The First Party
My husband, Mr. Hamilton, looked harmless and insipid as a scarecrow in a fallow field, or a reliable car on a quiet street. His shoulders were narrow but his legs were long and so straight that his jeans, bleached a faint blue by the sun and much washing, hung down free of wrinkles, as though they were empty. He drank ice water through a straw in public and looked to enjoy it immensely; he squeezed ketchup right onto French fries, never wasting a single drop; he would keep working uneasily on a stain on his shirt, if there was one, while talking to people he didn't know well. They were all part of his way of showing his vulnerability. But I knew he was a killer, quiet, fast and professional. I guessed he had been doing this for a long time, long before we got married. I didn't know whether he knew I knew his real identity. I only knew I loved him so much that I slept with our neighbor and ruined my husband's career completely.
We had been married for three years and had lived in the city until one month ago, when we moved to this small town. Mr. Hamilton had been a manager at a supermarket since we married and was never home much before he suddenly quit his job and proposed moving. I thought he was having an affair and got some woman pregnant and was planning on leaving the mess behind. But I could never grab hold of any evidence of him cheating on me. He always looked like he had nothing to hide, never a sneaky and underhanded aspect to his behavior. Our sex life was fine. I never found perfume or a woman's hair or lipstick on his shirts. One night he caught me burying my head in the pile of his dirty shirts, breathing in his innocent sweat. He said he was not happy being out all the time either and that his job was getting overwhelming and he was looking forward to a new start. I looked up at him and let out a sigh. He pulled me up and hugged me. But there was something about his hug, something subtle, uncertain and suspicious, and also a little bit awkward in how he squeezed me, as if I were a terribly-cut cigar that was unraveling.
Speaking of cigars, they were Mr. Hamilton's weakness. He always laid the cutter on the table and stood the cigar up vertically to avoid cutting too much off of the cap, a circular piece of tobacco covering one end of the cigar to secure the wrapper. And I had a feeling that his target's life was just like a cigar to him: he cut it with a double guillotine and lit it with a soft flame. The goal was to open up the cap without cutting past the shoulder, a visible line where cap and body met. He firmly squeezed the cutter closed. The cap came off neat and clean. He was very good at staying at this side of the line to leave the body as beautiful as a piece of art, for himself to appreciate. This vertical-cut technique might be too convenient and conservative for him, who was not a rookie any more, but he never abandoned it, a method of getting his business done securely and efficiently.
Compared to cutting a cigar, that is, which required precision and decisiveness; lighting one was a process of balancing and delicacy. A soft flame allowed more control with a slower and cooler burn, which reduced the risk of scorching the wrapper. He placed the hottest part of the flame, the rippling excitement, the burning cordiality, the invisible danger, right above the top of the visible flame, under the cigar at an approximate forty-five degree angle towards him while holding the cigar at that same angle. The fire gently licked over the foot of the cigar, to erase the possible trace of any irregularity of the cut and its aftermath, the shocking, hideous effect to eyes.
It was all about beauty, Mr. Hamilton would say.
An aroma replaced the smell of raw blood. Then he rotated the cigar while puffing and blew on the end of it to ensure the embers were well lit, and to create an even ash so enticing that I would want to slide my fingers across it and leave my prints. But Mr. Hamilton would laugh at me if he knew what I was thinking. He would never leave a trace behind. He suddenly looked arrogant and cocky with a cigar between his fingers, and it may have looked to others that this was his least vulnerable moment. But not to me. Actually this was when he let his guard down and gradually emerged from behind his camouflage. Pride goeth before a fall.
It looked as if my husband had few clients, but I know he had never failed. It might take him a couple of years to approach the target and draw the shiv out of its sheath. That was why he could get away with it every time (on the way to our new home, the small town, we heard the news of a dead body discovered two blocks from the neighborhood we just left). He never believed crimes on TV, I bet; they were too fancy, too complicated, too polished for reality. If my husband were not a professional killer, I was sure he would be an artist, who, just like a killer, was arbitrary (not necessarily selfish) and never consulted anybody else to decide which sacrifice to make, and when somebody got hurt as a result, they would argue that life itself was a damn arbitrary bitch. He might be a painter; I enjoyed his taste in colors. He was a man who could handle pink, the color of a little girl's fake diamond ring, bright and cheap. He would use nimbus gray shirt to match his pink tie (a gift from a bad-taste client, I guess). But I wouldn't be surprised if he ended up being a novelist, considering his outstanding ability of giving the smooth turns of one man's life trajectory a hard twist then tying it into dead knots.
When Mr. Hamilton wrapped up his business in the city, we moved to this town. We bought a house here and settled down. Mr. Hamilton found a new job at a local supermarket. Our neighbors were normal and interesting people. Mr. and Mrs. Brown lived next door, and Mr. Green and his grandson lived on the other side. There was a goofy mathematician living in a big house across the street but I didn't see him much. His neighbor, a skinny and painfully shy guy, also worked in the supermarket. I smiled and waved at my lovely neighbors whenever we saw each other on the street, in the post office and other places. Because I knew: the days of someone's life among them had been numbered since our arrival. That must have been the reason we were here. What other reason could there be to move to this small silly town?
It was when the Browns came over to say hello that I figured out Mr. Brown was my husband's new target. He was in his forties, tall and slender, didn't smile much. He was definitely not an ugly guy, but his face gave me a feeling that it would look different when in bed. He went to work in the morning and came home in the evening during workdays and drank beer on the porch on weekends. Mrs. Brown was five years older than her husband, tiny and a little hyper. She looked like a person who always knew how to put up a fine front to the world. When I opened the door, I could read both Mr. and Mrs. right away. Mr. Hamilton came out of the bedroom and joined us at the door. He asked them about the name of the flowers on their windowsill and the brand of the beer Mr. Brown had been drinking. When we conversed, he kept working on the stain on his T-shirt left by a chunk of sausage that morning. The Browns pretended they hadn't seen that.
I once asked Mr. Hamilton if he had ever seen ghosts. He said they were only a piece of floating cloth that could be whisked away and shaken with a sharp popping sound. At first I was so disappointed in the shallowness of his thoughts. But now I knew his answer was damn smart. He thought I was asking him about the ghosts of all the people he had killed, and he skillfully dodged my question. A haunting memory could be easily shaken free of rippling wrinkles, yellowed lints, and settled dust of the dead and the buried. Then our conscience would be smooth and clean.
There was another aspect to his vulnerability that I failed to mention, the disguise he used when alone with me: He enjoyed watching cheap romance movies. The night following the Browns' visit, we watched one in which a man begged a woman to marry him in a restaurant but she turned him down. But he kept begging. Then he said he needed to take a leak, and left. She wanted to say something, wanted to explain why it would never work out, but he had left, then she asked herself aloud if she still wanted to say no when he came back. She didn't know the answer until he came back. She said to him, You're such an idiot. He was about to cry, which made the woman despise him more. Hamilton threw his arms in the air and laughed. How silly he was! I had to keep reminding myself of the other layer underneath his skin, the more dangerous one, to enjoy the movie and his company.
I did think about divorcing my husband, both before and after I found out about his second profession, but for different reasons entirely. We met at a party at my friend's place. That was the first party I attended since I moved to that city. I didn't know many people there, nor did he. I went outside to get some fresh air and saw him smoking a cigar behind a giant green plant in the backyard. It was getting dark but there was still enough natural light for me to discern the shape of everything. What a beautiful moment! He looked almost regal. His cigar had a strange grassy smell sharpened by pine sap. His shadow slightly trembled in the changing light, the way a single droplet did before it gathered weight and fell from the spigot. Five months later, we got married, but I soon realized that I was only attracted to the Hamilton of cigar moments. The rest of time he was as vulnerable as a waterdrop landed on our cracked countertop, either sucked into a crevice or smeared on a wiping cloth.
The sharp contrast between these two Hamiltons inspired me to uncover his real identity. I didn't realize how enchanted I was by the reality of my husband being a professional killer until I witnessed how he interacted with Mr. Brown. (I looked at my husband's reddening ear, thinking he looked so dangerous and attractive when he was approaching his prey.) But I couldn't allow him to jeopardize his life by being caught by police or killed by his targets. I wanted him to be stuck where he was now—always in a state of conspiring, planning his next move but unable to move forward, as if smoking an expensive cigar that would never burn to ash.
So a week after their visit, I stopped Mr. Brown at his doorstep one evening, to borrow his corkscrew; he told me he'd just gotten in from work and had to cook dinner himself that night since his wife was out of town to visit some girlfriends. I kissed him for the first time after he invited me in, and he said it might take a while to find the corkscrew. His lips were dry and stiff but standing in his big shadow felt like standing in a pool of water. I asked him if I was pretty enough to sleep with him. He hesitated and said yes. His answer saved his life. My husband, Mr. Hamilton, could never lay his hand on him now, since Mr. Brown had become my lover; if he died, people would suspect that my husband did it. I created a trail of evidence back to him, even before the murder was committed. But I knew my husband could not give up on his target, for the sake of his career and reputation. That's the spirit.
Later that evening, when I came home, Mr. Hamilton asked me where I had been, I said I went to invite Browns over for a party. They seem to be such wonderful people, he said. Yes, indeed, I said. Let's throw a big party this weekend, I said. Great, I'd love to help, Mr. Hamilton grinned. The prospect of being close to his target filled his face with good cheer and life. You know, he added, I was actually thinking today that we should throw a party to get to know the neighbors, and here you've already started the invitations. Isn't it wonderful, I said, that we always share the same ideas, the same thoughts? Mr. Hamilton looked a little surprised but kept grinning. I continued, We're more than husband and wife. We're soul mates, we're kindred spirits. You're the only person in the world who can understand me, and I am the same to you. I walked closer to him for a hug. Mr. Hamilton circled my shoulder blades with his arms hesitantly. I hugged him tightly, and he hugged back. We hugged for a long time. Such a wonderful hug that it almost felt like we could live happily ever after.