Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Damage We Do To Ourselves

The Damage We Do To Ourselves

“Did you see that damn negro man twinkle-toeing down on the square today?” Wilson asked, slapping down a domino.

“No, can’t say that I did.”

Just like Chester, not much to say. He had sat there on Wilson’s porch every Sunday afternoon for 17 years, drinking his Makers and water, hardly putting a word to the wind.

“Yes sir. That ‘ole boy was down there putting money in peoples’ meters, dancing around like he was some kind of ballerina, he was. Yes sir, down there in a suit and a tie, twirling and swirling all around like he owned the goddamn place.”

Chester looked like he might break down and say something but no, he did not, he just sat there, looking off the porch to the empty street.
“Yes sir. Sheriff Ruford got wind of it while I was sitting down there at Martha’s place and did you know that it’s against the law—“
“You mean it’s against the law to put a goddamn quarter in a meter.”
“Well, it’s illegal to put change in other peoples’ meters so Sheriff Ruford goes up to ‘ole Twinkle-Toes and asks him what he thinks he’s doing. You know what he did?”

“…He just danced on to the next meter like Ruford wasn’t even there. You wouldn’t have believed that ‘ole boy.” Wilson let out a small grunt which he felt passed for a laugh.

“Yes sir. He just put another quarter in the next meter and went on to the next. Not sure, but I don’t think Ruford quite knew what to do with him. He just stared at that boy and followed behind him like an old hound dog. Yes sir. He had his scent alright but like I said, I don’t think he knew what to do. Finally, though, I saw Ruford take off them ‘ole sunglasses of his that he always wears and he tells that boy he’s under arrest.”

“Ha…Under arrest for following God’s Golden Rule,” Chester said and took another deep pull from his sweat coated glass.

The next morning, folks from all over Yondu County and beyond started pouring into tiny Meredith, Alabama, after rumor of the “Twinkle-Toes” incident spread. Some came in on church buses and promised to uphold this man’s civil rights. Others came into town in beat-up Volkswagen buses, having not showered in days, but they were there to fight the government they said. And others, well, they just saw it on the news and thought it might be worth the trip.

The local men, most not caring for the crowds themselves you see, found their way down to the square along with the rest of the people anyhow. And the courthouse stood there above all of them, a beacon of justice, facing the coast instead of the union, fresh white paint already chipping from its budgeted yearly facelift.

Yes sir, Wilson thought as he studied the crowd, a better bunch could not be brought together to defend this negro.

Wilson, standing there amid the crowd, looked fragile, almost childlike in his grey and white striped shirt which might have fit his frame at one time, but now just swallowed it. He wore his bright red bow tie and matching suspenders and looked so much like his father had that night he finally took Wilson out on one of his errands. They had come out to these very same courthouse steps which stood there in front of Wilson, and there was a crowd, but it was much smaller than the one now. And Wilson remembered his father standing next to him, as the man hung on an apparatus made especially for that purpose. Wilson had always found it funny that he could remember little details about the boy they hung that night, like the large scar behind his left ear, or the darker black skin he had under his left breast, but he never could remember what that boy had done to get himself hung. He thought, and he tested his 81-year-old memory one more time, but finally his concentration disintegrated into the sea of cadenced calls around him:

“FREE…FREE…FREE!”

“FREE THE METER KING,” the mobbed shouted in unison.

“Meter King,” Wilson scoffed.

He looked over at Chester, who as usual wore that blank expression which always left Wilson wondering if he had had a stroke. Chester had been born in Boston. Maybe they just looked that way, Wilson thought.

He tapped Chester’s shoulder and made a motion with his hand for Chester to follow him. However, when he saw that Sheriff Ruford had come out, Wilson stopped and Chester followed his cue once again. Ruford held his megaphone up to his mouth, screeched something metallic and waited for the crowd’s attention. After a couple more screeching false starts, Ruford finally began.
“Listen up! Listen up! I’m going to be brief. This man who’s the reason for all this; well, his name is James Applewhite, but most of you folks probably know him better as Twinkle-Toes. Well, you see, he ain’t the upstanding citizen that some of ya’ll think he is.” Ruford paused for effect, letting the thought sink in.
“Yep. This boy here has been convicted of two counts of sexual assault of a minor up there in Tallapoosa County.”

The crowd quieted. It appeared that no one in the mass had done their research, at least not well enough to dig up that fact. Wilson watched as almost instantaneously the throng deflated around him. Their rumbles lifted up but Ruford again quieted them with his deep, beckoning voice.
“Now! Now! He’s been on parole for 18 months and has decided to come into our town and set himself up a life. And that’s all fine and well as long as he follows our laws but…”

This time, Ruford’s pause was filled with hoots and hollers.
“Now, I’m not saying that he’s a bad guy. Frankly, I think he’s an alright fellar, but I still have a job to do and I gotta keep him in jail for the time being.”

With his words said, Ruford turned and his steel-straight posture, which won him the last election showed and he slowly, almost marching, made his way back inside the courthouse.

“That’s bullshit,” someone said. And another turned and asked, “This is the old south. What do you expect?” Their murmurs rose to a threatening buzz but the peaceful hippies and the church women weren’t looking for trouble.

“This is still the old south,” Wilson said under his breath, and he walked back against the crowd, leaving Chester standing there alone in a group of almost 10,000.

Well, sixty days passed there in Meredith and James Applewhite remained in a jail cell there in the back of the courthouse. The freaks, as Wilson thought of them, went on to the next outrage, leaving behind them loads of garbage and notions about justice, which, to the untrained eye seemed to have been left on the ground along with those pounds of trash.

After the words Sheriff Ruford addressed the crowd with on that Monday morning almost two months ago, all sympathy in the town died right along with the warmth and the color which fall had brought on. Winter came and the hushed voices in the street told the story of a town reverted, a small rural town gone back to ways which can only be described by their courthouse. It still stood with its back to the north. It was painted as white as ever.

Wilson and Chester hadn’t changed much in those two months, themselves, and on this particular day, Wilson was eating Martha’s famous fried green tomatoes when he spotted “Twinkle-Toes” coming down the courthouse steps.
“Look at that,” Wilson called, standing and parting the blinds to get a better look. “That’s that ‘ole boy now. What’s he doing?”

Chester and a couple of other men turned to see but none of them ventured to answer, so Wilson stepped outside into the cool southern winter. As Wilson stepped out onto the sidewalk, he saw many others doing the same. Morgan Watsley, from the barbershop, walked out with his hairpiece slanted down towards his eyes as if he had been napping in one of his chairs again, and Wilson could just make out Jim Erickson across the square, from Jim’s Hardware, carrying what looked to be a hammer in his hand. From all the businesses on the square, people came out to see this man, this myth, and watch; some came out to make sure their eyes hadn’t been deceived by the thin panel of glass which separated their sheltered lives from the outside world, while others, well, they simply followed the rest.

“Hey boy! Hey Twinkle-Toes! I’m talking to you,” Wilson hollered across the street, breaking the silence.

Mr. Applewhite just stood there, looking nowhere and at no one, wearing the same wrinkled blue and white checked suit he had gone to jail in, holding what looked like a small cotton bag off to his left side.

“Hey boy! You gonna be picking us some cotton this morning?”

Applewhite looked straight at Wilson, matching Wilson’s stare with one meaner and yet, softer still. He took two steps toward Wilson and jumped, doing a perfect pirouette, followed by a brisĂ© volĂ©. The whole crowd gasped and Wilson saw Jim drop his hammer and watched as the toupee fell from Morgan Watsley’s head.

“Can you believe this?” Wilson asked and no one answered.

As the men and women looked on, Applewhite went right on over to the parking meters and began inserting coins from his cotton bag, never once breaking from his incredible dance. As James jumped and moved gracefully from one meter to another; Wilson continued hurling obscenities at him.
Before long though, Sheriff Ruford emerged onto the steps of the courthouse with his megaphone, and even Wilson couldn’t help but stop and see what he had to say this time.

“Listen up! I am only going to say this once. Mr. Applewhite that is a crime which you are committing as I stand here watching you. You know what you’re doing and I can take you into custody, if I should choose. Now, for the rest of you, I’d like it if all of you just went back inside. Go on in there. Go on and finish your hair cuts and eat your lunches. There ain’t no show here. It seems that this here has just been a case of mistaken identity up in Tallapoosa County. This man; well this man here seems to be innocent if only he’d just follow the parking laws,”

The crowd around Wilson chuckled, upon hearing this joke a second time, and Wilson stood there unable to believe what he was hearing. That negro. That…That… Just then, he hissed “Nigger” as loud, if not louder than he thought possible. His neighbors and his parish members, some of whom he had known their entire lives, these people craned their necks, but they already knew who had said it. It was Wilson, with his narrow mind, living in the past. Yes, of course, they thought in unison, it was Wilson.

He saw their looks and tried to go back to his fried green tomatoes like Ruford had told them to do, but two men blocked his path.

“What? You all got a problem with Southern ideals all of a sudden?” Wilson screamed at the two men.

“No sir. We don’t have a problem with Southern ideals,” Chester said from behind him. “We just got a problem with your ideals. Now why don’t you get on out of here and take yourself back on home.”

Wilson didn’t know what to say. If he wasn’t welcome there at Martha’s he’d sure go on ahead and take his leave. He turned from his former friends and began to walk away when Chester called out after him, “And don’t be expecting me on your porch this Sunday, or any other Sunday for that matter. I got my own whiskey at home and I’d rather drink it there by myself.”
The men, sitting around Martha’s, laughed a quick laugh at Wilson’s expense before they walked back inside to get out of the chill, and Wilson, well, Wilson walked on out to his car where a freshly written forty dollar ticket sat underneath his driver-side wiper blade, just waiting for his wrinkled hands to grab.

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My name is Shane Stricker and I am currently working on an MFA at West Virginia University. I grew up in Sikeston, Missouri and spent a good deal of time over the summers down in Oxford, MS. I live here in Morgantown, WV with my dog, Boogie, and my fiance, Bizzy. Good beer (preferably Boulevard from Kansas City), baseball games, and reading and writing fiction hold my attention like nothing else.

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