"A 28-year-old Queens woman was stabbed to death early yesterday morning outside her apartment Thirty-Eight who saw murder didn't call the police."
-New York Times, March 14, 1964.
“The problem with the Leona Ciarelli murder is that it never happened.”
The audience muttered. Lavignia, alone on the tiny stage in the middle of a single spotlight, smiled and waited for the commotion to die down.
“Oh, Leona Ciarelli was murdered, of course,” she continued, “everyone knows that. A poor New York City girl attacked coming back from her job, stabbed to death right outside her own home. Yes, it happened.”
The audience in the dim theater shifted in their seats. Lavignia smiled wider as they squirmed.
“But that’s not what I’m talking about when I talk about the Leona Ciarelli murder, because that’s not what people think about when they hear her name. What we think about is what the papers told us; that thirty-eight of her neighbors watched the whole thing from their windows and not a one of them lifted a finger to help. Thirty-eight people, or as one of our more delicate social critics referred to them, ‘Thirty-eight motherfuckers,’ sat and passively watched as an innocent woman was raped and killed in the streets, and no one so much as called the police.
“Yes, it’s a terrible, terrible story…but it never happened.”
Lavignia stood and stretched. She was dressed in a shabby man’s coat and ill-fitting trousers. Her hair was tousled and piled underneath an old felt hat. The audience’s seats were close to the stage and the theater was small, so she wore minimal stage makeup. She looked relaxed and devil-may-care as she slouched and lounged around. There was no set and no props except for her chair, which she now carried off.
“The fact is, only a few people witnessed that crime, and only two of them realized that Leona had been hurt, and neither knew she how badly injured she was,“ Lavignia continued. “Leona was murdered not in the street but in an interior hallway. It was there, in private, away from any witnesses, that she was raped and repeatedly stabbed, not out in the open in front of thirty-eight people as we’ve always been told.
“And the stories about how people closed their windows and turned up their radios to drown out her screams? A fabrication. Leona was stabbed through the lung and couldn’t have screamed at all.”
A balding man with spectacles in the front row cleared his throat and said, “This is all well and good, but we came here for a show, not a lecture.”
Lavignia giggled and clapped her hands in mock applause. “Quite right, dean! You are here for a show, and it’s a show you’ll get. But I want you to think about Leona’s neighbors and what they saw that night. Most of them saw only a man and a woman, alone in a parking lot, having a dispute. What did they think they were seeing? A drunken fight? A lover’s quarrel, perhaps? Would any of us recognize a crime if it happened before our very eyes?”
Lavignia drew a long knife from the inside pocket of her coat. The man with the spectacles flinched at the sight.
“Tonight, you’re all going to witness a murder. It will happen right in front of you. And if you’ll notice, we took the liberty of removing a few of the chairs in this venue; there are thirty-eight seats here. Tonight there really will be thirty-eight witnesses to a killing. And I wonder, if a woman screams in the night and makes no sound, will you hear her? Can you hear the Silent Scream?”
The lights dimmed a little, and each of the Thirty-eight people looked at the playbill in their hands with “The Silent Scream, by Marian Nichols and Lavignia Fischer” written across the front. They heard the sound of high heels on the boards. They saw the flash of the stage lights on the knife, and the killer’s smile.
They heard the silent scream.
Lavignia scrubbed and scrubbed at the trousers. Karo syrup might look good under stage lights, she thought, but it’s a bitch to clean up. She stood at the dressing room sink, stripped down to bra and panties and soaking her costume before any of the stains set in. Marian was at the makeup table, wiping fake blood off her naked body.
“Could you believe the dean?” said Marian. “So fucking smug at the start, and then I thought his eyes were going to pop by the end. They looked like two hardboiled eggs in his head.”
Lavignia held the pants up to the light. “It’s good that he showed,” she said. “It means people are paying attention to the invites, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Marian, still blotting away the red smudges on her breasts.
“And the critic from the Bay edition of the Voice was here too.”
“That pompous ass," said Marian, flinging a soiled towel into the hamper for emphasis. "You remember what he said about our last production? ‘Too immature to even be called puerile.’”
“But I think he liked tonight’s show,” said Lavignia, turning toward the other woman. “I was paying attention to his face during my opening monologue. He seemed really interested.”
Marian rolled her eyes.
“Think what it’ll mean if he gives us a good write-up this time," Lavignia said. "It’ll look even better after how much he’s hated everything else we’ve done. It’ll make it all worthwhile, won’t it?”
“That ass,” was all Marian said. Lavignia sighed. Marian came up behind her, massaging her shoulders. Lavignia tried to relax.
“Do you ever think about that man?” Marian said.
“Who, the critic?”
“No, the man who murdered Leona.”
Lavignia started a little. “No. Why would I think about him?”
"He's your character," said Marian. "You should think about him. You should think about him all the time."
Lavignia bit her lip.
"You're still not immersing yourself in the part enough," Marian said. "It's dragging us down. I have to work harder onstage to make up for it, you know."
Lavignia sighed. "I do my best."
"It's a hard role!"
"Which means I must have had a lot of confidence in you when I wrote it. Do you want me to think I was wrong?"
Marian's hands were still massaging Lavignia's neck, but they were wrapped too tightly now, and Lavignia choked a little.
"I do my best," she said again, almost whispering.
Marian's tone changed. “He had a family you know. Wife and kids. He got up in the middle of the night, left them, drove out, raped and murdered a woman, then came home, showered, and went right back to bed like nothing had happened.”
Lavignia pulled away. “So?" She tried to walk away, but Marian had her by the arm.
“Do you ever think about killing someone?" Marian said. Lavignia looked at her with contempt.
"No, I haven't. What kind of person thinks about that?"
“Everyone does,” said Marian. “I imagine what it would be like to kill someone all the time.”
“Who?” said Lavignia.
“Who do you think about killing?” Lavignia said. Her voice almost broke.
Marian let her go, and the two women stood and stared at one another.
"Well, all right, not really," Marian added, blinking first. "But how would you feel if I did?"
"What kind of question is that? I'd feel shocked, and hurt, and --" Lavignia groped for words.
"Angry enough to hurt me?"
Marian grabbed Lavignia's arm again and stuck something in her hand; it was the knife from the show.
"Think about it," Marian said. "If you killed me onstage, people would think it was just part of the show.”
She raised Lavignia's hand with the knife in it and pressed the blade to her own throat.
“The Voice will print their review tomorrow," she said. "So everyone will know what to expect when they come to the show. Everyone will know they’re going to see me murdered, and how real it will look. So if you really did it, do you think anyone would realize? Would they do anything? Or would they all just sit and watch?”
Lavignia was trembling. She tried to pull her hand back, but Marian's grip was too tight. Marian traced the curve of her own throat with the silvery knife blade.
“They’d know when you didn’t show up the next night,” said Lavignia. Her voice was thick.
“That’s right,” said Marian. “So you would have to wait until the final show. That would be the time to do it. And then when you left town, no one would question it. And no one would miss me. My parents don’t talk to me anymore since I came out. All of my friends disowned me. There's no one in the world who keeps tabs on me but you. Everyone would just assume we left town together. It would be the perfect murder. Wouldn’t it?” Her grip tightened. "Wouldn't it?"
Slowly, almost gently, Lavignia pushed the knife into Marian's throat. Marian gasped and went stiff, but of course, the dull blade only collapsed into the hilt, as it was designed to. Marian giggled. Then she kissed Lavignia, throwing her arms around her. Lavignia struggled for a second but soon fell into it. Their breasts pressed together, and they felt each other's hearts beating faster and faster.
"I want you to remember this feeling onstage tomorrow," Marian said. "This is how you have to feel when you do it. This is how you'll own your role. You have to do it for me, baby. You have to make the audience believe."
Lavignia frowned. "I don't know if I can."
"You can," said Marian. "I know you can. You will."
And she did.
Rose squirmed in her seat and clutched her purse. She looked to Abbie for reassurance, but the other woman didn’t even notice; Abbie’s eyes were on the stage, the glare of the spotlight reflected in the round lenses of her glasses.
“Tonight, you’re all going to witness a murder,” the woman on stage said. “It will happen right in front of you. And if you’ll notice, we took the liberty of removing a few of the chairs in this venue…”
Rose fanned herself with her program. She already felt sick to her stomach. She remembered what the review in this morning’s Voice had said: “Startlingly graphic; a ballet of violence; blurs the line between exploitation and high art.” She’d felt ill just reading about it. But she’d come because Abbie wanted to see it. She tried to hard to keep Abbie happy…
“…if a woman screams in the night and makes no sound, will you hear her? Can you hear the Silent Scream?”
The lights dimmed. The woman on the stage pulled the ill-fitting man’s coat tighter around her. She stood at the far right, leaning with a casual posture against a support pillar, watching stage left from under the brim of her slouch hat. With her hair hidden under the hat and the collar of the coat obscuring her jaw line she looked rather like a man. She hid the knife in her coat pocket, but the audience knew it was there.
Rose heard footsteps from stage left, the sound of high-heeled shoes on the boards. Her pulse quickened. The second woman entered, and when the spotlight moved to her a few people in the audience gasped; she was such a tiny thing, like a ballerina. Her arms were little, round, soft doll arms, and her legs looked delicate and frail. Her skin was pale white, like porcelain under the makeup and bright lights.
She did not look at the audience or at the other woman onstage; she only looked down. She walked straight ahead, as if she thought of nothing else in the world except her destination. It was easy for the audience to imagine her walking down a dark, lonely street in the middle of the night, thinking of nothing except getting home. But because she was not looking up she could not know that she had no destination, that the stage simply ended.
Rose squeezed Abbie’s knee in the dark. Abbie did not react.
The woman in the coat moved to block the smaller woman’s path. The small woman started and backed off. She looked scared already, her eyes wide and round, like a little kewpie doll. The woman in the coat -- no, the man, Rose thought, for, in the tight confines of the theater, in the darkness and the heat of so many bodies and the tension of what the audience already knew, it was easy to believe that they what they were seeing was not a show but the reality of what happened, and that this was not an actress but the real killer before them.
The man in the coat smiled at the little woman (at Leona, Rose thought; that's her name). Leona shook her head very vigorously, a pantomime gesture, and tried to turn to go, but the man caught her by the arm. His hand looked huge around her skinny wrist. He pulled her against him. She gasped once, a tiny sound. The man wrapped his arms around her waist and held her, just held her, until she stopped struggling. She shook in his arms like a baby bird.
The man touched her cheek; a gentle gesture, but Leona flinched anyway. This seemed to anger the man, and he responded by slapping her. His palm was loud --CRACK!-- against her face, and several people in the audience gasped; one man even cried out. Leona crumbled, landing on her knees, legs all twisted up under her like a marionette. She looked at the audience with tears in her eyes. She made a pleading motion and tried to speak, but only a sob came out. Those in the front row pushed back in their seats, as if trying to move away from the spectacle.
The killer stripped Leona's coat off and threw it away. Underneath she had several more layers of clothing (it was the coldest night of the year when Leona Ciarelli was murdered, Rose remembered reading), which the killer also stripped. The last garment, a flimsy undershirt, he threw into the audience. It landed in the lap of a man who cried out as if he’d been burned by it. Leona was left almost naked in the spotlight.
The killer forced Leona to stop covering herself with her arms, and she sat there on her knees, her small, round breasts exposed and her pearl-white skin on display for everyone to see. She was shaking all over. She tried to call out again, but of course, she could not.
With an air of malicious casualness, the killer began to fondle Leona’s naked body. His big, coarse hands kneaded her small breasts, and when he touched the flat plane of Leona's abdomen Rose saw Abbie sit forward, half eager and half afraid to see if Leona would bruise. The man stripped her panties off and threw them behind him, then pushed Leona down on her back. She lolled, naked and helpless, crying, each tear a bright sequin under the lights.
“For God’s sakes, run!” came a voice from the back. The audience turned at the commotion; an older man, apparently overcome, was standing on his seat and calling out to the stage. An old woman, perhaps his wife, was trying to calm him, and with some effort she got him to sit down again. If Leona heard him, she did nothing. The killer grinned a big, uneven grin, and shook an admonishing finger at the back row; naughty, naughty. The audience laughed, a frayed tittering that sounded like someone stepping on ice.
The killer opened the front of his coat and fumbled for a moment with the zipper of his trousers. Rose fretted, biting her lip. She looked at Abbie, trying to read her reaction, but Abbie was unflinching as a statue. The man on stage finally got his pants down and then he whipped it out; a fire engine-red strap-on dildo, so huge it almost qualified as a novelty. He waved it around and even shook it so that it made a circular motion in the air, then flicked the tip with one finger so that it seemed to wave at the crowd. More laughter from the audience, but again it was brittle.
That’s when people noticed Leona trying to crawl away. She didn’t seem able to stand, but ever so slowly she was wriggling toward stage left, pulling herself forward with her arms and kicking with her legs, as if swimming on dry land. The sound of her nails on the boards made them all wince. The killer noticed his quarry escaping and, huge rubber cock swaying with each step, he went and kicked her squarely in the ribs. Leona looked like a wash rag being thrown around. She whimpered like a whipped dog and rolled over so that everyone could see the pain etched on her face.
“Sweet Jesus,” said a woman behind Rose.
The killer smiled and kicked Leona again, and then once more for good measure before rolling her onto her back. He crouched over her and spread her legs. She made a flimsy, pitiful effort to fight back, but all she did was knock his hat away. Strawberry blonde curls spilled down, but though the actress’ face was now revealed the illusion, somehow, remained intact; after, many would credit the expression of demonic glee she wore with helping them maintain their all-important suspension of disbelief. Leona was naked and exposed with no way to defend herself. The man’s giant, Satanic penis no longer seemed like an amusing novelty; it looked like a spike ready to gore her.
Rose buried her face against Abbie’s shoulder; she did not want to watch what would happen next. She heard the cry though; not a scream, but a long, low, gurgling gasp, like someone choking on water. Abbie stirred and, very slowly, turned Rose’s face back toward the stage. There, she saw Leona impaled on the cock again and again as the man hunched, wolf-like, over her. His pants were around his ankles and his belt buckle flopped against the stage with each of his movements. Leona shuddered and jerked under him; her legs were up in the air, waving around like two scrawny trees in a windstorm. Her breasts jiggled with the force of the motion, and her head flopped to one side. Over her, the man’s body flexed back and forth, back and forth, as if his legs were the pistons of some hard, untiring machine. Tears pricked Rose's eyes.
The killer pulled Leona up by her hair and held her still, forcing his huge prick against her mouth. She turned her head, refusing, but this only invited another kick. Broken, Leona opened her mouth, letting him stick it inside. He pushed it all the way at one time and she gagged, eyes bulging. Under the intense lights, Rose and everyone else saw the muscles of Leona's throat stretch, trying to expel the intrusion, but the killer refused to allow her, instead just letting her choke. When she began to have fits he started to pull out, but with a crook of his finger he instructed her to purse her lips around the cock as he did. The wet, obscene sucking noise Leona made filled the space of the theater. Everyone knew what he was making her do; suck the juice from her pussy off of him. The killer smiled. Then he brought something out of his coat.
A collective gasp ran through the audience when they saw the knife; many had forgotten all about it, forgotten that the man had showed it to them, that he’d hidden it back in his pocket, that it had been there the entire time, waiting. The sight of Leona’s naked flesh, of the burnt red nipples on her tiny ivory-colored breasts and the smudge of pubic hair over the place where here thighs met, filled them all with a particular horror. The stage lights caught the silver gleam of the knife blade, so that it seemed to glow. Leona’s eyes went wider and she opened her mouth to scream, really scream, but the knife came down and cut it short. Rose looked away again, and again Abbie turned her face back.
The blood came in an arch; it formed a perfect parabola in the air before splattering the stage boards. Leona’s head angled to one side, as it hanging loose on her neck, while the bright red slash from ear to ear accented her throat like a string of rubies. Blood bubbled at her lips. Her limbs flailed helplessly in the spreading pool. The killer mounted her again, pushing inside of her, pounding away at her as her as she twisted in her death convulsions. He brought the knife down again and this time Rose saw it go in, saw the red blossom on Leona’s chest, saw the blood smear her naked breasts, saw it running down her in rivlets and streams. The monstrous prick penetrated her again and again just as the knife did; over and over, opening her up, exposing her. Leona was not screaming. She couldn’t scream. She didn’t have to. Inside, the whole audience was screaming for her.
They all watched.
In time, her flailing became wriggling, and then her wriggling became twitching, and then even that stopped. The stage and both the actors were awash in blood; there was nothing but a sea of red with two red shapes swimming through it. The man, knife still in hand, froze in the midst of one thrusting motion, and those close enough could see his body contort with the unmistakable rush of orgasm. Leona’s head flopped to one side, the only indication that she was still alive. The man stood up, limbs shaking, even slipping a little in the mess. He looked at his hands; they were crimson all over. He tried to wipe them on his coat and his pants, but those were just as bad; all he could do was trade one stain for another.
Leona, by some miracle, sat up. Her eyes were blank and her face showed no expression at all. Every single person in the theater held their breath, and in the silence the drip-drip-drip of the blood running off her body was loud enough to echo. She was waiting for the end, and so was the audience, and the killer, though briefly distracted trying to remove a few drops of blood that had spattered his cheek, finally took his cue. He seized Leona by the hair and pulled her head back, baring the neck wound, and in one final motion he cut through her throat again, deeper, all the way. Leona’s mouth opened and her eyes bulged, and the dull, lifeless look she had adopted melted into a portrait of shock and disbelief. Even now, Rose realized, she hadn’t quite accepted that this was how it would end. She was still hoping, right up to the last second.
The killer let Leona go and she fell forward, splashing face-first in her own gore. Her body looked heavy and inert, like a piece of luggage left to tumble over on its own. The man looked at his hands, then at the knife, then at the blood on his clothes, and he seemed unsure what to do. He did not look at Leona. The audience did not look at her either, instead riveted by him. He threw the knife away. He seemed about to speak, but no words passed his lips. Instead he mimed something for them, putting his palms over his eyes and shaking his head. They had seen nothing, he told them.
The lights came down. The curtain dropped. For a few seconds, the theater was deathly silent. Then the applause picked up. Soon it was deafening, and then the killer, (Lavignia; Rose suddenly remembered the name of the actress) came out, taking her bows, soaking up their adulation. She was still covered in stage blood, still red from head to toe, but she no longer wore the expression of demonic violence. Instead she looked merely like a woman who was very, very relieved. The ovation went on for several more minutes. Abbie was standing and even whistling through her fingers, but Rose kept her seat and applauded only lightly and mechanically.
Soon Lavignia took her leave, stepping back through the curtain after giving one or two more bows. The applause did not die down though, as the crowd awaited the appearance of the show’s other star. And waited. And waited. Eventually, they realized something was wrong. The ovation stalled and then drifted away. The curtain billowed, but no one appeared. Finally, an usher came and said they should follow her to the exits. The show was over.
There was no curtain call for Marian Nichols. Or Leona Ciarelli.
Abbie drove them home. She talked about the show the whole way. Rose was mostly silent.
“Really quite remarkable,” Abbie said. “That girl, Lavignia I think her name was? The physicality of her performance was nothing short of inspired.”
“Yes,” Rose said. They were on the freeway and she was watching the lights on the big billboards. She still clutched the program in her hand.
“I still remember hearing people talk about the Ciarelli girl. I can’t imagine how the whole thing got so blown out of proportion.”
“It looked in proportion to me,” said Rose.
“Well, not the murder I mean,” said Abbie. “Just that story about people watching the whole thing and not calling the police. I never knew that wasn't how it happened, did you?"
“That's how it happened tonight,” said Rose. She had not meant it to be a joke, but Abbie laughed very loudly.
A thought occurred to Rose. “It looked very real, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Abbie. “But it was supposed to. Having her skip the curtain call was a nice touch.”
“Do you think…” Rose paused, unsure of herself. Their headlights shone off the rear reflectors of the cars in front of them, like a parade of glowing red eyes. She kept thinking about how Leona (Marian, she corrected herself) looked at the end, so surprised, and then the look on the face of the killer (Lavignia); relief.
“It would be an awfully clever way to kill someone,” she said after some time. “To make it look like all part of the show.”
“I guess it would,” said Abbie, sounding disinterested.
Rose sat up a little in her seat. “Can we…can we go back and see it again?”
Abbie looked at her. “I didn’t think you liked it that much.”
Rose shook her head. “I’d just like to see that actress again, the Marian one. The one who die-- the one who played the victim.”
Abbie nodded. “I’d like to also. But it’s impossible.”
“What do you mean?”
“Didn’t you hear? That was the last show.”
Rose almost screamed, but she was not sure why. “The last show?”
Abbie nodded again. “It says so in the program. See?”
Rose leafed through it; sure enough, there was a missive on the back cover saying that very thing. It must have been a last-minute decision, because the note was actually handwritten with an ink pen.
Rose felt numb.
“I guess now we’ll never know what happened to her,” Abbie said. Rose knew she was being made fun of, but she didn’t care. “And just think,” Abbie continued, “somewhere out there tonight, someone really was murdered.”
“Yes,” said Rose. “Like every night.”
Somewhere out there, there were sirens. Rose read the note on the back of the program again and again. She lay awake in bed that night, listening to Abbie’s snores and listening to the sirens outside and turning the words over in her mind:
“Tonight will be the last show. Tonight will be the last show. Tonight will be the last show.”
She looked at Abbie, asleep in the dark. She stood, trying very hard not to make any noise, easing up off the bed. In the silence of the sleeping house, her feet made no noise at all on the carpet.
“Tonight will be the last show,” she thought, standing over Abbie in the dark.