Mystery Woman [story] by Walter Cummins

Even through the thick doors Jerry Pohl could hear pounding music and whoops from inside the student center pub. His instinct was to turn and head back to the dorm, but Cheryl had said she would be there, a casual remark that he knew was an invitation. They had started talking in the hallway before their psychology course, and he really wanted to be with her. So Pohl dropped three singles on the tabletop and let a girl in a tank top stamp his wrist with a purple marker. For a moment he stared down at the illegible smear, imagining that it would never wash off, that he would have to wear it the rest of his life. Then he pulled back the door and smelled cheap beer, a throbbing bass vibrating the six-foot speakers beside the bar. Stepping inside, Pohl scanned the room for Cheryl in the crowd of dancers, stoned people wild with the music, jumping up and down, shouting to be heard over the din. If Cheryl were one of them, he’d leave, tell her he couldn’t make it the next time they met.

Instead of Cheryl, the first person Pohl noticed was Melody standing alone against a wall, fat and squat, pressing a transistor radio to her ear, swaying in a slow rhythm that had nothing to do with the music in the room. In the psych class she sat right in front of the instructor, constantly rattling on, first responding to the question and then—no matter what the subject—going off on some tangent about how she knew the secrets of space travel, how the faculty would soon be teaching courses about her. Initially, the instructor had been patient, letting her talk, but seeing the restlessness of the others, began to cut her off, eventually ignoring the hand she waved in his face. Pohl had watched students smirking and wondered what Cheryl thought but couldn’t bring himself to ask her, not even when Melody waddled right past them clutching a jumble of books and papers. He wished he had signed up for a different section, then realized he wouldn’t have known Cheryl.

If he hadn’t known about Melody, from the look of her now, eyes closed behind thick distorting glasses, moving to sounds no one else could hear, Pohl would have thought drugs, what he saw in the dorm almost every night. But the others all said it—very weird, very crazy.

To his surprise, Melody suddenly stepped into the midst of the dancers and began speaking as if delivering a lecture. Something about how in the future dancing would be psychic, how we wouldn’t need our bodies, how our brain waves would soar with planetary rhythms, just the way hers already could.

The dancers, male and female, closed in on her, trapping her in a tight circle, screwing fingertips into their temples, chanting her name, Melody, Melody. Creature from outer space. Hair tangled, horn-rimmed glasses hanging off one ear, mouth open soundlessly, she swiveled frantically in search of an escape.

Pohl was ready to turn away but felt the sensation of being watched. He looked over and saw Cheryl standing in the doorway staring at him. The second their eyes met, Pohl knew he had to act. For three years he had been anonymous on campus, wanted it that way. Now he forced his way into the crowd. That’s enough. It’s not funny. Leave her alone. He wrapped an arm around Melody’s shoulder and pulled her from the group. The dancers let them pass, laughing, hands slapping his back.

At first he was furious to be standing beside her in that room, the others all looking, certain he had made himself a joke, a source of mockery till graduation and beyond. Then Cheryl approached, smiling, touching his arm, her hand lingering. It’s over, she told Melody. They won’t bother you again. Pohl studied Cheryl’s expression, thinking how lovely she was, how sweet and soft. That’s what everyone was seeing—not Melody but Cheryl and her touch. No one would ever laugh at him again.

Let’s walk Melody back to the dorm, Cheryl suggested and Pohl nodded. Outside on the pathway Melody chattered excitedly, never once referring to what had just happened. Pohl didn’t pay attention. He was holding Cheryl’s hand, and all he could think of was the warmth.

*

Soon after that night Pohl began hearing that Melody was telling stories about him, how he was the nephew of Frederick Pohl, the science fiction writer, how his uncle wanted to publish her novels. Some friends started teasing him, calling him Melody’s soul mate. But he laughed it off, hugging Cheryl against him, letting them know what he really had.

Should I tell her, Pohl asked Cheryl, that it’s a totally different family?

What’s the harm in letting her believe?

He nodded and she kissed him.

Melody’s calls to his room began a day or two later, and they went on for years, long after graduation, following him wherever he moved.

*

Initially, when Pohl and Cheryl relocated halfway across the country to his first job, Melody had been hysterical when she called, always in tears, lamenting the misery of her life. How NASA never acknowledged the space ship designs she sent each week, thick packets of drawings and documentation. How people mistreated her, classmates, professors, her mean sister, her awful mother, always criticizing. I’m abused, she would wail. But there’ll be justice. Someday they’ll all be punished. She spoke of retribution, vindication, on and on, Pohl trying to interrupt, to end the conversation. I’ve got to go now. Cheryl needs something. Finally, Melody still blubbering, he would just set the receiver in its cradle and walk away.

It was her, Pohl would tell Cheryl. Yes, was all she would answer. He wanted to tell her how much the calls annoyed him, made him cringe every time the phone rang, but he couldn’t get the words out, sure that reaction would disappoint Cheryl.

*

As time passed, Melody’s mood changed. She stopped lamenting the way people treated her, rarely wept. Her calls became an urgent monologue, filled with great excitement about the most trivial of events—she was drawing with pastels again, someone had tacked one of an alien planet on her wall, somebody told her that her spaceship designs made more sense than NASA’s.

And Melody constantly referred back to their college years, the few times they had spoken in person, what she had announced in that psych class, telling Pohl to remember her predictions from years ago—destruction of the environment, financial collapse, massacres. He agreed—Yes, yes—though he recalled nothing, had barely listened through all her ramblings.

Over and over Melody repeated that the space agency didn’t know what it was doing. If only they had listened to her, accepted her drawings and specifications. She mocked the administrators as fools, idiots. He recalled the crude pencil sketches she had shown him in college, running after him in a corridor with her splay-footed waddle, trapping him into a corner. See? she would tell him, pointing to a squiggle, rattling on about vectors and trajectories. See? I’ve got the answer.

*

Melody began calling almost every evening, sometimes twice to add something she had forgotten to tell him. One summer night, the two of them tossing in the heat, Pohl finally asked Cheryl, What are we going to do about Melody? She didn’t answer for so long he thought she had fallen asleep. Then she said, Don’t you see how important you are to her? No one else ever did what you did for her.

Does that mean I’ve got her for life? What if I had just walked away that day?

Cheryl took his hand. But you’re not that kind of person. There’s something very kind about you. You’re a sensitive man.

She pressed her face against his shoulder, and Pohl remembered the moment, the look Cheryl had given him. He had done it for her, not Melody. She was the kind one, the sensitive one. It upset him that she assumed one rash act revealed who he was. And he understood Melody was the price of having Cheryl.

*

One lunch hour, Pohl entered a restaurant with a TV screen over the bar and learned the Challenger had exploded, shocked by the repeated pictures of the rocket vanishing in a great flash of light. All the time he kept thinking how Melody would call that evening, how he would have to listen to her go on and on about the disaster. He couldn’t swallow his food.

When he arrived home after work, Cheryl sat rigid, staring as the TV news repeated the same footage he had seen at noon. But she had the sound off. The screen switched from the blast to shots of the astronauts in their flight suits on their way to the space capsule, waving and smiling at the camera. Cheryl had tears in her eyes, and Pohl leaned over her to massage her neck as she sniffled back her weeping “Those poor people.” Pohl wanted to hug her, wrap arms around her, but the phone rang.

Bastards! Melody cursed when he lifted the receiver, NASA bastards! Then she began speaking in a whisper. Can you keep a secret? Her voice pleaded.

Of course, he told her.

You have to promise not to say a word. Nobody else can know.

He sighed. All right.

I’m the Mystery Woman.

What?

The Mystery Woman of the Challenger.

Yes? Pohl waited in bewilderment, expecting more.

You must know. Her voice was trembling. Everybody talks about her.

He hesitated, looking across the room to Cheryl. Had there been something on the news?

That’s me. She spoke triumphantly. Then she paused for his reaction.

Go on, he finally said. He tried to make sense out of what she was explaining, listening much more carefully than he did to her other calls. She told about a presence in the retrieved capsule, an aura that baffled the investigators, the clear indication that someone else had been there with the other astronauts. Me! Melody gave one of her sputtering laughs. Not my body. My spirit. The others wanted me with them so much. I was so close to all of them. Their families have been telepathing me. They want to know everything, how they reacted till the last second.

How did they? he asked, wanting this to stop.

Like heroes. They were all heroes. As much as I tried, I couldn’t save them.

All Pohl could see was the picture of that exploding space ship, imagining a pain so vivid he had to sink to the floor, covered with a chill sweat. While Melody went on he dropped the phone, kicked it across the floor. No more! No more! He heard himself shouting. People were blown apart, and all she can think about is her mystery woman madness.

She can’t help it, Cheryl said.

How long do we have to put up with this?

It would be cruel to stop. Cheryl had tears in her eyes. She’s part of our lives.

*

In bed that night, and many nights after, staring up at the ceiling, Pohl rehearsed the conversation he wanted to have with Cheryl: It’s important that I explain. What I did back then I did only to impress you, because you wanted me to. If you hadn’t been there, I probably would have been like the others. When I looked at Melody, I saw a freak. People like Melody make me cringe. Since that day I’ve pretended to be something I’m not. Because that’s who you think I am. Melody is a trap. If I admit what I really feel, I’m afraid you might hate me. I’m afraid our marriage is based on a fraud.

But he couldn’t find the courage to speak the words.

One evening after a call from Melody he finally tried, calling her aside and saying, “I have to tell you something.” It was as if she knew, her head already shaking in denial, her eyes welling with tears. Although he said nothing, at that moment Pohl realized their marriage would end. Stunned, he walked out into the yard and sat in darkness gazing up at the stars.

*

A week after Pohl moved to an apartment, he answered the phone and heard Melody’s voice. Before he could react, she blurted, Why did you do it?

How did you get this number? He demanded.

Cheryl. I told her I would bring you to your senses. Melody’s let out a wail, sudden, genuine. She loved you so much. She was perfect for you.

Things weren’t working out for us.

You’ve made a terrible mistake. Now she spoke in the tone of her auguries, grave, absolute. You’ll always be sorry.

It’s better this way, he said.

You two will always belong together.

Never, Pohl wanted to tell her, but just hung up.

*

When the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated over Texas on a Saturday morning, Pohl was married to Lindsay. After sleeping late, he wandered into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and clicked the remote for the countertop TV. For a moment, he thought he was seeing old footage, then listened to the announcer and understood. Shit, he said, aloud, though he was alone in the room. His first thought was terrorism, and his second that the phone would be ringing with Melody at the other end, frantic, her voice shrill and breathless: See! Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you? NASA doesn’t know what it’s doing. Didn’t I tell you when we were in college? And once he would have nodded, muttered, Yes, yes, and let her go on. But now, this day, he wouldn’t have to listen to her.

Pohl stared at the screen for several minutes, the trail of vapor, the stop-action shot of sudden fragmentation, the superimposed circles over the grey puffs of debris, then thought to shout upstairs to Lindsay: “Come down here. Quick!” She appeared in her robe, skin glistening, hair wrapped in a yellow towel. He pointed at the TV and she shook her head. “Not another one. It’s amazing that they don’t all crash.”

He poured her coffee. “She’ll call, you know.”

Lindsay gave him a sour look. “Then we won’t answer.”

They hadn’t been answering in months, stopping shortly after their marriage, almost a year, not since Lindsay thought to get caller ID, after shouting. I won’t have this. It’s an invasion. I shudder whenever I hear the phone.

For weeks after they began ignoring her number, Melody phoned several times a day, desperate messages on the answering machine, begging, crying, What happened? What happened? Pohl could hear her panic but never told Lindsay of his unease. Then the calls became fewer and fewer and finally stopped.

The TV picture showed a wide swathe of field marred by a deep black mark seared into the earth. Men, tiny by comparison, paced around the edges, searching. The announcer’s voice warned once again that people in the area should not touch any debris they found. It was toxic.

Pohl found himself envisioning what Cheryl must be doing at that moment, alone in the home that had been theirs, mesmerized by the television screen. She would be weeping. He imagined himself bringing his hand to her cheek, feeling the wetness of her tears as they sat together and watched scenes of disaster.

When the phone finally rang, Pohl flinched. “It’s her.” Lindsay’s eyes fixed his with a glare of warning. On the screen he saw the flames of launch and then the grey clouds of disintegration playing over and over. Pohl stared at the telephone until the final ring, certain she would never call again. That part of his life was over.

 

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to the opening line of Casey Murphy’s story, “Fence”: “Have you ever run so fast it’s like you left your past behind?” And to the title of Tuere T. S. Ganges’ story “The Death of an Astronaut.”]

Image by Tony Crider via Flickr Creative Commons

Walter Cummins has published six short story collections: Witness, Where We Live, Local Music, The End of the Circle, The Lost Ones, and Habitat: stories of bent realism. More than 100 of his stories, as well as memoirs, essays, and reviews, have appeared in literary magazines. He teaches in the MFA in creative writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Read more at http://www.waltercummins.com/.