"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?"
— Jeremiah 17:9
This is my sister." Carla, who worked with me in the fabric store, put her arm protectively around a girl who appeared to be about seventeen or eighteen. I had sized her up as the two of them made their way from the front door of the shop through the maze of fabric gondolas to the counter. I would never have guessed she was related to Carla.
Carla was short and round. Below her tiny waist her abdomen and hips were nearly spherical, like a spider’s, and compressed into the polyester double-knit slacks that were then popular among women my mother’s age. Carla was at least ten years younger than my mother, but I suppose she liked the slacks because they stretched, or perhaps, being married, she had to look married, and not like a teenager in blue jeans.
Carla’s dark hair curved beneath her full face, while her sister’s pale blonde hair hung straight from its central part and draped over her shoulders in the style still popular in those waning days of the flower children. She was very fair, the sort who would sunburn and freckle, pretty, though not gorgeous, with a waif’s face, appealing in its fragility. She seemed taller than Carla because of her willowy figure. She had the shape that most teenage girls longed for in the early seventies: a flat belly, slim legs, narrow hips, and swelling breasts. She wore a knit shirt and tight, faded blue jeans.
"Hi," I said, to be polite, forcing a smile though I felt more like hissing at her. I automatically disliked attractive girls. Hormone driven, I responded to them at the primitive level of species survival: They were competition for a mate. I wasn’t unattractive, but I was, like most teenagers, insecure.
"Hi," she murmured, avoiding eye contact, her voice lacking either energy or interest. No personality. I was glad to find something wrong with her.
"She’s staying with me for a while," her sister explained, speaking for her. Lucky you. I nodded and moved off to busy myself, straightening the bolts of cloth in anticipation of the customers who seldom arrived.
The store was failing. I felt sorry for the owner, a nice man of maybe fifty who combed his thinning hair back with greasy kid stuff, wore cowboy boots under boot-cut Lee dress jeans, a tooled leather belt cinched in beneath his paunch and short-sleeved shirt. He was about my height with his boots on, midway between five and six feet.
He sold the Singer sewing machines displayed in our window. Carla and I sold the fabric, but his presence there in the store and the worry that they might be approached to buy a new sewing machine put off customers. Sewing and fabric selection were part of a woman’s world, and he was not the sort of man who had much feel for that world. Mostly our customers bought notions: a spool of thread, a zipper, a packet of elastic.
I wasn’t worried. I only worked there on Saturdays and didn’t need the job. In a couple of months, I would graduate from Jackson High School and shake the dust of this small town off my feet. I was heading to college and the dangerous, exciting world outside Amador County.
Elsewhere, there were race riots, the Watergate scandal, rapes and even murders, but in Jackson you could still leave your houses and cars unlocked and sleep peacefully. There was only one race in Jackson, and it was white—unless you counted the Yep family who ran the Chinese restaurant on Main Street, or Smiley Farr, who traveled on our school bus from the nearby Indian reservation. Any violent deaths came from car crashes, too often teenagers with nothing else to do on a Friday or Saturday night but drink.
No matter what happened in the rest of the world, Leon, one of Jackson’s town characters, would continue to stand on Main Street, his spittle dangling in a long rope to the sidewalk; Mr. Gorman, who owned the five-and-dime, would still ask, "Kin I hep yuh?" when you walked into his store; and the high-school boys would still loiter at the bottom of the steps leading up the hill to the gymnasium and stare up the girls’ skirts.
Even the most exciting event of the year, Kit Carson Days, was predictable in its mayhem. First would come the parade along Main Street, the school bands playing, the Campfire Girls, Boy Scouts, and Shriners marching, families sitting and standing along the sidewalk, clapping. Next, the men of E. Clampus Vitus would get drunk and rowdy, and the families would go home. After that, having ridden en masse around town on their Harley-Davidson motorcycles, gunning their unmuffled engines, inspiring both dread and awe, the Hell’s Angels would fight and perhaps shoot at each other and manage to wreck at least one teenage girl’s reputation before they left town.
I didn’t realize how safe I felt in that boring town until that afternoon in the fabric store, when I learned about Carla’s sister. I remember I was getting ready to eat half a grapefruit when Carla came around from behind the counter to where I sat at one of the cutting tables. It was my lunch break, and I had stayed in the store to eat. She hovered next to me, not saying anything, which was unusual. I looked up at her, wondering what was up, and she sat down hurriedly across from me, motioning her sister to join us.
She glanced around to reassure herself that no one else could hear. The store was deserted, but I leaned forward, caught up in her air of conspiracy. What could she have to tell me that was secret? Usually she spoke openly, even when describing the enormous boil on her husband’s backside, and what happened when she squeezed it. She often shocked and sometimes disgusted me, but the information I gleaned from her about adult relationships was fascinating.
I waited eagerly for her to begin.
"My sister’s staying with me...." She paused dramatically, looking over at her sister, as though for permission to continue. The girl sat rigid, her hands resting in her lap as if someone had neatly placed them there for her. She nodded.
Carla continued, her voice hushed, "You’ve heard of Edmund Kemper?" I had, but I couldn’t immediately recall why.
Carla prompted, "You know, the Co-ed Killer?" Her eyes opened wider. So did mine. This could be interesting after all. Even I had heard about the co-ed killings. During the past year, six young women hitchhiking had been beheaded, their bodies cut up, the pieces buried in the Santa Cruz mountains, or tossed into the ocean. My best friend had told me; together we thrilled at the discovery of each new atrocity.
One warm, full-moon night the previous summer, with the scent of tarweed in the air, we had walked along the desolate country road that ran past my house, and imagined that the rustling we heard in the manzanita at the side of the road was the killer stalking us. We ran all the way back up the hill to my house, adrenalin pumping, as if he were at our heels. That’s what a serial killer was to us: entertainment, a game.
The most recent news she’d passed along was that the killer had been caught, a giant man, standing six feet nine inches tall and weighing nearly three-hundred pounds. He was twenty-four years old. At the age of fifteen he had murdered his grandparents and then spent five years in Atascadero State Hospital. He had murdered his mother and her friend this past Easter weekend, then phoned the police to confess to those murders and to the co-ed killings.
"I’ve heard of him," I admitted, impatient to learn what, if anything, Carla knew about Kemper that I didn’t.
Her eyes shone with the pleasure of imparting major news. She glanced from me to her sister and announced in a stage whisper, "He’s her fiancé!" Then she leaned back in her chair, folded her arms and waited for me to react.
"No!" I blurted out. Surely Carla was kidding. I looked at the girl for some sign that this was a joke. She nodded earnestly; Carla was telling the truth.
"Show her the picture," Carla urged. The girl opened her purse and extracted a photo, which she handed to me. I recognized her in the photo, pale and slight. Standing next to her was a man, older but not yet thirty, clean-cut, dark-haired, reasonably good-looking. He was enormous, well over six feet tall and as large as a pro football player, but less muscular. She barely came up to his armpit. They looked slightly uncomfortable—shy—posing for this picture.
He was the right size and age, but the man in the photograph didn’t look like a monster. There was no crazy gleam in his eye, nothing to betray that he butchered other young women in his spare time. There was no look of calculation to suggest that he was a cold-blooded hunter of human trophies. He couldn’t be the Co-ed killer, could he?
"We couldn’t believe it, either," Carla said.
"He was always so polite, so thoughtful," added her sister, looking past us, as if gazing at some private scene that no longer made sense.
I stared at the photo again, wondering. When Kemper picked her up for dates, did he drive the same car he used to transport his victims? Had he cleaned and removed his knife or did he keep it, bloodied, under the front seat, between the two of them, as they drove? Were there bloodstains? Why did he spare her, yet kill those other girls? Did she still love him? I glanced over at her, longing to ask.
When I handed the photo back to her, our fingers touched. I flinched. Those fingers had touched Edmund Kemper. I felt soiled, as though he had touched me through her. It was one thing to hear about a serial killer; it was another to be connected to him, no matter how tenuously. I was suddenly angry at her. How could she not know, guess what kind of man Kemper was? Was she sick, morbid, drawn to the sickness in him? I wished I had never met her. Carla had no business burdening me with this ugly secret. We hardly knew each other, and this was hardly gossip.
"He was a perfect gentleman." Carla seemed to be reassuring herself as well as me that she’d had reason to trust Kemper. "He opened doors for her, was polite and respectful. They never did more than hold hands." Her sister nodded earnestly. If anyone looked virginal, she did. But how could Kemper be both nice and evil? How could anybody? If bad guys didn’t look like bad guys, didn’t act like bad guys, who was safe? Even in Jackson?
"So, what will you do?" I asked Carla’s sister.
"I don’t know," she said and looked hopefully at me, as if she thought I could answer the question for her. I couldn’t.
I noticed my grapefruit, sectioned, waiting to be eaten. I picked it up, felt the stickiness of the juice as it dripped onto my fingers, licked it off; the sour taste made my jaw ache.
I looked past Carla’s sister and the bolts of fabric ranked around us shoulder high. A man walked along the sidewalk in front of the shop, paused by the door for a moment to peel the cellophane from a fresh pack of cigarettes, then tossed the wrapper onto the asphalt of the parking lot. Beyond the parking lot, cars slowed to the speed limit on Highway 49 as they approached town. Across the highway, a couple of teenage boys slowly climbed the steps to the high school, their cleated shoes tied together and dangling over their shoulders, mitts tucked under their arms. From the distance of the shop, I couldn’t tell who they were.
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