Bodies Turn Cold

S. C. Johnston

Tom washed dishes where I worked while he was on work-release from the Ottumwa Residential Facility after serving 7 out of a 10 year sentence for manslaughter. Allegedly involuntary. That’s mean. It was completely involuntary, but that is beside the point. He was tall, had rough hands, terribly worn white tennis shoes, and the thinnest set of lips I have ever seen. Before we were dating, I got drunk one night at a friend’s house, and prank called the facility. After several calls out there, the police called my phone. I promised to stop.

Once Tom got out of the facility he started seeing a few other people. When things got serious we decided to be exclusive. Mostly.

“Fine,” I said. We sat on his twin bed, in the room he rented with a tiny bathroom on the top floor, of a giant apartment house. “But, how about we just break up with the ones who live in town.”

“That means I keep Stacie,” he said. He chewed on the antenna of his cell phone.

Stacie was in her late 20’s, had kids, meth mouth, a thick braid of poorly dyed red hair, and God only knew what else. She was a half-way house person too, but had moved up to Fairfield after she got released.

“Fine,” I said again. There was another girl named Sara just like me that worked as a housekeeper at the Hotel on the weekends. Her, I worried about. She wore her hair in scraggly pony tails. And even though her front teeth protruded out under her tubular top lip, I couldn’t compete with a 17 year old body. “Just get rid of that little bitch.”

In the mornings, I usually woke up on the linoleum floor beside the bed. The twin was too small for the way we fought, and fucked. He would either be on the floor somewhere or on the bed. I would wake him up by slapping him as hard across the face as I could to pick up wherever we left off the night before. Sometimes I would make things up that he said to me, and cry and scream about them, till the tweaker girl who lived in the next room, would tell us to hold it down. Some people are trying to get to bed. I wouldn’t stop till he would wrap me up and say Baby baby baby, you know I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. Then I would forgive him, for everything. Except being so stupid.

One morning I woke up on the floor with the usual metallic taste of morning breath and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth with his toothbrush. I turned on the light, and the fan came on overhead. The noise was awful. I looked in the mirror, and my face was silver.

“What the—”

I tried to wipe at it. It wouldn’t come off. Silver splotches were on my arms as well. It was paint. Spray paint.

I knew this because a few years before, I had gotten drunk on giant cups of Tequiza beer with shots of Tequila in them while partying with my roommate and a tagging crew at our apartment in Tucson. Apparently I blacked out for a substantial amount of time. At least, that is, substantial enough to vomit down my shirt and get tagged from head to foot with blue spray paint.

I slapped Tom as hard as I could.

He put his hand up to his face. “Jesus, Sara. Not again. No bullshit this morning,” he yelled with his eyes closed. Then he tried to roll over. I grabbed at his face and he lay still.

“What the fuck did you do to my face?”

“Jesus Christ. You did it,” he said. Still squeezing his eyes shut.


He tried to roll over again away from me. Again I grabbed his face. I made him look at me. He opened his eyes. I was standing over him in one of his shirts, ready to slap him again.

“If you hit me again, I’m going to beat your ass,” he said. He had never beaten me up before, but since he sounded really awake, and annoyed. I put my arm down.

“You don’t remember?”

“No.” I tapped my foot, crossed my arms. “Spit it out idiot.”

“You and Brenna huffing?”

“We didn’t—”

“The fuck if you didn’t.”

“Why would you let us do something so stupid? Where did we even get it from? For God’s sakes you know Brenna went to rehab for huffing. What the fuck?” I gestured with a flat palm. My acrylics were barely hanging on, a couple weeks overdue, and the nail for my middle finger was missing. I remembered to be conscious of this and put my hand down to my side.

“Let you? Jesus. It was your idea. Said you hadn’t huffed in like 10 years, and Brenna said she had some silver paint from a plant pot she was painting or some shit.”

I put my hand to my head, and pressed trying to get to some flash of memory about the night before. I flashed on Brenna sitting without pants and leg thrown up over the arm of her recliner yelling at Walter to take out the dogs. Her snake eating baby mice. CDs flying across the room like Frisbees. Clothes in the ceiling fan. I remembered a smell, a terrible smell, and moving the stove to find a dead rat, black and crispy, flaking into dusty chunks revealing thin white bones. I remembered someone yelling about someone in the tree? The neighbor? I couldn’t be sure.

“I don’t remember,” I said quietly.

“Me and Walter tried to stop you two, but you wouldn’t, so we made you go in her spare room. And you two idiots turned out the light.”

Of course we did. To feel more high. I sat down on the edge of the bed and scanned the floor for my purse.

“We left you in there till I heard you scream real loud.”

“What happened?”

“What happened. Good God in Heaven what happened? You sprayed yourself instead of the bag, right in your fucking face, couldn’t keep track of the fucking nozzle I suppose, then fell onto the dog cage, broke that fucker right in half.”


“I tried to get it out of your eyes. Walter started screaming at Brenna. She kicked him out. A bunch a fucking nonsense. At two in the fucking morning. They fought in the front yard until the cops came.”

I gave up looking for my purse. Probably I would find it in the car, or at Brenna’s. Making it home with my purse didn’t happen very often. Tom’s work jeans, splattered with white from the drywall job he’d done the day before, the only pair of jeans he had, were crumpled on the floor. I pulled out the pack of generic USA Gold lights that were in the pocket, and took the last one out.

“The cops?” I said quietly.

Tom rubbed his face, adjusted his neck with crackles and grimaced. The bed creaked under his weight. I scooted back and leaned against his leg. He pulled the ashtray from the shelf at his head and rested it on his pale and hairless stomach for me.

A week or so later when I talked to Brenna, she told me that after we left Walter had tried to throw the can out, but she ran into the yard and got it. Then he tried to puncture it with a pair of cooking shears. It exploded and sprayed silver all over the ceiling and her counter, not to mention Walter’s face. He happened to be wearing glasses at the time, and when he took them off his face was silver except for the little flesh-colored circles around his eyes. Idiot, we both agreed giggling into the phone.

“Yah. The cops,” Tom said. He took the cigarette from my hand. They were really horrible cigarettes. I never did get used to them, although I tried and tried. Same thing with iced tea. I always thought it tasted like dirt, but sometimes I still try. I check, to make sure. You never know what you could come to enjoy. “We’re not fucking going over there nomore. Not after that shit. I’m on parole, and can’t get caught up in that nonsense.”

“I can’t believe I huffed.”

“Yah. You’re a mom.”

“Hey. Fuck you,” I said. It came out weakly.

“The cops Sara. The fucking cops.”


“Yah well. They didn’t bother me much. Not with Twinkle Toes and Brenna carrying on in the yard like that. Sure they could tell I was trying to help things get calmed down. They came to look in the house. And you— and you— were just sitting there in the middle of floor with your mouth hanging open. Legs spread open—”

“Stop. Please.” I pulled the neck of his shirt up over my face to my hairline.

“You burped so loud that you fucking dry heaved and little bit of puke came up on your leg.” He said it fast, and then inhaled smoke slowly. “Baby, I’m just telling you like it is.”


About four months later I would lose my mind at a bar called the Alpine Inn, smashing a mug against the juke box. I pretended to calm down until Tom got me in the car and we pulled into the street. Then I grabbed on the wheel and jerked us to middle of the road and eventually up onto the curbside. Brenna climbed up from the back seat and wrapped her arms and legs around me in a full-on restraint while I screamed into the dashboard. Sara Bear, she whispered. Sara Bear I understand. Sara Bear shhhhhhh.

Sometime later I kicked him in the eye with the stiletto heel of my shoe, and he had to go to the emergency room. He was trying to lay me down on the couch where I insisted he carry me before going home.

Sometime after that I had a birthday party and didn’t invite him. When he showed up, I told him to leave. In desperation he grabbed my arm, begging me to come outside. One of my girlfriend’s pushed his hand away, shocked that he would touch me out of anger. I hung my head looking appropriately ashamed of allowing myself to become involved with someone so violent while she dismissed him with threats of calling the police. I slept with two different guys that night, using the condoms that he got for us from the family planning clinic downtown.

After that I broke up with him.

After that I got him fired from the hotel where he’d been promoted to construction assistant, by reporting him for using his cell phone during work hours, eating lunch in the bar, and calling in sick while he worked at another job.

After that I called him from The Owl’s Nest, and told him that if he didn’t come and pick me up right then I would never ever go back with out with him.

“I’m at The Keg,” he said.

“I don’t give a shit,” I said.

“Please don’t,” he said.

“This is it,” I said.

“I’m drunk. I’m on parole. I shouldn’t drive. I’m crashing upstairs at Kevin’s. Take a cab here.”


I wasn’t really that surprised when the police showed up to The Owl’s Nest instead of Tom. The asked for me by name. They asked if I was Tom’s girlfriend. I said no. They said he wanted me to go lock up his car; it was out front down the block where he got pulled over, and he wanted me to get his wallet out for him. I said no. They asked if I planned on driving home. I said no.

He went back to prison for another year because of the violation. He wrote letters to me and everyone we knew saying that it was my fault. I threw them all away, embarrassed to have evidence of having slept with someone who couldn’t even form a complete sentence lying around. Embarrassed by the fact that I had returned his love. That I had cooked him hamburger helper, rubbed his back after work, and held his rough hand while he drove. Our feet, dirty white socks, rubbing and pressing together, as we laid on our sides in each other arms in that little bed.

I sent a text message to his phone on accident. I really hate Tom. He is gross.

I got a new phone number. I got a new job. I moved to Des Moines.

It disgusted me that he had been sexually abused as a child. It disgusted me to think of him as my daughter’s step-father. It disgusted me to see him eat nervously and quickly, the burritos he bought in the gift shop at work and heated up in his little microwave. It disgusted me the way he never took responsibility for anything. He was the one who was drinking on parole. His rules were different, and this he couldn’t accept. I always figured this was because he was so full of himself. Now though, I think he might have had some real substance issues. When normal people get DUI’s its not like they go to prison; that’s because they never murdered anybody.

I told him that too.

Just exactly like that.

“Manslaughter,” he said, “isn’t exactly murder.”

About the Work

S. C. Johnston

S. C. Johnston is a graduate of the University of Iowa and has an MFA in Critical Studies from Cal Arts. “Bodies Turn Cold” is an excerpt of creative non-fiction from her pseudo-memoir Let Me Ride.

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