Short fiction originally published August 2011 in Issue #21, Bloodlotus Journal
By CB Forrest
It ends with a man so deranged by love that he taints the soup at the wedding of his formerly betrothed. The soup, of course, was traditional Italian Wedding Soup. The sentence was eighteen months. The death count was zero, but a majority of the guests were stricken with a never heretofore experienced intestinal violence that attacked in salvos from the depths of hell. A front page article in the local newspaper, The Star, referenced an investigation by the Department of Health, as must be standard in suspected cases of mass food poisoning.
‘A man of medium height and slender build, a baseball cap pulled down over dark curly hair, was spotted skulking in the kitchen of the River View Holiday Inn …’
That was me.
I’m the man of medium height and slender build with the baseball cap, the collar of my jacket turned high like some hayseed ready to rob a Shell station. Of course now, these months later, I find it difficult to align my current self with that lost soul driven to such an expression of frustration. But Shakespeare and operas and daytime soaps are chock full of people poisoning themselves, poisoning other people, all in the name of love. We’ve been doing this, it seems, for long centuries.
It is the opinion of certain people around town that the Judge was overly harsh in sentencing the culprit in question, the so-called ‘Wedding Soup Poisoner’ as The Star named him for posterity. It was understood, by and large, that the so-called Wedding Soup Poisoner wasn’t born a wedding soup poisoner. Something or more likely someone had happened to this guy. Regardless, I freely admit my guilt. I did the crime and I did the time, as they say. This very letter makes final the course of my penance.
Eighteen months in a regional detention centre is no picnic, let me tell you. This place holds the reprobates and degenerates too obtuse or lazy to even aspire to full-fledged penitentiary. Each day here feels like a convention of all the losers drawn from every high school within a hundred mile radius, but instead of wearing ‘Hi My Name Is __’ stickers on our suit coats, we parade around in matching Day-Glo orange jump suits with the word ‘JAIL’ emblazoned on the back as though without this clarification a good citizen might accidentally mistake us for a gaggle of kindergarten teachers should we somehow manage to escape.
On my first day ‘inside’, I took a good look around at the faces that made up my new community. Darwin’s babies, I thought. A public service announcement for judicially imposed fertility planning. Chronic underachiever, to a man. There was not a single criminal mastermind in sight. No, these were the perpetual drunk drivers, town nut jobs, parking ticket miscreants, cigarette smugglers with bad tattoos and five o’clock shadows, those compelled to expose themselves in public. Yes, I was high-profile and hardcore compared with these knuckleheads. My name had appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, something my brethren could only dream about.
Some of the cons asked me how I had done it. Not the ‘why’, just the ‘how’. We North Americans are fascinated with the mechanics of crime. True crime books, crime TV, made-for-TV-Sunday-night-movies that recount in graphic detail precisely how some angst-ridden husband in Flint, Michigan, came to disassemble his housewife with a reciprocating saw bought on credit at The Home Depot. As for me, I was never interested in glorifying the details, in re-living the physical and emotional anguish of those darkest days. But I obliged in most cases, if for no other reason than to hear the sound of my own voice in place of the garbled grammar that assaulted my ears like constant white noise.
At any rate, it was easy enough to get into the hotel kitchen. Almost anything can be accomplished if you really put your mind to it. Attitude is half the battle, I say. I stood outside the service door of the Banquet and Special Events area, pretending to smoke with one of the recently paroled ex-convict dishwashers. His name was Pete and he was from some town in Northern Ontario that never makes The Weather Channel. We shot the breeze about hockey, and while we talked I slowly, very subtly moved a small stone against the bottom of the doorjamb with the toe of my shoe. When Pete the dishwasher thanked me for the cigarette and ducked back inside, the door closed but just not quite. A trick I’ll admit to having picked up from a late night detective show. I waited a few beats and then knelt and jimmied the door from the bottom with the pads of my fingers until I got purchase and was able to swing it wide open. Like jumping into the crazy arms of love itself, I slipped inside with a sense of exhilaration and mild trepidation.
My heart was racing, I tell you. I strolled by the salad maker who I instantly recognized as a former neighbour of mine. Richie Mullins was ripping the living crap out of heads of Romaine lettuce, his big swollen-knuckled hands working like machines, and I saw in his serious concentration the face of Richie as a boy walking around with his mouth open all the time, one shoe untied. I always believed he was marginally functional; he was the first kid I knew who wore a retainer, one of the mid-1970s jobs with enough metal and wiring to double as an AM radio receiver. Sure, he was the loser, but now here was I trespassing with the intent to cause serious bowel upset to an entire family two families, to be exact that just happened to have the misfortune to be related to my once betrothed. Life is crazy sometimes. Everything is fate and timing, and the stars swirling overhead in some sort of pre-ordained symphony.
Anyway, I got in. And I did it. That’s the long and the short of it.
I felt for those people. I know very few of you will believe mine to be a genuine empathy. And in truth, I did not give it much thought from the first moment the idea was conceived, to the moment when, sitting in the front lobby of the River View Holiday Inn, I witnessed that initial wave of tuxedo-clad men stumbling around ashen-faced, a sheen of sickly sweat glistening on their faces. All I can say is there was a moment in there a fraction of a second where I believe I may have come to the very core of myself. You know, one of those rare flashes of instant illumination across the dark landscape of your life. You see everything about who you are where you’ve been, where you’re headed, and all the junk you’ve seen in between and there is truly no fooling yourself in this light.
Like a pathetic pyromaniac, I lingered at the scene too long. That was my downfall. I sat there in the lobby unable to move. I was transfixed. My eyes were riveted to the strange ballet of wedding guests sliding, side stepping, stooped at the waist on their scramble out through the double glass doors. It may sound disturbing, but there was something beautiful about the scene. I saw that unexpected illness had ruined the wedding, but they were all still together, united in the shared experience of this gastrointestinal sabotage. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the desire to be with them, to be of them. Oh the simple joy I imagined would accompany my newfound acceptance into their close-knit clan. I never really had much of a family of my own.
She spotted me is how it happened. The bride of the day stunning in her dress of shimmering white with her hair tied back locked eyes with me, and in that fleeting perfect moment, I believe she knew the deepest secrets of my heart. She paused mid-stride, a little bent at the waist, and her face twisted into a physiological question mark. A look that said, ‘why are you here?’. What could I do but turn and run? I was out of there like a teenage shoplifter, all speed and agility. I understand in my haste I knocked over one of the bridegroom’s great-aunts who was shuffling her way down the hallway like an old Chrysler Cordoba, the left blinker light flashing, flashing.
Questions were raised, video footage was analyzed, and so I was caught red-handed sitting on a stool at The Dead Duck Pub with the empty vial in my pants pocket. To this day I will not expose the source of the noxious substance; I am stoic if not brave. The cops tried every trick in the book. My connection let’s call him ‘Earl’ has a steady job in the basement lab of a respected hospital. Earl supports four children, as well as a wife who works part-time as a bingo caller and full-time in support of The Home Shopping Channel. Earl is a decent man, and it is for this reason that it took much more money than I had originally budgeted in order to convince him to slip me the vial. We met at the Rock n’ Bowl, did the exchange beside a machine that shines balls for a Loonie. Earl was not proud of himself that day, and I assume he has second-guessed his motives many times since. As for myself, I have come to understand that peace in this life rests in that vague space between the things we can live with and those that we cannot.
Curiosity gets the better of people, and I suppose in the end it overrides our desire for a semblance of dignity. So it was that four months and sixteen days into my sentence, the bride visited me at the regional detention centre. She came to ask a single question. She stared at me through the scratched Plexiglass window, holding the greasy black telephone receiver as though it were a Conch. The visiting room was filled with children with teething rashes splotched on their cheeks and their mothers who invariably wore the same look of exasperation. The newlywed appeared much healthier than the last time I had spotted her bending over a trash container, but I opted against saying as much. She was nervous, I could tell, and she said simply, “Why?”
A good question. The only one I could answer, in fact. I was unable to hold her glare and so my eyes dropped to the cheap set of state-provided running shoes with the Velcro fasteners in place of the laces that we might use to end our miserable lives.
“Afternoon recess,“ I said. “June sixteenth, 1987.”
“Behind the brown portables,” I clarified.
She squinted, and said, “What are you talking about, Jerry?”
I drew a long breath, closed my eyes, and for the millionth time summoned forth the memory of that day. The smell of her recently applied watermelon lip gloss, the anticipation of summer, smells of wild flowers and freshly cut grass, the whole rest of our lives spread before us like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
“The second last day of school,” I went on. “We promised each other we’d get married. Does that ring any bells?”
Her grip tightened on the phone. Her knuckles blanched.
“It was sixth grade, Jerry,” she said. “We were eleven, okay? And anyway, you moved away that summer when your dad got transferred.”
“A promise is a promise,” I said with a shrug.
Her eyes searched me.
“You never wrote,” she said, as though it explained everything. “We didn’t even stay in touch.”
“I did for a little while. Your mother probably threw my letters away. She never liked me. Anyway, I assumed after college I would come back and we’d get married. Like we promised. And then I did come back, you know, and I found out you were already engaged. It broke my heart … ”
She shook her head. She said, “My mother always said you were so intense.”
“I’m a man of my word. In today’s flip-flop world, that has to be worth something.”
“You ruined my wedding day because of a promise I made when I was eleven?”
It wasn’t a question so much as a statement of the facts. The anger and confusion seemed to have been replaced in that moment by something else entirely. I could see that she was recalling those long ago days when we were young and everything was so simple. The days of drive-in movies and spin-the-bottle in somebody’s wood-paneled basement. It took her back, perhaps, to those early summer evenings when we sat on the bleachers at the ball diamond and got butterflies in our stomachs just from holding hands.
“Jerry,” she said softly. And here I closed my eyes in anticipation of the well-earned admonishment to come. But she said only, “I hope you get some help.”
She went to hang up the receiver. I saw the door closing on my last chance to make things right with this girl, indeed this woman I so deeply loved. I motioned for her to bring the receiver once again to her ear, pleading with my eyes, and she did so with reluctance.
“Yes Jerry?” she said.
I cleared my throat. I looked to my right to a slab-sized biker making obscene gestures to his lover through the screen. And then I looked into her clear green eyes, orbs of pure goodness that had haunted me all those sleepless nights between the ball diamond and the soup station at the River View Holiday Inn.
“You’re married now,“ I said. “I’ll never bother you again.”
And it was true. I had gone as far for love as I was willing or able to go.
“Pinky promise,” I said, like we used to, and I moved the little finger of my right hand to the Plexiglas. There was a long moment there where I could see her thinking about it. The pad of my little finger remained pressed to the screen like a pink buttock squashed against a school bus window. Finally I saw the release in her eyes, surrender to the harmlessness of those lost days. She moved her hand slowly towards the glass, and without looking at me she pressed her pinky to mine.
“Pinky promise,” she whispered.
I returned to my cell and stretched out on the lower bunk, hands behind my head. I closed my eyes until the only sound was the rush of blood in my ears, a lingering scent of watermelon lip gloss in the air. And for me that is where it always begins.