Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

one

THE RUTHERFORD GIRL had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.

It’d stormed the night before over much of the Southeast, flash floods on the news, trees snapped in half and pictures of trailer homes twisted apart. Larry, forty-one years old and single, lived alone in rural Mississippi in his parents’ house, which was now his house, though he couldn’t bring himself to think of it that way. He acted more like a curator, keeping the rooms clean, answering the mail and paying bills, turning on the television at the right times and smiling with the laugh tracks, eating his McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken to what the networks presented him and then sitting on his front porch as the day bled out of the trees across the field and night settled in, each different, each the same.

It was early September. That morning he’d stood on the porch, holding a cup of coffee, already sweating a little as he gazed out at the glistening front yard, his muddy driveway, the bobwire fence, the sodden green field beyond stabbed with thistle, goldenrod, blue salvia, and honeysuckle at the far edges, where the woods began. It was a mile to his nearest neighbor and another to the crossroads store, closed for years.

At the edge of the porch several ferns hung from the eave, his mother’s wind chime lodged in one like a flung puppet. He set his coffee on the rail and went to disentangle the chime’s slender pipes from the leaves.

Behind the house he rolled the barn doors open, a lawn mower wheel installed at the bottom of each. He removed the burnt sardine can from the tractor’s smokestack and hung the can on its nail on the wall and climbed on. In the metal seat he mashed the clutch with one foot and brake with the other and knocked the old Ford out of gear and turned the key. The tractor, like everything else, had been his father’s, a Model 8-N with its fenders and rounded hood painted gray but its engine and body fire-engine red. That red engine caught now and he revved it a few times as the air around his head blued with shreds of pleasant smoke. He backed out, raising the lift, bouncing in the seat as the tractor’s big wheels, each weighted with fifteen gallons of water, rolled over the land. The Ford parted the weeds and wildflowers and set off bumblebees and butterflies and soggy grasshoppers and dragonflies, which his mother used to call snake doctors. The tractor threw its long shadow toward the far fence and he turned and began to circle the field, the privet cut back along the bobwire, the trees tall and lush, the south end still shaded and dewy and cool. He bush-hogged twice a month from March to July, but when the fall wildflowers came he let them grow. Migrating hummingbirds passed through in September, hovering around the blue salvia, which they seemed to love, chasing one another away from the blooms.

At the chicken pen he shifted into reverse and backed up, lowering the trailer hitch. He checked the sky shaking his head. More clouds shouldering over the far trees and rain on the air. In the tack room he ladled feed and corn into a plastic milk jug with the mouth widened, the brown pellets and dusty yellow corn giving its faint earthy odor. He added a little grit, too, crushed pebble, which helped the chickens digest. The original pen, which his father had built as a Mother’s