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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

Meteors in August (22 page)

BOOK: Meteors in August
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I raced down the streets. I ran so hard my heels kicked my butt with every step. I wanted to go someplace where nobody knew me. But I couldn't get far enough from home. My father's humiliation was inside me. His anger was mine. I might be a stranger to everyone I met, but I would always know my own name.

Weary drivers leaned on their horns when I darted into the yellow glaze of their headlights. I never stopped.

Gasping for breath, I leaped up the steps of our porch. I heard the whine of the swing, Mother creaking back and forth in the dark. “Daddy,” I whispered.

And she answered, “I know.”

21

IT WAS
already midnight, and Mother had no intention of going to rescue Daddy. “Stew in his own juice,” she said.

I told her about the cut on his chin. “He might be hurt,” I said.

“He'll live till morning.”

I knew she was probably right, but I still thought it was wrong to let him sit in jail. Arlen agreed. She came charging up the steps half an hour after I got home.

“Those heathens are probably beating Dean bloody right this minute,” Arlen said. “And here you are sitting on the porch doing nothing to stop them.”

“I'm sure the sheriff is too tired to beat on anyone,” Mom said.

But Arlen wouldn't let up, so we headed downtown to pay Daddy's bail and haul him home. The streets were already deserted, and the air was thick with smoke.

Sheriff Wolfe said my father was asleep, and that he'd be better off staying right where he was for the night. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” he muttered, which got Arlen on her high horse.

“You listen here, mister,” she said, “we've got a right. You tell us the bail. We pay it. We take him home. Right, Wolfe?” He didn't budge even when the spit started flying with the words.

“No bail till we see a judge.” He said it slow; he had all night.

“Well, that's that,” Mom said.

Arlen looked at Mother the way you'd look at a woman drowning a litter of newborn kittens in the toilet. “What kind of woman …?” Arlen said, and my mother answered, “A tired woman.”

I wanted to take him home now, while the streets were still dark and empty.

Arlen glared at Caleb Wolfe. Sooner or later she'd have to blink. “And just when will you be seeing this judge?” she said. The sheriff wasn't coming up with any answer quick enough for Arlen, so she repeated each word, nice and slow, talking to the sheriff as if he were some kind of full-grown moron.

“No judge comes through Willis unless I call him,” Wolfe said.

Arlen ripped the phone from his desk and shoved the receiver up against his ear. “Then call him,” she hissed.

“You don't call a judge in the middle of the night, ma'am.”

Arlen flicked the receiver as if she meant to whack him across the jaw. “What's the number, Wolfe? I'm not afraid of disturbing some judge's precious sleep. In fact, I'm sure any judge in the county would be mighty interested in hearing how you run this town.”

She started dialing numbers, any numbers, but Wolfe cut her short. “No need to call a judge anyway,” he said. “There won't be any bail.”

“That's not for you to decide. You can't hold a man without bail.”

“No charges. No bail. Simple.”

“No charges?” Mother said. She sounded disappointed. Arlen dropped the receiver in the cradle.

“Red Elk told me to forget it. I could do it myself. I was there. But Red Elk says to me, ‘What's the point? I don't swear on the white man's Bible.' White people. White jury. White witnesses. One big Indian with a braid. One dark-skinned sheriff with a grudge. Waste of time. You want to take your man home? Fine. I'm glad to get him out of my jail. Stinks worse than any badger I ever had to shoot. I can go home. Sleep in my own bed.”

Daddy cussed when we woke him. Blood from the scratch on his chin had dried to a crusty brown, and he smelled even worse than Wolfe said, urine and beer, a man who'd spilled his drink and pissed his pants. Arlen wasn't so keen on helping him now. She backed out of the cell and waited in the hallway.

“Time to go home, Dean,” Mother said. She spoke fast, clipping her words. Father sat on the edge of the cot, afraid to look at her. “Now or never,” she said, turning toward the door.

“I'm coming,” Daddy whispered.

After my father was out of the way, Caleb Wolfe still didn't get much of a chance to sleep in his own bed that night. For days afterward he told his story to anyone who would listen, reciting the events of August third as if they were a litany. Men nodded and said it was a damn shame. The sheriff was hoping for some response that would set him free. Women whispered among themselves, saying it was a terrible thing. But no one ever thought to tell Sheriff Wolfe he wasn't to blame.

Around six-thirty the calls started. Folks were just waking up when they spotted someone skulking around their windows, a man trying to get a look at fat ladies wriggling into girdles. The sheriff could track him by the calls: Seventh to Willow; he wasn't moving fast. Wolfe took his time getting dressed and finally nabbed the suspect just past Ike's Truckstop, less than five minutes after the fellow had exposed his most private parts to Miriam Deets as she was setting the place up for the breakfast crowd.
Glory hallelujah
, she reported him saying right after she said, “Mornin', Myron.”
Glory hallelujah
. Then he pulled his jacket open, revealing his unzippered pants and all that dangled out of them.

Wolfe wasn't getting off easy this time. There were going to be charges, all right—even though the man was no stranger and no threat, even though he apologized to Miriam and Ike and offered to pay for the pitcher of cream Miriam had dropped on the floor. He even offered to wipe up the spill. Ike Turner told Caleb Wolfe to get that damn pervert out of his place. Wolfe said, “I'll just take Myron downtown and call his mother to take him on home, if you folks don't mind.” He didn't realize that this was the last time Myron Evans was going to get away with his quirks in this town.

“Don't you dare,” Ike thundered. “Look at this poor girl, shaking like a rabbit, maybe scarred for life, and you want this piece of garbage out walking the streets again tonight? Too bad you don't have a wife, Wolfe. You'd see it different.”

Caleb Wolfe leaned over and tapped Miriam's shoulder as she scrubbed the floor. She shrank away as if a man's hand was a terrible thing. “Ma'am?” the sheriff said. “Do you want to press charges?”

“What?”

“Do you want Myron to go to jail, ma'am?”

She kept wiping the tiles even though the cream was gone. By then Lanfear Deets had come in from the pumps, waving his stump, telling Wolfe to get that scum out of there. Later people asked each other: If Lanfear had two hands, would he have strangled Myron, or told Miriam to forget it and just let him go?

Miriam Deets was a leaf in the wind of Lanfear's voice; she had no choice but to blow his way. Wolfe planned on talking to her later in the day, or maybe tomorrow. She'd come to her senses and see that Myron Evans was as harmless as they come. She'd laugh at herself for getting worked up and being afraid of a man who unzips his pants and limps around town.

Sending Myron to prison would be as cruel as strapping him down in a chair and turning on the electricity. Men like him had a hard time in prison. Men like Myron had to sleep with one eye open. People who showed themselves never did anything about it. Wolfe knew that, and plenty of other things too. He'd sit Miriam down after she'd had a few hours to calm herself, a few hours for the image of Myron's
Glory hallelujah
to fade.

In the meantime he had no choice but to take Myron downtown; still he refused to use his handcuffs, not on a lame man, dammit, and he let Myron sit in the front seat, a friend, not a prisoner. The morning light over the blue mountains was something to see with all that smoke in the air. They said so, Myron Evans and Caleb Wolfe, and didn't say much else. Later Wolfe swore he had no clue, no clue at all, but he should have read the sign: he knew what was coming when the horizon turned the color of blood at dawn, and he would have paid attention except for the fact that he stopped believing the warnings in the sky when he moved to this town.

Three things happened after Myron was arrested that morning. The first was that Myron's mother refused to visit him in jail. And the second was that Sheriff Wolfe, having had a very long and tiresome night, fell asleep at his desk. That's how the third thing happened.

It was past noon when Caleb Wolfe woke with the image of the red sun burning a hole in his skull. He was groggy from the heat and stiff from sleeping in the chair. When he looked out the window, the sun was high and white, but he still had the distinct feeling something was wrong. He splashed water on his face and fumbled down the hall to see if Myron wanted something to eat.

Myron Evans wasn't ever going to be hungry again. Myron Evans wasn't going to peep in any windows or sing out any
Glory hallelujah's
. Myron Evans was hanging in his cell, strangled by his own shirt.

At 12:17, Dr. Ben pronounced him dead; and by 12:45, Arlen was at our door saying it could have been Daddy if we'd left him there all night by himself, as if something in the cell made Myron do it, as if it had nothing to do with the man himself. Myron left a note for his mother:
I try to be good, but sometimes I can't help myself
.

Every time I closed my eyes that night I saw Myron's thin white chest, his skin stretched so tight I could count his ribs. His face bulged above the knotted sleeve of his shirt. His eyes never closed. The last thing he'd done on this earth was kick the chair out from under his feet. When I could make every other picture disappear, I still saw his feet dangling, those heavy shoes, black and thick-soled, those neat bows, tied for the last time.

The next morning I went looking for Freda Graves. I needed her to lay hands on me so I could say the right things when I talked to God. When I thought of Him on my own, I wanted to curse Him for letting Myron hang himself. I could understand Caleb Wolfe falling asleep on the job, but God, why were His eyes closed the night Elliot Foot set the town on fire? What kept His hands so busy that morning as Myron Evans took off his shirt? All He had to do was give Caleb Wolfe a little nudge, jolt him awake, let the chair fall with a clatter. That wasn't much to ask of God.

Freda's blinds were pulled shut, just as they always were. I pounded on her door; the sound was so hollow I thought the house must be completely empty, that even the furniture and carpet had disappeared. I went back three times that day. As the last smoky light of dusk gave way to a starless night, a neighbor poked his head out his window and said, “Just missed her. She had a bag and was headed toward Main. Good riddance. Nothing but trouble that woman.” I didn't wait to hear the rest; I tore after her. I ran almost a mile before I caught sight of her heading west. Her steps were slow and steady, as if she meant to walk to Idaho. A black shawl draped her head, and she plodded along, a stooped old woman trying to sneak out of town in a quiet way, moving slow so no one would see she was running.

I got close enough to touch her and almost put my hand on her bony back, but something stopped me. I kicked gravel at the heels of her shoes; she didn't turn. I said her name and still she kept on shuffling, deaf and dumb. Finally I ran ahead of her to stare her in the eye, but even that was impossible. As night filled up the valley, Freda Graves hobbled down the highway wearing a pair of mirrored sunglasses.

I said, “Myron's dead.”

“Yes.”

“Where're you going?”

“Away from this valley.” Her voice was a scatter of stones falling on the road.

“Take off those glasses.”

“I cannot.”

“They're not glued to your face. Let me look at you,” I said. I wasn't afraid of her anymore. Nothing mattered. Not after what Myron had done.

“I've put out my eyes.”

I reached out to tear the glasses off her face, but she dodged my hand. “You're not blind,” I said. “You saw me.”

“I felt the air move.”

I didn't believe her, but I didn't try again. Blind or not, Freda Graves couldn't help me. She had lifted us toward God in her mighty arms, but she was a coward in the end and we were farther from the Lord than we ever imagined. Freda Graves didn't care what happened to us. She wasn't going to stick around and take the blame for Myron and Elliot; she was going to let us fall alone, one by one.

I watched her for a long time, until she became a dot on the road. I thought of the bag she carried, and I wondered what she chose to take. I imagined all her little Christs jostling against one another: the smooth soapstone Jesus she would fondle when she stopped to rest; the frail, twisted man, arching off the Cross; the Jesus with the burning eyes who blamed us for our sins, who said,
I
must die so that you may live
, who shouted,
Murderers, sinners
, who cried out,
Bring me water
. And if she spoke the truth, if she had blinded herself, she would run her fingers over the cool pages of her Bible, waiting for the words to rise off the paper and speak to her.

I remembered Freda Graves saying we had to watch out for ourselves because God wasn't looking down on us every second. He had the universe in His charge. Our lives were small, rags on sticks in the wind. She said that when Job cursed God, God answered from the whirlwind:
Does the rain have a father?
It made sense to me then but not now. I said, yes, yes, you are that father, you who demand so much. But God said,
Who has given to me, that I should repay him?
And I knew this was His final answer. In the end, even Jesus asked, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

22

DADDY MADE
himself sicker by the day. “He'll be fine by the time that scratch heals,” said Dr. Ben, chuckling. “In a week or so people should have something else to talk about.” The doctor laughed again, but Mother was not amused.

BOOK: Meteors in August
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