No headlights showed in the rearview mirror, only dust roiling red in the taillights and vanishing into the black. The Chevy’s slanted back window was thick with dust, making the view even more cloudy and vague.
The road went up a steep hill and Pettigrew nudged the gas. Gravel pinged on the undercarriage like shot against a tin roof. A low spot in the road sent the load in the trunk banging against the springs with a thud that shook the whole car.
At the top of the hill Pettigrew had a long view down the valley before him. Half way down, the windows of a small church shone yellow, but nothing else broke the blackness. Then as he watched, there was a flash at the bottom of the valley, where the road ran along the Holston. Headlights rounded a bend and began bobbing up the long slope. Nance’s ferry was cut off. Damn.
Without thinking, he killed his own lights, gripped the wheel with both hands, and let up on the gas. The car slowed abruptly as he fought to steer by the whiteness of the gravel between the black fencerows. He checked the mirror again: Nothing.
The church sat in a saddle between two hills, where the road forked. The other car was coming up the left fork; to the right, Blue Hole Road dropped down a steep hollow to dead-end along the river.
The dust cloud caught up and passed him as he approached the church. He considered pulling into the yard amid the cars and farm pickups but it was too obvious. He hated dead-end roads, but he steered right, clutch in, foot on the brake, rolling quietly past the frame building at little more than a walk. The windows were thrown wide and above the sound of his idling engine Pettigrew heard preaching, an ecstatic agony of shouts and hollers and rhythmic grunts. He shook his head.
When the car dropped below the crest of the hill, he popped it back into gear and sped up. At the bottom of the hill the road came abruptly to the river and skirted a large circular pit in the bank. Lights still off, Pettigrew passed the spring and headed for the Deacon’s tarpaper shack fifty yards beyond. He swung off the gravel into the hard-packed yard and drove past the cabin toward a small barn that leaned into the hillside. He parked the car in the weeds on the side away from the road and climbed out on the uphill side, holding the door to keep it from slamming shut. He leaned against the rough-sawn boards.
The first patrol car came down the hill too quickly and slid in the gravel when it came to the spring. Without looking around the corner, Pettigrew watched the headlights splash whitely against the hillside as the car sped toward the end of the road a mile upriver. Minutes later the second car came down the grade, made the same skid at the spring, and careened after the first.
Pettigrew considered trying to break back to the main road and away before the patrol cars could turn around, but it didn’t feel right. There might be other patrols about. If he had to abandon the car, he could still climb up the wooded hill and go home through the fields. If they didn’t catch him with his load, they couldn’t prove he was driving.
In minutes the cars came back, slow and deliberate, their spotlights playing around the fishing cabins and outbuildings and garden plots along the road. The sweeping beams threw giant shadows on the hillside pastures. Pettigrew hunkered in the weeds and began to pick a route through the briars and brush to the woods.
Both cars pulled even with the Deacon’s cabin and the lights swept the yard. They focused first on the shack, throwing up sparkles in the imitation-brick tarpaper. Both spots turned in quick succession to the outhouse and the smoke house and finally over the parched garden to the barn.
Sharp blades of light flashed between the barn boards and raked the swept-back Chevy. Pettigrew stiffened into a crouch and got ready to run to the hill. Without warning, a two-way radio squawked. Pettigrew jumped. He could hear the deputies talking back and forth out the car windows. Abruptly, the spots went out and gravel flew as the cars lurched back toward the spring and up the hollow. They wallowed roughly up the grade and went out of hearing over the gap. He slumped back on his heels, hawked a copper-tasting ball of phlegm into the weeds, and groped his shirt for a cigarette.
Pulling on the cigarette, he rose awkwardly. With the cruisers gone, the singing and clapping and shouts carried down the hill in waves. He rubbed his nose and the raw smell of green liquor reached him. He ground the smoke into the grass and stepped to the back of the car.
The trunk was full of boxes. He struck a match and then another, looking for the source of the smell. Low on one of the bottom cases there was a dark spot on the cardboard. He propped a box on the side of the car and extracted a jar from the case underneath. A seep of liquid glinted on the side. He licked it, set the jar atop the car, and repacked the trunk. He moved to a hacked tree trunk beside the woodpile and set down the jar. A chip in the glass lip showed under the sealing ring. He took a mouthful, set the jar on the log, and lit another cigarette.
The uproar at the church soon died to a faint babble, punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter and revving car engines. Even that faded and a bob-white started to call from a fencerow. Pettigrew was lighting another cigarette from the previous one when he heard the gravel rattling on the road. He crushed the butt, pinched out the fresh one, and hunkered down on the log.
“...anyone who can read the Scriptures has got to know the signs are right...” It was Lloyd, talking earnestly. “The atom bomb, the Iron Curtain...women making up and wearing ear bobs and smoking, whorish-like...God just can’t stand for much more of that.”
The second voice was older, still firm but with an occasional quaver.
“Don’t get tangled up with the end times, Son. You got a sweet message. People believe when you preach. Turn them to Jesus and to each other. God will handle the end times.”
The rattle of the gravel ceased as the pair stepped into the yard. Pettigrew cupped his hand to relight the cigarette and tossed the match in a glowing arc toward the pair. Startled, they turned toward him.
“Here, Son, watch that fire. It’s too dry.” The old man stepped on the match. Pettigrew ignored the Deacon and turned to Lloyd.
“Save any souls tonight, Cousin?”
Lloyd grimaced. “What are you doing here?” He wouldn’t meet Pettigrew’s eyes. Sweat had plastered his white shirt to his back, and his dark, skinny tie was blacker toward the collar. He stripped the tie from around his neck and put it and a limber leather Bible inside the door of the shack. He turned and picked up a cane pole that was leaning against the wall.
“Here, Cuz.” Pettigrew extended the jar to Lloyd. “Yeah, the night got a little too warm for me, too. I thought I might come down and wet a line with you boys till it cools off a little bit.”
Lloyd turned away from the outstretched arm. Pettigrew tilted the bottle and swallowed. “Why didn’t you bring a couple of Holy Roller gals with you? Can’t you preach them into the ticking?”
Lloyd mopped his forehead with a kerchief and turned to the Deacon. “Let’s go. I need to fish.”
Pettigrew laughed. “If we can’t hook a soul or roll one of them sweet little holies, maybe we can snag a bass.”
The Deacon put a hand on his shoulder. “Son, if you want to fish, let’s fish. If you want to talk like that, go back to your honkytonks. Leave him be.”
Pettigrew shrugged. He stood up and stretched, then stooped and retrieved a pole and tackle box from under the cabin. He followed the others across the road to the spring and down the bank to where the johnboats were tied.
The Deacon got in one with Pettigrew, and Lloyd took the other. They rowed easily downriver about a hundred yards to a high limestone bluff, where the bare, broken limbs of a sunken tree poked bonelike from the dark water. They tied up to the tree and the old man lit a kerosene lantern. He propped an oar at an angle and hung the lantern from it.
Pettigrew fished from the end of one boat, casting into the faster currents of the river. On the other end, the Deacon cast toward the bank in still water under the bluff. Upstream a few yards, close enough to take advantage of the lantern but out far enough not to tangle lines, Lloyd cast from the other boat.
For the first hour, no one got a bite. They sat without talking, the only sounds the river purling underneath the boats and the occasional sizz of a cast line. Pettigrew relaxed, taking a gulp of the liquor now and then and watching insects lured to the lantern fall onto the water. He liked fishing, the forced monotony that let the pressures ease off. His mind wandered to the fish deep in the water, streamlined, muscular shapes moving unseen among rocks and old logs, feeding, swimming, probing the currents, wary yet at home. He wondered idly what the fish thought when it bit a barbed scrap and was suddenly yanked into a strange world.
Balancing against the sway of the boat, the Deacon stood up stiffly to cast. The lantern jiggled and the circle of light swung drunkenly around the boats. Pettigrew saw the red plastic bobber disappeared from the circle of light. It plopped close under the bluff.
The old man reeled in the line and cast again. Pettigrew grew glum. The man who had taught him and Lloyd to fish, and half the boys within five miles of the Blue Hole, was growing frail. No one had anything bad to say about the old man, except maybe these days they wondered why he kept fishing with Pettigrew.
Pettigrew was baiting his hook when the lantern dropped with a hiss into the water. He grabbed for it instinctively. An abrupt darkness erased bluff and river, and the boat began to rock wildly. In the flurry of movement and darkness, he lost his bearings and slumped back, lightheaded and limp, toward the end of the boat. He felt buoyant and warm, like lying on a rock under a white sun, a blood-orange glow shining through closed eyelids. The night and the river dissolved into the radiance, and he sprawled unaware.
Cold water sloshing down his back brought him to the boat again. He tried to dampen the swaying and see through the blackness.
“Deacon?” He reached toward the other end of the boat. He could hear Lloyd’s oars upriver a short way, quick, panicked splashes growing more and more distant.
Pettigrew’s eyes began to see different shades of dark—the black, looming bluff, the charcoal sky, faintly reflective ripples on the water—but he could not spot the old man. He shook his head.
“Deacon!” Eyes wide, he stared over the water, looking and listening for a thrashing figure or waves from a splash. Nothing. “Deacon-n-n-n.” The call bounced back from the bluff.
Groping in the bottom of the boat, he found and shipped the oars and sculled around the snag, looking for any sign of the old man. “Deacon-n-n. Lloyd. Lloyd, help me.” Without a light, the search was hopeless. He began to row upstream with frantic but steady pulls, aiming for the takeout next to the Blue Hole.
The boat bumped the shore and, as Pettigrew scrambled out to tie it off, his foot slipped backward and he fell heavily into a tangle of brush. He crawled out awkwardly, stinging from scratches on his arms and face.
As he pulled himself up the bank he saw the outline of a dark sedan beyond the spring. A Ford, he thought vaguely, ’53 or ’54. When he staggered onto the gravel road, a spotlight blinded him. A light atop the car began spinning, a red beam strobing on the overhanging trees.
“Stop right there. We need to talk to you.”
The probation officer looked up from his computer monitor and cocked an eyebrow at the old man sitting in a folding chair. “Rufus Pettigrew. Come in. Have a seat.”
Pettigrew stepped into the office and sat in a battered chair in front of the desk.
“You’ve been gone a long time.” The official’s finger traced details in the folder on his lap.
“Forty, almost forty-one years is a long time to be away from a place. You’re going to have a lot to adjust to.” He peered over the stacks of folders on his desk. “Some guys with long sentences find that the Walls seem more like home than the outside world.”
“Yes, sir.” Pettigrew returned the man’s gaze and waited.
“I’ve talked with your relatives and they are OK with this trailer on the river, but I still think you might be better off in a halfway house in Knoxville. I can arrange it.” The man swiveled his chair toward the phone on the table beside him.
“No, sir. No.” Pettigrew leaned forward, almost put out a hand to stop him. “This cabin—I should be OK there. I’ll be out of the way.”
“Suit yourself. I guess there isn’t much trouble you can get into that far back in the country. Remember, no liquor, no firearms. I’ll check in on you next week.” He tossed the folder onto a stack on the floor and stood up. “Come on. I’ve got you a ride.”
Outside Pettigrew looked around. Downtown Dandridge looked the same—the old courthouse where he had been tried, the jail next door where he had been held, the drugstore across the street he could see from his cell. All summer while they searched for the Deacon’s body, Pettigrew had watched the store, the customers coming and going, the shopkeepers gathering for coffee in the mornings, laughing and joking. Every morning the youngest counter girl in a frilled white apron and bobby socks would come out to sweep the sidewalk in front of the display windows.
“Over here.” The probation officer motioned him to a dirty white van with a fading Department of Corrections logo on the side and opened the door. Pettigrew shoved his suitcase in and slid over against the window behind the driver.
“I’ll see you next week. Uh—fasten your seatbelt.” The official slapped the top of the van and the driver cranked the engine. Pettigrew swayed a little as it lurched into gear.
Little on the drive from Dandridge to New Market was familiar. Twisty State Route 92 that wrapped itself around the knobby hills and fields crossing Dumplin Valley had been replaced with a wide, evenly-graded highway that shouldered its way through the landscape. There was a brick high school campus that was new to him and a golf course where he remembered a dairy farm. Only the profile of Bays Mountain was familiar, but it was pincushioned with towers and water tanks.
Pettigrew was in New Market before he realized it. The van turned off the four-lane and went through a narrow, arched railroad underpass. The Holston highlands looked the same, with cattle grazing acres of rolling pastureland and the occasional cornfield or tobacco patch. Some of the two-story frame farmhouses looked familiar, but the columned brick mansions now set in the middle of green fields looked garish and out of place.
The van topped a rise and began a long downward grade. Far down in a line of trees, Pettigrew glimpsed the Holston. The church still sat in the saddle where the road forked; the front had been veneered in red brick, and a handicapped ramp angled down the side of the building. Like the road, the parking lot had been asphalted.
As he turned down the right fork, the driver spoke for the first time.
“I guess what they say is true, hunh?” The driver looked at Pettigrew through the rearview mirror.
“About returning to the scene of the crime.”
Pettigrew looked hard at the mirror. The driver’s eyes were crinkled, as if he were smiling. Pettigrew grunted and looked out the window again. The van began the steep descent toward the river. It skirted the spring at the bottom of the hill and passed a thicket of sumac saplings that almost hid a decaying tarpaper shack. Down the road, the driver pulled up next to a humpbacked trailer a few hundred yards farther along the river. It was surrounded by a tin-roofed screened porch with a sprung door and dead leaves gathered in the corners.
“I reckon this is your cousin’s place.” The driver put the van in park.
Without looking at the man, Pettigrew climbed out and retrieved his suitcase.
The turbines at Cherokee Dam several miles upriver had been shut down, and the Holston had dropped. Small rafts of bleach bottles were beached in debris along the banks and tatters from plastic grocery bags fluttered from underbrush along the water’s edge. Long rows of strata were exposed like broken dams angled across the river, and half a dozen gulls were feeding noisily on the exposed shoals.
Pettigrew was standing on one of the tilted, tablelike slabs, fishing a broad pool in its lee. He’d caught three bluegill and was pulling in a fourth when he heard a yell from the bank. A tall figure in tan was standing beside the white state van and hailing him.
“Pettigroo-o-o.” The call echoed off the hill above the river. “Hey, Pettigroo-o-o-o.”
He yanked the fish up on the rock, removed the hook, and added it to the stringer before turning to look back at the shore.
The man motioned him to shore. He picked up the fish and began to make his way back to the bank, tracing a twisty route, stepping from block to tilted block across flowing channels.
At the shore, the dirt bank was slick and he shifted the stringer and rod to one hand and steadied his climb with saplings on the bank.
“Rufus, I reckon you didn’t recognize me the other day.”
Pettigrew gained the roadway and looked at the man. He was tall and big-boned, graying, stout at the beltline, dressed from head to foot in a uniformlike khaki jump suit. Pettigrew searched for something familiar in his features, trying to imagine the face as it would have looked 40 years ago. He prepared to extend his hand.
“It’s Ray Townsend.”
Pettigrew stiffened slightly and stifled the gesture. He turned and started walking up the road toward his place. Townsend followed. They passed a couple of rundown fishing cabins set on poles on the riverside. Pettigrew stepped onto his porch. Townsend followed him without invitation.
“What you need?”
“They sent me over to check on you. How does it feel to be out, Rufus?”
Pettigrew put the fish in a bucket of water and turned to his visitor.
“How did it feel when they let you out, Deputy? I heard you did time yourself on marijuana charges.”
Townsend looked away for a second and then faced him again.
“I suspect my time in federal custody was a pie supper compared to yours inside the Walls.”
Pettigrew hung his fishing rod from a nail on the porch post. He didn’t turn around. For a moment he could almost smell the cellblock, a complex mix of sweat and tobacco smoke, disinfectant and sour mop. Townsend sidestepped to get a better view of Pettigrew’s face.
“I’ve come to clear up some things I’ve wondered about. I’m way past doing anything to you now. We found your car behind the barn, we found the liquor, but we never did find the Deacon. I just want to know what you did with the body.”
“Nothing. I didn’t do nothing.”
“You didn’t get the old man’s money. I know. I took it myself after you had already gone to Brushy. He had it hid in a coffee can behind the smokehouse.”
“I didn’t look for it.”
“Why else would you kill him? Pure meanness?”
“I didn’t kill him. I don’t know what happened to him.” Pettigrew reached for a filleting knife. His hand trembled.
“Huh. You went out on the river with the old man. You come back without him. You told us that much yourself.” Townsend’s voice was detached, matter-of-fact, as if he was explaining something to a jury. “I knew when the spotlight hit your face. Something scared the piss out of you. And you were cut up like you’d been fighting a wildcat. I always figured you left him in the deep water under the bluff; that’s got to be the place. We couldn’t snag him with the hooks. And he never showed up downriver.”
Pettigrew glanced toward the door.
“Look, I didn’t kill him, but I paid the state’s price anyway. They let me go. Now you get out of here.”
Townsend paused in the door.
“They just let you go because you’re too old to hurt anybody anymore.”
The Blue Hole was about a mile from his trailer, and once a day Pettigrew walked to it along the river road. He had pledged himself to stay active. He always looked away when he saw the nursing home on the four-lane in Jefferson City.
A small, shiny foreign car passed him as he rested on the railing above the spring. The young couple inside were having a lively conversation, gesturing and laughing. The car had a decal from the Baptist college in the rear window and stickers on the bumper. He squinted to read: “God Is My Co-Pilot,” “In Case of RAPTURE, This Car Will Be Unmanned.”
Pettigrew walked briskly back to the trailer. By the time he got there, the car was parked in a pull-off just past his cabin. The couple was gone but he heard their laughter out on the river. He spied them on a blanket spread across one of the flat slabs at mid-river.
He busied himself, washing his breakfast plate, making the bed, and sweeping out the trailer. Then he moved outside and began to sweep the porch. He was almost finished when he glanced to the rock where the couple were sunning.
Both appeared to be dozing; she was nestled under his arm with an open book shading her eyes. Water lapped at the bottom of their blanket, and the rock ridges were disappearing as the river rose.
“Hey,” he hallooed. “Hey! You’uns! on the rock. Hey!”
They didn’t respond at first but after a few moments the girl looked toward him. He heard a faint yelp when she saw how high the water was. Pettigrew threw himself down the bank and began to make his way across the rocks toward them. The boy was gathering the blanket and their textbooks.
“Let it go! Let it go!” The boy paid him no heed.
The girl moved ahead of the boy from rock to rock. Pettigrew reached her as the river began to cover the slabs. With water flowing around their ankles, he guided her to surer footing. Clutching blanket and books, the boy followed as best he could. At the bank, a book tumbled into the river. Before it could drift off, Pettigrew pulled it out soaked and dripping. He helped them up to the road.
“That water’ll surprise you when they start making electricity at the dam.”
“Thank you, Mister. You were meant to be here today.” The boy shook himself energetically, almost dancing with relief. “God sent you to look after us.”
“You’re our angel.” The girl threw her arms around his neck. She smelled of flowers and powders and softness. He coughed and waved a hand.
“Here’s your book. I’m afraid it’s ruint.” He looked at the limp paperback in his hand: Left Behind.
The girl pushed it back at him.
“Why don’t you keep that. You might want to read it. It’s about the Rapture, when Jesus will come back for his chosen.” She gave the boy a conspiratorial smile. He took her hand.
Pettigrew watched them get into the little car and drive away. He retreated to the trailer, turning aside to drop the sodden book into the can where he burned his trash.
Pettigrew was fishing from an aluminum johnboat chained to the bank next to one of the other cabins. Upriver at Cherokee Dam, the turbines were turning, and the river was at full flood. The weekenders kept their boats chained and padlocked, but he could push out into the current as far as the chain would take him.
He had fished for four hours and was beginning to think he might have to open a can of Bush’s beans for supper when he hooked half a dozen decent bluegills in quick succession.
As he pulled the chain and brought the boat back to the bank, he heard a car coming along the river road. He looked up to see a late-model sedan, slope-shouldered and shiny, pass slowly. He raised a hand automatically, but it wasn’t any of the regulars who came to the cabins on weekends to fish and drink.
He took his fish to the back porch and cleaned them, scraping the guts into a bucket and putting the fish in a shallow wash pan. He slung the entrails back into the river, set down the bucket, and carried the pan inside to the two-burner gas stove. As he got out an iron skillet, he heard the car pass again, back the way it had come, still going slow. The oil was smoking in the skillet and he was rolling the last of the fish in seasoned meal when he heard a step on the porch.
Pettigrew started when he heard his nickname.
“Is that you, Rufus?”
He reached for a towel and brushed the breading off his hands back into the bowl.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me. Lloyd. It’s Lloyd.” A balding, portly figure was silhouetted in the door. “Somehow, I knew I’d find you ’round here.”
Pettigrew grunted and motioned him into the trailer.
“How are you, Lloyd?”
“Not bad for a fat old man with too many debts. How are you, Ruff?” Lloyd seized his hand and reached out with his left to knead Pettigrew’s shoulder. “I heard you’d come home. It’s good to see you.”
“Can I get you some supper? I was just about to eat.”
“No, no, you go ahead. I got a touch of sugar and...” Lloyd looked at the fish sizzling in the skillet. “Well, I might eat a little.”
Pettigrew poured oil into another small skillet and turned on the oven. He pulled a half gallon of buttermilk out of the cooler, brought out a canister of meal, and began mixing a recipe of cornbread.
“Let me have some of that. I haven’t had any in years.”
Lloyd poked through the cabinets until he found a couple of jelly glasses and poured buttermilk into them. He put Pettigrew’s on the table and took a long pull on his.
“Brenda don’t even keep sweet milk anymore. She buys that zero percent stuff. Tastes like chalk.”
The grease spattered and popped when Pettigrew poured in the cornbread batter. He shoved the small skillet into the oven, then took up the fish, and opened a can of Bush’s turnip greens into a small pot. When the smell of the bread began to drift through the trailer, he took it out of the oven and turned it onto a plate, sliding a table knife under it to keep the bottom from sweating. He moved the bread and greens to the table and got out vinegar and margarine.
“Such as it is, here it is,” he said by way of blessing.
Lloyd cut the cornbread in pie-shaped pieces, then moved a slab to his plate. For several minutes they didn’t speak as they filled their plates and ate. Lloyd ate with relish, and Pettigrew ceded him four of the fish.
“Mighty fine, mighty fine. Puts Red Lobster to shame.” Lloyd pushed back a little but then took another wedge of cornbread. “I don’t fish anymore. Got all the gear and a nice bass boat, but I just can’t make the time to get out on the lake.”
Using the bread as a sop, Lloyd leaned over the plate to let the crumbs and pot liquor drop back onto the plate. Pettigrew put down his fork and pushed back, and they lapsed into a companionable silence.
“Do you ever think back about that night?” Lloyd looked up at Pettigrew from under bushy eyebrows.
Pettigrew gave a noncommittal shrug and let his eyes drift away from the table.
“Do you ever think about what we witnessed?” Lloyd was going to talk about it whether he answered or not.
“I’d preached it, shouted it, sweated it, breathed it in and out. God was going to come back soon and claim his chosen and leave the rest of the world to the Tribulation. Ye know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man cometh.” For a moment Lloyd’s voice became sonorous, cadenced. He looked at Pettigrew. “But now we do know—September 7, 1953, around 1 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. He came, just as he said, just as I said. Only he didn’t take me.”
Lloyd pinned Pettigrew with an earnest stare. Pettigrew glanced away and shifted in his chair. Lloyd looked to the ceiling.
“I was mad for a while, but pretty soon it was a relief. The emotion, the self-inspection, the details—all behind me. The last night of the revival I packed my duffle, kissed Mama, and moved to Dalton, Georgia.” He reached into a back pocket and dragged out a red kerchief. “The carpet mills were hiring and I made a little extra trading cars. Pretty soon I had a small lot and was able to quit the mill. With a little help from Brenda’s daddy, I bought a Chevy dealership.” He daubed at his mouth.
Pettigrew poured more buttermilk in their glasses. He looked up at Lloyd, caught his eye and held his gaze.
“Why didn’t you step up for me?”
Lloyd looked at his plate and then around the immaculate trailer before he met Pettigrew’s eyes.
“Ruff, they’d lock up a Holy Roller preacher as quick as they’d lock up a bootlegger. Think about it. Would you believe it if you hadn’t been there?”
Pettigrew didn’t answer.
“No, I knew then that my call was at an end. Now there’s not even an echo left. I go to the Episcopal church. They put on a good show on Sunday mornings and they buy pricey cars. My youngest is a sophomore at Vanderbilt and, when she’s finished, I’m going to sell the dealership and me and Brenda will move to Hilton Head for good. I’ve got enough to see me through to the end.”
Both men were quiet for several minutes. Lloyd looked up.
“What about you? You were there, too.”
Pettigrew let the silence rest between them.
“Did you regret going up for a man you didn’t murder?” said Lloyd as the pause lengthened.
Pettigrew absentmindedly blotted up cornbread crumbs with a finger and looked down. His eyes lost their focus and he spoke slowly, as if trying to read a sign that was far off.
“I didn’t hurt the Deacon but, hell, I was rough. I killed a bootlegger from Cocke County. We tied a couple of cinderblocks to him and threw him off Swann’s bridge. I always figured I was where I was supposed to be, just not for the right crime.”
Lloyd played with a fork and looked at Pettigrew.
“When I got to Brushy, I joined a prayer group. A lot of the new ones did. Hoping a jailhouse conversion would yank me out of that hellhole and back among the living. Later, when they moved me to the main prison, I did a lot of reading, but I never could find any record of people disappearing. But then 144,000 ain’t a lot of people, even in 1953.”
Lloyd nodded sympathetically but remained quiet. The sheet metal roof gave a pop.
“It burned something out of me. It made me want things I’d never wanted before, things you couldn’t have where I was. When you miss your chance, it’s gone. This place is as close as I ever was to it.” He looked around the tidy trailer. “As close as I’ll ever be.”
They sat silent a few minutes. Pettigrew began to clear the table.
“I appreciate the supper.” Lloyd stood by the door and held out his hand. Pettigrew put a hand on his shoulder and guided him through the door to his car.
“You look after that diabetes.” Pettigrew let a ball of spit fall from his lips to the pavement. Lloyd did likewise.
“We’ll see you, Rufus.”
The water was still up when Pettigrew went to the river in the morning. Fog rose in jagged tendrils from the surface, dancing crookedly against the brightening sky.
Downriver, the cliff beyond the spring was still in shadow. Setting his can and pole down carefully on a boat seat, Pettigrew looked at the bluff for a long moment, thinking about his supper with Lloyd. He stooped abruptly and picked up the chain that fastened the boat to the bank and gave it a jerk. Again, long and hard, he yanked at the chain and the boat began to move back toward the shore. Pettigrew strained, and the muscles in his neck grew taut, but the padlock held, and the iron stob buried deep in the bank did not loosen. After another yank, he gave up and dropped the chain.
The boat swung downstream with the current, the water burbling underneath. Pettigrew studied the river’s swell and play. Sometimes it dropped low enough for herons to fish the shoals mid-river and sometimes it rose high to gnaw away the bank, swirling around a snag, sweeping away refuse or carrying down treasures, supplying supper or denying, hiding secrets. Whatever it did, it was always there, a constant.
Pettigrew looked to the hills above him, terraced where generations of cows had cropped grass on the shaley slope. The top of a tall sycamore caught the first sun coming over the ridge. Across the river, a small hawk was patrolling the bottoms.
His head bent, Pettigrew put a hand over his eyes. He sighed, then lifted his shoulders and relaxed. He picked up the pole and baited the hook.
Bill Dockery is a native East Tennessee writer and journalist who explores the way religion, literature, and geography intermix in Appalachia. His day job is writing about research for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. An earlier version of “In Case of Rapture” won a graduate writing award in the UT English Department in the mid-2000s.