“Why she wanted to take her shoe off, do it that way, I don’t know.”
“Pretty little girl like that.”
“Weren’t none of her brains working at that point. Period.”
The three old men sat on the bench in front of Lakeside Convenience. Their sun-faded baseball caps tilted together under the Live Bait sign. Flies circled lazily in the spring warmth. “What I heard, she stopped being a girl ’round age eleven. Was out on King’s Point most every night.”
“And if she could find a ride then it was on to Kalispell. Behind the shopping mall, Moose’s.”
Used to walk around in that yellow two-piece like the whole world’s a beach.”
They fell silent for a moment, remembering. The one on the right, the tallest, waved a fly from the sweat-stained mesh of his cap. A breeze off the lake swung the screen door inward letting out the damp smell of worms.
“Pretty little girl.”
“I wouldn’t have let her wear that yellow number even if it was in my own backyard.”
“Oh, you might’ve.” The tallest smiled. “Get yourself a high fence.”
“Even then.” The oldest, on the left, twisted his cane in the gravel. His gnarled fingers were bound around the handle as if they’d grown there.
“She had pretty little feet, too. You remember, she’d walk around barefoot most of the summer. Nails painted yellow to match.”
“Her momma was the same. Always said Till should’ve kept her tied up. It’s the only way with them kinds. For their own good.”
“By July she was tan as a Indian.”
The lake glittered in the afternoon sun. Children played on the thin strip of sand across the road, flinging water at one another, the drops flashing across the blue sky.
“It’s not the way I’d’ve thought a girl like that would do it. Using her foot.”
“Wonder if she done herself up for the occasion.”
“Have to ask the sheriff.”
“I bet she did. Spend an hour in front of the mirror just to get the mail.”
“Might’ve been plannin’ it for months, thinkin’ all the different ways.”
A maroon SUV pulled into the small lot and parked in front of the bench. A tall, pale, doughy man stepped out. He fumbled through the pockets of his khaki shorts, then used his key fob to lock the SUV’s doors. He nodded and smiled at the three old men. They nodded back grimly, waiting for the screen door to bang shut behind him. A white sticker family: Mom, Dad, four daughters and two sons, all holding hands, was pasted to the SUV’s rear windshield.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if it was some Latter Days that took her out on King’s Point, at least some nights,” the shortest of the three old men, in the center, said, untucking his chin from the collar of his plaid shirt to jerk it at the SUV. “They act real holy with their no coffee, no alcohol, but I’ve heard what they do to girls when they get them back to the compound.”
“Pass ‘em around like cards is what I hear.”
He nodded. “Even the money they make don’t smell right.”
On the beach, a boy ran up from the shallows with a minnow cupped in his palm. His sister screamed and leapt back, slapping his arm.
“You remember the trouble she ran into last fall after the football game?”
“Wasn’t trouble until she tried to make some afterward. Everybody saw the way she was hangin’ off the Johnson boy, drinking all night. What’d she expect was goin’ to happen?”
“Sheriff felt the same. Reckon you give up the right to complain with all that runnin’ around.”
“It’s a sad thing, though, just partwise how she was raised.”
“That boy near got run out of town.”
Inside the store, the clerk gestured at the brightly colored lures hanging from the wall while the pale man stared up at them blankly.
“Must’ve been something like this,” the oldest said, carefully rotating his cane so the bottom pointed at his nose. He leaned forward and pressed the dirty rubber nub between his eyes. The loose, wrinkled skin puckered up around it. He blinked. “Big toe. Hook it through the guard.” He clasped the wood shaft between his knees and tapped the handle with his shoe.
“Yellow as the sun.”
“Really have to squeeze it through.”
“No, not her. Those little feet, her toe’d fit right through.”
“There’s different ways to do a thing but it sure isn’t how I’d expect a girl to go.” The old man’s watery blue eyes crossed as he stared down the shaft.
“A hot bath.”
“Why she didn’t just lean over farther and use her finger.”
“Might’ve slipped off, see.” The question animated the old man. He stretched out his arm and leaned forward to grab the handle. The nub slipped to the left side of his forehead. He demonstrated again, the nub slipping off to the right and ending up in the tuft of gray hair behind his ear.
“Well, she got it on the first try.”
“Yes.” They all three paused and looked out at the water.
“Must’ve been one hell of a mess.”
“Up on the wall and the like. Was her mother that found her.”
“In the room where she growed up.”
The cash register jingled as the clerk slammed it shut. The old men kept their eyes fixed on the lake. A red kayak slowly made its way along the far shore, passing in front of docks and boats and trees.
Then the oldest spoke again, a note of agitation coming into his voice. “She’d’ve come through it, though. You can’t tell them anything at that age. But they grow out of it. I remember my Lisa—”
Uncomfortable, the shortest interrupted. “It won’t be the same come summer.”
“Mormon women with their hair trussed up, water skirts.”
“They don’t even swim. Just set there staring.”
“She’d’ve growed up and moved out and had girls of her own someday.” The oldest finished. He laid his cane across his knees, sat back, and stared at the ground. He tapped his foot, touching an invisible trigger with his toe. “Fifteen years old.”
The pale man emerged from the store carrying two bags of ice, a can of worms, and a rented fishing pole. He nodded to them again but didn’t wait for a response, and they didn’t offer one. He climbed into the SUV. It growled to life, pulled out, and turned down Lakeside Drive.
“He ain’t going to catch naught but mud in this heat. Damn fool.”
The oldest’s eyes followed the red kayak as it rounded the point and disappeared. “The colors out there all start to run together.” He squeezed the cane, a whiteness appearing around his knuckles. “You hardly even notice.”