Excerpted from the novel Havoctown
Willa heard screaming.
You did what!? I thought we was just gonna take care o’ her!
She woke. Her eyes unopened, a pair of voices played angry music into Willa’s ears, somewhere off. A second voice replied, And we will take care of her — forever! Despite the first voice’s bellowing, the second one pressed, unbothered. In good humor, even. She opened her eyes.
Have you lost your fucking mind? the first voice said, calmer. Now it buzzed as a bass fiddle, worn out and played by an amateur.
Prone, Willa’s limited view spread into the most spectacular bedroom she had ever seen.
No, Jay, said the second voice, bringing the argument to civility. First time I’m seeing things clear in months. This voice was maple syrup milked from the tree, yet just now it had an edge, like the syrup gently stripped the bark off as it oozed south.
The pair must have been downstairs and Willa up, because they carried low and distant, echoing along what Willa imagined was a lavish, curving staircase to match the lavish, ornately furnished bedroom she was in. Everything was of two colors, seafoam green or oxblood red, except for a pitch-black armoire directly across from the bed
Seein’ things clear, huh? I see, the bass fiddle said. Just ‘cause that doctor went tellin’ I ain’t got no bullets in my gun, that what this is about? The word “doctor” clanged like a horseshoe on the anvil. Huh?! ‘Cuz I can’t make a kid?
Husband, you’ve been so heart-sick since that appointment. Gosh, you’ve hardly even put the whiskey down
...The bright thud of a cup on a counter. Didn’t I take care of that for you? Marley won’t trouble us no more; and soon no one will be thinkin’ o’ that. You gotta trust in people. The smack of a kiss. A sigh. No matter what, you’ll always be number one. And I’ll be right aside you, your number two. Another kiss.
Willa turned her head toward the light and her neck screamed agony. She had been sick, she remembered, and her neck said she still was. Near the window a dress hung on a pretty hanger hooked to the shade rod. It was soft and lacy, the kind she watched young girls wear to church. Pale white, the color of No Fun.
And speaking of that, why don’t you come meet her? the maple tree said.
Why should I.
Because... she dripped, if you come up to her bedroom, maybe afterwards, we can go to our bedroom, and work on us for a bit?
Vee — I... The bass fiddle rested, nothing to play.
That’s the spirit, haha! A rattle of dishes. Now come meet her!
Rattle rattle rattle, like nice cups, or a snake, and the maple tree was giggling, its roots broken, moving, closer. Closer, and giggling.
She was coming up the stairs.
The door opened and Willa thought to shut her eyes and pretend to sleep, but she couldn’t. She had to see what was coming.
“Willa?” said the maple tree, which was not a maple tree at all, but a tall, very beautiful woman. Her hair (bleeding red like the furniture) clung in victory rolls above open, pink cheeks, the cleanest Willa had ever seen. On her nose rested a pair of brown cat-eye framed glasses.
That was when Willa realized her wrists were bound to the bed in restraints. Ignoring the pain, she struggled to escape.
“Oh, let me just untie those!” said the woman, setting a tea tray down, joyful and alarmed all at once. “We thought you’d get spooked in the middle of the night, and run off, haha!” She sure liked to laugh.
“Where am I? What the hell is goin’ on?!” Willa moaned. Her clothes had been changed into a prim sleeping gown and undergarments. She had never worn undergarments.
The woman’s mouth closed and her eyes flinched, the way horses do at no-see-ums that bother their eyes. “Why, I’m Vesta Quimby. You’ve been sleeping for three days straight. I saved your life.” The woman smiled, bright-eyed and pleased. “Sheriff and I, see — we’ve adopted you.” She called behind her. “Jay? Say hi to your new daughter.”
Willa saw the bass fiddle standing behind the Quimby woman just outside the room, peering in the dimness. In stepped a badly shaven brute in a beige police uniform. His neck was loosely tied by a dark brown cravat and on his head slumped a dusty ten-gallon hat. Willa didn’t know much about manners, but she knew men took off their hats when they met new people, especially women.
The sheriff up-and-downed Willa. He sucked his teeth, glanced at his wife, and walked out with, “She’s your dog, Vee.”
The Quimby woman turned back to Willa with a shrug and a laugh, the way people did when someone told a joke that didn’t land very funny. She poured a cup of tea, wafting mint about the room. No, not just mint. Something else, too. What was it? And what was going on here? How had she come here? And Mr. Sallow — what had happened to him? Willa couldn’t remember very much about those final days in the shack by the railway. She recalled a flashing light. She remembered people standing over her, blocking the sun. And it was then she heard what this woman had called her.
“Daughter?” Willa sat up, best she could. “No, no ma’am. I’m Ruth Franks’s daughter. See, my brother, he’s comin’ back, ‘n we got plans. Plans. Our life’s on the Road.”
“A life’s in a house, darling.” She tilted her head compassionately. “You’re still so weak. Here, drink this.”
Willa refused the tea. “Road life ain’t like your life.”
“I know! Here we don’t get pneumonia and almost die.”
“For tramps, every day’s a workin’ holiday — like heaven in real time.”
The woman laughed again, perching and evidently finding her new puppy apparently adorable. “Have sense, silly! Look at this fine room I’ve prepared for you, and oh, look at this dress I made. See how it shines!” She moved the dress to its station, losing herself in her own handiwork. Shit, it was a beautiful dress. And the room had been impressively put together. Willa decided then that this woman hadn’t collected furniture in these two shades — she’d had it built.
“George said...” Willa squeezed her eyes shut to remember something very far back. “Rich folk weren’t to be trusted.” She held the Quimby woman’s eyes. “I ain’t like you.”
The woman put a hand on the comforter, resting atop Willa’s leg. The girl expected pain, but it didn’t hurt at all. It was warm, in fact.
Softly, she said, “You could be like me. I could change you?” And she sang, “Da da da da, da da, da da, da da...” It reminded Willa of a song she’d heard an old Irish tramp croon many moons ago. “Did your mother sing lullabies to you?” the woman asked. Willa’s mother hadn’t. Ruth Franks couldn’t sing a lick, truth be told. Meanwhile, the Quimby woman sang like she was relating her own private Gospel.
When the woman finished, Willa said, “I thank you to let me stay. But it’s a roof for chores. One for one.”
“One for one?” the woman repeated, with the same edge Willa had heard downstairs. “Why, for what I have to offer you, I expect nothing in return.”
Willa flumped back and focused on her hands. She hadn’t felt this young in a long time.
“Won’t you at least call me mother?” the woman said, sounding like a much younger person herself.
“My mother is dead.”
Willa wanted to cry, but she wouldn’t — not for a thousand dollars. Her words floated around the room while Vesta Quimby gathered her thoughts and tried to reconcile this turn of events with everything she’d sewn and prepared. It was clear she hadn’t anticipated rejection like this. She brought the dress to the closet. As she opened the door, Willa strained to catch two other dresses hanging in there like criminals. Gingerly, the woman closed the accordion doors and held her hand to them, thinking.
The Quimby woman laughed, bringing her hands to her mouth. “Look at me, pluckin’ you out of the gutter and claimin’ you like you was my own property!” Her voice had changed. Less syrup and more tree trunk. Like a fancy tramp.
Willa, in awe, said, “Yeah it don’t feel great.”
“I understand. Now, if it would make you feel square to repay my kindness with hard work around the house, then that’s how it’ll be. We’ll set you up in the cellar and you can clean and tidy up; whatever the hell makes you feel comfortable.”
That sounded good, though Willa couldn’t hide her suspicion. “But...?”
The woman stifled a giggle, spotted naughty at church. “Oh, I’m so transparent! Well...” Like a flirtatious teenager, she sat again, successfully handing off the cup of mint-and- something tea. “If someday — while you’re waitin’ for your brother, of course — you and I get so friendly that you reason you want to call me mother ... then God will have blessed me. Sound good?” Man, this lady could bargain harder than any tramp Willa had studied making trades for supper. Why, if this had been a jungle, this lady could have ended up with a feast to herself and convinced everyone else they were happy starving.
“Sounds O.K., I guess.” The tea was damn tasty, too.
The woman grinned, her heart humorless and too full for laughter. Willa grinned a little as well, not sure why. She was more confused than she had ever been, lullabied at by a woman who’d also tied her to a bed; a woman who had saved her life, but who had kidnapped her. Willa got to thinking about yours truly when the Quimby woman asked, like she was suggesting some mischief like throwing rocks at crows:
“Would you like to come to church with me? There’s a surprise for you.”
Just so you know, I didn’t let Willa go easily. That afternoon we were separated, I hollered like a banshee on the rag. It was a rare moment for me to be so caught by my emotions, but I’d collected too much of Willa’s heart and worried for what would become of her. It was such a fit I threw, the cops feared for the delicate sensitivities of the coven of women culled by Vesta Quimby, and so invited me to depart down the Road (with one hand patting their Berettas).
But that wasn’t the last I would see of the cops that day. Not an hour after, they picked me up again and brought me to the station in Havoc, where I had the displeasure of meeting two officers: one younger, who resembled a rat with too much stuff in his hair; and another, older and a clear fool. I think they would have liked to beat me up, but first, they interrogated me to make sure I hadn’t been molesting her. I don’t believe they were concerned for Willa as much as they didn’t want damaged goods going back to the Quimby’s. They asked me everything I knew about her, and seeing as how I didn’t think I would ever see her again, like any change of ownership I felt it was in Willa’s best interest to tell the officers all that I knew about her and the Franks family. When I finished dumping it, rat face leaned across the table to say, “On account o’ Sheriff and Vee don’t like tramps shittin’ on our highways and byways I’ll thank you to get the fuck out of town now.” And get the fuck out is exactly what I did.
In my time as a writer, I have discovered that the book of Real Life is the finest penning of all, chock-full of unpredictable surprises. It’s crap fiction where everything turns out like you expect. So whatever it was that Vesta and J. Harris Quimby had in mind for Willa, it was probably better than my worst imaginings, and worse than my best hopes. So rather than worry myself into a stupor, I had to let it go.
About the time Willa was getting her church surprise, I had almost touched Mexico. I told you I didn’t care much for the country, which was true. But for some reason, after Willa was gone I had the itch.
“This is the day the Lord has made!” announced Minister Perrish. “Our own Vesta and the Sheriff have once again demonstrated the charity Jesus requests of us all.” Minister Perrish stood before a congregation nearing a hundred and fifty at a riverbank tucked into the Missouri. Everyone stood, which Willa had never seen before.
“What kind o’ church is this?” she whispered to the Quimby woman.
She replied, “It’s a special day today, so we’re doing things a little differently. I told you there was a surprise for you, didn’t I?”
Willa had agreed to put on a much plainer dress, one that had to be unearthed from an attic chest and dropped down to her ankles and had to be pinned. They argued about the bathtub and compromised with a warm rag to wash her face. Somehow Willa had her fighting strength back.
Minister Perrish stared right into Willa with the melting force of a sun at half past two in July. “And now, on behalf of the elders, I present Willa Quimby to receive the sacrament of baptism.”
“Baptism?!” she cried. The congregation laughed. Her blood thinned.
A brazen woman Willa would later learn was called Loramae shouted, “Oh Vesta, she’s precious!”
Minister Perrish stretched a hand to her, saying “Willa, come join me in the water,” but the girl didn’t know what to do.
“Ma’am, what’s he talking about?”
Unconcerned, Vesta said, “Willa, it’s just a little ceremony that’s real important to Sheriff and me. All you have to do is say ‘yes’ a pocketful of times, and guess what you get?”
Willa asked what she got.
The woman regarded the gray-blue sky, pointing. “You get someone real powerful watching over you for always.”
Protection of the divine sort didn’t sound half bad just now, but Willa felt the fear she had suppressed bubble up her throat. She shook as the whole town waited for her. She panicked, and that always made her want her brother. Oh, her poor brother.
“Will they look over George?”
The Quimby woman whispered back, “I think they might!” Willa felt hot and fretted her cheeks might be flushed. She touched them and she discovered she wasn’t embarrassed. This warmth was comfort, the kind she knew boiling clothes with her mother.
And so Willa joined the minister in the stream, which felt cold as a corpse in a freezer. The congregation chanted in unison about believing in Jesus Christ, who was the only son of the Lord, and conceived by the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary, crucified, heaven, et cetera. Willa had never seen so many people talking the same nonsense all at once. When the minister asked her if she renounced sin and the power of evil in her life and in the world, she saw the Quimby woman stepping forward, apart from the congregation. She nodded to Willa encouragingly, a tear running down her cheek.
“I guess,” Willa said. Then, “Yes, sir.”
A bald man who would have been her father’s age came astride her, his face pasted with a peevish, avuncular smile. She did a double take to the minister, alarmed, and found his smile lost to procedure as both men took hold of her arms and pulled her backward into the stream. She tensed, trying to hold her ground, but she was weak against them and off her feet instantly. Her hair hit the rushing stream first. She choked on the Missouri river as it poured into her throat and dug dull, chewed-up fingers into the men holding her down, and realizing they were keeping her down, and would drown her. Her throat became a water well sealed with cement. Air. She needed air now, now, now. The light above her shifted; the clouds must be passing by the sun, sheltering the light from witnessing this rape. She had survived pneumonia only to die in this stream. Then she was lifted out of the water, spring-loaded, her would-be murderers become her liberators. Struggling between catching her breath and escaping, she failed at both and fell face-first into the water. When she rose, she saw the throng at the shore applauding her, like she’d won a race simply by showing up. Some were laughing, too, and a few even wiped away tears. And then everyone, absolutely everyone, sang to her.
Thank the Lord Everlasting! Oh, keep faith and give praise!
The wretch in the wild, oh, shall know better days!
After the service, the whole lot marched up the Road to the church proper, and in an expansive reception room, Vesta Quimby paraded her new daughter around, collecting a basket of names Willa had no hope of carrying. It was all pretty boring, but there was black coffee and biscuits to scarf down. She noticed many around the reception room stealing studies of her, obviously the topic of some tawdry discussion. She couldn’t give a rat’s ass.
One old man’s attention did give her the creeps, though. He sat with his hands on his lap between two women, removed from the proceedings. The woman on his left was poorly put together, her gaze fixed depressively on the floor, while the other looked trapped in an endless search for something in her musty-looking handbag. The old man’s eyes took Willa, even as the searching woman spoke to him. He nodded to her from across the crowded room. It sent shivers to her toes. The old man stood up — but the newspaper man Bobby Turning ambushed Vesta Quimby for a photo. “Just one now.” Vesta complied. With Willa’s neck craned up to see the expression on the satisfied sheriff’s wife, Bobby Turning got his photo. When she turned back to the eerie old man, he was gone.
George had told her to fear rich folk. Yet, this woman had offered her more in one day than her own parents had ever given her, not to mention saved her life. And this Vesta Quimby was undoubtedly the most incredible person she had ever met, because wherever she went it was like she walked into a party in her honor — one she was also hosting, too, and making sure everybody had a good time.
It wasn’t until the ride home in the Quimbys' sparkly Traction Avant that Willa fully appreciated this was to be her new life. At least for a while, until George came home. Sitting in the backseat with Vesta Quimby while the stewing sheriff drove in front, her heart pattered in her chest. She reached for the door handle, considering tugging it and rolling into the highway where she’d run as far as she could before the cops caught her, just like they caught George. They’d bring her back to the sheriff and his wife, who she guessed were her parents now or whatever the law might say, and she’d only be worse off.
A hand took Willa’s on the upholstery beside her. She tensed and her hand stiffened, which was what she usually did when anyone touched her.
Vesta Quimby said, “I’m gonna take care of you for the rest of my life.”
Willa looked into Vesta Quimby’s green and gray speckled eyes and searched for what to say. She surrendered to the reality there was nothing. Her hand remained stiff in the grip. Her eyes drifted down, ashamed.
Vesta Quimby was a person who made things happen. And if any person in the world could help George get back to Willa, it would be her. And if Vesta Quimby cared for Willa the way she said she did, she would want to help, too. And in the meanwhile, Willa would have a purpose cleaning the house for a roof and food, which was the tramp way. One for one. Only a fool would topple onto a highway and run away from that. And Willa was no fool.
She shut her eyes and focused on her rigid, dampening hand in Vesta Quimby’s grasp. She envisioned George in her mind’s darkness and recalled an expression he used once after he’d found work moving furniture for ten hours in an uppity couple’s brand-new summer home. He’d left with an agonizing pain in his lower back and blisters all over, but he’d made twenty-five dollars. She remembered he’d said “the end justifies the means.”
She relaxed her hand.