Bonnie and Clyde: Chapter 1
Graves, guns, roses, and secrets
The wind, a constant in the Texas panhandle, blew dust and tumbleweeds across the gravel road as he drove toward the little church. He was late and almost hadn’t come at all. It was a last-minute decision made on a painfully slow news day.
He saw them at the far side of the cemetery—a woman and two young men leaning on shovels. Everyone else was gone—or maybe no one attended, he thought.
He parked his Chrysler LeBaron at a respectful distance, shouldered the rusting door to force it open, stepped out, and crushed his cigarette into the dirt. He straightened his collar against the breeze—still chilly in early spring—and walked toward the fresh grave.
It was a lonely tableau. Three people next to a pecan tree in a deserted graveyard, ominous clouds building on the horizon. He tried to burn the image into his memory in case the story panned out.
He focused his attention on the old woman. Black stockings covered spindly legs sticking out from the bottom of a full-length mink coat long out of style. With a vintage felt hat fronted by a lace veil partially covering her eyes, she was overdressed, even by Texas standards.
Drawing closer, he saw the embers of an ancient fire flash to the surface when she turned to smile at him.
“You made it,” she said. “I was starting to think maybe you wrote me off as some crazy old bat.”
“I haven’t made up my mind one way or the other just yet,” he said.
She laughed, a hearty sound, and turned to the pair of gravediggers—placid, sinewy young men standing nearby, bored but respectful of the dead.
“You boys can go on now,” she said. She pulled out two twenty-dollar bills from a beaded purse that matched her hat and handed one to each. “Leave the shovels. But come back in an hour to tidy up.”
The men looked at each other, shrugged, pocketed the cash, and walked toward the small brick church without saying a word.
A large canvas duffel bag lay at her feet. It looked heavy, and since she was a tiny slip of a thing, he wondered how she would carry it back to the car.
“It’s good to meet you, ma’am,” he said. “I’m—”
“I know who you are,” she said, a southern drawl dripping warmth from the edge of her words. “Royce Jenkins. You write some history articles for The Dispatch, along with obituaries, high school football scores, and occasionally recipes. You’re not half-bad—for a newspaperman, I mean.”
“Thanks,” Royce said. “I think that’s called damning with faint praise.”
She laughed again. “I’ve had more than my share of run-ins with the press. But my husband, God rest his soul”—she looked toward the grave—“my husband thought pretty highly of you after that piece you did on Texas prisons. You got a lot of that right.”
“Not many people remember that article, at least according to my editor,” he said, tilting his head toward the grave. “So, that’s your husband?”
“My one true love,” she said. “We were together for more than fifty years. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find the person you’re meant to be with right off.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said. “Mind if I smoke?”
“Can’t think of a better place to kill yourself than a graveyard.”
“I don’t mean to sound crass, but lots of people fall in love and stay together a long time, and then die,” Royce said, pulling out a cigarette. “You said you had a big story for me.”
He was having serious second thoughts about driving all the way out here.
“The biggest story you’ll encounter in your life, but first I was hoping you could help me.” She pulled one of the shovels out of the fresh dirt and handed it to him.
“You want me to help bury him?” Royce asked. “That’s a little outside my job description, and anyway, why not just let those two strapping young men earn their pay?”
“Because I don’t want them to steal the guns,” she said. “They’re old, but they still work. He cleaned them nearly every day.”
“Guns?” Royce asked, bushy eyebrows inching up.
She bent down, unzipped the duffel bag, and pulled out two rifles, each almost as long as she was tall. She handled the heavy guys with an ease born of familiarity.
“Yep, BARs,” she said. “Browning Automatic Rifles, chambered in 30.06. He loved them almost as much as he loved me.” She tossed them into the grave, where they landed on top of the coffin with a clatter.
Royce stared at the antique guns in amazement. The wood of the butts and grips matched the heavy lacquer of the coffin.
“Of course, you can’t write about the guns,” she said. “Or tell anyone about this. I don’t want anyone digging them up.”
He turned to look more closely at her, a thousand questions forming, but they died in this throat when he saw she was now holding a pair of well-used Colt .45s with the same unsettling ease, one in each hand. She tossed them in after the rifles. “He wouldn’t feel safe without his guns, even in heaven. At least I hope that’s where he’s going. Seems like we atoned enough for our sins.”
The old woman bent over the duffel bag again, pushing the sleeves of the mink coat back to her elbows, and he half expected her to pull out grenades next, but instead she extracted a bouquet of red roses. Even behind the veil, he could see tears forming, but somehow it only made her seem fiercer. She tossed the flowers into the grave on top of the guns. “I love you, Clyde,” she whispered.
He looked at the tombstone, confused. It read: “Here rests Clarence Prentiss. May he finally find peace.”
“I love you more now than the day we met,” she said, voice breaking. “And I don’t regret a single goddamn thing. Not even from when we first started out.” She glared at Royce. “Well, don’t just stand there watching me bawl, start shoveling.”
He flipped the cigarette and turned his attention to the grave, slinging in dirt. She took up the other shovel and followed suit, matching his pace until the guns and roses were gone from sight, hidden under the freshly turned earth.
When the grave was filled, he dropped the shovel and looked at the angry blisters rising up on his palms. “Who was your husband?” he asked, wiping the sweat beaded on his brow. “And what’s with the guns?”
She was winded but hid it well with a stubborn jaw. “His name is—was—Clyde Barrow,” she said.
“Same as the famous outlaw?” Royce asked. “That’s funny.”
“No, not the same as,” she said. “The original. My name is Bonnie Parker. Although around here, they know us as Brenda and Clarence Prentiss.”
“Bonnie and Clyde?” Royce said.
“In the flesh—at least what’s left of it.”
“Ma’am, no offense, but they both died in the 1930s, a long time ago.”
“Fifty years ago exactly,” she said. “He always knew how to make an entrance. And an exit, I guess.”
“Wait, you’re Bonnie and Clyde?”
“I told you it was a big story,” Bonnie said. “Now that Clyde is dead, I plan to tell the truth. I never cared much about what happened to me, but there was no way he was going back to prison.”
It was impossible, of course, but even a story about two old people pretending to be Bonnie and Clyde could be something worth hearing. Royce pulled out his notebook. “Tell me about the holdups.”
“Slow down, champ,” she said. “I have conditions.”
“You can’t publish anything until you hear the whole story, and that may take a while,” she said. “After that, you’re free to write anything you want, except about the guns buried here, of course.”
“I can live with that,” he said.
“And I want you to find out some things for me—things I need to know to go to my maker peacefully.”
“Like what?” he asked, playing along.
“First off, I want to know how they faked our funeral. The second thing I want to know is who was in that car that got shot up in 1934. Somebody died for us, and I need to know who it was. And the third thing I want to know is who we were working for these past fifty years.”
“Wait, working for?” Royce said. “I don’t know much about Bonnie and Clyde, except for that movie, but I always thought you were on your own.”
She laughed. “That damn movie. Pretty flattering to be played by Faye Dunaway—such a beauty. Poor Blanche, though. She came off as a screechy imbecile. Estelle Parsons played her for a ninny.”
“Ma’am, Bonnie or Brenda, I don’t really have much time here today to talk about movies.” Royce looked at his watch.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Bonnie said, her eyes going hard under the veil. “Am I boring you with the biggest story of your goddamn career? By all means, head on home and write up that article on the prize-winning steer that might get you a Pulitzer.”
“Sorry,” Royce said. “I’m just a little bit…” He struggled to find the words. “This is a lot to take in. Why don’t you start at the beginning, and I can figure out what there is to tell?”
She relaxed and smiled. “Time is a funny thing,” she said. “I’ve had a long time to think about the beginning of our story, me and Clyde. Truth be told, the real beginning was back before we even met, when a handsome, impulsive young man—just a boy, really—dared to want more than society said he was due. That was in West Dallas, a real hellhole. He was put in jail for something small and then terrible, terrible things happened to him there, and all that rage and anger spiraled out of control until someone focused it in a better way.”
Royce scribbled a few lines in his notebook.
“But our story also starts when he met a stupid young girl who was lost and alone and desperate to feel different and special,” she said.
“Sounds a little melodramatic,” Royce said.
“Let’s start someplace else then,” she said, smiling. “Let’s make Friday, May 25, 1934, the beginning of our story. Two days after the world thought we died and the day we got our first assignment.”
End of Chapter 1