Late that afternoon they were ordered from the crippled field. Sweat streaked sunburned faces and soaked their prison blues. To the west, the sun had grown huge and crimson as it nipped the horizon; broken strings of pink clouds, the tops darkening to purple and black, drifted above its crest. Ramsey hadn’t seen it from such a perspective, not segmented by chain link or razor wire, in years. Although shadows had grown long and distended, it would be midnight before the heat would abate. The monotonous drone of insects, awakened by twilight, sounded like rapid, wireless static.
He and the others who had searched were shackled from hand to foot and then chained together. As they shuffled toward the Bluebird, prodded in the back with shotgun barrels if they stumbled, the links rattled like tempered wind chimes. After climbing aboard, they were herded to the rear into a steel mesh cage from which the seats had been removed and the windows blackened and barred. Since the bus had remained at the field all afternoon, the bare metal sides could sear flesh, so they sat on the floor, in the center of the cage, huddled back to back, arms resting on folded legs. Webster’s body had not been loaded. Ramsey assumed he lay where he had been killed, submerged in the sea of oats.
After they were counted, a guard, wearing a dun colored uniform, slammed and locked the narrow, sheet steel door. He stepped to the side, peering through the mesh, and flashed a whiskered, yellow grin as he rattled the keys, like ringing a bell. He was just one of many, all seeming emotionally cloned, governing Ramsey’s life, shamelessly flaunting their authority and license to abuse. Most, it comforted him to hope, probably despised their plight as much as he did his. He imagined them living in dented trailers, strewn like discarded cans along unnamed dirt roads, some alone, drinking themselves to sleep while watching reality TV; others with bitchy, pregnant wives and burdensome children running wild.
While Ramsey and the others waited, sweltering, body odor thick, the guards opened a cooler. They popped tops and guzzled beer. With his free hand, the driver twisted the key. The starter growled, slowing with each rotation, until just when it seemed it might expire, the engine coughed and backfired to idle. He shoved the floor shift forward several times, stomping the clutch and scraping gears until the transmission engaged, the bus lurching ahead, the driver struggling to steady the steering wheel with one hand. Cans, some trailing foam, sailed out the open door. The interior began filling with a thin, blue haze and the stench of burnt oil and spent gasoline. The bus wobbled along the rutted dirt road, the chassis grating like a rusted hinge.
Although residents had named the squalid settlement Carson Springs, as the town grew, the artesian sources and natural springs, which once fed twisting, unmolested streams churning over stones abraded smooth by time, had been harnessed and diverted through hand hewn canals leading to the town. The clay banks of the depleted streams became etched with gaping cracks, the waterless depths littered with skeletal remains, the bordering forests withered and broken.
Before the townspeople arrived to civilize by building the first church and banning the sale of liquor, ancient, nihilistic pioneers, with a penchant for women who were not delicate, had subsisted for decades on the same land, distilling, fishing, hunting, and enduring hardships they felt earned them an endowed immunity from newly imposed limits. But when one of original settlers lethally avenged a “squatter’s” intrusion, he was tried and sentenced to death. Most of the residents, including children, attended the execution, which had become a social event. The condemned, his expression defiant, his hands tied behind, sat backwards on a mule. A crudely fashioned noose, the attached rope dangling loose from a live oak limb, was strung around his neck. A minister read the Twenty-Third Psalm. After he sanctimoniously proclaimed: “Amen” and slapped the Bible closed, the sheriff reread the jury’s verdict and then nodded to the animal’s owner who cracked a whip across the animal’s flank. It bolted, leaving the man dangling. The drop had not broken his neck, so for several minutes his legs stroked the air, as if he were trying to run.
No one claimed the body, because those who had first settled the land with him had already packed up and moved, rather than conform to flags and The Word, northwest to distant mountains where they hoped to find a less troubled land.
Years later, after the town had grown and graveled streets named, the state paved SR 92 which ran straight thirty miles from the state line, north past Carson Springs, to connect with highways leading eventually to the Canadian Border and both coasts. Sheltered by ridges dense with hardwood and pine, the town grew in the center of a copiously fertile valley bordering the prairie, the western landscape featureless and barren and worn, the horizon, wavering with the sun, stretching between blue mountain ranges so distant they looked like fallen clouds.
George Smiley built Carson Springs’ first store, a sagging building, which looked as if it had been constructed of driftwood, sitting skewed on a rock foundation. George sold anything one might need, merchandise in disarray, pots and pans, yokes and bridles, hanging, in no particular order, from rafters and unadorned walls. For a while he sold the only gasoline in Carson Springs, dispensed from a single Ethyl pump in the middle of the furrowed, dirt parking lot, the Sinclair dinosaur standing on its pedestal out by SR 92. Even after Fred’s Market, a spotty, regional chain, moved in with lower prices, wire buggies, clean-shaven clerks in white aprons, and two grades of Esso, most folks still, out of loyalty, shopped with George, a generous man who would gladly run a tab for anyone who walked through the door.
Why his wife left had moved in with her sister back in St. Louis, no one ever knew, not even his boy Dewey. Some gossiped of another man, others of a divine irrationality unique to the frontier, compelling some to flee, others to wander wide-eyed, speaking in tongues, into the desert mists where nothing can survive except sooty gray rats that evolution has taught to place only two feet at a time against the blistering sand. Within a year George came down with cancer and succumbed six months after the diagnosis. Most folks felt one thing led to the other.
“Doctors said he was eat up,” the story went, “but he never was the same after she took off. I think that’s what brought it on. His body and spirit just give up. It happens, you know?”
Dewey tried running the store for a while after his father’s death, but everyone knew he was a braggart and a drunk, usually opening late, if at all. The old loyalties soon faded after George’s death, and Fred’s became the place to shop. One Saturday, when he woke with a hangover and no money, Dewey held a sale, everything for whatever folks felt like paying. People filled toe sacks and cardboard boxes, while Dewey berated their treachery, and rattled change into a metal pail beside the door. By noon, the shelves and racks were bare. The building wasn’t worth much, and you couldn’t give the land away, since so much of it went unclaimed, so Dewey walked away without bothering to lock the door.
Once inside the double electric gates, they stumbled from the bus. The guards who had transported them removed the shackles; two guards responsible for the entrance counted them again. One stood on the threshold of the control booth, hands plunged in his back pockets, his lower lip packed with tobacco. The other called out names listed on a clipboard, holding it at arms length and squinting. Each inmate responded with eyes submissively averted. When he came to Webster’s name, he nodded before calling it louder than the others, his voice slick with contempt, and then, after making a show of the intervening pause, marked through it with a flourish.
The shuffle of voices, colliding, indistinguishable, filling Ramsey’s days on the crowded compound had by that time been confined behind locked dormitory doors, the grounds empty except for prowling guards, the only sounds a distant whippoorwill, its plaintive cry unanswered, and an annoyingly nasal female voice barking coded numbers and names from portable radios clipped to the guards’ belts. Night had silenced the insects inspired by the gloaming.
Since the other inmates had been fed, the guards led them into the empty chow hall and handed each a standard sack meal: a stale bologna sandwich, the bread soggy with mayonnaise, an apple, and a glass of lemonade, which most never drank. A black working the kitchen had been caught pissing in the vat. They ate at burled pine picnic tables. Although posted regulations forbade speaking in the chow hall, during scheduled meals, with hundreds of inmates shuttling in and out by dorm assignments, each allowed fifteen minutes to eat, the scraping of feet along with the clanging of metal plates and utensils being tossed onto a conveyor created a cacophony indigenous with captivity. However, with so few in the cavernous room, a fork dropped inadvertently, keys rattling, a sneeze, a murmuring between guards, whispers, almost, became amplified in the spaciousness, echoing, as if one wall were answering another, like spirits conversing. The relative silence tempted Ramsey to shout his name, just to hear it repeated, softer each time until it dissolved to silence, like dying, he thought, without the attendant trauma, the most he could hope for, but there would be sanctions if he dared, a period of solitary confinement, like living in a shadowy cave, or worse: the loss of his windows.
* * *
After Fred’s came to Carson Springs, Sonic followed a couple of years later, the Desert Inn Motel soon after that, and then, given its logistical advantages and undemanding labor pool, Chrysler built a small factory at the end of a new, quarry rock road to manufacture radiator thermostats. At times it employed as many as thirty people. With approval from Fred’s corporate management, the city council began planning to expand the local store into a truck stop to service the eighteen-wheelers speeding by each day in increasing numbers. Excavation had begun for the additional underground diesel tanks, but then, as part of a flood control project, the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Tamaha River where it sliced deep between precipitous slopes in the neighboring state, which heartily endorsed the endeavor because of the recreational areas for boating along with a market for lakeside lots it would create. Within two years, however, a tongue of warm, murky water began filling low-lying areas several miles north of Carson Springs. Lacking political influence, their protests were harmlessly absorbed by a bureaucracy designed to quell dissent. SR 92 soon disappeared beneath ten feet of brackish water. Eventually the Corps began regulating the spillways and the advance that had become a languorous but methodical flood abated, but Carson Springs had become the end of the road. SR92 emerged many miles to the north across the great, stagnant lake at a town named Vale, but it couldn’t be seen even on the clearest day.
Ramsey lived with almost two hundred inmates, mostly blacks, far fewer whites, and one Ukrainian who didn’t speak English, but after having his head pummeled like a punching bag a few times, translation became unnecessary. Housed in one of eight dormitories, each a dusty, concrete block building with galvanized roofs and epoxied slabs, iron framed, double bunk beds filled the interiors, three rows down the center and two, parallel to the others, lining the longer walls, the beds about eighteen inches apart. For his first two years, Ramsey was assigned a lower bunk, the head against the wall. And then his longevity and lack of disobedience merited an upper bunk, but still with nothing behind but reinforced, concrete block. Two years later, he was moved to an upper bunk with a window behind, and then, on the anniversary of his eighth year, an upper bunk in a corner with a view out two windows, one of four coveted locations.
With access to their factory no longer profitable, Chrysler moved the operation to Mexico, leaving the workers staring in dismay at the plant’s shuttered doors and despising more each day the unassuming migrants laboring in the fields. Someone artlessly sprayed “FUCK YOU” across the front wall in red. Then the bank foreclosed on The Desert Inn, with its ten rooms and pink flamingos standing crooked on wire legs. One morning the dark-skinned woman with a red spot on her forehead who ran it loaded her station wagon and headed south, leaving the beds made with clean sheets and the green neon sign on SR92 blinking “Vacancy.” And then the Sonic, whose presence had been overly ambitious, dismissed its employees with two days notice and one hundred dollars severance. Fred’s remained in business, but half its employees lost their jobs. The pits that had been excavated for the proposed diesel tanks filled with muddy water and became breeding ponds for mosquitoes during the summers. The population of Carson Springs began aging and declining, so when the state proposed building a prison nearby, no one objected, the citizenry fearing poverty more than the threat of escaped convicts.
After they had eaten, lines were assembled outside and then each began moving in different directions toward their respective dorms. Cameras mounted high on building corners swiveled to track each group. Ramsey had never been on the compound at night, the grounds so fully lighted that no shadows were cast; no trees, no leaves to mottle the ground; the stars, whose humbling canopy he missed, blinded.
The noise inside the dorm, without rhythm or tone, seemed more aggravating than usual after the relative quiet of the day. Some played cards or Scrabble while others lay in bunks staring emptily with hands laced on their stomachs; a few, who knew how, were reading. Showers were over, but since Ramsey and the others who had searched were late through no fault of their own, the guard magnanimously turned the water on for three minutes, reminding them that he was not required to, and handed each a clean towel. Ramsey always tried to shower immediately after supper, before the tiled floors became slick from inmates masturbating with impunity in the large, open stall.
Once in his bunk, he tried to block the noise, broken words mostly and mirthless laughter, by remembering its absence outside, as if by concentrating, everything around him could be locked in a cell of its own. Solitude, besides freedom, was the thing he missed most. Squinting against blinding fluorescents dangling just out of reach, he woke each morning groggy-eyed to screaming bells, which marked the sequence of relentless rituals dictating his life. During the day, if the din became unbearable, he’d retreat to the remotest corner of the recreation field to try and escape the sounds, but even there the air was stained by cop-killer rap drifting from ghetto blasters inside the open shed where the blacks, their dreadlocks dangling like willow bangs, worked with weights to further enhance arms so bloated they looked like wings. While many whites withered as captives, laboriously shuffling their feet, as if somehow gravity had been enhanced, most blacks seemed to thrive, strutting the compound with an ethnic buoyancy, reveling in the social reversal.
Someone asked about Webster. Ramsey told them what he knew. Although he tried to push it from his mind, the image of Webster lying among the crushed oats, the top of his head scalloped away, burned with a sunken anger. Ramsey doubted the body would be claimed, most outside allegiances, including his own, surviving no more than a year. To him, it seemed inevitable. How many weekends could they sit with families and ask about a sister or a brother, a father or mother, a son or daughter, and speak hopefully of a future that might never come? On Sundays, some stood as close as permitted to the front gate, plaintively watching the visitors enter, waiting for someone they knew, or perhaps, expecting no one, trying to remember what it was like to be free and have someone care.
Webster would be buried without ceremony or marker in an overgrown field that bordered the dump; no one would mourn his loss.
As they had boarded the Bluebird at the field that afternoon, emergency vehicles began arriving, their red and blue lights turning the twilight into a violence of slashing red and blue. And then the business of assigning responsibility, if possible, for the girl began; cameras flashed; men, slipping white coveralls over their street clothes and snapping on latex gloves, crawled on hands and knees, sifting through the maze of stems, dropping minute pieces of this and that into clear plastic bags, a wooden stake with a day-glo ribbon stapled to the top marking the location.
After Dewey ran through the money from the sale at his father’s store, he took a job loading feed at Slater’s Mill for six dollars an hour. On that Tuesday, he called in sick, as he often did, and drove out to the abandoned factory in his pickup, an oxidized blue Dodge with rusted rocker panels and a premiered front fender. He emptied what remained in a bottle he’d stashed under the seat and napped until it wore off. He woke with a boner and a parched throat. He checked himself in the rearview mirror. His eyes were bloodshot, and he hadn’t shaved in days. He raked a hand through his hair, reset the mirror, and headed into town, empty cans and broken tools rattling around the truck bed. After passing the old trailer sitting on a red clay lot scooped out of a loblolly pine thicket that ran from the factory to the edge of town, he saw the girl, her hair braided to the waist, walking toward him, a book bag dangling from her shoulder; he thought nothing of it at first, but then he slowed and stopped beside her, his elbow crooked out the window.
“Hey,” he said and smiled. “What’s your name?”
“Melissa Gayle,” she said, squinting against the sun and shading her eyes. She wore a starched white blouse and a plaid skirt, the hem several inches above her white socks and black patent leather shoes.
He opened the door by reaching through the window and stepped out, looking both ways along the road.
“You know me. You and your momma used to shop at my store.”
“Come on, I’ll give you a ride home.”
She pointed in the direction of the trailer.
“It ain’t that far.”
He took her arm.
“Come on, I wanted to talk to your momma anyway.”
He lifted her into the cab and shoved her to the passenger’s side. He tossed the book bag into the bed, started the truck, and turned around.
“That’s where I live,” she said as he sped past the trailer toward the abandoned factory.
* * *
An old singlewide sat down the factory road, from what townspeople called “the junction to nowhere,” beneath a large willow, its twisted mane reaching the ground and bunching atop the sloppily tarred roof. Although within walking distance of town, no other dwellings were built close enough to be called neighboring. The trailer had been placed there fifteen years before by the town’s only realtor, who also sold and serviced farm implements. He posted a rental sign in the front window. People had moved in and out, none staying more than a year. Most were drifters and drunks who had to be forcibly evicted. It had been empty for several months when the woman showed up one day in a fully packed, hump backed, Oldsmobile station wagon and rented the place, just her and the little girl. No one ever saw her with a man or any strangers entering or leaving the trailer. At first she drove to town, but something happened to the Oldsmobile. The tires eventually dry rotted flat.
The woman was bone-thin, bird-like, even, pale skinned, with a long face and large eyes, her hair, the color of stone, tied behind in a bun. Like her mother, the girl was all knees and elbows but with red hair and freckles. Each month the woman deposited a railroad pension check in the bank, paying cash for food, always counting her change carefully. If someone spoke, she would respond politely with a shy smile.
The woman enrolled the girl in Rosewater Elementary and Middle School, the only one in the county.
“She was never a problem,” said one of the teachers.
“Smart as a whip,” said another.
The woman had even invited the visitation ladies inside the first Thursday night they came to call, fixing coffee, chatting civilly, promising to attend Sunday school, which she did the following weekend. The women gave Jesus and His Disciples coloring books and a box of crayons to the girl before they left, holding a brief prayer meeting at the opened door.
Around dusk on the day Dewey had picked the girl up, he drove back from the factory alone, both arms itching from weed rash and insect bites. His hands trembled. He passed through town, honking and waving at the sheriff, who sat outside the office, elbows draped over the back of a wooden bench. Dewey drove north on SR92 toward the water, the lights in his rearview mirror having vanished, and turned off onto a grassy path, matted down by truck tires, few people knew about, and those who did held their tongues. Sumac and low, broad-leafed trees obscured the entrance. Despite idling the truck in gear, it still bottomed a couple of times, limbs clawing the windshield and scraping the sides, cottontails scampering out of the beams. An old bootlegger named Mel lived at the end in a two-room log cabin with hubcaps nailed along the front wall. Several rusted cars sat on concrete blocks, hoods yawning open, an engine dangling by chain from a thick, sycamore limb. A reflection of the moon rippled in the lake behind his cabin.
Dewey took a quick step back when a German shepherd, snarling and baring its teeth, lunged at him as Mel cracked the door.
“I’m tapped out,” the old man growled in a smoker’s voice, holding the dog’s collar with both hands. “Come back in a day or two.”
“I need something now,” Dewey said, opening his hands submissively.
The old man kicked the door shut.
Dewey drove back to town. A dually pulling a carrier full of bawling cattle passed in the opposite direction, the radio blaring music. He stopped across from the courthouse, under a streetlight, and counted his money. He had enough for the thirty-mile trip down SR 92 to an all night liquor store just across the state line.
Searchers found no trace of the girl at the dump or around the abandoned factory. Fishermen launched Jon boats into the murky lake, probing shadowed marshes along the shore but soon abandoned the effort. Some in hip boots waded the drainage ditches surrounding a large field, banded by barbed wire and choked with oats ready for harvest, looking for evidence of damaged and broken stalks, suspicious trails, all the obvious places where someone might have thoughtlessly discarded a child. No such evidence was found.
Vultures were a common sight, floating in imprecise circles on thermal pillows, constantly trolling, so few people paid them any mind, but when they began drifting above the field in greater numbers, the implication became clear.
Since the field was so large, over a mile square, and the crop so dense, the sheriff asked the prison for help. Ramsey and other inmates, all with records free of disciplinary infractions, were caged in the Bluebird and driven to the field. Flanked by guards armed with shotguns, they stepped unshackled from the bus.
Determined to complete the search before dark, the sheriff assembled two lines at opposite ends of the field, each to proceed methodically toward the center. Due to the size of the field and the waist high crop, one line could not see the other. Except for the vultures and strings of manmade clouds dispersing as soon as they formed, nothing occluded the sun, inclined toward afternoon and punishing without quarter, shirts sweat plastered to itching backs, the air thick with heat that Ramsey felt through the soles of his brogans. A shuffle of birdcalls, along with the croaking of frogs and the ratcheting sound of summer insects, formed an unscripted, ubiquitous chorus. Dragonflies rested their twin sets of veined, translucent wings by lighting atop the swaying pods for a moment, their bodies swathed in twisted rainbows. Mosquitoes began swarming and feasting upon exposed skin. No-see-‘ems clogged nostrils and ears.
They waited for what seemed an unnecessarily long time as a deputy communicated with someone on the other end by portable radio. Finally he blew a whistle for them to proceed. That the crop would be damaged could not be helped. Men and women stretched across the field, each a few yards from another, moving deliberately, arms extended, hands brushing the ripened pods aside, scanning the ground. Even the owner, his wife and sons, and their migrant workers, chattering in their own private language, joined the search. As Ramsey pushed ahead, his pants brushing the stalks aside made a sibilant sound with each step, like breath being expelled, as if he were treading upon a living being.
Although it lasted less than a day, Ramsey relished the freedom, not freedom from the sense of being unfettered, but the quiet and the vast prospect above, which seemed unlike the one visible from the compound.
At first he wasn’t sure. The shimmering horizon distorted what appeared to be figures spread across the field, but then heads and torsos began to form, as if rising out of the earth.
As the two lines came within sight of each other, those with Ramsey glanced at one another, expressions bemused, catching the faintest odor carried by shifting breezes, at first dismissing it as an aberration of the heat, until it grew stronger and could no longer be ignored. His line tightened and closed on itself, approaching the fence, hands covering noses and mouths as the stench became nauseous. They stomped the oats flat, trying to find the source. The one who found her, an older man wearing overalls and a straw hat, shouted and raised his hand. He tied a red bandana across his face. Dozens crowded around the body. For a careless moment, guards, their weapons lowered, forgot about the inmates. The girl lay naked, her arms and legs splayed, as if she had been tossed over the barbed wire from the access road just a few yards away. Decomposition and the feeding of scavengers led to speculation that she had been killed soon after she went missing. Beetles and maggots swarmed the frail body, a haze of green-backed flies hovering with a low, malevolent hum. Her face was unrecognizable, the skin covering her body drawn tight to the point of splitting and darkened as if sheathed in teal. The time elapsed since she’d disappeared had allowed the oats to right and repair themselves, concealing the body. A thickset woman, in a long, flowered dress with puffed sleeves and wearing a denim bonnet, dropped to her knees, and with hands clasped under her chin, began to pray aloud, but no one else made a sound. A female cardinal, its color robbed by gender, squatted on the top strand of the nearby fence, bobbing its tail for balance.
Neither Ramsey nor anyone else had noticed the black named Webster back away until he was several yards from the group and someone shouted. It was as if they all had been awakened from a trance, requiring a moment to orient themselves. That’s when he began running, his arms and legs flailing like a string puppet, as if he was frolicking rather than trying to escape, which, with the thickness of oats, would have been impossible. Without being ordered to, he stopped and turned, facing his captors. He ripped his prison-blue shirt free and tossed it aside. Bathed by the sun, his sweat drenched body seemed to glow. He held his arms straight to the sides, smiled, and dropped his head back. For a moment, with only an unblemished sky behind and his upper body seeming to emerge from a blur of gold, he appeared suspended. Then a shotgun exploded. Webster dropped from sight, the moment imbedded in Ramsey’s memory. He thought of the Zapruder film, as Kennedy clutched his throat, a crimson spray blooming behind, marking the moment of his death, and of his Uncle, who raised him and thankfully had passed on before Ramsey was disgraced, setting a watermelon on a stump for target practice, the pulp and seeds scattering like brain tissue and bits of skull. Everyone rushed to where Webster lay, everyone except Ramsey. He remained beside the girl’s body. It didn’t sicken him to stare at her remains; neither did it fill him with sorrow nor a sense of outrage. Could he remember a time when it might? Or had he evolved antithetically? After so many years, he couldn’t be sure.
While the others huddled, staring at Webster with train wreck fascination, Ramsey could have dropped to his knees and crawled away, obscured by the oats. In the confusion he might not have been missed for at least half an hour; by that time he could have been well on his way, and with night coming on, an effective search could not have been launched before morning, but then what? He had nowhere to go, no plan, a short-lived escape for which the consequences would have been severe.
* * *
After leaving the liquor store, Dewey felt like celebrating, one hand resting atop the steering wheel, the other wrapped around the neck of a bottle of low-grade alcohol. He sang along tunelessly to a cassette playing: “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” his voice switching from normal to an annoying falsetto as Shelly West alternated verses with David Frizzell. But then, another sound. He flicked the volume down. A rod knocking, like a morning after headache. He pumped the brakes up and pulled into a 7-11. He got out and lifted the hood. He uncapped a gallon jug of recycled forty-weight and filled a dented, tin can that he then carried to the front. Acrid smoke spewed into his face when he spilled some on the exhaust manifold. He lowered the hood but then raised it again when it failed to latch and slammed it shut with both hands. A jagged chunk of Bondo fell off.
After crossing back into the state, a colonnade of grain elevators, which had stood empty for years, flashed momentarily in the sweep of passing light, but then no other structures, no lights ahead, behind, or to the sides, nothing but thirty miles of untamed forests between him and Carson Springs. A foraging possum waddling across the road turned to face the truck, its eyes glowing red when caught in the beams.
“Roadkill!” Dewey laughed and swerved to crush it beneath the left front tire, but as he did, the right side dropped onto the shoulder. He jerked the wheel to the left, tipping the truck. It rolled down an embankment, jettisoning metal and glass, until it came to rest on its roof in a muddy swale, steam hissing from under the hood. Dewey lay broken and bloodied on the shoulder where he died, but not quickly. Sometime later, after the lights of the crumpled truck had gone dead and the radiator expelled itself, an eighteen-wheeler, its cab glowing yellow, sped past. The driver glanced at the road, not realizing he was lost, and then at a swindle sheet spread across the steering wheel. The book bag had tumbled from the bed of Dewey’s truck and come to rest beside the road’s segmented center. The tractor’s front tandems ripped it apart, shredded paper swirling upward in their wake like confused butterflies.
Robert Earl had seen it in others, tradition dictating their lives, growing old in family albums that would someday be put aside and forgotten; at times, when alone, their gaze fixed at some middle distance, wondering if there might have been more. And he had tried it himself, a marriage that led to divorce, his wife married to another. Two boys he’d never wanted calling another man father. But he thought of it, the way destiny had wound its way through his life, as just the way things were, random, one event following another capriciously, without pattern. The secret, he concluded, was to expect nothing and accept the inevitable. He paid what the court had deemed fair, and, for that, he got to spend two weekends a month with his boys. He’d rather have not seen them at all, just in passing, maybe, but it would have been unseemly and injurious to his image. Although they were grown and gone, for years he tolerated the four days by watching them fight and buying whatever they wanted. He thought of it as penance.
By the time the cruiser, its lights off, pulled in between the willow and the disabled Oldsmobile, it was almost dark; the trailer windows glowed. He had been elected to eight two-year terms as sheriff, so it was something he’d done many times: telling parents that their son or daughter had been crushed beyond recognition in a grinding head on collision, or a wife that her husband had dropped dead of a coronary while counting his change at Fred’s, or apportioning anguish and relief in an emergency room, reading from a list following a fatal school bus crash. It had nothing to do with him, and he ordered his life so it wouldn’t.
Two deputies accompanied him, one driving, the other in the back seat, not for support for what some might consider a trying moment of responsibility, but more a demonstration of authority. Once, after leaving the washroom at Sonic and zipping his pants as he walked along the hallway leading to the serving line, he heard someone yell: “All your fuckin’ cash, man.” He stopped and pulled his .357 Magnum from its holster to shoulder level, the barrel pointed at the ceiling. He could see the robber’s back reflected in the front window. He then stepped clear of the dividing wall and leveled the pistol, which was only inches from the temple of the robber, who held a Glock on the frightened cashier.
“Drop it,” Robert Earl said but pulled the trigger before the man had time to respond.
They closed the restaurant for half a day to clean shards of skull and bloody tissue from the fry baskets, the condiment bins, and the walls.
He and two deputies attended the funeral, standing to the side, shoulder to shoulder, hats in place, as the dead man’s brothers comforted their mother. He and his men were not there as a matter of respect, or to express regret for having done what had to be done, or to solicit some expression of forgiveness or at least understanding, but as a warning, much as he and his men in the 1st Cavalry had done in Vietnam by tucking death cards in the mouths of fallen Viet Cong.
The door to the trailer opened as they climbed from the cruiser and placed ten-gallon hats atop their heads, leveling the brims. The woman stood, hands on hips, as a silhouette, the light behind seeming to bend away and around her so that she appeared as a stick figure, slight in stature but intimidating and anonymous.
“You found her,” the woman said in a flat, hollow voice. It was not a question.
“Yes, ma’am,” Robert Earl said just as dispassionately. “I’m afraid so.”
She stepped back into the light and, by casually opening her hand away from her side, invited them in. On a coffee table with a glass insert, an open coloring book with crayons scattered across the top.
After they sat, backs rigid, on the end of their bunks nearest the aisle for the eleven o’clock count, and the lights were turned off, the snoring and the stench of near naked bodies sweating in the still, humid air began. Ramsey lay on his stomach, chin resting on his laced fingers. He would not fall asleep easily, and when he did, still vigilant, with an edgy awareness, like some exposed animal, in peril, always seeking but never finding shelter. He watched the field, a gentle cross breeze caressing his face. Although he could not see the men still searching for clues, flashing lights sweeping in ocher waves across a shelf of fog sliding unevenly like silt low above the field said that some remained. He thought of Webster, not of the moment when his head exploded, but of the moment, the timelessness of it, between the decision to leave and the end, which had not really been an ending at all. Most would say it had been an act of desperation, which if reflected upon rationally would never have been attempted, and, after a cursory investigation, which would exonerate the guard who had fired, that was how it would mostly likely be reported, as an aborted escape, but Ramsey alone knew he had succeeded, that, like a translucent cicada husk clinging to a winter-stripped limb, Webster had left nothing behind to kill.
Ramsey had seen him on the compound but noticed nothing to distinguish him from hundreds of others, most, like Ramsey, with little hope of ever being released, and if they were, of use to no one, danglers, feeding along the edges. But Webster had not been just another jailhouse punk. He had had vision and, when he had smiled and offered himself sacrificially, had imparted to Ramsey the gift of clarity.
Without reference he had no sense of time, but it must have been close to midnight before the flashing lights surrendered the night; a razor-thin sliver of grinning moon, its edges feathered by mist, hovered as the great, silent field began repairing itself.
Want to listen to audio editions?
Purchase a subscription and enjoy unlimited access to all features.
By subscribing you contribute and support authors, translators and editors.