When I came in the front door from work, I found my five-year-old daughter hopping and gyrating around the living room like she was covered in fire ants.
“What are you doing, sweetheart?” I asked, tossing my briefcase onto the coffee table.
“I’m doing a laugh dance, Daddy,” she shrilled, out of breath as she leaped up on the sofa and off the end, making me cringe that she’d smack her little head on the fieldstone fireplace hearth.
“That’s nice… Wait. What did you say you were doing?”
“A laugh dance,” she giggled, bouncing over in front of me and jumping in the air.
I frowned. “Where did you hear… uh, laugh dance?”
“From Tommy,” she panted, now tumbling across the carpet like a forty-inch acrobat.
“Tommy Archer, next door?” I was still trying to process “laugh” dance.
“Yuh-huh,” she answered, twirling around my lounger.
“And where did Tommy hear that?”
“Dunno. Oh, his Daddy said he likes laugh dances to old Mister Figgins, when Tommy was helping him cut the grass.” She tried doing a backbend, but collapsed on the floor, laughing until she started to cough.
I helped her up and hugged her. Bob Archer, Tommy’s dad, was about to get an earful from me.
I hollered into the kitchen, “Going next door, hon. Back in a few.”
Though I could hear my wife clattering the pots and pans as she prepared dinner, she didn’t answer—which was more and more the norm these days.
I took off my suit jacket and tossed it over the back of my lounger, then went out into the late July afternoon heat. I crossed my lawn and cut through the gap in the hedgerow I shared with Bob, across his drive, and up to his door.
He answered after the first knock.
“Hey, Rog,” he said. “Just getting home? What can I do you for? Want a beer?”
“Uh, Bob, maybe you want to come outside a minute,” I said.
He did, his eyes narrowing a little. “What’s up? You look like somebody kicked your puppy.”
“Bob, did you talk to old man Figgins about getting lap dances?”
“I might have. Why?”
“Because Janey’s over there doing a ‘laugh’ dance she says she heard about from Tommy.”
His eyes widened a second as he took in the look on my face. “Aw, hell, Rog. I’m sorrier’n shit for that. Tommy must’ve been listening.”
“They’re kids, Bob. They’re always listening when we don’t want them to.”
He blinked. “You said Janey’s doing a… uh, dance?”
“She doesn’t know what she’s doing. She’s just hopping around the living room.”
He let out a breath. “I really am sorry, Rog.”
“Just try to keep your extracurricular activities away from the kids.” I turned to go.
I turned back. He was looking at me with his head cocked sideways, like he wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure he really wanted to. After a moment he gave a little nod, as if he’d decided. He came down onto his walkway and lowered his voice.
“You know Mel and I have been having our troubles, right?” he said. “I mean, you can’t help but hear us when we’re fighting about something.” He tried to make it a joke, but the laugh came out like a stepped-on squeezebox.
“Welcome to the club,” I said. “It’s not just you and Melanie.”
“You and Sally too?” He lifted his brows. “I had no idea.”
“Guess we just fight more quietly,” I said.
“Well, I sure am sorry to hear that.”
I waved my hand. “What can you do?”
“Bill Carlson said he and his gal are having their troubles too,” Bob went on.
I began to feel uncomfortable; I wasn’t one to get into the neighbors’ business, which was sometimes difficult to avoid on a cul-de-sac like ours—the circle of two-story houses hulking like a curved wall at the dead end acted like the Hollywood Bowl for sound.
“I should probably get home for dinner,” I said, making a move to go.
He put his hand on my arm. “Hold up, Rog. I want to show you something.”
The last time Bob wanted to show me something, it was his new eighty-inch flat screen. “What do you want me to see?”
“Come on.” He led the way to his garage and through the open door.
I followed him to the front of Mel’s red Mercedes GLE, where he kept his workbench. I saw him glance at the door to the interior of the house, and I did too, not knowing why we did that. He bent down and opened the cabinet beneath his bench and pulled out an orange Home Depot bucket filled with rags. After another glance at the house door—he was beginning to annoy me with the cloak-and-dagger—he pulled off the top layer of rags and held out the bucket.
“What?” I said. “Rags?”
“Look in the bucket.” He had a funny look on his face.
I looked. “A big rag covered in paint?”
I was getting hungry for dinner, so to hurry this along I took the bucket from him and moved away from the dark area in front of the Mercedes to the open garage doorway. I felt Bob cringing and looking at the house door as he followed me.
“Red paint,” I said, once I got the bucket into the light. He shook his head just as something registered in my brain. I looked again.
He got a look that was part vindicated smile and part thumbtack-in-the-shoe.
I reached into the bucket, but he grabbed my wrist.
“Better not,” he said.
“Bob,” I said, handing the bucket back to him, “what am I looking at? That’s a lot of blood on that rag.”
“It’s a bath towel from the master bathroom,” he said. “I found it in the hamper this morning.”
I got a jolt. “Is Mel okay? Tommy?”
He was nodding up and down like a bobblehead. “Everybody’s fine.”
I peered in the bucket again. A metallic smell rose from it; the blood wasn’t quite dry. “Then where did it come from?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“What did Mel say when you asked her?”
He looked at the floor.
“You didn’t ask her,” I said. “Why not?”
I frowned. “Bob, are you thinking that Mel did something—”
He threw up his hands. “I don’t know what to think.”
“So what do you want from me?”
He ran his hand back through his thinning hair. It plastered to his head from the sweat prickling his scalp. “I don’t know. I just wanted someone to see this, tell me I’m not imagining things.” He looked at the blood-soaked towel in the bucket. “That’s way too much blood even if she gave herself a good cut shaving her legs.”
“No shit,” I said. “That’s more blood than if all the women in this cul-de-sac cut themselves shaving. That looks like a quart, at least.”
He took the orange bucket and replaced the rags on top of the bloody towel, then put the bucket back in the cabinet.
“Why are you keeping that?” I said. “Just toss it in the garbage. Or let Mel clean it—she was obviously planning to.”
He shrugged again. “It’s too late now. She emptied the hamper earlier when she did laundry—she knows the towel is gone.”
“I’d suggest talking to her.”
“Right,” he snorted. “Because you and Sally are such great communicators, you can teach us lowly mortals.”
“All right, Bob,” I said, feeling my neck heat. “I’m going for dinner now. Thanks for the Halloween show.”
I went back through the hedge, feeling pissed, but also uneasy without knowing why.
Sally and I did our usual thing at dinner, which was focus on Janey and the joys and tribulations of her little world, instead of on each other. After, Sally did the cleanup while I retired to the living room to watch a game. Maybe “retreated” would be a better word—long gone were the days when I used to dry the dishes as Sally washed them, the two of us laughing at something silly. Now, she wanted me nowhere near the kitchen. My wife was unhappy, had been for a long time, and I had no clue what to do to fix it.
I tucked Janey into bed after her bath, smoothing her soft blond hair against her warm little head and giving her the three kisses she demanded each night: forehead, right cheek, left cheek. I added a raspberry blow on her tummy for good measure, which made her giggle hysterically like it always did.
The rest of the week went as it usually did—work, home, work, home. I don’t think Sally and I exchanged ten words the entire week.
On the weekend I got to feeling guilty about how I’d left things with Bob, so I took our usual six-pack of Pilsner Urquell over and knocked on the door. Mel answered, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
“Hi, Mel,” I said. “How are you?”
“Fine, Roger.” Melanie Archer always called me Roger, instead of Rog, like everyone else.
“He’s out of town on business,” she said. “He didn’t tell you he was going?”
“Didn’t say a word.”
She smiled. “Well, I’m sure you boys can drink your beer when he gets home.” She stepped back and closed the door.
That was a bit odd. Mel had never been the friendliest to me—in fact, I’d always found both her demeanor and voice a bit cold—but she had never shut the door in my face before. I took my beer and went home.
Later that night, I woke from a sound sleep. The glowing blue numbers on the clock by the bed said “2:37 AM”. Sally was breathing softly next to me. I didn’t have to pee all that urgently, so I stared at the ceiling fan spinning slowly and wondered what had woken me up.
I figured as long as I was awake I might as well hit the bathroom, so I got up and took care of that. On the way back to bed, I heard a sharp scraping noise coming through the window I insisted we keep open for fresh air. I paused and looked out.
I saw, in the light of the half-moon, a dark slender shape in the back yard next door—no, two shapes. People. I rubbed the grit from my eyes. Both were female, and after a second I recognized one as Melanie—I’d know her curves anywhere. The other… I could swear it was Bill Carlson’s wife, Edie.
What were they doing?
Whatever it was, it looked like they’d just finished, because Mel let go of what she was holding—maybe a shovel? It hit the dirt with a muted thud. They giggled, and Edie said, “Shh!” Then the two of them laughed again and put their arms around each other’s waists, danced themselves in a circle, and walked back to Mel’s house.
They must have been drunk. Lots of times the neighborhood wives kept each other company overnight when their husbands went out of town on business. Edie must have come to hang out with Melanie while Bob was gone, and the two of them had gotten into the merlot, big-time. Still, what were they doing in the back yard in the wee hours?
I went back to bed, but sleep was a long time coming.
Tuesday night I came home to tears—some from Sally, but mostly from Mel. My wife and next door neighbor were sitting in the kitchen, drinking Chablis and sobbing. Melanie’s face was a delta of mascara rivers, and Sally’s wasn’t far behind.
“Girls?” I said, coming into the kitchen. “What’s wrong?”
They turned on me like two pissed-off cats. “Bob left Mel!” Sally spat. “Why didn’t you tell her he was planning to leave?”
“Bastard,” Mel said to me, dabbing at her eyes with Sally’s good cloth napkins and taking a sip of wine.
I spread my hands. “I had no idea,” I said. “Really!”
Mel frowned. “So Bob didn’t tell you he’d been going to see strippers and getting lap dances?”
I winced, looking around instinctively for Janey, but I could hear her upstairs talking to her dolls.
“Well…uh,” I said.
“Yeah, thanks a lot, Roger,” Mel said in a voice that could freeze vodka, running the napkin beneath her eyes and giving me a fatal knife wound with her look.
“The asshole ran off with one of his chippies,” Sally said, glowering at me.
Who says “chippie”? “I honestly had no idea,” I said. They were looking at me like I was the one who’d abandoned them.
“Sure you didn’t,” they both said, like a chorus.
“Just go,” Sally said. “Take Janey to McDonald’s. I’m going to stay with Mel.”
“Okay, sure,” I said, backing out of the kitchen as if I expected flying shrapnel.
When I got home from getting Janey burgers and a shake, the house was quiet. Sally must have gone to Mel’s to continue the consoling, but no way was I walking over there into that buzz saw to find out. I put Janey to bed and went myself soon after.
Thursday, Sally informed me that Edie Carlson was a wreck, because her husband Bill had run off with his secretary. So of course both Sally and Mel would be consoling Edie all night long. And Sally looked at me like I could have stopped it, stopped the infection that Bob had started, if only I’d spoken up.
I had no idea what to say to all this.
Sunday, Sally headed out of the house at two in the afternoon, a couple of bottles of our best cabernet under her arm. She let me know that Tom Culver had followed Bill and Bob off into the wild blue yonder with his own “chippie”, and Tom’s wife Alice was beside herself. She stomped out the door after giving me one of Mel’s knife-stares.
I may not be the smartest guy, but none of this made any sense. Sure, guys occasionally lost their minds and ran off with secretaries or other sweet young things and abandoned their families, but I knew Tom, Bill, and Bob pretty well. We all had things we’d like to change about our lives to be happier, but guys like to be comfortable, and rarely will they leave a cushy setup like they all had—like we all had—unless there was some extraordinarily compelling reason to do so. We all had nice big houses, expensive cars, big flatscreens, and a favorite chair. Without some major precipitating event, it was unlikely that one—much less three—of my fellow husbands would take off, and all in the same week.
I went out front after Sally left for Alice Culver’s house, and pretended to putter in the front yard for a few minutes while I made sure all the bereaved gals were safely inside Alice’s place, and likely into the wine. Then I went to the back yard, and through the gate Bob and I had put in our common fence to let Janey and Tommy play together without having to go near the street, into Mel’s yard. I found the shovel on the ground at the back of her yard, behind a big hydrangea bush—the shovel I’d seen her drop the other night when I’d looked out the window.
It lay on the garden mulch next to a freshly-dug dirt mound.
My heart started pounding. I told myself I was being an idiot, that the kind of thing I was thinking only happened in movies, the crazy wife doing in the unsuspecting husband and burying him in the back yard. But I stood there staring at that dirt, looking for all the world like a grave, and found it difficult to convince myself.
So I picked up the shovel and started digging, keeping an ear out just in case Mel came back to her house for more booze.
I dug for about fifteen minutes, discovering the mound—while large and long on top—narrowed considerably as it went down, as if the sticky clay beneath the fluffy topsoil became more and more difficult for the digger to excavate. A digger with not a lot of upper body strength.
The blade of the shovel struck something soft, something that gave more easily than the clay.
I dropped the shovel and went to my knees, scraping my fingers through the black clay and hunking it out onto the mulch beside the hole. A few seconds later I touched a body.
I sat back on my haunches and stared at the orange tom lying at the bottom of the hole. Had Mel owned a cat? I couldn’t remember; I was a dog person. Maybe she had, and it had died. Still, that didn’t explain her and Edie Carlson burying it in the middle of the night, and then acting all giddy afterwards.
I thought about this for a minute, but came up empty. I started to scoop the dirt back over the poor cat, which was starting to smell pretty ripe, when I paused and looked at it more closely. The clay sticking to its orange fur had made me almost miss it.
The cat’s throat had been cut.
“Whoa,” I muttered.
I just sat on my heels and stared. Why would Mel cut her cat’s throat? Or maybe it wasn’t her cat? Then…
What the hell had I stumbled into?
I heard the front door slam at my house, and felt my bowels loosen, as if I had been caught in the act of something illicit. Panicking, for what reason I had no idea, I grabbed the mound of dirt in my arms and swept back it into the hole, my heart racing so fast I thought it would punch a hole in my chest.
“Rog?” I heard Sally call.
Fuck! I raced to get the mound looking like it had before, but some of the clay from deeper down ended up on top of the looser topsoil.
“Rog?” A little sharper this time.
I did the best I could, spreading some mulch on top of the mound to blend it in, then ran to the fence. I almost went through the common gate, but heard our patio door slide open, and imagined Sally looking for me in the back yard.
I ran down to where the fence split our narrow side yards, took a jump, caught the top of the fence, and vaulted over, landing on my left hip and knocking the wind out of myself. I leaped to my feet, knocking over one of our big plastic trash bins.
I heard Sally’s size-six feet scuffle on the concrete walk that fed off our patio, and come down the side of the house to the garbage cans. I dropped to my knees, grabbed a handful of the loose dirt lying against the foundation and scooped it back, just as Sally rounded the corner of the house and saw me.
“Didn’t you hear me calling you?” she said, her hands on her hips, her eyes hot as the sun with her irritation.
“What?” I said. “Oh, hi, hon.”
“Why are you so dirty?” she demanded. “What are you doing?”
I pointed at the foundation. “I was taking out the trash, and thought I saw a termite. I was just digging a little to see if it was.”
“Termites?” she said. “Ick. Make sure we don’t have any. I don’t want my house to fall down around my ears.” She looked at me for several silent moments. “I just came back to get some snacks for the girls. Alice is a mess, but she has to eat.” She gave me another unreadable look, turned on her heel and went back into the house.
I sank back on the dirt and let out a breath.
I had no idea why I was afraid of my own wife.
Monday morning I got up for work at six as usual—Sally wasn’t there; probably still at Alice’s—took a shower and shaved, then opened the hamper to toss in my pajamas.
Lying on top of the dirty clothes was a towel.
Soaked in blood.
I swallowed, but the spit wouldn’t go down.
I heard the front door open downstairs, and giggling. A lot of giggling. I spun, heading for the bedroom door and into the hall. Shit! I was naked!
“Rog?” my wife called. “Where are you?”
More laughing, from at least six different women. All six pairs of feet thudded on the stairs.
“Oh Roger,” Mel called in her cold voice. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
* * *