Anniversary ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Elliot loved driving when traffic was light and he owned the road. The car maneuvered easily on curves and hills, almost as if it drove itself. Temple, his wife of five years, sat on the seat beside him.
“Do you have to take the curves so fast?” she said. “You’re making me sick.”
“Do you want to drive?”
“No, I just want to get this night over with.”
“I’ll bet Bear Lodge hasn’t changed a bit,” he said.
“Why couldn’t you go there by yourself and leave me at home?” she said.
He looked over at her to see if she was making a joke. “I thought you’d be pleased.”
“I don’t like riding in the car.”
When he came to Bear Lodge and turned in at the gate, he said, “The place still looks the same, just as I said. Remember how somebody told us the old hotel is supposed to be haunted?”
“It was the waiter,” she said, “He’s paid to tell people that. It keeps people coming back, bringing their gullible friends, so they can all say, ‘that old hotel on the hill up there is supposed to be haunted’. Then those friends will bring more friends and say the same thing.”
“I believe it is haunted,” he said. “Somebody wrote a book about it.”
“Any sensible ghost wouldn’t want to stay there.”
“After we’ve had dinner, let’s get a room and spend the night. Just like our wedding night five years ago.”
“Not on your life! I didn’t bring anything.”
“We don’t need anything. All we need is each other.”
“I’m not spending the night,” she said.
Elliot parked the car and they went into the restaurant. He hadn’t made a reservation, but it didn’t matter because another party had cancelled theirs.
“I knew this was going to be a lucky night,” he said.
“Why didn’t you make a reservation?” Temple asked.
“Slipped my mind, I guess.”
They each had a cocktail and then they moved out onto the dance floor. The orchestra was playing a slow, dream-like number, popular a number of years earlier.
“You were always a lousy dancer,” she said. “I don’t know why you even bother.”
“They played that song five years ago tonight,” he said.
“It’s probably something they play every night.”
“Some of the musicians are the same and some are different.”
“I don’t know why you remember all those details about things that don’t matter,” she said. “It’s morbid, somehow.”
“It was an important night,” he said. “Five years ago. Tonight is an important night, too.”
“Yes, yes, yes! Let’s sit down again. You’re stepping all over my feet.”
When they were seated again, he said, “Five years ago we sat over there by the fireplace.”
“I remember,” she said. “You spilled a drink on my dress.”
“It was an accident.”
“I ended up throwing the dress away.”
They had another cocktail and the waiter came and took their order for dinner.
“This is our fifth wedding anniversary,” Elliot said to the waiter.
“We were here five years ago on this very night.”
“You must like it here.”
“Were you here then? Five years ago? I don’t remember seeing you.”
“I’ve been here less than a year,” the waiter said.
“We sat over by the fireplace that night.”
When the waiter went away, Temple said, “You have the annoying habit of engaging waiters in personal conversation that I find very distasteful.”
“It doesn’t hurt to be friendly. You get better service.”
“He’s probably laughing at you right now behind your back.”
“What do I care?”
Elliot sipped his drink and looked out into the crowd. “Lots of people here tonight,” he said, “just like five years ago.”
“Too many, as far as I’m concerned,” Temple said. “They’re like a bunch of cattle. I mean, honestly, don’t people make you sick?”
“Maybe some of these same people were here five years ago this very night.”
“Why don’t you go ask them?”
“Have you ever thought that you and I are quite ordinary looking? We look the same as everybody else here. There’s nothing unusual about either one of us.”
“I’d like to think that I’m not quite so ordinary,” Temple said.
“Not one of these people here will remember having seen us tonight.”
“I’m sure you think you know what you’re talking about, but I don’t have a clue.”
“Just thinking out loud, I guess. It doesn’t matter.”
The waiter brought the food and when he went away again, Temple said, “Are you sure you didn’t want to give him an appreciative little pat on the ass? No? Maybe next time around.”
They ate in silence. When they were finished, she went to the ladies’ room to rearrange her face while Elliot smoked a cigarette and drank two more cocktails. When she came back, he asked her to dance with him again.
“No,” she said. “I don’t enjoy having my feet stepped on and, besides, I have a headache and I want to go home.”
“But we’ve been having such a good time,” he said.
“I plan to sleep on the way home.”
“You’re going to have to drive,” he said. “I’m had five or six cocktails and I’m really feeling it.”
Temple reluctantly agreed. When she started to turn out of the restaurant parking lot onto the highway, Elliot told her to go left instead of right.
“Why?” she asked. “I want to home.”
“While we’re this close,” he said. “I want to go to the promontory. There’s a full moon. It’ll be so beautiful.”
“You’re such a child!” she said, but did as he wanted.
There were no other cars on the promontory. Temple stopped the car behind the barrier in front of the cliff and turned off the engine.
“Let’s go for a little walk,” he said. “It’ll help clear my head.”
He walked out to the promontory, stood close to the edge and looked down. There was indeed a full moon, reflected in the winding river below. He turned around to see if Temple was behind him, but she was standing beside the car looking down at the ground.
“I want you to see this!” he called to her.
“I’ve seen the moon before,” she said, but she came and stood to his left, not too close.
He lit a cigarette and said, “I wanted to come here where we could have a little talk.”
“We could have talked in the car on the way home,” she said.
“But not like this.”
“I think we’ve talked quite enough for one night.”
“I know what you’ve been doing,” he said.
“I know you’ve been having an affair with Mickey Peagram for over a year.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “Who’s been telling you lies?”
“Have you ever heard of Swede Gustafson?”
“No, I’m happy to say, I haven’t heard of him. Who is he?”
“He’s a private investigator. He can find out anything as long as you pay him enough money.”
“You’ve been spying on me?”
“I haven’t. Swede Gustafson has.”
“You’re a pig!”
“Is that what you call a man whose wife has been unfaithful to him?”
“You’re drunk,” she said. “I want to go home.”
She started to walk away. He grabbed her by the wrist and held her in place.
“Just admit that you’re in love with Mickey Peagram.”
“I won’t admit anything!” she said. “You have no right to spy on me!”
He swung her around in front of him so that her back was to the drop-off, her feet only inches from the edge. He held her by both wrists.
“Let go of me!” she said. “You’re hurting me!”
“An anniversary is a time for reflection,” he said. “You look back on the years and evaluate.”
“Let go of me!”
“It’s a long way down.”
“I said let me go!”
“All right. If you insist.”
He had been holding her upright. When he let go of her wrists, she lost her footing and fell backward. He didn’t even have to push. An unfortunate accident. No, wait a minute—something even better: she meant to do it. She drove here in her own car and, despondent over the turn her affair had taken with Mickey Peagram, decided to end it all.
Alone now on the moonlit cliff, he took a small canvas bag out of the trunk of the car and opened it. Inside were a black wig, a fake mustache, a pair of glasses, a hat and a long black coat.
Wearing this disguise, he walked back to the hotel that was supposed to be haunted, a walk of just under an hour, and engaged a room for the night, signing the register as Lance Hilliard.
In the morning, he enjoyed a large breakfast delivered to his room and then he put on the disguise again, checked out of the hotel and walked the half-mile down the highway to the bus station. There he caught a bus that took him the thirty miles back to town.
He approached his house from the back in case of the neighbors were watching. Nobody saw him, though, he was sure of it, and everything was as it should be. His car was visible from the street, parked in the driveway; anybody would think, if they thought anything at all, that he had been at home all night. Temple’s car, however, wasn’t there.
When Temple’s body was found five days later, it was so battered that identification was difficult. Elliot had to make a trip to the morgue to identify her. When the attendant pulled back the sheet, Elliot was genuinely distraught without any pretending.
The police determined that Temple’s death was suicide, plain and simple. Elliot provided them with plenty of evidence of her mental instability: she drank to excess, took doctor-prescribed tranquilizers and was known for her emotional outbursts. At one time she had been charged with disorderly conduct for a fistfight she had with another woman in a department store over a set of finger bowls.
Temple’s funeral was well-attended. Just about everybody she had ever known was there. Mickey Peagram was there with his wife. Observing him from across the room, Elliot believed that Mickey showed no signs of excessive grief other than the dark glasses he wore.
Elliot’s involvement in Temple’s death was never suspected. It was so easy, the way it happened, that it seemed to him in later years that he had done nothing wrong. Anybody could believe that a woman like that would take her own life. He came to believe it himself.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp