The Love Letter
by Jerine P. Watson
It was Saturday, the day for household chores. Vera vacuumed Al’s room first, even though it was already immaculate. In the beginning, before there had been an “Al’s room,” she had impulsively bought him a walnut bachelor’s chest, placing its shiny new emptiness in her bedroom. She had lined the drawers in feverish haste, as if Al were going to arrive that very day. At least once a week, if not more often, she emptied the new clothing and other items she had bought and patiently stretched them free of wrinkles on her plissé bedspread. She carefully removed any remaining tags and threads, searching the same garments over and over, just like the mama monkey looking for fleas or nits in her baby’s hair that she had seen in a nature film many years earlier.
She worked drawer by drawer, starting at the top and, as each drawer’s contents were once again thoroughly policed, she lovingly lifted each piece with both hands and placed it “just so” back into the drawer of the small bureau. She always replaced the sachet in each drawer as well, making certain the tiny bow of lilac-satin ribbon was tied perfectly and brightened the dark interior of the drawer.
She often had new items to add to the contents of Al’s bureau drawers, and those always had staples or pins and plastic wrapping and usually a small piece of cardboard to hold the item stiffly “at attention,” as she liked to think of it. “Attention!” and “Ready!” she added in a hoarse whisper.
Vera hummed to herself as she watched the vacuum’s rectangular nozzle stripe its way cross the plush carpeting. The idea of redecorating the front bedroom into a study for Al had grown into a reality shortly after she had purchased the bachelor’s chest.
That had been months ago. Then she had seen the magnificent executive’s desk in the show window of an office furniture store. After buying the desk, she ordered the leather recliner, the white sofa and two oil paintings.
This week, she bought an ivy plant in an antique brass container for the new desk. Last week, it had been the dictionary and, the week before that, the crystal paperweight in the shape of the letter V, the first letter of her name.
It excited her to clean the masculine-looking room and to visualize the way Al’s face would look when he saw it for the first time. Each time she finished vacuuming now, she stopped at the door and leaned on the metal handle of the vacuum and looked carefully around the small room, checking even the corners up by the ceiling and glancing at the thin dust-catching slat of the top of the Venetian blind, which she kept closed, over the single window.
She kept the air-flow to a minimum in the room and, that way, also kept the dust level almost non-existent. She started to leave the room and, at the last minute, bent over and pulled the soft denim bedspread a little more taut, nodding her approval as she glanced back at the smooth surface.
Vera smiled, remembering the day they had met. She had perceived the obvious rapport between them, and she remembered how his eyes had smiled into hers as he showed her the vacant apartment. She had rented it immediately, without really looking at anything but Al. His magnetic personality and his sincerity had been enough to convince her she didn’t want to live anywhere else.
After Vera moved into the apartment, she made up excuses to drop into Al’s manager’s office, in between the monthly rent-paying visits. Al never made her feel unwelcome, and they slipped into a comfortable routine of amiable conversation over endless cups of coffee. Al seemed to enjoy her company as much as she did his and, eventually, she invited him up to her place for a drink after work.
He dropped in many times after that and she listened, nodding sympathetically, as he poured out the story of his unhappy marriage and the mistreatment he had endured from every position of employment since then. Their situations had been remarkably similar, even coincidental, which added the element of shared misfortunes as far as Vera was concerned.
Vera was shocked the day Al told her he was quitting the apartment-managing job but, by then, her divorce was final, and she had enough money to buy the small, two-bedroom house. Al gave her his new address and she began to write him faithfully, not minding in the least that he didn’t answer her letters. He had told her he wasn’t much good at writing letters. That disclosure just endeared him to her even more.
She almost got tearful thinking of how badly he had been treated and how much he needed her tender loving care and attention. Oh, she was going to make him happier than anyone else in the world! She loved it when she let herself realize the wonder of this soon-to-be-a-reality-event and always felt moved to hug herself in anticipation and smile broadly into the hall mirror or in her reflection in a window.
Every time she allowed herself to imagine one of their future days, she literally shivered in anticipation and occasionally even had to sit down and lean over her apron skirt, pulling it onto her face to swipe at the happy tears as she tried to cease smiling at nothing but her own imagination. Her thought pattern had evolved into an exact sequence of images, each of which she treasured and each of which segued into the next, like well-rehearsed acts in a stage play.
She had become so accustomed to her planned trip through Memory Lane, every incident of which was totally fabricated by her convoluted imagination, she firmly believed every minute of her mental journey, her Technicolor love-story, had actually occurred. Nothing could have made her believe otherwise. Not even Al’s own personal denial. Which she was certain would never happen.
During one of Al’s earlier visits to her apartment, she had playfully taken his picture with her Instamatic and, after he moved away, she had three enlargements made of the snapshot. The first things she unpacked in her new house were Al’s pictures. She placed his framed smile in her bedroom, her living room and in her kitchen. It was just a matter of time before his own divorce was final and then he would be free, too. And they would be together. Here in this perfect little house.
Glancing at Al’s picture on the kitchen table, Vera turned off the vacuum, winding the cord around the metal handle. She chuckled aloud, thinking of her women friends’ reactions when she told them Al was going to move in with her and they had been lovers for weeks and would probably get married. Al was her whole life, and every morning she awoke with even more love in her heart for him than the day before.
One of the cats scratched at the back door and, when Vera opened the screen, all seven cats rushed inside, yowling petulantly. Just as she latched the screen, she heard the familiar metallic click of the mailbox on the front porch. Her heartbeat accelerated into a muffled thumping against her eardrums. Every day she hoped for a letter, knowing someday Al would write to tell her he was on his way home. To his place she had ready for him. To her!
Hurrying through the darkened hall, she opened the front door a crack, peering out into the street. She didn’t want to appear overly anxious to the mailman or to any of the neighbors who might be watching.
She didn’t go through the mail until she returned to the kitchen. Her large bosom rose and fell visibly as she sat down at the table and turned Al’s picture around so she could look straight into his eyes.
The first two envelopes were bills, the third was an advertisement, and the fourth made her hands shake and her face flush with beads of perspiration. She recognized the penciled scrawl as Al’s handwriting. She held the envelope to her lips, her eyes closed, waiting for the overwhelming emotion to subside.
Holding her breath, she eased the envelope open and read the letter. Then she read it again.
The cats whined with demanding hunger. Glancing up from the letter, Vera looked at her pets as if from a great distance. Deliberately averting her eyes from Al’s picture, she got up from the table and walked over to the refrigerator. She removed a paper-wrapped package, shoved the fridge door closed with her elbow, and carried the sagging lump to the nearest kitchen counter. It had dripped a little blood onto the floor as she pulled it off the shelf of the fridge but she didn’t seem to notice.
As the seven cats crowded against her thick blue-veined ankles, she began to chop the slabs of bloody liver into neat cubes, scraping large helpings into seven identical white bowls. She half-heartedly swiped at the counter with a moist dishcloth, but seemed not to notice the remaining dark blood trails left on the linoleum.
Rinsing the cleaver under the faucet, she let it drop with a clatter into the sink and lowered each bowl to the fleur-de-lis pattern on the vinyl floor, placing them in their accustomed places all around the kitchen. The cats streamed forward, tails erect, their eyes glazed with the somnolence of habitual gluttony.
Vera settled herself back into the chrome chair, frowning at the letter, holding it close to her face. Lighting a cigarette, she blew a puff of smoke against the pages and painstakingly touched each word with her right forefinger.
She let the pages drop back to the tabletop and stared at nothing out the window. Her faded blue eyes were red-rimmed, darting spasmodically from side to side. Dragging deeply on the cigarette, she picked up the letter and began to read aloud, her voice a gravelly monotone.
Vera. For two years now your dumb letters have been driving me crazy. At first I thought it was funny but not anymore. You are a fat, ugly old broad and my girlfriend says you must be sick. You’re nutty as a fruitcake. I don’t give a damn about you and never have. Got that? This whole thing is nothing but your imagination. I have no intention of ever seeing that chest or that room you have furnished for me, so don’t send me any more snapshots of all that stuff. You’re wasting your time. Get off my back or I’ll get a restraining order to stop this crap. Find something else to do. I mean it. Al.
Vera folded the letter carefully and replaced it in the envelope. She snubbed out her cigarette in the ceramic ashtray and, with great effort, stood up and watched the seven cats eating.
She walked to the kitchen sink, her massive body swaying slightly, and picked up the meat cleaver in both hands. Emitting a guttural snarl, she raised the knife above her head and brought it down with swift accuracy on the neck of the nearest cat, severing its head. The blood gushed into the white dish covering the remaining cubes of liver, spilling over onto the faded linoleum.
The other cats briefly glanced up, then resumed their gorging. One by one, she decapitated each of the seven cats until the tiny kitchen was slimy with blood and Vera herself was spattered all over with red splotches. Her fabric house shoes sponged up the sticky redness as she stepped carefully over and around the quiet furry bodies and walked out of the kitchen.
Shuffling into her bedroom, she stretched herself out on the white chenille bedspread, staring up at the ceiling. The bloodstained knife at her side collected bits of white lint as the shiny redness on the wide blade dried into brown smears, inward from the edges.
Copyright © 2019 by Jerine P. Watson