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A short story from Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress

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The Freeze–Dried Groom  

 

The next thing is that his car won’t start. It’s the fault of the freak cold snap, caused by the polar vortex – a term that’s already spawned a bunch of online jokes by stand-up comics about their wives’ vaginas.

Sam can relate to that. Before she finally cut him off, Gwyneth was in the habit of changing the bottom sheet to signal that at long last she was about to dole him out some thin-lipped, watery, begrudging sex on a pristine surface. Then she’d change the sheet again right afterwards to reinforce the message that he, Sam, was a germ-ridden, stain-creating, flea-bitten waste of her washing machine. She’d given up faking it – no more cardboard moaning – so the act would take place in eerie silence, enclosed in a pink, sickly sweet aura of fabric softener. It seeped into his pores, that smell. Under the circumstances he’s amazed that he was able to function at all, much less with alacrity. But he never ceases to surprise himself. Who knows what he’ll get up to next? Not him.

 

This is how the day begins. At breakfast, a disaster in itself, Gwyneth tells Sam their marriage is over. Sam drops his fork, then lifts it again to push aside the remains of his scrambled eggs. Gwyneth used to make the most delicate scrambled eggs, so he can only conclude that the scrambled eggs of this morning, tough as boots, are part of the eviction package. She no longer wishes to please him: quite the reverse. She could have waited until he’d had some coffee: she knows he can’t focus without his caffeine hit.

“Whoa, hold it a minute,” he says, but then he stops. It’s no use. This isn’t the opening move in a fracas, a plea for more attention, or an offer in a negotiation: Sam has undergone all three of these before and is familiar with the accessorized facial expressions. Gwyneth isn’t snarling or pouting or frowning: her gaze is glacial, her voice level. This is a proclamation.

Sam considers protesting: what’s he done that’s so major, so stinky, so rotten, so cancerously terminal? Nothing in the way of mislaid cash and illicit lipstick besmearing that he hasn’t done before. He could criticize her tone: why is she so crabby all of a sudden? He could attack her skewed values: what’s happened to her sense of fun, her love of life, her moral balance? Or he could preach: forgiveness is virtuous! Or he could wheedle: how can a kind, patient, warm-hearted woman like her whack a vulnerable,  wounded guy like him with such a crude psychic bludgeon? Or he could promise reformation: What do I have to do, just tell me! He could beg for a second chance, but she’d surely reply that he’s used up all his second chances. He could tell her he loves her, but she’d say – as she’s been saying recently, with tedious predictability – that love isn’t just words, it’s actions.

She sits across the table from him girded for the combat she no doubt expects, her hair scraped severely off her forehead and twisted at the back of her neck like a tourniquet, her rectilinear gold earrings and clanky necklace reinforcing the metallic harshness of her decree. Her face has been made up in preparation for this scene – lips the colour of dried blood, eyebrows a storm cloud black – and her arms are folded across her once-inviting breasts: no way in here, buddy. The worst is that, underneath the shell she’s enclosed herself in, she’s indifferent to him. Now that every kind of melodrama has been used up by both of them, he finally bores her. She’s counting the minutes, waiting for him to leave.

He gets up from the table. She could have had the decency to postpone the dropping of her writ until he’d dressed and shaved: a man in his five-day-old PJs is at a pitiful disadvantage.

“Where are you going?” she says. “We need to discuss the details.” He’s tempted to come out with something hurt and petulant: “Onto the street.” “As if you care!” “No longer any of your fucking business, is it?” But that would be a tactical error.

“We can do that later,” he says. “The legal crap. I need to pack.” If her thing is a bluff, this would be the mom – ent; but no, she doesn’t stop him. She doesn’t even say, “Don’t be silly, Sam! I didn’t mean you had to leave right this minute! Sit down and have a coffee! We’re still friends!”

But they are not still friends, it appears. “Suit yourself,” she says with a level glare. So he’s forced to shamble ignominiously out of the kitchen in his sleeping gear printed with sheep jumping over a fence – her birthday gift of two years ago when she still thought he was cute and funny – and his downtrodden woolly slippers.

He knew this was coming, just not so soon. He should have been more alert and dumped her first. Kept the high ground. Or would that have been the low ground? As it is, the role of aggrieved party can be his by rights. He climbs into his jeans and a sweatshirt, throws a bunch of stuff into a duffle bag he’s had for a while, part of a seafaring project he’d never carried out. He can come back for the rest of his junk later. Their bedroom, soon to be hers alone – once so charged with sexual electricity, then the scene of their drawn-out push-me pull-you tug-of-war – already looks like a hotel room he’s about to abandon. Had he helped to choose their graceless imitation-Victorian bed? He had; or at least he’d stood by while the crime was being committed. Not the curtain material, though, not with those dumb roses on them. He’s guiltless of that, at any rate.

Razor, socks, Y-fronts, T-shirts, and so forth. He segues into the spare room he’s been using as an office and whisks his laptop, phone, notebook, and snarl of charging cords into his computer bag. A few stray documents, not that he trusts paper. Wallet, credit cards, passport: he slots them into various pockets.

How can he get out of the house without having her see him – him and his abject retreat? Twist a sheet, climb out the window, shinny down the wall? He’s not thinking clearly, he’s slightly cross-eyed with anger. To keep himself under control he slides back into the mind-game he often plays with himself: suppose he was a murder victim, would his toothpaste be a clue? I judge that this tube was last squeezed twenty-four hours ago. The victim was therefore still alive then. How about his iPod? Let’s see what he was listening to just before the carving knife went into his ear. His playlist may be a code! Or his awful cufflinks with lion heads and his initials on them, a Christmas gift from Gwyneth two years ago? These can’t be his, a man of taste such as himself. They must be the murderer’s! 

But they were his. They were Gwyneth’s image of him just after they started dating: the king of beasts, the forceful predator who’d fling her around a bit, do some toothwork on her. Hold her down, writhing with desire, one paw on her neck.

Why does he find it soothing to imagine himself lying on a mortuary slab while a forensic analyst – invariably a hot blonde, though wearing a lab coat over her firm, nononsense lady-doctor breasts – probes his corpse with delicate but practised fingers? So young, so hung! she’s thinking. What a waste! Then, nosy, pert little detective that she is, she attempts to re-create his sorrowful snuffed-out life, retrace the wayward footsteps that mixed him up with a sinister crowd and led to his tragic end. Good luck, honey, he beams at her silently out of his cold, white head: I’m an enigma, you’ll never get my number, you’ll never pin me down. But do that thing with the rubber glove just one more time! Oh yes! 

In some of these fantasies he sits up because he isn’t dead after all. Screams! Then: kisses! In other versions he sits up even though he is dead. Eyeballs rolled right up into his head, but avid hands reaching for her lab coat buttons. That’s a different scenario.

One more sweatshirt stuffed into the top of his duffle: there, that should do it. He closes the bag, hoists it, picks up his computer case in the other hand, and canters down the stairs, two at a time, as he has done before. Replacing the worn carpet on those stairs is no longer his concern: that’s one plus for him, anyway.

In the hall he grabs his winter parka out of the closet, checks the pockets for gloves, his warm scarf, his lambskin hat. He can see Gwyneth, still in the kitchen, elbows on the upmarket glass-topped table sourced from his end of things but that would now be hers, as he has zero intention of squabbling over it. He didn’t exactly pay for it in the first place, anyway: he acquired it.

She’s studiously ignoring him. She’s made herself some coffee; the scent is delicious. And a piece of toast, from the looks of it. She’s certainly not too upset to eat. He resents that. How can she chew at a moment like this? Doesn’t he mean anything to her?

“When will I see you?” she calls as he heads out the door.

“I’ll text,” he says. “Enjoy your life.” Was that too bitter? Yes: rancour is an error. Don’t be a dickhead, Sam, he tells himself. You’re losing your cool. That’s the moment when the car decides not to start. Fucking Audi. He should never have accepted this hunk of luxury-car junk in lieu of settlement from a guy who owed him, though it looked like a great deal at the time.

Talk about a definitive exit spoiled. He doesn’t even get to roar off around the corner, va-voom and good riddance, the sailor hitting the high seas, and who needs the ladies dragging you down like cement blocks tied to your ankles? A wave of the hand and away he’d go, cruising to evernew adventures.

He tries the ignition again. Click click, dead as Nov – ember. His breath turning to smoke in the freezing air, the tips of his fingers whitening, his earlobes numbing, he phones his usual service outfit to come and jump the battery. All he gets is a recording: a representative will be with him shortly, but he should be advised that due to adverse weather conditions the average wait is two hours, please stay on the line because we truly value your business. Then on comes the upbeat music. Freeze your nuts off, go the unsung words, because all praise to the polar vortex, we’re making a bundle here. Wise up. Get a block heater. Kiss my ass. 

So back into the house he slouches. Good thing he still has a key, though Change the locks is no doubt top of Gwyneth’s list. She is a list-making woman.

“What are you doing back here?” she says. Hangdog winsome smile: maybe she would be kind enough to see if her own car would start, and then maybe she could give him a jump? So to speak, he adds to himself silently. He wouldn’t mind taking a crack at jumping her to see if he could win her back, at least long enough to cash in on the reconciliation passion, but this is not the time.

“Otherwise I’ll have to wait here until they send the truck,” he says with what he hopes is an insouciant grin. “It could be hours. It could be . . . I could be here all day. You wouldn’t want that.”

She doesn’t want that. She heaves a long-suffering sigh – a car that won’t start is one more item on the endlessly unfurling scroll of his fecklessness – and begins to insulate herself in winter coat, mittens, scarves, and boots. He can hear her rolling up her invisible sleeves: Let’s get this done. Hauling him out of scrapes, dusting him off, polishing him so he shone like new – that kind of thing was once her cherished avocation. If anyone could fix him, she could.

But she’s failed.

 

When they first hooked up, after she’d walked into his store looking for a match to an ugly antique Staffordshire china spaniel she’d recently inherited, Gwyneth found him next to irresistible: edgy, thrilling, but entertaining, like a supporting character in a ’50s musical. Some loveable comic gangster, naughty but trustworthy at heart. Possibly no man had ever paid the kind of attention to her that he had – that in-detail tactile scrutiny, as if she was a valuable teacup. Or possibly she hadn’t noticed the come-on lines of males past because she’d been too occupied with her sickly parents to put much time in on men, or to allow them to put much time in on her. So to speak. Not that she wasn’t beautiful – she was, in a cameo kind of way – but she didn’t seem aware of what she could do with it. She’d had a few boyfriends, true, but as far as he could tell they’d been pathetic wusses.

But by the day of the china spaniel she was ready for action. She shouldn’t have been so open with strange men, namely him. She shouldn’t have volunteered so much information. The dead parents, the inheritance: enough so she’d been able to quit her school-teaching job, begin to enjoy life. But how?

Enter Sam, on cue, knowledgeable about Staffordshire and smiling at her with polite, appreciative lechery. He was good at enjoyment, a talent few possessed. He was happy to share.

He’d been relatively upfront with her; or rather he hadn’t outright lied. He’d told her his income came from the antiques shop, which was partly true. He didn’t mention where the rest of it came from. He’d told her he was in business for himself – accurate – though he had a partner, also accurate. What she saw in him was an exciting man of action, a sexual magician; what he saw in her was a respectable facade behind which he could hunker down for a while. It would be nice to stop living in motels or camping out in the back of the shop, so it was handy that she already owned a house, one with room in it for him when he was there. Which, as things eased up, he increasingly wasn’t. His work involved a lot of travel, he told her. Checking out antiques.

He can’t say he didn’t enjoy the convenience of being married to her, at first. The pampering. The comfort.

He wasn’t a total asshole: he’d talked himself into the marriage, he’d even believed it could work. He wasn’t getting any younger, maybe he should settle down. So what if she wasn’t, to outward appearances, a hot babe? Hot babes could be stuck on themselves; they were demanding and fickle. Gwyneth wasn’t so alluring that she didn’t appreciate what she was getting. One time he’d laid her out naked on the bed and covered her in hundred-dollar bills: heady stuff for a good girl like her, and what an aphrodisiac! But the periodic and increasingly serious lack of hundred-dollar bills, once she found out about that lack – the first time he’d had crap luck and hit her up for a loan – that had the opposite effect. Narrowed her eyes, caused her nipples to shrink like raisins, dried her up like a prune. Just when he could have used a dollop of sympathy and comfort, bang! He was locked into the virtual refrigerator, despite his big blue eyes.

He’s relied on them all his life, those big blue eyes of his. Round, candid eyes. Con-man’s eyes. “You look like a baby doll,” one woman had said about his eyes. “And I’m so breakable,” he’d replied, winningly. Gazing into those eyes, what woman could find it in her heart to disbelieve whatever excuse he was laying out before her like a street peddler’s designer-label silk scarf?

Though his big blue eyes are shrinking, he’s convinced of it; or is that that his face is growing? Whatever the cause, the ratio between his eyes and his face is changing, as is that between his shoulders and his belly. He can still do the blue-eyed thing; it still works, most of the time; though not of course with men. Men are better at telling when other men are bullshitting. The trick with women is to stare at their mouths. One of the tricks.

He and Gwyneth don’t have kids, so the wait in the divorce queue shouldn’t be too long. Once they’ve gone through the formalities, Sam will be at loose ends, yet again. He’ll be wandering the world like a snail, house on his back, which is possibly how he feels most comfortable. He’ll whistle a merry tune. He’ll ramble. He’ll smell like himself again.

Gwyneth’s car starts without a problem. She cuts the engine, stares cow-like out her window at him, a smug witness to his frozen-fingered manoeuvres with the jumper cables, hoping perhaps that he’ll electrocute himself. No such luck: he signals to her to switch on, and juice flows from her car to his, and he’s mobile again. Strained smiles are exchanged. He eases onto the icy street, gives her a wave. But she’s already turned away.

 

His parking spot behind the building is unoccupied for once. The store is west on Queen, just where the advancing wave of grooviness hits the barren shore of down-at-heels. On one side, trendy coffee purveyors and boutique nighteries; on the other, pawnshops and cheap dress stores, their merchandise yellowing on cracked mannequins.

Metrazzle, proclaims the lettering on his sign. In the display window is a teak dining room set from the ’50s, complemented with a stereo in blond wood. Vinyl is back: some kid with rich parents is going to find that cabinet irresistible. Metrazzle isn’t open yet. Sam jingles his way in through the multiple locks. His partner is already there, in the back, engaged in his usual occupation, which is furniture forgery. No: furniture enhancement. Ned is his name, or the one he goes by; distressing is his game, or one of them. He’s the Botox doctor of wood, except that he makes it looks older rather than younger. The air is flecked with fine sawdust, and reeks of stain.

Sam heaves his duffle bag into a vintage steel Eames chair. “Bitch out there,” he says. Ned looks up from his hammer and chisel; he’s adding a few faux cracks.

“More on the way,” he says. “It’s dumping on Chicago right now. They shut the airport.”

“When’s it due here?” says Sam.

“Later,” says Ned. Tap tap, goes his chisel.

“Guess it’s the climate change,” says Sam. That’s what people say, the way they used to say, We’ve angered God. And like that, not a fucking thing anyone can do about it, so why even mention it? Party while it lasts. Party if you can. Not that he feels much like partying today. What Gwyneth has done to him is sinking in, sinking down. There’s a cold spot right in the middle of him somewhere. “Fucking snow, I’ve had enough of it,” he says.

Tap tap tap. Pause. “Wife kick you out?”

“I left,” says Sam, as indifferently as he can manage. “Been working up to it.”

“Matter of time,” says Ned. “Bound to happen.”

Sam appreciates Ned’s seamless acceptance of what he must suspect is a fairly major alteration of the truth. “Yeah,” he says. “Sad. She’s taking it hard. But she’ll be okay. It’s not like she’s out on the street, she’s hardly starving.”

“Right, right,” says Ned. He has so many tattoos up his forearms he looks upholstered. He never says much, having done time and concluded, rightly, that a zipped lip attracts no stilettos. He likes this job and is grateful for it, which is good for Sam because he won’t jeopardize it by asking questions. On the other hand, he stores incoming information like a data miner and disgorges it accurately when required.

Sam extracts from him the news that a client dropped by late yesterday, no one Ned has seen before, guy in an expensive leather jacket. He’d examined all the desks. Funny he was out in the snowstorm, but some guys like the challenge. Nobody else in the store, which was no surprise. The handsome reproduction Directoire was the guy’s object of interest: he asked for a price, said he’d think about it. Wanted a reserve of two days, put down a deposit of a hundred dollars. Cash not credit. In the sealed envelope beside the register. Name’s inside it.

Ned goes back to his chiselling. Sam strolls over to the counter, casually opens the envelope. In with the cash – in twenties – there’s slip of paper, which he extracts. There’s nothing written on it but an address and a number. He’s not fooling Ned, but they operate on a principle of maximum deniability: just assume everything’s bugged, is Sam’s motto. He looks at the pencilled number, which is 56, files it in his brain, scrunches the paper, sticks it in a pocket. First toilet he encounters, down it will go.

“Guess I’ll hit the auction,” he says. “See what I can pick up.”

“Good luck with it,” says Ned.

The auction is a storage-unit auction. Sam attends two or three of these a week, as many folks in the antiques business do – making the rounds of the storage emporia that ring the city and the neighbouring towns, located in this strip-mall wasteland or that. Sam’s on an email list-serv that automatically mails him all upcoming auctions in the province, tagged by postal code. He attends only the ones within reach: nothing farther away than a two-hour drive. Any longer and the returns wouldn’t justify the investment, or not on average. Though fortunes have been made by lucky bidders: who knows when a genuine old master may turn up, obscured by dust and varnish, or a boxful of love letters by a dead celebrity to his secret mistress, or a stash of paste jewels that turn out to be genuine? There’s been a recent vogue for reality shows that claim to catch people at the moment when they open up the space, then Bingo!, some spectacular life-changing find, with Ohs and Ahs all round.

That’s never happened to Sam. Still, there’s something exciting about winning an auction, gaining the key to the locked unit, opening the door. Expecting treasures, since whatever junk is inside must have been treasures once or the people wouldn’t have bothered to store them.

“Should be back by four,” says Sam. He always tells Ned his ETA: it’s part of that little plot-thread he can’t help spinning. He said he’d be back by four. No, he didn’t seem upset about anything. Though maybe he was anxious. Asked me about some strange guy who’d been in the store. Leather jacket. Interested in desks. 

“Text me when to send the van,” says Ned.

“Let’s hope there’s something worth sending it for,” says Sam. The units have to be cleared out within twentyfour hours, you can’t just leave crap there if you don’t want it: you win it, you own it. The storage guys don’t crave the expense of carting your freshly bought trash to the dump.

The story Sam and Ned wordlessly agree on is that Sam is angling for some decent furniture for Ned to enhance. And he is angling for that, because why not? Sam hopes he may score more in the furniture vein than the assortment of scraps he came back with last time: a busted guitar, a folding bridge table with only three legs, a giant stuffed teddy bear from a fun-fair rifle range, a wooden crokinole game. The game was the only thing with any value: some people collect ancient games.

“Drive safe,” says Ned. He texted me to send the van. That was at 2:36, I know ’cause I looked at the clock, the art deco one right over there, see? Keeps perfect time. Then, I dunno, he just vanished. 

Did he have any enemies? 

I just work here. 

Though he did say . . . yeah, told me there’d been a fight with his wife. That would be Gwyneth. Don’t know her that well myself. At breakfast, walked out on her. You could see it coming. Cramped his style, never gave him enough space. Yeah, jealous, possessive, he told me that. She thought the sun shone out his ass, couldn’t get enough of him. Would she, did she ever . . . Violent? Naw, he never said that. Except for the time she threw a wine bottle at him, empty one. But sometimes they just snap, women like that. Lose it. Go nuts.

He entertains himself with the discovery of his own body. Naked or clothed? Inside or out? Knife or gun? Alone?

 

The car starts this time, which Sam takes as a good omen. He zigzags down towards the Gardiner, which maybe won’t have fallen down yet – no, it hasn’t, maybe there’s a God – then heads west. The address in the envelope was that of a storage emporium in Mississauga, not too far away. The traffic is putrid. What is it about winter that causes people to drive as if their hands are feet?

He gets to the site early, parks the car, goes to the main office, registers. Everything just as usual. Now he’ll have to hang around till the auction starts. He hates these blocks of dead space-time. He checks his phone for messages. This and that, this and that. And Gwyneth, texting: Meet tomorrow? Let’s get this finalized. He doesn’t reply, but he doesn’t delete. Let her wait. He’d like to nip outside for a smoke, but he resists the temptation, having officially quit five months ago for the fourth time.

A couple more folks trickle in, hardly a crowd. Low attendance is good, it thins out the competition, keeps the bids decent. Too cold for the tourists: there’s no atmosphere of summer antiquing, no glamorous TV reality-show buzz. Just a bunch of middle-range impatient bundled-up people standing around with their hands in their pockets or looking at their watches or phones.

Couple of other dealers now, ones he knows: he nods at them, they nod back. He’s done business with both of them: stuff he’s won that didn’t fit his niche but did fit theirs. He doesn’t do much Victorian: it’s too big for condos. Or much wartime, too bulbous and maroon. He likes the pieces with cleaner lines. Lighter. Less ponderous.

The auctioneer bustles in five minutes’ late with a takeout coffee and a bag of doughnut holes, casts an annoyed look at the scant turnout, and turns on his handheld mic – which he hardly needs, it’s not a football game, but most likely it makes him feel important. There are seven storage units on the block today, seven don’t-care no-show owners. Sam bids on five, wins four, lets the fifth one go because it’s more plausible that way. The one he really wants is the second, number 56 – that was the number in the envelope, that’s where the secret cargo will have been stashed – but he always tries for a cluster of units.

After the event proper is over he settles up with the auctioneer, who hands him the keys to the four spaces. “Stuff has to be out in twenty-four hours,” the man says. “Sweep it clean, those are the rules.” Sam nods; he knows the rules, but there’s no point in saying that. Guy’s an asshole, in training for a prison guard or a politician or some other self-proclaimed dictator job. A non-asshole might offer Sam a doughnut hole – surely the guy isn’t going to eat the whole bag, he could benefit from some weight loss – but that philanthropic act does not take place.

Sam walks across to the nearby mall, collar up against the rising wind, scarf over his chin, gets himself a Timmy’s double-double and his own sack of doughnut holes – chocolate-glazed – and walks back to inspect his unit purchases at leisure. He likes to wait until the other bidders have cleared off: he doesn’t want people looking over his shoulder. He’ll leave number 56 till the last; everyone else will have gone by then.

The first unit is stacked high with cardboard boxes. Sam looks inside a few: shit, it’s mostly books. He’s got no idea how to value books, so he’ll make a deal with a guy he knows, a book specialist; if there’s anything really noteworthy, Sam will get a cut. Author signatures in them are sometimes good, the guy says; on the other hand, sometimes not, if no one knows them. Dead authors are sometimes good, but not that often; they have to be famous as well as dead. Art books are usually good, depending on the condition. A lot of the time they’re rare.

The next unit has nothing in it but an old scooter, one of those lightweight Italian quasi-tricycles. Sam has no use for it, but someone will. It can be stripped for parts if nothing else. He doesn’t linger. No sense freezing his balls off: these units aren’t heated, and the temperature’s dropping.

He finds his next unit, slips the key into the lock. Third time lucky: what if it’s a treasure trove? He can still get excited over the possibility, even though he knows it’s like believing in the tooth fairy. He rolls up the door, switches the light on.

Right at the front there’s a white wedding dress with a skirt like an enormous bell and big puffed sleeves. It’s swathed in a clear plastic zip bag, as if it just came from the store. It doesn’t even look worn. There’s a pair of newlooking white satin shoes tucked into the bottom of the bag. There are white elbow-length buttoned gloves pinned to the sleeves. They look creepy: they underscore the absence of a head; though there’s a white veil, he sees now, wrapped around the shoulders of the dress like a stole, with a chaplet of white artificial flowers and seed pearls attached to it.

Who’d put their wedding dress into a storage unit? Sam wonders. That isn’t what women do. Maybe they’d stash it in a closet, or in a trunk or something, but not a storage unit. Where does Gwyneth keep her own wedding dress, come to think of it? He doesn’t know. Not that it was as elaborate as this one. They hadn’t done the whole hog, not the big church wedding: Gwyneth said those were really for the parents, and hers were dead, as were Sam’s, or so he’d told her. No sense in letting his mother yap on to Gwyneth about the amusing ups and downs and the not so amusing ins and outs of his earlier life, it only would have confused her. She would have had to choose between two realities, his reality and his mother’s, and that kind of situation was toxic to a romantic atmosphere.

So they’d just done the city hall routine, and then Sam had swept Gwyneth off to a dream honeymoon on the Cayman Islands. Into the sea, out of the sea, roll around in the sand, watch the moon. Flowers on the breakfast table. Sunset again, holding hands at the bar, filling her up with frozen daiquiris, that’s what she liked to drink. Sex in the morning, kissing his way up her like a slug on a lettuce, beginning with the toes.

Oh Sam! This is so . . . I never thought . . .

Just relax. That’s it. Put your hand here. 

 

It wasn’t hard to take. He could afford all of that then, the beaches, the daiquiris, he was flush. The cash wave ebbs and flows, such is its nature, but he’s a believer in spending it while you have it. Was that when he’d covered Gwyneth with hundred-dollar bills – on their honeymoon? No, he pulled that one later.

He moves the wedding-dress skirt to the side. It’s stiff, it rustles, it crackles. There’s more wedding stuff in here: a little night table, and on it a huge bouquet, tied with pink satin ribbon. It’s mostly roses, but it’s dry as a bone. On the other side, in behind the white skirt, there’s the matching night table, holding a giant cake, underneath one of those domed covers they have in bakeries. It’s got white icing, pink and white roses made of sugar, and a tiny bride and groom on the top. It hasn’t been cut.

He’s getting a very odd feeling. He squeezes in past the dress. If what he’s thinking is right, there ought to be some champagne: there’s always champagne for weddings. Sure enough,  here it is, three  crates of it, unopened.  It’s a miracle it hasn’t frozen and burst. Beside it are several boxes of champagne flutes, also unopened: glass ones, not plastic, good  quality. And some boxes of white  china plates, and a big box of white napkins, cloth, not paper. Someone has stored their entire wedding in here. A big- ticket wedding.

Behind the cardboard boxes there’s some luggage – brand-new luggage, a matched set, cherry red in colour.

And behind that, in the farthest, darkest corner, is the groom.

“Crap,” says Sam out loud. His breath unfurls in a white plume  because of  the  cold;  maybe it’s the  cold  that accounts for the lack of smell. Now that he notices, there is in fact a faint odour, a little sweet – though that could be the cake – and a little like dirty socks, with an undertone of dog food that’s been around too long.

Sam wraps his scarf across his nose. He’s feeling slightly nauseous. This is crazy. Whoever parked the groom in here must be a dangerous loony, some kind of sick fetishist. He should leave right now. He should call the cops. No, he shouldn’t. He wouldn’t want them looking into his final unit, number 56 – the one he hasn’t opened yet.

The  groom’s wearing  the  full  uniform:  the  black formal suit, the white shirt, the cravat, a withered carna- tion in the buttonhole. Is there a top hat? Not that Sam can see, but he guesses it must be somewhere – in the lug- gage, he bets – because whoever did this went for the complete set.

Except the bride: there isn’t any bride.

The man’s face looks desiccated,  as if the guy has dried out like a mummy. He’s enclosed in several layers of clear plastic; garment bags, maybe, like the one containing the dress. Yes, there are the zippers: packing tape has been applied carefully along the seams. Inside the clear layers the groom has a wavery look, as if he’s underwater. The eyes are shut, for which Sam is grateful. How was that done?  Aren’t corpse eyes always open?  Krazy Glue? Scotch tape? He has the odd sense that this man is famil- iar, like someone he knows, but that can’t possibly be true.

Sam backs carefully out of the storage unit, slides the door down, locks it. Then he stands in front of it holding the key. What the shit is he supposed to do now? With the dried-out bridegroom. He can’t leave him here, locked inside the  unit.  He  bought  this wedding, it’s his, he’s responsible for removing it. He can’t have Ned send the van for it, not unless Ned himself drives – he could be trusted not to say anything. But Ned never drives the van, they use a service.

And suppose he asks Ned to rent a van from a different outfit and drive here, and suppose he waits until Ned arrives, standing outside the unit because he wouldn’t want anyone else messing around with this; suppose he stays right here, freezing in what will soon become the dark, and then suppose they load the whole wedding into the van and take it back to the shop – suppose all that, what then? They take the poor shrivelled-up sucker out to a field somewhere and bury him? Throw  him  into Lake Ontario,  making their  way  over  the  shore  ice, which won’t crack and sink them, fat chance? Even if they could manage that, he’d be sure to float. Mummified groom mystifies crime unit.  Suspicious  circumstances surrounding freak member of the wedding. Nuptial   shocker: she married  a zombie.

Failure to report a dead body: isn’t that a felony? Worse: the guy must have been murdered. You don’t find your- self encased in several layers of plastic with tape on the zippers, wearing formal wedding fancy dress, without get- ting murdered first.

As Sam’s reviewing his options, a tall woman rounds the corner. She’s wearing one of those sheepskin coats with the wool side in, its hood up over her blond hair. She’s almost running. Now she’s right up to him. She looks anxious, though trying to conceal it.

So, he thinks. The missing bride.

 

She touches his arm. “Excuse me,” she says. “Did you just buy the contents of this unit? At the auction?”

He smiles at her, opens wide his big blue eyes. Drops his gaze to  her mouth,  flicks it up  again. She’s about his height. Strong enough to have lugged the groom into the unit by herself, even if he wasn’t yet dried out. “That’s me,” he says. “I plead guilty.”

“But you haven’t unlocked it yet?”

Here’s the moment of decision. He could hand her the key, say,   I’ve  seen the mess you  made,  clean it up yourself. He could say,  Yes I have, and I’m calling the cops. He could say, I took a quick look, it seems to be a wedding.  Yours?

“No,”  he says. “Not  yet. I bought a couple of other units too. I was just about to open up this one.”

“Whatever you paid, I’ll double it,” she says. “I didn’t want it sold, but there was a mistake, the cheque got lost in the mail, and I was away on business, I didn’t get the notification soon enough, and then I took the first plane I could, but  then  I was stuck in Chicago for six hours because of the storm. It was so snowed in! And then the traffic from the airport, it was terrible!” She ends with a nervous giggle. She must have rehearsed this: it comes out of her in one long phrase, like ticker tape.

“I heard about the storm,” he says. “In Chicago. That’s too bad. I’m sorry to hear you were delayed.” He doesn’t respond to her financial offer. It hangs in the air between them, like their two breaths.

“That storm’s heading here next,” she says. “It’s a seri- ous blizzard. They always travel east. If you don’t want to get stuck here, you should hit the road. I’ll speed this up for us – I’ll pay cash.”

“Thanks,” he says. “I’m considering. What’s in there, anyway? It must be something valuable, to be so important to you.” He’s curious to see what she’ll say.

“Just family things,” she says. “Things I inherited. You know, crystal, china, from my grandmother. A few pieces of costume jewellery. Sentimental value. You couldn’t sell them for much.”

“Family things?” he says. “Any furniture?”

“Only a little furniture,” she says. “Not  good quality. Old furniture. Not anything anyone would want.”

“But that’s what I deal in,” he says. “Old furniture. I run an antiques store. Often people don’t know the value of what they have. Before accepting your offer, I’d like to take a look.” He glances down at her mouth again.

“I’ll triple it,” she says. Now she’s shivering. “It’s too cold for you to be going through that unit right now! Why don’t we get out of here before the storm hits? We could have a drink, and, I don’t know, dinner or something? We can talk it over.” She smiles at him, an insinuating smile. A strand of her hair has come down, it’s blowing across her mouth; she tucks it in behind her ear, slowly, then drops her eyes, gazing down in the direction of his belt. She’s upping the ante.

“Okay,” he says. “Sounds good. You can tell me more about the furniture. But suppose I accept your offer, that unit has to be cleared in twenty-four hours. Or else they’ll come in and do it themselves, and they’ll keep my clean- ing deposit.”

“Oh, I’ll make sure it’s cleared,” she says. She slips her hand through his arm. “But I’ll need the key.”

“No hurry,” says Sam. “We haven’t set the price.”

She looks at him, no longer smiling. She knows he knows.

He  should quit fooling around. He  should take the money and run. But he’s having too much fun. A real murderess, coming on to him! It’s edgy, it’s rash, it’s erotic. He hasn’t felt this alive for some time. Will she try to poison his drink? Get him in a dark corner, whip out a penknife, go for his jugular? Would he be fast enough to grab her hand? He wants to reveal his knowledge to her in a safe place surrounded by other  people. He  wants to watch her face as she realizes he’s got her by the neck, so to speak. He wants to hear the story she’ll tell. Or the sto- ries: she must have more than one. He would.

“Out of here, turn right,” he says. “Next stoplight, go past it. There’s a motel – the Silver Knight.” He knows the motel bars near all the storage outfits where he bids at auc- tions. “I’ll meet you in the bar. Get a booth. I just need to check my other unit.”  He  almost says, “Book a room while you’re at it, because we both know what this is about,” but that would be rushing things.

“The Silver Knight,” she says. “Has it got a silver knight on the outside? Riding to the rescue?” She’s trying for a light touch. Again the laugh, a little breathless. Sam doesn’t play the move back. Instead he opts for a reprimanding frown. Don’t think you can charm me out of it, lady. I’m here to collect.

“You can’t miss it,” he says. Will she skip out on him? Leave him stuck with the fiasco? No  one would know how to track her, unless she’d made the mistake of using her real name when she’d rented the unit. It’s a risk, let- ting her out of his sight, but a risk he needs to take. He’s 99 per cent certain she’ll be sitting in the bar of the Silver Knight when he gets there.

He texts Ned: Traffic shit. Blizzard  crap. We’ll PU AM. Nite. He has a strong impulse to slip the SIM card out of his phone and tuck it into the dried groom’s breast pocket, but he resists it. He does go offline, however: not dark, but dark grey.

I dunno, officer, Ned will say.  He texted me from the storage place. Maybe  around four.  He  was fine then.  He  was supposed to come to the shop in the morning,  then we were going to take the van and clear out the units.  After  that,  nothing.

What  dried guy in a monkey  suit? Really?  No  shit!  Search me.

 

One thing at a time. First, he opens up Unit 56. All is as it should be: several pieces of furniture, good-enough qual- ity, the sort of thing they can resell in Metrazzle. Rocking chair, pine, Quebec. Two end tables, ’50s, mahogany looks like, spindly ebonized legs. Among them,  an Arts and Crafts desk. The sealed white baggies are in the three right- hand drawers.

It’s perfect, really. Maximum deniability. There’s no traceable line from them to him. I have no idea how it got in there! I bought the unit  at an auction, I won the bid, it could’ve been anyone.  I’m as surprised as you  are! No, I didn’t  open the drawers before I brought it back to the shop, why would I? I sell antiques, not stuff in drawers.

Then the end destination buys the desk, most likely on Monday, and that’s all there is to it. He’s just the drop box, he’s just the delivery boy.

Ned  won’t open the drawers either. He has a finely developed sense of which drawers to leave closed.

Sam can leave the shipment safely where it is: no one’s going to bother this locked unit before noon the next day. Him and his van will be well on the way before then.

He checks his phone: one new message, from Gwyneth. I was wrong,  please come back, we can talk  it through. He has a tug of nostalgia: the familiar, the snug, the safe; the safe enough. Nice to know it’s waiting for him. But he doesn’t reply. He needs this oblong of freefall time he’s about to enter. Anything at all can happen within it.

 

When he walks into the bar at the Silver Knight, she’s there waiting. She even has a booth. He’s cheered by the instant acquiescence.  She’s minus her coat now, wearing the sort of outfit a woman like her should wear: black, for widow, for spider. It goes well with her ash-blond hair. Her eyes are hazel, her eyelashes long.

She smiles as he slides in opposite her, but she doesn’t smile too much: a faint, melancholy smile. In front of her is a glass of white, barely touched. He orders the same. There’s a pause. Who’ll go first? All the hairs on the back of Sam’s neck are alert. On the flat screen over on the wall behind her head, the blizzard is rolling mutely towards them like a huge wave of confetti.

“I think we might be stuck here,” she says.

“Let’s drink to that,” says Sam, opening his big blue eyes. He does the direct gaze, raises his glass. What can she do but raise hers?

Yeah, that’s him all right, no question. I was tending bar that night, the night of the blizzard.  He was with a sizzling  blond in a black dress, they  seemed on very  friendly   terms,  if you know what I mean. Didn’t see them leave. You want to bet they’ll  find her in a snowbank when it all melts?

“So, you looked inside,” she says.

“Yeah, I did,” says Sam. “Who  was he? What hap- pened?” He  hopes she doesn’t descend into tears: that would disappoint him. But no, she limits herself to a quiv- ering chin, a biting of the lip.

“It was terrible,” she says. “It was a mistake. He wasn’t supposed to die.”

“But he did,” says Sam in a kindly voice. “These things happen.”

“Oh  yes. They do. I don’t know how to say this, it sounds so . . . ”

“Trust me,” says Sam. She doesn’t, but she’ll pretend. “He liked to be . . . Clyde liked to be strangled. It wasn’t as if I enjoyed it. But I loved him, I was in love with him, so I wanted to do what he wanted.”

“Of  course,” says Sam. He wishes she hadn’t given the  mummified groom  a name: Clyde  is dorky. He’d have preferred him anonymous. That she’s lying is evi- dent to him, but how much is she lying? For his own lies, he likes to stay somewhere within shooting distance of the truth, if at all possible – it means less to fabricate, less to work at remembering – so maybe some of this is true.

“And,” she says, “then he was.” “Then he was what?” says Sam.

“Then he was dead. With the spasms, I thought he was just having, you know . . . the way he usually did. But it went too far. Then I didn’t know what to do. It was the day before our wedding, I’d been planning the whole thing for months! I told everyone he’d left me a note, he’d van- ished, he’d run out on me, he’d jilted me. I was so upset! It was all being delivered, the dress, the cake, all of that, and I, well, this sounds weird, but I dressed him up, with the carnation in the buttonhole and everything, he looked so handsome. And then I packed the whole thing into the storage unit. I wasn’t thinking clearly. I’d been so looking forward to the wedding; keeping all the parts of it together was sort of like having it anyway.”

“You put him in there yourself? With the cake and everything?”

“Yes,” she says. “It wasn’t that hard. I used a dolly. You know, for moving heavy boxes, and furniture and things.”

“That  was resourceful,” says Sam. “You’re a smart girl.”

“Thank you,” she says.

“That’s some story,” says Sam. “Not  many people would believe it.”

She looks down at the table. “I know,” she says in a small voice. Then she looks up. “But you believe it, don’t you?” “I’m not good at believing stories,” says Sam. “Though let’s say I believe this one, for now.” Maybe he’ll get the truth out of her later. Or maybe not.

“Thank you,” she says again. “You won’t tell?” The tremulous smile, the bitten lip. She’s laying it on thick. What did she really do? Whack him over the head with a champagne bottle? Shoot an overdose into  him? How much money was involved, and in what form? It had to be money. Was she skimming the poor guy’s bank account, did he find out?

“Let’s go,” says Sam. “The elevator’s to the left.”

 

The room’s dark, except for the faint light coming in off the street. The traffic’s muffled, what there is of it. The snow has arrived in earnest; it’s spattering softly against the window like an army of tiny kamikaze mice throwing themselves at the glass, trying to force a way in.

Holding her in his arms – no, holding her down with his arms – is the most electric thing he’s ever done. She hums with danger, like a high-tension wire; she’s a raw socket; she’s the sum of his own ignorance, of everything he doesn’t understand and never will. The  minute  he releases one of her hands, he might be dead. The minute he turns his back. Is he running for his life, right now? Her harsh breath chasing him?

“We  should be together,”  she’s saying. “We  should always be together.” Is that what she said to the other one? To his sad, mummified double? He grips her hair, bites down on her mouth. He’s still ahead, he’s gaining on her. Faster!

Nobody knows where he is.

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