I see her every day

Time’s passed, but she’s never far from my thoughts. It started out small. We dated a year after high school. We fought more than we fucked but just barely. She wasn’t right for me but right from the start I loved her. Thing is, I dumped her. It was complicated and it felt as wrong as it did right. Turns out that breakup left a her-shaped hole inside me.

For a time there I tried not to think of her, but you know how that goes. So I gave in and thought of her. I gave myself Tuesdays. Tuesdays I’d remember her smile, her curly hair, her laugh. Time was Tuesdays were enough. I’d recall our little adventures, remember her outside in the yard, just dumb shit like pushing her on the swings. Hard to believe that we were only kids.

Ours wasn’t the greatest love story ever told. Nah, we were too young, ragged, unformed. Stupid wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Sometimes I thought that if I could just see her, I’d be able to forget her.

Tuesdays I took to leaving her little notes, a line from a song or a book, just a little hello taped to the door. They were nothing, just some junk to fill up that hole inside me. What can you say to someone who will never love you back?

Wednesdays I’d drown the memories. Cruel day, Wednesday. I’d lock her notes in a drawer and move on. Years passed like that, and six days a week I did what needed to be done. Got outta school, got a job, you know the deal. I even found a wife. It took a while, but I settled down and had a kid, and that’s alright. But Tuesday kept coming around again. Tuesdays I felt alive.

After the kid, Tuesdays stopped cutting it so I gave her Wednesdays too. I thought I deserved it, my two days. Everybody needs a weekend. Years went by and my kid got to be the age I was when I first met her. It got me thinking, you know. I got gutsy and friended her on Facebook. I saw her every day and every day was Tuesday.

I was wrong about seeing her. I loved her all over again. I don’t want to sound callous, but I was waiting on her husband to die. In the meantime I posted jokes for her. I looked for glimpses of unhappiness in her photos. So what if I never found any? I’m not insane.

One week Tuesday came on Monday. I just wanted to talk to her. You’d be surprised how easy it was to figure out her address. I hid out till she got home, and tried to talk to her when she did. I asked how she was, and I asked her to swing for me. I asked her to say yes to me. When she said no, something came over me. I started wanting to drag her outside in the yard and use the chains on the swingset to tie her up, just to get a good look at her. Didn’t do it, though.

Damn if her husband doesn’t come home early Mondays. He called the cops on me and the very next day they had a restraining order. No more Facebook photos. Soon after that I swore off Tuesdays one more time and I found Jesus. Reverend says He saved my soul.

I gotta say, things are better now. Reverend says Jesus loves me, so now I get loved back. Tuesdays are Sundays now, and nobody cares that I see her every time I look at Jesus up there on the cross. Finding Jesus feels right, and it’s kinda like the rightness eclipsed every mistake made along the way.

Transition

da_Vinci_womb1

Winter seemed reluctant to release its hold, Melody thought as she pressed herself against a stone wall on a busy street. On a cold and windy day at the end of April, Melody held her breath as the pain unfurled from her cunt up over her abdomen. She felt the monster pressing himself against her perineum, and in that moment she knew fate could repeat itself. She felt herself unzipping.

Melody braced herself against the wall to ready herself for the next wave. She moaned with resignation but she did not call for help. The waves had been building since long before her perpetrator had buried himself inside her, thrusting all the plans of the universe deep within her. Nine months after the fact Melody still had scars from the recursive tracks the dirty bricks had left on her back.

Nine long months had passed like eons for Melody, who carried this growing seed deep within her. The first month she stared in disbelief into her clean panties. The second she bought a pack of men’s t-shirts to cloak her growing belly against the scorching late summer heat. By the third she began stealing food in the hopes of curbing her superhuman hunger. Then the months tumbled by against her will. Changes came and she accommodated. Melody kept her head and no one ever was the wiser.

Melody sucked in her breath as the jagged teeth of the zipper continued their slow unwrenching. Passersby eyed her curiously but no one interfered. Finally the zipper fell apart and all that remained was the cold, dark nut of fear about to be loosed onto the pavement. Melody hoped for the best as the monster came barreling out of her vagina and hit the ground with a shriek.

The baby left her wide open. Melody couldn’t stop the torrent of humanity funneling into her gaping belly like water spinning down a drain. The elderly black lady zipped by along with a half-dozen yellow taxis, a food truck, and a horse-drawn carriage. It was a busy time of day. Melody was powerless over it.

Without thinking, she bent down and lifted her baby’s small bloody body, his skin thin as parchment, and curled him deep within her black wool coat. She looked into his small face and the scrunched lines revealed a secret message. Melody didn’t want to admit to anyone how much she hated him, so she decided to love him instead. That quickly, her reality flipped inside out.

Melody wiped her tears and looked up at the sky. Swirls of blue were beginning to show among the clouds, the same shade as her baby boy’s eyes. Love wins, she thought as a kind-faced older man stopped in front of her. He looked into her tear-stained face and down into the bundle in her arms and shock radiated from his eyes.

“Miss? May I help?”

How was the gentleman to know those were the wrong words? Surely he didn’t know that a handful of words whispered in just a certain tone could throw her back against a dirty brick wall nine months in the past. Surely he only meant well. But Melody couldn’t make sense of it. Fight or flight took over, and this time Melody chose flight. She ran clutching her baby boy close, reluctant to release her hold on him. This time would be different, Melody resolved. She dashed away, thrilled by the cold April wind and the new life in her arms.

 

Stuck in his head

He left the music playing in a loop around the clock. Slick, sultry, honey-drenched, the tune mesmerized him every time, submerging him in his story. When the words came to him like this, Frank Portishead lengthened his name to Franklin and donned his fake moustache and silver-rimmed monocle. He found getting into character helped.

Mornings he’d spend clacking away on the keys in time with the music, writing scene after scene. Frank regulated his composure while the clear-eyed detective did the math in a leather-bound wingback, the heavy-eyed girls danced in evening gowns and jewels, the tuxedoed waiters positively dripped with champagne, and the earnest secretaries in underbust corsets solved crimes.

Lunchtime, he’d don his overcoat and step out, securing his creations with a key that he kept chained at his waist. Today Franklin paused on the front walk to admire two young hares, rump to rump like dueling pistols, crouched by the gate. A thousand flowers bloomed in the background. Franklin captured it all through his imaginary view-finder and felt like a man as he strode toward the unsuspecting bunnies, frightening them off with a thump. He continued on through the gate and took a leisurely bite in a café overlooking his favorite bridge, crumbling above a lazy stream.

He was quite a character, Franklin Portishead was.

Franklin would follow up his lunch with a snifter of brandy and a waltz by the stream. The world was big. He’d snap a few mental pictures and return to his abode to dice out the finer points of his morning’s work.

Franklin Portishead was a formidable editor.

By evening, as Franklin swayed to the music and oiled his hair, meticulously knotted his cravat, and slipped on his evening jacket, he felt the beginning of forever opening in his mind. He’d venture out to the evening’s soirée, and wander until a lucky lady took note of his dramatis personae. It never took long and Franklin Portishead never left a soirée alone.

Nights always ended the same way: With the lovely lady du jour lying spread-eagled on his poster bed, tied with his cravat, belt, a leftover stretch of jute, and his key-chain. Franklin would loom over her with a glistening bottle of vodka in his right hand and his jaunty walking stick in his left.

Frank’s abandoned typewriter would gather dust in a corner while Franklin attended to his fait accompli.

Frank always felt guilty in the mornings. He’d take his newspaper and coffee in his leather-bound wingback in the drawing room and let the music settle his soul while he occasionally looked out the window at the bunnies cavorting again at the front gate.

Finally he’d gulp the dregs of his coffee, scuttle to the window, give the glass a rap to scare off the bunnies, return to the scene of the crime, and brush the dust from his typewriter. Writing, his raison d’être, Frank would sigh with resignation as he pasted Franklin’s handlebar moustache to his upper lip and began to type.

Attack of retrospect

Lion

Without a word, she dropped to the ground. In Tom’s memory, it always happened the same way. He and Stasia stood panting beneath her at the foot of the tree and suddenly she sprung to life. One moment a wooden gargoyle, the next a living, breathing panther. Tom always blamed the maze for what happened afterward. If only they could have just run straight away, he reasoned for years after the fact, if only they hadn’t got caught up.

I miss her, Tom brooded as he hobbled down the creaky and twisting narrow staircase, recalling how he would chase Stasia down these very steps so long ago. Tom reached for his cane at the bottom of the flight and his imagination twisted the curved metal into Stasia’s open hand.

The knock at the door startled him. He leaned heavily on his cane and made his way to the door. By the time he made it, the knocking had stopped, but nevertheless he stuck his head outside, and tried to deepen his frail voice. “Get lost, you bloody scoundrels,” he boomed. Well, he tried to boom – his voice fell disappointingly flat. He never could scare anyone properly.

Only a small wooden box awaited Tom on the porch. It had seen better days, from what little he could see. Like everything else around here, Tom thought darkly as he stooped to pick it up. Of course his legs chose that moment to give out on him and he dropped like a stone. The wooden floor of the porch was black with grime and his stomach rolled over in disgust. Still, he reasoned, he ought to uncover what brought him here. He pulled the box lid open and sixty years spilled out.

Tom’s stomach lurched again as he picked up the tiny carving with shaky hands. The wood gargoyle, so large in his memory, looked laughably small in miniature. Whoever created it did a superb job, Tom thought, trying to keep the recreation from slipping out of his hands. Her eyes still wild after all these years, her body still taught and threatening, still poised to leap off the tree and chase down helpless children. The miniature fell to the ground, sending up a cloud of soot. Tom looked down and yelped when he saw the likeness of the beast’s face staring out at him.

Tom’s arms completed their metamorphosis and drooped to his sides, useless. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the small charcoal drawing of the panther, her eyes wild and her body angry as it had been all those years ago. Tom could see the pencil streaks where the jute pinned her to the tree. He saw his old fear captured in every pencil line and felt fresh surprise. You’d think after all these years, he pined away between pounding heartbeats. Tom was disappointed in himself.

He lifted one droopy, gooey arm and pushed the drawing away, both to stop seeing it and to see what was underneath. Underneath, the worst yet: a photograph. Tom felt the tears come fast when he saw Stasia’s face there. Everything was the same: her brown ringlets, her wide green eyes, her lips forming an O as she screamed, her fear. Even the tangle of hedgerow leaves. Nothing had changed.

Tom pushed the box and its contents away with his globby hands and wondered who would do this to him. The porch railings around him rose up into hedgerows and the grimy wood became soft grass beneath him, and old Tom was caught in the blasted maze once more. The wooden panther, suddenly huge, sprung to life and sank her fangs into Tom’s soft neck, ripping his flesh away like she always should have.

***

Bobby wandered by the old ramshackle house in the evening after supper, and when he found the old man sacked out in a pile of odds and ends curiosity got the better of him. He stepped around Mr. Tom and picked up the little wooden carving. Neat panther, he thought without knowing any better. He put it in his pocket and smiled at the old lady in the doorway.

“Hi, Bobby. Want to come in for tea?” she asked kindly. Bobby nodded. He always liked tea with Miss Stasia. “Why’s Mr. Tom sleeping on the porch?” Bobby asked as he followed her in.

“Oh, he must’ve got bit by one of his old gargoyles,” she laughed.

Number 8

I’m telling you, I’m an organized guy. I work in a lab during the week and I keep things humming along on time. I keep a few stopwatches going constantly.

Sundays, though, Sundays I teach Zumba. Sundays I put on my wife-beater and sweats and I teach a bunch of moms Zumba. It’s a lot like the lab, you know? I’ve gotta have a plan. I choose the music, I decide the moves. I like it, you know?

There’s a few that come every week, like I’m the one hope of escape from their boring lives. As if I’m their only way out. I like the regulars. The girl with the big boobs who always stands right up front – I like to make her shake em. I think about those tits all week and I think about new ways to make em bounce. I devise new moves for her while I wait on my stopwatches in the lab, yeah, I do.

My favorite Zumba girl is the one with no boobs and the skeleton eyes. She’s usually in the second row, over to the side, a little smile on her face the only clue. She always wears a running tank with an 8 on the back. Nobody even suspects the truth about us. She’s sure not giving anything away with those sad eyes of hers.

Zumba is hard as shit. Go ahead, laugh your ass off, I’ll wait. By the end of class, I’m usually wasted. All that fucking jumping around, hip grinding, jazz hands, all of it, it’s too much. My fine motor skills get shot. By the end of class, I can barely operate the buttons to shut off the music. I take my time while the girls wipe the sweat off their pretty faces.

“Hey, Danny, that was awesome,” the short brunette with nice boobs comes up to me.

“Thanks, girl,” I touch her shoulder blade so quick she doesn’t notice.

“I like the new moves,” laughs the blondie with the long legs.

“Yeah, you do,” I agree, eyeing her up and down.

Don’t laugh at me – this is how I remember them. I’m a scientist, remember? Everybody gets broken down. Names are too much trouble.

Skeleton girl stands off to the side, real cool, that little smile on her face. She never talks to anybody but me. I look in her direction and she gives me this sad little nod so I know it’s time.

“Bye, Mr. Danny!” the cute Asian girls say in unison and they hug me. Yes, they do. Mmm, I love their sweaty little bodies.

“See you next weekend, girls,” I say and before I get the words out of my mouth I see skeleton girl slipping out the door. I wait a minute so nobody sees me leave with her and then I head for the door.

“Bye, ladies! Have a hot week,” I call as I leave. May as well give the slowpoke fatties a thrill.

I jog down the steps to the family locker rooms with the private showers. I make a beeline for shower number 8. Our place. Number 8, which I’ve been envisioning all week, number 8 that I printed out real big and hung above my desk in the lab to remind myself, number 8, like a set of dark, sad skeleton eyes.

When I get there, the door is standing open, the number 8 hidden inside where I can’t see it. What the fuck? Skeleton girl is nowhere to be found. We had plans. I back out of the room and suddenly the kids’ screams are coming from fucking everywhere. I feel their hot, grimy little bodies crowding me.

“Hey, dude, are you using this room?” some dad with a dripping kid in tow asks me.

“Yes,” I answer. I walk back in to number 8, slam the door, lock it behind me, and jerk off into the sink while I think about wringing skeleton girl’s neck next week. Afterwards, I rinse off in the shower and then I leave, calm as can be.

I stop for breakfast and while I eat, I consider next week’s moves, minus the neck wringing. I promise, you don’t have to worry. I’ve got zero homicidal intent. I’m just a scientist-slash-Zumba-teacher. Through the clarity of retrospect, the obvious conclusion surfaced: Things don’t always turn out as planned.

I’m a good father

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Looks can be deceiving. I’m standing on the playground, a black jump rope stretched taught in my hands, and I see you look at me. Your eyes pause on my face and I watch the fear register on yours. You come closer and dart for your pretty little daughter. You snatch her off the see-saw where she sits next to my Sammy. She hasn’t done anything wrong but you yank her arm too hard. “Come on, sweetie,” you say too loudly and too sweetly, then you turn and glance at me again, smiling out of fear. I haven’t moved. I’m still holding the jump rope, standing there watching you judge me.

You pull your little daughter along behind you and high-tail it along the sidewalk like I’m after you. “No, Mama! You’re hurtin’ me,” your little darling cries in tow. I’m not after you. I’m just watching, tugging the jump rope even tighter. I grimace at you. You disgust me.

You probably don’t know what to think of me. You must think I’m somebody’s creepy uncle or worse, a stranger lurking here on the play lot. You want to dismiss me. You see me silhouetted dark against the sky, you take in that blue like pain, your eyes register the taughtness of the rope. You probably can’t actually do the math, what with your literature degree, you can’t balance out how much pleasure I take from the taught black rope in my hands. You just see the symbolism and rule out dad.

You don’t know much. You don’t know how much my Sammy likes it, after I’ve isolated him, after he jumps for me, after I’ve tied his hands behind his back with the jump rope. After we move together through the pain, you have no idea how much he likes my gentleness. You don’t know how I talk him through it: “You’re a good boy, Sammy. Yes, Sammy, you like this, don’t you. I love you, Sammy.” You don’t get to see him smile when I tickle him, no. It’s different than the smile you see on the see-saw. My Sammy has a special smile just for me and you can’t ever see it.

You don’t know the half of it. You think the rope in my hands is just an aberration, but you’re wrong. I’ve had this rope in my hands for how long now? Looks can be deceiving. Relationships are complicated. I watch you yank your little sweetie along by her arm as you dart away in fear and I smile.

“Come here, Sammy,” I call, the jump rope still taught in my hands. Don’t worry, it’s just a toy. “Be a good boy now,” I tell him. He always is.

Stayin alive

Thanks so much for the love, Speakeasy readers and editors. I really appreciate the win!

I shoved the door way open to fit baby girl’s stroller through and damn it was hot. Hot like you just want to rip all your clothes off and squeeze into the ice cooler at Benny’s. Baby girl was only in a diaper but she started wailing right off with the sun in her eyes and all that heat cooking her.

The heat was nothing to me, not compared to the itching inside and that deep, deep ache knowing what I was about to do. Oh yeah, I knew it, I did. I kind of appreciated the sun and heat, you know? It got my mind off the itching.

We walked real slow to Benny’s, me pushing baby girl’s little stroller without a damn sun shade and her just wailing, crying so much you gotta think she knows where she’s headed. Babies know things, my grandmama used to say.

She was crying so much and sweating too, so she was wet all over like she just had a bath only I knew the truth. When we got to Benny’s, first thing I bought her a juice and stuck a straw inside even though she makes a mess with straws. She grabbed it and started slurping away like she used to do when she was on my tit way back before I got itchy again.

All the time I’m buying her damn juice and sticking that straw in so she can drink it, you know, I’m thinking about Quenty outside, with his bags of junk. I want some so bad, so bad damn it, right here before I go any farther with baby girl. I want it so bad my hands are shaking as I throw down the quarters on the counter for baby girl’s juice. No, I want to rip my fucking shirt off and scratch away the itching. I want to dig my fingernails into my skin until I’m bleeding and everyone is staring at me, even baby girl.

It’s okay. Soon it’ll be better.

Baby girl don’t look up from her juice as I slip Quenty my second to last $20. He slips me the junk and smiles at baby girl. “Hi there, beautiful,” he says all nice to her.

“Shut up, don’t you talk to her,” I swat him off her. It’s a good thing this is the last time.

I start walking again, the stuff in my pocket. Every so often I slip my hand in and run my fingers over it. Knowing it’s there makes it easier. If only I already had it, if only, I think again and again. It would be so easy if I weren’t so damn itchy. It would be so easy if I were already there.

Baby girl finishes her juice and quiets down. She looks real sleepy in her stroller, her eyes half closed against the sun, and so pretty. She’s real pretty, you know? She’s gonna find a new family real easy. They gonna love her better than me.

I see the station coming up ahead and don’t you know those firefighters got a party goin on? They got the hydrants on and water pouring out of the hoses full blast. They got some disco music blaring, talking about stayin alive. Kids everywhere. Being near it makes me want to tear my shirt off again. I want to scratch so bad. I stick my fingers in my pocket instead.

I push baby girl’s stroller right up to the water so she can get some of the spray on her.

“I love you, baby girl,” I kiss her little head. She’s asleep so she don’t have to see me go.

Her new people gonna get her a sun shade.

 

Strange inspiration

A reprise of Shawn and Jenny for this week’s Speakeasy. I’m warning you, this one might be a little disturbing. I hope you’re into being disturbed.

Life had once been defined by linears and absolutes. Shawn hadn’t always felt comfortable with a whip in his hand. Rulers and T-squares were long his tools of choice and he still longed for the familiar weight of a freshly sharpened pencil in his hand even as he stood before his naked wife, his hand filled with the whip’s heavy leather handle.

“Jenny, dear,” Shawn raised the whip above his head, “I’m thinking of making a soup for supper.” He brought the whip down with a satisfying crack.

Of course Jenny couldn’t answer with the gag in her mouth, but Shawn chatted pleasantly nevertheless, as usual. Jenny’s body tightened with the impact.

“I could make that butternut squash recipe you like so much,” Shawn continued. “And I think I’ll pop over to the bakery for some bread later,” he raised the whip again, feeling excited over his prospects for the rest of the day. His designs for the new building were nearly complete, and Jenny seemed nearly ready for him to have his way with her. And there was the soup, too. A perfect day, he thought.

Whip in midflight for the third time, Shawn had a flash of realization. He let the whip complete its circular path, then dropped it on the floor beside Jenny. “Just a moment, Jenny, you’ve given me an inspiration,” he murmured as he reached for the pencil and pad on the nightstand. Jenny eyed him desperately from the bed. “Sorry, dear,” he said as he put the finishing touches on his design: the curved metal lashings that would pin the transparent elevators to the building’s exterior. It was chancy, he knew. Hopefully his engineers wouldn’t complain.

Jenny thrashed on the bed as Shawn finished up his plans. There was something so alluring to him about multitasking. Finally, he dropped the pencil and returned to the bed, removing her gag at long last. “Only three lashings?” Jenny pouted as she reached for him. “I’ll do better next time, darling,” Shawn laughed.

Afterwards, Shawn rinsed his hands with cool water from the blue faucet in the master bathroom. Jenny had picked it to match the old drawing of the water pump he’d done back in the days when his pencil never left his hand. He’d been such an absolutist then, he thought sadly, only drawing what he could see with the same tools, never trying anything more. Jenny must have sensed what he was capable of, though, he thought as she wandered through to the shower, smiling. He admired his new artwork through the glass of the shower door while he dried his hands, then dressed and left for the bakery.

well

Invaded

When he was inside her, Suzanna could feel his deep voice reverberating through all of her chambers. His voice was so deep that it seemed not quite human.

The first time it had happened, she couldn’t believe it.

Having someone invade her body felt like being on an extended job interview, as if every move, every single thought was somehow being judged for its merit. Suzanna found herself constantly on her best behavior while he was inside her.

That first time, they went shopping together. He was kind enough to let her drive, since he didn’t have complete control of all of her muscles and joints. She parked near Nordstrom. Why not shop at a nice place, Suzanna reasoned, since he was paying after all.

I’m not paying, he warned, in that deep voice of his. Damn, she thought. Oh, well.

She floated in and out of consciousness as he chose one thing and then another for her to try. No, she said to the hideous black dress. Yes to the collection of sheer tanks that showed just the right amount of skin. Yes to the purse, yes to all the shoes he chose. It was so hard to say no to that voice. It just did something to her, and Suzanna liked it. She felt more alive under its command. Suzanna put everything on her mom’s credit card. She knew that she’d regret it later, but right now she was having fun.

He took her to the lingerie department and showed her a good time. Her shopping bags were getting heavy by the time she stopped for a coffee. No need to buy him his own, Susanna laughed to herself. “What’s so funny?” asked the cute coffee guy. Wipe that smile off your face, the deep voice echoed off something inside her. She stopped smiling and took her coffee without a word.

They drove home in silence. Suzanna went in and put on some of her new things, and while she waited to hear his voice she used her blackest eyeliner pen to draw a perfect circle on her cheek. She couldn’t have said why. She filled it in, and admired her reflection in the full-length mirror. She twirled in her new shoes and barely noticed how quiet it had gotten in her mind.

After a while she got confused. She couldn’t tell where she ended and the world began. She lay down on her bed in her new heels, panties, and tank top and she waited for someone to tell her what to do next.

 

The next move

MurielStreeter
Copyright Muriel Streeter

Don’t blame the sinner, Joe wrote in his notebook. He sipped his sangria and contemplated the hideous painting in front of him as he plotted.

The sun turned the ice cubes to water and cut the sweetness of his drink as it warmed his back and prickled his scalp.

He jotted in his notebook now and then, planning. When he completed his list he put away his pad and enjoyed the rest of his drink.

At last he saw Lily coming and signaled the waitress for more drinks.

“Hi, there,” she laughed as she dropped her bags and joined him at the bar.

He smirked. She had no idea.

“Did you buy everything that I asked?” he leaned over whispered into Lily’s ear.

“Yes, sweetie,” she said, oblivious to his tone. She tried to reach for the shopping bags at her feet, but Joe stopped her with a firm hand on her arm.

“No, not now,” he said deeply.

Lily looked at Joe’s hand clutching her wrist and laughed ironically. “Okay, then. Whatever you like,” she smiled and reached for her drink. “Cheers,” she laughed, holding her glass in front of his face. He didn’t laugh or clink her glass, but instead flipped open his pad and wrote something down.

“I modeled everything for the salesgirl like you asked,” Lily told him. “The bra, the panties, the dress, all of it,” she prattled on as he wrote. Joe didn’t acknowledge her.

When he finished, he took another long look at the colorful painting on the bar in front of them and grimaced. He gulped down his glass of sangria. “Okay, let’s go,” he said, standing up and putting his notebook into his bag, which he slung over his shoulder. “Time to see some real art,” he announced.

“But I just got here,” Lily complained.

“Get up,” he growled.

Lily pouted and took one last sip of her sangria. She stood up, then bent down slowly the way he liked to pick up her bags. Joe gave Lily a sidelong appraisal.

“Pay for the drinks,” he ordered.

Lily put the shopping bags on her shoulder and opened her purse. She slowly pulled out a twenty dollar bill, which she slipped under her glass, aware of Joe’s eyes on her the entire time. She pulled her oversized sunglasses out and closed her purse. Joe took her by the arm and led her to the sidewalk. They walked in silence.

Joe pushed Lily ahead of him up the steps to the art gallery. Inside, he ushered her to the ticket desk. “Buy our tickets,” he barked.

Lily set down her bags and opened her purse. “Two, please,” she said pleasantly to the man behind the counter. She exchanged cash for tickets and picked up her bags. “Here you go, sweetie,” she gave Joe his with a touch of sarcasm.

“Let’s stop at the ladies’ room,” Joe said as he steered her over to the bathrooms. “Go change into your new things.”

Lily disappeared into the bathroom with her bags. Joe lurked outside, scribbling a few last-minute thoughts into his notebook. His mom always told him not to blame the sinner. Was seducing the sinner taking it too far? He just couldn’t resist the sting of shame he got from Lily’s dirty money. It made Joe want to own her and he planned to do just that.

“What do you think, baby?” Lily giggled as she emerged from the ladies’ room. She twirled around to show off her new slinky black dress, lace stockings, and black stilettos.

“Nice,” Joe permitted her one word of approval before snatching Lily’s elbow and leading her towards the artwork. He approached a white marble bench. “Sit here,” he pushed her down. She sank down onto the bench and dropped her bags on the floor in front of her.

“Here?” she half-whined. “In front of this?” she pointed at the painting of the chess pieces come to life.

“Yes,” Joe directed. “You wait here while I run an errand.” He bent down and grabbed her purse, then strode out of the gallery and down the street to the jewelry shop.

“Would you like some help, sir?” the salesman asked.

“Yes,” Joe answered. “I need an engagement ring.”

An hour later Joe returned to the gallery, his pocket bulging and his heart swelling at the sirens’ crescendo as his pieces fell into place. He stepped inside and found Lily slumped on her bench, a crowd of pawns admiring his scene. Checkmate, he thought.