Somewhere between McCook and the grid of rural routes she had traveled to reach the farm, Letty had applied a coat of lipstick. She liked to drive with the window down, her hand pressed flat against the wind. Now her skin was coated with a fine layer of dust, her red-pink mouth, glazed with grit.
Because her work sometimes required her to interview a male sheriff or mechanic or bartender, Letty wore a fly-fisherman’s vest over an ankle-length skirt. A hand-sized spiral notebook fit neatly inside one of the pockets. Later, in the air-conditioned drug store down the street from the room she rented at the Moore Motel or, sometimes, there and then on the side of the road, she recorded her observations. The condition of the house. The number of dogs. The demeanor of the children, watching from behind screens.
She didn’t like interviews. She didn’t like that she could make people say things they’d want to take back. Which they always did.
Read it out, a voice would whine into a payphone receiver. Letty would pull the curtain away from the window and stare at the telephone wires strung between the poles across the street. I may have exaggerated that part about the little girl left for so long in the cellar. What’s the harm in reading what you wrote?
Letty’s skirt swung as she crossed the gravel road that seemed to disappear in a pool of watery light. She felt the brush of the hem against her ankles, the rush of air, high between her legs, and then, as if she’d been hit with a stone, the girl’s gaze struck.
Her bare feet scuffed at the powdery dust beneath the bottom strand of the barbed wire fence. Her shirtwaist dress was unbuttoned at the collar. The design was flowers. Dark-centered, round-petaled flowers. And though the collar was white, and the sleeves were trimmed in white, the front of the dress was smeared with grime, as if she’d been inching her way beneath the front porch or lying face down on the back of a horse.
Behind her stood an empty water trough. Farther back, in the shade of an oak, the house. Letty noted the storm windows of a root cellar in the foundation. The axe in the stump of a tree. A door squeaked open on a rusty hinge. Behind the screen, a woman watched Letty approach the girl with her hand on the fence.
The first time Letty spoke to the girl, she was standing outside the video arcade next door to the Rexall drugstore, where she went after work to transcribe her notes into reports. It was air conditioned. There was a soda fountain. The counter was usually empty, evenings.
The girl told Letty that her parents were migrant workers, but she lived with a foster mother west of McCook. The social worker who had taken her there said she ran a horse farm, though it hadn’t taken but a day to find out there weren’t any horses any more.
Letty and the girl developed a vague relationship after that. Sometimes the girl missed the bus after school and spent the afternoon in the video arcade, waiting for her foster mother’s brother to finish his shift at the Conoco station at the end of the block. If Letty saw her through the window, she’d wave. The girl would come out, and they’d go inside the Rexall where Letty would buy her a Coke.
The girl sat across from her in the booth, sipping from two straws. Sometimes they exchanged a few words. Mostly they exchanged looks. In any case, Letty looked at the girl, interpreting what she could from the circles beneath her eyes. The scattering of blemishes across her forehead. The blunt-cut hair that fell unevenly from a zig-zag part to her chin.
Sometimes Letty gave her coins to put in the miniature jukebox soldered to the wall above the table. The girl turned the frames, reading the titles of the out-dated 45s handwritten on labels glued to the racks. She liked a song called “Ode to Billie Joe.” Letty watched her scratching the wax paper cup of melting ice with a dirty fingernail, mouthing the words, and handed her a business card embossed with her name and title. Field Agent. Child Protective Services. McCook, Nebraska. The girl’s thumb grazed the raised letters.
“Give it back a minute.” Letty printed a phone number on the back. “This is where I stay. This is where you can find me.”
“Doesn’t matter. She don’t let me use the telephone.”
The woman at the top of the stairs wore a checked apron tied at the waist, and, beneath the apron, a tea-length dress, also checked, but a different print from the apron. Landowner. Letty saw it in the fit of her dress. In the way her bare legs in the low-heeled pumps that were wrong for the landscape possessed the floor.
The girl flinched when the screen door slammed. The woman called out from the top of the stairs, and then she was walking toward the fence.
Letty reached for the notebook inside her vest pocket and drew the pen out from under the rubber band that held it closed. She pulled the cap off with her teeth, and, in a scrawl she hoped the girl could read, scribbled the telephone number on a page she ripped from the binder.
The girl held Letty’s eyes for a second before she let go of the fence and ran toward the house.
The woman caught the girl by the wrist, unfolded her fingers, and crushed Letty’s number in the palm of her hand.
Half skipping, half running, the girl followed, led like a goat on a rope. Just before they reached the stairs, she peered over her shoulder and raised her hand behind her back. A furtive farewell, Letty thought. Then her teeth broke into a smile, and the business card wagged between her fingers like a tail.