The Hard Case
The girl grunted and heaved herself onto her back. She let out a long, tuneless whistle.
Archie smiled to himself. He lay on the damp sheet, drawing in her smell, feeling her body heat radiate toward the ceiling. He patted the girl's backside. She might be the one, he thought reflexively. He was a sucker for dreams of domestic life. One roll in the hay and his brain pan filled with images of a two-story tract house, towheaded junior catching a ball in the yard, and the girl of the moment wiping her hands on an apron as she stepped from the kitchen to greet him. That the apron was all she had on provided a sure tip-off he was in dreamland.
Archie sat up in bed, hooking his arms around his knees. He told himself he was regressing again. It always worked out fine as long as he didn't attach human traits to the girl. Her gurgles and moans, compliments and exhortations -- they were systematic, interchangeable from client to client. He tried to think of the girls from the service sort of as a colony of mutant super ants. They were hardwired to do their job, day after day, unthinking and uncomplaining. It was simply a biological imperative. But sometimes the person in the ant-girl showed through. She would offer some casual small talk off the clock, usually while dressing - something about the décor, or about how she was planning to visit her sister in Buffalo. And fifteen minutes later Archie would be buying her breakfast at Denny's, trying not to meet the server's eye and feeling like a sellout.
He was listening to this one's soft, rhythmic breathing when the phone rang. He grabbed it, taking the opportunity to turn his back on his bedmate. "Hello?"
"Oh, God, Archie. Where've you been? I must've left ten messages." Jenny. Breathless.
Archie snapped his fingers until the prostitute looked up from the bed, and he motioned for her to get dressed and get out. He peered back into the phone. "I worked a double-shift yesterday. What's up?"
Jenny sighed, which whooshed across the line like a firecracker. "God, I shouldn't have called you."
"Come on, Jen, what's up?"
Jenny took a deep breath and held it a moment. "It's Johnny."
Her husband, Jonathan. The big shot.
"Is he all right?" Archie asked.
"He's fine." There was a pause, as if Jenny had been distracted by something. Then: "Do you remember how we got together? Me and Johnny, I mean."
"A Save the Corporate Tax Break march?"
Nothing -- not even a giggle. Another long pause lingered on the line, and Archie pictured Jenny gazing out the window at a gaggle of passing children or even at the empty street. "Concentrate!" her father used to yell as she pushed toward the end of the pool, her form disintegrating into childlike flailing. "You'll never be a champion if you can't concentrate!" Jenny was never a champion.
At last she came back on the line. "Look, Archie, could you come down here?" Her voice faltered, as if she suddenly doubted whether she could count on him anymore. "Just for a day," she said.
"I'm swamped here. Is this important?"
"God, yes, Archie, it's important. What do you think, I'm making prank calls?"
"All right, all right. You just haven't told me anything."
A door slammed, and Archie jerked around, his heart spiking. The girl, leaving in a huff.
"Something's got to be done," Jenny said. "You know what I mean."
Archie arrived at around seven that night. He was never much of a problem-solver for Jenny, but she continued to call, two or three times a year. One girlfriend, Tina, the only one who'd shown any staying power, would sigh and hand over the phone. "Another bad hair day," she'd say, "and it's Archie Marston, amateur advice columnist, to the rescue." It irked Tina that he would always leave the room to talk to his ex-wife.
It was only a few hours from Atlantic City to the D.C. area, but Archie was beat. The news of the past couple of days had left him drained. Soviet shock troops taking over TV stations and ministry buildings in Vilnius; Lithuania's president calling for citizens to come to the capital to defend their independence. What would the U.S., on the verge of its own war in Iraq, do? Nineteen ninety-one was off to a terrible start. Archie saw the series of events as a dark portent. The fruits of perestroika, he thought bitterly. Order, progress - it all seemed to be spinning further and further away.
When Archie arrived at the house, Jenny mashed up her nose in displeasure and showed him to the guest room so he could clean himself up. He knew he reeked of cigarettes, even though he'd cut back to a half-dozen a day. Or maybe he just reeked of failure. Working security at a casino in A.C.? Pathetic. What had happened to his dreams? He was going to be a lawyer -- go to the FBI or Justice. Make a real contribution to the cause, not just freelance. Not just depend on Jenny to make him feel like a man.
Archie washed his face and lingered in the bathroom, staring at the mirror. Finally he pulled open the cabinet door under the sink. The Walther was there. He closed the cabinet and stood up. It was getting dark, and he could tell there was no one else in the house. He pulled open the patio door and headed out beyond the fence. Walking along the muddied rut of a recent bicycle track, he made quick work of the landscaped path and dropped down onto the beach. He scanned the horizon and spotted Jenny standing on a large rock. She was staring out at Chesapeake Bay, the sky hovering thick and dark.
As Archie lingered at the edge of the beach, Jenny spun around like she was on coasters. She wore a loose, faded pair of khakis and a thin jacket over a polo shirt, the pants riding low on her hips, bare feet squeezing sand between the toes.
Archie was still about ten feet away when she held her hands out for him, as if he were a toddler about to fall. His fingers slid softly over hers and she drew him in. She looked good. Whenever he saw her he was struck anew by how she'd grown into a woman. Thin lines cut around her eyes. Her mouth was heavy with experience. There was a sense of purpose in her bearing -- solidity, confidence.
"Let's go for a swim," she said right off.
"A swim?" Archie blurted. "Are you crazy?" His voice was a low whine that grated on him as soon as the words crossed his lips.
Jenny's eyes remained on his. "Come on, it'll be nice," she said. She squeezed his hands. "You'll feel better."
Archie glanced at the sky, then back at Jenny, whose eyes had narrowed into insistent slits. She loved being in the water. Every day she went in, no matter what the weather. He looked up at the pile of black clouds again and shrugged. "What the hell," he said.
Snapping free of her concentration, Jenny swung toward the bay. She wriggled out of her pants, let her jacket fly off into the wind, and hurled herself at the shore, hair flapping behind her like a wave. Without breaking stride, she somehow slipped her shirt over her head, dented the water and was gone.
Archie stripped while a first, wispy smattering of rain swept across the beach. He neatly folded his tie and placed it atop his silk shirt, using a shoe to hold everything in place. He always dressed to impress, just in case it was necessary. Jenny's father had taught him that. Kicking off his socks, he lurched forward, trying to work up some enthusiasm.
The first splash buckled Archie's knees and punched the air out of his lungs. Pushing further out, he began slapping his arms around like he was sinking in quicksand. Jenny appeared just in time. She found his hand and grasped it. Archie held tight to her waist. He realized that she was essentially treading water for both of them, holding him up with the flap of her legs as she pulled them further out into the bay.
"How's Tina?" she called up at the sky, her head half submerged as she kicked.
The question broke an extended silence, and Archie tried to suck in air to speak. Tina. He hadn't thought of her in weeks, he noted with satisfaction. For a while there he'd really thought he loved Tina. He'd done the work. Read all the relationship books, watched "thirtysomething" with her. He'd failed, though. He was disappointed, or at least thought he should be. But what he actually felt was pride. Now he knew for sure what kind of man he was. Now there would be no more self-doubt.
Had he never told Jenny that he and Tina were kaput?
"You know I still hate you for finding someone prettier than me," Jenny called out.
She slung a handful of water at him. "Not that finding someone prettier than me is so hard."
When her legs began to ache, Jenny stopped swimming and bounced in front of Archie. "Hello," she said. Grabbing his forearms, she crossed her ankles behind him and tucked them under his behind. She rose with the movement and they bumped stomachs.
"Excuse me," she said, laughing.
What came next shouldn't have surprised Archie, but it did. Embarrassed, he reached down to tug at his shorts, trying to relieve the pressure, and found Jenny blinking at him. As she unhooked her legs and drifted backward, a splinter of panic cut through him. He knew this was not the time for those thoughts. There was work to do.
Jenny smiled at him; she seemed unaware of his libidinous response to her presence, though surely that was impossible. Archie tried to will the feeling away. He reminded himself why he was there. Business, not pleasure; business, not pleasure.
The mantra was untenable. To hell with business, he thought. Jenny in the water, joyous, free of all burdens. The image had played in his dreams for years. A swell pulled him under, and he struggled to hold his breath. You're weak, he told himself. Weak.
So why fight it? Surfacing, Archie grabbed her and they wrestled, laughing, until Jenny, finally bothered by what was happening above them, threw her head back and surveyed the sky. This wasn't the light, easy rain that was typical of summer. This was the warning before the sky collapsed.
Now Jenny once again led the way, sliding toward the shore, kicking and pushing against the current. The two of them rose out of the water and immediately hugged themselves to ward off the night breeze. Archie hopped in place as he gathered up their clothes, and Jenny took his hand and led him up the beach. They tiptoed into the backyard. The light over the door winked. The sky let loose just then, and they ran up the path, banging into each other hip to hip, before finally clopping into the kitchen with oohs and ahhs at the sudden blast of warmth.
Archie dumped the clothes on the floor and pulled towels out of a hamper in the adjacent laundry room, hoping they weren't too dirty. Jenny stood at the door, engrossed in a flooded bra strap that had twisted under her arm. Her hair was still heavy with the bay, and it was plastered to her shoulders and back in thick, wet strands. Standing astride a pool of water, she cocked her head to the side and ran her hands through her locks, tamping down with her palm and looking at Archie sideways with a lazy smile.
"Johnny won't be home for a couple of hours," she said.
"Shh." Jenny loomed over him, a grin nicking her face, hair falling forward and brushing his chest.
"My dad is directly above us." She looked up at the ceiling. "We have to be quiet."
"Okay, okay." Archie pulled at her T-shirt, hiking it up.
"No." She pinned his arms.
"You're such a boy. I'm not going to take everything off. I have to go back up to my room."
"I want to see you," he told her.
"It's pitch-black in here, dummy."
"I can see."
"You'll have to use your hands, not your eyes."
"Okay. How's that?"
"Mmm. You're learning."
Archie adjusted his position, sitting Jenny down on his hips, the bedsprings groaning. "Do you really think your dad doesn't know we have sex?"
"I don't know. But if my father found us doing this, right here in his house, I'd feel obligated to yell rape."
"Then you better start yelling, honey."
The voice was like a sudden horn blast, and Jenny's knees jerked against Archie's thighs as he gasped and tried to sit up. It was impossible to know how long Henry had been standing there, just out of sight, and now he walked forward, shaking his head and clucking his tongue....
Archie rose from the bed, shaking off the memory, and laid Jenny's album on the floor. He had counted more than a dozen photos of the Old Man, all taken during the brief period more than a decade ago when Jenny thought she wanted to be a photographer, before Henry convinced his daughter of her true calling. Henry was a jarring presence in photos, just as in life. You could see that Eastern European obsession with manliness in his posture, that contempt for anyone who showed fear of anything. Right off, Henry had pegged Archie as soft. Said he was as dreamy as a girl. He was right, and Archie hated himself for it.
The first time he met Henry, Archie could barely speak he was so afraid. Jenny had made sure of it, telling him tales of her childhood that made Archie feel sick. It was at the airport on Homecoming weekend, he remembered. Archie had dropped Jenny off before parking, and when he came into the terminal, he saw that massive head first, thick and sloped. Middle-aged spread hadn't compromised Henry -- his head was still anchored to a stout neck and his chest still competed for prominence with the gut. Standing to the side of the terminal in an outsized Italian suit, he was nodding toward a television that hung over the entrance of a bar -- President-elect Reagan, saying something to the camera. Jenny followed her father's gesture and began to move toward it, but Henry caught her with a hand. It was a swift movement for a fat old guy. The veiny fingers jumped out and snatched the flap of her dress, turned it around the wrist, and pulled. Everything slowed down then, like Archie was watching a dream. Jenny was unaware she'd been snagged, and as the dress pulled taut and the tension reverberated against her waist, she stutter-stepped and wheeled back toward him. A flash of surprise rolled over her face as she turned, her mouth swiveling into an unrehearsed O. Henry gave the dress another little tug and leaned in, whispering to her, giving some mysterious instructions. Archie now saw the hand move behind her. Jenny gave a small start and stiffened to her full height. And smiled.
A florid-faced woman pulling a red suitcase bumped into Archie, and he snapped out of it. The world speeded up again, and he realized he was humming -- "Fat Bottomed Girls." Queen. Whenever he was in an uncomfortable situation, he hummed. It was a silly coping mechanism. He knew that, but he couldn't stop doing it. He forced himself to move forward, and when he entered Henry's field of vision, Henry let go of Jenny's dress and she stepped back. Gnashing his mouth into a grin, Henry waved Archie over.
"Well," he rumbled, "Nice to meet you..."
"Archie," Jenny reminded him.
"Right. Archie. Interesting. Who named you, Archie?"
"Jenny said you were an orphan." He looked at Jenny. "Am I getting that right?" She nodded.
"Well, my parents were able to manage that much."
"Good for them," Henry said, nodding vigorously. "Archibald. Very blue-blood. Excellent."
Archie looked up as Jenny, freshly showered, entered the bedroom. He flushed - caught in dreamland again. Jenny glanced at the photo album, grimaced, then looped around the bed and reached into a bookcase at the far wall.
"If you're going to stroll down memory lane, why not go the whole way? I think it was chapter two that got me hot." She tossed the book at him. It clomped on top of the open album.
Fourier. Archie picked up the book. He had loved this guy. Naïve ideology, but very pure, the perfect place to start on the way to political maturity. The community works only when everyone has a secure place in it. Plus, orgies! He found the phrase that Jenny had brought to his attention on their first date: "Attractions are proportional to Destinies." What college kid couldn't get behind this? He and Jenny used to stretch out on the bed in his dorm room and talk about creating their own Brook Farm social experiment and making it work -- no fuzzy-headed idealists allowed.
Archie squeezed the paperback in his hands. Throughout his adolescence he'd worried incessantly about finding the love of his life, and then Jenny had materialized at just the right time. Even at the start, at least when he was being honest with himself, he knew she didn't stir up feelings any different from what jabbed at him whenever he set eyes on a beautiful woman. But that was all right. Real love was an illusion. And Jenny had offered so much more than love. She introduced him to something better: a calling, a purpose. Her father.
"Think we'll ever get married again, Westphalen?"
Jenny smirked. "Henry will find another big man to hook me up with. You know that."
"Why'd he let us get married in the first place?"
"He liked you. He saw potential."
"Boy, was he wrong."
It was black when he woke. The wind hissed along the side of the house and banged garbage cans and mail boxes out in the street. The clatter of rain was like buckshot, and Archie lay naked in the dark, listening, almost comforted by the wind-howl and the thunder.
He was nervous. Paralyzed. He'd done a lot of work for Jenny -- making drops, late-night break-ins. He'd helped her career -- and Henry's -- a fair amount over the years. Henry's chest sported a shelf of ribbons when he got duded up for celebratory dinners for the three of them at his house. But Archie hadn't done this. Not yet. And it was time. Time to show that he had it in him. Get up! he commanded himself. He needed another go. Needed the tension release. He should slip into the master bedroom and snatch that nightgown off Jenny, right there on her husband's bed. She'd enjoyed it on the couch; she'd be game for another grapple.
He didn't move. No, she wouldn't be game. She had to stay focused. She'd done what needed to be done to make sure Archie was on board. Now she had to execute the plan. No let up until the very end.
In the early years, Jenny didn't think she had it in her, this life, but she'd worked at it. You had to give her that.
Archie heard a door creak and then click closed, and he stopped his brain and listened. The sound of shoes on marble quickly disappeared. He didn't move, feeling the air pulse quietly around him. After about twenty minutes, Jenny pushed open the door to the guest room and leaned in. "He's here," she said.
Archie sat up. "You sure this is necessary?"
Jenny sighed. "He knows, Archie. He's having me followed. Henry thinks he's being followed. Johnny's going to turn me in. His own wife."
Archie nodded, and Jenny disappeared.
Archie got up, put on his clothes. Took some deep breaths. Don't be nervous, he told himself. Bear down. When it was time, he pulled on gloves with care and gathered up the gun from the bathroom. He stepped into the hall. Jenny hit her cue: "Johnny! Johnny! There's someone in the house."
The plan was simple, as all good plans were: Jenny would make sure her husband was in the vestibule, facing the front door, and Archie would step out of the closet, right in front of him, and -- bang. They wouldn't even have to touch him. A man-surprises-burglar story, over and out.
Archie stepped out of the closet -- and got an eyeful of Jenny's husband: Bald, squinty-eyed, a paunch peeking out of a downy bathrobe. Yet the man of the house didn't freeze at the sight of him or his gun. Johnny flinched, but that was about all. He glanced over his shoulder at his wife, then turned back to Archie. "You better get out of here," he said. "There's a silent alarm. The police station is right down the street."
The man's calm infuriated Archie. Rich men were always calm.
He chopped at Johnny, aiming the butt of the gun handle right between the eyes. His target ducked, the blow glancing off a shoulder. Shuffling to stay in front of him, Archie reached for Johnny, and heard the gun hit the floor and skitter away.
The two men grabbed at each other for balance. Archie tried to throw a punch, but it was close quarters. His elbow hit the wall behind him and stuck momentarily as it broke through the plaster. He grabbed one of Johnny's arms instead and pivoted, putting all of his weight into the move. Johnny crashed into the opposite wall, breath huffing in his throat. Still holding onto Johnny's arm, Archie jerked him around again, trying to get him on the floor. He wanted to step on Johnny's neck -- he wanted to hear him whimper in pain.
Johnny jerked to his right, trying to steady himself -- and then suddenly wheeled away, toppling backward into the living room. His bathrobe had come off in Archie's hands, and the release of weight sent Archie staggering in the opposite direction. Archie hit the front door and dropped into a sitting position. In the living room, Johnny rose, naked flesh trembling, eyes lapping the room in search of the gun. He stepped forward, and Jenny shrieked. Both men glanced up. She was on the bottom step of the stairway, clutching her nightgown at her sides, the veins in her wrists sharply distended. Archie's eyes met hers. Was she embarrassed that he was seeing her fat husband naked? Embarrassed for her husband -- or for herself?
Johnny put his hand up, to calm her. Or to shoo her away -- into the kitchen, out the back door. Gallant.
This had gotten out of hand. Archie cursed himself for his weakness -- for letting his emotions get the best of him. He had the luxury now for self-analysis: he was sitting on the gun. When he pulled it out from behind him, Johnny's eyes snapped wide open like umbrellas. There it was -- finally. Fear. Now was that so hard? Archie pulled the trigger.
Jonathan Lachman -- capitalist oppressor; advisor to presidents; the Man with the Rolodex, as Henry called him -- was dead. Archie surveyed the scene. It was messier than you would ever want, but it worked.
He climbed to his feet and stood over the fresh corpse. He was humming, he realized, a wave of self-disgust rolling over him. And Paul McCartney! Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs. And what's wrong with that? I'd like to know, cause here I go again...
"I ... love ... you," he muttered, on key.
He heard Jenny say his name, and he looked up. Her eyes had gone soft. She thought he was talking to her.
"Go on," Jenny scolded quietly. "Punch out the entry pane and get out of here."
Archie did as he was told. Before he headed out the door, Jenny grabbed his arm and kissed him.
"My father will make sure what you did reaches the highest level -- all the way to Gorby."
Archie shook his head and avoided looking at her. She should have known he had little use for Gorbachev. Archie was a Stalin man all the way.
-- By Douglas Perry, published in Demolition magazine, Fall 2008