Blue’s real name is Bluebelle if you can believe it, and Bent, his real name is Gerald Bentmeier, but everybody, including me has just always called them Bent and Blue. I’ve known Blue longer, the two of us were neighbors of a sort growing up in Twin Lake. Not that Twin Lake isn’t much more than a zip code with a stop light. And it ain’t Twin Lakes, although it seems like it should be, it ain’t. There’s one lake with a strip a land down the middle, so it’s Twin Lake. I know, it don’t make no sense to me either.
My dad works for the county Sheriff’s department and Blue’s dad owns a little farm and works at a bait and tackle store in town. I never could quite figure out how they paid for everything, but somehow they managed. Her mom was one of them mom’s that made everything by hand and shopped at the Salvation Army. I would help Blue milk their cow once in a while. My mom never did want me to drink the milk over there because it wasn’t pasteurized. She said it was unsanitary. I did it anyway. Blue never was sick much, so I figured it couldn’t hurt me any. I liked the way it tasted when it was super cold, all creamy and delicious, but truth be told it did smell a little like the inside of a barn.
Blue’s parents was really strict, though, so I didn’t go over as much as I would have liked to, but she had a horse and what kid can resist a horse? One day, we come back from riding a little late and Mr. Overton took off his belt and beat her right in front of me. It felt like Blue was looking straight through me as he whipped her, her eyes red and watery, but she didn’t cry. I think if she could a killed her dad right then and there, she might have. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood off to the side of the barn with my mouth shut and my hands in my pockets till he was done.
Blue and me went to Twin Lake elementary then rode the bus to the junior high together. That’s where we met Bent. Technically, I seen Bent first. He was in my homeroom, sitting right in front of me. Gerald Bentmeier, Laurie Crakowski, Sally Denton, Mike Erhlich. That was our row. Bent had a pony-tail which made him a stand out right from the beginning and it wasn’t some stupid trailer park mullet either. His hair was long, front and back. Long, black and shiny. He kept his hair clean, I’ll say that for him, even when things got real bad, and boy it don’t get no worse, but his hair was always beautiful.
By the time we were in high school, Mike E. and I was dating steady and Bent and Blue was practically engaged. Them two had some grand ideas when we was in high school. I guess we all did. Bent wanted to be a graphic artist and design album covers. That kid could really draw, too. He was always doodling, always coming up with something fantastical. He drew a picture a me once, in English class, on piece a notebook paper. My face is sideways, profile I guess, and my hair is streaming out behind me, and if you look real close you can see flowers and horses and trees and rabbits all hidden in the folds of my hair. I still have that picture; I have it framed and hanging on my wall.
Blue got pregnant our senior year and she was actually pretty happy about it. I’m sure Mr. Overton gave her a good beating the day she told her parents, but what could they do? They was way too religious to let her get an abortion, not that she would have wanted one in a million years, anyway. Bent was a different story. He had plans. He wanted to go to community college then maybe even go away to school. I don’t think he ever really thought that him and Blue would last past high school, but the baby changed all that.
The Saturday after graduation, me and Mike E. stood up for them at their wedding. Blue’s parents didn’t have no money, but Bent’s parents had a cottage up north, where they had the ceremony. Blue’s parents almost didn’t come because they weren’t getting married in a church, but then Blue’s dad said, what difference does it make, she’s already pregnant, and her mom agreed.
The ceremony was beautiful. They got married just as the bright orange sun-set slipped down behind the horizon, making the sky all pink and purple. It was a warm day for June and I got to wear a really pretty dress that Blue picked out for me. It was lime green chiffon and I wore flowers in my hair. Mike E. looked handsome too; he had a matching lime green cummerbund and bow tie.
Bent’s parents were pretty cool about the whole thing. Blue and him were going to live with them for a while until he had enough money saved up for a house. His dad even got him a job at the big foundry just south of Whitehall where he was a foreman. Them foundry jobs was hard to come by and Bent knew he was lucky to get it, even if his dad was the foreman, but still, it wasn’t what he wanted to do. Blue was just happy to get out of Twin Lake and off the farm.
I got a job at the Meijer’s in North Muskegon that summer, as a cashier and a couple of months after the baby was born, Blue got one too. Bent’s mom looked after little Tiffany while Blue was at work and seemed happy to take care of her grandbaby. Bent didn’t seem too happy though. At least that what I thought. Something was off, even back then, but whenever I would ask Blue about it she would just tell me he was tired, working overtime and taking care of the baby was a lot for a guy to handle.
“You don’t know how lucky you are Blue,” I said to her as we was driving to work. She looked at me funny, kind a wrinkled up her nose.
“Seriously, Blue. Lots a people would a just cut you guys loose. Bent’s parents are great.”
She shrugged. “I just can’t wait to have a house of our own. With both me and Jerry working, we should have enough money saved up in no time.”
After they got married, Blue started calling Bent Jerry. That was the name his parents called him by. Jerry. It just didn’t suit him, that’s all I can say about that.
That day always sticks in my mind I guess, because of what happened later. I was standing at my cash register, ringing people up, my mind wandering, thinking about how at 19 Blue was going to have a real home and family all her own, that things really were looking good for her. When it was time for us to go on break she grabbed me by the hand and pulled me from the front of the store, through the grocery and sporting goods, all the way back into the pharmacy.
“What are we doing back here?” Then I saw where we were standing. In front of the pregnancy tests. My stomach did a flip-flop. I knew I wasn’t pregnant. I may not be the smartest girl in the world but I know enough to take the pill. Blue stood there, smiling at me.
“Are you sure?” I shoved my hands into my apron and stared at my sneakers.
“Well, I’ll have to go to the doctor, of course, but I’m pretty sure.” She sounded happy.
“I didn’t think you could get pregnant this close after having a baby.” I couldn’t look at her. How could she be happy about this?
“It’s gonna be okay, Laurie, don’t worry. Jerry wants to have a big family. We talk about it all the time.”
I swallowed hard. “Blue, I don’t think Bent wanted to have two kids before he was twenty.”
She wrapped her arms around herself and stared at me, that same hard expression she had that day her dad whipped her. “You don’t know him the way I do, Laurie. He loves Tiffany and he’ll love this baby too.”
What could I do? She was my best friend—I had to be happy for her.
“Congratulations,” I said and gave her a big hug. “I’m sure you’re right.”
* * *
It wasn’t too long after Amber was born that Blue got pregnant again with Jerry, Jr. Bent started working nights at the foundry. The company had just gotten a big government contract and hired a bunch of guys and Mike E. got a job there too. Bent worked the graveyard shift, told Mike E. it was better money, and all but I figured he just couldn’t stand being in that house at night with one more kid. J.J., that’s what me and Blue called the baby, was a sweet one, but that Amber had a pair a lungs on her. Sometimes when I came to visit, I could hear her crying inside the house before I even got out of my car. I don’t know how Bent ever got any sleep. Mike and me figured that’s why he started drinking a little more than he used to. It must a helped him sleep.
Blue and me was in her kitchen, getting ready for Bent’s surprise birthday party. They moved into their house in Lakewood Club not too far from the foundry, just before Amber was born. It was a nice, cozy place, but a little too isolated for my taste. Blue seemed to love it, said it didn’t remind her of the farm at all. She quit her job at Meijers when she got pregnant with Jerry, Jr. Raising three kids was a full time job, she said and she worked hard to make the house nice for all a them.
Blue pulled the cake out of the oven and started whipping up the frosting. One good thing she learned from her mother was how to cook. She could make the best dinners out of practically nothing. I would bring her groceries sometimes, since I got a discount at Meijers and I’d buy her some clothes for the babies. Tiffany was almost five and getting ready for kindergarten in the fall. She was a pretty little thing, with long dark hair just like Bent and fierce green eyes like Blue. I told her I thought Tiffany was smarter than the both of us put together and Blue agreed.
I fixed me and Blue a drink, while Tiffany supervised the wrapping of Bent’s present, a real nice set of colored pencils with pastels and a big fancy pad of paper. Blue went all the way to Grand Rapids, to some ritzy art store for it, and I remember, because I was babysitting that day and Amber was sick.
We had another drink and I helped Blue make dinner. It wasn’t nothing fancy, but Bent’s favorite: fried chicken with potato salad and string beans. Mike E. was coming over and so were a couple of Bent’s friends from the foundry and his parents. I didn’t really know where Bent was, just that it was his day off and he was out.
By seven o’clock, everyone had been there already for an hour or so and still no sign of Bent. Blue said she wasn’t worried, but maybe she’d better go ahead and feed the kids. His mom made a few phone calls, but no one seemed to know where he’d gone off to. By nine the kids was in bed and the adults were starving. I never seen people eat so fast in all my life. Blue managed to save a plate for Bent and we didn’t touch the birthday cake. The beer was gone by eleven and so was most of the party. Me and Mike said we would go out and take a spin to some of Bent’s places, maybe we could find him and bring him home. Blue said she wasn’t worried, but I knew what she was thinking. Bent had another girl and was celebrating his birthday with her.
Mike and me got in his Camaro an headed up toward Whitehall. It was early April and starting to get warm during the day, but there were still clumps of dirty snow near the edge of the road and in the woods.
“Relax Laurie,” he said slipping his favorite Foreigner tape into the deck. “We’ll find Bent.”
I sunk a little lower in the seat, not convinced. “Do you know where he is?”
“No I do not,” said Mike. “Not for sure anyway.”
I sat up and fumbled in my purse for a cigarette. “Do you think he’s having an affair?”
Mike laughed again. “Come on Laurie, Bent? He don’t have the energy for the woman he’s got.”
I smiled and cracked open the window a bit. “I guess you’re right. You think he’s just out drinking or something?”
“Between you and me, he’s been acting a little weird lately. Last time we went bowling, I caught him mumbling to himself.” Mike shook his head. “Something about Jesus and the flames of eternity, but I don’t know what he was saying.”
“Did you ask him about it?”
“He just looked at me like I was the crazy one.”
I flicked some ash out the window and watched the spark as it danced along the dark road. “Maybe it’s the heat. He’s running the smelter now, ain’t he?”
“Who knows, Laur, who knows? Bent’s always been a little off.”
“Is that a nice thing to say about your best friend?” The cigarette turned sour in my mouth and I shoved the butt out the window.
“He ain’t my best friend. And it’s true, you know it.”
Mike swung the car through Whitehall, which is about four times bigger than Twin Lake, meaning it has four stop lights. Nobody was on the street. The Porthole was still open, so we stopped in there and had a quick beer, but no one had seen Bent all night. Mike and me weren’t sure where to go next and I’ll admit we was a little buzzed by this point. Mike got it in his head for some reason, to check out the Lake. I told him he was crazy. It was way too cold to be down on the beach. Bent had probably gone into Muskegon and if he had, we’d never find him.
“What can it hurt, Laur, it’s on our way back to Blue’s.”
I nodded and got in the car. We both decided that if he was at the beach in the middle of the night, he would probably be down by Duck Lake, which is this pond really, directly connected to Lake Michigan by a little channel. In the summertime, everyone wants to go there because the water is so shallow. It’s a whole lot warmer than Lake Michigan, but if you want to go sailing or something, the big lake is right there. I knew Bent liked it because there were some really great dunes along that part of the beach and he loved to draw them.
As soon as we rounded the bend, we seen Bent’s pick-up.
“Jesus, he is here,” Mike said.
The wind was whipping off the Lake and it felt like we might get one of them freak April snowstorms. I pulled my coat tighter around me, wishing I had my ski hat and gloves. Mike grabbed his flashlight from the trunk and set out across the dune. It didn’t take us long to find Bent. He was standing at the top of the dune, his arms spread wide, his shirt, shoes, pants and coat were piled in heap at his feet. His hair was loose and swirled around his head like octopus tentacles. I ain’t ashamed to say that I was scared. Even in the dark we could see that Bent had cut himself and there was blood trickling down his bare arms and chest. Mike was scared too, I could tell. Bent was talking to himself, and we couldn’t really understand what he was saying. I grabbed onto Mike’s hand, which he squeezed tight.
“Bent? Bent honey, it’s me Laurie.” We stopped a good few yards away from him. My voice felt tiny in the wind coming off the Lake. “Bent, it’s Laurie. Why don’t you let us drive you home?”
He turned his head and in the moonlight I could see that he was gone. Whatever had been left of Bent was now in a very far away place. Mike backed us up a few paces.
“Laurie, you need to go call your dad. Tell him we need some help.”
“I can’t leave you here.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Bent had turned away from us now and was staring back out at the water. His mumble was turning into a growl.
Mike shoved his keys into my hand. “Just go,” he said, pushing me a little harder than he intended I think, and I slid backward down the sand. My stomach felt like it was in my throat as I ran to the car.
I had to go all the way back to Whitehall before I found a phone. By the time I got my dad on the line I was crying pretty good.
“It’s Bent,” I said. “Dad he’s gone completely crazy. Me and Mike are out by Duck Lake and he’s cut himself…” I couldn’t finish. My dad took over, being a cop he knew exactly what to do. By the time I got back to the lake, there were cops from the county, the township and the state police all over the place. I waited by the side of the road and tried not to think about Mike being all alone out there with Bent. It wasn’t right—none of it. It took four cops, plus Mike to wrestle Bent to the ground and get the knife out of his hands. My dad put his arm around me as the state troopers drove Bent handcuffed at the wrists and ankles, to the hospital.
“I seen this a couple a times,” he said to me. “I ain’t a doctor, but it looks like schizophrenia to me.”
* * *
Well, my dad was right. Paranoid Schizophrenia with delusions of grandeur. Sounded to me like an English teacher I had in high school. Blue never did appreciate that joke too much, but I had to try and cheer her up somehow. I used to drive her to the state mental hospital in Traverse City where they had Bent locked up. He was real bad off. It took almost four hours to get there, so we didn’t go too much at first. Bent didn’t even recognize his own parents for a long time, but the doctors kept telling Blue that he would get better once the medication had a chance to take hold. Turns out Blue was waiting to tell Bent about another baby the night he went off the deep end. She never did tell him, only me and that’s because she wanted me to drive her to the abortion clinic in Grand Rapids. Said it was a birthday present she just couldn’t afford to give him right now. I think Mrs. Bentmeier knew what was going on, but she didn’t say nothing to Blue or me about it. She came over and made cookies with her grandkids while Blue and me were at the clinic. I don’t know what was scarier, that silent trip home from G. R. with Blue crying in the front seat of my car or seeing Bent all doped up like a zombie in a straight jacket. Life sure seemed to be taking a turn for the worse.
Bent was in the hospital for almost a year before they let him out. While he was away, me and Mike E. decided to get married. I’d dated a few other guys, but none a them was near as nice as Mike. They made me a head cashier at Meijer’s and me and Mike bought a little house not too far from my folks in Twin Lake. Blue went back to work at the Meijer’s and Mrs. Bentmeier watched the kids during the day.
Bent wasn’t really the same when he come home. He was tired all the time and slept a lot. The doctor’s said he was doing real good, but it didn’t seem like it to me or to Blue. He didn’t want to play with the kids, or go fishing or even draw anymore. Every time I went over to their house he was just sitting in the living room, in his bathrobe, watching TV and drinking beer. Which I’m sure he wasn’t supposed to be doing anyway. I felt sorry for him and Blue too, of course. She was working harder than she ever thought she’d have to, but what could she do? Bent’s disability checks would only go so far. Sometimes I would sit and talk to Bent about art and stuff when Blue was in the kitchen or with the kids. I was taking a class at the community college and could see how much talent Bent really had, but at that time, he didn’t seem too interested. Blue got plenty frustrated with him too, the way he sat around all day doing nothing. Everyone told her she should be patient and the doctor’s told her he would get better.
And he did, or so it seemed. After awhile he seemed to perk up some, not seem so moody. Him and Mike went out on Mike’s boat once or twice. They even took the kids and told everyone they had a grand time. Blue started getting that dreamy look in her eye again, and I told her she better not be thinking about having any more kids. It had been about eighteen months since Bent had his breakdown when he decided he wanted to go back to work. None of us was quite sure that was the right thing, but his dad got him a part-time shift on the smelter, which seemed to suit everybody just fine.
Maybe it was all them chemicals that messed him up in the end, or maybe it was the heat. I guess nobody’ll ever really know for sure. He just seemed to be doing so much better that it came as a real shock when Blue found him in the bathroom one night after work. She knew right where to go, because she could hear Amber wailing the minute she walked in the door, least ways that’s what she told me. The TV was on and so was every light in the house. Up in the bathroom, Bent had lit every candle he could find. J. J. and Tiffany were sitting on the edge of the tub in their underpants, their little hands tied behind their backs, sniffling. Amber was sitting on the toilet lid, her hands were tied too. Bent had shaved all of their beautiful little heads. Amber’s head was nicked and bleeding, that’s why she was crying so hard, I guess. He’d shaved J.J.’s eyebrows too. Blue freaked. Bent kept saying that the kids needed to be purified, first by water and then by fire or they wouldn’t be saved. Blue called the cops and had him arrested.
Turns out Bent seemed so much better ‘cause he’d stopped taking his medicine. Well, he seemed better until he snapped, that is. I don’t mean to be flip, but I don’t know how else to put it. They locked him up in the psych ward of the county hospital this time and forced the medication on him. Blue begged me to go with her to see him, for moral support. I hated seeing him like that, but I had to be there for Blue. She was my best friend.
Bent was in a locked ward and when they brought him in to see me and Blue, it looked to me like he’d been crying. He had on a floppy hospital gown and a dingy bathrobe. His feet must a been freezing, ‘cause all he had on them was flip-flops. He sat down across from us and stared hard at Blue. It was a long time before anybody said anything.
“Blue, I’m real sorry. I didn’t hurt the kids, did I?” He did look sorry, I thought, but I knew Blue had made up her mind.
“It don’t matter, Jerry.” Blue had her hands in her lap. I don’t think she could quite bring herself to look at Bent fully in the eye.
“What do you mean it don’t matter?” He leaned forward a little, his neck was red.
“It means you can’t come home,” she said, shaking her head. “I made up my mind.”
“Well, don’t I get a say? It’s my house too,” he said standing up. The orderly came over and placed his hand on Bent’s shoulder and he sat back down.
“That’s true. If you want me and the kids to move out, we’ll find a place, but we’re done.”
Bent’s head swiveled in my direction. “You put her up to this didn’t you, Laurie?”
“Me?” I sat back a little in my chair. “Nobody can put Blue up to anything, you ought to know that by now, Bent.”
“Don’t call me that!” He put his head down and pounded his fists on the table. “Don’t call me that. Don’t call me that.”
Blue and I both shoved our chairs back at the same time, we was so startled.
“You’re going to have to settle down, Mr. Bentmeier or your visit will be over.”
Bent’s eyes were red and kind a bulging out of his head a little, like he was trying not to cry. I didn’t want to upset him. I was sorry and I said so. He sat up straight and nodded to the orderly. Me and Blue kind a relaxed a little bit, but we was scared. Sorry and scared.
“I’ll call you Jerry, if you want me to,” I said finally.
“It’s the damn medicine. It makes me so groggy. I can’t draw, I can’t do nothing. I feel like I got a wet bag of leaves over my head.”
Me and Blue looked at him, not knowing what to say.
“Why can’t I just be normal again?”
Blue shook her head and reached for my hand. I could tell she wanted to cry real bad, but she was trying to hold it together for Bent.
* * *
Bent wasn’t in the hospital for too long this time. Once they got him back on his pills they let him out. While he was away, Blue had filed for divorce and sole custody of the kids. Mr. and Mrs. Bentmeier understood, but they wasn’t too happy about the whole situation. Bent had moved into their basement and could only see the kids when he was at his parent’s house. The kids really was afraid of him at first, which was totally understandable under the circumstances. I was a little afraid of him too.
Bent’s mom refused to believe that anything was really wrong with Bent. She cooked his meals and pampered him like a little kid. She would have made his bed and dusted his room too, except Bent went out and got a padlock for the door, saying a man had is right to his privacy. She acted like the whole problem was with Blue, that Blue had never been a good wife—that Blue’d never been good for Bent at all. That may have been true. I’ve thought, once or twice in my secret heart, that maybe Blue wasn’t no good for Bent, that she held him back by having all those kids. He never really had a chance to find his true self. But if I’m honest, I know that ain’t totally right. It wasn’t Blue’s fault Bent got sick and shaved his kids’ heads.
Things seemed to settle down for a while. Blue started seeing Mike E.’s cousin Fred, a real cute college boy from Grand Haven. Bent would call her once in a while, in the middle of the night, she said and then hang up. Mike said he was still working at the foundry, but only part-time and that everyone there kind a kept their distance, even though Bent’s dad was the foreman. I thought about Bent a lot in those days, but I never did go see him. I’m not really sure why.
It was around Christmastime when Fred said he wanted to take Blue skiing up at Boyne. Blue asked me to watch the kids for her, but Bent’s mom wanted to take them for the holiday. Mrs. Bentmeier didn’t much approve of Fred and Blue, or of me, even though I was finally expecting my first one later that year. Blue was a little nervous about leaving the kids overnight, but she trusted Mr. and Mrs. Bentmeier. She knew they loved their grandkids, even if they had no use for her anymore.
Blue kissed them kids good-bye on a snowy morning, the day after Christmas, and left with Fred to go skiing. How it all really happened, I don’t think we’ll ever really know for sure. Turns out Bent’d been flushing his pills down the toilet, and not even his mother knew it. You can’t look at that woman now, I’ll tell you what. She aged twenty years in a day, can’t look nobody in the eye when she passes them on the street.
Seems Bent told his parents that he needed to go out for a bit, pick up some stuff at the grocery, maybe get a few supplies at the new art store down in Muskegon. Bent’s dad didn’t think nothing of it. Bent spent a lot of time drawing during his breaks at work. They all thought it was therapeutic. His parents swear up and down that he was fine when he left the house, but I don’t believe them. I don’t believe them one bit. It had been quite a while since the hair shaving incident and the kids, like kids do, had forgotten all about it. Mrs. Bentmeier had them all wound up on Christmas candy and cookies and Amber, as usual, was sick. Tiffany and J.J. decided they wanted to go for a ride with their dad, and for some reason, everyone thought that would be okay.
Bent strapped them into the back seat of his dad’s Ford and drove to the foundry. Mike was working that day with a skeleton crew, because of the holidays and all. They was mostly just cleaning up, working in the front of the foundry. Mike didn’t think nothing was wrong, didn’t hear Bent or the kids come in the side door, until they heard motor on swing arm to the smelter fire up. As soon as they heard that, they dropped what they was doing, which Mike don’t even remember now, and ran to the smelting room.
Mike and his crew found Bent staring into the furnace flames with that same faraway look on his face that he had that night on the dune.
“The children have been purified by fire,” Bent said. Mike told me he was smiling and crying at the same time. “They are safe. Nothing can hurt them now. Not even me.”
No one ever thought in a million years that Bent could ever really hurt his kids, medication or not, but it seems we was all wrong, about everything. Bent had put his kids in the smelter and turned the furnace on. It was all over for them in less than thirty seconds. They had to do tests on the ash left in the bowl to prove what he done, that he hadn’t stashed them someplace, or done something else. The whole county was sick about it. Mike couldn’t go back to work. He felt responsible, like he could a stopped Bent from doing it, but we all know that ain’t true. It’s too bad Bent didn’t burn himself up. It’s mean to say something like that, I know, but everybody would a been a lot better off, especially his kids.
My dad told me that when the police searched Bent’s room at his parent’s house that he’d painted some kind of fantastical mural on the walls. Giant red flames rose from the floor to the ceiling and according to my dad, intertwined in them flames was all kinds of stuff you couldn’t see in the pictures they printed in the paper. There were skeletons and ghosts and saints and all kinds a animals. Dad said that if the whole thing hadn’t been so sickening, the mural might have almost been beautiful.
Blue wasn’t never the same. The only time she lets Amber out of her sight is when the kid is at school and even then she picks her up and drops her off everyday. I don’t really blame her. I hold on to my little one a little tighter than I should probably, but I can’t help myself.
Michigan don’t have the death penalty, but plenty of folks around here sure thought they should a made an exception for Bent. He knew he was dangerous when he didn’t take his pills, but he did it any way—in the eyes of the law that makes him responsible, and I have to say that I agree.
Mike got a job working in a lumber yard as a manager. Doesn’t pay as good as at the foundry, but he likes being outside, he says and away from the smelter. Our kid’s about three years old now, and he loves to draw. Mike don’t much care for that and hates it when I put the pictures up on the fridge, but I do it anyway. I love Mike and I love our kid. When Mike ain’t home, I get out the pastels and paper that Blue gave me after Bent went to prison, and me and Mikey Jr., sit on the floor and draw and draw and draw.