A Novel

Chapter 5: Nitro Star, Electric Star

Later that same day, a little before noon » upscale Greencroft, Elmville's most exclusive subdivision, where Connie Swinford lived in a four bedroom split-level with her husband and no children. Connie backed her sporty red Mazda RX-7 out of the driveway while closing the garage door with the garage door opener—the houses in Greencroft combined every modern convenience with classic American elegance: homes for the contemporary family.

Zipping through Greencroft. . .she enjoyed taking the perfectly-rounded turns too fast because she knew it angered the neighbors.

She exited the subdivision through its grandish entrance, turning east onto Park Avenue West (old money Elmville living so close to new money Elmville), then north onto Goose Boulevard, which became Goose Street just past the county fairgrounds. At brick-paved Putnam she turned west, passing the grade school where her children would go if she ever had any children.

A little further west on Putnam: hello tater-town, shit-built ranches and dirt-patched, crab-grassed front "lawns". The children living in these houses would be her children's schoolmates. Maybe she should send her children to Catholic school instead, if she ever had any children, which she wouldn't because she couldn't. Her husband took that news hard when she told him. She reminded herself: it wasn't always that way though; I wasn't always that way.

North on Lynn, a little curve in the road, evidence of a real estate developer's work, but large empty tracts of sun-burnt grass, evidence of a real estate developer's neglect. The road dipped briefly into a gully formed by Pee-Wee Creek, then back up again.

Straight ahead: Bird Haven, the low/mid budget answer to Greencroft.

East of Bird Haven: subsidized housing, abutting the railroad tracks. Those daily California Zephyrs reminding the rural slum dwellers of the sunny vacations they'll never take. This cluster of tenements had a name, but Connie couldn't remember it because she never bothered to notice and she didn't really care. Who did? Why bother to name it at all?

She parked in front of unit F, rang the doorbell to 13. A fat woman answered the door. Connie wondered, why are the poor always so fat? She stepped inside, handed the fat woman thirty dollars; the woman gave her a sandwich baggy rolled around a seam of weed.

As Connie turned to leave, the fat woman, copping attitude, said, "Enjoy, honey."

Connie rolled her eyes, "Yeah. Whatever," but secretly she bristled at the insolence of this woman telling her what to do with anything. Even that much familiarity gave Connie the creeps.

Back in her car, her convertible, which, Connie thought, said to the fat woman still watching her through the screen door, "Suck it, bitch", Connie skirted town, circling onto Route 26 South.

26 South is a joyride, and she rides it through eleven miles of country. Just past the Country Club, cornfields yield to timber, like a boundary line, at precisely the point where the road begins its descent into the river valley.

26 South all the way to Bureau Junction, where she stops for lunch at the Ranch House. She often ate lunch in the bar there, mostly because her father owned it, and paid her tab every month, but also because it was a place to meet strangers, and she had strangers on the mind: strange men, to be specific.

Connie: Mary Kay "beauty consultant". Not her dream job, but there were no dream jobs, not in her world anyway. Maybe, where the California Zephyrs went, but not in Bureau County Illinois. A Mary Kay beauty consultant could, at least, set her own hours, work on-again and off-again, this week mostly off-again, on account of which the day was hers to kill.

The day before, she treated herself to a shopping spree, in Peoria, at the mall. Maxed-out her Bergner's card. Sales clerk, apologizing profusely, said it was criminal the store wouldn't extend her a longer line of credit. Connie agreed, and appreciated the sales clerk's abjection. Even so, the situation—being what it was—demanded that she not show her appreciation. This semi-public humiliation had to be met with cold indignation: "That's fine; I can take my business elsewhere." Bergner's wasn't the only anchor store in the mall, not to mention all the boutique stores. No, Bergner's wasn't the only game in town, not by a long shot. The mall: a shopping girl's playground. She didn't get back home until well after dinner, but her husband had long ago stopped asking where or why or with whom.

All that was yesterday. Thank god for yesterdays. Today, stepping out of her car, walking across the parking lot: this was her dolly shot, in her tight-fitting, red, sleeveless dress, showing off the curvy body it pretended to conceal. A tat she often worked on clients: "quality makeup should reveal your natural beauty, not hide it." All women, no matter how old, sitting patiently with their heads in the drying hoods, looking ridiculous, reading fashion magazines, waiting for their perms to set—they all want to believe they have natural beauty. Avon ladies and Mary Kay beauty consultants stalked those fucking beauty parlors, sucker central, like wolves in a sheep fold.

Accessories, a too-often neglected aspect of glamour-craft: hoop earrings and hoop bracelets—all purchased yesterday at Claire's. (Fuck Bergner's. For now at least.) Her brown hair, frosted and feathered, with Aqua-Net teased bangs. Red heels and a white plastic faux-patent-leather purse completed the outfit. She felt ten years younger than her actual age.

In high school, Connie had been considered a real fox. What others found foxy, however, Connie's mother considered slutty, and made her opinion known through invidious comparisons with Connie's older sister: "Connie, darling, your sister has such good taste; I just don't know where I went wrong with you. It was wrong of me, really, to marry your father, to think that I could ever take the white trash out him." That was Mrs. McKusker's way of expressing disapproval—insincerely and heroically taking upon herself the blame for all the ways in which her family disappointed her. Jesus said unto his disciples, take up your cross, and follow me.

At 15, Connie decided to disappoint her mother with a vengeance, by losing her virginity to three golf caddies at the Country Club, in the musty caddy locker room, while her mother played bridge upstairs. Connie had hoped the three boys would kiss-and-tell, fuck-and-tell, because she wanted to create a scandal that would devastatingly confirm all the disappointments her mother ever claimed to have suffered. If the boys did tell, Connie never heard about it, nor did her mother, for whose benefit she had endured the degradation of their clumsy, painful thrusts, their sideline cheering as each took his turn at her body, and their juvenile preoccupation with the sizes of each others' cocks. The episode at least taught her not to fear sex, and gave her a sense of the power she could wield over men, even if, in this case, she had not used that power very shrewdly.

As a teenager, Connie was constantly arguing with her mother, or at least it felt that way. One argument in particular stuck in her memory: her mother and father were throwing a party for the Bureau County Sheriff. Connie had done something wrong, said something wrong probably; her mother took her to a side room, with jalousie windows on the three outer walls. An accordion wall separated separated this room from the living room. Her mother struggled to latch it shut. She could hear voices on the other side of the accordion wall, and knew those voices could hear her. Her mother called her a liar and a hypocrite and a bitch—that, from a woman who almost never ever swore. Her mother slapped her, "You have quite a lip on you, young lady. Some day you will be silenced. Women who aren't smart enough to learn silence on their own have it taught to them, and when that happens, it's never pretty, mark my word. I've seen it happen. You think you're so smart, and I'm so stupid. Did it ever occur to you that I was your age once and I thought I was pretty smart too? And did it ever occur to you that, God willing, you will be my age once, and you might have learned something in the meantime?" Her mother continued lecturing, and Connie became angrier and angrier, especially when she thought about all those adults on the other side of the accordion wall, listening, judging. If she could have released all that anger at that moment, it would be like the Kankakee Torrent. Her mother continued, "Girls who have to be taught silence, have to be taught by force. Life usually doesn't go well for them, not after that, not in these parts, anyway."

After graduating from high school, Connie grew tired of Tiskilwa social life. Tiskilwa men, you could say, were more interested in her father than they were in her. Being the daughter of Durney McKusker opened a lot of doors, but she wanted to be admired for her own qualities, not his. She began to party in Elmville instead, where fewer men had heard of Durney McKusker, or at least didn't admit to it. They were, what her mother would call, "respectable men".

She rented a house in Elmville and spent the next few years living off her father's money. Eventually he insisted, find either a husband or a job.

As much as she resented her father's ultimatum, it did help to clarify a few things. For example, what she wanted from life: she wanted financial security and personal freedom. She married the first man she thought could provide her with both, a man in his mid-twenties named Dick Swinford. He worked on the management-side at a factory in Elmville. Her mother approved.

A day before the wedding, Connie's mother took her aside and said, "Connie, I've never spoken this intimately with you before." She sighed, "And I suppose this shall be my final chance. Elmville is a Protestant town, through-and-through Protestant to the bone. When I married your father, I became a Roman Catholic. When I married your father, all my children became Roman Catholics as well. I wish I had never done it, but what's done is done. You'll find that Protestants are far more judgmental than Catholics. These Catholics have an almost limitless tolerance for sin. People aren't that way up in Elmville. Connie, marriage is honorable, as long as the bed is undefiled. But whoremongers and adulterers God will judge. So enter in at the straight gate, for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leads to destruction, and many there are which go in thereat. It's like those Interstate rest stops we used to visit on long car trips. Once, when you were little, we picnicked at one, and you and your sister ran all around the rest stop, looking for a back road. Do you remember? There was no back road, not even a service entrance. The only way into the rest stop was from the Interstate, the straight road, the front entrance. It's the same way with men: there's only one way to earn their love, and it's through the front entrance, the straight way, the narrow way, the virtuous way."

As an arrangement, the marriage worked well, her mother's obscure warnings notwithstanding. Connie played the society wife when necessary, but the daytime was hers, to wander far from Elmville, down into the river valley, where her frequent indiscretions remained a secret. The job with Mary Kay, really just a pretext for spending daytime hours away from home. And the Ranch House was a favorite place to go for such purposes.

On this day, as she strode into the cocktail lounge, she was disappointed: only one other customer, but at least a man, and a young man, and at least he was seated at the bar. Closer up: also handsome, in t-shirt and blue-jeans, quite crushingly handsome. Clean cut and clean, with brown hair parted to one side, a straight nose and jaw, suntanned skin, narrow waist and broad shoulders. Stop: his youthfulness—a possible problem. And yet he was drinking beer, so officially make him at least 21, even if he looked much younger. Still a bit indecent for a woman her age to hit on one so young, but no other customers equals no one to witness. Plus who would dare spread gossip about Durney McKusker's daughter?

She sat on his left, two bar stools away.

Connie spotted Blondie, motel manageress, tending bar. Goddammit, Connie thought, she'll ask if I want "the usual". He'll think: cheap barfly. Stop her now: preemptively, with inflected uncertainty, Connie said, "A Gibson, I think, if you don't mind, and a Caesar salad."

Blondie smirked, as if she knew what Connie was up to, as if she could not disguise it, even for all the effort in the world. The smirk silently spoke: "Okay, the usual then."

Connie consoled herself by contemplating Blondie's famed ugliness: the peroxide-blonde hair and tawdry makeup, the old hag underneath.

Or did Blondie's ugliness only increase her power to thwart Connie's plans?

Connie wondered, why do I feel so threatened by her? Why do I feel as though she hates me, and always has, but for no reason that I know? Does she resent the fact that my father owns this place?

Connie liked to think she could have Blondie fired if she wanted. But she knew it wasn't true, was, in fact, the opposite of the truth: her father regarded Blondie as highly as a right-hand-man. Again: why? It would take much more than her own sulky displeasure to get Blondie fired. Why the hell should her father respect this woman more highly than his daughters and even, so some said, his own wife? What did the bitch have on him?

Gibson served without incident. Now, Connie thought, stop any mention of the tab; don't let this guy know I run a tab here.

Connie slapped a five dollar bill on the bar. Aloof, almost disdainful, "Keep the change." No, fuck: big mistake: do not provoke this woman.

Sipping her Gibson, secretly checking out the young man. She liked what she saw. She perched a cigarette on her lips—a favorite move: digging through her purse, exaggerated exasperation, searching for a lighter. Finally, after a big show of frustration, she turned in feigned desperation to the young man: "Say, you wouldn't happen to have a lighter on you?"

"Sorry," he said: no apparent interest.

She said, "Darn" and began digging again through the purse. After a few moments of show, she triumphantly produced a pink Bic lighter: "There it is!"

She lit her cigarette. Then, as if shocked by her own bad manners, turned to him: "Look at me, all wrapped up in myself—would you like a cigarette?"

"Sure," he said, still indifferent.

She giggled, "I hope you don't mind, but they're Virginia Slims."

He took the cigarette without comment. She giggled again, this time at the sight of such a tough looking young man with a Virginia Slim cigarette dangling from his lips, which, by the way, were lusciously full. She flicked the flintwheel on her lighter, igniting it herself: make him draw closer if he wants his cigarette lit.

He smiled, somewhat roguishly, somewhat smashingly, and leaned in for the fire.

"My name's Connie, what's yours?"


Again she giggled: "My nephew has the same name."

"You don't look hardly old enough to have nephews."

Thrilled by the compliment: "My older sister got started kinda young."

They sat in silence, smoking their cigarettes, drinking their drinks. Assess the situation: he obviously did not find her repulsive, but he also did not initiate or even reciprocate any flirtation. At this rate, it could take all afternoon. Other customers would begin arriving, leaving her less free to maneuver. She needed to gauge his availability, and also to get him out of the bar. She felt inhibited by Blondie's presence. Then, as if inspired by a brilliant idea, she said, "Say, do you get high?"

He shrugged his shoulders, "Sure, why not? But I don't have anything."

"I do, and it's the best! Let's take a room here at the motel and have some fun. I'm so bored and it's only noon." The perfect solution to a difficult problem. After all, nobody, not even a woman, could be blamed for what she said or did while high.

Sixty minutes later they were screwing in room 7. He looked even better undressed: more muscular, less thin. Despite his unrefined manners, he was charming, courtly. He deferentially expected nothing of her, nothing but for her to lie there and enjoy his strength and stamina. The tense, straining expression on his face, the perspiration on his forehead, his panting and moaning: all evidence of an insatiable desire for, and submission to, her. He made her feel young again, by filling her with his youth, which she soon hoped to feed from, like a hummingbird, after a long migration, taking its first drink from the flowers of Northern summer. He made her feel young and free again, and she gave her mind freedom to entertain thoughts she would ordinarily have dismissed as impossible. Thoughts like the possibility that she could have him, possess him, marry him. She would tolerate almost anything just to have him: neglect, infidelity, even abuse—just so long as she could continue to possess his youth. And she could do things for him: her father could give him a job, a good job, probably a better job than he ever had before.

But the marijuana they had smoked, it was making her a little edgy, a little confused, a little anxious. Anxious, a word that meant a bucketful of ammonia and bleach. Did a word have DNA; did it contain itself its own future meanings, like a map or a design? How could it grow in two separate directions? But she both fearfully and hungrily continued imagining a future with Floyd. Only now she began to imagine a past as well. He was her handsome nephew; he was the handsome child she never had. She loved him; he was her lover; she wanted to keep him forever. Her mind swam blissfully in the pure pleasure of these thoughts, like angels in ether, and now she wanted that pleasure for her body as well. She moved her right hand to her clitoris. She had never been able to orgasm without masturbating herself. Few men seemed to notice, but Floyd grabbed her right wrist with his left hand, and pinned it above her head, against the bed, immediately doing the same to her left arm as well.

He said, "What's the matter?"

Becoming a little paranoid, a little fearful, probably from the weed—something wrong with the stuff—she said, "I, I—"

"You don't think I can do it for you, eh?"

He had her pinned to the bed. Like one of the wrestling moves she had seen her nephew Camden perform when he wrestled in high school. She struggled a little, and was surprised to discover the force with which he held her arms. He was hurting her wrists. What the hell was going on? He must have laced the marijuana with something while she was in the bathroom. When they first entered the motel room, he had volunteered to roll the joints while she freshened up. Freshen up. Freshen-Up. Freshen-Up gum. She recalled her nephew and his friends laughingly calling it "cum gum." The minty gel inside the gum was like cum, but more than that, it exploded inside one's mouth, like a man when he came. A woman's mouth went from empty to full, while the man went from full to empty: expended, exhausted of whatever it was that made him able to fuck.

She stared at Floyd and saw emptiness. Just pure emptiness, not even exhaustion. She saw a hole in his head: a horrendously gore-lined-empty-hole in his skull. You never realized how empty, how vast an emptiness, a hole could be, until you saw it in somebody's head; until it was on top of you, trapping you; until it was inside of you, fucking you. God that marijuana was some nasty shit. His face blurred away; she stared into nothingness. Not even nothingness: not matter, not form, not nothing: how many fires were not started on its account? How many babies unborn? The grizzly emptiness threatened to devour something within her, and create a nothingness. A gaping wound, a cavity, a bloody mouth, a grave, a wedding bed that nothing could fill but that could consume everything and in consuming produce nothingness, leave nothingness. Leave nothingness, not as a residue, but as an effect, like the implosion of space that created a black hole, from which not even nothing could escape. She had a hole between her legs; she had given birth to a dead child; a rupture in her uterus had killed her baby boy, Dick's baby boy, which she delivered into the world already dead; the doctors performed a hysterectomy. She had a hole in her gut, and a hole between her legs, which Floyd was trying to fill with his anger and his violence—his face again became visible, as if it had been lanced and the blur drained from it like a puss-filled abscess. She imagined him ripping her vagina out of her body after he had filled it with his cum, an irreversible vaginal prolapsis. He was the handsome dead child to whom she had given birth; he was her mortal enemy. She recoiled at the horror of this handsome young man with the hideous nothingness in his head—not figuratively nothing, but literally: in his skull she could see that nothing had bored a hole. For the first time she became aware that she possessed a soul, and that this man would consume it.

Paranoia and fear seemed to infect her entire nervous system, almost paralyzing her. She felt like a house cat in a cage being driven to a veterinarian to be euthanized by a family that no longer wanted it. Had she been taken to a veterinarian when she lost her child?

Suddenly, but weakly: "Stop, please stop," but he did not stop and when she tried to move he only redoubled the intensity of his fucking.

He said, smirking, "You don't like it anymore? You should. You're lucky I got such a big cock; I never in my life saw a pussy so loose and used up. You must have trouble finding guys who can even tell whether or not they're actually screwing you," and he laughed at his joke, adding, "They must wonder if they ain't fucking an empty can of Crisco."

More forcibly now: "I said stop god-dammit," and again his only response was to grin and continue. She struggled and he pinned her down.

"Your pussy's so loose, your vagina might fall out one of these days."

The she saw it happen, or it happened and then she saw it: his tight grip into her fist ripped, savaged clit; onto her split lip and bloodied hip.

She shrieked and it left him unfazed. She shrieked and screamed and cried for help as loudly as she could.

Eventually, as he continued fucking her, and as she continued screaming, two men with guns broke open the door, pulled him off of her. Floyd struggled with them, almost as if he thought he might be able, ought to be permitted, to finish what he had started. But instead the two men began pistol whipping him—his naked body falling back onto the floor and then rising up again, until they had beaten him so badly he could barely move, blood gushing from his nose and mouth and a split lip that glistened with the most gorgeous shade of red she had ever seen.

He smiled complacently, the split in his upper lip widening. They threw his clothing onto him, and said, "Get dressed."

After he had dressed, the two men, whom Connie recognized as employees of her father, escorted him out of the room, saying, as they crossed the threshold, "Begging your pardon Mrs. Swinford."

Connie covered her body beneath the bedsheets. She covered herself and wept. Just as Floyd threatened: an orgasm.