Schram recognized her as she stepped on the bus. This time she came in with an odor of sexuality. He had noticed her a week before on the same bus. Her sexiness had developed in his mind like a taste for good cheese or wine, but fast. He had seen her name tag from work, Sheila Child, RN. She was a nurse. As before, she was heading south on Harlem Avenue. Just like the first time he saw her, it was her mouth that jumped out at him—small with full lips, still wearing traces of pink lipstick. The very mouth. The lips pouted slightly with the effort of stepping up the steps into the bus, but then they relaxed as the Nurse Child found an empty seat in front directly facing Schram, the center aisle between them. Her lips opened with a small sigh when she sat down. The very mouth. She kept her eyes averted from direct contact with his.
He must not stare. She resembled his mother in more ways than one. He was excited to spot them and list them this second time around. Short brown hair gone mostly gray, brown eyes, medium-short in height, medium build, 50-55, the soft, feminine type, expressive, trusting, and even a little dreamy. Mostly he saw that in the mouth. Of course his mother never dressed this well. This lady took baths. This lady had a good job. Where was she heading? Surely home after work. The resemblance was remarkable. Did she have a son? Did she sleep with him?
He himself was on his way to visit his mother, in fact. All day long he had told himself he would not go. But now he was off work, he felt he should go over there. Maybe he would see that woman again in the bus and have a chance to follow her home. But mostly he felt he had to see his mother. Maybe one of his sisters would be there and could give him a ride back to his apartment. What luck to see the lady here again.
He was curious about the nurse. He was watching her out of the corner of his eye, when he rode past his stop. A little later, when the lady stood up before one of the Berwyn stops, he did too, moving to the back door while she stayed near the front of the bus. A few others also exited, hit the sidewalks, and headed out in their own directions.
The lady headed east down a side street. She carried a fashionable black purse. She was wearing a fashionable belted raincoat. Schram put his hands in the pockets of his jacket as he stood there letting her get a half block ahead of him. Then he set out after her. Soon she turned in at a small single-story house, retrieved mail from the box near the front door, and let herself in with a key. He strained to see if anyone greeted her. Not even a dog. The lights began to go on inside after she entered. The house had no garage—just an empty carport. The address was 818 Elena. A short wrought iron fence surrounded the yard.
Schram walked by, turned the corner, and cut back to Harlem Avenue. He walked north a couple of stops before a bus came along. He took it a few blocks, transferred to an eastbound bus, and got off in his old neighborhood. His brain was cooling. He was short of breath, exhilarated.
Having set apart the substitute, he would now visit the loathsome original. Something could happen here. He opened the front door and walked into his mother’s house. She rarely locked it.
She came out of the back, “Richie! What a nice surprise. I thought we’d see you on Sunday. Your sisters were here.”
“Something came up.” He slumped into a chair in the living room, not looking at her. She sat opposite, wearing her baby blue bath robe and sipping white wine from a water glass. She was showing some cleavage.
“You don’t need to call me. Do you have anything to eat?” His voice was disgust.
“Just bread and eggs. You want me to make you a nice scrambled egg sandwich?”
“No, goddammit! Cigarette.” He sat there looking away as she got up, found the cigarettes, and brought him one. He took it and placed it in the center of his lips. He found his butane lighter in his pocket, flicked on a long blue flame, touched it like a knife point to the tip of the cigarette, and inhaled, drawing the end of the flame into the cigarette. He coughed. “Shit. Why Vantage?”
“I don’t know, honey. I thought I’d try them.”
Schram inhaled again and exhaled a little smoke. “Tastes like dirty rags.” He still didn’t look at her.
“I don’t mind them. Have some wine with me, won’t you, Richie. It’s been a long time.” When he didn’t answer, she went into the kitchen and came back out with a big juice glass full of wine. She handed it to him. He took it without looking at her face. The wine was cold in his hand, very cold in his mouth.
“You can drink a half a glass and not even know it’s wine,” she said.
“That’s a good thing?”
“I think so.” She turned and went back to the kitchen and brought out a big bottle of zinfandel, half empty. She refilled both glasses, left the wine bottle on the end table near him. He noticed she wasn’t staggering. She hadn’t been drinking all day. She probably just started. What was it, Wednesday? He got off from work at 6, spent an hour on his bus ride, including the detour, and now what? He knew where tonight was going. Another glass or two of wine and she’d start playing her old music. Fleetwood Mac or Melissa Etheridge? A few more glasses and she’d start crying. She’d look at him in a certain way that meant “take me to bed.” He knew a few more glasses and he would do it too. Later he’d have an awful headache.
“I’m not staying,” he said, taking another drink of wine.
“Oh, Richie. Don’t you want to?” She tried to make him look at her. He fought it. Her face, her mouth, her legs would draw him in. He needed to exercise discipline or she would destroy him before he had the chance to destroy her.
“Find another son.” He stood up and walked out the front door, leaving her there with her wine and her easy-opening bathrobe.
As soon as he was outside, he felt better. He’d beaten her. He would never let her draw him in again. He would kill her and burn her. And he would do it tonight. He imagined flames engulfing her, igniting her sticky bathrobe, scorching her arms and legs, licking her face, burning her body. Like any piece of meat, she’d cook, she’d burn, she’d smell. Then he’d be clean.
The bus dropped him at Harlem Avenue. The Harlem bus dropped him in Berwyn near Elena Street. He circled the block, trying to see if anyone else was with her. There were lights on in the kitchen and dining room. It was somewhere between 8 and 9 PM, a moonless night on the last day in April, unseasonably warm. Lights shown from some of the neighbors’ houses, but no one was around, no one was looking out the windows. He was a shadow walking. He was completely on his dark side now.
He turned in at her front walk, climbed the four steps of the stoop, opened the storm door, and knocked on the inner door. While he waited, he tried to turn the knob. It was locked. He heard some movement inside, but no voices. There was no window or peep hole in the door. She would have to open it to see who was knocking. A light went on over his head. He heard her unlock the door. When he felt the knob turning, he twisted it himself and shoved the door open. She staggered backward but did not fall. Her face was all surprise. She didn’t scream. It was as if she were waiting for him to give her a reasonable explanation. She was wearing blue flannel pajamas.
“Where is he?” he growled at her.
“Your husband, your son, your lover.”
“I don’t….” She couldn’t finish.
“He’s going to pay. Don’t tell me he doesn’t live here.”
“I don’t know who you are talking about. I live here alone. My son lives in California.”
“He got sick of doing his old lady.”
She looked puzzled, said nothing. They were still standing in the entry way. She stared at him. He stared at her, noting again her resemblance to his mother. He felt disgust rising in his throat. He knew what he was going to do. “Show me the kitchen, Mother.”
“There’s nothing in my kitchen. Please leave me alone. I don’t have anything you want. I am not your mother.”
“Kitchen,” he demanded, taking a threatening step in her direction. She turned and led him through the dining room and into the kitchen. Schram looked at the stove and was glad to see it was natural gas. “Show me what you got in the fridge.”
She looked at him questioningly but moved toward the refrigerator, reaching to open it. Schram placed his right hand gently on the back of her neck, and, before she could react, he slammed her forehead into the corner of the refrigerator. Her body went limp, and she slumped to the floor unconscious.
In the sudden silence, Schram admired how softly she had gone down under his hand. He considered with satisfaction how composed he was while committing a so-called crime of passion. Her lips were even pinker and prettier than they were in the bus, he noticed. Do not kiss. Her breasts were soft beneath the flannel top. Do not touch. Her legs were bent and open. What was in there? Don’t even think about it. She was dead now. Mother was dead.
He stepped to the stove and turned on the big front burner to maximum flame. Then he took a breath and blew out the blue flames. The gas continued to hiss, and he could smell it already. He imagined it filling the room like ultraviolet light. Soon it would explode in the room like lightning.
He headed toward the bathroom. What he was looking for he found immediately, a scented candle in a dish. He pulled out his lighter and lit the wick, rotating it to make sure it was burning well. He left the bathroom door partly open. He walked back through the kitchen. When he saw the woman crumpled on the floor, he said, “Goodnight, Mama.” The he quickly let himself out the front door, walking briskly in the pitch dark toward Harlem Avenue. He was long gone on the bus before the explosion rocked the neighborhood.