Editor’s Pick: On a Night in Shelby County

Thirty years later and I still come undone when I think of that night. It’s like a ball of moonlight jammed in my vest pocket, about the diameter of a quarter. If I take it out and set it on the table, then I’m going to have to explain it, and that I cannot do. You walk around your whole life with a solid orb of moonlight in your pocket and you’ll know what it means to be haunted—especially after you drive half across the state and throw it in the ocean, only to wake up the next morning with it staring you in the face.

Lately I’ve been toying with a thought that warms me: if you must do it, then you can do it. There’s a charging glory inside that logic that takes hold of me like the cavalry; it convinces me I can do what I’ve never done, and pretty soon I get this need to go find my daughter and tell her to remember she’s amazing. Not the way I’ve been saying it every day for the past twenty years on her way out the door—not so easy like that—but deep, deep down. I tell her you have to unplug the world to understand this. You have to let the lights go out and hold it with your whole being, otherwise you’ll miss it. You’ll miss what you are.

The cavalry charge has me all cocky, like I’ve already gone back to that night and come out the other side. I’m all tanked-up on hope. I feel so good I pour myself a little glass of hope’s lesser cousin on the way to find Naomi. I bring the bottle with me.

“Just listen, baby. Look at that star. Think what it’s doing. That one star. Think what it’s doing right now.” We’re out back now; the crickets have taken over the hour and we’re looking for clues in the sky above us.

“You’ve been drinking tonight.”

“Yeah, but so what. Just listen. Please baby. Please. Look…” I’m pointing at one; the star and I have a bond. Our light cones overlap and I’m downloading something.

She tells me we’ll never know if we’re looking at the same star. There’s too many of them. And does it even matter which one?

“You matter, girl. You know that, right?”

“Is that the one?” she says.

“To the right of that leaf,” I say. “Just look. Please.”

She laughs. I’m a harmless old codger, anyway. I’m a mirage, a snapshot.

I don’t care about myself like a person should; not like you care for your child, who has beauty and life written all over her. It’s what she is. You’d defend that with your life. You’d get blurred vision, eyeballs piled half an inch thick with salted tears; you’d rip electric cords out of the walls and cleave side tables in half if she was threatened, but I’ve lost that gear when it comes to myself. I just linger—keep my head down. I could have kept it together if I’d looked into the pupil of that gun and seen how empty it really was—like a coat closet you hide in from your cousins during a family reunion—but I all I saw in there was jam-packed horny death. Nothing but tentacles, jaws, and a black powder of pain. My pain. How did my pain get in that gun?

“Baby, isn’t it unbelievable there’d be a star right there?”

That’s the part I wanted to tell the detective but I didn’t know how. The story isn’t just what you can write down: the facts. It isn’t just Joe, or me—Dicky, out of his mind—or his bruised-up girl Julie. It’s the way we were just two of us, two black men striping roads instead of pushing tar. It’s the way the trees were slick with heat that night, the way the road clung to the land, the way the gravy growl of Satchmo was telling us to whistle while we worked before sinking into the air around us. It was the truck, petering along in low gear, gnats flying in the window—sweat and stink and dreams.

We weren’t even thinking. We were just striping the road. We were lost.

#

The detective that night liked to wave his tie around like it was a part of his body he hadn’t figured out what to do with yet. Every time we worked ourselves into a lather, he went to work on that ole’ flap of paisley. That was his reset. Get the tie straight, the world straight, the whole damn thing straight.

When he finally understood I was trying to suggest Dicky had missed Joe from ten yards out with a sawed-off shotgun, twice—a clutch of facts I didn’t pretend to comprehend myself—he gave the silk a little ruffle and glared at me like I’d just told him R.L. Burnside was my butler.

“All right, Myron,” he said. “Think about it. You don’t think Dicky saw your friend Joe there, blocking passage to his girl with some kinda’ hate in his eye, and maybe fired a shot or two into the clouds? Warning shots perhaps?”

“No, sir. Joe couldn’t have looked hateful if he tried. Truth is, there’s not a mean bone in that man’s body.”

“Well if Dicky wakes up,” he said. “And that’s an if—he may take exception to that. And if he doesn’t, which is about equally likely I’d say, the facts will kind of speak for themselves, don’t you think?”

“Yes, sir. In a way.”

“In a way.”

“Yes, sir.”

The detective shook his head like he didn’t know whether to be amused or clean pissed off, while I sat there numb as a tire jack and tried not to think about it. Thinking about it was like looking into the center of the sun to see what the brightness was all about. It would have fried me alive.

The detective told me I better get straight about what I was really trying to say, then left, presumably to question Joe. A while later he came back to me. It was like rigging a grand piano up to a second story window, moving one from jack to the next, back and forth all night, lifting each side just a little at a time to keep the load balanced. He was ratcheting the case to a ready conclusion.

“So Dicky unloads both barrels on your friend, Joe. Miraculously comes up dry. Doubtful, but so you say. Then what? Joe spins Dicky’s head halfway off his neck? Knocks his jaw into Timbuktu?”

“I told you, sir. Dicky threw the shotgun into the bushes and pulled a pistol from behind his back. Aimed it right at me.”

“Two attempts on the sawed-off come up dry, so he tries his luck with you.”

I shrugged my shoulders. Every time I thought of Dicky giving Joe both barrels, and Joe living through it, my head started to pound, my chest thickened up like mud that sucks you under for keeps, and I braced myself for the walls to start tumbling down around me. Some things are so good they hurt; you’ve got to be good enough to meet them, otherwise they destroy you. I didn’t know that then. I just knew I hurt.

“There’s no bushes on that highway, Myron. We checked.”

I couldn’t remember what there was. What the hell did it matter? The edge of the road was a dead spot in my memory, while the barrel of that pistol Dicky flashed my way looked about ten feet around.

“Dicky claims he didn’t have a pistol.”

“Probably.”

“There’s no pistol registered in Dicky’s name, Myron. You follow me here?”

I grunted at the beauty of it. “He tried to kill me with an unregistered sidearm? Goddamn that boy! The gall!”

The detective smiled. He gave his tie a little freshening up. “Myron, why don’t you tell me what really happened out there?”

Because I can’t? Because I don’t know? Because I don’t wanna’ know? How about all of the above?

Nevertheless, I tried; it came out like runny gravy. “Dicky aimed at Joe, and gave it both barrels. Whatever happened, happened. Don’t ask me. Bullets turned to cotton balls or some shit. Then he pulled a pistol, aimed at me, cocked it, and that’s when Joe hit him. Picked up that pistol and gave it a pretty good ride, too.”

That was the best I could do that night. Cotton balls. Even telling that much brought me awful close to slapping that little gumball of solidified moonlight on the counter. I had no idea how either one of us was still alive. When the sawed-off let loose it was like the whole night clubbed me upside the head. I sank to my knees and felt my heart turn black. I started making baby sounds in my throat while Satchmo came for me in a lullaby, wafting through the air. When I opened my eyes Dicky was in slow motion, throwing the shotgun into the grass. Next he pulled a pistol and aimed it straight through me; I could feel the hole coming out the other side already. I thought to myself, That’s the angels I’m hearing! Wasn’t they just on the radio? Good ole’ Satchmo!

Then I had a gush of sobriety, Do good, Percy. Do everything, kid.

“Where was Julie at this point?” the detective asked. He was looking at his nails now, thinking about that dinner he missed probably, and the missus. He knew he wasn’t getting anything but nonsense out of me.

“You act like I was standing there with a clipboard, drawing diagrams.”

“Behind you? Behind the rig? Behind Joe?”

“I don’t know.”

“Julie says she didn’t see a pistol.”

I laughed at that one. Julie didn’t see much of anything the way she was: drunk as a malady and beaten pretty good, too, her mind free as a bird, flying on some other channel she’d just invented.

“Well he couldn’t have had the pistol out for long,” I offered.

“Joe’s fast, huh?”

“I guess.”

“In a way?”

“Yes, sir. In a way.”

After Dicky unloaded the sawed-off and Joe was dead by every conceivable outcome known to man or physics, I saw him come into view, shove Dicky’s wrist to the side with one arm, and bring the elbow of his other across Dicky’s jaw like a judge’s gavel. Dicky’s head spun around and he crumpled. I hadn’t caught up, though; I was still saying my good-byes, bemoaning everything I knew, when all of a sudden I had to stop and admire how beautiful Joe was being. He was like a vision, smooth as silk, with power along the edges. And he was doing it for all of us. For everyone who’s ever been or ever will be. It was revelation.

“After the gun went off, there were egrets,” I said.

“What?”

“Egrets. In the marsh. They flew off when Dicky fired the sawed-off. They were white.”

“You watched ’em go?”

“They flew off one way beneath the moon, and then all of a sudden they veered into a circle while they rose, like they were thinking about where to go and couldn’t make up their minds. That’s when Dicky pulled the pistol. When the egrets veered over the water. How do you explain that, sir? I watched the egrets fly off. I watched Dicky pull the pistol. I watched Joe save us. I watched the clouds slip across the moon. Case closed.”

Neither one of us believed it.

He sighed. “But you didn’t see Julie.”

“No, sir. Not like you wish I did.”

“Myron, listen to me good now. Based on your testimony, it’s Dicky’s word against Joe’s, because if Dicky didn’t pull that pistol, and if Dicky just fired a warning shot, we’re looking at assault here. Minimum. Now how do you think that’s going to go?”

I looked down at the table. The truth had put us in a bind for sure. I could see it wouldn’t stand in the eyes of men—it wouldn’t even hold me—and I broke down some then. I put my hand over my face like I had dignity to preserve. When I took it away my eyes stung, spittle hung off my lips and I was moaning something rock bottom indecipherable. Even to me.

How could Dicky’s words in court pull off a feat all his guns couldn’t? It made no sense, but I knew they surely would. I still had no trust in myself, no thought of redemption.

#

After some arguments back and forth, they set bail so high the governor couldn’t have paid it. Joe’s mother blew up like a tent revival backed up to a cliff and it took three uniforms to finally get her out of the courtroom. All I saw was a swirly pile of arms and eyeballs pass me down the aisle. Key chains jingled like leaves before a storm. When she passed me, my jaw took a set, and I got real hungry. Joe’s dad sat in the pew beside me shaking his head, rolling his hat up in his hands. I was ready right then to light somebody up. I wanted a hot, coal-stoked brand of justice. I wanted to be on the television, wearing eye glasses over a look that could melt stone, cracking my finger like a whip, swearing oaths to truth and power and glory.

I went down to the prison to visit Joe that first time and I told him I was going to get him some of that justice—something we could touch, and sink our teeth into. I told him I was going to rain hell on some of Dicky’s folk.

“I’ve got my ways, Joe. God help me I wish I didn’t, but I think I do. I lay in bed at night and they come out of the walls and draw up diagrams in my mind. I think it’s my ancestors.”

“You need to chill out, Myron.”

“How can you say that, man? You in the clink! For no goddamn good reason. It ain’t right!”

“I’m alright for now.”

“Just like that, huh.”

I snapped my fingers to show the ludicrous ease of it.

After an awkward pause, I snapped them again.

Joe just watched me until I simmered down.

“They got this old timer they call the Preach,” he said. “Sits on the bench during recess with his eyes closed and talks the whole time in a whisper. Hums hymnals. I didn’t know what else to do one morning, so I just listened. I felt a real quiet or something. I felt okay. I felt the sky, right there with me, like it knew me. When the bell rang for us to go back inside, he just opened his eyes and looked right through me.”

“Joe, shit on a stick, man, they’re fixin’ to railroad your ass.”

“The Preach asked me to tell him who should be in my jury. His left eye started trembling like his life depended on what I said next. How the hell should I know? He told me I better know.”

I sagged on the chair like a punctured lung. “Joe— I… I don’t know what you’re talking about, man.”

“Relax, Myron. How’s your brother?”

I rubbed my hands over my eyes, down my cheeks, all around my face like I just walked through a spider web, and I started clucking my tongue on the roof of my mouth.

“How’s Percy?” Joe said.

“He’s good, Joe—all right? Shit… First game was Friday. They got him at free safety: cleanin’ clocks. He’s playing wide receiver on offense. Damn if that boy can run.”

My heart wasn’t in it, but Joe was chuckling already, so I told him how Percy drifted out to the right on a second and two, then dashed back across the middle and pulled the ball right out of the air like he was picking up flowers from a drive-through. Joe slapped the counter and shook his head like this life was so goddamn good he couldn’t hardly believe it. I told him how Percy weaved back and forth then—front, left and sideways like a deer with eight legs—leaping right over folks and jukin’ ‘em right out of their own heads, all the way back for a touchdown. Took him three plays on the sideline to catch his breath. So many back slaps he almost coughed up a kidney.

When I looked up Joe’s eyes were glistening, and he was smiling so wide I could see his teeth, but I couldn’t follow it.

“I thought you was the one to be worried about, Joe.”

“You’re gonna’ be alright, Myron.”

#

Next time I visited Joe he had his jury all figured out: a Cherokee brave in full regalia, a plantation owner with a drawl and his mulatto house slave, a drug dealer, an offensive line coach wearing his shiniest whistle, and a field hand who broke free and made it all the way to Poughkeepsie. A car wash owner in Brooklyn. A shoe-shiner. A great grandmother, sitting on her rocker on the front porch with her crooked jaw and her crooked last tooth and her upright soul, her feet planted firmly in the glacial till below the poverty line, scowling something fierce at the lawyers. Couple of guys from the construction company. A good kid, dreaming of college, fussing with his slacks.

He got eight white ladies instead. Two construction workers, tanned and leathery. An old black woman who was ashamed of what he’d done right from the start, for putting them both in that position, and a school teacher.

“Joe. They are fixin’ to railroad your happy ass. You see it, right?”

“You’re gonna’ be alright, Myron.”

My head started itching.

#

Julie came out of the darkness first that night. I was driving and watching the paint on the shoulder, tracing lines. Joe was on the back of the rig running the striper. When he whistled like we used to do—like cowboys giving direction to a drove of cattle—I hit the break and killed the paint, thinking maybe we just striped a possum. I looked back across the cab and down the length of the truck in the mirror, over Joe’s shoulder, to where she was moving into the truck’s flashing yellow glow, wearing nothing but moonlight and a pair of flip-flops. She was carrying two Dixie cups of lemonade and prancing right along, smiling like she was joining the party. I watched Joe hop down and crane his neck out past her into the night to see what might be coming next.

“Myron,” he yelled. “Myron, get me a blanket or something!”

Like the rig was full of blankets on a night so hot you couldn’t hardly push through it.

I found a canvas tarp in a compartment on the side of the truck, crusted up with dirt and cobwebs, about as heavy as I was and all but useless for giving a woman back what she needed most. Julie offered Joe his lemonade and told him what a big strong man he was, like she was commenting on the weather. He took the cup and just nodded his head, still staring off down the road. He seemed to know there was more of this trouble coming, a whole raggedy parade of it. When I came around back with the tarp I just kind of mumbled and made a scene of wrapping her in it, like I was trying to fold a fitted sheet on national television. She laughed and waved me off. We didn’t need to be so formal with each other; we were friends, weren’t we? Her one eye was puffy and purple, and I wanted to say something, but I didn’t. My fist balled up like a stone. I never felt so shitty in my whole life, her naked and bruised and me standing there offering mildewed drapes the size of a White House window. I was like a matador on my first day, sent out to fight a puppy.

She gave me a half-empty cup of lemonade and then hopped up in the cab. I saw blood on one of her fingers, a crushed nail.

“Take it easy up there, ma’am,” I said. She started singing along, dancing in place; somehow she managed to kill the flashers.

Joe set his lemonade on the bumper and took a step for the darkness beyond, and that’s when Dicky showed up; just the sound at first—a sick, taunting sort of yowl. He had kind of a high-pitched whine. “Come on back now, honey. You know you love me.”

I thought of hopping up in the truck and driving off, but Dicky was closer than I realized. His voice caressed me from the darkness.

“What are you looking at, nigger,” he said softly.

I flinched while Joe brought his other foot around to square up on things, then I moved off to the right for some reason. I don’t know why but I just moved there. To the edge of the light. To where Dicky would have to turn his head from Joe to me—back and forth—to keep track. I had my head down a little, my hands free, my blood running in hot circles inside me.

Dicky came marching into the reddish glow of the tail lights with the sawed-off on his shoulder. He was shirtless, some kind of top hat on his head, frayed denim shorts and flip-flops of his own.

“Best you move aside, Martin Luther.”

He had a toothpick hanging out of his mouth he used to point at Joe with. Then me.

When Joe replied his voice was gentle, like he’d already seen the whole world and knew where it led. “Can’t do that, sir.”

That’s when I noticed Dicky’s eyes were about as wide as cantaloupes. He was floating someplace else.

“You can’t? Or you won’t?”

“Where we standing now, there ain’t no difference.”

“Where we standing now, is my world, son.”

Joe just stood there and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. The world, I realized, could speak for itself, and Joe was content to let it do so. It was up to Dicky to prove it wrong.

That’s when I started getting shaky inside. My eyes narrowed and my breath started coming in slices. There Joe was, bigger than life standing on that road, all by himself, thick as history.

I hung limp off to the side, studying this man I’d known for years but hardly knew, clinging to him. How had I missed this? He was a chasm so deep you could throw a whole county’s worth of tarnished men and their guns right down it. By the time I turned to see how Dicky might respond, he was pulling the trigger on the sawed-off. Smoke and fire shot out the barrel and I broke in two. I was weeping inside before my knees even hit the tar.

Then Dicky fired again. I shrugged it off like a boxer getting whipped in the corner; my ears rang and then finally every sensation I ever had fused together into Satchmo. On the trumpet now. The sounds of my guardian angel hung in the air like smoke.

I looked up and to my left, but I couldn’t make myself turn all the way to Joe. I couldn’t do it. That’s when I saw the egrets, blobs of white surfing my tears, and I grabbed hold of them with every ounce left of me. We climbed away from the earth, pulling ourselves up over invisible steps, one by one to the heavens. When I turned back to check on things, Dicky had the pistol on me.

My body sat there flapping like a sail. I was just an empty sack of thought. I’d abandoned myself somehow, given up on myself when I sank to the earth knowing I was already dead. My heart couldn’t stay under those conditions, even if it wanted, so it was out there somewhere, waiting on me. Later I realized I was dead long before Dicky leveled that gun at me. We walk around dead all the time and we hardly know it.

Joe slid into view then, smooth as a cat, a man on the rise strong enough to carry us with him. He shoved the gun hand to the side and brought his elbow across Dicky’s chin so the man wouldn’t have to suffer any further, then picked up the gun and flung it into the night. And it was over. Just like that.

Julie was swaying back and forth in the cab, snapping her fingers. Dancing. She was feeling no pain. My guess is she never saw a thing.

#

Two days later, Dicky woke up.

#

I moped around for days. I drank a beer on the front steps out of sheer force of habit, to celebrate the sunrise, and then the day bloomed bright and crushed me. I woke up sweating in a chair in the living room once, at two in the afternoon, with a sheet of sun draped over my knees. In my dream Dicky pulled the trigger on the pistol just as I was trying to crawl into the barrel and see what was down there. It flung me awake. All the things I hated got stirred up like a bad pollen season and drifted past.

“What did you do?” I said one day.

“I didn’t do anything.”

I nodded. I even hated Joe.

#

A week later Joe’s father found the gun. He drove the road where Joe told him until he found where the fresh paint stopped. Then he started slogging around real slow in his waders. Dicky’s dad even came out and helped. He saw Julie I guess, her face all splotched and swollen, and that was that. I couldn’t put it all together; I couldn’t get it straight in my mind—Dicky’s dad and Joe’s dad out in their waders, forming a joint task force, looking for the gun that nearly killed me and being careful together not to stir up the mud.

The gun was in eighteen inches of water, about forty feet off the road, slammed up against a rock the size of a Brahman. Nobody touched it. I heard later Dicky’s dad nearly plunged a fist into the face of Dicky’s younger brother back on the road while Joe’s dad called in the sheriff’s office. The sheriff came right out and got it. They lifted two of Dicky’s prints on the handle, plus one and a smudge more of Joe’s on the barrel. They had a trial anyway, but Joe was exonerated based on the evidence, and our testimony.

I wanted to be excited but it was more of the same. Justice didn’t need me. I was a figment. What about Dicky missing the side of the barn from ten yards out? What about Joe just standing there and looking right through it? What about Dicky and what he stole from me? Who was going to find that?

I was wounded without the glory of the blood.

#

“Naomi?”

“Dad?”

“I need to tell you a story, baby. You hear your old man out?”

“What’s it about?”

“Egrets, mostly. And guns.”

She looks at me. I am sober as a ship’s hold, but my hand is shaking a little. I’ve only ever told this story once before, to that detective, and then I only slunk around it like some derelict.

“All right then, let’s have it.”

I nod.

I sit back in the chair, and as I tell her I go back to each little piece and turn it over carefully in my mind. Somehow I know to present it to her just as it was, on an open palm, like something precious I found once in the desert after walking for days and days—my whole life maybe— shocked and alone. My need to give it to her this way makes me look closer than ever before. What I see is how much I’ve needed it: the uncertainty, the pain, the brilliance. The life in everything seeping up through the floor. Pretty soon I’m telling her how much I love Dicky—Dicky!— my family, the sky, the car-crammed freeways we ride down every day, and the steady diet of little prizes we pry out of the cereal box to hide life’s deepest reaches. Finally I’m telling her about that star again, and the way life is a rising tide of the purest pure that will inevitably wash you clean. If only you’ll let it.

“Can you see it, baby?”

Naomi just looks at me.

I want to wrap her in my arms, kiss her forehead and put a blanket around her. I want to say something more and never stop, but my heart clamps a hand over my mouth and whispers in my ear. We’re partners again. We’re everywhere, too—a glory that’s mingled up with the land and time and all of thought.

She looks down, sensing her own improbability. The gun was pointed at her, too, somehow. The bottle on the table is hardly touched and the crickets are about to shake the forest apart with some kind of resonance.

“I know, baby,” I say. “I know. Just start with that star. That one right there.”

 

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