A Funeral for a Friend
Strickland left me sitting in the tiny lobby of the sheriff’s department for half an hour in what was probably some psychological, “I’ll show you who’s boss” type of manipulation. I decided I could not be intimidated, though my leg bounced nervously and I gave a start every single time the back door opened. Alan had plenty of one-way advice, to which I felt incapable of responding due to the presence of the desk sergeant sitting four feet from me. “See if you can find out about this Franklin Wexler,” he instructed, clearly forgetting who was driving my body. I was not going to bring up any names—providing the sheriff with information he didn’t already have just seemed to get me in more trouble.
Finally Barry Strickland was standing there, crooking his finger in what apparently was a departmentally approved gesture. He led me to a small, windowless room with a mirror on one wall.
“Well this place could not be more bleak,” Alan huffed as I was seated in a wooden chair. “Could they not spare a single painting on the wall?”
I tried to imagine a person actually believing that an interrogation room should be cheerful.
I guess I always thought that a polygraph machine was a device that somehow measured brain waves, but what those little jumping needles represented was something much more mundane: pulse, breathing, perspiration, and blood pressure. The examiner who told me to call him Justin looked exactly like Bill Gates. “This doesn’t hurt, doesn’t do any damage of any kind. I’ll ask you a series of establishing questions, and then I have a list of questions here that the sheriff has supplied. He’s already shown you these questions, is that correct?” Justin asked in sort of a nerdy drone.
“Yes,” I answered, swallowing. One of them, Do you know who killed Alan Lottner? was making me sweat already. I didn’t want to tell Strickland about Burby and Wexler because I didn’t want to tell him about Alan dwelling in my head.
Alan sensed my nervousness. “Don’t worry, I’m here with you,” he murmured. I didn’t have any way to inform him that his being here with me was why I was worried.
“First question then. Is your name Ruddick J. McCann?”
“Okay, good!” Alan praised.
Justin was frowning. “Mr. McCann, are you feeling well today?”
“Yes,” I answered formally.
Justin shook his head. “No, that wasn’t a control question, I’m just asking. Are you currently taking any medication?” He picked up the form I’d filled out a few minutes ago, confirming my answer as I said it.
Justin pursed his lips. “Let’s try another one. Are you a resident of Kalkaska?”
Justin cocked his head, considering.
“Something’s not right,” Alan observed.
“Let’s try this. I will ask you a question, and I want you to deliberately lie. This is called a ‘directed question,’ okay?”
“Mr. McCann, are you a resident of East Jordan?”
Justin’s eyes widened in surprise. He looked up at me.
“And you’re not, right?”
“You list your address as Kalkaska. You’re not from East Jordan.”
“No. I mean, yes, I’m from Kalkaska.”
Justin nodded. “Excuse me for a moment.” He stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him.
“What’s going on?” Alan asked.
I glanced at the mirror on the wall. “I’m probably being filmed, here,” I stated, sounding like I was announcing it to myself.
Alan got the message. “Justin’s acting like there’s a problem with the equipment,” he said, using the tone of voice that meant he didn’t expect me to reply.
A few minutes later Justin was back, unhooking me from his machine. “The sheriff would like to see you now,” he told me, appearing unhappy.
I, too, was less than joyous. “The sheriff would like to see you now” sounded like “Please report to the principal’s office.” “That’s it?” I asked. “The examination is over?”
Justin the Bill Gates impersonator gave me a bland, “sorry your computer crashed” type of look.
I could see as I settled into the chair in front of Strickland’s desk a few minutes later that I was not going to be on a first-name basis during this particular interview. Strickland’s eyes were cold and he didn’t offer me any coffee. His toothpick jabbed out at me from the corner of his mouth. “Grubb says there was a problem with your polygraph,” he told me.
Grubb, I deduced, was Justin Grubb the Bill Gates impersonator. Apparently he, too, had lost stock with the sheriff today.
“He didn’t really ask me any questions,” I responded a bit defensively.
“He said you’re too jumpy, you responded to the control questions as if you were lying, but then when he directed you to lie, it was as if you were telling the truth.”
“I think I know why that might be,” Alan mused thoughtfully.
“Well, I have no idea why that should be. I didn’t do it deliberately,” I protested.
The sheriff regarded me for a long moment. “You know what I’ve got on the murder of Alan Lottner?” he finally asked me.
I shook my head.
“You, that’s what I’ve got. You knew where to find him, you knew who he was before we dug him up. Now, I can spend a lot of resources cross-indexing you with every inmate in the state prison system you might have run into who could have put a bullet in the victim’s head, but that’s four years’ worth of convicts. It would be a lot cheaper and easier if you would just come clean and tell me what you know.”
Strickland’s eyes were hard and unforgiving. I sighed in frustration.
“You shouldn’t have told him you dreamed it,” Alan coached.
“I read about it in the newspaper,” I said.
Strickland frowned. “Read about what in the newspaper?”
“About Alan Lottner. I had this dream that someone was buried in the woods, and I wondered who it might be. So I went to the library in East Jordan and started looking through back issues of the newspaper, and when I saw the story about Alan Lottner, I figured that he was the guy. There aren’t that many people who disappear like that, up here.”
Strickland considered my statement while I shifted uncomfortably under his stare.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Alan noted helpfully.
The sheriff asked me exactly when it was I had been going through the microfiche at the library, and I told him. “Wait here,” he said curtly, leaving the office.
“Alan, do you think this is helping?” I demanded as soon as the door was shut.
“I’m just offering constructive criticism,” he responded defensively.
“No! Constructive means I can construct something out of it. All you’re doing is sitting there making snide comments. If you’ve got something brilliant to say, then say it, but otherwise shut up, okay?”
Alan made a miffed sound but I was in no mood to apologize. I wiped sweaty palms on my jeans.
After a few minutes Strickland came back in and sat in his chair, regarding me warily. “The librarian confirms you spent a couple of hours going through the microfiche. Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Because I didn’t think you’d believe me. I mean, I know how weird it must sound, me dreaming about it.”
Strickland snorted. He gave me a long stare, like he didn’t know quite what to do with me. “We had a psychic one time on a missing child, waste of time. The little girl was taken by her uncle, just like we all figured. Is that what you are, a psychic?”
Everyone in northern Michigan seemed to have psychics on the brain. “No, sir,” I answered, dreading the idea that he might somehow know that my sister was running what was, in essence, a psychic hotline. He didn’t mention it, though, surprising me with his next question.
“You hear voices in your head sometimes, Ruddy?”
I swallowed. “Well, yeah. How did you—”
“I hear you’ve been spending some time with Deputy Timms’s fiancée,” he interrupted.
“They’re not engaged!” Alan and I blurted together.
Strickland arched his eyebrows at my reaction. “She told me they were only talking about getting married, sir,” I explained more calmly.
The sheriff stood up and stared out his window. A gray fog was rolling through the town, erasing the details of the trees visible from his office. “It’s my job to protect the citizens of this county,” he told me after a minute.
“Tell him you’re a citizen, too,” Alan urged.
“Yes sir, but I’m a citizen, too,” I said.
Strickland turned back to me. “You’re an ex-con,” he corrected icily. “You’ve got psychiatric issues. And you’re running some kind of game here, I just don’t know what. Probably taking advantage of Alan’s family. I want you to stay away from Katie Lottner.”
“No!” I responded without thinking. Probably not too many people said that word to Strickland. His face turned dark.
I jumped agitatedly to my feet. “Look, do you think I wanted this? I didn’t ask to dream about Alan Lottner. I didn’t even know the guy!”
“You’ve been saying you did know me,” Alan murmured.
“I mean, I’ve been saying I did know him but I didn’t, okay? I just had this dream, this horrible ...” I squeezed my hands into fists. “I came here to tell you about it. If I hadn’t, you never would have found him and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“You will sit in that chair until I tell you otherwise.”
I sat back down. Strickland regarded me for a long moment. “You’re a confused man, McCann, and every time I see you, some of that confusion rubs off on me. But on one thing I’m very clear. I will not have you messing with Katie Lottner’s head. She’s burying her father tomorrow and in her state of mind you probably look like some kind of hero.”
“Burying me? You mean they’re having a funeral for me tomorrow?” Alan demanded.
“You tell her about Lisa Marie Walker?” Strickland asked.
“I thought not. She know about the voices?” I just stared at him.
“Here’s where we stand. I’m going to continue my murder investigation. If I find you have been withholding important information from me I am going to see you prosecuted and you will go back to prison. I’m tired of your brand of happy horseshit.” Strickland opened his door and stuck his head out into the hallway. “Deputy!” he shouted. He turned back to me. “The deputy will take you back home. We’re finished here. I truly hope I don’t have to talk to you again, McCann.”
My neck was bent as I followed the deputy out to the patrol car and slid inside. The sky was dark and his windshield wipers came on before we’d gone a mile. Alan finally seemed to realize I couldn’t very well answer his questions, and before long I felt him slip away into his sleep state. The deputy didn’t have much to say, either.
At the Black Bear, two kids were playing at the pool table, clacking the balls together by hand-rolling them. It took me a long time to register the significance: I couldn’t remember the last time parents had brought their children with them to the Bear.
Jimmy slid up next to me. “Hey, Ruddy, here.”
I looked blankly at the wad of money he was shoving at me. “What is it?”
“I worked out a payment arrangement with Milt, and he said you’d already paid fifty dollars, you know, on that check scam I fell for, so I’m paying you back.”
“No, hey, you should hang on to it.”
“S’okay. It’s from tips.” I stared into Jimmy’s guileless eyes and then took a full survey of the room. Several tables had people sitting at them, doing something almost unheard of at the Black Bear: eating. Jimmy jumped up. “I’ve got to run. Maybe if it slows down we can play some pool later?”
“If you think we can beat them,” I said, pointing to the kids. Jimmy shrugged, grinning.
There weren’t any bar fights between the families for me to break up that night, so I went home feeling like events were conspiring to render me useless.
As I pushed open my front door, Jake glanced expectantly behind me to see if Jimmy was coming home, too.
“We talked about this, Jake. You have to love me more. I’m the one who feeds you.”
Yeah, his look said, but you don’t let me up on the bed.
I eased down onto the floor and put my arms around my dog. Alan was still asleep and I felt unusually alone in the world. Jake seemed to sense it, his pink tongue coming out for a reassuring lick. I sighed. Alan asked me why I couldn’t treat people the way I treated my dog—but why couldn’t anybody treat me like Jake did?
As soon as he woke up the next day, Alan started talking. First he wanted to speculate on why I had flunked the “state your name” portion of the polygraph—his theory, that the two of us were somehow melded together, “my truth” mingling with “his truth,” made me peevish.
“I don’t want any part of you mingling with any part of me, Alan,” I said. Then he wanted to talk about his funeral. We were going to go, weren’t we? Would Marget be there, even though she had divorced him? Was it going to be at Burby’s? That made sense, but what nerve the man had.
“How come you’re not answering me?” Alan asked after a while, sounding frustrated.
“You seem to be doing a good job of holding up both ends of the conversation,” I noted.
“Well, maybe that’s because you’re not saying anything.”
I didn’t say anything. Just call me Mr. Irony.
“What’s wrong?” Alan pressed.
“What’s wrong? You mean besides having a dead man in my head who won’t shut up?”
“What a hurtful thing to say.”
“Oh that is so you, Alan. ‘What a hurtful thing to say.’ You talk like you’re on British television.”
“What is your problem?”
“My problem is that sometimes I just want a little peace and quiet. I would like to spend some time by myself. Is that so hard to understand?”
“Well how are we supposed to accomplish that?”
“I don’t know!” I went to my closet and pulled out a suit, brushing impatiently at the dust that had settled on the shoulders. I felt Alan restraining himself from commenting. “Yes, we’re going to your funeral,” I said.
Alan fell asleep soon after that, but he was awake and ready to assess my wardrobe as I was getting dressed. He seemed unhappy I hadn’t purchased a new tie since the last century and fussed over the lack of shine in my shoes, which just served to make me insecure about myself. “I don’t think it really matters, Alan,” I griped. I was standing in the bathroom, willing the razor nick in my chin to stop bleeding. “Maybe you should worry less about me and more about whether it’s going to be an open casket.”
“Oh, that’s funny.”
“Sorry, Jake, you can’t go,” I informed my dog for my amusement. Neither Alan nor Jake reacted.
The sun was so bright it made me squint as I drove to East Jordan. I swung my truck into Burby’s lot, parking in the back because of how many cars had turned out. “You’re drawing a pretty good crowd, Alan.”
“I didn’t think I had that many friends,” he responded, sounding a little awed.
I didn’t tell him that I thought some of the people were probably there out of curiosity: This town didn’t dig up very many murder victims. I squeezed into the main room, standing in the back because all the seats were taken, and let Alan attend his own memorial service.
Marget and Katie both wore black. With her curly hair falling to her shoulders, I thought she looked stunning, but sternly reminded myself that this was her father’s funeral and that I should keep all thoughts chaste and appropriate.
A minister stepped forward, led a prayer, and then began speaking about Alan. “I have no idea who this guy is,” Alan muttered. We listened: Apparently Alan was a kind man, a wonderful father, a generous person who often volunteered to help decorate the church for holiday services. “I did that one time,” Alan complained. I shut my eyes, hard, and he stopped talking.
As the preacher spoke, I gradually became aware that people were glancing at me, cutting their eyes in my direction when I wasn’t looking directly at them. It made sense: I was the guy who found the body. I wondered what the local rumors were saying about me. Psychic? Repo madman?
Katie picked up on all the looks and swiveled around in her seat, finding me with her clear blue eyes. I gave a solemn nod, and she raised her fingers in a small, childlike wave. I heard Alan catch his breath. Deputy Timms, sitting next to her, turned and saw me, the blood roaring into his face. I stared back impassively.
When the minister finished, he spread his hands and invited all those gathered to say something about Alan, and there was a long, awkward silence. I wondered if I should step forward, since I probably knew him better than anybody there, but before I could open my mouth or consider what I could say that wouldn’t sound totally demented, Katie stood up. She turned and brushed the hair out of her eyes, one hand unconsciously grabbing her dress at the hip as if to hold herself up.
“My dad ... ” She cleared her throat and looked around the room. I caught sight of Nathan Burby standing in the corner, looking unctuous, and was nearly felled by the heat of my anger. “My dad called me Kathy. He liked to go running, and when he got back we would walk together. He told me I could be anything in the world I wanted to be.” Her mouth trembled. “I knew he didn’t leave us.” Her eyes flashed at her mother, briefly, before settling back on the people in the room. “He would never leave. I knew in my heart something really bad had happened to my dad.” Her tears ran down her cheeks, and when she inhaled it was like a hiccup. “I didn’t want him to be dead, but I knew that’s the only reason he wouldn’t be there when I was growing up.” She gave us a crooked smile. “He was the best dad in the whole world.”
Her wet eyes probed the room and when they found mine I was wiping the tears away. Alan and I sat there, both crying, and the stares were now frank and openly curious as they assessed me and my reaction.
Marget stood and hugged her daughter and they both wept, while people swarmed around, wondering how to help.
I caught sight of Sheriff Strickland watching me from across the room. His expression was, as always, dark and unreadable, but I knew he couldn’t be happy to see me there.
After a time the room broke into individual groups and then developed some organization: People would file past a display of photographs, sometimes touching Alan’s coffin, before murmuring something to Katie and Marget and then shaking Nathan Burby’s hand on the way out the door. I waited until Timms was involved in a conversation across the room before stepping forward.
I took my time looking at the pictures.
Alan had always been tall and thin, with very dark eyebrows and curly hair that he’d passed on to his daughter. Sometime in the eighties he allowed too much hair to pile up on his head until he looked like a Chia Pet, but his clothing was always pressed and clean. He had lean, muscular legs and arms. In most of the photographs he was not smiling, though whenever he was caught holding his little girl he was grinning through even, white teeth.
“That one is from her fifth birthday party,” he said in wonder. Katie was a little brown-headed girl who always seemed to be wearing muddy dresses and chocolate face paint.
I went and stood in front of the coffin, tentatively setting my hand on it. “I’m in there,” he breathed in awe.
Actually, no, I wanted to tell him, you’re in here, inside me.
I met Marget next. She was a pale, pretty woman, thin, with a weary expression in her eyes. I told her how sorry I was and she nodded distractedly. It must be difficult to be the official widow of a man you divorced many years ago.
I held out my hand for Katie, but she surprised me by pulling me into a tight hug. “Thank you so, so much for coming. It really means a lot to me. I know my father would have appreciated you being here.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I told her, which sounded stupid to my ears—the loss had taken place a long time ago. We were here for closure.
Katie steered me slightly to the side. “Most of these people were the same ones who said my dad ran away. Do you think they admit that? No, now they all act like they knew something bad had happened the whole time.”
I didn’t know what to say to this. I shrugged, cursing my inability to help her. I wanted to slay dragons for this woman, pull her out of a burning building, be her hero, instead of just standing there like a tree trunk.
“You heard? They said he was shot in the head.” Katie put her hand to her mouth. “Do you think he suffered?” Her eyes searched mine.
No, I’m not.
“No! I mean, no, he didn’t suffer, Katie. I can promise you that. Your father died almost instantly and never felt a thing.”
“I never even knew I was shot the second time, I just fell down. It didn’t hurt at all,” Alan told me.
“Katie?” A woman her mother’s age touched Katie’s shoulder, and I took my cue and said good-bye.
Nathan Burby held out a hand as I headed for the door. “Very good of you to come,” he murmured, acting as if he’d never seen me before.
“What will happen to the memorial now that you have a real body?” I asked curiously.
He frowned, not liking the question. “That hasn’t been decided yet.”
“You were going to show me where it is.”
His eyes turned cold. “You’re not a cousin.”
“No, I’m not.”
“You’re the man who found Alan’s body. Why did you come here and lie to me?”
“I can’t believe the nerve of this man,” Alan choked angrily.
“I don’t know, Nathan, why did you lie to me?” I asked pleasantly.
He clearly regretted engaging in conversation with me.
“Good-bye, thank you for coming.” “Poor Alan, do you think he suffered?” Burby blinked at me.
“Not from the shot in the head, I’m sure he didn’t feel that. But that shovel had to hurt, don’t you think?”
The color drained from his face. I leaned forward. “I know what you’re thinking, Nathan. I was in prison, right? I’m sure somebody from Strickland’s office told you that by now. So I couldn’t have been there, hiding behind the trees, watching the whole thing. But if that’s the case, how do I know? See, that’s what you should be wondering about. How do I know?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he responded faintly.
I slapped him a little too hard on the shoulder, sensing the room drop into quiet at the sudden noise. “Sure you do, Nathan.” I winked at him. “See you soon, pal.” I walked out into the late afternoon sun.
“My God, Ruddy, that was amazing. You just got right in his face.”
“He killed a friend of mine. Pisses me off,” I explained. The blood was still pounding through my limbs and I half hoped Burby would follow me outside and try to start something. If he wasn’t available, I’d take Timms.
After a bit I’d calmed down and Alan and I decided to check out his memorial, which turned out to be a restful park bench set beneath some trees. Off to the side was a large boulder with a brass plaque bolted into the rock. IN LOVING MEMORY OF ALAN LOTTNER. WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU. I sat down and let Alan work through his feelings.
“Second day in a row with some sunshine. We’ll be covered with mosquitoes before you know it,” I remarked after a while.
“Why would a funeral director and a factory board member want to kill me? Why would they deprive me of my family, of my little girl?” Alan asked plaintively.
“It was something you saw that day, I’m convinced of it,” I replied, thinking of Wexler’s shocked expression when he spotted the car bouncing past. Burby didn’t appear so surprised, but his profession probably gave him a lot of practice masking his reactions.
“But what did I see? They were just standing there!”
We thought about that for some time. When we stood up from the bench, the parking lot was only half full, and people were leaving in a steady trickle. Nathan and Marget had stepped outside to talk, Burby probably trying to settle his bill before everyone left. He and Alan’s widow were conferring in low, almost intimate tones.
Then she raised her face, smiling, and the two of them kissed. I heard Alan gasp in shock, and I stood there a moment, my mouth open.
“Alan,” I finally said, “I think I know why you were murdered.”
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Why They Died
“How can this be?” Alan whispered, stunned.
Burby and Marget went back inside, their arms linked. I turned away from the funeral home so no one would see me talking to myself.
“It’s the most basic motive in history, Alan.”
“No, wait—even if you’re right, it doesn’t make any sense. Why would Wexler want to get involved? It was Wexler who hit me with the shovel, and he...I’m pretty sure he shot me, I don’t know how I know, but it was him. Why would he do that?”
“Maybe he owed Burby a favor.”
“Oh come on, Ruddy.”
I thought about it. “Actually I have no idea,” I admitted. “But it’s pretty clear to me that this isn’t the first time those two have kissed.”
“Well sorry, but you’ve been gone for eight years, Alan, what did you expect?”
“It’s just not an easy thing to hear.”
“It’s been sort of a rough day, you know?”
“Yeah, okay,” I apologized. “You’re right.”
I turned. Katie was looking at me curiously.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Oh ... ” I laughed, then trailed off weakly. Her eyes were still red and swollen.
“Can you ... I’d like to leave. I rode here with Mom and Nathan, but I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Sure, yes, of course.” We walked to my truck and I held the door open for her. “Where do you want to go?”
I wound up heading north on M66, toward Charlevoix. After a minute or so I flicked on the headlights to keep the highway ahead illuminated. Katie stared out the window.
“We should hold her,” Alan said, not thinking very clearly. There was no “we,” and while yes, her father should hold her, there was no reason to feel like that would be welcome from me. If anything, Katie seemed hostile and cold.
“That was horrible,” she said distantly, squeezing the armrest.
“It must have been very hard,” I responded sympathetically.
Her eyes flashed at me. “I’m sorry, but sometimes my mother just makes me sick. When Dad...when he was first missing, Nathan would come over with everybody else, all the neighbors and her friends, but then he’d stay long after they all left. One time I saw him pulling out of the driveway in the morning.” Her lips twisted bitterly. “I think it started before Dad was even gone. Them, I mean. Nathan and Mom.”
I breathed deeply, feeling like a piece of the puzzle had slipped into place with an audible click.
“I knew she was probably seeing somebody,” Alan grumbled. “There were a lot of clues.”
“She married him like two weeks after the whole divorce thing was finalized.”
Ah. Something our funeral director friend had neglected to mention to us. No wonder he reacted so strongly when I showed up claiming to be a cousin from Wisconsin.
“Tell her it’s okay, that sometimes marriages fail and that her mother is no more to blame than I am,” Alan instructed.
I would not tell her that. “So he’s the owner of the funeral home?”
Katie nodded moodily.
“I was wondering ... didn’t the cemetery used to be somewhere else? I mean, how do you move a cemetery?”
“Oh, right. It sold to a company that manufactures some kind of plastic pipe thing. They dug up each body and moved it to the new spot. I remember Nathan telling my mom he got ten thousand dollars a corpse, like bragging about it.” She turned in her seat to look at me.
“Do you think I’m being a bitch?”
“What?” I asked, startled.
“Nathan’s been very nice to me. He wanted to adopt me but I said no way as long as there was a possibility my dad was still alive. He tries, he really does. Do you think I punish him because he’s not my dad? That’s what my mother says. She says I’ve been punishing both of them.” Katie stared at me. I considered my response.
“Of course she’s not a bitch. Oh, Kathy,” Alan moaned.
“I think,” I answered slowly, “that you lost your dad at a very critical time. That you were no longer a child and had developed a social life of your own and didn’t depend on him for day-to-day decisions.” I pictured myself at that age. “You were pretty independent, but then when he was gone you felt abandoned, and as the years went on, you weren’t getting along with your mother and you sometimes were angry at your father for leaving, and now you feel really bad because it turns out he was murdered.” I thought about what Alan had told me. “He would have done anything to be there for you, but somebody shot him and buried him in the woods.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s been the defining event of my life,” she whispered. Inside, Alan was crying again.
I nodded. “Sometimes that happens to us, way before we’re ready, a moment that changes everything. Life will be going along, like normal, and then one day without warning you find out that nothing will ever be the same.” I stared sightlessly out the windshield, remembering the day it happened to me.
“What about you?” she asked softly, as if reading my thoughts. Her eyes searched mine.
“What do you mean?”
“What happened? Why were you in prison?”
As luck would have it, she couldn’t have picked a better time to ask the question—I could show her. I slowed, pulled a quick U-turn, and headed back to Ironton, Michigan, population twenty-eight, the place where I ruined at least two lives. The scene of the crime.
There probably wouldn’t even be a town called Ironton except that it was there that the long arm of Lake Charlevoix was at its most narrow, a few hundred yards across. The county operated a car ferry that shuttled back and forth across this choke. To reach the ferry when traveling south on M66, cars veered off onto a gentle curve to the left. I did this now, putting on my blinker. A trip of less than the length of a football field and there you were at the water’s edge. At night, people sometimes made the mistake of going down the ramp to the ferry, thinking they were still on the highway. During my trial, my attorney handed the judge pictures of the pavement, showing all the dark tire marks from people frantically braking their speed after realizing they’d made the wrong turn. The problem was that while the error I made was mundane, the consequences were anything but.
I drove the short distance to the bottom of the ramp and stopped, my headlights illuminating the thin steel barrier erected to keep people from driving into the channel. The ferry was over on the other side, away from us, just as it had been that night. Katie was watching me intently.
“Her name was Lisa Marie Walker. At the trial, they made a big deal over her age. She was seventeen,” I began, looking out at the gray water. “But that night, it never came up. I mean, I was only twenty-one myself, and it wasn’t like they made it sound. I wasn’t planning to ... I’d just met the girl, that’s all.” I shook my head. “Well anyway, it was bad enough. We had too much to drink to be driving around, but she wanted to make a beer run to Charlevoix, the 7-Eleven. So I took her. I came down here, down M66 I mean, on the way home.” I sighed. “When I got here, to the ferry road, I must have just drifted down it. You can see how it could happen, the highway sort of bends to the right, but headlights don’t bend, they go straight, and for a second it looks like this is the highway.”
Katie nodded, gazing at the road.
I shrugged. “I honestly don’t recall. They said I was going fifty miles an hour.” I gave her a sad smile. “By all rights, I should have spun out, but I’ve always had good reflexes and managed to make the turn. There were some people smoking weed in a van parked right over there, and the witnesses said my brake lights never lit up. They rebuilt the approach after my accident, but back then the barrier was like a drawbridge, a wooden gate that laid flat when the ferry was on this side. It was tilted like a ski jump and I just ran right on into it.” Katie’s mouth opened in horror.
“I sailed out into the water a good twenty feet, the people in the van said.”
“My God,” Alan breathed.
Katie heaved a deep sigh, almost a shudder. She looked out the front windshield into the water, picturing it. Then she turned back to me. “She died.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “She did die. She was actually in the backseat at that point. I had a blanket back there and she wasn’t feeling too good and wanted to lie down. Well, anyway, I don’t know if it is good or bad that she didn’t see what happened. The water rushing in, the car sinking so fast. I got out, and she didn’t. They found her body five days later. It washed ashore in Boyne City.”
We were silent for more than a minute, staring out at the lake, and then Katie turned to me. “What happened to you? Were you hurt?”
“Me? Not bad. I was lucky. I was wearing my seat belt.” I closed my eyes and remembered waking up in the hospital, my parents looking down at me anxiously. They didn’t tell me about Lisa Marie Walker until the next day, and then my first words were, ‘Who?’ The full impact of it all took a while to sink in, but my dad already understood, and his eyes were dark and unreadable as he looked at me and saw an end to my scholarship, an end to my career, no NFL, no glory, no millions.
Lucky. Except there were an awful lot of days when I wished I had stayed in the car.
“So you were convicted of murder?” I could hear the doubt in her voice. Up here the long, empty roads and equally long and empty winter nights brought a lot of teenagers and their cars together with alcohol, so maybe it did seem an extreme penalty for something that happened all the time. But I’d seen the pictures of Lisa Marie. Her parents were there in the back of the courtroom, and when it was my turn to speak I stood up and told the judge it was my fault and I deserved what was coming to me. My mother cried bitterly when the judge sent me to the penitentiary but my father’s small nod at least put things right between the two of us.
“Vehicular homicide, yeah.” We sat and watched the ferry chugging back across, carrying a single automobile as its cargo.
“You don’t talk about this much,” Katie speculated.
Our eyes met. “Ever? You ever talk about it?” she probed. I shook my head mutely.
She reached out and seized my hand. We watched the car trundle off the ferry and drive past us up into the dark. The ferry captain inquisitively pointed at my truck and I shook my head, so he went inside his tiny cabin, a miniscule television bathing his face in flickering light while he waited for another passenger.
Katie sighed again. “See, I was working in Detroit. For an insurance company, as a facilities coordinator? But I guess I’m just not the big city type. I hated having to keep my car doors locked all the time and how the same people I worked with would go to the bar on Fridays and the married men would hit on me. I missed my mom. Then we had a merger and they offered me three months’ salary to leave, so I did. In the summer I do a couple of jobs on the side—I teach lifesaving at the Y, and I lifeguard at the public beach in the summers, but I’m just a receptionist now.” She glanced at me to see if the repo man had known he was keeping such low company.
“Well, I steal cars for a living, though for glamour I’m a bouncer in a bar.”
“That wasn’t my first time there. The place with the bear, I mean. I’ve been there a few times with my girlfriends over the years.”
“Great, my daughter hangs out in biker bars,” Alan observed glumly.
“It’s not a biker bar,” I responded.
Katie blinked. “I know ... did you think I was a biker?”
“God, no!” I blurted. I felt my face heat up—I sounded like a complete idiot. “Uh, I don’t think so.”
“Don’t think what?”
“Don’t think you’ve been to the Black Bear. I mean, I think I would have noticed you, someone like you.” Alan made an exasperated sound.
“I remember when I saw you in East Jordan, in the rain ... ” My voice trailed off. I could feel something like poetry steering my thoughts but nothing articulate was coming out of my mouth.
She unconsciously began twirling her hair, sadness creeping into her expression. “Oh, Ruddy, I’m ... ”
I wanted to tell her to wait, don’t say it, don’t slam the door on any possibilities yet, but before I could open my mouth the interior of the pickup came ablaze with light. I squinted behind me, where a spotlight was obliterating everything with white glare. Someone had pulled up and parked behind me without me noticing.
“Step out of the vehicle, please,” an electronically magnified voice boomed.
Katie held up her hand to block the spotlight, squinting. “What is it?”
A single blaring note from a police siren made us both jump. “You, the driver. Step out of the vehicle.”
“You’d better wait here,” I muttered. I wonder if my presence at the Lottner funeral had driven Strickland over the edge, though it didn’t sound like his voice.
“We weren’t doing anything,” Alan observed indignantly as I warily stood up out of the truck.
“Place your hands on the vehicle and spread your feet behind you,” I was instructed. I knew the drill; I’d done it before. I assumed the position and heard a jangle as a uniformed cop approached me out of the light. I grunted as he pressed into me, a meaty hand gripping my wrist and twisting my arm around my back.
“Hey, take it easy,” I complained, keeping all resistance out of my body.
“Shut it. What are you doing here?”
“Dwight!” Katie was out of the truck and staring at us, her lips pressed together.
“Katie. Get over to my car and get in,” Timms ordered in clipped tones.
“Oh, that’s going to work real well with her,” Alan observed.
Katie set her jaw. “What are you talking about? What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I’m taking you home,” he told her. “Your mother called; she said you left without telling anyone where you were going.”
“So? I don’t have to tell my mother anything. Let him go!” she snapped.
“What do you think you are doing here, asswipe?” Timms breathed at me, pushing my wrist higher.
“What do I think? I think I’m going to break your jaw,” I responded thoughtfully.
“Are we in a position to be saying something like that, Ruddy?” Alan asked urgently.
“Dwight. Let. Go,” Katie grated through clenched teeth, yanking on his arm. He dropped my wrist and I whirled, squaring off at him. He took a step back, his hand gripping his baton.
“Let’s go, killer,” he mocked.
“How about you take off your uniform so I don’t get your blood all over it,” I answered.
“Stop it!” Katie cried. “What are you doing?”
Since neither of us were sure to whom she was speaking, we didn’t reply, though both of us lowered our guard, letting the tension go out of our postures. She pointed a finger at the deputy. “Dwight. Give me a minute.”
He frowned. “Katie, your whole family has been very worried—”
“I said give me a minute!”
He thought about it, then retreated to his patrol car.
Katie blew out a puff of exasperated air as she watched him settle into the front seat, then turned to me.
“Look, I’m sorry ... , ” I started to say.
She held up a hand. “No, stop, don’t say anything.”
“It’s just, I got a little angry—”
“No, no, it’s not that.” Her eyes flared at me. “I shouldn’t be here, you know? This was stupid.”
“But why?” I asked, trying to keep the anguish out of my voice. I could hear what was coming as clearly as if she’d already spoken.
“Because, that’s why. It would be wrong. It would be.” She shook her head. “Don’t call or anything anymore, okay?”
This was more than a little unfair—hadn’t she called me? But I didn’t protest.
“I have to go.” She turned away from me and got into the passenger seat next to Dwight. He stared at me darkly as he backed the vehicle away.
“And so you just let my daughter drive off with Deputy Dumbbell,” Alan announced.
I started my truck and headed home. “Well, what was I supposed to do?” I snapped in irritation. “You heard her.”
“Why didn’t you tell her the obvious? That moron isn’t the right man for her.”
“And I am?” I challenged.
Alan let that one sit there for a few minutes. “Well look, don’t be offended, Ruddy, but my daughter has a college education. I think she can do better than ...” He trailed off.
“Than a repo man from Kalkaska, Michigan,” I finished for him.
“I was going to say bar bouncer.”
“You were going to say ex-con.”
“Okay, yes, that is what I was going to say.”
I stared moodily out at the road. “I don’t even remember,” I said after a long time. “That’s what really gets to me. I don’t remember turning down that ferry ramp. We stopped to buy some beer in Charlevoix and when I got back to the car she’d passed out under the blanket—she was just a dark lump in the backseat; I didn’t even see her. She never said another word to me. And that’s all I remember until I’m in the water, sinking fast. It’s like the whole thing is a story, told to me by somebody else. None of it seems real. What happened to you out in the woods, I can remember that, as clear as if I’d been there. But not the worst night of my own life. Nothing about that.”
Alan was thoughtful as I drove. “You’ve been saying you had your dream about me the night there was a big storm. Lots of wind. Might have been the night the big tree blew over.”
I grunted acknowledgment.
“One of the last normal thoughts I had before Wexler and Burby came at me with the shovel was that I was going to return that ring I’d found. But I forgot all about it until the sheriff showed it to you.”
“Your ring. Yours.”
“I know. But I don’t know what it means.”
“Yeah,” Alan said after about ten minutes. “I don’t know what it means, either.”
Jimmy was still awake when I came in the door, flipping channels with a bored expression on his face. He gave a guilty start. “Oh hey, sorry about my dishes.” He gestured at the table. “I know you like it neat, I just didn’t get to them.”
“That’s okay, you do enough around here.” I pulled a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator and sat down heavily on the couch. I kicked my shoes off and one of them left a smudge where it thudded against the wall. Jake didn’t even twitch at the noise.
“Splatter mud all over the place. Nice,” Alan commented.
“I’ll splatter whatever I want, whenever I want,” I answered loftily. Jimmy eyed me but didn’t respond.
We watched Jimmy lazily circle through the channels, and after a while I found myself talking about what had happened with Katie. “It was like she was mad at me, when I didn’t do anything,” I finished.
Jimmy thought about it. “Maybe she’s mad because she had everything figured out, you know, with the cop, and then you came along and now it don’t look so good. Women like to have stuff all set, you know? When someone comes along and it changes their plans, they don’t like it.”
I pondered this wisdom. “I imagine you’ve run into that circumstance maybe once or twice along the way.” “Maybe,” Jimmy agreed.
I heaved myself off the couch. “Thanks, Jimmy. I appreciate it.”
I went to my room and settled into bed with a sigh, but didn’t go to sleep right away. I stared at the ceiling, remembering Katie’s voice in the cab of my pickup. I could have sat there all night, if Dwight hadn’t come along.
“Deputy Dumbbell, huh, Alan?” I asked. He didn’t answer, but he didn’t feel asleep to me. I sighed, shutting my eyes.
When I awoke I was facedown in a melting snowbank, the ice cutting my cheeks like diamonds.
Come back tomorrow, Dec. 13, for Chapters 21 & 22. In the meantime, check out more Members Only Access content.
Free for AARP members and available in their entirety online.