Homecoming

“So, are you going to go see him?” Bud asked, and when Earl answered, “See Who?”, Bud smirked and said, “See who, he asks, like we have a murderer come to town every day.” “Come back,” Earl corrected, because there was a difference. If Lloyd Post had never been to Prospect before, Earl might not have worried. But Lloyd was coming home.

“I wouldn’t mind getting a look at the guy. I don’t recall ever seeing him,” Bud said.

“Hm, you’re what, twenty-nine? And Lloyd Post has been away for thirty-eight years. I’d say it’s not a real big coincidence that you’ve never seen him before.”

“Hey , that’s right,” Bud said just like he would have said, “Hey, that’s right,” when he finally figured out that 2+2 really was 4—along about his junior year of high school or thereabouts. Bud was no genius, but he was the only deputy that Earl, Lafayette County sheriff, had, so he’d have to do.

“Hey, Earl, let me go with you,” Bud said, and Earl said, “Who said I was going to go see him? Why Should I?”

There was that smirk again. “Oh, you’re going to go see him.”

Earl sighed. “Yeah,” he said.

He got up from his desk and went out to see Lloyd Post.

*

Earl got in his Tahoe—the cash-strapped county gave him a car allowance in lieu of springing for an official sheriff’s vehicle—and started it up before he realized he didn’t know where Lloyd Post might be. He shut the engine off.

Lloyd had been nineteen when he gunned down the Harkness boys, Dave and Garret, in a dispute over some girl. He’d been living on a farm east of town with his parents at the time, but the Posts were long gone, so he couldn’t go there. Tiny Prospect didn’t have anything as fancy as an apartment house or condos, not much rental property at all. Where would Lloyd be staying?

Earl didn’t have much information to go on—just the formal papers the parole board had sent him. All they said was that Lloyd was to return to Prospect on this date, find gainful employment within sixty days, and meet regularly with his parole officer, a fellow in Conway. That was it. Earl had searched his own files but didn’t find so much as a scrap of paper on Lloyd, surprising because the double murder was the most spectacular crime ever in Prospect but not too, Earl’s predecessor, Tuck Frothingham, not being big on paperwork.

Earl had been seven years old when the murders took place. He must have overheard the adults talking about it because he could remember lying in bed at night, unable to sleep thinking of Lloyd chasing Garret through the Country and Town Shoes factory warehouse, firing shot after shot, having to reload, winging Garret three or four times but not badly enough to prevent Garret from scrambling over and around boxes until Lloyd finally cornered him and put him out of his misery. At the sentencing hearing, Lloyd reportedly apologized to the Harkness family, saying, “I meant to kill Garret with one clean shot like I done Dave, but the son of a bitch wouldn’t stand still.”

Seven-year-old Earl could conjure up the killings vividly, but what he couldn’t understand was the motivation: all that over a girl? He wasn’t sure he’d ever laid eyes on Lloyd, but the girl, Tammi Holtz, had lived just down the block for him and . . .

Oh.

Tammi still lived in Prospect. She was a teller at the bank and operated the scoreboard at Prospect High basketball games. She’d never married and still lived in that same house on Washington Avenue. Lloyd Post couldn’t be staying with Tammi, surely. Naw, naw.

He drove over to Washington Avenue.

*

Earl pulled up to the little clapboard bungalow and was just about to get out when it occurred to him that Tammi wouldn’t be home until the bank closed.

He was trying to decide whether to go up and ring the bell to see if Lloyd Post answered it when the door opened and Tammi came out onto the porch and down the steps and on down the walkway toward Earl’s Tahoe. She seemed to be in a hurry, seemed about to break into a run—or was that just Earl’s imagination?

Tammi did not break into a run but instead stopped and looked behind her when the door opened and a little man not much taller than Tammi came out, rushed across the porch and down the steps—yes, there was no doubt about it, he was rushing—and caught Tammi right at the T where the walkway from the house met the sidewalk.

He put his right arm around her and pulled her to him.

Earl got out of the Tahoe, and as he approached them, the man extended his left hand—his right was gripping Tammi’s shoulder—and said with a bright smile, “You must be the Prospect welcoming committee. Glad to meet you. I’m Lloyd Post.”

“Actually, I’m Earl Burdette, County Sheriff,” Earl said, taking Lloyd’s hand in his right and shaking it awkwardly.

Lloyd laughed. “I know who you are. I was going to come over to see you this afternoon and introduce myself, let you know you don’t have any worries from me. That guy”—and here he nodded behind him like there was some fellow hiding back there—“that guy that did those murders is long gone. Prison changes you, and believe me, I’m changed. This guy you’re talking to, this guy’s not going to do anything to get sent back to prison, you don’t have to worry about that.”

“I didn’t say I was worried.”

“No, but it would be understandable if you was. I mean, let’s be honest here, two murders, ouch! But like I said, that was the old Lloyd Post—or I should say the young one. Nineteen years old! I’m older and wiser. I just want a quiet, law-abiding life living with my little lady here. I mean, I got to be the luckiest guy in the world having such a valuable lady.”

“Valuable?”

“Sure. I mean, I paid thirty-eight years for her, didn’t I?”

Lloyd was holding Tammi close, and now he pulled her even closer.

*

“It was that look on her face,” Earl, back at the sheriff’s office, said to Bud Drabble. “She never so much as cracked a smile the whole time he was shoveling smoke at me. She was scared, Bud, I’m sure of it.”

“Hm. Maybe so, but I got to tell you, Earl, I see quite a bit of Tammi Holtz. Operating the scoreboard at basketball games. Playing the organ at church. She’s a serious lady. Concentrates on the job at hand.”

“I didn’t know she was church organist.”

“Don’t surprise me. You don’t go to church.”

“You got me there.”

“Yep. Anyway, I see a lot of her, and I got to tell you she doesn’t do a whole lot of smiling. I’d have to say she doesn’t enjoy life a whole lot.”

“I doubt she’s going to enjoy it a whole lot more with Lloyd Post hanging onto her neck.”

“Say, why don’t you and me go over there and stomp the living shit out of him?”

“We can’t do that. He hasn’t broken any laws that I know of.”

“There was a time that that wouldn’t have stopped you.”

“Yeah, there was a time for a lot of things when I was a younger man.”

Bud shook his head. “You’re not that old. You know what you need?”

“Yeah, a drink.”

Don’t go there, Earl.”

“I was joking.”

“Well, don’t. Remember, you lost a wife and a son over drinking.”

“My son left to go to college, and I don’t need your skinny ass to remind me why I lost my wife.”

“I’m just saying . . .”

“Well, why don’t you find something to do that doesn’t involve running your mouth?”

“Gotcha.”

Bud left to go listen to Kit Morton bitch about someone dumping trash on his farm. It was peaceful in the office without him, but then Earl realized that Bud had never gotten around to telling him what he really needed. There were a lot of options on that one.

*

Earl couldn’t concentrate on all the paperwork he needed to do because he couldn’t get Lloyd Post and that look on Tammi Holtz’s faced out of his head, so after lunch he headed back over there.

Lloyd came to the door. Big grin. Shook Earl’s hand like Earl owed him money and had come to pay.

“Actually, I came to see Tammi,” Earl said.

“Go right ahead. She’s down at the bank. You can talk to her all you want down there long as her boss don’t object.”

“So she went back to work this afternoon.”

“Sure. Somebody in the family has to bring home the bacon.”

“Speaking of which, you’re supposed to find gainful employment within sixty days if I’m not mistaken.”

“Right. And unless I’m mistaken, that gives me fifty-nine more days.”

“Got any ideas?”

“Yessir, I thought about applying for a deputy sheriff’s job.”

“That is an idea. I think I can find time to work you in for an interview—about sixty-one days from now.”

“I’m going to run in and put that on my calendar.”

Earl drove to the bank but decided that wasn’t the best place to talk to Tammi, so he went

back to the office. Bud was there eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Bud launched into an interminable account of his visit to Kit Morton’s, talking around gobs of half-masticated PB&J, and Earl wondered what had happened to his life.

He did paperwork all afternoon. The phone didn’t ring once. Bud was in the office some, out on the road some, and any time he was in he managed to irritate the hell out of Earl. Then it occurred to Earl that Bud was the closest thing he had to a friend. What had happened to his life?

He waited until a quarter past five, by which point Tammi would have had plenty of time to get home from the bank, and then drove over to her house. He rang the bell and knocked and rang some more, but no one came to the door. He sat in the Tahoe a while and then said the hell with it.

As he was pulling away from the curb, he saw Bud coming down the street toward him in that red Charger that was the love of his life.

They stopped next to each other, and Bud told him that he’d seen Lloyd and Tammi going in to the Y’all Come Inn.

“Taking his lady out to dinner, I guess,” Bud said.

Earl didn’t want to confront Tammi and Lloyd in a public place, so he didn’t go over to the Y’All Come Inn. The irony was that’s exactly where he would have gone if they weren’t there. He ate there at least once a day, would sit there afterwards drinking coffee as long as he could without it getting embarrassing rather than go “home”—ha!—to that empty house where he couldn’t even look forward to getting drunk anymore now that he’d sworn off the booze as an experiment, to see if he really wanted to live without it. He’d gone on the wagon three years ago, and the jury was still out.

He drove to the Gas ‘n Grub out on the highway and ate a hotdog and wished he hadn’t. Back to the office. Read a day-old copy of the Demozette. It was the most fun he’d had all day.

At 7:00 he drove over to Tammi’s. Once more it was Lloyd Post who came to the door. No big grin or glad-hand this time. Lloyd rubbed at his eyes like a child who’d been awakened from his nap. Now that Earl really looked at him, Lloyd didn’t have the appearance of a killer. Short and small-boned, not wiry but soft, almost effeminate. More to be pity than feared, some might think, but that wasn’t the way Earl saw him. Lloyd reminded Earl of one of those pretty little snakes whose only defense was to put enough poison into you that you’d swell up to twice your size right before you died.

“I’d like to talk to Tammi, Lloyd.”

“Not here.”

Earl looked past Lloyd into the house, was just about to push past him when Lloyd said, “She’s gone to her church circle meeting.”

“Church circle?”

“Yeah. Just my luck, ain’t it? My first day home and the woman abandons me for a once-a-month gab-fest.”

“When’s it get over with?”

“How the hell should I know? I ain’t ever been to one.”

Earl left Lloyd standing there rubbing his eyes and drove over to the Baptist church.

*

Earl parked on the street where he could see both the front of the church and the lot on the north side where there were a half-dozen cars parked.

He’d been there only a few minutes when in his rear-view mirror he saw Bud’s Charger coming up the street toward him, Bud driving slow like he was patrolling, which maybe he was just to pass the time. Bud, almost thirty, still lived with his parents, which embarrassed him. Earl didn’t know what he did with his time. Most of the guys he would have known in school were either married or moved out of town. As for women, Earl wasn’t aware of Bud ever having a girlfriend. Tall and skinny, he was nicknamed “Turk,” short for turkey, which sort of fit, but instead of a beak he had a huge nose and rather than a wattle an Adam’s apple so enormous it seemed to pull his head down and leant him a perpetually hangdog look. When Earl wasn’t irritated with him, he felt sorry for the poor jerk.

Bud parked behind Earl, got out, and came up to the driver’s window. He had a funny look on his face, amused, doubtful, maybe even a little worried, all at once.

“So you heard about her,” Bud said.

“Yeah, Lloyd told me.”

“Lloyd?”

“Yeah. I went over to Tammi’s house. Lloyd told me she was at her church circle meeting.”

Bud looked confused for a moment, then seemed to get it.

“Oh, Tammi. No, they don’t have church circle meetings in the church, Earl. They have them at a different woman’s house every month.”

“Right, I should have remembered that,” Earl said. Earl’s mother had been in a church circle, and when it came her turn to hold a meeting she’d be nervous as a cat in a dog pound. “Wonder where she might be?”

“Couldn’t tell you.”

“Guess I’ll just have to go back to her house and wait for her,” Earl said and was just about to turn the key in the ignition when he stopped.

“Wait. Who were you talking about? You said, ‘So you heard about her.’ Who did you mean?”

“Aw,” Bud muttered, hesitating. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere other than there.

“What the hell. Spit it out.”

“Well, I didn’t know if I should tell you, not after what you said earlier. You know—about taking a drink.”

Earl sagged back against the seat. He tried to roll the window down to get some fresh air, but it was already down.

“You mean LeeAnn,” he said.

“Yeah. I saw her on Main Street earlier today. She’s in town for a wedding. You know, Janey Ann Smith’s. She finally found somebody hard up enough to marry her. LeeAnn was friends with Janey Ann, wasn’t she?”

Earl nodded.

“I think they’re in there having one of those rehearsal things.” Bud said.

When Earl didn’t say anything to that, Bud asked him, “Are you going to stay and talk to her?”

Earl nodded. Then he shook his head.

*

People began coming out of the church. They were laughing, calling out to each other, having a big ol’ time.

He didn’t recognize LeeAnn at first because she’d changed although he couldn’t say from that distance and in that waning light exactly how she’d changed. He hadn’t realized it was her, in fact, until instead of turning and heading for the parking lot when she came out of the big double-doors of the church, she came straight on down the walkway and started across the street toward him.

“Earl,” she said, coming up to the Tahoe, “what are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for a woman” he said. It wasn’t until she laughed that he realized how that sounded, and then he laughed, too. Tried to laugh.

“But that is what you need, Earl. You need a woman,” LeeAnn said, and when he laughed again—tried to laugh—she leaned closer and said, “No, I mean it. You really need a woman in your life.” Then before he could say anything she added, “But not me.”

“I know that, LeeAnn. You don’t need to tell me that.”

“Then why are you here, Earl?”

He was starting to explain when he looked past her and saw the man standing across the street. LeeAnn turned and saw the man, too, and then she said bye to Earl—just that one word: “bye”— and crossed over to the man, and they walked off toward the parking lot. In a moment they were gone.

It hadn’t been true what Earl told Bud earlier that day—that his son, Jeffrey, had left to go to college. Or at least that wasn’t the only reason. If college had been the only reason he’d left, Earl would have seen him more than once in the last five years. Jeffrey called him on his birthday and Christmas, and Earl called Jeffrey on his birthday. They would speak very cordially to each other for as much as ten minutes sometimes.

It wasn’t true, either, that LeeAnn had left him because of his drinking. Oh sure, that had been part of it, a big part, no doubt, but drinking hadn’t been the only thing and maybe not the biggest. He had a feeling that the fact that he didn’t know what the other things were might have been the biggest problem.

*

Here came Bud again. He pulled up and parked behind Earl. Earl looked at his watch. How long had he been sitting there?

“I know where she is,” Bud said, bending down to the window.

“LeeAnn?” Earl said, and Bud said, “No, Tammi Holtz. Mary Donaldson’s holding the church circle meeting this month.”

“How did you find that out?”

“I saw a bunch of cars parked in front of the Donaldson’s. I recognized Tammi’s. She drives a silver Corolla, I’d say a 2014, thereabouts.”

“You’d make a good detective, Bud,” Earl said, and Bud said, “Thanks,” like he meant it. Earl supposed he did, poor bastard.

Earl drove over to the Donaldsons’ and parked across from the house.

Bud spent all night driving up and down the streets, and Earl spent his night sitting in his car. A couple of real prizes.

Earl didn’t know how long church circle meetings lasted, but he figured women Tammi’s age wouldn’t be staying out too late on a week night, and he was right. He didn’t bother looking at his watch, but it couldn’t have been much after 8:30 before the women started coming out.

Tammi’s car was parked right in front of Earl’s, and after she finished saying her goodbyes to the other women and started across the street, he got out of the Tahoe and approached her.

She looked frightened at first to see this man coming toward her at night, but then she recognized him and wasn’t frightened so much as concerned.

“Sheriff, what is it? It’s not Lloyd, is it? Has something happened to Lloyd?”

“No no, Lloyd’s fine. I spoke to him a couple of hours ago, in fact. I just wanted to make sure—”

“Oh, thank God,” she said, pressing a hand to her chest and taking a deep breath. “I thought something might have happened to him. I tell you, Sheriff, after all these years to finally have my Lloyd back with me, I tell you I couldn’t have borne it, I just couldn’t have borne it to have him taken from me again. When you came over to talk to him this morning, that was my first thought—the sheriff’s coming to take my Lloyd away from me. I about died.”

“No,” Earl said weakly. “Lloyd’s fine. That’s what I came to tell you—that I’d spoken to Lloyd, and he’s just fine.”

“Oh, thank you, Sheriff, thank you” she said. She put her fingertips to her mouth as if stifling a sob. “Being alone again, I don’t think I could have borne that.”

“I understand. But don’t worry, Lloyd’s fine.”

*

Earl tried, but he couldn’t think of anywhere else to go, so he drove home.

As he walked through the front door of the house, he called out jauntily, “I’m home, Honey!” There wasn’t even an echo.

He didn’t even bother to lock the door behind him as he went back out. He drove over to Main Street and parked. He didn’t have to wait long before he saw the red Charger rolling slowly toward him.

He waved Bud to the curb. He motioned for Bud to unlock the passenger door, then got in beside him.

“I have an uneasy feeling about things tonight, Bud,” Earl said. “Maybe we ought to try a two-man patrol.”

Bud didn’t say anything but nodded like that was just what he’d expected to hear and pulled slowly away from the curb. They drove up and down every street in Prospect. Then they drove up and down them again

About Dennis Vannatta

Dennis Vannatta is a Pushcart and Porter Prize winner, with stories published in many magazines and anthologies, including River Styx, Chariton Review, Boulevard, and Antioch Review. His sixth collection of stories, The Only World You Get¸ was recently published by Et Alia Press.

View all posts by Dennis Vannatta