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Midwest City, OK
I didn't really know my cousin Laura-Lynn. She was my aunt Louise's only child, but had moved away by the time I was born. She blew through town a few times when I was a kid, but I hadn't seen her in years. She moved back to Oklahoma shortly before she died, but didn't tell anyone in the family. I only went to the funeral because my dad threw out his back loading bags of fertilizer into the truck and Mom wanted me to drive her.
I did notice an unfamiliar man, standing well away from the rest of the assembled at the graveside service. He was older, tall, but slouched, his shoulders hunched. His clothes were rumpled and creased, as was his face, but there was still something about both that said “wealthy.” Maybe it was the deep black Mercedes he was leaning against. His eyes were hidden by equally dark sunglasses, but mine weren't and I had to look away when he noticed me staring. It's amazing how many details your mind can capture in an instant: Charcoal gray sport coat over a black crew neck sweater. Tan slacks. Black belt and shoes, good leather and well made. Hands in pockets, like a guilty school boy. Slim build, but with the soft start of a belly. Hair gone gray, skin sun-dried leather, forehead creased. If he'd been handsome once, there was no sign of it now.
I meant to ask Mom about him after the service, but it slipped my mind in all the family hubbub. Months went by and I would've forgotten about him entirely if it hadn't been for a library book.
I was at work early one morning, getting ready to sort through the pile of stuff that had accumulated on my desk during the previous day. In addition to that mess, there was a stack of “new arrival” books sitting in my chair. Once again surrendering to the chaos that is a public library, I made myself comfortable on the floor, using my creaky wooden desk as a backrest. Hoping for fortification through caffeination, I pulled the top book off the stack to thumb through while I drank my coffee. It was at an angle, set apart from the rest – the clerk's sign that it was something to which she felt I should pay special attention.
Red Sky Mourning (2006, Viking Press) was the latest release from “award-winning author” John Anders Erickson. I'd read all sorts of rave reviews of it. The waiting list of patrons was already two pages long and I considered the ethical implications of sneaking it home for a quick read before putting it out on the shelf. Librarian's prerogative, I figured.
Since it was not yet in circulation, it was one of the few books in the library without nerd-, Groucho-, or cat-eye sunglasses drawn over the author's photo, so it took me a moment to place him – John Anders Erickson.
Posed, lit, and probably Photoshopped, the man on the cover looked healthy and rugged, with bright blue eyes. He leaned in toward the camera seductively, cradling a meerschaum pipe, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow, exposing the famed mermaid tattoo on his bulging, sailor's forearm. No wonder he'd been so startled when he caught me staring at him. I couldn't believe I hadn't recognized him immediately, but I wasn't exactly expecting to see the world famous author of Vikings and Pirates: Tales of My Fathers and The Mermaid's Dirge at a family funeral in Ada, Oklahoma.
I turned the book over to look at the high-melodrama artwork on the front, but it was covered by a large yellow sticky note with the letters “OMG” underlined and followed by half a dozen exclamation points and a large arrow pointing toward my right hand. Barbara again. Sometimes I worried that the clerk drank too much coffee. She was a very excitable person – a single mom working her way through junior college on caffeine and determination.
I opened the book, quickly closed it, tried to sit down, found I was already sitting, and opened it again. Beneath his standard dedication, “For Stjerne,” was the author's scrawling, blue-ink signature.
Someone somewhere had made a huge mistake. Obviously this wasn't intended for a little branch library in Midwest City, Oklahoma. I'd have to call the publisher on Monday and get it straightened out. Those three handwritten words made this pristine first edition worth a lot of money to a collector. It was far too valuable for circulation in a public library. Now I absolutely had to take it home with me, for safe keeping if nothing else.
My first concern, though, was how to read it without leaving any incriminating bends in the virgin paper. I was trying a technique that involved lying on my back and holding the book over my head when something fluttered out from between the pages and landed on my face.
It was a photograph, one of the old self-developing kind with the broad white border. Faded with age, it showed a young man, impossibly tall and comically lanky, with a bright, open face, and thick, somewhat shaggy blond hair. John Anders Erickson. His clothes were egregiously 1970s and he looked to be somewhere in his late twenties or early thirties. He was hunched forward, just as I'd seen him at the funeral, but in the picture he was smiling widely, with his long arms wrapped tightly around a slim young woman with long, coppery hair – Laura-Lynn Weaver, my dead cousin.
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