The Threads of Silence
The reporters who descend the morning after the shooting aren’t from here. The driver of the white sedan with the network logo, the first vehicle in a line of four, is new to this region. He has no idea what a holler is. He doesn’t know what an elm tree looks like, so they miss the first turn. None of them are from this county and they don’t know where Harm Gibson used to live, so they miss the turn again. They’re accustomed to feeding addresses into a GPS and following the directions that it gives in a calm female voice, devoid of dialect. The GPS doesn’t ask why they’re looking for such-and-such place. It doesn’t study them from behind wary eyes, or exchange glances with its neighbor, before providing instructions to travel north so many miles or turn right in so many feet. It doesn’t draw on the knowledge of a lifetime to tell a person how to go. It also has no idea what a holler is.
At the Kincaid post office – a gray block building, about the size of the gardening sheds they sell at the home improvement stores – the white sedan screeches to a stop beside a man with his hands full of mail, getting into an old blue Chevrolet truck. He’s wearing a cap with a logo that might be advertising a tractor or a pocketknife, no one knows for sure. Yes, he knows where the Steadmans live. He’s headed that way himself. No, he doesn’t mind if they follow him. Who are they, again? News people. Well, Steadmans might not want to talk to nobody just yet. He’ll drive slow so they can keep up.
The cars make a U-turn in the wide space that serves as the post office parking lot and follow the Chevrolet back down the unmarked blacktop toward town at a snail’s pace. They turn left where a dirt road cuts off beside a weedy patch of ground that hides the remains of an old stone foundation. That must be where Harm Gibson lived, one says, and they laugh at how these country people give directions. The sedans and minivans bounce and scrape through the rain-rutted tracks that go up the hill and bend out of sight. Their occupants listen to the thumps and shrieks of the undercarriages hitting the rocks, and worry about damages and expense accounts. How can anyone live in this godforsaken place, they ask, and we probably should’ve brought the four-wheel drive, they say. Their voices, like their vehicles, dip and sway. They are not laughing now. The driver’s window is inches from a vertical embankment of rocks, trees, vines, dappled sunlight. The passenger door is inches from a sheer drop to a shale-bottomed creek, strewn with boulders and overhung by evergreens. The drivers dread meeting another car. The passengers point their eyes at the Chevrolet’s scarred bumper, and try not to think about the creek.
Just as they have nearly given up hope of ever reaching any house, much less the house where their story awaits, the ascent levels off and the trail splits: one track goes left toward a pole barn clad in weathered gray boards; one track goes a hundred feet further uphill to a small white house, board-and-batten with a faded tin roof. A porch wraps around three sides of the dwelling. The wood siding badly needs to be repainted, and the roof could use a coat of tin paint as well. The few cars parked in the yard are official vehicles: sheriff’s department, state police, a black Ford Explorer with tinted windows and government plates. Vehicles of a different kind are parked under the low eaves of the barn: mostly pickup trucks, a few sedans. The deputy standing in the fork of the road raises his hand to stop the Chevrolet truck. He speaks a few words to the driver and looks over the bed of the Chevrolet at the four press vehicles; he bends his head back to the window and talks a little more. Then the deputy steps back and the truck goes left, down the track to the barn. The driver of the sedan inches forward, bearing left to follow the Chevrolet, but the deputy’s upraised hand stops him.
“Morning, folks. What’s your business up here?” He’s fresh-faced and clean-shaven, this uniformed kid in his early twenties. He wears a radio and a gun and a tight smile.
The first driver flashes his credentials and identifies himself. “The van’s with me. The other two,” he says with a grin, “are from another network, so I don’t care if you let them through or not.”
Only his passenger laughs.
“You-all can pull up in the yard and park. Stay in the yard. No snooping around. If the family wants to make a statement, they’ll come out and talk, or send someone to do it for them. Anybody caught sneaking around will be arrested for trespassing.”
“What about that truck in front of us? You sent them down to that barn.”
“Like I said, turn right and park in the yard.” The deputy steps back and points them up the hill, where tire tracks crisscross the flattened, dew-damp grass. He stands in the middle of the left fork. He is not smiling now. The four network vehicles turn right.
“When was the last time you saw your brother, Mr. Steadman?”
“Four year ago, when we buried Daddy. He come home for the funeral.”
“And did William stay here with you and your family?”
Mrs. Steadman speaks up. “Folks here call him Little Bill.”
“He stayed on the place. Slept in his truck,” her husband adds.
Heads nod; hands move ball-point pens across generic notebooks, translating words into scribbled symbols that will later be translated back into words.
“How long did Little Bill stay, when he came back for your father’s funeral?”
“About a week.”
The profiler leans forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “Was he alone?”
“So four years ago, after the death of your father, was the last time you saw Little Bill in person, is that right?”
On the other side of the half-wall that separates the living room from the kitchen, the county sheriff and a state trooper lean against the counter by the stove. Their presence here is a courtesy; the man and woman who arrived in the Explorer, who are now sitting in the living room with their notebooks and questions, sipping sweet tea served in the glasses kept back for company – they are the ones in charge here. A young deputy leans against the sink, arms folded on his chest, scowling at the tips of his shiny black shoes. The Steadmans are his parents.
“Are you in frequent communication with Little Bill?”
“Do you and your brother call one another, or write letters back and forth?”
“He never was one to write. He calls ever now and again.”
“When was the last time he telephoned?”
“Well, he called me on my cell phone, while I was in town pickin up cannin jars for Noreen at Walmart. That was Thursday, I think.”
“No, Frank, it was Friday.” Noreen looks at the agents. “The water heater rusted out on Thursday. Took him all day to fix it.”
Frank nods. “That’s right, it was Friday. You-all want to look at my phone?”
“We’ll need to see that, Mr. Steadman, but not right now. So you last heard from your brother three days ago. Did Little Bill say anything in that conversation, anything at all, that suggested he was planning to commit a violent act?”
“What did you talk about?”
“Well …” Frank Steadman runs his free hand through his hair and squeezes the back of his neck. It’s a powerful grip: it twists his face and drags grief-soaked words, a few at a time, from someplace deep inside him. “He – we talked about Mommy and Daddy – about growin up – apple butter, he asked – could we send him some –he loved apple butter – back when we was kids …”
Frank hangs his head and covers his eyes with his hands. He falls silent. His shoulders tremble. Noreen puts her arm around him, lending him her strength.
A tall, gaunt figure paces the path between the barn and the house with long, thoughtful strides. Brother Darrell Farley was the second one to arrive that morning. He had planned to do hospital visitation in town today; but when a familiar face filled his television screen during the daybreak news, he changed his plans and his clothes and headed out to the Steadmans’ instead. The arrival of the Ford Explorer and its agents (they were very polite, when they asked him if he would mind stepping outside for awhile) has left him at loose ends. He knows the sheriff and all the deputies, including Trent, the Steadmans’ son. He knows both state troopers, too. He bought a German Shepherd pup off the trooper who’s watching the yard. The one inside is a member of his church. Brother Farley speaks to each officer and invites them to the barn, where some of the church women have the coffee urn going. There’s also cake. His lips are in constant motion: words of reassurance to the living, prayers without ceasing for the dead and the wounded. He includes the Steadmans among the wounded.
Brother Farley is midway between the house and the barn when a silver Lincoln comes wallowing up the rutted road like a pregnant sow. He turns and walks back to the barn to wait. The man who drives that silver car has been his friend for almost fifty years.
The Lincoln’s power steering groans as the car squeezes into a narrow spot under the barn eaves. The driver gets out and leans on his door, looking at the preacher over the black landau top. “This sure is a bad business, Darrell. That Peach boy said they’ve been in there for almost an hour, that right?”
“About that.” Brother Farley walks around the car. They shake hands. “How you been, Wiley?”
Wiley Viers pulls a suit jacket from the hook above the back seat of the Lincoln. It is cut from an expensive gray linen fabric, woven with a windowpane check of pale blue: the same blue as his shirt, just a shade darker than his eyes. He shrugs into the jacket and tugs at his tie. “Well, until this morning, I thought life was about as fine as frog hair. Have you seen Frank and Noreen?”
“Yes, I was with them and Trent when the Feds arrived.”
“Ah, the good old FBI.” Viers reaches into the back seat and pulls out an opaque plastic container with a faded yellow lid. “Linda sent some deviled eggs. She said to apologize for the bowl. She worked a bake sale this weekend, and this was the only clean dish she had left to send.”
“Nobody won’t notice the bowl. Only Linda would worry about a thing like that.”
Viers casts a sweeping glance across the house and yard. “If I thought I could be of any use atall, I’d go up there. But Frank and Noreen don’t know nothing about this mess, and I’d likely just be in the way right now.”
“You really think they’re gonna need a lawyer, Wiley?”
Viers snorts. “Darrell, anybody can sue anybody else for anything. That’s how it is. The one good thing in all this, in my opinion, is that Big Bill and Louanna are already dead.”
Brother Farley looks at his friend, and slowly nods. He knew the elder Steadmans well. They went to his church. He preached their funerals. “They couldn’t have stood this,” he says, waving his hand toward the house and the crowd congregated there.
“I don’t know how Frank and Noreen are going to stand it.” Viers notices the bowl in his hand. “We’d better get these eggs into the barn before they spoil. I told that Peach boy to let us know when the FBI finishes their song-and-dance.”
“Mr. Steadman, did your brother have a wife? Any children?”
“No wife. No children that we know of.”
“Did he ever, in recent years, bring any friends with him when he came to visit?”
“No. He come by himself when Mommy died. When Daddy died, too.”
“Did he ever mention any friends? Any names that you remember?”
“Not that I recall.”
“But wait, wasn’t there …” Noreen speaks in a faraway voice and stares past the coffee table, furrowing her brow while she looks back through her memories. “There was a girl, once, that he talked about for a spell. Vinnie? No, Vickie, I think her name was. Miss Vickie. Lord, that was fifteen, sixteen years ago. I ain’t heard him say her name since before Big Bill died. Have you, Frank?”
“No. I’d forgot about her.” More notes.
“Did Little Bill ever say what Vickie’s last name was, Mrs. Steadman? Where she was from? How they met?”
Noreen shakes her head and sighs. “He just called her Miss Vickie. We never met her, never talked to her, never saw her picture. He might have made her up, for all I know.”
In the kitchen, Trent Steadman mumbles an excuse to the sheriff about needing a cigarette and cuts out through the back door. He’s had all he can stand of listening to his mama and daddy being questioned by the FBI, even though he understands that the agents are just doing their job. Trent’s been a deputy for two years; he’s had to ask good people hard questions, too, so he keeps a lid on his frustration. But then his mother goes and brings up Miss Vickie. He can’t stay there for that.
He follows the pock-marked concrete walk to the summer kitchen. The old dinette set from the main house is there, its marred top hidden under a red-checked vinyl tablecloth. Trent tosses his straw hat onto the tablecloth and sits down. The summer kitchen is hot and stuffy, but he needs a quiet place right now, and this is the only spot near the house where he can be undisturbed. In his childhood, the barn and the fields were his retreats; but today the barn is under the command of the church women, and the yard is a jumble of law and strangers. Even without the church people there, the barn is no longer a refuge, and it is no longer empty. It is crowded with the ghosts of another summer, when Trent was eight years old. This little outbuilding is all he has left.
Peas came ripe faster than his mother could can them that summer. On a bright morning a week before his ninth birthday, Trent was sitting on the front porch at his grandmother’s feet, close enough for the lace edging of her apron to cast filigree shadows across his lap. He was helping her shell peas. She said honey, what do you want for your birthday? And he told her about the rod and reel he’d seen at the Western Auto store in town. It was a beauty, one that any grownup fisherman would be proud of. He’d pointed it out to both his father and his grandfather on more than one occasion, hoping they’d take the hint. His grandmother laughed and said well I hope you get it.
For the rest of his life, Trent would play the filmstrip of that day in his mind. The tractor purred and the mowing blade whirred under a cloudless sky; his father was cutting first hay, up on the hill behind the house. Deep green peas filled the jadeite bowl in his lap. His grandmother’s apron cradled her favorite enamelware dishpan, the one with bright-colored fruit painted on the side. He talked to her about fishing, about how catfish love chicken livers but he wanted to try Cheetos because a boy at school swore he caught a twenty-pound mudcat on nothing but Cheetos. One moment his grandmother was in her chair, chuckling at the unlikely tale. A heartbeat later, she folded in half and slid without speaking onto the brown-painted boards of the porch. Peas rolled beneath the railing and onto the ground under the boxwood bushes. Trent screamed her name. Shook her arm. Then his mother’s fingers, grabbing his shoulders with a vice-like grip and thrusting him aside; his mother’s voice, urgent and trembling, saying run get your father. He jumped off the porch and flew to the hayfield, waving his arms, yelling for his father with every breath.
His father had always been able to fix anything, but he could not fix this.
The county coroner brought his big four-wheel drive Suburban up the hill to the house. He and Frank lifted the body onto a gurney and covered her with a sheet. The gurney’s squeaking wheels squashed the few peas that littered its path. Big Bill clung to the porch post and wept when the coroner took his wife away. In the afternoon, neighbors and church people brought food and sympathy. Frank Steadman took his son aside and told him that his grandmother had died of a stroke. She hadn’t suffered. She was with Jesus now.
Little Bill arrived two days before the funeral, driving an old Ford pickup truck with corroded fenders and a beat-up camper shell on the back. The air under the camper shell was a stale mix of cigarettes and whiskey. An inflatable mattress was topped with a sleeping bag. Wedged into the corner was a Styrofoam cooler, and beside it, a shotgun. Trent didn’t remember the truck or his uncle at all. Little Bill’s visits home had been too few and far between for the man with the sandpaper voice and the nicotine-stained fingers to be anything but a stranger to his only nephew. Trent stood beside his father and shook hands. Little Bill measured Trent with his eyes and said, “I’d say you’ve growed some, boy.”
“I need to talk to your daddy alone. How ‘bout you run off down to the creek for a bit?”
That suited Trent just fine. He ran to the barn and climbed the ladder to the loft. Bales of last fall’s hay were stacked in the front corner. Trent pushed and pulled the bales this way and that, building himself a nest. The loss of his grandmother left a hole in his heart that nothing else could fill; worst of all was her empty chair at the kitchen table, and the empty rocker on the porch. Folks coming to offer condolences sat in her chairs. That bothered him. He curled into his hay-bale den and thought about his Granny Lou, how the sun played off her graying hair and her thin-skinned fingers as she deftly split the pods and thumbed out the peas. He wanted to remember how she threw back her head and laughed out loud when he told her that Granddad wasn’t much of a fisherman. Most of all, he wanted to mourn her in private, where there were no long-faced grownups talking in hushed voices.
Late in the afternoon, the hinges on the barn door squealed. “Trent? You in here?”
It was his uncle. Trent held his breath and didn’t answer, hoping Little Bill would think the barn empty and go away. But then the leather soles of cowboy boots thudded on the rungs of the ladder. The creak of the wood kept time with the grunting of a man whose chief companions were cigarettes and whiskey. Little Bill’s shadow darkened the square hole, followed by the appearance of his head above the loft floor. Trent wiped his face. He didn’t want anyone to see him cry, least of all his uncle; his mother often said that Little Bill had a mean streak.
“Well, Daddy was right. He figured you’d be up here.” Little Bill pulled himself into the loft and stepped off the ladder. The toes of his boots plowed the blades of loose hay on the loft floor; the stacked wooden heels tapped a hollow tattoo on the floorboards.
“Mind if I sit?”
“No sir,” the boy lied.
Little Bill doubled up like a jackknife and sat down on the bale next to Trent. He pulled a packet of Marlboros out of his shirt sleeve and tapped the bottom. “Mind if I smoke?”
Frank Steadman’s number-one rule was no fire in the barn. “I don’t mind, but Daddy won’t like it.”
Little Bill lit his cigarette and laughed. “Well, Daddy ain’t here to fuss.” He spit on the spent match before dropping it into the hay. “I guess you’re missin your grandma.”
“You’re like your granddad. He’s takin it pretty hard, too.” Little Bill blew a plume of smoke toward the mud-daubers nesting in the rafters. “They had a good long life together, Mommy and Daddy. Never once heard ‘em argue.”
The boy said nothing. Maybe if he just sat quietly and let Little Bill talk himself out, his uncle would go back to the house and the grownups and the mournful reminiscing.
“There ain’t many women as good as your Granny Lou in this old world.” Another cloud of smoke drifted roofward. “Most of ‘em ends up bein just like my Miss Vickie.”
Trent didn’t know anybody with that name. Looking up at his uncle, he asked, “Who’s Miss Vickie?”
Little Bill grinned. “Miss Vickie was just the prettiest piece of ass this side of the Mississippi.” He took a drag off the cigarette and looked side-eyed at Trent. “You know what that means, Trent?”
His uncle leaned in, close and confidential, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “A piece of ass is a woman that you want to stick your pecker in.” He leaned back and flicked ash onto the floor.
Trent had only the vaguest notion of what his uncle was talking about. He had a rough idea – he’d seen the magazines that the fifth grade boys smuggled into school and passed around at recess, risking punishment if they got caught – but he wasn’t completely sure how that part of nature worked. So he said nothing at all.
“I sure do miss her,” Little Bill continued. “She always knew just what to do to make me feel better. That woman sure had the magic touch.”
“What did she do?”
“Can’t you guess?”
Trent shook his head.
Little Bill tossed the cigarette onto the loft floor and ground it out with the sole of his boot. He stood up and walked to the open loft doors. Rocking back and forth on his heels, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, he stared across the road at the house where visitors sat with the family on the three-sided porch. “Do you know what trust is, Trent?”
“Yes sir. It means that you do what you say you’ll do.”
Little Bill grinned at his boots. “Well, that’s pretty close. If I trust you with a secret, will you keep it? Can I trust you to do that?”
Little Bill continued to stare at his feet. After a minute, he stopped rocking, raised his head and looked at Trent. “I believe you will.” A strange smile played across his lips. “You’ve growed a heap, Trent. You’re not far off from being a grown man, and they’s things a grown man needs to know. Now, if you’ll swear never to tell a livin soul, I’ll show you how Miss Vickie made me feel better. Then we’ll go up to the house for dinner.” He fingered his zipper. “But this is a man’s secret, Trent, just between us two. Don’t you never forget that. ”
“Was Little Bill ever violent toward anyone in the family?”
The Steadmans shake their heads in unison. “Not that I know of,” Frank says.
“Did he ever threaten anyone in the family?”
“If he did, I don’t know it.”
“What about people in the community?”
Noreen doesn’t offer to answer. She didn’t grow up here; she wouldn’t know.
Frank combs his hair back from his forehead with his fingers, thinking. “He got in trouble once for beatin the hell out of a boy. Little Bill was eighteen, maybe nineteen. The kid was three, four year younger.”
The agent makes a note. “We’ll need a copy of the records of that incident, sheriff,” he calls to the kitchen.
“Get it for you as soon as we get back to town.”
In the summer kitchen, Trent wrestles with the memories that time has failed to erase. Little Bill is dead. Trent always expected that would make a difference, though he couldn’t figure out how; now he knows that it makes no difference at all. What happened in the barn loft is locked in his mind, a secret that he yearns to forget. He never told his parents, fearing the look on his father’s face and the tears in his mother’s eyes. He’s never even dared to stand in front of a mirror and say the words aloud to his reflection, fearing that the shades of the past will rise up and validate what he’s always believed: that he should have stopped it somehow. He’s unwilling to forgive Little Bill, and he’s unable to forgive himself.
But now there’s this other boy, a boy Trent never met and doesn’t know, in a city he’s visited but doesn’t know well; a little boy who had a mother and a father and a baby sister and friends (a birthday party, balloons, Spiderman cake with unlit candles, ice cream melting on a folding table, gifts ruined by bullets and blood); and they’re all dead, these people he didn’t know, killed in their own backyard, the one place they should have been safe. They’re all dead.
Vomit rises in Trent’s throat. He swallows hard and forces it back into his stomach. It rises again. Fists clenched, he jumps from his chair and lunges to the center of the room, bending over the drain in the concrete floor, straining to restrain the inevitable. But his stomach voids his breakfast onto the rough grating and down the pipe, leaving only the bitter taste of bile on his tongue.
Trent straightens up and draws a deep breath that smells and tastes like puke and gravy. He wants something to hit. He needs something to hit. He turns in a circle, looking for something to hit. Boxes of new canning jars are stacked on the counter near the old gas stove. One at a time, box after box, Trent takes them in his hands, raises them over his head, and flings them onto the floor. Dozens of jars shatter, trapped in their stiff pasteboard coffins. Tiny shards of glass spill onto the floor from the broken seams of the boxes. Lids and rings roll helter-skelter: under the table, behind the appliances, into the puddle of vomit that clogs the drain.
And nothing has changed.
Trent surveys the mess he’s made and takes a few deep, ragged breaths. The part of him that has held so much inside for so long is rising up, screaming a warning: don’t tell don’t tell don’t tell don’t tell …. Fear, heavy and dark and familiar, lays its hands on his shoulders and tightens its fingers around his neck.
His head bows beneath the weight of thoughts for which he can’t find words. Tears squeeze through his screwed-shut eyes and fall onto the tablecloth. He grieves for the little boy that he was on that summer day. He grieves for the little boy he never met, the one Little Bill killed.
The agents rise and prepare to leave. Notebooks and ink pens are tucked away in unseen pockets. They shake hands with Frank and Noreen, murmur condolences that feel profane. The agent assures the Steadmans that Little Bill’s body will be shipped home for burial, once the autopsy is completed. The profiler bends down to pick up her purse. When she rises, the young deputy who left the kitchen earlier is back, standing in front of her. The pallor of his face makes the redness of his eyes more prominent. The psychiatrist in her says this man is hurting; the profiler in her says this man knows something. She steps forward and tentatively touches his forearm. Muscles twitch beneath her fingers. He wants to talk.
The deputy’s eyes flicker toward his parents, then back to her face, almost pleading. She knows this look. She’s seen it on the faces of children she has interviewed, but he is not a child. Her fingers squeeze the deputy’s arm: a gesture of reassurance, a mother’s touch. She has an eight year old son.
He glances at his parents again, squares his shoulders, lifts his chin. Just one law enforcement officer talking to another, his posture says, but his eyes say something else. She’s seen those eyes before. She knows what’s coming.
He clears his throat. “Would you – could we talk in private for a minute?”
The agents step through the door and onto the front porch. The journalists surge forward with cameras, microphones, questions. The trooper who raises German Shepherds places herself between the agents and the press. “You people need to get back, right now.” She’s a small woman, but her voice is ten feet tall and could cut steel. The press obeys, and opens a path to the Explorer.
The agents acknowledge neither the questions nor those who shout them. They get into their vehicle and back out of the yard. The lead agent is driving; he guides the Ford down the dirt road, straddling the runnels and avoiding the high spots with the deftness of a surgeon. The agents know what a holler is. They’ve driven roads like this before. The journalists hurl useless questions at the SUV’s bumper until it’s out of sight.
In the midst of the chaos, the state trooper allows two men – one tall and lean, another wearing a gray summer suit with a blue windowpane check – to walk past her and onto the porch. The men enter the house together; but after about ten minutes, the suited man steps out alone. The news people are milling around like stray dogs in search of a bone. He waves his arms and motions for them to approach.
He introduces himself as Wiley Viers, attorney for the Steadman family. His voice is rich, baritone, Southern, a voice that has echoed off courtroom walls since 1982. A blue jay screams from the sweet gum tree branches that overhang the roof. Cameras click and whirr. The lawyer’s statement is brief and formulaic: thoughts and prayers, sympathy, a request for privacy. Deaf to all questions, Viers turns on his heel and steps back into the house. The sound of the door closing behind him spurs the blue jay to take flight.
The disgruntled journalists linger to see if Viers, or the other man, or anybody willing to answer a goddamn question will come out and talk to them. They are disappointed. They record a few voice-overs and try to interview the members of the Gourd Fork Freewill Baptist Church who have gathered in the barn with casseroles, cakes, sandwiches, pies, deviled eggs, and cases of soda. The church people are polite: they offer coffee and cake. But any questions about the Steadmans are met with a silent, steadfast stare, one that says you aren’t from here. Those holding the microphones are forced to concede defeat. They’ve got all they’re going to get.
The cameras and the sound kits disappear into the trunks of the cars or the cargo holds of the vans. More than one member of the media casts a nervous glance down the holler road, remembering the trip up that morning; but down that road they must go, and down that road they will go, bouncing and scraping, clinging to steering wheels and door handles, worrying about their vehicles, weaving stories from the threads of silence as they go.
[Check out Lonormi’s back porch wisdom]