The New Wife

By Annelle Neel

n my dreams I wake up in the nick of time. Before I hit the bottom of a ravine, crash my car, or rob a bank. A good thing, usually. Then I had this dream about Lou, and I didn’t want to wake up.

 

But wake up I did and I was shocked. The dream I thought was a dream wasn’t. Seems I married Lou last night, and here he was still beside me.

 

Lou rolled over, his bicep bulging as he brought his hand to my waist. His eyes were closed and I couldn’t remember their color. Not even from when he was on the cover of People.

 

He nuzzled me, his lips to my ear. “I love you. But I gotta go to work, baby.”

 

I fought the instant disappointment that grabbed my heart. I stroked his chin, then his lips. He opened his eyes, hazel beauties with flecks of brown.

 

“Work?” I said. “It’s Saturday.”

 

“Rehearsal. I don’t exactly have a nine-to-five, five-day-a-week job, Chloe.”

 

I bit my lip. I’d forgotten. Chloe.

 

“Umm, something I need to tell you.”

 

He put his index finger on my lips. I really wanted to suck it.

 

“Later.” With a straight face he called up his most hillbilly voice. “We Gotta Lotta Ketchin Hup To Do.”

 

I giggled. It was his greatest hit song—so far.

 

“When will you be back?”

 

I rested my cheek on his chest. His smells were intoxicating, a mixture of salt and linen and shampoo.

 

He took my hand in his and kissed my knuckles. “I’ll find you tonight.”

 

I nodded, trying to sound cheerful. “I need to go home anyway, get some things.”

 

“No way. You’re not leaving the hotel, hear?”

 

“Honey, the way we ripped each other’s clothes off, I’m not sure there’s a button left on my blouse. And God knows where I threw my jeans.”

 

“You don’t have to dress on a teacher’s salary anymore.”

 

“Is this the part where I get all dolled up? Get too big for my britches and dump you for the pool boy?”

 

He threw open the closet. He pulled out two hats, one a black, oversized cowboy version with his initials on the band, one a bill cap with a John Deere logo. “Order room service, get all the spa treatments you want, and call that boutique in the lobby. Tell them to bring you some outfits.”

“Dude, no slaves to beat?”

 

He donned the bill cap and twirled the cowboy hat like a discus until it landed on the bed. He tugged my earlobe so gently I thought I’d have an orgasm.

 

“Tonight, the second night of thousands.”

 

He slit his eyes sideways. I’d known him for less than 24 hours, but I could tell what he was thinking.

 

“New song?”

 

Hillbilly again, he replied, “Mebbe.”

 

The door closed quietly, the way they do in ritzy hotels, the only sound a sigh. I rolled over, slid prayer hands under my cheek. I was exhausted. How the hell was Lou going to work? We got maybe two hours of sleep all night. I had a lot to learn about my new husband.

 

I fell back into the ravine of sleep, this time with the flow of a hang glider from a mountaintop.

 

* * *

 

I woke up ravenous. In a bathrobe and matching slippers from the closet, I ventured out of the bedroom.

 

The Venetian’s suite was bigger than my whole rancher at home. Penthouse was my guess. From the window I could see the Vegas strip, each casino more grand than the next. Below, replicas of the bell tower in San Marcos Square and the Rialto Bridge completed the illusion of Venice in the desert.

 

I let in the maids. When I asked them to come back later, they replied in an unknown language and rushed past me in rubber gloves.

 

I couldn’t take a bath until they were done, and my body, from a night of sex, was ripe with odor. Another knock on the door produced breakfast. I hadn’t ordered any and I realized I married a very thoughtful man. A cheerful fellow dressed in the hotel’s theme gear and a scar on his lip set the table. He pushed the cart out of the room.

 

I drained the ice water. After last night I needed to replace 10 gallons of bodily fluids. When I took the dome off the plate, the stench of rotten eggs greeted me. I smelled like fresh peonies in comparison.

 

At the door I called the server back, but he’d disappeared. I padded down the hall and rounded the corner. A service door swallowed him, a door that wouldn’t open without a card key. Behind me the elevator closed the last half-inch, taking the maids with it. I tested the room door. Locked, of course.

What the hell? Those were some efficient maids.

 

The front desk called security when I dropped by to ask for a key to Lou’s room. A woman in a black suit and tights leaned against the marble slab that separated employees from guests. Her name tag said Edna Ferguson.

 

Edna glared at me. “Your name?”

 

I snugged my robe around me. Going commando and braless was not my style.

 

“Joan Yeager. Karson.” I loved the sound of my new name. “Joan Yeager Karson. Mrs. Lou Karson.”

 

“Mrs. Lou Karson, is it?”

 

She stood even straighter when I touched her forearm.

 

“Can you believe it? Talk about whirlwind.”

 

“Uh-huh.”

 

“Lou has this reputation of being really nice. No drugs, rarely drinks, big on education. Guess what: it’s no act.”

 

“That so?” Edna said.

 

“He has this foundation that helps schools. I’m a teacher and our school got one of his grants for a playground. When my teacher friends found out Lou was coming to Vegas, we had to come see him. Then our principal arranged for us to meet Lou backstage. And wham, that was it.”

 

“Wham.”

 

“Lou couldn’t take his eyes off me. Me, a fifth grade teacher. Who’d a thunk it?”

 

“Who.”

 

“Anyway, Lou had to go to work, and I locked myself out of our room.”

 

“Joan, is it?” Edna said. “You see my dilemma, don’t you?”

 

The lobby was freezing, but a sweat worked its way up my body. “I thought I was the one with the dilemma.”

 

“Mr. Karson is a regular customer at the Venetian. He depends on us to keep strangers out of his room.”

 

I tried to laugh, an effort to convince her to be reasonable. “Look, I’m sure if you call Mr. Karson, he’ll tell you about me.”

 

“I don’t have Mr. Karson’s direct number. Seems his wife would.”

 

“It’s in the room. Isn’t there someone on his staff you can call?”

 

“Actually, I just spoke with Mr. Karson’s personal assistant. She didn’t mention you.”

 

My throat went dry. “She probably doesn’t know about me. Yet, I mean.”

 

Edna checked her PDA, thumbing the keyboard.

 

“She doesn’t know about Joan. She knows about Chloe. Seems Chloe is somebody we’re supposed to help any way we can.”

 

My arms shot straight out to hug her, but when she flinched I controlled myself.

“That’s me. I’m Chloe.”

 

The woman shot her eyes toward my bosom and back again. I’d exposed part of a nipple in my enthusiasm. I secured the girls back into their fluffy fold.

 

“So now you’re Chloe?” Edna checked the PDA again. “Oh, my mistake. She said Nancy is the person we’re supposed to help. Are you Nancy now?”

 

I clenched and unclenched my fists. “I didn’t tell Lou my real name because I thought Chloe sounded sexier. You know, what happens in Vegas, all that. I’ve always hated the name Joan. It was a chance to be someone else.”

 

“Like Mrs. Karson, for instance?”

 

“Okay, you’re making me angry. Maybe it’s time to pull the trophy-wife card on you.”

 

She shook her head with pity. “Joan, you’re not blond. You’ve never had a boob job. Truth is, you look like a Joan.”

 

I thumbed my trump card. “I’m wearing the robe from his room.”

 

“Anyone can buy a robe for $299.95 in the gift shop.”

 

I was aghast. “Three hundred dollars? For a housecoat?”

 

“You groupies are all alike. Always wanting to show up in some star’s room naked. Not going to happen on my watch.” She cocked her head toward the gilded entrance. “Leave. Now. Before I have you arrested for indecent exposure and stalking.”

 

I crossed my arms. “No.”

 

The two security guards who dragged me outside didn’t care what body part flipped out for the world to see. They led me to the service entrance, where a gondolier on break witnessed my humiliation. The dumpster hulking beside the loading dock was riper than I was, baking its rotting contents in air 40 degrees warmer than the frigid palace. They marched me off the property and across the street.

 

I was inside a hot air balloon, the heat was so intense. My heels edged off my slippers and hot concrete burned my feet. I ranted like an escaped mental patient.

 

“I didn’t know a teacher could cuss so good, Miss Yeager.”

 

I recognized the voice from my classroom.

 

“Peyton,” I said. “And Eli. How long have you two been there?”

 

The boys smiled, the smaller one adjusting his crooked glasses.

 

“You just get out of the bathtub, Miss Yeager?” Eli asked.

 

“Loan me twenty dollars,” I said.

 

Peyton pulled a twenty from a money clip. With hesitation he placed the money in my palm. All traces of his smile disappeared.

 

“I reckon I know where you live if you don’t make good on this loan,” Peyton said.

 

We went to McDonald’s, where I bought a supersized load of cholesterol. We spread our meals on a corner table and I stuffed my face. I inhaled a Diet Coke to kill the lack-of-caffeine headache growing into a hot coal. Eli cordoned off his food with a fence of straws and warned Peyton to keep his hands out of the “dead zone.”

 

“That’s inside yore head, Eli,” Peyton said.

 

They retreated into sibling rivalry, Peyton reaching for Eli’s fries more to get a harried reaction than to retrieve food.

 

“Miss Yeager, you seem stressed,” Peyton said.

 

Though Peyton was three inches taller and five pounds heavier than Eli, the boys were twins. They hovered just above failing with low Ds. Their optimistic father thought naming the twins after famous quarterbacks would bestow athletic powers on them. But he fled a few weeks after their birth, sensing they might take a load of paternal mentoring before they made the Pee-Wee League, much less the pros. Dot, their mother, was a professional gambler who sported diamond rings or pawned them, depending on her luck. Every weekend Dot loaded the boys up and drove their hollowed-out minivan the half-hour’s ride from our little town to Vegas.

 

“Where’s your mom?” I asked.

 

Peyton threw a thumb over his shoulder. “Venetian. Dot says the blackjack tables are hot.”

 

“You know the head of security there? She’s hefty, wears her hair in a bun.”

 

“Umm,” Peyton said, his eyes avoiding mine, “not really. Why?”

 

The boys listened quietly while I told my story. Eli’s thick glasses stayed tilted. Peyton’s bear eyes bore through me. First-hand knowledge of a teacher’s disgrace would bring them a semester of street cred. They never sat this still in class.

 

“Maybe Lou had you throwed out,” Peyton said.

 

“Thrown, not throwed.” His suggestion opened a crack of doubt. “It was a mix-up, that’s all. It’s my fault because I gave Lou the wrong name.”

 

Eli looked at Peyton, suspicion all over his face. “Lou dumped that actress Lola Norris, remember? I know Dot said that marriage would never last, but three days? Lou ran out quicker than Daddy.”

 

Peyton raised his eyebrows. “He’s right, Miss Yeager. Maybe Lou Karson isn’t ready to settle down.”

The lump in my stomach grew from indigestion to an internal earthquake.

 

“Lou’s not like that,” I said. “His first marriage, it was a mistake.”

 

Eli cocked an eyebrow. “Miss Yeager, he married Lola Norris. Lola’s hot. You’re—”

 

Peyton clamped his hand over Eli’s mouth. “You’re pretty, Miss Yeager. In a old-maid schoolteacher sorta way. We’re just of a mind that if Lola couldn’t hold on to Lou, maybe he’s hard to please.”

 

My heart leapt when I thought I saw Lou walk in the door. But it was his cowboy hat, complete with LK initials on the band, just like the one that landed next to me on the bed. By the guy’s goofy grin, I could tell he thought the hat made him something he wasn’t.

 

I walked up to Cowboy.

 

“Where’d you get that hat?”

 

He tipped his hat just the way Lou did, but his smile was a Halloween imitation.

 

“I’m honored to own a Lou Karson original, fan that I am. Just bought it online.”

 

A flash hit me, striking like lightning. So that was it.

 

“I’ll bet you did,” I said. I tried to snatch it, but he clutched it with both hands.

 

“Lady, you crazy? I paid a thousand dollars cash money for this hat.”

 

“It’s stolen,” I yelled.

 

But he was out the door. The boys held me back when I tried to follow him.

 

“Whoa, Miss Yeager,” Peyton said, “you gotta get yore head on straight.”

 

“Let me go. I’ve been set up.”

 

I ran to the street, but there was no trace of Cowboy. The boys came up beside me.

 

“I’m going back to the Venetian,” I said. “You two go back to whatever you were doing.”

 

They looked at each other, some kind of silent twin communication going on.

 

“That’s okay, Miss Yeager,” Peyton said. “We’ll just stay with you until you get this all straightened out. Chances are you won’t be in school Monday. What with your new life and all. And we may not be seeing you anytime soon.”

 

“Or ever again,” Eli said, nodding.

 

“Besides,” Peyton said, “we got twenty bucks in this, so we need to see how it plays out.”

 

“Very touching,” I said. “But don’t think you can blackmail your way into the sixth grade.”

 

I headed to the Venetian’s dumpster, Eli and Peyton debating the size of Lola’s boob implants. Edna’s body topped the heap of garbage. A cop was unrolling crime scene tape, and a chorus of sirens sounded closer with every second.

 

“Oh, my God,” I said. “What happened?”

 

“Cool, Miss Yeager,” Peyton said. “Just like the movies.”

 

The cop turned to me. “Miss Yeager? Joan Yeager?”

 

“No,” I said. “Mrs. Karson. I mean, I used to be Joan Yeager, but—”

 

He grabbed my arm and latched my wrist with the trash-tie kind of plastic handcuffs. He began reading me my rights.

 

“Hey,” I yelled, “what’s going on here?”

 

“You’re a suspect in Ms. Ferguson’s death.”

 

“Bashed on the head, looks like,” Eli said. “You know anything about this, Miss Yeager?”

 

“Shut up, runt,” Peyton said. “She may be delusional, but she ain’t a killer.”

 

“I came to look for a gondolier,” I said. “I don’t know anything about this. Give me five minutes and I can explain everything.”

 

The cop ignored me, turning his back and calling in his prize capture on the radio.

 

Tears started and I strangled back sobs. My tears made everything seem like thick glass, but I made out the embossed symbol of double arches. It took a couple more swipes of the McDonald’s napkin before Peyton came into focus again.

 

Peyton perched on the dock, his feet swinging. “Yore in a mess.”

 

“My first day of marriage and Lou’s going to have to bail me out of jail.”

 

“Them celebrity marriages?” Peyton said. “I hear them second ones are even shorter than the first.”

 

“This is a nightmare. I have to wake up before I end up on death row.” I held out my bound wrists and closed my eyes so I wouldn’t flinch. “Pinch me, Peyton. Get me out of this bad dream.”

 

Eli started crying, something about the dead woman looking like his mother. Edna didn’t look anything like Dot, but I finally figured out what was going on when Peyton whipped out his pocketknife and cut the plastic cuffs. I stared at him. That twin communication thing was awesome.

“You got yore five minutes, Miss Yeager.”

 

The cop dangled Eli by his collar, trying to remove him from the scene. Peyton jumped from the dock to the aid of his brother and the cop lurched after him. I fled.

 

At the Grand Canal I recognized him as soon as he steered his gondola back to the dock, a tenor by the sound of his Italian ditty. The gondolier with a scar on his lip stepped on the platform.

“Rotten eggs, huh?” I said.

 

He pushed me into the water. When I was able to stand again, I saw the red ribbon from his hat waving through the avenue of ritzy shops. Roving troubadours and guests fished me out of the water. My slippers somewhere in the Adriatic, I ran after the gondolier. Behind me security guards and one angry cop were closing in on me. The boys ran zigzag in front of them like playful dogs tripping their owners.

 

It was amazing how much water a $300 housecoat could soak up. I slapped the floor with my bare feet in a dead run, the eyes of a living statue moving with me. I rounded a corner and followed red ribbon into a men’s restroom.

 

Zippers closed and men ran out, though one leered at me while he finished his business at the urinal. There was only one stall with feet, and they had a patent shine.

 

“Get out of there, thief.”

 

The gondolier burst from the stall and came for me. I screamed, my feet slipping. He slammed me against a urinal and I sat down hard, my butt bone jammed against the porcelain. With his grip tightening around my neck, a slew of officials burst in, guns drawn. The gondolier backed away, his hands in the air.

 

“This man stole my husband’s hat and murdered Edna,” I said.

 

Peyton and Eli stuck their heads in the door and spoke as one.

 

“Cool.”

 

* * *

 

To keep bickering to a minimum, I sat the twins on either side of me. Our box seats had the best view in the house. Their mother was invited, but Dot preferred the slots. On stage, drums kept a steady beat while the lead guitar picked up the distinctive riff from We Gotta Lotta Ketchin Hup To Do.

Eli hung over the rail and watched the people below. Peyton sat with one forearm resting on the other.

 

“Miss Yea—I mean, Mrs. Karson. I never seen you in a low-cut blouse before. You look good.”

I touched my new haircut. “Lola good?”

 

“You look more like Lola than Miss Yeager, that’s for sure,” Eli said.

 

“I’m just glad you took a bath,” Peyton said.

 

“You boys should be proud,” I said. “You brought down a theft ring.”

 

“Yeah,” Peyton said, “but you was the one figured the gondolier for the guy who brought you the rotten eggs. But why did he kill that lady?”

 

“You were the one,” I corrected him. “Edna caught the gondolier coming back in from the loading dock where he’d sold the cowboy hat online for local pick-up. Employees in costume aren’t supposed to be outside. She was about to blow his operation, so he bashed her head.”

 

“Wow,” Peyton said. “That guy and those maids got a thousand bucks for Lou’s hat?”

 

“Too bad the buyer showed up in McDonald’s. He looked ridiculous in that hat.”

 

On stage my husband pointed to our balcony. His head bowed and his foot stomping in time to the music, he pulled the microphone to him.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce my wife.”

 

A collective “Huh?” came from the audience, but Lou didn’t miss a beat. He raised his eyes to mine.

“I’m not sure what her name is. Chloe? Joan? How ’bout I just call you Mrs. Karson? Whoever you are, I love you.”

 

We stood and I faced the murderous stares of hundreds of girls and a few guys. I blew Lou a kiss as he dedicated his new song, Thousands of Nights, to me. Eli balled his hands to fists and began robotic dancing movements that reminded me of his attempts to keep Peyton away from his fries.

 

“I still think it’s a dream,” I said.

 

Peyton spoke in my ear. “Which reminds me.”

 

“It was a busy day, Peyton,” I said. “You’ll get your twenty dollars.”

 

Tapping his thumb and index finger together, Peyton’s hand looked as ominous as a lobster’s pincer.

 

“You want to keep living this dream, doncha?”

 

 

——————–

I hold an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee-where I served as a writer for alumni affairs for 16 years-and a B.A. in English from the University of Louisville. I also worked as a freelance writer for nonprofit organizations for 15 years. I have attended the Novel Writers Workshop with Darnell Arnoult, the Harriette Austin Conference at the University of Georgia, and studied with Jon Manchip White. I am also a member of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild.


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