Excerpt: Karen Dietrich
From The Girl Factory
It’s not always the darkness itself that scares me. Sometimes it’s what I see when I look inside it. In my bed at night, I stare into the black space through my open doorway. I see a man’s face, always the same features—round cheeks, ruddy complexion. He wears a green knit toboggan hat. I try to see through the face, beyond it somehow, even close my eyes, but he’s still there. I know he’s not real, that he’s not really there outside my bedroom, that he’s not actually whispering my name, but it feels real, and I’m afraid to go to sleep, worried about murderers climbing through my low window. If a killer walked down the hall, my bedroom would be the first one he’d reach. I would be dead before Linda even heard a sound. She’s a heavy sleeper, stretched out in her double bed, her face pressed into pillows, her baby blanket around her ears.
My bedroom is small and warm, four pink walls and one ceiling, wooden baseboards, a closet full of clothes, curtains ordered from the Sears catalog. I think I might die in this room someday, like the Clutter daughters from In Cold Blood. I shouldn’t have read it, don’t even know why old Miss Speshock, the librarian at the Carnegie Library downtown, let me check it out. I close my eyes and see the Clutter girls lying in pools of their own blood, their father dead in the furnace room atop a cardboard mattress box.
The library is a large building that looks like a cathedral of sorts—rich mahogany doorjambs and stained-glass accents on the windows. To reach some of the higher shelves of books, they have odd little wooden chairs with cranks that go round and round. You sit in the chair and crank yourself up a rusty old track to the third shelf, your feet suspended as you browse for whatever it is you’re looking for. All the librarians are older than dirt and know full well that kids like to crank themselves up in the chairs for fun, so you better have a damn good reason to be doing so.
I usually go to the card catalog, feign interest in the “C” drawer, then make like I’m scribbling a call number on a small scrap of card stock they keep in a box on top. That way, in case I’m questioned, I have an alibi. But the librarians like me, as I’ve already established myself as a serious library patron, so they barely bat an eye when I need to hoist myself up to the third shelf. I’m usually headed to the fiction section, which is in the basement anyway, and down there the books are in two rows of shelves and you can reach them with a footstool if you need a little more height.
When I’m ready to check out, I slide a book across the smooth wooden circulation desk to Miss Speshock. She squints into her tiny eyeglasses, half moons that hang at her chest on a silver chain when not in use. Her fingers are pruny, like mine after a long bath when my mother yells at me through the door to get out or else. Miss Speshock fiddles with her mechanical date stamp, making sure it’s set to three weeks from now. She stamps my card neatly, takes time to gently fan the ink dry before sliding the card into a brown pocket at the back of the book. Like me, Miss Speshock, knows the devil is in the details. And she’s quiet. She never speaks to me, just smiles without showing any teeth, the soft lines around her mouth disappearing for just a moment.
I keep the names of various killers close to me: Sonny Hammett, Ted Bundy, James O. Huberty, Lee Harvey Oswald, Richard “Dick” Hickock. Hickock was one of the Clutter family murderers. At the end of In Cold Blood, he and Perry Smith are executed by hanging. It’s hard to believe that they ever put people to death this way. I read Capote’s description of their deaths over and over, can’t get that passage out of my mind for weeks. The flailing of the legs, the thickness of the rope, how it must have dug into their skin so terribly, thick red rings around the necks of their dead bodies. How long does it take to die that way? I want to know, and I don’t want to know.
When my mother talks about killing herself, it’s in a less violent way. She’d walk into the river and lie down. She makes it sound peaceful, but I wonder how it would work, what would keep her from floating to the surface, her body becoming a raft pulled along the current. Where might she end up? My mother talks to me about dying another way. “If I live to be sixty-five,” she tells me, “you have permission to shoot me dead. Just make it quick, okay? Right between the eyes. I’d rather be dead than old and ugly.” She tells me to trust her, but I think maybe we should put it in writing, make it official, like a contract.
My mother worries about bad things happening, about kidnappings and fires and bank robberies in the middle of the day. Her worries are nothing new to me, but on this particular night she is extra agitated, her eyes unable to focus, darting all around the room as she talks to me. “Put your shoes on. We’re going to see Mrs. Nesmith,” she says, pulling me from the floor where I’m playing school, pretending to be teacher to an invisible class, filling page after page with the names of my students. I give them impossible names, first, middle, and last names—Sukeisha Renee Crawfish, Kitty Katherine Burkowitz, Teal Ann McGoverness.
Mrs. Nesmith is in her sixties, with two grown sons who live in Alaska and work on the pipeline. She and her husband live in a white two-story clapboard house on the corner. They have slate sidewalks, dark gray slabs you can draw on with chalk if you happen to have some in your pocket.
I ring the doorbell and Mrs. Nesmith appears, behind her a light blue glow from the television in her living room, and her husband in his recliner watching the seven o’clock news. She doesn’t seem to be expecting us, but welcomes us in immediately, her face a bit alarmed. She’s not used to neighbors calling in the evening like this. I am offered some gingersnaps and milk, whisked into the yellow kitchen where I sit and eat and look out the window. The sun is setting on their small backyard. They have a swing set for their Alaskan grandchildren, who visit in the summers and go swimming in our pool. Mrs. Nesmith slathers them frequently with sunblock while Linda and I bake our already golden skin in the sun.
My mother and Mrs. Nesmith (first name Heloise, like the woman who writes the famous column about household tips, such as how to take grape juice stains out of clothing) go upstairs. I don’t know what they’re talking about, but I hear the uneven murmur of my mother’s voice mixed with the staccato of the anchorman on KDKA. Mr. Nesmith (who looks like Mr. Howell, the millionaire from Gilligan’s Island) is snoring on and off, waking every few minutes with a snort in his recliner while the meteorologist begins talking about the weather. He uses symbols to represent cold fronts and low-pressure systems. Why did I tell that pageant host I wanted to be a secretary? I hate typing—I’m always making mistakes, my paper always clogged with Wite-Out.
I don’t know how much time passes. The tiny clock on the stove doesn’t work, its hands frozen at one thirty-five. Eventually, my mother comes downstairs to retrieve me and we walk outside. My mother and I walk side by side, my arms swinging at my sides, her arms crossed, hands nearly resting on her shoulders. It’s the pose a vampire sleeps in, when he’s in his coffin during daylight hours. His arms are crossed to protect him from stakes through the heart, in case someone wishes to kill him in his sleep. We’re so vulnerable when we sleep, just as my mother and I are vulnerable walking back to our house in near darkness. The streetlights haven’t turned themselves on yet. I imagine a man approaching us from behind, one gloved hand over my mouth. My pace quickens.
“I feel better now,” Mother says as we walk around the back of the house, enter the kitchen through the sliding-glass door. “Mrs. Nesmith says it’s okay to worry the way I do.” She starts wiping down the already clean kitchen counters while she talks. It’s pure mechanical movement, as though she is a windup doll and someone has just turned the key on her back. “Mrs. Nesmith said I don’t worry about the impossible. I worry about the highly improbable. And that’s entirely healthy, because there’s a difference between the two and why not be prepared for the highly improbable?” She’s down on her hands and knees now, scrubbing the linoleum with an S.O.S pad, leaving streaks of blue foam in her wake.
I run through the fears and worries I’ve been cataloging in my head for as long as I can remember. My memory begins and ends with fear. Men breaking into our house at night and killing us—highly improbable. But certainly not impossible. My father having a heart attack—highly improbable. Aliens abducting me—highly improbable. An ax murderer lurking under my bed at night, just waiting for me to dangle one foot off the side—highly improbable. But nothing is impossible.
I grab the bucket and a washrag from under the kitchen sink, fill the bucket halfway with clean water. I get down on the wet floor next to my mother and follow her. I rinse her work away until the whole floor is spotless and shining.
Karen Dietrich’s writing has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Joyland, Specter, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. She is the author of three chapbooks from small presses: [un.der.sto.ry] (dancing girl press, 2013), Girl Years (Matter Press, 2012) and Anchor Glass (Finishing Line Press, 2011). She recently joined the faculty of the online creative writing MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. She lives in Greensburg, PA.