I searched for the vintage record, flipping through the stacks of dusty cardboard sleeves while I waited for the Sheriff to answer the phone. The Bitterwater Sheriff’s Office had once served a thriving town before the granary shut down. In the years since then the population of my tiny Nebraska hometown, hovered at 1,495 hardy souls.
On the seventh ring someone picked up with a clatter. A gruff voice wheezed into the receiver, barked out an official title.
“You got him.”
I went straight to the facts. “Celeste Dupre was my mother; she disappeared from Bitterwater ten years ago. Her husband, the Reverend Mr. Black has just confessed to her murder.”
An inarticulate splutter of air told me I had the Sheriff’s full attention. “Where are you calling from?”
Holding the antique receiver against one shoulder I plucked the tattered Kingston Trio album from the pile and grinned. “I’ve come home, Sheriff. I’m here in the house.”
The sound of papers shuffling and the clunk of something being shoved across a desk carried through the phone. “Is your stepfather there with you? Can I speak to him?”
My gaze shifted to the open doorway of the kitchen, to the dark trouser cuffs neatly folded above the polished wingtip Oxford footwear. The visual evoked a sense of nostalgia. I liked the shoes. The uneven tapping of fingers fumbling on a keyboard drew my attention back to the call. “I’m afraid the Reverend is beyond the reach of earthly words. You see, he’s found salvation in the work of the Lord.”
The silence was so abrupt it echoed. “Tell me what you done, Lainie Dupre.”
Pulling the shiny black disk from the musty cardboard, I slipped the circle of plastic over the bright silver nub of the turntable and set the needle gently on the groove. A scratchy muffle preceded the twang of banjo strings and then the mellow voice with its warm soothing tone washed over me and a wave of sentimentality swallowed my senses.
“You know that idea from the good book, the one about an eye-for-an-eye?” I received an affirmative grunt and continued. “There you go, Sheriff, I’ve been courting biblical vengeance.” After that the Sheriff got real quiet and listened until I stopped speaking.
He asked me some questions and I answered truthfully but had trouble concentrating. The song brought to mind powerful images of Mama humming along to the words, playing the record over and over. The reminiscing filled up my insides and drowned out the hollow echoes.
Mama prayed her husband would become that gentle man in black. He hadn’t.
“Deputy Williams is almost there, Lainie. Do you hear me?” The Sheriff barely paused for a response. “He’s going to get you out of this situation. Don’t resist or fuss.”
I ignored his urgency and sang along with the chorus, smiling, weaving my hips to the music, side-stepping the bloody rivulets seeping across the hardwood floor. The reverend in the song was patient and strong, capable of turning the other cheek even when struck.
The man in the kitchen had ministered his flock with visions of brimstone and the condemnation of hellfire, delivered in a stentorian clamor from the creaky wooden pulpit in the dilapidated Pentecostal church at the edge of town. I imagined his charismatic baritone resonating with the spiritual desire to bring converts over the chasm of righteousness through baptism-by-water.
“Talk to me, Lainie.” A voice interrupted.
The Sheriff sounded far away, but the words began to empty out of me. “I was six, already half an orphan when Mama brought him into the house.” I peered around the room, recognized the familiar stone fireplace on the north wall and the lace curtains on the small windows flanking the front entry, and felt whole. “I’ve been too long away.”
Bitterwater lived up to its name. Established at the end of the nineteenth century, back when desperate land grubbers still believed it was possible to grow corn in the wind-scoured landscape, the town teetered on the verge of expiring. The pendulum swinging with each generation, newly graduated kids fleeing to the city, only to return, one at a time in a reverse exodus. Worn looks stamped their faces, hunger churned in their bellies, and an ache for a simpler life grew in their hearts.
“He buried Mama,” my voice cracked, “in the garden patch next to the shed. She’s beneath the Buffalo Berry bushes I helped him plant right before he sent me to the state home.”
The Sheriff swore softly but I didn’t mind. I’d long ago accepted that some emotional releases required cursing.
“How’d you get back?”
I glanced at the clock. Almost six minutes had passed. “Hitched a ride with a nice trucker. He worried about dropping me alone on the outskirts of town.” Like a wild bird following an ancestral memory, I’d flown east from Alliance, seeking the place of my birth.
“I remember Celeste.”
In my memories Mama wept, worn down, her beauty claimed by sorrow. “I never believed she went into the frosty night, neglecting to leave a note, the car sitting cold in the driveway and no warm kisses on my brow.”
The armature on the turntable reset and the song began again.
Sheriff Dunsteady’s words rang in her ear, the receiver heavy in her hand. “In Bitterwater we pride ourselves on taking care of our own. We failed you once, Lainie. We won’t do it again.”
The patrol car pulled up outside as I began to sing the words. “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley. You’ve got to walk it by yourself.” The Sheriff’s gravelly voice joined mine and I knew I was home. Free.
Flash Fiction Challenge: Song Shuffle, Part II @ www.terribleminds.com