As the plane taxied to the gate, Ronnie said he might need to take a shit. Olivia examined her face in a compact mirror, dabbing her lips with a beverage napkin. Snapping the clamshell closed she said, “You might?”
They were in step exiting the jetway. He wanted more with her than a colleagues-booked-on-the-same-flight-staying-in-the-same-hotel kind of relationship. Standing together in line for Starbucks, Ronnie tried to explain how sometimes stress had this effect on his digestion, gave him all kinds of maybes in his gut, like now he thought perhaps vomit—
“Okay. I get it,” she said.
This was three hours before Ronnie threw Olivia onto the pillowtop mattress in her hotel room and spent the best condom of his life, fulfilling a fantasy he’d had since he joined Unimark five years prior.
Ron-a-thon the stallion, Mr. G Spot, was up at six for their big meeting the next morning. The axe buried in his left eye felt like the worst hangover he’d ever had. This was the meeting: Valesco. He texted Adam, In lobby. Valesco, baby!
Adam, along with the remainder of the sales team had flown that morning on the early bird, but when Ronnie heard Olivia had booked a flight the prior night, he knew what he had to do. Hank thought it was a great idea. He asked Ronnie to book the hotel breakfast room. The whole team could converge in the morning, eat, prep.
Everything, since day one at Unimark, had been about getting Olivia. The sales team gathered at Hank’s mountain house to welcome Ronnie to the team. The prick had a pool and a shed with a dozen ATVs and a lighted sand volleyball pit. He prayed a blessing over the meal, “Lord, we thank thee for this bounty which thou hath blessed us with, and we ask thee to look over us and make us profitable.”
Everyone gorged on fish tacos, which Hank’s wife, Trish, prepared. Before the tilapia and pico settled, Hank arranged four-on-four sand volleyball under the lights. Adam and the rest of the Unimark lapdogs begged to be on Hank’s team. Olivia quietly took her place opposite Hank, and Ronnie followed. The game was so much more competitive than Ronnie had expected, but gave him time to admire the only unrelated-to-Hank woman at Unimark. She arched her long back, leaping in the air to crush precisely aimed spikes. Her whip of blonde hair, pulled into a high ponytail, snapped back and forth as she loped in pursuit of return volleys. Ronnie felt it was the two of them against the world. Let the rest of the butt-slapping Hank-lovers grovel. After the game, tacos punishing his gut, Ronnie went in search of the facilities. He had passed a framed portrait of Slavic-looking Jesus staring into a distantly glowing soft light. What was with salespeople and God?
Adam’s voice filled the lobby, “McRonald! You dog.” He always spoke like the world was at a cavernous remove from him. “You dirty dog,” Adam said. You got some. I never mistake the gleam. Your eye is most definitely gleaming. Leave it to you, you dog. You would find an Oasis in this Mormon desert.”
“What gleam? There’s no gleam,” Ronnie stood. “We’re here on business.”
“And yet you found time to get your rocks off, you old hound, you.”
Bravado was best combatted with bravado, Ronnie decided. “If we close this deal,” he said, “we’re both going to have to buy wheelbarrows.”
“Fuckin-a, man.” Adam said. “Wheelbarrows?”
“For our balls.”
The dick measuring contest continued in earnest until Hank arrived, surprising Ronnie with a slap on the back. “Ron, how were your accommodations? I trust you slept well?” He didn’t wait for a reply before squeezing Adam’s sport-coated bicep. “And you,” Hank winked. “How’d you manage to buzz out the airport so fast?”
Adam snatched the small bag at his feet. “I travel light, sir.”
“Smart man,” Hank said. “I’ll tell you what, baggage claim’s a nightmare. Too bad those goons aren’t paid on commissions, huh?”
When Hank wasn’t talking profitability, he enumerated the benefits of the commission system. Hank believed hourly and salaried employees sat around waiting for paychecks to drop into their bank accounts. Commissioned employees worked for their income.
In the hotel diningroom, Olivia was already seated. She had secured a table for ten in the corner with the windows looking over the Lunt Capital building. Ronnie knew better than to blow a kiss at her, an acknowledgement of what they’d shared. Instead he bit his knuckle and sat in the chair farthest from her.
After getting situated, they filed into the buffet line. Ronnie served himself a heap of scrambled eggs, two sausage patties, and a pile of country potatoes. He glanced at his belly, the bulge starting to obscure the line-of-sight to his feet. What the hell? He advanced on the gravy, ladling two scoops over his eggs and sausage. He resisted biscuits.
Adam skipped the buffet line. He’d taken a chair next to Livia. Ronnie could call her that, Livia, now that they’d hooked up.
Adam and Olivia were deep in conversation. She’d apparently skipped breakfast too. Her hands were going in that circular motion. What in hell could Adam have said? Now she was pinching the mole behind her left ear, rolling the thing between thumb and forefinger. It made Ronnie want to punch the tomorrow out of Adam. The little shit would deserve to wake up Wednesday with no recollection of signing the biggest client in Unimark’s history.
The contract was a climate shifter, a game changer. It was wheelbarrow-buying big.
Before Livia started in on that mole, Ronnie had been thinking he’d snub them, Adam and her. Instead he relocated to the chair next to Livia, setting his plate opposite Adam. He leaned in and whispered to Livia, perhaps loud enough for Adam to hear, “You were great last night.”
He didn’t like the look on her face, raised eyebrows, pursed lips, followed by the turn of her head. He wanted her to look at him. He looked at Adam.
Adam was picking pilled cotton off the lapels of his sport coat with an aloof confidence that transported Ronnie back to his Ugly Duckling childhood to a memory of sixth grade: Denis Mankuso, point guard to Ron’s power forward, refused to acknowledge his teammate in the hallway during passing period.
“Not hungry?” Ronnie said to Adam.
“Never can eat before sales presentations.”
What a self-righteous prick. What a load of shamanistic bullshit. Everyone knows breakfast is the most important tool in a salesman’s belt. What Adam needed Ronnie would give him with two quick jabs to the kidneys. The Denis Mankusos and the Adam Hargrieveses of the world weren’t going to ignore the Ronnie Richardsons anymore.
Ronnie had cleaned his plate, hadn’t tasted a bite. Perhaps he should have a second helping. What good was breakfast if you forgot to taste it?
Hank stood to excuse himself. Trish followed. Ronnie liked Trish. He occasionally pictured what it would be like to get in her pants. She was big-boned and all woman, tall with dark brown hair, wrinkles radiating from her lips. If Ronnie envied Hank anything, it was Trish’s oral services. There were rumors.
Maybe Livia was fighting an attack of conscience. That would explain the dichotomy between this cold shoulder and the previous night’s rendezvous. Ronnie knew about fighting moralities. His folks raised him Baptist. Lookey here, Ronald, his father used to say, Look here, Hoss: The Lord don’t charge rent, but he sure expects his dues.”
Ronnie would say, Yes, sir. He would say, Sir, or get his ass whooped.
But Ronnie got things figured, eventually made it straight. He’d say no sir and yes sir, and then behind his old man’s back he—Ronnie—could do whatever he wanted. His father might say, You aren’t going to give it away till you get married, are you, Ronald?
You show a woman respect.
You don’t stretch an oil change past three-thou just cause you’re lazy.
You earn your keep in life. Demand respect or accept the consequences.
Yes, sir. And yes, sir.
Ronnie drove the nicest car at Unimark. When people asked how he got so good at acquisitions he patted his desk, ran a finger along the top and brought it up clean. Could you resist signing the dotted line if a guy pulled up to your office in an AMG GT S? Maybe it wasn’t the car, but the car sure hell gave him bounce in his step, and anyone who knew anything about sales knew people didn’t sell on merit. People sell themselves, and sometimes they are their cars, and sometimes they are their suits, and sometimes they are their families. Whatever a guy tugs off to at night that’s what he sells himself on.
If he had his car now, he’d take Livia for a ride, top down, 120 on I-15. He wanted to bend her over the trunk and give it to her like medicine. Honey, I might not be a doctor, but I still know where to stick a thermometer.
Everyone was getting up. He vaguely remembered Hank saying something to him, and wondered if he’d replied. He recalled making eyes at Trish. Should he take a pass at her after the meeting with Valesco? He could buy her a drink at whatever bar, a finishing touch after she’d had her third scotch and milk, after Hank stumbled to the patio to celebrate Unimark’s acquisition with a cigar. People whispered about Trish’s favors, that maybe she wasn’t as pious as her church attendance suggested.
Ronnie liked the challenge of a married woman, and he figured he’d be helping Hank in the long run. If you love someone you let her go and if she fucks someone else she was never yours in the first place.
Warmth radiated on Ronnie’s back. He craned his head around. Olivia stood behind him. She laid her hand on his shoulders and leaned until her lips were close enough to nibble his earlobe. “Don’t get up,” she said. She said, “We were both drunk, tired. I was confused. You were horny. We were in a bad state of mind. I get that.” She said, “We’ve worked together for a long time. This has never happened before. It’ll never happen again.”
Ronnie dug the balls of his feet into the heels of his shoes to stop himself from springing up. “For your information—” he started, and he was going to say he felt the same way, and he never wanted to see her naked again, but before he could slip on that tightly fitting costume of denial, he imagined her lips, swollen with lust, kissing his lips, dry with expectation.
He wanted Livia more than any man had wanted any woman in the history of the universe. He imagined her hips in his hands, pulling her curves into his body. He was a strong man. If he could ever make the time, he’d still pump iron. His arms looked strong. She’d seemed satisfied last night.
If only he had his car, he thought. He’d run after her, she who hadn’t waited for him to finish his statement—“For your information—” If only he had his car, he’d run after her and say, Wait one minute. Why don’t we talk this over? We shared something. I don’t usually feel so connected after the first f— after the first time I make love to a woman. He’d say, How about I drive us out to the salt flats: top down, wind in our hair, a bill-twenty into the desert.
Ronnie lay in bed with a lit cigarette between his lips because he could expense the cleaning fee he’d be charged for disregarding the no smoking rule. He nursed a Bloody Mary, too heavy on the pickle juice. He needed to relax for the Valesco meeting. If he could pair the right words—this took a good deal of foresight into how much alcohol was too much—if he could pair those exact words he might earn the respect he deserved. Respect meant partnerships. Somewhere down the line all the benefits meant fewer lonely nights.
If Ronnie Richardson wanted anything most it was someone to own a bed with. He wanted the greeting card life, the thing where a man and woman shared a bed for forty years before the guy had a heart attack and left the woman bereaved and aimless. He wanted a woman to cry at his funeral. This woman would still have the face of a twenty-eight-year-old and tits ten years younger. She’d fall to her knees at his headstone, sobbing. She’d say, Oh, Ronnie, Ronnie, you son-of-a-bitch, you hard-headed son-of-a-bitch. I’m going to miss you. You were the best thing ever happened to me. This woman would lay flowers at his grave and return once a week for the next five years before sorrow and solitary nights took her in her sleep. She would’ve arranged in her will to be cremated so their son—they’d have one child, a boy—so their son could bring her ashes to the plot where Ronnie was buried and scatter her on top of her husband so she could ride him for eternity.
His cellphone rang. Unmistakably Olivia, her voice stuttered, sought purchase on some irretrievable syllable, cracked and broke with tears. “It’s Adam.”
Ronnie tensed. His mind filled with questions. He plucked one from the stampede: “Where are you?”
Ronnie’s throat tightened as pieces fit into place: scenarios, outcomes, actions, reactions, causes, ifs, ands, and buts. “I’ll beat his ass.” On the other side of the phone, only the sound of breathing fed back. “Livia?”
“Adam’s dead, Ronnie. We were—you know…and he was—…and he…it was…oh my God, Ronnie.”
The little slut! Less than eight hours earlier he had shared a bed with her. Just what the fuck? “In your room?” It was a dumb question.
At she could’ve used a janitor’s closet, any old place, just not in the same room where she had taken Ronnie. He said, “I’ll be right up.”
He’d never needed to support his weight on a banister before, but at the end of the first flight his legs resigned to fatigue. Sweat broke over his palms and cheeks. He wondered, when a room-service employee passed him, how pale he must look. Dueling icemaker engines thrummed on the eighth and ninth floors.
He came out on the fourteenth floor and found Livia’s room, expecting a pool of blood-creep beneath the doorjamb onto the hallway carpet. When he knocked, the mundaneness of waiting for her answer nauseated him.
The sound of the chain sliding back off its lock preceded a small crack of light emitting from the partly opened door. “Jesus, Ronnie. Maybe you shouldn’t come in.”
“Is he in there?” Ronnie asked.
She stepped back from the door and he pushed past her. On the bed, naked, penis painfully erect, laid Adam’s body. Ronnie looked away. Had she been fucking him when he died? Did she know what happened or had she ridden him to the deep six, oblivious in the trance of blissful climax?
Olivia said, “What do we do?”
“We?” For the first time in his life, it seemed, he looked at a woman as a human being, a living, thinking, feeling person. “Call the police.”
She wanted Ronnie to know, seemed really to expect him to know, they couldn’t tell the police. He was staring at her, knowing she was waiting for him to say something. She really expected something from him. The answer was obvious. He said, “What happened?” Had he meant to hurt her? Did he ask the question because he wanted to hear her say, We were having sex—terrible sex—and I guess Adam’s heart was too weak.
Because that was how Ronnie felt—like his heart could almost not contain her immensity—sex with Livia. Her body had been so powerful it boiled his blood, restocked his veins with jet fuel. She had been, to his drunkenness the night before, like those medical paddles—what were they called?—jolting him out of his stupor for one aroused, one ejaculatory instant. The force of her beauty, the encompassing wholeness of her sex must have been too much for a weak man like Adam.
Livia’s cheeks hued a shade so red as to be purple. Ronnie asked again how it had happened. She opened her mouth, worked her tongue around her teeth, closed her mouth. He wanted to slap her. Say it: say you were too much woman for such a small man. She said—it was a whisper, but even a whisper of a whisper, “I strangled him.”
Her breath was coming shallow, now. In Morse Code. In her pallor she looked more beautiful than ever. He suggested she take a seat on the couch. Her head nodded. She stood fast. Her eyes searched the ceiling.
“You need water.”
She sipped from the glass highball, and when it was empty she walked to the bathroom. He followed her, resting his hand on her shoulder when she stopped in front of the mirror. She inhaled, held the breath, exhaled slowly.
They needed a plan to deal with Adam’s body. It was harder than they thought—not that they had thought about such things before—dealing with a stiff in a hotel.
When Ronnie tried to lift Adam, Livia said, “Jesus, Jesus, don’t—”
“What, hurt him? He’s dead.”
“I know he’s—”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to snap like that.”
“Listen. Can we please…” Please, what? Ronnie wanted to know. Please be quiet. Please pretend we’re not covering up a murder.
Livia said, “I didn’t mean to—”
“I need you to shut up, and let me do this.” It was his turn to say, “Jesus, Jesus.”
What he couldn’t seem to ignore was the erection. The thing was a loaded weapon, on the verge of discharge.
Ronnie said, “Stop looking at me.”
“Not you.” It taunted him: Who’s the small man? Who’s the weak-hearted loser? the dick seemed to say. “Stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
He passed two couples in the hallway between Livia’s room and the elevator. Both couples stared at him. They knew. Somewhere in the back of his mind the word Valesco pinged. That word accompanied a sourness in his stomach and a slight blurring of his vision.
His first thought, as he walked through the basement parking garage toward his rental was that he could cram Adam’s body into a suitcase or something. The thought of cracking bones and tearing ligaments though, just the sound Ronnie conjured, put him off that idea. Then, what would he do once he got it out of the hotel?
He stopped at a 7-Eleven on Third and University and bought a case of Coors. The clerk at the register avoided eye contact. Across from the convenience store, young people drinking coffee at the Salt Lake Roasting Company chattered confidentially, heads leaned close, voices low.
Ronnie needed to drive. He popped the tab on his first beer while merging onto I-15 North. Less than twelve hours ago Livia and he were exclusive and in love, and when they banged on her pillow-top mattress it was good. He pulled a great gasp of air, hoping to center his thoughts. The Great Salt Lake stink made his temples throb. Rising summer heat stirred that sulfurous stench.
He doubled back at exit 343, lake stench and alcohol shaping his thoughts. Sulfur wriggled into his pores, around his hair, soaking on his tongue, clinging to the walls of his nose. Some smells were meant to be embraced.
There was the image of Ronnie as a teenager, he and his father standing over Munson’s bloating body. Ronnie’s father leaned on a spade. Ronnie stared down at the dog, softly whispering its name like a chant: Munson.
Ronnie’s father said, We got to bury him before the stink sets in. Once you smell it, you can’t unsmell it.
Ronnie had wanted to stroke Munson between the ears just once more, but his father told him to stop acting like a pussy.
In the hotel room, Livia was sitting with her back to the bed where Adam’s body lay. She was looking out over the city. Ronnie felt compassion for her. Or pity? He tapped a cigarette from his pack and stuck it between his lips. Livia still hadn’t turned around. Ronnie said, “I’ve done a lot of things in my life.”
“I didn’t murder him.” Livia said, “It was an accident.”
Ronnie sat next to her. It felt morbid sitting so near a dead body. He stood. Tails of smoke floated to the ceiling and spread like water on a table. He had a momentary feeling of defying gravity, like it was he who hung on the ceiling and the smoke that slid across the floor. He wanted her to say, Yes, to affirm his hopes when he asked, “Like firing-an-air-rifle-at-a-sparrow-in-a-tree-but-not-thinking-you’d-actually-hit-it kind of accident?”
She said, “I’d like a cigarette.”
He lit one for her. She said, “Like an its-a-thing-I-like-to-do-and-didn’t-realize-he-wasn’t-playing-along accident.”
Ronnie didn’t laugh, exactly.
She said. “I’m not going to spell it out for you.”
He explained how he had made plenty of mistakes in his life, but never accidentally killed anyone. “Well,” she said, “good for you, Ron.” She seemed remarkably defensive for having just committed murder.
He said he didn’t get how you accidentally killed a person. People joked about that kind of thing: so-and-so fell on a knife forty-one times. People didn’t accidentally suffocate people. It was the kind of thing you had to work at.
Livia suggested maybe Ronnie had never really made love. Perhaps he’d screwed a few women—she knew how that went—but he must never have loved someone, otherwise he’d understand how two people, naked together, holding each other in the most confidential, trusting way, could kill.
Who had Ronnie loved? He loved Livia. He thought he loved Livia. In first grade he remembered a girl named Gwyn. Her face, now, he’d lost in the fading realm of archived memories. He had fallen, in college, for a girl named Katie Ona. She had deeply tanned skin even in the winter months. Round, bright, auburn eyes accented a petite nose and highlighted a heart-shaped face. She played lacrosse. One night at a party she had gotten mercilessly drunk and wet her pants sitting on a couch. Ronnie, sitting next to her when it happened, offered her his sweatshirt, suggested she might want to tie it around her waist. A week later as he was heading for Statistics, Katie stopped him in the halls to return his sweatshirt. She gave it back saying, I washed it. That was all that ever came of the incident, and neither he nor she ever exchanged another word. If you loved someone, you gave her your sweatshirt, if she gave it back she never loved you in return.
“You’re making it sound like you loved Adam,” Ronnie said.
“We were on-again, off-again for years.”
“Because you only ever have one thing on your mind. I’ve seen the way you look at me.”
“Why did you—” he said, “I mean, with me?” She didn’t owe him an explanation.
He told her to go away. Everything would be taken care of. “Go review your notes for the meeting. I’ll take care of this and meet you there.”
He handed her his room key. “If you need to shower, use my room.”
Livia nodded. Wasn’t it something that she trusted Ronnie for this? Didn’t it mean more that she had called him in her moment of need?
The hardest part was pulling Adam’s body onto the floor: physically difficult. After that, propping the pedestal bed took some ingenuity. Hiding Adam’s body under the bed was such an obvious solution.
Somehow, as Ronnie searched the room for evidence that might have escaped notice, he felt he didn’t care much if they closed the Valesco deal or not. His mind spun half-dreamed outcomes: partners in crime, partners for life, something like that. He had balked on calling the police before Livia even offered one excuse for Adam’s murder.
One detail addled Ronnie as he washed in preparation for the meeting with Valesco. He dialed Livia’s cell. How would they explain Adam’s absence? Ronnie suggested an elaborate feint, say Adam called and begged off. Nerves. Flight to Vegas, but Livia said they weren’t Adam’s keepers and that simpler was always better. “We act as surprised as everyone.”
Ronnie agreed to take the blame if they got caught. And that was fine with him. If you love someone you take the fall; if they watch you go down, they were never yours.
Livia funneled into the boardroom behind Hank and Trish. Her herringbone blazer drew a man’s gaze to all the right places, and her four-inch, heels assured any onlooker that the legs beneath her skirt could absolve the unrepentant. Ronnie, who had arrived early, sat nearest the projector screen, clicker in his left hand, a cup of black coffee in his right. Other than a prodigious gloss of sweat that he dabbed continuously with his handkerchief, Ronnie projected an air of ease. His heart fluttered momentarily as Livia walked behind him. She sat at the foot of the table.
Timothy Dorcer, CEO of Valesco, stood in the corner. He wore no jewelry. He exuded ease in his dress, a royal blue oxford rolled at the sleeves and hanging untucked. As the head of the most successful land development firm in the Mountain West, Dorcer had already recast the image of power-business.
Everywhere, ambitious young professionals nosedived imitating Dorcer’s nonchalance, and everywhere these young professionals envied Dorcer’s success. He didn’t win because of his clothes: he won because of his vision. In an industry where standard practice was to hire MBAs with professional experience, Dorcer plucked highschool kids from graduation ceremonies. Screw college he said. In ten years all anyone will care about is experience. He promised experience. And intern wages. Kept the profit margin high.
Ronnie cleared his throat. “I’m looking at those gathered here, and I can confidently say we look good together.” He glanced at Hank, who was tugging at the knot on his tie. The telltale sign of discomfort stopped Ronnie.
“Our ad manager seems to be missing,” Hank said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Dorcer said. “If this meeting goes as well as I expect it to, that was going to be one of my stipulations.” He smiled a throat-cutting smile. “My daughter just graduated with her BA in advertising.”
“You killed it in there,” Hank said, pulling Ronnie aside.
Ronnie blushed at the choice of words. “Thanks.”
Trish approached, her eyes narrowed, her jaw set.
How about some drinks,” Hank said to her.
She glared, but retreated.
Hank slapped Ronnie’s back. “It’s like you knew Adam’s being there would’ve thrown water on the fire.” He tugged on his tie. “I’ve got to tell you, when you started before he came I half expected you’d gone nuts. Like, my word, here’s my key account manager and he’s so nervous he’s forgotten his best friend in the company, forgot he even existed.”
“You cold-hearted son of a gun! How’d you know?”
Ronnie looked around the club for Livia. “I guess I listened to my intuition.”
“I’m just glad you work for me and not the other way around.” Hank sighed. “You’re gonna have to fire Hargrieves. You know that? Trish’ll have me in the doghouse for this. Between you and me, though, you did the right thing.”
She returned with two drinks. Ronnie took the hint and meandered off. He searched for Livia. Stepping outside for a smoke, he spotted Timothy Dorcer chatting with a few of the interns who’d been at the meeting. Dorcer’s daughter hung on his left elbow. Ronnie retreated.
When he had gone far enough that he could no longer hear the music projecting from the club’s speakers, he dialed Livia. She answered on the second ring. He said, “Where were you?”
“You were good.”
Why could he project such boundless confidence in a business meeting but not find a single word to share his feelings with a woman he cared about? “Where are you?”
“In my room.” A clicking sound. “I don’t know how you did it. It’s like nothing ever happened in here.” She fell quiet. Ronnie walked two blocks with only the sound of Livia’s breathing in his ear. When she spoke again, it startled him. “What did you do with it?”
In that moment, Ronnie had everything he imagined ever wanting. He said, “Better you don’t know.” He said, “I love you Liv,” He could call her that now, Liv. He said, “We’re in the clear.” He held the phone far from his ear. “Adam no-showed for the biggest meeting in our company’s history.”
“It’s not that easy.”
Ronnie laughed. “The thing is, it is that easy. Who knew?” Love made the impossible, possible.
“You don’t love me,” she said. “But I did love Adam. I loved him so much it’s like he’s still here with me.”
“We made love, Liv.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You’re the one who asked me back to your room. That has to mean something.” He thought again of his GT S, pictured them together, not in the salt flats, as he had first seen it, but racing through mountain canyons. This new future, it was better. She might not be sold, but in time, she would love him. Because if you loved someone and covered up a murder for her, how could she ever go away?