Joyland

The Midwest |

What It Actually Does

by Madeline Gobbo & Miles Klee

She cruises the badly lit suburb, seeking a boy to take the needle. It isn’t always a boy—some are in their twenties, having never made it to the city—but none of them are men. In the parking lot of a strip mall where only Vietnamese takeout is open she finds a few in flannel smoking, likely college-aged. It would be Thanksgiving break.

The one hanging at the fringe of the group, tendons taut with hysterical need, appears in the headshot on her lap. She swipes through that to a short list of crimes: Disorderly conduct on school premises. January. Threat of bodily harm. February. Gun theft. October. All the little boxes ticked.

Targets went down easier before she had had Ruby. Before stretch marks and worry lines, she’d pass for a mixed-up and maybe crazy coed. Ask for directions while fidgeting thighs on the vinyl seat. Entitlement blinkered them to danger. Now she sees the word MILF in porn-glutted eyes. Whatever gets them into the car.

*

The guys called her Poison Ivy. “Nother kid phoned from Pho King,” said Oscar, leaning shamelessly on his accent. “Ivy strikes again.”

I rolled out toward the strip, my headlights bringing wet lawns and blanked-out garages into existence to flash out again. No one was ever home. Zilpha on the radio: “You’re gonna cuff her this time, huh, chief?” Opening to our sad routine. She calls me corrupt, I joke that I’m merely ignorant. Someone should be paying me off.

“Now how would I do that? She’s long gone, and the boy’ll be too rattled to be much use. They’re all like that.”

“She’s sucking their souls out through those little pink cocks, I swear!”

“Zilph, enough.” My twin sister, but I’ve never met anybody more alien. Imagine if she trusted me. I turned onto Alameda, then Topaz Boulevard. The beetleshine of contractor’s trucks outside the Greek strip joint. There was an old lady crossing the street in front of the Target. She walked like her knees broke forty years ago and never healed. I stopped the car and left my flashers on until she hit the opposite sidewalk. The kid wasn’t going anywhere.

*

Tuesdays the local paper went out; the police blotter was all I read. Writing it, drily and dispassionately summarizing the odd little failures of everyone else, was what I liked about working there. Seeing it printed was comforting—especially if no typos. I flattened the page and settled deeper into the couch.

The precinct leaked only soft reports, plainly withholding the sleazier points of a trend that had embarrassed them. Brief, euphemistic, and frequent accounts of potentially sexual assaults, victims young men, suspect an older, attractive female. Brunette. Yet none of these cases materialized in court. More recently—and today’s edition contained one of these—the calls were about “disoriented” boys invariably treated to “a ride home,” as if they’d suffered no more than bad directions.

The full extent of my career: eight hours a week freelance at a dying rag on the cheap side of town, upstairs from a Tarot card scam too lazy to get the lingo right. The first I’d worked since Ruby made three. My wife had always supported us, and continued to, of course. She’s in deep security, is what she says to say.

“Where’s our girl?”

“Clarinet,” I said. “You can pick her up if you want.”

“Client at the airport. Kiss her for me.”

“You can.”

Then she was gone, and the heavy Dutch door didn’t make a sound. Neither Ruby nor I can do anything but slam it, no matter how gentle we think we are.

*

She cuts a swath through town like a combine. She has begun to think of herself as a very special kind of serial killer. The best are diligent, take pains, stick to a method of primed efficiency. The stack of files does not shorten: a shooting gallery with self-replacing bullseyes. At least she’s an excellent shot.

It’s her stamina she worries about. She’s been on call her whole adult life. Home is no escape. Her husband murmurs revenge in his sleep and sobs out the names of not-quite-slain classmates. She continues to report on him, though no one above sees cause for alarm, secure in their technology. His window of opportunity nailed shut, if clumsily. As for Ruby: there will be no report if she can help it. No needle.

Weekly now she goes to the woods and screams to the night about it. Clipping girls is on the table, thanks to the Felixtown massacre. In a drought of random bloodlettings, idle women see something to break. She has never fixed a girl, and the boys are hard enough. Although they cannot speak while she works, their eyes communicate questions to which she has no defense. Their nostrils gasp when she slips the scalpel in. She wants to explain about duty. How selflessness, by its nature, bars one from enjoying its own rewards.

This generation is largely shielded from before. Evil so commonplace that veteran crisis hospitals had a tradition of ordering pizza for their trauma-anointed fellows. Presidential candidates who clutched guns in their clammy hands and stonewalled grieving families in the name of freedom. The country has made the best available compromise, considering best doesn’t always mean good, or honorable, or even honest.

*

“I’ve got it,” said Zilpha.

“Eat your pancakes,” I said. “You’re garbage when you’re hungry.”

“Mo,” she insisted. I’ve never liked how close my nickname sounds to No. I signaled Janice for extra gravy, another biscuit to mop it up. “Tell me,” I told Zilph well after the longest amount of time I could stall.

“What do the victims have in common.”

“They’re victims.” I wished she’d quit always playing detective. On the one hand, she understood exactly what the program prevented and how, from nothing more than my deflections. She also had no earthly clue how close she ran to its funnel.

“And they know it,” she went on. “Dead-end lives at home with parents. No jobs, no girlfriends—no boyfriends! You said most seemed like virgins.”

“Predator sniffs out low self-esteem. What good does that do us?”

“Let me talk to the kid with you.”

Not a chance. Not after last month, when I left Zilpha in a room with a boy who wasn’t even a target—a boy she pulled to the floor by the ear, into which she hissed the most poisonous vows. She had three weeks of suspension left. It wasn’t worth the risk. We fought about it, she left, I paid. When I visited the kid at home, by myself, the mother seemed almost glad about it. She said this incident had woken him up to the actual world.

“He used to expect everything for nothing,” she said. “Waiting for someone to call him a genius. I think he’s finally realized he’s not special.”

The kid himself was very polite.

*

When my wife got home I could hardly look at her. I pretended to be occupied with the write-up of an altercation at the new stoplight on Central and Sixth, but really I sat motionless at my desk, paralyzed by the grinning gun in its snug matte case. Clearly a service weapon, it had to be my wife’s. I forgave her keeping certain aspects of her career private, but I couldn’t forgive the carelessness of leaving a loaded weapon where our troubled daughter might find it.

There were no significant laws against it, still, and school armageddons had dropped mysteriously out of fashion, but I hadn’t forgotten the regular faces on the news, faces of parents who had deposited weapons in cabinets or under beds or even given them to their children on their sixteenth birthdays in lieu of a check or a beat-up car, hoping this instrument of strength might coax their hollow-eyed kids back to humanity.

Ruby had been in her room with the lights off for five hours. The sandwich I left outside her door was untouched and gathering flies. I let the dog have it. My wife banged around in the kitchen, unloading dishes, chopping broccoli, chattering one-sidedly about her day. Fairy tales. There came a hiccup of surprise; she must have spotted Ruby’s notebook. That obsessive, scribbled-out cover; college-ruled pages cramped with dark oaths. I awaited her questions with the case in my lap and the bullets in my palm.

*

It is his fault. That he didn’t already know about Ruby simply proves it. And his thinking it is my fault—Ruby’s more-than-hormonal rage, her actionable and likely lethal ideation—doesn’t anger me so much as knowing he thought I didn’t know. But men are so blissfully blind of themselves, and hopelessly deaf to their favorite daughters.

“Do you want to talk about the help she needs?” he asks, his voice flattened to a crisp and chopped of baritone, because whether he knows it or not, he knows she knows to listen close whenever we two talk low together.

“You don’t want that help for her.”

“What? How can you say that?”

Because I am the help. I am the one with the dossier, with orders I cannot ever obey, with the grim understanding that Ruby does not get better, is a freak of the most outlandish order, carrying the strain of havoc, and that no matter the shrewd philosophy, she cannot be allowed to make the disastrous choice she would.

“It’d take a while to explain,” I say, and shoot him with my other gun. This one is loaded with rubber bullets. Nonetheless, he assumes he’s dying. I let him. Deep in the hallway I hear Ruby breathing behind her door, which may as well be balsa wood. “Come out, sweetie.”

“Did you kill dad?”

“No.” From the floor he twists his eyes at me like something has made sinister sense.

“Oh,” says Ruby. “Why not?”

*

I went to call on Local Hero first thing in the morning. It was what we called him since he had called himself that at the last policeman’s ball, under the sway of a water cooler’s worth of white wine. As a teenager he notified the authorities of a school shooting plot. Turned in two of his fellow maladjusteds, glum black-haired twins who’d inhaled bologna by his side every day since elementary school. His college admission essay, “How I Saved My School and Everyone In It,” served as shining example in the high school’s Comp 101 class.

Zilph let him slip a hand up her shirt while she dictated blotter entries. I thought he was harmless, a sad puppy in search of stroking. Always hinting about his wife’s hot job in “security contracting,” and we assumed assassin. Half right. And Zilph never far from next. I told Oscar to drive her up to mom’s cabin, bring a rifle.

“Why’d she take Ruby?” was the first thing out of my mouth. Local Hero was knee-deep in shredded curtains, photo albums, lingerie, perhaps hanks of his wispy blonde hair. Self-destructing. I’d seen it with guys who’d been jump-served divorce papers. Hate wrecks a body inside or out. Since they started nipping buds, all my underage fatalities are suicides.

“What did she say to you?” I asked.

“‘It’s the only way to keep us safe. Ruby included.’ She said. She said, ‘This family is over.’ Families don’t end. That’s why you have one, isn’t it.” Under his misbuttoned shirt I could see Ace bandages where the bendy slugs had bruised.

“Any idea where she might’ve gone?”

“If I did I’d already be there, wouldn’t I, aiming straight at her head.”

I decided to keep him in lockup. For his own safety.

*

Jail was where she or someone else would kill me. The natural-death-in-custody that most Americans are lately smart enough to expect. You’d be lucky to have the Constitution for toilet paper. I lay flat on the bench and tried with all my shattered focus to die preemptively.

“Wanna play Hearts?” said Zilpha, sweetened by stupidity.

“You need four people,” I said.

“Nah. Well, yeah, but I can play the dummy hands.” She began to deal carelessly through the bars. “Mo doesn’t let me on the computer, so I play me and three dummies. Only two would be a cinch.”

“Do the dummies ever win?”

“Pffft. No.”

I sat up. “Why can’t you use the computer?”

“Hunh,” she blurted. “Because of my Internet research I guess. She says I look up awful pictures.” At once she was seized by panic at having told me this much. “It’s lights out!” she cried, and made to lunge for a switch.

“Wait,” I said. “You didn’t pick up your cards.” They were scattered on the stone floor of the cell, too far inside to reach through the bars. “They’ll be ruined if you leave them there all night.”

Zliph bared her fiendishly straight but browning teeth. “Do you keep in touch with Jeremy and Sean?” she asked. “Your high school buddies.”

“Haven’t.”

“I wrote to them through this prison pen pal system,” she said. “Then I went to visit in person. The three of you! Infinite similarity, man.”

“None.”

“Oh really, Local Hero. Isn’t it sweet we let you imagine yourself that way?” She rattled a huge set of keys with something like sarcasm as she unlocked the pen. “I guess being first saved means some advantage?”

I gripped her hollow-seeming wrist. “Where did they take my daughter.”

“Patience is not a river in Canada. Gosh,” she said, drawing the easy exit wide, and with a frightening friendliness. “Do you not even want our help?”

*

We sit in the car by the riverside park where Ruby once had her birthday picnics. My girl, rolling her wet body in the grass so she came up itchy and complaining, with cake-smeary cheeks.

She allows me to hold her. I float my arms across her back gingerly and will myself not to do anything embarrassing. The current makes a soft bubbling as it rushes towards the now half-empty reservoir. I have no plan except the truth.

“I will never make you less than you are,” I promise. “That’s your choice.”

She watches with serious gray eyes as I describe the process. I can’t bear to think of it in anything but clinical terms. Here are the slender stents, the clear mask with its halothane umbilical. Ruby’s busy being horrified by the sureness of my hands. I touch her forehead to show where the needles slip in like silverfish to lay silicon eggs.

I tell her, “It doesn’t hurt.”

“That’s what I hate the most,” she says. I agree. She makes no attempt to touch the tools, but I feel the frisson of attention between her and the small black sidearm on my hip. I take it out and hand it to her, loaded.

“Get out,” I say. “I’ll show you how to use it.”

There’s a harvest moon even though it’s August. There are crickets, and the scent of pine. I stand behind to steady her arm and point her towards the dark trees.

“There’ll be kickback. Plant your feet. Don’t let your wrist break up or down, keep it steady as you can. Lock all the joints in your arm.” Norman Rockwell would give his eyeteeth to paint us like this.

She lets off the first shot with a little “ah” of surprise. I nod in approval and step back as she fires three more rounds. She fills the lot with the racket of bullet boring wood and the acrid tang of gunpowder, and in the hammer-striking flashes her face looks like mine. There is life in this world she wants to kill. I sure as hell don’t blame her.

The light in the clearing intensifies. An engine roars. Whoever it is points their lights straight at us so we throw our arms over our faces. Ruby steadies the gun in her right hand. A voice comes from nowhere and everywhere and I know it’s my husband’s.

“Hands in the air,” he says.

*

What I put in my report was this:

Local Hero (I used his real name, though I cannot seem to do so here), upon finding his wife and teenage daughter practicing their marksmanship toward the shallow rapids on the south river bank (I find it helps to be specific about environmental detail) drew a firearm of his own, or rather the station’s, pilfered from our arsenal with a duplicate key surreptitiously made by Zilpha, who was never allowed access to the arsenal.

What L.H. leveled at his flesh and blood was a shotgun, the flimsiest model that met state requirements for counterforce weaponry. We didn’t need it in the first place (I did not write this), and nobody at a high enough level to make these decisions (I was careful not to note) has any notion of a shotgun besides the symbolic. No feeling for what it actually does.

A shotgun allows an infinitesimal reflex of the human forefinger to trigger the release of an explosive charge that drastically alters the air pressure inside a metal shaft, propelling a spray of lead—well, not always lead—at a thousand feet per second from the open end of this barrel. It doesn’t matter that these bits are not so aerodynamic; the shotgun is not designed for accuracy but maximum damage at close range.

It can do so much damage, in fact, that when examining a person who has killed themselves with a shotgun it becomes hard to tell if they meant to.

Twenty-three years ago, when we had the pilot trial here, I pushed for all three of those boys to get the cure. That wasn’t in the budget, and even if it were, it wasn’t up to me, a green street cop, to see the money spent that way. I wouldn’t’ve been involved if I hadn’t been busting them in their midnight sprees. When they veered from vandalism and theft to catching and torturing raccoons, I flagged them, as told, as “at-risk youth.”

Later the agency men asked which boy I felt had a chance. They wanted to tell their superiors the surgery was a seamless triumph. They smoked expensive cigarettes, and I accepted one, the last I ever smoked. I told them the name of the boy who was most ashamed when caught, who grasped a border, however blurred, between the forgivable and not.

What I put in the report was this: Shortly after threatening his family, the suspect died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the face. Intent unclear. Neither the wife nor girl nor eternally overcertain Zilph has been willing to speculate. I was inclined to call it an industrial accident—L.H.’s implant controlled for this outcome—but how the devil did I know it was working? He shouldn’t have been able to raise a firearm in the first place.

Circuitry corrodes. That’s what I think when I visit Zilph. Got her into an alternate plan, based on her ridiculous age and my forcing her to volunteer. Purely chemical, thirteen percent higher success rate. She sounds lobotomized. There’s a saying about progress, surely.

The girl works in the local book shop, sold me poetry last week. I’d guess she writes her own. The mother still works nights. I watch her watching the girl playing field hockey at dusk. If her target that evening lives far out off the west highways, she’ll leave early and unhurriedly. We trade stares across the pitch, full of the girls’ grunts and shouting, the bony clack of the ball, and I wait for the girl to cleat someone, for a thrown elbow, for any little slip.