by Kathleen Wolak
Nancy Walton shifted in her pew. This was only her third time in a church in her fifty-four years on earth and she still hadn’t quite grown accustomed to the small, uncomfortable seating.
As the minister preached, Nancy’s eyes wandered through the crowd until they settled on the man that sat two rows in front of her, to the left. He was a small man, with a snub nose and sparkling blue eyes that were perpetually swollen from what looked like either crying or drinking. His red face shined under the chandelier that hung in the church, and as he raised his hand as the minister called for joys and concerns, Nancy noticed that tears ran down his face like a waterfall.
“Uh, hi-hi y’all. I-I just wanted to let you all know that my beloved Betty Anne, well she…” The man inhaled sharply and buried his head in his hands. The sobs echoed throughout the church while the parishioners looked at him with a mix of pity and embarrassment.
“She met with our Lord. My Betty Anne went home.” The man coughed and wiped his face before offering up a weak smile to the congregation.
The minister looked down on the widower warmly before raising his hands in front of him.
“Brothers and sisters-let us keep Richard in our prayers. Let us also acknowledge the light that was in Betty Anne as she braved her battle with cancer over these few years. Lord, let us embrace Richard and help him all we can in these dark times, so that he may once again see the light.”
Richard nodded at the congregation and sat back down. Nancy narrowed her eyes, focusing on Richard the widower’s thinning hair and felt the corner of her mouth flicker upwards.
Nancy Walton’s divorce from her first husband, Bruce, had finalized not two months before. She had wanted to leave him years ago, and got out her frustrations at her obese, emotionless husband by having two or three forgettable affairs with men she had met online. When the doctors diagnosed Bruce with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, she realized that if she didn’t get out soon, she would be stuck taking care of a sixty-year old man who didn’t even know who she was. When she was waiting for Bruce at one of his doctor’s appointments, she looked out the window across the plaza and noticed a law office. At his next appointment, after the nurse led Bruce into the back to see the doctor, she sneaked out and over to the lawyer’s office as the receptionist clucked disapprovingly.
Now, Nancy was ready to find another man to take care of her, and Richard the widower would do nicely. Nancy wasn’t a woman of tact…she reasoned since she never met this dead wife of his, it wasn’t wrong to pounce on him before somebody else did. When the service finally ended, Nancy went to the bathroom to wash her hands and check her makeup. When she looked in the mirror at her pale, puffy reflection she sighed. She needed a face lift, and to lose at least thirty pounds. Her lipstick was stale and cracked, which gave off the unsettling look of moldy paint. Nancy angrily wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and pinched her pale cheeks before joining the rest of the congregation exiting the church into the parking lot.
Through the crowd, she spotted Richard the widower talking to a group of people. Nancy noticed that it was two couples he was talking to, and breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t in competitive form just that moment. She pushed through the crowd determined to at least make contact with Richard before he left.
“Well, it was a long battle, unfortunately, but my Betty Anne, well she never wanted to be no trouble. We would just sit and pray. She was my perfect baby doll.” Richard withdrew a monogrammed handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose.
“Oh, Richard, we are just so sorry. We all wanted to come and check on her, but the hospital said that you and Betty Anne were going to try healing at home.” One of the husbands said, putting his arm on Richard’s shoulder.
“Well that’s the way my baby doll wanted it.” Richard patted the man’s arm. “She said to me, ‘Richie, darlin’, I want to die in my own home. I want to go from my own home to my home in the sky.” Richard pointed upwards and wiped a tear that was making its way down his face.
“Well, we are sure going to miss Betty Anne. Seems like years since we saw her last,” one of the wives said as Nancy made her way into the fivesome. She stood awkwardly next to the wife that just spoke, and waited for her opening.
“Well hello, there.” Richard the widower smiled at Nancy as she shifted her weight listlessly in her spot. The couples politely smiled at Nancy before patting and hugging Richard goodbye.
“I’ll be by the house later to drop off some lasagna,” one of the wives said before kissing Richard on the cheek.
Nancy smiled at Richard in a way that she believed was alluring. Anybody watching would say it was more of a pained grin.
“I’m sorry to hear about your wife.” Nancy moved closer. “Were you married long?”
Richard sighed and looked heavenward. “Thirty-nine years we were married. She was a little thing not a month over fifteen. I was twenty-one and her daddy was none too pleased. We, well—we ran away to Virginia to do it and it was the best decision either of us ever made.” Richard withdrew his wallet from his pocket and opened it up. “Here we are on our wedding day.”
He took out a small black and white photo and passed it to Nancy. There was twenty-one year old Richard in a suit much too big for him and a small, frail looking waif in a short, simple shift dress holding a single flower.
“She was a sight wasn’t she?” Richard whispered. Nancy nodded even though she didn’t think his wife looked like much.
“And here are our children.” Richard took another photo out, this one in color. It pictured three men and three women, all with Richard’s sparkling blue eyes and elf-like face.
“They’re beautiful,” Nancy said, barely looking at the photo. “I have four of my own. Two boys and two girls.”
“Well ain’t that a peach. I’ve always been an advocate of big families. Helps when there’s a loss. Where are your kids today, uhm…”
“Nancy, Nancy Walton.” Nancy rushed out. “Oh they’re—they’re all over.” The truth was that Nancy never quite cared enough about her children to keep up with them. After each one went off to college she considered her work done.
“Well God bless ‘em all.” Richard stared down at the ground as Nancy searched her mind for a way to bring up the fact that she was single.
“Well, it sure was nice to meet you, Nancy. I’m off to visit my baby doll and bring her some flowers. It’s such a beautiful day, ain’t it?”
Nancy nodded dumbly. “It is, it is—say, do you want any company?” Nancy shocked herself with her boldness. She didn’t like to let on how forward she was so soon.
Richard looked into Nancy’s eyes before taking both her hands in his. “Well, Nancy, that is so sweet and I’m a damn fool for saying maybe next time. But I can make it up to you—with dinner next week? I’ve been mighty lonely these past few weeks, it would be nice to go out with a new friend.” Richard smiled widely and let go of Nancy’s hands. “Is your number in the church directory?”
Nancy shook her head. “No—I just started coming…”
“A lost sheep come back to the flock,” Richard dug around in his pocket. “Here’s my card. Give me a call when you can.”
With that, Richard the widower bowed his head, and set off toward the parking lot. Nancy noticed him get into a bright red Corvette-it was a model that was a few years old, but still in mint condition. Nancy smiled to herself as she made her way over to her old wagon, and tried to remember the last time she sat in a convertible.
* * *
“Mom? What is this guy’s name again?”
Nancy sighed heavily. She didn’t mean to answer the phone when her son called, but she thought it was Richard and picked up out of habit. Instead of being told what a delicate flower she was, she was being grilled by her eldest son about her new fiancé.
“I told you, Tom. His name is Richard Smith. He’s a real estate agent and he’s amazing.”
“Really? And you met him at church? Exactly when did you start going to church?”
Nancy grasped the giant gold cross that hung around her neck. It had belonged to Richard’s wife, but he gave it to her on their third date as a token of their ‘beautiful new journey into God’s world together’.
“I’ve been going since the divorce, Tom. Geez Louise, I can’t have a life without you questioning every little thing?”
Tom sighed on the other end of the phone. He had given up on his mother long ago, but when his sister called with the news that their mother would be marrying a widower whose wife had just died, he felt a certain duty to make sure she was doing the right thing. Truthfully, he had his own family to worry about, including a daughter that Nancy had not even seen fit to visit since she had been born.
“I’m just checking in, Mom. He just seems like kind of a weird character. Marcy said that he’s giving you jewelry that belonged to his dead wife—speaking of which, is it true she was only fifteen when they got married?”
Nancy silently cursed herself for having a conversation earlier in the week with her eldest daughter. She wished she had just kept her mouth shut about Richard and the engagement.
“Tom, listen. I have to go. Can I call you later?” Before her son could answer, Nancy hung up and threw her phone on the side table.
Nancy was already nervous enough without her son’s questions. Tonight was the night that she would be seeing Richard’s house for the first time since they started dating two months ago. He had been funny about showing Nancy where he lived. Whenever they went out together, he would pick her up in one of his two Corvettes, and they would go to Wegman’s. The grocery store had a little restaurant for the shoppers or people in the mood for a cheap date.
Richard would decide Nancy’s meal, cut her meat and feed it to her. Nancy never objected, because he was paying for everything. She decided to look at what he was doing as chivalrous and kind, like when he fastened her seatbelt for her. Richard had also taken to buying Nancy’s clothes for her. He would show up for their dates with a shopping bag filled with floral printed dresses that featured uncomfortable lacy collars. Nancy started to wear the dresses begrudgingly, quietly ignoring the fact that they were far too tight, and she felt as though she was being strangled every time she and Richard had a date.
Richard asked Nancy to marry him over a Wegman’s chicken sandwich. First he held Nancy’s hands and repeated the grace he made Nancy say over every meal, “Dear Lord, please let this food nourish our bodies and help us to do your biddin’.”
After the moment of silence Richard always observed, he reached into his jacket pocket. Nancy watched him pull out a small velvet box and place it in front of his dinner.
“Nancy darlin’, I want you to know that you have been a shining light in my life since my baby doll went to meet our Lord. I love you and want to offer you this ring. It was my Betty Anne’s engagement ring and well, I think she would bless this union.”
With that, Richard opened the box and presented Nancy with a small gold ring that had a glimmer of a diamond in the middle. The ring wouldn’t have fit on Nancy’s pinky finger but she squealed like a school girl at the sight and let Richard force it onto the top portion of her ring finger.
Nancy fiddled with the ring, which was currently cutting off her circulation as she waited on her couch for Richard to honk his horn. She forced Tom’s questions out of her mind as she heard the familiar rumble of Richard’s car coming up her driveway.
“Well hello there, baby doll.” Richard stood next to his yellow Corvette with his hands folded in front of him. “Well don’t you look sweet in that dress.”
Nancy smiled coquettishly and attempted to giggle, but the tight neck on the high collar stifled the sound and it came out as a small cough.
“Now, I want you to know that I haven’t had a chance to clean up the place too well. But I feel like you should get to know where you’ll be livin’ once I sell this place.”
As Richard held the door open for her, as he always did, Nancy got an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. For some reason, his eyes which usually sparkled almost excessively, looked dark and motionless. Tom’s questions flooded her mind, overlapping each other. Her daughter Marcy had voiced the same concerns and both of her eldest children’s voices went around and around in her head like an audio merry go round. This was the most thought she had given her children in years, but she quickly silenced their voices and erased them from her mind.
The car ride to Richard’s house, which sat at the end of a quiet little side street three miles from Nancy’s own home, was quiet. Usually their trips were filled with Richard talking about a property he had just sold, his children and more often than not, his wife. Nancy never spoke first, so without him starting off the conversation, she just remained silent, occasionally coughing into her hand.
When they pulled up to Richard’s house, a large colonial with a massive yard, he smiled widely.
“Welcome home, baby doll.”
He unbuckled Nancy and led her inside. As soon as she walked through the door, Nancy was greeted with hundreds of shining eyes. The owners of the eyes took up every possible inch of the small living room, as they sat looking up expectantly at Nancy and Richard.
“Sorry ‘bout the clutter. See, Betty Anne and me-well we started collecting these little guys back when we first got married.” Richard picked up one of the clown dolls, this one had a peeling face and almost no hair left, but his eyes were perfectly shiny and in tact. “This little guy is actually worth a pretty penny.”
Richard gently lay the doll back in his resting place and held out his hand to Nancy. She offered up her shaking hand in return, and Richard led her through his kitchen. On the table was a partially stuffed deer head. When she looked into the dining room she counted three fully stuffed deer heads mounted on the wall.
“Shot and stuffed ‘em all myself. I’ve become quite a taxidermist since my Betty Anne left.” Richard said quietly. He gripped Nancy’s hand tighter as he led her down a narrow hallway off the kitchen. Nancy couldn’t tell if it was because of the tightness of her collar of the humidity outside but she was starting to feel faint. A smell entered her nostrils as Richard almost dragged her toward the door at the end of the hallway. It smelled like rotten cheese—with a touch of something else. Nancy couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but there was a morbid familiarity to the smell, as though she had experienced this before. It wasn’t until she could barely breathe that the memory hit her. This was the smell that filled Nancy’s mother’s hospital room when she took her last breath. This was the smell of death.
When they finally reached the door, Richard had completely changed. He grunted as he helped Nancy to stay on her feet as he pushed the door open.
The smell of the room overtook Nancy. Her eyes watered but through the mist she spotted a bed with somebody resting on it. She blinked away the cloudiness to see a woman, a small woman with gray skin and dark hair, laying in repose on the bed. In her hands she held a wooden cross and she was wearing the same dress as Nancy, except flakes of her graying, dead skin adorned the white lacy collar.
Nancy knew she was looking at the late Betty Anne Smith. She screeched as loud as she could, but Richard had already shut and locked the door.
“I think it’s time you two finally met.” Richard approached Nancy with his newly darkened eyes.
Nancy tried to run past him, but her lungs couldn’t provide her with enough oxygen and she collapsed on the filthy carpet.
“Now, Nancy…” Richard said sternly. “I don’t want no trouble now, because my Betty Anne never gave me no trouble. I want you to relax. I’m just fixin’ to make some improvements.”
The last thing Nancy Walton saw before she slipped into unconsciousness was Richard the taxidermist leaning over his dead wife and skillfully slicing into the skin beneath her jaw.
* * *
It had been two weeks since Tom and Nancy’s conversation. When his sister called to discuss what had been said, Marcy didn’t seem worried at all anymore.
“You know, she just went through these past few years looking for someone to take care of her. I’m glad she finally got what she wanted. She’s getting fed, dressed up, and I’m sure she finally got that face lift she’s been complaining about needing.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Kathleen Wolak is a writer and blogger living in Hamden, CT. Her short fiction can be found in Bewildering Stories, Dark Dossier, Massacre Magazine, and Sanitarium Magazine. She made her podcast debut on The Easy Chair with Laura Hurwitz in February 2016.