MONDAY: The Softness of Death

BY JEREMIAH MINIHAN

Copyright is held by the author.

HE TIGHTENED his grip, squeezing as hard as possible. To look at him, you might think that he had done this before, maybe with a toy or small animal. But there was no professional touch to his squeezing, though, only the slipping of the fingers and the grunts and curses.

Edward had never choked someone before.

This was not like the movies — Diane did not gurgle or flop about, hands flapping crazily. After the initial gasp and shock at what he was doing, she seemed to give up, to relax almost, while he finished what he had started. It did not take long since she was a short woman, light and trim. He pushed himself off her body as though they had just finished a bout of sex. It was just as exhausting, and he rubbed his face briskly to wipe off the sweat and the dampness.

Edward Winslow knew it was late — very late by their standards– but he was not curious enough to look at the numbers on the clock. Stepping toward the window, he pulled the curtain aside a little so that he could see the wind rushing against the trees near the inn. The reports were right that there would be a terrible storm. Some of the thinner trees were tilting almost horizontally. He remembered as a child the two maples in front of their house, bending in the hurricane as though they might snap off. His mother, terrified by the pandemonium, had dropped to her knees to pray, asking him to join her.

Their room, illuminated by a faint lamp, was silent by contrast. He looked over at the bed at Diane’s deathly grimace. He was sure that she was still warm. He knew that the body cooled at a fixed number of degrees per hour after death but he did not know what that number was. He hoped that her corpse would not void itself. He knew that it might happen, but he hoped that it would not.

Strangely, he thought that it might help to talk to someone now, but of course there was no one. He had argued with Diane before he took things into his own hands. He was embarrassed to have thought of that phrase, but he often thought such things, snarky and cruel. It was one of things that people liked or hated about him. That was the way he was.

Winslow was stretching now, suddenly stopping to look at the large, bearded figure in the mirror. He was not especially tall, but his broad build had helped him in the courtroom. He especially liked it when he was paired against a shorter man, someone who had to wriggle to appear taller. Winslow’s sloping features sometimes looked worn, but what could you expect from a man of fifty-five?

As the lights flickered briefly, he tried to think about what would happen next. He did not really plan to kill her, but things just happened. At least that is what he kept telling himself and what he would tell the police when they caught up with him. Maybe he would not be charged. Maybe he could finish things before an arrest. There were razors in the bathroom, and he could probable tie his belt to something. Then he smiled grimly. He would not do that. He could not do that, not from any religious feeling but because he was too assertive, too arrogant. He could not imagine what his legal friends would think if he took the coward’s way out, as people used to call it.

***

“Go ahead and punch me if you want. You know you really want to.” Diane looked at him dismissively, waiting until he moved away from her. Edward would not strike her. He would not raise a hand to any woman. He had seen too much of that with his parents. No, it was time to draw back into his corner. They had not been yelling at each other, and that made it worse. In the earlier days of their marriage, they shouted and swore at each other. That was better, healthier that what they did now, which was just shuddering in silence. He supposed that she looked neither older nor younger than her fifty years. It was complicated. She was short and slim but she had a deliberate speaking voice, the voice of authority as she used to say to their daughter.

“Goddamn it, Diane, you know that’s not what I want. Can’t we just talk?” Edward wondered if they should have stayed longer in the dining room or walked on the shore.

“About what?” She sat on the edge of the bed, swinging one leg over the other. He noticed that when she looked at him, it was not for long. She could not hold her gaze. No matter how much time had passed, the affair was still there. It would always be there.

“Why now, that was years ago?”

She had started to remove her earrings and to unbutton her blouse. He was sad since there was no seductiveness in her undressing. She might just as well be doing this in a doctor’s office.

“It all comes back, Edward.” She laughed. “Did you really go to bed with someone named Sissy?”

“Don’t call her that.”

“Oh, I forgot. Her real name was Cecilia. That sounds like someone you would write an opera for.”

He slouched on the edge of the bed, arms wagging toward his feet as if he was some sort of gorilla. He kept looking at her, wondering what she would stir up next. He had taken his lumps for the affair and had dutifully gone to several counselling sessions with her. But the wound was always there, never really scabbed over, and it would always be like that.

She was saying something else to him, but he was not following her.

***

Their arrival at the inn was different.

“We’re the Winslows.” The short, balding man looked up from his newspaper, letting a smile slowly creep across his face.

“Oh, yes, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Winslow.”

Edward cut off the waiting question. “Yes, it sounds strange and no, I am not descended from the Plymouth pilgrim.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything, Mr. Winslow. Well, yes, I suppose I was thinking that.” He handed the form to Edward and indicated the lines to be signed. He ran the credit card and handed it back. “We have you in the rear bedroom, the professor’s old room — the master bedroom, I suppose you could say.”

“Thank you.” He reached his hand across the counter.

“James O’Toole, innkeeper.” He laughed. “The innkeeper O’Toole.”

“Yes of course.” He saw that the innkeeper was looking at him. “Oh, no, we can manage the luggage. Thanks.”

The innkeeper looked carefully at Diane, whom he addressed as Mrs. Winslow. Edward thought that the man would have tipped his cap to her if he had been wearing a cap. Diane returned an impassive, almost harsh glance. Edward knew the reason. For years she had used her maiden name professionally. It would have galled her to be pegged as some man’s wife.

“Relax in your room, folks. Later I can have my niece show you around the place.” He paused. “It was very thoughtful of your daughter to have given you this gift.”

“Thank you.” Edward wasn’t sure if the man was being sincere or just trying to make conversation.

As he unlocked the room, Edward thought of the number of times they had done this, opened the door to an unknown hotel room. In their early years, on vacation, they had been eager to rip their clothes off and jump into bed. Later, things were more restrained– taking it more slowly, he had heard her say more than once. And now — he was not sure. He could describe the tension they had been experiencing lately, even the anger which was unusual for him.

“Let’s rest,” she said quietly.

“You rest. I can’t.”

He waited until she was asleep before he left the room, closing the door softly, and crept down the creaking stairs. O’Toole was behind the desk speaking to a large, youngish woman.

“My niece can give you the two-dollar tour, Mr. Winslow.”

“Oh, not now, thanks. My wife is napping. Maybe later.” He smiled at them and walked toward the wide front door.

“We don’t need you after all, Sue,” O’Toole said to the young woman. “Move along now.”

Winslow looked back. O’Toole was smiling, but the tone of his voice was not cheerful at all.

***

“When is a New York loft not a loft?” Edward smiled at Diane as they pushed into the small elevator. A young man entered, too, and reached across Edward to press the button for the third floor. Edward smiled and nodded at the young man, who did not respond. When he got out and the door slid shut, Edward leaned close to Diane as if to say something, but he said nothing.

When the sluggish elevator stopped at Adrianna’s floor, Edward stood back to let Diane pass in front of him. Adrianna had taken the entire floor of what had once been a machine factory in Brooklyn. The walls, once whitewashed, had been stripped down to bare brick. The long, wide windows, Adrianna said, were perfect for an artist.

“Hello, honey.” Diane seized Adrianna’s hand and hugged her noisily. Edward only nodded.

“Did you have any trouble with cabs? This time of day, they can be frustrating.”

“No, not really,” Edward replied. She had not asked them to sit, but he sat anyway, on the far corner of the black couch. Their daughter looked good; he had to admit, a little thin, though. Her dark hair was probably too long for someone in her thirties, but it did frame nicely the narrow face and pale skin.

“And now, my parents, your gift.”

“Wait,” Diane said. “What about you? What about your art?”

Adrianna only shrugged. By that time she had offered up large glasses of wine and apologized for the lack of snacks. Her parents responded with indulgent smiles. Edward commented on the furnishings and decor. The large room did look like the artist’s studio they expected. Even so, the actual work area seemed to be confined to one corner of the space. They looked at the large easel, cloths, and brushes, which surrounded a half-finished landscape. Diane nodded to Edward, and they both, it seemed, we’re thinking no the same thing: the painting did not know whether it was realistic or impressionistic. That was really the problem with all of Adrianna’s paintings although she insisted that she was getting good shows and serious inquiries about purchases.

“I’m working with one of the NBC execs — you’d know the name. He wants some work for his house in the Hamptons.”

“I’m sure, honey, that things are going well,” Diane said quickly, as if to shut off this defensive speech. Adrianna seemed to pout, much as she had as a child.

The darkness had intensified, and Edward wondered about the rest of the evening

Suddenly Adrianna stood and walked over to the antique desk which seemed so out of place with the rest of the contemporary items.

“Here it is.” She held out the thick, squat envelope. Edward took it and slowly ripped the heavy paper. He smiled and handed it down to Diane.

“Thanks, honey. The Pascal House. I don’t think I know it.”

“Oh, you and mom will like it,” she said quickly. “One of the guys in my last class told me about it. Old-fashioned, quiet, on the edge of the Cape. Just the thing to celebrate your anniversary.”

Diane looked up. “Thanks, dear. I think we’ll need it now, the way things have been going.” Edward frowned, but he said nothing. Maybe he was over-reacting, but he did not like the way she said that.

“You’ll have to send me some photos.”

“Sure,” her father said, quietly, indifferently. They talked about dinner, and he disappeared into the shabby bathroom. The tiny room had not been repaired in years, and he frowned at the chipped paint and greenish mold. Still, it was her place, not his. He opened the narrow medicine cabinet to see if there was any trace of Jack. There were none — no razors or cologne. He tried to remember when the breakup had happened. It seemed to him that it was three months ago or so. It was for the best. Adrianna had brought Jack north last Christmas, and he seemed to have the same effect on Diane and him. They both thought him brusque and inconsiderate. These weren’t killer problems unless you wanted to live with the guy full time.

“There, all ready for dinner?” Adrianna was still standing and Diane had started to get up.

“Where are you taking us, young lady?” Diane whispered.

“I thought Demarcos. It’s close.” She smiled. “And what do you mean taking us? Isn’t Big Daddy Attorney tossing in the cash?”

“Of course,” Edward replied, suddenly irritated.

As they left the building, Edward studied the dingy walls and windows. The streets were noisy with cars and pedestrians. This particular neighbourhood seemed to be exciting and bright. He wondered how long Adrianna would be able to live there. Not too long if she had to survive on an artist’s commissions.

***

“We could have, you know.”

Edward looked at her. “Really?” He knew where the conversation was going. They had said the same words to each other over the years, but the effect was always the same. For them, unlike most couples, switching sides was part of it. There were no hard and fast positions. It was almost like debating teams in high school. Someone would argue the affirmative and someone the negative. But it really did not matter who took a particular side.

“Don’t tell me,” she said quietly, “that you have not thought about it over the years.”

“Of course I have, Diane, but what good would it have done?”

They both were silent for a moment as they looked at the slate-coloured sky and the thick piles of dark clouds that portended bad things. He wanted to offer her a drink from the flask he had brought, but this was not the right time.

“We could have had more, Edward, after Adrianna.”

“True, but let’s face it. You had a hard pregnancy. And you wanted to go back to work and all. Things weren’t favourable.”

“I know.” It was almost a whining response. “We thought about it. We never knew whose fault it was.”

He stood then and walked toward her. “Look, we had one kid. Obviously, the mechanics must have been right for that. What difference does it make now, after all these years?” As he looked at her, he suddenly smiled and began to nod. “I know, it’s because of our visit to New York, and Adrianna’s gift. She’s no closer to marriage and children than ever. You just want grandchildren.”

“That’s cruel, Edward but you are right about that.” And then they both laughed.

Later, after he was sure that she was asleep, he crept out of the room and down the dark stairs. O’Toole and his niece were at the counter, speaking loudly.

“I’ll have that tour now, Mr. O’Toole.”

“Sure, sure thing.” He seemed both flustered and surprised, and Edward seemed to enjoy that.

Edward had to admit that he delighted in seeing the young woman’s nervousness and unease. She was proficient enough, smiling at the details of the professor and his summer house.

“He was a professor at Harvard for 25 years. Professor Hubbard was an expert on the philosophical writings of Pascal. That’s why he named the place the way he did.”

Edward grinned indulgently. He knew that she was trying the best she could. He noticed that her uncle was following at a distance, almost ready to give her a reprimand or rap if she didn’t do the job right.

“Big house. Did he have a large family?”

“Oh no, sir.” They paused to look at the antique furniture in the parlour. Some of the rooms — this one especially — looked like a museum. He knew that the paintings on the wall were copies of landscapes by inferior nineteenth-century artists, but it was all part of the atmosphere, he supposed.

Sue stepped to the side to let him pass into the next room, the library. She was not an especially large woman — a little too heavy for her height. But it was often people just on the edge of obesity who were the most sensitive about their appearance.

“He never married. Professor Hubbard. There were rumours.” She did not finish, and he was left to wonder whether the professor was more interested in girls or boys. Not that it mattered, not these days.

“You’ve done a wonderful job with the place.”

“Oh, it wasn’t my uncle or me. The previous owners had purchased the place from the professor’s estate. They are the ones who restored it and turned it into an inn.”

***

The Edward Gorey house. Edward had read the little blurb from the brochure before he started the car. He had insisted on driving, teasing Diane that she could never make sense of maps or directions. She coloured and was going to snap at him, but she said nothing. After all, he thought, she knew he was right.

They had no trouble finding the large, sloping house in the midst of other similar houses. The fact that it was so ordinary looking made it seem odd that it was the home of so unusual an artist.

“I’ve always liked his work, Edward.” She laughed. “I’ve never found it disturbing.”

“Me either. I’d say that maybe it was just us, but I think that others feel that way, too.”

They paid their admissions and followed the guide through the rooms, looking at the posters and books and quirky collections. There were one or two others with them, including the young couple with the little girl. It did not take too long to determine which parent wanted to see the house and which did not. And the child fidgeted and whined the entire time.

“Let’s get a couple of shots outside. It I go up the hill, I can get a better picture of the house.”

“Suit yourself, Edward. Just don’t put me in any of the pictures. I don’t want that.”

He was going to say something, to start the banter, but he decided against it. She was right, and lately she had not wanted to be in any photographs, not even the Christmas party at the end of last year. She was still an attractive woman, he thought, but he decided to leave those thoughts where they were. Images of struggling and naked flesh did not seem appropriate these days.

“Hurry up, Edward. Look at the sky. As dark as it is getting, you know we’re going to get pounded with that hurricane.”

He smiled at her and slowly approached her. He smiled as he remembered that someone had told him after he was first married. This old guy said that there were two phrases a husband could always use on any occasion: yes dear and no dear.

“What are you smiling at?”

“Nothing, Diane. Let’s go.”

***

It was not as though they had no warning. Of course, they were warned, for days before. The lights stopped quickly, though. Some emergency battery lights illuminated the public areas, but much of the inn was in darkness.

Sue was knocking on each door to alert the guests, as if they needed alerting.

“Coming, coming,” Edward muttered. He opened the door cautiously. Sue handed him a small flashlight.

“We don’t know how long this will all be, Mr. Winslow. Sorry about any inconvenience.”

“Well, there’s not much anyone can do about it.” He looked at Sue. He had meant his words to be a question of sorts, but she did not respond. It was just as well, he thought.

“Your wife?” She craned her head around him.

“Asleep. The timing could not be better. With all of this, I imagine. There’s no getting out until this has passed.”

“No, and we just heard that the Middle Street bridge is out.” She laughed a little uneasily. “We are sort of marooned, I guess.”

“We’ll be all right.”

“Come down if you need anything. The lights may flicker on and off every so often, but don’t be fooled. We’ve been told — uncle and me — that it will be hours before they get the transformer back.”

“I understand.”

After she left, Edward sat on the far chair. He pulled aside the curtain to look at the wild beauty of the swirling waves and the sweep of the trees.  Diane was not asleep, of course. She was beyond all of that.

Suddenly he heard voices from nearby, not the next room but further down. Perhaps it was the young couple they had seen on the dining room. He listened for the woman’s voice she seemed to be groaning, complaining about something. Perhaps it was that or the moans of an orgasm. He could not be sure.

***

It was quieter now, he thought, now that the fierce winds had subsided. He looked beyond the grassy strip toward the ocean, which still looked dark and threatening even though the waves now seemed slower than hours ago.

Edward curled beside her, resisting the temptation to draw his knees up fetal like. He was large and he wanted to lie beside Diane without having to move her. She would weigh the same now as when she was alive, but he imagined that somehow the body would be heavier.

He pulled the covers around her head so that they almost framed her face. From a distance, perhaps, she could appear to be sleeping, but that was only if you did not get closer and see the terrible twisted features.

Perhaps he could have worked longer. He was the senior guy, after all, and even though law firms were not what they once were, he could have kept on slogging away from brief to brief. Even if he had not wanted to deal with the struggles of the courtroom, his advisory and rainmaking skills could still be effective. But he did not want to do that anymore.

That would have made a difference, and he would not be dealing with things as they were.

Of course there was always Diane’s travel — worse the higher she went. More children would have been difficult for them. He was busy with the firm, too, and there would have been no one at home, especially after Adrianna had started school. One child, especially a talented kid who needed special classes and trips, was surely enough.

He tried to close his eyes, and the darkness made all of that easier. But he knew he would not sleep. He knew himself, the rhythm of his habits and patterns to know that.

When he thought about it later, he supposed that he had expected something dramatic, like a bright burst of light when the power came back. Actually it was slower, a brief burst and then darkness and then steady glowing.

He had not slept and at first, after he stirred, he thought that he had woken from some horrible dream. But she was still there beside him, a least what was left of her. Her arms were cold. He did not pull his own hand away after touching her, but he kept resting it on her, seeking a perverse sort of enjoyment.

It would all fall apart soon: the discovery, the handcuffs, the painful call to Adrianna, but he would be prepared for it all.

 

 

One comment

  1. Dave Moores

    I forced myself to keep reading this over-long and episodic story in hopes it would go somewhere, offer new insights, or surprise me. It did not.

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