Man of the Gallant South
by Merrill Shane Jones
The sheriff was coming on seventy years old, and living with his widowed daughter, Sandra Mae Bragg, the past few years, her always talking about good old times with her dear, sweet Francis, made him long for something lost himself.
“We were high school sweethearts,” she said. “You remember, Daddy?”
Of course he remembered. She’d reminded him so often it might have been his own life she was reminding him about. But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t love for his departed wife he longed to feel again. It was something else entirely. Something manly. He could go hunting. Maybe that was it, the feel of buck fever as a boy, his father putting his hands on his to help steady the rifle, and the thud of the bullet to the heart of the buck like a wall slammed down from heaven to cut off the ringing echo of the rifle shot. There was some kind of remembered feeling there thinking about it. And the sheriff never had his own son to share the same experience with, but that still wasn’t quite it. It wasn’t the feeling he was looking for, that he wanted to remember.
The longing had been building more and more lately, the last couple of days, with the full moon, as if the old sheriff was a supernatural creature waiting for his time to crawl out of his skin and howl away at the white hole in the great black void. He’d been watching the moon increase in its fullness the past three nights, and he was sitting in the dark now, watching the light of it fill the room, Sandra Mae in the adjacent room, the living area, talking about back in the day. He thought she might as well talk to the wall, and maybe she was. The shutters of the window in the dining room, where he’d been sitting the past three nights, broke the moonlight out into long, slender strips. Light then no light then light and on and on that way. Everything in the room—the redwood china cabinet and the long thin glass and the plates inside, the antique dining table with the large collection of rings like a chain of linked circles on the corner made from his coffee pot, the chairs that didn’t match the table with the peacock feather designs with so many suns Sandra Mae had made—everything in the room was part in shadow and part in light, stripe after stripe of black and white, and the sheriff sat there and wished himself all in the light, because he knew that’s what it was, what it had been, a boy in the sun.
He would find that feeling again. He would do whatever it was that was needed to bring it flowing up in him like an eternal spring. Life didn’t have to feel over, and being old didn’t matter. The sheriff was big still, strong still, solid and tall like a peak of iron ore, from the great foothills of his thighs on up to his face like hammered stone, sharp corners in his cheeks and chin and the wide flat forehead like a great slab of granite. Of course, that was just the outside. On the inside he could feel the anxiety from his inability to reach, to know, whatever it was he was missing, the anxiety from the missing it like a big, thick hand taking his heart and squeezing it tight.
“You gonna sit in there all night again, Daddy?” Sandra Mae said. “Just sit in there in the dark by yourself? Come in here and listen about that first time Francis kissed me. How he took me without any warning.”
The sheriff got up and walked into the living room and looked down at Sandra Mae. She was sitting on the couch knitting something or other, something gold and purple and long and skinny. The two spools of yarn were resting on her belly as if her belly was an ill-formed table made of rain-soaked balsa wood. She was looking up at him with that stupid smile of hers, a grin too wide for her face that made him think of it turning back on itself and eating her own fat head. She put one of the needles down and patted the couch beside her. “Sit down,” she said, “and listen to this story. It’s a good story.”
“What the hell makes you think I wanna hear about that?” the sheriff said. “I’ve heard it all a hundred times, and then a hundred more, and just before I die I’m gonna remember your life instead of mine and God ain’t gonna know whether to hand me your penance or my own. I don’t wanna hear no story. I wanna do, and that’s just what’s gonna happen.”
“What’re you gonna do?” Sandra Mae asked.
“Take a beat,” he said. It had just come to him as he said it. The sheriff hadn’t worked a beat in eighteen years, or was it twenty now? He couldn’t remember, but he knew he needed to get out and do something young, drive out with one of his deputies, Marion, the tough one, and arrest them a punk or two. Twenty years, maybe more, it was a wonder they let him still be sheriff at all. “I’m getting soft,” he said.
“Getting old is what you’re getting, Daddy. The doc said your heart can’t do with no overexerting. ’Sides, that’s a young man’s world.”
“That’s just the point ain’t it? I can sit around here and listen to these damn stories or get out there and grab hold of life again. I’m the sheriff for God’s sake. Getting rusty as hell and need to oil these old joints.” He could feel it more, closer to it at least, maybe it was the excitement of his first beat that he’d been longing for, first arrest maybe. Going out and taking on criminals with Marion would surely do it.
“When are you going?” Sandra Mae asked.
“Tomorrow night. Saturday night’s a good night for catching crooks.”
Sandra Mae looked down at her spools, picked up her needle, and began knitting again. “You’ll change your mind after a good night’s rest,” she said.
“Hell I will.” But he thought he should rest up. He’d call Allen, Marion’s partner, early in the morning, and tell him to switch shifts with him. Allen would be thrilled to run the office, act like the sheriff for a day.
The sheriff decided to take an early Saturday-afternoon nap so he’d have the energy to stay up past midnight. When he woke at two, he was antsy and imagined he could feel chiggers digging their way into his ankles, then his calves, and then his arms, and only then did he realize he was imagining it all.
“Where’s that dog?” he asked Sandra Mae. Sandra Mae had just set dinner on the kitchen table—chicken-fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans—hoping the smell of the giblet gravy, the sheriff’s favorite, would call him into the kitchen like the large smoky hand on a Looney Tune. But the sheriff wanted to see the dog first. “Riley Boy,” he called, walking around the house in quick hops like his boots were on fire. On his second time to the living room, the sheriff discovered the dog on the couch under a large pillow. “There you are, Riley Boy. Daddy gonna getcha!”
The dog was some kind of beagle mixed with some kind of terrier, a black dog with a brown patch around one eye and brown socks on his feet and a brown tip on his tail. The sheriff took the pillow off and the dog made to jump away but he grabbed him and maneuvered him onto his back. “Gotcha, gotcha,” he said again and again as he held the dog’s front legs together and pinched at his belly. The dog started growling and kept trying to get away, but his tail was going crazy. Sandra Mae walked into the room, her bottom half from belly down billowing out like the bottom half of a pear.
“Dinner’s ready,” she said. “What’re you doing to that poor dog?”
“We’re playing,” the sheriff said. “He’s having’s much fun as can be.”
“He’s growling. He’s gonna snap at you again.”
“He’s happy as can of worms. Look at that tail go. Getcha! Gotcha!”
“Just cuz a dog waggles his tail don’t mean he’s happy.”
“Course it does,” the sheriff said. “What world you been at?”
“They’ll waggle their tails when they’re excited, any kind’a excited can get their tails to waggling, even woolied-up excited.”
“You don’t know dogs like I do. Gotcha, Riley Boy!” The sheriff pinched the dog a little too hard and it squealed and then bit his hand hard enough to draw a little blood. The sheriff jumped back and put his hand in his mouth, and the dog jumped off the couch and ran just quickly enough to keep the sheriff’s foot from finding him. “Damn dog,” the sheriff said.
“I told you,” said Sandra Mae. “He wasn’t happy. Just cuz his tail was waggling don’t mean he was happy.”
“I just got him too hard with that last one is all. It was a accident. Dogs are used to rough play anyhow. It’s only natural.”
At the station, Marion handed the sheriff a stun baton, a black stick that looked like a regular baton except for the electric gadgets on it and the trigger button. The sheriff had seen them before. In fact, he had signed off on the purchase, but he’d never held one in his hands.
“Didn’t have these fancy weapons when you were on patrol,” Marion said. Marion was the sheriff’s chief deputy and a damn good one. He was a big man with a large head on him, too big for his body, and that often looked to the sheriff like a demented jack-o-lantern when he came in with an unruly prisoner, not a round jack-o-lantern, but one of those freakish-looking tall ones that could be rectangular if not for the curved corners. Even now Marion’s smile was crooked, his teeth only showing on one side of his face, climbing up, and there was a light behind his eyes like two lit candles behind timber colored shades. It was that fire the sheriff was after, that fire he would feel another time before he died, maybe tonight. “Let me see that baton,” Marion said. The sheriff handed it back to him, and Marion showed him how to hold it, telling him to touch the perp with the silver-prongs flush to the chest or neck and press the trigger with his thumb. “But you won’t need it,” Marion said.
The sheriff didn’t say that he wanted to need it, or better yet, use his gun. He didn’t want to shoot anyone, just to feel the blood run like the river Jordan through his veins the way it used to, even pointing the gun at a criminal would do that, and shocking some punk with this stick, that’d do it too. Maybe not tonight, but he’d keep going out until something happened.
The majority of the night was an uneventful monotony of writing traffic tickets, the most excitement being a burst of rain that lasted maybe ten minutes but came down as if the Lord had slipped down hard into a tub that was already too full. Marion had to pull over when it came down and they just sat there on the side of Guadalupe Street, waiting it out. Marion asked why the sheriff all the sudden wanted to take a patrol.
“I’ve made a new rule for myself,” the sheriff said. “I gotta get out and do real police work instead of just dealing with politics and red tape and whatnot. I’m still an officer of the law, so I should be keeping sharp on that end.”
“I admire that, Sheriff,” Marion said. “I say, I really do. But as you can see, you won’t get much sharpening most nights. Pretty dull. Just writing tickets. Along around midnight, we’ll likely pick up a few DUI’s. That’ll offer some excitement.”
After the quick rainstorm, the sheriff asked to take the wheel, and he drove the back streets of what was considered the rough part of town. The moon sat low in a shallow valley, full and white, and laid long trails of narrow light onto the wet streets. With the streetlights, those that worked, and the lights of the squad car and passing cars, the streets were both slick black and glaring white.
Close to midnight, a car weaved by, and Marion switched on the lights and siren. “Got us a drunk,” he said. “Cut a U here and let’s pick him up.”
The sheriff swung the car to the right to make a wide U-turn, and the headlights shined on two black boys standing on the sidewalk. He thought the word for them, though he knew not to say it, not nowadays, not unless you were black yourself, and he tried not to think it again, because he wasn’t a racist. One of the boys, the bigger of the two, threw his arms out to the side, quickly stepped back, and yelled, “Watch it!” The sheriff saw it as some kind of front, a challenge, imagining the boy was throwing his chest forward as well, and backing up to make room for a throw down, like to say, here’s you some room Sheriff, let’s have at it. “What are these boys up to?” he said to Marion.
“What? Oh, hell, don’t mind them, they’re just exaggerating, pretending you almost hit ’em. Just a couple smartasses screwing around. Hurry up and turn around before that drunk gets away.”
The sheriff wasn’t really listening. All he heard was smartasses,and he threw the car in park and opened the door and heard himself say, “I ain’t gonna be back talked by some — ” He shut his mouth. He could feel his blood washing through him like a steady river after snowmelt. He was close to that feeling, the one he was after.
“What’re you doing?” Marion said. He got out of the car. “Sheriff,” he said. “These boys ain’t done nothing wrong.”
The sheriff walked around the front of the car with his hand on his gun. “Put your hands up where I can see them,” he said. The boys did as they were told and the sheriff felt a rush of power. He was in control. He walked up to the one who had said something when they pulled up, the smartass. “You check the other one,” he said to Marion.
“Check him for what?”
“Drugs. Or weapons.”
“We ain’t got cause.”
“It’s just because we’re black,” the smartass one said. “Old man thinks we’re criminals because we’re black.”
Marion wasn’t walking over to the other one. He was telling the sheriff to let them go, that they didn’t have any reason to fool with them. “C’mon,” he pleaded. But the sheriff wasn’t listening, didn’t hear a word. He got in the face of the smartass one, a wide face with a broad nose. The boy’s face reminded him of something, something that made him feel young. He reached out with both hands to feel down the sides of the boy for paraphernalia or weapons, anything. He had to have something on him. Two black boys out so late, they must be up to no good. But before he could touch him, the boy brought his arms down and out, hard, knocking the sheriff’s hands away, and he said, “Listen to your partner. This is harassment.” He looked at his friend. “Motherfucker,” he said in an incredulous tone.
“Mother fucker?” the sheriff said. “Did you call me a mother fucker?” He looked at Marion. “Did he just call me a mother fucker?”
“You shouldn’t have said that, son,” Marion said.
“Hey man,” the boy said, throwing his hands back up. “Listen, man. I wasn’t calling you that. I was just. We haven’t done anything.”
But the sheriff was close, close to the feeling, this boy having everything to do with it, and he was angry, and he hadn’t been angry like this in years. He grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt, his knuckles flush against the boy’s neck, and he took out the baton, quick, like the strike of some deadly viper it touched the boy’s chest and he pressed the trigger, the boy saying something that sounded like, “What the fuck,” but was garbled in the jolt. And the sheriff stared him in the face, and he thought he could smell the burn of the boy’s skin. That was the first thing he noticed, the smell, as he imagined the electric shock had traveled into him where he was touching the boy, and the smell brought with it the feeling, the memory, as they both went to the ground in an eternal fall. The smell was like smelling into his own past, the wind blowing the smoke from the fire through the years from his nine-year-old self all the way to now, as if they were the same moment. The smoke stung his eyes, and he noticed he had seen the boy in another face, the wide nose of the wide face, an almost purple face, a smooth sweaty face hanging from a large oak above a fire. And he could hear his father’s voice coming from below him, and at first he thought it was coming from hell, but then he realized he was on his father’s shoulders. He’d been holding him up to help him see better, his father below saying, “This is some picnic. Don’t you love a good picnic?” And just behind the man hanging from the tree was a full moon the color of blood, and he could feel the light of it racing through his body as if it had the power and heat of the sun. He could feel it now, the child-like excitement, looking in this boy’s face and feeling the shock as they went to the ground, and then the smack of concrete that rose to meet him, and they were falling again and hitting the ground again, and it kept happening, falling and hitting the ground over and over, and he thought this was eternity, looking into this boy’s black face and black eyes and unbelieving, shocked, and frightened face, forever, and the guilt of the years between that day and now were in his own face, he could see his own face in the boy’s face and the boy’s face in the hanging face, all faces the same, and he was the two black faces looking back at his old white face, and he could hear the melody, the words, the beautiful, smoky voice, from the song that had haunted him ever since that day, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, the song that surfaced in his mind for sixty years, revolving there, always there, chasing him to the end, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/The sudden smell of burning flesh. “Gotta love a good picnic,” his father said.
The boy lay on the ground still feeling all those tiny pricks deep into his skin, all the way to bone, unable to move, and watched the dim light in the old cop’s eyes fade until there was nothing there. But just before the light died out, there was something of the old world he’d been told about all his life, read about, seen on video, the roots he had been connected to his whole life, the dark past he wanted to have been a part of but was happy he wasn’t, when white men like this cop forcing all the rage of life onto a race they saw as inferior was a common thing, and the boy had never considered that that rage could look so much like desperation, like loneliness, the soul of the unloved striking out like a frightened snake, yet trying to take hold, in search of something to fill them up. And just before the light of the old cop’s eyes died out completely, the boy thought it was a kind of love there looking back at him, tender and full of regret. Then the old man was gone, laid out with his arms and legs spread wide like a snow angel, and his face just as white.
Originally from Texas, Merrill Shane Jones’ fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Stream, Bayou Review and the Main Street Rag. He is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Colorado State University and now works as a copywriter in Denver. A personal essay by him is forthcoming in the Western Press anthology Manifest West.