until 11, then be seen leaving to get the groceries. If she packed her purse just right, you couldn’t even tell there was more in it than her pocketbook. She’d checked.
Karl had an early lunch that day, and she was planning to forget.
She had come home just after midday, a bag in each arm, nodding and smiling as she went. Mr Levenson had stopped her for a chat, and she’d had to make the excuse that she was expecting a call; she couldn’t be late. Not today. Twelve-twenty: home. She turned up the radio in the kitchen and sang as she unpacked the groceries. She had ten minutes.
Twelve twenty-seven: the lock rattled, just barely, in the back door.
Turning up the radio, she checked her purse was in grabbing distance, open and ready. A creak of the hinge, and a heavy tread in the hallway, and she just knew the next thing would be: ‘Eleanor? You got my lunch ready, hon? I’m just gonna help myself to a drink.’ The door closed with a soft thud. She slid her hand into her purse and withdrew it. She turned; a tall shape, in a dark jacket, stood with his back to her.
She screamed and fired, all in the same second.
There was no surprise. No yelling. No pleading or swearing. He just hit the wall, a mess of red, and slithered to the ground. The radio warbled about summertime girls as she dropped the pistol and let it clatter across the kitchen tiles.
It took a second for her to see.
Too much hair. Too tall. Too young. Karl Jr had called the week before – he had a surprise for her, he’d said. No, he wasn’t going to tell her anything about it – it wouldn’t be a surprise then, would it? She’d laughed, expecting to hear about a pretty little girl who’d be wearing his ring in a week or two. She hadn’t expected this.
He’d dropped a bag, bigger than an overnight; he’d have stayed a week, maybe.
She stumbled backwards, out through the family room, down the hall, staring at the growing pool around her son, and out the front door. When Karl had come home at twelve thirty-six, shouting sorry I’m late, he smelled it before he saw it, and then threw up before calling the cops. They found her wandering the streets less than an hour later, staring into shop windows, without a cent on her; she’d left her full purse at home.
She needed to buy Lysol, she told the cops, over and over, her eyes wide and wild, to clean her kitchen floor.