47 | Backstory

Backstory: The characters’ lives before the story, novel, or film began. Sol Stein, Stein on Writing

Do nothing to shame your seven sisters. Cundy Orten

Doug’s favorite aunt was Betty’s sister, Jean Brickell. We’d gone to Jean’s the Thanksgiving after Betty was murdered. That Christmas Jean’s mother Cundy visited from Kansas. Because Jean invited us but not Duane, Doug cut off all contact with her and his grandmother.

In 2008 Jean and I met briefly outside the courtroom. We were sequestered and couldn’t talk about the case. As Jean described Christmases with her family, and a special shrimp dish she always made, for an instant I imagined she was Betty, that if she’d lived we might one day have had the sort of relationship I never really had with my mom. We agreed to talk when the case was over.

In 2011 I called Jean. Jean said being married to Duane changed Betty: she was afraid of him. She invited me over.

Jean still lived in the brick house in southeast Denver where we’d gone that long-ago Thanksgiving. Now in her mid-80s and widowed, she greeted me with a hug. She was trim and elegant as ever in tailored slacks and a sweater set, her hair still short and red. Her stairwell was lined with photos of rawboned folks with tractors and pickup trucks on a wheat farm in Rawlins County, Kansas. Cundy had been born in a sod-covered dugout in the side of a hill. She and Charley Orten raised ten kids on that farm they bought at the height of the Depression.

Over frosted tea cakes in her den off the patio, Jean flipped through photo albums and reminisced about growing up. Cundy was a strict German Catholic. She mustered her daughters into brigades to cook, clean and do the wash. None of you girls better get pregnant, she warned, do nothing to shame your seven sisters. But Betty was special.

Jean turned to a photo of eight leggy gals vamping for the camera. Betty was the only blonde. With her blue eyes and curls, as a kid she’d looked like Shirley Temple. With that many sisters, Jean said, if you had anything outstanding it was nice. No one could remember Betty driving a tractor or milking the cows. Charley bought her a player piano at an estate sale. Betty knew how to work him and Cundy too.

Jean smiled at the memory of dances at community halls. The rowdiest and best known was Tin Hall, built by Czech farmers in a neighboring parish. The Orten girls warned each other better not marry a Bohunk. Duane wasn’t a Bohunk, but when Betty met him at a dance Charley threw a fit.

Duane’s father Herbert (Inky) Frye owned a tool shop in Atwood where Charley bought parts for his farm equipment. One day Charley forgot his checkbook and mailed Inky a check. Next time he was in, Inky insisted he owed him. Charley showed him the canceled check and Inky smarted off. That was the last time Charley set foot in Inky’s shop. This fueled the antipathy between the families and set the stage for tensions in Betty’s and Duane’s marriage.

The Ortens were Catholic; the Fryes were Protestant. Inky and Lolita owned businesses in the county seat; the Ortens farmed. Cundy was proud of her German blood, but to Lolita, she and her daughters were Bohunks. Lolita ridiculed everything Betty did, from the drapes she sewed to the crystal she chose. For the Ortens, Duane had contempt.

Betty gave birth to Jan and Lynn in rapid succession. When she got pregnant a third time, Duane didn’t want another child. Betty miscarried and had a breakdown. Duane put her in Mount Airy, a psych facility where she received shock treatments. Right after Betty was released, she became pregnant with Doug. She went on lithium but a breakdown always loomed. Duane blamed Cundy. It’s your damn fault! he lashed out on a trip to Kansas. If she has another damn breakdown, how about if you pay for it?

In a few short years, the most special girl in Rawlins County had gone from a perfect wife whose life revolved around Duane, to a vulnerable woman who depended on him like a child. Worse, she kept saddling him with unwanted kids. At a Mexican restaurant the night before she was killed, she watched him laugh and drink with her close friend. Jean thinks Betty confronted Duane the next morning about Barb Dean.

When the charges against Duane were dropped, Barb invited Jean to lunch. Everything is going just as we planned, Barb said, Duane and I are starting to date. The last straw was the following October, when Duane asked Jean to tell Cundy he and Barb were getting married and to represent Betty’s family at the wedding. Jean refused.

Thirty-eight years later, night was falling through Jean’s patio doors. She’d been talking for hours but there was one thing more. Cundy and Betty talked right before she was killed, she told me. Cundy wasn’t happy about Doug marrying you. The abortion? I thought. You’re Jewish, Jean said.

Do you judge people by what they do, or what they are?

I welcome your feedback and will respond privately.