Reviews, Writing

Breaking Down “The Last Time”

02.20.08 | Comment?

Last week, as part of the Valentine’s Day mystery story project – they may as well have called it “Love and Death” – I published a story here on the site, called “The Last Time“. It’s actually a sequel to another short I posted here, called “Alice“.

Since it’s short, I thought I’d run through “The Last Time” paragraph by paragraph and give you an idea of what I was trying to do. Go read the story and then read this.

I walked off the construction site when I got the call. I couldn’t go back there now, but that’s okay. I’ve been fired before.

The narrator, a construction worker (let’s call him Steve), gets a call. It’s important enough for him to quit his job, but he doesn’t seem to think it’s life and death (“…but that’s okay.”).

Four years without a word, then this. It was nice to know that she still thought of me when she had a mess that needed cleaning.

The call was from a woman who he hadn’t heard from in a long time. Steve is not particularly happy to hear from her, but he feels an obligation to go take care of whatever mess she’s in. And it’s not the first time he’s had to do this (“…she still thought of me…”).

As I climbed the four flights of stairs I promised myself this was the last time I would help her. Then I told myself it was the last time I’d make that promise.

Here I set the scene a little bit. It’s an apartment building, and not especially swank – there’s no elevator. Steve tries to convince himself that any responsibility he feels towards the woman has been discharged, but even he isn’t convinced, because this isn’t the first time he said it would be the last time.

I didn’t knock, just opened the door. She sat on the couch opposite, staring at nothing. As I stepped into the room I noticed the smell, the scent of fire and smoke hanging in the air, like the Fourth of July when I was a kid. But this wasn’t firecrackers.

He barges in, and the woman, Alice, is sitting there sort of withdrawn. And, of course, someone’s been shooting off a gun.

Then I saw the man’s body to the left, by the TV.

More than a typical mess.

I hadn’t been a cop in years but I knew what happened inside of ten seconds. Three shell casings just inside a doorway on the right. Three red holes in the man’s chest. One casing next to the body. One bullet wound in the head.

The crime scene shows that this was murder, not self defense. Three shots put the man down, and a fourth finished him off. Plus, I’m hoping to suggest that the police force was one of the jobs Steve walked away from for Alice.

The gun, an automatic, probably a .32 or .380, lay on the coffee table. Alice didn’t look at it. There were no tears. She was beyond that now.

Alice had played on Steve’s emotions for years, getting him to do her dirty work. But there’s no way to portray herself as the victim here, no point in crying about killing a man.

It was easy to see the girl I’d loved, but she wasn’t that girl any longer. The makeup was thick upon her face but couldn’t hide the lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Her hair was no longer blonde, but yellow, a color Mother Nature had never intended. The roses on her cheap print dress had faded.

Alice is older, and the worse for wear, and whatever feelings were between them have grown shopworn as well.

She stood up slowly and walked past me without a word, close enough to smell her perfume. I saw the plan. She goes, I stay.

No. She’d always asked a lot, more than she’d earned, but not this. She wasn’t worth my life. Maybe she never had been.

She wants Steve to take the fall, and for the first time he sees how far she’s willing to go to save herself.

I picked up the gun from the table and took careful aim. “Alice,” I said.

She didn’t turn around, just stopped in the doorway. I took a breath, held it, the sight picture steady on the back of her head. A moment passed and I exhaled.

He can’t pull the trigger. In spite of how she is, he can’t bring himself to kill her, not even when she wouldn’t hesitate to send him over to save herself.

Alice turned and started down the stairs. I listened to her footsteps as they grew fainter, finally punctuated by the slam of the front door.

I laid the gun on the table and sat down to wait for the police.

There’s nothing left to do but accept his fate.

In this story and in “Alice” I was trying to show a tragic, twisted relationship, between a woman who leaves a good man for a succession of bad ones, but always comes back when she needs help.

So why does Steve help her? I guess there’s a tendency to help those who are weak, who can’t look after themselves, even when they’re responsible for it. It’s tough to disown someone you love, even when they can’t stay straight.

There’s also some dark fatalism in this story, in the way Steve accepts being puninshed for a murder he didn’t commit. He doesn’t try to get away; he knows someone has to take the fall, and in the end he just can’t let it be Alice. Even though by this time there’s just memories of love.

As for the title, this is certainly the last time he’ll lend her a hand.

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