Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
By Tom Franklin
Copyright © 2011 Tom Franklin
All right reserved.
THE RUTHERFORD GIRL had been missing for eight days when
Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
It'd stormed the night before over much of the Southeast, flash floods on
the news, trees snapped in half and pictures of trailer homes twisted apart.
Larry, forty-one years old and single, lived alone in rural Mississippi in his
parents' house, which was now his house, though he couldn't bring himself to
think of it that way. He acted more like a curator, keeping the rooms clean,
answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right
times and smiling with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald's or Kentucky
Fried Chicken to what the networks presented him and then sitting on his
front porch as the day bled out of the trees across the field and night settled
in, each different, each the same.
It was early September. That morning he'd stood on the porch, holding
a cup of coffee, already sweating a little as he gazed out at the glistening front
yard, his muddy driveway, the barbwire fence, the sodden green field beyond
stabbed with thistle, goldenrod, blue salvia, and honeysuckle at the far edges,
where the woods began. It was a mile to his nearest neighbor and another to
the crossroads store, closed for years.
At the edge of the porch several ferns hung from the eave, his mother's
wind chime lodged in one like a flung puppet. He set his coffee on the rail
and went to disentangle the chime's slender pipes from the leaves.
Behind the house he rolled the barn doors open, a lawn mower wheel
installed at the bottom of each. He removed the burnt sardine can from the
tractor's smokestack and hung the can on its nail on the wall and climbed
on. In the metal seat he mashed the clutch with one foot and brake with the
other and knocked the old Ford out of gear and turned the key. The tractor,
like everything else, had been his father's, a Model 8-N with its fenders and
rounded hood painted gray but its engine and body fire-engine red. That
red engine caught now and he revved it a few times as the air around his
head blued with shreds of pleasant smoke. He backed out, raising the lift,
bouncing in the seat as the tractor's big wheels, each weighted with fifteen
gallons of water, rolled over the land. The Ford parted the weeds and wild
flowers and set off bumblebees and butterflies and soggy grasshoppers and
dragonflies, which his mother used to call snake doctors. The tractor threw
its long shadow toward the far fence and he turned and began to circle the
field, the privet cut back along the barbwire, the trees tall and lush, the south
end still shaded and dewy and cool. He bush-hogged twice a month from
March to July, but when the fall wildflowers came he let them grow. Migrating-
hummingbirds passed through in September, hovering around the blue
salvia, which they seemed to love, chasing one another away from the blooms.
At the chicken pen he shifted into reverse and backed up, lowering the
trailer hitch. He checked the sky shaking his head. More clouds shouldering
over the far trees and rain on the air. In the tack room he ladled feed and corn
into a plastic milk jug with the mouth widened, the brown pellets and dusty
yellow corn giving its faint earthy odor. He added a little grit, too, crushed
pebble, which helped the chickens digest. The original pen, which his father
had built as a Mother's Day gift somewhere back in Larry's memory, had
run twenty feet out for the length of the left side of the barn and adjoined a
room inside that had been converted to a roost. The new pen was different.
Larry had always felt bad that the hens lived their lives in the same tiny patch,
dirt in dry weather and mud in wet, especially when the field surrounding
his house, almost five acres, did nothing but grow weeds and lure bugs, and
what a shame the chickens couldn't feast. He'd tried letting a couple run free,
experiments, hoping they'd stay close and use the barn to roost, but the first
hen made for the far woods and got under the fence and was never seen
again. The next a quick victim of a bobcat. He'd pondered it and finally
constructed a scheme. On a summer weekend he'd built a head-high moveable
cage with an open floor and attached a set of lawn mower wheels to the
back end. He dismantled his father's fence and made his own to fit against the
outside door to the coop, so that when the chickens came out they came out in
his cage. Each morning he latched an interior door and, weather permitting,
used the tractor to pull the cage into the field, onto a different square of grass,
so the chickens got fresh foodinsects, vegetationand the droppings they
left didn't spoil the grass but fertilized it. The chickens sure liked it, and their
egg yolks had become nearly twice as yellow as they'd been before, and twice
He came outside with the feed. Storm clouds like a billowing mountain
loomed over the northernmost trees, already the wind picking up, the chime
singing from the porch. Better keep em in, he thought and went back in and
turned the wooden latch and entered the coop, its odor of droppings and warm
dust. He shut the door behind him, feathers settling around his shoes. Today
four of the wary brown hens sat in their plywood boxes, deep in pine straw.
"Good morning, ladies," he said and turned on the faucet over the old
tire, cut down the center like a donut sliced in half, and as it filled with water
he ducked through the door into the cage with the nonsetting hens following
like something caught in his wake, the tractor idling outside the wire.
He flung the feed out of the jug, watching for a moment as they pecked it
up with their robotic jerks, clucking, scratching, bobbing their heads among
the speckled droppings and wet feathers. He ducked back into the coop and
shooed the setting hens off and collected the brown eggs, flecked with feces,
and set them in a bucket. "Have a good day, ladies," he said, on his way out,
turning the spigot off, latching the door, hanging the jug on its nail. "We'll
try to go out tomorrow."
Back inside the house he blew his nose and washed his hands and shaved
at the bathroom mirror, the hall bathroom. He tapped the razor on the edge
of the sink, the whiskers peppered around the drain more gray than black,
and he knew if he stopped shaving his beard would be as gray as the beards
his father used to grow during hunting seasons thirty, thirty-five years before.
Larry had been chubby as a kid but now his face was lean, his brown hair short
but choppy as he cut it himself, had been doing so even before his mother had
gone into River Acres, a nursing home nowhere near a river and mostly full
of blacks, both the attendants and attended. He'd have preferred somewhere
better, but it was all he could afford. He splashed warm water on his cheeks
and with a bath rag swiped his reflection into the steamy mirror.
There he was. A mechanic, but only in theory. He operated a two-bay
shop on Highway 11 North, the crumbling white concrete block building with
green trim. He drove his father's red Ford pickup, an early 1970s model with
a board bed liner, a truck over thirty years old with only 56,000 miles and its
original six-cylinder and, except for a few windshields and headlights, most
of its factory parts. It had running boards and a toolbox on the back with his
wrenches and sockets and ratchets inside, in case he got a road call. There was
a gun rack in the back window that held his umbrellayou weren't allowed
to display firearms since 9/11. But even before that, because of his past, Larry
hadn't been allowed to own a gun.
In his bedroom, piled with paperbacks, he put on his uniform cap then
donned the green khaki pants and a matching cotton shirt with Larry in an
oval on his pocket, short sleeve this time of year. He wore black steel-toed
work shoes, a habit of his father's, also a mechanic. He fried half a pound of
bacon and scrambled the morning's eggs in the grease and opened a Coke
and ate watching the news. The Rutherford girl still missing. Eleven boys
dead in Baghdad. High school football scores.
He detached his cell phone from its charger, no calls, then slipped it into
his front pants pocket and picked up the novel he was reading and locked the
door behind him and carefully descended the wet steps and squished over the
grass to his truck. He got in, cranked the engine and reversed and headed out,
raindrops already spattering his windshield. At the end of his long driveway
he stopped at his mailbox, tilted on its post, a battered black shell with its door
and red flag long wrenched off. He cranked down his window and reached
inside. A package. He pulled it out, one of his book clubs. Several catalogs.
The phone bill. He tossed the mail on the seat beside him, shifted into drive
and pulled onto the highway. Soon he'd be at his garage cranking up the bay
door, dragging the garbage can out, opening the big back doors and positioning
the box fan there to circulate air. For a moment he'd stand in front by the
gas pumps, watching for cars, hoping one of the Mexicans across at the motel
would need a brake job or something. Then he'd go inside the office, prop
open the door, flip the closed sign to open, get a Coke from the machine in
the corner, and click the lid off in the bottle opener. He'd sit behind his desk
where he could see the road through the window, a car or two every half
hour. He'd open the low drawer on the left and prop his feet there and tear
into the package, see which books-of-the-month these would be.
BUT TWO HOURS later he was on his way back home. He'd gotten a call
on the cell phone. His mother was having a good day, she told him, and
wondered might he bring lunch.
"Yes, ma'am," he'd said.
In addition to lunch he wanted to get a photo albumone of the nurses,
the nice one, had told him those helped jog her memory, kept more of her
here, longer. If he hurried, he could get the album, go by Kentucky Fried
Chicken, and be there before noon.
He drove fast, unwise for him. The local police knew his truck and
watched him closely, often parking near the railroad tracks he passed daily.
He had few visitors, other than midnight teenagers banging by and turning
around in his yard, hooting and throwing beer bottles or firecrackers. And
Wallace Stringfellow of course, who was his only friend. But always unnerving
were the occasional visits, like yesterday, of Gerald County chief investigator
Roy French, search warrant in hand. "You understand, right," French
always said, tapping him on the chest with the paper. "I got to explore every
possibility. You're what we call a person of interest." Larry would nod and
step aside without reading the warrant and let him in, sit on his front porch
while French checked the drawers in the bedrooms, the laundry room by
the kitchen, closets, the attic, on his hands and knees beaming his flashlight
under the house, poking around in the barn, frightening the chickens. "You
understand," French usually repeated as he left.
And Larry did understand. If he'd been missing a daughter, he would
come here, too. He would go everywhere. He knew the worst thing must
be the waiting, not being able to do anything, while your girl was lost in the
woods or bound in somebody's closet, hung from the bar with her own red
Sure he understood.
He stopped in front of the porch and got out and left the truck door open.
He never wore his seat belt; his folks had never worn theirs. He hurried up
the steps and opened the screen door and held it with his foot as he found the
key and turned the lock and stepped into the room and noticed an open shoe
box on the table.
His chest went cold. He turned and saw the monster's face, knowing it
immediately for the mask it was, that he'd owned since he was a kid, that his
mother had hated, his father ridiculed, a gray zombie with bloody gashes and
fuzzy patches of hair and one plastic eye that dangled from strands of gore.
Whoever wore it now must have found the mask French never had, hidden
in Larry's closet.
Larry said, "What"
The man in the mask cut him off in a high voice. "Ever body knows what
you did." He raised a pistol.
Larry opened his hands and stepped back as the man came toward him
behind the pistol. "Wait," he said.
But he didn't get to deny abducting the Rutherford girl last week or Cindy
Walker twenty-five years ago, because the man stepped closer and jammed
the barrel against Larry's chest, Larry for a moment seeing human eyes in the
monster's face, something familiar in there. Then he heard the shot.
WHEN HE OPENED his eyes he lay on the floor looking at the ceiling.
His ears were ringing. His belly was quivering in his shirt and he'd bit his
lip. He turned his head, the monster smaller than he'd looked before, leaning
against the wall by the door, unable to catch his breath. He wore white cotton
gardening gloves and they were shaking, both the one with the pistol and the
"Die," he croaked.
Larry felt no pain, only blood, the heart that beat so rapidly pushing
more and more out, bright red lung blood he could smell. Something was
burning. He couldn't move his left arm but with his right hand touched his
chest, rising and falling, blood bubbling through his fingers and down his ribs in his shirt. He tasted copper on his tongue.
Excerpted from Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin Copyright © 2011 by Tom Franklin. Excerpted by permission of Harper Perennial. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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