Places to Hide a Body

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Places to Hide a Body by Pam Houston


The first thing he said when he walked in the door was, There sure are a lot of places to hide a body out here.
He was just nervous, she told herself, and trying to be funny. She said, If this were a short story, nine pages from now I’d be dead, and watched for his reaction. She lived on a little bay, an hour north of the city, nothing but tidal flats on three sides of her, a string of summer houses on the fourth, most of them empty out-of-season.
She had been on the phone with her friend Betsy when she heard his car, was confessing that she’d invited him over, this guy she didn’t know from Adam (or was it Atom?), said if nobody heard from her in a few days his name was Alex and he was from some suburb of Philadelphia on the Jersey side. He worked for a record company called Gazebo, primarily blues, folk and reggae, had a wife, yes, but not in the normal sense, was the way he put it on the phone, but that was all she knew for sure. Betsy said, Got it, Abnormal Adam from Philadelphia, don’t do anything stupid, and by then he was knocking on the door.

He was late and felt idiotic about it, but there was no way to rush the drive up the headlands, the fifteen-mile-an-hour, no-guard-rail” curves, and he’d stopped a couple of times to look for whales even though he had no idea whether or not they were in season. It was enough anyway to see the Pacific, the sea birds fishing the edges of the huge tangles of sea kelp, the spring green of the cliffs laced with orange poppies and something he called heather for its color, though heather was something he didn’t know how to identify, something he’d only read about in books.

She had said it wouldn’t take him more than an hour but the road had gotten windier and wilder the further he got out of the city. He’d even turned back once after the climb out of Muir Beach and went into the Pelican Inn and asked a kindly old couple who looked like locals, Do people actually live on that road?
What he knew, of course, was that she would. She’d live on the moon if there were a road to it. She had a pretty mythic goddamn idea of herself. That much he knew. Or maybe he’d just been in the suburbs too long. Now he’d arrived and he was standing in the doorway, and she was smiling and looking some version of sexy, tan legs stretching out of flowered shorts and a man’s shirt unbuttoned generously, but not so far as to seem for his sake. She seemed a little unsure about whether or not to let him in.
He said, I can’t believe you do that drive everyday.
He was frowning again and it confused her. The drive was the best part about living there, the seals lying around on the sand at low tide, and the elegant white herons. At night, she would grant him, it was a bit spooky, a bit chilling to think how easy it would be to take a curve a little fast, to turn the wheel the wrong way, a couple hundred feet of cliff and then no more trying to live up to one’s own idea of oneself. No more ideas, period, just wind and rock and water.



Pam Houston and   


He had frowned all through dinner on their first date, which she assumed was because she’d been an hour late (through no fault of her own, a wreck on the Richmond Bridge, though who knows if he believed her), but then he’d asked her up to his hotel room (he said, The rooms are really small, you should see them, a come-on so half-assed she felt she had to decline), and then he’d been all gung ho to see her again. Now he was the one who was late but he was still frowning, and she kept thinking, I don’t know you from Atom, I don’t know you from Atom, but in another version of the truth she knew she did.
I haven’t had a chance to go to the grocery store, she said, trying to sound casual, embarrassed by her little passive aggressions, but it’s a pretty drive on a road you haven’t seen. The panorama was her favorite, wound as tightly as the coast road, but up through meadow and then redwood forest and nearly over the top of Mount Tam. The weather could change four or five times in eight-and-a-half miles, bright sunshine to five-mile-an-hour fog around one bend.

He said, You wanted to wait to see if I would really show, and then hoped it sounded self-deprecating rather than cocky.

In the car she sang a little with the tape player and it opened him up the way it had when he’d heard her first demo tape. After the fire broke out at his house (this was his euphemism — what he’d taken to calling the night his wife finally told him the truth about herself, about their lives — there really had been no fire at all) he’d taken to spending late nights at work going through the archives, dredging up first albums of bands that had made it big or hadn’t, seeing if there was anything else he’d missed during what he was now calling the denial years. It was the wrong direction to point yourself in the music business, he knew that, but wrong directions seemed to be his specialty, and this one at least he had all to himself. More particularly, it gave him a reason not to go home until midnight or so, and that’s when he started letting her sing to him, though most nights it felt not like to him, but through him, out of him, maybe; he bet they had a word for it in French.

When he listened to her demo the thought he couldn’t get out of his head was, She has to have lived my life to have written these songs, a thought he couldn’t make real sense of because it wasn’t in the details, wasn’t ever in the particulars. It was something behind them, the motor that drove them, something visceral, physical. When she sang it was like his cock was inside her. He hated to say it like that. Putting words to it made it less than what it was, or at least different from what it was, and he hadn’t had his cock in anything but his fist for so long he wasn’t even sure what he meant when he said it. But he sat in the dark and listened to her sing with a hard-on the size of Nebraska, and didn’t beat off, not then, not till the album was long over, partly because he loved the living pain of it and partly because he was afraid to surrender that much to that voice.




Pam Houston and   


And so he had stalked her, there are kinder ways to say it but if he were being honest, that’s what he’d done. He’d been careful not to appear psychotic about it, a couple of letters to set up an interview, a couple of phone calls. She’d been wary, he could tell, but not frightened. He had the proper credentials, and in the music business there was such a fine line between the stalkers who wanted to promote a musician, and the stalkers who wanted to tie her to a chair and cut her into bite-sized pieces it was in everybody’s best interest to keep an open mind.

A year’s worth of careful planning (he didn’t like to call it obsession) had led him here, to this moment, in this car, on the way to the Whole Foods Market with a woman (and he wouldn’t have said this out loud to anyone) in whose voice he knew lay the salvation of his life.

Twice now she’d caught herself singing in the car, and twice she’d told herself to stop, but here she was at it again. It was the original Pancho and Lefty, Townes Van Zandt, in her key, just an octave low, maybe one of the hardest of all to resist. And there they were coming over the top of the Panorama, the ocean behind them, San Francisco below them, the fog whipping down off the crest of Tamalpais; her question would be How the hell could anybody not sing?

Men seemed to like it mostly, at least the men who had been hers for awhile did, at least they said they did, right up till the relationship was about to go South, and then her voice became the one thing they just couldn’t bear. It was the only 100-percent accurate litmus test in her life. One could you just keep it down a little, sweetheart and within a month they were out the door.

It wasn’t like she could help herself. If she was driving she was singing, with the tape or not, with whomever happened to come on the radio, with Mark Knopfler and Chrissie Hynde and Frank Sinatra and Pete Seegar and the McDonald’s commercial and into the sweet silence of the empty car. Her nipples got hard when she sang, not, she was convinced, because she turned herself on, but something to do with the breathing. It didn’t happen on stage much, too many nerves working against it, but in the car it got so bad she once had to pull over and touch herself till she came before she could drive any further. It embarrassed her when she did it, and her embarrassment embarrassed her.

She used the curves in the road as excuses to steal glances at him — this Cherry Hill Alex beside her. She watched the way he smoothed his palms over his knees and counted the months since she’d been properly (or even improperly) laid and ran out of fingers. When she saw who the last man left her for she swore she didn’t care if she ever got properly laid again.

But he wasn’t half bad looking, wiry the way she liked with nothing but hip bones to hold up his pants, the right kind of receding hairline a la James Taylor, the broken-nosed look of a kid who wasn’t afraid of a fight, combined with long fingered hands that you’d almost call pretty. But he was still frowning out the window at the manzanita and eucalyptus forest, frowning even at the redwoods (how could anybody frown at a redwood?) so she managed, for a third time, to rein the singing in.




Pam Houston and   


He took advantage of the silence to say, There’s something about me that I’ve come all this way to tell you, and immediately regretted it. The road was too curvy and she’d have to keep her eyes on it, and he realized he’d only have the strength to say it if they were eye to eye.

He’d been moving toward her all this time with the determination of a heat-seeking missile, and with about as much finesse. Clearing the week at work, buying the plane tickets, telling the lies at home, leaving her message after message, feeling crazy in his confidence that she’d return one of them until at last she did, talking her into dinner, once and then again. Like a bulldozer he’d been and he knew it, all forward motion, no subtlety whatsoever, but at some point, he knew, there might be a way he needed to go besides forward and he could feel it up against him at that moment in the car.
But I’d like to wait till dinner, he said, so I can see your face.

His wife is a lesbian, she thought, wishing it could be something more interesting than that. She could tell things like that about people just by looking at them, always had been able to, it was one of the things, she guessed, that drove her to write songs. Psychics, when she went to them, told her she had serious ability, asked her how she kept from using it, but her therapist’s theory was that an unpredictable childhood had turned her into a kind of über-observer, hyper-vigilant, an expert reader of every shape and nuance of human pain.

She hoped, in this case, that there was more to it than a wife who played with power tools, but not so much more that her body would become the easy one to hide, a public sacrifice on behalf of wronged men everywhere, that brand of shit. What she hoped, even more than that, was that he didn’t come all this way to ask her to write a song.
She had higher hopes for this guy because of the things he said about her music. He had gotten a hold of her first demo tape, the one nobody could get a hold of, the one her agent said didn’t exist anymore, the one collectors hounded her for a couple of times a year. She didn’t even have a copy of it anymore, though she was pretty sure she had less ancient mixes of all the songs. It wasn’t her best work — she had to believe that to face her studio each morning — but there was a purity to that record that she’d lost along the way and he had heard it filtering through. He heard it and described it and turned it into something in his description that was at the same time absolutely true and absolutely beyond her imagining. At the end of that first phone conversation she felt dizzy, like everything inside her had been removed, reshaped and shoved back inside.

At the grocery store he tried to be funny: Honey, are we low on paper towels? But all the time he was thinking, What kind of a man stays married to a lesbian for thirteen years?

She looked prettier to him in the grocery store even than she did in the restaurant. She put 100 percent of her attention on whatever she was doing at the moment, and it was more fun to watch when it was on a bottle of fancy olive oil than when it was on him.




Pam Houston and   


He walked away from her several times just to have the pleasure of coming around the corner and seeing her, each time in his mind he approached from behind and reached his hands around and cupped each breast. Each time in his mind he rubbed his hard cock across the round of her ass. In his mind his cock was always hard, but in real life he didn’t know what would happen. They’d taken a few hits where it hurt lately, he and his cock. He watched her stare down into the olive bar like it was going to give her some kind of answer. She’d be patient with him, if need be, he didn’t know how he knew that. He wanted more than anything to stand behind her and make a ponytail out of her hair.
She bought halibut and baby spring greens and organic tomatoes and red new potatoes and passion fruit sorbet with tiny red rose petals. Even the food she bought was like she was getting ready to put it in some song.

On the way home he said, I bet if you called 911 out here the voice on the other end of the phone would just tell you to ‘be with your pain,’ and she started thinking serial killer with some urgency again, but then he crawled all the way into the back of her 4Runner to get into the grocery bags so they could eat edamame on the way home. When he was backwards like that, straddling two rows of seats and her dog, and his ass in her rear view mirror, his life flashed before her eyes in microcosm. The bedroom, sterile for more years than either of them admitted. The wife always off on some all-woman’s raft trip. Rainbow stickers appearing willy-nilly around the house. The perfectly behaved and mostly silent children. How much he gave to them. How much he tried not to ask in return.
She had a major rule about married men, second only to the rule about alcoholics in the
never-again-to-be-broken list in her brain. She wondered if there ought to be a caveat for married to a lesbian, and then, before she knew it she was singing again, The Nields this time, a song you had to believe was about lesbians, in fact, if you listened close to the words.

She would have liked to make it easier for him, would have liked to tell him her last boyfriend turned out gay, and it wasn’t the worst way to be lied to, wanted to talk about how the best people were often the ones closest to the center of the continuum, but she figured it was different for men, and she knew it was different in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

They had started back down the hill and there was a big orange crescent moon getting ready to fall right into the ocean, but she guessed that didn’t count as permission in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and he didn’t seem inclined to say another word. He’d tell her over dinner, she figured, all twisted up, too scared to eat, all that expensive fish coagulating on the plate, and she’d wait patiently to see if there would be anything more.




Pam Houston and   


It turned out he couldn’t eat and say it at the same time. It wasn’t that he wanted to make more of it than it was, and he was sure married women were dropping like flies all over northern California, but the fact was that he had never said it out loud before and it wasn’t an easy thing to do. His wife had made him swear he wouldn’t tell anyone, and he hadn’t until now. Once he said the words — and he did, finally, when to sit anymore and stare at his untouched food would have made him an absurdity — it became even more real. More real in this pretty room in God-Knows-Where, California, with this strange intense woman and her candles and her flowers, all of it a little too precious but that voice, that voice that got so far inside him when it sang he thought maybe it was his voice, had been his voice, maybe in another life.

She looked unimpressed with his big secret, his thirteen years, two kids, house-in-the suburbs, mortgage-two-thirds-of-the-way-paid-off, down-the-tubes lie of a life. He didn’t know what he had been expecting, really, she didn’t seem capable of shock, which was one of the good things about her. Maybe he had wanted her to take his head and put it in her lap or wash his feet in a porcelain basin, or some other MTV version of absolution, nothing in the realm of which she seemed about to do.

And then the thought that should have come to him weeks, months before this moment, Holy shit, what if she is one too?

The world rocked a little at the possibility. He had always been surprised in the past, Jodie Foster and then Ellen and then Melissa Etheridge. It made him feel stupid how it had surprised him, a lot more stupid than he knew he was.

And why did you want to tell me, she asked, which she thought was the obvious question. They had moved away from the abandoned food, were now occupying opposite corners of an oversized couch. She was listening to the Bay, listening for the exact moment when the tide stopped coming in and started going out. She was convinced she had learned how to hear it, was sure she had gotten it, the last few nights within a minute or two. It was easier to tell at night than in the morning, so many fewer sounds competing with the slap of the water on the shore. Sometimes she though she could smell it when it turned around.
She was stretching her feet over toward him, hoping he might touch them. They were pretty feet, all the toes the right length in relation to each other, one part of her body about which she felt unequivocally good. He seemed determined not to touch them; in fact he didn’t even seem to want to look at them. He looked unprepared and frightened all of a sudden in a way that he hadn’t before. He started talking about his therapist and looking all the time like he was violating some promise he had made with himself that no matter what happened he was not to talk about his therapist.

She asked me what I wanted most of all, he said, and I said I just wanted the kids to be okay and she said, ‘No, what do you want most of all,’ and I thought and thought and thought about it and said, ‘I just want a woman who looks good in a summer dress.’




Pam Houston and   


She had been getting pretty sure that he had come all this way to seduce her but now she was a little thrown off. She had gained a little weight that winter, hadn’t been to yoga for almost three weeks, she felt pale and stiff all the time and even on her best day she would not describe herself as someone who looked particularly good in a summer dress, though neither would she necessarily say she looked bad. She pulled her feet back in towards her body.

I guess what I meant, she said, was, what did you hope would happen here tonight? And he looked even more like he wanted to die. She felt a strange kind of power that she was unused to. She’d had stalkers, more than her share of them, but she’d never invited one into her living room before. One had never flown across the country and rented a car and asked for absolution over uneaten halibut. If she were the kind of woman who could take a stranger’s face in her hands and run the tip of her tongue from his widow’s peak down between his eyebrows across his lips to the point of his chin, this would be the right moment to do it. But she wasn’t, never had been, and she was still a little confused by the comment about the dress. She went back to hoping he would just rest his hand on the bridge of her foot.

I guess I just wanted to tell you what was going on in my life, he said. He hated how casual the words sounded. Suburban, even. It sounded like something his wife would say, an excuse for being late. We just needed to get caught up on what was going on in each others lives.

There was a time in his life when he wouldn’t have used an expression like that, a time in his life when they wouldn’t have even made it to the halibut. He would have had her pushed up against the butcher block table in the kitchen, licking her till she came so many times that the halibut turned into ash in the oven. A strong salty smell came in through the open window and cleared his head. He didn’t know where that line of thought would get him, and anyway, sex was only one of the things he wanted from her.

But why, she said, So I would like . . . bear witness to it? It was something the gay ex-boyfriend had said when she asked why he hadn’t told her for those months after he knew for sure. He wanted her to bear witness to his transformation. It still made her want to spit, a little. She did not say, to either of them, Were you hoping maybe I would write a song?

I don’t want you to think I came here to seduce you, he said, with a moment’s appreciation for his own cleverness, it was the only way he could word it and still have it be true.

But what did you think might happen? she said, hearing the intention in his syntax, I mean, like, in your best case scenario?

I didn’t have a best case scenario, he said, I didn’t think anything at all.

She was starting to feel like they were stalled out in some Sartrean drama, My Dinner with Atom — er — Alex, the man whose wife was a lesbian and the woman who was afraid she didn’t look good enough in a summer dress. He caught another whiff of sea air, hated his own cowardice, hated his wife.




Pam Houston and   


He looked at her feet then, surprised that they had gotten so close to him, looked around at the candles and the flowers, out the window at the house lights reflecting on the bay. He had come a long fucking way from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He had come there to seduce her — whether or not he could get it up in the presence of another living breathing human was a consideration, but not the only one. When he got home to Cherry Hill in twenty-four hours, things weren’t going to be any different than they were when he left.

I guess I was hoping you might find me irresistible, he said, and she smiled in a new way, as if this had been the thing she was waiting for, that this more than the other thing contained the surprise.

Well, in truth, she said, I find you somewhat irresistible. He stood from the relief of it, and began collecting the plates. She stood in his path between the table and the kitchen.

He said, It’s been a long time for me, I don’t know what will happen.

She said, Oh, we don’t have to have sex, sex is terrifying. We can just lie on the bed and kiss.

She took his hand and led him into the bedroom. She blew out three candles and lit three more. She took off her rings one at a time, the Hopi silver, the Laotian elephant chain, the Tinglit soul catcher, the garnet from Bhutan, then her bracelets, her necklace and earrings. There was a time in her life when she would have gone to bed with all that armor on.

He kissed her neck and then the hollow of her shoulder. Then he kissed her mouth, then the crease in her elbow. They were gentle kisses, soft, without being tentative. He kissed her eyelids, her hairline, the pliable divot between her lips. He took one of her hands in both of his and studied it for a minute, kissed the tip of each finger and ran the underside of his tongue between each finger’s web. He lifted her shirt over her head and kissed the bulge of the tricep, the nape of her neck, her outer ear, the small of her back, he picked out one rib and ran his tongue along its length. He sucked on the skin behind her left knee, he ran his tongue along her instep, he kissed her sternum without touching either breast, he kissed each temple like he was laying a blessing upon them. He kissed the inside of her thigh, her Achilles tendon, the tip of each shoulder blade’s wing. He kissed her wrist on the pulsebeat, he sucked her second to last toe. She had tried to keep up in the beginning but this was his dance, his choreography, and she didn’t want him to startle when it felt this good. He was lacing his tongue along her clavicle, his chest hairs brushing her nipples, their fingers wound together, him holding her down.

He was trying not to think about getting an erection. She was so beautiful on that bed he could have thrown himself on the ground and wept over her. He wanted to put his cock inside her more than he’d wanted to live to be old but it would not come out of hiding. He prayed she’d just let him keep kissing her. He prayed that at least this time she wouldn’t try to get on top.




Pam Houston and   


She had intended to keep her head (she didn’t know him from Atom), but her hips were moving against the top of his thigh like they thought they were already fucking and she could feel the heat coming out of her, bouncing back off of him, getting hotter each time she felt his mouth on her someplace new. His cock was notably absent, not missing, of course, in the true sense but definitely not making its presence known. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that she shouldn’t go looking for it. She was pretty sure this man could make her come before he even got to her breasts.

When he finally put his hands on them he made a noise that startled him it was so plaintive and animal. He took her nipple between his teeth and sucked so hard he knew he had to be hurting her but he couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop, maybe not ever. She was rumbling deep in her throat, thrashing her head back and forth, her hips no longer grinding but shivering against his knee. He left her breast, put his tongue flat and hard where his knee had been, not moving at all but feeling her pulse against him, each throb getting stronger and faster, him pressing but not moving, and then she was bucking, her knees clamped down on his head like a vise.

She went to sleep in less than a minute and he got to study her, got to touch the places he wasn’t sure about, the hair in her armpits, the crack in her ass. He was writing her a letter across her breasts when she came to and she ran her tongue along the finger that was the pen, pulled it into her mouth with her tongue, pressed it up against the back of her throat and played her tongue along the bottom. She sucked on that finger and licked it, even choked a little on it, all the time her eyes soft on his and patient, she less surprised than he was that this would be the thing that made him whole.

She liked the way his cock felt in her mouth, liked the way it grew and grew and shrank and grew again right before he came. She liked the way his scent mixed with the scent of her candles. Not that night, but not long after, he got so big inside her she lost track of all the separation and thought it was her cock, or had been, maybe in another life. He made her come that night, four times in an hour (That’s faster than most people walk, her friend Betsy said later). She could make him hard by then, just by showing him the tip of her tongue.

You might say they bore witness to each other’s transformation. He’s moved the record company to Sebastopool and she has a hit song on the alternative charts called In My Summer Dress. His kids come out in the summer and the younger one wants to be a folk singer. They make jokes sometimes about all the places there are to hide a body. Some of their best friends are lesbians. If he listens closely he can hear the exact moment when the tide turns around in the bay.



For more Pam Houston, read:

Ostrich Theory
Confessions of a First-Time Pornographer
Places to Hide a Body

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