by Cathy Ulrich
The axe murderer has a charming smile. He smokes a cigar on the corner as people go in and out of the bar. He keeps his axe in the trunk of his car. He’s never been caught. Everybody knows who he is, the way they know Old Hettie, the one-legged hooker. It costs extra to touch her stump. She lets the axe murderer have the corner while she sits at the bar inside, sipping the same gimlet all night.
Old Hettie hates the axe murderer, ever since he took her leg. He wasn’t murdering at that time, not yet, only testing the axe on soft-skinned women like Hettie, who was still soft then. After the axe murderer took her leg, she got old and jagged real fast. The axe murderer got jagged too, cutting up girls and leaving them in pieces all over town.
The newspapers have called for a stop to his reign of terror. The newspapers, still wet with newsprint, declare Our Town Must Be Purged of this Monster. The axe murderer would laugh if he read the headlines, but the axe murderer doesn’t read headlines. The axe murderer doesn’t get caught. That’s actually fine with the newspapers. It gives them something to talk about, other than the mayor’s toupee. Nobody’s supposed to talk about the mayor’s toupee, but the newspapers sometimes do it, and the mayor sics his lawyers on them. Then the newspapers have the lawsuits to report on, and everyone’s happy except the mayor’s toupee, which would probably like to go in the wash.
Old Hettie reads the headlines. She shows them to her clients.
That’s the one that took my leg, she says.
She pulls up her skirt and displays the emptiness where her leg had been.
Can you imagine it? she says.
When her clients say they can’t, she says it was just the reverse of the other.
Although thank God he left that leg, she says. That’s my favorite.
When their hands stray toward the stump (and they wonder which of their own two legs would be their favorite, if they had to choose, thinking of them like children, unable to love the one more than the other), Old Hettie snaps: Ten bucks for touching.
Old Hettie’s got some clients that only want her for the touching.
I don’t see what they get out of it, Old Hettie tells the bartender as she tucks a ten-dollar bill into the pouch round her neck.
Different strokes for different folks, says the bartender.
When Old Hettie has a slow night, the axe murderer will stop her on her way out of the bar and offer her a twenty to admire his work. She leans herself up on her crutches and lets him run his hands over the place where her leg ends now.
It’s good work, says the axe murderer. A smooth cut.
Old Hettie sighs as his cold fingers slide over her skin. The axe murderer’s fingers are always cold.
Cold hands, warm heart, Hettie told him the night before he took her leg. She doesn’t say it to him anymore. When she’s in a sharp mood, his hands climbing over her damaged flesh, she’ll hiss: You haven’t even got a heart, have you?
The axe murderer has got a heart. He’s felt it beating in his chest. It goes faster when he gets his axe out of the trunk of his car.
Is this love? he whispers to the haft. Is this love?
Cathy Ulrich once tripped over an axe. She realizes now that’s a very boring anecdote. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, including Third Point Press, The Mondegreen, and Fiction Southeast.