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The Laughing Lady (Bookends II)
might never have found myself in this spot if three things hadn’t
happened: If I hadn’t heard the woman screaming behind my house
last night; if she
hadn’t worn that dress; and if I hadn't known her a long time ago.
I'll tell you the second thing first, the first thing second, and the
third thing last.
noticed her, of course the very pretty, very dark-haired lady who
supervised the little Sub Shop in our store while I was concealed
away in the sporting goods department. Curiously enough, I don't
recall speaking to her for the first couple of years I worked at the
big box store. It was sort of like if an empty cab drove up, out I
would step. I was that invisible.
was common enough to hear her laugh ring through the workplace. Some
of it was, I supposed, PR for the customers, some of it real. Since I
didn't know her name I simply thought of her as The Laughing Lady.
We passed each other on our assorted errands, not speaking or
acknowledging each other. She was just one of a hundred other people
drudging away in obscurity.
she wore that dress.
normal work uniform was a T-shirt, blue jeans and a baseball cap with
the company logo on it. But one day, as I sat out front on the
employee's bench taking my break, she walked up from the parking lot.
Gone the way of an honest evangelist were the hat and the blue jeans
and kicks, in their places a Victoria Falls of shining black hair, a
simple, black, tiered peasant skirt that stopped an unassuming inch
above the knee, and a pair of high-heeled sandals (I wouldn't have
believed it possible but, yes, there really is
such a thing). Her blouse was an eye-burning, multi-colored palette
of diagonal stripes that formed a bodice that crossed her bosom like
a double set of bandoleers. I suppose there's a haute
name for such a contrivance, but I didn't -and don't- know it. What
know was that I could never look at her the same way again. We didn't
speak even then, and she swept by me like a freshly born spring wind
as I scooped my clattering jaw up from the ground, sadly pondering
that I would have to bandage it later where it had scraped on the
she never spoken to me, all might have been well -at least for a
while. Some notes will always
come due- but speak to me she finally did a few days later. What she
said doesn't really matter because -as threadbare and cliché as it
sounds- the moment I turned and full-on looked her in the eyes for
the very first time, that was it. In one stumbling instant I wondered
how I could have passed by this woman year after year and not noticed
she was breathtakingly gorgeous, a troubled white rose fretting in a
thicket of wire grass. There was a thing indefinable, and bewitching,
and provocative in those deep-green, all but brown eyes, and it took
me but a moment to mark it.
had the eyes of a little girl.
was lithe and cream-skinned, maybe ninety-five pounds soaking wet and
wearing a beach towel and a gold chain, as if her preferred breakfast
was comprised of a carrot slice and three kelp strands. But the
willowy look suited her. Trim ladies didn't fool me. I once had a
similarly trim girlfriend many years ago. We worked third shift at a
hosiery mill and one summer morning after work, we decided to go to a
local water park. When she came out of her house sporting a bikini
fashioned from three eye patches and a couple of hanks of twine,
buddy, my cap snapped. So I knew what might be decorously concealed
beneath the sedate jeans and loose smock of my little sandwich maker.
I spent many a moment trying to get a look at her without her
catching me (which really wasn't difficult, since she hardly ever
glanced my way). I had seen
those legs. It was hard to believe those pins wrapped in blue denim
had been rolling for better than four decades.
her pale skin hinted at Celtic or Gallic roots, her dark eyes and
hair, and almost Roman nose told a different tale; a story of a
bloodline further east. A bit of the Wallachian or Moldavian in her,
a thin trickle of Romany blood from centuries past.
was smitten -badly smitten- for no good reason I could dope out or
discern. At least not then. Charisma
is a word you hear, but until you have firsthand knowledge of it, you
can't really know what it means. And when God doled out her share,
she got it paid to her in spades. She was like a queen bee, but
instead of drones it was an unpromising mix of fifty know-nothing
duds and ten watt bulbs buzzing around her every day. Of course, my
a little colored. I was more attracted to her than any woman I had
ever known, and this from a man who has known the company of a wide
and varied array of ladies over many years. I'll not tell you how old
I am, but the candles on my birthday cake look like the firebombing
of Dresden, the Great Chicago Fire, or the eruption of Krakatoa. I
thought with better than half a century churning in my wake, such
things as crushes were long past me. Still, I knew if she came into
the store barefoot, wearing a bulky flannel nightgown, with her hair
rolled up in beer cans, I would have turned to look. You know, there
is nothing more beautiful in God's Creation than a woman in the
moonlight, and I would be lying if I didn't admit that only a man who
was a fool wouldn't wonder what it would be like to look down and see
her face in that moonlight, her eyes closed, lips partway open, that
ink-black hair untidy, tousled across her brow and forehead. And I'm
fascinated me, but getting her to talk about herself was like giving
CPR to a corpse, or trying to teach color to the blind. She was
outgoing, but always left aside the best of herself for someone else.
It was a sad recognition that I was never going to be that someone
else. I was never going to be her fair-haired boy; she was never
going to have eyes for me.
were, I guess, friends, but always a little distant. She may not have
even realized it, but there was always some barrier between us: a
cart, a counter, even something as inconsequential as a clipboard or
a piece of paper, but always there. And that bothered me. I didn't
know then why she seemed always a little afraid of me. It was ever
down there, buried so deep you could barely see it, skulking beneath
the sparkle; that mistrust in her eyes from some previous, great hurt
that had become a slothful, unevictable squatter.
I worked only part time I would once in a while, only half teasing,
hit her up to let me come to work in the sandwich shop full time. The
last time I did that, she looked up at me, eyes bright and coy, and
said: “If you had to work for me, you wouldn’t like me anymore.”
like you less,” I answered, “for letting me starve to death.”
that was okay. I didn't want to not
I liked her very much. Some things just stick with you, small
sketches that seem trivial to most, but mark the beholder deeply.
Like the time she came out of the store shaking out that mane of
coffee-black hair. She caught me looking at her and, in saving my
soul from perdition by telling the truth, she gave it a little extra
flip, knowing I was watching. But that was just her, and just me.
Dark haired women have always monkey-hammered my brain into hot
oatmeal. Even if I just acted normal I would be fool enough, but she
rocketed me into full-metal moron territory. I would think of the
times I heard her laugh carrying through the store, and wonder who it
was that caused it, and think:
if only I could make her laugh like that.
But we did
laugh now and again and my best times with her were when she would
smile, the lines crinkling up at the corners of her eyes and the
bridge of her nose, and I knew we had shared a genuine chuckle.
course, we were both sinners and saints in this thing. I tried not to
be up her ass all the time, as my dear, departed mother was fond of
saying, but sometimes I just couldn't resist speaking to her. And
that could be a problem. Most times she was lively and laughing, but
when she did
lose it, she lost her shit completely. More often than I want to
confess, I’d say something that would set her off to the point that
if I were to go running through the store on fire, she would sprint
after me with a pack of hot dogs and a bag of marshmallows, and those
watching would acclaim her actions. There were other moments she was
so sweet that honey would have seemed vinegar in her mouth. But I
suppose it’s fair to say that about all women, isn’t it? If they
weren’t dynamite and blasting caps, gunpowder and matches, we
wouldn’t love them so, would we? If I was a writery sort of fellow,
I might have written down all these things I could never say to her
out loud. But I'm not, so I never did. Until now.
so, events pile up, and the thing that started the train wreck for
fair was when we had to attend some mandatory work function. Who
could have guessed that something that started off so well would end
a pleasant enough lunch, we sat at a table supplemented with one of
those stylishly trendy kiosks that let you order from the table
without need of a server, as if the passably fashionable sit-down
restaurant we had walked into had somehow unluckily devolved into
Jack in the Box before we even got settled. She asked me if I wanted
to use it.
I'm going to pay ten dollars for a hamburger,” I said, “I'm not
going to order it from a clown's head.”
that, I guess, was the last smile I ever got out of her.
lunch we ended up sharing an elevator. It struck me again how tiny
she was, standing there by the lighted panel. She told me she didn’t
like elevators and when I asked her why, she said she was “afraid
of the drop.” A peculiar thing, but not so curious that it should
have made a sudden chill raise goose pimples on my arms.
brings me to the first thing.
heard it last night, the woman screaming behind my house. I sat
upstairs at my computer, finally contriving to let it all out,
pecking out this very thing you're reading now, when I heard the
scream drift through the open window above my back porch. I stopped
abruptly, listening, my hackles raised, not quite believing what I
had heard. A screaming woman is not a reassuring or usual sound and I
was taken aback by the inconsistency of the thing. Such a sound
didn't fit my world view, where women were at home or at work, being
watched over and cared for by husbands or fathers, not beaten and
raped and killed by predators. And it was that cognitive dissonance –
that belief that what I was hearing was incompatible with what should
be- that made me stop typing, move my chair back, and listen.
scream came again a few seconds later. It seemed to have moved a
little from left to right, coming from somewhere in the one
hundred-yard-deep woods that set apart my back yard from the fields
of the next door neighbor. It was just loud enough to be upsetting
-not so far away that it would be useless to try to render aid, and
not so close that I could have seen what was happening and helped. It
seemed to be… baiting
got up from my desk, chilled, and walked across the creaking boards
of the next room to the open window above the back porch, looking out
into the darkness of a moonless night. I could see nothing save the
hulking trees in the woods, fat and lazy with summer growth, the
stars pulsing dimly in the humid murk above their crowns. The scream
came again as I leaned my palms against the window sill, straining to
hear. The sound had moved again, now coming again from my left, but
no closer. And this time I sensed something a little off key. Yes, it
like a woman screaming, but not exactly.
And a screaming woman would likely not be moving back and forth and
voicing those screams at precise, eight to ten second intervals.
Still, it was a close enough thing that I grabbed my cell phone,
walked downstairs and outside into my back yard, and called the
police. I would never forgive myself if, after everything, it
a woman screaming for her life.
waited a harrowing ten minutes for the police to show up, listening
to the screams track back and forth every few seconds, but unable to
see anything. Sometimes the screams moved away, sometimes they came
so close that I believed they were coming right from the edge of the
woods that came up onto the cleared lawn of my back yard, the maker
slyly hidden just inside the tree line. Then they would move off
with no sign of the police after ten minutes, I could stand it no
more. I waded into the woods, exhibiting as little good sense as I
usually did. As a young man, when I normally wandered around like a
gasoline-soaked scarecrow looking for a spark, fist fights and
gun-play were a weekly feature and I wouldn't have thought twice
about such a foolhardy effort. But I wasn't a young man anymore, and
still I rushed blindly into what might have been real danger. I
carried no flashlight, no arms, bumbling through the blackberry
thorns and poison oak hither and thither, wearing nothing for
protection but a pair of navy-blue sweat pants.
could have been no more than twenty yards into the woods when I heard
the scream again, off to my left. I jerked my eyes that way and saw
it for the first time. The summer-sweat streaming down my arms and
bare back turned clammy and cold.
it was was low to the ground, lissome and muscular, sable and
blending with the black pastels of the night. A pair of green-brown
eyes stared back at me from twenty-four inches above the ground, a
tapetum reflecting back far more light than was available. I couldn't
see it, but I had the impression of a stalking quadruped, crouched,
its tail swishing back and forth. When the scream came again, there
was no doubt it issued from this creature. I was looking right at it.
froze, still as a gravestone, fear speeding my heart like the jolt of
a cattle prod. With what seemed synchronous thought, I began to
slowly back away and the creature moved in the opposite direction,
weaving sinuously through the undergrowth, shuffling aside dried
leaves and slipping through low hanging vines, its passage plainly
heard in the windless night. Neither of us, this night at least,
wanted to push the confrontation.
the time I backed out of the woods, I was shaking and sweating
uncontrollably, my legs as soft as hot taffy. I turned to hurry back
into my house when the Deputy Sheriff's cruiser pulled into my
deputy was a big man and as I told him what had happened, the screams
started up again. I felt foolishly relieved. At least there was some
confirmation of what I had reported. We both stood there, listening
as the screams moved back and forth with little pattern, the deputy's
face betraying the same consternation mine had: it was impossible to
believe it was a woman screaming, but equally impossible to just
dismiss it out of hand. The deputy clicked on his flashlight and
shone it into the woods, its critical beam picking out nothing but
more shadow. Even with his badge and his gun, the big man reassured
me very little.
two hundred yards to the north of my house, a dirt road ran adjacent
to the fields that curved around the woods behind my house. Probably
in contravention to every police procedure known to man, the deputy
had me ride with him down this dirt road to a spot where the cleared
fields butted up against the woods on my property, but on the
stood silent in the muggy night, the deputy's cruiser spotlight
playing over the nodding heads of wheat. It happened to land on
movement in the field. There it was, moving around in the field, its
back below the tops of the wheat, just out of sight. We could see the
wake it left as it began to move off. We stood there for twenty more
minutes and heard no more screams. The deputy drove me back to my
house and left. There seemed to be nothing else we could do.
didn't hear the screams anymore that night, but I didn't sleep,
either. A more reasonable man would have closed his upstairs window,
but I didn't. I didn't think I was meant to.
I spent the next few minutes searching the interwebs for an animal
sound that mimicked a screaming woman.
I found it.
I listened to the electronic file faithfully playing back the
primeval sounds on the cool, digital circuits of my computer, I was
possibly more chilled than when I had heard the actual screams. I
played it over and over again, trying to make sure I wasn't injecting
any bias into it. But it was unmistakable. I could have recorded the
sound myself with a tape recorder out of my window that night.
most terrifying thing was knowing it had been only twenty feet away
from me. And it was still out there.
was the sound of a Mountain Lion screaming.
for the third thing. When I said before that she always reserved the
best of herself for someone else, I didn't necessarily mean a
but perhaps a different incarnation.
She never appeared to truly dislike me, but was always wary of me. It
seemed a conundrum I would never riddle out. The puzzle began to fit
together a little better when I finally admitted to myself that I had
known her before. Not years ago, but lifetimes ago, and, when you
think about it, why should that really be so odd? In a universe which
is ninety-five percent dark matter and energy - things we can't even
much less explain- past lives are just a passing fancy, one of those
inexpressible things that you really can't say out loud, like seeing
a ghost or discerning Jesus in the butter. You could never tell
anyone for fear of being labeled disturbed, but it is real enough.
one to throw in much with the idea of kismet or past lives, I could
no longer deceive myself about vague memories that had floated up
from time to time over the years like spirits emerging from some
blackened ruin in my brain. Ghosts that formed body and blood and
wrote a dark story of early, seventeenth-century Wallachia, a place
I've never seen. I recalled the place not from dreams, but from the
first time I looked directly into her eyes. I knew instantly that she
was that unformed spirit in my mind, now given substance by cordial
had met her in a tavern, a black-haired vixen with a smile that could
light up the dark side of the world. Time had not touched her
fairness with its withering hand. It had been only a few years prior
that Wallachia had been completely under Ottoman rule, and a tavern,
if one could be found, would have been a good place to get arrested.
But the oppression of the Ottoman empire was slowly eroding, and it
was a time to celebrate.
am not sinless now and was less so then. Calling me a cad would have
been a kindness. I found her as seductive and bewitching then as I
do now, and she, me. Leave aside that I had a wife and children at
home. Being with her was like dancing on knives, or walking through
fire, or diving headlong from a precipice. She was as wild and
unbroken as the nail marks she clawed into my back, and I looked with
more than eagerness to the times I could steal away and feel the heat
of her body against mine, or bury my face in her hair, or run my
fingers down the pink bloom of her cheek, or hear her laugh. And she
made me laugh, too. She was hot-blooded and hot-tempered, unbridled
and full of life in a time when life was cheaper than dirt. She was
the drug that made my life worth living in a part of dismal,
seventeenth century Europe which had yet to be lit by the newly
budding Renaissance. It was a place where familiars still prowled and
witches were hanged. It was the black time; the Burning Times.
as now, she was a closed book. What I knew of her life when she
wasn't with me was a secret. And so it was that her secrets didn't
sit well with others of the town. Such beauty, they whispered cattily
among themselves, was not natural. That she was unmarried and
childless was the pinnacle of scandal. It was rumored, far and wide,
that she had dishonorable liaisons. She was a free-spirited threat to
the town's loathsome, swamp-donkey women, heartless harridans, and
court eunuch, Pope's whores, clown-suited as the town council, whose
piety stretched a mile wide and an inch deep. And they intended to
punish her for it.
was nearly caught many times, but managed to steal away when
discovery was at hand. Our trysts were always at night and nobody got
a really good look at me. But tongues started wagging. Where was she
when the Great Cat that had begun to plague the town was seen?
Livestock had been slaughtered, children frightened. The attempt was
a ham-fisted one to paint her as a familiar. Wallachia was home only
to some rather small, wild cats, nothing so large as a cougar or a
panther. No-one I knew had seen such a cat, and I dismissed it as
political theater, but the seed for her destruction had been planted.
Wallachia had thrown off the shackles of the Sultans only to hang
the anvil of the Holy Roman Emperor around its neck, with its
inquisitions and imprisonment of heretics, and its burning and
hanging of witches.
couldn't discount the stories entirely. Indeed, I was not with her
every moment and knew nothing of her life outside of our time
together. In one of my only noble gestures, I tried to persuade her
to leave, at least for a while, until things had settled, but she
refused. I told her that powerful forces were aligning against her.
They meant to have her head, and I couldn't help her. My job was such
that I couldn't be associated with her and risk not only myself, but
my family. Like Icarus, I was only a man, with wings of wax, and I
was flying too close to the sun, about to plunge into the killing sea
didn't want to listen as I tried to explain the ugly realities of
life to her. I don't think she really believed it could be that bad,
and was content to think that everything would, somehow, turn out
wasn't there when she was arrested at the tavern and hauled away,
charged with adultery and witchcraft. She was tried and convicted
that night in a candle-lit sham of a drumhead court, convened
specifically for that reason. The judge made his pronouncement and
she was sentenced to hang the very next afternoon, when the crowd
would be the largest. Yet when I heard, I didn't protest. I had too
much to lose.
assemblage was restless the next afternoon as she was rudely shoved
up onto the rickety gallows, its unsound wood gray and sad, the
hooded hangman standing by. I saw confusion and hurt in her eyes more
than fear, the sadness that was the lovelorn's unhappiest harvest.
The whispers flew amongst the crowd. Who was it? Why didn't she tell?
What kind of a coward would let a good woman, if indeed she were
good, to suffer the gallows and not reveal himself? She looked into
the crowd, her scared eyes searching for me, perhaps expecting me to
step forward and put an end to this. But she never saw me. No eye,
neither hers nor the crowd's, fell upon me. I was invisible and
beyond suspicion. I was respected and respectable with a good,
necessary job. A decent, family man with children and a loving wife.
were catcalls and tears, advocates of her good nature and detractors
out for innocent blood. I suppose I was the last one to see the
hopelessly lost look of betrayal in her eyes before the hood was
placed over her head and the noose secured. It was this,
this look in her eyes, that I had recognized those many centuries
later. The crowd quieted as the moment approached and I heard her
softly sobbing beneath the hood: small as a child, her fragile wrists
bound with thick coils of rope, alone, and finally afraid. The lever
groaned back with a clank,
the trap door banged and clattered.
I said, I didn't sleep last night and I didn't expect to hear her
laugh today when I came to the store, working the twelve-thirty to
nine shift. And I didn't. Perhaps it was one of her days off, but I
didn't think so. Some things weigh like a black spot on your heart
and I knew it was going to be my last day. I even thought about going
around and saying goodbye to everyone at work, but I didn't. The only
one I wanted to see was already gone. The place seemed downright
cheerless without her laughter, and I knew now it was best for her
when she laughed alone. I walked around my department, turning out
the lights. When the shop door closed behind me, it was already dark
and I didn't even look in my rear view mirror when I got into my car.
the drive home, I pondered over why she never outed me, but I can't
dwell on it for long, because the only answer that makes any sense is
too bittersweet and shameful for me to deal with:
she loved me.
didn't sleep as I lay down, because I was thinking. They say each
trip back is a chance to improve yourself and I hoped that, in this
life, at least, I was a better man. That this time I would do better
by her than I did the last.
screams are very close tonight, coming from just beneath my back
porch, close enough that if I got up to look, I would see her on the
ground, looking up. But I stayed in bed, listening as she scaled the
tree by my back porch and landed on the roof with an easy creaking of
wood. The soft thud of padded paws thumped lightly on the sill as she
slipped through the open window, the curtains silent silk gliding
along her back. I heard the catty fall of her pads as they crossed
the room next to mine, tolling like the tell-tale heart that beats
accusingly beneath the bed of every villain. I felt the sinewy weight
as she crawled up onto my bed like a serpent, the sultry heat of her
body as she nestled down beside me, a thing I had looked forward to
in happier circumstances lifetimes ago.
feel the warm fog of her respiration on my neck, the wet,
black-velvet nose on my cheek. The soft growling and intake of breath
-almost like a purr, or a low chuckle- are directly in my ear. I turn
my wide eyes to see her final embodiment: Fur
black, like her hair, green in eye and red of tongue, white in tooth
and claw. So this
is what happens when the world goes pear-shaped, the trap drops, and
your life is whittled down to a few, final ticks of breathless
anticipation. I wonder if I will see her ears laid back, or hear the
snarl as she lunges for the killing strike.
all things come around in their own good time; all debts get paid in
this life or another, and I wouldn't beg for redemption, even if I
see, I was her executioner.
I miss her laugh.
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