Since 1980 Rudy Koshar has taught European history at the University of Southern California and the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s...read more written or edited seven books on German history and won
Guggenheim and other fellowships. Several years ago, at the age of sixty, he began to write fiction (though
some will say his history books have always been fictional anyway). His short stories have appeared in
Open Road Review, Black Heart Magazine, Eclectica, Revolution House, Gravel, Wilderness House Review,
Forge, The Write Room, Turk’s Head Review, Sleetmagazine, and elsewhere. His "Fallen Magi" was the
second-place winner in the Wisconsin People & Ideas 2013 Fiction Contest. In order to stay in touch with
what passes for reality, he also publishes the occasional nonfiction essay or op-ed piece in places like
Guernica, Montreal Review, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune. He lives in Madison with his wife of
forty-two years and records evidence of his literary misdeeds at rudykoshar.net.
I will never understand why Charlotte, a petite blond, ballooned to the size of a small horse as we were having a casual after-dinner conversation about the latest mass shooting. Her fiancé Fred seemed not to notice a thing, but I’d detected a significant puffiness in her wrists and ankles already before we sat down in the couple’s small living room. At first, I thought nothing of it. Then Charlotte’s lips—the lips I’d kissed many times in the two years we’d been lovers—began to distend so horribly that I became alarmed. It was at that point that Fred, who’d eyed me with suspicion throughout the dinner of Hawaiian pizza and boiled chicken he’d so lovingly prepared, began to move around. He got up, placed his hand on Charlotte’s now grotesquely swollen knee, went to the bookshelf and scanned a row of books as if he were looking for a particular volume, then returned to the couch and placed his hand on Charlotte again, though this time on top of her super-sized head. He said, as calmly as ever, “We have to do something.”
“What?” I said, confused by his unexcited demeanor, which seemed inappropriate as Charlotte’s eyes began to disappear behind the inflated pink expanses of her cheeks and forehead.
“She’s taking in air but not letting it out,” said Fred.
I thought this was a reasonable explanation, but it did nothing to reduce my panic. Nor did it help me suppress a growing sense of guilt. I’d been angry at Charlotte for months, and in my waking hours I’d had some pretty horrible thoughts about what I wanted to do to her. Those thoughts had usually included Fred, whom I both admired and hated for winning Charlotte’s affections. Yet I’d known that my violent daydreams were really nothing more than a result of healthy, normal jealousy. And I thought that my accepting a dinner invitation from the newly engaged couple—to kiss and make up, so to speak—was a sign of my emotional growth over the previous few weeks.
But now I feared that this horrible thing that was happening to poor Charlotte before our eyes was somehow connected to all the dark fantasies of torture and dismemberment that had haunted me.
So I said, “then we have to cut her open and let out the air.”
Before the words were out of my mouth, Fred had dashed to the kitchen and returned. He stood over me now with a gleaming, ten-inch CUTCO kitchen knife, the same one he’d used to slice up the chicken.
“You’ll have to do it,” he said.
I said, “Why me? You’re the fiancé.”
“A fiancé doesn’t do that kind of thing,” he responded, which again seemed reasonable to me.
I have to say I’d gained a good deal of respect for tall, lanky Fred in the course of the dinner, not only because the pizza and unseasoned boiled chicken seemed like a brilliant combination, but also because everything he’d said was so well thought-out and balanced. About the latest high-school shooting, for example, he said “if not guns, then knives or bombs,” and that sounded about right. Charlotte had disagreed vehemently, arguing for strong gun regulation, and if I’d still been jealous, then I might have seen her criticism of Fred’s opinion as a possible opening for me. But since sweet reason had begun to return to my jilted lover’s mind, I didn’t try to exploit the rift between the two. In fact, I stated my agreement with Fred.
Soon Charlotte grew to the point that she covered both of the wide cushions on the couch and overflowed the armrests. Saying she had “too much junk in the trunk,” as some people uncharitably put it, was no longer an insult but an apt description of her physical appearance. Had Fred even wanted to sit next to his once pert, sexy fiancé he couldn’t have done it. Nor could he have taken her out to dinner, unless of course he would have knocked out a wall of their apartment. Even then, it was doubtful Charlotte could have passed through the hallway and even more doubtful that their landlord would have allowed such a costly renovation. To say nothing of the noise and dust and general irritation it would have caused for the other residents.
I was still thinking about what Fred had asked me to do, and although I could see the logic of the action, this was Fred’s responsibility. I no longer had a dog in the race, as they say, and even though I wanted to be friends with both Fred and Charlotte, there were also limits to friendship. And anyway, I was an accountant, and accountants are even less equipped to do this kind of thing than fiancés are. Everyone knows that accountants are meek, numbers-obsessed people who rarely step out of line and always pay their taxes. For Fred to ask me to use a menacing-looking, ten-inch kitchen knife to slice open his puffed-up fiancé showed how little Fred knew about the world of accountancy and finance.
“But I’m an accountant, Fred, and accountants are even less equipped to do this kind of thing than fiancés are.”
Even so, I’ve often thought that Charlotte had left me because of my accountant’s personality. She wanted someone bolder and more daring, someone who could make a dinner of Hawaiian pizza and boiled chicken really work. By making at least the first slice (and then maybe having Fred do the rest, if more was needed), I might take a big step in my personal growth. It would be part of the healing process whereby I’d get over the trauma of Charlotte’s leaving me once and for all. I’d be helping Charlotte as well—at least that was the hypothesis on which both Fred and I were working—and I’d relieve Fred of the pain of having to make the initial incision. Finally, there was the fact that I’d made the suggestion in the first place, which showed that I was capable of thinking outside my dark little accountant’s box. So I had to follow through; it had to be me.
I took the CUTCO knife in my hand. I realized then that it was one of three kitchen knives I’d bought for Charlotte the previous Christmas. She’d often complained of not having any good sharp kitchen knives, so I thought that it was a sensible gift. And it was: not only did it enable me to show off my juggling skills to Charlotte—I’d learned how to juggle switchblades, daggers, and machetes for one of my Eagle Scout merit badges in high school—but buying the knives also led to one of the most passionate nights Charlotte and I had shared since we’d started dating. It was all coming together: logic, emotion, fond memories, and, lest we forget, Charlotte’s condition, which called for immediate and drastic intervention.
Convinced more than ever that what I was about to do was right, I walked toward the couch, where Charlotte sat, slug-like, in a state of sublime enlargement. First, I wanted to make sure she was still alive. She hadn’t moved for a while and it was impossible to tell if she was breathing. I was willing to let her air out, but I certainly wasn’t prepared to perform an autopsy.
I used the tip of the blade to lift the fleshy fold that now covered her right eyelid. I saw her blue eye and recalled how its tiny brown flecks had once entranced me. Her eye registered no fear or concern. It simply looked out at me with bovine indifference, and I must admit that its calm gaze unsettled me at first.
It occurred to me then that I hadn’t decided where to make the incision. Nor had Fred and I discussed that issue. I looked over at Fred, who, to my utter surprise, had fallen asleep on the floor. At the very moment when the former (and still slightly bitter) lover of his future wife was ready to perform major surgery on her, he fell asleep. Maybe it was the effect of the box-quality Riesling Fred had guzzled all evening. Or maybe, inexplicably, the entire matter now bored him. Maybe he had the same attitude toward Charlotte’s puffed-up state as he had toward mass shootings: if not guns, then knives or bombs. If not puff-upedness, then cancer or an automobile accident.
What to do? I thought over the options as I continued to hold up Charlotte’s weighty eyelid with the tip of the blade. I could go ahead and puncture her ever-expanding body without Fred’s knowledge. Or I could wake him up. But if I woke him, then I ran the risk of embarrassing him in front of Charlotte. I’d come over for dinner to patch things up, to show them there were no hard feelings, and to expose the couple to such embarrassment contradicted my reason for being there. Still, Charlotte was Fred’s fiancé, and he should be awake, if for no other reason than that I needed a witness who could verify to the police what happened if something went wrong. Fred could vouch for me that I tried my best and that I’d been the one to suggest that Charlotte needed puncturing but I was reluctant to do it and Fred insisted it had to be me.
I slowly lowered Charlotte’s eyelid and turned again to her sleeping fiancé. He snored gently, and this too reminded me of one of the things Charlotte had disliked about me. When it comes to snoring I am not gentle but robust and inventive. All my college roommates as well as each of the forty-seven lovers I’d had before Charlotte said the same thing: you are a brilliant, over-the-top snorer. My snoring had driven Charlotte out of our bed on numerous occasions, despite its artistic flourishes and booming bass lines, and I’d begun to worry that it might come between us well before she dropped me for Fred. Not everyone appreciates the type of music a really good snorer produces. It was as if my boring, uninspired accountant’s personality was magically transformed when my head hit the pillow and I became The Swashbuckling Maestro of Snore. In contrast, Fred snored like a timid little church mouse.
Somewhere between Charlotte’s impassive blue-brown eye and Fred’s childlike repose, I lost all enthusiasm for the task. What had seemed like a dire emergency just a few minutes before had now dissipated. A scenario of potential horror was now a cozy domestic tableau. Why disturb these two? It was true that Charlotte might continue to expand and fill up the entire apartment. She might even burst the apartment’s roof and walls and grow out into the street. She might suffocate poor Fred in the process. But he was oblivious to everything. It was the old story about sleeping dogs and letting them lie.
I stepped over Fred and walked to the kitchen. Once I found the cutlery drawer, I returned the knife to its white cardboard sleeve. With satisfaction I noticed that the sleeve was frayed at the ends. It was nice to give people gifts they used on an everyday basis.
The smell of pizza and boiled chicken still hung in the air. I took in a deep breath and marveled at how invigorated I felt. I walked back through the living room, where Fred still slept and Charlotte grew. I had to inch my way past her bulging thighs, which now almost blocked the front door. With some difficulty, I opened the door to the hallway and squeezed my way out. The door snapped shut behind me. I could well imagine that in just minutes Charlotte’s once svelte, Anytime-Fitness body would be the size of a three-car garage. But that was okay. The entire evening convinced me that Fred and Charlotte were made for each other, and I was happy for them. Truly.
I drove away in my four-door Toyota Corolla resolving that the next time I had guests come over, I’d make the same combination of Hawaiian pizza and unseasoned boiled chicken, with the one difference that I’d add extra pineapple slices to the pizza.