VP – Devin Thomas O’Shea

Preface

Tomorrow there’s a good chance I’ll sleep on a mattress in the St. Louis county lock-up. I don’t know anything about the county lock-up, but I imagine the mattresses are thin, and I’ll bet the other inmates don’t like spoiled rich girls because spoiled rich girls don’t tend to stay locked up for long.
I want to write down what I’m doing because tomorrow I may be banished from the Laclède family forever. I’ve always dreamed of being driven from the city in an old-fashioned Puritan shunning, but I want there to be a record of why I couldn’t ignore all this Veiled Prophet shit anymore.
Tomorrow night I’ll attend the Veiled Prophet’s one-hundred and fifteenth Debutante Ball. The Veiled Prophet Society was started by my great-great-grandfather, Alonzo Slayback, in 1878. For over a century, a rich old guy in the Veiled Prophet Society has donned a veil once a year to crown his VP Queen.
The Veiled Prophet is a Ku Klux Klansman. In cream-colored robes, a white lace veil, and a Hermes-winged golden crown, he does not look like a normal Klansman. He’s an older version, a first-wave Ku-Kluxer from before they settled on steepled hats and burning crosses.
The VP’s debutante ceremony “welcomes” daughters of the organization into womanhood. Not many people are familiar anymore with prima nocta, but it means “the Lord’s right.” It’s an old story from medieval times where the Lord of the region could fuck the wife of one of his serfs on her wedding night—or the serf himself; it’s not clear. Anyway, there’s some real prima nocta stuff going on in the VP ceremonies. How far does it go? I’m not sure. But each of the debutantes is escorted up the aisle on the arm of a different man from the Veiled Prophet Society. As I’ve learned more about this, it’s become impossible to deny the implication. These gross old men just want to trade their daughters off to each other. I’ve attended the VP Ball since I was fifteen, and no one has ever questioned it. “It’s a tradition.”
Tomorrow night, I’m going to rip that veil off. I’m going to get as close as I can to the VP, and I’m going to rip the crown off his head. My associates and I have planned this for a year, but I’m going to deviate from our plan. I want the unveiling to strike fear into powerful people. And if I end up in the prison for this, I want to be able to look at this piece of paper and see what I was thinking in my own handwriting.
First, I’m proud of this decision. I want my future self to know that I’ve thought about the unveiling every day since I moved back home. Right now I’m sitting at my desk on the third floor of my parents’ mansion on Mooreland Avenue. It was built not long before a large hotel called the Chase Park Plaza, which cast its shadow over the whole street. The VP Ball is held at the Chase. I’ve measured the distance between my bedroom and the ballroom: 232.2 yards.
The VP is costumed and cloaked and escorted down the aisle to stand on stage like a pope. His robes trail down the aisle, and he often needs the help of his Bengal Lancers and page girls to keep from stepping on the train. Sometimes the VP carries a staff; sometimes it’s a scroll. He always wears white gloves, as do all the fathers of the Veiled Prophet Society. The VP’s veil is thin and gauzy, and a nose dimples the front. The bottom flaps rhythmically with his breath; it seems difficult for him to suck oxygen through the ornament. You can’t really see who it is under there, even when you get close.
Tomorrow, I’ll go to the Chase with my mother, my father, and my date. I’m one of the Queen’s maids—First Maid. I’ve been passed over for Queen again this year. My father is upset, but I don’t give a shit. I’m too old anyway.
My debutante dress is hanging on the back of my closet door. It’s purple and one of the only things I got to choose about the ball. Most debutante balls require white to hammer home the purity angle, but the Veiled Prophet is infused with the colors of the French Quarter. I picked purple because of a woman, a past debutante, who was driven from the city twenty years ago. My dress is lavender, just like Gena Scott’s.
My parents and my date don’t know that tomorrow I’ll carry a canister of pepper spray in my clutch. They don’t know that I plan to rip the veil off the Veiled Prophet and fill his eyes and nose and lungs with industrial capsicum. Pepper spray is a kind of acid, and I hope it coats the insides of his lungs. I hope it hurts, and I hope the VPs realize they’re getting lucky. I’ve kept a long knife beneath my mattress since I was a teenager in a house filled with drunk adults and chaos. I’ve dreamed about gutting the man on stage like a stuck pig. I know that makes me sound crazy, but I imagine it would be like a samurai movie. At first the VP wouldn’t know what hit him; then the cool demeanor would crack, and he’d see how much blood had gotten on his white gloves, and how deep the metal went; and then he would touch his stomach and realize, finally, with crimson on his fingertips, that he’s not invincible.
I think about this more often than I would like. I’ve dreamed about white bloody robes and being hauled away by the police and locked in a cinderblock cell for the rest of my life. Then I ask if that would be enough to make up for all the violence of the Veiled Prophets over the last century. Again, I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I want those people who worship at the Ku-Klux altar to be afraid. The club membership should be a hazard to your health.
When I dream of stabbing him, I sometimes see my father beneath the veil at the last moment. This is so on-the-nose that I’d be embarrassed to tell it to a therapist. I know I can’t do it. I can’t kill. I hope the pepper spray is enough, but I go back and forth from night to night. I’m twenty-three years old. How long can they put me in prison for? And the VPs might have something worse than the county lock-up. After all, one of them became the director of the CIA.
My great-great-grandfather, Alonzo Slayback, enjoyed violence. He was a cavalry officer in the Confederate Army who fled to Mexico after the war. He went with some of the top brass to found a new slave colony called New Virginia, but they couldn’t convince Emperor Maximilian of Mexico to let them set up shop. The colony failed, and Alonzo returned to the U.S. He hosted his first debutante ball to celebrate his crushing of a city-wide strike that had shut down St. Louis. During the strike, Alonzo ran a story in the paper that said the Veiled Prophet was coming to town to shoot the strikers. In reality, the police showed up to do that.
Alonzo Slayback’s wealth is my inheritance. I don’t want it.
In 1973, debutante Gena Scott swung down from a balcony and unveiled the Veiled Prophet. Hundreds of people saw that it was the Vice President of Monsanto Chemical Cooperation, but none of the newspapers in St. Louis reported the story. No image of Tom K. Smith made it out of the auditorium.
We’ve learned from history. Tomorrow I’ll have two people with cameras planted in the crowd. One is my ex, and the other is a reporter for The Post-Dispatch. I’m going to walk down the aisle to be christened a woman, and at the throne where the VP sits I’m going to snatch the veil from his head and expose the identity of the man beneath. It’s going to break the VP’s spell, and then I’m going to wreck his face with pepper spray.
The Veiled Prophet is an architect of racial apartheid, a representation of hatred, and a staggeringly dumb symbol of the patriarchy. If I can’t change this—if no one can end this—then can anything ever change? When it’s over and I’m sitting in my jail cell in the dirty yellow light that stays on day and night, I’ll re-read this piece of paper, and I’ll have some kind of answer.

December 22nd, 1993
St. Louis, Missouri

Chapter 1

July 1993

Angie had been hand-selected by a Veiled Prophet Society committee to be a page girl at age fourteen. When she was home at Mooreland last Easter, Angie dug up a picture from ’84 and smuggled it out of her parents’ house in a book.
She didn’t make a copy. All her memories were fodder for her zine, Deb. With an x-acto knife, Angie cut the outline of her page-girl figure and blew the shreds of photo paper away. It didn’t matter if the table got marked up because it wasn’t a table; it was an industrial spool turned on its side. Angie and her boyfriend and their roommate lived in bohemian squalor like cartoon mice. She’d already stained the wood with her blood another time, when the x-acto knife slipped and the tip of her thumb spit red across the room. She’d wrapped it in a paper towel, but the shot went far enough to stain the refrigerator door with speckles. She hadn’t cleaned it up because sometimes Angie felt like a poser, a faker who never rebelled against anything. Spilling blood for your zine, though, was an undeniable mark of a riot grrrl.
Their apartment was the open floor of a seven-story textile factory. It was big, brick, and square, and one of the cheapest rents in downtown St. Louis, where no one lived anyway. The place was dark but for the kitchen light, which hung from a rigged-up extension-cord pulley system. An orange clamp was all that kept the light up over her head as she worked. Everything in Angie’s downtown life was DIY, cobbled together with her boyfriend’s photo equipment and the hundred-mile-an-hour tape that the military had taught Victor to use to fix everything. Power strips were plugged into further power strips, an endless loop that seemed self-sustaining and off the grid. But Angie knew deep down that being off the grid was an illusion.
The page-girl picture had been snapped backstage; she still remembered holding her palm fan, made of white peacock feathers. Her duty had been to follow the Veiled Prophet, fan him, and make sure he didn’t trip on his dress.
That year, 1984, had marked a golden era for her father—the Laclède Gas Company had undergone a financial renaissance thanks to the markets in South America. “The Laclède family has been well off since Pierre Laclède the First founded the city, you know,” Angie’s mother would say at dinner parties. “In fact, we’ve had his bloodline traced through the courts of well-known kings. All the Henries, Charleses, and the other ones.” Dividends and buy-backs had made the Laclèdes wealthier, and though Angie was too young to be Queen in ’84, she was given the honor of VP page girl—sometimes a more coveted position than Queen. Angie’s mother had straightened Angie’s cape and beret, assuring herself that Angie was “Queen to-be. As soon as you’re old enough. Page is a great honor. A promissory note of sorts, and we’ll cash it in one day, Tulip.”
In the photo, Angie looked like a dirty-blonde Peter Pan. The picture represented one of the first times she had used makeup on her cheek. Angie had a big birthmark—a prominent red splotch spilled on her face. As a kid, she used to imagine that someone had poured a red magic substance on her by accident, starting from just above her left ear and staining her down to her neck. People stared, and as she got older Angie would cover it every day of high school. She’d deflect by saying, “It’s my spiritual link to Gorbachev.”
Angie maneuvered the scissors around her fourteen-year-old slippers. She found pictures of herself as a child strange. It seemed now as if she hardly inhabited the same body, though even then she’d been short and sickly, with a head too large for her body. Especially compared to the second page girl, the redheaded princess of the suburbs, Josephine Nimby. Jody had been Angie’s childhood rival—two-faced even back then. Her copper-red hair had been curled to make her look even more like Shirley Temple. Jody had grown up prim and proper, just as the Veiled Prophet wanted. She was on track now to become a white-wine Stepford wife. But even so, the riot grrrl movement was for everyone. It would even fight for Jody Nimby, with internalized woman-hate oozing out her ears.
The page-girl photo would float on the page beside a quote Angie liked so much that she’d borrowed it from another girl’s zine:

Recognize that you are not the center of the universe.
Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships.
Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.
Recognize vulnerability and empathy as strengths.
Don’t allow the fact that other people have been assholes make you into a bitter and abusive person.
Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival.

This run of Deb would also contain handwritten lyrics from riot grrrl pen-pals in Idaho and a short article from a St. Louis U. Ph.D. candidate who had asked for anonymity. Angie had built the edition around the Ph.D. article and added an essay of her own at the back.
1990 was the year when Angie was supposed to cash in her promissory note and be crowned Queen. She’d turned eighteen, and that meant she had to buy her first Veiled Prophet ball gown. “Not just any dress,” Angie wrote in her essay for Deb. “These are fairytale princess costumes to the girls, and to the men they’re bridal gowns. The VP’s Queen is crowned the Queen of Love and Peace, and she has to parade across the stage in front of the blue-bloods, being appraised for birthing hips. The Veiled Prophet Society is an organization for breeding stock—that much seems clear, though they all deny it. And then there’s the anonymous Nothing Man on a big throne at center stage… The whole thing is fundamentally screwed.”
As it happened, for the first time in one hundred and ten years, the Laclède family did not attend the 1990 ball, because Angie’s father and mother fell apart. “That’s the thing about my parents,” she wrote. “Their money lets them do all the weird shit they want. If you’ve got money, you can spend all day doing whatever gets you off. Drink, yell, scream at waiters, hit your wife, fuck the pool boy, and in the morning you can walk out the front door of your mansion and people will call you a pillar of society.”
Angie’s father was Pierre Laclède the Fifth, but everyone called him “Five.” Angie’s grandfather had been “Four.” If Angie had been a boy, her name would have been “Six.”
Since youth, Angie had endured her parents’ dining-room galas: bottomless martini glasses held just so, gin breath, valet parking, waltzing to a string quartet with a boy twice her age because the adults all thought it looked cute. “Keep smiling, Tulip,” her mother would say. “It’s all in good fun,” she would add, to excuse a wandering hand.
The day Angie turned seventeen, her mother came down to breakfast with a black eye so bad it had turned green at the edges. “Everything’s fine,” she said, and made coffee.
“My mom’s friends would give mine the side-eye after that,” Angie wrote. “They would talk about my parents ‘throwing each other around.’ I did everything I could to avoid the public and my parents’ world. I started dating a much older boy named Rocky. I had no idea what I was doing, but going out with him was better than sitting alone in that house.”
On a late autumn night in 1990, with her first VP ball gown in a bag in her closet, Angie snuck through the mansion’s alleyway gate and climbed into the back seat of a ratty Toyota Corolla that smelled like cigarettes. Suck My Left One was playing at the Crow Bar, and Angie wasn’t going to miss the most important concert of her life.
She was going without Rocky. A group of older girls, Rocky’s friends, filled the Corolla—Angie’s honorary older sisters in fishnet stockings, plaid skirts, and black eyeliner. Rocky was a barrel-chested punk who, Angie wrote, “would have been a sweet guy if he hadn’t been dating a seventeen-year old. He was twenty-five and too old of me, but his friends took me to concerts that I would never have gone to on my own: semi-dangerous scenes with mosh pits, and basement bars that didn’t card, and piercings, and tattoos, and potent, energetic anger that I found wonderfully addictive.”
Angie walked downstairs into the Crow Bar’s basement, into the sweat of wall-to-wall punks. It was a baptism by ear-bleeding distortion. The lead singer was Julie Ruin, and the first thing Julie did on stage was grab the mic and tell the crowd’s boys to “be cool, for once in your fucking life, and go to the back. Girls to the front. No, I’m not fucking kidding,” she added, and didn’t start the show until Angie and the rest of the girls were two feet away, close enough to touch.
It was hard to say how Angie had first found riot grrrl; it seemed to come from voices she could no longer recall. Cassette tapes had come from hands spotted with black Sharpie hearts outside the record store. An anonymous girl in Vintage Vinyl with Courtney Love bangs sold her a zine. Somehow Angie had ended up at this concert in the front row, close enough to see that the Left One drummer wore combat boots. The guitarist was a long-haired skinny boy—only Left One had the street cred to pull off a boy in a riot grrrl band. He was cool because Julie said he was cool, and Julie was the core. She swept across the stage, whipping the microphone cord, pulling at an oversized t-shirt that she wore like a cocktail dress. “It was a screen-printed tee,” Angie wrote. “On the front was this hunky guy, a grinning Ken-doll dude walking out of a sunny lagoon. When Julie danced, the Ken doll stretched and bent. And when Julie posed and sang, I’ll resist with every inch and every breath, I’ll resist this psychic death, I entered heaven. Julie pulled the shirt up and mooned her bandmates, and something about that pale girl’s butt triggered an epiphany in me. If being attractive meant being skinny and vulnerable and innocent, then Julie Ruin didn’t want it. She wanted control, because that was her ass and no one else’s. She’d show it if she wanted. That’s fuck you control.”
After the show, Angie piled into the getaway car. High school had given her permanent anxiety about being uncool, or not quite right, or too big in the wrong places. But in the car, seated on the lap of a girl she hardly knew, she suddenly felt at home, giddy, drunk on adrenalin with the girl’s arms wrapped around her, clutching tight as they yelled and sang whatever was on the radio. With the window rolled down, a cool St. Louis breeze whipped through the car. It was ice cold, nothing like summer—bringing in winter. As they drove west down Lindell, a thin film of teenage self-loathing burned off the surface of Angie’s skin.
The girls dropped her off in the alley by her parents’ mansion, and she snuck through the rear door, creeping up the stairs to call Rocky on her room’s landline and lean out her third-story window for an end-of-the-night cigarette. Instead, she caught the climax of a fight in the foyer. The mansion stairway was carpeted mahogany that went all the way up to the third floor in a square spiral. Angie heard her mother first. She was slurring quick sentences down on the first floor—sharp daggers that she had forged especially for Angie’s father. “I told you, Pierre. You never listen. Do the math. You had no leverage, and now they’re laughing at you.”
“You would have done the same!” Five yelled. “It was my turn!
“Those hyenas don’t give a shit about taking turns,” his wife said.
Angie’s parents had come home late from a VP party called the November Annual, where the year’s Queen was traditionally announced. Angie had been passed over.
Now her parents were alone, with only each other to blame, and a full-on meltdown consumed the house. Angie hung over the second-floor banister and listened as her father yelled. She could tell that his face was beet red without seeing it, and that the squiggly, Mississippi-river vein on his forehead was throbbing.
“You are so gullible,” her mother was saying. “Our daughter’s life was on that line.” She called her husband small. She said, “Everything’s always been a banquet for you, and you still fucked it up.”
In her essay Angie wrote, “It was hard to mistake the sound of a hand against flesh. The tone of their words, the escalation—it was all building to a predictable breaking point.”
Afterward there was a long silence, until Angie’s mother started repeating, “Never again.” There were more slaps. Usually they would ended in sobbing and an end to the argument, but this time they continued. Angie was retreating upstairs when the sound of a vase hitting the foyer wall made her want to leap out of her skin.
“Even when I was safely behind my bedroom door,” she wrote, “the crashing came in waves. I spent the night curled up in my bed sheets, huddled against the locked door. I was terrified that my father would kill my mother, or vice versa. I thought about calling Rocky. I thought about calling the police. I thought about getting the knife I kept beneath my mattress.”
At four in the morning, after hours of imagining the grizzly scene she might find when she emerged—both parents on the floor, a double homicide—Angie crept back downstairs. Even in the dark, she could see that the foyer was cold and wrecked. The grandfather clock lay face down. The ancient oil paintings that hung in the dining room had been slashed and torn. The glass front door of the mansion had been shattered, and the autumn wind blew through the foyer. Angie had to put her shoes on and tape up the door with cardboard before going back to bed. Her mother’s portrait as VP Queen had stayed intact, but it was her mother who had thrown the ashtray through the front door.
At the end of December the VP Ball came and went without the Laclèdes, and Angie’s parents entered a cold war.

Author’s Statement

VP is set in St. Louis in 1993, twenty years before Ferguson and twenty years after the rogue debutante, Gena Scott, jumped off a theater balcony during the procession for the Veiled Prophet’s Ball. At this ball, every year, one member of the Veiled Prophet Society dresses up as the mysterious VP and crowns one of the club’s daughters “Queen of Love and Peace.”
Gena Scott swung Tarzan-style on an electrical cord across the ceremony as the city’s blue-bloods watched in horror. She crashed into the stage steps and fractured her ribs, but still ran up to the VP and ripped off his hood. On the throne sat the Vice President of Monsanto.
Gena was hauled away by security, but everyone had seen Mr. Smith’s face. Yet no photos and no name ever made it into the newspapers, and the event went unreported unless you knew where to look. In my novel, Angie Laclède takes up Gena’s mantle twenty years later, with the aim of unveiling the VP once again, and this time she’s determined to get it right. With the help of her ex-boyfriend and a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Angie unravels the VP conspiracy, until eventually she isn’t sure whether her stunt at the ball should be a protest or an assassination.
This novel is based on historic events. In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, former Confederate cavalry officer Alonzo Slayback pulled the VP costume from the pages of a poem so as to disguise his Klansmen. The VP then threatened to shoot the striking workers. Slayback dodged the law that forbade people to cover their face in public by citing the poem and claiming that the VP was a form of theater. The Enforcement Acts were meant to crack down on the first wave of post-Civil-War Klansmen, but parades and fiction didn’t count. Slayback was later shot and killed in an argument with the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—and that’s only the start of the strange history of the Veiled Prophet Society.

 

Devin Thomas O’Shea has had writing published in Paterson Literary Review, Midwestern Gothic, Headway Quarterly, fresh.ink, and The St. Louis Anthology. He graduated from Northwestern’s MFA program in August 2018 and has been on NPR to talk about his novel manuscript with the civil-rights activist Percy Green. Devin is a reader for TriQuarterly, a contributing reviewer at American Book Review, and a writing professor in Northwestern’s OLLI Program.

Embark, Issue 11, January 2020