First Chapter from Nancy Minor's MALHEUR AUGUST

1. The Algoods



(August 1971)


It was the buzzards – that’s how they knew he was dead,” Betty assured Oleta after declaring that hearts would be trump.

From the couch across from the arched doorway separating the kitchen and living room, Jean stopped reading mid-sentence. The hermit? Were they talking about the hermit? She had been eavesdropping on Saturday night pinochle games between her parents and their neighbors, Betty and Leroy Fulmer, since she was a little girl, and even though she was now twenty-one and a senior in college, she lowered her well-worn copy of Jane Eyre and listened.

“Oh, good lord. Where’d you hear that – from the gossips at that church group of yours? You know it’s not a quarter mile as the crow flies and I never seen no buzzards.” Oleta laughed, a rollicking throaty laugh. “But I did hear the Oxmans smelled him – they live downwind, you know.” Oleta winked at Betty and took a sip from her lipstick-stained highball glass. Betty snickered and Clete shot Oleta a withering look. Leroy, Betty’s husband, kept his head down, eyes glued to his cards. Oleta ignored Clete and passed three cards across the table to Betty. “You’re gonna like those cards, by the way.”

Betty studied the cards and slid each one into her hand, collapsed them all into a stack and laid it face down on the table. She retrieved her cigarette from the ashtray and took a long slow draw, fanning herself with a cardboard Jesus fan. “You can laugh all you like, Oleta, but if you ask me, if the sheriff had done his job he would’ve moved him out of there a long time ago. I’ve been saying it for years. That man was a menace to decent society. Why, you couldn’t even let the kids go fishing in that part of the river ‘cause of him. I, for one, am glad he’s dead.” She ground out her stub in the ashtray and picked up her cards again, fanning them out.

Oleta leaned across the table toward Betty, her enormous breasts nearly spilling from her dress, “Well isn’t that just real Christian of you? Did your church ladies tell you he was a black-sheep brother of one of the Navarro clan from up on the bench? That’s what I heard. And you know those Basques are thicker than fleas on a stray dog and wilder than cowboys on the Fourth of July. A black-sheep Basque must’ve done something real bad.” She leaned back and drained the last of her whiskey sour. “Hell, I’m sorry I never lit out across the field and made his acquaintance. I could’ve used some sizzle in my life.” Oleta’s bawdy laugh echoed in the cramped room. Jean winced.

“Oleta Algood!” Betty frowned, scrunching her thick brows into a single bushy furrow of disapproval. She laid down the queen of hearts, took the set, and played her last card. Tiny beads of sweat pooled on her brow and in the creases of her neck. She daubed her face with an elaborately embroidered handkerchief and fanned herself. A large moist patch had formed on her back and two more under each ample arm, the dampness spreading like a red tide. She shook out a new cigarette from her pack and tapped it twice on the table before lighting it. Leaning towards Oleta as though the dead man could hear her, she whispered from behind her fan, “What d’ya suppose he done?”

Clete slammed his cards on the table and aimed a wad of tobacco juice at the coffee can at his feet. His voice quivered with barely checked rage. “Are you two old hens gonna gossip or are you gonna play? Goddamn it, a man’s pecked to death around here even when he’s dead.” He shoved his empty glass across the table. “Oleta, get me another drink.”

Oleta shoved the glass back. “You can get your own damned drink. Hells bells, Clete. We was just talking. What the hell’s the matter with you tonight?”

Leroy gathered the cards and reshuffled, averting his eyes. Betty looked away and took another slow drag on her cigarette. The only sound was the whirr of the box fan and the chirping of crickets. A loose corner of the faded yellow wallpaper flapped with each rotation of the fan.

On the couch, Jean’s stomach lurched. Over the years she had become fine-tuned to the nuances of her father’s voice, the ominous lowering of pitch, the clipped cadence that signaled an impending explosion. Jean had been away the better part of three years, but five seconds of that voice and she felt the walls closing in. She burrowed deeper into the couch and willed herself to focus on her book.

Glancing up, she saw Clete’s jaw quiver as he leveled an icy stare at Oleta. Oleta smirked, as though daring him to react, and fanned herself with a paperback novel. Clete stuffed another pinch of Copenhagen under his lip and lurched upright. As he shoved away from the table the heel of his hand caught the edge of the ashtray, upending it.

Jesus H. Christ! What the hell was that doing there?” Before anyone else could react, Leroy righted the ashtray and began sweeping the butts into his hand.

My fault, Clete. I think I might’ve pushed that over there a minute ago when I was dealing.” Leroy’s whispery voice and habitual slow delivery contrasted starkly with Clete’s harsh, explosive outburst. Jean had a sudden memory of a game she and her cousin Will had played as children – Birdman or Birdwoman, in which they had assigned bird names to all the people they knew and the other person had to guess them. She couldn’t recall what birds they had come up with for most people, but she did remember her father and Leroy Fulmer. Both she and Will had agreed that with his gentle demeanor and soft voice Mr. Fulmer was a mourning dove; her father was a hawk.

Leroy dumped the butts into the coffee can and sat back down. “Sorry about the mess on your floor, Oleta, but I think I got most of it.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his neck, then picked up his cards and spread them out in the same slow, methodical way.

Clete grunted and brought the bottle of Seagrams back to the table to fill his glass, ignoring Oleta’s empty one. “Leroy, can I get you another drink? Oleta’s sure as hell too damned lazy to lift a finger around here.”

Leroy put his hand over his glass and shook his head, studying Clete anxiously. Clete spit into the coffee can at his feet and took another drink of whiskey, his spare body rippling tensely.

Before Oleta could respond, Betty reached over and rested her fingers on her arm. “Say, did you hear about Maxine Merkley? She up and left Ross high and dry. She’s staying over to Ontario with her daughter. The word is she caught him fooling around with some other woman, don’t know who. Can you imagine? Maxine Merkley of all people! I didn’t think she had the gumption.”

Oleta scowled at Clete. “Sounds like he was the one with the gumption. Or she was plain sick of him. Don’t think I haven’t given it a thought myself. And I wouldn’t have no trouble finding another one neither, I’ll tell you that.”

Leroy cleared his throat and reached for the can of Copenhagen in his pocket. “You know, Clete, I was thinking that next weekend you and me might go up to the Owyhee Reservoir and do some fishing. We’ve both of us been working pretty hard the last couple of weeks.” Leroy’s voice was scarcely audible, but Clete visibly relaxed as he turned his attention to the fishing trip they began to plan for the following Sunday. Oleta rolled her eyes at Betty, but let it drop.

From her corner of the couch, Jean watched her mother from behind her book. Oleta was no beauty, but she had ample curves and an earthy sensuality that drew men. Watching her mother, Jean figured that she wouldn’t find it hard to snare someone else. Jean couldn’t remember a time when her parents weren’t either fighting or on the edge of a fight. Why they had stayed together all these years was a mystery. As children, Jean and her sister Mae had dreaded Saturday nights when they would be awakened by the drunken sparring of their parents, the barbed insults piercing the papery walls of the tiny clapboard house. No pillow was thick enough to muffle the sound, no blanket warm enough to make them feel safe. They had only one another to cling to. Eventually the fight would end with Oleta threatening to leave, but the next day they’d get up and carry on as before, measuring off each miserable day together.

Jean wondered what it had been like for her older brother. Clark had left for teaching college when she was still in grade school and never came back to live with them. His visits home were regular but brief, and most of his time was spent with Oleta. Jean and Clark had never had a meaningful conversation. Perhaps it had been different for him. Perhaps there had been a time when Oleta and Clete had been happy, a time when Clark was younger, a time before she and Mae had been born. There were actually five Algood children, if she counted the twins who had died before Mae and Jean were born. Like Jean and Oleta, Clark had dark brown eyes and rod-straight hair. In the only two photos of the twins, those same chocolate eyes stare at the camera beneath mops of the same dull brown hair. Only Mae, the fine-boned blonde child with the pale aquamarine eyes, resembled Clete, which had always been a barb Clete used to goad Oleta. When he wanted to rile her, or when he was drunk enough, he’d accuse her of having affairs with one or the other of the neighbors, “because only one of those damned kids is mine.”

Remembering those fights, Jean knew how much she wanted to avoid hearing one now, so she closed her book and slipped out of the room. Back in her cramped closet-sized bedroom she changed into her baby dolls and stretched out on the worn patchwork quilt that her grandmother had made for her shortly before she died. The faded window curtains hung slack and lifeless with not a whisper of breeze to disturb them. In the distance a lone coyote howled. Jean found the familiar sound comforting, companionable even. She picked a loose thread off the quilt and stared out the window at the clothesline silhouetted against the moonlit sky and the empty fields beyond. As she listened, the coyote howled again and was joined by another and then another in a howling cacophony. The odd discordant concert brought with it a turbid tumble of memory and she found herself missing Mae.

She and Mae had shared a small bed in this tiny room until Mae graduated from high school and left home. In the six years since Mae had walked across the stage and accepted her diploma she had returned only twice, even though Vale was only an eight-hour drive from Portland. But for some reason, a reason she could not explain even to herself, Jean came home every Christmas and at least once each summer. And every Christmas and every summer she wound up in this same room having the same interior conversation, wondering why she had come. Abruptly the coyotes ceased their calling. Jean waited, listened intently until they began again, then snuggled into the quilt to read, eventually drifting off to sleep.

* * * * *

Jean, get your lazy college-girl ass out of bed and come help me with the milking!” The screen door slammed behind Clete as he left for the barn. Jean, who couldn’t even remember crawling between the sheets, clawed herself to wakefulness. Hanging over the sink in the kitchen, she splashed cool water on her face, willing the fog to lift. She felt leaden, hung over, even though the strongest thing she’d had to drink the night before had been a coke. God, I could use some coffee, she thought. The lowing cows told her Clete was moving the first group into the barn. Birdsong floated on the morning breeze; a garrulous rooster crowed repeatedly. Jean’s barn clothes were where she had left them seven months before, still grimy, still sour with dried milk, still hanging stiffly from a hook in the kitchen closet. The overalls crunched as she stepped into each stiff leg. She struggled to pull up the jammed zipper, yelping when she nipped a finger. The milk-stiffened laces of her old barn shoes broke when she tried to tie them.

After checking to make sure Clete was inside the barn where he wouldn’t see her, she sat down on the front step and blew on her pinched finger. Three half-grown yellow tabbies head-butted her, vying for attention. Martha, the ancient gray three-legged cat, purred and rubbed against her leg. Despite her sullen mood she stroked the cats, even smiling at the longhaired black one perched atop the doghouse like a raven. When she knew she dared not wait any longer, she sighed and started for the barn, the yellow cats trailing behind her like a line of ducklings.

For the first half hour, as she filled the troughs with hay for the cattle, her mood was as sour as her clothes. Feeding the young calves, though, delighted her as it always did and she was smiling when she headed to the barn to help Clete with the milking.

The caustic stench of urine and manure permeated the barn, the pungent odor overwhelming her the moment she opened the door. The gorge rose in her throat. A half-gallon tin can sat on a shelf inside the door waiting to be filled with milk for the house; on the packed dirt outside the barn two large pans waited to be filled with milk for the cats. A skinny calico stretched out on the shelf next to the milk can and eyed her lazily. She squeezed past a complacent cow in the first stanchion and stepped over the shallow trough behind the stalls that caught urine and manure.

I finished up with the calves. What needs to be done in here still?”

Clete was sitting on a stool behind the large Holstein at the far end of the barn, stripping the cow’s udder of the milk the machine had left.

Start on Patsy, she still needs to be stripped,” Clete muttered from behind a massive flank.

Jean grabbed a stool and shoved her way between Patsy and another cow, pushing hard against Patsy to make room. She’d always liked this quiet part of milking, leaning her head against the velvety cows’ flanks and daydreaming. The motor had been turned off and the barn was quiet, save for the swishing of tails, the munching of hay, and the pssssst of milk hitting the metal buckets. Jean thought about the conversation she had overheard the night before.

I heard you guys talking last night about that old hermit down by the river. Did you ever run into him?”

Clete grunted an affirmation.

“Did you know who he was?”

“Are you gonna grill me like your goddamned mother?”

Jean recoiled. Silently she finished stripping Patsy, moved her stool over to the next cow, and buried her head in its flank. Molly shifted her weight, leaning into Jean and nearly knocking her off the stool. “Soo, Molly, soo,” Jean cooed, stroking her side and shoving back with her shoulder.

Clete poured his full bucket into the milk can. “He wasn’t nobody, Sis, just a crazy old coot. You think you can finish up here -- or are you too educated for that now?” He mussed her hair and grinned at her, a crooked teasing grin.

Sure, Dad.” Jean warmed to the playful teasing she hungered for, but which came so seldom.

Clete patted the cow on the other side of Molly. “I’ll come back and sterilize the equipment later.”

As Jean finished stripping Molly, she heard her father outside talking to the cats. “Look what I got here for you – nice warm milk. Max, let me see that sore leg of yours. Now, don’t fight me. That’s a good fella.” Clete had a soft spot for cats, always had. The place was overrun with cats. Many of the other farmers would drown extra litters of kittens to keep down the cat population, but Clete never did. Yesterday she’d seen him walking around the barn with a pair of kittens tucked inside his shirt, tiny whiskered heads peeking out of his collar. And it wasn’t just cats. She’d see him out in the field talking to the cows, forehead to forehead, stroking their ears. Once he’d even tamed a mallard, which would waddle through the fields behind him like a dog. It nearly drove the real dog crazy.

Jean unlocked the stanchions and herded the cows into the pasture, then hosed out the barn, willing herself not to gag on the acrid fumes. The oppressive August heat was already building by the time she filled the tin can with milk and headed for the house, reeking of manure and sticky with sweat. Her mother had already left for her shift at the Starlite Café and the empty house was cool and still.

She had finished her shower and was toweling her dripping hair when the phone rang.

Have you died of boredom yet?”

Will!” Will, her crazy redheaded cousin, had been her pal and playmate her entire childhood. She hadn’t seen him since Christmas. “Are you calling from Boise?”

Nah. I love you, but you don’t think I’d pay for long distance, do you? I’m at Mom’s – had to come for her birthday yesterday and if I don’t get out of here before they get back from Sunday School she’ll strong-arm me into going to church this afternoon.” Jean could almost hear Aunt Opal laying on the guilt trip.

So what are you doing right now?” Will asked.

I’m wrapped in a towel dripping water on the floor, actually.”

Well get dressed. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

Jean pulled her damp hair into a ponytail, brewed a pot of coffee, and sat on the porch to wait. Twenty minutes stretched into forty, then sixty, then ninety. By the time a roiling column of dust appeared in the distance, Jean had finished two cups of coffee and was hot, sticky, and annoyed. Will was her double-cousin, the son of Oleta’s brother Harry Lambson, who'd married Clete’s sister Opal, and Jean adored him. He had Howdy Doody hair and a screwball sense of fun, but the older she got the more his irresponsibility annoyed her. Will had more freckles than sense and couldn’t work himself up to being serious about anything, except perhaps irritating his parents. Despite being double cousins who lived only eight miles apart in one of the most sparsely populated counties in Oregon, they were profoundly different. Jean, who had been raised on an isolated farm by parents who drank too much and fought too much, approached life with the same sober intensity she applied to her studies -- even in play she held herself in check. Will, who had grown up in town in a strict Mormon household and had attended Church every Sunday for eighteen years, had turned into an undisciplined libertine. At Boise State he had shed the last remnants of sobriety. He had made it a point of faith to attend the first and last session of each of his classes and diligently failed every one of his final exams. When he failed completely at the end of the second term, his parents cut off his funds. In the four years since flunking out of college he had worked at the local Ford dealership, mostly hawking trucks to farmers. Asthma had kept him out of Vietnam. He and Darla, another lapsed Mormon from Burley, shared a cramped basement apartment with two other hippie friends.

Jean waited irritably at the gate as Will spun to a stop in a mustard yellow Mustang convertible. Will climbed over the seat and grabbed her in a tight hug then stood back and tugged lightly on her ponytail. “Nice touch. Makes you look old and sophisticated. Every time I see you, you look more and more like Liz Taylor. Except, of course, that you’re skinny -- and flat-chested. . .”

Jean boxed him on the arm. “Enough already. You’re not exactly Charles Atlas.” Will was tall and rail thin. His hair had grown into an enormous red Afro that encircled his freckled face like the wig of a deranged clown. “That’s some crazy looking hair. Cool tie-dye too. Did Darla make that shirt for you?”

“Hey. Darla’s liberated, man. She doesn’t make me anything. I bought it from a flower child on Haight-Ashbury last year. Cool trip, too. So where are Aunt Oleta and Uncle Clete?” Will tipped his wrist like someone drinking and raised his eyebrows.

“Not this early. Dad’s out in the fields and Mom’s at work. Can you believe I still have to help with the chores when I’m home? At least I don’t have to hoe beets anymore. God, I hated that.” She lifted her arm to his nose. “I probably still smell like a barn.”

Will held her arm and sniffed it, then worked his way to her neck and her hair, sending her into another spasm of giggles. “Hm, an interesting bouquet. A hearty mixture of manure, sugar beets, and body odor.”

Jean hit him again and pulled her arm away.

Speaking of beets, guess who I ran into at the Stinker Gas Station in Boise? Alice McDermit. Isn’t she that stuck-up cheerleader who sat on a lawn chair drinking lemonade while you and Mae hoed her beets that summer that Uncle Clete hired you out?”

She’s the one, all right. I can’t believe he made us do that and I will never forgive her for rubbing our noses in it like that. The jerk.”

Well you will be happy to know that she must have gained 40 pounds and is frumpy as hell. She had two grubby kids in the backseat.”

It’s karma. Serves her right.”

Hey, check it out.” Will reached into his backseat and pulled out a six-pack of coke and another of Schlitz and held them aloft. “Guess which one’s for me?”

Jean held open the screen door and Will put the beer and sodas in the fridge. He squeezed into a wobbly chair at the small Formica table, stretched out his legs with his hands behind his head, and looked around.

This house has bad feng shui.”

“It has bad what?”

Feng shui. Darla’s been studying it. It’s something about how the house is laid out. The doors should be oriented so that all the good karma can pass through the house . . . or maybe so it stays in the house. I don’t remember. But, whatever it is, this house ain’t got it.”

Jean looked around. “No, it sure doesn’t. I just got home yesterday and they were at each other’s throats by the time I went to bed. Oh, that reminds me. Remember that time when we were kids and we spied on that old hermit down by the river?”

“Oh, man. Are you kidding? I’ll never forget that day. Joe William Hardy and Nancy Jean Drew solving The Case of the Hermit by the River. Hell, we must have hidden in the sagebrush behind that shack for two hours quivering in our boots and never even saw the guy. Remember that scorpion you almost stepped on? Scared the shit out of you.”

Well at least I missed it. Didn’t you take two ticks home in your hair? Anyway, Mom and Mrs. Fulmer were talking about him last night. Somebody found him dead in his cabin a few weeks ago. I wonder who he was, don’t you?”

“Whoa. I just had an idea. Let’s go check his place out. You know, rummage around a little. Do some snooping, maybe see if we can discover some clues to who he was. We wouldn’t even have to hide in the sagebrush.”

I don’t know, what if . . .”

What if what? Come on, he’s dead, man.”

Jean hesitated. Going near the river made her anxious, maybe because as children they had been forbidden to go near the place. Perhaps that was part of the reason the adventure by the hermit’s shack with Will had been such high drama so long ago. But the idea of reliving an episode of their childhood was irresistible.

Ok. Sure. Why not? I’ll throw together some sandwiches and we’ll have a picnic by the river.”