The Tale of the Topless Dancer, the Baby Clown, and the Cross-Country Heist …

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In the end it was the rain that did it.  Her breath stopped short that morning as a thread unraveled somewhere in her chest and let go while water kept falling everywhere-all-the-time-non-stop, and she instinctively knew one more day of it would finish her.  That and the asshole she lived with.  Him more than the rain, because when things were new and intoxicating between them the rain had felt nurturing and cocoon-ish and hadn’t sent her mood into the toilet.  Zoe had to face it, The Asshole was the cause of her angst, and just like that she couldn’t wait one more second to get far, far away from him.

Bits and pieces of past escape plans, the ones every smart cookie stores for eventualities, hopped around in her head.  When the guy shopping for groceries who persuaded you into his bed on sight … or had it been the other way around … lets you know, none too subtly, that you’re replaceable … a girl has to start reviewing her options.  There weren’t many, she didn’t even have a car, but she was pretty sure she could recruit Teresa and Bobby Lee, whose jobs happened after dark, to help her with the scheme she was beginning to hatch.

Turned out things were currently loose-goosey for her day-tripper friends — they’d been hanging around for the next romp and picking up a U-Haul day-rental sounded like a nice little diversion.  So while The A-hole was away doing a job, she and Teresa and Bobby Lee — who was strung out enough to let the girls do most of the work, not that he was particularly chivalrous under primo conditions — loaded all her stuff — not a huge quantity — into the truck.  Zoe was possessed by a sense of urgency — go, go, get it done, get out of here — but it wasn’t easy keeping her friends on task, her brain was zinging like a sparkler, Teresa was wearing her usual 6-inch heels, and although Zoe had to admit her friend was as skilled at navigating her spikes on the ground as she was on the pole, all she wanted was to keep moving and be gone before he got home, leaving no trace of herself behind.  In the kitchen she made a snap decision not to leave him so much as a fucking knife and fork.  She was done.  Finished.  Tired of being played, tired of living at the frayed edge of the law, tired of people she didn’t know showing up at her house at all hours, sometimes sleeping there, drinking her beer like it was water, stinking up her bathroom, leaving everything for her to clean up.  And the guns — she was weary of all the firearms. The Big A, so recently thought of as The Desired Beloved, kept a .357 Magnum in the bedroom, handy but out of sight, and that had been preying on her thoughts more and more, not because she particularly feared finding herself on the business end of it, but because — HOLY GOD — she had a small son who was nothing if not curious.  Her SON!!  Her almost-four-year-old Jacob was at the circus with his second mom, her closest friend, and she had to figure out a way to pick him up on her way out of town!

The rain took a smoke break, they wrapped up the load-out, and she got ready to say her goodbyes, but Bobby Lee had a different plan.  By now, the three of them had tacitly acknowledged that this was no day trip, and Bobby Lee, the proverbial good-hearted gangstah, who would find himself cooling it in prison not long after, was reluctant to let her set out cross-country without a companion.  So when Zoe pulled out of the driveway, sitting in the passenger seat was Teresa, decked out in her CFM spikes, little ankle socks, and one of the off-beat — some might say bizarre — outfits she loved so much.  The three extra thongs she carried in her battered model’s bag would have to suffice for the duration.  And of course other stilettos and their adorable sock friends — a girl goes nowhere without options.  The tops and little shorts and scarves and vests she favored for covering her lusciously-acceptable assets took up barely any room, and what self-respecting entertainer leaves home without her makeup?  Trip.ON!!

The day was getting away.  What if he came home, saw what she’d done, and started tracking her down? The girls navigated their way to the circus, located Jacob laughing with his friends Izzy and Marc, and whisked him away as unobtrusively as they could considering that he was having the time of his life.  Second Mom had taken the boys down to the floor for face-painting and not only was Jacob in clown-face, he’d won Best Clown Award for the amazing visage he’d given himself.  Irony of ironies it ended up as a full-page photo in the local paper, but not until after the little entourage was halfway across the country.

ClownBoy

It must have been a harrowingly hilarious trip from the coast to the heartland … the falling-apart former country girl, the miniature clown who declined to have his face washed in any service station restroom, and the drop-dead-hot topless dancer.  God only knows what Teresa thought up to keep Jacob entertained along the way, but she’d never been accused of lacking creativity.

They managed to get across the state border before the truck started breaking down and losing A/C.  Having no other choice, they pulled into the first U-Haul place they saw, where not only did the fine employees put them into a brand new truck, they transferred the load for them.  Meanwhile, Teresa nabbed the paperwork from the office and had a private moment with it in the ladies’, changing enough numbers to keep law enforcement off their tails until later.

Back on the road.  Drive, nap, grab junk food, drive, nap, grab junk food, straight through to the middle of the continent.  Zoe wished Teresa would get behind the wheel some of the time, but she trusted herself more so she kept her mouth shut.  Mile after mile over the next two days, through dark and light, her mind was occupied with the immediate past, the slightly-deranged present, and the murky future.  “How – really, time to be honest here – did you end up as a 21-year-old single mom living with a big-time coke dealer who finances his operation by stealing and chopping cars?  I mean, really.” Despite being more adventurous than most, she’d always seen herself as a good girl.  And despite rough patches with drugs and binge-drinking and heartbreak, resulting in some ill-timed decisions and close-call extrications, she still knew she was.  She just needed to get away from a bad situation and clear her head and she’d be fine.  She had to get clean, too, a process that was already underway since she and Teresa had fled with only so much.  Zoe knew she’d be crashing about the time they reached their destination.  This wasn’t going to be pretty … but when you need time and a fortress, you go home.

She didn’t call anybody, her reasoning emotion driven … what if her mom or dad sounded dismayed at the news that she was on her way back to the farm?  What if all they needed was that much warning to head to the mountains or somewhere?  What if they said, We can’t do this, you’re going to have to figure it out on your own.  She knew, worn down as she was, that anything less than love and acceptance at this point would break her, so she kept her foot jammed in the gas pedal and her eyes on the road.

Halfway through the third day out she turned in at the farm, her little clown asleep in a crumpled heap on the seat, his face paint smeary and faded, and the dancer scrunched up against the door, looking shaky and shop-worn.  And surprise, surprise, no mom and dad. Genuinely stunned that her instincts were right for once, and so exhausted her knees would barely keep her upright, Zoe decided to pull a Scarlet and think about it tomorrow.

Sure enough, show up on the morrow they did, visibly displeased to see a U-Haul truck in the yard and the shock of their daughter and grandson in the flesh, big as life and twice as natural, standing in front of them.  Oh WELL, Zoe thought, so much for acceptance and a fortress … time will have to be my friend.  Wonder how much slack they’ll cut me on that?

As it turned out, slack-cutting was in Zoe’s favor, but Teresa had to go.  One look at her exotic, tall, blonde, stacked loveliness, legs all the way to her ass, starting with the six-inch stilettos and those baby-doll socks that promised everything, and Zoe’s mom decreed that Teresa would be on the next flight out.  She was.  Zoe’s parents drove her to the airport the following morning, however much her dad may have inwardly wished for a week or so to get acquainted.  Back to the coast, end of story, thanks and all that.

At home again, Zoe and her dad off-loaded the truck into an outbuilding, and a couple of evenings later around the table, he said “Shouldn’t we be getting that truck turned in?”

“Um, no, Dad, it isn’t going back — that’s the rest of the story.”

So she filled it with gas from the farm tank, and with her mom and dad following she drove, drove, drove, drove, far out into the countryside, parked it where it would be discovered, and in the pitch dark carefully wiped it down, leaving it unlocked, keys in the ignition.  The whole time she was industriously removing DNA from the truck, her dad fretted and urged her to hurry.  He kept saying “I just know we’re gonna get caught.”

Her mom finally told him “Hush.  You’ve seen entirely too much TV.”  That and her enthusiasm over the night’s shenanigans almost moved Zoe to forgiveness for her initial coolness.  But no, not ready yet, and she had too many overwhelming things to figure out before she’d know who she was again … so she crawled into her parents’ back seat, nodded off on the way home, and lay on their couch in a fetal position for a couple of weeks while time took a vacation.

One morning she woke up to sunshine and her old self-mocking mantra popped into her head, “Good girls go to heaven.  Bad girls go everywhere.”  Well, hell, she thought … let’s get going.

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{Not exactly fiction — you can’t make this shit up.}

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Red Leaves

Celia 1 She stepped off the train in Atchison, weary and vaguely conscious of stares as she made her way to the station, maintaining a firm hold on the well-worn carpet bag she’d inherited from her mother.  The long trip out from New York had sapped her energy and optimism — just getting as far as Chicago had been a daunting challenge in itself — and she wanted nothing more than to find her boardinghouse and sleep for a week, not that she’d be afforded that luxury.

During the layover while arrangements were being made for continuing to Kansas on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, she had given serious thought to staying put.  Chicago in 1905, after all, was a place of substance — diverse, full of life and no doubt abundant opportunity.  But she’d made a commitment and when the time came she set her jaw for the Jayhawker state.

In 1887 the state of Kansas had opened the Soldiers Orphans’ Home in Atchison, and when St. Patrick’s Catholic Church wrote to the East Coast dioceses some years later appealing for young women of integrity to care for the children, our girl saw an opportunity.  Celia Miller (neé Mianovskis) desperately wanted out of the tenement flat on the edge of a New York ghetto that she shared with her father and two of her five brothers.  She was almost eighteen and beginning to picture herself as an old maid, and she didn’t appreciate the slightly breathless feeling that gave her.  As the baby of the family, whose mother had died as a result of her birth, she’d been spoiled and coddled by her father and brothers, gruff as they all were.  She’d been allowed to avail herself of the bits and pieces of education that were accessible, to ask questions about the world, to dream … now she needed to try her wings but there was no ladder in place for a lower-class girl with ambition.  The Orphans’ Home, ironically, offered freedom, independence, and excitement, three things notably missing in her life to date, and all she had to do to reap those rewards was  travel halfway across the United States, giving up everything she’d ever known.

Her father had told her stories of Lithuania, and her brothers, too, as if they hadn’t been born in America just like she was.  Proud and feeling unfairly disenfranchised by their first-generation foreignness, they pretended to remember, as their father did, a Lithuania before the Tsar, before all the strife, before hunger and relentless hardship.  Their bravado and inventiveness became an important part of the protective shield they tried to form around their small sister.  The brothers thought, and managed to articulate among themselves after a fashion, that if she had a “real” country to believe in, a “real” history to cling to, her own slightly alien persona would matter less to her, and thus come across in a more pleasing way to the people she met.  So their stories were wide-ranging and sometimes fanciful, but always with a lesson underneath.  For instance in Lithuania, they said, there grew something called a tallow tree, with heart-shaped leaves that turned bright red in the fall.  It was a temperamental tree, but once established it was difficult to uproot or control, and tended to eventually overtake the surrounding area.  That one they especially liked, and savoring their cleverness they repeated it to her over the years until it was part of her DNA.  There were other stories, most all of them about being brave, strong, and determined.  She was a lucky girl, our Celia — other brothers in their circumstances might have counseled a fey coyness, a manipulative sort of avoidance, a safe and chaste route through life.  And just so is a life determined.

Papa Mianovskis, baffled from the first hour by his tiny daughter and more so with each year that passed, was anxious to do right by her.  He loved her in his own way and didn’t want her to leave, but life had made him a realist — he knew he had nothing of worth to offer her, not even his continued protection.  He thought she might be beautiful, and he hoped that might somehow save her.  Thus confused, well-meaning, feeling slightly broken by all that had transpired since he last saw his homeland, he blessed her, and with a sob in his throat gave her more money than he could spare, wrapped in a handkerchief from the Old Country, along with his mother’s rosary.  Her two brothers were equally generous, not only with cash earned from prized American jobs, but also with small food bundles and bear hugs.  Her three eldest brothers were long out of the house, living by their wits like everyone else, and Celia knew it was unlikely she would ever see them again.  She wondered if Papa would hug her — he had never done so — but of course he simply patted her lightly on the shoulder, sniffed, cleared his throat, and took out his hankie, swiping it across his mustache before walking resolutely to the door.  It was time for him to go to work, and for Celia’s brothers to get her to the train station by hook or crook and still make it back for their own shifts.

As Celia’s various trains wended their way cross-country toward an entirely new life, she found herself watching for glimpses of red along embankments and in tree copses of every sort.  She was thankful for the benevolence of St. Patrick’s in providing funds for the trip to Kansas, that she would earn a small stipend for her work at the Orphans’ Home, that she would be provided room and board, at least in the beginning, and most of all that her heritage and the caring of family, haphazard as it may have been, had prepared her for life.  She sincerely hoped that was true, as she could only imagine the obstacles and challenges to be faced in an orphanage.  And Atchison — would it be anything like New York?  A red-leafed tree along the way would be just the thing for easing anxieties.  She knew her own heart, she knew she’d been strong under certain circumstances … but what more was life bringing?

Later, she couldn’t recall the details connected to locating her boardinghouse, or exactly how she got there.  She remembered being thankful that she had only the one bag, an ancient Persian once cherished by her dead mother, to safeguard.  She knew she’d had some soup — delicious! — and a night’s sleep on a feather mattress.  And then it was morning, with its eastern Kansas sunrise, and time to see what reality looked like this far from New York.

An officious-looking man collected her from the boardinghouse and trotted her to the orphanage forthwith, speaking not a word on the way.  She tried to think of ways to start a conversation, but the ride was jouncey and her head seemed to still be sleeping after the long journey.  It scarcely mattered, the distance was short and the destination in sight before she could fully get her wits about her.  Atchison, it turned out, was nothing like New York.

Her escort deposited her on the lawn stretching in front of the orphanage and she could only assume she was to present herself at the front door, so she set out on the curving sidewalk, looking around her as she went.  An imposing red brick building, along with others of the same description, how many she couldn’t tell, loomed in front of her.  She shored up her courage once again and had just rounded a shapely hedge when she saw it, ten feet from the main doors — a small tallow tree, its heart-shaped leaves turning from green to shades of red.  Celia Miller caught her breath, paused, and strode forward into her new life, looking for all the world like Papa.  She could not know then that she would marry well, bear children, and live a life of genuine service … but she was on her way, with a small red leaf tucked up her sleeve. tallow leaves

Soldiers Orphans' Home Atchison

Soldiers Orphans’ Home Atchison

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**Author’s note:  The preceding is fiction, made up out of whole cloth, based on the photograph of Celia Miller, found while sorting through boxes of family pictures with my two sisters.  The only thing I know about Celia is her name.  Correction, two things:  she was also beautiful.  She was clearly connected with Kansas and my family line in some way, and much of my Dierking/Fuhrman family settled around Atchison, so it wasn’t a stretch to imagine a story for her.  I’ve grown to love her and need to know more …

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