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issue 21: November -December 2000 

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EVERYONE GRIEVES IN A UNIQUE WAY
by Anthony Neil Smith


The week after Curtis returned from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his ex-girlfriend Dana was murdered. She was found pretty much drained and wrapped in her shower curtain on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. No suspects. Funny thing—while Curtis prayed at the Mount of Olives and retraced the steps of Jesus, Dana was the only person he couldn’t forgive. Tried and tried, but couldn’t because he remembered how it felt when she cheated the second time, called off the engagement, made fun of him joining the Pentecostal church her sister attended, how she’d said he traded singing rock & roll for southern gospel: "That high mousy voice singing about Jesus? You want to be all Holy Roller sweetness?"
      The first person to tell him about Dana missing, and later about Dana dead, was Dana’s older sister Veronica. She had led Curtis to church a year before when things started going really bad with his and Dana’s relationship. He thought it would make things better, but Dana reacted like she was running from wasps. She dumped him. Six months later, he started dating Veronica, who had always been so understanding and pure, if not quite as drop dead gorgeous. No sex—it was like junior high.
      Veronica showed up at Curtis’s Biloxi apartment after calling him from the morgue. She had gone with her mom to ID the body. He opened the door to find her puffy and red-eyed behind her glasses, dirty blonde hair spilling from a ball cap. Lived by the holiness code, so no make-up or jewelry. A white sweater and long black skirt. She caught Curtis in shorts and muscle shirt.
      "I’ll put on some sweatpants," he said.
      "It’s okay, don’t worry," she said.
      "No, it’s no problem. Come in. I’ll be right back."
      He put on sweatpants and came back to find Veronica kneeling in front of the recliner on the hardwood floor covered by a cheap fuzzy rug. More tears, and raw throated "Jesus help us, please Lord, look at me."
      Curtis put a hand on top of her cap and she shook like she was cold, but it was May. He said, "It’s okay to cry. Let it out."
      She got louder, which wasn’t so cool, so he said, "Show me some strength."
      Veronica climbed up and wiped her nose on her palm. Curtis went to the kitchenette for paper towels, brought back two. She wiped her hands and nose with them and sat beside Curtis on the front of the couch cushions, their knees touching. She smelled like vanilla. His coffee table was covered with Sunday School pamphlets and travel magazines. Where the TV used to be was now a microphone on a stand, and an old Yamaha synth, since he gave up TV for the church.. He and Veronica worked on writing songs every now and then, maybe something they could do together like a ministry, sing at gospel conventions.
      "I knew she’d meet a serial killer one day," Veronica said.
      "Don’t think like that. No serial killers."
      "I was getting somewhere with her, though. She was close, I could tell."
      "Close to what?" Curtis said.
      "I was close to getting her to church. She was already millennium spooked, so I’ve been witnessing to her."
      Curtis had seen Dana a couple of months ago, and he thought her friendliness was a trick, like Dana was poking him with "I’m so happy things are working out for you two" (You’re going to settle for her?) and "It’s nice to see you’re still singing" (Cheesy four-part harmony and you know damn well Veronica can’t keep on pitch). But she’d been sincere? The whole time, Curtis had gritted his teeth and thought, I’m dating your sister. Don’t you get it?
      "Maybe she was stringing you along again," Curtis said.
      Veronica reached for his hands and caught his fingers in a long-nailed clutch, digging. "I know how she treated you, but she had changed, really. She told me she felt bad about everything and wanted to clear things with you, to make it easier for you and me."
      Voice in Curtis’s head went: Another few weeks and you could have had Dana back.
      He got his fingers back from Veronica and massaged blood into them, then leaned back into the couch and slipped an arm around her shoulders.
      "Mom wants you to sing at the funeral," she said.
      Curtis shook his head. "You would do a better job."
      "But Mom loves your voice. It would really help her a lot."

*

The visitation was the next night at the funeral home. Two worlds of people mingled in the parlor—the church folks who’d known Dana since birth, the ones there for her mother Kathleen, and Dana’s friends from work, from the nightclubs, from high school days five years past. Curtis noticed a couple of other ex-boyfriends, ones that had followed him. They were laughing, shaking their heads, frowning. Kathleen had told Curtis there hadn’t been anyone lately. It didn’t help. These guys looked more together than him, maybe bankers and lawyers. One had a mustache like Tom Selleck. When he met eyes with any of the post-boyfriends, they nodded and scrunched their eyebrows, like they knew Curtis. Dana had shown pictures.
      Veronica was a black dress and pinned-up hair. Curtis was a navy suit. They walked to the creamy-blue steel casket surrounded by flower arrangements, photos of a living, smiling Dana stuck in a few. Kathleen stood at the head of the casket in a simple black blazer and slacks, a beauty with a wide face, thin lips, a smooth neck, streaked light brown hair. Some of those genes had rubbed off on Veronica, but most had showered on Dana, who was now pale and sunken, her honey-blonde hair too fluffy. The blue dress, high-necked to cover the slashed throat, made her look like the saintly, burdened girl everyone knew she wasn’t..
      Curtis said, "She looks fine."
      "No, she looks dead. Like she’s been dead too long," Kathleen said, brushing her fingers across Dana’s cheek.
      "You picked out a nice casket, Kathleen."
      "Actually, she picked it out herself. We prearranged years ago. Veronica has one, too."
      "Mine’s burgundy," Veronica said.
      Curtis reached for Kathleen’s elbow and led them away from the casket and Dana, who couldn’t look nice even at her funeral. He thought, She didn’t allow me a nice last look. She’s rubbing it in my face.
      "I’m so glad you’ll be singing tomorrow," Kathleen said, breathless and tired. She was a backslidden Pentecostal, still a believer but not living by the rules, and she was absolutely sure Dana went to Hell. It was all over her face.
      Curtis nodded. "Have you eaten yet? Can I take you and Veronica out for dinner after this?"
      She nodded. "I don’t know if I can eat anything. I’ll go to be with you both." She dropped her face into her hand and cried quietly, her shoulders jerking. Curtis pulled her against him. Veronica patted her back. Curtis thought, Dana isn’t being fair to us at all.

*

They went to a steakhouse on the beach. The lighting was candles on tables and a dim amber glow from above. Half the tables were empty. Kathleen played with a seafood salad, chewed Nicorette gun while sipping iced tea, hardly said anything. Veronica cut her filet mignon into tiny pieces, and Curtis ate a Porterhouse. Nerves and sadness needed food. He ate the steak in chunks.
      Veronica dipped a bite of her meat into blue cheese salad dressing. "There were so many people tonight. I’m glad they came."
      "I don’t think I talked to any of her friends, though," Curtis said.
      Veronica lifted the fork and slid the bite into her mouth. She had a dab of dressing on her lip, and Curtis wiped it off with his thumb.
      Kathleen spit her gum into a paper napkin, wadded it, put it on the ashtray. "I shouldn’t have kept the gum so long. This tastes like mint. I need more bread."
      "I have to pee," Veronica said, standing. She walked towards the bathroom.
      Kathleen tore off a piece of her daughter’s bread, brought her fingers to her mouth and pushed it in. After washing it down, she let herself deflate and stared at Curtis until he noticed.
      "She called me ten times a day. I’ll miss her," Kathleen said.
      "Dana was something else."
      "She treated you like shit, though. I kept telling her, ‘That Curtis is a keeper,’ but she wasn’t old enough to see it yet."
      Curtis waved it off. "She wasn’t ready for something that heavy yet. I wanted a wedding date and she wanted to go dancing. That made sense. I got over it."
      "Liar." Kathleen reached across for his hand, rubbed it. The candlelight took the grimness away from her. He liked her hands, and her face. Curtis sometimes had the idea that she wanted him, and it would be nice. If Dana had that spell over him, and Veronica was nice, then Kathleen could really do something for him. She made those girls. They were only halves of her.
      "Would you have taken her back if she had joined the church?" Kathleen said.
      Curtis covered her hand, and her grip tightened. "I can’t say now. Veronica’s really great. We’ll just never know."
      "Isn’t there enough of you to go around?" She smiled, first time tonight. She winked. Curtis thought, Everyone grieves in a unique way. Just the loss talking, that’s all.
      Veronica returned to the table and saw the hand holding. She plopped down beside Curtis and leaned into him, her head on his shoulder, and she cried. Touching both of them was comfortable. But the missing third was like an unresolved chord.

*

When he got to the apartment, Curtis dug out the hard rock CDs from his closet. Dokken, Van Halen, Ratt, Rush. Then he plugged in headphones, spun a CD, and sang along, loud and high. Doing the screeches, matching the singers’ pitches.
      Curtis paced while he did it, until he was too tired and collapsed on the couch, still singing. He had been singing in a cover band at a bar in Gulfport when he met Dana, who came in with some friends, all of them bikers. He liked her ass framed in acid-washed jeans. She had a splotched leather jacket on. After the set, she came and talked to him—talked to him, asked all the questions. She kept her eyes on him and leaned close to hear when the house speakers blared. They had talked 70s rock, about Molly Hatchet and Aerosmith and how overrated Jimmy Page was. She had asked for his number. One of the good memories he had left.
      Halfway through the Ratt album, he gagged and ran to the bathroom, headphones coming with him as he jerked the plug out, stereo trying to come but landing on the floor. Curtis skipped the toilet and aimed for the bathtub, spewing tea and steak. It sounded like someone else far away, the headphone effect.
      What he wanted was to end Dana himself, not some anonymous stranger doing it for a laugh. So then it could mean something. There could be motive, emotion, understanding. Curtis put himself there, in Dana’s apartment: he killed her with a knife while she showered, just like the movie but without the dress and violins. He sliced her from behind while she kneaded strong herbal scented shampoo through her honey-colored hair, the foam sliding down her face and closed eyes.
      And he thought Take my voice away.

*

The day after the funeral, where Curtis didn’t sing, Veronica called him and said the police were done with Dana’s apartment. They had told her she could go and pack her sister’s things, and she needed his help. No way to say no.
      He met her in the parking lot of the apartment complex, the wooden areas between the bricks painted white, shutters and trims in country blue, gardens full of petunias lining the walkways. She stood beside her Volkswagen with her arms crossed, all jumpy. An old Amy Grant T-shirt and khaki skirt, work clothes. She liked that look more than dressing up.
      "Is your voice better?"
      "A little," Curtis said. "Still hurts."
      "Did you bring boxes?" Veronica said.
      "No, I thought maybe she’d have some."
      "You thought they’d magically appear? Can we make a wish?"
      Sounded like Dana for a moment there. Curtis leaned and kissed her neck. "I am a horrible man who forgot to read your mind. Please please forgive me if you can."
      "Some things are unforgivable. You’ll have to work for it. Let’s go."
      Halfway up the stairs, she told him they could organize for a while, and then get boxes later. She pulled a key from her purse, walked to the door—clear of police tape or signs—and unlocked it. Inside, there was a whiff of bad vegetables.
      Veronica stood in the middle of the living room and turned in little circles, sucked her bottom lip, and ground her knuckles together. "It’s weird. Everything feels out of phase, like it’s off by millimeters because the cops touched it all. Most of it I’ll have to go through with Mom. I’ll get to keep whatever I want. But I don’t have room for the furniture."
      The matching couch and chair were floral pattern on dark purple background, looked new. A few tables, an entertainment center with a small TV, candle holders, framed pictures of Veronica, Kathleen, one of all three women, a few friends Curtis didn’t recognize. Tiny what-not teddy bears were scattered randomly.
      Veronica was off to the bedroom, flipped on the light switch as she passed. Curtis followed. He thought this room was more like Dana’s personality than the living room: thick dark beach towels hanging over the windows, blocking the sun so she could sleep late, and burned candle stubs stuck in the necks of root beer bottles on the dresser. Veronica sifted through the closet, at all the classy dresses Dana had owned. Some that she liked, she pulled out and tossed across the bare mattress.
      "See how she thought about how she looked? I don’t think that way. It takes too much time, reading Glamour."
      "You really think she took it so seriously?"
      "It’s been a long time since you knew her. Dana was losing the rock chick routine left and right. I’m telling you, she was close to saintly. It would’ve been great, you know? I was going to set her up with that bass player from church."
      Veronica sat on the floor and looked at Dana’s shoes. "My feet are too big. Watch." She kicked off her Keds and tried to squeeze into a high heeled number, bending her foot and grunting, laughing. "Help me, Prince Charming. The glass slipper won’t fit."
      Curtis knelt in front of her, took her foot in his hand, and played at forcing it on, strained and gritted teeth. "It won’t budge. Maybe if we took off a toe."
      "I never liked the big one. Lop it off! Slice away!"
      They got quiet. Curtis grinned to keep from sighing, hoping maybe he was the only one to catch it. But Veronica started to cry. She pulled her foot away, tossed the shoe back into the closet and stood up.
      "I’m sorry. My big mouth. I wasn’t thinking." She wiped her cheeks, then ran into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror.
      Curtis leaned on the bathroom doorjamb. Veronica let the tap water trickle over her fingers, which she rubbed under her eyes. There were the rings on which the shower curtain used to hang, Dana’s half-empty bottle of herbal shampoo.
      Veronica said, "You know what I thought yesterday? Maybe I ought to go and turn myself in. I’ll confess, and they’ll know I was lying, but they’ll try to trip me up with the hidden details. All I want is for somebody to take responsibility. Maybe if I confessed, the real killer would step forward."
      "No, you don’t want to do that. Don’t put your mother through you going nuts."
      "But think deeper. Think about it like a Jesus and Barrabas moment. Maybe he’ll break down and seek salvation all because I took his place."
      "Well, look at the ego on you, Miss Savior."
      "Maybe they’ll never find him. I’ve got to do something." She picked up a comb from the sink and ran it down her forehead. Curtis moved from the doorjamb and went to her. He put his hands on her hips, kissed her shoulder.
      "Why don’t we try to solve the murder ourselves? You can be Nancy Drew almost. Let’s take what we know and see where it leads," Curtis said.
      "The cops have already done that."
      "Yeah, but where does that get us? Sitting around on our thumbs. Let’s get active."
      She grinned at him in the mirror, sniffled. Cheeks flushed rosy. "I don’t think it would help. But thanks."
      Curtis took the comb from her and said, "Just a thought."
      Veronica climbed into the shower and stood with her back to Curtis. "She never saw him."
      "Like this," Curtis said. He moved closer to her, almost touching her back, the comb arcing around to the front of her neck, dull side to her skin, he pulled it across her neck, and she moaned like he was kissing her. His dick grew hard against her, and Veronica reached back for his jeans, pulled them tightly. He hadn’t thought before, with all his anger and embarrassment over Dana, that maybe Veronica felt a little jealous for her own reasons: The glamorous sister lives fast, dies young, gets her name on the news and a bunch of flowers. So maybe him and Veronica would turn out okay together. He smelled her un-herbal hair, like strawberries, nicer.

2000  Anthony Neil Smith

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.

author bio

Anthony Neil Smith is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He is a fiction editor with Mississippi Review Web and Emerging Voices Online, as well as co-editor/creator of the internet crime writing journal Plots With Guns. His work has appeared in 12 Gauge Review, Absinthe Literary Review, Blue Murder Magazine, Handheld Crime, the Raleigh News and Observer's Sunday Reader Series, and several others. Last year, a spider bit him on the ear, but he still can't climb walls and spin webs. He may be contacted at: ansmith@netdoor.com

navigation:                         barcelona review 21                 november- december 2000
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Steve Aylett: Atom and Drowner
Charles D'Ambrosio: Her Real Name
Alicia Erian: When Animals Attack
Jim Grimsley: Boulevard
Matt Leibel: Columbus Day
Anthony Neil Smith: Everyone Grieves in a Unique Way
Paul A.Toth: Psychologically Ultimate Seashore

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