Spring 2012 — THE POTOMAC

  Eric Cline

This is a story with a twist ending.

It starts with a hilarious joke, one that was around even before Chaucer penned “The Miller’s Tale”; it’s the one about the ridiculous older man whose much younger, coquettish wife takes a handsome young lover. The husband stuffs his big pot belly into an office shirt in the morning, pats his wife on the ass, and says, “I’ll be back tonight, honey. Give you a second helping of what I gave you last night.” The funny part being that we, the readers, know that what he gave his trophy wife last night was two minutes of acting practice; that was how long she had to spend moaning and cooing while he flopped around awkwardly on top of her. He had imagined drum-machine-driven porno movie music in his ears then, when a more apt sound effect would have been a laugh track.

But let’s heap no more abuse on this fat old fart as he walks out the door. This is a story with a twist ending, remember.

What is it?

Well, the one we’ve called the husband is named Les. The young wife is Kelly. Could they be two men? The names do have a unisex quality about them.

No. This isn’t 1967; that year, two different stories in Harlan Ellison’s path–carving Dangerous Visions anthology had the twist ending that the characters were gay. It’s unworthy of the modern reader.

How about this? The tubby, middle-aged breadwinner is a woman named Leslie, and the young, pampered spouse, Kelly, is a man. It’s a cheap, dead-end, meaningless gimmick — but then, most twist endings are: “We were . . . on the planet Earth all along!”

Can’t do it, anyway. Genders were already assigned to them: “He,” “Her.” No chance to use weasel phrasing like, “Les looked back at Kelly and said, ‘I’ll be home tonight, honey.’” Nope. Pronouns have already been committed.

Another comic moment: the muscular young neighbor across the street strides over after he sees the husband’s car pull away. Kelly eagerly opens the door in her bathrobe, and he starts peeling his shirt off even as he walks across the threshold. The moment deserves both a laugh track burst and a porno bass thump.

Could the twist ending be that they are planning to murder the husband for insurance money, but it all gets messed up and they get caught?

Well, aside from being a rather musty twist — Double Indemnity was published during the Depression, for God’s sake! — they don’t seem to be doing too much talking. Their mouths are otherwise occupied, ahem, ahem.

Now Les’s car has circled back into the neighborhood. Not a twist, yet, really — just a plot development. He mumbles “Goddamn cellphone,” as he heaves his fat frame out into the driveway. This tells us he suspects nothing.

The fact that his cellphone is the item he returned for explains why he couldn’t call his wife to say he was swinging back. This is not a twist, just commendably economical narrative.



Maybe not the twist ending that was promised yet, but at least a twist.

It was written (with deliberate vagueness) that Les dressed in a business shirt, but no one ever said what business he was in. As he waddles back up the walkway to his house, we finally get to see what his line is.

The embargo is lifted, the detail is released to the reader.

Les is a cop.

He’s got a gold detective’s shield clipped to his belt and — possibly a crucial engine of the story’s climax — a 9 mm service pistol in a shoulder holster under the pit of one flabby arm.
He quietly opens the door, surprised at both a strange shirt crumpled on the floor and a commotion coming from the bedr—

—but let’s skip the brussel sprouts and the spinach and go straight to dessert. Let us fast forward to the ending, as we see the amazing plot twist play out.

The husband stands at the entrance to the bedroom. The lovers have been interrupted in their jointly-performed impression of a trip hammer and a squeaky toy. They have noticed him standing there and have clutched the sheets back up onto their toned young bodies and they stare at him wide-eyed, frozen.

And here comes the twist ending.

Les, the husband, the armed man, says, “I thought you were happy.” He doesn’t really know the young stud, but recognizes him as the guy living across the street. “Can you go stay with him until we get this sorted out?” Kelly nods, or has a brief neck spasm. The stud frowns involuntarily, at the pain-in-the-ass prospect of her moving in with him, even temporarily.
“Okay,” Les says. “Well, I got to get to work, no matter what. Call me tonight. I’d rather not talk in person.” He turns away.

Nobody thought that was where it was supposed to go.

And so we have our twist ending. Lester, a cop, who moves in a testosterone-fueled world, who show an ugly face to the scum of the Earth, who must be pure bulldog in the squad room and on the street, who goaded himself into proposing to a younger woman whom he cannot talk to about anything (and who accepted his proposal because she worked at Wal-Mart and did not have a house, and wanted to not work at Wal-Mart and have a house) . . .

This guy . . .

Did not respond with violence to the most explicit possible display of betrayal.

Not only did he not draw his gun and massacre the two people whom he found squirming in his marriage bed, but it never even occurred to him to do so.

Lester is humane.

Lester believes in the rule of law.

Lester is civilized.

In the full throttle twist ending to our story, we discover to our shock that Lester is the hero of it.

The End

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