by John P. Murphy
I brought my old Grumman canoe down to the reservoir that had destroyed my hometown and wrecked my family. The water was twenty feet low while they fixed the dam, and the second floor of my childhood home was above water for the first time in almost forty years. I’d seen a light in the window.
I dragged the canoe over slick and crumbling waterlogged stumps. The water was damn cold, and my jeans soaked through.
Ten minutes’ paddling took me over the McFoy farm. All I saw in the stirred-up water was swirling mud, like when they first made the Hyde River jump its banks, but those slime-dark shapes over yonder were the copse where I’d once hidden to peek at their teenage daughter, Shirley Jo. I’d only been a curious ten-year-old, but boy did Uncle Winston tease me! Not that he’d looked away. She’d vanished the week before the evacuation and nobody knew what happened to her.
I paddled slow, thinking about family and watching that light. We weren’t rich when we lived in that yellow clapboard house, but we had family and neighbors and a garden full of rocks and cabbage and it was all right. My daddy was Big Ben Trimble then, respected and admired. He’s Old Ben Trimble now, and we don’t talk anymore.
I lit a cigar with Uncle Winston’s old Austrian lighter. We’d been close. I used to go watch him do odd jobs: shearing sheep, whitewashing houses, fixing windows. Yeah, he shooed me off when he wanted to make time with a pretty girl, but he also taught me dirty limericks and let me taste his whiskey. Big Ben felt responsible for my uncle, after their parents died young. He felt responsible for everybody. So he scolded, and Uncle and I traded winks, and we had fun. Until the dam went up, the town flooded, and Uncle disappeared.
A house forty years underwater should be rotting and covered in slime. But the yellow clapboard and white trim were dry and clean. The upper story was fully out of the water. The window on this side was my room; it was wide open and dark inside. The intact, clean glass reflected the sun.
I drifted close and nearly capsized the canoe hitting something underwater. I pushed off against something hard: the old porch roof. I cursed under my breath, since I’d probably destroyed it.
Except, I hadn’t. I’d torn the tarpaper, but the roof was fine. I thumped it with my paddle: solid. I sidled up and tested the floor inside, and that was solid too.
I stepped inside through the window. The wood floor was dry under my wet feet; dust caked my soles like fine sand. It didn’t smell musty or fishy, but like pine and wood smoke. I could have been ten years old again.
I found myself making making for the loose baseboard in the corner. It pulled back easily with my grown-up hands and there they were: Al Simmons, Lefty Grove and the rest, young and grinning. I’d never gotten anybody famous like Ruth or Gehrig, but they’d been treasure enough to hide from my little brother Joseph.
They should’ve been pulp. I couldn’t understand it.
My father hadn’t let me go back for them. The cart had been loaded with the last of the furniture, but there’d been plenty of time. Instead we left early and rode all day to a place where my dad was a stranger and nobody talked about where we came from.
I noticed another scent: rough old stogie, my uncle’s brand. I followed the smell to my parents’ bedroom and opened the door.
He was hanged from an exposed rafter by a coarse rope around his neck. He wore a battered brown jacket and trousers, white shirt, and wool socks on unshod feed. He was my Uncle Winston. As he hung there, swaying in a breeze I couldn’t feel, he smoked a thin cigar and chuckled over a Tijuana bible.
Uncle Winston put his dirty cartoon in his pocket and scowled down at me. “Ben.”
“Harry,” I said, or croaked.
He tilted his head, showing the noose’s coils. His frown softened. “I’ll be damned. Little Harry… Shit, you got old.”
All I could manage was, “You didn’t.”
He gave a coarse chuckle, then waggled his head. His whole body swayed. “Comes with the territory. If you ain’t afraid of ghosts, come give your old uncle a hug.”
Even hoist as he was, I came up taller on him than I remembered. He smelled like tobacco and harsh soap, and felt as solid as ever in the same one-armed embrace as he held his lit cheroot away from my back.
I awkwardly let go and took a few steps back. The rope was tied off to a steel hook driven into the baseboard next to his bedroll. “Should I, uh, cut you down?”
“Not a good idea,” he said quietly, his voice more gravelly than before. I nodded. “Damn it’s been a long time. What are you now, fifty?”
He asked about the family, one at a time, all except my father. I told what I knew, which wasn’t much.
When he finished quizzing me, I hesitated. “Are there any other, um, ghosts down here?”
He shrugged. “Lucy Boxer, Shirley Jo. Preacher Zeke, that old coot. I hear voices, but can’t make out what they’re saying. Probably for the best.”
It’s hard to sum up forty-some years, but I tried. I told him about World War II and beating Hitler. Armstrong on the moon, which he didn’t believe. He was more interested in Jack Kerouac. Pound and Eliot. Elvis, Salinger and what happened to Hemingway, which he said was a damn shame.
“I guess you haven’t had anything to read down here.”
“Not what I’d’ve brought if I knew I’d be staying.” He pulled a couple Tijuana bibles out of his pocket. “Haven’t got my favorite, the Popeye and Olive Oyl. Fiiiine woman, Olive Oyl.” A dazed look crossed his face. “Shit, I been up here too long.”
That was the opening I’d been dreading.
There’d been a party the night before the flood. The next section of dam was done so it’d been time to go. My mother and brother had gone on ahead. The neighbors came over and stayed up late. Thirteen of us in that little house, including me and Uncle. Mr. Boxer had grumbled “oughtta be twelve” and glared at me until I’d been sent to bed.
The grownups had been hard and angry the next morning, and Uncle had been gone. Old Ben wouldn’t talk about him; that refusal had been the thin end of the wedge between us. Mr. McFoy, Shirley Jo’s father, stayed in touch, but he became a sour old bastard and a drunk; my mother told him to stop coming by. Before the reservoir I had a family and a community; afterward, not so much.
I shoved my hands in my pockets and took a deep breath. “I thought you didn’t care about us anymore. My folks said they didn’t know, but dad had to’ve known, he’d have come up here.” I was babbling. I stopped. “I watched the bookstores for your name to come up, for your poems.”
I waved down at the rope. “Why’d you do it?”
“Why’d I do it?” He looked startled and then nostrils-flared angry. He crushed the lit cigar in his hand, but didn’t seem to feel it. “You see a stool, Harry?”
He was a good foot off the floor, and the rope was taut. There was nothing for him to stand on except the bedroll and the whiskey bottle, both in the far corner, and the windowsill was too far away.
I gaped. “Who?”
Uncle Winston pulled a fresh stogie from somewhere. It flared in his hand on the way to his lips. “I figured you knew.” He snorted smoke and the room filled with the smells of leather and wet dog. “I bet you can work it out.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
I shook my head. He puffed furiously, then pointed to the corner of the room. “Siddown. Lemme show you something.”
When I looked up from the floor, he was gone–no, not gone, asleep on the bedroll, whiskey bottle in hand. Outside the setting sun was angry red peeking through lush evergreens.
The door creaked open. And there was my dad, Big Ben again after all these years, with a grim expression and a rope.
The noose was already tied; it took three tries to throw it over the rafter. He didn’t seem hurried, but he didn’t dawdle. His hands trembled.
He knelt beside my uncle and spoke softly. I couldn’t make out the words, but the expression on his face was harder and angrier than I’d ever seen. He slipped the noose over my sleeping uncle’s head, then took hold of the other end of the rope.
Big Ben grunted as he heaved. He was always strong, and it only took him a few pulls before he strained to kneel and tie it off at the hook that couldn’t have been there when my mother could see. Then he stood in the middle of the room, just stood. My stomach clenched, and when my eyes dried enough to see, Big Ben was gone and Uncle Winston’s cigar was half-finished.
“I can’t believe it,” I managed.
“I won’t believe it!” I scrambled to my feet. “How do I know you can’t just conjure up whatever you want to see?”
He snorted. “How many showgirls you see?”
“You slept through the whole thing?”
“Enough,” he said quietly. “Drugged whiskey, I figure.” I made a face. “Don’t believe me? Have a taste.”
I’d made it across the room and had the bottle to my lips by the time he added, “Course, if I’m right…” I held it there, where the fumes stung my nose. “Well, time passes different down here. You take a nap while the waters rise, we’ll be spending a lot more time together.”
I stared into the amber liquid until my eyes watered. Maybe I looked like I was thinking hard, but my mind was just blank. I lowered my hand without making any conscious decision.
“Seeing as it probably can’t do me any harm,” Uncle Winston said, “D’you mind passing it over?”
I didn’t say anything as I handed it over, and didn’t watch as he took a long chug. He spluttered. “Dangit,” he muttered. “Goddamn noose.”
He swirled another gulp of whiskey in his mouth, working his jaw like chewing gristle.
“How are you talking, anyway?”
He turned and spat. “Hell, I dunno. Magic.”
I fell quiet. Big Ben had never been friendly with my uncle, but he never really seemed angry–it’d seemed a prodigal son thing, the good farmboy resenting the layabout poet who winked at ladies, read foreign novels, and gave his kid whiskey.
Of course, like everyone else those last weeks, I hadn’t paid attention to anything except packing up and speculating about Shirley Jo McFoy. Some folks thought the sixteen-year-old had run away with an older man, or got herself in trouble and “went away”. Big Ben hadn’t said much, but a lot of grim-faced folk had climbed our hill to speculate over coffee. All the sheriff would say was, “No body, no crime.”
It’d ended with the party that last night. A lot of drinking, and they’d sent me to bed early. I remembered Uncle getting carried upstairs by Big Ben and Mr. Boxer. Had my old dad slipped him a mickey so he could go murder him later?
“If you’re wondering,” Uncle Winston said, “what to do about it all, I got a thought.”
I folded my arms, and hadn’t decided how to respond when he continued, “All you gotta do is go to the sheriff and tell him I’m here. I figure I won’t look the same to him as I do to you, but law’s always interested in bodies, right? And I get the feeling Benjamin wasn’t too up-front with any au-thor-i-ties came asking questions.” He waggled his eyebrows. “Might’ve told a few little lies, the kind of thing what catches up to a man.”
“They’ll never convict him,” I said, shaking my head.
“Ain’t about jail, it’s about everyone knowing. Nobody cares about me but me and you, maybe, but if he’s the Ben Trimble I remember, he cared a hell of a lot what everybody thought of him. Cared too damn much, if you ask me.”
That was true. He’d liked being a pillar of the community, someone people came to with their problems. If the town’d been big enough for a mayor, he’d have been it. Being convicted of murdering his brother, even just in the papers, would destroy him. But damn it, if he did it, he had it coming; he’d had it coming for thirty-eight years.
“What did he say,” I asked.
Winston looked nonplussed. “When? At their little shindig? Nothing, just ‘have a drink, Winnie’. ‘You look thirsty’.”
I shook my head. “He said something before he… you know.”
He eyed me warily. “He said it quiet-like. A person might not’ve heard, y’know.”
His protests didn’t seem like him. He’d always been the master of the slick lie or the tall story, quick with a joke to deflect a subject he didn’t like. Course, he’d never talked about his own death before, not in my hearing.
“Doesn’t make sense,” I thought out loud. “The guests didn’t leave until late. Some of them slept out on the back porch.”
Uncle watched me, chewing his cigar end. I kept talking, feeling my way.
“He came in with the rope already tied in a noose. How’d he do that on the stairs where it’s dark? And how did he explain the rope?”
“Coulda said anything,” he said flatly. “Just puttin’ it away, maybe.”
“Still, that’s a big risk that someone might catch up, to talk. Lots of people asked his advice in private, at least before the flood. I remember that, he was proud of it.” But he’d come up the stairs with the noose already tied. He hadn’t dawdled and hadn’t rushed, just marched in here and strung his brother up.
“They knew.” I said it as I realized it. “They had to’ve.”
My uncle chewed the cigar, and it flared red. “Could be.”
“Not could be,” I said, shaking my head. “They knew. They approved.” That last bit just came out, but it had to be true. “But why?”
I knew the answer to my own question. A lot of folks thought Shirley Jo’d come to a bad end, said it like they knew it for a fact. But the lawmen kept saying: No body, no crime.
“They thought you killed her,” I said after following those thoughts awhile down dredged streams and dark trails. “They thought with the dam going up and the town flooded, you’d get away with it.”
“I expect they thought that, sure. Don’t mean they were right.”
“What did my dad say to you, Uncle?”
He chomped his cigar on one side of his mouth, then the other.
“He said, ‘It was unanimous’.”
I grappled with the word, staring at my feet, and ran over names in my head that I hadn’t thought about for years. “Eleven people,” I said, “not including you and me. It wasn’t a party, it was a jury, that’s why Mr. Boxer said ‘ought to be twelve.'”
“Oh, there was twelve,” he said, his voice down low like a growl. “Only the twelfth man got sent to bed. The twelfth man didn’t get a vote.”
I took a long breath in through my nose, a breath full of stale cigar and cheap hootch. “I was ten, Uncle.”
“That old skinflint Boxer knew that when he said it. No… You liked me, Harry, you were the only one in that room who did, and it only takes one vote to hang a jury instead of a man.”
“You can’t put that on a ten year old.”
“Maybe not.” He took the cigar from his mouth and studied the glowing end. “How about a forty-eight year old?”
I stared at him, and he stared right into me. “I can’t decide that,” I said. “It’s been too long.”
“Can’t decide? Hell, you’ve already decided. Beyond reasonable doubt, ain’t that what they say?”
I turned away and paced the worn-smooth planks through the space where my parents’ bed had been. “There’s no point,” I protested. “What can I do now?”
“Same as I said before. You decided I’m not guilty, that’s a hung jury. Big Ben had no right to execute a man with a hung jury. That’s murder.”
“I haven’t decided anything,” I blurted out.
There was a ghost of a hiss and the walls glowed faintly red. I smelled cigar smoke.
“Well now,” Winston said, drawing out his words. “That’s a different kettle of fish.”
“They had to have a reason to think you did it.”
“They wanted to hang someone for it. Maybe it didn’t matter who.”
“You knew her,” I said.
“You don’t even know she’s dead.”
“You said not ten minutes ago you heard her voice down here. She’s dead, and you knew her.”
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Maybe you did more than know her, uncle. It was a small town, she was sixteen, you were a good-looking guy. A poet. People notice things and they’re not always wrong.”
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire?” he sneered. “That’s gossip talk.”
I put my thumbs through my belt loops. “Could I ask her? Maybe I could rent some diving gear. I bet I could find her.”
“A man’s got needs, Harry,” he said in a low voice after a long time. “You’re older’n I’ve ever been, you have to know that. It doesn’t mean I hurt her.”
I paced. It was a habit I thought I’d broken years ago, but I paced that old smooth wood floor where bed and drawers should have been. It wasn’t what he said–he’d always had a way with words, the artist in the family–but what he didn’t say, and the way he didn’t say it. And the more I poked at that thought, the unhappier I got.
“I got a theory, Uncle, that you can’t lie to me. Maybe it’s because you’re a ghost, or maybe you don’t really give a damn anymore. So just tell me. Did you kill her?”
“Say it. Say it and I’ll believe you.”
“I don’t owe you.”
“Just say it! ‘I did not kill Shirley Jo.’ How fucking hard is that to say?”
He made a noise like he was trying to lift a Chevy by its bumper. “God damn it!” He exhaled so hard he started to sway back and forth. “God damn you. You don’t want to tattle on your daddy, fine. Go away and someone else’ll come see, and they’ll tell all about it. You want to let some stranger close this all up, fine–“
He stopped talking then because I’d grabbed him around the waist. He stopped because I held tight and wept. I wanted it to all have been a big lie, a terrible mistake. I wanted to drive to the nursing home and tell Old Ben he’d fucked up, and make him say he’s sorry. “Just fucking say it,” I said into his dingy old shirt that stank of smoke.
He stayed mute.
At last I disentangled myself. “I think you killed her, Uncle. I think you’re guilty.”
We were both quiet.
“I was gonna be a poet,” he said.
“What was Shirley Jo gonna be?”
The wind outside knocked my canoe against the house two, three times, like a giant wanted in. There was a soft thump and a softer fizzle as his cigar hit the floor and spilled cherry-red ash. Burnt tobacco flared and went out. The hanged man swayed from side to side, limp. Gone.
I took some old cardboard out of my pocket, and lit it with the old Austrian lighter, then dealt them out onto the dry wood floor and the bedroll. The water was ice cold as I clambered into the canoe. I watched until smoke started to rise and the cheap curtains caught. I flipped the lid on the lighter, open and closed, open and closed.
I didn’t dawdle, but I didn’t rush. There were people crowded on the shore watching the smoke. They ignored me, and that was fine.
The sun was going down, and it was about time I talked to my father.
NO BODY originally appeared in Penumbra Magazine #37, October 2014.
Copyright (c) 2014 John P. Murphy, all rights reserved