There were some neighbor ladies talking to Momma, just come back from the Mill, in the kitchen when I woke up. They kept their voices low when I was near but they couldn't help but get loud from time to time. The ladies still wore their funereal finest.
"Her undergarments were nowhere to be found!" gasped Mrs. Remedy, who hailed from the house south of us. Momma shushed her with a warning look in my direction and Mrs. Remedy was cowed with a shame that quickly evaporated once Mrs. Cooridy, our northern neighbor, rejoined in a heated whisper that, try as I might, I could not apprehend. Momma was pretty silent during all of this, shaking her head occasionally, no doubt at the callous talk flinging back and forth around her, but seeming like it was the enormity of the tragedy that caused her to do so. She had been fond of Ms. Holly, and had gone to school with her when they were kids. They might even have been friends. I made a mental note to remember to ask her about this.
Then Daddy and Lucius came in from the garage and could not even attempt to hide their disgust at the nature of the conspiratorial commiserations transpiring at their food table. The neighbor ladies stopped talking but looked staidly and defiantly at the men as they passed through to the basement stairs, but Momma was red with shame.
My Momma was a good woman.
Mrs. Cooridy (whose son had been horribly mangled and blown up in the war, and whose ripped remains she had nonetheless insisted on viewing, which caused vital pieces of her psyche and mentality to float away from her, making her rude and forgetful and whacky), munched at a piece of toast as she recounted what she had heard in line at the post office from the cousin of Tom Steerblend, the Killdeer County deputy assigned to watch the crime scene until the police from Hunstable came to investigate.
"Denise said that Ms. Holly was killed somewhere else. Somewhere inside, most likely in someones garage or pole barn or basement. There were cobwebs in her hair, she said."
I tried to blend into the furniture so that no one would make me leave the room, so they would forget I was even there. It appeared to work as the ladies no longer seemed intent on whispering.
Mrs. Cooridy continued. “she also let loose with this, and I find this particularly revealing, considering what I’ve always said about the Holly woman, about..you know what I mean. Anywho, there was apparently some evidence left on her..evidence of a..fluid nature..and this evidence was of an amount enough to suggest more than one person killed her. Now we all know the twins were in custody and just released to their parents. Well this evidence suggests that there were even more than 2 suspects, and heaven knows that they never would have released the twins if they were guilty. So I’m given to think this might be some sort of orgy situation gone bad, something like that.”
Mrs. Remedy was nodding her head as if the likelihood of an orgy situation gone bad was all but foregone a conclusion.
“Well, she was just a little too pretty to be a teacher if you ask me,” said Mrs. Remedy.
Suddenly Cot appeared in the hall directly in front of me. I was able to stop her in her tracks with a slight fluctuation of my eyelids to the wider. She dramatically backed up to the hallway wall and listened to the ladies, her teddy bear in the crook of one small white arm. It was then that I noticed the shadows of both Dad and Lucius emerging from the stairway to the basement, as if the dark shapes themselves were interlopers to the women’s talk.
“As y’all know, the Holly woman was seen more than once in the company of Winky’s boy and that they were of a habit to visiting some of the nicer venues out of town, like Harold’s steak house and such. Word is, Winkys boy might just be mixed up in this mess, and that Winky is marshalling his forces to cover it all up, and did some framing-up of those poor twins which is why they were hauled to jail in the first place,” Mrs. Remedy added, wholly in a breath.
The neighbor ladies paused and ate of their toast and drank of their coffee, both looking at Momma expectantly. This was her cue to offer up whatever gossip she had gleaned over the last days.
Momma, being who she was, said nothing at this juncture.
I thought about what I had just heard. Mrs. Remedy had mentioned Winky’s son. His name was Robert, and he was noted in the area as having evaded the nastier encumbrances of his genetic and cultural due, such as the bald pate, the power madness and the lack of humanity. It was considered that Robert, son of Winky, was actually a genuine and caring fellow and was generally looked up to by most right thinking people of our small town, especially those millworkers who prayed every night for Winky to be mangled in an industrial accident so that his son could take over the sawmill.
But gossip knows no goodness, and to Mrs. Remedy and Mrs. Cooridy, Robert was just as likely as anyone to be of the nature and discipline of a cold blooded lust orgy murderer.
Robert and Ms. Holly had been an item for about a year. It was well known to all and was hardly the stunning news that Mrs. Remedy’s tone made it to be.
Mrs. Remedy’s eyes shifted from her cohort’s to those down-turned of my Momma’s. It was clear that this visit was not going to be the information windfall that these ladies had hoped. They began to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
My Momma didn’t look up when she said “Thank you ladies for dropping by…that was real sweet.”
Cot tiptoed back to her room. The shadows withdrew back into the stairwell to the basement. I hightailed it quietly to Cot’s room while Momma showed the neighbor ladies out the front door.
“Well what do u make of it?” Cot asked.
“I can’t say I understood any of what they said, but its pretty clear they didn’t like Ms. Holly one bit, the bitches.”
“What did Cooridy mean about that evidence?”
I sighed. “I think she meant that, you know, a group of people murdered Ms. Holly.”
“Like a devil cult?”
I hadn’t even thought of that wretched possibility. The image of Ms. Holly in the clutches of a devil cult was a dispiriting one.
Through the closed door I could hear my Dad berating my mother about the quality of her guests. How they were conniving harpies out to sharpen their claws on the misfortunes of others and whatnot. Momma remained silent. She was the long suffering type and was used to such. I wished that Dad would ease up on her.
It was not Mom’s fault that Mrs. Cooridy and Remedy were conniving harpies, any more than it was Dad’s fault that their husbands were irritable drunks.
“You know what we gotta do don’t you?” said Cot to me in a whisper, right up close.
“I don’t want to know what we gotta do!” I whispered shrilly back into her face, “I’m goin fishing before Dad or Luce notice I’m gone and then I’m gonna come back for some digging and then I’m going to bed and then tomorrow I’m gonna do it all over again so I got no time for what we gotta do Cot!”
“No Johnny,” said Cot, with all the authority of a field general, “you and me are gonna go see the twins.”
We made out of Cot’s window like prison escapees evading the eye of the searchlight.
The Donnel twins, Reginald and Bobby, lived in a tarpaper shack at the top of a rise (possibly a mass grave from civil war times) in the dark interior of the forest adjoining our property. Cot and I knew that if we started due south and walked for some minutes till the floor of the forest dipped precipitously, then followed its steady rise toward a clearing in the trees, we would find it.
The day was leaving, and mist was stirring at the base of the trees, lending the setting of our journey a sublime creepiness evoking, more than anything, death itself.
Death was the cause of our mission and death seemed to hang around our ankles crawling slowly up in the mist.
Cot was never one to show any sort of agitative fear. She did not conceive of horrible figures in the gloom as I did, nor did she half hear the scratchings and thumpings and other sounds as I did. She trudged purposefully ahead of me, looking back from time to time without affect, without fear. I did my level best to keep it from registering on my face but I know I was not wholly successful, as her gaze lingered on me occasionally, as if to make sure I was ok. She was ever the elder of us.
When we got to the Donnel place we made the traditional non-verbal noises to call them out, and after about 5 minutes Bobby Donnel appeared next to us as if out of thin air. Reg was not in sight.
“What you two want?” said Bobby Donnel to the ground at his feet.
“Just checking on you,” said Cot. “We heard they had you up to the jail for a few days –we wanted to look at a real jail bird.”
“They had the wrong guys. Everybody knows that.”
We nodded. We knew the twins were innocent and our eyes said as much.
“Well what?” asked Bobby Donnel, clearly irritated.
“Well tell us about it dammit! Christ almighty you were in jail! You gotta tell us about it!” Cot yelled at the boy.
Bobby Donnel knew it was so.
“Well that Kamen fucker picked me and Reg right off the street as we was comin home from playing pool with the Hoddy sisters. We didn’t know what it was about.. I thought he was gettin us for killing old Van Dyke’s pigs in March.”
“You did that?” I asked, dumfounded.
Bobby was taken aback by his own admission and blurted “Hell no! But I thought that was what he was trying to pin on us.” Color rose from his neck.
He continued, ”Anyway, he took us right into the morgue and there was a body on the metal. He pulled back the sheet and there was Ms. Holly, deader than shit, eyes wide open and staring right at us. Her neck was all fuckin' ripped up - it looked to me like someone had been trying to saw her head off. And then Reg just puked a mile right there all over everything. Spared the sheriff tho.
“Kamen told us we did it, and everybody knew it cuz we was seen, which was a big ol lie, and that we were gonna swing by our necks. It only made Reg puke again. But I think Kamen knew right away that we dint do it. Mostly cuz of Reg pukin all over like that. It was kind of funny.”
“Tell us about Ms. Holly,” I said.
He looked at me weird..sizing me up..then he started back in.
“Well she wasn’t naked, tho I could see her boob in her shirt if that’s what u mean, I could see right in to the nipple.”
“No I want to know about her face.”
“Her face?” exclaimed Bobby.
“Yeah, what was her expression?”
He paused for a span, looking from the bottom to the top of a long birch tree, then said, “It was bad Johnny, she looked real sad,”
That hurt my heart when he said that, and I didn’t say anything back. I just looked at him in his face, hoping he would modify what he said somehow, and take away some of the dark force his words carried in their evocation of Ms. Holly’s terrible passing. But he was silent.
Cot said: “Did you hear anything? Any of the cops talking?”
That kind of jerked Bobby up from a sorrow he was in. his face brightened.
“Actually I did hear a bit of something while we was in stir…” he looked back at his house, presumably making sure his old man wasn’t in evidence, then pulled us farther into the trees at the edge of the clearing.
“I didn’t hear it from the cops, I heard it from Bandana.”
“Bandana? The one who said you two were the killers?” I asked.
“The same,” said Bobby. “That smelly fuck was in the cell next to us getting clear of a serious drunk he was on. He barfed and shitted the whole time and when he wasn’t doin that, he was just looking at us, kinda like he had something to say.
“So Reg, who was in poor way hisself, yells at him ‘What you want you drunk fuck?’ and he just keeps lookin at us like he’s all full of knowin’ bout us and he just caint bring hisself to speak it. So that night, when we’re all sleepin, I suddenly get woke up by this whistling sound, not like someone whistling a tune, but more like wind whistling thru a broke window. Only its Bandana, and he’s crying and muttering to hisself, all blubbering like a baby, it was sick.
"So I yell at him to shut the fuck up. And he turns his face from the moon in the window, and he’s glowing white on one side from the moon, his eyes all wide and shit, and he says to me, ‘You’ll be out of here soon boy. They know it weren’t you. I know it weren’t you that done that gal in, but if I say who really did it, then my life will be not worth a penny.’
“I says back to him, ‘Well thanks for the fuckin sweet thoughts you fuckin liar, now shut your crying so's I can sleep.’ And that’s what I did, I went back to sleep, and when I woke up Bandana was gone from the cell. I asked a guard bout it and he said that someone had posted Bandana’s bail and got him up outta there, and that it didn’t matter cuz the sheriff didn’t believe his bullshit story anyway and that we’d be outta there that very afternoon, and we were.”
With that Bobby was clearly done with his story, and looking at us for critique. We both admitted of its significance, and of our admiration for his jailhouse experience, which he found edifying. We all shook and spit and he mosied back toward his house and we started back into the misty dark toward ours.
I looked back as he closed his front door. I saw a figure in the window on the north side of the house. It was Reg, white as bone and not looking at all happy. He was watching us depart. He was shaking his head.
The long walk home was made more so by the dark that descended, and the cold. But Cot and I kept busy ruminating over what we had learned.
“Why do you think bandana would lie to the cops like that Johnny?” asked Cot.
“It’s pretty obvious that he saw something but he’s afraid to say the truth of it. He’s worried if he talks the real murderer will get him.”
“So he fingers the Donnel twins? Doesn’t that seem strange?”
“The guy’s a flippin drunk! Who knows what makes him say what he says!” I yelped at her. Cot was taken aback and slipped into silence on the way home.
I stayed quiet too, and fell strongly into missing Miss Holly.
Have you ever lost a love?
The most unexpected and painful aspect is the sudden obliteration of direction, of the target of all romantic intentionality. Your love still flows outward, but with no direction, no purpose it evaporates uselessly into the air.
Akin to losing a limb, the powerful absence endures, staying one from eating or sleeping, or from thinking of anything but the limbless future. The pain decreases but the limb returns again and again, as a phantom, a painful persistence that will not be silenced, and heavy with the dawning that it never will.
I knew I loved Miss Holly because of the warm that would hit me. It was a warm I felt in my face and torso, accompanied by the slightest adrenalized thrill in my stomach. I would often watch her at her teaching, at the board, or at her desk and the warm would expand in my torso and chest. It would fill my face with the most extraordinary pleasure, like a mask. She most often remained oblivious to me. Now, I realize I felt like I was watching my lover sleeping beside me. And the warm of my love for her flowed outward, from my face and body sometimes making me delirious.
So strange, the aspects of love that stay with me after all these years. The body feelings, the thrills, the warm, the feeling in my face. None of the lofty poetic ephemera of love toward which humans aspire in the mode of poetry and sonnets. For me it was the warmth and the flow outward of this body feeling.
I have felt it two times since, but never with such clarity. Never without the competing pleasures of sex and real romance.
It’s been so many years and I am happily ensconced in the rubble of my one failed marriage, embroiled in fatherhood and grandfatherhood, encumbered by debt and home, enticed by the near future of my death and meeting my Lord, but still I wake up a few times a year, my cheeks wet with actual tears, as if I were a boy again, swimming in her loss.
It’s as if the clear intensity of my almost ridiculous affection for my teacher impressed itself into my very nerves and neurons, and became the lens through which all future love would focus. It goes far to show how poorly we make ourselves, and how much we are made by the others who come to us, and go.
We slept that night to a powerful dark wind that brushed the limbs of the trees against the house and windows. My sleep was dreamless and in the morning I woke to such a refreshed, rejuvenated feeling that it was nearly disturbing to me in light of the events of the previous days.