MAUDE CLARK SUSPECTED THAT HER HUSBAND DWAYNE WAS PLANNING TO divorce her and marry his lawyer, Imani Harrison. Why, only God knew. True, Imani was younger, at least ten years younger than Maude most likely, but that’s where her assets ended. Imani herself had no assets. Her law office was an aluminum trailer set on cinder blocks in a sordid section of town.
And the way she dressed! White blouses and severely cut suits whose skirts drooped well below the knee. And those horn-rimmed glasses. What was that all about? Hadn’t she heard of contacts?
Maude had willingly signed a prenuptial agreement, not really sure of what it meant. She did understand that she’d get a good amount of money if Dwayne divorced her. It was a lot more than she was making waiting tables. Now that she’d tasted the good life of Vermont’s Barnacle Bay, she wanted it all. She was not going to let some frumpy woman take it from her. That simply would not do.
The frumpy woman had too much influence over Dwayne. It was Imani who found the lot for their house. It was Imani who found the architect and the interior decorator.
And what a house it was. Here they were overlooking sunny Barnacle Bay, but Imani’s architect designed a three-story imitation Victorian mansion made of gray stones and heavy, dark wood. Dwayne built the huge, gloomy house over Maude’s protests.
Imani suggested they call it Bleak House. She told them it was a famous estate in British Literature. Dwayne had never heard of Charles Dickens. He never read much of anything. Neither did Maude.
One night, Dwayne told his wife that he’d be spending the next three days in Boston attending to business matters. Maude knew the business was Imani. It was the same story he’d given to the wife Maude replaced.
Dwayne had a silver flask that he liked to take with him in his gold colored sports car. It went with the leather driving cap, the tweed jacket with patches on the sleeve and the pipe. Affectations, all of them. That night, after Dwayne went to bed, Maude put poison in the flask.
Late the next morning, Maude stood at her bedroom window and watched him roar away in his coupe. And then she left for a week’s stay at the Indulge Me Resort in Essex.
The woman who ran the spa came to Maude’s suite midweek. “My dear. Oh goodness. I don’t know how to break this to you,” she sputtered.
Maude suppressed a grin. The poison had worked. The girlfriend surely had been accused of killing him. The money, all of Dwayne’s wonderful money was hers! Her mind went instantly to the life that lay ahead, a life she had been daydreaming about all week. She’d buy a sailboat and hire someone to captain it. She saw herself on deck, floating across sunny Barnacle Bay. And the shopping. Boston, Montreal, maybe even Paris. She’d get a new diamond bracelet that would outshine the stars in the night sky.
She’d sell Dwayne’s baronial monstrosity and get a condo. She saw herself in shimmering hostess gowns, posed next to a never-used swimming pool. The good life would be hers.
“My dear,” the woman said, not knowing the correct protocol for breaking horrific news. “There’s been an accident.”
Maude smirked and held out her right hand. A ruby ring would look so good on her. She could find one that matched the color of her newly painted nails.
“My dear,” the woman said, wringing her hands. Two tears trickled down her face. “There’s been an accident. Your husband has been–” she sobbed. She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
Maude added a handsome young captain and a crew of two to the imagined yacht.
The woman got herself under control and stammered, “Oh, my dear, your husband has been injured.”
“Injured?” Maude screamed.
“Oh, you poor dear. Oh my goodness. Oh dear,” the woman said, eventually leaving Maude alone with her dismay.
Maude arrived home at Bleak House in a foul mood. She found Dwayne confined to a wheelchair. “Someone tried to poison me,” he yelled at her. “It wasn’t strong enough. All it did was cripple me,” he said with an odd pride.
Maude put on a good show of concern. She made sure Cook brought Dwayne plenty of freshly squeezed orange juice and chicken soup, ignoring suggestions that these were known as cold remedies.
Over the next few days, Dwayne became irritable and hostile. And how he smelled. Like the dead rats behind the garbage bins in the diner where she’d waited tables. She remembered two fishermen who sat at the counter stinking like spoiled bait and old boiled eggs. Dwayne smelled like that too. The doctor said it was a side effect of the medicines he was taking.
Maude realized Dwayne would be like this for the rest of his life. All the money would be spent on doctors and aides and medicines and fancy wheelchairs. And she, Maude, would have to spend years, decades even, catering to this wheelchair-bound man.
The worst thing was the endless television he insisted upon listening to all day long. They were repeats of game shows from years ago. Maude jumped every time the winner’s gong sounded.
She couldn’t stand it.
One day, Maude sent the entire staff to the movies in town. “It’s a special treat to celebrate my darling husband’s survival,” she said. They asked no questions and left. Most ended up at a bar they liked to frequent in a dismal corner of town.
Dwayne woke an hour later. “Where is everybody?!” he roared. “I want my breakfast!”
Maude stood on the landing. Dwayne wheeled himself out of his bedroom and toward her. “What are you doing there, woman? You look like some kind of loon bird. What are you standing there for?”
She reached out and snatched his wheelchair, aiming to fling it and him down the stairs. But he grabbed her, and the two of them and the chair tumbled down the heavy wooden stairs, crashing on the flagstone floor of the Great Hall below.
“THERE NOW. ARE YOU two comfortable?” Imani asked as she fussed with Maude and Dwayne. Both were in wheelchairs, unable to speak or move their hands since the fall. Imani turned the wheelchairs so that Maude was facing Dwayne. His face was bruised, he dribbled, and his nose ran. What an awful sight to see day after day, year after year, Maude thought.
Gone were Imani’s ugly glasses and droopy suit. She wore an elegant yellow silk dress that brought out the highlights in her professionally cut hair. Her high-heeled sandals showed off her shapely young legs. The only thing that was more annoying to Maude than the sharp click of Imani’s heels across the stone floor was her high-pitched voice.
“Now Maude, I know how much you adore your husband. I know that your only thoughts are of his happiness and comfort. So I bought you something that will make you happy.” Imani raised her hand. “No dear. You don’t have to thank me. Yes, it was expensive, but I charged it to the estate.” She put her mouth next to Maude’s ear and whispered, “Of course I had to take a bit for myself. Expenses, you see.” She stood back and grinned at Maude.
Maude didn’t care anymore. Even Imani wouldn’t want to be married to Dwayne now. She wondered what the gift could be. The only thing that would make her happy was to get her speech and mobility back so she could get away from Dwayne. She glared at Imani, willing her to tell her what the present was.
Imani turned Maude’s wheelchair slightly so the older woman could see the sailboat. It was bigger than anything in Maude’s daydreams. The handsome young captain was better looking than anyone Maude had imagined. “That’s not it, my dear,” Imani whispered in Maude’s ear. “That’s the gift you and dear Dwayne gave me. That and a few other trinkets.”
Maude glared at the woman. She was consumed with hatred.
Imani fingered a diamond bracelet. “Your maid said that you both just love the Gong Show. So I bought you a video library, a thousand hours of it. You can watch it over and over. I’ll just turn it on, and you can listen to it now.”
As Imani left the room, she held out her right hand, admiring her twinkling ruby ring set with tiny diamonds. It perfectly matched her newly painted nails. She closed the door behind her so she wouldn’t hear the television. Gong!