“1961” by Laura Demers

They had her out the window now, so that her neck lolled backwards. Her false eyelashes had come loose on one eye, giving her the look of a doll in a little girl’s clutches.

“Help me,” she called. Her voice was far away, down the end of a tunnel. Salvator wished he had a moment to sit down and figure this thing out.

It was Bert who held her against the window frame and Anthony who held up her feet. She grabbed onto the frame of the window, fighting them. She screamed again, twisting her neck to the beach below, but there was nobody out there. It was a grim, cloudy day, the wind whipping the curtains, the sound of seagulls in the distance. For a confused moment, Salvator caught sight of the pier in the distance. He thought of when he went there as a kid, the barnacles that cut his feet when he hung them over the side, the striped t-shirt he had loved.

“Jesus, bring her in,” he cried. No one paid attention to him, but she stopped screaming and her head jerked up. “Jesus Christ, you’ll kill her.”

Still, they pushed at her body. He noticed that two nails on her right hand had broken off where she gripped the window frame, the forefinger and the middle finger. Her nails were long and pink, maybe fake, but these two were bloody at the cuticle. She had kicked off her shoes, so that one lay near Henry, where he was curled against the dresser, fast asleep.

Salvator grabbed at Bert, and he came away easily, like rotten wood. Anthony, seeing this was the way things were going, let go as well, and the woman slid down on the floor, naked and crying.

“You sons of bitches,” she said. “I’m going to kill you.” But she had lost all fight and just curled up like Henry and sobbed and sobbed. “I’m going to kill you.”

* * *

Five hours before, they had been watching the Giants play the Redskins on TV in the bar in town. They all had bets on it. That seemed so long ago that Salvator could barely remember that he had won forty dollars. He wasn’t sure what the score had been or who had lost their shirt. Things were foggy, even then. Three hours before, he was in that dream-state of drinking, where nothing is real, but everything is good, fun. It was that stretch of drunkenness where you think nothing bad can happen and it’s all good fellowship. They ordered another round, and that’s when she came in. Her white blonde hair was done in a perfect beehive, no roots. She was large breasted but trim, and dressed in a short fur jacket, carrying a shiny black purse. No one had ever seen her before. She was too glamorous for this part of Connecticut.

Salvator elbowed Bert in the rib and Bert let out a low whistle between his teeth.

“What do you think?” Bert said. “A pro?”

Bert was a truck-driver, someone Salvator’s wife had said was not their equal. She refused to have him to the house anymore. She said he smelled of bologna.

“Why shouldn’t he smell like bologna? He delivers it all day,” Salvator had snorted.

It was awkward after that, when Bert mentioned he never invited him over anymore. So Salvator had taken to meeting Bert and the others out. It was none of his wife’s business who he drank with outside of the house.

After the observation about the woman being a pro, there was a blank spot. Ten minutes might have passed, or maybe an hour. But eventually she was at the table with them, drinking. She was glamorous all right, with her lashes and her nails and her silvery lipstick. It made her lips look pale, but enticing. She reminded Salvator of Dusty Springfield.

“Hey, sweetheart, you sing?” he asked.

“I might sing for you,” she said, smiling a little and exposing small faintly yellow teeth. She had a pretty enough smile, but she hardly ever used it. Mostly when she laughed, she kept her lips tightly shut, so that it looked like she was trying to hold in smoke.

“You smoke?” he asked.

“Nah, it’ll kill you.”

She said she was from New Haven and was only there for the day to meet a friend. At first, they had all waited hopefully for this friend, and then the friend became like a joke that even she was in on. They began to attribute incredible things to this friend: She was well read; she was a genius, in fact. She had a winning horse in the Kentucky Derby. Her husband was an astronaut. Her husband was a millionaire and he’d pick up the tab. Her kid was a concert pianist. And on it went.

The friend never turned up, and at one point she got misty-eyed and used the payphone so that it seemed this mythical person might show up, after all.

Salvator thought of his secretary, young and plump, with a faint mustache. He’d like this lady to get ahold of his secretary and give her a beauty treatment, get her to dye her hair, wax her lip hair, wear better make up. He decided he would invite this woman into the city for lunch one day to get her to have a look over his secretary, take a maternal interest. His wife would never do it. She was too suspicious. She liked that his secretary was ungainly with crooked skirt hems and perspiration circles on her blouses. Salvator didn’t mean to spoil the kid. He just wanted someone to pretty her up.

He must have said this out loud, because suddenly she was back at the table from the payphone, listening to him, asking him what his job was.

“I’m an accountant,” he said.

“Salvator’s an accountant,” echoed Anthony across the table. “I’m in sales. Hank is in sales, too. And, Bert,” he laughed, “Well Bert really is in sales, ain’t ya, Bert?”

Bert could be dangerous when he drank, and he had been known to stand up and grab men, even Anthony, by the collar and threaten them. He had done it to Salvator once when they were much younger, before they both were married.

But Bert just laughed this time. “I’m in sales, all right,” he said. “I sell sausage.” And suddenly getting his own joke, he stopped, eyes wide. “Hey, lady, can I interest you in some of my sausage?” Then they had all laughed, so loud that the bartender yelled for them to keep it down. Salvator’s heart had raced unaccountably.

Salvator did not remember her ever saying her name. But he remembered the name of her friend who never showed up. “Cassie.” It was Cassie this and Cassie that, all day, even after it stopped being funny, even after her disappointment at being stood up, real or fake, had evaporated.

* * *

Earlier in the day, Salvator had driven out of his driveway on Hoop Pole Road and rolled down the window to the fresh smell of early winter. His wife came out on the step in a green dress and an apron and waved at him in that imperious way she had. While he waited for her to reach him, he lit a cigarette. She took her time, not even shivering in the cold.

“What time will you be home?” she asked.

“Before seven.”

“Because I told you, Aunt Hope is coming tonight.”

“Oh, hell. How many times you got to say it?”

“I’m making a roast, and she’ll be here at seven. And it’s one thing to stink of a bar, but it’s another to be late.”

“I won’t be late,” he said.

“She’s your aunt, not mine,” she reminded him.

She walked back down the driveway. She walked like a queen even in a thin dress in November. He watched her walk up the steps, took a long drag of his cigarette, and pulled out into the road.

* * *

“Let me read your palm,” the lady with the blonde beehive said. Salvator managed to give her his hand and at the same time check his watch. It was almost two o’clock. He would remember this later, as if it were a magic time he’d like to return to.

She held his hand, and that’s when he got a close look at her nails. They were long and bright pink and perfectly painted.

“Those your real nails?” he asked.

“Who wants to know?” she teased. The table erupted in laughter. It was at that point of a drinking jag where everything is funny.

She looked closely at his open palm and told him he had two kids, a boy and a girl. She told him someone at work was after his job. She told him his wife had money coming to her. She told him a relative was coming to stay.

“Ah, Salvator ain’t got any kids,” Henry said.

“No,” Salvator said. “But I got a relative coming for supper.”

Henry was a puny little thing who couldn’t handle his liquor. He spoke out of turn and passed out in odd places. But he had five children and he was barely thirty.

“No kids?” she said, dropping his hand and looking like she was going to cry. “Why, I’ve got a couple of kids and I don’t know what I’d do without them.”

“Where you got them hidden?” Bert said.

She sneered. “Oh, they live with their old man in upstate New York. He tries to poison their minds against me, but I see them all the time, almost once a month. They love me to death.”

“Good for you,” Anthony said. “Let me buy you a drink.”

“She’s got a drink,” Bert said.

Someone put on an Etta James song. It was the first time in the day that the television had been turned off, and Salvator realized now how nice it was to have music instead. He had a sudden urge to ask the woman to dance, but a shyness gripped him, even after all the liquor they’d drunk. They had switched from beer to gin around midday. She herself was drinking a Bloody Mary, and she took the celery stalk and soaked it in the glass with her long fingers. Salvator noticed something curious. Her middle finger was stained with nicotine.

“Hey, you said— ”

She turned to him, and her eyes, a silvery blue, were bloodshot. “Hmmm?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“You may not have any kids yet, but you’re gonna have a boy and a girl,” she insisted.

He smiled but said nothing. If she wasn’t going to tell him the truth about the cigarettes, he wasn’t going to tell her the truth, either.

* * *

That morning, before any of it had happened, he’d taken the trash out and felt like he needed to move, exercise his muscles. This feeling rarely came upon him. He sat at his desk job all day, came home to supper, and sat and watched Gunsmoke or Hawaiian Eye with his wife at night. Now he had a paunch like his father and no interest in getting rid of it. But that morning in the crisp cold, he decided to walk. He walked to the end of the street, past the deep woods, the maze of gnarled, empty branches with rustlings birds, and then up the dirt road to the old DeSalvo place where he’d played as a kid with their goats. The road was steep and his lungs hurt from the cold, but when he reached the top he felt exhilarated. The sky was still and slate grey, with wadded clouds here and there. He sat heavily down on a tree stump and stared out over the tops of the trees to the roofs of his neighbors: the Fonicellos and the Gradys and the Kasinskis and the Brandts. In the back of the Brandt’s house he could see the corner of the tree house for their boys. It was painted bright green and jutted out at a sharp angle.

He stood up and made his way down the hill, wondering what had become of the DeSalvos. When he was almost back at the house, he was perspiring from his short walk, and decided he would take a quick shower before meeting the others. He saw his wife through the square living room window, standing and ironing and watching television. He watched her move the iron from right to left, right to left, never taking her eyes off the black and white screen. He willed her to look up from what she was doing. The longer he stood there, the colder he got.

When he heard a car coming, he headed up the drive to the door.

* * *

They were raping her now, taking turns. The day would be dark in about forty minutes. Anthony was on top of her, his trousers around his ankles, his undershirt torn where she had ripped it. He was moving in a steady rhythm, as if he were hard at work at serious business: mowing the lawn or sawing wood. Salvator felt a sharp sinking in his stomach. He did not know how they got here. They were in the bar, and now they were in the hotel room. He knew the hotel, even as he sat in it. It was the old hotel on the beach, where he had played as a kid. He looked around in the half-light of the room and saw Bert standing, watching them on the bed, a fierce inhuman light in his eyes. Henry was over by the dresser, his face in his hands.

When Anthony was done, he sat back on his haunches. She spit in his face and he smacked her across the cheek and stood up, zipping his fly. Bert came towards the bed. She screamed, and Bert took his hand and covered her mouth with it. With his other hand, he undid his belt.

Salvator felt sweat break out in his armpits. He did not know if he’d taken his turn or not. He was sitting in an armchair, both feet on the ground. He looked down and his shirt was untucked and one shoe was off. He jumped up and looked desperately around to see if they’d brought something to drink. The hotel would be almost empty in winter. His heart raced and his hands shook. He went into the bathroom and shut the door. He heard Bert grunting from the other room. He closed the toilet lid and sat down and tried to think. He decided he would just leave, leave them to it, whatever he’d done.

But he couldn’t leave the bathroom. He sat and watched his hands shake and listened for sounds in the other room. All he could hear now was the woman crying softly. When her whimpering died out, he stood up and swung open the door in panic. But she was still on the bed, black tears streaming out of the corners of her eyes.

“Jesus, I thought you’d killed her,” Salvator said. Henry had a bottle over with him by the dresser. Salvator walked over to him and said, “Gimme that.”

“You’re right,” Bert said under his breath. “After what we’ve done, we gotta kill her.”

* * *

They didn’t kill her. They just scared her, hanging her out the window. Salvator had stopped them. He told himself this as he drove her to her car. She was squeezed at the other side of the car, as far away as she could get from him. She was no longer whimpering, but tears still rolled down her cheeks.

“We thought you were a pro,” he said, hearing the insincerity in his own voice.

She said nothing. He passed through a red light. The streets were empty, and they drove past a row of colonial houses, lit up and golden in the streetlamps, then past the town green, past the white wooden church. They stopped for a man to cross the street, walking his dog. The man put up his hand in thanks. They drove on until the houses were not so nice, more modern, put up after the war. They went over the train tracks and past the school and then to Grinty’s where they had met earlier in the day.

Salvator pulled into the parking lot. The bar was still open, but through the window, he didn’t see any movement, only the colored lights blinking inside.

“That’s my car,” she said dully. “Let me out.”

It was a large station wagon. Salvator pulled next to it. In the dark, it looked navy blue. He pulled up the handbrake and turned to her, but he kept his eyes on the glove compartment.

“I don’t remember,” he began. He could feel her eyes on him. “I don’t remember if I did that to you, too.”

There was a short silence and then he felt something claw his face. She was scratching at him with both hands, her long nails digging into his skin. He tried to ward her off by putting his hands in front of his face, but she reached up and yanked at his hair, pulling it by the roots. When she finally stopped, he dropped his hands and she spit in his eye. She opened the door and got out.

He wiped at his eye with his sleeve and watched her get in her car. She sat there and didn’t move. He watched her sitting in the dark, her head on the steering wheel. After several minutes, she lifted her head and lit a cigarette. He could see the ember in the dark space of her car.

He started to turn the key in the ignition, and that’s when he saw her wallet on the car seat. It was made of fake alligator skin and was pink, like her nails. He looked inside and took out her driver’s license. She had a Connecticut license. Her name was Cassandra Cruikshank, and she was born on December 2, 1931.

When she started the car, he quickly jumped out and went to the window. He held up the wallet. She rolled down the window and grabbed it from him.

“Let me buy you a drink. Or dinner. Or something,” he said. But she was already pulling out of the lot. Her wheels whirred as she hit a patch of ice, and then she was gone. He watched her red taillights disappear around the curve of the road.

* * *

When he pulled up to his house fifteen minutes later, he glanced in the rearview mirror. His face was bleeding above his eye, and there was a long pink welt down his right cheek. He had shaved that morning, but already a shadow of a beard covered his jaw. He looked at his watch. It was only half past eight. It was completely night now with low hung clouds, no moon or stars. A pain had started behind his eyes, and the world was in sharp focus again. He could feel the uneven beating of his heart. As he sat there, he saw that something else had fallen out of her bag, a scarf. It was on the floor of the passenger side. He picked it up. It was green and made of a gossamer material.  It felt cheap and the material snagged on the dry skin of his fingers. He held it for a long moment and then stuffed it in his jacket pocket.

He sat there until it began to snow.

Laura Demers received an MA in English Education from New York University. She was published in the North American Review and was nominated in 2017 for the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She was also published in The Masters Review Anthology Volume VII. She currently lives in Los Angeles.


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