Believe it or not, I’ve got another novel coming out. I say, believe it or not because I can barely believe it. Seriously. I’ve vowed to quit pumping out novels so many times my friends just roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, sure.” And Dixie, she doesn’t even bother to roll her eyes anymore. She just asks me if I want avocado with my quesadilla. It’s a distraction technique, I know it, but it works, because who can think about writing or not writing when avocado is on the line?
The thing is, I love making up characters, and I love throwing tricky situations at them and seeing what they do. It’s the same muscle I use when improvising stories on stage, only it’s a solo act and I get to swim in the delicious, vast pool of language. And this time, I’m stepping out with a mystery—a slightly paranormal one no less: Bait and Witch. My pal, Duke Houston, created this beautiful cover. And, as always, I am eternally grateful to Bold Strokes Books for once again publishing me.
Remember, live the love, it’s all we’ve got.
Over and out, Clifford Mae.
To make one-hundred-percent sure Mags was dead, Zeddi stepped around the old woman’s slippered feet to check her breathing, her pulse. It was a strange intimacy to share with one of the few friends she’d made since moving to Tres Ojos. The papery skin of Mags’ wrist and neck was cool and waxy, exposed, vulnerable. Not that anything worse could happen to a person besides dying, Zeddi supposed. Then again, it was only her second experience with a dead body—the first, a homophobic grandmother whom she barely knew because her grandmother thought her son (Zeddi’s dad) and his husband (Zeddi’s other dad) were sinners and had no business raising a child, much less a daughter. Zeddi had expected her to be dead. Knew she’d be dead. It was the only reason she’d made the trip to Ohio—because Nana was dead.
Nothing like this.
Nothing like arriving for her weekly housecleaning job and finding her eighty-six-year-old client dressed and ready for the day. Loose hemp-fabric slacks, soft sage-green cardigan, short white hair in its usual tussle, sitting in her frayed green overstuffed chair as if any minute she might get up and take a walk along the river or reach for the cordless landline on the coffee-cup-ringed table next to her. The dullness in her eyes was unnerving, the one eyelid stuck all the way open, the other at half-mast, as if Mags was mid-wink when she died. But she didn’t stink the way dead people did in cop shows. Just smelled slightly…fermented.
Outside the sliding glass doors, the drizzling rain fell on the tiny fenced-in backyard garden. Besides that, the world was eerily quiet.
Zeddi slipped her phone from the pocket of her sticker-covered cleaning caddy. How could Mags be dead? She’d been so full of life just last week.
A fly circled Mags’ nostril. Landed. Zeddi waved it away, the tears finally pushing their way past her shock. What were she and Olive going to do without Mags? She’d been such a lifeline in the ten weeks they’d known her! Offering to hang out with Olive on those days when Zeddi had to work late. Mags and Olive would do things like grow mushrooms from a kit, or pick up trash along the river, or there was that time they’d spent the afternoon watching praying mantises hatch. You should have seen them, Mom! Olive had whooped. They all started fighting and eating each other! Or that day Zeddi had found them in the garden singing and water coloring. We’re painting what the songs look like, Olive had said offhandedly, like this was just something people did. But Mags was like that. Creative, a free thinker, a warm heart.
The fly landed on the inside of Mags’ eye then started to crawl across her open eyeball. Zeddi sprang toward her and waved it off, the suddenness of the action letting loose a torrent of tears. “I’m sorry, Mags,” she sobbed while waving frantically at the fly. “I should have…”
She jabbed 9-1-1 into her phone.
Just three days ago she’d called to reschedule the weekly cleaning. Olive had woken up with a stomach bug. Mags was unhappy about the change. There’s something I need to talk to you about, she’d said. Something best talked about in person. How soon can you come? Tomorrow? But there was no way. Zeddi had three houses to clean, a pile of personal laundry, grocery shopping. Zeddi had suggested the day after, Wednesday, late afternoon. The sound of Olive puking had prompted her to add, that is, if Olive’s over this. And now here it was, Wednesday, and Mags was dead.
Zeddi heard herself answering the dispatcher’s questions. Who what where when, the exchange so mechanical, so careless, so nothing to do with the end of a beautiful life. Still, Zeddi felt better having made the call. It was in someone else’s hands now.
Unsure what to do next, she settled onto one of the bar stools at the kitchen counter to wait.
One thing about being dead, it meant you were no longer accountable. Wasn’t that a depressing thought. It’s just that things had gone so sour since the move to Tres Ojos. Since the sublet falling through. But they had Turtle, and that was so much more than some people had. Turtle, the ‘91 Chevy conversion van that had been their home for the last ten weeks. And Olive’s school was working out well. And the cleaning business Zeddi had purchased before moving from Sacramento was doing well. Still, a couple miles down the river, a homeless camp was spreading like COVID. Every day, there were more tents, more city-provided trash cans and porta-potties. She tried not to think about it. She’d find them a home. They didn’t need much. A small apartment. Even a studio would work. But on top of being super expensive, the Silicon Valley outpost also had a severe housing shortage.
The fly found its way back. Or was it another one? She waved it away. Rolled up a page of newspaper and whapped the fly against the leg of the small round table. The fly fell to the carpet then just lay there wiggling its little legs in the air, crying for help. She whapped it again and again and again, her eyes brimming with tears, then picked the tiny carcass up with a tissue and tossed it in Mags’ kitchen trash.
Where were the first responders? Shouldn’t they have shown up by now? Had she not been clear over the phone? Given the wrong address? She checked the Kit Cat clock. Not ten minutes had passed since she’d called 9-1-1. Still. She slid off the stool and walked over to the door. Cracked it. Outside the world was carrying on as if nothing of consequence had happened. As if it were just another ordinary day.
She blew her nose again. Wiped her tear-streaked face. Returned to the bar stool. Rubbed the tattoo on the inside of her right wrist. Trust, it said. She’d gotten the word inked onto her skin the day she’d decided to keep Olive. It hadn’t been an easy decision, not under the circumstances, but it had been the right one. Olive was her everything. She plucked a hair from her jeans. Her stress was making her lose hair. How bad was that? She held it to the light. Could hardly see the blue dye. But who had the time or the money to redye it? Let alone a bathroom. She took a deep breath.
Outside, the drizzle turned to a downpour. It was the first real rain of the season. She’d known it was coming. Even so, it was inconvenient. Maybe Dan would let her put a patio umbrella in the driveway next to where he’d let her park the van. That would help. If she angled the umbrella just right, they could leave the van’s barn doors cracked while it rained. It would keep it from getting too steamy inside. He’d had been so generous, the combat veteran, charging them next to nothing for the use of his driveway, giving them bathroom and kitchen privileges. But there were limits to people’s generosity.
She stared at the moisture collecting on the feathery fronds of a giant fern in Mags’ small herb garden. It turned to a strand of pearls as the droplets made their way toward the mound of thyme below. It was a beautiful garden, tiny and bursting with life. Who would care for it now? Would anyone? She knew so little about Mags’ private life. But there was no time to worry about Mags’ garden. Olive would be getting out of school soon, and with the rain Zeddi would have to pick her up—her and her bike. Only now she had to be there for the paramedics too, or whoever it was they sent in these situations. She really had no idea. Should she call the school? Ask if there was someone who could wait with Olive? Then, as abruptly as the rain had begun, it stopped, which solved at least one problem: Olive could ride. She had a good warm jacket—if she remembered it.
A flattened dust bunny was stuck to the sole of her white PF. Flyers high tops. She peeled it off. Rolled it into a ball along with her strand of hair. She loved how Olive had decorated the sneakers one night while they were hanging out in the van. She’d penned You Da Boss Lady! Chillax! Enjoy The Ride, Man! Keep It Clean! on the canvas along with colorful lightning bolts, snakes, and of course Olive’s favorite: skulls and crossbones. She’d done it to cheer Zeddi up, which was a worry. The last thing she wanted was to be one of those mothers who needed their kid looking after them. Still, the sneakers made her smile.
She tossed the balled-up dust and hair into the trash. Waved away yet another fly. They were the real first responders. Flies. She shook the gruesome thought from her head. Another gloomy one replaced it. Mags’ account would be the second she’d lost this month. Actually, third if she counted the one she’d quit after the woman said, “But I thought you’d be Mexican!”
Another reminder to trust.
She looked back at Mags. This old lesbian who’d been so good to her and Olive. But it wasn’t Mags. Mags was gone to wherever it was the dead went. Which was where exactly? It was too big a question for the moment, but it was unsettling the way she could still kind of feel Mags, even though she had so obviously vacated her body. “So, what do you think, Mags?” she asked the emptiness. “What should I do about Olive? Would it be okay for her to see you like this? Would it help her understand you being gone? Because she’s going to miss you—bad. Or would seeing you dead be just one more thing I’ve subjected her to? Should I try to soften the blow, meet her outside and explain to her about you dying? What do you think?”
Olive’s flinging open of the trailer door mooted the question. “Mom! Mags!” she shouted, barely able to get the words out she was so out of breath. “Great news! We got out of school early because all the toilets in the girls’ bathroom overflowed. All at once! It was awesome!”