Rick slumped on the burnt sienna Naugahyde couch, a placid smile on his face. Across the room, Alcina stood on a coffee table, swaying to the sounds filling the air. She concentrated on the music, barely aware of Rick. Rick’s eyes shifted between watching her mouth the words and watching Stevie Ray sing them on the television. Rick thought it a funny contrast. Alcina moving fluidly, calmly, while Stevie Ray rocked between his heels and toes, grimacing, sweat dripping down his face onto his blue silk kimono.
“Owww,” Joyce cried as oil splattered onto her arm. Joyce quickly pulled the spatula back from the pan. The pork chops sizzled. “They’ll be done soon, Bertie,” she called.
Earlier, when Bertram walked in, he had seemed anxious and told her he had something important to discuss over dinner, but now he ignored her. Why pay attention to her when he could look at this. Across the alley, the neighboring house sat dark except for one room. Centered in the window, a tall, slender woman slowly turned this way and that. Bertram watched her mouthing words, rapt. He had first noticed her in early fall, and since then he began to frequent his living room to see what he might see.
The next song was a fast one. Alcina came out of her trance and looked around as she danced. As she spun away from Rick, she glanced out the window and saw the silhouette of a man in the window across the way. “Our friend is back,” she laughed.
Rick leaned to look around Alcina and out his own window, but the light in the room prevented him from seeing much. “That perv. I’ve had it with that guy. I’m calling the cops.”
Alcina laughed harder. “Don’t call the police! What’s the harm? You’ve seen his wife. Isn’t everyone entitled to a little joy?” She shook her hips as she said the last word and continued dancing. Rick grudgingly put the phone handset down. She had a point.
Joyce plated the meat, string beans, and potatoes in the kitchen, carried the food to the dining room, and centered the plates on the place mats sitting on the dining table. She had set the table with their finest and only china, part of a small inheritance from her mother, and the steak knives she and Bertie had received as a wedding gift 11 years ago.
Earlier that Saturday afternoon, Joyce had spent an hour slowly paging through their wedding album. Her fingers gently brushing over their younger selves. Looking at their faces, their expressions, their bodies, she wondered at how unkind time could be. Of course, it was not time that was unkind.
As she turned a page, a letter fell to her lap. She remembered it immediately, though she thought she had lost it years ago. Bertie had written it to her when they were dating. When he was in love. When she was loved.
“I thought you said you loved me,” she whispered. Anyone listening would have been hard-pressed to know whether this was an affirmation or an accusation.
After shelving the album, Joyce looked elsewhere in her closet and thought about what to wear that evening. What she would wear had nothing to do with what she wanted to wear. What she wanted to wear hung pressed to the side of the closet. What she would wear hung closer to the center and was several sizes larger.
While Joyce rummaged through her past, Bertram sipped a vodka tonic at a nearby tiki bar. Bertram did not care for the place, its colorful cocktails, or its patrons, but it was the only stop between work and home where he could get a drink. Seated on a stool with one leg shorter than the other three, Bertram knew he needed this, and the next one he planned on ordering, to get through the evening. It was time to move on. He would tell Joyce at dinner, she would cry, plead, but he would hold firm. He was not looking to hurt anyone, but he would have been kidding himself to think that would not happen.
Stevie Ray started to play a slow, bluesy instrumental named for his wife. Sitting on the edge of the stage, he could not rely on effects pedals to set the mood. Instead, the guitar’s tone was crisp and clean. Using the tremolo bar and vibrato, he created an otherworldly atmosphere. Alcina thought this one of the most romantic songs she knew. She moved in time to the beat, and began to unbutton her shirt. Bertram’s heart quickened.
Joyce had a good idea why Bertram was not at the table. She walked out to tell him dinner was ready, but froze when she saw his back. There he was, staring out the window, just as she had seen him do so many times before in the last few months. He had claimed to be “contemplating.” When one evening a couple of weeks ago she had noticed the woman across the way, she realized the truth of his statement. Quietly turning, she went back to the dining room, stopped for a few seconds, turned again, and headed back to the living room. This was her anniversary evening, and nothing—no one—was going to spoil it. She came up behind Bertram and slowly brought her arms out to embrace him.
Alcina had worked her fingers down to the second-to-last button on her shirt. Bertram stood transfixed, eyes dilated, heart pumping, palms sweaty. He took no notice of Joyce, how her arms encircled his body, how her hands met, both now holding the steak knife she had picked up from the dining room table. With the blade pointed back and slightly up, she hugged Bertram, surprised at how easily the knife moved through his belly. As he shuddered, Joyce released her grip and he dropped to the floor.
True, Joyce probably could not have done this had she had to face him. But now that she had, Joyce felt charitable. She could be big, let go of her animosity, so she knelt, bent her head down, and said softly, “What is it you wanted to tell me, Bertie?” All she heard was gurgling, then silence.
About the Author
Eric Barron lives in Los Angeles, where he spends much of his time outdoors. He enjoys milkshakes and does not have a smartphone. He traces his noir connection to the music of Stan Ridgway.
About Alta Journal’s Noir Story Contest
Nearly 100 people from across the United States and a half dozen other countries entered our 2021 Noir Story Contest. Participants submitted original fiction inspired by writers like Paul Cain, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and Dashiell Hammett. The criteria for these hard-boiled tales? One story, 1,500 words or less, that includes the following five elements: (1) a lost letter, (2) a nearby tiki bar, (3) “Don’t call the police!,” (4) a blue silk kimono, and (5) “I thought you said you loved me.” The winning entry received a leather-bound edition of “Arson Plus” by Dashiell Hammett, printed and published by Thornwillow Press ($2,000 value)—a one-of-a-kind copy. Two runners-up received a numbered Patron’s edition of the Hammett story, also printed and published by Thornwillow Press ($138 retail value)—one of only 75 copies.
Thank you to everyone who entered and made this contest a huge success.
For more on the contest, click here.