Doug Crandell is the author of the Barnes & Noble Discover pick, The Flawless Skin of Ugly People, as well as three other novels, and two memoirs. He beat out former President Jimmy Carter for Georgia Author of the Year with his memoir, The All-American Industrial Motel. One of Carndell's novels is in pre-production with Big Talk Pictures and Film Four. He's received awards and endowments from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Kellogg Writers Series, and the Goldfarb Fellowship. An essay of his will appear in the Pushcart Prize 2017, and Crandell won the 2017 Glimmer Train Family Matters Award in Fiction. He's a regular contributor to the venerable SUN Magazine and represented by Sterling Lord Literistic in NYC.
2016-2017 WINNER, COG PAGE TO SCREEN AWARDS
Silver Silo Beyond
I was thirteen when Riley died. Thirty years later his old daddy has dementia, and for some reason believes he should hate me. He lives in the same town that I sheriff, and I’ll tell you this: when we happen to bump into one another, at the fuel island at Handy Andy’s or maybe in the BI-LO looking over cheap steaks, I swear the man is about to make his move, simply take my life in retribution. At those times his eyes narrow and his head dips to the side, just like something that’s about to lunge. I don’t half blame Murphy; his mind is failing, and I’m as good a target as any. I know what he’s lost, but I won’t have it leveled at my girl Hannah. I’m cautious because of her. I pull over cars and keep a hand loosely at my side, poised to draw; I patrol the old bottling factory where meth is sold wearing my BP vest; and I watch Old Man Murphy for any sign of further slippage.
I was with Riley that afternoon inside the silo, saw a blur as he fell backward into the damp silage, with an almost practical joke thud, then stood up, sucked in a deep breath and collapsed from the methane. He’d been just a few rungs below me when he slipped on our way up after fixing an auger clog. I was clinging to the ladder inside the silo, and I had to make a decision. If I jumped down there, we’d both be dragged into unconsciousness, and suffocate to death. Methane killed farmers as silently as the evening fell. I yelled down at Riley, stupidly, telling him not to breathe in any more of it. I scrambled up the interior ladder, out the porthole and onto the cold corrugated roof dome. I stood waving my arms at Riley’s daddy out in the field, his orange Allis-Chalmers going down the furrows and away from us, like a toy from that distance, hovering over loam as black as a night sky. I was already crying, and I can’t say if I climbed down the backside of the silo or if I jumped. For weeks after, once my best friend had been put in the ground near Richvalley, I hobbled around our own farm like a ghost most days. I walked around the Indiana countryside trying to find my friend, hoping I’d spot him, that the accident was just a memory of a bad drive-in movie, my dreams scoured, and the reel flickering loosely.
I’ve been rotating these scenes in my head when Loretta takes my late night order at Hoosier Point, the usual, a fritter with fries and a side of baked beans. She says, “Two o’clock,” and uses her big hair to point toward a booth. Old Man Murphy is slid behind the table, chewing on a pulled pork and leaving his ice cold Pepsi to fizzle inside a ruby red plastic glass. He was the same back then when I stayed overnight with Riley; he never drank anything that I could see, just let whatever was in the glass before him sit there like it’d been poisoned. He’d been a boxer in the Army and by the time I started hanging out with Riley after basketball practice, Mr. Murphy kept a punching bag in the hayloft, a set of weathered gloves tossed on a bale, the leather as soft as lamb.
Loretta refills my coffee and winks. I keep my eyes on Murphy; his wide gray sideburns make him look wolfish. He always seems to be chewing on something even when he isn’t eating, muscling his jaw so that it looks like something is trying to get free under the skin. Thing is, I admired the man, and when we were boys, when Riley and I played starting forwards on the seventh grade squad, I’d look up in the bleachers at him just as much as I did my own folks. He had a way of nodding that seemed to put everything right, a kind of secret knowledge he had of your young manhood. Once, after I hit a corner jumper to win in overtime against Urbana, he stood up and bellowed, “That’s it by God!” Then pulled on his jacket and met us in the parking lot after the game, his pickup cold, and blue Salem smoke hanging inside the cab like exhaust. Boys of that age love to be around older men that aren’t their relation, and I can say there was a time I loved Murphy like he was an uncle or a more successful father than my own. Those days were long ago, and I live in a county that doesn’t much resemble back then. There’s a consolidated high school now, and the open fields and pastures Riley and I rode dirt bikes in, with their grassy waterways that were perfect to hide in during hay bailing to split a six-pack of Old Milwaukee, those are subdivisions or fallow, the old barns all over the county slowly settling into weeds and scrub.
Loretta shimmies back to my tableside and puts my fritter down before me, fills my coffee again. “You hear what’s happening to him?” she asks in a whisper, turning her cheek in Murphy’s direction. I say no, not really paying attention, hungry as a runt from another night out making sure no one’s slipped off the snowy roads, hit black ice and plunged into a culvert. “His brother up in Warsaw was in here last week. Told me Murphy is losing it.” Loretta mashes her lips and asks if I want ketchup even though she knows I don’t.
I take a bite of the fritter, unable to wait, chew and swallow, match her whisper. “The land? That happened two years ago, Loretta. He’s just got the house now.”
“No, Dean, I know that. I mean he’s...” Loretta points to her temple. “Going loony. His brother Carl found him all confused walking down forty-two. He was carrying a bucket of shelled corn and tossing it at passing cars, calling like he was feeding hogs.” Loretta makes an empathetic pout and tops off my coffee again. “It’s a shame. See you later, hon,” she says and is off to another table. I watch Murphy, who hasn’t moved a bit, and I figure Loretta might be right, at least a little, because after he’s taken the last bite of his fritter, he reaches for that Pepsi and slugs it back, and from where I’m sitting it looks like he’s swallowing the pellet ice in whole gulps. About the time he slams the ruby red glass on the table top, Noah comes through the door, face red from the cold, and his boots on, uniform untucked, which he knows I don’t like. “Sheriff Granger,” he says, stomping his feet, white powder already melting. “We got two up past Marion. College kids on their way to Indy. SUV and a truck wrapped up in fence line. Injuries.” Noah turns and rushes back to his cruiser, and I hurry to take what’s left of the fritter. I’m about to the door when I feel his eyes on me. I look over at Murphy’s booth and he’s looking right at me. I pause and give him a nod. I’m not afraid to say his big gap-toothed smile, as if he had no idea who I am, chills me to the bone.
It’s almost dawn when I get home. Hannah’s at her mother’s on Friday nights, so I’m on my own for Saturday breakfast. I get bacon out and listen to it sizzle as I mix pancake batter. The sun rises and out of the bay window in the kitchen I see flurries whipping in the cold wind. Outside, geese honk in the early blue cresting the horizon. I’m watching for them, actually dipping my head down to get a peek when I see him out there, standing on the road. I drop the wooden spoon and grab my revolver, rush to the back door. The heat’s made the pane frosty. I rub it clear and duck and look. Murphy’s gone. Only Wilcher’s collie traipses along the white edge of the ice-rutted road. The bacon is burning, and I’m half worried that I’m going the way of Old Man Murphy. Back in the kitchen, I holster; scrape gooey pancake and the blackened bacon onto a plate. I watch out the bay window without looking down at the mess of food. The sun’s an orange glow far off across the excavated subdivision field. I tell myself Murphy lives ten miles away, but I keep seeing that smile, and I can’t sleep even after I’ve eaten.
Sunday is heavy with sleet and more snow. By the time I’m up and out on the black roads, the salt trucks and county snow plows blink in the darkness. Noah and two other deputies are working a wreck in town, and over the radio the dispatcher cuts in. “Dean?” he says. I answer. “You got a break-in out by the spillway.”
“Spillway, hell reservoir’s been closed since September. Nothing out there to steal. Was it the office?” I pull over to the side of the road.
“No sir. Person called in said it was that old bait shop right there off the docks. Used to be Willard’s. Don’t know now.”
“Not sure. Caller just said she was coming home before the new snow fell this morning and the front door was open and she saw movement in there, some lights on, and thought it was strange.”
“Thanks. I’ll go out there now. Let Noah know. Probably just some college kids bored on the break. I’ll chime back when I pull up.”
The roads are slick and the cruiser fishtails on me twice before I make the six miles out, taking me almost thirty minutes. DOT is telling people to stay off the roads. The sun’s up but the world is gray and dense. I turn into the bait parking lot and swerve around to the side of the little aluminum building. I call dispatch and they tell me Noah’s on his way, couple miles back. I don’t wait. It’s still dark enough I have to shine the floodlight on the building, the bright beam blasting through the side window as I walk toward the front, up against the siding. “Sheriff!” I yell out, but only the wind answers. I creep along the snow-covered cement porch. The ice freezer is splayed open, and a tabby tomcat lies at the bottom, his eyes glinting yellow. I find the door closed and no lights on. I twist the handle right about the time Noah slides into the icy gravel lot. I hear him slam the door as I step inside the building. “Hello,” I say. “Wayne County Sheriff!” I reach for the light switch and flip it, and the overhead fluorescent flickers into brightness.
Noah comes stomping in. “Jesus, what would someone want from here, frozen crawlers?” he says, looking around. I holster and tell him to call in to dispatch, check to see if the call might’ve been a prank. His radio squelches and I hear dispatch say nope, it was the real thing. Lady left her number and everything.
Under a glass counter Blow Pops of all flavors sit in open cardboard boxes, and I imagine the gum inside them like pink diamonds. Noah walks over and taps the top of the glass, peers down in there like the candy is alive. Outside, the early morning wind picks up, blowing in swirls of misty white that skitters across the old linoleum floor. “Call the woman who reported this, will you?” Noah gets the number from dispatch while I walk around the place. Back when I first met Riley, we drove the old grain truck out here; he could barely see over the massive dash, while I tried to get WOWO out of Fort Wayne to come in clearer, an REO Speedwagon song underneath all the static. We bought crawlers, Hostess Pies, cold bottles of Dr. Pepper and fished off the docks. He caught a carp that broke his line. We were eleven, our birthdays just a few weeks apart that spring.
“Got her on the line,” says Noah, offering me the phone. I motion to put her on speaker. “Mam,” says Noah, “the sheriff’s here with me at the bait shop. You wanna tell us what you saw?”
The woman coughs three times then pretty much tells us the same thing she did dispatch. “Thank you,” I shout. Noah blows into his gloved hands. He pops his eyebrows, and I respond. “I don’t know. Probably just some kids, like I said.” Noah nods, then points over in the corner. Next to a rack of car magazines from last summer is a little coffee table, with a stubby candle flickering inside a mason jar. I walk over while Noah says, “Might still be here, whoever it is.” I motion for him to shush. I blow out the candle, the jar dusty and cracked, much bluer than the newer ones. There’s a cardboard rectangle lying next to the jar and when I turn it over, there’s a photo attached, hued red, obviously from the ‘70s or ‘80s. At first, I can’t quite figure out why it looks so familiar. I step back from the table and get under the light better. It’s a boy in a basketball uniform shooting a free throw, his hands blurred. I’m there too, arms raised and about to jump into the paint. Riley made the first and second shot, and we advanced our little seventh grade team in the county finals.
“What is it? Someone doing sacrifices or something out here? There was a show on A&E about the resurgence of devil worshipping in the Midwest. We’ve probably stumbled upon one of their covens.” I look at Noah but he doesn’t seem to register, like usual, how peculiar I find him. “Can I see it?” he asks.
“Probably just kids out here smoking pot and drinking beer, Deputy,” I tell him, and tuck the photo in my coat pocket. “I’ll write up a quick report. Doesn’t look like they stole any Blow Pops or frozen earthworms.” Noah nods but squints at me. “Come on,” I tell him. “We’re gonna be working ditch duty all day and night. More sleet coming.”
But it isn’t just that day and that night, but the entire rest of the week: snow and sleet, a slight thaw by 4pm every afternoon, before the slush is turned back into dangerously glassy ruts. We’re all working overtime, and finally on Friday evening, bone-tired and ravenous, Hannah and I go out to eat at Ricillini’s before the temps drop again. I order salads, breadsticks and our favorite dish, the lasagna. “Dad,” says Hannah when I reach for more bread, her smile in dismay, “didn’t you stop to eat today?” She’s nibbling her salad. I widen my eyes at her and try to appear crazed, an inside joke, the hungry zombie from when she was little and I pretended to bite on her soft blond curls. The restaurant is warm, the mammoth fireplace blazing, planks of oak snapping. Hannah’s a fine person, and has never minded when I have to wear the sheriff’s uniform.
“I could eat one of their 16 inch Margheritas too,” I say. Hannah puts down her fork and starts telling me about a new species of newt they’ve discovered on the Galapagos.
“They’re actually called Ziegler’s crocodile newt. They are so cute!” Her mother was the same way, amazed by nature, horrified at the brutality; watching baby tiger cubs with their mothers is one thing; watching how the lioness feeds them gets the television turned off. “Dad, do you think we could go there sometime? To the Galapagos?” I wish I had money, and I answer the way I always have to, mumbling something about saving and more shifts. We both know it’s a dream she’ll have to catch herself.
“Maybe we can go see those crocodile newts for a graduation present,” I say, and Hannah nods, smiling, her hands in her lap, but then I see her eyes catch something over my shoulder, and the pretty skin between her big eyes crinkles, amused, but she’s also eased back in her chair. I turn and see Murphy standing behind me. I rise and block his view of our table. “Mr. Murphy,” I say, and he peers at me with his watery brown eyes and nods, but looks around me. “Get along now,” I tell him. “Just having a night out.” He’s holding a to-go order and the plastic bag rubs my leg as he brushes up against me, looking back at us. I hate that he’s seen Hannah, and I watch until he’s out the door, then sit back down.
“Who was that, dad?” says Hannah, as the waitress places our lasagna down before us.
The waitress smiles, steps back. “Are we all set here? Everything look okay?” I nod, but I can’t keep from watching the door.
Over the next few days, I work in ice and snow, knuckles red and cracked. I have to ask Hannah’s mother to do the pickups on my days, because the winter weather is invading all corners of the county, but on a Thursday, when the bloated leaden sky threatens to drop freezing rain, snow, and then more freezing rain on top of that, she can’t pick up Hannah after band practice. I’m in the office with Noah and six fairly new deputies. “You sure you got this?”
“No problem Sheriff Granger,” says Noah. “We’ll go slow and calm and avoid mistakes. DOT’s already agreed to close both highways, and we’ll escort the third shift workers home from the treatment plant and Hostess.”
By the time I get to the high school, the snow is falling like blown dandelions, soft and gradual. Hannah gets in the car and smiles. “Thought you were stuck with traffic duty again,” she says. I nod, grin. “You okay, Daddy? Seems like you’ve been sick or something.” I start to pull away from the curb and pat her leg, the windshield wipers slapping away the powder.
At the house, I tromp through the snow to the mailbox while Hannah lets the cat out. The darkness is about to swallow up the landscape, and everything around is muffled, the snowflakes falling bigger now, wet on my face, melting down into my scalp. I reach in the mailbox and paw around, pull out the contents, and walk back toward the house. There’s something thick under the utility bills, and I know what it will be. I pause under the porch light and look at the back of the cardboard, where a large red question mark is drawn, intently, the fibers from a felt tip clinging to the indention. It’s been stamped, run through the post office. I turn the cardboard over and look at the picture. It’s Riley before we were friends, probably fifth grade. It’s a school picture and his teeth are bucked, bowl hair cut, smiling so broadly I fear for his cracked lip. All around the photo are more questions marks, in red again, but so small and imprecise they look like backward C’s with tiny dots underneath. I stuff the photo in my back pocket and open the door. Inside, Hannah is sitting at the kitchen table reading a chapter from her biology textbook. “You’re not going to believe how cute fruit flies are when they’re magnified.” I sit down next to her, the cat back inside, on her lap, dozing. Before she shows me the pics, she gives me a closer look. “Something always seems to be making you sad. I don’t think I ever got that until just in the last year.”
“Just tired is all, sweetie. Show me the pictures.” Hannah smiles and flips pages. “See, they look like tiny, tiny chickens.”
“Or bugs,” I say.
“Never mind,” says Hannah and I’m instantly disgusted at my cast off.
“I’m sorry, kiddo. Just kidding, sweet pea. They do look like weird chickens.” Hannah shakes her head, gives a little smile. “Mom says you want to be forgiven so badly you always apologize, even when it’s not your fault.”
The words sting, and I have to swallow. “She probably shouldn’t be talking to you about our marriage, Han. It has nothing to do with you whatsoever.”
“Right dad. I’m just the product of it.” She pokes me in the ribs and laughs. When she gets up and goes to her room to study, I call Noah, ask him to do me a favor. Half an hour later he calls back.
“Knocked on the door. No answer, sheriff, but I looked through the window and Murphy is asleep on the couch.” I tell him thanks and that I’d heard the old coot had been getting off kilter, is all. Hannah and I eat spaghetti and go to bed early, as the snow outside settles over the eaves, and piles up on everything in the county, roads, ditches, parking lots, and headstones. In the middle of the night, I get up and go outside, where at least another six inches has accumulated. I’m relieved to see it’s untouched. I stand in the falling snow and look at the picture of Riley again, the one with all those question marks.
Two weeks go by and the winter weather has started to ease. On a Tuesday in late February, the temps hit the 50s and while I’ve kept the pictures of Riley in my desk drawer, I don’t hear from Murphy, or see him. At the Hoosier Point, Loretta tells me his brother is trying to get him to go to an assisted living home. “Carl, his brother, you now, he says Murphy won’t have it. He’s on medicine now though. Carl says it only works so-so. He still has days where he doesn’t know he’s lived here for forty years. Carl stayed with him out at the farm for a weekend, found him gathering eggs in that old run down poultry building next to the road. Carl said he came in with a basket full of old wasps nests, said they were extra large grade A’s.” Loretta shakes her head and sways over to another table. I eat quickly and wait on Noah.
Heading home, I go out of my way and drive to Murphy’s. The county road is clear, just little piles of dirty snow at the edges, all of it melting. The sun’s going down but the sky is smeared in pink, with blue swirls that give way to darkness above. Riley and I used to tie a skateboard to the back of his Huffy and takes turns pedaling, gaining speed so when the rope was thrown, the guy on the board could crest the first swell, and take advantage of the momentum. We’d mark the fence posts to gauge who made it the farthest. About a month before he died, I was almost killed on this road. The skateboard slipped out from under me and a grainer popped up in the road. The farmer swerved, spilled some grain, but kept going, and I actually pissed myself. Riley told me he’d never tell another soul, and we washed my jeans in the creek.
Now, I slow down, thinking this was the spot. Up ahead, back off the road, nestled among big sycamores and old farming implements, Murphy’s house squats low, the front porch light ebbing. I pull off the road and roll down the window. The smell of cold and hay, wood smoke and diesel hurts my throat. The silo was torn down after Riley died; Murphy bulldozed it over. I can remember at the funeral wanting to hug Mr. Murphy, Riley’s mother too, but my dad told me to leave them be, something that made me think he too thought I was responsible. That day, once I sprinted into the field and managed to get Murphy to see me, he took my hand as we both ran back to Riley, the silver silo beyond like a mountain we’d never reach. I remember his grip was gentle but the skin rough and dry. When I saw him as an adult, right out of deputy training, he came up to me at a charity pancake breakfast, and just shook his head. Up until then, it was as if Mr. Murphy and their farm had been buried right along with Riley, just immediately gone. After that, I guess once he assumed I was a fully fledged man, he’d give me those looks when we’d run into each other. The thing is, once my folks had moved to Florida, and I’d become a deputy, I’d had visions of me and Mr. Murphy getting along, maybe even remembering Riley over coffee, but year after year, I knew that notion was slipping away, and by the time I had Hannah, and Mrs. Murphy died, everything just kept getting further off. Still, I’ve probably driven by his farm a thousand times since then, never stopping, only slowing down. I always try to imagine the two of us making it to the silo on time, Mr. Murphy scooping Riley into his arms, and later, eating supper together and getting a lecture on how farmers had to be safe, lest disaster strike, Mr. Murphy proud but instructive, like all three of us were men.
I nose the cruiser into the lane and start to back up when my headlamps move over Murphy standing in the whiteness of the gravel and light, without a shirt, something furry dangling from his right hand. He waves with his left and smiles. “When’d you get in?” he yells. I get out of the car and leave the beams on him. As he walks closer, I can see he’s carrying a dead raccoon. “How’d you get from the train out here?” asks Mr. Murphy. The purple veins that run under his pale sunken chest, and the billowy white hair that sprouts from his chocolate nipples, shock me. He’s lost weight, and he’s shivering. There’s a confusion in his eyes that reminds me of people I pull over for DUI, bewilderment and sadness, a hint of regret and utter self-blame. Or maybe I should say Murphy’s eyes remind me of my own on cold mornings, just out of bed, Hannah at her mother’s and time slipping past, and me looking into the mirror, snippets of Riley and me swimming in the Wabashiki, shooting hoops in the haymow, sneaking pulls from a bottle of Jack between chores, all of the images flooding me, so that it’s hard to connect the middle aged man brushing his teeth with the boys wild and intent on living all those years ago.
I take the dead raccoon from his hand and place it at the edge of the lane. Murphy continues to smile, but his hands shake now. I take off my coat and put it around his shoulders and step back, zip it up to his chin, fingers grazing the stubble, like aluminum splinters in the bright light. “You can’t be out in this weather without the proper clothes, Mr. Murphy.” His face reveals a quick burst of recognition, and he steps back.
“Get off my property,” he says, and twists away, starts walking toward the farmhouse. After a few steps, he stops and turns, pauses in profile, his slumped figure a silhouette outside the reach of the headlights. I can’t say why, but with the darkness around us, and Riley gone for thirty years, this very moment stirs me. I have to grit my teeth to keep from bawling.
“Mr. Murphy,” I say, throat thick with emotion, but the words won’t form. In one determined movement, he unzips my coat and lets it fall to the gravel. He turns again and just for a brief moment, I see his bumpy spine, the moles across his sallow shoulder blades, as he recedes into the murk. I stand there for a long time, watching to make sure he gets to the house, but even after I spot him on the steps as he eases through the door, and after the porch light goes off, I stand there still, and look.
Two months later, a fertilizer truck hits Mr. Murphy at night, when the few farms remaining around him are plowed and disced and harrowed for seed. He was stumbling down the middle of the road, carrying photos of Riley in a tinderbox. Mr. Murphy’s brother will get a judge to issue an order to keep him in the nursing home. I’ll have to admit I’m relieved he’s incapacitated, but stunned by the passage of time, the guilt that keeps me from letting go, and the memories that shape our days.
On a warm spring evening, I’ll take Hannah with me, and on the drive explain what happened to Riley, and why Mr. Murphy has hated me so. She’ll say, “But daddy, you were just a kid. Maybe you just think he hates you. Just because you blame yourself doesn’t mean he does.” I’ll have to pull over and hug her and tell her how much she makes my world. Then, we’ll drive on.
At the nursing home, while Hannah shows the old women a Galapagos video, I’ll find Mr. Murphy in a day room full of sun. He’ll look up from staring at his hands and beam a bright smile. “There’s my boy, by God,” he’ll say, and we’ll visit for hours, until the sun starts to slide down the sky, and he remembers who I am.
While reading the story, I felt I was peeling back an age-worn snapshot, and actually meeting the people behind the sepia tones.
- NPR/PRI Snap Judgment Host Glynn Washington