Jennie sat alone on a blue velvet cushion in a restored steam-powered hearse, on the ground floor of Alex Jordan Junior’s warehouse, on the hot July afternoon of the funeral of her father-in-law, Alexander Jordan Senior, who never did acknowledge Jennie as his daughter-in-law, which was why she was here, miles away, on a cushion in the hearse, at the base of an airless warehouse, rather than on a pew at his service.
She’d been Junior’s wife in every meaningful way for nearly thirty years, since they were just twenty-one in 1958 and first began blackmailing local businessmen, whom Jennie had lured to her bedroom, where Junior sat in a closet with a specially drilled hole in the door, through which he could record the proceedings, a historical record that would proffer enough money to pay their monthly rent on two adjoining apartments in a building belonging to Senior and Mrs. Jordan. Devising this plan, Jennie had told Junior that though she found parts of the enterprise distasteful, she would sacrifice decorum for his benefit. She understood the price of things in a way Junior didn’t. That rent money bestowed on Junior some measure of independence from Senior. Until one merchant risked his Rotary Club standing by reporting their business to the police rather than paying $20.
That’s when Senior first got his hooks in them.
Jennie sat on a hard bench at the station in a flesh-colored slip, one hand on Junior’s knee, trying to stop it from bouncing, as Senior paid the captain, who’d known Jennie’s father.
“Junior,” Senior boomed, in front of her and the drunkards and the pickpockets and the captain, after the transaction was complete. “Time to straighten up and fly right. You’re never gonna marry that girl”—as if she weren’t sitting right there. “There’s no salvage value in damaged goods.”
The captain snickered at that.
Junior wasn’t one to be bossed, could never even hold a proper job for more than two months before needing to break free, as regularity tended to divorce him from his own thoughts and dreams. He promised Jennie that he’d never paper-marry some upstanding girl. But when Senior’s plan for Junior evolved to a point where Senior’s plan actually met Junior’s needs, Junior had told Jennie, We’ll never be like them, never have some fancy wedding, never share the same name, but we’re married, you and me, married as two hell-bound souls can be.
Jennie had said, Yes, to that, as she’d said, Yes, to so many of Junior’s needs all these years.
Senior had paid the captain, rescuing Junior and Jennie, the very day after he’d been turned out by Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous old architect down the hill, who’d told him, at the sight of Senior’s speculative blueprints, “I wouldn’t hire you to build a cheese grate or a chicken coop.”
Senior wasn’t going to take that insult, so he bribed Junior into building a singular structure atop Deer Shelter Rock, a structure so unique and well-constructed, a perfect treehouse of a structure, hugging the sandstone abutment like a snake coiling its own tail, just one mile from the famous architect’s home, Taliesin (which had hosted mass murder in 1914 but never dimmed in social consciousness even so). Senior explained to Junior that they could attract more visitors to their building than the old architect did to Taliesin (not least because they would charge ten cents less a head than the old architect did).
Junior at first said, Yes, to the bribe just to repay the old man, but then actually felt, Yes, in his body, actually began to like the arduous work, humping logs and stones and sandbags up the mountain by himself, said he liked the artistry of building around those boulders and trees, accommodating what was natural to the setting, the challenging constraints, and surprisingly liked the way the space closed in on him, as a 6’4” man, in low-ceilinged rooms, half afire from oversized hearths. In fact, he liked the ambiance so well he began to cover all the clear windows with heavily carved wood shutters to improve his sense of containment.
That gave Jennie an insight, and she suggested they expand beyond the house, further down the rock, telling Junior he should open that still-shut door to his mind (and hers), to their conjoined genius. You know this is our tenth anniversary, she’d said. That’s what makes this so perfect.
And so, at thirty-one, Junior truly began to become himself, the self Jennie knew, throwing open that door to his own (and her) imagination, building the cavernous construction that expressed who the two of them really were. A warehouse, four stories high, rimming the mountain, no windows at all, full of winding ramps, through which paying customers would pass the largest carousel and distillery and mechanical orchestra in the world, paying customers becoming cogs themselves in the Jennie and Junior machine, like blood clogging through a vein, down, around and up to the top, where the carousel’s cap spun with two rows of naked lady mannequins, splotched muddy brown, heads removed, watched by the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding carousel horses, female heads hanging from hooks on their saddle horns.
No, Jennie did not go today to the funeral of her father-in-law, who’d never acknowledged she was a Jones. And she persuaded Junior not to go, either, to stay here with her instead, on the rock, where he could pay homage to Senior by constructing a perfect effigy—tufts of bristly white hair and spider-veined cheeks and one yellow snaggletooth, polka dot suspenders and a big silver belt buckle (which did look a lot like her very own father)—and shallow-bury that effigy in a musical box playing “99 Bottles of Beer in the Wall” in the sandstone pit he’d dug just below Jennie’s own private toilet with a blue velvet cushion in the back seat of a beautifully restored steam-powered hearse.
A strange tale to be sure with more twists and turns than a fun-house ride. A unique portrait of a life, in a genuine disingenuous relationship that could only take place in a story. Then again, very scary people to meet. They look normal but carry a darkness that only Shelley knows, and somehow wants to share. Good Halloween fare.
Thanks Keith! Though this is fictionalized, this couple does exist in history. We just don’t really know why their tastes ran as they did.
A compelling short story. Perhaps darkly humorous? Depends on how you interpret the end.
Thank you Kori. I’m glad you found the humor:)
A tale so deliciously intricate I found myself reading it again and aloud so I “chew” the beauty of the language therein.
Reading aloud, chewing—I love it❤️
I love this unique story. I feel as if I were dropped into a strange, unexpected world!
They certainly did live in a very strange world, of their own design.
Only the skilled artistry of a writer like Shelley could create the upside-down and twisted world of this couple. We get a peek into a debauched relationship that is contrary to that described tongue-in-cheek by the author, “She was Junior’s wife in every meaningful way…”
With that caveat, we’re in for quite a ride.
Ha, Marilyn, I suppose there are many meaningful ways to be a wife:) Thank you!
thank you Shelley I did not know about the Wright house and murders. that does give a shade to you dark story!
whoops… your dark story!