I’m staring at another bad hand in another losing round of Canasta with my wife, and I can’t remember if I cut the deck. The memory is buried somewhere in my beer-soaked brain, but all I see when I try to find it is Priscilla shuffling those worn out Bicycles in her fancy bridge style that sounds like dead leaves blowing across a cold November road.
She knows I hate that racket, but she does it anyway because it’s part of her “winning ritual,” as she calls it. Fourteen bridge shuffles. Always fourteen, because “thirteen is unlucky and fifteen is too many,” she once explained, as if seven, ten, or twelve weren’t enough.
Ordinarily, she’d slap the shuffled deck in front of me to cut before handing us each fifteen cards, flicking them out in a blur like someone who’d missed her calling as a Vegas dealer, but I somehow missed that part on this last deal. I look over at her now, the score pen tucked behind her ear, her shoulders square, the corner of her mouth tucked into her trademark devilish smirk revealing a dimple that was never there when she smiled out of happiness or good will, and something clicks into place. She had asked me to get up and stir the stew as she shuffled a couple minutes ago, and my cards were waiting for me when I sat back down. I’m pretty sure I didn’t cut the deck.
Still, maybe I’m wrong. I’m on my sixth beer and feeling pretty sour. I’m also not thinking so much about playing cards right now. Instead, I’m thinking that if she wins this next hand, I’m going to kill her. And I don’t mean it in a playful way either. I have murder on my mind for the first time in forty years of marriage, and it doesn’t trouble me a bit. The idea of choking her or bashing in her self-righteous skull is dancing in my head like Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse.
She flips over the top card on that uncut deck, revealing the two of clubs. A wild card. That means the pile is locked to anyone who wants to pick it up, unless either of us has a pair of whatever’s on top. Of course, I never have that magic pair when I need it, but Priscilla always does. I can’t see her hand to know for sure, but it’s how the game always goes once the cards are in someone’s favor. And when it comes to Canasta, the cards are always in Priscilla’s favor.
“Look at it this way, Bernard,” she says as she fans out her cards, sorting them with her nimble fingers and her gimlet eye. “I need a hundred and twenty points to go down. You got a better chance than me to pick that up.” She tries to soften the blow, but all the while that dimple in her smirk grows deeper and I know my takedown is imminent. Meanwhile my heart’s pounding in my eardrums to the beat of the ticking grandfather clock in the front sitting room.
My cards are shit. Small junk, no wild cards to help me out. I’m already over two thousand points behind, and there’s little use in playing anymore, but she’d gloat all damn night if I bowed out early. If I play till she breaks five thousand, she’ll drop the smirk sometime after dinner. Then we’ll watch 60 Minutes—Priscilla loves that damn show—and head up to bed. And if she’s in a good mood, which she always is when she wins, she’ll probably even put out a little. This has been our routine so long, I can hardly remember a Sunday when I wasn’t holding these cards in my hand.
Tonight is different, though. Maybe it’s the beer talking in my head, or that damn smirk of hers, or that bridge shuffle echoing between my ears like the fleshy wings of a busy bat colony, but my dust is up and I’m pretty sure there isn’t going to be any 60 Minutes or humping tonight.
It’s only after she draws her second red three, one of those “death by a thousand cuts” moves that always makes me hate this damn game, that I decide to confront the issue blaring in my mind like the horn of a semi truck. “Did I cut the cards?”
Priscilla glances up from her cards and then back down again. “Yes, of course.”
She’s lying. You don’t spend forty years with someone and not pick up on the little tells. The flick of an eyelash can betray an entire affair, and her clipped “yes, of course” just exposed her disappointment over being busted.
“I’m not so sure I did,” I say.
She heaves a sigh, like I’m a whiny toddler instead of her husband. “Oh Bernard, if it’ll make you feel better, we can re-deal the hand I guess. But I was just about to go out. Don’t you want to get this over with and have dinner?”
A bitter taste enters my mouth. “So you admit you didn’t have me cut the deck then?”
“Can’t you remember cutting the deck, or is the Budweiser making your brain foggy?” She’s going for the insults, hoping to distract me. It’s a typical Priscilla technique when she doesn’t want to admit she’s wrong. But I’m not having it tonight.
“You’re the dealer, Priss. You’re supposed to make sure the cards are cut before you hand them out.”
She rolls her eyes. “It hardly matters, does it? We’re almost done here. Let’s just play this out and eat our dinner.”
That’s easy for her to say. She’s winning. She’s always winning. But I know if the tables were turned and she was down after a misdeal, she’d be screaming for a do-over. I’m fed up with her attitude. I’m fed up with losing. It wasn’t just when we played cards either. She was the same way when we argued over politics or when she twisted my arm to go to mass at St. Mark’s every Sunday. Priscilla’s always keen on beating me down to get her way.
“Since you didn’t see me cut the cards, and since I don’t remember cutting the cards, I think you ought to re-deal them then,” I tell her. “What you got there is a bad hand.”
Her cheeks flush red and I know she’s pissed off. “It’s just like you to turn into a real foo-head when you’re getting beat.” Foo-head. A classic Priscilla-ism, that. She folds her cards and slaps them down on the table hard enough to rattle the flamingo-shaped salt and pepper shakers. “Would it make your behind feel less chapped if you shuffled them then?” She shoves her cards at me. Several of them sail off the edge and onto the floor. I notice three wild cards in the bunch. One of the jokers stares up at me with malice painted on its face. I can see why she’s mad, but I feel nothing but satisfaction as I collect the cards.
“Fine, I’ll deal. But I ain’t gonna wait all night to eat dinner either. We can eat and play.”
“Isn’t that just typical? Throwing off the game and our whole evening because you’re losing.”
I ignore her dig and go to the cupboard to grab a bowl. They’re the heavy crockery kind. Ugly as hell too, the color of overripe cantaloupe. Priscilla’s choice, of course, only she calls it “sunset coral.” They’re part of a set with teal coffee mugs and yellow dinner plates. We live in central Iowa, but everything in this house says we live in a Florida Keys flea market. “I don’t plan on throwing any game. I just want to play fair. And I’m hungry.”
She sighs again. Oh God, that sigh of hers. If she did it any harder, she’d spit up a hairball. “I can’t believe this. We’d both be having a peaceful dinner right now if you weren’t such a damn baby. Pour some into the tureen while you’re up. Might as well bring enough for us both.”
I slop a mess of stew into the big tureen sitting beside the pot. Priscilla always insists on using her fancy serving dishes, even when it’s just the two of us. To me it’s just another thing to wash. The stew looks like dog food with a few pieces of carrot and potato floating in it, and it’s probably heavy on the salt. One time I asked her to go easy on the seasoning as it aggravates my acid reflux. She went to the bathroom and came back with a bottle of Pepcid and said, “Good cooking won’t take a backseat to your picky digestive system, Bernard.”
With the tureen, bowls, and silverware on the table, I grab a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, and another beer out of the fridge before I sit back down.
As I deal the cards, I wonder if I should’ve just let her keep that bad hand. The game would be over, and we’d be eating ice cream in front of the TV. But I was bothered. Maybe she didn’t set out to cheat, but she lied to me when I asked about the deck. She lied. And now I see this nasty creature crouched inside her that I didn’t notice before. It’s petulant and dishonest, and I can’t un-see it now no matter how hard I try.
I shuffle the cards and after she cuts them I deal out fifteen a piece. She fans out her hand and her trademark smirk all of a sudden becomes a frown, then a pout. My hand, by contrast, is the best I’ve had the whole game. Hell, in months. The joker’s face that had earlier been grinning at me from the carpet is now sitting next to two others, along with five queens and a few other pairs. It’s a concealed hand. I could go out now and be up a few points and take her down a few pegs while I’m at it, but I decide to draw it out a little longer so I can close the gap some more.
Over the next few turns, I pick up two more queens from the draw pile, which is almost enough for a natural canasta—seven pretty ladies all in a row. All of it hinges on whether I can draw that seventh queen or whether Priscilla discards one. Meanwhile, she hasn’t put down anything, and she’s huffing and groaning with every draw.
“I suppose you’re feeling pretty good about yourself now.” She glares at me with icy blues that snuff out any remaining warmth between us. It reminds me of what my Granny said when she always used to kicked my butt at Gin Rummy: there ain’t no such thing as two friends playing cards. And right now, with a stare that could freeze over Lake Erie, Priscilla is no friend of mine.
Each card I pick up is the right one, and I wallow in her sighs and complaints. After one draw, she even punches the table, and I have to swallow an urge to giggle. My poker face is a whole lot better than hers. But then she draws one more card and that goddamn dimple comes back. I feel a cold, black pit open up in my gut and my heart drops right into it.
“So sorry to do this, Bernard.” The sweetness of her tone is about as artificial as the pink packets of stuff she likes in her tea. She lays down a natural canasta of jacks along with the rest of her hand in a meld of aces, tens, and wild cards. And then she puts her final card, the queen of diamonds, on the discard pile. It looks like a bloody dagger.
Right then I feel a tectonic shift in our marriage. “It doesn’t matter how the deck is cut, I guess,” she says with a whimsical lilt to her voice. Her eyes fill in the rest: I beat you, Bernard. I’ll always beat you. The only reason I play this game with you is because I like you better when you’re emasculated and broken. Your balls never could produce me a child, but they fit perfectly in my hand.
Seconds tick away as we stare each other down across the table. No one moves to count scores or dish stew out of the tureen. My six queens still sit in my hand waiting to be joined with their long lost sister on the discard pile, but now they and the wild cards have become my enemies, subtracting themselves from my already paltry score in a final blow to my whimpering ego. And those queens, they’re trembling with my rage. “You evil cunt.”
Priscilla’s eyes widen with shock and her jaw drops into a perfect O. “What did you say?”
“I said you’re an evil cunt.” I never swore in such a way in all our years together, much less to her, but now the words slide from my mouth as if with practiced ease.
Priscilla gasps. “Bernard! What has gotten into you? It’s just a game!”
She looks genuinely hurt, and is that fear I see in her eyes? Yeah, maybe just a little. Like someone who realizes she might have teased a hungry dog just a little too much. I should stop, but my fury has me in its grip and it has no intention of letting me go yet.
“It’s just a game, is it?” My voice raises another octave and I stand up, the legs of the chair scraping against the tile. She leans back as if pushed by invisible hands. “It’s always just a game when you’re winning. Only you don’t know how to just win, do you? You have to… to assert yourself as better.” I round the table toward her and she struggles to back up her chair, but it’s fetching up against the buffet behind her. At some point during the game, I must have moved the table back against her, as if subconsciously I had planned to block her in the whole time. In her fear, which is no longer just a hint around her eyes, but now a boldly painted rictus, she keeps knocking back against the teakwood instead of pushing the table forward.
“Bernie, stop this. You’re scaring me!”
It’s exactly what I want her to be. “You tried to cheat, you bitch. Just admit it. You probably stacked the deck when my back was turned.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Her voice cracks on the shrill high note.
My fist crashes on the table, making the dishes and silverware jump and shiver. The stack of cards with the queen of diamonds on top falls over. “Shut up! You had me get up to stir the goddamn stew just hoping I’d forget about cutting the deck, and when I came back to the table, you’d already dealt them out. You think I’m too stupid to notice you cheating?”
Priscilla is shaking her head in convulsive little jerks. “Bernie, you’ve gone crazy. I have never cheated you. Never!” Tears begin to spill down her cheeks, taking streaks of her mascara with them. But the tears aren’t soothing my rage. I only get madder.
I arch over her like a bogeyman. “You lied to me and I can tell. So goddamn sanctimonious. Always trying to beat me down and bust my balls, thinking I’ll just keep going along with it. You push, push, push.” I poke her hard in the shoulder every time I say that word and I savor each accompanying wince on her face. “But you pushed me too far this time, Prissy. Dumb ol’ Bernie ain’t as dumb as you think.”
The rapid rise and fall of her chest signals oncoming panic. Her eyes dart around and then her arm flashes out to snatch something from the table. I look over and see the silver butter knife, which I’d brought to the table to spread margarine on the bread, gleaming in the chandelier’s light. “You get away from me right now, or I’m going to use this.”
Her threat is genuine enough, but her weapon is so absurd it makes me laugh. “That’s a nice knife you got there. What’re you going to do, cover me in Country Crock?”
She grits her teeth and next I hear a meaty thunk. My head jerks down to see the butter knife standing erect between the first and second knuckles of my left hand, its tip buried in my flesh. There is less blood than I would expect, and for a minute both of us stare at it like it’s some kind of novelty hand from a gag shop. But then I finally register the pain and the truth of it—I’ve been stabbed, by God!—and I scream.
Before I lose my nerve, I grab the knife handle and pull. Blood wells up in the ragged gash and spills over in little rivulets. My fingers feel like they’ve been shoved through with rusty nails, but I resist bending them. Priscilla pushes back the table and stumbles out of her chair, scooting out of my reach, as if my touch would burn right through her. “I’m sorry, Bernie! I’m so sorry! I wasn’t even thinking. You’re just scaring me so badly!”
I know I should relent now before this gets worse than either of us can imagine. Any sane and reasonable man would have backed off long before the butter knife incident, but I’m not behind the wheel anymore, and I realize that the same ugliness I’d seen in Priscilla earlier must also be living in me. I dive across the table and snag her by the shoulder of her green “lucky” cardigan with the shamrock buttons. She yelps, trying to wrench it out of my grip, but I have her with my unhurt hand, which also happens to be the stronger one.
I work my way around the end of the table until I’m on the same side as her and grab hold of her from behind, one arm wrapped around her neck and the other around her arms in a half bear hug. She struggles to pull free as I try to choke her, but I can’t quite get the angle right because she’s digging her chin into my forearm. I scan the table for something I can knock her over the head with instead. One of the “sunset coral” bowls seems the best option until I spy the tureen of beef stew and have a better idea. With my hurt hand, I reach out and lift the lid. Steam thick with the smell of bay leaf and thyme fills my nose. My sanity knows what a grotesque sideshow this is turning into, but it just sits back horrified and fascinated.
I grab her hair and shove her face toward the steaming pool of stew. “Bernie no! What are you doing oh my Go—!” Her final syllable is more of a burble as I press down on the back of her head with both hands to submerge her face and hold her there.
“Eat it! Eat your goddamn slop!” I scream, not recognizing my own voice.
She thrashes around, but I press my weight against her, sandwiching her against the table like I’m trying to do her from behind. I learn something in those sixty or so seconds it takes to drown my wife in her over-seasoned beef stew, and that is anyone who’s on the verge of suffocation will do whatever it takes to keep breathing. They exhibit superhuman strength as their bodies dump a gallon of adrenaline into their bloodstreams. I have to ride Priscilla like a cowboy trying to break a wild horse, pinning her down as she bucks her hips and arches her back to throw me off. I hear the sound of ripping cloth and realize the arms of my shirt are tearing at the shoulder seams, and I can smell the stink of my exertions wafting out. The tureen slides around on the table with her struggles and some of the stew gravy sloshes out and down the sides, but I hold her head steady because I want her dead even more than she wants to live. I guess that’s the equation behind every successful murder.
Finally, she stops bucking and her body gives one final shudder. I imagine that’s the moment the stew fills her lungs, though I don’t know exactly how these things work. Either way, I count to a hundred and twenty. Only a Navy Seal could hold in a breath that long.
Once I’m sure she’s dead, I remove my hands and step away. Her limp body sags to the floor, her chin overturning the tureen as she goes. Brackish meat gravy with a dull confetti of carrot, potato, and herbs floods the table, running down the vinyl tablecloth in a wide stream that looks like diarrhea. My stab wound doesn’t even hurt now, probably from my own glut of adrenaline that’s making my eyes bulge.
The enormity of what just happened doesn’t hit home until I look at Priscilla’s face, which is puffed and brown-black with stew and asphyxiation. My gorge rises, burning my throat with soured beer, but I swallow it back. She looks like some kind of racist caricature. But Priscilla had been no racist. She’d been an elitist bitch, a dyed-in-the-wool bleeding heart liberal. Then it occurs to me that she and I would never argue about politics again. I wouldn’t have to hear about how I should vote for her guy, and then suffer her disdain when I didn’t. Along with breathing, cooking, and playing Canasta, Priscilla would never vote again.
Part of me—the snickering demon that took pleasure in holding my wife’s head in a pot of stew as she thrashed for her next breath—is enjoying this. But the human part of me, the coward that stood aside and watched with horror as I drowned the woman with whom I sometimes shared cheese and crackers in bed, is screaming. And the screams echo through the two-story brick house we bought brand new in 1972 intending to fill with kids that never came due my low sperm count. I suppose that alone should have proven we weren’t very compatible, but I’d loved her and she’d loved me. And I killed her over a bad hand of cards, like some Old West outlaw, but with none of the honor or flair.
I can’t exactly call the police and report an accidental beef stew drowning. Even if I clean her up, they’d want to do an autopsy, and thyme-flavored brown sauce in the lungs and throat isn’t what any coroner would call natural causes. Stashing her somewhere until I can think up a plan seems the best option.
After putting the cards and score pad on the buffet and carrying the tureen and other dishes to the sink, I remove the soiled tablecloth and spread it next to Priscilla’s body. I wrap her up tight and tuck in the end close to her head. Her feet, clad in her favorite white Keds, still stick out, but that’s fine. It’s her face I want to hide.
The basement is the best place to put her. Though the thought of her dead body anywhere in the house gives me the chills, it’s cool, dark, and out of the way. I sling her over my shoulder and carry her down the steep, creaky stairs she’d been on me to replace for years, sweating buckets under the strain. She was always petite, but I remember reading somewhere that dead people are damn heavy.
There’s a storage cabinet under the stairs, and I prop her up in there on a couple cases of bottled water. Closing the cabinet, I stop cold when a white rectangle on the floor catches the corner of my eye. It’s the queen of diamonds, its corner covered with a dollop of stew gravy. It must have stuck to the tablecloth. I don’t want to touch it—the card’s presence here just seems wrong, or rather too right—but I pick it up so I can put it with the others.
The dining room is a mess—streaks of stew on the tile, a crooked table, an overturned chair—but no one would ever guess a murder had taken place here. First, I go to the bathroom and inspect my hand. The wound between the knuckles hurts like hell, but it has clotted at least. That I can still feel and move my fingers must mean nothing important was severed. I dab it with some antibiotic ointment from the first aid kit and wrap it with gauze before moving on with the rest of the clean-up.
As I mop the floor and wipe up the spatters of stew from the walls, I think of what happens next. What would a real murderer do? Cleaning his tracks, thinking of a good burial site. Maybe I can create the illusion of a man whose wife up and left him after forty years, and in the morning I’ll pack her clothes and other things in some suitcases and make them disappear too. There wouldn’t be a note, though. They have handwriting experts for that. There’s also the question of money. Cops will wonder why she hasn’t used her bank card since disappearing, but I guess any decent defense attorney could find an argument around that. “Can’t have a murder without a body, so I have to hide her good,” I say to the empty room. My voice is steely and cold.
I pull another tablecloth out of the buffet and spread its white lace across the table. It had been my mother’s and Priscilla had hated it, referring to anything that looked traditional as dowdy. I think it looks the way a dining room table in Iowa should look. Opening another drawer in the buffet, I pull out the heavy brass candlesticks that had also been Mom’s. I can already see Priscilla spinning in her as-yet-determined grave.
That last thought is overwhelming enough that I decide to sleep on it a bit. Deciding against the beer in the fridge, I go for the good stuff in the cabinet above: a bottle of Basil Hayden’s. Before I leave the dining room, I dig the queen of diamonds out of my pocket and place it on the table.
I dream of Priscilla beckoning to me from a shroud of rotting silk and jerk awake just before she can touch me. Her side of the bed is still cold and made up, as if waiting for her to turn down the covers and slide in beside me. It isn’t until I turn over and hear the half-empty bottle of bourbon slosh by my side that I remember why that will never happen. My head is as heavy as a cinderblock, and my tongue feels like a bloated lizard in my mouth.
I can’t escape the feeling that something brought me up through all those layers of liquor and bad dreams. A sound of some kind. I’m not sure what it is until I sit up and hear it again: a fluttering rasp that makes my stomach clench and my bowels turn to water. My skin prickles in a million tiny bumps. It’s the sound of Priscilla’s bridge shuffle.
Or, my mind tries to convince me, just a trick of the wind outside. But one glance out the window into the still September night convinces me that just isn’t so. I swing my legs out of the bed and stand up, swallowing back the taste of sour bourbon as my stomach knots into a noose.
In the bathroom, I empty my bladder first and notice Priscilla’s white terrycloth bathrobe hanging from the door hook. It doesn’t know she’s dead. As far as the robe is concerned, its owner will step out of the shower later this morning and shrug it over her still-wet shoulders before moving over to her vanity table near the linen closet, where all her creams, powders, and perfumes are lined up like soldiers awaiting orders. Now it’s not dread I feel over the act of killing Priscilla. I’m grieving over the loss of my wife. I want her back, smirk and all, and I can feel a painful lump rising in the back of my throat that I push away with a swig of water from the tap.
The sound comes again as I wipe my hands on the flamingo hand towels. That goddamn rustling sound, the one I hated most in the world. I race over to the bureau and open the top drawer. Beneath my folded t-shirts is a Glock automatic pistol. I slide in a fresh magazine and then flick off the safety. I’ve never pointed it at anything other than a paper target, but its weight feels right in my hand. I’m ready to face whatever’s coming.
The shuffle of the cards comes again as I cross the threshold of the bedroom and step onto the landing. With each step I take down, I hear the flapping of the Bicycles echoing off the dining room walls as they have every Sunday with few exceptions for the last forty years. We even played on our wedding night and the first night we spent together in this house, sleeping on the living room floor because the movers were a day late with our things. Thinking back, I can mark almost every momentous occasion between Priscilla and me with a deck of cards. And we always walked away from each game we played without a scuffle. Maybe a little irritated, sure, but we never came to blows. I don’t know what made tonight so different. It’s like the tightrope of our marriage carried us over an abyss and, so near the end, we just slipped.
“Into a vat of beef stew,” I mutter to myself as I reach the foot of the stairs. The shuffling sound stops. I’m too scared to look around the corner into the dining room to see if my dead wife is sitting in her chair again, her swollen, oxygen-deprived face coated in dried beef gravy, with chunks of carrots and potato in her matted hair.
I stand and listen for any noise. Another shuffle of cards, perhaps. Or the rattle of beef stew in her throat. But I only hear the regular tick of the grandfather clock in the front sitting room. Sighing, I realize Priscilla is just as dead as she was when I wrapped her up in the tablecloth and stuffed her into the closet under the basement stairs, where she’s now growing stiff atop the cases of Poland Spring. The sound of the shuffling cards must have come from my fevered brain. Looking at the loaded Glock in my hand, I think of how easy it would be to end it all either before I go crazy or before I get caught. I’d just need to write a note explaining everything. And maybe call 9-1-1 first so the cops will find us before one of our neighbors does. Dying was not on my agenda for the day, but neither was murder. Funny how life can turn on a dime like that.
I round the corner and creep toward the dining room, which is just as I’d left it. My mother’s candlesticks and tablecloth gleam in the bluish-white moonlight and the only other object on the table is the last thing I left on it before heading upstairs: the queen of diamonds. The one with the smudge of beef gravy on the corner, like an accusation.
I reach out my finger and touch the card. A thump comes from somewhere below me. In the basement. Placing the gun on the table, I go over to the buffet and gather the remaining cards and the score pad. I give the cards another shuffle. Not a bridge shuffle, though. I never could do those.
Another thud from down there, followed by the slap of the door under the stairs flying open. Soon she’ll be heading back up here. I realize now there are fourteen stairs leading up from the basement. Fourteen stairs for fourteen shuffles. It’s as if she always knew.
We have a game to finish, my wife and I. The score is definitely in her favor, but maybe I still have a chance. I glance at the gun sitting here on the table, and I’m not sure if I have the courage to use it just yet. But maybe when I see her face again, and the whites of her staring eyes contrasting with her black-brown face, I will.
Behind me, I hear the basement door swing open and hit the wall. My nostrils fill again with the smell of thyme and bay, and I shiver at the icy draft that follows it. I place the shuffled deck down on Priscilla’s side of the table so she can cut them. There won’t be any forgetting this time.