3

As Howell drove into Sutherland a red-brick, white-columned colonial house appeared on the lake side of the road, its back garden rolling down to the water. Near the road a black gardener was being supervised by a tall, elderly man with a fringe of white hair. This had to be Eric Sutherland, the power company owner and, from what Denham White had said, defacto ruler of the town which bore his name. “Better call on the old man and pay your respects,” Denham had advised. “He’ll be your landlord, in a manner of speaking, and he likes to know who’s treading on his turf.” On impulse, Howell stopped the station wagon and got out. Might as well get it over with.

“Mr. Sutherland?” He approached and offered his hand. The man grunted and took the hand gingerly. “My name is John Howell. My brother-in-law, Denham White, has offered me his cabin up here for a few weeks, and he suggested I drop by and say hello.”

Sutherland glanced at the heavily loaded station wagon. “Looks like you could be homesteading, Mr. Howell.”

“Well, yes, I suppose it does. I should be here for about three months, and I didn’t want to make any unnecessary trips back to Atlanta.” Howell nodded toward the lake. “What a beautiful setting. I understand this is all your handiwork.”

“Yes, it is,” Sutherland replied, without modesty, “and God couldn’t have done a better job.” He didn’t seem to take much pleasure in his achievement, Howell thought. “I like the folks who come up here to do their part in keeping it as it is.”

Howell smiled. “Well, I’ve no plans to change anything.”

“Yankee, are you?” asked Sutherland.

“No sir, North Carolina, originally. Chapel Hill. Guess my accent has gotten a little scrambled with my travels.” Shit, the old bastard had him on the defensive already.

“I knew your father-in-law; damned good man.”

Howell nodded. “So I hear. He died before I met my wife.” Howell had heard nothing of the kind. Denham White Senior had been a ruthless buccaneer of a businessman; not even his own children had had a kind word to say about him. Howell figured anybody who remembered him as a “damned good man” bore watching himself. “Well, it’s nice to have met you, sir,” he said, starting to turn toward the car. But he had not yet been dismissed.

“I believe you’re a newspaper reporter,” Sutherland said, staring right through him. “What do you think you might have to report on in these parts?”

“No sir, I’ve been out of the newspaper business for a couple of years, now. I’m writing free lance; that’s why I’m up here. I’m working on a book.”

“And what is the subject of your book? Wouldn’t be anything local, would it?”

Howell was a bit taken aback by Sutherland’s increasing hostility. “Oh, no, sir. It’s a novel. I’m… not quite ready to talk about it just yet. Superstitious, I guess.”

Sutherland gazed at him in silence for a moment. “We’ve already got too much superstition around here,” the old man said. “Good day.” Abruptly, he turned and walked toward his house.

As the man walked away, Howell reflected that, in his experience, people who didn’t like reporters usually had something to hide. He tried to shake off the thought. He wasn’t up here to report on anything; he had other work to do.

He drove slowly through the little town, a neat, prosperous-looking place with the usual assortment of stores and businesses for a small, north Georgia town, but with a difference. The business districts of Georgia towns were not, in general, very pretty. The shops and offices grew up out of necessity rather than by plan, and if one merchant had some sense of taste and style, his next-door neighbor usually didn’t, creating a hodge-podge that averaged out as plain, or sometimes, plain ugly. But Sutherland, Georgia looked as though someone had worked out a uniform architectural plan on main street. The buildings were all consistent in style, and there were no neon or other garish signs. Instead, the name of each business was lettered in the same typeface. There were old-fashioned gas lights here and there and park benches scattered along the street where elderly people took the sun. The effect was pleasing, Howell thought, if a little artificial, and it seemed to have grown out of one mind. He had not much doubt that the mind was Eric Sutherland’s. Still, if Sutherland the man didn’t radiate much charm, Sutherland the town did, and he liked it. Following Denham White’s instructions, he continued through the town and along the mountainous north shore of the lake until he came to a crossroads with a mailbox marked “White”. He turned left and drove downhill through dense woods toward the water. Suddenly, after a few hundred yards, he came around a sharp bend and had to brake hard. The road simply disappeared into the lake. He sat, bemused by this circumstance, thinking it was Denham’s idea of a joke. Then he looked to his right, and there, at the end of a few yards of overgrown drive, was the cabin.

It sat right at the lake’s edge, seeming to lean into the steep slope of the hillside. A deck reached out over the water, supported by piles; a motorboat covered with canvas rested under it; an open woodshed next to the front door contained three logs. Howell groaned at the thought of chopping wood. He backed the wagon into the drive and got out. The place was certainly ramshackle, but not as bad as he had imagined. He climbed the steps, testing each with his weight. Sturdy enough. The key worked smoothly in the lock. He stepped into a room which ran the length of the cabin, perhaps twenty feet, and was half as wide. A large fieldstone fireplace dominated the wall facing the lake. Light poured in through windows which ran the length of the room, overlooking the deck and the lake. On either side of the fireplace was a door. The first opened into a decently equipped kitchen, the second into a bedroom.

The whole place was furnished with what looked like remnants of various White households. There were an old, leather Chesterfield couch and a couple of beat-up armchairs in front of the fireplace. A large round table sat near the kitchen door, surrounded by eight chairs, three of which matched. At the far end of the room there was a small rolltop desk and an office chair. Next to the desk was an old-fashioned player piano with a stack of dusty rolls on top. The bedroom contained a double bed, a bureau, and a room-width length of iron pipe concealed by a curtain, making an ample closet. A bathroom led off the bedroom. He tried the bed. Not bad. In fact, the whole place was not bad. Denham White had been too modest about his building skills. Oh, there probably wasn’t a square angle in the place, Howell thought, but it was snug and comfortable. Everything he needed. For a small moment he felt uprooted, forlorn. Quickly, he gathered himself up and went about getting settled. An hour later the wagon was unloaded, his clothing put away, and the word processor sat in its boxes next to the desk. Tomorrow would be soon enough for that. He sat down at the piano and played a few chords. Needed tuning. He had played in a dance band in college, but since, only at the occasional party. He pumped the pedals. Nothing happened.

He went into the kitchen and opened cupboards. Dishes, jelly glasses, the usual for this sort of place. There was a curtained-off pantry at the end of a counter. Howell brushed it open and found a dismantled outdoor grill, half a sack of charcoal, and a double-barreled shotgun. He stood, looking at the weapon as if it were a deadly snake. There was a sourness in his stomach, a weakness in his knees. He would have to share this place with that thing, that black, shiny, tempting instrument, that key to the Big Door, that way out. He had owned a pistol until recently; he had thrown it off a bridge into the Chattahoochee River, afraid to have it handy. He jerked the curtain back into place and resolved to forget that it was there.

There was no food in the place, and he needed to go into Sutherland anyway. In town, he found an attractive little shopping center with a large supermarket. He was puzzled by an extremely large display of electric heaters in the hardware department. Ten bags of groceries in the car, he stopped at the post office to tell them who and where he was, then at the locally-owned telephone exchange to ask them to turn on the phone in the cabin. On his way back he stopped at a Sinclair station for gas.

A wizened little man with snowy hair stopped fixing an inner tube and shuffled out to the car. “Fill ‘er up with the high-test and check the oil and water, please,” Howell said, as he got out of the car to stretch. There was another man tilted back in a chair against the building, whittling.

“Lotsa groceries, there,” the white-haired man said as he started the gasoline pump. “You staying around?”

“Yep, up at Denham White’s place on the lake, near the crossroads.”

The man’s brow furrowed and he shook his head. “Better you than me, friend,” he said.

“Huh?”

“I know young Denham,” the man said, seeming not to want to pursue his first remark. “His daddy used to come up here and hunt with Mr. Sutherland. I used to run dogs for ‘em. He’s under the lake, now, Mr. White.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Under the lake.”

The other man got up and walked over. “Passed on,” he said. “Local expression. I’m Ed Parker. You staying with us for a while, then?”

“A few weeks.”

“I’m Benny Pope,” the little man said. “Hope we’ll have your business while you’re here.” He looked at Ed Parker to see if he’d said the right thing.

Parker smiled at him. “Benny’s my number one salesman,” he said.

As Parker spoke, another car pulled into the station, and a man wearing a tan gabardine suit and a Stetson hat got out. “Fill ‘er up, Benny,” he said, then turned and looked at Howell.

“Aren’t you John Howell?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“Recognized you from your picture in the paper. I’m Bo Scully. I used to read your stuff in the Constitution.” He stuck out his hand. “I liked it,” he grinned, “most of the time.”

“Most of the time ain’t bad,” Howell laughed, taking the man’s hand. “That’s more often than my editors liked it.”

“How come I don’t see your column any more?”

“Oh, I left the paper a couple of years ago. I’m staying out at Denham White’s place for a few weeks, working on a book.“

“Well, that’s a right nice place out there; nice view,” Scully said. “Say, I was just going across the street to Bubba’s for a cup of coffee. Join me? Benny’ll park the car for you.”

Howell shrugged. “Sure. I could use a sandwich, too. Missed lunch.”

“Bubba will feed you,” Scully said, starting across the street. He was a big man, six three or four, Howell reckoned, with the musculature of an ex-athlete, fading red hair with a touch of gray; an open, freckled, Irish-looking face; probably in his mid-forties. Howell came up to his shoulder. Scully ushered him into the cafe. “Bubba, this is John Howell, you remember, the columnist for the Constitution?” Bubba waved from behind the counter. “Fix him one of your best cheeseburgers. How you like it, John?”

“Medium is fine.” Howell heard a loud click and looked toward the back of the place where a couple of men were moving around a pool table. Howell had followed up stories in a hundred places like this in little towns across the south. It smelled of chili and stale cigarette smoke. The church-going people of the town would think it was a fairly disreputable place, but a man could get a cold beer here, and Howell liked it.

“Medium, Bubba, and two cups… could you use a beer, John?”

“Sure.”

“A beer and one cup of coffee and a beer. I’m working this afternoon.” He showed Howell to a booth. “So, what sort of book brings you up this way?”

Howell told him what he had told Sutherland.

“A novel, huh? Guess you don’t want to talk about what it’s about.”

“Not yet, I guess. How many people live in Sutherland, anyway?”

“Oh, round about four thousand, now, I guess, what with the new hair curler factory that opened up this spring.”

“Much industry?”

“Much as Mr. Sutherland wants.”

“He decides that sort of thing?”

“He decides pretty much what he wants to. Mr. Sutherland is responsible for the prosperity we’ve got here.”

“You mean the lake, the tourists it brings?”

Bo Scully chuckled. “Tourists are just about the last thing Mr. Sutherland wants. They’re noisy, dirty. There’s a public beach way down the other end by the fish camp, but that’s it. The power company owns the whole lake shore and leases lots to those folks Mr. Sutherland feels are all right.”

“Then what’s the source of the prosperity?”

“The dam. That was built with Sutherland family money, and it’s owned by Sutherland Power. They wholesale the electricity to the Georgia Power Company, which brings in a bunch of money, you can bet your ass.”

“I can see how it would,” Howell replied.

“The nice part for the town is that Sutherland Power sells electricity dirt cheap, locally. With what’s happened to fuel prices since the Arabs got mean, you can imagine what a magnet that would be for industry to come in here.”

“That must be why the supermarket sells so many electric heaters.”

“You bet. There’s not a gas stove or furnace in the town. Most folks have got heat pumps and electric furnaces, and those who don’t use electric room heaters. It wouldn’t even pay to chop your own wood around here, unless you’re just a romantic who likes to gaze into a fire.”

“Speaking of chopping wood, you know anybody I could get to stock up the cabin?”

“Sure, ol‘ Benny, across at the gas station’ll do it. He’s got a chain saw, picks up a few bucks cutting Wood for the summer folks. Up here, it can get pretty chilly at night, even in July.”

“Great. So what industries do you have locally?”

“Well, like I said, there’s the new hair curler factory, and there’s a brassiere factory, and we’ve got a big plant that manufactures plywood, too.”

“That’s it? With the cheap power, I’d have thought you’d be crawling with industry.”

“Like I said, Mr. Sutherland makes those decisions. He only lets new business in when he’s ready to develop a new section of town, and he’s pretty choosy about what he lets in. Last year one of the girlie magazines wanted to open up a big printing plant down here, but Mr. Sutherland wouldn’t have it. He’s got a puritan streak, he has, although he’ll take a drink. Throws a big party out at his place every fall and serves booze. We’re a wet town, too; man can get a drink – not a mixed drink, mind you, but a bottle.”

Thank God for small mercies, Howell thought. “How long has the lake been here?” Howell asked.

“They started the dam after World War II, as soon as they could get materials again. Filled it up in’52.”

“Looks older than that.”

“It does, doesn’t it? But we’ve got clear mountain water feeding it, you know, not your muddy Chattahoochee. I think the mountains help, too. It was a deep little valley before the lake.”

“What was in the valley before?”

“Just farms, a few houses, a country school, a church. The town of Sutherland hardly existed. It’s mostly been built since, because of the lake. The lake has been a grand thing for us. We’re grateful to it every day, I can tell you.”

“Did Sutherland have any problems putting the land together when he built the dam?” Scully’s reaction made Howell think he had hit a nerve.

Scully looked down into his coffee and took a deep breath. “Oh, there’s always a few malcontents in a case like that, I guess. Folks were well compensated for their land, though. Got better’n market value.” He looked up at Howell. “Don’t let anybody tell you different.”

Howell wondered if they had been compensated at anything like the rate that Eric Sutherland had been for the use to which he had put their land. Since Scully seemed uncomfortable with the subject, Howell changed it. “You look like you might have played some football, Bo.”

“Oh, yeah,” the big man replied, smiling again. “I played in high school, and I played two years down at Georgia for old Wally Butts. Made all-conference my sophomore year.”

“What happened? Get hurt?”

“Flunked out.” He grinned ruefully. “Not even Wally Butts could save me. That was in ‘50. Korea was happening. They were about to draft me, anyway, so I joined the Marines.”

“Action?”

“Oh, sure. There was plenty of that to go around.”

“You came out in one piece, though.”

“Well, I got my Purple Heart. Didn’t pay too dearly for it, though. I’ll tell you the truth, it was worth it to get out of there. Police action, my ass. They should’ve sent cops.” Scully glanced at his watch and made to get up.

Howell suddenly didn’t want him to go. He needed the company, the conversation; he didn’t want to go back to that cabin and be alone. “What do you do with yourself, Bo?” he asked, willing the man to stay a little longer.

“Oh, I’m the sheriff,” Bo Scully said, laughing and getting to his feet. “Better keep your nose clean, boy, or I’ll put you under the jail.” He punched Howell playfully on the shoulder. “Well, I’ve got half the county to cover. I’ll see you around, I ‘spect. Bubba, put John’s lunch on my tab.” Then he was gone.

Howell sat there, trying to raise enough energy to move. He wondered if Eric Sutherland ran the sheriff like he ran everything else. Eric Sutherland seemed like the sort of man who, if you got in his way, would put you not just under the jail, but, as Benny Pope would have put it, under the lake.

Howell went back to collect his car. As he paid for his gas, he asked Benny Pope about the firewood. “Sure,” Benny said. “I’ll run out there on Sunday, if that’s soon enough. I don’t get off here until seven on weekdays, and I ain’t about to get caught out at the cove after dark.”

Howell was about to ask why not when Benny almost snapped to attention. “Afternoon to you, Father,” he said over Howell’s shoulder. Howell turned to see a peculiar sight in a small Georgia town; a Catholic priest, and a very old one, at that.

“God bless you, my son,” the priest said to Benny, making the sign of the cross, then he continued walking down the street, a little unsteadily, Howell thought. Surely there couldn’t be enough Catholics in Sutherland to warrant a full-time priest, and enough for him to worry about to get him looped this early in the day, he thought as he got back into the car.

It had been clouding up all afternoon, and before he could get back to the cabin it began to rain heavily. He got soaked trying to unload the groceries during a lull in the thunderstorm. That night, he ate a can of spaghetti, staring disconsolately into a fire of his only three logs, and washed his dinner down with a bottle of California burgundy. He sat, listening to the rain on the roof. He felt not just cold, but as if he would never be warm again. He had relentlessly painted himself into this corner, leaving first his work, then his wife and home. He had used up what life had given him, spent his good fortune in a profligate way. He had not been able to preserve anything that was important to him, not even his self respect; he had sold that to Lurton Pitts cheaply. Now he had imprisoned himself here in this shabby place, and he knew no one was coming to get him out. He got well into a bottle of Jack Daniel’s before passing out on the sofa, alone with his terrible self-pity.

In the middle of the night Howell jerked awake, ran to the bathroom and retched until he was too weak to rise from his knees. He sprawled on the linoleum floor, his cheek pressed against the cold porcelain of the toilet, still drunk, still sick, and shivering with cold. He tried not to think. That was the trick, he said to himself, struggling to his feet and leaning heavily against the wall, no thinking.

He shuffled out of the bathroom, through the living room, toward the kitchen. Don’t think about the girls you’ve screwed, don’t think about your wife; don’t think about the work and the glory; don’t think back, don’t think forward; don’t think about God or what’s waiting; don’t think at all. He noticed vaguely that it was still raining outside. Don’t think about the rain. He made it to the kitchen and flipped the light switch. Nothing happened. Power failure. He ripped back the curtain and found the cold steel, found the box of fire and lead. He bruised a shoulder on the kitchen door jamb in the darkness, dropped the shotgun, picked it up again, got to the living room.

He sat down on the back of the sofa, facing the lake, and fumbled for the shells. Don’t hesitate, don’t think; one move after the other; no pauses. He got two shells into their chambers. Would it take two? Don’t think about it, keep moving right along. He turned the gun around, rested the stock on the floor, and put the barrels into his mouth. Steely, oily taste. He couldn’t reach the triggers and still keep the barrels where they would do the most good. He kicked off a shoe, ripped off a sock, and felt for the triggers with his big toe, trying twice and failing. His legs were too weak; his foot trembled uncontrollably whenever he lifted it from the floor.

He went to the desk and got a pencil, good old number two, yellow job, schoolboy’s friend. Don’t think about school, childhood; he wedged the pencil between his toes, put the barrels back into his mouth, got the toe-held pencil through the trigger guard, and pushed. The pencil slipped sideways, couldn’t be held by the toes. There was a flash of lightning, illuminating everything, making the barrels gleam, huge sticks of licorice protruding from his mouth. Finally, he got the pencil back into the trigger guard, froze it there for a moment, lifted his other foot to the pencil and pushed it against the triggers, hard, with both feet.

Howell thought he wouldn’t hear anything, but it was the loudest noise he had ever heard. He let go of the shotgun, fell over the back of the sofa, and sprawled on the floor. The noise, incredibly, still in his ears. The windows and french doors rattled violently.

Thunder, unbelievable thunder, and he was still alive. Why hadn’t the shotgun gone off?

He struggled to his feet and started around the sofa to find the shotgun; then he stopped. It had gone very quiet. It was pitch dark, but he knew absolutely. There was someone else in the room.

He stood perfectly still, held his breath, and listened. He could hear breathing, and it wasn’t his. He let out the breath as slowly as possible. He opened his mouth and breathed in again. “I know there’s somebody…”

His words turned into an involuntary shout as a blinding-white flash of lightning lit the room for a tiny moment, fixing everything in it in his mind’s eye before winking silently out, leaving him cringing, blinded. He saw it all against the insides of his tightly closed eyelids, the room, the rug, the furniture, and-standing with back not quite turned to him-a child of eleven or twelve, a farm child, in overalls and a blue work shirt, pigtails, a girl, standing at the window, nearly in front of him, eight or ten feet away, ignoring him, gazing out over the lake.

Howell opened his eyes to blind blackness, then jammed them shut again as a roaring explosion of thunder that made the earlier one seem mild assaulted the cabin, violently rattling the windows and the french doors, making him think the glass would go. As he opened his eyes again, another, steadier roar filled the cabin, and, as suddenly as the lightning, the lights came on, causing him to jump and cry out. The child was gone. One of the French doors was open and banging, and water was coming through it. Howell ran to close it, and was soaked by the intensity of the downpour of rain. He put his hands to the glass and looked out over the lake, or where the lake should have been. All he could see was a solid wall of rain, coming down vertically, no wind, the heaviest rain he could remember.

No child should be out in that, he thought, and he started to open the door and look for her, but the density of the rain frightened him, and he hesitated. He backed away from the doors and stood in the middle of the room, wondering whether any roof could take it. For two or three long minutes the rain came down, the sound of it riveting him to the spot. Then it seemed to slacken, and half a minute later, it was no more than an ordinary thundershower.

Howell opened the door and stepped onto the deck, unmindful now of a rain that seemed gentle compared to what had just passed. Brief flashes of lightning illuminated the deck, the lake, and the woods around it. He could not see the girl, and he hoped she was all right. He felt ashamed that he had not gone after her.

He went back into the cabin, took a towel from the still-unpacked linen box and rubbed his face and hair. He cautiously looked into the bedroom and kitchen to be sure he was alone. Every light in the cabin was on, lights he was sure were not burning when he had fallen asleep on the sofa. He picked up the bottle of bourbon and drank directly from it. His heart was still thumping against his chest, and he was breathing so rapidly that he nearly choked on the whiskey. He sat down heavily on the sofa and waited for the warmth of the bourbon. Gradually, his vital signs regained some sort of normality, but he still felt stunned, unable to cope with the image of the child, unwilling to wonder whether he had truly seen her there.

Then he remembered what he had been about before the thunder had interrupted him. He got up and walked around the sofa. The shotgun was gone; so was the box of shells. Had the child taken them? Had she been watching the whole thing, wanting to stop him? He was embarrassed to think that someone had seen him in those circumstances. But why hadn’t the shotgun fired? He remembered, he was certain, the triggers giving way under the weight of his feet on the pencil. The pencil lay at his feet, broken in two. But he was sure the triggers had moved.

Somehow, he didn’t feel cheated; he didn’t want the shotgun back. Something had saved him from that one, mad moment, and he was glad. He walked back around the sofa, got a blanket and a pillow from the linen box, and went about the cabin, turning off lights. He went into the bedroom, stripped off his wet clothes, and threw himself onto the bed, exhausted. In his last moment of wakefulness, he reflected that, a few minutes before, he had hit bottom, and he had bounced.

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