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Michael Koenig
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beautykills.jpg
Art by W. Jack Savage © 2016

Beauty Kills

 

by Michael Koenig

 

So you must be George. So wonderful to finally meet you. I had you pictured much differently. You’re so much younger. And much more handsome, of course.

I’m fine. Thank you for asking. I’ve kept myself in reasonable repair. I don’t get out much anymore. People never make eye contact. Hunched over their phones, in thrall of their devices. Yes, like the one in your hand.

Come and sit on the couch. You can put your coat over there. No, I don’t need any help, but thank you.

Let’s cut the bullshit, okay? I know why you’re here. Could there be any other reason you want to spend the afternoon with a little old lady like me? I mean really, who wants to hear about a murder that happened 100 years ago? Well, fifty anyway. You do? Well, you’re the only one.

Maybe I want to be forgotten, did you ever think about that? I suppose that’s impossible now. Well, since you’ve come all this way, let us begin with this. It was all my mother’s fault…

If I’m going to give away my story for nothing, then at least let me tell it my way. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a veterinarian because I loved taking care of animals. My mother just laughed.

You need years of school for that, she said. Finish college at least.

As far as my mother was concerned, a beautiful woman was just wasting her time in school, so I dropped out and started drifting around. I was using the name Donna Del Mar then. I entered every pageant: Miss Zucchini, Miss Olive Oil, Miss Tomato Can, always excelling in the swimsuit competition. What I mean is that I was really good at walking around. I won more than my share, and endured the misdirected affections of pageant judges and corporate sponsors. I’ve always admired men. Their ambitions are so straightforward.

My talent was singing, because my real talent could not be displayed on a stage in that part of town. It had hardly been my ambition to be known as the world’s best cocksucker, but in life we must take any compliments as they come. It’s certainly better than getting a reputation as a lousy lay.

So naturally, with those proven skills, I ended up in Hollywood. I spent two years trying to get an agent, working as an extra where I could: Dead Girl, Waitress #3. I would go and meet producers all the time. They were ostensibly auditions, but no one said exactly what for. Their houses amazed me. Bigger than the public library, and not nearly as warm.

And so I discovered my life’s ambition, to get one of my own.

After a few months of shopping myself around, I met a guy who got me a few parts in pictures. And soon I received a new name: Valeriana Cortez, the Latin firecracker. (Sounds like cocksucker, the decorator said.) Quite a step up for a German-Irish girl from Milwaukee.

Stop bullshitting me. I was never a star. I was a moving mannequin.

I appeared in five films. Night Flight to Paraguay is a cult film now. All that sexual innuendo. We pretended not to understand what it meant. It’s one of the few completed pictures that Xan Taylor made. Genius. But he was a communist or a liberal or whatever he was. Signed too many goddamn petitions. Idealists have no place in Hollywood. They make lousy poker players.

And oh, by the way, just because I “worked with” somebody doesn’t mean that I fucked them. Have you seen Night Flight?

All five?

Even I haven’t seen all five. Not sober, anyway.
                                    

I “retired” from pictures when I met Charlie. The parts had all dried up anyway. He was the tungsten king, or so they told me. The kindest man I’ve ever known. We met at a party and he told me his whole life story. He was divorced, with college age children who lived with their mother in Texas.

Why did you come out to California?
To meet pretty women like you. 

I never minded being his trophy. I’m charming in small doses and easy to display. I’d kiss all his regional distributors on the cheek and pretend to be dumb so I wouldn’t have to listen to them talk about tungsten. They were all so nice to me. Like I was the first pretty girl they’d talked to all year.

The first time we slept together, Charlie told me that I’d given him the kind of complete satisfaction that no woman had ever done. This made me deliriously happy. I’ve always been eager to please.

I was shocked when Charlie asked me to marry him. He knew my whole history; I told more of it to him than anyone. He always said he didn’t care what other people thought. He was lying, of course. Everybody cares some.

So naturally we got married. And over the next few months, I put on fifteen pounds and acquired the smug sense of privilege I once would have disdained. I even bought my mother a house. What took you so long? she replied. And why isn’t it bigger?

And in my infinite hours of idleness, I educated myself, even though it served no practical purpose. Men were always surprised when I described myself as a voracious…reader. Most of them thought it was funny, a girl like me reading James Joyce—and pretending to understand it. They didn’t even bother to pretend.

And things were wonderful for the first two years of our marriage, until Charlie started suspecting me of cheating. I’m a flirt, I admit it, is there anything wrong with that? Incorrigible, as Charlie used to say.

He would ask me about all our male friends. Do you find him attractive? How about him? Could you ever see yourself sleeping with him? Hypothetically, of course.

He began going over all my bank statements in great detail, asking me to justify every expenditure. One of the servants told me that he had begun demanding a detailed accounting of what I’d been doing all day.

Finally, one Sunday, Charlie asked me to come and talk with him in his study. I felt like I was visiting the principal’s office.

The police were here to see you yesterday, he said. What kind of secrets are you keeping from me?

The answer? Too many unpaid parking tickets.

 

 

Even with the troubles we were having, I think that Charlie and I would have stayed married for the rest of our natural lives if I hadn’t met Steve. He was the foreman of the construction crew that was building another new mansion next door. Charlie had led the effort to stop them, claiming the house they had torn down had been historically significant. Personally, I thought it was just old.

Charlie hated Steve from the start, called him a brute. He was. I liked it. He had this way of stomping around as if he were constantly tapping out a cigarette, and sometimes he would spit on the ground for no apparent reason.

I would see him outside my bedroom window, wetting down his shirt, a typical mating display. He must have seen me watching him through my window.

Steve began coming over every afternoon to ask me if he could have a drink of water from our garden hose. Eventually, he stopped asking.

One day he asked if he could come inside and make a phone call. And when he was finished, I offered him a drink. He helped himself to more. I figured that as long as my husband had declared me guilty, I might as well have some fun. Is that childish? Well, what do you expect? Men always treated me like a child.

I began sneaking out every evening to find a payphone. Yes, we had payphones then.
                                    Steve and I would spend hours talking about our future. All I wanted was him—and my share of the money.

Eventually I sent Steve the infamous letter that would soon be repeated back to me in a prosecutor’s scornful monotone.

Darling you’ve made me happier
                                    than I ever thought possible. I want us to be together forever. Whatever it takes. There’s only one way for us now.
                                    I’d die without you.
I had no definite plan in mind when
                                    I wrote those lines. It was all just typical mushy romantic stuff. I just wish he hadn’t saved it.

And then fate intervened.

One afternoon, Charlie got home from work early and followed the trail of discarded clothing into our bedroom, where he found Steve performing an activity that remains technically illegal in at least a dozen states. An activity that Charlie had always disdained.

Charlie ordered Steve to leave. Steve just stood there, cock pointing straight at Charlie, an accusation or an invitation, depending on which way you swing. Body festooned with tattoos. Charlie hated tattoos.

You’d better go, I said.

You sure you can handle this?

Yeah.

He gathered up his clothes and left the room, with a self-satisfied smirk. Charlie turned his back on me, waiting for me to get dressed.

I’ll be in the study, he said, you’d better be there in five minutes.

I arrived fifteen minutes later. Charlie was standing in front of his desk, mixed drink in hand. He took a few steps forward, close enough to kiss, and slapped my face as hard as anyone ever had. As hard as anyone could. And though I had promised myself that I would never react to such a provocation I recoiled, as much from the shock as the force of the blow.

You made me do this.

He was crying now. And my masochistic tendencies made me half believe it was true. I liked to see him get riled up sometimes. I got bored otherwise.

I’m so sorry.

Please, baby.

I would have given you anything.

I know.

They say the first time a man hits you determines everything. If you come back and beg for more, he owns you. Some women come to crave the taste of copper in their mouths. I swore that I never would. I ran out of the house and drove out to my favorite payphone. I was wearing dark sunglasses, not exactly sure of what I was hiding—my identity or my wounds.

He hit me.

Who?

My husband. Please help me.

Steve drove over immediately, in the company truck. Charlie was sitting at his desk, with a smug smile on his face. I never wanted Steve to kill him. Don’t hurt him, baby, I said. And then I left the room.

Charlie pulled a gun out of the drawer; Steve grabbed his arm, and in the ensuing struggle, the gun went off. I heard the shot, and ran back into the room.

Oh my god, what happened? I said.

It was an accident, Steve replied. Quick, help me.

Steve was scared, but I was calm. We would testify that he had killed my husband in self defense, that I had been a victim of abuse for years. But first we had to manufacture the evidence. The first one was starting to fade.

I hate to do this, baby.

I know. Get it over with.

I closed my eyes and he slapped me hard across the face.

Why’d you have to do it so hard?

Oh Jesus, I’m sorry, baby. I had to make it look real.

We only had a few minutes to practice our stories before the police arrived. I kissed Steve, checked my face for the requisite ugliness, and ran to the door.

They spent hours interrogating us, in separate rooms. This is the story I told, half a dozen times that first night, and many more after that. I was careful to tell it the same way every time. I knew it had to be perfect.

Charlie found Steve and me together, in our married bed. I told him I was in love with Steve, that I was tired of him abusing me, that I wanted a divorce. Charlie slapped my face, and threatened to kill me. He ran into the study to get my gun. Steve followed him. They struggled, and the gun went off.

Okay. Tell us again.

A few hours later, they took Steve away in handcuffs, and left me there to watch them tear up the house. And by the time I fell asleep at 6 AM, I knew only one thing for certain: My life would never be the same again.

 

The next few months were awful. I was worried about my baby, rotting away in jail. And meanwhile I had duties to perform, as the lady of the house. The funeral was awful, all these people staring at me. You’ve never seen a colder set of handshakes in your life. I couldn’t let anyone see how broken up I was.

People hated me because I had the temerity to survive. The newspapers were telling me that my useful life was nearly over. “Former actress Valeriana Beaumont” was the phrase they always used. “The former beauty queen broke down on the stand while describing the death of her husband, industrialist Charles Beaumont.”

By the end of my testimony, I was in tears, real tears, but Steve was convicted anyway. The jurors told the newspapers they didn’t believe me, because I was such a terrible actress.

The police never charged me with anything, but they always treated me like a clump of dirt they’d tracked into the house on the bottom of their shoes. And meanwhile I hadn’t done anything, except sleep with the wrong man.

Charlie’s children fought me over the money, but eventually I won, minus whatever the lawyers on both sides took. The family won’t speak to me to this day. One fewer Christmas card. And no, I’m not planning to give the money back. I earned it, with all I went through. I try to give to charities, but never as much as I claim.

I was hardly innocent, but clearly not guilty. There were things I knew and didn’t act on. There were things I should have known but was willfully blind. There were things I never could have fathomed. I’m sorry for it all.

 

I was hoping that things would cool off after the trial, but whenever I ventured into town, people would point and stare. Eventually I moved away, and changed my name to Patricia Kelly. My mother’s maiden name. I will never tell you the name that was on my birth certificate.

What? How did you find it? Fucking Wikipedia.

Steve did 20 years in prison, and died of cancer three weeks after he’d been paroled. The servants said that he tracked me down here and knocked on the front door. They followed their standard instructions. They told him that I’d moved away.

Ever since my mother died, I’ve been living in this house, the one I bought her after I married Charlie. You know, this decaying gothic mansion, with drained swimming pool and one elderly servant who greets every visitor with a scowl.

Yes, I was vain enough to read your notes while you were in the bathroom. Did you leave them out on purpose?

Her aged retainer walks gingerly through the house, emptying out ashtrays and pouring endless cups of instant coffee, the only beverage on offer. The house reeks of stale perfume and cigarettes, and the furniture is coated with a faint layer of dust. Decay barely disguised by chemise. Welcome to the past, imperfectly preserved.

This is terrible writing, did you know that? I was tempted to get out my red pencil.

Here’s what I don’t understand. What do you expect to get out of this? The satisfaction of solving a crime that already has a perfectly sensible solution? Steve’s dead; everybody else is too. Time is running out. You probably have other places you’d rather be.

That’s the one thing I learned in all my reading, how inadequate language is in expressing the complexities of the human heart. That’s why I’ve never written my autobiography. I had the perfect title: Beauty Kills, but never wrote another word. And now you’re here to finish it.

Wait. Are you leaving? Please don’t leave me alone. I was ready to burn everything—the letters, the diaries—until you came along. I’ll show you where I buried them.

What exactly do you want to hear? All right then. Fasten your seatbelts.

 

It was a Sunday. I had given the servants the day off. I walked into Charlie’s study to tell him that I was running away with Steve, that I couldn’t stand his abuse anymore. I had taken the gun from the lock box next to the bed. He said he bought it for my safety because there had been several break-ins in the neighborhood. I was wearing garden gloves, so there wouldn’t be any fingerprints.

Charlie laughed at me, told me I was a little fool. His laughter gave me resolve I might not have had otherwise. I insisted I was leaving. And then he got angry. He slapped me hard across the face and told me that I was stupid. I barely flinched. He’d done it so many times before.

Come on, fucker. Do it again. It’ll be the last time.

I pulled the gun out of my purse and pointed it directly at him. My hands were shaking and I couldn’t stop talking. He always accused me of babbling.

He grabbed for the gun and I pulled the trigger. He staggered backwards. I was standing directly over him, close enough to kiss.

Hit me again, motherfucker, I said, as his last breath evacuated his chest like a sigh.

That’s when Steve rushed in. He immediately agreed to take the rap for me, before I even had to ask. He was old fashioned that way.

I was so turned on by him right then. We staggered to the bedroom and fucked right there, in my husband’s bed. I’ve never had so much fun—manufacturing evidence. And when we were done, I handed him the gun, and put the gloves back where I’d found them. And then I called the police.

We thought we had outsmarted them by admitting everything, that my husband had discovered us, in our marital bed, and had started hitting me. We went into the study, argued, Charlie pulled a gun on me, Steve leapt to my defense, and the gun went off. One judicious little edit, and I was completely off the hook.

We told that same story at the trial, and even though it had the benefit of being essentially true, the jury didn’t buy it. We were adulterers, after all. These days, nobody would care.

So what do you think, George? Great story, isn’t it? Especially if it’s true. I wonder myself, after so many years. Sometimes it feels like I’ve wasted my whole life talking to myself.

Is there someone at the door, George? Who called the police?

 

She’s been babbling all day. Something about a murder. She likes to read those true crime magazines. Especially stories about the old movie stars.

I was the one who called you. I’ve been her home healthcare provider for a couple of years now. My name is Jorge. Jorge Muñoz. I think she also has a housekeeper who comes in to straighten up the apartment a couple of times a week. As far as I know, we’re the only ones she has. No family that I know of. I think she has some money.

Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of her. You say she was first diagnosed with dementia two years ago?

Yeah. At that time, the doctor said she’d be okay staying at home for now. We always knew she would eventually need a much higher standard of care.

Mrs. Randall? My name’s Jacob and I’m here to take care of you, okay? We’re going to take you to a beautiful apartment community called Transitions at Vista Ridge where you can be with people your own age. There’s a van waiting outside. Are you okay to get up? Let me help you. Don’t worry. Everything’s gonna be okay.

 

 

Michael Koenig is a writer, editor, and designer in Oakland, California who has published stories and poetry in numerous literary publications such as The Old Crow Review, The Pacific Coast Journal, Anything that Moves, Cathartic, Poetry: USA, Night Songs, Prisoners of the Night, and Spitball. His stories have appeared in recent issues of The MacGuffin, Harpur Palate, Hardboiled, and the Paterson Literary Review. His work has also been anthologized in Awake! A Reader for the Sleepless (Soft Skull Press) and The Shamus Sampler 2, an international detective fiction collection.

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