The Bones of Things-Prologue


Guangzhou, China

Three Years Ago

Li Jing stands holding a sheet of soggy cardboard over her head and looking down into the deep muddy ditch that separates the factory owned dormitory where she lives from the narrow road.  Overnight terrible rains have flooded the streets and water has overflowed the gutters and entered the lower levels of some of the sleeping quarters. A woman, soaked to the thighs, carries a green plastic basin back and forth from door to street bailing flood waters from the building.

In the grey and stinking water, garbage floats.  A young man she’s not seen before, pushes past suddenly, nearly knocking her into the filth of the street. He is carrying a rotting plank of wood and he lays it down upon the narrow strip of concrete outside one of the dormitory doors. He positions it perpendicular to the gutter and slanted across the flood waters as a makeshift bridge.  He returns to the building and a minute later he emerges wheeling an armless office chair which carries an older woman wrapped in blankets. Her head is bowed as if she is sleeping. As the man hurries past with his charge and Li Jing steps carefully away, she catches a glimpse of the woman’s face; shrunken and greyish beneath the cloth. She is so ill, Li Jing thinks.

The bus is late today, and everyone is tired and wet and irritable. The crowded dormitories are very cold, and the workers are forced to keep the windows closed to conserve heat in the winter. The humidity and stink of sweat and dirty bodies and cigarette smoke becomes overwhelming and nobody sleeps.

Still, thinks Li Jing, this is a good job. Doing inspections on an assembly line for an American company. The hours are long, and the factory is noisy and crowded but she is meticulous and careful and has earned respect from her bosses. Li Jing has health benefits and she is paid two dollars an hour, the minimum wage, most of which she sends home to the family she has not seen since her seventeenth birthday over one year ago.

The cardboard is now thoroughly water logged and has disintegrated nearly completely. She lets it fall to the gutter where she watches as it floats away in shreds and chunks beside a balled baby diaper and an empty shopping bag and clumps of weeds and mud. 

The rain falls in droplets the size of fat peas and she turns her smooth face to the sky.

The bus arrives at the factory before seven am and the workers disembark. Li Jing lockers her few possessions and quickly dons the badge and hair cap and covers her clothing with the white paper gown she is required to wear and takes her position on the line.

She will work twelve hours today and have thirty minutes for lunch. She does this six days a week.

Today is a difficult day.  She fears she might be getting ill. Her throat pains her when she swallows and there is a deep ache in her back. She thinks about the woman in the office chair. So many workers in her dorm have been sick recently and missing work means not being paid. She is distracted by worry.

She bows her head to her work.

The backpack she is inspecting is deep purple with black stitching. She examines the condition of the stitching on all sides of the pack inside and out. She checks the zipper and the zipper teeth, opening and closing it several times. This particular pack, however, has one additional pocket on the outside edge and that pocket has a zipper as well. Perhaps because Li Jing is exhausted or maybe because she is distracted by worry, or perhaps for no reason at all, she fails to detect the defective zipper closure on the little pocket on the outside edge of the pack.

She places her bright yellow approval sticker on the inside of the pack and sets it down on the conveyer belt and watches as it disappears around the edge of an enormous steel mechanism she’s never noticed before.

Bythe time an exhausted Ji Ling is on the bus headed back to the dormitory, , the deep purple backpack with the faulty zipper pocket will have been labeled and shrink-wrapped and boxed and crated.  She will be deep in a feverish sleep while it waits with a thousand others almost exactly like it. In a crate, on a dock beside a roiling black sea.   

Years later, long after the people in Guangzhou have ceased to talk about the terrible water sickness and have gone back to their work instead, a girl, not much younger than Li Jing, will discover the backpack. Dusty now and forgotten, marked on the inside by an uncapped ballpoint pen, it will sit undisturbed in the back of a secondhand store in the low rent section of a suburb just outside of Los Angeles California. On a low, narrow shelf, it sits beside a plastic Smurf toy and a stack of old phonebooks from places like Houston and Boca Raton. It is half covered by a pile of off-brand sweatshirts and miscellaneous T-shirts. The young girl will pull away one at a time, fearful of spiders but curious about what lies beneath.  She will pay just two dollars for the used backpack but, unlike Li Jing, she will take note of the broken zipper pocket. She will rationalize that it is a minor problem and will be easy to fix and, given the price, the pack is still an excellent deal. She’ll leave the store with every intention of fixing the broken zipper.

She never will.

Janie Lucille Paradise-A Novel (Excerpt) Chapter One

I was twenty-eight years old when I first met Janie. I was a writer living in San Francisco scratching out a living writing ad copy and freelancing for various independent pseudo political publications which were, by and large, not very good. Like most writers, I also had a day job to pay the real bills and mine, despite sounding sort of interesting in conversation with other twenty-somethings, was no more glamorous a job than any other city-living unpublished young writer’s. I worked for the police department at one of the smaller district stations. Although I was officially hired as assistant to the Chief, my real role was lackey to everyone, including the janitor.  I cleaned up, fetched coffee, ran errands, emptied trash baskets, ran copies, washed cop cars including wiping vomit out of backseats.  Whatever they told me to do I did it. Some days I wondered if I had a limit. What if they asked me to bury dirty money? Hide evidence for fucks sake. Ok, so that would be the line. No hiding evidence. Ok with burying dirty money but absolutely no hiding evidence. I felt better after that.  I’d gotten the job through my Dad’s connections as Chief of Police in my hometown, a hundred miles north. I wasn’t proud. I needed the money and I wanted to be in San Francisco.

The job, however, had one redeeming feature beyond a paycheck. I heard things. Lots of things.  As a fiction writer I found that a police station has a way of stripping human beings back to their very nature and leaving them most vulnerable, most transparent and therefore most easily understood. Whether the criminals, the victims, the families or the cops themselves, the very nature of crime is so barbaric, so intrusive, so vile that it disallows the presence of our delicately contracted civilized behaviors and actions. The two , civilized society and crime are, in a way, mutually exclusive.

Police radios are constant chatterboxes and once you learn the codes, or like me, download them from the internet and keep them on your smartphone, you pretty much know what’s going on. I actually think it’s ridiculous they don’t change those codes around more regularly. Some of them, like 10-4, everybody knows means message received. Others like 10-15 (Have Prisoner in Custody), or, my personal favorite, 10-54 (Possible Body), are less well known but can so easily be sorted out by anyone with an IQ above room temperature and access to the internet they are not really codes at all. Perhaps they are meant to be  short-speak like short-hand for speech, rather than code. In any event, the whole system made it easy for me to follow along, as I am sure thousands or hundreds of thousands of civilians do every day. The other way to hear things at a police station is even easier. Cops talk. Just like everyone else they gossip. So, I listened. I’m a very very good listener and I got even better working at the station.

I’d been working at the station around eleven months and had finally become  invisible to most of the officers and other employees. During the first six months I’d been asked out and declined so many times I finally started a rumor that I had lesbian tendencies. It was actually a true rumor but irrelevant. I wasn’t interested in dating anyone of any gender at the time.  It backfired and I continued to get invitations, just more crude. I discovered that some men take lesbians as a challenge. The wanted to change me, convert me, make me see how great it could be the other way.  Some wanted three-ways. There seemed to be this general assumption that if I wasn’t heterosexual I did not have the right to be treated with the minimal respect they might treat a “normal” woman. After a month or so of enduring the worse penis jokes I’d ever heard, (one joke actually had a donkey and two lesbians in a room together, I’ll say no more,) I invented a female finance who lived in New York City but would be joining me as soon as possible. That helped diminish much of the interest. The stragglers I slapped down with a flat, “Look, bug me again and my wife will come after you. She’s six foot one and she’s a mean bull dike. So fuck off.”  I don’t think they were frightened as much as weirded out by that statement. That was that. Rumors spread.  I was, not only a lesbian, but also a crazy lesbian engaged to an insane bull dike the size of a linebacker. Game over. I was left to concentrate on whatever I wanted. At just under a year, the thing I really wanted came along.

It was a Thursday and I’d been working since six am. I requested that schedule  sometimes to keep my afternoon and evening clear for other things, forgetting that there really were no other things in my life.  I guess I lived in a persistent delusion that between the time I put in my schedule request and the time the actual schedule came out two weeks later I’d spontaneously develop a social life. It never happened, but a girl could dream.  Anyway, I’d heard radio chatter all morning about a convoy coming over the bridge into the city. Generally codes for convoys included the make and model of the vehicles and gave enough information to determine exactly what the convoy was about. This was a convoy of late model Ford Vans and it was headed down highway 80W.  That meant prisoner transfer from one of the high security prisons north of the city, Chowchilla or San Quentin. The escort meant important prisoner transfer and important meant dangerous or high profile or both. Any time something like this occurred I put myself on alert for other information via cop gossip or radio chatter.

The particular car I’d been assigned to clean that day belonged to a cop I despised. He was arrogant and rude and had never ceased looking at me like I had some sort of disease once he’d heard I liked girls.  Every time I washed the car he was assigned I swore he left it extra dirty. Not that there was trash or used condoms in the car. I’m pretty sure that would have got him a reprimand or fired or something like that. It just seemed dirtier. Sticky, dusty, like he’d taken a used vacuum cleaner bag and scattered the contents over the backseat and smashed it into the carpets.  I was kneeling on the backseat suctioning the floorboards when a I heard two officers come up behind me. I was in the habit of eavesdropping whenever possible so I shutoff the vacuum and picked up rag and began wiping the seats down. Slowly. Listening.

“Major transport this morning out of Chowchilla, you heard it?”

“Yeah, I heard the chatter, four van convoy, crazy coming over the eighty.”

“Is it her?”

“I hear it is. She’s pretty sick. Headed for City Hospital I heard.”

“You’re kidding? All that for her?”

“That’s good. I heard she’s a piece a work.”

“Ahh not anymore, what’s it been? Ten years?”

“More like twenty I think.”

“What’s her name? Janie something Paradise,” he chuckled, “what was she a stripper?”

“Nah I don’t think so and its Lucille. Janie Lucille Paradise and she uses the whole thing you know. Like Jennifer Love Hewitt or Daniel Day Lewis.  Weird story though. Anyway, it’s a no brainer thing. She’s sick, maybe dying I heard. Sort of sad.”

“Are you kidding? Sad? No way. Not sad not after what happened.”

“I guess; I’ll catch you later.”

I stopped wiping down the seat and sat up and looked out into the half-empty police parking lot. The low clouds parted and the sun sent ribbons of light onto the street and the asphalt revealed millions of secret diamonds.

My name is Virgie Barron. I’m twenty-eight years old and I’m going to tell you the story of Janie Lucille Paradise; child, mother, wife, concubine, lunatic, murderer.

To most readers this is likely to be a disturbing story not because of it’s strangeness, although it is certainly strange, but because of it’s tragic familiarity.

The Poetry of Harriet the Spy

I write often about grief and loss but today looking through quotes from one of my favorite books, Louise Fitzhugh’s 1964 classic, Harriet the Spy, I noticed some of the most beautiful poetry throughout. Here is something I wanted to share:

— Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy (Harriet the Spy #1)

I think maybe every writer should ready Harriet the Spy at least once, or maybe ten or a hundred times.



Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies

The Secret Place: A New Novel by Tana French- Discussion by Declan Burke

Tana French is one of my favorite authors. Her stories are delicious and poetic and I’ve been looking forward to the next book for quite a while. For anyone who is interested in the genre and has not read her earlier work, I highly recommend all of it. This brief review is certainly encouraging as well.