Years ago, when I was small and they were still alive, my maternal grandmother and grandfather lived in a small, white, two-story house on a city street in Adrian, Michigan abutting a Wonder Bread factory. When we visited, the smell of baking bread always hung comfortingly in the air. Stepping out their back door and onto a small brick patio led to a grassy yard enclosed at the back edge by a tall English-style hedgerow with an arced trellis in the middle that, when we passed through, led to a second yard, mostly hidden from view from the house. The second yard contained a small orchard of apple trees we loved to climb, atop one I once became stuck out of fear of falling and needed to be rescued by my balding grandfather with a creaky wooden ladder.
We called the orchard the “back-back yard.” We it made our own and it was where our private games were played. Demarcated by the hedgerow and by a rusting wire fence hidden from view by a thick stand of thin trees along the back of the property line, the back-back yard abutted the Wonder Bread factory and was dark with long shadows and featured a small circular pond of deeply murky water on its back edge.
A short wall made of round stones, coming only about shin high, surrounded the black and immobile pond water. Though the pond was small enough I could today hop from one side to the other from a standing start, at six years old I was frightened to get too close to the edge, as if I was staring into an open and bottomless well in which I would surely drown if I somehow slipped and fell in.
The memory of the back-back yard and the murky pond surfaces and troubles me from time to time, and though recurrence implies significance that’s about as far as I know to take things. I’ll say as a confession that though today I make my living as a County Sheriff, I am not skilled at detective work. Particularly of the personal nature but also including detection that’s specifically work-related. Most of my job comprises breaking up bar fights or writing tickets for rolling stops, that kind of thing. When I’m called on to investigate a robbery or a break in I mostly perform the administrative function of showing up and taking down a report.
Sometimes the thief is caught selling off the things he stole, but I don’t consider that a direct result of skillfulness at my work so much as a result of how connected everything is these days. We type the description of a gold watch that’s gone missing into one system and a silent alert goes out when it turns up in some pawn shop. Hardly a personal accomplishment to go strutting about.
That said I can’t go around disabusing the people who vote me into or out of a job of their notions on my competence. On the contrary, I’ve gotten pretty good at appearing to study a situation for clues, which is what I was doing at the old Baptist Church out on Washburne Road as the new Pastor walked me around the offices behind the nave. He was a gentle-seeming man, but I had the impression he’d have burned his share of witches had he been born in that era. Something behind the eyes, or maybe how his thin nose combined with the set of his thin mouth. He unlocked the door to the storage room where he kept the donations that came in for poor families.
“There it is, Sheriff.” Reaching inside the old heavy wood door, he flicked on a florescent light that flickered and hummed.
Shelves lined three of the walls in the windowless room, filled up with old board games and well-used countertop appliances. On the fourth wall was a long rack holding yellowed dress shirts, faded women’s jumpers, out-of-style sports coats, and jeans on hangers. Under the hanging clothes sat two rows of shoes – tennis shoes, tall leather boots flopping like droopy rabbit ears, loafers, snow boots.
I took out my notepad. “You know what’s missing exactly?”
“You should have seen this place when I got here. A complete mess. But unlike my predecessor, I keep a strict inventory. Every Friday. This week an upright vacuum and a wading pool just disappeared.”
I went to make the note but my pen wasn’t working. I licked the tip and shook it but nothing. The Pastor sighed and handed me a pen from his shirt pocket, and since there wasn’t a garbage can in sight I re-pocketed the spent BiC. “Was the vacuum functional?”
“Perfectly fine. A frayed cord, but nothing a little electrical tape wouldn’t make right.” He touched his hair as if worried it was out of place. He had a receding hair line but no bald spot. In fact, what remained was thick and he kept it combed back, rolling away from his face and his round wire glasses in a blonde wave.
“Do you remember the make and model?”
He reached into a manila folder and handed me a sheet of paper perfunctorily. “That’s a copy, you can keep that.”
He’d photocopied a picture of an old yellow Hoover and carefully typed in the make and model and even the product number. “This is helpful, thank you.”
“I keep strict records of all donations.”
“Does anyone else have a key to the storage room?”
“They do not. This is the only key and I keep it right here on my key ring in my pants pocket.”
I checked the door for signs someone forced the old lock and the Pastor smirked.
“Are you married, Pastor?”
When I didn’t offer faux surprise at his youthfulness he seemed hurt, but I’m sorry I’ve never been good at that kind of thing. “Any children?”
He lowered his head. “The Lord never blessed us in that way.”
“And your wife, she doesn’t have a key?”
“Marcie has charge of her ministries and I of mine. We’re a formidable partnership.” He grinned at me like he was sharing some joke.
“Okay, well, I think I’ve seen enough.”
He closed and locked the door, pocketing the keys and patting them through his pants while raising his eyebrows as if to say, you see? “When do you think you’ll nab the culprit?” Placing his hand on my back, he guided me toward the side exit.
“That’s hard to say. We’ll check around to see if anyone tried to sell the items.”
“I hardly think this is a crime motivated by profit!” His laugh was sharp like a cold gust and he squeezed my neck muscles in a fast, nervous rhythm. As we stepped out into the sunshine he patted my back.
“One more question. I’m just curious. How do you go about distributing the donations?”
“To needy families I mean. How do you decide who receives what?”
He pursed his lips and adjusted his glasses. “Parishioners are free to apply for aid. My door is always open.”
“Right.” I made a note. “Well, thanks again. I’ll be in touch.”
I paused in slipping on my sunglasses.
He held out his hand. “My pen?” He looked at me like I’d failed some moral test and he was more proved right about things than disappointed.
Over dinner with my wife Marie I told her about the case of the missing vacuum cleaner and got her laughing. “The new Pastor out to Harvest Baptist, he’s an odd one.”
“All fire and brimstone I bet.”
“Not really. More like your cousin. The accountant.”
She widened her eyes. “Bachelor?”
“Says he’s got a wife.” I chuckled. “No kids though.”
“But he seemed all right.”
She went serious. “You know he was abused as a kid?”
“Did I know that?”
She shrugged and her eyes went unfocused like they do when she remembers her childhood days.
“Who was it?”
“His mom’s brother. Really creepy.”
“What happened to him?”
“The uncle? I was too young.”
“Knowing your dad’s family I wouldn’t be surprised he went missing.”
She stared out the window and fingered the necklace I’d got her for our seventh anniversary, a little copper Buddha pendant.
I finished my beer and pushed the plate away.
She came back and gave me a sad smile, trying to get back on track. “So, what happened with the vacuum?”
“No idea. Kind of a mystery. Closed, locked room, no windows, the one key.”
“Probably he remembered wrong.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. “You’d have to have met him. Doesn’t seem the type, is all I’ll say.”
“That’s pretty weird.”
“Yeah, actually. I’m sure there’s an explanation, but damned if I can come up with one.”
I’m not used to reflecting on my childhood, and in truth doing so comes with a fair amount of resistance, not to mention discomfort. But I’d like to find a way to get a better view of my life now that I have a mature perspective and while I still have the eyes of a relatively young man. This is something I talk about mostly with my friend Richard, who as an older man pushing seventy is more of a father-figure than an actual friend, and visiting with him every couple of weeks has become something I’ve built into my life’s routine. Lately he’s been encouraging me to think about my childhood and about my sister, and practice letting go of my stories about her that he says work like walls work, and though I don’t one-hundred percent get what that means the words ring true, so what I’m doing is giving this a try.
My sister Hannah liked to pick me up and put me into a box when I was two and she was four, liked to sit me down with her stuffed animals around a pretend campfire, and as I grew older took protecting me from older boys and hurt feelings pretty serious. She had dark short hair like me but where mine was a thick mop hers was thin like our Mom who she took after in her looks more than I did. They shared the small thick German nose and the ears that stuck out like elves’. Where I was more like our Dad both in his looks and in his passive absence from both our lives and his own.
My mother had an older sister, and once or twice each summer instead of visiting my grandparents at the Wonder Bread house, we all trundled over to my aunt and uncle’s cottage on Tern Lake so that my father could get oiled up with Uncle Frank as they cruised around the lake on a pontoon boat and then cooked burgers on a gas grill in the yard. Those days would end with Frank crying and hugging the girls, telling them how beautiful they were and how sorry he was, presumably for being such a sloppy drunk, and my father angrily loading the car and then driving home too fast and ranting about how we’d never go back.
We had older cousins to play with. April was the oldest, in college as a freshman and home for the summer, laying in her bathing suit on the dock that stretched out into the sun surrounded by blue lake water, and she liked to make me squirm by declaring us kissing cousins and licking my lips. She had two younger brothers, Bass and Ovid, who at thirteen and ten-years-old were enough older than Hannah and me to be more wardens than playmates.
What all these recollections have to do with anything I don’t know, and I’m frankly losing patience with the activity, Richard’s encouragement aside. Dredging up old memories only roils me up and I don’t see the point. I shared as much with Marie after dinner.
“No one’s saying you have to.” She was leafing through my work files in that way she does, like other women flip through fashion magazines or whatever.
“No, that’s true.”
“Maybe feeling roiled up isn’t such a bad thing.”
“I don’t know. Feels like stirring up silt in a pond more than anything. Just makes everything all murky.”
She nodded thoughtful. “But if something’s buried how else do you find it but digging around?”
I didn’t say why would you want to. Marie’s got plenty of her own nasty treasures under her deeper waters and I think she’s kind of watching me to see how this digging around I’m doing works out. Like I’m testing out an idea for the both of us.
She held up the picture the Pastor gave me of the missing wading pool. “You had one just like this when we were kids.”
“I don’t think so.” I took the picture and studied it fresh.
“You have the worst memory.”
“My memory’s fine.” In truth it rankles me when she says that, which she does way more than is warranted, like it’s a point of superior pride for her.
She raised her eyebrows up to make a point of how surprised I could make her.
“I think I’d know if I played around in a wading pool or not.”
She got up and left the kitchen but then came right back with an old photo album. I sat there and tried to breathe and loosen my shoulders and to not listen to the part of me that was asking why she had to shove points at me all the time, what’s wrong with sitting companionably and having each other’s back on things?
“Here you go.” She pushed the album across the table.
There I was, maybe five or six, holding a garden hose splashing into a wading pool like the one in the Pastor’s picture, my sister Hannah kneeling in the water and grinning at the camera. Must have been in the back-back yard at the Wonder Bread house as there was an apple tree in the background. We both were in underwear and weren’t wearing shirts or anything on top and I closed the album probably a bit too hard. “You’re right again.”
“You mad at me?”
I was, but then just as quick I wasn’t and I shrugged and looked out the window.
I sighed. “I haven’t been out there in a while.”
“You keep up better than most.”
“You ever think it’s weird how we’re the only ones from my family has a kid?”
“It’s not like we planned it all out or anything.”
That was true enough. I was going to marry Marie the minute I saw I maybe could, but having Jamie was pure accident. Not that I’m regretful. At least not too often.
She said, “I’ll go out there with you this morning if you want.”
Hannah had gotten into drugs and died from them when she was still young, before she even turned twenty. “Yeah, maybe, thanks.” Visiting the cemetery and keeping up her site and my parents’ can sometimes help to soothe my feelings. I pulled my work folder close and leafed through it again. “That damned vacuum cleaner is driving me nuts. You know Pastor Phelps calls the office pretty much once a day?” Even if he wasn’t pestering me I think I’d still have a hard time letting go the mystery. There was something about the low stakes, maybe, the relative meaninglessness of the situation, that made me feel mocked. I had no clue about the memories that haunted me and I had no clue about how an old vacuum cleaner had disappeared into thin air. For all I knew the thing had unlocked the vault Pastor Phelps had devised and escaped itself into an end life of useful activity somewhere in Florida. I didn’t have an actual plan of action but I had decided I didn’t like the new Pastor and he deserved another conversation. “I think I’ll drive out there.”
I’d no sooner shut off the engine in the Jeep when Pastor Phelps was out the front door of the church waving with one hand and shielding his eyes from the sun’s glare with the other. “Sheriff!” He met me on the sidewalk from the parking lot. “To what do I owe the pleasure? Good news, I hope.”
“Maybe we could talk in your office?”
“My, how officious we are this morning!”
Inside, the air was cool and musty like an old bookstore. The church offices were down the hall from the storage room. A large woman with long, straight, greasy hair sat at a small wheeled secretary’s desk in the corner working at a computer.
“Marcie, I’d like you to meet Sheriff Clark.”
I nodded hello from the doorway. “Ma’am. Nice to meet you.”
She hefted herself and the armless wooden office chair she’d sat in rolled backwards a few inches. “How nice! Can I get you some coffee?”
“Coffee would be great, thank you.”
“I’ll have to make it.”
“Oh. No, please don’t bother.”
“I don’t drink it myself.”
“Of course.” The two of them were completely different in how they looked but the same in the way they had of throwing me off. “I’ve actually probably had too much this morning already.”
She looked at me as if to say well why then did you ask for it?
Pastor Phelps smirked. He said to his wife, “The Sheriff has more questions about the big case.”
“How hard can it possibly be to find an old vacuum?”
I pulled out my notepad. “Do you happen to know who donated the items that went missing?” I realized just then I hadn’t replaced my BiC.
“I should say I remember.” Marcie shared an exaggerated wide-eyed look with her husband.
Pastor Phelps said, “We donated that vacuum ourselves. Retired the old girl.” He grinned at me.
Marcie said, “Pastor Phelps made me a gift of a brand new one when we took on here. A Miele.” She looked at me like to register how impressed I was at that.
We were standing in a circle in the middle of the office and no one made a move to sit or offer me a chair. “What was that, about a year back?”
“Are you going to remember all this, Sheriff?” The Pastor looked down at the notebook in my hand.
I took out the empty Bic and pretended to make a note.
“Did you know that the last Pastor hired a woman to come do the cleaning? Isn’t that right Marcie?”
She shook her head. “Mrs. Leach. The old Phys Ed teacher’s widow I understand. Now I don’t like to judge but spending money on a cleaning woman? Not just wasteful but lazy!”
“In my experience hiring such things done is paying for a job done badly.” The Pastor looked at Marcie and she nodded in agreement.
I didn’t like either of them and their energy put me in a combative frame. “Maybe it was the old Pastor’s way of helping her out with some paid work.”
Pastor Phelps scoffed. “If the community relies on the Church for its economies, we’re in real trouble! We minister to souls, Sheriff, not wallets.”
I pocketed by notebook. “Well, it was nice to meet you Mrs. Phelps.”
I nodded. “Marcie.”
The Pastor squeezed my bicep, and I felt his damp palm through my shirt. “I’ll walk you out?”
I paused at the office door. “Oh, one last thing, Marcie. Can you remind me where you keep the spare key to the storeroom?”
Pastor Phelps gave one of his icy laughs. “Do you watch Colombo, Sheriff?”
Marcie eyed me and frowned. “The Pastor has the keys to all the rooms and we don’t keep any copies.”
He patted his pocket and the keys there jingled.
I tried to keep my voice friendly though I was not feeling that way. “That’s what I thought I remembered, thank you.”
Pastor Phelps squeezed my neck as we walked out. “You’re so tense, Sheriff.”
His fingers were skinny, and they about bored into me, making me want to squirm away or knock him down. “You know what? I’d rather you not keep touching me if it’s all the same to you.”
He looked taken aback which gratified me, then his eyes flashed. He said, “How very interesting.”
I swung by the cemetery as much out of not having a better idea of where to go than any other thing. Temperatures were heating up, and we hadn’t had near as much rain in the Spring as was needed. The grass around my parents’ and Hannah’s stones was browning pretty good, making the place feel dingy. My parents hadn’t done much for us kids by way of looking out for or after us, but I’d stopped being angry with them for the most part. A grown man myself, I’ve seen how when life isn’t going in your favor you can make yourself blind to fresh problems. My old man had a violent way of discouraging his family from sharing bad news, what you might call a shoot the messenger philosophy. And Mom flat wouldn’t take anything you told her serious. You could say the barn was on fire and she’d want to invite the neighborhood kids over and toast marshmallows or something.
I looked out for Hannah the best I could but I was not well equipped, mostly being too young for the job I think now. She started drinking alcohol when she was still in grade school, first taking drinks with our older cousins and graduating quick from that to smoking dope. All of which I did also, but she burned through every drug put in front of her like she was a grass fire. By the time she was out of high school she was pretty much done so-called experimenting.
I straightened the vases I’d attached to their stones with a wire setup and squatted there for a minute. I remembered being at a party thrown by our older cousins when I was fifteen or sixteen, less than a year before Hannah’s last overdose. She’d gone off with some boy and I about tore the place apart looking for her. That look my older cousin Bass had given me like I was half-amusing and half-scaring him. There’s a part of me even now would like to beat old Bass unconscious, but at sixteen I was a thin kid and not terribly imposing. All I could do was make a lot of noise and take a good beating which if my memory serves I did both of on the evening in question.
I figured that was enough of that for now, but instead of heading straight home I drove around the block and made for old Mrs. Leach’s place on Church Street.
Mrs. Leach was the widow of our former gym and entry-level math teacher. Mr. Leach had been my and Marie’s instructor but had retired before Jamie got to middle school. He’d been a strict and squirrelly man who a few times had tried to be playful with us as kids but normally ended up on the wrong end of a chorus of snickering. I always felt kind of bad for him. I rolled up and parked in front of her house instead of pulling into her driveway – such was the clutter of her yard I half-worried about puncturing a tire.
Her front porch overflowed with old stuff. Magazines mostly, but also a hodgepodge of moldering junk. Hearing the Pastor and his wife putting her down had set me against them, but now I was seeing the irony in her choosing cleaning work as a profession in her older years. She’d driven a school bus when she was younger, worked in the school cafeteria also for a while. I knocked hard on her screen-less front door and listened for her, and hearing nothing started worrying over the possibility she was lying dead in there and wouldn’t that be a nice cherry on top of the lovely summer day I was enjoying.
I called out for her and still getting no response picked my way around the side of her house. There were large old-growth oak trees towering over her place, setting the porch and side yard in deep shadow. The lot was good sized and had a big detached tumbledown garage sitting back deep on the property near a small orchard of pear trees. Her property line backed up to a field that kids liked to cut through as it led to the high school football and track facilities. I walked back around her place calling out every so often, and near started when she appeared out of nowhere carrying a stack of old newspapers. She sported a big floppy hat like women gardeners wear and blue jeans under a blue denim dress and large canvas gloves that were way too big for her. The place had a smell like things were decomposing slow and unchallenged.
“Is that you, Harry Clark?”
“Hello, Mrs. Leach.”
“I know you all right.”
I chuckled. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Help me carry these papers.”
She held them out and I accepted the small load and followed her as she strode off. What sounded like running water, a thin brook, carried to me as we got close to the crooked old two-car garage. Both the overhead doors were closed. Over them on the second floor the shutters on what must have once been a hay loft hung open on loose hinges, exposing more debris. A rusted hay bale conveyor, a few old bicycle tires.
“Just set those over there.” She indicated a rickety stool. “I’ll put them away later.”
A boy giggled, and I stuck my head out the garage door to better hear where the noises were coming from just as a young girl shrieked, “Stop it!” from around the back of the garage. I’m not fleet of foot but I got back there in a blink, at least it felt that way. A boy about eight held a garden hose pointed in the general direction of a girl younger than himself by year or two, both in swim trunks around a wading pool, while an older boy leaned against a pear tree watching them. I was on top of the older boy before my mind had a chance to get a word in, my hand around his throat pinning him to the tree trunk. I stepped on a rotting pear and about slipped on the fleshy mush but I guess my rage must have kept me upright.
The shocked look in his young face woke me up, and I let him loose about as fast as I’d grabbed him. He backed away with one hand on his neck as Mrs. Leach caught up with the action. She came around the corner pulling the large gloves off her hands and taking in the scene with an air of confusion.
I turned on her. “You mind telling me where this wading pool you have here came from?”
“Well, it’s mine. Belongs to me. These kids are free to use it as long as they clean up after.”
I turned on the boy. “Why aren’t you in school?”
He blinked and wiped an eye. “School’s out.” His voice was shaky. “It’s summer.”
The two younger kids had gone quiet, and the hose lay running in the yard creating a muddy pool. I thought I recognized them then. The Mitchell kids. “You their brother?”
The older boy nodded.
“Clean this mess up and go on home.”
“Yes, sir.” He trotted to the back of the garage and turned off the spigot.
“Mrs. Leach, can I have a word?”
We left the children and moved toward the back steps of her house, leading up to another cluttered porch. I pulled the photocopy of the vacuum from my pocket and unfolded it. “This old vacuum look familiar to you at all?”
She took the paper and her face went all cagey, watching me from under the brim of that big old sun hat. “You’re the Sheriff now, is that right? Harry Clark?”
Even though my heart was still thumping hard she was an odd one and I couldn’t help cracking a smile. “I am, ma’am, yes, that’s right.”
She passed me back the paper. “Now I’m not saying I do or don’t recognize that particular appliance. But I don’t guess it’s a crime for a woman to be in possession of her own possessions.”
I gave her a mock hard look. “That might just depend on how she came to be in such possession.”
“I’ll tell you what. If you happen to have a spare set of keys for the old church out on Washburne Road, and if you were to hand them to me before I go, I don’t think I’d need to have a look around anymore than I already have. How does that sound for a deal?”
I picked up a pizza for dinner and a bottle of red wine for Marie and when she came in from work she looked at the set table and cut her eyes at me. “What’s all this then?”
She smiled, cautious. “Yeah?”
“I cracked the case.”
“What, the vacuum?” She grinned and slipped off her shoes and came sat down with me and I poured her a glass of wine and one for myself. She laughed at the silly fun of it.
I held out my glass, and she clinked and we took a drink. “Turns out it was the cleaning lady all along.” I told her the whole story, mostly. Told it for humor. I left out what I’d done with choking the boy in the orchard and more important I left out what I thought was behind my doing so. All I know for sure is that for an instant I believed with full conviction that older boy was interfering with that young girl. All evidence to the contrary, so I if I’m being honest with myself I have to ask why I must have thought that way. Why I reacted with such rage and quick violence and scared and hurt that poor boy.
But I’m not ready yet to say certain things out loud. Not even to Marie. Even just thinking about those old days with my cousin Bass, the back-back yard, my sister Hannah, the smell of murky water, I have to do quiet, like I’m listening to adult conversation from around a corner. Or like I’d pulled a puzzle piece out of the box and could see all of a sudden how the picture might look. I wonder because I can’t know for certain if I painted the picture myself to explain some part of my angry sadness or if I’d remembered something truthful that one part of me had hid from view as a kind of self-protection: me crouching by that murky dank-smelling pond, Hannah by the wading pool in the orchard, kneeling there in front of Bass. I shook my head like to clear it and quick-converted the motion to a comic wag. “I might just get used to this wine drinking. This is all right.”
Marie laughed and refilled both our glasses. She indicated the ring of keys on the table. “You going to give them back to Pastor Phelps?”
“You know I don’t think I will. Let them wonder.” I looked at my wife’s mouth and her happy eyes and thought about unbuttoning that top button on her blouse, touching her bare back. “I am thinking of hiring old Mrs. Leach for cleaning the County offices, though.”
Her eyes went sultry, mind reading like she does. “That sounds like a nice idea. You know Jamie’s staying out tonight at a friend’s. We can clean this up later.”
I pushed away from the table and grinned all wolfish while my mind made an automatic inventory of all our windows and doors like it does. “Let me just make sure the house is locked up.”