Lush Triumphant Literary Awards Winner – Fiction
Summer moves through town like a river of slag, heavy and inevitable. Heads crack open on hot cement. Children suffocate in derelict refrigerators. People drown.
It is because of the heat, Jenny thinks, that Warren left. Last night she rolled over in bed and threw her arm over his broad back.
Don’t touch me, he said. He took his pillow and went out to sleep on the couch. Near dawn, Jenny awoke and listened to a thunderstorm rumbling in the distance. A sudden breeze swept past her and slammed the bedroom door. Worried that Warren would think she slammed the door in anger, Jenny creeps to the kitchen and turns on the light above the stove; not too bright, just enough light to find her way to Warren and tell him she is not mad. He hates it when she is mad.
But Warren is not on the couch. His pillow is there but Warren is gone. Jenny takes a deep breath. She showers and dresses for her job at a day camp north of the tracks where the houses are slabbed together from odds and ends of plywood and tarpaper and desperation.
Most of the children at the day camp are subsidized by the Rotary Club. Most of the mothers who drop the children off are young and slovenly. They smoke. But they are not lonely. Jenny is amazed at the number of boyfriends these women go through. There is a never-ending supply of guys who don’t mind a little baggage in relationships it seems. Perhaps that is why Warren is her first boyfriend since she graduated from high school six years ago. She has no baggage. No children to prove that someone found her attractive once.
Jenny met Warren at her cousin’s wedding. She had expected to meet someone at college, but her small-town persona hadn’t transferred well to campus life. She went to bed early in her single dorm room while late-night hi-jinx echoed up and down the halls. Now she’s back home working for Parks and Rec with an air of defeat about her.
Jenny eats Cheerios and reads her horoscope. The new moon is in her sign. Good news. She will meet someone who has some advice for her. Best to listen. She puts her bowl on the floor so the cat can finish the milk. Warren hates the cat. He wants a dog.
Will Saunders parks his Impala in front of a tidy white bungalow. He walks up the gravel driveway past a police cruiser, a tent trailer up on blocks, and a bicycle with bent handlebars. He lifts the latch on the chain-link gate and enters the back yard. Melanie Lawson, covered in blood and badly in need of a root touch-up, is on her knees. She appears to be praying. Officer Ellis, the town’s only woman cop, is keeping an eye on her, ready to cuff her if she runs. But Melanie is not likely to run. She called 911 herself.
Will tucks his notebook under his arm and blows into a pair of latex gloves. He snaps them on, opens the aluminum door and enters. The body is in the kitchen, halfway under the sink. Al Lawson. Beer gut. Spindly legs, hairless and pale. Looks like he was fixing a leak or something when the accident happened. The screwdriver falling on him. Thirty or forty times. Will loosens his tie.
Melanie is not praying. She is watching a dragonfly trapped in a spider web. The dragonfly is fighting so hard to free itself, that it is tearing its wings. Officer Ellis is touched by Melanie’s concern for the struggle. She crouches beside Melanie and starts tearing the web away from the delicate wings with her pen. Melanie puts a bloody hand out to stop her.
Don’t do that, Melanie says.
The back door opens and Will gives Officer Ellis a quizzical look that has her on her feet smartly. She steps back toward the dog house, adopting a cop stance: arms crossed, feet planted well apart.
Mrs. Lawson, Will says, I need to ask you a few questions.
Melanie stands and wipes the grass off her knees. The children will be home from Day Camp soon, she tells him.
It’s twelve-thirty, Will says. When do you expect them?
Four o’clock, she says.
We’ll have everything cleaned up by then. How old are they?
Eleven and thirteen, she says. I know what you’re thinking.
What am I thinking? Will asks, expecting the confession.
You’re thinking I’m too young to be the mother of a teenager. Everyone says so.
If you squint your eyes, Melanie still has the pretty face that got her elected prom queen in 1993. She hasn’t put on weight like a lot of women her age, but the cheerleader has been sucked right out of her.
Are you going to tell me what happened in there, Melanie?
He’s on holidays, Melanie says.
Will is a patient man. He waits.
The plant closes down for two weeks every August, Melanie says. We usually go camping, but I don’t know. Money’s tight, I guess. My friend Sandy called and asked did I want to go to the Outlet Mall with her. I wasn’t planning on buying anything. I was just going to look. It’s air-conditioned. But Al didn’t want me to go. He said what did he take summer holidays for if his wife wasn’t going to be there to enjoy them.
Will has thinning red hair and a freckled complexion. As he writes in his notebook, the top of his head fries in the sun. He is terrified of skin cancer. His father got half his ear taken off and he doesn’t want that.
How did that make you feel? Will asks.
Officer Ellis curses the way her black uniform attracts the sun. She spots a plastic kiddie pool by the shed, harbouring layers of algae and mosquito larvae.
Jenny is supervising the kids as they have lunch under the dusty maples in Rotary Park when the cruiser pulls up. Her heart skips a beat as Reg Lumax gets out and puts on his cap and walks right toward her. It is Warren, she knows it. Dead in a car wreck. Or maybe on the job. He works construction and guys get hurt all the time. They fall into cement mixers. They chainsaw their own legs off.
Hey, Jenny, Reg says.
Is it Warren?
Reg looks at her as if she’s crazy, then realizes she means Warren Allen, that jerk Jenny’s living with. No, no, Jenny. It ain’t Warren. I’m here for the Lawson kids. He stands real close to her and lowers his voice. Their dad’s been killed. I gotta take them into care. They can’t go home.
Oh my god. What happened? Jenny leans in and catches a whiff of his gum. Cinnamon.
It’s a crime scene, Jenny. I can’t say nothing more about it, but half the town’s seen the yellow tape, so . . .
Murder? Jenny asks.
Could be, Reg says. He takes a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wipes sweat off his neck. Anyways, I gotta take them kids to the Children’s Aid. Which ones are they?
Jenny pushes her sunglasses up on her head and scans the picnic tables. As a group, they are a scraggly bunch, sharing their sandwiches with seagulls from the dump. Jenny thought she liked kids until she started working with poor ones. They make her feel hopeless. She can’t seem to motivate them. What do you expect, Warren tells her when she worries about their lethargy and lack of prospects. You can’t polish turds, he says. Even so, Brittney Lawson stands out among them as singularly unloved, wearing a stretched-out bathing suit that looks like a hand-me-down from a fatter cousin.
That’s Brittney at the end of the bench.
Blonde? Bad posture?
Yep. That’s her.
Where’s the boy?
Over there, under the slide. He’s the oldest kid at camp.
Okey-dokey then, Reg says, hoisting up his trousers by the waistband. You and Warren coming to the arena Saturday for the Fish Fry?
Don’t know yet, Jenny says. She is a little bit disappointed that the crisis does not involve Warren. His death would have released her from her responsibilities. Now she has to organize the kids for afternoon activities. It is too hot for soccer. Maybe she’ll take them down to the creek and look for frogs.
Officer Ellis has dumped out the stagnant water and started filling the plastic pool with the hose. She runs cool water over her wrists and feels some relief.
I could use a drink, Will says. Do you want a drink, Melanie? Are you thirsty?
Yes, she says in a soft baby voice. There’s lemonade in the fridge.
Officer, Will says. Can you grab the pitcher of lemonade out of the fridge and maybe a couple glasses?
Officer Ellis sets the hose down in the pool. Except for a little eddy of swirling grass around the nozzle, it is hard to tell the water is running. It’s likely against procedure, disturbing a crime scene to get a drink, but since the Coroner asked she figures it must be all right. Besides. It’s hot as hell and she wants a drink too.
The suspect wants a drink, she announces to the detectives in the kitchen. They don’t say a word because she has not really asked permission so she just opens the fridge and grabs the lemonade. In the cupboard above the stove, she finds a stack of plastic glasses. She reaches over a pot that is crusted with Zoodles and crawling with flies. A dog is barking down in the basement.
Thanks, she says on her way out the door.
Uh-huh, the young detective says. Officer Ellis suspects that the Pepsi he has in his hand is from the case in the victim’s fridge. Not that Al would’ve had a problem with that. Al had it in him to be an asshole, but he wasn’t cheap. She knew that for a fact.
Officer Ellis opens the back door with her hip and sets the lemonade down on a little plastic table. Then she arranges some chairs around the pool. She kicks off her black oxfords, balls up her sweaty black socks, rolls up her pants. She looks over at Will and, with a tilt of her head, invites him over. Strange or not, Will thinks, the officer has a brain in her head. He helps Melanie get settled into a chair. She slips her calloused feet into the water. Oh. That feels good, she says. She accepts a cup of lemonade, gulps it down and asks for more, then carefully tucks the cup under her chair.
Now, Melanie, Will says. What do you remember after Al asked you to hand him the screwdriver?
That was when the accident took place, Melanie says. She lifts her right foot out of the water, lays it across her left knee and starts picking dirt out from underneath the nail of her big toe.
The back door opens and the older detective summons Will. Thunder rolls, long and low in the distance. Melanie takes her feet out of the pool. Officer Ellis grabs the hose and sprays some water in the direction of the withered begonias over by the fence. She blasts the spider web. The dragonfly hovers briefly and balances on a leaf before it flies off. Melanie watches, clearly annoyed. She glares at the officer.
You from out of town? Melanie asks.
Nope. I sat behind you in Grade 6. Mr. Disher’s class. I was at your sweet sixteen birthday party, too.
Melanie looks the officer up and down, challenging the disclosures with a long, exhausting pause. Crawling back through the shadowy culvert that is her memory, she finds no record of this woman as a girl. You want a dog? she asks.
Jenny bikes home the long way, past the Lawson house. An SPCA worker is leading a Rottweiler to the truck.
You want a dog? Reg asks her as she pulls up alongside his cruiser.
Jenny leans forward on her handlebars and looks at her reflection in Reg’s sunglasses. I don’t like dogs, she says.
Me neither, says Reg. Particularly I don’t like that dog. He hampered the investigation. Licked most of the blood up before Homicide arrived.
Jenny watches as the dog is muzzled and locked inside the truck. How are the kids? she asks.
They’re okay. They’re at a foster home.
You done work soon? Jenny asks.
Yep. My shift ends at four.
Want to go for a drink later?
Reg pauses and looks carefully at Jenny to determine whether she is joking around or serious. He has trouble with social cues sometimes. I thought you were with Warren, he says.
Not anymore, Jenny says.
Then sure, Reg says.
Meet you at Pee Wee’s at seven, Jenny tells him and then cycles off. Reg watches her muscular glutes working rhythmically atop the padded bicycle seat. He notices that she doesn’t stop at the stop sign. And she isn’t wearing a helmet.
Jenny pushes open the door to her apartment. Warren is sitting on the couch in his boxers. His hair is wet and slicked back from a recent shower. The fan is two feet away, aimed right at him. He has a beer in one hand and the clicker in the other. Some doctor on a talk show is answering questions about bowel movements.
Hey, he says. You hear about the murder?
Jenny takes a good look at him, half-nude and hairy on her white couch. The Lawson kids go to my day camp, she says. Reg came and picked them up.
Reg come on to you?
Why would he?
He likes you.
How would you know that?
Warren doesn’t answer. Instead he holds out the empty beer bottle for her. She takes it to the kitchen and gets him a cold one. This is not the day to tell him to get his own damn beer.
Did the kids cry?
The Lawson kids. Did they cry when Reg told them about their dad?
He didn’t tell them. He just told them they were going for a ride in the cruiser.
And they got in? They didn’t ask why?
They’re not stupid, Jenny says. They’ve been waiting for something bad to happen for a long time. »