“Don’t move. Wasp!”
Mac’s voice entered my sleep along with the rasp of the locusts and what sounded like giant footsteps coming up the street.
“I mean it!”
“Not moving.” Something swished across my face. “Hey!”
“Only my tee shirt.”
I rubbed my forehead, stretched, and stretched again, my arms and legs slippery with sweat, my eyelids prickly with it. Crawling to the end of the army cot, tugging down the hem of my tee shirt with one hand and hitching up my panties with the other, I peered over the folding chair that my brother had shoved between the foot of his cot and mine. Trying for a little privacy, he’d draped a towel over the back. I pulled it off. In his old pajama pants he lay facing the ceiling with his gnarly feet toward me, his arms flung up as though he’d been dropped from an airplane and flattened slightly by the impact of the fall. There was a lot of pale hair on his arms and the hair in his armpits looked damp and matted. Colorless stubble showed on his cheeks and chin. His blond crew-cut was a fur of light. I smelled the bitter scent—a horrible summer job.
“Should I thank you for hitting me in the face?”
“Note well, you did not get stung, Susie.” He closed his eyes.
I sat back on my heels and pulled the rubber band off my ponytail, ran my fingers through my hair, secured it again. The footsteps were soft thuds of Sunday papers hitting the porches along Broadway, getting closer until one thumped onto my grandparents’ steps under the sleeping porch where Mac and I had been sent because of the mucky August heat. We’d been stashed here so Mom and Dad could stay at a hotel after taking in The Student Prince at the Kansas City Lyric Opera, an anniversary gift from Grandfather. Very, very tame stuff to look forward to, as far as I was concerned. I squinted through maple leaves whitened with dust at the slow-motion passage of the paperboy cruising down the sidewalk on his Schwinn.
The sweet salt of frying bacon rose from below where Estelle was cooking up a rasher of it, most of it for Mac, golden boy, home from his first year of college to be worshipped, though she’d make sure there were three strips on my plate. I smelled coffee, too. I’d be allowed one cup. Mac could finish off the pot, if he chose.
In the distance a police car siren began to keen. “Think they’re after a speeder?” I said.
Mac hurled himself over onto his belly, his pillow jammed under his chest. Small bruises that might be hickeys showed on his neck. He slid his foot through the chair back, pressed his sole against the wooden frame of my cot, and shoved it several inches away.
“Jerk!” I said. I slipped on my flip-flops and went inside to the bathroom.
The lavender perfume of hard-milled soap scented my grandparents’ large bathroom. The towel laid out for me was white, thick, and fluffy, the marble washbasin gleaming, luxuries Mom had grown up with. I wondered if she missed them, missed a man showing up to mow and trim and to tend the cars, a laundress doing the washing and ironing, and Estelle cooking every day. With Mom it was hard to tell what she wanted and didn’t want.
My hair was fine and wispy and sun bleached, with many broken ends. I stroked Grandfather’s shaving soap for a dab to flatten the sprigs. The soap was sticky—maybe he’d been called during the night to pick up a body, as he often was. If he had been, he’d definitely have shaved and put on a white shirt with a tie and one of his dark suits. He took being a funeral director very seriously, a vocation. In case he was home, before I went down for breakfast I put on a bra and the clean shirt and shorts I’d packed in my overnight case.
A stag pursued by hounds leapt across the stained-glass window at the landing of the front staircase. That kind of Victorian house.
I glimpsed Estelle at the stove in the kitchen as I passed, her dark face and arms polished with sweat, her white uniform starched into crisp curves and angles. Her sad-faced little grandson, called Ol’ Folks, squatted by the counter and pushed a wooden truck across the black-and-white tiles, a few amber-colored locust husks in it. The locusts had been at their frantic roar the year I was born, my mom said, and now, seventeen years later, they were at it again, the volume cranked up high.
Neither Ol’ Folks nor Estelle looked up as I went by. Grandfather’s cereal dish and juice glass were in the dish drainer, so he must have gone out.
In the small breakfast room, my grandmother sat at the round table with her back toward me, and surprisingly, for my parents weren’t expected back from K.C. until later, my mom sat with her. Gran was spooning pulp from her orange juice with little jabs of a spoon. She wore a peach-colored negligee over a matching gown, but she was barefoot. I’d never seen her feet undressed before, never seen the clear polish on her toenails. Why, if you weren’t going to go barefoot or in sandals, would you have your toenails painted? That thought was a distraction from my mom’s unexpected presence. “What’s wrong?” I said.
Gran’s startled gaze swung to me as she paused her spoon over the glass and waited for my greeting.
“Morning, Gran,” I said. Duty done.
“Did you sleep well, sweetie?” she said. “It’s little cooler on the sleeping porch, but…” She set her pack of Camels next to the Shepherd Hotel Cairo ashtray, then moved them both toward Mom. “Here, Aileen, you should have one.”
Sometimes, like this morning, when I hadn’t seen my mother for a few hours, she looked very young and very pretty, with a swipe of lipstick and a dab of Vaseline on her eyelids. The sun behind her, her permed auburn hair seemed on fire. She wore her brown-and-white checked shirtwaist, her traveling dress. “Susanna. Well, something’s happened.”
Gran got to her feet. “My goodness, I should get myself together, shouldn’t I.” Her white hair hung loose on her shoulders, and as she rose she gathered it in both hands and gave it a twist, ready for her combs. She was leaving the scene.
“Oh, at the house. He’s got a tennis game, I think.” Mom patted the needlepointed seat of Gran’s chair. I sat. The seat cover still held my grandmother’s heat, a startling intimacy.
Gran let her hand linger on my shoulder, then closed the breakfast room door behind her. All so familiar—so things couldn’t be too bad. Though I despised the hollowed-out, empty way that apprehension made me feel.
Mom lit up, her chin lifted for the first, longed-for inhalation. She set her cigarette into a groove of the heavy ashtray and put her hand on my wrist. “Susie, you’ll hear a lot about this awful thing, so I want to tell you first.”
Against my will, scenes of destruction whirled to me like the photos of forest fires and train wrecks in Life Magazine. And the violent, raking sound of the locusts splashed up like a breaking wave. What did they do underground for seventeen years? Wouldn’t they need to eat? Didn’t they need air? Or water?
Through their arrhythmic blare, I heard Mom say, “…no one in our family. Friends, that’s all. The Meyers, actually. Not your pal Betty. Her older sister, the one you hardly know.”
“Jeanette? What about her? Was she hurt?”
“I should just blurt this out, shouldn’t I. Some man broke in where she was babysitting. He, well, raped her. Then he killed her. There. That’s the whole story so far. It’s already in the paper.”
I caught my breath. “It can’t be Jeanette. She doesn’t babysit.”
“Strangled. She might have been trying to call the police, it says. You should always call the police if you hear—”
“Did they help?”
“I’m sure they tried.” Mom picked up her cigarette again and studied me through the smoke. “Oh, honey! I’m sorry I’m not better at this. Your grandfather phoned us in K.C. He was leaving the house to, well, see about her...body.”
I realized I was supposed to be stricken. I was supposed to be shocked and saddened. She and Dad had come home early to support me. Comfort me. But I didn’t want that. No image of Jeanette’s murder had formed for me yet, but I felt a guilty joy—it wasn’t me. I was okay. I was in the breakfast room with my mom, the Wedgwood china on the table, the pink tablecloth pressed and crisp, Estelle muttering softly to her grandson right outside the door.
I pressed my folded hands between my bare knees until my fingers hurt. Not Jeanette, I thought. Not her, absolutely not her.
Mom blinked rapidly. She didn’t know what to do now. Neither did I. “Is Betty okay, then?” I said.
“Oh, yes, yes! Your pal’s fine. Well, she must be devastated. Terribly! How could she not be—a sister! But Jeanette wasn’t at home. Didn’t I say babysitting?”
“She doesn’t like little kids,” I said. I couldn’t use the past tense. “She gets a big allowance. She can have anything she wants from her dad’s store. She never babysits!” Why was I hanging on to that?
“For a family on Rochelle, the paper said.”
“Rochelle! Married student housing?”
“The photo shows an ugly little place.”
Neither of us knew what to say. She gazed at the red hotel ashtray. I looked at my bitten nails. Just on the periphery of my vision something loomed, a shadow.
“You can cry if you want to,” Mom said.
“Oh, don’t be polite!”
“What about Mac? He dated her a few times, you know.”
“I think your dad should talk to him. Man to man. Guys ask different questions than girls. He’d never think to ask about Betty, for instance.” She swallowed, stubbed out her cigarette. “We should eat something, and Estelle’s waiting on us. Would you go wake your brother, Susie?”
Mac sat on his cot in his dusty Levis and dirty tennis shoes, his tee shirt on inside out, the Sunday paper opened on his knees. Maybe he’d passed the breakfast room window and seen the way Mom leaned toward me, the way I leaned away from her. Perhaps he saw me fold my arms and shrink into my own embrace, or Mom lift her cigarette and replace it in the ashtray without touching it to her lips. Mac being Mac, he could intuit the whole from the parts: he’d gone straight to the front porch and picked up the paper.
As I slumped onto my cot he held up the front page: The Columbia Missourian, August 22, 1954, and the headline, “25 Suspects Are Questioned.”
“I know about Jeanette,” I said.
“And you know this, too? ‘Girl Strangled After Struggle,’ and ‘No Good Clues, Sapp Declares.’”
I took in the headlines without really hearing them—just more insect din. “Mom told me.”
“So, it’s old news already?”
“She—it’s a shame—”
“You sound just like our so-called mother. ‘A shame!’”
Recently he’d concluded that our parents had failed at their parenting. I didn’t know his evidence, but I knew his conviction was unshakable.
I reached for the paper. He kept it. “All that dumb Prosecuting Attorney Sapp can say is, ‘We’re working around the clock in search for the killer.’ Do you think he interrupted his tireless questioning of every colored man in Boone County to issue that message to one of those struggling J-school reporters? Sapp’s a sap, is that not ironic?”
“Let me see, please.”
“‘An eighteen-year-old babysitter was raped and murdered Saturday night after her attacker interrupted what investigating officers believe was a desperate attempt to reach the telephone and get help.’” He read firmly, the way Grandfather read editorials aloud from the Wall Street Journal.
“I said, Mom told me. I know this!”
He slapped the paper onto the end of my cot.
He on his cot, me on mine, we bent over it. I had to focus on each word, the way I struggled to translate Latin. “Inquest Fixes Cause of Death.”
Mac ran the back of his calloused hand over the page. “Try this elegant lead dreamed up by some pathetic kid hoping for a job on the Post Dispatch some day.”
“This Is House Where Baby Sitter Was Slain,” I read aloud. Words, words, a wall of words! I knew we were barricading ourselves behind them so we didn’t have to talk about Jeanette.
A border of asterisks marched above a very grainy photo of a shabby-looking little house with a cement stoop, an overturned trike on the porch, towels flung across the railing, and four identical small windows marching two-by-two on each side of the front door with its torn screen. It was completely typical of the post-war housing we called the “married student ghetto.” The inexperienced photographer had let the flash reflect on the window glass. Surrounding the house, locust limbs shoved against the roof, and weeds almost as tall as bushes crowded the spirea. I’d been in houses like it. In fact, I might have babysat in that very house. A creepy thought. Any guy who wanted to break in such a place could have done so in a second. “Someone could have hidden in the bushes,” I said.
Mac tapped the headline about her burial on Tuesday.
Next to that column was a small photo. Mac inched over beside me and together we studied the solemn-faced girl with dark eyes and short curly dark hair who gazed back at us. Her high cheekbones shone. She wasn’t wearing lipstick, or maybe it didn’t show up in the photo, for all of us wore lipstick, except the foreign exchange girls, who didn’t shave their armpits, either. She looked directly into the camera, her head tilted inquisitively, not trying to impress anyone. It must be a family photo, I thought.
I squinted at Mac beside me—the fine stubble on his chin—at the weathered siding behind him, the clumps of dewy spider webs above his head, the flame-shaped light bulbs thrusting up from the sconces. He was studying the photo intently.
Jeanette was a year and a half older than me. I only knew her—and I didn’t know her well—because she was Betty’s sister, but I knew she would hate for us to talk about her like this. She wanted attention only when she chose it. “You went out with her. Did you have a thing for her?” I said.
“She was okay. That’s all. But she was definitely a cock-teaser.”
I saw the pleasure he took in the crude words. The pleasure he took in saying them to me. “Just shut up!” In spite of my effort to stay calm, my voice cracked and tipped.
He looked at me with narrowed eyes. Spikes of pale lashes rimmed them. I had the sensation that he was drawing back an arrow, taking aim to shoot it. But he said, instead, “Look, don’t go all girly on me. Probably she didn’t know the effect she had on guys.”
Then I was crying. If he hadn’t softened his tone just that tiny bit, I think I could have stayed clenched and angry. I had become surprisingly good at it. I’d forced down my feelings for almost an hour. I could keep going like that forever, if Mac hadn’t had that split second of self-awareness, and pitied me. Pity—such an incapacitating emotion. I snorted into my cupped hands. He watched. I scrubbed my face with my fists. He was a blur. Everything was a blur except the photo of Jeanette with her dark, level gaze, the incised line where her lips met.
While I slumped there blubbering, another image of her came to me—I saw her wearing a plaster of Paris cast, the one she had from when a horse threw her and she broke her arm before I knew her, before the Meyers moved from Kansas City to Columbia four years ago.
Betty and I had become friends in the few days since they’d moved in out on Stewart Road. We’d discovered we were both bookish kids who liked hideouts, liked spying. We were in the Meyers’ garage, rummaging through boxes in the storage space above the cars, when Jeanette came through the rear door that led into the alley. Betty seized my arm so I wouldn’t make any noise—that was part of our spy routine. We crouched, peering down at her.
I hadn’t had a good look at Jeanette yet. Now here she was, on stage, with us in the peanut gallery. And oh, such a lovely girl. She had everything a thirteen-year-old like me wished for: naturally curly hair, heart-shaped lips, breasts, good legs, a red tee shirt and very tight black corduroy shorts. As Betty and I peered down at her, she removed a suitcase from the stack of luggage at the back of the garage, opened it, and took out two pieces of an old plaster case. She carefully fitted them over her left arm. Wrapping them in place with a length of gauze tape, her head bent, she moved slowly into a dusty shaft of light coming through a small rear window.
Pensive, she stroked the cast with her right hand, thinking of something—the past? the future?—that something would happen, surely something would happen soon in this lazy, summer-stunned town. The white, curved cast made a sharp contrast to the dark, womanly form disappearing into the gloom of the sun-heated garage. Betty’s tight clasp on my arm, a wasp droning, a lawnmower churning nearby.
In a few more breaths, Jeanette unwrapped the gauze, rewound it, and replaced both parts of the cast in the suitcase, which she stacked with the other luggage. As she opened the garage door into the blinding afternoon, she glanced back quickly as if she sensed we’d been watching. She was smiling. The door swung closed behind her and she was gone.