My mother’s always marveled at Ted Bundy’s charisma, his trick with the fake injuries, his voluminous hairdo. Throughout my childhood she’d recite the serial killer’s murderous steps like a mantra—how he’d don an arm sling, drop a stack of books, and lure naïve girls into his white Volkswagen Beetle. “So don’t ever get into a stranger’s car. Not for candy, not for kittens, not even if he tells you we’re dead or in the hospital,” she warned my little sister Rebecca and me, passing the salmon croquettes at the dinner table. Another popular supper topic, especially around Thanksgiving, was the fate of the fabled local do-gooder: “the old man who went out to feed the birds,” only to slip on his icy stoop and become paralyzed for life.
I never tired of listening to her describe Trotsky’s death by ice pick to his noggin—a topic often triggered when my sister, my father, and I thrust our little yellow corncob handles into either side of the grilled and buttered ears. She’d tell the tale giddily, in a low tone, as if the Marxist’s assassination were her own personal gossip. I liked the way the weapon in the story morphed from ice pick to splitting ax to bread knife, depending on my mother’s dining utensil. She also relished the sudden barbarism of the pet chimpanzee, Travis, who went berserk one day at his home in Connecticut and gnawed off a woman’s face. She related with vigilance the story of Rosie, the ten-year-old kidnapped from our neighborhood in 1989, whose smothered body was discovered under the branches of a pine. My mother told Rosie’s story so often that, as I walked home from school one afternoon in seventh grade and a middle-aged Japanese American couple pulled over in their van, my stomach seized up. As the woman in the passenger’s seat brandished a map and asked me something about the location of Zion Road, I sprinted off, my green backpack flapping against my spine. I was determined not to let that pair of expertly disguised serial killers throttle me and drop my body in the nearby creek.
In 1964 my mother began her freshman year at Mississippi State College for Women, in the small city of Columbus. She decided to pledge a social club at “the W” called [End Page 177] the southern review the Lancers, populated with liberal Episcopalians and longtime Girl Scouts like herself. My mother’s gregarious best friend and dorm mate, Donna, had informed the Lancers that Cindy Hanes was one mean storytelling machine around a campfire. While they asked one pledge to churn vanilla ice cream on the dining hall’s screened-in back porch and required another to act out the phrase “give birth to a nation,” they asked my mother to tell a story. Without skipping a beat, my mother jumped to her feet and recited the fairy tale she loved to perform around crackling Girl Scout campfires—“Bluebeard.” The roomful of Southern belles sat cross-legged on the floor of the Great Hall, entranced.
My mother’s always had a knack for creating distinctive voices for each of a story’s characters: Bluebeard had the growling bass of an ogre, while his wife’s soft, long vowels sounded as if drawled by the mouth of a naïve yet adaptive girl from Jackson. My mother lingered over the description of the wife’s discovery of Bluebeard’s secret room, the one he’d forbidden her from entering: the blood coagulated on the floor like canned pie cherries; the rows of dead women—his former wives—wrapped in sheets; the most recent victim still swinging from the chandelier, her toes swollen and blue. Even the bottom hems of the white curtains in Bluebeard’s murder room were soaked with foot-long stains that rose and spread up from the gory floor. The girls elected my mother vice president of the Lancers and the club’s unofficial resident storyteller.
My mother’s parents met just after World War II...