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issue 52: March - April 2006 

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Terry DeHart CHASING ANGELA
Terry DeHart

Mother and Big Jimmy drove through the night; their daughter had called and they were coming and God himself would be hard pressed to stop them. Their old Cadillac whistled across the prairie while Mother watched the grease of light grow into full daylight in the windshield. They drove out from underneath the rain of St. Paul and went deep into the temperate autumn of South Dakota, the air seeming to have no temperature, warm or cool, as far as Mother could tell.
      They took turns driving. When Mother drove, Big Jimmy smoked Pall Malls one after another and it made their eyes burn red––which was an appropriate thing, Mother thought, under the circumstance. Mother knitted while Big Jimmy drove, her skinny arms knotted hard as axe handles, her sharp needles clicking and going too deep, ham-fisted, into the shroud she was making. Neither of them slept. They only stopped for fuel in South Dakota. The speed limit was 85 in Montana. They made Billings by early evening.
       
      
     They stopped in front of their daughter’s house, the Cadillac clicking and popping as it cooled. Big Jimmy pried himself out of the car and opened the passenger door for Mother. They went together up the short concrete walk. Big Jimmy rang the bell, a buzzer that sounded like a jolt of electricity let loose in the air. At first they waited without any sign of emotion, as if they were just stopping by for no reason at all, really. Just stopping by to say hello.
      No one answered. They listened for footsteps, creaking floors, opening doors. Mother looked at Big Jimmy. That was all it took, only a flash of worry from her dark eyes, and Big Jimmy opened the screen door and pounded on the hollow-cored door behind it. They waited again, their faces impassive, their eyes stinging. They waited like cops who had just pulled a graveyard shift and then been called to a domestic dispute. They waited like cops and it was ironic because for many years, all their lives really, they had been on the other side of the law.
      Mother tried the door herself, turning the knob to see if it was unlocked and then knocking with her sharp knuckles. Nothing happened. A dog barked from behind a fence. A Cessna chugged low across the sky. Mother moved away from the door and Big Jimmy put his right hand against it, arm straight out as if taking a measurement. He ran his other hand through his gray hair, as if to make himself presentable, and then he kicked the door off its hinges.
       
      
     They entered the house and shouted their daughter’s name, Angela! At first they shouted in unison; Mother’s soprano rode high over Big Jimmy’s bass, but then their voices slipped out of synch and their calls alternated and overlapped with no discernible rhythm. They went from room to room, Big Jimmy holding a cocked .45 in close so that nobody could take it away without getting shot full of holes first. Mother held a knitting needle in her fist, using it like a rudder as she navigated the empty rooms.
      They didn’t move like cops, quick and jerky, but swept through the house like hunting lions. Mother noticed two cups of coffee, half-empty, on the dining room table. She noticed the overflowing ashtray, and saw that most of the cigarette butts were smeared with lipstick. She noticed that the white telephone receiver was striped where a bloody hand had held it.
      They moved around the overturned furniture, a torn fabric couch, a wooden rocking chair with slats missing, a burst bean bag chair. Someone had hurled a plate of food against the living room wall and it was eggs and bacon so Mother guessed that the fight had taken place in the morning. There was a blood trail leading from the bedroom to the hallway and out the back door. The bloody smear was heaviest along the wooden floor of the hallway and then it diminished to thick spatters down the back steps. They searched the rest of the house, but nobody was home, alive or dead. The driveway was empty. Angela's old Blazer wasn't in the garage.
      Big Jimmy safed the .45 and slipped it back into his waistband. He set the couch upright. Mother and Big Jimmy sat close together, man and wife. Mother was small and whippet-thin, with bony hands and curly black hair. Her dark eyes still had plenty of love-worry in them, even though this wasn’t the first time, by far, that her daughter had been in trouble.
      Mother put her hand on Big Jimmy’s leg. Her husband was a huge man who could move with deceptive speed. She rubbed the thick muscles beneath her hand. Big Jimmy sighed. There was no telling what he’d do now, she thought, but if it came down to it, he’d do OK in prison. Even the gangbangers would know better than to give him too much trouble. But Mother also knew that he would miss her and their Angela something fierce. She knew there was a chance that her husband would decide not to be taken alive.
      Mother sat and let her mind start to work up a course of action. The first part of it was obvious. They didn’t have a choice. They had to get involved in this, right up to the felony level. They sighed in unison.
      "Well, she’s in for it, now," Big Jimmy said.
      "All of us are in for it, now," said Mother.
      She stood and put her hands on her skinny hips and examined the blood. She had always been able to read the stories that were told by the evidence of things. The evidence told her that their daughter had stabbed her boyfriend when they were in the bedroom. She’d walked to the kitchen phone to call them, and Mother was relieved and slightly ashamed when she saw only the bloody footprints and drops of blood from the knife in her daughter’s right hand, and no signs of bleeding from Angela herself. All of the blood was dark, arterial, and that meant it wasn’t Angela’s blood, because people with arterial bleeding don’t breathe evenly in and out when they call their mothers. After the phone call, Angela had dragged her boyfriend through the hallway and out to her Blazer. Now she was on the road, taking Billy for his last ride.
      Big Jimmy came up behind Mother and hugged her with his tree-trunk arms.
      "She’s OK," Mother said. Big Jimmy looked at the blood.
      "You’re sure?"
      "Yep. That girl doesn’t look to have a scratch on her."
      Big Jimmy leaned down and kissed the crown of Mother's head and she leaned into him and then pulled away.
      "We’ve got work to do, old man."
      She went to the kitchen. She found a garbage bag and cleaned up the splattered food and the broken plate, then she found a bucket and a bath towel. She soaked up the blood, quietly grateful that it bore no relation to the blood that ran in her own veins. She found some bleach in the laundry room and started to scrub.
      Big Jimmy rolled up his shirtsleeves and they worked together, breathing steadily in and out like old runners, like spent lovers stubbornly going another round. There was time to think about things while they worked, and Mother could see that Big Jimmy's face was red. She knew it wasn't a good sign. They hadn’t ever cleaned up a mess quite this gruesome, but they had cleaned up plenty of lesser messes for their Angela. Their fallen angel. Their only begotten monster.
       
      
     In two hours they had the house tidied up. Big Jimmy made a half-assed repair to the damage he’d done to the front door. Mother nodded her approval, knowing that plenty of houses with real families living in them get their doors kicked in, every now and again. They didn’t clean the house perfectly; they were careful to make it look as if someone still lived there, but there were no longer any obvious signs of what the cops liked to call ‘foul play.’ In the bedroom, Mother couldn’t help making the bed. She made hospital corners and pulled the blankets tight enough to bounce a quarter. Big Jimmy watched and shook his head, but Mother had a set to her jaw that he’d seen before. He let her indulge herself.
      Mother didn't have to say it, but she knew that the truth could come out sooner or later because of the new forensic techniques the cops had. There were DNA tests and ultraviolet lights and electron microscopes and gas spectrometers. Crime had been their livelihood and so they kept up on these things. It was getting very difficult to hide a murder these days, but that's just what they had to try for.
      They took the evidence with them, a garbage bag filled with blood-soaked towels and the broken plate and the spoiled remains of Billy's last breakfast. They were back on the road by 7:00 p.m., the Cadillac rolling across what remained of Montana at an easy 95 miles-per-hour. They had a good idea of where to look for Angela. They didn’t discuss their parental response, but Mother started to develop likely scenarios, and a few unlikely ones, too. They had to catch up with Angela, now. They would have a body to dispose of, and a fugitive to conceal.

 
      They drove up into the Rockies, headed for their old place in the hills above Coeur d’Alene. Mother drove, fast, the old Cadillac drifting across both lanes of the two-lane blacktop. She turned the low-slung car up a dirt road, bottoming every now and then, running like the moonshiners used to drive. It was dark and she was still trying to figure out what to do. Big Jimmy lit a new cigarette from the one he'd smoked to a nub. He looked over at Mother and thumped the old leather seatback with his big knuckles. "One thing's for sure. When we catch up with her, that girl’s grounded."
      "Just for starters," Mother said. She had always hoped that Angela would settle down into adulthood, that she wouldn’t be a wildcat all her life. In high school, Angela had gotten into countless fights, sending her classmates to the emergency room, girls and boys in equal proportion. She was on probation now for beating a bartender senseless with his own billy club when he’d tried, with good reason, to throw her out of his bar.
      But it hadn’t always been that way. There were the long-ago baby days, nursing and snuggling, Mother and swaddled daughter going rock-a-by. Those had been days of a quiet, wild love that had driven the violence and thirst for danger straight out of Mother. Long nights of sighs and smiles, cries and care, caused Mother to pawn her guns and take up knitting. She quit smoking. She convinced Big Jimmy to invest their money. She made plans that only a mother could believe were possible.
      So deep was Mother in the love trance that she didn’t know exactly when it started, her sweet baby girl getting meaner every day of her life. No matter how much Mother held and kissed and rocked and sang to her, the bad changes came, even as Mother became someone else. She and Big Jimmy scaled down their robberies and burglaries until the time came when they retired altogether, living cheaply, with only the slightest nostalgia for their wild days.
      Mother held Angela almost constantly in the early years. Later she wondered if her own sinful ways had flowed straight out of her arms and into her nursing daughter. She wondered if crime was a living thing, always looking for a new place to take root.

 
      They arrived at dawn. Smoke rose from the river-rock chimney. Angela’s Blazer was parked in front of the cabin. Seeing the stout cabin made Mother feel like she used to feel when she saw it. Safe. It was a place she and Big Jimmy had bought back in the days. Angela had been conceived there in 1972 when Mother and Big Jimmy were young and hot and on the run – when life was fast, and danger and rebellion were forms of communication, and sex was like a grinning vandal let loose in the rooms.
      Mother knew that Angela had to stay there now, maybe forever. She and Big Jimmy walked side by side to the front door. Big Jimmy swung it open and it banged against the wall of the cabin. Angela was standing by the woodstove. Mother went to her. They stood face to face, not a foot apart.
      Angela wasn’t looking any younger. Mother held back some heat that might’ve been tears, but might’ve been something else because she wasn’t sure if she remembered what tears felt like. She put her palms against her daughter’s cheeks and then ran her fingers across Angela’s shoulders and down her arms, checking for injuries.
      "Where’s Billy?" Big Jimmy said. "And the knife. Let’s take care of that business right off."
      Angela nodded, but her eyes had a dark fire in them. She pointed in the general direction of the Blazer and then she started to cry, her wide shoulders hunched to look smaller. Mother saw that Angela had no tears. She didn’t have any remorse for what she'd done, and so they had no choice but to cage her up like the animal she’d become, or to control her in some other way. A glimmer of an idea came to Mother. It grew in her head, and she put a mental bookmark next to it.
      Angela hugged Mother with her strong arms and said all the right things, "Don't worry, mom. I'll stay until it’s safe. Maybe I’ll go down to Mexico after that. I promise to be good, from here on in."
      She used her sweetest voice, but even Mother couldn’t buy what she was selling.
      Big Jimmy shook his head and said, "You’ll be good, all right," and then he took Angela's keys from her purse and went outside to take care of Billy. Mother heard her husband rummaging in the work shed and then she heard him start to dig. It was nearly noon when she heard the ringing sound of a shovel smacking down the bulge of a freshly filled hole.

 
      They stayed in the mountains through the winter. When the snow came, Big Jimmy put tire chains on all four wheels of Angela's Blazer and drove to Coeur d’Alene every two weeks for supplies. Angela’s penitence lasted much longer than Mother had expected it to. The three of them played Scrabble and watched the news on TV. They took turns with the dishes. They agreed upon a list of chores to perform each day, and they didn’t try to find ways to avoid the work.
      In the downtime Mother knitted, converting the shroud she had started into several smaller projects. Angela dug out their rusty cast iron skillets, and sanded and carbonized them on the stove until they were shiny and black. Big Jimmy went into the woods on show shoes. He was very quiet for a big man and he stalked deer close up and shot them with his .45, so they had fresh venison through the winter.

 
      The thaw came all at once, the icy streams creaking and leaking into the dark underbrush and then breaking free with a roar. The icicles played treble keys as they fell and everything was dripping and soft to the touch. Mother sat in a rocking chair on the cabin's porch while the world melted. She watched the underbrush begin to reassert itself: vine maple and nettles and wild blackberries and strawberries. Tender buds grew swollen and then pushed their trembling life into the sky.
      Mother watched Angela grow more and more restless, doing pushups and sit-ups by firelight late at night, going into the woods with no supplies and coming back with sourgrass and fat trout and quail with heads hanging beneath their broken necks.
      She knew it was only a matter of time before everything went to hell. At night she listened to her daughter sleeping, and then suddenly not sleeping. Angela wasn't used to living without a man. Ever since she first ran away at age 14, she'd been able to get what she wanted, in that department.
      In the week that Angela began to watch male bodybuilding shows on TV, followed by professional wrestling and then an entire Baywatch marathon, Mother started to knit a man’s sweater. It was a young man’s sweater, black with jagged white lines that to Mother represented mystery. She wondered briefly how her glorious, parent-with-newborn dreams had fallen to something so crass, but that Sunday she took the Cadillac down the hardening mud road and drove into town, alone.

 
      Mother steered clear of the bars, though some of them appeared to be occupied even at that hour of the morning. She drove past a boarded up lumber mill and an open-for-business funeral home and then she stopped in front of a store that had heavy bars on its windows.
      She didn’t think twice about going into the police supply store, any more than she would worry about going into a bakery. Two on-duty cops were in the store, shooting the breeze with the owner, and they turned from their banter to look at her. They were stiff in their body armor. Mother could smell their aftershave and leather and gun oil. She bought a pair of handcuffs and a set of leg shackles and she pretended not to notice the amused look the cops gave her.
      She got back on the road, driving until she found the Baptist church. She waited until the service let out at 1:27 p.m. It was late, according to the schedule on the sign out front. The Rev. Skip Worthy had no doubt gotten carried away. But at 1:27, Pastor Skippy himself appeared at the door, smiling and shaking hands and patting backs and trying to convince his mortal flock that everything would turn out just fine, in the end.
      The families with kids came out first, the women chatting about Sunday dinner, the men looking eager to curl up in front of their televisions, the kids happy to be free to run. The teens were next, frowning despite the fact that the sermon was nothing but a fading memory, and they were outside in the clean, guilt-free air. And then the young adults came, paired off two-by-two as nature intended, except for the inevitable singles. Bachelors. Yes, and a nice crop of them, too.
      Mother waited until the last of the physically challenged and elderly worshippers were clear of the door, and the pastor had allowed himself to look slightly relieved. She got out of the Caddy and walked an arrow-straight line to him. He had turned back into the stale foyer when mother laid a hand on his shoulder. He faced her and gave her a practiced, welcoming smile. He asked how he could be of service.
      "I’m new here," Mother said, smiling in return, "and I believe you can help me."
       
      
     Mother followed the directions the pastor had given her. The house was small, but freshly painted. The concrete walk gleamed like polished bone. A young man was mowing the lawn. He saw Mother coming through the gate and he switched off the engine of his lawnmower. The man looked very strong, but he had the depth of intelligence in his eyes. A bit of deviltry, but not too much. Mother thought that he just might be big and smart enough to handle most of the things that Angela might try.
      "Samuel Burnside? I got your name from Pastor Worthy," Mother said. "I understand you build cabins?"
      "Call me Sam."
      They shook hands and mother smelled cut grass and man sweat and gasoline. They talked about the job Mother had created for him, about the weather, and Mother scanned him with her parental radar, trying to make sure that he was unattached, straight, didn’t prefer the company of sheep. She told him that she needed him to build a very strong cabin. A cabin that would last many winters. She offered generous pay and he said, "Hell, lady, you got your man." Mother listened to herself say, "Yes. It looks like I do."
       
      
     Mother and Big Jimmy dug up the last of the money they’d stashed from their days of bank robbery. The statute of limitations had run out, but they had hidden this part of the stash. They had intended to leave it to Angela when they were gone, but Mother decided to spend it now, on this, and Big Jimmy agreed. They counted out the bills together, old tens and twenties with non-consecutive serial numbers, and mother washed her hands afterward.
      Sam Burnside arrived the next day. It was clear and warm and he wore a tight Smith & Wesson T-shirt. When Angela saw him she didn’t seem to be able to catch her breath. She licked her lips. Mother turned back into the cabin to hide her smile.
      Big Jimmy nodded and showed Mother his best poker face. He explained to Sam what it was they wanted, a new cabin across the clearing from the original. They wanted the cabin to be identical to the old one. "Like a mirror image––only newer," said Big Jimmy, playing the dumb act he liked to play with new people, just to see how they were.
      Sam nodded and sized up the old cabin while Big Jimmy searched him for any hint of guile or derision, but Big Jimmy didn’t seem to detect any. Sam went to work immediately. He took the measurements of the old cabin, and set about clearing the ground for a new one. He worked shirtless in the new sun, all work-hardened muscles, tall and lean and sweating slightly. Mother knew there was no way that Angela––poor, bored, predatory Angela––could stay away from him.
       
      
     Two days after the project began, Angela took Sam into the woods. Mother saw them leave the worksite, separately. Sam followed Angela at a distance, but he walked as if he was in a hurry to bring about world peace, or something.
      Mother gave them a few minutes, then she turned back into the cabin. She searched through Angela’s belongings until she found what she was looking for. Angela had had the foresight, after she killed Billy––poor Billy with his now pointless vasectomy ––to buy a large box of condoms. Five of them were missing.
      Mother sat on the floor and used one of her sewing needles to puncture the remaining packets. Big Jimmy stood above her.
      "I still say we should shackle the girl up––let her stay alone with her conscience. Let her come around on her own."
      Mother gave him her dark-eyed look.
      "Trust me, big man. I’m betting we won’t need the shackles. Babies bring the strongest guilt in all the world."
      "Yeah, maybe." Big Jimmy broke out his widest grin. "But not necessarily for the grandparents."
      Mother couldn’t fight down her own smile. "Isn’t victory just a nasty, old bitch?"
      She hummed an old Joan Baez tune as she finished her task, replacing everything exactly as it had been. She’d been a careful criminal and an observant mother. She had always had a knack for walking into a room and cataloguing it in her mind, memorizing the angles that things form in their relationship to everything else, knowing that the slightest variation could leave enough evidence to make all the difference in the world
       

  

Terry DeHart  2006

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author bio

TerryTerry DeHart lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and three daughters. He is delighted to be published again in The Barcelona Review (see About Half Crazy, issue 24). His stories have also appeared in Night Train Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, Zoetrope All-Story Extra, Vestal Review, FRiGG and Opium, among others. Terry has completed his first novel, and is in the market for a literary agent.
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issue 52: March - April 2006 

f i c t i o n

Kit Reed: Grand Opening
R.D.T Byrd: Fooling God
Terry DeHart: Chasing Angela
Steven Gullion: Old Maids
Patrick Cole: California Stop


    
picks from back issues

Adam Haslett The Beginnings of Grief
Neil LaBute Time Share

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American Lit and Culture of the 1960s
answers to last issue’s quiz, Harold Pinter

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The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

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