It felt like the retractable edge of the universe, but really it was the edge of the black table at Margaret’s Small Restaurant, with peeled layers of paint, and the two stylish young women with long hair were holding onto the edge of the table for as long as they could, their hands starting to feel emotionally rusty, especially the severed one that Margaret was holding as she stood next to the table, hunkered over and a little pale.
Margaret’s theatrical severed hand was named Matilde, always said with a sophisticated faux French accent, She named all her plaster severed hands, and she had five. She had started collecting them as wry humor therapy in the last few months. Though she had two perfectly good hands, she rarely left home without a plaster one, and loved to use one to shake hands with strangers, especially with new customers at her little restaurant. This hand was able to hold onto the edge of the shaking, shivering table better than her own, because of the curvature of the fingers and their unbreakable inertness.
The uncommonly unstable situation at the table where Margaret was attending was a small, gentle earthquake, common to San Francisco, the kind of thing that really bonds people together and makes everything seem unusual. It’s almost like a truth serum, making people open up to each other who may never have had the courage before. The kind of thing that makes everything seem like a lucid dream for awhile.
“Darling”, Margaret said, emboldened to use the word because of the tremor, “it was not long after you came here from Iowa that I started suspecting it was You. You’d come into my restaurant a few times before I was sure, but those looks you gave me were so hot, and so familiar in an edgy sort of way I kept thinking about you. That’s why I asked about your Iowa accent. I don’t get many people in here from my home state, anyway, but it was more than that. It was when you gave me the look of slight ferocious irony that I recognized you from the pictures I’d seen on the computer. You were the one, weren’t you, that my boyfriend, Rick, fell in love with over the internet? You were the one in the pictures on the website that he tried so hard to keep secret. Why he didn’t just tell me he wanted to break up and date you, I don’t know, but I guess you know by now how bizarre he is whether you actually ever met him in person or not. You were the secret girl that made him break up with me by making up all those stories. You’re Mandy, aren’t you?”
She had been waiting for a nod, some sort of indication, and it finally did come, as the young woman seated at the table started blushing the color of her rose wine that was jiggling dangerously in the glass with the aftershocks.
“ And you know which stories, don’t you, Mandy? The ones about how he was a serial killer. About how he liked to track down women and chop off their hands. About how they never knew what hit them until they saw the gleam in his eyes and then it was too late. Slice. Snuff. Bango. I know he’d never actually do it, but it still creeped me out. I told half of Iowa City about it. He could have just been normal and told me he met someone on the internet he wanted to date instead, but no, not Rick. He had to give me nightmares about how he was going to make a snuff movie, and how he never drank a martini unless it had a dead man’s heart valve floating in it for extra panache. I asked him if he wanted to go kill my mom together, to see what he’d do. To test him. But he said no, he can’t have an accomplice, too dangerous. Clever. Very clever.”
“Yes, that was me,” Mandy said. “I’m sorry. I’m that girl.”
“You’re really hot.”
“So are you.”
“ Maybe we should get together sometime. Have a drink. Someplace nicer than this hole in the wall. I can bring Matilde…..Or not.”
And so they did.
They ended up at Margaret’s house, which was compact, filled with pictures and vases and figurines. “This is my great aunt Martha,” Margaret said, pointing to a dried pink rose in a vase, very dusty. “Actually, it’s my friend’s aunt Martha, but she gave it to me. Whenever she goes to a cemetery when someone dies, she takes a flower. This one happened to be there when her aunt died. So she named it “Aunt Martha”. Somehow, it keeps me company.”
Her new girlfriend, Mandy, explained that she understood. She said she didn’t usually go out with living people and had an affiliation with the dead, herself. She liked to go on dates with dead writers, as she’d always describe it to her social circle. She had a particular favorite named Nancy Ruggles, a novelist who had died years before. She would take her books with her to read over coffee, or a Grand Marnier. Her friends knew this about her, and would be happy to find out she was actually dating a real live woman, whether she was morbid or not. They would be proud, and a little surprised, though she was very pretty. Her dark hair hung over one eye, making it hard for her to see, but worth it because of the noir mystery affect.
She told Margaret about the glories of the novelist Nancy Ruggles. They started double dating Nancy. Getting double shots of espresso and reading Nancy’s books aloud to each other. They both became nearly equally obsessed with her novels, and would softly, dramatically, seductively recite a sentence to each other from a Ruggles book, while kissing each other between words on the belly. On the thigh, if it was a particularly brilliant line. They both eventually started drinking decaf coffee with hazelnut milk in it, and sweetened with agave nector, because they wanted to be more healthy for each other. Margaret stopped using her plaster arm as often. They became dedicated, more svelt than ever, their skin glowing with more life, double dating Nancy’s books, as they delighted in telling all their friends, and then one full moon night, they called up The Guy. Rick.
The guy who had so cleverly claimed to be the mass murderer in order to get out of the relationship with Margaret, so he could date Mandy who had, however, moved out of Iowa and because of the truly dreamlike nature of the reality, ended up in San Francisco, just as Margaret had months before. They called him one night around three in the morning, and both talked into the phone at once. Matilde the plaster severed hand was made to dial the phone, painstakingly. The fingernails were painted especially red for the occasion, and it was wearing a ring he had given her.
Rick was shocked to hear from either one, much less both at the same time. And when they told him they had left him and found someone better, a dead woman writer who wrote stories about sorority girls who had sledding accidents and found out the meaning of life through being good sports about it, never complaining about the pain, who never over-ate, who went to bed at ten, he was even more surprised. He didn’t know what to say. The mass murderer lines weren’t going to work, as he had only used that story with Margaret. He had told Mandy he was a philanthropist lawyer who did a lot of pro bono work. He made a sound that could be almost any word, to give himself a little more time to think.
His calico cat walked across his head at that moment, as he lay there, speechless, holding the phone. It butted his ear with its head, wanting to be petted. That knocked the phone out of his hand, and when he recovered it, still not sure what to say, Matilde, the plaster severed hand, had already hung up the receiver.
And the two moist women, Mandy, and Margaret, were making out, both wearing mesh stockings for the occasion, which became slightly snagged and unwearable again from the experience of intertwining so enthusiastically, but neither one cared, or ever brought it up at all.
--Tantra Bensko teaches Experimental Fiction Writing through UCLA Extension, and her own Academy. She has won various honors such as the Journeys Award from Cezanne's Carrot. She is the author of Watching the Windows Sleep, put out by Naissance Press. She publishes Experimental Writing, including exclusive work, by various authors, exemplifying the genre