Mrs. Edna Covington examines herself in a large mirror tucked in a corner of her store and smiles. She feels satisfied her weight falls within the allowed self-imposed margin. Her visual measure places her a bit past middle and superbly describes a body weight epitomizing pleasingly plump. Mrs. Covington's recent weight addition feels lovely, like a thin sweet meringue over coconut cream. She prefers to be described as voluptuous from those who might offer mention of her out of earshot even though her garments and make up are worn conservatively. Her total countenance and complexion are exceedingly favorable. Nevertheless, she judges herself to be beyond prime matrimonial eligibility. She worries this very moment and reminds herself to quit squinting.
She had just turned around the open sign and Mr. Rod enters the market. She patters her naked fingers on the counter of her small shop, passed to her by deceased parents, called Hammer’s Market. Mr. Rod, an elderly local, frequents the market and carefully peruses tobacco merchandise in a sturdy glass case as though there was something that could be different about the case, there wasn’t. The well stocked case reflected the full and orderly stock on all shelves in Hammers.
“I’ll take the Copenhagen package of three you are keeping all nice and tidy down in there Edna Covington, thank you and bless your heart.”
“As usual Mr. Rod, eh, no surprise,” she opens the glass case and retrieves a package of three round Copenhagen cans and says, “You’ve heard that Louie Cross is missing at sea so to speak, of course, at least lost in that old Lake Sassy haven’t ya, or not?”
“That mean ole Lake Sassy catches itself a big one from time to time,” offers Mr. Rod, “damn wind will suddenly come squalling like a cheated woman and turn wild as barn cat out there. Gonads. Dammit. Why yes Mrs. Covington. I heard about Mr. Cross and I’m telling ye me and that fellow is friends. A gifted fisherman he is and a mighty able boat handler with considerable avidity for the sport. Casts his bait to where the fish want it as well as any bass man or trout taker anywhere, anytime. And a disturbing affair it is to have him go missing.”
“Mrs. Cross said he didn’t get his boots off on the service porch or attend dinner last evening. Went out early and expected to be gone all day long, but not so long as to not remove his boots, wash up, and have dinner.”
“Ye spoke with Mrs. Cross?” Mr. Rod’s face squeezes but just as quickly relaxes. “What else did she reckon?”
“She told me the lake police looking right steady for his old boat. I expect he’s well drowned by now. Mrs. Cross said to me as blunt as an old sow snout, that skinny bastard couldn’t swim across a small farm’s irrigation ditch and another thing for sure, he can’t float, got not a bit of fat on ‘em.”
“None, skinny as Olive’s legs. I expect he’ll be parking his boots at the service entrance at his home and hugging the family early as this afternoon with a string a fish a dangling and ready for cooking. Ain’t no lake fisherman alive that can’t swim a useful stroke I tell ye.”
“Gosh no,” she says, a worried frown pulling down her lips and rousing some color high on her cheeks. “Maybe it's something less grim. Does he have a girlfriend who will see them boots being slipped on right now because he stayed the night with? Those two folks, not long ago, made a child, a boy, did they not?
“A nurse slapped that little butt five, six years ago. Hmmmm? A girlfriend, maybe. He did like Charlie Selma’s wife, Gladys. I heard over a draft, or two, old Charlie reckon Gladys and Louie were a seein one another. That ain’t right.” Mr. Rod ponders, eyes looking up and to the right, as he rubs his chin between an index finger and an arthritic deformed thumb. “She’s a widower over in Still Water now. Yes, I’m thinking four or five years done spilled since that lad slipped out headfirst into this old world. Well, got to get on to my getting on Mrs. Covington. Ill be keeping me eye out for him. Thank ye for the tobacco,” Mr. Rod hoists the brown paper bag to say good-bye as he leaves Hammer’s Market.
Mr. Rod, not gone from Hammers a minute, and Mrs. Covington welcomes Miss Boardman into Hammers with a lowly and sour howdy as she turns from the mirror in the corner. “Howdy Miss Boardman, a good morning to ya.” Her eyebrows arch into little dark frowns, “that’s a bright pretty red dress ya got hanging on ya.”
“Thank you dear. Thank you. Say, what would you know about the missing Mr. Cross. Did he go missing in the lake yesterday?” asks Miss Boardman suspending in her eyes, brows and pressing lips a measure of snoot as though she might know more about the Mr. Cross incident than the tittle-tattle from the chatter box cashier. “Can you imagine, the poor missus?
“Indeed, indeed. Missing and I suppose he’s drowned by now if they haven’t found him and no indications a body floated up from the muddy feet of Lake Sassy.”
Miss Boardman hitches her red dress a bit and ran her palms over her half-moon belly and patted her seven-month long passenger inside. “I heard he can’t never find a fish for his hook so was he really fishing at all?’ she says pulling on an ear lobe like a wink. “
“Mrs. Cross must be upset with this a going on, do you suppose Miss Boardman?” remonstrates Mrs. Covington.
“Mrs. Cross, the church mouse, you don’t see her mouth moving much. A voice quiet as midnight up the McKenzie. You never know what’s on her mind. Perhaps Mr. Cross ain’t fishing at all but going out to Danbury Island. There’s a lover’s snare there. Dimly lit, a mattress soft meadow snuggles under a green umbrella of catclaw acacia, pine, screw-bean mesquite and greatly protected by a thick perimeter of brittle brush, creosote and lenscale for quail to hide in. Lovers too. The moon peeks in just enough to badly mimic a soft candlelight. Lovers will find the access tunnel with a bit of hard exploration or, perhaps and certainly better, courtesy directions drawn by a previous visitor. Mr. Cross have a girlfriend? Maybe he’s out there right now sinning and keeping secrets.” Miss Boardman kept her eyes on Mrs. Covington near breathless from her exposition but keen to hear comments.
“Oh my, nothing about Mr. Cross disappearing would find space on a front page with the total of all that in mind. Quite apparent you spent a bit of time in that snare.”
Miss Boardman again slides her hands over the bubble with little feet kissing inside.” I been there alright, not alone of course. Let’s see, what did I come in here for anyways? Oh yeah, I need a couple Hershey bars and one of those frozen pizzas if you have them.”
While Mrs. Covington taps her fingers and watches Miss Boardman waddle towards the pizza cooler she asks, “Do you suppose Mr. Cross’s motor might’ve failed and he’s drifting about the spatters and waves, carried to the other side maybe, on Lake Sassy?”
“Oh, my Mrs. Covington. A canoe doesn’t have a motor for goodness sake. Mr. Cross fishes from a canoe.”
“Oh, canoes don’t have motors?” Mrs. Covington turns as she covers her mouth to conceal a rascally smile.
“How long have you lived here near Lake Sassy Mrs. Covington? No, no they do not. Canoe’s come with paddles and, of course, Mr. Cross would have been the paddler.” Miss Boardman selected her pizza and came to the counter to pay. “Okay here, give me those two Hershey bars and I’m off to feed Mr. Craven.”
“Be sure not to eat fish Miss Boardman. Not good for that little person in your belly.”
“Well, there’s something you know Mrs. Covington. Fish not cooked well enough might’ve been added to your intelligence, eh.”
Hammer’s doorbell tinkled and another local, Mrs. Violet, enters the market with whoosh and jolly, “hello ladies of Lake Sassy.”
“Good day to you Mrs. Violet. Nice to see you and I would stay to visit if it was evening, we were in the ale tavern, and I wasn’t just dying to gobble down some pizza and chocolate.” She rubs circles atop her belly as she walks towards the door and leaves.
“Venture for me the pollinator of the beating heart in her belly Mrs. Covington?” Mrs. Violet curiously requests smiling, eyes sparkling, hands resting on ample hips.
“Well, I believe it might be the missing fisherman, Mr. Cross. She’s been with him out to Danbury Island on his boat I know for sure. I expect this very minute the police are searching. Is he alive? I don’t know. He on Danbury Island with a lover? I don’t know. Lake Sassy chewing on him down on the bottom? I don’t know. Mr. Rob believes Gladys Selma is involved and his boots are on her porch over in Still Water. Miss Boardman has got it all in for Mrs. Cross. Mrs. Cross says he can’t swim but that’s a diversion. Ya know and she is a talker I tell ya, that verbose Mrs. Cross, a real talker. She’s why we know Mr. Cross is missing. No boots on her porch, an evening dinner left sitting on the table a spoiling. Makes you wonder about boots on Miss Boardman’s porch. I hope they find the poor man for I get total confused. And what about the poor little lad, Nathan, if Mr. Cross is gone forever? And his half sibling?
“Well,” says Mrs. Violet looking toward the door window, “You’ve got this figured out. Maybe Sheriff Tullibee can add to what you know. He is about to walk in. Might he answer your questions?”
The bell tinkles and in strides the barrel-chested Sheriff Tullibee, hair sprouting like weeds from his shirt's front collar V. He wears aviator sunglasses, a baseball cap and his dirty tactical uniform having begun the day sharply pressed looking as though it might better be discarded. At least submitted to the cleaners with blue paint tape marking the areas needing patch and repair.
“Howdy Mrs. Covington, Mrs. Violet. I expect you’ve heard about the missing person, Mr. Louie Cross. We know many of the local folks come through Hammer’s Market Edna. If you hear anything that might help us in our investigation, I will appreciate you passing any observation along to me. We’ve no progress in finding the fisherman. No ma’am. Divers have searched all day long where we found the canoe. No sign. His fishing pole and bait were in the boat as was an uneaten packed lunch. Found it halfway between the south shore and Danbury Island. A little closer to the south shore as Mr. Rod knew where his favorite fishing area was, and I can verify. So, we figure whatever happened, probably happened in the afternoon. No sign of damage, no body. Myself and my deputies practically dug up Danbury Island and found not a damn thing."
“Did you check with Gladys Selma over in Still Water Sheriff?” asks Mrs. Covington.
“His boots aren’t there; I can assure you.”
Mrs. Covington, "you can? How?”
“Because Mrs. Selma parks my boots.”
“You are sure the boat you found was his?”
“I am as I have fished with Louie many times in that canoe. He always favored sitting to fish.”
“And that search on Danbury, the love nest in particular, was thorough. Might I receive your word?”
“You can see by my uniform that we’ve been there and through there and down there and up there and everywhere ladies. I know Mr. Cross possesses no arboreal characteristics but we even checked in trees. If he was there, he left nothing behind. Please if you hear anything you think might feel like a clue give me a call.” The Sheriff turns, waves a meaty, scratched hand and left.
* * *
A season hence, Mrs. Covington staffs Hammer’s linoleum covered counter. The Lake Sassy Sapient lays unfolded before her. She takes a sip of tea before turning to the second page to a column found always on the second page, the Short Report. This column publishes briefs on notable news whose gloss has dimmed with the passing of time. The brief leading the column was exactly the story Mrs. Covington sought.
‘The Disappearance of Mr. Louis Luke Cross”. Three months ago Mr. Louis Luke Cross disappeared while fishing from his canoe on Lake Sassy. An extensive three-month search for Mr. Cross was called to a halt yesterday by Sheriff Wyatt H. Tullibee after determining the body may never be found. Mr. Cross’s canoe was found and searched near an area on Lake Sassy frequently fished by Mr. Cross. The investigation revealed no evidence of foul play and Mr. Cross’s disappearance is ruled a drowning accident and reported as most likely cause of death. Although no evidence was found to indicate foul play many familiar with the incident are skeptical. The canoe held his fishing gear including the pole and an unopened lunch. On 5 April 1998 in the early evening Mrs. Lucy Cross reported her husband missing to the Lake Sassy police. Their extensive search and investigation began late that evening and, in the end, covered three months and nearly two thousand man hours searching for the body in the cool waters of the entire thirty square mile Lake Sassy and conducting hundreds of local interviews. Mr. Cross is survived by his wife Mrs. Lucy Cross and one child, a son, Nathan Cross, six years old.
Mrs. Covington raises the teacup to her lips and consumes several sips enjoying the rich plum flavor before walking to the mirror. She admires the smile that curls her lips with pleasure, and she feels that smile buzzing far down and inside. She imagines boots parked at her door and says buoyantly to her reflection in the mirror my lips are sealed.
She returns to the counter and closes the Sapient and takes another sip of tea. She withdraws a poster from a shelf beneath the countertop before going to the Hammer’s Market door where she turns the Open sign over to Closed and locks the door. From under her arm, she retrieves a sign she made to place in the window. In a cheerful script it read: Hammer’s Market for Sale.by Owner.