Item Ten

Katherine Gustafson

In the thrum of the metro train, the metal handrail greasy in her palm, Shelby identified her next victim. He was the thin, intense type that she associated with philosophy departments and earnest grassroots activism. He was reading a paperback book through black-rimmed glasses, tapping a line here and there with an emphatic finger. “Item one,” she thought, “attractive.”  Though unfortunate that he looked a bit too much like Clark. 

He gave the impression of being single, since he seemed young and urban, the type to follow local bands and go to jazz clubs. But when he turned the page, she saw silver flash in the fluorescent lights. She stared at the ring from across the train car, swaying in front of a poster advertising a hospital, twin babies from the maternity ward smiling over each of her shoulders. “Item two,” she told herself, “married.” This made item one doubly true, and Shelby raised an eyebrow.

Item three was that they were both in a crowded train car. This would present a particular challenge. She had met all the others in bars or at parties, where they had likely come looking for something forbidden anyway. Working her craft in a train car would be stepping it up a notch, testing her abilities. On second thought, it was perfect that he looked like Clark. “Item four,” she said under her breath, “Clark is an asshole.”

The train rocked steadily, lulling people to sleep. A few riders ruffled newspapers, perusing the sports scores. No one spoke. She was thrilled with the danger of it. Women did not pick up men in the metro. Most of all, they did not pick up married men who were on their way home from work, shuttling toward young wives with gourmet meals bubbling on the stove. 

Shelby shifted nonchalantly to the other side of the car and stared at the guy, running her eyes up and down his limbs. She noticed that he had impeccably clean fingernails, better cared for than her own. A smattering of blonde beard stubbled his cheeks. He did not seem to notice her staring.

When the woman next to him lumbered out at the next stop, Shelby slipped into the vacated seat deftly, letting her thigh brush against his. Glancing vaguely toward her, he slid slightly to the right to make room and went back to his book. She pulled her pack of Juicy Fruit out of her bag and folded a piece into her mouth. “Item five: employ the power of sugar.” It was an age-old tactic. The sickly sweet smell welled up around them. He sniffed and adjusted his glasses.

“Excuse me,” she said quietly, leaning so their shoulders touched. He looked up at her distractedly, his eyebrows drawing together in concern. “Would you like some gum?” She gave him her best seductress smile, made her eyes caress his skin. It was what Clark had called her Jean Harlow expression. (“Did you know,” he once said, sucking on his cigarette, pressing his head back on the pillow, “that her original name was Harlean Carpenter, and that she kept six ducks as pets?”)

The guy looked at her for a moment in confusion.

“No thanks,” he finally said, turning up the corners of his mouth in a polite half-smile. Leaning away from her, he brought his book up to his face.

She used Juicy Fruit because it was her father’s favorite gum, and the smell of it made her feel slightly like vomiting, which somehow seemed the proper way for her to feel in life. The smell made her remember her father’s hot breath on her cheek when he came into her room at night when she was young. It made her remember the drives into the countryside on Sundays, when her mother was busy making dinner, alone with him, his right hand reaching over from the driver’s seat, his mouth chewing and snapping Juicy Fruit. The horror of these moments was hidden in the gum, still punched her in the gut every time she took a piece out of its wrapper. She hated the feeling but she chewed the gum because she somehow needed to keep feeling it. 

“You’re very cute, you know?” she whispered to the guy, a quick sentence slipped under the rumble of the train. Item six: be direct. He turned to her sharply, startled. 

“Thanks, I guess,” he said, looking not at her face but at her hands clutching the purse on her lap.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt your reading.”

He looked at her face for a moment and she smiled at him, a genuine smile, endearing, displaying her dimple. For just a second, he looked disarmed. 

“Sure you wouldn’t like some?” she said, holding out the pack again. Shelby crossed her legs so he could see the outlines of her lean thighs under her slim work skirt. It was what Clark had called her wham-bam figure that got them every time. The man’s eyes quickly slid along the curve of her thigh to her knee. His eyebrows rose slightly. 

“No. No thanks.” His voice quavered. He closed his eyes for a second and deliberately brought the hand with the ring on it up to his face to scratch his cheek. His eyebrows creased together and his lips went tight. “Item seven,” she thought. “He wants what he can’t have. Boo hoo.” It was a long, delicious moment.

He opened his eyes and looked at the gum again. The train was rumbling toward her stop, the next, and she knew that her show of success deserved a grand finale. Opening the flap of the wrapper on a stick of gum, she scribbled her address in black pen. Pressing it into his hand as the train doors slid open, her lips brushed his ear as she said: “Come tonight, one a.m. No strings attached.” And she was gone, the crowd bearing her on its steady tide down along the platform and up from the dimness of the metro tunnels.

She never expected him to come. But at one in the morning, someone knocked. Peeping through the security lens, she could see him there, nervous, his spiking hair flatter than before. Shelby couldn’t decide whether to let him in. The other men she had lured from their wives were acquaintances or people she had at least conversed with several times. Never before had she successfully seduced a complete stranger. 

“Item nine,” she said aloud into the door. “Bull’s eye.”

It was exhilarating to feel the strength of her power over this pathetic creature on her doorstep. She imagined it was Clark, sneaking out on whatever-her-name-was, leaving her sleeping in the bed with her red curls tangled in knots, the ring tight as a clamp on her finger. The guy knocked again softly, and she could see his face distorted in the lens; his nose bulbous, his chin receding to a miniature body. She wondered if she should be afraid of him, this stranger at her house at night, but felt somehow that it was a laughable idea. He had, after all, come exactly at one o’clock, as he was instructed.

She opened the door and looked at him for a long moment. 

“Won’t your wife mind?” she said finally, tauntingly.

“For god’s sake!” he whispered angrily, and turned to retreat down the hall.

“I’m just teasing, of course. Everybody knows all men do it.” He stopped, his back towards her, his hands in fists by his sides.

“It’s just that she isn’t . . . she hasn’t . . . we aren’t . . . fuck.” He spun around and pushed past her into her place. Stopping by the sofa, he started frantically stripping off his coat and shirt.

“What’s your name then?” Shelby asked, weaving her fingers into his hair.

“Carl. You?”

“Denise. Nice to meet you.”

And then his hands were wildly at her breasts, were tearing at her nightshirt, were running down the length of her back and her thighs. She felt, as with the gum, a sudden feeling of nausea, punctuated by a barrage of remembered images that lashed her brain like whips.

“Hold it,” she said, just to make sure, and, thankfully, he held it, his face close to hers, his eyes shining in the moonlight from the window.

“I respect you,” he said in a desperate, pleading whisper, his hands trembling where they rested on her abdomen. Again Shelby felt a surge of satisfaction at the power she yielded, made him wait just a moment longer simply because she could.

“Good,” she finally said. And they tangled together breathlessly on the rug in the living room. 

Shelby was stunned by the intensity of her desire for him. She didn’t know if it was because he was the first who was a stranger. Or because he looked so much like Clark. The combination was wholly erotic. And on top of all else, it was a Wednesday, and the knowledge that she would have to get up in a matter of hours and put on her clothes for work made her inexplicably but desperately aroused.

Afterwards, he left just as quickly as he had come, depositing his condom in the trashcan and slipping on his pants rapidly, as if with the same motion. Before her breathing had even calmed, he was cramming on his shoes and slotting his arms back into the sleeves of his jacket.

“I told her I was going to the store for some Aspirin,” he said apologetically, and the reference to his wife sent a thrill of conquest down Shelby’s tired limbs. She had vanquished him. He had proved himself to be just as weak as she had suspected. The terrible weakness of men; it was a reliable calculus, which she was proving by the scientific method.

“See ya,” she said nonchalantly, waving as he looked back over his shoulder on his way out the door.

“Item ten,” Shelby whispered to herself as his footsteps echoed in the hall outside. “Take that, you bastard.”


Katherine Gustafson is a marketing writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Litro, Passages North, The Airgonaut, and The Amsterdam Quarterly, and she is the author of the book Change Comes to Dinner.