Richard Bentley

Carefree Calls

 

She wasn’t a girlfriend. She was a member of the “Sexy Seven,” those thirteen-year-olds who were everybody’s girlfriends.

“The Sexy Seven,” that’s what they called themselves. They would drive around the streets of Lake Forest in Sol Smith’s convertible. They wore red cloche hats, which they would wave at everyone as they passed.

Karen proudly claimed that she was the only member of the group who wasn’t sexy.

She said she would never marry. She preferred horses to boys. She had a temperament that excluded love affairs but encouraged friendship. She was an only child, and she lived with her parents in a remodeled farmhouse that had once been part of a vast estate. She kept a couple of horses, and I would ride beside her, galloping over fields and splashing through ponds.

Years passed, and the Sexy Seven married or moved away. But Karen stayed in the Chicago area. One afternoon, after a good ride together, I sat with her on the top rail of a fence that overlooked the pasture behind her house. We were in our twenties by now, and we talked about our lives. She was no longer a teenager who threw erasers at her teacher. After college at Vassar, she herself became a teacher of young children. She wondered how, besides the reading and arithmetic, she could help them find meaning in their lives.

“What’s the point of education, the reading and writing, all that adding and subtracting? What does it,” she sighed, “all add up to?”

After this talk, I could see she was trying to make sense of her life. A few weeks after that conversation, I went east to visit some friends, two of whom were once members of the Sexy Seven. They had found important husbands, careers, and children. They were glad to see me, they said.

When I returned home, I found that Karen had gone to Silver Hill, a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut. I was bewildered. I was especially upset because of our talk on the top rail of the fence that overlooked the pasture. I visited her. We walked the grounds together, but I never asked her why she was there. She gave no information, and the fact that she was in a mental hospital seemed to have no meaning for her. She was casual, but she seemed sturdy. I knew that at last it was time to fall in love with her. She had given her life meaning and could possibly help me do the same.

But a job change moved me away from Chicago. Karen married and moved to Arizona.

Soon, the Christmas calls began. Every year around Christmas, she would call me or I would call her. The years passed. I told her about my marriage and the birth of my children.

She talked about her marriage and her divorce and her mother’s move to Arizona after her father died. I now lived in New England, and I told her about our family’s Christmas drive through the mountains—the Taconics, the Berkshires, the Holyoke range, the ski areas. I told Karen that after Chicago, you could be nostalgic for a place, even if you had just arrived there.

She laughed, and said she felt the same way about Arizona. She said she was moving to Carefree to be closer to her mother.

“There’s a town in Arizona called Carefree? Could someone like you ever be happy in a place called Carefree?”

“It’s nostalgic,” she said. “Your word. I ride my horse through the Ponderosa. I take care of people who need help.”

Over the next few years, she told me about her second marriage and the birth of her daughter. She told me casually about the brief trip to Silver Hill. It had been her decision, she said. She had been feeling depressed, but after the visit, the depression went away. That was all. Now it was over. She looked forward to many things in her life.

One year the Christmas calls stopped. I tried to reach her a few times. At first, the phone didn’t answer. Then I found it had been disconnected.

She had disappeared.

The searches began.

A few months later, the police found her body in the hot desert. She had been taped inside a cardboard moving box. The killer had assaulted her, broken her ribs, gagged her,choked her, and placed a bag over her head to suffocate her.

The killer and his wife worked as day laborers. They were helping Karen move to a new house. According to the police, they killed her because they didn’t want her to find out that they had stolen some of her jewelry—earrings, a necklace, some rings. They pawned the jewelry then went off to Las Vegas for some gambling.

Even though the case has been solved, the facts refuse to reduce themselves to any kind of meaning.

Karen suffered alone in the desert, intact. She was untouched, like many of us, by God, by grace, or by purpose.

 

Dick Bentley has published fiction, poetry, and memoir in over 250 journals, magazines and anthologies on three continents. His books, Post-Freudian Dreaming and A General Theory of Desire, are available on Amazon, Powell’s Books, or at www.dickbentley.com. His new book, All Rise, contains recently published stories, poems, and graphic “wall poetry” that has been displayed in art galleries.

Dick has served on the board of the Modern Poetry Association (now known as the Poetry Foundation). He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee. He was prizewinner in the Paris Review/Paris Writers Workshop International Fiction Awards. In 2012 and 2013, he gave readings of his poetry at the famous Paris bistro, Au Chat Noir. 

Before teaching writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dick was Chief Planner for the Mayor’s Office of Housing in Boston. He is a Yale graduate with an MFA from Vermont College.