Murder Ballad

by Rachel Richardson

“I’m glad they went out like they did. It’s much better than being caught.”

Roy Thornton, estranged husband of Bonnie Parker

Three things to get straight from the start: I had never shot a gun, I had never stole a car, and I had never killed nobody.

Then I met Clyde.

He was twenty-one years old, a grifter with well-oiled hair and new shoes. I was at Elly’s cooking up some hot cocoa in the kitchen with my hair pinned back to keep the ringlets from spraying out. I looked older that way.

My husband Roy was in the clink again and without him around to pay the bills, the electric company had shut off our power, so I was staying at Elly’s, sleeping with her in the lumpy double bed while Freddie took the roll-out sofa. I didn’t know how we’d house the newest body—we were cramped enough as it was. January hit rough in east Dallas.

Elly’s beau, Freddie, let the boy in. He told us to call him Clyde and pulled a bottle of hooch from his coat pocket and mickeyed the cocoa just fine. It was as if I’d known him always. We spent the whole night bumping gums; Freddie got out his harmonica and we danced.

Clyde could cut a rug better than any of us and I flitted about like a canary. Bonnie birdy, my husband Roy called me. He probably had bluebirds and doves in mind, but buzzards are birds and so are vultures and hawks, birds with talons and sharp beaks, birds that scream. Roy knocked over a federal trust sometime last year, and I haven’t seen him in ages. I still wear his ring.

At some point Freddie and Elly were waltzing real slow and Clyde and I sat on the sofa, pin to pin. He set his hand right smack on my knee, right over the spot where I’d had me and Roy’s initials tattooed as a keepsake, before I learned just how sorry a single man could be.

“I bet you look like a right poodle under there,” he said. My hair was curly but he wasn’t talking about my head.

I didn’t blink, not then, not when he slid his fingers up my skirt and not when he picked up a gun two weeks later and shot a cop full of lead. I stayed in the car and flinched at the noise, but then Clyde came strutting back, flipping his cowlick back across his head.

“Get the camera, Bonnie,” he said. “You hold the beaner—careful now, don’t pull the trigger— and stick your foot up on the fender. Yeah, just like that.”

He snapped the shot and we were off again, rubber burning beneath us and fumes of dust in our wake. We left that dead policeman, and we left the Texas winter and drove into an Oklahoma spring, and when that car died we found a podunk farmer and stuck the pistol to his head and convinced him to let us borrow his automobile. When we were beat we stuck up a bank. When we were more than beat, we stuck up a different bank. We left ordinary things like fear and modesty behind us. We left things like boredom and poverty and my dumb husband. We left everything but each other.

“You got good peepers, Bonnie, you know that?” Clyde said to me one hot summer day in Georgia. He’d stripped down to his white undershirt, his big arms glistening with sweat.

I pinched his cigarette and took a drag, tossed it out the car window. My hair was frizzed to beat all in the humidity and I kept my cloche crammed low; I was damp everywhere. “You got a deformed foot, Clyde, you know that?”

He chuckled. He’d bribed his cellmate back as Eastham Prison to take an axe to his toes to shorten his sentence, something I learned through the daily novel-length letters he’d sent me. No matter where I was, the letters found me, telling me of his eternal love and how, together, we were unstoppable.

“All for you, Bonnie,” he said. “All for you. Why don’t you take your hat off, Birdie, and we’ll just take a little detour down this way.” Clyde steered us off into a shady grove. Bees buzzed in the peach trees. I was no stranger to a man’s touch—Roy had made sure of that—but Clyde was something else. He unlocked little parts of me I hadn’t even known were there, made me feel like Jean Harlow even when things got worse and we couldn’t rent a room for fear of being seen. Even then, when we washed with cold river water and slept in the dirt, Clyde would point out all the stars for me and whisper of all the riches we’d have.

The finest in everything, caviar for breakfast, a big fluffy purebred cat and a different car for every day. The party would never end, ever.

Clyde had been swigging on giggle juice all afternoon on the day the car flipped and tumbled, our guns bouncing in the backseat. The fire ripped my leg up and knocked Clyde sideways. I wanted a doctor, wanted anything to numb the pain—throbbing, a hundred sunburns and then some—but Clyde scooped me up and started running.

We hit Plattville, Illinois and Enid, Oklahoma. We hit Lucerne, Indiana, and went all the way up to Okabena, Minnesota. We swung through Ruston, Louisiana, and Alma, Arkansas. We roamed and robbed and kidnapped, killed if we had to. I’d never been happier, injury and all.

My leg never healed right, so the day he handed me the shotgun I limped a little. The diner door jangled when I walked in and told everyone to stay quiet. I swung the gun easy on my hip, let the girl behind the counter get a good whiff of the barrel. I told her to empty that cash drawer real slow, put everything in this satchel, and give me two bowls of gumbo to go.

I walked out with a bag of money and a bag of stew.

“Smells good,” said Clyde, and we gunned the engine and drove on down the road.

Now Clyde and I are miles away from that spot. We eat with one hand and hold each other’s with the other. We’re turning the car around to face the Cadillacs on our heels, and we’re reaching for the shotguns and pistols and anything that throws a bullet, but we’re not fast enough. In one blast Clyde’s dead against the steering wheel, blood as bright as whitewash all over the Ford’s fine seats. The windshield disappears and the car is swerving, but I don’t have time to do anything but scream and know it’s better this way. Clyde never loses his hair. Clyde never gets thrown back behind bars to rot away. He’s never sent to the hotsquat and fried. I never get fat and sad. My tits don’t go droopy and my face never wrinkles. I never go alone to Clyde’s headstone bearing a handful of lilies.

We never fall out of love.

The bullets hit us again and again, and somewhere someone is shouting because we’ve been got, we’re done, it’s over, and those guns pump and empty and fill us up with daylight and our bodies are riddled with gushing holes that won’t stop, and that’s how we die. We die quick and young and bloodied on a Louisiana road, somewhere between never and forever, and there we are together, together and dead, dead and together.

Rachel Richardson was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She now lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with a small dog, a large dog, and a midsized man. She lives online at www.rachel-richardson.com. “Murder Ballad” is one of 50 pieces that comprise her book STATE, currently seeking a home.

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