Interlude: June 29
… in which Elmore does his time.
Sheriff Neeley and Deputy Turnipseed sat smoking late cigars at two dented aluminum desks. The unglamorous squawk of night hawks came through an open window. Both lawmen enjoyed the fresh air after a summer thunderstorm.
A sudden breeze lifted one dead wing of a luna moth, rain-pasted to the police department’s wire screen like a scrap of colored paper.
Squinting through cigar smoke, Sheriff Neeley lifted a black-and-white photograph of Lafayette’s most recent traffic accident.
The image was stark – a log truck tangled with a light-colored Dodge Dart. Heavy pine logs, a limbless rolling forest, blocked Lafayette’s main street … and entirely hid the crushed passenger side of the unlucky car. The Dart’s driver, a middle-aged man in a clean white shirt and dark bow tie, stood miraculously unharmed. He held his hands to his temples, staring wide-eyed at the family vehicle he’d been driving a half hour before.
Neither constable paid mind to the beautiful corpse of the moth glued to the screen of the police department headquarters.
“You saw the log truck run the light? You sure, Turnip?”
“Yes sir. Sure as I’m sittin’ here.”
Dan Neeley took a puff off his Tampa Nugget and narrowed his eyes at the oversized deputy.
“Well … that’s one of Mr. Wood’s haulers. Those trucks have diplomatic immunity.”
Elmore Rogers watched wearily through steel bars. He stood near the edge of a cot with a rumpled green army blanket, its uncased foam-rubber pillow falling to pieces. Mindful of a cast on his left wrist and bandages on new stitches along his whole right arm, Elmore pushed against the metal cell door for the hundredth time.
After a week, the steel bars felt as familiar to Elmore’s hands as work tools. As a steering wheel.
“Hey, Dan. Tomorrow?”
Sheriff Neeley shuffled papers and answered without looking up.
Sheriff Neeley patiently answered the question yet again. “Ten a.m. I’ll send Turnip down to the courthouse crack of dawn and get your walking papers. You can catch that breakfast buffet at Shoney’s.”
Seven days a prisoner. Elmore licked his cracked lips, felt beard stubble. He smelled his body, feral, sour. His mouth tasted bad, despite a taxpayer-supplied toothbrush and a nearly empty tube of Pepsodent.
“Think I could clean up, Dan? Shave? Get my pants?”
“No, sir. No blades for prisoners, Elmore. No belts. Those pants you got will do just fine this one last night.”
Elmore hung his head. He hunched his shoulders between upraised arms and stared at the bare cement cell floor. Old globs of chewed gum reminded him of a downtown sidewalk.
The most humiliating thing about a week in custody, Elmore decided, was simple – the city jail jumpsuit. It had already been rank, unlaundered, when Elmore put it on, and its particular shade of orange tortured Elmore’s retinas. He shook his head to realize how he would now hate Halloween the rest of his life.
The rest of his life.
Elmore silently vowed for the thousandth time that when he stepped out of Lafayette’s little boutique hotel, 10 a.m. tomorrow, whatever day of the week, he would set his affairs straight with the world.
Things had to change. Right now.
He would start with the man in the mirror.
He had time. Doctors told Elmore he might miss work for three more weeks, thanks to the cracked wrist and a slight concussion from his great leap forward out the second-floor window of Lafayette General Hospital.
He could put this time window to better use than that shattered window.
Elmore would be a better dad for Will and Mary. He resolved to meet somebody special, try to love again. He would get his head examined – the war had raged inside it too long now. He wanted to be a model citizen of Lafayette.
He vowed to change his life just as dramatically as his life changed him.
Elmore would never again spend seven days worried to death about Mary and Will, fretting, despairing over whether other hands cared for them, fed them. He swore to never wake up on the wrong side of jail bars again.
Neeley reassured him about the twins every single day. We got Will and Mary. The young’uns are fine, Elmore, just fine.
Thank you, Dan.
Yes sir, fine, Neeley went on pointedly, but no thanks to you. What the hell got into you, anyway, El? Your little girl’s down with a snakebite, and I come up on Will all alone in the first floor cafeteria, eatin’ somebody’s leftover Jell-O and waiting by hisself … and you’re upstairs punching out the fire chief and the doctors and the National Guard? Well, it got your wild ass slapped behind bars this time, Elmore, and you were lucky the judge said just a week. Plus you owe two thousand bucks to Lafayette General … not counting your disturbing the peace and vandalism fines … and four or five people still might slap a civil suit or two on you for bodily harm …
That was enough.
Elmore would stop being a loser.
Lafayette Lion turned Lafayette loser.
* * *
He didn’t even remember the first days in jail.
Elmore blamed it on the fog that started to roll in after Dick Wragg had banged his head on the hospital floor. That smoke had grown thicker after Elmore took a haymaker in the brawl with the Thing in the Room and the soldiers in camouflage and the orderlies and whoever else had been close enough to threaten him.
Or maybe Elmore had fogged himself to forgetfulness all on his own, by jumping through a plate glass hospital window and crashing down into a boxwood hedge 20 feet below.
Whatever, for the first 48 hours or so, Elmore saw wheels of fire and heard screams like the midway at the county fair was burning, with people trapped on the Ferris wheels, the merry-go-rounds. He snapped his head up suddenly, more than once, at the hallucinatory sounds of snarling dogs. He came to his senses in fits and starts.
The cast hurt Elmore’s wrist. Or maybe his wrist hurt inside the cast.
This pain didn’t touch the injuries of Iraq. Didn’t come close. Or the fall from the rising roof of Wood Castle last winter. Still, the face in the city jail’s sorry plastic mirror … a Barbie mirror affixed to the wall with black duct tape … looked like somebody Elmore didn’t know. Someone he wouldn’t want to meet.
Out of the fog, faces swam into focus, then disappeared.
Dick Wragg. Elmore couldn’t remember his next-door neighbor saying a single word. He simply stood leering down through the steel bars of the cell at Elmore spread out in orange on the rusted cot. Was Wragg gloating? Elmore wondered why – the Navy man sported a huge purple eye. His arm dangled in a sling. What did he have to gloat about?
Sheriff Neeley, old Dan Neeley, appeared out of the smoke, too. Elmore picked out Neeley’s messages. They didn’t make sense at first, but then slowly took on clearer meaning as the jungle howls faded in Elmore’s head.
Mary got out of the hospital, Neeley said, the very next day after the snake charm arrived on Mr. Wood’s helicopter. All better. She had a sore leg and felt tired a couple of days, but El, you wouldn’t know today she’d ever been struck by that evil thing.
Mrs. Mock keeps her fed and watered. Look … I felt like it was better if we had a grown lady to look after your little lady. Mary asks about you every night when I stop by to see her, a stuck record, where’s my daddy, where’s my daddy. But I swear, Elmore, I’m not bringing that little girl or Will through these doors to see their old man in an orange jump suit in a jail cell. They just don’t need to grow up with that memory.
They got enough memories already, don’t they?
Yeah, old Will. I got Lion Boy staying with me at night. He’s enjoying a top bunk with a antique wanted poster of Jesse James on the bedroom ceiling. Dead or Alive, that poster says, and Will’s been goin’ around squawkin’ Dead or Alive, Dead or Alive, like a dang parrot. We buried a time capsule full of stuff from my house, this idea he got somewhere, maybe off the TV in the hospital cafeteria that night. And he’s worrying me to death to shoot a pistol. I’m thinking about it. He’s forever asking about you, too. Just like Mary. I been telling him how good you got it here, with ice cold Coca-Cola bubblin’ right out of the faucets and peanut butter toothpaste ...
Dan Neeley then began to ghost away in the smoke.
Elmore, buddy, next time you do something stupid, we gonna keep you in here till Will hits puberty and Mary’s a movie star with her own line of cosmetics. I’ll guarantee you that personally. Those young’uns deserve a daddy better’n this one sitting here behind bars lookin’ like an orange crash-test dummy …
Elmore grimaced. Well.
Dan Neeley was right.
It was time for Elmore to do better.
* * *
Mr. Rankin came out of the mist. He ran the cabinet shop, a multistate business. He owned Elmore’s panel truck.
Rankin sat solidly on a gray metal folding chair on the far side of the steel bars. He made Elmore think of a movie gladiator, the brawny arms and thick neck and the Roman nose, broken once upon a time, who knows how?
Rankin was known to be a man of few words, but he had some for Elmore.
What did you ever do to get on the wrong side of Mr. Wood? he asked.
Elmore couldn’t remember how he answered.
That little Hitler told me to fire you. Ordered me. Like I reported to him. Worked for him.
Rankin’s revelation brought Elmore up off his cot. He stopped short, leaning on his elbows. Elmore’s liver burned, a jolt of pain like the shrapnel had hit him just yesterday.
Mr. Rankin …
Elmore remembered the big square face with the statue’s nose speaking from the mist.
Nobody, not even Mr. Wood, tells me who to hire and fire, Rankin told him. He might be richer than God, but that don’t make him God. I ain’t his puppet, and the good Christian men and ladies that work for me ain’t his puppets.
I’ll hold a place on the crews for you, Elmore. I been through a war myself, and maybe I know something about what it’s like to come home busted up, a soldier with little chillun and a wife to feed. You been a good worker for us. Once that wrist is doin’ right, you’ll see your steady paycheck again…
Sheriff Neeley eavesdropped on that conversation. He overheard all the conversations, in fact – Neeley never let a single soul talk with Elmore without standing right there, listening, watching like a hawk.
It turned out to be a good thing. Elmore had to ask Neeley more than once to repeat what somebody had said … including Rankin.
Could it be true? Was at least one man on the face of the earth other than Dan Neeley able to understand what Elmore had seen and lived through?
And was Mr. Rankin the one man in Lafayette brave enough to challenge the dictatorship of Mr. Wood?
* * *
Dr. Thomson, partly retired physician, organ player, and diviner of internal organs, took care of Lafayette’s city and county prisoners. He also attended the Methodist orphans’ home and carried out sometimes unsettling duties at the women’s shelter.
The doctor appeared, thin and ghostly, in the cell with Elmore. Elmore vividly remembered this visit, even through the fog. Dr. Thomson wore a green plaid jacket and white shoes and a yellow tie. With Elmore’s orange jumpsuit, the cell became tropical.
The doctor worked quietly. He checked Elmore’s cuts and stitches, examined the wrist. He put the popsicle stick on Elmore’s tongue. He shined the painfully bright light into Elmore’s eyes and listened to Elmore’s heart with the stethoscope.
When he pushed cool, skinny fingers into Elmore’s belly, palpating the right side – the side with the liver – the pain took Elmore’s breath away.
It hurt. The doctor stated the fact, not asking. Sorry.
Finally, Dr. Thomson drew blood. He used a needle Elmore didn’t even feel. But Elmore did feel a familiar gust of panic. He couldn’t make himself look at his own bodily fluid as it darkened the sample vial.
Mr. Rogers, your records from the hospitalization after your fall last Christmas tell us you’re blood type O. Dr. Thomson’s voice was needle thin, like his body. He focused on drawing the sample and spoke flatly without looking directly at Elmore. This sample will simply confirm that.
Elmore nodded his head wearily. In the last few years, he’d had a million needles stuck in him. Permanent scar tissue marred the crooks of both elbows.
I keep a picture of a porcupine, he told Dr. Thomson. It makes me horny.
Then, Elmore went back to sleep and dreamed about an old house where he tried and tried but couldn’t completely close the back door.
* * *
Five days in – the fifth night – Elmore felt more or less like himself again. He deplored the orange jumpsuit, but the fog had lifted, his headache had cleared, the cuts and aches had turned down the volume.
Then, Kelly Rogers walked into the police headquarters.
No, Kelly Rogers.
She didn’t knock. She didn’t ring the bell.
Somehow, Elmore knew it was her before he even turned over on his cot to see.
She wore a simple black shift, flat shoes. She had chopped her hair, badly, so it barely touched her dress collar. She looked pale, very thin.
She surprised Sheriff Neeley completely, and Dan actually reached one hand instinctively down for his pistol. Deputy Turnipseed’s wet cigar plopped into his broad lap.
“You,” Dan Neeley said firmly, “are not allowed here.”
“Yes, I am.”
Kelly’s voice held a challenge.
The room grew very quiet. A clock ticked. Somewhere out in the night, a driver blew a horn.
“Kelly, go home,” Dan Neeley said. “What good will this do?”
“We’ll see,” she answered. Not a hint of emotion showed in her remarkable face.
She went to Elmore’s cell. As he struggled off the cot, Elmore’s cheeks burned above the bright orange jump suit.
Sheriff Neeley’s voice carried a sharp warning.
She ignored old high-school Danny and held something out to Elmore, something in her hand, something in a wrinkled, white paper bag.
Elmore felt a million things at once. The old unfriendly headache slammed back into place between his temples. His heart threw itself against the bars of his ribcage. Elmore had an impulse to rip his own face off, so Kelly couldn’t see him this way, behind freezing steel, wearing the shame of orange.
Was Kelly real? Was she really standing there with a white paper bag in her hand, offering it gently?
“Go on, Elmore. Take it.” Her voice sounded hoarse, like it hadn’t been used much lately.
Her beautiful eyes made Elmore want to die.
And to live.
“Go on, El,” she whispered. “It’s for Mary and Will. And you.”
The sparkling glint of a tear appeared like a star in her eyes.
“I heard you fell …” Elmore managed to stammer.
He didn’t finish.
“JUMPED!” Sheriff Dan Neeley yelled from across the room. The officer stood now, finger pointing, shaking with anger. “She jumped, Elmore! Off the old Black Warrior trestle. Turnip dragged her sorry carcass to shore and she spent three days under a suicide watch, strapped to a bed so she wouldn’t try that shit again …”
Elmore noticed dark bruises on both Kelly’s wrists, livid red punctures up and down pale arms.
She turned her face to Neeley and answered. Kelly’s voice broke, but she kept her composure.
“Danny. Please. I’m out. Yesterday. I’m out. That’s over.”
The room again grew quiet. After a moment, Kelly turned to Elmore.
He couldn’t look back. He also couldn’t look away.
The story of my life, he thought.
“Take it, Elmore,” Kelly urged, her voice strained. She shook the white paper bag. “Put it in your house?”
Elmore snaked a hand slowly through the metal bars. He gripped the bag, holding it for just a moment at the same time as Kelly. It wasn’t heavy.
Kelly let go, then turned and walked toward the wide-open police-headquarters door without another word.
She never looked back.
The room felt very empty as the door closed.
No one spoke. A long time passed.
“Elmore,” Sheriff Neeley finally said, “I need to see what’s in that bag before I let you take it inside the cell.”
Elmore’s hand still clutched the sack in mid-air a foot outside the bars.
Dan Neeley gave a quick look. He closed the paper sack. He walked back to his desk, avoiding eye contact with Elmore or Deputy Turnipseed. He briskly lifted his duty jacket off the back of his wooden swivel seat. He donned his policeman’s cap and picked up his phone, and wordlessly walked out the door that Kelly had just taken.
Deputy Turnipseed stayed another uncomfortable moment, then made an exit, too. He needed to turn slightly sideways to ease himself through the door frame. He left an unfinished cigar smoldering in a Howard Johnson’s ashtray on his desk.
Elmore drew the paper bag in through the bars. He took one step back and sat on the cot without looking.
He took a deep breath and opened the gift.
The red-white-and-blue frame of the photograph held them all. Elmore and Kelly, hand-in-hand. Will and Mary, just toddlers. The adults wore church duds. The kids wore new Easter clothes and looked oddly like a little bride and groom.
All smiled in black-and-white. The camera mercifully lied, showing not a trace of the Rogers family’s profound troubles. Elmore’s level gaze gave no hint of unrelenting trauma. Kelly’s big, bright, Hollywood smile masked the haunting depression. The winning little faces of the twins beamed with life, their kiddy colic barely past.
Hours later, Elmore fell asleep holding the picture to his chest.