Lynn Sloan

The Old Women and Miss Fitt

“History is written by the victors.”

“By the survivors.”

“Hey, this isn’t going to work if you correct every line before—”

“Remember, I’ll take a red pencil to anything you get it wrong.”

This story I’m writing began almost three years ago, late summer, Rose’s back porch, we four writers overlooking her apple orchard, the sky that navy blue you get in late September this far north when the nearest streetlights are more than twenty miles away, in our county seat, pop. 1576, and the nearest city is more than a couple hundred miles. We had finished discussing a chapter from Ang’s current woo-woo novel, foggy London, alchemists, talking rats, trapdoors, time travel. Speculative fiction her publisher calls them; Ang called them steampunk fun; we three, me, Charlee-Anne, and Rose, kept our mouths shut. After we’d argued about whether she needed identical twins as protagonists—they might have been clones, I forget—we passed a joint and drifted into the usual. Who reads books anymore? Fiction, our audience, not many. We lamented that non-fiction and memoir dominated the market. If no one read fiction anymore, who were we writing for anyway, beside ourselves? The woe-is-we led to the larger question, had we made any difference in the world? Which, fueled by weed, meandered into talk about whether we had screwed enough men back when we could? Or enough women, or those lovely both and in-betweens? What regrets did we have? Four old women shooting the breeze on a late September night when the chill of winter inches close. Not far off, a gunshot rang out.

“Damn right-wing nuts,” I said, and we all thought.

“Militia assholes,” added Charlee-Anne. Her tour in Vietnam, and her Bronze Star from when she was a man, made her hyper-offended by those who do not show proper respect for the killing power of guns.

“You ever notice that most of the wackos live in states that border either Mexico or Canada,” I said. 

“I wish we lived in Vermont,” from Rose, always off point.

“We live within ten miles of the Canadian border and we’re not right-wing nuts.” This from Ang, whose eyes crossed locking on the glowing tip of the fresh joint Charlee-Anne had passed her. 

Because we’re not from around here,” I said.

A moment of silence as we paused to reflect on our born-and-bred, standoffish neighbors. 

Ang smiled through the marijuana haze. “We are surrounded by evildoers and mountebanks.”

That’s Ang’s steampunk talk. 

Ang, a self-publishing phenom early on, had bought an abandoned church for five dollars when she was in her twenties and used it as her getaway for decades. She moved up here about the time the rest of us settled here, each for our own reasons. Mostly because it was cheap, and we’d each grown weary of the cities we came from where we were brushed aside for younger models. Back then, there was a bookstore on the square, the Book Nook. It didn’t take long for the shop’s owner to introduce us, but a few more years for us to become friends, after ties to our former lives withered and our desire for contact with others who shared our interests overcame our reservations about the merits of each other’s work. Ang’s steampunk nonsense made her the richest of us, which was reason enough for us three, Rose, Charlee-Anne, and me, to look down on her. Rose seemed like a sitcom granny. Her cozy mysteries are set in Prince Edward Island, of all places, a place about which she knows next to nothing. “I needed an island no one has been to.” Charlee-Anne, whose eerie steadfast gaze made you think she was looking at you through a sniper’s scope, seemed like someone to avoid. Worse, she wrote gothics for the Young Adult market. I, Maeve, write family sagas in the vein of Anne Tyler, but not nearly as successful or as good. The four of us, we were not natural friends. 

We established a routine with twice-a-month dinners and manuscript critiques at our different houses. Rose brought something she killed—dippy, daffy Rose is a crack-shot. Ang had the sweet tooth, she brought dessert. Charlee-Anne brought a bag of unwashed greens and called it salad. We cut her slack since she hadn’t been trained in potluck responsibilities, growing up as she had as a boy. I did the veggie, no one else wanted to. That first year we were polite, but over time we began to rely on each other. Each of us had a particular strength: Ang, who spun the most preposterous plots in her steampunk novels, could find the illogic in others’ stories; I was the hall monitor, pointing out where things went too slow or too fast; Charlee-Anne, a former Army medic, could take a scalpel to dead dialogue and gangrenous descriptions; and Rose, whose prose seemed dictated in a high wind, could tease out loose plot strands, correct grammar, and catch typos—much appreciated skills. We became our own small community. No one else paid much attention to us. High schoolers didn’t drive out into the county to ring our doorbells for contributions to their teams, or to make mischief either, and we didn’t get invited anywhere, not even church. In town we were mistaken for each other. To others we were invisible. Not that we minded.

*

This history I’m writing began, as I said, three years ago, which was after the hate crimes ratcheted up in cities all over the country, the cemetery desecrations, the mock-lynching that turned horrific, the torched Black churches and governmental buildings. None of that happened in our area, but it was coming. What got us stirred up, when this story really started, was when our own pissant state supreme court refused to hear a challenge to a law that required all teachers and all male students over the age of fourteen to carry guns in schools. We were at Ang’s.

“I’d like to teach those black-robed ghouls about guns,” Rose said. “I’d like to take them out, one by one.” 

Who’s Killing the Supremes? your next Prince Edward Island mystery,” Ang said, rolling her eyes.

“I’m serious.” Rose pushed away Ang’s pie. 

“We couldn’t get away with it,” I said. “Five of them, five—right?” 

We went round and round with possibilities, knocking each down with the practicalities. At the end of the evening as we headed to our cars, Charlee-Anne spoke for the first time. “When numerically overwhelmed, drop the right guy. You only get one chance.”

We each took home her words. We respected Charlee-Anne because of her combat experience, making the world safe for democracy, while I was protesting in the streets, with the same aim. We never talked about those days.

*

Months later, a midday in June, we had the swimming hole at the quarry to ourselves. Kids were still in school. The water was too cold for swimming, but the sun baked the rocks nice and warm and heated the still air. A car pulled up to the quarry’s rim. Boys got out and cursed, seeing us old women lounging on the diving slab like saggy sea lions.

Ang shouted back, “Hey, you with the tattoo, you a Holden?” 

As their car spit gravel tearing away, we broke up laughing. The kid with the eagle tattoo covering his hairless chest from sternum to elastic of his underpants was Chad Holden’s nephew. 

The Holdens are a multi-generational family of state bigwigs who have sucked forever and prodigiously at the public teat. Chad Holden, the kid’s uncle, had recently finagled a bogus claim of eminent domain to grab good farmland east of town and lease it to a Chinese solar outfit. Even the energy collected flowed out of state. No benefit whatsoever to this community, except for Chad.

“Every morning at eighty-thirty Chad Holden drives by my place,” Rose said. “I could pick him off.” She made a rifle with her right arm and made a ping sound. “Much easier than a bunch of judges.”

I, the voice of reason, said, “Even if you were to place a bullet exactly above his ear, you’d have a dead guy and his car wrecked in front of your place with no other dwelling within half a mile in every direction. Might that boomerang back on you?” 

“We could drive his car up there,” she said, pointing to the quarry rim. “Push it over.” 

“Assuming the crash kills him and his car’s still drivable.” 

We imagined the bloodied skull, deflating airbag, the black Eldorado jacked up on the jagged boulders along Rose’s property line, its front wheel spinning.

 Ang spoke up. “He has a mother.” 

Causing grief to another woman, none of us wanted that. That made us pause, until Rose said, “He’s a blight.” 

“But killing him would make us monsters,” Ang said.

Not liking her sanctimonious tone, I said, “Let’s not forget how this might sadden the scrawny nephew with the eagle tattoo.”

“And we wouldn’t want to orphan those fine curly-haired springer spaniels of his,” Charlee-Anne chortled. 

“Stop it,” Ang growled. “You’re all joking, but everyone around here would be harmed, not just his family or those who care about him. Not just his mother. Even those who’d be glad he’s gone would be terrified. Fear would run rampant. Neighbor would turn on neighbor. The militia jerks would come out of the woods. The damage to where we’ve chosen to live out our years would be incalculable.”

That silenced us. 

Ang stood, took three long strides to the edge of the rock slab, and dove into the unforgivingly icy black water, her splash calling out our meanness and stupidity, the swallowing gulp of her body and spatter of tiny droplets condemning us as monsters. None of us spoke or made eye contact. How could we? 

*

Over the winter, Chad Holden made good on his campaign promise to cut school taxes. “Few Kids=Less Taxes; Makes Sense.” “Less” and “few” used correctly, that surprised us, but when he closed the elementary school and tossed up a Quonset hut for the seasonal workers’ kids—homeschooling and church education served for the locals—we were furious. In town the only concern was what Chad would do with the red-brick building that had served the community for eighty plus years. Most hoped for a high-tech industrial park, or maybe a Krispy Kreme factory. 

Spring came and the hatefulness that possessed the cities reared its face in our community when the cretinous militia men who had played their games in the surrounding hills appeared on Saturdays swanning around in the former elementary school’s parking lot, and the old coots from the VFW waved little flags on the sidelines. They so admired those hulking lads decked out in bandoliers and high-powered weaponry. Charlee-Anne refused to drive into town on Saturdays, the back-slapping vets who had served in the same war as she back when she was Charlie were an offense to her memory of her young comrades-in-arms. All this sent her into a dark hole, that plus the fifty years of sex hormones. Two heart attacks already. We worried about her.

*

Next time at Rose’s, after dinner and discussion of my weak penultimate chapter, we moved onto her back porch to watch the ground fog rise in her orchard as Charlee-Anne rolled the first joint. Rose appeared from the kitchen carrying her grandfather’s Winchester. We’d seen it before, many times. Rose would settle it on the table and take it apart to clean while we smoked weed, but that night the sight of the gun stopped our conversation. We three had made a point of not speaking of the militia boys in front of Charlee-Anne, so what was Rose’s gun but a provocation? 

“I need to brush up on my skills,” Rose said.

In the fading light, the old 1876’s narrow barrel shone iridescent blue, the little sight on its tip looking like a piece of jewelry snagged there by mistake, an elegant, admirable weapon, not from the same categories of coarse human thought and desire as those carbuncled armaments favored by the militia boys. It dawned on me—Ang, too, I could see—that the rifle was intended to challenge Charlee-Anne’s mournfulness, but Charlee-Anne just shut her eyes.

It was too dark for target practice, the ground fog confused the distance, but Rose pulled a clutch of cartridges from behind her back and nodded toward where she kept her candles and stick-in-the-ground holders. Charlee-Anne stayed seated as we three descended the porch stairs and set out for the far dip beyond the orchard. Ang and I staked the candles with Rose shouting, “Farther, farther.” 

Even with the fog, even at a hundred plus yards, Rose extinguished all the candles, the shots resounding in that hollow like the pounding of an angry, but satisfied heart. 

When we returned to the porch, Charlee-Anne said, “Chad Holden’s not worth the bullet.” 

A few weeks later, we were at my house dishing up dinner and talking about the upcoming presidential election when Rose said she’d heard in town that Miss Fitt, a serious candidate for the presidency, was holding a rally in front of our county courthouse. Miss Fitt we called the unconscionable bitch because we were fans of Flannery O’Connor. She had risen to prominence and was now leading in the polls by sashaying around in Spandex, thigh-high boots, hip pistols, and squawking about how the Founding Fathers had left room in the constitution for slavery for a very good reason. “Think about it. Right thinking,” that was her slogan. She could have used a copy editor. We all spoke at once, doubting it was true, a rumor, why would Miss Fitt bother, not enough people around here. Electoral College, one of us said. Chad Holden had to be behind this. We sat down at the table with our full plates. 

It was Ang who said, “Let’s take down Chad.” Ang, who’d accused us of being monsters for the same idea not four months previously.

 “Miss Fitt, not Chad,” Charlee-Anne said.

“We can’t kill a woman,” Rose and I said at the same time. 

But we put down our forks, thinking. One evildoer gone. The nation would be shocked, shocked sensible, with any luck. Miss Fitt’s assassination would not be considered a local crime, so it wouldn’t particularly harm our community. No one would fear the gunman would go on to attack others. Neighbors wouldn’t turn on neighbors. Maybe they’d think the militia men had done it. That would be a definite plus. We old women would never be suspected. And we had among us a sharpshooter, a fact known only to us. We could pull this off. No one said a word about Miss Fitt’s mother. 

*

Signs for the rally went up. Miss Fitt would speak on the square in front of our majestic county courthouse, built when noble civic ideals were carved in stone. The original trees that once ringed the square had been decimated, but the surrounding nineteenth-century buildings have been restored with federal money, another Holden boondoggle. At street level, the usual: coffee shops, a gift shop where the Book Nook had been, law and insurance offices for the parasites who make their livings in the courthouse. Upstairs, a few therapists and music teachers rent studios, but most of the apartments are empty, which gave us plenty of options. Charlee-Anne, with her field experience, selected the three locations. From two different buildings, Ang and I would fire blanks to create confusion. Rose was given the best position for line-of-sight. 

The Winchester’s never been registered, of course, and the shells pre-date World War II. Charlee-Anne took a dozen apart and fashioned fresh cartridges. Gloves, goggles, respirator, hair net, the works, shop and tools wiped down with bleach before and after. You’ve seen movies. From the real estate agent’s office, I filched keys for the empty apartments we’d chosen for our positions and replaced them two hours later after making copies at a hardware store across the border. The elaborate walker from my hip replacement we outfitted with an old lady knitting bag slung over the front, which disguised the Winchester beautifully with its barrel gaffer-taped to the rear right leg. 

We were as giddy as girls.

The day before the big event we went to town separately. Ang drove into town and left her car at the Sunoco for an oil change, to be picked up the next day. Charlee-Anne drove Rose into town and dropped her with the tricked-out walker near the library, which didn’t give her far to go. Then Charlee-Anne drove out of town and picked me up at Berg’s woods—took me two difficult hours to walk through the scratchy brush—and dropped me off by the secondhand store where I donated some old dishes of Charlee-Anne’s as a cover. On her way home, she passed a caravan of black SUVs driving into town, she told us later.

No one gave Rose a glance as she made her way along the sidewalk to the entrance at 709, her decked out in a crocheted hat fringed with fake auburn hair, those big dark glasses the eye doctor gives you to drive home, and the bulky, no-color coat that obscured her small frame. On the fourth floor in the utility closet, she hid beneath a rumpled tarp behind stacks of paint cans. On the third floor of 1009, I hid behind a rack of folding tables in an empty party room, and two buildings to the west, Ang waited in the corner turret, its entrance well hidden behind a faux fireplace. Each of us heard the security detail come through with their equipment, then leave. We’d all washed with no-fragrance shampoo and soap and covered ourselves in big plastic garbage bags. None of us carried our cell phones. Synchronized wind-up watches, no batteries, just in case, hairnets, gloves, snack bars, water, diapers—we took care. Two hours before the rally was to begin, Charlee-Anne parked her van in the designated area behind the bowling alley and joined the crowd standing in front of Teddy’s Tap waiting for the show.

You’ve seen the footage. Everyone in the world has.

At 2:10 shots rang out. No one could tell from where. Pandemonium in the square, secret service rushing in, others charging into the screaming crowd, ambulances, cops, the militia men, vehicles trying to get in, get out, piling up at the intersections, helicopters, drones. 

Once things erupted, Charlee-Anne collapsed, but she managed to get to her feet and make her way to the van. With the jammed up streets, it took her a while to get Rose and her walker in the handicapped zone outside the clinic. Rose had dropped the sunglasses in the dumpster behind 709, then stuffed her crocheted hat and wig into the hazardous waste box outside the clinic. When they were stopped at the roadblock, the police encountered two terrified old women, Rose clinging to the steering wheel, Charlee-Anne breathing into a paper bag. They gave only a quick look in the back of the van where the Winchester was hidden in a big bag of chicken manure. I joined Ang at the Sunoco and took the wheel with helicopters thwacking the air. We got stopped, too, at the roadblocks. We were jumpy and crying—what would you expect? Everyone was scared. The car with its fresh oil change sticker was inspected, our driver’s licenses run through the computer, but we’d disposed of everything incriminating in the melee downtown. Two shaking old biddies, that’s what those lads-in-black saw. 

If you followed the story, you’ll know the experts determined that the shot had come from the fourth floor of 709, but no casings or evidence of any kind were found, only scuff marks on the floor and the window ledge. In the party room at 1009 and in the newly-discovered hideaway in the turret of the Johnson Building were signs of teenagers partying—the used condoms we left behind, collected from the quarry, my brilliant idea—but there was no indication of any youthful involvement in the tragic events of that day. Conspiracy theories abound. 

After the new president was inaugurated, a far-from-perfect man but not evil, we no longer felt as if we were holding our breath. That’s when Ang said we should write our story, and I took out my computer. 

Rose said, “Start with ‘History is written by the victors.’”

“By the survivors,” said Charlee-Anne.

I said. “Hey, this isn’t going to work if you edit every line before—” 

“Remember, I’ll take a red pencil to anything you get it wrong,” Ang said.

*

She never got the chance. She dropped dead a month later. Charlee-Anne was brought low by a stroke and is now in Northern Lights Extended Care, unable to talk or respond. Rose, too, is in the Northern Lights, in Memory Care, a hideous Orwellian euphemism. Her dementia came on fast. A distant cousin she had done her best to avoid hustled her into the Northern Lights and put her property up for sale. The night they took her away, I used my key to her place to grab the Winchester and paraphernalia, including the bag in her toilet tank, and drove across 49th parallel, buried it all, even that irreplaceable Winchester. 

I wish they were here to critique what I’ve written and argue about the big questions: Were we victors or just survivors? Had we’d made any real difference? What I keep thinking is that we four arthritic, old women were like ninjas—we came, we killed, we vanished. I wish they were here to laugh at my simile. One thing is certain, if Ang were alive, she’d say cut the dialogue and the last two paragraphs.

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Lynn Sloan is a writer and a photographer. Her novel Midstream (Fomite 2022) was called “luminous” by Foreword Reviews and her Principles of Navigation was chosen for Chicago Book Review’s Best Books of  2015. She is the author of the story collection This Far Isn’t Far Enough (2018). Fortune Cookies, her flash fiction using fortune cookie fortunes, was produced as an art book by Lark Sparrow Press in 2022. Her short fiction has appeared in Ploughshares and been included in NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Her work can be found at www.lynnsloan.com.