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Image by Ashling McKeever
By Steve Young
Nancy Mercatelli was what Clayton Loso and the older men down at the Barre Legion called a good old-fashioned slut. “Don’t be fooled, boys,” Clayton told us. “She may be a flatlander but she fits the bill, alright.”
Then when she was found behind the Central Vermont tracks, naked, with a black stocking twisted around her neck, Clayton said he wasn’t surprised at all. The way he put it was that Mercatelli was one of those girls who come along who you want to screw so bad, and when she don’t, why, you’d just as soon kill her for it.
The cops made a big deal out of those words and said it proved his guilt but all it proved was that one of the Chucks sitting around Clayton’s store that day ratted him out. That was just Clayton being Clayton. He had a way with words that made us laugh but none of us took him serious. We figured they picked on Clayton on account of him being a Woodchuck and for telling the truth on the daughter of a rich New York bitch. Clayton always said that flatlanders were taking over the state, one by one.
Mercatelli first showed up at our school in the middle of the seventh grade. She brought something with her from New York, a walk and a look like she was too good for us Chucks, like she was better than all the town girls put together. She had long blonde hair and big tits and skinny legs and her eyelids were always smeared with purple. She wore tight jeans ripped in the knees and the back of the thighs and she walked down the hall in that slow, pigeon-toed way with her ass raised up, like a doe in heat. Then she’d stand in front of her locker and flick her long blonde hair back over her shoulder and roll her purple eyelids up at the ceiling and sigh like she was just too bored by the sight of us Chucks looking her over. But she always had a big smile for the jocks and the rich kids. All the town girls hated her, except the ones who sucked up to her and tried to be like her.
After Mercatelli was killed, Clayton and the other Legion men hoped that Mercatelli’s mother would leave town and that would put an end to her political ambition. “She’s got all kinds of good reasons not to have a dead daughter on her hands,” was how Clayton put it. He said that Mercatelli’s mother was the only one in Barre who didn’t know the score about her daughter. “She’s too busy running around herself, trying to be one of them liberal big shots,” he said. Her husband had died a few years before in New York and left her a pile, enough to move to Barre and open a store and play at being a politician, Clayton said. She was on the school board and ran for town council and as far as he knew, maybe even wanted to be mayor someday, as crazy as that idea was. “Keeping up appearances is pretty damn high up on that bitch’s list,” Clayton said. “But all that’s gonna change now, ain’t it?” After Mercatelli was found like she was, stories her mother couldn’t ignore began to circulate. And just as Clayton hoped, she dropped out of politics and even sold the snooty second-hand clothing store she’d bought with her husband’s money.
She called her shop the Once Removed, a name Clayton had lots of fun with, of course. It was down on North Main Street, near a health food store, the Granite Savings Bank, a fancy Chinese restaurant, the end of Main none of us Chucks ever hang out on. A few times we went inside the Once Removed to see what we could remove. There wasn’t much. She had it decked out like one of those city boutiques you hear about in Boston or Montreal, with dummies dressed like magazine models and the walls decorated with Chinese fans and antique bridal crap. There was a little tinkling bell on the door and the store smelled of perfume, strong enough to choke on. Mrs. Mercatelli was tall and thin, with a beehive hairdo and cold beady blue eyes. Clayton said she only ever had a smile for you if she thought you were a paying customer or a registered voter.
* * * *
Barre is Main Street and Main Street, as far as we Chucks were concerned, is South Main Street, where they put the bars, the Roman Gardens pool hall and the discount stores. Behind the stores and bars are the streets where we all grew up, the brown and gray and green tin-roofed houses, each not much different from the next, and the Parish Halls of different Orders, named for one saint after another: Saint Jean, Saint Monica, Saint Joseph, Saint Patrick, Saint What-the-Fuck. Barre is full of Catholics, on account of all the Poles and Italians who moved here a hundred years ago to work the quarries. A few years ago, a priest named Father Maleski at St. Augustine’s Church on Washington Street got caught molesting boys and it was on page one of the paper for weeks. That’s why the Montpelier boys down the road call us fags and chant at football games: “Barre rhymes with fairy, Barre rhymes with fairy” over and over, and we brawl with them underneath the stands. Those rich fucks from Montpelier figure priests wearing dresses banging altar boys is the way it is in Barre so we must all be faggots.
Behind the stores on the other side of Main Street is a mess of railroad tracks, the Central Vermont lines, which connect up one way or another, with all the granite quarries. A train engine idles back there at every time of day or night, like a panting dog, with flatbed cars behind it carrying huge chunks of granite tied down by cables. The trains move slowly through the center of town and as younger boys, we played chicken by jumping on and off of them or sometimes even in front of them. A kid named Pete D’Agostino was killed that way when he was eight. He tripped and fell and his head was crushed beneath a wheel. You can still make out the bloodstains on the tracks today. Or maybe it’s his blood. Half a mile from that spot is where they found Mercatelli.
Clayton owned Loso’s Supermarket on a little side street off of Main called Dell Lane. The store was no bigger than a fruit stand, really, but was in the Loso family for years. Back when all the brochures and restaurant placemats called Barre the Tombstone Capital of the World, his store might have deserved a fancy name like that – a Supermarket. But by the time Mercatelli was killed, the granite business was bust and nobody had jobs or money to spend and Clayton’s place was a wreck. The outside paint was chipped off and the glass doors in front didn’t quite come together on account of the concrete buckling. Inside, the fluorescent bulbs flickered, and the shelves were filled with junk nobody bought: canned soup, dish soap, Lysol, Rid-X. It all looked like it had been sitting there for years, the same items, like they were just for show. Clayton made ends meet selling newspapers and cigarettes, fishing and hunting licenses, beer, ammo, lottery tickets and porno mags. He kept the porn behind a black curtain in a storeroom in back, except for the latest copies of Penthouse and Hustler and Gallery, which he put in the newspaper and magazine rack for out-of-town salesman to pick up and jerk off to back in their motel rooms out on the Barre-Montpelier Road.
Clayton’s back room was strictly for the locals, strictly for the Chucks. It was where the meat butchering used to be done. Big hooks hung from the ceiling above two long white metal tables and there was still the smell of blood in the air and in the damp wooden walls and floor. Clayton called the room his “Meat Rack.” The hard core magazines hung in plastic covers from the walls or were spread out over the tables. The girls on the covers wore nothing but garter belts and black stockings, their knees spread wide apart, leaning back on their hands, mouths open, pink tongues lolling, most of them blondes. They looked like they’d just gotten fucked or were about to be. Inside were grainy color pictures, mostly of blonde women getting balled, doing three at a time, sometimes.
In one corner was a black metal cabinet, the size of a high school locker, padlocked. Inside were magazines with plain black covers. Clayton kept them sealed with a piece of strapping tape, which you could break only if you bought them and took them out of the store. He kept a couple of unsealed ones on a shelf under the cash register, next to his .38, and gave us a peek once or twice. There were pictures inside of very young girls, maybe eight or nine or even younger, being screwed by men with hairy chests and big bellies whose faces you could never make out. These girls looked bad, ugly. Their faces were twisted and hurting, even though they tried to smile for the camera. They weren’t so pretty to look at, those pictures.
Clayton spent most of his days stalking back and forth behind the front counter in his Army boots, and carried on about one thing or another. He was short and had puffy cheeks that made him look like a toad, thick glasses and greased back hair that was going gray. He was ugly as sin and acted as if he was proud of it, the way he said he was proud to be a Woodchuck. He divided the whole world into Chucks and Flatlanders. When he was in the army, he said, he took endless shit for saying “fairm” instead of “farm” and toim, instead of “time.” For four years the Flatlanders tried to beat the Woodchuck out of him, he said, but they couldn’t do it.
Some afternoons, he’d give us a little speech, something like: “The goddamn liberal flatlanders are ruining this state.” Or: “Soon them faggots and lesbos’ll come up here in droves to get married.” Or: “I got the clap off a hippie girl once.” This last was his proudest memory, he said it so much, not that any of us believed him. He was always joking about something dirty, like: “There’s these two rubbers walking down the street. They go by one of them queer bars and one says t’other, ‘Hey, let’s go in there and get shit-faced.'”
Sometimes Mercatelli walked by the store on her way home from school and as she passed, Clayton pumped his hand like he was jerking off and said, “I’d like to get her back in the Meat Rack, wouldn’t you?” And we’d hoot along with him while she made her way past the front glass doors with that slow walk of hers.
Clayton had a wife but we rarely saw her. She wasn’t fun like he was and she never smiled. She was small and had glasses and wore plain sleeveless dresses and her hair was going gray and her arms were all doughy and blue. She had a strange effect on Clayton, too. He clammed up around her and quit his blustering. He called her Mrs. Loso, even when she wasn’t around. Once or twice he put his arm around her and her small mouse-face squinched up in pain, like he was squeezing her to death although he was just being tender from what we saw. She went to Mass a lot, every day just about. She was a town girl and a real Chuck. She never had much to say about anything.
* * * *
We were in Loso’s Supermarket when one of the Legion men came in with the news that the cops had a suspect, a Montpelier weenie named Tom Miller. Miller was supposed to be Mercatelli’s latest flame, the cops said. That’s another thing that used to make us laugh: whenever some Montpelier weenie fell for Mercatelli, which they always did. They’d meet her in the Country Cousin or the Dream Machine or the Zodiac in East Barre and she’d screw them in their cars out in the parking lot, or, if her mother was at some meeting, take them home and screw them there. Next thing was, the weenie would think he was her man and wouldn’t want her screwing around except with him. Miller was the last of Mercatelli’s Montpelier lover boys.
Clayton had a saying: Montpelier’s got the money and Barre’s got the honey. Barre girls have the reputation for putting out faster and younger than Montpelier girls. So every Friday and Saturday night, rich Montpelier weenies come over by the carload, and hunt for easy pussy. The best we can do is wait for them out in the parking lots, with pipes and baseball bats, and beat the shit out of the stray ones we find. Quite a few Chucks got their knocks in and then paid for it with a weekend up in the Saint Johnsbury jail.
The cop who arrested Tom Miller was a local named Georgie Pitkin who liked nothing better than busting Chucks, even though he was basically a Chuck himself. He was a mean, cold-hearted son of a bitch, who arrested his own brother for drug pushing and was responsible for sending him to Saint Johnsbury for a long, long stretch. The story we heard was that Georgie began his career by squealing on his brother to the vice-principal when he saw him smoking in the boy’s room. Maybe that’s what got Georgie through high school, that kind of thinking, whereas Chucks like his brother were bound to drop out sooner or later and become fulltime criminals.
Georgie was a little guy who looked like a kid, even though he must have been at least twenty-five. He had a small black mustache that looked stuck on with glue, and he always wore a big chrome-handled six-shooter that wobbled against his skinny hip. We used to yell at him that he should get rid of that pistol before he hurt himself with it. Maybe that’s one reason he had it in for us.
One night a few days after the killing, a bunch of us were hanging around on the Green, drinking Old Crow out of a sack, swatting fireflies, horsing around. Georgie’s blue and white cruiser came wailing around the corner, followed by three or four green and yellow trooper cars. They stopped in front of the cop station across the street from the Green. All the car doors opened up at once and a few Staties with tall hats jumped out toting shotguns. We thought we were about to get our heads busted and it was too late to run or we might’ve got shot, so we froze where we were. But then out of the back of Georgie’s car comes this big, tall blonde kid wearing jeans and a black turtleneck sweater. Georgie grabbed him by the elbow and walked him inside. The kid had a jaunty walk and his face was red; he looked more pissed than scared. He looked like he would crush that puny Georgie Pitkin between his thumb and forefinger if it wasn’t for those handcuffs he was wearing.
The whole town of Barre went crazy. Mercatelli wasn’t the first girl killed in Barre that year. The previous winter, another high school girl, Francey Wiggers, was found naked at the bottom of a Rock of Ages quarry, strangled, and then there was the Dumbrowski girl, who was only twelve, and disappeared right out of her backyard up on Trow Hill. There was a manhunt after that one. Vigilante groups formed up and Clayton and other Legion men provided the manpower. A few of us Chucks volunteered to take some shifts but Clayton said, “Forget it, boys. This is men’s work.” They beat the bushes and searched the woods for days but nothing came of it.
Then when they found Mercatelli, panic set in. Even though Mercatelli was a whore, and the others maybe weren’t so much, people figured there had to be a connection. An FBI expert flew in from Washington and said that the same type of stocking had been used in the two known killings, that each killing had the same M.O. So they announced in the paper that a serial killer was on the loose. After Miller was arrested, the cops were quick to let on that he was their prime suspect not only for Mercatelli, but for Wiggers and the Dumbrowski girl too.
Down at Loso’s, Clayton acted ticked off that the FBI had been brought into it in the first place. He called them Fucking Bastard Imbeciles. “Them bureaucrats in Washington must think all we got is a bunch of local yokels up here. The Barre cops got Miller six ways coming and going. Down to the Legion, the boys said the cops were sure that the guilty sonofabitch is about to confess. What the fuck they need them Fucking Bastard Imbeciles here, anyways?”
It turned out Miller’s father was a big shot at National Life Insurance in Montpelier. He hired a lawyer, a former Attorney General for the state of Vermont, who got Miller out on bail lickety-split. That dampened down the excitement a little, too much for Clayton. “Ain’t that just like Montpe’er,” he said. “They’re all in bed with each other over there. I betcha the DA’s getting a handjob from Miller’s lawyer right now. Speaking of which, you boys heard the one about the Scotsman? He’s wearing a kilt and a young girl comes up to him and says, ‘Whatcha got underneath that skirt, Mister?’ and he says, ‘Why don’t you reach under there and see for yourself?’ So she does and she says, ‘Ooh, that’s gruesome!’ And he says, ‘Reach under there again.’ So she does again and this time he says, ‘See? It just grue-some more.'”
A day later, Georgie Pitkin and two other cops raided Loso’s Supermarket, and dug up the lot behind the store with a backhoe. “You got the wrong man, boys,” Clayton said, as Georgie handcuffed him and led him away. “Whyn’t ya charging that Miller fella?” But you could see he was scared, despite his swagger.
* * * *
Georgie questioned all of us about the whereabouts and the whenabouts and someone, we never found out who told the cops what Clayton said the day she was found. Down at the Roman Gardens we told each other over and over it couldn’t have been Clayton. Couldn’t have been.
Then after a few months, Clayton cut a deal and said he was guilty after all. He got 45 years to life in prison. Mrs. Mercatelli came back to town for the sentencing and her picture was all over the paper. She looked like she’d aged a thousand years. She told the paper: “He killed my baby girl. She didn’t deserve to die like that. No one deserves to die like that.” She said she’d only ever come back to Barre to put flowers on her daughter’s grave.
* * * *
Most of us who stayed behind got jobs and got married and started going to Church again. As the years roll by, it gets easier to forget Clayton’s face. But he haunts us just the same, like he never really left. These young Chucks now, most of them, don’t have the slightest idea of the who or the why. To them, he’s not even a memory.
Sometimes you can see them downtown hanging around the liquor store or on the Green or spilling out of the high school doors at the end of the day laughing and carrying on, just like we did. They litter the steps with cigarette butts and watch the pretty girls go by and sometimes they shout and snicker and make crude animal noises, just like we did.
I can tell from their faces they feel no shame about it.
Steve Young has an MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has published thirteen previous short stories including in recent issues of the Saturday Evening Post, Drafthorse Journal and Woven Tale Press. Young’s story Chickadees was featured at a Liar’s League stage performance in NYC in October 2015. Young grew up in Vermont and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He’s spent most of his career as a radio journalist and plays jazz piano.