Through her kitchen window, Mrs. Marion looked out at the house next door as if she suspected a gas leak and was being careful so as not to be distracted and miss the explosion. She stood in front of the sink on her tip-toes hardly breathing, her hands gripping the countertop to steady her. She wore her old pink dressing gown and open-back pink slippers made to look like little doggie heads with floppy ears. It was growing dark out and Mrs. Marion leaned in closer to the window. In the failing light, her own reflection was becoming visible. It showed her sharp, small eyes like two black holes in a grey-green bag of wrinkles, and tight curly grey hair cut with a perverse hair-dresser’s genius for making an unattractive woman as ugly as she could be. But Mrs. Marion did not see her reflection. In her mind’s eye, she was watching herself as she entered the house next door earlier in the day. She saw the little eat-in kitchen with the island jutting out between it and the living room. She saw the worn and filthy patterned rug on the living room floor and the big window that took up most of the street-facing wall. She saw the television set in the corner and the playpen in front of the fake fireplace. And she saw the heavy padded couch where Margot sat, motionless in the silent room.
She’d been sitting there on and off, more on than off, since a week ago Saturday. That was when Mrs. Marion’s son Ronnie, Margot’s husband, had packed up the kids and taken them to stay at his brother’s house while he and Margot worked things out. Ronnie had told his mother, “This is as much your fault as anybody’s,” and had commanded her to stay away from his wife while he was at work. But his mother had just laughed her high, cunning laugh, which was her way of reminding him that she had a fool for a son. She’d wander over next door whenever the spirit moved her, nobody could make her not. After all, hadn’t she made Art buy that house for the two of them to live in and raise a family? Didn’t she still hold title to it? And wasn’t it perfectly well understood that she could sell it out from under them anytime she felt like it? And so, three or four times during that week, she’d draped an old raincoat over her shoulders and rumbled defiantly across the driveway to let herself in through the open screen door.
Upon entering the house that morning, Mrs. Marion had found Margot seated as usual in a kind of waking coma, staring fixedly at nothing, propped up primly on the couch with her knees together and her hands in her lap. A shaft of sunlight was pouring through the partly open drapes, cleaving the dark and dusty room like a precursor of Paradise. Margot had been sitting directly in its path, her skin illuminated with the brilliance of polished marble. She was a small woman in her late thirties, neat, thin, and very pale. She’d been dressed in the same summer shift she’d worn since the day the children left, her white-blonde hair stiff and straight as a pine board except for an oddly youthful flip at the shoulders. This was something new. Mrs. Marion’s thin lips had disappeared at the sight, compressed into a suspicious frown. On the table beside the couch there’d been an unopened pack of cigarettes, a lighter, and an ashtray. Mrs. Marion’s frown had grown tighter and her eyes had narrowed to slits. Margot had quit smoking years before.
“You eat anything today, Margot?” Mrs. Marion had ventured, masking her suspicion in a fog of pleasantry. There’d been no reaction.
“You know there’s nothing in the refrigerator but some brown lettuce. Gotta keep your strength up if you want to be any use to your husband and those children of yours.” Mrs. Marion had been watching the younger woman from outside the shaft of light, obliquely, the fierce slyness in her face open and undisguised in the gloom. Her gaze had finally settled on the younger woman’s eyes and she remembered feeling a little shock of excitement, almost like a sexual thrill, for the empty blue eyes had been fixed not on her, but on the glass cabinet in the corner between the fireplace and the big front window. Ordinarily, the contents of this cabinet, which was tall and narrow, were hidden beneath an old slipcover. Mrs. Marion had been sure the cabinet was covered on her previous visits. This morning, however, the slipcover had been removed and lay in a pile deep within the shadows next to the wall. It was the gun cabinet where Ronnie locked away his hunting rifles. She’d seen the key hanging from the lock.
“Well, I just came over to see if you moved more than an inch since last time, but no, I guess not,” Mrs. Marion had said, backing slowly out of the living room. “Why don’t you clean this place up some. No man wants to come home every night to a filthy house like you’ve let this be, and nothing in the refrigerator.” And then she’d turned and walked out through the screen door, feeling giddy as she always did when the world and its numberless fools, like so many iron filings locked in a magnetic force field, lined up in exact accordance with her expectations.
Mrs. Marion heard Ronnie’s car turn into the driveway, and then shortly afterward the top of its hood slid into view out the kitchen window, breaking her concentration. A sour rush of annoyance spurted into her face like a grease explosion. It was an ’89 Chevy Impala on its sixth muffler and needing a seventh, and it had a gimmicky motor that sputtered and coughed when you turned off the ignition. You could always hear it coming and you could always hear it stopping. This time, though, as the engine quit and the familiar sputtering and coughing died, there was a loud pop like a backfire, followed instantly by the crack of wood splintering and glass shattering on her dining room floor.
From his La-Z-Boy in the living room, she heard Art yell, “Jesus Christ! What was that?” An instant later, Ronnie threw open the kitchen door in a panic and tripped over the sill. He caught himself on the kitchen table. He was a big round man with close-cropped hair and a naturally loud voice. His face was red both from fear and the exertion of nearly falling. His green-grey eyes were exact reproductions of his mother’s. They stared out at her, wide and fearful, from under thin, almost feminine, eyebrows.
“Ma! You okay? What the hell was that? It sounded like a gunshot,” he said, then seeing the glass on the hardwood, his eyes grew even wider. “Jesus! Look at that. I felt something whiz past my ear.” He looked up at his mother, and Mrs. Marion saw the scared little boy he had never outgrown. “Christ! I think somebody’s shooting at us! Sonafabitch, they coulda killed me!” At this, he bent down almost to the floor, taking cover. “Ma! Get down, for chrissakes!” Ronnie’s face had turned as white as the linoleum. “Don’t just stand there in front of that damn window. Get down!”
“What in Christ’s name’s going on in here?” Art said, shuffling in from the living room.
“Dad, get the hell down! Somebody’s shooting at the house,” Ronnie screamed at him. Art Marion collapsed to the floor as if he’d been hit with a two-by-four. The fear on his face was the exact reproduction of the fear on his son’s.
Mrs. Marion watched them both, father and son, two rotten stalks of men, and her mouth curled at the stink of fear radiating off them.
“Somebody. Yeah. Margot Somebody,” she said evenly.
“Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus,” Ronnie whimpered and ran out of the house. Art Marion peered up at her from the floor. He wore thick glasses that magnified his soft, brown, submissive eyes. His body had shrunk and withered over the years and become as thin and shapeless as a can of Pringles. His white stick legs, swimming inside his Bermuda shorts, terminated in droopy white socks and a pair of old running shoes with no laces.
“What the hell’s going on,” he asked shakily.
“She missed,” Mrs. Marion said, turning back to the kitchen window. A ragged hole in the screen door across the driveway stared back at her.
As they sat at the dining room table later that evening, Mrs. Marion slowly fanned herself with her crossword puzzle magazine. She had removed her pink housecoat due to the heat and hung it on the chair behind her. Even with all the glass removed from the wounded window, it was hot and airless in the dining room. Outside, the night had closed in as thick and dark and suffocating as a black velvet curtain. Her husband and son sat on either side of her. To her left, she could hear Art’s pained breathing. To her right, Ronnie sat with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Margot sat across from her, prim and upright, her face as blank as the night.
Ronnie had run into the house to find his wife curled up on the couch and his Remington shotgun lying on the rug next to one of her shoes. As the shot spread out it had cut a gash in the cabinet over the kitchen island, before ripping through the screen and into the shingled window frame of Mrs. Marion’s dining room. The house had smelled like the inside of a gun barrel. At first, looking down at her, Ronnie had thought his wife was dead but her eyes blinked when he’d said her name. She’d sat up slowly as if she were exhausted, then slid languidly off the edge of the couch onto the floor, and reached for her shoe. It struck him then that she’d been trying to pull the trigger with her toe. The rifle butt had shifted in the attempt, sending the shot out through the kitchen, thereby saving her life. For now. He’d lunged at her and pulled her to her feet. He’d begun to cry and scream and shake her violently. Hearing him across the way, Mrs. Marion had grimaced and her stomach had churned. Beside himself with fear and confusion, Ronnie had dragged his wife out of the house, across the driveway, and into his mother’s dining room. For the better part of the last two hours, as Mrs. Marion idly fanned herself, the two men had closed in on her in an orgy of questions and accusations, as if the attempt on her own life had been an act of violence against them, which in the logic of their moral calculus, conferred upon father and son a right to unrestrained verbal vengeance. Through it all, Margot had remained motionless, unhearing, unseeing, and eventually the two men had fallen into a beaten and haggard silence.
Three big summer moths had flown in through the glassless window. Mrs. Marion watched as they skittered against the bulb in the ceiling fixture, recoiled from its hot surface, and then began another whirling ascent, back into the burning light. She liked their crazy, mindless, stupid dance. It amused her that life always accorded with her assessment of it, though she thought it silly to see truth in a bug. But there it was: even moths got burned by the very thing they wanted the most. Yet that didn’t stop them wanting it all the same. Stupid.
“Do you like my hair?” Margot suddenly asked now into the silence. Her voice was flat, but there was an edge of accusation in it, as if she’d been kept waiting long enough for a compliment. In their exhaustion, Ronnie and his father looked up simultaneously, each with a small, eager hope in his tear-stained eyes, thankful for any sound from her, even the sound of idiocy.
“Ha,” Mrs. Marion laughed.
Ronnie ignored his mother, all his attention fixed on his wife’s face. “Like in high school,” he said kindly.
Wiping tears from his eyes, Art asked hopefully, “What’s she talking about her hair?”
“Nice, honey,” Ronnie said. He stood up so that she would not see the tears flowing down his cheeks and looked out through the blasted window toward his own house. It was dark except for the faint glow of a nightlight in the kids’ upstairs bathroom that had come on with a timer. “Real nice.”
“Want a cigarette, Margot?” Mrs. Marion asked, watching her closely, the moths forgotten now.
“Sure,” Margot said.
“Ain’t got any. Sorry,” Mrs. Marion said.
“Oh. Okay,” Margot said.
“She smokes now, all of a sudden? That connected to…the other thing?” Art whispered to his wife.
“She doesn’t smoke, Dad,” Ronnie said out the window.
“Then why in Christ’s name is she asking for a cigarette then, huh?” Art yelled at him.
“Oh, shut up, Art,” Mrs. Marion said, as if she’d been telling him to shut up all their married lives.
“What am I going to tell the kids?” Ronnie slammed his fists into the wall on each side of the window and hung his large, round head down between his arms.
“You took my children away, Ronnie,” Margot said.
“No, no, Margot. They’re just over visiting, at Riley’s,” Ronnie said, turning quickly.
“Oh, I want them to see my new hairdo,” Margot said.
“Oh Jesus, Margot,” Ronnie moaned. “I told you, Ma. I told you. It’s you brought this down on our family. I never should have let you buy that house for us. I should have moved away, like Riley. As far away from you as I could get,” he said, turning back to the window.
“That’s no goddamn way to talk to your mother!” Art yelled at him again.
Ronnie felt his father’s angry voice as an ache at the base of his neck, as if heredity were a hand pushing him down, down, into the fearful future, to wither away slowly like his father under the weight of every anxiety.
“Look what she’s done to the kids,” Ronnie pleaded, turning round to face the old man, but not looking at his mother. “Always playing one of them against the other. You know they don’t want to come over here anymore? They miss their Granddad but they’re afraid of her.” Once again, he turned back to the window and the dark house beyond. “What’s happening to this family? It was supposed to mean something to be Marions. We’re Marions, for chrissakes!”
“She’s not,” Mrs. Marion said calmly. “Never was.” She spoke quietly, still watching Margot.
“See? You been against her from day one, Ma,” Ronnie said into the blackness outside. His voice was as defeated and empty as the house across the driveway. “Remember that time I brought her home, Ma? You smelled the smoke on her and that was it. Nuff said. Game over. She never had a chance after that. But God Almighty! How pretty she looked back then. Her hair. And that smell she had. I loved it, even if you didn’t.” His arms fell to his sides and his head sagged. With an effort he turned and sat heavily at the table. “Perfume and cigarettes. Funny what you remember.”
Across the table from him, his father’s face was wet with tears. He sniffed hard and rubbed his eyes.
“Go wash your face,” Mrs. Marion commanded him. “You look like nothing I want to look at. Go. Go on.”
Art Marion stood up slowly, glad to have a direction through the confusion of the last hours. “She wants to kill herself, I’ll take her out back and strangle her myself,” he said, not because he meant it, but to have something to say that sounded manly. He coughed weakly without looking at his daughter-in-law and left the table.
“Our family is coming apart, Ma,” Ronnie whispered.
“You ought’n be surprised,” Mrs. Marion said. “I’ve warned you about it enough times. A soft father who cries whenever the troubles come and a soft-headed mother don’t make for healthy children. Now, tomorrow, you go to Riley and bring those children right back here and I’ll watch them. They should be thankful I’m still around to give them guidance. Instead, they’re soft and afraid, like you always been too, Ronald. You know I speak the truth.”
Margot began to laugh. It was a juvenile, twittering sound, like baby birds anxious for worms. Her hands went up to her hair and patted the straight blonde strands. Then gently, lovingly, she cupped both sides of her head and slid her palms down over the curls, slowly flattening them out against her neck and shoulders. It was a movement loaded with sexuality. She might just as well have hiked her dress over her head, Mrs. Marion thought.
“C’mon, Ronnie. Let’s go home.” Margot’s eyes glistened and her face shown with a subtle radiance, like the light given off by the moon on dark, still water. Ronnie rose and took his wife’s hand, transfixed by the vision of the girl he remembered from high school, the girl whose hair bounced when she walked and who smelled of perfume and cigarettes. Mrs. Marion read the sexual longing in his expression and despised him for wanting what he could not control, what he could not even understand. She saw the fear and sadness drain out of his grey-green eyes and the ever-erupting hope of possession fill them with longing. It had taken nothing more than a look and a gesture, and his conversion was undone. Stupid.
When they were gone, Mrs. Marion went back to her observation post at the kitchen window. She watched them as they crossed the driveway, hand in hand. Neither of them acknowledged the hole in the screen door as Ronnie opened it and they disappeared inside the dark house. It was as if there were no hole in the screen, and no shotgun blast had ripped through it. To them, the screen was still stitched together like normal, like their life, which Ronnie had stitched together from strands of the most brittle wanting, all his strands and none of Margot’s. She watched them, seeing the hole in the screen and the hole in them, and the fulfillment of yet another expectation suffused her face with sour superiority.
When the shot came an hour later, she was still standing at the window. Her body twitched with the sound, as the tension of waiting escaped from her like a spark. For an instant, she waited to hear what she knew must inevitably follow: Ronnie’s scream as he ran down to find his wife’s bloody body on the living room rug. Confident in her knowledge of the ways of fools, she paid no heed to her shattered reflection whirling toward her. She did not at first feel the shard of glass which sliced off her left ear, or the shotgun pellets that tore open her throat. Instead, as if in a growing mist, she saw Margot’s disembodied face, white, cold, and smiling, hovering in the darkness across the way, and a smoking gun barrel peeking through the hole in the screen door. Suddenly, for the first time in her life, and also the last, she felt the cold shock of surprise. It hurt more than being killed.
“Perfume and Cigarettes” by Courtney Crane appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review
Courtney Crane lives in Rochester, NY with his wife Catherine and Birdie the dog. He is a long-time advertising copywriter, lately transformed into a digital marketing specialist. He is Managing Partner of MobileCultures LLC. He has been writing fiction since he was 13 years old and doing advertising to support his fiction habit. He is a graduate of St. Michael’s College at The University of Toronto.