inertia1

Opelika

          The old man closed the stationhouse door on the drizzling sleet and turned to face the three officers. He was tall and burley with an aspect of hewn mahogany beneath his wet-brimmed felt hat. His head was tilted at an angle, and the coveralls he wore were faded to the color of carpenter’s chalk. His face was fallen and his eyes sad, but without subservience and some pilot light of fury yet burned behind the sorrow.
          Sergeant Backshider stepped forward.
          “I appreciate your coming down, Mr. Savors. Can I pour you a cup of coffee?”
          “You got my boy down here?” He drew a mint tin from the bib and opened it to reveal the makings. One-handed, he scooped tobacco shreds into a yellowish paper and began constructing a cigarette. All three officers watched in silence, but the prisoners back in the cell rooms were audible, their muted voices a cacophonic swirl.
          Ross Mizer set down his coffee and stood. His long lean body seemed to take minutes to rise.
          “Roosevelt, maybe you’d better come over here and have a seat. We got a complicated matter this time.” He was a corporal.
          “I’m fine. What’d he go and do?” Now he had produced a match from somewhere and snapped it to flame with his thumbnail. He smoked without altering the angle of his head, and drops of melt channeled down the rim and onto the scarred floor.
           The town of Opelika was not affluent. A railroad head halfway between Columbus and Montgomery, it boasted dozens of cotton warehouses and a few shops, most prominent the feed-seed-hardware of Winston Smith-T. But the citizenry had never felt the police needed luxurious accommodations. The swag-bellied woodstove sizzled and popped, and all the typewriters were still Underwood manuals. The gaps in the walls were covered with wanted posters, calendars and citations, including a framed commendation letter from newly-elected President Ford. The town itself took its name from an old Creek word for “swamp,” but it was high land and dry. Some said the word was less descriptive of the topography than the pervasive spirit of the place.
          “Is it the hellfire water again?” Savors spoke with the slow and deliberate enunciation that his race employed as both deference to and torture upon white people who assumed authority. “Since that Bunny Priester started stilling in the old school bus, seems the thirsty be the onliest ones can find him. Somebody shed they badge and skip a couple night’s toddy, maybe the radars would come on.”
          The other officer, a young and precisely groomed redhead, interrupted.
          “Old man, you got no call to put us on the criticism.” Backshider cut him off.
          “Mr. Savors, this here is Percy Dye, our new man. He’s sparkish and don’t yet know how we conduct business, do you Percy?”
          “I just never thought. . . .”
          “That’s enough Percy.”
          The tall policeman picked up a sheaf of papers from his desk and brandished them toward the old man, whose hands were huge and rough with nicks and callous. He owned some woodlands old Chief Priester had left him, and despite being in his seventies, he logged them, sawing and bucking, hiring a crew to haul the pulpwood out, splitting the oak himself to sell to Mr. Jim Beam’s people for stavewood. When he brought the roll-up to his mouth to take the smoke in, all three of the officers stared at that powerful right hand like the whole man was akin to a pistol, and this motion signified a cocking.
          “He was drunk again, you see,” began Mizer, “but it gets worse. He was bluesing that git box down at Ray’s Chinese, and there got to be a shoving match over a woman.”
          “White woman.”
          “Dye!”
          “A scuffle.”
          Savors turned to look each officer in the eye. “Hellfire water and guitar, some bad business. I tries to bring him into the woods to rive out the cedar shakes. He good with the rive, but he don’t take to labor. His mama say it’s the clay eating when he a chap, say it done twisted the brain some, but he still a good heart boy. You know that, boss Backshider. Rhetty don’t mean to hurt a soul.”
          “It gets worse.” Mizer stepped forward with the papers, but the old man waved them away.
          “What they say is this. He stormed on out with some hard words about a knife and Mitch O’Hara needing to watch his back. Then he walked by the First Frenzy Baptist where they had just gone inside from the weather after lighting up their manger scene. Dave Driggers saw Rhetty standing out there in the sleet, just staring at the shepherds and wise men and the plaster sheep. When the congregation came out to start their carol route, some little choir boy pointed out the virgin was gone.”
          "What, they think he messing with that holy woman?”
          “Here, take some of this coffee, Mr. Savors. Now listen. . . .” The sergeant was almost whispering. “Floyce down at the train station saw somebody fiddling around in the switchyard, bringing over something and “tussling it down. He guessed mischief to the tracks and put in a call. When I got there Rhetty was wrestling about with the Mary, trying to get her tied down to the tracks where the late freight to Montgomery would come through. It was like some scratchy old movie on a late night show – the weather slanting down, this half-lit bustling figure wrapping clothesline about a body. I went in with my pistol drawn, but when he saw me, he just tumped over backwards and sat there limp. I had to call back-up to get him in the cruiser.”
          “Can you lease him to me?”
           “It’s bond.” Dye again, smirking. “The magistrate set a thousand on him account of theft and trespass, public intoxication.”
           “Can you raise it?” The sergeant’s whisper was so low only the old man could hear him.
           “Gopherwood for the Noah ark and shittim for the coverment. Cedar for the churches. You work the wood, you hope it will protect you. You trust the Word, but then it rains hellfire water and the scarlet laughs of women. No, we don’t have no thousand dollars.”
           “So what will you do?”
“Reckon he’ll have to eat down here with you all for a spell while I figure. Can I see him now?”
           Walking down the cell corridor slowly as a procession, Savors could see the inmates, a pair arm wrestling, some focused on their cots, a huge bald white man clinging to the bars and hopping up and down as he made monkey sounds. At the end of the block in a dark cell, the boy sat slumped on the ladder-backed chair that was the only furniture save a rusty slopjar.
           “What you doing in here, son?”
           “Mr. Savors, I done scrambled up a mess.”
           He could see the dried blood on the boy’s scalp and the bluish circles where he was bruised about the eyes.
           “Who done this?”
           “The man.”
           “The man?”
           “The Man.”
           He turned to Backshider who rattled the keys and shook his head in denial. Through the broken glass of the corridor window the voices of Frenzy Baptist streamed in with “A Midnight Clear,” as if a serenade, as if a jestful and hearty chivaree.


R.T. Smith is the author of Messenger (LSU Press), Trespasser (LSU Press), Hunter-Gatherer (Livingston Press), Cardinal Heart (Livingston Press) and Split the Lark (Salmon Poetry). Forthcoming books include Brightwood (LSU Press). His work has appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, The Atlanta Review and The Irish Times. Smith edits Shenandoah.