DAVID LOHREY - CROCODILE, MISSISSIPPI
My head would not stop throbbing the entire time she was gone. And this time she took the car. My car. My wife took my Chrysler 300 sedan.
“I hate my car,” she said.
She wondered why they didn’t name cars after dogs. She’d have loved to drive a Suzuki Pekingese, she told me, or a Nissan Boxer. She said her mother would have liked to have had a white Cadillac Poodle, while her Daddy would have preferred a big black one with leather. GM could market the model in toy, miniature, or standard. It was a running joke. I told her I’d buy her a Volkswagen Dachshund GT, but she said she’d rather drive a Hyundai Chihuahua. I thought she was on to something. Everyone loved the idea. I could just see myself waltz into Cherokee Ford in West Memphis and ask to see a maroon St. Bernard pickup with a sunroof, but she said it would be too expensive. We settled on a Peugeot Pug.
She said she went to visit her cousin outside Vicksburg. We met down there. This was years ago. We met as children. If her husband hadn’t died, we’d never have seen each other again. Good thing he kicked the bucket.
A century earlier, 17,000 Union and 11,600 Confederate soldiers died on this site. They fought at dawn in the rain. There’s a monument for the Generals in town but none for the soldiers. Now they want to take the monuments down. Jenny said she felt like one of them soldiers.
They can have the monuments for all I care. Just don’t cut down the trees. The men were said to have been so hungry they gnawed the bark. To this day you can see their marks. Men relieved themselves where they stood. They couldn’t bathe. Best friends committed mercy killings and then killed themselves. My wife said she felt like killing herself. There is nothing natural about war.
The calm down there along the river clears with the fog. Look carefully, people said, and you could see the blood. Grown men cried and hid their faces. Men said goodbye in the dark. They say now they fought for nothing. They say now they were vain. They say now they were racists. They say now they were weak.
It may be true; maybe not. Cousin Verne, though, was no chump. At 6’3” with feet size twelve, he was a strapping lad. He didn’t die to protect slavery. Verne fought alongside his dear cousin, Albert. His mother asked him to tag along, that’s all. Verne had poor eyes but could throw a knife.
My wife came back after five days to pick up a few things. She took her jar of manuka honey. Jenny didn’t eat for a week, she said. Not a thing. She stayed with her cousin and hid in her room. She drank tea. She had yoghurt. She puts honey in both. Not a thing else. She went on long walks.
“This land here is a pretty sight. If I were a deer, I’d be happy here. If I were a rabbit, I would make a family. As I’m only a woman, I’m content to look on. I don’t want to kill.”
She wrote this to me in a letter.
She said she thought of that time back when we hitched all the way to Moscow, Tennessee. We caught a ride with a guy in an aqua Cougar, a man who had been on the road for months looking for his wife. He had Joan Baez on the radio. Did I remember that? And then for no good reason we headed back instead of going on to Nashville. That was the year that Altman movie played at the Malco.
We are not far in America – and is it just in America – from evolving a right to feel good about ourselves. Yo! My son won his 3rd grade spelling contest! He only made two mistakes. Everyone wins a prize. First this, and then one learns to be offended.
I drove down to Vicksburg that afternoon after reading Jenny’s letter. I convinced her cousin to let me take them all out for dinner. Jenny didn’t order. In the morning, Suzie cooked. She held a 2-foot-long pepper grinder as she stood in the kitchen, but served the eggs cold. The coffee had been excreted from the anus of a Cambodian squirrel but she poured it lukewarm. The bread was offered untoasted. Breakfast promised to be a gourmet delight but the temperatures weren't right.
She made the eggs first, set them aside, and forgot to toast the sourdough. She spread each slice with frozen unsalted butter flown in from France - the best money can buy, but it wouldn’t melt. I sulked. It was like a breakfast served by the Mad Hatter.
Suzie is the kind of person who has nothing for anyone she is not fucking. Another woman? Men? She searches for signs of availability. The coffee was cold because she was sleeping alone. She’d been working on Jenny, trying to get her to see things her way. It’s all in The Dying Animal. The politics of oral sex. The politics of same-sex partners. It is always a story of so what or whatever. Every failure leads to failure; every triumph leads to failure.
“Do you know who you are?”
“Of course not, who does?”
“I remember you, a shifty-eyed little fella with his fly open.” She loved to speak of me in this light. I recognized it as a sign she was beginning to forgive me.
“After a life of turmoil and defeat ….”
“Place your head between your knees. I’ve been saying this for years, but you never listen. You are too busy trying to take over.”
“All I wish is to get along.”
“Genghis Khan with a phone.”
“And a colander. Don’t involve me.”
“My God, what a sight.”
“We settled that.”
“I’d just as well not come. I am not coming.”
“Don’t. I said. Out. Free.”
“You’d prefer I kick it, let the world go by?”
“One sprig, one asparagus apiece. White for the girls; boys, green.”
“Fifteen fucking asparagus. One for each guest.”
“I thought you were moving to St. Louis.”
“You confuse me with T. S. Eliot.”
“I’d be in panic city. Do you know panic city?”
“Not really. I prefer Nabokov.”
“People in the hood don’t have kerfuffles; they have ass-kickings.”
“I’m not that esoteric. You always confuse me with someone else. You say, you said I looked like that long-necked lady in that painting, but I don’t. I’m not. I’m not a Modigliani.”
“Then who, what? I don’t know you?”
“I’m one of Picasso’s cave women. I’m a brute.”
“My Daddy used to say people deserve the violence.”
“Every penny of it.”
“I remember when you called me a brute.”
“Back when I was a frat boy and you were a girl.”
“You used to sit naked on the floor of my dorm room, with your legs spread
“I did not.”
“I’d roll oranges across the floor toward you.”
“Better than an egg.”
“When I hit your bell, you’d give my friend a little kiss.”
“How about that?”
“And what did you say?”
“’Come and get it?’”
“You can’t stay here and live off honey.”
“‘Isn’t it darling?’ Oh, no. I know: you asked me to put on more lipstick.”
“We have any oranges?”
“We’re desperate, don’t you know? The lies are killing us.”
“The fat don’t benefit from being called thin.”
“It applies to the stupid who call themselves smart.”
“People used to speak the truth.”
“Thank God for death.”
“If people didn’t die, we’d still be listening to Demosthenes.”
“You’re just showing off.”
“What about grapefruit?”
Me and my wife were reconciled after our long ‘thing’ and we were able in Suzie’s house to make up for lost time. Something about our place out in California made her want to get dressed as soon as she got out of bed, but once back in Mississippi she was eager to take off her clothes and stay that way. Not sure why. I thought it might be the humidity which made one feel dressed without having a stitch on. I was the same. I’d put nothing on but my tennis shoes and take a walk in the back yard. One day, I would discover the secret and introduce it out West.
Cousin Suzie was nowhere to be found when we had finished in the bathroom and done the packing. We were ready to hit the road but there was no way we’d leave without saying good bye. No notes from us, no emails or voice messages. There had to be a proper send off with hugs and kisses and, if she had her way, a little “skinship” as she liked to call it. That entailed rubbing her boobs against all male visitors and if she could manage it, work in a nice ass-squeeze. Personally, I was all for it. I, too, was a proponent of “skinship” and all that it entailed.
I was getting more than a little annoyed and, at least in my own mind, considered starting the car. All of a sudden, Suzie came bounding in, out of breath, and was spitting mad. She’d had to step into her office that morning at the school and somehow got caught up in something big. No apologies. I was hearing all about it in fits and starts. The gals were in the kitchen. I heard the bottles being taken out and knew that drinks were being poured. It was still morning. She drank white wine from a tumbler when she was upset. She shouted out, “Don’t think you’re getting away so easily in there, mister.” I braced for impact.
“You hear, Mister Cool and Detached? You are not going anywhere.”
I began to worry. This sounded like she was getting all wound up.
“You might as well put your keys away. We gots to talk.”
She was talking about her new student Pall Mall, a kid from Vermilionville, Louisiana. We’d already heard a little. Now there was trouble. She was telling us the story from the very beginning. Both of us were eager to head back but now we were being sucked back in. The boy had disappeared.
“He comes in that first day,” Suzie explained, “looks around, and shouts, ‘Be back.’” Then, she said, he high tailed it out the school altogether.
“We were perplexed, to say the least. Sure enough, though, he come right back and took a seat. He stayed, as his probation officer had instructed.”
I thought, “Why me?” We would never get out of there.
“I don’t like students to come in after the bell, you know that.”
“We didn’t used to do that,” I commented. “All this special treatment gets to me.”
Suzie looked more than a little concerned. I thought for a second I saw a flash of fear.
“We think he’s got a gun.”
The principal’s gun was missing from his office.
An hour later she was still going at it. We hadn’t had breakfast.
“Called him ‘Elephant’ on account of his tiny frame, weighs no more than hundred ten, maybe hundred-fifteen pounds. Never seen a movie. Don’t believe he’s been to McDonald’s, can you believe that? Don’t think he ever washed his feet, to be honest. I got so I stepped aside when he come near me. Earl: that’s his name. Family calls him that. Pall Mall is a nickname, of course. Kid’s friends call him that and other names, too, but never without a smile, so he knows they are joking. Otherwise, he’ll haul off and sock you. He punches real hard. He does this with lightning speed and can thrust his fist out without moving his arm above the elbow. He delivers a low blow.”
“Don’t you ‘Suzie’ me. He’s out there and he’s threatened to kill me!”
Jenny and I just stared.
“He is sneaky. He can talk without moving his mouth. He can throw his voice. These two talents no doubt help him stay alive. He was only fourteen when we first come in that day. His whole thing is being self-sufficient, worldly, but he is animated almost entirely by his vivid imagination, his fantasy life. He has no street smarts. He lives and breathes his delusions or dreams. All that shit promoted by the world around him.
“Andrew, you are going to have to stay and help us find him.”
“Jenny, you know the story. Tell him, tell Andy what happened. Andrew, you have to listen. I have to tell you, OK? I was once a groupie. A rock ‘n’ roll groupie, you see. I slept around with many stars a long time ago. I slept with Janis Joplin and Robert Plant. I was a slut. I slept with others. I slept with any many as I could. I slept with B. B. King. I worked the Delta Queen. I hung out in Memphis at the Peabody. Then, the Hilton. I slept with Harry Belafonte. I was a star-fucker. I was bi-sexual. I slept with Nina. I slept with Tina.”
I found myself just staring into space.
“Don’t be unkind. It happened, OK? Women like sex, too, you know. It is what it is, OK? Shit happens. There are girls who follow baseball players around the country. I followed rock stars. My dream was to fuck Mick. I told you, I fucked Harry Belafonte. I’d been shooting for Morgan Freeman. He’s over 80. He probably smells like an old rag but I love his passion. I’m sure his dick is as limp as Play-Doh but his tongue is sure to be on fire.”
Jenny was crying.
“Would you tell me what this is all about?” I was getting angry.
“That boy is my son. Earl, the boy they call Pall Mall, is mine. He is my little boy, Andy. I need you to find him before the sheriff goes and shoots him. They’ll kill him. You know they will, they’ll shoot my little boy. My son; the offspring of one of those men.”
“Oh, Sue. Suzie Q. Come here.” And with that we had a good, long hug.
“Of course, I’ll help you. We’ll stay.”
“I have a ton of money.”
Jenny looked surprised.
“No, I do. I’ve had some gifts. The father…. I had a fling with a foreign rocker. A guitarist. He spoke to me in French. I didn’t understand a word. His wife offered to translate. He slapped me when I called him honey. I won’t repeat what he called me. He made me crawl around on all fours. Oink, Oink. Quack, quack. Moo, moo. He had a fetish. We played barnyard animals. He was Farmer Brown. I got worried when he demanded four eggs. He said, ‘You are the chicken and I’m the fox.’ We ran around the room. This made his wife laugh. He said when he caught me, he would ring my neck. She stopped laughing when I produced four eggs.”
She was laughing.
“His wife died. And then he died, too, and he left me all his money.”
She began singing, “Old McDonald had a farm.”
Suzie looked lost as she fell silent. Then, she perked up.
“Being big doesn’t help when you’re limp. The body sags in odd spots. Even his nipples shriveled. His farts were sweet but his breath was foul. EIEIO.”
I had never heard any of this. We tried our best to regroup. I thought it best to play things by the book and not do her any favors. I called my office and assigned the case. We had to open a file and I had Binswanger talk to her about our rates. She gave me a substantial check as a retainer against expenses and I contacted a local agency in Jackson to assist. I’d need some help, if nothing else to run license numbers and the rest, take advantage of local resources. We started with $20,000.
“We will find him, Sue. We will.”
Suddenly, Jenny delivered a sales pitch. I didn’t even know she knew what I did for a living.
“He’s the best, little Sue. He is the best fucking detective in the country.”
I hired a Pinkerton man to watch the house. A burley black fellow who parked his pick-up on the lawn. He came armed. We moved back to the Airbnb. I didn’t like to mix business with pleasure. And I didn’t want to be around so much booze. The girls could drink but I was trying to stay away.
We met again after we had a chance to go for a bite, got ourselves sorted out, and I found a second car, so Jenny could get around freely. I would be out and about now day and night. I also bought a gun. We had a chat and talked shop. I didn’t want to involve Jenny. There wasn’t going to be any of that TV-show crap where the detective gets shot because the bad guys have his girl. Jenny would be fine and, if not, she would have to go back to California.
“Is that clear?”
We agreed it was.
We also talked a bit about Suzie without gossiping too much. Suzie definitely belonged to the Southern school of narration, whereby, especially in these parts, all stories are said to need telling, especially the ones that aren’t true. The TV networks currently subscribed to this ideal. My point is that everything Suzie said needed to be taken with a grain of sand. I was supposed to be on a salt-free diet.
I decided I wanted to meet with Suzie alone. Jenny went out to do some shopping. I rented her a Malibu. I kept the Chrysler. Suzie drove a fancy SUV, a humongous Japanese thing. I called her license plate in just to see if she owned the car. I had my associates do a thorough background check, as well, including a search of all court cases, civil and criminal, going back twenty years. A lot of the records had been destroyed. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, not on a client, but all the talk about multiple sex partners and illegitimate children suggested to me that there was more to this than just a black eye. There were issues of paternity. Issues of inheritance, issues of title that almost always blow up. Litigation is what holds this country together. I just figure it is always a good idea to find out who owns what. Meanwhile, I wanted to search that school. How did Pall Mall get that gun? And why?
The school’s principal was a big guy. “Anchor” Dillon. Former football coach, a town hero; he had brought the school to regional fame for its winning streak. Dillon got a lot of the credit.
We shook hands and he invited me to sit. Suzie had called ahead.
I assumed the office had been broken into. Now I learned the office door was closed but left unlocked. The principal said he must have left it open. He didn’t remember, but he said he often had a lot on his mind.
“It’s been quite a blow, this recent event. They removed the Confederate flag from my back yard.
“Never mind, it was on my property.”
“The goddamned city council and the home-owners association ordered its removal when they learned I’d put it up to honor my great uncle, General William Lindsey Brandon, of the 21st Mississippi.”
“All right. I’ve heard the name.”
“I am a distant – very distant – grandnephew of the once-famous general. At first, they demanded the flag be burned by torch, that is, to be burned “alive,” as it flapped in the wind; they’d just take a blow-torch to it. Someone finally said, perhaps it was the fire chief, that setting fire to a flag in mid-air violates city ordinances.”
That didn’t seem credible.
“They’d just come and set it on fire? It was once said that to be so treated would be an insult to tradition. After all, the general was a graduate of the United State Military Academy. He wasn’t just some drunken sailor.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Flags are meant to be lowered and folded, not set on fire, someone pointed out, thank the Lord, but this city council is on a mission. Half the members aren’t even from around here. They knocked down all the statues in town square, including one of Rutherford Hayes. These people are iconoclasts; that is exactly what they are; they are defacers.
“I would not be surprised to hear that they are ready to drop the name of our state capitol.”
Anchor Dillon spoke as though he missed talking to groups of children.
“I wouldn’t put it past them.”
“From now on Jackson will be known as Magnolia or whatever. Crocodile; in another blow to America’s past will be the decision to drop the name of Washington, D.C.”
“Not that I would care.”
“When I went to see about school supplies the other day, I asked for some Dixie cups for the infirmary and I was told from hence forth the cups should be referred to Pixies in honor of our friends over at Black Lives Matter. We have a local chapter.”
“I would not put it past them.”
“I sent my old flag to a collector in Bakersfield, California. He’s not heard of General Brandon but he knows someone over there in Japan who does and he collects memorabilia, including samurai swords and souvenirs from the Pacific War. It’s against the law in Japan to hide the past.”
I said I understood. I wondered if we could talk about the boy. What about the gun? He said he left it in the cabinet. Which one? That seemed to catch him short. It took him a while to think what to say. Didn’t he keep it in the same place? No, he said, he didn’t keep it at school. He just happened to have it and left it in the drawer just that once. Funny that the boy knew where to look.
I was beginning to keep my thoughts to myself. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t believe him. Nobody brings a gun to school and forgets where he left it. Who would do that? A guard who always carries a gun, sure. She might set it down in the restroom, place it on the sink. But the principal said he brought it special just that day and then forgot it. I think he knew exactly where it was every second it was in the school.
I cracked a joke, hoping to lighten the mood. It was a Californian ‘intervention’, I read somewhere, and I had let it become a bad habit. Unfortunately, I was the only one laughing.
“It wasn't all clowning, Mr. Nettle, by far. There is now talk of violence. That boy is on the loose. I don't know how to convey to you the ominous sense many people around here have, nor the sense of violation about what happened the other night. If you weren’t here, if you don’t not feel it, it cannot be conveyed. My wife is afraid to leave the house. I brought my shotgun.”
I wasn’t sure I knew what he was talking about.
I just wanted to pin him down. Was he talking about something that had happened already or was he discussing fears, legitimate or not? People seemed keyed up. I asked if the school had surveillance cameras. Where? I was eager to be shown around. I asked if I could take a look. He asked me why. This, too, seemed strange. Again, I kept my thoughts to myself. I tried to shrug it off, not to seem to think it was important. I told him my firm sold equipment. I wondered out loud if the school had a security contract. I thought maybe we could get in on any security updates coming up. He laughed. I asked if there were camera in any of the restrooms or in the gym. What about parking? I figured he would refuse if I asked to see them, so I made a note to get a warrant. At the same time, I didn’t want him erasing anything. I was beginning to smell a rat. I played it cool, asked again about any future business, and watched carefully as he locked up. He stood in the parking lot as I walked away.
It looked like I would have to scale the fence to get back in. A chain link fence ran the entire perimeter of the school. I decided to return. I just had trouble understanding why he was being so cagey. I certainly didn’t want to run into him in a dark alley. He was about 6’5” and a good ten years younger. I figured I could outrun him but that’s about it. I wondered now about that gun and I wondered if it was true that Pall Mall had taken it. I had the office in Jackson run a background check. He may have been a football hero, but he was not from this area. I detected a Texas drawl. He moved like a cowboy, too, real slow.
When I found out he’d taught in Dallas for a while, I called an old pal in Houston and asked him to pull the guy’s license. I wanted to know why he’d left. I knew they paid a lot less in Mississippi than in Texas, and Dallas paid good. He must have taken a $15,000 cut to start over in the South. I got a call back from the Nielson Agency while I was having a couple of pig ear sandwiches in town. The principal had lost his teacher’s license some time back, pulled on unsubstantiated criminal charges, no conviction. He had taught Phys. Ed., been a coach and a sports coordinator. Details sealed. Records available by court order. We didn’t have time for that nonsense, so I called the office in L.A, and asked Don, ex-military intelligence, to approach his contacts. They went beyond civilian records. It was $500 just for a look-see. A lot more for anything in writing.
I called Suzie to say that her bodyguard would not be available that night. Would that be all right? Be sure to lock the doors. I explained that his agency needed him. In fact, he would be meeting me at the school after dark. I wanted a look-out. I wasn’t expecting trouble but I worried about being on school grounds after hours and without local ID. That might look bad. I didn’t want a confrontation with Rod Steiger. I was no Sidney Poitier, but the local sheriffs in the area could be tough. My California license wouldn’t hold water in Mississippi, and I couldn’t afford to sit in jail, even for a night.
I figured my Pinkerton could keep watch. He parked a bit down the road, next to my car. I walked alone and hopped the fence behind the gym. I didn’t find any cameras outside. The place was not very secure. All the transom windows around the basketball courts were wide open. The kids were doing indoor calisthenics when it was 95 degrees in the shade. All that gym had was a little cross-breeze. I climbed down onto the bleachers. I wanted to find the boy’s locker room. I planned to check all the lockers. I didn’t know if Pall Mall used one and, even if he did, I didn’t have his number.
It took time. Lots of smelly socks. Some daring porn. Some other things that school officials would be alarmed to find, but nothing too surprising. Of course, I didn’t turn on any lights, but I used my flash light and my camera. After an hour, I stood there in a near stupor and decided to crawl around above the lockers. Kids toss a lot of crap they don’t want to get caught with. I gave the metal shelves a good look and was about to get down, when I spotted something in the acoustic ceiling. Thing is, there was nothing below what I saw. The object was hanging above one of the benches. Even if I stood on the bench, I wouldn’t be able to reach it. I’d need some help. I rummaged through the janitor’s closet, pulled out his mop and portable ringer, and turned the thing upside down so I could stand on it. What I found required some sort of an explanation but I decided not to touch it.
I put everything back, got myself out through the nearest transom, and headed back. I sent Gabe the Pinkerton back to Suzie’s, called her to expect him. There was no answer. I called Jenny to let her know I was on my way home. She picked up. “Back in thirty.” As I drove along, I couldn’t help but wonder what a camera probe was doing in the boys’ locker room. Who put it there? I mean, I could imagine why someone might do that; I just couldn’t figure out on my own who did it. Of course, as soon as Don called me in the morning with news from his contacts, I figured we were dealing with a pro. The coach turned school principal was a pederast and had more than a little practice enticing boys and selling pictures.
I decided not to say anything to Jenny about it. Better not. Leave everything alone. I learned this from P.K., back in Los Angeles. Life is often exactly the opposite of a cowboy movie. No rescues, no posse, no heroes; just villains and their victims. If I acted, I was nearly certain to fuck it up. The law guarantees that. You have to wait. Watch and wait. Most of these bastards get caught but one has to go slow. All I wanted to know, of course, was how Pall Mall had gotten himself mixed up with this pervert. Something told me that pistol was being aimed directly at his very head.
I drove fast. We were cruising on occasion at 95 mph, me and my younger self. I was not a superb driver. Some people can do it. Some even like it. Some even love to take the curves at high speed. Had my IQ been twenty points lower, I might have hung my head out the window and shouted. As it was, I drove with caution. Had I been a little more confident, I would have called ahead to the local police but I had to be certain. All this while we were listening to the thumping of Ike and Tina, Elvis, B.B. King, and their entire generation of Delta masters.
Suzie agreed to come when I told her I found the deed to a property up in Hardy, Arkansas. Something told me she got that property from one of her boyfriends but that didn’t matter now. I had reason to believe that was where we’d find her son, Pall Mall. When I asked if he knew where it was, she didn’t have to say a word. She seemed to panic.
It had taken some doing to get her to come clean. No, I didn’t bust her in the mouth like they did in the movies. What I knew and repeated was a lot more explosive than a punch in the kisser. That boy was born to her out of wedlock and, back in the day, it would have caused her a whole lot of stress to admit she had been to bed with a black musician. It was one thing to be a groupie to Cat Stevens or the Rolling Stones. Quite another to admit to being in love with one of the greatest blues singers of all time, especially if you were a white chick from a prominent Mississippi family. Even her daddy might have trouble defending his little girl.
The thing of it was that there had been a reversal of fortunes. Her daddy’s clan no longer owned 1,000 acres of prime river front top soil, but Jimmie Hendricks, etc. still owned the music. There was big money in music. There was even money in the Blues. She might not win a paternity suit at this point, given the fact that her beau was dead, but what I’d found out was that Pall Mall’s daddy had left his sons a whole lot of money, and now one of them was on the run.
Pall Mall and one of his brothers had been in a history seminar together on Knowing One’s Civil Rights. This was in a juvenile lockup, not state prison. I do not approve of teaching prison Marxism to kids, but who gives a shit? They were too young for that, in my opinion. I hated to think they were being taught to hate their country. Somehow or another, that brother found out their daddy had died, knew about a lost will and, instead of informing Pall Mall, he had somebody try to kill him. That in a nutshell was what I had been able to piece together. Something must have gone awry. When Pall Mall got out, the killer followed. Pall Mall, as far as I knew, was running away, but he could just as well find himself being chased by assassins.
I told all this to Suzie and got a kick out of watching her jaw drop. I’d been able to track down some details that even she didn’t know. I had a chance to ask around. The boys’ instructor had been a retired school teacher named Calabria who used to pound the table and demand to know why the prisoners hadn’t completed their assignments. I spoke to the program director who understood that I wanted to hire him. He offered a strong recommended. The boys loved him. Instead of writing them off and taking their shit with a wimpy smile, this guy told them how he really felt and earned their respect. I spoke with the section chief. Students knew when their efforts were half-assed and could smell false praise. “Teach” was obviously very naïve and may have been gay. He invited the boys to look him up as soon as he they got out. Some did. Pall Mall had done so. Why? I wanted to see this teacher asap.
Meanwhile, Sue and I were on our way to a cabin up in Arkansas. It was supposed to be a cottage for happy families on summer vacation, but I suspected it was being used as a drop house for drug dealers. “Prove me wrong” was my middle name. After an hour, I told Suzie we’d have to pull over. I had to take a whizz and was growing peckish. I figured on a burger joint or even a tamale stand. Suzie vetoed that as only a woman could, promising to find us a decent place to eat. She said she couldn’t eat off paper plates. “I JUST CAN’T.” Isn’t it great how women can go off like that and it means next to nothing? If a man spoke like that, what would people think? She insisted on a family favorite which, according to her, served real food. From the looks of things outside my window, it was hard to believe, but what did I know?
She had us pull off the highway where I was able to get a nice steak cooked in cognac, and she was able to order chicken cordon blue. I was amused by the offer to throw in some pecans for fifty cents. I asked for Brussels sprouts as a side (my favorite vegetable) and she shared her mushrooms. All in all, a very fair meal; certainly, better than most burgers. We were there a while but both resisted having alcohol. Easy for me, torture for her. We took off in less than two hours.
“That’s Cambodia, Captain.” We were back to listening to the soundtrack to Apocalypse Now, the great Vietnam movie with, you guessed it, whatshisname. Willard was my hero, not Brando. We were not even to Memphis when a light rainy fog descended. We were crawling at less than 30 miles per hour. There was something ahead. We were on a truck route so nothing would surprise me. I’d seen a lot of strange things spread out over the highways, especially back in California. Suzie was having the time of her life. I was hoping she would fall asleep. I wanted to listen but my ears were getting sore. I was enjoying the tape. I was right there with the boys as they went up river. “Never get out of the boat.” That had become my anthem. Ever since I first heard it some years earlier, I knew intuitively what that meant. One never knew what one might find out there in the jungle. I used to expect something good; now I always expected the worst and was rarely disappointed.
“Terminate with extreme prejudice.” Those were haunting words of instruction directed at young Willard. He had been given a lot to think about. He carried pictures of the uniformed Kurtz in a file but had trouble matching the man of great military accomplishment with the maniac in the jungle. I think of this now as I read The New York Times. It’s been nearly forty years. If you’ve seen this movie, the man in the White House today may seem somewhat familiar, a type whose methods many find as unsound as Kurtz’s. Of course, forty years ago, the man in the WH was not Marlon Brando but an actor held in what many might say was considerably less high regard. But this is now, not then. I don’t recall thinking at all about politics as we plowed through the increasingly heavy rains that were falling.
Suddenly, Suzie switched off the tape. She insisted on being heard. It was as I had come to expect: true confessions time. “Listen.” Following this, a cascade of sexual anecdotes and bizarre stories poured forth. Some from high school, others from her days as a Rock ‘n’ Roll princess, who from the sound of it, spent most of her time on her knees.
I wasn’t all that sure of what I was hearing. Some of it rang true, but beyond that, I thought she might be making the whole thing up. I hoped so. Such an exchange invites conjuncture and the mature imagination runs to fantasy, to what men and perhaps women desire, but she was mainly speaking here of teenagers, of the young and perverse, of those who are inexperienced and naïve. No, the boys Suzie had known hadn’t demanded sexual pleasure so much as humiliation. The story that stuck out was of the boys who liked to pull up the skirts of girls as they danced and, if successful, pull down their panties. Something about it made me think of shotgun weddings.
Male groupies had their pick of nearly hysterical chicks waiting to be fucked by rock stars. All that Southern belle first base/second base shit went out the window. Late one night, one fellow had already received one kiss, but before too long insisted on more. He liked being kissed on the mouth, but had a brilliant idea. Pretty soon, he’d lowered himself onto the floor and beckoned the innocent girl to follow. This was either an anecdote or a fantasy, I wasn’t too sure. I found myself driving but trying to catch her eye. He commenced to walk crablike backwards on all fours, with his bared crotch in the air. He made that desperate girl follow, with her dress pulled up, exposing her pink backside fully. He was wearing her panties.This was what Suzie described to me. I could see now where this was going.
As he walked backwards, she crawled after him on all fours. When she caught up, he slowed to allow her to take him into her mouth. Then he took off, so she had to chase him with his ever-hardening cock round and round, with her dress flipped up and her ass bared for all to see. The other boys couldn’t control themselves and ran over to give it a smack. They hovered and had at it until her ass was red. They said they wouldn’t stop until she went down on the guy’s cock. Their paddling quickened and they paced their rhythm to the speed of her bobbing head. He remained nearly silent but the others screamed when they saw that he had come in her mouth. They laughed when she cried. They only stopped when she promised to return to do them, one at a time. They got her to swear on the Bible. In all the excitement, she swallowed, which thrilled them all the more. I kept wondering if Suzie been talking about herself.
Memphis was by now in my rear-view mirror. I barely recognized it. Once, it was all about R & B, Gospel and the Blues, but soon enough, Hip Hop, city music. The artists were black. Otis, Al Green, Isaac, for a while, then all sorts of folks, mostly from out of town. Suzie had been determined to sleep with them all. She hadn’t wanted to be accused of racism. Nore had she wanted to be thought a prude. She wanted the boys to take her panties. She hoped someone would ask to look up her skirt. She hung out at the Overton Shell, “making herself useful” with the stage hands and the musicians, most of whom were local nobodies. She hung out, bought everybody cigarettes, kicked back at the studios, and followed the boys to the parking lot. The boys picked her up every weekend all through high school. She never had a steady, but she kept technicians and bodyguards entertained. She was happy to head out any time of the day or night.
One time, some boys took her down to Lake Sardis where someone’s parents had a small summer house with a large screened porch. On their first visit, things went terribly wrong when in everyone’s excitement, including hers, Suzie managed to arrive at the cabin well past ten p.m. without so much as a stitch of clothes. The boys had thrown each and every item out the window as they careened down Route 55. One boy held her head down in his arms, while they forced her naked rear end out the window. She rode for one hundred miles, mooning every passing vehicle and its passengers. Lucky for her, they had missed entirely this generation’s fascination with video and our mania for selfies. Thankfully, there was not a single picture taken of her and the boys.
It took a lot out of Suzie to tell these stories. Most girls would say they had learned a lesson, but all Suzie learned, she said, was that she preferred group sex to fucking any single boyfriend; feeling vulnerable and helpless made it all the more exciting. She liked having her face squeezed and her bottom smacked. She rated that night down at Sardis as one of the happiest of her entire life. By morning her ass was black and blue.
“Disneyland? Fuck, man, this is better than Disneyland!” That’s how I felt about our long drive to Tupelo and then across the bridge to West Memphis, Arkansas. Suzie finally dozed off. I turned up the sound. I understood sweet Lance’s enthusiasm for that cruise up the Mekong. Human beings turn mayhem into glory. Wasn’t that Suzie’s point? How, I couldn’t say. Why? Who the hell knows? What’s love got to do with it? That was Suzie’s second point.
I pulled into the parking lot at the famous truck stop in West Memphis. We got us two rooms for less than $75. I like rituals. Truck stops, gas stations, diners, cheap motels: I found the whole thing oddly soothing. Suzie was surprised when I took her to her room and said good night. The ritual was this: walk away. I told her I wanted to leave at dawn. I’d wake her. We needed to get to Hardy by sun up. I was getting a little keyed up and wondered if I’d fall asleep. I did but woke at three. This is when 24-hour diners come in handy. I went over for some eggs and coffee.
Yes, it was better back then, far better to be alive. The place reminded me of my youth, better times. They put the groceries on a conveyer belt at the A & P, which carried them far below. They were taken outside to a spot in the parking lot. One didn’t push one’s cart across the gravel back then. It was called civilization, this; what is it called now?
The angry man called me a motherfucker when I brushed up against him in the subway. He was angry. Of course, I had never laid eyes on this man ever before. He was a fool. I could scarcely care, I wanted to say, but I said sorry. I’m terribly, terribly sorry, my dear, for touching your tender shoulder.
The truck-stop looked a whole lot like 1975. Before then, we weren’t rebellious at all. We obeyed. It was all about Yes, sir, and knowing when to stop. Although there were those among us, like Matt, my best friend, who had a well-cushioned ass. He provoked the flat-topped coach to strike; he grabbed his polished paddle and swept it across Matt’s backside. It made Matt laugh.
Back then, we said Ma’am? not What? If we wanted to thrive, we had to submit. There were rules in my day, not chaos. We had no rights. Our parents stood with the school against us. What? was thought rude. It was not permitted. They called it respect, but we all knew it was obedience. The men were just back from the war. They were fighters. They were prepared to knock our teeth out.
It was a tough time and we were expected to take our clothes off. No if ands or buts. Get your clothes off, strip. We took showers together in the nude. Modesty was a sign of femininity. No blushing, no hard-ons. Get your ass into the pool. Boys in those days were expected to be men; we were in training to kill. Lot of my friends went to Vietnam.
Those were the good old days, and don’t you forget it. I was there. Kids didn’t tell their teachers to fuck off. Not back then. Adults ran the world. Our lockers didn’t lock. Mom and dad left the door wide open. Mother let the car run while she dashed in for milk. Kids stayed in the car. Some people believe in progress. Things are always getting better. I laugh at the thought.
We found Hardy. The place was on the Spring River, an A-frame; I figured on being able to find it. I pulled off the road to confer with Suzie. The boy had a gun and I wanted to know what we could expect. I didn’t want to get into any kind of exchange with the lad, one that ended with him or me or both lying in the grass.
“Maybe you had better go to the door,” I suggested. “He knows you.”
She didn’t seem to like that idea.
“It’s critical that we don’t alarm him. I don’t want him to panic and do something stupid.”
She was crying.
“Did I say something?”
Turns out she had never come clean with the boy. He just thought she was a kind lady, maybe a kind white lady, meaning he may not have entirely trust her.
“It’s time, Suzie.”
I promised to stay in the car.
“Who are you?”
“How am I going to explain you? Who should I say you are?”
“Tell him I’m a cop. Tell him I’m your friend, your I don’t know what. We want him to be cool and we want to protect him. Tell him I’m your bodyguard.”
I watched as she went to the front. She went to the back where I couldn’t see.
Suddenly, a little Rav4 shot out from behind the house, worked its way through the trees and took off down the gravel road. There were two people in the car. Was that Suzie at the wheel? I instinctively started the car but then thought better of it and cut the engine. I went instead to check out the house. I didn’t want to see them wrapped around a tree. I’d call the highway patrol and have them stopped at the bridge. I’d call the state police. He was armed and dangerous. She was a damned fool.
There was a ton of pot piled sky high in the back room. The windows were boarded up. Everyone slept on the screen porch. There were cots set up. There was no heater so I don’t know what they did in winter. It was strictly a summer cottage. I had some pals I called over in Little Rock. I didn’t want to deal with the locals. In fact, I wanted to take off as soon as possible and did. I gave my DEA pals the address and both license plates, mine and the one on the Rav4. They might send a helicopter. They might send the cavalry. I hit the road.
Of course, I didn’t know which way they were headed. Was that Pall Mall in the car? I wasn’t 100% certain. All I knew for sure was the Suzie was in some deep shit. The house on the river belonged to her. Someone had left it to her in her name. I believed it to be Pall Mall’s daddy. I figured she and he had never married. He’d been head of some band. The house went to her and the money was meant for the boy but for some reason he had not been informed. The funds were tied up in probate and the man behind the dough was now a corporation called Away We Go, Inc.
I was making good time. When I saw the signs for Graceland, I felt a pang, but I didn’t stop. I just kept going and sighed. Yes, I would have liked to have stopped but I was determined now to get to Oxford before supper. In fact, if I stepped on it, I thought I might be able to make it to Rowen Oak, William Faulkner’s place. I’d only been there once, as a teenager, and I wanted to see it once again. I would soon be in South Haven and from there it’d be long. I was not even a big fan, although I had my favorites. I just liked the idea of seeing his house, maybe more than I liked the idea of reading his books. The one of that group I admired most was his friend, Shelby Foote. Now there was a fine fellow, a real national hero as far as I was concerned. Anyway, I felt
like I was going to church as the ladies did when I was a boy on Wednesday nights. By pulling into Rowen Oak, I was that much closer to God.
When I got done, I went to have something to eat. I had some jambalaya at the Tallahatchie Café. I didn’t eat stuff like that in Los Angeles, although I would no doubt be able to if I tried. You could get just about anything in LA. Jambalaya was not something I had to have. I enjoyed it but if I had to wait another ten years before I had another serving, it would be fine by me. Mid-way through, my phone started to vibrate and dance around on the table. I took the call outside. I didn’t want to be accused to turning the restaurant into an office.
It was bad news. Suzie had been driving, as I suspected, and had wrecked the car south of Tupelo, having tried to outrun the highway patrol. The state police had been notified and one of the officer’s spotted the Toyota with Arkansas plates and gave chase. Suzie was in the hospital with some serious injuries but her male companion, an Afro-African, twenty-six years of age was killed. He was thrown from the car and slapped that asphalt real hard when he landed. It was not Pall Mall. It appeared to be his half-brother LaVone, although I still wasn’t sure who was who on that family tree. May God have mercy on his soul. I would not be allowed to see Suzie until morning, said the nurse, when I called in to check on her. I was also told I would not be allowed to know anything about her condition without a family code. I decided not to bother with that and went back to finish my supper.
By the time I sat back down, my jambalaya was cold. I ordered a shrimp po boy to go and picked at the jambalaya while I waited for them to fix it. As soon as I could, I hit the road. It wasn’t Suzie I was worried about. It was Pall Mall. As far as I knew, he was still out there and still had that gun. I decided to get a move on. I also made some calls. I tried Jenny and was real surprised not to have her pick up. Damn. I wondered what that was all about.
Next, I called my partners in Jackson to see about security at Suzie’s. The office was closed. I figured on that, so I left a number. It must have been a good twenty minutes before anyone thought to call me back. When I answered, I must have sounded miffed. I was. I wanted to get a report from their fellow out on Willow Cove.
“Who is this I’m talking to, anyway?”
He didn’t sound too bright. He claimed not to know anything about Willow Cove. I told him I was with P.K.’s firm out of L.A., but he claimed not to know anything about it. I said shit and hung up. As this rate, I’d be there by the time he figured out the difference between his elbow and his smartphone.
I called again for Jenny. Nothing. Dang. I didn’t know what to do. I sure as shit did not want a ticket, not in Mississippi, so I slowed down. I couldn’t call the DA until morning, but I wanted something done about that porn camera sticking in that ceiling at the school. I was beginning to wonder what the hell was going on. Was any of that connected to what I found in Hardy? I had no idea. I was driving real careful now. I figured Pall Mall knew someone was after him and until today I suspected it was his half-brothers. Now, it was just the one half-brother, the survivor, the one I guessed was the most dangerous, the greediest, and by now the most desperate.
Something told me that was his stash. Suzie knew what was going on but probably didn’t have contact with all three of the boys. She knew Pall Mall was in danger. With probate closing and those funds soon released, someone was counting on Pall Mall being out of the picture. As it stood, LeVone was gone. The third son’s name was Riley. I wondered if that made him a junior. B. B. King’s first name was Riley. Up until today, there was something like $7,000,000 and three boys. Now there were two. My job was to make sure Riley didn’t take it all.
By the time I pulled into Pearl it was late. I cut my lights and parked a few houses down. The streetlights weren’t bright. I could see my man’s SUV parked in front of Suzie’s place, but I didn’t see the driver. I also saw that the driver’s door was open. Now I saw Jenny’s car in the drive. The blue Malibu, the one I rented. What the fuck? I saw a light on in the house. Had Pall Mall come back? I thought so. Hoped? Not sure. Where else would he go? And Jenny? I had no idea, unless she got bored (likely) and decided to pay her girlfriend a visit. That was the alibi I was sticking with.
I had my pistol out. It felt funny. This was not my thing. Carried it once empty in L.A. and assumed it was a felony to do that. I had a license. Here in the Delta things were different. Someone was always trigger happy. I hung back. Way back. I went to the back yard and found Suzie’s house sitter’s body laid out flat. This was getting serious. There were people inside. Things were beginning to resemble Panic City.
There were three distinct body types in that house. I could make them out but not a hell of a lot more. Had any of them been in touch with Suzie? If that was Riley and he knew his brother LeVone was dead, he might very well let Jenny and Pall Mall have it. Panic City. I knew it well.
I decided to kick the garbage can. I did not want to call in the Union soldiers. I did not want the cavalry. I didn’t want a hovering helicopter and SWAT. My order of concern was yours truly; next, Jenny, Pall Mall (my client), and finally shit for brains, the master of ceremonies. I figured that he was the next one likely to go on a killing spree. I gave the can a good swift kick and ducked behind the garage. Nothing. Then, the interior lights went out. I crouched down and didn’t move. I needed time to think.
My next move was to disable the cars. I didn’t want Riley coming out of that house blasting and racing away with two hostages. There were three cars. I only knew Jenny’s. Riley’s, and Pall Mall’s: I had no idea which was which. After thirty minutes total silence, I played like a crab, scuttled toward to the street, and punctured the tires on the Chevy. The rental company would squeeze me for this, but the last thing I wanted was a chase. Someone might get killed.
There was a black Durango parked out front. Process of elimination told me it belonged to Pall Mall or to Riley. I slashed the front tires. There were only three other cars on the street: mine, parked several houses down. Out front, I had to decide between a Nissan Sentra and a Ford Explorer. A young kid like Pall Mall might have a Sentra, why not? That’s the sort of car a teenager might drive. I took my chances and wrecked all four of the tires.
I didn’t want to leave myself vulnerable, especially not to a bullet in the gut. I found a blind spot near the neighbor’s house from which to throw something heavy onto the roof. I counted on them hearing it. I wanted Riley to think someone was on the roof. Then, I waited another thirty minutes before I went to cut the water from the main at the property line. At this point, I was just fucking with him.
I stood in the back yard now at some distance and, like a marksman, lay on my belly. I took a shot at the back porch light. They were bound to hear the falling glass. I was counting on all involved to keep their heads. Jenny was sensible. I figured Pall Mall and brother Riley wanted to live and would act accordingly. I figured on things turning my way the moment Riley opened the door to let me know who was boss. I would shoot him.
I kicked the garbage can again. I hid behind a tree. This time the cans banged and rocked back and forth but didn’t fall over. Still, it aroused the household and I saw a few more lights go on. “We’re in business,” I said to no one in particular which was half the fun. Someone opened the door wide enough to let off a shot. He had no idea where I was at. I didn’t shoot back. I didn’t want to shoot my client. Where was he? I saw another movement and fired. I caught him, whoever it was, or so I thought.
“That you, Riley?”
“Try that again and … I’ve got your girl.”
“You and LeVone make a deal? Why didn’t you include your little brother? Where’s Pall Mall?”
“Don’t you like him?”
“How many you gonna kill, Riley? LeVone’s dead. Your mother might not make it.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“Call the hospital, Riley. I’ll give you the number. Here, take my phone.”
When he opened the door, although only slightly, I was able to get off a clear shot. This time he fell. He was still alive but was losing blood.
“Let me take you to the hospital. Let’s go. Come on, Riley. No hard feelings.”
As we raced to the emergency room, I called to report the body in Suzie’s backyard. Half the police department was waiting for us as we entered the hospital. I had Pall Mall stay in the car. The police were all over me. Suzie filled them in. It took a while but they finally let me go. I promised to return the gun the boy had taken. I took him to visit his mother after putting him up at the Motel 6. We stayed in adjacent rooms, got freshened up, and had some biscuits and gravy in the morning.
His mother was in bad shape. Suzie allowed Pall Mall to stay in her house while she recuperated. I replaced the tires on his car so he could drive to school. I decided to let the matter of the mysterious camera in the boys’ locker go as it had nothing to do with Pall Mall and that was all that I had been paid to look into. I discretely advised Pall Mall to keep his shorts on.
By the time I was done with all that, Jenny and I figured it was time to get away. We were eager to get reacquainted. We left town. We ditched the Malibu and drove to Alabama for a little visit to a familiar spot on what has become known as the Redneck Riviera. I remembered the area when it was pristine. Never mind. We were eager to disappear. We found a nice spot and hung out for a few days. She was eager to hear all about my adventure with her cousin Suzie, all ears, in fact, until I started in on Suzie’s true confessions. Then, she got real quiet. She said that what I had heard must be Suzie newest version, but it wasn’t what really happened. The fact is that the state police had been involved. Suzie had been a minor and it hadn’t been the sex circus she described. It had in fact been a nightmare.
Jenny said she found it interesting that Suzie had tried to make it so entertaining. She wondered if she always told it that way, or had her cousin done that just for me? What she told was true up to a point. The boys had stripped her in the car. She was seen standing topless through the sunroof, waving wildly, screaming at the top of her lungs. She’d also been seen with her ass hanging out the back window, but she’d cut the rest.
What happened, Jenny said, was that the teenagers had attracted the attention of a bunch of roughnecks, locals in a pickup who’d been out drinking. They followed the kids in their Mercury sedan down to the lake. They were out to make trouble. They beat up the boys and took Suzie for a ride. By the time they were finished, she couldn’t walk. They buried her up to her neck on the beach and spent the rest of the night drinking and using her mouth as a toilet. They made the boys join in. Altogether there were nine men, seventeen to twenty-six. They picked up a case of beer. Compared to them, her friends had been nice. They had been sweet. These guys weren’t. There was something about her they didn’t like; they wanted to get even. She seemed rich. They wanted to make her feel sorry. They were nasty. They were cruel. The maniacs left her in the sand, her face and hair sticky with sperm. They disappeared with all their clothes, leaving the boys naked with Suzie. The guys were frantic and ready to leave, but Suzie, barely coherent, ran for the lake, desperate to get rid of their filth and the smell of urine.
Jenny and I stopped in Buckatunna before heading back. I didn’t have to be at the airport until later and I was determined to take a trip down memory lane. Crazy K’s, Dad’s favorite spot, was not on the way, but what the hell? It had been years. He always ordered the baked potato covered in garbage – that’s what he called it – and I was determined to have the same. They called it a “Train Wreck.” A potato with cheese, chicken, bacon, and chives.
Dad loved to tease me, chiefly for the thrill of watching me get upset. He knew I didn’t like being embarrassed in front of strangers and that I was a prude. When the waitress visited the adjoining table and bent over to wipe it, he asked if I wanted to put my hand up her skirt.
“Go on. Give her a feel.”
My wife Jenny said I was just like my father.
When the waitress stopped to take our order, even though I’d told him I wanted orange juice, he pretended not to remember and asked for a glass of pokeberry juice. Then he tried to look mad when she said she didn’t have any. Of course, I knew his tricks.
When I started talking about the Beatles, just like all the other kids, my father barely listened. My best friend in the fifth grade did an incredible imitation of Paul McCartney. Finally, Dad said, “Well, anyone who’s read Faulkner is acquainted with Ringo. What I want to know is why that Englishman took Ringo’s name. What’s in it for him? What do you say, son?”
I had no idea what he was talking about. Ringo sounded different to me.
“What do you mean you aren’t reading Faulkner?”
We weren’t reading any Americans.
“I think his name is Thomas Hardy, Dad. And Dickens. Shakespeare. That’s about it.” “We’ll see about that.”
Dad had that look. Finally, we got up from the table and headed for the car. When I asked
him about it later on, all he said was “never you mind.” That was my cue to shut up. The next year – was I in the ninth grade? – Mrs. Moorehouse gave me a funny look.
“We’re starting with Sherwood Anderson.”