By Annie Vitalsey
Most of us still remember the day when Eleanor Wickett showed up bald. It was a Sunday in March, way back when she still lived in that little one-bedroom on Fifth Street, with the broken window-box and the floral teapot flag. We all thought she had cancer at first. “Of the breasts,” young Willie Hobart whispered to his teammates after church baseball practice, “something unnatural’s got to be filling them up that big.” That presumption didn’t hold true for long because she stayed just as robust as ever—rosy cheeked, plump, and strong. She even lifted Pastor Elvis’s wooden pulpit once all by herself. Only the men could do that.
That was when we started getting suspicious. There were some things that just weren’t quite natural about her. She attended Bloomer Presbyterian with us regularly, but never stayed for the potlucks. In fact, none of us ever saw her eat anything. Occasionally she sang at the local jazz club, Irene’s, and always wore a little too much makeup. She was almost forty, and still not married. She just lived in the one-bedroom with her teapot flag, her broken box of red impatiens, and that wild blue-grey cat, Walt Whitman. We suspected her from the beginning.
What we really should have known was that her hair was smart to leave her when it did. It probably just knew something she didn’t and got out before things went really bad. Other parts of her body might have run away too, if it wasn’t such a hassle to get off her. As it was, her hair was the only part that had sense enough to take the easy way out.
When Eleanor first showed up on Sunday morning missing those thick orange curls that all the little boys and girls wanted to bury their fingers in, we just couldn’t stop staring. You can imagine how unsettling it was to have a bald woman in the church when, “It is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off,” says I Corinthians 11:6. It made us wonder what other kinds of disgraces she must have been hiding. We all knew the spirit wouldn’t move amongst us with that kind of sin in our midst. Some of us thought she should be told to leave right then, or at the very least put on a hat. Others thought it necessary to get Pastor Elvis to perform a spiritual intervention. Finally, at the end of the service silly old Gillis McIver just tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Hey sugar, what’d you do to your hair?”
Eleanor smiled her big-toothed, red-lipped, bald-headed smile, and said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” Then she left.
What we realized about Eleanor just after her hair fell out was that she had the most uncommonly pretty face. None of us remembered her being that beautiful. We might have been distracted before by all her curls, but somehow her face was suddenly awfully nice to look at, even if she was balder than Ike himself. Even young Willie Hobart and his teammates couldn’t help but admire her sparkly blue-green eyes, aristocratic nose, and plump red mouth. She wasn’t the kind of pretty you might see in the movies or the magazine ads, but she was the kind who would distract Archie Bo Boatwright Esq., Dr. Lawrence Drachenburg, and the rest from Pastor Elvis’s sermons.
She must have sold her hair to the Devil or something to get such a strangely beautiful face so quickly, probably to tempt our men. It says in I Peter 3:3-4, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart.” The worst part was, she didn’t have any hair to braid and she was still more distracting than any of us.
In April things got worse. On the fourteenth, Esther McKay broke her leg and Professor Harry Clint’s wife went into a coma. Esther attended the college, was blonde, barely twenty-one, and had the most contagious giggle. She was on very good terms with most of the men in the congregation. We all thought she and that Dr. Drachenburg would have made a very smart looking couple, or that her blonde hair and Archie Bo Boatwright’s blue eyes would have looked perfect on a baby. When her fibula snapped in half in a golf cart accident, she went back to stay at her parents’ house in Atlanta.
Professor Harry Clint’s wife was married to Professor Harry Clint, and inconvenient. The Professor bore an uncanny resemblance to Gregory Peck. When he looked at you from underneath his well shaped eyebrows and spoke to you from underneath his full, dark mustache you would go weak in the knees and most other places too, even if he was just passing you the communion plate.
“This is the body of Christ, broken for you.”
His wife fell down the stairs of their stately mansion, cracked her skull, and that was it. Eleanor never mentioned it, ever. It could have been because no one ever mentioned it to her, but we all know that she probably bedeviled that poor woman’s sense of balance. We don’t exactly know how, if we did it would be a sin. We saw how Eleanor looked at the Professor and Archie Bo and Dr. Drachenburg, we knew she was up to something. Only a bald, pretty faced woman like Eleanor could be that wily.
Regina Golding, the leader of the Elderberry’s Bible study, thought so too. She was a godly woman, but looked like she would breathe you up her nose if you got too close. When her mailman told her that he had heard awful noises coming from Eleanor’s one-bedroom on the morning of the fourteenth, she told us things were even worse than we thought.
“There was some god-awful shrieking inside that place,” she said he said, “like you wouldn’t believe. It sounded like that cat of hers had really gone crazy, banging all around, and then there was a low voice—like it was chanting or singing or conjuring something.”
Normally we might just think Eleanor was practicing for her jazz act at Irene’s, but not under these circumstances. And that cat of hers, Walt Whitman—we think she must have put a hex on him to make him act that wild. Young Willie swore that once he saw Walt Whitman perched above Eleanor’s broken window-box smoking a cigarette. Witchcraft. If she could make him do that, she could most certainly incapacitate that Mrs. Professor Harry Clint and crack poor Esther’s leg bone to free up the men.
“Have you ever seen Eleanor’s jazz act?” Regina asked silly old Gillis one day after a prayer meeting with Pastor Elvis.
“Only once, it was a few years back, she was good, kind of a Peggy Lee sort of feel to her, but I wouldn’t go if I were you.”
“Well to put it delicately, Mrs. Golding, things have gotten pretty shady down there, I hear, especially since Eleanor’s hair fell out. Now she wears one of those Greta Garbo headdresses.”
Regina didn’t have to see Mata Hari to know that it oozed with sin, or that Eleanor must be selling more than tickets down at Irene’s. She told this fact to her florist, who told her sister-in-law, whose son overheard the conversation.
“Did you know that Eleanor Wickett sings jazz stark naked at Irene’s?” he asked his teammates.
That Friday night they got caught trying to sneak in and catch a peek of Eleanor’s “act.” Now she had gone after our men, our women, and our children.
When May came we reached the breaking point. It was Pastor Elvis’s dog, Samson, that lovable spaniel that sat in on all the church services—never made a peep either. We found him dead with his tail missing. We thought at first that it was a horrible prank by the neighborhood agnostics, but then poor one-armed Gary said that he saw Walt Whitman carrying a knife in his mouth, crossing the street in front of Bloomer.
“Normally I’d just laugh it off,” he said, “but then I saw a squirrel cross his path and I’m pretty sure he chased it down and stabbed it in the heart. That’s just not okay. When did cats start using weapons?”
We thought Eleanor must have needed the tail for evil. That’s when we knew we had to bring it to Pastor Elvis. He was naturally very shook up about losing Samson, so we tried to be as delicate as we could. A large group of us called the meeting on Thursday in the chapel.
“Pastor Elvis,” said Regina, “we, the congregation, think something has gone horribly wrong with that Eleanor. She is purposefully doing things—unholy, unlawful, unnatural things, to hurt us.”
“Like what?” he asked. Pastor Elvis would never think an unkind thought about anyone.
“She’s corrupted our children.”
“And our men.”
“She wants them all.”
“I hear she exposes herself down at Irene’s.”
“And she hurt our women.”
“Harry’s wife, and dear little Esther.”
“It’s not a coincidence.”
“She’s out to get us.”
“She killed Samson.”
“With that cat, the Devil incarnate.”
“Wasn’t Walt Whitman a homosexual?”
“And why is she bald?”
“Are her proportions that way…naturally?”
“I’ve still never seen her eat anything.”
“What is she hiding under all that makeup?”
“Hey, Gary—whatever happened to your arm?”
Pastor Elvis looked at us like a deer caught in the headlights of spiritual darkness. We don’t think he expected such harsh words from the likes of us, but the Good Book says you’ve got to bring these things to the leaders of the church, even if it isn’t the most comfortable for you. He took two deep breaths, and then said, “The battle belongs to the Lord,” and went to bury Samson. We think he was just too upset to help.
In June, we heard something awful from young Willie and his teammates. They were digging for worms behind some bushes at the playground and said they saw that eligible young Archie Bo Boatwright and Eleanor strolling along. They started skipping down the sidewalk, laughing and smiling—really enjoying themselves. Can you imagine that bald woman just skipping down the street? Archie spun her once, and then grabbed her around the face and kissed her full on the lips.
Young Willie and his teammates peered through the bushes, watching them go at it for two or three minutes, Archie Bo bent down with his hands rubbing all over Eleanor’s bald head. Willie said he had to put one hand over his mouth to keep from crying out in disgust, “At their fornication,” he told us. They stopped after a bit, Archie Bo took her hand, and they walked on.
She must have hexed Archie Bo too. She had taken advantage of that sweet young man, for his youth and stamina and that beautiful Dutch Colonial he owned on Thrushwood most likely—the one with the poplar tree and the green front door. She seduced him, forced him to creep with her to the brink of impropriety. We tried to think of what he could possibly see in her—bald and nearly past her childbearing years, but it was too absurd.
Old Gillis volunteered to sit down with Archie Bo and set him straight. He told him that Eleanor could never love him. She wasn’t the marrying kind. She was a deceiver and a temptress. It would be better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome wife, Proverbs 21:19. He warned him to get out quickly, but not to make her mad. “Just tell her something like, ‘It’s not you, it’s Jesus,’ and then leave.” Though really we all knew it wasn’t Jesus, it was most certainly her.
But Archie Bo denied everything. We didn’t get to investigate much further after that either. He got a job offer in Charleston and sold his Dutch Colonial. Eleanor didn’t seem much affected by it. She just kept on doing her act at Irene’s and lifting things that were too heavy for normal people to carry. But no one would even sit on the same pew with her anymore. “A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil,” Proverbs 14:16.
July 11th was the last day Eleanor Wickett set foot in the church. She left Bloomer after the service like any other Sunday, and never came back. Hallelujah.
But then the rain stopped altogether, and the normally green grass, as dark as the emeralds in Heaven, dried up brown. All the dust stained the white church building a reddish tan color too. Just another surface that woman made us wash with the blood of Christ. Though she was gone in the flesh, the good fight was still raging all around.
So one Sunday we decided to go over to that one-bedroom and fish the Devil out for ourselves.
The apartment was strangely quiet when we got there. We couldn’t even hear Walt Whitman screeching or banging around or anything. Outside there were no more impatiens in the window box, and it hung perfectly straight. The floral teapot flag was gone too. She probably couldn’t tolerate having such pure and lovely things so close at hand. Well, we prayed like we had never prayed before, and that Regina paced up and down the sidewalk like she was about to lead the cavalry to charge, loins girded with the truth—Ephesians 6:14.
We stayed out there for three or four hours, warding off the evil with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Young Willie and his teammates got especially filled with the spirit—we just love to see our youth hollering and sweating and quivering for the good Lord. They stayed out there longer than any of us, even after dusk, “Scaring off that Lucifer,” they told us. Praise His name.
That next morning we discovered the better half of that one-bedroom had burned down. We still haven’t determined exactly what started the fire. A few believe it was just electrical. Others say it must have been Walt Whitman smoking again or roasting a squirrel over an open flame. Some of us think it was just retribution.
Whatever it was, we never saw Eleanor or Walt Whitman again. There wasn’t a trace of either of them in the fire, and she didn’t even show up at Irene’s anymore. “Resist the Devil, and he will flee from you,” James 4:7. Old Gillis said he heard a woman, who looked exactly like Eleanor and wore a Greta Garbo sort of headdress, had made it big out west as a professional jazz singer. He thought it might have been her, but none of us believed him.
Annie Vitalsey has an MFA from Arizona State University and was the 2019-20 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Fiction at Colgate University. Her stories have appeared in Reed Magazine, Bennington Review, Bat City Review, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Phoenix, AZ where she teaches writing and is working on her first novel.