by F. X. James
Jerry sat naked on the edge of the bed, crying. Ellen was behind him, also naked, and dead. They had made love less than an hour before. Then, with their desire sated, they had both fallen asleep with Jerry pressed close to Ellen’s long, warm back, his mouth against her soft neck, inhaling the sweet, comforting scent of her.
When Jerry awoke an hour later he instinctively knew something was dreadfully wrong. He reached for Ellen in the darkness and once his fingers lightly touched her cool flesh, his heart began to race and his mouth went dry. He flipped the covers back. He touched the nape of her soft neck, then squeezed there gently. Nothing. He took hold of her right shoulder and shook twice. Again, nothing. Her name was on the tip of his tongue, but for the life of him, he could not speak it aloud. He did not dare. He was suddenly terrified. He bit down hard on the heel of his hand and slid out of the bed. His breath was raspy and loud. His knees were shaking. His stomach churned and he involuntarily clenched his sphincter muscle.
He moved slowly along the bottom edge of the bed and around to her side, then up to where her small uncovered knees laid pressed together. He reached out and lightly pinched the smooth, soft flesh just above and slightly to one side of her right kneecap. Nothing. He pinched again, harder, even twisting the flesh there a little. Again, nothing. He spoke then; he said, Oh God, and the sound of his voice in the small, dark room, sounded awful to him. It sounded weak and dry and utterly ineffectual. He then spoke her name. He said it three times, quickly and flatly. He said, Ellen, Ellen, Ellen.
He covered his mouth with his hand and looked at her face. Her eyes were open. He groaned audibly into his hand. He could not believe this. More than all the rest, he could not believe that her eyes could still be open. She was dead. The word detonated in his mind. Thirty-two years old and dead. She had a weak heart. Something they had talked about before. Some hereditary ailment. Her father, dead before the age of fifty. Her grandfather dead at forty-six. An uncle she barely knew, recently dead. It became a morbid joke for her whenever they talked about future plans and dreams together. She would shrug and smile and tease Jerry for thinking so far ahead. She would also remind him not to forget that Alan would never willingly let her go. He would never agree to a divorce, she would remind him. He would fight her all the way, and Jerry knew it. He knew it would be hard. They had talked about it often, about her leaving Alan, and him, Jerry, leaving Claire. About the two of them then running off to some place faraway, somewhere where they could live out their quiet lives together in a small, inexpensive cabin near a large body of water. The water was crucial. It was their little fantasy, Ellen would say. And Jerry would agree that, yes, it was, but a fantasy that could be realized, he would remind her.
Then there were the children to think about, as well. Jerry’s, not hers. Ellen never risked having children because the doctors expressed concern about the added stress this could cause her heart. But Alan really wanted a child, very much, most especially a son, and he would often cruelly challenge Ellen as to the exact seriousness of her condition, and just how her pregnancy would in fact exacerbate it. He would say such cruel things to her, especially when he had been drinking. These were the kinds of things Ellen and Jerry both thought about most of the time, and the things they often talked about when they were together; Ellen’s husband Alan, Jerry’s wife Claire, and Jerry’s three children, Anna, Michael, and little baby Steven. Just how could Jerry and Ellen possibly overcome all these odds so they could one day be together?
But none of that meant a damn thing anymore, thought Jerry, as he sat naked on the edge of the bed with his wet face pressed into his hands and his own strong heart still beating in his chest. He slowly stood and gathered the sheets from the floor. He shook them out and placed them over Ellen, but only up to her chin. He did not want to cover her face. She looked so serene, he thought, as though she were idly chasing some notion or other, some image she had suddenly recalled from her past, something she was now just slotting back into place in her mind before sharing it with Jerry. That was what Jerry thought as he tucked the white sheet gently beneath Ellen’s chin.
He leaned over and kissed her then, just once, lightly on the cool softness of her cheek. He stroked her hair. For a moment he thought about laying down beside her once again, wrapping her up in his arms, one last time, kissing the nape of her neck, telling her how much he loved her. But he knew it would be wrong to do so. Ellen was dead. Holding her now, in such an intimate way, would seem somehow abnormal or offensive, Jerry thought. He would judge himself were he to do such a thing now, and this unavoidable self-incrimination would defeat the purpose altogether. It would play out like some strange scene in a movie, Jerry imagined, some bizarre image that would instantly take him out of the world of the film, and leave him sitting there in judgment of its tasteless peculiarity.
Jerry did not believe in any god, or in an afterlife, and what he was looking at now, he felt certain, was purely the empty shell of the person he once so dearly loved, the person who only an hour ago was sleeping peacefully at his side. It hurt him deeply to admit to such a thing, to concede to his heartfelt belief that he would never talk to her or touch her living body ever again. But he could not believe otherwise. He could not readily cast aside so many years of faithlessness, just because he had now personally suffered an unimaginable loss. To do so would only serve to make him more of a hypocrite than he already was.
These cold clinical thoughts came to Jerry as he stood naked at the foot of the bed. Ellen was gone. She was gone and he must decide on what to do next. He shook his head, dismayed that he was giving the matter any thought at all. He looked around for his boxer shorts and found them beneath a pillow on the floor. He put them on and then looked for his undershirt, which he found hanging from the neck on the bathroom door handle. He put this on and ran his fingers through his hair. He turned on the bathroom light and pulled the door partly closed so that the light cast only a portion of the room in a sickly yellow glow. The glow faded at the foot of the bed. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled a few times, deep and slow, deep and slow, the released breath whistling lightly from his nostrils.
He wet his lips with his tongue and then picked up the phone handset and pushed zero on the dial pad. When the youthful male voice of the desk clerk crackled in his ear, asking how he could be of assistance, Jerry quickly put the phone down. He shook his head to clear his thoughts. Just exactly what was he doing? What would he have said to the clerk? He needed to take a moment. He needed to think. He had to be methodical.
He felt certain the desk clerk would call right back, but he did not. Jerry took his hand from the phone and went to the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. He ran his fingers through his hair again. He understood the actions he had very nearly taken, the simple, honest actions of informing the desk clerk that a young woman had just unexpectedly died in room 109, would lead to a rapid series of very specific and ultimately negative consequences. And would any of those consequences be truly necessary? Would the knowledge of his affair with Ellen, now that she was gone, serve any purpose whatsoever, or be of benefit to anyone else beyond himself and Ellen? He could not see how it could be.
The next thought that then came to Jerry’s mind was this: had he been seen entering the hotel with Ellen at his side? He knew that he had not. As they had done from the very start of their affair nearly two years ago now, one of them would always enter the hotel alone to book and pay for the room in advance. They would allow their credit card to be swiped for insurance purposes against damages or extra charges, but would insist on paying for the room itself with cash. And they would always request a ground level room set some distance from the main entrance. Whichever one of them went inside would then return to the parking lot with the plastic keycard in hand, and the two of them would then drive to the room together.
Jerry then thought about security cameras, and whether anyone would insist on viewing the recorded footage once his now dead love, Ellen, had been discovered. He knew he had committed no crime, of course, but he also felt sure that Alan would rightfully be suspicious to learn that his wife had not been out of state on one of her business trips, as she had told him she would be, but rather right here in town, in fact, not more than a few miles from their home.
Jerry sat down in a chair at the foot of the bed. He hated that he was thinking this way, like some guileless fool attempting to cover up his ignorant part in a guiltless act, but he could not see the sense in his remaining here to answer questions, questions that would quickly and negatively impact the lives of his wife and children. What purpose would that serve? None that he could think of. He knew the security camera thought was a paranoid one, but there was nothing he could do about it either way.
He began to pace the room, his naked feet brushing across the plush carpet. He looked at Ellen. So still. He looked at the clock radio on the bedside table. The red numerals read: 2:49. He went to the window and parted the curtains slightly and looked out onto a dimly lit and almost vacant lot. There were only a dozen or so rooms along this extended arm of the hotel. Ellen’s Ford was parked directly in front of their room. Further down Jerry could see a pickup truck parked alongside a family sedan with a U-Haul trailer hitched at the back. That was it, three vehicles in all. Again, Jerry knew this meant nothing. He had done no wrong after all. Well, nothing more than commit adultery.
He drew the curtains together and sat on the edge of the bed. His rear end bumped against Ellen’s foot and he quickly stood again. He looked at her. Her eyes were still open. He should have done something about that. What? Lightly run his fingers over them so that they close, like they did in the movies? Does that even work? And could he bring himself to touch her face again? He didn’t think he could. She would be even colder now, and the eyes were such a sensitive area. What if his fingers accidently brushed against her eyeball? Or if the lids refused to stay down? These were awful thoughts he was having. Poor Ellen. Poor, sweet sad Ellen. And she was sad. She had been sad for so long. Sad and very tired.
Things between her and Alan had become difficult over the last few months, more so than usual, she told Jerry. No, she was certain he knew nothing about their affair. There was just an atmosphere about Alan that hadn’t been there before. More broody and sullen. Introspective, perhaps. Ellen thought it was work related. What about Claire? Did she suspect anything? Jerry assured her that no, Claire was utterly in the dark about most of Jerry’s life when it didn’t directly involve her or the children. She never questioned where he was going or when he was coming back. She allowed him his space and he had taken full advantage of it. He felt bad about it, but there it was. Ellen felt bad too, but it didn’t stop them from doing what they were doing. But Ellen wasn’t as convinced as Jerry that things would work out so well for them both. No, she wasn’t imagining a bad end by any means, she just couldn’t see the cabin by the water with quite the same Hallmark Card clarity as Jerry. Jerry would call her a pessimist. She would correct him and call herself a realist. It would niggle Jerry whenever she spoke that way, but he would let it go. He always did. He loved her and felt certain she loved him too. What else was there?
What else? Jerry said aloud. His voice dispelling the quietude with its stark resonance. He went back to the bathroom once again and gathered all his clothes. What else? The words tugged at his conscience. The heels of his shoes were poking out from beneath the bed on his side. He dropped the clothes on the bed and bent down and snatched up the shoes. He dropped these on the bed as well, the sudden weight caused the sheet covering Ellen to ripple ever so slightly, as if she were just starting to rouse herself from a deep and pleasurable sleep.
What else? He touched her foot with the tip of his forefinger, and the undeniable reality (Ellen ever the realist, even in death, most especially in death) of this precise moment in his life rolled in on Jerry like a breaker. He sank to his knees and wept. He moaned and beat the edge of the bed with his fists. He pulled at his hair. Snot and tears and spittle distorted his face. He was floored, unmanned, weak as an infant, and so irrevocably miserable.
In time he stood on legs of liquid. He called her name once more. He said it loud, filling the word with all the loss she had left behind. He then ripped the sheet from her naked body and fell upon her, covering her cool, dead flesh, with wet, desperate kisses.
Thirty-two minutes later he left room 109. He walked along the bland hallway and out through the exit door that led to the parking lot. Here he crossed the pitted tarmac and walked up a steep incline, his breath curling before him in sliver gray wisps. He found what he was looking for under the bright awning of a Shell gas station. He fumbled in his pocket for a quarter. He lifted the greasy handset and pushed the coin down into the slot. He punched the number and waited for the voice to come to him, the same voice as before, genial and youthful. But this time Jerry spoke, he spoke about room 109, and the young woman to be found there, dead. He said he was sorry, sorry for leaving her that way, for leaving her all alone. He was sorry.
He then hung up the phone and walked back out onto the street. He had no idea what to do. He couldn’t go home, not yet, not to the eyes and voices of his family. Not to Claire’s smile, and the children’s grabbing little hands.
He walked for another ten minutes or so, his collar pulled tight against his ears, his eyes blinking rapidly in the cold, early morning air. He saw a diner up ahead and decided to sit there for awhile, to gather his thoughts and breathe, to just be still and alone.
As he climbed the three steps to the entrance, his hand instinctively went to his back pocket for his wallet. It was not there. He stopped in mid-step. His breath locked in his throat, his heart hammering. Sweat prickled his scalp. His eyes blinked furiously. His mind swirled with images. The bedside table in the room. The one on his side of the bed. The one with the clock. An old man was trying to leave the diner. Jerry blocked his way. The old man rapped on the glass. Jerry glared up at him. The old man took a cautious step back, fingers drifting involuntarily to his old, slack mouth. Jerry looked back the way he had come. He looked into the dawning pink light of another new day. Then he started to run.
F. X. James is an oddball British expat recently seen loping through the woods of Maine. When he’s not dissolving in the midst of a savage summer or fattening up for the next brutal winter, he’s writing poems and stories on the backs of unpaid utility bills and drinking too much dark ale. He has had words printed in many a magazine, and on a sober day can tell a hawk from a handsaw.