Floyd Atkins pauses before climbing the five concrete steps that lead to the porch of the house in the middle of the cul-de-sac. A familiar black truck sits in the driveway; its chrome bumper and custom wheels reflect the last sliver of light from the setting moon. The sheriff looks at the modest white house and shakes his head. He knows who owns this truck, and he knows who paid for this truck. He has business with both of them tonight, but only one of them is here; the other is on his way home, hopefully unaware of the roadblocks awaiting him at each end of town.
It’s four o’clock in the morning, and this house, like the other houses on Clover Court, is wrapped in silent sleep. Floyd wishes he could leave this quiet darkness undisturbed, but wishes are a luxury his job seldom allows.
His hand is on his pistol before he recognizes the rusty voice. Floyd takes a deep breath, moves his hand away from his weapon, and resumes his ascent. A cheap metal railing, its balusters twisted to look like wrought iron, runs alongside the steps. Matching panels enclose the porch, spaced between posts of the same material in a more ornate design. The handrail is slick with dew under his fingers.
“God bless America, Avonell! You like to scare me to death! What if I’d’ve shot you?”
A disposable lighter clicks, briefly illuminating a gaunt, lined face smiling beneath a pink knitted hat. Avonell ignites her cigarette. The lighter’s flame disappears, replaced by the red glow of the Marlboro’s tip. Tobacco smoke fills the gap between them. “You wouldn’t shoot me, Floyd. Have a seat.”
Floyd sits in a metal chair that, like the railing, is a holdover from another era. Its flaking green paint reveals traces of sky blue or white or, around the edges, the dark grit of rust where the metal is wearing thin. “Maggie says you’re taking treatments again.”
“I am, but this is it. I ain’t taking another round.”
On the other side of Main Street across from Clover Court, the veterinary clinic hunkers in its blacktopped parking lot. Floyd can’t see the unmarked cars from Avonell’s porch, but he knows they’re there. The dogs in the chain-link boarding kennels behind the clinic bark at the cruisers, unshushed, hoping something will bark back.
“I need to talk to you, Avonell.”
“Go ahead, then.”
Sheriff Atkins shifts in his chair, twisting his torso to face the glowing end of her cigarette. “Is he here?”
“Been gone all weekend.”
“Did he tell you where he was headed?”
“Myrtle Beach, or so he said. He likes to borrow my car for big trips. That damn truck sucks gas like nobody’s business.”
“Anybody go with him?”
“Tad Reffitt, and them no-good twins of Bobby Crowe’s.” She exhales a plume of smoke. “Or so he said.”
Floyd takes off his hat and turns it around in his hands, passing the brim through his fingers like a steering wheel. The straw whispers against the fabric of his uniform, stretched taut by a paunch he knows he ought to shed. There’s no way to make what’s hard for him to say easy for her to hear. “I’m afraid he didn’t go to Myrtle Beach, Avonell.”
“I know.” A thick, phlegmy cough swamps her words. When the spasm passes, she drops the spent cigarette to the porch floor and grinds it out with her slippered foot. “I might be old, Floyd, but I do watch the news from time to time. Especially when I can’t sleep.”
Floyd imagines her propped up on half a dozen pillows on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, watching the ugly story unfold on CNN. The weight of her grief makes him sick. “That’s partly why I come up here,” he says. “I wish you hadn’t found out that way.”
She lights another cigarette and doesn’t answer. Smoke-scent mingles with the late-summer smells of cut grass and ripe tomatoes, and the acrid leftover stink of the new asphalt from the paving project out on Highway 151.
“Go ahead and say it,” she says at last.
“Say, ‘I told you so.’”
Floyd turns his chair to face the porch swing where she sits. Her feet, pale in the faint starlight, dangle a few inches above the tan-painted floor. “Avonell, that’s the last thing I would ever say to you.”
“Why?” She flicks ash over the armrest of the swing. “You’ve got every right to say it. Seven years ago, I think it was, when you sat in that very same chair – ”
“Now, we don’t have to – ”
“—and said to me, ‘Avonell, there’s some boys who can’t grow up under a petticoat government.’ Am I remembering right?”
She’s a hard woman to argue with. “You’re remembering right. But I promise you, this thing ain’t your fault.”
“Whose fault is it, then?”
Floyd Atkins has asked himself this question for more years than he cares to admit. He owes Avonell an answer but will not repeat the one that his reflection flings at him from behind the glass of the bathroom mirror every morning as he shaves.
“He’s a grown man now. He makes his own decisions and his own mistakes. You done everything you could for that boy.”
She waves the hand that holds the cigarette toward the truck sitting in the driveway, drawing an arc of red-orange light. “Some might say I done too much.”
Floyd snorts. “You ain’t the only one in this town who’s bought a new truck for a boy that done nothing to earn it.”
“Well, I guess we all go to hell in our own ways.”
They sit awhile without speaking, listening to the songs of the night birds fade, one by one, until only a lone whippoorwill remains, singing his name over and over from the shadows of the side yard.
Avonell lights another cigarette. “Some says a whippoorwill portends death.”
“Some says a woolly-worm can foretell the winter, but I don’t believe that neither.”
The bird keeps singing.
“He’s going to bust a lung if he don’t quit,” Avonell says. “I wish I still had that much breath.”
Floyd lays his hat on his lap and grips the armrests, rocking the seat back and forth, affecting an ease he doesn’t feel. “I don’t reckon you’ve heard from Kelley?”
Avonell blows smoke through the chains that hold up the swing. “Floyd, when are you going to quit asking me that question?”
She waits for the answer that he doesn’t have.
Finally, Avonell says, “Like I keep saying, I ain’t heard from her since she got a ride out of this town and left me with a nine-month-old grandbaby to raise.” She sighs. “It was a long time ago, Floyd. Just let it go.”
A blue glow lights up her lap: her cell phone. She looks at it, starts to thumb the button to darken the screen, but instead leans forward and hands the phone to Floyd.
Memaw ill be there in a hour can you fix me some coffee
Floyd hands the phone back to her. “He don’t mention the others.”
“He won’t bring them here, this time of night.” She puts out the cigarette beneath her shoe and sweeps this butt and the one before off the porch into the flower bed below, fragrant with zinnias and marigolds that have barely held their own in this strange summer of too much heat and too little rain. “I need you to do something for me, Floyd.”
“If I can.”
“I need you to call off them roadblocks. No, now listen,” she says, before he can refuse, “I know that boy. He’ll bring the Oldsmobile back and drink coffee and make up some lie about a man offering him a job, and then he’ll be gone again.”
“I can’t help him get out of this, Avonell.”
“I didn’t ask you to get him out of it.” Her words snap like a blacksnake whip. “He’ll run a damn roadblock. And if he runs, somebody’s going to get hurt. Somebody might even get killed. I don’t need that on my conscience. Got enough weight there, as it is.”
Floyd passes his hand over his face, runs his fingers back through his hair, squeezes the flesh on the back of his neck in a fierce, vise-like grip, taking a strange comfort in his self-inflicted pain. It’s a punishment, in a way, for sitting here on her porch and breaking her heart.
“Spit it out, Floyd.”
She’s always been like this, he remembers: strong-willed and stubborn, cutting through niceties and bullshit with equal fervor, coming right to the point.
“About an hour ago, I got a call from the Virginia State Police…”
The sound of her breathing stops. Even the whippoorwill hushes its song.
“…I’m afraid it’s bad news …”
Floyd jumps when Avonell sucks in a breath that sounds like somebody tearing an old cotton shirt in half. She exhales slowly. Floyd relaxes against the clammy metal of his chair, his pulse thundering in his ears.
“That boy they beat?”
“He died in surgery.”
She doesn’t ask for particulars, and he’s glad. He doesn’t want to tell her about the report: broken ribs, punctured lung, bruised kidneys, lacerated spleen. He will not tell her about the pictures: the face, so battered and swollen that it no longer looked human.
Her hand slams the seat of the swing, sending the cigarettes flying off her lap. The pack lands open-side down. Three cigarettes roll across the porch floor. Avonell starts to say something, but her words drown in a fit of coughing. She doubles over, grips her knees, rests her head on her thighs. The spasms are vicious and relentless; their force rocks the swing back and forth on its chains.
When her breath is spent, the coughing stops.
Avonell raises her head, panting from the violence of the attack. “Took a life,” she whispers, still beating the empty seat beside her. Her hand, like her voice, has lost its vigor. “Took a life. My baby took a life.” She unfolds her body and slumps her shoulders against the swing, lets her head fall back like the bloom of a rain-soaked peony. “Get me my cigarettes.”
“Avonell, I don’t think – ”
“Just get the goddamn cigarettes, Floyd!”
The sheriff bends down and gathers the scattered cigarettes and lays them in her lap. Her shaking fingers find one and raise it to her mouth. Her lips pinch around it. The lighter illuminates her hands, bruised by needles seeking a good vein. Her eyes are red-rimmed and wet. The lighter winks out. Floyd watches the end of the cigarette gleam, smells the blue smoke.
“That’s better. Now Floyd, please. Get on that radio and call off the roadblocks.” She coughs, but only a little; she lacks the breath to do more. “He’s Kelley’s boy, Floyd.”
“You’re playing dirty now, Avonell.”
“I ain’t above playing dirty, when it suits me.”
Sheriff Atkins slaps his hat on his head. He stands up and goes to lean against the upright that supports the corner of the porch. The curves of coiled metal leave traces of dew on his shirt. He grips the post with one hand and rests the other on his radio.
“If anybody ever finds out, they’ll say I played favorites. It’s hard enough for a nobody like me to get elected sheriff in this county, without having to live down something like that.”
“Ain’t nobody found out yet.”
Floyd tightens his grip on the curlicue of the post. The wet metal bites his flesh. He pulls his radio from the leather case on his belt and keys the mic.
“Listen up: he’s on his way to his mamaw’s. Pull the cars out of sight and wait for my signal. We’ll take him down here.”
The voices of invisible men acknowledge the order through the radio’s speaker.
At the end of Clover Court, across Main Street, the unmarked cars start their engines and change positions. The dogs in the kennel bell a short-lived warning. Floyd remembers that he walked here from Main Street, and he opens his mic again. “Somebody move my car.”
Floyd slides his radio back into its case and rests both hands on the railing. It squeaks under the burden of his weight. Below his feet is the flower bed that Avonell planted back in the spring, after the first round of chemo, when the tumors had shrunk some and she wasn’t so frail.
“Thank you, Floyd.”
“I didn’t do it for you.”
Avonell coughs again, though not as urgent nor as prolonged as before, and the swing creaks in response to her body’s movement. That sound carries Floyd back to another summer, a different August, a younger version of himself: a time that feels like a memory pulled from someone else’s life.
“Scoot your chair up against the rail, right next to that big lilac, so he sees me before he sees you.”
Floyd does as she says and sits down. This is, and always has been, the hardest part of his job: this waiting, knowing yet not knowing what’s coming, dreading it and looking forward to it at the same time. The muscles at the base of his skull ache. He tucks his chin against his chest, wincing when his neck pops like faraway fireworks.
He feels old.
As if she can read his thoughts, Avonell says, “I heard at the Save-More that Darrell Miller is set to retire.”
“Two more years. State police have to retire at forty-five.”
“I always did like Darrell.” Avonell shifts her body, letting the big toe of one foot touch the floor just enough to nudge the swing back and forth. The chain marks time against the hooks screwed into the ceiling. “Wonder sometimes if he joined the state police to be like his daddy.”
“I’ve thought that, myself.”
“Not something you can come right out and ask, though.” The swing chain counts a few more measures. “You ought to think about retirement, Floyd. You and Maggie.”
“We’ve talked about it,” he admits.
“You ought to do more than talk about it. Go somewhere warm for the winter, come home for the summer, plant you a little garden, go fishing …” Her voice runs down like a broken clock, unwinding her words into the thick, humid silence of a summer night. Even the whippoorwill has gone to bed.
“God almighty, Floyd,” she says at last, “what’s happened to this country?”
“I ask myself that, every damn day.”
Avonell brings the swing to a stop and braces herself on the edge of the seat, listening hard. “He’s coming.”
Floyd’s radio awakens, stirred to life by the chatter of his deputies: Just turned onto Main Street.
He by himself?
Looks like it.
Passed the Shell station now. He’s alone.
The sheriff raises his radio and squeezes the mic. “Everybody sit tight and wait for my word.”
Floyd and Avonell tilt their heads like dogs, listening to the sound of the Oldsmobile moving up Main Street, slowing to turn into Clover Court. Headlights flash across the neighboring houses and capture the porch in their beams. Floyd presses closer to the railing and the lilac bush, half-wishing he hadn’t been so soft-hearted with Avonell. If things go badly. If Link has a gun. If somebody starts shooting –
The tires on the Oldsmobile thump-thump as they pass over the pavement break that separates the driveway from the street. The engine idles and falls silent. The headlights go dark. A door opens, closes. Footsteps. A familiar tune, whistled low and off-key: Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton… The stair rail trembles when the whistler lays his hand upon it.
“Have a good time, Link?”
The young man’s surprised jerk travels through the railing like lightning through a tall pine tree.
“Memaw! What are you doing setting out here?”
“Waiting on you, what do you think? Did y’all have a good time?”
Link drops his backpack to the porch and stuffs his hands in his pockets.“Yes ma’am, we sure did. Hey Memaw, listen, I met this man from North Carolina who owns a business working on trucks – big trucks, like logging and lumber trucks – and he says, if I can be there first thing Monday – ”
“—that you’ll have a good job making big money.” Avonell finishes her grandson’s litany in a tired, singsong voice. “I know, Link. I’ve heard it all before.” She pauses, coughs, breathes. “Why don’t you tell me the truth, for once?”
“I am telling the truth, Memaw, swear to God – ”
“Don’t bring God into this, Link.”
“Memaw, I swear – ”
“Don’t lie to me, boy.” Each word cuts like a razor. “You know and I know that you didn’t go to no damn beach.”
Floyd’s radio crackles to life: Suspects in custody on Wilson’s Mill Road.
Link pivots away from his grandmother to find the source of the sound. Floyd stands up and pulls the chain on the porch light.
It’s Kelley’s face that stares at Floyd, blinking in the yellow light from the naked bulb. One jaw is grazed, and there’s a cut under Link’s right eye that will bruise before daylight. His hands slide out of his pockets, hang loose at his sides. He lifts his chin, balances his weight on the balls of his feet.
Kelley’s face vanishes, leaving only a sullen, angry young man.
“What’s he doing here?” Link, still staring at Floyd, asks his grandmother.
“You know why, Link,” Floyd says, pushing each word past an unexpected lump in his throat. “It’s about Charlottesville.”
Link balls his hands into fists. “We been to Myrtle Beach. If you think we been somewhere else, you got another think coming.”
“They got the license number of your mamaw’s car. They got you on video. They put your pictures on the news.”
“That wasn’t me.”
Floyd keys the mic on his radio. “Come on.”
At the end of Clover Court, engines start and headlights shine. They move toward the house in single file. The last car in the line pulls crossways to block the narrow street. Link looks away long enough to glance at the advancing cruisers; he reminds Floyd of a buck deer hemmed in by dogs, counting their number, calculating an escape. Link looks back at the sheriff, runs his tongue around lips gone dry.
“I got no idea what you’re talking about.”
Car doors open and close. Men with guns move into the shadows at the edge of the yard. Two deputies tread warily up the sidewalk and onto the steps. One deputy comes up onto the porch and puts his body between Link and Avonell. Floyd will thank him for that later; right now, his eyes are on his suspect. Sweat beads on Link’s forehead and follows a pinball trail through the unshaven stubble on his cheeks.
Floyd steps within easy reach of Link’s fists. “That man you-all beat when you got tired of carrying torches? He’s dead.” He speaks slowly, patiently, as though speaking to a child. “He died in surgery a while ago.”
Link leans forward, bares his teeth. “You lie.”
The deputy whips his hands through Link’s elbows and pins the younger man’s arms behind his back. Another deputy joins the first and wrestles Link’s wrists into handcuffs. “Lincoln Dewey Poe, you’re under arrest for the murder of Michael Stephen Howard. You have the right to remain silent.”
Link screws his head around, looks over the deputy’s shoulder for his grandmother. Sweat rolls down the taut cords of his exposed neck, mingling with smears of blood on his t-shirt. “Memaw, I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Anything you say can and will be used against you in court.”
Link jerks his arm, trying and failing to break free of the deputy’s grip. “We went to the beach! We went to the goddamn beach!”
“You have the right to an attorney before making any statement, and may have your –”
“Let go of me!” Link jerks his head from side to side and thrusts his shoulders, trying to free himself from the grip of the law. The deputy stumbles but does not fall. Link stomps his heel on the deputy’s toes. “Get your fucking hands off me!” He twists, trying to see Avonell’s face. Memaw, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry – ”
Avonell rolls her lighter back and forth between her palms and shakes her head. “I can’t help you this time, son.”
A radio squawks in the shadows of the yard. An invisible officer responds and then announces, “KSP just picked up Reffitt.”
The news drains Link’s desire to fight. He stumbles, kept upright only by the deputies whose hands grasp his arms. “Memaw, please listen to me.”
Avonell turns her face away from her grandson and stares at the chipped green paint that trims the window.
The first deputy looks at Floyd, lifts his eyebrows, tips his head toward the driveway. Floyd nods. They hustle Link to the edge of the porch, down the steps, and into the waiting cruiser. Link hollers at Avonell with every breath, begging her to listen to him, pleading with her to help him. He calls her name over and over, like the whippoorwill, even when the deputy caps his head with one hand and pushes him into the cruiser.
Avonell doesn’t watch them put Link into the car. She doesn’t watch the cars curve around the cul-de-sac and drive single file down Clover Court, turning right onto Main Street, heading north to Frankfort and the regional jail. She stares, trembling, at the window frame: a statue of grief carved from human flesh.
Two state troopers mount the porch, forcing their fingers into latex gloves. They crouch beside Avonell and ask her gently, respectfully, if they can go inside and look around. Floyd can’t hear her answer. The troopers rise. One nods at Floyd as he opens the screen door and enters the house. One by one, the darkened rooms are lit by the touch of gloved fingers on switches. A third trooper examines the trunk of the Oldsmobile with a flashlight, cataloging its contents.
Floyd stands with his arms folded on his chest. He looks down at Avonell and clears his throat.
“How long have you known?” He speaks quietly, not wishing to be overheard.
He has to strain to hear her answer. “Long enough.”
“Did Kelley tell you?”
“Lord, no. I don’t believe she knew for sure …” She looks up at Floyd. The harsh yellow light deepens the lines and shadows of her face. “It’s bad, to say that about my own daughter, but…”
They are silent until Avonell asks, already knowing the answer, “They’ll go for the death penalty, won’t they?”
“Hard to say. Virginia plays hardball with murder.” He can’t look at her face when he says this. He looks, instead, at the driveway. The trooper is talking to dispatch. “I’m sorry, Avonell, but they’ll have to impound your car. Because it was used in the commission of –
“You don’t have to spell it out, Floyd.”
There’s nothing else to say. He has what he came for; he’s fulfilled his obligation, to the public and to the law. He can go home now, take a shower, slip into bed beside his wife for an hour or two of sleep. There’s no reason for him to remain on this porch with this woman, shuffling his feet like a child caught stealing candy.
But deep down in his gut, he feels the snap of the last and the strongest of the feeble strings that have tied him to this house and to its people for almost two decades.
The click of the lighter draws him from his thoughts. Avonell is lighting up one of her two remaining cigarettes. She takes a drag and gives him a smile that hurts him with its tenderness. “Go on home, son. You’re done here.”
You’re done here. A plaintive echo of his own thoughts.
“Avonell, I – ”
“I said you’re done here, Floyd. Now, go on home. And turn off that damn light.”
He raises his arm, pulls the chain. Night swoops in to reclaim the porch; it collides with the glow of the living room lamps.
“Take care, Avonell.”
“You too, Floyd. Tell Maggie I said hello.”
The passage of many hands has wiped the dew from the handrails. A state police wrecker arrives, amber lights flashing, to carry Avonell’s gray Oldsmobile to the impound yard. It may end up as far away as Charlottesville before all is said and done; that’s up to the prosecutor. Floyd says goodnight to the trooper. He throws up his hand to the driver of the wrecker. They played football together in high school, in another lifetime, when they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
The whippoorwill, disturbed from sleep, calls a single, halfhearted protest.
Floyd retraces his steps down Clover Court. The state police will take Link into custody at the regional jail. He, like Avonell’s car, will be in their hands from here on out; it’s their investigation, now.
Floyd’s done here.
He pauses by the stop sign at the end of the street and fumbles in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, then remembers that he gave up smoking two years ago. He turns and looks back at the white house with the metal railing. A spark flares on the porch: Avonell’s lighter. For a moment, it outshines the harsh lights of the wrecker and the softer light from inside the house. It is bright and brave and stubborn, like the woman who holds it, but it is also frail and impermanent. It dwindles and disappears like the song of the whippoorwill, or dreams, or the things we hold so dear but leave unsaid.
Born in eastern Tennessee and raised in southwestern Virginia, Lonormi Manuel has called Kentucky home for over thirty years. Her writing, both fiction and nonfiction, addresses universal themes in Appalachian settings. A passionate historian, genealogist, and student of the labor movement, Lonormi finds inspiration for her fiction in old newspapers, oral histories, and the stories of the working class. She writes not only about, but for the Appalachian people, and seeks to celebrate her homeplace through her work.