Deputy Carson Tinnin worked his way around the puddles and over the hoses toward Will and Agnes. In the intense light he was a shadow that Agnes had seen coming months ago, about the time Billy first took up with that Trollinger boy. She knew this shadow or one similarly outlined would come. She was convinced, totally, bodily, that Billy and David Trollinger had been drinking to such excess as to sicken themselves and their minds. There was no pleasure to be gotten from their drinking, only escape from the harrowing need to escape. She also believed without ever having or needing proof that Billy had been taking drugs. What kind was beyond her grasp. In her day drugs were something one read about in the lives of the truly wicked. But somehow all that changed, somehow the heart and mind of her boy, of all the children, seemed to change so that none of them cared for or about themselves, about how they saw themselves and about how others saw them. Billy, all the children, didn’t have a long view, let alone a short view. They just stopped looking. Maybe Billy was her fault. Yes, she was to blame. She was looking for Andy all these years, looking down the drive on a chance. She was looking so hard for her oldest boy that she never thought to look at Billy. Now she was to be punished, now was the time for retribution.
A new light caught the approaching deputy. Agnes focused on the brown uniform and the wide black belt with all its attachments and appliances. Here came the penalty imposed for setting Andy’s picture on the sill. Here came not the law or justice but the imperious claim to punishment. Agnes glowered at Tinnin thinking he should be carrying a handgun or a rifle, instead of a pad and pen. Although she knew Tinnin as well as her own children, his baby-fat face suddenly repulsed her. It wasn’t a man’s face. A man would look serious, not sad.
Tinnin said, “Will, we want to do an autopsy. We just can’t say what happened. It was the fire more than—“
“Weren’t no fire.”
“Well, that’s—Will, it’s—“
Will slung his arm around Agnes’ shrunken shoulder.
“Now there ain’t one of us willing to swear to it, but them detectives, they got a feeling they’re getting close,” lied Deputy Tinnin. “Least to where they can get a general idea. They can pretty much reconstruct what all happened out there.” To temper the lie, he added, “But then reconstructing it don’t really tell us who done it. But it does tell us a lot. It kind a cuts down on who might could have done it. You get that far and ‘fore too long …”
Will looked at the fat-faced deputy without seeing him. He knew what the officer was saying was a trick. All the setbacks in Will’s life were tricks, not necessarily magic or evil tricks, but tricks potent enough to yank the hardscrabble ground out from under him. He was at a loss to explain these machinations and had to resort to the loser’s prayer—the hosanna of if-only; if only he could slip behind the scene to where he could see well enough to explain why these tricks were played on him. That he never found an answer left him certain of one thing: that neither weakness of the flesh nor the dissipation of the blood could lay a man low. No, a man could always fight such afflictions. But not the tricks. Especially one as lowdown as never-knowing. There was nothing to confront, to strike out at, and even to accept. There was only a nothing at the center of everything. It seemed so simple, it was that powerful and it proved that shattering.
As undetectable as it was, anger etched its way into his expression. His was not a face of a feeling man, one apt to be shaken, but of a massive stone plunked down in the earth; a mystery, a monolith, completely impenetrable. Only a twitch now and then along the twin cuts running deep from high cheek to jaw suggested life in the weathered stone. Even when he spoke, normally a word or two and no more than a sentence or two at a time, his voice sounded too grave, too deep to have an emotional register. Most mistook it for anger because they had seen Will flare up against innocent words or harmless deeds. Such behavior went without explanation or apology. If blame be cast no one looked farther than the bottle. Will was one of Shine’s steady customers. A terrific need, answered best by drink but even then left wanting, preyed on Will in spells. None ever lasted long because nothing that Will ever said or did could break the desperate inertia of work.
Work was a state of motion to which Will had been born 57 years ago. Since he was an only child there was no need to divide the family’s 92 acres. So the farm remained large enough for him to escape the fate of working in a textile mill. From the start Will was a step ahead of the others. He was the first to double-crop, the first to raise chickens under contract, the first to leave the tillage in the field and employ ridge-till, the first to listen to the ag-extension office and plant cotton. Despite his lead, Will sometimes seemed to fall behind, fall behind himself; he was the last to realize that something awful had happened—to him, his crop, his land. These were tricks too. There was no earthly way to anticipate them. Sometimes there seemed to be answers for them but the answers never answered anything: like the answers about Andy that the government sent in envelopes that didn’t require stamps.
Why the government just didn’t come out and say Andy was dead remained as much a mystery to him as why he ever hoped his oldest son was alive. Hope counted time much slower than a clock, and Will’s resolve began to rot. The stench was so unbearable that he finally relented and told himself Andy was dead. In time, his time, he came to believe that the nation’s body count was one shy of a load. There was no need for proof.
Billy’s death was different. Proof was the trick. The crater the .38 caliber slug left in Billy’s head wasn’t proof that David Trollinger pulled the trigger. Neither was the body burnt beyond decency proof of anything other than a fire. The fat deputy said that neither a weapon nor an accelerator such as gasoline was found at the scene. Even if they had been found, linking one or the other to Trollinger was too much to expect.
Though there was no murder weapon, not so much as a motive, the sheriff’s department still considered Trollinger a suspect. Billy and Trollinger ran together: drinking, gambling, and whoring. On that fact alone detectives brought Trollinger in for questioning. The two-hour session revealed something intangible but invaluable: Trollinger was scared, running scared even though he had an alibi. Questioning Mary Jane Henson, the girl Trollinger was supposedly with that night, produced another revelation: she too was frightened, but not of the law. That no one on the street claimed Trollinger as a friend suggested another law was at work. A grave had more to say about a person than what was being said about Trollinger.
Will slapped the flat on his hand on of the wax tablecloth. “Just what is it you’re trying to tell us, Carson?”
The deputy eyed warily the .38 revolver 6, a chrome piece with a rubber grip. Even though its cylinder was out and a rag wound around the rear cylinder opening, the barrel pointed at him. Beside it were bottles of Hoppe’s No. 9 solvent and Rem Oil, new and used patches, a bore brush and a cleaning rod. His gaze passed over the weapon and confronted Will. “Just that there ain’t no proof Trollinger done it. It might could a been someone else, and it might could a been for reasons bigger than a fight between drunks.”
Will’s dark eyes constricted to thin lines. “You tellin’ me you ain’t gonna have the boy arrested?”
“We can’t.” He sidled his left hand across the table to nudge the barrel in another direction.
“Why? Everyone knowed he run with Billy. The boy told me hisself he’d been drinking with David. He said he was fixing to have a card game. Come up here looking to borrow some money. Damn fool said he’d pay me back twiced what he borrowed. But then I don’t reckon you found any money on him?”
Tinnin refrained from mentioning that the body was burned recognition, burned down to the bone; a fact that shamed even his sorrow. In his mind he knew there was no possible way he could have prevented this tragedy, he nevertheless languished under an inchoate sense of guilt and isolation.
Blame reared up almost immediately as if it had always been there waiting, just waiting for an identity to assign itself to and to take the assignment not for a day or weeks but for a lifetime. All at once Tinnin had become an outsider in Random; he was looking in when throughout his life he had been on the inside; born and bred; so inbred that as a preteen Sam, sole proprietor of the Store, had let him handle one of the sacred knickknacks he kept on the shelf behind the counter—The Chief.
The Chief was a wooden toy Indian who hid his nakedness by standing inside a barrel. Sam had told Tinnin to lift up the barrel, which when Tinnin did the Chief displayed a skinny ass and enormous erection. Everyone laughed not at The Chief but at Tinnin who jumped backwards.
Fighting against his fear of provoking Will, he asked, “Even if we had, what would it prove?”
Will examined the dirt embedded in his cuticles and wiped his hands down the chest of his V-neck t-shirt. He splayed his fingers atop the table and pressed down. A moment later he snatched up an old toothbrush and began cleaning the muzzle and the flat sides of the cylinder.
Tinnin was silent, watching and waiting for Will to turn his attention to the extractor rod. But Will ignored it. He set the brush down and held up the revolver, aiming down the front sight at an object between Tinnin and Agnes at the sink. Without the slightest hesitation, the O of the barrel suddenly swung onto the surprise in Tinnin’s face. Just as quickly the gun came to rest on the yellow and white squares.
Without looking up at the deputy, his fingers twitching beside the trigger guard, he said, “Carson, I been knowing you since you was a pup. And I ain’t never done you or your daddy thisaway, and I ain’t expecting you to do me like this.”
Tinnin watched Will’s hide-like hands, which now gripped the edge of the table. The deputy’s eyes shot between the hands and the barrel. So intent was his vigil that he felt he had to do something with his own hands. He dropped them below the table, his fingers twiddling. “Will—Will, the law ain’t … Well, we just can’t be locking folks up for no good reason. We—“
“My boy’s dead, ain’t he?”
“But there ain’t no proof Trollinger done it.”
“That David’s mean as a snake.”
“It don’t make no difference what he is. We don’t know what he done.” Tinnin added, “Leastways for sure.”
The dark glint of his eyes on Tinnin, Will snared a cloth already moist with Remington Oil and wiped down the weapon. After a while he looked up and said, “Ain’t we got a body?”
Tinnin bowed his eyes. “Yeah, we got a body.”
“That’s right. You do.” Will nodded as if he had settled the dispute. He ripped off the tied rag and snapped the cylinder back in place. With a clean cloth he wiped the gun down again to remove excess oil.
“That’s right. You do.”
Tinnin looked to Agnes on the chance she would turn and offer some explanation as to what her husband was trying to say. Her back remained a wall. At a loss Tinnin said, “So?”
“So!” Will grunted. Without warning he brought the barrel up and took dead aim at Tinnin, cocking an eye as if to fire.
“Goddammit, Will. Get that damn thing out a my face.” After a moment, he apologized to Agnes for his language.
Will obliged. Acting as if scolded, he folded his arms and stared at the floor. Suddenly he drove the fat side of his fist against the table top. “You got a body. My boy didn’t take his life. Trollinger took it.”
“But you don’t know for sure.”
Will bowed his head and threaded his hand through his peppered hair. After a time he spoke. “I don’t need to know it. Like I don’t need to know what I got to do tomorrow. I do what needs to be done. There ain’t no knowing for sure about it.”
“But, Will, there is,” pleaded Tinnin.
Will seized the weapon and pressed the cylinder latch. From a small box he took out one bullet and loaded it. The loading process was painstaking, seemingly taking five minutes to fill the five chambers. Looking up at the deputy, he pressed the cylinder back into the gun’s frame until it locked.
Holding the loaded gun up but not aiming at Tinnin, he said, “Boy, you ain’t got—You don’t know the first of it.” He paused and let the barrel sway as if a divine rod. “Like who was he playing cards with, if not Trollinger?”
“Trollinger never said nothing about no card game.”
“Well, Billy did.”
“But Billy didn’t tell you who all was there, now did he?”
There was no answer. Tinnin followed the loaded gun, back and forth, back and forth. At last he screamed, “Goddammit, now. I done told you to get that thing out a my face.”
Tinnin was about to apologize again but Will did not respond.
“I heard ya.”
“You want to shoot me, is that it?”
Will lowered the gun and his eyes.
“Put the dang safety on.” He added to no one in particular, “Honest to God … Ain’t got a lick of sense than to point a loaded gun …”
No one said a word for several minutes. Finally the deputy said, “Will, I know you want—I come here on account of my knowing you. You want a detective down here to explain all this I’ll get one tonight. You—“
“The onliest reason for a detective to come down here is to take Trollinger off to that jail of yours, and to stand him ‘fore a judge for what he done.” Will added after a moment, “Course, whatever they do won’t be near enough.”
“Maybe not,” said Tinnin wearily. “Maybe not.” He rose. He was about to say something but stopped. He looked to Agnes at the sink. “Night, Ms’ers Blake.”
The deputy opened the screen door but let it close. He turned back, almost shamefaced. “Ms’ers Blake, you ever seen Billy with drugs?”
The deputy left.
After a while Agnes asked Will, “More tea?”
When Will didn’t answer, she took his plastic tumbler and refilled it with ice and tea. She resumed her dishwashing, the water by now long cold.
Will closed his hands around the sweaty glass. He peered into it as if it were as clear as a crystal ball. The law seemed to be saying that Billy was murdered but there wasn’t a murderer. The longer Will thought about it the more he sensed decay, the rotting of his patience, his hopes and dreams; all befouled. The law or what passed for the law conspired with the unseen to play tricks. Never mind that the law was meant to protect, was meant to solve crimes, Will called the law his enemy. He gripped his glass, tighter and tighter, and then flung it against the wall. He stood and announced, “Them sheriffs don’t know shit.”