P. J. Tracy
FOUR CORNERS hadn't been much of a town since October 17, 1946. That was the day Hazel Krueger's father set the Whitestone Lodge on fire and danced naked through the flames in some sort of sorry recompense for all he'd seen and all he'd done in a place called Normandy.
Not that the town had been such a thriving metropolis before that-more like a tiny open spot in Wisconsin's north woods where someone had dropped a lake by mistake-but without the lodge and the trickle of fishermen who made the long drive up from Milwaukee and Madison every summer, the town sort of sat down on itself and started to dry up, corner by corner.
By the time Tommy Wittig was born, the lodge road that crossed the county tar had faded back into the forest, and it was only last week that Tommy, approaching his eighth birthday and given to the solitary contemplation of a lonely child, had ever wondered aloud why the town had been named Four Corners when it had only two.
Grandpa Dale had told him, while walking him out to WhitestoneLake and showing him the crumbled remains of a brick wall that had once framed the base of the old lodge.
'You peel your eyes when you walk through these woods,' he'd said, waving the gnawed end of a briar pipe he hadn't lit in thirty years because he always had his nose stuck inside some engine or other and feared blowing his own head off. 'You can still mark the hole that fire burned in the forest when it jumped from the lodge to the trees. Probably would have burnt down the whole damn state if it hadn't started to rain.'
Tommy had marveled at that, wondering where he would have been born if Wisconsin had burned right to the ground that day, and if the flag would have looked funny with forty-nine stars on it instead of fifty.
'Now, if you was a hawk flying overhead, you'd see a fifty-acre circle of second growth, all strangly with those prickery briars that get stuck in your sneaker laces. That was the fire, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Killed this old town, is what it did. Prime white pines was going up like sixty-foot candles on a birthday cake.'
'Was he really naked?' Tommy had asked, focusing on the single part of the story that he found most remarkable. Grandpa Dale had laughed and said that yes, indeed, Mr. Everett Krueger had been naked as the day he was born.
'Did old Hazel see him?' Hazel ran the cafe that sat on the corner next to Grandpa Dale's gas station-the only other business left in Four Corners-and she was about a hundred years old, as far as Tommy could tell.
That's when Grandpa Dale had squatted down and looked Tommy right in the eye the way he did when something was really serious and he wanted him to pay attention.
'We don't make no mention of that fire in front of Hazel, you understand, Tommy? She was barely older than you when her daddy up and did this thing, and she was right there, watching, just a little girl peekin' through a porthole into hell, watching her own daddy sizzle away into a blackened stick. Can you imagine such a thing?'
Tommy had been trying to imagine it for almost a whole week, and still he couldn't put a picture in his mind of Hazel Krueger as a little girl, let alone one touched by tragedy.
He was straddling his old bike across the street from the cafe, staring through the plate-glass window, watching Hazel's broad back hunch and move over the grill plate behind the counter. Even through the dust- streaked window, he could see that great pile of too-black hair wobbling on top of her head, and when she turned around to plop a plate down on the counter in front of a customer, he saw the loose skin of remembered chins cascading down over the place where her neck was supposed to be.
Tommy squinted until Hazel's bright red lips were a blur and her wrinkles disappeared, and he still couldn't see the little girl under all those years.
On the other side of the plate glass, Hazel looked up and caught sight of him and wiggled her fingers and Tommy waved back, suddenly shy. For all the years of his life she'd just been old Hazel with the arms so big they could squeeze the squeaks out of you, and the crazy hair, and the free french fries anytime he set foot inside the cafe.
But ever since Grandpa Dale had told him the story of how Four Corners became two, Hazel had seemed like a different person-an exotic and interesting stranger who'd watched her own daddy burn to a cinder.
He heard the old Ford pickup when it was still a good quarter mile behind him, and he trotted his bike onto the shoulder close to the trees and looked around frantically. 'C'mon, boy! C'mon, where are you?'
The pup was an early birthday present, little more than a black-and-tan fluffball with too-long ears and too- big feet and a penchant for wandering. The dog had absolutely no sense when it came to cars.
'Hey, pup!' Tommy laid down his bike and squatted, peering into the trees that marched nearly up to the tar across the road from the cafe and the gas station. There were ghostly tendrils of morning ground fog still hugging the trunks, and he dearly hoped the pup would come out on his own, because Tommy didn't want to go in there after him. It looked like a scene from one of Saturday night's Creature Features, when mist started floating around crooked graveyard tombstones and you just knew something bad was coming any minute.
It startled him when the pup came bounding out of a dew-speckled fern bank and jumped into his arms, grinning. A wet, busy tongue found his ear and made him giggle just as the battered white pickup topped the rise that dipped down into the down. 'Hold still, you squirmy worm,' he said as he hugged the pup close to his chest as the truck passed slowly, then turned left into Grandpa Dale's station. Tommy's mom leaned out the passenger window and crooked her finger at him.
The pup galumphed after him as Tommy pedaled across the road to the station. Halfway there, the oversized feet tangled and set the pup tumbling like a fuzzy roll of black-and-tan yarn. He scrambled upright, shook his head, then sat down abruptly on short, crooked haunches and let out a plaintive yip.
Jean Wittig watched out the truck window, shaking her head. She was a pretty blond woman with fair skin just beginning to show the cruelties that the sun inflicts on a farmer's wife. 'You need to watch that pup on the road, remember.'
Tommy screeched the old bike to a halt next to the truck and looked up at his mother. 'I will,' he said, solemn with the weight of this responsibility.
'We might be late, so remember to help with the milking, and anything else Grandpa Dale asks you to do. What are you grinning at?'
'Nothin.'' Tommy kept grinning.
'Think we're going birthday shopping, don't you?'
Harold Wittig leaned forward and peered past his wife out the window at his son, affecting surprise. 'Somebody's havin' a birthday?'
Tommy's grin widened.
'Hell, we're just goin' to Fleet Farm to pick up some new parts for that old milker.'
'Don't say 'hell' in front of the boy, Harold.'
Harold rolled his eyes and got out of the truck to pump gas.
'Here, Tommy.' His mother handed him a dollar bill. 'Run over to Hazel's and get us two donuts for the road. Those ones with the jelly filling.'
'Hey, Mom, did you know that Hazel watched her daddy burn in a big fire a long time ago?'
'Oh, Lord. Harold ... ?'
'Wasn't me. Talk to your dad.'
Grandpa Dale chose that moment to walk out of the station, and Jean fixed him with a look that made Tommy decide it was a good time to go get those donuts.
The cafe was bustling this morning, with all three of the booths and half of the counter stools filled. Hazel was manic, propelling her bulk from grill to booth to refrigerator to counter with a speed that was absolutely amazing for a woman of her size.
Tommy suffered a pat on the head and a cheek tweak from Pastor Swenson and his wife, respectively, nodded like he'd seen his dad do at the two hired hands who were helping put up hay at the farm, and eyed with some interest the two families in the other booths and a lone woman at the counter. Not many strangers found themselves on the mile-long strip of tar that passed through Four Corners as it connected County Road Double-P to