For this month’s issue we are breaking from our usual format and only featuring one contributor/one piece. We hope you enjoy!
Tinsel & Cotton
by Matthew Thompson
The winter was reluctant to arrive the year I turned nineteen. The leaves clung stubbornly to the trees and refused to fall. When Christmas was just around the corner, the town committee called a special meeting to talk about decorations. I sat in the back with my parents and the other quiet, more sensible people who didn’t care to be too involved in town politics. The rec center was oppressively hot. It was old, built around the turn of the century and it didn’t have any heat or air conditioning. Normally, a town meeting in the middle of December would have featured wool coats and checked hunting hats, but this particular one was a sweaty affair. Pamphlets pilfered from the clear, plastic cubby holes in the lobby, advertising group Bible studies, cooking classes, and t-ball teams were being used as fans. I saw Nan Thomas unhook her bra and slide it out from underneath her shirt, tucking it discreetly into her purse.
The talking was centered around the statewide Christmas decoration competition. It happened every year, and every year Lewiston won. Lewiston always got to have a celebration parade and get a certified, stamped letter from the governor declaring that they were the best decorated town in all of Texas. As you can imagine, this didn’t sit well with the folks on the committee. The leaves refusing to budge from the trees were just another thorn in their side, another reason that we were going to lose out to Lewiston again.
“It isn’t going to look right with the snowflake decorations.” Mayor Hodges was speaking. He was one of those folks on the committee who got real worked up about things. “We can’t have the orange and brown leaves clashing with the tinsel. It just won’t stand. Lewiston will wipe the floor with us.”
“Perhaps,” this was Maddie Parten now. “Lewiston done it on purpose, like sabotage.”
This got all sorts of rumbles from the crowd and the mayor had to bang his gavel a bunch of times. I zoned out, from the heat or the repetitious nature of the meeting I’m not sure. What I gathered from my parents later was that, whether or not Lewiston had sabotaged us by glueing our leaves to the trees, something had to be done. And that’s when the cranes came. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Leah Parker was never mentioned at the meeting. The two events are inextricably linked in my memory now, like somehow one was responsible for the other in a domino effect that only I am able to see.
Not long after the meeting, my best friend Tripp and I were walking down the street to the Philco to get a soda. We had to shout at each other intermittently as we walked by the cranes. The committee had made good on their promise to hire them. The mechanical beasts were poised underneath trees all over town. They had a crow’s nest of sorts that a man in a hardhat with a weedwhacker would stand in and do his worst to the stubborn fall foliage. It had an interesting effect, if not the one that the committee had in mind. Instead of leaving the trees bare and skeletal like they usually looked at that time of year, the weedwhacker had an uneven result. It couldn’t quite pull the leaves from their stems cleanly, and we were left with a town full of trees that had shredded bits of leaves clinging to scarred branches.
“I heard that the beavers chewed her body down like a log, to a point on both ends.”
“You’re full of shit, Tripp.”
“I ain’t full of shit neither,” Tripp shouted, this time to raise his voice high enough so that I could hear it over the worker who blew the leafy bits off the sidewalk and into the street where we walked. “Dan Dennett found her. Puked his guts out.”
“Yeah, from the whiskey,” I said.
Tripp had a bad habit of “hearing things.” I was always of the opinion that he mostly heard things from his own imagination, but it certainly made him an interesting person to talk to most days. But at least part of this particular story of his turned out to be true. You see, this was also the winter that they found Leah Parker’s body. Leah Parker was a freshman when Tripp and I graduated the previous spring. We knew her only in the way that lonely upperclassmen boys knew cute freshmen girls. She wasn’t from around town. She moved from somewhere in Oklahoma just before school started. She mostly kept to herself from what I saw, though Tripp said he heard that she was in a satanic cult. I never got that impression. She seemed lonely, mostly. I could tell that she tried really hard to get ready in the mornings. Her makeup was always perfect and her clothes were never wrinkled. It’s not that hard really, to tell when someone is trying. I’m not sure she knew how else to get someone’s attention. She walked with her head down in the halls and her hair would get caught behind her ears. Some people brush their hair behind their ears on purpose, but I don’t think that’s what was happening with Leah. It’s not that her ears were big, or stuck out particularly, but they always seemed to poke out through the black curtain of her hair like little white beacons.
The cashier at Philco exchanged a meaningful glance with her friend at the next register when we walked in, the jingle bell tinkling gently against the door, a seasons greetings. It seemed that winter, that wherever high school age kids went, adults were obligated to talk about Leah, as if we needed some constant reminder.
“I heard,” she said, in a fully audible whisper. “That if the beavers hadn’t tried to make her a part of their dam, she might have made it all the way to the ocean.”
The bagboy whistled slowly. Both cashiers glared at him.
I thought of her body floating down the river, pinging off rocks, her eyes glazed and unable to appreciate the beauty of the sun shining through the canopy above her, her little white ears bobbing just above the surface. I kinda wish she’d made it to the ocean. Doesn’t seem fair to die and have to stay in the same place, or become part of a dam. I didn’t think she’d like it much.
When we left the store Tripp asked if I wanted to go toss a baseball around in his yard.
“Dad isn’t home. Might be a few beers in the basement fridge.”
“No thanks. I’ve got some homework I’ve gotta do,” I lied.
Leah read a poem in class once about the ocean, her head down as always, though Mrs. Burt continually tapped the bottom of her chin to indicate that the reader should always have her chin up. All the freshmen had to memorize a poem and recite it to the senior English classes. It was supposed to be a bonding experience. Every year, Mrs. Burt would troop down the halls, a line of freshmen behind her, calves to the slaughter. No one took it very seriously. I remember that Tripp recited “Gherkins and Burps” our year and a senior guy shot milk out of his nose. But Leah was new and it showed in her effort. Her poem was really good and everybody was actually quiet while she read.
Calmly the wearied seamen rest
Beneath their own blue sea.
The ocean solitudes are blest,
For there is purity.
The earth has guilt, the earth has care,
Unquiet are its graves;
But peaceful sleep is ever there,
Beneath the dark blue waves.
On the day that the committee decided the town would come together and decorate it was ninety degrees. It was purely on a volunteer basis, but everyone knew if you didn’t show up there’d be whispers behind your back, talks of Lewiston connections from the past: ex-girlfriends and long weekends, everything up for interpretation. Tripp walked with me and my family. We each had our gloves folded over in our back pockets so we could go to the park when it was over. We always left a ball in the stormdrain by the broken swingset for situations like this.
“We’re on fake snow duty,” I told my parents as Tripp and I left them with the rest of the wreath-hangers.
We drove the town hall golf cart around town, loaded with cardboard boxes full of cotton, spreading it out on designated areas to be judged by the state’s official board of inspectors. It was too hot and the cotton stuck to our sweaty arms as we reached into the boxes to grab armfuls to toss. We both looked like we had been tarred and feathered after only thirty minutes of duty. We took a break, sitting in the back of the golf cart and sharing sips from a bottle of water. We chuckled as we heard Tripp’s grandfather from three blocks away telling volunteers the correct way to hang tinsel in trees. It was a very delicate process this year, as they had to hang just right to hide the frayed bits of leaves that the crane-workers had been unable to get.
“I’ve been thinking,” Tripp said.
“That’s new for you.”
“About that Leah girl, the one who died.”
“What about her?”
“Well—like, do you think we know the person who did it? Who killed her? If it was a murder?”
“You watched the news same as everybody else. It wasn’t a suicide like they thought at first. Mark Schoneberg said he even saw a crime scene picture where the outline of hands on her neck stuck out in real clear purple.”
“Well I’m still not sure. She was from Oklahoma, what do we really know about her? But if it was a murder, I think it has to be someone from out of town. I mean, think about it. If you killed me, could you still stay here? Go to Philco? Buy groceries? How could you look my parents, my grandfather in the eye? You couldn’t, and it’s not just because you’re a rotten liar. You just couldn’t do it. It would be an impossible way to live. This isn’t that big of a place. You’d have to see people who knew me all the time, have normal conversations with them. Can you imagine how excruciating that would be? Having to talk about the weather with my mother with the knowledge that you strangled me? It has to be someone from out of town. It just has to be.”
Tripp’s speech seemed to have the intended effect: he seemed to have convinced himself that it couldn’t possibly be someone from town. They wouldn’t be able to bear it. I didn’t answer him because I didn’t think he really wanted me to. We still went to the park afterwards and threw the ball. We tossed our hats in the air and tried to catch them on our heads. But for the first time that I could remember, I felt sorry for Tripp.
On Christmas Eve Dan Dennett confessed to strangling Leah Parker. It happened in the morning, and by noon everybody knew exactly how it had gone down. He stumbled through the door at Merv’s Diner, which in itself was not that unusual. Merv took the pot of regular off the hot plate, ready to pour him a sober-up cup. No one paid much attention to him at first, headed up to the counter. He slipped, his face slamming into the black and white tile floor. Nan Thomas said the cracking of his nose was like a gunshot. He got to his feet unsteadily, blood pouring down his face and shirt, and down onto the floor. He ignored Merv and the proffered towel, instead choosing to grip the bar top with both hands and begin to talk.
“I did it,” he repeated over and over again. “I did it.”
No one knew what he was talking about at first, but it became clear.
“She saw me steal a fifth and followed me down to the river. She told me that I ought to return it. She wasn’t from around here she didn’t understand. I’d have paid for it eventually but she just wouldn’t let it go. She told me that she’d take it back, that I didn’t have to. Put her hands out for it and I slapped them away. She tried to take the bottle from me. It just happened. Like tripping on the sidewalk or catching a baseball. It wasn’t like I wanted to. It just happened. Just happened.”
He fell to the diner floor, bleeding and sobbing until the deputy arrived to put him in handcuffs. The sheriff couldn’t come because he was setting up the barricades on Main St. for the official showing.
It was the deputy who made the rounds after they found her body too. I remember it well because he was only a few grades above me. His badge read “Roberts” and I knew I’d seen his face in the hallway at school. He was nervy and his palms were sweating up against the edge of his notepad. He was going from door to door and asking about Leah: who her friends were, if anybody had a grudge against her, was she depressed? Those sorts of questions. I got the impression that he’d watched a few too many movies, but given the situation, I didn’t really blame him.
“She mostly kept to herself,” I told him. I sat in the recliner in our living room, caddy corner to Deputy Roberts who sat uncomfortably on our plastic-covered couch. He flinched visibly every time he adjusted his sitting position and the plastic crinkled. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hurt her. She seemed like a nice girl. I’m probably not the right person to ask though. I was three grades ahead of her.”
When he was gone I thought of all the things I didn’t say. It’s true that it wouldn’t have been relevant to the investigation, but it seemed unfair that I had this information about her and nobody to tell it to. I didn’t want to go to my grave with all of this unshared information about her. I needed to tell somebody else about it, to make sure it went further along. I didn’t tell the deputy:
“Leah wore white Keds to school almost every day. Even on days when it was raining, she was wearing those shoes. I remember a particular time that I was in the lobby waiting for Tripp when I saw her come inside. She snapped her umbrella shut quickly and reached into her purse. She pulled out some napkins and leaned down to dab them on her shoes. She was drying the canvas before the dirt and grime could stick to them. She kept those shoes immaculately clean.”
I didn’t tell the deputy that once I saw her crying outside the girl’s bathroom and stopped to ask if she needed anything. She looked up at me.
“Go away,” she said, just turning her eyes up enough to show her running mascara.
Her ears were still poking through but they were red on top. Her knees were pulled up to her chin and her jeans were stretched tight across her calves.
I went away like she asked.
I realized later that I didn’t tell the deputy these things because I didn’t know Leah. I knew some things about her, but they were selfish memories, things that only stuck out to me because she died. I’d like to think that if she was still alive I would remember her ears and her shoes and her poem, but I’m not sure that’s true. I don’t think I would. She only found meaning in my life through her death, and what I was feeling when Deputy Roberts left was nothing more meaningful than guilt.
The evening Dan Dennett confessed was the official Christmas decoration inspection. I was with Tripp and his grandfather. His old Buick was parked downtown and the three of us sat on the hood and admired the lights and decorations. It wasn’t a degree under ninety five and even with the sun long since gone, the steel of the Buick’s hood burned our legs. No one knew quite what to say that evening, but Tripp’s grandfather, being the adult, probably felt that he needed to try.
“Good lesson to us all really,” he said. “Good lesson. Being a drunk never leads to anything good. A bottle of liquor. He killed a young girl because of a bottle of liquor. Hard to believe.”
The inspectors came into view as he spoke and I could feel his body tense up against the hot steel.
“Hard to believe,” he murmured again, barely audibly. I looked over at him and saw that his eyes were glued to the men with the clipboards. Tripp’s eyes followed a similar line. My own eyes went from Tripp to his grandfather, and back again. I hopped down from the hood and started to walk away from downtown, back towards home.
“Where are you going?” Tripp called after me. I didn’t respond or turn back.
I walked home alone down the middle of the street. There was no traffic, not a soul around. Everyone was downtown, my family included. I took my baseball cap off and looked at it. I tossed it in the air. It was a bad toss, way off line, and it got stuck in a tree. I went over and stood under the tree, looking up through the branches. I could see my hat, stuck in a fork not too far up. I put my hands against the trunk of the tree and shook it as hard as I could. For the briefest of moments, I had the sensation that it had started snowing. I forgot for a second that it was ninety five degrees and only remembered that it was Christmas Eve, and that on Christmas Eve, it snows. But it was only for a moment. My hat fell to the ground and I picked it up, brushed it off, and placed it back on my head. I brushed my shoulders off. It was just tinsel and cotton, nothing substantial.
About the Contributor
Matthew Thompson‘s previous work has been published in apt, and r.k.v.r.y. Quarterly. He lives in Macon, GA with his partner Liz, his beagle Tootsie Roll, and a very leaky paddle boat. He is currently working on his first novel.