A Sky Sometimes Blue
by Joel Howard
I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the idea of evil bein’ among us. Thinkin’ evil doesn’t walk right along beside us may serve to keep a person calm, but it doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s a story that happened here in town that tests the idea of evil, leastways it did with me.
It started when Loretta, my second cousin – she’s the one who works part time at Food Fair, pretty little thing with strikin’ red hair and green eyes that’ll take a person right in. I mean, she’s no bigger round than my pinkie finger and just a deep breath of sparkle. So what started the whole thing was Loretta’s mother-in-law movin’ in on top of her and her husband. I don’t really know her husband Teddy very well, but I do know men, and I sure as hell know husbands – had three of ‘em myself. Whether Teddy asked Loretta about his mama movin’ in with ‘em, or it was just presented as a done deal, I’m not sure. I do know Loretta well enough to know she probably didn’t even put up a fuss at all. She’s meek as a rule, folds quicker than a dollar store umbrella in a breeze, so she like as not said “whatever you think is best, dear” or somethin’ similar to Ted when he asked her about it. That is, if he even bothered to ask her what she thought about the situation, like I said. You know men and their frustratin’ ways.
So Vessy – that’s Loretta’s mother-in-law, Vessy Lu Douglas – moved into the spare bedroom of Loretta and Teddy’s tiny two bedroom house (and with but one small bath, too!). Loretta swears the woman moved in with more stuff than the house could handle, sendin’ the walls bulging out and the floorboards creakin’, the whole house prayin’ for mercy. But she just pushed her way in, moved things around as she pleased, and generally made herself at home. From the beginnin’, there never was what you’d call any love lost between Loretta and Vessy, for what reason I can’t rightly say. Maybe no particular reason at all, or maybe for a hundred little annoyances and bothers.
So after just seven months of Vessy plantin’ her ornery self on the sofa and demandin’ this, that, and the other from Loretta, the pot boiled over and the lid went a flyin’. At least that’s how some folks interpreted what happened. Others said it was all a tragic accident. Loretta never did go to jail, but ask me, the cloud that’s hung forever over her is its own prison. People’l talk, and talk about poor Loretta they did. As I see it, too many still do.
Vessy hardly ever let her daughter-in-law go anywhere without havin’ to drag herself along. Vessy liked to control things, includin’ other folks’ lives. Hell, that’s what she loved most, kind of her hobby you could say. So being right in the thick of Loretta’s comin’s and goin’s was a must do for her. That’s how it was when one day Vessy tagged along with Loretta to the DMV. ‘Cause they never had any money, Loretta waited ‘til the very last day of the month, just before the tags expired, meanin’ that even though it was as crowded as a liquor store on New Year’s Eve, she had to get in there and just wait her turn.
Well, Vessy went to haranguin’ Loretta somethin’ fierce from the get go. A couple of folks I know was there and witnessed the whole ordeal, tellin’ me she was all afire, screamin’, “this line! What did you expect would greet us with you waitin’ til the last second and all?,” and “You gotta get organized, but then that’s not your long suit, now is it, Loretta?”, and such. On and on she prattled as they took their number and waited in them hard-as-a-rock chairs they got down there. Those damn chairs are just torture on a body.
Things was made all the worse ‘cause Loretta knew Vessy was aware that she and Teddy was always broke. Add the fact that Vessy had a decent pension check comin’ in the mail every month, along with Social Security, and what with both of them envelopes passin’ right under Loretta’s nose, and it’ll try anyone’s kindness. All that money comin’ in and never once did the old lady offer to buy so much as a stick of butter. Well, as you can imagine, poor Loretta was bein’ pushed to the edge. And Ted, he was too scared of his mother to ask her to help out, or so I’m told. Husbands and their mamas, a stranger relationship I can’t think of.
So finally Loretta’s number is called. And sure enough Vessy was right in Loretta’s shadow, followin’ her up to the counter, stuck to her backside like gum to a shoe. And you know how them employees down at the DMV are, all dour and such. Lord knows how low and frustrated Loretta must have been by that point.
Oh, now, I forgot to tell you one of the stickin’ points between Vessy and Loretta. Vessy fancied herself God’s own best warrior, always quotin’ scriptures and sayin’, well, more shoutin’ really, “amen” and “glory” and “hallelujah” all the time. A real nut for the church, that Vessy was. Truth was she got her scriptures wrong half the time. I myself heard her say “the weak shall inherit the earth” when Tommy Giddens lost all that weight ‘cause a cancer. But I doubt Loretta ever pointed them errors out to her mother-in-law. Why ask for trouble when she’s already got so much on order? On top of that, Vessy had it in her head that Ted’s not goin’ to church was Loretta’s doin’. True or not, I don’t know, but to Vessy’s way of thinkin’, it was just another strike against her war-weary daughter-in-law.
Now that I think on it, maybe it was all that bible shoutin’ that likely got Loretta dislikin’ Vessy so much. You know, I always say there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy. Vessy was of the bad variety, and with a helpin’ of irritatin’ to go with it.
There they was, both at the counter, and right off the bat Loretta is told she’s gotta have new plates, ‘cause hers are so old that the law says so. No extra charge or anythin’, which was like as not Loretta’s fear upon hearin’ such a thing. The young girl helpin’ ‘em, she just plops a set of plates on the counter like they do, kind of on autopilot as they mostly are down there, and goes to punchin’ on her keyboard, doin’ her thing. Loretta was probably feelin’ pretty darn good about then, thinkin’ she’d be back home soon, maybe at least able to put a wall between her and Vessy.
Well, Vessy had other ideas. She was like as not leanin’ over her daughter-in-law’s shoulder, keepin’ herself in the mix. Where better for her to stir the pot? What she saw there caused her to all a sudden send up a holler, which no doubt had everyone in the place starin’ at ‘em.
“Loretta Jean Douglas – Vessy was partial to using all a person’s names – you’re not thinkin’ of takin’ them plates?” She was right up in Loretta’s face by then, so I’m told. Vessy was like an invasive weed sometimes, forcin’ herself into your otherwise what-they-call harmonious space. Plus, she had this high-pitched whine of a voice, like a jet engine stuck up next to your ear.
Loretta said something to the effect of, “Why wouldn’t I take ‘em?” I can just imagine the expression on my poor cousin’s face! I’m a Christian lady, but like as not I would’ve told Vessy where to put them license plates.
Anyway, here’s the upshot of it: them license plates – which by the way Loretta ended up takin’ – they were, now let me see, oh yeah, they read ‘LCF666’. To Vessy’s bibled-up brand of crazy, that was just Lucifer followed by the mark of the beast, 6- 6- 6. So Vessy gets to clamorin’ about the devil and Satan and hotter-than-hell fires and Loretta bein’ a heathen. All this, mind you, done right in front of that crowd of people. Suppose it give them folks sittin’ in them chairs somethin’ to think about other than their sore butts.
Loretta musta told the clerk that the plates would serve her needs just fine, which spun Vessy right into a bigger fit. She went to caterwaulin’, quotin’ scriptures at Loretta and the crowd of people, no doubt flailin’ about like she’d stepped on a downed power line. I’m sure that DMV girl moved like lightnin’ to get on to the next customer. Now there’s a trick to get them movin’ faster down there – just talk crazier than a March hare and they’ll scoot you along fast as that!
This all sent Vessy turnin’ on her heels, and she marched herself out of there. She made it known from earth to the heavens above that she’d sooner walk all the way to China than ride shotgun with the devil. Just more craziness, Vessy style.
When her transaction was all done, Loretta walked herself out to the parkin’ lot, thinkin’ she’d catch up to her mother-in-law soon enough and get her in the car. Loretta was kind enough to put them new plates in the trunk, where Vessy wouldn’t have to see ‘em and Teddy could switch ‘em out with the old ones that evening. Surely even Vessy would see that plates locked in the dark of the trunk couldn’t cause no harm, or so one might think. I know I used to woulda believed such a thing.
So Loretta gets that old jalopy goin’, drivin’ in the direction of home. She sees Vessy not two blocks along, head down and movin’ as quick as she could. Now, you gotta know, bein’ poor like Teddy and Loretta, they’d patch things rather than buy new, all as a matter of financial survival, which, of course, was made all the more dire with Vessy’s mouth to feed. So they was watchin’ their money with that rattle trap car of theirs, too. Teddy’d had one of the front tires patched, tryin’ to get a few more miles out of it, save a few pennies.
Back on the street, Vessy had stopped at the light down there at Horton Avenue and Second, where that new McDonald’s was goin’ up. Now Vessy’s still mostly lookin’ down, probably mutterin’ mixed-up scriptures for all anyone knows. The witnesses said there was a young kid stopped on the sidewalk with her, and like most teenagers I ever have known, he ignores the light and makes a run against the crossin’ signal. Just a bad accident waitin’ to happen, ask me. Vessy, well, she must’ve though it was okay to go, ‘cause she never looked up, just stepped off the curb thinkin’ she had the signal, followin’ that kid.
Meanwhile, Loretta is comin’ along thinkin’ she’ll go on straight through the light there and just pull on up to the curb. You know, get out and try to reason with her mother-in-law, tell her the plates are tucked away in the trunk where they’ll do no harm. It all went haywire just when Vessy was but a couple of steps off the curb. The police aren’t sure if the tire blew out first, causin’ Loretta to lose control of the car, or maybe, as she’s tryin’ to maneuver the car close along the curb, she gets too close and that makes the tire go kablooey. Either way, the car makes a bee line for the crosswalk and poor Vessy, Loretta havin’ had the steering wheel jerked from her hands.
That particular day Vessy was wearin’ this lovely sweater of Loretta’s, kind of a sky blue with little pearl-like buttons on it and a rolled collar. Loretta’d got it at a garage sale over in Springfield the fall before, and then wore it all the time ‘cause everyone complemented her on it. And then she wore it to work a lot as she wanted to look her best, hoping to get moved up to a full-time position. Vessy probably borrowed it without askin’, as was her way. Loretta told me the last thing she remembered is the loud bang of that tire blowin’ and then that pretty blue sweater tumblin’ through the air and smashin’ the windshield. Then Vessy just rolled forward off the hood and got herself pinned up between the front of that car and a light pole, like a rag doll squashed up in the back of an old toy chest.
And just like that, no more Vessy.
Loretta, well she was tore up somethin’ awful. Told she just boo-hooed and paced around like a hungry cat. For ages afterward, she wouldn’t take comfort no matter what anyone said or did. And what with the cops investigatin’ things, it had to weigh on her somethin’ awful. It never went anywhere like her being charged. Along the way, Loretta had said she did remember that her foot went right from the brake to the gas pedal when the tire blew, the force of it and all jarrin’ her whole leg. I mean, that does seem natural enough, but I suppose no one can ever be for certain.
Not two months after the accident, Teddy and Loretta went their own ways. Loretta lives over in those new apartments, the ones out on the north edge of town. I’m not sure on the amount, but Vessy left them a bit of money, which half went to Loretta in the divorce. Helped her set up house, plus she got a new car, which now has Vessy’s devil plates on it. Maybe Loretta’s thnkin’ there’s nothin’ to them license plates, but it makes me wonder, them devil plates being in the trunk of that old car just before the tire blew, givin’ that old Pontiac just enough oomph to run Vessy right to death.