MemberJanuary 10, 2021 at 1:56 am
Five years earlier, from the bottom bunk of a holding cell in the Clatsop County courthouse, a younger Jessica made a cackling confession of sorts to the gray-haired guard everyone called Birch. She wore bleached yellow hair at the time, and it was longer. Her name—the name she was going by—wasn’t Jessica, then, either, and she spoke with a fake Texas accent as part of the persona she had been portraying for the last several months in Astoria.
“Tell me, how do you do it?”
“Do what Birch?” She said without looking up and slowly rolling the small cigarette in her crossed-legged lap and her back against the wall.
“How is it you have them chase you like that? Why are they crazy for you?”
“Oh, you mean that out there?” She laughs.
The proceedings of her trial had been put on recess, for a young girl had given sworn testimony from the stand that the bleach haired girl on trial—who went by Audrey Burns—was the same girl with whom she had a relationship and that Audrey Burns was not her real name at all and that she had, in fact, disclosed plans to manipulate the middle aged wife of the late, local banker, Mr. Schilling, through her romantic affair with the older woman, so that she could obtain titles for a small collection of antique automobiles and several acres of coveted land in Thurston County, Washington. The defendant’s plan, so the girl said, had been to leave the older woman by fall of the following year, once everything was in order, and then, she would run away with the witness.
The trial had already been shrouded in scandal. Affairs with wives of successful business men was gossip enough to keep anyone interested in the small town of Astoria and all the more so when that affair, from what it seemed, involved another woman rather than a man. It had attracted many spectators and generated headlines which sold local newspapers faster than they could be printed, so that the courtroom was full when the still pretty, middle-aged Miss Schilling heard the testimony concerning her former lover’s trickery and intentions to leave her for the younger girl.
Miss Schilling had gasped audibly and stood up and rushed towards the bench but was held back by the crowd. The bailiffs stood in her way, besides, and after a moment she fainted, flopped out onto the floor like a sweaty, wet rag of nerves and hurt for all the simple farm folk to see. It was then that the judge’s gavel clapped loudly into the courtroom, calling for order and threatening contempt, and then, he called a recess while this new information could be processed, while it was determined what to do now that the defendant’s supposed identity might not be her identity at all.
The guard continued with his questions to the girl on the bunk. “You know what I mean. That out there, yeah! Where I’m from, girls don’t like girls, at least not as I know.”
“There’s a lot to it, Birch. First of all, some girls do like girls, obviously. You see me don’t you? Secondly, you have to remember that I’ve got a leg up, because I am a woman. Then, most women, maybe 99% of them operate like clocks and horses.”
“Clocks and horses?”
“Yeah. Clocks and horses. You got a match? Light my cigarette,” she asks and stands up to walk over to the guard on the other side of the bars.
“Sure. They say they gonna make smoking in jails illegal one of these days, ban cigarettes in facilities like this one all across the nation,” he says striking a match, cupping one hand and holding out the flame for her to light the smoke.
“I’ll believe it when I see it, Birch… thanks.” Now, she moves back to the bunk, clearing her throat and continuing her dissertation. “They’re like clocks, man. They all need one thing, and once you figure out how to wind ’em up, just like a clock, they start ticking. They can’t help it, and they don’t know why, just like a clock can’t help it. It doesn’t know why it ticks. It just ticks.”
“What’s what? What winds ’em up?”
“Desire, Birch, desire. They all need, have to be desired. Now, that doesn’t mean just because you desire a woman, she’ll desire you back. No, sir. Not at all!”
“Yeah, Birch, like a horse.”
“Like a horse?”
“You ever try to walk up to a horse?”
“They step back, move away from you.”
“Right. And what happens when you turn your back to them and walk away, huh? I’ll tell you what happens, they follow you, try to stick their heads in your business and get your attention. Try real hard. Of course, that’s all a gross oversimplification of the realities at work, there, Birch, but it’s a crude illustration for a crude man. Something even you can understand.”
“Crude? I’m not a crude man. You’re the one in here talking about women like they’re inanimate objects and animals.”
“You’re not? Hmm… well, then what’re you asking about all this stuff for, huh? And, besides, if you only listened to what I’m saying, Birch, you’d understand it’s not that, not exactly. What I’m talking about are mechanics and attraction. You’re a man, though. You wouldn’t get it, and that’s why I do. That’s why I get them.” She rolls her head back and laughs pressing her shoulder blades into the wall behind her bunk.
“All of them?”
“Nah. You can’t bat 1.000, but you can bat .300, and that’s pretty good, Birch. Almost one out of the three and stop wasting your time with the rest.”
The light skinned guard scratches his mustache and stares at the girl on her bunk through the bars and shakes his head. It is nothing he’s ever heard before. And he stares at her more intently, now, pondering her mechanics, what makes her tick, what makes her think like that. Is she human?
“And what about you, girl?”
“What about me?”
“Don’t you need anything?”
“I never thought about it. Funny, huh?”
“What about love? Don’t you want love?”
“Love? Love…” she asks staring at the ground and coldly replying, now, “I don’t know what love is Birch, and I don’t think I’m capable of it. That’s ok, though. That’s how I want it.”
This morning the women brush their teeth in the bathroom. Both stare into the mirror and smile at each other through it, and for a moment, Jessica looks at herself, recalls who and how she was before and during the trial, how she’d ruthlessly manipulated the vulnerabilities of Miss Schilling and meant to rob her of the things her husband had left her. It is hard to imagine that she was that way, and the words she’d said to Birch from the bunk come back to her,
“I don’t know what love is Birch, and I don’t think I’m capable of it.”
She knows that all that has changed and is embarrassed for having ever said it, and now, she spits into the sink and looks at Eleonore who presses a finger into the white line of shrunken scar tissue in Jessica’s chin and mumbles through the foamy toothpaste in her mouth,
“That’s cute.” And Jessica remembers the fight in prison when she got it. It was less than 18 months ago.
Jessica lets the last snow on the ground crunch beneath her shoes as she watches Eleonore feed the animals and do this or that. It is a sunny day. Back inside, they sit on the couch or roll around in bed with fingers twirling hair and wet breath whispers of love against sweaty foreheads or the soft skin of Eleonore’s ear pressed into Jessica’s bony, bare shoulders. There are moments when they wonder what they’ll do, how this will all end.
They forget where they are. They forget about everything. In that time, there is only the other, so that their days and nights become mixed, and as the first blue light of the day comes through the window one morning, both girls startle in bed to stare wide-eyed at each other. Something is stirring in the living room, a mad black being come to execute judgement upon them and their lives of sin. Their hearts drop in their chests, and for a moment, there is a desperate, futile squirming in their bodies trying to get up and run but unable, paralyzed by fear.
Now, the doorknob to the bedroom is turning and the large silhouette of the man Eleonore has betrayed, the man whose life Jessica has destroyed, appears in the doorway. It is a moment of terror for the girls. A speechless choking comes from the man’s throat as he stands over the bed and pulls the covers back to find the two soft white bodies clutching themselves, shielding their bodies from his view. He walks out of the room and returns almost immediately with the splitting maul, raising above his head and putting a hole in the mattress where Jessica lay only seconds before.
He chases the skinny, shrieking naked body around the house with the weapon and catches her in the bony part of her wrist. The cold metal nicks her collar bone and leaves another gash on the side of her head and ear. It is total chaos as the two women flail. Eleonore is pleading with the man and chasing from behind as she tries to stop him, until he smashes her in the head and face with her crystal glass candy tray. She is left a mound of soft white flab moaning and staggered on the cold terrazzo. And Jessica bounces off the couches and slides across the table and crawls on the floor and runs this way and that as the man continues to swing the maul, until she is finally outside, naked and bleeding in the snow.
Steam rises from her sweaty chest in the cold. The sun is just up, now, above the hill. It is too much for her, as her body gives out on her she lies on her back looking up at the man who is raising the heavy wooden handled weapon above his head. She thinks that she never expected this, didn’t expect to die in this way, but here it is. The moment of her death had arrived. And before the maul comes down to end her life, a mortal clang rings out, and the man falls. Eleonore’s cast iron skillet—all 20 pounds of it—has bruised his brain and left a flat indentation in his skull.
The girls shake, pale and bleeding in places, and they get dressed and pull the motionless body into the house. It is quiet for an hour or so as they recover, wiping blood from their faces. Jessica pinches her ear to stop the bleeding. Now, Eleonore is pacing and wringing her hands and repeating over and over,
“Jessica, what do we do? Huh, Jessica? What Jessica?”
And now the other girl screams,
“My name is not Jessica!” The accent from her childhood, the one from Maine, can be heard. “My name’s not Jessica. It’s Christina. Look, Eleonore, there’s a lot for us to talk about. There’s a lot you need to know, but for now, we’ve got to figure this out. Okay?” To which Eleonore nods her head. “Now, the way I see it, they’ll give us both the chair for this. You most of all, so we’ve got to be each other’s everything from here on out. Okay? I’ve got 700 dollars hidden in the lining of my bag and some IDs that’ll work for me. We can get rid of the truck somewhere. We’ll make it.”
Eleonore stares looking dreadfully down at her husband on the floor. A think pink fluid has leaked from his nose, and his chest heaves as he gargles and struggles to breathe. Foamy spittle forms at his mouth. his face is darker, purple in the nose and cheeks. Other parts of his face are turning green.
“What about him?” she asks.
“He’ll die, soon, from the looks of it. The case will be attempted murder, even if he doesn’t, Eleonore. You hear me? We leave him. Before we leave, we have to get your blood on the floor and out to the driveway. No one knows I’m here, right? Right, Eleonore?”
“I don’t think so,” she says with folded arms. “No.”
“Okay. I’ll get the keys. And one last thing, Eleonore. Do you have any money or jewelry here?”
The fatter, shorter woman walks into the kitchen and opens the freezer and pulls out what looks like packages of frozen meat wrapped in white butcher paper and spreads them out on the floor, until she grabs one and stands up and says,
“This is it. Should be about 14,000. Our life’s savings.”
They sit in the house for hours after that, waiting for night and listening to the labored breath of the man dying on the floor. Eleonore cries at different times. Jessica frowns in the corner, occasionally trying to comfort her lover with words and brief shoulder rubs, but other than that, there is nothing to say, just worried looks shared between them. Finally, it is midnight. The girls step out into the cold darkness. They start the truck and leave that house behind them, forever.
The thing which had been shared early in the girls three months together at the house, the thing about Virgos being a reserved and shy woman, waiting for something, open to change and new ways of way life proved to be truer about Eleonore than they could have been for anyone else, Virgo or not. It was a slow journey across the country to Cleveland. The two sat in the cab of the old truck. And Eleonore learned all about the girl she’d only recently learned to love and had called Jessica.
Her name, as she said before, was Christina. The last name was Sullivan, and she spoke quietly to round, pink faced woman in the passenger seat as she drove, spoke about her early life as the only child of an impoverished and married couple on a cursed bog of a property in rural Maine. Her father drowned in drink, and her mother spent nights out with other men, known for her harlotry and the shame her life brought on her family and their Irish ancestors. By the time the young girl turned 12, her mother had moved into an old house and gotten the same strange, androgenous haircut as the other bug-eyed men and women living in the house. They called themselves the Howardites after their leader, the lanky and long faced theologian, Dr. Howard. By 14, the girl’s mother and her new clan moved out west, never to be seen or heard from again by the quiet fishermen and farm folk of the small town.
As her old man lay dying in drink around the house and the adolescent girl starved, the young Christina Sullivan left her home with what could be contained in a small piece of luggage. There were things which made the transition into a life of homelessness at such a young age easier than perhaps it should have been. The difficulty of her life up to then was one. The other was the transient family of grifters who took her in and taught her everything she needed to thrive from a life of dishonesty and tricks. Only catch to it all was the constant need to move from city to city or town to town and change name after name, so that the things they did couldn’t be traced. It was the constant pressure from the traditional clan to marry their second son which pushed her away. She couldn’t do it. They didn’t understand.
By 16, she was once again on her own, only now living from woman to woman for as long as her personalities and selfishness would allow or moving on when she thought the authorities might be sniffing her trail. Like her father, though, she learned to love the bottle. With the liquor came a tendency to abuse her partners. She hurled hurtful words at the women, and two of her younger lovers, one the daughter of a police chief in Wisconsin and the other an immigrant heiress studying to become a doctor in Ohio, had felt the backs of the young Christina Sullivan’s knuckles across their faces. It was shameful for the lost girl when she did things like that, and upon seeing the bruises on her lovers’ faces, she disappeared to a new town with a new name, new accent and a new story about where and how she grew up.
Three and a half years in a state prison had always been a matter of time for her doing the things she was doing. It all just happened to happen in Oregon. She got out, though, and continued living just as before. A significant contact had been made with a man named Jimmy “the Joker” Madsen, who was the brother of Christina’s girlfriend in prison, and the two of them, Christina and the Joker, had spent a month in Slidell, Louisiana basement refashioning the lettering on identification cards and relaminating them or reworking the numbers on cashier’s checks. They’d spent the months before that blowing their loot from the last big score they’d hit. It was a new girl for each at a new five-star restaurant every night and a new penthouse suite afterwards, every night. That’s the way it went for the fraudsters, but somewhere north of Salt Lake City, on the night that Eleonore found her, the Joker had gotten tired of his female cohort’s antics. The drink made her difficult. And apparently, something ugly had been said, and instead of beating her as he would have any of his previous, male partners, he pulled out of the car and left her in the rest stop bathroom outside of Pocatello.
Eleonore watches her lips move in the dark, recounting the events of her life and the way she’d ended up at that quiet farmhouse in southern Idaho in the first place, as they drive through Wyoming and move down into Colorado and across the top of Kansas eventually getting into Ohio. The story is fascinating, more interesting than anything Eleonore has ever known, and as they move farther and farther away from the house where she lived all those years with the man now presumably dead, hopefully dead, the life is something she wants. It is her partner’s life, and so it is her life, too, for this was the way that her life had gone.
“Well, what are we going to do, Jess…” She laughs, “I almost called you Jessica.”
“It’s Christina. If you can’t remember, just call me Bird or Birdy.”
“Yeah. It’s my nickname.”
“Oh… is that why you have the tattoo?”
“Well… yeah, I guess it is.”
“Okay, Birdy, what are we going to do?”
“I should still have some connections here. We can get rid of the truck cleanly and make a few bucks, besides. Then, I’ve got some people. People we need to make this work. We’ll get what we need and move on over to somewhere else, careful to scrub our tracks. How long you think it’ll be before anyone finds him?”
“What do you mean who? The man, your husband.”
“Well, he’s not my husband, not anymore,” she laughs.
“Are you really laughing?”
“I don’t know. It’s not funny. That’s not why I’m laughing. It’s because I’m nervous, because I feel bad.”
“Well, how long do you think before someone realizes?”
“Months. He won’t be missed until work needs him again, but even then, it might take a lot longer. No one goes out to the house. We don’t see family but once a year, if that.”
“Okay. Good. We have some time, then. We’ll make a pretty penny for ourselves before anyone notices, and by then, we won’t be us.”
“We won’t be us?”
“No. If we’re not us, then we’re not responsible for any murder or stealing this truck or any of the rest of it. Right?”
“Hmm… yes. True!”
“It is true.”
The two exiled women survive through the dishonest means which are available to them. One month they are in Dade County laundering money for drug dealers with casino chips, and the next, they are in Los Angeles creating and selling fake passports. After that they spend several months lying low in quiet Marfa, Texas or somewhere like it.
Eleonore learns to go by new names, learns to be from different places. It is, for that first year, one long honeymoon of romance and crime and the excitement of knowing that it could all crumble at any moment, and if it should, their lives will end behind bars or in the electric chair. Sometimes, they purchase vehicles which they sell just across the border in Nuevo Laredo or Monterrey, and while passing through the bottom corner of Utah, they stop to eat at a diner. The lovers buy a newspaper and see in the back a small picture of Eleonore in black and white, though she looks much younger and skinnier in it. Attached is an article recounting the heartless murder of her husband and how his wife, the Mormon woman pictured, might still be alive, somewhere.
The money they make in their criminal ventures is more than they know what to do with, so after they’ve collected a substantial sum, they stop to live in some quiet place to spend it. They pretend to be sisters or travelling artists. They call it downtime, and during such times, their first fights start. Alcohol shows itself to be a problem. And a black leather baby’s shoe sits on the ledge in the window of whatever domicile they inhabit. Every day the taller of the two fills it with new rice. This is her superstition, a sort of idol or charm that wards off the bad spirits which bring things like attention from the police or trouble from anyone, and it does the job, or at least, it seems to, but it doesn’t make their relationship work.
Eleonore endures the drunken meanness of her long-legged lover, the one she calls Bird, when the drink flows and the money rolls in places like Miami or New York City or New Orleans, and the things she says make Eleonore close-lipped, make Eleonore fold her arms and scowl. Affection between the two dries up, and sometimes, they go a week or more without even talking, so that Eleonore has watched her lover drunkenly bring home prostitutes just to hurt her, just to stick it in Eleonore’s face. And when it gets close to a breaking point, just when it cannot be endured for one more night, apologies are made. They always sound the same, and the peace never lasts more than a few months.
The beginning of their third autumn together, they retire to a small, drafty studio in San Francisco. They’d spent the last part of July and most of August printing cashier’s checks and cashing them in different stores in the suburbs and metropolitan areas around Seattle. Eleonore, at this time, was having trouble healing from a spider bite on her leg and had been to the hospital on several occasions, and because of their visits, questions had been asked, so that both women began to fear an end to their run. It was on the afternoon that they found cops waiting in the parking lot of their hotel when they decided to leave for San Francisco. And by September second, that baby’s shoe—made of black leather—was full of rice and sitting on the window sill of a third-floor apartment with a dirty wooden floor on Market Street.
In that room, Eleonore can barely stand to look at her lover, anymore. They do not kiss. They do not hold hands. There has been too much hurt, even as she has sobered up for the last several months and has taken care of the spider bite, and finally, the one called Birdy is gone for a day and comes home late the next afternoon, stumbling and cursing and pushing the sickly Eleonore around the room. She breaks her finger on Eleonore’s face. Eleonore expected to come at some point. And there it was. In the tumult, the shoe full of rice plummets to the wet concrete below and has spilled its contents all over the pavement.
The next morning is colder and wetter than it should be. And it is grey. Birdy gets dressed and asks Eleonore if she would like to take a walk, to get the leg moving and herself out of the musky room for an hour. By ten o’clock, they are being rained on and take shelter on the underground subway platform by Mission and 24th. It is here that the taller, short haired of the two begins to cry.
“Eleonore, I love you. I know that I haven’t shown you that. You deserve more from me, but I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if I can give it to you.”
“Don’t…” Eleonore reaches out to touch her hand.
But as she does, the D train is entering the station, and with that, Eleonore’s lover, the girl from Maine, falls backwards onto the track. The sound makes Eleonore hold her fingers in her ears, and she stands for a moment looking down at the bottom of the train, and the alarm bells are going off for the body on the tracks, so she runs.
After that, she collects their remaining money and IDs and takes a bus to Portland and over to Las Vegas and over to Cincinnati. She wanders the Midwest and up and down the eastern seaboard as the money dwindles, a shadow of herself. That extra weight comes off of her body more quickly than she’d ever have imagined. Her heart is broken. Food doesn’t taste good, anymore, and everything reminds her of Jessica—or Christina, if that was her real name—her long legged and only true love, Birdy.
Somewhere outside of Austin, Texas she shaves her hair, so that she is bald, and pays 89 dollars for the sign of the Virgo to be tattooed into her forehead, half as an act of mourning and remembrance of her lost love and half as a means to keep anyone from ever being able to identify her. There are 9,000 dollars left in her possession when she hitches a ride out of Albuquerque with a man named David Brown towing an empty horse trailer. He calls himself D and tells her he knows of a few acres of land that already has a dwelling on it in the desert outside of Taos.
“You can buy an acre for 2,000 from my friend Junior Valdez. Would you want it?”
“Yeah. I think I do.”
“What’s your name anyway?”
And Eleonore thinks of the name on the only ID card she has left, the first one they’d made for her after they ran from Pocatello three years ago.
“My name?” she asks.
“My name is Mary,” she whispers and then says louder. “Yeah. You can call me Mary.”