by Bob Tippee
After two tours in Afghanistan, I still had both arms and legs and a head full of more killing than a person needs. The whole time I was in the army, I thought I might find Brad Dellinger. I thought maybe, after he and Ricky Sawhill went back to the pond that night, he had caught a bus out of town and enlisted like he always said he would. I didn’t find him. Then I was a civilian again, needing to decide what to do with my life and wishing I still had Brad for help.
For reasons I had to learn, I went back to my hometown, which had precious little home left in it. I found a good-enough studio apartment and a job with good-enough pay in a power plant control room. Pete Sears, a shift supervisor with memories, helped me get the job. For a while, I thought I went back to learn what nobody else could about Brad. For a while, I thought that’s why I scouted Jerome Hundley.
Hundley had a cabin mostly hidden by pine trees thirty yards or so from the pond, which was shaped like a kidney bean and so wide in most directions you couldn’t quite throw a rock across. He owned the pine woods stretching a mile or more away from the pond to the north, east, and south. He didn’t own land to the west. The woods in that direction had been cleared for construction of a golf course, a big event for our middle-sized town that happened while I was in grade school. The town was growing fast, and Hundley could have sold his land for a million dollars. I learned about Hundley from chatter around the golf course, where I worked as a greenskeeper’s helper during high school until I got fired. People called Hundley a hermit. They thought he was crazy.
Hundley hated the golf course. He hated that the pond across from his cabin arched into the fifth fairway, forcing golfers to decide whether to aim tee shots across water or take the longer, safer route over land. Half the water shots plunked. Hundley posted three signs warning golfers to stay out of the pond. Three or four times a week, he waded into the water and dredged up golf balls with a long-handled rake. Sometimes, all you could see was a yellow hard hat he wore for the job and the rake handle jutting above gray-green water behind him.
At the power plant, I learned fast, worked hard, and kept answers short and soft when somebody asked about Afghanistan. Pete told me I made him look good. I liked it that I could make somebody old enough to be my father look good. I liked Pete for saying so. We’d talk during breaks, get a beer sometimes after work. He said he knew my dad but lost track once the heavy drinking started. He said he knew I’d leave town after Pop died, with Mom and my sister already gone. He said he was glad I returned.
During our first late-afternoon stop for Budweisers at Cory’s Place, where lights were dim, talking was easy, and nothing ever changed, Pete asked about Brad Dellinger.
I took a deep breath, smelling beer and peanuts, and said, “Thought maybe I’d learn something, coming back and all.”
“Never a trace, far as anybody knows,” Pete said. “Some folks still suspect Jerome Hundley.”
I picked up my mug and thought again about how, five years earlier, I tried to talk Brad out of driving Ricky and me to the pond after dark to dive for golf balls.
“Signs say stay out of the pond,” I told him.
“We can get fifty cents a ball,” Brad said. “I’ll bet we find a hundred.”
“Damnation!” Ricky said. “Five dollars!”
“Fifty,” I said.
So we went because we were seventeen and bored and stupid and because Brad decided we’d go and I couldn’t decide not to. Brad parked his father’s clunker on the shoulder of Highway 29 after dusk. We sneaked across fairways I knew well from cutting grass and repairing sprinkler heads. After we stripped down to nothing, ready to get wet, Hundley screamed from black woods across the pond, “You there! Stay out of the water!”
Brad yelled, “We were about to leave.”
Hundley’s voice was hoarse, like a smoker’s. “Get your naked butts the hell out of here and don’t never come back!”
We grabbed our clothes and sprinted back across the fairways, panting, then laughing once we realized we were safe and could dress.
I swigged beer, then told Pete, “I guess it’s only natural, people suspecting Hundley.”
I was back in town a month, maybe a little
more, before I went to the cemetery. The graves were in a section with family members buried side by side and a
nice view of town. At sunset, when building lights twinkled on yellow and white and the sky glared purple and red, a person could sit among the headstones and think.
Pop didn’t always drink so hard—a beer after a hard day at the gas plant some nights, nothing others. And Mom wasn’t always mopey and ready to cry. My little sister Lauren was the one who never changed—never got the chance to. She was always ready to play, laughing even before anything funny happened because living just seemed to tickle her. Lauren made everybody laugh, even me. And it was laughing that killed her and changed everything when I was seven and she was five.
After that, Pop took care of Mom and me. He’d hug Mom when crying started and not say anything until she sniffed and dried her eyes. And he’d take me to Ace Hardware on Saturday mornings when he needed a lawn mower part or a washer for the kitchen faucet, and we’d drive through McDonald’s and buy lunch to carry home. Sometimes, he’d say something like, “Nobody blames you for what happened, so don’t you go blaming yourself.” Or he’d say, “Your mother and I are real proud of you. You know that, don’t you?” Then Mom died, and Pop tried to drink away his stacked-up hurt. Soon I was learning my own way around Ace Hardware. And I never got to ask why, when Pop and Mom bought the plot to bury Lauren, they only left room for the two of them next to her.
After visiting the cemetery, I began using days off and weekends to reconnoiter the piney, gently rolling land stretching away from the pond in three directions—Jerome Hundley’s woods. I found places where I could park my pickup truck out of sight on the three bordering roads. I mapped stealthy routes to the pond. I learned where Hundley’s gravelly truck path snaked eastward away from the cabin to a padlocked gate on Powder Mill Road. Once, I spotted the old man hunting squirrels with a .22 rifle. He didn’t see me. The army taught me how to be invisible.
I found observation posts behind natural cover northeast, southeast, and south of the pond. From those positions, I learned Hundley’s daytime routine: dredging golf balls and sorting them into plastic bins, which he hauled away other days in a rusty pickup, hunting mornings and evenings. Some afternoons, he rested in a folding lawn chair outside his cabin, staring at the pond. Once, when I was in the southeastern observation post, he looked straight at me but didn’t seem to see.
After a month I was ready for night reconnaissance. I knew the terrain and its hazards and could move to any of my posts silently with no light. On a full-moon night cool enough to foretell autumn, wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt with long sleeves, and a navy baseball cap, I settled into my southern post behind a clump of yuccas just before sunset. From there I could look across water rippled by a westerly breeze and see yellow cabin light peeking through pine trunks. I heard frogs close to the water, an owl high behind me, and something scurrying over dry, fragrant pine needles—a raccoon, probably. I wondered what I expected to see and how long I needed to wait.
I didn’t wait more than thirty minutes. The cabin’s door squeaked open. A yellow flare made pines look like skeleton legs until the door banged closed and restored the gloom. Hundley grunted as he approached the pond. When he stepped into the moonlight, I could see he carried a half-loaded plastic trash bag over one shoulder. At the water’s edge, he set down the bag, arched his back, and rolled his shoulders as though stretching away pain. His beard was fuller than I remembered, or maybe it just looked that way in the imperfect light, and he wore a long-billed cap. His trousers and long-sleeved shirt sagged around a bony frame.
Hundley stooped, reached into the bag, and stood back up with something in each hand. Underhanded, he tossed the objects into the pond, which splashed nearly at the same time maybe ten yards from the bank. He stooped, reached again, and lobbed two more objects into the water. I strained to see what he was throwing. On the fourth toss I was sure that at least one object was a dead squirrel. On the fifth and sixth throws the projectiles appeared to be chunks of meat. Hundley finished then. He wadded up the bag, turned away from the pond, and disappeared in shadows of the pines before the door opened and closed once again. Half an hour later, his cabin went dark.
I retreated to my truck through dark woods, mostly certain about what I had seen but not about what it meant. Did Hundley use the pond for garbage disposal? If so, why kill a squirrel only to throw it away? Something else troubled me. Back in my truck, driving onto Patterson Lane from my parking spot hidden in a cluster of cypress trees, I remembered enough to wonder: Had the rippled water swelled each time Hundley pitched in a morsel? Had the splashes sounded strangely deep? Had Afghanistan made me imagine things?
A couple of days later, Pete wanted to talk about Hundley again while we caffeinated ourselves in the break room, which had poorly tended vending machines, four rickety tables with four equally rickety chairs each, and a coffee machine that more than compensated for other hardships. Pete, round-faced with gray invading brown where he still had hair, made sure nobody else was in the room before asking, “Do you think Hundley killed Brad?”
I sighed, sipped coffee. “Deputies dragged the pond the next day, searched the old guy’s cabin, the woods. No body. No blood. No nothing.”
“But you weren’t with Brad and Ricky, were you?” Pete asked.
“Not that time.”
I didn’t want to elaborate, like I didn’t want to return to the pond with Brad and Ricky a week after our first botched golf-ball hunt. But Brad had decided we were going. He had decided it wasn’t fair for Hundley to chase people away from the pond to protect his access to errant golf balls. He said we’d wear swimming trunks to save time. Ricky naturally went along and said he’d drive. I would have gone along, too, unable to decide otherwise. But just after supper, which I cooked for two but ate alone, I got a call from The Tap Room. Pop had passed out again in a corner booth, and I needed to pick him up.
Later that night, a guy in a minivan almost hit Ricky, who was staggering along the center stripe of Highway 29, crying. A deputy found Ricky’s old Ford parked on the shoulder. Nobody found Brad.
Pete sipped coffee. Like everybody else in town, he knew as much as I did about that night. But he stared at me, wanting me to keep talking.
I said, “I didn’t know it all went wrong until I got to work the next morning and asked about the sheriff’s cars in the parking lot and divers in the pond. I didn’t try to hide what I knew, even though I knew I’d lose my job over it. Spent the whole day at the sheriff’s office, answering the same questions, over and over.”
Pete asked, “Were you there when they brought Hundley in?”
I nodded. “They let him go after three hours or so. A deputy told me he said he tried to keep people out of the pond, didn’t know what happened to Brad. That’s all. The deputy said he was pretty shook up.”
Pete said, “I don’t guess Ricky was any help, poor kid.”
“I saw him as soon as he could have visitors,” I said, talking more than usual now. “He just laid in that hospital bed staring at a TV on the wall. CNN. Ricky never cared shit about news. He never said shit while I was there, didn’t know I was there, probably. That was the last time I saw him. . . .”
Copyright © 2023. Pond Scout by Bob Tippee