It was a desperate desire for success that lured me into the seductive arms of the Scarlet Assassin, but who would have guessed that fateful embrace would lead to mayhem — and murder!
I liked to sleep in until my husband left for work because he could be a real grouch in the morning.
Then I’d watch a little TV, just to wake me up, then by 11—noon at the latest—I’d get right to work on my novel. I’d sit down at my trusty Tandy laptop (it’s an oldie but a goody!) with a mug of hot cocoa, pet one of my six cats for good luck (Mr. Whiskers, by far, seemed the luckiest), and get right down to business.
The only problem was, I wasn’t making much progress. It wasn’t so much I didn’t have anything to write about (if you knew the adventures my cats get into, you’d know I have oodles of material), I just couldn’t get that all-important first paragraph down.
Then I read an article in The Sacred and Precious Muse, my fave writer’s mag, that said drinking alcohol seemed to help certain writers. The author said it allowed them to “dig to the bottom of their tarnished souls.” She also warned that it was a path fraught with peril. I’d never been much of a drinker (though I was known to sip a wine cooler or two in college!), but I was desperate, so I gathered up my courage and decided to give it a try.
Priscilla didn’t want to get out of bed because she didn’t feel like cleaning up the bloody mess she made hacking her husband into pieces small enough to jam down the garbage disposal.
I drove to the nearest liquor store and asked the clerk (who seemed too young to be working in a liquor store, quite frankly) what a writer should drink.
“I’m a novelist,” I confessed, though technically I hadn’t actually finished my novel.
“Oh yeah?” he said, leading me to the liquor section. “Well, Hemingway drank rum, I think. And Faulkner—he was strictly a bourbon man. Dottie Parker sucked down scotch like—”
“What does Danielle Steele drink?”
He gave me a kind of a smarty-pants look, the same look the bag boys give you when you remind them not to put the eggs on the bottom, then led me to the wine section. We finally settled on an expensive bottle of Marmot Estates Merlot.
After he rang it up, the clerk put the bottle in a brown paper bag because “That’s how Bukowski rolled.”
This Bukowski character, I’m guessing, is some local wino who’d frequented the store.
Then he said, “See you soon,” and laughed like a stage villain.
“Heeeee!” I said. It’s just a sound I make when I’m nervous. Or happy. Or whatever.
“Heeeee, you better be worth it,” I told the bottle as I drove home.
See, that’s how naive I was. I would discover soon enough that the bottle came with a much higher price than the $11 I’d forked over for it. A much higher price.
I took the bottle out of the wino bag and set it on my writing desk. It looked more than a little out of place among my lamb figurines (I’m crazy about lambs!), pictures of my cats, and my collection of how-to-write-a-book books. (Write a Novel in 30 Days! Find Your Muse at the Laundromat! Don’t Just Type—Write! If only it were that easy!) I stroked the dark shiny glass of the bottle and shivered with a sudden fear. Once I opened that bottle, that Pandora’s Box of inspiration and madness—what would become of me?
Then I found out we didn’t have a wine opener, so I had to drive all the way back to the liquor store to buy one.
“Back already!” the clerk practically shouted.
When I told him all I wanted was a corkscrew, he said, “Huh. I figured you for the type who’d just smash off the neck and suck it straight down.”
I smiled in a way that told him he wasn’t really all that funny. Then he said, “See you soon,” and did his evil laugh again. He was a real comedian.
It took me two tries to get all of the cork out of that gosh darn bottle. Then I had to dig through the cupboards for five minutes to find a wine glass.
I sat down at my desk, poured the glass half full, and had a sip.
“Heeeee!” I said, and not because I was happy. It wasn’t very tasty. It tasted like grape juice poured out of a rusty bucket. I forced myself to have another sip, then stared at the screen and waited for the rush of inspiration.
My novel was tentatively titled Beneath Yonder Weeping Willow, which I thought was pretty good, as far as titles go. Beneath the title I’d typed:
Priscilla didn’t want to get out of bed because…
That was it. That was as far as I’d gotten. For five months, give or take, I’d sat there wondering why Priscilla didn’t want to get out of bed. It seemed important that she did get out of bed, plot-wise. I’ve never heard of a book where the protagonist spent all her time lying in bed.
I had another sip. It wasn’t so awful this time. I rubbed my hands together, pet Mr. Whiskers, put my fingers on the keys and . . .
“Why don’t you want to get up, Priscilla?” I asked the screen a moment later. “Are you sickly? Heartbroken? Why the heck don’t you want to get out of bed?”
Some time later, with no progress at all, I started to pour another glass and suddenly realized I’d slugged down that half glass of wine in a little over an hour. That should have been the first warning sign, but, fool that I was, I didn’t heed it.
The front door banged open and Burt stormed in, moaning about work as usual. He was halfway through some story about something or other when he suddenly stopped.
“You’re drinking wine?” he said, gaping at the bottle. “You?”
“All day,” I replied. “Sometimes a writer has to dig into the bottom of her soul.”
“Whatever gets your rocks off,” he said, sticking his head in the refrigerator. “Had a helluva a day at work. Goddamn Tanya. I’m supposed to be her boss, but she’s riding me like a cheap merry-go-round. Goddamn whore. You should see that bitch go.”
If you hadn’t noticed by now, Burt likes his swear words, especially when he’s talking about his secretary Tanya, whom he commonly refers to as “that dried-up old hag.” He also claimed she was “so old she probably knows what King Solomon’s schlong tastes like.” He’s a real classy guy.
Burt leaned over my shoulder while chewing on a chicken leg, and muttered, “Goddamn lazy bitch.”
“Goddamn lazy-ass whore,” he said, walking away.
That’s what passes for constructive criticism in the Johnson household.
“Can a guy get some dinner around here?” Burt wailed. “I know you’ve been busy polishing that sentence for the past fucking year, but can a guy get some fucking dinner before he goes fucking bowling?”
He threw the chicken bone in the sink, switched on the garbage disposal, and of course it jammed up trying to grind up the bone.
“Disposal’s broke,” he said then went into the bedroom to change into his bowling clothes.
I corked the bottle then typed an end to my sentence:
Priscilla didn’t want to get out of bed because she was a gosh darn lazy-butt.
I looked at the new words for a moment then erased them. Priscilla didn’t have a lazy butt. She just didn’t want to get up. And why should she? There was nothing worth getting up for.
The next morning I skipped my mug of cocoa and went right for the wine. I was drinking before noon. It gave me a strange thrill, because that’s what raging alcoholics do. I also decided to drink it out of my mug, which I think is another sign of alcoholism.
You’re going down a dark path fraught with peril, I warned myself and, honestly, my hand trembled as I poured. And you should feel ashamed.
But I didn’t. I felt sort of tragic. I wondered what the girls down at the Lower Meadow Valley Writers Club would say if they could see me now. What was the nickname they’d given me, after just three meetings? Miss Priss. They sure wouldn’t say that now, if they could see me slugging down wine from a cocoa mug before noon.
Now, this will shock you, but it’s the truth: Four hours later and that bottle was empty. Just like that. I was practically chugging it. Then it hit me, just like that. I started typing.
Priscilla didn’t want to get out of bed because she knew there wasn’t any more fucking wine in the house.
I clapped my hands and laughed. It was finally working! A major breakthrough!
Suddenly Priscilla took on a whole new character. She wasn’t a pure-hearted lady-in-waiting (or duchess, I hadn’t decided). Priscilla was a drinker. She freely used swear words. She was complicated and tragic. She had addictions because a wicked world had tarnished her precious soul.
I carefully backed up my novel on a floppy disk then drove to the liquor store.
The clerk rubbed his hands together and did his silly little laugh. “Oh, we got you hooked now!”
“My sister-in-law is in town,” I said, easy as can be, “and she sure likes her wine! Heeeee!”
“Sure, sure,” he said. “Should I bag this one or are you gonna polish it off before you get to the alley?”
I tried to laugh it off, like I was in on the joke, but instead I got flustered and grabbed at the bottle so I could get back to work while the juices were flowing.
“Whoa!” he said, letting go of the bottle and holding up his hands like he was scared. “No reason to lunge at me, lady. It’s all yours.”
I could hear him laughing with a customer and by the time I got to the wagon I wished I’d brought the corkscrew with me.
Back at my desk, I poured myself a big mugful and downed two sips, one right after another. I looked at the bottle. It didn’t look so out of place anymore. Two bottles in two days! I doubted that even that drunky Hemingway put away that much.
My tabby Chompers jumped into my lap and purred.
“You still love me, don’t you, Chompers?” I asked him. “You still love your mama, even though she’s plunging into alcoholic hell, don’t you?”
Of course he didn’t say anything. Instead, he sank his fangs into my thumb. Which shouldn’t have surprised me, that’s why I call him Chompers. But what happened next certainly did.
“Goddamn cat!” I shouted and shoved that cat right out of my lap. Poor Chompers skedaddled under the sofa, terrified of the monster I’d become, and I suddenly had what we alcoholics call a moment of clarity.
While I apologized profusely to Chompers, I dug out the phone book and looked up the Alcoholics Anonymous hot line. I could barely dial the phone, I was so distraught.
“Hello,” I whispered breathlessly. “I think I’m an alcoholic.”
“Well, if you think you are, then you are,” a voice bellowed. In my mind’s eye I pictured him: a burly ex-sailor type with tattoos on his forearms, remnants of his wild raging alcoholic days.
“How long have you been drinking?” he asked.
“Well, yesterday I drank a half a bottle of Marmont Merlot. By myself. Today,” I almost starting sobbing right then, “today, I’ve already had two mugfuls. Heeeee!”
There was a pause. Even over the phone I could sense his dread and woe. Then he said, “No, I mean, when did you first start drinking?”
“Yesterday at noon. No, it was about one, because I had to go back for the wine opener. It’s hard to recall exactly, because of the alcoholism thing.”
There was another pause. “Did Mike put you up to this?”
“Mike?” I said, confused. “You mean the clerk down at the liquor store?”
“Very funny. Listen. You tell that sonuvabitch that I’m gonna have a word with him at the next meeting. This is a serious hot line. Don’t fuck with me.”
Then the cocksucker hung up on me.
And people wonder why there are so many alcoholics in the world. You try to get help and they curse at you.
I tried to fix the garbage disposal while snacking on a ham sandwich. I could see the lodged bone, but didn’t feel like reaching down in there and pulling it out. Instead I did what my mom had taught me: I poured a little olive oil down the drain and flicked the switch a few times. Sure enough, it came back to life and ground that bone to splinters.
The olive oil is like wine, I mused as I finished my sandwich. It lubricates you, then the garbage disposal of life grinds you right up.
I sat at my desk, poured another mug of wine and had a dark vision of myself staggering from bar to bar, gruffly demanding glasses of whiskey and rum, slugging them down and silently signaling for more. The bartender and patrons would wonder, “Who is this madwoman? What has hurt her soul so much she must turn to hard alcohol for relief?” Then I’d get out my note pad and start writing, right at the bar, and they’d exchange knowing looks: “Ah! She’s a writer digging for truth at the bottom of her soul!”
They would try to talk to me, try to understand my torments, but I would ward them off with low growls and they would back away, terrified then deeply ashamed they had the gall to interrupt a novelist at work.
Then Burt would come in, bawling about his dinner and the men of the bar would rise up and swarm over him like drones protecting their queen. I’d eventually call them off and inform them he was just my mentally retarded husband, but only after they’d beaten him to a bloody pulp.
“What’s so funny?” Burt said, as he stomped through the front door. “Something amusing happen under the fucking willow tree?”
“Nope,” I said, still giggling.
“Figures,” he said, stopping in front of the sink. “Did you fix the garbage disposal at least?”
“Yep,” I said and something sparked inside my head. I typed:
Priscilla didn’t want to get out of bed because she didn’t feel like cleaning up the bloody mess she made hacking her husband into pieces small enough to jam down the garbage disposal.
“If it’s so fucking funny, let me read it.”
I snapped the screen shut and topped up my mug.
“Oh, we have secrets, do we?” Burt said. “Well, I’ve got secrets too.”
“Good for you,” I said, thinking: Would a garbage disposal be able to handle a thigh bone? If you kept feeding it olive oil? And what about the skull? Priscilla would have to use something heavy, like Burt’s bowling ball, to shatter it to pieces. Of course, the title would have to change. Bloody Murder Beneath the Slaughter Tree?
“I’m going bowling,” Burt said, digging his bowling ball from the hall closet. “Don’t wait up for me.”
“I never do.”
“Well, don’t start,” he said, slamming the door, as he liked to do.
The next morning I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in because Burt woke me up at 8am. I heard him cursing up a storm in the living room so I got up, figuring he couldn’t find his briefcase.
“What the fuck is this?” He was crouched in front of my laptop.
“Heeeee!” I said. “You shouldn’t read a work in progress.” I tried to shut the screen, but he blocked me with his fat butt.
“You got that lazy bitch—well, I guess she ain’t so lazy anymore—you got her hacking up her husband with a goddamn meat cleaver! And only after she beats him to bits with his fucking bowling ball!”
“With a bowling ball? I wrote that?” I remembered thinking it, but I didn’t remember writing it.
“You’re goddamn right you did. And that’s just the beginning—the whore is just getting warmed up. Holy shit! Now she’s jamming his fucking thigh bone down the garbage disposal. And get a load of this line: ‘Priscilla resolutely leaned on the thigh bone like a marine trying to plant a flag in asphalt during an earthquake.’ What kind of sick shit is that?”
He finally got out of the way and I gawked at the words on the screen. Not just words, entire pages of writing.
I couldn’t believe it! Four pages of a novel! My novel!
“Oh my God!” I said, clapping my hands.
“Oh my God? How do you think I feel? The fucking husband’s name is Bart! It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out.”
“This is wonderful!”
“Wonderful?” Burt screamed. “Well, of course it’s wonderful! It’s not your thighbone being jammed down the drain!”
Burt thrust his hands through his coat and threw open the front door.
“You need to lay off the vino, babe. It’s making you a very sick person. Holy shit!”
He slammed the door behind him and I sat right down and read my pages.
I was astounded, not so much at how incredibly violent Priscilla had revealed herself to be, but how good it was. It was like something you would read in a real book. Not the kind of book I would normally read, but a book nevertheless.
I put my fingers on the keyboard and stared at the blinking cursor at the top of page five.
Priscilla was covered in blood, it was caked in her fiery red hair, her forearms were sore from all the bone-grinding, and she couldn’t think of what to do next. I tried to put myself in her gore-splattered shoes, like the how-to-write-a-book books tell you to, and thought: Why, after all that hard work, Priscilla would want a nice mug of wine.
My least favorite clerk was stocking the shelves when I walked in. He made a big deal of giving me a wide berth when I passed by, like I was going to shove him aside in my eagerness to get at the bottles.
Then he lunged across the isle and snatched up a bottle of Marmont, holding in front of him like he was offering a piece of steak to a rabid Doberman.
“I need something stronger,” I said.
“You mean like a burgundy?” he asked with a snotty little grin.
“If that’s what’s stronger.”
“Watch out,” he said, carrying a bottle of Marmont Hearty Burgundy to the register. “You’re moving into Barbara Cartland territory now.”
The phone was ringing when I walked in the door and I was sure it was Burt, calling from work so he could yell at me some more. Instead it was my sister, Eilene. She calls about once a week. We used to talk every day, but since she started her real estate career all she can talk about is the houses she’s trying to sell. Even in general conversation she sounds like she’s reading from the real estate section of the paper. She’ll say, “I’m feeling very cozy and efficient today. My view of the rest of the day is breathtaking.” Whenever I started talking about my cats or Burt, she’d yawn into the phone and talk right over me.
She was in the middle of describing a lake front duplex (“The garden is so dreamy you might not even notice the gorgeous lake view!”) when I blurted out: “Guess what, Eilene? I’m an alcoholic. Heeeee!”
That shut her up.
“Yep. Specifically, I’m a wino. I’m guzzling wine right now. Burgundy. The strongest of the wines, I think.”
She giggled. “Are you, like, going to bars and stuff?”
“Not yet, but I’m going to. It’s part of the lifestyle, you know.”
“Well, good for you, Kerry. You should get out more. Bars are great places to network. Just the other day I met an investment banker at a mixer who was looking to unload a prime rental unit that—”
“Burt thinks I’m going to murder him.”
“He’s cheating with that secretary you told me about, isn’t he?” she said. “I told you from the start that he—”
“It’s not that. He doesn’t even like her.”
I could hear her inhaling a cigarette.
“Well, it’s about time, Kerry,” she said, exhaling. “If you need help hiding the body, let me know.”
“There’ll be no body left to hide!” I yelled at the phone and hung up.
See, that’s how my family is. You tell them you’re plunging into the deepest pit of hell and homicide and they slap you on the back and say, “You go, girl! Plunge away! Murder your cats while you’re at it!”
What a dunce Eilene was. If Burt was too tired to sleep with his own wife, how would he find the energy to sleep with some old hag?
“Down, down, I go,” I said, pouring a full mug of wine. Nobody cared, so why should I? The burgundy was thick and rich, like blood. I sat down at my desk and opened up the laptop.
Aside from correcting some misspellings (alcohol didn’t seem to help your spelling), I didn’t change anything. I was afraid to. Instead I printed all four pages, put them in an envelope with a cover letter and drove it the office of Killer Ink Magazine.
What a crime fiction magazine with a name like Killer Ink was doing in Meadow Valley was anybody’s guess. I wouldn’t even have known about it if the girls at the Club hadn’t tricked the editor, a seedy, foul-mouthed character who smelled like cigarettes, into coming to a “writer-editor conclave” they held at a coffee shop. They cooed over him like old hens then forced a pile of story submissions on him before he managed to escape.
None of their stories were published. I know this because while the girls squealed about how wonderful it would be to finally get in print, I watched the editor walk to his car through the coffee shop window. I watched him crush their precious stories into a big ball then carefully set it in front of his left rear tire before driving away. Laughing.
It was that memory that made me stuff the envelope into their mail slot and practically run back to the station wagon, instead of actually walking into the office and handing it to him.
When I got back home I frantically reread the four pages and started crying. I couldn’t help it. I was excited and terrified at the same time. I had finally submitted! I had shoved my innocent (if murderous) Priscilla out into the cold, cruel world. In between mugs of wine I alternately imagined the editor crumpling her up with disdain or slavering over her with the joy an editor must feel when he discovers true genius.
I woke up on the sofa. My head hurt and my mouth tasted like I’d chewed on a cat toy all night. And that bottle of burgundy? Bone dry.
Blackout! I thought. Alcoholic blackout! What had I done? I counted the cats, then checked the garbage disposal. There were no bones laying around but that was the whole point, wasn’t it? And there was no Burt either.
I didn’t remember him coming home, I didn’t remember fixing him dinner, I didn’t remember the six additional pages I’d written. I also didn’t remember hearing the phone ring, despite the fact there were two messages on the answering machine. The first was from Burt.
“In case you want to know, I’m staying at a motel,” he said, choked up with self-pity. “I was afraid to come home. I was afraid to wake up and find myself getting jammed down the garbage disposal. Knock it off!”
I heard a giggle in the background, he dropped the phone, picked it up, then quickly said, “Knock it off—the drinking, I mean. It’s bad.” Then he hung up.
The second message was from Hank Henderson, the editor of Killer Ink Magazine.
“We got your submission,” he said, “and I usually don’t call writers, but your story is hands down the most depraved, despicable and demented thing I’ve read in my whole goddamn life. What the fuck kind of magazine do you think we are?”
My hand reflexively reached for the empty bottle. I wanted to smash the answering machine, I wanted to smash my computer, I wanted to smash my life. I swore then and there I’d never drink again.
“I’ll tell you what kind of magazine we are,” the voice went on, “we’re the kind of magazine that eats that shit up with a goddamn ladle. I loved it! I’m dying to know what Priscilla the Killa gets up to next, now that’s she’s disposed of her asshole husband. I see a serial here. A murder a month. Call me and let’s talk.”
“So, what sorta books you write?” the clerk asked, yawning as he rung up my two jugs of burgundy.
“Murder books,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Have I seen your work before?”
“Maybe. Do you read the obituaries?”
“You write obituaries?”
“Sorta. Let me ask you a question—do you think a garbage disposal could handle a human thigh bone? If you used enough olive oil?”
I have to hand it to him, he was actually giving the question some thought. “Well, maybe a really good one could, but—”
“Yeah? What about teeth? Think it could handle teeth? I’m thinking they’re harder than bone, because you can break a bone with your teeth. Heeeee!”
He put the bottles in a bag, passed them over, and I sensed his long-running comedy routine was over.
I had the jugs halfway to the wagon when I heard the voice of Margie Stein, the vice-president of the Lower Meadow Valley Writers Club. She was coming out of the video store next to the liquor mart.
“How are you?” her squinched face said, but her eyes were on my jugs.
She acted cheery, but underneath I could see the horror—and joy. I could imagine her at the next meeting, breathlessly revealing that Kerry, yes, our very own Miss Priss, was a big ol’ boozehead now!
“So, how’s the novel coming along?” she asked through that tight little grin of hers.
“Really well,” I said, then felt ashamed for lying, then realized I wasn’t lying. “Extremely well.”
“It was a romantic novel, right? Some kind of—”
“Murder mystery,” I said. “Though it’s not much of a mystery, since the narrator is doing all the murdering.”
“Yes. The first chapter has already been accepted by Killer Ink. They love it. They think I’m demented. Isn’t that wonderful? Finally someone from the club will be in print!”
She didn’t say a thing. Her eyes dropped back to the jugs.
“Are you drinking, Kerry?”
“Not yet,” I said, starting for the wagon. “But the day is young!”
I was laughing so hysterically I had to pull over halfway home. It was too much. The look on her face! I opened a jug—these had convenient screw tops instead of corks, and took a good pull. Those poor girls at the club. I couldn’t believe I’d wasted so much time with them. Bunch of old housewives writing stories about their retarded children. Maybe I’d show up roaring drunk at the next meeting and let them see how a real writer operated.
Half a jug and six pages later (Priscilla was having a helluva time explaining to the investigating detective where Bart had gone to), Burt came home. Without a word he went straight into the bedroom. After a couple minutes of stomping around and slamming the closet doors, he finally yelled, “I’m packing my shit, if you want to know. I won’t spend another day in this house unless you get off the bottle.”
I finished the paragraph (Priscilla was sizing up the detective for a little disposal action) and walked to the kitchen.
I turned on the garbage disposal and over the low roar I called, “Oh Burt. Oh Burt, dear! Can you come here a moment? I think there’s something stuck in the disposal. Maybe you can reach down in there and . . .”
I flicked the switch off, and before the blades stopped whirring, the front door slammed.
I sat down and got back to work.
I closed the door behind me and set the box of wine on the coffee table. Burt had been gone for two days, but now he was back, with reinforcements. They were all there. Burt, Margie and a couple other girls from the club, my sister, and a blonde floozy who I guessed was Tanya. Burt had lied about her being old enough to suck Solomon’s schlong. Lincoln’s maybe.
They all held papers in their hands and it didn’t take me long to figure out they’d printed out the first 50 pages or so of my novel.
“Heeeeee,” I said.
“Right off the bat, I want to say I was against this fixer-upper,” Elaine said, putting out her cigarette, “but this,” she waved her pages, “I can’t mortgage this.”
“Murder Ink likes it,” I said.
“Murder Ink is a filthy, pornographic magazine,” Margie said, more to the others than me. “I’d be ashamed to see my work in such a terrible rag.”
“So would they,” I said, and things went downhill from there.
I’m ashamed to say I argued with them for about two hours before I saw the light. It took me that long to realize what I was giving up—my marriage, my family, my friends; and what I was getting in return—hangovers, madness and a handful of words some sleazy magazine wanted to shock the world with.
For months afterwards I cringed at how close I came to going down that dark road. Even then doubts lingered and I wondered every waking moment if I had made the right choice.
Then the first book of my three-book contract came out (The Scarlet Assassin Leaves Home), my divorce went through, and then, yes, then I knew I’d done the right thing. Or the write thing, if you will.