Tom lives Morro Bay, California, with his partner Susan, and the ghost of Ginger his dog, his first great audience. His lifelong dream of writing came to fruition in his seventh decade. Tom’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in If and When, Solo Novo, Askew, Gravel, Front Porch Review, First Literary Review East, and Drabble. Tom’s chapbook, Tornado Man, was published in 2019. Some of his favorite writers are, Ellen Bass, Natasha Trethaway, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ada Limon, Glenna Luschei, Tomas Morin, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, Billy Collins and WS Merwin. The Cambria Writer’s Workshop nourishes Tom and his writing.
Marta rummaged through the contents of her purse with a clatter, oblivious to the other passengers in the First-Class compartment of the Southampton to London commuter train. Compact, hairbrush, jewelry, a well-thumbed pocket dictionary, passport, wallet, mints, cigarettes, lighter, tissues, pens, a rumpled copy of Gun Mart magazine, and makeup kit were all there—everything but the key to her mission. Piqued, she embarked without pause on one more frenetic search in the caverns of her large purse—desperate as a magician clutching for a lost rabbit.
The man beside her pulled himself away from his newspaper, folded it with meticulous care, and crossed his arms across his ample vested stomach. He fixed his gaze on her with feigned quietude. When the two older women in facing seats nodded at him with almost imperceptible tilts of their gay spring hats, his chest swelled with pride as he accepted the mantle of defender of commuter train decorum.
He had witnessed similar emotional catastrophes before, but not in a confined train cabin without an exit. It rankled him that his plan to enjoy a relaxed commute home, after a hectic week at the bank, faced ruin. He fought the urge to grab her bag and dump its contents on the gold and blue carpet, then crush everything in it underfoot. Instead, as her flurry quieted, no doubt, he thought, due to his valorous show of disdain, he returned to the Green Thumb pages. An article on urban composting lulled him into gardening reveries.
Forced to collect herself to avoid inquiries, no matter how sympathetic, she pressed her fleshy bare knees together, tugged her skirt down her thighs, and freed her search hand long enough to readjust the tilt of her hat with its perky bird feathers. She shoved her head against the velvet headrest to nudge her bun back in place and let her fingers trace the shapes inside her bag, not so much with hope of discovering the missing object, but to appease her hand, like a hunter soothes a retriever that fails to bring back a dead bird. She wanted to call out for the clip like a lost pet.
Her hand started to reach inside again but she pulled it back, and instead, slid the bag down her lap to see if she could sense a particular shape or sound amidst its cargo. She conceded defeat and snapped her purse shut with a loud click of the clasp. The old ladies sighed and smiled in her direction. London’s outskirts flashed by, the rain smudged window glazing trackside tenements with moist dreariness.
Marta didn’t watch the view, looking instead at the reflection in the mirror of a jaunty Pork Pie hat perched on the man’s drooped head. The longer she looked, the more he reminded her of her husband and all the other annoying self-absorbed men she knew. The missing clip stirred up doubts about her plan, but the male caricature beneath the pork pie hat reconfirmed her intention.
She looked away and breathed easy, exhilarated again. She reexamined every move she’d made that morning to make sure nothing else remained undone, and discarded the notion that angels of mercy were trying to intervene. Only a few more minutes would be needed to stop at the flat, and pick up the bullet clip on her way to meet Lars—plenty of time, and—she had a backup plan.
At first, their marriage had gone along as supposed. She’d said yes to a long delayed offer to wed. Neither of them enjoyed the single life, and though they weren’t attracted to one another, or of a romantic disposition, marriage seemed like an economical way to indulge themselves in the comforts of domesticity. Lars abjured children, preferring uninterrupted Telly evenings in a tidy flat with hot meals. She cooked, cleaned, and crocheted, but had no TV chair.
Marta thought motherhood could fit her well. Lars’ handsome Scandinavian looks would have offset her short pudgy frame and produced children to make her proud. She thought being born frumpy, worse than plain, had robbed her of romantic joys that having a child could supplant. Only fear of spinsterhood, and hope for a change with Lars, had convinced her to bargain away motherhood in the nuptials. Late life marriage cut short her conception window, and the time needed to repeat her plea for parenthood with Lars. He dashed her hopes more than once. Even sex would have eluded them if she hadn’t spent the first year badgering him into it, assuring him she would remain barren. After that encounter, she didn’t even want to imagine his genes again. Two years of tedium and deprecation with Lars made her detest her decision to marry. The slightest acknowledgement, or kindness from him, would have sufficed to heal her festering rancor.
Her illicit affairs were dull and emotionally painful. High standards winnowed opportunities, and convictions melted when lust, or its imitations, dwindled. Marital exits darkened when Lars made it clear he would make divorce painful by revealing her trysts to her coworkers—her only friends.
Revenge outstripped justice. She believed prison, or a long cruise on a rusty, derelict oil tanker in the tropics would yield as much pleasure as continued marriage to Lars.
Lars counted things in a bicycle factory. The sign on his desk —“Inventory Control”—made him proud. He knew where things were, and, how many there were. Cranks, frames, wheels, sprockets, and everything else to assemble a bicycle. He knew how many minutes it took to get all the parts from the warehouse to the assembly stations. He’d heard some shops used computers, but preferred clipboard mastery, a calculator, stopwatch, and counter, the latter of which he always held in his hand, ready to count whatever he could.
At home, he liked to call out to Marta how many steps it took her to get from one room to another in their East End flat. “Twenty-six, thirty-two, thirty–eight,” She could hear him counting out loud, multitasking, as he read the evening news or watched banal talent shows. Often, she faked her steps, or tiptoed in stocking feet to throw him off count. He’d mutter, cursing numerical anomalies.
He babbled without end of numbers and probabilities. Marta wanted to tell him to shut his trap, but her courage always arose in the kitchen, near the knife rack with his back turned to her. It would have been easy, but untidy there on the new linoleum—and then the body—dragging it down two flights, his head thumping on every step, and they had no car. Still, restraint took all her will.
Marta worked part time at the Immigration Ministry making sure immigrants had all the proper documents. She didn’t see herself as xenophobic, but as she told Lars, who never listened, certain nationalities always forgot one thing or another, then blamed the British rules. Lars belonged to one of those frequent offender nationalities. She never told him that, but like the dirty socks he tossed under the bed—it was one more wretched trait. He would never be missed. He had no friends, no family and used an alias at work because of past criminal skirmishes.
She went to work after he had left for the bicycle factory, and always arrived home before him. Today she’d left her work early, with no intent to return, to savor the unfolding of her plan. On Monday, she’d have to intimidate her mousy boss to avoid being questioned about her spontaneous absence.
Lars wore predictability like a heavy overcoat. He never left the factory at mid-day. He preferred to eat his sack lunch perched on a stool in the middle of the assembly area, where he could spot anyone moving things during lunch. He never left work before the bell at four PM. He fancied himself a human clock—consistent and correct.
Lars and Marta liked to walk along the river on Fridays at four-thirty to enjoy the outdoors and peer into the seamy life under the bridges. Drama happened there—unnamed bodies began their voyage to the sea, tawdry romances were played out, and in the shadows illicit transactions were consummated.
Thugs and mayhem were of no concern to them. Lars was formidable and fit. He insisted on naked morning calisthenics in front of the open hall window. Marta endured his flailing limbs, chill drafts, and Nordic grunts to go down the hall to the bathroom at the start of her day. She herself had taken a class in self-protection at the Women’s Collective, and carried a sharp pointed umbrella tucked under her arm, even in the sunniest weather.
The train stopped and she got off. She looked back to see eyes following her from the compartment she’d vacated. The old ladies and the banker had smiling faces pressed close to the window that had been cleaned by the rain. They were waving in unison—as if wishing her well in the fresh air. She smiled back at them, imagined they were well meaning. The subtle exchange gave her pause. Things could be other than perceived. She reviewed her options again. On the platform, she walked towards the phone booth, slid her hand into the pocket of her coat for change, and stroked her new Beretta with fondness.
Calling home and leaving a message before arriving at the empty flat provided a security tactic. I was meant to scare a burglar into fleeing when he heard her voice on the answering machine saying she’d arrive in a few minutes.
She dialed home. As she started to leave the message, Lars answered the phone — she sucked in her breath.
She hung up and walked across the small sunlit square facing their building. She stopped long enough to look up and watch Mr. Herbert’s flock of homing pigeons circle and alight atop their loft on the roof of her building. She loved to watch him stroke and soothe them when they returned.
Surprised Lars had left the door ajar, she called out from the hall, “Hello Lars,” then went inside.
“Come in dear,” he said from his chair with a sweetness she’d not heard cross his lips before—as if to calm her—like a petulant, but dear, child — someone he cared about.
Lars looked at her and smiled the way she’d seen other men look at a woman they thought attractive—a rare acknowledgement from him that made her feel warm—as if her coat was too heavy for the weather.
“Hello Marta, is it time for our walk by the river?” His hand rested on the table in front of him.
“Yes, l left work early to pick up something before we went.” Her mind searched for a lie.
“Was it this?” he said, as he slid his hand off the bullet clip on the table beside his chair.
She thought of her backup, the one bullet she’d left in the chamber of the Beretta in her pocket and smiled at him.
“Yes, why yes, it was—for self-defense by the river.” She reached into her coat pocket and ejected the bullet from the chamber with one hand. She’d practiced the move at the small arms shop.
“Here’s the last bullet for the clip.” She laid it on the entry table, hung up her purse and umbrella and stepped into the hall.
Lars got up to put on his coat. “It’s Friday, let’s walk somewhere new. It’ll be getting dark soon. I’ll tell you why I’m home early.”
He took her arm and closed the door behind them.