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Brill drove through the fog, ferrying his Thanksgiving groceries home from Carlson’s Market. The Bronco banged over washboard and coarse gravel.
He should have kept his mouth shut. No question. Should have stood and listened, taken in the Tellman news, and sidled up to Aileen. Did Boyd Little deserve a slap-down? Sure he did. So did a million other blowhards. A truck blew past, headed for town, two milky headlights fronting a ghostly cab and trailer. The truck’s backwash side-checked Brill’s car.
His uncle’s ranch came at him out of the fog, a single jagged silhouette soon resolving into stand-alone structures. Old farm buildings to the left of the road. To the right, a new doublewide trailer. Brill turned into the doublewide’s frozen yard and parked beside his uncle’s pickup.
Clad in teal green siding, trimmed in black and bright white, the trailer looked like a birthday cake in a sandbox. The old farm buildings across the road showed the country’s true colors: dull grays and browns, dirty whites.
Brill’s aunt and uncle, Wanda and Stan, had moved into the trailer two winters before, after Stan quit farming and leased his land to the neighbors. People wondered why they hadn’t moved into town. Brill thought he knew. Stan complained about costs and weather and prices, same as every other farmer. But he loved his half section of land and was proud of what it produced. Wanda too. They’d been at it forty years. Much as ever, they wanted to see the wheat and alfalfa growing around them, but without the burden of making it happen.
Moisture had condensed on the trailer’s front door, a cold sweat. A swag made of gourds and Indian corn hung under the fanlight.
Brill rapped twice on the door. Without waiting for an answer, he wiped his feet and let himself in. He found Stan in the front room, tilted halfway back in one of the matched leather La-Z-Boys, a pro football game playing on TV. The teams swarmed in Stan’s glasses.
“Smells good in here, Aunt Wanda,” Brill called toward the kitchen.
“I’m doin’ my darndest,” Wanda chirped. She had already set up her crèche on a low table under the heavily draped front windows. Some pieces were chipped. A donkey stood on three legs. A replacement set for Christmas?
Brill looked back at the kitchen doorway and moved closer to his uncle’s chair. Stan levered the chair upright, grunted, and shook off sleep. He wore a short-sleeved green polyester shirt that was wilted with age. Marine Corps suspenders secured his brown twill trousers.
“Have you heard about Vannoy Tellman?” Brill asked. He kept his voice low, wanting to preview the news for Stan before sharing it with Wanda. She’d take over the conversation, pushing Stan to the sideline. Should he turn up the television?
“What is it now?” Stan asked.
“Vannoy Tellman.” Brill leaned down, blending his voice with those channeling through the television speakers. “Word in town is that somebody shot and killed him this morning.”
“What’s this? What’s this you’re saying?” Not Stan but Wanda asking the questions. And not calling them in from the kitchen either—materialized in the front room. Hyper-vigilant, bird-boned, parchment-skinned Wanda. Let bad news flare and she was on it like a heat-seeking missile.
Brill told his aunt and uncle what he knew about the murder and left it at that. No sense getting into the parking lot dustup. He expected that business to surface soon enough in such a small town.
Washed-out blue eyes snapping behind rimless spectacles, Wanda spat questions. Who called in the report? Which of the deputies responded? Where exactly did all this happen? Was Van dead for certain or maybe only just wounded? Were there suspects? Arrests? She kept on and on, picking at Brill as if he were made of birdseed.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Wanda,” Brill said after a ten-minute interrogation. “I’ve told you all I know. I mostly stopped by to ask about dinner. Are we still on for two o’clock?”
Wanda nodded, working her thin lips, distracted. She couldn’t stop chewing the Tellman news, husking the tidbits with her sharp little teeth. Stan shrank back in his chair, as if fearing that his overwrought wife might go after him next.
Brill hated to abandon his uncle, but he was thirsty. Also, he had dip to make. He let himself out. Hard to believe that one of Wanda’s town cronies hadn’t called with the Tellman news. They’d damn sure regret the oversight. Wanda would give them what for.
Brill climbed into his Bronco and drove across the road, clattering over the cattle guard that bridged the roadside ditch. Black locust trees, seedpods massed in their scraggly crowns, surrounded the now empty house where Stan and Wanda had lived most of their years. Harsh weather had scoured paint off the south side. Dust and cobwebs clogged the few window screens that remained in place. Stan had given one of his buddies permission to winter over some beehives on the porch. The hives stood close together, tilted this way and that, like markers in a pioneer graveyard.
Brill drove around behind the bunkhouse, which, together with the old home place, barn, corral, and equipment shed, formed a compound typical of the county’s mom-and-pop spreads. Surfaced with asphalt roofing shingles, a narrow boardwalk led to the back door of the bunkhouse, which opened into the kitchen. Brill carried in his groceries, glad for a route that shielded him from Wanda’s prying eyes.
His pious aunt frowned on alcohol, as she would on any ladies or lowlife companions he might want to invite for a visit. Aileen, for example, the grocery store checker. She’d rebuffed him this morning, but he meant to keep at her. He knew he could bring her around.
Brill set his groceries on the counter beside the white-enameled sink. Gone only two hours and the flimsy bunkhouse had already leaked much of its heat. He retrieved an armload of firewood from the cord he’d split and stacked out back. He shoved three sticks into the woodstove’s firebox, where they smoked on the coals and finally ignited.
Stan had wired a refrigerator and an electric range into the bunkhouse kitchen, but the woodstove—serving as oven and cook-top originally, then and now the building’s only source of heat—remained a kitchen fixture. Brill woke up nights freezing his ass, hopped from his bunk in back to the kitchen, and stoked the fire. At least, along with the kitchen appliances, Stan had installed a hot water tank, toilet, and shower.
Brill cleaned up and pulled on a change of clothes. Mixing the dip and guacamole, he finished two Coronas and started a third. A knock sounded at the front door.
Brill stashed his open bottle under the sink and swished out his mouth with water from the tap. Both short cases and both empties were sealed inside the wheezy refrigerator. He surveyed the premises one last time and eased the door open.
Stan, wearing his shaggy winter coat and fur-lined Klondike hat, stood on the front step looking pinched and stupid with cold. Brill invited him in.
Eyes lowered, looking neither left nor right, Stan crossed the threshold. Respecting a man’s privacy. Unlike what might be expected of Aunt Wanda. Or of Brill himself, for that matter.
“I’m just finishing up the dip.” Brill gestured at the bowls on the drain board. “Hearing anything about snow? I forgot to ask when I was across the way.”
“Nothing in the forecast. Sounds as if we’re in for more of the same.”
“Hard news about this guy that got himself killed. Assuming it’s true.”
“It’s true, all right. You know your aunt. She’s been on the phone, including a call to the sheriff’s office for confirmation. I saw Van Tellman, I guess it was only yesterday.”
“I don’t suppose it happens much up this way. Or does it?”
“We had the dope killings in the west county.” Stan squinted at the ceiling and drew whistling breath through his dentures. “I guess it was a year or so back. Sheriff called it murder-suicide. A lot of people, including your aunt, don’t put much stock in his explanation.” Stan shook his head. “People die here in accidents. Pulled into balers and whatnot. I can’t remember the last time we had a murder. Apart from maybe those dope killings, and now this.”
“That’s a commendable record.” Brill glanced at his watch. Five minutes past one o’clock. What was it that couldn’t wait an hour? “You want to sit down, Stan? You want something to drink? I got pop, orange juice. I could make us some coffee.”
“Thanks, but no.” Stan peeled off his hat and wrung it in his big gnarled hands. “Terry, this is maybe going to sound like an odd thing to ask, but this Sunday I wonder if you might join us for church.”
Brill felt his face grow heated. He leaned back against the refrigerator, working to maintain a neutral expression. Except for funerals, he hadn’t been to church since leaving home after high school. He’d been married at the Multnomah County courthouse in Portland by a judge who played on his softball team. His wife, now ex-wife, had gone along with the plan, mostly on account of the savings.
“I don’t know, Uncle Stan,” Brill managed at last. “I’ve pretty much fallen away from all that.”
“I said this earlier.” Stan shifted from foot to foot and continued to strangle his hat. “Your aunt has been calling around. I don’t know who all she talked to. Aileen Sheeley I think was one and maybe Jean Hart.” Aileen? Brill’s favorite checker? “Anyway, what your aunt’s been hearing is that you cussed out Boyd Little pretty good over to Carlson’s parking lot. And she’s hearing that you told Boyd you were a police officer. Which you are, of course. But your aunt—you know she can be a stickler for facts—she says, no, you’re not a police officer with the suspension, where you had to give up your badge and gun.” Stickler for facts. One way to put it. Imagine having Wanda for a mom. “I don’t know whether she’s right or not,” Stan continued. “But she says, suspended, you can’t be cussing Boyd Little or threatening to put him in jail.”
Brill chewed the inside of his lower lip and looked at his uncle’s hopeful face. The poor guy wanted denials, disputed facts, ammunition to carry across the road.
“We did exchange a few words,” Brill said. Exchange? Brill had backed Little out of the circle, had made him concede his exaggerations, his inconsistent statements, the gaps in his knowledge. A curse word or two had spiced the conversation. “I don’t remember exactly, but I think, somewhere along the way, I probably did tell Little I was a cop.” Brill knew he should offer to apologize, but couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in his craw.
“People are saying that I threatened to put Little in jail?” Brill chuckled, trying to cover self-reproach. “That strays pretty far from the facts. I’d be happy to tell Aunt Wanda what really happened if you think it would help.”
“I’m not sure that it would.” Stan turned to the kitchen counter. He lay down his hat and stirred the onion dip. “That’s why I mention church. Your aunt loves you, as I’m sure you well know. But this is her town, her county. It’s where she grew up.” Stan spoke across his right shoulder, avoiding Brill’s eyes. “Whatever happened at Carlson’s, right or wrong, she feels embarrassed about it. And I know she’s scared on account of this murder.”
“If she’s scared,” Brill said, touching his chest, “I’m her man. Dealing with bad guys is what I do for a living.”
“This has less to do with scared,” Stan said, now turning to face his nephew, “and more with embarrassed. And also—you know how important church is in your aunt’s life—with you telling her that you’ll go and then, well, all the years you’ve been coming here, I don’t think you’ve been to church more than three or four times. Let me put it to you direct as I can. What I’m supposed to be doing over here is asking you—no, telling you—to pack up your gear and get. That’s how strong she feels on the subject.”
“Whoa.” Brill felt shaken. No way he expected such an extreme reaction, at least not from family. “What about you, Uncle Stan. You in the same place on this?”
“No, I’m fine with your being here. So long as it suits you, or the situation demands.” Stan reached back for his hat. “And I know what you’re thinking.”
Brill tried to break in. Stan raised his free hand, stopping Brill before he could start.
“You’re thinking,” Stan continued, “if that’s the way I feel, then why isn’t that the way it is.”
“I might be thinking that. I’m not saying I am.”
“Well, I know you are, and I tell you what. You’ll go back to the city, to Portland, sooner or later, and I trust things will work out for you there. But your aunt and me, we’re going to go on living across the road. I won’t pretend it’s ever been heaven, but I won’t make it hell, even for you.”
“But church,” Brill protested.
“It’s a simple choice.” Stan’s face showed resolve. “If you want to stay, you have to say yes. I can’t guarantee even that will change your aunt’s mind, though I wager it probably will. That’s the proposition. What’ll it be?”
When Brill was a kid, his family’s summer vacations typically consisted of a week at the ranch. Of five siblings, he was the only one to take a shine to the place. He loved the open vistas, the heat, the animals and machinery, the smells in the barn. He returned even after the rest of the kids mutinied and refused to make the trip. He pitched in on the farm work as soon as he was able. He was proud of the good money he made picking fruit. In late summer and fall, he walked the fields and ridges, hunting doves, chukars, pheasants, and quail. In Portland, he had a job, a bunch of bad habits, and a shit-hole apartment. The ranch might not be his mailing address, but it felt way more like home than what he had in the city.
“If that’s what it takes,” Brill said, “that’s what we’ll do. I am hoping to stay here. If I haven’t said it straight out, I’m grateful to both of you for taking me in.”
Stan pulled on his hat. “Unless I’m back to tell you I couldn’t make the case, you be at the house in, let’s say, twenty minutes. And Terry? Before you come over, you brush your teeth real good. And if it comes to kissing your aunt, you say you best not, you feel a cold coming on.”
People sometimes took Stan Brill for a half-wit because he was shy and doughy-looking. Could a half-wit read the scene as Stan had read it? Could he contrive the defensive maneuvers? Not hardly. “Twenty minutes,” Brill said. “I’m looking forward to dinner.”