Chapter 8: Avalon, S.C.

I didn’t have a clue what James Carter was going to be like.  When Joe and Ollie had told me he was a local black fisherman who’d been working these waters for more than forty years, I’d formed this mental picture of a grizzled old-timer putting along the shores in a wooden bateau powered by an ancient Mercury outboard, taking whatever the river offered that day: fish, shrimp, crabs, or oysters.  The breed was a lot more common when I was growing up than now, but there were still plenty on the Carolina coast.  Then when I’d found him in the phone book under “James Carter, salt water fishing guide,” I’d had a hard time replacing that picture with something different.  That had been further confused by our phone conversation, when he’d readily agreed to let me buy him lunch the next day since he didn’t have a charter: I wouldn’t have known he was black from his speech.

I got to Peckerwood’s a little early to avoid the lunch rush, but James was already waiting at the front entry.  Ramrod straight in weathered khakis, hair clipped so short that it screamed ex-military.  Which indeed turned out to be the case: retired Navy.

James told me a bit about himself over oyster po’ boys and iced tea (I’d gotten the nickname, “The Yankee from Charleston” because I didn’t drink sweet tea, but Sabrina now managed to come up with a glass of unsweetened for me).  “I’ve been in love with the water since we were kids tagging along with Pa.  Then when my draft number came up 32, I figured I’d better enlist in the Navy if I ever wanted to get home to see it again.”

Still a teenager, James had spent a tour in ‘Nam in what he called “The River­ines,” fighting from heavily armed boats along the Mekong.  He’d gotten a bronze star and for reasons even he couldn’t articulate clearly and when his tour was up, he decided it was as good a career as any.  His second decoration had come during a nasty little fight with a pair of Iraqi gunboats as they were trying to get the oil fires under control.

“Funny, I somehow got out of ‘Nam without a scratch.  But that night I took a pair of slugs from Saddam’s half-assed sailors in their pissant, homegrown Boghammers.  That was plenty for me.  Turned in my papers after 21 years.  Hell, I was still only 39.  Plenty of time to find a young wife and a start a brood of my own.  Plus I had enough saved up to buy a boat.  Something I could have never done if I’d been married and in the Navy both.”

“So where are most of your charters from?”

“I’ve got an ad in the phone book in Charleston, Beaufort, Hilton Head, and Savannah.  Plus a web site.  You can’t be in business anymore without a web site.  Clarissa takes care of that for me, now that our youngest is a teenager and doesn’t listen to her anyway.  But mostly repeat business and word of mouth.  Got a man and his grown up son coming down from Virginia for the weekend, this’ll be their third year going out with me.  First time we lit into a mess of big reds that had them hollering every time they hooked another one.”

Sabrina flirted a little, but was a lot more reserved with James around.  At first I thought it might be your typical Southern small town racism, but I quickly discarded that theory.  She was too respectful.  Genuinely respectful, not that all-too-common “I’ll call you mister because it’s politically correct but I’m still thinking of you as a nigger.”  ”Mr. Carter, you’ve let your food get cold.  Can I pop that in the microwave for you, bring you some fresh hushpuppies?”

“Why, that’d be real nice, Miz Sabrina.  This young man has got me talking so much I’ve hardly had time to eat.  He’s sure got the knack, doesn’t he?”

“He’s a sly, silver-tongued devil, that’s what he is.  Why, no more than thirty minutes after the first time I laid eyes on him, he’d already proposed.  And worse, I accepted.  You better watch out for that one.”

“Well, I’m sitting on my wallet and it has less than twenty bucks in it anyway.  And I think you’re more his type than Clarissa is.  So what else could I have that he’s after?”

It was the perfect segue, so I took it.  “Information, Mr. Carter.  Like I told you, I’m investigating the disappearance of George Foster at the bequest of his daughter.  I found this painting on his wall, along with this map.”  I showed him the copies as I spoke, and pointed out where the location of the red map pin had been.  “Nobody around here recognizes the island or has a clue why the spot would be marked.  Joe and Ollie thought you might know.”

James stared at the copy of the painting for a long time, his face absolutely inscrutable (although he was clearly not Asian).  Then he looked up with his lips pursed and stared at me for a while before answering.

“Rick, do you believe in the supernatural?”

His question took me totally by surprise.  Fortunately, Sabrina appeared at just the right moment.  “Dessert, gentlemen?  Wanda’s just pulled a pecan pie out of the oven and it smells so good I almost ate the whole thing myself.”  She pronounced pecan in the correct Southern way, Pee-can, not that affected Yankee pә-cahn¢.  It was looking more and more like I’d found my soul mate.

By the time we’d ordered pie and coffee, I’d recovered my aplomb.  “If you mean supernatural like God, yes, maybe, I guess so.  If you mean supernatural like ghosts, ESP, UFO’s, not so much.  My journalism classes trained me to have an open mind but not to believe anything without a second source, and I have yet to find a good first source.”

“Open-minded will do.”

I took the last bite of po-boy and pushed my plate away, transitioning simultaneously into dessert mode and open-minded reporter mode.

“My grandmother called this island, “Devil’s Den.”  She had tales a’plenty about fishermen stumbling across it, being lured to shore by dancing women, and never being seen again.  Growing up black, you hear lots of tales from the older folks and mostly believe what they tell you.  But 21 years in the navy makes you pretty skeptical, and by the time I moved home I’d mostly forgotten.”

He stared at the picture again as Sabrina came with the pie.  “What’ya got there, Mr. Carter?”  He showed her without speaking.  “If he’s selling real estate, I don’t think I’d buy it.  Looks kinda creepy.”  She shook her finger at me.  “Don’t you try to con Mr. Carter, or the wedding’s off and I mean it.”

After she’d left he took up his story.  “Then one night I was gigging flounders off Big Crab, and out through the darkness I could see what looked to be a fire.  Except there shouldn’t have been anything where it was burning.  I figured it must’ve been St. Elmo’s fire or something like that.  After awhile the wind came up and ruined the gigging, so I started up the motor and eased over there.  And there was an island, with a big fire burning somewhere toward the middle.  Somehow I knew that it was Granny Smith’s Devil’s Den.”

“How can there be an island where there never was before?”

“That’s the same question I asked myself.  I didn’t have any inclination to poke around at night.  But by the next morning I’d gotten my nerves back and went to check it out.”  He toyed with his pie.  “And knowing exactly where to look, I found it.  Fogged in pretty heavily, maybe that’s why I hadn’t noticed it before.  But here’s the strange thing.  I still didn’t want to go there.”

James looked up at me as if daring me to challenge his courage.  “In Nam I learned you damned well better trust those feelings.  Something feels not quite right, something’s probably not right.”  He laughed.  “Not that I thought I’d get ambushed by deranged natives or anything.  In fact, I pretty much didn’t think anything.  I just left.”

I’d already decided that I needed to check out that island for myself, particularly if
George didn’t turn out to be living with Lacey a few miles up the road.  “So can I charter you to take me there?”

He shrugged.  “Sure.  Chartering is what pays the bills.  But I can do you one better than that.”

“OK, I’ll bite.  What’s better?”

“The first time I saw the fire it was Halloween night, 1998.  I gigged that same shore a few times over the years, never saw anything unusual again.  But five years later, for some unknown reason I decided to go out on Halloween and see if it was burning again.  And it was.

“I’ve been back every five years since, and by now it’s a ritual.  I’m due to go again a week from tomorrow, and I sure don’t mind if you buy the gas.”

 

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Bluffton, S.C.

I grew up in the little town of Bluffton, S.C., population 463.  A sleepy little town where the pace of life was slow.  Situated on a salt water estuary, the May River, fish and shrimp and crabs were there for the taking.  Two schools, grade 1-12 (one for white students, the other for black students), one class per grade.  2 gas stations, 1 liquor store, 1 general store, a post office.

That town, of course, no longer exists.  Today Bluffton and the surrounding area has about 30,000 people.  There are plenty of restaurants, places to shop, everything you might need.  Except for the slow, sleepy pace of life.

In many ways, Bluffton was the ideal place for a boy to grow up (suspending our disbelief for a moment over things like small town education limits, segregation, bullying, the Russians—little things like that).  By age 9, on many summer mornings I packed a lunch, headed out on the May River in our wooden bateau, got home at dark.  Falls and winters, I went out squirrel hunting after school every single day that I could get away, wandered by myself in the woods until it was too dark to see the sights on my rifle.  Yes, at age 9.  Impossible to imagine letting our kids do those sort of things now, but that’s how life was.

Bluffton finds its way into Avalon, S.C. in two different ways.  First, the actual town of Bluffton, as it is today has a part halfway between supporting actress and cameo appearance (first mentioned in Chapter 13).  Bluffton has a thriving artist community, and the selection of funky galleries along old Main Street shows up in the novel.

But Bluffton is also the model for the little town of White Sands, where most of the “action” (using the term very loosely) takes place.  White Sands has a restaurant, which we didn’t when I was growing up (the pioneer “Squat and Gobble” was still a few years in the future).  But life sort of revolves around the boat ramp, just like ours did.  Planters’ Mercantile, our general store, is faithfully recreated at Hanson’s.

“Sabrina, where do people shop for groceries around here?”

“Oh, I’ll take care of all that once we’re married, darlin’.  But for now, you can get most anything you need at Hanson’s.  Selection’s not so hot, but there’s one of everything that’s essential.  Otherwise, you go to Beaufort.”

Here are a couple of pictures of the May River for you to appreciate.

bluffton 1This is the river across from the boat landing, showing a small island in the foreground (much smaller than Avalon, S.C., which is out in the sound).

Bluffton 6When the tide is out, the islands are mostly surrounded by marsh.

Bluffton 4A view of a creek through the mossy oaks, similar to what Rick enjoys every morning from his back porch.

(this post first appeared in http://rustyrhoadblog.com on 1/22/13)

Chapter 7: Avalon, S.C.

Sunlight coming through the uncurtained French door, although muted by the live oaks outside, was still bright enough to wake me up.  The patio offered a fine view of the estuary which covered most of the marsh grass when the tide was high, as it was mornings this week.  So I pulled on a robe and took a cup of coffee out to appreciate the morning.

Yes, really.  No daydream fantasy anymore, coffee on the patio had become my morning routine now that my pantry was suitably stocked.  George had a well-worn wooden rocker out there that, once I’d added a cushion to the seat, was a lot more comfortable than wooden furniture usually is.  I’m a morning person, and this was the nicest spot I could remember spending mornings in a while.  The brisk weather hinted that I was eventually going to require something more than a robe, but I’d solve that modest inconvenience as fall progressed.

My very first morning out there, as I pondered George’s disappearance and the meager clues I’d discovered so far (along with the meaning of life and the miracle of coffee), a faint path through the woods out back—overgrown, but still distinguishable—caught my eye and intruded into my reverie.  Not that I was driven to get up and check it out immediately, but once I finished my second cup and got dressed, I strolled out there to see what it was.

Not that I knew what I was looking at when I got there.  A little clearing nestled among the oaks contained an odd assortment of rocks definitely not natural to the area.  The five largest—I could lift the one I tested, but only just—formed a cross, with one in the center and the others on the tips.  Smaller ones, averaging about the size of a cantaloupe, further defined the cross, four to an arm.  More rocks, most baseball sized although the four midpoints were a bit larger, delimited a circle between the four outer stones.  The whole thing was around 15’ in diameter.

It took fifteen minutes of searching the Internet to discover that what I’d found was a medicine wheel.  Wikipedia further informed me that medicine wheels, originally sacred to Native American religious practices, had more recently become common in “New Age, Wiccan, Pagan and other spiritual discourse throughout the World.”

What I didn’t know was if this was a clue or just a curiosity.

Next in my morning routine, after normal ablutions of course, was breakfast at Peckerwood’s.  It seemed like a good compromise.  Breakfast may not be the most important meal of the day—in case you haven’t figured it out, your mother might have exaggerated when she told you that bit of folklore—but it definitely is the most affordable if you’re going to eat out.  Plus Sabrina worked mornings.  She sadly informed me on Sunday that she hadn’t been able to get a hair appointment on Monday and no way could she get married without having her hair done, could we reschedule for Monday week?  I graciously consented, of course, sharing the blame by telling her that my tux wasn’t back from the cleaner’s yet.

After a couple of mornings people began to stop by my table and introduce themselves.  Only a handful accepted my offer to sit, but it was a start.  Those who did almost always had a story about George fixing something—an outboard motor that hadn’t run right since the storm blew water up under the housing, a water pump that kept kicking the breaker, a railing that needed to be extra strong so granny “could hang on to it while she hauled her fat ass up the stairs” (those were the exact words of Merwin Heyward, who also informed me that a relative of his had signed the Declaration of Independence).  Nobody knew a Lacey.  Few believed that George could’ve had a girlfriend, since he was “a confirmed bachelor,” “pretty much of a loner,” and “sure liked his quiet.”

I’d made the trek to Beaufort to get a shot down copy of the painting of the island and the map (as well as the cushion for the rocker), since the originals were too big to haul around.  I’d been showing them around for a few days but nobody recognized the place.

In fact, I didn’t discover a single answer, although I did uncover a more questions.  On Monday I finally got around to emptying George’s clothes out of the dresser so I could unpack.  Tucked in under his socks was a large heavy pin that looked like it was made of bronze or brass (I wasn’t exactly sure what the difference is).  The design was quite unusual: an open circle with ornate knobby clusters on the two ends.  The word “Celtic” came to mind, al­though it certainly wasn’t what I think of as a Celtic knot or similar design.  The pin was unusual too, straight and sharp and not protected like it is in most brooches I’d seen.  I added searching the Internet to see if I could find out what it was to my list of things to do.

Tuesday, as requested, I checked in with Adeline.  It was late in the afternoon and I was killing time down at the boat ramp.  There were still a half dozen empty trailers in the parking lot for boats that hadn’t come in yet.  These would be the hardest of the hard core fishermen and my best resource to find out about the island George had named Avalon.

“So how are you enjoying White Sands, Rick?”  The bell-tone giggle was back.  Must be part of her telephone persona; I hadn’t noticed it at all while we were having lunch.

“Actually, it’s not as bad as I feared.  The TV doesn’t work yet, but the back porch is spectacular and there’s a great place in town to eat.  The people here are friendly even though I’m an outsider, and always happy to share a story about something your father fixed for them.  Apparently they regarded him as something special, although he didn’t seem to be real close to any of them.”

“Sounds just like Daddy.  I suppose nobody has any leads on what might have happened?”

“Not yet, but it’s still early.  By the way, did he ever mention a woman named Lacey?  Apparently they were dating.”

“Daddy dating?  That’s a little hard to believe.  What makes you think that?”

“I found a book she’d given him.  The inscription makes it sound like their relationship was intimate.”

She was quiet so long I wondered if we’d been disconnected.  Then she started laughing.  Not the reaction I’d anticipated.

“How do you suppose he wooed her without talking?  Never mind, I’m just being catty.  I guess I don’t really mind if he was sleeping with someone other than Mother, just surprised.  Wouldn’t it be something if when you locate her, you discovered that he’d just left it all behind and moved in with her.  Although I’d definitely be pissed.”

“There’ve been a couple of other surprises as well.  There’s a medicine wheel out in the back of the house, and an antique bronze brooch or a facsimile tucked down in his sock drawer.  Don’t know if they have any bearing on what happened to him, though.”

Another long silence.  “Sounds like I really didn’t know him very well.”  I couldn’t tell from her tone of voice if she were being wistful or embarrassed.  “Would it help if I came down there?”

“Unless you can fix TVs, I don’t think so.  Let me dig some more first.”

A boat was pulling into the ramp so I said my goodbyes, although I promised to make checking in on Tuesdays a weekly event.  It was the Hendersons, Vic and Gloria, a retired couple I’d met at Peckerwood’s a couple of days before.  They were in their late sixties and went out most days except never on the Lords’ day—that would have been a sin.  Rode each other mercilessly.  Didn’t recognize the island or know of anything there on the map that might have been marked with a pen.

“Unless it was his own special fishing drop.”

“’Cept only a dumb ass like you would mark a drop on a map, somebody might find it.”

“I wouldn’t need to mark a spot, I can still remember stuff.  Not like somebody who I won’t name that loses her glasses twenty times a day and can’t remember where she set her coffee cup.”

“Least I didn’t forget my own anniversary thirty years in a row.”

“I didn’t forgot, just didn’t see any cause to celebrate.”

“You should be celebrating because you finally got some real lovin’, didn’t have to rely on those sheep anymore.”
Ah, isn’t love wonderful.  Just not particularly helpful.  Neither were the Oak brothers or Old Johnny, who gave me a big speck out of a cooler crammed with the day’s success.  Even Joe and Ollie couldn’t shed any light.

“I don’t believe that island is anywhere around here.  I’da seen it if it was.  You, Ollie?”

“Nah.  Prolly just some place he dreamed of.  I know for certain, ain’t nothin’ where you got that mark on the map.  After Big Crab Island, there’s just a long oyster bank sticks out in the bay, then a big open stretch before you come to Shark Point.”

“No, that ain’t exactly how it is, Ollie.  After Big Crab there’s that big ass mud flat, then some pissant little island that’s doesn’t have a name, got that big dead oak on it, then comes the oyster bank.”

“Naw, Joe, this once it’s you who’s wrong.  That little island with the dead oak is before you get to Big Crab.  And no, before you ask, I ain’t bettin’, you’re not gettin’ any of my money this time.  I’m just tellin’ you the way it is.”

Joe looked at me and scratched his nose.  “Much as it pains me to admit it, what Ollie’s really trying to say is, we’re not sure.  We don’t usually fish down to that end of the bay.”

Ollie chimed in.  “And what Joe’s too embarrassed to say is, if you really want to know, ask James.”

 

The Bookshelf Snoop

I confess to being a shameless, incurable bookshelf snoop.  Leave me unchaperoned in your home for one minute, I’ll be peering at the shelves, looking innocent, divining your secrets.

Hey, at least I won’t poke around in your medicine cabinet.

What the bookshelf snoop is hoping to discover is what you read, and from that, to make deductions and inferences about who you are.  The sorts of deep, dark secrets that lie hidden until your relationship progresses much further and you can actually ask questions such as “What do you like to read?” and expect a truthful answer.

You can’t always make these discoveries, however.  Some bookcases, especially those in public places (the living room or den, not the bedroom shelves), are specifically intended by the owner to display what he’d like you to believe that he reads.  Shocking, I know, but there it is.  Shameless fraud by displayed title.

My personal bookshelves have a little of this, but it’s not really my fault.  My wife doesn’t like ratty paperbacks in the living room shelves.  So I can stock and arrange those shelves as I like, as long as the books are dressed and presentable.  Books, like other occupants, are expected to refrain from hanging around in their boxers in the living room.

BUT . . . you can still tell a lot from what a person wants you to believe that he reads, and/or what overflows from the bedroom bookshelf to the more formal libraries of the house.

Did you discover a college textbook, for example?  Marginally acceptable for someone less than 5 years out of college, indicative of a character defect otherwise.  Hey, nobody ever refers to a college textbook in earnest.  Perhaps if you are an accountant, once in your life you might thumb through your comparative religion text to remember the difference between Zoroaster and Mithra because there’s a bet on the table.  But not for anything relating to accounting.  Sorry, welcome to the real world.

And even worse, there’s no market for textbooks over 5 years old.  I know, you spent thousands of dollars on those, but they are totally useless.  Libraries will take them and put them out in their semi-annual sale for 50¢, but nobody buys them.  But they’re taking up valuable bookshelf space!  Get rid of them!

Did you discover Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Ulysses, or maybe Foucault’s Pendulum (I had somebody give me a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum once, told me that they thought I’d like it.  I dropped them from my list of friends)?  So, what are they telling you?  I had to read this in college so I’m going to stick it up here because it’s such a great book, I may read it again someday?  I was assigned to read this in college but I only made it through the Cliff Notes, but I’m going to take up bookshelf space with it because it’s supposed to be great (hey, why not just put the Cliff Notes up there)?  Beats me.  Did you ever meet anyone who’s read Moby Dick twice?

What’s really fun do discover is a dozen or two books that you’ve read and liked.  Already the basis for a friendship.

Fifty Shades of Grey?  Tells you that this person doesn’t give a rat’s ass who knows what they read.  Not necessarily the basis for a friendship on that basis alone—there are a lot of obnoxious people who don’t give a rat’s ass what you think—but a positive indicator as well.

And if I discover, as Rick did of George, that you’re an Arthur aficionado?  No telling.

Someday—not in my lifetime, thankfully, but someday—e-readers are going to render the bookshelf snoop powerless.  You’ll have to already be on a much more intimate basis with a person before you get so see what’s on their bookshelf.

“Jason, I think it’s time we took our relationship to the next level.”

“Oh, Jennifer.  You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I mean exactly that.  I’m going to show you the contents of my Kindle.”

“Oh, darling.  I feel so honored that you trust me that deeply, and I’ll never betray… Wait, there’s nothing here but 127 erotic romances and a free download of Moby Dick.  Is this what you read?”

“You promised you’d never betray me.  You, you…” (runs away sobbing).

bookshelves2

Chapter 6: Avalon, S.C.

Creeping sunlight woke me up.  The bedroom had an uncurtained French door opening up onto a patio where you could sit and look out through the trees and watch the tide come in.  So I pulled on a robe and took a cup of coffee out to the veranda to appreciate the morning.

Just kidding.  That’s what I would have done if I hadn’t had my head so far up my ass I couldn’t even see the water.  I’d given away all the food in my cupboard to my neighbor in the apartment next door so I wouldn’t have to bother hauling it down here and ended up without so much as a teabag.  Rick, you can be such a total idiot at times.  What I need is a good woman to keep me straight.  Ha.  If women didn’t get you in so much trouble, maybe.

But the water pressure was good and the water heater had a big tank, so at least I got to indulge in a long, hot shower to start the day.  Well, I knew I could find a cup of coffee at Peckerwood’s.

Sabrina, ten years younger and thirty pounds lighter than Darla, flirted with the customers that filled half the tables as she passed out menus and delivered steaming plates.  She didn’t even bother to ask what I wanted to drink; she just took one look at my face and poured me a cup of coffee.  Cute as a button with her chestnut hair pulled back and her nose turned up—and she wasn’t wearing a wedding band.

“You must be that guy staying over to George’s old place.  Know what you want for breakfast, or you need to see a menu?”

“What do you recommend?”

She closed one eye and pretended to peer out the window.  “Looks like a biscuit and sausage gravy kind of morning to me.”

Wow.  A woman who poured coffee first and asked questions later and knew exactly what I wanted for breakfast.  Maybe she was the one destined to keep me straight.  Thought I’d try my hand at the flirting game.  “Sounds perfect.  Bring me some, and will you marry me?”

“Sure.  I’m off Monday if you can wait that long.  Or will you have forgotten me by then and gone on to the next girl?”

“Woman, I’ll still remember you a week from Monday.”

While I savored the perfect flakiness of fresh buttermilk biscuits and a cup of coffee much better than I would have made, I started making lists of things I needed to do.  Two lists: one personal, one professional.  The personal list was short: buy groceries, get the satellite fixed, and make sure my tux was clean and pressed for Monday (I assumed Sabrina would be handling the rest of the details).

The professional list was a little longer.  Well, I had up to six months without prior approval to get it done, assuming the TV got fixed; otherwise, I’d need to wrap everything up by the middle of next week.  Unfortunately, lists tend to get longer during an investigation, not shorter.

  • Talk to sheriff
  • Talk to gallery owners
  • Talk to lawyer
  • Talk to people around town
  • Search cottage for clues
  • Go through bank statements
  • Find out who Lacey is
  • Golden-haired woman?

“Sabrina, where do people shop for groceries around here?”

“Oh, I’ll take care of all that once we’re married, darlin’.  But for now, you can get most anything you need at Hanson’s.  Selection’s not so hot, but there’s one of everything.  Otherwise, you go to Beaufort.”

“Bad selection or a bad road.  Hmm.  I’ll have to ponder on that, beloved.  How about getting my TV satellite working?”

“Call George Foster.  Man can fix anything.  Ma said he got her washer working in twenty minutes, didn’t even order a part, charged her twenty bucks for labor and a penny for the paper clip, thought he was taking her to the cleaners.”  Sabrina laughed.  “Oh, wait.  You haven’t found out where he went to yet.  Maybe that’s your answer.  Put up some billboards, maybe take out a classified ad.  ‘TV satellite needs repairing, call anytime, I’m desperate.’  George couldn’t possibly resist such a challenge.”

My proposal had of course been sheer tomfoolery, but I was liking this woman more and more all the time.  She could banter with the best of them without ever missing a beat.  “Everything else at his cottage is in tip-top shape.  Wonder why the TV doesn’t work?”

“Maybe because nobody bothered to pay the bill and turn it back on?”

“Sabrina, you’re a genius.  Can’t wait ‘til Monday; perhaps we should elope.  What time will you get off?”

“I’ll probably get off about fifteen minutes after we get married, depending on how long it takes you to get me home and out of my britches.”  She opened her mouth in a big exaggerated O.  “But I got to pick up the kids from Ma’s after work.  So maybe you should order some fruit to go with your meal.  I’m sure we have some…wait for it…can’t- elope.”  Another big O.

Holy shit.  Rick Whittaker, the fastest wit in the Palmetto State, and I’m no match whatsoever for a peckerwood waitress in Backwater, South Carolina.  I did a couple of half bows before her, acknowledging her as the master of the day.

“OK, one last question.  Two, actually.  Know anything about a woman George may have been dating named Lacey?  And what do you think happened to him?”

“There’s nobody named Lacey around here.  I didn’t know George—I got here about a month after he disappeared—but I never heard any gossip about him with any woman.  According to Darla, he was way below average on the flirting scale.”

“So where am I?”

“If you’d been less than a solid seven I’d have never agreed to marry you.”

Wow.  I felt flattered, and at the same time totally ridiculous that I felt flattered.

“As to where he is, up to now I couldn’t even speculate.  But you being a high-power investigative reporter and all, you’ve already found the answer more than likely.  He’s with Lacey, that’s my guess.”

I left her a $5 tip, already looking forward to tomorrow.  If she does that well with all the guys, she probably lives in a mansion and drives a BMW.

Driving back to the ranch…hmm, need a better description, that one’s not quite accurate, although it’s served me for years.  Fortunately, George had left me a thesaurus.  How about…Driving back to the bungalow, I decided to work on “Search cottage for clues” as the order of business for the morning, then get on to personal stuff after lunch.  Which of course meant that I would have to eat out again, and I couldn’t afford to do that every meal, even with my fiancée giving me the family discount.  So I turned back around and dropped by Hanson’s to pick up some bare essentials: bread and cold cut sandwich makings, chips, some sodas, at the last minute a bottle of olives in case it somehow managed to make it to martini time before I made it back to town.  Threw in a bag of coffee, just in case my day really got out of whack.

First thing I did was pull the painting of the golden-haired woman down off the wall to see if there was anything written on the back.  But no clues there.

Next I searched George’s desk.  Found neat files with exactly five years worth of credit card and bank statements.  Apparently George was very systematic, throwing away a month every time he filed one.  Wow, he and I were even less alike that I’d suspected.  A ledger where he logged all his income from odd jobs, presumably for income tax purposes.  The last entry was April 26, 2007, $64 from Ethyl Summers.

In the back of the top drawer was an address book.  Aha.  Rick, you clever investigator.  I indulged in a momentary fantasy of finding Lacey’s phone number, calling up and asking if George was there, savoring that sweet moment of victory when the husky voice on the other end answered, “Hold on, I’ll get him.”  Then writing up a one-paragraph final report and exchanging it for twenty-five grand.  After all, Sabrina had been right about everything else.  Unfortunately, no Lacey, not even an entry under L.  In fact, there was practically nothing in the book at all, maybe two dozen entries including Adeline and her mother.  Well, who keeps up an address book in these days of cell phones and email?  Guess I’d have to work a little harder for my bonus.

So I fired up his computer, which demonstrated its obsolescence by how quickly it was ready.  Why is that the newer your PC is, the longer it takes to boot up?  Maybe they’ve sold us a bill of goods and labeled it progress.  But still no Lacey.  And no “Darling, last night was fantastic, you were amazing” emails, either.  In fact, there were a grand total of six emails in his Inbox, seventeen in his Sent folder, none in his Deleted Items, and nothing interesting in the slightest.  OK, this guy was either a total paranoid or an OCD neatnick.  Weird in any case.  I mean, who cleans out their email?  Apparently George did.  His contacts listed the same two galleries that I’d gotten from Adeline.

While I had it up I scanned through his files but nothing jumped out.  No folder marked “Lacey.”  No photos of the golden-haired woman in his “My Pictures” folder.  No porn sites in his browser history.  Totally boring, George.  I knew I’d have to come back and go through his saved files one by one, but not today.

I’d already confirmed that the cupboards were bare; no reason to ransack the kitchen.

On the studio wall was a 16”x20” oil painting of an island.  The entire seascape was shrouded in fog, with the sun trying unsuccessfully to burn through just above the right side of the island.  It was hard to speculate what the scale was.  What may have been large oak trees were maybe a half inch tall, which would have meant a pretty substantial island.  Or they could have been shrubs and the whole thing would have fit in the creek outside the patio (the studio had a window opening up onto the patio; I confess that I peered out to see if it might be right there, but no).  The island had a low hill—reckoned it couldn’t have been from around here; there weren’t any hills until you got inland nearly a hundred miles—and on top was a scattering of little 1/4” by 1/8” objects lighter than the general green of the island.  The painting should have been boring, but somehow it wasn’t.

Next to the painting was a 1:50,000 scale Corps of Engineering map showing a section of the Carolina coastline.  I located White Sands, then traced the road out to where I was standing.  That gave me a good idea of scope of the twisting, turning estuary I’d called a creek before, with little fingers of water and marsh islands on the opposite side from the mainland.  I could also hazard a guess where the town got its name: there were three large sand bars just past the town in the opposite direction from George’s place.

Several miles downstream the estuary opened into a little bay, protected by a string of islands, the largest maybe a mile-and-a-half long and half-a-mile wide, the smallest about fifty feet in diameter.  Probably the mapmakers just ignored anything smaller.  Toward the south the islands stopped and there was a five-mile wide passage to the ocean, before the next cluster began.

A red map pin was stuck about a third of the way across the passage.  Curious.  Maybe that’s where Lacey lived.

Just to be thorough, I took the picture down to see if there was anything on the back, not really expecting to find anything.  But I did.  The name of the picture was painted on the frame in neat half-inch black letters.

“Avalon.”

Chapter 5: Avalon, S.C.

Back – at the ranch, filled with fried seafood and a sense of contentment, I kicked off my shoes, plopped back in my recliner, and punched the remote on, ready for some serious chilling.  I remembered that the TV didn’t work just about the time the static would have reminded me if I hadn’t remembered.  Duh. You’re out in the boonies for less than a day, Rick, already your mind had started to go to corn pone.

Well, how about a book?  I wasn’t a rabid reader but still remembered how.  Old George certainly had left a house full of books to choose from, with bookcases in the living room, bedroom, and the studio.  You can tell a lot about a person by seeing what’s on their bookshelves; let’s see how George’s tastes in literature ran.  I knew practically nothing about the man, but I was betting he’d mostly read action-packed thrillers, with maybe a few westerns thrown in.

There were in fact a total of five books that loosely fit the description of thriller—two each by Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, one by Nelson DeMille—in and amongst the two dozen “general interest” novels that filled the top shelf of the bedroom bookcase.  In addition to those five were a couple of early Vonneguts (Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle), Pat Conroy’s Beach Music, and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, with the balance made up of science fiction classics.  Even more curious than either the make-up of that shelf or that I had misjudged George so badly was the fact that I had read every single title at some point in my life.

The bottom two shelves were dedicated to books about King Arthur, mostly novels.  I had no idea there were so many.  I’d read exactly one of those, The Once and Future King, more than fifteen years ago.  OK, maybe George and I didn’t have identical tastes in reading, just top shelf reading.

I should say, the bottom two shelves were dedicated to King Arthur, save one book.  Sitting there alone, brave in her solitude with nothing but violent companionship, was Best Women’s Erotica 1999.  Inscribed in the front was, “For those nights when I’m not there.  Lacey.”

Interesting.

The studio bookcase appeared to be filled with art books, mostly of the “how to paint” variety with a handful of “these guys were better at it than you’ll ever be” books thrown in.  I didn’t examine it in any further detail.

The living room shelves caught all of the oddballs; every house has a few.  Reference books: dictionary, thesaurus, atlas, and 2005 Almanac.  A double handful on how-to fix almost everything, catch fish, and make your garden beautiful and unique.  Two travel books about sightseeing on the South Carolina coast, Joy of Cooking, and a well-thumbed copy of Windows 95 for the complete dummy.  The rest of this bookcase was crammed full of . . . well, I wasn’t not sure exactly how to describe this category.  Mythology and New Age Religious studies, perhaps, although that seems judgmental.   The Time-Life series on Mysteries of the Unknown.  Multiple volumes on ancient places like the Valley of the Pyramids, Ancient Babylon and Assyria, Machu Picchu, and Stonehenge.  Books on Celtic culture, ancient religions, world myths, witchcraft, the Tao-te Ching and a Guide to Modern Wiccan Practices.  Oh, my.

If you can tell a lot about a person by what’s on their bookshelves, what exactly had I learned about George Foster?

I selected the thinnest of the King Arthur novels, dubious about my interest in the subject, and immediately got engrossed in a ribald tale about Guinevere’s abduction by a rival king Melwas.  Lancelot was trying to persuade Arthur to ride forth and rescue her but the king kind of liked his new bachelorhood and was in no hurry to go, particularly with all of the women of the castle cozying up to him, even his half sister the sultry Morgana.  Nothing like what I expected.  But the day had been long and tiring, and 40 pages in I found myself nodding off, so I headed to bed.

Above the bed hung a haunting painting of a golden-haired pregnant woman, her chin resting on a hand as she stared off into the distance.  I’d noticed it when I was changing out the beds, but had been preoccupied wrestling with the balky mattresses and hadn’t given it much mind.  But now it captured me fully in its magic and demanded attention.  What an expression.

The artist was none other than G Foster himself.

I never sleep well in a strange place and woke twice during the night, the second time dreaming of the golden-haired woman.

The Disappearing Small Town Diner

They used to be every small town’s most treasured institution.  Right there on Main Street.  Regulars starting dropping in as soon as the doors opened, which was early.  Coffee was poured without asking in thick china mugs.  Mabel called you by name and asked about the family.

Who would rather eat an Egg McMuffin on the run?

Most of us, if the truth be known.  “On the run” being the operative word.  A leisurely breakfast?  One Sunday a month, maybe.  Certainly not on a Thursday morning.

Except they’re still out there.  You just have to get away from the freeways a little to find them.  They still have Blue-Plate specials, except maybe they don’t call them that any more.  Except sometimes they still do.

Maybe it’s the people who are the regulars at the small time diners who are the disappearing breed.  They were born before personal computers, much less cell phones.  They didn’t stay connected by starting their morning with Facebook.  The Main Street diner was their social media.

Plus it came with coffee.

Put it on your bucket list.  Get out and away from the city this weekend.  Get an early start — if you don’t get going until 10am they’ll probably still be serving breakfast, but most of the regulars will have gone by then.  Get off the freeway and venture into small town America.

Have yourself some grits.

small town dinerps: want to be mistaken for a regular?  wear a hat, or at least a baseball cap.

small town diner3

Chapter 4: Avalon, S.C.

I decided to leave J-Lo right where she was sitting and hike on over to Peckerwood’s.  I was sure I could find something to choke down, but was having second thoughts about not buying the flounder.  I mean, how much of a restaurant could a town of 643 support?  And if it were a nice place, why’d they name it Peckerwood’s?

The first thing I discovered when I walked through the door was why the streets of White Sands were deserted: anybody who wasn’t home was eating at Peckerwood’s.   A sprawling room with maybe 20 tables tastefully accoutered in red Formica with metal trim.  All but one or two were filled with . . . well, peckerwoods, I guess you might say.  There wasn’t a maitre d’, but a harried waitress hollered out in my direction, “Just sit anywhere, hon.  Somebody’ll be right with you.”

A handful of people looked up when she sang out, then a few others.  The level of conversation dropped dramatically as a significant percentage of the population of White Sands stopped discussing the price of soybean futures or whatever they were talking about in between poking food into their mouths to check out the stranger.  Ah, small towns.  You gotta love’em.

The waitress, a robust forty-year-old with a smile that stretched about as far as her flushed face would allow, dropped off a menu and took my order of iced tea.  I took a sip before adding any sugar—holy shit, it was already sweeter than Kool-Aid.  I’d forgotten that in the Deep South away from the cities and our elitist city ways, iced tea meant sweetened iced tea and hopefully you weren’t a diabetic.  Purists will swear it’s just not the same when you try to add sugar after it’s already on the ice.  I guess not—no way could you get that level of empty calories to dissolve in cold water.  Don’t make an issue, Rick.  Just ask for a glass of water.

The menu had a caricatured peckerwood on the front—a stalk of hay stuck in a mouth missing a couple of teeth, cross-eyed from staring at the fly on his nose, a bedraggled straw hat cocked back on his head.  Inside, the left half was filled with the standards—fried fish, fried shrimp, fried oysters, and a fried seafood platter for those with big appetites, along with fried chicken, meatloaf, liver and onions, and pot roast for those who didn’t want seafood.  The right half had the specials of the day which included Brunswick stew, blue crab cakes and seafood étouffée.  The back had desserts and drinks as well a dozen “breakfast any time we’re open” offerings, all of which came with a side of grits and contained double the daily recommended dose of cholesterol for a healthy male.  I went with the seafood platter and the food was outstanding:  fish and shrimp both fresh, hushpuppies crisp and not even a little bit greasy, fries perfect, cold slaw with just the right amount of mayo.  OK, White Sands.  The road here may be fraught with danger and your TV options leave a lot to be desired, but dying of hunger was not going to be a problem.  Dying of hardening of the arteries, perhaps, but not hunger.

“So what brings you to the metropolis of White Sands on a Thursday night, hon?” the waitress asked while she was refilling my water (I hadn’t been able to drink the tea).  I had known this was coming after the unabashed inspection from the clientele-at-large.  Strangers were an extraordinary event, and by morning probably half the town would have heard about me.  Well, not only hadn’t I been given any instructions about keeping things secret, I was going to have to interview the citizens of White Sands if I were going to be thorough in my investigation.

“What?  You don’t think I’m here merely to corroborate the widespread reputation of the local cuisine?  Well, Darla,” I assumed she wasn’t wearing somebody else’s nametag, “I’m actually here at the request of Ms. Adeline Foster to validate the official investigation of her father’s disappearance.”  I lowered my voice to a conspiratorial whisper.  “Seems a little late, if you ask me, but she didn’t,”

“So you’re what, a private detective?”

“What, do I look like a dick?”  I thought as the words were leaving my mouth that it might be a little over the top for small town humor, but Darla laughed at my clowning.  “Actually, I’m a reporter on leave from the Charleston paper to do this job on commission.”

“Hmmm.  Well imagine that.”

“If anybody has any information on what might have happened, I’d appreciate them letting me know.  I’m staying at the Foster cottage, but I’ll be around.  I’m sure people will be able to find me right here at Peckerwood’s fine bistro around breakfast time, probably noonish, evenings for sure.”

“You sure do use a lot of big words, mister.”

“Aw, you’re just saying that.”

And so I filled my belly and established my bona fides with the locals in one fell swoop.  I was sure that by tomorrow afternoon at the latest, pretty much everybody would know who I was, where I was staying, and what I was doing there.  And if they knew anything useful or just had any wild-ass opinions, they’d be eager to share.  ‘Tis the nature of the small town.  My biggest problem would be sorting out the kernels of truth from the mere speculation and the gossip.

The Boat Ramp

I grew up in a town not all that much different than White Sands (much more on that later, as we get to know the town better).  Sleepy little place right on the May River, a salt water estuary full of wonder — not to mention fresh seafood waiting for the rod & reel, crab line, shrimp net, or gig.

During my earliest years, my family had an old hand-made (by my father), wooden flat-bottom boat that we left tied up in the water.  No practical way to put it on a trailer, so you had to haul the motor and gas can and all your stuff down through the mud to use it.  I was taking it out as young as 7 or 8, although I had to row where I was going since I couldn’t carry the motor at that age.  And once a year we pulled it ashore, flipped it over, scraped a year’s worth of barnacles off the bottom, and applied a fresh coat of paint.  Green for the upper works, red and supposedly toxic to barnacles on the bottom (I never saw that it made much of a difference).

But around the time I turned 12 or so, we bought a fiberglass boat.  Still not very big — you couldn’t ski behind it or anything — but perfect for a growing boy in love with the salt water.  And a boat trailer, so you could take the boat out after using it.

When I turned 14 I got my drivers’ license.  Yes, I can see all of you parents shuddering at the very thought.  But that’s the way it was in the rural South back then.  Daylight only — you had to be 16 before you could prowl the roads at night.

My very first rite of passage was — not taking a girl for a ride; good grief — putting the boat in the water.   Which meant learning how to back a trailer down that narrow boat ramp.  Probably with some crusty old fishermen watching, grading my performance.

Don’t remember any named Ollie and Joe, but there probably were.  And they probably laughed at my early attempts to back a trailer.

boat ramp

Chapter 3: Avalon, S.C.

Thursday afternoon found me picking my way down what Adeline had charitably described as a “long badly-paved road out in the middle of nowhere.”  “Pothole with residual random traces of asphalt” would have been more accurate.  I had one of those baby U-Haul trailers clamped to the back of J-Lo, my dark green, seen-better-days Mustang (I owned a Mustang because my hero Mickey O’Hara, a cool cop-friendly reporter in W.E.B Griffin’s Badge of Honor series, drove one.  Mickey was probably why I’d become a reporter in the first place).  J-Lo was already aging when Mr. Foster disappeared and can be a temperamental bitch in the best of times.  And although she had plenty of power to handle the light load strapped to her rear end, she who was indignant at being asked to tow a trailer.

And yes, prodded along by Mr. Lust, I now thought of Ms. Foster as Adeline, although I certainly hadn’t called her that to her face.

I was officially homeless—I’d cleaned out my apartment and turned in my key—but I was taking it on faith that there’d be a place to lay my head when I finally got to the end of this miserable excuse for a road.  Adeline had advised me that while the place was “completely furnished,” she couldn’t vouch for the state of the furnishings.  And so in addition to clothes and personal items I was hauling the three things necessary to a life well-lived: a firm mattress, a comfortable recliner, and a good TV.  Anything less would be camping out, and while I don’t mind roughing it for a weekend, I wasn’t sleeping on a sagging mattress or watching a 26” screen for “a period not to exceed six months without prior approval.”

While J-Lo and I inched our way along, I spent the fallow part of my brain imagining what White Sands was going to be like when we got there.  A quaint little village on the coast, the name suggested.  Clapboard cottages on stilts peeking out between palm trees and over sand dunes toward sparkling white beaches littered with sea shells brought in by the gently rolling waves.  During the season, a bright collection of colorful beach towels, each holding a sun-worshipping hard-body in a bikini, half of them lying on their bellies with their tops unhooked.  But those would all be gone now, replaced by boats face down on the beach beyond the high tide mark, cottages closed for the winter.

I could hardly have been more wrong.

First of all, it wasn’t quaint, if by quaint you mean charmingly old-fashioned.  Charleston is an old-fashioned city considered quaint, suffering its new buildings and commercial areas in dignified silence while clinging desperately to its essential antebellum nature.  But White Sands wasn’t old-fashioned, it was just old.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it was stuck in another time. The long-suffering road turned a corner and became Main Street with nothing more than a green sign, “White Sands, Population 643” to mark the transition.  A mile later I came to the first building, an old Mobil Pegasus gas station, pumps abandoned but the red winged horse still flying proudly.  There were several battered wooden tables and two shacks scattered about the pavement—perhaps a farmer’s market during the season but devoid of life now.  And then a little further along came a few occupied buildings: a handful of squat wooden houses, a gas station that appeared to actually sell gasoline, a general store of indeterminate age.

Secondly, it wasn’t on the coast, if by coast you mean touching an ocean.  Main Street finally dead-ended into a parking lot with a dock and a boat ramp that disappeared into a body of muddy water that was definitely not the ocean.

And last but not least, there was no trace of white sand anywhere.

This was to be my home base for the next not to exceed six months?  And to get to civilization I had to brave the asphalt pothole both ways?  There certainly wouldn’t be any drinking and then driving home.  “Not to exceed” was clearly understating the situation; I was already highly incentivized to complete my investigation expeditiously.

I didn’t bother to stop in town, but turned left just before the dead end and headed toward my new home.

And promptly got lost.  I’m notoriously bad at directions, which is why I’d outfitted J-Lo with a GPS soon after I got my first job with a regular paycheck.  But Maison de Foster didn’t have an address, just a mailbox number.  Adeline had drawn the intersection at the end of the road from hell and annotated it with the helpful information, “about 2 miles?”  But two miles down the road there was only pastureland on the left and ancient oaks weighed down with some serious moss on the right.

Well, nothing to do but keep going until I ran out of road, ran out of daylight (I wasn’t wandering around out here after dark in the land that streetlights forgot), ran out of gas, or ran out of patience.  I had half a tank of gas and 2 hours of daylight left and I’m not the impatient sort, so I was betting on running out of road.

But I didn’t.  At 3.1 miles I found two mailboxes next to a dirt road turnoff, one with the number “328” on it.  Since I was looking for 407, and numbers generally get higher the further from town you go, I was encouraged.

At 3.4 miles the road took a serious curve and the oak trees thinned out enough to give an occasional view of marsh and mud off to the right.

At 4.2 miles I found #407, and shortly thereafter my new home.  Hey, I’m not complaining.  In woman-speak, 4.2 qualifies as “about 2.”

Unlike “White Sands,” George Foster’s cottage turned out exactly as advertised.  The front door opened into a living room sparsely furnished with a Naugahyde recliner and a matching couch, a TV much smaller than mine, and a pint-sized table holding an obsolete computer.  Across the way was a tidy kitchen next to an eating area with a wood table and three straight-back chairs.  Down a short hall to the right were two bedrooms, the smaller of which had been turned into a studio.  Washer and dryer, bathroom with all the essential plumbing, enough closet space for what clothes I’d brought.  Central heat, along with two window air conditioning units which hopefully I wouldn’t ever need to run.

Everything I needed to live in Spartan comfort, once I’d installed the essential furnishings that I’d brought.  Except that when I went to plug in the cable box, there wasn’t one, just a wire leading to what turned out to be an ancient satellite dish that didn’t work.  Great.  From cozy one-star housing to camping out in one fell swoop.  I started a list of things that needed attending to, putting that right at the top.

Adeline had told me to just get rid of anything I didn’t want, so I hauled Mr. Foster’s bed, recliner, and television out to the U-Haul.  In the process I checked out the garage, which turned out to be a well-equipped workshop with no hope of ever housing an automobile without hauling in a dumpster.  But that was OK: J-Lo hadn’t been in a garage since I’d owned her.  She’d develop some serious attitude if she couldn’t see the stars while she was sleeping.

Unpacking took up what was left of the afternoon.  Everything other than the TV—hot water, stove, refrigerator, internet connection—all worked fine.  The clean-up crew had done a nice job on the place.  There was even a bottle of the same chardonnay I’d shared with Adeline on Tuesday in the fridge, along with two freshly filled ice trays—hadn’t seen one of those in a while.  Basic condiments and some spices.  And not a damned thing to eat.  I figured that out around 6:00, followed in close order by the realization that what little White Sands had in retail offerings had probably closed up for the day.  Ah, shit.

I dropped the U-haul and raced back to town, covering the 4.2 miles in about a third of the time that it took the first time.

Hurrying turned out to be an utter waste of energy.  White Sands had indeed rolled up the sidewalks, except they didn’t have any sidewalks to start with.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Guess I could go back and drink the wine and watch static on my big screen.

Down at the boat ramp, a big light up on a pole—White Sands’ only streetlight that I’d seen so far—provided just enough illumination, along with the last bit of fading daylight, that I could make out a couple of guys pulling their boat out of the water.  Fishermen, judging by the half dozen fishing rods sticking up from holders along either side of the boat.  Hell, maybe they’d sell me a fish.  I might’ve given the impression that I’m a hopeless city boy, but you can’t grow up in South Carolina and not know how to clean a fish.  So I parked and moseyed on down to where they were cranking the trailer winch.  Discovering along the way that moseying is like riding a bicycle: once you learn how, you don’t ever forget.  Or maybe it’s in our Southern genes.

“Y’all do any good?”

The two men checked me out pretty thoroughly before answering.  Both appeared to be in their fifties, lean and weathered.

“Pretty slow with all this silt in the water.  Couple a’ nice reds and a little founder’s ‘bout it.  Don’t think I recall ever seeing you before.”

“Rick Whittaker.  I’m down here from Charleston for a bit.”  Apparently conversing in backwater lingo was like bicycling as well.

“I’m Joe Saunders, this here’s Ollie.”  Joe stuck out his hand, which I shook with a firm, manly grip.  “Where y’all staying?”

“Adeline Foster gave me the use of her cottage while I’m in the area.”

“George’s place?”  This from Ollie, who had gotten the boat nestled into the trailer and was putting seat cushions on the floor and tucking away things that might blow out on the way home.  He was chewing on an unlit cigar, which made his words a little hard to make out.  “He was a strange duck.  Never met a man who’d rather paint than fish.  Then just up and disappeared like that.”  He spit bits of tobacco, inspected the cigar, then stuck it back in his mouth.  “Had to’ve been a woman involved, if you ask me.  After living alone all that time, I guess he finally found some pussy he couldn’t live without.”  He let out a short, harsh burst of noise that might be considered a laugh if you stretched the point.

“Nobody ever heard from him again?”

“Not far’s I know.  Course he could be living over to Will’s Creek and word not made it down that damned road yet.”

I laughed with the two of them.  “Yeah, I met your road this afternoon.  So how come you can’t get it paved?”

“Not enough votes, man.”  Joe slapped the fiberglass gunwale, making a sound like a shot that echoed across the water.  “And nobody rich enough that anybody listens when they bitch.”

“Sucks.”  I briefly thought about revealing that I was a newspaper man and might be able to bring the power of the press to bear until I remembered that I wasn’t actually a newspaper man at the moment.

“Say, is there anywhere to get any food at this time of night?”

“Sure.  Peckerwood’s is open.  Hope you like it, ‘cause that’s all there is.”

“Hungry as I am, I’m sure I’ll like it.  How far away is it?”

Ollie squinted his eyes and looked at Joe.  “Well, I’m not exactly sure about that.  What d’ya think, Joe?  Hunnert’n thirty, maybe hunnert’n forty yards, would you say?”  He pointed over my shoulder, and when I turned I could see the sign.  Hadn’t noticed it before, either because I’d been looking the wrong way or because my head was too far up my ass to see it.  At least everybody got a good laugh at my expense.

I thanked them and headed out, not bothering to offer to buy the flounder as I’d been prepared to do.