The sheriff leaned back with his feet on the desk, watching the blond-haired boy. He was a little man with a sunburned face, with white eyebrows that looked strange on all the redness of his forehead. His cowboy boots had shiny snakeskin tops, and he sat tapping the toes together. There was a blob of blue bubble gum squashed onto one of the soles.
He watched the boy for a long time before he said, quite suddenly, “You ever heard of fingerprints, kid?”
The boy looked up.
“I could take you into the back there and print you,” said the sheriff, “and I’d get what I want like that.” He snapped his fingers. “I’d know your whole name and your address and everything.”
The blond-haired boy had a dog beside him. He was petting the dog as he sat in front of the sheriff’s desk, in a wooden chair with arms. The ceiling fan that turned slowly above him trailed shreds of cobwebs round and round.
“Now, is that the route you want to take?” said the sheriff.
“How could you know my name and address from fingerprints?” asked the boy. He looked at his fingers. “I don’t think you can do that.”
“Oh, you don’t think I can do that,” said the sheriff. “A real little Perry Mason, aren’t you?”
The boy said nothing. He had said hardly a word in an hour and twenty minutes.
The sheriff sighed. He tapped the toes of his boots together. “Say, that’s a nice dog you got,” he said. “What do you call him, sonny?”
The blond-haired boy didn’t answer.
“Aw, come on!” The sheriff swung his feet to the floor and slammed a hand on the desk. “Holy moley, what’s the harm in telling me the name of your dog?”
The boy shrugged. “Maybe you should fingerprint him.”
“Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, that’s just hysterical.” The sheriff opened a drawer in his desk and took out a key. “You want to sit in the cage and tell jokes to yourself? Is that what you want?”
“I don’t care,” said the boy.
“Then that’s what you’ll do.”
When the sheriff stood up the boy stood up, and the dog stood up beside him. They walked in a line through the office, past the table where the lady had sat typing till dinnertime. There was a police radio there, and a teletype machine, and a shiny kettle that reflected the whole room and the turning fan.
The dog’s claws ticked on the floor. The boy wished the lady would come back, because the lady had seemed nice. She had smiled at him all the time—just smiled and typed and talked on the radio.
“You had your chance, sonny,” said the sheriff. He took the boy and the dog down a flight of concrete steps, down to a corridor with a jail cell on each side. He put his key in a lock and opened a cell, sliding the bars across with a rattle of metal. There was a bed in there, and a toilet, and that was all.
“Empty out your pockets,” said the sheriff.
The boy did as he was told, embarrassed by the things that came out. There was a rubber band and a bit of string, a bottle cap, an old penny, a plastic man without a head. The sheriff took it all in one hand. “In you go,” he said.
The boy went into the cell. The dog followed behind him.
The sheriff drew the bars into place, then turned his key and pulled it out. “When you’re ready to tell me where your home is, just holler,” he said. He went up the stairs in his snakeskin boots.
The boy stretched out on the bed. His dog climbed up beside him, settling down with its head on his chest.
“Don’t worry,” said the boy. His hand touched the dog’s neck, and his fingers buried themselves in the black fur. “We’ll get to the Cape, and it’ll be okay. It’ll all work out when we get to the Cape.”
The dog fell asleep. But the blond-haired boy lay awake, staring at the bars and the bricks. “We gotta keep going,” he told the sleeping dog. ” ‘Cause we can’t go back. That’s the thing—we can’t ever go home again.”
He looked at the lightbulb on the ceiling. Then he squinted and tried to imagine that it was the sun, and that he was lying outside on the grass with his dog. He thought about his home.
The Rivers lived in an old gray house in a valley named Hog’s Hollow. All around, in every direction, the city stretched for miles and miles. To the west was an airport, to the north an industrial park. To the south were glass towers and skyscrapers and freeways choked with cars. But down in the Hollow, it was quiet and calm.
There was a single street laid out like a worm on the valley floor, and only nine houses, all sturdy and aged like the great nests of American eagles. There were seventeen people, but only three children. There were six cats and one dog.
A narrow stream called Highland Creek flowed southward through the Hollow, creeping past the cottonwoods. Danny River liked to play there, building dams of sticks and mud. Beau, his brother, sometimes helped him smash them.
Their father’s name was Charlie. But the boys and their friends talked of him as Old Man River. They imagined that he never knew, though Charlie had used the same name for his own father when he was the age of his sons.
For a living, Old Man River pumped out septic tanks. He owned a black truck with a huge tank on its back and a little cab at the front, and he wore green clothes and brown boots, and carried his keys on a jangling hoop at his waist. He could peer into a septic tank, like a wizard into a crystal ball, and see the lives of people. He could divine, in a glimpse, what they ate, and what they tried to flush away, and what colors they were painting their walls. “There are no secrets from the septic man,” he’d say.
Then there was Mrs. River. It was as though she had slept through the early sixties. While other ladies were trying to dress like Jackie Kennedy, she looked like Eleanor Roosevelt. Florence was her name, but Flo she was called. Little Flo River, barely five feet high, talking sometimes like Scarlett O’Hara.
Altogether, the Rivers seemed a bit odd to the people of the Hollow, who saw that big truck parked in the yard, and the Old Man always tugging at his filthy cap, and Flo in her cotton dresses, and Danny wading barefoot through the creek. “The hillbillies of Hog’s Hollow”; that’s what the Rivers were called.
In the whole family, it was said, Beau was the only normal one. He did well at school, and he read books and he wondered about things like pollution and the Cold War. Only Beau, it was whispered, would ever amount to anything. “But that Danny,” women would add, “oh, that Danny—isn’t he a sweetheart?”