Gretchen stumbled into the ballroom and screamed.
“OH MY GOD, IT HURTS, IT HURTS!”
She gripped the knife at her stomach and plowed forward, weaving between the banquet tables. One foot kicked into the other. She jerked, her upper body pitching within grazing distance of Table Seven’s water glasses and gravy boat.
“WILL ANYBODY HELP ME?!”
Gretchen forced her agony into the rapt faces of the mostly aging, mostly suburban couples that had paid for this pleasure. She shrieked again. A terrible noise. Everyone watching tensed their shoulders and flinched. On this scream, she could feel her vocal folds vibrating the wrong way, ripping off the protective layer of mucosa. She was going to be hoarse for days.
On her mark, Gretchen dropped to her knees and crumpled into the body outline taped to the carpet before the show. She could feel the noisy overhead air conditioning blowing on her thighs and wondered if her skirt was offering a peek of panty to any of the tables. But, she was too committed to the performance to adjust her legs. Call it an extra appetizer.
She exhaled on a final scream, to cue the detectives, and two more actors burst into the ballroom. The two guys wore suspenders and fedoras, and while she didn’t know either of them beyond light chatter conducted between call time and lights up, they seemed so comfortable in their costumes she guessed that they were the type who’d like to dress like Raymond Chandler’s heroes even outside the show. Had Gretchen not been cast as opening victim, she might have played the part of the unfaithful fiancée who appears after soup and salads. The theater company had another script where the killer was a woman, but the detective roles were always boys-only.
The men looped through the hall, passing the cocktail bar and the bay of windows blocked by brocaded velvet drapes. As they circled, they volleyed through their scripted repartee and argued over who would touch her lifeless form.
“Say, what’s a pretty thing like that doing lying around this dump?”
“I don’t know, boss. Maybe we got a sleeping-beauty type situation here. Maybe somebody just needs to kiss her.”
“Hoo, boy. If those lips look good to you, then you been spending too much time at the seafood market.”
“Well, I wont deny there’s something fishy about a —
“Johnson, get down there and give that gal the old hands-on investigation!”
“But I don’t want her to get the wrong idea!”
“Ideas? This broad is all outta ‘em.”
That was her signal. Gretchen rose and handed over the clue paper folded in her skirt waist. It was the first in a series of hints that the audience would have three courses to chew over. Whoever among them figured out that the guy in the grease-spattered chef’s coat wheeling around the prime rib cart was her killer would go home with a t-shirt and a gift card for 30% off the hotel brunch.
Once she’d given the detectives the clue, the show was ready to proceed without her. With the plastic retractable blade of the prop knife still bearing into the soft spot below her ribs, Gretchen limped out of the ballroom. Minutes later, the job finished, she left the hotel altogether.
Back in the Texas heat, she felt weak-kneed scaling the uphill sidewalk. It was past seven, but it was also July in Austin and the sun was still dialed up to torture-mode. However, not even the temperature could spoil her triumphant mood following a brilliant first performance.
Gretchen had been acting in one role or another most of her life. At age six, she was cast as a lamb in the Easter pageant, too young to understand that her white turtleneck decorated in cotton balls symbolized ultimate sacrifice. Then in high school she landed a singing part in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, not that of the main wife/female lead Milly, but one of the lesser female characters kidnapped and forced to winter on a mountain with a horde of fraternal lumberjacks. Community theater and college productions filled her resume with background roles. She was ‘third prostitute’ in a noir-y whodunit. An ensemble crazy-type in a staging of Girl Interrupted. And she could work her way into the chorus line of just about any musical. She was a reliable alto, somebody who could be counted on to blend well. Lately however, her roles were mostly self-cast in the timbre of depressive realism. Recent efforts included: not-smiley-enough barista, permanent office temp, and open-mic confessional storyteller. Gretchen would have liked to call that latest endeavor stand-up comedy, but a lot of the time no one laughed.
Then the dinner theater audition came up, and she snagged the part of “Victim One.” She loved how her scream had made the audience jump. She relished the thought of it on her walk to the underground comedy club north of the hotel.
When Gretchen descended into the basement venue, a group of regulars was already gathered in the lobby. No one asked where she had come from, so she told them.
“I just scared the piss out of some old people at the Radisson.”
That got them asking questions until Caitlyn, a seasoned improviser, interrupted with a challenge: “Alright, let’s hear it.”
“Okay…” Gretchen said, taking a breath.
“Hold on, is it going to be loud?” Caitlyn asked.
Gretchen nodded and waited for them to dam up their ears. Then she unleashed her scream again. Her new audience hunched and ducked, as if that way they might escape it.
At the conclusion of the scream, another comic poked his head out of the green room. Caitlyn explained. The guy nodded, said that it had sounded real enough for him to come out and check. That was high praise.
Gretchen wasn’t scheduled to go on until almost midnight. She’d been coming every Saturday religiously for a year and a half, but that didn’t matter. Stage time was always doled out based on how early you signed up. She retired to the green room and lazed on one of the couches. Someone handed her a beer. She sipped and thumbed through her handwritten notes until, finally, it was time to perform again. She stood up and passed through the green room door and onto the stage, immediately enveloped in warm light and the sour mist of the audience’s sweat and spilled alcohol.
“If I want to get off… If I want to go to sleep… If I want to get myself off so I can go to sleep,” she began at the mic. The faceless dark before her offered scattershot chuckles. Gretchen told them about how she’d cataloged her bedtime fantasies based on efficacy: Just thinking about a man having sex with her would only make her fingers tired. A bunch of men got the job done. A bunch of men who also had a camera was faster. And a bunch of men with a camera and a Wi-Fi connection who called her a bitch-whore for the whole Internet to see was the surest way to orgasm and put herself to sleep like a little baby.
One person cackled on “little baby.” However, she sensed that most the room was aghast. It was quiet enough to hear a distant siren from somewhere outside. A few of them must’ve got her bit, probably other comics. Or other women. When she was starting out, this kind of reception would’ve sent her scurrying to the green room to pound beers and blur the memory of it. Now, she knew the important thing was to manifest control, to let them know, yes, this is what I intended to do up here. Even if they didn’t laugh, people respected performers who asserted their power over the audience. She took a breath and summoned the final punch:
“So I guess you could say abject humiliation is kind of my thing, and now I want to thank you all for letting me get ready for bed.”
That final line got an okay laugh. Gretchen grabbed the sides of her skirt and dipped into an ironic curtsy. She went back to the green room where more free beer had appeared. Someone offered her another, but it was seven minutes until the last direct bus home was scheduled to arrive, if she missed it she’d have to transfer on the east side. Not a lot of street lamps over there. She said no to the beer and bye to all before hurrying out to catch her ride.
When she got to the stop, the bus was already pulling up — two minutes early. The light inside seemed garish after dark, bright overheads exposing the two kinds of people who ride it in the late hours, the night-out crowd whose cocktail apparel looked cheap under fluorescents and people getting off work from jobs that required polo t-shirts with a logo stitched over the pocket. Men from both camps leered as she walked down the aisle. Some performances were unavoidable. She slid into a seat in back. The tension from speed-walking to the stop lifted off her shins. Out the window, neon signs from passing restaurants and bars blurred by in blue and orange flashes. The bus rolled over Lady Bird Lake, hurdling all onboard to the south end of the city.
Gretchen’s stop was at the bottom of a steep hill, four blocks from her apartment. The sidewalk was crowded in by tall grass, and there weren’t nearly enough streetlights here either. She walked quickly. This part was always the least comfortable eight minutes of Saturday night. The hot pavement had a sharp, unforgiving odor. Walking home was a calculated risk, but then most of life was a daisy chain of little gambles as to how much of yourself you make vulnerable to the other, friend or stranger, in order to make forward progress. Her breath shortened as she took the hill in long strides. The crunch and scrape of her footsteps beat loudly over the whooshing white noise of the I-10 freeway, half a mile away. When she crested the top of the hill, the walk-home wager seemed suddenly higher as she spotted the burly outline of a male figure coming towards her.
He wore loose shorts and a t-shirt. His face was just a shadow, his head bald. As he drew nearer, her eyes searched for some key characteristic that would allow her mind to calibrate the situation. For instance, she would feel better if he had a grocery bag or a gas station big gulp, an obvious reason for being out so late. When he was still one streetlamp away, the man stepped off the sidewalk to walk in the shoulder. What was his plan? The length of road between them shortened with each step. To Gretchen’s right, the ground dipped down to a grassy field, and about a football field’s length beyond that there was a fenced-in apartment complex. She was a slow runner. The man was right in front of her now. When he passed she pulled her closed lips into a smile, but made no eye contact. As soon as he was behind her she realized he’d given up the sidewalk as a courtesy. She hoped her face had conveyed gratitude, not just anxiety. She wished she’d said, “Have a good night, sir!” or at least “thank you.”
It was almost one a.m. when she walked across the apartment complex parking lot to the lit-up island of mailboxes, a pale-glowing refuge in the center of so many lightless rows of parked cars. Gretchen turned her key in the lock and retrieved a bill from her box. She dropped it in her purse and stepped back onto the darkened asphalt.
“Don’t walk away.”
The voice was male and it had the ringing distortion of a megaphone. It came from somewhere behind her. Without looking, she knew it had to be sounding from one of those huge-ass trucks parked on the north side of the lot, probably one of the ones with a lift kit, because nobody puts a stupid P.A. system on a sedan or a hatchback. She had a vision of a thick faceless form, hunched over the steering wheel in the dark, breathing into the receiver. Was he alone? Probably not. This seemed like the kind of behavior that required an audience.
The parking lot was dark. All of the units facing the lot were dark. Gretchen thought about the old case in New York City where the woman was stabbed to death and all her neighbors listened but no one called the cops. She used to think it was an urban legend, but not now. Now it seemed completely plausible. Not the part she wanted, not here, not ever.
“If you keep walking away I’m gonna come over there.” The megaphone man said.
She didn’t turn around. She’d lived in the complex long enough to know the arrangement of the rows of cars without looking. The problem was the disembodied voice couldn’t be pinpointed to any one spot. If he chose to start the engine and roar up on her, she couldn’t know whether he’d have to wind around the middle rows or if he’d have a straight shot. Even though she couldn’t see anybody else, she hoped the voice was addressing another. This should be somebody else’s third act, some other woman’s.
“Pretty girl with the skirt and the bag, I’m talking to you. You need to stop walking.”
She kept walking. Fear makes everything simple. He would either make her stop, or he wouldn’t. The possibilities were as paltry and uninspired as the twists of a network thriller on rerun. As if her life were now the sixty-second YouTube trailer version of said film, the next minute was just going to be about seeing if she made it to her front door. One step, and then another. Gretchen. The subject in frame. Though, in all likelihood, not the protagonist in this stripe of drama. If there’d been cameras, this would be the moment where she was shot from above. The bird’s eye, an angle that speaks prey on to its focal point. She carried two things across the black top: the slouchy purse full of the banal evidence of her ordinary life — loose bits of paper, phone, lipstick, a little bit of money; and then also the heavy, invasive terror metastasizing in her chest.
“Girl, girl, girl —
His voice resounded as if the megaphone were lodged in her frontal lobe, ringing inside her cranium, but Gretchen was almost at the awning. Her building’s lighted walkway stretched out before her and she widened her gait as if she were about to climb up on stage. When the tips of her canvas flats dipped into the yellow lamplight she found her voice.
“You are a rude person — “ She spun around and faced the darkened parking lot as she said it, addressing the long rows of metal bodies cradling silent engines, steeled like teeth in the maw of some deep-sea predator. From the unknown location, the megaphone man’s all-present heckle ricocheted off the cars and buildings and up toward the black-empty sky —
“That’s why I’m coming over with my dick out to fuck you —
— the hollow hidden sound of him dropped to a guttural snarl, sapped of any hint of flirtation. From a distance, she heard a car door click open and slam shut, but by then Gretchen was fully under the lamps, her home within arm’s reach. In two steps she could dart in and slam the deadbolt behind her. The terror receded long enough for her to stand on the precipice and address the darkened lot, almost as if she were back on stage.
— You shouldn’t be out here scaring women in a dark parking lot.” She hollered, projecting her voice outward to all corners. “Your mother would be ashamed of you.”
After that there was only silence. Her neck tingled. She could feel the sweat cooling on the back of her knees. No way was she sticking there to listen for his approaching footsteps. She whirled around, ran down the walkway, and stabbed the key into the lock on her apartment.
Once inside, Gretchen dropped the deadbolt and collapsed on to her couch. Time slowed down. Each minute ballooned like a chemical reaction, the seconds elasticized with the surfeit of her adrenaline. Her heightened senses collected everything there was in her space — buzzing refrigerator, a clock ticking, light blinking on the Internet router, the smell of ripe banana wafting over from the kitchen counter. Sitting there, she was aware of each of her wobbly limbs. A whole body sensation, she knew where every part of her connected to the carpet and the couch. And like that, the anxiety unspooled. Lightness expanded in her ribcage, a feeling kind of like triumph. Gretchen closed her eyes and thought, End scene.