A Man Without a Wife ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Circus of the Damned Magazine.)
Ronald Nettles came home from work one day and found his wife dead on the floor near the stairs. She was lying on her back, dressed in her pajamas and the green chenille robe with coffee stains down the front. On kneeling by her side and taking a closer look, he saw that she had a collar of red marks all the way around her white neck. Her eyes were open and slightly bulged but, except for that, she looked quite all right, quite at peace. Her clothing was hardly disarranged and there was no sign of a struggle. It was almost as if she had laid down on the floor voluntarily and allowed somebody to strangle her without offering any resistance.
Looking around her body for a piece of rope or cord with which the deed might have been done, he found nothing. He walked all through the house to see if anything was missing, but nothing was out of place. All windows and doors were tightly secured.
He was going to get a blanket and cover her up so he couldn’t see her staring eyes, but instead he picked her up and put her in the wing chair. When he had her perfectly balanced in the middle of the chair so she wouldn’t slide over either way, he pulled the collar of the robe around her neck to cover up the red marks and propped her feet on the ottoman. Except for the eyes, which weren’t open as wide as they had been when she was on the floor, she looked perfectly natural. There was nothing wrong at all, except that she was dead.
“Who did this to you?” he asked, as he sat on the couch facing her. “Why would anybody want to kill you? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
The phone rang and he ran to answer it, thinking, illogically, that it might be the killer or somebody who knew what had happened, but it was only a wrong number. He could have wept with frustration. He poured himself a tumbler of whiskey and drank it down. He believed it might help to calm him down, help him to think.
If he called the police, they would most certainly believe he had killed Midge himself. They wouldn’t believe when he told them he came home and found her that way and knew nothing about what had happened. A likely story, they would say. They would make him feel like a criminal, even though he had done nothing wrong. They might even coerce a confession out of him. He had seen enough movies to know how unscrupulous the police can be.
Feeling hungry in spite of his upset—he had been too busy at work that day to eat lunch—he went into the kitchen and ate some leftovers from the refrigerator. When he was finished, he had another tumbler of whiskey and went upstairs and took a long bubble bath, dressed himself in his pajamas and matching robe, and went back downstairs.
Midge was exactly as he had left her in the wing chair. It was an odd sensation, he thought, to be in the room with a person who wasn’t there. He knew he couldn’t leave her there indefinitely. He was going to have to make a decision about what to do. He was either going to have to dispose of her body somehow or call the authorities and tell them what had happened. Either way, he felt backed into a corner.
He had another drink and then another. Worn out from the trials of the day, he lay down on the couch a few feet away from Midge and fell into an alcohol-induced state somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness. He remained that way all night long until the first hour of daylight the next day.
When he awoke, he was surprised to find he wasn’t in his own bed. Something was pressing uncomfortably into the small of his back and he didn’t know what it was. He sat up, stretched, and rubbed his eyes with both hands. For one hazy minute, he forgot all that had happened before he went to sleep, forgot that Midge was dead.
He felt a pang of despair when he thought of the trouble he was going to have as a result of Midge being murdered. He was going to have to answer a lot of questions and be terribly inconvenienced. He would have to go to pick out a casket and arrange for burial. He regretted that the two of them had never talked about death, never made any plans. Now it was too late. Maybe she would have preferred cremation, but he would never know.
Here he was thinking about Midge being dead, and he forgot for a moment that she was in the room with him. When he realized she wasn’t in the room with him, that the wing chair was empty, he jumped to his feet. Where did she go? He ran into the kitchen and out the back door, as if he could catch her before she left or could see where she had gone. Realizing how silly that was, he went back into the house.
Luckily it was Saturday and he didn’t have to bother with going to work. He had two days to try to figure out what was going on with Midge. He was a little relieved that she wasn’t in the wing chair. Maybe that meant she wasn’t really dead. If she wasn’t really dead, then where was she? Was she—or someone else—playing a trick on him?
There was a knock at the door. He smiled and pulled his robe around him. Someone was here to help him. If it wasn’t Midge, it would be someone who could tell him what was going on. He eagerly went to the door and opened it. The old woman who lived next door, Mrs. Finney, was standing on his doorstep holding a casserole up toward his face.
“Hello, neighbor!” she said cheerily, grinning like a gremlin. “I hope I’m not calling too early!”
“No, no, it’s fine,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I made a tuna casserole and as usual I made too much for just Eubie and me and I didn’t want any of it to go to waste. I said to Eubie, I said, ‘I think I’ll take the rest of it over to that nice young man who lives next door’.”
“That was very thoughtful of you,” he said mechanically.
“I know that bachelors don’t always like to cook for themselves.”
“I said bachelors don’t like to cook.”
“Did you say ‘bachelor’?”
“Why, yes. Is anything the matter? You look a little peaked.”
“No, I’m fine. Just a little headache is all.”
“Well, you can bring me the dish whenever you’re finished with it. I hope you enjoy it.”
“You haven’t by any chance seen Midge, have you?” he asked.
“Midge?” she said. “Is that your dog’s name?”
“No, my wife. Midge, my wife.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you were married! When do I get to meet the bride?”
“No, I think there’s been some mistake,” he said, not being able to think of anything else to say.
Mrs. Finney opened her mouth to say something else, but he closed the door in her face before she got it out.
He and Midge had lived next door to Mrs. Finney for five years. He didn’t know how she could not know who Midge was. There was something going on, and he had to find out what it was.
When he went upstairs to get dressed, nothing was as it should be. The wedding picture of the two of them that Midge had always kept on top of the bureau was replaced by a porcelain zebra. The left side of the closet, where all of Midge’s clothes and shoes were, was bare; likewise the drawers where she kept her underwear, stockings, scarves, gloves. In the bathroom her toothbrush was not in its usual spot; neither was her cold crème, face soap, shower cap, or any of the other items she always kept scattered around.
Midge could only be one place, he reasoned. She took all her things without telling him and went back home to her mother. Trying to get him to believe she was dead was just to scare him, to get back at him for something he did.
While he couldn’t remember the old lady’s phone number, he remembered the house where she lived and he would drive there. It would be better if he showed up in person, confronted Midge face to face. Let her know he wasn’t appreciating the little games she was playing.
He drove the twenty miles to the small town where Midge had lived when he first met her. He found the town all right, but nothing looked the way he remembered it. The library near where Midge lived and where she worked as a librarian wasn’t there anymore; neither was the movie theatre or the restaurant where he had taken her and her mother a couple of times for dinner. He wasn’t able to find the house at all, or even the street it was on. The streets, which used to run north to south, now ran east to west. It was almost as if the town had been replaced by a different town entirely.
As he was driving back home, he remembered Judy Lumpkin. Midge had known Judy since high school and often referred to her as her best friend. If anybody knew where Midge was, it would be Judy. He and Midge had gone to a New Year’s Eve party at Judy’s house a couple of years ago. She would at least be able to tell him the last time she had seen Midge.
All the two-story, brick houses on Judy’s street looked the same, but he remembered that Judy’s house had a little gazebo in the yard that she strung with Christmas lights during the holiday season. He spotted the gazebo and pulled up in front of the house, pleased with himself that he had been able to find it so easily. He was grinning as he went up the walk to the house and rang the bell. Judy came to the door but he hardly recognized her. Her hair was a different color and she was wearing glasses now.
“Hello, Judy,” he said.
“Do I know you?” she said, opening the door a couple of inches.
“Ronald Nettles,” he said. “You remember me. We came to a party here a couple of years ago on New Year’s Eve.”
“That’s been about five years ago, but, yes, I do kind of remember your face. What can I do for you?”
He laughed to try to hide his discomfort. “I was wondering if you could tell me anything about where Midge might be.” he said.
“What’s her last name?”
“Midge, my wife. Midge Nettles.”
“Um, I don’t know anybody by that name.”
“Midge always said you were her best friend.”
“Well, that must have been in high school. I don’t remember much about those days. Sorry I can’t be of help.”
She smiled for the first time and started to pull the door shut.
“Wait a minute!” he said, taking hold of the door. “How can you not remember Midge? The two of you get together all the time for lunch and shopping trips.”
“I’m afraid you’ve got me mixed up with somebody else.”
She closed the door before he had a chance to say anything else.
After he left Judy’s house, he didn’t want to go back home and sit there and worry without having anybody to talk to. He felt like being with people. He drove to an unfamiliar part of town and parked the car and got out and began walking down the street.
After walking for several blocks, he stopped at a bar that seemed friendly and inviting and went inside, took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer. He drank it quickly and ordered another.
In a few minutes a woman came into the bar and sat down to his right. She had red hair and wore false eyelashes, lots of makeup, in an apparent attempt to make herself look younger than she was. He could feel her looking at him so he turned to face her.
“Haven’t ever seen you here before,” she said with a smile.
“First time,” he said.
“My name’s Estelle.”
“My name’s Bob,” he said. “Bob White, like the bird.”
She laughed, knowing that wasn’t his real name. “You can relax with me, honey,” she said. “Nobody’s out to get you.”
“I’ve really got to be going,” he said. “My wife is waiting for me at home.”
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret.”
“What is it?”
“She doesn’t exist. You made her up when you needed her and then when you didn’t need her anymore you killed her.”
“Who are you?”
“Name’s Estelle, I said.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Take it from one who knows, baby.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, standing up and leaving the bar.
As he was driving home, he became lost on the unfamiliar streets and had difficulty finding his way back to anything he recognized. Traffic was heavy and there were lots of pedestrians because of a street festival. The longer he drove, the more entangled he seemed to become.
While waiting at a stoplight, several cars back, he saw a group of women crossing the street up ahead. He wouldn’t have noticed them particularly except that one of them turned her head in his direction, looked at him and then looked away. He was sure it was Midge. He felt a jolt of recognition pass between them.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp