Muzak For Torso Murders

Donny gets to work with the quick-setting cement; it will proba­bly have hardened before most of the blood has congealed in the chest’s cavities. The brass lion’s feet on the antique bathtub gleam from his attentive polishing, as does the porcelain inte­rior, scoured so many times with Bon Ami that the scratch marks of steel-wool pads appear in places. Shiny black plastic-wrapped parcels almost fill the basin.

Whistle while you work, he thinks, but the cement is so heavy that he hasn’t any breath to spare for frivolities. This is the part of his work that he likes less every time: messy cement, sweaty grunting labor, disgusting slopping sounds as the viscous mixture oozes over the plastic bundles and fills the tub to brimming. There it sits like his mother’s oatmeal, untouched by any spoon. He can hear her in the kitchen while he works in the garage, her radio perpetually tuned to an easy-listening station while you-know-what bubbles in a cauldron on the stove and her knife chops, chops, chops along with a thousand strings. He prefers Bernard Herrmann—the score from Psycho—but she never lets him play his albums while she’s in the house. “Too disturbing,” she says. If only she knew how much her Muzak disturbs him.

“Donny, are you almost done in there? Your dinner’s ready.”

“Be right there,” he calls.

“Hands clean this time?”

“I’ll use Boraxo, honest.” Under his breath he allows himself a brief curse: “Christmas.”

Of course, nothing ever goes right when he hurries, and thanks to his mother he tips the wheelbarrow in which he’d mixed the cement, and the muck drips over his oxfords. His new shoes! Another pair for the furnace, another sweaty chore. It’s only a movie, he tells himself, to make himself relax. Sometimes Mom makes his life unbearable. True, she feeds him, provides a home, sews his clothes, and buys him most (though not all) of the things he wants. The videocassette player, for instance, was her idea, but he’d had to purchase TCM secretly with his own allowance. Despite all she does for him, her regimen is at times too much for a son to endure. Hot meals at the same hour every day, always accompanied by oatmeal (“Just to fill you up, dear!”), and regular vegetable snacks in between. She doesn’t believe in dessert. It’s no wonder that he’s had to develop out­lets for his energy, secret pastimes, forbidden games.

As he scrubs his hands with gritty powder, he feels the ever ­present thrill of potential discovery. He doesn’t fear the police, but if Mother ever finds out what goes on beneath her roof, well, he could get in real trouble—

“Donny, it’s getting cold!”

—but that is all part of the fun. Sometimes he wishes he could tell her; she is, after all, his only possible confidante. She might approve. On the other hand . . .

“Look at your nails,” she says as he raises the first forkful of salad to his lips. Red dressing splatters the tablecloth.

“I thought you said you washed up. What is that?”

He examines his thumbnail and discovers a traitorous crescent of dark red film clotted up to the quick. He swallows the leaf of romaine and quickly digs under his nail with a tine of the fork. The deposit comes away in a rubbery lump.

“It’s only Russian dressing,” he lies. “Dried stuff from the mouth of the jar, when I twisted the cap off—”

“Don’t talk with food in your mouth.”

He nods and stabs a tomato, takes another bite. Too late, he remembers the blob on the end of the fork. He’s a cannibal now, how about that?

“Have you decided what to do about a job?”

He nods, wishing she would turn down the radio. “Send in the Clowns” is playing again. Sure, send them into the garage and he’d take care of them: pull off their noses, shave their frizzy wigs, paint their mouths red with their own—

“I thought that woman from the agency called you.”

He shrugs and gives the ineluctable bowl of oatmeal a stir. As usual, it’s much too sweet.

“She just wanted to find out my birthday,” he says. “I forgot to put it on the form.”

“Well, wasn’t that nice of her? Maybe they’ll throw you a party.”

“Maybe.” He smiles to himself. She believes anything he tells her. The agency lady had called to ask if he wanted to work in a mail room downtown, and of course he’d said he couldn’t go that far because Mother was ill and he had to be able to get home quickly to fix her lunch and put her on the toilet—and by the time he’d gotten that far, the lady had said, “I’m sorry, but all of our jobs are in the financial district. Maybe you should try an agency out in your neighborhood. Perhaps one specializing in manual labor.”

Ugh! That was when he’d hung up. But it was fine with him; now they should leave him alone. He doesn’t like the thought of risking himself at a job anyway. He had almost come undone at the agency interview, and that was nothing.

They’d given him forms on which to answer a great many personal questions. He had raced through them, neatly slashing the sections concerning work history. Then he had come to the tricky part: essay questions.

“What would you do in this situation? Your superior comes into your office complaining that you scheduled her for two cru­cial meetings at the same time. ”

His neck itched with sweat; the office air-conditioning chilled him. He felt as if he had swallowed a mouthful of monosodium glutamate: throbbing spine, burning cheeks, torpid muscles.

He scrawled: “Apologize.”

“Your supervisor makes a mistake on a memorandum and you are blamed for the error. What would you do?”

Is it a man or a woman? he thought, as the fluorescent lights began to strobe. He carefully penciled: “Explain to my supervi­sor’s supervisor.”

From somewhere in the walls or acoustic-tile ceiling of the office, sweet voices sang “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” as though it were a hymn. So sincere, so saccharine.

“For the third time in a week, a mail-room employee delivers your mail to the wrong address. You call him into your office and he claims that your handwriting is illegible and he cannot read the destination. What do you do?”

The Bacharach tune drove pins into his brain. Three times this week, he thought. God, that Muzak!

“I ask him if he has seen the view from my window, and while he is looking away I hit him on the head with a marble ashtray. Then I lock the door. I take the saws out of my brief­case, spread plastic on the floor, and cut him up as quickly as I can, even working into my lunch hour to get the job done. I wrap the pieces separately in the plastic, cover them in brown butcher paper, type out address labels, and drop them in the mail.”

An advertisement for secluded retirement homes rescued him from committing this response to the agency files. He crumpled the form, staggered to the desk with hands dripping, and asked if he could have another. The secretary had stared at him as if he were an ape from the zoo: he felt enormous and ungainly, surrounded by polite clerks. “I made a mistake,” he said.

The second form took hours to complete because he worked only during commercial breaks in the Muzak.

And why had he gone to all that trouble in the first place? Because Mother had insisted. She had money, plenty of money, but she said a job would do him good. He had gone thirty-five years without a job; he saw no reason to start now. Besides, he had his own work to pursue. Sometimes it paid in cash, but the true rewards were hardly monetary.

“More oatmeal, Donny?”

“No, thanks, Mom. I’m stuffed.”

“You just go watch TV. I’ll do the dishes and come join you.”

“Okay, Mom.”

He slouches into the living room, turns on the VCR, and takes an oft-handled cassette out of the rack. It is labeled: “The Care Bears in the Land Without Feelings,” a title he was sure would never interest his mother when he glued it to the cassette. He slips it into the player, turns on the set with the sound down low, listens to the dishes clinking in the kitchen. The remote control stays in his hand, in case Mom should come in at a bad time.

And in this movie, all times are bad. Outside of a fever dream, the Care Bears could never have found themselves in a land so devoid of human or ursine sentiment as the one on the screen. Images swim out of his memory, merging with the light that plays across his eyes. It’s only a movie, he tells himself. What have we here? Cross sections of red meat, stumped limbs or trunks? No, it’s the infernal sun, with flares strung out and heaving across the void—the raw stuff of violence on a cosmic scale. The sight of it makes him feel significant, attuned. His breathing comes swiftly, in shallow gulps. The miasma of night begins to gather in his eyes and the pit of his gut, as if he’s about to black out. He can hardly see the TV anymore; the volume is turned down so low that his mother’s Muzak overwhelms the ominous sound track. Strings and synthesizers sigh; a chorus of castrati whimpers, “Please, mister, please,” as Texas Chainsaw Massacre buries itself in his eyes.

“Donny, how about some iced tea?”

He jerks and switches from video to live TV. A news anchorwoman mouths at him, apparently concerned for his well­being.

“What was that?” she says.

“Ad for some shocker, Mom.”

“Oh, those horrid things. I swear I don’t know what the world is coming to.”

“Who does?”

To the left of the newscaster’s head, bright letters appear beneath a stylized cartoon toilet bowl whose rim is stained red: basin butcher. He taps the volume control slightly, until he can hear the TV over his mother’s voice.

“—fifth in a series of apparently linked murders. Police say the body of another unidentified male was cut into pieces, wrapped in Mylar, and embedded in cement inside five antique porcelain sinks.”

“Did you know that someone set fire to Gracie’s poodle? The poor little thing, really. First the poison bait and now this.”

The TV news team switches to field coverage, the same it showed last night. He sits up to appreciate this replay; Channel 2 has the best footage. Policemen scramble down a dusky shore of the bay, stumbling among concrete blocks and rusting wrecks of old cars. The camera zooms in on five gleaming white sinks, standing out like porcelain idols against the choppy water. Sea gulls dive to peck hungrily at the basins. The taps and handles gleam in the light of the setting sun, and so does he. An ambi­tious trick, but not as neat as the tub will be. The toilets had been a coarse guffaw of a murder, an attention-getter. Soon he will run out of the fixtures left over from his father’s business; after one more tub, the next stage of his work will commence. There are dozens of statuary molds waiting to be filled with his homemade cement-and-flesh porridge, and more than enough cement powder to fulfill his dreams for the indefinite future. He need never expose himself by purchasing supplies.

“I hear that another poor woman was mugged at Safeway yesterday—right at the checkout counter,” his mother says.

“The search continues for the person or persons responsible for the killings. Police seek information regarding a vehicle seen in the Bayshore area Wednesday night. An old-model truck with wooden paneling—”

He switches the channel quickly, unnerved, and looks at his mother to make sure she hasn’t been paying attention. She watches him steadily over her bifocals.

“What’s wrong with you, Donny? You haven’t been yourself lately.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Mom.”

“You don’t talk to me anymore. You’re a stranger. You’re tuckered out all the time and I never see you when you’re work­ing. What are you doing out there, anyway?”

“I told you, Mom, it’s a surprise. You’re not supposed to know.”

She smiles, a prim expression that reassures him that she won’t press any further, never fear. He gets up and gives her a kiss on the cheek. “I love you, Mom. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll bring you some iced tea.”

“Would you? What a darling. All right, I’ll plump my fat old fanny down and take a rest.”

She chatters on as he enters the kitchen, opens the icebox and takes out a tray, finds two tall glasses and loads them with cubes. The tea is in a pitcher on the counter, next to the radio. In here the Muzak is deafening, but he doesn’t dare turn it down, though it makes the glasses chatter in his hands.

“Who’s looking out from under the stairway? Everyone knows it’s—”


He forces his fingers to relax before they crush the glasses. His teeth are clamped together, there is fog in his eyes and fear on his breath. He stands in darkness, fumbling for a way back to the light. His hands encounter a drawer.

“Donny, come in here!”

He walks toward her voice like a servile mummy, stiff-legged, carrying drinks; the gleeful Muzak dictates his steps, sets the pace of his heart. He reaches the coffee table and starts to set down the drinks, only to find that he is not holding beverages after all. In either hand is a knife: not as sharp as his special knives, being for domestic use, but still sufficient for his pur­poses.

On the screen, to which Mother draws his eyes with a bony finger, is frozen a frame from his video: a flayed corpse in a cemetery. TCM. He almost drops the knives.

“I put on the Care Bears,” she says.

His hands begin to shake as the Muzak blasts at his shoulders, pushing him closer to her. Closer.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” he whispers. “Such feeling. Such care . . .

“Why, yes,” she answers, looking past the knives that almost touch her throat. She doesn’t see them. She smiles at Donny. “I thought we could watch them together. What’s this cute fel­low’s name?”

He looks at the screen and lowers the knives. “He never has a name. But later . . .” He sets the knives on the coffee table, iced tea forgotten, and seats himself beside her. “Later, you’ll meet Leatherface.”

“Leatherface? And is he very nice?”

“Oh yes,” he says. “Very, very nice.”

“And these are the Care Bears you watch every day?”

“That’s right.” He nods eagerly, amazed by her blindness. She must see only what she wants to see. How could she believe anything but the best of her son? Her first sight of the corpse— where she had expected to find an animated teddy bear—must have snapped her mind. What a relief! It means he can finally be honest with her: after so much furtiveness, he can tell her his secrets and bask in her praise. She should be as proud of him as she’d be if he’d found a job or built a birdhouse.

The video player whirrs, begins to move again.

“Oh, Donny, I see,” she says in high-pitched merriment. “I’m so glad we’re together, just you and me.”

“So am I, Mom. I have to tell you—”

The confessions are ready to come bubbling up, but she inter­rupts him.

“It was you who poisoned Gracie’s noisy little dog, wasn’t it?” Her tone is comforting. “And set the fire?”

He blushes, but when she gives his knee a gentle squeeze, he nods shyly. “Yes, Mom, and—”

“You don’t know how relieved I am to hear it. And it’s you who’ve been taking out Dad’s truck late at night, isn’t it?”

He straightens. “Oh no, Mom, honest! I wouldn’t do that without asking, you know I . . .”

Her eyes begin to wander. “Then I must be losing my mind,” she says gently. “Try to Remember” filters in from the kitchen. “I’m so old I’ve started hearing things.”

“No, Mom, don’t say that.” He chokes back a sob. “Okay, I have gone out. That was me you heard. I won’t do it anymore, though. I promise I won’t use the woody.” That’s a true lie; he’ll have to use the other car from now on, since the woody was spotted.

“I know where you’ve been going, Donny.”

“Do you, Mom?”

“Of course I do. I’m not senile, you know.”

“No, Mom, you’re sharp as a tack. I was going to tell you about it, really I—”

“Hush, I know you better than that.” She puts a finger to her lips, rises from the sofa, goes to the stereo. She takes out an album and puts it on the player. He’s so excited that he doesn’t even care that it’s Lawrence Welk. As the schmaltzy music fills the air and a slaughterhouse on the television brightens the room, she comes back and kisses him on the crown.

“I’ve heard them, you see,” she says.

“Oh, that,” he says, feeling awkward.

“Now be honest. I’ve heard them come in with you, and the noises. You make them squeal, don’t you? They like you very much, isn’t that so?”

“Like me?” He stretches his collar, clears his throat. “You don’t think I . . .”

“I’ve told you not to lie to me, Donny,” she snaps. “What’s been going on in my house? Something dirty? Something shameful?”

Black champagne bubbles float up and gather against the ceil­ing, filling the room from the top to the bottom. That music— Muzak.

“Take off this record, Mom, please.”

“Are you doing wicked things in there?”

“No, Mom, no . . it’s nothing like that.”

“Vile things? Evil?”

“Mom, I kill them! That’s all, I swear. I keep them tied up for a while and then I chop them into pieces.”

“Don’t lie to me, Donny.”

She glares at him, one finger tapping in time to Lawrence Welk. There’s nothing else in the room, none of the comfort of the TV massacres; only Mom and her accusations, which are brutal as blows because unjust. He tries to rise but the music beats him down. Where are the knives? He squints through the black ballooning air, but the only blades he sees are in her hands.

“Don’t lie to me.”

“No, Mama, I’m not lying. Please don’t punish me, I’ll be good.”

Muzak thicker than murder. He bolts through his muddled thoughts, escaping in the only direction open to him with his body paralyzed and his mother waiting for him out there in the land without feelings. This proves to be a dead end, but by the time he has backed out to consciousness, he is truly immobi­lized. Ropes cut into his wrists and ankles. He lies cramped on his side in a cold coffin. Is it only a movie? he asks himself.

“—never, never do it again,” his mother is saying. “You’ll never—”

“I won’t,” he tries to promise, but his mouth is plugged with a kitchen sponge. He opens his eyes to stare at a shiny white wall high as a cliff, all porcelain. Mom stands looking down at him, humming to a saccharine tune from the other room. He fights the Muzak’s spell, but he cannot fight the ropes.

“You’ve been a very bad boy,” she says. “I have to see to it that you don’t bring any more trouble to this house.”

Over the cliff, the lip of the tub, the edge of the barrow appears. Her shoulders strain to lift it. Not cement, he thinks.

Oh no, not cement. A grey flood drools steadily toward his face. There’s a sickly sweet smell. “Just to fill you up,” she says. The basin reverberates with the sound of his struggles as the clammy mixture spreads across his cheeks. What a stupid sound!

And the last thing he hears, as oatmeal seals his ears, is pure schmaltz.


* * *


“Muzak For Torso Murders” copyright 1986 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Cutting Edge (1986), edited by Dennis Etchison.