Redeeming Hills

by Sharon May

They called me Sheriff, though I had been out of office for five year. Listened to that scanner every day after I retired. In my blood. I knew there’d be trouble when they started building houses up there. First one house, then another. On the sixth one, they was found. Was just a matter of time. Watching The Price Is Right, when I heard it: “We have a Code 5 out on River Road.”

Had been thirty-five year almost to the day since I buried Frank’s body out by the Big Sandy River. Haven’t had a good night’s sleep since.
Memories keep me awake. Afraid to face the dreams that always come. Before retiring, I tried working to exhaustion, but being dog tired couldn’t erase what I done.

Got up, walked over to the closet, and poured myself a bourbon. Something to help me sort this out. There had to be others buried by the river over the past couple of hundred years. Indians, settlers, and the like. But I’ve always believed somebody would find Frank.

Guess I should have confessed all those years ago and faced the consequences. But I was sixteen and feared dying. So I kept up pretenses. Finished high school, worked at Castle’s grocery, married, had two kids. Watched my boy and girl grow up to be fine people. Smart, they are. Must have got that from Mabel. Gave me three grandchildren. Dote on them still. Things looked normal to most folks. But they weren’t.

After Frank’s death, I promised I’d make a difference in Johnson County. Didn’t take to schooling so becoming a lawyer was out of the question. I stayed ten year at the grocery, working my way up from bagger to manager. Then Sheriff Allen died, and I saw my chance to become a lawman. I barely won the election over one of the older deputy sheriffs. Was only twenty-six, but people wanted new blood. County was getting meaner, and I promised I’d clean it up.

Mabel called me in for lunch. She gave me a disgusted look when she smelled the bourbon on me. She went on as bad as Ma did about God and the drunkards. I didn’t drink much, just enough to take the edge off. I ate the hamburger steak, green beans, and ‘maters she set before me. We ate in silence.

After lunch, curiosity got the best of me. Drove out to take a look at where they found those bones. Must have taken me five minutes to pull out onto Highway 460 toward Paintsville. Lots of traffic with that coal boom back in the 1980s. Kentuckians flocked back home from the north looking for work, the very thing that took them north. New construction, stores and houses of every size, up and down the river.

River Road was just off 460. It forked at Bensen’s Nursery. Had no business going there. Veered right toward the subdivision being built where the old movie drive-in sat. Place were empty except for a silent Caterpillar ‘dozer and the one deputy who sat in his car watching the property. He waved and called “Howdy, Sheriff,” when I walked by to the makeshift grave.

Police tape on stakes marked the hole that looked to be about seven feet long, four foot wide, and three feet deep. I stared at it for a good long time, imagining Frank’s lifeless body lying there. Fear coursed through my body. A sound out by the river startled me. Just a speed boat going by. It was a fair piece down to the river. Don’t rightly remember if we walked that far that night. Sure did seem like forever. Just a lantern to guide our way. I can still feel the weight of the shovel I carried up the riverbank.

Stood there for at least thirty minutes before running away from Frank’s grave again. I hopped in my truck. Waylon Jenning’s “Luckenbach, Texas” blared out of the radio. Headed home, less than a mile from Frank’s grave. Turned up Black Hollow where a white farm house with green trim sat at the head of the hollow. Still live in my parents’ home. Moved in after Ma died. Mabel weren’t real happy about giving up our home in town, but I just couldn’t sell Ma’s house. Except for Mabel’s flower gardens, the house looks the same as it did when I was a boy. Built into the side of a hill, the front looks higher than the back. Seven steps lead up to the porch where I love to sit and watch the traffic out on the highway. Seven rooms are more than me and Mabel need since Abe and Lisa are out on their own.

When I drove up to the house, Mabel was out in the garden weeding, dressed in her blue-checked dress and straw hat. A big, stocky, middle-aged woman. Still as sassy as the day I met her. She turned and waved. I waved back but didn’t walk out to see her. Instead, I went around to the back door and into the kitchen. The cold air felt good on my face after the sweltering July heat. Walked through the living room, down the hall, entered my TV room, headed straight for the closet, and pulled out the bottle of bourbon. Poured me a tall one. Just needed one to calm my nerves. The bourbon tasted like honey rolling down the back of my throat, warm and soothing.

Sat in the recliner sipping the bourbon and hoped the garden would keep Mabel busy so I could enjoy my drink in peace. Almost 3:30. Time for Match Game. At four, The Gong Show come on. I love game shows. Love to see what people would say and do for a little bit of money. Recently game shows started making people act silly if they wanted to participate, and they were all too happy to make fools of themselves, dressing in funny costumes, screaming and jumping around. All for money. Sipped on my bourbon while I watched TV. By supper, I was nice and relaxed.

I walked out to the kitchen when Mabel called for dinner. She weren’t happy with me. Could tell by the way she went about her work. Dish rag attacked the counters, and she was silent, standing tall and big next to them, a scowl on her face. She said drinking’s bad for the soul. Everybody drank wine in the Bible. Matter of fact, Jesus turned water into wine. She got riled up when I mentioned that. Bible had lots to say against drunkards, Mabel said back.

Didn’t think I was a drunkard. A little bourbon don’t hurt nothing. Not like I had to work. I made a good life for Mabel. Plenty of money on the table. Didn’t drink it all up. She got what she liked and needed. A nice home, lot of flat land for gardening, a car for her, and a truck for me. Just a little bourbon.

I asked Mabel how her garden was doing. Still mad, she grunted “Fine.” She dished me up some beans, cornbread, greens, and smoked sausage. One of my favorite meals. Love Mabel’s cooking. Her mama couldn’t fry an egg. I always dreaded when we would go to Sunday dinner at Mama Fitch’s. Always had fried chicken, dry as the desert. Coating was thick and burnt. Tasted like charcoal. Her green beans were bland, and her mashed ‘taters were a creamy mush. My mama taught me to be polite and eat what’s put in front of me, so I ate every bite and pretended it was the best meal I ever had. Mabel said she loved me for that.

Didn’t bother trying to talk to Mabel over dinner that night. She was a hard woman. Unforgiving at times. Not very Christian, in my opinion. She goes to church every Sunday and had become a Bible thumper over the years. Up early cooking for lunch after church. Dining hall’s bigger than the church building, which seems strange to me. She’s gone for hours, praying, singing, and eating.

Sometimes preacher man stopped by to talk to me. Mabel probably put him up to that. Weren’t no saving me. I didn’t believe in all that church talk. Too much evil in the world. Politicians all liars, just out for wealth and power. Parents beat their children. Men beat their wives. Serial killers stalking women and children. In my line of work, I seen lots of things a man ought not to have to see. I never told Mabel a word of it, especially nothing about Frank. Didn’t want her burdened with my memories.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Mabel as much as I did when I married her, but I can’t make her happy no more. Met her thirty year ago when she come in to Castle’s with her mama one summer day. Saw her long, curly red hair first, then noticed her fair skin. She walked down the aisle where I was stocking shelves. Her twinkling blue eyes knocked the breath right out of me. I’m six-foot-two, and the top of her head come up to my shoulder, so she were a little tall for a woman. Her and her mama was always nice to me, though Mabel was a little distant at first. Sometimes she laughed at my attempts to joke with her. She has a wonderful laugh.

One day, I got my nerve up to ask Mabel out, and she said no, which made me determined to change her mind. Every week, I’d ask, and she’d say no with attitude. Weren’t like any woman I ever met.

After about nine weeks, she said no again, and her ma turned to her and asked her why not. Mabel blushed but didn’t say nothing. Her ma told her she should say yes since she didn’t have a good reason not to go out with me.

Mabel looked me in the eye, and said, “Friday night, I’ll go with you to the movies. Meet you at seven.”

I thanked her mother. Told Mabel I’d be waiting.

Every Friday for six months we went to the movies. Finally got my nerve up to ask her why she turned me down for so long. Said she wanted to find out if I was serious or just flirting. Told her I was real serious. To prove it, I asked her to marry me. She said yes.

We got along real good, but she weren’t happy about me quitting Castle’s to become sheriff. She worried I’d get killed on the job so I’d tell her the good things I done and leave out the bad. But she’d read the paper and ask questions I didn’t want to answer. Not much use in telling all the gory details I’d as soon forget.

Despite the bad stuff, I enjoyed every minute of my job until the end. Kept order for twenty year. Had some big cases. Man murdered his family. Claimed he was crazy. Prosecutor needed evidence that it was premeditated. Done good work on that one. He got life in prison.

Helped a lot of people too. Many a night had to break up family quarrels. Tried to calm everyone down to keep blood from being spilt. Sometimes a kid run away from home. We’d find the kid and convince him go back to his family. A lot of the time, I just drove around the county doing nothing.

Had one murder I never solved. Led to my ruin. A young boy. Fishermen found his body floating in the Big Sandy. He’d been dead for days. Took weeks for the coroner to identify him. He was Gary Mills from up in Pike County. Coroner said he was killed someplace else and dumped here. Nobody in Pike or Johnson would talk. Not knowing what happened to him like to drove me crazy.

Memories of Frank started to haunt me real bad about then. Early on, not a day went by that I didn’t think of him. As years passed, the memories didn’t fade but I had more to distract me, and sometimes I were able to pretend it never happened. Then come the nightmares. Didn’t have one every night, but often enough to remind me that I was just pretending during the day.

That’s when I started drinking little heavy. First, it was after work. Then, I was sneaking on the job. Carried a hip flask for emergencies. Little by little, the emergencies increased. One night, I got called to the scene of a wreck out on 23. I was too drunk to go. Said I had a stomach bug. Decided to retire not long after that. Just weren’t no good at my job no more.

Five year later, I was still drinking more than Mabel liked, and not as much as I wanted. It was like a game between us. Sometimes, she poured my bourbon down the drain. Made me promise I’d quit. I said just about anything to get her to leave me alone. Once I was sober, I went restock at the liquor store in Magoffin County since it was dry here.

Mabel begged me to tell why I drink. First twenty-five year with her, might have had a drink two or three times a year. But once that Mills boy come up dead and nightmares about Frank started haunting me, I couldn’t stop with one or two. Not one sober day after retiring. I knew Mabel were disappointed in me. But I was afraid to stop, afraid I’d go crazy thinking about them two boys.

After dinner, I went back to my recliner. True Detective come in the mail that day. Claimed to be the first true crime magazine in America. Been reading it since I was seventeen. Fascinated by criminals and law men since I was a boy. Found it in the grocery wrapped in brown paper with only the name sticking out. Couldn’t imagine what lay behind the paper, but the title made me curious. Finally got the nerve to buy one. Snuck it home with it down my pants, shirt covering the top. Bought it every month. If Ma found them, she never said nothing. Still have every copy I ever bought. Read them over and over. Don’t come in plain wrappers anymore. Pictures and headlines no longer shocking. Times have changed in thirty-five year.

I settled in to reading the lead story: “Woman Held Hostage for 10 Days, The Unspeakable Crimes She Endured.” A man who rapes a woman ain’t no man at all. Had to arrest a boy after he raped a young girl a few year back. Took everything in me to stop my deputies from killing him. He looked a little beat-up at his hearing. His mama cried police brutality, but he was lucky he was still walking and talking and had his tally whacker.

Running as fast and hard away from the river. Drenched in a cold sweat, and a hot, muggy breeze suffocated me. Weeds whipped my legs and arms. Then I hit a wall. Knocked me flat on my ass. All I heard was my pounding heart and my gasping for air. Prayed I was far from the grave I had just dug. Sat for a long time trying to figure out where I was. But there was no telling in the dark. A hoot owl called.

I woke to the sound of that hoot owl. Don’t know if it was outside my window, on Mabel’s TV blaring in the living room, or in my dream. Must have dozed off while reading. Haven’t had that dream in a while. The one where I’m afraid for my life, afraid they will come after me for what I done. I took a sip of bourbon and returned to reading.

Probably should have confessed. It were the right thing to do. It weren’t right about Frank’s family not knowing the truth about what happened. That Monday after I buried him, his mama and pa came to see me at Castle’s. They heard me and Frank was together that weekend. His mama asked if I knew where he was.

“No, ma’am. I was with him Saturday. We met up in town after I got off work and walked out to the Golf Club to earn a few quarters collecting balls. Some boys offered us moonshine. We never drank before and decided to try it. Burned pretty bad, but that didn’t stop us. It were wrong, but we couldn’t seem to stop. Next thing I knew, I woke up on the ground in the pitch black, not knowing how to get home. Called for Frank, but he didn’t answer. Sat there ‘til the sun come up, and then walked home. I figured he must have headed home when I passed out.”

I lied to them just like I lied to my parents Sunday after they had worried themselves all night. Told the sheriff the same story when he came asking. With each telling, I tried to convince myself it was the truth.

The sheriff and his parents decided Frank must have run off to fight the Nazis and the Japs. He weren’t old enough to join, but he was a big boy for sixteen, and could easily pass. When the war ended and he didn’t come back, his parents figured he died in combat. Broke their hearts he run off without saying goodbye, but they was proud he had died serving his country. Even put a headstone in the family cemetery for him. I felt guilty letting them believe a fairy tale but figured their version was more agreeable than reality.

Sharon May co-authored a composition textbook, Reading, Analyzing, and Writing but had not published fiction or creative non-fiction before this. She has taught composition and reading for 25 years at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, South Carolina. She is married to Peggy Thompson, and they are owned by five cats, all rescues.


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