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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Elizabeth Zelvin: Suds in the Bucket

ym_91_sudsinbucket_kcwalker.jpg
Art by Keith Coates Walker 2022

SUDS IN THE BUCKET

 

Elizabeth Zelvin

 

 

Ella

 

In my day, it was Disney. Disney said some day my prince would come. I got over that pretty quick once Otis started courting me. Otis was a hard worker and a good provider. He always took his work boots off at the door so he wouldn't track manure in the house. He'd say, "Ella, I'm a one-woman man."  

My David was no prince either. He married his high school sweetheart. The pair of them were cross-eyed in love like Romeo and Juliet. Only their tragedy was a string of miscarriages. But Sandy was stubborn. She put it all into trying to conceive and had no more success than a mule until finally, when she was forty and ready to give up, along came Janey.

Our Janey was as stubborn as her ma and then some. She never had a lick of common sense. She fell for the some day her prince thing hook, line, and sinker. By that time, Disney had a slew of modern princesses of different skin colors who went on adventures on their own and rowed canoes and carried swords. But Janey loved the originals, the kind that spent half the story fast asleep. Sleeping Beauty. Snow White. From the time she was little, she'd say, "Look, Gran, I'm sleeping! I'm waiting for my prince to come wake me up!"  When I pointed out that her prince better not catch her napping, or she might miss him, she said, "Don't worry, Gran, if it's my destiny, I'll know."  

When Janey graduated from Disney to country music, nothing changed. Those songs are full of beer and whiskey, cheatin', broken promises, and broken hearts. Call it alcoholism, adultery, and domestic violence, it's not so pretty. They can sing about pickup trucks and lonesome trains all they want. But singin' lies so sweet that young girls believe them is somethin' else. Men who are sorry for real. Women whose forgiveness is rewarded. Men who actually stop losin' their temper and usin' their fists when they get mad. Men who give up booze for the love of a woman. Men who come back years after a one-night stand to take care of the woman and their baby.

"Real life don't work that way, Janey," I'd say. "Besides, you know all the boys around here. Where do you think your prince is going to come from?"

"Away, Gran," Janey would tell me.

"Ride up on his white horse and carry you away, huh?" I would ask, foolishly hoping this time she'd see how ridiculous the whole thing was.

"You know better, Gran," she'd say. "White pickup truck."

It was from her favorite song, a No. 1 hit for some singer who'd impressed Janey double by being on Dancing with the Stars on TV on top of her music career. Janey was a born believer. Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, any tale you cared to spin.

"It's a story, Janey," I would say. "It's Cinderella all over again, only some songwriter fixed it up for country music. What have we told you your whole life about getting in a car with strangers?"

"But what if it's your destiny, Gran? We're talking about Prince Charming, not some pervert luring me into his clutches with candy. I tell you what," she'd say, humoring me. "If he offers me so much as a Snickers bar, I won't get in the truck."

"How about candy or no candy, if he invites you in his truck, you invite him in the house to meet your ma and pa and grandma instead. That'll take the measure of him right quick."

"Oh, Gran, you don't have one speck of romance in you. Don't you ever feel sorry for what you've missed?"

 

#

 

Anna Sue

 

“Suds in the bucket,” Anna Sue said. "There oughta be a law."

“Excuse me?” the police chief said.

“Suds in the bucket.” Anna Sue dabbed at the trickle of sweat on her forehead with a faded blue bandanna that matched her eyes. "Oh, I forgot, you're Not From Around Here. New York, right?"

Anna Sue couldn't help it sounding like, "Not from Our Planet. Outer Space, right?" She felt sorry for that. The new chief wasn't stupid and surely must be better at policing than at understanding the simplest conversation Around Here. From the big O’s of their eyes and the bigger O’s of their mouths, the others letting their breakfast go cold at the diner weren't so sure.

"You don't like country music?" Lily Ann said in her kittens and ice cream voice.

That was simply mean. Lily Ann should mind her own business, which was waitressing and keeping hot coffee coming.

“It's a song,” Anna Sue said. “The kind of fairy tale song that turns the heads of young girls like my Maylene. The girl's in the yard hangin' up the wash, hopin' her prince will come along. And he does! They got no business putting that crap on the radio." She gave a robust snort. "Life ain't like that, right?"

"Not in my experience," Chief Neller said. "Maylene is your daughter?"

"Granddaughter," Anna Sue said. "I'm bringin' her up because—well, because." Some things you don't say right out, even if everyone knew them. "You got a girl yourself, don't you? Bringin' her up alone in that big house since Old Man Neller died?"

"Ruthie's only thirteen," the chief said. "So far, so good."  

“Maylene sings that bucket song all the time," Anna Sue said. "Waitin' for a looker in a white pickup truck to come along and whisk her away to Vegas. Only good thing about it is she's willin' to do outside chores. Never was before. They got castles in Vegas? I never been.”

“I know they've got the Brooklyn Bridge,” Chief Neller said, “and the Eiffel Tower and Venice.”

“Naw, Maylene don’t care about none a them,” Anna Sue said. “A nice McMansion where some farmer smart enough to get out sold a couple cornfields, that's what I call a castle, and so I told her. Can't kid her out of it, neither. My Maylene’s got about as much sense a humor as a fence post. Gets it from her grandpa's side. The Garveys never could tell a joke from gospel from an outright lie, not a one a them. Hangin' out the clothes in bitty shorts and a halter top and paintin’ on her toenails so she can put her bare feet up on the dashboard like in the song."

"Out the window," Lily Ann said. "The song says, 'out the window,' not 'on the dashboard.'"

"I told Maylene," Anna Sue said loudly, interrupting Lily Ann, "any man worth a damn will be lookin’ at the road while he drives, not at your toes no matter how you prink ’em up—nor sniffin’ at your cleavage no matter what fancy perfume you spray down it.”

She glared at Lily Ann, who hovered over them with the coffee pot, until the waitress sniffed and stalked away.

“Ms Garvey,” Chief Neller said, “is there something in particular you'd like to tell me?”

Anna Sue's face crumpled. The chief had to lean in close to hear her murmur, "I'm not sure. It may be nothing."

"What aren't you sure about, Ms Garvey?"

"Aw, call me Anna Sue, not Miz Garvey. I may be a granny, but I'm only sixty-one. It's not like I make her tell me where she is every moment."  

"Does she drive?"

"She hasn't got her license. She won't turn sixteen till next month. And the car's there. She can't have got far."

"But you're worried."

"She was just hangin' out the clothes."

"How old is Maylene, Anna Sue?"

"Sixteen. What scares me is she might think she's gone off with someone nice, but she still might've been taken."

"I understand," Chief Neller said.

"You're a mother," Anna Sue said, "so I reckon you do."

 

#

 

Donna

 

Donna thought she'd been stupidly slow to pick up on Anna Sue Garvey's cry for help. At least the conversation in the diner hadn't stopped dead when she walked in. Being the town's first female police chief was one strike against her. Living as a widowed single mom in Kevin's grandpa's house, an ex-NYPD alien from New York, was strike two. Not finding Maylene Garvey, preferably alive and well, would be strike three.  

She started with those who'd known Maylene, which turned out to be every soul in the town. She rode along on every interview. She didn't want any detail overlooked because a potential suspect had been the interviewing officer's babysitter or Little League coach. She used every trick in the book to get each high school junior and senior away from the supervising parent long enough to ask what she really wanted to know. Maylene wasn't sexually active. She was kind of old-fashioned that way. Saving herself for Mr Right, according to her best friend Bette Jo. Maylene was kind, according to Tim, the boy next door. He'd been trying to work up the courage to ask her out. Would a kid too shy to ask a girl for a date have the guts to hurt her? Kidnap? Rape? Murder?

Donna talked to the faculty and staff of the high school on her own. Ms Pierce, the principal, said Maylene wasn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

"In fact, the whole chandelier could use a good polishing and a set of replacement lights," she said. "The occasional sparkle invariably comes from away, like your daughter, Chief Neller. The home product is lackluster by definition. That said, Maylene Garvey is one of the dimmer bulbs. She'd be manipulated easily, but it would be like shooting a rabbit. Let me rephrase that: a mesmerized bunny."

"Would your teachers tell you," Donna asked, "if they suspected anything bad were going on at home?"

"You mean abuse?" Ms Pierce tossed her ably coiffed head, flicking hairpins to her shoulders and thence, bouncing, to the floor. "Domestic violence? Impossible. Not in general. I'm not such a fool as to deny it wholesale, but in Maylene's case, the family dotes on her. The father is a fine man." Bending to retrieve her hairpins, she said, "He has contributed generously to our building fund—we hope to have enough for a new, modern gym in two years—but that is irrelevant to my commendation. I speak as I find."

Donna took that with a grain of salt. Might a passionate heart beat within Ms Pierce's cameo-pinned breast? Might Maylene have seen something she shouldn't? She'd dig deeper with Mr Garvey. She'd interview all the teachers, ask them about relations with their students. A nice ambiguous word, "relations." It would be interesting to see who got defensive when she used it.

In Manhattan, stranger murders made sense. Most encounters of any kind were stranger encounters. Here, she couldn't help viewing the town as one big dysfunctional family. How could they help it, rubbing up against each other day after day from cradle to grave? If they wanted to see strangers, they had to drive to the nearest mall, ten miles away. No wonder Maylene dreamed of Prince Charming driving up to her door.

After Kevin was killed in the line of duty, Ruthie had been glad when Donna quit the Job. She hadn't made a fuss about leaving New York, and Donna made sure her daughter had as much counseling as they could afford before they moved. Donna knew that she mustn't make Ruthie into a little adult to meet her own emotional needs. Ruthie thought that was crap.

"Mom, I understand about boundaries," she said. "But I'm thirteen! I'm supposed to want to want to grow up as fast as I can. Talk to me."

"Oh, yeah? About what?"

"This case. Are you getting anywhere?"

"I can't discuss the case," Donna said.

"Everybody else is," Ruthie said. "Maylene Garvey going missing is all they talk about at school. C'mon, Mom. If a serial killer is targeting teens, it is my business."

"We don't know Maylene has been killed. And she's the only person missing. So there is no serial killer."

"Thanks, Mom."

"Dammit, Ruthie."

"Who else have you got to talk to? I bet everyone who works for you is no more than two degrees of separation from Maylene. Pretend I'm Dad. You always talked with each other about your cases. I miss Dad so much. Don't you?"

"Yes, lovey, all the time," Donna said. "Come here."

She held out her arms, and they took what the New York therapist called a grief break, crying some and murmuring things like I miss him and It's okay to cry to each other.

"Everyone in town has an alibi," Donna said, blowing her nose. "No one in town saw anything. So far, the police are baffled."

"Dad would say alibis can be broken," Ruthie said, "and people lie all the time. Mom, do you think that Maylene's dead?"

"I don't know, lovey," Donna said. "I'm trying to get her back before that happens. Her grandma thinks someone driving by lured her away."

"A hot guy in a pickup truck, I suppose," Ruthie said. "It's all this country music they listen to."

"That's what her grandmother says," Donna said.  

 

#

 

And maybe not

 

There were other possibilities. Maylene could have crossed the path of a sex trafficker or a pedophile operating on the Internet. Romantic fantasies aside, she was still a child. If Donna were still in New York, she'd have a vast network of experts at her disposal. She'd sent Maylene's laptop away for analysis. The family hadn't objected

"Any clue must be good, right?" Anna Sue said.

The Garveys realized by now that Maylene might be dead. But when Donna asked about chat rooms she might have visited, they had no idea how such things worked and couldn't tell her anything about Maylene's Internet use. Sex education at school? Information about how to deal with online sexual predators? Mr Garvey was on the school board and a deacon at the church, and if any such thing were suggested, he'd be the first to vote it down. Donna hoped she'd never find a "clue" in the form of Maylene's image on a porn site.

If she had a body, she could ask the state police, who did have resources, to take over the investigation. If she had two bodies, she wouldn't have a choice. She did what she could. She sent her officers to the mall ten miles away to show Maylene's picture to every person who worked there and everyone they could find who admitted to being there within two weeks of the girl's disappearance. She had them check every security camera they could find within a thirty mile radius for anything suspicious, anything at all. She gave a speech at the high school assembly and another at the community board meeting appealing to the whole community to contact the police if they thought of anything, however small, that might help them find Maylene. If they knew of any other girl being away from home, even if nobody thought she was missing. If they heard anyone talking about meeting or getting to know a stranger.

"He'd probably be somebody kind of interesting," Donna said at the grownup meeting. "He might not even be that much of a stranger. Maybe just Not From Around Here. Like me."

That got a laugh, so the evening wasn't wasted in terms of community relations, even if it didn't help her investigation.

 

#

 

Sharon Rose

 

"Good mornin', miss."

Who was this guy leaning his elbows against the fence all casual? He was a bit old but plenty hot. He wore a white cowboy hat tipped over his eyes and a fancy pair of cowboy boots that looked like they'd never done a lick of work around cows. His long legs knew how to fill out a pair of jeans. 

"Hey," she said.

"Those wet duvet covers look heavy," he said. "Want a hand with them?"

"No, thank you."

"Why don't you take a break, come talk to me a while?"

"My mama told me never talk to strangers."

"Once we have a conversation," he said, "we won't be strangers. What's that book you're reading? Say, I've read that book. Which sister would you rather be? I bet you've thought about it. Any girl would, 'specially if she was smart and pretty and sometimes made a bit a mischief too."

"You've really read it?" He thought she was pretty! She hoped she wasn't blushing.  

"Sure thing, miss—what's your name? Now we're in the same book club, it's only fair to tell me."

She couldn't help laughing.

"Sharon Rose."

"Sharon Rose! Now isn't that the prettiest name!  Miss Sharon Rose, are you blushing? Aren't you somethin' else! I've got a book I bet you'd like. If you think your mama wouldn't mind, I'd be pleased to lend it to you. Let's knock on that door and ask your mama's permission right now before I say another blessed word about it."

"No, that's all right." Talking about books like that, he didn't seem like a stranger. He would never have offered to meet her mama if he meant her any harm. Anyhow, she wouldn't get into the truck. "Let's see this book of yours."

#

 

Donna

 

They found Maylene's body and those of two other girls in a gravel pit forty miles away. Donna took off for the scene the moment she heard, her most experienced deputy in the passenger seat. Will Bradley could handle the sight of dead young girls and tolerate what Kevin used to call her crisis driving better than the rest.

"Do we really need the siren, Chief?" Will asked as the speedometer edged toward eighty. "They'll still be dead when we get there."

"In ancient Greece," Donna said, "they used to hire women to tear their hair and moan at funerals. Rip their clothes and howl."

"Feel like that about it, do you?" Will said. "Hmm. I reckon I do myself."

It took a while to identify the other two girls, Jane Lessing and Sharon Rose Marcus. While all three had lived within a forty-mile radius of the gravel pit, each of them came from a different county. Different jurisdictions. Similar devastated families. Same taste in music.

"Mind if I turn on the siren?" Donna asked Will as they started back. "As hired mourners go, she's got a lot of heart. And I can't stomach country radio right now."

Of course the state police took over, now they had a serial killer with cases in three counties. Except they didn't have this serial killer, and Donna couldn't stop thinking about him.

He wasn't stupid. Clever enough to look for a girl hanging out the clothes. Hanging laundry was boring. It took time, one clothespin at a time. If she was hanging sheets, a fellow who stopped to say good morning would be hidden from the windows of the house. He might even offer to help. "Suds in the Bucket" might have given him the idea. But he wouldn't be fool enough to use the same white pickup truck every time. He'd vary the color. He'd change the license plates. He'd use plates with different numbers, plates from different states. Next time, he might not even be driving.  And he'd be smart enough to stay far away from where he'd been before. Most likely, he'd already left the state. If he ever came back, she'd be ready for him. She'd have micro spy cameras strung up on every clothes line in town and a GPS tracker down every teenage girl's bra.

 

#

 

Smooth-talking son of a gun

 

"Kick those shoes off, darlin'," I said. "Put your pretty little feet up."

I gave her my patented sideways grin and cut in in front of a poky eighteen wheeler, slick as can be. She flirted those dewy eyes at me. Probably practiced in front of the mirror at home. No books for this one.

"Now isn't that more comfortable?" I shivered with anticipation. Those bare feet got me every time. "Where are we going, milady?"

She threw her head back when she laughed. Probably practiced that too when no one was looking. Smooth little throat, slim little neck.

"Gee, I don't know. I get to pick? Gosh, how'll I choose?"

Adorable. Old enough to run away with Prince Charming, too young to cuss.

"Pick someplace you've never been." 

"I've never been to Vegas." She flirted her eyes at me again.

"Vegas it is."

I passed another slowpoke truck, this one packed tight with battery chickens.

She was thinking wedding chapels and wondering if I remembered that was the second best known business in Las Vegas. We wouldn't get within two states of Vegas. But it's best to let them feel as if they're in control at first.

So many dreaming girls. So many clotheslines. So much suds in the bucket.

 

###






Elizabeth Zelvin writes the Bruce Kohler Mysteries and the Mendoza Family Saga. Her stories appear in Ellery Queen's Mystery MagazineAlfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, with another coming in Yellow Mama in the fall. Liz also has a story in the long anticipated anthology Jewish Noir II.






Keith C. Walker was born in Leeds in 1939. He studied Ceramics at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art. In the late 1960s to early 1970s, he was Personal Assistant to Eduardo Paolozzi. Keith taught at Hull College of Art and Leicester Polytechnic, which is now De Montfort University. In 1994 he retired from Academia.

Keith says, “Digital technology has made and continues to make big changes to all of our lives: the way we communicate, the way we are monitored, the way we entertain ourselves, and much, much more. 

 

We now leave a digital footprint wherever we go, and with whatever we do. 

Do we already have one foot in an Orwellian world?

 

 My collages are an investigation, with a small “I,” on the impact of digital technology and its possibilities.”






In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022