Andrea Jacksons poetry and short-shorts have appeared or are forthcoming online in Kaleidowhirl, The Hiss Quarterly, Triplopia Review, Poetry Midwest and Opium Magazine, and in print in Margie, Rhino, caesura, The Sows Ear Poetry Review, The Eleventh Muse, Periphery: A Magical Realist Zine, The Binnacle, and the anthology, New Harvest: Jewish Writing in St. Louis 1998-2005. She has received two Pushcart nominations and one nomination for the Best of the Net anthology. She received an MFA from the University of Missouri St. Louis in 2007 and is working on a novel.
Friendship has its own timetable. Caroline Slayman, matron of a certain age, recently divorced and feeling rootless, ran into an old college classmate, Renée Lewicky, at a flea market one morning in late August. The two women would seem to have had little in common, as Caroline was a conventional member of an old Atlanta family and Renée was a local artist, known for her bohemian lifestyle. But over coffee and scones purchased at the flea market's refreshment stand, Caroline was startled to discover that her life had been intimately connected with Renée's for over three decades, owing to the amorous habits of Caroline's ex-husband, Walker.
Specifically, it came to light that soon after Walker had divorced Caroline, after a thirty-three year marriage, claiming to have fallen in love with a very young girl named Heather, he had also broken off an affair with Renée that had been simmering, unbeknownst to Caroline, for thirty-four years. Renée's outrage at these developments was equal to Caroline's, since Walker had always told her that he wished he had married Renée instead of Caroline and would do so as soon as he was free.
It is hard to imagine a situation more conducive to a friendship between two women, offering abundant excuse for expressing anger at the common enemy—men in general, as usual, but Walker in particular—and a built-in audience for the obsessive rehashing of their separate relationships with him. After a number of téte-á-tétes on park benches, in luncheonettes, and sprawled on Adirondack chairs in the back yard of the old country house that served as Renée's residence and studio, Caroline and Renée decided that they were going to make sure that Walker would never enjoy his little love nest.
Walker slid angrily into the booth at the Candy Kitchen where Renée was waiting for him.
“That was a nasty thing to do,” he complained. “Forcing yourself on us like that.”
“I had to. You didn't answer my calls. Anyway, your little granddaughter or whatever seemed eager to meet me.”
“She's not my granddaughter. I'm going to marry her,” he said.
Renée raised her eyebrows.
“She's very mature for her age,” he insisted.
“They always are.”
He rolled his eyes.
She leaned toward him across the sticky table. “Come to dinner. I'll make you my famous boeuf bourguignon.”
“Now?” As if he needed time to prepare for the ordeal or the treat, whichever it was to him.
She calculated. There was the digging to consider. They couldn't wait too long, with the earth getting harder every day as the weather turned chilly. “Two weeks from today. How's that?”
“I'll have to figure out what to tell Heather.”
“Oh, she's invited too.” Renée laughed at how stricken he looked. “Just kidding. Tell her you're preparing a talk or something and you want to get it all done to leave more time for her.”
“Yes,” he nodded, quite seriously. “That should work.”
Caroline bought a pair of coveralls and some tarps in a Sears store in the city, paying for them in cash, then traveled to the other side of town to buy a shovel, a trowel, and a pair of leather work gloves in a gardening store. She stopped at a supermarket and bought a large bottle of hand cream with aloe, some insect repellant with DEET, and a box of zip lock plastic bags, and stored all the supplies in the trunk of her sky blue Camry.
“Two weeks,” Renée said, getting into Caroline's car.
“We can do it,” Caroline said.
It takes a lot of work to dig a grave, especially one for a tall man, especially when you don't want to get tell-tale blisters on your hands. You have to dig a little at a time, stop when your hands feel sore, skip a day before the next time. They were careful to stretch before and after digging and at intervals throughout, and each of them had a nice long soak in a hot bathtub when they returned to their respective homes in the evenings.
Whenever they left the site, they put their shovels in the hole, covered the hole with a tarpaulin, and concealed the tarpaulin with dead leaves and pine straw. They kept their coveralls and other supplies on another tarp in the trunk of Caroline's car, which they decided was their vehicle of choice since Renée's old Checker station wagon (a) had no trunk, (b) was even more conspicuous than a sky blue Camry, and (c) got abysmal gas mileage.
Every other day they drove to the site they had chosen, a clearing in a heavily wooded area about an hour and a half from Renée's house, which was, itself, about an hour north of the city. There seemed never to be anyone else on the road as they sped north into the mountains, past vistas of trees turning orange and yellow among the green pines. In the woods they traveled on a dirt road. The trees clustered close like well-wishers.
“This is fun,” Caroline said, with a shy glance at Renée.
“A true bonding experience,” Renée agreed.
Every now and then, as they drove and chatted idly, one or the other said: “We don't have to do this.” It seemed a piece of academic speculation, a proposition that was intriguing but hardly relevant. “We could just stop. We could just not do it.” Still they drove north together.
Caroline was dependable, unlike many others Renée had met in the course of her unorthodox life. She was the kind of person who could be trusted to do what she had said she would do.
Ordinarily Renée appreciated that trait. But on this day, the day before D (Dinner) Day, as they stood at the excavation site leaning on their shovels, Renée thought Caroline was carrying conscientiousness to the point of parody.
“That's it,” Renée insisted. “We're done.” She was hot, weary, dirty, and just a bit annoyed.
“I don't know,” Caroline said. “It doesn't seem big enough.”
“It's like an empty room,” Renée said. “They always look small until you get the furniture in.”
“What if he doesn't fit?”
“We double him over. Let's get out of here.”
At least the stew was already marinating in the refrigerator. Beef and vegetables diced into bite sized pieces. Two identical bouquets garni fashioned of herbs tied in cheesecloth. Her hands mixing everything together with the good, rich red burgundy, the meat fibers softening and the flavors marrying, the pool of wine and blood.
There are thousands of varieties of mushrooms in the Georgia forests, and a few of them are poisonous, and a few of the poisonous ones are deadly. Telling them apart was a breeze, if you knew what to look for, and Caroline did. She had been gathering wild mushrooms for decades and cooking them for Walker and the girls, and no one had ever gotten sick.
Renée's house, her residence and studio combined, was on an isolated country road. Caroline reached it precisely at 11:00 a.m. on D-Day as scheduled, with a zip lock bag of mushrooms. Renée thanked her and, handling the bag gingerly with two fingers as if the toxin could leak through the plastic, placed it on the window sill.
Of course, Renée invited her to stay for lunch and prepared scrambled eggs and a tossed salad. But she seemed different today, abstracted, even annoyed at Caroline's presence. It was as if Renée had needed Caroline to set up this murder and now had no further use for her, at least until that night, when Caroline would be needed to help transport and bury the body.
Caroline decided she was being unfair. Renée had preparations to make. Disconsolate, scolding herself for being childish, Caroline left without even finishing her scrambled eggs.
Renée preferred to cook without a musical background, enjoying the slippery firmness of beef cubes as she reached into the marinade to retrieve and dry them, the sting of salt on hands that were sore from digging, the aromas of salt pork frying and floured meat browning, the sounds of crackling and spitting as heat transformed everything, and the resistance against her wooden spoon as she scraped up the browned bits from the bottom so they could be incorporated into the whole simmering brew.
She separated the mixture in two parts. Walker's portion, a bit more than half, was in her big iron pot. Hers was in a saucepan on its own burner. Now she had two mini-stews, each with its own bouquet garni, each ready to simmer, all afternoon, until she was ready to serve.
As she worked, she brooded over the deficiencies and perfidies of Walker, including, most recently, his willingness to betray his supposed fiancée and lie to her about having dinner with Renée. She and Caroline would be doing Heather a favor by removing Walker from her life.
The final step, so small it felt almost an afterthought, would be to chop the mushrooms Caroline had brought and dump them into Walker's portion. She would put the trimmings down the garbage disposal—how fortunate to have insisted on this modern convenience when she had the kitchen updated!—and meticulously scrub the cutting board and knife she had used.
“Get away!” she snapped at Rousseau, the dog, who had been nuzzling her, trying to get her to play tug-of-war with a knotted towel. He slunk away and annoyed her further by cowering in a corner of the kitchen, even though he had never experienced violence from her. Renée was not a violent person.
She needed to relax. She had had almost no time at her easel during the preceding couple of weeks. The hunger for painting, and the rootless feeling on being deprived of it, were always enough to send her pacing and snapping at whoever was around.
She loaded a stack of Myles Davis CD's into the player and was soon staring happily at a large blank canvas, waiting for it to speak to her, waiting for the shape of the painting, which she began to sense immediately. A dark band, almost black, rising over the bottom third and above it a sickly yellow-green radiance. Something else to make for an irregularity at the place where they met, the line that would be the horizon if it were a landscape.
She squeezed out some paint and began feeling her way into the painting.
Someone rapped on the front door. Walker? Already?
Palette in hand, she went to the door. Walker was neatly dressed in a plaid shirt and brown cardigan, a combination that accentuated his resemblance to a mangy old bird of prey. Or to her dog. He thrust a bunch of yellow roses at her.
“I know I'm early.”
“Two hours early. Thanks for these, by the way. They're lovely.”
“I couldn't wait. It's been so long.”
She made him stay in the kitchen while she put her paints away and cleaned herself up. It had been a long time since she'd dressed for a date, a long time since she'd participated in anything as premeditated as a date (let alone anything as premeditated as this particular date). She changed into a long skirt, a low-necked blouse, dangly earrings, beaded sandals.
In the kitchen, Rousseau, who had never liked Walker, crouched on the rug next to the daybed, growling softly. Walker edged away from the dog and moved his fingers reflexively to his neck.
Her music was still playing on the kitchen speakers when she joined him. “Are you OK with Myles Davis?” she asked him.
“Who?” he asked.
“Do you like this music?”
He considered. “Yes, it's very nice.” Sensing that more might be called for, he added: “Atmospheric.”
She poured a glass of red wine for each of them. They sat on the daybed.
“You look beautiful,” Walker ventured.
She was irritated at herself for feeling flattered. She raised her wine glass. “Here's to being able to say whatever the situation calls for.”
He took it as a compliment and raised his glass in return. “Here's to the most exciting woman I've ever known.”
“Too bad she's crazy,” she said, referring to something he had said the first time he had broken up with her, back when they were in college, before he had become engaged to Caroline.
“Come on. I was a kid. I didn't know anything.” He inched closer to her on the daybed, the technique of a teenager. He was still a kid, apparently. And making himself more obnoxious to her all the time.
She moved away and looked past him, out the back door, at the autumn woods and the sky already beginning to darken. “What about now? Do you know whether I'm crazy or not?” She turned and looked straight into his eyes, but only for a moment. It wouldn't do to frighten him. Not after all that work.
“No, Renée, you were never crazy. I was a fool. I made a terrible mistake and I've been living with it ever since.” He moved closer.
She moved away. She was almost at the edge of the daybed, where it butted up against a low table covered with drink rings and half a dozen issues of Art Papers Magazine.
“I should have been with you the whole time,” he was saying. “We could have lived out here, wherever you wanted. It would have been…” He fell silent, apparently in some doubt as to how it would have been.
“Why didn't you come to me, then, when your marriage broke up?”
“I didn't think you'd want me.”
“Maybe I don't.”
He laughed, a raunchy laugh. “Then what am I doing here?”
“I thought I invited you for dinner.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Sorry.”
“What had you planned to do about that toy you're supposed to be engaged to?”
“Heather is a very sweet girl. A lovely girl.”
“I could see that. You know, Walker,” she said, getting up and going to the stove, “you're kind of a bastard, you know that?”
“There's no way to cut this that you aren't a bastard.” She ladled some of the stew from the iron pot onto a plate, set it on the table at a place that would put Walker with his back to the stove, and gestured to him to seat himself.
As he wordlessly obeyed, she served herself from the saucepan. She set her plate across from him, placed a basket of bread between them, lit the two candles on the table, and indicated that Walker should pour more wine. He jumped to comply.
She raised her glass to him. He raised his to her.
The telephone rang, an insistent shrillness against the cool improvisations coming from the speakers. Eight, nine, ten rings before it finally stilled and she could hear Rousseau whuffling in his sleep, dreaming the sort of heartless dreams dogs dream. In the candlelight, shadows assembling around them, Walker's long, craggy face seemed that of a troubled spirit already in transition. The firm back of her chair, the rough weave of her napkin, were the only assurances of continuity in the world.
In the past, there had been few impulses she had not followed. Her impulses had always been opposed to repression, unfailingly life-affirming. Until now.
“Renée, I want to… ”
This was the leap. The dark landscape, the defining sky forever altered.
She speared a piece of beef with her fork, held it next to her lips for a moment, then slowly opened them and inserted it, holding his eyes with hers. Taking this as a change of subject, Walker stopped talking and did the same with a piece of green pepper. They chewed and swallowed.
Without taking her eyes from Walker's, she speared another piece of beef, rubbed it all around her lips, leaving a trail of gravy, then gently closed her lips over it. He followed suit.
She rotated the fork in her mouth and pulled it out slowly. “Mmm,” she said. “Mmm,” he sighed.
He grabbed a chunk of bread, soaked it with gravy and crammed it into his mouth. She did the same. Their mouths stuffed over-full, they chewed slowly, voluptuously. He groaned. She groaned. Renée found herself enjoying the entire activity more than she would have expected.
“More?” she asked.
He nodded, silent, as if not wanting to break the spell. He looked dazed. Did mushroom poisoning cause confusion? She wished she had gotten Caroline to give her a list of the symptoms. Not to mention a timetable.
At the stove she ladled a generous second helping onto his plate from the iron pot. She stood close behind his chair and reached around his body to set the plate before him, almost touching her cheek to his, and smiled obliquely as she set it down. “Oh, Renée,” he whispered. She easily evaded his grasp. Too easily: a sign of impaired coordination.
The bottle was empty. “Let's finish this off,” she said, and handed him the Burgundy left over from preparing the marinade the day before. As he poured the wine, she gave herself a token spoonful of benign stew from the saucepan.
The candles were burning low. Walker definitely looked pale. It was just a matter of time now—but how much time?
Leaning across the table toward him, her elbows on the table, her chin on her clasped fingers, she shook her head and let a half-smile play on her face. She began to speak, in tones one would use for the most indulgent love talk.
“A self-centered bastard from the word go.” She kept smiling, warm and tender as if to say: what a rake he was! how powerless she was to resist him! “You know, Walker, you were the first and last man I ever loved. I've been waiting for you all these years. And then you dropped me.”
“And you got tired of your wife, so you dropped her too.”
“You don't know anything about it. That marriage had been over for years.”
“Now you're all set to be unfaithful to your new little fiancée.”
“No I'm not!”
“Got your Viagra in your pocket?” she wheedled.
“It's in the car, actually. I thought the body warmth might not be good for it, you know?”
“It takes half an hour, doesn't it? Why don't you go get it and take it now? We can have our salad while we wait.”
He looked undecided: “It doesn't always—”
“That's all right. As our lovers age, we women learn to be creative.”
When he rose, she added: “Bring the condoms in too.”
He nodded and stumbled out to the car. What little stew remained in the pot on the stove she put down the garbage disposal. She had proved what she wanted to prove: Walker was still a cad. But why were those mushrooms taking so long? It was nine o'clock already, and Caroline was due at ten.
She washed and dried the pot. If the mushrooms didn't hurry up and do their thing, she'd have to allay Walker's suspicions by letting the evening play out as he expected it to.
Which might not be so bad.
After her unfinished lunch at Renée's, Caroline had been discombobulated and depressed. She missed the easy camaraderie the two had enjoyed while they were making their preparations. She and Renée had only been close friends for a few weeks; it seemed like a lifetime.
But today, Renée had been distant. Caroline supposed she understood. It was Renée who had to do all the work now; who had to pretend to be warm and welcoming to a man she despised, who had, in a way, destroyed her life: because Caroline had every confidence that Renée would have found another man, more suited to her personality, and been happy with him. Maybe even had children. Although Renée didn't seem cut out to be a mother. No, everyone had their own talents, Caroline reflected, thinking fondly of her own three daughters.
She decided to drive back to the site and finish it up. Renée thought it was already finished, and maybe she was right; but Caroline wouldn't get anything else done that day anyway, and she had a new Deepak Chopra CD she could listen to in the car.
She parked the Camry, as usual, near the rusted sign reading PRIVATE NO TRESPASSING, put on her coveralls over her jeans and blouse, sprayed herself with insect repellant, grabbed her gloves and trekked to the site. Their landmark was a huge old oak tree on the edge of the clearing. It was a good thing she'd remembered to put a couple of flashlights in her trunk. Otherwise they'd never find it later that night.
She pushed aside the pile of leaves and pine needles and raised the tarp. The hole did look pretty much finished. Maybe Renée had been right. But where were the shovels? They must have left them out on the ground when they departed in such a hurry. There were a great many leaves in the clearing. The shovels must be buried under them. She crawled about, feeling for the shovels but finding only rocks and tree roots. She wished she had brought the gardening knee pads Walker had given her for her birthday.
She became aware of an unusual stillness and settled back on her heels to think, and to catch her breath and wipe the perspiration from her forehead with the back of a gloved hand.
A figure was standing not ten feet from her. “Oh!” she exclaimed, startled.
It was a man, stocky and dirty, wearing a stringy beard, a baseball cap and a heavy flannel shirt. His yellow hair was long and uncombed. He chewed rhythmically. His arms were extended, each hand holding something tall and narrow with one end resting on the ground. In one large hand were her two shovels. In the other was a rifle.
“Oh!” she said again, and clambered to her feet. They stared at each other, the man chewing mechanically, Caroline nonplussed. He was a little fellow, not as tall as she was.
Eventually he spoke. “Whut th'hell is this?” he exclaimed, and looked up at her as if bewildered.
Her tongue loosened. “Is this your place? I'm so sorry. I didn't know.” She started backing away.
“Whut're ya diggin' for?” He spat. “Ah mean, whut the hell?”
Caroline turned and ran. Lifting her knees high to make her way through the leaves, coveralls flapping. Her feet heavy, legs leaden, chest pounding; hearing her rapid breathing, sucking in air—oh, if only she had gotten into jogging! Leave the hole, leave the tarp, leave the shovels. She tore off the gloves, then thought better of it: fingerprints. She reached the car and jumped in, backed onto the road and drove away as fast as she dared.
She looked in the rear view mirror and saw no one. She had no idea whether he would follow her, whether he'd seen her license plate.
They couldn't go back there.
She had to stop Renée.
She reached the highway, got off at the next exit, pulled into a McDonald's lot, unzipped her coveralls to get the cell phone out of her shoulder bag, and dialed Renée. There was no answer. Walker was probably there already.
The only thing to do was get back there as soon as possible. She and Renée together would have to think of something. As she sped back to Renée's house Caroline's thoughts were a confused and formless version of something that, in its essentials, was prayer, along with a desperate form of planning. She prayed that nothing went wrong; no, that everything went wrong. That it didn't work, that Walker didn't come, that Renée changed her mind. They could hide the body in the shed, bury it in the back yard. They could leave town, leave the country, wander in South America for years, healthy and brown as berries from days in the open; Renée could paint and Caroline could, Caroline could…. Wherever she went, she brought with her the absence of job skills.
If only, if only Caroline hadn't gone back to the gravesite one more time. She had ruined everything.
After an eternity she reached the house. The windows were dark. Night had fallen but she could see Walker's white convertible behind Renée's station wagon. She pulled her Camry around to the back of the house, driving over the dead grass and leaves. They'd forgotten about Walker's car. They would have to drive it somewhere else, abandon it in a bad part of town. Maybe abandon the body there too?
She closed the car door as gently as she could, wincing at the human noise amid the chatter of night insects. But who was there to hear her? Only one pair of human ears. Or two, if her half-articulate prayer had been answered. She zipped up her coveralls, trapping a few happy mosquitoes inside.
She peered through the window of Renée's back door. The kitchen contained no humans, alive or dead. Rousseau slept peacefully on the throw rug next to the daybed, which meant Renée had locked him out of her bedroom.
At the back of the house light flickered behind the drawn shade in Renée's bedroom. Renée must have lit candles. Faint music seeped through hidden cracks around the windows, between the boards. Opera, of all things.
Renée must be in there holding a kind of vigil over the body and waiting for Caroline to come back and help her. Caroline looked at her watch in the moonlight. Ten o'clock; she was right on time. But poor Renée might have been waiting for an hour. She pictured her friend hugging her knees, rocking, trying to come to terms with the immensity of what they had done. Or meditating, silent as a stone, letting her spirit drift away from that horrible place where candlelight flickered on the face of a dead man.
Caroline rapped on the back door. There was no answer. She high-stepped through the weeds to Renée's bedroom window and rapped on it. After a pause she heard Renée's voice: “I'll be right there!” and then a creak, and—was it her imagination?—Walker's worried voice remonstrating: “Don't answer that, you don't know who it is,” and the banging of a door.
Caroline returned to the back door. Renée opened it, wearing a kimono. The music swelled behind her, a duet, soprano and alto.
“Shh!” whispered Renée.
“You didn't do it. Thank God,” Caroline whispered back.
“I did do it!” Renée's face was distorted by an emotion that looked, inexplicably, like anger.
Just then she heard Walker, whom Renée had just pronounced poisoned and therefore dead, holler: “Don't open the door yet! I'm coming!”
He barreled into the kitchen, shoeless, his shirt unbuttoned, his wisps of hair disheveled. Arriving in the doorway next to Renée he stared at Caroline, who stared back at him, each of them as if they were seeing a ghost.
“What are you doing here!” he raged. “How long have you been out there?”
His yelling woke Rousseau, who charged to the back door, where he scampered back and forth, undecided whether to bark at Caroline or Walker, and finally resolved his dilemma by positioning himself precisely on the threshold and howling until Renée grabbed his collar and pulled him back into the kitchen.
Walker turned to Renée. “This is my ex-wife.”
“I remember Caroline from college,” Renée said. “How are you, Caroline?'
“I'm just fine, Renée, how are you? Have you been having a pleasant evening?” Because obviously, Renée had been. Obviously, she hadn't used the mushrooms at all. She had chosen to make love to Caroline's ex-husband instead, which was a good thing, of course, in the circumstances; but unforgivable all the same.
“Cut that out!” Walker fumed at both of them. To Renée, he said: “Do you realize she must have followed me out here and been sitting there in the bushes spying on us for the last six hours?”
“No I haven't!” Caroline burst out without thinking.
“Ha!” he snorted. “Then what have you been doing?” He looked her up and down, his eyes lingering on her earth-stained coveralls.
Renée put a quick finger to her lips and Caroline realized there was nothing she could say that wouldn't make the problem much worse. Caroline and Walker glowered at each other for a long minute, and then Walker shouted: “Get out of here right now or I'll call the police.”
“Wait a minute,” said Renée. She was looking at the window sill, incredulous.
Caroline looked also. There was the plastic bag, still full of mushrooms.
“Oops,” said Renée. She put her hand over her mouth and started to laugh.
“What's so funny?” asked Walker.
Caroline looked closer.
If there was one thing Caroline knew, it was mushrooms.
“Those are really nice mushrooms,” Caroline said.
“I don't know how it happened,” said Renée.
“No, I mean, those are really nice mushrooms,” said Caroline. “Not bad at all.”
“Really?” asked Renée.
Caroline nodded. “Oops!” she said, as she also began to laugh.
The two women looked at each other, laughing harder. How delightful it was to know that nothing had happened! Even better, to know that neither of them was a murderer at heart!
“What in blazes is so funny?” Walker demanded.
“Caroline, why don't you come in for a drink?” Renée said. “Walker was just leaving.”
“I'd love to,” said Caroline, and edged past Walker into the kitchen.
“Wait a minute!” he protested.
But they had already forgotten him.