IN A UNIQUE WAY
by Anthony Neil Smith
The week after Curtis returned from his
pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his ex-girlfriend Dana was murdered. She was found pretty
much drained and wrapped in her shower curtain on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. No
suspects. Funny thingwhile Curtis prayed at the Mount of Olives and retraced the
steps of Jesus, Dana was the only person he couldnt forgive. Tried and tried, but
couldnt because he remembered how it felt when she cheated the second time,
called off the engagement, made fun of him joining the Pentecostal church her sister
attended, how shed said he traded singing rock & roll for southern gospel:
"That high mousy voice singing about Jesus? You want to be all Holy Roller
The first person to tell him about Dana missing, and
later about Dana dead, was Danas older sister Veronica. She had led Curtis to church
a year before when things started going really bad with his and Danas relationship.
He thought it would make things better, but Dana reacted like she was running from wasps.
She dumped him. Six months later, he started dating Veronica, who had always been so
understanding and pure, if not quite as drop dead gorgeous. No sexit was like junior
Veronica showed up at Curtiss Biloxi apartment
after calling him from the morgue. She had gone with her mom to ID the body. He opened the
door to find her puffy and red-eyed behind her glasses, dirty blonde hair spilling from a
ball cap. Lived by the holiness code, so no make-up or jewelry. A white sweater and long
black skirt. She caught Curtis in shorts and muscle shirt.
"Ill put on some sweatpants," he said.
"Its okay, dont worry," she
"No, its no problem. Come in. Ill be
He put on sweatpants and came back to find Veronica
kneeling in front of the recliner on the hardwood floor covered by a cheap fuzzy rug. More
tears, and raw throated "Jesus help us, please Lord, look at me."
Curtis put a hand on top of her cap and she shook like
she was cold, but it was May. He said, "Its okay to cry. Let it out."
She got louder, which wasnt so cool, so he said,
"Show me some strength."
Veronica climbed up and wiped her nose on her palm.
Curtis went to the kitchenette for paper towels, brought back two. She wiped her hands and
nose with them and sat beside Curtis on the front of the couch cushions, their knees
touching. She smelled like vanilla. His coffee table was covered with Sunday School
pamphlets and travel magazines. Where the TV used to be was now a microphone on a stand,
and an old Yamaha synth, since he gave up TV for the church.. He and Veronica worked on
writing songs every now and then, maybe something they could do together like a ministry,
sing at gospel conventions.
"I knew shed meet a serial killer one
day," Veronica said.
"Dont think like that. No serial
"I was getting somewhere with her, though. She
was close, I could tell."
"Close to what?" Curtis said.
"I was close to getting her to church. She was
already millennium spooked, so Ive been witnessing to her."
Curtis had seen Dana a couple of months ago, and he
thought her friendliness was a trick, like Dana was poking him with "Im so
happy things are working out for you two" (Youre going to settle for her?)
and "Its nice to see youre still singing" (Cheesy four-part
harmony and you know damn well Veronica cant keep on pitch). But shed been
sincere? The whole time, Curtis had gritted his teeth and thought, Im dating your
sister. Dont you get it?
"Maybe she was stringing you along
again," Curtis said.
Veronica reached for his hands and caught his fingers
in a long-nailed clutch, digging. "I know how she treated you, but she had changed,
really. She told me she felt bad about everything and wanted to clear things with you, to
make it easier for you and me."
Voice in Curtiss head went: Another few weeks
and you could have had Dana back.
He got his fingers back from Veronica and massaged
blood into them, then leaned back into the couch and slipped an arm around her shoulders.
"Mom wants you to sing at the funeral," she
Curtis shook his head. "You would do a better
"But Mom loves your voice. It would really help
her a lot."
The visitation was the next night at the funeral home. Two worlds of
people mingled in the parlorthe church folks whod known Dana since birth, the
ones there for her mother Kathleen, and Danas friends from work, from the
nightclubs, from high school days five years past. Curtis noticed a couple of other
ex-boyfriends, ones that had followed him. They were laughing, shaking their heads,
frowning. Kathleen had told Curtis there hadnt been anyone lately. It didnt
help. These guys looked more together than him, maybe bankers and lawyers. One had a
mustache like Tom Selleck. When he met eyes with any of the post-boyfriends, they nodded
and scrunched their eyebrows, like they knew Curtis. Dana had shown pictures.
Veronica was a black dress and pinned-up hair. Curtis
was a navy suit. They walked to the creamy-blue steel casket surrounded by flower
arrangements, photos of a living, smiling Dana stuck in a few. Kathleen stood at the head
of the casket in a simple black blazer and slacks, a beauty with a wide face, thin lips, a
smooth neck, streaked light brown hair. Some of those genes had rubbed off on Veronica,
but most had showered on Dana, who was now pale and sunken, her honey-blonde hair too
fluffy. The blue dress, high-necked to cover the slashed throat, made her look like the
saintly, burdened girl everyone knew she wasnt..
Curtis said, "She looks fine."
"No, she looks dead. Like shes been dead
too long," Kathleen said, brushing her fingers across Danas cheek.
"You picked out a nice casket, Kathleen."
"Actually, she picked it out herself. We
prearranged years ago. Veronica has one, too."
"Mines burgundy," Veronica said.
Curtis reached for Kathleens elbow and led them
away from the casket and Dana, who couldnt look nice even at her funeral. He
thought, She didnt allow me a nice last look. Shes rubbing it in my
"Im so glad youll be singing
tomorrow," Kathleen said, breathless and tired. She was a backslidden Pentecostal,
still a believer but not living by the rules, and she was absolutely sure Dana went to
Hell. It was all over her face.
Curtis nodded. "Have you eaten yet? Can I take
you and Veronica out for dinner after this?"
She nodded. "I dont know if I can eat
anything. Ill go to be with you both." She dropped her face into her hand and
cried quietly, her shoulders jerking. Curtis pulled her against him. Veronica patted her
back. Curtis thought, Dana isnt being fair to us at all.
They went to a steakhouse on the beach. The lighting was candles on
tables and a dim amber glow from above. Half the tables were empty. Kathleen played with a
seafood salad, chewed Nicorette gun while sipping iced tea, hardly said anything. Veronica
cut her filet mignon into tiny pieces, and Curtis ate a Porterhouse. Nerves and sadness
needed food. He ate the steak in chunks.
Veronica dipped a bite of her meat into blue cheese
salad dressing. "There were so many people tonight. Im glad they came."
"I dont think I talked to any of her
friends, though," Curtis said.
Veronica lifted the fork and slid the bite into her
mouth. She had a dab of dressing on her lip, and Curtis wiped it off with his thumb.
Kathleen spit her gum into a paper napkin, wadded it,
put it on the ashtray. "I shouldnt have kept the gum so long. This tastes like
mint. I need more bread."
"I have to pee," Veronica said, standing.
She walked towards the bathroom.
Kathleen tore off a piece of her daughters
bread, brought her fingers to her mouth and pushed it in. After washing it down, she let
herself deflate and stared at Curtis until he noticed.
"She called me ten times a day. Ill miss
her," Kathleen said.
"Dana was something else."
"She treated you like shit, though. I kept
telling her, That Curtis is a keeper, but she wasnt old enough to see it
Curtis waved it off. "She wasnt ready for
something that heavy yet. I wanted a wedding date and she wanted to go dancing. That made
sense. I got over it."
"Liar." Kathleen reached across for his
hand, rubbed it. The candlelight took the grimness away from her. He liked her hands, and
her face. Curtis sometimes had the idea that she wanted him, and it would be nice. If Dana
had that spell over him, and Veronica was nice, then Kathleen could really do
something for him. She made those girls. They were only halves of her.
"Would you have taken her back if she had joined
the church?" Kathleen said.
Curtis covered her hand, and her grip tightened.
"I cant say now. Veronicas really great. Well just never
"Isnt there enough of you to go
around?" She smiled, first time tonight. She winked. Curtis thought, Everyone
grieves in a unique way. Just the loss talking, thats all.
Veronica returned to the table and saw the hand
holding. She plopped down beside Curtis and leaned into him, her head on his shoulder, and
she cried. Touching both of them was comfortable. But the missing third was like an
When he got to the apartment, Curtis dug out the hard rock CDs from his
closet. Dokken, Van Halen, Ratt, Rush. Then he plugged in headphones, spun a CD, and sang
along, loud and high. Doing the screeches, matching the singers pitches.
Curtis paced while he did it, until he was too tired
and collapsed on the couch, still singing. He had been singing in a cover band at a bar in
Gulfport when he met Dana, who came in with some friends, all of them bikers. He liked her
ass framed in acid-washed jeans. She had a splotched leather jacket on. After the set, she
came and talked to himtalked to him, asked all the questions. She kept her
eyes on him and leaned close to hear when the house speakers blared. They had talked 70s
rock, about Molly Hatchet and Aerosmith and how overrated Jimmy Page was. She had asked
for his number. One of the good memories he had left.
Halfway through the Ratt album, he gagged and ran to
the bathroom, headphones coming with him as he jerked the plug out, stereo trying to come
but landing on the floor. Curtis skipped the toilet and aimed for the bathtub, spewing tea
and steak. It sounded like someone else far away, the headphone effect.
What he wanted was to end Dana himself, not some
anonymous stranger doing it for a laugh. So then it could mean something. There could be
motive, emotion, understanding. Curtis put himself there, in Danas apartment: he
killed her with a knife while she showered, just like the movie but without the dress and
violins. He sliced her from behind while she kneaded strong herbal scented shampoo through
her honey-colored hair, the foam sliding down her face and closed eyes.
And he thought Take my voice away.
The day after the funeral, where Curtis didnt sing, Veronica
called him and said the police were done with Danas apartment. They had told her she
could go and pack her sisters things, and she needed his help. No way to say no.
He met her in the parking lot of the apartment
complex, the wooden areas between the bricks painted white, shutters and trims in country
blue, gardens full of petunias lining the walkways. She stood beside her Volkswagen with
her arms crossed, all jumpy. An old Amy Grant T-shirt and khaki skirt, work clothes. She
liked that look more than dressing up.
"Is your voice better?"
"A little," Curtis said. "Still
"Did you bring boxes?" Veronica said.
"No, I thought maybe shed have some."
"You thought theyd magically appear? Can we
make a wish?"
Sounded like Dana for a moment there. Curtis leaned
and kissed her neck. "I am a horrible man who forgot to read your mind. Please please
forgive me if you can."
"Some things are unforgivable. Youll have
to work for it. Lets go."
Halfway up the stairs, she told him they could
organize for a while, and then get boxes later. She pulled a key from her purse, walked to
the doorclear of police tape or signsand unlocked it. Inside, there was a
whiff of bad vegetables.
Veronica stood in the middle of the living room and
turned in little circles, sucked her bottom lip, and ground her knuckles together.
"Its weird. Everything feels out of phase, like its off by millimeters
because the cops touched it all. Most of it Ill have to go through with Mom.
Ill get to keep whatever I want. But I dont have room for the furniture."
The matching couch and chair were floral pattern on
dark purple background, looked new. A few tables, an entertainment center with a small TV,
candle holders, framed pictures of Veronica, Kathleen, one of all three women, a few
friends Curtis didnt recognize. Tiny what-not teddy bears were scattered randomly.
Veronica was off to the bedroom, flipped on the light
switch as she passed. Curtis followed. He thought this room was more like Danas
personality than the living room: thick dark beach towels hanging over the windows,
blocking the sun so she could sleep late, and burned candle stubs stuck in the necks of
root beer bottles on the dresser. Veronica sifted through the closet, at all the classy
dresses Dana had owned. Some that she liked, she pulled out and tossed across the bare
"See how she thought about how she looked? I
dont think that way. It takes too much time, reading Glamour."
"You really think she took it so seriously?"
"Its been a long time since you knew her.
Dana was losing the rock chick routine left and right. Im telling you, she was close
to saintly. It wouldve been great, you know? I was going to set her up with that
bass player from church."
Veronica sat on the floor and looked at Danas
shoes. "My feet are too big. Watch." She kicked off her Keds and tried to
squeeze into a high heeled number, bending her foot and grunting, laughing. "Help me,
Prince Charming. The glass slipper wont fit."
Curtis knelt in front of her, took her foot in his
hand, and played at forcing it on, strained and gritted teeth. "It wont budge.
Maybe if we took off a toe."
"I never liked the big one. Lop it off! Slice
They got quiet. Curtis grinned to keep from sighing,
hoping maybe he was the only one to catch it. But Veronica started to cry. She pulled her
foot away, tossed the shoe back into the closet and stood up.
"Im sorry. My big mouth. I wasnt
thinking." She wiped her cheeks, then ran into the bathroom and stood in front of the
Curtis leaned on the bathroom doorjamb. Veronica let
the tap water trickle over her fingers, which she rubbed under her eyes. There were the
rings on which the shower curtain used to hang, Danas half-empty bottle of herbal
Veronica said, "You know what I thought
yesterday? Maybe I ought to go and turn myself in. Ill confess, and theyll
know I was lying, but theyll try to trip me up with the hidden details. All I want
is for somebody to take responsibility. Maybe if I confessed, the real killer would step
"No, you dont want to do that. Dont
put your mother through you going nuts."
"But think deeper. Think about it like a Jesus
and Barrabas moment. Maybe hell break down and seek salvation all because I took his
"Well, look at the ego on you, Miss Savior."
"Maybe theyll never find him. Ive got
to do something." She picked up a comb from the sink and ran it down her
forehead. Curtis moved from the doorjamb and went to her. He put his hands on her hips,
kissed her shoulder.
"Why dont we try to solve the murder
ourselves? You can be Nancy Drew almost. Lets take what we know and see where it
leads," Curtis said.
"The cops have already done that."
"Yeah, but where does that get us? Sitting around
on our thumbs. Lets get active."
She grinned at him in the mirror, sniffled. Cheeks
flushed rosy. "I dont think it would help. But thanks."
Curtis took the comb from her and said, "Just a
Veronica climbed into the shower and stood with her
back to Curtis. "She never saw him."
"Like this," Curtis said. He moved closer to
her, almost touching her back, the comb arcing around to the front of her neck, dull side
to her skin, he pulled it across her neck, and she moaned like he was kissing her. His
dick grew hard against her, and Veronica reached back for his jeans, pulled them tightly.
He hadnt thought before, with all his anger and embarrassment over Dana, that maybe
Veronica felt a little jealous for her own reasons: The glamorous sister lives fast,
dies young, gets her name on the news and a bunch of flowers. So maybe him and
Veronica would turn out okay together. He smelled her un-herbal hair, like strawberries,