Authors: Fletcher Flora
a division of F+W Crime
To the best bet I ever made
The town of Quivera, in spite of its intrusion upon a legend, is not an exceptional town, and Ouichita Road, which is a street in Quivera, is not an exceptional street. There was a time, however, when it tried to be, and the signs of the attempt are still apparent. It is eight winding blocks of black macadam, narrow and tree-lined, in an area that achieves an atmosphere of indigenous rusticity. This atmosphere, not really so much achieved as retained, is due to a lack of artificial landscaping and a vague agreement among Ouichita property owners to preserve as much as possible the natural growth of the area. Oaks and maples and sycamores and elms and dogwood and redbud are thick on the deep lawns that slope rather steeply to the street on both sides, and the houses appear to have been dropped down among them casually. The rusticity thus preserved somehow manages, ironically, to seem more artificial than any amount of designing and planting would have made it.
There are a few very expensive houses on Ouichita Road, but most of them are not. Most of them are only moderately pretentious, and were built by people in the upper-middle-income bracket who were willing to risk a bigger mortgage than they could comfortably carry. The same people drive a somewhat bigger car than they ought to drive. Or, if they do not, drive two smaller ones, one of which is usually a Renault or a Volkswagon or an MG or something else of foreign extraction. They operate shops, work in banks, sell insurance and real estate, practice professions. They usually belong to the Country Club, and occasionally become delinquent in the payment of their dues. They think of themselves as rather more sophisticated than the average run of Quiverans, and perhaps they are. On Ouichita Road there is a high incidence of marginal promiscuity, a lower incidence of adultery.
Several Ouichita Road residents have achieved fame. One, a lawyer by the name of Chalmers, is remembered as the only Republican candidate for governor to be defeated in a period of thirty years. Another, the daughter of a certified public accountant, went to Hollywood and appeared briefly in two adult westerns, in one of which she was photographed in the proximity of John Wayne. Still another, the nephew of the gubernatorial candidate and eventually the husband of the actress, was an All-American tackle at the state university, and played two seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers before coming home to sell insurance for his mother’s cousin.
But the most famous by far of all Ouichita Road residents, or all Quiverans together, was Mrs. Willie Hogan.
Willie committed murder.
On the morning of a certain day, which was a day that was different from any other day there ever was, Willie sat Indian-fashion on the floor of her bedroom at 524 Ouichita Road and painted her fingernails. She planned, after finishing the fingernails, to paint her toenails. The nails had been a delicate coral in color when she started, but the coral had been removed, and she was now in the process of applying a coat of scarlet. The reason she was so engaged—applying the bright lacquer in the first place, and such a bold color in the second—was that she had a problem that needed thinking about, and a feeling of depression that needed the alleviative of something especially gay.
Willie always painted her nails when she felt compelled to think very long or very hard about a problem. This was a practice she had picked up from her father, who had been a brakeman on a railroad. Whenever her father had felt particularly oppressed and defeated by accumulated bills, or his wife, or his own deficiencies, or anything whatever, he had painted a high board fence along the alley behind their house. Painting, he said, soothed his mind and reduced his troubles to proper perspective. Sometimes he painted the fence one color, sometimes another. It depended on the quality of the trouble he was currently having.
Willie had no fence to paint, and wouldn’t have painted it in any case, but she had discovered that she could achieve the same therapy by painting her nails. Painting nails was truly a meticulous task, and it required considerable artistry to do it properly. Once she became committed, the quality of her work assumed such enormous importance in her mind that other matters were diminished in comparison. Thus diminished, they seemed more manageable.
Willie’s problem was Howard. Howard was Willie’s husband. A lot of people who lived on Ouichita Road could not understand why she had ever married him, or why, having married him, she perversely insisted upon keeping him. These were all people, however, who had always lived on Ouichita Road, or on streets comparable in quality. Willie hadn’t. She had lived, before marrying Howard, in another town in a residential area where, if the mortgages were smaller, the accommodations were plainly inferior. One of seven in a five-room house on a narrow lot that was allergic to grass, the only bright thing she could remember in that time was the alley fence that her father kept painting different colors. She couldn’t remember that he had ever painted the house.
Anyhow, all things considered, she had seen Howard, who was the only son of a prosperous beer distributor, as a glamorous figure against an esoteric background. He lived in a house that was two-and-a-half stories high and had wall-to-wall carpeting all over, except in the kitchen and bathrooms, and when he had taken her there for dinner one evening, served by a maid, she had lost entirely what little capacity for critical evaluation she had had previously, if she had had any at all. It was quite impossible then, at the age of nineteen, for her to see that he, at the age of twenty-three, was really an amiable lubber who already showed signs of looking like King Farouk. Shortly afterward she seduced him so subtly that he was left with the conviction that it had been the other way around. After the event, in his bed alone in the two-and-a-half-story house, he kept seeing in the darkness her great grave gray eyes in her small gamin’s face, and he abandoned himself so completely to a kind of spiritual orgasm of guilt and high resolves of devotion that he wound up within a month at the altar.
After marriage, Howard’s tenuous glamour was soon dissipated. Willie, who was really rather shrewd and was sometimes even honest with herself, saw him clearly and good-naturedly for what he was; and what he was, to be fair about it, was acceptable enough, for he was not only reasonably prosperous by virtue of being the son of his father, but he also had, somewhat to Willie’s surprise, a fortunate knack of making quite a bit of money in odd ventures without apparent benefit of skills, training, or appreciable brains. Life at 524 Ouichita Road may have been deficient with respect to the excitements and ingenuities of love, for Howard, although frequently amorous, was never ingenious and seldom effective, but it was lived at a level of comfort that was to Willie absolute luxury.
Howard’s deficiency as a lover, both in looks and action, was not, in any event, a great hardship for Willie. She found, after a while, compensation elsewhere. She was a willowy little charmer with a deceptive air of innocence, and she learned to exploit her assets with skill that seemed to be based on an instinctive knowledge of what was exactly right for her in the important matters of dress and make-up and hair style and all the other elements of composition. In effect, although it was never so precisely analyzed, she managed to look and walk and talk in ways that subtly compromised her air of innocence without destroying it. As a result, men habitually felt for her, even after they had become experienced, a disturbing ambivalence. They wanted at once to treat her like a charming child and to go as quickly as possible to bed with her, and now they did one and now the other, according to Willie’s humor at the time. Afterward, whichever way it went, they somehow always felt a strange compulsion to protect Willie’s honor and reputation at any cost, if not to preserve her generosity for another occasion, and so it happened that her name was never confidentially exchanged between male members in the locker room of the Quivera Country Club, even though both may have known her intimately.
Unfortunately, Howard himself was under no illusions. In the beginning he was, and continued to be for quite a long time after the beginning, but then he had come home unexpectedly one afternoon, and it was, in Willie’s opinion, a very deceitful thing to do, for it happened to be the same afternoon that she had come home earlier with Evan Spooner. She had been out to the Club to a luncheon, and afterward she had gone into the bar for a Martini or two, and as luck would have it Evan was there, having just finished nine holes of golf. It turned out he didn’t have his car, no ride back to town, and so naturally he asked for a lift, which she was almost compelled to give him, especially since he paid for the Martinis. There had been three Martinis, as a matter of fact, instead of one or two, and maybe that was why she had taken Evan to her home instead of his, or somewhere else, but she seemed to remember, anyhow, that he had said rather casually that he’d just get out there and walk the rest of the way, which wasn’t far, so as not to put her to a lot of trouble.
However it had happened exactly, she had brought him home with her, and it had been only common courtesy, after all, to ask him in for another Martini. The Martinis had certainly contributed to what had happened afterward, for Evan wasn’t particularly somebody she wanted anything to happen to her with, but anyhow, one thing leading to another, a great deal more happened than she had expected or intended. In another ten or fifteen minutes at the most, Evan would have been gone, for she was beginning to think about sending him on his way, and it was simply the worst kind of luck that Howard, the sneak, came home unexpectedly. But it was really not the
kind of luck, when considered calmly, for it would have been a great deal worse if he had come five minutes earlier. Nevertheless, it was bad enough, neither she nor Evan being exactly in a state to receive any company whatever, let alone Howard, and the only lucky part about it was that you couldn’t actually tell whether something had already happened or was just about to.
She had been angry with Howard for sneaking home that way when he wasn’t expected, but at the same time she had to hand it to him for the way he behaved. He was really rather fierce in a lubberly way, and he’d actually kicked Evan right out of the house, three times on the way to the door and once going through, and afterward he had come back and slapped her, Willie, so hard in the face that she fell over a chair, and had called her, in addition, a couple of names. He was positively admirable, to her surprise, and she had not much minded the slap and the names, even admitting that they were no more than he should have been allowed under the circumstances. The slap and the names were her good fortune, as it developed, inasmuch as Howard felt so guilty about them afterward that he was inclined as a consequence to feel more lenient with respect to her own guilt, and she had to tell only a few lies to convince him, or nearly so, that nothing much had actually happened, and that she had been wearing more, after all, than she frequently wore publicly at the Club pool.
Thereafter, however, he was never quite able to accept the postulation that her indiscretions were no more serious than the acceptable kind that were commonly committed in their set at back-yard barbecues and dances at the Country Club. He became, in fact, a plain nuisance. He kept watching her all the time like a private detective or something, and if she let a man hold her too tightly while dancing, or kiss her in the perfectly casual way somebody was always kissing somebody else, or take her out across the terrace and onto the golf course in the dark for a breath of fresh air, why, then he would sulk and glower the entire rest of the evening and go into the most ridiculous rage when they got home. This made things tedious but not intolerable, for she was able to seduce him each time with only a little more difficulty than the first time, the time before they were married, and then things would be all right again until the next time. This kept happening intermittently for quite a while, more than a year, and it was something you learned to live with; but then there was a change in Howard, and you might have thought that the change was for the better, but it was for the worse.
The change was, Howard suddenly didn’t seem to care much any longer what she did. She could fool around and enjoy herself as much as she pleased at the Club and other places, and he never got angry or said a word or gave a sign that he even noticed. At first the change was very pleasant, but then it was disturbing. When he started sleeping by himself in the bedroom on the other side of the connecting bathroom, she asked him what the matter was, but he only said nothing was the matter, that he’d got so he didn’t sleep very well double, and it wasn’t, anyhow, very far through the bathroom from one bedroom to the other. After the change he had a kind of dignity about him that was rather appealing, old Howard did, and every once in a while, in the new order of things, Willie made the trip through the bathroom herself.
Another year passed after the change, more or less, and everything was pleasant enough at 524 Ouichita Road, although not very exciting, and it looked like matters had worked out and settled down into a satisfactory arrangement all around, but then last night at the Club had been that little party that hadn’t really been a party at all, but only something that got started and grew and happened, and what had happened incidentally to Willie and to Howard was something Willie didn’t want to think about, but had to.
It involved another man, of course, and the man, of all people, was no one but Quincy Hogan, who was no one but Howard’s own cousin.