My job that afternoon was to rake leaves for an elderly couple who lived a few miles away from my Grandmother’s farm in central Indiana. They had half a dozen elephant oaks, each one of them a monster, some big shag-bark hickory and a giant maple with pretty red leaves. Mrs. Aurelius set me up with a rake, a box of plastic bags and a pair of her husband’s coveralls. I had my own gloves.
I raked their front yard, their side yard and the barnyard. There was no wind blowing but it was cold. Snow was in the forecast. Nothing fun, just a light dusting: there would still be school the next day. When I had made a pile I would jump into it, roll around and so forth, then bag it up. I gave the bags a considerable number of kicks when I had tied them closed. I also hit the bags, whacked their fat sides with the rake handle, threw them up in the air and bopped them with my fists.
When I had run out of bags I made a pile in the driveway, wadded paper and set it alight. For a time I fed the pile, but then it grew too hot and I went to stand off at a little distance under the eaves of the barn.
“You found my spot,” Mr. Aurelius said. The coveralls he was wearing were identical to mine. Which of course were his. He leaned against the barn beside me and made a little groaning sound. “That heat feels good, doesn’t it?”
I nodded. He said a few things about liking a good fire. That they were pretty and so on. Winnie roasts and so on. Get your hands good and warm and so on. I nodded again. I had this routine with my grandmother where she would say a number of things and then I would nod. Sometimes I would say “huh.” “Huh” was nice because on my grandmother’s end it could mean I was listening and on my end it could mean I was not. I did not say “huh” to Mr. Aurelius but I had it in reserve if I needed it. This was comforting. “Huh” was a great comfort. “Huh,” I thought.
“You’ve been over to Hong Kong,” Mr. Aurelius said. This took me by surprise, but I knew how to answer.
“Yes,” I said.
We were quiet for a time. During this quiet I went over to the pile and fed it some more leaves. Then I went back and stood next to Mr. Aurelius.
“Tell me something about it,” he said. “Tell me something about Hong Kong.”
I was 14 and had been to Hong Kong to spend the summer with my father and stepmother but I had no idea what to say about it.
“Anything about what you did or saw,” he said. “Doesn’t have to be a story or anything like that. No need here for a traveler’s anecdote.”
I shrugged. Scraped the ground with the rake. A chicken having its throat cut and getting thrown in a big plastic bucket came to mind. The thumping of the chicken dying in the bucket came to mind. Whole ox heads sitting unskinned in a bloody row on the floor came to mind. A three-story floating restaurant in a stinking harbor came to mind. A gigantic indoor shopping mall where I spent untold hours by myself not buying anything and earning bored but suspicious looks came to mind. The star ferry, which went back and forth across the dirty harbor, and which I would ride back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. An 8-foot basketball rim in the basement of an apartment building where I had played endless games of solo horse. I told him some of these things and thought of other things I did not tell him and he expressed a good deal of interest in the underground basketball rim, which both pleased and relieved me, and then he fell silent again.
I was feeding more leaves to the fire when he said, “Well you’ve been over to Hong Kong and you’ve seen some things.”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said.
He cleared his throat. I could see the tip of his nose sticking out past the hood of his coveralls.
“But you haven’t seen it all,” he said. “Not by a long shot.”
He laughed a little at this, maybe because we had just been talking about basketball, maybe for some other reason, maybe because he was old and there were things to laugh about when you were old that didn’t correspond to the things you laughed about when you were young.
He turned and I could see part of his wrinkled mouth, one of his watery eyes.
“Did you know I used to be a Sheriff? Over in Tipton County?”
I nodded. I had known no such thing. When you are 14 you don’t like to be caught out.
“This was a long time ago. Old timey days I’ve heard them called. You think there’s strange stuff goes on over there in Tipton County now you ought to have been around back then.”
I hadn’t heard anything strange in particular about Tipton County. I knew they tended to be very tall and that the girls were either good-looking or bearded or could knock you out with one punch, or were the best kissers in Central Indiana, but that was it.
He gave a low whistle.
“Very strange,” he said.
“Huh,” I said.
“I had some tricky cases. Just right over there across the county line.” He pointed with one of his gloved hands. I followed his finger out across the dead cornfields and the fencerows to a bank of gray cloud. I had a John Carter of Mars book at home that I was reading. I would get to read it when I had finished and called my Grandmother to come get me in her blue Toyota station wagon.
“You ever squat?” he said.
“Sit your butt down without hitting ground and kind of rest your legs.”
“They do that in Hong Kong.”
“Well they do it here too. Maybe everywhere. Imagine that. The whole damn world asquat. Let’s ourselves squat a little and I’ll tell you about my most interesting sherriffing case.”
So we squatted. He was over 80 but he slid down the side of the barn next to me like he had just had his joints oiled. I got as many leaves as I could into the fire then joined him. As we squatted there he told me the following story.
There was a killing in those long ago days and it fell to him to investigate. A man, so new to the County no one had gotten a chance to get to know him, had gotten himself stabbed 17 (as they determined later) times and had been found lying with his dead eyes open in a cold frame behind his house. The man lived alone on his spread in the hinterlands but there were a pair of day workers: a hired hand and a woman to cook and clean. The hired man was there everyday, the woman came in 4 times a week. On the day the man died both the hired man and the woman were there. At the time of the crime the hired man had run into town to fetch some lumber to build a door and the woman had been in the basement washing clothes. She had found the body. When Mr. Aurelius had questioned her, he told me, she had been quite shaken, almost unable to speak.
Eventually, though, she had calmed down a good deal and had given her account of the morning (everything had at first seemed normal) and had corroborated the hired man’s story about running into town (which checked out with the lumber company employee they spoke to), but something had not, Mr. Aurelius told me, seemed right to him. He had subsequently made inquiries about her and determined that she lived alone in a house she had inherited from her mother and that she was considered odd or stand-offish (half the time wouldn’t greet you in the street). He had thought about this then he had gone to visit her again that evening to ask some additional questions. He had gone, out of uniform, after dinner, just as evening was falling, and when she opened the door of her little house she stared at him blankly for a moment before (he had reminded her who he was) letting him in. They sat in the front room and she served him coffee and apart from the blank look she had greeted him with everything seemed as it had that afternoon: she repeated what she had said, went through it once again with him, and again gave him the impression that she was not telling the whole story.
She had, Mr. Aurelius told me, a tell. He asked me if I knew what he meant when he said “a tell”, and I told him I didn’t, and he said that was because I didn’t play poker.
“You ought to,” he said.
“All right,” I said.
He told me that he had played a good deal of poker when he was a young Sheriff and that he was good at spotting tells and hers was that she stuck the nail of her thumb under the nail of her little finger and gave a dig. She did this at the same place in the story. It was the beginning of the story when she had left her washing in the basement to go and see what her employer wanted for his dinner. Everything after that was smooth sailing. During the tell she looked him in the eye as much as she did at any other point in the story but at that beginning the one nail would insert itself under the other. He had her go through it one last time and she had told it again and then he had said, “Now it’s time to tell me what happened before you went to see about your employer.”
“What did she say?” I said.
Mr. Aurelius, who had not moved since he started speaking, now stood (without a groan) and said, “I’ll tell you after I go in and fetch us some hot cocoa. You can give the fire another kick. And here’s something to think about while you’re kicking. That young gal was the best-looking thing I’d ever laid eyes on, then or since.”
He walked slowly up to the house. I went over and kicked the fire. As I kicked I thought about that best-looking gal. There were a couple of them, of best-looking gals, at school. One of them I had kissed. This best-looking gal factor gave the story a whole new dimension of appeal. One of the best-looking gals at my school was best looking because of her eyes and hair and high, smooth forehead. The other was best-looking because of everything that was going on down below.
“What did she look like?” I said when Mr. Aurelius had come back with two mugs.
“Got your attention, did I?” he said.
“I’ll leave that portion of it for you to dream on. They have some pretty ones over at Central?”
I nodded again.
“Well then there you go,” he said. He squatted again without spilling a drop of cocoa and went back to the story.
She had not wanted to tell him at first, that was clear. She was scared and said so. He had told her that he would help her and would keep her safe, but that he couldn’t do either if she didn’t let him know what had happened. She had listened to his assurances but had still taken a long time before she was willing to speak. He hadn’t, he said, minded. It was getting late and he was a working man and there was a murderer out there. But she had been just that good looking. The kind of good looking where you didn’t ever want to go anywhere again and started in to wishing that the lord of days and hosts would smite you down where you were so that you would never have to look at or think about anything else again.
God damn, I thought.
Mr. Aurelius gave a little chuckle and didn’t speak for a minute or two and we sipped our cocoa and watched the fire and, I suspect both of us, let the idea of that degree of good-lookingness, which clearly exceeded anything I had seen over at Central, hover in the foreground before us with the ash and the smoke.
He then told me he thought she might have taken a good deal longer to talk and might never have talked had not one of his deputies come by to tell him they had something. The deputy (who had been kept appraised of his whereabouts) had come to her front door in his own off-duty clothes and when she opened the door for him she had looked at him just as blankly as she had, earlier, at him.
“Don’t you recognize me from this morning?” the deputy had said.
“Course I do,” she had said.
“That was when I got it,” Mr. Aurelius said.
“Got what?” I said.
He didn’t answer me directly but continued with the story. The deputy’s lead had been a minor one and he had sent him off to pursue it. He knew now he had the key to the murder standing beside him.
“Did he threaten you?” he had asked her.
She had been silent for a time, had looked at him and had nodded.
“He told me he would kill me if I talked. He had a knife. The knife. It had the blood on it.”
“Who was he?”
“He was going out the side door as I was coming up from the basement. His face had a shadow on it. I didn’t recognize him.”
“Didn’t or couldn’t?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Then why did you say it?”
“Because it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Why couldn’t you?”
“Why couldn’t I what?”
“I know is what I’m trying to say.”
“What did you know?” I asked.
Mr. Aurelius didn’t answer me. Didn’t seem to want to stop talking. To leave where the story had taken him.
“You can’t see my face.”
“Yes I can. There you are.”
“What was he wearing, the man you saw?”
“A hunting coat and a red cap. It had the flaps down.”
“So you couldn’t see his hair. Is that how you tell people apart? By their hair?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“He knew. He knew you wouldn’t be able to recognize him. I bet he didn’t say a word, did he?”
“Not a peep, I reckon.”
“He just held up the knife and put a finger to his lips.”
“Who was it?”
“I can recognize people.”
“Just not their faces.”
“Just not their faces.”
“What is it you see when you look at a face.”
“But you can’t remember it afterward.”
“Every face is the same face.”
“What do you see when you look at my face?”
“I see your face.”
“How does it look?”
“Just like a face.”
“You’re very beautiful.”
“That’s what I see when I look in your direction. When I look at your face.”
“We’re going to go get him.”
The hired man, Mr. Aurelius had told her. The hired man, plain and simple. It had to have been (he had told the woman) someone who knew about her (he said he chose his phrase carefully) “way of seeing.” After he had said this she had tried, one last time, despite all that had already passed between them, to convince him that she didn’t have any special way of seeing, or not seeing, that she was just confused, that the whole thing had been a terrible shock, she hadn’t gotten a good look at the man with the hunting knife, he had stood in the basement shadows, his knife had been bloody and glinting and then she had relented. The next day when he went back (the hired man had been arrested, in possession of a new hunting coat and red cap, along with his confederate from the lumber company, as they had been attempting to make their way south with a thick stack of stolen twenties in a leather sack) she told him that she had been unable to distinguish faces since childhood when she had been struck on the head by a falling two-by-four. Her father, before he had run out on them, had used to beat her because she didn’t always greet him the way a father (he had said) deserved to be greeted. There were, of course, as she had learned over time, many clues that could be used to compensate, but she still passed acquaintances with fresh hairdos and new outfits in the street and couldn’t recognize them. She did this all the time.
Mr. Aurelius trailed off. The fire was all but out. A few flakes of snow were now falling past our faces. I had put up my hood and we both had our hands shoved into the pockets of our coveralls.
“What happened to her?” I said.
“Who?” he said.
He seemed tired. His voice was hoarse. Whatever had been in him when he had started talking had seeped out.
“You ever get something wrong?” he said.
“Wrong how?” I said.
“Make a mistake. A bad call. Wrong when it mattered. Maybe you’re too young.”
Mr. Aurelius groaned a little and stood. I stood too, but without groaning, and thinking about my parents. Whose marriage had ended with overturned tables and screams some years before in a modern house on Rabbit Lane in the Netherlands. I was still under the impression that their separation had been my fault, that I had made some mistake, gotten something crucial wrong. My parents had gone to some lengths to assure me that I was not the guilty party. But then there I was, living with my Grandmother in rural Indiana, getting hired out in the autumn to rake leaves.
“She did it,” I said, hoping to turn the story, which had become troubling, back in the direction of good-lookingness and/or god smiting you down.
“No,” Mr. Aurelius said a little sharply. “It wasn’t her.”
“We had the right man. The right man with the wrong face.”
I looked at him.
“It’s a little unexpected twist for you. Just to show you we got some surprises over here too. That it isn’t all just chickens and buckets in China. She solved it and solved it right for us a few days later when she put together a packet of clothes to send over to the funeral home. Clothes fit the stabbed up man fine, shoes didn’t. Shoes fit the man we had sitting in the county jail though.”
“The hired man wasn’t the hired man,” I said.
“The employer,” he said, “wasn’t the employer.”
“It was the employer who knew she couldn’t recognize faces.”
“And the hired man who had a leather sack stuffed with twenty dollar bills that the employer saw and decided he wanted.”
“Where did he get them?”
“He wasn’t who he claimed to be either. I told you things over there in Tipton Country back then were strange.”
He smiled. I could see how many teeth he was missing when he did so.
“I’m done talking,” he said.
“Is the story done?” I said.
He didn’t answer.
“There’s more to it, isn’t there?”
“Maybe, come back next week, you can chop wood, we’ll talk some more.”
“What happened to her?” I asked him again.
“Who?” he said again.
He handed me the mugs and asked me to take them back into the house, said he had some things to do in the shed. I knocked, got no answer and went into the kitchen, where Mrs. Aurelius was standing under a long fluorescent bulb stirring eggs with a whisk. She heard me and turned.
“Stop telling him your stories,” she said to me. “You’ll scare him off like that other boy and then who will rake our leaves for us?”
I could see now that she had once been very beautiful. That she still was. I nodded. Leaned against the counter. It was a pretty little house. A pretty little kitchen. Outside the snow was now falling in earnest. I wondered if the man who had been found dead in the cold frame had been wearing a hat. There was a lot you could get done with a stack of twenty dollar bills, I thought. The best-looking gal in all the world, I thought. I stood there and watched her whisk her eggs.
LAIRD HUNT's translation from the French of Vacant Lot by Oliver Rohe was recently published by Counterpath. This fall Coffee House Press will rerelease his first novel, The Impossibly.