1. Time to Get the Hell Out of Black Earth TIME TO GET THE HELL OUT OF BLACK EARTH
All credit and blame are due to Harvey Digman, my tax guy, my cheerleader, and my liberator. But that’s a long and probably schmaltzy story. So let’s start with my ugly attitude. Okay, I was telling myself. Enough with the good citizen charade. Time to get the hell out of Black Earth. I had already explained how and where I’d found the dead fisherman, and the moment the village police chief handed back my driver’s license, I planned to break down my fly rod, cross the creek, throw up in some nearby stinging nettles, and hightail it on shaky legs to the road.
“Okay, Mister… uh… Og-log-livery?”
The distance between what the chief said and the name on my license suggested a fairly severe reading disability. My name is Oglivie. Ned Oglivie. Dog for short—a self-inflicted nickname, and in those days it fit.
“I’ll just run this through the computer,” said the chief, “and you’ll be on your way.”
Damn right, I muttered. The Dog charted his course. The county highway was just across the cow pasture, and my Cruise Master RV was parked a mile downstream in a sorry excuse for a campground called Lake Bud Park. My vision was to hit the Cruise Master at a gallop, drop the awning, hurl the wheel blocks inside, strap down the cabinet doors, and make the three hundred miles north to Big Two-Hearted River by sunup.
“So you hang on a minute,” said the chief.
He was a young guy, about thirty, a shallow breather with a trainee beer gut in a tight uniform shirt, amber sunglasses up on his shaved head, toed-in cowboy boots, and a worried look. About an hour earlier, he and the ambulance had screamed by on the county highway and disappeared around an upstream corner. A long minute passed, the sounds of help growing fainter. But then the patrol car had reappeared on my side of the creek, dusty up to its gold-on-cream stripe, jouncing along a tractor path ahead of the ambulance. The chief had left his lights going, as if the dozen or so Holsteins lazing under a burr oak in the pasture were going to get up and block an intersection.
He read me into his radio and waited. His junior officer squished heavily about the stream bank, bending and snapping Polaroids of the dead man. The officer was even younger than the chief. His uniform shirt had come untucked, and the pink top of his ass showed as he bent over the body. I looked away. A silver milk truck had pulled off the highway to watch. A blue van was slowing. Down the tractor lane bounced a red Chevy Suburban.
“Correct,” the chief said into his radio. “Individual who found the body.” Then, “Duncan! Widen out and get a shot of that deep hole behind him.”
A keg-bellied man in shirtsleeves heaved out of the red Suburban. He hitched on across the mud, tugging at his jeans and puffing.
“I knew it,” he said. “It’s Jacobs.”
The chief slung out of his patrol car. “You don’t have to tell me it’s Jacobs.”
“O’Malley got him finally.”
“We don’t know who or what got him yet,” said the chief. “Now stand back and keep your footprints out of there.”
The keg-bellied man stiff-armed the window frame of the patrol car and propped himself against it. “Jake was out here fishing the sally,” he puffed.
“He was fishing nothing,” replied the chief. “He had no fly on his line.”
“You better call Halverson.”
“I called Halverson.”
“Then where the hell is Halverson?”
“Halverson is the hell on his way.”
Keg-belly slid a glance at me. I was sitting astride a box elder snag, elbows on knees, head lolling. The Dog was not doing well. A dead body… a drowned body… all the chatter… misanthropy and grief had collided inside me, mingled with the scent of rotting wood, and suddenly I was sick. The whole point of my fishing was to escape human noise, which was always so horribly amplified by the event of death. So I groped for my ugly attitude and aimed it at Keg-belly. Hell, I thought, where I came from, people were either fat or skinny—not both. The guy couldn’t stand up on his own. He used his arm like a tripod against the patrol car. A pack of Camels, tucked in the pocket of a patterned yellow sport shirt, rose and fell with his ragged breathing.
“Me, I’d flip him,” offered Keg-belly. “Take a look at the back side.”
The chief opened his trunk. “Don’t you touch him.”
“I know what I’m looking for. I’d flip him.”
“You would, huh?” said the chief. He lifted out a measuring tape and a roll of crime scene banner. “Well, I’d wait for Halverson. I’d let the coroner flip him.”
Keg-belly lobbed me a rubbery grin. “We sent him to school, see. Now Sherlock here knows everything.”
Fine, I said to myself. Good luck then. I kept my sick eye on my driver’s license. The moment it was back in my hand, the Dog was done with Black Earth. The Big Two-Hearted River was seven hours north. I could be there by sunrise.
“Jacobs had to be fishing the sally,” said Keg-belly to the chief. “Had to be. The sally hatch, last night, about eight o’clock. Betcha fifty.”
“Let me do my job.”
“I’ve let you do a lot of jobs,” said Keg-belly. “And not one of them got done right.”
The chief turned red in the face and stalked off toward the corpse. Keg-belly gave me the rubbery grin again. He swiveled stiffly—surveying pasture, cornfield, empty tractor in the hay crop, the steep wooded sides of the Black Earth coulee—but I guess he didn’t see what he was looking for.
“Hell,” he fumed at last, getting himself a Camel. “I’ll go fetch Halverson myself.”
I held on to my box elder log. I tried to push a breath down past my third rib. Pasture to highway, I reviewed, highway to campground, drop awning, chuck wheel blocks, strap cabinet doors, gas-up on the highway, bust the three hundred miles to the Big Two-Hearted by sunup…
That’s where I was, imaginary miles from Black Earth already, when Farmer Jane hit me with a dirt clod.
But let me set the scene. Wisconsin, as it turns out, was not quite what the Dog had in mind. Sure, across the flat ground and the ridge tops ranged the sinuous, deep-green cornfields, broken every mile or so by a well-kept dairy operation—house and yard and cottonwood windbreak, red barn and blue silo, ceramic deer and reflecting ball in the yard—dull as hell—a neat Lutheran church in a hem of spruce trees on every third hilltop, and every ten miles a place to get gasoline, Slurpees, and beef sticks. The dopey, feel-good heartland, right? A land yearning for subdivision. Home of the very best in good people.
But take a left or a right onto a county road and you find yourself plunging and twisting down into coulees where deer spook and badgers scramble, where the clock of human progress stopped sometime in the early seventies, the last time things were passably good down on the farm. In the narrow bottom lands, the terrain is rugged and the farms are small and collapsing. Life has a funky, still-born, Appalachian look—projects half-started, fences half-mended, people half-finished, and everywhere the relentless drive of plant and animal to reclaim the land around cold spring creeks that still hold trout. A back alley of America. Decent turf, as it turned out, for the Dog to lie low and lick some wounds.
And so the shock hit me double when I came upon the body. There was no company more demanding, I’d found, than a dead body. Hell, I’d driven over ten thousand miles in the Cruise Master just to keep death behind me, and here it was anyway, rolling up like a ghost from an eddy in Nowhere, Wisconsin.
I shook myself. Jesus, Dog. He’s nobody you know. Do something. Do something intelligent. Like… leave.
But the dead man held me somehow. He looked like the Dog in the good old days—well-fed, well-dressed, comfy, dead. He floated faceup amidst the duckweed and flotsam of a big pool. Flies crowded his bulging eyes. There was something odd about his mouth—it was stuffed with something fibrous and black, as though in drifting dead he had gouged the bottom, bitten out a weedy chunk of stream bed. Or like his corpse had already been claimed by the creature world, and a muskrat or a mouse had burrowed into his mouth. The sight was strange and awful. I gagged emptily once more. Then I guess the Dog had a few civic instincts left. I beat trail for help.
All day to that point, I had listened to the sounds of a farmer cutting hay on the hillside above the creek, clanking and rumbling back and forth, a radio going. All along, I had assumed the farmer was a man. I assumed as much, in fact, until I got real close, and for a moment or so afterward, too. But the hay rake’s pilot turned out to be a woman about thirty, thickly built and medium-tall, sunburned and sweaty and regarding me—as I staggered uphill—with a certain kind of what-the-hell-will-they-do-next expression in the set of her lips. I could tell she had observed more than a few fly fishermen from the seat of her tractor. We wore funny clothes and big hats and played in the water all day while other people worked. I could see it. Farmer Jane, she doubted the Dog.
But my story changed all that in one rotation of the tractor’s big treads. “Aw, son of a buck knife!” she cursed, shutting down the engine. “You mean Jake Jacobs?”
Her eyes, wildly green, jumped at mine. Then she vaulted off the tractor and before I could catch up she was waist-deep in the stream, doing what I should have done to begin with. She towed the man she called Jake Jacobs to shore and knelt over him, feeling for breath, pulse, body temperature, any sign that he might be saved.
But there was no such sign, and she sat back on her bootheels. She pulled her bottom lip in and bit it, closed her eyes, and her brow wrinkled. She stayed that way for a long time, soaking wet, muttering fiercely, and it was impossible for me to take my eyes off her.
You expect me, I suppose, to tell you that she was a gorgeous creature, or lay out for you some other such cunning nonsense. But it wasn’t like that. The last thing the Dog wanted in those days was attraction to a woman. Plus that was far from the mood, and this woman was anything but gorgeous. She was more like confusing. She had already shown me the clod-hopping agility of a teenaged boy. She was dressed like that too—dirty jeans and work boots, a T-shirt that had once been white, a dirty-green John Deere cap with a pair of cheap sunglasses up on the brim. Her thighs and arms and shoulders were thick, and her posture atop the stream mud was on the dark side of dainty. But there was a frazzled spark of red-blonde ponytail sticking out the back of the cap. There were breasts strapped down by a sports bra beneath the T-shirt. There were tears in the eyes. Earth to Dog: woman.
Of course I watched her. She was not just muttering. She seemed to be praying. Then she found the rod where I had dropped it, a lovely cane rod, an eight-footer, worth about a thousand bucks, and she dragged it to her by the tip. She reeled up, pausing for a moment to inspect the fly—just as I had done in the moments before finding the body. The dead man had been fishing with a yellow sally, a large mayfly pattern, but oddly tied, upside down on the hook, with a tall, pink wingpost. Then suddenly Farmer Jane bit the fly off and flicked it into the current. She tossed the rod aside, leaned back over the dead man, and pulled the black stuffing from his mouth. She crammed the substance in the pocket of her jeans. Then from the opposite pocket she pulled out a dripping cell phone. “Oh, hog crap,” she sighed. But the phone worked. She made the call. Then she gently folded Jacobs’s hands across his wader belt, returned to her tractor, and sat there. Her radio station played Captain and Tennille. Next we heard the weather report: hot, chance of a storm later. A siren screamed up the coulee. Go, I urged myself. Leave now. But the black mud held my feet, I guess. I could not take a step.
It was a half hour later—the Dog still waiting sickly on his box elder log while the village police chief led the coroner to the body—when Farmer Jane came back down close enough to hit me with a dirt clod.
I looked at her. She made a motion—zip!—with her fingers across her lips. I wasn’t supposed to get gabby with the chief—as if she had to advise the Dog on that. I made some kind of face in return, I’m not sure what. But the exchange made me recheck the mouth of Jake Jacobs. I saw again that it was empty, the normal slack hole of a dead man.
“Flop him over once,” said Keg-belly. He had sidled up and planted a forearm against the trunk of a black willow that hung over the hole where the dead man lay. His gut pulled his spine to a lurid angle. He crossed his legs at the ankle.
“You want to ride my back,” seethed the chief over his shoulder, “get a saddle.”
“I’ll get a cut bit,” came the reply, “?’cause you ain’t broke yet.”
I looked back to Farmer Jane. Zip! she went again.
Then the chief came back at me. He stood very close. His nostrils were wide, his breathing audible, his skin pale.
“Apparently that’s your rig down in the park under the burr oak,” he told me.
I had to wonder what difference that made right now. I was getting that rubbery smile again from Keg-belly.
“Parking limit is seventy-two hours,” the chief told me. His voice jittered a little. “You been there seventy-four.”
“I thought it was a campground,” I said.
“It is when you pay for camping. City clerk. Ten bucks a night.”
“I’ll do that,” I said. He handed back my license. But he stayed on me in a menacing way. His eyes, behind sunglasses, were amber mirrors—with me reflected where his eyeballs should have been.
“You stay in the campground past noon like you did today,” said the chief, “that counts as the next night. Even if you leave now. So you been there four nights.”
Farmer Jane had crossed the creek and stood beside me.
“Back off, B.L.”
He gave her a nervous, smirky look. “What’s this?”
“What’s what?” she said back.
He looked at her, at me, again at her. “Unlike you to be so friendly, that’s what. You finally getting over Darrald?”
“Sit on a post, B.L.,” she said, “and rotate.”
The village police chief stuck his jaw at her like an angry schoolboy. Then he stalked back to the coroner and the corpse. When he was out of earshot, Farmer Jane said, “Don’t worry about him. That’s just B.L. He’s a little bit different. Unless you’re from around here. Then he’s a little bit the same.” She hit me with those green eyes. “That’s why I hoped you just wouldn’t, you know, say anything about me, and, um… this here in my pocket.”
I told her I didn’t plan on it.
She studied me with a certain inquisitive female energy. Then she made a gesture that would come to define her. She raised her smallish, work-worn hands and fingered a watch that hung from a loop of silver chain around her neck. It was a cheap digital watch, one of those that magnified what it had to say. It had no band. She seemed to be checking the time, or maybe the date. But according to the watch, it was 5:13 a.m., November 21. This was evening, in August.
“Well,” I said, beginning to excuse myself. “I’m sorry your friend is dead.”
“Oh, no, Jake was not my friend,” she put in. “Not even a bit. And I don’t guess anybody’s going to be too disappointed that he’s dead. Jake wasn’t just your usual fly fisherman out here trying to look good.”
She put those electric green eyes on the Dog once more, this time with a little grin. I wondered what she saw. I had strayed about as far from trying to look good as a man could go. Per my orders, Harvey Digman, my tax guy, had been cutting me twenty dollars a day—including gas, camping fees, duct tape for the waders, feathers for fly tying, everything. Two and a half years on discount vodka, Swisher Sweets, and peanut butter sandwiches will put a certain look on you.
“I’m pretty sure you know what I mean,” said Farmer Jane. “The catalog type. They come through here driving fancy SUVs, having wine and crackers on the tailgate. Last week one of them asked me if I wouldn’t mind cutting hay somewhere else until the caddis hatch was over.”
I studied her. She had a small, sunburned nose. She had a scar on her chin. She had a sweaty curl of strawberry hair that had escaped her cap and stuck along her cheek.
“No,” she said. She leaned close. “Jake wasn’t around here long,” she said in a low voice, “but he was a real horsefly in the potato salad. Defending the creek, getting on the farmers, the village, the developers, telling everybody what to do. There was more than a time or two”—she shot a look at B.L.—“I could have throttled him myself.”
That last part made me jump. I hadn’t seen that coming.
“My daddy wanted to kill him, too,” she went on. “He even talked about it.”
She took my arm. “That’s why I need your help,” she whispered. She squeezed. Her grip hurt. “Do me a little favor? Please?”
That was it. Hell—I had my driver’s license back. What was I waiting for? I was out of there. Puke behind those willows, I told myself. Stumble away through those purple asters. Big Two-Hearted River by sunup.
“Hey!” Farmer Jane called after me.
Her real name was going to be Melvina.
Melvina Racheletta O’Malley.
I was going to call her Junior. And sometimes in my sleep. “Hey!” she called after me. “Hey!”
But I leaned on my ugly attitude and kept my legs pumping. Right, I told myself. Hay. And corn. And soybeans. Look at all the lovely hog feed. Say goodbye to Black Earth. I was out of there.