Author Archives: qulitmag

Dictums OG-107, Ceremony V

I. I was channeled, spoken by that sunburst.

II. Vaulting through wide crevices of noun, our rooms were filled with music.

III.  Only then described by reoccurrence, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote—There Is No
Question—but our spectacle of green. And you were channeled, too.

IV. To vocalize as such, to multiply, that build-up shone among our bodies. Voices shot up through these stems.

V. Voluminous and gossamer, I piled every flower on our altar.

VI. Red flowers then burned.

VII.  In lying down, I glistened. Vestibules were parted, hungering like bushes. Then that sweetness came and left.

VIII. That was our preservation, offering up prayers like a scent. I could not amplify.

IX. Adjacent then.

X. To varnish without drink, to drink without a cup, that water drank us slowly.

XI. Sparrows stuffed into this wall inside our empty room, though nothing more could shock us after 1963.

XII. Then costumes changed. Each sparrow gripped a knife between their tiny beaks. An olive green was varnished, clipped, subsumed just like our own.

XIII.  Who stole away, lastly, each flower from our altar?

Tell Me These Words Don’t Mean Much to You

IT’S ALL A MATTER of public record—the grisly murder, the killer’s fetish for his hands, his mother’s red Kool Aid, the yellow clay of Belknap Creek, the yellow American Girl roses my sister-in-law keeps ordering. Even me, I’m part of those court records. But not every fact is in there. Some day next week or the next I’m going down to the basement of the Woodbury County Courthouse to prove what I suspect is true—the court reporter stopped typing. Ladonna denies she said those words. My husband says there’s a rule about what can and can’t be recorded. I say Lady Justice, that cold stone-faced woman, came unhinged in the courtroom that day. She was not only blind but deaf and maimed as well.

The words that I heard I am not making up, although, like the police, the prosecutors, his lawyers and, of course Ladonna, my brain has been working overtime. My mother says let it go. But I know, and you need to know, that in over a dozen court appearances and a year of legal maneuverings, Ladonna in her fresh new hairdo and manicure and new size 6 dress and that loose-lipped, cock-eyed, cock-brained boy were playing the same rigged game of chance. And believe me, they weren’t deaf. She and that boy—they listened to each other, they loved the same soft incessant stirring of the crowd and, as if it was a game, they watched the same balls tumble, hoping for a turn, for one last chance to best the other and call “Bingo!”

The court reporter sits in the shadow of the judge’s bench, her dark suit and hair and her wooden face disappearing into the stained oak paneling, her expression never changing, her eyes focusing on some invisible point between judge and witness. A tiny lamp arcs over her keys, making her fingers stand out from her black sleeves. Fingers long and curved, she types the way my fifth-grade piano teacher wrote in my Hanon Scales, Book 1—“curve your fingers, knuckles up, do not look down!” On the next page, above exercise two: “Faster.”

All the hard evidence is locked in boxes and envelopes in the basement of the courthouse in a room marked Records. The trial took on a familiar pattern: evidence comes up, postponement, evidence goes down. Another court date is set, we come in, that evidence comes up, the boy appears in his new hair color, the hearing starts and halts: psychiatrists, DNA admissibility, his shoes and soil samples, the red stain on his Grungy Monkeys t-shirt (he claims it’s Kool Aid, Ladonna claims it’s blood, the judge says either way it’s not admissible), Leanne’s t-shirt, jeans and panties, (where her bra went we don’t know, maybe she’s still wearing it); her shoes, more soil samples; two geologists, both experts; the $100,000 bond his parents paid in cash; the names of witnesses: twenty-seven East High kids all drunk, all stoned at a party down along the Missouri.

Those kids swear that he was there at the river, that Leanne was there. That much is sure. Some say he was acting spooky, talking about the things his hands liked to do, where he liked to rub them. Even in court, he kept those hands tucked in between his thighs. Some say Leanne was acting wild with a bottle of Wild Turkey, coming on to some fat-jawed wrestler, and some say why else does a fifteen year old carry condoms in her purse.

Now that the case is closed, all those words and more, 560 pages more, every word that court reporter typed, is part of the public record. You go to that court- house, go downstairs, read the court reporter’s notes. Sift through hair samples, and saliva samples, and carpet scrapings from a 1998 Honda. You tell me what you see, then I’ll tell you what you still don’t know.

——

Ladonna likes tomato red—she says the color photographs well. In every one of the Mattero family photos you can spot her right there, bright red in the middle, between all the dark brothers—Roberto, Frank, Vinnie (he’s a policeman down in Omaha so he thought he was a big help in all this), then Art and then the youngest, my husband Tony, out there on the end. Red is the color she wore that Monday morning when the lady came to do the first story.

Ladonna had called me to come over and by the time I got there Ladonna was sitting on Leanne’s bed, all those stuffed animals left over from when Leanne was a kid propped up around her. A box of Kleenex and Leanne’s tenth-grade class picture were next to her.

“My little girl just wouldn’t disappear, I know she wouldn’t.” She told the TV lady the story about her ex being a cattle buyer down in Boca Raton, how she’d checked with him and Leanne wouldn’t go there anyway. She held up Leanne’s picture and the TV woman told the camera guy to do a close-up.

The TV woman was the older one, not the blond, but the one who does the daily features and fills in on weekends. I could see she felt sorry for Ladonna, probably had kids at home who were giving her trouble too. She was trying to find more than the news. “When did you last see your daughter?”

Ladonna fingered the ears of a pink bunny. “This was her favorite. We went to Adventureland last summer.” She looked up. “On Friday. She came right home from school and I had to be to work at five,” (Ladonna had worked her way up to assistant manager at Red Lobster), “so I opened her a can of soup for supper. She said that she and Shondra and a couple other friends were having a sleep over.”

The TV lady whispered to the guy and he crawled his camera over Leanne’s bed and desk and the walls of her room. Ladonna had straightened things up. She’d gotten rid of the clothes and CDs and dirty dishes Leanne always left all over the floor. She’d taken down the love scenes from Titanic that Leanne had taped above her headboard. While the man’s camera was taking in everything, the TV woman checked her notes. “You know, Mrs. Richards, there’s been some criticism in the newspaper about why you waited until Saturday night to report her missing.”

Ladonna bristled at this, but the reporter was only doing her job.

“She told me she was sleeping over at Shondra’s. When she didn’t come home in time for her dance class, I called over there and Shondra’s mom said she hadn’t stayed there and then she called Shondra down at dance class and then she called me back and she said Shondra said that she said she was staying at some other girl’s. By the time I called all those other girls and my parents and my brothers and Stacy,” she looked at me, “it was already quarter to four and I had to be back to work.”

I could tell by the TV lady’s face that this story was getting too long.

“What come into my head,” said Ladonna, “was that lady up in Sioux Falls, how that meatpacker hacked her up and stuffed her in the trunk of his Olds Ninety-Eight. She wouldn’t just disappear, not my Leannie. Someone’s got her, someone’s done something to her.”

She collapsed back into the pillows and hid her face in her Kleenex. A couple of stuffed teddy bears came tumbling onto the floor. I gave the TV woman a look like how would she like this to be happening to her. I kicked the animals under the bed with the rest of the stuff.

The reporter edged away from me and around the other side. “Mrs. Richards, at this point the police still have her listed as a runaway, am I right?”

“She’s not a teen runaway!” Ladonna sat up. She’s a short woman, but she was heavy enough at the time that while she didn’t seem fat, she did seem substantial. I never liked to argue with her. “She’s not a runaway. The police just say that because they’re too lazy to look until it’s too late.”

That was the first thing Vinnie had told her over the phone—that they wouldn’t start looking until they suspected foul play and then it would be too late.

The TV lady edged a little closer, so close I thought she might sit down on the bed. “So, do you feel that the local police have mishandled this case?” Now she knew what tonight’s lead-in would be.

Ladonna screwed up her lips. “Wouldn’t you?”

The cameraman waved a hand, and the reporter stepped in front of the shelf where Leanne had her ribbons and her dance trophies and watched for the red light to come back on.

She said the name and number of her station and reminded people “—if anyone has information about the whereabouts of Leanne Richards, last seen wearing dark jeans and a red ‘Save the Whales’ t-shirt, please call the station—” As the reporter gave the 800 number she fingered the buttons on her blazer. Then she turned to Ladonna. “Mrs. Richards, do you have anything else you’d like to say?”

Ladonna sort of drew herself up. I saw that she’d been watching the TV lady and already knew how to look right into that red spot. Her voice started soft, real sad. I did feel sorry for her.

“I just want to say to whoever’s got my little girl, whoever you are, please don’t hurt her, oh please don’t, she’s all I have. Please let her go.” She paused, looked down to hide the tears while the camera moved closer, then she looked up and spoke a little louder. “Leannie, hold on, honey, Mommy’s coming.”

That night we watched the evening news in my kitchen—me, Tony, our two girls, and Ladonna because we didn’t want her eating alone and she didn’t want to go over to her mother’s. What the TV lady said had us all crying, me, the girls, even Tony, right there at the kitchen table while our chicken and Stove Top got cold. The TV lady came on and then Ladonna and then the TV lady again.

Then the police chief came on with his side, “It’s always been departmental policy.” He was sitting at his desk in the new Law Enforcement Center and you could see how his window looked out into the clouds. “We like to take our time and be thorough. Nine times out of ten, the kid shows up on their own. In the Richards’ case, we’ve interviewed family members, we’re checking with relatives in Boca Raton. We’ve checked school records and talked to the girl’s counselor. She says there has been a history of chronic absenteeism.”

“Now why would that counselor say that,” snapped Ladonna.

Then Ladonna came back on TV. She looked real good—brave and scared—like you’d want to look if this was happening to you, especially in the part when she called out to Leanne “Hold on, honey, Mommy’s coming.” You could have heard a pin drop all over Siouxland.

Well, it must have worked. The next day the Journal ran a mini-editorial. The next day my Chareese came home from school and told me that the police knew about that party down by the river that Friday night and were at school all day interviewing kids, finding out who was there and who wasn’t.

And the next day a farmer over by Akron was out checking beans and saw a spot of red down along the drainage ditch. He said right away his mind brought up that poor little lost girl he’d seen on the TV news. He just had to go down there and look. And there were her shoes and clothes, the gag from her mouth, and some blood on the sand, but not her.

After that came Leanne’s picture in the paper a third time. Then came a front-page picture of Ladonna still sitting on the bed, those stuffed animals still propped up beside her.

And then there was his picture in the paper—front page, full color. A young kid, bright orange hair, haunted eyes, in a black t-shirt and earring, raising his middle finger towards the camera. It was the kind of thing you didn’t see right off, you were so busy looking at his face and those eyes. Chareese had to point it out to me, said the kids at school went wild over it. Bet someone down at the Journal lost their job over that finger. After that came the arraignment.

And after that, after that day when they first spied one another, that’s when Ladonna and that boy raised the ante.

——

Some day next week or the next, I’m going down to the courthouse to see if Ladonna’s words went through that court reporter’s machine. All the time during the hearings, behind the other noises—the judge clearing his throat, the lawyers shuffling their papers and their shoes, the people behind Ladonna and me whispering their opinions, that boy’s mother leaning into her husband’s six hundred dollar suit and softly crying, that boy sniffing and rubbing his nose on his shoulder, the sound of the air conditioning, then later the furnace, then the air conditioning again turning on and off, on and off—all the time behind all those sounds I could always hear the soft tap-tap-a-tap of the court reporter’s keys as her curved white fingers followed the rise and fall of the words, running up their scales and down, recording the sounds made in that courtroom. She played that machine exactly as it’s written in my scale book: “Wrists straight, don’t look down, hear the scale,” and finally above exercise five, the last one I ever tried, “Trust your ears to lead you.” Did she ever write a wrong note? I don’t know.

But I do know she stopped typing—a grand caesura—when Ladonna stopped the whole court proceeding and said what she said. And I want those words to be in there.

Vinnie came up from Omaha for the arraignment. He had some vacation days coming and he’d worked on a double murder kidnapping case three years before. Tony had gone to work. Chareese was at school. Vinnie and Ladonna and me were at the kitchen table.

“I seen these kind of cases before,” Vinnie said, “and believe me, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

Ladonna wiped some cookie crumbs off the table and onto the floor. “The police chief said—”

“He’s an asshole.” Vinnie looked at me, knew I didn’t like that kind of language in my kitchen.

“He said that—” Ladonna tried again.

“I don’t care what he said. He runs a shithole department, excuse my language. They already screwed up the case by going through the kid’s house and car without a search warrant. You know what Chief Big Butt Lacey will do now? He’ll sit on it. Believe me, he ain’t gonna get outta his chair. I know how his department works. He’s gonna assign some detective who puts in his nine hours and goes home. And the county prosecutor—he’ll play with his dick awhile then write another press release. Meanwhile that rich kid’s lawyer—these are billable hours—you better believe he’s working overtime.” He turned in his chair and swirled the coffee around in his cup. Vinnie liked his coffee real strong and I got up and put on a second pot.

“I seen that kid’s mom around the school last year.” Ladonna said it like she already didn’t like the mom.

“What you got to do,” Vinnie put his thick hand on the table in front of her like he was pinning down a plan, “is put pressure on the police, you got to keep Leanne on top of the paperwork pile.”

“I seen that boy’s mom at the school.” Ladonna was stuck on that. “Don’t they live in one of them new houses south of the mall?”

“And I can tell you what else. The police won’t do squat to that boy until we find the body.”

I knew what Ladonna was getting at. In this city, you can’t keep up. I had seen that boy’s mom around school, at band parent meetings, tavern suppers, parent- teacher conferences. (My Chareese, she gets good grades, an A in business math.) She’s the kind of parent who sits on committees and can stand around laughing with the principal. Just by looking at her you pretty much knew where she lived. Back when Ladonna and I went to East High, the popular kids, which we weren’t, all lived between Sunnyside and the high school. Ladonna still lives down on South Royce, but now that I live in Sunnyside—my Tony’s got a real good job at the meat plant (in the office)—now the rich folks have moved up into those hills overlooking the mall. They’re all computer people from California, like what that boy’s parents are, happy as toast that whatever their bungalow in L.A. sold for buys them a fancy six bedroom out in Singing Hills. Another hundred thousand gets them over in Dakota Dunes. Ladonna had seen that boy’s mom around school and I could tell by the way she suddenly started tapping her nails on my kitchen table that she knew things were stacking up for Leannie the same way they always had for us.

The first time Ladonna ever gave her little talk “What I Want Every Mother to Know” it was at the Singing Hills PTA. This was after the court hearing when the boy was released on bail and was still living up in those hills at # 22 Tamarind Lane. For the PTA meeting Ladonna made up orange flyers with Leanne’s picture xeroxed on the top and “Advice to Concerned Mothers” underneath and a poem she’d copied out of the September Women’s Day. It looked real professional. The lady down at the office supply store helped her with the layout and then took up a collection among the employees for the Little Leannie Richards Save Our Children Defense Fund. When Ladonna passed out the flyers, she talked to the mothers about being empowered.

She’d learned that word from the gray-haired lady at the women’s support group she went to up at St. Luke’s Hospital. I went along the first time. Empowered means you can change the tune any way you like. You don’t have to play the scales the way they’re written. I didn’t go back. Later it came to me—that court reporter in her fancy wool suit and pale white hands, if she thought she was empowered, what gave her the right? Lady justice should play exactly what she hears. And she did hear those words, didn’t she?

At that PTA meeting, on that flyer, Ladonna’s very first bit of advice was “You have the power to make your neighborhood safe—even if it means creating a disturbance.” Ladonna was into creating disturbances. She gave those mothers extra flyers to pass out to their friends.

So when the boy’s Singing Hills neighbors started complaining and started writing nasty notes and that boy’s family tried to move across town, the Dunes people had already seen those orange flyers on their Singing Hills friends’ refrigerators and had heard about it in their own support groups and didn’t throw the flyers out when they came with the rest of the junk mail. (The VFW let Ladonna use their postage meter.) And when new orange flyers—ones with a picture of that boy and the words “Have you seen this killer? You soon will!”—hung from every doorknob in their subdivision, you better believe they had the power to force a realtor and a seller to back out of a sale.

It was all in the papers—the letters about safe neighborhoods and letting killers go loose, the boy’s claim that he was being persecuted, the parents’ declarations that their son was innocent, the letter from the neighbor who three years ago found three cats dead in his backyard and still had suspicions, Ladonna’s claim that little Leannie couldn’t rest happy until every child’s neighborhood was a safe one.

Then that boy and his family disappeared. We weren’t sure where they were living. Ladonna couldn’t get the court to tell her and later we found out that they’d bought a house on the back of a golf course up in South Dakota without any of them people knowing. They did it through their lawyer, cash, a big two and a half story thing up on that ridge that runs east of Vermillion. The house is all sharp angles and odd roofs. From halfway down the ridge it looks like a sailing ship parting the grass—at least that’s how it looked to me in the paper when that crazy boy was standing up there on the mast with a shotgun to his sister’s head.

——

I’m getting out of order. If you’re going to hear what Ladonna said in court that day, you have to hear the order there was to it—how she and that boy played it out.

First Ladonna went on TV.

No, wait. First Leanne didn’t come home, then Ladonna went on TV. But, really, before that was Ladonna kicking her husband out of the house and before that was her marrying the bum in the first place.

Next, that farmer found Leanne’s clothes and that rag with saliva and semen on Leanne’s picture was in the paper again. Then Ladonna’s was in the paper. Then Ladonna made the five-thirty news once more.

Then the police arrested that boy. You heard about that picture in the paper. At the arraignment, his hair was dyed green. And at the hearing to bump him up to adult court it was dyed blue. At the hearing to determine if a psychiatric evaluation was needed it was dyed yellowy-orange again. You can guess how that decision went. Four months later just before he was declared competent, a big article all about him appeared in the paper. This time his hair was dyed bright pink (they ran a full color front page picture) and he told why. He was part of the Rainbow Coalition and he was being discriminated against, just like them, not because of anything he did but because of what he was and what he looked like. Ladonna was furious—every morning since Leanne’s birthday she’d been going to the school and laying a yellow American Girl rose beneath the flagpole and no one had noticed that! Chareese said that the next day half the school came with their hair dyed some crazy color just to show sympathy for him.

So Ladonna complained and the local news came out a week later and took a picture of Ladonna and a bunch of Leanne’s friends praying at the pole.

Then that Chicago columnist who’s always doing these kinds of stories picked up the story. He must have called that boy’s family because he never called Ladonna or me or any of the brothers or her mother. The column started with “The slow jaws of the judicial system have chewed up another childhood” and he wrote about how this young boy had been sitting in jail for seven months and how the police never found a body and how there never was a search warrant and how any evidence the police had was clearly from entrapment. Most of all he stressed how there was no body. He must have phoned that boy in the jail because he had a quote: “I just wish that girl would come home and let me out of this hell.”

Then came the hearing when he was released on bond.

After that was when Ladonna started handing out pamphlets and giving her talks.

Maybe Vinnie gave Ladonna her next idea. Maybe she got it from reading that newspaper column. I don’t know, maybe it was the way the county prosecutor kept pushing for it. Ladonna got her priest to do a funeral, a big memorial service where she wore black and the brothers read eulogies and the casket had yellow roses and a ribbon saying “Beloved Daughter” and she even put that empty box in the cemetery plot that her and her ex had bought back when things were going well together. There was a tombstone with Leanne’s name and dates and a cherub and the words “God Loves His Little Angels” on one half and room for Ladonna on the other. It still gives me the shivers, the way the priest said, “We labor in vain when we look to this earth for answers.”

For a moment it made me think, maybe, finally, Ladonna would put Leanne to rest. But then I’m not Catholic. I married into the family. Her mother snipped out the photo of Ladonna and the gravestone and hung it on her refrigerator next to a St. Jude Novena from the very same page. She said it was a good sign.

One thing that never was put to rest was the rumors. They kept coming up about Leanne and they kept coming up about that boy. During the months and months of hearings, the judge had to sort out and that court reporter had to type in what could and couldn’t be admissible, what was hearsay and what wasn’t, what the law would allow as evidence and what it wouldn’t.

Like the knife. It belonged to the boy. The police found it in his car.

Like the hair. It belonged to Leanne. The police found that in his car too.

And mud from Belknap Creek. It seemed to be everywhere. Even on Ladonna’s basement carpet.

Even some stuff about Ladonna started to rise to the surface.

——

I forgot to tell you about what happened after Vinnie gave his speech about the squeaky wheel getting oil. We’ll go back to there.

First thing Ladonna and Vinnie did was talk to their father and he talked to the VFW who got a whole bunch of volunteers together and for the next three week- ends we combed every inch of land up around Akron and down by the river. At that first search, Ladonna was on the news in fancy hiking boots and a red wool jacket. By the second weekend there were close to three hundred people out looking for some trace of Leannie.

The TV station sent a camera crew on location and they took shots of Ladonna standing at the edge of the ditch. The map calls it Belknap Creek. The reporters interviewed the farmer and took shots of some tire tracks the police had missed and the searchers had found. Ladonna came off a little hysterical, calling the police names and demanding that the FBI be called in. Some people, including my mother, thought she was having a nervous breakdown. But this was before the support group and the PTA talks and her spot on Oprah with other mothers of teenage daughters who were victims of date rape. (She was told that she should tell all the details—about the knife with a notch for every girl he’d ever done it with, about the rag, the hair samples from his car, the yellow clay on his floor mats and on Leanne’s shoes, the pornographic pictures and drawings of swastikas the police found between his mattress and box spring, the tattoo, especially about his lawyers’ legal maneuverings and the ten months of delay in setting a trial date and how he was free on the streets, how he even got to go to his senior prom. But Ladonna was not to mention that boy by name. Oprah did not want to get sued.)

So, about that knife.

Forget about the knife and the notches. I think Ladonna made that up.

It was somewhere back in time there, between his pink hair and Ladonna’s decision to network; it was then that the boy came to court with the tattoo. At first, from a distance it looked to be a black smudge—I thought of Ladonna, the mark she wore on Ash Wednesday. The judge ruled against some evidence: what our geologist found in that creek bed; what the detectives had taken from that boy’s house and car before they got a search warrant and what they took after the search warrant. I don’t remember exactly.

After the deciding, I slipped out, caught up with the boy at the elevator and squeezed in like I was family. He was standing at the back, head down, and as I shifted around to get a better look, the mother shuddered. I don’t think she knew me. But I saw her shudder. I know how bad I feel when one of my girls does something that disappoints me. Chareese got her tongue pierced last Friday.

The mom stood there, eyes closed, lips tight, as her husband pushed the button. Her head tipped back against the burnished metal wall. You could see things in her face you couldn’t see from across the courtroom. What words had come from her lips when she first saw it? What fears flipped through her heart? When that boy first walked into her kitchen with his new tattoo—what if he’d caught her doing dishes, her hands all soapy and warm, looking out over that broad flat plain below their house (they were living outside Vermillion by this time), what if she’d been looking out over that old riverbed where the Missouri used to roll, what if she’d been thinking back, back to a time before the trial, before he’d been born, before she’d been married, before quarter-sections, pioneers, explorers, Indians, thinking back to wetlands and oxbows, terns and plovers, back to a place and time when the river flowed smooth wherever it wanted, what if she’d been standing there, escaping to then, when that boy came in? I know kids. I can guess what he did. He stood there in her kitchen, anticipating the moment when his mother would turn and first see that mark on his forehead. I’m a mother. I know. At that point, what could she say, what could she say? I feel so sorry for her, of everyone, most sorry for her.

From across the courtroom it looked like a tiny black smudge. But up close—when the elevator bumped against the bottom floor, when I pushed a little ahead, then glanced back over my shoulder—up close the spot took shape. Three tiny circles, all together no bigger than a nickel, three tiny circles with black tails flipping up. A tiny 666.

Chareese said it doesn’t mean anything, those were her words, “Mom, it doesn’t mean anything.” (These kids, these well-boned, white, strong children, heirs to the whole wide world, what have we hatched?) She said a couple other kids in school had done the same thing.

So do marks mean nothing, do words mean nothing? All the words that that court reporter did or did not type—do they mean nothing? It’s so easy to lose one’s place. Her hands so white, her fingers so curved, her calm forever forward-looking face, her tune a soft and rhythmic one-tone tapping. Why should I doubt her efficiency? Why look for something that’s not there? My mother says let it go. And Ladonna, she’s recovering.

——

After that boy came in with the 666 tattoo, the papers and people started all up again. Channel Nine ran a week long investigative report on “Kids and Cults: Making Siouxland Safe.” After that, that’s when Ladonna went on Oprah and after that was when his lawyers moved for a change of venue. That’s when that boy came on TV and gave his own press conference: “This is a symbol,” for one moment he lifted his hands from between his thighs, one finger touched the spot between his eyebrows; you could see the camera lights flashing, “a symbol of what you people have done to me. Madame Defarge has her needles. Kurtz, a dark heart. Hester has her A—” (that’s from Scarlet Letter, Chareese told me that he was really smart) “Marvel’s mutants wear Xs. Now I have my mark. You’re the ones, you’re the ones who have branded me.”

You see! He understood that marks have meaning!

Things quieted down after that. Maybe the courts put a clamp on the news people. Maybe it was self-imposed by some editor or conscientious station manager. Ladonna was a little distracted, busy planning for a big rally where moms from all over Iowa were going to march on the State Capitol and make demands for “safe streets, safe lives, safe children.” A PTA in Norfolk was after her to come and lead a three-day seminar. And of course, there was the Little Leannie Save the Children Foundation to watch over. The secretary she’d hired was having trouble with the new computer system, trouble keeping up with all the contributions. Ladonna, as CEO, had given herself a raise. Officially, the judge said he needed time to deliberate on that boy’s motion. I suspect he already knew that words and names and places disappear faster from memory than they do from newsprint.

Suddenly, the last Friday in July, that boy’s lawyers, all three of them, showed up in court ready to cooperate. They agreed to allow the DNA, to accept the findings of our geologist, to allow the hair samples from his car as evidence. They gave up the diary.

The next morning Vinnie showed up in my kitchen. He’d read the court proceedings in the Omaha Herald and called in sick to work.

“How can your lawyer be so stupid!” He threw his hands against the table. “How can you be so stupid!” He looked at Ladonna and me as if we controlled what came up out of that basement. “Don’t you know what’s in that diary?”

It seems he knew and the boy’s lawyers knew, and the guys in the evidence room knew, probably the whole police force had read it—they all knew what was in there.

Ladonna frowned. She didn’t like to be told anything.

“It seems that this kid and Leanne and a couple of their friends—they were into this secret game.”

“I don’t believe it.” Ladonna lifted her chin and turned her head toward the window. When she saw Vinnie wasn’t going to say anymore, she turned back. “What kind of game?”

Vinnie sat quiet.

“What kind of game?”

“Kinky stuff. Sex. Drugs. Bondage. Stuff I don’t like to talk about, stuff you don’t want to hear about.” Then Vinnie shut up.

It wasn’t like him not to talk so I knew it was bad and suddenly I knew why in court the day before, when that boy’s lawyer had said they would allow the diary as evidence, that’s why that boy had turned in his chair and stared straight at Ladonna. She was looking around the room, whispering to the other mothers, proud that she’d finally won something for Leannie. She didn’t see it, but as that boy turned back, I saw it there, for just a moment, the slightest smile, a smirk. He knew he’d drawn the lucky number.

 

“I don’t believe it,” Ladonna said that day in the kitchen. “I know my Leannie.” She must have sometime, somehow, heard something about their games, but she never let on to me that she knew. I know Vinnie never said another word about it to her. From what the detective told Vinnie and Vinnie told my Tony and Tony told me, Leanne’s nickname was the Sorceress. That’s the name the boy used for her in the diary, and the detective said they found other boys, witnesses, friends of his, who were finally willing to testify publicly about what they did and that she was the one they did it with. The boy had called himself the Lord of the Manor and kept careful records about potions and elixirs and virgin knots and the size of men’s swords, where they sheathed them and when—it was an elaborate system of names—but it all came down to the size and tightness of body parts and sex and drugs and stuff you don’t want to hear about. He even wrote about how they would use her “castle” whenever the “Dragon Queen” was spending the night in the cave of the “fat dwarf.”

I knew Ladonna had been, at the time, seeing a heavyset salesman from an office supply store. Way back before this started, over coffee, as I finished the breakfast dishes or we decorated cookies for my little one’s girl scouts, she’d tell me how they’d gone dancing or out to Theo’s for a steak, or up to the Plaza Bowl. Were they sleeping together? I didn’t ask. She didn’t say. It was just like Vinnie not to say out loud what was in the diary. There are words that stay out of the light, out of our family, out of our life, out of my kitchen. See how efficient we can be?

Of course, it came out in the papers and on TV—not the graphic details but close enough. And when one of that boy’s friends, the fat-jawed wrestler, was finally up on the stand (hearings had been held for all those boys on whether to make them accessories or give them immunity) he told about their game, and the money they played with, and how Leanne had been talking Minneapolis. And when the prosecutor kept badgering him about it and then kept badgering him more, the boy blurted out, “It weren’t no different than what her old lady was doing upstairs with her fat boyfriend.”

Even that got typed into the public record, even though the prosecutor com- plained and the judge raised his eyebrows. You see how quickly her fingers could fly, typing in the notes that played, copying down word by word by word the things that escaped? (Those boys got immunity, every one of them; they all swore, “It was a game, for Christ’s sake, just a game.”)

And then there was me who said I always knew Leanne to be a good girl (what else could I say?) and smart. She was a real smart girl. By the time that day was over what it came down to was that that blue-haired boy had won two in a row.

Ladonna, she said she didn’t want to go back into that courtroom, but I told her she had to, for Leanne’s sake. Maybe that was my mistake. But there were so many rumors about Leanne and Ladonna and our family. Chareese came home from school crying in the middle of the day and said she wouldn’t go back.

Then the boy’s lawyers made their next move. They called on the judge to declare a mistrial. What the boy’s friends said Leanne said, that was all hearsay and should never have been admitted as evidence. It took the judge another week to decide.

You have to hear this next part very carefully—words matter.

That next court date Ladonna wore a red suit, one I hadn’t seen before, and black pumps. Since she’d lost weight and started jogging, there were a lot of clothes I hadn’t seen before. She sat in her usual spot—the first row behind the prosecutor’s desk. I sat on one side of her. Her mom sat on the other. Ladonna had contacted mothers on the We Are One Website and a whole bunch of them were all there with her. The judge sat, round-faced, up above us. The court re- porter sat below him, listening intently, typing, typing, typing, typing in that boy’s side, typing in Leanne’s side.

I’m sure that boy was hoping for a dismissal. (Don’t we all want to slough off the old skin and start as someplace new?) When the judge said no, that the trial would continue, you could see the boy’s shoulders slump. He dug his hands in tighter down between his thighs and he sort of collapsed. The judge asked him to stand. One of his lawyers, the bald one who always wore a bright hankie in his breast pocket, helped him to his feet. I could see the boy’s face. His eyes were coming clear as if he was finally realizing that this was no game.

The judge brought his gavel down hard. The boy’s head reared back, his hands came up, and he yelled, “The body, where’s the body? You don’t have the damn—” His lawyer pulled him down. Every eye was fixed on him.

Ladonna. That’s when Ladonna claimed back the spotlight and rose from her seat.

“Stop it.” Her voice made the boy’s face freeze and the reporter’s fingers stop playing. “Stop killing me, stop it,” she yelled back at him, “why don’t you go kill somebody else!”

Tell me those words don’t mean much to you, tell me that. It would make my life so much easier.

——

Someday, next week, or the next, I’m going down to the basement of the Wood- bury County Courthouse to prove what I suspect is true—the court reporter stopped typing. Ladonna and her mother say I’m exaggerating, that Ladonna didn’t mean anything by it, that she didn’t know what her words could do, that the boy probably didn’t pay attention to them anyway. My mom says, “Of course she stopped typing—she was as shocked as the rest of us.” Tony says that court reporters have to stop, that the only thing allowed in public records are the official proceedings. I say, couldn’t she hear? Words, words, words, what good are a million words if you leave out the right ones. What made her fingers freeze? I want it official. I want some mark of how Ladonna played it out. I expect Justice to be blind, but not deaf, not paralyzed.

Two weeks after Ladonna’s outburst, Chareese came busting into the kitchen after school and rushed for the TV on the counter. All three stations had camera crews out at his house. He’d already killed his brother in an upstairs bedroom and for the past three hours, he’d been sitting on the peak of his house, holding a double-barreled shotgun to his sister’s head. You could see the lights of all the patrol cars flashing and hear the voice of his mother calling to him. You could see a uniformed policeman climb out a second story window and edge along the roof towards him. The boy looked right down into the camera, into my kitchen, and mouthed something into the bright white afternoon air. Then he blew off his sister’s head and then his own quick as a wink just like that. They didn’t replay that last part on TV but I watched what was before it two more times and watched it again on the evening news and then again at ten. I saw his lips move.

I read his final testimony. I knew who he was talking to when he said it, “Are you happy? Are you happy now?”

——

I wonder how her fingers feel at night, how much her ears can hear when it’s dark. I know the condo where she lives. No, I didn’t follow her home. It’s a matter of public record. But I drive by some nights. How do her fingers feel when she sleeps: tired? strained? aching? Do they need a bit of a rest? Do tiny muscle spasms ripple through as she records the words her dreams long for?

And Ladonna? Oh Ladonna, she still stops by my house for morning coffee, maybe not as much as she used to, but she still comes by. She’s got a hairdo like they show in the fashion magazines. She’s got her new size 6 clothes. She’s got her three year appointment to the governor’s commission on crime and violence. Sometime next week or the next I’m going to the basement of the courthouse. My mom, she says to let it go, turn it over to God and time, that it’s over. Leanne’s gone. The boy’s dead. Two innocent children have been blown away. Tony doubts they’ll let me down there. Ladonna—she’s happy with what she’s become. And me, what has become of me? You can hear, can’t you?

Michigan Would Get Beautiful

RODGE WAS NOT a hurrying kind of guy, but he moved quickly when the front doorbell kept ringing like an alarm.

Cecile hurried in. “I had to hit the bell with my elbow. My God.”

Rodge got the box of Band-Aids and soon was covering the blisters at the base of his wife’s thumbs, along her fingers, over her palms.

“Ow,” she said and then laughed to reassure him. “The staple gun tried to kill me.”

“You need to hire an assistant.” “It’s only one room.”

“If you can’t get help, you should quit the whole idea,” he said. She laughed at him.

“Look at your hands.” “They will heal.”

“I mean it.” He worked for a hospital in accounts receivables and his world was full of people who ended up in the ER, sometimes dying because of preventable accidents. “I’m telling you to stop. I insist.”

“No.”

The Jordan house—the Jordan room, and a small room at that—was her first job. She didn’t have enough money to hire an assistant, not after living off her savings while she learned the interior decorating business.

It was not lost on him that as soon as their wedding was over, Cecile had begun redecorating him. But he’d been flattered, really. His coworkers noticed him all of a sudden. And Cecile’s concern for the right cut and collars of his shirts— well, it had been fun to get so much attention. But now she was all about the Jordans. The way the Jordans lived. How everything about the Jordans was just right.

“And when they don’t pay you? How will you like the Jordans then?”

“They gave me a deposit,” she said, her voice rising. “Of course they’ll pay the rest.”

That night, he couldn’t get near her with her hands swollen and balanced over her crotch like a fence. He went out to the living room and sat alone in front of the TV, cracking open a beer and staring at a sports channel. This had been his life before meeting Cecile. He didn’t want it back.

***

Cecile Collette had been Pat Graves before she decided to quit her office management job and follow her passion, a financially dangerous move. “It’s now or never,” she told her coworkers who’d gently implied she was out of her mind. She was forty-nine. This was in Pittsburgh. She moved to Cleveland. It was only two hours west, but it was somewhere else. She wanted nothing around her to lull her back to old routines. Everything would be new, including her name.

Since she was changing her life, she decided to dip her toe—might the ice have finally melted?—into the waters of love. She joined online dating sites, one of which coughed up Roger “Rodge” Debrett, only two years her junior, who pro- fessed to liking candlelight and long walks in the rain—bogus she was sure—but whose mint green shirt with dark-green stitching, epaulets, and white buttons cried out to her for rescue.

They met for coffee. He talked a lot about himself, but she ignored his sales pitch. Rather, she was assessing his comb-over, the fit of his jacket, the possibility he’d inflated his value. And had there been damage in his early years? Yes, she thought, I could do something with him.

***

Naked and spread-eagled, she listened, shocked, to her loud and uncontrollable giggling—she giggled?

Rodge hopped in circles, his lowering hard-on bobbing up and down, his tie over

his hair like a headband while he cried, “Hoo ah! Hoo ah! Hoo ah!”

It was during their honeymoon—two nights at the Renaissance-Marriott with a pair of tickets to a Browns game and dinner at Johnny’s—that he noticed how she’d touch every fabric she came close to. It made him think of Braille.

“Isn’t it all just cotton?” he’d joked, listening to her identify what the bedspread was, what the thread count was, what the pillows were expected to do. A cold look came into her eye, and he hurriedly backtracked and let her know he was actually “pretty bowled over.” Hell, she had to realize, he told her, “I don’t know any of that stuff.”

Her eyes remained steady. “I don’t want you to know it,” she said. “It’s only important that I know it. It’s what I do.”

“Well,” he smiled a certain smile, “as long as it’s not all you do.”

***

In the morning, Cecile let herself into the Jordan house, a rambling clapboard in Cleveland Heights, big as far as she was concerned, but lacking the reach and manicured lawns of wealthier neighborhoods. Inside was a mix of valuable and worthless pieces and, like place-savers, possessions of the two children who were off at college. There were also toys for the toddler, a late baby, Poppy.

Hallie Jordan told Cecile she’d called her after seeing her ad in the church bulletin. Which church Hallie meant would remain a mystery; Cecile had joined three. Possible clients would connect Cecile Collette Designs with the fellow parishioner seen in a (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Catholic) pew. She had also joined the Rotary, the Mandel Community Center, the Chamber of Commerce, and two book groups. All this in addition to her website and a blog.

And only the Jordan room to show for it. Cecile learned that the problem with following a passion late in life was muscling onto the turf of people who’d fol- lowed their passion a whole lot earlier. She was gently but unequivocally rejected for hire in their shops. Her competition was not only dug in but fiercely defensive. She was an unattended nova in a very small heaven.

“Cecile,” Hallie cried as she came into the kitchen. She was carrying Poppy. The little girl had Down syndrome, and her wide face held a questioning look as she turned to Cecile.

“Hi, you two.”

“No, what happened to your hands?”

“Nothing. They’re fine. Comes with the territory. Hello, Poppy. Hello.” The child tucked her head into her mother’s neck.

Turning to find her purse and car keys, Hallie said, “I may not be back before you leave. Help yourself to coffee, okay?”

When they’d gone, Cecile felt that icy freedom of being alone in someone else’s house. Quietly, almost on tiptoe, she walked through the first floor. Framed photos covered the walls of the hallway. Smiling Jordans. The two older kids holding Poppy between them like a prize. Troy Jordan in a summer chair, mugging in Ray-Bans. The fact that no one was breathing or speaking in the pictures encouraged her to idealize their lives. She studied the progress of the older two, from baby photos through school years and into young adulthood, taking them into her heart until she might have given birth to them herself. She returned to her work in a confusion of moods: inspired, sad, motherly, joyful, even elegiac, having lived through a generation of a family in a concentrated twenty minutes.

The problem she’d been solving for Hallie was a room off the kitchen. It was too big and too open to be made into a pantry, and the lack of windows made it difficult for any other use. Cecile drew up a picture of the room as a breakfast nook inside a tent, pleated fabric covering the ceiling and walls, light fixtures that were simple and strategically set.

Hallie hadn’t been sure of hiring her until she’d seen the drawing. “You can do this?”

Outlining the room in furring strips had been easy. Getting the pleating around the central point of the ceiling had gone well. Tall, she was also strong and not afraid of ladders. But using the staple gun became an issue. By the time she attached the fabric along the top of the walls, she could barely move her hands. A hammer and tacks worked until she smashed a fingernail.

She decided to spend the morning trimming and taping the fabric edges. After methodically working around the little room, she found her fingertips drying out and splitting. Moisturizer would help, but it might stain the fabric. In her tool bag she had a box of disposable latex gloves. She put on a pair and continued.

That night, with her hands throbbing anew, she began to think she hadn’t asked enough for the job. She’d been afraid to lose the business if she asked for more money. Wasn’t an initial low price better? But the room was turning out amazing.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry. Nothing’s wrong, Rodge. Go back to sleep.”

She wanted to kill herself for not asking enough money. There were guidelines. Why hadn’t she followed them? Well, she hadn’t, and that was that. What she needed were more clients, which raised another question. What was keeping her from making Hallie her friend? They were about the same age. Going over the short conversations they’d had, it seemed as if Hallie was offering friendship. But that could be courtesy. A presumption on Cecile’s part could be damning for future business. But if they became friends, Cecile could connect to Hallie’s other friends and then the friends of those friends.

“Quit sighing.” “Sorry.”

“What’s the matter?” “Nothing.”

“How about we do it?” “What? Oh. My hands.” “Are we ever going to do it?” “Of course, but my—”

“We can do it without using your hands.” “Rodge, it’s pretty late.”

“Don’t move. Okay? I’ll do everything.” “But I need you to get me turned on first.” “I know. That’s what I’m doing.”

“It’s not really—Rodge.” “Keep your hands in the air.” “It’s not—”

“What!” he yelled. “It’s not what? There’s always something that—this started with the Jordans. You have to get away from that snob crowd. It’s them!” She threw back the covers and hurried out to the living room.

Rodge followed, yelling. “The damn Jordans, damn, rich Jordans. You have to stop this stupid stuff, Cecile.”

Cecile now began seeing Rodge as she would a large, unmovable cabinet that drew the eye from the rest of an otherwise beautiful room.

He yelled.

She shoved him toward the front door. He yelled louder.

“I need my sleep,” she screamed, “so I can do a good job for the Jordans. It’ll get me more work.”

***

It was the following day when the trouble started. After Hallie settled Poppy in for an afternoon nap, she saw Troy getting out of his car. His face looked dam- aged. “How come you’re home?”

“Can you come inside?” he asked and let her lead the way into the house. “Is that woman here?”

“No. She’s picking up a light fixture. She’ll be back.” “Christ.”

He went into the living room and sat down, waiting until she sat across from him. “First thing this morning, because we’re getting backed up, I call the outfit making the new machine.”

“For the eco bags.”

“Yep. I say, ‘Hello. It’s Troy Jordan. I’m checking on the order.’ And he says,

‘What order?’”

“He lost your order?”

“There was no order. He never got an order. No deposit, no nothing.” “So you reordered?”

“With what? There’s no money. That shit took the loan money. My partner.”

She stared at him, picturing his partner’s friendly, undistinguished face. “He took it where?”

“He stole it. He’d been out for a week, so this morning, I call up the machine people. ‘How’s it hangin?’ I find out nothing’s hanging. So I start checking. He cashed out our line of credit. I don’t know where he went. He’d put in for vacation. I thought he was in Wyoming.”

“Wait. He took the money for himself ?”

“I was with the lawyers for two hours before I had to get out of there. That shit left with over three million dollars, and I have to pay it all back, which I can’t, and no machine, no way to fill the new orders. No nothing. We’ve been backed up with shipments and getting the place up to speed for the new stuff.”

“There must be papers. Contracts.”

“Oh there were, yeah. I signed all sorts of papers. They were dummy papers. Nothing was real. I called in the lawyers. They called the prosecutor and the FBI. Jesus Christ. Everything.”

“God.”

“I trusted him.” “Was he on drugs?” “I don’t know.”

“Or gambling.” “I don’t know.”

“What about insurance? Is there insurance?”

“Nothing that stops the bank from taking the business. They’ll take everything. Or they’ll give me another loan, and I’m not sure I can manage two of them.”

“He’ll be found. You can’t disappear anymore.”

“I’ll never see that money though. And I may be sued. I may be indicted. I

don’t know what legal costs I’m looking at. The payroll still has to get out. This morning I thought that machine we ordered, thought we ordered—I was worried about the ventilation and the electrical codes—and this son of a bitch—”

“Legal costs? They can’t indict you.”

“You know what’s funny? He knew just when we had the most cash available to cover everything. I was at the table making plans with this shit, and all the time, he’s waiting for everything to ripen.”

Hallie was silent, staring at Troy, who now flung himself up and against the back of the chair as though the thing had goosed him. She only stared at him for something to focus her eyes on while this news shifted and butted inside her head. She began thinking very quickly.

The cars, she could sell one of the cars and a lot of the furniture, most of it, and sell the house, the contents of their life suddenly flying off into the blue.

It came to her that she would never want to eat anything ever again. What’ll we do? seemed a question both inadequate and redundant to the moment. After a long time—sunlight slipping from the front of the house to the back, the middle of the day leaving them with the beginning of an afternoon—the news was no longer something that happened to other people. Never to them.

He said, “We tell the kids the rest of college is their dime. They’ll be all right.” Seeing her face, he said, “They will be.”

“I know.”

“I wish I was younger. For what’s coming. I’m thinking of driving off a bridge.” “Don’t drive off a bridge.”

“Okay.”

Poppy. Security for Poppy. Now something violent squeezed her heart. She felt herself trembling.

He said, “Off a cliff ?” “No.”

“I think I’m serious.” “Please.”

A slow creaking noise came to them. Cecile was letting herself in through the back door. There followed a long struggling sound as though she might be burdened with a large package. The noise became a scrabbling. Then the quick suction of her shoes—was she trying to be quiet? The kitchen might have been the aim of an inept burglar. Had someone else decided to rob them? One thief wasn’t enough? They got two?

Catching her husband’s eye, Hallie’s shoulders began to shake. Troy threw up his hands. He began shaking, too, his eyes shut, his mouth opened wide, gasping back laughter. After a short time, hysteria played out only to return when they heard Cecile call out to them from the kitchen, “I’m here?”

“Okay,” Hallie managed to answer before leaning sideways against the sofa arm, her eyes squeezed shut, shaking with strangled laughter. Grief seized up inside her. “Oh,” she said finally, sniffing, sighing. Pointing toward the kitchen, she whispered, “That room might make it easier to sell the house, the—decor?” She was gripped again in hysteria, tears down her face and her breathing hiccupping.

***

That evening when Rodge came home from work, Cecile was soaking her hands in Epsom salts. He found the ibuprofen and fed two pills into her mouth and held a glass of water gently against her lower lip so she could swallow them.

“He was home in the afternoon,” Cecile told Rodge. “Troy. I heard them laughing in the living room. I was hanging the chandelier. It’s not a real chandelier. It’s plain. But it was just big enough and just heavy enough. Thought I’d fall off the ladder. And don’t look at me like that. I can hang lights. It was just . . . They were laughing. You know how people make those wheezing, sucking sounds like they’re trying to be quiet, but they can’t stop laughing?” She felt close to tears, hurt by the suspicion they’d been laughing at her.

What she didn’t tell Rodge was what followed the laughing. There was a long moment of silence, and then Cecile realized they’d moved to the living room floor and were having sex, the noise from them loud and thumping, someone’s voice yowling, the other voice grunting. It felt like the whole house was in on it. She hurriedly finished and ran out before they reached the end. On the way home, she nearly had an orgasm at a red light, so aroused was she by Troy and how she imagined he was going at it in the next room. That she’d overheard them infuriated her. She couldn’t recall instructions on how to deal with this sort of thing in her professional guidelines.

***

The atmosphere in the Jordan house that evening affected Poppy, who, sensing something wrong, fussed and was unhappy. Both parents gave themselves over to her, distracting themselves with her care. Long after the little girl went to sleep, Hallie and Troy were still knocking about the first floor, tidying up as though cleanliness might save them. Unable to stand being awake any longer they finally went to bed.

Anger came in waves for Hallie. She worried about Poppy. The older kids would take care of their sister as everyone aged, as she and Troy passed on, but that wasn’t what flayed at her. It was her child’s immutable innocence. Like light, this moving, diapered light. Hallie responded with such a need to protect her that a threat of any kind sent her soul raging against the universe, screaming at it from inside her head.

Troy was awake. She thought he might be crying. Like a lover bereft. She remembered him before the theft, anticipating his company’s future, a new machine for the newly designed bags, ecologically sound, his war against plastic. For months, so much excitement and wonder. Like a teenager with a first love. He was heartbroken.

What would they do?

Her job was suddenly important. Teaching remedial math had flattered her sense of civic spirit, the extra cash allowing her to hire someone to fix that worthless sort of room off the kitchen. She’d teach more classes. But that would leave her less time for Poppy. She’d need more time for the child now that she couldn’t pay for Poppy’s team. Only she’d have to work more hours—

They’d sell the place, of course. Pay off the mortgage. Maybe sell it themselves to save on the agent’s fee. Yes. They’d do that. They’d have everyone they knew over, a goodbye party and—Does anyone know anyone looking to buy a house? A sell-the-house party. Her spirits rose at the idea of everyone coming inside to them, one last time. Soon, she thought, before it’s all over.

***

The following morning, Cecile let herself into the Jordan house. She was wearing her best clothes, expecting a group of people to see the tented room reveal. Instead, she was alone. She waited. She took photographs. When she felt she’d captured every angle, she waited some more. Hallie finally came downstairs and into the kitchen, a mean, bitter expression on her face. Poppy was walking with her, holding her hand.

Cecile said, “Ready when you are!”

Hallie let the little girl go in first and followed. “Oh. Very nice. Yeah.” She laughed. “My God. It’s actually magnificent.” She leaned against the doorway. “Oh my God,” she said as though completely defeated. “I’m going to have to. I knew I would.” Cecile was amazed at the woman’s response. Poppy turned and toddled out of the room. Hallie followed the girl. “Poppy. Come with Mommy.”

And wouldn’t you know, Cecile thought, catching some errant threads. At eye level beside the doorjamb. She used her thumbnail to tuck them under the fabric. She searched around in case there were more. Sure enough, at the angle

where the baseboard met the molding. On her knees doing a quick fix, she heard a car move along the driveway. She wondered if Troy had come home again in the middle of the day. Back on her feet, her face close to the edge surrounding the door, she gave it a last going over.

“Honestly,” she laughed, thinking Hallie was still close. “Two tiny threads. There’s always something, isn’t there.”

No response came. She went out to the kitchen. Hallie and Poppy had disappeared. She called out. No one answered.

Hallie’s number was on her cell, and when she tried it, she heard it ringing on the second floor. Calling Hallie’s name again, she walked through the house. She found the door that led to the basement and hollered down. Nothing.

Angry now, she decided to stay until someone appeared. All day if she had to. The final bill was in an envelope in her purse. She went into the living room and sat where she could see most of the first floor. No one would get by her.

After about twenty minutes, she heard a car again. It was Hallie driving up with Poppy.

“God,” Hallie said on her way in. “I can’t get my head around anything.” Settling the child in her left arm to free her right hand, she began pulling cash from her purse. The money, with the distinctive blue line announcing these were hundred dollar bills, was folded and jammed into Cecile’s hand. “Grab it while it’s going,” she said, her eyes tearing. “No more where that came from.”

Cecile felt it would be bad form to count it out. She closed her bandaged fingers around all the cash. It had an unanticipated feel. She had expected a check.

Hallie went into the tented room with Poppy. Her voice harsh, she told Cecile, “I was right. It does make the rest of the house look like crap.” “I could do the living room if—”

“No, no. God no. We’re selling the place.” “What?”

“I’m having everyone over for a party. The last stand at the Jordans’. We need to unload it, like yesterday.” She stared at the walls and ceiling of the room, and her face began to soften. “Yeah. I’ll miss this. It’s so beautiful. Beautiful.”

Cecile felt her breath getting shallow. New owners might not like a tented room. What if they tore it out? “Why?”

“So we can start over. You should buy it. Do you want it? The roof has to be replaced, and the furnace gets wonky.”

Unsure of what to say—a simple no seemed rude—Cecile asked, “How much do you want for it?”

“Whatever. As much as we can get.” She put her hand over the back of Poppy’s hair, stroking it. “And we’ll have a big party. This was a good house. We’re having a big send-off. Goodbye house. We have a lot of friends. Someone might know someone. Otherwise, I call a realtor. Whatever.”

Cecile said carefully, “Can I help you set up? For the party? I can do up a table so it’s—”

“No! This is crackers and a bowl of punch. They won’t be coming for the food.” “I won’t charge. I mean, I’ll just do it for free, like an ad for myself.”

“Oh.” Hallie said. She seemed to bring Cecile into focus. “Okay. If you want to.” Taking another look at the room, she said, “You should come to the party. Right? You have to be here. People will ask how you did this. I couldn’t tell them. Come, okay?”

***

It was after five, and Rodge made himself a drink.

“I’m so late,” Cecile cried as she hurried in. The amount of worry in her voice alarmed him. “I don’t want to be early to this thing, but I don’t want to be too late either.”

“Are these clowns some kind of royalty?” “You aren’t drinking are you!”

“No.”

“Where’s your good jacket?”

The way she was fluttering all over made him want to catch her as though she were a huge bird let loose in the place. She yelped when he got his hands on her.

When he began roving down her breasts, she yelped louder and hurried away. The bathroom door was slammed in his face. He heard the shower running. Furious, he had another drink.

And another quick one before he took his own shower and, later, because it was really annoying him the idea of her excitement about the rich people, a very short one before letting Cecile help him into the new jacket she’d bought him. His old jackets no longer buttoned across the front. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he threw back one more before they left. “Honey,” she said in a strong voice. “You don’t need that.”

As he drove, she held on to the handle above her window.

“Where is this place,” he asked in a voice that told her the place couldn’t be anywhere good.

“You’ll like them.” He said nothing.

“And I have to tell you, my God, she wasn’t kidding about cheap food,” Cecile laughed. He recognized her bright and cheery come-on-Rodge voice. “Wait’ll you see. Saltines. A block of cheddar. And this punch bowl. I helped her get this silver monstrosity out of the attic. A couple of cans of fruit juice and a gallon of cheap gin. Otherwise there’s a pitcher of tap water. I’m still laughing. It’s that she just didn’t care. She thought the whole thing a big hoot. But I arranged it so it really looks, just, oh my God. And all I did was take some leaves from a catalpa tree I found near the back of the garage and some sprigs of euonymus. I think she appreciated what I did. The table looked incredible. It’s good to be friends with people. The punch bowl belonged to her great grandmother. It took me over an hour to polish it. And right next to it, she sticks this tower of plastic party cups. I’m serious. Those little—”

“All right.”

“All right, what?” She waited. He was silent.

“Rodge, just be yourself. They’ll love you. Just the way you are is fine.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel.

They had to drive three blocks beyond the address to find a parking spot.

At the front door, he sucked his gut in hard. Affecting a very formal tone, he said, “Now. My dear.” He held the door open. “After you.”

Gently, she said, “You might stick to water.” A lot of  noise. There was a crowd of people. “Everyone!” Rodge said in a loud greeting, his hand up. The people closest turned, smiled, made room.

She went into the dining room and almost hollered. The catalpa leaves and euonymus sprigs were piled up like compost behind the plate of crackers. The rest of her greens, as she looked, were on the floor. The table was covered with unmatched platters of deviled eggs, meatballs stuck with toothpicks, rolled ham slices, bite-size quiches, cookies. Of course, Hallie’s friends. But didn’t Hallie know her friends would bring food? Without thinking, Cecile moved a few sprigs and leaves, freeing them and then rearranging them. She heard, “Excuse me,” and moved to let a woman who’d entered the house behind her with a dish of crudités and dip find some space. Cecile introduced herself while stifling a little rage. Stay on course. Meet everyone. The table design was a freebie. The first people into the house would’ve noticed it, and that’s more than enough.

She turned to Rodge, wanting to encourage him to eat something, but he was pouring out two glasses of punch, and she took one from him, thanking him.

“By all means,” he said, “my dear.” “What?”

“Should I make a toast to you,” he said, smiling.

It was then that she heard Hallie’s voice from the kitchen saying, “That’s her.” She looked over. Hallie and a few women were grinning at her as she called, “Cecile!”

The woman beside Hallie yelled, “That room!” Cecile realized others had turned to see who she was. “Come see it,” Cecile said to Rodge.

As she moved to join Hallie, she realized Rodge had noticed the greeting she’d been given. And she saw from the corner of her eye that he didn’t like it. He picked up the ladle and replenished the punch in his cup, his expression full of injury.

She threaded her way through the crowd to get to the kitchen. Here she began to realize the people around the Jordans were the same hodgepodge as the furniture, unmatched and plain or beautiful or young or very old. Her spirits lifted; the mix augured a place for her too. And weren’t they all talking with such animation! The party went at a faster speed than any party she’d been to before. She stepped with buoyancy into the kitchen. To let her pass, a number of arms lifted cups containing the juice-colored gin of the punch, and this put her in mind of weddings where the bride steps under a salute of swords.

“Oh,” she laughed, ducking to get through. She felt very young. She joined Hallie and her friends at the doorway of the tented room. The lights from the hanging fixture and the sconces she’d installed had the place looking magical.

“You did this?” One of Hallie’s friends asked her. “How did you do this!”

“You like?” Cecile laughed. Yes, she happened to have some of her cards with her. “No job too small,” she sang out softly. “And the bigger the better. Anything and everything.” She remained near the decorated room while this group lauded her. Her heart filled. Were her feet even touching the floor? If I can’t make something beautiful, she thought, I don’t want to live.

Rodge supposed he should squeeze into the kitchen and see the room, but instead, he lifted his chin in a signal to Cecile. She should follow him. He was going into the living room. That’s where it seemed obvious party guests should go. They didn’t belong in the back of some kitchen.

Two couples standing near the sofa were deep in conversation. He moved near them, stumbling slightly over the rug.

One of the men said, “I don’t think four hundred. Maybe three fifty?” They were pricing the house, he realized. He moved a little closer. The talk turned to mortgages and interest rates.

Rodge said, “Hah,” and the four people turned, smiling at him. “How much would you say they’d get?” one of them asked.

“I wouldn’t buy a whole house,” Rodge said. The words felt sticky on their way out of his mouth. “I’m in . . . condo. Gotta condo. Right.”

They stared at him. Then they turned away.

He went back to the dining room. To a young woman nearby, he said, “Looks like the well might rush dry.”

She gave a cursory look into the punch bowl before moving past him.

As he drank from his refilled cup, he caught sight of Cecile in the kitchen. Her head was thrown back, her mouth wide open. Her eyes were closed. She was crying out, “Oh!” and the group around her was laughing.

He went back into the living room and kept going. He ended up in the hall- way. The hallway was covered with family photos. He went over and looked at them. Bending close, he wanted evidence of privilege. Cecile should see this, he thought. Vacation pictures of people who hadn’t paid her. That cash she’d come home with hadn’t fooled him. He believed the wads of bills had come from her own savings account to save her pride, to convince him the Jordans weren’t stringing her along. Meanwhile, she was over here polishing their silver all after- noon for nothing. He had to save her from this mess she’d gotten herself into.

He didn’t hear Troy descending the staircase.

***

Troy had put Poppy to bed. The idea of the party had seemed crazy enough to him to wrestle his feelings onto a mat, pinning them down and leaving him agog. Distraction was carrying him for the moment. That was the immediate plan.

He was halfway down the stairs when he spotted the comb-over and the enormous gut on a middle-aged stranger. The man was inspecting each of the family photos with a pronounced sneer on his face. The sneer was aimed at pictures of the older two, Troy’s son and daughter. Babies and then toddlers, his children maturing through beach trips and graduation pictures. And then Hallie with the newborn, and from Hallie’s arm, a waterfall of blankets all the way to her sandals and, peeping from the crook of her arm, a pink knitted cap. Whoever this man was, he gave a snort before draining his cup, after which he turned to walk back through the house.

In the dining room, Rodge picked up the ladle in the punch bowl. He saw Cecile spot him from the far end of the kitchen. She shot her hand up. He glared at her. Her face, and her hand flapping, told him to come and look. Her expression promised it was fun. His glare replied all this nonsense had gone on long enough. Two men beside her joined in. Now he had a trio waving him forward. They looked like cartoons. He turned his attention to the punch, scraping up the last of it.

Troy had followed him. “Who are you?”

Rodge smiled at his host. “I’m Rodge,” he told Troy and put down the ladle. He held out his hand. “Cecile’s husband.”

Troy ignored his hand. “Rodge Collette? You’re an interior decorator too?” “Debrett. I’m Rodge Debrett. And I work at University Hospital.”

“What are you, a doctor?”

“A doctor? No. Not exactly.” He pulled at the edge of his new jacket with the hand that had been refused.

“What are you!”

Rodge took his time, wanting to frame a title for himself that might flatten this son of a bitch. “You think I’m one of the docs? No, your error.” He felt his balance go off kilter and grabbed the side of the table. As he steadied himself, he had a glancing view of his wife and the women and men around her watching him with alarm. Watch this, he wanted to tell them. “Listen,” he said. “A doc? I’m the man who makes sure those doctors get paid.” His heart seized a bit just then because he believed the other man was about to hit him. He braced his feet on the floor, fists up, ready to return a punch.

Troy didn’t hit him. He turned his back on him and walked away.

Rodge hollered, “What am I? You want to know what I am?” and unzipped his fly.

Cecile saw this and so did the people around her. A few more heads turned in his direction and, with that, more and more people turning to see what had every- one suddenly paralyzed. His hand pulled out his wrinkled, fleshy coup du ciel as Cecile had happily named it. It moved, growing slightly as though sensing many people. Turning its singular eye, Who all is here in anticipation? Then the thick hand of its owner directed it down. Rodge peed into his cup, a few drops ricocheting up, the noise echoing in the sudden silence. He poured the cup into the punch bowl, a torrential noise given the hush. To the sound of his wife crying out to him, he did this a second time for good measure.

***

The house with the tented room sold quickly. The furniture was sold, too, and one of the cars. Until a plan was in place, the Jordans moved in with Hallie’s mother, who lived in a bungalow in Bay Village with her partner and her partner’s dog, a Great Pyrenees. The dog, a natural nanny, hovered over Poppy, who grabbed its fur and hugged it, followed it, fed it, and often napped against its heavy belly.

The two elder Jordan children came home to find work and cheap rooms. They were there at dinner when Hallie’s sisters and brother came over with their partners. The dining room was crowded. A chair had to be brought in from the garage. Hallie now and then put her hand on Troy’s back, rubbing the soft fabric of his shirt. It was less support for Troy—though it was that—than a warning to the others not to pile on with advice or opinions. The two grown children watched their father as though unable to recognize him. When Troy announced he’d begin again and it would be even better, it was a non sequitur. Hallie’s mother brought up the affection the dog had for Poppy. She told anecdotes about previous family dogs, devious terriers and foolish hounds, but the stories gained only a little flight before losing air.

Finally someone asked, “Who was that guy? At the party?” The room came to life. Hallie and Troy began laughing. “Oh my God, that guy!”

“I will never drink gin again in my life.” “Or punch. Nothing liquid.”

“But who was he?”

“That’s what he was saying. That guy. He was telling Troy who he was.” “I didn’t care who he was.”

“He came in with Hallie’s decorator.” “Did she bill you for it?”

“He was the only thing that made me glad to sell the house. I couldn’t eat in that dining room again.”

As they laughed, talking about the party, Hallie looked for the dog. There. Once she found the dog, she saw Poppy, her lifeline, an antidote. Seeing Poppy, she felt her breath come deep and steady. She sat back, calm now, and felt her son’s arm around her. She heard her grown daughter’s voice, “You should go into catering, Mom.”

***

“Beatrix Windsor,” Cecile, now Beatrix, introduced herself to the woman. They’d left St. Paul’s after Mass at about the same time, and the woman looked approachable. “I’m new to Grosse Pointe, to Michigan in fact.”

“Oh. Welcome. You’ll like it here.” “Just hoping to find things peaceful.” “This isn’t a business move?”

She turned for a quick look at the lake before they headed into the parking lot. “I lost my husband.” She didn’t mention how. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

“I wanted to kind of start fresh. Away from memories.” “I don’t blame you.”

“And my business is portable. I’m an interior decorator.” “A decorator.”

She would not be downhearted. The divorce had left her nearly penniless, but enough remained after they sold the condo to cover an apartment rental and new business cards. She found part-time bookkeeping work, something to hold her until Beatrix Windsor Interiors began taking on clients. Her ads were already in the bulletins of her new churches. She had not been afraid to knock on doors of design shops and show photos of the tented room. One owner said she might be used, as he’d put it, for any overflow. Just that slight promise had thrilled her. To keep her spirits high, she worked evenings on her living room. Her landlady was impressed. And the landlady might know people.

There were nights she was tempted to go back to a dating sight and find another man. A fantasy of romantic moments tempted her. There were times she longed for the bustle of children, of pets and schedules and hurrying, the measure a shared life would take of her. But then she’d sketch out a solution to the problem of a room and become so engaged she’d question if love was really in her best interest. People didn’t blossom beneath her talents the way a sofa or a wall could. Burned bridges and a foolish man be damned, she could be happy. Michigan would get beautiful. She had her passion.

 

 

With permission of the University of Iowa Press ©2020 Eileen O’Leary. Used with permission.

All rights reserved.

Sophia Terazawa

SOPHIA TERAZAWA is a poet of Vietnamese-Japanese descent. She is the author of two chapbooks: Correspondent Medley (winner of the 2018 Tomaž Šalamun Prize, published with Factory Hollow Press) and I AM NOT A WAR (a winner of the 2015 Essay Press Digital Chapbook Contest). Her work appears in The Offing, Puerto del Sol, Poor Claudia, and elsewhere. She is currently working toward the MFA in Poetry at the University of Arizona, where she also served as poetry editor for Sonora Review.

John Struloeff

JOHN STRULOEFF is the author of The Man I Was Supposed to Be (Loom Press) and has published poems in The Atlantic, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, PN Review, and elsewhere. He is a former Stegner and NEA Fellow and now directs the creative writing program at Pepperdine University.

Elissa Russell

ELISSA RUSSELL has always had a penchant for languages and the arts. She graduated from the University of Texas, where she studied English and French. She has worked in theatre education for several years: at the community theatre in her west Texas hometown, and professional theatres in Austin and Richmond, Virgina. Currently, she is a theatre educator and administrator and resides in Colorado, where she continues to explore her passions for theatre, children’s literature, directing, and writing.

Kimberly Ann Priest

KIMBERLY ANN PRIEST is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021) and the chapbooks Still Life (PANK, 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass 2020), and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP 2018). Her poetry has appeared in several literary journals including The Laurel Review, RiverSedge, and The Berkeley Poetry Review and she is a winner of the 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize in the New Poetry from the Midwest anthology by New American Press. A former book reviewer for NewPages and intern with Sundress Publications, she is currently Assistant Professor of First-Year Writing at Michigan State University, and an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and Embody reader for The Maine Review.

Eileen O’Leary

EILEEN O’LEARY attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and won a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Eight of her plays have been produced and she was a Second Rounder/Comedy finalist at the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting competition. She has recently completed a novel titled The Long Rehearsal.

Mary Lotz

MARY LOTZ is a fiction writer whose stories have appeared in journals such as The MacGuffin, Ruminate, and Ascent. She has a PhD from the University of South Dakota and taught in the Writing Department at Grand Valley State University for a number of years. She recently completed the manuscript of a novel about an ex-con who tries to avoid trouble and his sovereign citizen brother who loves creating it.

Judy Klass

JUDY KLASS: The Emperor’s Interview was produced by Brutal Sea Production Company at the Dog Story Theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2019. Seven of Judy’s full-length plays have been produced. One, Cell, was nominated for an Edgar and is published by Samuel French. Another, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One, won the Dorothy Silver Award. Another, Country Fried Murder, won the S.O.P.S. competition at the Shawnee Playhouse in Pennsylvania in the Full-Length category and was produced there in 2019. Thirty-five of Judy’s one-act plays have been produced, many with multiple productions, all over the country, and a few have gone up in the UK and Ireland. Three are published, each as a stand-alone script, by Brooklyn Publishers. She has a full-length play called Kimberly in Overdrive slated for a premiere production with OPPA! in Layton, Utah, and four short plays, one of them a premiere, that were slated to be produced … and hopefully they will be, when it is no longer a Plague Year.