[img_assist|nid=668|title=Bride by Sarah Barr © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=109]Everyone loves a dead body.
The yellow tape, the grim-faced police officers and the emergency vehicles contrast with the peacefully falling snow and Christmas decorations strung along the cul-de-sac. The children’s thoughts are no longer of Santa Claus as they watch the men unload a black bodybag containing Darlese Claxton. Everyone stands by their doors, staring. Even big Julio Sanchez, who rarely leaves the comfort of his couch, takes in the scene, his three-year-old son in his arms.
Vera rinses raw chicken drumsticks as she watches from her kitchen window. Earlier, she had been unloading the groceries from her car when she overheard someone say that Darlese had committed suicide. Vera’s neighbors always speculated that Darlese’s life would end this way. She had been trying for years. Ambulances and police cars were not an uncommon sight at 3214 Clayton Coventry. Darlese’s husband, a thin man known as Piggy, had managed to save her from herself over the years. The secrets of that marriage were among the tidbits Wilma Gilmore had whispered to Vera when she’d moved to the neighborhood two years ago.
Channel 7 reporter Sarah Wynn is speaking with Wilma now, as the old woman wipes away her tears. Vera can only imagine what she’s saying. All the parents along the street are acquainted with Piggy, who tried to form a neighborhood baseball league the previous summer, but Wilma has no young children and her knowledge of the Claxtons is nothing more than the rumors she spread. Wilma glances at Vera, then invites Sarah inside.
The phone rings, pulling Vera away from her view. Pat Dotson’s panicked voice pierces the phone line. “You hear about Darlese?”
“Yes, I’m watching it now,” Vera says. “It’s so sad.”
“I knew she was crazy, but…” she pauses. “ I never thought she’d go through with it.”
“I wonder where Piggy is.”
“I know the poor thing. His truck’s right outside. And did you see Wilma? She plays the part, don’t she? That woman tells nothing but lies.”
Vera wants to ask Pat what lies she’s heard, but she doesn’t. She places the chicken in the oven and sets the timer for 45 minutes.
“These kids don’t need to be watchin’ this. I told my boys to do their homework, but they’re probably watchin’ from upstairs. Where’s Lindell and Eric?” Pat asks.
“Christmas shopping with their father. Randall had better make them get me a good gift. I deserve it.”
Pat snickers. “Maybe he’ll move back home. Won’t that be the best?”
Vera says she has to get something from the oven and ends the conversation. The neighbors are all the same. One minute she and Pat argue over her son teasing Eric and now she wants to pry. The last thing Vera wants to talk about is her separation from Randall. These days, she only cries two days a week – on Fridays, when he picks up the children and Sundays, when he returns them. She manages to appear composed around Randall, who had complained to the marriage counselor about her stoicism. But Vera had seen too many broken dishes and tears in her parents’ marriage to allow that in her own.
Outside the window, Vera hears men’s voices and the slam of the ambulance door. She watches them return inside of the Claxton house. Most of the neighbors go inside their own homes, to their heat, but like Vera, they’ll watch from their windows. Her neighbors’ voyeurism disgusts her, but, unlike the rest, Vera has a history with the Claxton’s, particularly Piggy. She opens her blinds a little wider.
A month after Randall left, Vera was tired of seeing her children mope around the house. Eric was always at her side, helping wash dishes and make the beds, while Lindell was off somewhere pouting. This wasn’t a healthy way for her kids to spend their summer, so she enrolled Lindell at the nearby dance school and signed Eric up for the Coventry Cubs, the new baseball team that Piggy was coordinating.
Lindell’s attitude brightened at the sight of shiny new tap shoes, but Eric was more difficult. As much as he loved sports, he worried about any activity that would take him away from his mother’s side, even if it were only for three days a week. The more he objected, the more she knew it was the right choice.
One evening, not too long after the start of practices, Piggy showed up at her front door, his large hands clutching Eric’s shoulders. Her thoughts went from curiosity to fear when she noticed her son’s ruffled hair and bloody lip. The other boys had picked on Eric and he’d fought back, Piggy explained. Chris Dotson had said something rude and Eric pummeled him.
She rubbed his face searching for more bruises. “You know how I feel about violence. What did Chris say?”
“He called me a half breed,” Eric said. “And …”
He looked to Piggy, who cleared his throat. “He also called your husband a name.”
That night, she called Pat to give her a piece of her mind. Then she called Randall and told him what happened. It had been his idea to leave the suburbs and move to Detroit’s Indian Village. He wanted the kids to have a well-rounded education that combined the privilege of the suburbs and the diversity of the city, an impossible dream. He loved that there were Latino, Arab and black families on their new street and that they were within a few miles of some of the best restaurants in the area. Aside from the large, English Tudor and Victorian style houses, Vera was unimpressed. Detroit was Detroit, no matter how it was layered. She longed for the comfort of the suburbs, with the tidy parks and teachers who knew her name.
“I’ll talk to him,” Randall said. “You’re not letting him quit, are you?”
“I thought about it. Seems like he had more friends when we lived in Canton.”
Randall groaned. “Don’t start. Haven’t we done this argument to death?”
“I guess. Maybe I’ll just move and tell you about it later. How’d you like that?”
He was quiet. Vera pictured him turning red as he squeezed the phone. “You wouldn’t.”
“I’ll do whatever I can to keep my family safe. If that means leaving this urban wasteland, so be it.”
“I don’t know who you are anymore,” he snapped. “You’ve turned into my mother.”
“Whatever. I’m no snotty white woman.”
“Try remembering that.”
Vera was a regular at the baseball practices, until Piggy warned her that she was embarrassing Eric. She had noticed that no other mothers were around – only fathers – and this only made her want to come more.
“It makes him look soft when he has his Mommy hovering,” Piggy said, as he walked them back to her car. “You don’t want that, do you?”
Vera looked over at Eric, who slumped in the backseat. “I don’t want him in anymore fights.”
“That’s a part of growing up. Especially for boys ‘round here. You wouldn’t understand, but –”
Vera held up her hand. “Don’t assume that because I’m a woman that I’m naïve to the ways of boys. I grew up in Philly and I’ve seen more fights than I care to remember. I’ve even been in a few myself.”
“I thought –”
“I know,” Vera said. “You thought because I’m married to a white man that I don’t know the streets. I have one brother in the ground and another one in jail. I’ve seen what these streets do to black boys. It won’t happen to my son.”
She left him in the parking lot, speechless. The next day, a bouquet of daisies arrived for her at the bank. There was a note that read, ‘From one street brawler to another: I’m sorry. –Coach.’ She propped them up on her desk so her coworkers, particularly Connie Mirabella, could see them. She hoped word would get back to Randall, who golfed with Connie’s husband.
The Cubs won their first game and Eric hit the winning home run. The team, including Chris, carried him to the bench and cheered. They went for pizza afterward and Piggy drove them home. Eric was the last player to be dropped off and Vera invited Piggy inside for coffee.
After she sent the kids to bed, Piggy lingered behind for what became a long conversation. They had one thing in common – they were both quiet people trapped in loud marriages. Everything Randall did was noisy, from the way he proposed by screaming through her dorm window when they were in college, to how he fought, lodging his fists in the wall and banging tables. Vera had been so unresponsive to his tirades that Randall dubbed her the Ice Queen.
Piggy said Darlese was the same way, but he didn’t elaborate. He’d moved out a few years ago, then returned when he realized he couldn’t divorce her.
“I love my wife and she needs me. Her mind’s sick. If she doesn’t take her medication…. ”
Vera said she understood. She had been warned that Darlese was crazy, but didn’t know the details. Vera finished the last of her coffee and looked over at Piggy. She noticed then how long his eyelashes were and how smooth his dark skin appeared. “Why do they call you Piggy? It doesn’t fit you.”
“I liked to eat when I was a kid, so my grandparents called me Piggy. My Mom didn’t like it, but it stuck. Now Mom is the only one who calls me by my real name.”
“And what’s that?”
“I can’t tell you all my secrets. Just call me Piggy.”
The rumors started after that. Eric returned from practices angry and spent the evenings in his room. Wilma Mustonen and Verna Childs gathered on their front porches and lowered their voices whenever Vera approached.
A week later, Vera woke to a loud pounding on her door. She thought she had been dreaming when she saw Darlese standing on her porch barefoot. She wore white silk pajamas and her hair was tied up in a scarf. She rubbed something against her right thigh and stared at Vera with unsteady eyes.
“What’s going on?” Vera tightened her robe and turned on the kitchen light. “Do you need help?”
“Where is he?”
“My husband,” she spat. “Where he at? He in there?”
“No. Why would you think that?”
Darlese pushed past her until she was inside. Vera could see now that the object Darlese carried was a switchblade that she had sliced into her own thigh with. A bloodstain grew on her pajama bottoms. Vera’s breath caught in her throat. She needed to call for help, but she couldn’t remember where she’d put the cordless phone.
“Might as well bring him out.” Darlese leaned against the refrigerator. “Don’t make me look in the bedroom.”
Piggy walked through the front door and grabbed his wife’s arm. “I told you I was going to the store. Why you keep doin’ this?”
Darlese’s face melted and she dropped the knife. “You were with her! I know you were.”
“You know I wasn’t. Let’s go home.”
She burst into tears. Piggy wouldn’t look at Vera as he apologized. He led Darlese away, leaving the knife on the floor.
The Coventry Cubs forfeited the season. Darlese was so sick Piggy couldn’t commit to any more practices. Vera began doing her grocery shopping late at the 24-hour Kroger so she could avoid the other women from her neighborhood. One night she found Piggy in the produce aisle, staring blankly at his grocery list. They chatted briefly and he mentioned that Darlese was in the hospital. It was nothing serious, he said, but the doctors wanted to make sure she wasn’t a danger to herself.
The tension in the neighborhood broke once school started and the parents’ minds were pre-occupied with homework and parent-teacher conferences. Things worsened for Vera, who learned through Lindell that Randall moved from his brother’s home to an apartment. She realized then that they were officially separated, probably on their way to a divorce.
She went looking for Piggy that night at the Kroger. She told him about Randall and he said he was sorry. Darlese was still in the hospital and Randall was going to pick up the children for the weekend the next day. Vera asked Piggy if he would like to get together and he said that he would.
“Just so we’re clear,” Vera said. “I’m not asking for something innocent like a movie and coffee. I want, I need, something more. You understand?”
Piggy shoved his hands in his pockets and smiled sheepishly. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
They planned to meet at a restaurant in Southfield and then go to the nearby Holiday Inn. Vera wore a form-fitting black dress that Randall once loved and a pair of stilettos. She filled her overnight bag with practically all her lingerie. She couldn’t decide what to bring and didn’t know what Piggy might like.
She waited for two hours, but Piggy’s pickup truck never appeared in the parking lot. She went to the hotel alone, drank a bottle of wine, and slept in her silk teddy. She got home the next morning in time to see Piggy helping Darlese from his pickup truck. Their eyes met briefly, but Vera turned away.
The timer buzzes and Vera pulls the chicken from the oven. She places the chicken on top of rice and pours cream of mushroom soup over all of it, the start of Eric and Randall’s favorite meal.
There is a knock at the door and Vera opens it. Sarah Wynn, the reporter, is standing there, shivering. She wipes her nose and introduces herself.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s been a tragedy in your neighborhood,” Sarah says. “Did you know the Claxtons?”
“Unfortunately, they’ve been killed. The police are saying –”
“Both of them? I thought it was only Darlese.”
Sarah flips through her notepad and shakes her head. “No, both were killed. The police said it was a murder-suicide. Mrs. Claxton shot her husband while he slept, then killed herself.”
Vera grips the side of the door as she lets the words sink in. Now she sees a second bodybag being taken from the Claxton house.
“Ma’am? We’re trying to get some neighbors to speak on camera. Can I interview you about Darlese and Kelly Claxton?”
Sarah smiles, but she’s growing impatient. “Darlese and Kelly Claxton. The victims. Anything you’d like to say about them?”
“Kelly,” she whispers. “His name was Kelly. And he’s gone.”
“Shall I bring my cameraman over?”
A green Tercel pulls up and parks beside Vera’s car. Eric and Lindell rush out, while Randall takes his time.
“They called him Piggy,” Vera says. “That was his nickname.”
“Anything else you’d like to share?”
Lindell wraps her arms around her waist, while Eric gives her a questioning glance. Vera wonders how she’ll explain to her son that his former coach was murdered. She bites her bottom lip and hugs Lindell tighter, then pulls Eric into their embrace. Randall sees her tears and asks Sarah to leave.
The children smother Vera with questions, but Randall sends them to their rooms. When they’re alone, he sits her on the couch and hands her a glass of water. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Vera shakes her head. “I want you to come home. That’s what I want.”
She buries her face in the cushions and sobs. He sits beside her and places her head on his lap. The fabric of his trousers is rough against her face, but somehow it feels just right. Shantee Cherese is a journalist living in the Baltimore suburbs. She was born in Pennsauken, NJ and lived in the Detroit area for several years.