Connotation Press: Interview and Story, “Chinese Handcuffs”

In January 2012, I published my story “Chinese Handcuffs” at Connotation Press under my given name Meg Sefton. I am including the interview with the fiction editor whose name is also “Meg!” So I hope this doesn’t confuse anyone too much. I’ll post the interview first, then the story. Thanks for reading!

Gry aka Meg

the unbook

                    
—– What an exciting story, Meg! I love how this story slowly builds. What  was your inspiration for the mystery?
Thank you, Meg. Recently, I’ve been interested in the world of noir.  Not simply the traditional aspects one usually associates with this genre, but  the games, tricks, language, and behavior that are involved with pulling a fast  one on someone–the ways this can be undermined and rolled into counter-attacks.  These aspects can be translated into any setting with any number of characters  and the dynamic between them. One thing they all have in common is the  reprobate. The man or woman who, for whatever reason, seems destined for an  underworld existence even if they are outside a network. They have created a  world for themselves which is reinforced and magnified by internal pressures and  habits. They have an outside-of-bounds code–their pride and prison. My  inspiration for the story started as a workshop exercise in which we began with  a character committing a crime.
 —–  “Chinese Handcuffs,” the title, has many meanings after reading this  story. How did you come by this great image for the piece?
I was hoping for this kind of response, Meg. I think it goes with what  I was saying above. Yes, on the one level, there are these literal Chinese  handcuffs Muriel imagines are her boss’ hands. And these things were always  wonderful to me as a kid, as they probably are to a lot of kids. They create a  wonderful dilemma. Why, when you are trying to pull out of this tight weave of  the cuff are you more firmly pulled in? Typically, leaving is not associated  with being further trapped. But what I’m exploring is that leaving most  certainly can trap one further. In the space that exists beyond the leaving is a  vacuum so powerful that the anti-social or even criminal activity, when it  suggests itself to the “outsider,” will show itself with double the force. It is  impossible for Muriel to escape the larger forces that seem to trap her. Her  body thrills with the adrenaline created by an opportunity for a double-cross.  It overrides her resolve to lead a clean life. Why and how she has become  trapped by this life is not something explored in the story, but protagonists of  noir are generally considered the scofflaws, and those come in many packages,  even efficient secretaries, and yes, equally so, their bosses.

——- I could totally see this story as a great film noir! Had you  thought of that when you were writing it?

I wanted to introduce the idea of a slightly altered reality, which is  a wonderful aspect of film too. I wanted the effect to build from what can  simply be imagined, to what requires openness to things such as changing eye  colors, and a boss that talks like a Jon Goodman character. I wanted a sense of  unreality, even within the dialogue. Furthermore, the idea of sliding into  unreality in the piece comes back to the idea of the underworld. It is a society  of loosely bound scoundrels who have their own rules, codes, ways of seeing  themselves and the world that has little to do with the conduct and values of  the majority. Muriel may have too big of a conscience to completely fit in with  the underworld – she does have her moments of guilt and reform – but in the end,  she is bound.

——- What are you reading at this time?
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s The Time: Night, Natasza  Goerke’s Farewell to Plasma, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Primeival  and other times.

——— Who would you say are your greatest influences as a  writer?
It would be difficult for me to pinpoint only a few but if I  had to narrow the field by the writers who have influenced me to explore the  nature of evil, conscience, crime–topics related to my story, I would have to  say Flannery O’ Connor, Graham Greene, and Patricia Highsmith – their short  stories especially. Recently I read Meghan Abbott’s Queenpin and it  blew me away. It is the story of the protégé whose naïvete is slowly stripped by  a seduction that is both alluring and dangerous. It is the ultimate story of the “Chinese handcuff” effect except the protagonist is an innocent.

——– What are you working on at this time?
I am enjoying the smaller pieces. I blog at my new site “Black Shatter” and keep the work in flash form, sometimes microform. I am moving away from  fiction that fills in many of the gaps and instead explores more of the  spaces.

Tick Tock Diner

Chinese Handcuffs

She tucked his pen into her purse when she saw him returning to the table.  It felt like an instinctive response, her theft, as if she were a squirrel stuffing a nut into its cheek. He had been in the bathroom, and before that, he had signed some letters that needed to go out. But now, there he was, wending his way between the islands of tables set for brunch.

“Have you decided what you would like to order?” he said, after sitting down in a puffing manner she knew well. His face was splotched and red and his light blond sprouts of hair stood on end in their customary arrangement. He would age well, she thought, if he could cut back on the drinking. He had the kind of hair that would gently turn to sandy gray as he neared retirement. She had ushered quite a few men into their retirement years with her proficiency at the typewriter and the computer, her finesse with callers who were either clients or spouses, her quick, decisive approach to the papers and letters to be filed or thrown away or passed on.

“This is your last day, Muriel,” he said, perusing the menu. “Let’s have something special.”

She had seen a running stream of candidates for her position file past her desk on their way to his office, their small, lipsticked mouths smiling in faint acknowledgment. She reached inside her purse and grasped the cool hefty pen in her palm. She fingered the tip with her thumb. She smiled to think that this little mistake of hers, this little theft, was her best gift, not the Bloody Mary he would order her or the fruit arrangement that would be waiting for her on her desk when they returned. The fruit would have a cloying sweet smell that made her think of something rotting. She planned to throw it in the apartment building dumpster when she got home.

“Your wife called,” she said. “I forgot to tell you she called this morning. She wanted to know if you’d found my replacement. I said yes and she wanted to know her name.” The lie came so easily. She hadn’t spoken with his wife.

The pen was so heavy and reassuring. It was hers now. She could do whatever she wanted to do with it. Also, she had worn her spy camera brooch.  He would drink too much alcohol and because they would not be seeing each other again, he would take her into his confidence. It had happened with other bosses who were leaving and she had been able to use it to her advantage. She treated the blackmail money as her well-deserved “bonus.”  It was a very good day. A more luxurious retirement lay in the red eye of a little silver fish.

“I hope you didn’t say much about Lydia,” he said in reference to the pretty new secretary. He choked on a dry piece of biscuit.

“In fact, I forwarded her picture and your welcome of her from the company newsletter.”

“Damn,” he said, slamming down a meaty paw, making the brunch dishes clatter. Other people in the restaurant turned to look. “That’s not how you’re supposed to do things. That’s not how we do.”

She watched him coolly with her violet eyes. Her sister told her once she could have been married and pretty too if she’d ever stop styling her hair in those tight curls and wearing ugly thick glasses. Muriel had always believed the right man would like these things about her, but not even the wrong ones had shown the slightest interest.

Their waiter, a tall, sallow-faced youth glided to their table. “Is everything alright here?”

“She’ll have a Bloody Mary and I’ll have a Bloody Mary.  And for the love of all things that holy, would it kill you to bring fresh biscuits?  Someone’s been fingering them.  I want to put my own fingers on my own goddamned biscuits,” and he stirred the biscuits with his peeling, chapped hands.

“I can assure you they are fresh,” said the boy. “But I’ll ask our chef to make more.” He retreated as unnaturally as he arrived, his upper torso and neck as if of a piece.

“Chef, my eye,” said Muriel’s boss to the boy’s retreating backside and he broke a biscuit in his fist.

What Muriel had going for her in this man, this, her last employer, was his inability to stay on topic, especially once the initial emotional bomb of the day had been detonated. Now that the dry biscuits were his focus, news of her communication to his wife would take a back seat to a list of more immediate obsessions and frustrations until later in the day, when a glass of Scotch mellowed him and he began to review his accomplishments and concerns. This was the time she usually asked him to sign things, letters and such, things he almost never remembered drafting because Muriel herself wrote many of the documents and letters and kept his office going.

He didn’t know, wouldn’t know, all she had done because after they returned from this last meal together, there would only be an hour or so left before her replacement would take over and then she would leave. Muriel almost felt sad imagining him there in his office on the west side of the building – he had waited so long for a west-facing office – with his glass of Scotch as it slowly dawned on him that he had nothing to sign. What’s more he would come to realize he didn’t have his pen, that pen for which she had ordered replacement cartridges so he would never have to go to a meeting embarrassed that he was not carrying this seal of his his power and authority. He would never draw blanks with his pen. Muriel had made sure of it.

“Let’s have a big breakfast,” he said, a sudden show of magnanimity, a quick change she was used to. He held his peeling hands out for her to hold. He was smiling. She much preferred that he did not. She set the pen on the inside lining of her purse so she could find it later.

“OK,” she said tentatively, giving him her small, manicured hands, still youthful for all her years spent indoors, working with paper rather than water, as some women do who clean babies’ bottoms, cook large meals for hungry maws, endure the effects of bleach and chemicals on their skin so their houses can smell like an endless bliss of warm spring days.

“Muriel, you have been a peach, a real peach,” he said. “I mean, what will I do without you?” He met her eyes. One was slightly brown, the other, a dark hazel. Why had she never noticed this before? He held her hands even as she started to ease them away. It was like she was caught in two gigantic Chinese finger traps, the kind she and her best friend Rhonda used to buy at the dollar store. You put your fingers in either side when the weave of the trap was loose and relaxed, but the moment you pulled your fingers out, the weave tightened and elongated. She had to look at him. “What will I do?” he pleaded.

“You will do fine,” she said, with as much determination as she could muster, once more attempting to ease her hands away and once more feeling the intensifying pressure of his hands on hers.

“Bloody Marys,” said the waiter who had come upon them unawares. Had he not been so young, Muriel surmised, he would have had the decency to clear his throat or make other such noise about his arrival at the table. As it was, he stood as if they were supposed to accommodate him in the accomplishment of his tasks. They released hands and moved water glasses and utensils to make way for their drinks. “And here is a basket of fresh biscuits.”

“Now that’s more like it young fella!” Her boss smacked him on the back and the empty tray he held under his arm went spinning and clattering. “That’s the way!”

“Thank you,” the boy said, straightening, placing the tray in its spot under his arm. A thin hand darted out from his white sleeve and smoothed the hair over his eyes.

“And thank you, my dear.”

The “dear” caused a faint flinch in the child’s left temple.

“And now, can I take your order?” said the boy, holding up pen and pad as he faced the wall behind his diners.

“Hey, that boy’s quill of his reminds me of my pen.”  said Muriel’s boss, patting inside his jacket and looking underneath his seat.  “Have you seen my pen, Muriel?”

“I don’t know,” she said, making a token effort to look.

“Well, enough of that for now. Plenty of time for that kind of thing later, right?”

“I’ll have the steak and the eggs” she said, interrupting him.

“How would you like your steak?” said the boy.

“Rare.”

“And you sir?”

“Well, right then, right.”

She could imagine what her boss was thinking: On the company’s dime. Steak and eggs. Even though it’s her last day, even if she had been senior secretary to quite a few middle and upper level executives, still, did it have to be steak?

“I’ll just have these great biscuits here, sonny,” he said. “And keep the drinks coming. It is a Friday, that indeed it is.”

“That’ll be fine sir,” said the boy, taking their menus.

“Now that I’m almost gone,” she began once the waiter had left them, “it feels kind of like we’re close to being friends, don’t you think?” She was glad, now of his earlier desire that they hold hands over the table. He had broken through a barrier of sorts, had done it himself.

“Well, sure, Muriel, I guess you could say that, absolutely.” He arched his back and ruffled the plumes of his hair so much like the crest on her own cockatoo Bert.

“I was just wondering,” she pressed on, “since we’re more like friends now, and since I’m leaving, whether I could go ahead and just call you by your first name.”

He smiled at that. He was too looped to find anything strange in it. She had always insisted on calling him Mr. Colbert even when he urged her to call him Bob. Even after her refusal, he had said he always felt close to her anyway, had felt she knew him better than he knew himself sometimes. He said that over and over again, every Friday after he began tucking into his Scotch and watching the sunset.

“I wish I had married,” she said, turning her eyes down toward her lap. “What’s that like, being married?”

“Oh ha!” he boomed. “Oh ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! ha!”

The waiter slid her the bloody steak and yellow-irised eggs. Muriel held up a hand to keep him there until her boss had settled and then she said to the boy, “Why don’t you bring us an extra plate? I couldn’t possibly eat all this by myself.”

“Certainly madam,” he said, nodding. Muriel mused to herself that this was the most professional he had been all morning. She reached into her purse and held the pen again. She liked the way it warmed in her palm. Would that all things felt so good and solid and important. Maybe some people had those things already and didn’t know it. Fear could make you realize what it is you already have; it could serve a certain purpose.  It could shake a nerve or two and put you on your best behavior. She had in fact been doing the spouses of these men favors. A person deserved money for that. Not everyone could do that.

“No, what I mean,” she began with him again, sliding half a ribeye onto his plate with her knife and fork and shifting over an egg, now deflated as a flapjack. “I mean I don’t know what that would be like, coming home at the end of the day to someone who loves you.”

“Muriel, you are something with this.” He tucked into his portion of the steak. “Oh, this is good,” he said, pointing at the fatty slab with his fork. “Eat.”

She began to cut, keeping her eyes on his face.

“Muriel I have had my share of indiscretions, you know that, and if she catches me, she’s going to cook my goose. She’ll get everything. That’s marriage for you.”

“Then why do you boink, err, ah, have sex, um, make love to so many women?” She had played a role in protecting him so his activities were no secret. She drank deeply from her tumbler.

“You see, Muriel,  I do it because I love her, because she can’t make love to me anymore, but I still love her anyway and don’t want to lose her, no matter how cruel she is to me, no matter how frosty.” And then he leaned in and whispered: “And you know, Muriel, the only person I’m thinking of the whole time I’m in some woman’s vagina is my wife. You have to believe me.”

Muriel felt something lurch inside, the same feeling she had when she had seen a calf slip out of a cow on a school field trip to Country Farms. The calf was bloody and covered in what looked like snot. She ran from the barn and puked up her oatmeal and milk in the soft green grass. The rancid smell of her vomit made her wretch again and the teacher came out and rubbed her back and wiped her face with a handkerchief. From that day on they called her Mucous Muriel, because they knew what she had found offensive, that city girl Muriel. She had acted so superior, but then she had gotten her due.

“I’m sorry,” he said, in response to her silence. “We got so familiar all of a sudden.”

“It’s OK Mr. Col- Bob. We all can have a sudden rush of emotion like that.”

“Yes,” he said, cowed now, his hands on his belly, one picking at a dry patch of skin.

“I’m sorry that I’ve lead you to reveal so much of yourself. Maybe you feel uncomfortable.”

“No Muriel, you know, it feels good to say it. I can’t tell anyone that secret. You probably don’t even believe me. When you love someone, it’s a mystery, a goddamn mystery I tell you.” Now she could see that both of his eyes were a dark, dark hazel. One was not brown. It had been a trick of the light. “It is good to eat your steak, Muriel,” he said. “It is good to eat your egg. Maybe you will love, too, someday, as I have loved. It’s tough on a body, but it’s worth it, I swear on a stack of holy books.”

She cut a mouthful of beef and, released it from the tines of her fork with her teeth. She bit down, feeling the fat break over her tongue. He wiped at her chin with a napkin just as Ms. Guthrie had done that day at Country Farms, Ms. Guthrie who wore those t-strap pumps and ankle length skirts that flowed like a dancer’s. Muriel had spent that spring picking flowers whose petals reminded her of the skirts Ms. Guthrie wore. Tchaikovsky’s “House of the Flowers” spilled out all over the house in the hour before her mother arrived after school. Muriel’s record player released the notes of the surging waltz as she spun in her grandmother’s petticoat. It wasn’t until she was making money of her own that she was able to purchase a pair of t-strap pumps like Ms. Guthrie’s, though she had only been able to find a pair in the thrift shop they were so past the fashion.

“Muriel,” said Bob to get her attention, waving his hands before her face. “Were you dreaming of some old flame? Did I stir something in you, old friend, with my talk of love?”

Her cheeks and neck burned.

“Oh Muriel, you were! I’m so sorry! How awful of me to tease. I’m a good fellow. I’m a good fellow, eh?” He stood and did a dance, something like a little jig. He must really feel some sort of friendship for her if he is willing to be so foolish and save her from embarrassment. He must really be a good guy. He really does love his wife, in his own odd way, and he is just foolish like all men are foolish at a certain age like old dogs still in heat.

She felt like going to a pub and getting a beer. Maybe she wouldn’t blackmail him with her spy cam. It was a lot of work, really, and she realized how tired she was and how much she wanted to quit.

“Hey Bob, would you like to make one more stop before going back to the office?” She said, feeling as light as those tiny particles which hung in the air above the fields on the days she gathered flowers. “I was thinking maybe we could go to a pub. A beer might be nice. Kind of round things off.”

He lazily waved the waiter for the check. She could see the dance had depleted him. “I’m dying Muriel.” She saw that he was slumped a bit in his seat. “No, I mean it. I’m literally dying. I know, I haven’t said anything until now. I haven’t wanted you to worry. I have three months. That’s what the doctors are saying.”

She watched him as he closed his eyes. Why had he danced for her? What had that cost him? Maybe he was lying.

“Stomach cancer. Very advanced,” he said.

“But you just did a dance, right here in front of me. You looked fine.”

“I’m not like you, Muriel, so pure and honest and sincere, so simple. You seem like a straightforward person with your curls and those glasses and your pretty little brooch there. Is that new? I’ve never seen that pretty little fish before.” He tapped it with his fingernail.

Her stomach lurched again and she nodded.

“I’ve never known anyone like you, and you, never getting paid what you’re worth, and never, ever asking for anything in return, sweet, simple, dear friend. I lie all the time. I want to work til the end. I don’t want anyone firing me or ‘letting me go’ because I’m sick. And I don’t want my family to know. I just want to go without all the fanfare.”

A pub run was out of the question. So was a shakedown. She would not have it on her conscience.  She felt silly. And she would have to find a way to return his pen. How could she have been so proprietary with his things, so sneaky and vicious? And who was she to steal this thing that he cherished while he sat across the table from her, pouring his heart out, albeit in unexpected ways, but still?

As they walked out of the door, he shouted to the concierge, “Tell our waiter to enjoy my pen.”

“What is he talking about?” the concierge said to the waiter.

“He lost his pen,” said the waiter.

“No, I know exactly where it is,” said Bob, squeezing Muriel’s elbow, “and I want it to be kept and enjoyed.”

“But sir!” The boy started toward them, but Bob ushered Muriel out of the restaurant and into the sunlit parking lot.

In Muriel’s close, small apartment that night, the fruit arrangement filled the air with its fetid emanations. Muriel had hauled it up the stairs out of a sense of guilt and obligation. Bob knew exactly who had his pen. At last, she could stand it no longer, and she hurled the mass of fruit kabobs into the freezer. It remained there for the whole of the winter.

When summer came and Muriel found herself on Miami beach, she realized she was proud of herself for the first time in a long while. She had come by the trip on her own money. She’d found out about the hotel through a brochure that had come through the office and as she sat on the beach, she knew she had made the right decision. The color of the water was an intense blue green. She would live life simply, she vowed. She would live clean, although she couldn’t picture it, exactly couldn’t picture how it would occur or how she would sustain it.

A family passed not far from her towel. All of them were deeply tanned and had that warm drowsy look of family who were close, whose togetherness came naturally and in an unforced way. There were two boys and a girl and a woman dressed in an ankle length kaftan and a large floppy hat and sunglasses. The man wore long linen pants and a long sleeve shirt with the cuffs unbuttoned. He wore a linen fedora and sunglasses.

The man waved to a waiter. Something about the wave reminded Muriel of someone. She slipped on a coverup that would keep her warm in the fading light. A waiter approached and offered her a drink. “The man over there bought this for you and told me to give you this note.” he said to her. Something was not right. “I hope you are enjoying your pen and your honest life,” read the note in a scrawl she recognized. “Every lie I’ve ever told has been in the best interest of a woman.” The man turned to wave. It was Bob. She thought of the little fish brooch nestled coldly in its velvet box, its red eye glittering.

She felt herself breathing deeply and her body thrilled. Bob looked healthy. When he smiled and waved, she could see that his cheeks were full and his teeth gleamed bright as the white caps in the distance. She smiled back at him, raised her cocktail, and gave the wind her toast: “Salud!”

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