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6: Punch

I always hated my father’s family, but none so much as I hated my Uncle Boris. Boris was a bully, a snob, and a filthy drunk. He’d been finding ways to torment me since I was a child. He was particularly fond of pinching the fleshy parts just hard enough to leave a bruise, and finding ways to insert his fingers into inappropriate places. It was no less humiliating when I was six than it was when I was thirty six. At my own wedding reception, he pulled me onto his lap, gave me a whiskey drenched kiss and smacked me across the behind, leaving cocktail-sauce fingerprints on my white satin dress. “They all thought you’d die a spinster,” he said. “But I knew you could find a man who could appreciate your less obvious assets.” He and his sons howled. Everyone else looked faintly horrified, but no one did anything. Not Mother, not even my new husband, Louis, who just shuddered at the spectacle and went on shoving fatty prime rib into his thin, fishy lips.

I probably should have known that our marriage wouldn’t last.

Uncle Neville didn’t react to my abuse at Boris’s hand either, but he did find me when I ran out to sob over my stained wedding gown and ruined pride in the hotel corridor.

“One day,” he said, “we will find a way to make Boris pay.”

“How?” I asked.

“You’re a clever girl, Margaret. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.” He then smiled that creepy Neville smile, handed me an envelope containing his wedding gift, and left before the dancing began.

I suspected his gift was a check and was surprised when I opened it to discover a sheaf of graph paper, neatly lettered, with what looked like recipes and equations. IN THE EVENT YOU NEED AN URGENT ESCAPE, LOVE UNCLE NEVILLE was scrawled across the upper margin. They were recipes for poisons, made with easily available ingredients, tasteless and odorless, and, to the best of his knowledge, undetectable to forensic analysis. They weren’t all fatal; the first few recipes were labeled TO PUT A MAN TO SLEEP, or TO PUT A MAN TO SLEEP FOR DAYS. I had to turn the page to read TO PUT A MAN TO SLEEP FOR ETERNITY.

I was unsettled by the gift, but not shocked. Like most of my father’s kin, Neville was a horrifying person. He skulked around family events wearing a perennial waxy smirk. Sometimes things disappeared with him—knick knacks, pills, small pets—but unlike his brothers, he kept his hands to himself and was generally polite. He worked in a lab and always smelled a bit like bleach and formaldehyde. You could smell him coming, which made him easy enough to avoid.

I hid his wedding present in the lining of my wedding gown until Louis and I were settled into our first home. Then I kept it in a maxi pad box in the powder room under the stairs. Like most men, Louis was so terrified of menstruation that he would never touch even its most benign accoutrements. I didn’t think I’d need to retrieve the recipes often as I did, but it became clear early on that Louis had too many opinions about my housekeeping, my meals, and my looks. He liked to linger on the sidewalk outside our house and talk to the neighbors about his day, and how the favorable women who worked at his accounting firm compared to his plain, bovine wife, with a face like a spoiled potato.

His words etched deep grooves into that potato.

The sleeping draughts were simple enough to prepare and could be added easily to gravy. Louis loved gravy. He drowned his meals in it, and when he went on and on at the dinner table, he spat little flecks of it all over my grandmother’s Irish linen tablecloth. I watched him with increased distaste as he ate like a pig, large mouthfuls shoveled into his ugly maw. The formula was fast acting, but not so fast I could not help him to the easy chair in the front room. A small amount would keep him down for eight hours, long enough for me to finish the dishes and enjoy a restful slumber without his snores, belches, and half-hearted attempts at performing his husbandly duty from behind so he wouldn’t have to look at my potato face. A larger amount would keep him down for a couple of days. Optimal, but then I would have to talk to his office, which meant talking to Miss Youngblood, his secretary, a condescending tart who could have benefitted from a few of Neville’s sleeping draughts herself.

We carried on this way for the better part of a year before Louis’s absences were deemed excessive and he was called into a senior partner’s office for a dressing down. He came home shaken and furtive, suddenly suspicious. How could he have missed so much work? He scheduled an appointment with our physician and was found healthy. “A mystery,” said the doctor. “I'll send you to the hospital for more tests.”

I felt a flicker of worry as we left. Neville had promised the tinctures would be undetectable, but by what measure? I mulled the combination of ingredients, benign as they were, but what if?

Louis prattled on in the passenger seat, wondering whether his mysterious ailment was caused by the house, or my cooking, or simply my presence. “You’re enough to make any man ill,” he said. “God, were it not for my finances. God, were it not for your Uncle Boris and his offer to pay my debts, I could have had a beautiful wife. I could have had dozens of beautiful women. Instead, I have spent the best years of my life shackled to a stupid, potato-faced cow.”

I wasn’t shocked by his spiel. I was used to his insults, but until that moment, I hadn’t been fully aware of Boris’s part in our travesty of a marriage. I hated him for it, almost more than I hated Louis. And I hated Louis so much that I considered driving us both through the guardrail, off the bridge, and into the river.

Instead, I asked if he wanted to eat something before we went to the hospital. He did. Louis was always hungry. So we stopped by the house and I heated up some leftover pot roast, seasoned with extra pepper and a liberal dash of TO PUT A MAN TO SLEEP FOR ETERNITY. I’d prepared it months prior—just in case—and kept in the pantry in a jar labeled FOR MENSTRUAL CRAMPS. He ate with enthusiasm but without relish, complaining as usual about my failures as a chef. Much like the sleeping draught, it worked slowly, slowly enough that worried for a moment that I’d failed. I wasn’t sure I could bear it.

When he stood from the table, he wavered a bit, his speech slurred. I watched him clutch briefly at his throat, his stomach, his chest. He looked at the bowl. He looked at me with sudden and horrifying certainty. I am only a bit ashamed to admit that I smiled as his beady eyes began to bulge and the last of life drained from his foul and miserable body. He dropped to the floor. I waited a few moments before checking for a pulse, a breath. When I was satisfied he was well and truly dead, I cleaned the lunch dishes and the jar containing the poison. I moved Neville’s pages from the downstairs bath to the space beneath a floorboard under the bed. Then, I disheveled my hair, chopped a large onion and came back into the living room to wail at Louis’s prone body on the floor.

Our neighbors, kindly and conventional, came running. Mrs. Babcock from next door held me as I wept, and her husband called for the ambulance. The police arrived, offering grim assurances as the corpse was removed. The neighbors, our doctor, and Louis’s coworkers all reported that he’d suffered a mysterious illness, afflicting his heart. “He was so young,” they said. “And his poor wife, barely past her honeymoon, already a widow.”

I sobbed convincingly through the funeral. I accepted sympathy from his terrible family and an unexpected windfall from a life insurance policy I hadn’t expected Louis to have. And after a time, I sold the house and moved across town to a small bungalow with a garden full of foxgloves and climbing roses.

“So small,” my mother said. “You’ll never find a man willing to live in a house like this.”

I nodded. That was exactly my plan.

I settled into my new life and took a job at a local drug store where my skills at mixing concoctions were put to good use by the kindly old pharmacist. I avoided my father’s family. After Louis’s demise, I viewed the lot of them, and Boris preeminently, as architects of my misery. The time since I’d last murdered someone went from months to years. Neville’s pages grew dusty and yellow. But still I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep myself from doing it again were I forced to interact with family. I missed my sisters and my mother, but I refused invitations to family events.

Neville came to call, some four years after Louis’s death. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since the wedding, but I recognized his sepulchral odor even before he knocked on the screen door. Despite the good he had done for me, I had no interest in having him in the house. I invited him to take a seat in the garden and brought out two glasses of lemonade.

He smirked and handed me back the glass when I gave it to him. “I’m not thirsty.”

I shrugged, sat and asked what had brought him to my garden.

“Your Uncle Boris will soon be celebrating his sixtieth birthday. He’s not terribly healthy. It would be unsurprising if he died soon. Perhaps even at his own birthday,” said Neville.

I raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re inferring,” I said. “Certainly if he were to perish from…causes, it would not be necessary for me to know about those causes.”

“I thought you might want to join the family for this event,” he said. “May be your last opportunity to see your Uncle Boris alive.”

“I’ll pass,” I said.

“Are you sure?” asked Neville. “I could really use your support. Given what you’ve endured over the last few years, you must have some experience with grief. I don’t think I ever told you how truly sorry I was about your husband’s demise. Heart trouble, was it? And he was so young. What a shame.”

I thought about my garden and its options. I had a small pond, but not deep enough to drown a man. I was not a small woman and Neville was a slight man, but I doubted my ability to overpower him. I glanced toward the garden shed. Inside was a hoe, hedge clippers, and a heavy shovel. I doubted I could get there in time. I had a glass in my hand, a cut-glass tumbler, a wedding gift, I wondered if I might shatter it and stab Neville in the neck. I thought I might could do it, but it was a lovely glass, Waterford, and it was only 5pm. The neighbors would see.

Resigned, I put down the glass. I asked Neville what the dress code would be at the party.

His idea was to add one his draughts discreetly into Boris’s glass. Though he had great faith in his draught “slightly updated recipe, even stronger than before,” he worried he might be too obvious. A woman, he reasoned, would appear more natural in a servile position. Boris had always found me amusing, Neville said. He’d be so happily surprised to see me; he probably wouldn’t even notice the glass.

I shuddered at the thought, the memory of the pinches, the gropes, the curious fingers, his nasty remarks, my spoilt wedding gown, Louis. He’d found me amusing, had he? I imagined him dying. It made me tingle with pleasure.

The problem was that imagining Neville dying made me tingle with pleasure as well. In fact, Neville had become rather more of a problem than I’d originally imagined. Doctoring his glass would be impossible. He did not trust me, gauging from his reaction to my lemonade. The only way to make sure he would drink his own poison would be to add it to the entire punch bowl, which would risk poisoning my whole family.

It seemed excessive, even horrific at first blush, but at night as I lay in my bed, in the days and weeks leading up to Boris’s 60th, I found myself incapable of summoning up much sorry for the rest of them. The wives and children. Weren’t they all collaborators? Even my own mother and sisters? Hadn’t they seen me suffer? Hadn’t they don’t nothing to relieve my sorrows? Would I truly be sad to see them die along with the men?

Days before the party,I mixed a batch of Sleep for Eternity and poured it into a perfume bottle. It fit neatly into the sleeve of my favorite polka dot suit.

Boris’s birthday party was in the same hotel as my wedding reception. Walking through the lobby, I remembered the last time I’d crossed the threshold with both relief and frustration. I followed the west wing colonnade to an unimpressive banquet hall crowded with kin. My mother and sister made some show at greeting me and complimenting my appearance. My father sniggered alongside his brothers.

Boris came trumpeting in from the lobby bar, red-faced from gin. “Have you not found a new husband yet, darling?” He staggered over and slapped me firmly across my rear end. “She may not be much in the face, but the rest of her is still fat and firm and ready to go.”

I felt myself go scarlet as the men laughed. I saw Neville across the room, half hidden by a melancholy ficus against the opposite wall. He smirked with teeth and nodded.

The punch bowl was located on a center table. I poured myself a cup into one of the silver goblets. It was a cranberry brew so liberally seasoned with cheap rum that the few actual children in attendance had been cautioned to avoid it. That was good, I thought. Though I didn’t care for any of the vicious, oily little demons, I had no interest in being known as a child murderer should my plans go awry. Child murdering is cheap and unimaginative, a crime for desperate old hags and skinny-ankled tarts, not properly raised women of good taste and character.

With considerable delicacy, I uncorked the perfume bottle and let SLEEP FOR ETERNITY dribble against the edge of the bowl as I replaced the ladle.

I looked up and lifted my glass to Neville. Our cue. He threaded through the crowd and slithered up beside me. I could barely endure his smell. It was worse that day than usual, like rotten leaves and insect repellant.

He served himself a glass of punch and handed me a tiny vial. I emptied it into Boris’s cup. Neville himself ladled and then sent me off to deliver the glass.

Boris belched as I approached.

“I brought you some punch, Uncle,” I said.

He sneered. “It’s not poisoned, is it?”

I froze, as he howled with laughter, and took it away from me with another hasty slap across my thighs.

“It’s all poisoned up, dad. Don’t worry,” said one of my awful, pockmarked cousins. “Donny and I filled it up good with rum.”

“That’s my boy,” said Boris, and raised the glass to his lips.

I heard a clink and looked up to see Neville, raising his glass.

“A toast, first” he said, beaming. “To my big brother, Boris, on his sixtieth birthday. May he yet live a long and happy life.”

Boris raised his own glass. “I’ll outlive you, at least, you goddamn fairy.” He drank then, thirstily, and threw the glass on the carpet behind him to a roar of voices.

Neville raised his glass to me and me to him. We drank. Sweet, rummy, awful. I closed my eyes to the taste. By the time I opened them, I could see that Boris was already grasping at his collar. The double dose must have sped up the reaction time, and as the rest of the family looked on with horror, they also started clutching their hearts, their stomachs, their throats. My dear mother and sister went quite pale. It was very nearly heartbreaking, seeing them in such duress. Very nearly, but not.

I only had eyes for Neville, who tried to swallow as he pointed across the parquet. “You,” he said, before his words failed and he began to silk down behind the tablecloth. I stepped out of the way, so it would appear that he was not pointing at me and slid the perfume bottle into my terrible cousin Stevie’s sport coat pocket, just as I was beginning to feel drowsy myself. I licked the edge of my own cup, to make sure I finished enough of the SLEEP FOR DAYS that would render me unconscious enough to be a credible victim of this crime, and stepped across the floor to sink down beside my family. I stretched a hand out to my mother’s cold hand and realized I could see Neville’s pomaded forehead just under the hem of the tablecloth. For a moment, I swore I saw him move. But it was just a gasp of the air conditioner, the conditions upended by the panicked serving staff, scattering around me as I drifted off to sleep.

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