Read Some Gods of El Paso Online

Authors: Maria Dahvana Headley

Some Gods of El Paso

 

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They were healing the world, they figured, even though they lived in Texas.

You know the story. In the town where they'd both grown up, they could look across the river to Mexico. Both of them had seen cheapo Catholic candles lit in the bedrooms of people they'd worked on, and both of them had been called miracle workers.

Back in the beginning, Lorna Grant and Vix Beller were small time. They worked El Paso to Houston and down the Gulf Coast, him mostly on women and her mostly on men. For a while, they changed people's hearts and fixed people's minds. Then, because this was how things went in Texas, things got broken again.

This was after the government collapsed but before God and the law got forgotten. Lorna and Vix were both practitioners of the oldest profession, and found easy employment. Their techniques dated from the time of Christ, but roadside religions found them to be sinners.

By the time they finally met, late in '29, Vix Beller'd been chased by a mob with pitchforks, and forced to steal a car to put miles between himself and the town whose women he'd waked into wanting. Lorna Grant had been thrown into the back of a pickup truck with a bunch of lost girls destined for the border, but she'd stabbed the driver when he gave her water, took the wheel, and drove them all to a halfway house where she used some of her healing powers to make them whole.

Lorna'd been fucking like her cunt was a relic since she was sixteen. Vix had spent years doing the same thing, his cock like the True Cross, and the day they met, as the story goes, Lorna was walking out of some old boy's front door, carrying the sorrow of a wife that wouldn't, and Vix was walking out a door across the street, dragging a sack of a forty-three-year-old lady schoolteacher's rage at climbing the Leaning Tower of Pisa on a once-in-a-lifetime grand tour and feeling high lonesome the whole way up.

Lorna and Vix took one look at each other's burdens, and then, without discussion, Lorna poured Vix's out on the front lawn of the old boy, and Vix poured Lorna's on the potted plants of the teacher. Within a couple of minutes, the old boy and the schoolteacher, both relieved of their troubles, opened their front doors, and stepped out into the sun, glancing shyly, longingly at one another.

For their part, Lorna and Vix took a stroll down the street to put distance between themselves and the scene of their healing.

“Want to drink some hot chocolate with me?” Lorna asked Vix, giving him the once-over. He was carrying a lot of his own pain, which he didn't notice, because he was too busy carrying the anger of every woman he'd ever worked into a miracle. She thought there might be room for her to maneuver.

“I wouldn't say no. Want to go to a motel with me?” Vix asked Lorna, mapping the fury she glittered with. Her whole body was covered in things she didn't see, given her own burden of every miracle-ized man's blues. Her rage made him feel certain, along with the thought that he'd cure her of something of which she couldn't cure herself.

“I wouldn't say no to that, either,” said Lorna.

He strutted a little, and so did she. They both knew they were good at what they did.

Turned out, though, that once they drank that hot chocolate and got to that motel, they made love for ten hours, got starry-eyed, and merged burdens. Some people say they got married shortly thereafter by a justice of the peace they'd cured of his miseries, and other people say they didn't believe in marriage but did wear love tokens they'd had installed under their skin like shrapnel. Whatever the truth of it was, the two of them together were something to reckon with.

After that, everybody knew that Lorna and Vix came as a set. They got spotted at diner counters time to time, drinking coffee, tea, and lemonade, eating sandwiches just like regular folks, but Vix and Lorna weren't regular.

It was a myth, as Lorna and Vix already knew, that everyone who sorrowed longed specifically and only for joy. Many people wanted darker medicine. Prohibition of alcohol had created a countrywide yearning for other forms of depressant—though no one referred to alcohol as such—and by the time Lorna and Vix met, ten years into Temperance, everything to do with high and low had become illegal. People were supposed to be living in the middle, but nobody liked the middle. New cures for pain were being distilled in basements and bathtubs.

In secret dens in Manhattan, high rollers mixed powdered powerlessness with seltzer and drank it with a twist. In New Orleans, the drink that had formerly been bourbon punch got drizzled with barrel-aged despair, and backroom saloons poured it by the ladle-f. Most people cut rage into lines and snorted it, all to feel a little of the old days, the vigor and foolish giddiness that came just before a bar fight. There was glory in the knowledge that the price of wrath would be only a broken nose, not a broken country. A few people craved a mixture of different kinds of emotional disaster shaken up into a slurry, and that cost more.

Soon after they met, Vix and Lorna realized there was a sweet market in fenced emotion, and though they'd never done this before, they started dealing along with their healing. The miracle makers had an easy supply of raw materials for what half the country craved. They had particular access to desperate love, which was cut with rage and sorrow, and for which people paid extra. Desperate love could be shot into a vein.

Despite the shift in their business, Lorna and Vix still thought of themselves as mainly healers. They were taking pain away from people, after all, never mind that they were transporting it across state lines and selling it. On the way from a stopover to visit family in Florida, they drained the pain and rage from the hearts of ten or twenty normal people: a traveling saleswoman trying to get over losing her samples, a farmworker with a lost dog, a woman with a little son who looked too much like his daddy. Vix and Lorna sat naked on a motel-room bed and bagged that agony and fury up. They had big plans. They'd sell it in New York City, or maybe in Chicago. They got onto the Gulf Coast Highway, their Chevy loaded down with a few hundred grand in emotions.

A bullhorn popped out the window of a state patrol car outside Gulfport, Mississippi, and lights flashed in the rearview. Lorna pulled over.

“Whatcha got in that there?” said the trooper, and Lorna looked up at him and blinked.

“Somebody's child custody battle,” she said. “And an eighth of alcoholic spouse.”

“Looks like contraband, bagged up like that. What else you selling, gal like you? How about a freebie and I let you pass?”

Vix sat up from the backseat where he'd been napping.

The patrolman's pain ended up in a burlap sack, and Lorna hit the gas. Shortly thereafter, her face appeared on the TV news, all red lipstick and yesterday's mascara, because the trooper had been entirely made of pain and rage, and when they took it from him, there was only skin left, not even bones.

“Most folk's souls,” said Lorna Grant on the newsreel that got around, “are made of hurt.”

“And if they're not made of hurt,” said Vix Beller, “they're made of mad. Most folks don't got much else making them human.”

“We're providing a public service,” said Lorna, and then swiveled her hips for the camera of the cub reporter who'd happened upon the notorious two relieving a train conductor of the pain of the abusive brothers who'd put a snake in his bed back in Kansas, and a female passenger of the confusing memory of the one-off kiss she'd gotten from a beautiful stranger one night in New Orleans. “And we're not stealing. This is pay, fair and square, for services rendered. That officer threw his hurt at us. We took it from him. It's no crime.”

Vix let the reporter take their picture, Vix with his eyebrow raised, his biceps bulging out of his undershirt, and Lorna nestled there beneath his shoulder, looking at the camera too, a cigarette hanging out of her pout, her dress candy-striped and clingy. They drove off, Lorna in the passenger seat drinking pineapple juice with a straw, Vix pushing the speedometer faster than was legal, through torrential rainstorms and blinding sun.

After that, they'd sometimes cross into a new state and find a whole town pooling resources to buy a few hours of healing, a pile of pain already waiting for them, but by '34, the available sorrow and rage in America had begun to ebb, the market controlled by Lorna and Vix. That was when things went south.

Vix and Lorna started to leave on occasion with more than just pain, anger, and desperate love. Sometimes, they took happiness, too. Vix fell into the bed of a woman wanting to be rid of a childhood crime, and found himself departing with her college graduation day. Lorna made off with the coffee, cigarettes, and first love of a trumpet player who'd only wanted to forget the sadness of an instrument stolen on a train. They both staggered out of those bedrooms, wondering what they'd done, knowing that even though they'd had been given freely, memories like those were nothing that should've changed hands. They heard too many whispers, felt too many heartbeats. Pain and rage had dimmed the feelings of much of the country for years, and it was wearing off. Now the people who asked Vix and Lorna for healing sometimes didn't want anything more than a kiss from someone just like every other someone. People called for miracles, when all they really needed was a hand to hold.

There was a sheriff in Texas who developed a yearning for them both. His name was Sheriff Hank Yarley, and he was about to be retired. He was thin as an old razor and wore his medals shiny, and he formed himself a posse of gun-toting men, some of whom had had run-ins with the doings of Vix in particular. Deprived of wives, the men of the posse wandered around Texas like drained oilfields, all sputter and no spout. Their former wives looked pretty as prayer dust and lit grocery-store candles in their bedrooms, the face of sex-mad Saint Vix painted right there on each label for everyone to see.

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