Master writers say that if a book has a dead body you might as well begin with it because once it's in the room it is the only thing you can see. Author R. Barrett knows this and delivers the barely cold corpse of Jack's friend in the opening pages, and you just know things aren't going to get any better from here. Jack, an ex-lawyer not necessarily of his own making, is in tenable shape. His vision in one eye comes and goes, mostly goes. The backstory and history of the dead man is even worse. Jack's friend is found just miles from his previously killed daughter. Initially ruled as a suicide, of course it’ll add up to much more and an extended family of troubles. With crisp dialogue and a real sense of character, setting, and pacing, Barrett sets the stage for a lasting story in the Ozarks. Barrett was a finalist for the AMAZON Breakthrough Novel contest.
A narrow column of wind kicked down the valley, spilled across the unbroken morning surface of Beaver Lake, whistled gently through the window of a small solitary lake front home, and pushed back the gauzy white curtains to expose the fitfully sleeping Jack Webber to a cinematic Ozark sunrise. Jack had nowhere in particular to be this morning, just as he had nowhere in particular he needed to be any other morning. He had walked away from his law practice ten years ago, after his partners walked away from him. His wife and sons slipped through his fingers while he grasped desperately at the life he once knew. Even in the absence of a job or the necessity of a morning commute, Jack still felt an innate sense of urgency to get up and get on with each new day. Yet, as was his custom, he remained in bed a few minutes more while the neighborhood birds argued about the morning’s catch. Lying still so as to neither aid nor discourage the distant lake in its eternal battle to extend its shores ever closer to Jack’s front porch, he bore silent witness to the daily resurgence of life in and around him.
Jack unconsciously checked off a mental list of the extremities that he could reasonably control, simultaneously checking for new signs of numbness or pain. The morning sun had already brushed across Jack’s face, prying open his eyelids; he had seen birds playing on the rolling thermals building over the lake silhouetted by the encroaching sun. The partial blindness from before had receded. The unexpected heat of the last few weeks had brought with it numbness that sloppily coursed through the right side of Jack’s body. No stranger to this uninvited guest, Jack knew that, by day’s end, the numbness would give way to the static hiss of millions of individual pinpricks that would coalesce into a quivering, parasitic mass of pain. Whether he worked throughout the day or surrendered to the confines of the rocking chair on the porch, by sunset Jack would feel exhausted and beaten, held captive by a constant pain from which there was no escape. The pain was an enemy Jack was willing to take head-on, but he lived in fear of spending his days in darkness.
While Jack’s mind drifted lazily across the lake to the trot-lines he would run later, he listened to the musical movements of the lake around him. The wake of a distant boat gave birth to the percussive waves that would intensify as the day progressed; tree limbs swayed to the rhythms of the gentle breeze now circling through the tree tops, a fly in the windowsill played a desperate, staccato improvisation as it sought escape through the window screen. Above this symphony, Jack could hear the din of an approaching vehicle.
Oscar, the wizened old black man who worked for him, was not due for another half hour or so. College kids, sometimes lost, sometimes drunk, often both, found their way to this side of the lake, but that was unlikely since it was only Thursday morning. The college crowd was more of a weekend animal.
Warren Johnson, sheriff of Carlton County for twenty-six years, was the only other person who regularly braved the narrow unpaved path from the highway to Jack’s house. The sheriff came out a couple of weekends each month to fish with Jack, always announcing his arrival by bottoming out on a scar-topped granite rock jutting up from the middle of the dirt road leading to Jack’s house. Jack heard the confirming, familiar sound of Detroit iron clanging off of unforgiving granite. The sheriff was coming, and this early on a weekday morning that was not a good sign.
Satisfied that most of his body would conform to his commands, Jack slid out of bed, the last intimate breath of the morning’s glow reflecting from his softening but still athletic frame. Jack slipped on a pair of shorts and a garishly colored beach shirt which had been draped over the foot of his bed, and walked barefoot across the cool wooden floor to the kitchen. Company was coming for an official visit, and decorum required a fresh pot of coffee for the offering.
A few moments later the flagship of Carlton County’s law enforcement rolled to a stop under Jack’s kitchen window. Although the Blazer was well-maintained courtesy of the local high school shop class, the body was starting to betray the abuses of its years. As Sheriff Johnson stepped out of his truck, Jack realized ruefully that the same could be said of the sheriff. Warren’s deeply wrinkled face was particularly drawn and somber as he approached the screen door. The smell of freshly brewed coffee spread throughout the house, slowly beating back the musky, spicy morning smells of the old house with its wooden floors and aging walls. Jack sometimes imagined an encroaching decay and deterioration that was hidden deeper than just the last layer of paint, hunkered below the wooden planks of the floor waiting, crammed between the paneling and the outer walls, writhing and entangled around the framing. Some nights, when Jack lay awake in bed, he heard the sounds of his fading mortality within the walls, the steady drum beat of his heart the only mark of the passage of time.
Moving deftly around the small kitchen, Jack called over his shoulder, “Come on in, Warren. Coffee’s fresh.”
The sheriff had been to the house more times than Jack’s own children, but even after all these years, wouldn’t step inside until he had been invited.
“Thanks Jack. I could damn sure use it this morning,” responded a grateful, tired Warren.
Warren Johnson was the consummate southern gentleman. Quiet, with a measured tone and always with a proper handshake and direct greeting, squared off and quietly intense in silent beatitude to the fathers and grandfathers who passed along the tradition of the handshake as though it were some long dead patriarch’s treasured Civil War musket. Whether out of instinct, or of calculation borne from years of wearing a badge, Warren took the opportunity of a handshake to size up every man he met as a potential opponent in a fistfight. Even the dullest or the drunkest, when in close proximity to the sheriff, seemed to sense that in the primal pecking order they were no match for this man.
After siphoning off his first attempt at the fresh hot coffee, Warren studied the inside of his cup at great length, uncharacteristically avoiding eye contact with Jack. Jack had grown to appreciate that Warren was not a man who could be hurried, and went about preparing a light breakfast while Warren pondered whatever it was in his coffee that had so suddenly engaged his attention. The sounds of the morning quietly spilled into the kitchen until Warren was ready to engage.
“Jack, Sid Peters is dead. He was over in Rogers last night. Got drunk, started at least one fight that I know of so far. He was driving home after getting tossed out of the bar, looks like he pointed his truck straight into that big post oak tree off the highway by the old Hewitt place. He never let off the gas.”
“Jesus, Warren! Isn’t that just down the road from…?”
“Just about a mile from where his daughter was killed. I’m sorry Jack. I didn’t want you to hear about it from the crowd at the diner. I know that Sid wasn’t particularly close to anyone in town, but he always respected you and you damn sure had his number,” explained Warren. Jack, now reeling from this news, was also quietly surprised in finding that he was uncertain as to his reaction. Sensing Jack’s confusion, the sheriff continued, “Look Jack, after his Megan was killed, I always figured this for Sid. The surprise is not that he got drunk and wrapped himself around a tree, the surprise is that it took him this long to do it.”
In the distance, the demure grind of Oscar’s pickup preceded the old caretaker’s arrival. Even in the shock of hearing of the death of the antagonistic Peters, Jack wryly noted that Oscar was able to traverse the path in from the highway without bouncing his pre-war Dodge truck off of the top of the sheriff’s granite nemesis. Even the drunken college kids that occasionally came this way were able to avoid shredding the undercarriage of their beater cars.
“Jack, there is one more thing,” started the sheriff. Jack looked up quickly, wondering what else there could possibly be this morning.
“Sid was a mean, hateful son-of-a-bitch, even when he was sober. At best, folks will think this was a ‘mercy killing’, without drawing too fine a line between Sid’s misery and their own. The ladies at the church will probably ask you to speak at Sid’s funeral, since you are bound to be the only person in town with anything good to say about him.”
“Sure Warren. I understand.”
As Oscar’s decrepit truck crept into view, and more collapsed than parked next to the sheriff’s truck, neither man standing in the kitchen realized the true fragility of a fleeting tomorrow. This time tomorrow the town would be preparing funerals for some of its better known residents.