James Maxwell Larkin
Know going in that I hardly knew the girl, that I remember the look of her more than anything else. If you’re trying to understand this thing, you’re brushing the bottom of the barrel with me. I’d like to understand it, too. But I just have the one day with Helen. Lucky for you, it was memorable, unlike the days around it. I can’t think that it will be of interest to the investigation, but then I’ll leave those decisions to professionals.
She was, as far as I know, friends with this guy Bedugnis, Dan Bedugnis, who used to deal a little grass up and down the Pioneer Valley. Have you run any of this by Dan yet? I might give a call, if I were you. I myself am not hurrying to catch up with him, at the moment, if there’s any hope of avoiding that. I wouldn’t know what to do. I spent a lot of time with Bedugnis, but he was never an easy guy, at least not then. You knew it to look at him, I hate to say. He had these yellowy jowls — at twenty-six, or seven — and scuffed blonde hair stringing down the back of his head. He kept tobacco in his lip, almost always, sometimes when he was smoking, which kept him dazed around the clock and quieter, even, than he might’ve been. Imagine being nauseous all the time. The statute of limitations having lapsed, I can tell you that I mainly dealt with him to score that grass, which was fine by me, being on a budget.
Maybe it’s me, though. I never could get anything good going with a dealer. I don’t know why. You’re about the same age, usually, spend a lot of time together around a common interest. But then there’s something about the nature of the relationship, or maybe the nature of drug dealers, that wrecks it.
Take for instance Bedugnis, who once bowled me over, deck-chair and all, for just beginning to compliment his grass, out on his stoop. We were smoking his grass, in a pretty dense stretch of homes, too, near the corner of Fearing and North Pleasant in Amherst, near the frat row on campus. It was a calmer time, in a lot of ways, you know, for better or worse. He insisted that he was trying to screen me out of photographs, potential photographs, or something. The kid had zero understanding of law enforcement. Anyway, I never felt welcome at his house from then forward, but we’d managed to patch it up before I met Helen. He ended up calling me to pick him up from the mechanic — the first time I’d picked up and heard that old-engine voice of his, so low and bored you could hardly make out words. He said nothing on the ride home, if I remember right, just kept up spitting in the old glass Coke bottle he kept with him, which he’d been known to spill. It had this awful, crisp smell of mud, or mint, but looked just like Coke from across the car. After that we generally met around town in his big-block ‘71 Dodge Dart Swinger, which might be important. It was painted off-green, a stemmy sort of green, with a darker green racing stripe down the side — kind of forest-color. My mother, who visited one week, hated Bedugnis just on account of how much noise that car made, not knowing what he was. Just inferred it, from the car. I agreed with almost everything she said.
But I saw him almost every day that summer. He’d roll up in the late morning or the early evening, and I’d score some grass, and we’d drive around smoking it for a half hour, an hour, not saying much—just watch the fields turn green, then yellow, and listen to the Moody Blues. I was taking a break at the time, from my job breaking bottles at the recycling plant. Putting the English major to work, you know. We’d work with a hammer and then with a press, and sort all the time by color. I’ve moved up in the world since then, by the way. Could you make a note? And my girlfriend at the time would go through at night, and pick the little chips out of my hair. It was actually hard to get it all, but it felt nice, her trying. My hair was long back then.
On the day I met Helen I was trying to move quickly: a friend and I were considering driving to the Quabbin reservoir in the afternoon, and I was trying to smoke before he picked me up. It didn’t play out. I mean, I got caught up, ran late across the board. It was probably four-thirty or five when I saw that Dart roll up in front of where I was living at the time, out in Sunderland. Sunderland was great because it was closed in out there by all these tobacco farms. It stayed real quiet and you could run around at night without running into anyone. The rents have probably stayed low, I imagine.
But there were three or four people already in the back, with Bedugnis’ big bag not moving to free up a place for a person in the passenger seat. Bedugnis somehow sold me on taking a ride with them, the afternoon sales run, and even sort of gestured this tiny kid in the middle seat out of my way. He had a unibrow. A few of the passengers had dropped that morning, he added, just to let me know. Not the rarest thing, at the time, and an everyday activity for a few, way out there. This was early on in August, and it was already hot as hell in the way that Western Mass. can be that time of year, you know, with the heavy air. And the Dart was a two-door hardtop, so whoever was up front had to step out for me to get in. Ducking into the back seat I had to step over the little one, who had chosen to cradle himself between the seats on the floor, craning forward to keep his head off the other guy’s feet and to stare me down under that long brow. And as I took my seat I saw this other head lolling back so that its top touched the back window, with long black hair combed every way off it, tilting away from me toward the outside. The hair looked like a velvet bag over her head and the tops of her chest. And that was Helen. You could see her nose poke out and turn up; looking at the picture in the paper I noticed that’s just how her face is shaped. And so I looked to her body, which is very long for a girl’s and very thin. She was, around a short skirt and a cornflower tank top, a mess of elbows and knees. Even when she was young she looked like a knot that had healed together, like some kind of amputee. Just gangly, I thought, but she must already have been on the needle at that point. I learnt from the paper about the hepatitis concerns, her health prospects. Anyway, we sat there packed together a while before I even saw her face, or heard her.
Bedugnis drove on, our five lives in his hands, changing the radio off “Take It Easy” when that came on—probably for my benefit, come to think of it, because I’d have made my feelings known about the Eagles. He’d hung his left hand out the window because he said it felt good, calmed his eczema, a detail I remember very clearly. Put that in your files. Maybe it’s critical.
At some point we pulled into the parking lot of the gas station and farmer’s market, next to Warner Farm, with the big corn maze going. Sitting on the ground out there was a guy Eduardo — an old white guy, from upstate; I can’t explain the name—who Bedugnis would sell to. Picture a cartoon hippie granddad, with white hair, and a beard, and three or four rotating bandannas. Sort of the local color —I’m sure he’s gone by now. But you’d see him around then, on the PVTA and at bars sometimes. Bedugnis waved him over to the window. They settled up quickly—the old guy gave him a big “thanks, man,” though I realized at that moment I was getting the discount this guy needed. Eduardo was headed back to his seat on the ground against the station when a voice came out, next to me, clear but turned away. It was a shock, Helen saying: “Hello Duardo! Did you find that skunk?” And this ancient vagrant guy leant down and grinned like an idiot when he saw it was her, and told her, yes, that he’d chased the skunk around his tent all night, and that it hadn’t come back for a week. And Helen told him congrats, that something was gobbling up the vegetable patch where she lived now, and that she’d let him know how it turned out when she saw him next. She was in one of the commune-type situations out in Shutesbury at the time. You’ll know for sure.
Eduardo was only blocking the sun in part, and the rest brought out the red-brown in Helen’s hair. I still had hardly seen her face. Meanwhile, Bedugnis began thrumming on the wheel, in time to music he’d made a little fuss over turning down. He caught my eye in the rearview, agitated, and I gave him a reassuring nod, which was what I always did, whenever we made eye contact. She said goodbye, and reminded herself and the rest of the car that she was on duty to check the traps, and that she was especially sorry, but could we go back her way at some point before the sun went down. That wall of hair finally fell back as she turned forward and we moved, and I saw her whole face, the one you boys have probably been staring at since they dug this case up again. No one’d call her a pretty girl, Helen, with that heavy brow. Bedugnis told me later on that she looked like one of the ones from Creedence. He was laughing, and maybe he wasn’t wrong. But there’s something about it all together, though, something not nameable. Maybe you know. You’d have seen her moving around, right? Heard her talk in courtrooms?
The afternoon must have just crept on in that way; the two boys to our left — the one now given up to lying down against the other’s shins—closed their eyes, preferring whatever they were seeing in there to the cramped car and my unwelcome face and the scratched-red skin of the driver. And at a certain point Helen started chatting with me the way I only ever would with a close friend, carrying on about her life, very quietly at times, as if parts of it were still secret. I can’t really think why she would’ve done that, just choose discretion from time to time, a sense of discomfort very near to her heart, that’d crop up. She told me about Gary, this ex-boyfriend of hers who wore green fatigues and who I thought I’d seen around, and she said that they were broken up for good and that it didn’t bother her, and that she’d found some really kind people to live with, but that they’d expect her to pull her weight with these “poor pests,” she said, for starters. She reminded Dan to go over there again, where he was already heading, but through all these sales stops. Business was booming, I guess. I’m sure he groused a little. But she seemed so fragile and forgetful that you had to forgive her things. Bedugnis definitely gave a little. But anyway Gary, she said, had become a bit of a pig when they were together. He was a little older than she — maybe a lot older, I thought. A real chauvinist, angry at the world, she called him. She didn’t mind the other girls a bit, but she was done being hurt, she said, and I believed her, though I know I was wrong to do that. Gary would sell her in a second, she thought, without even thinking about it, like livestock. The grasses and plants rolled on and on down Route 116, back toward school, with the two tripping teens sighing in front of the window, feeling calm enough, I guess. You do get used to the feeling of your skin being plastered to the piped white vinyl seats, and to others’, by the heat. It can put you to sleep. Anyway, when the trees came up I knew we were in Shutesbury and getting close. Helen’d fallen quiet again, leaning her head against the window and one of those toothpick arms.
Eventually Bedugnis pulled down a long driveway, using that twitching eye he used on me sometimes on the dust getting kicked up on the windshield and wheels of his Dart. Eventually the branches stopped slapping the side windows, and the track opened onto a field overhung by those prayer-flags, from Asia. Just what you’d expect. Behind a row of shrunken sunflowers, you could see one guy working the field here and there, in a bathrobe, reddish. Helen got out of the car running, saying she’d be back. The rest of us sat there.
It’s going to bug me—I thought about it all last night, trying to prepare — but that was when Bedugnis started talking: about how people and maybe police—he wouldn’t have said police—placed that guy Gary at the scene of the stabbings in Holyoke that winter, that it wasn’t a political crime like they said, just a failed robbery straight up; that he was a junkie; that she—and he would’ve nodded out into the fields—was one, too; that her old housemates had seen her throwing clothes onto one night’s bonfire soon after; that she had moved out. He was sweating to get it out, running his mouth. Who isn’t happy to speculate? They said she’d worn black the day of the funeral, that she was mourning the pregnant woman who’d died, and that maybe she’d been there, waiting in the car or something.
People just said things, too, of course. But you’ve heard all this before, and to tell the truth, I don’t remember it that well. We could have been talking about anything. And it wasn’t half an hour until I heard a thump to my right and and saw a rabbit in shadow, trapped, almost biting at the window. Helen had crept up and pressed the cage, a kind of Havahart trap against my window. The trap looked heavily used; it must have worked by balance. The animal would go in and it’d tip, and the gate’d fall. But so Helen was holding it and smiling nervously above and behind the big brown rabbit inside, her face dark, the sun pretty much behind her. I smiled back, and so the conversation stopped right there, and I don’t think I have any clearer memory of it than that. I’m sorry to say it.
But the night carried on a little, and so I ought to finish, I think. Helen held the rabbit on her lap and waved her finger at it as we pulled out of the driveway again, looking for somewhere to go, to bring it. It was a fat little thing; the cooperative spirit had been good for it. It looked content, even as Bedugnis sped through the hollows in the road, the car lurching, the two kids still chilled out. A few times he’d start to pull off the road and tell Helen he didn’t want that thing shitting in his car. Helen was insistent: “Oh no,” she’d say, “it has to be ten miles or more, at least,” rocking this thing back and forth gently, through the cage. “Otherwise, it’ll find its way right back in a couple of days. They’ll blame me.” She added, totally calm, that if the rabbit had to shit, it would be on her lap for sure. And she brushed her hair back to her ear, again and again, watching the road and the back of Dan’s head, and after a while I suggested that we take it back to Sunderland, where I had to go anyway to get in touch with my friend, and where the rabbit could bother some other sucker for a while. And that’d be at least ten miles. Bedugnis gave in once we’d agreed on that plan in back, when the sun was coming down.
I remember, when it was right about gone behind the tops of the barns and the tips of the fields, Bedugnis started a swing through the channels. He was spinning past classical—WFCR, probably, public radio—when Helen shouts “No!” The fat rabbit knocked softly against the cage’s side, and she gasped a little, and saw to it for a second. But leave that on, she said. That’s Chopin, a nocturne, in F minor, she thought. I never forgot the song, either; I wrote it down right as soon as I got home. Opus 55, if you’re curious. Anyway, her voice got very timid after shouting: she was sorry, sorry to the rabbit and to us. But she loved this song. She used to be able to play it, she remembered. Bedugnis and I were on the same page for once, I could see him in the rearview. But she was looking, too, and she carried on. Her father, who was in the Navy, loved Chopin, all this type of music. “I wish I could go home for the day,” she said, combing her hair with her fingers, “and play our old piano, and see my mom for a little. Do either of you have pianos?” Neither of us did.
The song’s short. It played out and Helen seemed to rest, the rabbit still nibbling in her lap, the stars coming out. I told her I thought it was nice when it was over and one of their DJs with the sexless sleepy voices came on and proved her right, and she smiled at me, like she just woke up.
When we were getting close she asked me whether or not I knew a good place for a bunny to stay. She was only eighteen, at the oldest, you know. I told her one place seemed as good as another, that a tobacco field should work, and I think I made some lame line, like after a beat, asked if the bunny was a smoker. She laughed, though, and I was glad. I swear to God, I was never at my best with this teenage girl next to me, all day long. I’ve tried to figure that out. Obviously I didn’t see how well she kept quiet, in her way, at the time. Anyway, Bedugnis said he didn’t care where the rabbit went, and couldn’t we just pull over at the biggest farm by the river. He said it seemed like the best one for rabbits. The strangers were half-asleep and seeing things; Dan had either lost his reasons for trying to impress, or could play along. That seemed fine, so he pulled over there on a little tuft of grass where you can hear the sound of the Connecticut River drain through the rows of tobacco plants. It was too flat and dark to see it, and we’d have had to head up a mile or so, to the Sunderland bridge, to be reminded that the river was even there. But you could hear it. So first Helen got out, then me, and Dan even came out and leant on the hood. He didn’t walk around the car. She lifted the cage with effort. I helped her set it down and open it. But the rabbit wouldn’t go, just gnawed on the rust-brown wires of the trap, even turned around, afraid of the sound of the gate in its hinge, which could have used oil. Dan told us just to tip it or something, from across his car. I ended up holding the top down, reaching in and trying to corral the little thing by its back end out of the cage, and eventually that worked. Once it got used to the outdoors, the thing took off in a little set of hops, then paused, and started up again. It didn’t turn around, that I could see, but then it was dark. Helen stood there for a while, talking to it, telling it to head on through the plants as fast as it could, because it would like the river best. Her arms were folded around themselves, and I could feel her shaking a little, though it wasn’t cold. She was probably feeling sick.
We got back in the car, Helen and I trading places so I could get out quickly when it was time. We were nearly back at my place; Dan took a hard right, and all of us keeled the other way like we’d been doing all day, even the two of them sleeping. But Helen, when she leant, sort of turned into me and kissed me, actually—just for a second, but really. Her cheeks were wet. She mumbled something, that she was worried that the farmers might catch the rabbit after all, that maybe we ought to have crossed the river. I didn’t know what to say. I told her that rabbits are hard to catch, and that big tobacco farmers probably aren’t that interested in a single one of them, that was unlikely to do too much harm by itself. She said she didn’t know. When she tipped over she had wrapped her fingers around the fat part of my wrist, and she didn’t let go for the rest of the ride, tightening sometimes, when I’d look over. And the moon was out and the roads in Sunderland weren’t street-lit, so her skin looked pale blue, shining a little, and she would put on a smile. You could tell from the way she was breathing that she hadn’t stopped crying, but Bedugnis had turned up the radio again, and I don’t think anyone else noticed.
We got back, finally. After I got out, I knelt down and touched Helen’s shoulder through the open window, just for a second. She might as well have been dead then. She hardly moved, and really was cold, even then. It was 9 o’clock on a summer night, only starting to cool off. Anyway, she said good-bye without looking me in the eye, and then something else I couldn’t make out. Bedugnis waited, flicked his hand like he was throwing a cigarette up and out, and practically floored it off. I remember that the tail-lights on that particular model Dart were flat and square, and made red dot-dots on either side, so that the old white-and-green license plate seemed to interrupt another interruption.
Then I walked inside. I’m sorry not to have more for you. These types of things get harder after a long period of time. But I can say that I would trust that Helen the most, the one that’s crying. She’s being honest, whatever she’s saying then.