In Clarksville, fact or fiction is elusive to a story hunter. Depends on who you ask and when you ask them. With a population the size of a busy mall and the median income a few rungs below the poverty line, folks here are tight, strapped, and tethered to liquor. Chasing truth? Pry it out of someone before they land at Rick’s tavern because the before and after don’t bake at the same temperature.
The first time I heard about him, I decided to leave the bait on the hook because it was last call, and the conversation was nothing more than lonely whiskey noise. The second time was over a scrapple breakfast with a regular at the Runny Yolk. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, still don’t. But the tale snatched me by the leash, dragged me across town in search of the puzzle pieces of a man who was more whisper than thunder at the time.
A few years back, in early winter, a man vanished into the woods folks around here call Firewater Patch. Nobody actually saw him walk away because that area is a remote smudge, but anybody who knew Danny Bishop at all knew he was the sun-and-gun type. If he wasn’t talking about hunting rabbits, he was talking about eating them. Or outsmarting them. A chess match with bullets and burrows. People joked about not celebrating Easter anymore because the rabbits were terrified of him, they wouldn’t even hop into this town for a mountain of hay.
Anyway, Danny Bishop was gone.
I guess the only questions are the where and why. What causes a man to disappear like newspaper tossed on a fire? He was recently divorced, but it was a mostly civil separation, according to his wife, Judy. It was more about curing boredom than creating pain, though she took off not long after he became a story. People tend to leave here, not thrive here.
He worked at a scrapyard but gave no notice or anything. Clocked out on a Friday and never clocked in on Monday. He wasn’t close to anyone there, he was the standoffish type, a man of few words, but quiet gets eaten by loud more often than not, and the other men were jet engines. They had no answers.
His mother was a red light. She lived alone in a double-wide about two miles from Danny’s old place. It was just her, a chocolate labrador, and pictures of her dead husband. Turns out, the quiet apple didn’t fall far from the silent tree. When asked about his whereabouts, her mouth didn’t move but her eyes said get off my property before I hogtie you with barbed wire.
There were rumors here and there about sounds rising from the area he lost himself in, anything from hammer thuds to screaming chainsaws to whirling propeller blades. Some folks said if you listened real close, north of midnight, you’d hear a man weeping in the wilderness, the sad echo slipping through gaps in the trees like a grieving, blue-collar wind.
Nine months after Danny stopped being Danny, a couple of deer hunters found a shack in a place a shack doesn’t belong. It was around the size of a toolshed. Or a doghouse on steroids. The outside was painted bark-brown and leaf-green, an amateurish camouflage. The boys finished their fruitless hunt, then mentioned their discovery to some friends at Rick’s later that night. A lit posse was formed. The ragtag pack of a dozen curious men left at dawn in search of an isolated hut.
Like an English pointer tracking quail, the band of misfits found their prey. Tim Thomas, the sheriff, said it was nothing special, his kid could’ve built something similar, if not better. His kid could also raise the dead and throw a baseball 100 MPH. But he was right; it was a simple, wooden box.
There was no door. No way in or out. The men had to swing axes and break a sweat to get in. The interior was vacant besides a foul bucket and a plastic cooler with cans of beef stew, bottled water, and plain crackers inside. And a photo of Danny caressing his beloved Mossberg. Judy was number one on his love list, but the gun was knocking on the bedroom door.
The boys were confused. If he lived in a tomb, an accomplice had to nail the final planks as he took his position inside. How does person get out if he can’t get in? How did he stay warm? There were no signs of a fire, and winter here is brutal and relentless. Some thought he melted into the walls, became a heartbroken, human varnish. Maybe the walls laughed at all of them.
But if there’s not a body, death isn’t accepted. Without the bones, people can’t move on. The unknown sparks intrigue, hope, and delusion.
We know love can turn an addict into a saint and a saint into an obsessed, neurotic wreck. Both sides of a beautiful coin. She said that wasn’t the case, but some folks weren’t so sure. If you saw her and spoke with her, you’d understand the enigma that was Judy Bishop. And you’d be in trouble. Hook in the cheek kind of trouble. But who knows what was swimming in Danny’s head back then. Maybe he disappeared to avoid drowning.
Nobody wants to be forgotten, and everybody wants to be missed. Some fail at both. But that sad tune will have to stay inside the jukebox because the bartender yelled for last call, and I can’t pretend I didn’t hear him, or that I don’t want another one. I always want another one. Fact: Drinkers drink and drunks need an ear.
If Danny Bishop is out there, running and hunting, I hope he stays gone until he’s really gone, when mourners toss white rabbits on his empty casket.
Chris Milam lives in the past. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in (b)OINK, The Airgonaut, WhiskeyPaper, Jellyfish Review, Bartleby Snopes, Lost Balloon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Blukris.
Image: Photograph by Bea Currie, a writer and photographer living in Kentucky.