10:46 AM Posted by James Owens

Noir Sonata with a Long, Slow Denouement

Her husband was still breathing huskily through his bulldog face. By the time Menlo discovered her subterfuge, it was too late. He helped her flee the country. They slipped across the border on foot through a high mountain pass, finding shelter at the ultimate, desperate moment in an abandoned shepherd’s hut where they waited out one of those freak snowstorms apt to afflict the high alps even in the summer.

No, that never happened, this isn‘t a story—they boarded an airplane for New York, and no one gave them a second look.

Then there had been, perhaps, episodes of searing excitement as they crisscrossed the country, just ahead of the straining fingertips of three or four hit men hired by Katherine’s husband. Did those things happen? They escaped. They grew tied of each other. The money ran out more quickly than they had expected—all the dull thuds of plot elements dropping irremediably into place. They hated each other.


Menlo would walk through his dilapidated part of town in the evenings or late fall mornings, streamers of fog sagging from the worn-out buildings like damp wallpaper, toward the lake and the asphalt trail where healthy joggers never even glanced at him, preparing themselves to be unable to recognize his picture during interviews with the police after whatever was to happen next would have happened. He watched the waves coming in to shore on Lake Erie and barges hanging seemingly motionless on the horizon. Gulls, shrieking at each other, bright cracks of sound in the gray sky. Fists stuffed in the pockets of his coat, Menlo stared into the water and thought about what to do next. When he looked up from the colorless swish and slosh of the little waves, the barges would have slipped several degrees across his field of vision or would have gone on around the curve of the earth and disappeared. That he was in Cleveland, in goddamned Ohio, rankled. That he was not in London or Brasilia or Helsinki, cities where he felt sure that he could have contrived a brilliant end to the story, a gasping denouement, some pretension to a dignified exit.


Introibo ad altarem dei, Menlo always whispered when they were preparing to make love, which Katherine found blasphemous and pretty damned funny, at first. Growing up, he had felt destined for a life in the Church, and he had treasured his feeling of a fierce, protective solidarity with the priests, understanding their vestments and ranks, thirsting for their insight into the arcane truths of the invisible world that roared silently all around.

Menlo’s father had been an obsessive reader of American history and had chosen a name for his son from the biography of a great inventor that he had been obliged to lay aside when his wife entered labor, so Menlo had always felt that he should be able to repay his father for the interesting name by showing an inventive streak. But this became hard for him in Cleveland. Late into the night, the store window mannequins never moved as they watched him trudge past.


There was the customary series of short-breathed, clandestine meetings and close calls in provincial hotel rooms, while Menlo and Katherine spoke soft words and, at the same time, circled each other like feral cats, instinctively on the alert for an advantage, both born to the life of the confidence artist. Menlo loved the word “grifter.” Everything changed the night when Katherine showed up at Menlo’s door with a suitcase full of 100-euro notes and told him she had killed her husband.


Wind whipped up the leaden water like rows of scales on the back of some vast creature surfacing from the lake. Menlo imagined that the fists clenched in his pockets were breaking the little bones in Katherine’s neck, his knuckles white from the pressure he exerted, his thumbs against her struggling trachea.

As he walked the cracked sidewalks, he thought about her sitting by the window, waiting for him, in the apartment they had rented—the cheapest possible, between a crumpled bachelor who loudly adored antique operatic records and a huge family that seemed composed entirely of screaming infants. He imagined Katherine watching his approach up the dim street, the pores of the autumn day sweating a cool dusk around him, Katherine taking out the palm-sized, silver-plated automatic that she thought he didn’t know she had hidden in her purse and weighing it in her lap, smiling in that vague, bemused way of smiling that had first attracted him to her, wondering to herself whose nerve was going to break first.



Sorlil said...

Really enjoyed this. Great build up, loved all the detail and really liked the ending.

James Owens said...

Thank you. Something a little different :-)