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Stepwives

by Phillis Stevens

 

Chapter 1

Killing Mac Carpenter should have been easy. After all, he'd already had three heart attacks; he worked too hard, drank too much, smoked constantly, and in spite of his doctor's repeated admonitions, his only form of exercise was lumbering from the dining-room table every evening to the couch where he vegetated through prime-time TV until bedtime.

"It'd be easy to give him another heart attack," Marilee Smith Carpenter Finch Sommerfrught Wallace had told me. "Easy as taking candy from a baby. Easy as pie."

I was not the killer type -- at least not then. I had never done anything more criminal than steal a dime from a pay phone years ago, something that, for a long time, could activate my guilt in the middle of the night when I had nothing better to worry about.

As it happened, I hadn't worried about that dime for several months before I met Marilee. I'd certainly had much better things to worry about than a lousy dime, pilfered from Ma Bell or more likely, some uncaring caller to whom dimes meant nothing. I'd ended a twenty-five-year marriage in a burst of uncharacteristic anger and vindictiveness when I'd caught Jack Travis, my ex-husband, in bed with another woman -- in my house, in my bed -- with my friend.

"Stop and think, Karen," another friend had counseled urgently. "This happens all the time. Don't let it make you do something you'll regret later. Stay with him. Make his life hell for a few weeks. You'll get another fur out of it, or maybe even a new car."

I'd been too hurt, however, too outraged, too crazy, and divorced him forthwith, unable to reconcile myself to what, in my abject innocence and naïveté at the time, I'd dubbed "the ultimate betrayal". What a joke.

She'd been right. I did regret it later. Jack was an astute businessman and had an even more astute lawyer, who'd bought off my lawyer, something that happens all the time, I came to learn. Since we'd divorced in Oklahoma, where we lived at the time and which is not a community-property state, I found myself suddenly alone, forty-five, nearly broke, and helpless to know how to support myself.

I'd moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to get away from memories and old friends who, still married, had no time for a divorced sister who was suddenly a rival. Santa Fe suited me. It was laid-back, slightly skewed with the real world, culturally adept, and small-town friendly. Best of all, no one there knew I had been wealthy and was now poor, new poor. To every one of my new acquaintances, I was just another single woman living in Santa Fe, making do, experiencing life's lessons, existing, and managing to make it palpable and sometimes, rarely, even fun.

 

I'd seen the pink Cadillac around town; everyone knew it. It was an insider's joke on the plaza that if you caught a flash of titty-pink, you ran like hell for a building because you weren't even safe on the sidewalk. It was a '59 DeVille convertible, the model with the wildly rearing tail fins, chromed and fender-skirted, complete down to the little curb feelers that had gone out with the other motorized dinosaurs of that time. All the young Hispanics who drove custom-lowered, older-model domestic cars, the "lowriders", loved it and sometimes would follow it around the plaza and down the Paseo, honking and waving, trying to keep up with the flame-haired maniac as she drove it through the narrow streets, scattering tourists like chickens, causing old people and busted-up skiers to leap spryly for safety, leaving their crutches, canes, and walkers in the street to become short-term grill ornaments for the Cadillac.

I came to learn later that the only thing that saved the citizens of the town from any worse was the fact the car got only eight miles to the gallon.

The woman who owned it was in even direr straits financially than I was and couldn't afford the gasoline for more than a few minutes each week.

I'd sold my Jaguar, along with most of my other liquefiable assets, piece by piece, living off the proceeds before I came fully to the terrifying realization that there was no inexhaustible supply of money being regularly deposited into my account anymore, that there would be no one to stand between me and the horrors of the world, and that I would have to support myself, something that I had never done in my life, had no training in. Through a series of flukes and sheer luck, I managed to get a job and rent a house. I'd bought a used Volkswagen Bug, and even if it had seen better days, it somehow suited me, and as I'd done with Santa Fe, I developed a love for it that bordered on fierceness. It was easier to love things than people then, and my VW turned out to be more dependable than its low initial cost had suggested it would be -- and certainly more dependable than the people in my life had been.

 

I'd left the Museum Shop in the Palace of the Governors where I worked to run to the post office. The November sky was pewter colored and heavy looking, suggesting an early snow or worse, chilling rain. The mountains surrounding the city were cut off halfway up by the clouds, making them seem somehow foreign, as if someone or something had toted off the Sangre de Cristos and the Jemez and replaced them with defective mountains, seconds, ones with no tops.

I could have walked to the post office -- everything in downtown Santa Fe is accessible by foot -- but it was dreary that day and I was coming down with a cold, a cold that I'd had no time to baby as I'd always done before by staying in bed and reading murder mysteries and sipping brandy. I was expected to be at work now, cold or no cold, and jobs for untrained, destitute, fortyish women in Santa Fe weren't so easy to come by that I could luxuriate in bed anymore, treating myself with books and irresponsibility as I'd done B.D., before divorce.

I started my Bug and eased out of the postage-stamp parking lot behind the museum, carefully working my way through the cars wadded into it until I reached the street. At that precise moment, several things happened. The load of invitations that I'd been going to mail slid onto the floor of the VW; a pedestrian, an authoritative-looking Hispanic male, gestured irritably for me to proceed in front of him, and distracted by that and the fear that the invitations might have gotten dirty on the floorboard of my car, I missed the fearful flash of pink that would have signaled, at the very least, extreme caution. I pulled onto Lincoln Street just as the Cadillac veered for the sidewalk, and we met in a crunch that sounded exactly like a gravel truck unloading pebbles onto a tin surface. The Caddy stopped with one wheel on my trunk, the forward part of my VW, and lodged there like some monstrous behemoth who'd succeeded in establishing dominance over a mouse. Shocked, I sat there for a few seconds, staring at the front tire against my windshield, and then, suddenly and untypically furious, I boiled out of my violated car, ran around the back of it, and confronted the woman who'd gotten out and was standing, arms akimbo, staring at the melded mess.

"You utter and complete idiot," I hissed, remembering even in the stress of the moment that refined ladies didn't shriek on the street as I wanted to do, adding needlessly, "See what you've done to my car!"

"Look, asshole! What's the idea of pulling out in front of me like that?"

I stared at her, too outraged by the injustice of the accusation to reply instantly, and she took my hesitation for weakness and pressed her point.

"I'm going to sue the shit out of you for this! This car is a classic and you've destroyed it. Do you know how much this car costs? Or would have if you hadn't torn it up like that? Try twenty-thousand dollars, you asshole! Try twenty-five! There's only a few of these things left in existence and you've absolutely destroyed a relic."

By this time a crowd was gathering, ambling up, Santa Fe style, curious but not curious enough to hurry. They would gather the same way for a bomb explosion in the middle of the plaza. Ordinarily, I would have found the idea of making a public spectacle of myself abhorrent and would have backed down a little, tried to reason with her, or perhaps even ignored her unladylike tirade while I summoned, as gracefully as possible, the policeman on the plaza beat halfway down the block. The sight of that huge, disgracefully obscene monster squatting on my defenseless little Bug completely undid me, however, and I shoved my face up into hers and yelled, "You mindless harridan! How dare you suggest to me I'm at fault here! There's witnesses right here, on this sidewalk, who saw you deliberately aim for me, and if you want to sue, then you just go ahead! I know several mean and competent attorneys who'll make your case look like hash. Just do it! Go ahead, I dare you!" I added for good measure, "Asshole!"

I'd backed her up a little, but just as I was beginning to get into the excitement of the thing, relishing my anger and its outpouring, she did a strange thing. Putting her arm around me, she laughed. I'd flinched at the sudden move toward me, thinking she meant to strike me, but she persisted, hugging me to her, motherly, and turned me to face the wreck again.

"It looks like a Scarborough, doesn't it?" she asked, naming a local sculptor who did massive, crumpled things and titled them with names like Flowersong, Nightlaughers, Cost-Effective Lovers, and who held his showings in the Santa Fe Auto Park, graciously guaranteeing delivery and setup for the six-figure price tag. Once I could have afforded his preposterous pieces on my lawns, but no more -- fortunately, perhaps.

"What do you think?" she said. "It looks like Beauty and the Beast, doesn't it? We could call it Detroit and Berlin, Fucking Each Other."

The word "fucking" put me off a little, doing more to diffuse my anger than anything else she could have done. I was no prude. I'd heard the word before, of course, had even used it myself fairly often, but not, never, in public, amid a crowd of strangers and on a street. My mother would have fainted dead away at the news that I had done so and then, in the soft, sweet drawl that characterized the steel-cored women in my family, made my life hell for weeks afterward.

I looked at the woman with some astonishment, and interest.

She was a good deal shorter than I and was built much like the Russian women who are always in any documentary of the Soviet Union, the kind of women who wear babushkas tied around their heads and are apt to say things like, "Let's climb on our tractors and make the earth strong for the motherland," or something. She had that fiercely red hair, an unusual shade suggesting carrots or a healthy portfolio of Miss Clairol stock. Her eyes were a warm brown, and though lined and wrinkled a little her skin was healthy and glowing with a slightly yellow cast that was overlaid with enough tan so that it suggested apricots and peaches. The combination was pleasing, attractive even, and I guessed her age to be around fifty. It was not the kind of beauty that I would have chosen for myself, but on her, it fitted and was striking.

I, on the other hand, had what had been described to me by an unfortunate choice of dates as the rich-bitch look, intensely intimidating apparently, the kind of looks that catch the eye but don't encourage any sort of frivolous flirtations. I was tall, thin, still blond -- thanks to my own share of Miss Clairol -- and to my credit, my light-olive skin tanned instantly and stayed that way without effort. I had a long nose, however, that missed being beaked by a hairbreadth, and my eyes were brown, too, but a dark brown, almost black, obsidian, icy. When I'd had money -- most of my life -- I could use those eyes like a weapon and freeze someone into instant submission with them, but the constant realities of poverty had made them flat and blank most of the time, and whatever it was that made the other woman's brown eyes sparkle with life, mine lacked.

I stood next to her on the street in my coordinated wool suit and silk blouse from Neiman's, B.D. clothes, feeling like nothing more than a stick that's been left in the sun too long, dried-up, bleached, withered. She, by way of contrast, had on a long jeans skirt over cowboy boots and a pullover, burnt-orange, velveteen overblouse caught at the waist by a belt of linked conches, each nearly as big as my hand. She should have looked frumpy, silly even, but strangely did not. She looked Santa Fe smart, moneyed, artsy without being bizarre. She looked like I wanted to feel but lacked the courage for it.

 

Stepwives by Phillis Stevens
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