Business and Pleasure

Annamaria Podge was an ordinary woman who led a quiet life. At 45 years old, she was, for Polk City’s townfolk, an established bachelorette. She enjoyed nights at home with her five cats, was a solid, if quiet member of the local Tuesday and Ta Ya Mim clubs and played hymns at the Baptist church on Sunday mornings. She answered when spoken to, but her timidity radiated around her plump form like a shield, keeping strangers at bay and those who knew her deep in pity.

In Polk City, she was plain old Annamaria. A shallow presence, a part of the woodwork. In her private life, Annie was a different woman entirely.

On the night of Friday, Jan. 23, Annie bundled up her fleshy figure in a bright track suit with geometric shapes in vivid blues, greens and reds. Her wilting dishwater blond tresses were pulled back in a tight bun fixed where fat from her back rolled up to kiss the nape of her neck. With sausage-like fingers, thick but always adept on the aged and always slightly out-of-tune church piano, she pulled on a wig of curls dubbed “burnt sienna.” It was a color more apt for walls than hair, but the wig effectively detracted from Annie’s pitted visage. After smearing on bright red lipstick, she ran her tongue over crooked teeth, tugged once more on the wig and stood from the dressing table.

The slicky pants whined as her lumbered walking rubbed the fabric between her thighs, but the sound wouldn’t matter when she got there. She lifted one of her many framed flower needlepoints from her living room wall to set on a highbacked floral print chair. From the concealed safe, she snapped on black latex gloves, then drew out her snub-nosed .38. She’d have to dump the gun, per usual, which was a shame. She’d really come to like the blunt revolver. It didn’t have the shooting power of some of the flashier guns she’d used, but it fit comfortably in her hand. She caressed it gently with one plastic-encased finger before slipping bullets out of a cardboard box to load in the cartridge.

With her weapon nestled in a leather fanny pack, she adjusted the strap, once, then twice, until it clipped comfortably around her middle. She said goodbye to the felines lolling about the small house and locked the back door.

Her 1985 blue Buick Century rumbled to life, and she wriggled the fanny pack to her side in order to stretch the seat belt to its buckle. With her heart bumping, she pulled out of the carport, the map and instructions spread across the passenger seat. She had them memorized already, she always did, but she enjoyed having the paper as back up. This job, in any case, was familiar. She knew the target, suspected she knew the client, but she never asked questions. When Roy had paged her, she’d called back to listen only. No questions, no trouble, no feelings. The money would be placed in an offshore account, and Annie was counting down the days until her fiftieth birthday when she could collect. She would miss Polk City – it was her home – but the call of white sand beaches and shimmering blue water was seductive. She would retire, move to paradise and immerse herself in romantic novels and greasy French fries until she keeled over. The thought of it made her smile as her headlights slashed through the night.

When she pulled up to the restaurant, her heart’s bumping had accelerated to pounding. She looked for a space next to the zippy red convertible and waited. The diners milling in front of the windows of the warm eatery looked happy, Annie thought. A small part of her yearned to be inside with them, dining on delicious food while engaging in witty banter with a handsome man. She would feel confident and beautiful, smart and classy and all the other adjectives that had long-ago escaped her pudgy grasp. But she’d found her calling in killing, and that was the way it was.

She pushed aside the thoughts of loneliness and the thick depression to focus. When she found her target, she nodded to herself. The woman was paying the check, and her husband was nowhere to be seen. Probably left early for a medical emergency. “Medical emergency,” Annie thought. Read: Meet with the Pastor’s wife, with whom he was having a relationship. The whole congregation knew it.

When the woman, slim and blonde, pushed out of the heavy restaurant door, Annie unzipped her fanny pack and pulled the gun out, fitting her pointer finger over the trigger. The blonde walked slowly, her gaze low and her features pulled downward. When she reached the convertible, Annie rolled down her window.

“Hello?” she asked.

The blonde looked up, her face revealing her shock at Annie’s garish appearance.

“Yes?”

“Are you Cassandra Pickler?”

“Yes. May I help you?”

“No.”

Annie lifted the gun and shot the woman twice. Once for the kill, the second for good measure As the woman dropped to the asphalt next to her car, Annie let out a long, slow breath and calmly placed the gun and the discarded shell casings on top of the papers. She put the car in reverse and drove the curving and dipping streets home, where a box of powdered donuts and a video of “An Affair to Remember” were waiting.

The car was later found in a used lot. The gun was never recovered. The bustling crowd in the restaurant never heard the shot, nor did they see a flash. The only thing they could remember was a heavyset woman with rich brown hair and a flashy jogging suit. No one remembered her face.

Appearances

I always thought of them as being plastic, like full-sized versions of Barbie and Ken. They had that sheen, that glossiness about them. The blonde coiffed hair, the tanned-to-orange-perfection skin. They were tall and athletic, fashionably preppy. She wore sundresses and wedges, he wore chinos and loafers. I suspect, if she allowed it, he would wear one of those horribly tacky gold chains that some men think are so macho. Instead, he settled for a watch with a brown leather band; she had pearl necklaces with matching earrings.

Sometimes I wonder if they would have been better suited to a place like Connecticut, or a yacht moored off some chic European coast. As it was, they came to our small Midwestern town, new money in a no-money neighborhood. They were like J.Crew models setting up shop in “Field and Stream.” Cashmere among camo.

They bought the Hammerstein’s old place. A brick split level that had seen yellow, green and blue siding over the years, it was a comfortable house, a settled house, a house that said family. Pansies tucked into ceramic planters smiled cheerfully at passers-by, the lawn was lush and green. The tree out front was a refuge for neighborhood children barefoot and burned from the summer sun.

But then they moved in, shifting and pushing and manipulating that small plot of land. At first, I think the land pushed back. But they were meaner and tougher and smarter.

They removed that wonderful oak tree. It was like witnessing death, the scraping of dirt onto that rumbling machine, the groaning and creaking of roots as they were violently pulled up from their home. The horrific crash as it landed in the street, leaves shuddering as if uttering their last breath.

Then they leveled the house, destroying it completely before rebuilding a McMansion in its place. Because a five-bedroom colonial blends so well with modest houses from the ‘70s. I imagine they weren’t concerned with fitting in, or how their destruction would affect the neighbors. I don’t like to think it was selfishness on their part, bringing in their money and big-city ideas to a place that so valued family – and retro décor.  Maybe it was ignorance. And ambition.

They once told me that the house, the yard – the whole neighborhood, really – needed a facelift.

“Honestly, honey, you have no idea what kind of mediocrity there is in a place like this,” she said.

“Mediocrity? I don’t understand.”

“It’s just a lack of pride, of confidence in how things look, sweetie. What you look like on the outside says everything about who you are on the inside. It’s an investment in yourself and the future, and it all takes you one step further towards a more luxurious life. By the way, is there any shopping center nearby other than that pitiful strip mall on Grand? I would love to spruce up this place with some nice wicker furniture.”

Their renovations took over a year. A year of squealing drills, of heavy trucks that beeped and beeped and beeped as they backed up, of discarded paper cups and cigarette butts from workers. I don’t think I slept much that year. Collateral damage.

But when it was over, when the air settled, when they had won and the land had accepted defeat, they stood out on their new porch, arms around each other, smiling their pearly whites. For them, it was victory.

And they lived there, at 601 Harmon Street, for two years. Now the house stands alone, beautiful, but empty. A shell. Just like them.