The fire was revenge, intimate and tribal. We came to witness, we people of the hills and hollows, lured up Didi’s road by smoke and sirens. Through the flames, I saw the glowing faces of Didi’s closest neighbors: Nellie Rydell and Doris Kelso, Lorna Coake and Ruby Whipple. I thought that one of them must have sparked this blaze—with her own two hands and the holy heat of her desire.
Who poured the stream of gasoline, who struck the match, who lit the torch of wood and paper? Tell me now. I keep all secrets. Was it one of you alone, or did all four conspire together? For the small crime of arson, no respectable woman ever stood trial. The trailer was a temptation and an eyesore, a refuge for feral cats, a sanctuary for wayward children. Now Didi’s home could be hauled away, a heap of melted rubble.
An accident, Ruby said. A blessing, Lorna whispered.
Who can know for sure? Maybe the small boy called Rooster lit a pile of sticks to warm the fingers of his twelve-year-old girlfriend Simone so that it wouldn’t hurt where she touched him. Maybe cross-eyed Georgia squirted loops of lighter fluid into the blaze just to see what would happen, and all the children danced in the dark, hot at last, giddy as the fire spread, too joyful now to try to smother it.
But I will always believe those four women in their righteous rage burned Didi out forever.
Didi Kinkaid trespassed against us: She harbored fugitives; she tempted boys; she tempted husbands. She slept with strangers and her own cousin—and despite all this generous love, Didi Kinkaid still failed to marry the father of even one of her children.
Compared with these transgressions, the crimes named by County Prosecutor Marvin Beloit—the violations for which Didi Kinkaid was shackled, chained, and dumped in prison— seemed almost trivial: receiving and selling stolen goods, felony offenses, theft of property far exceeding $1,000. To be precise: forty-one bicycles snatched by children and fenced by Didi over a thirteen-month period.
Forty-one, including the three treasures in her last load: a black and yellow 1947 Schwinn Hornet Deluxe with its original headlight, worth an astonishing $3,700; the 1959 Radiant Red Phantom, a three-speed wonder with lavish chrome, almost a motorcycle—and radiant, yes—worth $59-95 new, and now, lovingly restored by Merle Tremble’s huge but delicate hands, worth $3,250; finally, the lovely 1951 Starlet painted in its original Summer Cloud White with Holiday Rose trim and pink streamers, worth only $1,900, but polished inch by inch for the daughter Merle never had. To him, priceless.
In court, Merle Tremble confessed: The jeweled reflector for the Phantom cost him $107. A perfect prism of light, worth every penny. He found a seat for the Hornet, smooth leather with a patina like an antique baseball glove, worn shiny by one particular boy’s bones and muscles. No man can buy such joy with money.
For six years, Merle Tremble had haunted thrift stores and junkyards, digging through steaming heaps of trash to recover donor bikes with any precious piece that might be salvageable.
Under oath, Merle Tremble swore to God he loved his bikes like children.
No wonder Didi laughed out loud, a snort that filled the courtroom. A man who believes he loves twisted chrome as much as he might love a human child deserves to lose everything he has, deserves fire and flood and swarms of locusts. But Didi’s lack of remorse, her justifiable scorn, didn’t help her.
For crimes named and trespasses unspoken, Didi Kinkaid received ten years, the maximum sentence.
Ten years. More than any man gets for beating his wife or stabbing his brother. More years than a man with drunken rage as his excuse might serve for barroom brawl and murder.
Didi’s transgressions wounded our spirits. She fed the children no mother could tame. She loved them for a night or for an hour, just as she loved the men who shared all her beds in all those motel rooms, and this terrifying, transient love, this passion without faith that tomorrow will be the same or ever come, this endless offering of the body and the soul and the self was dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.
If she was good, then we were guilty. Exile wasn’t enough.
We had to burn her.
When Didi heard about the fire, she knew. Busybody do-gooders, she said, always coming to my door with their greasy casseroles and stale muffins, acting all high and holy when all they really wanted was to get a peek inside, see if I had some tattooed cowboy sprawled on my bed, find out how many kids were crashing at my place and if my own three were running naked. Kindhearted ladies benevolent as that did the same damn thing to my mother. Kan her out of Riverton in the end. Killed her with their mercy.
The bikes were just an excuse. It could have been anything, she said, but in the end, I made it easy.