“Some Gods of El Paso” by Maria Dahvana Headley is a short fantasy story of a couple on the run from the law for stealing and illegally trading in strong emotions in 1920s US.
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-full. 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.
Sheriff Hank Yarley’s own wife had gone on the run, driving her mother’s car clean across Louisiana to see if she could get her gaze on Vix Beller, and when she came back, she was no longer in love with the sheriff. Yarley wanted to repossess her love and fury (in her, they were one thing) and feed it back into her mouth by the spoonful, but it was with all the rest of the stolen emotions, in the trunk of one of Vix and Lorna’s stolen cars. He aimed to get it back.
He pulled strings, and Vix Beller and Lorna Grant got declared Public Enemies, with a cash bounty of ten thousand dollars dead or alive. They’d been small-time celebrities before, but now they were fully famous. Every newspaper south of the Mississippi showed their portrait under the headline Cold-Blooded Healers. Their pretty faces decorated post office walls.
They were in the process of forming a gang back then, and they’d attracted a few boys and girls, but nobody could kiss like Vix, and nobody could caress like Lorna. When Yarley began his pursuit, they dropped their extras off somewhere near the shipyards in Port Arthur and kept right on going. The gang wannabees resented it, but what could they do? They were out of anger and out of woe. Vix and Lorna had taken it all.
Lorna and Vix were turned away from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Mexico, but the locals warned them in Louisiana, where the trade in emotions ran high. A shipment of cold rage they’d brokered from Colorado got loaded into a steamboat out of New Orleans and shipped through the Gulf. There was room reserved on the boat for Lorna and Vix, but with that bounty on their heads, they had to get out of town quick and missed their chance at disappearing into international waters. Half their load of blues went missing in Lubbock, and it got cut with who knew what. Both of them wondered, but they had no time to check it out, and so off it went, black-marketing itself into the mouths of people they’d never met.
They holed up in an old house in the Texas panhandle, but they were compromised by locals suspicious of their activities. Folks came walking down the road, drawn to them like rats to pipers, and after a few hours, the two of them bagged up the final remnants of North Texas’s pain and anger and stowed it in the storm cellar.
When Sheriff Hank Yarley and his posse came down the drive, their line of cars bucking over the ruts in the dirt road, Vix and Lorna were heading out the back, driving across a field. By the time Hank Yarley took a fruitless run into a corn maze, his rifle flailing, his shoes full of dried-up kernels, their taillights were the only thing keeping him vertical. He shot a few times at the red lamps, swearing.
Back at the safe house, he found his posse scooping at a stash of sorrow with silver spoons from the kitchen. All of them looked up at him and pretended they were seeking their specific wifely sorrows, as opposed to getting high on the stolen sadness of strangers.
“That’s evidence you’re eating,” Sheriff Yarley said, ignoring the way the sorrow drifted on the air, trying not to inhale more than he could help. The two criminals had sucked the South dry and left blankness in their wake. Every town had addicts now and new problems created by lost love, it seemed to Yarley. Houston was full of people shooting rifles out their car windows and swearing that if only they had Vix and Lorna, they’d behave themselves. Up at the other end of the state, there were misery-mongers making profit on third-hand sadness sold from the duo’s scrapings and then cut with sand and cigarette ashes.
Lorna and Vix didn’t love the people they healed, and that was the part Yarley resented most of all. They loved only each other. Someone out in Hollywood was already making a movie about them, and in it, Sheriff Yarley had heard, there was a scripted moment in which he was personally mocked for being unable to lay down the law on the two unabiders.
One of the deputies looked up, his eyes glazed with tears.
“This here’s some good, good shit, boss,” he said.
Beside him, another deputy savored a spoonful of shame, licking it up like sorghum.
“Be careful of that,” Yarley said. “I heard a boy out in San Antonio came upon some of this last batch of sad, and whatever they’d cut it with made his legs go limp. Lorna and Vix sent some shit to a dance hall in Lubbock. People out that way drag their feet now.”
Yarley made a phone call, and then another, looking at the map.
Out on the highway a few hours later, Vix and Lorna sped through the night, the backseat full of sacks of small misdemeanors, the secrets of teary-eyed preachers and of ladies in torn slips, the church-hatted whispers of the elderly. Lorna was wearing sunglasses in the dark, and Vix stroked her thigh, pushing her dress up past her garter.
“You know I love you, gal,” said Vix.
“Love you too, boy,” said Lorna.
“What are we going to do?” said Vix. “Looks like they’ve postered up the Midwest with our faces and places.”
“We could go to Mexico,” said Lorna. “Or Canada. We could hit Niagara Falls? Or get ourselves smuggled onto a ship and take it to South America? We could head out west, see if we could make it to California?”
Behind them, there were headlights. A mass of them, as many as there were stars. Looked like all of Texas had hit the highway, following Lorna and Vix as they tried to flee. There were intermittent gunshots.
“I’m about ready to hang it up, Vix,” said Lorna. “I’ve been working since I was sixteen. Sometimes I feel bad about the work I’ve been doing. It ain’t all of it right.”
“You and me both, kid,” said Vix. “I’m getting tired of all this God. Maybe we’re messing with the fate of the forlorn. Maybe nobody oughta pray to people like us.”
Lorna squeezed his fingers.
“I ever tell you about the time I brought a boy back from the dead?” she said.
“You know you didn’t,” Vix said, and smiled at her. “You know everything you ever told me and everything I ever told you. I’ve got you memorized, but you still have some secrets.”
“Bet you do too. This was a few years before I met you. I came upon him right after he hung himself up. I cut that boy down and kissed him on the mouth, and there he was, resurrected. I took his sadness from him, and he gasped his way back into the land of the living. I’ve still got his batch of blues in my purse, and time to time, I catch my finger on them.”
“I know the ones,” said Vix. “Those are the sads shaped like a pocketknife.”
“Couple years later, that boy was dead again, this time in the car with the engine on, his soul filled with tired instead of sad, and so I kissed him and took that away, too. He opened his eyes and saw me looking at him, and said, ‘Honey, just let me go. There ain’t no good place for me on this whole Earth, and I done my time.’ That’s the boy I married, twice risen, thrice dead. It turns out that people have to go their own way. I buried him in our backyard under a shade tree.”
Vix gave her a look that said everything he’d ever loved about her, and she looked back at him, her eyes full.
Lorna held his hand hard. “I wouldn’t mind settling down somewhere pretty. Seashore. I wouldn’t mind stopping this healing business.” She looked at him. “But I never did take your pain away.”
“I never took your anger,” said Vix. “Figure you had uses for it. I like the ocean too. Town with nobody. Clapboards and a porch. Hot chocolate, me and you, some torches lighting the path down to the beach. We could get a dog and a hammock. Listen to a record player late at night.”
“We could count the stars,” said Lorna. “Maybe write a book.”
“Sometimes, we’d sit and look out at the waves, and just do nothing at all,” Vix said, and kissed her fingers.
“Do people like us ever retire?” asked Lorna. She was twenty-eight and in her healing prime. It’d gotten so when she walked down a street, everyone turned to look, and automatically gave her every dark emotion they’d been carrying. Vix was the same. Two weeks before, he’d been followed down a main street by a couple dozen women, all of whom later resented him. At a post office in the panhandle, he stood next to his own face on a most wanted poster and let a bunch of people take his photograph. Lorna’s dress had gotten torn off in a crowd, and now people sold the scraps for souvenirs, all snipping little threads from little threads. Lorna had a new dress, but she still felt bad about the whole thing.
“We can retire if we want to,” Vix said. “Change our names and stop being Public Enemies. They can’t put us in jail. Can’t have a jail without sorrow and anger. Whole thing would fall down.”
“They could kill us,” said Lorna, and snorted. “That sheriff.”
There was a bullet hole in their back left tire, and they could hear it hissing out air. Headlights were approaching from all directions. They were the tent of the revival. They were miracle makers in the middle of a field. They were healer dealers, and they were tired.
“Or we could kill him,” said Vix. “What’ve we got in the backseat, Lorn?”
Vix’s eyes were on the rearview.
“About a kilo of that straight shit from El Paso. I don’t know what was going on there last week, but everything they wanted to be healed of is bagged up. They wanted to forget it ever happened. I threw it in just in case. Thought we might mix it half and half with the sad from Juarez, sell it like that.”
Vix pulled the car over, and Lorna looked at him.
“Strong stuff,” he said. “Good to know. Open that sack.”
Behind their car, Sheriff Hank Yarley crept around in a ditch, belly flat to the ground, rifle strapped to his back, bowie knife in his teeth. The headlights of the mob approached the two most wanted. He’d called out all the cops and righteous volunteers from the border, and they converged on Lorna and Vix, stars in their eyes, bounty in their hearts.
Lorna’s long arms lifted the sack onto the roof of the car and she ducked, and that was when Yarley started shooting.
The sack was intact for a moment and then it was perforated.
White dust spun out into the night and into all the parked cars. Men and women were aiming rifles and pistols, aiming darts and clubs and arrows, aiming cameras and holding lanterns, and all of them inhaled.
On his belly, Sheriff Hank Yarley took a deep and accidental breath, and what he breathed was pure, desperate love, cut with nothing. It was burning, scalding, lost and found. Once he took one breath, he had to take another and another, and in a moment, all the people in the mob were choking on it, upending on it, overdosing on it, because too much love was like too much anything.
The seizure of love went through all of Texas, rattling the ground and making strangers fall hard into each other’s arms. This was love that took the South and drenched it, and up over the land, a storm of heat and heart took the dirt off the desert. People died of love, writhing on kitchen floors and kissing in traffic, and other people just caught a whiff of it and lived the rest of their lives looking for more. For ten years after, the people in Texas were different than they’d been. The borders opened wide and the river was full of folks from both sides being baptized with tongue. You know the story. You remember those years when everyone forgot who they’d been hating. You remember the drugstores full of nothing but lipsticks and soda pop. The world’s past that now, though. That time’s long over.
People say that Lorna and Vix stood up from the scene of that last great crime, grimy and gleaming. People say that when they came out of that car, there were fifty bullet holes in the doors and windows, but that Lorna Grant and Vix Beller walked away unscathed. Maybe they went to the seashore. Maybe they went to South America. Maybe they’re dead now, or maybe they’re old folks healing people’s cats, dogs, and parakeets in some faraway city. Sheriff Yarley went on to start a charismatic church, exposed to the great light of some gods of El Paso, and full to the brim with strangers’ love. The others in his posse went wandering around America, preaching peace and pretty-pretty, carrying scraps of Lorna’s striped dress and Vix’s vest.
In a glass case in Austin you can see the preserved remains of Lorna’s little finger, shot off by Sheriff Yarley when she put the desperate love up on the roof. It’s lit up under cover for tourists to see, but the rest of the two most wanted are long gone.
Here in Texas, sorrow and fury are back in the bodies of men and women. Some nights, we hear our neighbors moaning and country music on the radio, and some nights we go out walking late, looking to be healed of every hurt, looking for a hand-painted sign that says, come on sinner.
Some nights, all we want is the neon promise of a motel, a hot bed, and some hands to hold us under the covers, and some nights, looking for that much, we keep driving and driving in the dark.
“Some Gods of El Paso” copyright © 2015 by Maria Dahvana Headley
Art copyright © 2015 by Ashley Mackenzie