Saturday, October 25, 2008

More Chapter Five -- Tina and Susanna

Dewayne had about twenty minutes of hot water. It poured over his head, eyelids and lips. If he cried here, it didn’t matter.

Red blood in her black hair, blood trickling down her brown thighs.

Letisha was eleven. And if Dewayne knew anything–and he was good detective–Letisha had been dead an hour when he found her. Which meant she was dying while Dewayne sat in Athens teasing Merri about her dinner.

Jesus, he hated himself. What the hell is the use of seeing a murder after it’s committed? Nothing, no use at all, no matter what Merri and all her hoo-hoo kind would say. A "gift" they'd call it. But it weren't no gift.

A goddamn curse, that's what it was.

He turned the dial on his shower until the water came down like pellets on his back.

The image of that poor little girl stuck in his head–he couldn’t dislodge it, Everything was so close, he couldn't break his thoughts apart long enough to make any sense, everything coming back to her bleeding, broken head.

When he found the sick son-of-bitch who did it, Dewayne was going to shoot him. He could feel it palatable and heavy in his nerves–the contours of the gun, its heaviness in his palm, the shot and reverb.

He clenched his fist and pounded it against the tile to make it stop shaking.

The emotions, those sick gut feelings were following too fast. He was afraid of himself, afraid of that thing inside him he couldn’t explain.

He leaned his head on the wall, thinking about Meema’s words: Jesus done blessed you, Dewayne, like he made his disciples perform miracles.

There was the other girl too, missing for almost three days now. A seven-year-old white girl named Monica Evans. She lived in the Bethel community, a scattershot grouping of trailers ten miles from the lime sinks and Aunt Voila’s place. He'd passed it on his way to get Merri, and he hadn't felt anything, not then, not earlier, even though he had been walking the cotton fields outside her trailer for two days while crews dragged the retention ponds.

He squeezed his eyes, trying to catch the edge of something. An image or feeling he could grasp and let it pull him deeper. But everything was nebulous and gut deep wrong. Nothing to send him out tonight. Just left here to prowl, impotent, trying find a pattern in all the incoherence inside him.

The water ran lukewarm, then cold. Dewayne turned off the faucet, stepped out of the shower, and toweled himself while looking out the narrow window over the toilet. Down the backyard slope, he could see Merri’s shadow moving about on his boat. He shook his head, but was surprised to find no annoyance rising at her trespass. She knew her way around boats, after all,
having grown up like he did, both feet forever wet with lake water. And he had told her to make herself at home.

She obviously had. And maybe it was better she was here; he couldn’t do anything crazy.

He took some gray sweat pants out of his drawer and an old fraternity mixer shirt and pulled it over his head as he walked to his office. He punched the number for the station on his phone and wedged it between his ear and chin, while he pulled out the futon.

Juanita answered. He liked her. Juanita was an ex-army reservist from Texas who followed a boyfriend to town after her tour in Iraq. The boyfriend left with another girl, but Juanita stayed. Her dark Hispanic eyes missed nothing, and she didn’t say nothing she didn’t need to.

“Hey, it’s Dewayne. Did y’all talk to any of Monica’s Evans relatives? What about that ex-boyfriend over in Greene County? What did you find on him?” Dewayne pulled the spare sheets out off the top of his filing cabinet in the closet.

Juanita talked like she was reading from a list. “Three convictions on meth, Community Service, six months in jails, two years parole. He's got two children, both five. One by an ex-wife, one by an ex-girlfriend. The ex-girlfriend works down at the Health Department. He sometimes baby-sits, even took the kid to his parole meeting two days ago.”

“What about the relatives?”


“Did they ever find the grandfather?”

“Last address was in burnt out trailer in Pensacola, but he’s listed on the Florida offenders list for an assault on a seventeen-year-old at Panama City in 1999.”

Dewayne sucked his curse. Tomorrow was gonna be shit, looking for missing girl and writing up a report on a dead one.

“Anything else?”

“No. Get some sleep,” Juanita said.

“Yeah.” Dewayne hung up. He thought of calling Terrell, but knew that he was probably praying with the Karp family, offering what comfort he could. Dewayne felt an irrational bitter jealousy that he didn't want to examine too closely, so he straightened the sheets on the futon, then headed to the kitchen. He took out a can of opened, flat caffeine-free Coke, poured some into a UGA cup and added Jack Daniels. He took a swig, then another, like medicine. His hands still shook, making little effervescent waves in the brown amber liquid.

He hadn't felt it so bad since his days in Atlanta.

All them ghosts is talkin’ to you. That’s the way Meema explained it. He preferred the expensive doctor’s term: panic attacks. He stood a chance again those. He could cure something he could name.

Out the back screen door, he could see Mary’s dark form. She wore that pentacle and spoke in hoo-hoo terms, but she felt dense and opaque, like nothing could penetrate to her core . . . not
really, not if she didn't want it to. Now that’s the true gift, Dewayne thought as he threw back the rest of his drink. It tasted like hot gunmetal and burned going down his esophagus. He poured another–almost all whiskey this time–then opened the backdoor and walked barefooted down to the water.

His mind was getting thicker. The pain dulling down.

The full moon pulled the tide, gently rocking the boat. Merri's face was pale blue in the light, her dark hair splayed about her. Dewayne always thought his cousin was pretty in that inaccessible way, an intense face and probing eyes. Hard and beautiful, like that modern stuff up at the High Art Museum an ex-girlfriend drug him up to see once.

Now Merri looked at him, her eyes all black and shiny in the darkness. What was that stone? Obsidian? Smooth in the hand, but capable of holding a wicked edge if you whetted it just right. Like an arrowhead.

She narrowed her eyes and examined him. Yeah, Dewayne thought. Obsidian. He wonderedwhat she was about to notch and let fly his way.


"Uh huh?"

"I don’t want to go back to Boston. I mean, not now." She sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. "I’m thinking of staying at Gram’s house.”

So that was it. Bull's eye.

He tipped back another good slug of his drink. "Well now, that IS news. Last I heard you couldn't wait to get back to Yankee Land."

"You heard that from my mother, and she's right, I can't. But I can't go just yet either."

Dewayne stepped up on the boat, rocking it a little. The drink hadn't hit too hard yet—it was just a blurry spreading warmth in his gut—but his tongue felt looser nonetheless. He took a seat next to Merri. He'd have to watch it.

"Is this about what Meema said? That Aunt Viola was murdered?"

Merri chewed her lip. For a second, she looked eight years old again. "Not just that," she said.

"But that's part of it, isn't it?"

She nodded, still not looking at him. He tried to read something in the planes and angles of her face, but she wasn't giving anything away. Only her mouth betrayed her.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Listen to me, Merriweather Abigail Beaugarden . . ."

She smacked him on the knee. "Don't you gettin' all middle name on me, Dewayne Archibald Turner. I know what you're gonna say . . ."

"Then shut up and let me say it already. You ain't got no business . . ."


" . . . making a crime where there ain't one."



"This ain't Murder She Wrote. I know better than foolin' around in police business. Like I said, it ain't just that, but yes, that's part of it. I got to know why Aunt Edna thinks what she thinks."

"Why? So you can investigate?" He laced the last word with contemptuous emphasis.

Merri ignored the insult. "Because it's Gram, and nobody on this planet knows Gram like your Meema did. So I gotta take that seriously. I gotta be true to her blood, which I have tried to do my whole life, whether you believe me or not. And that means taking your Meema seriously, as seriously as I'd take you if you'd ever tell me shit. You know what I mean?"

Dewayne knew exactly what she meant. He also noticed that over the course of the conversation, she'd dropped her careful enunciation and was now elongating her vowels, sliding right over her g's, getting all singsong in her cadence and rhythm. She seemed to notice too, because she made an exasperated sound and stared at the treeline.

"I'm gonna do this thing with or without you," she said. "It's that important to me."

Dewayne took another sip of his drink. "Yeah. I know."

"So it's all right if I go talk to your Meema?"

"Like you said, you're gonna do it anyway, so why ask?"

"'Because askin' matters."

Dwayne sighed. "Fine then, little cousin. It don’t matter none by me, as long as you realize there ain't nothing there to talk about. Good luck with Meema, though. She thinks you're a turkey butt."

Merri looked shocked. Dewayne laughed. She shook her head and smacked him again.

"I swear," she said. "Sometimes . . ."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chapter Five Continued -- Susanna

Dewayne lived in Uncle Jimmy’s old house. Merri knew this from some phone conversation with her mother–a casual, passing comment when Merri asked what was news in Sweetwater.

Merri’s memory of Uncle Jimmy’s house was immobile, like a snapshot: long wooden slants, porch, tin roof, lake in the back. She couldn’t really remember the interior, except thinking as a young child how the dull, stained thin planks running from the floor to the high ceiling resembled neglected teeth, and how the bugs flew around a single bulb hanging from a chain in the ceiling.

Mostly she remembered the water. The loose jello-like feel of the lake water around her tanned, skinny pre-adolescent limbs. The squishy mud bottom and the slimy grass blades between her toes as she waded out with her tractor inner tube while the grown ups drank tea up on the porch.

Merri was at Northwestern in graduate school when Uncle Jimmy died. Her cousin Ruth had brought a caramel cake to the family dinner after the graveside service. That was all her mother said about the funeral. (Her mother is jealous of the seemly unconquerable homemade caramel cake, the pinnacle of southern pastry skill.)

Merri didn’t remember Uncle Jimmy’s being so far out. They drove twenty minutes down a narrow road cutting through the tall pine trees. Merri didn’t see another car. Occasionally the headlights would capture the tail of deer disappearing into the woods or the pink glowing eyes of a possum. The soft grind of the tires on the road, the whish of breeze against the truck, and Dewayne spitting tobacco in his bottle, all harmonized in some comforting rhythm.

They pulled off the paved road into a field of evenly spaced of pecan trees. The truck bounced on the two ruts cut in the earth. Merri could see the old house from behind the shadows of the leaves, just beyond it the round, white moon reflected like white glass on the lake. The house was over one hundred years old, built fifty years before Corp of engineers flooded the shallow valley making Lake Thurman.

Dewayne pulled the truck into Uncle Jimmy’s barn, now painted white. Before he killed the headlights, she could see rusted tractor accessories hanging on the walls. Dewayne kept his wrist over the top of the wheel and let out a breath, as if he was about to speak, but he didn’t.

“I haven’t been out here in years.” Merri said, just to say something.

“It’s a mess. I’m supposed to be fixin’ it up, but I ain’t found the time.”

Merri followed him around to the front of the house. It was that dense humid air, filled with lightening bugs and mosquitoes. Amorous crickets sawed their legs and bullfrogs croaked in the tall grass by the lake.

Their motion set off a light on the porch. It was a bright white porch; the planks ran wide and straight, not thin and bowed like most old porches. Dewayne must have torn off the original.

Merri felt those warm tears collecting again in her eyes. She didn’t know why, something about Dewayne’s strong back, bent over, as he hammered each plank, side by side, refusing to let the old house succumb. Up in Boston, her colleagues brag about the old farmhouses they and their significant others had restored to spend their weekends, but down here, old places were left to die.

Inside, the thin pieces of wood running vertical along the walls and ceiling were the same stark white as the porch. Heavy wood doors with crystal doorknobs. An old mantel with a leaded, hazy mirror. No furniture except for a modern black leather sofa.
“There’s a futon in the office,” Dewayne said.

Merri was supposed to speak–say something– but her throat contracted. She and Dewayne were blood. Their only connection was shared experiences: weddings, funerals, and family get-togethers. They moved around each other, casually polite, never penetrating through the other’s shell. Class jock, class intellectual, loved, loner, state college, private college, wanting to stay, wanting to leave. Like old folks say: they were just like that. Now Merri had run out of her polite, casual words and her own words–true words–hurt to say.

She could see Dewayne’s Adam’s apple working. “I’m gonna to take a shower. Hep yourself to the fridge.” A brittle hardness was evident in his low voice.

“Thank you, Dewayne”

He nodded then went up the stairs.

Watching his retreating back, Merri felt her insides ease. She always felt more comfortable, alone, in places she knew little or nothing about, than the familiar spaces she called her homes. Certainly, not in the surveillance of her parent’s home where she had to dam everything up, careful not to let some small part of herself slip under her mother’s internal magnifying lens.

She passed through the empty dining room to the kitchen in the back. It hadn’t been renovated, except for evening floor. Food was stored in plastic bins, a dorm size refrigerator hummed on the corner. She wondered how many women Dewayne brought to his house. If they kissed him, while mentally picking out kitchen cabinets or measuring the windows for curtains.

These thoughts angered her, because they didn’t seem important, yet as she stood here, other such thoughts popped up like brain weeds. She opened the back door and followed the moon over the uneven earth to the lake’s edge where Dwayne’s boat had been tied up to a stump. A sports boat with a large bar off the back to hold water-skiing ropes. Mary took off her scandals, rolled up her jeans, and pulled herself over the edge of the bow.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Chapter Five -- Tina

The ride home was uncomfortable. The truck seemed to catch every pothole, every rut. Merri stared out the window. Dewayne kept his eyes on the road.

"You can tell me about it," she said.

He didn't reply.

She sighed. "Fine. So don't trust me, see if I care."

"Not about trust."

"What's it about then?"

He just shook his head.

She turned her gaze back to the window. The moon rolled along beside them. Three-quarters waxing, fat and white, like a slice of new potato.

"I don't want to go back to Mama's," she said. "She's having her Red Hat Ladies over. There will be sandwiches and sherbet punch and hats and I swear by all that I hold holy, Dewayne, I might just collapse on the floor after this day, I might just start crying and not stop."

"You'll always stop," Dewayne said. "It just doesn’t feel like it."

Merri looked at him then, in profile against the night, his face lit by approaching traffic, and she understood that he knew what that feeling was like, and that he wasn't ashamed of it.

"So don't make me go through that tonight," she said. "Let me stay at your place."

"Merri . . ."

"Just till eleven or so. And then I'll go home."

"You don't have your car. I'll have to drive you, and I'm too tired . . ."

"So let me stay on the sofa. All I need's a blanket."

"Merri . . ."

"I'll take you to work in the morning. And pick you up in the afternoon."

"Merri . . ."

"Please, Dewayne. Please."

He didn't say no. She took that for a yes.

He spat more tobacco juice into his little soda bottle, didn't look her way. "What you got against your mama's friends anyway?"

"I'm not in the mood for a lecture on how uppity I am."

"Just a question, Merri, you're the one fillin' in the motivations."

She tried to explain. "I don't have any common ground with them, and they know it, and everybody's polite about it -- excruciatingly polite -- but they look at Mama and you can see the pity in their eyes, only it's mixed with gratitude too -- like, thank the Good Lord I don't have that child -- and it's a superior gratitude -- like they're patting themselves on the back for raising their own kids right, like my mama failed somehow. And I can't hack it tonight, Dewayne, not tonight, not after today."

He slid a sideways glance in her direction. "Well, damn. Guess you been thinking about this after all."

But all she could think was how uppity she'd sounded. "Yeah well," she said.

And he almost laughed, would have laughed perhaps, if the day still weren't hanging on him, like a thick coat of dust he couldn't shake off. Merri was usually so good with words; she's staked her life on them, after all. Such a response was amusing, because it was inarticulate. A contradiction. But coming from a woman skilled at wielding words, talented at parsing and analyzing them, it was also honest, for it faced the ultimate failure of language in the face of the concrete.

The failure of all symbols, really. And still her fingers sought her pentacle.

Dewayne noticed. "It's the same, you know. That necklace of yours. Those casseroles. The red hats. All the same. You know that.."

"So do you," she said, waving at his badge, hidden once again, out of sight but never out of mind.

"I guess I do," he said. Then he looked at her square on. "Why'd you come back? 'Cause your mama said to?"


He wasn't expecting that response. "Why does that matter to you?"

"Because it does."

"What about the rest of it, all your questions about Meema, about how she thinks Gram was murdered? Why are you so curious?"

"Because I am."

He kept his eyes on her. The road seemed to unspool before him, as if it were laying itself down right at the edge of his headlight, just beyond what they could see, in the dark space.

"That's answer enough," he said. He spat into his bottle again, turned his eyes back to the road. "You drink regular or decaf?"

She settled into her seat and let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "Regular."

"Good. I gotta be at work by 7. That means leaving 6:30 sharp."


"And I don't feel like talkin', you hear me?"


He exhaled. "But I might tomorrow. Maybe."

She just nodded. She felt tears pricking behind her eyes, and she was washed inside and out with gratitude.

Dewayne nodded too. "All right then."