Short Story: "The Old Wife's Tale"
This story originally appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine's March/April 2007 issue.
By Gillian Roberts
I cry at weddings. All weddings, even for people I don't know. Even for weddings I don't attend.
Even for weddings that haven't happened yet.
Opening the paper and looking at the list of people applying for marriage licenses is enough to start the waterworks.
In a world this evil, with so many people doing such terrible things to each other, the idea of two people innocently and with all their hearts and souls promising to be true to one another forever, till death parts them—I mean, how can a person not weep at the pure beauty of that?
But also, how can we not weep in a different sort of way, knowing the dangers ahead, the serious difference between a wedding and a marriage?
The poor brides and grooms are like innocent and idealistic recruits being sent to battle by seasoned warriors who know the odds are stacked against them. That, in fact, they're doomed.
George—George Edward Alexander, a man of three first names—and I made our death-do-us-part vows years ago. Even thinking about that day makes my eyes tear, but not completely with joy. George is the love of my life. He always was, he still is, and he always will be. I've made sure of that. Love is not the problem.
The vows are strong. If only men were, too. Consider yourself as modern as you like, but I say some things don't change. I am a liberated woman, a woman of her times, but I can be any kind of woman I decide to be, and George will still be a man, and there's pretty much only one kind of that.
That's another reason I cry.
Things were okay the first three years, when George was in law school. Maybe not entirely okay, but like they say, the wife is always the last to know, and ignorance was bliss. We were a team, both of us working hard for the sake of our future, of our marriage. I abandoned my dreams of the stage—too risky when we desperately needed funds. Instead, I taught elementary school art. I was a traveling "specialist" which meant I drove all over the district to scrape out a living. By the end of the day, I didn't have the energy to wonder if George actually needed to burn as much midnight oil elsewhere as much as he did.
Besides, classmates could help him in ways I couldn't, so he studied with them, late into the night. It wasn't completely his fault if some of them were attractive.
And the studying was worth it, because George became a brilliant attorney, ask anybody. Say his name and you'll hear nothing but lavish praise for his skill. Okay, maybe you shouldn't ask just anybody. Maybe he's not universally adored, but who is? His specialty is one that most lawyers don't want to touch—criminal law. And he's so clever, his nickname is "Loop-de-loop" for all the legal holes he finds. Some people say it's really loup, French for wolf, but they're wrong.
I appreciate the idea that everybody is entitled to a fair trial even if it seems that maybe sometimes the trials aren't all that fair. Odd things happen. People on the other side from George, that is, people on the wrong side, change their mind, forget what they said, disappear, but George says it is all in the name of justice. I say justice is sometimes really, really blind, not to mention deaf and brain-dead.
I wish he'd upgrade his criminals to the ones in corporations. George laughs when I say that. He says it's part of my being a good housekeeper—I like things to be in order, neat, clean and tidy. He says I like white collar crime because it sounds as if it's been laundered. George is famous for his sense of humor.
George says you make your living however you can, and since he isn't murdering people, and he isn't committing the crimes, he doesn't get to choose what kind of person he represents. He takes whoever needs him.
And thanks to those thugs and killers (those accused thugs and killers) and George's legal skills, I long ago stopped driving from school to school, smiling at dumb dried noodle collages and pathetic drawings. Thanks to a lot of (alleged) murderers and rapists, we live well beyond anything I ever imagined. Our children had every advantage and now both are in college, and I am understandably proud of the job I did in raising them. I say "I" raised them because, in truth, George wasn't around much.
The last to know, that's what they say. I believed him when he had those late meetings, even though most of his clients were behind bars, and prisons don't keep the same hours as cocktail lounges. But, like he said, I wasn't a lawyer and I didn't understand.
It was a long time before I put two and two together and knew that George was usually one of the two.
The first time it dawned on me that maybe George wasn't telling the complete truth about his whereabouts and with-whomabouts, I took it slow. I am not a lawyer, true, but I'd watched how George built up a case. I knew it would be stupid to make accusations I couldn't back up, to appear weak or ill-informed. Instead, I observed, and I collected data, and then we had it out. Actually, it wasn't angry like that sounds. I merely pointed out the fact that his activities were endangering the sacred vows of marriage, and he was in danger of losing me and his children.
I didn't have to say that he was also in danger of losing half of every penny he'd ever made and everything he owned. He knew that part himself.
George cried. He said she meant nothing. He said he was weak—as if I needed to be informed of that—and he said it was over. He said he loved me now and forever. He bought me a diamond wedding band with eighteen square cut diamonds ringing my finger.
He said it would never happen again.
It happened again.
He bought me a Jaguar convertible.
He bought me diamond earrings. Large diamond earrings.
A second home.
A bleached gold mink full length coat.
A new, enormous house in the best neighborhood.
I wasn't thrilled with the status quo, but the all-important thing was that the marriage remained intact, even if the particulars weren't exactly what the wedding vows had in mind. It was obvious that those women didn't matter to him in any big way. That didn't mean I didn't keep watching and making notes—and telling him about what I knew, but we'd reached something like a silent agreement. In fact, after a while, I didn't have to tell him a thing. I'd just maybe sigh, or be in a mood, and like that—another fabulous gift, and I knew another one of them just bit the dust.
It was almost as if George wanted to play around—and wanted to be caught. Wanted to have an excuse to end the game, to toss away the woman of the hour.
That was how it was and how I thought it would be forever, or as long as George could manage it. But that was before Lili Beth Warsaw. Not that I knew her name at that point, but I knew there'd been a frightening change in George. He stopped being sloppy about his whereabouts. He stopped leaving suspicious matchbooks around, never came home late enough to start me going, didn't have cryptic initials ("R"—3 p.m.) in his Palm Pilot. His clothing was never stained with lipstick, nor did it smell of another woman's perfume. He came to the kids' school events. In short, he behaved like an upstanding, marriage-vow honoring, faithful man.
I knew it for what it was: Upgraded cheating. Serious cheating. Don't-want-to-be caught cheating.
I had always been vigilant, but now I had to become even more so. Quietly, I tracked his whereabouts and schedule, his times, his computers and calendars and most of all, I watched and listened for careful lies of omission, overly detailed explanations of absences, all the careful "proofs" of where he was and when.
It wasn't easy. He was hiding this one, because with this one, he didn't want me to cry foul and end his fun. He wanted to keep on playing with her for keeps—which would mean I'd be retired from the game.
What he wasn't remembering was that I'd vowed to be with him until death—not Lili Beth Warsaw—did part us.
His sudden interest in real estate clinched it. We'd lived in the house that guilt bought for only two years. I'd shopped for it solo—George wasn't interested in houses then. He'd said, "Just tell me the new address so I'll drive to the right house after work."
It wasn't like George to be so obvious and so stupid, but of course, the man wasn't thinking with his brain, so one Sunday, he looked up from the papers. "This house is going to be too big for us when the kids go to college," he said.
"That isn't for years," I answered.
"No harm thinking ahead, is there? I heard about a good-sounding house, smaller, pretty, and it's open today. I think I'll take a look. Get a feel for what's ahead."
Pathetic, isn't it? A grown man acting like a junior high school kid who needs to see the love-object, and needs to announce it with an unnecessary cover story. I almost felt sorry for him.
"You're right," I said. "Good idea. Hold on and I'll get my coat."
He looked surprised, then he looked pained. "No," he said. "I changed my mind. You're right. It won't be for years. Silly to—"
"Fine," I said. "You stay here. I'm going. I want to see what you think is perfect." That last part was true, but it had nothing to do with a house.
He decided that he'd go with me, after all.
She was there, house-sitting or whatever they call it when the realtor hangs around while people troop through. She was covered with shiny makeup and smiling so much and for so long, she must have had cramps all around her mouth by day's end.
It was a nice house. A perfect place to start all over with a new wife and a new life. Not too large and, as the realtor, Lili Beth Warsaw said with a big wink at my husband, very sexy, and she would know.
George paid so little attention to her I knew it was for real. Never before had George not stared at something that pretty and fresh. He was either dead or this one mattered to him. This one was making plans with him.
I had no choice but to take action, although I didn't rush into anything. I played along, even about the house we'd seen, talking seriously about whether it would be a good idea, maybe as an investment for the future, because both of us acknowledged that it was too soon to downsize.
"It's always a good idea to see what's out there," he said.
I controlled the urge to say that I knew what was out there—and it was named Lili Beth Warsaw.
If I say that the real-estate woman haunted my every thought from then on, it is no exaggeration. Life went on, and my act was as good as George's. I worried over the kids and the house, as always, and I followed my routine and monitored George's, but all the time, she was in my mind about as much as she must have been in George's, and, perhaps like George as well, I was making plans that involved her.
In early spring, George had to go out of town on business. This was real, not monkey business, but as usual, it didn't get written down in his appointment book. George was never eager to leave a record of having contacted some of the types who were a part of his negotiations.
It wasn't difficult getting Lili Beth where I wanted her. I knew a lot about her already: knew she'd had one brief marriage—a Las Vegas elopement kind of thing—and she'd been single for a while and didn't like it. How would I know such things? Easy. Realtors these days, at least where we live, act like they're celebrities. Not enough to just list a house and say how many bedrooms it has. Now, the real estate personality has emerged, and so I had the opportunity to read about who Ms. Warsaw was in cutesy-pie notices in the paper. I also, of course, had the opportunity to find out about dozens of other "friends and neighbors" with my best interests at heart.
The single-for-too-long thing was part of a Valentine's Day "profile" that ran mock personals for the entire staff of her company.
Then of course, I had looked her up every other way I could without attracting attention, through rosters of the kind of civic booster groups realtors join, through small news items about charity events she'd attended or hosted. God bless the internet for collecting trivia like an electronic janitor jabbing scraps with one of those sticks. You get a scrap here, a tidbit there until you wind up knowing a whole lot.
Not that I needed much. It quickly became obvious that Lili Beth was a determined woman who wanted two things: lots of home sales and my husband.
Which is why it was easy to get her precisely when I wanted her. As my good luck and even better planning had it, while George was away, the kids were both on overnights, too. That left me and the cat, and a cat knows when to hold its tongue.
It took one phone call which I placed while she was sitting at an open house. I wanted the call to be to her cell, not her office. I used a throw-away cell, myself. I said I was thinking of selling the house and was interested in a professional's view of what it was worth. I offered my first name. She didn't ask for more, but said she'd be over as soon as the inspection tour was over.
I didn't think she'd have been in the house before—even George couldn't have been that careless. All the same, there was no way in hell she wouldn't recognize the address. A woman like her would have long ago found out where her man lived, if only to judge his probable net worth.
She arrived promptly wearing a burgundy pants suit and that smile that was so wide, it looked as if it could cut her head in two. I knew she recognized me—that she had scoped me out that day of the Open House, months earlier. Her lover's wife—who wouldn't memorize every feature? So she knew who I was and I knew who she was, but we were both good at pretending we didn't, and I toured the house with her, letting her ooh, and ahh at each detail. For all I knew, she was planning on moving into this place herself, and George was going to dump me somewhere else.
After we'd seen every inch of the house and she'd written dimensions and realtor-talk in a tiny soft notebook, I took her out to the patio. It was a gorgeous early spring day and I was justly proud of my garden. We had a lot of land, and the garden was a work in progress. At the moment, the daffodils were up, the flowering plum was doing its thing in pink and mahogany and the azaleas were on the verge of full bloom. I allowed her to do more oohing and aahhhing. I deserved it, whether or not she was sincere. This land was my canvas now, my masterpiece.
"Gorgeous," she said. "Such privacy, and such a lovely garden. Lilacs, my! And what's going here?"
As if she actually cared. "I used it for annuals the past two years," I said, "but I'm turning it over to perennials, and going to put the annuals in containers and…" Her eyes had glazed over. "Do you garden?" I asked.
"Oh, no," she said with a little laugh. "Wish I could!" Everything she said had exclamation points all around it. "I'm in a condo with a tiny balcony. Room for one pot of geraniums if I'm lucky!"
I could practically see through her skull to the fantasy-land she was building in her mind. Actually, she wasn't building: she was grabbing—all of this, every bit of it, making it hers.
Not that she would ever garden, not with those lacquered nails, but she'd hire someone to keep up my good work and it wouldn't be the same at all. A garden's like a marriage: you can't acquire it and simply admire it. You have to work at it constantly, pay attention, keep away the pests, or it dies.
"This property wouldn't last a day on the market," she said. I'd almost forgotten why she thought we were here. "There's even room for a pool."
I let her go on, while I picked up a trowel lying nearby, and put on my garden gloves, puttering with a pot of irises while she babbled.
She inhaled deeply, and smiled at the freshness of the air, at the smell of spring—at the prospect of long summer evenings out here with my husband, I'm sure.
She twirled around, carefully estimating the size of our lot with her conniving mind, turning to view the house from the patio and with each move, she became ever more assertive, informing me that it would be best if we "staged" our house to give it more appeal to buyers. That meant streamlining things, removing everything that wasn't essential— I'm sure she included me in that list. "And of course," she said, "with your garden and the way you're making it--those pots will be stunning on the patio!"
She was happy. Thrilled, even, so that seemed a good point at which to terminate our conversation. I stunned her with the trowel, put a patio pillow against her head and shot her through the back of her skull.
I'm not saying my plan was clever or even original. I'm only saying it worked. I planted Lili Beth Warsaw in the future perennial bed which I'd carefully prepared. I also planted George's gun—I knew it would be forever before he noticed its absence—along with her little notebook and her pocketbook, although not before I removed her car keys and cellphone. I am a good gardener and the ground had been nicely turned, so it was easy enough to cover her up and, in fact, to arrange seventeen young plants in the fresh earth.
I then drove her car to the airport, left it in long-term parking and took the shuttle back to the stop closest to my home. It was a lovely afternoon, and fine for walking. I knew that sooner or later, her car would be ticketed, then towed out of the airport lot, and her disappearance would be interpreted as deliberate.
I must mention, with all due humility, that I was right again, and that is what eventually happened.
Lili Beth Warsaw and my problems had both been made to disappear, and in their place appeared lavender, salvia, roses, phlox, and as a private joke with myself, a generous helping of lilies.
Like I say, you can't let things slide in a garden or a marriage. You have to work at keeping them the way you want them to be.
Of course, George couldn't comment on his missing mistress, or share whatever degree of bewilderment or grief he may have felt, so peace reigned in my household. After he'd mourned a lot longer than I would have preferred, he slowly recuperated and reverted to his usual pattern of petty and sloppy deceits. Who cared? The marriage-fortress' walls were not being breached.
We had our usual confrontations about the bimbos.
He gave me a bracelet with diamonds spelling my name.
He hired a private trainer and a masseuse and installed a luxurious gym.
He gave me an emerald necklace that looked as if the Empress of all the Russias had been its former owner.
I can't even think of what all I received. Fur was no longer P.C., so I was given coats made of the softest leather, handmade shoes.
They say you can't have it all, but I did. And then some.
The kids finished high school and entered college. I'd read that this was a dangerous time for the male of the species, that empty nest, and indeed, my problems started again. Or rather, what had restarted, stopped again. No more guilty please-somebody-stop-me expression, no more sloppy covering of the tracks, no confessions, no tears.
The man had gone undercover literally and metaphorically. Just the way it had been with Lili Beth. He was extra-nice to me. He had almost believable excuses for his absences.
Déjà vu all over again except it was worse this time. Despite the trainers and some nips and tucks, I wasn't young any more. I knew what happened to aging first wives, but I was not about to become another piece of roadkill on the marital highway.
George, on the other hand, was full of energy. He made major use of the household gym and the personal trainer. He jogged. He used hair-thickening drugs and maybe even those pep-up-the-body parts drugs and he had the surgery where they slice your eyes so you don't have to wear glasses anymore.
He was, in short, a walking, talking, cliché, but as disgusted as I was, I was not about to allow him to destroy my marriage after all my hard work. I began investigating my husband.
This one, I eventually learned, was a lawyer, like George. Too much like him. Even had three first names, just like him: Gina Allison Clare. An associate in the firm, also involved in criminal law, and like him, crafty and shrewd. And a looker as well. It wasn't hard getting a glimpse. I was the wife of the senior partner, after all, and all I needed to do, once I'd narrowed it down, was stop by at the office.
She was twenty years his junior, at least, and stunning. And when our glances crossed, briefly, I would have sworn she was coolly appraising me, like a problem to be solved. And she looked as if she thought I wouldn't be a particularly difficult problem, either.
I was afraid she might be right, and I could tell right away that Gina Clare wasn't going to be a piece of cake like dumb and greedy Lili Beth. Besides, the garden now looked precisely the way I wanted it. There were no more empty beds to be filled in, and I wasn't as young as I used to be and my back wasn't up to digging another suitable gravesite.
Even more relevant—I was tired. My jewelry box was filled to overflowing as were my closets, and I didn't want any more reparation payments from George. My children were on the way to their own lives, and as ever, I wanted to set a good example for them of a solid, stable, marriage. I couldn't let George—or what's her face—ruin that.
I tried waiting it out. Tried believing that I could ride this through, that this was nothing more than middle-aged crazy. But I was also middle-aged, so I didn't have forever to find out if George was going to get over it.
His good-guy façade began to crack under the weight of his impatience to move on, even though he never said that outright. Instead, he found fault with me for doing things precisely the way I'd done them for the past twenty-four years. He took to sitting silently for hours. The room would grow dark around him if I didn't turn on the lamps. Infantile how he sat there pining away, like a junior high school boy with a crush, if junior high boys were balding and jowly.
He tossed and turned half the night.
"Lots on your mind?" I finally asked one day. I knew he was defending a man accused of killing five people and though George couldn't say so, he knew the man had done it. I knew the man had done it. Every human with a functioning brain knew the man had done it. But George had found ways to discredit eye witnesses, to present—let's be honest, to fabricate—a time scheme that put the killer somewhere else despite all evidence to the contrary. In short, George was doing what he did so well, justifying the high opinion of him in the less savory segments of society.
But he was, as always, infuriating others. I'd seen letters to the editors about how George Alexander and his ilk corrupted the system, twisted it so badly it was deformed. He wasn't winning any popularity contests these days, and though he always said he didn't care, I knew that at some point, he did.
But when I asked the question, he didn't respond with his usual annoyance about how people didn't understand the need to give everybody the best defense. The legal system—aside, of course, from its divorce laws—was apparently the last thing on his heavily-weighted mind. First he looked surprised, then goofy and relieved, and then he nodded and sighed.
This was a man about to spill his guts. True Confessions were imminent, and I didn't want any part. I didn't want to hear about it because I was positive that this time, the word "divorce" would emerge from his lips and that one word would shatter my life's work, this creation I'd built and maintained—my marriage. We would become one more statistic, one more broken home. I could not allow that to happen. Can you blame me? I pretended I had something to do in another room, and I prevented his saying anything at all.
And what I did in that other room was think. I needed a plan. Another plan so that Gorgeous Gina didn't destroy what I had built with, yes, my sweat and my tears.
I'm a thrifty woman. A good housekeeper who likes everything in its place. Even George admits that. Waste not, want not could be my motto through good times and bad. I salvage what is salvageable and recycle the rest, and that includes a perfectly fine husband and marriage.
I thought briefly about "planting" Gina in the garden. It had been a flawless maneuver and would undoubtedly work again. But it felt redundant to murder another woman, and it made me nervous—I didn't want that sort of thing to become a bad habit.
So instead, I recycled Lili.
Don't take that literally. I didn't destroy my glorious flower beds by digging her up. But I reused her all the same.
Time had passed. I couldn't say then, or now, whether I'd planned this all along, but maybe the idea was squirreled away—saved for a rainy day, in case of emergency. As I said, I'm a thrifty woman, despite the luxury in which I live.
I spent a lot of time thinking it through, weighing the pros and cons, looking for boobytraps and waiting till I was sure it would work.
It had been a long time since I'd acted, not since before my marriage. Except, of course, for acting like I didn't know what was going on too much of the time.
I decided a vaguely Slavic accent would work. I rented "Ninotchka" and listened to Garbo pretend to be a Russian. I'd been told her accent was laughably bad, but if it worked for her, why not for me? By the end of the movie, I was close enough for my purposes. I made the call from one of the phones near the rest rooms at the city's finest hotel. "Is police?" I asked. "I have need talk police about crime. Bad crime. A killing."
That got their interest. "No," I said. "Not now. Crime happen five years, April 10. I know day. I visiting my cousin that day, and I see it and do nothing. Too afraid. Is how it is from Russia. Now I feel bad. I think maybe, is forgot, is long ago, but then I see on TV, the old cases—the cold, yes? I see the cold police in U.S.A. still care, so now I tell you. I saw man kill lady and bury her in yard. I tell you where."
I explained that back then, my cousin worked for a lady in the neighborhood, and it was so nice out, we'd gone for a walk. My cousin knew a shortcut to a small stream, and we were crossing it when we heard a noise. We didn't know what it was, but we crept closer and saw him bury a woman. We were too afraid to say anything at the time, sure we'd be deported—or killed by the same crazy man.
I did quite a fine shudder and stammer as I said this.
"My cousin did not know dead lady," I continued. "Me, of course not, how could I? But she knows man who owns house. Alexander is last name. Important man, she say."
They asked my name. "First name, Roazyczka," I said. "R-o-a-z-y-c-z-" Three times, I reached that point, and the man asked me to start over. And to tell him my last name. "No, no. I can't. I—"
"You won't get in trouble," he said. "I need it for the form. And your cousin's name, too."
"She goes back to Russia. Not here no more. I hang up now, mister. I am not… I am not legal. Maybe you don't hurt me, but the INS—"
He sighed. I knew he would. He wanted the address more than my name, and I gave it to him. "Now is flowers on top," I said. "I have looked since then."
I hung up. Quick, efficient, and Roazyczka turned back into an expensively dressed, buffed and maintained middle aged suburbanite.
# # #
Poor George. They got that warrant together faster than I could have imagined. There went my perennial bed, after all, but the flowers were sacrificed in the name of the sanctity of marriage.
Of course he couldn't say where he'd been that week. His appointment book showed no trips, and he didn't have proof of having been away. His lifelong expertise at leaving no trail or traces was effective, though not the way he might have wished.
It didn't help that they could immediately identify the human remains, because the remains of Lili Beth's purse were there as well. As was, alas, George's gun. The prints on it were pretty messed up at this point, but they surely weren't mine. Garden gloves don't leave prints.
Turned out, others had known about the affair. Lili Beth hadn't been discreet. This time, this wife really had been the last to know.
The prosecution made it clear that George had had a string of women—even I was surprised by the variety of entries on the list they produced—and he'd dropped each in turn. Lili Beth was, then, one in a series, but the scenario they constructed was that she hadn't accepted her walking papers and wasn't about to be dropped.
I had to admire the way the prosecution put together a story that made a lot of sense. Apparently, Lili Beth had come to the house for a confrontation when George was there alone, and then, with pressure and conflict and fear that the wife—I—would return at any moment--it became an all too predictable crime of passion.
Of course George pleaded innocent. But you could almost see how happy the D.A.'s office was to have him in deep trouble—the same deep trouble most of George's clients had been in. Unfortunately, George did not have George as his lawyer, so George was pretty much doomed.
I was given permission to replant my perennial bed, and I must say making the garden lovely again helped me handle my tension over this terrible mess.
Throughout the trial, I stood by my man. Humiliated as I might have been with the public revelations of George's extramarital adventures, I remained steadfast, and the truth was, I wasn't acting. I was sad my husband had wound up being tried, but I preferred that to my marriage being tried to its limits.
Gina, I must say, attended the trial on its first day. That must have been enough for her, because she never came back.
# # #
George was given a life sentence. Even if he was granted a parole in fifteen or twenty years, by then, he'd be beyond much more than wishful thinking. I will never again be the last to know, because there won't be anything to know.
There's comfort in that.
I'm sleeping better than I ever did, now that I have no worries about where and with whom my husband may have strayed.
There's comfort in that, too.
These days, we understand and accept each other. That's one of the plusses of a long and solid marriage. It came about during one of my first visits to the prison, when he insisted, as always, that he was innocent.
"Yes, George," I said calmly. I looked him in the eye. "I know that. I of all people on earth, I, your wife, absolutely, with all my heart and soul, know that you did not commit that crime."
He was silent for quite some time, staring at me. No more was ever said about any of it. But since then, he's treated me with a great deal of respect.
Our marriage has matured, and our relationship is better than it ever was. Every day, I feel a rush of joy knowing that we're among the lucky ones, the couples who see it through and stay together, and that I've done my share, my part, in keeping us intact.
I hope I've set a good example for my children as well.
Life is good.
All content © 2004-08 by Gillian Roberts/Judith Greber.