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By John Wenke


The Montréal Review, June 2011




Charles feels buoyant. His early training, first as an information officer in Saigon and then as a city reporter for the defunct Baltimore Evening Sun, helped make him comfortable in situations where the script has unraveled.

"Just relax. We go back, get my car and we'll be there in plenty of time. First we need to report this and get the fire company out here. All this gasoline is a problem."

"Shit!" Mavis blurts, punching her left palm with her right fist. "Shit! Shit!"

So she's vulgar, too. If I wrote a speech like that, I'd be glad for a chance to miss the party. She should market it as a cure for insomnia.

Stop it, Meg. You'll make me laugh. It's close to being decent, but it doesn't matter: those politicians and educational bureaucrats wouldn't know a good speech if it bit them on the foot.

"Shit! Shit! Shit!"

Listen to her. She talks like trash. I knew she was common.

"Calm down, Mavis. We'll make a few calls and get on with it."

"I forgot my cell. It's charging on the kitchen counter. We'll have to use yours."

Charles scrunches his nose.

She doesn't know how much you hate those things. She doesn't know a thing about you.

"Well, that's a bit of a wrinkle. I left mine home. When I get away I like to be out of touch. Otherwise, what's the point? Don't worry, though. A Good Samaritan will stop. We can even walk. I think I saw a phone about a mile back."

Mavis has both hands up, waving at a line of approaching vehicles. The first car has a big dent in the bumper and a smashed headlight. It's a blue Subaru with two teenage boys in the front seat. Out the window flies a soda can followed by an empty box of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Next a rumbling dump truck pulls a flatbed with a backhoe on it.

It serves you right for going out on me.

Don't be jealous. I'm just along for the ride.

"Nobody's going to stop," Mavis complains. "It never fails: as soon as I want something, they take it away."

"Maybe this'll help."

Charles takes the handkerchief from inside his jacket and slams it inside the driver's door. Looking back down the road he's surprised to see a new Ford Crown Victoria flashing the right blinker and pulling to the shoulder behind them.


"They're stopping," Mavis shouts, waving and smiling. A woman wearing a pill box hat sits behind the wheel. The passenger wears a flopping cowboy hat, a paintbrush mustache and black frame glasses. "Hey! I guess I need to have more faith in people."

A Ford F-150 races past and pummels the air.

Mavis scurries toward the driver's open window.

"We had a freak occurrence. A piece of metal punctured my gas tank."

"Insurance'll cover that," the driver says. She speaks with a low grumbling sound, her tongue snaking out and licking the top of her lips. Exploded capillaries splotch her cheeks and forehead. Curly red hair bursts from beneath the pink pillbox hat. She croones in a cracked voice, "State Farm is there. Nationwide is on your side. Call GEICO direct and get a piece of the rock."

"Those bummers won't pay squat," the passenger grunts. Mavis tilts her head to listen. "You better say it was jumping around."

"It was. It--"

"We can't repair that tank," the driver moans, almost weeping. "The cat's out of the bag. The milk's spilt. The horses are out of the barn and the water's over the damn bridge."

"We have to get to Rehoboth," Mavis sputters. "Could you take me to a phone?"

"Get in," the passenger calls. "We're going to Rehoboth to visit the famous factory outlets. I'm Ignatius and my sweetheart here is Brunhilda."

Mavis flings open the rear door, but Charles loops his fingers around her elbow.

"All I need is a phone," Mavis says, shaking his hand away. "Do you happen to have a cell I could use for a minute?"

"No portable bells or cells," Brunhilda laughs. "But we'll find one. Let your fingers do the walking. Reach out and touch someone. A little dab'll do you."

"Thanks a lot," Charles announces, "but we'll just wait for triple A."

Charles yanks her elbow, trying to work her away from the car.

Mavis whirls, shocked. She wriggles loose and teeters against the chassis. Has Charles lost his mind? When he goes for another grip she pushes his hand away and slips into the back seat.

"Charles," Mavis snaps, "we never called triple A. That's the problem: no phone."

She's surprised to hear the starchy tone she once regularly used on Allen.

"Make it quick," Ignatius grumbles. "Lift off is about to occur."

"Yes," Brunhilda replies, "we're late for a very important date."

"Mavis, we'd be better off waiting for the police."

She slides to the far door, her mind tilting. Time is a panting racer. The sun is eating up the sky.

"This is the best way, Charles. You wait for the police and I'll be right back."

"Back in your arms a-gain-n," Brunhilda sings, "so satisfied."

The Crown Vic lurches forward. Charles clings to the handle. He walks to keep up with the moving car.

"Wait with me, Mavis. Get out now."

Brunhilda sings, "She's leaving on a jet plane."

"Shut the damn door!" Ignatius squawks. "The breeze is messing up her hair."

Charles is jogging now, five miles an hour, then faster.

"Charles," Mavis shouts. "Let go. You'll get hurt."

As the door pulls away Charles sprints and flings himself inside. The wind slams the door that slaps his feet. He finds himself face down in Mavis' lap.


I told you she's a fool. Right now you could be having iced tea at your desk, feet up, watching the stock market ticker.
She's rattled. She's only thinking about getting there.

You should've let her go. Serves her right. I always hated high school principals. Did I ever tell you that?

A thousand times. Leave me be. I've got to think.

It was almost transparent. Brunhilda's red wig was on crooked and his beard sprouted here and there along his chin line in little island clumps. It was a little tougher with Ignatius because she was hiding beneath the Panama hat.

Let this be a lesson, Charles. You can't replace me. I would never have gotten into a car with a couple of transvestites.

Still on the shoulder the Crown Vic scatters gravel and clunks from pot hole to pot hole. Brunhilda whips the wheel to the left, gains the blacktop and guns it. Mavis is peering out the window.

"There's a sign up ahead for a 7-11. I'd slow down a little."

The speedometer edges past 80. Charles flicks the latch and tries to lift the lock. Ignatius turns around. The glasses are crooked. And they're not even glasses-just empty black plastic frames attached to a bulbous plastic nose and a Groucho Marx mustache.

"Don't worry, Charles," she says. "You can't fall out. Our last passengers were two teenagers from Altoona, Pennsylvania. To keep them safe we set the childhood safety locks. We dropped them off in a wooden area outside Harrisburg."

"Brunhilda," Mavis calls, her voice cracking, "you missed the turn."

Charles has had enough. He lunges for the keys, but Ignatius swats his face with the back of her hand. In her right fist she wiggles a semi-automatic pistol.

Mavis screams. Charles flops back in his seat, rubbing his left eye. His contact is gone. Brunhilda beeps the horn and squeals, "I hate it when they take away the element of surprise. It never rains, but it pours."

"What is this?" Mavis asks, gasping.

"A kidnapping," Charles answers. He taps Brunhilda on the back. "Ain't that right, fella?"

Ignatius whirls, mouth chomping, gun shaking up and down. She shouts, "Bang! Bang! Bang! Don't you ever touch her again."

Brunhilda chirps, "The life you save may be your own. Look both ways before you leap. Actually, Charles, this is a swap meet. Ignatius and I just love your outfits."

Ignatius chuckles. "I can't wait to go back and check Charles' luggage. It's is a whole lot better than internet shopping. It's faster and you can see your actual colors."

"Let us out of here this instant!" Mavis yells. Her throat feels scorched. Her chest muscles clench her ribs and stifle her breath. "I'm not fooling. I have an important speech to make tonight in Rehoboth Beach ."

"Okay," Brunhilda clucks, "we'll take the short cut."

Wrenching the Crown Vic off the highway he skids along the gravelly shoulder, skitters down an embankment and careens toward a dirt road. Soon the car is swallowed by towering loblolly pines.

Mavis finds her breath, reaches forward and shakes Brunhilda's shoulder.

"We'll have none of this. Go back. Now."

Ignatius flips all the way around, waves her pistol at Mavis' face and sneers, "I'd stop that if I were you. You'll be making your speech to some tree roots."

"Stay calm, Mavis," Charles says. "We don't want more excitement than is necessary." He pats her hand.

"Iggy, don't they realize we came to Delaware for its famous tax free shopping?"

"Brunhilda gets upset if she can't do her shopping."

"That's right, dear. May I borrow the death device?"

Ignatius hands him the gun but immediately wangles another one at their faces.

Brunhilda lets loose a crazy loon laugh and fires four shots out the window. The bullets ping through the leaves. One gouges a four-inch strip of loblolly bark.

"I needed that." He drops the gun on his lap. "I don't just get upset." And then he roars, "I get steamed, fried, burnt, toasted, roasted, broasted and smash-mouth pissed." He sighs and smiles. "Did I leave anything out, dear?"

"No, that about says it all."

You may be seeing me soon, Meg says.

Stop with that. I'll have to move on these nuts. Right after the car stops.

But the car is not stopping. It bumps along a rutted road crowded with trees and bramble. A hundred yards ahead Charles sees a large lake. Some ducks and geese paddle and flap in the reflection of tall pine trees.

"You would expect," Ignatius says, "that a lake this pretty would be teeming with human activity-sailboats, chug boats, hikers, joggers."

"Progress just isn't what it used to be," Brunhilda sighs, "though I have to say I'm a little tired of joggers. Remember that one we picked up outside of Davenport, Iowa? She was nothing but complaints. I was so glad when she finally quieted down."

Ignatius grunts, "Her jogging bra was too small for you."

"I try not to complain, dear. I just remember what my mother said, 'A stitch in time saves nine. A word to the wise is sufficient. No gain without pain. Fools make feasts and wise men eat them. So plow deep while sluggards sleep.' Mommy had a million of them."

Charles watches the gun in Ignatius' right hand. It's aimed at his chest and bobs with every rut in the washed-out road.

Whatever happens, Charles, it's all your fault. Now you see what a little excitement can do for you.

Stop, Meg. I'm trying to think.

Charles glances at Mavis. She's sitting straight up like a school girl, fingers writhing on her lap. Her eyes are plaintive, pathetic, horrified. He reaches across the seat and takes her hand. He's surprised when Mavis yanks it away and erupts, pounding the back of Ignatius's seat with both fists.

"You can't do this to us," she screams. "We're important people. I'm giving a speech and Charles is a famous newscaster."

Brunhilda slams the brakes and screams back.

"That's enough! I'm mad as hell and I can't take it anymore!"

Charles and Mavis jerk forward and flop back. Ignatius pins her back to the dashboard. Charles jumps at the front seat. The idea is to slam their heads together, but he manages only to whack Ignatius' Panama hat against the roof and sweep away Brunhilda's hat and wig. Ignatius fires two bullets into the rear seat cushion.

By now Brunhilda is out the front door, flapping his gun and yelling, "That ain't no way to treat a lady, oh no. You're ruining the fun. This was supposed to be fun."

Brunhilda's head is a round ball shaven to a shine.

Ignatius opens Mavis' door. "Both of you out. She wants to get it over with." Though her hat is gone Ignatius still wears the Groucho Marx glasses and rubber nose. Her hair, cut close around the sides, is curly brown on top with splotches of purple and green. "That's it. Get out slow and put your hands under your armpits. I want to see you flap your elbows. Like a chicken."

Charles and Mavis stumble on the humped ground matted with straw-like pine needles. With elbows flapping they stumble downhill toward the lake.

"Over here," Ignatius calls, shaking the gun. She points under a black maple that hangs over the water. Charles and Mavis skid on dry, tumbling stones. With a snap the trunk lid pops open. Brunhilda pulls out a coil of rope. "Directly under the tree. So nobody water-skiing past can see you."

Brunhilda kicks through the brown pine needles and saunters down the pebbly hill. He looks like a bald Jackie Gleason.

"This is the moment we've all been waiting for," Brunhilda smiles.

Charles is too far away to rush them.

But at least, Charles, it'll be like coming home.

"I'm a reporter," Charles says, "and I'm curious. What's it feel like to be serial killers? I mean, what's the point? Somebody tell me."

Brunhilda swells his chest up, opening his mouth in a wide oval.

"Didn't your mother teach you anything? You never ask questions of the czar."

He raises his pistol and fires.


Mavis ducks and screams. She turns and sees Charles, his eyes squeezed shut, standing rigid and ready. He doesn't move even after it's clear that Brunhilda aimed far to his right. The bullets plunked the lake a hundred yards away. Far out in the middle a man sits alone in a dingy holding a fishing rod. The little man stands, looks toward them through a pair of binoculars, sits down and starts rowing frantically toward the far shore.

Ignatius shakes her head at Brunhilda.

"You went and woke up the neighbors. If we don't hurry, we'll have company calling. Okay, you two. It's time to strip. Strip!"

Ignatius fires a bullet that zings the stones to the left of Mavis' feet.

"Undress, dears," she smiles. "We have to be going."

"I'm not doing a thing," Charles says. "If you want my clothes, you'll have to take them, bloody and dirty."

"Now will you listen to that?" Ignatius laughs, scratching her head. "You're a tough guy." Out on the lake the rowing man doesn't seem to be making any progress. He's still at least a half-mile from shore. "Charles, we don't want them bloody and dirty. We want them just a little lived in. If you do things right we'll bring this thriller to an end. It's only when you don't play right that things go boom boom."

"I think it was only oncet, Ignatius dear. That jogging girl-she was a pesky scamp of a thing. A hussy. She made everything go screwy louie."

"There might have been more, Hildy, but my memory isn't what it should be."

"Just give us the merchandise and we will bid adieu. No curtain call, just exit to the nearest shopping center for our next free rental."

"Pay attention to the little lady," Ignatius barks, shaking the pistol. "We got to go. Take your damn clothes off or I'll zip you both. Case closed."

Charles eyes the lake and looks at the car. Brunhilda puts the wig on his skull and then with both hands he settles the pill box hat on top.

"How do we know you won't shoot us anyway?" Charles asks.

"You don't," Ignatius snarls. "You have to trust us."

She shoots the ground again and looks at the little man on the lake.

"Okay. Okay. Mavis, we should do what they say. What the hell."

Charles reaches for the top button of his blue shirt.

Don't you dare do what she says.

It's our best chance.

Charles unbuttons his shirt, slips it down and tosses it toward Ignatius.

This is disgusting, Charles. She'll see you.

I want to live. Mavis does, too.

I thought you couldn't wait to see me.

It's too much, Meg. It's time you were quiet.

One by one his shoes turn in the air and land on a bed of pine needles. His cotton trousers sag to his ankles.


Mavis is not surprised to see that Charles wears blue bikini briefs, but she is shocked to see that the back of his thighs are covered with little lumps of fat. When he slips out of his briefs Mavis can barely tell where it is. It's tucked away like a little cap amid a tuft of graying hair. Seeing Charles' fat thighs and smallish thing emboldens her. She feels her spirits lift-maybe they won't shoot them-just as a buzzing sound, like a wasp, seems to settle inside her ear. She slaps it away.

It's remarkable how quickly she undresses-shirt, bra, slacks, panties, those sheer anklet nylons-all gone, all tossed into the air. With Brunhilda pointing his gun, Ignatius gathers the goods, hustles to the trunk and stuffs everything into a large plastic bag.

"Take the device, dear," Brunhilda says, handing the gun to Ignatius. "It's time to wrap things up. What do you think?" He picks the coiled rope from the ground. "Face to face or bum to bum?"

"Face to face is better," she decides. "Okay. Hands at your sides and don't try anything funny. I'll shoot first and ask questions later."

"You got the clothes," Charles says. "What now?"

"You'll find out," Ignatius says. "Please hurry, dear. We must be going."

Across the lake the rowing man is less than a quarter mile from shore.

"Pretend you're slow dancing." And then Brunhilda croones, "Swaying to the music."

As the rope gnaws her flesh Mavis feels the press of Charles' hands on her lower back, his chest on hers, and the scratchy tangle just below her navel. His feet lay upon her toes. Brunhilda runs round and round them, stringing the rope tighter and tighter. As the rope bites Mavis' skin, her mind drifts into another place. She's not thinking about Ignatius and the guns or Brunhilda's shiny head or the awful speech or the blizzard strafing Duluth or footsteps clomping away or the engine turning and the tires kicking gravel. Instead she feels a settled peace fall upon her like calm rain, this feeling that she isn't going to die, not now, not soon. All she feels in the calm that's like rain is how her breasts are flat against his stomach, how the rope is so tight she can't move, how she's standing stone still. She flattens her hands on his shoulder blades and scrunches her forehead just below his chin line. She can barely hear him saying how it's alright now, that the maniacs are gone, that the man across the lake will soon be calling the cops. Mavis is not really listening. Instead, she fixes her attention just below her waist where the glob of Jello begins to stir. It moves, stumbles and shapes itself like a stunted thumb, pointing ever so slightly toward the sky.



John Wenke is author of "Melville's Muse: Literary Creation and the Forms of Philosophical Fiction" and "J.D. Salinger: A study of the Short Fiction". He won an Individual Artist Award in Fiction from the Maryland State Arts Council and published numerous scholarly essays, chapters and reviews. John Wenke currently teaches American literature and literary writing at Salisbury University, where he directs the Writers-on-the-Shore reading series.


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