Shopping grounds me. I interpret my sense of personal success, as usual, on my alacrity and ability to bargain. Striking my Safeway card through the machine like a knife. The checker, a handsome teenager with a faint, pitiful mustache, fails to meet my gaze. Am I really so old? I ask him how his day went. The question misses him, no entry, no exit, no effect. Just fine. He hands me my two plastic bags. Ghosts to carry home.
Blind date. What has become of me? Suburban mishap, me. A few weeks after the hospital release I joined an online dating service. My friend Morgan told me to, I suspect out of guilt since she’s recently married, impregnated and happy. She’s matchmaker by proxy now, the idea of a single person gives her the shivers. So I’ve been communicating with this one back and forth for a week. What is his name again? Barrel, I want to say. Must be Barry, or Darryl. Harold or Merrill or Terrible. I laugh to myself as I walk through my front door with groceries.
His name will be Terrible.
I pick up the phone to call Morgan, to tell her about the rat who woke me up last night. Perched on my chest with beady little eyes. In a dreamstate, not scary, just an animal. But upon waking, I screamed, and batted at him with my pillow. A rodent in my bed! Nothing like that would have happened back in Chevy Chase. Buck up, girl. You’re in the city now! I couldn’t sleep a wink afterwards, fearing the return of the rat. I think, I could call my father’s answering service again—but I put the phone down and decide, it’s late, it’s only getting later now, and I should start getting ready for my “blind date.”
I don’t know if blind date is the right terminology, I think, as I stand in front of the comically small bathroom mirror and spread blue eyeshadow on thick. I’ve spoken to what’s-his-name on the phone, and through email. I liked him better through email. He has impeccable grammar and an impressive vocabulary, something a finicky middle-school English teacher like me holds higher than good looks. I flutter my lashes through the mascara wand and blink at my reflection. I can only check my face in this tiny mirror. I’ve squeezed myself into this pencil skirt I fear only balloons my figure into cartoon-like voluptuousness. And my hair—though a stunning “mahogany cinnamon spice” shade, according to the box—slightly resembles a helmet in shape. I make my lips into a kissy shape for the lipstick. What if he wants to have sex with me? And if he does, what if a rat decides to jump up on the bed? I put my makeup away and head to the kitchen. I’m not used to four-inch heels, so I trip and fall in the hallway. There is a rat turd on the ground and I think about banging my head repeatedly against the wall but don’t.
Cooking will calm my nerves. So I lay out all the ingredients in a row on the table. All that’s left in the bag is that rat poison, that paper bag with a crossed-out cartoon rat. I put it on top of the refrigerator to avoid mistakes. I wouldn’t want to kill who’s-its. I take my laptop into the kitchen and put on the YouTube recipe. I imitate the crabfaced lady, even her crabface. Every time I make a mistake I run into the living room and scream into the throwpillow that I call my screampillow. It’s a better way to vent my anger than hitting walls or throwing my high-heeled shoes at people’s heads.
Ding dong. Already, my door’s ding-donging. I smooth my hair and adjust my bra—I don’t need the ladies sagging on a night like tonight. Peep through the peephole. He’s got flowers. One of those cheap supermarket bouquets. He’s a C+ at best. Much older than he let on. He’s bald, too, which I think he should have been obligated to mention online. Baldness revolts me. His glasses are round and thick and black like Mister Magoo’s. He’s dressed insultingly casual, in a T-shirt and khaki pants. Though I’d rather hide in a closet, I answer the door.
“Hello,” I say, trying to sound professional but sounding instead like a snob. It’s the affected etiquette school pronunciation that forever haunts my speech. “Good evening.”
“Veta.” He has a gravelly voice. He probably drinks whiskey like it’s water.
I accept his cheap flowers, which smell like nothing. The plastic crinkles in my hand and covers up my, “Thank you.”
I had hoped his name would come back to me somehow at this face-to-face introduction, but it hasn’t. Now I’m almost certain his name must be Terrible. Terrible says, “A—cozy place you’ve got here—”
He nods and looks down at me with a smile, kind of fatherly, except he’s studying my figure. I want to stamp his foot and run into my room and dive under the covers. Instead, I say,
“Would you like a drink –”
I gesture to the sofa in the corner of my living room, which has the plastic cover on it. I always put plastic covers on when guests are around. I can’t stand the thought of spills one can’t clean up.
“Have a seat.” I walk to the doorway. “I have whiskey, or champagne.”
“Umm … actually, I might have some red.”
“What kind of red?”
“Merlot, I think.”
Decidedly, I despise this man. “Not sure. I’m no sommelier.”
“Incidentally, I am,” he says, and smiles at me as if this should amuse me. I stare back at him to show him, this does not, and say dryly,
“But I’ll have whiskey tonight. Make it neat.”
“Whiskey,” I repeat through my teeth, and go into the kitchen.
The kitchen smells impressive, like a restaurant, not like my cooking. Dinner simmers. My kitchen has never appeared so welcoming as it does right now. I spend as long as possible in here, adding spices, opening the freezer and breathing in the air, looking out the window at the brick wall that constitutes my view. Finally, I pour the whiskey into a glass. The bag of rat poison seems to wink at me from the top of my refrigerator. I wonder if those pellets can be ground up? I wonder, can they dissolve in alcohol?
“Your whiskey,” I say, handing him the glass. He is shifting around uncomfortably on the sofa, the plastic squeaking with his every move. I wish he’d stop. I sit across from him, on the furthest-away chair.
“What’s with the plastic?” he asks.
“Oh, you know … it’s cleaner that way.”
He laughs, and holds his drink up in the air. “Where’s your drink?”
“I’d better not.”
“Come on, have a drink with me.”
“Drinking loosens my tongue, and—well, I’d just rather refrain this evening.”
He downs his drink in one gulp and slams it on the coffeetable. He does it without even bothering to use a coaster. “Alcoholic?”
“Hardly.” I grab a coaster and put it underneath his glass.
“You said you went to a hospital, though?”
“Who hasn’t?” I laugh far too loud, and bat my hand through the air in a theatrical gesture. But who cares? I don’t need to impress Mister Magoo.
“I haven’t.” He looks at me. I can hear his potbelly rumbling underneath his T-shirt. “But I would like to know what it’s like. See, as I mentioned online, I’m a writer.”
“It really is. I’ve wanted to write a novel that takes place in a mental hospital, so please, tell me what it’s like. Is it like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”
I remember, in a flash, the boredom of the ward, the gray view outside the barred window much like the view outside my kitchen now. The tedious people who shuffled around in uniform slovenliness, the flickering TVs, the unsurprising rules. The ward was only a microcosm of life outside the ward. But Terrible doesn’t deserve to know that. So I reply, “It was exactly like every movie you’ve even seen about mental hospitals.”
He nods. My heart warms at the disappointed expression on his face. “So—what happened exactly to get you in there?”
“Nothing unusual, just your standard nervous breakdown.”
“Did you try to –” Here he draws his hand across his throat with a “whheeeek” sound.
“Not like that,” I say. “I mean, I didn’t try to sever my own head off.”
“Oh, I know—I just meant –”
“Another drink?” I ask him, standing up. I hate the way his eyes dance up and down, up and down my shape.
“Please,” says Terrible. He flashes a yellow-toothed smile.
In the kitchen, the first thing I stare at is the rat poison. I actually have to lock myself in the pantry for a moment to calm my nerves. Not only is he old and unattractive and I can’t remember his name, he’s sadistically interested in me as a crazyperson so he can research his book. If anyone deserved rat poison in their whiskey, it is the man singing Sinatra offkey in my living room at this moment. By the time I return with his drink, I have shaped my face into a smile again. He is standing next to my bookcase. His cheeks are flushed and he grins as I hand him his drink. During this transaction his pinky brushes against mine purposefully and I want to vomit.
“I really wish you’d have a drink with me,” he says.
“Best if I don’t.”
“Loosens the nerves—and no offense, you look like you could use it.”
He holds a book up with a smirk. I can see the plaque between his teeth. This man must never floss. “Read this?”
“My friend Morgan gave it to me, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.”
He winks at me and sits down. “Right. ‘Morgan’ gave it to you.” He laughs a phlegm-filled laugh. “I didn’t suspect I was going to be dating a fan tonight.”
I look at the book. Its front cover features a marathon runner sprinting from the grim reaper. Death Leaves No Tracks, by Astair Grimm. I look back up at Terrible’s terrible face, and remember suddenly that his name is Astair. “Ah,” I say, nodding. “Ah.”
“So you enjoy my work?” He gulps his drink and sets the glass down on the naked coffeetable. I am ready with the coaster this time. He looks at me like he is sincerely fascinated with me now that he thinks I’ve read his tacky paperback.
“To be frank, I haven’t read it yet.”
Now he turns away as if I don’t exist and studies the pictures on my piano.
“He lives in Berlin.”
“We’re… very close.”
“Even though he’s in Berlin?”
“I speak to his assistant almost every day.”
“You seem kind of old to be a daddy’s girl.”
“A girl can never be too old to love her father.”
“Is that why you like older men?”
“But I don’t like older men at all.”
We stare. I notice his eyes are as gray as his eyebrows.
“You play?” he asks, and points to the dusty piano.
I shake my head.
“Another drink?” I ask, rising. I raise his empty glass in the air.
“Only if you’ll have one too.”
“I will not.”
“Well, okay, I’ll still have another. Just a teensy one.” He winks, and I dry heave.
Back in the kitchen, I can hear him singing off-key. He sounds drunk. He sounds nothing like Sinatra. I take the rat poison down and read the directions—just read them, for God’s sake, for later. Having nothing to do with the man in the other room. But what if I… no. I put the bag up on the refrigerator and pour him another awful-smelling drink of whiskey. The food smells good, I know it does, but I don’t want to eat it anymore.
Terrible bursts through the kitchen door. He’s loosened up now, from the alcohol, and his presence takes me by surprise. I freeze up as if I’ve been caught in some guilty act, but I’m only standing there, holding his drink.
“For me?” His speech is slightly slurred as he grabs the glass and drinks it with a saliva-spattering smack. Then he licks his lips like some kind of reptile and sniffs the air. “Mmmmm, smells delicious. What’s cookin’ mama?” He moves closer to me, his hands coming toward my hips as if propelled by some horrible magnetic force.
“I have to set the table!” I scream, and scamper out the kitchen door.
I set the table, and he watches, humming some kind of sea-shanty. I clatter the silverware around, scratch at little invisible stains on the tablecloth. His gaze is burning a hole in the back of my skirt. How I hate him, how I wish he’d hurry home. I imagine clobbering him with my high heel. But no—too messy. Poison is so much cleaner. Stop it! I’m not going to poison him. I bring dinner out to the table. It steams from the sauté pan and resembles a picture from a culinary magazine.
“Is that chicken?” He peers over the food and squints his eyes. “Oh, I should have told you—I’m vegetarian.”
I blink at him, and feel myself filling with hot hatred. I think, I’m going to poison him.
“Actually,” he continues, and puts his hands together delicately, fingertip to fingertip, “I’m technically a pescetarian, as I do eat fish occasionally.”
I’m definitely going to poison him. My ears ring. I grit my teeth. “Really? I wish you’d warned me.”
“In retrospect, so do I. But you must have something else?”
I point to the steamy silver bowl next to the chicken. “Rice.”
“Rice sounds wonderful.” He sits at the table, an adoring expression on his face, and lumps some rice onto his plate. “You are wonderful. Now how ‘bout toppin’ off my drink, sugar?”
I take his glass.
He tucks the napkin into his shirt like a bib, and drawls in an unexplained Southern accent. “Oh, I wish you’d have one with me, pretty lady.”
“Maybe I will.”
In the kitchen again, I rip open the rat poison bag and remove a couple giant turquoise pills. I put them in his whiskey, and stir. I crush them with a knife to make them dissolve. Then I get afraid, and wash it down the drain. You are about to do something undoable, something crazy and permanent. You are about to kill someone, no joke—seriously, Veta, I’m talking to you, don’t put pellets in his glass. Do NOT poison that man. Poison that man, poison that man.
I take a swig from the whiskey bottle. He’s singing my name drunkenly from the other room. “Veeeeta,” he slurs, “Nothin’s sweeeeta …”
I think of my father, and the hospital, and everything. I think of Morgan, I wonder what jail would be like, I wonder if I’m a lesbian. And I crush the pellets in the glass. It makes a sky-colored powder. And I pour his whiskey in it, and I mix it around with a spoon, and I giggle. The liquid clouds up so I add some soda. I pour myself some whiskey, straight. Don’t want to get confused here.
“I made you a special little concoction,” I say. I place the drink in front of him before taking my seat. He is wolfing down rice, and has some stuck to his chin.
“Thanks,” he says through a mouthful.
I spoon a little chicken onto my plate, but don’t care much for it right now. Right now, I’m watching him. His bald head moves up and down. He masticates noisily, slurping up rice like it’s soup. There’s a lump in my throat, and I think, maybe I shouldn’t have, maybe I shouldn’t have—but he brings the drink to his lips and takes a sip. I watch in horror, but also with curiosity and a strange sense of accomplishment. He sniffs it and shrugs and takes another sip.
“So about the hospital,” he says, and puts the drink on the table. He smiles. “Can you give me any—oh, I don’t know, any interesting tidbits to put in my book? Tell me, sweetheart, what got you in there?”
“Attempted homicide,” I tell him with a wink.
There is no mirth in his laugh. “Really? Did you—”
“Speaking of homicide—I have a question, actually. A question about writing.”
Terrible improves his posture and places his fork gently on the table, as if he is suddenly an authority and not an old drunk slob with rice on his face. There is still rice on his face. “Yes, please, ask me.”
“Well, so I’ve been thinking about writing a story about—well, about a murder.”
“And what’s your question, love?”
His utterance of the word love actually makes me gag. I sip my burning drink to cover my reaction. “Well, I was thinking about having my character use rat poison. What’s your take on rat poison?”
He nods like this is the most natural thing he has ever heard. “Poison is an excellent way to go – I use it often, and particularly with my female characters, as it is a much more feminine type of murder.”
“Huh—more feminine than, say, bludgeoning someone with a high-heeled shoe?”
“That, as exciting as it sounds, would in actuality be very messy and hard to accomplish. I would definitely go with the poison.” He wipes his mouth with his napkin, somehow entirely missing the clump of rice that remains on his chin. “Rat poison is actually a rather good choice, as it’s common – it can be bought anywhere. So it doesn’t exactly limit the scope of possible suspects, you know?”
“That’s what I was thinking.” I watch him take another long sip from his glass, finishing it.
“This drink tastes very strong.”
“It’s my special concoction.”
“Almost medicinal.” He smacks his lips. “Not bad. May I use your restroom?”
“Of course.” I gesture toward the door labeled with the RESTROOM sign.
I clear the table, and wonder if he’s dying in there. Possibly writhing on the floor and bleeding out his orifices like a rat. What about my new white bath mat? And how I just scrubbed the tub? Oh well, sacrifices, sacrifices. Maybe I shouldn’t have! I drink another drink, put the chicken away and clear the table. I even have time to do the dishes. It’s been fifteen minutes now. I think he’s dead. But then he comes into the room, looking healthy and happy as ever.
“That rice was great,” he says, and stands behind me as I wash the dishes. I pretend he isn’t smelling my hair, his hands aren’t on my waist, and comfort myself with the thought that soon he will be dead as a rat. I dry my hands off on a towel and hurry into the living room. I slump onto the sofa with a plastic crunching sound. He does too, and puts his hairy arm around me. I’m a bit buzzed from the whiskey.
“About my story,” I say. “How long does it take someone to die of rat poison?”
“Murder on the brain!” he says with a laugh. He raises his eyebrows at me. “I know how it is, when you’ve got that story swimming around in your head—it’s near obsessive.”
“Well, rat poison takes a lot of time. You need a large dose to kill a man, and usually at least a few doses over a few days.”
I nod, my insides wilting with disappointment.
“Don’t be upset, sugar!” he says. He touches my face with his rough, old-man finger. “Your character will just have to do it over a few days – it’s really much easier than you’d think.” Terrible leans in now, his dry, lizardy tongue visible from between his lips, and he shuts his eyes behind his bifocals. His face is fast approaching my face. I want to hit him with my shoe, I want to scream into my screampillow, I want to lock myself in the restroom. But instead, I gently push him away with my hand.
“Not yet,” I say. He opens his eyes, wheezing like a grandpa. “I move—very slowly. I hope you’ll understand.”
“Not even a little peck?”
He looks at his lap and sighs. “But—do you like me?”
I would like to puke on his shoulder, but I say, “Very much.” I stand up, and walk him to my door.
“May I see you again?” His voice shakes.
“I was going to ask if I might cook you dinner again tomorrow night.”
“Tomorrow? Really?” He turns giddy, like a schoolboy, and on such an ancient man as him the sight is quite appalling. “Sounds divine!”
I shake his hand. He attempts to turn the handshake into an embrace, but I stiffen my muscles to prevent this kind of slippage.
“Not even a little kiss?” He puckers his lips. There are white specks of dried saliva in the corners of his mouth.
“See you tomorrow.”
He nods respectfully. “Remember—I’m a pescetarian.”
“Yes, I wouldn’t forget.”
We dip our heads. I watch him exit my apartment door, and give him a little wave. He skips to his car gleefully, walloping like an orangutan, and I don’t regret anything. After I close my door, I run to my screampillow and scream a joyful scream.
Faith Gardner lives in Oakland. Past publications, music she plays and other products of her whimsy can be found at faithgardner.com