Chapter 9

 

Night Shift

in which Kelly’s phonograph plays until it can’t.

Kelly carefully Scotch-taped a nickel to the top of the cheap plastic stylus of a 20-year-old turntable.

There. Play now.

Without the added ounces of weight, the stylus drifted free of the grooves of the 33⅓  Firestone Christmas album, its diamond needle randomly floating from song to song. Perry Como suddenly joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer jumped gracelessly into the midst of The Hallelujah Chorus.

Joy to the world… the Lord is come…

Kelly’s black cat, Chessie, stirred in the wicker seat of the only chair in the drafty trailer home. Chessie looked like a charcoal sketch of an old cat. Ancient. She’d had an accident by the refrigerator earlier in the evening, and Kelly wondered if this might be the last Christmas they would ever see together.

It would be hard to say goodbye to a friend of 17 years.

She didn’t have so many.

Chestnuts roasting… on an open fire…

The mobile home’s built-in electric heating unit hadn’t worked since Kelly moved in three years ago, but she’d found two space heaters at a garage sale early in the fall, and those blazed at one end of the cheap metal single-wide, making habitable on this cold night. It didn’t always get cold at Christmas time. On Christmas Eve last year, the temperature reached 77 degrees in the afternoon. Kelly saw a family grilling chicken at their barbecue pit.

Not this year. This white Christmas. The little heaters burned so hot they looked like they were sweating. The orange of the sun showed inside them, plugged into the wall socket in the far kitchen section of the trailer.

Kelly wore red sweatpants and three sweaters, the outer one heavy black wool with red snowflake designs. She sat cross-legged on the bed… well, the mattress, really, where she slept just to one side of the front door. She didn’t have a bed frame or box springs. A Dixie cup of grape juice aged on the floor. A fast-food restaurant egg biscuit, left from breakfast and still uneaten but for one small bite, hardened on a paper plate.

The other lady of the house purred loudly, and something about Chessie’s contented engine and the faint burning smell from the phonograph gave Kelly a brief sense of nostalgia. She remembered a little girl a long time ago.

But that made her remember her own little girl, Mary, and her little Will.

Kelly cut off the nostalgia immediately, a snap of her mind like the dial of a television clicked off.

If she could find a tool to reach in and scrape out the gray putty of brain that made her remember things… things… she would guide it up her nostrils or jam it deep in her ears this very night.

I’m dreaming… of a white Christmas…   

Bing Crosby’s voice disturbed Chessie.

The jet-black shape in the chair lifted a head from two outstretched paws, then raised her back. After a high trembling stretch that transformed her into a classic Halloween cat, Chessie glared at Kelly in very human annoyance. She then thumped down off the chair and onto the trailer’s oatmeal-colored carpet.

She padded directly to her litter box.

Kelly reached for the knob on the little plastic phonograph and turned up the volume.

“Just till you’re finished, sweetie,” she called out. “That’s what volume knobs are for.”

And may all your Christmases… be white…

Well, what could Kelly do? How could she defend herself against memories?

It was Christmas.

Into Kelly’s mind flashed a vision of Mary and Will as they might have been yesterday and today. Kids throwing snowballs, a sky full, their snowballs streaking the heavens like white meteors. Little Will with his little-boy movie-star face. Mary with her skin like a peach and the smell of ginger always in her hair.

So much for memory control.

So much for a life that might have been.

Nights like these made Kelly suffer most. She didn’t dare go down to the Black Warrior. On nights when the memories so totally controlled her, that river could call her conscience to join its dark endless journey. Could even a river drown her black conscience?  

She didn’t have the courage on a night like this to crank the green Volkswagen and putter it up the drive and toward the trestle to find out.

Chessie hopped onto her mattress, purring. Some little gray pebbles of litter fell into the bedding from the cat’s rickety hindquarters. Kelly gently brushed those away with one hand as Chessie settled into the shape of a comma. She immediately slept on the white chenille bedspread Kelly’s parents had given her and Elmore at their wedding.

They kissed in front of the whole church. Kelly wore white.

Why? Why had she?

Kelly kept no wedding photographs, no reminders. She wanted no memories that hurt. For that reason, she kept nothing.

She didn’t hang paintings on the wall, not even those generic mass-produced fakes of the sea breaking on big rocks at sunset somewhere beaches had rocks. Not even those scenes in Europe where a barefoot maiden with a stick walked cows all nodding their heads – yeah, yeah – down a muddy road.

Once, the week she tried to work at the call center, a little brown Latina girl named Rosa surprised Kelly with a gift at the end of one day. Rosa was so excited that she unwrapped the present herself, before Kelly could do so. The tiny chica proudly held out a macramé hoot owl. Kelly hung it briefly on the cheap plywood trailer wall. But now the macramé owl roosted in a grocery bag in the trailer’s only closet.

On the first day of Christmas… my true love gave to me…

Kelly felt it suddenly, the black wave approaching, high and hard, out of her control, like so many times before.

Four calling birds… three French hens…

Oh sweet God, no no no not now…

Two babies left in a hot car to die…She heard nothing for a few minutes.

How could even God forgive her?

Kelly kicked the stereo so hard that it flew. Airborne, it banged the metal trailer wall by the front door. The stylus arm pinged off and clattered away. Barbra Streisand squawked once like her throat had been cut, and the black vinyl record flipped into the air. It shattered where it hit.

Shattered to pieces.

Somebody cried out loud, and kept crying.

Chessie, back raised, tail three times normal size, glared from the distant safety of the bathroom.

Kelly sobbed so hard, so loudly, so broken on the bare mattress, that she never heard the heavy car glide down the driveway in the soft snow.

Sheriff Dan Neeley, alone, opened the door.

He didn’t knock. He knew Kelly never locked it.

Somehow, upside down, the turntable still worked. It made a slow rhythmic humming noise.

Sheriff Neeley came in uninvited. He closed out the cold wind behind him, stood silently with his back to the door.

He let Kelly cry a long, long time.

Without letting her see or know, he quietly guided a small Christmas gift, hand-wrapped in merry paper, behind his back. He tucked it away into the wide black belt under his police jacket.

The phonograph made a strange aching noise and finally stopped.

Neely waited a little longer before he cleared his throat.

“They’re okay, Kelly.”

He took a deep noisy cold-weather breath to make sure his words registered.

“I’m gonna see ‘em tonight. And Elmore.”

Her sobs rose.

“They love you, Kelly. No matter what you did. No matter what you think.”