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After I got home from graduation, I found a check in my mailbox for $2760. The payer overpaid by about $2500, and I was supposed to Western Union the latter sum to Malaysia. For research purposes (I am writing a story about fraud, as you’ll notice), I engaged a couple of these asshat scammers. Just a reminder to look out for this stuff.
Speaking of fraud, get a load of this guy:
He lived in my hometown, but he was put away for swinging that sword at someone. If you take away the sword, he looks like a really nice guy.
Jerry lay in her lap and with her fingers she combed his hair which twisted with pubic tundra below. She gave him looks of adoration. He looked across the room at his pager, which quivered beneath a crumpled shirt, turned his head to kiss her naval. Then he got up and threaded his legs into his boxers.
“You’re not staying the night?”
“No, I gotta work.” He snapped a match for her cigarette and shook it out.
“At the garage?” She exhaled a double-barreled plume at him.
“It’s two in the morning.”
“You were just gun’ go to sleep anyway.”
The one mechanic in Decatur who worked a graveyard shift, and… who’d ever heard of such a thing? Such a hard worker. Like a got-damned doctor. She remembered a rhyme about him:
There was a man from Decatur
Who still cain’t afford a potater
He slept on a cot
While his wife was got
By her rabbit foot vibrator
He was with Juanita these days with the intention of marriage. For now, he had to cuddle up with a newly spliced Audi and God knows what else waiting for him at the shop.
He pogosticked into his greasy jeans and grunted. “Don’t worry so much.”
There she lay on her side, knock-kneed above the covers, resting her temple on the heel of her hand behind a thick mop of black hair. He could tell there’d be little shrift for this. She stood and wandered in front of the mirror, one hand hiking and pressing the bed sheet to her collarbone and the other pulling the hair from her face and into a ponytail. Jerry buttoned his shirt hurriedly.
She shuffled over to him and took over. “Here.”
He looked up from his shirt after she realigned his shirt buttons. “Thanks.”
She turned, but he caught her arm.
“I said thanks.”
She let the bed sheet drop and stood akimbo in front of him. “Well go on then…” with a wave of her hand, but then a deliberate “but if you were up for… another…” and he’s harder than folding a fitted sheet on his ass kicking out of his jeans and underwear belt flopping change jingling on the floor with three buttons torn off his shirt and inside her again.
Jerry’s car sputtered at the Sonic drive-in. He had been working for three hours since he left Juanita Ruth’s. He set his coffee between his stiffening legs, tore open a packet of sugar and emptied three creams into his coffee, backed out casually and drove to the garage.
Back at his bay, his partner eyed the Audi. “The rear doors don’t line up like they’re spose to.”
“Should I call Barry, tellim it ain’t worth it?”
Jerry winced. “No. Gimme a few hours–just need to coax it.” The car looked shitty, but he figured a new coat of paint, bump out a few dents and she’s golden.
“How much ‘d this one go for?”
“Mm dunno…five, six hundred tops.”
“pff…How much we makin on this one?”
“I dunno. Maybe a couple grand.”
“You know, that’s gonna go for at least twenty-five.”
“Yeah.” Jerry walked underneath the Audi and drew the crack between the front and back doors into his line of sight. “Well, this one is off by about… mmm… three eighths. I’m tryin to get it down to one. That oughta be good enough. No one’ll see it. Hell, they hardly come off the lot that good anymore.”
“You got a new title?”
“Nah, Claude’s takin care of that.” Jerry could smell the green he was about have. Something to look forward to. Things had been slower of late, but earlier that year he’d been making four thousand a week. Now the process was longer. He had to paint the Audi now, which was a new requirement. “Gotta fade out nice and even,” his boss told him.
Before Judd Collision had hired him, he’d been a regular mechanic—that is, he struggled to get by. He managed it by working nights down at the Walmart stocking milk. Probably why his wife left him.
When he accepted the job at Judd Collision, he knew what he was getting into. Well, some of what he was getting into.
In the nineties, the State of Alabama remained curiously silent on the matter of totaled cars and their titles. There was no law on the books that said you couldn’t get a new title for a totaled car. In other states, you have to get a rebuilt-wreck title for a chopped car and provide the buyer with pictures detailing its damages. And in other states, the going price for a rebuilt-wreck is half price.
Of course, a full-scale “total,” in the traditional sense, implies that a car’s worth has been compromised by its repair needs. As it happens, a wrecked car’s estimate only needs to be two-thirds of its value. Consider: A recently wrecked client will go for the most expensive repair on their insurance—it’s just a fact of human nature that you want things done right, and higher prices are good indicators, right?—and the garages and body shops will insist on getting a new paint job to keep the entire car the same color, as the paint must fade evenly. Moreover, the costs to get the car in shape, structurally or otherwise, aren’t the only expenses. There are expenses of keeping the client in a rental car, which can get pricey considering the age of the client is often under twenty-five.
But in Alabama, there was little accountability. You could get a new title and sell the thing and the customer would be none the wiser. That was the racket and it was one hundred percent legitimate. And tens of thousands of totaled cars from all over the world were brought to one man: Barry Judd. Or to everybody under him, simply, The Boss. More often than not, when his name was invoked by one of his Delta thugs, his name sounded like “Bozz” which was sometimes perverted to “Buzz.”
He had many names.
Jerry worked for the Bozz, though he hadn’t seen him since he was hired on. Bozz lived in Birmingham, where he ran his other businesses; not least among these was a car dealership. Jerry and Steve were just a couple of gravyless body guys when Buzz recruited them. And so they kept their heads down and did what they were told, because to them, not broke was rich.
The Bozz was related to Jerry. Distantly anyway. That’s how he’d landed the job.
As Jerry winched the car down. Alice Cooper snarled on the radio.
We got no class.
We got no principals.
“She looks alright,” Steve decided into his coffee mug. “I’m gonna go get some sleep.”
Jerry nodded. He wiped his hands on a grease rag, his brow on his sleeve and dragged his feet to the bathroom to Lava up.
When he emerged, two suits were outside paying a tow driver. The vehicle in tow looked to be what once was a blue Pontiac GTO. It’s front end was compacted like wadded up tinfoil, and the busted windshield lay in its bent-up hood like scattered pearls.
“She’s a tight little mother,” said one of the men. “But when a driver cain’t handle her, then…” He smiled a little at his partner.
“Mhm…think there’s any engine damage?”
“Hell if I know. We make the wrecks. We don’t appraise ‘n fix em.”
“Do y’all have the claim yet?”
“No. Say, you bin up all night?”
“Take a load off. She ain goin nowhere… you slavin sumbitch.”
“I was about to anyway.”
“Well go’ne then.”
So he did. As he pulled away, he watched the tow truck lower the GTO onto the asphalt. What a waste of a beautiful car. His uncle Buzz had orchestrated this, another profitable racket. The two suits who’d wrecked the car were both ex-NASCAR drivers, who squeezed regular drivers out of their cars and money.
Now, Buzz had two irons in the fire, so to speak, which gave him a nice little empire: Auto sales and insurance fraud. He collected on both, that is. And the wrecked car in question had the marks of a staged collision. It once contained a human being, who was driving in the far right lane behind who he thought was an honest person in a beater car. Next thing he knew, another car pulled even with this human being, and the beater car ahead of him stopped abruptly, causing the human being to rear-end the beater car.
The human being in the GTO happened to die, and evidences of death lurked for Jerry beneath the carpeting. The blood had been wiped but not too well. It was not supposed to happen that way, but this foolish driver had had the gall to keep a rather large metal statue of St. Christopher mounted on his steering wheel. Which, upon impact, punctured the driver’s jugular, killing him in seconds.
Such was the nature of the business from which Jerry pulled a paycheck. “If you don’t like these principals, I’ve got others”—or so the saying goes….
Enough has already been said, perhaps, since the beginning of civilization, but allow me to tell you a few things about
Dante Alighieri placed the fraudulent in the eighth circle of his Inferno. There are only nine circles—ten if you count Limbo, which some people do. In the circle of the fraudulent, there are a series of ten ditches, or pockets, called Malebolge. Dante took thirteen cantos to negotiate the Malebolge, which amounts to roughly 40% of the poem, so there was short shrift for the rest of the damned (no shrift for any of them, actually). Each ditch of the Malebolge contains specific types of fraudulent souls: seducers and panderers, flatterers, simonists, diviners, grafters, hypocrites, thieves, evil counselors, schismatics, and falsifiers. Beyond the Malebolge lies Satan himself, with his triumvirate of traitors beneath him lodged in ice. Dante had much interest in fraud, or in punishing them, or both.
Seven hundred years later, a woman named Jessica Smith walked into a church service and sat down on the back pew. She joined the church. At a women’s prayer breakfast, she stayed late and told her life story to the pastor’s wife. At the age of eighteen, she was engaged to the love of her life. The wedding was planned and paid for, but a week before their wedding, her husband fell off a motorboat and the propeller shredded him to a pulp. Devastated, she fell into a great depression. As if that wasn’t enough, a month later, Jessica had a stroke. As the doctors were about to unplug her, she woke up and had a vision from God, telling her to work overseas. At which time, she went to college and majored in Middle Eastern Studies. Upon graduation, the first Bush administration hired her to rebuild the infrastructure of Kuwait, where Jessica alleged a third of the women were raped by Iraqi soldiers.
After her stint in Iraq, Jessica returned to the U.S. and became passionate about the civil war in Sudan. At this time, she set up a project, called IMPACT Sudan, dedicated to educating women and children in ways that their oppressive, Islamic government would not allow. She drew up plans for schools and hospitals, projected financial needs, and so on. Additionally, she was raising money for the release of human slaves, which could be bought and released for around thirty American dollars. She had liaisons in the White House, including Clinton himself and, on a more personal level, Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of the state at that time. She had met with Albright and Clinton, and was working with the UN and other organizations to help the refugees.
Well the pastors’ wife told her husband, and he arranged for Jessica to speak in front of his rather large and opulent congregation. Jessica spoke with passion for and dedication to Christ, moving the hearts of the people to give. As IMPACT Sudan grew, she spoke at more churches in the area. She even developed a board of church members who would administrate the fundraising for IMPACT Sudan whenever she made trips to Sudan to help. It went on like this for about three years.
On one of these trips, she was flying in a Blackhawk chopper, when the chopper was suddenly clipped by a mortar and sent careening to the ground. Thankfully, by God’s grace, the pilots were able to land the chopper, and all thirty passengers were safe. God’s work was being done, His will and purpose for Sudan unshakable.
Wait. Did you get that? All thirty passengers. Blackhawk choppers only hold fifteen soldiers, tops. Most who knew better let this inaccuracy slide off their shoulders with a healthy shrug—prolly wasn’t a Blackhawk, but one of them big passenger choppers…she’s just a woman, anyway. However, one woman got suspicious, and this woman had liaisons at the White House too, so she called. Nobody by the name Jessica Smith had ever visited the White House, or had any contact with the president or the secretary of state.
When the board confronted Jessica on these matters, they gave her the option of resigning. She then sent out a letter to all who were on the mailing list, apologizing for “giving misleading information” about her relationships with President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright, and tendering her resignation.
The board investigated further and found that none of the four hundred thousand dollars had ever made it to Sudan. In fact, no one in Sudan had ever heard of IMPACT Sudan. In the meantime, Jessica split. No one knows where she is, but we can bet she’s in a safer and nicer place than Sudan. So much for slaves and refugees….
Then there is the story of Eric Chevalier.
This man had a fierce and insatiable fetish for thick, muscular legs—especially the legs of female soccer players. Perhaps the fetish was rooted in an evolutionary link in his brain, which linked the leg’s thickness and curvature to the strongest, the healthiest, and the best suited for childbirth. Or there was the Freudian approach: as an infant, little Eric took four whole years to learn how to walk, thus prolonging his exposure to his mother’s legs—which were thunderous in their own right—and being the physical quality par excellence that raised a tent in his trousers. Or there was the explanation that, as a child, nobody ever held him. Moreover, in the absence of such security, he only always longed for a strong pair of stems to clamp down on him like a vise during lovemaking. Or whatever.
He would attend high school soccer games across central Texas, garbed in a nylon training suit and holding a clipboard with notes on certain girls. He’d find the best one—that is, the one with the most shapely and thick legs—and tell her he was a scout for the new women’s professional soccer league. He would then contact the parents, who were usually vain enough to believe their daughter worthy of such accolade, and fed them reels of bullshit about a new women’s pro league, which was holding tryouts and training camps, and they need only sign on for a bus ride and send her to the camp….
At which point, if they took the bait, Eric would collect the girls at the destination.
Now, when the FBI found Eric Chevalier, he had collected eleven of these girls (yes, a full squad). They weren’t slashed to ribbons. There were no evidences of abuse, sexual or otherwise. In fact, they were all a happy harem, residing in his palatial home in Mexico just outside of Monterrey.
Of course, Eric was met with a rather bad end, gazing down at beefy legs, but not a woman’s and neither in Mexico nor his childhood playpen.
Insurance fraud can be quite complex. Staged accidents, as already mentioned, were Bozz’s bread and butter. Of course, Bozz also made a legitimate living, so to speak, in car sales. He was known throughout central Alabama as the easiest dealer to talk down. Of course, he dealt mainly American cars, some of which would seize up within a few months after being driven off the lot. He’d shave a few thousand dollars off the sales price of any given car, knowing full well that if he made it appear that he was an honest, square dealing sort of person, the customer would surely bring his car into Bozz’s several repair shops. Which would inevitably happen, and when it did, Bozz’s mechanics were told—and this is the natural tendency of mechanics anyway—to insist on superfluous repairs, gouging and schiesting the customer whenever it seemed they’d be able to.
Buzz’s net-worth, according to what he reported to the IRS, was on average 2.8 million per year. His captains at the various garages earned about that much in reality. One could say that Buzz was well off. He had no children, however. Not that he knew of, anyway. He had a horrible way with most women, and he rarely had his way with one whom he hadn’t paid in advance. Not necessarily hookers, but you know, secretaries.
He attended church at least twice a month at Bella Union Baptist, and was a member on the budgetary committee with a flawless attendance to every business meeting since 1981. Most in the church knew very little of him. He would sit stoically at the meetings, raise important questions from time to time, use phrases such as “well if the Lord is leading him to…” and “I occasionally miss the mark sometimes…”—and this satisfied most who had any interest.
David headed south out of McComb. The salvage yard was perched on the Mississippi side of the Mississippi/Louisiana border. He dropped his truck into a lower gear as he approached a hill. He squinted into the noonday sun. Crows apostrophee’d the telephone lines above lizards hiding beneath blown out bits of tire, and in the distance, a sign that said Louisiana Welcomes You! The road boiled and swirled. It was 103 degrees on a cloudless day, and it hadn’t rained in four weeks.
David flicked his blinker left and turned into the drive. The salvage yard sprawled down a shallow valley of stray cotton that suffered in the heat like southern snow on a red dirt robe. Accordion stacks of crumbling cars rose limply on either side. A congregation of bald tires surrounded a trio of Rottweilers fighting over a shoe. And everywhere, indiscernible collections of metal roasted on the grills of skeletal car seats or slept in barracks of old ovens and refrigerators.
You can make a living in scrap-iron. Just ask Major. He spent every day at the salvage yard, sifting through an endless, cascading flood of junk. Major was crazy of course, with a proclivity to talk when no one was listening or close enough to even understand.
Orange dust blew up alongside David’ truck as he pulled in the drive. He palmed the wheel around, backing slowly. He got out of his car and waved at Major and the wrecker, who sidelong glanced their approval from where they were, hunched over a resurrected lawnmower that shunted choppity chop. At length, Major recognized David and hobbled over. He started talking.
“Say what?” David shouted over the racket.
“How’s your wife? I know she’s been… I cain’t imagine really…”
“Yeah she’s doin all right.”
David jumped into the trailer and started unloading. Major sorted through the squalor. His dark, greasy fingers dragged through the nuts, bolts and nails that had gathered in the trailer bed. Major turned to David.
“You gonna throw away that?” He pointed at a rusted hotwater tank.
“You want it?”
Major thought a moment. “Mm… no.”
David turned and rolled his eyes, then why even ask about it. Major rummaged.
“You know. It’s prob’ly a perfectly good tank, but reckin I don’t feel right lootin George’s collection. He was such an honest cuss.”
“Well, you can take whatever you want. It’s all goin.”
Major cleared his throat and looked down the line of his nose at an old grocery cart. “George once told us about what happened to your leg.”
“Mm, long time ago.”
“How you holdin up these days.” David said.
Major smiled and tapped his cane on his metal leg.
“Reckin I get on just fine.”
“So you’re happy?”
“Hell no I ain’t happy.”
David kept unloading, tossing junk every which way. Major limped to the shack for shade. When David finished, he joined Major and the wrecker. The wrecker offered him some tea from a refrigerator that groaned in the heat. David slugged it down, cool and sweet and running with the sweat down his jaw. David shouldered it away. The wrecker refilled his glass.
“We got whiskey too but don’t reckin id do us a hill a beans a good.”
David nodded. He sat down in a lawn chair.
“So Skynyrd crashed around here, right?”
“Mhm. I was there,” the wrecker said. Yeah. Him and everyone else in McComb County. “The sight of it…” The wrecker closed his eyes gravely and shook his head. “Eyeballs poppin outta people’s heads… entrails strewn everywhere… horrible stuff like you never saw. We had to help the paramedics with the dead and wounded. Couldn’t git those ambulances back there good enough.”
“Seems like a lot of rock bands go down in planes. Buddy Holly. Jim Croce…”
“Though it did save George’s tokus,” Major said. “It bought him the day he needed to get back to work. After the union saw he’d turned, the strike was over in a couple days. George wasn’t the only one with money problems.”
“Do you suppose there was any providence in all that?”
“You mean that Skynyrd crashed soze George wouldn’t die at the hands of the Union.”
“Who knows. I don’t reckin the Union woulda hurt him too bad. Things was savage, though.”
“Yeah.” Major tapped his leg with his cane.
While the thick-blooded Cajun described the best places for catching red snapper, Diane’s thoughts wandered to her father, George. He had recently passed, and she had spent the last weeks at her childhood home, putting his house up for sale and clearing out the place. Her mother had passed two weeks before her father, as some marriages last so long that its only fitting for one to follow the other in such short order.
Her children grew stir-crazy in her old house with no other children to play with. And her husband was tired, so she decided to land a vacation to Louisiana in between it all. Diane had sifted through a cascading flood of family heirlooms, bedspreads, smoke-damaged chaise-lounges, newspaper clippings—memories come to life and frustrations at missing childhood things, doubtless discarded by her mother or who knows what happened to it. She knew that the things she’d save would never be used again and would collect dust in her attic.
Her father had been a tinker, which was just a polite name for a packrat. Her son and her husband had cleared out eight trailers full of his junk from the backyard. She wondered if he ever threw anything away.
She thought of her father’s sacrifices.
Once, when she was a teenager, her father was on strike with the local USW at Van Crotha Steel just outside McComb. The strike wore on for several months, and all negotiations had stalled with agreement in sight. All the while, her mother nagged her father to go back to work.
“I ain’t unemployed. I’m on strike. There’s a difference.”
“Like the difference between comfortable and just gettin by. I’m just waitin for somethin better for you and the kids.”
“Yeah. Just waitin,” she said with venom. “If this goes on longer… have you seen our bank statement? We’ve got nothin left and the children need school clothes and we cain’t afford no insurance on the car.”
“Just a few more days. I promise. I’ll go back.”
“Whether the strikes ended or not?”
“Whether the strikes ended or not.”
A few days passed and no deal was reached. He jawed on the picket line, avoiding answers to what’s gonna happen if this keeps on much longer. He wasn’t a scab. In fact, he had been one of the most loyal members of the USW, particularly during the years when Van was paying other industries to take their business elsewhere in Mississippi. It was the main reason why McComb was a one-horse town, as they say.
Previously, no real solidarity existed in their chapter of the USW. The whites suspected the worst of Van, but at best, the blacks were only tenuously set against him. Van possessed extraordinary charisma. A corporate Huey Long, he appeared magnanimous toward all dissenters, but especially toward the blacks, who made up over seventy-five percent of his work force. Whenever someone complained, Van usually landed him back in his pocket with methodical ease. All the harder to get changes across.
George usually kept cool, because he was smart enough to see what Van was doing. To him, the blacks weren’t dumb niggers wanting handouts. That line had gotten old a long time ago. They were just lost. Lost in a sea of false promises and nice sounding bullshit that nobody, including Van himself (he had good lawyers), could understand really.
The blacks galled George, though. Every time he tried to illustrate the backhanded nature of Van’s concessions, he was met with a “but he promised me…” All it ever accomplished was to arouse the suspicions of the whites against him.
But the large print giveth and the small print taketh away, and all men have a line, and he don’t want to be pushed over it. Like being pushed into talking pussy if he’s religious, or religion if he’s licentious. Near as anyone could figure, after this accident, they’d all been pushed far enough.
The present, unifying force among the USW issued from a workers’ comp suit that was filed right before the contract expired, so everyone was still pretty incensed. The injured man was named Major Perkins. The bonds between George and Major were manifold. Both had fought in Korea, both were deacons in the church, both union workers. George had found him passed out in a browning pool of blood. Major’s left leg was fragilely attached by God only knows what, mangled mess that it was.
Van made a big show of it all, cursing the overseer for his negligence, offering excessive attention, compensation and so on. Too bad none of it was in writing. Major’s family was even responsible for replacing the uniform.
George would pass Van in the hallway and look the other way as if he hadn’t seen him, and Van would smile back or nod his head if he caught any eye contact. Van had a way of smiling that seemed natural enough to the casual observer. Under scrutiny, it looked as if he’d been taught to smile, like he was frozen in a family portrait, and he didn’t have to wanna have to be there.
After a few hours on the picket line, George decided to visit Major.
“Aluminum.” Major tapped his leg with his cane. “Light as a feather, and the best part is is it goes out another foot, ‘case I cain’t reach something.” Major demonstrated.
“Well I’ll be.”
“Mhm.” Major retracted his pegleg and let his pant leg slide back. He continued: “They still got me on these Demerols, but I reckin I don’t need um no more. You want to take a few home with you, help you sleep?” He shook them at George.
“Naw, that’s all right.” George put them by.
“I heard you was havin trouble with the missus fur a spell.”
“She’s pretty bowed up ‘bout this strike”
“I told her I’d go back in a few days, deal or no deal.”
“Well I heard there’s some ope’nins down at the phone comp’ny.”
“Yeah, I saw it.”
Major’s wife brought in a pitcher of tea and poured a couple glasses. She asked George about his wife and kids, then disappeared into the kitchen.
“Oh they’re fine.” George called over his shoulder. “Diane’s still adjustin to high school, but she’s good. I’ve been teachin her to drive.”
“Look out George,” Major said. “You’re gonna need a crash helmet.”
“And James Keith, he’s done with tee ball for the fall.”
She came out of the kitchen again, shouldering into her coat. “Well that’s nice. Major, hon, I’m goin to the store.” She grabbed her keys and left, the screen door tapping to on the edge of the carport.
“It tickles me. Before this accident, all she’d do was sit and watch her soaps and bitch at me pretty regular. And now, she’s up and around, cookin and cleanin and takin care of me like I was… you hungry? There’s enough food in there to feed Coxey’s army.”
“Naw, that’s all right.”
“Well this whole damn thing. There’s nothing I can do about it. It’s just the powers that be. They have the power and They can do what they want, and goddamn Carter’s in the Whitehouse, but what good’s that done us? All that talk about Jawboning or whatever.
“Look up. It’s one thing, fair and harmless. Look up. Look up,” he pointed at the ceiling with his cane. “It’s plunder and murder. When you get it figured out, let me know.”
George’s brows furrowed over the rim of his glass.
“But when it comes down to it, I don’t suppose any of us really deserve anything. We’re ain’t born free or with inalienable rights. Not us anyway. We still servin somebody. When it comes down to it, what’s the loyalty to a union got to do with anythin in the grand scheme of things? We serve them, just like we serve Van.”
“The union doesn’t have much else to throw on the table, near as I can figger.”
“But even those who wait upon the Lord, shall be saved, is what it says in the scriptures, and I highly recommend you look into this phone thing. Lord helps those who help themselves.”
George finished his tea. “Well….” he sighed and looked up at nothing in particular.
“Forasmuch as I’ve seen your face, it’s like seeing the face of God, George,” Major said lump throated. “You and Connie have been so good to us… and my leg, well shit.” Major poked through his pocket for a handkerchief.
That evening, George felt ill and couldn’t sleep. He tossed the covers aside and shuffled into his bathroom. He wished he’d taken the Demerols Major had offered. He reached into the cabinet and grabbed a bottle of Benadryl, but threw up his dinner instead.
He fell asleep finally.
Connie stirred from the other side of the bed, rolled over and began talking to him incoherently. She must be asleep, he thought at first, but as he listened longer and closer, he could make out her words.
Do not go on talking high and mighty –
arrogance slips from your mouth –
for a God all-knowing is the Lord,
and His is the measure of all actions.
The sated are hired for bread,
and the hungry cease evermore.
The Lord impoverishes and bestows wealth,
plunges down and also exalts.
She lost her train of thought to the time she got lost on the other side of the tracks in niggertown, a well-hashed story of increasingly epic proportions.
George rolled over to find Major moaning in a browning pool of blood. “George. Get this thing offa me!” George jumped up to help, but as he put his shoulder to the machine, it collapsed them both.
When George awoke to his alarm, a cold sweat frosted his back. He shivered into his slippers and grabbed his bathrobe. Outside in the streetlight, autumn dew rested aloof and mica-spangled on the crabgrass by the road. In the kitchen, he flicked on a pot of coffee. As the coffeemaker steamed and gurgled, George thumbed through yesterday’s paper. There was a help-wanted ad for the phone company, but it was for an upper manager job, requiring a degree or years of experience in the field. He had been a staff sergeant in the Air Force, but this alone was not enough. There was another help wanted. The ideal candidate capable of lifting fifty-pound loads. He folded the paper, dressed and drove to work to stand on the picket line one more day.
Outside the factory, George crouched down and started peeling a banana. Down the street, he spied a group of five men walking with purpose. George took a big bite.
Suddenly, a loud explosion went off in his ear, which issued from Molotov cocktail that now engulfed a nearby car in flames. George staggered to his feet. His head was dizzy and his ears were ringing severely. The approaching men were trotting towards him with their weapons raised. He ducked behind the corner of the building. One of the thugs ran after him, carrying a sledgehammer, but when he passed, George cold clocked him with his lunchbox. George grabbed the hammer and swung it low into the man’s side with a sickly thud. The man coughed blood and gasped.
George backed against the wall and peered around the corner. He slinked out from cover, but ran into another scab with a bat he was about to swing. George tried to duck away awkwardly but took the brunt of the blow on his forearm. He seized up briefly, watching his attacker raise the bat above his head. With his good arm, George swung the hammer at the scabs knee, splintering it as well as the handle. George stepped on the hammer head and twisted the handle off. He picked up the bat. He threw the handle to Jasper Tibbs, who had just arrived in his car.
Seeing the fight, Jasper pulled off his shirt, revealing a large iron cross inked across his back. He stood like a terrible monolith eclipsing the rising sun.
“Bust this, mothuhfuckin scabs!” And he smashed a mouth in with the handle. He sat on the man, crushing him under his bulk while reefing the handle up into the man’s mouth. Teeth clicked softly on the concrete.
The last two scabs had closed in on another striker, who’d just arrived, and were beating the shit out of him with crowbars. George crept behind them and smacked one of the scabs on his temple. The man crumpled. Another turned and struck George’s side, sending him sprawling. Now it was George’s turn to spit blood. The man jumped toward George for another whack, but Jasper was too quick. Jasper had thrown away the handle for a switchblade. He sidled up behind the man, shivved him twice in the side and he too fell.
Sirens whooped and hollered from a few blocks away.
There was one dead on arrival named Roger McClure. The scabs were nowhere to be found. Neither was Jasper. George had driven downtown for a while after he had heard the sirens and picked up a few donuts at a bakery and a new cup of coffee.
He sat on the bench outside, nursing his side. At length, he got into his truck and rooted through the glove box for aspirin. There wasn’t any. He snapped the door shut and returned to his breakfast.
Jasper drove up to the bakery, got out and sat next to George. He had wiped most of the blood off his hands, but it lingered darkly underneath his fingernails.
“Any of um die?” George asked quietly.
“Naw… don’t reckin.” Jasper considered. “Though, that man in the shit warn’t in no shape to be hopeful.”
George looked at Jasper gravely. “Jasper, you sure you didn’t kill anyone?”
“Yeah.” Jasper considered again for a moment. “‘less he’s too stupid to go to a doctor. Then he’ll just bleed out, I guess.”
“Did you recognize any of um?”
“You reckin Van had somethin to do with um. Prob’ly from up in Jackson.”
“Shit.” Jasper rested his sweating face in his ebony paws and wiped his brow with the backside of his arm. “I reckin his position is clear nuff then.”
“I gotta go home.” George and Jasper exchanged a raised-eye salute and went their separate ways: George to one side of the tracks, Jasper to the other.
When George got home, Connie was vacuuming and smoking feverishly with the radio on all the way up. The news was reporting the incident, and two were dead on arrival. George shouted at her over the clamor.
Connie shut off the vacuum and hung on his neck like death. Her eyes were bleary. George winced as she squeezed his side.
“I thought you might be dead!”
“It was close enough.”
“These thugs came walkin down the road and then a car blew up by me.”
“That’s what the radio’s been sayin’.” George listened.
….there will be an ongoing investigation, our sources say, into the murders of Roger McClure of Summit, Mississippi and Anthony Evans of Jackson, Mississippi…. the strike will resume tomorrow, union officials say, despite the violence….
George slumped into his worn barcalounger and creaked it back. It flung up nebulas of dust around him. His head began to throb. Tomorrow’s the last day before he promised. But now, who knows what? Another day. The Union would want to make a stand, would call up people from other chapters, with guns and security. And if they became organized, they could press charges for assault, extortion… that is, if they could implicate Van Crotha, and if the cops weren’t in on it…
…gangland violence that has been breaking out…
“What? Listen to this, Connie, I cain’t believe this. This wuhn no thugs from across the tracks. They was all whites.”
“Cain’t you talk to the police bout this?”
“No, I thumped two of those scabs real good. I don’t wanna get in trouble for that. We don’t need that, Con, not now, not ever. Besides, listen to that spin. The cops think it’s gang violence. Either they’re in on it, or Van’s got some guys posing as witnesses, feeding that bullshit to the press.”
“George, please. The baby.”
George gritted his teeth.
“George, you’re a leader down there. We could be in danger. If it’s what you say it is. If its Crotha’s hired bullies from Jackson, then you are in danger, the kids are in danger I’m…”
“So whatchu want me to do? Think I wanted this?”
“I’m just sayin that if armed men showed up and beat the hell out of you, then do you think he’ll stop?”
“Come on, don’t worry.”
“George, he knows that you show up at the picket line the earliest. It’s because you’re the leader.”
“What’re you saying? That he tried to have me killed?”
“Honestly, George, what do the facts say?”
“He knows you out of all of um show up early. Only this time, Roger McClure happened to be there too.”
“Slow down. Now listen. I went to visit Major again this mornin bout a phone comp’ny job, and I’s late to the picket.”
Connie was in hysterics. George persisted in his lie.
“It wasn’t a hit. It was just intimidation. You and I and the kids are safe.”
“And that makes a difference how? That some thugs tried to kill you. How does that make me feel safe?”
“Listen, I mean…”
“I’m saying is you’re the leader in this chapter of the Union, and you’re the one makin all the fuss about Major’s leg.”
“I still don’t see how you have some better idea of what to do.”
“Go back to work, for heaven’s sake!” Connie stormed down the hall, slammed the bedroom door and got out a suitcase to begin packing.
The more George began to think of it, the more it occurred to him that she might be right. Maybe Van was sending a personal message to him. Call off the strike. Call it off or bear with the consequences. George stood up and limped down the hall. Connie was slumped on their marriage bed, sobbing.
“Connie, I know… I just…” Connie grabbed him. “You’re right. I’ll go back.”
Connie looked up sniffling.
“I told you I would anyway.”
That evening, George got into his truck and drove over to Major’s. He graveled into the drive to howling dogs. Major’s property spread several acres in the front yard, initialed only by a propane tank and a rotting tractor. Industrial draft of a dying age. On the porch, George and Major talked war and peace while getting steadily drunk. George told Major he was going back to work.
“Crawlin back, huh. I don’t blame ya, I guess.”
“Don’t have much of a choice. But I’m every bit as worried about the Union ‘s I am about Van.”
“Cain’t the Union press charges on this thing? Damn near same thing happened three years ago uppit Pontotoc.”
“The police ain’t payin much attention to this. Or the right kind, anyway. They got it wrong. Either way, I thought I might die this mornin.”
“Reckin you might die tomorrow?”
“We ain’t guaranteed tomorrow. So why should tomorrow be different? This life is like goin down a staircase in the middle of the night. You know that feeling when you git to the bottom and there ain’t any steps left? …and you land real awkward.”
“Or else you’re groping around for stair that’s s’posed to be there, but ain’t.”
George took a long pull off the bottle. “That too,” he winced.
“I heard a preacher—well, ain’t sure he was a preacher, but this man on the radio put death like—well, I put it to heart.” Major poured more whiskey in his glass, and poured a glass of water for George.
“How did he put it?”
“A violent rending asunder of body and soul.” This gave them both pause. Only crickets and the quiet rustling of spiky pines broke the silence. Kudzu vines continued their slow and certain invasion of Magnolias along the rim of the woods. The sunset was radial oranges, reds and purples, broken and emptied out underneath a harvest moon. All were at rest, except for George and Major, their eyes hard as birdshot.
“Sums it up.” George replied at length, fingernailing his watch.
“So whaddoya think Van’s gonna say when you go back?”
“I’ll worry about him when I get past that picket line.”
“I’m sure they’ll understand if you cross over.”
“Hmph…. a scabs a scab.”
“Well tell um you got my go-ahead.”
“Connie kept sayin I’s a leader, which I never found myself to be that exactly….”
“Well, that’s true, they do look to you…. least the ones been around long enough to know what we been through before. Reckin the Union’ll cut a deal?”
“On account of me? No. I don’t reckin.”
On the way home, George spied a pair of lights behind him. He slowed to the speed limit, but the car persisted, turn after turn, until he was home underneath the carport. As he got out of the car, he heard a car door slam thickly and he jumped behind his wife’s azaleas, realized they weren’t, shit, high enough, but soon found that his pursuer was the deputy.
“May I help you, officer?”
“Nope, just makin sure you got in all right.”
“Oh… well I ain’t been drinkin,” he lied.
“Ain’t sayin you were…. goodnight.”
After the deputy pulled away, George stood staring for a long time at the darkness outside his kitchen window. He creaked along the floor to the sink for a glass of water. Connie had gone to bed already. He would join her eventually, but not to sleep. Certainly not to make love at it’d long since lost its vigor.
Whenever he was angry, he would wash dishes quietly and without the usual racket, so he wouldn’t betray his mood to her, smoking and watching her soaps amid the drone falsetto caused by the tap’s loose O-ring. His daughter sometimes approached, white knuckles and shoulders to thighs, and squeezed tight, unyielding, until all the need had sponged out of him. As he thought of her, he lingered on the grey water valving down his drain, and listened for a clearance that pressed on the threshold of language, humming like the faucet he couldn’t bring himself to fix.
George had always tried to be humble, but in this instance, he realized that being humble meant being humiliated. The sermons he’d heard on humility left that part out, or hadn’t made it clear that humility and humiliating were, in fact, the same thing, though the crucified Christ—up there, exposed and mocked—was humiliated plenty. Not that there was any comparison, George thought, which didn’t bring him any comfort.
Despite what he’d told his wife, he still wasn’t sure he’d go back. At a minimum, he expected a good ass-beating from someone… maybe a friend even. His side and head ached. His ears were still ringing from the explosion. His fever persisted without breaking. He swallowed a few aspirin with his water.
In the bedroom, his wife snored quietly. The heater kicked on with a soft roar. What would his dreams have brought him tonight?
His fever broke and he’d finally fallen into a light sleep. His alarm blared him awake. O-five-hundred hours. He showered and dressed, and read the Bible for strength and comfort. There the Lord’s promises were. He wasn’t sure if God would drop what he was doing in some third world country just to tend to his situation. He skipped his morning coffee. Connie woke and kissed him goodbye. He got in his car and drove off.
He waited in the parking lot for an hour or two. Something strange was happening. Rather, nothing was happening. No picketers. Nothing at all. He’d planned to picket a little himself, just in case, then sneak in around lunchtime. But the emptiness concerned him. He hoped a deal had been struck. At length, he entered the building. Nothing stirred in the factory. His boots rapped and startled him in the empty warehouse.
Above, a light was on in Van’s office.
“Well, lookithere. Fine-ly back…” Van smiled. George said nothing to this. Next to Van stood his chief goon, Claude Gentry. “Well yer old jobs just sittin there waitin for ya.”
“I was wonderin if a deal had been—“
“No, this little tiff over insurance has dragged on long enough, though.”
“So you want back, hm?”
“Done.” Van flashed a big grin. “And for your sense, I’ll promote you.”
“After tryin to kill me?” Van furrowed his brows in denial.
“What madeya think that… oh, that? Coulda been the Union, too, you know. They’re strong up in Jackson, I hear…. mighta got wind of yer defection.”
With that, George left Van’s office. Bewildered, George searched the rest of the factory. Nobody was there, Union or non. This relieved him at present. He flicked on a radio that sat on a toolbox. The news was on.
….so far we’ve determined that singer Ronnie Van Zandt and a backup singer, Cassie Gaines, are now dead, as are the pilot and copilot. Guitarist Steven Gaines has been admitted in to McComb Memorial and is in critical condition…. needless to say, the Street Survivor’s Tour has been cancelled…. the future of Lynyrd Skynyrd looks very dim….
George blinked. Then he knew. Everyone was out in the woods where this plane full of rock stars was crashed, gawking at medics excavating bodies on ATVs and whatever else that could get back in those woods.