In the Secret Parts of Fortune
by Connor Caddigan
part 1 of 2
Halloween, season of sorcerers and black magic, and once again Elsie has allowed Claude to visit her bed, but first she commands him to chase the dog from the house, mainly because she can’t stomach the animal’s crude pantomime of their twice-monthly romps.
It stares at them while they make love, panting to the irregular rhythm of the bedsprings, swabbing its genitalia with a dripping, lolling tongue of magnificent reach and precision, growling and gnashing its teeth whenever Claude clutches the sides of the mattress and unleashes his ridiculous yowls of rapture into the pillow.
Sensing a conspiracy, Elsie locks the bedroom door and confides her fear that the Great Dane is not merely playing the part of a voyeur; its real intention is to carefully observe everything that goes on in the house while its master is away on business and then to re-enact it all for him upon his return.
“They share this really weird form of telepathic communication,” Elsie whispers, her voice colored by panic. Soft indigo notes whistle from her lips, the captivating aria of a woman, still gorgeous at forty, afraid of being found out. There is a small gap in her teeth that makes her look like the Wife of Bath — saucy, licentious, calculating.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Claude says.
“I swear it. There is an unholy covenant between them. They each know what the other is thinking.”
“That damned animal provides Edward with precise and accurate information. I’m not sure how it works, but it’s truly disturbing. Maybe Gonzago taps out Morse code with his claws.”
As he listens to these outrageous hypotheses, Claude wonders, not without some exasperation, how the perversions of a dirty old dog and the delusions of a half-mad woman whose bookshelves are crammed with paperbacks on astrology, ESP and self-hypnosis can continually thwart his modest ambitions.
Love and frustration, the sad little ritual of a middle-aged man, but at this stage of his life Claude has come to accept the fact that when enormous sums of money are at stake, paranoia becomes an almost palpable thing, a shivering sentinel standing guard outside the door, waiting night and day for signs of a possible invasion.
As if to confirm this point, Gonzago begins to bark under the bedroom window.
Elsie gasps. “Do you hear that? He’s laughing at us.”
Despite Claude’s protestations, Elsie sits up in bed and pulls the sheets over the warm treasure trove between her legs that Claude has lovingly christened Graymalkin. A positively criminal act, concealing these things from him. Elsie’s purpose on this earth is to remain forever naked. Nudity suits her, she was born for it. Though the scar from the cesarean has faded, it stands as a stark reminder that she is the mother of a teenaged son, heir apparent to an enviable fortune.
With a deep sigh, Claude tramps across the room, bare-assed, dong dangling, and slams the window shut. He stands there a moment, watching Gonzago sniff around the flower beds and scratch at the last of the wilting columbines and pansies that struggle to survive the first frost.
Though he has his doubts about what Gonzago does and does not know, Claude is certain of one thing: the dog’s telepathic powers do not work on Elsie, otherwise the dumb, slobbering beast would have the good sense to dash into the woods behind the house, never to return.
Maybe like Claude — indeed, like many males in general — Gonzago can’t understand the meaning of the heavy crepuscular clouds rising from the long-dormant volcano that is a woman’s soul. And certainly Elsie’s soul is more inscrutable than most; in fact, it’s the only modest thing about her, veiled from top to bottom like an ashen-faced novitiate — solemn, austere, impenetrable.
“I have an idea,” she says distantly, as though in a trance. “We’ll poison it. No one ever performs an autopsy on a dog.”
She assumes the pose of a prioress deep in meditation, hands resting on her knees, palms facing up so the energy of the cosmos can filter through her fingertips and seep into the claustrophobic confines of her brain where her thoughts pulse and flicker in an interminable Dark Age. Claude knows her capacities, her limitations. Love has not deluded him that much.
“Why don’t you take Gonzago to the vet?” he suggests, reaching for the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand, grateful as ever for her insatiable oral fixation. “Have him put to sleep. Easy. Done and over with.”
“No, the dog must be buried in the back yard.”
“Just ask the vet for the remains after the job is done.”
An angry vein pulses on her forehead. “You don’t know anything about animals, do you? The vet won’t hand over the carcass. There’s a city ordinance. It’s illegal for taxpayers to bury pets on their property.”
“Cremation then. Give Edward a decorative urn when he gets back from his trip. He can keep his beloved Gonzago in the study. On the mantel. Below the portrait of your son.”
“Cremation? Never. Edward would think it a sacrilege. He’s attended elaborate funeral services for animals. Secret rites. Pet cemeteries, coffins, marble headstones, string quartets playing a dirge, even a priest to consecrate the grave. This is what Edward would want for his best friend.”
Claude bristles at the phrase. “Best friend... Well, I hardly think a priest would consent to that sort of thing.”
“You’re wrong. Edward knows people. He has a lot of pull in this town. He helped to finance a new chapel at the Jesuit school.”
Now Elsie is being deliberately cruel.
“Yes, our alma mater...” Claude murmurs.
“I think we both know what needs to be done.”
In her voice he detects something sinister, vindictive, an unspoken command to fulfill her darkest desires. She lowers the sheet, reveals her splendors. Slowly, cat-like, she saunters across the room, and like an enchantress before a bubbling cauldron high in a castle tower, she sits at her vanity where she consults her dog-eared books of black magic.
Using a red pen she scratches a cryptic formula on a notepad — (CH3)3SiCN — and then murmuring some mumbo-jumbo over an amber vial, she mixes several packets of powder together with a small silver spoon.
That she keeps poison on her nightstand doesn’t surprise him much, and he dares not ask how she obtains the stuff — beautiful women have their ways, he’s content to leave it at that — but he is a little concerned for his own safety. What if prior to a night of passion she accidentally mistakes the poison for perfume? Should his rapacious lips taste the deadly distilment dabbed behind her ears and between her breasts and around Graymalkin’s soft coat, he will be sent on a one-way trip to the undiscovered country.
Her work complete, she turns to Claude and asks, “What is the very worst thing you can do to a man?”
Trying hard to suppress an impish smile, he reaches down and tries to part her legs.
She pushes him away. “Fool. Kill his dog.”
“I’m not so sure about this, Elsie...” It frightens him how bravely and directly she speaks of matters of great consequence.
She leans forward to kiss his chest, darts her tongue over his ever-expanding stomach and around his hairy navel. “Darling, just think of it. With Gonzago dead and cold in the ground we’ll finally know tranquility, spiritual release. La petite mort.”
Eager to pour forth an abundance of his love and adoration, he gently lifts her chin, glides his thumb over her moistened lips and then steps closer until he is fully enveloped in the luxurious warmth of her mouth.
He shudders. “Oh, you beautiful woman...”
She is incredibly skillful, knows exactly what he likes. She slurps, gags, makes funny little quacking sounds, a lusty soundtrack that has him rocking on his feet and doing a dance to Eros. The finish comes quickly. He pumps and grinds and groans, but just as his eyelids start to flutter, he happens to glance out the window and sees the dog imitating him, prancing around on its hind legs like some bizarre animal act at a roadside carnival. Perhaps sensing another opportunity to make mischief, Gonzago begins to howl with maniacal laughter, a single extended note that starts as a banshee’s moan and ends as a deafening siren that oscillates with horrific madhouse harmonics.
Elsie tenses up, bites down hard, her jaws snapping shut like a spring-loaded mousetrap.
Squealing like unfortunate Abelard de-cocked for his grievous sins, Claude writhes on the floor, and through his tears he resolves to take a swift and murderous course of action.
Wearing only his friend’s terrycloth robe, he steps out into the cold October night and pads across the vast lawn in his bare feet. Trying hard not to make a sound, cringing every time his knees crack, he slides behind one of the giant ghoul-faced topiaries that ring the property like the gargoyles on the cornices of a great cathedral. Behind the tall hedges, in the grotto, he spies Gonzago pacing back and forth in front of a statue of the Virgin. Along with magic, Elsie is also a confirmed believer in more conventional superstitions and often lights candles here, hoping Mary will intercede on her behalf.
Claude creeps ever closer to the dog but worries that he doesn’t have the stomach to finish the job. To assassinate an animal when its back is turned seems especially villainous when the salary is sex. What makes it more offensive still is the watchful stare of the Virgin. Her serene blue eyes and immaculate white robes belie her outrage. She loves all of god’s creatures and looks unkindly upon those who wish them ill.
Claude would never harm an animal, not intentionally at least, not unless he had an excellent reason for doing so. In silent prayer, he tells this to the Virgin. He tells her other things as well: as a boy he owned a one-eyed cat named Hecuba (his mother was a professor of mythology), and when the cat died (tractor trailer, rush hour) he barricaded himself in the basement of their Victorian house and wept for hours among the stacks of moldering textbooks and discarded term papers.
Maybe a good father-son chat would have straightened him out, given him some perspective on this minor tragedy, but Dad was no longer in the picture, and Mother was so unnerved by his inconsolable blubbering that she insisted he receive professional help. With her arms firmly crossed and foot drumming against the cold white hospital tiles, she seemed prepared to bully the therapist into diagnosing him with a whole slew of disorders.
“Fifteen-year old boys shouldn’t cry when the cat dies. What’s Hecuba to him? He’s not a homosexual, is he?”
To Claude’s ears the question sounded like a rhetorical one.
The therapist, tugging nervously at the tip of his Vandyke beard and wanting to be rid of this woman and her overgrown child as quickly as possible, said, “Perhaps he suffers from emotional dysregulation... as the result of low self-esteem?”
Surely this is the standard diagnosis for boys of that tender age, but Mother wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to hear the word “abnormal” and spent the better part of Claude’s emasculated pubescence shopping around for a doctor who wasn’t too proud to use it.
Now, as he gently rubs the angry teeth marks that are beginning to show on the shriveled shaft of his penis, he starts to think that maybe his mother was right and wonders, not for the first time, what Elsie can possibly see in him, a pathetic pencil pusher in her husband’s employ, who for fifty weeks out of the year toils away in a small windowless office near the airport, writing operating manuals for scales manufactured in China and distributed around the world, a mindless job that has turned him into a portly, slovenly, stammering misfit with coffee stains on his shirtsleeves and a dusting of dandruff on his shoulders. He seldom socializes with people outside the office and has become so utterly incapable of meeting single ladies that he has turned to his best friend’s wife for comfort, pleasure, consolation.
As if to remind him of his ineptitude, Elsie now calls his name from the bedroom window. “Claude! Claude, is everything alright?”
“Yes, yes, everything is fine.”
“Well, please hurry. We have to wake up early tomorrow.”
A terse reminder that tomorrow is a day for country matters, a day for white magic rather than black. Elsie wants to leave at daybreak and drive along the lonely roads that wind through forgotten mountain villages and rural towns so she can ransack novelty shops for antique volumes of forbidden lore and visit the sinister frame houses hidden deep in the woods where for an exorbitant fee she can purchase glass jars of tannis root, cat’s claw extract, fennel fruit. The strange hags and weird sisters who inhabit the filthy little basement labs claim their medicines can reverse the aging process and that they themselves are much older than they appear.
He once asked Elsie why she bothers with such obvious chicanery. “Because,” she snapped, “men don’t look at me the way they used to.”
His heart started to pound with jealousy. “Men in general,” he wanted to ask, “or just your husband?” But he lacked the courage to speak the words.
Claude closes his eyes, tries to control his breathing. He must stop the flow of distracting thoughts and focus on the task at hand. He tries to envision the dog obeying his command — “Sit, boy, sit” — but when he turns around, he finds that Gonzago has disappeared. From the corner of his eye he glimpses the beast bolting across the yard to the house.
“Son of a bitch!”
His heart pounding again, Claude remembers that he left the back door ajar. If Gonzago races upstairs and leaps into bed with Elsie... well, he doesn’t want to think about the consequences, the terrible penalty he will pay. Celibacy for one month? Two? There’s no telling how long she will make him suffer, how long he will need to find solace in porn and masturbation.
He dashes toward the house, but before he can reach the door and put the leash around the dog’s neck, he feels his toes sink into a lumpy pile of warm canine excrement. He cries out in revulsion and despair, furiously scraping the ghastly black crap from the bottom of his feet.
Copyright © 2010 by Connor Caddigan