:: Article

The Seduction of Soledad Bay

By Douglas Glover.

Picture by Penny Bernstein

Soledad Bay was born in Ragged Point and she kept on living in Ragged Point despite all the tragedy that happened, even after they wrote about it in the papers and the pictures went up on the Internet and Fox News reported the facts to the nation. Her father was a special ed teacher at the high school. She has a sister six years younger who lives in Hackensack with a commodities broker named Phelps Putnam (though neither of them comes into the story). Both her parents are deceased.

Soledad’s childhood was unremarkable except that she got her height early and had a tendency to look down on people which made her unlikeable. She was tall and skinny, and then suddenly she was statuesque and startlingly buxom, which she hid under baggy sweatshirts with college names like Ole Miss and Millsaps. She wore glasses with pink frames and rhinestones to make herself plain. She rarely talked to boys or anybody else for that matter except her best friend, an African-American girl named Yolanda Bliss and Yolanda’s little brother, the middle school basketball phenom. She mostly read young adult novels and romance books with pictures of women and horses on the cover and did easy crossword puzzles at the back of teen magazines and stared dreamily out the window in every class except stitchery. Her English teacher Harlan Dredge, who evidently had a crush on her despite being in possession of a 23-year-old wife and six-month-old twins at home, said she was “mysterious” and “opaque.”

When her senior prom came along, Soledad surprised everyone by showing up with Thad Rance, the Ragged Point High School Sharks’ second-string quarterback and heir to the Rance’s Menswear store on Water Street. For once Soledad shed her habitual sweatshirt, appearing in a strapless vermilion party dress with a loose bow between her breasts and a slit up the back. (Harlan Dredge, who was a chaperone that night, said she looked like “a Christmas present wrapped too tight and ready to pop.”) Thad Rance brought a bottle of Stoly to the dance and one on ice in a cooler in the car, some weed, and some Xanex he stole from his mother’s handbag. To anyone who was watching, it seemed Soledad was bent on her own destruction. She danced with heedless abandon, throwing her head back as Thad kissed her throat under the flaming disco light, clasping him in her thin arms, her face flushed dark with desire.

Nine months later, Soledad bore an eight-pound, five-ounce daughter she kissed once and put up for adoption. In her mind Soledad named the girl Rachel Rance, but the hospital called the child Baby Bay, and when she was adopted by a couple named Niedermeyer in Plaquemines Parish in the Delta, the girl became Francesca Trapper Niedermeyer. After the birth, Soledad found a job as a checkout girl at the Rite-Aid in the strip mall just before the sewage lagoon at the edge of town, where the pharmacist, name of Waylon Tilts, had a crush on her, especially as she seemed so vulnerable despite her beauty and air of inner calm. Most days she sat behind the counter, chewing gum, writing post cards to Yolanda, who was at college in the North, and reading adult romance novels she bought at Barnes and Noble in Biloxi.

Briefly, Thad Rance went a little crazy, drinking more than usual, complaining to anyone who would listen at the Mermaid Marina & Country Club bar that he was in love with Soledad Bay, that she had seduced him, put a spell on him, and then shut him out of her life “for no known reason” despite the fact that he had given her a child which he sometimes called “the fruit of my loins” when he was drunk. He made a nuisance of himself telephoning Soledad at all hours and hanging around the Bay house (cinder block ranch with a pink gravel lawn, a palmetto hedge and a cabbage palm bending over the porch) until Soledad’s parents took out a restraining order on him. Then he smashed his car twice (not the same car), attacked an African-American golf caddy named Chase with a three iron over a dropped ball altercation, pursued a tempestuous fling with the daughter of a Vietnamese crab fisherman named Nguyn (who ended up taking out a restraining order on him), and married a 17-year-old junior named Nellie Whittaker who did not know what she was getting into.

Sixteen years later, Francesca Trapper Niedermeyer stabbed Thad Rance to death with a steak knife in a Surf n’ Turf off the interstate outside of Biloxi. Then she ripped his shirt open and cut out his heart (deft and sure — she had read up on it in a surgery manual prior to tracking her father down). In the ensuing confusion, Francesca managed to slip away with the heart in a styrofoam takeout container, flag down a passing trucker, and find her way to Ragged Point where she delivered the heart to Soledad Bay in her kitchen (blue Delft patterned tiles, copper pans hanging from the ceiling rack, oak wine rack against the wall, her husband’s statue-of-David BBQ apron hanging from a peg). Soledad gracefully thanked the girl, put Thad Rance’s heart in the freezer (“just in case,” she said later), telephoned Sheriff Buck, and made Sleepy Time tea in her favourite elephant spout tea-pot. This is the part that got into the newspapers.

At this time Soledad was married to Harlan Dredge, her former high school English teacher. It was the second marriage for both. What happened between times is not really part of this story; a few salient details will suffice. Harlan Dredge had never been able to get past his infatuation with Soledad Bay, the more so since he felt responsible for what happened to her that night sixteen years before (on account of his being a chaperone). As he watched Soledad wax with pregnancy, he had imagined that it was his love child she carried. She had never seemed more beautiful and, in his mind, “poetic.” When she gave up the baby, he saw her as a romantic heroine trapped in the grip of social agendas not of her own making. To him she looked melancholy, virginal, and wise (he did not use the word “vacuous” until later, after they were married).

Harlan’s estranged ex-wife, the former Estelle Slack, also a former student, lived across town (eleven and a half blocks — Ragged Point is not a metropolis despite what the tourist ads say) in the brick-and-frame hybrid Colonial on the fairway at the Mermaid Marina & Country Club course with their four children, the twins, Sue Ann and Sophronia, Rusty, and Zack, the baby. Soledad’s estranged ex-husband Waylon Tilts lived in a gated pod community in a Spanish moss and cottonwood grove over-looking the Gulf of Mexico and the country club, and every weekday at 4 p.m. (weekends at 6 a.m.) you could see him driving his golf cart along the bicycle path from his house to the first tee. Sometimes he would stop at Estelle’s deck for a cocktail and sigh and say how he was a lonely man who loved children and didn’t they have a lot in common, to which Estelle nodded though she could plainly see that all they had in common were two ex-spouses co-habiting across town. Soledad thanked the Lord she had not had children with Waylon Tilts because he liked to look at teeny porn on the Internet. She called the trees around his house cottonmouths.

When Sheriff Buck arrived with eight squad cars and an armored personnel carrier, a water canon mounted on top, Soledad met him at the oak veneer door with her finger to her lips and said, “Shhh. She’s sleeping.”

Sheriff Buck said, “I reckon the SWAT Team can stand down then.”

“It wasn’t murder, Clarence,” said Soledad. “It was a mistake.”

“What do you mean it was a mistake?”

“You know how it happens,” said Soledad, looking past Sheriff Buck’s shoulder at the men climbing back into the armored vehicle. “You think something is a real good idea and then after a while you see it wasn’t. So then it’s a mistake.”

Sheriff Buck had never admitted to himself until that moment how much he was in love with Soledad Bay who was no less than twenty-five years his junior and had once babysat his two youngest while he and Maybelle attended a Glen Campbell concert.

“Where is the heart?”

“In the freezer.”

“I will have to take it.”

“What for? His wife will want it back. I’m afraid you’ll lose it.”

After the inquest, the trial and the divorce, the reporters, interviewers, and TV producers, the Internet trolls, bus tours, and car loads of degenerate voyeurs, after everything had calmed down, Soledad Bay went north to visit her friend Yolanda Bliss and get away so she could think about things. Evidently, aside from general feeding frenzy, Sheriff Buck had lost his mind entirely and was texting her 89 times a day on questions pertinent to the investigation. He had her under surveillance, which meant most nights he slept in his car outside the house. He also fetched her dry cleaning and brought her takeout Chinese from Wong’s Wings and personally escorted her to visitations at the jail. It was rumoured that his wife Maybelle was filing for divorce naming Soledad Bay as a correspondent. This was not the first time Soledad had been named as a correspondent in a divorce case. Once she turned to a judge and said, “Your Honour, I wish I had slept with that girl’s husband. He looks nice, and I hate to disappoint everyone. But you all are just set on making out that my life is more interesting than it is.

Yolanda taught Black Studies at her college in D.C. She and Soledad drank Pink Slippers and laughed about how Yolanda’s accent had changed and how white men called and asked her for meetings to discuss diversity initiatives. They made jokes about how they would open a bar in town called Diversity Initiatives where the races could meet, get wasted, and initiate things. Once Yolanda’s little brother drove up from Baltimore on what turned out to be a bad night for Yolanda who had to grade papers. He and Soledad watched old game tapes till she fell asleep. Then he turned the sound off and kept watching.

This was Asia Minor Bliss, the little boy who trailed around after Soledad and Yolanda through grade school then sprouted into a six-foot-nine bean pole and played point guard for three years at Georgetown. Subsequently, he spent a decade in Dusseldorf playing pro ball and writing a book called Blissed Out about growing up tall and black in a racially divided Southern town. Blissed Out was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year on account of its strong stand against racism and white people, which reviewers found “surprising” and “refreshing.” No one in Ragged Point had ever paid much attention to Asia Minor because he was black and awkward and wore safety glasses when he played like Lew Alcindor. At the back of the book there is a photo of Asia Minor and his sister Yolanda in ninth grade playing Sharks and Minnows in the driveway with a gawky, unidentified white girl in an Ole Miss sweatshirt.

Soledad Bay took her share of the community property settlement with Harlan Dredge and bought the cinder-block ranch with pink gravel lawn where she had grown up. With a sigh of relief, she went back to work at the Rite-Aid. The pharmacist now was a black woman name of Philodendra McIntosh who found a kindred spirit in her new employee. They exchanged romance novels twice a week, enrolled in water color classes at the college and had a standing Wednesday night girls-night-out date for wings and margaritas at Pepita’s, the new place on Water Street. Every Friday afternoon Soledad visited her daughter at the state facility in Huntsville where they became close friends and confidantes.

Harlan Dredge moved to Biloxi where he is teaching ninth grade English again and dating women half his age who do not know about his past. Lately, his social life has fallen off on account of Estelle, his first wife, attaching his salary for back child support. Mostly he stays home, watching Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn films with the sound off, drinking Old Crow and using the Bible to write clever erasure poems about faithless women, which he posts on Facebook and reads out at the Gulf Shore Men’s Consciousness Raising Open Mic nights. Here is one gem from the Book of Revelation.


Waylon Tilts was arrested for exposure but released when the two teenage girls involved refused to testify. Both girls came into sudden inheritances and were able to buy matching Honda CRXs for when they got their permits. Waylon soon sold his cottonwood house at the country club and also moved to Biloxi, which has become the refuge and hideout for the ex-husbands of Ragged Point, who see it as a source of Tinder dates who are not all in the same eighth grade cohort.

It is rumoured around town that neither Waylon nor Harlan had ever been able to get over Soledad Bay, that she had some kind of voodoo influence over men. No one above a certain age could get the image of Soledad Bay and Thad Rance dancing at the prom out of their minds, her red dress, her head thrown back in ecstasy, her air of abandonment, and Thad’s feverish lust. We all remembered it. Soledad had been bent on destruction and people were afraid for her. But with the passage of time we constructed the image differently. Soledad’s wildness, so uncharacteristic, seemed ripe with sadness and desperation. Yet her eyes were calm and determined.

That spring after the school year was over in DC, Yolanda and Asia Minor flew down from the north for a visit. They stayed at the Biloxi Holiday Inn and rented two cars (they have plenty of money and Asia Minor prefers ragtops for the head room), which were mostly parked at the edge of Soledad’s pink gravel lawn against the palmetto hedge. Sheriff Buck, driving by on his appointed rounds, made note of the three figures caught in the garage light, laughing and shooting hoops long into the evening. They looked like gawky teenagers, the sort who had no friends outside of their little misfit group. They wore baggy sweats and t-shirts and were totally at ease with one another. He did not recall ever seeing Soledad Day shoot hoops before.

On his tenth drive-by, Sheriff Buck noted the three individuals seated on Soledad’s front porch Wal-Mart wrought-iron garden bench, one of the three looking like a grasshopper with his long legs and arms folded up. They were smoking cigarettes and sipping from tall plastic juice glasses, and with his windows open, the sheriff could hear the rise and fall of their soft voices and the ripple of laughter. The man’s laughter was deep and unrestrained; Soledad would say something, then the other two would burst out. The black woman was fat, her skin gleamed in the garage light. The man was tall, taller than necessary, Sheriff Buck thought, and Soledad, also tall, seemed especially attentive when he spoke, as if he spoke in whispers inviting her to lean in to hear him.

On the 13th drive-by, Sheriff Buck spied a Crab-Axle Taxi cab delivering take-out from Pepita’s. On the 18th drive-by, at 1 a.m., Soledad and the tall black man were out in the driveway parking pad again, shooting hoops. On the 19th and 20th drive-by, they were standing under the hoop, tossing the ball back and forth, talking. Next time, the tall man was squatting on his hams, twirling the ball on a finger tip, peering up at Soledad’s face as she spoke, so the sheriff thought, earnestly and intently.

The sheriff pulled over, at the verge of the pink lawn, telling himself he was concerned for Soledad’s well-being, disturbed that she would put herself in a compromising position. His divorce was almost final; only his druggy rapper grandson Milton, on probation, would speak to him. At night he went to sleep imagining Soledad Bay curled up next to him, an image poignant and comforting in its impossibility. Like other men before him, the sheriff had discovered that falling in love with Soledad Bay had given his life an urgency and focus it had never had before.

Soledad turned and waved; the tall man peered through his thick glasses, smiled, and waved. Sheriff Buck thought he remembered a lanky teenager jumping for a three-pointer on the Ragged Point High School gym floor years ago. Something tugged at the back his mind, an unspoken question, an enigma. Like all of us, he loved the mystery of Soledad Bay, and equally, when he thought about it, did not want to solve the mystery. I think he feared most of all that the truth might not live up to expectation and that his life was better for not knowing.

The next day Sheriff Buck called the state facility at Huntsville and found, as he had expected, that Soledad Bay and a man named Asia Minor Bliss had spent an hour that morning with Francesca Trapper Niedermeyer, the murderer. He drove by the Bay house in the afternoon and rang the door bell. Soledad had a paperback book in her hand and reading glasses on a gilt chain perched on her nose, a sign of age that all but tripped the sheriff before he could speak. She smiled in a friendly way, welcoming, but also twinkling with some precocious knowledge of whatever he had in mind, though he was damned if he knew what was on his mind.

“You want me to make you a julep, Clarence?” she asked leading him in.

“Your friends gone back north?” he said. He took the recliner that used to belong to her father and awkwardly placed his cap on the floor.

“Nah, just out, touring the ghetto. They got kin and places to visit.”

“We don’t have any ghetto in Ragged Point.”

“I mean those houses down by the sewage lagoon where all the black people live,” said Soledad. “They call that the ghetto.”

“I never heard that,” said the sheriff. But in her clever eyes he could see she knew he was lying. “I don’t want to argue. I didn’t come to argue. I’m tired and not feeling so great.”

“I know you didn’t come to argue, Clarence. When they come back I will introduce you. I think you’ll like them.” Soledad looked out the front window at the cabbage palm fronds dangling over the porch roof. She was thinking about her parents, how kind they were without ever understanding what had happened. She was holding two juleps, and now she handed one to the sheriff.
“I’m tired, too,” she said. “It’s been an eventful day.”

“I guess it has.” He took a drink, lay his head against the back of the chair, shut his eyes, and, without warning, fell asleep. At first, he was surprised to be asleep, which in itself is a surprising thing. Then he started to dream about Francesca, the murderer. In his dream she wore her hair in cornrows. She said something he could not recall afterwards, but he knew instantaneously that she was the clearest, sweetest soul he had ever met. When he woke, Soledad was stretched on the fouton couch opposite, reading her paperback, one hand caught in the hair behind her head, car doors slamming shut in the driveway. She let her book drop and peered over her glasses at him.

“Don’t try to figure it out,” she said. “I gave up trying to figure it out years ago. Let it come, I say.”

“I feel like things are changing,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

“Does that bother you, Clarence?”

“No. Nuh-hunh. It’s going to be better. I don’t know why I feel that.”

The house seemed especially silent just before the doors opened and Yolanda and Asia Minor swept in with fresh tales of ancestral outrage and comedy.

“I feel the same,” said Soledad. “Whatever happens next is going to be a total surprise, just the way everything up till now has been a total surprise, only this time I’m ready.” She picked up his empty julep glass and nested her specs in her hair. “Maybe you should stay for dinner with us, Clarence. Would you like to stay?”

 

Douglas Glover by Amber Homeniuk

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Douglas Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, three books of essays, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. Between 2010 and 2017, he was the publisher and editor of Numéro Cinq.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 17th, 2021.