A different kind of perennial

In the Garden
by Jill Hand ©2016

Kayleigh always came back. I told that to the two cops; the big, friendly one with the gap-toothed smile, his blonde hair shaved to a stubble, and the older black one with acne scars on his cheeks who constantly chewed spearmint gum and didn't say much. Sure, we sometimes fought like cats and dogs and she'd storm off, proclaiming that she was done with my lazy ass for good this time, but she always came back.

"I know how that is, son. Women love drama even more than they love shopping," the friendly one said, smiling his gap-toothed smile. He pushed the can of soda that I'd asked for toward me across the metal table in the little room. It was good and cold, the sides of the can beaded with drops of condensation. I popped the top and took a long drink.

The room had a mirror on one wall that I knew from watching crime shows wasn't a mirror at all, but a piece of one-way glass behind which someone (or more than one someone) was probably observing me. The big cop asked me to go over it again for him and Sargent Woodhouse, if I didn't mind. When was the last time I saw her?"

So I went over it again.

The fight we'd had that Friday night was over something utterly ridiculous. Our fights were frequently over trivial things, like who neglected to refill the water in the Keurig or who left the banana peel on the kitchen sink. This fight erupted over the burning issue of which way the toilet paper should go in the wall holder in the bathroom in our cramped little apartment: facing out, toward the toilet and the person seated thereupon, or inward, toward the wall. I insisted that it should go facing out. Kayleigh took the opposing position in the great toilet paper debate of 2015.

The argument rapidly became heated and accusations flew. She called me a lazy piece of shit who needed to get a real job. I called her a controlling bitch who wouldn't be happy until I was chained to a desk, like her dad. I believe I may also have informed her that it was at times like these that she reminded me forcefully of her mother (a dreadful harridan who chain-smoked Kools and had an uncanny resemblance to Hermann Göring, both in appearance and in temperament).

The fight culminated in Kayleigh hurling the roll of toilet paper at the bathroom wall, where it rebounded and splashed into the toilet. Grabbing her backpack, she exited the premises. That was eight days ago. I haven't seen her since. This was the third time the cops had asked me to come down to the station and go over her disappearance. I was getting tired of telling the same story over and over.

"Where do you think she went?" asked the black cop, Woodhouse, exhaling spearmint fumes in my direction. I said I didn't know. When she hadn't come home by Sunday night, I called around to all her friends, asking if they'd seen her. They hadn't. Next, I called the restaurant where she worked part-time and asked if anyone there had seen her. No one had. Reluctantly, I called her parents' house. Her mother answered the phone and said Kayleigh hadn't been there. She seemed pleased when I told her we'd had an argument.

"I'll certainly tell her to call you if she turns up here," she said sweetly, leaving no doubt in my mind that she intended to do nothing of the sort.

"She didn't take her car. It's still parked in front of your building," the friendly cop observed. His name was Van Horn, I now remembered, the same as my eight-grade home room teacher. He asked if I thought she might have gotten a ride from someone.

Kayleigh wasn't in the habit of accepting rides from strangers, but she may have gone off with someone she knew, possibly someone from school. She was in her senior year of college, studying to become a special education teacher. It was where we'd met. I'd dropped out when I became bored by my political science classes and disenchanted with the idea of furthering my education with another boring, grueling and expensive four years of law school.

While trying to decide what to do next, I helped my Uncle Pete, who went around to estate sales, looking for valuable antiques that were being offered for sale at bargain basement prices by the unwitting relatives of the deceased. He'd poke through a cluster of odds and ends laid out on a picnic table in somebody's garage and come up with a dusty china figurine of a grinning monkey wearing a sailor hat. He'd say, "My sister's little girl would like this. How much do you want for it?" The person running the sale would hesitatingly ask for ten dollars, which Pete would bargain down to five, all the while knowing full well that the funny-looking monkey was eighteenth-century Meissen porcelain that would sell for about three thousand dollars in one of the fancy antiques stores in the city. Uncle Pete was what was called a "picker" -- a middleman who sold what he bought at a fat profit to antique dealers, who subsequently sold what they bought from him at an even fatter profit.

I was learning a lot from Uncle Pete. I thought that maybe someday I'd start an antiques business of my own. Kayleigh thought that was a terrible idea. She hated my uncle, whom she disdainfully called "Picker Pete," and begrudged the time I spent with him. My lack of what she called a "real job" was a major source of friction between us.

"What happed after she left?" Van Horn asked. I'd already told them that I watched TV and went to bed, but I told them again that I watched an episode of a reality show called Carnies, about a feuding, dissolute family of carnival workers. In that Friday's episode, Jayde tries to make funnel cakes for the first time and breaks the funnel cake fryer. Then she and her brother, the one they call Full Moon because he's always dropping his pants and mooning people, go out to a bar where a guy hits on Jayde and he and Full Moon get into a fight.

"I watch that show," Van Horn said. "I like the one they call Uncle Daddy. He's a real piece of work." He turned to Woodhouse. "Do you ever watch Carnies, Al?"

Woodhouse shook his head.

Van Horn asked what happened the next morning. I said I got up early, at 6 a.m., and went to meet Uncle Pete. We took his van and went to a diner for breakfast, then started hitting yard sales, getting there early, just as people were setting up. We went to six or seven yard sales, and three estate sales that were advertised in the local paper. We unloaded the stuff Pete bought at one of his storage lockers (he rented several) and then returned to his house at around five. It might have been closer to six, I wasn't sure. He counted off two hundred dollars from the thick roll of bills wrapped in a rubber band that he carries in his hip pocket, paid me, and I took off for home.

Uncle Pete lives out in the country. As I drove home, my car started acting up. It did that sometimes. The thermostat would gradually creep into the red and the car would start bucking and sputtering. When that happened, I'd pull over and wait until the engine cooled down before continuing on my way. I meant to get it looked at, but I hadn't gotten around to it.

The place where I pulled over was on a narrow county lane overhung with large old trees so that it was almost like driving through a leafy green tunnel. A disused canal ran along one side, the water brown and stagnant. There was no other traffic and it started to rain lightly. The sound of rain pattering on the car roof made me sleepy. I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, having awakened several times thinking I'd heard Kayleigh come in. I pushed the seat back, closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.

I awoke to the sound of someone tapping on my window. It was a woman who looked to be a few years older than me, her red hair tied up in a bright blue bandana, like the woman flexing her arm on the World War II poster that says "We Can Do It!" Rosie the Riveter, I think she's called.

I have a thing for redheads. Kayleigh's hair is sort of a brownish-auburn but this woman's hair was fiery red. She had big blue eyes and a cute smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her denim overalls were caked with mud. Her hands and arms were muddy, too. She smiled brightly at me as I blinked drowsily at her, still half asleep. I rolled down the window.

"I saw you parked out here. Do you need help?" she asked.

I told her my car was acting up.

"Do you want to come in and use my phone to call a tow truck or something? I live right over there," she said, pointing.

The roof of a house was visible behind a high privet hedge to our right. It was getting dark. There were no streetlights and no sign of any other houses. I told her it wouldn't be necessary; the engine just needed to cool down.

"It's not very comfortable sitting out here. Why don't you come in and I'll make us some ice tea or something. I was working in the garden and I'm pretty thirsty. I could use some company."

The way she said it made me think there might be more than a glass of ice tea on offer. She was pretty, and I was single (at least temporarily) so why not take her up on her invitation and see what developed? I said I'd love a cold drink.

"Great! I've got some brandy and there's ginger ale in the fridge. If you want, I can make horse's necks."

I said that sounded fine. I got out of the car and followed her through an opening in the hedge, up a flagstone walk that cut through a well-tended lawn with flower beds planted with rose bushes to the front door of a cottage that had wooden fish-scale shingles painted a buttery yellow. She opened the door and ushered me into the living room.

"I'd shake hands, but I'm all muddy," she said smiling, "I'm Milly, short for Mildred, by the way. And would you believe it? My last name is Pierce, isn't that a riot?"

I must have looked confused because she added, "Like in the movie? With Joan Crawford?"

Aha! The wire-hangar lady. I told her my name was Sam Hurley. She said to have a seat on the divan while she freshened up; she'd only be a minute. I looked around while I waited. She had some nice antiques, including a Biedermeier bookcase and matching desk that Uncle Pete would love to get his hands on.

She returned about ten minutes later bearing two tall glasses containing an amber liquid in which ice cubes clinked. Spirals of lemon peel were draped over the rims. Truth be told, I'd been hoping she'd be naked, or at the very least wearing only a robe, but she had on a blue and white striped cotton sundress that set off her tan nicely. It had a wide skirt that came down to her calves, which could best be described as shapely. Her hair was down over her shoulders in loose waves and she wore dark red lipstick. She looked absolutely gorgeous, and I told her so.

"Why, thank you, kind sir," she said, handing me a glass and raising hers in a toast. "Here's to new friends."

"To new friends," I echoed, and took a drink. It tasted good. I asked her, "What's this called?"

"I told you, it's a horse's neck. Haven't you ever had one before?"

I said I hadn't and drained my glass. I was thirstier than I'd realized.

"Let me get you another," she said, and went out of the room, presumably to the kitchen. In the approximately ten hours that I spent in her house I saw only two rooms: the living room and the bedroom. She returned with another drink and then another. After that, I lost count.

"You slept with her," Woodhouse said. He didn't seem particularly judgmental; he was just stating a fact. Just the facts, ma'am, I though, suppressing a grin. Now that I thought of it, the solemn Woodhouse reminded me of Joe Friday in Dragnet, as portrayed by the late, great Jack Webb. He even looked a little like a darker version of Jack Webb. I wondered if anyone had ever told him that.

I admitted that I'd slept with Milly Pierce. Kayleigh and I weren't engaged, although we were officially in a relationship, according to our Facebook status, which I suppose is twenty-first-century America's version of the medieval betrothal custom of handfasting.

What can I say about my night with Milly? It was magical and wonderful. Unlike a lot of redheads, her only freckles were the ones scattered across the bridge of her nose and a few cinnamon-colored ones on her tanned shoulders. She was long and lean and lovely and we took our time, savoring each another. At one point, she lightly touched my chest and asked where I'd gotten the scratches. I hadn't noticed them before. I suppose they came from helping Uncle Pete load an unwieldy neoclassical Second Empire sideboard into his van. (A sideboard that he assured the lady who was selling her dead grandmother's possessions came from Sears.)

"I'll kiss them and make them all better," said Milly, bending down from where she sat astride me and doing exactly that.

I awoke the next morning in the front seat of my car. The sun was coming up and I had a rotten headache. I dimly remembered Milly walking me to the car and giving me a lingering kiss. "Goodbye, lover. Drive safely," she said. Did I feel guilty? A little, but Kayleigh didn't need to know about this. And she had been pretty mean to me. It served her right that I'd spent the night in another woman's bed.

Van Horn spoke up. "What do you say we drive you out there so we can talk to her in order to verify your whereabouts that night? Would that be okay with you, Sam?"

I said it would be okay, although I'd rather Kayleigh didn't find out about it when she came back from wherever she'd taken herself off to.

Van Horn nodded his head and gave me a wink. "Gotcha. We won't tell her. We just need to cover all the bases, you know?"

I agreed, although I didn't see how talking to Milly would help find Kayleigh. (Who was probably off sulking somewhere, hoping to throw a scare into me.) I was looking forward to seeing Milly again, even if it was in the company of the police. Who knows, if Kayleigh decided to call it quits, maybe Milly and I could become a steady thing. Feeling hopeful, I accompanied Woodhouse and Van Horn to a patrol car and we set out toward her place.

Van Horn drove and Woodhouse sat in the passenger seat. I was in the back, behind a screen of wire mesh. "How do you like riding back there, Sam?" Van Horn asked, studying me in the rearview mirror when we were stopped at a traffic light. "Do you feel like a bad guy?"

"I ain't talking, copper," I sneered, doing my best James Cagney imitation. Van Horne and Woodhouse laughed. "Look out, we got us a badass on our hands," Woodhouse remarked.

We found the road where Milly lived without too much trouble. It looked different in the bright daylight. The big trees still formed a tunnel overhead and the canal ran along on the left but now there were joggers and bicyclists on the towpath. The last time I was here there hadn't been a soul around. There were more houses than I'd noticed before. I watched for the privet hedge in front of Milly's house and almost missed it. It was a lot thicker and higher than I remembered.

"Over here is where I parked," I told the two cops. Van Horne pulled the patrol car over to the shoulder.

"This is it, huh? Let's go in and talk to the lady," he said.

Woodhouse opened the door and let me out. He stretched, looking around. He said, "Looks like it's for sale."

There was a for sale sign next to the road. I was fairly certain it hadn't been there before. We walked through a gap in the hedge and what I saw made me stop dead in my tracks. It was Milly's house all right, but the yellow fish scale shingles were gone, replaced by grey vinyl siding. The windows were bare, the lawn was neglected and the house had a deserted look.

There was something else that Woodhouse spotted at once: a pile of dirt covering what was unmistakably a freshly dug hole about six feet long. It's a grave, I thought wonderingly.

"Get him in the car," Woodhouse barked.

"Come with me, Mister Hurley," Van Note said, taking me firmly by the arm.

I was no longer Sam; I was Mister Hurley. That didn't bode well. I didn't understand what was happening. Was that really a grave? Had somebody killed Milly and buried her in her garden? Did the cops think I did it? They surely couldn't think that, could they?

It turned out that's not what they thought. It was a grave, but Milly wasn't in it: Kayleigh was. Her backpack was in there too, containing her cell phone on which there were several increasingly frenzied voice mails from me, asking where she was and when she was coming home. The police found a shovel caked with dirt in the trunk of my car. The dirt matched the dirt in the grave. Don't ask me how they could tell. I guess they have ways of determining things like that.

They also found bits of skin under Kayleigh's fingernails that came from me. They said she'd clawed at my chest when I strangled her. I told them it wasn't true. I'd never hurt Kayleigh, but they didn't believe me.

Uncle Pete got me a lawyer, a buddy of a friend of his. I took two polygraph tests, both of which indicated that I had no memory of killing Kayleigh. The polygraphs weren't admissible in court, but that didn't matter because I didn't have a trial. My lawyer worked it so a judge found me incompetent to stand trial on the grounds of insanity.

That's about it. I'm in a prison for the mentally ill. My lawyer said my stay here is "indeterminate," which I take to mean that I'll probably be here for the rest of my life. I have a private cell, since my fellow inmates don't take kindly to guys who refuse to acknowledge that they murdered their girlfriends. (It appears it's perfectly acceptable to kill one's girlfriend, the reasoning being that she brought it on herself, but it's not okay to deny any knowledge of it.) I don't mind. I'm not lonely. Kayleigh comes to visit whenever the C.O.s aren't around. I told her she shouldn't be missing her classes, but she says it's okay; she wants to be with me.

"I forgive you for squeezing my neck so hard," she told me the first time she came. She seated herself next to me on the thin mattress of my bunk and gave me a hug. "I forgive you for sleeping with that woman, too," she added.

I said I was sorry we'd fought. I didn't remember squeezing her neck.

"You did," she said, staring up at me with serious hazel eyes. "It was really scary but it doesn't hurt anymore."

I said I was glad. I asked, "You want to hear something weird, about Milly?"

Kayleigh frowned and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. She didn't like me talking about Milly but I went on. "She killed her husband, back in 1949 and buried him in the garden, probably right around where they found you."

My lawyer told me all about it. He even brought me copies of the old newspaper articles that described Milly's late husband as a decorated war hero who had returned home blind and minus his right arm as a result of being blown up by a Japanese landmine on some island in the South Pacific. According to the testimony at her trial, Milly got tired of caring for him and hit him over the head with a heavy vase, cracking his skull. She then dragged him out to the garden and buried him. Unfortunately for the late second lieutenant Roy Pierce, he was still alive when his wife tumbled him into his hastily dug grave. He managed to claw himself out part way with his remaining hand before finally succumbing to his head injury. The milkman discovered him the next morning.

The news stories featured pictures of Milly in the courtroom, looking downcast and dressed sedately in a black dress with a white lace collar. Even in the old black and white photos you could tell she was something to look at.

Her lawyer painted a picture of her husband being a mean-tempered alcoholic who'd attacked her, causing her to whack him over the head in self-defense, but the jury didn't buy it. She was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to forty years in the Scarborough Women's Reformatory. She died there in 1976, of pancreatic cancer.

"Humpf. She doesn't sound very nice," Kayleigh said. "If she died in 1976, how come you saw her?"

I said I had no idea. I didn't believe in ghosts. Maybe I'd somehow stepped back into 1949 when I was parked there on the side of the road outside her house. She was awfully muddy, and she said she'd been working in the garden. Maybe she'd just finished burying her husband.

"I don't believe in ghosts either," Kayleigh said firmly. She rose and kissed me. "I've got to go. Somebody's coming."

I could hear jingling keys. It must be a C.O., coming to check on me. I turned to tell Kayleigh goodbye, but she was gone. That was okay, though; Kayleigh always came back.

x x x

Another interesting and unusual tale for our 'zine this blustery March. I was very fortunate this year in that I received many fine stories. This one was particularly fascinating and I chose it for our 2016 line-up quickly. Agree with me on our BBS, please. Or disagree-my garden can use some nutrients . -GM

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