In Jenny Staff Johnson’s “Repeater,” a woman tries to make sense of a murder-suicide next door.
Natalia Sylvester, guest judge for our 2018 short story contest, had this to say about what she looks for in a good story: “The stories that grab me and hold onto me — for years sometimes — have a voice that captivates me and transports me in an almost intimate way.”
Jenny Staff Johnson’s “Repeater,” one of this year’s finalists, fits that bill, particularly the “intimate” part: You’re bound to feel as if the narrator is speaking directly to you — and only you — as she tells this tale about a gruesome next-door murder/suicide and her efforts to understand the crime and reshape the scene. —David Duhr
The dark shape at the bottom of the pool is not a child. Which, in Texas, is something we are trained to fear above almost all else: the moment of distraction, the sliding door left open, the gap in the fence, the unexpected phone call, the harmless diversion that endures just long enough for someone small and defenseless to come to grievous harm. In summer a similar menace attends the back seats of cars. Air conditioners to my knowledge do not kill, and that is a mercy. But something is there, under the water. I get a stick and fish out the object and it is a dark-green T-shirt, leaves and moss swirled around it. A little cotton sea monster. I throw it into the bushes and sit down in a lounge chair.
Nobody has drowned in this pool since I’ve lived here, but the next-door neighbor killed his wife in their ranch house and next himself. It’s the sort of thing bystanders occasionally get sucked into: the friend sitting on the couch watching the game the day the guy loses it, the delivery man with the dead-worst timing, the neighbor over for a cup of sugar. I wasn’t the type to borrow a cup of sugar; that’s just a figure of speech, I’m not sure if it’s ever done at all anymore. But I could’ve been there, I was so close. The news crews crouched outside for days. Close as we are they knocked on my door plenty. They hounded me, wanting quotes, but I don’t have any answers. I insist I didn’t know the neighbors, but that’s not the real reason I won’t talk.
My secret is this: I find their disappearance alluring. I don’t think this is what the newspeople want to hear from me, though. So I start wearing big sunglasses and long dresses out of the house, swishing away from anyone who might look at me wanting answers I still do not have. When I go out, I go out the front with my disguise on, and I believe I have succeeded in becoming formidable.
I want to understand them. I want to know what they knew. Why they went away. Whether she wanted to stay here or not. Maybe she didn’t have a choice in the matter, but maybe she wanted to disappear. She died at his hand, but what refusals did she have time to make before she went? Did she render the judgment of silence? Did she cast curses and imprecations upon his name? Nobody knows that part. Nobody knows what judgments she had to make on the world that will now never be rendered. Unless they can be felt inside the bones of the house.
After the police and the newspeople left, a cleanup crew came. I try not to think about what happened in there that week. After they finished I broke a window and climbed in; started taking things apart. Carpets were most satisfying to remove — that ripping sound, the rough underfloor that shows you’re really getting somewhere. I hoped I could scratch the paint off the walls with my fingernails, but found it didn’t work like that. Wallpaper, too, disappoints, requiring for easiest removal specialty chemicals I do not have easy access to.
Next I started the reconstruction using things they left behind, things I stole before the next of kin commissioned the estate sale, things they left for the gleaners. I made a pattern on the wall with floor tiles. I nailed a doorframe to the floor: You could open the door and start digging to the center of the earth. From the ceiling, I hung spoons. I made a pathway out of broken glass that I shine a spotlight on; it sparkles and crunches underfoot. I take delight in supplementing it, reducing the rectangular panes to little bits, smaller and smaller. Level builds upon level of refuse and disuse. It gets to be so that the wall is a floor. The floor is a window, a door. The ceiling is a moving surface, now. A moon. It gets to be so that I can stand things, making something new that is just for me.
It does not bring me the understanding I seek, not yet, but I keep trying. One does not know where the breakthrough may lie; it may yet be just ahead. Lately I’ve started supplementing with new things from the home repair store, and these I sneak into the house while my husband is at work. I hew all day to my responsibilities, to my empire of linoleum and Sheetrock and dirt and the dust that comes out from the pores of the building no matter what I do. I toy with shapes. I make trailing corners that bleed out of one room and gesture towards the next. I delight myself with colors, not just their visual aspect but their names: mustard, sunset, puce. I experiment with arraying the words themselves on the walls and floors in auxiliary bedrooms. I imagine how they’d look projected onto the sky.
The power is shut off, and it’s hot, so I run an extension cord over from home to power task lights and a box fan. It blows my dresses while I work and makes me feel dramatic. The front curtains I keep closed out of necessity but I touch them, feel the weave of the fabric. I’ve unraveled just enough yardage to create threads with which to hang the spoons. I imagine how the place would come alive inside if I could get my hands on some neon.
When I am done for the day I sneak back through the door in the fence I have made. I make sure that by the time my husband gets home I am inside the house, or sitting by the pool. I tell him I am depressed because of what happened to the neighbor woman and this is partly true. I give off the impression of glamorous lassitude. I let expensive books pile up in corners and around the edges of rooms, and smile sweetly at my husband when he volunteers to do the dishes. He, too, may be afraid of me, and this is as it should be. I foster my more virulent thoughts in this solitude I have engineered. This is what it’s like having a secret.
I retire to the pool with a cold morning drink. After a conflict with the pool man turned toxic, I cancelled our maintenance subscription. The pool is now a vibrant, luminous, fluorescent green. It fits better with the landscape of this place: bayou adjacent, overgrown, deep haven for mosquitos. Acute flood risk. Roots from the oaks merge with the droppings from the crepe myrtle that carpet the ground. Ferns, prehistoric, flutter behind it all, low-hanging fronds bending towards the dirt. Snails and frogs and, for many months of the year, lizards. When they leave I do not know where they go. The shadows of palms fall onto the pool deck, crisp spikes that sway only a little in the still heat. I don’t make an effort to keep the land from its jungle state. I dress for myself, out here alone, a voluptuous bird.
I notice my ice is melting fast. This is the season when the heat index becomes a declaration of war. I feel under siege. I’m talking about the kind of siege that’s unlikely to kill you: for example, a power outage — the kind that results in a baby boom. The kind you later learn has made people all up and down the street feel sexy. To the algae, I raise my glass. To the babies born resulting from the excessively aggressive heat index, I raise my glass.
I fantasize about leaving, judging destinations based on the pleasing sounds of their names on my lips, the desirable buzz they spark in my mind. I imagine telling my husband, “You must get along by yourself for a while, dear; I am leaving tonight. Bound for Riga, with a layover in Plötz.”
He will know, and perhaps mention, that Plötz has expired. It is among the now-defunct Prussian states, West Pomerania to be precise. But I will say, “I’m going anyway,” and my word will be final. I’ll throw him for a loop by addressing the absent city of Plötz directly, from the kitchen overlooking the greening pool: “Lawyer up, O good citizens of Plötz!” I will say.
I’ll say this mostly to scare him. He’ll deflect.
“Where will you get the money?” he’ll ask.
I’ll say, “I saved it in secret,” and he will fold over flat and lay his cheek on the table, as one discharged from the future of life. The plein air painting behind him, now visible post-his-folding, will fail to communicate.
Now it’s getting hotter, and I ought to be next door working already, but I have lingered in the pool, imagining potential shapes. A depression threatens in the gulf. Decommissioned oil wells sit alone offshore, unguarded. I float on a blow-up chaise, displacing pods of algae as I go. They part before my paddling hands, reconstitute in swirls after I’ve passed.
And now regular yard noises are disturbed by loud motors. Revving engines and the sound of cracking. It’s the house next door. The backhoes are arraying on the front lawn. This means they intended to save nothing. Soon the last witness to the things my neighbor knew will be gone. I drop a dress on over my bathing suit as the backhoes tear into the house. I climb through the door in the fence and enter the house by the back.
I sit on the floor and the sound is everything at first. A roaring akin to a train or a tornado, but denser, spikier. Then blooms of dust emanate towards me from the corners. In this moment my work is activated. My creations tremble on the walls, on the floor; the ceiling shakes a little, but the four walls of this room still hold. The sounds of clinking tell me the bricks on the western corner are tumbling, and then there is a pause. Pauses are a part of the package. Demolitions have a rhythm. They have an ebb and flow. For a time during each demolition the machine will quiet, will still itself. There is a period of rest. There is respiration. A garden hose runs constantly, to prevent fires.
Demolitions are a point of transition. They seek the moment when something becomes nothing. The moment of balance arrives when the front is ripped off, showing an intact room. It’s open to the air but you can see a picture on the wall. You can see stuffed animals spilling out of a closet. Then the point of no return, which occurs in every demolition. The structure is no longer a structure in the moment it’s overtaken by and commuted into true rubble. Likewise, the human body can absorb certain incursions, until it yields to a dissolution beyond recovery. A point of no return. Then the machine is moving again and I stay totally still. Only a few minutes and then I see daylight, as chunks of wall fall and debris and dust motes swirl. I don’t know long it will take until someone finds me. I hold my ground and dream I’m underwater, at the bottom of my pool where it’s green, a shape for someone to find. They’ll dive down for me but find I’m only a green T-shirt.
Jenny Staff Johnson on “Repeater”:
“Repeater” was inspired by a site-specific work of the same name by artist David Scanavino, installed at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts in summer 2017. The story was read on-site to celebrate the launch of Gulf Coast Journal’s issue 29.2.