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Prologue: ollowing a night of festivities to honor her 92nd birthday, Vereine Drayton, widow to the late Victor Drayton of Drayton Plastics of Norris, New Jersey, had an unfortunate accident which resulted in her untimely death. The accident involved a loaded shotgun which Mrs. Drayton had accidentally stumbled upon in her town home on Freedom Drive. Police called to the site were unable to explain...[ local obituaries Norristown Flyer, 1 June 2008]
I. Women gather to honor other women An unseen pair of hands pushed Vereine up onto the stage, and another set of paper gray hands thrust a large, leprotic-looking daffodile into her fist. And Vereine just sat there holding the drooping flower as the crowd clapped. She felt a warm trickle of drool falling from a deep wrinkle in her lip. The place was full of old ladies and flowers, but Vereine was center stage. Everyone had come to honor her. It was some kind of birthday thing. Vereine had long since attempted to ignore her birthdays, but with women like these, that was usually impossible. She heard the matron of ceremonies say the word ninety followed by some number. It had to be a mistake. How had she ever gotten that old? What was she doing in a sweaty auditorium with a bunch of old
ladies? Vereine knew it was because of her charity work. Of course, her charity work. The packages sent to Ghana and Madagascar. The prothetics her organization had bought for the armless, the legless, the jawless, the noseless. People around the world missing body parts, and she and the "girls" supplying them--defying dictatorships and dark potentates---mailing off plastic body parts. Who knew if they were ever actually attached? The whole event was horrendous. The redolence of musky perfume, like a dank aerosol spray, ranged over the decaying bodies clapping for her birthday and her "sterling efforts." Vereine noticed that someone, perhaps a great-grandchild, had decorated her collar and shoulders with white lace. Like a doily, she thought. She might as well be a chair. Maybe she was. At one point she was called a saint. But Vereine, at 92, knew she was no saint. She had a loaded twelve gauge shotgun in a locked closet at home, and she knew that soon she would have to use it. She had carried a dark secret for seventy years.
II. The loaded shotgun Vereine had loaded it some 60 years before, and she wondered as the crowd greeted her whether it would still work. Would the shells be old and dry? Did shotgun shells age like she had? Would the gun still fire? Long ago in a different world, Vereine had promised to use the shotgun for one purpose only: to kill herself. It had been a vow she had made to keep her sanity at age 30, when looking into a
mirror, she saw the livid beauty of her first youth beginning to fade. For ten years she had struggled with a chimera, the chimera of her own evildoing. The chimera met her in all the musty, dark corners of her home. It lurked beside her bed like a shadow when night fell and her husbands (yes plural) had rolled over and fallen asleep. It followed her everywhere. From house to house. From garden to garden. From marriage to marriage. It always followed her. Even to America, to her comfortable home in Norris, to the school meetings for her children, to the charity events for the Third World, to church during the two times per year that she attended, and ultimately to this very auditorium where an aging crowd had congregated in her honor. Someone rang a bell. The crowd fell silent. One bleating, wheezing testimonial on her boundless benevolence followed another. She was always Mrs. Drayton, never Vereine. At 92, she noted that hardly anyone was around who could remember her first name. She rolled her world-weary eyes around the hall and sought its darkest corner because above the coughing, sniffling and sputtering, she knew the chimera would be there. III. The chimera And it was. In attendance as usual. It never left her and was always in the bleakest of corners, which she knew immediately to search. Over 70 years of being followed by a wraith, a wraith with a name who demanded one thing: justice. A constant, nagging demand it issued, and today would be no different. Over the noise its words rang clearly "Va tirer la gachette, Vereine. Tu me le dois comme promis." Vereine struggled mentally for a minute to decode her native language. Ah yes, the same message with slightly different
words each time: "Go pull the trigger, Vereine. You owe it to me as you promised." It was Jean-Patrick, and he had not aged a day beyond 21. His voice was sharp and piercing, though no one else could hear it but her. Jean-Patrick.... son of a tavern master in Fontenay-le-Comte, a tavern that would one day house coarse Nazi storm troopers in an occupied France--- but that would be after her safe removal to America by yet another man who had promised to make her a star. Her lithe body, her silvery voice, her beautiful, wide eyes would not be bartered to the Nazis. Instead, they would be traded for elusive film roles which she never received, and ultimately for three divorces and remarriages and finally a comfortable home with pleasant, successful children, whose names she often had trouble remembering today. But Jean-Patrick would remain in France. Only his phantom came to America. His body was rotting in the cold earth of the Vendée twenty kilometers north of La Rochelle. Goosestepping Nazis would later tramp over his grave, and JeanPatrick would never stir because he was dead before the first Schleu ever set foot in western France. And, of course, his soul was busy immigrating with Vereine...its only purpose in death. IV. The decision to use the shotgun finally Like all superannuated people, Vereine was quite aware that she was going to die very, very soon. She had lived a full and good life, excepting the chimera, and it was time to say good-bye. Old people know when their time comes, and Vereine did. But she had promised the chimera of Jean-Patrick that she would not let quiet death happen. She came from an era when promises were made for good, and people were expected to keep them. She knew that she had to honor her promise before nature simply folded her up and discarded her like a pre-war loveletter. Her promise was to place the shotgun into her mouth and pull the trigger...."tirer la gachette," she mused nodding at the festivities around her. The time had come. Once again she hoped the
shells had not aged. She hoped she would be strong enough to lift the gun. That evening, upon arriving at home, she would know. She would taste death....and then? She feared the "and then." THAT was the unknown. The chimera had warned her that it was not pleasant. A wheezing bald man shouted her name ("Mrs. Drayton") five times in succession, and each time the geriatric crowd stamped their feet on the auditorium floor. It was a kind of salute. Dull and misguided, she thought. Glancing at the dark corner, she wondered whether the cold specter of Jean-Patrick had liked it. They were cheering and stamping for a bag full of angle irons, a crippled, misshapen old corpse. Jean-Patrick deserved a better spectacle to haunt. V. Jean-Patrick Gastroniac Jean-Patrick Gastroniac, like many other French boys of the prewar era, was somewhat pampered and spoiled by his station in the petite-bourgeoisie. The son of a prosperous hotelier, he offered a small glimmer of promise in his future, a little bright window which said he would soon turn from a pretty boy to a handsome man to a very handsome man who no doubt would be both wealthy and content with his lot in life. He radiated the dull promise of future contentment...and little else. And this made Vereine hate him. Her mother was a chamber maid in Jean-Patrick’s father’s hotel, and though she was a next door neighbor to Jean-Patrick in the village, his house was huge and hers was small. So at the age of 17, she began undressing at the same time every day in front of an open window in full view of the huge house next door. In a short time, Jean-Patrick caught onto her ritual and became a spectator. He was the only spectator Vereine desired. She came to love teasing the pretty, rich boy next door. Becoming aware of the power of her sculpted, fecund body and lovely symmetrical face, she exercised to the fullest the gifts that nature had awarded her. Jean-Patrick was two years older than her, which made him even more desirable as a target of her
voluptuosity. But the teasing and torment could not rest there. By the age of 18, Vereine had tired of the mere taunting of Jean-Patrick with her distanced nudity. Accordingly, she contrived to meet him one day in the small dooryard separating the big house from the small one. Her long hair fell casually over her purposely bare shoulders, and her total absence of undergarments allowed Jean-Patrick a veiled view of her dark, taut nipples through the white muslin of her skimpy dress, a view which in truth drove Jean-Patrick nearly mad. They knew each other in a flimsy sort of way but had never really conversed due to the unspoken differential in their social classes. Jean-Patrick had the insight that she was well aware by now that he had been watching her dress and undress for nearly eight months. Only shyness and a sense of middle class propriety had prevented him from confronting her before. But, on plan, she confronted him. She babbled on stupidly about all sorts of things, but what she really wanted to say was that there was a thorn in her heel. Of course there was. She had slid it into the skin herself before coming outside. Would he help with the thorn? Certainly. His fingers could not do the job, so he pulled it out with his teeth, mouth trembling and lips quivering. The touch of mouth to foot intoxicated him, and a visible erection creased his inseam. Vereine remembered the old Roman tale of Androcles and the lion. The lion remained forever faithful to Androcles , and so would she. Whatever he wanted, she would give---and all for a stupid thorn. And, of course, the much-enamored Jean-Patrick walked into it up to his chest. What could she give him for removing a thorn? Vereine, who was already sexually active with several of the village boys occupying her own lowly station, hoped that JeanPatrick would have the courage to ask for sex. But at first he did not.
VI. What is a thorn worth? She pressed the issue over the next few days and asked JeanPatrick if he would like to take her to a dance at a country night club. He said yes. There was no way he could say anything other than yes. As was the custom in France, then and now, the country dance was wild and unsupervised. And following the music, Vereine asked Jean-Patrick to take her out to “see the stars.” Once outside, and slightly inebriated, she pulled him down into the grass under a plantain tree and invited the onslaught of his fumbling, boyish touch. “You can have anything you want,” she murmured. “You removed a thorn from my foot.” Jean-Patrick, whose only experience heretofore had been with local prostitutes [this in keeping with the middle class mores of the day] engaged himself fully in the throes of noisy passion. Later, Vereine would further inflame him by referring to their coupling as "lupine." a word which excited Jean-Patrick's animal imagination. The next day Vereine told him that she wanted to become his “copine”---a word that combines the English meaning's of both girlfriend and buddy. And so they did. In the 9 months which followed they were rarely seen apart. Vereine had achieved her conquest and was proud of the handsome boy who escorted her through the village crowds. She liked to think of herself as the mistress of the tavern master's son. Social class mattered in the France of 1935. As for Jean-Patrick, he had won the most ravishing girl in the region and became the immediate envy of his peers. He could not have been more content or more in love. The promised flower of his future contentment was already blossoming.
Happiness was all that he demanded of life, and it was now his. But Vereine had other aspirations. VI. Vereine gets bored One day Vereine woke up, brushed some straw out of her hair, and knew she was tiring of Jean-Patrick. She sauntered into the cafe on her street, bought a token, and called another cafe across town, wherein she left a quick message for another boy. Her rupture from Jean-Patrick was as simple as that. The next day she told him that she was seeing other boys, and he became dramatic. Characteristically, he threatened suicide. He would go to his father's hunting lodge and kill himself with a shotgun. The threat of suicide inspired Vereine, who at age 19 already had aspirations of becoming a movie star. An Italian actress had recently been propelled out of obscurity by having two young men kill themselves for lack of her attention. It was all across the newspapers. In her own mind, the threat of a handsome, middle class boy dying for her seemed to energize her. JeanPatrick could be the first of two. Like the Italian stage star, she would become explosively famous. The idea seemed full of timely wisdom: Get a cute boy to kill himself for your love. It was like the first rung on a ladder which rose to fame. Vereine savored it. The next day in Jean-Patrick's bedroom in the house of his parents, Vereine suddenly squirmed out of her skimpy summer dress and stretched out on his bed. "Take me one last time," she murmured. "This will be for all eternity." Jean-Patrick gazed at the voluptuous beauty lying on his bed. With his heart pounding, he joined with her. Vereine panted and screamed faked carnal responses. Jean-Patrick spent himself. When they were finished, she assured him that it was indeed the
last time. She redressed and said something like "Take that to the grave with you as a reminder." He did. The village newspaper was bordered in the black the next day. The horse drawn coffin was closed as it labored up the Grande Rue. Jean-Patrick's father's shotgun had left precious little of his head for decent display. Vereine attended the funeral but skipped the burial. She took the train to Bordeaux and found the company of a rich American tourist whom she would weeks later marry and leave the country with. She was on her way to fame. She would make it gloriously to the shining Roman cinema via a magical place called Hollywood. Her new lover, a smooth talker, promised no less. VII. Years pass Several years and hundreds of auditions came and went. Vereine always came in second or third for the movie roles she coveted. Her lack of English, of course, held her back for a time, but there was---supposedly---always something dull and vacant behind the gorgeous exterior, something cold and bleak like a tunnel of ice, something which made the major producers shy away. One prominent Hollywood director described her as "a stunning beauty but the source of the cold and deadly wind from the future." Time after time, the men of power in the arts community rejected her. But naturally they did not shy away from her bed. Vereine eventually became Everyman's property in California and later Miami. The legend grew that a boy in France had once killed himself for her, fanned mostly by her own dramatic conversations and the fact that she kept a cameo of Jean-Patrick in a locket around her neck. Every time the legend grew dim, she re-animated it with her ghastly theatrics. Even fully nude, she would open the
locket and gaze upon it. "Silly boy," she would groan, "he died for me. Who could do more?" Divorces and marriages ensued, but no further suicides, though Vereine, still aspiring, did indeed hint to more than one man about the possibility. "Jean-Patrick's death was an act of beauty," she moaned. "Will no one do the same?" And even though Vereine so ardently desired it, none further ever did. And then, inexplicably, she grew old. VIII. The chimera The black shadow of Jean-Patrick first came to Vereine in a Hollywood backlot during the war which had just started. She had a secondary role in a French language Liberty film in which she would portray the barechested Marianne, symbol of France and its resistance against the Nazis. Because of the minor nudity, the film would never be shown in the United States. Vereine knew that, but the dark chimera confirmed it. Banally, it was the first thing the phantasm ever told her. She would never be a star in America. It came to her in a dressing closet. Jean-Patrick not a year older than twenty-one, with pleading eyes and a look of dreary scorn scrolled across his visage. He informed her that the shotgun blast had hurt a great deal and that people continue to feel great pain after death. That came as a revelation to Vereine. Previously she had thought that death was painless. JeanPatrick told her that it was not. And he returned again and again over the course of her life to remind her, until one day, standing in front of her mirror in a huge boudoir in the house of a man from New Jersey, she asked the chimera what it wanted from her. Jean-Patrick told her that the haunting would cease if she killed herself with a gun in her mouth as he had.
It all seemed very simple, and driven to the suburbs of sanity, Vereine--now aged 30 and failing as a screen extra---agreed to do it. Jean-Patrick made her promise. She did, and for the sixtytwo years following her promise, she continued to reiterate it. But she always found reason to put it off. So the haunting became routine and predictable. Until she killed herself, JeanPatrick would always be in some dark corner of whatever venue she frequented. He would always dash her happiness. And, faithfully, he was never late to these sullen appointments IX. Great grandchildren Christopher and his young bride Carla drove Vereine back to her empty house. They told her how tired she must be. The event had of course tired her considerably. She needed rest. She needed solitude. At least that is what Christopher told her. The housekeeper met them on the circular drive. The wheelchair was opened by more magical hands. She crawled into it, as she had done for the past who knows how many years. A mild sedative and some much deserved sleep. The grandchildren would disappear. Who were they, anyway? Vereine had no idea. Once in her room, Jean-Patrick was as usual waiting. "D'accord," she told him dismissively. It was time. Her death could not be more than a month away. Vereine knew that. She could not slip painlessly away as nature had intended. She needed to feel the same agony as JeanPatrick had in 1936. She needed to keep her promise. The shotgun was still there in a back closet. The twin shells placed in the barrel more than 60 years before appeared intact. They were. The quiet neighborhood was at once awakend by a blast. Vereine Drayton, heiress to a large plastics fortune and matron
of several notable charities, was no more. Her final words involved keeping her promise. Even though the language seemed strange and blocky on her tongue, her parting words were in French. They were directed to an unseen shadow on the wall. X. Epilogue Christopher Drayton, boyish and pert, gave the eulogy. Never at a loss for words, Christopher said: "Great-grandma's life work is still unfinished. She will live forever in our hearts and in the hearts of the many lives she has touched." Later Christopher confided in his bride, Carla, that "Grandma was just a senile old bitch." Carla said: "I never knew her all that well. I hope her death was painless." It was not. ____________________________________ by
Devon Pitlor, M.A. Econ.
14 June 2008
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