You Only Get Letters from Jail
The Eberhardts’ daughter disappeared the same week they started going to the movies every night to watch the 7:15 showing of The Exorcist, and it didn’t take long for word to get around that instead of sitting by the phone and waiting for her to call, they were sitting in the dark, watching that possessed girl slam some priests around her room. Suzy Eberhardt disappearing was sort of Page 3 news for everybody—she was the kind of girl who didn’t put much stock in curfews and rules, and most of our parents defined “bad crowd” based on who Suzy Eberhardt was with. Everybody knew that she had probably taken off with some guy and would roll home when the money ran out and act like it was no big deal. I hadn’t thought much about it until Ricky Riley asked my brother to give him a ride out past the dam, him and this girl I knew from school, and I found myself down a dirt road, drinking warm Lucky Lager on a Saturday.
Ricky Riley had been to Vietnam and was fucked in the head, or at least that’s what my brother said, but my brother worked the graveyard janitor shift with him at Mercy and they hung out and were friends. Some people said Ricky hadn’t gone to Vietnam, he had just disappeared and run off up north when the draft came around, and some people said he had been drafted but couldn’t pass the competency test, and some said his draft number had never come up in the lottery anyways. All I knew was that it was ninety degrees outside and Ricky had on a jungle jacket that had somebody else’s name on it, and sometimes he walked with a limp, and he had enough money to buy beer but not fix his van, and he was older than my brother and with a girl I went to school with who told us in the car that she was with Ricky because she didn’t have anything better to do.
“Me and Suzy Eberhardt go way back,” Ricky said. We had the doors opened on my brother’s Duster and he had the hood up so he could show off his 360 and the rebuilt six-pack carb setup to Ricky, who my brother felt should have been sorry for driving a Ford. Debbie from school was sitting in the front seat, playing with the radio, trying to tune in something besides static or country, and I was on my third beer and thinking about wandering down to the lake. I thought maybe I could smell its shoreline like wet thick green, heavy and bug-filled, but guaranteed to be cooler than sitting on the vinyl seats or under the scrub oaks, which were too thin to give more than a weak circle of shade. The trunk was full of gas cans and beer and I was bored and a little drunk and tired of waiting for the sun to set so I could see what Ricky had in mind.
“Do you know where she’s at?” my brother asked Ricky. I could tell that he was only half listening because he was focused on the verbal tour of his Plymouth and I had heard his speech enough to know it by heart—he was waiting to get to the good parts: TorqueFlite 727 three-speed reverse valve-body automatic, 8 ¾ posi axles with Mickey Thompsons front and rear.
Ricky took a long swallow from his bottle and ran the back of his hand over his mouth. He had let his dark hair grow long and when he leaned forward, he had a habit of tucking the front behind his ear so that he could see and it had become sort of a rhythmic habit—the farther he leaned, the more he tucked, like a one, two count.
“She’s dead in her house,” he said.
My brother stepped back from the open hood and I could hear his tennis shoes bend and break the bunchgrass beneath them. Everything around us was a faded yellow, miles of it drifting in soft rises broken only by the occasional grouping of trees, piled rocks, and the purple needlegrass that would give way to sheep sorrel down where the ground got soft by the water. Everything smelled like star thistle and baked red dirt.
“You’re full of shit,” my brother said.
To the west the yellow hillside fell away in a gentle decline and in the distance we could see the lake, a flat blue expanse with the sunlight rippling and breaking in hard angles off the surface. We were too far away to see if there were people, and on the wrong side of the shoreline to see boats. All of the action was somewhere out of sight. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been out to the lake, even though it wasn’t more than a forty-five-minute drive from town. There was no reason to go. We didn’t have a boat, I didn’t know anybody who did, and there were closer places to swim and fish.
“You ever met her parents?” Ricky asked.
My brother had stepped away from the front of the car and was headed to the back, where a case of beer was split open in the shade under the overhang of the trunk. Ricky had pointed the route out, directing my brother through rights and lefts and then finally down a dirt road that thinned out and became nothing more than tire tracks cutting a single-lane path until it emptied out on a crushed circle of grass by rock piles that were growing weeds in the sun. The tire tracks continued in front of the parked car for another twenty feet or so and then disappeared. There were beer bottles and faded cans and wrappers, evidence that we weren’t the first ones to hang out there and probably wouldn’t be the last, and I wondered if maybe people parked there to fish, but it seemed like an awful long ways to hike down to get to the water.
“I’ve seen the Eberhardts in town,” Kenny said. “I know who they are.”
“Total religious freaks,” Ricky said. He leaned against the front of the car and started rubbing at his right thigh, the one he favored on the times when it seemed convenient to limp.
“My girlfriend says they’re going to the movies every night now, ever since about the time Suzy disappeared. Summer Horror Fest.”
“They killed her,” Ricky said. “Went crazy with their religion bullshit and took it upon themselves to get the devil out of Suzy.”
The radio jumped to life through the four speakers and the sudden noise made me slop beer onto the front of my shorts. Debbie had found some distant rock station to flood the hillsides with, the Eagles doing “Lyin’ Eyes,” and she swung her legs out of the passenger seat of the car and walked to the back to pull a beer out of the case.
“Do you make this shit up all by yourself, or does somebody help you?” she asked Ricky.
“Why don’t you go sit back in the car,” Ricky said. “I like you better when you don’t talk.”
A breeze climbed up over the hillside and pulled itself across our circle and in it I thought I could smell something burning, like smoldering grass or barbecues across the lake, but I knew we were too far away to smell anything but weeds and the faint hope of water.
“Go fuck yourself,” Debbie said.
Kenny laughed and Ricky looked up from the open engine compartment and tucked his hair. “Baby, I’m trying to avoid that. That’s why I have you.”
Debbie shot him the finger and twisted the cap from her beer. She flipped it over and looked at what was underneath. “I hate these puzzles,” she said. She threw the cap into the grass and it settled against a Laura Scudder’s potato chip bag that was bright yellow and tangled in the weeds.
“It’s called a rebus,” Ricky said. Everybody looked at him.
“What is called a rebus?” I asked.
“The puzzle. It’s got a name. It’s like code. We used it in the war, out on field patrols.”
Debbie rolled her eyes and bit at the back of her thumb. “Stop with the war bullshit already,” she said. “Tell a different story.” She shielded her eyes with her hand and looked off to the west. “You want to go swim?” she asked me.
I looked at the lake in the distance and thought I could see a white line moving across it, the wake from a boat cutting across the surface. I imagined how cool the water was, how deep it might be. I was terrible at gauging distance, but the lake didn’t look that far away. It was a hard blue stain on the other side of thick trees, high grass, a steep walk down. It could take us ten minutes to get there. It could take us two hours. There would be a lot to step over and through in the process—a lot of things that would like to poke in and scratch.
“Are you sure you want to go?” I asked.
Debbie ran her tongue across her lips. “I’m going,” she said. “Right now.”
“Don’t be gone a long time,” Kenny said. “Ricky wants to do this just before sunset.”
I looked at the sky and the sun was still far from making the slide toward the horizon line. “We’ll be back,” I said.
We each grabbed an extra beer and started walking toward the oak trees that marked the slope down to the shoreline. I could hear our shoes trampling the grass and it was dry and brittle and sharp and pieces of it bit into the bare skin on my legs and I had to keep resisting the urge to reach down and scratch. We walked in silence; the only sound was the car radio spilling out the open doors behind us. The music was good and part of me wanted to stay and listen, sitting in the driver’s seat with my legs propped up on the open gap between the frame and the door, and just wait for the sun to start setting. I thought that maybe if I stayed by the car, I could keep bugging Kenny enough that he would make Ricky get down to it sooner rather than later and I could find out what he was up to and then we could make the drive back and I could get something to eat, since nobody had thought about the fact that we had all kinds of beer and no food at all.
“You know Ricky is crazy, right?” Debbie said. I had been thinking about a cheeseburger, the kind with shredded lettuce and Thousand Island dressing, and a vanilla milk shake and fries with lots of salt, crispy fries that are too hot to bite into but you do it anyways because you can’t wait or hold back.
“What?” I asked.
“He’s crazy. He shouldn’t even talk about Suzy Eberhardt.”
I took a long swallow from my open bottle and slowed down my pace so that I could step over some rocks that were piled in the grass. They had yellow flowers growing through the spaces between them, yellow flowers in the yellow grass, and the rocks themselves were a faded yellow, a flat sea, the yellow of sick skin.
“He seems okay,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything more to say. When I got right down to it, I really didn’t care if he was crazy or if he wasn’t—he wasn’t my friend, he was my brother’s—and maybe he knew something about what happened to Suzy Eberhardt, even though that didn’t bother me much either, since she was a girl I had heard of but hadn’t known and her disappearing didn’t affect me.
The breeze came up again and it was warm and uneven and very slight, but it was enough to dry the sweat. I wished that it would rain, that clouds would just muscle up and unleash, but the sky was as empty, hard blue, and unbroken as the lake in the distance and it was August and rain was nothing more than a dull ache like thoughts of the impending threat of school.
“All that talk about the war? He never went.” Debbie finished her beer and tossed the bottle toward a dry skinny pile of broken tree branches. She had been in my English class last year, but she had been gone more than she had been present, and her hair had been different then, darker, and now it was an easy blond and she had let her bangs grow long and straight.
“What about the jacket and the limp and all that stuff? He seems to know what he’s talking about,” I said.
“He’s crazy, not stupid. That’s how crazy people are, right? They sound like they’re sane but they’re really so crazy that when you stop and think about it, nothing that they say really makes any sense.”
The ground had begun a gentle descent and I was aware that we were moving downhill and the trees had thickened. I could no longer see the lake and had no idea how much farther it would be until we hit the rock-and-marsh shoreline.
“And the limp, that’s a good one. He fell out of a tree. It was the middle of the night and he was across the street from my house, and I saw it happen, I was upstairs in my bedroom, standing at the window . . . Part of it was probably my fault,” she said.
“He told my brother that he hurt his leg in the war. A guy in front of him stepped on a booby trap or something and Ricky ended up getting hit.”
Debbie laughed and opened the other beer she had brought with her. I was still working on the one I had been drinking in the car and it had gone warm and flat and it was all I could do to keep swallowing it. Even the unopened one in my hand didn’t feel that much cooler and I was sorry that I had carried it.
“He was never in the war. He was in jail.”
“Why was he in jail?” I asked.
I could see her smile. “He liked to watch girls.” She looked at me from the corner of her eye, but she didn’t slow her walking.
“Watch?” Debbie’s left arm was close to me and I could feel her skin sharing the same space as mine. I could hear her shoes pushing through the grass and without turning my head I could see each stride, knew the way that her thighs didn’t touch at the top of her legs when she moved. She had a habit of tugging on the hem of her shorts after every third or fourth step and she didn’t change her pace when she did it, like a small nervous tic that she wasn’t even conscious she was making.
“Ricky liked to sneak around our house at night, hide in the bushes. That sort of thing.”
Debbie started walking faster and I fell in behind her. We had to turn sideways to walk through the trees and the piles of brush, and the dry branches were naked and sharp and pulled at our clothes. I could see bursts of manzanita, its red branches twisted and topped with thin rigid leaves. I hadn’t given much thought to poison oak and I figured I probably should, since this was the perfect kind of place for it, but I wasn’t sure if I would recognize it even if I waded through a field. I knew it had something to do with the leaves—leaves of three, let it be—or some rhyme like that, but just about anything can look like it has three leaves and I wasn’t sure if it was the absence or the presence of the three that made the difference.
“And they arrested him for that?”
Debbie paused for a second, and I could feel her searching for the next thing to say. “He liked to watch my sister, get her attention, and then--you know. Touch himself.”
I tried to picture Ricky Riley outside Debbie’s house, ducking down in the bushes in the dark, staring into an open window, watching her sister read or watch TV or eat dinner at the kitchen table, and I tried to imagine what would make him take the next step, what would make him want her that badly.
“He was in love with her,” Debbie said. It was as if she had been reading my thoughts and it made me feel weird, as if she had looked inside of me. “That’s what he said in all the letters he wrote to her. He wrote to her from jail. According to the police, he was in love with quite a few girls. My sister. Suzy Eberhardt, maybe. I wouldn’t doubt it.”