Beneath clotheslines that each afternoon slowly filled with Oklahoma carrion birds, two sisters blossomed. Machines of sin and heartache, with eyes the green of martini olives.
Connie Saint Vrenna was 18, quiet, blonde, smoked cigarettes and played the cello in the vocational-tech string ensemble. Julie Saint Vrenna was a year younger, talkative, dark haired and completely tone deaf. She also smoked cigarettes. And she made jewelry. A small, dead bird found alongside the road became an earring. It was a male, the more brightly colored of the species. “It’s singing in my ear,’’ she told her friends.
On most weekends, the Saint Vrenna girls drank beers stolen from their father as he dozed on the couch. He never missed them the next morning. He just figured he’d been too drunk again.
Home was a trailer park on a long dirt road that slid past the park 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 came from or went off in that direction. Some days, a pack of scraggly kids would start walking down the road to see where it went, 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 who lived in the park were more ambitious and had confirmed for themselves that a mile down the road, then left on a gravel path that disappeared over a dusty rise, was a rusting old car that had been parked for perhaps the last decade behind a barn-sized rock. Ten years of fading beer cans and the gray remains of campfires were spread in a semicircle around the car, and old bones and clothing were scattered on the front seat and the floorboard. It was widely assumed that these belonged to someone who had driven up into the hills and killed himself, or herself. There was no gun, which had probably been taken long ago. The skull was also missing, although it could have been dragged away by a wild animal, or perhaps a creepy kid. Everyone, including the Saint Vrenna girls, agreed it was a Satanic place.
Dean Saint Vrenna, their father, was familiar with another little-known road a few miles into the desert, a road beyond the abandoned car. The road passed through a series of tattered chain-link rust fences and into the ass end of a dying Air Force base. Over the years, he had been stealing electronic components and installing them around his trailer. This had dramatically improved his television reception. With 148 channels now, including some of the finest pro-wrestling networks in all of the Midwest, Dean Saint Vrenna had access to a world his neighbors could only dream of as they browsed their devices in search of the big-city newspaper television guides. Most of the park’s residents had purchased cable connections from a salesman a few years ago, but these proved to be useless, and he was long gone.
Saint Vrenna’s only ambition was acquiring thick antennas and humming gray boxes stenciled with serious-looking serial numbers, stashed beneath tarps behind his trailer. He was vague about his vast television reception when encountering one of his neighbors, fearing they might get into the habit of stopping by to see what Saint Vrenna was picking up. He liked his privacy.
One other interesting thing about Dean Saint Vrenna: Every autumn, he drove up to his brother Earle John’s house in southern Illinois for squirrel hunting. Over six days of shooting, he would bring down about 100 squirrels, which he skinned and packed in ice for the drive back to Oklahoma. Some he dropped in the pressure cooker and packed in jars with barbecue sauce, where they’d hold up for months and made fine sandwiches. Younger squirrels could be cut up into bite-sized serving pieces, rolled in flour, salt and pepper and fried and a garlic-and-oil mix, turned just once when they were crispy brown. But his best recipe began with coating five or six big squirrels with flour and browning them on both sides in oil in an electric skillet. He then slipped them into a pressure cooker with a heavy dash of salt, mixing flower with the pan leavings until he had a gravy, and pouring that into the pressure cooker. In less than an hour, the squirrel was ready.
“Do you know what’s the best part of a squirrel?” he’d ask, when the subject came up around the trailer park.
Actually, no. Saint Vrenna always cracked open the skull and saved the pink, marble-sized brain for last.
The leftovers would heat up well in the microwave.
The Saint Vrenna girls hated the idea that their father ate squirrels. It was hillbilly.
This town was something beyond hillbilly. Sprawled on lawn furniture and passing pitchers of gin and tonics among themselves, the women of the trailer park gathered beneath a sagging canvas awning. Their faces were battered and bent by three centuries of bad weather and inbreeding. Their grandfathers had arrived in Oklahoma in the ’30s, just as the winds were sweeping away the farm land. “My philosophy?” one coughed, a lone tooth soaring from her mouth like a tombstone as her nicotine-stained fingers sorted through the cigarette pack on her lap. “It’s a short life of trouble.”
The weather was always oppressively hot or shatteringly cold. Window air conditioners labored over the blistering summer, truck batteries staggered and surrendered in the bitter winter.
A cheap screen door slammed shut. The trailer-park dogs dragged something big and dead down the dusty street. An air of sarcasm haunted even good intentions. On the day the school was sponsoring a drive to collect food to help the less fortunate, Connie Saint Vrenna asked her father if she could take something from the kitchen. He nodded, and suggested a large can of baked beans.
Two days later, someone knocked at the trailer door. Dean Saint Vrenna, wearing his stained, sleeveless T-shirt, heaved his bloated body off the couch and went to see who was there. He stood on his bent-aluminum stoop, blinking in the sunlight, as a kid from the school handed him a box of non-perishable goods. A large can of baked beans was next to the box of macaroni and cheese. Saint Vrenna thanked the kid, accepted the box and turned back into the darkness. He let the screen door hit him on the ass and went into the kitchen to fix a squirrel sandwich.
Connie had seen the kid coming and out of embarrassment had hidden in the kitchen. The carrion birds lining the sagging clotheslines – 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 – didn’t flinch.
In the spring of Connie’s final year at the high school, and Julie’s junior year, their California uncle was shot and killed by a postal worker. It was random violence. Their uncle wasn’t even on the man’s route. Equally unexpected was the money he left the two girls. Now they were modestly rich, and that changed everything.
Connie left Oklahoma and went to a music school to study cello and classical composition for four years, then was hired to play in a wondrous and strange jazz band, The Vivisection Winos. She moved to Laredo, because that’s where the Winos gathered to rehearse. Julie got a really nice boob job, and followed her sister to Laredo.