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Winter/Spring 2019

Last Summer

 

by Michele Feltman Strider

 

I grew up in the unincorporated area outside of Respectability. We went to the same schools and grocery store. We used the same Post Office and the same Main Street that cut diagonally through the town. We smiled and nodded as we passed one another. We were neighborly, respectful, polite.

We cleaned their houses, mowed their lawns, and bagged their groceries. They held our futures in their hands. We raised their offspring, cared for their elderly, and harvested their refuse. They prided themselves in remembering our names. We watched them with unvoiced resentment. They pretended not to see.

Their names delineate bloodlines. Bryce Weatherford Maybeck. Sloane Bentley Radford. James Aldrich Holloway – names to last a thousand years, to be inscribed in stone. We are less pedigreed, our names less dynastic. They’re musical, ephemeral – names meant to be sung, to waft and wane in the warm night air. Finny Reece. Emmalynn Nash. Joe Ray Dean.

My father was the town’s Animal Control Officer. My mother answered phones at the Methodist church three days a week. My sister worked the overnight shift at the same liquor store my brother is serving time for robbing at gunpoint. She’s married to the sheriff’s deputy who arrested him. There are only so many men in a town of this size. They expect their second baby in the Fall.

I didn’t do much of anything, which was also expected. I was no worse than most and more discreet than many and managed to escape any real notice. If people were inclined to ignore me, I was content to let them.

It was my last summer, the summer before my final year of high school. Not my senior year, but my final year all the same. When I dropped out, it wasn’t due to anything extraordinary. I simply turned sixteen and wasn’t legally required to go. I could drive, and I could work. To stay in school seemed like malingering.

Finny turned sixteen in March but finished out the school year anyway. Joe Ray was nineteen and had been out of school so long he could hardly remember going. Finny was my boyfriend. Joe Ray was his cousin. Later Joe Ray would be the boyfriend and Finny the cousin. Joe Ray wasn’t the high school sweetheart type.

Sloane Radford was. She was the town’s sweetheart. She was born to ride down Main Street on a parade float, to float through life like a pageant contestant, to wave down to us from on high. She was Homecoming Queen. She was Volunteer of the Year. She was a Role Model. Hers was a child’s image of beauty, a crayon portrait of exaggerated pinks and yellows and blues. She was gifted without being gaudy and bright without casting a shadow. Ideally proportioned, she always fit the mood, the tone, the town perfectly.

Many secret hopes were crushed that Spring when she added Jimmy Holloway’s class ring to the slim chain that held the tiny gold cross to the base of her throat. He was saving for the diamond and she was planning the wedding for next summer.

James Holloway was Bryce Maybeck’s cousin, though they were closer than brothers. Jimmy’s Uncle Cady was the mayor and Bryce’s Uncle Bernard was the judge, so – try as they might – it was a challenge for the two boys to find trouble.

In that way, we had an easier time of it. My brother was scheduled to be a guest of the state for another two years and my grandfather was on probation for running an illegal poker game in the shed behind his house. Finny and Joe Ray each spent a couple of nights in the sheriff’s lockup, though only Joe Ray had charges pressed against him.

I was sitting with my back against the porch rail, examining my feet, the first time the sheriff came to see me. I didn’t stir, assuming he was looking for my brother-in-law, or sister, or anyone but me.

“Miss Nash?” It took a few heartbeats to realize he meant me. I didn’t like being addressed so formally. My back stiffened against the pole, and I left off picking my toes.

“Yeah?” I asked in the same tone I used with teachers, one of bottomless ignorance.

“Are your parents home?”

“Mom’s inside. Dad’s at work,” I told him, wary of saying too much. Anything I said or did could be used against me, and I didn’t like the odds.

“Would you ask her to come out here, please?”

He stayed only fifteen minutes, just long enough to tell us that Sloane Radford was missing and that I was likely the last person in town to talk to her. I’d have to go to the police station the next morning and make a statement.

Mom agreed to get me to the station by nine, then disappeared back into the house. She asked no questions, but I knew she was confused. Sloane and I weren’t friends. She was two years ahead of me in school. Everyone knew her. No one knew me. Our spheres of influence didn’t overlap… except at one unknown point. Jimmy Holloway.

Jimmy cried that night, his tears soaking my hair as he lay limp inside me. The cotton sheet was too thin to cushion my back from the twigs and roots, but I stayed still. We hadn’t been together in months, but instinctively sought each other that night – he to betray her in kind, I to escape an un-air-conditioned living room and night of summer reruns on TV. He didn’t offer me a ride home just as I offered him no comfort. Neither of us was disappointed.

That was what first drew Jimmy to me, my lack of expectations. I had no awkward aspirations of position or regard. I liked his clean hands, though, and his broad shoulders, his Big Name Designer cologne, and the shining, first-hand car I would never ride in. I liked his dentist-clean teeth and dermatologist-clear skin, his mother’s fresh cotton sheets that smelled of lilac fabric softener, and the name brand condoms that were purchased, not stolen.

I stroked his hair, breathing in the scent of his shampoo. It was silky, not greasy like Finny’s, which left my hands oiled and musky. Jimmy’s hair was like feathers, like down.

“Why?” he asked of the universe, of my neck. I shifted my left haunch off of a sharp stone.

“Oh god… I’m going to puke.” He jumped to his feet, snatching up the waistband of his jeans with one hand, and ran into the brush. I heard him lose the pot roast and potatoes his mother made and his family ate while gathered together around their heirloom oak dining table. Gagging, choking sobs echoed off of the trees as I tucked in my t-shirt and buttoned my shorts. I waited a while, then started down the dirt path toward home, escorted by the sound of Jimmy’s wretchedness.

I wasn’t able to tell the sheriff anything at the interview the next day or at any of the half-dozen interviews in the coming weeks. Do you know Sloane? Yes. How? From school. Were you friends? No. Enemies? No. Do you know where she might have gone? No. Do you know anything – anything – that might help? No. Don’t you care about your missing schoolmate? Don’t you want to help find her? No, I thought, nodding as the sheriff expected.

Finny and Joe Ray were parked outside, waiting, when we got home. I went from the front seat of my mother’s car to the backseat of Joe Ray’s without a word. The ragged, repetitive chords coming from the stereo crowded out conversation as wind from the open windows feathered our cigarette smoke, softening, diffusing the midday sun. Joe Ray’s place was across town, but that wasn’t far enough. We passed the city limits and the cheap motels and overpriced gas stations beyond them, following the rough, two-lane road downstream to the lake.

We found a vacant lot tucked between two cottages that weren’t there the year before and abandoned the truck on the road. It was getting harder to find these still-wild nooks. I broke trail through the twisted summer undergrowth and the boys followed behind, a six pack of beer in each hand, until we reached the shore. I strung the plastic rings together with a stray piece of ski rope and floated the cans out into the water to keep cool while the boys collected drift wood to use as benches.

“So?” Finny asked after the first cans of beer were emptied and chucked into the woods. He sat next to me on the largest log, his arm draped heavily across my shoulders.

“Yeah…” I dragged it out, stealing his cigarette to stall for time.

“What happened?” Finny regained his cigarette and tapped the ash onto the sand. I shook my head, reluctant, and nuzzled closer to him.

“Why’d Gray haul you in?” Brian Gray had been sheriff for as long as any of us could remember – over ten years.

“He didn’t haul me in,” I answered from the safety of his underarm. “Mom drove me.”

“Did he fingerprint you?” Joe Ray was our legal adviser. He straightened, judge-like, on his sun-dried log.

“No.” He’d set out doughnuts – fresh, not the day-old kind – and offered me coffee, like I was an adult. I pulled away from Finny and re-stole his cigarette. “He just asked me stuff – like if Sloane and me were friends, if I knew where she went. Stuff like that.”

Joe Ray pondered for a minute, took a long swallow of beer, then nodded. “As long as they didn’t fingerprint you, you’re probably OK.”

“But, really…” Finny teased a new cigarette out of his half empty pack. “Where’d she go?”

“I don’t know.” I thumped my smoldering butt out into the water and reached for another beer.

“My mom said the police said you’re the last person she talked to.” Finny’s mother was no worse a gossip than most people in town but had more reliable informants.

“Yeah.” I was noncommittal by default. “I guess. Outside the Quick Stop.”

“Why was she talking to you?” From anyone else the question would have been insulting.

“I dunno.” I shrugged.

“What’d she say?” Finny pressed on as Joe Ray feigned disinterest.

“She just asked what time it was.” I couldn’t tell her. I don’t own a watch. I said there was a clock inside. She thanked me, but didn’t go in. I left with my paid-for bottle of Coke and pilfered box of condoms and she was never seen again.

We stayed at the lake until the sun went down and the mosquitoes grew too thick to ignore. The house was dark when we pulled up. My dad was still swapping war stories with the other Legionnaires. Mom left a plate of cheesy mac in the oven for me before going to my sister’s to babysit. I ate on the living room floor in front of the TV, a plastic tumbler of red Kool-Aid at my side. The couch was a rental and I’d been warned about staining it. I watched a rerun of a show I hadn’t liked the first time, but at least the commercials were new.

I turned the TV off when the news came on and carried my dirty dishes into the kitchen. I searched the refrigerator for more cheesy mac, but settled for a couple of strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups. I sat on the counter, swinging my legs and twisting the rubbery strips into bracelets, waiting. Finally, I heard Joe Ray’s car on the street and hopped down to let him in.

I wondered if he’d try to kiss me the way he had the last time we were alone. Instead, he just stood at the threshold and asked “burger?” I ate the remaining strawberry bracelet as I walked to his car.

A fog of bourbon covered the usual scent of old cigarettes and teenage boy. An empty fifth rolled against my foot as he accelerated. “Don’t worry,” he reached across the bench seat and flipped open the glove box, “There’s another.”

A brand-new old-fashioned drive-in, with whirling neon carhops and a family-friendly soundtrack, had recently opened off of the highway. We flipped it off reflexively as we passed. We preferred the low cinder block shack in the center of town with fewer patrons and a darker parking lot. We ate in the car, spiking our Cokes and listening to the radio, under a sulfur-yellow streetlight. When we finished, Joe Ray tossed our greasy papers out of the window, lit two cigarettes, and passed one to me. I topped off my Coke, passed him the bottle, and watched him drain it down an inch.

“You handled yourself real good with the sheriff,” he said in the tough guy voice he developed through years of sneaking into the cineplex. “You told them nothing, and they got nothing.”

“I don’t know anything,” I shook off the accomplishment.

“Damn shame, though.” Joe Ray took another pull. “You sort of got to feel bad for her parents and all.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, confused but non-combative. Parents and feelings weren’t Joe Ray’s usual interests.

“Yeah, Sloane was OK,” Joe Ray’s tone was solemn, eulogistic. “You know, people don’t ever remember it because they don’t like to think of a girl like that going with someone like me, but I took her to a dance one time. The one they have right before graduation.”

“The Spring Fling? With the paper flowers and shit?” I sat stunned, waiting for the punchline. He took a quick swig and continued.

“Yeah, it was right before I dropped out. She was the hot-as-hell Freshman all the guys wanted to bang and some of my buddies dared me to ask her. I figured what the hell, but she said yes.”

I sipped my bourbon and Coke, curious, betrayed.

“She wore a pink dress – great legs – and pink flower in her hair.” He took a long, angry pull from the bottle. “I picked her up at her house, we went to the dance, and I took her home again. She didn’t stand me up or make fun of me to her friends or ignore me or nothing. She even gave me a kiss on the cheek for walking her to her front door. I mean, we didn’t date or nothing after that, but she went to that dance with me like I was any other guy.” He lit a cigarette. When his lighter flashed, I could see his eyes were moist. “Yeah, that Sloane Radford was all right. Better than the rest of those country club assholes.”

“She’s not dead,” I reminded him. “Just gone.”

“Dead, gone… Either way, she’s never coming back here.” He raised his bottle in salute, then drained it.

I didn’t see Joe Ray again for the rest of the summer. He took off the next morning in that rattling trap and never would say where to. Finny didn’t even know. When he got back that Fall, he didn’t seem any different. Wherever he went, it didn’t change him.

He dropped me off before my mother got home and after my father passed out on the couch, tobacco juice pooling on the rented cushions. I took off my shoes at the door, but it wasn’t necessary. Joe Ray’s old beater banging down the road woke half of the street, but not my father. It was a coin toss whether he’d still be there in the morning or if Mom would’ve hauled him into the bed. Increasingly, she’d been leaving him where she found him.

The town park was a square patch of neatly trimmed grass and weeds, generous shade trees, and solid cement tables carved with runic tales of love and conquest. John + Jane = Forever. Joe Was Here. It was downtown, blocks from my house, and loitering was permitted. Without Joe Ray’s car, I drifted there most days. I made daisy chain necklaces and bummed cigarettes. I hunted loose change and bought popsicles from the truck. I watched the ants on the sidewalk and the people on the street.

Joe Ray had been gone a week, Sloane longer, and I thought less and less about either of them. Joe Ray, I knew, would come back. Sloane, I agreed, never would. I lay on the scarred gray top of a table, trying to catch the last of the sun, when a shadow fell over me.

“Emmalynn?”

Bryce Weatherford had never spoken to me before, so I didn’t immediately recognize his voice. I had to raise my hand to block out the setting sun to see his face. I propped myself up on my elbow and nodded.

“Can I, um, talk to you?” He tilted his head toward the car parked nearby. Like Jimmy’s, it looked new. I swung my legs off of the table and followed him. We nearly collided when he opened the door for me. I slid my cutoffs across the clean upholstery into air-conditioned interior, aware of my bare thighs and dirty sneakers.

He drove a few blocks to the Quick Stop where I’d last seen Sloane. He nodded toward the store.

“Want anything?” he asked. It was too large a question, so I shook my head. When he got back into the car, Bryce handed me a bottle of Coke and a pack of cigarettes anyway. “That’s your brand, right?”

“Yeah.” I tapped the box against my wrist, then unwrapped the cellophane.

“OK if we just, like, drive around a little?” He triggered the automatic locks with a click and backed smoothly out of the spot. “I saw you smoking behind the cafeteria. With that Vinnie guy.”

“Finny.” I corrected.

“Oh,” Bryce took the correction constructively. “Yeah. You and him are going out, right?”

“Yeah,” I wondered if it would be OK to light up. He punched in the car lighter button and pressed the button to roll my window down.

“My girlfriend goes to McGregor.” McGregor High was forty-five minutes away in the next town. “She’s off at her grandparents’ for the summer.”

“Cool,” I said, tacitly agreeing to believe him.

“I don’t blame her,” he decided as he drove. “It’s dead around here.”

“Yeah,” I agreed again. With the summer homes at the lake full, the county actually doubled in population between May and September. I knew what he meant, though. It was the season itself. The harsh light left the town flat, washed out, faded. Limbs felt heavy and minds numbed under the oppressive heat. The still air grew too close, too familiar, tasting of hot breath, dry mouth, and sticky tongue. Anyone who could escape it, did.

“Don’t your parents have a lake house?” I asked after a too-long pause.

“My grandparents,” he explained. “I’d rather stay in town.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, blowing a stream of smoke out of the window. He gestured for a drag, so I handed him the cigarette.

“The sheriff came to my house again this morning, asking me a bunch of stuff about Sloane.” He slid down the window on his side and exhaled. “I guess you know what that’s like.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. He’d come to see me, too. He asked the same questions. I gave the same answers. It felt desperate.

“Did he ask you about the ring?” He’d been working up to the question. “Jimmy’s class ring? The one she always wore on that cheap-ass chain?”

I shook my head, watching the blur of the streetlights and sneaking glances at him out of the corner of my eye.

“God, they’re like, obsessed with it,” he continued, the car picking up speed. “They must’ve asked me about it a hundred times. I mean, shouldn’t the cops be out looking for her instead of busting my ass over some stupid ring?”

I shook my head, noting a hand-painted sign advertising fresh bait and cold beer.

“Like I know where that…” he sized me up quickly before continuing, “bitch would run off to. She could be dead in a ditch for all I care.”

“She’s dating your cousin,” I was surprised at the break in ranks.

“So are you, and I don’t even know your last name.”

“How did you…?” I looked at him full-on, eyes locked.

“Jimmy told me.” He gestured for the cigarette again, “He tells me everything. Don’t worry. He didn’t say anything to the sheriff.”

“OK,” my underarms tickled with the delayed panic of a near miss.

“I don’t know why he’s even talking to you. Everybody knows Sloane’d never hang out with you. Probably the only reason she said anything to you that day was to get you in trouble, too.”

I shrugged, Coke bottle cold and slick between my knees, and tried to fidget my shorts farther down my thighs with my free hand.

“Trust me. She’s always doing shit like that – setting people up, playing them off each other. Getting in the middle of everything.” He slammed the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. “God, she’s such a whore.”

I didn’t respond but shivered in the air conditioning. We drove in silence, passing the city limit sign, boat rental billboards, and gas stations stocked with marine diesel and Styrofoam coolers. I finished my cigarette, thumped it out of the window, and busied myself fiddling with the plastic bottle cap.

“Wherever she is,” Bryce spoke the final thought of his reverie. “I hope she stays there. Everything’s so much better without her.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, unsure. “Except for the sheriff.”

“Yeah…” He turned to look at me, I focused on my bottle cap. The car slowed beneath us, crunching to a stop in front of an abandoned seafood restaurant. With a flick of his finger, the door locks popped open.

“Hey, I forgot… My dad wants me to pick up some junk from my grandparents’ house. Can you get back from here?” It was an answer in question form. I slid my jean shorts across the brushed upholstery and planted my worn sneakers on the gravel berm. He sped off toward the lake, spraying my shins with sand. There was a call box near the restaurant’s entrance, but the phone had been ripped out the previous summer. Still half a Coke and nineteen cigarettes up on the evening, I began the long walk home.

Sheriff Gray came by the house four more times that summer. He didn’t have any new questions, nor I any new answers. He went through the full routine each time, but it seemed Bryce was right. My involvement could only be incidental. Whatever had happened occurred on a plane parallel to mine. Still, he was doing what he could, and I gave him silent credit for it. The second time he came around, I offered him a Coke. The third time he accepted. Only it wasn’t a real Coke, just the cheaper store brand. But he thanked me like it was.

He sat down on the wooden steps, took off his uniform hat, and wiped the sweat from his brow with a starched white handkerchief. He stretched his long legs out into the noon sun and slugged back half of the can. I sat on the patchy, late summer grass, chin on my knees, and watched him. He put my brother in jail. He gave me a doughnut. My brother knocked over a liquor store. I’d skipped breakfast. He’d never yelled or threatened. He had no reason to like me but didn’t seem to hate me. I took a chance.

“Where do you think she is?” I asked, softly enough for him to ignore if he chose.

“A sheriff’s not supposed to go around making wild guesses to people,” he ran his fingers through his gray, sweat-soaked buzz cut. “But in this case, I honest-to-god don’t know.”

“You think you’ll find her?” I felt very bold in asking.

“Pray to God we do,” he plinked the can tab like a kid. “But that’s a big lake and an even bigger world beyond it. The sad truth is, it’s easier to disappear than you might think.”

I pressed my hands palms-down to the ground, solid, reassuring. He downed the rest of the can and pressed his palms to his knees to stand.

“If you think of anything, no matter how small, that you might’ve forgot before, you call me.” He handed me the empty soda can, and I nodded. He walked back to his car and drove off down the semi-paved road.

It wasn’t small, and I hadn’t forgotten, but there was something I hadn’t told him.

Sloane had asked for the time, just as I said, and, as I said, I don’t own a watch. I did tell her about the clock in the store and she had thanked me. But that wasn’t the last thing she said that night.

Instead of walking to the Quick Stop as usual, that night I’d borrowed Joe Ray’s car. Too drunk to drive, he loaned it to me to make a quick run for provisions. It was safer than walking in the dark he said, even if I didn’t have a license. The store was just minutes away, but he passed out before I returned. The next morning, he woke to find the car parked in its usual spot, keys hidden under the floor mat and the tires caked with mud.

The last thing Sloane said was, “Can I get a lift?”

I picked at the grass around me but avoided the weeds. Left alone, they’d bloom bright yellow in the Fall. School would start in a week, but it would be another month before the heat let up.

 

[Check out Michele Strider’s back porch advice]