Regular Customer

Down in the Gutter, Halloween isn't so much about treats as it is the tricks.

The trick is to make it out alive, baby.

Regular Customer by Ian Woollen

Sorry, late again for elevenses. Took me forever to pick out a tie this morning. The usual concoction, please. We don’t have a lot of time. I’m due at a condo showing in Chestnut Dale. Allow me to be brief. The moon was hidden behind the clouds. The intruder did not take anything. He left a cigarette stubbed out in the sink. With lipstick on it. Maybe the ‘he’ was a ‘she’. You never know these days. The house attracts all kinds. People want to see where it happened. First, the mourner types left mounds of flowers at the front door and along the driveway. Then the horror tourists. Last night’s intruder, for example.

Yes, top me off.

How did I learn to tie a bow tie? I didn’t. Mother ties it. She insists on pure silk. That’s my old lady. But allow me to be brief. Why do I always say that? As if brevity is not allowed. Reminds me of her chewing. Mother hates to be seen chewing. At the dinner table, after every forkful, she raises her other hand up over her mouth. A little flap to hide the embarrassing act.
I should have known something was up when the senior broker at Sunshine Realty handed the property off to me, the newbie. He pitched it as my chance to join the Super Sellers Club. Beautiful lakefront mansion. Five bedrooms and six baths. 4,200 square feet. 5 plus acres. Dock and boathouse. The publicity materials do not mention the grim events of New Year’s Eve. The costume party to end all costume parties. The Queen of Sheba and her court.
I missed the headlines somehow. Who reads newspapers anymore? I get most of my news online. And, frankly, isn’t one tragedy the same as the next? Man kills wife and self. Man kills wife and kids and self. Fired worker returns to plant and kills boss and secretary and self. Former student shoots teacher and classmate and self. I know, yeah, this one was different. An old-fashioned robbery gone awry. The crooks in costume.
Excuse me? Sure. Always time for another.
The property has been a tough sell. Five coats of paint in the foyer, and still the stains seep out. I dress the living room with flowers and black-and-white ‘times gone by’ photos and baking-bread scent. It comes in a spray can. Custom marketed to real-estate brokers. The little things that make a difference. Dressing a house is an art form. My secret is the vintage frames. Innocuous, pretty, silver-framed photographs that function like a hypnotist’s “yes” set. Yes, that’s nice. Yes, that’s cute. Setting up the prospective buyer for…yes, let’s make an offer.
I sympathize with the young couples who obviously don’t know what happened. Usually out-of-towners, recent hires at the university. I can tell by their eyes. They have no clue. They’re searching for their dream house. A charming place to start a family. But, after ten minutes, always in the living room—one spouse will turn to the other and mutter: “feels weird here.”
I’m sorry. What was your question?
Real estate people are always going on about the ‘story’ of the property. Especially the commercial brokers. Bricks-and-mortar investors demand a motivating narrative. And, what the hell, I could go with another angle. The miracle outcome. The miracle of survival. The place where your greatest weakness becomes your saving grace. God, what was I thinking, showing up at that party dressed as a martini shaker?
Give me a moment.
And, yes, one more. That’s what saved me. I drank too much and passed out on in a corner, behind a long sectional couch. When I came to several hours later - many bodies on the floor. Groggy, hungover, I assumed those bodies were all in a similar state of unconsciousness. I picked myself up and stumbled across the carnage and out into the cold dawn. I climbed the driveway to the road and called a cab. And didn’t think any more on it, until you asked about my New Year’s Eve.
Whereupon, okay, I did phone the authorities twice, and hung up. Because of the old lady. Mother dresses me so awfully proper. And I can be so awfully improper. The truth is, I just can’t bear the police or Mother or anyone knowing about my martini shaker costume. And fortunately—don’t take this the wrong way—everybody who saw me at the party is dead!

Ian Woollen's short fiction has been seen at Bartleby Snopes, The Smokelong Quarterly, Curbside Splendor, Split Lip, and Blackheart Magazine. His new novel, UNCLE ANTON'S ATOMIC BOMB (Coffeetown Press, 2014) was a finalist for the Balcones Fiction Prize. Visit 'Novel Outtakes' on Facebook. And Twitter @woollenian.