Fiction: The Confession of Clementine

Houck

Read More: A Short Interview with Gabriel Houck

Clementine didn’t understand what upset some people about having Hollywood in town.  The production crews weren’t pushy, they cleaned up after themselves, and even the equipment guys and rig drivers had been plenty decent around town at night. Locals would crowd about and gawk during filming, enough so that parish police had to call in state troopers to help keep the peace, but everyone seemed happy enough. She’d overheard Becky Randazzo gush to the Honduran ladies who worked at the Hair N’ Nails about seeing actors she’d recognized, in person, each of them more real for being different than Becky Randazzo had pictured, each of them aglow in ways that Becky Randazzo sternly attributed to late-night-television creams and to the more mystical and apocryphal remedies that she was sure the coastal elite cultivated in their medicine chests. The Honduran ladies clucked and nodded, hands busy, eyes sideways on each other.

Personally, Clementine felt the actors hadn’t looked aglow at all. The leading man looked haggard to her, far too pale to play anyone who worked outdoors in Louisiana. She’d first seen him Monday morning, exiting the makeup trailer where it had been set up on old Main, facing the two-block front of brickwork buildings from the original town center, their abandoned storefronts now cleaned to a shine, the mortar re-painted, logos of fake antique stores and mom & pop groceries stenciled along their windows. He smoked the wrong way, she thought. He held the cigarette butt between his thumb and forefinger like he was holding a shoelace, and the dark stubble that crept down his neck contrasted sharply with his smooth, shiny chest. His posture reminded her of an adolescent reluctantly waiting for the school bus, bent by burdens both real and imagined.

Word had spread around town that he was playing a man who kills his family. The movie folks had tried to keep a tight lid on the details of the script, but they hired too many locals to do laundry and meals and big-rig repair for anything to stay a secret for long. When Clementine had caught the leading man standing alone in the shade of the makeup trailer, she’d pulled her station wagon up the hill into the lot of the abandoned Phillips 66 and watched him for a while. Even though it was barely 9:30, the day’s heat piled relentlessly onto the town. It collected in valleys like fog, so that the parking lot she was idling in stood just above a shimmering blanket of humidity, thick enough to make a dog retch. Wind from the southeast drifted through her open windows, mixing the scent of cooked upholstery with a warm odor of pine. Clementine unwrapped a stick of gum, rolled it between her fingers before chewing it, and watched.  A man who kills his family, she thought. She watched his fingers pinch the cigarette, watched the smoke coiling out as his lips moved. She imagined he was practicing lines, and she tried to conjure the goodbye witticisms of Charles Bronson and Keith Carradine, yet all she heard in her mind was I’m sorry, my love, I’m so so sorry.

 

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She hadn’t meant to kill Randall. She hadn’t helped him either, once he’d landed awkwardly between the basement steps and the water heater, but she’d pushed him out of frustration for the way he moved, like a slowest drip of honey that never quite got where it was going, and hadn’t meant anything beyond an exclamation point that might inject some urgency.  Her husband hadn’t been looking, though. He had already turned around and opened the basement door, and her eyes had been closed because she always closed her eyes when she searched herself for something truly vile to say to him. He’d been living for months in a kind of sleepwalk state, and that day Clementine had simply had enough of it. In her view, things had gotten worse and worse, her husband solidifying into a statute on the back porch, a corpse on the couch after dinner that communicated with movements so slow and subtle they required time-lapse photography to decipher. Becky Randazzo had jokingly called him Ran-Dull, and although she’d never objected to his plain demeanor, Clementine knew that most folks thought she’d married down. Randall was a man destined to go nowhere fast. Randall was large. Randall was kind, though in a disaffected way that best showed itself when he was able to fix your washing machine hose or replace the ballcock in a leaky toilet. And now, on an evening in which all she’d wanted was bath with enough hot water to soak in, he was lying in the shape of the letter S, his neck at a strange angle against the water heater pipe, his legs still on the steps, curling and straightening involuntarily, little swishes of denim accompanied by the gurgle of his breathing.

Clementine took a few steps down into the basement and stopped where his boots still twitched. Spit bubbles blossomed at Randall’s lips, and his large brown eyes were wide and unfocused. There had initially been a sound in her head when he’d fallen, like a scream or a timing belt squealing, but as she crouched there on the steps, she felt it soften into a moan, and then into nothing, until the only sound in the basement was the spit bubbles popping, and then that stopped too. She was sorry. She was terribly, terribly sorry, and she wanted to say it, but without the bubble sound, the basement was truly silent, and she felt that words might somehow upset the calm that had closed in around them. She’d always hated the way her voice sounded when she’d scolded him in the past, the way they’d broken his little worlds of quiet. She didn’t resent him for taking the buyout from Gaylord Chemical after the accident, but she still came to dread finding him sitting on the back porch each time she came home from running errands. She didn’t even resent that he’d taken to smoking reefer with his cousin, a worthless rag-and-bone guy from Picayune who started growing fields of the stuff in the Homochitto National Forest once budget cutbacks got all the park rangers laid off.

What she did resent, as far as she could understand it, was that the new normal – the both of them in his family’s ancestral home, together each day and night without punctuation unless she took it upon herself to go out – revealed the truth in that silly distinction between simply loving someone and being in love with them. It was the kind of thing she imagined the unfairly pretty girls from high school would have debated about their boyfriends. But silly or not, this distinction had filled in the quiet spaces between Randall and herself. It had widened the bed between their bodies at night and left them suspended in a comfortable but coldly perfunctory sense of each other’s presence in the house.

And so, after the initial shock faded, and after several minutes of silence on the steps, she found herself considering, without any conscious effort to do so, the bottom of her husband’s boots. Were they wet? she wondered. Had he, perhaps, slipped? Had she come home from shopping to find him dead and then fallen to pieces right there on the steps, too out-of-sorts to think to call the authorities until it was too late? How long would it take to get everything settled? Would the ladies who ran the hearts game gossip, would that bitch Becky Randazzo say she’d done it for the money? Would a court let her inherit her husband’s house, indeed, his benefit checks, in the case of a suspicious accident?

She sat for a long time and thought, crouched on the dark stairwell until her knees ached, feeling the cool basement stillness on her skin like she was submerged in a swimming pool, her breath in shallow beats that barely seemed to move the air at all.

 

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“Mrs. Randall Grandbouche?” the man at the door asked. Clementine winced at the use of her husband’s name, her eyes adjusting to the morning sunlight that baked the east-facing entrance of her home through a gap in the pines. Sweet olive blossoms skipped across the porch in the breeze.

“If you’re from the witnesses I already told them we’re members of Westside Emmanuel Baptist,” she said.

The man in the doorway was angular, dressed in a tight-fitting suit and skinny tie, sweating heavily so that his dark skin glistened and stained his collar. His hair was piled into a kind of shark’s fin that ran down the middle of his skull, the sides of his scalp shaved smooth and his teeth an almost chemical shade of white.

“Ma’am, my name is Eduardo Fragoza,” he said, holding up a stack of manila folders from under his arm as if they helped explain what this meant. Behind him, she noticed a white SUV idling in the drive, several other men in suits visible through the windows, all of them in dark sunglasses. Eduardo looked over her shoulder into the house, then back to Clementine. “By any chance is your husband home?”

Clementine felt her breakfast shifting in her stomach. She wanted to shut the door softly, hoping that by not slamming it she wouldn’t seem overly rude, but instead she found herself searching for a badge on the man’s suit. He was well-dressed, perhaps overly so for any Washington Parish deputy. Eduardo had a manila folder open in his hands. He was looking back the SUV, where another young man had stepped out the passenger side but now stopped and watched them both. The man at the car pulled out a cigarette and Eduardo broke the silence with an awkward laugh. “Perhaps,” he said, “Randall is at work somewhere that we might reach him?”

“I’m afraid not,” She said, without offering more.

“Are you a decision-maker of the household?” Eduardo asked.  She paused, certain now at least that Eduardo and his crew were not, in fact, with the sheriff’s office.

“Decision-maker in what way?” she asked.

Eduardo motioned up at the eaves of her porch, to the tall French windows overlooking the magnolias in the side yard.  “Decision-maker as in, can you make important decisions about your property,” he said.

“Like, selling it?”

“Not selling, no,” Eduardo said, flipping through glossy photos in his folder. She saw real estate listings, big color spreads of southern mansions and plantations. Curious, she leaned in.

“That’s the Fontainebleau place up by the river,” she said, pointing to a photo.

“Mrs. Grandbouche, I’m an assistant producer for the project being filmed in parts of Bogalusa.”  Eduardo scanned across her windows as he spoke to her. “I’m not sure if you were aware that a movie was being shot in town, but we’ve been looking at houses in the area – truly, all up and down the Mississippi – that might fit a certain style our director is looking for.”

Clementine felt a sudden compulsion for a cigarette. Freight cars rumbled across Coburn Creek in the distance. She pictured the leading man, down on Main in the shade of that trailer. She saw him turn his head as he inhaled white smoke, handing his zippo to her with a smile, laughing about the heat while they sat on folding chairs. Behind Eduardo, the SUV honked its horn.

“Mrs. Grandbouche, how do you feel about horror movies?” Eduardo asked.

 

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Her first plan involved a river. The Mississippi was the better option; its bed had been dredged deep and its undertow drowned plenty of folks each year. Randall had no business over by the Mississippi though, and driving his body 50 miles west to Baton Rouge seemed like a wild risk. The Pearl was close by, and if he floated the short distance down to the Bogue Chitto Wildlife Refuge he might disappear. But anglers and trappers still used the refuge, and this stretch of the Pearl was shallow. It wound around broad sandbar points, and its banks were choked with treefall that could easily snag a corpse. Both rivers were dangerous, but she certainly had to do something. The bugs would be on him by morning, and she knew that he’d start to stink soon, even in the cool air of the basement. […]


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Gabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, and studies in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has MFAs in writing from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Iowa, and his work appears inDrunken Boat, Flyway, Spectrum, Sweet, Western Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Grist, PANK, The Pinch, Moon City Review, The Adirondack Review, Fourteen Hills, Lunch Ticket, Fiction Southeast, and Mid American Review, where he was lucky enough to win the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize. He is currently working on his first short story collection, along with a nonfiction manuscript about a creationist museum in Kentucky. 

Read More: A Short Interview with Gabriel Houck