“A Bottle of Mezcal”

CHAPTER THREE

The societal benefits of a short life of trouble and random violence.

 

Beneath clotheslines that each afternoon slowly fill with Oklahoma carrion birds, two sisters blossom. Machines of sin and heartache, with eyes the green of martini olives.

Connie Saint Vrenna is quiet, blonde, smokes cigarettes and plays the cello in the vocational-tech school string ensemble. Julie Saint Vrenna also smokes cigarettes. She is a year younger, talkative, dark haired and completely tone deaf. She makes jewelry, and has a beginner’s understanding of taxidermy. A small, dead bird found alongside the road becomes an earring. It is a male, the more brightly colored of the species. She tells her friends, “It’s singing in my ear.”

On most weekends, the Saint Vrenna girls drink beers lifted from the refrigerator as their father dozes on the couch. Beers that won’t be missed the next morning. When a man drinks too much, 12 beers could have been 16. Easily.

Yeah, and sometimes 16 beers isn’t enough when home is a trailer park on a long dirt road that weaves through the poverty and out of sight, trailing over the horizon to nowhere, beneath limp-blue skies filled with the spidery contrails of Air Force training jets. Few cars come from or go off in that direction. Some days, a pack of scraggly kids start walking down the road to see where it leads, throwing rocks ahead of them and whacking each other with sticks all the way before returning in a few hours, discouraged and disinterested.

The dozen older teenagers living in the trailer park are more ambitious and have confirmed for themselves that a mile down the road, then left on a gravel path that disappears over a dusty rise, is a rusting old car that has been parked for perhaps the last two decades behind a barn-sized rock. Ten years of fading beer cans and the gray remains of campfires circle the car. Old bones and clothing are scattered on the front seat and the floorboard. These must have belonged to someone who drove into the hills and killed himself, or herself. There is no gun, but someone likely walked off with it long ago. The skull is missing, it could have been dragged away by a wild animal, or a creepy kid. And sure, those bones could have come from a deer. Yet everyone, including the Saint Vrenna girls, agrees it is a Satanic place.

Dean Saint Vrenna, their father, is familiar with another road undetected by map makers and satellite GPS systems, a few miles into the desert, a road beyond the abandoned car. More tire ruts than engineering, it passes through a series of tattered chain-link rust fences and into the ass end of the dying Air Force base. Over the years, Saint Vrenna has stolen electronic components from here. Thick antennas and humming gray boxes stenciled with serious-looking serial numbers, equipment he’s stashed beneath his trailer and covered with tarps, secured by chains and locks. As evening settles over the park, after his daughters disappear into the hills to play cello or give the dropout teenage boys blow jobs, Saint Vrenna ducks behind his pickup truck parked in the tight space between the trailers and rummages through the boxes. Sorting, evaluating, into the night. Holding up an olive-drab circuit box to examine it in the moonlight, then lumbering back into his trailer with one or two of these unidentifiable things in hand. Over the next few hours, neighbors hear the whine of electric tools, the crackle of welding torches, they see flashing lights through gaps in the aluminum foil covering the windows. What’s happening in there? Hard to tell. Saint Vrenna throws open the trailer door and stands on the bent aluminum stoop, breathing heavily, sweating, smoke drifting out from behind him and up into the night. It is the smell of fried wire and flesh. At about 3 in the morning, Tom Smith walks his elderly dog and thinks he sees Saint Vrenna on the roof of his trailer, aiming a thin, brilliant cobalt light into the night sky, yelling incomprehensibly. What the hell…? Hard to tell. No one asks. The dog whimpers. Smith hurries on.

The neighbors keep the same distance when Saint Vrenna and his truck disappear for days. When he returns, the trailer park awakens on the crisp autumn morning to find the clothesline running from the strange man’s trailer to the telephone pole on his side of the street filled with crimson pennants. No one says a word. It is the man’s demeanor that warns them against doing so. Squirrels, cleaned and skinned. The younger animals will be sliced into bite-sized serving pieces, rolled in flour, salt and pepper and fried in a garlic-and-oil mix, turned just once when they are crispy brown. Saint Vrenna coats the bigger squirrels with the flour, salt and pepper mixture, and browns them on both sides in oil in an electric skillet. He slips them into a pressure cooker, mixes flower with the pan leavings until he has a gravy, and pours that into the cooker. In less than an hour, the squirrels are ready. Leftovers heat up well in the microwave. Packed in jars with barbecue sauce, they hold up for months, for sandwiches.

Tom Smith is walking his dog again. It looks up at the grisly clothesline and whimpers. The dog’s fear brings Saint Vrenna out onto the trailer stoop. He stares down at man and dog for a moment. “Do you know what’s the best part of a squirrel?” Saint Vrenna asks.

“What?”

“The squeal.”

Actually, no. Saint Vrenna always cracks open the skull and saves the pink, marble-sized brain for last. A brain, with the last signal registering in it being the threatening, hulking image of Saint Vrenna, pointing a gun.

Squirrel meat. Venison. Possum. Just be sure to pick out the buckshot before biting down. The folks rummaging through these woods had once been Saint Vrenna’s people, families scratching out a living in the hills of southeastern Ohio. Living in the shadows of the land, the trees and hollers, cannibalizing one vehicle to keep another one on the road, drinking, smoking, gathering on porches or in the house to hear a neighbor play fiddle.

“Dean, ever hear from Jeannie?”

“Nah. She’s gone. The kids don’t even ask about her anymore.”

They trade stories about long-dead neighbors. They’ll be talking about you soon. The sons whose unquestioning mothers fed them to the wide-open mouths of these hills, to tear at the black veins from deep within. Coal. Here, Saint Vrenna felt the weight of the earth above him. He knew the terror of a ceiling of rock that had been in place for several million years now giving way, the muffled alarms, dark, flashlights, hours of uncertainty, certain death, then rescue by men who, sharing their fear, could have walked away, just another damn tragedy, but didn’t, because there but for the grace of a merciless God go I…

And once he’d washed the dust of death from his face, Saint Vrenna left. Put his two little girls in the car with some bags of clothing and the oldest girl’s battered cello case. And drove south. To Oklahoma. Somewhere where he could see the sky.

It was years before Saint Vrenna would return. But only for the squirrels. And now, as they once flitted among the trees, they fluttered from his bloodstained clothesline. Someone, something, had to pay for this… this…

Sprawled on lawn furniture and passing pitchers of gin and tonics among themselves, the women of the trailer park gather beneath a sagging canvas awning. Their faces are battered and bent by three centuries of bad weather and inbreeding. Their grandparents arrived in Oklahoma in the ’30s, just as the winds were sweeping away the farm land. Optimism wiped out by really bad timing. “My philosophy?” one of the women coughs, a lone tooth soaring from her mouth like a tombstone as her nicotine-stained fingers sort through the cigarette pack on her lap. “It’s a short life of trouble.”

Blueswomen. The weather is oppressively hot or shatteringly cold. Window air conditioners labor over the blistering summer, truck batteries stagger and surrender in the bitter winter. The yellow school bus creeping down the road, like an elderly man out for a walk, has BB holes in the windows.

A cheap screen door slams shut. The trailer-park dogs drag something big and dead down the dusty street. An air of sarcasm haunts even good intentions. On the day the school is sponsoring a drive to collect food to help the less fortunate, Connie Saint Vrenna asks her father if she can take something from the kitchen. He nods, and suggests a large can of baked beans.

Two days later, someone knocks at the trailer door. Dean Saint Vrenna, wearing his stained, sleeveless T-shirt, heaves his bloated body off the couch and stumbles to the front of the trailer. He opens the door and stands on the stoop, blinking in the sunlight, as a kid from the school hands him a box of non-perishable goods. A large can of baked beans is next to the macaroni and cheese. Saint Vrenna thanks the kid, accepts the box and turns back into the darkness. He allows the screen door to hit him on the ass and goes into the kitchen to fix a squirrel sandwich as the trailer floor groans beneath him.

Connie has seen the kid coming and, out of embarrassment, hides in the kitchen. The carrion birds lining the sagging clotheslines don’t flinch, the feathers of their ugly heads matted against their skulls after an afternoon of jabbing repeatedly into the entrails of a dead rodent along the roadside.

In the spring of Connie’s final year at the high school, and Julie’s junior year, their California uncle is shot and killed by a postal worker. It is random violence. Their uncle isn’t even on the man’s route. Equally unexpected is the money he leaves the two girls. Now they are modestly well off, and that changes everything.

Connie leaves Oklahoma for music school, studying cello and classical composition for four years, then is hired to play in a wondrous and strange jazz band, The Vivisection Winos. She moves to Laredo, where the Winos gather, out of sight, to create. Julie uses some of her money for a really nice boob job, then follows her sister to Laredo.