I must have been five or six that summer. It was Sunday. I know that because my Mom and I always walked to the mercantile together on Sunday. It was hot that day, an oppressive haze occluded the trees that stood just beyond the cotton fields.
“What’s that smell, Momma?” I asked.
“I think it’s an animal, Sugar.”
“Pepper don’t smell like ‘at.”
“I know. Come on now, I think it might rain soon.”
I stopped walking when I saw the cat in the weeds just off of the road. I’d heard the word death used before but I didn’t know what it meant until that moment. The tabby’s eyes were missing and desiccated entrails spilled out of its belly. The carcass teemed with movement as flies and maggots went about their business.
My mom took my hand and tried to pull me along but I resisted. It wasn’t the spectacle of the decaying cat that shocked me but more that I had seen that cat just the day before running through our field, stopping periodically to pounce on mice. Now, it was just a thing, like a rock or a twig.
“It’s OK, Sugar. It’s just a dead cat.”
We walked the rest of the way to the mercantile in silence. I think my Mom just didn’t know what to say to me. Looking back, I don’t think any words would have made a difference or explained anything better than just looking at that dead cat did.
Abe was playing his guitar on the mercantile’s porch just like he did every weekend. He was an old man with a halo of white, curly hair and a grizzled, salt-and-pepper beard. He wore deep blue denim overalls that were faded and threadbare at the knees. I think he must have worn those same overalls every day until he died several years later. Abe made a living, of sorts, by playing for change at the mercantile and he also played every Friday night at Langston’s, a good ol’ boys bar about a half mile outside of town on J highway.
“Mornin’, Missus Ambers.”
“Mornin, Abe,” she said as she dropped a dime into the old Stetson hat that was laid out.
“Bless you kindly.”
“That’s fine, sugar. You can stay out here if you want.”
I enjoyed listening to him play. At the time, I didn’t know what kind of music it was, but now I know it was Delta blues. Hard music. He didn’t sing but those chords told a story. I sat down on the porch and he played for a while. I could see my Mom looking at me from time to time as she passed by the doorway. I always felt like she was not comfortable with Abe but I couldn’t tell why.
Abe stopped playing suddenly and looked at me.
“You wanna hear me sing somethin’, Tuck?” he asked.
“Yes, suh,” I said. I’d never heard him sing before and I remember it feeling like something special was about to happen.
“You know what I like best ’bout kids?” he asked. I shook my head. “They listen. Well, the good ones, anyways. I could sing backwards outs here as grownups walk by and all they hear is an old man bangin’ on a guitar, jabberin’ some old soul song.”
He started playing again and then he sang. It was the only time I would ever hear him sing and I don’t remember much about it other than that it gave me the same feeling like I had when I saw that cat earlier. Abe’s face changed. It grew more contorted and pained looking. His words and the way he played felt like it was hitting me right in the stomach somehow. It was something about a woman who got shot and love, but it was a dark kind of love, not like my Mom and Dad’s kind of love, I remember thinking. I started to feel ill.
“Ready, Sugar?” My mom asked as the screen door banged shut. We both jumped and Abe stopped playing. “You okay, honey?”
“Well, come on then,” she said as she took my hand in hers. My Mom glanced at Abe and he gave her a quick nod.
I don’t remember anything else from that day and I haven’t even thought about it until this morning, nearly forty years later.
“Sheriff?” A young deputy with a day’s worth of unshaven stubble asked. “Tuck?”
“Sorry, Mike,” I said. “Just thinkin’ about somethin’.”
I looked over at the workers who were leaning against a truck, their work for the day interrupted by the skeleton resting in the crumbling soil just a few feet from where I stood. I walked over and crouched by the remains, tracing the outline of the entry wound in the skull with my finger.
“She’s been shot,” Mike said. “But the remains look like they’ve been here a long while.”
“It’s Ida Purline,” I said.
“What’s that? You find some ID or somethin’?”
“No. It’s Ida Purline. And I know that because a man named Abraham Crayton confessed to killin’ this girl to me.”
“What?” Mike asked. “Well, let’s bring him in. You know where he lives?”
“Yep. Down at the Memorial Gardens Cemetery.”
“He’s dead,” Mike exhaled.
I stood up, wiped the dust from the skull off on my pants and walked towards my truck. I don’t remember when Ida went missing but I do remember my Mom talking about it from time to time when I was a boy. I’ll never know exactly what happened to Ida, other than what the forensic report will reveal.
“Mike, you hang out here and wait for the examiner,” I said.
“Where are you headed?”
“Ida’s sister has been waiting a long time. I’m going to go tell her that we finally found her.”