Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Justine" by Jessica Knauss

Justine looked very good in floral prints, and she had been wearing them often lately. They gave her an air of confidence and security in her life that I’m sure she did not feel. She was looking strikingly radiant in a dress with a black background and pink flowers with green leaves the day Scott left her.

When she met Scott’s preferred woman, Justine realized all the beauty in the world could not have saved her marriage. Amy, his new fiancée, had rat’s nest hair and a dog’s face. Long white hairs grew out of Amy’s chin, and there were heavy wrinkled bags under her eyes, and her voice — well, at first, Justine had thought it had been a bullfrog saying, “How do you do?”

She came out of that meeting rattled. “It was like the Twilight Zone,” she said. She sipped her cappuccino nervously. “That woman is hardly human! Am I more ugly? How could Scott choose that over me?”

“He must be an idiot,” I reassured her. I was to buy her many more cappuccinos, mochas, and espressos as the divorce settlement developed and she found the reason for his idiocy.

“She has money,” Justine said.

“Of course,” I said. Only Scott would leave a woman like Justine for something as low as money. I had warned Justine before she'd married him that he was a scoundrel, an idiot, a lying bastard... but I didn't want to bring that up now.

“He’s going off to live with HER in a country estate while he leaves me in the apartment without a car and without even the barest pittance of alimony.” She cried large tears into her espresso.

“Justine!” I said, confounded. “How can he do that? How can he take the car?”

“He's using her money on some really good lawyers,” she sighed. I'm sure her espresso tasted strangely bitter now, and she didn't know why. Many aspects of her life were to suddenly and inexplicably become bitter, out of her control.

Scott deposited her in a two-room, leaky, cockroached apartment in the middle of the city without a car and with only guppies for company as he drove away in a Lincoln Town Car with his new bride-to-be. I visited Justine as often as I could. I was concerned for her mental health. She told me that every day in her mind she watched that black car like a hearse drive away with everything she had worked for in her life. “If we’d had kids, he would have taken them, too!” She was looking with despair out the window, the same out of which she had watched him drive away. “Oh my God. I wouldn’t give him children. Is that why he was dissatisfied? Maybe...”

I grabbed hold of her so the sense could find its way back to her. “Do you want to procreate with that SOB? Little monsters, they’d be!”

Justine relaxed into the sofa. “He always told me he would do without children. But, oh my God, theirs are going to be so ugly.”

I tried to leave her with a comforting thought like that every day.

She was working at McDonald’s now, because it was easy to reach by subway. Her subhuman experience there made my stomach heave with the thought of eating there. “Oh, it’s horrible!” she would say. “It stinks and the people are so rude, and... I'm selling schlock!” This last was particularly damaging to Justine, who had always been the great upholder of good taste (except when it came to Scott). She came home sweaty and smelling like French fries. Eventually, I think she was sweating the French fry grease itself. This was her condition when Scott sent a man to collect some last remaining items.

I got the door. People who lower themselves to associate with Scott all seem to have a physical degradation in common, a kind of slump to the shoulders that’s easy to identify but difficult to explain. I recognized this when I saw the man at the door, and I said, “What does he want?”

“I’ve come to collect some last things Mr. Burroway has missed.”

Justine came to the door, by my side. “Anything of his I will gladly be rid of, but I don’t think there is anything.”

The man said, “Mr. Burroway misses his gold watch most of all.”

“What gold watch is that?” asked Justine. “Not the one I gave him! Not my grandfather’s watch!” Her eyes melted in despair. Not only did she cherish that watch, but she was also planning to pawn it in order to finance a car. “No!”

“You’ll have to take it up with his lawyers. For now, I have the right to take it to him.”

I knew well the power those lawyers had over Justine and me, and I fetched him the watch dutifully. But then he really crossed the line.

“And he says he misses his guppies.”

“He’s not taking my damn guppies!” Justine insisted. “They’re all I have left! He can’t take it all. Put me in jail, but I’m taking those guppies with me!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the man said. “I’ve got to.” He started through the doorway toward the fish tank, but Justine blocked the way. “I really am very sorry, ma’am,” he said, and he pushed ahead. In a panic, Justine pushed the tank off the table and it shattered on the floor. Little wet blue pebbles, broken glass, and gasping guppies were all over the floor.

“Ask him if he wants them now,” she said.

The man turned to me, I guess because I seemed more rational, and asked for a plastic bag. I didn’t understand what it was for until I was out of the kitchen and handing it to him. He collected the guppies from the floor and left. “Good day, ma’ams,” he said. He was very polite.

Justine just looked at me as though I had the answer. “How could he do that?”

I wondered the same thing myself. With her torturous job and this treatment from one who had professed to love her, the world must have seemed inhuman to Justine. I was her only friend, and she had not even met me in the real world, but in high school.

“Now that they’ve taken that watch, I can’t even go after him,” she said.

That night Justine dreamed vividly that Amy was wearing her wedding dress. In the dream, she said, it was even more beautiful than in real life, but SHE was soiling it with her rat’s nest hair and dog face. Justine’s dress had been a simple long-sleeved V-neck design with a full skirt, all of satin. Over the whole dress was an intricate floral lace design, with sequins. It must have cost a fortune, and I have the idea that Justine was still paying it off when Scott left her, four years after its use. When she awoke from the dream, she dug in the back of her closet to make sure the dress was still there. Then she took the subway to the bus station and called me from there.

“Justine?” She shouldn’t have been calling me — there was no phone at her apartment. “What’s going on? Where are you calling from?”

“I’m at the bus station. I’m going after Scott. He ruined my life and he’s not going to get away with that. Will you come with me?”

I was concerned for her mental health. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

When I got to the bus station, I saw that she had with her a small duffle bag. In it were two floral print cotton dresses and many items comprising her toilet. I had not prepared so elegantly: a book, sandwiches, sodas, and candy bars.

“Oh,” Justine said when she saw my stash. “I’m so glad you think of these things. I could just barely make my bus ticket. I have nothing for food and I was standing here thinking I would have to steal from McDonald’s.”

I understood that I needed to get my own bus ticket. This might be a more expensive weekend than I’d counted on. Also much more unlucky. I was only a little farther along in Gulliver’s Travels than I had been before I’d gotten on the bus, because, although the bus had been moving for three hours, Justine had been nervously chattering to me, bursting into my consciousness with minute observations and exclamations. Finally the diesel rattling of the bus lulled her to sleep, but I had only made it through ten slow pages of Swift when the rattling took on a more urgent tone and magnified in volume, then a little more slow and less sure, and then we were out on the street, the bus having given up the ghost. We were told we could collect our refunds back at the bus station. Justine, in her determination and despite their being her last pair of good leather shoes, suggested we use our own feet from there.

We walked, and she was the best-dressed vagabond anyone on the highway had ever seen. A couple of trucks stopped for us, but Justine would not accept their hospitality. Her dealings with Scott had given her a deep mistrust of men and she would not run the risk of becoming indebted to a strange man. The morning turned afternoon and we ate my sandwiches and drank some of the soda. Justine said she would only eat a candy bar if she was starving.

Afternoon turned night and though there were only a few miles left, we couldn’t make it. We retreated into the trees alongside the road and hoped no mad attacker would find us. Every night sound, every hoot of owl and every twitch of cricket gave me a start, but Justine was unusually calm and slept fast, the sooner to arrive at her destination. She must have been awake long before I was. She was looking breathtaking in one of her floral print dresses. She seemed not as though she had passed the night in a forest, but in a palace like a queen. I was not so lucky. Despite all the road dust I wore on my face, I had an acute sunburn and I had several sore spots from sleeping on pine cones. Without much of a “good morning,” Justine hauled me back onto the road.

The country estate was formidable. The sun shone on this place and no other. There was a ten-foot-high wrought iron fence along the perimeter, and through this we could see pruned hedges, an emerald green manicured lawn, and a long cobblestone driveway with a black stretch limousine at the end of it. The walls of the house were stucco and impenetrable. I imagined Doberman pinschers and pit bulls inside awaiting us, but Justine charged right up to the front gate and pushed the button. “It’s Mr. Burroway’s first wife. I have some things to say to him and I’m not leaving until he hears!” she said.

The gate opened by a miraculous mechanism. It was Sunday and there were no servants anywhere. We entered warily. Robins chirped. We passed meticulously manicured vegetation. Amy herself met us at the front door.

“I was hoping you’d come by for a visit, Justine!” Amy said. “It’s my dream that we’ll be the closest of friends!” She sounded very sincere. It was either true sincerity or the roughness of her vocal cords that gave her voice this quality.

Justine could not reply immediately because she was taken aback by two remarkable new aspects to Amy: She was very clearly pregnant, and she was wearing a dress of exactly the same floral print as Justine’s. “I don’t have time to be friends today,” Justine finally replied. She walked forcibly into the house. In the foyer was a set of large fish tanks with her guppies, as well as some exotic rainbow-tailed fish and a couple of slugs and a large number of goldfish. In the central room, which contained a wide marble staircase leading to the second floor, Justine said, “I’ve come for what’s rightfully mine. For what I’ve worked my whole life and for what he has no right to take from me.”

Here she pulled a pistol out of her duffle bag and cocked it confidently against Amy’s chest. “Where did you get that?” I cried.
“Are you crazy?”

“I am not crazy to want what’s mine!” Justine stated. Then she told me to go through all the rooms in the house and take back everything that belonged to her and load them into the car Scott had driven away from her apartment so many tortured weeks ago. “You’ll recognize which things are mine,” she said. “I trust you.” She kept the pistol on Amy and because as well as there being no other way for me to deal with the situation, there was also a kind of justice to it, I did as my friend asked.

Out of a downstairs bedroom I took a small TV, and the common room yielded Justine’s CD player. About a quarter of the CD collection I knew to be Justine’s. In the study I saw nearly a hundred books, plus all 29 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I would come back for all that, but I was able to take Justine’s personal computer and printer. I left Scott the modem because I knew he’d paid for it. Out of the kitchen I collected a few pots and pans, Justine’s mother’s fine china, and several coffee mugs. The microwave definitely belonged to Justine, but I couldn’t figure out how to take it off the wall. I took all this very quickly, and then sweated up the stairs.

I nervously inspected the master bedroom, afraid of what I might find. I saw that the bedspread was Justine’s but I wanted to look in the closet first. All the clothes in the closet were exact replicas of Justine’s wardrobe, floral prints and all! I closed the closet quickly. The pictures on the wall and nightstand caught my eye. They were all portraits of Justine!

“Justine!” I shouted. I started out of the master bedroom but suddenly a green bathrobe with dripping hair blocked the doorway. He had been in the shower all this time! “Scott!” I exclaimed. “Explain all this to me!” Nothing made sense.

“Explain to me first what you’re doing here!” he said gruffly. He obviously could not perceive the urgency of the situation, so I grabbed him by the terrycloth sleeve and pulled him down the stairs. His knees almost gave out under him when he saw Justine, Amy, and the pistol.

“Justine! You’re here! I wanted to tell you...”

“Ah, Scott,” Justine said. “I’m so glad you’re here. I wanted to make sure you hadn’t suddenly turned into a desirable husband...” She giggled. “I see that you have not.”

“Justine, don’t be so quick to judge,” I said. “You should see...”

“I lived with this man in the holy state of matrimony — which he violated — for four years, and you think I’m making snap judgments?” Justine snapped. “Please — you want this finished quickly — please continue getting my things.”

I went back up to the master bedroom and collected the bedspread. Looking at the pictures again, I was thinking that Scott really loved Justine. Why else would he have a Justine shrine in his bedroom, and why else would he make his wife dress exactly like her? But I imagined Justine saying to me, “Then why would he leave me?” and I would have to agree that he was a jerk for abandoning the woman he loved. And taking all her worldly possessions. For dirty money. There was a bottle of Chanel #5 in the bathroom I was pretty sure Justine’s father had given her, so I took it. Lying perilously near to the sink was Justine’s grandfather’s gold watch. It looked different somehow. I held it to my ear and it was not ticking. I wound it up as best I knew how, but still there was no comforting sound. However, it was Justine’s and I knew she would want it. Maybe she could repair it.

By the time I had put the Encyclopedia Britannica and most of the rest of Justine’s books in her car, she had shifted the pistol onto Scott and was speaking almost amicably with Amy.

“That’s everything,” I said to my friend.

“Not quite.” She handed the pistol to me and I held it limply and looked meekly at Scott and Amy, wondering how hard they would press the charges, and Justine came out of the kitchen with a plastic bag. In it she collected all five guppies from the tank in the foyer, and on a whim, she added a rainbow tail to her collection. “You don’t mind, do you?” she said sweetly to Amy. Then she took the pistol from me and handed it to Scott. “I believe this belongs to you,” she said, “and since I’ve come only for what’s mine, I think you should also get what’s yours.”

“Then you should give Amy back her rainbow fish,” Scott retorted lamely.

“That’s a gift, a kind gift to try to make up for your having ruined my life, for having made the last several months of my life miserable, and for trying to walk off with everything I’ve worked so hard to have when you didn’t even need it. You ruined my life, Scott. Make no mistake. When I look at you, I seethe with rage inside my soul. I could have used that pistol on you, Scott, but I chose not to because, well, I’m just trying to bring a little love into the world. I’m not going to let you take all my things, and I’m not going to let you take all the love out of the world. Your child is going to want a world with love.”

“Justine, wait!” said Scott. “I’ve made a mistake! I never really wanted to separate!”

Amy looked at Scott, dismayed.

“I just wanted a baby,” Scott said. “I couldn’t live without continuing my line! I wanted a little boy with whom I could run and play as I did when I was a little boy, someone to be my protégé, as I was my father’s. I told you I could do without children, but I was wrong.”

Justine paused. “There are no little girls in your future?”

“Oh, yes! A little girl to spoil and adore like a princess! To defend from dozens of suitors!”

“Oh, so that’s what little girls are good for,” said Amy. She wiped a tear from her eye, then disappeared up the marble staircase.

Scott paid her no heed and Justine said, “Are you trying to say you’re sorry?”

“Uh ... yes...” he said.

“You’ll never apologize to anyone, will you, Scott? Not even me,” said Justine. Fish bag in hand, she walked out to the car with me.

“Well,” I breathed. “That was a success!”

“I hope so,” she said. “Know what I want to do now?” She started the car.


“Buy you a cappuccino. And then guess what I’m going to do.”


“Find me a good man and have a baby.” The car began to roll down the driveway. “With Scott, I never felt a desire for the world to continue. Without him, I can see that the world is a beautiful place and I want it to go on for some time, with good people in it to help it along.”

“Oh, Justine, I’m so glad.” Not only was I happy about this new world order, but I was also thinking about getting back home and cleaning up, getting rid of all the vermin I must have picked up, and going to sleep so I wouldn’t be dead at work the next day.

But the gate would not open to let either me or Justine carry out our plans. Justine’s eyes became crazed, as though she wanted to drive right through the wrought iron. Suddenly, from inside the house, we heard Amy scream.

Scott ran out to us, in still not much more than his green bathrobe. “Justine! You’ve inspired me! I’m going to take back what’s mine, too! I won’t let you leave!”

“Get the fuck away from me!” screamed Justine. “You have everything you deserve!”

“My leaving ruined your life,” he said as he raised the pistol. “I swear I won’t do that to you again.”

Justine said, “Don’t pull that shit on me, Scott. You’re not going to get away with it anymore.” She revved up the car, as if preparing to drive through the gate. I felt my involvement in this conflict becoming unnecessary, and I might have jumped out of the car if I’d thought I could have gotten away with it, especially since I did not agree at all with Justine’s next statement: “I would rather die than stay near you another minute. Shoot me, please.”

He raised the pistol to aim and I shouted, “Scott! No! Don’t kill the woman you love!”

“Who should I kill, then?” he retorted. “Her best friend? My unborn baby?” He deliberately pointed the weapon at me, and then at Amy, who had run out to him, holding something behind her. “You know I’ll do it to keep you here,” Scott threatened.

Amy interrupted. “All I am to you is a vessel for your baby,” she said. She pulled the shotgun from behind her back and raised it to him. “Scott, I’m going to give you what’s yours.” She shot him, right through the gut.

He fell on his back, onto the cobblestones. I jumped out of the car to help him and Amy took my seat. “I realized that a world with Scott in it is no world for my baby,” she said to Justine, who smiled.

“He got what was his,” she said.

“You guys! He’s going to die!” I said.

“We’ll be leaving the country,” Justine said. “I’ll get you that cappuccino later.”

Amy said, “Tell the authorities whatever you like and I’ll sign over the house to you. Sorry to leave you such a mess.”

Such a house! I could only accept the offer. The gate opened and they drove away. “Justine! I’ll miss you!” I yelled after them.

Scott groaned and tried to move. He wasn’t dead, but soon would be, with his guts all over the pavement. I leaned over him. “Scott, I am so sorry. But mostly I’m sorry for the way you treated Justine and Amy.” I couldn’t decide whether to call the police or the hospital, whether or not what they’d done was justified, so I went inside to take a shower in my new home. I washed away all the dust and sweat of the highway, and said goodbye to a green spider who’d been clinging to me all day. I put on a green floral print dress from the closet of Justine replicas, called an ambulance, and went out to check on Scott. He was dead.

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