Her earliest childhood memory, she said, was that of being awakened by her father in the dark of night, his voice all gravelly and redolent of cigarettes and beer, holding a candle in his right hand and his fishing knife in his left, and telling her she had to help him kill her mother, who was evil. It might have been a dream, she later clarified, but she didn’t think so. It seemed real then. And, within the context, it made sense because her mother was at times unbearable; a nasty bitch who made herfeel all pussy-whipped and insignificant, just like her father who used those words a lot. But she couldn’t recall what happened next because she fell right back asleep. She was probably all of four years old.
Gina nibbled absent-mindedly at the lemon peel beside her empty cup, then raised her glance to smile at me. Her lips and teeth were picture-perfect although the rest of her looked rather ordinary to my eye, especially in that plain black dress under dim light. I liked her, though. She was already wired enough for both of us, but I motioned for the waiter to bring her another double espresso. That unsettling tale about her father got to me. I had a hunch the evening would be memorable.
Recorded jazz played softly in the background, romantic ballads mostly. I remember hearing “Only The Lonely” twice that night, first by Frank Sinatra as we got our drinks, then later, just as we were leaving, a more plaintive, tear-your-heart-out rendition by Shirley Horne. Gina’s eyes, which were large and brown and saucer-like, would dart occasionally toward nearby tables where other couples felt their way toward meaningful encounters. You could see this in their faces, in their body language. And their conversations probably flowed more predictably than ours.
Gina fired up her flirt machine once her third espresso came. “So tell me, Harley,” she began. “Am I your first and foremost number one, as e-dates go?”
“I guess so,” I said, since there’d been no others, and was about to joke that all of us had to start somewhere, which more or less summed up my feelings at the time.
Except that Gina said it first. Then, when she noticed how it made me wince, she quickly turned the barb back on herself. “I mean you got the short end of the stick. Look at you, the hot-shot writer interviewed by Charley Rose and all of that. Then look at me, with all this psycho baggage. You must be thinking I’m a nutbag, huh?”
I sloughed it off. “I wouldn’t say that, Gina. We were reminiscing about our lives as kids. I can’t match your experience, but my parents always had me on a leash. It was not a carefree time.”
Gina said, “I had a dog once. Actually, he liked his leash because that meant going out. You?”
“Definitely I did not like the leash.”
“What I meant was, did you ever have a dog? I wish you’d tell me about it if you did,” she said, as if I might be hiding something.
“He was my father’s dog, not mine.”
“So you didn’t like him? Or did he not like you?”
“What does it matter?” I protested.
“It would give me insight,” she said icily, and an awkward silence followed.
“Insight?” I repeated.
“Yes. As to what would ever make you jealous of a dog.” She didn’t exactly phrase this as a question and you wouldn’t write it with a question mark, but it called for me to respond somehow.
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay, then,” Gina said. “Fathers can be complicated, yes, I know. Speaking of which, I didn’t finish telling you about my father.”
“Does it involve a knife?” I asked half-jokingly.
Gina took a deep breath and said, “It did involve a knife, although a different one. It was two years later, on my birthday. I’d just turned six. And what did Daddy do? He killed himself. Allegedly. Can you imagine that, Harley? On my birthday! I didn’t even get a cake.” She got emotional and then trailed off, leaving me to wonder about “allegedly.”
“I’m so sorry, Gina,” I said reflexively as she dabbed a tear away and tried to calm herself. There was little else that I could do, this still being within the first two hours of our acquaintance.
“Even then I had to wonder, though,” she continued. “Maybe it wasn’t really suicide, you know? Sure, that was the official finding. And what my mom told everybody; what the papers wrote. Not to mention what her boyfriend said. Everybody knew that Daddy was unstable. But get this: he didn’t just stab himself or cut his wrist. He literally slashed himself to death, or so they said. Arms, legs, torso, front, back, everything. Major ketchup everywhere. Yet by the time he slit his throat it was a bloodless wound. How the heck does anyone do that?”
“Wait a minute, Gina. Your mom had a boyfriend?”
She answered with a smirk that seemed inappropriate, out of context. “Well, duh…”
“Didn’t anyone suspect him? Or her, for that matter?”
“Well, somebody had to…” I began to say.
Gina crossed her arms and glared at me. “Oh. Now I see where this is headed. I can read between the tea leaves. You’re thinking maybe I’m the one who did it. Is that it? Do I strike you as capable? Answer yes or no.” I began to fear this loony lady had too many of her father’s genes, and her mother’s too.
“No six-year-old could do what you described. But somebody…”
Gina cut me off. “He was a homicide detective,” she snapped.
“You didn’t say your father was a cop.”
“You weren’t listening, Harley. Pay attention! Daddy drove a frickin’ bus.”
“Who was the detective, then?”
“Oh, that was Mommy’s boyfriend, Carlo.” Gina now began to titter, also inappropriately, I thought. “Gumshoe’s what he called himself. I was little then and didn’t understand the term. I thought he said gum chew, which was funny since I never saw him chewing gum and, besides, my mother wouldn’t have it in the house…”
“But you never said your father drove a bus until just now,” I told her, and in fact she hadn’t. I’d been hanging on her every word.
“Mea culpa, then. So now you know.”
“Tell me more about this Carlo guy,” I said.
“Jesus, Harley! Do I have to spell out everything? He was my mother’s patient.” She rolled her eyes at me and downed the last of her espresso. “Oh, what’s the use?” she spat.
“Cut me some slack, Gina. Could you do that, please? All this information’s coming at me fast, but I’m doing my best to follow it, honest. Now, your mother was a doctor?”
“See these teeth?” She flashed that smile again, but grittily this time. “She was a frickin’ dentist. Can we please keep our characters straight? Father, drove a frickin’ bus. Mother, dentist. Carlo, homicide detective. Harley, inattentive. Gina, crazy.” Then she seemed to brighten up and, with a little shrug, appended, “Maybe.”
I liked that, and hoped that it would prove a turning point. But when I brought up Carlo again she got testy. “Can we please drop this already?” she practically barked, loud enough that heads around us turned. “They’re all dead now, anyway. Besides which, what do you care?”
“I do care, Gina,” I said. “That’s why I’m asking.”
“Yeah, well you don’t even know if it was true, like maybe… you know…”
“Like I’m disbelieving you?”
“Not that,” she said. “But maybe I laid it on a little thick because you weren’t reacting. I was sharing this profound experience and you just sat there gaping at me, stuck in neutral.”
“Neutral, Gina? Shock’s a better word for it. I was only trying to digest things.”
“Which brings me back to where we were before, what I just asked and you decided not to answer.”
“Now you’re losing me,” I said.
“We were talking about Carlo. Maybe you were thinking he killed Daddy, or possibly my mother did. I don’t think so, even though she had an explosive temper and she whored around. But the question I was asking, which you didn’t answer because you’re so God-damned stuck in neutral, was, why do you care anyway?”
“Maybe it would give me insight,” I replied.
“How very witty of you,” she muttered, with those huge dark eyes of hers drilled into mine (but no eye roll this time). “So my mother used to date a guy. A lot of people date, you know.”
“I hope she didn’t meet him on the internet,” I said, against my better judgment.
Gina reminded me there was no internet back then. Her mom had known this Carlo guy from church before he wound up in her bed and, later, in her dental chair, “because cops tend to have the best insurance.” And then she suddenly switched gears to ask me, “Are you a spiritual person, Harley? Do you ever go to church or anything?” I’m not sure why – my zinger about the internet, perhaps? – but something in this girl had changed. I asked where all that sarcasm had gone.
Gina shrugged, and gave a little bashful smile I hadn’t seen before. “Guess I got a little cranky, huh? You must think I had a huge bug up my ass, like a rhinoceros beetle or something. Honestly, I don’t know why I get like this. It’s like I’m on cruise control and can’t stop myself. I know it’s hard on you, on other people, but it’s even worse for me because I’m so helpless in the face of it, and it gives a false impression of who I am, which is really quite a nice and level-headed person.”
“Forget it, Gina. It would be stranger if your feelings hadn’tbeen affected, after all you told me.”
“I wish I’d never brought it up,” she said. “What I want right now, and more than anything, is to put us back somehow on better footing.”
I was touched by that but wasn’t sure about the sound of “us,” or what to say.
Gina, for her part, was contemplating too. She fiddled distractedly with her beads, letting them dip into her cleavage, watching to see how intently I was looking. Then she pressed her chest flat onto the table, leaning close to me. “Seriously,” she elaborated in a warming, heartfelt tone, “I really wanted us to have a happier evening, or at least some pleasant memory, God willing…” Then, abruptly, she sat back. “But I guess not.”
I couldn’t comment on ‘God willing. “I’m afraid I’m not religious, Gina.”
“Still, there’s a spirituality about you, Harley; a mystique. I wish I had that. Do you think I do? Or am I just…”
“A little spooky, maybe? Like I seem to be all over the place and you can’t figure out what’s going on inside? You can tell me honestly. It won’t bother me. It’s only karma, after all. Mine’s lousy but I’m used to it.”
I didn’t answer this directly but reached across and laid one hand, my left, on top of hers. It was the only time our flesh had actually touched since we shook hands, and it gave us both a little thrill, I think. But after a few seconds she pulled it back and clutched both hands together. Then, with fingers curled and muscles tightened, her hands (which had struck me earlier as delicate) began to grapple one another with such fierce pressure that her fingers changed from white to pink to red to blue and back again as the blood flow ebbed and surged. Though I looked steadily at her, Gina’s eyes were focused elsewhere, off in some imaginary distance, tracing out her mind’s meanderings in random zigzags. Subtle twitchings of her lips and upcurled tongue followed their erratic dance in synchrony, as if rehearsing what to say. Clearly she was having complicated thoughts. Finally, almost whimpering, she said, “For what it’s worth, I’m nowhere near as crazy or as scary as I seem.”
“Of course not, Gina. I believe that.”
“What I think really I am is scared sometimes,” she added. “Not about what happened, but what might.”
“Me too, at times,” I echoed, but should have held my tongue. For it occurred to me her fear was that we’d go our separate ways at evening’s end, while mine was that we somehow wouldn’t.
“Oh, and Harley?”
“What now?” I’d been noticing how she liked to say my name a lot, almost to the point of being cloying.
“I’ve just got to say how much I love that name. Harley…” she pronounced it slowly, savoring each syllable. “Was that a family name, by chance?”
“In a manner of speaking. My father rode a motorcycle.”
“We both had interesting fathers, didn’t we? Maybe that explains it.”
“Explains what?” I asked.
“Why the computer matched us up. And now I’m wondering what other things the two of us must have in common. I think this e-date thing is simply awesome! Wouldn’t you agree?” Gina fixed those saucer eyes on me again and lit up that toothy smile of hers. But I didn’t bother answering. By then I’d had it with her phony flirt machine and all the neuroses that went with it; all her crazy ups and downs.
“It’s getting late. I’ll get you a cab,” I said. Gina didn’t even react. I fumbled in my pocket for some bills and stacked them on the table, then stood up while she continued sitting there. Only when I tugged at her chair did she rise and strike out for the door.
After a dozen steps or so – Gina was walking just ahead of me, striding purposefully, head down, heels clicking in brisk rhythm like a metronome – she abruptly spun around and stopped, waved a pointed finger in my face and said, “I think you’re giving up on me too easily.” Then, just as I tried to fathom what she meant by that, she surprised me once again by leaning her whole body into mine, driven by some urgency I didn’t feel. And yet I could feel all the outward signs of it: her breasts pressed hard into my ribs, her breathing warm and moist against my neck, her perfume tingling at my nostrils. She was so utterly feminine and soft – but at the same time so taut and full of heat, obtrusive and insistent. Poor, paradoxical creature! She had tried so hard to be appealing, in her way, but she was clearly vulnerable, fragile, troubled. I didn’t want to worsen her condition. “Will I be seeing you again?” she asked obliviously while, over the lobby speakers, Shirley Horne sang dolefully of loneliness.
I backed away and gestured toward the door, saying there’d be a cab outside. Other couples lingered in the vestibule for it had begun to rain. No one was prepared with an umbrella.
Gina pivoted to keep facing me and blocked the way. “Like I said, you give up way too easily. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on you.”
“So I’m not climbing into any cab alone. I need you to be gallant for me. Besides, I don’t want my hair wet.”
“I’ll hold my jacket over you till you get in.”
“That won’t be sufficient, I’m afraid.”
“Well, you can’t walk home and I’m not going to leave you here alone.”
“Exactly!” Gina triumphed, yet without a trace of smugness in her voice, as if prompting me toward some conclusion already reached.
“And so your point would be?”
“If you leave me now then both of us will be alone. Why would anybody ever want to be alone? Isn’t that the point?”
“Depends on the alternative,” I said, still feeling prickly.
“What if the alternative is me?” she answered in a flash. “After all, this isn’t rocket science. A cab comes and we both get in. We get to my place and we both get out. Tomorrow morning we wake up together. Wouldn’t you feel so much more alive? I know I would.” She plied me with that smile I liked and started toying with her beads again, sliding them in and out between her breasts. I found her manner just a little bit too obvious but said nothing. Maybe I was feeling sorry for her. Maybe I was drawn to her somehow but felt it prudent to maintain my distance.
“We could have a spiritual experience together,” she continued, still fingering her beads.
“Let’s not go there, Gina. Please…”
“Are you trying to tell me that you’re gay or something, Harley? I mean, it’s all right if you are. Invitation still holds.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Why then wouldn’t you want to sleep with me? Everybody else does.”
More like has, I almost thought to say, but kept that to myself. And thankfully so. Because, to make a long story short, I did go home with her that night, and…
As for the rest, well, you can imagine it for yourself while I pause here and do the same. A little break from writing does me good. Still, reality always finds its way back in. Soon I’m hearing footsteps in the hall; feeling a presence in the room behind me. A reflection, half-transparent, fills my computer screen. But I go on typing anyway, feeling no need yet to turn around. It’s only Gina coming in to check on me. She’s just showered; I can smell her body lotion. Her generous arms, once lithe and athletic but a decade looser now, drape softly on my weary shoulders. Her sweet, familiar voice says hi, caressing my ear like the throaty low notes of a clarinet. “You’ve been at this desk all afternoon,” it sings. “What on earth have you been working on, another story?”
When I don’t answer right away she rubs my neck. The massage feels good. I sigh. She’s probably reading what is on my screen, but I don’t care.
“What is this, Harley, honey? Is it fiction?”
“Why would you think that?” I reply.
“Because you’re writing in the present tense. And because I didn’t see my name.”
“You’ve only read the part since you walked in,” I remind her.
“Oh. And what of all the parts before?”
“Past tense, naturally.”
“But you’ve got me in there, right? I mean, you usually do.”
“Could be,” I confess, unnecessarily. “One does need characters. And situations.”
“I hope you didn’t talk about my weight,” she teases.
“I’d have to go back and reread it.”
Gina’s smiling broadly now. I know this even without looking at her face, just by the way she strokes my neck and shoulders. Her every way is seared into my very being.
“We have such memories, you and I,” she says. “Why do you always feel you must embellish them?”
Mankiller was published online by Medium on Jan. 22, 2016.