The movie, might start like this…

12/21/2013

The full moon brought a forensic profiling that I will get into later. The Winter Solstice is here and that means new beginnings! So to start off this new evolution- let’s start with what I saw as the beginning to what would be a great movie!!

Here’s just one way!

Got your popcorn ready, Grim? It’s a real white-knuckler!

(Copyrighted material/potential screenplay/opening scenes:THE THIN GRAY LINE: A TRUE CRIME INVESTIGATIVE MEMOIR by T.A.Powell, 2013)

Federal Treasury Agent: Charles G. Covington

Valdosta, Georgia –Thursday, October 6, 1966

(Three days before his murder.)

As I entered the Plaza Café, a pretty brunette was toying with the coiled cord of the public payphone. Immediately I recognized her signature long red fingernails and the curve of her lips. I smiled. The gesture was not returned. Dismissed, I hung my coat and hat and canvassed the rest of the room for a more welcoming face. The old cashier behind the register nodded in the direction of a booth where my partner Sal was already hunched like a gargoyle, drooling over a plate of food. To his left, Parole Officer Parker Jade sat nervously tearing the corners of his napkins into tiny white shreds, complaining about his badgering wife and his asshole of a boss. Already ten minutes late, I tossed my newspaper on the table and let Parker finish his rant.

As usual, Sal grunted salutations between forkfuls. I sidled in on the right side and grunted back. I would have added a few grievances to Parker’s list when he finished, but didn’t have many in those days. In ’66 I already had over 20 years in with the Federal Treasury Department, the state’s Operation Dry Up was successfully coming to a close, and my construction side business was booming. Hell, I couldn’t even complain about the heat that first week in October, as the days had turned as cool as the nights and unfortunately so had my wife.

Just in time to interrupt our collective wallowing, a pretty young waitress tossed a steak and egg platter on the table for Parker and then threw a greasy menu my way. I pulled out a new pack of cigarettes as the long legged brunette on the phone slammed down the receiver. Curious, I set my cigarettes aside and tried to make eye contact. The phone rang again and, momentarily embarrassed, she showed her backside to continue the conversation in private. The view was lovely.

As if on cue, Sal cut off my line of vision, waving his hands in the air and grumbling about cold coffee and sloppy service. Desperate to get a better look, I crooned my neck another inch. Suddenly aware of an unnatural silence at the table, I noticed Parker noticing me noticing her so I stopped. After all, that’s how rumors get started. While I continued to peruse the daily specials, Sal grimaced at a runny yolk and tossed another litany of complaints towards the kitchen.

“I asked for them over hard, you stupid twit,” he muttered.

Sal had the temperament of an alligator. If you left him alone he was fine.  If you got in his face, you got bit. I watched as he slid the tines of his fork under the cataract of filmy egg white and then flicked it over the rim of his plate. “Shit looks like snot” he yelled towards the kitchen and then looked back at me. “Covington…do I look like I eat snot?” he asked and then blenched. The waitress took his rather disgusting cue and placed another order.

No longer interested in breakfast, I returned my head to the menu. I wasn’t really that hungry, but dinner was gonna be a long way off, so I decided to eat something light while I caught up on schedules with Sal. Another patron walked through the doors, hung his coat on a peg, and shuffled his way to the counter. Curious, the brunette glanced up to see who it was. I took advantage of the opportunity and smiled. Uncomfortable with my attention, she fiddled with the cord and returned to her conversation. Again, the view was agreeable and again Parker noticed I was noticing and proffered a knowing glance. A few seconds later the young waitress emerged from the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee and a new plate of eggs for Sal. Good thing too as the pudgy Parole Officer to my right had absolutely no filter between his brain and his yap. If he thought it, he said it. Grateful for her intrusion, I pulled my head back in between the covers of the menu and smiled. The waitress walked away as Sal continued to edify that “over hard” meant just what he said─ “over hard”─ just like Parker’s thick skull. Parker chuckled, but then Parker was an idiot.

Since nothing else looked good, I opted for the Blue Plate Special: a bowl of Brunswick stew. Sal continued to bitch about the service in between mouthfuls as Parker poured half the creamer pot into his coffee without looking. I watched as the white paste oozed from the stainless lip of the little jug and cringed. Like my marriage, its contents had grown tepid and sour. Parker added a crap load of sugar to sweeten the slurry and then stirred the whole mess until hoary chunks of beige began to swirl as if caught inside a funnel. Nauseated, I looked away from the curdled mass and concentrated on the brunette who was now making her way towards our booth.

Gerrilyn Baldwin worked with Parker Jade in the Parole Department at the Lowndes County Courthouse and had been making overtures since the end of March. Normally it would have been a boost to my middle-aged ego, but something in her behavior lately rang insincere. Ten years my junior with a potful of kids, she was still a looker with the sexual appetite of a teenage boy. Married with two of my own, I had no interest in adding to my ledgers, but didn’t mind the tease. Somehow what had passed for playful banter between us in the weeks and months before had unexpectedly escalated overnight into registered commitment. Rumors were flying, and they were beginning to make me grossly uncomfortable. I won’t deny that Kaye and I had been at each other’s throats off and on for most of the summer. It seems that had become par for the course ever since that little escapade in Douglas a couple of years back. And like a true junkyard dog, once Kaye got something stuck in her craw, she never let go. Maybe it was the sudden change in weather or the pressure from the rumors circling about all the affairs in the coffee-drinking crowd that had brought it up again. Whatever it was, it had everybody on edge, including my wife. I figured until the rumors cooled down, I would bury myself in my work. And maybe when life got back to normal, Kaye and I could try and work things out.

Seeing Gerrilyn’s approach, the waitress attentively brought another menu. Sal grumbled between curled lips that the cream in the pot had curdled as well. Dutifully, the young girl offered everyone a fresh cup while I watched the brunette check herself out in the mirror behind the counter. Big black eyes, long brown hair, and legs that drizzled like hot candle wax all the way down into a pair of spiky red pumps made her the most exotic woman I’d ever seen. Mesmerized, I watched her hips twist rhythmically under the cut of her skirt and imagined the heat generated by the friction of her thighs. With every step, the flimsy fabric undulated, accentuating the v of her crotch. My stomach lurched again. This time it had nothing to do with the mottled cream. Gerrilyn waited patiently till the waitress had gone and then quickly slid in beside me. She was so close, I could smell her perfume. It was pure sex.

While the Parole Officer concentrated on dismantling his steak, we made small talk about the weather and the local circus being back in town. I mentioned I’d already taken my little ones and casually asked about the others. Parker chiseled a grizzled mass away from the bone and reminded me his kids were too old for that kind of shit. The youngest was a junior in high school and the other already away at college. Since Sal had no family and Gerrilyn was going through a nasty divorce, the focus turned back to me. In between the awkward silences and Gerrilyn’s eyes, I mentioned the human interest piece in the paper about my boy.

At the age of nine, my eldest had already begun to build electronic gadgets from scratch and the article was showcasing his newest invention. Gerrilyn seductively brushed the top of my hand as she reached for the paper. It wasn’t much of a gesture, but it was enough. Nervous, I pulled the printed page from her fingertips and showed it to the others. Sal asked about my youngest, so I pulled out my wallet and handed him the most recent school portrait of Jules. Each one of them ceremoniously took his or her turn ogling and smiling. Baldwin stiffened for a moment when she saw her face and then politely commented that although the tiny tot had a lot of Kaye’s features, she definitely had my blue-gray eyes.

“She does, doesn’t she?” I agreed and placed the photo on the table between us to keep me honest.

Always two conversations behind, Sal kicked in. “That’d be a real bitch,” he mumbled, grape jelly drooling from the left side of his mouth. “Having a kid be smarter than his old man, I mean.”

Parker chuckled and pulled his last unfiltered Lucky Strike from its crumpled container. “So, how the hell did that kid get to be so smart anyways, Covington?”

“Well, it’d have to come from his mamma’s side of the family, now wouldn’t it?” Sal cut in. “She’s the one with the real brains in your family, eh Covington?” he sneered and poked an egg-glazed fork in the direction of my face. “I know, ‘cuz it sure as shit ain’t you, pal,” he chortled. Uncomfortable with my public sentiment, Gerri slid her hand under the table to my upper thigh.

“Course to hell she’s smart,” I barked back, defending my honor. “She married me, didn’t she?” Gerrilyn’s hand quickly slipped from the heat of my groin to the meat of my thigh. I winced, but remained silent and watched as her eyes turned flat and blank like a shark’s. It was that kind of shit that both scared and excited me about her.

If Parker noticed, he never showed it.  He skimmed over the clumsy stillness with a couple of primordial grunts and added “She ain’t a bad looking woman either, Covington. Makes my wife look like that Alpo crap you just ordered.”

Even though I couldn’t actually take credit for Kaye’s good looks, I did. “Thank you.” I smirked. Gerrilyn’s eyes flashed. While jealousy looked well on her, it was the first time I knew I had crossed some imaginary line between us. Cautiously, I removed her hand from my leg and tried to massage the divot out of my thigh.

Parker used his chubby fingers to tamp out his cigarette and glared at Gerri. “Cut the shit, Baldwin. You got no right to get your panties in a wad. You’re not even divorced yet.” Then he looked at me and growled. “And Covington? Don’t go putting her in a bad mood, eh? I gotta work with her the rest of the day, ya hear?”

Duly warned, I decided a trip to the local card shop that afternoon was in order. Determined to make me jealous, Gerrilyn inched slowly across to the other side of the booth to flirt with my unwed partner. While she cooed like a dove, I planned out what I should do. Flowers would have cemented the rumors, so I decided I would find a relatively neutral card– something sweet, but not too sappy. Then I’d write something real casual, like “Sorry.  Me and my big mouth.” I’d sign my name, but just my first name, nothing else. No closing sentiments to get me in trouble, nothing that would scream scandal. Just my name–Charley. And if that wasn’t enough, she’d already made it blatantly clear there were other ways of securing her favor.

The payphone on the wall jangled again and the old cashier finally answered it on the fifth ring. This time it was for Parker. Gerri’s eyes follow him as his lumbering ass cleared the table and crossed the room. Somebody had those two on an awfully short leash lately. I understood it for Parker, but why the choker chain extended its way all the way down to his secretary’s neck was a conundrum. With both Parker and Baldwin there I wasn’t about to talk shop with Sal. Seemed fraternal protection had been thinning a bit and it was getting harder to figure out who in the local government could be trusted. Suddenly if you weren’t all in, you were all out.  And being all out lately was becoming a very dangerous place to be.

Baldwin bit at her lower lip and shifted uncomfortably in her seat the longer Parker talked. Wanting to ease the tension, I began teasing Sal about some jelly on his upper lip. Still angry that I had refused to publicly apologize, Gerri dabbed a napkin with her saliva and wiped away the purpled stain with a few short seductive strokes. Sal wasn’t interested in her silly games and batted her hand away like an irritating midge. Normally I would have enjoyed the show, but it was clear the charade hadn’t been for him. It’d been for me. Baldwin wanted to make sure I knew what I‘d be missing if I cut her off one more time. Challenged, I pulled a stale cigarette from my shirt pocket and reached for the silver lighter I’d bought from Morris’s Pawn Shop earlier that morning. I tilted my head and then lit the end of my fag. Her eyes flashed and she tossed her head back towards Parker, but he was too busy on the phone to notice. Early on in this game I had learned that where there was smoke, there was fire and where there was fire, there was always Baldwin baiting some fella in a uniform to put it out.

I toyed with the lid of the lighter until Gerri’s fingers began to twitch, a dead giveaway she knew who the lighter belonged to. Satisfied I’d gotten the nod of recognition I needed, I placed it on the table next to Jules’s picture. Baldwin never said a word, and I began to wonder just how long it would take before she got the balls to ask how I’d found it. Meanwhile, Parker jotted something down on the back of a match cover and raised a hand to signal five more minutes. Whoever the mystery caller was, they had just made it perfectly clear the coffee clutch was over. While Parker headed for the john, the mischievous sprite in the skirt across from me fixed her make-up in a tiny tortoise-shelled mirror. I took another pull on my Pall Mall and watched intently as she drew a waxy stick of crimson across her soft pale lips. With every stroke, I felt my marriage vows slipping away

Thankfully the waitress interrupted my thoughts and topped us all off. In between a series of automated “thank you’s” tiny wisps of smoke and steam curled and clung to one another in the air above us. It was a suggestive pairing that made me self-conscious. Gerrilyn’s eyes seemed to soften, her pent-up energy abated as her body loosened in her seat. Just watching the transformation was seductive. Suddenly a pair of stocking’d feet raised the bottom cuff of my left trouser and teased the lower bow of my calf. Disgusted at my immediate response, I ground the end of my cigarette into the ashtray and held my fingers there to feel the burn—trying to remind myself of the pain I would be causing my family if I refused to walk away.

Oblivious to the underground seduction, Sal finally found the bottom of his plate and eased his wrinkled mass back into the tufted wall of gold vinyl. As was his custom, he wiped his mustache, belched, and then rubbed his full belly like some kind of goddam good luck Buddha. Anxious, I focused on the picture of Jules and took a sip of the hot liquid to try and clear my head. How Italians translate poor manners into supreme complement I will never know; nonetheless, I was grateful for the comic interlude. We all had a good laugh, and seconds later Parker crawled back into the light from the shadowed hallway. Having momentarily let down her guard, Gerri immediately snapped to attention when her boss suddenly signaled it was time to go. While the thick Parole Officer dickered for change to use in a cigarette vending machine, she made her apologies and gathered her things. Sal sniveled something about having to relieve himself and I held my tongue, not wanting to delay his departure. As soon as my partner’s disheveled carcass cleared the booth, I tried to get her attention.

Halfway across the checkered floor, Sal grunted a generic salutation over his shoulder to Gerri and then hollered something more condescending to her boss. “See ya ‘round Parker…and don’t take any wooden nickels, ya hear, ya stupid dick?

Parker held up a very stubby middle finger in response as he popped a mint in his mouth and the young waitress walking past him on the ass. I laughed, but I didn’t mean it. Hanging out with the two of them was like being forced to stand between two pimply-faced teenaged boys outside the girl’s locker room window after gym class. Half of the time you wanted to apologize for their disgusting behavior and the other half you wanted them to lift you higher to get a better view.

Alone at last with the woman who held the key to the significance of the lighter, I told her I needed to ask her a question. I wanted to see if she knew about the rumors─ not about us, but about something else. In between the banging of pots from the kitchen, the phone on the wall began to jingle again. Like a Pavlovian dog she jerked her head around and salivated with every ring. What was with all the phone calls this morning? Irritated that she refused to concentrate on the conversation at hand, I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her closer. She misread the meaning and instinctively shoved her foot into my crotch and held it there. In Gerrilyn’s world my aggressive behavior hadn’t been an insult, it was an aphrodisiac and she responded accordingly. A thin smile crowded her cheeks. I thought it meant all was forgiven, but I couldn’t tell. Since she had me by the balls both literally and figuratively, I gave her a second to redirect her energies, but she kept staring at the phone. Frustrated, I bypassed common sense and cut to the chase.

“What do you know about the rumors surrounding a certain someone at the American Le…?” I began.

Her head suddenly snapped back. I never even finished the sentence, but knew immediately I’d struck a nerve. Wide-eyed and short of breath, she held my gaze. “Does she have anything to do with this lighter?” I baited further.

Sal reappeared from the bathroom and although I was forced to drop the conversation, I kept up my guard. I wasn’t sure about my partner, but now felt confident Parker and his secretary was somehow involved in what I had been working on. The phone continued to rattle off the wall while the old cashier rang up another customer. Uncharacteristically efficient, Sal stepped in and yanked the black receiver from its cradle. A mumble or two later he signaled it was for the very large man now beating the shit out of the vending machine in the lobby vestibule that had eaten his quarters but refused to deliver its goods. Disappointed, I looked into Gerrilyn’s eyes. How the hell could she have gotten mixed up in this?

Sal’s patience was as thin as his polished veneer. He thrust the receiver into the air and hollered for a second time, “Parker!”

“What do ya want, Wheaton? Can’t you see I’m busy?” Parker bellowed and returned his attentions to the machine. “Broken piece of shit” he muttered and slammed the metal side of the cage with a calloused fist. “You owe me .35 cents” he yelled back at the tiny waitress who was still embarrassed by his bawdy behavior. “This goddam thing’s broken again. Have your boss get it fixed, or I’ll have your boyfriend picked up for violating his parole.”

The feisty scamp in the frilled uniform parroted Sal’s previous sentiments. “He’s not my boyfriend and he’s not on parole anymore either you… stupid dick.” Shocked by her sudden bravado, I was impressed until she hid behind the counter. Parker held up a familiar finger. She gathered her courage and held up one in return. It had a set of wedding rings on it.

“You married that little shit?” Parker retorted. The waitress smiled and switched fingers.

Her reciprocal demeanor pissed Parker off. “Get the stupid thing fixed, or married or not he’ll be picked up for something else and this time you’ll have to pay to get his sorry ass out! And I promise you…I always collect.” The large man discreetly juggled the lumps between his thick thighs and then licked his lips. Both the waitress and I shrugged at his crass behavior.

“Parker…pay attention!  I said it’s for you.” Sal reiterated. “It’s Finch,” he warned and let the receiver dangle. “He sounds mad.”

“Like I give a rat’s ass, Wheaton.” Parker barked back.

Sensing Parker’s lack of patience, the waitress shrank behind the counter again. Determined not to go without, Parker slammed the cigarette machine against the wall for a second time. Reluctantly, it spit out two packs of Lucky Strikes. The irony was not lost on me. Momentarily satisfied, he turned to find the waitress and grinned. “That’s how you get shit done around here. Remember that,” he warned. And then as an afterthought to Sal, “Tell the son-of-a-bitch I’m on my way.” Gerri squirmed in the bench across from me, waiting for him to lower the boom on her next and he did. “Baldwin, get your lazy butt moving. You’re on the clock as of now. Move it!” he thundered.

And that was that. The Sheriff and king of Lowndes County had called his portly jester back to court and the party was over. Message delivered, Sal slapped the receiver back into the cradle and made his way for the counter. The woman across from me, still visibly anxious, pulled her foot from my crotch. I pressed her again for information. She stalled, pulling her long legs out of the booth; seductive inch after inch slowly clearing the bruised vinyl. Once vertical, she adjusted her skirt and then leaned in close.

“I’d like to see you later,” she whispered. I wanted to see her too, but no longer for the same reason. I moved the lighter another few inches from her fingers. “Well?” she fussed. I knew if I looked at her it would all be over, so I stared straight ahead and kept my yap shut. “We’ll be in touch then,” she said and reached again for the lighter. She was so close I could almost trace the lace of her bra with my tongue. She wanted that lighter bad, but it was the best bargaining chip I had left. When I refused to release my hold, she leaned in tighter. “Don’t tease me, Covington. You don’t know what I know.”

She was right. I didn’t know everything she knew, but I knew enough. I blew a ring of smoke into the air and concentrated on its dissipation while she eased back into her crimson heels and collected herself. She tossed her sweater casually over her shoulder and then lowered herself into my ear.

“Look…let’s make a trade,” she plied. I could feel her warm breath upon my neck and it gave me the chills. “You have something I need. And I have something that you… want.” The elongated pause in between her intentions and the certain payoff made it difficult to concentrate, but I was determined to hold my ground. Sensing disloyalty, she stuffed my left hand under the rim of her skirt and applied pressure with her nails. I held it there in a moment of indecision. “I knew you’d see it my way. I told them not to worry.”

Everything about her was intoxicating; everything about my attraction to her wrong. Gerri Baldwin was the thin gray line that separated the black and white of my every right and wrong. She was the gatekeeper to forbidden pleasures…the line that would always beg to be crossed.

I looked down at the blue hemline that had swallowed half of my arm and reminded myself she was the last line between them and me. Too old to play the fool any longer, I pulled my fingers from the dampened mesh of nylon and remanded myself to stay strong. Left without, the brunette beside me made a puzzling face. Ignoring her pouty lower lip, I closed my fist over the tiny silver fire box and remained silent as her perfume began to fade from under my nostrils.

Gerrilyn Baldwin was little more than a courier, a sexy little dark-eyed pigeon that used her crotch to receive and deliver information. Unwilling to contribute further to her disease, I picked up the newspaper to distract myself. Karma dictated that the article with my son’s face stared back at me. Shamed by his innocence, I turned the paper over. Kaye and I had real troubles, but we also had children. Deep inside I was afraid we might not be able to work things out, but at least if I walked away now… I’d be able to look my kids in the eye and tell them the truth. I turned to ask Baldwin one last time to come clean about what she knew regarding the waitress from the American Legion Club and heard the double glass doors of the diner click shut behind her instead. Left alone with nothing but my conscience and unwarranted guilt, I began to second guess myself.

The waitress dropped off my bowl of Brunswick stew and a handful of saltines. In between time, Sal had paid his bill and made a phone call of his own. Tipping his hat and the old broad behind the register, he waltzed to the end of the booth and grinned. Suddenly something at the bottom of the paper caught my eye. I ripped the small ad from the page, stuffed it along with Jules’s picture back inside my wallet, and stared at the steaming mass before me.

“I don’t know how you can eat that crap, Covington. Looks like wet dog food to me,” he barked and picked up his coat and hat. Afraid of losing another gratuity, the young waitress quickly assured me the cook had made the stew fresh that morning.

Sal smirked and then shoved a fresh cigar into the corner of his mouth. “Got a light, Covington?” he pimped and then bit off the tip and spit the soggy end back onto the table. “And that’s for the curdled cream earlier, sweetheart. Next time, check your condiments and your attitude before I get here,” he snickered and then glanced back at me. I, however, was busy trying to get a view of Gerri as she waited at the crosswalk. He followed my lead and then for a second time that morning cut off my view.

“So, Covington…about that light?” he prompted.

Having lost sight of the brunette behind his wrinkled vest, I looked up to see his ruddy face not more than six inches from my own. His expression was pinched.

“What do you want from me, Wheaton?”

“How ‘bout you try to keep your mind on your work, huh? Ya know we got a butt load of paperwork to finish before you run off to Moultrie to qualify tomorrow. You can play your little cat and mouse games on your own time.”

He had no right to speak to me like that. I was his superior, but since he was right I let it slide. His eyebrows dipped and fogged by the memory of my hand on Gerrilyn’s thigh, I lost track of his initial request.

“What did you want again?” I asked and tried to refocus.

“A light!” he blasted. “Jesus, Covington! Get your head screwed on straight. The lighter, then?”

“Sure,” I said weakly and baited the flint to flame.

“Nice. Get that fancy thing as a birthday present from the little lady, or just picked it up somewhere recently?” he queried. Uncertain if he’d been referring to my wife, I opted for silence. When I didn’t answer, he crushed his nicotine-stained fingers around mine and pulled the lighter closer. I held the tottering flame to the end of his cigar as the fire leapt at the shredded tobacco leaves. When the ragged end began to glow, he twisted my hand and tilted the lighter to the side to get a better look.

“I’d say you just got yourself screwed, Covington. Hope it was worth it.” He puffed a few more times like a mad dragon and then quickly released all his fingers at once. The pungent smoke bit at my nostrils and burned my eyes. Even though he was my partner, I got the funny feeling his loyalty had already been bought by someone else.

“Is this about the money you lost?” I taunted.

The silence hung in the air as thick as the rancid smoke between us. Sal and another agent had been advanced a huge wad of cash as bait in a moonshine sting a month earlier and had lost it. Drunk from sampling the wares with the potential buyer, the snitch who brokered the deal had to take both men back to the motel and tuck them into bed. While they slept it off, the snitch made away with the advance money and Sal’s integrity. When it came time to make out his report, Wheaton had nothing to show for his little snipe hunt other than a very pricey hangover and an empty gunny sack. ATTD higher-ups were incensed. With no advance money, no bust, no moonshine, and no credibility left within the department, I’d been forced to write him up. I didn’t enjoy doing it and, sadly, things between us had never been the same. Even still, I could not imagine that he would betray me.

Sal slowly rolled the cheap cigar back and forth in between his yellowed teeth, considering his allegiances. Finally he spoke. His words were labored… calculated. “You know who’s lighter that is, don’t you, Charley?” he asked and blew another round of smoke in my face to punctuate his displeasure. “Better dump that thing before somebody knows you have it.”  He spat and abruptly made his way for the exit. With his foot on the threshold, his whiskered chin quivered. “And screw you for bringing up the money again, Covington.”

“Sal…” I began, but stopped. Apologizing for doing my job would have diminished us both. I was his superior─ supposed to lead the way, show him the ropes, teach by example, and call him out when he screwed things up. With nothing left to add, his name hung in the air like leftover condemnation.

Hurt, he turned on his scuffed Wingtips and faced me. “It was a stupid mistake─ just like your little skirt out there that just crossed the street.” He rolled his eyes towards the brunette who was just beginning to mount the stairs of the courthouse and continued. “You wanna start calling people out for screw-ups, Covington?  Make sure you place your name at the top of the list. Ok, pal?”

Disrespectful as it might have felt, he was right. Having nothing else to say, I left the conversation one sided. Two seconds later he yanked open the first of the foyer doors and put on his coat. The lingering smoke began to choke my lungs and, no longer hungry, I pushed the stew aside.

The waitress reappeared from the kitchen and, emboldened by the duo’s departure, came back by with a fresh bowl of stew. I reached for my paper and threw down a ten dollar bill. She noted the money and, confused, looked me in the eye.

“But, Mr. Covington, I told you it was fresh. I even brought you a new bowl just to be sure.” I acknowledged the extra effort and told her she could keep the change.

“It’s ok. You don’t have to pay. You never even touched the first bowl and…”

Sal had been right. If I was going to expect the truth from anyone else, it needed to start with me.

“No…I didn’t.” I said softly, folding the picture of my 5×7 son under my arm. “But just because a person doesn’t touch something, don’t mean they don’t have to pay for it.”

“I’m sorry?” she queried.

I knew she didn’t get the analogy, but it didn’t matter. I crossed the floor and grabbed my coat just in time to see the hem of Gerri’s blue skirt across the street melt between the remaining smoke of Sal’s cigar and the closing doors of the Lowndes County Courthouse. Maybe I should have said something sooner. Maybe it might have changed her mind about that night. Maybe it might have changed mine. Suddenly I heard the broken voice of a man, whimpering in pain. It was a voice I did not immediately recognize as my own.

 

****

“I don’t understand!” I shriek outside my head.  “How did I get here?” The smell of bacon and the checkered floor of the diner have somehow been exchanged for pockmarked gravel and the stench of decaying worms. The man with the loudest voice continues to throw things about my car, cursing my name and preaching to me about the sanctity of fraternal protection. I tell him I understand fraternal protection. What I don’t understand is why it no longer applies to me. I try to piece things together…to make them stop yelling…but the man with the gun just keeps hitting me on the back of the head, demanding I tell them where it is.

“Where is what?” I keep asking, uncertain exactly what it is they are looking for.  But they don’t seem to listen.

“Where is it, you stupid shit? Where is it? Did you really think we would not find out about it?” My vision blurs as he smashes my other cheek back into the wet pavement. As I come to, I realize what I initially thought was the blinding sun is nothing more than a pair of blazing headlights. As my eyes begin to focus, I make out the profile of another sedan and a small truck. In a brief moment of clarity I can hear another set of tires slapping their way through puddles in the dirt frontage road below, coming from the left side of the bridge. Who else is here?

The man is demanding I tell him where I have hidden the others. He kicks me in the gut again, and I roll another couple of feet down the road towards the river. In between the chunks of vomit trying to make their way up my throat, I try to catch my breath. Do they intend to drown me too? I need to get to my gun. My bloody fingers reach desperately at my side and make contact with nothing but the slick facing of my leather belt. Suddenly I remember I’m not packing.

Sandy grit bites into the raw flesh of my shredded cheek. Focus, focus… I tell myself. I had it at the range…using wad cutters…qualifying in Moultrie. Callenwald was there. We argued about the woman. Random images from the diner and the range keep racing through my mind and getting all confused. Suddenly a tall, thin man steps into the frame. The headlights from the other car define his silhouette. It is familiar. I reach for my holster and again remember I’m not packing. Where is my gun? Is it in the trunk of my car? No– at the office. No– at home. I cannot think. How long have I been lying here? Was it an hour ago or a week ago that I left Kaye at the sink rinsing out the coffee pot? We argued about the brunette again. Mentally I try to retrace my steps from the kitchen, but they give me no time to think.

First there was coffee, then there was none. I was at the 4-way. Surprised to see her. Surprised to see him. I try to tell them that I am only concerned about the rumor, and then suddenly my arms are on fire. They are trying to get me to confess, but I’ve committed no crime. Georgia pines whiz by outside the window, but they are going in the wrong direction. I do not recognize the man behind the wheel. It is about the rumor. They think I know everything. I try to make sense of their rage. I hear her voice and I cannot decide if I am drunk or delusional.

“Tell me you brought it with you, Charley” she says, and when I do not answer, someone jerks me up from behind and I feel the cartilage tear away from the tendons in my right shoulder. The man with the gun keeps waving it in my face.  I recognize his features, but not his connection to her. Drunk with pain, I take a wild swing and amazingly connect with his jaw. There is a hole where a tooth once was. He and I now wear the same bleeding badge of virility. It will be his souvenir. I keep looking at her face, pleading, trying to understand, but her eyes have gone blank just like the day I refused to apologize.

Is that what this is all about? Her goddam ego? Before I can ask I am thrown into the wheel well of my car. The man with the torn hat has placed himself to the front to watch for cars, his tasseled acorns dancing in the lamp lights. The man behind me with the waving gun slams me into the edge of the metal fender, taking a chunk out of my lower lip. She moves slowly towards me. I know she likes it rough.

“Is this some new kind of foreplay?” I joke, trying to tamp down the hysteria in my voice. The man steps in front of me, waving his gun and mouthing obscenities. His bravado is disproportionate. I bat his hand away just as my partner swapped her hand away a few mornings ago at breakfast. I look past his shoulder into her eyes. They are black as the void within her soul. I think about the ad in my wallet… how could I have been such a fool?

Without warning I am thrown back into the front quarter panel of the Ford again, my neck jammed between the front right tire and the body frame. The rubber is pitted with tiny rocks and caked with mud that now fills the gaping spaces between my two front teeth. The man behind me screeches again, reminding that I have nothing left to bargain with. All I can taste is blood… all I know is confusion.  And then amidst the kaleidoscope of screaming faces and tarnished badges I hear a series of clicks and then a large pop. A bright light flashes inside my head and my spine goes limp. I’m so tired…so very tired.

“Just let me close my eyes for a moment and I’ll tell you everything I know.” The man with the gun is cursing me and I suddenly realize I have not spoken out loud. He hasn’t heard me. I try to speak louder, but my tongue cannot find any teeth to form the vowels with. He kicks me one more time and I slump to the bottom of the tire. The light inside my head is brighter now, but the pain no longer registers in my limbs. She tells me she never loved me and my heart begins to slow. Her damp hair brushes my cheek as she rummages through my pockets. There is anger in her touch. I hear my grandfather again. “There is no fool like an old fool.”

Another man joins the fray. His energy is frantic and he dances on the wet pavement with exaggerated movements. “What the hell have you done? What the hell! He’s dying, you stupid son-of-a-bitch…he’s dying!” Am I dying?  I hear the echo of his shoes patter in the tiny pockets of rain captured within the road as they rush towards me.  “Holy shit, he’s dying!” There is sincere anguish in his voice. Crazy as it seems, I want to comfort him.

“No, not dying…just going home,” I try to tell him. I feel my body moving as if under someone else’s power. Their words are now a jumble, yet I can clearly hear the creaking of limbs within the Georgia pines above me as they sway rowdily in the cool night wind. They said it was supposed to storm. I feel the first few drops of rain and tell myself if I hurry I can make it home before the squall begins.

If I hurry the coffee will still be hot. I can apologize to my wife. I can put my son to bed. I can read the book again to Jules and tell her I’m so sorry I made her cry.

I need to get home to tell Jules…to tell Jules… to tell.

Lights fade to black.

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