A fictional short
A dusty sedan rolled on a rural road cutting through barren, rolling hills, dead yellow grass and desolate fields of scrubweed. Occasional stretches were demarcated with barbed-wire fencing, all under a metallic white sky, hazy mountains fringing the distance. It passed a burned out building with high gables but no roof, its outer walls were bracketed overgrown sawgrass and some kind of flowering vine, and stopped by a mail box. A man stepped out and opened the passenger door, settled in, closed the door and the sedan crunched its way through the gravel on the road’s curtilage and back onto pavement.
The car smelled of unwashed bodies, and ass, which is the same thing and not the same.
“Nice to see you again, Willis.” Tom told me when he’d been driving for five minutes or so. Sheriff Tom Nipton, actually forty, looked at least sixty. He opened a bottle of Old Harper and handed it to me. I took the bottle. His nails were as dirty as the rest of him. He needed the hand of a good woman to keep him up but he had difficulty being around other people. I’m much the same myself, like it’s no good for them to be around me for very long. I wear them down. They become unhappy. I don’t mean for it to be like that. But life works its way through you. I can’t say the job made me this way. More like, me being this way made me right for the job. And then the job didn’t want me. I used to think about it a lot. Not so much now. You reach an age and you understand who you are.
“Good to be seen. Not too many people have seen me of late. I appreciate the work.” I drank two swigs from the bottle, so as to be appreciative without being greedy, and handed it back.
“The sack in the back has red vines, venison jerky and some Fritos, if you’re hungry.” Tom wouldn’t have bought snacks if he wasn’t serious about needing help. He really was a mess. His shirt had stains on it. His tie had a hand-painted aloha theme but it had even more stains per square inch. I couldn’t see the badge on his belt because his belly overlapped.
“Thanks. Maybe later.” I handed Tom a hard box of Marlboros and he tapped one out and lighted it. You might not know it to look at me, but I was married once. I came close a second time, but she broke it off. It’s all for the best. “I was tending bar down in Hanford two nights a week plus sometimes on weekends.”
“How’d that work out?” Tom stared at me through rheumy eyes, unable to hide the pathos in them.
“I drank in between. There wasn’t anybody to make me stop and after all these years, it worked.”
“I thought you stopped drinking, Willis.”
“I couldn’t get the walls in my apartment to stop whispering or the carpet fibers to quit their high-pitched shrieking, so I had to try something. Then I went back to it.” I waited a bit and then asked him the question that I thought he’d have answered from the beginning. “What do you need from me?”
“It might get rough and I need somebody from outside the business to handle that part of things for me. I need to find this witness and get her back to Tibbits County to keep the voters happy. I am standing for re-election in three months and the kid that’s running against me worked for Houston PD nearly four years and has all kinds of new ideas about what it takes to be a sheriff.”
“You were fired in Bovina for staving in the head of that mulatto with your night stick, then you killed those three Mexicans when you worked for the railroad police. You have a deserved reputation. Everyone says, if you need help with rough people, call Willis Cage.”
“Those Mexicans in Amarillo surrounded me and they all had knives, Tom.”
“And you did for them. Being railroad police means that you can do terrible things to wetbacks with impunity. I can’t believe that the Lindsay County Sheriff’s Office would have brought you on.”
“They did and my luck followed me.”
“And you stayed out of prison because it was ruled self defense.” Tom swerved down the highway as he searched for a file folder. Once he had it, he handed it over and sipped the bottle of Old Harper hard. “The girl is a hoor. She was doing one of the city selectmen in a motel down on I-27 when men broke into the room and killed the great man. Gambling debt it’s said. I suspect that they planned to kill her too but she dealt with them so sweetly that they let her live. We took the killers into custody, but the girl lit off.”
I read the file. “She has a mother living down by Nazareth.”
“And that’s where we’re headed.”
He became solemn and shook his head while setting his jaw, “Died on the road. Drove a Peterbilt. Rolled it when he took an exit too fast outside of Rowan, Oklahoma. Father was in the Masonic Lodge.”
Tom’s masonic affiliation must still have meant something. Fellow lodge brother’s daughter and all.
Nazareth wasn’t much of a place. Her mother lived in a trailer, the kind that they call a mobile home with no wheels on it. The man who worked at the trailer park who pointed out the right place called it a coach. The rusty box with the rattling swamp cooler on top didn’t look much like a coach to me. People make jokes about places like that because tornadoes tend to veer toward them. It makes some sense to me, God wanting to clean the place up in that way.
The mother came to the door in pain. Tom smiled insincerely and held out a badge. The mother had a story to tell. She’d worked at a dry-cleaners for somewhere over twenty years.
“Now I get headaches. I had to handle all these chemicals for such a long time. That’s what’s wrong with my nails.” She held out her hands, showed her nails; they were yellow and gnarled, fungal, and the ends were soft and rotted off.”
I asked, “What about the last time you saw Mary? How long ago was it?”
“She passed through about two weeks ago. She said she’d started going to church. Said she’d been talking to an Anglican priest, but we’re Southern Baptist. So I thought that was odd. The mother sought for something nice to say about her daughter. She brought me spaghetti. She knows I don’t have any money.”
Tom probed gently, “Does she have friends around here? How about her ex-husband, Billy?”
“Billy Smith? Him? He’s in prison somewhere back east for robbing a bank. They both growed up together, you know, They always want more, you know, kids. How do you keep them from wanting what’s bad for them? Why’d the Lord make people this way? That we can only want what hurts us?”
“Where is this priest that she was seeing?” I asked, since Tom seemed prone to letting the old woman ramble. She depressed me, reminding me of an aunt now dead and gone to her reward.
“He’s a circuit preacher. Comes into town every other Sunday or so to give a sermon. There’s an assembly hall behind the gas station that a lot of the preachers use. I think that’s where she met him but I can’t be sure. I don’t get out much anymore.”
At once, the mother clutched her head. Her face a mask of pain, the grimaces throws of a terrible migraine. She groaned.
“My headaches. I get storms.”
Continued tomorrow – Willis (part two)