A Pillar of Salt

by Rachel Cohen
Some cemeteries are calm orderly enclosures, the rows of tombstones neatly indexing the last resting places of upright citizens.  Suggesting that those who lie here haven’t died - nothing as gory, messy or burbling as death could have happened to them - but have been filed away.  To be looked up and dusted off, should the need arise, possibly none the worse for wear.  

Of course, this was not the kind of cemetery Gene would have ended up in.  His plot, where I stood now, kicking at a bit of caked mud with my thin black heel, was flanked by two enormous obelisks - a hunk of gilded granite and an overweight angel.  Dry grass of a hot September rustled in the wan wind.  

“When’s your plane?” Vlad, Gene’s business partner, nudged me.  His bulldog jowls flapped when he spoke.  

I hefted my flowers, white chrysanthemums, thirty-four of them. One for every year of Gene’s life.  You never give even-numbered bouquets for happy occasions.  Even is for funerals.  Their superstitions are the one thing Russians are fastidious about.  

“Eight a.m., tomorrow.”  The sun beat down.  We were the only people at the grave.  

“Need a lift?”  The way Vlad sidled up to me made me want to shout that I was married.  Not that it’d stop him.  Vlad was no gentleman - he preferred brunettes.  

“No, thank you.  I’ve arranged for my transportation already.”  I dumped the flowers in Vlad’s arms, to keep him occupied.  

“Hoity-toity, aren’t we.” Vlad wiped his red face on the rich black of his suit sleeve.  

“No idea what you are talking about.” I checked my watch.  

“Sure you do.”

The grave-diggers put down their shovels and circled the casket, preparing to lower it into the grave.  

“You always thought you were too good for this town.”  

I shrugged.  Anybody who walked and talked was too good for this town.

“Who’s that?” I squinted.  The woman staggered towards us, a swaying stick-figure against the lurid blue of the empty sky.  

“Hey, she can’t be here.” Vlad dropped my flowers.

“Nina,” he shouted as he walked to the woman, “what the hell?  You can’t be here.”

The woman avoided Vlad easily, seemed to have passed right through him.  She reached me, and I bent to pick up my bouquet, then hid my face in the bruised petals.  

“Why didn’t you tell me about the funeral?” When Nina wept, her blue eyes became too large for her face.  She had the trick of holding the water inside her eyelids, making it ripple, before the large tears started to plop down her bright-red cheeks of a marzipan doll.  

“I wouldn’t have known where to find you.  It’s an accident that I came.  I was in Moscow on business, and Vlad e-mailed me.”  The flowers I stuck between me and Nina were a poor shield.  

“That’s right,” Vlad was breathing heavily, winded by his short run to the next grave and back, “you want to blame someone, blame me.”  

Nina’s eyes flooded.  I thought idly that perhaps roses would bloom one day where her tears fell.  Why not?  Not like anybody would ever come to put roses on Gene’s grave.  I was going to return to Canada, my business trip completed, Vlad would move on, and Nina would run out of excuses to feed to her husband.  

Vlad crossed over to the grave-diggers, pulled a wad of crumpled dollars from his pocket, handed it to the burlier of the two men.  They nodded to something he said.  

“Come on, girls.” Vlad pried the bouquet from me and tossed it at one of the guys who caught it. “They’ll sort it out by themselves.  Let’s just go.  No point in standing around.”  

“No.” My frown told Vlad he better not dare argue with me. “I know how shit works around here.  You don’t supervise these guys, they’re perfectly capable of dumping the body and thieving the casket.”  

“Good point.” Vlad turned in the direction of the grave being slowly filled. “Move it, you! I paid you good money.  What are you, dead?”

“You’re horrible,” Nina’s lips trembled. “You have no respect for the dead.”  

“Dead don’t care if I respect them.” Vlad rolled his eyes at Nina. “And at least I didn’t kill anyone.”  

“What are you saying?” Nina straightened her frail back. “That it’s my fault?  You are daring to blame me?”

“Shh, shh,” Vlad pulled her close, so her tense body was forced to curve against him, “nobody’s blaming anyone.  Shit happens, right?  But - out of respect for the dead - let’s not quarrel at the grave.  Come on,” he nuzzled Nina’s tear-stained cheek, “looks like it’s done.  Let’s go.”  

***

Back in my hotel, I padded, still wet from the shower, into the sweltering spartan room.  When the phone rang, I flung myself at it.  My cell phone was useless in these parts.  

“Sweetheart, how are you?” in the background, weaving into my husband’s voice, I heard the heavy breathing of the hotel phone operator.  

“Fine.  Shame I can’t move up my flight. Had enough already.”

“I can’t believe you went in the first place.  I can’t believe …”

I sat on the scratchy orange bedspread and placed the receiver next to the phone.  I could almost see it - this waterfall of my husband’s concern tumbling through the phone lines.  It poured forth, reassuring me that things were great on the other side of the ocean.  Comfortable, loving, accepting.  Safe.  I remembered the heavy flush of Nina’s cheekbones. She always thought the overabundance of rouge covered fading bruises, and I guess nobody had ever told her otherwise.  

“I love you,” I picked up the receiver.  “Don’t worry about anything.  It’s just dull, is all.  And no air conditioning.  I’ll never travel without you again.”  

“I love you too.  I miss you.  I …”

Only one person I knew could pound on my door so heavily, the hinges rattled.  

“I’ve got to go,” I cut off my husband mid-endearment.  “Later.”  

“Go away, Vlad,” I heard Vlad breathing heavily in the corridor, “I’m not letting you in.”  

“Let me in, I need to talk to you,” Vlad’s fist smashed against the flimsy veneer.  

“Your problem, not mine.  And you’re drunk.  Go away.”  

“Bitch.”  

“Asshole.”  

“Fine,” Vlad must have stepped away from the door, because his voice came muffled now, “I need a favour.”  

“Ask.  I can hear you.”  

“Oh, fuckety-fuck - look - I need you to come with me.  I don’t want to go to his place alone.”  

“Whose place?” I knew perfectly well whose place.  

“Gene’s, who do you think.  I got the cleaning lady to tidy up in there, and the movers’ll be coming tomorrow, but I ought to go and see if he’s got, you know, stuff.  Stuff that doesn’t need to be there.”  

I leaned against the wall, the plaster suddenly cool against my skin, and thought that I did not want to go through Gene’s stuff.  I did not want to be here, in this hotel, in this town, in this country.  I had told my husband I would travel down for a funeral of a childhood friend.  It was true, technically.  I had known Gene since we were five.  He had hit me in the sandbox with his red truck and then gave it to me as a gift, once I stabbed a sharp stick into his arm and drew blood.  My mom took him to our apartment, washed out the gash - he clenched his teeth, wrinkled his nose and did not cry - and his mom missed the whole thing, busy smoking on the bench.  Sure, Gene had stuff.  Stuff that would hurt loads of people, if it floated up.  Nina wouldn’t get away with just bruises.  Might cost her an arm, or a leg, depending on how her husband was feeling when he found out.  

“All right, I’ll go with you,” I picked up a pair of jeans and a t-shirt out of my suitcase, “but I’m driving.  You are loaded.”

Vlad grunted, agreeing.  I came out.  Vlad took a swig from a bottle he held, and snorted at the change from my black-silk funeral finery.  

“What does your husband say about these?” he nodded at my flip-flops.  

“He calls them flip-flops.” I dragged my suitcase, all packed, over the threshold and shut the door. “Exactly the way the rest of the world does.”  

“You going to let me carry your suitcase, at least - feminist lady?” Vlad was not slurring his words yet.  He could not have been that drunk.  

“If you give me the bottle,” I stretched out my hand.  “You are done for the night.”  

Without argument, Vlad handed me the vodka.  I placed it, half-full, on the raised paint-spattered threshold of the room.  

“Whoever finds it, will have a blast,” Vlad commented.  “‘S good stuff.  From Finland.”  

“Car keys.” I pushed the suitcase handle at him. “And shut up.  You are not a scintillating conversationalist in the best of times.  When you are drunk, you are just plain annoying.”  

He kept quiet while I checked out.  

I drove Vlad’s black tank of a jeep to Gene’s place. If Gorbachev hadn’t opened the borders when he did, it would have been my place, too, I suppose.  The rows of gnarled cherry trees flanking the low five-storey house, the year-round puddle, its water level changing from “mid-thigh” in spring to “up to the ankle” during a dry summer, and the old women keeping their endless watch on the bench by the front door.  When we passed the three crones, I felt the muzzles of their dark pupils aim between my shoulder blades.  “Prostitute,” the hissed verdict reached me as Vlad pulled the door before me.  And that was me wearing jeans.  Wonder what they would have said if I had showed up in a dress and heels.  

“Look at that.” I did not realise I had been searching for it, but now that I saw it, I could not just pass by. “What, they don’t repair anything in this place?”

“That?” Vlad pointed at a small white cavity in the green wall mid-way the flight of stairs, between third and second floor.  We lived on second; Gene lived on the third.    

“Yeah, Gene did that.” I traced the dusty indentation.  “With my keys.  When I was leaving for Moscow, for university.  In case I came back, and he was gone.  I was supposed to remember him and drink to the good times.”

“Think he knew?” Vlad clutched my hand, leaned in.  He smelled of sweat and booze.

“What, that next time I’d show up at his funeral?” I resumed trudging up the stairs.  “He meant that he was going to have this great life elsewhere, and I was going to crawl back defeated and weep by the broken tub kind of thing.  I don’t suppose he was feeling very generous, at the time.”  

“So did you and Gene?  You know?”  Vlad rattled the keys in the lock of a door painted a streaked brown. I have passed through that door so many times, I sometimes stood on the landing confused, reminding myself that my home was one floor below.

“How’s that any of your business?” I followed Vlad into the tiny dark hallway, closet to the left, mirrored armoire to the right.  

“I’m just curious.  Why can’t I be curious?”  Vlad bent down to rummage for shoes.  I went into the large single room, still wearing my flip-flops.  Vlad’s shout came immediately, “Change your shoes.  You were out in the street with those.”  

“Spare me the Russian epidemiology fantasies.” I flung myself in the black leather armchair by the huge oak desk and spun, the way I always did.  “What do you think I’ll bring in from two minutes in the street?  Leprosy?”  

“Seriously, you haven’t answered me.”  Vlad changed into the house shoes.  He placed the ones for me on the floor by my feet.  Clearly, a woman’s pair.  Red, with fluffy pompons and kitten heels.  Figures.  

“No.” I reached out to the bookshelf without looking. “I didn’t, if you are gagging to know.  I don’t stand in lines.”

“Did you want to?” Vlad moved to the window.  The sun was setting somewhere past his shoulders.  It would be early afternoon in Canada now.  My husband would be at work.  Diagnosing pulmonary problems.  Polite and kind, a blond surfer from a men’s perfume ad, his still-shiny wedding ring making nurses sigh.  Nice guys do not cheat, I found out in Canada.  Before I moved, the notion had seemed rather whimsical.  

The book I picked from the shelf turned out to be a photo album.  Photos, all different sizes, black and white, coloured, pasted to the cardboard.  If you flipped through them fast, they added up to a movie.  

“You look great together.” Vlad leaned over my shoulder, pointed his stubby finger at the graduation picture.  I actually had white bows in my hair.  My black, curling, obviously non-Russian hair that every boy in my class had tried to pull.  My parents had been called to the school fifteen times during my fourth grade.  Fifteen boys, fifteen hair yanks, fifteen knock-down fights.  My dad said “that’s my baby” to the school principal and ignored the other fourteen summons.  

Gene smiled at me from the picture, his arm over my sixteen year-old shoulder.  At least a head taller, already tanned in May, cheekbones like wings of a sparrow in flight and a mouth every female in fifty-block radius had wept about in the middle of the night.  

“Thing is, Vlad, I don’t separate appearance and personality, as it happens.” I slammed the album shut.  “Maybe other women see a great fellow, and I see a drunk and a womanizer.  Let’s get sorting.  I don’t plan to miss my plane for your sake.”  

Nina owed us her life, by two a.m.  The nude pictures alone Vlad and I set fire to in the kitchen sink would have put her in the grave right next to Gene’s.  No, her dipshit of a husband couldn’t afford a posh cemetery like that.  Not if he had to pay the police for hushing up his wife’s murder.

I washed the ashes down the drain.  

“Who do you think did it?  Killed him? You?”

Vlad perched on the edge of the tiny kitchen table covered in green-appled vinyl tablecloth.  

“Not me.  He was great for business.  You know Gene.  Charmed the pants off anyone.  Could get any paper signed.”  

“Yeah,” I patted my pockets and remembered that I had quit smoking twelve years ago, “he once took me to the Bolshoi.  Right before I left.  No tickets, nothing.  We were passing by, I said I loved ‘Carmen,’ and he talked the Cerberuses at the door into letting us in and fetching us chairs.  If he moved to the US, he’d ask to borrow the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives for kicks, and they’d let him.”  

“Wish he didn’t sleep with all the clients though.” Vlad returned to the big room, dropped the last box of books near the large bed. “No end of trouble.”  

“Your clients were all women,” I followed Vlad, “what did you expect him to do? Play chess with them?”

“I beat the crap out of him once,” Vlad pulled out a pack and lit a cigarette.  

The smoke caressed my nostrils with the familiar temptation.  I opened a window.  Flakes of paint fell from the frame.  

“Yeah,” Vlad offered me one.  “We were helping this girl with her move to France.”

“Helping,” my ass.  Those two charged single women trying to leave the country for getting out safely and in relative comfort.  Since everything was a problem - tickets, visas, obtaining permissions to get kids out of the country from asshole exes, even procuring a suitcase that’d hold up - their clients were perfectly willing to pay most of whatever the sale of their assets had fetched for Gene and Vlad’s services.  Gene handled the paperwork.  Vlad sorted out the difficult exes.  From what I gathered, they could roll in cash, if they chose to.  

Vlad took a huge drag on his cigarette, stubbled cheeks pulling in,

“A pianist.  Everything done, you know?  Tickets, visas, her apartment sold, the works.  Gene even got her a permit to ship out the piano.  A nineteenth-century antique.  Don’t know what he had to suck to have it appraised as a ‘1950s instrument in poor condition,’ but he swung it.  And what do you know - at the airport, the stupid bitch turns back.  He’s the love of her life, and she can’t leave him behind.  Can you imagine?”  

I could imagine.  Way too easily, in fact.  Not even my parents knew that Gene came to see me off from Moscow.  My parents were stuck back home, with their September tickets, and I was leaving in May.  Boarded the plane with an armful of lilacs, dreaming of touching down and practically eating a cigarette as soon as I could.  And then, somewhere over the Atlantic, I knew there’d be no turning back.  Nothing I wanted to turn back to.  Not one thing.  Not one person.  I gave the lilacs to the stewardess and flushed the cigs down the toilet.  

“So what happened to the pianist?” I turned away from Vlad.  The smoke had an unpleasant smell, if I thought about it.  

“Gene talked her into going back on the plane.  Said she owed it to her piano that was waiting for her in Paris.  And when she called him from France, he didn’t pick up.”

“You liked this girl?” I sat down on the red bedspread.  At least Gene had bought a new bed.  At least he felt uncomfortable screwing women in the bed his mother had died in.  Lung cancer.  Although, why would it have mattered?  Who died where?  Superstition, nothing more.  

“I liked her,” Vlad shrugged.  “Gene had a lot of women.  Some of them I liked.  No crime in that.”  

“You should leave Nina alone.” I reached over and snatched a cigarette away from him, stubbed it out on the sole of the kitten-heeled shoe.  “You know her husband slaps her around.  It’s disgusting anyway.  Inheriting a woman from a dead man.”  

I didn’t expect the bulky Vlad to leap at me so agilely.  He grabbed me by the t-shirt and twisted it, so I felt its rope at my throat.  His weight pressed down on me, and the cigarette smoke wafted over my face in a thick shroud.

“Now here’s a woman I could inherit.” His spit dripped on my cheek.  

Blood pounded in my temples.  I felt my lips draw back into a snarl.  

Vlad didn’t count on my nails.  They weren’t that long or that sharp, but if you curve in your fingers in a good swinging slap, you can gouge a cheek. Blood squirted out from the four trails I left.  His flesh stuck to the tips of my fingers.  I just loosened his grip a fraction, but it was all I needed to stick my palm over his face, push him back and knee him in the groin.  He stumbled over the box of books, and fell to the floor, his huge body sprawling all the way to the desk.  

I left the room.  Took a brass cezve from its usual cupboard, found imported ground coffee beans in the freezer.  By the time rusty foam rose to the edge of the cezve, Vlad staggered into the kitchen, cheek raked bloody, shirt collar stained.  He sat at the table.  I poured myself a cup, a tiny celadon-blue flower, and sat across from him.  When I cradled the cup, my hands did not shake.

“What about me?” Vlad stared at me.  I didn’t realise I got him this good.  His left eye was swelling shut.  

“If you want coffee, get your own.  You don’t expect me to serve you?”  

Vlad didn’t move.  

“What, you want me to apologise?” His mouth curved down, bracketing his words.  

“I don’t give a shit.” I swirled the coffee, trying to keep the hysteria out of my voice. “Did you murder Gene?”  

“No,” Vlad put a hand over his heart.  “I swear.  On my mother’s life.  Wasn’t me.  I wanted to, yes.  But it wasn’t me.  He pissed off plenty of people.  And the money we made - he didn’t have to flash it the way he did.  Anyone could have done it.  Anyone.  We’ll never know.”  

“Drive me to the airport,” I left my cup on the table, not bothering to wash it.  Wasn’t my apartment.  “I’d say that I hope you rot in hell, but that’s where you are headed anyway.”  Vlad drew his head into his shoulders, like a turtle.  We didn’t say anything else, not even a ‘goodbye.’  

I called my husband as soon as Vlad drove off.  The cell reception was crisp in the airport.  

“Sweetheart, it’s all over.  I’m coming home.”  

“Are you all right? Nobody did anything to you?”

“Why would anyone do anything to me?” I forced a laugh, “I just stayed in the hotel after the funeral.”

“From the way you are sounding, if anyone had tried anything, they are seeing a doctor and a lawyer right now,” my husband’s voice held shades of sunshine and honey.  Maple trees outside his office windows swirled burgundy and gold this time of year.  

“I’m coming home.” I looked down on my t-shirt and saw the blood stains.  I’d just change in the bathroom.  

“Can’t wait.  Love you.” My husband hung up.    

They opened the registration for my flight. I joined the orderly line to the ticket counter.  Somebody’s phone rang out with the tune of “Torna a Surriento.”  We used to have that record, when I was little.  An Italian tenor begging his love to come back to him. I haven’t heard it in years.  The catchy tune stuck.  Quietly humming the melody, I reached the counter and held out my ticket.
Rachel Cohen is a lawyer living in Canada.  Since she is confined to sticking to the truth - or to some version of the truth - in her day job, when she writes fiction, she lies.  

© 2016, Rachel Cohen