November 10th 2016: Overheard
With Love, Veronica
, by Ken Goldman

They told me the fish were cold and they felt no pain.


But they were not the fish who told me. 

                                                       – Anonymous

 

I am, as you can see, an ugly man…

… not deformed, but certainly freakish in the Grand Guignol sense of the word, the make-no-mistake-about-it sense, and long past the point of fooling myself into believing I might hope for a normal life living among those who are not themselves social lepers. The school yard taunts are behind me now, but I have little doubt there are those who call me hideous behind my back.

Does my candor surprise you? It shouldn’t. I don’t pretend not to see the disgust on the faces of others and how people nervously avoid me. Impossible not to notice. There are none so blind as those who will not see. Isn’t that what they always say, Dr. Antonelli?

I admit this without anger despite the unfairness of my circumstance, and I don’t tell you my story to elicit your pity. I accept my ugliness and I want you aware of it before I go on. Knowing this will explain a lot about Veronica. At least, that’s my hope.

It will certainly explain why growing up in Portland offered me little refuge from my daily agonies. There are few places in this New England seaport for a child to hide a face like mine, and I spent my boyhood wandering the hilly streets of the harbor district fully understanding how Quasimodo must have felt returning from his bell tower.

I found no sympathy walking these streets, and as a grown man never saw any desire in women’s eyes beyond the desire to leave my presence. Their revulsion was similar to someone who has seen a bloated and filthy rat slither from a kitchen after they have eaten a particularly hearty meal.

Of course, I now understand the perfect logic of their reaction. The hatred of ugliness is, after all, the prejudice that never dies. Regardless of the culture or the enlightenment of an age, the truly hideous seem not to belong, as if features like mine are a kind of outrage. I’ve learned to recognize the double-take that confirms something about me is not quite right, then the abrupt turning away. It’s the same gag reflex of one who has bitten into what at first appears a perfectly good winesap apple only to discover that his mouth has gorged with blood.

But as I’ve told you, I accept these judgments, having no choice in the matter. I admit to remorse and some resentment, but there’s no real anger. I experience my own revulsion whenever I catch an accidental glimpse of myself in a mirror.

 

 

My mother? Why is it you couch surgeons always link a man’s sexual wiring with dear old Mom?

Okay, it was like this …

Have you ever seen a face so ugly only a mother could love it?

You’re looking at one…

 

I always suspected my father’s leaving had something to do with me. While the man was never handsome by any stretch of the imagination, I’m certain his refusal to marry my mother wasn’t an entirely irrational choice. One glance at her explained why. Before I grew old enough to gurgle ‘Da-da’ the man had already packed his bags.

Mother knew his reasons for walking. What the woman lacked in appeal, she made up for in frankness, often explaining, “Ambrose, some were never meant to be beautiful. Those whose beauty lies within learn to expect nothing from this world.” She had assumed her words offered comfort or, failing that, consolation. Of course, they offered neither. From others I received the kindness a mackerel might expect from the fisherman about to club it. Just the same, I learned my lesson well. I saw how far Mother’s inner beauty had taken her.

The poor woman couldn’t see that I was no more beautiful on the inside than I was externally. Not talented nor artistic, I lacked even rudimentary social skills that might have coaxed others to venture closer.

 

 

And do I appall you, Dr. Antonelli?

Maybe you’re asking yourself if I appalled the girl in the photo you’re holding, this beautiful young woman posing on the rocks?

But we can’t really ask her, can we?

 

 

Mother’s death left me with a meager inheritance. I found a room inside a boarding house in Diamond Vespers, a small town hidden deep within the wooded interior of Maine that, like myself, had secluded itself from the world outside. I worried where I might find employment in such a remote outpost, knowing that any person I met would curse the encounter, swearing never to set foot anywhere near my workplace again.

The task proved less difficult than I’d feared. There’s always a dark and remote alcove somewhere for persons like me to cloister themselves, a hidden cache that enables others to get on with their lives feeling no guilt. Coworkers stepped lightly around my station in the mail sorting room as if Ambrose Woodhouse were some kind of secret, an abhorrent mushroom growing in the dark. They exchanged the minimal requisite niceties and quickly moved on.

How ya doin’, Ambrose? Okay? That’s good …”

I didn’t mind. If I were to be the local bogeyman, better I appear invisible than grotesque. What would a therapist call my reaction? Withdrawal? A defense mechanism to conceal a massive inferiority complex? Yes, that sounds about right…

So the mail sorting room position worked out well for all concerned. It seemed oddly appropriate that my postal consignment at the local branch was inside the place where all undeliverable local mail winds up, called the ‘D.O.A. letter’ office to those on the inside, a dusty chamber dimly lit by several 75-watt bulbs hanging from filthy strings, where my only companions were the huge mail sacks that had no other destination but myself.

In the sorting station inside the Diamond Vespers postal branch they have these new rapid fire systems that automatically sort mail going to the adjoining counties, using high-speed optical scanners reading bar codes and machine-printed addresses, binging and purging on third class envelopes by the hundreds. But with damaged or illegibly printed addresses those fancy machines can’t always scan as they’re meant to, and discarded letters that have made it as far as our county eventually find their way to the sacks of undeliverable mail, and to me. My job is to determine what the machines can’t. I’m the mail’s last hope of deliverability, the last human component before the mail man; that is, I try to figure out where these ‘dead-on-arrival’ letters are meant to go even if it means I have to open the damned things myself, although I’m not supposed to tell anybody about that.

The woman had written an address on a 9 x 12 manila folder that proved all but unintelligible for man or machine. Only the words “Vespers” and “Maine” were legible, and not very. It appeared she had probably mailed the folder during a rainstorm because the ink had run in thick rivulets to the bottom edges of the envelope.

Don’t say you heard it from me, but once a mailer finds itself in our D.O.A. office all bets are off regarding the privacy of its contents. The logic is, of course, that there might be some indication of its destination, or at least a return address inside. More often than not it’s a kid writing to Santa in July or some fool addressing his memorandum to a town or street that exists nowhere on the map. Undeliverable letters are sometimes good for a laugh during a lunch break, but not usually for much else.

Veronica’s letter was different.

It contained the 8 x 10 photograph you’re holding, Doctor, clearly not intended for a stranger’s eyes. That beautiful and shapely young woman, that’s Veronica reclining comfortably upon those ocean soaked rocks – a jetty or promontory of some sort – as if she were a sea nymph posing for a renaissance painting. Whether the waves behind her are crashing to shore in Scarborough or the French Riviera, I couldn’t tell you. Their inclusion in that photograph always seemed extraneous to me because, as you can see, Veronica is completely nude basking upon those rocks.

Go ahead, Doctor. Take a long look at her smiling, relaxing while a brisk wind musses hair black as onyx, beads of sea water glistening on perfect breasts burnt gold by the sun. I know you’re feeling what I felt when I first saw her.

I never learned who took this snapshot. I didn’t want to know. Maybe you’re thinking it was the same guy whose name and address dripped down that manila folder, the intended recipient of Veronica’s gift package. Yes, that was my first thought, and it might have made perfect sense excepting one small detail …

Paperclipped to the photograph she had attached a small and delicate sheet of perfume scented pink stationery, its texture so rose petal-like I wondered how anyone could have written a sentence on material so thin without tearing it to shreds. I had to rub my eyes to convince myself the words really were there. I can still smell that stationery as if it were in my hands right now …

 

Dear Ambrose,

 

Just my way of showing that I hope we can get to know each other much better.

With Love, 
                                             Veronica

Dear Ambrose …

 

The truth took a moment to fully register.

She had intended that photograph for me all along! I was the only person stationed in the small ‘D.O.A.’ office. Although the smudged handwriting on the envelope – illegible as it appeared – bore no likeness to my name or address, the coincidence factor was too great to consider any other possibility. Ambrose isn’t exactly a household name, is it?

I shoved the folder into my jacket, fully aware the action might cost me my job – and maybe a whole lot more – if anyone saw me. The envelope didn’t contain my address, and there are federal laws to warn postal employees about that sort of thing. But I’m no fool either. Women never go out of their way to meet me. Especially beautiful women who aren’t vision impaired.

She wrote no home address on the folder, but on her stationery she had placed a post office box, 111-B located somewhere in Boston. I seriously considered tracking the location down. But then what? Could I stake out Veronica’s box in the hopes of catching a glimpse of her? Not likely I’d pull off that trick unnoticed. People remember me whether they care to or not. I didn’t feel very much like justifying my mailbox curiosity to strangers.

I considered doing nothing, writing off the entire incident as a probable trick played by some hardhearted jokester. Perhaps Maurice with the greasy hair? Or maybe Jake who works the front counter, always sneering when he thinks I don’t see? I tried erasing from my brain the pink stationery and its accompanying photograph. But the image of the woman prone on those rocks wouldn’t fade, nor would her words …

‘Dear Ambrose …’

Suppose she was for real …just suppose…

After days spent considering my alternatives I chose the most direct course. I won’t deny my hand trembled the whole time I wrote back to her.

Veronica,

 

Thank you for the photograph. I’m hoping we can get to know each other much better too. 

                                                                               Ambrose

 

It took all of my courage to mail that letter.

It took the last of it to endure the pain that followed.

For weeks there was nothing. Day after day I emptied the thick sacks arriving at my station, covering the floor with envelopes and folders of every possible size and description, hoping to find the one purposely ink-smeared address that proved a companion to the first.

Nothing…

I’m no stranger to pranks, Doctor. I imagined the likely scenario. Some contemptible fellow employee, bored with his routine, had gone to great lengths to humiliate me. Maybe he had discovered the woman’s alluring photograph somewhere. Perhaps he had gone so far as to persuade a girlfriend to hop on those rocks and remove her string bikini. Together maybe a dozen coworkers had rechristened the woman in the photo ‘Veronica,’ and I pictured them convulsed with laughter at the way I so easily took the bait.

Are you laughing yourself sick, Maurice?

Enjoying this, are you, Jake?

As more agonizing weeks passed my hopes faded that somehow another communication from Veronica might yet find its way to my station.

It never happened.

I waited for the inevitable smirking question from someone, from everyone.

“So, Ambrose, receive any interesting letters lately?”

“You up for a day at the beach, Ambrose, old pal?”

But that never happened either.

Clearly my tormentors preferred anonymity. I expected the punchline would arrive with a late night telephone call. I limited my phone use to weekly communications with farmers’ markets for the delivery of groceries and shared a party line with my landlady, an old crone named Sarah Barnes, one of the town’s widows whose social security checks needed some stretching. Such was the extent of my Diamond Vespers telephone communications.

 

…until one midnight after I had given up all hope of ever hearing from her again …

 

…a shrill ring jolted me from my sleep.

“Ambrose?”

Her voice was impossibly soft, practically childlike.

“Who …? What time is –?”

“Did you really like my photograph, Ambrose?”

I shook myself awake.

“Who is–?”

I didn’t have to ask.

“You know who I am, Ambrose. So, did you like my photograph?”

Not a joke … please, not a joke …

“Are you really … who you say you are?”

“I am exactly who I say I am. But the photograph? You liked it?”

“Yes.”

A hesitant schoolgirl giggle …

“How much did you like it, Ambrose?”

“Very much. I liked it very much …”

“Would you say you loved it?”

“Yes. Yes. I loved it. But why did you route it with the undeliverable letters? Why didn’t you just send it to me here? How did you know I would read your note?”

“You did read it, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you enjoyed my photograph? Loved it? More because you knew you shouldn’t be looking at it?”

“Yes…”

“Then you have your answer, Ambrose.”

I knew she was toying with me and savoring her enjoyment. For a moment I heard only the woman’s light breathing. Then …

“You would like to see more, wouldn’t you?”

I found it suddenly difficult to speak. “This is a joke, right? Goddamn you, if this is a joke…”

“No joke, Ambrose. No joke. But you didn’t answer my question.”

“Yes. I would like to see more. I would love to see more.”

“Perhaps to do more than see? Perhaps to touch …?”

“Yes. Yes…”

“Let me hear you say my name, Ambrose.”

“Veronica…Veronica… ! ”

Another giggle.

“That’s good. That’s very good. Now, are you listening? Are you listening very closely? Because there is something I want to tell you. Something very, very important …”

The words spilled from me in a rush as if independent of my will.

“Yes, I’m listening. Yes.”

The faintest of whispers, an exhalation as if Veronica breathed her words. Impossible words – unthinkable and absurd – meant for the ears of anyone but me.

“I want you, Ambrose. I want you now …”

 

 

…and I wanted her too, Doctor. I wanted her more than I ever wanted any woman.

Because in that single moment I really believed…

 

…that Veronica had killed the twisted gargoyle living for so long inside me. The moment she arrived at my door I believed I could never revert to the deplorable creature I’d been all my life, that my appearance no longer mattered. Not so long as I had her.

I was wrong.

A woman like her…a man like me…

Don’t you see? Beauty may only be skin deep, but ugliness …? Well, you know the old saying…

The grotesque creature with my face remained for the world to see. During our few weeks together I prayed no one would discover us in the dismal spots we frequented, that I might find some refuge from the meddlesome interference of others if only in my own room.

That proved impossible. In Diamond Vespers the walls have ears, and they have eyes. People see. People always see …

…and people talk…

“I’ll bet your companion cost you a piece of change, eh, Ambrose?”

“Hey, Ambrose, you finally find a woman who won’t puke her dinner into your face?”

Of course, Veronica pretended not to hear the ridicule, not to see the sneers. But they were there, all right. They were there.

None so blind as those who will not see …

“Make them all invisible, Ambrose,” she tried to convince me. “See only me. There are no others while I’m with you.”

But I couldn’t make them invisible, Doctor. Worse, I saw the flaws in Veronica as clearly as I saw my own – – even while pretending not to see them.

Tunnel vision, isn’t that what you head examiners call it? One sees only what he chooses even with the truth glaring him in the face? Yes, I saw the prostitute whom I paid to perform her masquerade, reimbursed to say and do anything – no matter how detestable – just to pocket another dollar from her trusting john. It’s the oldest cliche´ in the book, the whore with the heart of gold.

Just a nickel a dance, boys…a nickel a dance and I’m yours.

I think I need a glass of water, please…

Don’t misunderstand. Time spent with Veronica remained precious. I convinced myself that I didn’t give a sweet damn about how much I’d paid for her company. And that wasn’t all I’d paid for, either. I bought her things – jewelry, clothes – all the while enduring Veronica’s other men, strangers who were probably as wretched as myself. Knowing nothing of them, for months I almost managed to convince myself they didn’t exist.

Almost.

I would have gladly lavished my fortune on the woman, had I possessed one. Of course, Veronica saw to it that I exhausted what little I did have from my mother’s estate. Oh yes, she was good, she was very good…

…but she wasn’t very smart, Doctor. She wasn’t very smart at all…

Near Halibut Point the air at sunset feels crisp enough in October to sting. The sudden gusts churning off the Atlantic felt brutal last Sunday, and watching the distant whitecaps I knew a storm was approaching off the Massachusetts coast. On a jagged abutment Veronica held me close, braced against the sharp wind squalls, thick tufts of that raven hair doing a brisk polka beneath her scarf as the waves crashed far below.

“What’s wrong, Ambrose? You’ve hardly said a word.”

I felt like a cancer had grown inside me. I couldn’t look at her, but somehow I found the strength to speak.

“Was it on rocks like these you took that photograph, the one you sent to me? Whose idea was it to show your tits that day, Veronica? Maybe the guy who took your picture?”

My words struck her harder than the sharp slaps of wind.

“I never lied to you, Ambrose. You know what I am. You’ve always known.”

Inside hot bubbles of anger roiled and I pulled the woman hard against me.

“Do you want to know what happened inside our postal office yesterday, Veronica? Would you like to hear about my conversation with my good pals Jake and Maurice? Would you?”

“Ambrose, I never meant to hurt you. I thought you understood –”

The rain started that same moment, thick dollops of it pelting our faces. But I didn’t budge from our spot on those jutting rocks, and together we stood as if paralyzed – afraid to move – in the soaking torrent.

I reached into my slicker for the two manila folders. I didn’t have to explain their contents.

“One addressed to Jake, the other to Maurice. The photos are the same, showing you bare-assed to the wind. Of course, you mailed your pink promotional ad to their home addresses this time. No need to play head games when you’re soliciting guys whose deliveries don’t have to pass the inspection of some shriveled landlady with her nose in everyone’s business. Do I have it right so far?”

“Ambrose, you don’t under-”

“Don’t I?” I shook her, crushing the two folders in my palms. “Tell me, do you as a rule follow guys like me as your homework assignment, knowing the easy marks we are? Is that how it’s done, your little scam?”

I held the folders out for her, but their addresses had become smeared in the rain. They were completely unreadable.

“I swear to you, Ambrose! I never –”

“You know what those guys said, Veronica? Their exact words when they cornered me inside the office? Maurice, he starts off like he’s mimicking an insipid love song. ‘Ver-on-i-kah . .Ver-on-i-kah . .’ he’s chortling at me like he’s come up with this brilliant comedy bit. The man just tears a gut until I’m thinking he’s going to woof a lung right there on the floor. Then Jake passes me your photo just as serious as he’s able to pull off, and I’m thinking these two are working in tandem and that Jake’s handing me this letter telling me I’m fired because of you. And all the time he’s looking like any second he might howl like a goddamned wolf.

“But, no, what he hands me is this…

“Recognize the pink paper? Two identical letters addressed to each of them, Veronica, identical to the one you sent me! And Jake, he says to me, ‘Ambrose, don’t you be gettin’ this photo all sticky, now. ‘Least not ‘til quittin’ time. Maurice and me, we gon’ to write to this post office box in Boston, and maybe we’ll even tell your little cooz pot here that you sent us.’

“Jake is right, isn’t he? That’s just what you are! A goddamned cooz pot, just like the man says…!”

 

 

There I was, Doctor, screaming at that woman even while the tears ran down my face.

Right on cue the thunder started, and the world cracked in half. Thick bolts of lightning spiked the coastline as if the sky were pissed off too.

I couldn’t stop myself. Veronica struggled, but I just couldn’t stop myself.

Damn her, Doctor! Damn her!

She begged me to let her explain, said I was hurting her. But I wanted to hurt her, I wanted to hurt her the way she’d hurt me. And so I shook her, I shook her so hard on those rocks with the waves crashing below and the thunder so loud inside my head I couldn’t hear myself think …

…so loud I couldn’t hear Veronica scream when she slipped from my grasp. The rain made the rocks so slick, Doctor. And she just lost her footing, just toppled over the edge before I could grab her, then plunged from the bluff to the waves below.

She tumbled in the wind like a kid’s discarded rag doll. I watched her thump against the sharp rocks, saw her head smash open like an egg shell. Seconds later the surf just rolled her over, swallowing what remained.

Then she was gone.

I’m sorry, Veronica…so sorry…

But I didn’t push her, Dr. Antonelli. She slipped. I swear to God I didn’t push her… 



                                                                                                                                                             ***

 

 

Dr. Morton Antonelli hit the STOP button of his Sony, snapping into silence the desperate recorded pleas of his patient.

“Poor bastard,” the therapist muttered. This guy the police had brought in had himself one mother of an identity crisis. When no one was around to drop kick his ego Ambrose Woodhouse found a pretty effective way to do it himself.

He poured himself a fresh cup of coffee, gazing at the Atlantic just outside his window, then turned his attention to the photograph Woodhouse had handed him of the nude woman reclining like a siren on the rocks. The woman in that 8 x 10 was indeed beautiful. But she was probably not worth confessing to the police for having killed, as Ambrose had done.

“Poor pathetic bastard,” the therapist muttered again, rereading the brief letter Veronica supposedly had scribbled concerning her hopes of getting to know the message’s recipient better.

Antonelli jotted down more notes.

Ambrose Woodhouse wants so desperately to feel loved he insists the letter sent on the pink stationery bears his name. He sees his name there because he wants to see it there, just as he wants to see his relationship with Veronica as real.

Antonelli again searched the contents of the large catalogue envelope with the smeared address, but Ambrose’s name appeared nowhere inside. Why should it? No one had sent that letter to Ambrose Woodhouse. The salutation on the pink paper read only “Dear Sir” and explained how the woman hoped they could get to know each other better, blah, blah, and blah. The photograph was a nice touch, of course, although Ambrose chose to disregard the elaborate brochure that came with it. At least until he had filled out the form and sent the cash.

No doubt Ambrose Woodhouse was completely delusional and had imagined seeing his name on that flimsy pink tissue paper, all right. And that wasn’t the only thing the pathetic guy had imagined.

But the body washed ashore yesterday at Halibut Point, that was real.

In a manner of speaking, at least…

Christ, was there anyone in Diamond Vespers who didn’t know about Ambrose Woodhouse and his woman? The secrets those little towns always kept under the floor boards…

Poor, ugly bastard…

The Doctor examined the frilly pink stationery, so impossibly delicate that Woodhouse had wondered aloud how the woman could have written anything on it. That answer was deceptively simple to anyone not into self-delusion.

No one had written on it. The damned thing was mass produced.

The old woman named Sarah Barnes who shared Woodhouse’s party line had cleared up the tangled mess of the whole lurid affair. Antonelli jotted into his notes how the old lady had heard Ambrose talking on the phone late one night, speaking in some freakish woman’s voice as well as his own. Luckily, the guy wasn’t very good at playing the two roles, at least not convincingly enough to fool the widow who listened in on her tenant’s complete conversation. Old Sarah had retained enough of her faculties to reconstruct the entire exchange. The conversation between Veronica and Ambrose had gone just as Woodhouse had said almost word for word.

“Did you really like my photograph, Ambrose?”

“You would like to see more, wouldn’t you?”

“Fucking incredible,” the therapist muttered. He studied the colorful and tantalizing brochure marketed out through the mail by some anonymous entrepreneur operating out of a private postal box in Boston.

Probably fucking illegal too, the doctor, thought. After all, there were federal postal laws. Which was too bad.

Because the woman in that photograph was every bit as magnificent as Ambrose Woodhouse had claimed. And for a mere $3000 sent to Luv-Mate Inc., c/o P.O. Box 111-B in Boston, Doctor Morton Antonelli might have seriously considered buying the incredibly lifelike love doll named Veronica for himself.

*

American writer, Ken Goldman,  has homes on the Main Line in Pennsylvania and at the South Jersey shore depending upon the track of the sun and his need for a tan. He is a former English and Film Studies teacher (Horror and Science Fiction in Film and Literature) at George Washington High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An affiliate member of the Horror Writers Association, since 1993 he has published over 780 stories, including  five books. His stories have received seven honorary mentions in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror. His first full novel, OF A FEATHER, was published in January 2014 by Horrific Tales Publications.  Thus far, true fame has eluded Ken, but he continues to pursue the little bugger.

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