WELCOME TO PICKETWIRE
A serialized story
by tim wintermute
Sister M’s released the tumbleweed in her hands as she sat on her meditation mat near the edge of the bluff overlooking the Purgatoire River behind the convent walls. Sister Flora, who taught Sister M’s the spiritual exercise, was a master gardener and explained that the tumbleweed was once rooted in the prairie but it was only after it freed itself from the soil and tumbled in the wind that it could release its seeds. She added that keeping your eyes and mind focused on the tumbleweed was the opposite of keeping your eye on the ball. “I like to think of it as the Tao of tumbleweeds.” Her instructions were that you didn’t throw the tumbleweed, you simply held it out and let the wind take it. Sister M’s kept her eyes on the tumbleweed as it cartwheeled in the wind until it vanished over the edge of the bluff twenty feet away. She closed her eyes and felt the wind tug at her. Hearing something stir, Sister M’s opened her eyes and was staring directly into the face of a prairie dog who had popped its head out of a hole about six feet away that she hadn’t noticed. Neither of them moved as they looked at each other. Finally, Sister M’s blinked and the prairie dog ducked back into the hole. Sister M’s rose from her lotus position, rolled up her mat, and walked around to the front of Our Lady of Lost Souls and through the gate.
She had been struggling with what her next step should be since Sheriff Riggleman had stationed one of deputies outside the convent’s gate a few hours before. This could only mean that Riggleman suspected that the three “illegals”, as he called them, were hiding inside. Sister M’s had no doubt that the Sheriff would soon show up with a search warrant. She had to find another place to hide them but first she had to find a way to get them out of the convent and past the Deputy. Now she had an idea.
Sister Beatrice looked up from the table she was hunched over as Sister M’s entered her workroom. “What are you working on?” Sister M’s asked.
“I wish I knew. I’ve been looking at these fragments for an hour trying to figure out how they come together.”
Sister M’s looked at the pieces laid out on the table-top. “What is it or was it?”
“I won’t know until I can figure out how it all fits together. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box that shows you what it’s supposed to look like when you’re done.” Sister Beatrice stood up from the bench and stretched her arms to the ceiling. “I needed a break, especially my back.”
“You know the tunnels that prisoners dug to escape from here?”
Sister Beatrice nodded.
“You said that you were certain there are some that were never discovered by the guards.”
“I’m not certain, I’m positive.”
“Does that mean you’ve discovered some more?”
“Only one but I think there are probably others. Why, are you thinking of taking up spelunking?”
“No, I was thinking of using it to get out. Was it completed?”
“I’m pretty sure it was but the gate is a much better exit.”
“Not if you want to avoid being arrested by the Sheriff’s Deputy parked in front of it.”
“Is the Sheriff after you?”
“No, but he’s after the people we’re giving sanctuary to and I’m pretty certain that he’s going to be here soon with a search warrant. We need to move them from here to a safer place.”
“There are plenty of places we can hide them.”
“Then we’d have to lie when he asks if they’re here.”
“We could take the Fifth. I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Then he would definitely know they were here. No, the right thing is to tell him that we aren’t hiding them.”
“You think he’d believe us?”
“Probably not, but even Sheriff Riggleman wouldn’t want to be seen as accusing an entire order of nuns of lying.”
“What if he asks if we know where they are?”
“The only one of us who will know that is me and I’m their attorney. So you see the best thing to do is to move them to a safer place and the only way I can think of doing that is through a tunnel.”
Sister Beatrice clapped her hands. “A prison breakout! There couldn’t be a better way to test my theory.”
“Theory? I thought you said you’d found at least one tunnel that had been completed.”
“The tunnel I discovered is in the boiler room of the old powerplant. Like I said, I think it was completed but I’ve never gone all the way to the end, only twenty feet. If I wasn’t so tall I might have made it farther but my sciatica started acting up and I was unable to stoop that far to conquer. However, I was able to measure the tunnel’s length using a laser and it was almost two hundred feet long, which would put it well beyond the prison walls. Now we’ll be able to find out where it ends up and prove that someone could use it to escape from here.”
Ten minutes later they were inside the old powerplant, a squat, brick building with a smokestack on top that rose more than five stories. Sister Beatrice opened a steel door and they descended a stairway into a subterranean room with two large rusting boilers. She flipped a switch turning on the naked lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling high overhead. “I had a heck of time getting up there to replace the bulbs in those fixtures, but at least they work. It’s still pretty gloomy down here. Of course, the boilers when they were going would have provided some light. I imagine that for the convicts who were assigned here it was like being condemned to stoke the furnaces of hell.” She led Sister M’s over to a large wooden three sided enclosure. “This was the coal bin. The coal came down a chute from up there. It’s gone now. And this,” she pointed at a rectangular opening in the wood side, “is the tunnel entrance.” Sister M’s stooped down and looked into the opening, following the beam from the flashlight Sister Beatrice had handed her. “The opening, as you can see, is quite large for a tunnel; four feet high by three feet wide so a person didn’t have to crawl on their hands and knees. It’s also level. Since this is the basement they didn’t have to dig any deeper.”
“Why wasn’t it discovered?”
“Since this was the old coal bin for the boilers the convicts who dug the tunnel would have worked here. That meant they had access to shovels. No one would have questioned the dust and noise that was coming from down here. As you can see the bin has wood sides so all they had to do was clear away enough coal to get access and then remove some of the boards. You can see the section of boards next to the opening. They would place them back over the tunnel entrance when they weren’t using it and then pile coal in front.”
“Wouldn’t the guards have been suspicious when they found that some of the convicts working in the boiler room were missing and had escaped?”
“You’re assuming that some convicts escaped, but there’s no record of anyone escaping from Purgatory.”
“So if no one escaped that would mean the tunnel was never finished,” Sister M’s said as she stood up.
Sister Beatrice shook her head. “Not if my theory is correct. I believe this tunnel wasn’t a way for prisoners to get out but a way to smuggle things in.”
“What makes you think that?”
“One of the items that I found hidden in a cell was a small notebook that turned out to be a ledger. Not only did it record items being sold it included a mark-up for each item that was labelled T Tolls. I thought T meant transport, but the volume was much greater than one would expect from the usual method for smuggling of contraband that takes place in a prison. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I found this tunnel and realized T meant tunnel and that the convicts who dug this tunnel charged a toll for every item that was smuggled in. Of course, it’s only a theory, but if I’m right there’s light at the end of this tunnel.”
“There’s only one way to find out,” Sister M’s said, then bent down and entered the tunnel. She walked slowly, hunched over, feeling the weight of the earth on top of her, held back by beams that shored up the walls and ceiling. Dust swirled in the light from her flashlight. She counted her steps as she walked, estimating that each step was approximately two feet. After fifty steps she stopped and called back to Sister Beatrice that she thought she was halfway. “The beams that are shoring it up look pretty sturdy…so far.”
“Turn off your flashlight and see if you can see any light.” Sister Beatrice’s voice sounded like she was shouting into a well.
Sister M’s switched off he flashlight. “Nothing but pitch black. This must have been what Jonah felt like after being swallowed by the whale.”
“Are your eyes adapted to the darkness?” Sister Beatrice shouted back.
“They are but I can’t say that the rest of me has. Anyway, it’s still ink black.” She turned the flashlight back on and resumed walking. After another twenty five steps she turned her flashlight off again. After a minute or so she thought it was a shade lighter than before. “It might be my imagination but I think it’s a little bit lighter,” she called back to Sister Beatrice.
“Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Sister Beatrice’s yelled back, although that could also be imagined since her voice was garbled as it echoed through the tunnel. Sister M’s turned the flashlight back on and continued.
It was not her imagination since she could soon see light falling like gold dust from the tunnel’s ceiling. When she got closer she could see that the tunnel widened and the ceiling was higher. It was a small room. It was also the end of the tunnel. A wooden ladder leaned against the side of the tunnel and stopped just below several boards nailed together to form a square. Light was sifting through the cracks between the boards.
Sister M’s shouted back to Sister Beatrice that she had found the end and that it was a large space with a ladder leading to what appeared to be a hatch. “The rungs on the ladder are intact and it looks sturdy so I’m going to try it.” Sister M’s put her right foot on the first rung of the ladder and it held her weight so she climbed carefully up until she reached the hatch. After pushing back and forth on it she was able to slide it away and sunlight streamed in blinding her momentarily. I wonder if this is what God experienced after saying let there be light, she thought. After stepping on the next rung and pushing her head out of the tunnel she was surprised to see that she was only five or six feet from her meditation spot. Looking at the top of the hatch that she had pushed aside she saw that it was nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding prairie. She swatted away a tumbleweed that blew in front of her and climbed out into the sunlight. It may not match the description in the Book of Genesis but she was pretty sure this would have been the Garden of Eden to the convicts who dug the tunnel.
Less than fifteen minutes later Sister M’s emerged from the entrance in the boiler room. “Well?” Sister Beatrice asked.
“It comes out behind the east wall about fifteen feet from the edge of the bluff.”
Sister Beatrice hugged Sister M’s. “Thank you for proving my theory, M’s.”
“Thank you for coming up with the theory, Bea.”
“When do we stage the breakout?” Sister Beatrice could hardly contain her excitement.
“First, I have to arrange for someone to help me get them to the safehouse once they’re through the tunnel and, second, I have to arrange for the safehouse, itself.”
“Yes, but I’m sure you’ve worked it all out.”
“In my head, but it’s all theoretical until I work it out on the ground.”
Zelda stood in the wings of the Tumbleweed Theater. Fred Dobbs, the theater manager, had let her in after she told him that she needed to get used to being on the real stage. Fred showed her how to turn off the house lights and told her he was leaving for the day so she should turn them off when she was done. After he left she walked out to center stage and imagined a spotlight shining on her. Zelda thought about what Max had told her when they had stood on the stage together; that there was an invisible glass wall between the stage and the audience.
As she stood there Zelda said her lines out loud for the scene they’d rehearsed the day before. Not just her lines but those of the other actors as well. She’d memorized all of them. Zelda felt like she could play all the other parts in the play when it was performed. Nothing against Carlotta, Tom and the others but she could bring the characters to life in this world, her world. She couldn’t stop even if she wanted to and she didn’t. On the other side of the glass she was Mary Ann Smithers, just another member of an anonymous audience, but on this side she was center stage as Zelda Zenn.
“Bravo.” The shout blew the glass wall to smithereens. Zelda was suddenly aware of the audience of empty seats beyond the stage. Ambling down the left aisle was Howdy Hanks.
“How long have you been here?”
“I sort of lost track of time watching you up there. It sure was different than the scene I saw at the rehearsal last night. I’ve always wanted to write a one person play and now, by golly, it seems I’ve gone and done it and didn’t even know.”
“I’m sorry Mister Hanks.”
“How about you call me Howdy instead of Mister Hanks and I call you Zelda instead of Mary Ann Smithers?”
“Sorry…Howdy.” Zelda stammered.
“And how about you not pretending to be sorry.”
“You’re right, I’m not sorry,” Zelda declared.
“That’s good because I wasn’t planning on pretending to forgive you since I didn’t see anything that you need to be sorry about. Anyway, I just came here with a draft of the next scene.” Howdy waved the pages he held in his hand. “I like to read the draft on stage to hear how it sounds so I can make any adjustments before I give it to you all. But after watching you I think it would be even better if you read the next scene and I just sat here in the first row and watched. How does that sound, Zelda?”
“Sort of scary. I haven’t memorized the lines so I’m afraid it would come off like I was just reading something out loud for the first time.”
“Why don’t you just give it a look through first and then decide whether to read it out loud.” Howdy held the pages out toward her.
“Well, okay, I’ll look at them, but if it doesn’t feel right I won’t do it,” Zelda said, bending down and taking the pages.
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Howdy replied as he sat back down.
Zelda glanced at the pages and then at Howdy, trying to hide her nervousness. “I don’t know if I can read this to myself with you sitting there watching me. I mean I can act like I’m reading to myself but then I’m not really reading.”
“I understand. I wouldn’t want someone watching over my shoulder when I write. Look, I’ll just pull my hat down over my eyes and take a nap. You won’t even know I’m here unless I’m snoring.” He slumped back in the chair, stretched out his legs and pulled the brim of his Stetson down.
Zelda waited for a few minutes and then read through the pages. Her lips moved and she made faces as she read, flipping back occasionally to reread something. Finally, she looked from the pages and called out. “Okay, Howdy, I’ll give it a shot.”
Howdy pushed up the rim of his hat and sat up straight. “Okay, let her rip.”
Fifteen minutes later Zelda was done reading the pages out loud. Howdy stared at her in silence.
“Well? Have you got anything to say?” Zelda asked.
“And the word was made flesh comes to mind.”
“That’s from the Bible, isn’t it?”
“John one, verse fourteen.”
“But you’re not a preacher, you write plays.”
“I’ve had more than a few folks tell me to get off my high horse,” Howdy said with a grin. “But to put it non-biblically, you took the words I wrote and brought them to life.”
“Really? Even though I only just read the words since I didn’t have time to memorize them?”
“Yes, really, because this was the first time anyone has said those words out loud.”
“Not even you?”
“Not out loud. Like I said, that’s why I came here. I need to hear how it sounds on stage so I can make adjustments. From what I just heard there’s only a few tweaks that are necessary.” Howdy got up from the chair. “If you can hand that back to me I’d like to note the places where I want to make some changes before I forget.”
Zelda handed the pages back to Howdy. He settled back into his chair, took out a pen and started scribbling on the script. She sat down on the edge of the stage and watched silently. After a few minutes he looked up. “I hope I didn’t bother you by watching you write,” she asked. “I’ve just never seen a playwright at work.”
“I guess it’s only fair since I get to see you at work as an actor. Hard to believe you’ve never acted before.”
“Well, actually, it’s not the first time. I just don’t want anyone to know about what I did before.”
“Why is that?”
“This is really embarrassing, Howdy, but I feel like you ought to know this in case it comes out.” Zelda paused and then blurted. “I acted in a movie before I came here.”
“You were in a movie?”
Zelda bowed her head in shame then looked up. “That’s the real reason I moved here with my Mom to live with my grandmother eight months ago. We were living in Burbank, California. Everyone thinks of movies as being made in Hollywood but Burbank is where a lot of the film and television studios are. Anyway, I started hanging out with actors. There are tons of actors around there. They taught me all sorts of stuff about acting. Then one of the actors I met helped me get a part in a movie. It was really low budget so no one got paid but I thought it was my big break. Boy was I wrong.”
Howdy’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of movie, exactly, were you in, Zelda?”
“It wasn’t a skin flick, if that’s what you’re thinking. I mean, I was underage and I would never do one of those anyway. The movie was called Killing All Kens and it was about this girl who died and came back as zombie named Barbie and only killed guys named Ken.”
“Why guys named Ken?”
“Ken is the name for the doll who is Barbie doll’s boyfriend. You probably wouldn’t know that since I doubt you played with dolls. Personally, I was never into Barbie dolls, but the girl who became a zombie was really into them. Her bedroom was stuffed with Barbies. She was so into Barbie that she tried to find a boyfriend named Ken. However, none of the boys she met named Ken would go out with her so she read up on how to be a zombie, did some stupid chant and then drowned herself. After she was buried she came back as a Zombie and killed all the Ken’s who rejected her.”
“And you played the Barbie character?”
“Yeah. I used a stage name, Marlene Maestro.”
“Marlene Maestro.” Howdy almost choked as he swallowed his laugh.
“I could never use that name again because it reminds me of that stupid film. That’s why I go by Zelda Zenn now.”
“I think Zelda’s a much better name.”
“Thanks, Howdy. It was a terrible film so I was relieved that it wasn’t released because Mattel, they’ re the people who make Barbie dolls, found out about the movie being made and got a court order that shut down everything. It wasn’t the Barbie dolls that upset them so much, it was what happened to the Kens. Since it was a very low budget production there was no money for the special effects that were needed for the gory scenes when the Barbie doll zombie kills the Kens. So instead there were shots of Ken dolls with their legs, arms and heads ripped off and fake blood smeared on them. If they hadn’t used real Ken dolls I don’t think Mattel would have done anything.”
“I can see how they might object to that kind of product placement,” Howdy said. “So no one knows you were in this zombie Barbie doll kills Ken movie that was never released?”
“That’s what I thought, but then one of the scenes with me playing Barbie was posted on social media and someone sent it to my Mom. I never saw her so freaked out. She decided that she had to get me away from an unhealthy environment, which is what she called it. I felt like I’d been kidnapped by my own Mom. I was very, very angry believe you me.” Zelda paused and looked out at the theater as if every seat was full and said, almost reverently. “But now I see this as an opportunity to reboot my acting career. Only this time on the stage. Beginning right here in your new play.”
Howdy stood and held up the pages in his right hand. “I guess I better get back to work on this new play that’s going to launch your career in the theater.”
“Before you go can I ask you how you got started as a playwright?”
Howdy sat down again. “As a matter of fact, I started out as an actor in a play. Why, it was right here on this very stage.” He reached out and patted the stage. “But I kept forgetting my lines in rehearsals so I would just make them up. The director, a fellow named Byron Sturgess who taught theater at Picketwire College, didn’t like that and told me that since I thought my lines were better than Thornton Wilder’s – this was a production of Our Town - I should leave and go write my own play. I went home, wrote a play called My Town and gave it to him a few weeks later. He agreed to direct a production of it on one condition.”
“What was that?”
“That I not act in it.”
“You must have been pretty mad since you wrote it and all.”
“Nah, as I was writing I realized that writing plays is what I really wanted to do.”
How old were you?”
“You wrote a play that was produced when you were only twelve years old?”
“Yep, and Byron staged it just like he promised but it was a one performance matinee put on by the Tumbleweed Teen Theater. The audience was all kids from Picketwire Junior High, where I was in seventh grade. They all laughed a lot so I discovered that the tragedy I wrote was really a comedy. After that I just kept writing plays. Fortunately, unlike your situation, none of them were recorded and all of them were forgettable.”
“Not all of them were forgettable, because our next door neighbor told me that she remembered a play you wrote when you were at Picketwire High. She said it upset some people.”
Howdy turned and looked back at the empty seats of the theater. “Some people stood up and walked out on it before it was over while other’s gave it a standing ovation, but no one fell asleep.”
“So is this new play about what really happened back then. I mean, it takes place in high school and there’s a play in it.”
“If I knew what really happened and why I wouldn’t have needed to write the play.”
“Well, anyway, I have to say that I can’t wait to see how everything turns out in the final act.”
Howdy winked at her. “You and me both.”
END OF INSTALLMENT 25
Previous installments of Welcome to Picketwire
(click on PDF)