Monday, December 1, 1997

I Know Who You Are

          As Ralph drove the Cadillac into the diner's lot, he saw that there were no cars parked there.  He glanced at his heavy gold Rolex watch.  "It's pretty late," he thought,  "but the lights are still on in the place.  I'm going in."

          The waitress behind the counter had her slender back to him.  He noticed how her tiny waist accentuated her shapely hips.   "It's closing time," she said, without turning around.   "Don't people think I'd like to get home at a decent hour like everybody else?"  She faced him then, and he saw that but for the heavy eye make-up and the dark, almost mahogony lipstick, she might have been attractive enough.

          He placed a ten-dollar bill on the counter.  "Just a fast cup of coffee, and then I'll be gone," he said, smiling, in an effort to turn on the charm.  He saw her eye the large diamond on the little finger of his right hand.  Shaking his left arm farther out of his jacket sleeve to expose his Rolex, he placed his left hand on the counter, too.  As he had expected, the watch was well noted.

          "I'm off to find a motel near BWI Airport for tonight," he said.  "I have a very early flight out of here in the morning, and I don't want to risk missing it.  Morning  rush-hour traffic, you know.  I was looking for I-95, but I must have missed it a while back.  Then, to make matters worse, I got off the Beltway, thinking to come onto 95  from another angle, and now I'm really lost.  I thought I might get some black coffee before trying to find my way back to the Beltway.   If you pour me a cup, I promise to drink it right down and be on my way.  You can even keep the change."

          It was her turn to smile.  "Oh, you don't have to hurry all that much," she said.  "I still have some cleaning up to do."  Her voice dripped honey now.   "You drink your coffee, Handsome, and then maybe you can give me a lift home in that big car of yours out there."

          "It's a rental," he said.  "I  flew in for a meeting in The District.  But I'll be happy to give you a lift.  How had you planned to get home otherwise?"

          "Walk," she said.  "My flat's just down the highway a piece.  Sometimes I thumb a ride, but there ain't too many cars on that road after midnight.  It's sort-of off the beaten path, if you catch my drift.  Someday I'll get me enough money for a car of my own.  Maybe one like your Caddy out there, if I get lucky!"  She had already poured coffee and now pushed the mug toward him.

          He lifted the mug in salute.  "Here's to getting lucky!" he said.   "May your ship come in soon!"

          She giggled.

          "What's your name?" he asked, smiling at her.

          "Lucille," she said.  "What's yours?"

          "Pretty name!" he said.  "Mine's Ralph."

          "Hi, Ralphie!"

          "Hi, there, Lucille!"

          She giggled again.                     


          He expected to end up in bed with her at her place, and he did.  He stood at the bathroom sink now, combing his hair, and was just about ready to take his leave.  He looked at the sink's rusted spigots, and at the cracked, paint-chipped toilet seat.  "How some people live!" he thought.  "Does Alma have any idea how lucky she is?"  He envisioned her, his wife, asleep at home in their spacious bed.  Thanks to him, they certainly had come a long way, he and Alma, from that podunk little college town where they had met over twenty years ago.

          When he came back into Lucille's bedroom, he put his hand to his back pocket for his wallet, thinking to leave her the few bills that were in it, but the wallet was not there.   He looked over to her as she stood by the dresser.  She had covered her nakedness with a a short pink sleepshirt.  She held his wallet in her hand.

          "I'll take that," he said angrily.

          "Will you really now?" she said, grinning.  "Well you can have it, Ralphie.  You rich guys never carry much money, anyways, just a few bills.  The plastic wouldn't do me no good, either, because you'd just call the old 800 number and cancel them if I took them.  So take your crummy wallet.  But, hey!  It looks maybe my ship has come in after all, just like you said.   See?  I found your business cards and took one.  I also jotted down my name and address and stuck it in behind your license.  Better make sure you take it out before your wife sees it.  You do have a wife, don't you, Ralphie baby?   Sure you do!  You romeos aways have one at home somewheres!  So send me a nice fat check after you get back to Chicago, Ralphie, sweetie pie!  'Else I may have to phone your rich missus and tell her all about our big night.  She wouldn't be too happy about that, do you think?"

          He grabbed the wallet from her hand and smacked her hard across the face.  She reached for the lamp on the nightstand and raised her arm to strike him with it, but stumbled and fought to regain her balance.  He took the lamp from her and brought it down hard on her head.  It all happened in the split of a second, and suddenly he was looking down at her sprawled on the the floor, her sleepshirt twisted under her, a good deal of her body exposed.  She didn't move.


          In the car on his way to the airport, his hands trembling so that he had trouble keeping hold of the steering wheel, he could hardly believe that such a vile thing had really happened.  His heart pounded wildly at the memory of his violence.  Re-enacting it in his mind, he felt almost like an onlooker, watching a nightmare happening to a stranger, not to him at all.    He had left her where she lay, and had wiped all the surfaces he could think of  having touched, and just to be sure, even those he knew he had not touched.  He had kept his wits enough to look over the entire room, making sure he left nothing behind to link him to her.   Then he had unlocked and opened the window.  It was at street-level, and anyone could easily have broken in.   "Maybe they'll think it was a rapist," he thought, and shuddered.  

          "It might work," he thought.  "It has to!  Other than at the business meeting, I saw no one at all this trip whom I know, or who knows me.  There was no one else in the diner to see us together, or at her flat, either."   He hoped against hope that he would be lucky and get away with it.

          Alma was glad to see him when he arrived home late that same afternoon.  "Good trip?" she asked.  "How was the flight?"

           "Uneventful," he said.

           "You look awfully tired, Ralph.  Are you okay?"

          "I'm fine," he said.  He couldn't bring himself to look at her face.  He barely brushed her cheek with his lips.  "Did you get the evening paper yet?" he asked.

          "No, dear.  Will you do it, please?   It's probably in the mailbox.   I told the boy to put it there from now on.  Yesterday I found it blowing all over the yard!"

          "That's illegal," he said.  "It supposed to be for mail only.  Oh, what's the difference!  Sure, I'll get the paper."

          When he reached into the box, he didn't find the newspaper, but he did pull out a piece of orange paper, roughly the size of a postcard.   Written on it in large, bold, sloppy letters, were the words, "I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.  I SAW WHAT YOU DID!"

          Later, in bed with Alma asleep beside him, Ralph turned it over and over in his mind.   Who could have put that note in their box?  Who could have known?  Who could have seen?  He thought he would go insane.  "I could wait for the accuser to make himself known," he thought, "and then reason with him to keep silent for a price."  The idea of blackmail chilled him.  Worse yet, what if his accuser should refuse to be bought?   "Maybe I should make a clean breast of it to Alma," he thought at one point during the night, but immediately discounted the idea.  What good would that do?  With a pang, he thought of their two daughters.  What would this whole sordid thing do to them?

          "I think you should get a check-up," Alma said at breakfast.  "You look terrible!   I have to volunteer at the hospital today.  Want me to talk to Dr. Maguire about an appointment for you?"

           "No!" he said.  

          Somehow he went through the motions of getting himself to the office and getting  down to work, hoping to lose himself  in the politics of running the Corporate Office, which had always delighted him up to now.  It was just no use trying to keep his mind on the job.   Before nine-thirty, he buzzed for his secretary.

          "Mrs. Wallace," he said when she entered his office, "call Mr. Broadmore's secretary and tell her I won't be keeping our meeting this morning."  Mr. Broadmore was the CEO.  Corporate rumor had it that he was grooming Ralph to take over for him when he retired next year.

          "But, sir, do you think that's wise?" Mrs. Wallace asked.  "He might be pretty angry."

          "Then he'll just have to be angry!"  Ralph said.  "I'm not feeling well, and I am going home."

          Alma's car was not in the garage when he arrived, and it reminded him that this was her day to volunteer at the hospital.  He knew it was not her favorite thing, but it was something that was more-or-less expected of the wives of important men in the community.  She would not, he knew, be back until almost dinnertime.  All at once he knew what he had to do.  He drove into the garage, and reaching for the remote control box on the dash, pressed the button which brought down the garage door.  He let the engine idle and settled his head back.  He closed his eyes and wondered how long it would take.          

          At a bar in the farthest end of town, Stretch Neal, already slightly drunk, was telling his pals how it was.  "I go around to these classy neighborhoods, see?"  He could hardly tell it for laughing, "All those fat cats have something dark in their past to be guilty about!  So I sneak one of these little notes in their mailboxes.  Then I drive away and let them sweat!"

          His pals all allowed that it was a pretty damn funny joke.