Tales from an Apartment, by Gerald Dean Rice
Description: From the author of “Fleshbags” and “The Ghost Toucher comes 9 tales to scare, tantalize, puzzle, and make you laugh. Through different times and realities, see how the people change within the same four walls. From a woman whose husband has become obsessed with the vending machine in their living room, to a man raised from the dead by a wife who just can’t let go, a thief who’s being watched by unseen eyes, a voyeur who can’t stop watching the ghostly girl across the street and finally a husband who finally gets his wish when his wife suddenly dies, but life takes a complicated turn.
The B Side
When Henry awoke, Velma was dead. To his credit, he knew this not by the glazed look in her eye or her slack, unhinged mouth—she looked like that many times first thing in the morning. No, he knew because for the first time in almost thirty years of marriage, she hadn’t clapped an icy hand onto his wrist the second before he rolled out of bed.
“Well, good morning, Velma,” Henry said to his dead wife propped up on his elbow. She stared at the ceiling in reply. “And how did you rest, dear?” he said, nodding as if she were actually responding. He wondered if he were breaking some sort of taboo, teasing the dead, but didn’t really care. It was about time she died. Henry hadn’t felt this alive in… well, ever. It was as if for thirty years his life had been poured out into two glasses, but now he had the full glass to himself.
First, he would need to call the police. Then a funeral home, he supposed, and maybe the few remaining cousins of hers spread throughout the country. The Marlowe women were far and few between, but of hardy stock. They didn’t go down easy. So far as he knew, all the ones over the age of fifty were widows. Those lucky men. Velma’s mother was already dead by the time he’d met her, but the old woman had been a hardy seventy-something and had only died because she’d had separate falls down the same flight of stairs within minutes of each other before being stabbed seventeen times. Even then the old bat (Velma’s words, not Henry’s) had clung onto the last few scraps of life in the hospital for two weeks. It had taken a combination of multiple injuries and a staph infection to finally take Velma’s mother out.
As he dried himself from the shower he glanced over at the picture Velma had insisted stay on his nightstand. Her hated mother, who had somehow become sainted in death, stared at him with the same impassive hatred he’d had to bear witness to upon waking every morning. But today, those eyes didn’t have the same anchoring despair pulling down his insides as on other days. Velma was thirty when they’d married and over the process of the last several decades, she’d blossomed into a carbon copy of the gaunt, crow-faced, scowling woman who’d eyed him to sleep with that grey expression and jolted him awake in the morning. She could easily have been a stand-in for her mother had she been too ill to fulfill her duties in Hell. He’d put that picture frame face down many times during the night, but somehow Velma had sensed it and put it back up. Or it had crawled upright in a feat of beyond-the-grave hate-will.
Henry felt entirely too good. He looked at Velma, still in her state of rictus and was slightly crestfallen that this could have been a dream. Good wasn’t a word he’d used too often in his life. Or rather, all the power in the word had been drained out. Dinner was good, the movie was good, her outfit was good, the love-making (on rare and strictly regimented encounters) was good. He looked at his wife, willing her to move, almost expecting her to lurch upright, screaming or leap onto the wall and crawl across the ceiling.
That brought a smile. No, this was real. And if it wasn’t, he had nothing to look forward to but more of this awful life anyway, so he may as well enjoy it.
“You know, dear,” he began, fishing boxers and knee-socks out of his drawer, “you do so much. You should really take a day for yourself. Stay in bed, watch TV, order a pizza. You never admitted it, but I know you like that show Cheaters.”
He caught sight of himself through the corner of his eye in the mirror. Henry stood straight and looked at his naked body. He’d really let himself go. His saggy belly had creased underneath it had grown so large. Henry still had a full head of hair, but Velma had always insisted on this shaggy cut that swallowed his ears in a thick, curly thicket of grey and faded red. His noodly arms didn’t have an ounce of muscular definition—Velma had ridiculed him for any time he’d tried to exercise—and he’d somehow managed a tan that faded upward from his wrists. He thought about it a moment—she’d ridiculed him whenever he’d done anything to improve himself.
But she’d maintained that hard, unfeminine body of hers. Twice a week for the last thirty years she’d gone dancing, had forced him to dance the first ten years until it had become obvious he was a hopeless, graceless foot-clubbing, two left-footed beast.
Henry scowled at his reflection and began stripping on his clothes. Velma had already put out his clothes for the day, a striped, short-sleeved thing with brown tweed pants that always itched his crotch.
“No,” he said. “I’m not going to wear this.” He threw the shirt on the floor and went to the dresser, fishing around in the bottom drawer until he found the pair of blue jeans he remembered there. He could wear them as long as he paid the dollar at work for whatever this month’s charity was. Velma hadn’t approved of dressing down at work. Henry put the jeans on and topped them with a grey t-shirt. It had a small bleach stain on one sleeve, but that made it more appealing to him. He looked at himself in the mirror and thought he recognized that guy. Those were his clothes all right and his silly haircut and his bowling ball of a gut stretching against the shirt, but the twinkle in his eyes and that too-wide smile were on loan from somebody else.
Henry combed his hair in the opposite direction Velma had always tugged it down in and promptly left their apartment without the lunch his wife had made for him or even a goodbye. He had six dollars or so in his pocket, but he was going to use his debit card at a fast food restaurant and he wasn’t going to put the transaction in the register. If Velma had been in her grave already she would have been spinning in it.
Henry came home happy. He had an awful job with horrible coworkers and customers coming to the counter who constantly found new ways to degrade and revolt him, but today it had all washed off him. The worst part of any day prior by far was over. Henry had come to a sudden realization—and had consequently developed a new credo. Ever since he could remember, he’d lived his life on the B side. He’d thought that up while pondering over his life and how exactly he’d gotten to where he was. He’d had a favorite song back before Velma had crushed his love of music by taking a tack hammer to records he’d had since his teens. Back when the world still listened to vinyl. Henry couldn’t remember the name or the artist, but he remembered how that song had made him feel. It had been on the B side of a record lost somewhere in time. And then it had hit him that he’d been on the B side of life and he’d lost himself somewhere in time. If he’d ever had himself to begin with, that was.
But today, new Henry had been born. And he held every inch of himself. From now on, Henry would live his life on the A side.
“Honey, I’m home!” he said, but he clapped a hand over his mouth. His voice had been too loud, had carried too far. It had scared him for some reason. The apartment had a sudden hollowness to it not present before, like all the furniture had been removed and what was set out before him was only an optic illusion. He stood there for a moment, holding his breath and wondering if Velma had played a trick on him.
Of course that was ridiculous. A-Side Henry shrugged his shoulders and fluffed the back of his hair. He’d gotten it cut into a mullet, half as a joke. Velma hated jokes of any kind, practical or otherwise. Instead, she preferred tests. Velma loved giving Henry pop quizzes- presenting him with two options and pouring scorn over him until he inevitably withered and picked the wrong one. Like when she’d caught him masturbating in the bathroom and had tortured him with a storm of questions, finally settling on asking if it was better for him to touch himself or sleep with another woman.
“Touch myself?” he’d guessed and Velma had tut-tutted, shaking her head as if he were a child who’d just misunderstood a lesson. She’d proceeded to explain to him that touching himself was a waste of seed, that it was purely a selfish act, that hands were meant for labor and not self-labor. She’d spoken with all the fury and self-righteousness of a southern Baptist minister. He’d wanted to remind her that they’d never had children, but when Velma interrogated and explained, there was no room for rebuttal. When a verdict delivered, no appeal. And when a sentence pronounced, no stay of execution. There had been no ‘option’ this morning. He’d simply gotten up, seen his wife was dead, and then proceeded to get ready for work and leave.
But still his insides were steeped in boiling hot dread.