Some people spend their whole lives bored. They might not even know it, but they are. They get up in the morning, go to work, head home, eat dinner, go to bed – this same tired routine playing out endlessly, endlessly, day after day until they find themselves in the ground. Some people will never realize they wasted their life until it’s already over.
Not me. I lived my life to the fullest. I did everything I ever wanted to – ate the finest foods, traveled to exotic lands, slept with beautiful women – because I understood what most people don’t. I knew that everyone is handed this one chance to experience the world as it spins in the darkness of space, but more importantly I knew that you only get so many spins.
I have my first wife to thank for this. It will surprise some of you to read those words but this is my last chance to share my story; I am an old man, the cancer has taken control of my insides and some stories can only be told when the teller isn’t around to face the consequences.
None of you, no matter how well you think you know me, know the truth about what happened to my first wife Miranda. I have held this from you like the dirty thing it is, something dead and rotting that should’ve been buried long ago, but the fact remains that I didn’t tell you because I felt it was my burden to bear. There is something so deliciously terrible about being the sole keeper of a secret – the tug-of-war between sharing what weighs on your soul and keeping it as your own dark companion forever.
I married Miranda in the spring of 1946. We were as young and bright as new blossoms on the trees. I loved her so desperately because she was what I could never be: outgoing, vivacious, captivating… to put it short, she was a star. Even at 18 Miranda could walk into a room and all eyes would turn to her. It wasn’t so much that she was beautiful – of course she was beautiful – but there was something about her that seemed to radiate from within, like she had a fire burning in her belly. She was special. She was meant for more than our shitty little railroad town and yet part of her charm was that she didn’t seem to know it. Miranda was like Jean Harlow had dropped from the sky, landed in a cornfield, and then went about her business as though nothing extraordinary had happened at all.
Sometimes when we were lying in bed I would just stare at her. Sleeping, serene, and yet all the while smoldering with that flame that resided inside her like magic. I brushed the hair from her face. I wanted to give her everything even though I had nothing to give, nothing that Miranda truly deserved.
Instead I built a small but modest life. We had a nice, clean house near Main Street so she could shop for dresses whenever she wanted. I held a respectable job selling insurance policies at my father’s office. I took her to nice dinners at the local diner and movies down at the drive-in.
It took me a while to notice, but the flame in Miranda began to burn her from the inside out. I could see it in her face when she was the most glamorous woman at any of our company cocktail parties; she could outshine the rest of them without even trying. She no longer relished all eyes turning on her when she entered a room because it was only expected, as natural as breathing. Of course my coworkers wanted to fuck her. Of course their wives hated her. Of course there would be petty gossip and dirty talk but none of it mattered because it was so goddamn easy.
We had only been married for five years when I walked into our bedroom and there she was, sitting at the edge of our bed with a half-empty martini in her hand. I had left work early, hoping to surprise her as she’d seemed down in the dumps as of late, only to find that she’d been drinking since I left that morning.
“God, Arthur,” she said, her voice lubricated by cheap gin, “I’m so bored. I’m so godawfully bored.”
The martini glass tipped dangerously in her hand. I made a slow move towards her, afraid she might bolt like a stray cat.
“Darling, let me have that.”
Miranda jerked away even though I’d made no attempt to touch her. Gin sloshed over the edge and soaked into the carpet near her bare feet. Her toes were painted red, I remember – don’t we remember the strangest things?
“I h-hate this place.” Hiccups were setting in and this was a fresh shock; my wife was always cool, collected, never so much as a burp or a giggle at the dozens of cocktail parties I’d taken her to over the years. (Dozens, I realized then? Had it really been dozens of those office get-togethers I’d dragged her to? I thought at that moment yes, she was right, those had been terribly boring.)
“I hate it here, I d-d-don’t belong here, Arthur.” Miranda noticed the martini glass was spilling and she righted it only to take another deep sip. Swig, was the better word. “I’m like – a – a rose you planted in one of those states where it never gets warm. You want me to be beautiful here but I can’t. I’m wilting.”
And then she began to cry, which scared me more than anything. I hadn’t seen my wife cry since our wedding day and even then it had been only a single tear running down her cheek, probably because that was the most glamorous way to cry, and with Miranda there was always someone watching her, there was always a spotlight as though her life was a silver screen and the rest of us just blurry figures in the audience.
If this had been a scene in the movie of her life any discerning director would have left it on the cutting room floor. It was not elegant, the crying was not pretty, and she was spilling more gin on the carpet.
The next day I booked a trip to Manhattan. I couldn’t promise her that we could leave Nebraska, not yet, we didn’t have the money but I had enough squirreled away for a jaunt to somewhere a winter rose could thrive.
Miranda was ecstatic. She bought four new dresses, a new luggage set, shoes and jewelry and expensive makeup. I let her do it because I wanted her to be happy and in all honesty I thought she’d get it out of her system.
I’ll never forget the way she looked when we saw Times Square for the first time. The way the streetlights sparkled in her eyes. Her pretty face turned up to take it in, to take all of it in, the sights and sounds and smells and good god, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her more beautiful.
That first night we made love the way we hadn’t in a very long time. I supposed I hadn’t even realized it, how she’d been pulling away from me for much longer than my stupid self cared to pay attention to. Because maybe it wasn’t just Nebraska that was boring, you know?
It was only our second afternoon in Manhattan. I had planned to take her to a nice four-star restaurant on the main drag, something really nice for lunch, my belly was already growling just thinking about how much better the food would be from our local diner’s. The flow of people was thick that day, everyone was out and about and it was exciting the way our hometown never could hope to be. That sense of being part of something simply by standing in a crowd. It’s something I’ve experienced many times over since then, but that day was the first.
She was holding my hand. Her fingers were so thin, so delicate inside her elegant glove. I loved how they felt in my palm. I always had.
I gave them an affectionate squeeze as I watched for the traffic to slow so we could cross the street. Then, all at once, everyone started to move. I felt myself trapped in the rush of bodies like a leaf caught in the wind; I tightened my grip and turned to look at Miranda just as I realized my fingers had closed around nothing but cloth.
I glanced down at my own hand to see it holding her glove. I looked up, hoping to find her only a few people behind, but there were so many faces and none of them were hers.
I called her name once, twice as the crowd crushed me towards the other side of the street. It was a blessing because if they hadn’t I’d have stayed in the center of the road, screaming for Miranda as the impatient New York traffic grew tired of my antics and eventually ran me down.
Lunch forgotten, I crossed to where we’d started as soon as the cars allowed. Some part of me had this wild idea that maybe she’d just spotted something in a store window she simply had to have, some sparkling trinket that she wanted and I’d find her there, hands pressed against the glass – one gloved, one not – and when I approached she’d look up, give me that beautiful movie star smile and ask pretty please, Arthur, will you get it for me?
I backtracked all the way to our hotel. She wasn’t at any of the shops.
In our hotel room (where she also wasn’t) I went straight for the phone to call the police. She’d been taken from me, Miranda was missing and I needed help, but it was as I reached for the phone that I realized something.
The jewelry box, the one she had filled with new earrings and necklaces and other baubles just before we’d left – far too many for a few nights in Manhattan, I’d thought vaguely at the time – was gone. A quick peek into the drawer near my side of the bed proved that so was the envelope of emergency cash I’d hidden inside the Gideon bible.
I sat on the edge of the bed. Had a martini been in my hands, I would’ve spilled gin on the floor.
I’m not sure when I actually called the police. I think in a blind moment of rage I’d meant to report her as a thief but when they arrived, neat and stern in their blue uniforms, I found myself telling them that my wife had been taken from me in a crowd. I showed them the glove she’d left behind. I described her in the most clinical of terms; I told them the color of her hair (blonde) and her eyes (blue) and I never mentioned the way she burned from the inside.
Maybe it was easier that way. To tell them she’d been taken. Maybe I was embarrassed. Maybe some part of me still believed it, despite the missing valuables. Maybe in my heart I couldn’t face the fact that the beautiful, bored woman I loved had left me like a fool in the streets of Manhattan, had perhaps been planning to leave from the first moment I showed her our plane tickets to New York.
On my flight back to Nebraska, short $300 and one wife, I could hear her voice in my ears. I’m so bored, she’d said. I’m so godawfully bored.
I made myself a promise then. I wasn’t going to let her destroy me. I wasn’t going to let her be right. I wasn’t going to be boring anymore.
Rumors run rampant in a small town when there’s nothing else to talk about but each other. I didn’t hear the stories they told about me, but I can only imagine what they came up with. For all I know they thought Miranda had left me for Clark Gable and was already ripe with his bastard child. The explanation had to have been as grandiose as that for me to tender my resignation to my furious father, sell my clean little house with everything in it, and head out on the road with only the cash in my pocket and Miranda’s abandoned luggage set filled with what little possessions I had left.
Before going, though, I took all her dresses to the backyard. I soaked them in gasoline. I lit a match.
Silk and satin and lace… it all burns so quickly.
Some of you reading this must be saying, yes, we know this part, Arthur. Eventually you were honest with us and you were honest with yourself and you told us Miranda ran away in Manhattan. This is no secret.
This is not the secret.
I spent the next 10 years of my life doing what some people only dream of. Anywhere that sounded interesting, I went. Any woman that caught my eye, I wooed. Nothing was out of the question. I worked odd jobs (some odder than most) to make a living as I traveled the world. Having worked in insurance I knew how to minimize risk and yet took every one that crossed my path.
You know, after all. You’ve seen the pictures and souvenirs.
One cool spring day in 1961 I found myself in New York again. It wasn’t something I’d planned – I’d hopped a train and somehow, there I was. Before I knew it I was standing at the same intersection of Manhattan where my wife had slipped her hand out of mine, leaving me with only a glove and my own suffocating boredom.
Looking at the people as they crossed the street, I expected to feel angry. God knows I’d been angry when I left Manhattan the last time. I searched my soul for that anger, that rage I’d struggled with for the first few years of my new life, and found only a strange sense of peace.
“Thank you, Miranda,” I said. I was smiling. A pretty girl passed me, saw my smile, and returned it. She was nowhere near as beautiful as Miranda had been but something I’d learned was that women who burned from the inside were hot to the touch. Those women, they scalded you. Sometimes a flame in your belly is just an excuse for arson.
I had no desire to explore Manhattan – in all my travels this was one place I had (perhaps unconsciously) avoided – but there were no trains out of town for another day so I wandered aimlessly out of the city. I liked to let my feet lead me where they may; I have found some of the more interesting places that way.
That day my feet led me to Coney Island. It felt right immediately; something about the bright colors and circus atmosphere was somehow a soothing alternative to the glaring lights of Manhattan. I ambled down the boardwalk for a bit, sipping a beer. I rode the ferris wheel. I ate a hot dog.
I had just decided to head back to the train station when I spotted it: a big blanched structure that resembled the front of a carnival funhouse. A booth sat in the center, surrounded by signs that screamed various promises at passersby.
A MYSTERY OF NATURE!
KEPT ALIVE THRU THE MIRACLE OF SCIENCE!
YOU WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EYES!
The repeated claims that whatever dwelled inside the white trailer was ALIVE reminded me of Barnum & Bailey’s fiasco, similarly screamed promises painted on signs that lead paying customers into a dark room only to find a mummified monkey torso fused to a tuna’s tail. It had been advertised as a mermaid and while it was clearly not, people seemed angrier that the subject was dead rather than a scam – as though a live woman with a skirt for a tail would have been a better deal.
I approached the trailer and the booth at its center where an uninterested old man waited inside, flipping the pages of a comic book with calloused thumbs. Another sign on the front of his booth read AS REAL AS YOU OR ME!
“Excuse me, sir,” I said, “what is this?”
He jerked one of those thumbs upwards, not looking at me.
I leaned back to see a big sign above his booth and couldn’t be sure how I’d missed it. In huge, proud letters, it read:
It’s ALIVE, I thought inexplicably.
“One, please,” I said, putting my money on the counter. Without breaking eye contact with his comic he took the coins and slid a ticket towards me. He licked his callous and turned another page.
I began to go inside, then paused. The day had grown almost eerily quiet. The boardwalk had emptied out and I couldn’t see anyone else frequenting any of the other smaller freak show trailers.
“Slow day?” I asked, and he shrugged.
Not wanting to bother him further I walked up the stairs to the right of his booth. They lead to a corridor that turned a corner, leaving behind the dull sunlight of the spring day and plunging me into darkness.
A sudden acrid smell struck me. It was not unlike the vague scent of shit that seems to surround the three rings of a circus, but something else was there too, an oddly alluring undertone of perfumed oils. The two odors struggled for dominance and neither could get the upper hand, leaving the trailer smelling of an uncomfortable animal sexuality.
I groped along the wall, determined not to let the cheap scare factor get to me. It was how they did things, these carnies, they robbed you of your basic sense of safety so they could take you off guard when their sham freaks finally made an appearance. I wondered if they’d painted Lady Alligator green for the right effect and laughed breathlessly.
As I shuffled along I saw a flickering orange light around an upcoming corner. Nearly there, then, I thought, and the smell suddenly hit me in a staggering gust. Carnal, somehow disgusting and yet I felt an unexpected stirring in my pants. My mouth had gone dry.
When I turned the corner I was surprised to see the room filled with burning candles. At their center, lit ominously by their shuddering glow, was a large porcelain bathtub.
I had stopped when I entered, surprised first by the number of candles, but I found myself unable to move when one long, slender leg emerged from the tub, pointing prettily towards the ceiling.
The skin on this leg was mottled, scaly. Only the sole of the foot was smooth, giving it a strangely virginal look. It wasn’t green, though that was a small comfort.
The leg disappeared back into the tub and two arms slid slowly out, resting on either side. The skin of the arms were just as spoilt as the skin had been on the leg; the fingers began to drum along the porcelain and I saw their nails were long, sharp. An unsettling tap-tap-tapping noise filled the room.
I realized I’d been holding my breath and took in a great, gasping gulp of air. That was a mistake; I nearly gagged on the smell.
The thing in the tub made a low, rumbling sound in the back of its throat. I felt for an insane moment that it was calling to me.
My feet felt like they were filled with lead but I took one step forward, then another. I forced myself to move until I was standing at the center of the room, facing the bathtub and the thing inside.
It turned its head towards me.
I tried to scream. I tried to scream and nothing came out because it had fixed me with its gaze and I was frozen like a mouse cornered by a rattlesnake.
The skin on its face was as mottled and destroyed as I’d seen on its limbs; webs of damaged tissue ran along the cheeks, forehead, jaw like hot wax had been poured there. Where the nose should’ve been were two sunken slits like the holes in a skull on display in a science classroom. Its long hair was plaited in a strangely elegant braid that rested on one shoulder; I couldn’t tell the color, the candles gave the whole room an alien orange glow, turning everything into a smoldering sort of amber. The tops of its breasts swelled above the murky water in twisted mimicry of a pin-up girl posing in a bubble bath. I was struck by its contradiction, a thing of both revulsion and raw sensuality.
Then it smiled at me.
When it did, its lips split into an impossibly wide grin; it was so terrifying, so awful to behold that it took me a moment to realize the flesh there had, at one point, been slit beyond the normal reach of a human smile. The corners of its mouth had the shiny-smooth texture of healed-over skin and now the grin could extend almost to its misshapen ears.
Its teeth had been filed to sharp points.
I was seconds away from turning to leave the monster in its grotesque glow of candlelight when it said,
I knew that voice.
I knew that voice.
Oh, dear god, I knew that voice.
I tried to say her name but all that came out was a low mmmm noise.
Lady Alligator drummed its sharp nails along the porcelain edge of the tub again. I felt the sound in the depths of my soul.
“I suppose I knew you’d find me someday,” it sighed, stretching luxuriously. “After all, I’m sure it’s all you’ve been doing. Looking for me.”
I thought of when I’d burned her clothes in the backyard and said nothing.
Lady Alligator cocked its head, surveying me with the same bored impatience I remembered so well from my few young years as a husband. Its eyes above that slitted, inhuman nose… they were Miranda’s, there was no mistaking that, and I think perhaps it was the worst part, that though the rest of her had become a monster the eyes hadn’t changed at all.
“Say something, Arthur.” Not a suggestion. A demand.
“What – what happened to you?” I finally managed. It sounded monumentally stupid even as it left my lips but I could think of nothing else. “Who did this? Who did this to you?”
Lady Alligator rolled Miranda’s eyes.
“Oh, Arthur,” she said, disappointed in me as always. “You’re so naïve.”
I took my suit jacket off and held it towards her. To cover her up, you see, because it didn’t matter that 10 years had passed, it didn’t matter all the time I spent convinced she’d left me in the streets of Manhattan, it didn’t matter that I thought I had changed because I hadn’t, I still loved her and I thought I could save her.
“Stand up, Miranda, put this on, I’m getting you out of here.”
Lady Alligator stared at me. She didn’t move.
“Come on, Miranda, we’re leaving.”
“What, like this is one of your dreadfully boring cocktail parties and you’ve had your fill?” it said with a barking little laugh. “I’m still the pretty wife on your arm and you can shoo me out the door because you’ve decided it’s time to go?”
“This – this place—“ I could barely get the words out. “God damn it, Miranda, someone mutilated you! They turned you into a – a—“
“A freak?” Lady Alligator tossed its head back and laughed again, louder this time. It was not a pleasant sound; it was the cackle of a witch in a fairy tale. “Oh, dear sweet Arthur. You of all people should know I’ve always been a freak. Different. You could read it on the faces of every person in that shithole town, I belonged there no more than a tiger belongs as a housecat.”
I stood there, holding my jacket towards her like an idiot.
“Yes, someone did this to me, if that’s how you want to put it. They plucked me from the crowd that day in New York and they stripped my old life away from me like the thick layer of country dirt that it was.” It ran its palms along the mottled skin of its arms, tenderly, as though remembering when the flesh had been smooth and perfect. “A little gasoline and a flame, that’s all it took.”
“Miranda,” I said, because I thought maybe saying her name again would bring her back to me, “I thought you left. I thought you left me at that intersection, you’re saying someone took you?”
“Poor Arthur.” I had the feeling it was repeating my name, too, but for a different reason. Lady Alligator regarded me with quiet distaste. “It happens in the city all the time. Women are taken. Sometimes for sex shows, sometimes for… other reasons.” It gestured vaguely to the amber glow of its tiny trailer room.
“You didn’t leave me,” I said. My voice sounded strangely flat. The smell of sex and shit wafted past me again and I tried not to breathe it in.
“We all leave in different ways.” Lady Alligator pursed its lips as if in thought. “If you’re asking did I leave you at that intersection? No. I was taken, like I told you.”
Before I could even let this sink in it went on.
“I had been planning to leave, though, if that makes any difference,” it said, that terrible grin splitting its mouth, all those sharpened teeth glittering in the candlelight. “Surely you noticed my jewelry was gone. And the money. You thought you’d been so clever, dear Arthur, but you’re as predictable as you are boring, and I knew it would be in the bible in the drawer.”
I had been right all along. I had been wrong but somehow I had been right.
“I wanted to get lunch, first. I thought the least you could do was feed me before I went,” Lady Alligator mused, then laughed again. The sound echoed off the tin walls and vibrated in my skull.
I looked at its skin, the destroyed web of burnt tissue that covered it like a grotesque lace veil, and thought, How poetic. My wife had finally let the flame inside consume her.
I still held the coat out towards her.
“Did you ever love me?” I asked, and I knew I sounded as pathetic as the dull Nebraskan boy she considered me to be.
The monster Miranda had become pressed its lips together and favored me with a tight smile. I thought for one wild moment it was going to say something kind.
“Oh, Arthur,” Lady Alligator murmured. “Can an eagle love a worm? Can the brilliant sun love a dirty light bulb in a truckstop bathroom? Darling, you’ve always known that you captured me like a firefly in a jar. You thought if you didn’t poke holes in the lid I’d be content to suffocate in your sweaty grasp but you dropped the glass and I escaped. And now I’m where I was always meant to be.”
It said this with the deliberate patience of a mother explaining something to an especially dimwitted child. I felt it, then – the anger that had roiled my guts when I opened the drawer and saw the money missing from the Gideon bible. Not because she’d robbed me, but because she’d deceived me. She made me believe she loved me and she left me and I grieved for her, god damn it, I grieved in my own way as though I’d been made a widower and the whole fucking time she was laughing at me.
“I bring in thousands,” it went on. “They come from all corners of the world to see me. I’m the star attraction here. I can have any man I want.”
You’re a selfish whoremonster in a dirty bathtub, I thought, but I didn’t say anything.
Miranda’s eyes, a shade of alien gold in the flickering glow of lit candles, squinted at me.
“You’re just the same as you’ve always been,” it said, a lilt of disappointment in its voice. “Such a terrible bore.”
I put my suit jacket back on. Lady Alligator sighed deeply.
“Is this about the money?” It shifted in the tub and for a moment I saw the dark, destroyed flesh of what had once been its nipples. “I have money. You tell Buddy outside to give you $300 from my account. He’ll take care of you and then we’ll be square, all right, Arthur?”
“You know what,” Lady Alligator said with a preening little tilt of its grotesque head, “tell him to throw in an extra hundred, a gift from me to—“
And then my hands were around its throat, the skin beneath my palms felt dry and scaly but I ignored it and squeezed tighter, relishing how Miranda’s eyes widened in shock, drinking in the sound of its self-righteous voice finally silenced.
I thought I could save her.
Lady Alligator made a strangled noise as I took one hand away from its neck to shove its head beneath the grimy water. A great burst of bubbles erupted when I did but I threaded my fingers through its hair and gave it no leverage. I pushed down harder.
Its arms flailed helplessly. Its feet kicked. Its toes were painted red.
We remember the strangest things.
I held it underwater until it stopped moving. The mottled hands went limp and fell back into the tub. When I released it at last, it floated there like scum on a pond.
I’m not sure how long I stared at its body before reaching towards it, wanting to be sure it was dead, wanting to be sure the nightmare was truly over. I took it by its scaly shoulders and leaned it against the porcelain back of the bathtub. I brushed the hair from its face, just like I used to do when my wife was sleeping.
The mouth gaped in a wide, terrible smile. The pointed teeth gleamed. The destroyed skin shimmered in the candlelight.
Above the slit nose Miranda’s eyes stared at me, blank.
A monster hidden in a dark room. That’s who my wife was, and always had been.
I left New York that afternoon. Stumbled down the steps past Buddy the comic book reader in his booth and made my way to the nearest highway. I hitched a ride and never looked back.
You may think this was what spurred me on, encouraged me to live every day as though it was my last, the fear of being caught for her murder. But things were different back then. She was a freak in a sideshow, she mattered to the police as much as garbage in the gutter. And the sideshow, well, they could always… recruit fresh talent. There was a new Lady Alligator around every corner.
The truth is – and yes, I promised you the truth – that I have pushed every day of my life to the very brink because, as I said, I understand what most people don’t. Life is finite, whether you believe it or not. We only get so many spins.
And I know, in that same dark room inside myself, that when I run out of spins, I’ll face her again. It.
I’ll pay for my sins by staring into those eyes, the same ones that shed a single tear on the day we were wed, the ones above that terrible smile. When my life is over my hell will begin, all pointed teeth and scaly skin. If you’re reading this now, I’m already gone, and it’s already started.
Live every day to the fullest.
We all leave in different ways.