The Pious Enigma
Fiction - First Place
"Of course it is. I can see it now," Donna told him. She'd usually argue that it was a taped-up volleyball or some kind of impromptu art exhibit designed by a Maryland Institute student. And that seemed most likely, what with the storefront windows featuring dismembered Barbies and the cleverly stenciled graffiti that had been cropping up all over the neighborhood for years.
But on this day, the day it looked least like a head, Donna decided to let Paulie be right. There could be no harm in that.
Come to think of it, his theory wasn't that far-fetched. After all, it was skull size and had what might be construed as ears and a nose, though it would have to be upside-down. It had been impaled there in record-high temperatures, and it had begun to smell like a skunk or rotting garbage or the hairy toad plant. (Donna couldn't resist buying one after falling in love with its fuzzy red flower, which she had only seen in a book on flowering house plants. Despite--perhaps even because of--the book's warning to thwart the bloom of the "carrion plant," she let the hairy thing blossom in her living room. It did, indeed, smell like a full garbage can. Or a decaying head.)
"Huh, Miss Donna?" Paulie interrupted her reverie with a tap on the arm.
"Sure," she said, wondering whether she should've agreed with something she didn't hear.
Bud had wandered off to the grassy section of the playground to pant under a tree. The whole planet seemed to shake under the weight of his slow, deliberate steps.
"No," Paulie whined like the 7-year-old child he was. "Is it a boy or a girl head?"
Donna squinted at it. "It looks to me like it must be a girl head. Yes, I'd say definitely a girl."
"I think so too," said Paulie with a flat grin, a satisfied smile. He wiped his sweating forehead with the end of his yellow T-shirt and plugged his fists deep into his front pockets. "Yup," he nodded slowly, like a miniature adult.
Paulie said "yup" a lot. It was endearing, in a Mayberry RFD sort of way. His family had moved to Baltimore from West Virginia in a pickup truck, parts of which became their yard art. Birds preened themselves in the pools of water that filled an old chrome bumper, and a rusted carburetor had begun to sprout wild marigolds. But it wasn't much worse than the other junk found in the back yards on 25th Street.
The MacAvoys didn't live in the rowhouse next door to Donna and Bud, which was good because Mr. and Mrs. MacAvoy fought all the time. She'd heard from Vera, whose house was between Donna's and theirs, that not even the brick fire wall was enough to keep Paulie's mother's shrieks from Vera's bedroom. Once, during an argument in the middle of the night, the crucifix over Vera's bed fell off the wall, landing on her head and giving her a black eye, which she had to explain to everyone.
Paulie's father, Lawrence, was a large man, which made him an odd match to Leslie, his mom, who was about 4'11" and 95 pounds. Donna had taken to calling the pair "Lard and Lungs" and had to be careful when speaking of them near Paulie. The whole neighborhood suspected his parents had drinking problems, but no one got close enough to either one to smell the truth of it.
Donna had sort of adopted Paulie, which was OK with the MacAvoys, who had a hectic social calendar (bingo night, bowling night, poker night) and a cupboard full of Kid Cuisine. He kept Donna company and was a less-needy companion than her live-in boyfriend, "the Sponge," whom she had finally kicked out after four uneventful years. Donna and Paulie had dinner together in the summer. Hot dogs and corn were his favorites. He watched television in her den in a special chair that she found at a yard sale. She painted a large p on the back of it, at his request, so no one else could sit there.
It wasn't that Donna had found Paulie any more special than the other neighborhood kids. And she wasn't trying to satisfy any maternal need, though she was approaching 30 and her grandmother was beginning to nag. Paulie was cute and bright enough, but her friendship was something of an obligation. That's because Donna had stolen Sneakers.
It was 1 a.m. when she unlatched the MacAvoys' back gate to retrieve the too-thin beagle from his 4-foot-square home under their porch. He was tied to the fence with a short length of telephone cord, and his shelter was a box from a Montgomery Ward air conditioner. Although it was propped up with cinder blocks to keep it from falling over, it was pretty useless after the first rain. And then there was the excrement problem.
It broke Donna's heart to have to break Paulie's. Sneakers was his special dog; he had found it by the railroad tracks and nursed it back to health. He named it Sneakers because it smelled so bad you could hardly get near it.
But Mrs. MacAvoy didn't want the yelping beagle in her house, which Donna imagined was full of plaid wool upholstery and dark wooden things. And his father kicked it out of the way a couple of times when he washed his car in the alley. Although Paulie did his best, under the circumstances, to make the dog feel loved, Sneakers was malnourished, and his muscles had begun to atrophy from spending countless hours tied to the phone cord.
So Donna took Sneakers to a special animal shelter far away, where they assured her the dog would not be put to sleep. And she let the more-lonesome-than-ever Paulie become Bud's best friend.
"Bud! Stop that!" Donna had her hands on her hips, which let her dog know she was serious. But Bud wasn't looking at her hands or her hips.
Paulie walked toward the dog, shaking his finger at him. "Bud, no digging! You'll get Miss Donna's house dirty!" Her rugs were off-white (why, indeed) wool, a gift from her mother.
But nothing could get Bud's attention. In spite of the bull mastiff's size, Paulie wasn't afraid of him. He knelt down in front of the giant dog face, looked Bud in the giant dog eye, and yelled, "No digging!" No one else--not even the Sponge, who bought the dog for Donna--would get that close to his face, though Donna assured everyone that the worst thing Bud could do was lick hard. And his nine-inch tongue was softer than any cat's tongue.
Bud whined when Paulie covered the hole with his own body; it was an odd whine for a dog capable of shaking the earth with his steps. And the ground trembled as Bud reclaimed the shady spot under the only tree at the school playground, where he stood, staring and whining.
"Miss Donna!" Paulie's eyes were big, and Donna knew what he had found. She'd half expected it.
"Paulie, come away from there now!" she yelled, something maternal kicking in. Her knees shook, weakening.
"But Miss Donna--"
"Bud, Paulie, come!"
Her obedient boys got up and ambled toward her, both a little disappointed that the game was over.
Paulie described the decaying and maggot-infested hand to her in great detail and with verve over cold pasta salad and hot dogs, even though Donna had encouraged a change of subject with a feigned interest in Jeopardy!
The hand was just one of the many body parts that would be unearthed that summer at St. Pius III Elementary School. All of them belonged to Mrs. Eunice Holliday, Paulie's 6-foot-tall first-grade teacher and recreational-league basketball coach. Some of the school children believed the crime was committed by the Pious Enigma, a junk sculpture created for the Artscape festival. The top of the sculpture was an old-fashioned hair dryer with blinking, musical lights stuck in the lid.
But the truth was that Mrs. Holliday's ex-husband had just been released from prison after serving 15 years for armed robbery and assault. When he returned to his old house and found Eunice in bed with her new husband, he axed them both. Parts of Mr. Holliday were found on the grounds of the Social Security Administration, where he worked as a clerk.
Paulie still liked to think it was the Pious Enigma, who had been blamed for other crimes in the area, including a car accident in the Safeway parking lot. And finding Mrs. Holliday's hand didn't seem to affect him in any negative way. He was just excited to have guessed that it was, in fact, a girl's head that had watched over the basketball courts for several days that summer.
Leslie F. Miller lives in Beverly Hills, where she works as a freelance graphic designer and copywriter. She is the former co-editor and co-publisher of Joe magazine and, coincidentally, a long ago City Paper poetry editor.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201