By: Michael Wells
On Saturday night Dr. Bob Ellis sat alone in his den. The tan cracks in the dark brown leather chair reminded him of dry valleys in the Grand Canyon. The last rays of sunlight shone through the bourbon in his cut glass tumbler that he held in his right hand. The light scattered and curled around a bust of his wife, Lori, as if it were embracing it. Lori made the sculpture herself, which was the main reason he didn’t throw the thing out the window and into Central Park. The angular cheekbones and curved red lips mimicked a photograph of her smiling as they sailed at Cape Cod on their honeymoon about twenty years before in 1945. Happier days, he thought.
The bourbon was supposed to give him a break from the stress of being an ER doctor and life in general. Lately, though, nothing made it better. He thought, perhaps, he created his own problems. Bob didn’t exactly keep his wedding vows, and he had legal pad of excuses why. He lived in fear of being discovered, but he couldn’t stop. Although he didn’t think either of them knew, he still felt guilty.
He remembered his own face in that picture now lost. He wore a wide smile and a giddy look of wonder in his eyes as if he’d just discovered an earthly paradise. If only the years had turned out that way. Instead, here he was drinking alone on a Saturday night worrying about screwing around.
He focused on her raised eyebrows. The painted hair with etched strands seemed to blow back in the imaginary wind. The bust’s expression bore that same wide-eyed sense of discovery and surprise from the picture. Maybe there was a hint of knowing, too.
But that expression wasn’t what made it come alive. It was those violet glass eyes that probed him like a viper waiting to strike. No matter where he sat in that den--his den--he felt like they watched. Every time he looked at them he half expected them to move and the mouth to open saying, “I’m watching you always, Bob.”
He didn’t know why she insisted on using eyes in the sculptures. The eyes made them look too real as opposed to real enough to not scare the shit out of you. She’d made several others, some of relatives and some of famous people such as Julius Caesar and Marilyn Monroe. Even if they were realistic, they were creepy, or perhaps they were realistic because they were creepy.
Anyway, Lori was focused on her own hobbies. She had lots of friends; in fact, she was out playing bridge with her friends from Bryn Mawr at the local bridge club, which she went to once a month.
In attempt at levity, he laughed at how Lori’s family made its money. It manufactured prosthetics and glass eyes. That’s why they lived so well and where she got the glass eyes. Sure he did fine as a doctor, but he didn’t do well enough to afford this Midtown Manhattan apartment. He wondered if he would have married her had there not been all that money even though they did sign a prenup. Of course, there’d been the pregnancy.
Every now and again they’d get a box of glass eyes, and she’d make more sculptures for friends and family. She’d tell him, “I can’t make sculptures without the eyes. The eyes are what make it real. Eyes tell you everything.”
The phone on his desk rang, and he picked it up. The phone cord snagged the receiver, which stuck to the leather desk blotter as if the phone didn’t want to be answered. “Dr. Ellis, I know you are supposed to be off tonight, but we need you in surgery. There’s been a serious car accident,” said a female voice he didn’t recognize right offhand. Perhaps someone new made the call.
“Okay, I will be right in.” He didn’t think he’d had enough bourbon to affect his nerves. Although he wouldn’t say it, sometimes he believed drinking made him better in surgery. It steadied his hands and made him more dexterous.
He left Lori a note saying he had to go to the ER and not to wait up for him. He’d left these kinds of notes before even when he didn’t have surgery.
He arrived at the hospital and checked in. Then he went to the attending ER doctor, Dr. Collins. “I’m here for the brain surgery needed on the motor vehicle accident patient.”
Dr. Collins smirked, his thick eyebrows reaching up to his receding hairline.
Bob hated Collins’s constant smirk, thick glasses, and impish height. “What are you smirking at?”
“Bob, I don’t know who told you we needed you, but there isn’t a surgery.” Then he reached out his hand and put it on Bob’s arm in a placating gesture. “Why don’t you go home? You’ve been working too hard lately.”
“Yes, yes,” Bob said as he backed away. He just needed to relax a little. It occurred to him he had a free night.
He ducked into the private doctor’s phone booth, the one he used to call Veronica, whom he’d been seeing for about three months.
Veronica knew it was him when the phone rang. She’d been told to expect him. Even if she hadn’t been told she would have known. Normally she could tell a man was lying to her, an intuition hard won after years of directors promising her key parts only to get her into bed. She’d learned to spot liars, but she let her guard down with him. He’d just been so charming with his banter, and he was a doctor. But that wasn’t what sold her. He’d reached out his hand on the night they met in that blaring, hazy bar to push back her hair. “I just wanted to see you, all of you,” he said. And she was so shocked that she believed he meant more than just her naked. He hadn’t apparently.
Initially she could almost set her clock by his calls. He’d give her the nights he had to work in the ER, and, invariably, he’d call after and want to come over but always at night. And they never went to his place. She ignored the obvious signs because she wanted to believe someone would finally see her as a person and not just her exterior.
But the calls had been less frequent. She knew he was going to ditch her, but he couldn’t if she acted first. She already had her plan.
She picked up after the first ring. “Hello,” she said with that husky voice, so strong and feminie.
“Veronica, it’s me, Dr. Raymond Lightfoot.” He never used his real name with any of the women, and he settled on this one. He’d used it for awhile. This way the fantasy and the lie could play out. Veronica said she liked it when he referred to himself as Dr. Raymond Lightfoot. It allowed him to be another person as well, even if for a short while.
“I thought I wouldn’t hear from you again.”
“I told you I’d call.”
“They always say they will.”
“Can you meet me at the Wilted Rose in thirty minutes?” he asked.
She paused a beat. “Sure. I’m still dressed, at least for now.” Then she laughed and hung up.
He could almost see those inviting blue eyes staring into his, which always reminded him of the ocean, deep and unfathomable.
The Wilted Rose wasn’t like any place he’d go with Lori; she was too refined. Bryn Mawr girls didn’t go places like it. The weeping grind of rock music blared from the redlight splashed stage, which was enveloped with a purplish blue cigarette smoke making it feel like a mixture between a burlesque show and a strip club. Facial features blurred in the low light. But he had met Veronica there one night, and her curves didn’t need much light. He was sitting at a little round table with a candle in a blue bowl as the only light. She’d come up to him and introduced herself. He’d been interested immediately.
And he almost gave his name until he thought better of it. He thought of Raymond because he liked the writer, Raymond Chandler and Lightfoot because it was the Indian name he went by as a kid when he played cowboys and indians.
She didn’t ask questions nor did she need a commitment or so he thought.
A tall waitress with a bright smile walked over to him and asked, “Would you like your usual, Dr. Lightfoot?”
“Sure,” he said.
She paused and leaned over to whisper in his ear. He caught a glimpse of her face, and a whiff of her light flowery perfume he couldn’t place, and he realized she was quite striking with her doe eyes and bow mouth. “If she doesn’t make it, why don’t you give me a call?”
He laughed and felt young again even if he was in his late forties. She must have been at most thirty because she didn’t have any lines around her eyes or mouth. Soft faces always indicated youth.
He recalled his first time with Veronica. He thought she was younger until he got her undressed. He saw the slack in her neck and the blue veins in her legs.
Lately he’d grown tired of her even if her eyes still lured him in. This was the first time in weeks he’d called her. Of course, he never thought it was possible anyone would grow tired of him with his height, handsome face, and great hair. Kennedy hair, his wife called it.
Of course Lori knew about the other women and Veronica in particular. She’d known about all of them, especially Veronica. Really, what did he see in her? Lori was still tall and beautiful without any of those wrinkles and sagging features.
And she’d always been smarter than Bob; he made Bs at City College but scored surprisingly well on his MCATS. Then he’d talked his way into SUNY-Albany med school. He scraped by in med school, yet he showed a remarkable proficiency as an ER surgeon. Too bad he couldn’t put back together their lives like he did those mangled bodies. And to think she gave up UPenn law school because he got her pregnant.
She still recalled the bright red blood floating in the toilet a few weeks after their honeymoon. He’d never had to see the blood, and he sluffed it off, saying, “It wasn’t meant to be,” and then he’d gone out for several hours probably to chase women. Bastard, she thought. After the miscarriage she’d never been able to get pregnant again, which, she supposed, allowed the void in their marriage to grow.
She took a drag on her cigarette as she walked down 5th Avenue feeling the heat of the pavement under her feet. The flowers blooming in the hanging boxes on the posh apartment buildings reminded her that perhaps her new life could bloom after she finished her bit of work.
Oh...he’d see the blood this time.
Bob waited at least an hour, and he finally gave up and left. On the way out the waitress handed him a matchbook and giggled. Then she turned away. Out on the street he opened it and read it: “Erica, 555-1212. Call me sometime.” He would, but not tonight.
The walk home took forty-five minutes, but it cleared his head. “Honey, I’m home,” he said as he opened the door to the apartment. No lights were on, and his shoes creaked against the waxed parquet floor.
“Lori,” he called, his voice echoing. No answer. He glanced into his den and spied the tumbler with a finger of bourbon still in it. Out of habit he glanced at the bust, and the glass eyes caught the moonlight and almost glowed purple. Something about the eyes made him uneasy as if they knew the future. “Why don’t you stop using those fucking eyes?” he said aloud.
He needed a beer. He walked across the black and white checked tile towards the refrigerator. Beer would take the edge off.
The door seemed to be slightly ajar, which he found strange as he’d never seen it that way. He reached out and pulled the door.
The first thing he noticed inside were the blue eyes, and, for a brief moment, he wondered why Lori put glass eyes in the refrigerator. But then he saw the familiar brown hair and that sagging flesh in the neck, a neck that ended in a bloody stump that dripped red all over the refrigerator.
She’s killed Veronica and chopped off her head, he thought. Then the world went black.
When he woke up in bed he didn’t know where he was. Then he saw an empty chair and a white curtain. I’m in the ER, he thought, but why?
Then he recalled the severed head in his refrigerator and its jagged neck, soaked and dripping red. His heart jumped in this remembrance of a forgotten horror. His chest hurt as he grabbed at it. Then the pain went away.
The curtain slid open, and Lori walked in. She wore a suit jacket with a skirt. Wait a minute, he thought, she isn’t dressed in a casual dress to play bridge.
“Why are you dressed like that?” he asked.
Her mouth tightened, her purple eyes flashed in anger. “After three days, that’s what you say to me?” She really did have purple eyes just like Liz Taylor. He never saw anyone else with purple eyes.
“Three months?” How could it have been three days? “What happened?” Even though he was a doctor, he certainly didn’t feel like he had any kind of a grasp on anything. He felt so dumb and muddled at the moment, the opposite of the way he normally felt in the ER where he knew exactly what to do.
“You had a heart attack, Bob. All that drinking and screwing around finally caught up with you.”
He felt light headed as if someone tapped his brain and allowed everything in his head to flow out like a barrel with the cork taken out of the bottom. “But the head…” his words trailed off.
Just then he heard heels clicking on the floor coming from the opposite direction. The curtain slid fully open, and Veronica stood there in a red dress. “You are alive?!” He had to be imagining it. All of it.
“Of course I’m alive. We planned this. All of it.”
“But aren’t you mad at her, Lori?”
Lori smiled that same radiant smile in the picture back when everything had so much promise. “How could I be, Dr. Raymond Lightfoot? When it started, she didn’t know you were married. Neither of us knew until I followed you one night two months ago.”
Veronica sat down in a chair on the other side. He didn’t notice any of the lines he thought he saw before. Both of them appeared soft and vibrant as if the years had been sluffed off as easily as grains of sand.
“She confronted me one day. We almost fought at first.” She laughed and shrugged her shoulders as she looked at Lori. “Until…”
“Until we both knew you lied. Then we connected. And we made a plan. It’s my best bust yet. So realistic. Veronica posed so well. I was always smarter than you, Bob, you know that. And you also know I’m one hell of a sculptor. You never embraced my skill and my passion. You were too wrapped up in your own ego. Those eyes, those blue ones made it real. But I’m really surprised you fell for the joke. It is so grade B movie stuff, but I suppose you were on edge and shocked.”
Bob nodded because she was right.
“And how I’m leaving you. Here’s the divorce papers.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a sheaf of papers.
“But you can’t leave me...I will fight you in court.”
Lori laughed. “With what? You can have your stuff, but you won’t get any of mine. Well...you can have that bust of me as a rememberance. Do you recall that prenup you signed?”
Lori stood up, straightened her suit. Veronica stood too. He noticed both of their long, shapely legs and realized how dumb he’d been.
“You aren’t getting any younger, Bob,” said Veronica. “You turn fifty next year. Good luck with the women in this city. And we will make sure they know all about you. Don’t you think this will make a great news story?”
Both women guffawed and placed their hands above their breasts like they could hardly stand it.
“You wouldn’t do that?” he said.
“Don’t push it, Bub,” said Lori.
Lori grabbed Veronica by the hand, and they held up their arms like two victors after a race. “Let’s go for a drink, Veronica.” He felt a new-found attraction to both of them, something that had waned before, but now came back like a runaway train on fire. They didn’t want him, and now he couldn’t resist them. He thought of Icarus after the wax on his wings melted.
Bob couldn’t think of anything to say, but, “Where are you going?” He couldn’t believe he was losing both of them at the same time. He never thought it would happen.
Lori shook her head, smiling, “Why the Wilted Rose. Where else would we go?”