(1) Wt. Fm. $20kPadgett Arango
She hadn't meant to make the bed that evening, Athena told herself, nervously flattening the sheets, listening closely for the approach of a car engine that she knew would be pulling into the driveway at any moment. She pulled the sheets up hastily, racking her brain to remember Tuli's exact style of bed making. Tight hospital corners, she muttered to herself, pulling the blankets stiffly over the sheets. With a careful precision any chambermaid would have envied, Athena lay the pillows on the bed and hurriedly rushed downstairs. She threw herself into her chair, grabbing the remote control as she fell. She fumbled with it for a moment, straining to find the power button as she heard the car door slam outside. The screen door creaked open and the television sprang to live, filling the room with screams and gunfire. Athena relaxed.
Tuli calmly entered the room, each hairy arm barely supporting a paper bag overflowing with food products. "Hi, honey," he said calmly.
Athena turned her head to him, trying as hard as she could to pretend she hadn't noticed his arrival. "Oh! Hi, sweetie. Did you get everything you needed at the store?"
Tuli nodded. "I've got to go put some of this in the freezer before it melts. Casserole all right with you for dinner?"
"Whatever's easiest for you." She smiled. Winningly, she hoped. Tuli laughed, confidently. Athena scrutinized the narrow wrinkles which lined the corners of his mouth and eyes, attempting to ferret out any possible suspicion that might be residing there. Seeing none, she relaxed, turned back to the television, and ask Tuli for a beer, which he readily brought.
Athena sat for a while, rubbing the edges of her lips with the mouth of the bottle, staring blankly at the television. She turned over the events of the past few minutes, attempting in vain to give them some reality, but, much to her dismay, they held no more emotional content for her than the endless parade of random violence which floated across the screen before her.
After her usual drive home, she had stepped through the door of her house and, much to her surprise, nothing happened. Athena paused in the doorway, waiting for the inevitable mishap to occur, but, as she stood there, she realized no such event was to occur. Tuli, as per a clearly defined clause in their pre-nuptial agreement, had been designated as the housekeeper, chef, and, in the case of conception, child-rearer. Unfortunately for the two of them, neither was fully aware at the time of Tuli's complete and utter inability to prepare food with any skill, and, furthermore, to prepare food without incident. Every dish was not only inedible, but an adventure in the preparation. Tuesday's souffle had not collapsed, as most inexpertly made souffles are prone to do, but continued to expand until stretched well beyond the elasticity point of egg until the oven and, indeed, much of the kitchen and Tuli, were covered with a fine layering of egg white. Wednesday's meatloaf had been catapulted by forces beyond mortal comprehension from the oven, nearly reducing the skull of their pet cat to a red smudge on the wall.
To complicate matters, Tuli remained utterly oblivious to his culinary ineptitude. He calmly scraped the edible residue off whatever surfaces he could reach and was pleased to serve these, housed in fine silver and china, to his loving bride. For the first few months, Athena begged him to either let her cook, which would have been in violation of their contract, and, therefore, illegal, or to attempt simpler dishes. Tuli failed to understand why any change was necessary, and, soon, Athena realized the futility of her arguments and settled into complacency.
To his credit, Tuli was an expert, nearly superhuman, housekeeper in other regards. Athena arrived home each day from her job at the local college to find every room in the house, with the exception of the kitchen, spotless. Cat hairs were disposed of nearly before they touched the surface of the carpet. To the best of her recollection, she had yet to see a speck of dust on any piece of furniture, though she had yet to check the top sills of the windows. Tuli had once told Athena, while they were dating, that he had been raised in an ancient hotel in Rhode Island by his aunt who had, to save on costs, forced him into indenture as a chambermaid, or, rather, chamberlad. Though most children would have despised such labor, Tuli found the housework very enjoyable, leading to his insistence on the housework clause in their agreement.
By the night of their honeymoon, Athena realized the depths to which Tuli's cleaning obsession went. After their prolonged moment of passionate lovemaking, Tuli had felt a need, not only to shower, but to procure, from the rather edgy hotel night staff, a clean set of sheets in which the two of them could sleep. Though slightly disgruntled at first, Athena came to realize the benefits of the situation. As a child, she had been described as brainy, and, for the most part, attempted to live up to the epithet. She had gained her first doctoral degree by her twentieth birthday and was quickly embraced into the arms of Knibbs College, a small liberal arts school in scenic San Guinefort. Her professorial duties not only occupied all of her time at work, but often left her easily distracted during the evening, making ordinary domestic tasks an especial burden for her. Her female coworkers often complained of the unremitting sexual demands their husbands put upon them, and Athena regarded herself as fortunate to have as sexless a partner as Tuli. Sex simply wasn't clean enough for him, Athena often pondered. She had no complaints, however, finding more pleasure with her hands than she had during the few instances of coupling that had occurred in their marriage.
It was Tuli's obsessiveness in regard to cleanliness that had forced her to frantically make the bed that afternoon. Finding that the house was empty, Tuli, according to his note, having run to the store for a moment, Athena headed upstairs to change out of her rather overstarched business suit. After shrugging off the stiff red jacket, she bent down to remove her shoes, and, doing so, lost her balance and tumbled backwards, colliding harshly with the bed and falling to the floor amid a jumble of sheets, comforters, and bedspreads. Eventually Athena, with much flailing, managed to retrieve herself from the tangle of linens and stood, one-shoed, observing the damage. The mattress lay askew, resting only marginally on the box spring. The mattress itself was, for the most part, bare, covered only by a rather worn-out mattress pad. Athena, steadying herself on the bedside table, removed her one shoe and started to heave the queen-sized mattress back onto the box spring. After a few vain attempts to shove the mattress into place, she realized pulling would likely be more effective and maneuvered around the linens to the opposite side of the bed, whereupon she reached for the mattress, dragging it toward her. As the mattress lifted slightly above the frame, Athena noticed a patch of light white among the powder blue surface of the box spring and, ceasing momentarily her efforts in mattress relocation, crouched to examine it.
The white turned out to be a pile of papers which Athena lifted in hr right hand and began to peruse. The first was a bill of sale, a generic one that could be purchased at an office supply store. The writing on it was Tuli's, easy to identify by his compulsively neat handwriting. The bill read simply: (1) Wt. Fm., then, in the price column, the figure $20,000. Wt. Fm., she wondered, casually gripping the bill in her left hand. Unable to determine what the cryptic writing could possibly stand for, she leafed through the remainder of the papers. Each paper was filled with Tuli's notes. In addition to being perfectly legible, Tuli's handwriting was also distinguished by its disregard for margins. Like most of his papers, these were filled from top to bottom with line after line of incredibly small, perfectly legible print. Athena strained her eyes to read the tiny notes and realized, with some mental labor, that they were notes on cooking, much as she had taken during her Home Economics classes in high school. Utterly and completely confused, she let her eyes drift across the room, hoping irrationally that something would provide a catalyst to make these papers make sense. Her eyes rested on the small digital clock quietly perched on Tuli's bedstand and, with a shock, realized that she had been in the room for nearly twenty minutes and that Tuli would be home any minute. She frantically realized that these papers must have been hidden, and, furthermore, they must have been hidden from her. Athena had never been scared of Tuli, but, for some reason, felt a deep sense of dread within her. Athena felt her palms sweat and her pulse quicken, laughingly thinking back to her days as a Psych major and listening to the town Skinnerite lecturing on flight/fight reactions. I need time to think, she mumbled, as she often did when nervous. Then, coming to the conclusion, that, whatever Tuli's motivations in hiding the papers, it would be best for him not to know that she knew of their existence. She grabbed the mattress and pulled.
"Casserole's ready," Tuli shouted, staggering out of the kitchen's swinging door, proudly bearing his ceramic dish emblazoned with bold patterns of fish and sparrows. Slim trails of smoke seeped out of the entryway to the kitchen before the door swung shut behind him, cutting off the smoke. Tuli brought the steaming dish to the small table occupying the center of the room and gingerly placed the dish upon the coaster. Tuli placed himself on the plastic-coated recliner near the table, then reached over, brandishing two serving utensils, and lunged toward the serving dish. Within moments he had produced an amorphous quantity of yellowish gelatin. Looking closely, Athena fancied she saw hints of mushroom, and possibly a few stray leaves of spinach, suspended in the semi-liquid solution Tuli was eagerly piling on to her plate. What kind of cooking school is teaching him this?
Tuli grinned. "Looks good, doesn't it?"
Athena smiled. Was he deranged? Did he really think this slop was appetizing? She thought back over the recent meals Tuli had served. Until this past month, his meals, though presented in unorthodox manners and often charred, almost tasted like food. But, from the start of September, Tuli had begun, with the now-infamous Fruitcake flamb=E9, preparing dishes utterly beyond the comprehension of even the most creative chef. Athena strained to recall the dates occasionally entered in the notes. She seemed to recall that all the dates began with September, but, she thought, she was prone to wishful thinking.
The quiet, repetitive noise of Tuli's insistent chewing of the rubbery food droned in Athena's ears. She raised her head to see her husband, grinning like a dog who has brought his master a dead rabbit. She scowled at him for a moment, then smiled.
She looked down at the plate and watched her meal wobble unappetizingly before her. She rose abruptly and moved towards the kitchen. Tuli started to stop her, but before he could rise from his chair, Athena stopped him with a gentle wave of her hand. "I need something to drink."
She entered the kitchen to find it, as usual, in a state of total disarray. Filthy pots and pans covered every visible inch of the countertops, as well as spilling into the sink. She leaned over one of the pots, peering over the lip to find some sort of green mildew clinging to the walls, Teflon coating be damned. Scanning the kitchen, she realized the key element of Tuli's cooking environment was missing. In all the clutter of the pots and pan and utensils, there was not one cookbook. Athena knew Tuli could not be so creative as to make his own dishes from scratch, and, as she mindlessly reached for a glass and filled it with water, she dug deep within her for memories she had long since forgotten. The horrors of her Home Economics classes as they forced her to recite mundane recipes for pancakes, meatloaves, and omelets so that she could prepare anything without the aid of a cookbook. She turned in horror to the door leading to the living room and knew, with utter certainty, that Tuli was taking cooking classes.
The next day at work was torture for Athena. Her morning classes were unruly, an odd occurrence for Athena, whose reputation for speaking faster than one could write was legendary within the Knibbs halls. She found herself slipping into long verbal pauses, as a casual lecture comment would set her mind working furiously on some tangent or another. "The fugue disorder is known to cause a person to act for days without any knowledge or memory of what they are doing," she rapidly intoned, then stopped suddenly, thinking maniacally that Tuli might, in a fugue, attend cooking classes, then return home, hide the evidence and continue with his daily life. The scratching of pencils ceased as the class caught up with her and the abrupt silence brought her back to the classroom and the eager faces, turned towards each other, whispering and groping each other. Athena reached for her forehead and left the room.
Once safely back in her office, she poured herself another cup of coffee and, locking the door of her office, sat at her desk. She sipped the coffee, then, with a resoluteness of action that surprised her, reached for the phone and called her home. Tuli answered on the second ring.
"Sanders residence," chirped Tuli's voice over the fiber optic line.
She jumped, having expected him not to be there. "Hi, honey. I was just calling to see if I had left one of my folders on the living room couch."
"You'd lose your head if it wasn't attached. Let me go see if it slipped under the cushions."
Athena was taken aback by the tone of his voice as he said this. He sounded mad at me. To be sure, his voice was sweet, sickeningly so, but Athena slowly became convinced that underneath was a genuine hostility as though he were mad at her for her absentminded ways. She heard the tell-tale rustle of the phone being lifted from the counter and attempted to compose her voice.
"Nope. The couch is empty."
"Oh," she laughed lightly. "It must be in my briefcase somewhere. Oh, well. I'll see you tonight."
Before she could respond, the connection clicked off in her ear. Athena slowly lay the phone on its cradle. Why was he so willing to get rid of me? Heading off to class?
Athena paused. She looked at the phone, suspiciously, then out the windows of her office, to make sure she wasn't being watched. She waited another half-minute, then scooped up the receiver and dialed her home again. No answer. She hung up and tried again, and, again, found her house to be devoid of life.
She clumsily dropped the receiver into the cradle and watched as it bounced out and hung, dangling, by its cord, then lifted her purse from the desk and headed out toward the parking lot.
With the lack of rush hour traffic, it took Athena a mere ten minutes to get home. The driveway was empty, the space that Tuli's car so often occupied clearly marked, as the ground beneath had been sheltered during the morning lawn watering and was a different color than the remainder of the driveway. The light spot seemed to mock Athena, and, in her anger, she covered it with her car, that no one else could see it.
She hurriedly unlocked the door, feeling like a cat burglar. Finding the key, she slowly opened the door and called out for Tuli. Hearing only the muffled meowing of the cat in the distance, she opened the door fully and entered. She dashed upstairs, taking the steps two at a time, until she reached her bedroom. Carefully sliding her hand between the mattress and the bedspring, she groped blindly for the notes, and, to her dismay, felt only a single piece of paper, which she retrieved.
It was the bill of sale. She looked at it again, hoping to find some clue as to what it could possibly be for. Realizing that no further information would be gained from the=20slip of paper, she returned it to its hiding place. She smoothed the sheets and headed back to her car.
Once on the freeway, she flicked on the radio and allowed herself to do some thinking. What could Wt. Fm. stand for? Weight Formula? Was Tuli the inventor of something? Some formula for reducing weight? She tried this idea for a while. Tuli had been an biology major in college, but had shown no interest in the subject for years. Unless he had been doing research in his spare time.
She took the next left and headed toward the San Guinefort library. She and Tuli shared a card, as neither wanted to deal with the Los Angeles county bureaucratic system more than necessary. Finding a parking spot within a block of the library, a brown stucco building that resembled a bunker, she entered and slid into the assistance line.
After a lengthy wait, Athena found herself confronting an elderly black woman of impressively large bulk. The woman's voice, deep and intimidating, directed itself towards Athena. "May I help you?"
Athena paused for a moment, fearing this mountainous woman would easily see through the flimsy ploy Athena had devised in line, but, seeing no way to gracefully escape this woman's attention, proceeded with as much conviction and sweetness as she could muster. "Um...yes. My purse was stolen from me about a month ago, and I just realized my library card was in it and I wanted to know if any books had been withdrawn on my card?"
The woman stared at her, disbelieving. "You think a purse snatcher is going to take out books on your library card?"
"Yes, well, it was over at the college, and they have a devil of a time getting cards, since they're not full-time residents, so I thought..."
The woman snorted. "OK. I'll check your records. Your name, please."
Athena told her and the woman entered the information into her terminal. After a few beeps and whirrs, the computer rested in silence. The woman read the data off the screen. "How to Cook Golden Turkeys, How to Make the Perfect Souffle, White Slavery in America, ..."
Athena interrupted. "White Slavery in America?"
"Yes, ma'am. It was taken out nearly a month ago. You don't remember taking that one out?"
Athena laughed lightly, hoping to sound as ditzy as possible. "Oh. Yes. Yes, I do. Fine book. I recommend it highly. Thank you very much for the help."
Dazed, she walked out of the building and back towards her car. What on earth would Tuli want with a book on white slavery? How could that help him research weight loss medicine? Unless that's not what he was doing. Wt. Fm. Whitening Formula? Toothpaste? It didn't seem likely. And why would he sell it for $20,000 without telling her? White Femurs? Exporting black market body parts for racially exclusive types? No, that didn't work. White Female? Selling people as meat? For medical research? For slaves?
She stopped just as she had inserted the keys into the door, as this idea seized her. Have to admit it makes sense, she murmured, then unlocked the door and entered the car. She sat in the front seat, seatbelt across her attempting to make some sense of the conclusion she'd reached. It does explain the book and the bill. But why on Earth would Tuli enter the white slave market? He doesn't need money; I take care of him.
She turned the key in the ignition, and slowly crept toward the convenience store around the block. She parallel parked and went in to purchase a pack of cigarettes. She stood outside the doorway of the store, lighting up for the first time since her marriage. She shook the ash from the tip of the cigarette, spilling burnt carbon residue on the sidewalk. Where did Tuli get the slave? He couldn't have kept her in the house. Unless he hasn't yet delivered the goods. Maybe he got paid in advance. What the Hell did he do with the money?
She dropped the cigarette on the ground, stamping it out, then reentered her car. Lacking a better place to go, she drove toward her house, curious to see whether the driveway was still vacant. Does thecooking school have anything to do with it? Is that what he did with the money? Of course, idiot. Why else would he hide both of those papers together? Your husband entered the white slavery market so he could become a better cook!
Athena slammed on the brakes of the car, fishtailing into a 90-degree turn in the middle of the sleepy suburban street on which she was driving. "Are you insane?" she shouted to herself. "Do you honestly think Tuli is white slaving to pay for cooking school? You've lived with the man for seven years, for Chrissakes!"
She was interrupted by an abrupt honking, compelling her to look out the window to see a line of traffic on either side of her car. Smiling, she straightened her car and drove off the street, still approaching her house.
"You're not going to be satisfied until you confront him, are you?" she asked herself, not really expecting an answer, but driving, still, toward her home.
As she rounded the corner nearest their house, Athena peered into their driveway, and, much to her surprise, found two cars filling the driveway. One, the powder blue Taurus, was familiar to her, as it was Tuli's car. The other, a black Mercedes with tinted windows and sporting international plates, was unfamiliar to her and clearly not the car of one of Tuli's housewife friends. She coasted past her house, settling into a spot around the corner. Once again, feeling like David Niven, she crept stealthily down the street, skulking into her neighbor's back yard and over the fence into her own well-shaded lawn. She slunk toward the kitchen window and pulled herself up so that she could see in.
Tuli was standing, apron on, talking calmly with a short, balding, well-dressed man of Eastern European descent. Two very large men in dark suits and sunglasses, veritable slabs of muscle, stood behind the man, arms clasped tightly to their chests. Much to Athena's surprise, Tuli reached into the oven and produced, without a single error in his ways, a perfectly baked pan of cookies, which he dexterously flipped into the air with a spatula. Athena, trusting in the noise made by Tuli's display, pried open the window slightly in order to hear the conversation.
Tuli flipped a cookie into the air, which was caught by the balding man. He put it to his mouth and tasted. "Wonderful, Mr. Sanders," he exclaimed, spewing a fine dust of cookie crumbs as he did so.
Tuli moued. He offered the plate to the two dark men, but their expressions failed to reflect any desire for baked goods and Tuli withdrew the pan. The balding man spoke, sharply. "Now, if we can get down to business, Mr. Sanders. I understand my property will be available today at six."
Tuli seated himself at the kitchen table. "Yes. Six o clock at the designated spot. Should be an easy transfer."
The balding man nodded. "Good. Then we need not meet again. I leave the country tonight with my new acquisition."
He turned towards his bodyguards, and Athena, in a flash of intuition, realized that, if she did not leave, she would be discovered, and, though not entirely sure of what was occuring, she realized that discovery might lead to unpleasant consequences. She released the windowsill and dashed back to her car, trying to create as little disturbance as possible.
Once back in her car, she looked at her watch. The small digital display cheerfully flashed that it was exactly five in the afternoon. How would Tuli get the girl to them in only an hour? Did he have her hidden somewhere? Unless she was supposed to meet at the rendezvous at six? But that was impossible. Six was exactly when she got home from work.
Athena laughed, partly at her own stupidity, partly in a vain attempt to leaven the situation. Is he selling me? Would Tuli sell his own wife? She thought back to various occasions that might have annoyed Tuli enough to provoke his attempt to sell her, but nothing sprang to mind. She had been faithful to him. She had never criticized his cooking. She'd supported him for years.
Then she remembered the rage suppressed in Tuli's voice as he chided her playfully for forgetting her folder. Is he selling me because I'm not neat enough? The idea was insane. Tuli may be slightly obsessive, but he would never go so far as to enslave his wife just for being messy. Of course, there is really only one way to find out for sure.
Athena stepped out of the car, and slipped the keys in her purse. She walked back towards her house, this time following the sidewalk, walking erect and proud. She rounded the corner toward her house and could not help noticing the dark Mercedes lurking down at the end of her street, and she could not be sure it was not simply her imagination that made it appear that it was rolling slowly closer to her house as she approached it.
She proceeded up the narrow gravel pathway that cut evenly through her lawn, noticing the perfect placement of each piece of gravel, the product of endless hours of labor on Tuli's part. She reached for the doorway, feeling the cold metal in her hands as she turned the knob of the house she had shared with a loving husband for years.
Stepping inside, she saw Tuli, wearing his apron. He was cooking, as usual, though the kitchen was perfectly clean. The only dishes that were not in their proper place were heaped with brightly colored food, each emitting a fine white steam and, with it, an odor that set Athena's mouth watering. Tuli smiled at her but said nothing, merely offering her a plate heaped with turkey, squash, souffle. She reached for it, drawn by the bright colors and rich aroma and lifted the turkey to her mouth.
She rolled the stringy meat around in her mouth. The sensual strength of the rich, salty meat hit her like a brick wall, and she closed her eyes in ecstasy. This man loves me. He is willing to sell an innocent girl into slavery so that I may eat decent food. My birthday isn't for another week, but this must be an early present. He loves me. How could I think that this man who I know better than I know myself could sell me? He loves me. What a sacrifice he has made! I am the luckiest woman in the world.
She swallowed the meat, and, recovering from her ecstatic state, attempted to open her eyes, but found herself unable to do so. Indeed, she found herself feeling lightheaded, and, after a few seconds of struggling against her unwilling eyelids, she found she had lost any desire to see the world and had, after a moment of epiphany, decided she would rather see black. She felt the plate taken from her grasp and heard Tuli's reassuring voice speak to her, comforting her, although it seemed as though it spoke from across a great distance, "Good bye, dear. I'm sure your new owner won't mind your messiness."