What Was on Her Mind

Detective Gowan stood across from me and fiddled with some recorder. He perked up when another detective entered the room.

“Name’s Bob,” he said. “Bob Kroy.” He slid a paper in front of me.

“Sign this before you make your statement. Says you’re tellin’ the truth – to the best of your knowledge, of course.”

He offered me a pen and I caught a glimpse of his fingernails and torn cuticles. My eyes scanned the ball-point and made their way toward his wrinkled shirt and skewed tie. I smiled, wry and distant, and took the pen in that exaggerated elegant way that powerful men seem to love. “Bob” was a nail biter and that, in addition to the rest of his appearance, was pretty much all I needed to know about him.

Detective Gowan, on the other hand, was as dapper as the devil. Least ways, how I viewed the Fallen One. His hair was all nice, suit pressed, nails manicured. He had a baby-faced shave and intense blue eyes – the kind that told me somewhere back a long time ago, one of his ancestors was Melungeon. He spoke like he was from here, but not. Like he’d tried for years to squelch our way of talk.

After Gowan checked the recorder, the machine tutted a few clicks, then it was “on.” Gowan indicated the time, the date, my name, and the reason for the recording. He looked at me intently and asked,

“Now. Anything she complain of?”

I just looked right back at him, kind of stunned by the suddenness. He continued,

“Anything she say about him?” I remained silent.

“Looking back, do you recall anything unusual? Bruising? Cuts?” he asked, leaning forward, pen in hand, and, since the recorder kept rolling, I figured he was noting my reactions.

I raised an eyebrow, then smiled.

 “She rubbed her back some,” I said. “I just thought she’s tired, you know. From workin’ s’damn much.”

Gowan flipped through several pages in his notepad with a furrowed brow.

“Says here Posey McLeeny never worked,” he said.

“I mean – well, no. She didn’t work a nine-to-five. You’d just hafta to live her life to know what I mean,” I said.

His eyes searched my face and he studied me like I was one of those optical illusion paintings, trying to find the lie hidden in plain sight.

“Mmm Hmm,” he said. “Tell me about the last day you saw her. Friday, you said?”

“Yessir, it was Friday,” I said, and began to unravel everything Posey told me.

 

 

I had no idea how Posey came up with such talk. I never knew what was on her mind. She was the brainy type. You know, the kind of person who’s so smart she’s scary. I’m sure she had a right high I.Q. One day she’d discuss some famous artist like Mary Cassett or some photographer like Eddie Adams. Another day, she talked me through slaughtering a hog – dragging it to the scalding water, scraping off the hair, disemboweling it from groin to gullet, and various other preparations before freezing the butchered meat. Time after that, she schooled me about writers like John Fox, Jr. and Rebecca Harding Davis, or Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor. Et cetera. And, on occasion, she chatted about the Lord and the beatitudes and forgiveness.

I immensely enjoyed her company, and she was always happy to have visitors, so, when my Earl agreed to help her Earl fix his truck, I asked if I could ride along and my Earl allowed it. That day was sweltering, as I recall, about ninety-seven degrees, and the heat was stagnant with no breeze whatsoever. My Earl’s truck had no AC so all that hot, Southern air propelled through the windows. Sweat beads trickled down my back and gummed my t-shirt as acrid pencil lead, chemical exhaust, and musty locker-room plagued my nostrils. But I never said nary a word. I wouldn’t have dared. As Earl journeyed deeper in the holler, toward all the dark, magical places, the trees’ shade eased the air. The McLeeny house rested atop a hill in the distance, like a brazen pimple. My stomach butterflied with anticipation about what topic Posey had on her mind this time.

When we reached their house, her Earl stood near his old rattletrap smoking a cigarette and Posey walked the rows in their garden with a bushel basket. When she saw us, she eased the basket down, took a towel from across her shoulder, and rubbed her face and hands. She walked toward me and hugged me timidly. My smile quickly turned. Her face was quite blanched and her eyes darted across the ground, like she tried to find some kind of answer there. To what, I wasn’t sure, but I’d had that look myself sometimes and I figured it was what it was. My Earl and her Earl stepped toward the vehicle while we women moved to the kitchen. I sat at the table and she put on coffee.

One thing about Posey – she was obsessed with a clean house. At least to me, she was. As I sat there, my eyes tried their damnedest to find a sliver of grease, a dust bunny, a mark on the wall, anything out of place. Never with Posey. Even the floor looked like you could lick the corners and come up empty.

She was a natural beauty with long brown hair and she never wore makeup that I ever saw. She had a wicked sense of humor and she was filled with life and spirit. Her face brightened when she entertained visitors. But . . . that day, she seemed somewhat deflated and she moved slower than usual. Less perk, you know? Her gait was a little off and she wiped the kitchen table with more measured motions.

“Somethin’ wrong?” I asked her.

She turned away gingerly and scrubbed the spotless counter-top. Her breath was tight and shallow and she shivered like a jackhammer. I started to rise until she stopped, turned to face me, and asked,

“You ever thought about dyin’? I mean, really? I mean about how you’re gonna die?”

She went back to scrubbing. I was flummoxed. I never knew what was on her mind.

“I have every intention of puttin’ that off, even though Preacher Beaufort said we started dyin’ the day we’re born,” I answered.

“Oh,” she said flatly and started toward the coffee pot. “Coffee’s done.”

She poured us both a cup, then sat hunched with her heels on the chair’s stretcher, hugging her cup between her hands.

“I don’t mind dyin’,” she continued. Her eyes were dull and absent. “Hit’s just how bad it must hurt, you know. Every time I git a papercut, I thank, ‘Damn, it must hurt to git stabbed.’”

Posey turned to face me. She took a sip of coffee and cast her eyes at me over the brim.

“Burnin’s gotta be just horrifyin’. Or maybe the smoke gets to you first. Either way, I don’t think I’d like that,” she said.

She turned and looked out the kitchen window. Her green eyes seemed far away, like her soul separated from the world for a time. Then again, I never knew what was on her mind. She gasped and winced simultaneously, reached for a towel, and wiped a little track of spider web waving from the sill. It was a familiar frantic motion. She sat back down slow and easy. Usually, she was happy, jumping here for this, going there for that, making these, fixing those. At least I thought she was happy. Both our cups were empty. She placed her palms on the table and strained to lift herself up.

“You’re tired, Posey. Why don’t choo let me git the coffee,” I implored.

She ignored me and tottered toward the coffee pot, then refilled our cups. She sat back down, reached in a basket under the table, drew up some yarn in her lap, and knitted.

“And I cain’t stand bein’ choked, so I wouldn’t wanna die from hangin’ or stranglin’. And poison’d make your guts bleed out, so–”

She stopped, looked harshly at her knitting, and undid a row.

“No, I remember when I was first in high school,” she continued, as the knitting needles clicked, “and I had a teacher who talked about Woolf. Went on and on about that woman’s writin’. Then one day, Woolf walked right into the water and never come back. I’d like to read somethin’ she wrote one day. Maybe that’n where she talks about havin’ her own room, her own space,” she said, then paused in her knitting and glanced nervously at the front and back doors.

She knitted feverishly then. At least, I saw it that way.

“I ain’t read her stuff neither. I imagine she wuddn’t too smart, seein’ as how she just walked in that water,” I said, chuckling nervously.

“I guess she just got plumb tired, you know?” she said, ignoring me, “Takin’ it ain’t easy. ‘Specially when you’re walkin’ all over life’s egg shells. And they ain’t nowhere to hide. Nowhere a’tall. You ever thought about that? Somehow, I reckon Woolf knew thangs wuddn’t right.”

She stopped knitting and looked again out the window, past the trees, toward Ford’s Lake.

“But that water . . . imagine what a salvation that’d be,” she said. “So serene. And forgivin’.”

She put her head down and stared a long time at the floor. I just sat there with her, and I reckon that was support enough. Besides, it did no good to guess what was on her mind.

Both Earls’ footsteps clunked on the porch. Posey jolted up and winced. Her hand reached behind her back toward her kidneys. That’s what I saw, at any rate. Her face turned as pasty as biscuit dough and a cold sweat rose from her pores. I reached for her and started once again to rise. But the screen door creaked open, then her Earl and my Earl laughed and talked and came in like cold wind. Her Earl bounced toward her, smug, with his hands in his pockets.

“Well, Pose, we got that ole jalopy runnin’,” he said to her.

He put his arm around her neck and pulled her close. She pushed her hand against his chest and her upper lip curled .

“My ole lady here,” he said, as he pulled her head to his mouth and kissed her crown, “knew just the right man to call. That man ri-chonder.”

He pointed at my Earl, then winked at me, and said,

“Gotchee a good man right there. Ain’t ‘at right, Pose? Ain’t Earl Sharpe a good man? If innybody knows a good man, hit’s my wife. Ain’t ‘at right?” he asked her.

“Oh, would yunz quit. Just hush. All I did was jiggle a wire or two,” my Earl said.

He strolled toward the kitchen table, stood behind my chair, and squeezed my shoulder.

“And I shore do presheate it,” Posey’s Earl said. “I really do. I cain’t pay ye money, a course. But I’ll cutchee some wood before winter. Will ‘at do?”

“Naw,” said my Earl, “I won’t accept nothin’ for it. You’n Posey are like my own kin. Yunz are family, pyoor and simple, and I won’t take one iota.”

“Well, I shore do presheate it. Family,” said Posey’s Earl, squeezing her head in an old-fashioned noogie. He winked at my Earl as he continued,

“Joo hear that Pose? We’re like family.”

She scrambled from his grip and hurriedly sat down at the kitchen table across from me. Her eyes were as wild as a trapped rabbit. She looked down and scowled. I was curious so I looked down. Both Earls’ shoes were a gaum of mud, dirt, and grass. She eyed her Earl fiercely but that didn’t last too long because he eyed her back in kind and she bowed her head.

“Can I gitchunz somethin’? Coffee?” her Earl asked.

“No, no thank you, Earl,” I said. “Posey’s been right hospitable, as always. Thank you for the cumpny.”

I nodded at her and our eyes met. Hers said something, but I had no idea what. My Earl squeezed my shoulder hard and said,

“We need to git on outta here. Me and her’s got a date with a bushel a beans.”

We all said our goodbyes and they walked us as far as the front porch. As I waved from the truck, I caught sight of her Earl’s fingers pressing hard on Posey’s arm, the kind of grip that’d leave finger marks or bruises. She stood stoic, almost rigid and at attention. At least that’s how I saw it. But that’s the last time I saw her, then you called and asked me to come here and give a statement.

 

 

“Did you ever think she planned to do it, this way?” Gowan asked, and calmly slid a picture of Posey’s dead Earl on the table.

If this picture was supposed to shock me, it didn’t work. I could’ve cared less.

“He was found by his fishin’ buddy,” Gowan divulged.

“Well,” I said coolly, “she never said anything about it. I never knew what was on her mind.”

I glanced away from the picture and, instead, gazed at the detective with my brown, doe eyes. He cleared his throat, then shuffled the knot of his tie.

“Did you ever know of her to own or operate a boat?” he asked, opening a fresh document box.

“A boat?” I asked and snickered. Detective Gowan dropped a manilla file on the table and sifted through papers.

“Yes, a boat. Old Walt Shoopman owns a bait shop near Ford’s Lake and he,” said the detective, skimming a piece of paper, “told me he saw a woman at Copperhead Boat Dock. Apparently, this woman had a hard time gettin’ a boat started sometime after the murder. Said she finally got it started and zigzagged across Ford’s Lake.”

Out of nowhere, he slammed the palm of his hand on the table. I have to admit I flinched a little. I’d heard such noise before, though, and it was nothing to me.

“Now!” he exclaimed. He put his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together. He seemed pleased with my reaction. “Just answer the question, ma’am. Did you ever know of her to own or operate a boat?”

“No, never. Never a boat, never a car, never a bike, never a wagon, never a nothin’,” I said. “She wutten never allowed to have such thangs.”

Gowan sat back, then, squinted his eyes, and sized me up. I sat back and smiled.

“I see you don’t care much for this Earl,” he said, tapping the picture with his finger. “Everything I read on your face tells me you thought this man,” he said, still tapping, “was a son of a bitch. Well, Mrs. Sharpe, I don’t believe much in vigilante justice. He might’ve been a son of a bitch, but that didn’t give anybody rights to blow his face off with a shotgun while he was in bed.”

“You asst the question, detective. I gave you the answer,” I stated, unfazed. “I meant simply; she never drove anything.”

“Were you aware of her plans?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“You two were awful close. What’s that old cliché? ‘Thick as thieves’?” he asked rhetorically.

“I wouldn’t say we’s close, really,” I said, nonchalantly. “Mountain women ain’t afforded such luxury. Only time I saw her, I’s with m’husband.”

Gowan’s eyes blazed.

“Accessory to murder, Mrs. Sharpe. I might divulge that the house was clean. No weapon. No fingerprints. No shells or ammo. Clean, Mrs. Sharp. Except for a toothless hacksaw in the yard, and this here,” he said, tapping the picture. “Ain’t no way in the world one woman can make a crime scene so clean.”

I’d had enough at this point and had little else to say. I looked at him and stretched out my wrists in front of me.

“Arrest me if ye want, detective. I been here six hours and gave you my statement. You cain’t make French fries without potayduhs and I cain’t say I did what I didn’t. I never knew nothin’ about what she planned. I never knew what was on her mind.”

He sat back in his chair and took a good, long, hard look at me. He shook his head, reached inside his shirt pocket, and gave me his card. He told me I was free to leave the station, but not the county, until the investigation was over. He watched me as I walked out the door – a little too attentive for my liking.

My Earl waited in the parking lot by his old truck. His eyes wore an odd expression of disbelief and his lips flattened with determination. I hoisted myself up on the passenger side and turned to face the open window as he drove us home. We passed by Ford’s Lake and my mind formed a mental map of all the places the water connected. It rested at the center of five counties. Posey’s words came to my mind about dyin’ and water and what a salvation that’d be. I’d pondered about it so much my head pounded, and I thought my brain might ooze out my ears. The heat was intolerable sickening. At least something of a breeze came through the window. I closed my eyes as we traveled the long, long miles beside the lake until a thought hit me. I jerked back from the window. I turned my head and glanced at Earl, then at the water, then back at Earl and back at the water. No weapon. No fingerprints. No shells or ammo. Clean, Mrs. Sharp. Except for a toothless hacksaw. I knew then. Right then and there. I finally knew exactly what was on Posey’s mind. And I smiled. I closed my eyes again and imagined that shotgun sawed in pieces at the bottom of that lake. I imagined she made it to one of those other counties, and that I might pass her on a street sometime and think I know her but can’t quite place her. She’d change everything – a different hair color, some pretty makeup, rich dresses and jewels. I snuggled into the thought.

My Earl softly placed his hand on my leg and my body tensed. He turned his head and gave me the kindest look. He always looked at me that way before it came. He steadily pressed his fingers across my thigh like a vice grip. I was used to such and prided myself that I didn’t even wince. It was a message for me to keep my mouth shut and be the demure little woman he wanted. Or else. Our eyes locked for a dozen seconds or so. His pupils dilated and his grip hardened further, enough to snap the bone. I gritted my teeth but never betrayed how bad it hurt. He swerved to miss an oncoming truck, let go of me, and cackled. I didn’t care. Things like that didn’t bother me anymore. Not anymore, I thought. Not anymore. I twisted again toward the window and let my thoughts meander across that lake. Posey, I thought. Posey. A pocketful of posies. Ashes, ashes. I turned in my seat and faced Earl. I gently held his rough hand and smiled. He searched my eyes with confusion. I gazed back toward that water, that salvation. I turned to him and smiled at his profile. He never knew what was on my mind.

 

**Featured Image:  “Lost in the forest” – Tomasz Suliga, Unsplash

9 Comments

    1. Author

      Thank you, Grant!

  1. You grabbed me with this story: Southern Gothic at its best–I could feel the menace and the heat. I like the way you ended the piece…Earl should be very, very nervous…

    1. Author

      Thank you, Jim! It was really fun to write.

  2. Man, _her_ Earl better change his tune. I like how effectively at the end you combined the chilling with the hopeful.

    1. Author

      Yes, her Earl’s about to be in a heap of trouble. This was a fun story to write. I don’t know what that says about me, but it was fun, nonetheless.

  3. I loved reading this story, very satisfying in many ways. I could see it unfold in my mind’s eye. There is so much conveyed in the story in subtle, unspoken ways.
    I can’t say I feel sorry for either Earl, and I have a sneaking suspicion the Earl left is in for a heap of trouble.

  4. I got an uh oh feeling about this story at the very beginning. From a slight chill to a real threat and the ominous ending.
    Bravo! I hope Tom took it to heart! “I wonder what Delonda is thinking?”

    1. Author

      This was a fun story to write. I’m glad you liked the chilliness. Tom enjoyed reading it, too. We talked about it. (She said with a smile.);)

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