The Flip Shooter
Ponkie and me were out of Jesup, coasting down a two lane stretch of road shadowed by tall pines when we came on this bowlegged man in overalls hunched over, shuffling along, balanced by two five gallon buckets in each gnarled hand.
“Hey, I know him,” Ponkie said.
My head slammed into the dashboard when he braked. “What? Who?” I turned. “You . . . know that . . . ?”
Ponkie whipped the car in reverse the length of a football field or more.
The man set his buckets on the dirt shoulder, pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, took off his ball cap, and mopped his head.
Ponkie braked, put the car in park, opened his door, and legged out of the car all in one motion. He jogged toward the man waving both raised arms. “Berty. Hey Berty. It’s me, Ponkie. You need a lift into town with that load?”
The man waved his hat weakly.
I stepped out of my side. The heat took my breath. Beads of sweat popped out on my forehead and above my lip. I leaned on the scorching trunk and looked up at the sky. It was silver as if sun shone through a thin cloth. The cicadas shrilled, crows squawked, a dove hooed. Decomposing animal stench crept out of the wood and coated my nose and the back of my throat.
Ponkie wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “What have you got in the buckets?”
“Blu-u-eb-berries, uh-huh,” the man said.
“Going into town to sell ‘em?”
They stashed the buckets in the car’s trunk and leveraged a toolbox and old work boots and a dirty flannel shirt around them to make sure they didn’t topple over.
I pulled the front seat up and crawled in the back. The guy legged into Ponkie’s spotless interior with black crusted boots and then collapsed in the front passenger seat.
“Man, let’s get on down the road. It stinks of the dead and is hot as the hinges of hell back here,” I said. My sweaty boxers rode up and chafed my crotch. Sweat spiders flowed down the back of my shirt. The car’s air conditioner could not dilute the man’s earthy sourness.
“Taurus, this is Liberty Abernathy,” Ponkie said. “Berty, this here is Taurus. He was named for the car he was born in.” Ponkie, my staff sergeant when we were active Army, had introduced me this way to countless beautiful women, Army colonels, U.S. and foreign diplomats, a senator, a couple of congressmen, and a famous television reporter. Now to an imbecile.
Bert stared at me, slack-jawed. “Berty Abernathy.” He spit out his name through his missing teeth so fast I wouldn’t have picked it up had Ponkie not already told me. Then he turned his jaunty face forward again, unfitting himself to our conversation, and sat like stagnate ditch water.
After a time, Ponkie asked, “Bert, you got one of your carvings you can show Taurus?”
Bert worked the snuff in his lower gum, raised a hip out of the seat, pulled a bit of wood from his front pocket, and handed it over to Ponkie. He glanced at it, smiled, then handed it back to me. “See that ball. Want to know how it got there?”
The carving had no glued seam. There was a slit with a wooden ball inside like a ship in a bottle.
After a bit, Ponkie asked, “Have you figured it out yet?”
“It was carved while inside there,” Ponkie hollered over his shoulder. “You don’t believe it, do you?”
“It’s hard to imagine.”
“He sells those carvings.”
“Is that right?” I said.
“You want to know how much?” Ponkie asked.
I didn’t. I just wanted to be out of the swelter and stink. “How much?”
“Whatever Gawd tells you is fair,” Bert said. He spit out the window and wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
“That thing’s worth at least twenty,” Ponkie smiled at me in the rear view.
Difficult to part with money earned loading trucks.
“Don’t you think that thing is worth twenty bucks?”
The twenty in my money clip was hard to pry out of my jean pocket. Bert took it, folded it in half, then folded it in half again, pulled a little snap purse out of his bib pocket, stuck the bill in it, snapped the purse shut, and slipped the purse back in his pocket. Then he tapped and rubbed his pocket, closed his eyes, and mumbled something.
“You got yourself a one of a kind piece of art right there,” Ponkie said.
“I’m sure I’ll get a lot of . . . It will give me a lot of insight. The next time I go to the High Museum in Atlanta I’ll be sure to look his stuff up.”
“How’s Lee?” Ponkie asked Bert.
Bert opened his eyes and worked the snuff in his gum. “Good. Uh huh.” Berty’s “uh-huhs” ended with a rising inflection, as if something or someone poked him from behind in the ribs by surprise.
“Is he still custodian at the school?”
Bert nodded, “I reckon so. Uh-huh.”
“Where are you living these days?”
“She still staying with Lee?”
We drove to the Farmer’s Market in Jesup where Bert sold his berries to an obese white woman squat on a folding stool under a floral patio umbrella. She wore a dingy gray kimono with faded blue flowers, over which hung a snuff stained apron. She pulled out a roll of bills from the pocket of the apron and dealt Berty two twenties. Berty did not even look at the cash. He folded the bills the same way he had folded the bill I’d given him and stuffed them in his purse and stuffed the purse in his overalls. Then he closed his eyes and mumbled silently.
It was a black sandy road we turned onto from the main highway to get to Berty’s house. We went out of a scorching blaring sun into a balmy thick wood of oak, pine, cypress, and hickory. The road came along the bank of the murky Altamaha River. Gnarly vines thick as a strong man’s arms wound up tree trunks and crept along limbs to entangle with other trees as if to moor tree to tree to tree. Swagging veils of Spanish damp moss clung to limb, vine, leaf, and trunk. Palmettos stood as if spiked into the loam, and underbrush competed for what sun rays punched through the canopy.
A short-legged round white dog came from under the tin roof house, barking when we drove up.
Bert banged the side of the car. “Hey Chuckie. Hey Chuckie.” He unfolded himself from the car seat, legs and arms and neck and waist, and plopped on the ground, and let the dog sit in his lap and lick his face, and conversed with the dog as if it were a person.
A lanky woman in a yellow housedress and yellow cotton flip-flops came out the front door. With her fists on her hips, she said, “Berty, why didn’t you tell me we had company?”
“Hey, Miss America,” Ponkie said, swiping at a ball of gnats hovering at his head.
“Why, hey Poythress. I ain’t seen you in forever, baby.”
“Yes, ma’am. It’s been a while.” He introduced me.
“How do,” America said. “Lee shore will be glad to see you. Y’all need a TV?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ponkie said.
“Lee’ll be here directly. I got supper on. Y’all hungry, I bet.”
A mosquito bit the side of my neck. I slapped it and came back with a glob of blood on my palm. “We don’t want to put you out, ma’am,” I said.
“Listen to that,” she cackled.
Ponkie stared at me and shook his head.
America busted out. “Aw, Lawd baby, you not gone put me out at all, baby. Catfish and grits.”
“That’ll be fine, Miss America,” Ponkie said. “We’ll wait out here with Berty.”
“That will be fine. Yes, yes, that will be fine. You boys stay outside with your foolishness while I get things on the table.” Miss America then stepped inside the screen door. “Nothing fancy. Nothing fancy. Praise Jesus. Yes. Praise Jesus. We are proud to have you.”
Back and forth, Berty rocked. Back and forth, each time his momentum grew. The last time he popped to his feet. He stomped a few times, walked in a circle and took a quick view as if he’d just returned anew, stomped some more, and shuffled up the three porch steps, stopped, turned left, shuffled five more unhurried steps, and sat on a flimsy cane chair, knees popping.
He reached into his roomy overall pocket for his pocket knife, snapped the blade open with his thumb, tested the blade by shaving the hairs on his arm and started carving on a piece of wood, oblivious to me and Ponkie and the gnats swarming around his eyes. The dog lay behind his chair, unbothered by the gnats swarming around his eyes, too.
Animal hides and skins, skulls, turtle shells were tacked about the asphalt shingle siding of the house.
Bert sheered wood into a carving, making long thrashing strokes and then minute indentations pushing the blade using his thumb. His whole world was wrapped into the carving. His black eyes below the bill of his tan cap were focused on the blade and the wood. The front of his cap read, I ♥ Jesus. Bert turned, flipped, and spun the wood to get a good look at his progress and then he would go back to whittling.
There was one curious skin I ran my hand down, “What’s this?”
“Hell if I know,” Ponkie said. “They sell all that stuff. That’s how Berty makes his living. They don’t believe in Social Security or any government handouts. Lee says it just gets the NSA focused on you with their satellites. That’s why he likes living out here under all these trees. He’s got cameras and things booby trapped all round here. Says he even has satellite jammers out in the woods hid somewhere and has them booby trapped to keep out intruders.”
A black POW/MIA flag flowed below the American flag from a homemade pole in front of the house.
“Have you been out here before?” I said.
“Oh, sure, lots of times,” Ponkie said. “Lee’s like my Momma’s second cousin or something. Watch this. Hey, Berty. Show Taurus your flip.”
“Huh?” Bert was all caught up in his carving.
“Show Taurus here your flip.”
Bert folded the blade away, pocketed the knife, and set his carving on the porch floor. Out of the front bib overall pocket, he pulled out what I’d call a slingshot. It was made of long cords of rubber. The pocket of the slingshot was made from a leather shoe tongue.
“How does he use it?”
“You got to watch this.”
Bert stood. He wrapped the rubber cords around his right thumb and index finger, and then pulled the pocket back. It extended a good two and a half, three feet.
“Looks mighty strong. What do you shoot in it?” I asked.
“Where do you get ‘em.”
Bert reached into his left front pocket and out came about ten quarter-sized rocks.
“Yeah, but where do you get the rocks?”
Bert pointed toward the river.
“What do you shoot at?” I asked.
“Things need shot at. Uh-huh.”
Ponkie nudged me, “Look here.” He ran and rounded up about a dozen bottles and leftover Coke cans out of the trash burn pile and placed them on cinder blocks about twenty yards away. “Hey Bert. Shoot them bottles and cans.”
Bert eyeballed the targets a second or two, and eyeballed the spot he stood in.
“Yeah. This distance will be all right.”
Bert was a machine. Every three to five seconds a bottle exploded or a can flew. Less than sixty seconds later, they were all gone. Not a wasted motion, not a wasted rock.
“Could have used him when those Toyota Hi-Luxs’ hauled up and the Talibs fell out, couldn’t we have?” Ponkie said.
His two missing fingers on his shooting hand seemed to help. “What happened to your fingers, Berty?”
“Alligator bit them off,” Ponkie said.
“You’re messing around with me, now.”
“Hell I am.” Ponkie turned. “Bert, tell Taurus how you lost your fingers?”
“Alligator bit one and gun shot other. Coral ‘bout took this thumb.”
“It wasn’t that alligator nailed to the house, was it?” I hollered to Bert.
Bert stared out toward the river.
Ponkie walked over to Bert and took him by the elbow and walked him back up to the house. “Hey Bert,” Ponkie pointed, “when did you kill that alligator nailed to the house?”
“The day before today, uh-huh,” Bert said. “Friday. March 23rd. 1966.”
Ponkie spoke in my ear. “He doesn’t know last week from yesterday from last year to last month.”
“How did you kill him?” I asked.
“A rock. Uh-huh.”
“With your flip?”
“Naw. I-I-I jumped on him.” He pointed to a heavy blacksmith hammer hanging next to the door. “Hit him in the head with that there hammer and cut his throat w-w-w-with this knife, uh-huh.” He drew out a foot long bowie knife from its leather sheath in the side pocket of his overalls.
“Down on the river?” I asked.
Lee Wooten clanged up in his old Chevy van with his disabled veteran’s tag. The van was the color of whatever door or hood he’d scavenged from the junkyard, some areas patched with bondo, sanded, and primed gray. But the van had a good set of mud tires. The opening driver’s door sounded like it needed aligning with the corner panel and some grease on the hinges. When Lee skidded down from the seat, he jangled from five full sets of key rings he wore around his belt. And it seemed a wise idea that he used red suspenders clipped to his khaki Dickies as redundant support.
“Well hell Poythress, how’s your Momma?”
Lee was a chubby man of medium height, round-shouldered, a square head, with bulging brown eyes. He caressed the exterior of Ponkie’s car. “This your car?”
“What kind is this?”
“One of them Japanese things then?”
Lee hooked his half-moon reading glasses onto his nose and examined the car’s paint job like a diamond cutter. “What color green is this? Eyeball of a fly?”
“I don’t know,” Ponkie said. “I like it.”
“What y’all doing? Need a TV?”
“Just gave Bert a ride into town and back with his berries.”
Lee looked around and found Bert whittling on the porch. “I appreciate that,” he said. “Working hard these days?”
“You still running with that light-skinned girl?”
“What girl are you talking about? I’m not running with a girl right now.”
“I thought you were running with that girl. What’s her name? A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Godby. That’s it.”
“Goodwin. Me and her dated in high school. That girl’s got three kids.”
Lee laughed, “You not one of them babies’ daddy?”
“No, sir. Taurus is the ladies’ man,” Ponkie said. “He turns them away. I wish I had that problem.”
Lee hollered, “Man, used to be the only thing I turned down was my collar.” Lee poked his upper body in Ponkie’s car and sniffed and gawked and pawed. He pulled out and gaped under the wheel wells and tapped behind them with his knuckles. “This thing ain’t got no bondo on it, does it?”
“Naw,” Ponkie said.
“Don’t look like it’s been wrecked.”
“I checked it out pretty closely and don’t think is has . . .”
Lee crouched round examining the seams and alignment of the doors, hood, fenders, lights, and trunk.
Ponkie crossed his arms over his chest, “Well?”
Lee opened the car door again, sat, and handled the steering wheel and radio knobs, and stared at the dash instruments. He followed the design of the wheels. “What color you say they be calling this?”
“I don’t know,” Ponkie said.
“They put a lot of coats on it. Glitter in it, too. Lacquer.”
“Lots of lacquer. You buy this off some body man?”
“It be lookin’ like the eyeball of a fly to me.” Lee said. “That’s what it look like. An old deer fly.”
“I just liked it. I bought it a while back.”
“You pay cash for it or you get a loan? I don’t believe in dealing with banks.”
“I know. I paid mostly in cash. Had to get a little loan, but I’ve paid it off.”
“Good. Banks collect all your personal information and give it to the government to spy on you.”
“They know where to find me. I don’t have anything to hide.”
“You never know. They keep your information forever. You in school?” Lee said.
“Savannah State,” Ponkie said.
Lee lowered his glasses and looked at me, “Who is this young man?”
“This is Taurus. Named for the car he was born in.”
Lee hooted and slapped his thigh. “Named for the car he was born in. Well, I swunny.” Lee extended his hand. “Why you hanging out with this lazy varmint? Make yourself at home. Nothin’ fancy.”
America glided out on the porch, “Supper’s about ready.”
“Y’all staying to eat, ain’t you?” Lee said.
“Yes, sir,” Ponkie said.
“How’s Gunny?” Lee said.
“Daddy’s doing a lot better since he stopped drinking,” Ponkie said. “Still thinks the V.A. docs are trying to kill him, that mom’s stealing his retirement money. Other than that I guess he’s fine.”
“I wouldn’t let no V.A. doc touch me any no how. They about killed me in ’69. I ain’t seen him in I can’t remember when.”
“He’s doing a lot better. But you know how he is.”
Lee saddled up in his Ford tractor under a shed beside the house.
“Where was Gunny sent last?” Lee said.
“Afghanistan,” Ponkie said.
“And where was you? You there too?”
“For a while. Taurus, too. We both were.”
“I hate that. I sure do. Vietnam. Me and Gunny was both kids there. Younger than y’all are now. Don’t know how I survived it. Saw a dude blown up. Pieces of flesh and bone everywhere. Wasn’t worth putting any of it in a bag. He shook the shifter. “Well, look. Let me show you. I finally fixed my tractor the other day.” He flipped up a small hood on the engine cover in front of the steering wheel and pointed. “It was a short in a wire to that little ceramic voltage regulator right there.” He cranked up the tractor, a 1950 Ford 8n, throttled it up, and let it run a few minutes. He beamed. “Sounds good don’t it? Tractor’s ten years younger than me.”
We nodded and smiled.
He throttled the tractor down and shut it off, and jangled to the ground, scratching his belly. “Well let’s mosey into the house and eat.”
Televisions were stacked inside the house from floor to ceiling. Only a sofa, chair, and recliner facing one old console RCA TV sat empty in the living room. There was just room to sidle down the hallway to get to the small bathroom. Televisions were even stored in the bedrooms, from my quick glance. The plywood flooring sagged from the weight.
The kitchen and dining area were spare and clean. On the table heaped fried catfish. Grits and navy beans steamed in bowls. Hot baked sweet potatoes and buttered corn bread sat in separate plates.
Berty insisted on saying grace. We bowed our heads and closed our eyes. What he said was indecipherable until “Amen.”
“Praise Gawd,” America said, clapping lightly.
Bert and Lee went to war eating, washing it down with buttermilk. Chuck had his own plate of catfish and bowl of buttermilk.
We ate through the six o’clock news out of Savannah. Ponkie got up during the national news during the segment about Iraq. I ignored any news about the war. We were deploying back there in four weeks just after final exams. Chuck followed Ponkie and sat in front of the TV and watched just as intently as Ponkie. America brought a bowl of pudding to Chuck and a bowl for Ponkie with a cup of coffee.
“Lee, where do you work on your televisions?” I asked.
“Back there in my bedroom. I just sit it on the bed with me and watch the monitors and listen to the police radio. It’s about the most relaxing thing in the world. America falls asleep out here on the couch most nights watching TV anyway. I’ll just curl up on the bed where there’s space, or sleep on the floor.”
Ponkie sat at the table after the news segment. “Lee, we need a television,” Ponkie said.
“Okay. What kind you need?”
“It’s for Taurus’s brother. He’s over in Glennville, housed at the prison. We’re going over there tomorrow and want to take him one. We need one that will be dependable and last. Not too big.”
“Okay. I got exactly what you need,” Lee jostled down the hall and rambled around one of the bedrooms. “Here’s the one.” It was an old model Magnavox in immaculate condition.
“Nothing but,” Lee said. He showed me the back. “Cable ready and ready for the digital age. A good quality picture. These TVs are solid. Will last years.”
“That’s what he needs, doesn’t he Taurus?” Ponkie said.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
Lee rubbed his scruffy chin. “Oh, since your brother’s locked up and all. I been there myself. In Vietnam, I spent some time as a POW. Two years. Let’s say it’s a present to a comrade.”
“Naw, we cain’t do that,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, you can,” America said. “Lee’s got a special place for POWs. So you just take that TV to your brother.”
“Well, I sure do appreciate it,” I said.
“Proud to do it,” Lee said. “He can use that in Iraq.”
I raised an eyebrow at Ponkie. Ponkie nodded and mouthed, It’s okay. “He sure will be grateful.”
We drank a cup of strong coffee and after a time Ponkie said, “I guess we better be getting back to Momma’s.”
“Y’all don’t have to rush off,” Lee said.
“Yeah, y’all don’t have to rush off,” America said. “Stay awhile with us.”
“We got to get on the road early tomorrow morning before sun-up,” Ponkie said.
“We can make y’all a palate here. America will make y’all a big breakfast before y’all get on the road when the sun gets up.”
Ponkie shook Lee’s hand and hugged America. “Thanks, but we better get on back.” He rubbed his neck and turned his head back and forth.
“What’s wrong with your neck, son?” Lee said.
“Aw, I got a little crick,” Ponkie said.
“Hold on, I got some DW-40 in the van.” Lee jogged out of the house. A moment later, he walked back in the house with a can of WD-40 spray lubricant. He sprayed a bit in his hand. “Look down.” Ponkie looked at me and lowered his head. Lee massaged the metal lubricant into Ponkie’s skin. Ponkie winced. Lee massaged Ponkie’s shoulder’s and patted his back. “There you go. That feel better?”
Ponkie blew and moved his head round on its axis. “Yes, sir. Thanks.”
America smiled. “It sure helps my bursitis.” She hooked Ponkie’s upper arms, squared his shoulders, and pulled him in. “The Army sure has made you strong, son.”
“You come back, soon, okay?” she gushed and side-stepped and reached over to me and took my hands and looked me in the eyes. “And bring this handsome young man with you.” She hugged and kissed me on the cheek. Then she stood back from me and held my shoulders. “You got the prettiest cinnamon skin and the biggest light green eyes, don’t he Lee?”
“He sure do,” Lee said.
While I had Lee and America’s attention, Ponkie slipped a few twenties under the coffee can on the kitchen table.
“He has to beat the females off with a stick,” Ponkie said. “You should see them faint around him. He’s like a movie star.”
America hooped. “I bet he be,” America said and hooped again.
I toted the TV down the front porch steps into Ponkie’s car. Bert was out on the porch whittling and carving on a piece of wood under the dim porch light. Chuck sat on an out-spread piece of newspaper as gnats hovered around him.
“Chuck reading his funny pages, Berty?” Ponkie asked.
Bert peered under his chair.
Ponkie started the car. The headlights illuminated the front of the house. “Well, we’ll see y’all later, then,” he said.
Berty looked up and went back to his whittling.
Lee wrapped his arm round American’s waist, and they waved from the porch.
The tree frogs’ croaking was almost deafening.
I scanned the porch for a few seconds before waving a last time as we pulled away. “I could have sworn that dog was reading the funny pages,” I told Ponkie.
“Most times I’ve thought that dog was the smartest thing in that whole household.”
On the way back to Jesup from the prison the next day, we saw Bert again in his bib overalls, a long sleeved cotton shirt, a pair of old boots, and his ball cap. He was on his way back from town in the heat with two empty buckets in each hand. Chuck was a yard or so behind him. We stopped to give them a ride home.
“Did you sell your berries in town, Bert?” I asked.
“How much did you make?”
He ignored me.
Chuck sat on the other side of the road scratching behind his ear. Flies and gnats swarmed round him.
“We can give you a lift home before this sun scorches you,” Ponkie said.
Bert squinted up at the sky, “Okay, uh-huh.”
“Chuck, too,” Ponkie said. “Call him.”
“Come on Chuckie.”
A Cadillac raced down the road from the left and crossed the centerline into the opposing lane and slammed into Chuck before I could holler or move. It dragged Chuck a good fifty to seventy-five yards when Bert whipped out his flip, hooked it around his thumb and index finger, loaded a golf ball sized rock, pulled back the rubber a good two feet or more, and let it go. In an instant, the back window of the Cadillac exploded. The Cadillac burned rubber and ground up Chuck to get away. Bert retrieved another rock, pinched it in the shoe tongue pocket, pulled it back again, and let the rock fly. This guided missile flew through the back window and shattered the front windshield. The Cadillac swerved and revved hard to escape. Bert armed a third rock, but before he could launch it, the Cadillac loosed itself of Chuck and sped away.
Ponkie and I followed the streak of Chuck’s blood and glass shards down the road. There was no head left. All that remained were tangled internal organs and mangled bones.
“The bastard,” Ponkie said.
“Did you get the tag number?” I said. “All I got was Florida tags.”
“The bastard,” Ponkie said.
“Chuck.” Bert pigeon-toed up behind us blank faced.
By this time, a tractor-trailer truck and a minivan had stopped.
A white trucker jumped out of his cab and jogged over to us. “What happened?” He was out of breath. A pack of cigarettes squared out of the left pocket and his belly burdened the buttons on his white shirt. Ponkie filled him in. He wiped the sweat pouring from his ball cap. “I’ll get on the C.B. and see about getting some help.”
The white lady in a minivan spoke up. “I’ve got a cell phone. I’ll be glad to call. Did you get a tag number?”
“No, ma’am,” I said.
Minutes later, a Department of Natural Resources officer and the Florida Cadillac, minus back and front windows, returned to the scene.
“Man, that was quick,” Ponkie said.
A Georgia trooper began directing traffic. The trucker and the white lady stayed with us.
The man talked fast and loud. He pointed at Bert who was sniffling. “I swerved to avoid a dog in the road. Then this lunatic pulled out a bazooka or something and blew out my windows.” He jabbed toward his car windows with his fingers. “Ya see, ya see? Ya going to just stand there or are ya going to do something? The guy tried to kill me, see? He tried to kill me. Blew out my windows with some kind of gun. A rifle at that distance probably. You need to search him and arrest him. The lunatic. You can see he’s crazy.”
“Hey, the only one that’s crazy is you, mister,” Ponkie said. “He was defending Chuck, trying to stop you from killing Chuck.”
“Settle down, Ponkie,” the officer said.
The Florida man leered. “Oh, you know this guy?” He looked at the officer and thumbed at Ponkie. “You know these lunatics? Well, you need to arrest all of ‘em ‘cause they tried to murder me, see. Murder me. And I was just driving down the road, when this dog ran out in the road in front of me. Where’s that rifle you used? They probably dumped it down in the woods somewhere.”
“I saw it,” I said. “He crossed the yellow line and ran over Chuck.”
“Chuck? You ran over Chuck?” the officer asked the man.
“What?” the man said.
“You ran over Chuck?”
“Who’s Chuck? What are you talking about? What is this? Oh I know what this is.”
“Sir, you need to keep your mouth shut before you say something that’s going to get you in deeper trouble,” the officer said.
“What? I can’t believe this.”
“Where did this happen?” the officer asked me.
Lee and America rattled up in the van with interior piney air fresheners dangling across the windshield and side windows. Lee jangled up to me. America, in her house shoes, flip-flopped to Bert and cleaned his face with a wrinkled and soiled hand towel.
“Where’s Chuck?” Lee asked me.
“He got drug all down the road. He’s torn all to pieces.”
The DNR officer followed the blood smear down the road. “God almighty.” He walked back up to the Florida man. “You were going this direction, is that right?”
The man crossed his arms, scoured the road, shook his head, checked his watch and his cell phone.
The officer turned to me. “Back there, son?”
“Yes, sir. He was going that way.” I marched to the spot. Lee followed. “This is where he slammed into Chuck and drug him all the way down there.”
The officer studied the man. “Sure looks like you crossed the yellow line, were in the opposite lane of traffic. Now, why did you do that?”
“I told you. To miss the dog.”
The officer did not miss my disgust.
“Looks like you were driving way too fast and recklessly to me. How fast were you driving?”
“He was flying, Mr. Andrew,” Ponkie said. “Faster than the posted speed limit.”
“I’m sorry Bert,” the officer said. “How long you had him?”
Bert cried quietly into America’s breasts.
“Lo-o-ng time, Mr. Andrew,” Lee said.
“He’s had him since I was in elementary school, Mr. Andrew,” Ponkie said. “Chuck’s got to be at least twelve, fifteen.”
The DNR officer squared his body to the Florida man. “I reckon Chuck was worth a thousand dollars to Liberty.”
“What? Who’s Liberty?”
“Why that fellow there. The one you been calling names.”
“That’s the guy who blew out my windows.”
“Yes. And I said you’re going to pay Liberty a thousand dollars for the loss of his dog.”
“Now wait a minute. Wait one damn minute. This isn’t right. This is America the last time I heard. I’m being railroaded. That guy shot my windows out. He owes me restitution, not me owing him restitution.”
“Yeah, and you got insurance, don’t you?” the officer said.
“Yeah, but that’s not the point. He tried to--”
“This is what we’re going to do. You can either pay Liberty a thousand dollars this afternoon or I’m going to write you a ticket for reckless driving, crossing the yellow line, cruelty to animals, felony level, and handcuff you, impound your car, and take you in to the jail.” The DNR officer examined his watch face. “The magistrate judge has already gone home for the day. She doesn’t come back until day after tomorrow. So you won’t get bond set for that felony for two days. And she doesn’t like people being cruel to animals.”
“This is some kind of small town racket, isn’t it?” the man said. “This is blackmail. It’s politically motivated.”
“How do you contend politics has got anything to do with this?” the DNR officer said.
“Well then, it’s illegal.” The man pulled out his cell phone. “I’m calling my lawyer, right now.”
The officer pulled out his handcuffs. “Call him. You’re going to need him. But I reckon he’s going to charge you a lot more than a thousand dollars because I’ll make sure I show up for that bond hearing. Since you’re from out of state, it’ll probably be a high bond. The judge might not set a bond. We’ll have to run a criminal history on you. We sometimes run into kinks with that, especially with Florida. I don’t know what it is about Florida.”
“I get it, I get it.” The man threw up his hands. “I understand the game here. Okay, you win. But what about that guy shooting out my windows? Aren’t you gonna take his gun away, at least?”
“Berty have a gun?” Lee said. “Mister, I’m his brother-in-law. He’s been living with me since he was a little boy when I married his sister after I got back from Vietnam in 1973. Now, Liberty Abernathy has never had no gun. He’s deathly afraid of them. But, I’ll tell you one thing. He’s the best flip shooter you’ll ever see.”
“A what?” the man said.
“Sling shot,” Ponkie said.
“Mister,” Lee said, “if Berty had wanted to kill you, you wouldn’t be standing here breathing.”
The DNR officer nodded. “Yep. He’s right. That’s the truth.” He put his handcuffs away. “And I wouldn’t want to be involved in no murder investigation today.”
“Well . . . I just got to get out of here and back to Ft. Myers.”
Firemen hosed the blood, body parts, and glass off the road.
Ponkie and me followed Lee’s van to an ATM in Jesup.
The man stacked ten crisp hundred-dollar bills in Bert’s hands. To distill Bert’s face, it could have been ten toilet plungers.
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