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With this bittersweet tale of Deputy Ray Tatum's search for a missing child in the wilds of the Virginia Blue Ridge, T. R. Pearson revisits the seamier side of the South. Among the local citizens are Ray's hothead girlfriend, his ill-tempered mongrel, and, most significantly, Clayton, a ne'er-do-well who is notorious for his devotion to pornographic movies. But Clayton has suddenly undergone a personality change: he asks to be called "Titus" and seems able to predict the future-though in random and meaningless ...
With this bittersweet tale of Deputy Ray Tatum's search for a missing child in the wilds of the Virginia Blue Ridge, T. R. Pearson revisits the seamier side of the South. Among the local citizens are Ray's hothead girlfriend, his ill-tempered mongrel, and, most significantly, Clayton, a ne'er-do-well who is notorious for his devotion to pornographic movies. But Clayton has suddenly undergone a personality change: he asks to be called "Titus" and seems able to predict the future-though in random and meaningless ways. As Ray unravels the mystery of Clayton's condition and thereby closes in on his quarry, the story moves to its surprising end, never losing the poignant magical realism that is a Pearson trademark.
There towards the end he got unduly interesting, Clayton did, after sixty-seven years immoderately barren of color and distinction. That's allowing, of course, for judgements, liens and lawful repossessions as the natural birthright of Clayton's ilk of trash along with the occasional larceny conviction, biannual drunken rampage and the odd besotted set-to with an in-law-the strain of dispute usually touched off by some slattern of a cousin and contested evermore with a mattock handle or a carpet knife.
Clayton, that is to say, had only indulged in the practices of his kind until there at the last when he went exceptional on us which we mark anymore from a Saturday morning in the grocery mart. Clayton had stopped in for saltines and potted meat, a fresh carton of pouch chew and a twelve-pack of that brand of discounted beer that tastes like ambitious water and is heavily represented along the margins of the roadways where the cans and the pasteboard cartons end up and the customers sometimes too.
By all accounts, Clayton had seemed his normal self in the checkout line-phlegmy, unshaven and fragrant in his ordinary fashion, wafting anyway his tangy burly leaf and sweat bouquet with his customary hint of livestock dander and his undertone of Scope. He visited, it seems, an extended piece of talk on the fellow just behind him in line, that middle Quisenberry with the droopy eye and the jagged fractured bicuspid. To pass the time, Clayton shared with him the particulars of a movie he'd lately seen, a film about a practical nurse and a plumber that proved frankly pornographic.
Clayton had a satellite dish in his side yard, the big sort with the motorized swivel, and he'd paid extra for the bowl to come ornamented with a gaudy airbrushed eagle which he'd grown to regret as a profligacy and a waste. The trouble was that Clayton only ever watched the Satin Channel which he had to point his dish back towards his carshed to receive and pitch it over at an ungainly angle, so nobody saw his eagle who wasn't roosting in his trees.
The Satin Channel offers a twenty-four-hour schedule of triple-X fare which most of us catch only staticky glimpses of every now and again. It's located on the arc between the Congress and the Superstation, but unjamming the signal requires a monthly fee, a declaration, that is, of depravity in the form of a Visa charge. Accordingly, the bulk of us watch that channel only briefly through the snow until our eyes tire or our wives come into the room.
Clayton, however, had never married and, as unadulterated trash, he wasn't given to truck with moral hypocrisy. So Clayton couldn't be bothered to pivot his dish back around for appearance's sake but left it fixed instead on what we all knew for the pornographic transponder. He just sat in his chair with the headgrease stain and the frayed and ruptured armrests and watched without apology or palpable embarrassment the Satin Channel night and day.
Clayton, though, hardly qualified as your standard smut enthusiast. He wasn't the sort to leer at the TV screen with his adenoids on exhibit, a can of beer in one paw and his short arm in the other. Those Satin Channel movies never seemed to work on Clayton in quite the way they were meant to as he was prone to get caught up in the stories, no matter how threadbare and tossed off.
In the hardware once, a pack of us heard him describe a film about a pool boy who'd seduced and bedded a housewife while her husband was out jogging. Clayton had elected to fix upon the peril of the undertaking, and he'd owned up to quaking anxiety once the husband had come home as Clayton was obliged, by genetic inclination, to anticipate bloodletting. Of course, that husband merely kicked off his sneakers and had a go at his wife himself since she had a hand free and a pertinent cavity entirely unemployed which Clayton chose to take for an altogether splendid turn of events, both a triumph of love and a regular marvel of plotting.
"I'd have made that boy a gelding," Clayton told us, saying it sadly as if conceding that he was not so evolved as some people. "Swole up, that thing of his was like this." Clayton's thumb and fingertip fell just shy of meeting about his wrist. "It's a regular wonder he could fit into his trunks."
Clayton seemed to view sex like a man who'd seen an awful lot of the barnyard and was prepared to take for curious, in an academic sort of way, what some creatures see fit to link up and do to each other. He was also afflicted with a healthy dose of rural indelicacy, so Clayton would talk about anything anywhere and loudly.
In the checkout line at the grocery mart he told that Quisenberry how that plumber had squatted before that practical nurse's kitchen cabinet in order to lay a wrench to her drainpipe coupling. It seems her gooseneck was fouled and clotted, and, in his bid to work it loose, that plumber bent in such a way as to cause his trousers to sag below his equator.
"Went creeping down his asscrack," Clayton apprised that Quisenberry along with most everybody else who was loitering in the front half of the store.
Somehow the sight of that plumber's backside bestirred that practical nurse with a potency that Clayton suspected uncommon among tradesmen's derrieres, though Clayton allowed, at inordinate volume, that plumber's buttocks had been handsome, and he owned up to the fact that he'd savored them some himself. Not nearly, though, with that practical nurse's strain of enthusiasm, and Clayton told how she'd rubbed her nether gland by shoving a hand up her uniform skirt and had swabbed her lips with her tongue in a show of passionate abandon.
A Dupree just ahead of Clayton fled the line along about then. She went off with a snort, a sack of cake flour and a gallon of whole milk, but Clayton didn't pay her much notice or trouble himself to curb his tone as he was constitutionally immune to indignation and never seemed disposed to suspect it was his manner of palaver that made about town for huffy refugees.
Of course, that Quisenberry wasn't free to retire from Clayton's company as Clayton had specifically singled him out for chat, and local social custom wouldn't allow for him to flee. He was obliged instead to hold his ground and grin while Clayton set about conveying some notion of that plumber's member by hooking, like usual, his index finger roundabout his forearm where it failed by scant inches to meet the tip of his thumb.
They were the pair of them in the express lane which, in the majority of food stores, would have served to hasten and lubricate that Quisenberry's escape. At our grocery mart, however, they like to man the express register with the chattiest and most sluggish employee they have on hand. That particular shift they were going with one of their Tiffanys. Not the dumpy brunette Tiffany who looks more like a Delores or the Tiffany with the ball bearing in her tongue and the tattoos but their blonde beribboned Tiffany who largely lives up to the name.
She's a pretty girl. A high school student. Cocaptain of the drill team. She's been dating for years the son of the Blevins who owns the gravel quarry, and she drags that boy most Sundays to the Baptist sanctuary as recompense for the rest of the week which he spends groping her in his car.
She's pleasant enough at the grocery mart, certainly the most charming of our Tiffanys, and she fills out her apron in a fashion that the men about tend to find thrilling, but she's saddled with a comprehensive ignorance of produce that qualifies her for duty in the express lane. Tiffany can identify iceberg lettuce and carrots without prompting, and she's pretty reliable on celery stalks as well, but every other manner of tuber and green, fungus, legume and globe fruit makes do as mystifying exotica for her.
She has to know just what the item is to punch in the code and weigh it, and her method is to stare through the baggy while she waits for inspiration or word from the customer as to what he's fetched up with the intention to buy. Over time, of course, we've become acquainted with Tiffany's deficiency, so most of us shout out the name of whatever we've got as we hand her our plastic bags, dispensing thereby with the gawking and forging ahead to Tiffany's query.
"What do you do with it?" she evermore wants to know, the operative word here being "evermore."
Tiffany has remarkable recall for anniversaries with her Blevins-the first time they held hands, first kiss, first "I love you," first dry hump in the backseat of his Skylark-and she can remember the clothes she wore every day of the week for the past several years. She's hopelessly incapable of recalling, however, from one minute to the next what a knuckle of ginger root looks like or a parsnip or Swiss chard.
"What do you do with it?" Tiffany will ask a customer buying a rutabaga, and she'll rarely tolerate less than an entire recipe by reply. And even if Tiffany's next rutabaga comes to her straightaway, she'll peer dully through the sacking at the waxy hide. "What do you do with it?" she'll ask.
Tiffany rigorously maintains the glacial express lane pace they seem to prefer at the grocery mart, and the Saturday morning that Quisenberry was suffering Clayton in line, Tiffany had met with cause to be more deliberate even than normal. She was tallying up the purchases of one of our Central American imports, a fellow who'd come up from El Salvador or maybe Guatemala to harvest cabbage and pick apples and nectarines-the type of work the local natives would rather collect subsistence than do.
As his sort has grown common roundabout, the grocery mart stocks anymore a smattering of south-of-the-border produce, and that fellow had laid before Tiffany a sack of cactus paddles, a half pound of shiny green peppers the shape and size of rifle shells, and a bag of tomatillos in their husks. Consequently, Tiffany was even more stymied than normally she would have been since none of what that fellow was hoping to buy looked to her like food exactly. Accordingly, she required not just names for the stuff and instruction in its preparation, but she seemed keen to hear an accounting of why he'd eat such things as well.
Unfortunately, that gentleman's command of English proved to be rather poor while Tiffany, an upland-Virginia public high school enrollee, was but indifferently conversant in the language herself. So he identified his purchases for her as best as he was able, while Tiffany replied to him, in ever increasing volume, "What?"
Clayton, then, enjoyed the leisure to acquaint that middle Quisenberry with developments in his movie plot at length. It seems the plumber, after a fashion, had taken that practical nurse on her dinette table, once he'd shucked her anyway from her uniform and had let his trousers fall entirely to the floor. Then she'd dropped onto the linoleum to let him thrust at her from behind which was along about when the postman spied them through the front door light.
According to Clayton, he seemed to think that practical nurse in peril, and he responded about as boldly as a mail carrier might. He let himself into the house, that is, and assessed the situation before laying his satchel aside and stepping fully out of his shorts.
"Pretty soon she had one going at either end," Clayton told that Quisenberry and then approximated for him the girth of the postman's member, sliding his thumb and finger towards his elbow where they didn't even threaten to meet.
By then most everybody had congregated at the far side of the store, and they were all of them glaring at Clayton and that pathetic Quisenberry who'd gotten, like folks will, contaminated by proximity and was taken to be fouled by the filth that Clayton was visiting upon him.
"Had her some honkers," Clayton declared. "Nipples as big around as jarlids."
Pushed to his limit, that Quisenberry finally mustered the pluck to speak. "It's some kind of cactus," he shouted at Tiffany. "You boil it and put salt on it."
Apparently, he was loud and wild-eyed enough to startle Tiffany a little. She took anyway that migrant's money without further chat, and, as that fellow sidled down the line to await his change, Clayton dumped his goods onto the belt.
"Then the meter reader come by," Clayton said, and doubtless that Quisenberry was waiting for the suitable forearm measure, but Clayton failed to reach with his thumb and forefinger and neglected, for probably a minute or more, to so much as speak again.
That's when it happened. We're most of us in general agreement about that, but we're fairly fractured as to what exactly transpired. There's a school of thought that Clayton fell prey to the bar-code scanner, that the laser somehow bored clean through his pupils to his brain and fused together a couple of pertinent vessels. Among the Merck Manual devotees, spontaneous hemorrhaging is a popular choice, but that Quisenberry has sworn up and down that Clayton never so much as twitched or betrayed in any way that he was suffering some variety of distress. That leaves the considerable faction who subscribe together to the view that Clayton, with all of his vulgar talk and his pornographic pastime, had sorely tried the patience of the Maker who'd seen fit to render him simple, after a fashion, with His wrath.
In any event, Clayton left off with the practical nurse, with her plumber, with her postman, with her meter reader. Instead he stood smiling at Tiffany as she swiped his purchases past the glass and inadvertently double-charged him for his saltines which ordinarily Clayton would have mounted an authentic conniption about. He only stood there grinning, however, until at last he spoke.
"Please, sir, do call me Titus," he said to Tiffany. "Everyone does these days."
Then he handed her a twenty-dollar bill and, shockingly, failed to wait for change. He just took up his sack and stalked out of the grocery mart altogether leaving Tiffany and that Quisenberry to watch him both in silence until he'd climbed into his Fairlane and had rolled out of the lot.
"I thought his name was Claude," Tiffany told that Quisenberry, holding still Clayton's receipt and his folding money and silver in hand.
"Clayton," that Quisenberry informed her as he set down before Tiffany the sack of salad greens his wife had dispatched him to buy.
"Titus?" Tiffany asked him.
That Quisenberry eyed her along her length, from her chest anyway clear up to her hair ribbons. "Sir?" he troubled himself to ask her back.
Then she shook her head, and he shook his head, and together they trafficked in snorts until Tiffany lapsed into study of that Quisenberry's purchase which prompted him to tell her, "Escarole."
Nobody saw Clayton for probably a solid week or more thereafter which failed to strike any of us as terribly odd. He fairly lived off of icebox Salisbury steak and that strain of spongy loafbread that's chemically incapable of aging, so it wasn't like he needed to run out every day or two to the store. Furthermore, he had only recently retired for a considerable stretch from view.
The Satin Channel had mounted for the month of February a festival of sorts. To mark the fortieth birthday of Miss Jasmine Love, they had shown all of her movies, both her starring vehicles and those films in which she had played but supporting parts. There were hundreds of them altogether, and Clayton had pretty much watched them all as he was one of Miss Jasmine Love's most devoted fans.
By critical disposition, Clayton was keenly qualified to appreciate Miss Jasmine Love's variety of pornographic method acting. He was equipped to savor, that is, her talent for selling her parts on two fronts at once. She could play, for instance, a persuasive stewardess and, simultaneously, a hopeless slut, a convincing nun saddled with convincing frailties, a suitably tedious congresswoman with an appetite for pages and an earnest news anchor grappling with a weakness for her grips.
She was just the sort of actress to cast a spell on Clayton since she seemed to share with him a genuine passion for those shabby bits of plot that served as prelude to the intercourse. And even once she was naked and suffering the attention of some gentleman or three, Miss Jasmine Love had a way of actually looking interested in the sex. She troubled herself, that is, to glance at her menfriends' faces every now and again so as to convey that they were more to her than merely outsized throbbing members.
Clayton, then, had sprung with March upon us armed with fresh movie plots and had served, consequently, as appreciably more of a conversational trial than normal. So we weren't any of us anxious to see him once he'd slipped again from view, even if he had called a Tiffany "sir" and had claimed for his name "Titus."
It was one of our deputies who finally dropped in on Clayton at length, the only one of that entire bunch who would have. Ray had been circling around toward the blacktop, was coming from a dispute and heading towards a notification of kin. He had smoothed out a spot of acrimony between two cousins over a fencerow and was en route to the home of a woman in town who didn't know she was a widow, a Peagram yet to hear of her husband's carcass out the bypass in his mangled truck.
To the chief's credit, he'd early on recognized Ray as his man for that sort of job. Or maybe instead he'd merely established that Carl and Larry and Walter and Ailene weren't any of them up to that stripe of duty themselves and had given Ray a go essentially in the spirit of last bureaucratic resort.
Ray had hit town, after all, along about when Larry was flaunting his tactlessness. One of those planer mill Caudles had slipped from his bass boat and drowned in the reservoir, and Larry had gotten dispatched to pass the news to his brother who he'd found trimming limbs in his yard.
Now the brother, it seems, was piling the unsacked limbs down by the curbing which violated an ordinance that Larry straightaway acquainted that Caudle with. That Caudle thought the provision a sorry blight on his civic liberties, and he made his opinion known to Larry in a free and salty fashion which served to prompt Larry to write that Caudle up.
In fact, Larry was ripping that Caudle's citation out of his ticket book when he remembered why he'd stopped by in the first place, and he was shoving the thing, by all accounts, at that Caudle as he spoke.
"Elvin come out of his boat somehow."
"Is he all right?"
"No. He's dead."
Larry is thought lucky that Caudle clubbed him with his loppers but the once.
So Ray was certainly the obvious choice because he was the only one untried, but he proved suitable on account of he was Ray-seemly, that is, and possessed of fully functioning ear canals. Ray appeared to know from listening to people what they needed him to say or if, in fact, they required any talk from him at all. He could settle disputes sometimes with just his mitigating presence and deliver dire news with a fitting wince and a suitably downcast glance.
He had a past, Ray did. We never heard the gist of it precisely, but every now and again the chief would up and disgorge a telling nugget. Apparently, Ray had either killed a man or had failed somehow to kill one. He'd either brought about the death of a woman or had neglected to keep one from harm. He'd committed, we'd heard, some manner of violence against his former employer-a sheriff down towards southside in the uplands beyond Roanoke, or he'd declined, we'd heard, in the heat of a set-to to spring to that sheriff's aid.
The only thing we knew for certain was that he'd deputied all over-in Birmingham and Jackson, in Charlotte and in Memphis, down in Mobile and in the wastes just south of Roanoke. Also Ray didn't strike us as nearly so hungry for life as he might have been, which we'd come to take for a settled fact as well.
We didn't know he'd ever been married until a while after he'd come when his former wife showed up one afternoon. He'd arrived in town initially in the company of just his dog. Ray was driving a thirdhand Grand Marquis that looked to be held together by a blend of puckered rust and wishfulness. The chief's wife had found him a rental house off the junction past the airfield, and she'd stopped by with a casserole and a beefy unbetrothed niece before Ray had had time to unpack his sacks and boxes.
Paper sacks, she told us. Liquor cartons. And not a stick of furniture to add to what little had come with the lease for the house. The chief's wife had sniffed about and had satisfied herself that Ray was a practiced bachelor-from his mismatched leisurewear, from his awkward halting manners, from the fact that he seemed to own even less than a settlement's worth of goods.
Then, of course, there was his dog as well, an ancient mongrel named Monroe. She was sullen and unfriendly, greasy, matted and vaporish in a grand and foully intrusive sort of way. She broke treacherous wind, that is to say, with a kind of ceremony. She would still herself and hunker and tauten, and there would come upon her features an expression of devout concentration as if she were running the figures to reconcile the national debt in her head.
The way the chief's wife told it, she and her beefy unbetrothed niece couldn't help but watch that mongrel squatting by the hearth where the planking yielded to masonite beneath Ray's fuel-oil heater. They couldn't decide if she was about to drop dead or recite a holy psalm, but clearly something of moment was afoot. So they watched her, and they waited. They even went together prattleless for a time which caught Ray's notice, and he joined the two of them in study of Monroe until she'd broken the wind that she'd been ushering through her tracts and ducts and went back to shoving her paw in her ear and groaning.
The smell arrived shortly and fairly much seized them with its ghastliness. "We stopped out on the parkway," Ray informed them. "I think she ate a squirrel."
The chief's wife declared Ray a loner and untamable after a fashion which, naturally, served to make Ray a local object of romance. Women with daughters, women with nieces, women with personal desires took to waylaying Ray and favoring him with confections. In the station house, on the street in town, out at his place unannounced they'd ply him with sheet cake and cobbler, banana bread and cookies, and the bold ones who'd driven clean out to his house would study the environs for some clue as to Ray's passions and abiding beliefs, for a hint of his feel for decor and his personal off-duty style.
They got usually just the musty clutter, tapwater if they insisted and polite but strictly measured chat from Ray. The ones who chose to linger and make of themselves impositions were often obliged to endure as well vaporish toxins from Ray's dog.
The local women began to give out that Ray was faulty somehow. In time, the prevailing view held his equipment wasn't functioning, not anyway in the manner that the Lord intended for it to. Furthermore, the women noticed that Ray was wanting in the burly arts. Didn't fish. Didn't hunt. Didn't seem to be given to jawing with fellows about while they loitered on the sidewalks and hocked up phlegm and spit it.
Accordingly, a few of our female wags began calling him a "bachelor gentleman" in a tone that served to render the phrase damning and bunghole specific, and the view that Ray was maybe just a corseted homosexual had begun to take hold a little by the time his ex-wife showed up. Karen, her name was, and she looked for Ray at the station house where she met the chief and Ailene and Carl who pointed her towards the cafŽ where Ray was taking lunch while reading what we charitably allow for a newspaper.
They'd grown fond of Ray at the cafŽ, Glenola and Ruthie had, because Ray never complained to them about the food. He'd sit in his customary booth by the window, and Ruthie would deliver his iced tea unbidden along with the extra wedges of lemon Ray cut the sugar with. He'd ask after the specials-always either chopped steak or stewed chicken-and he'd mount a show of actually considering them before he'd order the veal cutlet instead which he'd take invariably with snapped beans, sliced bread and applesauce.
They're proud of their food at the cafŽ, Ruthie and Glenola are, which is curious since they make none of it themselves. They thaw it, of course. They heat it. They open cans and jars. They work, when need be, twist ties entirely off of sacks, but they never actually cook anything from scratch. They won't even spring for the name brands of the prepared food that they buy, and they're notorious for the watery quality of their succotash and the rawhide toughness of their turkey loaf.
It was no small thing, then, that Ray showed up day after day and didn't complain, especially given that he invariably ordered the veal cutlet-a breaded oval of gray gristle that could have come from a draft goat. He even ate the stuff, or at least more of it than their other customers ate, and Ray tended to be rather artful with his leavings, would shove them about in such a way as to make it look like he'd been fed.
Plainly, the point for Ray was the forty-five minutes he got to spend with the paper and out of earshot of his colleagues back at the station house. He was partial to the fulsome wedding announcements and the stark obituaries, to the breathlessness of the high school sports reports. And he lingered, like most of the rest of us, over the "Heard on the Grapevine" column which is compiled by an anonymous local busybody and serves as a strain of eavesdropping in print.
We know who went shopping for a bedroom suite in Richmond. We know who endured a weekend visit from in-laws. We know who consulted an oral surgeon over a painful gum complaint. And we tend to learn which women about have gotten themselves with child even before the rightful father has been identified and informed, and all of it is managed with the arsenic sweetness of a spinster aunt.
So Ray was eating, after a fashion, and reading when his ex-wife turned up. According to Ruthie, they didn't behave like exes often do, weren't noticeably sharp and brittle with each other. Karen kissed Ray on the cheek and slid directly into his booth, and, when Ruthie came over, Ray introduced them forthrightly-without, that is, any sneering insinuations or sulfurous asides.
Only once Ray had recommended to Karen the veal cutlet and she'd ordered, before he'd finished speaking, the stewed chicken instead did Ruthie believe that they'd, in fact, been joined in matrimony. Then she rushed off to the kitchen to inform Glenola that Ray had not always been gay.
Apparently, they just sat and caught up for a while. Ruthie would wander in and out of earshot as she refilled their tea, and, the way she told it, Karen was riding up to visit her mother in Greencastle, had taken off from some sort of clerical job she had down in Carolina. According to Ruthie, Karen was at that time dating a real estate agent named Don, but she wasn't, in Ruthie's estimation, serious about him.
They appeared to give out of conversation quicker than most people might, and they sat together for a while in a manner of strained silence before Karen opened her handbag and produced a photograph from it, a snapshot of Ray standing at the seaside holding a child-a little girl with bangs and no teeth to speak of, with water wings on her arms.
"I was going through some things," Karen told Ray by way of accounting for the photo. He left it to lay on the tabletop, contented himself with glancing at it there.
Then she cried, Karen did, trickling at first but gushing pretty lavishly in time. Ray circled around to sit with her on her upholstered bench, supplied her with napkins from the dispenser as he spoke softly into her ear.
Ruthie ventured over with the iced-tea pitcher before Karen had entirely recovered, but Ray waved her off from pouring and asked instead for the check. As Ruthie tallied it up, she glanced at the photo on the Formica tabletop. Ray looked ten years younger, and she hardly recognized him behind his unsightly mustache.
"Cute as a button," Ruthie said of the child, laying the bill on the table.
Ray nodded in Ruthie's direction. Ray informed Ruthie, "She was."
Ray walked Karen to her car and put her in it. He sent her off with one of his better sad little winces and a wave, and two days later we all of us read about that encounter in the paper. About the tears. About the divorce. About the veal cutlet and the stewed chicken. About Don, the real estate agent boyfriend. About Ray and Karen's dead child.
Naturally, we were a few facts and telling particulars short of load. We knew Ray and Karen had been blessed with a daughter and Ray and Karen's daughter had died. We proved content, as a population, to supply the rest of it on our own.
We had her snatched by a marauding infection. We had her kicked in the head by a pony. We had her run over accidentally by a neighbor's minivan. We even had her for a while gunned down by that crazy bastard off in Salem who'd shot up a playschool due to some reversals he had suffered and who'd been given out politely on the nightly newscast as "troubled" and "disturbed."
There was even a version that circulated with a hint of authority to it. A local woman, a Crouse from the slaughterhouse Crouses, knew people who had cousins down by Charlotte, and some one of them had claimed an actual acquaintance with Ray and Karen and had passed along that they'd lost their little girl during Ray's stint in Gastonia. She'd drowned, we were told, in a muddy sump hole of a pond at the bottom of Ray and Karen's lot.
By way of elaboration and narrative color, a few of the women about decided that Ray had neglected to watch her in quite the fashion that he should have due to his depression over the man he'd killed or the woman he'd failed to save, due to his friction with the sheriff he'd not assisted. They were none of them mitigations outright but served as reason enough for pity and helped to render Ray a tragic figure roundabout.
A number of females anyway concluded that Ray was emotionally stymied and not, in fact, a bachelor gentleman after all, so they laid siege to him and fairly badgered him with their sympathy which took the form of cakes and casseroles, scented cards from the five-and-dime and a regular raft of sisterly embraces on the street which, with any encouragement from Ray, would have sweltered and evolved.
Ray stopped, along about that time, in conjunction with Carl a Guidry on the truck route. Ray and Carl were sitting out on the patio at Little Earl's sharing a basket of onion rings when that Guidry sped right past them drifting across the center line. Then she pulled a u-turn just up the road and came back the other way still weaving and racing at ten miles per hour above the posted speed.
"Who is that?" Ray asked Carl who considered the vehicle as he blotted up the last of the onion ring morsels with his dampened fingerend.
Carl took up his campaign hat from the bench. "Some woman," he told Ray.
She eased to the shoulder almost before they could switch the beacon on, and Carl-as was his custom-approached the driver's door with his hand on his pistol grip while Ray wandered over to the passenger window to stand. That Guidry was awfully done up for a woman out for a spot of erratic driving. She had her hair piled on top of her head, dangling platinum earrings, pearls, a skirt and hose and heels, a gauzy blouse as well that she'd left unbuttoned to show off her leopard-pattern push-up bra.
"What in God's name are you doing?" Carl asked her and presently added, "Ma'am?"
She didn't even so much as visit upon Carl a glance. "You're Officer Tatum, aren't you?"
"My friends call me May."
"I'm talking to you!" Carl smacked his palm on the car roof.
"It's the grief," that Guidry told Ray, laying her fingers to her breastbone for effect. "Sometimes it takes ahold of me, and I do the funniest things. I lost my husband a little while back. I know all about anguish."
Now technically that was not entirely true. In point of fact, that Guidry had lost her ex-husband. He had come up on the short end of a dispute at the penitentiary in Bland. One of his fellow inmates had desired that Guidry's ex-husband's cigarettes and had drummed with a chairleg on that fellow's cranium to claim them.
That Guidry's ex-husband wouldn't even have been in the penitentiary in Bland if he'd not caught that Guidry in bed with an insurance adjuster who'd come out to the house once hailstones had beaten the chrome off of her car. Apparently, that Guidry had told him what she often tells men in the way of a suggestive conversational gambit.
"You know," she'd said, crowding him close as he took Polaroids of her sedan, "I'm an honest-to-God natural blonde. All over."
Like some fellows will, that insurance adjuster had turned her upside down to see. The way we heard it, he was still inspecting that Guidry when her estranged husband happened by and broke, in a snit, all of that gentleman's bones he could lay his brogans to which had earned him his aggravated assault conviction.
In truth, then, that Guidry knew little of anguish except maybe how to inflict it.
"License and registration," Carl said.
"I left my pocketbook back at the house," that Guidry informed Ray. She giggled and tossed her head girlishly. She added, "Silly me." Then she patted her passenger seat. "Hop on in. We'll go get it."
Ray didn't reach for the door handle. Ray failed to move at all, so that Guidry apprised Ray of the extent to which she was personally blonde.
That Guidry scooted in her brief skirt along the seat and reached out to find Ray's hand with her own. "Come on with me. You're just sad. That's all."
Ray indulged in one of his winces and gave a slight shake of his head while Carl peered in at that Guidry fairly prostrate on her car seat and cleared his throat so as to gain her notice. "I've been happier," he volunteered.
She gave a little shriek of disgust as she started her car and veered into the roadway slinging cinders. Ray managed to tell Carl, "Let her go," before he'd fully unholstered his gun.
When the women about still couldn't snare him, they laid it off to "commitment issues"' complicated by Ray's numerous frailties and his guilt over his child. Then he went and hooked up for a while with a female from over in Staunton, a redhead who taught at the college and would come stay with Ray on weekends. She was partial to turquoise jewelry and nearly undetectable makeup, was infuriatingly slender and athletic. It's a wonder she hadn't been done in by the venom in the air.
They only lasted a month or so before Ray took up with a woman, a Negress who had been around before. She worked for the Park Service and had come down from D.C. to investigate some sort of misadventure in the National Forest. That was just after Ray had hired on, and they must have had some truck together while they went around chasing down leads and establishing facts. Kit, her name was, and she grew to be soundly detested by the women about since they could among them just as readily be slender and athletic as they could any of them be black.
She was a handsome woman and accomplished in some manner of kung fu. She'd fairly thrashed one afternoon a fellow out at the boat landing, one of those sorry Tallys from back in the creases and the hollows, that ilk who sides his house with roof wrap, pitches all of his trash into gullies and figures anything his neighbors haven't bolted down is his. The way we heard it, he ventured a comment that woman found provocative and, to judge by the consequences, at least a trifle irritating. With her shoebottom, it would seem, or maybe instead the heel of her hand, she responded to that Tally by violently renovating his septum for him and relieving him of the few teeth he had left.
By all reports, she was remarkably quick. She was sure and economical. She was, needless to say, a little titillating. Men, after all, like a handsome exotic woman well enough, but we're prepared to adore one trained to leave us in a bloody insensible heap.
So while the females about flagged a little in their zeal for Ray, we men compensated by nursing among us an interest in his love life, most especially those wanton episodes that might involve kung fu.
Ray would have surely driven past Clayton's and clean out to the blacktop but for that airbrushed eagle which impressed him as jarring and out of place. In fact, it's a wonder he even noticed it in among the clutter. Clayton lived in the house where his parents had lived and their parents before them, but no blood kin of his, by all indications, had ever picked up the yard.
There were countless lawnmower carcasses, assorted parts and pieces of cars, a pestilential heap of rotting tires, rounds of ancient unsplit firewood, outmoded tractor implements given over to weeds and rust. By the looks of it, all of the appliances Clayton's people had ever replaced had simply been hauled from the house and tossed off the side porch. Cookstoves and air conditioners. Refrigerators and water heaters. The largest privately held assortment of toaster ovens in the Mid-South.
The house itself was one of those rambling frame white-trash plantation structures with rotted columns and missing pickets, sagging sills all around, the bulk of the shutters in with the shrubbery and only traces of paint on the siding. The tin roof was rusted and hopelessly leaky at the seams. The chimney stack looked to be held up by inertia. Clayton had taped sheets of Visqueen over his windows years back against the cold, and he'd punched through them here and there so as to ventilate in summer. That house fairly cried out for a couple of gallons of high test and a match.
Accordingly, it's hard to say just why Ray noticed Clayton's eagle. Ray tended to lay it off to the gaudy novelty of the thing and the fact that he'd never previously known occasion to look upon it because Clayton had been glued to the Satin Channel since back before Ray hired on. Of course, that eagle was hideous as well which contributed to its magnetism, and Ray allowed that he was only maybe forty yards past the house when he put on his brakes and shoved his shifter hard into reverse.
Clayton had swiveled his dish about so that his eagle faced the road. It was a fierce-looking bird with its wings spread and a malevolent glint in its eye, and it clutched some manner of serpent in its talons, a snake that looked remarkably like an oversized fishing worm.
Ray was tempted straightaway to think Clayton had either found Jesus or was dead since watching the Satin Channel was all Ray had ever known him to do. Most of the rest of us had been acquainted with Clayton in his presatellite years, so we were aware he enjoyed an enormous capacity for undirected sloth and used to sit for hours, days even, in a mildewed recliner on his front porch with, for company, a washtub full of ice and three-dollar-a-twelve-pack beer.
For recreation, Clayton had exterminated the last of his mother's hydrangeas by urinating upon them over the porch rail.
Ray pulled in behind Clayton's Fairlane in what passes for Clayton's drive, and he saw that the front door was standing open beyond Clayton's rotted and punctured screen which was a little odd because it was cool-only coming on to May at the time- and even Ray knew Clayton warmed his house with a puny kerosene heater, or warmed anyway his chair with the headgrease stain and the ratty arms.
"Are you in there, Clayton?" Ray called out as he mounted the porch proper, and when he got no reply, he feared that Clayton had met with some manner of mischief, might have been set on by some of his sorry cousins from Clayton's mother's line.
She'd been a Goins from down by Ararat, and her people were notoriously shiftless, the sort who would have to come up in the world to qualify even as riffraff. Ray was prepared to fear a few of them could have broken in on Clayton, might have pummeled him senseless and made off with what they could sell.
"Clayton, it's Ray Tatum. Are you in there?"
Ray lingered at the door and heard what proved to be Clayton around the corner inside. He was humming a hymn. Ray recognized it: "This Is My Father's World."
Ray let himself in which was a matter of wrenching open the swollen screen door, and he found Clayton standing on a quartersawn sideboard that he'd shoved up before the fireplace. He was drawing with a sooty hunk of charred wood directly onto the wall. Now that might have struck Ray as alarming if Clayton's house had been a bit finer, but the interior was, if anything, a little less tidy than Clayton's yard.
"Hey," Ray said but failed to raise a nod or even a glance as Clayton declined to interrupt his sketching.
Clayton was outlining freehand an item on the plastered facing of the chimney stack, and Ray allowed that it looked to him there at the first like a skate or a horseshoe crab-a big sweeping flange on the right-hand side tapering down on the left to a narrow hook of a tail.
"What are you up to there, Clayton?"
Clayton still didn't trouble himself to look at Ray but labored instead over the sundry jogs and pocks and irregularities along his outline.
"Clayton!" Ray said it sharply enough to turn Clayton from his sketching. "Are you all right?"
Clayton smiled. According to Ray, it wasn't his normal strain of smirk, and he failed altogether to snort clear his noseholes in his customary fashion as he parted his lips to show Ray his mouthful of sorry neglected teeth.
"I'm well," he said, "thank you."
That was a little out of the way of Clayton's usual response. He ordinarily went with "I guess," supplemented by a grinding shake of his head.
"What's that you're drawing?" Ray peered about the front room as he spoke. He noticed that Clayton's heater was extinguished, and he stepped over to sniff it for fumes. He looked to see if Clayton had gotten into his mother's ancient Drambuie again, but he failed to spy the bottle anywhere about.
"Sort of looks like one of those stingrays."
Clayton kept after his enterprise, not turning, not offering to speak. Ray examined the half-eaten sleeve of saltines on the table by Clayton's chair and passed Clayton's tin of potted meat under his nose.
"Or maybe some kind of crab."
Ray stepped to the kitchen door and scanned around for evidence that Clayton had maybe gotten into the mouse bait. There was just the usual squalor, the customary heap of stoneware and his mother's china service in the sink.
"Did you have some sort of pain? Some kind of complaint?" Ray asked as he closed again on Clayton and drew up before the sideboard.
Clayton was famously in the habit, when he was feeling poorly, of dosing himself from his mother and daddy's medicine chest upstairs. They'd been dead the both of them for nearly a dozen years by then, and what pills and salves and drops were left couldn't have been terribly potent, but Clayton would take them on a whim and mix them freely and in bulk.
"Clayton," Ray said. "Clayton!"
Clayton admired his handiwork, drawing back as best he could to do it. He looked down at Ray and smiled again, once more without the snort. "Please, sir, do call me Titus. Everyone does these days."
"Did you get into the medicine? Titus?"
"I'm well, thank you."
Ray didn't quite know what to do. Clayton didn't strike him as terribly less reasonable than he'd ever been, and Ray could allow that maybe Clayton had given over the Satin Channel and had decided, on a lark, to become artistic and passably genteel. People threw over vice routinely in order to follow the Savior, and Ray was prepared to believe that Clayton might have quit his pornography and fetched up somehow a little wide of the Lord. Who was to say, after all, that drawing with a hunk of charred wood on the wall wasn't a marked improvement over the close study of blue movies?
In shifting about, Ray stepped on some glass that had shattered out of the frame when Clayton had cleared the chimney stack by flinging to the floor a dusty yellowed etching of a bull moose set upon by wolves. Clayton turned at the sharp sound of the glass underfoot. He smiled at Ray and spoke.
"First ice. Skua. Cape pigeon. Petrel." Clayton shifted back around to make a mark on the wall, a puny smudge below his drawing and closer to the mantelpiece. "Fair wind," he said. "The glass is high."
And with that Clayton climbed off the sideboard, dropping his hunk of charred wood to the floor. He crossed to his chair with the greasy headstain and plopped onto the seat where he took up his potted meat tin and chased with his finger after a gelatinous morsel.
"I've got to go see a woman in town," Ray said, "but I'm going to come back by. OK? We'll figure out what's up with you." As Clayton nibbled at a saltine, Ray laid a hand to his shoulder to gain his notice. "All right? You just sit tight."
Clayton moved his head in a fashion that Ray elected to take for a nod, and he was full upon the doorsill, Ray was, before Clayton saw fit to speak.
"It's Melissa now. Sometimes Missy," he said. "Never Angela. Never Denise."
Ray could never quite describe to his satisfaction the chill that shot clear through him. He stopped. He turned. He could never quite say why he didn't sink to the floor.
Clayton smiled. Clayton polished off his saltine. Clayton declined to speak.
Ray dialed up the station house and made his excuses which served to dispatch Larry to notify that Peagram in town that her husband was trapped in his truck on the bypass and dead.
Larry noticed as he pulled up that she'd failed to draw her Biscayne all the way into her drive, and, once she'd come to the door, he pointed and told her, "Your tailend's out in the road."
"It quit on me. Dale'll move it. He'll be here any minute."
"Oh," Larry muttered and set about straightaway cobbling up a display of compassion. He shifted a little spit. He looked a little gassy. He shook his head. "I'm doubting it," he said.
—from Polar by T. R. Pearson, Copyright © January 2002, Viking Press, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.