nthposition online magazine

Off campus

by George Sparling

[ fiction - september 10 ]

I only meant to slash her once, not kill her. Believe me or not, that will be your problem. The smelly hag was just another landlady, one, in fact, who tried seducing me. Maybe I could write a poetry chapbook about it, get some validation for doing her in while awaiting my execution. Caryl Chessman wrote four books on death row before they gassed him to death in 1960.

I had had enough of the on-campus fraternity brothers while attending Washington University. A frat-rat filched my insulated hiking boots, my mail order records were swiped, my roommates all were losers, and I couldn't masturbate except in the geology building's dingy basement washroom and they always called me possum ("Every house needs a poss," one prima donna told me). They rushed me only to fill another room in that rundown house.

Pledges had to survive hazing without sleep for twenty-four hours during hell week. Half unconscious, I signed an oath barring blacks from entering the fraternity. The old southern-founded fraternity hated reminding itself this was the era of the civil rights movement. I realized my mistake by moving after three semesters into a large bedroom where I could be alone.

I wrote the landlady, Henrietta, a $12 check for first week's rent. She put on her specs, reading it carefully. Her white hair was frizzled and uncombed, a plastic roan barrette dangling from one side of her too large head. Her battle-ship gray corduroy robe stank, smelling like vomit and bacon grease mixed with stale cologne she could have bought at Woolworth's. Purple veins stood out a bare, thin arm, with a hairy black mole on one papyrus-like forearm.

"Nice to have a fine-looking gentleman as you," she said, rubbing the back of my Eisenhower jacket. At least no possum-speak. Coming from her, I felt like heaving, one Bud already making me woozy. I had five more cans left cooling off on the window sill in my bedroom. She smelled my breath, taking advantage of my tipsiness. It must have been those soiled-yellow sheets in the unmade bed or else the monotonous drone of the soap coming from the TV on a small table at the end of her bed. Or maybe I could not stand this woman's hand pushing on my back, rubbing me the wrong way.

"I have to eat lunch now. I'll pay next Friday," I said, holding back barf. Her room was overheated, seeping heat into every pore, including my brain.

"I'll be around all day, Hapgood. Good to have distinctive Christian names. My son is Rhett. I wanted a son with a masculine name. I never knew he'd be as handsome as Clark Gable."

"One good-looking fellow, Gable," I said, hating myself for falling into a sexual trap.

"He looks a bit like him," she said.

"Call me Hap."

"OK, Happy."

"Please, I'm not Happy. It's Hap." Should new a tenant speak to their landlady like this after 20 minutes? I said goodbye and left.

I ate a steak, vegetable and potato dinner in a restaurant on Delmar. The twenty- something waitress ( her tag read Jo ) smelled like flowers, her dark permanent wave complimented her pale, full face. I left her a big tip: 50 cents.

When I returned, Rhett saw me before I went upstairs.

"Hey, how you doing, Hap. Want to see the game?" He wore brown khakis, a white T- shirt, and had an blue anchor tattoo on his right bicep. He looked like Blimpy rather that Mr. Butler.

"OK," I said, though I wanted to finish "Crime and Punishment" on my bed, hearing easy listening music on my Westinghouse radio.

We walked through the living room filled with National Geographic magazines in a large bookcase. I peeked at westerns and mysteries in another shelves to the right.

Rhett occupied two rooms: his own living room, smaller than the unused front room and a bedroom in the back. Photos of bowlers, wearing their teams' bland shirts, covered one wall. Growing up, I knew a pinsetter named Rockensok, and he was as slobby- looking as Rhett.

"Too tired after working in the hardware store nowadays. Hope you like Falstaff."

"I usually drink Budweiser. But I'm only twenty and can't be choosy." He shot me a sharp look.

"That's what we drank during bowling matches. Now it's Falstaff." He opened two, handing me one.

"I never went to a NBA game. My dad's company had two seats for hockey games, though. And for Cubs and White Sox games."

"A big shot, your dad?"

"No, controller for the company. A small lumber company."

"Controller? What's that? Hey, what a breakaway?"

"Manages finances. Got his Certified Public Accounting certificate on the first try." I had three accounting classes, dropping out of business school for good.

"You college guys. Think you're hot shit, think you own the world," he said. Rhett saw I chugged the beer, going to the kitchen to fetch two more cold ones. He shoved the bottle into my hand. I downed half of it in three gulps. He got up, bringing me another one.

"And you think 'cause you're in a bowling league you're going places, is that it?" I felt better, unmoored from those jerks on fraternity row. "I'll be a poet some day and I'll make allusions to you in every poem."

"Poets are faggots, perverts, commies, and basic losers who haven't got what it takes to earn a decent living besides mooch off the rest of us slobs." Bob Pettit scored a jump shot.

I sat on an armchair and Rhett slunk on a couch. Bill Russell blocked a shot, swatting the ball into the stands. "Groid's good but they always gotta be flashy, don't they?"

"Negroes we call them now. Equality gets played out in sports," I said, finishing my third one.

"Equality? I used to have a good job as a bookkeeper but they canned me, and a groid took my job. So you see why I'm a Falstaff guy now."

"What's a few shekels," I said.

"Are you Jewish? The man I work for owns a few hardware stores is Jewish."

"My great-grandmother was Jewish."

"Oh, I see. You're going to rule us with your poetry. What a jerk you are." I liked Allen Ginsberg. So what. Rhett ended the Inquisition when Cliff Hagen swished one from the corner.

It was halftime and he took out Falstaff's from the fridge, banging the door closed with emotion, sort of an exclamation mark to my flimsy comma.

"You're a nuts and bolts guy. I'd go to sleep working in hardware store. I'd rather be a stevedore, just going through the motions, letting me daydream about pretty girls and Dostoyevsky," I told him when he got back, wanting to get the Parthian shot in before he could crank up again. He handed me another beer, and I said I had to study and left with it.

Retreating, I went to my room, shut the door, got under the covers, and listened to rock 'n' roll, sleeping off the beers. I always got drunker talking to people than drinking alone. Something about losing self-consciousness, sitting alone, concentrating on my own small garden of weeds, not letting others pull them out by the roots. I wanted solitude, its truth, not mirrors.

I expected more from Rhett, figuring he would look at my 140-pound skinny body, telling me I would not last five minutes as a stevedore, but I had had enough for one night.

I walked upstairs a little drunk. Henrietta's door was open. I stood there, seeing her watch TV. She counted money, one bill at a time, placing them into a hatbox.

"Are you trying to be Marion Crane in 'Psycho,' counting embezzled money," I said. She looked at me: first fear, then wrath spread over her face. Her eyes squinted and I thought she would slither quickly to my feet, bite my ankle, killing me with whore venom.

"Stay away. I'm warning you. I nail your ass for rape if you don't leave me alone."

"That's a lot of money," I said. "Does Rhett know?"

"None of your business. I earned every buck," she said. She gathered up a mess of bills, mostly twenties, I thought, though I was boozy.

"Stole from your tenants? Sold mary jane? Whoring? Brothel madam? Prohibition?"

"I was pretty back then." She threw her head back, revealing her neck. Only vampires would crave that flesh.

"Why'd you leave the door open? Enticing me?" That was a long shot, but I grew paranoid under her bright ceiling florescent light.

"If you don't tell Rhett, well, I can make you sleep better."

"How much is in that hatbox? $5,000?"

"More. I've been doing it for years it till last year. My rheumatism got too bad for that sort of thing."

"What thing?

 "Oh, this and that."

"How much? More than what Janet Leigh counted out - $40,000?"

"Yes. Lots of fifties and hundreds here. I've give you a $500 if you don't tell Rhett." Her eyes watered, swimming in emotional tide pools.

"No. But never tempt me again."

I shut her door and went to my room.

The following day, I had a nine am class. I got back a paper on William Butler Yeats's "Among School Children," getting an A. I had systematically interpreted each stanza, staying within the poem itself, giving it meaning and life on its own. When the teacher handed it back and I saw the grade, I asked him, "Is this right?" showing it to the professor. He calmly said yes. "How do we know the dancer from the dance?" Yeats asked at the end: the poet from the poem, life from the death, killer from the killed.

 I slid the paper into a notebook, bouncing back to my room. I placed it on the desk, took a piss in the hallway bathroom, and heard Henrietta's television, then went downstairs. I wanted to celebrate academic success and grabbed two six packs from the refrigerator. I drank without any food except for cold instant coffee I made earlier in a glass. I dazzled myself, believing myself a literary intellectual at the same time knowing that was untenable. One could do tricks of the mind when drunk.

I guzzled most down, and then needed to piss again. Afterwards, I knocked on Henrietta's door, wanting to apologize for last night. She opening it, still wearing that raggedy old robe. She smiled, undoubtedly smelling beer breath. She placed her hand on the crook of my elbow, leading me inside. She closed the door, directing me to her bed.

I resisted, telling her, "Back off, Henny, I won't do whatever's on your filthy mind." I tossed her off me, reasserting sobriety, so I went downstairs to the kitchen, getting a beer and finding a plate of ham. I fumbled around the sink's unwashed utensils and grabbed a steak knife. I cut pieces off for my famished self, eating like a hungry beast.

Suddenly, Henrietta stood near me, getting in the way of the knife. I jabbed at slices I cut off, impaling the meat with the tip of the knife. She grabbed my arm, yanking it away from the ham.

"That's my ham, that's Rhett's beer, this is my house. I want you out now," she screamed.

Her floor-length robe came undone, and I saw her breasts, stomach, snatch, thighs, calves and feet exposed. I took the knife with a chunk of ham at the tip, driving it into her navel. I jerked the blade upward, ripping her up to her breast, then turned the knife over, holding it like Norman Bates, stabbing her sternum until it looked a slaughter house. By then Henrietta lay sprawled on the linoleum floor, her pig meat oozing onto the floor. I stood up, wobbly from too much alcohol and animal protein, combined with exhilaration about the A, bent down, and with my stevedore muscles ( laugh at that, Rhett ), I worked the blade back and forth for what seemed hours until her head separated from her body.

"Rhett can use your head for free throw practice," I yelled at her cadaver, bending down, my mouth touching her lips.

I pulled out my semi-erect penis, jacking off onto her torso, head and ham that had fallen off the table. It was far, far better than wanking in the geology building. I tumbled upstairs, rooting around in her room, finding the hatbox, and took it to my room. I jammed the money into a suitcase and threw some clothes in, mostly clean underwear. Who knew when I would get into an accident? I walked downstairs, opened the door and walked toward Delmar. It rained. I hoped the cash would not get wet.

I went to the Delmar restaurant. I slid the suitcase under the table, then grabbed a quarter in my soaked pants pocket, flipping the racks, punching Dell Shannon's "Runaway," Roy Orbison's "All I Have To Do Is Dream," and Ray Charles's "Hit the Road Jack" on the box at the table.

Friendly Jo had changed. I saw her point with one hand to the manager, holding the other hand as if she held an invisible telephone to her ear.

"I like Dell. Want anything special?" Jo said, she no longer pressing the edge of the table as she had done other times. Her hand shook as she waited to take my order.

"The usual. Have you changed your hair?" What I really wanted to say was: I want to run away with you, I have thousands of bucks at my feet.

"Beehives are in." Her voice wavered. First high, then low, as if not know which register to use. I must have smelled horrible because she gagged a few times. Rare steaks don't smell like Henrietta's blood.

"A grilled ham and cheese and fries," I said, "And a chocolate shake."

She hurriedly walked away. Her butt trembled.

I stared at the window, watching passers-by. It was not like Washington University's quad. Taxis picked up passengers. People had groceries in their arms, mothers with children yelled at them to stay together. Whites and blacks mingled, something unheard on campus. A blind man with a white cane waved it slowly and made his way across the green-lighted street. Car beeped, buses grinded, people swore. And Rhett entered, shouting, "There's the Jew bastard."

The squad cars sirens pierced the rain. Cops and plainclothes men with guns drawn ran into the restaurant. Rhett held the steak knife in his fat hand, ready to slit my throat. The police muscled him away. Honest, I only meant to stick her easy just one time.