Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Road

There's a road through the park.
Well, not so much a road as
a place the rec truck drove over so much
that the grass won't grow anymore.
It's bumpy and rocky and the leaves
pile up in the fall because no one clears the road, but
I take it home every day through the gray half twilight.
The road goes almost all the way from
my windowless office on the second floor to the house
where I rent the spare bedroom.
I walk the road and rocks turn under my feet and sand
gets in my shoes and the grass doesn't grow on the road
because the truck drives there too much.
Sometimes there are still children in the park when I walk the road.
Not so much now when the air is getting colder and
the twilight comes sooner,
but in summer they swarm the swingsets and the pool and
I walk through noise thick like pollen.
In the winter, though, is when the road is quietest
and there is a brief moment trapped in gray hazy fog
before the snow falls and covers the road,
and in the ten minutes it takes to walk from
my windowless office on the second floor to
my rented bedroom it's like I'm walking
through another world, hazy underwater light trickling through dark
clouds. Twilight dips low over the ground and
it feels like I'm walking through memory and shadow and
I wonder if there’s something at the end of the road.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Letter From a Crime Scene (Dahlia Dee #1)

I don't remember my daddy much. He spent most of the eighties and early nineties driving black tar heroin and cut cocaine up out of Mexico and along the whole eastern seaboard. He'd stop by the lighthouse every few months, whenever his route passed nearby or he remembered he had a woman and a kid waiting on him. He always brought presents when he came, though. A whole kilo of grade a pure coke for momma to forget about being left alone all the time in, and a couple grand for me to keep the lights on and the oil tank full and crackers in the cupboard.

For my twelfth birthday he took me on the road. Not all the way down to Mexico, but well into Jersey, past the old shipping yards. He showed me all the secret places in his old Cadillac where the seats opened and the floorboards came up, and he handed me a little pearl-handled butterfly knife and looked into my eyes and said, "If anyone tries to touch you, you stick this into his neck as quick as you can."

He didn't bring me along on any real business that trip, but he did send me into a convenience store with a hundred dollars and gave me a smile and ruffled my hair when I came out having turned that bill into $250 and a cheese sandwich.

My daddy taught me lots of things, see. Like how to fight dirty and use my baby blues and delicate features to make people want to take care of me. He taught me how to hot wire a car, too, so I could always get out of dodge in five minutes or less.

"Five minutes is the most you'll ever have," he'd tell me. "If you're taking longer than five minutes, you're going to jail."

I knew I couldn't go to jail, not with momma sick and daddy on the road all the time. Once daddy'd taught me the trick about turning $20 into $50, or $100 into $250, things got easier up at the lighthouse. I didn't do it too much, and never the same store twice in a row, and I always kept my hair braided back nice and pretty. But an extra $20 or $50 a week kept momma in cheap wine and me in cigarettes, and there wasn't really anything more we wanted.

It was probably about '94 when daddy got nabbed. I guess he'd been caught before, when he was first starting out, but not like this. I got the call at the convenience store pay phone, some important-sounding voice on the other end telling me that James D. D. White was being charged and held without parole. Mr. Yu gave me the message and I cried all pretty and he sent me home with two sandwiches, a big bag of chips, and a whole box of Baby Ruth's that were dated for the next day.

I ate both sandwiches on my way home, and I stood outside and smoked through half my pack of cigarettes before walking inside and letting momma know. She didn't cry at all, just went and dove into her last eight ball.

I went and packed up my stuff. I didn't really have much, and it all fit into a plastic trash bag. I went to momma's room when she was done and told her everything was paid up for the rest of the month and the next month, and that there was enough wine to get her through the week under the sink, and I left.

I took the gun daddy'd always left on top of the fridge. There was no way momma even remembered it anymore, and she was in no shape to use it without killing herself. I walked down to the train station and broke into an unassuming tan Buick. I threw my trash bag on the back seat, got the car started, and headed on out of town.

I went down to Jersey first. I didn't really have anywhere else to go. I made my lone twenty dollar bill multiply at every gas station I stopped at, stretching halfway down the seaboard. Daddy’d had a friend squatting in the office at one of the old shipyards, Don. Don was one of those real paranoid types, strictly off the grid, but he had half an art degree and was good with a printer, and $200 and a couple blinks of my eyes later I had me a fancy new ID that said I was 22 years old.

“You're still pretty small, kid, but throw some lipstick on and keep batting those pretty little eyes of yours and most people’ll let you slide on past. And that ID’a good enough to get you past anyone who might not.” He paused after handing over the card. “I was sorry to hear about your daddy, he was a good one.”

“I wouldn't know,” I relied, and spun right on out of his temple to crazy.

All the bills for the lighthouse had been paid, but momma was gonna need more wine soon. The last time she'd been forced sober she’d vomited and seized so bad that after three days I almost brought her to the hospital. But daddy’d showed up then, six pack of wine coolers and a kilo of the good stuff and momma’d calmed right back down.

I dug through my trash bag, finding nothing but old jeans and flannel shirts. Not the sort of thing to wear to a casino, and that’d probably be my quickest payday right now. My wallet held $67 and my brand-new ID, and after driving aimlessly for about forty minutes I pulled into the first promising thrift store I saw.

Seven dollars and twenty minutes later I had a dark blue velvet dress that showed way too much leg and made me look much older than I was and a pair of silver stilettos that were only a little scuffed on one heel. Another quick stop at the closest CVS and I had a stick of Revlon Black Cherry, a black kohl pencil, and a brand new fifty dollar bill. I changed in the store bathroom and smudged up my eyes and filled in my lips before driving to one of the more promising mid-range casinos.

I parked out of the way, around back, and walked in with my head high like I owned the place. I slid onto the stool at one of the nickel machines, at the end of a row so I could see all the comings and goings, ordered a g&t and played a few rounds while keeping my eye out for a good mark. After an hour or so I was on my second g&t and had made ten dollars at the slots, and I had made my target.

He was roughly middle aged, a little thick around the waist, starting to bald on top, wearing a beige suit and red tie. I abandoned my slot machine and drink and sidled on up next to him at the craps table.

“Let me blow you?” I asked him. “For luck?”

I pressed up against his side and his eyes got real big, but he held the dice out toward me and I lowered my lashes real pretty like and blew. He swallowed hard, but turns out I had Lady Luck in my back pocket, and two hours and a few too many drinks later Mister Beige Suit was walking up to his room with 20 G’s in his briefcase and me plastered to his side.

The next morning, my companion bled out in the tub behind a “Do Not Disturb” sign while I extended his hotel room for another two weeks and cashed out his chips. I watched the news report on the discovery of his body from the breakfast nook of a seedy motel in Dayton after swinging by the lighthouse and setting momma up with enough booze to keep her comfortably pickled for a few months and prepaying everything for a few more months.

It was there, in that breakfast nook, that I think I really became a criminal. You know, that whole time in the casino, I never thought about what I was doing as a crime. That man had money, money that I needed to set up my momma, because god knows she’s never been in any shape to take care of herself, and when he tried and slid his hand a bit too far up my dress, I took my butterfly knife from my bra and stabbed him in the throat.

I was just doing what my daddy told me.

But there, eating that dry bagel and drinking weak coffee, seeing the results of my actions broadcast live on national television, I felt real power, and I knew that whatever juice ran through my daddy’s veins ran through mine, and I knew that I was gonna be okay.

Of course, all that was long before you ever crossed my path, Agent Murray. Can I call you Brad? I saw you on the tv after that job in Sioux City. Messy business, that one, and I am real sorry about leaving that mess for housekeeping to find, but that one was particularly handsy, and he just wouldn’t stop. I had to burn all my clothes after that, you know, because he kept grabbing at me while he was bleeding out. I don’t like to get messy, but my daddy taught me to never leave a job half done. That’s how you get caught.

I know I’ve been keeping you busy, but let’s just call it job security. At least the Bureau has a nice deep expense account. I caught a look at you in Tampa, you know. You all thought I peaced out as soon as the dust in that bank vault cleared, but I stuck around. You see, you know more about me than just about anyone, and I’d like to think that we could someday have a sort of friendship.

That blue tie you were wearing was hideous, it washed you out something terrible, so, no, housekeeping didn’t lose it, I disposed of it for you. I can’t have my PR man looking like some ash-faced puppet on national television, now.

I’ll save you some time, because I have a surprise planned for you. You know next month is going to be our third anniversary? Time flies. Anyway, I used the same butterfly knife as with everyone else, I don’t mess with what works, and that was about five thirty on the morning of January 27th. Around eleven that same morning, at the First National Bank in Centennial, Dahlia White transferred $13,000 to the account of Celeste Sabine Devereaux of Owls Head, Maine at Androscoggin Bank in Brunswick. That’s all money I won fair and square here, and anyone at the casino will tell you the same, so don’t you go trying to force my momma out onto the streets.

Don’t bother trying to find me between now and our anniversary, you know better than to think you could. Since I’ve been dragging you all over, I thought you’d appreciate being able to celebrate close to home- small town kids like us shouldn’t be dragged through these cesspools of cities, but we go where the job takes us, right?

Remember, February 26th. I’ll see you in Tulsa.

xoxo,

Didi Blanchard

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

All the Single Ladies

Meg had heard about it from her roommate. “My brother did it through most of college, it’s not bad money. Especially if you get a couple of regulars.”

She hadn’t been entirely convinced, but Amy was very persuasive. “It’s better money than you get in the call center, and it’s not like you’ll have to do anything sketchy. One of Patrick’s regulars just wanted someone to make fun of Chopped with her. His standing Friday morning client needed him to help her with her back-zip dresses. Nothing weird, I promise.”

And so Meg found herself spending her Friday night sitting in front of her laptop, scrolling through photos Amy had taken of her earlier that afternoon.

“You want to look friendly, try to seem open and nonjudgemental. These women are looking for someone to step into a very intimate space, you need to honor that.” Meg finally just selected the two Amy had pointed out earlier as her favorites.

The All The Single Ladies website asked her to talk about herself. “This is stupid,” meg pushed the laptop away and made herself a cup of hot chocolate.

“Talk about myself, what am I supposed to say for something like this?” She sat back down and opened a new tab and began scrolling through some of the other escorts profiles. After they all began to blur together, she went back to her own profile.

“Meg, 24: Journalism and Creative Writing grad student at University of Minnesota. Likes Food Network, art galleries, and Lady Gaga. Unavailable MWF 10-3, TH 11-2 and 6-7.” She tossed back the rest of her hot chocolate and clicked “post.”

 ***

She got her first notification the next afternoon. “Hi, I’m Sam,” the message read. “I have a giant zit on my back that’s really bothering me, and it’s just out of reach. Could you swing by and pop it?” Meg clicked through the message to Sam’s profile. Sam was a 27-year old bank teller who liked hiking with her dog. Meg clicked “accept” and headed out, the app loading a map to Sam’s apartment.

It took her ten minutes to bike to Sam’s apartment, and Sam greeted her at the door, a German shepherd wagging its tail behind her. 

“Hi, I’m Meg,” Sam shook her hand.

“Sam, hi. This is Tibo. Thanks for this, it’s a total pain. You’d think my skin would have calmed down by now.” She shut the door behind them.

“Yeah, sometimes my forehead breaks out so bad it looks like the moon surface.” Sam led her through her apartment to the bathroom, where she hitched up her shirt.

“There, above my waist on the left, see it?”

“Yep, got it.” Meg leaned in and popped the zit, pinching until it ran clear. “Looks like you’ve got another little one starting here,” she touched a spot a few inches toward the center of Sam’s back, “want me to try to get that one too?”

“Go for it, if it doesn’t pop today I’ll just message you again when it’s ready.”

Meg poked at it. “Nah, it’s not going to pop today. Cleanser?”

“Under the sink.”

Meg washed the spot and leaned back. “All set.”

“Thanks so much.” Sam opened the app on her own phone and tapped “complete” next to Meg’s name. Meg’s phone pinged with a payment notification.

“Yeah, anytime. Have a good rest of your weekend!”

“You too!” Sam walked Meg to the door and waved her off.

***

The next few weeks passed pretty calmly. Meg got a couple of regular clients through All The Single Ladies- Bette, a marketing executive “of a certain age” who loved big dresses and needed help in the mornings and evenings with her back zippers, and Lily, a 22 year old cartoonist who wanted someone to shout at the local news with on Monday nights.

And, of course, Sam, who messaged Meg pretty regularly. Sam professed herself “incapable of cooking for one,” and Meg regularly found herself at Sam’s for dinner, small cooking parties just for them, with baking shows on in the background and Tibo trying to sneak bites of whatever she could reach.

One Saturday night, Meg found herself curled up against Sam’s side, a shared blanket over their laps and Tibo’s head on her thigh, and it felt so much like coming home that Meg had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from impulsively pressing a kiss to Sam’s cheek.

When she got back to her apartment, Amy wheeled on her as soon as she saw the look on Meg’s face. “Who is it?”

“Who’s what?”

“Whatever guy is making you  float around on a fluffy pink cloud?”

“Ames, what are you talking about?”

“You, girl, are smitten. With a capital ’S.’ So why don’t you tell me who’s got you all hot and bothered, and I’ll help you strategize.”

“I’m too tired to deal with this right now, I’m going to bed?” Meg tried to push past Amy, who grabbed her shoulders to stop her in her tracks.

“Oh my god, it’s one of your clients, isn’t it?“

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Meg, it’s okay, there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Amy, stop.”

“She wouldn’t be hiring you if she didn’t want a partner.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Meg tore herself from Amy’s grasp and went to her room, shutting the door firmly behind her. She flopped onto the bed and groaned, dragging her hands down her face.

“I’m fucked.”

***

Over the next few days, Meg noticed herself bypassing the All The Single Ladies app and texting Sam directly to arrange their cooking parties. She was very careful around the other woman, maintaining the closeness they’d developed, but trying to keep an emotional distance.

By the end of the month, it was clear that she was failing. Every time she saw Sam, her heart swelled up and her breathing got faster. Meg continued to resolutely ignore the topic around Amy, and her roommate was wise enough o drop it after that first night.

It was another Friday, and Meg and Sam were in Sam’s kitchen, baking cookies. “I have a craving,” Sam had texted earlier, “and I’ll eat all the dough if you’re not around to stop me and get some in the oven.” The kitchen was a mess, flour everywhere, dough dripped on the counter, and both of them were stuffed with dough. Sam pulled the final batch from the oven and set them on the rack to cool.

“Want one?” She picked up a cookie from an earlier batch and turned to offer it to Meg, then burst into laughter.

“What is it?” Meg asked, Sam’s laughter spreading to her.

“You have this big spot of flour on your face,” Sam gestured to her own cheek. Meg reached up to rub at it. “No, you missed, here,” and Sam was in her space, rubbing her thumb surely over Meg’s cheekbone. She paused for a moment, eyes fixed on Meg’s face before she stepped back and held up the cookie. “There you go. All better.”

Meg let out a breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding. The cookie was warm in her hand, and she raised it to her mouth when Sam turned to get one for herself.

“Mmm, these are really good. I definitely need this recipe.”

Sam nodded. “I got it from my neighbor growing up. Hers were even better.” She took a bite of her own and moaned around it before swallowing. “These are pretty fucking good, though.” She looked up at the clock behind Meg. “Oh, crap, is it ten already? You’ve got that thing tomorrow morning, right? The investigation workshop?”

Meg nodded. “Yeah, I should go. Lost track of time there.” She wiped her hands on her jeans.

“It’s supposed to be really nice tomorrow. I was wondering, maybe after your workshop, would you like to go on a hike with Tibo and me? The short loop on McKinney hill has some great foliage right now.” Sam ran a hand through her hair.

Meg swallowed. “Yeah, that sounds like fun. Great. I’ll text you when I get done.”

Sam grinned widely. “Sounds like a plan! I’ll see you tomorrow.” She walked Meg to the door, and Meg bent down to give Tibo one last good scratch behind the ears before she left.

Meg had been looking forward to this workshop for months, but she found it incredibly difficult to focus on what the visiting crime reporter had to say about contacting police departments and victims and their families. She shook her head and plowed through it, taking tons of notes and jotting down books and journalists the visiting reporter referenced and recommended.

She texted Sam on her walk back to her apartment. A response pinged immediately.

“Want to grab tacos first?”

“Absolutely,” Meg texted back, and after a split second, she followed it up with a smiley face, and hit send before she could reconsider.

Sam and Tibo pulled up to her apartment not long after Meg got home, and Sam came up to the door. “Just a minute,” Meg called out at the knock, and she opened the door with her sneakers in hand. “I’m almost ready, just gotta put my shoes on. Want a seat?” Sam shook her head and stood in the doorway as Meg bent over to tie her shoes.

“All right, taco time!” Sam said when Meg rose.

They grabbed tacos to go, and ate in the car on the way to McKinney Hill. Tibo sniffed at Meg’s elbow from the backseat, and she snuck the dog some bites of taco when Sam wasn’t looking.

“I know what you’re doing, and if you make my dog vomit, you’re going to be the one cleaning it up.”

The parked at the trail head and Sam clipped Tibo into her harness. “Ready?”

“Ready.”

As the walked, Sam pointed out some of the more interesting trees and formations that she was familiar with. The took turns holding Tibo’s leash, and after an hour they reached the summit of the trail.

“It’s beautiful up here,” Meg said, taking in the brightly colored leaves surrounding them.

“Yeah, it is.” Sam stepped up next to her and brushed their hands together, so softly that it almost could have been unintentional.

Meg took a deep breath, then slowly, cautiously, twisted their fingers together loosely. She turned to face Sam, who’s face was now just inches from her own. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Sam responded. They were silent for a beat, studying way other’s face, fingers touching. “Can I kiss you?”

Meg nodded, and closed her eyes as Sam leaned in.

Sam’s lips were warm. Her bottom lip was slightly chapped, and it dragged against Meg’s mouth gently. Meg reached her free hand up to catch Sam’s neck. Her heart swelled so much she could feel it in her throat.

Sam started to pull away and Meg chased her, opening her mouth to deepen the kiss. Time seemed irrelevant, all she could think of was Sam and Sam’s hands and Sam’s mouth.

They finally broke apart, and Sam moved to entwine their fingers together properly. “Is this okay?”

Meg smiled so hard it felt like she could split her face wide open. “This is perfect.”

****


****
I learned how to read from gravestones.
My father brought me to dozens of cemeteries
to meet the family,
scores of relatives spread out over generations
and state lines.
Small chubby hands tracing weather-worn granite letters,
I learned Hezekiah and Eugenie and Esther and Zedechiah and Peter,
I learned Beloved and Sacred and Departed and Memory and
Lord Have Mercy On His Soul.

Sometimes, my father would have to leave,
just for a few hours,
there were some places that a child couldn’t go.
He sat me down with Grammy Heppy-
Hepzibah Badeshaw
Born 1761
Died 1823
Beloved Wife and Mother-
and I’d lay on her belly and sleep in
her arms and reach up to brush her old stone
face.


******
My grandmother killed forty men.
She brought them into her home,
She made them feel welcome,
Comfortable.
She fed them tongue
And liver
And heart,
Hearty stews simmered in fresh bone broth,
All recipes brought over by her mother’s
Mother,
And studied carefully in her
Mother’s kitchen.

When her gentlemen callers had eaten their fill,
My grandmother brought them back
To her room,
To her bed.
When they finally slept, full and sated,
My grandmother killed them.
I don’t know how she did it, but once
It was done, she carried them,
Slung over her shoulder- my grandmother
Was strong for her size-
And hung them in the barn.

My grandmother never threw anything away-
My mother still has prescription bottles
Dating back decades filled with bobby pins
And sewing needles.
She was meticulous, leaving nothing behind:
Bones for broth, organs in the ice box,
Fat set aside for rendering,
Blood for pudding or for her garden.
My mother can butcher a side of beef in
Twenty minutes, precise cuts stacking up on the
Counter beside her- she learned from the best.

My mother doesn’t talk about my grandmother much.
Sometimes, when I’m very sick, she’ll make me soup
From the old recipes,
Hot and rich, full of salt and spice and umami.
It settles in my stomach, warm and comforting,
Like the quilt my grandmother made
From all those men’s shirts.


******
The monsters are out walking again.
They’re waiting for something, I think.
I don’t like to imagine
What it is they’re waiting for.

Sometimes, if you know where to look,
You can see them, cookie-cutter sharp against the stars.
You have to pay attention, though,
Or they’ll slip into the shadows again.


******
My aunt was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
Every summer, we’d get together at the lake cabin,
Aunts, cousins, grandparents, old friends that were
Better than some family-
Spend our days climbing through tree roots
And playing cards
And laying on the dock
And waving at the boats
And swimming in the lake.

My aunt was powerful, big-presence, no-nonsense
With eyes that opened straight to her
Bottomless heart.
She was always a woman of A Certain Age,
And she carried herself like a queen,
Holding court on the dock
In her skirted swimsuit and big sunglasses.

I remember looking up to her, my eyes
Level with the backs of her legs.
Those legs walked me along the shore,
And turned into my favorite lap when she sat.
They rippled and dimpled like the tiny peaks
Of the lake waters, bright in the sun,
And I looked at them and hoped
That one day I’d have legs like hers.


******