Authors: P. J. Tracy
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #General
P. J. Tracy
FOUR CORNERS hadn't been much of a town since October 17, 1946. That was the day Hazel Krueger's father set the Whitestone Lodge on fire and danced naked through the flames in some sort of sorry recompense for all he'd seen and all he'd done in a place called
Not that the town had been such a thriving metropolis before that-more like a tiny open spot in Wisconsin's north woods where someone had dropped a lake by mistake-but without the lodge and the trickle of fishermen who made the long drive up from Milwaukee and Madison every summer, the town sort of sat down on itself and started to dry up, corner by corner.
By the time Tommy Wittig was born, the lodge road that crossed the county tar had faded back into the forest, and it was only last week that Tommy, approaching his eighth birthday and given to the solitary contemplation of a lonely child, had ever wondered aloud why the town had been named Four Corners when it had only two.
Grandpa Dale had told him, while walking him out to
"You peel your eyes when you walk through these woods," he'd said, waving the gnawed end of a briar pipe he hadn't lit in thirty years because he always had his nose stuck inside some engine or other and feared blowing his own head off. "You can still mark the hole that fire burned in the forest when it jumped from the lodge to the trees. Probably would have burnt down the whole damn state if it hadn't started to rain."
Tommy had marveled at that, wondering where he would have been born if
"Now, if you was a hawk flying overhead, you'd see a fifty-acre circle of second growth, all strangly with those prickery briars that get stuck in your sneaker laces. That was the fire, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Killed this old town, is what it did. Prime white pines was going up like sixty-foot candles on a birthday cake."
"Was he really naked?" Tommy had asked, focusing on the single part of the story that he found most remarkable. Grandpa Dale had laughed and said that yes, indeed, Mr. Everett Krueger had been naked as the day he was born.
"Did old Hazel see him?" Hazel ran the cafe that sat on the corner next to Grandpa Dale's gas station-the only other business left in
That's when Grandpa Dale had squatted down and looked Tommy right in the eye the way he did when something was really serious and he wanted him to pay attention.
"We don't make no mention of that fire in front of Hazel, you understand, Tommy? She was barely older than you when her daddy up and did this thing, and she was right there, watching, just a little girl peekin' through a porthole into hell, watching her own daddy sizzle away into a blackened stick. Can you imagine such a thing?"
Tommy had been trying to imagine it for almost a whole week, and still he couldn't put a picture in his mind of Hazel Krueger as a little girl, let alone one touched by tragedy.
He was straddling his old bike across the street from the cafe, staring through the plate-glass window, watching Hazel's broad back hunch and move over the grill plate behind the counter. Even through the dust-streaked window, he could see that great pile of too-black hair wobbling on top of her head, and when she turned around to plop a plate down on the counter in front of a customer, he saw the loose skin of remembered chins cascading down over the place where her neck was supposed to be.
Tommy squinted until Hazel's bright red lips were a blur and her wrinkles disappeared, and he still couldn't see the little girl under all those years.
On the other side of the plate glass, Hazel looked up and caught sight of him and wiggled her fingers and Tommy waved back, suddenly shy. For all the years of his life she'd just been old Hazel with the arms so big they could squeeze the squeaks out of you, and the crazy hair, and the free french fries anytime he set foot inside the cafe.
But ever since Grandpa Dale had told him the story of how
He heard the old Ford pickup when it was still a good quarter mile behind him, and he trotted his bike onto the shoulder close to the trees and looked around frantically. "C'mon, boy! C'mon, where are you?"
The pup was an early birthday present, little more than a black-and-tan fluffball with too-long ears and too-big feet and a penchant for wandering. The dog had absolutely no sense when it came to cars.
"Hey, pup!" Tommy laid down his bike and squatted, peering into the trees that marched nearly up to the tar across the road from the cafe and the gas station. There were ghostly tendrils of morning ground fog still hugging the trunks, and he dearly hoped the pup would come out on his own, because Tommy didn't want to go in there after him. It looked like a scene from one of Saturday night's Creature Features, when mist started floating around crooked graveyard tombstones and you just knew something bad was coming any minute.
It startled him when the pup came bounding out of a dew-speckled fern bank and jumped into his arms, grinning. A wet, busy tongue found his ear and made him giggle just as the battered white pickup topped the rise that dipped down into the down. "Hold still, you squirmy worm," he said as he hugged the pup close to his chest as the truck passed slowly, then turned left into Grandpa Dale's station. Tommy's mom leaned out the passenger window and crooked her finger at him.
The pup galumphed after him as Tommy pedaled across the road to the station. Halfway there, the oversized feet tangled and set the pup tumbling like a fuzzy roll of black-and-tan yarn. He scrambled upright, shook his head, then sat down abruptly on short, crooked haunches and let out a plaintive yip.
Jean Wittig watched out the truck window, shaking her head. She was a pretty blond woman with fair skin just beginning to show the cruelties that the sun inflicts on a farmer's wife. "You need to watch that pup on the road, remember."
Tommy screeched the old bike to a halt next to the truck and looked up at his mother. "I will," he said, solemn with the weight of this responsibility.
"We might be late, so remember to help with the milking, and anything else Grandpa Dale asks you to do. What are you grinning at?"
"Nothin.'" Tommy kept grinning.
"Think we're going birthday shopping, don't you?"
Harold Wittig leaned forward and peered past his wife out the window at his son, affecting surprise. "Somebody's havin' a birthday?"
Tommy's grin widened.
"Hell, we're just goin' to Fleet Farm to pick up some new parts for that old milker."
"Don't say 'hell' in front of the boy, Harold."
Harold rolled his eyes and got out of the truck to pump gas.
"Here, Tommy." His mother handed him a dollar bill. "Run over to Hazel's and get us two donuts for the road. Those ones with the jelly filling."
"Hey, Mom, did you know that Hazel watched her daddy burn in a big fire a long time ago?"
"Oh, Lord. Harold ... ?"
"Wasn't me. Talk to your dad."
Grandpa Dale chose that moment to walk out of the station, and Jean fixed him with a look that made Tommy decide it was a good time to go get those donuts.
The cafe was bustling this morning, with all three of the booths and half of the counter stools filled. Hazel was manic, propelling her bulk from grill to booth to refrigerator to counter with a speed that was absolutely amazing for a woman of her size.
Tommy suffered a pat on the head and a cheek tweak from Pastor Swenson and his wife, respectively, nodded like he'd seen his dad do at the two hired hands who were helping put up hay at the farm, and eyed with some interest the two families in the other booths and a lone woman at the counter. Not many strangers found themselves on the mile-long strip of tar that passed through Four Corners as it connected County Road Double-P to County Road Double-O, and this many at one time was downright unheard of.
"Here you go." Hazel distributed five plates at one booth, all expertly balanced on her slablike arms, then pulled a map out of her pocket and slapped it down on the table. "But like I said, all you gotta do is head up to Double-O, hang a left, then keep going. You'll hit Beaver Lake in under an hour if you don't get the itch to wander off the county roads again."
A frazzled-looking woman in sunglasses with tiger stripes on them took the map and tucked it into her purse. "We'll take the map, just in case."
"Suit yourself." Hazel poked her fists into hips like bread dough and looked down at Tommy. "Well, Tommy Wittig, as I live and breathe I swear you've grown a foot since I saw you last!"
Tommy blushed because Hazel saw him almost every day of his life, and he was sure everyone in the cafe, stranger or not, knew that.
"Must be because your birthday is tomorrow and you're growin' so fast." She tipped her head sideways, and for one terrible minute, Tommy thought that pile of black hair was going to fall right off and land at his feet like some dead animal.
"I need two donuts really quick!"
Hazel laughed a big laugh, like a man, then went behind the counter and opened the glass case where her homemade donuts were laid out like jewelry. "What kind today, honey?"
Tommy looked up at that broad, sagging face with its familiar smear of red lipstick, and the dark eyes that always twinkled, and thought how silly he was to have been so leery of old Hazel this past week, to have thought of her as a stranger.
"Urn . . . I'm sorry . . , well . . . I'm sorry your dad died."
Hazel's face went quiet then, and she looked at him for a long time. It was sort of a grown-up look, and in a funny-nice kind of way, it made Tommy feel old. "Why, thank you, Tommy. I appreciate that,"
she finally said, and then she took one of the little white bakery bags that she put donuts in off a stack on the case and shook it open.
By the time he got back outside, the mist was gone from the woods across the road, and Grandpa Dale was standing next to Dad at the pickup truck, hands shoved deep in his coverall pockets. If Mom had scolded him for telling the story about the lodge fire and Hazel's dad, it was over now, because all three of them were smiling around a secret. They stopped talking abruptly when they saw him coming, and Tommy knew they'd been whispering about his birthday present.
He walked toward the truck slowly, his eyes on his dad in absolute adoration, pushing back the nagging thought that if Hazel's daddy could die, then maybe other daddies could die. But not his. His was the tallest, broadest, strongest dad in the world, and even fire couldn't hurt him. Sometimes he'd catch a head-butt from one of the cows clattering out of the barn after milking, and he'd holler after her that she was a goddamn milkin' whore, and Mom's face would get all stiff and she'd tell him he'd burn for taking the Lord's name in vain, and that's when he always said he was too full of vinegar to ever catch fire.
His father laid a big, work-roughened hand on his shoulder as he passed and squeezed a little. "Be good, son."
"Yes, sir." His shoulder felt cold and light when his father took his hand away and climbed into the truck.
"Thanks, honey." His mom took the donut bag and leaned out the window and planted a kiss on his head. "You be good, now. See you at suppertime."
Grandpa Dale walked him out to the center of the road and they stood there, waving after the pickup as it roared away around the curve toward County Road Double-P. The pup sat crookedly at Tommy's side, leaning against his leg, pink tongue lolling.
Grandpa Dale put his hand on Tommy's shoulder. It wasn't nearly as big as Dad's hand, or as warm. "Unusual number of strangers intown this morning." He nodded toward the two unfamiliar cars parked on the side street between the station and the cafe.
"They got lost," Tommy said.
"I figured. Pumped nearly thirty gallons of gas already just on those two."
"That's a lot."
Grandpa Dale nodded. "Your grandma's in there working on the books today. Guess she could pump gas with the best of them if the need arises, which means maybe you and me could go fishing in a bit, if we had a mind to."
Tommy grinned up at him, and Grandpa Dale ruffled his hair.
A quarter mile north of town, Pastor Swenson's twin sixteen-year-old sons, Mark and Matthew, were working in the Wittig's roadside pasture. The house and hundred-year-old barn were behind them, etched against a cornflower sky at the end of a drive as straight and true as the rows in Harold Wittig's cornfield. Behind the barn, Whitestone Lake lay like a giant blue plate in a necklace of cattails.
A prime herd of Holsteins grazed close to where the boys were repairing the white board fence, near a sign that read "Pleasant Hills Dairy Farm." Jean Wittig had painted the sign herself with green enamel left over after Harold touched up the old John Deere, and everyone agreed that on the whole, the sign looked mighty professional. The P in "Pleasant" was canted slightly to the right, as if it were in a hurry to catch up to the other letters, but Harold thought that gave the sign zip, and he wouldn't let Jean repaint it.
Mark and Matthew had their headphones on full blast, listening to their favorite heavy-metal bands, so they didn't hear the truck making the turn off Double-O, and wouldn't have thought much of it, even if they'd looked up and seen it coming. It was a sight they were used to-just a truck that looked like all the other dairy tankers traveling from farm to farm on Wisconsin's secondary roads, taking on raw milk from the state's productive herds. It had a dusty white cab and a shiny stainless-steel tank that looked like a giant's Thermos bottle. "Good Health Dairies" was spelled out in royal blue lettering along its length.