By Billie Letts
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In 1972, windswept DeClare, Oklahoma, was consumed by the murder of a young mother, Gaylene Harjo, and the disappearance of her baby, Nicky Jack. When the child’s pajama bottoms were discovered on the banks of Willow Creek, everyone feared that he, too, had been killed, although his body was never found.
Nearly thirty years later, Nicky Jack mysteriously returns to DeClare, shocking the town and stirring up long-buried memories. But what he discovers about the night he vanished is more astonishing than he or anyone could have imagine. Piece by piece, what emerges is a story of dashed hopes, desperate love, and a secret that still cries out for justice…and redemption.
ALSO BY BILLIE LETTS
Where the Heart Is
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon
GRATEFUL APPRECIATION GOES TO:
Elaine Markson, my agent, who found me three books ago wandering around a writers' conference hoping someone would look at my work; Jamie Raab, my editor, who must feel much like a midwife after helping me deliver this one; Lisa Callamaro, who gave me the gift of seeing my first story on the big screen; also double thanks to Ben Greenberg for going beyond the call of duty;
Robert W. Allen, Ph.D., Harold Battenfield, D.O., Glen Burke, Katrina Farr, Shari Finik, George Haralson, Chief Deputy, and Wesley E. Johnson, J.D., for their technical advice;
Wilma Shires, whose extraordinary patience and expertise wrestled all these words onto a computer disk;
Mary Battenfield, Brad Cushman, Molly Griffis, Arlene Johnson, Teresa Miller and Georgann "Sister" Vineyard, a great group of friends who kept me going;
Dana Letts, my stepson, who found information for me when I couldn't;
And Dennis, my husband, lover, friend . . . my first reader, my toughest critic and my biggest fan.
I thank you all!
His early morning flight from Los Angeles had been delayed for nearly two hours because of fog. Plenty of time for him to back out, just let it all go. Once he even grabbed his bag and left the terminal, but he changed his mind. Again.
After boarding, he found himself seated next to an elderly woman who was weeping quietly. She was still crying when, twenty minutes later, she offered a whispered apology, but he pretended sleep. Whatever her problem was, he didn't want to hear it. He had no interest in hearing people whine.
When she left her seat to go to the lavatory, he slipped from the first-class cabin and found an empty row near the back of the plane.
For a while he tried to read but gave it up when he felt a headache coming on. He hadn't slept at all the night before, hadn't even gone to bed. Instead, he'd spent the hours sitting on his balcony, trying to persuade himself not to make this trip.
Then, just before five that morning, he'd phoned to make his flight reservation, left a vague message on his receptionist's answering machine and pulled a suitcase from his closet.
Now, with his stomach churning from too much airport coffee, his knees wedged against the seat in front of him, his body heavy with fatigue, he decided that when the plane landed, he'd give this up. Take the next available flight back to L.A.
But he didn't.
After he picked up his rental, a Mitsubishi Eclipse, and a map at Tulsa International Airport, he headed east.
The Avis blue-chip car, the only convertible available, wouldn't have been his first choice; he drove a Jaguar XK8 in L.A. But even before he drove out of the city, he realized he'd underestimated the Oklahoma heat, well over a hundred, with humidity so high that his shirt was plastered to his back despite the hot wind.
The two-hour drive took him through mostly empty country, the highway skirting towns called Coweta, Tullahassee, Oktaha—names that conjured scenes of Gene Autry movies.
He arrived in DeClare before dark, then checked into the Riverfront Motel, which looked just a little more inviting than the White Buffalo Inn at the edge of town or a decrepit hotel called the Saddletree a few blocks away.
His room was about what he expected. Drab and cramped, smaller even than the dorm room he'd lived in at Tufts for five years. Behind the drapes he found sliding glass doors leading to a balcony that overlooked a river backed by woods of towering pines.
He didn't bother to unpack, but he hadn't brought much anyway. He wasn't planning to stick around long.
The motel restaurant was crowded, according to his waitress, because it was Thursday.
"Catfish night," she explained, managing to turn "night" into a three-syllable word. "All you can eat for six ninety-five."
"Is it baked?" he asked, a question she thought was hilarious.
"You're not an Okie, are you? Only one way to fix catfish, and that's to fry it. You want baked fish, be here for the Sunday buffet. We have baked cod then. But come before noon, 'cause when the churches let out, this place is packed."
"I'll be gone before Sunday."
"Not staying long, huh?"
Though he'd already framed the lie, he hesitated. Another chance to back out.
"I'm here to look up some old friends of my parents."
He felt his heart quicken, his breath come short. But he was in it now.
"A family named Harjo."
"Which one? We got Harjos scattered all over this part of the country. They're all related, one way or another. Ben was the oldest, I think."
"Where can I find him?"
"He's dead, but his wife, Enid, lives way the hell out in the boonies. Can't tell you how to get there. Your best bet is Teeve. She was married to a Harjo. He took off years ago, but she's still close to the family. She runs the pool hall on Main Street."
After his dinner, and with enough fat in his system to grease axle rods, he walked to the center of town. Four depressing blocks scarred by struggle and failure. Buildings of crumbling native stone, many of them empty; a boarded-up movie theater, its marquee advertising a citywide garage sale; a bank wearing a new facade, the centerpiece a massive clock running an hour late.
Business owners battling the Wal-Mart east of town had tried to lure customers back by installing canvas awnings, camouflaging peeling paint with cheap brick veneer, placing wrought-iron benches on the corner of every block. But the awnings were tattered and fading, the veneer was flaking paint and the benches were covered with pigeon droppings.
The pool hall, closed by the time he got there, didn't look as if it were faring any better than other businesses he'd passed along the way. The sign reading TEEVE'S PLACE hung crookedly over the door, and the plate glass window fronting the building bore a foot-long crack patched with caulk and masking tape.
Inside, a fluorescent bulb blinked in a tin ceiling pitted with rust. The long, narrow room was crowded with a makeshift counter, pool tables from another era, video games, vending machines and a game table with four mismatched chairs.
As he turned and started back toward the motel, a mud-splattered pickup drove by, a rifle mounted in the back window, a Confederate flag strapped across the grille, two pit bull pups chained in the truck bed.
If he'd been back home just then, he might have been cussing the traffic clogging the 405 or complaining of the heavy brown air dimming the sun or fighting the panic he felt when a tremor hit.
But at that moment, Los Angeles seemed like paradise.
Teeve Harjo unlocked the front door of the pool hall while balancing four pie boxes against her chest. As soon as she took those back to the lunchroom, she returned to her car for the others.
Ordinarily, she baked only four and always sold out by two o'clock, her peanut-butter pies still the best dessert in town and the recipe still a secret. But Hap Duchamp had phoned yesterday to order three, as he and Matthew Donaldson were having weekend guests.
Always an early riser, Teeve liked to have her pies in the oven by six, then sit on her patio drinking coffee while she watched the birds at the feeders in her backyard. But her morning routine had changed since her daughter, Ivy, had come home.
She'd just flipped on the lights in the lunchroom when she heard the screen door out front slam shut, a signal that the "domino boys" had arrived.
The oldest of this foursome was Ron John O'Reily, who at eighty-two was developing Alzheimer's; the grumpiest but undisputed leader of the pack was Lonnie Cruddup, who in temperament was much like his deceased sibling, Raymond. Johnny and Jackson Standingdeer, Cherokee brothers in their late fifties, rounded out the group.
Because they'd always considered the pool hall to be a man's refuge, they had pouted when Navy took off and Teeve took over. Then, when she'd stopped booking bets and quit selling beer, they'd fumed. But when she'd added the lunchroom and changed the sign out front to TEEVE'S POOL HALL AND TEA ROOM, they'd jumped ship.
Luring them back had not been easy, but Teeve was both inventive and determined. Not because of the few dollars she collected from their games, but because dominoes was an institution in Oklahoma pool halls and she'd be damned if she'd let four old coots depart from history.
So she had delivered a freshly baked peanut-butter pie to Lonnie Cruddup along with the promise of a new domino table to replace the shaky one he'd complained about for almost thirty years. But Lonnie was not appeased. He said his gang would be the butt of jokes for the rest of their lives—which, given their advancing years, was likely not a long time—if they were seen going into a tearoom.
After an hour of nearly failed negotiations, a compromise was reached, and a week later, Lonnie had led his boys back into the pool hall, passing beneath a newly painted sign that read, quite simply, TEEVE'S PLACE.
Lige Haney was the first in for lunch, as he was every Friday, the day he delivered his column to the newspaper office.
"You give those Republicans what-for this week, Lige?"
"It was both my duty and my pleasure to do so, Teeve," he said as Phantom led him to his table. "Did you by any chance watch the news last night? Channel twelve?"
"I was beat. Went to bed before nine."
"Oh, you missed an insightful interview with our esteemed senator Jackson Langley, who spoke eloquently and with perfect balance—an amazing achievement given the difficulty of standing on one foot while the other was crammed toe-to-heel in his mouth. But this phenomenon is not uncommon among the ranks of the GOP. One does not have to be blind to see that.
"Anyway, he was asked to comment on the efforts of animal rights activists to outlaw cockfighting in our fair state. Langley, vigorously indignant, said the first thing Communists do when they take over a country is to outlaw cockfighting."
"Well, everyone knows those damned Commies are just faunching at the bit to invade Oklahoma," Teeve said.
"I laughed so hard, Phantom got out of bed to check on me."
Phantom, on hearing her name, raised her head from her paws for a few seconds, then, assured she was not being summoned, settled once again beneath the table.
"Morning, Teeve. Lige."
Hap Duchamp had given up Versace suits and Armani ties the day he walked away from the bank, preferring instead jeans from Kmart, shirts from Sears and shoes from Payless. He got bad eight-dollar haircuts at the Corner Barbershop, still drove his ten-year-old Chrysler and seemed entirely comfortable with who he was.
"Lige, I see you're cheating on Clara again, taking a younger girl to lunch." Hap knelt to give Phantom a pat, then took a seat at Lige's table.
"Well, this one's not as pretty as Clara, but she treats me better."
"Hap," Teeve said, "you come to eat or to pick up your pies?"
"I couldn't eat a bite, Teeve. I had half of a leftover pizza for breakfast."
"Pizza for breakfast?"
"Matthew's come up with the notion that gay men are supposed to cook like Julia Child. He made beef bourguignon for dinner last night, but it was a disaster, so I had pizza delivered. This morning he fixed quiche Lorraine. Another dismal failure. The fact is, the man can't cook a lick, but he won't admit it."
"How's your mother, Hap?" Lige asked.
"Oh, you know Martha Bernard. She thinks a day without drama is a wasted day. If her housekeeper's not swiping the silver or her accountant isn't siphoning off her money, then someone's taking her mail or poisoning her azaleas. Last night, though, she got a little closer to the real thing."
"Someone smashed a window, broke into the guesthouse. Took a couple of silver candlesticks, a deer rifle that hadn't been fired since Dad died. An old black-and-white TV. Not much of a haul."
"All the same," Lige said, "Martha must have been pretty shook up."
"Aw, she loved it. Police cars, sirens. She was pissed that O Boy doesn't have a SWAT team, but all in all, she had a good night. Enough excitement that she downed a few more bedtime toddies than the one she admits to."
While she was putting together Lige's lunch, Teeve glanced into the pool hall, where she saw a man standing near the door, watching her.
He was young—thirtyish, she guessed, good-looking and dressed like money walking. Gold at his throat and wrist, linen slacks, Italian loafers and silk shirt, the left sleeve cuffed up to accommodate a thick bandage on his forearm.
She figured him for a salesman from Billiard Supply, though most of their sales reps didn't look as prosperous as this one.
"Here you go, Lige," she said as she placed his plate in front of him. "Sandwich at two o'clock, potato salad at nine."
"Did you forget my dill pickle?"
"It's straight up noon."
Teeve marveled at the way Lige managed to eat without a mishap, never spilling his drink or knocking his fork off the table, no mustard smeared in the corners of his mouth, no food stuck to the front of his shirt. He was neater than most sighted people she served.
"Teeve, I'd better grab those pies and get out of here," Hap said as he pulled bills from his wallet. "I've got to go by the IGA on my way home. Matthew's fixing something called salicornia for dinner tonight."
"That sounds like an eye disease."
"Now you know why I'm going to the store. Lay in a supply of bologna and cheese just in case."
Teeve had forgotten about the stranger in the pool hall until she saw him walk out just after Hap left. He seemed vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn't recall seeing him before. Still, something about his eyes reminded her of someone she knew.
April 21, 1966
Today was the best birthday of my life because I am finally a teenager! My very best present was from Mom. A bra! I've been asking for one since Row got hers last summer but Mom said I didn't need one. Guess she changed her mind when she saw that my breasts are getting bigger. Its a double A cup but after I put it on she said it was to big. I think it fits just fine.
My brother Navy sent me a Ship 'n Shore blouse with a Peter Pan collor but I think Mom bought it and put his name on the card because he's on a ship in the Indian ocean. (Not our kind of Indian. The other kind.) James and Josie sent me a book Where the Red Fern Grows. They live in California and haven't seen me since I was ten or eleven so I guess they think I'm still a little girl. Anyway, I already read it.
Row got me a music box with a teeny ballerina that turns when I open the lid. Martha Sue Crow whose in my Sunday school class gave me a bottle of Evening in Paris perfume. Martha Sues supposed to be my secret pal but she can't keep anything secret. Mr. Duchamp whose Moms boss at the bank gave me some charcoal pencils for my drawings.
Daddy gave me a pair of school shoes. Their way to big but he says I'll grow into them and no sence wasting money on shoes that will be to tight before I get any wear out of them. He calls them sensible. I call them ugly.
I bet I'll outgrow my bra before I outgrow the shoes.
He spent the early morning in his motel room calling Harjos listed in the DeClare phone book. Two of his calls were answered, but each time he heard a voice on the other end of the line, he hung up.
While he had coffee in the dining room downstairs, he took a look at the local newspaper, which gave ample coverage to a benefit chili supper at the fire station, three overnight burglaries, an accident involving a pickup and a cow, and an outbreak of pink-eye at the grade school.
When he went back to his room, he made his plane reservation for the next night, a seven-thirty flight from Tulsa.
He intended to have this business behind him as soon as he could, but he'd been to the pool hall three times and still hadn't talked to the Harjo woman. The first time he went was the night before, his first night in town. But he'd arrived too late. She'd already closed. He'd gone again earlier this morning, but she was busy in the back where she had a café the size of a closet and about as appealing. Then, when he'd returned at noon, the place was swarming with kids.
Now, while waiting to catch her alone, he sat on a bench across the street and used his cell phone to call the clinic.
"Albright Animal Hospital."
"Dr. Albright. Are you okay? Your message sounded—"
"Something came up at the last minute. Everything all right there?"
"Well, Mr. Carletti's cat didn't make it. You know, I got worried that maybe your arm got worse and you—"
"What about the borzoi?"
"His temp's down, but he's still wheezing."
"I need to talk to David."
"He's in surgery. Mr. Leno's Dalmatian has a bowel obstruction. You want me to have Dr. Cushman call you back?"
"No. I'll reach him later."
"You had a call from Oakhaven Cemetery. Some question about the monument."
"I'll deal with that when I get back. Anything else?"
"Mrs. Lee has called for you several times. Her poodle is stressed again."
"Tell David to take care of it."
"Do you know when you'll be back?"
"Is there a number where I can reach you? I've called your cell phone, but—"
"I've had it switched off."
"Is there another number in case—"
"I've got to go. I'll see you Monday."
He knew his sudden and unexplained departure would be added to Charlene's growing list of concerns. She'd been hovering for the past three weeks, uneasy about his weight loss, troubled by changes in his routine.
She had reprimanded him gently for not eating "right," for failing to keep his dental appointment, for forgetting a meeting with his financial adviser. Unusual lapses, she said, for a man who fills out his day calendar a year in advance.
Charlene had been at the clinic since the day his father opened it in 1960, and though she was dependable and efficient, her intrusiveness was beginning to get on his nerves. It might be, he thought, time for her retirement, something he intended to take care of before long.
If something didn't change, she would be packing his lunch, reminding him to brush his teeth, buying his socks and underwear. And right now, the last thing he needed was another mother.
Teeve was so busy with the lunch crowd in the café, she didn't even look up when the first wave of teenagers hit the pool hall at eleven-thirty. After she'd stopped selling beer, her place was no longer off-limits to the high school students, who were free to leave the campus for lunch.
They were a noisy and messy bunch, spilling their drinks, littering the floor with their chips and candy wrappers while they wrangled over the jukebox and video games. But now, with Ivy helping out an hour or so each day, Teeve didn't spend as much time refereeing as she used to.
"Okay, you fireballs. Let's flip a coin," Ivy said when she jumped into the middle of a shoving match between two boys, each claiming it was his turn at one of the video games.
Ivy was naturally pretty but did nothing to enhance her looks. She had fair skin, a complexion so light she looked pale, but she refused to wear makeup. She wore her long, honey-colored hair pulled back in a braid exactly as she had since she was a girl, and no amount of cajoling by her mother had persuaded her to change it.
At thirty, she still had the athletic frame and posture she'd had as a teenager, but her shape had changed considerably over the past few weeks.
When she came home back in May and said she'd quit her job in Chicago, Teeve wasn't much surprised at the news. Ivy had never been much of a "stayer." She'd quit piano lessons when she was eight, dropped out of Girl Scouts at eleven and attended only three meetings of the Honor Society before she stopped going.
But when Ivy said she'd come home "to stay for a while," her tomcat, Bernie, in tow, Teeve knew something was going on. The girl had hated DeClare, had been so anxious to get out that instead of attending her high school graduation, she had headed for Amsterdam to join the Greenpeace fleet in protesting the killing of whales in the North Sea.
But now, the shock of Ivy's return a few days earlier had begun to wear off when Teeve remarked that Ivy looked like she'd lost weight.
"Well, that's fixing to change, Mom."
"I'm pregnant," Ivy said, then asked, "do you have any blue thread?"
Two weeks passed without another word from Ivy about her situation. Finally, Teeve couldn't stand it any longer. Trying to sound unrehearsed, she said, "Honey, why don't we sit down, have a cup of coffee and—"
"Have one of those mother-daughter talks?"
"Oh, no. Nothing like that. I thought we might . . . you know, just visit."
"Okay. I got pregnant by a guy I slept with three times. Well, four, I guess, since we did it twice in one night. I'm not going to marry him, I don't even like him much. I was on the pill, but apparently he had some mighty powerful sperm.
"I've seen a doctor who declared me 'healthy as a horse,' a cliché I didn't care for. I bought a book called What Every Pregnant Woman Needs to Know, my bowels move regularly, I do not crave strange foods and I throw up every morning.
"I'm going to have this baby in six months, more or less, and I don't really know how I feel about that yet, but I suppose I'll figure it out as I go. Any questions?"
"No," Teeve said. "I guess that about covers it."
"Good. I'm glad we had this talk, Mom. Morning paper come yet?"
Now, three months later, Teeve didn't know any more than she did when Ivy had first told her of her pregnancy. But she knew her daughter, knew that pushing her wouldn't do a damn bit of good.
Teeve, preparing a takeout order of Reubens, glanced up to see Ivy motioning to her from the lunchroom door.
"You know that guy out there?" she whispered.
Looking over Ivy's shoulder, Teeve saw that the man with the bandaged arm had returned.
"He came in ten, fifteen minutes ago," Ivy said. "Just stands there and watches the kids. I tried to make conversation with him, but he doesn't say much. I think he's up to something."
"I don't know, but he's creepy. Might be a pedophile."
"Well, watch him."
Teeve stayed busy for the next half hour, but she took a break when the kids cleared out for their one o'clock classes.
"What happened to that guy who was hanging around?" Teeve asked.
"He wandered out a little while ago."
"Did you ever find out what he wanted?"
"I couldn't get anything out of him. Seemed like a weird one to me, but I don't trust any man who wears a necklace. I've gotta run. Got an appointment with Doc Bruton in a few minutes."
"Okay. See you later."
After she closed the lunchroom at two, Teeve swept out, wiped down the tables and took the trash out to the Dumpster. Then she went into the pool hall, where two regulars who worked the early shift at the toy factory were shooting eight ball.
As she passed the front door, she was disturbed to see the man Ivy called "creepy" standing on the porch, watching her through the screen. She went behind the counter, where she feigned interest in yesterday's paper, holding it in such a way that she could see him peripherally as he opened the door and stepped inside.
When she lowered the paper, he was standing on the other side of the narrow counter, staring at her.
He was even better looking up close than he was from a distance. He had radiant brown eyes, and bronzed skin that did not, she guessed, come from a tanning bed, and his dark hair, shiny and thick, fell softly across his forehead.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2004
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing