We’ve got nothing in common. She’s young enough to be my daughter. The names that mean everything to me – Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Otis Redding – are, to her, ancient history, ghosts of hit parades past. And I call her Nineteen because I don’t even know her name.
Apart from that she’s perfect. Because she calls me every night at exactly three minutes to midnight – about an hour into my late night shift at WSOL – and we swap secrets in the dark like lonely co-conspirators.
I know about the kidney-shaped birthmark just above her ass.
She knows about how I always hated hunting with my dad but did it anyway, because that’s just what a man does.
I know about the crush she had on her physics teacher.
She knows about my delirious first night back from the army: the marriage proposal to Stephanie. Stephanie’s surprise for me (she was pregnant by another guy). The decision I made for us both (put it up for adoption). And the special place in hell that surely awaits me for casting that kid off to a life without a mother.
Tonight, she’s in a mischievous mood:
“What if you came home one night to find your beloved bride gone forever?”
“What do you mean ‘gone’?” I ask.
“I mean, whatever you want it to mean – packed her bags and left, missing, belly up on the living room carpet.”
“Some nights, I wouldn’t know whether to weep or celebrate.”
“I vote celebrate.”
“Really. We’d be free. Free to go off together and start a new life. Free to be what we were meant to be.”
“Spoken like a true nineteen year-old. Idealistic, naïve. Living in an opium world without side effects.”
“This is simple, trust me. I can make this happen.”
This is the way we talk. We talk this way because it’s reckless and fun. We talk this way because it stabs a gaping wound in the bellies of our mundane lives. This dangerous game give us something to cherish, a secret to keep. I tell myself it doesn’t really mean anything really.
My wife Stephanie finds the note. It was nestled in the wedge of her car’s door but clearly meant for me. It puzzles her and I pretend to be in the dark as well:
The day is soon upon us
We will be free
I try to explain to Stephanie that radio DJs get all kinds of delusional fans and she nods her head like a kid being talked out of her milk money. There’s a distance at the dinner table tonight, a quiet that circles us like a vulture. The danger isn’t fun anymore.
The phone rings the same time it always rings, but I leap out of my body’s wrapping just the same, pick up the receiver – a child with something foreign and frightening in his hand – and answer:
“What if I told you things will be happening tomorrow?”
“Stop this,” is all I can say.
“It’s too late. The wheels are in motion.”
“This is getting crazy.”
“No, it’s getting perfect.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, come on! You know exactly what that means. You know that feeling of two people meant to be joined forever. That feeling that nothing else makes sense in the world without the other.”
“Yes, I feel that way about my wife.”
“Bullshit! Are you forgetting who you’re talking to? I know everything about you two: separate vacations; sex every eight weeks; arguments over everything and nothing; no kids, no passion, no hope of things getting better.”
“Just stop it!”
“There is no stopping it, Mike. It’s done.”
I slam down the phone and tell the invisible audience they’ve been listening to something from Etta James.
Once Wilson Pickett floods the airwaves, I vow to contact the police. Eventually. No sense setting another dust-up in motion over something that will probably turn to be a out to be a hoax, a cruelly unfunny joke. I skulk home chanting *there’s nothing to worry about* and almost believing it.
I don’t like guns. As a kid, I hated having those clunky hunting rifles shoved into my mitts and told I should love it. I hated that I hated it and I hated whatever that said about me. But I step inside Ray’s Firearms, endure the country music screeching from the speakers above and purchase a snub-nosed revolver because that’s just what a man does.
As far as the radio station knows, I’m at home fighting off the worst flu of my life. But really I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of Ray’s Firearms, motionless as The Delphonics wash over me and remind me what it was like when the world kind of made sense.
On the drive home, every hooded face becomes a menace, every unfriendly glance a reason to reach for the revolver in my glove compartment. I lurch into the driveway and just when breathing seems like a good idea again, I’m slapped into wide-eyed alertness by my screaming cell phone. This would be a wonderful time to have my evening interrupted by a telemarketer. But no.
Something in her voice sings with too much joy, too great a sense of achievement. So before stepping out of the car, I reach into my glove compartment…
“How are you?” I ask, hoping to stall her. Maybe fish out information.
“I’m wonderful. Just waiting for you.”
The revolver feels cold in my hand, like a dead thing awaiting a burial.
“Why are you waiting for me, Nineteen?”
“Don’t be silly. You know we can’t do this thing without you.”
I tuck the gun into my pants, clumsy like an unrehearsed actor on a cop show, step out, up the driveway…
To the door.
“What thing are we doing?”
She sighs, like we’ve been through this a million times. Maybe in her mind we have.
I open the door to a silence that bangs at my eardrums.
“Have you ever been lonely, Mike?”
But her voice isn’t only coming through the cell phone. She’s inside the house.
“Answer me, Goddamnit!”
I try to follow the voice but find only Stephanie tied to the living room chair. Her face is frozen in mid-scream. She breathes in panicked spasms.
Something happens to your insides when you see the face of a loved one twisting into something horrific, something unrecognizable. Everything ugly and unpleasant and annoying about them floats away and you’re left with an urgent need to act. A need to save that rare bird from being shot from the sky.
Nineteen charges in from the shadows, gun drawn, eyes enlarged with rage.
“Answer me,” she demands. “Have you ever known real loneliness? The feeling of being incomplete, unfinished?”
“I haven’t,” I reply. I have no tricks, no exit strategies.
“Well, I’ve never known anything else.”
She wraps an arm around my wife, draws her closer. Her hand dangles for a second. Not quite enough time for me to make a move.
So I wait. Because she has to drop her guard and make herself a target at some point.
“You have no idea what kind of emptiness I have inside.”
She’s crying now, unhinged, spiraling into madness. But make no mistake, she is going to shoot my wife. So I have to act.
Maybe she sees the bulge below my untucked shirt. Maybe she doesn’t.
“What I’m about to do is the best for all concerned,” she says.
She steps into a corner, slams a wall.
“I hate that this has to happen, but I just want to make myself whole. That’s all.”
My hand darts to my waist, into my pants. I’m pretty fast for a novice.
But she’s faster. She turns and sends a bullet to my ribcage before I get the damn thing settled into my hand.
I curl to the floor with a whimper and an angry thud.
She yanks Stephanie up by the hair, pulls her away, outside…
I can move only in the tiny steps of wounded pray. I crawl to the window to watch my wife’s body – drained of everything but a pulse – tossed into the backseat of her car.
As they motor into the horizon, I hear nothing but crying – I don’t know whose. Maybe my own.
I’ll live. But it looks like I’ll have to live alone – for a while at least.
The police are baffled. They don’t understand why this happened, why a middle-aged woman was kidnapped by a teenager she’s never met. But they don’t know what I know. They haven’t added up the clues: Nineteen’s obsession with my marriage; her longing for completion; Stephanie’s child given up for adoption nineteen years ago. They’ll be coming to my hospital room to question me in a matter of minutes. This is going to be awkward.
It already embarrasses me to consider how far off the mark I was about Nineteen. Here I was casting her as a femme fatale, a dark-souled siren, hell-bent on digging her claws into a smart, sophisticated older man and dragging him into her world of tumult.
Turns out she was just a lonely nineteen year-old who wanted her mom back.
Tomorrow’s Lunch Break Crime Read: Liar’s Lemonade