Denise. That was her name. It stuck with me. It woke me up at night. Denise Gunnersaun, the woman who hanged herself in the Arliss County Jail rather than stand trial for defending herself. I had a girlfriend once named Denise. She was Denise the amazonian from the wrong side of town. None of the popular boys would admit they liked her, but they all stared at her boobs. We were in 7th grade. I was too timid to do anything but hold hands. Denise, who liked me because was I gentle and kind and because I wasn't mean to her the way the rest of the kids were. Denise who broke up with me using a note she had her best friend Becky give me in Ms. Algers math class. Denise Riddley. I didn't like her enough to be broken up about it. I was more annoyed that Becky got caught passing me the note; we both ended up getting detention for it. Becky spent the entire hour after school giving me dirty looks. To this day I'm still not sure what it was I did wrong.
That wasn't the only reason Denise Gunnersaun stuck in my mind; the whole story seemed absurd. Drunken asshole of a husband comes home, wants to take his bad mood out on his high school sweet heart and mother of his sons. She has enough, swings at his bloated head with a frying pan. Yet she's the one that gets arrested. She's the one that's left alone, deserted by her few friends and the community of women who have been turning a blind eye to the suffering of their own gender for years... decades, maybe even longer. I sit in on town council and county board committee meetings where they complain about drug traffic and the riff raff and how people are poor because they're not willing to work. Mothers will gossip about the alleged sins of other mother's sons but defend their own children's obvious improprieties with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Better to marry an abusive asshole if you get knocked up rather than take on the stigma of being an unwed mother in a town that prizes the appearance of things over their content. Of course, the church matrons will never forgive you anyway and still think you're a dirty whore... but as long as you seem willing to not ever forgive yourself either, it makes the whole thing go a bit easier.
The article was a short one; took me less than a half hour to write, including interviews. The coroner and the sheriff both made statements, I typed the story up, turned it in. It was one of the easiest articles I'd ever written. Ever.
And then the old men at the Moose Head started talking about it. Don Parton was the most vocal. He was vocal about his support of Daniel, the husband. The poor guy who now had to raise his two sons alone after that psycho bitch of a wife did herself in. It was maybe the best thing for everyone, though; after all, Parton said, the negative effect she was having on those boys might have ruined them. Of course, that Daniel married her at all amazed everyone; when the oldest boy, Jesse, was born, there was no way of knowing whether Daniel was even the father, Parton said. “The way SHE got around,” he said, shaking his head. Judgment. It's so much easier to judge the dead since they're not around to defend themselves. Not that anyone waited that long to judge Denise Gunnersaun.
And of course, no one other than Sheriff Cleary – who was actually pretty broken up about it – and the coroner – who was annoyed that her death interrupted his golf game – would talk to me on the record. I tried talking to her friends … the few that would claim to be, anyway … and while I heard several ear fulls of information, the only way any of them agreed to talk to me was if I left their name out of the paper. Great. “An unidentified friend of the deceased claims...” Right. Or maybe I could go all Woodward and Bernstein and give each of them code names. Flappy Jaws, Trailer Queen, and Stovepipe. The three of them still lived in Denise's Gunnersaun's old stomping ground: the trailer park at the end of Wakarusa Road. For many of the the upstanding citizens of Mount Arliss the trailer park was a symbol of the epidemic of laziness, communism, and liberalism that was spreading like a virus across the nation... leaching out from Chicago like some hideous kudzu like weed, taking over everything. Southern farmers hate kudzu because once it takes up residence in a field, it's almost impossible to kill. And it takes over everything. Entire hill sides in Eastern Kentucky are eaten up with the stuff... it kills everything else by using up every bit of nutrient in the soil and propagating. It grows the way cancer grows.
Which is how people who didn't live in the trailer park saw the trailer park. In one trailer alone, they would say, the (unmarried, of course) woman had seven kids. And she wasn't even 30. Seven kids, seven different fathers. Hers and the bastard children of the other trailer park whores running around town like a plague, destroying things, taking up room the schools that should have been saved for upstanding children from good families. Not that many of the good families were staying, since there were no jobs to had in Arliss County that didn't include underpaid menial labor or seasonal farm work – and the seasonal farm work inevitably went to the migrant workers pouring over the Mexican border like a punishment from Heaven. Naturally people made biblical parallels. How could they not? It was so easy. The entire world was going to shit. Gays wanting to get married, Mexicans taking American jobs, and the whores in the Wakarusa Trailer Court. And Denise Gunnersaun, for the sin of trying to get out the only way she knew how – which was admittedly not the best or smartest of ways – was symbolic of Heaven's judgment against the whole country.
Or so Don Parton thought and said. And when Parton talked people tended to listen... mostly because he never let anyone else talk that didn't agree with him.
Her friends... the ones that wouldn't talk to me on the record... gave their point of view on Daniel Gunnersaun. He'd been the favored son of a well known and respected property owner... which in Mount Arliss meant a farmer. A favored son, a farmer's son, and the star Varsity quarterback... which put him somewhere on the same level as God for most of the adults in town. He always had the prettiest girl on his arm – never the same one for very long and almost always a cheerleader. Always won the crucial football game. Always managed to get by in his classes. A 4-H award winner. President of the Mount Arliss Future Farmers of America, and the youngest member of the county's chapter of the NRA. He was actively recruited by Illinois State University and Michigan State; he was a hometown boy with a bright future.
And then he met Denise Favre.
Her mother had lived in the trailer park for years and before that she had lived above the laundromat on the corner. The only thing certain about Denise Favre's parentage was that Rachel Favre was her mother; who her father was had only been the the topic of idle gossip and conversation. The upright uptight church matrons called her the Whore of Babylon and every man in town, married or single, had at some point walked through her door and laid down in her bed. Who her parents had been, no one knew; she wasn't from Mount Arliss; Rachel had simply appeared in town one day and proceeded, to hear the God-fearing women tell it, to dig her claws into their husbands and sons. The less than God-fearing women didn't especially like her either. And each and all of them passed on their dislike to her only daughter.
How's that song go? Same old story, same old song and dance. Being from the wrong family in a small town is like being the middle child; no matter what you do, you always lose. And when you're from the right family, no matter what you do, your shit doesn't stink.
“Why are you letting this bother you?” Maude asked me when one of my insomnia nights woke her up. “Why do you let any of this bother you?”
I told her I didn't know. “It just doesn't seem fair. Or something.”
“You get too involved,” she said. “And it ends up keeping you up at night; or it gives you another excuse to get drunk and pissy.”
“I don't recall ever needing an excuse,” I said. “And I'm never pissy.”
“If it bothers you,” she said, sitting down in her chair and lighting up a cigarette, “why didn't you write a longer article on it?”
She's right, of course. But there's no point in saying that out loud. I didn't write the longer article... the one I should have written … because I waited until the last minute to write it. Squeezed it in right over deadline.
“I was working on other stuff,” I said. “That was a busy week. I wish I COULD just focus on one story at a time. I'd have been awarded a Pulitzer by now.”
“And yet,” she said, “you're still so humble.”
She loves me. I know she loves me because she picks on me. Most of the time it makes me laugh. It did this time, too. “I know, I know,” I said. “It's a burden being this brilliant still be an everyday normal guy.”
“You've never been normal.”
“What about this is bothering you, though? I mean it's not like you knew her.” She looked over at me with that inquisitive look she used to give me a lot more when we first got together and I still had more women friends than she thought was normal. It's probably not fair to say she was jealous; but whenever she saw me with one of them, she would still give me these looks from time to time that said “Are you sure you're not fucking this chick?”
I ignored the look on her face. “It's the situation, maybe,” I said. “Everybody in town is glad she's dead for the sake of the asshole who abused her.”
“Isn't that enough?”
“Enough to complain about? Yes. Enough to be indignant about? Yes. But why is it bothering you?”
“Did I tell you that Don Parton tried to get Sam to fire me?”
“Because I've been asking around about Daniel Gunnersaun's background, his history around here.”
“And what's the point in that?”
“I don't know. Not really.”
“And what did Sam say?”
“Sam told him to take a flying leap.”
“Not in so many words. Sam has more tact.”
“Is this story worth losing your job over?”
“I'm not going to lose my job; it's barely a job as it is. I probably would've written a bigger article if I hadn't needed to write five other ones that week just to make a decent check.”
“You could do something else.”
“You could teach,” she said. “You said you almost became a teacher.”
“I almost became a fire watcher, too,” I said, “except that they don't use fire watchers anymore. Guess I missed out.”
“What's that have to do with teaching?”
“They don't need real teachers anymore, either.”
She sighed. Maude's exhaustion was getting the better of her. My absence from bed woke her up, but she needed more sleep than I did. “Let's go to bed,” she yawned.
“You go ahead. I'll be there in a bit. Save me some room.”
She sighed again, but she was too tired to argue; she stood up and shuffled back to bed. After I heard her settle in and fall back asleep, I thought again about Denise Gunnersaun and her three friends who wouldn't come to the defense of her memory. And it still didn't sit right.