Ordinarily I wouldn’t excerpt from this story. It’s resolutely rural, but that doesn’t rule it out: I’ve incorporated portions of other rural stories into my virtual flânerie through the fictional City. What would exclude it from consideration is that the litmag in which the story appears charges an admission fee. But this particular story is labeled “Feature Content,” which means that I get to read it for free online. It’s the only story I read yesterday, which is maybe why it has continued to resonate with me: in reading it I regarded it as the last online published story I would read for the foreseeable future, its cadences sounding the death knell for this particular incarnation of Ficticities.
The story appears in The Arkansas Quarterly: A Journal of Delta Studies. Although it’s called a quarterly, this journal comes out three times a year. It deals exclusively in content that “focuses on the seven states of the Mississippi River Delta, from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico… that evokes or responds to the Delta cultural and natural experience.” The current issue is Volume 48, Number 3 of the “quarterly,” so clearly it’s got some staying power. The Table of Contents notes parenthetically that the journal was formerly called the Kansas Quarterly: I’m guessing that back then it didn’t focus on Delta studies. The issue’s feature article, “We’re Good People,” is authored by one Shawn Faulkner, which would seem to give the story prima facie cred as a Delta story. I googled Shawn but couldn’t uncover his provenance. The story, though, takes place in… well, all right, let’s get to it: the counteractuals.
The events recounted in the story take place in a landscape that’s been cold so long it’s frozen solid. If I didn’t know it was a “Delta study” I’d hazard a guess that the story unfolds somewhere farther upstream in the Mississippi basin: Iowa, say, or Minnesota.
I stood and leaned my shotgun against a tree then squatted down on my heels the way old farmers did in the Bootheel when I was a kid.
The Bootheel is the lower right corner of Missouri, bordering Arkansas on the south and edging the River on the east. I suppose it’s possible that winters can get that cold down there in the Ozarks, but the author is showing us some strange times in a strange region of the Delta. It’s going to be a cold story.
There were several holes in the girl’s chest and stomach. The holes were rimmed with red. I figured they were bullet holes. I had never seen one in a human body, but they were fairly self-explanatory.
Self-explanatory? The narrator never expresses the slightest curiosity about this murder, other than to note that the girl has been stripped of pants and panties. The corpse is a given, a raw fact, like the quail he’s just shot while out hunting by the creek.
Her eyelids were open and her eyes, both of them, were blue, and for a moment they made me think of the ocean, and for a moment I thought of God, then I stopped thinking of him.
Here the narrator slips out of the actual present, not into imagined pasts of motives and suspects, but into alternative counteractual presents: the ocean, the presence of God. First he thinks about the ocean, then about God; he stops thinking of God, but not of the ocean.
The narrator, Billy, is married to Kate; they have a young daughter named Mary. Leaving the dead birds with Kate, Billy stops by Mary’s bedroom.
I could hear her breathing plenty loud, and it wasn’t a good sound. But there was nothing I could do about it. She had cancer, the kind that gets down in the bones and grows out from there. She’d always had it. She’d lived longer than the doctors said she would. She was a fighter, they said, but now she was going to die. She wanted to see the ocean before she did.
Mary is going to die, with certainty and soon. Mary wants to see the ocean — a last wish directed toward an imagined future that’s rapidly shrinking down to an actual nothing.
“She’s tough,” Katy said then burst out so hard that she started coughing all over the frying pan. “And she ain’t never going to see that ocean.”
Katy’s got a temporary job lined up, helping a friend clean out a mansion.
“Said she would give me fifty bucks.”
“Will buy milk.”
“I guess we won’t have to worry about not having enough money for medicine. She ain’t going to need it anymore.”
“My God, Billy.”
Kate leaned into my chest.
“We never imagined it like this, did we?” I asked.
“Never in a million years. You’ve had such bad luck.”
Mary calls out, says she’s cold; Billy goes to her.
I picked her up. She was nothing more than a bag of bones and a soul. I carried her into the living room and sat with her on my lap. We listened to the radio. She had no hair. Her eyes were blue.
“I hurt, daddy. I hurt from down deep.”
“I know you do, baby.”
“Guess what, daddy?”
“I don’t want to see the ocean no more.”
“No, Daddy, I think seeing it in pictures is enough.”
She fell asleep in my arms. That was her way of letting me off because she knew I wasn’t good for it, and like any kid worth their weight, she didn’t want her old man to feel bad about it.
Only now does Billy tell Katy about finding the dead girl. Katy asks why he didn’t say anything before; Billy says he’s been thinking about it.
“You get up and go right now and tell Mr. Ludwick where she is. He needs to know, as bad as it will be. And the cops and everyone else.”
I didn’t move. Katy piled the clothes on the bed.
“Katy,” I said.
“Well, get going.”
“Listen to me. I had this thought.”
And that was when I told her.
“Oh, no, Billy. Oh, no,” she said when I was done.
“She’s already dead, Katy. Ain’t nothing we can do to bring her back.”
“Billy. It ain’t right. You know it ain’t right. And even if it was, how would we do it?”
We’ve got a situation, and now we’ve got a motive, predicated neither on revenge for some past injury nor on some irresistible present urge but on an imagined future, a seeming impossibility that suddenly, improbably, has become possible.