Go with Me
By Castle Freeman Jr.
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2008 Castle Freeman Jr.
All rights reserved.
Midsummer: The long days begin in bright, rising mist and never end. Their hours stretch, they stretch. They stretch to hold everything you can shove into them; they'll take whatever you've got. Action, no action, good ideas, bad ideas, talk, love, trouble, every kind of lie — they'll hold them all. Work? No. Nobody works any longer. To be sure, they did. The farmers worked. The midsummer days were the best working time of the year for the farmers, but the farmers are gone. They worked, they built, but they're gone. Who's next?
Sheriff Ripley Wingate, an early riser, turned off the road and into the lot behind the courthouse. Not yet seven. The morning fog still hung to the ground, a heavy gray curtain. It shifted, wavered, passed in woolly swags and swirls, parted. Nearly hidden in the mist, in a corner of the lot, another vehicle, a little car, empty.
The sheriff parked his truck in his spot near the court building and walked across the lot to the car, an Escort with its rear window partly broken out and covered with a plastic sheet and tape. He approached the passenger's side and bent to look inside the car. Not empty. A young woman was curled up in the driver's seat, asleep. Her knees were pulled up behind the steering wheel; her head rested against the window. On the passenger's seat beside her was a kitchen knife with a blade maybe four inches long, and in the rear seat a furry bundle the sheriff couldn't quite make out. He tapped lightly on the window.
The sleeping woman opened her eyes. She looked around her, then saw the sheriff at the window. She started. She drew back against her door, watching him. Her right hand went to the little knife on the seat beside her.
"Help you?" Sheriff Wingate asked her.
"I'm waiting for the sheriff," the young woman said.
"I'm waiting for the sheriff," the young woman said again, louder, to be heard through the closed windows of the little car.
"I'm the sheriff."
"Why don't you come on inside?" the sheriff said. He nodded toward the courthouse.
The young woman made no move to leave the car, but she leaned across the seat and rolled the passenger's window down a couple of inches.
"You don't have a uniform," she said.
"No," the sheriff said. He straightened and turned to start back to the courthouse.
"How do I know you're the sheriff?"
"I don't know what to tell you," the sheriff said. "You can sit out here long as you want. Maybe another sheriff will come along."
"Wait," said the young woman. She uncurled herself from the seat, opened the door, and stood beside her car. She was tall and wore her brown hair long, very long, in a soft fall that hung down her back past her shoulder blades. The sheriff watched her. She didn't look drunk, she didn't act drunk, she didn't smell drunk. She closed the car door and looked across its roof at him.
"All right," she said.
The sheriff waited for her, letting her go ahead of him.
"You first," said the young woman.
The sheriff shook his head. "I ain't the one with the knife," he said. "You are. You go in front."
"Oh," said the young woman. The kitchen knife lay on the seat of her car. She left it and started toward the courthouse, with the sheriff following her.
In his tiny office in the basement of the courthouse Sheriff Wingate pointed to a chair in front of his desk, and the young woman sat. He let her sit for a minute, let her settle, while he fussed. He started the coffee machine, he tore yesterday's page from his calendar and tossed it into the wastepaper basket. He turned the volume on the radio scanner up, then down. Then he sat behind his desk, facing the young woman.
"What can we do for you?" the sheriff asked her.
"I need help," the young woman said.
"Help with what?"
"He's after me," she said. "A man. He wants to hurt me."
"That's right. He watches me. He follows me. He won't let me alone."
"Blackway," the sheriff said.
"You know about this?"
"I know Blackway," the sheriff said. "Most around here do. Coffee?" He rose and went to the coffee machine.
The young woman shook her head.
The sheriff poured himself a cup of coffee and returned to his chair.
"Blackway's following you?" he asked.
"That's what I said."
"For how long?"
"A week, ten days," the young woman said. "He watches me. Like one time, I was coming out of a lot. He pulled in front of me, cut me off. He just sat there, in that big truck he has. Looking at me. Letting me see him looking at me. Then he went away. He'd done that before. Then he smashed in the window of my car."
"You were there when he did that?" the sheriff asked her. "You saw him?"
"No. It happened at night. I was asleep, the car was parked."
"Anybody else see him, you know about?"
"So you can't say for sure he did it."
"He did it," the young woman said. "Who else would?"
"Maybe nobody," said the sheriff. "Maybe a lot of people. What else?"
Now the young woman swallowed hard. She looked at the floor, shook her head. She tried to answer, swallowed again.
"Take it easy," said the sheriff.
"Annabelle," the young woman said at last. "He got Annabelle. He came to my place and he got her."
"My cat. He killed her."
The sheriff nodded. "You had her in the backseat," he said.
"Last night," the young woman said. "I found her on my front steps. Her throat was cut. Her head was almost cut off."
"Take it easy," said the sheriff.
The young woman swallowed, looked at the floor. She nodded.
"Have a cup of coffee," the sheriff said.
The young woman nodded again.
The sheriff got up from his chair and went to the coffee machine. He poured out a cup for the young woman.
"Milk and sugar?"
The sheriff put a spoonful of sugar into her cup and stirred her coffee. He brought the cup to the desk and set it down in front of her. The young woman picked it up and held it in both her hands, as though her hands were cold. Long, slim hands.
The sheriff returned to his chair. He sat.
"So you packed up the cat and came over here in the middle of the night," he said.
"If Blackway showed up, you were going to stick him with your fruit knife."
"It's better than nothing," said the young woman.
"Is it?" the sheriff asked her. "You been waiting out there all night?"
The young woman looked at him.
"Why?" she said. "What do you mean, why? I told you why. I'm scared. I'm being threatened. Stalked. I'm being stalked. You're the law. I need protection. I need you to help me. I need you to do something."
"What?" the young woman said. "I don't know. Something. Look, you're the law, not me. And no, I can't prove he killed Annabelle. I didn't see him do it. I know he did it."
"I ain't saying he didn't."
"All right, then," said the young woman. "What can you do?"
"I could go see him, I guess," the sheriff said. "Blackway. I could have a talk with him, I guess. I don't know if that would make things better, though. Do you? I expect it would make them worse. Knowing Blackway."
"He wants to hurt me," said the young woman. "He's going to hurt me. That's where he's going with this."
Sheriff Wingate looked at her levelly. He nodded.
"I can't arrest him for what he wants to do," he said. "That ain't the way it works. That ain't the law. You know it ain't."
"Don't tell me what I know," said the young woman.
"That ain't the way it works," the sheriff went on, "and that ain't the way you want it to work."
"Don't tell me what I want."
The sheriff didn't reply. He looked across the desk at the young woman. He waited.
"Listen," the young woman said. She set her coffee cup down on the desk. "Didn't you hear me? He killed my cat. My fucking cat. He cut her fucking throat. So don't tell me what I want." She started to leave her chair.
"Sit down," the sheriff said.
The young woman looked at him across the desk. She sat again.
"Why?" she asked. "Why should I sit down? You're telling me you can't do anything. You're telling me I have to wait till he does something, till he gets to me, kills me, before you can do anything."
"You could put it that way, I guess," the sheriff said.
"How would you put it?"
"Well, then," said the young woman, and again she half rose from her chair.
"Sit," said the sheriff. "Have you got any people around? Any family?"
"Where are you from?"
"Go home," said the sheriff.
"Look," the young woman said, "I haven't done anything, here. Blackway has. Let Blackway go home."
"Blackway is home," said the sheriff.
They sat in silence for a moment.
"You have friends?" the sheriff asked the young woman. "Anybody? Down here, I mean? You were going with Russell Bay's boy. With Kevin, weren't you?"
"Kevin's gone," said the young woman. "He took off. He ran out. I don't have anybody else. I mean, I don't know anybody else. And if I did, so what? You're telling me nobody can help me, right?"
"I'm telling you the law can't help you," said the sheriff. "That ain't quite the same thing, is it?"
The young woman sat back in her chair. She was listening to him now.
"No," she said. "No, it's not."
"You know the mill?" the sheriff asked her. "Other side of town, big old place right on the road? Used to be the chair shop?"
"The chair company? I've seen the sign."
"You might go there," the sheriff said. "There's usually a few fellows around there. Ask for Whizzer. Do you know him?"
"Ask for Whizzer. Tell him I said you should go there. Tell him about Blackway. Ask him if Scotty's around."
"Scotty Cavanaugh," said the sheriff. "He knows Blackway. He and Blackway have had dealings, you could say. Scotty might be able to help you with this thing."
"Help me, how?"
"That would be up to him," the sheriff said. "Wouldn't it?"
"What if he won't?"
"He will if Whizzer asks him to."
"Who's Whizzer?" the young woman asked.
"Oh, Whizzer's kind of like the boss, down there," said Sheriff Wingate. "It's his place. Go see him. See Whizzer."
THE DEAD RIVER CHAIR COMPANY
Alonzo Boot, the one they called Whizzer, awoke on the couch. He often spent the night there. No reason to go to bed. He didn't sleep much anymore. He rolled onto his back and reached up to take hold of the rope hanging from one of the overhead beams. He hoisted himself upright. He grasped his legs and swung them onto the floor, then raised himself off the couch and into his cart. Seated, he could see out the office window: mist heavy in the mill yard and among the trees in the woods, but stirring, lightening, burning off.
Whizzer got his cart pivoted toward the door to the head. He switched on the motor, which started with a hum. Whizzer touched the throttle.
"Giddap," he said.
The mill's proper name was the Dead River Chair Company. It sat on the edge of the village, above the brook that had once driven its changing array of machinery. An old wooden sign on the road side of the mill said DEAD RIVER CHAIR CO. in faded gold letters a foot high. At any time in the past fifty years, however, if you had shown up at the mill looking to buy a chair, the people there would have laughed at you.
There had been a mill on that lot since before the Civil War. At one time and another, it had made about everything you can make out of the kinds of trees that grow in the Vermont foothills: not only chairs, but barrels and tubs, bowls, bobbins, window sash, shutters, boxes, children's sleds, hockey sticks, baskets, gunstocks. The whole outfit had burned to the ground twice, to be rebuilt and refitted finally, around 1910, as the chair company, running out of a big new building with equipment driven, no longer by the brook, but by a steam engine.
The chair company had been owned by three generations of a family named Boot. For sixty years it was a thriving concern. Around the time of the First World War it employed forty people. Leaving out the time needed to season the wood, the mill in its prime could take a log of ash or oak, a log of rock maple, in at one end and pop it out at the other a couple of days later as a full set of good Windsor chairs.
The mill continued to make chairs through the time of Whizzer Boot's grandfather and father, but by the time Whizzer himself took over, it was a diminished thing. Apparently they made a better Windsor chair in North Carolina, in Taiwan, than they did in Vermont. Whizzer nearly went bust. He sold off such of the mill's machinery as he could and left the rest of it to gather cobwebs and bat droppings. He kept up the sawmill, but he moved it out of the mill building and into a metal hangar in the old mill yard. The new sawmill had power not from the chair company's vast and temperamental boiler, but from a diesel engine the size of a TV that could run all week on a barrel of fuel while you drank beer and watched. Whizzer cut and sawed the logs himself until he had his accident. After the accident, he ascended to the level of management.
By and by the mill, which had at times given employment to a whole village, reached the point where it gave employment only to Whizzer and a couple of helpers. At least, that was the payroll. In fact, nobody at the mill was killing himself with overwork.
Whizzer's accident, now ten years ago, had taken things from him, and it had given him things. The things taken were in the past; they were the past itself. The others continued. The accident had given Whizzer a new way of getting around, a new income, a new job. It had given him a new name. During his long recovery, when he was learning to use the new electric cart or wheelchair in which he was invited to spend the rest of his life, he and the men who idled about the mill, the beer passing among them, would take turns trying the machine out — ahead, back, port, starboard, half speed, full speed. They called the chair the whizzer, and eventually the name of the conveyance attached itself to the conveyed.
Whizzer's accident had also given him his life's only ride in an aircraft, though of that ride he had no memory whatsoever. In fact he had no memory of any part of the event. He had been skidding logs on Little Blue Mountain and had stopped the skidder, set the brake, and gotten down to take a piss. He woke up in the emergency room with a circle of people looking down at him under a bright light. None of them was anybody he knew. He tried to ask them where he was and what had happened to him, but he couldn't seem to make them hear him.
A tree had fallen on him, an oak. They had been cutting oak. The wind had taken the top of an oak being felled; it had twisted off its stump and come down in the wrong place. It had come down on top of Whizzer. Oak's a heavy tree. One that size weighs, maybe, a couple of tons. The oak had hit Whizzer so hard that, as Coop or D.B. or one of the others said, for five years after the accident he shat mostly acorns.
They got the tree off him, got him out of the woods and down to somebody's pasture, where a helicopter picked him up and took him to the hospital. It took him to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital in New Hampshire. Several days later, when Whizzer understood where he was, he decided he was a gone man in more ways than one. For all that district, Dartmouth-Hitchcock was confidently known to be a waiting room for the Hereafter — or, not a waiting room only, but an export office, a kind of customhouse, where, as you took your departure, whatever you might have had in the way of an earthly estate was distributed without remainder among various members of the medical community.
"Dead or bankrupt," Whizzer said. "Or both."
But, no. Not at all. Ten years later he was alive and more or less solvent, collecting a full disability benefit earned the hard way, and enjoying the attention, the regard, the tender care of a small company of loyal friends whom he could no longer outrun.
Inside, the mill was a long, shadowy hall, poorly lit by filthy windows, where your footfalls on the wooden floorboards were louder than you wished. To either side of a central aisle the old benches, lathes, band saws, jointers, planers, and the rest sat in their dust, and overhead, cables, trolleys, belts, and wheels hung in the gloom. Only at the far end of the floor was there any real light, in the old manager's office, where Whizzer held forth. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Go with Me by Castle Freeman Jr.. Copyright © 2008 Castle Freeman Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
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