Last Tuesday, as I walked downtown, I spotted Elsepeth Gardner as she emerged from Kingsgate Shopping Mall. I followed at a distance, determined to maintain anonymity among several uninterested pedestrians.
I recognized Elsepeth in a heartbeat even though many years have come and gone. I remember her like I remember my own shoes. She should be remembered. And she might have been remembered as a former beauty queen. But that’s not how it happened. Maybe that’s the irony?
Janine Carruthers – a manipulating skank – played a major factor in the outcome. The queen of absolutely nothing (and Janine will never be one now) Janine boasted she possessed a caring soul. But then she decided that she’d go and ruin everything.
As Elsepeth stepped along the avenue she did not detect my presence. I ducked into a recessed storefront and continued observing from my hidden refuge, admiring Elsepeth for her poise and style. She exuded a sense of dignity. Glamourous. Scars or no scars, she was always then, and still is now, bold and sure. Her imperfections are minimized by the expert application of her concealing make-up.
Did I ever belong to that elite category of bright young hopefuls – those charming few who were admired by the faculty and the student body? We were young women with promise way back then. We had style and orthodox posture, were full of tireless optimism; diligently tramping around, exhibiting a socially conscientious example and speaking well at public events. Or we were clad in gorgeous taffeta with lace overlays defining poise in evening gowns. Or in swimsuits, waiting to be judged.
Our lives had spun together briefly. It was during our senior year. Elsepeth was in Fine Arts. I was majoring in English Lit.
Nowadays, we’re counting-out our early fifties. Most of us are doing our best to preserve what we know despite the consequence of lines and wrinkles, scars, and the passage of our years.
The key player in our drama was Janine, a blonde bombshell. She was the girl who everyone expected to win and wear the tiara. She would answer the publicity calls at Trescott University. She’d be the honoured guest at football games, a spokesmodel for the local charities and the most venerated by her worshippers.
But then it all went down.
There was the reporter who pieced together the evidence and discovered the conspiracy that blew the case wide open. Her name was Lynda Greenwood. She was a keen journalist who wrote a column for the Peyton Telegraph which continues today as the Peyton Monitor. She was covering Peyton Regional and Peyton South. Lynda’s editorial was called the Pageant that Never Happened.
I wonder what became of Lynda? I’ve heard rumours that after the trial concluded she moved to Cardston and retired. I hope she’s happy.
How strange it was that our diverse female worlds cycled around and collided in points of intersection and in overlapping complexities during that bygone era. It caused us to know one another very well, but that did not mean that we were friends.
Today, I know a lot about Elsepeth Gardner. I glean information from the lifestyle sites and social media. In Peyton, she’s well known. I’ve reread her bio which confirms that she’s come back here to be with her extended family, returning to her place of origin after an amicable divorce. Her kids are adults. By appearances, all is almost normal.
Elsepeth serves as the assistant chair at the local chamber of commerce, has recently received an honorary doctorate from our alma mater – Department of Fine Arts, Trescott University. She keeps a finger in many charitable pies. Her body is lean and strong.
But seeing Elsepeth reminds me of too much history. I’d rather get stone drunk and stay oblivious for months. I’d rather blank to nothing. I don’t want memory to sharpen or resurface or to magnify. But memory betrays me and sails upon me uninvited, in livid colours.
Back in 1963, when Elsepeth and I were twenty or nearly there, we were full of fire and crackle. I met her in a lineup outside the main administration building. Both of us were filling out an application to participate in the University of Trescott’s annual beauty pageant.
I wasn’t keen on being a contestant but the prizes were enticing. The winner would receive a year of free tuition plus a $1500 stipend and a pass for free train travel anywhere within the country. Finances being what they were, I thought about the contest until I could not fathom any other option. The money would erase my third year debt if I was lucky enough to take the title, but I was up against a number of fair contestants, including Elsepeth and Janine.
Of course everyone thought Janine would take the crown. No question. She was honey-blonde and active in the sororities, a leader on the power-squad. She had big boobs. Some said those were implants, even way back then.
And everything would have all gone perfectly, if it had gone.
Peter Coltok, Janine’s sometime boyfriend and one of many of her conquests, was a person of dubious reputation. He carried a deck of phony IDs, a loudmouth bravado and a wicked knife. He slashed his way to infamy on a horrible night of bloody terror behind the student residences where the innocent were ambushed. Coltok pleaded temporary insanity – high on violence and powerful hallucinogens.
Now, as of early June, and many years beyond his attack, Coltok has been granted his day parole after serving most of the prison time at the penitentiary. During the initial trial, the facts scandalized everyone in Peyton South.
Janine Carruthers (who is presently confined within a mental institution) had hired Coltok, a certified thug of uncertain human credentials, to “mess up the faces of any girl” who might challenge Janine as the favourite choice to be proclaimed Most Beautiful – Trescott University.
On the Tuesday afternoon when I’d spotted Elsepeth on Maynard, and I’d verified that she appeared to be thriving, I decided her mysterious scars did not detract. She carried herself as if unblemished. That must be her secret? Her hair was flawless. Her outfit was an expensive, tailored Italian jacket with edges of brown and butter cream. Her makeup minimized the disfigurement which is a large irregular X raised lengthwise, and roughly defining itself upon her right cheek, the proud flesh edged by thick lines and keloid ridge.
I still don’t understand exactly why I shied away from an encounter with Elsepeth. I’ve never understood my reluctance, but dodging away like a twitchy bird is my go-to reaction. I’ve rationalized it as best I dare, and I spend a lot of time thinking, but still without any sense of resolution.
We’d only have gone through an awkward conversation: “Oh, it’s been such a long while,” she’d say to me. “Far too long.” And I’d be staring down at the pavement and willing myself to melt, and saying something uninspired, like: “Hey, it’s great to see you,” forever trying to keep my eyes focused away from her tell-tale scars. She’d want to know what I’d been up to all these years.
My perfect lies remain unspoken.
It’s easier too slink away, to tell myself that I prefer more solitude.
At home, I wash my hands and face and I stare into the mirror. My own scars are significant. The knife blade sliced the nerve responsible for the muscles around my left eye. My face is lopsided and asymmetrical. The eyelid droops. I cannot deny the inner scars and these still fester. They have not healed nor minimized. I’m not normal. Maybe these scars — ? Maybe I deserve —
And make-up doesn’t cover anything. Not even when I glop it on. I manage to study my own reflection from a variety of angles and poses, attempting to cover up my anguish.
I decide that I can’t cry. At least, I will not cry today and maybe not tomorrow or the next day. Sometimes, I wish he’d blinded me.
Katrina Johnston’s short fiction may be found at several online magazines. Occasionally, she breaks into print. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee, Katrina lives in Victoria, BC, Canada where she continues to write – simply because she cannot ‘not write.’