James Owens

Grifters

 

 

His story ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, which says a great deal about the meaning of things.

 

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Katherine had never killed anyone, and likely never would, unless she killed him. Her husband was still breathing huskily through his bulldog face. By the time Menlo discovered her subterfuge, it was too late. He had already helped her flee the country. They slipped across the border on foot through a high mountain pass, finding shelter at the ultimate, desperate moment in an abandoned shepherd’s hut where they waited out one of those freak snowstorms apt to afflict the high alps even in the summer. No, no, that never happened, that story is misdirection — in fact, they easily boarded an airplane for New York, and no one gave them a second look. Then there had been, Menlo liked to think, episodes of searing excitement as they crisscrossed the country, just ahead of the straining fingertips of three or four hit men hired by Katherine’s husband. Did those things happen? Maybe, some of them. Menlo and Katherine escaped, at any rate. They grew tied of each other. The money ran out more quickly than they had expected — all the dull thuds of plot elements dropping irremediably into place. They hated each other.

 

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Menlo would walk through his dilapidated part of town in the evenings or late fall mornings, streamers of fog peeling from the worn-out buildings like damp wallpaper, toward the lake and the asphalt trail where healthy joggers never even glanced at him, preparing themselves to be unable to recognize his picture during interviews with the police after whatever was to happen next would have happened. He watched the waves coming in to shore on Lake Erie and barges hanging seemingly motionless on the horizon. Gulls, shrieking at each other, bright fissures of sound in the gray sky. Fists stuffed in the pockets of his coat, Menlo stared into the water and thought about what to do next. When he looked up from the colorless swish and slosh of the little waves, the barges would have slipped several degrees across his field of vision or would have gone on around the curve of the earth and disappeared. That he was in Cleveland, in goddamned Ohio, rankled. That he was not in London or Brasilia or Helsinki, cities where he felt sure that he could have contrived a brilliant end, a gasping denouement, some pretension to a dignified exit.

 

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Introibo ad altarem dei, Menlo always whispered to himself when they were preparing to make love, which Katherine had found blasphemous and pretty damned funny, at first. Growing up, he had felt destined for a life in the Church, and he had treasured his feeling of a fierce, protective solidarity with the priests, understanding their vestments and ranks, thirsting for their insight into the arcane truths of the invisible world that roared silently all around. He no longer believed, but he still longed for the theatre and language of the Church and often attended services in any city where he found himself. He met Katherine at a cathedral in Marseilles. In the same row of pews, from across the aisle, he watched her, paying little attention now to the mass. She was obviously bored, but her vacant expression made her merely pretty face beautiful, somehow, sitting next to the older man who discreetly stroked the side of her right breast with his fingertips between responses to the priest. This was her husband, Menlo later learned, a wealthy Frenchman of tough peasant stock who made money in a variety of half-legal and illegal ways, and who devoutly believed that the eternal happiness of his soul depended on the frequency of his presence at mass and the sincerity and amplitude of alms he gave to the poor.

 

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Menlo’s father had been an obsessive reader of American history and had chosen a name for his son from the biography of a great inventor that he had been obliged to lay aside when his wife entered labor, so Menlo had always felt that he should be able to repay his father for the interesting name by showing an inventive streak. But this became hard for him in Cleveland. Late into the night, the store window mannequins never moved as they watched him trudge past.

 

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Menlo stared at Katherine until she stared back, lowering her eyes whenever her husband might notice, her lips parted slightly with, first, surprise and, then, desire. Beginning that day, there followed the customary series of short-breathed, clandestine meetings and close calls in provincial hotel rooms, while Menlo and Katherine spoke soft words and, at the same time, circled each other like feral cats, instinctively on the alert for an advantage, both born to the life of the confidence artist. Menlo loved the word “grifter.” Everything changed the night when Katherine showed up at Menlo’s door with a suitcase full of 100-euro notes and told him she had killed her husband.

 

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Though, as it turned out, she was lying.

 

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Wind whipped up the leaden water like rows of scales on the back of some vast creature surfacing from the lake. Menlo imagined that the fists clenched in his pockets were breaking the little bones in Katherine’s neck, his knuckles white from the pressure he exerted, his thumbs against her struggling trachea. As he walked the cracked sidewalks, he thought about her sitting by the window, waiting for him, in the apartment they had rented — the cheapest possible, between a crumpled bachelor who loudly adored antique operatic records and a huge family that seemed composed entirely of screaming infants. He imagined Katherine watching his approach up the dim street, the pores of the autumn day sweating a cool dusk around him, Katherine taking out the palm-sized, silver-plated automatic that she thought he didn’t know she had hidden in her purse and weighing it in her lap, smiling in that vague, bemused way of smiling that had first attracted him to her, as if her thoughts were far away, wondering to herself whose nerve was going to break first.

 

 

 

Two books of James Owens’s poems have been published: An Hour is the Doorway (Black Lawrence Press) and Frost Lights a Thin Flame (Mayapple Press). His poems, reviews, stories, and photographs have appeared widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in The Cortland Review, Poetry Ireland, The Stinging Fly, Superstition Review, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. He has an MFA from the University of Alabama and lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario.

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