The Day the Wind Was Silent
by Grant McClure
Philip came into my office around 6:30 on August 30th. It was Saturday and I was running over some files I pretended to be interested in despite being the only person in the office. My partner, Alejandro Rodriguez, had already left for the evening. I was not a secretary, though sometimes it felt that way.
This end of Beaufort County was quiet, mostly filled with Hispanics and humble Gullah families who lived off the land. That’s not to say I hadn’t busted up a few cock fighting rings in my day, and of course there was the occasional daddy got drunk and beat momma around case — but nothing too serious. I spent a lot of time in that cinder-block office.
Philip swung open the heavy aluminum door, out of breath, his dark arms glistening with sweat. He hadn’t bothered to change from his work clothes, which meant he was still caked in silver-black pluff mud. He wore rubber captain’s boots that were — decades ago — white, and an exhausted pair of denim overalls. His scent was pungent — a mixture of sulfur, saltwater, and body odor— though not altogether unpleasant. He was an oysterman, after all.
“Sheriff Ludowicki, you not gonna believe what I just seen,” he said.
“Shit, I don’t know, a ghost?”
“No sir. You see I was making my rounds, you know? Checking some crab pots I got out on the Whale Branch.” I nodded my head to prod him along. I’d never spoken to him outside of the fish market. “And I’ll be damned, I seen a line of pots I ain’t never seen before. And you know me Sheriff, I run up that crick about every day.”
“Sounds like we’ve got ourselves a case for the Supreme Court,” I said.
“No sir, that’s not all. You see, when I come back at low tide they was beached up on the sandbar — them pots. And I be damned if they weren’t filled with parts.”
“What do you mean ‘parts?’”
“Like people parts. Like arms, legs. I seen them. I swear on my wife and children.”
I’d heard about the girl at home on the Savannah news. It was supper time and Angie was honestly more interested than I was, squinting her eyes through the static of the TV we kept in our little kitchen. Sure I was Sheriff and all, but the name Rozey Simmons carried no weight to me at that time — just another Savannah girl who stayed out a little too late on Saturday night. Some alley cat had probably slipped up behind her twelve-year-old body and plucked her right from a game of hopscotch. After a slow day of pulling drivers with expired plates and sorting through paperwork I was more interested in the field peas I stuck with my fork. And of course there was Addie, struggling to cut her chicken with a dull butter knife.
Angie and I conceived Addie about three months before our wedding. This made trying on wedding dresses difficult, and we spent more money than we had at an upscale Charleston boutique. Addie was a wild child at eight years old; her sprigs of curly sand-colored hair shot in all directions. She had blue eyes and loved the title tom-boy. She loved water-balloon fights and digging for earth worms, which she picked apart. Once when Angie asked her why she did that she explained herself, “Earthworms have five hearts, you know.” She was a smart girl — much smarter than I ever was. Rozey Simmons was four years older than her.
Alejandro’s cruiser was parked outside my office Sunday morning, the old aluminum jon boat in tow. The state sent all of the new police boats to Charleston County and so we were stuck with this old junker: a leaky fifteen foot Allumi-Craft equipped with a fifteen horsepower Johnson that worked on its own time, and sometimes not at all.
Alejandro was waiting for me inside, the big box fan we kept in the window already awake and humming. Sure, it was September but that means nothing in the Lowcountry — temperatures still topping out in the upper nineties most afternoons. At thirty, Alejandro looked sharp in his khaki uniform, which he ironed every morning, his hair cropped short like the Parris Island Marines wore theirs. He’d been taking night classes at the tech school in Bluffton and I could feel his exhaustion even though he would never admit to it. I’d hired him because he was honest and hardworking, not because he was most qualified. I could trust him.
He came across the border in the early ’90s, duping the law enforcement by hopping from farm to farm. He picked tomatoes for three summers until he met Caroline at a produce stand. He taught her how to pick out the ripest tomatoes. He’d lean over her and say, “You have to squeeze them. You want firm, but not too firm. Just right,” in his thick Mexican accent. She would laugh. They married, and a few signatures later Alejandro Rodriguez was an American citizen.
“Thought you might’ve taken the day off,” he said.
“Give me a break. What am I, three minutes late? I’m your boss for crying out loud.”
We laughed, because if you don’t make jokes in police work you end up on the wrong side of the law. I looked down at my wrist. 5:29:29. I was thirty-one seconds early that morning.
We rode in Alejendro’s cruiser to the boat landing, chatting over the static of sports radio. The Braves were still doing well but Chipper Jones’ hamstring was nagging him again.
“You hear about the girl. What was her name … Rozey?” he said.
“Sounds familiar. What of her? Just another missing Savannah girl, yeah?”
“Well, Chatham County PD called in late last night, said she was staying at her aunt’s place here on Stuart Point Road before she went missing. You think this has anything to do with it?”
“Doubtful,” I said. “I won’t be surprised if we get out there on the water and don’t find jack shit. Still, we’ll look into it.” Sometimes you have to lie to yourself in police work or you end up on the wrong side of the law.
The motor cranked at the landing and we were off, slicing through the glassy water of the Whale Branch River — I’d never seen the river so calm. A big front had moved through the week earlier and the sun wasn’t high enough to burn us to a crisp yet, just peeking over the eastern horizon at our backs. It was low tide and the dolphins emerged from the bottom of the river and began combing the marsh line for schools of mullet and menhaden. We waved at a few fishermen, (everyone waves to each other here) and I wondered if Addie was out of bed yet. Alejandro sat silent in the front of the boat, occasionally peeking through a pair of binoculars. We hummed along and it seemed, at least for a little while, we were on a sunrise cruise.
The pots were there on the sandbar I’d passed thousands of times — four in all, right where Philip said they’d be. I’d taken Addie here for her sixth birthday with Angie and her parents. We sipped Coronas with limes and shagged to beach music while Addie herded the fiddler crabs back into their little holes until the tide came in. Now the tide was dead low.
I propped the motor and we beached the jon boat on the sandbar. The pots were sitting high up on the bar, but I could smell them the moment we stepped out the boat, the scent only intensifying as we got closer. Rotten, putrid, nauseating. Slowly the parts came into vision: a left hand, a deteriorating shoulder blade, the remnants of a head. A buzzard circled around us, the morning sun projecting the familiar black silhouette on the sand at our feet. Fat blow flies swarmed around each pot. Oh, and there were the crabs, picking apart rotten flesh, tendons, sinews, gorging themselves. Mother Nature loves brutality.
Charleston’s Forensics Department was waiting for us when we arrived at the office, their new Dodge Challengers filling up the sandy lot. We handed over the pots without hesitance, the image of empty eye sockets still lingering in the back of my head. They patted us on the back and told us they would be in close contact. I would’ve taken the rest of the day off if it wasn’t only 8:30 and there wasn’t a murderer in my own backyard — and if I wasn’t Sheriff John Ludowicki, the father of an eight year old daughter who had probably just finished her breakfast. Angie always made her chocolate chip pancakes on Sundays.
Everyone who lives on Stuart Point Road goes to the Seabrook AME on Sunday mornings. They fill that little pink church up and pray, and sing, and amen well into the afternoon. They clap their hands and sing their throats dry to a jazzy little organ. When Reverend Jones gets into the sermon the congregation goes mmmhhhhhm. Or at least that’s how it was when Alejandro and I walked in that day, in need of our own kind of salvation.
It was nearly 4:00 when the congregation was dismissed, and even then the Gullah men and women lingered in their pews, hesitant to leave God’s house for another week. An arrangement of mums sat at the alter, dedicated to a Michael W. Simmons on the first anniversary of his death. No one had noticed Alejandro and me slip in from the back, but now they all flocked to us, the men dressed in colorful suit jackets, the women in broad-brimmed hats — and still others in more traditional African garb. A fragile old woman with red lipstick and a cheetah print head wrap introduced herself to me as Sister Monetta and invited us to please join her at the pot-luck dinner later that night if we weren’t too busy — that everyone would be there. Jerome, the butcher at the Piggly-Wiggly, came right up to me and gave me a hug, his bear-claw hands slapping me on the back. It’s amazing how different people act when they’re comfortable. Then we saw her, the woman we were looking for, her eyes red with tears.
Sister Annette Simmons was a huge woman with wide hips and a heavy chest. She wore a critical expression that said something like what does this white man think he’s doing here, even though she knew exactly why we were there. She sported a big black hat with a veil and fanned herself with a church bulletin. She spoke so fast I could hardly introduce myself. “Y’all come to talk to me bout Rozey, huh? Well, I ain’t got nothing to say. That girl is gone and it ain’t my fault, you hear me? I love my baby to death and she gone and just slip right through my fingers. Y’all want to talk to me y’all gonna have to come to my house. I ain’t talking about that poor girl in the Lord’s Temple mm, mm no.”
We drove roughly two miles to Sister Annette’s cottage on Stuart Point Road, following the slow lead of her Lincoln Town Car. Inside, Sister Annette sat Alejandro and me at a small table in front of a window and poured us each a glass of iced tea. It was too sweet but we sipped it anyways; she was not a woman you wanted to insult. The cottage was run-down, but first-rate by Stuart Point standards — consisting of a bedroom, kitchenette, and living room. Alejandro complemented her choice in tomatoes, which she kept lined up in the window sill. The key with interviews is not to pressure the candidate, otherwise you end up on the wrong side of the law. Telling her about the body would be suicidal.
“I guess it was two nights ago. She was catching toads out there in the yard,” she said. “I told her don’t go on out there after dark, but she gone on out there anyway. Must’ve been about 9:30 by the time I thought to check on her.” I thought of Addie digging in the wet soil for worms. “She shouldn’t been messing with them toads anyways. They’ll give you warts like I never seen.”
Alejandro nodded his head and cleared his throat. “Is there any place you think she might have gone? Like a fort, maybe?”
“She always been talking about going to see some boy. She’d come back and tell me all about him. One time she come home with a big ole sunflower, my Rozey did. And I ask her where she got it from and she said her boyfriend. I figured she was making it up because there aren’t no boys round here, just old fisherman,” she said.
I sipped the tea and set the glass back on the table harder than I meant to. “Right, but did she ever talk about where they might have met? Or where he might have lived?”
“No … but come to think of it I’d caught her hanging around that ole trailer back in the woods. It ain’t much. Nobody’s lived in there for years. I reckon it’s filled with coons and possums now. Them rascals is always coming in here and stealing out my pan tree.”
Alejandro shifted in his seat and crossed his legs, “What does the name Michael Simmons mean to you, ma’am?”
“That’s my brother.” Her eyes watered up. “He’s gone. Passed about a year ago today. I swear, I don’t have nobody but myself these days.” Fat tears streamed down her face.
Alejandro and I glanced over at each other at the same time. “Do you mind if we have a moment outside, ma’am?” I said.
“Do whatever you gotta do. Lord knows I need a moment to myself anyways.”
We stood in the sun-scorched yard with our hands in our pockets, mosquitos batting against our forearms. “Shit, I could use a cigarette after that,” I said.
“Yeah, me too. What do you think about the brother?” Alejandro said.
“We can run a background check on him when we’re done with the interview, but I’m not sure we’ll find anything. You know how things just fall through the cracks around here. You see someone in line at the grocery store one day and next thing you know they’ve drowned in a riptide, or gone and shot themselves climbing out of a tree stand.”
“You know a thing or too about falling through the cracks, don’t you?” Alejandro laughed to himself to break the silence. “Let’s see if she’ll show us that trailer.”
Alejandro and I followed Sister Annette’s wide hips into a grove of tall longleaf pines. The ground was covered in dried out orange straw that crunched under our feet. A murder of crows watched us from the trees, letting out the occasional squabble, their heads turning as we wound along what once resembled a pathway. We almost walked past the trailer it was so tangled with briars and kudzu — the earth trying to reclaim what it rightfully owned.
“Do you mind if we take a look?” Alejandro said.
“Suit yourself, but there ain’t nothing in there, hasn’t been for years. Matter of fact, it’s probably locked,” she said.
I glanced over at Alejandro who had that look in his eyes — his face so intense he appeared sullen. We walked up a set of concrete steps to the door, a slab of rotten pine slapped to a pair of hinges, our hands on our pistols. Sister Annette watched us from a distance with that same look she had in church earlier that morning, only this time more cocky, more certain we were wasting our time. I thought about a time when Addie and I had gone fishing and she’d hooked a big stingray. “Close your eyes,” I said, and shot it right between the eyes. It croaked out spouts of dark blood onto the dock. One more shot. That was the last time I used my pistol. I turned the nob and the door swung right open.
The trailer was like a sauna from hell: not even a cheap dollar store fan to push the spoiled air around. The red shag carpet served as a human litter box, ringing out like a sponge under our boots. Roaches skittered in panic from the remnants of a couch, and of course there were the flies. The thin plywood walls begged to be blown down, but would get no relief that day. That day, the wind was silent. We didn’t even see him at first.
He was sitting in the corner of the trailer — a grown man — his knees tucked into a ragged t-shirt, his forearms coated with dried blood. He held his hands out, whimpering like a scolded dog: “Take me.” Alejandro rushed over to him, his finger still ready to pull the trigger. I glided over to them and slapped a pair of handcuffs on him. He could barely stand. When Sister Annette saw him, her brother, she took a half-step backwards, and tumbled to the ground.
Sometimes you have to numb yourself in law enforcement, or you end up on the wrong side of the law. It’s hard to go home to your wife and daughter and look them in the eyes after a day like that — everything starts to feel surreal. I remember tucking Addie into bed that night, thinking that only a few hours ago the hands that touched my daughter had touched a monster, a man who slaughtered his own niece. I remember lying in bed next to Angie thinking God, don’t ever let me turn into that.
Grant McClure is a Charleston, South Carolina, native currently studying creative writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in the upstate. He spent his summers as a kid at his grandmother’s place in Beaufort County and enjoys fly fishing, Clemson football and oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.