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" I was helpless; mesmerized the way I had been years ago at our grandfather's funeral when the undertaker had made him up to look like Dracula. I was angry and curious. Lill had been enchanted. She liked our grandfather in that guise and danced around his open casket blowing kisses like bubbles until her mother pulled her back to her seat...."

the van that got away
fiction: laine perry


There are two important things to know about Lilly Starlight. One is that she did not get in the van last night. The second is that she is vain. She admitted this to me a week ago. I've known her since she was born. I'm older than Lilly by two years. She makes constant reference to her blondeness and to her thinness. I laugh at the revelation that my cousin is vain. I laugh and think but Jesus, it's true; Lill's face is craggy and wan. The head on that little, smooth body makes it a trick of nature. The fact of her existence leads me to believe that an entire forest of faeries and trolls is nearer than we'd comfortably judge.

She sits on her second-hand sofa spread eagle in a long, sea green velvet dress she tie-dyed. She looks as though she should be sitting on a mushroom. It's nearly nine in the morning and she's smoking her pipe. She looks at me and says “I have to call Celie. She saved me last night.” She giggles and repeats, “Celie saved my life last night.” I try each last thing I can think of to avoid the question she wants me to ask. Finally I give in. “Who's Celie?” I'm hoping Celie is a girl from work. “My hairdresser!” Lilly says. “I saw her car in the neighborhood last night. I need a haircut. My hair is driving me crazy!” Scrolling back through my version of the evening I recall heading upstairs around eleven, drink in hand, a book under my arm, my man waiting for me. Lilly Starlight was in the same position as she is now. Only the costume has changed.

Lilly inhales deeply and growls, “I went across to Link's last night.” Link's is the closest neighborhood bar. Lilly was 86'ed years ago. “I saw some people I knew sitting outside. I didn't go in,” she adds to assure me she didn't go over to start trouble. “I sat outside talking to some people I know, thinking Celie would show up. I really need my hair cut.” She smiles her best little girl smile and plays with the demon hair. “These Turkish men came out of the bar and walked past me. I know pot and I could smell it on them. I asked them whether they had any grass. They did, and wanted to know if I wanted to walk across the street with them. We were near the alley behind my house. They started pulling this gorgeous Turkish jewelry out of their van.” She motions to the lavish silver jewelry lying on the dining room table. “Those men loved me,” Lill says.

I had a bad feeling right then. Lill's been in love with a married Turkish friend of hers for years. I could imagine how she must have felt. She would have had fun dazzling those men. She knew the language a little, or at least the parts of it that had to do with love. I didn't want to listen to her tell her story. I was helpless; mesmerized the way I had been years ago at our grandfather's funeral when the undertaker had made him up to look like Dracula. I was angry and curious. Lill had been enchanted. She liked our grandfather in that guise and danced around his open casket blowing kisses like bubbles until her mother pulled her back to her seat. We've buried a lot of family by now. Lill and I are what we have left.

Lilly went on “I didn't keep all of it. I turned some of it down. I gave them back the largest piece.” She giggles again. “They really wanted me to take it.” What Lilly Starlight wants is a pat on the head. She figures she deserves it for all of the things she did right; turning down some of the pretty jewelry, and not getting into the van. “Look!” she demands, “Look how pretty it is! I only took a couple of pieces. I could have had more!” I shake my head at her. “Jesus, Lill, I can't close both eyes can I.” She giggles again. “They pulled out a stack of bills. There must have been thousands of dollars in that roll. They offered me fifteen-hundred bucks to get in the van with them and go back to their motel. Whoops, hotel. It was a nice hotel. I don't remember which one…the Benson I think.” Now my stomach is turning over. “I didn't get in the van. I wanted to. Fifteen-hundred bucks. With everything that's been going on I'm a little overwhelmed. I didn't get in the van though. I called Celie. She talked me out of it. She said, 'Lilly don't you dare get in that van with those men.' And I didn't. I didn't get in the van with the Turkish men.”

“They really wanted me to get in,” Lilly goes on, “The van door was open. One of the men was holding that wad of cash in his hand. I kept looking at it. I told them I needed to see my hairdresser first. I had to change our appointment. I said I'd run around the corner to talk to Celie for a minute and come right back.” For a second Lill actually looked scared. “I called Celie because she's nearby and she's good like that. She said, 'Lill, do not get in that van!' I ran home and went in the side door of the house. I even locked the doors. I locked myself in. I couldn't sleep. I was sitting up wide awake at four in the morning thinking about all of that money when Jonah got up for work. He was surprised to see me up at that hour. Giving Eldon his 30-day notice, this bronchitis, missing all of those days at work, you two living in my bedroom, the rent increasing next month…but I didn't get in the van. I wanted to but I didn't.”

A few months ago at Christmas, Lilly had called me in California to tell me that she had woken up in a hospital emergency room with no idea of how she got there. She believed that she had been drugged. It had been a bitterly cold night. She'd been trapped in her house for weeks…snowbound. She went over to the bar for a drink. As she was hanging up her hat a man approached asking if he could buy her a drink. She had told him he could and had excused herself to the ladies. The last thing she remembers before waking in a hospital bed is dusting snowflakes from her hair.

That's what did it. That is why I have dragged my boyfriend up here to Oregon, to a life of freezing rain, chaos, drama, and food stamps. I wake him to tell him what Lilly has just confessed. I don't know if Jonah understands how nervous I am about Lilly, about what Lilly might do at any given moment in the spirit of play. I wonder if Jonah knows what is really going on here. I wonder if he knows that we have come here to try to keep us alive; Lilly and me.

(illustrations: john richen / kurt eisenlohr)

(Originally run June 2009)


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©2009 Laine Perry • Smokebox
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