Prudence Couldn't Swimby James Kilgore
Set in Oakland, California, white ex-convict Cal Winter returns home one day to find his gorgeous, young, black wife, Prudence, drowned in the swimming pool. Prudence couldn’t swim, and Cal concludes she didn’t go in the water willingly. Though theirs was a marriage of convenience, he takes the murder personally. Along with his former prison inmate, Red
Set in Oakland, California, white ex-convict Cal Winter returns home one day to find his gorgeous, young, black wife, Prudence, drowned in the swimming pool. Prudence couldn’t swim, and Cal concludes she didn’t go in the water willingly. Though theirs was a marriage of convenience, he takes the murder personally. Along with his former prison inmate, Red Eye, Cal sets out to find out who did Prudence in. His convoluted and often darkly humorous journey takes him deep into the world of the sexual urges of the rich and powerful and gradually reveals the many layers of his wife's complex identity. While doing so, Cal and Red Eye must confront their own racially charged pasts that still haunt them if the killer is to be caught.
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Prudence Couldn't Swim
By James Kilgore
PM PressCopyright © 2012 PM Press
All rights reserved.
The first issue was getting out of those clothes. I hated wet cotton clinging to my chest. I stripped down to my boxers in the patio, then raced to the bedroom. A pair of black Dockers and a black cashmere sweater helped me regain my composure for a few seconds. But no change of clothes could solve the problem of what to do with this dead body. I rushed back out to the patio and covered Prudence with a green wool blanket. I didn't want to witness whatever changes go on with a dead person. Red Eye would know what to do though he was hard to catch. He hadn't quite gotten the hang of cell phones. He owned one but rarely turned it on and never checked messages. Even his parole officer had a hard time tracking him down. I tried his landline. No reply. He didn't believe in answering machines or voice mail.
"If God intended me to get the call he would have kept my ass at home," was his explanation. Typical convict logic. After his five years in the pen what could I expect?
When Red Eye wasn't home, he was usually at Leon's Sports Bar, a none-too-fancy place on the fringes of Hayward. Red Eye bet on anything — football, NASCAR, the Olympics. He bet on European soccer, though he didn't know a corner kick from an off side. He solved that problem by always betting on teams with red uniforms. In fact, he always bet on red. I once caught him with $100 riding on a ping pong match. He'd backed the Chinese player against the Malaysian because the Chinese guy wore a red shirt.
"And the guy comes from Red China," he'd pointed out to make it more convincing.
I could phone Red Eye at Leon's but the conversation might get awkward and Leon loved to eavesdrop. Better to go there. Still, before I could go anywhere, I had to do better than leave Prudence lying under a blanket. How long did a body take to start stinking? The last thing I needed was the stench of my now-former wife enveloping the neighborhood. I hadn't lived here long and I was trying to keep up a respectable front. It was all disintegrating fast.
The more I thought about it, the worse it seemed. How could this vibrant, beautiful woman suddenly turn into a rotting heap of flesh?
I wrapped the blanket all the way around her and dragged it across the patio, a little like a husky pulling a sled. Her once-mesmerizing bumps and curves thudded over the sliding glass door frame. At least hers was a bloodless death. I didn't have to worry about stains. Still, dead people did empty their bodily fluids at some point. I hoped that moment wouldn't come too soon. I'd spent over $4,000 recarpeting the living room just a few weeks before. Cream color. I didn't want anyone's emissions, not even Prudence's, to scar my investment. Just for insurance I rolled the body, still in the blanket, onto a little throw rug. Hard to hide blemishes on cream- colored carpet.
I slid this odd-looking parcel across the living room, down the shining hardwood hallway to the guest bathroom. There wasn't much space in there. I had to bend her a little and wrap her around the toilet so I could close the door. As I twisted her ankle to get the required angle, her face popped out of the blanket. A few minutes of death had hollowed her eyes and caved in her cheeks. That tiny scar on her cheek, her only blemish, had somehow grown. I threw a towel over her head before that image got too deeply etched in my memory. I retreated quickly and shut the door, hoping she wouldn't flop into some ungainly position. She deserved better than that.
I rushed to the liquor cabinet and downed two shots of Wild Turkey. The burning liquid temporarily purged her sunken eyes from my mind. I couldn't recall why I'd brought her inside. Oh yes. I didn't want to leave her by the pool while I went to find Red Eye at Leon's.
As I searched for my car keys, another little light went on inside my head — the one that said "you could be in a world of trouble here."
Prudence didn't leap into the heated pool in a suicidal fit. She had help. Someone pushed her. Maybe they were trying to set me up. Running to Leon's looked a little less appealing. If I was going to run, I'd have to run farther than that. Whoever did this had probably phoned the police the minute I walked through the front door. I had to cover some tracks. Fast.
I exchanged the Wild Turkey for Chivas Regal and weighed my options. Two shots of the Chivas halted the tremor in my hands. Scotch was more powerful than bourbon in such situations. I'd save the Wild Turkey for later.
I phoned Leon's and asked for Red Eye.
"He just stepped out," the bartender told me.
"Is he coming back?"
"Hard to say," he replied. "He usually does but you never know."
"Can you give him a message?"
"We don't do messages," he responded. "We're a sports bar, not an answering service. Besides, too many people shoot the messenger, if you get what I mean."
"There's been a death in the family. I need to get him urgently."
"Sorry, Bud," he answered, "we've heard that one. Try Philly Joe's on E. Twelfth and Fifth. It's his other haunt. 651-4893."
I dialed as far as the four when I heard the sirens coming. I put down the phone and grabbed the broom. Time to hide the evidence, though I wasn't sure why. I went outside and swept away all the little pieces of green wool I'd trailed across the patio, then hosed down the pool deck for good measure. A quick run of the vacuum cleaner over the living room carpet restored some order. It's hard to weigh your options in a messy house.
If the cops came I was sure I could convince them I was no thug. I had my Volvo 740 parked in the driveway to prove it. Mint condition. I had to give up the Caprice Bubble when I moved to the hills. Hopefully my new image would pay off and they didn't run ID checks on gentlemen sipping scotch and soda in this neck of the woods. As I added some soda to the Chivas I realized I had another problem. My point was that I had nothing to hide. Moving the body didn't fit in with that image. I ran down the hall to the bathroom, opened the door and yanked on her left leg. She slid out into the hallway. I was holding a coldish foot, trying not to look at her face. I closed my eyes and wrapped the blanket around her again. Her once-firm breasts flopped like a pair of socks with golf balls inside.
She ended up next to the pool under the blanket. I folded her hands on her stomach. She was resting in peace. I vacuumed again. I probably should have just left her in the pool.
The sirens had stopped. False alarm. Probably just the EMT rescuing some old man from a heart attack. I hosed down the pool deck one more time just to make sure. Suddenly I realized I needed to call 911, at least get a call on record.
I poured another shot of Chivas as I dialed.
"Emergency services, how may I help you?"
"I want to report a drowning at 12 Lancaster Road, Carltonville."
"Is the person breathing, sir?"
"I said it was a drowning. Do drowned people breathe?"
"Have you tried CPR?"
"I banged on her heart and breathed in her mouth quite a few times. I held her nose while I did it."
"And she didn't respond?"
"No. I just found her in the pool when I came home. She can't swim. She's my wife."
"Keep trying CPR, our team is on the way. Your name, sir?"
"Calvin Winter, like the season."
"Thank you, Mr. Winter. Have a great ... I mean thank you."
In the flatlands of Oakland where I grew up there was a fifty-fifty chance an ambulance would come if you called them. If they did arrive, it took at least half an hour. The opulent hills were different. Within five minutes the siren was whining in my driveway. I thought about giving the cops a different name. I had a Colorado license in the name of Edgar Winter. I could tell them my brother Calvin had just left. Probably not a good idea.
The doorbell chimed "Oh give me a home ..." I don't know why in hell I chose that tune.
I put away the whiskey bottle. As I let them in I realized I couldn't remember how to spell Prudence's maiden name. Something long starting with an "m." But of course her passport said "Deirdre Lewis." And she was Deirdre on our marriage certificate. I'd stick with that.
Three medic uniforms filled the doorway with navy blue. The two in front held pieces of equipment — a resuscitator, a medical bag, a fold-up gurney. A huge flashlight dangled from the belt of the freckle-faced linebacker body who looked the like the team leader. At least they weren't cops.
"She's over there," I said, pointing to the lumpy green blanket by the pool. "I think you're too late. So was I."
Freckle Face charged across the room and out onto the patio. They unraveled the blanket, felt the neck for a pulse, then lifted the eyelids.
"No pulse," Freckle Face told the others. "Try the jump start."
His much taller Hispanic partner with "Guerrero" stitched on his shirt lined the resuscitator up. A few feet away the third team member, a young Asian woman, was unfolding the gurney.
Within a few seconds Prudence sprung into arcs like a flopping fish. I couldn't watch. Then Freckle Face tried breathing into her mouth like I'd done, only he did it a lot longer. Finally Guerrero disconnected the machine and laid the blanket back over her Prudence.
"I'm sorry, sir," said Freckle Face, "there's nothing we can do." He touched me lightly on the shoulder but avoided eye contact.
I could never relax with this many uniforms in my presence, especially at a time like this. These people were the gentle, human side of officialdom. Still, they were too clean, too soulless. I worked hard to keep such people out of my life. I always had something to hide. Even when I didn't, I felt like I did.
I thought of offering them a cup of coffee. Is that what a suburban husband in grief would do? I had no idea.
"Put her on the gurney," said Freckle Face, "and load her in."
He looked at me for a second.
"I'm sure she died before you arrived, sir. There's nothing you could have done. I'm so sorry."
The truth was I was glad I hadn't arrived too much earlier. The killer could have just wasted me too.
"What about the police?" asked Guerrero. "They might want to look around."
"What about them?" said Freckle Face. "They're welcome to do what they gotta do. The woman drowned. No sign of a struggle. The gentleman doesn't need her body here any longer. My call."
"Sir," Freckle Face added turning to me, "the police will come to question you. It's routine."
"Okay," I replied. I wasn't accustomed to polite explanations from authorities. I guess this was how they did it in the hills.
"I just came home and found her floating in the pool," I said. "She can't swim."
"How were you acquainted with the victim?" asked Freckle Face.
"She's my wife."
He went silent.
"I'm so sorry," he said, pausing for the appropriate few seconds until the next question. Well-trained, sensitive, but still an alien uniform.
"Your name, sir."
"Like the season?"
Freckle Face had some kind of computer with a pen attached. I guess the thing could read his writing. I saw him recording my name and address, the time of day. Computers were almost as foreign to me as uniforms in my living room. I'd used e-mail, visited some porn sites, and tracked down a few women seeking husbands. That was about it. The truth was, I hadn't moved much beyond programming my old VCR and sometimes I still had to read the manual to do that.
I told him her maiden name was Lewis, that she rarely used Winter. I decided not to tell him that "Lewis" was made up, just like almost everything else about Prudence's life.
His last question had something to do with "grief counseling." Freckle Face told me he knew the bereavement process could be "difficult, especially when it involved a spouse."
I declined the offer. The only help I'd need was a case of Wild Turkey. That and a bit of weed. Red Eye would take care of all that.
I thanked them politely as their little caravan retraced its tracks and removed Prudence's physical presence from my life forever. They left me with the phone number and the website of the morgue to deal with funeral matters. I had no idea what a website had to do with a funeral.
As soon as they were out the door I reconnected to the Wild Turkey, then got Red Eye at Philly Joe's. The noise from the gymnastics competition on one of the TVs was too loud to explain what happened.
Red Eye promised to get to my place within an hour. He was waiting for the results of his favorite event, the parallel bars, or the "ball crunchers" as he called them.
The police got there before Red Eye. By that time I was almost catatonic from the Wild Turkey. The pair of them rattled and jingled their way across my living room. They didn't even take off their hats before they planted their black-uniformed butts on my sofa, a place Prudence and I had occasionally enjoyed an evening together. She liked to watch old tearjerkers like Terms of Endearment and Love Story.
The talker was Officer Carter, a stout-bellied veteran who no doubt felt more comfortable on a barstool than in my elegantly furnished living room. Offer him a Bud, a Big Mac, and a few porn videos and he'd figure he'd died and gone to heaven.
His partner, McGee, was the sniffer, a hyperactive weasel who looked here, there, and everywhere for clues of something. He walked around the pool, pulled out some type of high-powered chalking device and drew an outline of where I told him Prudence's body laid.
"Why did you drag her inside?" he asked. Apparently I hadn't hosed down the deck as well as I thought.
"She was my wife," I said, "I couldn't stand seeing her outside in plain sight of God and everybody."
"Then you dragged her back outside?"
"Yeah, I just wasn't thinking too clearly. She was my wife." He didn't seem satisfied but cops rarely do.
As the Weasel got down on his hands and knees to peak under the sofa, Carter let loose a gigantic sneeze. His effort to get his elbow in front of his nose was a second too late. The spray arched out across my carpet.
Once he'd finished dragging his sleeve across his nostrils, Carter told me they needed a picture of "the deceased." He said it was standard operating procedure.
I knew that was a lie but I cooperated as politely as I could manage. Anything to keep them from running my ID. The latest photo of Prudence I had came from her thirtieth birthday party. She'd worn a skintight black number with a neckline that finished at her jewel-studded belly button.
"Nice tits," Carter whispered to McGee as his finger ran down Prudence's body. He looked back at me.
"She was a beautiful woman," he said, "if you don't mind me saying so."
I did mind but I had too much to hide to let him know how I felt. They'd have to start pulling up the rugs and the floorboards to find my stash but it hadn't stopped them before. Back in the eighties they'd knocked holes in my bedroom wall after the dogs went crazy next to my dresser. Luckily for me I'd taken out all the dope they day before. I didn't mess with that stuff anymore. But the dogs still might find something.
They asked me a few more questions and the Weasel suggested they'd come back if they had any more concerns. I told them they were always welcome, but they just didn't look all that interested.
Carter managed a departure handshake.
"I know this must be hard on you," he added. "Contact us if you think of anything else we should know."
As soon as they left I went to the cupboard under the kitchen sink and found my can of Re-Nu, a "miracle cleaner" for sofas, chairs and carpets. The late-night purveyors of the product boasted that you could pour a glass of red wine on a white couch, spray on Re-Nu, wait for five minutes and scrub the stain away like "a few loose grains of sand." I'd called the 800 number the first time I saw the commercial. The three cans of Re-Nu plus a set of steak knives were on my doorstep the next morning. I gave the steak knives to Luisa, my Salvadoran house girl who came every Tuesday. Without Luisa I'd be living in chaos.
I sprayed half the can on the spots where the cops sat, then waited the required five minutes. A few strokes with a scrub brush wiped away their aura but I still felt defiled. No aerosol could erase the day. I was drunk, wanted to cry or scream. I couldn't figure out which. But then I didn't really know how to cry. If someone had murdered Prudence, and they probably had, I had to be next in line.
Excerpted from Prudence Couldn't Swim by James Kilgore. Copyright © 2012 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Kilgore was a political activist in the 1960s. He fled the country in 1975 to escape a federal explosives charge, but was arrested 27 years later in Cape Town, South Africa, and served six and a half years in California prisons. During his sentence, he wrote three books, including We Are All Zimbabweans Now and Freedom Never Rests. He is currently a research scholar at the Center for African Studies at the University of IllinoisChampaign. He lives in Champaign, Illinois.
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