Set in the same world as the short story, “Bridges,” Billington writes again of what it means to exist as a queer person in a small southern town, illustrating the conflicting senses of isolation and community this can bring.
The day Police Chief Blair Blackmore and I found the ninety-nine year-old woman dead in the cottage where she’d lived as long as anyone could remember, it had reached ninety-nine degrees in the shade by noon. At twenty-seven years old, I had then been the sheriff for only a year. It seems like such a long time ago now. Yet even now I can remember how much sweat dripped from my hair—all dark then, no gray—and onto my thick glasses that day.
I was sweating buckets when I made the way from my police cruiser into the little building I shared with my two deputies, who were both about to retire and spent most of that summer hiding from the heat. That’s the same building I still share with Blair Blackmore, the police chief of the only town in our county. Even back then, he knew how to get under my skin better than anyone.
This was one of the rare days when Blair made it to the office before me. He was waiting for me by the front desk with that dispatcher he liked to flirt with, and both of them were sweating almost as much as I was. Our air conditioner had just quit on us, forcing all of us to instead try and keep cool with as many fans as we could find. It wasn’t working too well, but Blair didn’t look altogether uncomfortable as he stood, smirking, with his hands in the pockets of those jeans he’s always worn instead of a uniform.
“You’re running late this morning, Sheriff,” Blair said, rolling his shoulders and making me bristle. “And here I was going to be nice and let you ride along with me on the call we just got, but you got here so last minute I was about to leave without you.”
“What call?” I demanded.
He kept up that infuriating smirk and said, “You know old Ms. Willis out in the country, who just turned ninety-nine this year?”
I nodded, wanting him to cut to the chase, but that’s never been his way.
“Well, her only neighbor out there hasn’t seen her since Sunday, and here it’s Thursday by now. It’s weird for old Ms. Willis to go a day without watering her flowers or feeding all those cats who hang around her place, especially in this weather when they need it most. Of course, she does get sick now and then, but she tends to bounce back from those sorts of things pretty quickly. Has for nearly a century.”
“Get to the point, please.”
“Grumpy, grumpy. So, anyway, the neighbor, Becky Rowan, goes to check on her this morning. And you know how, ha, close the two of them got after Becky’s husband, that old preacher man, left her about ten years back.”
The dispatcher leaned forward, intrigued.
“Blair,” I warned.
“It’s a wonder they don’t just live in one of those houses together,” he continued as if I hadn’t said a thing, “but that’s neither here nor there. Point is, they usually have brunch together at Becky’s on Thursdays, and it’s weird for Ms. Willis not to show. When Becky knocked on the door this morning, nobody came to answer her but some of those yowling cats who’d been asleep on the porch. Now, Ms. Willis is a polite old lady, and would never turn away a guest of any sort, much less one she’s so fond of. So Becky starts to worry and goes to look in the window, and when she puts her face up to the glass, that’s when the smell hits her—”
And that’s when I grabbed Blair by the arm and all but dragged him outside to my police cruiser. He didn’t put up much of a protest, looking as amused by me as always. As for me, I threw him in the passenger seat and muttered something about how he should be ashamed of himself for standing around gossiping instead of enforcing the law he was meant to uphold.
Then we were off.
Neither of us said much on the way to old Ms. Willis’s house, but that wasn’t unusual. I can never carry on a conversation for that long, and Blair’s perfectly happy with just silently looking at someone out of the corner of his eye. As we made our way down those narrow gravel roads that twist past the fields that make up most of our region, I think we both knew what we were in store for. Knowing something like that, there was even less of a need to talk than usual.
When we at last made our way to the old, white cottage with flower patches on each side, Blair grunted under his breath and I felt my hands tighten on the steering wheel. Becky was nowhere to be seen, but I could have sworn I saw a flicker of movement from one of the front windows of her brick house a few yards to the right, like a curtain being pushed to the side to make way for a set of anxious eyes. It might seem like there’s hardly anyone in our county, with only seven hundred people in the central town itself and not many more in the surrounding area, but the truth is you can’t do anything here without someone seeing you and the whole vicinity hearing about it afterward.
It wasn’t until Blair and I got out of my cruiser that he finally said something.
“You ever encountered a dead body on the job before, Sheriff?” he asked, reaching over to slap me on the back as soon as we met at the front of my car.
“Not a one,” I answered, looking ahead at the cottage.
“Hm,” was all he replied.
It wasn’t long before we made our way past spots of orange and pink up the rickety steps of the wooden porch. I saw a couple turkey vultures circling overhead, but I just tried to focus on Blair instead.
“Cats aren’t anywhere to be seen now,” he said. “Not on the porch, not in the field, not anywhere. They must have figured out Ms. Willis won’t be coming out to feed them again and moved on to someone who will. Becky, maybe. And would you look at that. Door’s unlocked.”
“Most people around here don’t see any use in locking anything,” I pointed out, and pushed past Blair so I could lead the way inside. “And you’re one to talk. You left the window rolled down on your side of the car. Bugs could be getting in right now.”
“Like I said, I haven’t seen much in the way of living things around here yet,” Blair said before he followed me inside the house that must be two hundred years old, over twice as old as its lone resident would ever be.
I heard Blair’s sharp intake of breath before I saw the body. When I finally saw it too, it was hard to look away.
Looking back now, I should have expected as much, but then I don’t suppose there are many ways you can prepare yourself for a rotting corpse. See, when Blair and I were on the porch, I’d noticed the smell that must have been what Becky described when she got Blair on the phone. Outside the house, it wasn’t that bad. Really, if it wasn’t for the situation, I might have thought it was a dead mouse in the walls or meat that had been left out too long in the kitchen.
It wasn’t until I got into the house that the same smell of rot increased at least twenty times over. As fast as I could, I shoved a hand over my nose and stopped myself from breathing in any more air, but it was no use. Already, the smell had filled me.
Behind me, I heard Blair mutter, “Good Lord,” but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything back to him.
By then, my eyes had fallen on the body that must have been on the ground for the whole five days that had passed since Becky last saw Ms. Willis. Lying out in the open for that long isn’t good for a body’s preservation as it is, but the heat made it even worse. I have no idea why her air conditioner wasn’t on in that weather, but it made the bloated, seeping mess covered in flies from matted hair to purple feet look and smell a whole lot worse than it otherwise would. Safe to say, I was bothered in a way I’d never been bothered before. That thing didn’t even look human.
It wasn’t long before the smell and the fact that I wasn’t letting myself breathe really started to get to me, so I did what any young man who’d never seen a five-day old, heat-expanded dead body would do. I leaned down and threw up all over myself and the hardwood floors of the dead lady’s living room, and then I went down like a sack of bricks. The last thing I remember from the inside of that house was Blair throwing his arms around me before I could hit the floor.
When I came to, I was tangled up in sweaty sheets in a huge, unfamiliar bedroom with wood-paneled walls. My glasses were on the nightstand next to the bed, and I’d been stripped down to my boxers. I smelled like soap, too, meaning someone must have washed the vomit off me, but I couldn’t remember who had done it.
What I did remember, though, was what had happened before I got knocked out in the heat the day before. Now, that memory made my head swim and my face get hot. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve never liked seeming weak, always ignoring cuts and bruises and looking for things to lift that were heavier than I was. So the idea that Blair of all people had seen me react so excessively to part of my own job was about the worst thing I could think of at the time.
Speak of the devil, just as I put on my glasses and started to sit up, the door across the room creaked open and Blair walked in. Though before I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, Blair looked even more casual at home—and I’d guessed by then that we must be in the big house by the river everyone still says he bought himself with gambling money—than he looked at work. For one thing, he was wearing red-checkered pajama pants with a ratty old muscle shirt, and for another his long brown hair looked even less brushed than usual.
“You sleep alright there, Pukey?” Blair asked me, setting the mug he’d been holding down on the nightstand where my glasses had been. “You know, if anyone asks, I’ll tell them you were very brave yesterday.”
“What happened?” I asked, glaring at the unflattering nickname.
“Well,” Blair said, moving my legs over so he could sit next to me on the red quilt he must have covered me with, “after your little episode, I managed to get you out to the car and drive you back here. You were awake enough to grumble about my driving, but I still had to practically drag you inside when we got here. I couldn’t get you up the staircase, hard as I tried, so it was either throw you down the basement steps and leave you there or clean you off in the bathtub and put you in this little guest room on the first floor.”
“I see,” I mumbled. “And, ah, what happened with—”
“With Ms. Wilhelmina Willis?” Blair asked, a mischievous smile lighting up his features as he reached for the mug he’d set down a few minutes ago. “Take a sip or two of your tea first. It’ll make you feel better.”
There wasn’t much I could do but listen to him, so I did. After a little bit of that, I nodded at Blair over the rim of the cup to let him know I wanted him to keep talking.
“Well, I don’t know what there is to tell you,” Blair shrugged, more relaxed than I thought anyone should be when talking about a dead body. “Old ladies die from strokes in their houses all the time, and of course if they live alone it can take awhile for anyone to discover them. Thank God for neighbors and lovers, that’s all I have to say.”
“What did you do about the body?”
“Well, I didn’t do anything much about it myself, other than call the good old coroner on my way here with you. Melissa said she’s seen a lot worse in her time as it is, and I’ll believe it. I know Ms. Willis wasn’t in a pretty state by the time we found her, but the truth of the matter is she lived ninety-nine good years in this county, never did a bad thing to anyone. Never married, sure, and never had children, but happy as a clam. I bet the church she went to—she was Presbyterian, I think—will be packed onto the streets for her funeral, closed casket or no. Hell, I’m sure Becky Rowan will throw together a great wake. I know those two ladies could never get married, could never really even live closer than next door to each other after that runaway husband of Becky’s refused to sign divorce papers for her. Never even came back to town after he hightailed it out of here, ha. If you ask me, Becky and Ms. Willis had something closer to a marriage than Becky ever had with her husband. Now’s when the real love of her life’s gone.”
I grunted, and kept sipping my drink.
Blair curled his index and middle fingers under my chin and made me look at him. It was funny, I bristled at first, but then I thought about how long it had been since someone touched me like that and I relaxed quite a bit. It had been over five years since my last girlfriend, after all. We thought we’d get married someday, but in that moment I wondered if we would have just wound up like Becky and her husband.
“She had a good life, alright?” Blair said, more intensely than I’d ever heard him say anything. “There’s no reason to be disgusted by any of it. Similar thing’s gonna happen to all of us sooner or later, and the best thing we can do in the meantime is live however makes us happy without hurting anyone, like old Ms. Willis and Becky. That’s all there is to it.”
Then he seemed to stop and think for a minute. I still didn’t say anything, and not much more time passed before Blair leaned down and pressed his lips into the corner of my mouth. By then, I’d set my cup on the nightstand, so I would have been free to push Blair away, but I didn’t. Instead, we just stayed like that for a minute or two before Blair pulled back, stood up, and made his way back to the door.
“You know, you taste downright awful,” he said, “You really should brush your teeth. Anyway, I’m going to go get your clothes out of the dryer. They should be about done by now, and we can’t have you driving us to the station in your underwear. You want me to make you some food before we go? It’s still early enough that we’d have time, and I don’t think you have anything but that tea in your stomach right now.”
“Food sounds good,” I called, and Blair made his way out into another part of the house.
It wasn’t until the two of us were sitting across the table from each other in that dining room overlooking Blair’s garden that he told me about the cats. Turns out I was perfectly justified in reprimanding him for leaving the passenger window of my car open when we went to find Ms. Willis’s body. See, by the time Blair had dragged me, barely conscious, to that very car to drive me home, all seven of those stray cats we hadn’t seen when we arrived on the property had made their way through the window and into my front seats. Blair says they crawled all over me on our way to his house, but I was too sick at the time to remember any of that.
Calico, brown, black, orange, gray, speckled, and striped. All seven of them now prowling about in the police chief’s house because he hadn’t known what else to do with them. If it wasn’t for what had happened in the guest room moments prior, I might have strangled him, but instead I just shook my head and let him carry on. I had other things to think about.