Short Story: Clara Vox

This story was originally published in Broad Knowledge: 35 Women Up To No Good by Upper Rubber Boot Books. 


by R.S. Benedict


Suicide is tedious. There’s a surprising number of chores involved if you want to do it right. You have to empty your refrigerator. You have to write, revise, and proofread your suicide note. You have to delete your browser history. You have to throw out your vibrator. 

Then there’s the act itself. The planning phase sucks out all the romanticism. Where should I do it? What should I wear? What method should I use? Razors? But where do you even buy straight razors these days? Amazon? Should I buy extras in case the first one doesn’t work? Should I pay for overnight shipping? Should I sign up for Amazon Prime? 

In the end, I opted for the Mid-Hudson Bridge. I wore jeans. I took my shoes off; it seemed like the kind of thing a person does in these situations. In my shoes, I left my keys, my cell phone and my student ID (the one in which I’m seven pounds lighter than I am now).

Then I climbed up onto the railing and sat there for a while. I knew not to look down. My ass began to ache on the narrow rail, so I slipped down to stand on the little platform off the side of the bridge. I didn’t like the idea of being found wearing soggy, muddy socks, so I pulled them off and dropped them into the Hudson River.

A truck rumbled past. It didn’t stop.

I stood and stared at the spot where the river met the sky. When I visualized my exit, I always imagined myself making a swan dive like I used to do at swimming lessons before puberty hit and I got too self-conscious to wear a bathing suit.

A car drove by, dragging a faint shout behind it. I heard a woman’s voice.

“Keep driving,” I mumbled. “Go away. Go.” But she didn’t. Instead, she shifted into reverse, backed up to where I was standing and got out of the car.

“Hey. Let me buy you a cup of coffee.” The sound of her voice massaged my temples. I turned, grasping the railing to keep from flopping off into the river. I wanted to jump, yes, but I didn’t want a witness.

Whatever I expected to see, she wasn’t it. Her haircut, fifteen years out of date, framed her face in exactly the wrong way. Her yoga pants hugged every lump, every bulge, every mound of excess flesh--and there were many. Three black hairs protruded from her chin.

“Overwhelmed by my beauty, I see,” she said. “Come on. Get in. Don’t forget your shoes.”

I didn’t know this woman, and I didn’t hate her enough to make her watch me disappear. So I clambered back over the railing, onto the walkway, and over the concrete divider to her waiting car. 

She drove a silver convertible with leather seats. Empty food wrappers carpeted the floor. With the top down, a powerful funk of old burritos wafted over me, polluting my pores with grease that had been fried and refried and then left to ferment in the sun. The saturated fat fumes threatened to stick to my skin and thicken me up, like fresh flakes wadded onto the belly of a snowman.

The woman wedged herself behind the steering wheel with a musical grunt. “One moment, please,” she said, shoveling an armful of junk from the passenger’s seat to the back. “All right. Now get in. Let’s go for a ride.”

I got into the car. To protect my skin from high-calorie vapors, I put my shoes back on (now without socks), pulled my hood on over my head and drew my hands deep into their sleeves.

The woman told me that her name was Clara. I usually don’t remember names, but hers rang like a church bell.

“Let’s go get some coffee,” she said, lurching into first gear. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-four,” I answered.

“That’s too young,” she said. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”

I knew what was coming. Clara was going to serve up the usual collection of re-heated wisdom I’d heard over and over again from every therapist I’ve ever visited and every affirmation poster I’ve ever torn off a wall and every inspirational meme my well-meaning relatives have shared with me on Facebook. Life gets better. There is so much to live for. This, too, shall pass. Let a smile be your umbrella. Hang in there, kitten.

People love to tell a depressed person what to do. They think they’re very clever for coming up with advice like, “Don’t let it get to you,” or “Cheer up,” as though we’re depressed simply because it hadn’t occurred to us not to be. I used to argue with them, like an atheist trying to explain biology to door-to-door Mormons, but that never got me anywhere, so now I just wait quietly for them to stop talking. Yes, I have heard the Good Word, and yes, I will accept your literature, but no, I will not join your faith.

As Clara checked her blind spot, I sneaked a peak at the bus schedule in my pocket. I could be back on the bridge by five, five-thirty if she took too long. But there would be too much traffic then. Better to wait for night, when things have slowed down. Late evening, maybe. Eleven. But the last bus comes at nine and I had no money for a cab. I’d have to bring a book or something, maybe write up a better suicide note while I waited. 

The convertible glided onto the off-ramp and took us right, then left to a street lined with strip malls and chain restaurants. I watched the fast-food joints drift by as Clara yammered on. 

She pulled up to a Starbucks and eased into the drive-through. Waiting for the order window, she jabbed my shoulder with her thick index finger and said, “Have you tried exercise? It’s supposed to be really good for your mood. It’s the endorphins or something like that.”

“Yes, I have,” I said. “But thanks for reminding me how fat I am.”

“You are not fat,” she said. “I would kill for a body like that.” And then, to the drive-through attendant, she said, “I’ll have a large mocha and a cupcake. You?” She turned to me.

“Small coffee. Black. No sugar.” I glanced down at my legs. My thighs looked wider than they were supposed to. I wondered how much weight I’d gained since the beginning of the car ride.

“Come on,” Clara said. “Live a little.”

“Fine,” I said. “A splash of skim milk. And a Splenda. Just one.”

“Anything else?” he said. I didn’t look at him, but I knew the voice. Gavin. My Gavin. My ex-Gavin. He was on shift.

“Your number,” Clara said. I valiantly fought off the urge to laugh.

Clara paid and waited. I thought of taking the opportunity to leap from the car and run away, but there were people around. Worse, there was a Gavin around. So instead I burrowed deeper into my hoodie and hoped he would not recognize me. 

“So why did you do it?” she asked.

I told her how the other day, following the advice of a chain e-mail sent to me by my mother (subj: FW:FW:FW:FW: TEN CHEER-UP IDEAS THAT WILL SAVE YOU’RE [sic] LIFE!!!), I had taken a piece of paper and folded it in half. On the left side I wrote a list of all the reasons I didn’t want to live anymore. I filled the whole page, though I wrote in tiny letters. Jobless. Debt. Fat. Unfuckable. Dumped. Ashamed. Crazy. Favorite band broke up. Entropy

And when I had filled every inch of the left side, I went to the right, hoping to fill it with just as many items, a catalog of things so great and wonderful that they put the death list to shame. But I couldn’t think of anything to write down. Love? Bullshit. Friends? Better off without me. Family? Uncle molested me when I was nine; parents still kept inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner. Kittens? Eventually turn into cats.

After I stared at the white space for about an hour, I folded up the piece of paper, put it in my pocket and went out to the bridge.

I showed Clara the piece of paper. Peering at it, she said, “These are terrible reasons to take your own life.”

“You got a pen?” I asked. And when she handed it to me, I scrawled “Am willing to take own life for terrible reasons” into a sliver of white space on the left side of the paper.

Our order was ready. Clara took her cup of diabetes, put it in a holder, handed me my coffee and put the cupcake bag in my lap. I wondered if the calories could seep through the wax paper. 

My coffee tasted like whole milk. Half-and-half, even. Gavin probably did it on purpose. That fucker.

Clara squealed out of the parking lot and floored the gas pedal to squeeze through a yellow light. The sudden burst of speed blew the hoodie off my head. I tried to put it back up, but I needed both hands, and one of them was holding my coffee. The only cup holder I could find held an antique Big Gulp. But at least the wind chased away the odor of cholesterol con queso that previously haunted the convertible. Now all I could smell was coffee and car exhaust.

“Where do you live?” Clara asked.

“Grand Street.”

“Rough neighborhood.”

“It’s cheap,” I said.

“Let’s take the scenic route.”

She took one side street, then another, and within a few blocks we found ourselves on a quiet stretch of road that ran along an apple orchard. The fruit wasn’t in season yet, but the flowers blossomed pink and white and fragrant.

“I didn’t even know this was here,” I said.

“There’s lots of beauty around here if you know where to find it,” she said. I leaned back and let the sun bake my face.

Clara finally started on her soliloquy about hope and joy and the value of human life and all that bullshit. I prepared to ignore it, but found I couldn’t. 

It wasn’t what she said that gripped me. I had heard it all before. What interested me was how she said it. 

She pronounced every word in exactly the right way. Route. Tomorrow. Involuntary. Fourth. Brighten. Asks. Each and every syllable leapt from her tongue as graceful as an acrobat, with smooth vowels and crisp consonants that sparkled even in tight little clusters. Just as music imbues lyrics like There were plants and trees and rocks and things or even la-la-la-la-la-la with profundity, her perfect intonation transformed the motivational poster slogans into poetry. Yes: each day is a new day. The darkest hour is just before dawn. I will let a smile be my umbrella, though I’m not sure if that’s anatomically possible.

I tried to place Clara’s accent, but I couldn’t. She didn’t have the pinch-nosed whine of the northeast or the dragging drawl of the south or the slack-jawed vowels of the west coast. She kept her R’s and added no extras; that ruled out the United Kingdom. I found no regional shibboleths in her speech. Yet her voice had character. It wasn’t a sanded-down newscaster accent. It wasn’t generic. It was universal.

“Where did you learn to talk like that?” I asked.

“Greece,” she said. “Have you ever been to Greece?”

“You don’t sound Greek,” I said.

“I’m not.” Despite the fattening slurry coating her throat, her voice was smooth and clean. “I took elocution lessons on Mount Olympus.”

“Who teaches elocution lessons on Mount Olympus?”


I waited for her to grin or laugh. Nothing. Stone faced. She simply dropped the statement into my lap and let it sit there, like her artery-annihilating cupcake.

“Apollo,” I said. 

“Apollo, the god of music,” I said.

“Apollo, the sun god,” I said.

“Among other things, yes,” she said.

Another silence.

“Apollo,” I said again.

“I was on spring break in Greece,” she said. “While camping on Mount Olympus, I encountered a golden-haired man with radiant eyes. He introduced himself as Apollo, announced he was going to ravish me, and then, well, he ravished me. I was thinner then. Anyway, when he was finished, he was so happy that he bestowed upon me a magnificent gift: a golden voice to bend mortals to my will.”

Clara sucked in a mouthful of mocha sludge and let the story settle.

“Don’t you believe me?” she asked.

It is unwise to offend a woman who can drive us both into a tree, so I said, “Okay.” Vehicular collisions don’t guarantee a quick and easy death. I could end up paralyzed, unable to hold a razor. I would have to train a helper monkey to open a bottle of pills and feed me each one.

“Be honest now,” Clara said.

Clearly, the woman was deranged. She had been attacked by a sexual predator and the trauma of the assault had driven her mad. I did not believe her. But I also knew that honesty would upset her even more, and I was not ready for the consequences. So I opened my mouth to create a more convincing lie, but what dripped out was a flat, “No.”

“I knew you wouldn’t,” she said with an Ina Garten laugh. “But I can prove it. Look in the bag.”

I uncrinkled the paper sack and peeked inside. The scent of chocolate confectionary blasted my nostrils, invading my sinuses with sugar and fat.

“It’s a cupcake,” I said.

“What else?”

“A couple of napkins, smudged with chocolate.”

“And what else?” Clara asked.

“A receipt,” I said.

“Look at it,” she commanded.

The receipt, fortunately, was near the top, so I didn’t have to touch the cupcake to get it. It listed the items: one Americano, one mocha frappe, one cupcake. But there was a fourth item on the list: a ten-digit number. I knew it well. I shoved the receipt back in the bag and crumpled it up to protect myself from cupcake germs.

“Gavin gave you his number,” I said.

“Of course,” she replied. “I told him to.”

She had first spoken to him through a speaker, so he hadn’t actually seen her when he filled her request. Surely, even if she did have a compelling voice, it couldn’t have worked its magic through that fuzzy connection. Was he really that desperate? Maybe he was just having a laugh, the way he had with me.

Clara steered us away from the orchards, back toward town. Pasture gave way to farm stands and bait shops, then to a Wal-Mart.

“So that’s what you do with your gift?” I said, not quite believing it but deciding to humor her regardless. “You hit on guys at the drive-through?”

“I also do voice-overs for advertisements,” she said. “Do you buy Meadow Green dish detergent?”

“I do,” I said. “I don’t know why. It’s shitty detergent.”

“That’s me,” she said. “That’s my voice in those ads.”

“That’s what you do with a gift from God?”

“It pays the bills,” she said.

“Couldn’t you do something more important with your life?” I asked. “You could be a hostage negotiator.”

“They weren’t hiring. Budget cuts.”

“You could be a social worker.”

“I don’t have a degree and the pay is abysmal.”

“You could at least do ads for something more meaningful,” I said.

“I tried,” she said. “I did an anti-drug PSA. People started throwing out all their medicine: birth control, heart pills, penicillin, insulin…”

“Antidepressants,” I added.

“Yes. Antidepressants too.” She took another sip of her drink. “Then I did an ad about nutrition and weight loss. Eating disorder rates skyrocketed. I can’t remember when that was.”

“About two years ago,” I said.

“Yes, that sounds about right,” she replied. “Dish detergent is benign, at least. I haven’t killed anyone with it yet.”

The car took a left and merged onto a four-lane street, then glided toward the squat gray and brown housing complexes and the check-cashing shops.

Clara suddenly veered into the parking lot of a gas station and parked across two spaces. “Sit tight,” she said. “I’ll be right back. Have a cupcake. Enjoy it.” Then she trotted into the mini-mart.

The bag in my lap grew heavier. I opened it again and glimpsed into its maw to see the dark, glistening form inside. Fudge. No. Double fudge. How many calories? 600? 700? How many hours on the treadmill? How many skipped meals? How many laxatives? How many Hail Mary’s? How much would I have to do to atone for that cupcake?

I drew the object from its rumpled sheath. When I held the thing in my hand I could feel the fat seeping in through my skin, invading my flesh. My eyes were probably getting fat from looking at the thing for too long.

I waited for the voice that always spoke up whenever I got too close to food, with its familiar chant of pig pig pig pig pig.

But it had nothing to say. Instead, all I could hear was Clara. Eat. Eat and enjoy.

Through the glass door, I could see her speaking to a man with a wool cap over his face. The clerk stood frozen with his hands on the counter.

I tugged the paper liner, pulling it free of the confection’s base. Black globs of icing clung to the wax paper edge. Some of it stuck to my fingers. I licked it off. It was sweet and dark and wonderful.

I did not cram the cupcake down my throat as I usually did, as if trying to sneak it past myself before I could notice. Instead I ate slowly and deliberately, chewing and swallowing dainty little bites. The cake was moist and flavorful if a bit too sugary. Upon nearing the center, I struck a well of rich ganache.

Normally, the sensation of satiety squashes me to the floor like Giles Corey. But now I felt light.

I was sucking the last few crumbs off my fingertips when Clara emerged from the shop, trailed by a lumpy man wearing a rumpled wool cap. He took five steps out the front door and sank to the ground where he lay face-down with his arms at his sides.

Clara smiled and said, “And stay there until the police arrive. Don’t move until they tell you to, all right?”

When he nodded, his lips brushed against the concrete.

Clara whipped out a cell phone and dialed. “Attempted armed robbery,” she said. “Perp has been disarmed. He isn’t dangerous anymore so don’t shoot him in the back or anything. It’s the gas station on 79 Broadway. Come right away.”

Then she hung up and flopped into the driver’s seat.

“He’s going to be there a long time,” I said. “The cops don’t like to come to this neighborhood.”

“They will if I tell them to,” she said. “How was your cupcake?”

“Good,” I said.

“You’ll probably need these,” she said, handing me a couple of pink tablets. “For digestion.” 

I put them under my tongue.

I could already hear the sirens as Clara pulled out of the parking lot. “Don’t feel any guilt over that cupcake,” she ordered. “You’ve had a rough day. A little treat every now and then won’t kill you.”

“Turn right at the next stop,” I said. “Watch for potholes.”

We hit a red light. As we waited for it to change, I asked, “Does anybody else know about you?”

“What do you mean?” she replied.

“About your voice,” I said.

“Not really. Not completely.”

“You’re not worried I’ll tell?” I asked.

“You won’t,” she said. “You might try, but you’ll start to feel silly and decide against it. In fact, you’re going to forget all about this.”

“I could write it down,” I said.

“Even if you do, you’ll forget about meeting me and think it was all a work of fiction. You won’t remember any of it actually happening.”

And I don’t. Glancing back to the beginning of this draft, I don’t remember the fuss about which ID to leave where. I don’t remember where my socks went. I don’t remember getting coffee. I don’t remember the apple orchard, though I can still smell it in my hair. I probably won’t remember the cupcake either once my stomach calms down. The urge to purge hasn’t come yet and I don’t expect it will. I feel neither shame nor regret. I ate a cupcake and it was good.

“Don’t worry,” Clara said. “I haven’t done anything to hurt you and I don’t plan to. I just don’t like to be bothered. That’s all.”

She pulled up to the curb in front of my apartment building where a man slouched on the front steps. He had one hand down the front of his sweatpants and was juggling his balls like David Bowie in The Labyrinth. “Hey!” he hollered. “Hey!”

“Show some respect for women!” Clara shouted back.

“Okay!” he yelled. He took his hand out of his pants and began to tidy up the stoop.

“Thanks,” I said to Clara. “For the ride.”

“My pleasure,” she said.

The man bowed as I passed him on the way up the front steps. Punching the code into the keypad, I heard Clara call out to me. I turned to look.

“Cheer up, all right?” she said.

“Do I have a choice?” I asked.

As she drove away, she tossed one last honeyed word to me over her shoulder:


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