Sally sat on the edge of the mattress, buttoning her blouse, looking miserably at the floor. “This has to end,” she muttered. “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”
Alex rested comfortably on the bed with his back against the wall, smoking a cigarette. “You say that every time,” he replied.
“I know, but this time I mean it.”
Alex blew smoke out and picked up the TV remote from the nightstand. “You always say that, too.”
She stood up and turned to him. “Damn it, Alex, you’re not listening to me. This… this just isn’t me.” She turned away and went the far side of the little motel room, speaking more to herself now than to Alex. “I’m a mother. A wife! I can’t be doing this. I just can’t. It’s wrong.”
Alex, channel surfing now, merely shrugged, knowing her protests were hollow. “Fine. We won’t do it anymore.” He knew quite well that they would. They’d been through all this before. Many times. “Do what you think is right,” he added. Anything to get her to shut up.
“My husband is a good man. I shouldn’t be doing this to him.”
“Who, Nelson? He’s a dickhead.”
Sally shook her head. “No. He’s a wonderful husband.”
Alex groaned with exasperation. “You’re still talking,” he barked.
She turned to face him again, suddenly loathing the sight of this man. “This was the last time, Alex. I mean it. I swear to God.”
“Good. Fine. I’m bored with it anyway.”
Sally’s eyes watered up, but no tears fell. “You’re a cold bastard, you know that?”
“All you do is use people, Alex. Someday you might pay for that.”
He ignored her and turned the volume up on the TV, too loud for further conversation. Sally scoffed, grabbed her things, and walked out the room, slamming the door behind her.
“Finally,” he said to himself. “Jesus, I thought she’d never leave.”
He flipped through a few more channels before realizing that he didn’t actually want to watch TV. He switched it off, stamped out his cigarette in an ashtray, and looked at his watch. Then he reached for the bedside phone. Within seconds, his wife was answering on the other end. “Hey, honey,” he said. “It’s me.”
“Where are you?”
“Still at work. Winslow needed me to stay late again, to go over some old files.”
“Are you heading home now?”
“Not quite. I still have a few more things to do.”
His wife sighed. “When do you think you’ll get in?”
Alex looked absently at a wall painting on the far side of the room. It was a pastel rendering of some marigold flowers. Motel art at its worst. “Uh, I’m not sure,” he answered. “I’ll call you when I’m leaving.”
“Try to get home before Tim goes to sleep,” she said. “He’s very upset.”
“What is he upset about?”
“The Challenger. He saw it blow up on live TV in class today. All the kids did.”
Alex hung up and shook his head. His son was too weak. “I’ve gotta toughen him up,” he thought. “Make a man out of him.” Stretching, he decided to get dressed.
Thirty minutes later, Alex walked into a tavern on 126th Street. With his wedding ring stowed shrewdly in his pocket, he took a seat at the bar next to a voluptuous brunette. “I’ll have what she’s having,” he said to the barkeep.
The woman turned to him. “Are you sure about that?” she asked. “This is a pretty girly drink.”
Alex looked at the glass in her hand. It was bright and pink and looked completely stupid. “Ah, you’re right. But I’m a man with an open mind.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“Yes ma’am.” The barkeep returned with a drink identical to the woman’s, and Alex sipped it cautiously. “It’s not bad,” he observed.
“That’s because I have excellent taste.”
“So do I.” They both laughed at this.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Judith. Pleased to meet you.”
Over the next hour, Alex charmed Judith, using all the standard textbook maneuvers. And Judith, for reasons of her own, let herself be charmed. He made her laugh. He was good at that. Whatever else could be said about Alex Townsend, no one could accuse him of possessing a shit personality. He could charm the pants off anyone. And he routinely did.
Eventually, Judith got up to use the restroom. “I’ll seal the deal when she gets back,” Alex thought. But Judith surprised him. “You want to get out of here?” she asked upon returning. “My place is only two blocks away.”
“Hell yeah, I do. Come on.”
She led him out of the bar.
Her spacious apartment was well-furnished. And it reeked of good taste. “What do you do for a living?” Alex asked, looking around at the pricey decor with interest.
“I own several funeral homes and crematories in the metro area,” she answered, handing him a drink. “What about you?”
“Oh, me? I’m just a lowly detective.”
“Detective? You mean you solve crimes?”
He grinned and shrugged. “I try to.”
Inexplicably, Judith starting giggling at this point. She covered her mouth to contain the growing laughter.
“What?” Alex asked. “What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Come, my bedroom is this way.” She took Alex by the hand, and he followed her down the hall, like the proverbial lamb. In the kitchen of an apartment nearby, an old woman dimly thought she heard a man scream.
Two days later, Mrs. Alex Townsend, known to her friends as Mary, sat in her living room, thinking about everything the police had just told her. Her husband had been missing since Tuesday. Her two kids were beside themselves, but she herself had to feign grief she didn’t actually feel. The officers had been kind. They all knew her, after all. Alex Townsend had been one of them. And it broke their hearts to see Mary so distraught. As they were leaving, one of them, Mike Dowd, a big, husky teddy bear of a man, hung back and held Mary’s hand gravely in his own. “Don’t worry, Mary,” he advised. “We’re going to find out what happened to Alex. I promise you.”
Mary nodded and wept and assured Mike that she had full confidence in the police.
Now, alone for the first time in nearly forty hours, Mary dialed Hixon Elementary School. “Yes, Tim and Sheila are adjusting okay,” the principal told her. “But I really think they shouldn’t be at school, with everything that’s happening.”
“No,” Mary replied. “I really think it’s best for them if very little changes in their routine. They should be in school where everything’s predictable.”
The principal grudgingly agreed, and the phone call was over.
Then Mary made a second call. A man answered. “We have three hours,” she told him.
Two hours or so later, as she and her dentist, Barry Weaver, rested in each other’s arms in bed, basking in their post-coitus bliss, Mary said, “I can’t believe it’s finally happening. That he’s finally gone.”
“What do you think happened to him?” Barry asked.
“Who gives a shit?”
“Well, he might not be dead, you know? He might come back.”
Mary lit a cigarette and savored the warm smoke. “Trust me, Barry. He’s dead. I don’t know how or why, but he is.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Seriously? The man was an obsessive creature of habit. You know that. No matter how much he messed around, he was always home and in his own bed at the end of the day. Without fail. No, he just wasn’t capable of breaking his routine. Believe me, Barry, someone broke it for him.”
Barry thought about this. “Christ, I hope you’re right. Now we won’t have to sneak around so much. As long as Patti’s kept in the dark.”
Mary drew on the cigarette and looked up at the ceiling. “I think we’re finally free,” she said. “I think the nightmare is over.”
Barry noted the time on the bedside clock. “Shit!” he growled, getting up. “I have to call Patti. She’ll be wondering where I am.”
Mary scoffed. “Now, if only we could get her to disappear, too.”
Barry chuckled at this. “Don’t worry,” he said. “She has absolutely no idea what’s going on. She’s dumb and clueless.”
“Make sure it stays that way.”
Barry walked into the kitchen where a phone hung on the wall. Clearing his throat and thinking up a lie, he dialed his wife. A woman answered.
“Patti, it’s Barry,” he said. “Yeah, I was in a consultation. It ran a little late. What? No, that’s okay. I have a few more patients to see. Uh huh. I’ll be home in a few hours. Yeah, pizza sounds fine. Right, pepperoni.”
Nine blocks away, Patti Weaver hung up the phone in the hallway of her small house. “Barry’s not going to be home for a few hours,” she said to the man standing next to her. “And the kids won’t get back for at least forty minutes.”
Nelson Klein smiled cunningly. “Oh, dear,” he joked. “How shall we fill the time?” Then he slammed Patti against the wall and kissed her. She wrapped her arms around him and surrendered to his passion. That’s what she liked about Nelson so much. He was passionate.
Afterward, as the smell of sex hung in the bedroom, Patti flipped on the TV. Nelson, who was getting dressed now, took note of what the anchorman was saying. “They’re still talking about the Challenger,” he said.
“Yeah,” Patti agreed. “I expect they will be for a while.”
“I’m sort of sick of it.”
“Well, it was a big deal.”
Nelson dismissed this comment and looked at his watch. “I have to call Sally,” he mused out loud, reaching to the floor for his shirt. “She’ll be wondering where I am.” He dialed and waited, then hung up the phone. “Hmm,” he said. “No answer.”
And at that very moment, Sally Klein, having no inkling that Alex Townsend was missing or that her husband was as guilty of infidelity as she was, made the sign of the cross. She was about to enter a confessional booth at her Catholic church.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a woman named Judith was cleaning one of the ovens in her crematory. Business was good, after all, and the crematory saw a lot of traffic. She smiled as she worked.
Michael Vito Tosto is a writer, jazz musician, philosopher, and historian who lives in St. Louis, Missouri with his wife and two cats. A student of the human condition, he writes to make the world a better place.