The town is a small, quiet thing nestled just off the highway and squarely centered in the county. When the Interstate went in fifty years ago Cedar Plains was relegated to the scenic route, a badge of pastoral pride the residents embraced with pleasure. Surrounded by massive peach orchards, the highlight of the region was the fruit harvest in June and the state fair in August. Summer was the season of peaches.
Every weekday morning the shuttered storefronts on Main Street blinked sleepily and unrolled their awnings. Shopkeepers greeted one another with affable natures honed over generations of small town living. At the barbershop on the corner the old men lined up for a hot shave a half hour before Old Jim opened up. The single stoplight was out of order because some new part had to be ordered up out of Atlanta and, the townsfolk remarked knowingly, it took a good bit of time for the county to do anything about innovation. Cedar Plains was a self contained world, a place that had dropped off the map around the mid twentieth century and just stayed put.
Out past the edge of town was an old suspension bridge built in 1908. Used to be that the freight trains would go past three times a day and rattle the planks, but now they went further west to hit Freemont. The bridge was still featured on the town postcards put out by the town tourism board every year, but otherwise people largely forgot about it. Cedar Plains is a lot like that old bridge; if you don’t know to look for it, you won’t know it’s there. A town like that is only important to the people who remain in it, the likeable folks who can tell you their family story back six generations and point out the town landmarks without looking up from their hobby projects.
There was Sam’s Bar and the old one-room schoolhouse. Visitors were directed to Flora’s, the best bed and breakfast in the state. The courthouse and the county jail were tucked together nose to rump at the very heart of Cedar Plains, their shared lawn green despite the heat of an already scorching summer. This horticultural feat was largely thanks to the ladies of the Southern Baptist Newton Valley Church; they liked to have picnics every Sunday, and it wouldn’t do for the grass to be anything but picture perfect for the ardent scrap-bookers of the group.
Night fell soft on Cedar Plains. Shops rolled up their awnings and the city sighed and went quiet. Because it was Sunday, even the bar was dark and shuttered. The light spilling from the sheriff department was the only lamp left burning in town.
An ancient fan thumped and rumbled in a discontented fashion. The lone man on duty sat at his desk, sheriff badge glinting at his breast. His old boots left behind traces of mud on undone paperwork as he swiveled in his chair. A line appeared over his graying brows as his mouth dipped into a frown. Broker looked out at the shadows of Cedar Plains.
I’m very sorry that you had to find me this way. I wasn’t sure who else I could count on.
Camdon Broker had been sheriff of the county for five years, give or take. He smoked just one cigarette, a compromise he made for his baby sister down in Coldview. He had started a pack this morning—a glance at the clock confirmed that it was now almost a full twenty four hours ago—and when his fingers itched and skittered over to the open pack, he found more than half of them gone.
Broker sat back and tilted out of the light cast by his desk lamp. In the darkness he ruminated over his motives for becoming first a deputy, then the sheriff. He was a ninth generation Cedar Plains resident, and he could trace his family back to the founders of the local militia. Hero work, he thought in some of his more romantic moments, might be in his blood. Broker should have outgrown such boyish notions a long time ago, but remnants of his natural good humor lingered in his eyes. The gentle paunch of his stomach spoke to Sunday nights spent in leisure and Monday mornings removing mustard stains from his uniforms. He never could say no to a Sunday ham.
He tried as best he could to keep the folks of Cedar Plains on the straight and narrow. He liked to be forgiving—tried to give out warnings for speeding through the one intersection in town by blaming it on that broken stoplight. There were the regular troublemakers, sure, but for the most part they were harmless fellows who just needed one night in a cell to dry out and sober up. Broker usually brewed up a pot of coffee and kept them company.
We met once. It was only for a couple of seconds at the Harvest Festival last year. My daddy introduced me to you, said some nice things about you and all of the work you do to keep us safe. You do good. Some things just can’t be helped I think.
The Festival was a celebration of the peach trees coming into bloom. It usually occurred the second Saturday of April. The pink blossoms filled the entire county to bursting, and the smell was enough to drive away any thoughts of a lingering winter. He remembered Lena as a quiet girl. She was introduced to him by one of the fruit pickers, a man with hard features and a bit of a stoop. Gary Reed was a proud man, one who got into more than his fair share of brawls. There was a fighter’s pride in the way he introduced his daughter.
“This here’s Lena,” Reed said around a bite of peach pie. His laugh was a dry bark. “Looks like her mamma, which ain’t much of compliment.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Broker had said, keeping an eye on the two young boys who looked likely to pull up the pegs of the festival tent. Looking back on it over a year later, Broker couldn’t remember for the life of him if she had said a word. He recalled a faint impression of long dark hair and average features. It seemed a meager legacy.
“She’s thinking about going into Felonology or whatever you call it. Going to college and everything,” said the peach harvester. “Maybe she’ll be a sheriff someday.”
Broker recalled the Reed spread, way out past the edge of town. The peach trees grew wilder out there, and no houses were close enough to consider neighbors. He thought there was a clapboard house and a well, but the sheriff was having trouble stringing thoughts together. Broker rose to start another pot of coffee brewing.
If you could pass my thoughts along, I’d be much obliged.
He wondered if Mrs. Reed would cry when Broker told them how Deputy Figg had called in from out by Broken Creek Bridge. The young lawman had seen something red in the low water—a sweater that caught and flashed back the late afternoon light. That was lonely country out there. Broker felt the aching beauty of it whenever he patrolled the area.
Tell my mamma I just fell off that old bridge. She says I’m incurably clumsy. She says that’s why people don’t notice me much. Says if I could just get a little elegance in me, a little bit of something else…momma says a lot of things and most aren’t nice enough to put to paper. I don’t think she’ll mind much if she things it was an accident. Maybe it’ll remind her of the glass vase I shattered, the one Daddy’s Aunt May gave her. She hated that vase, and she sent me to bed without supper when I broke it, but she brought me ice cream when she thought Daddy was sleeping. She braided my hair. I think that was the last time we ever sat together, her clear-eyed and well, ‘til morning. Would you tell her I just went walking? Tell her I just went walking and fell.
Broker had been the one to wade out in the cool water and turn her over. Lena’s Cygnus white skin was blue and cool to the touch.
Don’t tell Papa either. He’s always been the foundation of our family, the one that went out into the orchards when he had that busted arm. I know some people think he starts those fights because there’s something wrong with him, but he wanted to be somebody once. I heard him talking low and fast on the phone one night. He said he wanted to get out of this place and away from our house in the middle of the orchard. He was tired of picking fruit until his fingers were too gnarled to move right. My daddy once had dreams outside Cedar Plains. I think we all do.
The sheriff stood and rubbed a wide hand over his eyes. He wandered over towards the front desk, which still carried the faint smell of Irma Jean’s perfume. She’d been the secretary here for almost fifty years; longer than Broker had been alive. In all those years she had never had to contact the state coroner to request an autopsy report. He would do it himself tomorrow. Irma Jean had grandkids and an arthritic hip—let it be the mundane that kept her up at night.
Tell Sarah I’m sorry. She’s been my best friend since I showed her how to make origami tigers and she painted my nails Peachy Pink. We were gonna go to the state university once graduation came, but I just couldn’t wait that long. She spends summers up north with her grandma. She’ll forget this all someday.
Broker knew he wouldn’t forget. He wouldn’t forget the way that white sheet looked against the loose sand of the creek bank, the way Deputy Figg had to step behind the car and call home just to hear his son’s voice. Simon Figg brought his son into the office whenever he could. Broker kept crayons and army men in his desk drawer for the toddler. Thinking of that towheaded kid, the sheriff thought again of Lena’s eyes. He wished he could remember what they looked like last summer; had they been so empty then?
If the preacher tries to tell everybody I’m going to hell, go ahead and let him. That don’t bother me. I figure if there is a hell it’s got to have a pretty exclusive clientele, and sometimes I think anywhere would be better than here. But I also think that God doesn’t leave out the really faithful. I don’t know what real faith is, but I’ve got as good a chance as anyone at having it. If I skip church to race the trains and study clouds, it’s between me and the guy who created it all anyhow.
The little white church with its evenly plotted graves—somehow it was hard to see Lena there. He tried to imagine a funeral for her, tried to pull on some image to suggest closure. He could only think about what he would tell her parents, and about how a few days ago his biggest worry had been the upcoming Founder’s Day parade. Doris Detcher always made a fuss about the children sitting on her lawn, and Edith Sams always encouraged the kids to do it anyhow. Last year Edith had even supplied the little chairs. Broker felt that he should smile at the memory, but he settled for running his palm over his features again.
I know it’s a lot to ask, but if my parents try to get rid of Graymalkin will you take him? He’s a quiet cat and doesn’t need much. I think he’ll miss me. Please make sure he’s okay.
Broker thought of introducing his big black lab to a cat. Duke wasn’t very fierce, all things considered. He spent too much time keeping his master company on strolls around Cedar Plains, being fawned over by the children and snuck biscuits by the old men. Having a cat probably wouldn’t be so bad, and the mice in the old barn on his property were getting mighty big. He drew himself a cup of coffee and watched it until it grew cold.
I wanna say something about love. There isn’t much of it in Cedar Plains, and there sure isn’t enough of it to go around. I know something about cold houses and empty rooms filled to bursting with people. A girl gets tired of looking down the neck of each day like it was one of her momma’s brown bottles. She gets tired of her daddy’s long silences, the trips out to nowhere that mean he comes home smelling like someone else’s mother, like a dangerous and unmentionable kind of stranger. She gets tired of spending her summers alone in the orchards.
The sun was coming up in the east now, pink stains edging their way out of the darkness and spilling glory into heaven. Broker stepped out onto the stooped porch. The breeze whispered down off the river, carrying the last traces of the peach blossoms. He thought it smelled of summer. He thought that he had better read that letter a few more times and make sure he had the gist of it; he felt like there was something worth remembering there.
Broker knew the men who liked their whiskey too well and the kids who raced cars because they thought themselves invincible. He wondered, though, how many secrets went unsaid over glasses of iced tea. He felt suddenly old, and the weight of mortality felt heavier than he had so far known. Broker thought of what it meant to write a letter like this, and his mind’s eye lingered on the image of a young girl with wild black hair who perched on rotten bridge planks and used ink to say goodbye.
He pulled the letter out of his chest pocket, running a hand over his badge out of habit. Broker had found the white piece of paper pinned to the metal bridge with a stone. The script was lacy, a hazy sort of scrawl that was half cursive, half not. His name had looked strange to him. Broker thought it might mean something; that someone somewhere with a fancy degree could tell him the penmanship reflected her indecision, her mounting anxieties. Broker thought it was pretty, and he wished she was still around to keep writing. He didn’t read much, but he thought Lena might have been a real good writer if she had been given the chance.
So I did it. I climbed until I couldn’t climb anymore. I stood up there for days and nobody noticed. At night I climbed down. Every morning I went back. I stood, and I thought maybe, maybe there was some kind of love left. I’ll jump today, when the sun comes up and paints the sky my favorite shade of pink. I’ll jump, and I’ll see if there’s love left in the skies, in the water, in the air.
All that came after was her signature. The rest of the story was what he had found in the way her body had met the water, the cruel twist of what had been a human life. He folded the letter one last time and tucked it back into his pocket. When he called her parents he would not mention the piece of paper. He would do as Lena had asked, but her last words would be his and his alone. A little something he could do for that poor family. A little something, he thought, for Cedar Plains.
He lit another cigarette and drowned out the smell of peaches as the pink sky faded out to blue. When he went inside to make the call he left the door open so the sunshine would spill in and dispel the shadows.