Fiction by William R. Soldan
When I was twelve years old, in the summer of 1975, I enjoyed a certain kind of freedom most kids didn’t. And not a day has gone by in almost half a century that I haven’t wished it had been different. Because maybe then I wouldn’t have seen what I saw that day, and maybe I wouldn’t have learned what I’ve carried with me since. Maybe the darkness would just be darkness, and I could sleep.
My father, a one-night stand trucker named Gator who never seemed to catch a single haul through our Ohio town after I was born, was nothing but a speculation to me, a bitter anecdote trotted out whenever my mother was up in arms about something I’d done. But that was rare, because she was often too busy waiting tables and cutting hair and doing whatever else she could to keep us fed and clothed to feel one way or another about what I was up to. I didn’t hold it against her, though. She was doing right by me, I knew that, and though we didn’t get to see much of each other, I was happy to be staying most days and nights with my friends, Remy and his little brother, Wyatt Bell. They lived in a big house in the scoop of Green Valley, where a narrow gravel drive dead ended at the old train track which used to run there and now separated the Bell property from the low end of Bedford Farms. The tree line behind their house was a thin wall of maple that grew on a soft slope up to the freight path, where only the occasional rotted tie and rusted spike could be found among the buried cinders and tall grass.
My mother and their father, Garland Bell, had once been married, long before any of us was born, and in a strange country way, this sort of made us family. In fact, my mother and their mother, Claudia, both sterling products of the free love generation, were best friends despite this history. And so the Bell’s place was my home away from home.
The three of us spent long days wandering around that valley, frittering the hours with unrivaled dedication. Running through the heart of the land was a creek, not but a few feet wide and a few feet deep, but opening up at a point about a quarter mile from the house to form a pool before bottlenecking again as it gurgled north. On hot days like this one, we’d splash around for a while, then pluck the leeches off one other’s backs and lay on the sandy bank in our skivvies, while the cold creek water dried on our tanned skin.
We were lying like this when Remy stripped a thin blade from a piece of foxtail and held it between his thumbs. He made a whistle that echoed through the bottomland and sent birds squawking from the trees behind us. “Let’s go break some shit,” he said, sitting up and tossing the blade into the water.
“Yeah, let’s go to the pit,” Wyatt said.
Destruction being a form of creation was an innate part of our adolescent philosophies, so we got dressed, crossed the creek, and trudged through the rows of August corn, which blanketed that side of the valley, until we reached the pit in a clearing on the far hillside, surrounded by corn and rolling stands of trees.
The pit was an enormous bowl in the land that over many years had been filled with junk: old appliances and car parts and furniture and toys. We used to imagine that it was the remnant of some earth-bound meteor, because no one seemed to know how or why it was there, only that it sat at the convergence of several properties and folks from all over had contributed to it over the years. It had become a sort of small-scale community dump, and for us kids, it was an endless supplier of fun and a perfect place to vent some of our welling pubescent urges by causing some damage.
“Head’s up!” Remy shouted from one side of the crater. I turned just in time, my footing precarious on the lip of an old washtub, to duck what he’d chucked in my direction. It shattered against a bent tractor rim, and he cackled his trademark laugh, part hyena, part Wicked Witch of the West. He’d found a pile of discarded glass block windows, like the ones they had in the restroom at school. They looked like gigantic ice cubes, and he looked like a scrawny little gremlin as he stood among them in his cutoff jeans and sun-faded T-shirt, his brown hair spiked in all directions. He picked up another and hurled it at Wyatt this time. It broke near his feet as he climbed clumsily up a twisted tangle of scrap iron. Wyatt was husky, as folks called kids of his stature in those days, more like me than his brother in that regard, and he wasn’t the most graceful creature. He almost took a header into the pile, but he grabbed hold of a jutting car axel and steadied himself at the last second. His undershirt, however, stretched thin over his protruding belly, had caught the corner of something and tore right up the front.
“Careful, Remy,” I said. “That shit ain’t funny.”
“Yeah,” Wyatt said. “You made me rip my dang shirt.”
I found a fat-headed sledge hammer with half its handle cracked off, and we took turns, one of us busting the glass blocks with it while the others launched them across the pit. We didn’t stop until every last one was in shards.
“What you wanna do now?” Remy said.
I’d begun prying at the dented door of a clothes dryer wedged in a deep cleft of metal. “We could burn some stuff,” I said. “Maybe sneak some beers from your old man’s garage.”
“Maybe could go pinch off one of his plants out back, even,” Remy said.
This got us all nodding and shouting a collective “hell yeah!”
Then the dryer door I’d been trying to dislodge popped open, and all thoughts of fires and beers and pilfered weed shattered like all those block windows.
The gray, dead face of a young woman looked up at us, her head tilted at a skewed angle. Her eyes were open, flat and overcast even in the sun, and matted blonde hair stuck to her forehead and cheeks like frayed strands of bailing twine. The smell that rose from her was sour and thick, a scent like road kill whiffed on the wind through an open car window.
One of us must have said, “Holy fuck,” or something to that effect, but the decades have only held on to the hard silence of that first few moments. We’d all seen dead people before, but always at calling hours or funerals, grandparents or family friends made up to look garish but peaceful in their nice clothes and silk-lined caskets. Nothing like this. We stood there, paralyzed and mute, staring dumbly at her, stuffed into a dryer’s drum like a sack of laundry.
Finally, Remy found his voice. “You recognize her?”
“Not me,” Wyatt said.
“What about you, Jake?”
I shook my head, unable to look away from her cloudy eyes. Then my voice came cracking out of my throat. “How you think she got here?” To my ears, the words seemed to be coming from someone else, and I realized how stupid the question was. She’d been dumped here. Obviously. I finally broke from her faded gaze to look back over at Remy and Wyatt. “I mean, who you think did it?”
Wyatt, who wasn’t what you’d call slow, but perhaps a bit naïve, had obviously been a few steps behind on putting things together, because it wasn’t until now that his face widened beyond his shock with revelation: this woman had not only not died of natural causes, but someone had killed and dumped her here, possibly someone we all knew.
The air felt too heavy, the sun too hot, the house too far. I shut the dryer door so I didn’t have to feel her watching me anymore, and the guilt I felt in doing it was the first spore to take root in the days to come. Though the knowledge of what we’d discovered was far too great for our minds to bear for long, and though a wave of sickness rolled through my gut when I said it, it came out decisive and clear: “We can’t say nothing to no one.”
Remy nodded, seeming to understand as well as I did the possible ramifications.
Wyatt was the voice of contention, which was unusual, but I suspected this was only because he’d be the one that struggled the most to keep a secret this big. “We gotta tell our folks,” he insisted.
“No we don’t,” I said.
“Shut up, Wyatt,” Remy said. “We ain’t saying nothing.”
“Just until we think it through,” I said. “Come on, let’s go.”
It took us another minute to unanchor ourselves from our paralysis, then we climbed out of the pit and walked back through the corn, none of us talking, each wrestling in his own way with our decision. We crossed the creek again and headed back toward their house through a thicket of brush and a copse of old oaks. When the trees opened up into the Bell’s back acreage, overgrown and crowded with a section of horse pasture and a collection of broken down cars and trucks, we stopped and agreed once more not to speak of it yet to anyone. Remy nodded at me, then punched Wyatt hard in the arm and said, “Don’t you say a fuckin’ word, dickface.”
That night we camped out in the cabin, a piecemeal construction we’d built in the woods just off the train path behind the house. The foundation and one of its walls was what remained of an old railway coal storage, an ancient looking relic made of round rocks and crumbling mortar, and which we’d added to little by little over the course of the summer with material dragged from the pit. We’d fashioned the other three walls out of pallets and spare lumber and installed a window and a screen door. It had a potbellied stove with a pipe that ran out the side and even had a staircase that led up to a loft we’d covered with the cap from a junked out Chevy.
For a while we sipped on warm beers taken from their old man’s stockpile in the garage and passed around a well worn copy of Easyriders we’d found in there months earlier. But in the dull glow of our flashlights, all the women’s faces looked dead, so I put down the magazine and took up the topic that was on all our minds, and which we’d somehow managed to avoid since returning to the house that afternoon.
“If we do tell, it’s gotta be anonymous,” I said. “Like a phone call or something, where we don’t give ‘em our names.”
Wyatt said, “Why?”
“Because, dumbass,” Remy said, “Whoever done it might find out it was us that told and come after us next. You wanna end up like that lady?”
“He’s right,” I said.
“But what about Dad?” Wyatt’s voice was getting whiny now, almost pleading. “We can tell him and he’ll know what to do.”
Remy and I looked at each other through our light beams, both of us considering it.
“I don’t know,” I said, but the look on Remy’s face, and the feeling in my gut told me Wyatt would soon break. He’d need to tell someone; he wouldn’t be able to help himself. Hell, I wasn’t sure Remy or I would either, anonymous call to the cops or not.
We lit cigarettes and drank our beers and concluded that we’d go to Garland Bell the next day and tell him what we’d found. Soon after, we climbed the creaky steps and stretched out on our sleeping bags in the muggy loft. I opened the small sliding window on the truck cap above me to let in some air. The breeze was redolent of wood smoke and honeysuckle.
I was still awake long after Remy and Wyatt had drifted off, and I remained that way for some time, that woman’s face flashing behind my lids whenever I closed my eyes. Just knowing she was out there made sleep seem impossible. But sleep eventually came, and had I been conscious, I would have been grateful for it.
It was maybe an hour or two later that I woke to the sound of metal. The wind had picked up, and one of the corrugated sheets on the side of the garage had come loose and was clapping against a stud. The noise was faint enough that Remy and Wyatt hadn’t stirred, but it carried from one end of the valley to the other. I closed my eyes, and she was there. So I opened them. Again and again, the sheet metal struck and echoed, and each time I imagined her inside that cramped space, dead eyes open in blackness, banging to get out.
Remy and Wyatt’s old man was a diesel mechanic in Howland, and left for work early. He was gone before we got back down to the house, and for the rest of the day we tried in vain to occupy ourselves with the usual activities, out in the woods and down by the creek, while we waited for him to get home. We’d begun to grow antsy long before that, and at one point, as we ate lunch, Claudia even noticed.
“You boys been into something, ain’t you?”
I damn near choked on my bologna sandwich when she said it.
“We ain’t been into nothing,” Remy said.
“You sure are acting funny.”
Wyatt looked like he was about to crack open right there at the kitchen table. But Remy perked up, trying to counteract his mother’s growing suspicion. “We was just up late in the cabin, Mom. It was really hot in there. About to head down the creek after we eat.”
This seemed to satisfy her, and when I looked, Wyatt’s face had relaxed a little.
When their old man finally rolled in a little past six o’clock, the three of us swarmed him like yapping dogs as he got out of his van in his greasy blue coveralls. Garland Bell was a large man, lean but broad through the chest and shoulders, with tattooed forearms thick as fence posts. He wore his graying brown hair in a linked ponytail, and had wiry mutton chop sideburns that made the flesh of his face take on the shape of a skull in certain light. He was the type of man that scared you but made you feel safe at the same time, someone you felt you could trust but that you’d never dare cross. Something in his cold blue eyes, the way they stared hard at you when he spoke, demanded respect, and God help you if you didn’t oblige.
We all started in at once, as if someone had just released a pressure valve on the backs of our heads.
“Whoa, boys, slow it down. What you going on about?”
Remy took the lead this time. He told his father everything while Wyatt and I nodded furiously whenever Garland Bell looked at us for confirmation.
“Well now, that’s a hell of a story,” he said. “Over the junk pit, you say?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s in an old clothes dryer.”
“You boys didn’t say nothing to nobody else did you?” We shook our heads. “All right then. If what you say’s true, could be dangerous to go flappin’ your gums.”
“That’s just what we was sayin,” Remy said, “wasn’t we, Jake?”
“Smart boys.” He combed his fingers through the hair on his face and appeared to be thinking. “I’m gonna make a call, get someone out here to take a look,” he said. “You boys go on.”
The relief that spread through me at hearing this was a physical thing, like that floaty, giddy sensation you got after guzzling a can of beer.
As we walked away, Remy and Wyatt, too, seemed lighter on their feet.
“And hey, boys,” their old man called. We turned. “Don’t go telling your moms about this, neither. You know how the women worry on things.”
Our mothers both worked the graveyard shift at the Iron Skillet. They rode together on the nights my mom wasn’t coming from one of her other jobs, and not long after Garland Bell went into the house, Claudia came outside in her uniform. She stood on the porch smoking a cigarette. A couple minutes later, Mom was sputtering down the valley drive in our battered yellow Datsun to pick her up. We were tossing around a football when she pulled in, and I ran over to the car. I hadn’t seen her in a few days, and after everything, I wanted more than ever to hug her and smell her perfume and tell her I loved her.
“Hey, sweetheart,” she said without getting out of the car. “How’s my baby?”
“Good,” I said, and more or less meant it.
“We gotta git,” Claudia said, jumping in the passenger side.
I bent down at Mom’s window. Her red hair was clipped back, her hazel eyes tired and kind. She kissed me on the cheek and handed me a wrinkled five dollar bill. “Gotta go, baby. Love you.”
I put the money in my pocket. “Love you, too,” I said.
Then they were shrinking up the drive in cloud of exhaust and gravel dust.
Remy went deep with Wyatt close behind, and I sent the ball arcing in a wobbly spiral that bounced off the roof of an old Dodge Power Wagon parked among the overgrowth of choking shrubs and brambles. They wrestled for it as it tumbled toward the horse pasture. Remy seized it and sent it back, a clean pass straight as a bullet. He’d always had the better arm. I dived for it but missed and had to chase it down behind the juniper bushes beneath the kitchen window. That’s when everything really altered for me, I’ve since realized. Not the day before, but then and there.
Above me, a voice growled through the screen: “You stupid sons of bitches.” It startled me, and I almost knocked my head on the jutting outer frame of the window when I stood up. Garland Bell was on the phone, and he was giving hell to whoever was on the other end. “You ain’t never learned you don’t shit where you eat?” He paused. “The goddamn dryer’s what.” Another pause. “Just take care of it.”
Now, no one had ever accused me of being overly bright, but I understood on some fundamental level the implication of what I’d just heard. And though it went contrary to everything I wanted to believe about Garland Bell, my blooming comprehension of the situation also aligned with my instinct about the man.
“Throw the dang ball!” Remy hollered.
I hurried back out of the bushes and threw another pass, this one spinning end over end into the woodpile beside the garage. We tossed it around for a while, each one of my throws sloppier than the last. My mind was busy replaying Garland Bell’s words. I wondered what to do. I couldn’t tell Remy and Wyatt. They’d never believe it, anyway, and then they’d hate me for suggesting it. I wondered if it was possible I was drawing false conclusions, making connections that weren’t there. But I’d heard him with my own ears, and no amount of denial would quell my rising certainty.
Remy began stacking sticks and logs for a fire, but before he could douse it with gas, their old man came out and whistled.
“Come on, boys. Let’s go get us a bite to eat. I was thinking cheeseburgers. What do you say?”
Remy and Wyatt yelled, “All right!” and ran toward the house. I followed, but where earlier I had felt lighter after telling our secret, I now felt like all of my pockets were filled with stones. I was now cold, despite the heat, and suspicious of everything. My entire life up to that point had taken on a shadowy cast, as if all I’d ever known had been a lie, and I wondered what other truths awaited me down the line.
We piled into the van, a red and gray Econoline that reeked of cigarettes and the greasy tools and truck parts that rattled around in the back. We grumbled up the hill toward the road, but Garland Bell pulled over when we reached the Ambury place just past the first field of corn on the other side of the creek. “You boys gimme a minute. I’ll be right back.”
He got out and banged on the Amburys’ door. One of the brothers—they were twins, so I couldn’t tell which—came out. He was a rangy man with jeans and no shirt on. He had a farmer’s tan and a long, fat scar that ran down his pale belly. Remy and Wyatt were horsing around in the back, and I watched from between the front seats as Garland Bell swung a hand upside the Ambury brother’s head so hard his ball cap flew off. A second later the other Ambury twin came out. Garland Bell shoved him and stuck a finger in his face, then pointed off into the distance beyond the fields. He was talking low, but the two men looked scared. They nodded and raised their hands, a gesture of concession.
Then he was back in the van, his stern face once again grinning.
“Now who’s ready for some chow?”
“I am,” Remy said.
Wyatt said, “Me too.”
“How about it, Jake?”
Just the thought of food right then made me queasy, but I tried to smile. “Sure,” I said.
He took us to the A&W in Cedarville, a town about thirty minutes from the valley, and bought us burgers and fries and large chocolate milkshakes. I took a bite of my burger, but it didn’t sit right. My stomach was a twisted mess. I set it down and Garland Bell looked at me.
“What’s the matter, Jake, you ain’t hungry?”
I was certain he knew that I knew.
“I’ll eat his,” Wyatt said with his mouth still full of food.
I handed it over, and apologized.
“Nothing to be sorry about, son.”
He seemed to take his time getting home, stopping to fuel up the van, buy smokes and a case of Genesee. We’d been gone for over two hours by the time we returned, and when we coasted past the Amburys’ place, the two brothers were outside by their truck. Its quarter panels were spattered with mud, and they were securing a tarp over something in the bed. Something boxy and large. They nodded as we drove by. Garland Bell granted them a look with his sharp stare but didn’t return the gesture.
When we got out at the house, the truck was growling up the hill, its taillights a pair of devilish eyes in the day’s last light.
Remy found a movie on the TV, and we sat on the matted living room carpet watching it, though I wasn’t really paying attention to what was unfolding on the screen. Garland Bell sat in his recliner in the corner behind us, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes.
A couple hours later, the phone rang. Garland Bell went into the kitchen to answer it. When he came back in, he said, “Good news, boys. The law come, and they done took care of that poor woman. Might never have found her if it wasn’t for you. I didn’t tell ‘em you was there. Didn’t want to get you mixed up in something like that. But y’all should be proud, just the same.”
“Who was she, Dad?” Wyatt said.
“Can’t say as I know, son. But best you not worry yourself about it no more.”
And that was all it took to convince Remy and Wyatt. Their father was the definitive voice in all things. For them, he had taken care of the situation, and the how of it wasn’t something they’d ever question.
We watched another movie, some shoot-‘em-up picture with car chases and explosions. Garland Bell smoked some grass, but I could only tell by the smell of it, because I’d willed myself not to turn around and look at him, afraid he would see right through me. But I could hear him there, and when I couldn’t hear him, I could feel him, like a cellar door left ajar. Cracked just enough to sense what was on the other side.
Again I didn’t sleep, not soundly anyway. We were up in Remy and Wyatt’s room that night with the window wide open, the mist from a late light rain hitting my face where I lay beside the screen. I spent hours viewing the last couple days like an old film, one that was choppy and faded, bled of its color like a body filled with holes. There was the creek, the pit, the woman’s crooked head and upturned gaze. I watched Garland Bell stabbing his angry finger in Ambury’s face. I watched the truck bearing away its secret, tarped cargo. And I watched her ghost, roaming in the rain and through the trees and along the muddy water. That part of her had gotten out, I thought, and sought its way back. Or perhaps she was unaware of her fate, the burden of it theirs to keep. And mine.
I tossed and turned like I had the flu, my bones refusing to lie still. My empty stomach clenched. When at last a faint blue dawn seeped slow into the morning, I’d given up on sleep. My skin was stiff with days of dirt, so I went to take a shower. Only part of me was conscious of a deeper notion: that the water might wash away the memory of all this. That I had in fact fallen asleep. That it was all a bad dream and the water would wake me up.
The dirt ran off my body in thin strands and circled down the drain. I stayed in there until my flesh was raw. When I finished and came out of the bathroom, there were voices drifting up from downstairs. Halfway down the steps I heard my mother’s laugh, high-pitched, unmistakable, and hurried down the rest of the way. Today was the day I would go home, I decided.
The smell of coffee and smoke and bacon all hit me as I crossed through the living room. I wouldn’t tell her, of course. How could I? The ripple of such a confession would touch too many lives. This awareness was far from fully formed in my pre-teen brain, of course, but the gnaw of instinct persisted—the whispering voice that reminded me of my own complicity.
When I entered the kitchen, I froze, as if the nerves between my body and mind had been severed. They were all there. Claudia was frying food at the stove while Garland Bell sat with his back to the window, drinking black coffee from a jelly jar. One of the Ambury twins was hunched over a plate of eggs and potatoes, ravenously shoveling them into his mouth. My mother sat on his brother’s lap, hitting a joint and laughing while he tickled her and moved a filthy hand up her thigh. She was still in her work uniform, half lit by the sun, which had just crested the eastern ridge and filled the room with warm light. He nuzzled his scraggly face into the soft hollow between her neck and shoulder, and I wanted him to die.
She spotted me in the doorway. “Hey, good morning, sweetheart.”
When all their eyes rose to meet me, my voice caught, coming out in a jagged croak. “Mom,” I said. “Can we go home now?”
“But we just got here, Jake. Why don’t you sit down and have some breakfast?”
My limbs regained their feeling, and I went to sit beside her, though I didn’t eat. I thought I might never eat again.
And I didn’t eat again, not for a quite a while, anyway. But I did go home that day. Remy and Wyatt came over about a week later to shoot basketball in the driveway, but I could tell I was already distancing myself from them, which only added to the weight of everything. It wasn’t their fault, after all.
“Got some new pieces for the cabin,” Remy said. “You wanna camp out tonight?”
“Maybe another time,” I said.
A small mercy came when my mother told me we were moving just before school started back up in a couple weeks. She had finally found a decent job, secretarial work in Youngstown; it paid well enough that she would be home more often, which I thought was just fine. Remy called once or twice to see if I wanted to come over, but I told him I had to help Mom pack and couldn’t. In the weeks before we left, I managed to avoid Green Valley altogether in the flesh, but part of me was always there. And despite these years, it’s never quite let go. Even now, as I verge on old and most of the players from that act of my life are long in the grave or inching toward it, perhaps facing or about to face some great judgment, one I will inevitably face myself, should there be a hand beyond this life to cast it down—even now it’s rooted inside me, like a fat parasite.
When I got older, I searched for the woman a few times, in newspaper archives and online, hoping to put a name to that pale gray face, but it was fruitless. Too many people out there missing. Lost or stolen. Dead. Buried in unmarked graves. She was one, never to be found. But after all this time, especially late at night when I draw the blinds and close my eyes, praying for sleep in the stirring dark, she still finds me.