Long read alert. 3k. I thought of two things as I sat on the grass with these characters while they wrangled and wrapped this story’s main themes. One-Steinbeck’s commentary on Hooptedoodle in the prologue for ‘Sweet Thursday‘, and Two–Argue your limitations and they are yours – Richard Bach. Sheriff Harden’s wisdom counters that with a fresh take on an old addage. Thanks for being here.
Candi, aware but without acknowledgment, swept the flagstone to her left free of debris, brushed her hands together. A conditioned and imminently futile act as she returned them to their proper sides, palms down in the grass and dirt. Bash hitched up his jeans and sat. Unlike her cross-legged seat, he dropped his feet over the rim of the natural amphitheater where Buffalo grass, sprinkled with fiery red and yellow Indian Blankets, sunflowers, random clusters of wild lavender and purple bluebonnets spread out, sloping away from them for fifty yards to a creek. It’s listless glisten a mix of groundwater from below and spring water that ran clear and quiet from a two-foot-wide waterfall through the flagstone further to their left to tumble down the hill in a narrow, rock lined trench. Cattails waved at the water’s edge, disturbed on a breezeless mid-day by eddying schools of unseen minnows. A variety of birds let out short, fitful bursts of abbreviated song from the trees behind them and those on the far side of the creek that spread upward on the craggy, red face of an ancient mountain long since eroded into the red hills around them. The trees grew sparse and random on that side, some asserted themselves through the crumbling remains of a dead oil magnate’s monument to himself. They sat together in silence, surrounded by a fraction of eternity.
“The birds only sing,” her voice reverential. “I mean really sing, at night.”
“It’s worth the wait. Birds, no frogs. Stars and sky forever.”
“Frogs…” she wrinkled her nose, eyes crinkling. “We had this pond at home,” her eyes now a thousand miles away. “Summer nights? I imagined it was a Venetian festival, the blazed faces of the cows their masks. Or that I could hear Dixieland in it, like I thought Mardi Gras should sound. One summer, when I was a teenager, I heard Feste Romane on Public Television, because ‘educational’ television was what we did at my house for entertainment on Sunday afternoons when it was too hot or too cold. A man in a tuxedo said it was the sound of too many things going on at once, and I thought ‘Buddy, that was nothing. If you want some racket, come listen to my pond.’ Birds, frogs, crickets, bugs whizzing around, all the livestock… I used to come here because it was just the birds. I must’ve wished a thousand times the sun didn’t bottle them up.”
“Hard to get out alone at night?”
“Out period at night…” She shooed a fly from her knee. “I’ve been told there was a time you could drink the water over there straight out of the ground. I was always afraid to try it.”
“You should. Won’t hurt you or ruin your reputation.”
She glanced at the trickle of water, acknowledged him with a question marked “Hm.”
A hawk that had been making a wide, lazy circle overhead swooped down several hundred feet to screaming inches off the ground across the buffalo grass like a fighter jet, snagged something smallish and furry, rose and banked gracefully into the trees across the creek.
“Nature’s drive through,” a flash of smile. “The kids will eat tonight.”
“No fried pie with a la carte field mouse.” Bash stood as slowly as the hawk rose, walked behind the ridge above the water, counted pine trees, and, behind the one he’d singled out, lifted a rock a foot around and four inches thick. He toed a whip scorpion into the needles, bent, came up brushing dirt from a piece of glass in the shape of a seashell. He took the glass to the mini waterfall, rinsed it several times at the point of the water’s exit, let it fill, and drank. He wiped it, filled it again and offered.
“Come here often?” She took the glass shell, gazed out over the amphitheater, tasted the water in sips.
“Birdsong tries to be a well-kept secret,” he took his seat again. “The tourist trap west of here hasn’t put it on their ‘trails to hike’ list because the Chickasaws said no, but with all the tribes who lay claim to these five counties I don’t think the Indians even know whose land this is.”
“Birdsong. That’s what you call it?”
“What I’ve heard it called. I’m pretty sure as a Legitimate Indigenous Person I could make some calls to different Indigenous Tribal Historians and get as many names as calls.”
“Does that make you an Indigenous cynic?”
“There are far greater things to be cynical about than inter-tribal cultural appropriation of a name for a landmark a billion and a half years old. What I do remember of my training in the Ancient Ways is that beautiful things don’t require a name.”
“You get a lot of mileage out of that with the girls?”
“My sisters and mother put me off bullshittin’ girls. Told me not to bother. That y’all were inherently smarter than men and could see right through it and occasionally accepted it only to be polite. Told me to try anything I thought was lady killin’ quality on them first, to save me embarrassment. I’d lay one out, and they’d say, ‘Aw, Jesus, Bash, that all you got?’ I had to get dates the old-fashioned way.”
“Which was what? The strong, silent baseball star?”
“No. I had to ask. They say bein’ shy, skinny and mostly Indian askin’ girls out helps you learn to cope with rejection later in life.”
“I asked a guy out. One time. To a sweetheart dance. Because nobody’d ask me.” A sardonic smile and almost imperceptible one shoulder shrug. “I was at least a head taller than most of them. He wasn’t my sweetheart, but he took me.”
“Scared not to, I imagine.”
“You know,” side eyes, “I still have to get used to you… and the Sheriff. Even Betty. I tend to take everything too personally. I mean, I know better, been coached and therapy-ized to know better. I preach knowing better, but personally… You guys aren’t going anywhere, though, are you?” A quick look over her shoulder. “Not in the ‘ain’t goin’ nowhere’ in life way, but not deserting me, walling me out. Not taking the pieces of me that fit, that you like and…” She let the thought trail off into silence.
The hawk returned, or another one in the first’s place having heard about the buffalo grass cafeteria. Candi stood when the shade from behind them shifted and it was move or roast. She walked down the flagstone rim to the other side of the water, stopping to take two shells’ full before she held it up to catch the sun.
“This thing looks like an ashtray.”
“It was.” He said, taking the shell. “Stole it out of a box of ‘em off a maid’s cart at a motel in Seabrook, Texas. I was twelve. We went down to League City south of Houston to a regional playoff game.”
“Nope. I blamed it on stolen ashtray karma. Which I figured out later, when I looked at it in perspective, was crap. We got beat because they were better than we were. And bigger. Like high school ringers.” He drank, set the shell down between them. “Is that what you’re scared of? Everything in your life running an endless loop of the politicians and that house full of only-the-daughter-dad-wanted-to-see pictures, not the whole enchilada?”
“The Chief didn’t tell you the Jeep story?”
“He figures what people tell each other is between them. Like what they tell other people is none of his business unless there’s a crime in the middle. I learned right off that we keep what we know to ourselves or among ourselves and rely on other people being gossips. He told me he worked on the principle that to most folks, a question is like putting a nickel in their ear and all you have to do is sit back and they’ll tell you more than you wanted to know.”
“Well, there’s a story in the Jeep about a stupid girl believing she didn’t have to grow up and be what she’d been telling herself and everyone else she was working toward.”
“I’d call that a romanticized notion, or naïve. Not stupid.”
“I know. Stupid is how you feel, after. But if you bought your ticket not knowin’ it was one way and a dead end, that’s hope. Which, in hindsight, kind of looks like stupid, but isn’t.”
“So, stupidity is the personal takeaway, not part of the original equation that got you to feeling stupid?”
“If you wanna get technical. Stupid would be the next time, when you see it and know better, but do it anyway.”
“I was ready to say something full of self-pity, but somehow taking stupid off the front and tacking it on the end made me feel better. When did you bury the ashtray?”
“School year after the game. Coming here was a science teacher and a history teacher everyone thought were cozy’s idea of a field trip.”
“You aren’t going to say it, are you?”
“Unless it’s required, no.”
That got a light snort and a smile.
“One of them told us about the spring, and the creek, and the water at the top was probably cleaner than tap water. Nobody thought to bring cups, but the history teacher told us cowboys would drink out of their hats, or boots, and then load ‘em up for their horse to drink out of. The few of us in boots weren’t sold, and hats, if there were any, were ball caps with holes. The next chance I got to come over here was with my younger older sister and her boyfriend and they told me to go play in the castle across the creek till they whistled. Before I left that day, I buried myself a cup because this place and that water are addictive and I knew I’d be back. Plus, I got a ‘what’s this?’ ashtray mom hadn’t found yet out of the house without explaining how it got there. The only person I’ve ever told the truth about it is you.”
“Like a sacred bond?”
“Tell anybody and I’ll swear you’re lyin’.”
“That’s fair. How did you know where to find me?”
“I asked Yates. I figured he went to school with you, had to know a spot where the thinky kids went. He said you wrote a poem about a place where only the birds sang. Had to stand up and read it in class. I’m from the other side of the interstate but, like I said, Birdsong isn’t anybody’s secret.”
“Birdsong…” Wistful, tasting the word. “I went to college in California…” her chin up, an edge of the eye wipe with a knuckle. “There were days… Years… I’d get out of volleyball practice, showered, squeaky clean, damp hair. Sweats and red Connies. I’d roll out of the gym that way on an endorphin high, wanting, more than anything, some bigger world for myself. A hundred yards of shrubs and sidewalks later, I was in the thick of it. But it was all the ‘normal’ students. Popping out in packs from coffee shops and fake pubs, dressed in magazine hipness and being clever with each other about a Sundance film or Ferlinghetti or underappreciated music from a short-lived band named after a vegetable.” She turned his way, not noticing she’d disrupted the shell. “They sounded like the pond.” Her eyes begged to be understood. “I wanted to shush them, like sunshine shushes the birds’ songs. Shush all of them. I wanted to tell them about this place. This very place we’re sitting now… How it’s so quiet you’re not sure you’re even breathing, and wonder… Wonder if the next breath will come, it’s so quiet, and then it does and it’s like finding out you’re free of all the pond noise and the, the mean, meaningless shit people dress up their lives with. Empty words and empty personal dogmas. Playing their parts like stone faced actors, completely ignorant of what their own tragic plays are costing everyone around them…”
He waited to see if there was more, but none came.
“You’re havin’ a hard time comin’ home.” He set the shell behind them.
“What? I’m closer to home than I’ve been, in, in…”
He touched her shoulder, light and off. “Listen,” he said. “This,” he touched his heart, “this is home.” He touched his temple. “This is noise.”
“How,” her index finger on her temple, “do I get from here to there, huh? How? I’ve made such a fucking mess of, of every—”
“Of nothing. You made noise, Cotton. Maybe you made a lot of it, but it didn’t follow you to Birdsong. Or,” hand on his heart again, “in here. It’s nothing but head noise now, so shake it off. You’re almost home. You won.”
“Won? Jesus, Bash. I have nowhere to live. I emailed my investment partner at midnight, told him he could buy me out. The asshole had the money in my account this morning, but he wants the furniture and all my shit out by Friday so he can move in. The place, well, you never saw it, but it was as sterile as an upscale department store, and he knows that damn furniture is leased. None of my ‘shit’ in there is worth keeping. My B&B will have to evict me and Ivy by Thursday because they’re booked up with weddings. That closet with a shower in the non-profit office isn’t the answer. I’ve essentially flushed my career, would have lost my job if I hadn’t capitulated, and even though I got a raise, it’s all on for how much longer, you know? I can’t be in my parents’ house for more than an hour, but I can’t sell it… I guess I could bulldoze the house and put up some storage buildings. I’ve heard that’s a money maker and a tax write off, but the neighbors… I couldn’t see to solve a simple case. I got filthy and, and I know I trashed your sister’s Jeep no matter what you say. And before I came out here, I had to come face to face with what a beautiful job you’d done on mine…”
“Had done on yours. It’s not finished. You could chrome it out. The undercarriage, under the hood. Turn it into a trailer queen. That’s a write off that might make pocket money.” He flicked a baby pinecone into the field. “You’d have to dress up like Barbie at car shows.”
“I’d have to find a Barbie figure first.”
“You could do it with prosthetics. In your case, probably Hollywood quality.”
“Ha ha. I lived in California. You can rent fleshed out ready to go Barbies by the hour for car shows or anything else. Anyway, you kicked me off track. I have such a huge backlog of noise and failures, you know? I don’t want a pity-party. I just want out from under it. All of it. Except working here. I’ve had more fun making an ass of myself for the last week than I’ve had in forever. I told the Chief that, too.”
“He kept it to himself. He told me he thinks I’ve been an unconscionable prick.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, tell me why you didn’t want to make the Virgil Green collar?”
“Human factor. Ivy was worried about her dad. You two have a friendship. If you were concerned and she was concerned, then I didn’t need to go out there all puffed up, rattlin’ handcuffs. Virgil claimed you two were angels. I doubt he’d have felt the same about me.”
“I was ready to be that puffed up cop, but I took a page out of your book. You got shot at and didn’t arrest anyone.”
“Because they didn’t need it. Look, Cotton—”
“Candi. You solved a case. I learned a lot. You rescued a smart girl from perpetuating the redneck hell of her mother’s life. A smart-ass on his way to Master Chauvinist kid learned when dealin’ with women the truth is the best option, regardless of how stupid it makes you look and that a woman you figure for a righteous bitch might just demand to have your life saved. You freed Betty from long days of solitaire and boredom and searchin’ casserole recipes, taught her to make decent coffee and made her a team player. In two days. And, like me, you’re out of a place that would have buried you alive if you’d stayed and fought a losing battle, no matter how good you looked in expensive clothes and holdin’ a champagne glass.”
“Flute. Rented those, too.”
“Smart girl. Smart enough that you’re your own boss for almost a quarter of a state, you make your own calls. Forget the noise. So you have to clean up a little. You have friends, a purpose, and a place to get your head right. I’m tellin’ you, you won this round.”
“You solved the case and—”
“We’re not playin’ that game. Teamwork solved it.”
“Okay. I was saying… There’s a lot of noise and a big mess. How is it I’ve won? How did I ever win? I’m a second. A Silver Medalist. An intimidating, too tall, unwanted nuisance. Cheated, ignored, lied to, and swept under the rug. What have you got for that?”
“I don’t have much, but I said the same things you’re sayin’ a few months back, and the wise old man I’d come to work for, he did have somethin’.”
“Yep. When I finished unloadin’ all my noise without realizin’ I was in a better place to find my way home, just like you are now, he said, ‘Well, son, I cain’t believe you never had a coach nor nobody else tell ya this, but here ya go.’ He put his hand on my knee the same way I’m doin’ to you, looked me in the eye just like this and said, ‘Partner, here’s a solid truth you’d best remember. There’s gonna be all kindsa times when winnin’ don’t always look the way we think it oughta.’”