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Home » Stories, True and Otherwise

Helena, Part One

Submitted by on June 19, 2006 – 11:31 AMNo Comment

Helena had first started asking to hear the story years ago, when she was still little enough to be carried — the story of the lady with the great boomerang-shaped scar crossing the right side of her face who lived next door. The lady had gotten the scar in an accident, Helena had been told, and when she had asked how, what kind of accident, her grandfather had said he would tell her when she was older.

Helena was a stern literalist, as most children are, and on her next birthday, she had materialized in the doorway of Pop Pop's garage apartment, holding a balloon and announcing, "I'm older now, Pop Pop."

"Not old enough," he had said.

The birthday after that, it had gone much the same (sans balloon), and the birthday after that one as well — no story; no hint, even, as to what the story promised. When she turned eight, she had tried to change her luck and hadn't mentioned it all day; her grandfather would see a new maturity in her restraint. Or so she'd hoped, but it hadn't worked out, and anyway, she broke down at bedtime and reminded him in spite of herself.

"I'm older now, Pop Pop. I'm eight," she'd said.

"And a very fine age it is, Bells," he'd said, calling her by the nickname only he used, "but not old enough."

"Pop Pop," she'd said, not sure how to communicate what she was feeling, "I've been waiting a very long time now to hear the story."

Pop Pop had known what she meant. "And when you finally hear it, I hope it won't disappoint."

"'Patience,' I know."

"It has to be cultivated, Bells."

"I know, I know."

Helena's ninth birthday had passed with a two-word version of this call-and-response ritual of theirs. Pop Pop had opened the door to find Helena on the welcome mat, arms folded. She'd said, "So?", he'd said, "…Nope," and she'd made a lemony face and stalked off before he could give her her present.

Today was Helena's tenth birthday. Pop Pop, at 5:45 already up and glaring at an uncooperative watercolor, knew he could expect her around 6:30. He also knew he could expect the following arguments: 1) that ten was a double-digit age; 2) that she was going to go to middle school next year; 3) that these first two things made her practically a teenager, and teenagers are practically adults, and therefore she was old enough to hear the story. He had heard the same sort of insane girl logic from Helena's mother once upon a time, and found it just as hilarious now as he had then, but flaws in the reasoning aside, he planned to let Helena persuade him with it.

Pop Pop gave up on the dusky scene he was trying to render — the fireflies weren't working — and fixed himself a cup of tea, and went to a chair in his bedroom and sat looking at the house next door, where the story lived. He noticed for the first time that their porch looked like a catalog, and when the sun opened up a shaft of light on the porch steps, the necessary cat appeared moments later and settled itself into a loaf shape. "Huh," Pop Pop said to himself, smiling a little. Then the studio door creaked open..

Half an hour later, Helena, barefoot and be-nightgowned, hopped from stone to stone across the yard to Pop Pop's garage apartment, forcing herself to think positively along the way. "Ten is double digits," she muttered to herself. (Hop.) "Next year I'll be in middle school." (Hop.) "I mean, hello." (H…op.) She shook the grass cuttings off her feet and climbed the stairs to the studio. A little note on the door said "birthday girls ONLY all others KEEP OUT." She giggled and let herself in.

Pop Pop was in front of the watercolor, shaking his head. Helena padded over to him.

"Happy birthday, Bells."

"Thanks, Pop Pop." She looked at the easel. "Firefly problems?"

"Must be Wednesday," Pop Pop sighed. "Let's go into the kitchen, I have something for you."

Helena followed Pop Pop into the kitchen. If he had something for her, a thing, an object, that meant no story. Again. If ten isn't old enough, she thought, "old enough" is years from now. Dozens of years. Her stomach pinched with disappointment.

In the kitchen, Pop Pop's friend Mr. Morgan sat at the table, doing a crossword in pen.

"I hope that's not my Times, Ron," Pop Pop said.

"Joe, you know I bring my own. …Happy birthday, Helena."

"Thanks, Mr. Morgan," Helena said, shaking his hand politely.

"Good grip," Mr. Morgan said to Pop Pop, and then to Helena, "I suppose you wonder what I'm doing here so early in the morning."

Helena shrugged. "Pop Pop's been up for an hour probably." But then she got a tingle. Pop Pop did get up at dawn, but he didn't usually receive visitors at that time, except her. And it was her birthday. And while he had not said yes, he would tell her the story, he had not said no, either.

"Joe had something he wanted to give you," Mr. Morgan explained. "But since I was there, he thought I should give it you instead."

Helena stared, and blinked, and stared. Pop Pop clonked two cups of coffee down on the table and a Snapple for Helena, and patted her on the head.

"You're old enough now," he said, and nodded to Mr. Morgan, and this is the story Mr. Morgan told Helena.

Now, first of all, not a lot of people know this story. Very few, in fact. It isn't a secret, exactly, but — knowledge that's rare, you have to be responsible for it, do you know what I'm saying? I think you do. Joe says you do.All right. I haven't seen Molly Guidry — well, it's probably thirty years now, but back when I knew her, she was the greatest axe-fighter any of us had ever seen. The greatest. I don't know what you know about axe-fighters…there's not much to know, really. They fight with axes.

But one thing to know is that axes are real heavy, heavier even than you think, and Molly could twirl them like cheerleading batons, nothing to it. Figure-eight, overhand, two-in-hand — you never saw an axe-fighter go two-in-hand back then, certainly not with both hands. She was tall, too, so she had that good reach, but the other axe-fighters all said it was a vision thing made her so good — she had a great eye, she could see three moves ahead. Smart, good reflexes, like they used to say about Ted Williams. The first time I saw Molly, one of Beau Landale's boys had her backed down an alley in a Buick Le Sabre, anyone else would have given it up but Molly's four axes had that car chopped down to crumbs in about a minute and a half. The driver went down a run-off drain crying for his mother, and when he ran past us, my youngest brother Al turned to me and said, "We got to get a move like that." But me and Al were spud gunners, see, and to go two-in-hand, with the tubing we used — all right, I'm getting off the subject, but the point is, we'd seen a few things, me and Al, we'd gotten our taters minced for us enough times by axe-fighters to know what Molly was, and she was the best.

But even the best axe-fighter can still get beat by one thing — a chain-fighter. You know what Rock Paper Scissors is, right? How it works? Rock breaks scissors, et cetera and so on. Same principle, pretty much: axes chop up chairs, chairs tangle up chains, chains wrap up axes. Well, usually. Molly could actually whip a lot of chains because she was so fast, and rookie chain-fighters who couldn't throw on a moving target very well yet, they were easy pickings for her. And lot of chains just bailed out, wouldn't fight — older guys, too. Real tough guys. Chopper Endicott said he wouldn't go against Molly if you paid him, and chains aren't what you'd call sweethearts anyway, but Chopper pulled a traffic copter out of the sky with fifty feet of twist-link and walked off eating a hot dog, that's the reason they called him "Chopper." Well, one of the reasons.But eventually she ran into a guy who was as good a chain as she was an axe: Spider Hughes. Everyone said Spider's genius was his equipment — most chains just use a big transport-gauge kind of a thing, because when everything's said and done chain-fighting isn't a finesse job, but Spider daisy-chained a bunch of necklaces together, platinum, I think, and threw these thin metal threads half a dozen at a time. They were tough to see, so they were tough to dodge, and they just webbed around whatever he was throwing on — which is how he got his name — and then he'd get closer up and go to a bigger gauge, but by then you were already beat. He'd tangled you up and messed with your head to boot.

Molly went up on the roof that night to help out another spud gunner — actually, she just had to go up and open the door, he'd locked himself out was all. Typical of that guy, actually — Silvio Conduttore. Not a tightened screw in that whole family. Anyway, Spider must have followed Molly up there, or been waiting behind a water tower or something; I was parking the car, and when I got out I could hear that clanging that means an axe is in play and Silvio's yelling, "CHAIN! CHAIN!" So I got on the radio and called for a chair and then I went up the stairs running, but to tell you the truth, I wasn't a young man anymore and I wasn't going as fast as I could have — Silvio was a weird little fella, and honestly I assumed he was overreacting. Molly could handle most chains.

So I was going up the stairs, jogging, and when I came out on the roof Silvio almost knocked me down rushing to get out of there, and then he locked us all out again — jackass — so I didn't have much choice, I went over to see what was going on. Molly had two axes in each hand, like usual, but they were laced together with those little web chains, and tied to her wrists, too, so she couldn't drop them. Spider was moving in on her, and he switched hands, which meant he was going for a bigger chain, so I started running towards them, heaven knows what I thought I'd do when I got over there, and I was yelling at Molly to try a cross-cut on him. I should have been more worried than I was, looking back on it, but I couldn't have known I guess.

Spider threw out a big chain next, looked like it came off a car hauler, and locked the four axes together, so Molly was handcuffed. And I still wasn't too worried. Molly's beat, Silvio's run to hell and gone, I don't have my equipment on me — that's the end of it, or should be. Whatever job he's doing up here — and we never did figure that out, by the way — it's done. Bad night for Molly, but she had to have one sometime, right?

But it turned out Spider's genius wasn't just his equipment — he was also mean. Not bully-tough like Chopper. I mean mean, crazy-dog mean. And until then, we really didn't know that.

So. Spider yanked on that car-hauler chain as hard as he could and Molly went down on her stomach, knocked her wind out. And she should have stayed face-down, but she rolled on her side to try to get some leverage, and I could see Spider going around again with his left hand…overhand. The chain went over him in a long arc, and I got a good look at it, God help me, and it wasn't a chain, in the end. It was razor wire. He cracked it like a lunge whip, right down on her head, and snapped it back, and it made this tearing, zinging sound on the return. Awfullest thing I ever heard.

I don't know what he did next, I was trying to figure out how to get Molly down all those stairs with four axes and all those chains wrapped around them, plus I was going to have to hold her face together because Spider had torn it nearly in half. The chair finally gets up there and he's all over the place, waving this old wrought-iron lawn thing around and yelling, and then he saw Molly's face, the sheets of blood, and he went blank, just shut off, and I had to smack him upside the head and tell him, son, we have to get her to a hospital, so take her feet and let's get out of here. At least he'd braced the door, not like some fools.

We got her down the stairs somehow. It seemed like it took a year; probably took ten minutes. I put my shirt around her face and tied it on so her face would stay on her head, and I drove 90 miles an hour to the hospital. Molly cried the whole way there; at the time, I figured it was from the pain, but that kind of pain, that's screaming pain. She was just crying, sadly, and looking back…that must have been it. She must have known her eye was ruined.

We had to leave her, that was the protocol then — drop and run. We'd had some problems with the law asking questions we couldn't answer, so Jimmy Finch put the word out, low profile no matter what. And that was the last I saw of her, four nurses hauling her and her axe-arms up onto a table, and her mouth, in the middle of all that blood, twisted up crying.

The kid and I — I should say "Daryl," that's his name and he's 50 years old now. Daryl and I drove to Finch's Pub and he was quiet, didn't say a word. We went into Jimmy's office and I told him what happened, and Daryl was still quiet, still didn't say a word. Jimmy asked a few questions and then he lit a cigar and sat there with his head in his hands, ten, fifteen minutes went by, and I didn't know if we should leave him alone or what, so I look over at Daryl, and he's got tears running down his face, and I wanted to tell him to toughen up, even though I felt like crying myself. Maybe because of that, actually. And then Daryl said that it was his fault.

Jimmy asked how that could be, Daryl couldn't have gotten there sooner than he did — which was true, he showed up maybe three minutes after the Voice put the call out. Daryl said that wasn't it. He said he had a brother in prison, a chair-fighter like him who got in a bad bar fight in Charlottesville and had to do some time. Jimmy said, yeah yeah, Donny, I couldn't get him out of that, so what? Daryl said that wasn't what he meant. Donny had a cellmate who grew up with Spider, told him all about the guy, said he was nuts and Donny should tell his people to look out because Spider fights dirty. Daryl said he kept forgetting to tell Jimmy, said every time he forgot, he told himself guys from Virginia don't come up here so what the hell, he'd do it later. It ain't the first eye Spider's put out, Daryl said, it ain't even the tenth. He did it on purpose, it's what he does. This is my fault.

Of course it wasn't his fault. Even if we'd known that about Spider, we couldn't have known he was up there; we couldn't have told Molly to run, and she wouldn't have run if we had, and she wouldn't have gotten away in the third place. It couldn't have been helped. Which is what we told Daryl about a hundred times until it sank in a little bit, and he went on his way, and Jimmy got out a bottle of Ron Rico and we passed it back and forth until it was gone and I could sleep. Jimmy didn't sleep, not for a while, because while Daryl was talking, I was thinking, kid, it's not your fault. But I know Jimmy was thinking, kid, it's my fault. He carried that around until the day he died, along with everything else bad that ever happened to any of us. Probably gave himself the heart attack with that, all the guilt.

While I was passed out drunk and Jimmy was blaming himself, Molly's family moved her to another hospital, under an assumed name, like a movie star. We couldn't go to see her because we couldn't find her. And she just disappeared after that, until Joe told me years ago about her living next door — or, really, about you, how you were after him to tell you the story of what happened to the woman next door with the big eclipse scar over her face.

And I'm not really sure what happened to her, at the end of the day. I didn't get to find out. I know what happened to Spider, a chair put him off a railroad bridge in Philly and I drank champagne. Daryl's an eavesdropper in Brooklyn, wouldn't even sit in a chair for ten years, I know that.

And I know when Joe told me Molly was alive, I went home and poured a shot of Ron Rico for myself and a shot for Jimmy's restless ghost, and I told him Molly had a husband and a nice house.

Mr. Morgan stopped talking and took a sip of coffee. Helena frowned, and then she said, "I have some questions."

June 19, 2006

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