Rotund on the Boardwalk
The Midwest is an unremarkable place. This is what it’s known for, it is what the people I know know it for. Everything monochromatic, slow, grey when it’s cold, yellow when it’s hot. Violent crime spikes in the summer, drunks linger cozy and warm in dim bars in the winter. Suicides on the outskirts, murders on hot asphalt. The Midwest doesn’t know itself. I don’t know the Midwest, yet here I am.
Rotund on the Boardwalk is smack in the middle of one of the blandest states the Midwest has to offer. It boasts curvy women with small waists. Most of them shine in the lights, their chests glitter. They wear body jewelry and move their hips ooze suggestion with every step. They perform magnificent feats on golden poles for the eyes of men whose fat pockets have perched them within society’s upper echelons, men who wear business suits with loosened ties and order brandy from the bar.
As is usually the case, I feel at peace with the nature of my business here. I have always pointed my eyes skyward; I spin around cities and make money the easiest hard way possible. I suspend lives and I sit stone faced in confessionals. I utter hail Mary’s to the sky in the back of seedy strip joints. I pray to the sirens of sweat and cheap perfume with a mind as blank as they eyes of women who sell bodies for change. I know these women, and they think they know me. Women like these, the kind that gyrate beneath red lights think a man is the sum of the length in his pants. What they don’t know is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg for a man with a dark streak.
I have a picture in my pocket showing the girl when she worked for a titty joint in Harlem. In the picture she is awash in strobe lights and her exact features are hazy. Back then she was only a stripper by twilight, I was told. During the day she balanced bookkeeping work for an arms dealer with earning straight A’s in Columbia’s Philosophy program.
She is from a project in New York though I was told it would be difficult to glean such origins in her speech, from her mannerisms. She is sweet also, I was told. The kind of sweet that makes the job hard and morals taut–a fact that only those with morals present to awake from lapse should consider.
I eye the waitress that approaches me. She is blindingly blonde and busty with teeth that would have benefited from correction in her early years, correction that would be useless now because she has accepted the imperfection and made every other effort to compensate for it with favorable results. She bends over to take my order, hands me a cigar with “Rotund on the Boardwalk” stenciled in pink lettering on the shell.
When she returns with my whiskey sour, I ask her when Astrid is coming on. She looks to the stage and smiles, and Astrid appears on stage amidst a crescendo of whoops and hollers. “She’s the main attraction!” The waitress yells over the pulsating beat of generic techno.
I watch Astrid writhe fully clothed in a pair of loose-fitting jeans and a flowing cerulean tunic. She is smaller than the other girls, her hair a long silky curtain about her face. She hasn’t opened her eyes once, a testament to her desire to be elsewhere, a symptom of the dire straits that have landed her before a sea of middle-aged men with wedding bands and five o’clock shadows.
She has not let her distaste for her current profession stifle the quality of her performance, however. She is good. She removes her tunic in a movement that is so fluid I barely notice, it is there, then it is not. She tosses it into the audience.
The waitress, who lingers, leans to my ear. “She gives away her costumes every night. She makes enough to do that.” A man in back catches her jeans and presses the crotch of them to his nose. The pole’s finish matches the metallic gold of the paint on her nipples. Her bottoms are a webbing of rhinestones that catch the light and cast colored refractions across the faces of those that border the stage.
“Another whiskey,” I tell the waitress, my eyes cemented to Astrid. I am intrigued by something I cannot place. I have seen more strippers than most people see cubicle walls. My line of work places me in clubs across the country in front of the most exaggerated beauties to ever exist outside a pin-up, but there’s something about Astrid that mars my cool, that makes me drink fast and think slow.
Once her set is over a homely girl in what looks like a one-piece swim suit rakes the dollar bills scattered across the stage into a pile and places them in a Crown Royal bag that Astrid holds. I wait, knowing she will soon make the rounds offering lap dances and hopefully, more.
“The buffet has just been laid out,” the waitress says as she places my fifth whiskey sour before me. I look over my shoulder at the spread. It is nearly two a.m., and there’s breakfast smoking on a red velvet tablecloth. This place has got me off kilter. “I’ll decide in a moment,” I say.
“Where are you from?” Astrid sits at my table, crosses her legs slowly so that I can take in her new ensemble. She is draped in diamonds. “Not rhinestones. Diamonds.” She corrects me after I comment on her dress, a dress that falls to the floor with a matching headdress. A man lingers in my peripheral and Astrid dismisses him with a wave of her hand, not missing a beat.
“Glasgow,” I say.
“Glasgow. This is a long way from Glasgow,” she smiles.
“This is a long way from anywhere, it feels like.” I watch her take a sip of my drink, her lips leave a red half-moon on the rim that I do not avoid when I drink.
“What do you do?” She asks.
“I work for politicians,” I answer. Something flickers across her face, and I am thankful I was given a wealth of intelligence on her. She is smart, observant. “A dance, you going to offer me a dance?” I ask quickly before any thoughts fully take shape in her brain.
“Sure, if you are capable,” she says.
“Capable of what?”
“The price. I’m steep,” she doesn’t smile.
“I figured you would be,” I reply. She takes my hand and leads me through heavy velvet curtains to the back room where it smells of cigar smoke and expensive perfume. We are the only ones here save for a bouncer in a well-tailored suit. He stands sentry in the corner, a cigar in his hand.
“Have a seat,” she says. I watch her peel away her dress.
Someone else came to see her before me. Someone that works the Midwest. I work the east coast mostly, I’ve been out west before. I do big cities. I do big politicians. The other man, his name was something Polish I remember, he chickened out because she was too charming, he said.
“No touching,” she says as she straddles me. She is charming, yes, but to resist the charm is to excel in your craft.
“I don’t plan on touching you at all,” I say. She looks taken aback for a second but recovers nicely. Music begins, something that sounds middle eastern. She doesn’t hump me; her movements are too fluid for that label. She glides against me, rubs her breasts on my face, arches a leg over my shoulder, bends back to the floor in a show of acrobatics that would shame an Olympic gymnast. She smells like the oil street vendors sell. I like the oils street vendors sell. I am as surprised by the erection as she is, and I try to ignore it. I feel my façade slip, some shred of my image shatters and I am disoriented for the slightest of moments.
“That happens,” she says.
“I’m sure,” I reply, my countenance sliding back into place. “Do you offer other things?” I ask.
“Like what?” She hooks her index fingers in my belt hoops.
“I’m a human being, so yes, to some I offer and sometimes receive companionship,” she says.
“You know what I mean.”
“Are you too cool to ask directly for what you want? Or are you playing at something? Don’t touch my breasts, remember the rules?”
“Of course,” I drop my hands to my sides, real embarrassment slides around my defenses. I hadn’t realized I’d even made the move to do so.
“What are you asking me?”
“Do you call?”
“I’m a call girl, yes. For the right price.”
“Very. And I don’t do anything weird. I am an escort only.”
“What’s weird? What do you constitute as weird?”
“I don’t fuck.”
“Fucking isn’t weird.”
“Fucking for money is weird. Almost as weird as humping a fully clothed lap for money.”
“Is this your normal lap dance conversation?”
“No, but I don’t think you are my normal lap dance customer. You want something extra, something most don’t know about. You know who I am, and you came here especially to see me,” she says.
I keep my cool. That’s what I do, it’s who I am, why I was called from my normal circuit to this small town where brain and wit are supposed to be dull and malleable in my hand.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of you. Is that a surprise?” I ask.
“Yes and no. I’ve only worked at Rotund On The Boardwalk for three months. Only been in Ohio for four. I don’t talk to anyone but the girls here and barely them. No one knows me. You’re from out of town.”
“Can I light this back here?” I ask the bodyguard who gives a stiff nod. Subject change is the desire and it works.
“You’re on the clock, I’m not dancing on you while you smoke. Not burning myself.” She dismounts, sits beside me on the loveseat.
“Money is no object to me,” I say.
“It never is for patrons here. Why do you need an escort? You don’t seem the type.”
“What type needs to pay for a beautiful woman on their arm?”
“The kind that lack magnetism. Looks are never a part of it, strangely. I’ve accompanied men even more handsome than you. But they lack substance, the thing that draws in women that look like me.”
“High on yourself?”
“Realistic. You interested or not? Now that you know there’s no fucking involved.”
“I’m interested. I do have some demands of a non-sexual nature.”
“Will you cross state lines?”
“For the right price and first-class travel,” she answers.
“Of course. I have a shindig to attend in Madison. You know Madison, Wisconsin?”
“I don’t know the Midwest. I have a grandmother in Columbus that I don’t speak to. The Midwest is a mystery to me. It’s so even keeled here it’s unpleasant,” she says.
“I want you to accompany me to Madison. All expenses paid. Separate hotel rooms. A beautiful dress draped across the bed in the suite when you enter it. Jewelry on a velvet pillow on the dresser.”
“A knife in the back when my guard is down?”
“No, I assure you.” I wait for a smile that will prove her ignorance. When it comes I relax.
I await the end of her shift in the back of a black stretch limousine. I smoke a Cuban cigar and listen to Chopin. I calm my breaths and prepare for more banter. A bouncer is right behind her when she emerges from the club. She is dressed like the college student she once was, leggings, knee high brown leather boots, a cashmere sweater and a colorful scarf around her neck. She hugs the bouncer goodbye.
“So you smoke cigars, the good ones,” she says once she is settled across from me. She looks different, her face has a fresh scrubbed look that I wasn’t prepared for, and something goes loose inside me. I think of my purpose here and I accept it while I loathe the man who has sent me to this purpose, to this test I am on the brink of failing.
“I like cigars. You like them?” I hold the case out to her and she runs her hands along them.
“I prefer joints.” She produces one from behind her ear, tightly rolled. I light it for her and she smokes and gazes out of the window. “You sure you don’t mind running by my apartment first?”
“I’m surprised you are allowing me to see where you live,” I answer.
“You won’t know exactly. Plus, I plan to have your driver park way down the road from the actual location. Is that understood?” She asks the driver who nods.
“Why do you do this?” I ask.
“Any of it. Stripping, an escort who doesn’t fuck?”
“Why else? For the money.”
“No, there’s another reason. I can tell. A girl like you has other means of making money.”
“Do you know this or are you assuming?”
“How would I know?”
“Sometimes people know things. It’s the whole reason they ask the question, because they know the answer.”
We drive for a while before I am made to wait for her again. I watch her walk up the street and disappear around a corner. I pull a case from beneath my seat and check my supplies. I breathe in and out. I stare at my fists, at the scars across the knuckles.
I take pains to remain nondescript. No visible tattoos, a simple hairstyle. Unremarkable clothing. An unassuming demeanor. Cardboard character, direct eye contact. There’s a laundry list of ways to suppress suspicion and remain forgettable. I feel like I’m becoming more memorable by the moment with this woman, however, and I take a deep breath as I recall her staring at my fists with interest.
“I brought you a sandwich. I made it earlier before work. I don’t want it go to waste while I’m gone.” She hands it to me before she slides back into the car. She brings her scent back with her, stronger since she’s walked into her home. It fills the car. “Eat it or I’ll be offended.”
She takes a tentative bite of her own, watches me eat mine. She slides her boots off and sits Indian style. She has removed her wig to reveal a short pixie hair cut that suits her well. She talks about inane things, and makes note that it is in fact meaningless chatter that she uses to soothe her dates.
“It’s making me nervous,” I tell her. “You speak with more substance than anyone I’ve been around in a while yet you call it meaningless. I fear what you talk about with those you’re close to.”
“I’m not close to anyone so I don’t know what I would talk about other than this really. I think this empty chatter is becoming my conversation.”
She presents a passport at the airport. I ask to see it after we board the plane and read the stamps. She is well traveled. She looks considerably younger in her passport photograph. She’s been to Glasgow. We speak of a café downtown where I reveal to her I lost my virginity in the kitchen, among dirty dishes and the incessant buzz of flies. She says she likes the turkey sandwich they serve there.
I try to veer her conversation away from the things I already know of her because I don’t trust myself to present a blank face while she speaks, but I fail and eventually she begins to speak of her time in New York. “You won’t believe this, but I worked for an arms dealer in New York. You don’t look surprised.”
“Nothing surprises me,” I say as I pass her the glass of wine the flight attendant brings.
“Am I boring you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Well, I worked for this arms dealer. He was the son of this crazy Nigerian mobster and this quiet Jewish woman from Manhattan. They were still married, and it was the weirdest thing to see them together.”
“Did they know he was an arms dealer?”
“Yes, he came upon the job through his father’s contacts. He was the quintessential a rich kid. I mean his dad was really rich. I knew the father was or had been a mobster because he told me so but you couldn’t tell from looking the man. He looked like a librarian. Anyway, I speak on their wealth because he by no means needed the money that dealing arms provided, but he was one of those rich kids who liked to taste the wild side. Know what I mean?”
“Yes, I know.”
“Well I kept his books. He made so much money. He didn’t pay me much but I liked the excitement. Get this, his mother knew a dean at Columbia, and since her son and I were friends she got my tuition waived. Had she not I wouldn’t have been able to go there.”
“Were you poor growing up?”
“Yes, very. But it wasn’t so bad. My parents were great. My mom was an artist, my father was the super for the building where we lived. They died in a car accident when I was sixteen.”
“I’m sorry,” I say. I call for another glass of wine. I think of being mean. I think of being cold. That’s me usually, it’s the way to operate. Be mean and cold and aloof. Stop any designs of relating to anyone. See the skin and the bone and look no deeper. It’s so easy, typically. I don’t answer questions about myself, it keeps the distance intact.
“What about you? What was your life like?”
“I don’t like talking about myself,” I say.
“Why, because it might give you some personality if you do? That was mean I’m just kidding. You have plenty of personality. I see you stuffing it down at every turn. What a life to lead, hiding yourself.”
“We can’t all be exhibitionists, can we?” I say.
“I suppose we can’t,” she says dreamily, sipping her wine.
“Why do you use your real name to strip?” I ask, then I regret it.
“What, is Astrid not a good stripper name?”
“I’ve heard better,” I say as I look at her head on, another mistake. She smiles.
“Well, I’ve always used my real name. I never understood the whole mentality that strippers have, that they’re creating this alter ego with these comical names. I mean, I guess I do understand but it just isn’t for me. I’m Astrid Martin. I strip. Me. Not some sultry other side of me. It’s me the whole time.”
“You close your eyes the entire time.”
“I like it that way. I dance better when I’m not watching people watch me.”
“Do you like stripping?”
“Do you like your job?” She asks quickly.
“I love it,” I say. “I’m good at it, and it fulfills something within me. I haven’t been challenged by it before. Things change every day I guess.” We enter a patch of rough air and she grabs my wrist, smiles at me when I flinch away from her touch.
“Sorry,” she says, “I think I’m getting on your nerves.”
“Not at all, you just caught me by surprise. And, I’m really not the best with planes.”
“No, when you grabbed me I was using a trick I taught myself to help deal with flying.”
“What’s the trick?”
I hesitate for a moment. “I picture a beautiful woman in my bed, naked from the waist up, simple cotton panties on. I imagine that she’s waiting for my flight to touch down, and I imagine that she has no doubt that I’ll land safely.”
“Does that work?”
“It used to,” and it did, before she became my standard, my image of beauty. She has invaded me. Knocked things asunder. It isn’t her beauty. Beauty is common and boring even. As the Polish man said, she is charming. She burrows beneath the skin and her voice reminds me of a time when women were coy prizes to be won, if ever a time existed outside a black and white film.
I will evade her charms, however. I’ve never had to do it before. I am cold inside. I was a blank page when I stepped off the plane and thought only of my next assignment in Los Angeles as the limo driver took me to Rotund on the Boardwalk. This was to be a blip on the course of my life, of my career. Go to Ohio, find the girl. Bring her to Madison. Meet him in Madison.
The plane makes a rough landing and Astrid shrieks. A few people turn to her and give her pleasant smiles. They too are moths to her inferno. “Sorry,” she says again. I pull her bags from the baggage claim. She walks behind me, mentions the chill in the air and the smell of frying food on the breeze. We stop at a sandwich shop that is down the road from the hotel. She orders for me before I can protest. I eat my turkey on rye, the best I have ever tasted, and she picks at her chef’s salad.
“You’re like me,” she says after she convinces me to walk to the hotel rather than call a car. “Your cell phone never rings.”
“This is true, it’s by design.”
“Right back at you,” she says. “So, you never told me what you do exactly, or was that on purpose?”
“It was on purpose. I’m nothing but a retired boxer who now sates his thirst for violence in more lucrative ways.” I smile to show it is a joke.
“That sounds scary.”
“It’s life,” I say.
“Is that what’s the matter with your hands, what caused the scars?”
“Yes and no. I bare knuckle boxed so I doubt they’ll ever lose that knobby, swollen look. The scar tissue is from something else entirely.”
We walk in silence the rest of the way to the hotel. The front desk is of the same seamless piece of marble as the floor. The receptionist is tall and pale with green eyes that she uses to appraise both of us openly. We’re in Madison after all. I hand her a key, a charming touch in a world where most hotels use key cards. She tucks the key in her bra and I follow her into the elevator.
“I don’t like elevators,” she says. “They make me want to climb the walls.” I picture this and laugh. I haven’t laughed in so long the sound is strange to my ears. She smiles at me. “How old are you? I only ask because you’re one of those people where you can’t tell. You could be in your early thirties. You could be in your early forties or anywhere in between”
“Thirty was a long time ago, I’ll say that,” I answer. I walk behind her and drop her bags at the door to her room.
“Will you come in, keep me company? Make sure no one’s hiding in the shadows.”
“There aren’t any shadows. It’s midday,” I say.
“There are always shadows,” she says. “Just stay while I unpack.”
I sit in a chair by the door. She picks up the dress and holds it against her. She runs her hand along the diamond choker sitting on a white velvet cloth on the dresser. “You weren’t kidding?” She says, turning to me. I had been kidding, but sometime between the limo ride and the plane trip I determined that she was deserving of the gesture, and I made it happen.
I tense when she pulls off her sweater, then her jeans. She drops the dress over her head and then presents her back to me so that I can zip her up. I do so with my hands shaking so badly she laughs and squeezes them in her own.
“When I worked for the arms dealer,” she says holding the choker out to me. “We dated for a short time.”
“What happened?” I ask, clasping the necklace.
“I dumped him–and quit after he made a sale I didn’t appreciate.”
“What was it about the sale?”
“Well, honestly it was silly of me to react the way I did. He was an arms dealer so I should’ve known his morals were screwed and I honestly had no room to judge since I was working for him,” she says. Her look is far away as she smooths the dress over her hips. “There’s genocide occurring in Darfur, you heard about it?”
“Yes,” I say. I watch her revolve in front of the full-length mirror. She takes my hands and places them on her breasts.
“Stop shaking. The lap dance is over and you can touch my breasts.”
“I thought you said no weird stuff.”
“What’s weird about this? You’re paying enough. We can touch. Anyway, the Janjaweed, ever heard of them?”
“The Arab’s who claim supremacy in Sudan. The side with the government support, right?” I say. Of their own volition my hands fall to her waist. I squeeze it and release a flow of breath that I feel like I’ve held for years.
“Exactly. Well the Janjaweed have key members of course. One of them had a liaison in New York. He contacted the arms dealer for weapons. Because of the sum offered the arms dealer complied.” She pulls the dress over her head and walks to the closet, hangs it up.
She keeps the necklace on, sits on the bed and unzips her bag. She wears only a glittering G-string and the diamond choker. She removes tiny pieces of clothing from her bag and stacks them gingerly. “The Janjaweed are committing genocide on a large scale. The arms dealer sold a billion dollars’ worth of AK-47s to the agents of a genocide. I couldn’t be a part of that. Things have only escalated in the years since it began, and he helped urge it along for money.”
“You fancy yourself an activist?”
“By no means. I wear diamonds and we know how they‘re mined,” she places her fingers on the choker. “I love diamonds, a girl’s best friend, all that. No, I’m no activist. I have a shred of compassion for the matters of the world but I’m fully a product of a capitalist civilization, only vaguely concerned with the inner workings of societies I will never fully understand. However I couldn’t actively participate in such a thing. That was too close for comfort.”
“I can imagine.”
“Do I have time for a nap?” She asks, lying back on the bed.
“Yes, I’ll call your room in a bit to wake you.”
I enter my room, release a breath. I take off my shirt, drop my pants to get comfortable. I avoid my reflection in the mirror on the wall. There is a ritual to this, one I follow without fail with hopes that going through the motions will bring me back to the task at hand and erase the doubts eating away at my resolve.
I open my bag and remove my supplies, set them at ready on the bed. I spread plastic sheeting across the floor. I cover the windows in thick black cloth that shuts out the light. Expensive hotel rooms are soundproof. I place a chair in the center of the room, a coil of rope on the seat.
I do one thousand push-ups in the center of the room. I am dripping sweat onto the plastic by the time my arms are too weak to continue. I finally glance in the mirror, look at the scar across my chest, hold my knuckles to the reflection and look at the scars there. I set my other supplies on the dresser; the case that contains them closed until the exact moment its contents are needed. I set up the camera and tripod in the corner of the room.
She doesn’t wait for my call. Her voice on the line is still tinged with sleep. She invites me over for a drink and a bath. I dress and knock on her door. She is dressed in a typical skimpy stripper ensemble that still manages to do the trick in a unique way. “I made your drink already. The bath water is ready,” she says.
I take a sip of my whiskey sour. I shake my head at how perfect it tastes.
“You coming?” she says from the bathroom. I enter and she is naked, the bubbling water obscures any details. She is sipping a glass of something amber and she lifts a foot from the water to point a manicured toe at me. “Disrobe.”
“No weird stuff,” I say smiling.
She smiles back and says in a sober voice, “expressions of happiness look strange on your face.”
“Some might say you’re a little too observant for your own good,” I say. I remove my pants and underwear first, because I feel some need to not appear shy. I slide into the water and pick my drink up from the floor, take a sip. “You make these well,” I say.
“I do a lot of things well. So, tell me about yourself, Lyndon.”
“I never told you my name,” I say.
“There are ways to find things out. I’m sure you know that. That’s not important. Tell me about yourself. You work for politicians. What does that mean exactly?”
“I do things for them. Specific things that others do not have the stomach for.”
“Is that so?” she shifts in the bathtub; she drifts over to me and sits on my lap. I feel her against me and I will away any reaction because she will then have the upper hand. I am but a man. She has taught me that I am but a man. “The arms dealer. He’s running for office.” The words sound dull in the bathroom, and her eyes meet mine head on. “You know him?”
“What’s his name?”
“Onyale Farook. Running for State Representative or something. Something big but not very. Maybe that’s not the title of the position he‘s going for, I‘m not sure, but it’s something that will allow him to sneak his way up into higher office eventually.”
“I don’t know him,” I say. She leans against me, lies her head on my chest and her breath tickles my skin.
“You’ve got a lot of scars. A lot. The ones on your knuckles are the worst. I wouldn’t have known that you had this under your clothes. You seem simpler when you’re dressed. Like a person who never toes the line.”
“Who says I toe the line?”
“It’s clear now that you have. Simple people don’t have scars like this.” She kisses me and I stiffen. I moan against her lips and shudder beneath her. My life flashes before my eyes, which is strange because I’m not dying. The horror of it all. The silent nights. The prayers I used to say back when I thought my constant sinning was only temporary. I remember something someone said to me. Someone called me heartless. A few people said even worse things.
“Your heart is beating so fast,” she says against my lips.
Someone once said that I was immovable as they placed bills in my pocket, back before I required wire transfers. I once, a long time ago, became aroused by the pained whimpers that escaped a victim’s mouth.
“Where are we going tonight?”
“Dinner,” I say, pulling away from her. “With some important people.”
“Should we be getting ready? It’s nearly seven.”
“We should,” I lift my hands from the water and palm her neck. It is small, delicate. I touch a birthmark on her right breast. I sigh. I run my hand through her hair and it stands straight up. Something stings behind my eyes.
“Are you about to cry?”
“No, something in my eyes.”
“What? An eyelash, let me see.” She leans forward and pulls each lid down, looks closely. I grab her neck and kiss her, I tear at her lips and she is limp in my arms, pliant. She allows it. I’m hard again and she touches it, gives it a mere three strokes and I come. I feel ashamed instantly. I feel the line has been crossed and I feel sick. I rise from the water and leave the bathroom.
“Knock on my door when you’re ready,” I say before I leave the room.
In my room I sit on the bed. I hold my head in my hands. There’s nowhere to go from here. She jacked me off because I’m paying her. She doesn’t have any feelings beyond that. I can use that knowledge to get through this. She’s a glorified hooker. She strips. I don’t respect strippers. I don’t even particularly like them. I can’t like them for all that I’ve done to them. I have to maintain that they deserve the things I do. I have to tell myself that the powerful men who hire me have reason to want them dead.
One can’t eat their own bullshit, however.
I leave the room, take the elevator to the top floor. I knock. “What’s the problem?” He asks. He is smoking a cigar, the room is full of men, the type of men that are constantly holding dark secrets over each other’s heads while committing atrocities that certain classes of people can’t fathom or stomach. There is a projector set up. The image it casts shows my bed, the plastic on the floor. My bag of supplies.
“There’s been a change of plans.”
“I doubt it. I haven’t changed them,” he says with a smile. “Kill the bitch while we watch. These men have paid good money to see such a thing. Two birds with one stone. I plan to be a Senator one day. How can I do that with her walking around knowing everything I’ve done?”
It’s easy to massacre the unsuspecting, and that’s the only truth. Men with their hands on guns are hard to beat to the kill. Men with any idea of the intent of their unexpected guest will always get the jump.
I blow Farook’s brains across a Monet reproduction on the wall. The other men do not reach but scramble for cover, and before they find it, I open them up as well and then there is the silence that I relish. I talk to myself for a moment in the room. I look at the carnage and a calm that I have not known since Astrid descends upon me. I unplug the projector and take it with me.
In my room I repack the bag. I pull up the plastic and fold it up. I am not above what I was asked to do, but I am, however, above doing it to Astrid. She isn’t someone to disembowel for the camera. She is someone to take to dinner. To wine and dine. Someone who I’ll return to Ohio with a heavy heart in my chest.
“You in there?” Her voice drifts through the door after her knock. I open it and she’s standing there with a wad of bills in her hand. She stuffs them in the pocket of my button up. “With no money between us we are a new couple enjoying the wonders of the charming Midwestern town of Madison,” she says with a smile.