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W. C. Jameson
"In a state that produces some of the best writers in the country, Bob Flynn is among the leaders of the pack."--W. C. Jameson
"In a state that produces some of the best writers in the country, Bob Flynn is among the leaders of the pack."--W. C. Jameson
Sheriff Timpson Smith lumbered through the dim, drafty Mills County courthouse, his boot heels gunshots on the wooden floor. The courthouse—a stone breadbox with a metal birdcage for a bell tower—was not designed for grace or beauty but for the assertion of authority. Five Mills was a facsimile of thousands of rural towns that had a sole reason to exist—the courthouse. It was the center of gravity, and it weighed heavy in the county.
Despite his years in office the sheriff had never grown accustomed to the dank smell of limestone, sweat, fear, perfume accented with the ammonia and disinfectant from the public toilets in the basement that had once been the sheriff's office. Without a glance he walked past the display of rusty tools, pistols, and rifles left by the five Mills brothers who had become out of place in their place. The case was as familiar as the face of his wife that he seldom studied any more. He howdied the mayor, district attorney, developer, clerk, lawyer, cronies, supplicants, court flies, he alone in boots, hat and without a tie.
"There goes Timpson Smith. We won't see his like again," someone said, loud enough for him to hear. "And maybe that's a good thing." They chuckled without derision. He was an emblem like the display case, the monument, the pistol on his belt. When he was gone the county would have to invent another.
The sheriff had been a tare extending his roots until he was tangled with the "courthouse crew" so that none could be uprooted without disturbing the others. They weren't friends, but teammates with privilege by association. They had exchanged glances, touches, confidences, as thick as high schoolers in a huddle, but he was quitting the team. They didn't fear him any more or need his sanction. He had announced his retirement with something akin to guilt; remembering the boy he had killed, the lies he had told, the little crimes of the law. They had accepted his announcement with relief.
The sheriff focused on the stairs. Damn, they got steeper every year. And louder. There was a lawsuit to force the county to put in an elevator for a paralyzed veteran who wanted to serve on a jury but couldn't climb the stairs. Ronald Reagan and the sheriff would be out of office. And maybe the vet would be dead before the issue was resolved and the elevator installed.
He climbed to the drafty second floor with its one courtroom, jury room, conference room, and judge's office. One of the sheriff's duties was to provide courtroom security, and he stepped in the side door to survey those present, a visible threat to anyone who troubled the decorum of the building. The only big trial in years had been of a coward who had tortured and killed a young girl but those who wanted to draw and quarter him had been tamed by church and state, and he was a frightened child who cried for his mother in his cell. "I didn't go to do it," he said. The scenes that usually required the sheriff's glare had been property, divorce, and child custody cases.
A half-dozen people were scattered down the courthouse pews. They glanced at him and looked away. After the implicit warning and the judge's nod he stepped back into the hall that was lined with locked filing cabinets. The building seemed poised to explode papers and folders over the town of Five Mills even after they had moved the tax collector, county clerk, agriculture extension, road commissioner, and indigent care to the old jail. His department had expanded to occupy the third floor—space for more files, more deputies, more reports, more everything. Martha was right; the job had become too complex for him with its intricate relationships between social mores, business ethics, and usage of the law. He didn't want to think about that. If the calendar didn't require an election he would happily remain in office. But he had given his word to Martha.
Reaching the third floor, he stopped for a moment to catch his breath. Every year in office he had added a pound and, although too young to retire, some days he was troubled by old wounds and two knees that no longer communicated with each other or the rest of his body. Voters liked heft in a sheriff the way they liked mass in a courthouse, and he had obliged them.
The words of his mother came to him every time he saw his name on the sheriff's office door. "Fools' names and fools' faces are often found in public places." His fool name and face had been public too long. He knew they would have his retirement, disability check from the VA, Martha's inheritance from the sale of her father's store, but he was too young to do nothing. He didn't want to return again to those aimless days before Korea. But who would he be other than the face on the statue?
He hadn't intended to be sheriff. Nothing in his life had happened intentionally, not since leaving for Korea. He had done what he could for people who had never doubted his goodness and only once had doubted his judgment. But their faith had become a burden. "Holding public office is like sucking bear tits," Ross Fulcher, the DA, warned him. "Hang on too long and you become the meal."
Every year he arrested people who would be ashamed to do some of the things that corporations and politicians did every day. His job was to enforce the law and protect the people, and those from whom they needed protection were those who wrote the law and those who rewarded them for writing it.
Early on he had found satisfaction in the job. Before the nearby city of Advantage in Doss County had become a commercial center with a state university. Before the Able Company Expressway linking Five Mills to Advantage had shrunk the distance to twenty minutes of competitive driving, sucking high school diplomas out of Mills County and turning Five Mills into a bedroom 'burb and fraternity playhouse. Former mayor Bob Silver said, "The three worst things that ever happened to Five Mills were the railroad going to Advantage, the college going to Advantage, and the Able Company Expressway linking Five Mills to Advantage." The university had been courtesy of Senator Prince Pritchard and the expressway courtesy of Senator Billy Pritchard, but that statement cost the mayor an election because people said he had forgotten Second Platoon.
The sheriff opened the door into what looked more like a bunkhouse than a cop shop. The desks, chairs, walls were covered with photographs, maps, boxes, folders, clothing, pieces of weapons, cars, and radios—things around so long no one remembered whose they were or what purpose they had once served. "Let Larry clean it up," he thought.
He nodded at Mrs. Stutz, whose first husband Sarge Lewis called him "slacker" because of his deferment at the end of World War Two as sole support of his mother. Sarge had died with Second Platoon. She had fled Five Mills, worked at the air base in Fort Worth, had a man in her apartment most nights, and spent most weekends in someone else's. When she learned of plans for the monument in Five Mills, she returned to buy a tableau for Sarge. Timp had hired her as secretary-dispatcher when he became sheriff, and she sat prim, frail, and stalwart outside his private office like an old and ill-used parrot. The older she got, the bigger the lips she painted, the brighter and more ruffled her plumage. It was noon, and he had already had several conversations with her by radio and telephone.
"Bryan Frazier called about the parade. He wants to know whether you think it's better to add blacks in the tableaux that are not on the monument or to add black actors to the tableaux that are on the monument regardless of the color of the man represented."
"Other than providing security I have nothing to do with the parade."
"Babbs Morrison, Larry's campaign manager, wants you to endorse Larry."
"Larry's running unopposed. Why does he need my endorsement? Or a campaign manager?" the sheriff asked.
She looked a "duh" at him over wire-rim glasses. The sheriff walked into his office and the allegory of his life: the Congressional Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, United Nations, and Republic of Korea medals, a photograph of the crowd at the high school grandstand where he was honored by the county, the key to Five Mills presented by the mayor, the proclamation from the governor, the photograph of him with Audie Murphy and a starlet. And the Life magazine aerial photograph of Five Mills with a US flag over the house of every family that lost a relative in Second Platoon. Except for the aerial photograph, the story was so familiar that the sheriff no longer noticed but worried what to do with it when he vacated the office. The photograph he had memorized as though it were a map to a private country.
T. J. Munday, the mayor who had recruited him for sheriff, had insisted on the display in his office after the election. "Politically necessary," Munday said. "You can't do the job unless you get reelected." Timpson Smith's own little shrine.
As though being sheriff were more than shuffle papers, make speeches, and hire deputies. At least it had been—back in the days when his duties were checking alarms and locks on stores downtown, when a heavy case-load consisted of cows on the highway, a stolen horse or dog, and maybe kids joy-riding in a pickup left running with the keys in it. That was before the Able Company Expressway. Now loose livestock meant a possible seventy mile-per-hour collision. Once a suspicious car parked on a country road could mean kids with a bottle swiped from a liquor cabinet, or some boy pressuring a girl to pleasure him; now it could mean date rape or kids blowing grass. Once fraternity initiations were attempts to dig up the grave of a homeless woman under the guise that she was a witch with golden earrings; now they meant a night at the TripleS X Theater.
The jail had been closed; prisoners were transported to Advantage but still the paper work grew. Five Mills had no police force; the sheriff's department provided security for the town, the suburbs, and the farmers and ranchers of Mills County. The sheriff had spent the morning at an elementary school telling the children about a "child call" program staffed by volunteers and organized by his wife after a boy claimed another boy had touched his social parts. What are social parts? his teacher had asked. Where you get social diseases, he said. Some children reported they had broken a dish or asked the definition of a word, most just wanted to talk to an adult. Declining income had forced mothers into jobs to support the family.
They were the children of parents who worked in offices, shops, bowling alleys, restaurants, and taverns in Advantage, leaving home before the kids left for school, and sometimes coming home after the kids had gone to bed; parents who paid teachers to nurture their children and police to protect them. They were good kids who saw adults as incidental. They scarcely knew aunts, uncles, or grandparents but clubbed together for "family." In a few years they would be in middle school and some in gangs.
Before he left the school the sheriff had gotten a call that Wally Sech was on the Able Company Expressway waving a flag and yelling obscenities. The story that might have been a warning to the town was used to recruit another Mills County platoon, the Timpson Smith Platoon. Wally had enlisted to avenge his brother but the war ended and Second Platoon was no longer exclusively Mills County. Wally came home on leave, went to Captain Billy Pritchard's home in uniform and accused Pritchard and the Marines from Advantage of cowardice. Wally, who had been described as "intense" in elementary school and "fractious" in high school, was discharged with a personality disorder.
Wally took over his father's dry cleaning service, was almost bankrupted by polyester fashions and the dry cleaning store behind Timp's house that took garments to Advantage for return the next day. Most of the workers were undocumented, but they came and went so rapidly Advantage police overlooked them. The border was too far and Border Patrol too busy to investigate. Wally was oblivious to such portents of change, obsessed with revising the past. He stood on the edge of the expressway with a flag and a sign, "Second Platoon bled, Able Company fled."
"You can go home or to work or I'll have you taken to the state hospital. Which do you want?"
Wally got in the back. "How many Commies did my brother kill?"
"Seven or eight maybe," the sheriff hedged.
"Eight. He killed eight commies. He died for something. I told everyone in the state hospital what happened to Second Platoon."
The sheriff had taken Wally to the dry cleaning store, the flag fluttering out the window. He picked up the overnight reports on his desk. Family disturbance in Sleepy Hollow—husband and wife argued; he hit her. Family disturbance in Country Place—a man and his mother went to ex-wife's home to return child; mother argued with ex-wife and slapped her. Such things had happened when he first took the job, but they were family secrets not public complaints, and the women bore their scars in silence.
Hood ornament stolen from Dr. Baines' Mercedes. Exercise bike, stereo and speakers, suitcase containing man's suit and other clothes, two pairs of boots stolen from front yard in Advantage. Suspect believed to be in Mills County. Ed Harkins, a salesman with a family in Five Mills, and Rowena Tooley, a young, single mother in Advantage with expectations. She had thrown out his belongings and someone had taken them.
Mrs. Lubitsch locked herself in her car again and couldn't remember how to get out. Two hitchhikers taken to expressway to Advantage and told not to come back. Disturbance at the Heavenly Gates Modeling Studio but no arrests. Unlawful carrying—kids playing with guns.
Mrs. Stutz buzzed him. "We have a 10–15." Civil disturbance. She loved the argot. "It's Harley Kruger and When and How."
Wynn Mills and his Vietnamese wife, Hao. Before "When and How" it had been "Win and Lose," for Wynn's father and mother, Horace Wynn and Lucy Mills. The legendary Mills family had become threadbare reality. One Mills had died at the Alamo, one at Goliad, three had fought at San Jacinto. After San Jacinto the three had marched into the heart of Texas to build a plain but sturdy limestone house on a little rise they could defend against Indians. According to tradition, they had planted oaks from acorns taken at the San Jacinto battlefield, arrow distance from the house, an oak for each defender who died at the Alamo.
"John responded to a 10–54," Mrs. Stutz said. Livestock on the expressway. "He must be out of his car. I haven't been able to get Larry either."
Riding the range, the sheriff thought. Larry Maddin spent more time on the pistol range than anyone. "Let's see if Wynn and Kruger can work this one out themselves." In Texas, land disputes often led to feuds that resulted in violence, and the sheriff did not want this to be another one.
The Mills family had an outdated code of honor that made them seem combative. They required honesty that some found intimidating. Quick to laugh, they were fierce when threatened, and sensitivity to menace had passed from father to child. The Mills required a lot of space.
"Why did you build your house so close to the Mills house?" Timp had asked Kruger. The Kruger house was tucked into the corner of his property closest to the Mills house.
"It's across the road from the Mills house," said Kruger who had always lived in the city where distance was measured by doors. His house was surrounded by a stone wall, and the only gate was on a side away from the Mills house.
Excerpted from Echoes of Glory by Robert Flynn. Copyright © 2009 Robert F. Flynn. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
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