Mama’s at the door again. It’s another dark night, inky purple. The edges of objects are tinged violet, like bloody outlines, and there’s a sour smell in the air. Mama’s doorway shadow is backlit by the blue-shaded hall lamp. It’s raining. Sky water tinkles against the window, ice tinkles in a glass.
“Baaaby…” Mama says. Eyes snap shut. Maybe she’ll think I’m asleep and go away.
Mama comes closer. Her hair is flyaway cotton candy, bright blonde with violet frosting; her teeth shiny white, her eyes dark holes. She swirls the tinkling ice, a cheerful horrible sound in the shadows. Squeeze eyes shut, pretend to sleep. Maybe this time pretending will work.
She’s been coming forever. Once her touch felt like love and closeness…but the mind develops, the baby looks at TV, goes to the market, to the park, watches a world outside this pale room. The midnight visits Mama calls babytime turn to gloomtime as Mama’s love begins to feel off-center. Other mamas, park mamas, laugh and clap and hug. Park mamas kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth.
And there is never tongue.
Three thousand miles away two girls stand at the end of a long dock, one with red hair, the other with chocolate eyes. They wear swimsuits and pigtails. When the brown-eyed girl yells “Ready, set, GO!” they rush down the dock and cannonball into the lake, plunging deep before rising. They surface and call to each other, laughing, then swim to the dock and pull themselves up, flopping onto worn boards, bellies up, inviting the Maine sun. “Did I ever tell you,” the redhead says, “about Diablo Rosa?” “Later,” says the other, breathing hard. “Go again.” They scramble to the dock’s end, the lake dazzling, splendid life ahead, and sprint to the water, skinny legs pumping, their shadows flashing alongside like guardian angels.
Susan Green sat at a small table close to the stage. Her friends were lost in the crowd, nuzzling up to cowboys and truckers twice their age. Circling her at the other tables were the bar men, and there was nowhere she could look without catching an uninvited eye. In fact, the last thing she wanted was to make eye contact with leering strangers. For all she knew one of them had killed those girls.
She stretched her neck, searching, and caught the attention of a tall, dark-haired waitress. She waved her hand to order another drink but the waitress shook her head and pointed to the bar.
Minutes later a brawl broke out to her left. She got up, friends forgotten, and moved through the crowd, maneuvering jeans and boots and short skirts out of her way. There were loud voices and chairs breaking behind her as she went. At the front door she gripped the handle, pulled, and stepped outside. It was late, the sky deep and star-speckled. She walked toward the parking lot and breathed in, glad to be out of the smoke. The night was quiet, blissful compared to in there, although once she thought she heard a baby cry. She took a few more steps toward the lot and peered out. Surely no one had left a baby in their car…
When a hand fell on her shoulder she jumped and turned around.
“Oh!” she said, startled. Then she relaxed.
Susan was a pretty girl, slim and ivory-skinned. Her black hair was long and her walk girlish, with swinging hips. They strolled unnoticed across the parking lot, past silent cars and the forgotten baby's cry. The friends were gone and she needed to get home. Her father would ground her for sure if he found out she was wasting nights at the Blue Moon.
By the time a cowboy stepped outside for a cigarette, they were gone.
In another house, in an upstairs bedroom, a dark-haired girl was sobbing. She was gagged and naked, bound at the ankles and wrists and lying on her back. Her orange silk blouse was wrapped in a noose around her neck. Beneath her was a plastic drop cloth. When she tried to close her eyes they were pried open, fingers digging into sockets and forcing her to see. Tears spilled down her cheeks and ran off her chin. Her back and chest and ivory forehead were bleeding, her shiny hair wet with the kidnapper’s urine, a finger broken to remind her of pain.
He started the car and pulled out.
Valerie picked up breakfast and went back to the office. She ate, visited with Grace, carefully avoided any details about Mosby holding back when she talked to Richard, and dawdled over her typewriter, distracted by a whispered telephone conversation Martin was having with a woman. She barely made deadline and then only with a paragraph, promising Richard she’d have more on the murder tomorrow when she’d had a chance to interview staff at the Blue Moon. With Grace’s help she tracked down the name of the waitress…Toni Buckman…and found an address. By lunchtime she was guiding her Impala out of town.
Buckman lived on Old Country Road, a dirt lane lined with tired houses once the focal point of large cotton farms. Farmhouses had since turned into hired hand rentals, and finally, even too dilapidated for them, had become rural slums. She rounded a curve and spotted the house. Most of the paint was gone, leaving behind gray boards, weather-worn and splintering. The fence was sagging and clapboards from a sleeping porch dangled precariously from the second story.
Valerie pulled into the driveway, got out, went up chipped stone steps to the screen door, and peered in. The inside door was standing open.
“Helloooo?” No response.
She stood for a minute, glancing around at the lifeless yard, then pulled open the screen door and stepped into the entry hall.
“Is anybody ho…”
She grabbed at her chest, heart banging. Standing to the left of the door in a black baby doll nightgown was Toni Buckman, arms crossed, a thin, unlit cigarette sticking out of her mouth.
“Ohmygod, excuse me,” Valerie said. “I didn’t know if you could hear me, I mean, I would never just…you know, walk in. It was, well, I didn’t mean to intrude, I’m sorry.”
Toni laughed, a boozy, late-night, smoke-filled sound.
“C’mon in,” she said, a command more than an invitation, and without waiting she disappeared inside. Valerie stood still until she heard a muffled “Well C’MON! You gonna stand out there on the veranda all day?”
The hall was wide and opened into a living room on the left and a parlor on the right, both sparsely decorated. Valerie walked down the hall to the kitchen where Toni was moving about, setting the coffee pot on the stove and turning on the flame, placing milk and sugar on the table, reaching for cups and saucers in the cupboard over the sink, all done with the ease of a person who serves other people for a living.
“Coffee’ll be done in a minute.”
Toni Buckman’s looks were hard. She was big leaning toward chubby and long-legged, with a thick waist and full hips, a figure a kinder eye would deem baroque. Her jet black hair was worn shoulder length and side-parted, with split ends pointing down at her bulging bustline. She was not pretty. Her face was a roadmap of teenage acne and too many nights in a dark place: pock-marked and ashen.
Toni sat down and stared at Valerie with eyes as dark and lifeless as her hair. She lit a cigarette and dropped the lighter on the table.
“Toni,” Valerie began. “I’m Val...”
“I know who you are,” Toni said, not unkindly. “Valerie Costello. You work at the newspaper, live over on Magnolia, and for awhile you took up with that Ford guy until he dumped you and moved on. You hang around with the music teacher – another of Ford’s ex-girls – and the other newspaper reporter, funny kid, Grace…”
She tapped a long, blood-red nail against a crooked front tooth, thinking.
“Welch,” she said, then paused. “And you’re from New York.”
Valerie’s mouth dropped open.
Toni smiled, making that scary face look surprisingly sweet.
“It’s a small town, honey. And you’re sort of a celebrity, you know? Being a reporter and all.”
She took a drag from her cigarette, then got up to pour the coffee. “I also know why you’re here.”
She filled Valerie’s cup and sat back down.
“I haven’t been this popular since I had my tubes tied. Fred Slater’s come and gone and so has that Hamilton guy, one right after the other. A bunch of cops have been here, too, and I’ve gotta tell ya, if it’s up to them this guy’s gonna kill more chicks than Colonel Sanders.”
She leaned back in the chair and gestured with the cigarette hand.
Christ Almighty, Valerie thought, glancing at her watch. The others had already been here?
“Uh, I have a tape recorder,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“I’ll probably ask a lot of the same questions so I hope you’ll...” she stopped, not really knowing what she hoped. “I hope you’ll help me,” she finished, feeling bungling and stupid.
Toni looked her up and down. “Have you ever been to the Blue Moon?”
“Yes,” Valerie said, picturing the club. A dance floor bigger than her whole house, a long, sloping bar, burly guys on stools, lonely women with too much make-up leaning against men they didn’t know.
“Not too pretty, is it? Not the Plaza Hotel on a Saturday night for sure. That’s in New York, isn’t it, the Plaza? Where you’re from?”
“I’m not from New York City. I’m from about a hundred and fifty miles north of there, a town called Walden.”
“Ah, my grapevine has a broken branch. I heard you were from The City.”
“I don’t always clarify. When I say New York people just assume New York City and I’ve gotten tired of correcting them, so I let it go.”
Toni smiled. “I’m not from here, either. People don’t seem to listen much, do they? They listen a little make up the rest.”
“Where’re you from?”
“California,” Toni said, amused at Valerie’s obvious surprise. “What did you expect me to say, a Mississippi dirt farm?”
Valerie shrugged, embarrassed. “What part?”
“North of San Francisco, a place called San Rafael.”
Toni looked away, her eyes softening.
“Isn’t that a pretty name, San Rafael, like where soap opera people might live. It’s just over the Golden Gate, past Sausalito, along the west side of the San Francisco Bay. Beautiful. Houses built on the hillside all along the water. Boats everywhere, and the smell...Oh man.”
She took a deep breath, like she was on a shoreline instead of in a sad country kitchen.
“What...brought you to Arkansas?”
“Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
“Same here,” Valerie said. “A pilot out at the air base. I had nothing going on in New York so I followed him here. Didn’t work out, he left and I stayed.”
“Ah, the Air Force boys,” she said. “Mine was too. Motherfuckers.” She stubbed out the cigarette.
Valerie toyed uncomfortably with her coffee cup.
“Sorry,” Toni said. “Life ain’t so bad, Air Force bastards aside. And my job’s okay, and hey, isn’t that what you came to talk about anyway?”
“Yes,” Valerie said, glad for the change of subject. “Actually, I wanted to talk about Susan Green, the last girl. Did you know her?”
“I knew who she was, sure, that pretty kid belonged to the city council guy. Dark hair, chilly personality. I saw her around, yeah.”
“Do you remember seeing her that night?”
“Like I told your buddies this morning, I do remember seeing her but I didn’t pay that much attention because I was crazy busy. The only reason I noticed her was because I’d never seen her in there before, and because she stuck out like a blackhead on a white elephant’s butt. All dressed up, sittin’ at a table in the corner like a little princess, snubbing everybody. The men were all over her, asking her to dance, if she wanted a drink, did she come here often. She was a class chick, not the kind they’re used to. Not a dyed hair on her head, pretty hair like yours, the kind of long, shiny hair that ends up getting you lots of attention in a place like the Blue Moon. Not much make-up, expensive clothes, uppity attitude…Air Force type. Makes you wonder what the dopey bastards are doin’ there in the first place, if what they’re looking for is the town socialite.”
“Did you see anybody in particular talking to her, or paying a lot of attention to her?”
“Where were her friends?” Valerie looked at her notes. “I understand she went there with some other girls.”
“Beats me. I didn’t see her when she came in, and I never saw her sitting with anybody. Just there by herself, brushing off the man flies.”
“Did you see her leave?”
Toni shook her head.
“Can you give me any names of the people who were there? Any of the guys who were coming onto her?”
“Well,” Toni said, thinking for a minute. “I can probably come up with a few. But why don’t you ask your friend Marty, he was there that night.”
Valerie tried to keep expression from her face. “Martin Ford was there?”
“Sure, sittin’ there singin’ away at the bar, talkin’ to some skank. Best looking guy in the place as a matter of fact. Looked like Mr. Universe next to that bunch.”
“Are you sure it was him, Toni?”
“’Course I’m sure. I’d know Marty in a blackout. Cute little butt, pretty blue eyes.” She winked. “Crooked little pecker.”
Blushing, Valerie changed the subject. “What about the other two, Celeste Ledbetter, and the waitress...” she checked her notes “...Jackie Koopris, did you know them?”
“Not Celeste. But Jackie was a friend of mine. Nice girl, no nonsense. Kept to herself after her husband walked out on her. Came to work, did her job, went home. Worked like a dog, too, after the husband took everything, the money, the car, even her little boy. He got custody and she couldn’t fight back. Luckiest day in his life when poor old Jackie turned up dead. He’ll never have a problem with her again.”
Valerie jotted a note to herself to check out the husband. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody killed a few people to cover up the one they really wanted dead, although she had to admit that was pretty much paperback stuff.
“Do you remember the night she died? Jackie, I mean.”
“Sure. There was a big crowd that night, too. Jackie wasn’t feeling good, and slinging beers all night wasn’t helping. Had a cold, she said. We were working the seven-to-two shift, and around midnight she asked Donner if she could leave, Jerry Donner, you know him? The owner?”
Valerie shook her head.
“Well anyway, the crowd had settled down and most of the boys were at the bar, so we were cleaning off tables, doing side work, that kind of stuff. When she asked to leave, Jerry said no problem, and we never saw her again. As God as my witness, that cold killed her.”
They talked for another half hour, Valerie asking questions and taking notes. She asked if Toni noticed Martin Ford talking to Susan, and Toni said no. As she was leaving, Valerie shook Toni’s hand with real feeling.
“You’re okay,” Toni said as Valerie went down the steps. “Even if you are from New Yo-ark.”
Valerie walked down the steps and to the path, stopped, and turned back. Toni raised an eyebrow. She was standing at the door in her baby doll pajamas, cigarette in one hand.
Something Toni had said was bothering her. Valerie stood at the bottom of the steps trying to nudge whatever it was the front of her mind. When the thought wouldn’t surface, she said:
“Toni, this guy’s picking girls from the place where you work, in fact killed one of the waitresses. How does all this make you feel?”
Toni gave her a faraway smile, one that Valerie couldn’t read, and tossed her cigarette out toward a bed of weeds.
“Now there’s a question your news boyfriends didn’t ask.”
She ran a hand through her hair, a sexy gesture beautiful women make in front of men who infatuate them, and for a moment Valerie didn’t see the hardened face of a barmaid, but the innocent one of a smiling child from California, a kid whose plans…whatever they were…probably didn’t include working nights in a town where girls were dying.
“Miss New York,” she said at last, “I’ll tell you the truth, and this one is for the record. I’m scared half to death.”
In the way people know someone is watching them, Grace knew. She cast her eyes along the bar: a fat woman in a yellow dress; a businessman flirting with the bartender; another man, this one wearing a Yankee baseball cap and fidgeting with an umbrella; a couple of skinny farmers, and…
Her eyes swiveled back to her drink, hoping he hadn’t caught her noticing him but knowing he had. Wayne Westin was propped against the bar at the far end, leering.
Wayne owned Westin Lumber. Valerie once said if you stripped off Martin Ford’s charm and sophistication and sensitivity the only thing left would be Wayne Westin, a 200-pound pile of smirking testosterone.
“Like going to bed with a crocodile,” Sally the bartender recently told Grace. “All teeth and big tail.”
Grace sensed more than saw him head her way. He was wearing tight black jeans and a white cotton dress shirt, and she could hear his lizard boots marking time along the wood floor. He slid into the booth seat across from her and crooked his finger to Sally, pointing to Grace. Sally reached for the tap.
“Grace Welch” he said in his best come-hither voice.
“Wayne Westin” she said coldly, realizing as she said his name aloud that it sounded absurdly like something Elmer Fudd might say.
Wayne Westin, I’ll get you, you wascally wabbit.
She choked back a laugh as Sally walked over and set a glass down hard in front of her.
“Watch yourself,” she said to Grace and sauntered away.
Wayne stared at Sally's jiggling and retreating buttocks, then turned back to Grace. He looked her up and down, settling on her face and seeming almost to swallow her whole with his wide, cruel eyes.
Grace Welch had been raised with money, though she masked her background well. Her clothes came from discount bins, she lived below her means, and she never mentioned – even to friends – that her parents spent half their time buying fine art and the other half running in the Memphis country club scene. Her intellect, her stocky frame, her dark hair, and her good teeth came from the mysterious bio-parents. The rest…her compassion, wit, and distain for the arrogant wealthy…well, nobody really knew those origins, although if asked she would probably say with casual simplicity “camp.” The camp in Maine had been her escape, offering an opportunity to get away from a kind- though-distant upwardly-mobile family to socialize with children her own age, kids whose parents didn’t think the most important headline was the BMW in the next driveway. Her parents were good people who taught manners and appropriateness, who put her through school and paid for piano lessons, but who were emotionally absent, making Grace closed off, even hard. Outwardly, she was the carefree life of the party, a girl whose car frequently ran out of gas and whose top desk drawer was sticky with spilled coffee. Inside she was watchful, making it no easy task to startle or embarrass her.
Wayne Westin, however, was a master.
“Here’s the thing,” he said, his voice low. “I was standing over there, drinking my drink, and thinking about how much I’d love to eat you out.”
She was on the verge of swallowing when he spoke and the beer went down the wrong pipe. She coughed, and hacked, and her face reddened. The whole bar was watching.
“You okay there sweetheart?” he asked, his lips snaking upward. “I guess old Wayne kinda shook you up. I sure didn’t mean to… at least not ’til later.”
The door opened then and Lucy Lee Hooks walked in. Westin didn’t see her coming.
“Wayne,” Lucy Lee said in a musical voice as she approached the booth.
Wayne looked up. “Oh hell.”
“Take a hike,” she said, still melodic and smiling.
He got up, picked up his whiskey, and left.
“Jeez,” Grace said, her voice froggy. “How do you do that?”
“It’s a short, ridiculous story involving Wayne Westin and foul suggestions.”
Lucy sat down just as Valerie came in and dropped into the seat next to Grace, waving to the bartender for a drink. Sally brought over two glasses of wine and set them on the table. “Hey girls.”
When Sally was gone Valerie told them about the press conference.
“So what do you think?”
Lucy Lee slowly twirled her wine glass.
“I’m a teacher, Val, not a journalist, but it doesn’t seem right to me. Can he do that? Tell you not to report something?”
When Valerie lit a cigarette, Grace fanned at the smoke. “Supposedly not but who knows? We’re not exactly The New York Times. I guess he can do what he wants, and that’s to hold back later if we go after the police department now. I talked to Freddy afterwards and he was steaming mad.”
“Did you tell Richard?”
“No, I said I wouldn’t. Besides, I want to see what I can find out. I know Richard’ll be pissed, he wants me to go after the cops, and he’ll want the story, of course, but he isn’t going to want me to dig too deep. I’m thinking – and so is Freddy…”
She looked around the bar, at the umbrella man, the fat woman, Wayne Westin, and the fellow flirting with Sally, and lowered her voice.
“We’re thinking that the killer’s a local, and I’d like to poke around a little first, you know, before Richard gets involved.”
“Poke around?” Lucy frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
Grace was staring at Valerie over her glasses. She didn’t speak.
“What?” Valerie said finally, puffing smoke in her direction.
“First, I’m jealous. I wish this was my story. And second, is this the same person who only last night said she didn’t like her job?”
“Things have changed, Grace. This is something I can sink my teeth into.”
“Or get its teeth sunk into you,” Lucy said.
They ordered another round and sat for awhile, talking about murder. When Valerie told them that Toni Buckman had seen Martin at the club the night Susan Green disappeared, Lucy made a face and shrugged.
“He spends half his life there,” was all she said. “I’m more interested in our mayor and what he’s hiding. The only thing Martin Ford has to hide is his forked tongue.”
“So what are you gonna do?” Grace asked.
“I’ll snoop around and see what I can find out. Tomorrow I’ll ask Richard if I can work on this full time and see what I can come up with.”
Grace went rigid and squinted her eyes.
“But you know what that means, don’t you? I mean, do you know what the hell you’re saying here?”
Valerie squinted back. “No…”
“That means that I’ll have to do the goddamned bus story!”
They all laughed and Valerie waved for the check.
“Quiet for a Friday night, isn’t it Sal?”
Valerie picked up her bag. She was surprised to see Grace’s down there, too, and hefted the canvas satchel out from under the table.
“Not really. Blue Moon has a band weekends and anybody hanging around here usually ends up there. In fact, that’s where I’m headed.”
Valerie made a face. “Be careful.”
“Oh, don’t you worry. I’m too tough for Mr. Blue Moon Killer, and too smart. Besides, I’m meeting my businessman. He’ll watch out for me.”
Valerie leaned against the bar.
“Seriously, Sally. Do you know this businessman guy? Ever seen him before?”
“Yeah, he’s been in here a few times in the last year. Comes up from Little Rock and stops in every now and then. Got a wife and kid.”
She patted powder on her face and gave her hair a tease with a rat-tailed comb. “I gotta have a life, too, right? If she can’t keep him in the corral, that’s her problem.”
“Okay, well, just take it easy.”
“Message received and appreciated.”
Back in the lot, Valerie crossed to her car. Ten feet away, she stopped. The inside light was on. Did I not shut the door tight?
She looked around. It was a black night, no stars, high cloud cover. The pole light lit up the front of the lot, but the back was in shadow.
Something caught her eye and she whirled around. Something moving. She loped the last few feet to her car and jumped in, tossing both bags into the passenger seat and taking a quick look in the rear. She reached around and across, locking the doors in one fluid movement, then hunkered down.
In a few minutes she saw the lights go off in the restaurant, and saw Sally go out to her car and get in. The car started, and then the engine coughed and stalled. Sally tried again. More coughing and stalling. Finally the engine turned over. She gunned it, then slammed into reverse and roared backward, shifted, and drove out fast, past Valerie’s car and to the right in the direction of the Blue Moon.
No big murder scene, no stealthy killer easing out with a knife. Just Sally, getting in her car like a sane human being and driving off.
Valerie let out a shaky sigh and was sliding her key into the ignition when she saw movement at the back of the lot again. She froze.
What the hell am I doing?
Still she didn’t leave. A few minutes passed. When nothing happened she started the car, and as she did she saw a man emerge from the back of the parking lot. He had something in his hand. Valerie’s throat closed up. Then she saw the umbrella. And the Yankee baseball cap.
The man from the bar, who was talking to the fat woman earlier.
Breath rushed out of her pursed lips. She put a hand to her chest, sat for a second with eyes closed, then put the car into gear and backed out. In her rearview mirror she saw the man standing about twenty feet away. She held up a hand and waved. After a second’s hesitation he waved back, twirled the umbrella, and walked off down the street.
Valerie got to the paper early on Saturday. The Record went with a short staff on Saturdays, the newsroom closing at noon and the presses stopping at 3:00. The staff worked every other weekend. Richard Clark let his reporters arrange their own schedules and didn’t care who was working when, as long as two of them were.
Martin Ford was at his desk, rummaging around in his backpack. He took out his camera, popped out a roll of film, and walked toward the darkroom, slapping Richard on the back as he passed.
“Got some great shots out at Dell’s Falls last night, Richard. Maybe P-1. You got anything for P-1?”
Richard looked up. “Dell’s Falls? What of?”
“Oh, nature shots, you know, the fields, cows, farm equipment at sunset. Artsy stuff.” He glanced at Valerie and lowered his voice. “Coupla pics of a good-lookin’ woman, too.”
“Farm equipment at sunset? That’s gonna look a little lifeless in black and white, don’t you think?”
“No, man, they’re great. Wait’ll you see.”
“I’ve got Valerie working on the Blue Moon killer for P-1. You know, that little murder story?” He raised his voice. “I do have Valerie working on that for today, don’t I?”
“You got it, Richard,” she called. “No sweat. You’ll have it soon.”
She loaded the typewriter.
“Got any shots of the killer in there, Martin? That I could use for page one. Farm equipment I don’t know about, unless you got a dead body under one.”
Martin chuckled and continued on to the darkroom. “No, no dead bodies.”
Valerie tapped away. She’d promised Richard more, but still there wasn’t much. Now she had to figure out what she was going to say, and more importantly, what she wasn’t.
No Suspects in Blue Moon Killings
“Okay,” she said out loud, then reached for a martini glass, the olives, the Tanqueray. The first sip wasn't down her throat when she heard a rapid knock. She swallowed, set the glass down behind the coffee pot, then peered out through the living room to the front door glass.
Last summer Valerie had been in a Memphis bookstore when she noticed tall, handsome Martin Ford noticing her. He walked around a stack of books and looked into her face.
Wouldn’t we have beautiful children, she thought.
And that's where it started.
Within a month, Martin had moved out of his Memphis apartment and, with Valerie’s help, found half a house in Braddock. He’d wanted to move in with her, but smitten as she was, she wasn’t ready.
“We can’t, Martin,” she told him as he slid his hands across her hips and belly and breasts and through her hair, kissing the back of her neck. “I’m a reporter. Everybody knows me. And I’ve just broken up with someone. I can’t have you move in, at least not yet. Braddock’s a small town with a big mouth.”
“But we love each other,” he said. “We should be together.”
“We are together. Give me some time. I’ve only known you a month.”
“Feels like I’ve always known you, baby,” licking her, holding her, “like I’ve been walking all these years toward right now.”
Including the Air Force boyfriend, Valerie had never met anyone who made her feel like this. Her parents were dead and she was lonely, far from home and from the love of what family she had left. This was magic, or at least felt that way, and like all women who believe the story of finding the one and only mate out there, the mate who drifted aimlessly from one entanglement to another until you stumbled upon the lost and searching other half, Valerie thought she had.
Martin conceded defeat. The house she’d found for him was a two-story, two-family owned by an elderly woman looking for a nice man to live upstairs so she could rest easy at night. Martin loaded two chairs, a single bed, dresser, and TV into his blue van the third Saturday he and Valerie knew each other and drove to Braddock, cruising up the interstate with the windows down singing Amazing Grace with Valerie harmonizing in the passenger seat, their blonde and red hair blowing around in the hot August breeze.
Getting Martin a job had been absurdly easy. He was bright and chatty, traits that got both feet in the door at The Braddock Record. Valerie hadn’t actually considered how their working relationship might affect any other she assumed would blossom. Her happiness at seeing him all day, every day, was blinding. Hired a week after Labor Day, Martin cast Valerie aside by the first of October with no explanation and no remorse. One day he was there and the next he was gone. Literally.
Now here he was again.
“What's goin’ on?” he said as she opened the door.
“Not much.” She let him pass. Outside was uncharacteristically cool and gloomy. She left the door open, hoping he’d notice and keep his visit brief.
He flopped onto the couch. Faded jeans, green shirt, grinning at her through his beard. Looking great.
Grace Welch lay sprawled on the highway. She is spread-eagle, a star, lying on her back. Droplets of light rain patter on her staring eyes, making an unpleasant sound like rice falling on a tile floor. There are flies.