The Minstrel

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Cindy DiEsposito Hughes had returned home.

The bus passed by the university, now still as the bright minds of academia hummed away in all-night studies or orgies or the occasional sleep. She could have gone there. There could have been many things she could have done had she’d been willing to put some work into it. She had a high IQ as a child. The tests said so. Nearly a genius, she’d been declared. But her grades were low. No one could understand it. A bright girl like that should be getting the highest grades in the class. But she didn’t want to do the work. Not after all the chores she had to do while her mother was out being a slut or whatever she did with her time. She thought, after al that drudgery, she was entitled to an easier life.


Not that she’d been that unusual around here. Dropping out, teenage marriage and pregnancy were quite common for these parts. Here people dreamed abut graduating high school first before even daring to have a flash of a vision for college. Many of the kids were nineteen or twenty before they got out of high school, and a job at Wal-Mart was reason to celebrate. Many of the houses showed the tattered evidence of poverty, not unlike the black and Hispanic projects that she’d just fled. But here they did not cry of slavery because none had ever been slaves. No cries of white oppression; they were almost entirely white. And she was one of them, though she never felt like she belonged with them. She didn’t feel like she belonged with any group. She never lived anywhere long enough to make good friends.

Thereafter, no food. Cindy quit school to work. Finally, she’d run away. Met the man of her dreams.

Hopefully, he was dead too.

The bus trip took forever. As usual, there was tons of snow on the ground and somehow seemed she’d gotten stuck on the bus driven by the driver’s ed student. Cindy found herself knocked into a semi-trance by the monotony, numbed by the subconscious that refused to allow the memories to come back from each passing landmarkand old drugstore where she’d hung out and gotten drunk, the school where she saw her childhood friend disappear to Ohio with her family.

God why was she here. What if Patrick was alive. What if they had fooled her, buying off the media like they always did. Couldn’t a phone call have sufficed? Why she had chosen to come back here at all, she didn’t even know.

But yet, she had to. Had to see for herself that her life was really hers once more, though where to go with it, she didn’t know. And to come back and show them all that, despite all they’d done, she’d survived.

The bus stopped in Bath District, the grand center of Steuben County, at seven in the morning. After New York, she felt like she’d stepped into another world, one that had zipped through time to at least a generation earlier. It looked like something from Happy Days: a neighborhood drug store advertising a soda fountain for a dollar, a five and dime store, and a consignment shop. Bath courthouse, a simple brick building with arched gateways, stood proudly in the center, its only real activity that anyone outside of this place knew about the murder of a four-year-old one town over. There were churches lined up in a neat row on one side. Things were just as they always had been. The thought made Cindy ill at ease.

Though she was in the same state, she felt like she was suffering from a sense of jet lag. The whole trip up, she’d hardly gotten any sleep. Strange to think that only ten house earlier she was in the Bronx. It felt like years.

She was paralyzed here, afraid to move. Perhaps Patrick stood hiding just moments away. At any time, he could jump out and kill her. The street tough that had developed in her in Fordham was gone; gangsters she was not afraid of, but of Patrick Hughes III, she was, deathly so. Once more a victim.

Movement behind her, the first human sound. She spun around, ready to kill at a moment’s notice. An old lady with a cane greeted Cindy with a smile (in this city, old ladies could walk down the street alone at this houronly rebellious wives and cute four-year-olds were in danger), walking until she disappeared into a grocery store that had just declared itself open by a brilliant red sign magically flipping open. The day had begun.

Cindy still had some money. She meandered to a bakery where she bought a roll and coffee. The storekeeper eyed her suspiciously the whole time, his movements slow as he kept watch on her. Anger rose in her, and she kept swallowing, hoping the actions would keep her emotions at bay. It worked adequately enough. She wondered, as she left, if the guy had called 911 on her, or for that matter, Patrick Hughes. Cindy swore she’d never seen the guy before in her life.

As she ate, she walked in the direction of a hotel she once knew of. There was no plan in her mind what to do, and she was too exhausted to think of one. She really was wondering why she was here to begin with. Life on the streets wasn’t that bad. She was beginning to get used to it.

Sleep evaded her even in exhaustion. Paranoia would not let her rest, despite her best efforts to rid herself of the emotion. She sat half transfixed before a diet of daytime talk shows, hoping to get a sense of other people having greater troubles than she, but everyone seemed so laughable, down to the battered wife who told Leeza that she was afraid of her husband, while the transgressor sat beside his wife, eyes transfixed to the ground. The wife couldn’t be that afraid of her husband if she was willing and able to drag him on national TV and announce it to the world. Cindy would not be alive today if she had even tried something like that.

That thought triggered a memory of the cemetery where her uncle-in-law was buried. Patrick had bought a plot for Cindy there just after they were married, so they could be together in death. Cindy had found it romantic then, an idiot fool who looked at the romance more than the practicality of things. A decade later, she was amazed at the prospect of a nineteen-year-old so casually preparing for her death. She wasn’t well now, but she didn’t know where she could have been back then. Today, she would have run out the door.

Anxiety. The free-floating kind, where she couldn’t define the cause. Let’s see, she’d been on the streets for a year, in a violent relationship the previous thirteen, the witness to three homicides. Shit, no stress there.

She’d seen three people die violently. The thought hit her as though it was the first time she realized this. It hit her somewhere between the Old El Paso salsa commercial and the clips to tomorrow’s Carnie show. She had not given these people a single thought. One of them, supposedly had lived. She had never found out if he was still alive. Like Rhett Butler, she didn’t give a damn. She hadn’t realized she’d sunk so terribly low. Years of victimization had taught her to fend for no one but herself. Now, that was all she had. She felt incredibly lonely.

There was an orange hue outside her window. Somehow, she’d gone from moping by the TV to blinking at the sunlight uncomprehendingly. Sunset? The clock read seven-twenty. Impossible, Cindy thought. At this time of year? Noit had to be that

Yes, she had. A whole day had passed. Good Day New York was cheerfully broadcasting sunny news of Christmas joy and anticipation in her face. Cindy snorted in derision and turned the shit off.

She took a shower and looked in the mirror. Most around here remembered a short, black-haired bob with brown eyes. She had stolen somebody’s prescription lenses, and that, topped with hair that hadn’t been cut in over a year, plus dyed blonde, she looked like a typical corn-husker girl, not the exotic creature that had received whispers and snickers her whole life. Gypsy girl, she’d been called. She’d lived up to her name quite well.

She breathed heavily as anxiety washed over her, the prelude to her venture outdoors. She checked out of the room and handed back her key, conscious of the leering desk boy with the drool over his face. She leaned over with half her bosom showing, handed him her key, their fingers just touching, then swished her way back from there, strutting her stuff in the best way she knew how. She could hear him whistle, but she wasn’t offended. In her time, she fucked worse things.

The cemetery was two miles from here, if she remembered correctly. That was where the Methodists were buried. Originally it had been built right in front of the church in the village green, but it caused too many fainting spells for the genteel ladies. Every time they went to the market a lady would be reminded of the fact that dear Billy or Bobbie or Cory was lying in that dirt, and darn it, she couldn’t touch him, hold him dear God my Lordso the town became a repository for regurgitated grief, not doing much for the tourism making its way from Corning to the Finger Lakes. The mayor wisely moved the cemetery to the country, doing well for everyone but inconveniencing the shit out of Cindy right now.

The first time she saw somebody she thought she recognized, she was only about thirty yards from the cemetery. There were trees that she recalled from some vague unpleasant memory. She remembered a lot of shouting. She thought it was one of many lovely recollections from her colorful marriage, but the memory had the feeling of being older. She thought she saw the face of the crazy minstrel guy in the memory. Then she saw another face from long ago.

Shirley Maples had lived down the street from Cindy when she lived with Patrick. Her husband was a disabled farmer who lost two of his fingers in a crop incident. Disability hardly covered the mortgage and taxes, so Shirley was forced to support the family by working sixty hours a week at the K-Mart in town. She spent her days serving warmed-over hot dogs to ungrateful customers and her nights serving a more demanding albeit loving seven hand and foot, but she never complained. Her face always looked like the sun on a cloudless day. To top it off, she had braved it out as one of the very first black women to stay in the area with white husband. This was her home, she insisted. There was nobody white, black, or polka dotted that would make her move until she was damn good ready. She didn’t care about the snickers at her white husband. When the children called her daughters “zebra”, she taught them to stand up for themselves. They should be proud. Nobody should take that away from them. Her pride made Cindy smile with there.

“Cindy?” Shirley questioned, peering over her sunglasses. “Cindy? Is that you?”

Damn, she thought. Cindy could kill herself for her own carelessness. Even in Shirley’s presence she didn’t quite feel safe. This was no time for pleasantries. She’d been gone for too long. God knew whose side anybody could be on.

“No,” she said, lowering her voice so as to disguise it, “I think you have the wrong person.”

“Cindy Hughes, you may fool everyone else with that Hollywood getup, but you can’t fool me. You should know me better by this time.”

Despite herself, Cindy found herself smiling. Shirley Maples had a way of getting to the heart of things and warming them all up. For a brief time, Cindy almost felt at home, then remembering, started to turn away, unsure of where to go now that she’d been discovered.

“Cindy, you’re safe with me. Let me help you. Hell, you think I’d turn you over to anyone in this crazy place? Do you remember who you’re talking to?” When she saw Cindy’s hesitation, she approached her. “Look, I know you didn’t have the easiest time here. If you need somewhere to stay, someone to talk to, I’m the one to trust. Where are you heading?”

Cindy gestured with her head to the cemetery. Shirley nodded gravely, then gently whisked Cindy away. Cindy almost gave a vehement protest, but Shirley spoke first.

“Old man Campbell died the other day. The funeral service will be arriving soon,” she whispered, and that was all the explanation Cindy needed. Campbell was one of the private bankers that lived up by Mitchelsville. Bath’s rich was dying off fast. “Did you eat breakfast?”

“Not really,” Cindy replied, suddenly feeling famished.

“Then let’s go to my house and get a real meal in you. Where are you staying? Do you have your things somewhere?”

Cindy shrugged. “This is it.”

Shirley gave her a deep, knowing look before nodding toward a blue Ford wagon. “My car is over there. Let’s get out of here before someone recognizes you that you would rather not see.” And before she knew it, Cindy was whisked off the street and driven away, like an actor being shielded from crazed fans. Yet luckily, Cindy had not encountered any of her cheering crowd, thank God.

The two women were silent for awhile. Shirley spoke first.

“So what brings you back to Bath? I thought I’d never be seeing you again.”

Cindy smiled. “I guess I’m not really sure myself. How’s Ted and the boys?”

“The boys, fine. Ted, well, Ted I have no idea and frankly I don’t give a damn.”

Cindy jerked her head towards Shirley. “You guys split up?” Some things could still shock her, much to her surprise.

“Mm-hmm,” Shirley nodded matter-of-factly. “Imagine the satisfaction folks got out of that one.”

Cindy was silent for a moment. Old voices came back, old voices that she hadn’t supposed to heard but heard anyway. An Italian and an American. What had they expected? As though somehow, a third generation Italian was less American than a fifth generation WASP.

“Cindy? You all right?”

She blinked. “Yeah. I guess so.”

Shirley smiled. “They all had you written off as dead around here. Least until the article from the Times.”

Cindy felt her blood run cold. “That so? You mean, everyone thought I croaked?”

“Just about. It was the general consensus.”

“The Hughes? What about them?”

Shirley shrugged. “They’re too busy pretending to be upset about their boy to really worry about anything else. But they like the idea that you’re dead. Otherwise it’s a fight in probate court.”

Cindy observed this with an odd sense of relief. Maybe her running truly was over. It sounded too good to be true.

Schoolchildren were assembling at corners, meeting friends from other buses. The elementary school was just two blocks away. Cindy recognized nearly all the faces, and turned her gaze away, not wanting more attentions than she already attracted.

“Timmy and Joseph are gone already,” Shirley informed Cindy as they pulled up to the house. “We’ll have the house to ourselves nearly all day. Of course, you’re more than welcome to stay here as long as you need. No one will bother you here. They don’t bother with me.”

“I appreciate it,” Cindy said, finding herself meaning it.

“No one comes here anymore,” Shirley continued as they got out of the car, a trace of bitterness in her voice. Cindy understood. She knew what it was like to be deserted.

Shirley Maple’s house brought back a flood of warmth mixed with anxiety. The exterior had changed a little, not quite the bright quaint ranch that Cindy had visited so many times over the years; the paint was chipping away, the curtains, the windows, a little yellow from the dirt of neglect; it looked the victim of premature old age. Cindy thought she felt some sympathy for it. She squinted at Shirley; wondering if there was any reflection of this devastation. None appeared to be evident.

“Sorry about the house; I now it doesn’t look the greatest,” Shirley said, as though reading Cindy’s mind. “Since Ted left, I haven’t had the money or time to really keep up here.”

“How long has he been gone?” Cindy asked.

“Oh, I have no idea. I’ve lost track by now. Let’s see, you left when? a year ago? He left about two months after that. Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s right.”

“Have you heard from him at all?”

“Oh, he stops by every Sunday. His way of giving dues to God, I suppose. I make sure I’m never here.”

Cindy left the questions that she had spawned lie where they were. She did not want to hear of humiliation and despair. The little peace that she had was too fragile for that. The door creaked behind her as she shut it, and flapped back and forth a couple of times until it rested into place. Cindy stood watching it.

“Here, let me put on some hot chocolate for you,” Shirley said, busying herself in the kitchen, which was a small enclave next to the front foyer. “You’re going to catch your death standing there. I’m surprised you haven’t already. We’ve gotten two snows so far. Tonight we’re expecting another one. Looks like we’ll have another active winter this year.”

Cindy stood watching out the window. Sure enough, patches of melting snow lay scattered about the property, bare trees were scantily clad in white on their branches. She had not noticed it once since she was back. Only now she felt peaceful enough to sit quietly and look about her. Perhaps the house had aged on the outside, but inside, its warming charm had not changed at all. She was still safe here.

“You see your mama yet?” Shirley’s voice broke into the calm, as she poured chocolate into two cups on the end table which served as the dining room table.

“No. No, I haven’t.” Cindy managed. Suddenly she was uncomfortable again.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring up an uncomfortable subject,” Shirley joined Cindy’s gaze out the window. “Just that, I haven’t seen her around for a long time.”

“Did you see her since I left?”

“Once. In K-Mart.” Shirley suddenly got up to grab the pots on her stove and put them in her sink. “She didn’t say much to me. Just hi. I thought she might be worried about you.”

“That would be a surprise,” Cindy muttered. Shirley appeared not to hear, at least not at first.

“All mamas worry about their children. Sure, there are babies thrown in garbage dumps. Women have abortions for no good reason, sometimes just to keep a man. But a woman who labors, who’s brave enough to sweat the tears, give years up just to put food on the table, just to make sure her child lives another day, that mama cares. I don’t care what anyone says.”

Cindy remained silent. A parent’s love was always real when they forgot what it was like to be a child. Cindy had given up trying to prove them differently.

“I drove by there, you know, by your old house? Sheez, you think this hellhole looks bad? Looks like no one’s been living there for fifty years.”

“Maybe she doesn’t live there anymore,” Cindy shrugged.

“Maybe you should go see yourself.” The two women held each other’s eyes.

“She doesn’t live there,” Cindy said. “Or else she’d be running all over the city trying to get money from her rich daughter.”

“Hmm.” A statement, not a ponderance.

The two women drank in silence. “Perhaps we could go there sometime, check up on things,” Shirley suggested.

Cindy did not answer.

“So, what brings you here anyway?” Shirley proclaimed with sudden abundant cheeriness. “Coming to take hold of your fortune?”

“Mm.” Cindy replied with terse indifference.

“You’ve become a legend here. Disappearing in thin air, then one of the richest widows here in Steuben County, then the next day an accomplice to a serial killer, then his kidnap victim. Damn.”

“He’s not serial killer.” Cindy put in dryly.

“Yeah? And how would you know? You’re a friend of his?” Then rumors are true, then. Which one, the first or the second?”

“Neither.” Cindy replied in the same bland voice.

Shirley gave her a hard look. “Girl, you got to tell me what’s going on. You hardly tell me anything. Hell, you even forced me to put two and two together about you and Patrick, how he used to beat on you and all. And it was the damn bruises that told me, not you. But this here black lady ain’t no dummy. I ain’t no fool. I could tell you what was going on better than you could tell me. So I know you’ve got some wild things going on in your fake blonde head. Damn, if you’re going to eat my food, you better talk to me, girl. Now.”

“Where do you want me to start?”

“Girl, I’ve got all day. No man is beckoning at my front door. Tell me how you finally got your butt out of that rich man’s hellhole and how wit took eleven months to get two miles down the road into my kitchen.”

Cindy sighed. She told Shirley how she moved to New York, and how Patrick tracked her down, and how she moved on the streets, how she felt she had to move All that she told felt like a great weight being lifted from her, though terrified to speak. She had not spoken at length to anyone for months. But the last person she had was Shirley. A haven.

“Girl, you lived on the streets now, didn’t you?” Shirley said with a chagrined look. Apparently Cindy’s expression gave her away; Shirley shook her head in what appeared to be dismay. “Damn, things must have been real bad for you to have to do that. If that boy were alive, I’d have him stoned. No, I’d stone him myself. That’s not the way to treat a woman. Any man who has to beat a woman to prove himself should have his balls sliced off. That ain’t no man.”

Cindy felt emotion well up in her. Anger, despair, venom; they all reared their head and then sunk into a soup of rot within her. She was glad for the ensuing silence; it kept what little control she had together. She wanted to strike at anything she could find. Slowly, she fought herself just as she had over the years. Soon, she was in control; the control that had enabled her to think for her survival. When she was, she spoke one question. “How did he die?”

Shirley looked sharply at her. “Shot himself. Thinks its murder. In the heart. Why?”

Cindy ignored the question. “When did it happen?”

“About nine months ago. Big news around here with the funeral and all. Gave everybody something to do for three days and something to talk about after church for weeks. You would’ve been a real celebrity. They all think he offend himself for love. Me, I think someone offend him, with the drugs and all. I though, was in a vast minority. Of one,” Shirley said with a smirk of derision. Cindy barely noticed. She found attention focused at a small speck of dust in the window sill.

“I didn’t hear anything about it,” she said to the speck. “I heard about it only a month ago. I though he just died.”

Shirley shrugged. “The Hughes are small potatoes in the Big Apple. Who cares about a guy with ten million dollars when you can hear about the Trumps?”

“Was it open or close casket?”

“Open. Pretty poor taste, like it was some kind of media gimmick. All the reporters gawked at him. One even tried to get his suit open. Guess he needed some wild photos for his gallery or something. Tell you, the Apple ain’t the only place where the sickos lay the roost.”

Cindy say quietly, her senses numbing. “You saw him?”

“Sure did. Tell you, I hated the guy for how he treated you. But damn, to see that shell lying there, it was like, I couldn’t wish that on anybody ever again. I just hope he made peace with the Lord before that trigger took his life. When I saw him, I prayed that whoever had the nerve to do that would meet his justice. No one has the right to take life but the One above.

“What do you want to do now?” Shirley asked.

Cindy felt a slight edge of panic, hoping that all she had to do was say, watch TV, but she knew that Shirley wouldn’t ask a question like that. And a vision of her long lost father, then mother, then the minstrel went by her. Too much to do. She wished back for her short time with her midnight job in the diner. Life had seemed so much simpler then. Now, with the old memories came the responsibility of someone else’s life on her hands. It felt overwhelming.

“Rest,” she said. “I just want to rest.”

Shirley put her hand over hers. She said nothing.

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