Dead Little Dolly

Prologue

The sun was thick and warm on Deputy Dolly Wakowski’s back, and on her neck, and on the top of her head. She pulled off her blue uniform hat and set it on the damp cemetery earth beside where she knelt.

A quiet May Sunday afternoon. Quieter, because there was no one else in the old Leetsville, Michigan, cemetery. No one there, among the tombstones, but Deputy Dolly, of the two-man Leetsville Police Department, who bowed her head over the bearded lady’s grave then laid a bouquet of wilting white daisies atop the mossy headstone:

GRACE HUMBERT
1873 -- 1926

“Another year, Grace,” Dolly bent to whisper as she patted Grace Humbert’s grave, fingers brushing over the prickly sprouts of new weeds and grasses.

“Happy Mother’s Day. It’s me, Dolly.”

The day was all washed-fresh light and the shine of new spring green spreading over the sunken graves of Civil War soldiers and around old headstones standing crookedly, slump-shouldered, names of the poor wiped away by harsh Michigan winters.

Tiny, yellow dandelions—bright little toys—speckled the clustered graves of babies dead in a long-ago epidemic. Toward the back of the cemetery, proud family plots, surrounded by rusted and crooked iron railings, bloomed with new weeds.

Dolly’s uniform pants were damp at both knees, but that was as it should be. It was proper that once a year she came here and knelt to talk to Grace Humbert, the famous bearded lady of a long ago Barnum and Bailey Circus.

She’d heard about Grace when she first came to Leetsville from southern Michigan, thirteen years before. Grace Humbert, memorialized in the museum down the road, in Kalkaska, but forgotten by everyone else except as an oddity a local newspaper or magazine would revisit every ten years of so: a woman who didn’t fit anywhere, not with her flowing beard and mustache, not with eyes direct and slightly amused, never part of the world around her, but never cowed by that world, her look steady and challenging, her back straight in satiny gowns draped across an ample bosom.

“Forty-seven Famous Freaks,” a 1903 photo hanging on the crowded old depot wall had screamed at Dolly and there was Grace, a dark image in the third row, smiling, happy to be among her kinfolk of sword swallowers and tiny people and tall people and leopard skinned people, and pin-headed people. Different. An outsider.

Like Dolly Wakowski.

Dolly turned to frown a squinting frown at robins in the leafing maples. Too loud, all that mating stuff, for a cemetery. Birds chirping playfully in a graveyard didn’t obey Dolly’s ‘seemly’ rule. There should be quiet and reverence when a pretend-daughter knelt beside a pretend-mother’s grave, honoring her because there was nobody else for Dolly Wakowski to honor. And nobody else came to honor Grace. That was a fact—nobody, and that meant Grace Humbert needed Dolly as much as she needed Grace.

Dolly moved from her damp right knee to her left. She looked around before bending to whisper, “Found my grandmother this last year. Cate Thomas, she’s called. Livin’ with me now. And guess what . . .” She waited, as if somehow she’d get an answer. Her small, homely face puckered into a smile. “I got a baby.” She nodded a few times. “Name’s Baby Jane. I call her that so she can pick her own name when the time comes. You know, get the name she wants. Not like me. Stuck all my life with a name like ‘Delores’ foisted on me when I couldn’t sit up and say “NO” to that woman who never wanted me anyway.”

She turned to look over her shoulder toward the scout car she’d pulled up under the high, cast iron, cemetery gate where four-month-old, Baby Jane, slept in her car seat. The windows were down so Dolly could hear if she woke up. Nothing to fear. Not in a town where most of the crime was of the teenager variety—weed smoked in EATS restaurant bathroom, mailbox battings, fights, windows shot out of cars—things like that. Oh, and a few murders, ever since Emily Kincaid, her friend and journalist and mystery writer, came to the area. A murder here. A murder there. But nobody would hurt a baby.

“I’m not sayin’ where Jane came from. You understand, don’t you, Grace? I mean, no virgin birth or anything. I got her legitimately. Well, dumb luck.” She looked around, frowning hard in case somebody thought it was funny, sneaking up on Deputy Dolly while she was alone, praying in a graveyard.

She cleared her throat. “Still, my genes and all, Grace. And, to tell the truth, I never expected having a family of my own would feel this good. Always thought it would be nice, back in those foster homes when I was dreaming about a mother and a father. And even back when I was married to Chet Wakowski, for that short time he hung around, and I thought about having a baby—but I never expected something like this."

Dolly looked over her shoulder again. Really, it was too bad there was nobody else there on this perfect Mother’s Day. The sun was warm liquid on her face; sky blue as all the vast lakes and running streams around Michigan; high white, painted-on clouds barely moved overhead. It made her even prouder—coming to honor Grace, the way she did. She knew her duty.

Grace’s story still made Dolly shake her head. Like, if there was something different about you the world never let you forget it. Like being born with fine red hair all over your body was a sin. Or being a woman and having a full beard and mustache. Or having no mother, no father, so that you were awkward and never knew what to say to people and kids laughed at you and called you names because you wore clothes those foster parents picked up at Goodwill to save money from what the state paid them to take care of you.

Or having a mother who didn’t want you and left the country to join a religious cult in France and didn’t give a damn if you lived or died or stayed with people who took you in to make you clean their houses or turned their backs when their men did things to a little girl no little girl should ever have to put up with and then punished that little girl when she screamed and ranted and told the social worker stories that made that worker’s hair stand up on her head.

If she learned anything from Grace Humbert that she could pass on to Baby Jane it was to keep going, no matter what. It was to never care what people thought about you. It was to know who you were and keep on your own path. If she could give all of that to Baby Jane, that would be a lot.

Dolly Wakowski shifted from one knee to the other, sorry that her uniform pants were getting wet, but not quite ready to leave Grace. She checked over her shoulder. No sound from the squad car. There was time. Jane was a sound sleeper.

It was going to be a good day. When Baby Jane woke up they’d go and pick up Cate Thomas at home. Then they’d get over to EATS for an early supper. Eugenia was running her Mother’s Day special, in honor of Grace Humbert: two Coney dogs for a dollar.

“Like circus dogs,” Eugenia would tell people and flounce off when they said that wasn’t much of a special and anyway hot dogs were for ballparks. Every year Dolly made sure she rounded up enough people to make it worth Eugenia’s effort, having a circus special.

Dolly thought about calling Emily Kincaid to come into town for lunch. Do Emily good to get out of that writing studio of hers and sit down and talk to real people.

The wind picked up in the old trees. And then another sound. Something. Maybe a motor—far off. Nothing from her scout car. Not Jane crying. Jane’s cry was very small, but it packed big punches in Dolly’s guts. And made her breasts ache if Cate was baby-sitting and she called home and heard her baby crying. It was better to bring Jane with her on the job. Better to drive her around and be visiting felons and talking to a kid at the high school in big trouble for vandalism, and have the kid reach into the sling Dolly wore across her chest, where a little blond head stuck out, and talk to the smiling baby instead of Dolly. Emily said babies helped soothe the savage breast or beast, or something like that, and she was right. People—even bad folks—melted around Baby Jane.

Time to go. She reached over and straightened the daisies being blown toward the edge of the stone by a soft breeze coming from the west, off Lake Michigan. Next time, she told herself, I’m bringing a pickle jar to hold’em. She’d told herself the same thing for the last fourteen years but she never remembered.

Dolly stood slowly, sorry that her time with Grace was over for this year. Next year Jane would be walking around the stones, probably getting into trouble, poking pudgy fingers into old carved letters and pulling up dandelions in the grass. Next year, Dolly promised again, as she settled her hat on her head, she would bring a pickle jar filled with water so the flowers lasted longer. Next year, being a mother herself, maybe she’d know how to do the things other women knew to do without being told. Maybe it would all just come on her now that she had a pretend-mother, a real grandmother, and her own sweet baby.

She bent forward to brush the grass and dirt from the knees of her uniform pants when she heard the next sound—a motor revving, and then the screech of brakes. She reared up, hand flying instinctively to the handle of the holstered .38 on her hip. She began to run toward the road, heavy boots holding her back, as a large black SUV, coming from the west, veered off the road, directly into the side of Dolly’s parked squad car with a stomach-sinking crunch of metal.

Dolly pounded up the cemetery path toward where her car was pushed and twisted so it strained against the metal gate, heaving the gate up out of the ground. The gate hovered over the car a minute, and then dipped dangerously, bending toward the broken squad car beneath.

“Jane!” Dolly screamed as she ran.

The dark SUV slammed into reverse, backed down the side of the road, then, with wheels spinning, throwing grass and dirt, the car pulled on to the road and sped off.

“Seven KXU,” Dolly whispered to herself as she ran—all she’d made of the license number.

“Seven KXU.”

“Seven KXU . . .”

She muttered and muttered as she pulled the twisted back door of the car open then reached in to where her baby had been sleeping in her car seat. The seat was thrown sideways. Tipped so she couldn’t see Baby Jane.

Dolly pulled hard at the dislodged seat, rocking it back into place, until Baby Jane’s small, blond head swung up, arms and legs and body hanging between the twisted straps.

The baby’s eyes were closed. She made no sound. The little body hung at a wrong angle. Limp. The silence was a huge fist catching Dolly in her stomach and tearing straight up into her heart.