The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

September 28, 2009

WGI 2nd Place: At Least I Felt Something by Sophie Littlefield

AT LEAST I FELT SOMETHING by Sophie Littlefield

I heard about Alan when I dropped Conner off at school. Nancy Mangin tapped her horn and I pulled up next to her Pathfinder and rolled down my window, my breath making clouds in the rain.

“Did you hear?” she asked, eyes bright behind her designer glasses. “Alan Corrigan’s dead. The police are over there and the ambulance just left.”

My peripheral vision faded to nothing as I absorbed the news. I finally found words.

“Was it a heart attack?” I asked.

Nancy put a manicured hand to her throat; if you didn’t know her well you’d think she was devastated.

“There were cops there. It’s bad. Cheryl said they hadn’t even moved Alan yet. He was just lying on the floor in the den with a sheet on him. Cheryl didn't get a close look because Glenna was practically hysterical. But she said there was a guy in a police windbreaker taking pictures."

“What, like…like Alan was murdered?”

Nancy managed to look stricken when she nodded, but she was already scanning the parking lot to see who else she could tell.

***

The casserole lineup was in place by that afternoon. Cheryl made the phone calls and emailed a spreadsheet; Glenna wouldn't have to cook for a month.

When we moved here a little over a year ago I found out that life events in our neighborhood are met with food. A new baby, an illness – the Ogilvys even got a week’s worth when their son was arrested for cocaine possession.

That night when I put dinner on my own table, my husband Eric held out his hands to us. For once Connor didn’t object. Over the years, we’ve pared down our grace to a quick “Bless us oh Lord,” et cetera, but that night Eric talked about Alan. What a good man he was, a good father and provider. He asked God’s blessing for Glenna and Kate. He threw in a few words of gratitude for our own blessings.

The phone rang and rang after dinner. The basic story was that Alan had been hit hard enough to splinter his skull. He’d been lying on the oriental rug in the den for several hours by the time Glenna found him in the morning.

The next day I sent my gray dress to be pressed. I went through Eric's closet and picked out a shirt and tie for him to wear.

Before Connor came home from school, I locked myself in the guest room and cried.

***

Eric does copyright law. When he was offered a job in Chicago I told him I didn’t mind moving – a suburb is a suburb, and he got a significant raise.

We quickly settled into a new routine, not so different from our old one. We joined the tennis club. I had the hardwood floors refinished, and started working with a designer on the kitchen remodel.

We started attending Saint Stephens, made a strategic donation and got Connor admitted to the school. It's a good one; they turn kids away every year. We considered Country Day, but Conner’s had some discipline problems in the past, and we thought the parochial-school environment would be good for him. And the church is close enough to walk when the weather’s good.

In early October, the Women’s Club hosted a harvest moon party in the church basement. Dinner, laid out in steam trays, was mostly ignored. Everyone hung around the bar. At first it was the women in one group, men in another, but as the evening wore on people started to drift into each other, laughing. I heard a man tell the same joke twice. Three women I recognized made microphones out of empty wine bottles and sang “Summer of Sixty-Nine.”

At midnight I was ready to leave. I had a headache from trying to smile. Eric was talking to some guys near the dessert table. “Brick House” played on the sound system.

Nancy Mangin approached a little unsteadily, dragging another woman by the hand. “Jen, do you know the Corrigans? They have a seventh grader.”

I shook hands with Glenna Corrigan, a sprayed-in-place blond in a cashmere cardigan. And then I saw Alan.

He was tall and his dark hair needed a cut, and he looked at me like I’d made a gaffe that he secretly found amusing. When I took his hand he held on.

Nancy wandered away with Glenna, and the music pounded through my shoes and up into my body, and I didn’t say anything at all when Alan slowly rubbed his thumb in a circle on my palm.
“Finally, someone to bring a little class to this place,” he said.

***

After that I saw Alan sometimes, at a barbecue or a dinner party. He was always charming, always at the center of conversation, though I noticed that he never talked too long to any one person. When he told a story, everyone laughed. He filled people’s glasses, helped women with their coats.

But I was an avid student, and before long I noticed that the glass he filled most often was his own. It didn’t take much work to get the story; word was that he saved his serious drinking for when he got home.

Alan never gave me more than a casual hello, and I wondered if I had imagined that first time, the intimate way he spoke to me, his hand holding mine. Still, it was him I thought about on nights when I couldn’t sleep.

In the spring Eric and I were summoned to a parent conference after Conner and some other fifth graders were caught telling girls all the x-rated things they wanted to do to them. The principal, an ex-nun with a masters in education, had a hard time getting the words out.
Everyone got grounded. I started volunteering for lunch supervision so I could keep an eye on Connor. School dragged on; eventually it was June, and we reached a state of d├ętente. Connor would be going to special summer school, the kind with psychologists on staff, instead of soccer camp. Eric had a big case that kept him out of town a lot.

***

Glenna Corrigan called to arrange a carpool. Her daughter Kate would be going to the same camp, she told me cheerily, as though it was a program for gifted children. Through the grapevine I’d heard that Kate had anger issues and had threatened to run away.

Glenna said she would drive Connor and Kate to camp, and I could bring them home at three. I took a little extra care getting Connor ready for the first day. I made him wear a collared shirt and pack carrots in his lunch, the kind of things you do when your child is under the microscope.

I was surprised when Alan came to the door, wearing a faded polo shirt and madras shorts. “Summer schedule,” he said. “Thought I’d give Glenna a break with the driving.”

I knew he did something with investments. Apparently the job wasn’t too time-consuming, though, because when I offered him coffee the second day, he said he’d love to, that he’d be back as soon as he dropped off the kids.

During the twenty minutes he was gone, I dumped the old coffee and made a fresh pot. I windexed the counters and set out the cream pitcher. I brushed my teeth for the second time that morning.

We never drank any coffee. Alan came through the door and slammed it behind him and had me up against the new Schumacher wallpaper in the foyer in seconds, his hands in my hair and his kiss crushing and inevitable.

***

The thing about Alan was that we never had sex. He couldn’t. He would get hard and then it wouldn’t last. I put things together and realized it was the drinking. Everything with Alan was the drinking, what I loved and what I hated. He was like some sort of mid-century man about town, his manners impeccable, his conversation funny and generous, but there were places he couldn’t go.

Through careful inquiries I found out that Glenna had made her peace with her husband's problem. Alan had inherited a lot of money and I guess that bought her an adequate amount of serenity.

I should have felt sorry for her. I told myself I did. But on days when I didn't see Alan, the thought of him sharing the homely rituals of a marriage – deciding what to watch on TV, or serving each other from takeout containers – was enough to bring on a pain focused behind my eyes.

Alan came over to the house during the day when Eric was out of town. Other times, we’d go up to a little motel up in Highwood. Alan never left me unsatisfied. It seems important to point that out – he was generous and attentive and when I asked what he got out of our affair he just laughed and pulled me into his arms. Sometimes he read to me. Sometimes he brought sugar cookies from the bakery, silly shapes like bees and daisies.

But I couldn’t let go of wanting more. I wasn't sure if I loved Alan, but it had been so long since I’d felt anything at all. I felt dizzy when I imagined him inside me. I wanted to feel him tense as he went over the edge.

Our affair had been going on for several months when I asked Alan if he’d stop drinking, for me. I had let him undress me, buried my face in the warm taut skin of his stomach, lain in his arms watching the rain through the motel window – intimacies I hadn’t shared with anyone else. But Alan’s drinking was a place we never went. It felt dangerous to breach the boundaries.

But I asked anyhow. I craved more of him.

***

Finding an AA meeting on the North Shore is as easy as finding popcorn at the movies. Alan went to Wilmette, where he wouldn’t run into people he knew. I tried not to think about what he told Glenna. I couldn't stand to think of him confiding in her. Or her promising to stand by him.

Alan was very cautious. He hadn't even started the steps yet, he was still getting used to the whole program. He told me that his short-term goal was just to hold onto the unfamiliar feeling of optimism; permanent sobriety still seemed to him like a dream on par with a miracle.

And then he died.

***

Kate was getting worse, despite the best efforts of the camp and the school counselors and her therapist. She had moved on to cutting, wearing long sleeves to cover the scabbed skin on her arms. On warm evenings people used to hear her screaming at her parents through the open windows.

In the days following Alan’s death, everyone in the neighborhood discussed the rumors that the police were focusing on Kate. Her prints were on the hammer they found near the body. So were Glenna’s.

There were cops at the funeral, but they kept a respectful distance at the back of the church. I couldn’t concentrate on the sermon. Instead I tried to decide if I would take my turn to see Alan one last time, to say goodbye. When the congregation began its slow journey past the casket, I still hadn't decided.

Betrayal is a powerful thing, and yet since I started seeing Alan I had given little thought to Eric. I was too consumed with the affair, with planning our next rendezvous, with tamping down my jealousy of Glenna. Sometimes it seemed that I was the wronged party, just because I couldn’t have Alan to myself.

But the night after Alan died, I watched my husband with his hands folded humbly in prayer and something hitched inside me. Now Eric sat next to me in his darkest suit, a hymn book open on his knee, his arm draped protectively around Connor. There was something there of the man I fell in love with almost twenty years ago, a strong and steadfast man who asked only to walk in the door at the end of the day and find us waiting.

But, again, betrayal is powerful. A week earlier, when Eric was in Toronto and Connor was on a field trip to the Art Institute, Alan came to me in my kitchen and took me in his arms. “I have a surprise for you,” he whispered in my ear, sucking the lobe into his mouth and sending tremors down my spine.

He led me to the guest room, where we often lay twined together. “What’s the surprise?” I asked, but it wasn’t until my bra and blouse were lying on the floor that he told me, tracing a finger down my nose, my chin.

“I’m going to make love to you, Jen. Here. Now.”

The words thrilled me – but at the same time I was worried. What would it do to Alan, if he couldn’t see it through? Could his new sobriety stand to be tested by that humiliation?

“What if…it doesn’t work?” I asked in a whisper.

“Oh, it will.” He worked the zipper of my jeans.

“But how do you know?”

Alan loomed over me, his beautiful face inches away, his hands hot on my skin.

“Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. I’ve fucked Glenna twice already.”

***

I watched Kate sink against her father’s casket, only to be lifted to her feet by several tall young men. Cousins, maybe. Or plainclothes cops.

I thought about what people were saying, that at least she was still a juvenile. That it wasn’t premeditated; Kate just had one of her fits and she probably wasn’t even competent when she went to get the hammer.

They’re not all that far off, at least about it not being premeditated. It took me fifteen hours after I sent Alan away. Fourteen of them, I don’t remember thinking anything at all. And in the last hour, the neighborhood quiet and dark, I slipped in the side door to the Corrigans’ garage, wearing thin wool gloves, and took the first thing I saw from the peg rack. That’s not premeditation, is it? Perhaps the gloves, but I don’t even remember getting them from the closet.

Alan was sitting where I knew he’d be, at the desk in the den, where he always worked late at night. There was a second before he saw me when I watched him in profile, wondering how I could hurt the man who had finally made me feel something again.

And then I remembered what he did with her and it was easy.

11 comments:

  1. Simply superb in its crafting, emotional and so very well told. A real pleasure to read. Bravo.

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  2. Ah, well. A REAL story. I really felt something.

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  3. I loved this, Sophie! There's no better device--at least in my humble opinion--than an obsessive woman. A great read.

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  4. Sophie, you're a genius. What an incredible story.

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  5. One of the most unusual motives for murder I've ever read about. That's what makes this story neat for me. Thanks.

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  6. Great story, Sophie. For a second, you had me second guessing maybe Jen wasn't the murderer. Well done. My favorite line: "I had a headache from trying to smile."

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  7. This is terrific. Liked where she questions how Alan died-like she didn't know! "Brickhouse" playing in the background, nice touch.

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  8. Sophie, congratulations on your Spinetingler nomination. I wish you the best.
    Anonymous-9
    anonwrite9@gmail.com

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  9. Sophie:

    Saw the Spinetingler nomination and had to read your story. Wonderfully done. Kept me guessing until the end.

    Was nice meeting you at LCC.

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