Monday, September 24, 2018

She Goes First, by Mary Thorson

New York, 1928

Lula couldn’t remember when Tom started discreetly coming to and leaving their bed, but there must have been a particular day when he decided to be quieter. It didn’t matter, she was such a light sleeper that it wasn’t the bird or the phone call that woke her, it was the absence of his weight. When she came into the kitchen, he was moving very fast, almost so her tired eyes couldn’t keep up with him, and he blurred as he paced from one spot to another. Lula pulled her hair behind her ears and watched him. It had been a long time since she had seen him like this, and she was nervous.
“Who was on the phone?”
“Work, they want me for something big up in New York,” he said over his shoulder.
“New York? Why?”
A few months ago, they had moved into their DC apartment from his studio in Chicago. Tom had said it was too cramped for him there, and there was an opening at the DC bureau of the Chicago Tribune. But Lula didn’t think it was any bigger, now. Just emptier. The only furniture being the bed, a couch in the living room, and a kitchen table set that came cheap because it had been scratched in the store.
“You know that big case where the woman killed her husband? The dumbbell murder?”
Lula shook her head, she didn’t pay attention to the news, which Tom had liked at the start. She knew it made him feel good to tell her about things.
“They’re executing them next week and they want me to come in and take pictures.” 
“Pictures of what?”
“The execution,” he said with a too big smile. “Just her, though. They’re going to run it on the front page.”
“You can’t be serious,” she said. “You mean, when she dies?”
“Mmhmm.”
“Why would anyone want to see that?” Lula asked while letting her vision blur as she stared out the window. The snow was coming down in big heavy flakes as a few men in dark jackets started to make their trek to work.
“People can’t not look,” he said.
He would be working for the New York Daily News, he explained, because no photographers were being let into Ruth Snyder’s execution, just reporters. The editors thought it would be clever to bring someone in that the guards had never seen before. They hired another man to make them a camera special for the job. The body of it would be strapped to Tom's ankle, the lens facing out and angled up, and the shutter release would be wired up through his pant leg to the arm of his jacket, so he could press it as if he were clicking a pen. It was single use.
She turned to look at Tom. His face was always astonishing. Hard set features, nothing soft there, not even his lips. A nose that had been broken more than once and eyes set deep. He cut into the space around him.
“That’s sinful,” she said.
If he could have left earlier, if the Daily News would have let him stay in one of their kept rooms at a hotel in the city, he would have been gone already, but they made him wait. Lula could sense him vibrating underneath his skin. He could see an exit.
“What about the bird?” Lula asked.
“What about him?”
“Do you expect me to take care of him?”
“Actually, yes. I do,” Tom said. “It’s not hard.”
He walked over to the cage and let the bird out onto his finger. The bird twisted its head around to stare at her. Its neck bent unnaturally, and it made her put a hand up to her throat. Tom stroked it and whispered something that Lula couldn’t hear.
The bird loved Tom. It was his bird. Well, not to start with. To start with it belonged to her. His wife’s bird. During the divorce Lula and Tom had gone on an adventure; that’s what he’d called it. They went to the house he had shared with her and broke in. He hadn’t planned on it being dramatic as all that, but Margaret had changed the locks like she said she would. A rock the size of his fist got them in. One small broken window above the basement and it became something else.
Lula remembered the way Tom looked at her as if heat burned through his eyes. He helped her down and slid his hands over the length of her, touching every part. When her feet were flat on the ground, he held her there in front of him, against him. And when Lula turned, he had her there – it was the last time it went like that.
They walked right out the front door with the bird still in its cage and that black sheet over it. An African Grey. He had bought it for Margaret in place of an engagement ring. This bird looked as though all the color had been drained from him, everything but the tail which fanned out in a stark red cape. Lula liked the idea of getting Margaret’s declaration of love as if it could be transferred over like money in a bank account.
Turned out Margaret couldn’t stand the thing either, because she never came after it. Never said a word about it, and she always had a lot to say. This, Lula knew, had gotten under Tom’s skin. He was excited the first few days, waiting to hear from Margaret once she came back to town. Said she would fight like a wet cat for that bird. Then the week rolled over to the next. He would ask if she called. Lula would ask why he cared, but she knew. Back in the beginning, when he and Lula had just started, he had told Margaret that the love bites on his neck were from the bird. But the bird never bit him.
***
She read whatever she could find on Ruth and her lover. She hoped she could somehow learn more about them than Tom. Have an intimate insight into their lives that Tom wouldn’t be able to capture and show. Ruth was 32. She was unemployed. She was a mother. Her daughter’s name was Lorraine. Her husband’s name was Albert. She and her lover, Judd, had killed him. Judd was a corset salesman and losing money. Ruth and Judd held chloroform soaked rags over Albert’s mouth and nose. Judd tied a wire around Albert’s neck. Judd convinced Ruth to do it so they could be together. Ruth convinced Judd to do it so they could be together. Ruth and Judd had been lovers for two years. Ruth and Judd turned on each other in two hours. All of it Lula memorized. She wanted Tom to quiz her. She wanted him to bring something up, or get something wrong, and if he did, she would gently correct him. “No, that’s not what happened; it went like this,” she would say. And he would thank her. But Tom didn’t talk about it. He just kept checking his backup camera and taking pictures of the bird. 
***
She had trouble sleeping when he was gone. Even though they had turned away from each other, his weight in the bed was enough. If not enough, something – a pull she could feel. A reminder in physics. After Tom left, Lula ticked through those facts at night. When she did sleep, she dreamt of Ruth and Judd – but then it wasn’t Judd, it was Tom. They stood in a room that had been torn apart, and he stood behind her, tying up her corset before he left. He kissed her in the space between her shoulder blades, grabbing her shoulder as if he wanted to take a part of her with him. Lula would wake up sweating. It reminded her of before. He would do this with Lula when her breathing got caught up and uneven. He would touch her with a kind of determined pressure. He had an agenda. He pawed at her while attempting to disguise it as comfort. He wanted.
But, over time, that pressure she needed had eased. He wouldn’t touch her with any of his strength. She braced herself, ready to push back harder against him, but there was nothing. Quickly his hand would be gone altogether, leaving no imprint of where it had been. She used to be able to feel him the next day. Her hips would ache, and she’d stretch until she could feel the soreness. He bruised her neck with his mouth, and she’d open her collar up to the mirror as she examined the marks.  Now he didn’t leave anything behind.
***
The day that Tom was due back, Lula woke up in the early afternoon, and the bird was squawking. She put the pillow over her head to try and block it out, but it didn’t work. She threw the covers off of her and walked to the kitchen to make some coffee. She would not address the bird until she was ready. She would make it wait. When the coffee was ready, she poured it into a little white cup with delicate pink and blue roses on it and a gold painted trim around the rim. Lula had not bought this, it was not her style. She liked plain things—sturdy things. The bird squawked again. It was hungry. On her way out of the kitchen she tripped on the leg of the table, dropping her coffee cup on the ground. The thing seemed to shatter in slow motion, and she didn’t move to stop it. The handle flew off like it had torn along a seam.
“Shit,” she whispered sharply.
“Shit! Shit!” came back at her from the living room.
The noise the cup made when it fell sounded like it came from inside her skull, and she put her hands over her ears. Lula stepped around the ceramic pieces and walked into the living room, balling up the folds of her robe in her fists. If she kept them free, she’d be liable to swing.
The bird heard her coming, and the cage started to shake. The black sheet with white embroidered vines covered it as it rocked back and forth. A heavy thing, made so the bird wouldn’t be able to knock it off on its own.
“Please,” Lula said, putting her mouth to the sheet. “Will you please, just, be quiet? I need you to do this for me. Can you? Please?” She breathed out, thinking maybe the hot air from her lungs would do something, like a car in a garage.
“Please! Please!” came from behind the sheet, like a ghost.
The bird’s voice came out differently, this time. It sounded more like her, or how she thought she might sound to someone else. Desperate. Something was wrong with it. She wanted to be away from the bird, away from that voice, so she quietly walked to the front door hoping that it wouldn’t hear her leave. When she stepped outside, the sun hit her as if interrogating her, and she sank down on the stairs. It was cold and she held her coat tightly to her chest. Her feet were bare but she was testing herself. It was a game; how long could she stand it. She would turn around to keep them moving, and was facing the navy blue door when she heard a car pull up in front of the house. She lifted her head and watched him. Tom paused for a moment, staring at her. He looked as if he’d gotten out at the wrong place. He kept his hand on top of the taxi, then he smiled and reached inside his coat. He pulled out a small bunch of crushed red roses and shook them her direction. He hit the roof and started towards her.
“What are you doing out here?” This was a thing he used to laugh at, but now it was a quick smile. She would have missed it if she had blinked. Thank God.
“I was hot, inside.”
“You shouldn’t be out here like this.”
He opened the door and herded her through it. Inside, the bird started up again. Tom walked over, pulled off the sheet like a magic trick and leaned in.
“Hiya, buddy!” he yelled.
Lula put her hands up to her ears, fearing that her voice would come back out of its beak, but it was silent.
“There’s a good man.” Tom opened up the wire door and stuck his finger in. The bird marched onto it from its little swing. It flapped its wings and jumped onto Tom’s shoulder, then stomped around a bit before settling down. Glad to be home.
“Seems a little stir crazy, must have gotten up early,” Tom said, looking from the bird to Lula. His stare was accusatory.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I need to wash up.”
In the bathroom, she sat on the lid of the toilet with her hands between her knees. She leaned her head against the frosted window, and appreciated its coolness. Lula put her hand to her mouth and started to pick at the dry pieces of skin on her lips. Then she thought about lipstick – if she still had that color he used to like, or if he had ever mentioned liking one in particular.
Lula walked back to the kitchen and stopped in the doorway. She curled her toes to grip the floor. Tom had started another pot with the mess on the floor just inches away from his feet. He had the newspaper tucked into his waistband the way a cop carries a gun. She didn’t want to ask about it, but had nothing else to say.
“How did it go, then?”
He turned and smiled at her, the kind of smile she hadn’t seen in months. She almost returned it. He grabbed the newspaper and unrolled it. He held it up next to his face as if he were posing with some big game he had hunted.
“Take a look.”
Lula couldn’t understand at first. It wasn’t something she could easily make out. She squinted her eyes causing the pain in her forehead to spread up underneath her hair and across to both temples. She became dizzy. In the picture, Ruth Snyder grabbed both arms of the chair with a grip that she never could have managed before that moment. Her ankles were straining against the leather strap, her feet kicked out to either side. She was wearing black loafers; Lula had a similar pair. Something black covered Ruth’s face; it looked like a muzzle made for dogs. The photograph was blurry, and Lula couldn’t tell if that was because she could actually see the electricity moving through Ruth’s body or if it was the way the picture had been taken. Every sharp line in the photograph couldn’t hold its content, the blacks and grays of her were bleeding out. At the bottom of the picture, there was something hard and shiny. A shoe. Tom’s shoe. It looked so large and invasive. Right above the photo was a single big, bold word: DEAD!
“You ever seen anything like that?”
“Of course not.” Lula rocked a little, placing one cold hand on the wall for balance. She felt as if she had been attacked.
“Here, take a look.” Tom brought it close to her face, and she put her hands up.
“Look! Look!” the bird yelled out.
Lula sat down, and Tom grabbed the flowers he had set on the table.
“I’m sorry about these,” he said. “They looked more alive when I got them.” He started to poke through the petals, seemingly trying to find something in between them. Lula could feel the silk coming off on her fingertips.
“You shouldn’t touch them,” Lula said, louder than she had meant to.
A rigidness set in his shoulders at the sound of her voice, and she could see his jaw clench.
“What was it like?” she asked.
She saw him relax, and he turned back with a slight smile.
“Fast,” he said. He pulled out a chair and sat down hard.
“The guard checked us.” His hands were suddenly on her, moving up and down her sides. Lula took in a sharp breath. “Patted us down and let us in the room. I thought he would feel the wire, but you could tell they wanted to get that door closed. Press went to the back of the room, but I shoved up for a good spot where I could see her. Then they brought her in. You could tell she was scared; her lip quivered,” he said as he moved his lip with his finger. “And her eyes were wide as planets, but she wasn’t crying. They sat her down, strapped her in, then shaved the top of her head.”
“Why?” Lula put her hand on top of her own. She imagined a draft.
“They put a wet sponge there.” He tapped the top of her head, and she could almost feel her brain shake. “Makes the electrocution go faster, more humane.”
“Did she say anything?” she whispered.
“‘Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.’ Then they flipped it. She grabbed hold of the chair with everything she had, then she went limp. I almost didn’t get it in time, but everything lined up perfectly, thank God.”
“Thank God.” Lula repeated it back to him, slowly but reflexively. She couldn’t help herself.
Lula stared at him as he looked over the picture—he couldn’t stop smiling. He had caught something special, someone’s soul on the outside of their body. He had caught it for himself, and it ignited him. There was nothing in the room now, not even him. He was still there, with Ruth.
“I felt bad for Judd Gray. When they brought him in you could still smell something, like metal. He was weeping and tripping over his feet when they sat him down. She went better than him; that’s why they had her go first. They knew she would be better.”
“I don’t like it,” Lula said.
Tom looked at her as if she had hit him.
“She wasn’t a saint, you know.” He crossed his arms over himself and hardness set back in.
Lula thought Ruth might have been, at the very least, some sort of martyr for herself. Everything had been taken from her and burned up.
“She only had dignity in dying, and that’s what I got here.”
It was quiet for a moment and then the bird squawked, making Lula’s heart jump. 
“Can you please get rid of that damn bird?” she said, putting her hands over her ears.
Tom stroked the bird’s neck with his finger, then got up from his chair. 
“I’m tired,” he said with his eyes down. He didn’t say anything else right away. The way he had said it sounded almost like a question that she should answer, the way it hung there between them. When he finally did look at her, she stopped breathing, wanting to be as quiet as possible.
“I like the bird,” he said, before he turned and walked away.
Tom had left the bird on the table. Lula watched it and thought about how stuffy the room felt and how hot it had gotten with the sun coming in. She thought about opening a window while she scratched at her neck. The bird jumped down from the table to the ground so clumsily it surprised her. The bird couldn’t fly – its wings were regularly clipped – but she didn’t know if it even knew how. It walked over to the puddle of coffee on the linoleum and, with its beak to the floor, stuck its dry, gray tongue out, stabbing at the coffee in a way that made Lula feel sick again.
She had the newspaper in her hand. She didn’t know how it got there, really; she must have grabbed it. The paper was thick – special issue heavy. She felt weak and swimmy, but she moved fast. Maybe faster than she had ever moved in her life. She got him on the first swing, and it made a terrible noise. A sort of scream that tried to be human but failed and cracked back into something else. It went on like that until it was over. She wished to God it couldn’t talk, because even in the silence, with Tom looking at her in the doorway, wet and naked from the shower, she could still hear it ringing in her ears. Lula wondered if that’s why they muzzled her.


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