Hush, Hush, Voices Carry

by Pamela Baker
Hush, Hush, Voices Carry by Pamela Baker

When the landlady came, you were frying an egg. The frying pan flaked Teflon into the whites and yolk as it popped and sizzled and the landlady gave us her warning: if we couldn’t keep the noise down at night then we’d have to move out. Our neighbor kept complaining. “I don’t know what kind of parties you’re having,” the landlady said, “but she has to get up mornings and work.”

After the landlady left, we saw ourselves from her position and laughed at what she saw, at what she might think: the egg for lunch instead of breakfast, the dishes piled dirty in the sink and threatening to take over the short blue counter, the three-tiered hanging basket filled with tapes and junk instead of fruit. We laughed at the books and laundry spread out across the floor between our only furniture: a reddish-orange beanbag chair, an old coffee table, and Steve’s plaid foam cot. We laughed at my paints and canvasses up against a wall, at the overturned boxes used as tables, at the garbage needing out for days, and the obvious lack of a broom. We laughed at what she thought of us and her poor abused “carriage house” that she’d rented out to two teens who were only girls—me at sixteen and you at nineteen. Surely the sight of us was worse than the complaints of noise.

Five years later, you were dead at twenty-four, and your parents made an appearance on Hard Copy— “infotainment” tabloid TV, that sleazy show, selling sex and violence as regular news, as if there was no other kind. “We told her not to go out there,” your parents said about your move. They shared no photos from after high school when your nose was pierced and your hair less tame. “We told her not to go,” they tsked into the camera, “but she wouldn’t listen to us.”

Five years later, you were dead at twenty-four, and your parents made an appearance on Hard Copy— “infotainment” tabloid TV, that sleazy show, selling sex and violence as regular news, as if there was no other kind.

Like our complaining neighbor, I had to get up mornings, and go to school, and then work eight hours at the nursing home, but that didn’t stop us. We had friends. They stayed late, or crashed on the floor near dawn. You even drove down the coast of Maine to Portland one day and brought back Dave, who walked around shirtless and smoked up all your Camels while you gave him back massages and looked over-the-moon happy when he kissed you and slept beside you, naked, past noon.

We loved that apartment: a wide open living room, a cathedral ceiling with wooden beams, a glass door opening on a short deck, a black spiral staircase that went up to a loft. So thrilled we were, after signing the lease, we knocked each other down while hugging. But then Dave wanted to be deposited back in Portland, and there was rumor of his other girlfriend there.

You came back all wrong: a hangover headache, guts twisting and lurching, a body going numb. I’d overslept and missed school again. When I woke, you were groaning and threatening to move out. “I think I’m a drug addict,” you said. “I can’t say ‘no.’ I think I need help.”

I was worried about managing the rent on my own, about what your changes might mean for me and my own partying, about what it might mean for our friendship. Soon after, you moved back home with your parents and fell in line marching with the twelve steps of NA like they were the only path to recovery, and I managed fine on my own. You kept your key and we found other ways to have fun. After you picked up a new boyfriend with the new life, you finished art school, traded up one boyfriend for another, and then another, until finally you moved to the other Portland—the one people know about—where you metalsmithed and then needed money for overdue bills so you danced nude for new faces, new men.

It was my mother who gave me the news. “Didn’t you used to chum around with that girl from Warren, Suzanne Hill?”

“You mean Su? Yeah. Why?”

“She was murdered. It’s in the paper.”

The papers had much to say. Before someone found your badly burned body in the Northwest Portland, Oregon trash bin, you’d been missing for over a month—last seen with “strip club habitué” Michael McNeely who, it turned out, never gave you the ride home like he promised. When I heard you’d been raped again, I remembered the other rape, the one with the carnie, and I pictured your bleached-white Aimee-Mann-from-‘Til-Tuesday hair sticking out from hairspray and struggle, your rapid nose breathing increased for the fight, and the irony of how your hair style was from the Voices Carry era when you got choked in a junk yard too far away for anyone to hear your strangled screams.

Years later, Aimee Mann did the soundtrack for a movie where Tom Cruise strutted through infomercials as a misogynist selling how-to programs for men—“It’s not what you hope for, it’s not what you deserve, it’s what you take”—and claimed that any girl was obtainable, was there for the having. I think you would’ve laughed at Tom Cruise saying, “Respect the cock.” You were one of my first feminist role models—even before the landlady rented the place out to us. She’d said, “I’ll have to call my husband and make sure it’s okay with him.” And you said, “What, she can’t make a decision on her own? She has to ask a man first?”

The papers, though, said you were too trusting, naïve. They said you’d fooled everyone with your “elaborate tattoos” and pierced nose, the bleached-white hair and thick black eyeliner; no one would’ve guessed the fine arts degree or that you were from Maine. What the papers didn’t know, but I did, was that you’d considered stripping in the lesser-known Portland. We’d talked about it, and I said I thought I’d like it—easy money and all that attention, those eyes thinking you were hot—and you said you would too, only you were afraid that a customer might get the wrong idea and see you on the street, away from the club, and think they knew you and what you’re willing—even wanting—to do. Both of us decided right then that we’d probably never dance because of that risk, because of what all girls are told they should fear: forced-open legs, pinned-down arms, the inability to fend it off, feeling weak because of this, and vulnerable, and violated, and like a too-stupid-girl who should’ve know better. Always, it’s the girls who should’ve known better; they’d been warned.

What you would’ve liked, though, was the protesters in your honor: female friends and strangers holding hands together at the Rimrock Café where you’d worked, standing in front of the garish paintings of naked women stuck in martini glasses with accentuated breasts and legs unable to kick, and the “Girls! Girls! Girls!” calling for men to watch and drink and pay; the protesters said they opposed objectifying women and pornography, and you would’ve cheered or lit another candle for the female power and solidarity.

He kept you like a fetish for a while, before going back to finally burn and dump your body. He kept you like a fetish while the police questioned him and then let him go. I’ve always wondered what it felt like when you died, without breath, under hands that tipped you crinkled dollar bills and felt your thighs under runway lights. Were you thinking, “Shit, how’d I get myself into this mess?” Did you remember our conversation about dancing and realize you were right?

For some reason, I always hear you breathing. It’s loud, nasal, and too fast, just like when you were alive. Also, I hear you laughing—it’s like the time when the landlady came, and once again you’ve left me alone, after the warnings, to manage the rent and late nights and oversleeping and boys and men and my body with all of its power and danger, all on my own, and all I can do is remember the fresh sizzle of oil and egg.

Pamela Baker lives in Central Florida where she works as a nurse, reading and writing just for the fun of it.