Ramona is lying in the tub in the dark. It's the middle of the night. The water is hot. Her head is throbbing. The pain starts in her eyesockets, shoots through the middle of her brain, radiates around her scalp and plummets to the base of her skull. It starts again. Her head throbs with her heart, from all the caffeine in the aspirin she popped all afternoon and evening and that did no good. She tries to breathe slowly and concentrate on the water, willing the hot water to go to work on her neck and shoulders, to soothe away the knots. Breathe slowly. And quietly. Don't wake Mother.
Because if Mother knew what she was doing. . . Ramona can just hear it: the tap, tap, tap on the door and the pleading voice on the other side. "Oh Ramona, what are you doing in there?" Ramona can see Mother, burrowing into the door like a rodent. Trying to control her response, Ramona would say: "I'm taking a bath, Mother. I have a headache."
"Another headache, Ramona? You always get those headaches," Mother would call through the door, clucking her tongue.
Ramona can predict some of the things Mother would want to say next, "You know you wouldn't get those headaches if you didn't drink so much of that pink wine at dinner, or watch so much TV, especially those loud talk shows where everyone is screaming." Mother would then go on about how Ramona could be a happier person. If she didn't have such a sour disposition, she wouldn't have that depression, or whatever you call it. "Ed wouldn't have broken up with you. Maybe you two would have gotten married, settled down, like your sister Becky. You wouldn't have lost your job at the courthouse and moved back here, where all you do all day is eat, watch TV and grow into more of a cow than you have been at any other time in your life."
Mother, of course, wouldn't say any of these things. Mother, as she likes to tell Ramona and everyone else, is "an upbeat, sunny person." She doesn't like to say anything critical about anything or anyone. "You know I don't like to focus on the negative, Ramona."
So Mother would probably just ask, "Ramona, can I get you anything?" To which Ramona would reply, "No Mother, I'll be fine. Go back to bed." But Mother, never one to yield the chance for one last nicety, would say, "Ramona, you know you should see a doctor about those headaches." Mother knows such a suggestion would annoy Ramona. Mother knows Ramona lost her health benefits when she had to resign from her job. Mother furthermore knows Ramona doesn't have the money for a doctor's visit. Mother would like to say Ramona wastes whatever money she has left in savings on wine and candy bars and magazines and mystery books. "You know, Ramona, you can get those books at the library and they're free." Mother would like to point out how Ramona never contributes anything to groceries for the two of them. But, again, Mother would never say anything so obviously reproachful. Mother is a generous parent.
"Ramona, you know, if you need to see the doctor, I'll pay for it." Ramona can imagine Mother clucking to herself later over the bill for the doctor's visit and the prescription drugs.
Ramona thinks she might have to make herself throw up. Ever since she was a kid, she found the only way to pass through one of her headaches was to throw up. For some reason, vomiting would eject whatever caused the pain, purge whatever excesses of eating, drinking or wrong thinking Ramona had indulged in over the past few weeks. After it was over, Ramona would fall away from the toilet, exhausted. She'd drag herself to bed and drop into a deep, satisfying sleep. She'd wake hours later feeling clean and new, hungry and deserving of a big meal.
It could take hours of pain before Ramona would be ready to throw up. As a kid, Ramona always took a pillow and blanket into the bathroom, this very bathroom, and would lie on the cold linoleum floor. She'd lay her head on the pillow next to the toilet, waiting for the pain in her head to grow so intense it would force the nausea to rise from her stomach into her throat. As Ramona grew older, she learned to induce vomiting by forcing her fingers into her throat. By inducing, she could get through the episode sooner. She always dreaded having to stick her fingers into her throat, even though it meant eventual relief. She would always put it off until she had no choice.
Like tonight. She's putting it off. The pain isn't quite bad enough. I think I can hold on. Besides, throwing up would mean getting out of the tub, drying herself off and kneeling on the floor. Maybe tonight it won't be necessary. Maybe the hot water on her neck and shoulders will massage out the pain. My head's not hurting so much now. It's working. My heart's not beating so fast. I'm feeling sleepy.
Ramona settles back into the water, letting it cover her up to her neck like a comforter against the chill of the room. It's so wonderfully dark. A soft blue glow from distant street lights filters through the window, allowing Ramona to see the outline of the shower curtain, the tub, the medicine cabinet, the sink and the toilet. It's not enough light, however, to make her see herself, which suits Ramona just fine. Just now, she doesn't want to look down and see her heavy breasts flopping on either side of her chest or her large white belly. She doesn't want to see her fat thighs, spread to either side because the tub is too short. She closes her eyes and tries to see other things, images that relax her and take her mind off her headache.
There is the book she is reading about Mary Queen of Scots, the article in "People" about Princess Diana's possible nervous breakdown. There is the tender scene she saw on the "Dynasty" re-run this afternoon. Then there is the dream she had the other night.
In the dream, a young man driving a car is stopped by a highway patrol officer. The car is some big American thing, like the Ford LTD Mother drives. The car in the dream belongs to the young man's mother. The police are looking for the car because the mother has been reported missing. The officer gets out of his car and approaches the young man. The dream ends there. Not much of a dream, but Ramona remembered it when she woke up. She played it over and over again in her head that morning.
She started to make up a story, then to think about what if she was driving the car and the car was Mother's, and that she was driving the car because she killed Mother. Well, how would she have killed Mother?
Ramona raises her foot to the tap and turns it to let more steaming water into the tub. She decides to continue her story. Let's see, Mother's going away next week. She's flying to see Becky, who is expecting her third child. Mother wants to be with Becky -- petite, married, home-owning Becky -- when Becky gives birth. Mother wants to help Becky look after the new baby. Mother expects to be gone at least three weeks. Ramona can't wait. She'll have the house to herself. Of course, Mother expects Ramona to water the lawn and indoor plants, to bring in the mail and newspaper and to keep the house tidy. Ramona has no problem with this. She can keep the house tidy and water any damn thing. Mother has said she'll write Ramona a check so Ramona will have enough money to feed herself. Ramona imagines these three weeks. As she does, she starts to feel like she's floating, not just her body in the hot water, but her mind in the darkness of the room. Her headache is starting to go away. When Mother is gone, Ramona won't have to talk to anyone or see anyone, except when she goes to the grocery store or goes to buy gas. She'll have free use of the LTD. Maybe she'll take long drives. Maybe even a picnic somewhere.
If Mother were dead, she could have the house to herself, for a lot longer than three weeks. Not that it's much of a house. It only has one bathroom. It's small, stucco and boxy, like all the other houses in the neighborhood. Mother has always been proud of it. For a woman of Mother's background, a house like this was a dream come true. Of course, Mother decorated it in her own precious style. (Sears' reproduction Colonial in the living and dining rooms.) Mother took great pride in decorating Becky's bedroom. She hung frilly pink curtains and put up a canopy bed, which Ramona now sleeps in, although her feet hang over the bottom. Ramona's old room was turned into a den after Ramona's stepfather retired. Ramona figures she could live with Mother's bad taste if she could have the house to herself. But how to kill Mother?
She thinks of murders she's read about in those English mysteries she likes. She also thinks about the murders she came across in the files she read at work. For eight years, Ramona worked in the county clerk's office, the last five in the criminal division. She was always coming across murder cases as she updated docket sheets and photocopied documents for attorneys. You could always tell which files were for accused murderers without looking at the defendants' names. The murder files were always inches thick, filled with reports from investigators, statements from witnesses and motions from attorneys. When they weren't needed in court, the files were stored in the basement.
Ramona often volunteered to take cases down to the basement for filing. Few people went down there and Ramona could hide for up to an hour, sometimes longer, reading murder files. Upstairs in the clerk's office her absence wasn't noticed. She'd quickly file the less interesting cases on robbers and burglars and drug dealers and drunken drivers. Taking a murder case, she'd hide in the corner behind the staircase and go through it.
Is there a murder case in which someone killed a parent? There was the 19-year-old kid with the weird name, Rama Sutra Sutcliffe, who stabbed his mother. Nothing in the report indicated why this woman had named her son Rama Sutra. It didn't look like the detectives asked. They obviously didn't think it was relevant to their case. Ramona joked to herself that Rama killed his mom because he didn't like what she named him. Ramona figured Rama's mother had been going through a Hare Krishna phase when Rama was born. Anyway, Rama stabbed his mother while they were smoking crack together. He did it in front of his little brother and sister. It turned out Rama was sick of her nagging him. He was also afraid she was going to take away his welfare check and spend it on drugs for herself.
Ramona's favorite case didn't involve someone killing a mother. It involved a guy killing his grandfather. The killer's name was Randy Ray Jackson. Randy was living with his grandfather. Randy was 23 and had a White Aryan Brotherhood tattoo on his left bicep. Randy told his cellmate everything about how he killed Grandpa for the $200 Grandpa kept in a sock in his dresser. He stabbed Grandpa in the neck with a six-inch kitchen knife while the old man was sitting in his favorite chair watching the nightly news. Randy left the knife in Grandpa's neck, its black handle sticking out, then covered the old man up to his chin with a blanket. Randy invited his friend Darrell over to snort speed and smoke pot. Darrell saw Grandpa sitting up in the chair, covered with a blanket, head tilted back against the cushion, eyes shut, mouth slightly open. Randy told Darrell Grandpa was sleeping. "Okay," Darrell said. Randy and Darrell played heavy metal music on the stereo and danced around the living room until dawn. Darrell left and Randy left a couple hours later. He went to a 7-Eleven, bought a Big Gulp, came home, called his mom across town and said something's wrong with Grandpa. She hurried over, pulled the blanket down, saw the knife in Grandpa's neck, said "Oh no" and called 911.
After reading the file, Ramona decided she had to see Randy. Her chance would come during his next court appearance.
Ramona didn't go into the courtroom much. Her duties were confined to the clerk's office. The morning Randy was going to be in court, she found some document that needed to be delivered there. As Ramona entered the courtroom, she saw Randy's lawyer standing at the defendant's table, arguing about some motion. Randy was slumped in a chair next to him, wearing an orange-jail jumpsuit. He had blond brillo hair and the bluest eyes Ramona had ever seen. Ramona must have been staring at him and Randy noticed. The next thing, Ramona was looking right into those blue eyes. What she saw frightened, embarrassed and excited her all at the same time. Ramona felt blood in her face and quickly looked down. She hurried back to the clerk's office, grabbed some folders to be filed and ran down to the basement.
Stab Mother like Rama and Randy? Beat Mother over the head with a lamp? Ramona would have no problem overpowering Mother. She was six inches taller and about 50 pounds heavier. But stabbing and bashing would be bloody. It would leave a mess on the walls and blood would soak into the wall-to-wall carpeting.
What about shooting Mother? Ramona doesn't have a gun. Ed has guns. He was a bailiff at the courthouse where Ramona worked. That's how they met. But Ramona hasn't talked to Ed in over a year. She embarrassed herself too much at the end. She pleaded with him not to throw her out. This was after Ed told her he couldn't live with her anymore because she was too needy and depressed all the time.
It wasn't always like that. They were happy the first year. He was her first boyfriend. He said she was his first real girlfriend. He was tall and stoop-shouldered and shy. She was tall, big-boned and shy. He said they were both misfits and that's why they were good together. They could laugh about things. Ramona always thinks about the poem he gave her for her birthday. He didn't write it. He found it while reading some artsy magazine at the dentist's office. The poem was called, "Ramona." Ed wondered whether the poem was over his head because he thought it was stupid, but funny. It cracked him up so much he slipped the magazine under his jacket when he walked out of the dentist's office. Ramona was touched by the thought of honest, law-abiding Ed stealing a magazine for her. The poem sounded like it was written by some beatnik who hung out in coffee houses. The Ramona the poet described sounded like a woman who wore slinky black dresses, but who was also handy around the house. There were lines in it with references to tools that Ed and Ramona thought particularly funny. It became a private joke between them.
"Oh Ramona, lady of the hammers, lady of the wrenches, lady of the wake-me-up telephone call."
"What the hell do you suppose that means?" Ed asked.
Ramona became Ed's "lady of the hammers" until he started to pull away from her. After she moved into his house, he started going off by himself, to go fishing or shooting at the range. Or he'd go into the spare room to arrange his collection of Civil War memorabilia. When he was quiet, wanting to be by himself, it made Ramona feel like she had said or done something wrong. She felt like she couldn't be neat enough or organized enough or busy enough. He always seemed to have things to fix or things to sort through, when Ramona felt like sitting in bed reading a magazine. Things started to get really bad one night after dinner. Ramona washed the dishes and left them in the rack to dry. She felt really proud of doing her part around the house. But sitting in the living room, watching TV, she saw out of the corner of her eye into the kitchen. Ed was stopping in to rewash the plates on his way to the spare room. Ramona wanted to go into the kitchen and smash the plates onto the floor, but she couldn't. So she hurled a pillow onto the rug, scooped it up and cried into it. Ed didn't know anything was wrong until he came to bed and tried to put his arm around her. She went stiff with a mixture of resentment and self-hatred.
"What's wrong, honey? You got one of your headaches?" he asked tenderly.
"Yeah, I do," she said, not knowing how to begin to describe all she was feeling.
She kept to herself the next few days, hating him for making her feel lazy and worthless, but hating herself for believing she was lazy and worthless, wondering if she was going crazy with all her mind was stirring up. When he finally asked what was wrong, she just said, "I don't know. I'm just kind of down."
Ed, though he was kind and decent and said he loved her, didn't press her. Ramona knew her moods scared him. As the months went on, Ramona began to feel more and more like a monster, something not at all female or loving. Ed confirmed everything she felt about herself when he told her he couldn't live with her anymore. He said he was sorry, but that was that. Ramona first begged and pleaded with him, then spit out accusations that he was cold and selfish.
Nothing she said made him look sad or regretful or even angry. Looking into his face, Ramona remembered someone at work saying Ed had "quiet authority." He could just say "move on" or "settle down" in a regular tone of voice to get the prisoners to fall in line when he was moving them from jail to court. During Ramona's last fight with Ed, he turned his quiet authority on her. It worked. Ramona settled down, packed her suitcase and moved on out the door.
She couldn't face him at work, so she didn't go. She called in sick for the next week. When she finally showed up and passed him in the hall, he just grunted a "Hello," looked down at the floor and walked on. It was like that almost every day until Ed transferred to another courthouse. She never saw him again. She knew people at work were talking about her, not just about Ed leaving her but about how she was screwing up. Ed's bailiff friends looked at her like she was crazy. She couldn't stand wondering what Ed had told them. In the weeks after the break-up, she had trouble concentrating. She misfiled things and put wrong codes on the docket sheets. She lost one guy's record of paying his drunken-driving fine. She mixed up the Penal Code section numbers on another case and entered into the computer that the guy pleaded guilty to four counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 14 when what he had really done was plead no contest to four counts of petty theft from a K-Mart.
Thinking about herself now, living back home with Mother, huge as a cow, she knows she couldn't face Ed. She definitely couldn't call him up and ask to borrow a gun. He'd want to know what for.
Ramona suddenly feels a twinge of pain in her left eyesocket and realizes all this thinking about Ed will bring back her headache. Ramona takes a couple of deep breaths and lets more hot water into the tub with her toe. She decides to put Ed out of her mind and concentrate on her idea about killing Mother. That's better.
Shooting Mother is out. What's left? Poison? It's possible, but it would take some research into speed and dosage.
Ramona knows one thing: she will have to get rid of the body somehow. One night, when she still worked at the courthouse, she and some other clerks went out for drinks with a couple of detectives from the sheriff's department. Ramona sat next to one, whose name was Dave. Over Budweisers, Dave started talking about the interesting murder cases he had worked on. Dave said the most frustrating cases had to do with bodies dumped or buried in the hills outside town. Some killers were lazy or in a hurry and would just roll the body out of the car. Those bodies would soon be spotted by a passing motorist and quickly identified. Those killings had a fair chance of being solved. The more careful killers would bury the body far from the road. Because the area is rural, it could take days, weeks, even months for some hiker or some rancher to stumble onto the body. By that time, evidence would have disintegrated. It would also take a couple days or even longer to find out who the person was. The bodies usually didn't have identification on them. A lot of times the people dumped were prostitutes, small-time drug dealers, male hustlers. People with no real ties to the area and no way to trace their final hours. Dave said his most frustrating case had to do with a pelvis and thigh bone found in a shallow grave on a hill. Winter storms had gradually washed away the slope, exposing what was left of the skeleton. Dave figured the rest of the bones had been picked up by animals and dragged away. The pelvis and thigh bone had been there for years. Dave was never able to find out who the victim was. The closest Dave could discover from a forensic archaeologist was that the bones belonged to a woman in her 20s. Dave joked the lesson from this case is that if you ever want to get away with murder, bury the victim in some isolated place.
Ramona thinks she could do that with Mother, take her body to some isolated spot and bury it. By the time Mother's body is found, Mother would just be a pelvis and thigh bone. As Ramona imagines Mother a garbage bag full of weathered bones, the twinge in her head fades. Ramona starts to feel cozy and relaxed again in the tub.
Ramona could kill Mother the night before Mother is supposed to catch the plane to visit Becky. Ramona will let Mother pack her suitcase and call Becky to confirm the time her flight arrives. Then Ramona will kill Mother in a manner yet to be decided, strip her, remove her wedding ring, load her body and suitcase into the back of the LTD, drive to some isolated spot and bury her. Ramona will dump Mother's suitcase and purse somewhere else. Ramona will keep whatever cash is in the purse. She figures she won't be able to use Mother's credit cards because the police could trace the purchases. Ramona thinks she could forge Mother's signature and write herself a nice check. Not too big a check. Just enough to keep Ramona going for the next couple months. It would probably take most of the night to drive somewhere, dig the grave and bury the body. But timing wise, it could work. Ramona would arrive back in the middle of the morning. Just in case any neighbors noticed, it would look like Ramona had just come back from driving Mother to the airport. When Becky calls later in the afternoon to ask why Mother wasn't on her plane, Ramona will say she has no idea.
"I dropped her off in front of the departure terminal," Ramona will say. "No, I didn't go with her to the gate. You know how Mother is. She doesn't like a fuss. She said just drop her off in front."
Becky, of course, will want to file a missing person's report. Ramona will say, "Yes, we must." Ramona will tell the police the same thing she tells Becky. She last saw Mother in front of the departure terminal about 7 a.m. She figures the police will check to see if there is any record of Mother checking in. There won't be. So the story will be that Mother disappeared at the airport. The police might look for witnesses, but it's a busy airport. No one will be expected to remember seeing a large woman in her mid-30s dropping off a short, elderly woman in front of the terminal.
Ramona thinks she could get away with it. Having been around police and prosecutors, she knows how hard it is for them to find enough evidence to arrest someone for murder. Months could go by, even years. Ramona could act grief-stricken. Ramona can tell Becky and Mother's friends she feels responsible. "If only I hadn't listened to Mother. If only I had gone with her to check in and waited with her at the gate, Mother would be with us now." She will choke up and cry. Everyone will pat her hand and tell her not to be so hard on herself.
There won't be any reason for anyone to question Ramona's grief. It isn't as though any of the neighbors or any of Mother's friends or even Becky knows that Ramona hates Mother. Ramona never argues with Mother, not in front of anyone, not even when they are by themselves. Ramona never talked back to Mother when she was growing up. Ramona also doubts Mother ever complained about her to anyone because Mother, as she likes to tell people, isn't "one to complain." Ramona knows no one else has ever noticed Mother's digs at Ramona. Mother is a real pro. She knows how to come off sounding sweet and helpful, but there is always an edge in her tone.
Like the time Ramona was in high school and Mother took her shopping. "Oh Ramona," Mother said as Ramona stood in front of the dressing room mirror. "That color is fine, but I just don't think you're the kind of girl who can wear double-knit."
Or last night when Ramona made Fettucini Alfredo for the two of them. She bought a nice blush Chablis to go with it. Mother said no to the wine, like she's above drinking, even though Ramona knows she sneaks sips from the bottle of bourbon she keeps under the kitchen sink for company. She tasted the fettucini and clucked her tongue. "Oh Ramona, this Alfredo is fine, but you know I don't eat much rich food." Mother, of course, was implying Ramona eats too much rich food and that's why she's overweight.
Ramona's not sure how long she could continue to live at Mother's house after she kills her. At first, her excuse for staying would be that someone needs to look after the house for when Mother returns. As the months and years go by, Ramona and Becky will have to declare Mother dead. Then they will inherit Mother's house and her other property. Ramona knows Mother has quite a nest egg in investments. Becky will probably want to sell the house, which would be okay with Ramona. With her share from the sale of the house, Ramona will be able to buy herself a nicer, more modern place, like a condo in one of those new developments.
These thoughts tumble by like happy dreams. What next?
A noise somewhere in the house. A creak. Maybe the house settling. Ramona opens her eyes. The bathroom is still dark. But the water in the tub is no longer hot. It's merely warm and no longer covers her against the chill in the room. Ramona shivers. Then she feels the pain in her eyesockets. It shoots through the middle of her brain, radiates around her scalp, plummets to the base of her skull. It starts again. Not only is the headache still there, it's worse. Her head throbs with her heart, only harder now. Ramona wants to cry.
Ramona knows she's going to have to do it. She's going to have to throw up. There's no way out of it. The pain could go on the rest of the night and into the next day.
Ramona slowly sits up and feels the nausea in her stomach. She picks up the towel from the floor and pulls herself out of the water. She dries herself off as she shakes from the chill in the room and the pain in her head. She wraps her robe around her. She folds the towel and lays it on the floor next to the toilet. She kneels, her bare knees resting on the towel. With one hand, she lifts the lid and seat and pushes a damp strand of hair behind her ear. With the other hand, she grips the sides of the bowl. She feels the nausea rising in her throat in anticipation of her fingers. Ramona is ready.
Tap. Tap. Tap. On the door.
"Oh Ramona." It's that pleading voice. "Ramona, what are you doing in there?"