Comes a time when going to Hell is not a bad option. That time came for me this Spring, when you went and died on me. No, that’s wrong. When you were murdered, and I knew that I would never rest again until somebody paid. Can you even hear me where you are? Do you remember me? Or have I been wiped clean from your memory, before you come back to Earth in a new body? I wish I knew.
Starting over, in case you don’t remember: My given name is Pandora, and before you waste any of your time wondering what sort of new mother looks down at her sleeping infant and says, “I think I’ll name you after the woman who unleashed all the pain, sickness, and death on the world,” you should probably know that Dixie had most likely ditched school the day they talked about Greek Mythology, and never heard that story. Truth is, a club somewhere round about Charleston, West Virginia gave me my name.
I do intend to stick to the truth here, Jo. And so far, 1968 has had a buttload of bad truth going down. I won’t swear this story is nothing but the facts, though, because everybody sees things their own way—and my way can be a bit more fucked up than most.
Things like dark alleys at night, the sorts of things that might scare a normal person, are no big deal for me. On the other hand, black licorice chokes me like somebody’s stinking, Sambuca-coated tongue is being jammed down my throat. I get that that sounds freaky. But I’ve got my reasons. A guy named Willie Mack left his fingerprints all over every last one of those reasons. Fuck him.
On that last special day in April, the last beautiful day, just a few hours remained before Reverend Martin Luther King would be shot dead outside a rather ordinary-looking motel room in Memphis, where he had gone to fight so garbagemen could feed their families. We spent that day together.
Some asshole hammered hard on the door of the apartment where you and I lived. Remember, Jo? Not just knocking like a normal person would, but actually using his hand like a sledgehammer, so that he could beat the door without bruising his knuckles.
Boom. Boom. The loud noise attacked my senses, filling not just my ears but my eyes, nose, everything with a hammering noise. I began turning feral again, scuttling away inside my skull, searching for safety.
Think, think, I barked to myself, but my thoughts exploded into bits inside my head. Complete sentences started dropping away, until there were only words crowding my brain, words that sometimes were no longer even words but just more noise. I closed my eyes to hold the pieces inside me, to shut the noise out.
Where would my head take me? No good place—and what’s the point of having a brain that time-travels, if it insists on going back to shitty places?
Jo, I heard you call my name, but it kept getting drowned out by the Boom.
“Dora! Where are you, Dora? Come back to me.” You interrupted my tumbling thoughts. “Look at me. Please. Look at me.”
Opening my eyes, I found your deep brown ones and locked on.
You smiled. “Good. That’s good. You’re here. With me. See the carpet?”
I nodded, coming back into the room. I wasn’t at Willie Mack’s place. There were no cigars or Sambuca or hands that grabbed whatever they pleased. I was at home with my best Jo. The door. Boom. You. Boom. That boom boom boom wasn’t the pounding of my heart either. It was just the goddamn door. I almost laughed with relief.
“Better?” You hovered nearby, knowing not to touch me when I got this way.
“Better.” A small laugh escaped anyway.
I nodded. “I’m sure.”
“Then maybe you could answer the door before he breaks something else? Get rid of him? I would, but…” Real fear lit those brown eyes. Wasn’t it just moments ago that we had been laughing and joking, having a good time? Now you worry-fingered the thin gold chain around your neck. “Pretend I’m not here.”
Friendly house-calls rarely start with someone beating down the door.
Bruce the Nephew was the kind of asshole who would lean his weight on a doorbell so that it rang nonstop, an ice-pick of sound to the eardrum that he didn’t hesitate to inflict. This time, though, he knew the doorbell didn’t work, seeing as how he’d broken it himself just last week. That’s how he introduced himself. Most bullies like to put it right out front, that they’re willing to break something—maybe even enjoy breaking something. And maybe the something that gets broken will be you.
It was supposedly Bruce the Nephew’s job now to fix the doorbell he’d broken, since he was taking over as landlord, maybe.
“Just pretend I’m not here,” you repeated. We both looked down at your tasteful little black dress, the kitten-heel pumps. I nodded. You slipped through the curtain into the next room as I opened the door.
Bruce the Nephew glared at me. “Took you long enough.” He opened and closed his banging hand several times, stretching the fingers wide and then snapping them back into a fist. The wiry black hairs on his knuckles quivered like cat whiskers.
“Sorry,” I said.
He looked past me, searching. The front room was for business, but Bruce the Nephew had seen all that last week. Neatly organized, it burst with color. A painted armoire opened to reveal bolts of cloth. Floor-length department-store mirrors surrounded a small, red-velvet platform.
“Out.” I remembered that I was supposed to try and be nice to him. “Would you like to leave a message?” I stretched my mouth into a smile shape.
Bruce the Nephew continued to stare past me, as if he could conjure up some version of you. Jo on demand. He’d seen the dressmaker’s forms before, but he still looked. He was one of those big/little guys, his head and neck one block melted into thick shoulders and biceps on a not-so-tall frame. Wiry hair sent his eyebrows flying in different directions and escaped from his nose and ears. He reminded me of somebody…
“Bluto,” I said.
“What?” I echoed. (Please don’t get pissed off at me. I know Popeye’s the star and all, but Bluto has his own fans, I’m sure.)
Bruce the Nephew gave me the hairy eyeball for a little while, then began searching over my shoulder again. “Not here,” he said, almost talking to himself.
“Not here.” Maybe I could just keep repeating whatever he said.
He rubbed his chin, making his knuckle hair quiver again. Time seemed to stretch out as we both stood there in the doorway.
“Tell him I need to talk to him.”
He left without saying good-bye.
I leaned into the door to keep from shaking, got my breathing under control. Door. Wood. Smooth. Here. Exhale. “Ollie ollie oxen free.”
You flung open the curtain with flair. God, you had such flair. “Which one?” Throwing your arms out to the sides as if ready to take a bow. Nearly touching each wall of the tiny middle room. The light behind you pooled around your head, caught the gaudy golden cases of the lipsticks in each hand. The Revlon Jesus.
Blasphemy? Nah. You saved my ass in more ways than I cared to count up—and isn’t that exactly what someone wants in a Savior?
I brought an invisible bullhorn up to my mouth. “Put down the lipsticks. Back away from the make-up.”
You served up a laugh and an eye-roll. Folks like us get a little jumpy at the sound of a bullhorn. The Baltimore police don’t give any love to weirdos or runaways or bums, or smart asses or hustlers or sluts—and that leaves out most everybody, except maybe Donna Reed.
Obediently you put the lipsticks down.
“Sit,” I said. I began to brush slashes of lipstick onto the back of my hand with a long, thin, blending brush. I daubed at your mouth with fruit stains: apricot and peach and nectarine. “Irresistibly kissable.”
You blushed—sudden perfection.
“Don’t move.” I began mimicking the blush with a pan of rouge, a fat brush, and lazy, swirling strokes, raising the glow from your butterscotch skin. “There.” I stepped back. “He will be helpless in the face of your charms.”
You laughed. “I may be the most inappropriate guardian in Baltimore.”
“Don’t ever say that. No. Never can you say a thing like that. I won’t have you talking badly about the best person I know.” I began cleaning up my tools.
“Not to nag, but today is not the start of your Easter break. I checked.”
“School is pointless. I may never go back.” I tried to sound matter-of-fact, pretending you would let it slide.
“You do have a choice,” you answered, matching my matter-of-fact tone. “Each day we choose who we will be, as best we can anyway. Maybe being one of the smartest people I’ve ever met just happened to you, but you can choose not to be wasteful about it.” Laughter. “It may be hard to believe, but you’re a child.”
“Child? Seventeen is so close that I could spit on it from here.” That may have been a bit of an exaggeration. I busied myself by lining up the lipsticks back where they belonged.
“Just go, please. We don’t want trouble.” You spoke as if trouble hadn’t just been banging on the door.
“Do you really think somebody’s going to come looking for my sorry ass? Especially now that I can legally drop out? Believe me, they’ll be relieved that I’m gone. They hate me. Teachers have always hated me.”
“Hate? Really?” The smile in your voice annoyed me.
“My first-grade teacher didn’t like that I already knew how to read. She also didn’t like my face. Wrote on my report card—and marked me down for it—‘scowls all the time.’ Scowls all the time? It’s my face. It’s my fucking six-year-old face. It just does that. Be a grown-up, for crying out loud, and deal with my face.”
“I love that face.” You stood up. “It’s a smart face. A face that doesn’t back away from a problem. A face that wants to make a better world. You hang on to that face. And you’re much too smart not to get an education.”
I groaned, but in truth your words warmed me. “Let it go. My face hasn’t gotten any easier to love.”
I walked to the back of the apartment, washing the lipstick off my hand in the combination bathroom/kitchen sink. Plumbing in that place was a little crazy. The conversion of this part of the basement into a tiny apartment had been one client’s way to trade for the landlord, Doc Amelia’s, services. I’m guessing, from the quality of work, that the cure didn’t take.
“When is Romeo supposed to be here?”
“We have time. Have you heard anything from Dixie?”
Ah, Dixie. Her newest hobby was long-distance truckers. She could be anywhere. The truckers had a tendency to get sick of Dixie’s bullshit, and once she started getting on their nerves, they’d dump her at the closest truck stop. She’d been left in a dozen different states by now, though she always found her way back to Baltimore eventually.
“Nope. Not a peep.”
“Why? I’m not. We both know what she’s like. It’s so much better when she’s not in town. Don’t start making up pretty stories in your head again. Facts are facts. Dixie’s a user, I’m a delinquent, and you’re…”
God, you were so beautiful, Jo. A little too starry-eyed, a little too trusting. But male or female, whatever the day, you were undeniably beautiful, inside and out. I wondered if your folks had seen this beauty in you, had known how special you were. I wondered if it had scared them, that much beauty in such a shabby little place.
I’d never seen your childhood home, and you were always reluctant to talk about it much, but it was undeniably sad and poor and grim with defeat. It was a place you fled from when you were younger than I was now. No more than fourteen, I think—run off for being too strange a kind of beauty.
Those scars on your back, fine lines, the branches of trees that grew from your flesh.
I saw, really saw, those scars for the first time in the summer I was five. Saw them in that way where you take something inside yourself, try to imagine the story of it. I was getting old enough to notice things about other people, and I probably spent more time with you than anyone else. Dixie had been tossing you a few bucks here and there for letting me hang out with you since before my first memory.
You had turned eighteen that year and had grown way taller. That day I watched you repair a railing on the front stoop to pick up a few dollars from the landlord. You always had a hustle going, with me as your helper. Sweat was beading on your forehead, rolling down your neck. August can be brutal in Baltimore, waves of heat rising from the black asphalt and then pushed back down again by the humidity. I wasn’t feeling too fresh myself.
You stripped off your shirt, draping it over the railing. I started to pull off my own shirt.
“Stop. No, baby girl. You can’t do that. You need to leave your shirt on.”
“Why?” I squinted up at you, but your face was masked with shade, the sun sitting over your shoulder.
“Big girls don’t take their shirts off in public. Not nice girls anyway.”
“That’s just the way it is.” I must have looked skeptical, because you kept going: “I don’t make the rules, but if people were to see me with you, without all your clothes on, they might think I was a very bad man.”
I laughed. You were the least bad person I knew. But you didn’t laugh with me, so I kept my shirt on.
When you bent down to pick up a hammer, the sun played across the scars on your back.
“Why do you have them?”
“My tools? How would I fix things if I didn’t have tools?”
“No. The other. The scars.”
You stood still, quiet, for what felt like forever. You had never lied to me, but I could see you thinking now about what story to tell me. Your face was always so easy to read, every thought and feeling playing across it. Shrugging, you spoke in a voice that made it sound like no big deal: “Once somebody wanted me to be somebody else. They thought that if they beat me enough, they could change me. But it didn’t work. I’m still me.”
“I will gut that motherfucker like a fish,” I said, balling up my fists the way Al, one of Dixie’s boyfriends, did when he said those words.
“Shhh. Heaven help us, Dora, you can’t be saying that!” You looked startled, but also like you might laugh. I loved the warmth of your laughter and waited for a sound that didn’t come this time. “Nice girls don’t talk like that.”
I decided in that moment that there were more important things in life than being a nice girl. “Why?” I asked. I looked down at my feet, already knowing there were lots of ways that adults had power and kids didn’t. It wasn’t fair.
You pulled your shirt from the railing and used the tail to wipe the hot, angry tears from my face. Your hand was gentle.
“Do they hurt you?”
“The scars? No. Not anymore. It was a long time ago.”
“I won’t let them hurt you again.” I wasn’t sure what it meant to gut someone like a fish, but I felt certain I could do it if I had to, for you.
“I believe you, baby girl.” Now you did laugh—I’d somehow winkled out that wonderful sound again, even though I hadn’t been joking. “I believe you.”
“Earth to Dora. Calling on Dora.” Your voice in the present called me back to the apartment. I blinked, and the older version of you, the eleven-years-later you, came back into focus. You still had the same smile.
I’ve always had a habit of wandering off inside my head. The feral running panic part, though, that was a bit newer, something I’d brought with me from Willie Mack’s house. You knew the difference.
Your smile melted into a small frown. “I feel terrible kicking you out tonight, but we have to be discreet, so going out isn’t possible.”
That meant his date was either married or in the closet. I sighed. “I don’t mind. Just don’t get hurt. I hate it when you start believing the lies and get your heart broken.”
“No lies this time.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard you say that.
You lifted your chin up. “Well, he doesn’t lie to me. I may be the only person on Earth he tells the truth to.”
“I hope you’re right. When do I get to meet the mystery man? Why so many secrets?”
“Soon. I promise. He knows about you. I’ve told him how important you are.”
I turned away, faking my best nonchalance. “Yet I know almost nothing about him.”
I reached out to grab my navy pea-coat off the back of your velveteen armchair, and my hand brushed something…furry? “Oh, shit!” I yelped, jumping back. Did we have rats in the apartment?
Then I heard a fidget-twitch.
“Get out from behind that chair. Now.”
“You could be a little nicer to our guest,” you said.
It crept slowly out from behind the chair: about four years old, covered in freckles and dirt. The kid lived upstairs and made a habit of breaking into our apartment. One thing it didn’t do was speak.
“Hello, darling,” you said, kneeling down. “Dora, do we have any sweets to offer our guest?”
“No.” I glared at the little lock-pick. We had no idea how the kid kept getting in the apartment, but he turned up like clockwork, this big-eyed, silent ghost of a child.
“Oh, well.” You picked up a milk-glass sugar bowl and made a show of slowly lifting the lid. “I guess a little sugar will have to do.” Removing two lumps, you placed them in the grubby, upturned hand.
“What do you say?” I prompted.
The kid ducked his head.
“Jo, you’ve got to start paying more attention when you close the back door. When you don’t pull it sharply enough and it stays loose, all manner of things blow on in here.”
A shadow of a smile passed over the kid’s face and vanished. Irritating me is the best game available, I guess, when you’re a ghost boy.
“Be a love and take the child back upstairs, please. My date will be here soon. Oh, and tell them I’ll stop by tomorrow to visit with Tassie. I don’t care if she’s not up to seeing company. I’m not company. And I’m worried about her. Don’t tell them the worried part, though. I don’t want to upset the kids.”
“Oh, wait, I forgot. You’re going to need money.” You snatched up a cookie tin and, popping the lid, grabbed a fistful of bills. “Why don’t you round up some friends? Take them all out.” Shoved the bills in my hands.
You liked to pretend that I had friends other than you. Kept it up even after nearly five years living with me and never meeting a single one. Five years. The longest I had ever lived in one place.
“Shit, Jo. This is way too much money. What about rent?”
“We’re paid up until the end of May. Two whole months with no worries.” Your grin faded. “I thought Tassie might need the money for Doc’s funeral, until the financial stuff gets straightened out, so I paid in advance.” Then your smile came flooding back, blinding me with magic. “Prom season. Wedding season. I am a hit, baby girl! A hit, I say. Take the money. Live it up. Bring back whatever you don’t use, but really, have a party. Life is a banquet!” Pulling me close in a half-hug, you lowered your voice because of the kid: “He has an early curfew. He’ll be gone before ten tonight. So don’t party all night. It is a school night.”
Curfew. Married, then. I nodded and turned to the kid. “Ready? Say good-bye to Jo.”
He looked at me with those unblinking eyes.
The landlords, Doc Amelia and Tassie, lived upstairs with an ever-changing assortment of kids, from both extended family and foster care. They didn’t usually misplace the little ones, but Doc Amelia had died not two weeks ago, and nothing seemed normal now.
A mountain of dark-skinned, smooth-cheeked boy answered their front door. Six feet and not even done with puberty. I couldn’t recall his name.
“Missing something?” I pointedly said.
The ghost boy ran into the house. Before I could pass along your message, the door shut in my face. Really made a girl feel loved. And I’d forgotten my pea-coat.
Now I just needed to become invisible for a while.
Crazy Like Heaven is the result of two possibilities, two aspirations, colliding.
First, as a therapist I worked extensively with survivors of sexual violence. I was usually very disappointed in how survivors were portrayed in popular fiction. Often they were dehumanized, victims, just more bodies. (And don’t get me started about fictional therapists.) As a survivor myself, I know how important it is to reframe survivor into hero. If you want to know what a true hero looks like, just meet a victim who was repeatedly raped, but who dreams not of revenge but of a loving world. Dora, then, is the hero I wanted to give my clients. Justice is not revenge. As Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Second, my younger brother, Patrick, came to me proposing that we write a mystery together. Then, a few months later, he died suddenly. I began writing this story, and it turned into a form of therapy for me, a walk through both a deeply personal grief and a city caught up in a more widely shared grief. I was able to understand my own sorrow by accompanying Dora through her journey.
Crazy Like Heaven is set in Baltimore in 1968, during a volatile week in our city’s history. Dora becomes determined to find justice in a world that has offered her none. With the streets on fire, she hunts a killer. Her quest leads her through a rectory, a homeless camp, a pawn shop, a gay bar, and the smoldering ruins of a grieving city, until she ultimately finds and seizes her moment of Grace.
Overall, the novel portrays a time long past that demonstrates how some things have changed for the better—and how far we still have to go to reach a broader justice for all.
Regina Sokas lives in Maryland. She has been published as a journalist (including in The New Orleans Times-Picayune, which is especially fun to say aloud), a copywriter, a short-story writer, and a poet. After a satisfying career as a psychotherapist, she now writes novels.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022