Chapter One of a novel in progress:
June 24, 1978 fell on a Saturday, a slow day in the newspaper business, and I usually love nothing better. We run a skeleton staff in the newsroom on the weekend. Once a month every reporter pulls Saturday or Sunday duty, and this was my week in the barrel. At best, you get paid to do nothing. At worst, you might get a breaking news story tossed your way, maybe a fire, maybe a flower show, but usually nothing you can’t wrap up fast. Or maybe you just catch up on whatever you let dangle during the week.
The trouble was, I had nothing I could work on until Monday morning when the Burleigh County courthouse opened. My boss, Billy Finn, knew that because he was the editor who sent me out there. I had spent the better part of a week searching through deed transfers to see if developers were buying property under dummy names with the aim of carving residential development out of farmland. To me that was a big So What, but it was just the kind of story Finn loved: catching some schemer in the act. He’d dress it up with talk of ancestral small farms being destroyed, but all he cared about was embarrassing some bigshot developer. I was on board with that part, but after four days of driving 30 miles each way to sit in a windowless room that smelled like mildew and checking every deed, lien, and record of sale going back two years, I had nothing to show for it. That pissed Finn off, because he hates to give up on one of his own ideas. He was convinced I just wasn’t looking hard enough.
So I knew that unless I came up with something on my own, he was going to throw me some lousy story like a beauty pageant or a rodeo, something that didn’t wind up until 10 or 11, which meant writing against a tight deadline and still not getting out of the office before 1 a.m. I needed something, however thin, to make it look like I was too buried in work to be bothered. But so far I had nothing.
Finn did, though. “Busy?” he said, gliding up to my desk and flashing that thin smile that was no smile at all. If he had a sense of humor, he never brought it to work. But I saw that smile a lot.
“Well, I was thinking about driving out along 420 to check on for sale signs…”
“Spare me. Here.” He handed me a slip of paper with the name Barefoot along with an address and phone number.
“Kid lost his dog. Why don’t you go check it out.”
I stared at him, searching for some sign that this was his idea of a joke, or maybe just an insult. Maybe they were the same thing for him. But lost dog stories are sort of newsroom shorthand for rock bottom. They don’t really exist, like trying to fry an egg on the sidewalk on a hot day, although I did know an editor who sent some poor sap out to try it once. Even Finn felt compelled to explain this one, though.
“It won some prize. It’s a show dog. Probably cost a lot of money. Maybe it got stolen.”
“What kind is it?”
“German. Vi something.”
“Weimaraner,” I said too quickly, right into his trap.
“Okay, expert, get going.”
The parking lot was almost empty. The copy desk and composing room staffs wouldn’t start coming in before mid-afternoon. I’d parked close to the building but not close enough to get any shade. My shirt was glued to the back of the seat before I reached the street.
Heading west on Fifth Street, I didn’t see another car for four blocks. When I was a kid, I got dragged downtown almost every Saturday so my mother could shop. We spent most of that time circling blocks, scouting for a parking space. You fought your way in, and you fought your way out. What a difference twenty years and three suburban shopping centers will make. Now you can park wherever you want, and odds are you’ll have the block to yourself.
On the edge of the business district sat the city’s big mainline churches—First Baptist, First Methodist—then the main branch of the public library, a cluster of insurance agencies and travel agencies, and then the Pep Boys auto supply store. Manny, Moe, and Jack might as well have gone fishing that Saturday.
I drove west for six or seven miles, into residential areas where the lots and houses kept getting bigger and grander. After another mile or so, the older homes gave way to newer, treeless subdivisions with names like Fox Run and Hickory Hill—places with neither foxes nor hills—and then I was almost to the edge of town. I wasn’t sure where I was going. The address made no sense. I couldn’t remember any houses along this stretch of Pine Ridge Road. Just a church, a school, some vacant land and then the college before it all turned into farmland.
When I got where I was going, I saw why I was confused. The house wasn’t small, but it sat back from the road, at the top of a ridge. A grove of old cedars stood between the road and the house. You could drive by that place a hundred times and not see anything but those trees. I went past, all the way to the college gate where there was a roundabout and came back. The driveway wasn’t much more visible than the house, and it was in bad shape. Once I’d made the turn and started up the hill, I fought the ruts as far as I could and then just pulled over and walked the last few yards. The week before I’d gotten a flat driving through a pasture to meet a farmer who wanted me to write a story about his herd of miniature horses, and I hadn’t bought a new tire in the meantime.
Before I got out, I sat for a few seconds and stared at the house. It was a big two-story white frame house with the paint coming off. A screened porch ran across the front. It looked to be about 50 years old at least, and I figured it for a country farmhouse that the city had engulfed and then left to rot. It had a darkness to it that made everything around it seem like twilight, even in the middle of the day. I listened for a dog—a reporter’s first instinct—before I remembered that the absence of a dog was the reason I was here. No dog, nothing, just stillness and silence. Even a few yards off the street, you couldn’t hear a trace of traffic. Nice spot for a crime scene, I thought as I climbed out of my car.
Navigating that driveway took concentration, even on foot, and I was halfway there before I looked up to see a tall, bony woman in a housecoat standing on the porch. She wore her long gray hair yanked back in a bun, and she was smoking a cigarette. I waved and kept coming but she made no acknowledgment. She didn’t look much like the kind of woman who would own an expensive hunting dog, but what did I know, besides the proper pronunciation of Weimaraner. When I was almost to the steps leading up to the porch, she spoke.
“Can’t you read the sign? No Trespassing. No salesmen.”
“I didn’t see your sign, ma’am. It was all I could do—”
“I don’t know what you’re selling, but we ain’t buying any, so why don’t you get on.”
“I’m not selling anything. I’m from the newspaper.” From my pocket I pulled the scrap of paper that held the name, address, and phone number. “Is your name Barefoot? Somebody with that name called the paper, something about a boy and a lost dog.”
She looked me up and down long enough to make me think this had been someone’s idea of a joke. “I thought they’d send someone older,” she said, giving me a look that let me know she didn’t think I was up to the job. At last she ground the cigarette out on the porch with a dirty bedroom slipper and turned back toward the front door. Over her shoulder, she said, “You’re here now. Might as well come on in.”
I didn’t know what to make of any of this. Had she called or not? Or was this Barefoot someone else? I tried to think of other possibilities as I followed her into the house, but I didn’t get anywhere with it. When my eye adjusted to the dimness, I could see that we were in a center hall that ran from front to back with doors, most of them shut, going all the way back. A staircase took up one half of the hall. The door to my left was open, showing a living room with tall windows that let in some watery light through sheer curtains. I didn’t have time to see much else, because the old woman kept going and I followed, all the way back to the kitchen. It was a big room, with plenty of space for an old black walnut table and chairs. A percolator steamed on a wood stove. An oscillating fan on top of the refrigerator moved hot air around in the high-ceilinged room. Off to one side a door opened onto a screened-in back porch. I crossed the room and looked onto the porch, but there was nothing out there but a rusty freezer.
She saw me looking around.
“I guess they pay you to be nosy,” she said.
“Beg your pardon?”
“You seem mighty interested in what we got here.”
“No, no, I was just…”
She laughed, or maybe it was a cough. It was hard to tell.
“I’m just pulling your leg. Sit down.” She pointed to one of the dining room chairs. “Coffee?”
“It’s a little warm, I mean, no, I’m fine. Thank you, though.”
“Who did you say you were?”
I told her. “And you are? Is it Barefoot?”
“That’s right. Velma Barefoot. Folks call me Aunt Velma.” I waited for her to go on, but apparently the statement was its own explanation. Instead of answering, she shuffled to the stove, poured herself a cup of coffee, stirred in a lot of sugar, and then lit another cigarette.
“Want one?” She shook out her pack of Kents.
“No, thanks,” I said, pulling out my Camels. “I’m good.”
“I thought maybe you would have called first.”
“No, I just thought… I mean, my editor just told me to come out here and see about this boy’s lost dog. Was it you that called?”
She gave me that look like I was being nosy again. I hated this part of my job, the dealing with civilians part. Dealing with people who worked for the government, even the cops, was better than this, because they were used to reporters, even when they didn’t like you. They had their job, you had yours, and somehow it all worked out. Firemen were best, because you only had to interview them after a fire, so they could brag about something or someone they had saved. But people who never had any dealings with the press were a nightmare. At best, they seem to have the idea that you would write down what they said, put it in the paper and that would be that. I’d had people get furious with me just for asking, “Are you sure about that?” In the best circumstances, they often seemed vaguely put out that you had come into their homes with questions, even when they had called the paper and asked to talk to a reporter.
Taking a hit from her cigarette, she crossed the room to a sideboard and brought back a photograph in a cheap metal frame and placed it on the table in front of me.
The picture showed a boy, somewhere between eight and ten, hugging the neck of a beautiful dog almost as big as he was.
“And that’s?” I pointed to the boy.
“Tell me about them.” I got my notepad out.
“I don’t know all that much. They got him two years ago in March. That’s little Ralph’s birthday. He’s real sweet, that dog. Follows that boy around like a brother. Doesn’t bark or tear stuff up. You know how a dog will do. Mr. Barefoot kept beagles, and they like to drove me crazy. First thing I did when Bill passed—that’s Mr. Barefoot. Bill Barefoot. He was my second husband. Mr. Sewell was my first, well, never mind him. He raised minks. Died of a bursted appendix on a fishing trip to Florida.” She looked around the room. “I met Mr. Barefoot at the fair.”
“The fair, I said. The Dixie Classic Fair. I took a third place ribbon in canned preserves. He admired my ribbon there in the tent.”
I tried to imagine this woman flirting.
“His mama left him this place twenty some years ago. Don’t seem like that long. Anyways, he’s been gone five years and it’s been falling down around my ears ever since. Before, really, ’cause he didn’t have no energy to do nothing there at the end. Wouldn’t even notice sometimes if I put one of his pups in with him.” She snapped her fingers, and the dreaminess went out of her voice. “So them dogs of his, I don’t mind saying I let them go. They wasn’t no use to me. I didn’t need the aggravation. And then here comes Ralph with Kaiser. I just thought, here we go again. Dogs’ll be the death of me and nothing I can do about it. But Kaiser weren’t no problem. He didn’t bark almost never.” She frowned. “Listen to me. Didn’t, like he’s dead already. I say keep hoping for the best ‘til the worst gets the best of you. He’s fine somewhere and he’ll come back when he’s ready. And he don’t bark. He don’t dig, and he don’t mess in the house or nothing.”
“Did he win some prize?”
“They entered him in a contest down in Raleigh when he wasn’t much more than a year old, and he won in whatever class he was in. Working dogs? Hunter, pointers, I don’t know. Ralph trained him much as anybody. I never saw the like. Ralph ain’t but eight, but that little boy and that dog, out there in the back yard, up and back and up and back, like he seen on TV. He could make that dog sit and stand and do whatever. Hours they’d spend, just a practicing. I’d get worried some, wouldn’t hear nothing for the longest stretch, and I’d look out off the porch and there they’d be just going at it, the two of them, not saying nothing, just that dog watching that little old boy making signs and doing whatever he told him to do in sign language. Don’t mistake me, the boy can talk and all just fine, but wasn’t no need for it between them.”
I looked up from my notebook and asked, “Can I borrow that photograph? I’ll make sure you get it back.”
She looked worried and nervous for the first time.
“I don’t know about that.”
“It might help find Kaiser. Was he stolen?”
“I never said nothing about stolen. He’s just been gone three, four days. Maybe he was stole, maybe not. Don’t be putting that in the paper.”
“Ralph now, is he your nephew? You said Aunt Velma.”
“Nothing like that. He stays with me days. Nights he’s at his momma and daddy’s. I guess you’d say I’m his baby sitter.”
“Can I talk to him?”
“He ain’t here today. It’s Sairdy.” She said it like a mountain woman. I recognized the accent from hours spent taking obits over the phone—the first job they give you as a recruit in the newsroom. It’s supposed to pound a desire for accuracy into your skull, but other than teaching you to reflexively ask if that’s Smith or Smythe, it just amounted to hours of tedium somewhere between slow torture and a fraternity hazing ritual. The undertakers who called in with death notices and funeral arrangements from down east said it more like Satidy.
“Well, is there a phone number or some way I could reach him? Or his parents? I can’t really write the story without her permission.”
For the first time since we’d met, she seemed at a loss, and it dawned on me that she’d called the paper without first talking to the boy or his family. Rummaging in her lap, she extracted another cigarette from the pack and lit it, even though the first one was still burning in the ashtray. When she shook out the match, I saw her hand tremble a little. I decided to let that question dangle and changed the subject.
“Tell me how the dog disappeared.”
“Let’s see, it was Thursday, no, Wednesday, because I have to get ready for prayer meeting those nights, and his momma always picks him up a little early. I’d got him up from his nap and give him his snack like regular, and he went out to the pen, like he always does—the pen where them beagles stayed. And Kaiser weren’t there. Gate was open and the dog was gone.”
“That ever happened before?”
“Not once. Like I said, that was a good dog. Never runned off nor nothing.”
“Was there a lock on the gate?”
“No need for that. Like I said.”
“And you didn’t hear anything or see anything?” I was thinking about that driveway. There was no way anyone could sneak up on this house in a car.
Again, she looked flustered.
“I always have my shows in the afternoon, when he’s sleeping. I keep a TV in the bedroom upstairs, so I’m right next door to him in case he needs something. I got the air conditioning in that room, ’cause it will get hot upstairs, and the noise from that old thing is fierce, so I keep my set turned up.” She frowned, going over what she’d just said. “But I would’ve heard the dog if it barked or whatever. I didn’t hear a peep.”
“What did Ralph do? When he couldn’t find his dog.”
“Oh, he was a mess, just a crying and a carrying on. Made me walk with him all over, down to the road, all the way back to the woods, calling and a calling. Kept me at it for an hour or more. I missed my prayer meeting, I’ll tell you that.”
“Did anyone call the police, or animal control?”
“You mean like the dog catcher? No, I don’t think so.”
I tried to think, but all I could see was some movie fatty like Bud Abbott chasing after a dog with a butterfly net. No time for fancy now. I made a note to check with the cops when I got back to the office.
“Miz Barefoot, I really do need to talk to Ralph. I can’t write this story without hearing what he has to say. And come to that, I can’t talk to the boy without his parents’ permission. Of course, I’d like to talk to them, too. What did you say their name was?”
“Scarborough,” she said wearily, as though I’d dragged a secret out of her. “Kathleen Scarborough.” The name rang no bells.
She got up and I thought she might be getting the phone number for me, but instead she went to the stove for more coffee.
“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll have a cup,” I said. I was trying to give her as much room as I could. I could tell she was regretting ever making that call to the paper and was just about ready to boot me out.
She came back with two full cups and an extra spoon and asked if I wanted cream or sugar. When she set my cup down in front of me, the contents jiggled with something like the viscosity of motor oil. I said I’d take cream. She crossed to the refrigerator and came back with a can of condensed milk. I poured it all the way to the brim, but I could tell when I stirred it that nothing was going to help that coffee.
“So do you have a number for the Scarboroughs?”
She was going to say something when the front door slammed.
He was quick. I was still working out what the racket in the hall was all about when here he came racing into the room, a small boy who stopped short when he saw me. He landed in a pool of sunlight and stood there frozen, all lit up like a little cherub or some gilded lawn jockey.
“Howdy, Ralph,” she said, turning in her chair.
He looked from her to me and back and didn’t say a word. She motioned in my direction.
“He’s from the newspaper come to ask about your dog. You want to tell him about it?”
“Hey there, Ralph,” I said. “Aunt Velma here’s been telling me about Kaiser. You want to tell me what you know?”
He kept still for a few more seconds, but the chance to talk about his dog was too much to resist. “Kaiser’s gone,” he said, as though he were out of breath. “He disappeared.”
“That’s what I hear. Been gone a couple of days, right?”
“Three days,” Ralph said. “He’s been missing since Wednesday.” He looked at his fingers and then back at me. “So now it’s four days.”
“He ever run off before?”
He looked like he was about to say something else, but the screen door down the hall slammed again and we all froze, listening to heels tapping lightly down the bare wood. A woman’s voice called out for Ralph, then Velma.
“We’re back here,” Velma said.
A woman in a powder blue dress and matching heels came in, and we went through the same routine as before, with her looking at me with confusion in her pretty face and Velma making the introductions.
“Mrs. Scarborough, it’s a pleasure,” I said, and I meant it. I must have sounded like I meant it more than I thought, because she frowned at me.
“Velma’s been telling me about Ralph’s dog. Would you mind if I asked you both a few questions. Maybe a story in the paper—”
She swatted an invisible fly in front of her face and tried to smile, but she still looked irritated.
“A story in the paper? I don’t know anything about that. Velma?”
“I just thought with the boy’s dog being gone so long now—”
Mrs. Scarborough gave the old woman a hard look, but there was no hardness in her voice when she turned to me and sweetly said, “I’m afraid we don’t have time now. We’re on our way to a birthday party, and we just stopped by so Ralph could get his water gun.”
“It’s a Super Shooter,” Ralph almost shouted.
“Yes, honey.” She turned back to me, or rather, she stared vaguely somewhere between me and Velma. “It’s a slumber party, and he wanted to take it with him. Ralph, why don’t you go find it, and then we have to hurry.”
Ralph disappeared back into the house.
“I understand if there’s no time, but maybe I could call later, tomorrow maybe?”
She jingled her car keys. Then she started switching them from one hand to the other. I was just about ready to reach across the table and snatch them from her when she slapped them down hard on the table. The sound bounced off the old stamped tin ceiling, and she giggled with embarrassment.
“I don’t know. Velma,” she began, but now it was her turn to put a little too much spin on something, and she looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry, maybe this was a bad idea.” Clearly, from the way she was acting, all this was no notion of hers, and I had the feeling this wasn’t the last that Velma would hear of it. To judge from the way she was busy memorizing the roses on the side of her cup and chewing her bottom lip, Velma thought so, too. Just then Ralph came back, lugging his water cannon.
“It just seemed to me,” Velma began, and that was as far as she got before Ralph got her square in the chest. I was next but he just winged me.
“Buddy!” his mother said. “Put that down!”
He turned in her direction, then thought better of it, and lowered his muscled-up squirt gun. Then he stood there, staring straight at his mother, then at me, then Velma. I’ve never seen a happier kid in my life. I didn’t know what to make of it. There was no meanness in his look, nor any triumph. It was like he was consumed with pleasure.
“Velma, I’m so sorry. Ralph, please apologize to Velma and—” she said, turning to me, “the man.”
She gave me an embarrassed smile in lieu of an apology. It was a nice smile, the nicest smile anyone had given me in a while.
I looked down at my water-soaked arm. “I think I’ll live.” I put on my best aw-shucks grin, but when I looked up she had turned away.
Velma was over by the sink, dabbing at her housedress with a dishtowel.
“Ralph?” his mother said.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry, Velma.”
“S’okay, honey. It idn’t no real harm. But you like to give me a heart attack.”
“Now, don’t go scaring Ralph, Velma. There’s no cause for such talk.”
I glanced at Ralph. He didn’t look scared to me. In fact, he looked like he’d already forgotten all about it. I looked at Velma. She was giving Mrs. Scarborough a hard look that I wouldn’t have thought she had in her. Mrs. Scarborough saw it, too.
“I mean, it is important not to frighten people. It’s not fair.” She said it like someone who wasn’t used to backing down, like someone who was used to getting her way, and now when it wasn’t working out the way she expected, she didn’t know what to do.
“It’s an ambush, Ralph,” I said, holding my arm and wincing. Ralph laughed. He could choke a kitten right in front of you and that laugh would get him off the hook. I hoped he never figured that out. I squatted down so we were on the same eye level.
“You know who ambushes people, don’t you?”
He frowned at me, not sure where I was going with this and not wanting to commit.
“Bad guys ambush people. They sneak up and catch the good guys off guard and don’t give them a chance. And you’re not a bad guy, are you?”
He grinned at the door I’d just opened for him.
“Nope, I’m a good guy.”
“And a heckuva shot.”
I glanced as casually as I could at his mother. She was looking at me like I’d just walked into the room for the first time.
“Ralph,” she said, rummaging in her pocketbook, “run on out to the car. We’re already late.” Her hand came out of the bag with a pen and a notepad.
“I’m sorry about today,” she said when Ralph was gone. Her voice was low and soft but it had a little rasp to it, like an emery board dipped in honey. “I don’t want you to feel like you made a trip for nothing.” Eyes darting in Velma’s direction, Velma still not giving an inch. “Let me write down my number. It’s not listed. And maybe tomorrow—oh, tomorrow’s Sunday. I don’t suppose you work then?”
“I do, as a matter of fact. But I don’t have a lot going on tomorrow. What time would be good?”
“Let’s say three?”
She gave me the paper with her number, there were pleasantries, and like that she was gone, heels clicking down the dark hall.
When I turned back into the room, Velma was still standing at the sink. She was grinning at me.
“You might be smarter than you let on,” she said. I shrugged.
“You handled her real nice. And I wouldn’t say that to just everybody walks through that door.”
I got out a cigarette and took my time getting it lit.
Waving away the smoke, I said, “You don’t miss much yourself.”
She chuckled. “Sometimes she gets on her rich lady high horse, but it don’t take much to knock her off.” She smiled, staring off into space.
“At the risk of being nosy again, can I ask you a question about your stove?”
“Is that a Sweet Heart?”
She walked over to the stove with a dish towel and wiped the soot off one of the front doors. There it was, “Sweet Heart.”
“My grandmother had one just like it is how I know. I always worried over sweetheart being split in two like that.”
“Two words that should be one,” Velma said, like someone reciting the alphabet. “I don’t know how many times I catch myself frowning over at that dirty old thing and worrying that in my mind.”
“Little things like that will mess with you.”
For the first time since I walked in, Velma smiled like she meant it.
“Let me get you some more coffee. Or do you have to get right back?”
“No, ma’am. I’m not in any big rush.”
“I known her a long time,” Velma said over her shoulder as she headed for the stove. “Kitty I’m talking about. Her mother and me was in the same church. That’s where they got married. It was some wedding, I can tell you, her and her rich man. And they left for their honeymoon in a red and white Thunderbird right off the showroom floor. It was like Elvis got married in that church.”
“Did she have money, too?”
“Lord, no. I mean, her people wasn’t poor. Her daddy ran a garage up on Station Street, and he was a steady man, didn’t drink or nothing, so far as I know. They was fixed nice. Had a nice house for the longest time out there on Harmon Boulevard. I say was, but they’re still there. I guess with her being wealthy and all now, Kitty I mean, they could probably have any place they wanted. But they’re not that kind. They still live simple. There ain’t no beach home or lake house or nothing like that. Not like him, Kitty’s husband, I mean. He likes to spend it. Or he did.”
I waited while she topped off my cup before I said, “Kitty’s husband? On what?”
“Cars, boats, you name it. For the longest time, he was a big one for that ham radio stuff.” She giggled. “You know how they do, with them microphones and the earmuff things? Over and out! Ten Four! I mean, this was before all that CB radio mess. He didn’t want nothing to do with that. Said it wasn’t nothing but a toy for kids and dumb truck drivers. You drive by their house, and first thing you see is that big old antenna up top. Looks like he could talk to the moon through that thing.”
She poured her coffee and set the pot back on the stove. She had that habit certain women have of gently, absentmindedly kneading their aprons or their housedresses while they think something through. “He bought a plane off Dr. Jackson at the airport one day right on the spot. Said, what’ll you take for it and whipped out his checkbook.” She frowned. “Least, that’s what I hear. I don’t talk to Kitty—to Mrs. Scarborough—about her private business, you understand that?”
“I’d say you’re just being a good friend.”
“Tell you the truth,” she said, lowering herself into the other straight back chair at the table, “I don’t know Kitty all that good. These days, that is. Her mama’n’me, we go back, like I say. I don’t go to their church no more, not since the old preacher got kicked out and they moved the whole congregation to some fancy new church out by the new parkway to get away from the coloreds moving in.” She shot me a look, and said. “The colored people.”
I thought about what I knew about white flight and counted back.
"That was about ten years ago, right?”
“Something like that.”
“You still keep up with her mama?”
“Oh my yes, we still visit.” She twisted her mouth into a hard, little smile. “Now and again. You mean to stay in closer touch, but when you don’t see people all the time…” she trailed off.
I tasted my coffee and reached for the sugar bowl.
“Is Mrs. Scarborough an only child?”
“There’s a boy at State, Maxwell.” She shook her head. “What kind of a name is that for a boy? I don’t know what gets into people.”
“Did you know Kitty, you knew her growing up then?”
“Her whole life. She was always a sweet thing. Never a speck of trouble out of her. Good grades, cheerleader, didn’t fool around with boys much. She was a stewardess when she met him, going on three years. They was real proud of how she turned out. And she’s still the same, deep down, I know it.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
She took her time answering, thinking over what she was going to say. I lit a cigarette and stirred my coffee.
“She’s a nice girl. Still is. Nobody could love that little boy more than she does. But about three years ago, and now mind you they’d been married what, seven, eight years by then, but anyways, some years back she started to change, least around me. Got real guarded. Didn’t have no time to talk the way she did before. Always in a hurry to be someplace. And she stopped talking about him. Jimmy, I mean, Jimmy Scarborough. I don’t know if they was having troubles or not, or maybe it was the money. People get strange when they get around money. I seen it in my own family. So maybe that was what changed her. But it happened so sudden like. I couldn’t make no sense of it then, nor no more now. You seen her, worked up and all, and looking to leave the second she got here. Always in a hurry, rushing off to something.” She reached for her cigarettes, got one lit, and went on. “There’s something the matter with that woman, but for the life of me I can’t say what it is. All I know’s that the sweet girl used to come by here don’t come by no more.”
She stopped abruptly and stared across the table. “Why am I telling you all this, and you a reporter? Lord knows what you’ll put in that paper of yours.” I looked at the electric clock hanging on the wall by the sink. It was after three, not too late to get handed another story if I went back to the newsroom empty-handed now.
“Don’t you worry,” I said. “There’s none of this going into anything I write. But I do find it interesting. I mean, why she changed and all.”
She relaxed a little, and the dreamy look came over her face again. “I want to say was him done something,” she said, almost to herself.
Looking at her there with the late afternoon light raking across her face, I tried to guess her age. She had to be more than sixty but how much more I couldn’t say. Her hands were red, the nails chipped and the fingers callused. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have said they were a man’s hands. There wasn’t a spare ounce on her rangy frame. The funny thing was, she had a kind of energy that belied all that. There was nothing jumpy about her. If anything, she was almost languid. But there was some kind of fierceness underneath all that. You just knew that if push ever came to shove, she wasn’t rolling over for anybody.
“He used to be nice, too.”
She nodded. “Not like her, not sweet, but nice, very polite. He might’ve been born with a silver spoon but somebody taught him some manners. He’d come by here with Ralph to drop him off, and sometimes he’d stay for a cigarette or a Coke. Make conversation like you or me. You’d not know you were staring at a man who could buy this whole city five times over.” Just then the penny dropped.
“Back up there a second, Velma. You said Jimmy—this is the Jimmy Scarborough we’re talking about. Scarborough Tobacco Company Scarborough?”
“Who’d you think?” she said, deadpan as you please as she mashed her cigarette out.
I wrote the name down in my notebook and stared at it. Millionaire’s Son Loses Dog suddenly looked more like a story to me.
Velma went on: “One thing I did notice about him that bothered me was when he started getting so tight with his money.”
“I thought you said he liked to buy things.”
“He did when they started out. Fur coats for her. Big house, three, four cars. But that don’t tell nothing about a person, except that they got more money than sense. And anyway, he stopped with all that. It was Kitty, actually, pointed it out. I caught her sulking one day when she came by to get Ralph and finally I got it out of her what was wrong. This was when she was still herself. Turned out she’d wanted to tithe to their church but when she brought it up, he just laughed at her. Said he had plans for his money.”
“And that was strange? Out of the ordinary?”
“Yes! Least then it was. I’ve heard her say more’n once that she had to be careful about saying what she fancied because he’d just go out and get it, no matter what it was. Had a pool put in at their place just because she said she missed swimming like she did in high school. She didn’t ask for no pool. But there it was when they come back from a trip. But I think that’s all done with now.”
“He say what that meant? About needing the money for something? Guy could buy her dozen churches and not even miss the money. What kind of plans you think he meant?”
“That was all she told me. I never heard no more. She wasn’t one to run anybody down behind their back, him least of all. You could see she was crazy about the man. But that’s why this one thing must’ve bothered her enough to talk to me about. It was like she needed to say it out loud. She couldn’t make the pieces fit her picture of him.”
She stared vacantly at her coffee cup and those sharp eyes suddenly lost focus. Then she turned that bewildered look on me. I didn’t say anything. The silence built for another moment or two before she gave a little shiver and snapped out of it.
“Something changed him. I don’t know what. He used to be nice. Nice enough anyway. Pleasant and all. Polite. Then he got different. Wouldn’t come in the house, just put Ralph out in the driveway or honk his horn when he came to pick him up. And if he did come in, I might as well have been a mop or a broom for all the attention he paid me. I wondered about it when it first started but I thought, hey, I don’t know Mr. Man good enough to make sense of him. Maybe his stocks are failing or whatever bothers rich folks. But then she got strange, too. Distracted like, snapping at me or Ralph one second and then apologizing the next. And secretive, too. Got real tight-lipped if you asked her, oh, something simple like where they was going on their next trip. They was always going off in that plane of his, or taking a cruise or going on a safari or some such. You’d have thought I asked for her bank balance or something, and the thing is, she’d always been the one to bring those things up before. Velma, we’re going to Greece. Velma, we just got back from Argentina. And I liked hearing her tell about those places. That was when she got just plain happy, telling me about her trips. She wasn’t ever much on the other stuff—the clothes and whatnot. I think they made her feel snooty, or like she was playing dress up in a rich man’s house. And speaking of them trips, I recall now as how she looked funny the last time I ast about it. This was after he made that crack about needing his money for whatever his big secret was. Clostest I ever heard her come to sounding bitter. Said she wouldn’t ride in his plane no more. Wouldn’t set foot in it. I thought about that for a long time, and I finally come to think that was her way of telling him what he could do with his toys and money. Mind, she wasn’t never one to complain or criticize. But I think she was sending him a message.”
She motioned to my coffee cup. I shook my head. She snickered.
“That coffee’ll put hair on your chest, son.”
“I believe you’re right about that.”
The kidding went out of her voice when she said softly, “I’m right about a lot of things.” She pushed her cup and saucer in slow circles over the checkerboard pattern in the oilcloth covering the table like she was reading a Ouija board. “Easy to be right when you’re an old woman and nobody pays you no mind. You can say what you please.”
“So is that it, the strange behavior?”
For the first time, she got impatient, not so much with me, I think, as with herself. “That’s what I’m trying to say—I don’t know what it is. That’s what’s got me going. You think you know somebody and then—”
She threw two brittle arms in the air, hands clutching at nothing.
“Whatever’s going on is making the both of them act like cats on a hot stove, like they’re hiding something.”
I took my time lighting a cigarette. Sometimes, if you don’t keep asking questions, if you just sit there and let the silence build, you get answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask. People don’t like silence. So they start talking to fill the space. The hard part is keeping your own mouth shut.
“Honestly, I don’t know what she’d have to hide. I think it’s more something to do with him.”
“What, like she’s protecting him, covering for him somehow?”
She nodded. “One time they come by here in his pickup, and I noticed he had some guns racked in back and he was wearing that camouflage stuff hunters wear. Or I suppose they do today. My brother Earl hunted up in Parson County, and he never wore no special clothes. Doted on his dogs, though. He’d gone naked before he spared them anything. Anyways, they come by, Kitty and Jimmy, to get Ralph, and I said something about was he going hunting, and she got all flustered, saying no, then she didn’t know, and so forth. And him getting angry every second she wasn’t getting back in that truck, laying on the horn and motioning at her.”
“Sounds like you don’t have much use for Jimmy Scarborough.” As soon as I said it, I knew I’d said the wrong thing.
“I didn’t say any such.” There was starch in her voice now, and she sat up a little straighter. “Tell you truth, I don’t know the man well. But don’t get the notion that I don’t respect them. Or talk about them behind their back.” She sounded indignant, but I don’t think her heart was in it, because when she said, “I wouldn’t never run them down,” she said it in a tired voice and without conviction. “That little boy, though, I’m just crazy about him.”
“He’s sure crazy about you. Anybody could see it.”
She smiled at that. “We have our times, Ralph and me.”
“That reminds me. You know that picture you showed me. The one with Ralph and his dog? You reckon I could borrow that overnight?”
Velma frowned and brushed back a hank of hair that was tickling her nose. “I don’t know about that.”
“We can copy it, and I’ll drive it out here myself tomorrow.”
“That ain’t it.”
“What do you mean?”
“S’what I been talking about. About Jimmy all and all.” I gave her a puzzled look. “He—Jimmy—he’s the one brought that picture out here one day.”
“So he made me promise to always keep it here. I mean, he didn’t say nothing about hiding it or nothing. Just take good care of it.”
I smoked and waited.
“I just don’t know.” She studied the backs of her hands for a while, then looked straight at me and said, “Do you really think it’d help the boy get his dog back?”
“Can’t hurt. People see a picture, they know right away if they’ve seen anything looks like that.”
Suddenly she stood up, walked across the room and brought the framed picture back and shoved it at me.
“Durn him and his secrets.”
Driving back to the paper, I felt like a heel for flattering a lonely old woman just to keep myself out of the office while I kept her talking about things I wasn’t even sure I could turn into a story. All I knew about the Scarboroughs was that they were rich, and all I knew about rich people was that they didn’t like publicity, even the good kind, unless it was their idea in the first place. On the other hand, if it ever got out that I walked away from a story like this without putting up a fight, I could count on a transfer to the editorial department. The editorial department was the graveyard of the newsroom, the repository for all the misfits and malcontents that the top editors liked too well to fire but couldn’t figure out what to do with. It was Siberia, and you never got a byline.
It was nearly six before I got back to the newsroom. Rob and Steve told me that Finn was gone for the day and the copy desk had already left for supper at the cafeteria. Rob and Steve were the obit desk regulars and the first people I worked under when I came to the paper. They taught me to proofread, to use a pencil and not a pen, to consult the dictionary even when I thought it was unnecessary, and to always make the funeral home directors come clean about cause of death when they called in an obit, because they would try to sneak a suicide through.
Rob and Steve were both good at what they did, but other than that they had nothing in common. Steve was noisy and laughed when there was nothing to laugh at. He was married but fancied himself a lady’s man and favored tight knit slacks that showed off his ass. Rob was quiet, wore Coke bottle glasses, lived with his mother, and played the organ at his church.
Either one of them could have gone to a bigger paper any time he liked, but neither of them was ever going anywhere. Rob was his mother’s sole support, and she wasn’t moving anywhere, and so neither was he as long as she lived, which looked like forever to hear him tell it. Steve was stuck, too, because his wife still loved the city where she’d been homecoming queen, and for all his catting around, or talk about catting around, he loved her and would do damn near anything for her, including stay in a city he didn’t love at all.
I asked them if there was anyone back in the darkroom.
“Tom’s still there,” Steve said. “And hey, was the lady with the lost dog hot?”
It took me a second to realize he was talking about Velma.
“Steve, I can’t tell you what happened because then you’d just want to kill yourself.”
“I thought you were gone mighty long over just a dog.”
I found Tom Brinkley in the darkroom drying prints. I showed him the framed photograph and told him a little about the story I was working on.
“Can somebody copy this for me tonight? I need to get it back tomorrow.”
He said he’d get to it before he left.
I walked around the corner to Woolworth’s and ate two hot dogs while I skimmed the evening paper. In the classifieds, I found an ad from someone with a lost dog that sounded like Kaiser. I circled the number.
When I got back to the office, I ran into Tom coming out of the photo lab.
“Here’s your picture,” he said, handing me the original and a copy of the photo in a glassine envelope. “But look here.” He showed me a black and white snapshot of two men, one tall and handsome, one short and wiry, both carrying hunting rifles with scopes. The good-looking man was wearing a black and white striped armband. The other man had his shirt sleeve pushed up to show a tattoo that ran around his bicep. It looked like barbed wire.
“It fell out when I took the picture out of the frame. And this.” He handed me a dogeared business card that read AAA Firearms & Hunting and a phone number and on the back another penciled telephone number and the name E. Love.
“Mean anything to you?” he asked.
“Maybe. I’m not sure. That guy in the picture who I think it is?”
“Well, I know that the tall one there is Jimmy Scarborough. I don’t know the other one. But that tattoo is Dixie Brotherhood.”
I studied it more closely. “Are they the white supremacy survivalist types?” I asked, exhausting what I knew about this outfit in one sentence.
“I wouldn’t know about the survivalist shit or whatever you call it. I mean the ones beat the living hell out of Eddie Haverford when he went to shoot that rally in Lincolnton last spring. They were fixing to stick his hand in a deep fryer at the Toddle House when that deputy walked in.”
That beating had cost Eddie a week in intensive care.
“Anyhow, I figured you’d asked once you’d seen these, so I went ahead and copied them, too.” He gave me two more prints.
“Maybe they shot the dog,” Tom said.
“Nah, he’s a German dog. These guys like the Germans. And the kid with the dog is Scarborough’s son. I know that much.”
He wished me luck and disappeared back into the darkroom. I returned the picture of Ralph and Kaiser to the frame and copied the information on the business card before tucking it and the snapshot behind the portrait of boy and dog. Then I carefully replaced the cardboard backing. I worried for a second that I might be putting the snapshot and the card in wrong somehow, but then I figured that if Velma had known those things were in there, she never would have handed it over so easily.
I called the police department to see if the Scarboroughs had called in about a lost show dog, but they didn’t have any record of it. Then I checked the number in the classified ad against Velma’s and the one Kitty Scarborough had written down for me, but they didn’t match. I tried calling the number but nobody picked up. Then I tried the numbers on the business card. No answers there either.
After that I took notes from the police reporter covering a fire in a chemical factory and wrote that up, and then took a couple of obits when Rob went on break. I was heading for the morgue to pull the clips on the Dixie Brotherhood and on Jimmy Scarborough when Harry Waller, the night editor, intercepted me and said that the next day I shouldn’t bother coming in but just go straight out to the new gated-community/golfing complex on the other side of the river where I was supposed to interview Buddy Hackett, who was somebody’s guest.
“Buddy Hackett the comedian?”
“I don’t know. That’s all the note said.”
Then he just stood there for an uncomfortably long time without saying anything. I might have become alarmed if I hadn’t seen it before, at least once a week since I’d started work. He’d just stall out like that, and then after awhile he’d come to, like somebody plugged him back in. Not that Harry was exactly a chatterbox to begin with. He never said a word he didn’t have to. All anyone knew about him was that he had buck teeth, wore an eyeshade, and bathed in the men’s room when he came to work. No one knew if he was married or lived with his sister or slept in a coffin. No one ever heard him so much as make a personal phone call. He came out of his fugue state as quickly as he entered, handed me the note with an address and a contact phone number, and said I was due at 1 p.m. After that he told me I could go. Before I went, I pulled a manila envelope out of the bottom drawer of my desk and shoved the framed photo and the duplicates inside. Then I headed home.