Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Caleb Johnson



Stories We Tell


The water was coming, but Janie Treeborne would not leave. She’d lived alone in this house perched on the edge of a roadside peach orchard in Elberta, Alabama, ever since Lee Malone sold it to her. Sold maybe not the right word for the price she paid, the price he would take. But it was hers and she would not leave. Rather the water take her too.

She’d been telling her visitor exactly how she came to own the house, which once was Lee’s office and, before that, his boyhood home. A complicated matter. To tell how this house and the surrounding property became hers she needed to tell how it became Lee’s, and to do that she needed to first tell about a man named Mr. Prince.

“See, back then folks thought Mr. Prince wasn’t but a rumor and a last name,” she continued. “But he was real. Lived in one of them mansions down on the river. Anyhow, Lee started working at The Peach Pit not long after the storm.

“Worked here for years. Then one day Mr. Prince carried him to lunch out at Woodrow’s. The Hills would of been about the only place they could eat together. They ordered and sat down and Mr. Prince said he was selling the orchard, the old cannery, and a little cottage he owned in town for whatever was in Lee’s billfold right that moment. Can you imagine? Mr. Prince died not too long after. Most of my growing up, folks still thought Lee wasn’t nothing but the orchard manager. Would of got to a certain kind of person. Not him, not to Lee Malone.”

Janie Treeborne’d come to own the peach orchard—and the other properties once belonging to Mr. Prince—the same way as Lee Malone. She sat at a greasy tabletop inside Woodrow’s Pit Cook Bar-B-Q where, years before, Lee’d counted out of his billfold two-dollar-five-cent and a receipt for a bag of dog food, and she searched for what money she had in the depths of a purse she felt foolish toting around. Lee’s heart was weak by then. He had considered turning the land over to Janie for a long long time.

She thought she would of handed everything down to her visitor, this young man sitting with a tape recorder on his lap and a long microphone gripped in his hand. So why’d she not? Janie couldn’t remember. Did it matter? He was here, he was home. Had her same big forehead and freckled nose, her granddaddy Hugh’s thick black hair and high-cut cheeks. A Treeborne, she thought, through and through, right down to the bone.

“Do you remember how much it was you paid?” he asked.

“Foot yes, I do,” she said. “You reckon your grandmomma’d up and forget something like that? It was sixteen dollar and a pack of chewing gum.”

“Did you ever regret not paying him more?”

“Regret, foot,” she said. No amount would of been sufficient. This place was priceless. But how to explain that? “Lee’s body might of blunted,” she went on, “but his mind stayed sharp till the end. I always tell that if mine ain’t then somebody please shove a gun right here and fire that sucker twice. There’s one right yonder in the dresser drawer. I don’t give a rip if it sounds morbid! Life’s morbid! Love sure enough is.

“Lee Malone taught me everything about the peach-growing business. Everything. Even helped run the fruit stand through his last good summer on earth. Could still sing his head off too. Them trees yonder, we planted them together. Look out thataway you’ll see where the house he died in once stood. Wasn’t much to the place itself, but it was in Elberta and belonged to him, and there was a time that meant something. See? Other side the road there, just below the water tower Ricky Birdsong fell off of.”

“Are there any pictures of Mr. Malone?” the young man asked.

Janie got up from her recliner chair and took one of the dozens of photo albums shelved in the living room and stacked in cardboard boxes pushed against the wall. She opened to a picture of the old Elberta water tower. Pointed, turned the page. Black-and-whites of folks standing by water, with dogs, by log houses and woodpiles, next to pickup trucks and wagons, at school, at church, in decorated cemeteries, along fencelines and unidentifiable roadsides and hedgerows. Somehow not one picture of Lee Malone.

She turned the page again and pointed at a girl with straight black hair touching bony shoulders. “There’s me,” she said, squinting as if to be sure. “Would of been the year before MawMaw May died—if I’m right.”

“Do you still think about it?” the young man asked.

She closed the album. “I try to keep a routine for the sake of my mind, but there’s only so much you can do now.”

Janie Treeborne first received a notice from The Authority, say, three years ago. Plenty warning. The Hernando de Soto Dam had served its purpose for nearly eighty years. Her granddaddy, Hugh Treeborne, helped build it. Her daddy, Ren Treeborne, an engineer. Janie understood that if The Authority didn’t implode the dam then its concrete would give to time and further neglect. A disaster would sure enough occur. The notice claimed there’d be payment for her property, relocation services, the works. Miss Treeborne, the letter called her, just needed to fill out the accompanying forms and mail them back. Janie knew how this story went. She took the notice and she deposited it right in the trash.

“The Fencepost sure does miss its big-talkers and bullshitters,” she said. “I still hear their voices rattling around and around … Air here’s always been full of voices to my mind. Pedro agrees and he abets with a daily dose of radio. Lets them dogs that’s always running around sleep inside the station if it’s cold or raining. When one comes up lame. He feeds them scraps. But, hellfire, I do too when they roam up here. Jon D. used to say one was going to give me rabies. Foot. I told you Pedro started reading out our names on the air. A roll call, I reckon. Lucky that us fourteen remaining can dial him in another day yet. For that much we’re blessed. Pedro and me share a sense of humor. Laugh to keep from tears.”

The young man wanted to know how Janie spent her days. What it was like living in Elberta now and what all she did.

“Sometimes after breakfast I’ll drive out at The Seven and prowl around them woods for a spell—same way me and Crusoe did. You’ll have to go by there. A Treeborne ain’t lived on them seven hundred acres since Aunt Tammy moved here with me. Used to though, the highway’d be backed up nearly all the way into town with folks come to see what all Granddaddy Hugh—be your great-great—what all he painted and assemblied and left out yonder in them woods. I still call it The Seven instead of whatever the hell they named it. Some of them folks who ran the place treated me like I ought to be put on display alongside all them things he made. Art, not things. That word’s always got away from me. Time, they wanted me to give a series of talks on it. On him. This was back in The Seven’s heyday—eighties-early-nineties—when some loud awful band put Granddaddy Hugh’s art on their record cover. Sold a million copies, they tell. Told them I was too busy to give talks, which was no more than part-truth.”

Janie eased back down in her recliner. She fixed the hem of her gown over her liver-spotted legs then patted the arm of the chair two times.

“I’ll tell you,” she went on, “it’s fools who claim the ones you’re expecting to go ain’t so bad as those you don’t. Treebornes never have been long-lived though. Aunt Tammy lasted longest of her siblings. Daddy was the oldest, Uncle Luther, then her. I can’t speak for the long-livedness of Malones, but Lee dying was bad on me, buddy. And me in my twenties when it happened. Not bad like MawMaw May, but bad. I was just a fool girl when she died. Like to of ruined us all.”

Janie turned her head to better see the young man, gazing as if she’d only then recalled he was in the room. Blinded on one side most of her life, the damaged eye looked like the inside of a grape. The young man was growing used to it, though when Janie leaned forward and clasped his hand he startled.

“There ain’t a thing I’d trade,” she said. “They tried and they tried and they tried to get me to. Some of our own kin, the government, Authority, different buddies over the years—Jon D. Crews among them. Says he’s through begging me. Ain’t heard from him in, I reckon, more than a month. Wouldn’t trade calling this land home not even to get my eye back. Shit fire, you could say, Janie, we come up with a way to stop all that lakewater from spilling down into the valley, The Peach Pit can stay open for all eternity, but you got to move off from here. No sir. Me and this place—and I don’t just mean what you can look out yonder and lay eyes upon—me and this place is just too tangled up. But I reckon you know that, don’t you, coming up here with a tape recorder to get a old buzzard’s stories.”

Days Her Missing


Wooten Ragsdale had always been afraid she’d leave—not just him but this entire place. Tammy’d threatened to since the night she saw her first movie, at the Elberta Rampatorium. Fourteen, sitting on a grassy terrace next to a senior named Bobby Davis.

“Oh my lord,” she said after the closing credits.

“What is it?” Bobby had dozed off when he realized she wasn’t game to fool around.

“I got to go to Hollywood,” Tammy said.

“Hell, right now?”

“No you fool. But one day, you watch, I’ll be gone.”

This realization occurred before Wooten knew Tammy, before the Ragsdales moved to the valley and he ruined his right hand at work. Tammy was, he thought after they met, more than pretty enough to be on the big screen. A face he could cup in his one good hand, bright-green eyes, thick black hair, and a good-size chest. If a Treeborne ever went for Miss Elberta Peach, though none ever did, Wooten liked to brag that it would of been Tammy.

After she graduated school she’d moved down to the Gulf of Mexico. Not quite Hollywood, but still. Wooten was two years behind Tammy at Elberta County High. He remembered hearing she’d moved away, but they ran with different crowds, and it didn’t much register with him busy playing football for the Conquistadors and working at his daddy Leland’s chickenhouses. About a year later Tammy moved back and started work for the county water department. Everybody figured her adventure to the Gulf Coast would of satisfied her Hollywood dreams. But Tammy kept making threats, even after she and Wooten began dating. It was cute, he thought—at first. But as she aged, and their relationship did too, the threats wore on him. The way Tammy acted was kin to being a grown woman who still pops and plays with her chewing gum. I’ll leave this goddamn place tomorrow! she’d say. Wooten didn’t know how to handle her outbursts. He was nervous by nature. Sometimes he wanted to just yell back, Well go on then!

One night a few years into their marriage, Tammy ranting and raving about going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star, Wooten dragged a hard blue-plastic suitcase out from the closet and began frantically stuffing it with clothes from their shared chest of drawers.

“What on earth do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

“If leaving’s what you want, then come on! Let’s go.” He was a man without much past anyhow. Why not up and leave?

She stood there watching him for a moment, wondering could they actually leave together, then said, “No. Stop it Woot. If I’m going it’s got to be by myself.”

Despite Tammy saying this, and the next four years of regular threats, Wooten Ragsdale did not decide till the second night of her missing that Tammy’d finally made good on her promise and gone.

He was sitting in a recliner chair eating fried pork skins from a brown paperbag while the new television bled blue light throughout the living room of their singlewide trailer. The embarrassing realization landed on Wooten from above, like bird droppings. His wife had gone to Hollywood, California, and left him here all by hisself. He finished the bag of pork skins then, knowing not what else to do, got in the new used pickup truck he’d bought from Big Connie Ward and drove out into the county.

The pickup was a beautiful thing with wood running boards and white capital lettering across the tailgate. Wooten drove and he drove, trying to believe he’d catch up to his wife if he just kept on. Pull over and she’d hop in. Drive back into town and eat a hamburger all-the-way, large fry, split a chocolate milk shake with whipped cream. The summer air all thick and buggy, they’d get in bed and talk about the house they were building on Tammy’s folks’ land till one fell asleep in the other’s arms. Be like one of those damn movies she was always dragging him to see at the Grand Two ever since the Rampatorium shut down. Tammy had been furious when this happened. She believed there was no better way to see a movie than outdoors underneath the stars. She’d watch anything—westerns, love stories, murder mysteries, even kiddie cartoons if that’s all that was playing. She said it felt like her innards were being squeezed by the moving pictures and the light. Something important happening. She told Wooten how, when she was a girl, she used to take frames that the projectionist threw out and bring them home, where she held them to lamplight and made up stories for the people and places she saw. Wooten and Tammy did not fool around during movies, way other couples did. This embarrassed him too. Folks sometimes called the Rampatorium a passion pit. He just knew everybody noticed his and Tammy’s public display of celibacy. On occasion he tried to kiss her, tried to unbutton her britches and slip his bad hand underneath her bloomers. “Quit it Woot,” she’d hiss, removing his hand like one might a pesky insect. “I don’t want to miss what happens next.”

When Wooten got back home later that night he tripped over a bowl of dog food on the porch. Dry pellets dropped down between the gapped boards. He cussed then hollered, “Martin, Martin, come on now!” The dog did not come. Odd, he thought, going inside and turning on the television. He tried to find wrestling. Martin was his little buddy. A chubby brown-and-white beagle mix. Wooten thought he might let the dog sleep inside since Tammy wasn’t around to fuss about the shedding and the stinking. He grew tired of flipping channels. On-screen a comedian introduced a band that he didn’t recognize. The picture dimmed. Wooten got up and smacked the side of the wood console with his bad hand. Still good for clubbing. The screen brightened. He readjusted one of the little ceramic figurines he gave Tammy on birthdays and holidays—this one Hernando de Soto astraddle a horse—then sat down and fell asleep.

Next morning he woke up and drove over at The Seven. He primed his chain saw while waiting for the Crews boy to show up. This alone seemed fishy, folks said when they found out Tammy was missing. But work had always soothed Wooten Ragsdale—even after his hand was mangled by a band saw when he was halving warm chicken carcasses for his daddy. Wooten couldn’t say the same for Lyle Crews though. The boy was plumb lazy. All summer Wooten had been waiting for Lyle to quit. Looked like, he thought, tearing open the packaging of a snack cake with his teeth, today was going to be the day.

He checked the foundation that’d been poured the other week. With good weather the concrete would cure and he could start building soon. He grew tired of waiting and began work without Lyle Crews, downing several hardwoods, chaining them to the dozer then dragging them into the pasture alongside the others. He logged through lunch, not noticing Sister and Crusoe missing from atop Tammy’s daddy’s old artist studio, where his niece and the dirt boy doll she toted had been keeping watch on him every single damn day since he’d started.

Come evening Wooten drove over at Freedom Hills and bought a sack of tamales from Dyar’s. The tamales, made of corn and filled with juicy pulled pork and diced red chili peppers and onions, were wrapped in steamed husks that scalded his fingertips as he peeled them. He finished the entire sack before he got home. The dog food remained where he’d spilled it the night before, minus what raccoons had eaten. He hollered, “Here now dog!” Didn’t figure Tammy’d take Martin with her. What if something was wrong? Dogs are apt to wander though, he told hisself as he carried a dozen cold beers onto the porch—and Tammy could be spiteful, just like her momma. He sat on the metal glider and drank. The beers tasted all the crisper in the early August heat that would not break, even after the mean orange sun fell beyond the black hills. He drank all twelve beers then started feeling real good and sorry for hisself. Tammy never had qualms letting Wooten know she despised this in him. He despised the inclination too, though he couldn’t help it any more than a stone could its stillness.

Later that night he drove to the limits of Elberta County, following pitiful dirt roads without names that snaked in and out of the wooded hillfolds. Spotted nothing but whitetail deer in briar-choked fields, fat possums that sneered as they ran in front of his tires, millions upon millions of papery moths and mosquitoes and gnats that gathered momentarily in his headlights before being smashed to smithereens against the warm grille. Buying this new used pickup had been Tammy’s idea. The thought of Wooten driving it aroused in her some affection toward him that’d long been absent. But this affection had dulled just like the free wax job Big Connie Ward threw in with the purchase. If Wooten had married any other woman in Elberta, Alabama, he knew, they would of silently figured out a way to live out their predicament. Unhappy marriages common as clay. But he hadn’t married just any woman. He’d married a Treeborne and, goddamn it, he was paying for it.

He pulled up near the water tower and drank six more cold beers while watching the other vehicles strategically parked in moon-cut shadow. He got hisself riled up thinking Tammy might be in the backseat of one with an even younger man than he—maybe a member of the Conquistadors varsity squad. He got out and listened at a high school couple rut and moan. Nearly yanked them through the cracked window, then he caught hisself. Young love. The dial tuned to The Peach. It was late enough that Pedro Hannah could get away with playing rock-and-roll music. Nobody awake to hear but kids like these and the men who worked owl-shift at the coal mines down in Bankhead and, tonight anyway, Wooten Ragsdale. Between songs Pedro said there was nothing new to report about last week’s Peach Days incident. Wooten was so drunk he did not register what incident the boy meant nor his wife’s involvement in it.

The sun was up, slowly turning the valley blue as if it’d sunk underwater, time Wooten arrived at the Hernando de Soto Dam. He knocked on a metal door. When it opened there stood his brother-in-law, Ren Treeborne, wearing nothing but a pair of red-and-white-checkered drawers and a gold chain around his hairy neck.

“Hell is it Woot?”

“She’s gone.”


“Tammy,” he said. “She ain’t been home the last three nights.”

They took Ren’s pickup, the floorboards littered with lakeshore sand and pinched cigarettes. Empty coke-cola bottles rolled out from underneath the seat then back again. Ren cranked down the driver’s-side window with a pair of pliers then handed them to Wooten. Hot air stirred up the sparkling floorboard grit as Ren turned right onto 31. From there it wasn’t far to Wooten and Tammy’s trailer.

They walked around inside then throughout the yard, hunting for signs among the weeds and the construction materials and the above-ground swimming pool. Found nothing that could be interpreted as such. Near the edge of the woods Ren believed he caught a whiff of rot, though he couldn’t be sure. Wooten said the dog was missing too. Ren knew Tammy wouldn’t of taken that damn mutt if she’d run off.

“We ought to call Aaron,” he said.

“Let’s wait just a day or two.”


“I can’t stand admitting she’s left me Ren.”

“She’s my sister Woot.”

“I know it.”

“What if she’s somewhere hurt and needing help?”

“I know it,” Wooten said. “Don’t you reckon I know?”

Ren hated seeing a grown man so ashamed. He knew his baby sister could be flighty. They’d all worried about her marrying Wooten. Tammy had sworn she’d found pure-dee love this time. Who was Ren to doubt? Wooten had invited Ren, Luther, Hugh and Maybelle to witness the proposal outside the Ragsdale chickenhouses and slaughtering facility. One of Elberta’s biggest employers since Prince’s Peach Cannery shut down in the twenties. Tammy had just got on at the water department. Wooten owned some land on which he’d parked a trailer. This trailer. Tammy was, she told her family, a year older and much wiser than she was after high school when she left for the Gulf Coast.

“Alright,” Ren said. “Let’s see if she don’t turn up tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Wooten said. “Thank you Ren.”

Folks remembered seeing Wooten Ragsdale down at The Fencepost Cafe at lunch that day. Said he ordered a bloody steak and a baked potato big as a newborn baby. He ate alone, Ren gone back to the De Soto Dam. Wooten’s check, the money him and Tammy were making logging the land she’d inherited after her momma died earlier that summer, the house they were building there, these were the subject of hours of big talk and bullshitting at the little restaurant. Folks paid special attention whenever the couple came in to eat. Strange, they thought that day, Tammy not meeting Wooten for lunch. The county water department office was, after all, just down Madrid and other side of the square.

After lunch Wooten took a peek at the blind tiger in back of the restaurant. No longer a need for pretending there was an exotic animal on view, but the speakeasy’s name had stuck. He took another peek and then another one till he was so drunk he had to cover one eye to see the road straight. He managed to arrive at The Seven unharmed, though he wasn’t able to do much work. The chain saw missed each time he tried to lay into a tree. He took a nap in the cab of his pickup truck then drove over at Livingstown to see about that Crews boy.

Wooten found the boy’s daddy Van in the shop building where he kept three llamas he’d bought off a traveling sideshow run by a spectacular midget. Van Crews swung a pistol onto Wooten when he barged in demanding to see Lyle.

“I don’t keep up with him.”


“I ain’t arguing with you about it,” Van said, jostling the pistol. He lowered it when he realized how drunk Wooten was then turned his attention back to the llama’s milk soap he had on to boil. Forever chasing fortune, Van Crews had noticed Elberta women becoming more concerned about their upkeep. He was working on a llama’s milk shampoo too—made with real llama butter for extra shine.

“You ain’t got any of that dope do you?”

“Not for you I ain’t,” Van said, pointing the snubbish pistol again. “I’ll tell Lyle you was hunting him. Now go on home Woot. You look like twice run-over shit.”

Wooten could piece together nothing between leaving Livingstown and showing up at football practice later that afternoon, though, when asked, he’d tell Sheriff Aaron Guthrie that he’d gone swimming. It was blamed hot enough for this to make sense—problem was, grown men in Elberta didn’t just go swimming by themselves.

Wooten started out on the concrete bleachers with all the other used-to-bes who had nothing better to do than watch a bunch of high school boys running into each other time and again. The Elberta County High School Conquistadors jamboree game was a few weeks off and practice tempo had adjusted accordingly. Wooten gradually drifted down onto the sideline for a better look. He’d been a fair ball player on a couple good teams in the forties. He followed Coach Williams up and down the field. Coach carried hisself like a war hero, wore short gray cotton shorts and looked like a turtle from the neck up. Every Conquistador who’d ever played for him adored him to death. He gave these boys and the men they became scant approval in return, which only made them adore him more.

During one play a Conquistador—folks later told it was the Snell kid—came running toward the sideline on a passing route too fast to pull up. Coach Williams dodged, but Wooten Ragsdale held his ground. The Conquistador fell flat on his back. All the used-to-bes laughed and spat and clapped. Coach Williams even smiled around his polished silver whistle. Wooten helped up the Conquistador and slapped him on the rear end. When the Conquistador jogged back onto the field for the next play, Wooten followed. The Conquistadors didn’t know what to do when he leaned into the huddle. The grown man smelled like booze and treebark. Realizing Coach Williams meant to let it ride, the quarterback lined everybody up and snapped the ball on two. He shoved it into the Snell kid’s gut going up the middle on a dive. Wooten had plowed a path so clear the kid ran half the field before getting tackled from behind. Coach Williams blew his whistle and hollered for him to come on off the field.

But Wooten would not.

He called another play, another and another, leading the offense to the goal line in the same sweat-soaked clothes he’d worn the last four days his wife was missing. All the used-to-bes stopped laughing and clapping. During the touchdown play Wooten drove a boy named Winchell hard into the ground. The boy’s cleat caught in the grass and his leg bent backward at an unnatural angle. The break, the used-to-bes later claimed, could be heard from the bleachers. Boys who saw the injury up close puked on themselves.

Coach Williams sprinted up to Wooten. “Get your sorry goddamn ass off my field right this second before I kick it all the way to goddamn fucking Bankhead and back.”

But still Wooten would not.

The fight was over time Ren got there. The used-to-bes had gathered around their vehicles to rehash what’d occurred. Sometimes old Conquistadors got in on practice, but it was usually ones no more than a year or two removed from school. Wooten had been out coming up on a decade. He sat alone on the bleachers, the boys he’d whipped pacing the trampled sidelines with tiny paper cups of water. Ren waved to his brother-in-law then went to apologize to Coach Williams, who had a good-size welt on his right cheek. Bertrand English, an assistant, boasted a missing tooth and busted lower lip. Ren apologized to him too and asked about the Winchell boy. He’d been carried to Doc Barfield’s. Ren promised to stop by and look in on him. He knew this story would hit The Fencepost before the dinner rush. Liable to make the next day’s Elberta Times-Journal too. Coach Williams said not to worry about it, and he was sorry for bothering Ren at work.

“I tried over at the water department, but Tam wasn’t in. Everything alright?”

“She ain’t been feeling too good lately,” Ren said.

“Well, it ain’t easy what y’all been through this summer.”

Ren grimaced as he shook his coach’s hand.

He kept Wooten at the dam that night. Only had the one cot in his office, which he helped his brother-in-law onto after feeding him dry toast and as much water as he could stomach. Ren ate the last of some okra and butter beans then made hisself a pallet on the cold concrete floor. If he turned on his side he could hear the turbines working in the gallery fifty feet down below. He slept little that night, wondering if Tammy really had fled Elberta. If she had at least she’d waited till their momma wasn’t around anymore.

Next morning Ren felt like he was the one who’d taken on the Conquistadors varsity squad, the coaches and the used-to-bes. Wooten was smiling and drinking black coffee in the break room with Willy Ramsey, one of two engineers at the De Soto Dam. Ren grabbed the Times-Journal off the table and carried it to the bathroom. His stomach complained to be emptied as he unzipped his blue jeans. His morning ritual was reading the Times-Journal all the way through while squatted on the toilet. Later in the afternoon he’d go back and hunt for any unread morsels. He read the paper to be up on things. There always seemed plenty in Elberta to be up on too. Other day one of the Farleys had a heart attack on his tractor. Unguided, the machine crashed into a haybarn and spun its tires so long that before anybody realized Junior Farley was missing all the gas ran out and the engine died same as the man. There was nothing about Wooten’s fight in the paper. Thank God. Ren flushed then washed his hands.

Willy Ramsey was eating a baloney sandwich. Through a mouthful he said, “Woot here tells that Tammy’s run off to be some kind of movie star.”

“Ah,” Ren said, setting the newspaper back down.

“Well I hope it ain’t got nothing to do with that Peach Days mess,” Willy said. “Not that I’m blaming her. This used to be a nice little town. Now I just don’t know.”

Ren called Sheriff Aaron Guthrie and asked to meet at the trailer. Then he called the library to let Nita know what was going on. She boo-hooed into the phone. Ren didn’t know how to comfort her. In this respect he was not the best husband.

When they got to the trailer, biscuit crumbs yet clung to the sheriff’s navy-blue shirt. He was built like many Elberta men: a gut, twig-legs and thinning hair. He and Wooten searched inside the trailer. Meanwhile, Ren walked down at the mailbox.

Among the usual grocery store flyers set a peach pit. Couldn’t of been but a handful of days removed from a fruit’s flesh. Ren carried the pit inside. The sheriff held it up to his face like a jeweler would a diamond. “How long you say she’s missing for?”

“Five days,” Ren said.

The sheriff grunted. He had plenty of questions, namely how come they’d waited so long before telling him. Aaron Guthrie was good at his job without going so overboard he didn’t have time to fish De Soto Lake, or sit around The Fencepost and bullshit two meals a day.

“I was ashamed for anybody to know.”

“But you told your brother here?”

“Brother-in-law,” Ren said, wishing he’d just bit his tongue.

The sheriff held up the peach pit again. “And this was in the mailbox?”

“She’s gone off to Hollywood,” Wooten said. He sat down in the recliner chair and the frame groaned. “That’s what she’s done to me.”

“You ought to of said something right off the bat,” the sheriff said. “Now what else ain’t you told?”

Wooten began crying, his good hand cupping his forehead and the bad one pressed against his bearded jaw.

“The dog,” Ren said.

“I don’t know where Martin is neither!”

“I’ll call Connie,” the sheriff said. “Get his hound over here.”

The three men smoked cigarettes while waiting for Big Connie Ward and his black-and-tan Troop to arrive. A crayon-green lizard crawled across the porch then up the heat-cracked banister. The lizard gazed at the men in unrepentant fashion before disappearing behind the trailer’s aluminum siding as if it was no more real than magic.

“I’ll have to carry you in and get this all on the record,” the sheriff said.

“Fuck you Aaron.”

“This right here ain’t good enough?” Ren asked.

“There’s appearances I got to keep.”

“Fuck you straight to hell,” Wooten said.

“Heard you was down at ball practice yesterday.”

Wooten sniffled and blew smoke.

“Broke that Winchell boy’s leg clean in two.”

Wooten sat on the porch steps. “I just want my wife back home with me.”

“Then you best start helping me goddamn it.”

Wooten tried to recall the last time he’d seen Tammy. His memory skirted away though, not wanting to be caught and dissected. He realized how little he marked what seemed like, in the present, ordinary days. They hadn’t fought more than usual, he said. Sure, they fought, who didn’t, but he never laid a hand on her. Not once. He thought he remembered her tanning her legs by the pool. That white swimsuit. She wasn’t acting particularly odd, not that he could tell. Didn’t Treebornes always act somewhat odd? Sorry. He looked at Ren. None intended. The keys to her pickup truck right yonder on the counter. That’s right, smooched her cheek then left to fill up the gas cans so I wouldn’t have to do it come morning. Call and ask Dennis down at the Pump-N-Save! Dennis would remember. Would of filled up the cans earlier but I had to drop off the Crews boy down at Livingstown on the way home then—

“What about him?” Ren said. “Talk to Lyle and see what he remembers.”

The sheriff ignored this suggestion. “Reckon it could be to do with her momma?” he asked. “You know how women get whenever somebody passes.”

The heat was rolling waves off the gravel and dirt driveway time Big Connie Ward pulled up in a red pickup truck. When Troop stepped down from the cab Wooten held out one of Tammy’s silk nightgowns for him to sniff. The hound found no signs of her but soon discovered Martin’s remains in the woods just beyond the yard. Troop grabbed the poor dog’s body and shook. Plump maggots and shiny black beetles tumbled out of Martin’s innards like candy from a piñata till Big Connie wopped Troop upside the skull and said quit it. The hound tucked tail then and sat, holding high his flat head and panting.

“Just sick,” Big Connie said, leaning over to inspect Martin’s decapitated body.

“You don’t reckon a cult did this do you?” Ren asked.

“Not no cult,” Big Connie said. “Just pure-dee sickness is all it is.”

“But what about that clay man Woot?” Ren said.

“What clay man?” the sheriff asked.

“It ain’t anything Aaron,” Wooten said. “Found him strung up on the porch other week ago. I don’t know, big dummy-looking thing made of dirt and leaves and shit-what-all else. Probably just some kids messing around.”

“And you ain’t even going to talk to Lyle Crews?” Ren said.

Big Connie cut a look that made the sheriff frown.

“I’ll talk to Van,” the sheriff said. “See what we can’t find out.”

They got together a search party at Woodrow’s Pit Cook Bar-B-Q. Men who’d soon die as look a black person in the face would yet go over at The Hills for Woodrow’s pulled pork and ribs. Never ate inside the low block building though—their usual compromise was to carry out. Come lunch you’d see pickups parked all along Jaybird Ridge, which divided Elberta from Freedom Hills, and men eating from foam containers balanced on the hoods. This day they made an exception and did not carry out. Woodrow’s ribs were ringed with a beautiful pink halo just inside the hard black bark, and required a gentle tug of the teeth for the meat to come loose from the bone. Perfect. The pulled pork came by the pound and dressed with a vinegary tomato-based sauce that had peaches in it for sweetness. Woodrow’d learned to smoke hogs from his great-granddaddy, who was a Louisiana slave, and he kept what he claimed were a real set of iron shackles in a glass case built into the counter.

Aaron Guthrie went over the search plan while the men sopped puddles of dark-red sauce with pieces of white loafbread. They’d start out down below Wooten and Tammy’s trailer along the Elberta River, he said. The bank was karsty, all run-through with sinkholes and caves where Tammy might of, the sheriff gently put it, got lost. Others would search The Seven and its dense woods. A crew was on its way from Poarch County to drag De Soto Lake. After the sheriff finished talking he asked Wooten if there was anything he wanted to add.

Wooten stood up, ducking a ceiling fan coated in one hundred years of dust and grease, and thanked everybody. But, he said, it didn’t matter one lick where in the valley they looked for Tammy. “She’s five hundred miles away by now,” he said. “And if there’s one thing I know it’s she ain’t ever coming back to Elberta, Alabama, so long as she lives.”

There were a few halfhearted attempts to encourage Wooten otherwise. Then the men finished their barbecue and set out in a line of pickup trucks. Hound dogs on toolboxes, pink tongues dangling like flags in the wind.

“Why don’t you come with me,” the sheriff said to Wooten. He popped a little white heart pill in his mouth and crunched it with his molars. “Down at the office.”

“Go ahead and arrest me Aaron. Only way you’ll keep me from being out yonder with every other damn fool you done gathered up for this.”

The sheriff relented, and Ren and Wooten headed out to catch up with the rest of the search party. Other side of The Peach Pit they met Lee Malone in his truck and stopped in the road to speak. He was carrying Ricky Birdsong home. After Ren told what’d happened, Lee wouldn’t have it any other way but to come search for Tammy too. Bad idea, Ren knew, especially since the Peach Days incident and everything prior to Maybelle’s death.

“Ricky didn’t look good,” Ren said after they’d pulled away.

Wooten grunted and scratched his beard. Sawdust sprinkled onto his britches. He brushed it off and readjusted how he sat.

Ren fooled with the radio. Sometimes The Peach faded out the closer you got to the Prince Building, as if all the voices and music were being shot out at too steep an angle to be heard in town. Ren wanted to know if Pedro Hannah had broken the news about Tammy being missing yet. Pedro was midcommercial though, rambling on about an upcoming bean supper at Elberta Second Baptist Church, then about Big Connie Ward extending his Peach Days sale for one more weekend and one more weekend only.

“Everybody had it hard,” Wooten said.

“I reckon so.” Ren shook out a cigarette from a smushed pack then lit it. “You’ll have to answer the sheriff about these last several days, you know it?”

“You might have to answer for some things too,” Wooten said. “It ain’t no secret you and Tam’s been at odds over this mess with your momma.”

Ren inhaled then blew out and coughed. “Well,” he said.

“You really don’t reckon I’d hurt your sister do you?”

“I sure hope not,” Ren said. “I sure sure hope not.”

At the river landing the men plugged tobacco into their mouths and pretended to look away while Wooten held the nightgown for the hounds to sniff. The sight of the gown gripped in his bad hand, which looked like a skint dove the way it shined with barbecue grease, sickened them. It was obscene too the way the hounds buried their wet noses into the silky fabric. The men were jealous—not only of the hounds, but also of each other, wondering which confederate among them had made it with Tammy Treeborne Ragsdale way back when. Of this they felt sure: Wooten had done something to his wife because she’d betrayed him. Killed her, chopped her up into a million pieces and sunk them in the lake, buried them somewhere off in the deep woods where they’d never be found. Still they had a duty to fulfill. They traced calloused fingers across a map, then set out in a loose line for the river.

The current picked up speed as limestone bluffs pinched toward each other. The men poked the ground with sticks and hoe handles, with the butt-end of rifles and handed-down shotguns. They swapped off hollering her name, and shared drink and cigarettes. Near downtown they spotted Deputy Polk at a landing other side the river. Big Connie bellowed directions while the deputy acted like he understood. After Polk drove out of sight the search party headed on.

Farther downriver they came to the Hernando de Soto Bridge. A pickup truck was parked beyond the guardrail. Lee Malone leaned against its side. Big Connie made a joke about a gorilla escaped from the zoo and Ren shot him a look. Big Connie said, “Come on and join us Brother Lee! And bring that mutt too!”

Lee and Buckshot ambled down the slope. Lee’s clothes were sopping wet and he had, for him, a near frantic expression about his face. Buckshot hiked a leg and pissed on a sapling while staring up at Big Connie Ward.

“Everything alright?” Ren asked.

“Uh-huh,” Lee said. “Yeah.”

Ren trusted Lee’s word, but he also understood how this appeared to the rest of the men. Folks knew about Lee’s relationship with Maybelle Treeborne. Many predicted it would end in just the kind of tragedy that’d befallen her. The circumstances too perfect, Lee Malone squirrel hunting the exact part of The Seven where Maybelle’d been found dead. Some folks suspected Lee was involved with Tammy’s disappearance too. Ren’s word would carry only so much weight. Treebornes just a step above white trash to begin with. The further time distanced the town from the days of Mr. Prince, who, in many folks’ minds, had crowned Lee Malone by bringing him out of Freedom Hills and letting him run the peach orchard, the less likely folks were to bend toward, what they saw as, the eccentricities of a dead man and the few folks, like Ren Treeborne, who dared defend them as just.

“Y’all hear they found a peach pit at the scene of the crime?” Big Connie Ward said. The men mumbled. “Seems to me like somebody who knows about peaches might could reckon why a pit’d be left behind thataway.”

“Fuck you Connie,” Lee Malone said.

“Not in this life nigger,” Big Connie said back.

The men laughed and jeered.

“Let’s keep walking,” Ren said.

Sinkholes and gaps opened like mouths in the earth. Weak-rooted trees laid downhill, their tops baptized in the Elberta River. Limestone white as milk showed through thousands of years of dead leaves covering the unreliable ground. The men checked each hole best they could, letting the hounds nose the blackness till they just about slipped and hung themselves by the neck. Daylight was bleeding out, playing shadows everywhere they looked. Gnats circled the men’s sweating heads, and mosquitoes lit onto their flesh and sucked and sucked. They slapped themselves and each other. To an onlooker, the men would’ve appeared insane. Nobody wanted to be the one to say it: They ought to just quit, come back and try again tomorrow. Ren picked up on this feeling and spoke for the group.

“Might ought to head in before it gets too dark.”

“Just a little farther,” Wooten said.

He led them through a poison-ivy patch. The hounds sneezed and pawed their snouts. Some men threatened to turn back, but Big Connie Ward threatened them if they did. They traversed a hillside strewn with trash: drum rings, blown-out tires, a washing machine and a dryer. They weren’t far from a road. Tammy, they hollered in echo of each other. A breeze carried woodsmoke upriver from Livingstown. Somebody mentioned Van Crews being absent from the search—and him distant Treeborne kin.

“Van’s delivering a vehicle for me,” Big Connie said.

The men knew what that meant, and they said no more of it.

They wandered into a maze of mountain laurel and let the hounds off chain rather than stop to untangle them every few feet. Wooten kept out in front of the group. Ren and Lee tried keeping up with him, but it was no use. All sudden, the unloosed hounds bayed and sprinted, and Wooten took off after them at a run.

They’d already sniffed his niece and backed off time Wooten got there. Her dress was torn at the neckline. She was dirty, pinestraw caught in her black hair, and she held on her hip the dirt boy doll her granddaddy’d made. Crusoe, they called him. Fear caused the girl to appear younger than her thirteen years.

“Where’s your other boot at?” Wooten asked.

The girl did not answer.

“Sister,” Ren said. He touched his daughter’s head, still not used to the eye patch on her face. “Is that gasoline I smell? Listen to me, your aunt Tammy’s gone missing.”

The girl seemed stunned stupid.

“Give them some room,” Big Connie said.

The men chained their hounds. Wrong scent idjit, they muttered. While Ren and Wooten tended to the girl, the men pulled ticks and smashed them against bootheels. Dusk came full. Dry-flies screeched in the treetops. The men grew more agitated till Big Connie Ward pulled a small blue-green bottle out of his shirtpocket. Then they held back their heads in turn and dripped dope underneath their curled red tongues till the bottle was emptied. They thought little of the Treeborne girl being out in the woods thisaway. She had plenty of her grandparents in her. That sort of blood, the men figured, which had them traipsing out here to begin with, was reason enough for her appearance.

Copyright © 2018 by Caleb Johnson