By Jim H. Ainsworth
© 2005 Jim H. Ainsworth
The flash of jagged lightning ejected Spooner Hays as it streaked the dark, wet sky. His long, lithe form fell from the courthouse roof like an unworthy sacrifice refused by an angry storm god. Spooner’s normal strength and agility failed him as he grabbed for a handhold on the mossy ledge. The courthouse oak tree seemed to rise up out of the black dirt to gather him in its arms. Ribs cracked as the first limb greeted him, sending sharp slivers of bone into a lung. The tree’s limbs and leaves swayed with each wind gust, making Spooner appear to fall in slow motion.
On most summer nights, the scream and the noise of breaking branches would have pierced still, heavy air and carried deep into downtown Cooper, Texas. On this night, the sounds were drowned by gusting wind and driving rain. Spooner collided with a dog wallow on the Delta County courthouse lawn as if it were a bull’s-eye painted in the mud. The lawn had just had its first good drink in more than six years, so water stood in the dog wallow. His body bounced a little as streams of brown liquid splashed up from the puddle. Blood from the pierced lung made a gurgling sound in Spooner’s throat. Weak bubbles from labored breathing appeared in the muddy water, floated, and burst.
If it had not been storming, someone might have seen the fall. A block away, the Sparks Theater marquee on Cooper’s downtown square announced The Searchers, starring John Wayne, but the single showing had been over for hours. Nocturnal teenagers of summer should have been gathered on car fenders around the square until the wee hours of morning on this Northeast Texas summer night. The rain had sent them to shelter, using dried and cracked windshield wipers that had not been wet for years. Nobody seemed to see or hear the sickening thud and splash from the mud puddle. People were already home in bed, sleeping to the rare rhythm of rainfall beating on rooftops—dreaming peacefully about a possible end to the six-year drought. Pots and pans had been placed on floors and tables to catch water from leaky roofs. When it never rained, repairing roofs had seemed to be a waste of time.
Spooner Hays lay on the courthouse lawn, his arms splayed as if he were trying to fly. Nobody saw his blank stare as rain fell in one ear and mud oozed into the other. If there had been a courthouse clock, it would have struck twice as his heart took its final beat.
Sheriff Toy Roy Robbins’ huge hands pushed the door of the cell open and carried Gray Boy Rivers’ limp body inside. Bedbugs scattered as he eased Gray onto the cot. Gray opened one eye and moaned as a roach made its way across his cheek. He slapped it away and rolled off to the floor.
Toy closed the cell door. “It’s for your own good, Cuz.” The sheriff’s gravelly voice echoed and bounced off the walls and floor. “Your daddy finds out what you been up to tonight, he’ll likely whip both our asses.”
“What time is it?” Gray’s words were thick.
“It was midnight when I got the call to come to the square.”
“I’m all right now, Toy. How about just lettin’ me go on home? I’m done with trouble for tonight.” Gray Boy hated the pleading tone in his voice.
“You’re done, all right. You’re stewed and tattooed. What you been drinkin’, anyway?”
“Just had a few beers.”
“You had more than a few, else you mixed it with some of Wheeler’s rotgut. Something hit you like a ton of bricks as soon as you got in the seat of my car. I ain’t about to let you drive that sickle home tonight.” Toy leaned his forehead against the cell door. “You’d likely kill yourself or somebody else. ‘Sides, it’s raining like a cow pissin’ on a flat rock.”
Gray Boy was getting sicker by the minute. His voice was slurred and barely audible. “How many times I got to tell you, Toy. It’s a motorcycle, not a sickle. What did you do with it? You know it ain’t paid for.”
“I parked it outside. Ain’t nobody gonna bother it.”
“I can’t afford insurance. Somebody steals it, I’m shit outta luck.”
Rube Carter, deputy sheriff and jailer, stuck his double chin out of his office and looked down the row of cells. “What’d he do now, Sheriff?”
Sheriff Robbins glanced back at his jailer. “Drunk on the square. Got reports about him drivin’ that sickle like a bat outta hell, too, but I didn’t catch him doin’ that.”
Rube pursed his big lips. “Too easy for them young boys to get likker, if you ask me.”
“Probably went across the Red River to get it—else a bootlegger—Wheeler, most likely.” Toy’s voice softened. “Looks like he might have been in another fight, too.” Toy leaned his huge bulk against the cell door and threaded his hammer-handle fingers through the slots. “Don’t understand you, Cuz. Barely out of high school and been fightin’ and drinkin’ since graduation day. You wadn’t raised to carry on like you been doin’.” No answer came from the cell. “Can’t you at least sit up on that cot? Hate to see you just lay in the floor.” Toy turned and walked toward Rube, shaking his head. “If the Good Lord had seen fit to give me that boy’s body and looks and about half his charm, I’d be spending my time in bed with some young, pretty thang, instead of on a jailhouse cot.”
The Delta County Jail sat atop the stark courthouse like an outhouse on a hilltop. A roof top walkway surrounded the jail. The jailer’s office and the back stairway door marked one end of the narrow hall in front of the filthy cells. The rooftop walkway marked the other end. Gray Boy heard Toy’s lumbering footsteps trudge down the back stairs. He pressed his cheek to the cool and moist concrete floor of his cell. Keeping his head still eased the nausea a little. If he could make it past this feeling, Gray vowed never to mix Wheeler’s cheap whiskey with beer again. In fact, he’d never touch the whiskey again. He needed time to recover before deciding how to get out of this mess. From his position on the floor, he looked through the bars to the other cells, straining to see a pair of legs or any sign of other prisoners. There were none. Good. The fewer people who knew he was in jail, the better.
The rough edges on the concrete floor were making small pinpoint pricks in his cheek when he awoke. I must have passed out. The nausea returned as he lifted his head, but he had to get up. No telling what this floor has had on it. He tried not to think about the Dairy Queen chili cheeseburger he had consumed after Jake’s baseball game. Its dead carcass was probably somewhere in the cell with him, but he could not remember and was grateful for that.
Threading his fingers through the holes in the cell door, he raised himself to a sitting position and leaned his face against the steel latticework. The cool, rough hardness of metal felt good to his forehead. He tried not to think about the other heads that had leaned where his was now. The overlaid strips of steel on the cell door reminded him of the sugary layers of cinnamon crust on his mother’s apple pies. He loved those pies, but the thought made him sicker. He needed to lie back down, but he was sober enough to be unwilling to lay his cheek on the floor again. The cot, with its bedbugs, was not an option. Did I hear voices, or was it just the alcohol? A dream maybe, or just the rain pounding on the roof?
“Well, he finally woke up.” Gray Boy opened his eyes at the voice and looked up enough to recognize Rube Carter’s dirty shoes. The heels were worn down so much that Rube was walking on the sides.
“Get away, Rube. I don’t need any of your bullshit tonight.”
Rube grunted as he leaned down to look into Gray Boy’s face. “You lookin’ kinda green there, pretty boy. Still cocky though, ain’t ye’? Always lettin’ that alligator mouth of yours overload your hummingbird ass. From the looks of you, somebody got tired of it.”
Gray managed to move his body enough to feint a move toward Rube. The fat jailer flinched and moved back a little. “Nervous about somethin’, Rube? Go get Toy on the radio. I’m sick and I need to go home.”
Rube leaned against the wall away from the cell and jingled the keys that dangled from his belt loop. He blew air from his nose and made a half-sneeze sound in his throat, the sound he always made when he was angry or nervous. He pulled the club he carried on his belt and ran it across the cell bars. “Don’t think so. Sheriff Robbins finally went to bed, after you kept him up most of the night.”
“What time is it?”
“Close to three, I guess. It ain’t time for you to get out yet.” Rube turned to walk away.
“Who was that I heard talking earlier?” Gray kept his eyes down and held his hand against his forehead, quelling the urge to heave.
The jailer walked back and stood in front of Gray’s cell. “You been unconscious on that floor for a long time. Probably had a whiskey dream.”
Moving his hands higher in the latticework of the cell door, Gray Boy raised himself enough to stand. Trying to regain his composure before making direct eye contact, he stared at Rube’s thin, white-turning-yellow shirt, trying not to notice the remnants of several meals that decorated the front or the brown rings under the armpits. A missing button caused Rube’s big, hairy stomach to poke through the gap, revealing a navel that was probably butchered by an untrained midwife. Gray Boy swallowed hard to control the vomit reflex. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Bullshit. I know I heard voices.”
Rube put his large hands against the cell door and leaned in closer to Gray. His eyes became slits. “You listen to me, Boy. Drunk as you were when Toy brought you in here, I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard the devil hisself.” Rube turned and walked toward his office.
Gray Boy’s cloudy gaze followed Rube as he walked down the hall. The gluttonous jailer had fed the cheeks of his ass so well that they rose above his belt loops. It looked as if he had stuffed a sack full of cotton in each side of his pants. “I may have a little ass, but it’s better than hauling around that load you carry. How does one man put that much lard on one ass?” Shouting at Rube drained what little energy Gray Boy had, and he slid down again. The flash of anger had made blood rush to his head, making it pound and slosh like a rolling watermelon. He leaned against the cell door and breathed in gasps, trying to get past the nausea. He did not pass out this time, but welcome sleep gave him temporary relief.
He awoke again with the side of his head against the cell door. The taste and feel of stomach acid as he ran his tongue across his teeth reminded him of where he was and how he got there. He looked under the cots in the adjoining cells again. Nothing. Smelling his own sour breath, he slapped his shirt pocket looking for a stick of Doublemint. Nothing. “Anybody here?” The pelting of raindrops was his only answer.
Everyone knew that Toy seldom locked the cell door when a minor was thrown in his jail. There might be a fire, and the sheriff did not want a dead boy’s burned body on his conscience. Such a thing would surely kill a sheriff’s chances of getting re-elected. Gray Boy put his shoulder against his cell door, but it did not move. He shoved harder. A loud squeak from the door drifted down the hallway as the door moved a few inches. The squeak echoed and hung in the heavy air. Another push gave him enough room to squeeze through.
Light from the jailer’s office cast a pale yellow glow down the gray concrete hall that ran beside the cells. Gray Boy saw his reflection in the checkerboard shadow of the cell door. His wet loafers squeaked as the eased down the hall toward the light. He knew the courthouse well. If he could get past Rube’s office to the back stairway, he was almost home. No way Rube could catch him. He wasn’t really escaping, just trying to buy some time to get over being sick from mixing beer and whiskey. Toy Roy will understand.
Gray Boy focused on the door to the back stairway and walked toward the light from the jailer’s office. Toy had tossed the huge jail-cell keys across Rube’s desk, and they had formed what appeared to be a cross. Gray felt a little silly as he imagined a vampire in pursuit and himself as the hero escaping from the dark castle. He pulled the keys to the back stairway door from their usual hook just inside Rube’s office. He opened the door and stared down the dark steps that would take him all the way to the basement. From there, it would be easy to find his way through the hallways that led outside. He laid the keys softly on the floor and headed down the stairs.
Halfway down, he remembered the baseball. Was it still lying on the smelly cot? He remembered having the ball when Toy Roy had arrested him, but everything was fuzzy after that. As he turned to go back up, the door to the outside walkway creaked open. Even dimwit Rube would notice an open cell door and wet footprints. It was too late to return. Forsaking quietness for quickness, he put both hands against the walls in the narrow stairway to brace himself as he took the steps two at a time. There was no light in the claustrophobic stairway and no handrails, but he knew the turns well. He and his friends had sneaked up the stairs many times to peek in on trials in the district courtroom. Gray was still dizzy, but the musty smells of the stairway were almost pleasant compared to the stench in the jail. The prospect of freedom, even if it was temporary, made the fogginess in his head start to go away. He was close enough to almost feel the little Mustang under him, rain and wind in his face, speeding down state highway 24 toward home. He could be there in less than ten minutes.
The bottom floor of the courthouse was half above ground, half below. Like the jail on top, the bottom floor was surrounded by an open walkway just below ground level. Exterior concrete walls held the earth at bay. Even in the middle of drought, it always had the smell of wet dirt and disinfectant. Basement floor office windows looked out on the bottoms of shrubs and the roots of small trees that had struggled to ground level in search of water. Concrete steps at each corner of the walkway led to the courthouse lawn. The place was a favored hangout for hobos and varmints. Gray Boy felt safer as the fresh fragrance of rain hit him, but he stopped short when something moved against the concrete outside wall.
Bo Creekwater was huddled in a corner against the wall, partially sheltered from the rain. He covered his head with his hands and arms, cowering like a kicked dog. A security light on the side of the courthouse provided just enough light for Gray Boy to see him. Bo’s pant legs and brogan shoes were soaked, but the wall had kept his upper body dry. His high cheekbones and straight black hair suggested Indian ancestry, but the broad nose and large lips were more common to Negroes.
“Don’t you have enough sense to come in out of the rain, Bo?” Gray Boy was not happy to see his retarded friend. “You’re ten steps away from a roof, dumb-ass. Get under it.” Gray felt a twinge of guilt for his impatience. “Why ain’t you home, anyway?”
“Bigmomma sick. I be stayin’ with Toy Roy at the jail, uh huh.”
Gray Boy did not hear the answer. He took the four steps to ground level in two bounds and stepped out into the full force of the wind and rain. The Mustang was parked where Toy Roy had promised it would be. He jumped to clear the dark spot that he assumed was a shadow, but something solid caught his foot. He fell hard beside the dog wallow puddle. “What the hell?” Bracing himself with both hands, he pushed out of the mud and looked around to see what he had stumbled over. The oak tree blocked the security light, making it too dark to see more than an outline of Spooner’s body.
Trembling, Gray Boy crouched and moved close enough to put his hand on Spooner’s back. He shook him. “You hurt, Spooner?” No answer. “What’re you doing out here in the mud? You drunk?” Gray Boy heard the sound of an approaching car and moved behind the tree. There was just enough reflection from the car’s lights to illuminate Spooner’s face. The only dead people Gray Boy had ever seen had their eyes closed, but he knew what that blank, wide-eyed stare meant.
The nausea returned. He heaved, but nothing came up. Mud burned his knuckles where the skin had been knocked off. Drained again, he sat down in the mud to stare at Spooner’s body. Another approaching car sent a torrent of fear and adrenalin through him, and he began to shake. I’m not afraid—just wet and sick. He looked in all directions to see if anyone was watching. The rain and gusting wind forced him to close his eyes. I can’t help you now, Spooner. He pushed his hand down in his jeans for the key to the Mustang.
Jake Rivers’ eyes popped open. Something was wrong. He rubbed his eyes and allowed them time to adjust. The blue glow-in-the-dark hands and dots on the chocolate-brown face of his birthday Timex showed a little past three. His feet touched something wet as he pushed out of his feather bed to pull on some jeans. In the excitement of the night before, he had left his wet Little League uniform hanging on the cane-bottomed chair by his bed. Water was dripping on a bare spot where a piece of linoleum had worn away and was running down the unlevel floor before disappearing under his bed. Careful not to drag his feet across the splintery wood floor, he draped the uniform over his skinny bare shoulder, pushed open the screen door, and walked barefooted along the front porch.
Gusts from the southeast brought rain around the corner of the porch, slapping the lightning rods against the tall house. The loose rods made an out-of-tune sound like the cymbals Jake had been forced to play in the rhythm band at school. Those days were behind him now—kid stuff. Mattie required him to hang his wet or smelly clothes on the front porch rail to dry and air out until her next trip to the washateria on Rainey Hill. Careful to avoid the holes where boards had rotted away, he draped his uniform across the porch rail and faced his number 9 toward the road. It was almost a quarter mile down the driveway to Texas state highway 24, but Jake wanted his number to show, just in case someone dropped by before he got up the next morning.
He looked east, traveling in his mind’s eye the three miles to Klondike and five miles farther to Cooper and the baseball diamond where it had happened. A gust full of rain chilled him a little and wet his just-dried burr. The porch wouldn’t protect the uniform from all of the rain, but at least it wouldn’t be dripping on the floor.
A dog-run hall split the Rivers’ house into two parts—kitchen and living room on the east and bedrooms on the west. Jake’s bedroom was on the north end of the hall. His father had added a porch bedroom on the south end when Tuck had been born three years before. Tuck had slept in a small bed beside his parents in that room until he was big enough to join Jake in the dog-run.
Still shoeless and shirtless, Jake tiptoed down the hall and looked into the bedroom that he had once shared with Gray and knew what was wrong. His older brother was not in his bed. Gray’s motorcycle had not been parked in its usual place when Jake and his parents arrived after the ballgame, but Jake thought it might be in the abandoned dairy barn. Down the dark hall, his parents were still asleep in their porch bedroom, the only new part of the century-old house. Jake knew that his father would be up in less than an hour. A dairyman’s habits die hard. Jake shivered a little at the thought of his father rising before Gray Boy came home.
Jake sighed, hoping his mother might hear, but she did not stir. He wished for his sister, but Trish had headed toward Commerce to pick up her husband as soon as the game was over. They were probably close to their home in Houston by now. Mattie had hung a cloth curtain across the dog-run to allow Jake some privacy. He closed the curtain and pulled the light chain above his bed. The naked bulb harshly lighted the narrow bedroom, creating shadows in every corner. Jake knew it probably wasn’t there, but he looked under each pillow and the feather mattress, anyway. He was certain that his brother had recovered the only ball Jake had ever hit out of the park. Gray would surely bring it when he came.
It had been only a few hours since that homerun, but Jake felt that his life had already changed for the better. He felt older than his twelve years and more confident. Laying his jeans on an arm of the chair, he reached for the light chain again. The gold-colored plating on a picture frame flickered in the corner of his eye. Why did it always do that—calling him to look when he did not want to. The picture had become his mother’s proudest possession—a reminder of when her life had been whole.
Before Tuck died, Jake would pick up the snapshot of the Rivers siblings and melt into his little brother’s eyes and thoughtful smile. Trish’s jaunty, welcoming smile made him feel better when he was down. With Trish married and moved to Houston and Tuck in a lonely grave at Klondike, they seemed to be fading from the photograph, leaving Jake alone with his older brother.
Jake and Gray had the Rivers’ dark skin and almost black eyes, but the similarities ended there. Gray, his penny-colored complexion framed against a white tee shirt, flashed an engaging, dimpled smile that made one want to crawl in the picture and be close to him. Gray Boy Rivers treated life like it was a lemon tree. He selected a new lemon every day, squeezed every drop out of it, and made lemonade.
Jake, skinny and shirtless, had a forced, gap-toothed smile in the picture that portrayed his lack of confidence. Much as he tried, Jake figured he would never measure up to his older brother. Before pulling the chain, he checked for Tuck’s impression in the mattress. It wasn’t there. It had been gone for several nights now. Maybe Tuck’s work was done. Maybe the homerun ended it. Light out and head against the pillow, he heard the Mustang roar into the driveway and pull into the dairy barn. Jake could sleep now. He thought again of the homerun and softly mouthed, “Thanks, Tuck.”
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