The South Side Strangler escapes from jail, and my friend Loretta runs off and marries him. She waited outside the jail in her mother’s Honda, engine idling. She touched up her lipstick in the rearview mirror, slid over into the passenger seat when he came running out of the jail, feet stuttering in his manacles. She was the one who leaned out the window and shouted: You’ll never catch us, coppers! The newspapers all said.
She sends me pictures from their wedding in Las Vegas. The South Side Strangler looks boyishly happy. There’s one picture where he’s got his hands on her neck and she writes a caption for it: Ha, ha.
She calls me from behind the chapel, smoking a cigarette beside the Dumpster. I can hear the inhale of her breath.
It’s a burner phone, she says. You’re happy for me, right?
The South Side Strangler killed five girls in our town. They were all girls from the South Side, girls with teased-out bangs like it was still the 80s there, girls who smoked, girls who wore blue eyeshadow.
Not me, Loretta says. Her voice is breathy over the phone. Everything she says sounds like she’s telling someone else’s secrets. He wouldn’t kill me.
That’s what she thinks, says Loretta’s mother when my parents send me over with a casserole. Loretta’s mother has the same bow lips, the same scraggly hair as her daughter. Her mouth trembles.
I say: The casserole has green peppers. I hope you’re not allergic.
On the walk back home, my phone lights up with another call from Loretta.
We’re staying at the cutest hotel, she says. Little out-of-the-way place.
She won’t tell me the name of the hotel or where it is.
They could have your phone tapped, she says. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you anything.
The first girl the South Side Strangler killed was the receptionist for the country western station. She had to answer the phones: Howdy, y’all. She had to drink Tennessee bourbon.
The radio played sad country songs all day when she was found. The deejay got drunk on the Tennessee bourbon she’d left in her desk and forgot to turn off the microphone. We all heard him crying.
Loretta sends me a picture from the hotel.
The South Side Strangler is belly flopping into the swimming pool. His swim trunks are orange. A fat little girl in a ruffled swimsuit is flinching away from the splash.
Loretta calls me from the side of the pool. I can hear her feet kicking in the water.
She says: God, I want a cigarette.
The last girl the South Side Strangler killed before they caught him was the middle daughter of my mother’s second cousin. She was on the volleyball team, and sometimes she’d say hello to me in the hallway and sometimes she wouldn’t. She scratched him hard enough she got some of his skin under her fingernails. I can see the mark in the photo Loretta has sent me, three red stripes on the back of his left shoulder.
He’ll always have that scar, Loretta says. I can tell from the tone of her voice that her mouth is turning down, that she’s wearing her favorite polka-dotted bikini, that she’s thinking about peeing in the hotel pool because she doesn’t feel like going all the way back to her room.
We’ll always be friends, she says, pressing her mouth right up against the phone so her words come out all muffled, right?
Loretta kissed me one time on a dare from some boys on the basketball team. She had the softest mouth. She smoked a cigarette right after, and I stood beside her outside the school, breasts aching. That day, my mother’s cousin’s daughter had spoken to me in the hallway, hey, she’d said, and hey, I’d said, and went off with Loretta, who was all who even is that girl anyway.
No one, I said.
Just a cousin, I said.
Loretta still has her mouth up against her phone. She’s saying things to me like no one understands him, he’s not all bad, we’re going to have a dozen babies, I’ll be the best mother, you’ll see.
I’m nodding and nodding like she can see me, and I’ve got my mouth up against the phone too, but it’s just a phone, stiff and flat, not soft like Loretta’s mouth. It’s nothing like a real kiss at all.
We’ll always be friends, right, Loretta says again, and hangs up without waiting for my answer.