INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
Margaret Meehan’s “A Beautiful Wife is Suddenly Dead” is an extraordinary story, and not quite like any other I’ve read. For that reason, it is very difficult to introduce. I don’t want to spoil it, but spoilers have a different meaning here.
The opening line, “Karen Roberts is going to fall out the window,” is a threat, a dare. It reads like the the warnings adults give children: your face is going to freeze that way; you’ll catch your death of cold; you’re going to break the chair if you keep leaning like that. Karen Roberts is herself an adult—a teacher, even—though she is vain, irresponsible, and has not read the books she teaches. She is obsessed with true crime shows—including, memorably, He Cheated, Then She Died!—and feels vaguely disappointed that she doesn’t live in one.
For Karen, the shows are “cheap dramatic reenactments of wives who were, just days before their tragic deaths, out buying lunch meat at the grocery store and off-season purses at the outlet mall.” There is a seemingly endless supply of dead wives’ deaths to be reenacted. “How many more wives must die to keep my shows going?” Karen wonders, a morbid question of supply and demand.
“A Beautiful Wife is Suddenly Dead” is a story about the consequences of living outside the moment, about paying attention to the wrong things. It’s a story about coasting through life as a consumer first and a person second, never really evaluating any of one’s choices. Remarkably, it is Meehan’s first published piece of fiction. Remarkable because the story is confident, experienced. Meehan doesn’t so much break the rules as she does apply them in a completely unexpected manner—as a writer she leans far out the window, somehow maintaining her center of balance, daring gravity to make her fall.
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A Beautiful Wife Is Suddenly Dead
“A Beautiful Wife Is Suddenly Dead”
by Margaret Meehan
Karen Roberts is going to fall out the window. She likes to perch her ass on the sill and lean against the cool glass pane, slid open halfway, the breeze lashing at the sliver of skin between the hem of her shirt and the waistband of her jeans. It feels scandalous to have the tip of her crack exposed to the world like this while reading excerpts of Hamlet or Silas Marner to her eleventh-grade English class. Neither of which she has read to completion herself. She got by on CliffsNotes in high school, then SparkNotes in college, and now follows the school-board curriculum exactly, her only pedagogical interpretation being dramatic hand gestures, like beating her chest while shouting the last line of that Lord Byron poem. She doesn’t like literature so much as she likes Dead Poets Society, the potential for theater in teaching. As if at any moment her students might erupt into applause, hearts bursting, changed forever. She says her favorite author is Hemingway, because that seems acceptable, though she only made it to page twenty-five of The Old Man and the Sea.
When Karen’s class begins filing out, she hops off the windowsill. One of her worst students, Lucy, approaches her to tell her how beautiful—“like, literally beautiful”—her hair looks today. Lucy, smart but too often taken with drawing gruesome eyeballs in the margins of her notebook, always stays behind, gathering her belongings in slow-motion, to pay Karen an arbitrary compliment in hopes it will sway her grade. Yesterday, it was her eyes: “So, so pretty,” Lucy had said, which, considering her skilled illustrations of corneal leakage and wormy waterlines, frightened Karen more than it flattered her.
Karen wonders if her students actually find her attractive. There are seventeen-year-old boys in her class who look twenty-two and she can’t help it if her twenty-nine-year-old body feels a jolt at the sight of their veiny, football-wielding forearms. She’s a woman with a pulse, after all, until she won’t be. But if she knew she was about to die, she might do something not illegal but definitely questionable. Like daring to unbutton the fourth button of her Ann Taylor Henley. Or keeping Jesse or Bryan or Tate after class to demonstrate burpees, watching their muscles clench under taut skin, overexerting themselves to impress her. Or playfully tousling her students’ hair as she passes them in the hallway, then whipping around to wink. Though winking comes unnaturally to her, which she finds frustrating. The inability to escape herself long enough to perform sexiness. To express the full range of her desires. Always recoiling in embarrassment when her husband discovers her wetness. Always facing away from her classroom door during lunch hour so passing students and colleagues won’t catch how greedily she brings the plastic fork to her mouth, or how many processed toppings she’s dumped on her salad—fried onions and cheese cubes and croutons atop the most unenlightened of lettuces: iceberg.
The truth is, aside from Lucy’s desperate compliments, her students don’t give a shit about her. The same way Karen never gave a shit about her teachers. Except for the time when she ran into Miss Schmidt, her seventh-grade art teacher, at a Cheesecake Factory. Miss Schmidt appeared to be on a date with an oily-faced man. Karen’s twelve-year-old brain decided, as a coping mechanism, that he was handsome—to push away the terror that men like him might be waiting for her, too, in some abstract adult future of inconceivable X-rated acts. Miss Schmidt was wearing dangling gold earrings and a mandarin-style dress that positioned her as someone worldlier and sexier than Karen remembered from class, where she wore black turtlenecks and taught a painting called “Nude Descending a Staircase” that didn’t have a single nude person in it. She looked foreign and strange, and Karen felt betrayed. But the betrayal nudged awake something dormant within her: the erotic. Like being simultaneously stabbed in the heart and gripped by the groin. And that’s when it began: the gripping—and pulling and tugging and knocking around—of desire deep inside her that’s she’s never been able to still.
On the drive home from school, Karen blasts John Mayer, her guilty pleasure. Though there are few pleasures that Karen experiences that aren’t guilty. She wonders if her body—good-looking in clothes, confusingly less so naked—would be considered a wonderland by John Mayer’s standards. And what is a wonderland, exactly? At a stop sign, she looks up the definition on her phone: “a land of wonders and marvels.” This reminds her: she’s never really traveled anywhere. Just Cancún on her honeymoon five years ago, which was a seven-day hellscape of drab buffets, screaming children, and Mark’s vacation style of bowling shirts and Birkenstocks, an outfit that further complicated her already complicated desire for him.
During the first week of their courtship, Mark wore a baseball cap that he only took off in the pitch black of his bedroom before they would undress and press their equally pale bodies together. Their bodies, together: for Mark, sublimity; for Karen, well, she wasn’t sure but obliged and continued to oblige until she had, it seemed, suddenly obliged herself into full-blown marriage. One night, their lips locked underneath the covers, she caressed the top of his sparsely haired head. He reflexively brushed her hand away, then rerouted it to his erection.
“But I like your head,” Karen said, reaching toward it again.
“You know how people say they don’t see color?”
“Yeah, but—isn’t that racist?”
“Well, I don’t see bald.” Then, she kissed the shiny spot on his head that she always knew was there, but that he thought she didn’t—a kiss that was a sort of silent commemoration of every tragic person, including herself, who had tried and failed to hide their physical shortcomings from the world. The kiss inspired in her heart a pity for all of mankind, from homo erectus to homo sapiens, throughout earth’s history, which was a grandiose jump, she knew, but it allowed her to have compassion for him. And compassion was love, wasn’t it? So, she did love him—or, she was maybe avoiding his erection. Either way, it was the first time she had kissed him with any certainty, even if she didn’t know what she was certain about.
At a red light, Karen nearly rear-ends the minivan in front of her. When she rolls down her window to collect herself, which, as a person uncollected—always late, lost, misplaced, and misplacing—she frequently does, a pair of shirtless teenage boys, swinging T-shirts by their sides, pass her and shout, “Ho can’t drive!” Ho, she thinks. Hos are attractive, aren’t they? Perhaps, if these boys find her attractive, her students do too. Or, too consumed by their revolting doodles and Lay’s Variety Packs, do they perceive her as nothing more than a loud fuzzy shape? To hell with her students! She should quit her job to travel, finally, find herself. Like her cousin Barbara who went on that Yoga retreat in Hawaii because she thought it would transform her into the kind of person who woke at dawn to make complicated smoothies. When Barbara returned, she was, sure, very tan, but jobless, thousands of dollars in debt, and drinking burnt Folgers spiked with whiskey every morning. Anyway, Karen already knows exactly who she is.
She is Virginia Woolf. She is E.T. the Extra-terrestrial. She is Khloe Kardashian. She is Ross from Friends. She is Samantha from Sex and the City. She is a roast-beef sandwich. She is a standard poodle. She is an open-casket funeral. At least that’s what Buzzfeed quizzes tell her. “Pick a New Outfit for Kim Jong-un and We’ll Guess What Kind of Funeral You’ll Have.” Karen’s body, too beaten and debased by the sidewalk three stories down from her classroom window, will be cremated then funneled into a mid-price urn etched with purple butterflies—meant to symbolize the tattoo on her ankle, which she got while blasted out of her mind on a spring-break trip to Daytona Beach in 2008. The skin soon became infected, then scabbed over, permanently deforming the lines of the left wing.
Karen makes a sharp right into Pretty Woman Nails. She remembers when she watched Pretty Woman for the first time and asked her mother what a prostitute was. Her mother was in the kitchen doing mother-like things. Like dumping a bag of frozen mixed vegetables into a boiling pot, then cursing, “Fuck the Lord,” when the water splashed up in her face, scalding it. After clearing her throat, she slowly and carefully said: “A prostitute is a woman who sells her body.” For the next three years, Karen was certain that a prostitute was a woman who killed herself, then sold her body to help with the family finances. Because she could only imagine a body being sold if it was dead. And it didn’t seem at all odd to her that there might be, somewhere out there, a market for dead women’s bodies.
She parks at the front of the salon and spit-fixes her eyebrows in the rearview mirror. “Whore,” Karen says to her reflection, startling herself, recalling the seated row of well-coiffed women she once saw on some talk-show segment called “women who love being called whores and the men who love calling them whores,” and, not wanting this moment to go to waste—this rare door of arousal creaking open inside her before the squall of shame slams it shut—she fishes in her purse for her stub of red lipstick and smears it on liberally to commemorate the feeling. “Whore,” she says again, laughing this time and sees in the mirror how crudely her face distorts when it laughs. How is it possible she’s never before caught a glimpse of this fright night—her chin, enormous; her teeth, far too many of them. I must get some pulled, and, is that a thing? She buffs her incisors with a fingertip, hoping a glossier finish might redeem them. At the very least she’ll have a few shaved down significantly. But will the insurance cover it? Probably not, so she vows to never allow herself to laugh so freely again. Lock up your gigantic teeth, she thinks, and throw away the key.
“Hello miss, what would you like?” a woman squatting at another woman’s feet asks as Karen bolts through the door of Pretty Woman Nails, ready to submit her body—this betraying body!—to whatever sharp tool or hot goo might shock it into compliance, once and for all. She asks for an eyebrow wax, then decides to get a manicure and, why the hell not, a pedicure, too. While she’s at it, might as well get her pits waxed—never tried that before—and, hey, is there time for a facial? What about hair extensions? Okay, clip the damn things on. Light Ash Blonde No. 22 blends nicely. She flicks her new twelve-inch long ponytail over her shoulder, almost able to stand her reflection again. “Looks cute, honey,” a middle-aged man, sipping a fountain soda and flipping through an Us Weekly, says from the waiting area. Once Karen’s been painted and preened and prodded, she’s upsold a ten-minute shoulder massage while her cherry-red nails dry under UV lights. She pre-shames herself in the event that someone she knows, heaven forbid, walks by this floor-to-ceiling window framed in a garland of faux daisies, and catches her in such an obscene state of pleasure.
Karen walks through the parking lot, her arms outstretched before her, admiring her newly painted fingernails all the way to the car, almost tripping over a curb, thinking of all the things she’s going to point at to show them off: maybe a stale croissant in the display case of her favorite coffee shop, or examples of metaphor in Shakespeare on the whiteboard, or acned teenagers who defy her by texting underneath their desks or rubbing on fruity lotions that give her a headache.
Back at her apartment, Karen switches on the TV to catch up on her true-murder shows. There’s Her Husband Killed Her, Why’s Mom Dead?, and He Cheated, Then She Died! Cheap dramatic reenactments of wives who were, just days before their tragic deaths, out buying lunch meat at the grocery store and off-season purses at the outlet mall, maybe picking up a pack of defective underwear for their soon-to-be murderous husbands. Described in the voice-overs as “talented,” if they played the cello or bassoon in high school, and “beautiful,” no matter how appealingly their faces were arranged. Karen appreciates this generosity. This miraculous recasting of mediocrity in death. She settles on an episode of He Cheated, Then She Died!, which features a Wisconsin nurse whose husband, a respected fire chief, attempted to drown her while she was in the bathtub. She was still alive when he dragged her out by the armpits, so he bludgeoned her with a rustic horse bust from Pottery Barn, which he grabbed off the sink behind him.
“Hello, my angel,” Mark says, entering the apartment. “What did you do to your hair?” he asks, joining Karen on the couch.
“You don’t like it,” Karen says, stuffing the ponytail inside her shirt, embarrassed. It scratches the skin on her chest.
“I do, but you don’t need all that stuff,” he says. “I like your hair the way it is.” Mark pulls out the strange mane and sniffs it, which he attempts to segue into a kiss, but Karen flinches.
“It smells weird,” he says, miffed.
Karen plops her feet on Mark’s lap and returns her attention to He Cheated, Then She Died! Eventually, the police collected enough evidence to arrest the Fire Chief and the local Pottery Barn was forced to sweep its shelves of the now-triggering horse busts. Karen feels unsatisfied, as if she’s eaten a saltine cracker while visualizing it as a cheeseburger. She recalls an episode of Why’s Mom Dead?: a mother shot through a goose-down pillow, blood-soaked feathers flying. The father dismembered her, piled her parts into their toddler’s red wagon, and wheeled it down the hill in their backyard toward an icy ravine. His lie would be that she vanished while jogging; he even stretched a sports bra over her torso for plausibility, in the event that a wild animal sniffed her out of the dirt. Now that was compelling, Karen thinks, to her moral discomfort. How many more wives must die to keep my shows going?
She notices a cystic pimple on Mark’s jawline—the same spot it recurs every month. An unwelcome truth was that she enjoyed seeing her husband somewhat debased; it wrecked her with sadness in a way that made her feel capable of love.
“Are you embarrassed of me?” Karen asks. “Do you ever just look at me and cringe?”
“What? No,” Mark says, as if the question is ridiculous, which gives Karen the real answer she’s looking for: that he’s never wondered this about himself. Mark has never, like her, pondered his potential to be an object of pity.
He massages her feet, squeezing each toe. “That’s nice,” Karen says, momentarily relieved of the day’s disturbances, but Mark, as usual, mistakes this pleasure for another kind of pleasure: a desire for him. Like so many men, he believes that all pleasure is a monolith, one big wagging indiscriminate tongue, or, at the very least, is transferable. So he moves his fingers up her calf, then thigh, grasping it and, of course, Karen sees where this is going. She lifts his hand off her leg like it’s someone else’s wadded up cocktail napkin at a bar and disposes of it on the couch.
“I’m going out,” Karen says, suddenly gripped by an awful sense of urgency, a throb of ambition—but for what, exactly? In her own dilapidated way, she had already achieved many of the goals she push-pinned long ago on her college vision board: tear-outs of cheesing brides, modernist living rooms, an image of a sexy business lady with her hair in a French twist, a pen dangling from her lips. She never did pin up a baby but remembers printing out a monkey in a diaper as a joke.
“Going where?” His expression sags. He looks old and hurt.
Where is she going? Karen takes stock of her body parts—is there anything left to service? Should she get a belly-button ring? Another tattoo? Maybe there was some kind of extreme skin treatment she could try, where they clip leeches to your flesh or douse you in your own blood. How about a colonic? Would that cure her of the panic rising in her chest? Being sucked dry of toxins? Surely, she was filled with them.
“Wow, you’re so mysterious,” Mark says, putting “mysterious” in air quotes, which stings, chafes at Karen like a cheap thong. Is it really so hard for him to believe that she could be mysterious? After everything she’s done to emotionally disorient him, like pooh-poohing his sexual advances or wandering away from him at K-Marts and Targets, ignoring his panicked texts, only for him to later find her crouching in the accessories aisle trying on ridiculous sunhats and fake cocktail rings. Why was she like this?
“I’m going to McDonald’s,” she says.
“McDonald’s?” he asks, disbelieving, which pleases her.
“Yeah, ever heard of it? Big clown guy. You want anything?”
“An Oreo McFlurry,” he says in a high-pitched voice, as if he can’t help but regress into a small boy when shouting the names of treats. He clears his throat and looks away from her.
On the highway, Karen accelerates irresponsibly and rolls down the window to give her new hair a go at glamorously blowing in the wind. What would Lucy think of her new look? She can finally enjoy it away from Mark’s suffocating insistence on loving her for who she is. Revel in this mystery, Mark. She feels reborn! But then—ah, fuck—the wind. Her hair pummels her in the face, nearly blinding her, adhering itself to what’s left of the lipstick she applied earlier. She rolls up the window, feeling spurned, and gathers the faux ponytail into her mouth and sucks on it for a few miles, soothing herself, the chemical taste oddly appealing. She passes the McDonald’s, not quite ready to relinquish her freedom, and keeps driving. A song she’s never heard but assumes is popular comes on the radio, the kind of shrill thumping her students crowd around iPhones to bop their big dumb heads to. Karen weakly pumps her shoulders to the beat and projects herself on the movie screen of her mind but it’s too humiliating, so she turns it off. Another McDonald’s flies by. How long could she prolong this escape before Mark begins to wonder if she’s dead? Tangled up in shrubbery or, better yet, kidnapped. He should try searching for something for once. “Where’s my moisturizer,” he’s always yelling at Karen. It’s under the God damn sink.
“Adios, Ronald,” she says to a third McDonald’s, one with an intestine-shaped slide. Perhaps she’s on the cusp of cracking some secret code of the universe. After passing a certain number of McDonald’s, does one drive straight into a new dimension, a new life? But Karen, weak and hungry and a little musty, turns on her blinker and steers into the next shopping center crowned with golden arches. She pulls into the drive-through, cranes her neck toward the speaker, and orders the McFlurry for Mark and a Happy Meal for herself. A glance in the rearview mirror reveals Mark pulling up right behind her, his eyes cast downward beneath a baseball cap. Her stomach clenches. As if a hat is enough to disguise not only his familiar frame hunched over the steering wheel but the behemoth of his SUV made particularly recognizable by the Hula-girl figurine bobbing on the dashboard. Unbelievable.
But then a twinge between her legs. Was Mark—who has rosy cheeks, kneads all the soft blankets in the house like a kitten, and once stopped in the middle of sex to put a pillow under her neck, which she told him to never do again—a stalker? A controlling alpha male? Both hallmarks of a murderer, she thinks. Filled with a strange excitement for this creepy little game they’re playing, she pays at window one, then snatches the food from window two, and pulls into a parking spot at the rear of the building. Behind her, Mark turns in the opposite direction and exits the shopping center, seemingly satisfied with whatever it was that he wanted from her. Must be nice to be so satisfied all the time. She grabs the McFlurry from its paper cupholder, opens the car door, and throws it against the asphalt.
When Karen dies, Mark will scoop up her mess of hairbrushes, uncapped perfumes and lipsticks, noisy bracelets, and smelly candles and smash them on the living room floor. He’ll dive into her closet and hang from that stupid Puebla dress she bought in Cancún until the rod breaks and he’s suffocating under the weight of her clothes, stuffing them into his mouth. Clothes that taste like her sweet musk. At night, he’ll dig out a pair of her underwear from the bottom of the hamper and squeeze them tight in his angry fists, against his broken heart, until he finally falls asleep. In the morning, he’ll shuffle aimlessly around their apartment until he can’t take it anymore, the heaviness of his sorrow, and calls his mother. When she says hello, he’ll say nothing. Just let out a sob so big he chokes on it.
The next day at school, it’s Karen’s floral-print wrap dress, a Diane von Furstenberg knockoff. “You look like a famous person in that,” Lucy says. “That blonde lady from that show about lawyers.”
“I’m giving you a C, Lucy,” Karen says from her usual perch on the windowsill, a stack of final exams on Thoreau in her hand. “You can stop sucking up now.” She leans forward and twists her ponytail into a fat sausage curl, but Lucy doesn’t notice as she leaves the room.
Oh, Karen would love this: Lucy on the quad reciting a snot-muffled eulogy—“Mrs. Roberts was seriously the best teacher ever and she had the most awesome eyes and hair and dresses I had ever seen in my entire life”—surrounded by thousands of students. Some collapsing to their knees, digging their fingers into the earth in sheer agony, decrying God for this injustice, a photo montage of Karen’s best angles projected behind them. Then, as a blood-red sun sets over the horizon, everyone sways in unison with lighters in the air, as if she’s the saddest, most important rock ballad ever sung.
But that won’t happen. Karen will get lumped into a memorial with Ethan Foster, the handsomest kid in school, who’ll spin out and crash while speeding and swerving down a quiet street not as quiet as he anticipated thanks to the semi that clips him.
“The jerk,” Karen’s ashes would have shouted from her butterfly-etched urn if they could. Ethan will spend a week sustained by a ventilator before his last breath, the whole of Jackson High more focused on planning a talent-show fundraiser for his family’s medical expenses than establishing her legacy of, well, now history will never know. Girls who were her students, who didn’t even know Ethan, will embrace one another, and weep, “He was so gorgeous.” Was I not attractive enough to die memorably? Karen’s ashes would have thought if they could. At least Leslie Stillman will sweetly warble Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which happens to be Karen’s karaoke song, over the intercom.
Karen readjusts her weight on the windowsill, then scoot, scoots back, inadvertently banging her tired head against the glass. She thinks she hears something click or crack but is distracted by Ethan Foster, that doe-eyed student she had last year, amble by underneath her. Karen likes to observe her students when they don’t know she’s observing them and marvel at how impossibly goofy and innocent they can look. As she watches Ethan disappear into the parking lot, his ridiculous backpack bobbing up and down on his lanky, still-boyish frame, there is a foreshadowing. The stack of final exams in Karen’s hand blows out the window; she watches them dance in the breeze. Like a cliché. Like a metaphor for something she’d be able to name if she had read more of the literary canon. Shit, she thinks. This is beautiful, she thinks. A sight worthy of being adapted and scored in an award-winning film that she will never see, and which might never be made, because her imminent death could very well set off a chain of events that disrupts the universe irrevocably, causing a truck or asteroid or very large man to hit and kill who would have been the greatest filmmaker of the twenty-first century, and maybe this, accidentally thwarting the creation of some magnum opus, is Karen’s legacy. She opens the window wider and notices one of the exams wedged in the branches of a massive oak. That one, trapped, probably represents me, she thinks, twisting her face into an expression that she hopes looks wise and longing, while the other exams, not her, whirl and swell freely up into the clear blue sky. Yes, this is the metaphor for my life, she thinks. Ha! She laughs at her own feeble thoughts. Then, it finally happens: Karen Roberts falls out the window.
She falls out of the window the same way everyone else who has fallen out of windows fell out of the window in the great tradition of falling out of windows. Either a few rusty screws at the hinges come loose, or she loses her balance leaning out to have a stylish smoke or suck in fresh air, or she’s pushed out by an evil villain, or she leaps out of her own freewill, but the police will determine that’s doubtful by the way her body lands on the pavement. Without determination or intent or much thought. A hapless pile of arms and legs. In the few seconds that she flies high above finality, she regrets that her students aren’t here to witness this. To have this tragedy forever imprinted on their young, impressionable minds. She regrets everything she’s ever said or thought or been or done or didn’t do. Who wouldn’t in a moment like this. Karen reaches her hands toward the sky, cherry-red nails refracting the sun, her plastic blonde ponytail whipping in the wind, and she doesn’t scream.