Fiction From Candace Hartsuyker
The Femme Fatale
The rules: the detective is the hero and the femme fatale is always the villain. The detective is taller than average, wears suits in black or gray and is sarcastic and handsome. The femme fatale has a soft, throaty voice. Small or tall, she is all legs. An hourglass figure. Cheekbones that could cut glass. Mouth lipstick red.
The femme fatale is versatile: she’s dark-haired or bottle blonde or a redhead. Petite or broad shouldered, rough or demure. She shapeshifts; she knows not what he wants but what he needs. She entices him with an ankle, a foot, the smoothness of a bare thigh brushing against striped pants.
The blinds are drawn shut, the door locked. The air: smoky with the scent of her perfume. She doesn’t introduce herself, doesn’t ask to sit down, just gives him a long, low look. His office is so tiny that standing or sitting, he could brush his knees against hers if he wanted. He doesn’t. Palms sweating, the detective lights a cigarette, leans against the side of his desk. He thinks to himself, this woman is a black hole. A dead star, too bright for everyone else. She’ll annihilate everyone in her path. Even me.
The detective is the audience; he watches her. She is as elusive as a creamy arm encased in a long, velvet glove, the glove fluttering like a bird’s feather to the floor, one naked hand trailing across a curtain. A woman capable of appearing and disappearing at will.
The femme fatale wants someone to love her, but she doesn’t know how to love him back. She hates his wife or his girl and sometimes him, but she hates herself most of all, hates herself for the choices she’s made. But repentance? You’ll never hear those words from her lips. The most you’ll hear is a stifled cry at night, pressing a pillow to her face so he won’t hear.
Her last boyfriend told her that she was like a car: sleek, fast, dangerous. She gave him a coy smile and then made sure to discard him as quickly as a used cigarette. She didn’t want to be a car. A car could be locked in garage, abandoned, exchanged.
When she wakes up in the morning, she takes a bubble bath and eats a square of chocolate, twists the long phone cord around her wrist, calculating. She bought the apartment for the bathtub, well that and the window. You never know when you’ll need a window.
Whenever the femme fatale gets to shoot an action scene, it’s always something not quite but nearly equal to what a man can do. She tries to escape from her pursuers by holding onto the edge of a door. There is only the chugga chugga sound of the train picking up speed. Her leather gloves are expensive, supple like the skin of an exotic animal.
Most women cry when they break a fingernail, but she is polished and professional, she is the star, so when she hears the faint snap of her nail, she only twitches her lips into a sneer. She waits for the train to slow to a stop, then jumps and rolls. Gravel dusts her clothes. She peels her gloves away and ties the gloves’ thumbs together into a knot so they won’t get lost, then puts them in her right pocket. She does not want to lose them; they were a gift. They are a symbol of safety and warmth. As a teenager she wanted a man to hold her like that—like a glove.
At the detective’s cramped apartment, she overstays her welcome. Too often, he pulls strands of her hair from creases in the sheets, off the armrest of the couch. She leaves a glinting trail that seems to never go away, even after he vacuums, shakes out rugs. No matter how hard he scrubs, the sticky residue of her lipstick on his coffee mug remains, a permanent blot. On days when he’s feeling sorry for himself, body slumped, dishes piled up in the sink, shirt sleeves rolled up, arms soapy to the elbows, he thinks, that’s all she is: a stain.
The detective tells the femme fatale things he would never anyone else, like that he’s worried that one of his legs is a centimeter shorter than the other, that sometimes he goes days without sleeping, afraid that if he lets down his guard for even a moment, he will never wake up again.
Over the years, the detective will try to forget many things, like the innocent man he kicked in the kneecap because he was screwing his wife. The sound the man made as his kneecap caved in. The detective will forget many things, but he will never forget her real name, the one she whispered in his ear that night, moonlight lacing the curtains, right before he tried to kill her.
She’d double crossed him. He’d has his gun out and was ready to give her a quick death even though that was more than she deserved. He went to turn on a light, but her voice was sharp, throaty.
— Leave it.
His eyes traveled the length of her: her heels and the absence of sheer panty hose, her trench coat belted tight. The floor buckled under him. Leaning against the wall and beneath his feet, the ground seemed to vibrate like some great hissing monster, caged.
He thought of the time they’d been in the drugstore, boxes falling off shelves, his arm blocking her body, shielding her until the earthquake receded. The day was June 2, 1944. Then they went back to her apartment. The carpet in her apartment was thick, expensive, new. She had the old carpet ripped out, this new one put in weeks ago. He wanted to tell her: baby, this won’t stop your death. You could have carpeted the floor in rose petals and I’d still shoot you dead.
Then he realized the floor wasn’t shaking; he was shivering, goosebumps traveled up his arms.
She closed the curtains, then eyed the gun he held, close to his body, concealed in the pocket of his coat.
— Put that away.
He doesn’t remember it hitting the floor, though he knows it must have. The carpet was thick, impenetrable. In the back of her closet, hidden behind a hatbox and towering mass of pastel colored tissue paper, she’d gifted him a pair of man’s slippers, but he never took them home, just kept them there, told her she might need to pawn them one day. He imagined that if he took off his shoes and his socks, the sensation under his bare feet would be like standing on top of a silky mass of hair, a cluster of wigs.
He remembered unbuttoning the two top buttons of her coat, kissing the space between her breasts and then traveling downward, his lips brushing her body, lower and lower as he unfastened all those shiny buttons. He remembers her eyes, fathomless and deep, her body shivering as she ran her soft hand like a blade through his hair.
— The only thing standing between you and me is this coat.
She said in that husky voice of hers, and he knew she wasn’t wearing anything underneath.
The femme fatale is the only one who knows his confidence is a mask. He hides his insecurity under his costume, his slicked back hair and polished shoes, his tailored suits, the crisp bills he keeps in his wallet.
When she tells him she hates him, he just shakes his head, laughs softly. It is a laugh that says, you pretend you don’t care about me, but you do. You do.
When she was a little girl, the femme fatale thought of herself as one of those old black and white photographs developed in the darkness of the bathtub, something her father did after he was fired from his photography job and didn’t have access to a darkroom.
How one day she asked him to take her picture and he did. Her hand touching the coolness of the water and taking the photo out, blowing it dry, then the surprise at her features—even at eleven years old, that sharp chin, those steely eyes.
The years pass and the femme fatale doesn’t notice the cellulite on the back of her thighs, the wrinkles that pull her mouth down when she frowns. Two men follow her off the bus and scuff her up in an alley. Her mouth bleeds and her cheek is bruised. Her hand falls on an old newspaper, sticky with grime.
The two men take her purse. With no money for a bus ticket, the femme fatale walks the long way back home past small, crowded buildings and narrow, cracked sidewalks. The sky is dark and the air is sticky. Her left high heel breaks. Rather than limping back home, the femme fatale gathers her dignity and abandons her shoes for someone else to find.
She doesn’t notice the detective watching her from the glow of a streetlamp. He’s supposed to be tracking her whereabouts, cornering her. Instead, he pours himself a drink and then another one. He takes out a notepad and a pencil. By the end, he has written down information, none useful. The femme fatale wanders dark alleys in pearls and a fur coat. She dies a thousand deaths, but she always gets the best lines.
When he is being unkind, he imagines a terrible future for her. The house, just like she always wanted: a long driveway and a wraparound porch, a backyard weeping with rose petals, a swimming pool, the surface sleek as glass. The wooden doors, golden and polished to a shine. No clocks ticking in the house, only the wristwatch on her left arm. The only thing missing is a pet. When a big, wobbly headed kitten wanders into her backyard, she takes him in. More strays come, and she takes in more.
Snow covers her car and blocks her front door. When her heater breaks, she doesn’t call someone to fix it. She opens the windows, watches snowflakes drift onto her windowsill and float to the floor, melt on her chairs, her desk, the carpet. In the back of her closet, she finds tubes of yarn, all in rich colors that she doesn’t remember ever buying. Deep purple, turquoise, jet green, yellow. She selects yellow.
The long skein of yarn nestled in her arm feels warm and alive, like the weight of a newborn baby. She feels her flat stomach, feels that yawning space of loss, that space where she could have pushed a baby carriage with the other women, and tell them that her husband is a detective and that her little girl or little boy has his eyes.
Over the years, more cats come in to stay. One has large patches of fur falling from its body; it is practically bald. The disease begins to spread to the other cats until they are all hairless and shivering. Needles clicking, she crochets footie pajamas until all the cats are safe, until every of them is covered in yarn but for their ears, their tails, their anuses and eyes and noses.
The detective writes: the femme fatale wants to be more than just a dead whore. She wants the audience to watch as she powders her face. Her wink through the compact mirror. The way her slick, shiny lips twist as she gives her last parting line.
The detective holds her still warm body, wishes he could carry her to the couch and touch her face, gently, let her know she is safe now and that he’s sorry, so sorry he came too late, but he doesn’t.
He remains a bachelor for four more years. There is only one woman he swore he’d marry and now she’s dead. Her neighbors in her apartment say they are sorry for her death, but he sees from the expressions on their faces that they are lying.
The detective marries a respectable girl and treats her as well as he can. They go on outings to the beach and she packs a picnic lunch. He drives his convertible with the top down, skillfully navigates roads that twist, turn, disappear then reappear.
The femme fatale is not like his wife. She liked to snake her hand around his arm, unclasp his watch, tap her pearly fingernails against the inside of his wrist. One time she murmured softly, so softly he could barely hear her, that’s all women are to men like you: chains.
When his wife is away, taking classes at the local college or playing bridge with friends, he turns off all the lights in the house. He drinks to drown his sadness, remembers dimly lit hallways, her dark hair, the gleam of her white teeth.
He remembers the last time he saw her alive, the hurried run to his office. Her lashes trembling but no tears. He thought, she looks so fragile.
And she said in a voice that sounded off, like she had a cold, I liked you the first time I met you. You know why? I thought you looked kind. You looked like the type who would never want to hurt me but because of circumstances, just might. I put my hand on the doorknob, ready to run out but you’d locked the door. Then you said, you knew just from looking at me that I was a bad luck girl. Like some strip of paper falling out of a cracked fortune cookie.
The detective writes: in the end it is always the same. It does not matter how she dies, just that she does. Her lips gleam; her hair shimmers. Her death: as quick as a single, spent match flickering in a sad, dark room.
Candace Hartsuyker is a third-year fiction student at McNeese State University and reads for PANK. She has been published in BULL: Men’s Fiction, Foliate Oak and elsewhere.