Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Doing Mr. Velvet

by Gay Degani


All the dead bodies end up in Riverside County, and my cousin Emma tells me one more won’t matter. We’re on the I-10, slipping over the San Bernardino-Riverside line, Emma up ahead in Mr. Velvet’s gold Cadillac DeVille, Mr. V. dead in the trunk. I’m following behind in the station wagon.

We’re not bad people, Emma and I, and she says it’s our destiny – as cousins from a long line of beauticians – to open our own day spa. And now that it’s possible, we’ve worked too hard to waste time going to court to prove my innocence. And since she’s Mrs. Velvet and the sole heir to Mr. Velvet’s House of Hair in the event of his death, she doesn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to herself. If anyone asks, Harold Warren Velvet went to Vegas.

Emma turns onto a two-lane highway for a couple of miles and then onto a gravel road. It’s dark, and as lonely as a hair salon on Monday mornings, the clouds around the moon reminding me of our grandma’s spit-curls.

An abrupt thump from behind, a voice at my ear: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

I scream and jerk the steering wheel. In the rear view mirror is Jesus himself, all riveting eyes and bearded chin.

The wagon sways and bumps along the side of the road, spewing sand and grit. I don’t throw up; I pee my pants.

“Gilly?” Shit. The Almighty knows my name.

The reek of fries and heavy sweat helps me calm down. I know this smell. It belongs to Holy Roller, the guy who preaches in the middle of the intersection of Baseline and Haven back in Rancho Cucamonga.

We met my second day in California where I came to learn the family trade. He was digging through the dumpster out back and said to me, “I used to be in the Truth and now I’m not. I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”

I bought him a couple Whoppers and have been feeding him ever since.

“What the hell are you doing in Emma’s station wagon?” I ask him now.

“Hiding from the cops.” He starts to slide between the bucket seats and into the front and I swat him back. Emma’s gonna be hotter than an uncertified curling iron about this new development.

Emma’s taillights flash red across Holy’s bearded face. “Is that Mr. Velvet up there?”

“Keep your head down!”

We’ve caught up to the Cadillac, its bumper recognizable, so I hit the brakes, fishtailing a little, to fall behind. Emma’s not gonna like having a witness to our crime.

Before long she turns off the road and into squishy sand. The clouded moon turns the yucca trees into bandits, the boulders into bears. Emma parks the DeVille on a ridge of rocks. We are finally in the middle of nowhere.

“Holy,” I say. “Emma can’t know you’re here. You gotta stay in the wagon and be quiet, you understand? I mean it.”

“Fear not, little flock.”

A long gulch stretches below the ridge, willows on both sides. When I reach Emma, I lean against the Caddie’s front grille to keep from shaking too hard.

“Don’t wimp out on me now, Gilly. It’s your neck, don’t forget.”

“But I didn’t mean to do it.”

“No one’s gonna believe that now, so let’s get this car in the gully and light it up.”

She’s right, of course. Emma’s always right, and yet . . .

I glance over my shoulder at the station wagon. It’s still dark and quiet.
Mr. Velvet started to go stiff back at Mr. Velvet’s House of Hair while Emma made a plan. By the time we were ready to leave, we had to wrestle him into the trunk and now we have to wrestle him out. We tug and pull and finally get him onto the sand. Emma said we’d put him in the driver’s seat because then it would look like he decided to ramble through the desert for god-only-knows-what-reason, and something went terribly wrong, but his body still won’t bend, so we just slide him in along the front seat.

“That Mr. Velvet in there?” Holy Roller. Popping up next to me.

“Gilly,” snaps Emma.

“I didn’t ask him to come.”

“Dammit.” Emma swings around and glares at Holy. “Don’t screw with me, Jesus-freak. Gilly’s in trouble and I’m helping her out. You go wait in the station wagon, you hear? You lay down and you don’t look. I don’t wanna hurt you.”

He says softly, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and–”
Emma grabs him by the arm and drags him back to the wagon, me hurrying behind, explaining to Holy what happened. “It was an accident. I was washing Mr. Velvet’s hair –”

“You don’t have to explain anything to the likes of him!” shouts Emma.

“But I didn’t murder Mr. Velvet. I was washing his hair –”

“Shut up, Gil –”

“He jumped up when I sprayed him with hot water and then he slipped –”

“Stop it, you stupid, stupid girl.”

“And hit his head.” I’m hanging my own head.

Emma lets go of Holy when we reach her station wagon.

He glances from Emma to me and back to Emma, looking just like Jesus does in pictures of him chasing the money-changers out of the temple. He says, “So when you put the plastic over his face, Emma, you were helping him?”

Her body stiffens. “What plastic, you idiot?”

He wipes his nose on his sleeve. “Well, I was hungry so I was looking for Gilly through your window. And when Mr. Velvet moved, you covered his face with Saran wrap. I saw the box. You held it there until he stopped moving.”

These are the most words I’ve heard him say except when he quotes the Bible. It takes me a second to get it, then I gape at Emma, my cousin and life-long best friend. “You killed him and you were gonna let me think I –”

“Don’t believe this junkie, Gilly.”

Fumbling for the wagon keys in my pocket, I haul Holy to the passenger door. Open it.

“Where are you going?” Emma comes after us, grips my shoulder.

I shrug her off, yell at Holy to get in and shut the door. He does. Emma tries to hold onto me, but I throw an elbow into her chest, and she slips in the sand.

I race around the car, jump into the driver’s seat, lock doors. She’s there, hammering on the roof, peering in the window, her hair mussed, her face violet with rage.

I slam the accelerator. The wheels churn sand, then shoot us forward.

We hit the black top hard, and Holy Roller says to me, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall live.”

It isn’t until we spy the first billboard for the International House of Pancakes, and Holy Roller mutters something about Whoppers, that I roll down the window and poke my head into the cool dawn. Behind us, at the foot of the mountains, I see a rod of smoke twisting to the sky.

Emma, if nothing else, is a practical woman. Somehow she’s managed to light up Mr. Velvet in his Cadillac crypt, sticking to her plan. And if I know Emma, and I guess now I do, that means she’s not going to let anything or anyone stand in the way of her transformation of Mr. Velvet’s House of Hair into Emma Elkins’ European Day Spa, and someone else is going to have to take the blame for doing Mr. Velvet.

I turn to Holy Roller. “What do you say we take a vacation?”

“Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, didn’t he?”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

* * * * *

From Gay Degani's collection, Rattle of Want.


Gay Degani has had three flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. Pure Slush Books published her collection, Rattle of Want, in 2015 and the second edition of her suspense novel, What Came Before was published by Truth Serum Press in 2016. She blogs at Words in Place.