Fiction: Come Back, Rita

Read More: A brief interview with Jen Fawkes

Mickey’s been on Percocet three months; he’s been on the case one hour; he’s been a PI twenty-nine years. She answers the door in a pair of lavender stretch pants and a patterned silk blouse that transports him instantly to the shore. Mickey sees waves. Spurts of foam. Or does he see scales? It’s all blues, greens, purples. Not unlike a bruise. A fading shiner. In any case, the blouse is shimmering. It’s winking at him. She’s holding still but the blouse is in motion. Her silvering hair is bobbed, neatly. Tucked behind one pierced ear. She wears pearl earrings; her feet are bare and quite beautiful; she says her name is Naomi.

“You’re Mr. Mercer?”

“I am.”

She touches a gold locket suspended from her neck. Smiles. “Won’t you come in?”

The blouse is long, but it doesn’t cover her ass, which is quite firm for a woman of her age. She probably does yoga. Mickey studies its motion as they move over dense carpeting into one of those showplace living rooms. The kind that’s only ever seen by company or the cleaning lady. Full of breakable and sentimental things. Things that must be treated gingerly. There’s a glass-topped coffee table; a sectional sofa stands sentry around the room’s perimeter; various impressive intact seashells, ceramic figurines, and framed photos are positioned on every surface. Mickey hands Naomi his hat and coat and settles on the sofa’s sea-foam cushions, clearing his throat over what sounds exactly like a rushing tide.

“Mrs. Stein . . .”

“Naomi.”

“Naomi,” Mickey says, flipping open the cover of a small notebook he’s retrieved from his trouser pocket, “how long has your husband been missing?”

“My husband?” She’s not far from him, sitting on a piece of sectional, Indian-style, her pretty feet tucked under her firm gluts. Mickey can smell expensive laundry detergent, lavender soap, deodorant, brine. He thinks of Rita, of summers they spent in the Keys, of chasing her along the edge of the wet shore, how their footprints were erased almost instantly, how cold the skin of her breasts was once he’d freed those pretty white orbs from the prison of her bathing suit top, how the gritty sand that collected beneath the stretch fabric always got in his mouth. The wonder of fucking his own wife in freshly-laundered rental beds.

“Yes,” he says, squinting at a page in his notebook. Thirty minutes before Mickey took Naomi’s call, the .38 Special cartridge nestled against his twelfth thoracic vertebra started causing him severe discomfort, so he popped a second Percocet, and he’s now unable to interpret his own scrawl. “Frederick?” he says. “Or Felix? Fabian? Ferdinand?”

“Frank,” Naomi says. “My husband’s name is Frank.”

Mickey studies the notebook. He turns it upside down. For the first time in his life, he cannot decipher what he himself has written, and he feels like some dim-witted monster. He closes the cover, returns the notebook to his pocket. “Frank,” he says. “Right. Sorry.”

“Not a problem.”

“When did you last see Frank?”

Naomi smiles, unfolds her legs, places her feet on the carpet, sits up straight. She’s as polished as a set of wedding silver. Everything about the woman screams privilege. She couldn’t be less like Rita, who came from the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks. Rita’s abusive parents – traveling sideshow faith healers – dragged Rita and her eight siblings all over the southeastern U.S. before settling down in a rusting central Florida doublewide. Mickey’s family wasn’t wealthy, but his parents nearly disowned him for eloping with a girl from the trailer park.

“Two days ago,” Naomi says, “around noon. Perhaps a little earlier.”

“So Frank’s been missing more than forty-eight hours.”

Naomi shakes her head. “Mr. Mercer,” she says, “it’s not my husband who’s missing.”

“It’s not?”

She shakes her head again.

“He’s here then?”

“No.”

The living room of the two-story Spanish Colonial Revival is not unlike a terrarium. Sunlight streams in through three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows. Mickey feels oppressed by the glare. His head begins to pulse, tenderly, and he places a hand over his brow, rubs his temples the way Rita once did. They hadn’t been married a month when Mickey realized that his wife possessed a paranormal knowledge of human anatomy. Whenever he complained of discomfort, Rita knew innately which part of him she should press, knead, or stroke to provide relief. Once she’d gone to school for massage therapy, Rita opened a practice out of their home, and her client base swelled exponentially. She attempted to teach Mickey the things she knew about manipulating muscle and connective tissue, but in spite of his greater strength, Mickey never could hold a candle to his wife. He still misses her touch. “So you haven’t seen Frank,” Mickey says, “for more than forty-eight hours, but you don’t think he’s missing.”

Naomi nods.

“Do you know where he is?”

“I do,” she says. “Well, I know what he’s doing, anyway.”

Rita used to tell people the same thing whenever Mickey was on a three-day stakeout, running down some cheating husband or disability scammer or crooked accountant.

“Mrs. Stein . . .”

“Naomi.”

“Naomi, I thought you wanted me to find your husband.”

“But he’s not missing.”

“Where is he then?” says Mickey. “Where is Frank?”

Naomi stands, advances on Mickey so swiftly he recoils. Her toenails, painted lavender, now butt up against his brogans. Naomi bends at the waist; he feels her breath on his cheek; he realizes he’s getting an erection.

“My husband,” she says softly, “is out chasing his monster.”

Mickey holds himself very still. He wonders if this is a euphemism with which he’s unfamiliar. Naomi’s eyes are light brown, almost golden. On the surface, they’re nothing like Rita’s, which were bright blue. Like the sky after all-night thunderstorms. It was storming when Mickey last saw his wife, kneeling over him on their front-hall floorboards, the Colt Detective Special he’d given her for protection in her right hand, her blue eyes hidden in shadow.

“What’s wrong with me?” Naomi says, tucking her hair behind both ears. “I haven’t offered you a thing. Would you like some coffee, Mr. Mercer? Or a cup of tea?”

Drinking coffee after noon keeps Mickey up all night, so he takes tea. White Jasmine. Naomi joins him. When he asks how long she and Frank have been in the house, she says three years. Says they moved to Tampa from San Francisco.

“Traded one Bay Area for another,” Mickey says.

Naomi nods. “My whole family’s on the west coast. We only came here for Frank’s work. Tampa’s the Lightning Capital of North America, you know.”

“What does Frank do?”

Naomi sips her tea, replaces the cup in its saucer. She looks at Mickey quizzically, as though surprised he’s asking the question. “He’s a mad scientist.”

Mickey waits for her to laugh. She doesn’t.

“Mad scientist,” he says. “I thought they only had those in the movies.”

Naomi shakes her head.

“So when you said,” Mickey says, “that your husband is out chasing his monster . . .”

“I meant,” she says, “that Frank’s spent the last six months in his basement laboratory, constructing a pseudo-human out of body parts he’s stolen from cemeteries and morgues. Four nights ago, during that record-breaking cloud-to-ground lightning storm, Frank managed to harness electromagnetic impulses and channel them into his creation, bringing it to life. Two days ago, Frank’s creature broke free of its restraints. It tore the basement door off its hinges, staggered through the garden, and vanished into that stand of cypress trees out back. When Frank got home from the farmer’s market, I told him what happened. He took off after his monster, and I haven’t seen him since.”

For what seems a vast ocean of time, Mickey tries to come up with a response. He sips his tea; he wonders if this privileged, polished housewife actually believes what she’s telling him; he keeps thinking about kissing her exquisite instep. The glaring light outside the floor-to-ceiling windows is softening. Withering. The day is dying.

“Well, Mr. Mercer?” Naomi finally says.

“Mickey.”

“Mickey,” she says, “do you think you can help me?”

Mickey never wanted to cheat on Rita. But he did. Multiple times. With women like Naomi. Clean, pleasantly-scented housewives. Pretty women with tender hearts and good intentions. Women with manicured nails and toned gluts. Women whose husbands had gone out for a pouch of pipe tobacco or a pesto and arugula pizza and never come back. Women who’d really done nothing wrong. Women who deserved to be treated gingerly. Mickey always showered before he came home to Rita. He always stood, for quite a long time, before the front door, studying the peephole, wondering if his wife knew. If he would find Rita in the hall, waiting.

“Yes,” Mickey says. He stands and crosses to Naomi, who sits opposite him on the sectional. As he settles beside her, he takes one of her hands, and the sound of the rushing sea rises in volume, drowning out his thoughts. “I think I can help. The first thing I’ll need is a glass of water.”

After he pops another Percocet, Mickey retrieves the notebook from his trouser pocket. He asks Naomi where she imagines her husband’s monster might have gone. She answers without hesitation.

“The beach.”

Mickey writes the word Beach in his notebook. “Why would it go there?”

Naomi shrugs. “Who doesn’t like the beach?”

There are only two proper beaches in Tampa, and neither is very big. Mickey drives the BMW convertible parked in the Stein’s red-brick driveway. He and Naomi find both the Ben T. Davis Beach and the Davis Islands Beach deserted. They sit in the car in the Ben T. Davis Beach parking lot, watching the sun lower itself into the sea.

“I don’t understand,” Naomi says, shaking her head. “I felt so certain.”

“Maybe Frank’s monster went to Clearwater,” Mickey says. “Or St. Petersburg.”

As they make their way back to her neighborhood, Naomi tells Mickey that she and Frank have been married thirty-one years. She says they met at a house party in Pasadena. Frank was at Caltech, studying biochemistry, neurobiology, and biomechanics. Naomi was in her first year at the Art Center College of Design. The couple spent the entire night talking, moving from room to room, surrounded by people but ignoring them, talking about the human body, its design, and possible ways to improve it, about life on other planets, about the stories of Philip K. Dick. The rising sun found Naomi and Frank seated on a sofa some fun-loving students had parked atop a pool table, holding hands, a strange young man with an afro curled up beside them, snoring lightly. Two days later, upon exiting her dorm-room, Naomi nearly tripped over a small blue Igloo cooler. Inside, surrounded by dry ice and hooked up to a 6-volt battery, she discovered the still-beating heart of a rhesus monkey.

“Here we are,” Naomi says, unclasping the locket suspended from her neck, opening it, handing it to Mickey. “That’s us back then.”

Mickey glances from the road ahead of him to the small, oval-shaped pictures framed in gold and back again. Young Frank is dark and classically handsome. Young Naomi is a budding flower, a burgeoning beauty. Their faces are eager, their potential undeniable.

“Nice,” Mickey says, pulling the convertible into the driveway. “Thank you.”

Night has dropped its velvet curtain over Tampa, and Mickey finds that the Stein’s living room feels less like a terrarium in the dark. He and Naomi don’t bother turning on the light. They sit side-by-side on a piece of sectional, examining the floor-to-ceiling windows, which stare back at them, blankly. Percocet notwithstanding, Mickey has another erection.

“What now, Mr. Mercer?” says Naomi.

“Mickey.”

“Mickey.”

He turns to her. “Where does Frank keep his files?”

“His files?”

“His documents. Journals, records, notes. That type of thing.”

Naomi places a hand on Mickey’s knee. “In his laboratory,” she says. “Down in the basement.”

“I think it’s time,” Mickey says, “that we had a look at your husband’s lab.” […]


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Jen Fawkes lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. Her work has appeared in One Story, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, Joyland, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. Her stories have won prizes from Washington Square, Writers @ Work, Blue Earth Review, and Salamander. She holds an MFA from Hollins University, a BA from Columbia University, and is at work on a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing, at the University of Cincinnati.

“Come Back Rita” was a finalist for the 2017 Editor’s Reprint Award and originally appeared in Crazyhorse.

Read More: A brief interview with Jen Fawkes