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‘Since the Shawnee’

So later that afternoon, in the warmest part of the day, the sheriff pulled up in front of the house across from Mrs. Henryetta’s and Mrs. Daisy’s, noted there was a car in the garage, checked that the pen in his pocket still wrote, and got out and put his hat on his head. He walked to the door carrying his clipboard. His knock didn’t produce a quick response. He stood looking at the leaves on the ground, enjoying the warmth of the Indian summer. He knocked again. The house sounded hollow. A feeling like the whistling of wind floated over Jerry, and he hoped it wasn’t something foreboding. So with a little trepidation, he left the porch, crunched some leaves under foot, and walked to the side of the house. There he found a gate with a white towel draped over it. He thought that was odd, but not a crime, or even a misdemeanor; more likely the residue of a failing memory.

The owner of the house was Miss Pickens, his third grade teacher, who hadn’t seemed young even back then. He left the towel undisturbed, lifted the latch and opened the gate. He had passed a rose bush and a window when he saw a skinny arm hanging loosely from a lawn chair facing west. The arm was still, but there wasn’t a pool of blood under it, so Jerry said in a voice he’d practiced to alert but not alarm: “Miss Pickens. It’s Jerry Lovell. Don’t get up.” The arm moved. A head peered around the edge of the chair. Miss Pickens’ nose dominated her face, but her eyes were large, too. The rest of her visage descended into an unfortunate chin.

She said, “You better not come any farther, Jerry.”

Jerry took his hat off. “I don’t mind.”

“I do.”

By that time he was beside her. The first thing he saw looked like a little bunch of corn silks nested on top of her thighs. Then he saw ripples that looked like a looped rag rug that had survived too many washings. Next, two deflated pink balloons. It wasn’t until he looked up to Miss Pickens’ face, saw eyes that had condensed to slits and a mouth puckered like a dried grape, that he realized what he’d been looking at.
His jaw moved, but words wouldn’t come out. His feet wouldn’t lift. His legs were beginning to wobble. But his arm worked. He put his hat on to help shade his eyes. He was still standing next to the chair when Miss Pickens said, “Didn’t you see the towel, or did you just not care?”

Jerry waved his clipboard toward the gate. He said, “I’ll…I’ll get…get it for you.”

When he got to the gate, he thought about escaping and driving to…maybe Louisville, maybe Nashville, maybe the Mississippi River. There was a ferry there somewhere. He could take the ferry and just disappear into the Father of Waters. Then he recalled the baby he’d delivered the year before. He hadn’t grown up with the mother; one of his high school friends had married her and brought her home after the war. But he went to church with her every Sunday, saw her dressed up, singing hymns and holding the baby. He’d stopped thinking of her legs spread, his hands pulling the head, the blood on his shirt, his arms, and the back seat of the car. His friend hadn’t held the delivery against him; in fact, it’d made them closer. But he didn’t think that was going to happen with Miss Pickens. With a feeling akin to those he’d had as a boy when caught smoking in the coal bin, he whipped the towel off the fence. He came up behind the chair, held the towel out, and looked toward the house.

“What happened to privacy?” Miss Pickens asked. “You think just because you have a badge, you can come in unannounced? I spanked you when you were little and I can spank you again.”

Jerry kept his eyes toward the breakfast room window. He said, “I’m just trying to run an investigation.”

“What about? People minding their own business?”

“No ma’am. Birds.” Jerry realized that would get a reaction he didn’t want, but only after the words were out.

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