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And now a word from our sponsor. You should know about Vicky Talluso. In fact, if you are tired of your life, if you want your life to turn instantly amazing, you should KNOW Vicky Talluso. Things happen around Vicky Talluso. Incredible things. Meeting incredible people. Having revelations. Running from the cops.
I met her at school on the day of my fifth-year anniversary of the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre. Public interest had finally laid down with its arms crossed like a vampire in a coffin. No one cared anymore who did it. No one cared if I ever told the story or not. It was what I had been waiting for, but when it finally came it was slightly a disappointment. On every other anniversary someone had always called us, someone from the Las Vegas paper, some reporter asking the mother, "Has she remembered yet? Has she talked yet?" And the mother got her chance at publicity, which is something she dearly loves. But this year the phone did not ring and the mother started looking at me with a little more squint to her eyes, like she was deciding something.
I was expecting to feel relieved when the story died. I was expecting to feel proud. The father always talked about the value of being able to really keep your mouth shut when it mattered. I kept mine shut for five years. It took five years for the parade of interest to finally pass. I thought I was going to feel happy when it did. I didn't expect the empty street it left behind. I didn't expect the old faded trash swirling in devil-cones around me.
They didn't find him. They didn't find his body, but I was thinking it was still there. I was thinking that if I really wanted to, I could take the money I have hidden and I could buy myself a Trailways ticket and I could go check on him. See if he is petrified like the shiny beef jerky man called Sylvester at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe who is on display beside actual shrunken heads with sewn-up eyes and lips. Or maybe he is all skeleton now, picked clean and bleached out like the displayed bone with WHALE PENIS written underneath it. Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe is a good place to go when you are left wondering what finally became of the person you stabbed and then left in the sun.
On the anniversary of the fifth year I was thinking, What was the point? If it could all end with such a nothing feeling. If it could end with a nothing but the mother's squint, what was the point of getting away with it? The father would have called me an idiot for asking that question. He would have said, "Clyde, sometimes I'm not entirely sure you are my son."
Clyde is what he called me. He wanted a son to pass his wisdom to. Me being born a girl was just a technicality. The world spun a lot smoother once you understood what you were bound to live by and what you weren't. "Clyde," he said. "Your average man thinks he needs to grab the world by the balls. That's why your average man will never get ahead. He grabs at what only wants a tickle and a kiss. Hell. Try it on a bull sometime. See for yourself."
The father came from meat people. Generations of them that could be traced all the way back to the time of the monkey. "The monkey with the most meat wins," said the father.
I said, "I thought they just ate fruit."
He said, "Oh no, hell no. Look at their teeth. Fangs like that? If one bit you, you'd know it. Meat people run things, Clyde. Always have and always will."
It's in my blood. I know it is. Meat person. I am hell with a knife and there is nothing I can really do about it but try and keep my mouth shut and try not to let it show.
Vicky Talluso came toward me across the empty track field and she was walking too fast. I didn't really know her but she was in one of my classes and I had seen her around in the halls. It was hard not to notice Vicky. She had extravagant ways, too much makeup and very bright clothes and sort of a burnt-rubber smell she tried to cover-up with Chantilly. People automatically turned away from her. No one could really stand to look. In the Navy they call it dazzle camouflage. It was the Navy that figured out you could paint something with confusions so horror-bright that the eyeballs would get upset to where they refused to see. Battleships were painted this way and the bomber planes just passed them by. Dazzle camouflage is Navy. The father was Navy too. "Navy all the way, Clyde. Every goddamned inch right down to the end of my pecker."
It was lunch, and I was sitting in my usual place up in the weeds on the embankment near the track field. Passing time there. Some people would call it hiding there. My school is a violent place. People need people to knock over or sock in the gut. I stand out to them for some reason.
During my first days in the weeds I was not disturbed or even noticed by anyone. And then Vicky Talluso came walking right toward me, staring straight at me, wearing shocking-yellow crinkle-vinyl knee boots with super-stacked heels and twisted purple stockings and a pink and orange psychedelic shirtdress with a lime green collar. Her long hair was swinging and she was wearing a kind of hat called a tam, a tam made out of hypnotizing red velvet and she was moving so confidently and so fast and she was flipping me out completely, freaking me extremely. I could not think of one reason why a person like her would be walking so rapidly toward a person like me. Because I am her opposite in every single way. I am about as detailed as a shadow.
I nervously started yanking up grass and weeds and made a pile out of them and when she was very close I started staring at the pile very seriously like it was a science project I was working on, but her face had already been flash-burned into my vision. She had slightly bulged-out eyes with a lot of violet eye shadow and globbed-on mascara and she had a long nose that humped up in the middle and white frosted lipstick coated thick on very chapped lips and her lips protruded forward because her twisted eyeteeth bucked-out, a defect that was weirdly alluring. One of her many weirdly alluring defects.
I smelled the Chantilly and then burning rubber and I wondered about it. What could make a person smell like that. I later found out it was from the hair-removing cream she constantly used because she is a very hairy person. Quite naturally hairy all over, her eyelashes were incredibly long but so were her arm hairs. And the eyebrow hairs of her right eyebrow. The other one was completely missing. I noticed it right away. She was very bald above her left eye. The skin there was crusted.
"Hey," she said. I didn't say anything back. "Hey, deaf," she said. "You. I got your message." She sat down too close to me and started yanking up grass and throwing it on my pile. "I received your message this morning and the answer is yes."
I said, "Message?"
"You're Roberta, right?"
"Yesssssssss," she said, imitating my habit way of saying the word. The mother went insane if me or Julie said "yeah," because only idiots said "yeah." She wanted us to say "yes" very clearly. Make the "s" very clear. She did not want to be known as the mother of two idiots.
"Yesssssssss," said Vicky Talluso. "That's so sick. Yessssss."
She was yanking up the grass vigorously, yanking up roots and dirt clods and I noticed her hands were very small and wide and her fingernails were also small and wide with silver nail polish caked up in chipped layers.
She said, "You have ESP, right?"
"You have ESP and you have contact with an Unfortunate Being, right? You were doing the Ouija board this morning."
I shook my head. She saw me staring at her missing eyebrow. It was inflamed looking. Slightly scabby. I was thinking of the mange creature Demodex. I said, "Do you got a dog?"
"It's 'have,'" she said. "Not that it matters. But it's 'have.' You called me this morning on the Ouija board and said to meet you here because you have something you need to give me.
Only you don't know what it is. You said you needed for me to come to you and tell you what it is you are supposed to give me."
I shook my head no.
She said, "Yessssss." She said, "Do you have any cigs?"
I shook my head again and she yanked up a clump of grass with a huge root clod attached and threw it. She said, "I hate this place. I hate this school. I hate this world. I hate this universe. Do you have any cigs or not?"
"And you weren't trying to contact me this morning?"
"Liar. Not that it matters, but liar."
From her purse she pulled out a flat chipped metal case that made a spronging sound when she opened it. Inside behind a filigree bar were three cigarettes.
"My last ones. Do you smoke?"
"Yesssssssss. That is so sick. Do you care if I steal it? Yesssssssss. That is how I'm going to say it from now on. Yessssss. Yessssss." She offered me a cig. I took it. I took it because the father said that when anyone offers you something, including a new identity, you should always take it and see what it leads you to. Once he found a nudist camp that way.
She pulled out a lighter with usn engraved on it. Big and silver-colored. Special issue. Made for people in windy conditions. You could not blow it out. I said, "Your father Navy?"
She snorted. "My father? Not hardly."
We sat in the weeds awhile blowing stale Newport smoke into the air. I felt a weird electrification from being beside her. Partly it made me want to leave and partly it was what made me stay when the first bell rang and neither of us acted like we noticed it. Lunch was over. We had five minutes to get to fifth period.
"You don't need to lie to me," she said. Blue smoke came out of her nostrils.
"OK," I said. It was the Navy thing to say. The thing the father told me to do. Agree and agree. See what the person has in mind.
"So you did contact me."
Five years is a long time to go around obeying and not talking and having a boring life. Maybe I did contact her. Or maybe my Unfortunate Being did, whatever that was. Maybe it was time to finally tell the story and maybe Vicky Talluso was the perfect person to tell it to.
The second bell rang. Vicky was chewing on grass, grinding down with her front teeth and then actually chewing the grass into a wad. She said, "Roberta. Roberta. Hey." I looked up and her mouth opened and her tongue shelfed out and there was a two-inch wet black ball of grass on it.
I said, "Dag, Vicky!"
She said, "What?"
She saw me looking freaked. Possibly she was more Navy than I was. She said, "Know what is so amazing about that? About chewed-up grass?"
I shook my head.
"Milk is made of only that. Of chewed grass and nothing else. Grass is the milk's Unfortunate Being. Get it? We're skipping fifth, right? You're skipping with me." She picked up her purse and stood up. Some clouds behind her were doing that thing of suddenly looking all shadowed with white glowing edges. She said, "Roberta."
She showed me the grass wad again.
Was it me or Clyde who jumped up and followed her when she took off running?
Was Clyde the Unfortunate Being she was talking about? Or was it actually me?
Copyright © 1999 by Lynda Barry
According to the newspaper version of the story, the father stole me, kidnapped me, snatched me up in the middle of the night and left the mother a note saying if she contacted the police or tried to find either one of us he would not hesitate to slit my throat. According to the newspaper article he was a man unhinged by recent events in his life. The hanging suicide of his own father in the meat-packing room, the failure of the family business, and the breakup of his marriage for reasons too personal to mention like finding out Julie was the child of a man the mother worked with, Dr. Cush, ancient and ugly as an unwrapped mummy, but loaded with money and looking for love. Unhinged by the events that unfolded in the space of forty-eight hours, he did what desperate men do in desperate situations. He packed up his knives and his kid and screeched out of town in a dented green DeSoto, never to be seen again.
According to the newspaper version of the story, it was a miracle I survived. The father is the main suspect in the Lucky Chief Motel Massacre. His face is still pictured in some post offices, thumbtack holes all over it from other more important notices stuck on the bulletin boards over the years. I have collected a couple of them. They are the only pictures of him I have. The mother took a lit cigarette and pushed it into every other photograph of his face that existed.
She has told me many times that she thought long and hard about what to do when she opened the newspaper and saw my picture above the caption that said, Mystery child still unidentified. A lot of papers picked up the story. The picture she saw was a later one of me sitting on the front counter of the police station in Las Vegas. Looking a little fatter. Happier. Holding Cookie but still not talking. They guessed my age to be six or seven. I was eleven and a half. The mother never could stand seeing an error in a newspaper. Maybe she called because of that.
She thought long and hard about what to do. Dr. Cush gave the mother a little something to help her get started elsewhere. Not much. Not nearly enough. But she took it, bought a sky blue Rambler American, packed up Julie and didn't look back. Do they remember us there anymore? The family that became unhinged and blew away?
I have wondered too why the mother decided to make the identifying call. Maybe she was afraid of what I would say if I finally started talking. How I might tell the truth, that it was her who shoved me into the backseat of his car in the middle of the night. Her who piled the clothes on top of me and said if I said one single word, if I made a peep to let him know I was back there, she would pull my eyes out.
Or maybe she called because she could not stand to see me getting all of the publicity. She had always wanted her picture in the newspaper. Maybe she just could not stand the thought of me hogging all the action.
In the little teeny grease spot on the map where I was born the name Rohbeson meant quality meat. Rohbeson's Slaughter and Custom House was famous for five counties. Rohbeson's methods were strictly Old World. Everything done by hand. The rounding, knocking, bleeding, gutting, skinning, splitting, dressing, aging, curing, pickling, packing, bone and hoof boiling, all of it done right on-site.
The father slammed his hand down on the kitchen table and made the forks and knives jump. He said, "I'll challenge anyone to come up with better tasting meat. That shit what's coming out of Chicago now? Out of those big houses? That ain't meat. I don't even know what to call it. It's what you get when you pack half-dead cattle nose to asshole, scare the living hell out of them with shock prods, blow their brains out with a bolt gun louder than a cannon and then hoist them up to bleed 'em on a chain line."
"Uh-huh," said the mother, yawning and stirring a tiny spoon into a jar of Julie's baby food. Julie was sick. Something was very wrong with her. She was giving off smells.
The father was taking straight pulls out of a bottle of Old Skull Popper. "With line crews, it's output, output, output. They don't cull. A carcass comes down the belt with tumors as big as your head and worms wiggling from hell to breakfast and you know what they do? Send it down the line. Let the next bastard worry about it. They got the inspectors in their back pockets, they'd stamp USDA on a dead rat. You know what USDA stands for? You Stupid Dumb Ass. That's what a customer is who buys that shit. Them line men piss right into the pickle vats. I know for a fact they do."
"Except it's a 'Y'," said the mother.
"'You' begins with a 'Y'." said the mother. "Not a 'U'."
The father stood to inherit Rohbeson's Slaughter when Old Dad died. He was next in line. He was the only man in line. The last standing Rohbeson. "And he just sold it out from under me. Never said word one. I was out there running things, up to my nuts in blood and sawdust every day, telling him we were going to turn it around. 'Those big packing houses got nothing on us, Old Dad. The stores are going to come back begging, Old Dad.' And all that time he was nodding, blowing smoke up my ass.
"We could have goddamned turned it around! You know that half the cuts we do you can't even find anymore? A whole world has just died out and no one gives a damn about it. Pretty soon you won't see an independent butcher anywhere. Gone. Shit. Gone."
"Uh-huh," said the mother.
"I'm glad the bastard hung himself. If it was up to me I would have left him swinging with the carcasses right where he was. I would never have cut him down. I would have bled him and dried him and made him a goddamned mascot. A goddamned tourist attraction. Come on down over to Rohbeson's Slaughter and meet Old Dad. Get your picture taken with him and have a free hot dog.
"Bastard sold it all out from under me. Paid off the mortgages. Packed what was left over in three Samsonite suitcases, cash money delivered to settle the last of what he owed. Note said, 'Sorry, son. But at least I'm not leaving you in the hole.'"
"Well, that is something," said the mother. Julie's head was hanging forward. She was asleep and her face was sweating.
"SOMETHING?" screamed the father. "It's SQUAT! Not even a goddamned life insurance policy! SQUAT!" His hands bounced some additional slams onto the table and then he stood up.
This was our last dinner together. We were eating chipped beef on toast.
"You better start looking for a job," said the mother. "We're supposed to be out of here by the first."
"JOB?!" shouted the father. The night went on like that. And the next day the wife of Ardus Cardall was rushed into St. Martha's, the tiny hospital where the mother worked. Someone had blasted her arm off point-blank with a hunting rifle. When the mother came home from work she was squinting hard at the father who squinted right back.
He said, "Marie Cardall. She going to make it?"
The mother said, "What do you think?"
The newspaper version of the story said witnesses saw a man in Elkwood-issue coveralls near the house the night an escapee bulletin went out on the wires. Marie's car was stolen and no one knew what else. She was shot with her husband's rifle. The newspaper version said her husband Ardus was being questioned about it.
"His alibi is tight," said the father. "Can't get much tighter than being in jail yourself when the crime occurs. She going to pull through?"
The mother said, "What makes you so interested?"
"Hey," said the father, "I don't give a damn about Marie Cardall. I'm just making conversation."
Suspicion was cast on Ardus Cardall because he was bitter about his wife turning him in and testifying against him. Bitter wasn't the word. And he was a string-puller.
It was Marie Cardall who contacted the police when Ardus came home from work and told her he might have buried the little boy that was lost, the boy the town was turning itself inside out about. He told Marie there was a pretty good chance he buried the Leonards boy alive in concrete while he was pouring the foundation for the new church. He said that by the time he noticed there was nothing he could do. The boy was gone. So he just kept pouring. He told Marie he was just hoping the whole thing would somehow blow over.
"And she turned him in," said the father.
"She was right to report him," said the mother.
"Well, Ardus saw it differently."
"For god's sake."
"If you think that she went to court because she gave a damn about that Leonards boy you are ignorant as living hell."
"Why, then?" snapped the mother.
"Figure it out. It ain't long division."
The mother snorted. "No. I guess it ain't." Saying "ain't" with special emphasis.
"Well?" said the father. "Did she make it or not? Is Mrs. Cardall still among us?"
"You tell me."
"My guess is she pulled through."
"Ha," said the mother. "Ha-ha. You're funny."
It was that night she shoved me into the backseat of his car and told me not to show my face. It was that night he told her he was leaving on a business trip and would probably be gone for a while.
Copyright © 1999 by Lynda Barry