Looks can be deceiving. Susie Matthews is like that. Or maybe that’s not fair. Maybe it’s just that I’m in shock about the whole thing because I just can’t get over that you can live with a person for ten years—for ten years you can work sided by side in the hundred and ten degree heat, or you can stand together and watch the wash fill up and overflow and threaten to swamp your house and the two of you, together, with a united purpose, fill sandbag after sandbag to save your humble abode, or you can have those nights of lovemaking, sometimes tender and so full of love it makes you want to cry, and sometimes so unbridled and nasty it makes you feel like you’re with the porn star of your dreams, or you can share all those mundane, everyday chores of taking meals together and divvying up the chores (you do the bathroom and I’ll vacuum and dust), but most of all, more than any-damn-thing else, you tell each other all the stuff that makes you, you, all the strivings and pains, the disappointments and successes, all the old friends, all the important things, every single little thing that ever mattered, that ever impacted you, that ever formed and shaped you—and all she can say is “I forgot.”
“It’s not something I want to remember,” she says.
“So you just tell yourself to forget that you murdered a boy, and that’s that? It’s just put out of your mind?”
I try to calm myself, to relax, because she’s scared, so I lean forward and rest my right arm on the cement shelf of my booth. Susie has that same look she had the day I met her. I’d spent the last hours trying to remember that day, trying to find clues to how it was, but seeing her through the glass brings it all back with a clarity I couldn’t find on the way down here.
It’s the look on her face that does it. She’s wearing that exact same haunted fear that she had when I first saw her. Her brown eyes are wide and bewildered, like they’re seeing a reality that should rightly be a fantasy, a make-believe story, an action adventure movie, but nobody’s going to yell, “Cut. Print it,” and she knows it. Her brows are drawn together, not dramatically, but just enough to show her stress and perplexity. Her mouth forms a tight, straight line, like she’s working herself up to accept it, to be brave, but she’s not quite there.
She doesn’t look ten years older, and I think that’s a fact and not just a perception gained because I’ve been with her all that time. I see her in the then, and I see her in the now, and she doesn’t look older. It’s the freckles and the hair. She’s covered in freckles, and I do mean covered. They’re not those vague little pinkish brown freckles most people get. Hers are dark brown, almost black, and it’s like God took a wet paintbrush and ran his finger along the sable so it spattered her with dark droplets of varying size. That, coupled with her short, inch-long, brown hair, gives her a youthful, tomboyish aspect.
It’s that youthful, tomboyish aspect that makes it so hard for me to believe all this.
“Your bail’s half a million dollars.”
“I know. They told me.”
“It’s a ridiculous bail. They’re going to reduce it when you go before the judge, probably for certain. Can you hold on till then?”
“Don’t bail me out,” she says. “I’m going to be doing time, so it’s just as well that I start ticking off the days now. It’d be dumb to spend all that money for nothing.”
It’s like her to be so practical, and I’m glad for it. It’s not that I don’t want to get her out, I do. But I’m not a rich man, and if I have to go into debt for something, I’d rather it be for a lawyer.
“I’ll get a lawyer,” I say.
She nods, and her lips go tight again, with that inner determination to do what has to be done, or to bear what has to be born, more like.
That’s how her lips were when I found her out on the far fringes of my property. I have three hundred and eighty two acres out in the Mojave Desert, and I’d seen her car turn off and head out the dirt road toward the hills sometime in the early morning just after midnight. Next morning, at sunrise, I saddled up my Arabian paint, Dennis (I named him after my renegade best friend, but that’s another story), and rode all the way over there. I don’t like strangers on my property, mostly because they tear it up when they go off-road with their four wheelers. They come looking for places to ride their bikes and ATV’s and the only place that’s not covered with cholla is that area of hills over on the northwest corner. They don’t just keep to the hills, though. They take their trucks out and romp and do donuts and mow down my chollas.
I make my living with cholla. I’m a cholla farmer. If you’re unfamiliar with cholla, it seems a strange occupation. If you’re familiar with cholla, it seems even stranger. Cholla is a Spanish word with a Spanish pronunciation, where the ‘l’s’ take on a ‘y’ sound, so you say it like the word ‘joy.’ Joya – only with a ‘ch,’ so choya. Anyway, cholla is a mean cactus. It comes in different varieties; one kind has many small branches, like a bush. Another kind, like the one I use most, the Teddy Bear Cholla, generally has one tall, straight stem, with a mop top of short, thick branches at the very top. They can grow to be six or seven feet tall, but most of them are four to six feet.
I skin them and sell the carcasses to pet stores who sell them to customers for use in reptile cages. The carcass is a hollow, holely (not in the Biblical sense) stem and lizards and snakes like to crawl inside it to rest.
Chollas are sometimes called “jumping cactus” because of the notion that the needles can fly across short distances and embed themselves – firmly, deeply, decidedly – into unsuspecting flesh. They don’t really jump. You have to touch them to get them stuck, but it only takes a whisper of a touch to make them puncture your skin. The barbs come out in clumps so if you get one, you get a dozen.
I found Susie that day, ten years ago, lying on her stomach, but up on her knees, about ten feet from her car. Her entire backside was covered in cholla barbs. Like I said, her face had that very same haunted fear on it but at the time I thought it was all about the pain and predicament of having about a hundred thousand (no exaggeration) barbed needles embedded in her body.
“I see you’ve gotten acquainted with my cholla,” I said.
“My cholla. That’s the name of the cactus you sat on.”
“I didn’t sit on it. I fell on it.”
I yanked a few handfuls out of her exposed lower back, and she yelped.
“I guess I’d best call for an ambulance,” I said.
She refused. I can’t remember now all the arguments she gave, but she was adamant that I not take her to a hospital and equally adamant that I continue to pluck the spines out of her body. Recalling it now, I realize she didn’t want any authorities to be notified, not even emergency medical ones, but at the time I didn’t know that.
“Here’s the problem,” I said in a teasing sort of way. I have to admit that I found her situation a little bit funny, only because I knew she would heal up as good as new, that in the end the barbs were going to hurt her pride more than anything else, and because she paid a hefty price for trespassing on my property, which pleased me. Also, she was cute, and I could see she was brave, even though she was about as vulnerable as a person could be. “To get all of these barbs out is going to require that you pull off your pants.” She was wearing a pair of those tight, spandex-like, low, low, low riding hip huggers.
“Why?” she asked. “Just pull them out.”
“They’ll get stuck in that stretchy material, that’s why.” I used just my finger and thumb to pluck at a cluster on her ass, and they got stuck like I said, and broke off, and stayed on the inside of her pants to poke at her some more. I don’t know whether she could feel that one little clump amidst the whole landscape of the thing, but I did it, then I said, “See?”
She set her mouth in that thin line of determined surrender to a circumstance beyond her control and said, “Okay, then, take them off.”
I smiled at her and she resented it, but I couldn’t help it.
I helped her into the back of her decade old Chevy Blazer, then ponied Dennis alongside as we drove to my house. I would have laid her across Dennis’ back, but he couldn’t be trusted under such a circumstance.
It took days to get all the barbs out. I got enough of them out in the initial effort to make her functional, but there were broken ones here and there that had to be found and tweezed out. I probably shouldn’t mention just how intimately acquainted I got, but when a girl sits down on such an aggressive cactus, it’s not just her bottom that gets stuck, if you know what I mean. She had stickers all in her girl parts, as well.
From the very first I had entree to all her private places, so it just seemed like we had this kind of brutal honesty between us; like we could tell each other anything. And we did. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with her. Maybe I fell in love with her the first time I saw those bewildered brown eyes. She made my heart thump in my chest, and weeks later I confessed to her that I got a hard-on while I was tending to her sweet little freckled bottom.
She fell in love with me, too. It was only a week later that she made it clear that she wanted me. She was the aggressor. But she told me I had to be gentle, due to her raw skin. I was gentle, she was hot, and I guess that’s all I’ll say about that.
And now she’s behind a glass partition, sitting tomboyishly, lithely, on a stool, and she’s scared, but she’s brave, and I can’t touch her.
“When did you kill him?” I ask her. She’s there because of me, but only because she never told me. Had she told me, I would have been a little more evasive in the answers I gave during my interrogation. Hell, I would have lied. I would have lied in a heartbeat, if I had known. The sheriff’s homicide detective came around asking questions; like when I met Susie, and where she came from, and apparently all that matched up with what they knew of this murdered man’s disappearance. Susie told them everything when they arrested her. She told me she did. I told her she shouldn’t have without a lawyer, and she broke down crying, saying, “It was a relief. Like when it’s been so hot and parched and it finally rains.”
Well, maybe it was a relief to her. It was not a relief to me. Rain in the desert often leads to a flood.
“The night before,” she says in answer to my question.
I knew she meant the night before I found her. It’s funny that I never noticed the signs of a dead body – the vultures, or the smell or anything, but I didn’t go back over there for weeks because I was suddenly so in love that all I wanted was to be with Susie.
“I wish you’d have told me,” I say.
She shrugs her shoulders and her lips are tight together.
“What happened, sweetheart? How come you still won’t tell me what happened?” I’m insane by this time. I haven’t slept more than a couple hours at a time ever since this nightmare started, and the worst part is that she won’t tell me, and I can’t figure it out. For the life of me, I can’t figure it out. I know Susie, and none of this makes any sense. I need her to make it make sense.
She cries and looks down at her feet and says, “His last words were, ‘I wasn’t going to hurt you.’”
“You stabbed him with a screwdriver?” I ask, incredulous. The detective had revealed some of the bits and pieces when they questioned me, but I could hardly believe it. I need her to confess it to me, not to them.
She’s still crying and she still can’t look at me. It looks like she’s about to drop the phone, but she brings it back up to her mouth and says, “I was scared. That’s all there was.”
“Twenty-seven times?” I ask.
“I was scared,” she says again.
“Our time’s almost up,” I tell her. It’s a plea, really. I need her to tell me because stabbing a man twenty-seven times is not a Susie thing to do. It’s a Letitia thing, or an Angie thing, or a Rita thing, not a goddamned girl-next-door, sweet, innocent, tomboyish Susie thing. I look at her. I catch her eye, and I beg her without words, I beg her from the depth of my soul to tell me. I need to know.
I lean forward, and with words I say, “For God’s sake, Susie, tell me.”
She’s crying again, and she knows how it is for me. She wants me to know, so she says, “He asked me for a ride. I was coming to California after my father died. I didn’t know what I would do, but I had to get away from there. So I was stopped at a gas station, and he asked me for a ride, and it was a long drive, and he looked nice – he did – he looked like a nice guy, and I said okay. It was in New Mexico and I got back on the forty and, I swear, not two miles later there was a sign that said: Do not pick up hitchhikers. Prison.
“He looked over at me, and I said I should let him out, and he joked and cajoled, but when I tried to pull over, he picked up a screwdriver I had on the floor and he thumped it on his palm, and he said, ‘You just keep going.’”
“So you didn’t know him before that?”
“Then he kidnapped you.”
“It seemed that way to me, the way he did that screwdriver. I had a full tank of gas and no reason to stop, then he started telling me weird stuff. ‘I won’t lie to you,’ he said, ‘I was in prison. I’m not no big time criminal or nothing. I’m just a kid went the wrong road for awhile. Breaking and entering and burglary’s what they got me for, and all I had to do was two years. They let me out early for good behavior…'”
“Jesus. You picked up a prisoner who kidnapped you and they’re holding you for murder?”
“Turns out he made it all up, so they don’t believe what I said, but they might believe it because they want me to take a lie detector test. But it turns out he wasn’t even eighteen, they told me. He was a runaway who was never in trouble with the law before. But I didn’t know that. I wasn’t so much older than eighteen myself then, but he looked a few years older than me. He was very tall. He was tall and thin, and he had a few whiskers, like he tried to grow a beard and mustache. I mean, he had a beard and mustache, and it was pretty long, but it wasn’t very thick. Plus, he had light brown, even dark blond hair, so that made his beard seem even lighter.”
I’m impatient listening to her delve into this extraneous stuff that doesn’t matter. I want her to get on with it, but I know her, and I know she needs to sneak up on it, so I wait while she tells me what this kid looks like, or looked like, I should say.
“Anyway, I wasn’t so much older than eighteen, so what do I know about judging someone’s age? Like I say, I thought he was older than me, like maybe twenty-three or twenty-four. I didn’t know he was a kid running away from home. His parents….”
Her voice trails off and she starts crying. I want to hold her, to tell her it’s going to be okay, but it’s not going to be okay, and we both know it. I feel that knot tightening in my stomach again. Seems like it just keeps getting worse and worse.
“They were frantic, of course, but after ten years they came to believe the worst, and now the body confirms that the worst happened.” She sniffs and wipes her nose on the orange sleeve of her jumpsuit.
“Did he try to stab you?” I want him to have tried to stab her. I search my memory, trying to recall if she had any wounds that day.
“No,” she says, and my stomach tightens some more.
“He was talking crazy shit. He started telling me about prison, and about his cell mate, and about how his cell mate was obsessed with Marquis de Sade. Do you know about de Sade?” she asks me.
I don’t know much about him. I say, “I know he was decadent.”
“He was more than decadent. He was deviant. That’s the word this kid used. ‘Deviant.’ Then he started telling me details. And the way he told it all…”
Her voice trails off. I try to be patient.
“Women with girls and men with boys,” she says. “Innocent virgins. They’d rape them, and beat them, and torture them and do gross stuff. Like the men would beat each other off into a punch bowl and they’d all drink it. Or they’d pee in it. The women would. And they’d drink it and make the virgins drink it.”
Her body is rigid, and she’s gripping the phone so hard that her knuckles are white. I say, “Jesus, this kid told you all this?”
“And more,” she said. “It just kept getting worse. And he kept playing with the screwdriver, thumping the handle on his palm. And he wouldn’t quit talking about it. He was all excited, like he was wired.
“I told him he was freaking me out, and he said, ‘Imagine how I felt, stuck in a cell with this guy.’ He said, ‘It wasn’t just sex and torture, either. They killed them, the virgins, in disgusting ways. They’d put candles in their privates and burn them and cut them in pieces, and eat them, too. One time,’ he said, ‘there were these two steel plates and they tied a girl on each one then smashed them together so both the girls popped like grapes.’ And he laughed. Sometimes, after he’d tell the grossest stuff, he’d laugh, and he’d look at me funny.”
“Jesus! He was telling you this shit?”
“I kept getting more and more scared, and he kept messing the with screwdriver, either thumping it, or sometimes he’d set it up on his palm, and hold the tip with his fingers, then slide his fingers down to the base, so it would flip over, then the tip would be on his palm. He just kept flipping it like that. I think he was getting more nervous, too, because he would get kinda twitchy. Then all of a sudden he told me to pull off the highway, and I was so scared, because it was the middle of the night by then and this place is so desolate, but I did it because I was scared. And then we stopped and he took my keys and looked in the back of my car for some rope and he tied our hands together and said we should get some sleep. He was left handed, so he tied his right hand to my left.
“Then we laid down and he started talking again, about Marquis de Sade, and about his cell mate. Then he said, ‘The worst part is it’s so gross, but when I heard it being read to me like that, over and over and over, and I’m stuck there and haven’t had a woman in months, well, I have to say it turned me on after awhile. It’s gross, but I couldn’t help it. I think that’s why my cell mate kept reading it to me, because he knew sooner or later it would turn me on. And then, I don’t like to admit it, but pretty soon, well, he made a move for me, and I’m pretty grossed out and scared thinking he probably wants all that deviant sex and even more scared because I sorta hope he does want some of that deviant sex, and before I know it, I’m doing it with him. I ain’t proud of it or nothing, but that’s how it went.’”
“Shit! What kind of sick shit is that?” I say, and I can’t believe she could be held for murder after they heard her tell her story.
“Well, then he fell asleep.”
“He fell asleep?”
“Yes. He yawned and fell asleep, and he still had the screwdriver in his hand, and I was so scared that…”
She’s not crying, but her eyes wander off and become fixed on something far away. “I took the screwdriver, and he moved and made a grab for it, and I just started stabbing. He kept trying to get it, and he had his left hand free and I was stabbing with my right hand as fast and hard as I could and he was screaming at me that he wasn’t going to hurt me and I just kept stabbing and finally I realized that he…”
Her mouth is dry and when she talks it sounds all sticky and gummy, and I can hear it because it’s coming right through the phone.
“Well, he had quit moving. And his eyes were open. Wide. And it was a full moon that night and I could see everything, like daytime. I got more rope and I tied it around him under his armpits, and I tied it to where the spare tire is on the back of my car and I drug him as far as I could go, over hills and I got to where there was this ravine, and I untied him and shoved him in it. Then I started driving away, but my clothes were bloody, so I stopped and there was blood on my car seat, and I changed my clothes and used a box of Handiwipes I keep in my car to get the blood off of me and off the car. I didn’t want to go back to where I left him, but I didn’t want to just leave the clothes there by the road, so I walked out into the desert a long way and I sunk in some soft sand, so I dug a hole and lit them on fire and it stunk, the blood did,” and now the stress becomes too great, and she starts to cry again.
“It smelled like meat cooking,” she says, unsteadily, through tears. “And it made me sick. I meant to bury the ashes after it burned, but the smell made me freak and I kept barfing even though there was nothing left in my stomach. I backed away and that’s when I fell onto the cholla.”
Talking about the cholla calms her down, and she gets control of herself.
“I had it all on my arms and hands, too, and I picked out the ones I could reach and half crawled back to my car and it took till almost sunup and that’s when you found me.”
“Why didn’t you tell someone?”
“I don’t know. I was just scared and freaked. And then time went by and I just never did. They said if I had, it would have been different. They said now, even if I’m telling the truth, which I am, that I confessed that he was asleep when I killed him, so they’re charging me with murder. And his shirtsleeves were full of defensive wounds. And he was underage. And that’s how it is.”
She tries not to cry, and she swallows, and tears pool in her eyes despite her efforts, and all I can tell her is, “I’ll get a lawyer, okay?”
She nods. And our time is up. She sets her mouth and walks away, and now I know that Susie, my Susie, my precious little impish tomboy, stabbed a boy twenty-seven times and left him dead in the desert.