Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Sooner State

When he got back from France he swore he'd never leave Oklahoma again. He built a fence around his house, built another fence around that one, and never talked about where he'd been and what he'd done. He grew thinner than he'd already been. Paler. He'd been considered something of a catch before he went off, handsome young man sitting on a spread of land like that, but those days were gone. People could see the lights on in his house at all hours of the night, could hear strange animal noises echoing across the fields, but everybody knew well enough to leave well enough alone. He came into town once a week for tobacco, coffee, and nails. He'd pick up his mail at the hardware store, get his hair cut early before the Saturday afternoon crowds came in, sit in the barber chair never saying a word. This went on for the better part of a year, and everybody watched but nobody said a word. He'd gone off to Europe one man and had come back another, that was all there was to it. In early March the letters started arriving, first in ones and twos and then in torrents. Beautiful envelopes unlike anything anybody'd ever held before in that Oklahoma hardware store. Pink envelopes that smelled like lilacs, blue envelopes that smelled like the sea. Colored envelopes with exotic stamps and sent in from places with unpronounceable names. La Colle-sur-Loup. Finale Ligure. Cala Cap Roig. All addressed to him in lavender ink, all written in the same spidery female handwriting. He'd pick up his mail without saying a word, those envelopes mixed together with mail-order catalogs from the Southern States feed co-op and official-looking mail from the Veterans Administration, and if he ever noticed the increasingly baffled looks from the men behind the counter at the hardware store he gave no indication. A car rolled into town early one June morning that nobody knew and nobody recognized, the kind of car you saw in technicolor, a low red two-seater Alfa Romero that remained untouched by the dirt of the Oklahoma roads. Those that were awake to see it said it never made a sound, just slid past the barber shop and the bakery and the bar. There was a woman behind the wheel, hard to describe with the early morning sun glinting off her black plastic sunglasses and the wind against the scarf tied tight across her hair. Just slid through town knowing exactly what it was after. For three days that car was parked outside his house, gleaming in the noonday sun. Shining in the moonlight. No lights on in the house at all hours of the night. No animal sounds echoing across the fields. People made excuses just to drive past and see it, and after three days it was gone. Gone like it had never been there at all. Saturdays came and Saturdays went, and no sign of him. Still no lights in the middle of the night, still no animal sounds. The feed co-op catalogs piled up behind the hardware store counter, but no blue letters smelling like the sea and no man there to collect them. Rumors started floating around town. He'd been seen in Enid, drunk as a lord with a blonde on each arm. He'd been arrested just across the state line in Childress. He finally just lost his bearings completely, cracked like an egg. It was always bound to happen, everyone agreed. Just luck it happened before someone got seriously hurt. It was another month before they'd decided he was dead. It went from an idle comment in the barber shop to a stone fact in the space of an hour, and in another hour the Sheriff was standing in the middle of the man's empty house. His shirts still hung in the closet, his socks and underwear still rolled up in his chest of drawers. Milk turning sour in the fridge. But there was no body hanging from the rafters in the barn. No body bled out in the bathtub. No body on the kitchen floor with a shotgun at its feet. He was gone, and no note, nothing to indicate where he'd gone. We used to get stoned in the house, beer and weed and wheelies. Figured it was haunted.

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