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Sunday Stories from the South
Today I am taking a risk. I’ve decided to share a draft of a chapter from an unpublished manuscript. Even though this fragment is incomplete, unfinished, and by no means perfect, it represents the general tone of the larger project. The book will be a novel that revolves around a mystery, but hopefully not just a formulaic “whodunnit.” As it now stands, this selection is from the third chapter entitled “Holes.”
Avery Wilcox sat in the general store counting his money. Not that he was particularly good at counting. Or at making money for that matter. But he sure enjoyed the sensation of having a bit of it. Every morning, he would arrive about an hour before it was time to open so he could empty the till of the last day’s sales. He preferred it this way because he liked to start the day with some cash in his fat little hands.
By 8:00 A.M., it was already balmy. But it was always hot in Arkansas in the middle of May. Hot and sticky. Come July, humidity would be so high that one was as likely to drown in it as roast. Last year at this time, when the flood surge breached the Chicot County levees, the steaming water had already boiled fifty-seven hundred pounds of crawfish.
In 1928 there was no such thing as air-conditioning in Antrim. If a man wanted to be cooler he would leave his undershirt in his dresser drawer and unhitch one side of his overalls. But poor Avery was a businessman. He couldn’t run around town bear-chested. Strutting around half-naked was unacceptable behavior for an upstanding member of the chamber of commerce. And it didn’t even much matter which half. He had to make do by leaving the front door open, rolling up his sleeves, and asking the Good Lord for a gentle breeze.
At present, Heaven seemed disinterested in adjusting the thermostat. The heat settled in the cellar of Avery’s britches. He was convinced the sweat pooling beneath his soggy arms would rust his sockets. He missed seventy-five cents while this rolled around in his mind.
There was plenty of room for things to roll around in that head of his. Plenty of room for things to get lost too. That is, if you listened to anyone who traded in the store his father had worked hard to build into a respectable place to buy beans and bailing wire after losing a leg to some damned Yankee’s bullet while defending some damned place with some damned unpronounceable Indian name in Mississippi. Avery missed an entire dollar thinking about damned Yankees and Indians.
He was about to start counting the dimes for the third time when Gerry Murphy walked in.
“Mornin’ Ave,” Gerry said in a lazy drawl. He was a barrel-chested man who wore a smile as big as a Texan’s lies. His butcher’s shop lay catty-cornered from the General Store. He came in about twice a week to buy paper or twine or some soap. About once a month he’d need a fresh apron. Bloodstains are stubborn things.
“Top of the mornin’” answered Avery, as he stuffed bank notes back into the register. “What can I do for ya?”
“I have three cows to process this week and I’m nearly outta’ packin’ paper,” said the butcher.
“I should have about a quarter of a roll left on the other side of that linen cloth over yonder, Gerry.”
“Ain’t nothin’ here but an empty spool,” Gerry said.
“Do what?” said Avery, his cheeks growing as red as the horseshoe of hair that crowned his substantial head.
Avery Wilcox was a kind man—but the kind that didn’t care one wit for being inconvenienced. His temper was almost short as he was. So it didn’t take much to get his dander up.
“You sure ya didn’t move it, Ave? This here spindle beside the linen is as bare as a newborn.”
At that, Avery hopped down from his seat behind the register and waddled over to investigate the butcher’s claim. Gerry smiled again, thinking Ole Avery looked like a pouting child who had just been told he couldn’t have a third slice of coconut pie before bed.
“I know damn well I still had some paper!” Avery swore, storming across the floor.
Sure enough, the spool was bare. When he saw the empty spindle, blood flooded his meaty jowls like a broken bottle of port.
He stood there bewildered. Chubby hands on prodigious hips, surveying the cluttered store. To the casual observer it would appear that the contents of the store were just thrown at random. But Avery was not a casual observer. He knew where every sewing needle or yard broom was—or at least where they were supposed to be.
A few items were out of place. Some were missing altogether. He hadn’t bothered to the back door when he came into the store that morning. He had been too eager to start stacking quarters. Leaving Gerry standing between ninety-seven yards of linen and an empty roll of paper, Avery marched to the rear of the building to see if anything else was amiss.
As soon as he rounded the corner, he noticed the back door ajar. Sunlight beamed through a hole that once held a knob.
“Weak latches might give way under a stout night wind,” he reasoned to himself. “But a knob sure as hell won’t just get up and walk clean out of a door!”
A chill crawled up his spine and made a nest in the fine hairs on the back of his neck. The room was cooler now. But this wasn’t that tender breeze from heaven for which he had prayed earlier.
Fine beads of cold sweat dotted his forehead like so many translucent pinpricks. He drew himself to his full stature and took several cautious steps towards the yellow eye glaring at him from across the room. It was on the third step that he couldn’t help admitting to himself that he was afraid.
Fear is a peculiar sensation. It admits degrees and kinds and compulsions. There is a slight fear, like the fear of embarrassment, that keeps people on their toes. There is a paradoxical, gut-wrenching fear, like a soldier experiences in the midst of battle, compelling remarkable acts of valor. There is a shocking fear, the lightning bolt nipping at the heel, that sends a person running for dear life. But then there is an enthralling fear, a captivating fear. Creeping on spidery legs. Bedding down between the shoulders.
And by Avery’s fourth step toward the knobless door, dread had found a home just beneath the nape of his neck. When he reached the rear entrance he could tell that someone had broken the knob loose. It was shattered on one side. It looked to have been struck with something heavy. And with considerable force.
As the interrogatives exploded in his panicked brain—who, what, why—one nagging question burst with greater intensity than all the rest. Would the culprit return? If so, would it be for the money or for him? That unrelenting thought took root just south of his shirt collar and began to fester.
Avery swallowed hard as he hurried back to the front of the store. Gerry was still waiting, hoping that the storekeeper had found him some packing paper.
“Any luck?” he said, grinning like a possum with a mouth full of briers.
“I’ve been robbed, Gerry!” Avery bellowed.
“Robbed? Who? Well, I don’t mean who. Course you don’t know who. But whadaya mean robbed? What they take?” Gerry said, struggling to make sense of Avery’s claim.
“Somebody busted the knob off the back door and let themselves in. I ain’t rightly sure bout’ what all they took. I’ll have to look around some more. But I know they took that paper. And some other things ain’t where they’re supposed to be. They robbed me!” Avery said, almost in a fit.
Now, Gerry Murphy didn’t know the word “histrionics,” but if he had that knowledge would’ve broadened his grin by half. “Look, calm down. Ain’t nobody hurt. And I know they didn’t steal your money cause I caught you counting it like an ole miser when I walked in. Let’s just get the law over here and let them sort it out.” Gerry said, smiling.
But telling Avery Wilcox to calm down when he was nearer to the moon than he was to serenity was like saying “sic’em” to a bulldog.
“Calm down?! What do you mean, calm down?! Somebody violated this place!” Avery hollered, throwing his stubby arms around in the air like some wild-eyed, Appalachian tent-preacher. “And you know damn well there ain’t no real law here!” Avery barked.
Gerry took a step back from Avery, drawing his chin tight against his chest like a wary terrapin will snatch everything that isn’t shell inside the bone doors before locking them up. Even so, Gerry nodded in the affirmative. Technically, Avery was right. The town of Antrim did not have a police department. What they had instead was Ezekiel Fitzpatrick.
Known to everyone as “Zeke,” save for his wife, he was uncle to Mack Fitzpatrick, and younger brother to Elijah, Mack’s father. At sixteen, he left Elijah’s farm, hightailing it back to Ireland. No one heard from him until a decade later when he returned wearing a clerical collar. For a year, Zeke served as priest at Holy Trinity, Antrim’s Roman Catholic parish, before trading in his collar for a wedding band.
The Archdiocese granted the young cleric a dispensation to continue serving the congregation until he married since there were so few priests in the area. But after he was wedded he needed work. His brother, Elijah, offered him a share in the family farm but Zeke never had much interest in digging rows and planting seeds. So when a freshly appointed mayor asked him if he would be interested in establishing a constabulary in Antrim he was excited at the prospect. And it is the post of Chief Constable that Zeke Fitzpatrick has manned for the past thirty-seven years.
The title “Chief Constable” is a bit deceptive since there are no deputies. But the mayor, whose only real job seems to be caring about such trifles, thought it had a nice ring to it. Zeke was charged with taking care of minor matters of law and order. Major matters of justice would be directed to the sheriff over in Shelby, the county seat. But no one could recall the last time a matter was major enough to trouble the sheriff. Antrim didn’t even have a jail. When there was a need to detain the occasional drunks and rowdies, Zeke would lock them in the back room of Avery’s Store until they either sobered up or settled down. When asked what a constable was, Zeke would laugh and say, “A constable is what Antrim has instead of law enforcement.” And it was this particular point about which the irate Wilcox was holding forth with great vigor just now.
“This requires real po-lice!” shouted Avery, emphasizing the first half of the last word as though it weighed seven or eight pounds more than the latter half. “Somebody might have designs on me! Maybe kill me! Or worse!”
Gerry Adams continued to listen to the store clerk’s histrionics with more than a little amusement. The butcher was not an excitable man. He prided himself in his ability to maintain his composure. After all, it wouldn’t do for a man to be too highly strung whose business was bovine innards and blood by the gallon.
“Alls they did was take a little paper,” Gerry said. But by this time he wasn’t even sure himself if he was trying to comfort his friend or further rile him.
“A little paper?!” Avery fumed. “We don’t know what all they took yet. But they came in by force. That means that they are at least willing to use force! There’s violence in their souls, Gerry!”
“Listen, I’ve got to be gettin’ back to the shop. I think you need to just get Zeke over here, tell him what happened, and let him handle it. No sense in you workin’ yourself up. Mighta’ just been some kids foolin’ around. You don’t know yet,” said Gerry.
“Well, I’ll call the constable. But if I don’t get satisfaction, and I mean fast, I will be gettin’ the sheriff off whatever fishin’ hole he’s floating on and putting his behind to work!” Avery assured him.
“And don’t forget to order some more paper. I can’t wrap ribeyes in good wishes,” Gerry said, chuckling to himself as he walked out the front door.
Wilcox’s General Store was one of the few merchants in town that had a telephone on the premises. Avery stuffed what he could of his fat finger into the rotary and dialed the operator. After a moment, the affable voice of his wife’s sister greeted him through the wires.
“Hello. How may I direct your call?” said she in a genteel accent as thick as kudzu, the first and last words stretching themselves into three-and-a-half syllables.
“Mary Alice, get me Zeke Fitzpatrick. I need to report a crime. I’ve been robbed and I have reason to believe my life’s in danger.”
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