Clara couldn’t be sure if the crying started then, or if it had been stuck there in her head for thirty years–only buried under LIFE and JOB. It was there now, clear as day, bleating over and over like a bad song stuck on replay. WAHHHHH. WAHHHH. WAHHHH.
The Doll had been locked away in a closet-safe worth more than its contents, and Clara Mae retrieved it before she had given it conscious thought. She cradled it, rocked it, fashioned it a napkin-diaper with safety pins. She wondered if Mama missed The Doll, and the thought hardened inside her head with the guilt of visits skipped. She could see now why Mama had liked it so much.
But “liked it” she knew wasn’t right. It was more like an addiction: a rush at first, morphing into a cycle of suffering and abating, suffering and abating, while the cry—that persistent cry—was always there. She swaddled The Doll in a hand towel and nested it in the bottom of her purse. The move did not silence the cries echoing through Clara Mae’s head; Clara Mae was happy to have it close all the same.
Together they went from trailer park to trailer park, looking for the familiar backyard frame. Only the looking quieted the cries in her head, and even then they only softened instead of silented. When the trailer parks proved fruitless, they drove the length of the town, winding through back roads, Clara Mae holding the purse in her lap so The Doll would be close to her, hoping. But each turn unwound to reveal the same usual landmarks, the same usual horizon, and eventually she decided she needed a drink.
Lost my job? she thought, unlike herself. Yeah, I’ve earned a drink.
She pulled into the strip mall next to the Citgo. An advertising sign was propped outside the storefront; it used to be lit up next to the street, but its bulbs were long dead. The changeable letters proclaimed, “BOW-BOW’S TAVERN COME ON IN.” Clara had heard word of Kathy visiting Bow-Bow’s, though Kathy had always denied it, avowing her church-going ways.
The Grand Jury had heard frequently about Bow-Bow’s. The handbags stolen, the pool cues broken in fights, the drinkers found with concealed weapons and (inevitably) concealed drugs. She could almost hear the D.A’s booming voice chiding her for visiting—as he so often called it—a “honky tonk.” Outside Bow-Bow’s stood their local homeless guy, Tom. He was The Chivalrous Beggar, holding doors for customers, offering to sweep and pick up in parking lots. Clara Mae knew this made it harder for store owners to shoo him away, but he also seemed to be a genuinely nice guy. Once she had given him an old coat, and a couple of time she gave him some Chinese food. (She always ordered too much Chinese food.)
“Thank you, Tom,” she said. He wouldn’t remember her. The drugs had seen to that.
“You can call me T, m’am. Not Mister T. Just the letter. T.”
“Thank you, T,” Clara Mae handed him a dollar, knowing he wouldn’t remember that when she exited, and she would have to give him another.
It was early yet, and Bow-Bow’s was mellow: sunlight streaming through windows, tables mostly empty, a couple of folks munching on the lunch special “FIFTY CENT HOT WINGS,” and a guy playing darts really well. Clara slid up to the bar, but it had been a long time since she had done that, and she felt very out of place.
“What can I getcha?” the bartender asked.
Clara wasn’t sure. She didn’t like to drink, really, and if she wanted something she didn’t want to taste it. Something fruity with an umbrella. Like a daiquiri.
But instead she said, “A shot of whiskey.” It seemed like the kind of joint where you should order that. When it was presented to her, she just looked at it, held it, then finally took a sip and tried to hide her wince.
“Taste okay?” the bartender asked.
“Mmhmm,” she said, eyes watering a bit. Real smooth, Clara, she thought to herself. “I’m actually, I’m looking for someone. Could you tell me if you’ve seen her? It’s really important that I find her.” Clara Mae pulled out an old holiday snapshot of Kathy and the girls from her purse. “Kathy,” Clara Mae pointed to the woman, “her name is Kathy.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen her before. But not for a while. Sorry I can’t be of any more help.” The bartender called over to the guy really good at darts, “Hey, Bill, you seen Kathy lately?”
Bill paused. “Naw,” he finally said, throwing another dart to the board’s dead center.
“Sorry, ma’am,” the bartender said.
Clara took another sip from her shot glass. The whisky fumes went up her nose and burned her uvula, and though she tried to hold it back, she burst into uncontrollable coughing.
“You outta just go for it,” the bartender said, sympathetic. “That’s the trick. Just down it. Easier that way. Anyway, you look like you need it.”
She looked at him, looked at the glass, and tossed the rest of it down. “Liar,” Clara sputtered through the burning of her throat, but she said it her words were slightly slurred, and her body felt a buzz that she appreciated.
“Can I get you another?” the bartender asked.
“No, thank you. How much do I owe you?” Clara said, and she settled up.
As she reached the door, Tom held it open for her—as she knew he would. She handed him a dollar bill with the hand that held Kathy’s picture. “Have a good day, Tom—I mean, T,” Clara corrected herself. T was still looking at the photo, though, and his already pale complexion had gone white. “T, do you know this woman?”
“Yes’m. I know her. I been knowing her. This woman, I been knowing her. She’s not a nice woman, no siree, not a nice woman a’tall.” Tom stammered, eyes locked on the picture.
“Not a nice lady? Why do you say that?” Clara asked.
“I just be hearing that is all,” Tom said. “Ain’t she the lady that had her husband murdered?”
“Excuse me?” Clara was alarmed.
“I mean, wasn’t her husband murdered?” Tom quickly corrected himself “I mean, wasn’t that guy at the gas station murdered? Wasn’t that her guy? That was what I meant. I mean, I know her husband was murdered, but she’s still a bitch. I know that is mean to say, and I feel bad for her ‘n all, but she was not not a nice lady is all. No siree. Not nice a’tall,” Tom was reaching out for the photo.
“Tom, do you know—” Clara started.
“That’s T, m’am, you can just call me T. T’s my name, workin’s my game. Any old odd job, T will take care of it. Yes m’am.” T tipped his hat a bit.
“T,” Clara started again. “Do you know where Kathy is right now?”
“You mean do I know where her trailer is? Why yes sirree, I shore do, I know just where it is, yes I do. That mean old lady just moved but I know where she moved to, yes indeedy I do.”
“Can you tell me how I find her?” Clara asked, but T cut her off again.
“T can’t tell you how to get there. But T can show you for a small fee. Just a little bit of greasing the palm, alrighty? Just a little cash for m’stash, m’kay? Hundred bucks, how’s that sound? Sounds fair right? A little tit for tat, this for that?” T looked excited, and his excitement frightened Clara more than a little bit. She knew the money would be going straight to drugs, and she didn’t want that for him. But she was desperate.
“Hundred bucks. After you get me there,” Clara said.
Tom shook her hand too hard. His hand was dry. “T thanks you, m’am. T appreciates this opportunity. Yes sirree, he shore do.”