The Art of Drowning – Episode 5

The Dead Have Their Needs – by Phil Huston

Caswell set his guitar on the sofa beside him, picked up the vibrating phone.

“Cas –”

“You sent a women’s world ginger looker with a sassed-up mouth up the elevator this time, Caswell. I have whining from six directions.”

“She came on her own.”

“She knows your name well enough. Special Investigations lets you pick them now?”

“Yes, but she picked me for this one. And she’s three times as smart as she is good looking. Who’d she piss off?”

“A scrupulous, rule bound and higher ground young ladder climber a few flights down. He wants her disciplined. Something about a donkey?”

Caswell laughed, out loud. “You’ve pulled her file?”

“That’s why I’m calling. She makes too much noise we’re all miserable. How does a pushy Irish lass get a hand signed thank you from HRM?”

“She figured Henry’s headless wives magically piling up in the shadow of the Queen’s front gate, and nothing on CCTV. Why did you call me?”

“We need to talk.”

“You and Shona need to talk. She knocked, not me.”

“You think –”

“I think being a lady copper smarter than the lot of us is a shit job. She needs to know you respect her, not me or the letter. Be a gent. Call, meet her in a village pub somewhere away from the cameras, give her what you have. And you and I never spoke.”

“Then?”

“Then that mouthy ginger looker and I will make whatever is still an embarrassment to the Crown’s alphabet of ministries, after lo these many years, go away. Quietly wrapped in a whack job murderer.”

“What if there’s more to it?”

“Job security, mate.”

***

Shona sat back the half mile from the rusting hulk of the Juliette Simone with her binoculars on the dashboard of the complete piece of shit pinkish metallic 2001 Vauxhall Corsa they’d given her from undercover’s garage, simply because she didn’t have time to flirt with them, and read over maritime records and tables from October 1918. In French. Looking for some record of the ship in front her that had been flying a French flag, with no registry to be found. She glanced up in time to see Kylie and her unobtrusive belt pack full of swabs and vials and dental picks sideways herself into a fissure in Juliette’s hull.

She pulled her sunglasses down when a tall, thin, youngish man in wrinkled slacks, shirt tail in the breeze and Jesus sandals, who’d lost his razor a good few days ago, exited the BMW that parked twenty yards from her. He carried a rolled-up blanket under one arm and an oversized phone in his other hand. And he was headed straight for the Juliette. Shit. She texted Kylie to kill her torch, get back up into tourist land inside the hulk. She let out the breath she was holding when “OK” came up on her phone.

Wrinkled was navigating the sand and rock in the direction of the hulk when a man and a red setter appeared from behind the shallow cliff to her right. She picked up the binoculars.

Dammit. Kirklin? What the hell was he doing? He was retired from doing things for the government the government didn’t know about, and there he was with a frisbee and an Irish Setter on a collision course with Wrinkled? A frisbee toss that looked errant, but was perfect, sailed close enough to Wrinkled’s head to make him duck. There were smiles, a frisbee hand off, a brief conversation. Wrinkled patted the dog, walked off talking on his phone until a yellow VW parked next to his car. A woman ill dressed for the beach climbed out, took two steps before she leaned on the car and set her high heels on top. Wedding ring. Sensible suit. She took off jogging as well as she could in the suit and sand toward Wrinkled. Kirklin and the dog stayed by the Juliette, played a lazy toss and fetch game of frisbee.

Shona tapped out “False alarm. Back to work” on her phone

“?”

“Binkie beach shag. With the other”

“😊”

***

Shona and Kiley clapped politely, whistled lightly when Caswell’s band of oldies playing even older oldies mixed with blues called an end to their early set in the Frog and Peacock.

Shona breathed “Thank God” through her smile.

“I liked them. It’s fresh their way and the one looks like an old hospital mop can still sing. Too loud by half, but they’re old and deaf and probably have no idea there’s technology can do it without the volume.”

“He knows. He won’t.”

“You’re a pair, then. Old ways, hard work, results are all.”

Caswell pulled a chair, dropped into it.

“Cas? Kiley. She’s –”

“The singing forensics. Kylie? Seriously?” He hit his beer, set it down. “I know exactly how old your mum is. You, too.”

“She won’t like that, you being a bit of a heathen who might tell shag in a lay-by stories on her.”

“Not her. Her older sister is a different tale told.” He pulled the new manila envelope out from under Shona’s elbows. “Any the wiser, are we?”

“I ran into a cheeky, by the book, aromatic, stiff hair and creases wall in London. Two days later I had a ring from the Tower of Secrets. What do you know about that?”
“Nothing.”

“I’ll call that a fatherly lie. Kirklin out of the fog with his dog, probably his Walther, on the off-chance of weaker sex copper mischief?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s another.” She flattened a few folded papers. “As nothing’s are on the table, there’s nothing about our once floating catacomb. French flag, French papers that lead back to nowhere and a supposedly ‘oops, murdered by frightened farmers’ British crew.”

“Supposedly British or supposedly farmers?”

“Both.”

“Expendable crew, order bound soldier assassins told the mutinying enemy was afoot, no documents we can see. What did your friend in the tower have to say?”

“Gas.” She used her fingers for quotation marks. “Possibly”

“Nerve gas?”

“He insinuated that it was more than nerve gas. Something they had refined to not make victims twitch and spaz like a backline dancer on Madonna’s Your Nasty Grandmother tour while their skin melted. ‘Madness’ is what he said. Timothy Leary gone full on, ‘if I could put that up in my young brain.’ I told him Leary was after the last big war and he said that LSD was a weak, housebound half-sister to whatever this was, if it ever existed at all, which again he wouldn’t confirm.”

“Kylie?”

“From what I could pull through the black ink, it appeared to be chemically targeted to create almost instantaneous, short circuited brain failure. Every channel on every satellite, every song on every iPod letting go all at once in your head. Your childhood, your dreams, your fears. Your monsters under the bed and your realities and yesterday and right now all swirling around behind your eyes. The brain we use is a forty-watt bulb in a thousand-watt socket. Crank the voltage –” She popped her thumb out of the top of her water bottle. “Something has to give. When it does, everything shuts down. Drop to your knees death. By brain freeze. If it was fast acting and atomized or broke down quickly, when the bodies were discovered there’d be no trace of a chemical attack. The only curiosity being death masks of unimaginable fear.” She rolled the water bottle in her hand and sang, softly, “If you leave me now, you take away the better part of me…”

“Chicago? Fine, but not the ballad slop.”

“Ballads have their place.” They both shot him a look across the table.

“Right. Journey’s next, then. We have acid’s pumped up twin riding the sand storm of evil. Bottom line, Shona?”

“The test subjects mightn’t have all died. The Tower of Secrets is thinking if any didn’t, they might never.” Their little table became the center of a quiet universe for a few beats.

“Ab fab, Dahlings. I put in a word, Kylie’s DNA scrapings are rising to the top with nary hindrance or question.” He nodded toward the small stage. “The boys want another short go.” He held out his hand. “Kylie?”

She went beet red, held up both of her hands like shields.

“Like that, eh?” He stood, tugged on his belt loops and adjusted the baggy corduroys. “When the next victim of the evil sand storm turns up we’ll have you back for a go with a proper reggae ‘Down On the Sloop John B’.”

“‘Pirate’s Bride’ would be nice.”

“Sting is it now?”

“I told you, ballads have their place.” She looked almost fretful. “I sing to them because…Well…”

“Ballads are solace for the living, Kylie.”

She looked him straight in the eye. “The dead have their needs as well, DCI.”

“Cas. Caswell. Old bastard. We’re a team, not titles.” Caswell reached across the table with both hands, squeezed their outside shoulders.

“I knew she was the one for this bit, Shona. Good work, both. Requests?”

They glanced at each other. Shona offered, “Unplug, call it a night?”

He finished his beer, winked. “Don’t know that one. Put Kylie on it, she’s nothing to do until the sand storm of all that’s ill calls another sailor to the Juliette Simone.”

Kylie rested her elbow on top of her car, looked across it while Shona unlocked her rolling embarrassment. “What if we disagree with him, Shown, or come up with alternatives? His team bit covers that?

“I’ve called him a stupid, buggered old fool more than once.”

“Did he set you straight, stern and proper?”

“Yes. He said, ‘Prove me wrong’.”

The Art of Drowning – An Ethereal Mystery

3 writers, no destination – What could go wrong?

Ash N. Finn  The Perilous Reading Society  & Not Very Deep Thoughts

The Roommate

From ‘The Hot Girl’ Part Three

England was cold. A deep, set in cold. Not a big snowfall cold, just a background damp gets-in-your-bones cold. It was thirty-seven degrees, it had rained almost every day for the first two weeks she’d been there and tonight was no different.

“Come on. Goddammit, open.” The cold drip from the useless, narrow awning over the door was going straight between her collar and her neck. “If you don’t –” She bumped the stubborn door with her hip when she twisted the key and the solid wood door with a thousand coats of pain banged open, dropped her into the flat on her hands and knees. She crawled inside, shook off the rain like a wet Golden Retriever. A quick glance told her Merriam had a fire going, that was rare, and really nice. And music. A soft, folky kind of — “NOOOOOOO! NO NO NO! MERRIAM STOP!! I MEAN IT, DON’T. OH MY GOD. OH – MY – GOD!!” Deanna was about to bite a hole in her right index finger.

“Deanna? Lass? A ghost is it?”

“Just don’t, okay? Put it down, okay? Just…Don’t. Okay?”

“Don’t what okay?”

All Deanna could see was the straight razor in Merriam’s right hand and a guy’s rapidly failing erection in her left. He was stretched out on the nap mat in front of the fire, shirt and sweater still on, nothing below the waist. He’d rolled his head to the side to stare at her. Merriam was on the far side fully dressed, leaning on her hip, legs stretched out, working the now half-staff erection with her fingernails. There was a bottle of scotch sitting on the floor beside the guy on Deanna’s side, two short water glasses beside it. The big soap cup with JOHNSON on it that was usually on the sink in the bathroom that Deanna thought was weird but okay, if that’s how Merriam shaved her legs, was sitting on the left side of the guy’s abdomen. Kind of in the way of Deanna being able to see exactly what Merriam was doing.

The guy turned his head back to Merriam. “I’ll be seeing a knock down then, her having a look?”

“No, love, your money’s well spent. This is our American lass I told you as might be about. She’s not much for a drink or a shag or even a naughty bit of chat. Early days, though. He’s coming back, your lad. Never mind her. Sure as the sun rises she’s seen a todge or two and yours is naught to set in the record books.” She scratched his chest like a dog and giggled.

“True told but it pleasures me well enough. And thinking of her helps him along. A stunner of a drowned cat.” They both snort laughed. He raised his head more, sipped from one of the glasses.

“Lay back, love, I’ve Johnny’s full attention again.” Merriam dunked the beaver bristle brush in a bowl of water, spun it around in the JOHNSON soap cup and lathered up the floor guy’s fully recovered manhood while she held it from the tip, her fingers like a claw. She picked up the razor again, moved in with it.

Deanna screamed, banged into the end of the couch, spun off it into her room and slammed the door.

***

Twenty minutes later Merriam knocked lightly. “Deanna? All’s done.”

“I don’t want to see. I don’t want to know. I don’t.”

“Nothing to see, lass. He’s off down the pub.”

“Really? Gone? Did you clean up the blood? Oh, God. Am I in trouble just for being here?”

Merriam pushed the door open and sat on the bed next to her completely freaked out flat mate. “There was no blood. I’m a professional, lass. I’ll have an Italian peach shaved into a nectarine if I choose. Come out. The fire’s back up and your hands are ice.”

Deanna wrapped herself in a hunting scene throw from the back of Cat’s couch, sat cross legged off to the side of the fire and sipped warm, slightly scotch infused tea while she watched Merriam wipe the nap mat down with alcohol and a paper towel.

“So you just shave them? You don’t, you know, I thought you were going to, well…” she blushed. “You know, whack it off. Not like that, but…”

“A shave is all, and as some feel it they may ‘let go.’ I’ve no trouble with that unless it’s been too long and too much or they have the power of a fire hose. She held out her hands, mimicked holding a high pressure hose pulling them around. “That’s a mess as I’ve seen and cleaned and I’ll not wish for another.”

“God, Merriam, that’s disgusting.”

“The mess? It can be, but twenty quid, some double that for a shoulder or leg massage, all for a half hour spent. Nothing depraved in a shave, Cat’s ill thinking tossed. That’s my advert and that’s what I do. If they choose to bring their spunk to the mat that’s their doing, not mine.”

“No, all of it is disgusting. You played with it! Those nails of yours, I saw that. You can’t say you have nothing to do with it when he was, well, you know, all big and everything from you doing that stuff.”

“So I have a bit of play. And truth told that’s my fun in it. I rate myself a first in todger gardening without shame as I like to see a Johnny rise and bloom. There’s something for me in knowing that, and all stays free of romance or another sweaty hump and gone, mess in the bed shag. A bit of a chat and a stroke. I’m in control and I have my fun. They leave as a polished billiard’s cue and pair with a load off, and I’ve had mine.”

“But the police. What about the police, and you just sort of, well, you know doing that and everything?”

“I’ve never! I shave, I do.” She winked. “And that’s all. I’ve had a copper or two as well. One on his own and another to see as I was up to. The mug stays out and the lather goes on and it’s a shave. As told, they bring what they will, I bring a razor and cup. You truly believed me to be relieving him of his bits of man bother altogether?”

“Yes. Sorry. I just saw the razor, and him and, and…Yes.”

“Your worry was for the mess and the after, or for him?”

“No, not him. I was worried about your new rug and the blood and everything. You can cut them all off if you want, I don’t care.”

“The lad in the frame on your chest as well?”

“Especially him. Only maybe you could save it in a jar in the freezer or something and I can get it put back on him when I go home.”

Nice to Meet You

“You’re Paula, huh? Nice earrings. Nicer crib. Double wide?”

“Yes.” She kept looking at some photos on her light desk with a magnifying glass. “Ms. Whittier to vendors, please and thank you. I had them knock out a wall for me because I work big. And I have a massive can under my desk marked ‘shit’ specifically for jive-ass salesmen’s compliments.” She switched off her light table and spun towards the door. “I…Whoa. Who let you in? I heard heaven starts on nineteen.”

“You kissed a frog once. Here I am.”

“Permission to vomit. I was six. Prince?”

“Jackson. That’s it, either way. Story or you can leave it.”

“Studley! You’re not just a voice on the phone! Um…They told me this one. Yvonne. Paula Yvonne when my mom was mad. Your name game? Yawn. Something this side of disco?”

“Ow. Folding under trendsetter pressure. Paula and Yvonne, that’s extra Fifties. Bobby sox, girl bands, bad TV, worse movies. Mom made out by the jukebox with greasers, married penny loafers?”

“Smart and decent arm candy.”

“Same to you but way more of it.”

“Uh-oh, swoon attack. Marry me?”

“Sure. Lunch first?”

“You are a God.”

“First miracle. Cleavage Trace, on your blue Batgirl phone. Today.”

“Not in this dimension. Tell me another one ‘cause they’re so pretty?”

“Straight up. Ringing before lunch farts rumble.”

“Very wrong. Ethics forbid a blowjob, even if true.”

“Forbidden fruit is sweetest, but on legal authority? Blow is a figure of speech.”

“Not a Puffer fan?”

“Sick can’t be unseen. For real, Trace needs help. Concept, cover, merchandise. Work him.”

“’For real’ is so stale. Say it’s true. What should I wear to his party?”

“You is perfect. Listen, jam, take it where it needs to go. Spool it, print it, call a courier.”

“Talk the talk, bad boy. He’ll love me just the way I are?”

“Don’t go shavin’. I heard wedding bells and lunch. I do requests at the top of every hour.”

“Extreme burgers and onion rings I’ve never seen. Elmore’s? In a dark booth.”

“Whoa, demanding with a touch of bitch. Same-side dark booth romantic?”

“Down boy. Elbow room required. Fact on bitch, I own it.”

“Dreams do come true. I’m cab bait. You’re driving.”

“I’m not locally grown. Homes of the Rich and Famous tour?”

“Jesus. What have you done for me tomorrow?”

“My stereo is brain damage. ‘Manilow’s Greatest Live,’ Ecuador bootleg.”

“An all day repeater. Up for a trade? Various Artists, Pan Flute Christmas.”

“All over it. No ‘Sleigh Bells’ equals deal breaker.”

“Track three.” He opened the PR office door, held it for her. “Ladies first.”

Prelude 3 – Careful What You Wish For

Palm Sunday, 1974

It was a sunny Palm Sunday in Oklahoma, and he thought she might be listening. He sure hoped she was. The little chapel in the old St. Mary’s Cathedral seemed like the right place. He took all the money he’d gotten in his last paycheck from the restaurant that fired him, five dollars even, folded it and put it in the slot at Mary’s feet. He lit a candle and touched her feet like he’d been told, crossed himself like a good boy. He hoped she knew he was serious. He’d thought about bringing flowers but a friend said not to go all overboard buttering her up because she could spot that sort of thing.

“All I want is to be cool,” Jackson said, squeezing his eyes closed as tight as he could. “And a girlfriend that’s special and different, just for me.” That had better work, ‘cause it was the best he could come up with. How hard could it be? Mary was like Super Mom. She could pull it off.

Jackson was just the good side of being an intolerable smart ass. He was awkward with girls, got a ticket every time he started his car and wrecked it every time he tried to show off. His grades were good, he wasn’t stupid, he was just foolish, loud and a little too profane. “Nothing,” his mother said, “that couldn’t be fixed by a good old fashioned ass whipping.” He hoped Mary worked her miracle for him over the summer. He was tired of being a punchbowl boy, wanted cool and the girlfriend to kick in as soon as possible.

***

On that same Palm Sunday in St. Anthony’s, the oldest Catholic Church in Wichita, Kansas, a few scattered clouds cast occasional deep shadows in the corners of the sanctuary. In one of those corners, a pretty young girl in self-exile named Deanna took all of her money from not eating lunch for two days, three dollars and seventy-eight cents in change, and dropped it in the slot at the feet of another Mary. She made a face while she waited for the noise to subside and softly closed her eyes.

“I want someone who will think I’m special, just me, just who I am, who will love me forever. Please.” She lit her candle, crossed herself and really, really hoped Mary had heard her. Mary was a girl, so she understood.

Deanna was a good girl. She studied hard and tried to make people happy. She was smart, athletic, and just a little skittish. Her mother said she could be difficult, demanding, obsessive and hard to get along with, but other times she could be the sweetest girl. She just couldn’t seem to put them all together.

Deanna had been frightened, angry, and fed up. So she left Oklahoma to live with her aunt in Wichita after Christmas her sophomore year. Her parents said she could come home whenever she wanted, so when school was out that spring, her semester in Kansas exile was done. She’d go home for the summer, and start over in a new school somewhere in the fall. The sooner the better would be nice on that guy who thought she was special.

Prelude 2 – The Hot Girl

“Jackson. Mis-ter, Jackson, come on. Get up out of there. Jackson! Move it!”

Jackson was bent over under the row of seats in front of him in the Roosevelt Junior High auditorium, trying to pick up his science book, notebook, pencil and the single page mimeograph doodle sheet containing the synopsis of the 16-millimeter science film of the day. He’d dropped them when the girl on his right whacked the shit out of him unexpectedly while his back was turned. He’d figured out why but now it was all downhill, in a bad way. His pencil may have been downhill all the way to the front of the auditorium.

“He dropped everything when she hit him, Mr. Stephens.” It was Janice, the girl on his left. He’d been talking to her when the other side girl exploded on him.

“I don’t care, Miss Hurst. Jackson! Get up!” Mr. Stephens was leaning into the aisle, hands on the backs of the seats on either side. If the damn Hurst girl would get out of the way, he could grab him. “Jackson! Miss Howard, stop hitting him. I’ll take care of this.”

“He better never, never, never, ever, ever, ever do that again.” She hit Jackson on the back again for punctuation. “You butthole!”

“Miss Howard, that’s enough. Jackson!”

He had all of his stuff. He knew when he sat up Stephens was going to drag him off and get out the paddle. Stephens was his homeroom teacher and gym coach. Jackson had taken Stephen’s laundry to the cleaners across the street every Wednesday, picked it up on the following Friday, every week for a year and a half. Stephens handled his own discipline, so at least this wouldn’t go to the office or his mom. Shit, if his mom found out he’d poked a girl in the boob with a pencil, even the eraser end, she’d kill him. She’d never believe it was an accident, either. Shit. He sat up.

“Jackson, what is this all about?”

“He poked me in the, he poked me with his pencil in the…” Connie Howard was trying to get it out, just couldn’t find the girl word she wanted for boob.

“It’s my fault, Mr. Stephens.”

“Janice? How is this your fault?”

“I asked him could I borrow a pencil, and then it happened.”

“Somebody needs to tell me what happened before I yank all of you off this row. Now.”

One row up, one seat over from Connie Howard was the Hot Girl. Deanna Collings. Cheerleader, president of everything, queen of what was left over. Jackson thought they gave her awards for breathing. Every other week she did something award worthy, trophy worthy, announcement worthy.

“Mr. Stephens, he didn’t mean to do it. Really. I saw it.” Even the gym coach who started 16mm films for eighth-grade science class every day listened when the Hot Girl spoke.

“Janice asked Jax if he had a pencil she could borrow. He said, ‘No, but Connie always has some.’ When he said that he pointed at Connie with the eraser end of his pencil, like this,” she turned her hand and demonstrated Jackson’s boob poke, “and poked her here.” She pointed to the side of her left breast. “He wasn’t even looking at her when he did it. It was an accident. Really.”

“That’s true, Mr. Stephens,” Janice said. “He was looking at me when she started hitting him.”

“Jackson?”

“Mr. Stephens, my mom would kill me for that, poking her in the boob. Connie’s a friend, I’d never do that on purpose.”

Mr. Stephens held the laugh that was building. “Can we all agree that this, uh, ‘episode’ was an accident? Miss Howard, I’ll take him with me or send him to the office if you think he did it on purpose.”

“Connie, you know it was an accident. I’d let him go if it was me.” The Hot Girl flashed him and Connie and Mr. Stephens the Miss Popularity smile that turned just about everybody but Jackson to mush. He’d told his mom all about her, wondering how one girl could be so much girl. She’d watched Deanna after school one day waiting for the car pool to load up, told him the difference between a real smile and the smile a girl like that had for everybody. His mom had been a model for a while in New York when she was sixteen, so he believed her.

“It’s alright.” Connie still had her lower lip stuck out a little. “I’m sorry I hit you, Jax, but you’re still a butt hole. Janice,” she leaned across Jackson and smashed her recently indignant left boob right into his chest and handed Janice a sharp, new pencil.

Mr. Stephens walked back down to his projector shaking his head, crepe soled wingtips squishing all the way. The other side of the auditorium had erupted in paper airplanes while he’d dealt with Jackson’s distraction. Poor kid. Completely surrounded by thirteen-year-old estrogen and nowhere to hide.

Jackson reached long, careful to stay way out in front of his neighbor’s boobs, and tapped the Hot Girl on the shoulder. She jumped, looked back at him. “Thanks, you know. Really.”

“You’re welcome.” She smiled a different smile that did turn him a little towards mush. He’d never seen her look anything like confused or something before, either. Girls were complicated. The complicated girl just thought he was kinda cute. Only just kinda.

After science class she waited in the hall outside of the auditorium and grabbed his shirt sleeve when he walked by, an action that threw a big wrench into the usual hang with the Hot Girl crowd. “I know you didn’t do it on purpose and it’s just not fair how you get in trouble all the time for nothing.” He thought he might pee his pants if he talked to the Hot Girl. “I’m in your home room this year, sorta,” she said. Stephens had kept him in gym homeroom in spite of the yearly homeroom shuffle, probably for his laundry duty.

“Yeah, um, girls on one side, us on the other. Kinda the same but not really.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” She was starting to vanish into the crowd around her. “No I won’t, it’s Wednesday!” By now she was walking backwards, almost shouting. “Where do you go with that big blue bag on Wednesdays?”

He didn’t have time to tell her. “Later. Thanks. For real.” She was gone, swept away in a sea of popularity. This was the worst day of his life so far. Poking a friend in the boob by accident. Everybody, including the Hot Girl, watching then rescuing him. And then talking to him. What did he say to her? Something stupid probably, him and girls. She sure was cute. More than cute. His mom had said, “Peaches and cream and big bright eyes. You should be so lucky, Jax.”

He didn’t stand in line to talk to her before school, or be part of the crowd when the two gym teachers decided to give them ten minutes of co-ed every day. Why bother? She was pretty much sold on Matt, the guy with a few years too late Beach Boy haircut, flip in the front and all. He’d told some of the guys his sister helped him put Summer Blonde streaks in it. All the girls thought he was cute, Jackson thought he was a wuss, but he seemed to be by himself with that opinion. Him and Mr. Stephens, anyway.

***

Roosevelt Junior High, February Eleventh, 1972

Everyone at Roosevelt had been encouraged to bring their Valentine’s Day cards on the Friday before Valentine’s Day because the Pep Club Valentine’s dance was set for that evening. Jackson wished he was a cheerleader like the Hot Girl. He wanted to jump in the air and shout something stupid because his Friday laundry duty got him out of all the standing in line card swapping and waiting for the extra line of “special for you” Valentine card bearers to clear on the Hot Girl. Word was she’d dropped on Matt for the dance already so she was just letting those guys and their dollar-fifty Hallmark’s look stupid for no reason. Some things were so predictable. Just like what happened to him at the dance.

Jackson had gone with a girl named Mary. Who, like every girl he’d gone to a party with since sixth grade, dumped him to go make out with somebody else. He always ended up sitting with the girl or more than one girl who got dumped like him for the make out festival. Sometimes they cried, sometimes they complained, sometimes they sat there dejected, all of them asking him what it was guys wanted. He said, “A lot of guys just want to make out.”

“What about you?”

“Making out is cool,” he’d say, wishing he was or could or even had the option. “But sitting by a pretty girl, talking to her, that’s okay too. You can’t make out forever.” Deep bullshit for a guy who hardly made out at all and didn’t know what to say to a girl. He did love to look at girls, though. How they wore their hair, how their dresses fit, girls with freckles and suntans, girls without either one. Girls with sideburns kind of creeped him out, but mostly all girls were fine with him. He’d follow a girl with the right perfume down the hall past where he was supposed to go sometimes.

He was tired of being the dumped girl babysitter at the Valentine’s dance, tired of being the dumped guy as well, decided screw the rules and opened the door at the driveway end of the school. There she was, the Hot Girl, sitting on the old, cold concrete steps to Roosevelt Junior High. He had the urge to pee again but sat down anyway and found some nerve somewhere.

“Hey. What’re you doing out here?”

“Waiting for my brother to come get me.”

“Aren’t you cold?”

“A little, I guess.”

“Here.” He draped his jacket over her shoulders. Now he was cold. They failed to mention that when guys did it in movies.

“Thank you.” She had the telltale puffy eyes just like the other dumped girls. Only an idiot would dump the Hot Girl.

“What happened? I thought you and Matt were —”

“Were what? Were what, Jackson? Huh? What were we?”

Wow. She was pissed at Matt and she remembered his name. “Having a good time? Maybe?”

“No! Not a good time at all. At first, but then he got, well, he got…Never mind. I should have stayed home, that’s all. I need to go home.”

He couldn’t think of what to say so they sat in silence for a while. You didn’t say “that sucks” to the Hot Girl or insult her by saying he thought the guy was a serious wuss with his Summer Blonde hair and surfer’s cross he had to keep tucked away or a teacher would yank it. She was drawing invisible somethings with her fingers on the concrete by her feet when she snuffled pretty big. He knew it was a leftover from how crying sometimes got your nose all into it. He almost told her about how his dad had called his little brother a “screaming snot machine,” trying to be sympathetic, pulled it at the last second. He found some more personal conversation nerve.

“Can I tell you something?”

“No. Well, maybe.”

“He draws his hair on, up the side. His sister dyed his hair, you know. Messed it all up.”

“I know. Some came off on my hand when I slapped him.” She laughed a little. “You don’t like him, do you?”

“Not really.”

“Tell me why? Please?”

“He’s a fake. I mean I know girls think he’s cute, but you’re a beach boy surfer or you’re not. And he’s not. Not in Oklahoma in winter, anyway. It’s just kinda stupid, I think. Sorry.”

“It’s okay. My mom told me not to. Go with him I mean. Some guys in my homeroom didn’t ask me or even give me a Valentine. I thought you had to in homeroom.”

“I didn’t know that, about Valentine’s cards. Is that still true?”

“Yes. Didn’t Mr. Stephens tell you?”

“Maybe, but I might have been across the street. I’m not there all the time on Wednesday and Friday. I take his laundry to the cleaners.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s dirty, I guess.”

“No, I mean why do you get to leave?”

“He told me he knew I was smart enough to handle it and I wasn’t so stupid I’d forget to come back. So he kept me in gym homeroom for both years. Sort of like I flunked homeroom.”

“That’s silly, Jackson. You can’t flunk homeroom.”

“I could be in a regular homeroom with girls if I hadn’t flunked.”

“There are girls in your homeroom but you have to walk across the gym to talk to them and you’re supposed to give them a Valentine.”

“I owe you one I guess. A Valentine, I mean. I didn’t know.”

“I guess, huh?” She gave him a smile that seemed to confuse her face for a second. “Deanna, with two n’s. Here’s my brother, and here’s your jacket. Thank you for sitting with me. It was, well, I didn’t like it out here by myself.”

“Thanks for, um, letting me. You know, sit. Sorry ‘bout Matt. And everything.” He wanted to say he was glad she didn’t stay home, but he’d run his nerve reserve way down already.

Her brother unwound from the car like a bear from a cave. “Is this him, little sister?”

“No, Jax just waited with me. Really. So I wasn’t outside alone.”

“Yeah?” Jackson’s hand disappeared when her brother shook it. “You know the guy that did whatever, pissed her off? Think you could kick his ass?”

“Yeah, probably.”

“Give it some thought, man. You did the right thing, hangin’.”

Jackson was half blind from the headlights, her brother a giant shadow in jeans. He saw that much. She slapped Matt, huh? Wonder what he did? Jackson knew he’d never get close enough to get in that kind of trouble with the Hot Girl and let it go. His jacket sure smelled good, though. Wait till he told his parents what a gentleman he’d…Shit! Valentine’s was Monday! Now he had to go get the Hot Girl with the double ‘n’ a card. Where did you get a Hot Girl Valentine card that didn’t come in a package with thirty other ones?

Prelude 1 The Fairy Tale girl

Mid-Summer, 1994

Jackson was sitting on the porch of his mostly remodeled craft house, if you didn’t count unfinished bathrooms, staring at a week old, two-foot square slab of concrete next to the curb thirty feet away. He heard the storm door close softly behind him, knew it was his daughter. His wife would have banged it open with her butt, folder in hand and started talking, or banged it open with her butt carrying two cups of coffee or half a sandwich. No matter what, she would have banged it open with her butt, not sneaking up on him.

“Dad, what’re you doin’?”

“Thinking about building the mailbox, Amrie. Pull up a step. What’re you doing?”

“Nothin.’” She dusted the step with her hand and flumped down next to him. “Are you gonna think about it or build it?”

“You’ve been talking to your mom.”

“She says it’s already built in your head, and you can see it. The problem is gettin’ it out an puttin’ it on that place.”

She was eight and her mom all over again. “You tell her it’ll be there before the sun goes down. I have lots of help coming.”

“She says it’ll be a Morisè company party, and nothin’ will get done.”

“She’s part of that girl-power thing they have. They won’t do it, but I’ll get it done with the guys.” He couldn’t say mom was part of the smart, pretty, pain in the ass hot girl thing to her. Yet.

“Kristen from school? Her mom and dad got a divorce. She’s comin’ back next year, but her dad isn’t at her house. She cries a lot at school.”

“Yeah? She told you about it?”

“She said they yelled a lot every night for a long time before.”

“Too bad she had to hear that. Is she okay? You wanna invite her over this afternoon? Feed her a dad burger, get her out of the house for a while?”

“Can I?”

“Sure.” Just like her mom used to be, dance around it. “Amrie, spit it out.”

“Are you and mom gettin’ a divorce?”

“I don’t think so. I’m not, anyway. Why?”

“She’s been yellin’ at you every night.”

He thought about the free standing garage in the back. What sort of backyard beer and burger bribery was he going to have to put up to insulate and soundproof it?

The door banged open this time. “Jax? Sweetie? How about this, if I say…Oh. This looks serious.” She took three steps, sat down on the other side of him, squeezed his leg. “Good morning, husband. Today’s the day, huh?”

“Yeah, your mailbox gets built today. Your daughter Amrie has a question for you.”

My daughter? You two were supposed to decide which of her big girl names to use. How long has that been?” She leaned forward, looked across him. “What’s your question sweetheart?”

“Are you and daddy gettin’ a divorce? You’ve been yellin’ at him every night just like Kristen’s mom and dad and they’re divorced.”

She made a wide-eyed what-the-hell face at her husband. He returned an ironic smile. “Is it time for the talk?”

“I suppose so. Will you fix the garage for us?”

“Yeah.”

“Soon?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay. Little Sweetie, I’ve been yelling at your daddy like that for what, twenty years? 1974?”

“Well, seventy-five is when you started on this, but seventy-four is okay. You yelled about other things. You took three years off to get smarter, but that’s about right.”

“Stop it.” She tapped his arm with the folder. “It’s your daddy’s fault. He told me I was full of crap when I was sixteen and thought I knew it all. He sent me to your mean Aunt ‘Manda and we’ve been yelling like this ever since. We’re really not yelling, sweetie. I’m using my big girl voice, and your dad is helping me get ready for a presentation I have to make, that’s all. You must have just slept through us all this time. The last time I yelled at your daddy for real was about the hole in the kitchen floor.”

“No, I heard you. But I didn’t know it meant divorce and dad was leavin’.”

Deanna looked at her husband with some theatrical seriousness. “Big Sweetie, are you leaving?”

“Going to D.C. with you in a couple of weeks,” he said. “Should we bring her, let her see you yell?”

“She’s old enough to behave. If you can get her out of cutoffs and ballet tights at the same time. Maybe get her to wear a dress and use a napkin.”

“Me? You’re in charge of girl stuff. I drive her around and clean up after her. Like somebody else I know.”

“I’ll wear one mom, promise. Can I come? Really? The Grammas can take me shopping with Aunt ‘Manda. I’ll get a nice one, promise.”

“If they take you to Dallas again without telling me first, I’ll kill all of you, do you hear me? Okay. If you wear a dress, you can come. Jax, are you going to tell her about us? I have work to do.”

“I’ll tell her.”

“You watch what you tell her. I can still hear. If I hear any ‘your mom was this or that’ I’ll come set her straight, understand?” He heard the door close and the big window open.

“She’s really not mad at you?”

“No. I’m not mad at her either.”

“When mom gets mad at you does she use all your names?”

“No, I just have one name. She just says Jackson one of those ways she does so I know.”

“She says ‘Celeste Anne-Marie Jackson you git in here ryat this minute.’”

He laughed. “That’s pretty good. How about this. ‘Deanna, would you like me to bring you some lunch?’ What’s she say?”

“Hail yayus.” They high fived.

The window spoke. “That’s enough you two.”

Dad and daughter both got the grins. “Dad, when you say ‘Dammit Amrie would you please pick this shit up?’ Mom says, ‘Welcome to the club. My name is really Dammit Deanna.’ Is that true?”

“Yep. Dammit Deanna. She has some others, but I’ll get us both in trouble if I tell you.”

“Her big girl name is ‘What kinda shit is that, D.C. Collings?’”

He let that one go, knew he really needed to fix up the garage.

“Which of my big girl names are you gonna use? I’ve been Amrie forever.”

He wanted to say six and a half years, give or take a little, isn’t really forever. He let that go, too. “Well, if I were your boyfriend I’d call you Anne-Marie. It’s musical and it sounds just as pretty as you are. I’d feel all goofy every time I said it. The boy who isn’t afraid to call you Anne-Marie, he’s the one.”

The window spoke again. “Jax, she’s eight years old. Jesus.”

“It’s never too soon to be watching for that sort of thing. I’m your dad so I’d just call you Marie because it’s short and bouncy and fun like you are. Celeste is a good name if you’re ever going to be a night club singer. You could add all of Aunt Alix’s French names to it. You could be Celeste Alexandrie Anne-Marie Juliette Moreaux Jackson. You’d have to say Jackson with a French accent, Zhock-zone. Your business card would be as big as an envelope. You could keep your hair all in your face like you do anyway and wear bright red lipstick.” He reached over and messed up her hair a little more than it had been.

“Stop it, Dad, I do not. Celeste is Aunt ‘Manda’s pretty name she doesn’t use, and Anne-Marie is aunt Alix’s.”

He raised his voice a little. “So who is this girl who’s not your daughter?” He checked his daughter, smiled. “Marie? Close enough to Amrie?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You wanna hear a story?”

“Okay.”

“You sound just like Eeyore or your mom. It’s not a boring dad story. It’s a love story about a beautiful princess in hiding who’s just a tiny bit nuts.”

“Jax, I heard that.” The voice from the window seemed to be losing its sense of humor.

“Does she meet a boy and fall in love?”

“Oh, she tries out a lot of boys. All the wrong boys but she keeps trying. Then she meets the one boy who knows her secret. He steals her heart away and won’t give it back until she learns to behave like the princess she is.”

“Okay, Jackson. It doesn’t go exactly like that.” The voice  from the window had some velocity this time.

“See? Did you hear that? That’s the way she says my name when she starts to get mad. Let’s get off the porch. I’ll tell you about the princess if you’ll help me start on the mailbox so we can get it done today. You know the princess looked a lot like you when she was little. I’ve seen pictures.”

“Really? How?”

“You know how dads know about stuff by magic? That’s how.”

“Alright. I guess.” She looked at him, wondered if he really had seen pictures of a princess that looked like her, decided he probably had. Dad spent a lot of time in California, where a most princesses she knew about seemed to come from. Probably because of Disneyland. “Mom says you’re really full of stuff sometimes, but I believe you. Do I really have to wear a dress if I come with you?”

“You promised your mom. You ready to argue with her about it?” He could see her chewing her lower lip. “No?” He grinned at her, offered her a low-five hand. She smacked it, hard. “I didn’t think so. You make your mom a promise, kiddo, you gotta keep it. Trust me.”