“How unfortunate.” He’d dispensed the line so many times that it had lost taste, like gum chewed too long. The metal blade slid back into the underarm holster beneath his grey jumpsuit. He grabbed a mop and began cleaning.
Thomas sat and sipped on the short, cubic glass of cranberry juice. It was bitter and difficult, but there wasn’t much left in the fridge. Noticing his drink matched the still bucket water, he chuckled sensibly. It didn’t remain funny for long. He grabbed the pocket mirror his wife kept on the nightstand and reached into his pocket for the black comb with broken teeth. A forced smile was the best he could do, but it sufficed while he brushed his hair back into the intended Princeton fashion. Gently, he lowered the mirror and comb back on the nightstand so they ran parallel, lengthwise.
The satin bed sheets had been his wife’s choice – a decision made at some outlet while he was away at work, no doubt. Time and time again he had wondered whether or not she paid him any mind when she made these decisions. He ruminated on the tiny, pointless bits of life that she must’ve known he hated. Maybe…maybe if she’d spent even one idle moment considering him. She was an automaton, a daydreaming doll marching mindlessly through life. If she were fish, she wouldn’t know water. His face oscillated between rage and terrible grief. At first he thought he hated her and loved her, but it wasn’t a dichotomous set of feelings. It was a synthesis, more than the sum of its parts.
He sat back down and sipped from the glass again. His outburst had cost him too much. The rose red streaked across her right cheek now, and her nearly indistinguishable freckles were interrupted by dots of dust and dirt. He pulled his sweaty hair back with a cupped hand. It didn’t matter anymore, he supposed. It took a long time for him to come to the conclusion, but it settled well with him. It didn’t matter anymore. He reached for the phone.
Officers Darryl and Phillips knocked. It wasn’t until the third succession that they managed to discern that the voice from within was inviting them to enter. Darryl motioned for Phillips to enter first.
“This guy called for what again?” Darryl kept his voice and profile low, leaning in after his partner to check the sides of the room. It was a warm, but small living space, the sort of place the characters from your favorite slice-of-life television show might spend their time playing cards. The kitchen to his right had a floating counter, but was otherwise open to the living room on his left. Beyond, straight ahead, a narrow hallway ended in a left turn. The contents of the apartment were equally unremarkable, an older CRT television sat on an entertainment center.
“Said he’d gotten into a fight with his wife.” Phillips shrugged and paused to look around.
“Say, what do you think that entertainment center is made of. I mean it’s obviously supposed to look like oak, but I can’t tell if its imitation.” Darryl had already forgotten his initial question as he dutifully approached the wooden stand in the corner.
“My wife buys that shit, man. The imitation stuff, I mean. Can’t stand it.” Phillips replied.
“So it’s imitation?”
“No clue, I was just saying.”
“Yeah.” Darryl rubbed his hand along the side of the entertainment center, “Yeah, that grain is totally painted on.”
“Rough lifestyle, man.” Phillips turned around to face the rest of the living room and kitchen. “This place is tidy though.”
“Nah, I got dust all over my hand.” Darryl wiped it off on his slacks.
“No, no. Not clean. Tidy. Check it out.” Phillips motioned with a loosely pointed finger at the kitchenware, neatly hung up, the coasters that sat neatly next to each other, separated by a sensible quarter inch of counter space, and the couch’s cushions neatly arranged so that they all lay at symmetrical height and length. “That’s impressive.”
“Yeah, wish I could keep my house like this.” Darryl shrugged.
They looked at each other and headed toward the hallway. Unlike the living room or kitchen, the hallway had several remarkable features. The walls were cloaked in a dimness alien to the brightness of the common areas. The officers, like most people, made certain, unconscious assumptions about the size of rooms and buildings—assumptions that were now betrayed by the seemingly impossible length of the hallway. Twenty seconds had elapsed before Darryl had realized that both he and his partner were stopped at the end of the corridor.
At the very same time, Phillips stepped forward and called out. “Thomas? Thomas Grash? MCPD.” He approached the left turn at the end of the hallway cautiously. He felt apprehensive, but reassured himself by looking back at an equally anxious Darryl.
“I’m here.” A dry throat called from beyond the left turn.
Phillips holstered the weapon he had unconsciously drawn, and met eyes with his partner. His face was equal parts fright and relief. He straightened himself up, breathed out and turned the corner.
Thomas sat pm the edge of the bed, facing the officers. A man of at least 35, his face was lined with stress and age. His eyes were dull and half-closed. To Darryl and Phillips, it was just another Caucasian male of average build carrying a concealed. Then, they looked down.
The first thing they saw was her hair. A bouffant ripped straight from the roots of Jackie Kennedy’s head, but blond—so blond, without the slightest touch of darkness at the base. Skin like spider silk, strong but smooth, sticking to whatever eyes touched it last. For a few moments, that’s all there was, spider silk and blond. The red lipstick demanded equal attention, such reserve was drawn across her lips that it echoed in her face and tapped the essence of reservation itself. Her dress was at least as tasteful, a callback to the era of women first entering business. Class with a touch of appeal to the basest urge that even in her death, it sang siren call to the two officers. Death.
Phillips drew his weapon again, but slowly. It took visible effort for him to turn his eyes back to the man on the bed. “Is that a weapon?”
“Yes, but if I had any intention of using it…” Thomas trailed off. “I’m reaching in my pocket now, slowly.”
Darryl brought his gun to bear. They both remained silent.
“And I’m setting it down on the ground, slowly… I would have left it there to begin with, but I feel rather naked without it.” Thomas sat back up straight on the bed, and nudged the weapon to the side with his foot.
“Darryl, could you… Could you radio in for backup?” Keeping a careful eye on the man, Phillips grabbed the weapon. “Thomas, right?”
“We need a few more officers on scene before we can take you in, alright? They’re just gonna help catalogue everything and make sure things are done right.”
“I don’t suppose I have much of a choice.”
Phillips shook his head.
Darryl mumbled something into his shoulder before drawing his lips back and returning to the woman on the ground. “W-Why?” He interrupted. He felt something disturb the inside of his throat. An itch. Phillips immediately sighed, and looked at the nightstand on the right.
“You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting to answer this question.” Thomas’ hard face softened briefly. “Every day, I came home and every day she was sweet. She was so, so sweet. I can’t even… Sorry.” He interrupted himself. He turned and moved hands behind his back. After he was cuffed, he casually broke Phillips’ hold and sat back down on the bed.
Phillips was surprised to have let him go so easily, but he didn’t make any effort to grapple with Thomas. Darryl’s eyes remained locked on the woman on the floor.
“Anyway, she would ask me how my day was, she would tell me that things went well for her in the office.” He paused. “Are you married?”
The officers nodded subconsciously. Phillips found himself staring at the woman, too.
“Then you know the rest. Dinner. Filling time. Reminiscing. Sleep. It’s all so comfortable, you know?” Thomas looked as if he genuinely expected a response, but appeared satisfied with a nod. “The day to day was great at first. When we were in our 20s, nothing felt better than coming home with nothing to do. A nine-to-five is a helluva lot better than a six-to-ten. Well, you went to school, you know.” Thomas flung his sweaty hair back while the cops nodded. “But then things changed, it got comfortable. We settled. It’s this place. It calls to you, it promises a long life, full of comfort and ease.”
Some indistinct radio chatter came in through Darryl’s walkie.
“But it’s poison. It’s toxic. The bubbling pitch between shingles.” Thomas’ head was shaking intensely. He flung his long, greasy grey hair back. He paused, and appeared to regain his composure. Thomas folded the corner of his lip. Almost a grin. “That’s what the American Dream is boys—a small town, a picket fence, a sensible wife, and generic peanut butter.”
Darryl and Phillips looked at each other. Sirens sounded in the distance. They both turned their gaze to Thomas and asked, “Peanut butter?” The body at their feet remained still.
“Every day, the exact same shit. I told her countless times, that you can see the difference in Jif.” Thomas turned his head toward the dresser, ‘Food Club Smooth Peanut Butter.’ “But this shit, man. She came home with this shit every goddamn time, ya know?”
“As a kid, my mom always bought generic cereal. It’s disgusting, it really is.” Darryl didn’t realize he had spoken until it was out.
“I’m telling you, the stuff doesn’t spread for shit.” Despite the half-smirks, Thomas looked happy for the first time since the officers had seen him. “I’m glad you get it. I really am.”
Phillips broke his silence, “I hate the block cream cheese. I prefer the spreadable tubs. My wife won’t buy them because they cost more. It’s just twenty cents.” He kneeled down to take a closer look at the woman, careful not to disturb her. It would occur to him later that the caution didn’t stem from protocol or training, but out of respect for her spotless condition. Closer inspection of her face revealed tiny pockmarks caked with dusty makeup and some things, black and small like wet dots of dirt.
“There was a lot of blood.” Thomas remarked casually. “Do either of you guys smoke?”
Darryl nodded, and instinctively reached for a cigarette to hand to the man. Thomas nodded appreciatively and leaned into Darryl’s lighter.
“Thanks.” He was quite adept at speaking out of the corner of his mouth. The cigarette bobbed up and down, “I really didn’t expect so much. She whimpered too. I figured a shot to her heart and it’d be done, you know, like that.” Thomas snapped his fingers behind his back. “No, I guess it takes a while. I’ve probably seen too many movies.”
“Yeah, it’s a nasty thing.” Darryl replied. Phillips and Thomas nodded. “Er… I mean death. Your wife is quite…” He trailed off and meandered toward the jar of Food Club. The sirens were growing louder.
“I wish I had bought a jar of the good stuff,” Thomas looked legitimately sullen as soon as he said it. “The small things you forget when you plan something like this. I mean, you’re throwing it all—what little of it there is—away, so why not?”
Darryl nodded, “I think I would buy a hundred lotto tickets, more if I could afford it. And now that you mention it, a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes would be a damn good last meal.”
Phillips, still crouched over the body, continued nodding. The woman’s shoes might’ve belonged to Dorothy if they were slippers. As red as her lips, and dainty too. He imagined her dancing in them, in a dimly lit hall. It was strange that he imagined himself as her partner, instead of Thomas.
The room was mostly silent for a while. Only the crescendoing sirens and small-town hum cut into the room. Finally, an indistinct voice came in through Darryl’s radio and the sirens stopped.
“Ready?” Darryl asked Thomas.
“Do you mind?” Thomas flicked the cigarette up and down in his mouth for emphasis.
“Oh. Sorry.” Darryl reached for it, and instinctively headed for the kitchen drain.
Phillips helped Thomas stand and carefully aided him over the body. His hands twitched as Thomas delivered a swift kick to the dresser. The Food Club jar fell to the floor. The precariously positioned lid bounced on the hardwood and rolled under the bed.
“In my head, it splattered too, ya know?” Thomas’ voice was flat.
“Yeah, that might’ve been better.” Phillips agreed. He met Darryl and the other officers out in the common area. “No investigators?”
“They’re on their way, just us and the boys outside for now. Everything under control?”
Thomas laughed, “Oh yeah, it’s all very much under control.”
Phillips and Darryl nodded. They walked Thomas out to the car in silence. The officers waiting outside cast semi-interested looks in their direction, but most of them continued their conversations about local gossip or their Easter plans. Clouds gathered while they were inside, and now a light rain fell on the neighborhood.
Phillips assisted Thomas into the back of the car. Thomas made no fuss. Darryl walked around to the driver’s side and took the wheel.
“Where to?” He joked. Thomas chuckled from the back, head hung low. Darryl pulled away from the curb and headed toward the station.
Surburban life was largely uninterrupted. The incident had been contained in the small world of Thomas’ home, and would stay there for hours to come. Grey skies and the short, spring sprouts of grass stuck out most in the minds of all three as they made their way through the winding roads of the cul-de-sac and emerged onto the much more urban main road.
The commercial district along either side of the main road was all but deserted. The first cars of the day stood watch over empty business parking lots while sullen employees somewhere inside opened shop.
“Anyone hungry?” Darryl joked again.
“Actually, I could go for some McDonald’s breakfast.” Phillips looked earnestly at Darryl. “Oh were you-”
“No, sounds good to me.” Darryl said. Joke or not, he was hungry.
They pulled in to the drive through, Thomas’ head waving with the motions of the car in the back. Phillips ordered himself the biggest plate of hotcakes he could find on the menu. Darryl picked his favorite and turned back in the car, “Hey, Thomas, you want anything?”
Thomas’ head perked up in the back. He turned and looked out the window at the nigh-empty urban landscape. “Yeah, I’ll have one of those egg sandwiches. No meat.”
“You got it buddy.”
They waited for a bit for their food. They parked and Phillips walked to the back door in order to hand Thomas his sandwich.
“Gonna be difficult with my hands like this.” Thomas turned his head toward his back.
Phillips looked at Darryl. Darryl shrugged. “Alright, man. That’s fair.” He unlocked Thomas’ handcuffs.
“Thanks, officer.” Thomas said, unwrapping his sandwich. “My wife wouldn’t have let me touch the stuff. It’d be cholesterol this, cholesterol that.”
Phillips walked back to the passenger’s seat and entered the car nodding in sync with Darryl. “Yeah, we won’t tell yours if you don’t tell ours.” Darryl laughed a bit.
Phillips chuckled uncomfortably.
Thomas began laughing hysterically in the back of the car. Phillips turned to see Thomas’ sandwich sitting on the seat, next to Thomas, on top of its opened wrapper. He finished chewing the bite of his own sandwich, “What’s going on, bud?” He was trying to be impersonal, but he found himself using the term ‘bud’ in the most genuine sense he’d heard in his life.
“They gave me meat, of course.” Thomas’ laughter was dying down. He swept his hair back and nodded. “Meat, man. The one thing…” He trailed off and began to look again out the window at the grayscale environment.
The rest of the ride back to the station was silent.
The investigation was open and close. They got a statement from Thomas, in which he admitted his guilt. He pleaded guilty when he came to trial, and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Being that it was a small town, there was surprisingly little fuss made about the murder. The paper ran a front page story, but it wasn’t a hot article or highly contested subject. It was an interesting distraction in a dispenser on the sidewalk near Red’s Bar and Grill. Nothing more.
Phillips and Darryl went back to the beat. The first time each of them went shopping, they paused at the dairy and cereal. They sometimes considered sneaking the box or tub into the cart. They’d shake their head to clear the daydream and continue on. Sometimes, they would talk about how important it was to enjoy the little things in life or appreciate their wives. Altogether though, the things they did remained the same, as they tend to do.
It was only in Phillips’ dreams that Thomas took hold in the form of an endless desert marked with litter. Plastic bags from Piggly Wiggly blew by like tumbleweeds. Each time, it felt like an eternity of wandering – lost in the land of nod.