Murder Ballads #2

Jennifer’s Body

The moon was a small hairline fracture in the night sky. The bare trees scratched at the cold wind. One lone light from the boat ramp cut through the dark. The oars slicing through the ink-black Mississippi made the only noise.

“Tell the Sheriff he’s going to want to check the trees out on Jug Island in the morning. Something’s tangled up at the north end.” That’s what had come squawking across on the police scanner.

The Mississippi had been high that fall. Not high enough to top the levee, but high enough to deposit that familiar fear in people’s throats. The current now pulled hard, but Melody had been training for years to be strong enough to fight the river, trusting that the time would come. Tree limbs and dead deer floated past her. Other things, darker shapes, never resolved themselves, but moved on downstream just out of her field of vision.

Jug Island wasn’t large under the best of circumstances. When the river was high, it was maybe thirty yards long, ten yards across. The sandy south end, where generations of teens had camped and fished and swam and drank and fucked, was completely submerged. She came ashore somewhere in the middle.

The branches of the bushes she had to push her way through stung as they slapped at her. Every few feet, a thorn or a sharp stick would catch her jacket and she had to pull herself free, half walking, half wrestling.

She wanted off Jug Island as quickly as possible, but she dreaded arriving at the north end, dreaded seeing what was waiting there. The sliver moon hid behind a black cloud and Melody stumbled in the blackness. Hands first, into the mud. The swollen river quick to fill the holes her hands had made.

“Okay, this is it,” she said to herself and then, immediately, she regretted making any sound. She held still. The night noises continued. No one had notice her. She tensed and listened for any sounds coming from shore. Nothing.

The cloud moved and Melody’s eyes adjusted. There was something in the bushes. Someone. A girl in a long, black nightgown, her brown hair dyed pitch black to match. Melody remembered the mess they’d made in the bathroom to get that hair color. Jennifer Parker. Finally, after all these years.

Dansburg was a nothing town, had been less than nothing twenty years ago when Jennifer Parker went missing. No stoplight. No high school. No industry. There had been thirty-six people in their graduating class. That’s thirty-six high school seniors in the whole county, not counting Jennifer.

Dansburg had three claims to fame: the meth the Gale family made was pretty good, the guys working the line at John Deere third shift swore by it anyway; once every ten years or so, there would be a catastrophic five-hundred year flood on the Mississippi and the whole damn town, except for the people rich enough to live up on the bluff, would be under water and the Corps would always have some dumb answer for how the town could get a five-hundred year flood every ten years, “just a bad streak;” and Kevin McDonald, now the huge recording artist/record producer/fashion impresario KMD, grew up three houses down from Melody, four blocks over from Jennifer.

People in town scorned him for not admitting he was from Dansburg. In interviews, he always said he was from the Quad Cities. And people in town blamed him for Jennifer’s death. There was, of course, the song. His song. His one mention of the town that wanted to claim and condemn him. Seven weeks at number one. “The Dansburg Girl.” NPR called it “A murder ballad with a heart. A genius retooling and indictment of one of the darker sides of popular music.” Melody never believed it was an artistic reaction to murder ballads. She thought it was his confession. “Pushed her down in the mud to drown.”

But you can’t put anything in the Mississippi and expect the river won’t vomit it back up eventually.

Still, when faced with a twenty-year-old corpse that shows no sign of rot, you’re faced with certain truths. Jennifer had not been in the river this whole time. Melody was struck with uncertainty about who had murdered Jennifer, but she felt sure in her bones that the only way what she was seeing was possible was if someone had kept her in a freezer chest all these years, tucked away between the yearly deer and the five-for-twenty beef specials.

Kevin McDonald’s family didn’t have a deep freezer.

Later, as the dawn clawed its way across the dark sky, Melody took two shots of whiskey to steady her nerves and then dialed the last number she had for Kevin McDonald. To her shock, he answered. He sounded groggy, half asleep.

“Hello?”

“Kev,” she said. She stopped. She had no idea what she wanted to say to him.

“Melody?” He asked, his voice scratchy and hesitant.

“Jennifer’s dead,” she said and then she coughed and shook her head. “No, I mean, they’re going to find her body this morning. Of course she’s dead.” Melody started to cry. She hadn’t realized how much she had held out some slim slice of hope that Jennifer was still alive, that she’d run off with a band or escaped to her cousin in St. Louis, that she’d changed her name and might be out there, somewhere, living some ordinary life and that, some day, Melody might turn down an aisle at a Walmart or come out of a McDonald’s or sit down in a Starbucks and there she’d be, her old best friend, fat and happy and alive. “Who did it?”

“You think I know?” Kevin asked. His voice was resigned, flat. Finally, after all this time, someone had asked him the right question about Jennifer, about that song.

“Yes,” Melody said.

“You know there’s no justice in Dansburg, right?” He asked. “I will tell you the truth, but you have to promise me first that you know how it is.”

Of course she did. The Gale kids sped around town with trunks full of meth. None of them went to jail. The Mexican family that lived down by the liquor store was run out of town five years ago for not being “real Americans.” Dansburg was a corpse of a town. The only thing that still animated it was spite and a kind of corruption you couldn’t get away with in places where people still gave a shit.

“It was Deputy Miller.” He said. “My dad and I both saw it. She was doing something at church with the kids. I don’t remember what, or if I ever knew. But my dad and I were out shooting hoops and she was across the street at the church, making sure everyone was gone and that things were locked up. Deputy Miller came by and he grabbed her and she pulled away. She fell. She hit her head. He put her in the back of his car and told us he was taking her to the hospital. Obviously, that wasn’t true.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

“To whom?”

Melody stifled the urge to snidely call him “college boy.”

“We had to live here,” he tried to explain again.

“No, you didn’t,” Melody said. “You left as soon as you could.”

“That’s why!”

Melody still hated him. Twenty years. Wouldn’t she have liked to leave at some point along in there? But, if she had, who would have watched and waited for Jennifer’s return? She felt robbed of that time. He was right, though. That’s what really burned. Who could he have told? Who would have believed him?

But she liked the song now—“The miller was the thief/who stole poor Jenny/shook like a leaf”—could hear it for what it was, an indictment, not a confession.

But Deputy Miller was Sheriff Miller now and the body hung up in the bushes on Jug Island barely made the gossip at the grocery store, let alone the nightly news. No one but Melody, and, by extension, Kevin, knew it was Jennifer’s body. Melody waited for Jennifer’s parents to call her with the news. They never did. The body sat in the morgue as a Jane Doe, though Melody knew, in her bones, that anyone who saw her, who had known her when she was alive, would have recognized her.

So, what do you do for your old, dead, best friend when the world is ready to forget about her? When justice can’t be done because the Sheriff is the bad guy?

Melody’s heart softened a tiny bit toward Kevin. She went up in her attic and found her old guitar. She hadn’t touched it since Kevin left town, but somehow the strings were still okay. She tuned and strummed. Then she sat down in front of the camera on her computer and sang “The Dansburg Girl.” She uploaded it to YouTube.

The next day, she went and got herself new strings and a better microphone. She sang the song again and uploaded it again to YouTube.

Two and a half months later, Kevin called her and asked her to stop, that it was upsetting his record company.

“Sue me,” she said. “You already got the good life, though, so I don’t know what more you think you can get.”

He didn’t call again.

Four months of recording that song, uploading it to YouTube, each version slightly different than the last, some slower, some faster, some as sad ballad, some as loud protest. Jennifer had been here. Now she was not. How ordinary. How terrible. Every night, as they say, three chords and the truth.

Then, a new comment on one of her videos. “The Pollys have heard your cries and they will answer.”

It wasn’t even the weirdest thing that someone had written beneath her performances, but she shivered when she read it.

That promised answer was swift and dramatic. That weekend, a thousand women arrived in Dansburg, some three to five in a car. The town was too small to hold all of the cars, but the women parked in every parking spot, along every street, down all of the country lanes that led to town. They dressed all in white, except for their work boots, which were brown or black or tan or pink, depending. Some carried shovels.

Some carried sledgehammers.

They gathered in front of the church, the last place Jennifer had been seen and everyone in town came out to see them, two women in white for every person in Dansburg. Melody hung back, at the edge of the crowd.

She had brought them here.

The women began to walk east out of town, toward the cemetery. At first, they were silent. The sound was the soft shuffling of their feet on the asphalt. And then they began to sing Kevin’s…no, Jennifer’s song. There were so many women that, from where Melody stood, the song sounded like a round—the women already farther east way ahead of where the women still at the church were.

They poured into the cemetery, filled it with no room for anyone else, and the townspeople stood outside the iron gate, watching as the shovels shook the ground. That unmarked grave for that unclaimed girl, that poor Jane Doe found tangled in the bushes, split open under the efforts of the women. Still, they sang.

They were so loud that the sirens on the cop cars were impossible to hear until they were right at the cemetery. Sheriff Miller burst from his seat. Melody could see he was shouting to the deputies, but, in the whole county, there were six officers of the law. Six men against a thousand women.

Melody laughed. Where, even, could he put them if he did arrest them? How would he arrest them? Were there a thousand handcuffs in the Quad Cities, let alone here? The men struggled to break into the crowd, to thrust their way into the cemetery, but the grave was open.

The smell. Oh, god, the smell. Everyone recoiled. But the women redoubled their singing. And then, up over their heads, they held Jennifer. The women poured back out of the cemetery, rushed down the lane toward the river. They formed a long line, two across, and they passed her between them, this poor long-dead girl.

Everyone in town saw that body.

A woman from the white-dressed group finally spoke as the body made its way toward the levee.

“Who will speak for this girl? Who will name her?”

Melody heard a gasping, choking cry. Jennifer’s mother. She waited, but the old woman could not do it.

Okay, then, this one last thing.

“That’s my best friend, Jennifer,” Melody said. “I would recognize her anywhere.”

“And do you know what happened to her?” The woman asked.

Here was the moment. Finally. No oblique song lyrics. No hidden conjecture. Just the truth. There was a girl who was deeply loved and this man, this man, Melody began to cry, took her from us. She couldn’t say it out loud. Her voice betrayed her. She pointed.

She pointed at the Sheriff.

“Did you do this?” The woman asked him. He nodded, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, and Melody saw that he was frightened, but also relieved. Finally, the truth is out.

They set Jennifer’s body gently on the levee and then the women, these Pollys, all one thousand of them, swarmed the Sheriff. They kicked him and hit him and tore him limb from limb. Still, still they sang.

They sang and their voices carried over his screams. They sang and their voices carried over the cries of the crowd. They sang and their voices carried over the gut-wracking sobs of Jennifer’s family. They sang. They sang. Oh, they sang.

When they were done, there was nothing left of him, except his blood soaked into the white clothing of the Pollys who had been close enough to kill him.

The blood-stained Pollys climbed up on the levee and stripped themselves naked. They tossed their bloody clothes into the cold, brown water. When they came down the levee, the other women handed them new clothes.

And then, as quickly as they had materialized, they vanished back into their cars and then out of town.

Only then did Melody notice that they had taken Jennifer with them. Rescued her from oblivion in a town determined to forget her. They would remember Jennifer.

Why, Melody wondered, had they not taken her, too?

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4 thoughts on “Murder Ballads #2

  1. Okay, that last song is not spooky. But there’s something about it that so reminds me of my childhood, like, sure, young sheltered children, the jazz choir is the key to understanding the universe. But as silly as it is, it’s also kind of true.

  2. I also really love the Midwestern passive-aggressiveness of just singing a song every day until someone figures out you need aid, instead of just asking for it.

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