Rough, Grooved Surface

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“Fact is only what you believe,

And fact and fiction work as a team.”

—Jack Johnson, ‘It’s All Understood,’ Brushfire Fairytales (2001)

I sit in the car for at least a half hour, gulping down long, slow breaths, trying desperately to clear the slate of my mind. To shake the images away.

After my mom died, I had the same problem. Picturing the twisted wreckage of her car, imagining her broken body, her blood-soaked clothes. Just about anything could set it off. A picture, the right phrase, it didn’t matter. The mere mention of a childhood memory was enough to start the picture show in my mind.

The bartender’s words had done the same for Bonnie. Two little words…train wreck, and it all started. Though I’m sure there wasn’t much left of his body, I can still picture him, growing pale and cold inside that gnarled mass of metal. Though I wasn’t there, I can see it as clearly as I can see my own hand in front of my face.

What makes matters even worse is the realization, the damning proof of Whistler’s crimes. It might not hold up in a court of law, but it’s proof positive just the same.

He has done this before…

I crack the window, and cool air immediately rolls into the cab of the truck, thick with that mossy, familiar scent of the river. It’s been nearly two days since I’ve had a decent sleep, and I’m suddenly overcome by a violent fatigue, an exhaustion that runs so deep that I can feel it, like an aching muscle.

I lean the car seat back as far as I can and try to block out any thoughts of the past or future. I focus on nothing but the sounds of the night, echoing around me. I think about the flowing water of the Mississippi, which is churning along a few hundred feet down the road. Wide, muddy banks—an impossibly large an active swell of cold, brown water.

In sheer size, it dwarfs the Illinois, the river that I know so well. As I begin to drift closer to sleep, I imagine myself as one of those first explorers. One of those entitled white men that traversed an ocean to conquer a land that wasn’t theirs to begin with.

Though it’s easy to judge their irresponsible trek through these lands, it’s not hard to see why they did it. That first explorer that came to the banks of that vast, flowing water must have thought himself touched by God, entitled to conquer and claim whatever he wanted.

As I drift off to sleep, I wonder if I’m more like the explorer, or the native who came before. Am I on a self-righteous journey of destruction, or am I just trying to hold on to what is already mine.

Both options feel hopeless and empty, and my head aches at the sheer enormity of the thought.

So I clear my mind of everything, and drift quietly back into the darkness.

Scattered and fragmented dreams, a mixture of sights and faces. I drift in and out of random places while incongruous voices echo words that make no sense.

At one point I see Bonnie’s car, still gnarled and mangled by the freight train. Mercifully, he is free of the wreckage and in one piece. He looks at me and shrugs, pointing a finger at the accident site as though there were nothing meaningful to say.

I drift up and down the river on a forlorn, rudderless raft. I see belly-up crappie and swollen, bullhead catfish floating in the water, black carrion birds swooping through the air to pick hunks of flesh from the bones.

All the while, I float along, and somewhere, off in the distance, I hear Whistler’s loud, squealing laugh, echoing down through the river valley…

I wake abruptly to a rapping sound on my window. The bartender is standing looking into the car, her hands on her hips. I roll down the window to talk. “You need someplace to stay,” she asks, challenging my resolve once again.

When I move my head, a sharp pain runs down my neck and across my shoulder, the result of lying in a cramped sports car. For a moment, I am ready to say yes, follow this girl home and see what happens, but once again, a nameless something stops me.

“Look,” I say, “I appreciate it, but I…”

“I get it,” she says, holding up her hands. “Some other girl, and you’re actually a decent guy.” She wipes her hands on the front of her jeans. “It’s good that you’re not like most of the dirt bags that usually buy me drinks. We could’ve had some fun.” She reaches through the window and pats me on the arm. Though the moment is gone, I immediately regret my decision. “You need to get out of here, though,” she said. “The county deputy will roll through soon, and if you’re sleeping in your car, he’ll give you trouble.” She points down the road. “There’s a half-assed used car dealership down there. You can park there and sleep, and nobody will notice.”

“Thanks.” She waves over her shoulder and disappears back around the corner of the bar.

The next morning, I wake feeling stiff, a dull ache rolling through my body. Though I long for more sleep, it seems dangerous to sit on the lot for too long. I was, after all, still driving around in a stolen car, and while it didn’t seem likely that Gil Grady called the police to file a report, all it would take would be one curious policeman to take interest, and I’d be screwed. Given the fact that most of the cars sitting in this shitty little used car lot are at least ten years old, it seems wise to move along.

I drive down the street to a Shell station. Inside there are a few little booths in the back, half of which are already filled with old men wearing stained overalls and seed company ball caps. I purchase a cup of coffee and a donut, and sit in the farthest booth, doing my best to look inconspicuous.

After first, the old men stare at me with guarded curiosity, keenly aware of the stranger invading their space. After a few seconds, though, they decide that I am harmless, and they settle back down into their never-ending conversation like a group of startled birds reconvening on a pile of discarded seeds.

After an hour of sitting in the booth, my presence seems to wear uncomfortably on the old men, and they once again seem suspicious.

It only takes a few minutes of driving around town before I find the library, and I park the car across the street under a large elm tree. The morning is cool, and the tree blocks the bright rays of sunlight from pouring through the front windshield. I slip back and drift off to sleep once again.

I wake up several hours later. Between the mercifully dreamless sleep and the thick layer of warm sunlight now flooding through the front windshield, I have slept longer than I intended, but I feel refreshed.

I walk towards the library, hopeful that the old woman inside is as talkative as my bartender friend says, and I’m hoping she can fill in some gaps, provide me with the details I desperately need.

The small town library resides in an old train depot, a boxy old structure resting only a few feet from the tracks. I keep my eyes glued to the ground, wary of any image that might get me thinking about Bonnie or the twisted remnants of his car.

I walk through a creaky, wood-paneled front door and step into the main room of the library. Though the late-morning air outside has grown thick and humid, the atmosphere in the library is cool and inviting. I walk through the entryway, but the main desk is empty. For a moment, I stand alone in the startling stillness. Given the limited size of the place, the library seems to have an impressive amount of books. Rows line all of the walls nearly to the ceiling, and three or four chest-high shelving units rest in the middle of the floor, running the length of the room.

I hear a toilet flush, and a few minutes later, a white-haired woman with a hunched back and a slow, shifting gait shuffles towards me down the hall.

“Oh, hello,” she says, in the high-pitched, enthusiastic voice of woman used to dealing with small children. “Sorry, sorry. Didn’t know we had customers…”

She picks up speed and shuffles around me, walking through a doorway on the opposite end of the desk, and then reappearing on the other side of the counter. “What can I do for you on this fine morning?” she asks.

“Are you Dolores?”

The woman smiles broadly and nods, and I step over towards the books, sitting down in a chair directly across from the main desk.

The woman arches her eyebrows, aware that her daily visitor is wanting more than the latest Tom Clancy or Stephen King bestseller.

“I’m hoping you can help me,” I say. “I’m looking for an old friend of man, and someone told me you might be able to help.” The woman nodded slowly, still wearing a toothy grin. “Do you know a man named Francis Xavier Patterson?”

Dolores turned out to be every bit as talkative as the bartender had promised, and she helped me without any curiosity or reservations about my purpose. “You’ve got a kind face,” she had said. “I want to help you…”

She spent the next two hours telling me all that she knew about the Patterson clan.

“I’m really a second cousin to Reggie Patterson,” she said, “but those distinctions don’t mean much round here. Family’s family, and that’s all there is to say…”

As she spun wistfully through the family tree, I learned that Reginald Patterson had gone to New York to law school, and had worked as assistant prosecutor in the district attorney’s office in ‘the big city’ before coming back home in the early thirties to run for county prosecutor.

His career in Obsidian lasted a decade and a half, by which time he had served as District Attorney and been named as a circuit court judge, by Dolores’ account one of the youngest in Illinois state history.

“Oh, yes, that man really had the bull by the horns, as they say, and the people around here just loved him.” Though I am quite sure that I need to play along to get the details I need, Dolores’ family account is agonizingly detailed, and I’m beginning to feel a stir-crazy panic welling inside of me.

“But then he left, right? After the death of his son?”

Dolores makes a tisk-tisk sound as she continues labeling stack of books with a ‘Property of Obsidian Library’ stamper. “It was terrible, just terrible,” she says, “makes it all the worse what some folks say.”

She says the last part with a hint of scandal. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” she says, “I’m not one to feed the churning of the rumor mill…”

Of course, this is a complete fabrication. Only people who absolutely wallow in gossip say things like I’m not one to gossip, but at this point, I’m more than grateful for small town scandal-mongering.

“…but some people say that his son’s death wasn’t really an accident at all.”

I lean forward in my seat, excited to have finally reached the climax. “Was it the nephew? Xavier?”

Dolores looks taken back for a second, as if she were suddenly shaken from a dream. “Nephew? Oh, heavens, no. I can’t really tell you much about that boy, at all. He was only here for a short while.” She taps the stamper onto the ink pad with an irritating urgency. “Quiet boy,” she says. “Don’t really remember too much about him.” She goes back to stamping the seemingly endless pile of books. “No, the rumor was that Judge Patterson was involved in some kind of untoward activities. He had a private plane and a little landing strip a few miles north of town, and people were just fascinated by it.” She held up the stamper and pointed it in my direction. “That’s the problem with river folks,” she says. “We’re all descended from barge-workers and boat pilots. Long days filled with short periods of terribly hard work, followed by a lot of lying about. If you ask me, that sort of life makes a person hungry for uncontrolled wanderings of the imagination.”

“So you don’t believe that Judge Patterson was involved with anything illegal?”

“Heavens, no,” she says. “Reggie was a good man. Anyone who would say otherwise is harboring jealousy over his money and his success, plain and simple.” She stamps the final book and then wags a scornful finger in my direction. “I’m not sure there’s any deadly sin that’s worse than envy, except maybe for lust, but that’s another story for another time.”

She clasps her hands in front of her on the desk and stares at me intently. Though it’s clear that she’s done talking, she’s far too polite to ask me to leave.

“I’ve taken up enough of your time,” I say, “but I do have one last question. Is there anyone in town that could possibly tell me more about Xavier? Maybe a friend of Bruce’s?”

Dolores shudders slightly when I ask the question. “Only one I can think of is Nathaniel Poole, but you don’t want to be going up near that bunch.”

“Why not?”

“Bunch of backwoods moonshiners,” she says. “Nothing good has come out of that Poole compound in at least six generations.” She shakes her head in derisive judgement. “Best you stay away from there.”

I lean across the desk and reach out towards the desk, placing my hand softly on hers. “Dolores,” I say, “I have to find my friend. Is there any way you could tell me how to find Nathaniel Poole?”

Dolores pulls her hand away, and stares at me for several moments. Reluctantly, she grabs a slip of paper and starts drawing a map. “I’ll give you this,” she says, “but I sure do worry about a nice young man like yourself, walking into that pit of snakes.”

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