blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Two Girls Off Quarry Road

Everyone knew about Cleo Talmadge. At eight, she roamed barefoot among the dusty, troublesome Knutson boys from Quarry Road. With her cropped hair and dirty T-shirt and jeans, she was nearly indistinguishable from those towheaded Finns. The Knutsons liked to shout out random guttural words that couldn’t help but appear insulting, and she quickly learned to mimic them. She walked like them too—lanky and insolent, tilted to one side with a wide boy-like stance. But unlike the Finns, who considered everything one beat too long, hesitation was never one of Cleo Talmadge’s flaws. In fact, she had a talent for disappearing—like the time there was that drowning in the quarry, the sad end of some misconceived contest with a pair of visiting kids; or the afternoon when the Finns set fire to the caretaker’s shack while playing with their homemade explosives. All of them were rounded up. You bet they hadn’t taken the chance to flee. But the only sign of Cleo was a plastic barrette the Finns’ mother had given her, a pink kitten on a metal clip the boys had used to secure the fuse. No one ratted on her—the Finns said they’d found the barrette—but she avoided the quarry for a long time after that. The Finns weren’t ever going to look up in time. Even at eight, Cleo figured that out.

As she grew, Cleo’s reputation corrupted further. She made people uneasy. She prowled yards late at night, teasing dogs into barking frenzies. Don Crepp, who delivered papers before dawn, caught her for a moment in his headlights as she perched on the low roof of an uptown garage. And, well past midnight, a bone-weary visiting nurse nearly drove into Cleo as the girl scattered handfuls of pilfered apple blossoms across the empty downtown intersection. She was just a child, but although no one could prove a thing, it wasn’t long before all sorts of irregularities were blamed on her—the theft of lawn furniture, broken bottles by the bank drive-through, rosebushes stripped of their blossoms, even missing gutters.

Her parents were no help: Alicia and Tim Talmadge. Postal carriers, the pair of them, their routes bumping up against each other. They left before six each morning and walked the few blocks to the brick post office, sipping on a shared mug of milky coffee. Side by side, they packed their mailbags, setting up their routes together. On their days off, always coordinated, they labored in their pristine garden, shoulders almost touching as they knelt to feed rhodies and azaleas, or charged through one household chore after another. They tidied the garage, oiled door hinges. They starched and ironed bedding, put away preserves and filled bird feeders. They were minding a nest in the wind’s path. Afterward, they would sit down to a simple dinner: a pair of braised cutlets, potatoes, peas. They set the table, almost always forgetting the third place until Cleo appeared, trailing mud and bits of gravel over their newly waxed floor.

Little of their careful regard went toward the girl. They picked up her messes, washed her clothes, and fed her when she appeared. Beyond that, they were at a loss. After all, they’d known and loved each other since junior high, while Cleo was a newcomer, an interloper, whose presence in their union would always be a surprise—no, a downright shock—as if they’d never imagined they could be so invaded. And although they went through the motions the first few years, the child upended their ease, and they could not help resenting her from almost her first infant squalls. To be perfectly honest, they were relieved when she began to wander.

Which she did almost as soon as she could walk, as if she knew right away she had no place in the bungalow built for two. Cleo simply appeared: in kitchens, kneeling on a high counter, her paw in a cupboard; or on a back porch, squatting over a potted plant she’d improvised as a potty. She might have been scooped up by Social Services (and most would argue she should have been) if it hadn’t been for her grandfather. Once the neighbors realized Alicia’s father was Harry Kane, the contractor who built half the town and owned a good bit of it still, they dialed his number every time the little girl showed up.

My brother Ed worked for Harry Kane, and according to him, Harry genuinely liked the little girl. They were friends of a sort. While Alicia had irritated the hell out of Harry with her endless industry—that tiresome juvenile romance—from the first fit Cleo pitched in his kitchen, he was won over. Her indifference to his own raging tickled him. No one else could approach Kane when he had his dander up. And you couldn’t ignore the look of her, of course—the lazy green eyes, that gold flyaway hair.

“She’s the spitting image of Kitty,” my brother declared, referring to Kane’s first wife, a local girl who had died from septic shock when Alicia was in grammar school. Kitty Kane’s likeness embellished every one of the company trucks. Maybe it was that—the constant presence of Cleo’s familiar image on those loud, brash trucks, always running across curbs and shearing off tree branches as they raced from lumberyard to job site—that made her the obvious culprit for every local misdeed.

In the end, though, even Harry Kane wasn’t about to chase after Cleo. The girl amused him, and she was welcome in his house—he even let her sleep in the shrine of Kitty’s sewing room—but he’d been done raising kids a long time back, and he wasn’t about to pick up the yoke again, attending to every busybody’s yelping.

“What’s your problem?” he’d demand of any complaining caller before wordlessly disconnecting and sending one of his men to pick up Cleo. He was more ticked off at the callers than at his granddaughter. She’d be fine if they all left her alone. That was the key with the Kanes. Eventually, they all found their own way out, even if it wasn’t pretty.

Surprisingly, Kane never received a single call from the school, because aside from a tendency toward daydreaming, Cleo never caused a lick of trouble there.

“I think she comes here to rest,” her favorite teacher, Sandra Daly, once mused to her colleagues in the teachers’ lounge.

Beau Chase, who taught seventh grade math, lit a cigarette, squinted at the smoke, and on the exhale, said, “I can relate.”

“I just wish she’d connect a little,” Sandra Daly lamented.

Except for the Finns, Cleo didn’t have anyone she might call a friend until the sixth grade, when Katie Schwinger moved to school. It was Katie who kept Cleo coming to school, the teachers reckoned.

“She woke the kid up,” Beau Chase would say later. “Anchored her.”

“Katie loved Cleo,” Sandra said. “I don’t think Cleo got over that. She let her guard down with Katie.”


Poor Katie. That was everyone’s first impression of the new kid who had come to live with her great-aunt and uncle way out on Quarry Road, past the Knutson place and even beyond that of the quarryman’s widow, Charlotte Lily. The Schwingers lived clear on the other side of the quarry itself. Katie didn’t care about the isolation. Like Cleo, she had been left on her own for most of her young life, so much, in fact, that she’d homeschooled herself, using the newspaper and television and the monthly bookmobile from the county library. As a consequence, she’d inadvertently advanced herself, testing into the eighth grade though she was almost a year and a half younger than the rest of them.

Small, bespectacled with thin brown hair and a noticeable overbite, Katie might have been an object of ridicule if it weren’t for her serenity, a deep-set quality of acceptance that made everyone around her feel a little bit better about themselves. It was as if Katie had seen the whole of her life and set her shoulder against the task the way a tired man might undertake a long walk home, and the rest of us were easing by, albeit shabbily, in our old cars.

A poor little orphan girl, people decided. Someone had set her straight about her prospects, and she was that odd creature, a practical child, abandoned. And, although most people applauded the Schwingers for taking the girl in, there was one notable exception. Katie’s second cousin, Curtis Schwinger, a clerk at the courthouse, was reportedly upset his folks had become involved, intimating Katie’s tragedy wasn’t so clear-cut. “Who knew,” Curtis said, “but that one day some released felon might come to claim her and take issue with the way the aunt and uncle had swept her off.”

“I’ve seen her kind of people,” he would say, conveniently ignoring the fact that he and the girl had blood between them.

Every day, he witnessed real bottom-feeders shuffling through the courthouse, throwing tantrums in the holding room, stinking of piss and random venom. More than once, he’d been called to subdue a drug-addled maniac, all that high-pitched wailing and feet kicking at the stale courthouse air. The hellish drama. They always tried to bite him with their broken yellow teeth as if they truly were animals.  

They were all over the place, he’d learned, this subclass, cooking up trouble in their dingy country trailers and broken-down bungalows, where day and night melded and horrible, nonsensical plans hatched.

“Just listen to the police scanner any night of the week,” Curtis advised: Couple at Ernie’s Motor Court; Woman behind Valley View Apartments. “These aren’t simple burglaries being called in, you know.”

“They were armed to the teeth, too,” he went on. Sometimes, they squirreled in weapons inexpertly concealed on their bodies, and Curtis had to actually touch them, shaking out greasy guns or sticky knives from the stiff folds of their gruesome clothing and personally conveying these weapons to the evidence room. Katie, he knew, had been whisked out of a notorious trailer park. He’d rooted out the paperwork and recognized the address. After a few beers at the Courthouse Tavern, he would worry openly about strangers arriving in the night, bouncing down the lonely potholed road to unearth the bundles of folded paper money and bank receipts he supposed his mother and dad still hid in buried tomato juice cans across the property, money he intended to inherit one day. He wasn’t insensible, either, to Katie’s friendship with Cleo.

“Look at the company she keeps,” he’d declare, as if he were one of the lawyers he watched daily, the kind who make Big Points no one could dispute. He didn’t seem to mind who was sitting at the bar. He’d spool out all kinds of nonsense. My brother Ed and some of the other fellows who drove Kane’s big trucks frequented the tavern, and eventually, one of them would steer Curtis off his stool and out onto Bay Street where the smack of the wind off the water would stir him and seem to clear his head. He had an apartment in one of the Victorians two streets up, and no one much minded seeing him home.

But, for all Curtis’s worrying, Katie was a model child. She did her chores as well as any adult and without complaint. She had a heartfelt affinity for her relatives’ animals—a dog named Steven Schwinger, four cats, a tiny Nubian goat—and was more help than hindrance to the older couple. She gave them so little to worry about that they didn’t mind Cleo coming around at all, despite the talk in town. They were glad, in fact, their Katie had such a dear friend. She was such a homebody. The only time anyone saw Katie on her own was either at the library or marching down their long dirt road to unload the mail from the metal box on the county road. Usually, she’d be reading a book as she walked, followed by Grady, the goat, and a bandy-legged coon cat that had adopted her, and maybe Steven Schwinger, that sideways-walking hound well past his prime. Every now and then, Cleo would be loping alongside her. Then the book would be put away, and the two girls would yak it up as if they might run out of time while they still had so much to say to each other. To other people, Katie never said much about Cleo, except to repeat ordinary bits of common folklore she attributed to her friend’s unique wisdom.

Cleo says, she might remark at dinner, that soap is a kind of magnet. It pulls dirt right from the skin. Or, Cleo says a howling dog on a still night means that someone is dying. Or, Cleo says if you press an ice cube against a wood sliver stuck in your finger, it will poke itself out, and you can pull it free, just like that.

By the end of Katie’s first year with her aunt and uncle, the Schwingers couldn’t imagine how they’d lived without her—or without Cleo, either. The older girl liked to help Katie’s elderly uncle with heavy work, stacking wood and forking over the rocky garden soil. She even learned a complicated bit of wiring from Katie, who seemingly could pick up anything from a library book. Together, the two girls redid the Schwingers’ frayed and overloaded electrical box. The old couple fell in love with Cleo despite themselves, and soon, like Katie, they drifted away when the conversation downtown turned to shattered birdbaths or missing cigarettes or girl-sized footprints razing a tulip bed.


The friendship went on like this for a couple of years until the November Cleo turned fifteen, and Katie, an awkward thirteen-year-old. Overnight, their worlds divided as Cleo transformed and conceived other, more pressing, interests. She was still notoriously unkempt: her pretty hair, streaked with gold, always tangled; her clothes held together with bent safety pins; her nails—well . . . please. Yet, remarkably, she was a beauty, and the smell of her—musky and faintly sweet—flat-out enticed. Cleo had discovered a new way to terrorize the town. She scared the pants, literally, off any man she chose. Her promiscuity was legendary—the city meter reader Hanson, the young baker Donadio, that jaunty shipwright, a third-grade teacher, the Czech plumber, the new doctor with the pregnant wife. That last one nearly stopped her cold. The wife went after her with an antique gun from the doctor’s collection, which, fortunately for everyone, had been poorly assembled and fell into three pieces before it could be used. There was talk of involving Kane. Surely, he’d step in to protect Cleo from herself. But, by then, she was closing in on her eighteenth birthday, becoming what her grandfather liked to call “an independent gal.” She hadn’t so much as talked to her own parents in months. And, in the end, she’d easily released the young doctor, moving on to a fellow at the beer distributorship, then to one of her old playmates, a Knutson, who never would get over her.

All this time, Katie went on about her own business. It was as if she and Cleo had had a talk and recognized that both had tasks ahead of them that required a temporary separation. Without Cleo around, Katie was alone more, but she didn’t really seem to mind. She was winning awards in high school for math and science, and people were starting to talk about her as if she might put the town on the map someday. She was that smart. Her aunt said Katie dreamed of being a veterinarian and even confided in one of the library ladies that she and the uncle were thinking of cashing in some bonds they’d bought decades ago. The Schwingers had been seen talking to Harry Kane, too, about a piece of land he’d long wanted to buy from them. An education like the one Katie deserved wasn’t going to come cheaply. Katie wasn’t ignorant of the expenses ahead either. She had a dozen projects in the works—a fruit stand, a summer pet-sitting business—and one of her math teachers had finagled a part-time job for Katie, filing for an accountant. Yet, somehow she managed each day to get back up Quarry Road in the cool late afternoon to take old Steven Schwinger, the hound, out for a little meandering, stopping now and then in the middle of the empty, dusty lane to fill a collapsible bowl with water from an old soda bottle and wait while the old dog took a few grateful laps.

Sometimes, out of nowhere, Cleo would appear, and the two would walk awhile like old times, oblivious to the world around them. Katie’s aunt said, later, that was probably part of the charm of the walks for Katie—the chance that Cleo might appear.

“Katie never judged that girl,” the aunt said. “And wouldn’t let anyone else either. ‘Cleo’s on a mission,’ Katie would tell us, dead serious, as if Cleo was engaged in something more than teenage catting around, bless her soul.”

And yet, Cleo might have gone on indefinitely, working her way through town with a parade of one-night stands, romantic weeks, a giddy month, a missing weekend—one near-violent surge after another—save for Davis Riddell.


He arrived on a boat, the way most trouble did in town. A trimaran way too big and grand to escape notice, all varnished teak and gleaming lines. At first, they thought he might be some kind of celebrity, but no one recognized him, and he wasn’t exactly hiding away. He drank with the others down at the Courthouse Tavern and was friendly enough, showing reticence only when a couple of the older Finns hinted they might like to come aboard his boat. Then the rumors began to shift: he was a drug runner, moving pot from British Columbia into the States, exchanging it for harder stuff he’d transport back up through the Gulf Islands to Johnstone Strait, all the way up to some hidey-hole in the back of beyond. No one paid much attention to pleasure sailboats up there. You could anchor in a jeweled bay and rendezvous with anything: a motor boat, a floatplane, a kayak, for crissakes.

“Well, what’s he up to here, then, I wonder?” my brother Ed said, innocently.

“No good, I’d bet,” Curtis Schwinger answered from down the bar, his dull eagerness nearly killing the discussion.

“Nah,” one of Kane’s men said after a moment. “If he’s a drug-runner, I’d say he’s on vacation. Fellow’s the most relaxed criminal I’ve ever seen—always taking a walk or a bike ride, sipping coffee half the day at the café.”

“You guys don’t have a clue, do you?” Curtis Schwinger said. His face was flushed, and they all readied themselves for one of his tirades. “You should spend a day or two up at the courthouse, see the Meth Head Parade arrive from out in the county, all spindle-jerky and bug-eyed, thieving eyes scanning the corridors, even with a cop right next to them.”

“But we’re not in the county; we’re in town,” Ed countered.

“Spitting on the floors, pocketing anything not bolted to the ground, dragging along their scrummy kids, who, you know, are going to end up just like them, driving . . .”

“Kids driving cars? Holy crap, what will the world come to?” one of the Finns interrupted with a straight face.

“I spied that fellow the other night from my window,” Curtis Schwinger leaned closer. “Three in the morning. Who’s out wandering around at three in the morning?”

There was a long pause along the bar as everyone considered, then another of Kane’s men, my brother’s friend Tork, said, “You ‘spied’ him? You ‘spied’ him? God, you’re such an old woman, Schwinger. Who’s peering through his curtains at three in the morning?”


No one knows for sure how they truly met. Cleo might have been practicing her handstands one windy night, almost floating up and down the rocking boat dock, when Davis Riddell returned from one of his own late night rambles. He might have seen her from a distance, dimly illuminated in the single light, and might have done what no one had ever been able—snuck up on Cleo Talmadge. Or, maybe, he witnessed one of her vaults over a brambly garden hedge, another old skill and an old habit, too, since her hands would most likely have been clutching “something interesting.” Or, perhaps, on an empty, moonlit sidewalk, the world asleep around them, their solitary paths simply collided.

My brother Ed was visiting the tavern, one of the last to call it quits one night, when Cleo and Davis Riddell wandered in together. The expression on Cleo’s face was so uncharacteristic, he didn’t recognize her at first. Gone was the private grin, the tilted chin, the half-closed eyes that, despite the appearance of languor, seemed to take in every little thing. The Cleo beside Davis Riddell had a washed-clean openness, an unfamiliar vulnerability that made the bartender grimace—until he too recognized her and released an involuntary guffaw.

“Your usual, Cleo,” he murmured as he turned to fill a highball glass with Coke and an illicit splash of rum. “You’ll have to make it quick.”

“Just want to get a six-pack from you—that Alaskan, if you’ve got it,” Davis Riddell said. He held a twenty in his left hand, and for the first time, Ed noticed that the man’s right hand tightly grasped Cleo’s.

The bartender nodded and went to a side cooler and pulled out the beer, slipped it into a paper sack, and set it on the bar. While the bartender made change, Ed caught Davis Riddell’s eye.  

“She’s barely legal, you know,” he said, not unkindly.

The bartender turned to hand over a few bills, hanging onto them just a second longer than necessary.

“And a whole world of trouble, too,” he added.

Davis Riddell smiled as he pocketed his change and picked up the paper sack.

“I’ll take my chances,” he said.

It was only after they left that Ed and the bartender realized that Cleo hadn’t spit out a word. Nor had she even looked at them. Her attention was entirely claimed by Riddell. They had to share that with the others the next night. It was a bit of news, the drug runner taking up with Cleo, and it hit them all. A wave of yearning swept across the tavern; the youngest Knutson, the lovesick one, flailing the hardest in its wake.

Davis Riddell was thirty-seven to her eighteen. Not a handsome man, not really, but well-worn: muscular and easy all at once. And he must have been capable, sailing that big boat all by himself. But he was an odd sort, too. He never seemed to sleep, for one thing. And until he found Cleo, he was spotted all over town, scribbling on scraps of paper as if he were mapping the place. Then again, a lot of sailors can’t escape scrutiny when they arrive in town. We watch them find their land legs and make the constant trek from the boat haven up Bay Road into town. There are no buses here, so if you want to get around, you either walk or hitch a ride. It’s a hard place to hide—until you get out closer to the county line, out past Quarry Road, for instance.

Cleo must have taken him there. How else would he have found his way out to the Schwingers? And he must have, because late one Friday, there was Davis Riddell sitting at the bar in the Courthouse Tavern, having a quick beer before he met Cleo. On the bar in front of him he’d set down an old tomato juice can, a brand no longer available for sale, piled high with a type of golden raspberry Curtis Schwinger recognized as his mother’s own hybrid. She made a golden jam that won ribbons every year at the County Fair. Some words apparently passed between Curtis and Davis Riddell. The bartender overheard their conversation only as a distant murmur; he was hoisting a case of beer on his shoulder, creaking up the cellar steps. When, later, he recalled their raised voices, he declared it must have been Curtis, raving again, lost in one of his mad rants. It being a Friday, an early court day, Curtis had been in the tavern since four, and none of Kane’s men had arrived yet to temper Davis Riddell’s cryptic answer, his cocky grin—to put it all into a proper perspective. Ten minutes later, after Davis Riddell had downed his beer and departed, Curtis telephoned a courthouse coworker, but he couldn’t help at all, of course. There’s no law, the fellow reminded Curtis, against sharing produce, regardless of the container.


It was just the following Sunday evening when the Schwingers began calling around, looking for Katie. She’d gone off for her walk with Steven Schwinger in the late morning, and by mid-afternoon, she still hadn’t returned. Alf Schwinger, the old uncle, found the half-blind hound stuck on a stone ledge on the town side of the Knutson place, howling into a bush as if he expected it to uproot itself and help him home. The uncle wondered if, perhaps, Katie actually had brought the dog home before heading toward town to pursue one of her latest moneymaking endeavors and the old confused hound had followed. But it was Sunday, and Katie would have noticed Steven Schwinger behind her, and not one bit of this seemed right. By suppertime, with no sign of Katie, the Schwingers were seriously worried.

They telephoned Alicia and Tim Talmadge, disturbing a quiet Sunday supper of poached eggs and toast points. Cleo was staying with her grandfather, the Schwingers were told. No, neither Alicia nor Tim had seen her that day. They’d been painting the spare room, uh, Cleo’s old room actually.

Harry Kane didn’t know where Cleo was either, but my brother Ed was in the Kanes’ side yard, flipping hamburgers for the Sunday barbeque, and he weighed in.

“Try the tavern,” he suggested, helpfully pointing out that Davis Riddell was a frequent visitor there.

And so the old uncle, Alf Schwinger, took off in the failing light once more, while his wife tended to a still-distraught Steven Schwinger who would not quit howling in the dust of the driveway and would not come inside the house either.

From his regular corner, Curtis Schwinger saw his father enter the Courthouse Tavern and go straight to the bar, the question already on his lips, and disheveled as he was, Curtis managed to slip down the hallway towards the men’s room and out the backdoor beside the basement steps. Curtis did not get on well with his folks these days. In fact, on Friday, after his futile call to his courthouse friend, Curtis had apparently driven out to his parents’ place and threatened to put them in a home. His mother, shaken, had confided in her pastor just that morning. It had been such a shock to the old couple, that tirade. And now this—Katie’s disappearance.

Alf Schwinger stepped right aboard Davis Riddell’s boat and knocked on the hatch, which was partially open. It was past nine by then, a summer dusk, and although a thin line of light still lit the mountains behind the bay, night was clearly upon them. Still, Cleo’s boyfriend had a gas lantern burning on the galley shelf, and so Alf eased up the half-open hatch and called out again. Almost at once he saw, sitting next to the lantern, one of his wife’s old tomato juice cans, the one she sent Davis home with just a few days ago when he and Cleo stopped by with a chinook Cleo said she’d caught herself. It was so quiet that, for a moment, Alf was certain no one was about. Then he realized that what he’d taken at first for a bundle of laundry balanced on the bunk’s edge was the fellow’s stocking feet lying, twisted, over the bunk’s edge. It didn’t take more than another step forward for Alf to see the rest of it, and all the time his old heart was hammering: Where’s Katie?


They found them just before midnight, the moonlight streaming a path that led straight to them. Two girls off the Quarry Road, the police scanner reported. Two girls lying almost in plain sight, nearly holding hands. Single bullets each. A heart, a head, a full-on execution. The lovestruck Knutson, an early volunteer, discovered them. The Finns had to pull him away. He was raging so much they feared he’d kill someone himself.

At first, the theory was that one of Davis Riddell’s drug buddies had tracked him down and that somehow Cleo and Katie had borne witness to their reunion. Plausible, even likely, except it turned out Davis Riddell hadn’t been a drug runner at all, but a burnt-out musician with a trust fund, allergic to every possible drug; he couldn’t even take one for his insomnia.

It was Harry Kane who figured out the truth. It turned out he’d been listening all the while to the tavern stories, repeated each morning in one rumbling truck cab after another, and he might have ended up in jail himself if my brother Ed hadn’t intervened and got the police to Curtis Schwinger’s right on Harry Kane’s heels. Who even knew the old fellow could still move that fast? He had Curtis’s throat in one hand almost as soon as he slammed across the threshold.

“Jealous of a little girl,” Harry Kane swore. “You son of a bitch.”

It was bad blood, everyone agreed. It showed up in all kinds of families, even those with kind, well-meaning parents like the Schwingers. Those poor, sad people with all that bad blood running through the family. Ed told me Curtis had a cousin, did the same thing, killed his girlfriend and would have gotten to his own little daughter, too, if he weren’t so high he hadn’t remembered where he left his trailer. She got away that time.  end

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