Whizzer Noggs dangled his legs over the edge of the water tower track when the sniper fired.
The bullet struck the guard rail next to his arm. After he rubbed his elbow, his eyes darted below, above, around the track.
The water tank itself was shaped like a ball. There was only one way up: a rusty, steel ladder no one had climbed for years. Hanging from the track was a large sign that Whizzer had brought up:
That was Coach Millsaps of the One Round Warriors. He hadn’t won a game in three consecutive seasons.
Jesus and the folks say No!
Millsaps has got to go.
Whizzer stood up and ran his fingers on the rail over the spot where the bullet struck. He bent over to inspect it when another struck at the same height on the other side:
He cupped his hands over his eyes to block out the sun as he searched the tops of the closest buildings. He appeared to know it was gun fire.
Parked below the shooter’s building, Sheriff Shelby Sams sipped coffee from his Spider Man mug while he and his deputy observed through binoculars. “Fool probably thinks it’s a mosquito,” the sheriff said, chuckling. He handed the binoculars to the deputy, an overfed boy named Stubbs who had just completed the local diploma mill’s program in Criminology.
Stubbs adjusted the knob. “If that don’t make him come down, nothing will.”
Ping! Whizzer backed away from the rail. .
The sheriff snatched the binoculars back.
“Hey!” Stubbs said.
“Can’t see him, Whizzer,” the sheriff whispered, as he followed the action. “He’s there, but you can’t see him.”
Ping! This time a puff of dust hopped up off the tower track between Whizzer’s legs.
“Oo-wee, get him, get him!” the sheriff said as he watched.
“Lemme see,” Stubbs said, reaching.
Whizzer backed up until he backed into the water tank. Mouth open, he watched the dust pop, right, left, all about him.
“Now he’s dancing the hot foot!” the sheriff chuckled, pounding the steering wheel with his meaty fist.
“Sheriff, that ain’t fair, now.”
Reluctantly, the sheriff handed the binoculars back to Stubbs who pushed his plastic-billed cap up exposing a single bright jewel in his left ear lobe.
“Good God!” the sheriff said as reached out and grabbed his deputy’s ear lobe. “Joo-ry!”
“O-w-w-w!” Stubbs yelled, grabbing the sheriff’s hand. “My girl give it to me for my birthday.”
“Well, you just un-give it. You look like some San Francisco fruit loop.”
Whizzer bolted around the track, looking back over his shoulder as the bullets bit at his heels like demonic insects until he disappeared around the other side of the water tower.
The shooting stopped.
The sheriff climbed the stairs up onto the roof of the drugstore where the sharpshooter was hidden.
Moonlighting from his day job at Ft. Benning, the tall sniper instructor was named Popovic. He had a wedge-like face and his voice was soft and his eyes blue, but when he spoke, he moved close, too close for the sheriff, until the listener could see that his smile was pasted over rage. His camos marked him as an ordinary bird hunter. He had parked his army issue jeep behind the shops fronting on the square and he and the sheriff had lugged a trunk full of tripods and various rifle components up to the top of the building where he set up.
“He’ll crack,” the shooter said, as he rolled over on his back and shot a glance up at Shelby emerging from the staircase, panting and waving his cap for a breeze. The roof was covered in white gravel. The shooter was set up near the central air unit which gave off a steady whine. He had arranged a portable screen in front of his tripod so that Whizzer---roughly one hundred yards away— couldn’t see him. Still on his back the shooter removed the black leather strap on his rifle and tried several of others he had brought. Finally, he found another, a leopard skin strip which he cinched tightly around his forearm.
“My thinking is,” the sheriff said. “if the fool cracked up under fire once, he’ll crack again.” He leaned against a chimney, winded from the climb. Lately he had grown a tiny moustache to make him look more debonair. It also made him look like a fat silent movie comedian.
“Well, my little mock-up SR-25 should help him see reason. It’s a modified .22 with standard USMC optics, a .30 xx series day scope, a silencer and frangible ammo. Breaks up on impact to minimize ejecta—so nobody gets a ricochet through their window.” He rolled back over onto his belly and turned his baseball cap around backwards. “Yeah, we had some like him at Benning. Protest this, protest that. ” he said. His eye squinted as he gritted his teeth. “One of these days he’ll protest once too often.”
“Now we don’t want to hurt nobody,” Shel said, casting his eyes warily toward the shooter.
“Hey,” the shooter said, popping in a fresh cartridge case, “the truth always hurts.”
The sheriff had worked for ten days to bring the fool, Whizzer down. He stood with his bullhorn below the tower while behind him, clerks and farmers, lawyers and vagrants gathered on the soft green lawn below the water tower to watch. After the third day the crowd brought lunch. They shouted up at Whizzer. They sensed the danger and the sheriff’s frustration, but they were having fun. Shelby tried to lure him down with candy; the chain-smoking owner of the drugstore offered him a job where he could eat all the candy he wanted. Whizzer leaned over the rail and shook his head: no!
A loan officer at the bank offered him tickets to see the Braves.
“The…the…Braves…are… lo…lo…lo…sers!” Whizzer shouted down.
The crowd chuckled and ate their pimento cheese sandwiches.
The sheriff even browbeat Stubbs to climb the shaky, rusty ladder. The overfed boy protested every squeaking rung.
“Whizzer done it!” the sheriff shouted up.
“Whizzer weighs a hundred thirty pounds!” the deputy shouted back. The ladder banged against the steel tank and the deputy shouted down that this was his last day on this stupid job. He never made it to the top.
Whizzer took a month’s supply of junk food up with him. Shel shook his head as he watched wrappers float down from above. From time to time he threw down Coke cans which the school kids collected as souvenirs.
When nature called, Whizzer obliged—right there in the middle of One Round.
After the fourth day, narrowly missing one of those natural moments, a helicopter from WTOC in Savannah made its appearance. In his office the sheriff watched as he tore open a fresh coffee pack. He and his five deputies were gathered around his pint-sized TV with the rabbit ears. The desk the TV sat on was covered with empty coke cans and ash trays. Whizzer jumped up and down like a child on Christmas morning as the copter came closer.
“That shell-shocked idiot is the new face of One Round,” Shel said, pouring the coffee grounds into the drip container. He sat down as the coffee percolated.
“Looks like he’s gon’ pee in his britches,” Stubbs said. He hiked his leg up onto a chair and sprayed polish on his shoes.
Shel grinned and nodded toward the polish, then looked around the room at the older deputies and solicited their combined ridicule. “Got a date?”
“I got to look professional,” Stubbs said without looking up.
“If you want to look professional,” the sheriff said over his shoulder as he rose and shook the pot, “climb that tower.”
Stubbs wiped the rim of his sole with a Kleenex. “Sheriff Sams, I told you. The ladder’s loose. Heck, you can see the holes where the screws are missing.”
The pilot took the copter down to where it beat down the grass, then eased it upward until he was on eye-level with Whizzer. Whizzer waved at the camera with one hand while he held onto his dirty dread locks with the other. The TV viewer could see his rotten teeth.
“Needs to see a dentist,” Stubbs said as brought the steaming coffee to the sheriff in a styro-foam cup.
The sheriff put his head down on his desk and groaned.
The next day Shel was looking for a 10 year old who was allegedly throwing rocks at cars on the interstate when the dispatcher notified him.
“CNN!” he shouted into his radio.
He showered down on his Crown Victoria and threw gravel everywhere. And not because some hard-working little One Round school boy had won a national spelling bee, he thought as he jammed the pedal of his Crown Victoria, but because some shell-shocked fool was protesting the high school football coach’s losing record.
That night he watched CNN at home. The moussed-up anchor man called it national news. Sheriff Shelby Sams knew better: it was national mockery. Mock the rednecks. Everybody join hands and make fun of all the rednecks down there in…uh…what’s the name of that tiny little place? For three minutes on national TV Whizzer Noggs became the poster boy for the entire town of One Round, population fifteen thousand. Whizzer did the twist, the mash potato, the watusi and some gyrations even the suave CNN anchor man couldn’t identify.
“Isn’t it amazing,” the anchor man, Orlando, cooed, “how we all identify with Whizzer Noggs and his one man campaign to alter the football horizons here in One Round where if your team’s not on top, the world will have to stop.”
The blond beside him reached over and touched his arm: “The world may have to stop in One Round, Orlando, but here at CNN time marches on.”
The next morning he was sitting in his patrol car, watching Whizzer through his binoculars. School was out because the teachers needed to do paper work so the grassy spot under the tower was teeming with unsupervised kids and Whizzer was joining in up on the tower, walking on his hands. Inside his car Shel was cool; outside, the heat took your breath. His cell phone sounded the Theme from Rawhide. It was the mayor calling from his month-long vacation in a nineteenth century bed and breakfast in Charleston.
“They’re runnin’ him on daytime CNN! Wolf Blitzer is winking and smirking about how interesting life in the deep south is! People in the bar here are laughin’ at us.”
Shel turned his back and stuck his finger in his other ear. He lowered his voice. ”What the hell you want me to do?”
“Don’t you have regs for something like this?”
“And Shel, listen, something stupid here, and you could set race relations back a hundred years.”
“He ain’t black.”
“Naw, he’s mixed, but that’s worse. So, it’s your call.”
“My call? What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
The mayor lowered his voice.
“Shel, you’re up for retirement in 11 months,” the mayor whispered. “I’d hate to see that whole process get caught up in one of those nasty state pension kerfluffles. You know how that goes.”
Shel rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know how that goes.”
“Get that boy down. Now.”
Shelby ground his teeth as the man hung up.
Idiot! The publicity offended the man because he wanted new industry to relocate to South Georgia, Japanese zipper plants and German car makers. So far there were two takers, a delegation from Estonia that wanted to reinvigorate a failing bird bath factory and one from Ethiopia that made cheap wigs from dog hair. But one thing was certain--the mayor could make his life miserable. He knew just enough people in Atlanta like himself--stupid and lacking the moral faculty--to derail his retirement: retirement checks on hold, letters from a half-dozen agencies requesting proof of this and documentation of that, his wife furious and his beta blockers turning him into a blob of immoveable flesh.
As Whizzer emerged from the other side of the tower, the sniper took aim.
Ping! Dust kicked up on the track. He jumped to one side.
Ping! More dust.
Whizzer began running in place with his eyes closed. From the roof Shel watched through the binoculars as Whizzer shook his head from side to side as if in a trance as he ran back and forth. He wanted a Butterfinger from his stash which was right in the sharpshooter’s line of fire, but each time he approached it, the shots hit closer. He was beside himself. He started a high pitched wail. Eventually, he fell prone onto the track, kicking at the metal grid with his feet like a child throwing a temper tantrum.
The sun moved behind the back of the tower, sending a corona of rays out. The sniper shaded his eyes.
“Let’s take a break,” he said, as he rolled over on his back again. The sheriff pulled two Diet Cokes from the cooler the shooter had brought and they popped the tops. The shooter sat up with his legs spread out over the gravelly roof. “This might take some time. He seen combat?”
“Iraq,” the sheriff said.
“You could say that.”
Several hours later the sheriff was back below in his car, dozing. The rock arched high and far over the onlookers below who watched and winced. Inside the car, the sheriff’s body rocked back and forth, spittle drooling from his lower lip and his mind dreaming of his retirement beach cottage where he was lying on his back on a towel in the sand while the water inched forward, wave by wave, toward his pale, wiggling toes and a shapely young blond with a micro-bikini passed in front of the sun like a goddess.
“Shel, baby,” she whispered. “Sweetheart. It’s your retirement.”
She approached and he sat up. She knelt in front of him so close he could smell her salty sea scent.
“I have a gift for you, Shel, a special retirement gift,” she whispered, breathily. She reached both arms behind her and began to unbutton the bikini. He reached forward with his fingers squeezing...
His eyelids opened. When he spotted the hole made by the rock, his right upper lip twitched. His beefy jaw swung open as he inched forward to press his palm against the glass. The entire windshield collapsed in hundreds of pieces on his hood. He fell back.
Through the empty space where he had recently installed seven thousand dollars worth of a “Glass like Steel” windshield he could see the townsfolk gathered, staring at him like mourners peering into a casket.
“Shelby?” someone asked. “That glass get in your eye?”
He felt suddenly naked as if they all knew some intimate secret about him.
“No, I ain’t got glass in my eye!” He grabbed his bullhorn and blasted a warning: “Noggs, I’ll have your ass for that!”
From his high perch, Whizzer waved cheerfully down and held his hands over his head in a sign of victory. The crowd applauded.
A fat farmer in overalls and a three day beard leaned over closer. “Need to get him down, Shel. Rock could have taken an eye out.”
When Whizzer first came home from Desert Storm, his sister had him tested at the VA where the doctors determined he was able to do maintenance work in One Round High; at first, he cleaned toilets and pushed a wide dust broom up and down the halls. But some days he refused to work. Instead, he wandered the streets, hung out in stores on the square, muttered at the customers who, once they were close enough to smell him, fled.
He spoke in little rhymed bits:
Can’t kill most men but only once
‘cept us heroes, Army grunts.
Sick, sack, sam, sin,
Didn’t smell nothin’ till you walked in
As constant as his ripe odor were the same boots and the same fatigues with Benning above the pocket. When a harried clerk summoned the sheriff--holding her nose--the sheriff appeared, gave Whizzer some money and sent him to McDonalds. “This town,” the Sheriff would confide to anyone who would listen, “is Whizzer Noggs’ private clinic.”
But there was some stability in Whizzer’s life: the ’75 One Round Warriors. As a defensive safety, he had been short, quick, and ruthless. The townsfolk still remembered what a fine player he was and they did their duty by tolerating him.
The Sheriff didn’t like to think about how Whizzer’s protest began. He had been in the coffee shop on the square reading the real estate pages in his usual booth, pouring his coffee into a saucer and calculating on a pad the various costs of beach houses. Whizzer was at the counter, slumped over a doughnut whose white powder was on his nose and in his dreads. Reaching over his back, the waitress freshened up his coffee. She was a skinny, chocolate brown mother of a One Round high schooler.
“Man, why don’t you bathe once in a while?” she said, giving him the chicken neck.
With his pinky thrust out Whizzer put down the doughnut. Turning his head, but not his body, he spoke out of the side of his mouth. “I don’t…don’t…I…uh… know you. Do…do…I …know…do…I…know…you?”
The waitress bent over, laughing, then gave him a big hug. She pointed at him with one hand while she held the coffee pot in the other. “Naw, baby doll, you don’t know me, but my nose knows you!”
Whizzer spun around on his stool. He folded his arms, stared straight ahead at the wall and pouted. Opposite, in the booth, the sheriff showed a flicker of a smile behind his paper.
“Jesus and the folks all say No. Millsaps has got to go” Whizzer muttered.
He eyes moved quickly from side to side.
“And when did Jesus tell you this?” the waitress asked.
The veins on Whizzer’s neck seemed to vibrate. “He…he…t-t-t-told me.”
“And that’s another thing,” the waitress said as she sat down on the stool beside him and draped her arm around Whizzer’s shoulder. She lowered her voice as she cut her eyes around the shop. “Baby, that coach ain’t going nowhere. He been at that school forty years.”
Whizzer’s eyes stopped shifting back and forth. He seemed to be considering her words.
“Ain’t that right, sheriff?” she said, as she raised her head and winked in the sheriff’s direction.
This was the part of his job the sheriff enjoyed: explaining to the good people of One Round how things are done in the larger world. He took a sip of coffee and lowered his paper. He gave his head a large shake of affirmation.
“She’s gotcha there, Whizzer. Coach has got him a sweet little spot down on Amelia Island. He ain’t going nowhere —no matter how many games the Warriors lose.”
“That where you gon retire?” the waitress asked Shel.
“No,” Shel said. “The missus and I will be up the road a ways at Darien. One more year.” He held up his index finger.
“Bet you can’t wait, huh?”
Whizzer’s left leg began to bounce wildly.
“When I was in Iraq…this…sergeant…they said…they said he was in…sub…ordinate…they locked…him…up…they…but he pro…tested…he pro…tested…and they let…let…him…go. Some…body…should…pro…protest”
The sheriff looked hard at Whizzer. The truth was the boy made him feel anger and guilt at once. Anger because the government--aka the taxpayers—paid for Whizzer’s housing, insurance, medical bills, medication. Thousands of dollars every year. Still, he tried to be polite. Whenever he spotted Whizzer around town, he always stopped and spoke, even though the stuttering responses often took what seemed an eternity. He felt guilty because his bad back allowed him to miss Vietnam.
He folded his paper up and slipped on his sunglasses. Their gold-rimmed shield altered his face and gave him a hardened look, one that overshadowed the look of a friendly bulldog. He let his gaze wander out through the window and the letters of The Coffee Shop to where the sun caught the white dogwood petals, and on across the street behind the row of old boarded up red brick buildings until it came to the One Round Tower.
“I tell you what,” he said, pointing with his rolled up paper out the window, “you go park yourself up there on the old water tower for a week and stage you a protest. Get you an official protest sign and in a week or ten days maybe the folks at the school board will get your message.”
The waitress slapped her knee and pointed her finger at Whizzer: “Jesus and the folks say No. Millsaps has got to go!”
Eyeing Whizzer’s face, the sheriff began to shake with laughter. His lips turned white as he tried to force back a belly laugh.
Whizzer—his leg bouncing even higher—looked like a rubber band about to snap.
The following day he climbed the tower.
A second grade class spread itself out on the soft grass underneath the tower’s shade while their teacher, a plump woman with brown bangs that made her look like a medieval squire, explained that Whizzer’s protest demonstrated the virtues of a democracy. The children opened their lunch boxes on the grass and shaded their eyes from the sun.
One little boy, squinting up though his glasses raised his hand. “Why can’t his momma just make him come down?”
The sheriff listened as the teacher explained that in a democracy citizens have the right to protest when something happens they dislike. That’s right, Shelby thought, but not all citizens are alike. He wanted to go out there and tell the little boy that some citizens are loony. When decent people protest, the government takes it seriously. When loony people protest, we put them where they won’t hurt anybody. He wondered if anybody would ever dare to put such truthful words in the civics books.
The sheriff’s phone sounded the theme from Rawhide again.
“Offer him money,” the mayor said. “But be careful. He’s an idiot but he ain’t stupid. Start out with a hundred.”
“Suppose he wants more, say, a thousand, or ten thousand?”
“Hell, I don’t know! Just get him down!”
Several days later the black minister of the town approached the sheriff’s car while he was parked on the square, forking out one of his wife’s best from a plastic bowl: chicken salad with grapes and almonds. Dark clouds were forming behind the white cupola of the court house and the flag on the pole in front was stretching out like a sleeper awakening.
He was dreaming about retirement and the sound of sea gulls. He loved the sound of sea gulls. Other people called them rat birds, but for him, they were the ocean. When he heard them cry in his memory, he thought of peace, a breeze, and waves lapping.
There came a tap on his window. He buzzed his window down and turned down the air conditioner. The minister was a thick-necked ex-football player who always gave the sheriff the impression he was choking. His neatly-trimmed, grey-flecked beard made him look vaguely hostile, but in truth, he was a patter. He moved in close so you could smell his after shave and patted you on the forearm when he made his points. He was dressed in a dark three piece suit.
“Old Whizzer’s a pain, isn’t he,“ he said, leaning into the window and looking out over the buildings to the tower where they could both see him setting up a makeshift poncho-hutch to protect him from a certain rain.
The sheriff chuckled and forked a grape.
“You ever see him play?” the minister said.
“Sure. Hell of a defensive safety.”
“Could take your head off. Course, you know about the medal, right?”
Shel put his fork down carefully. Medal? What medal? Nobody ever told him anything about a medal. He had the feeling he was about to learn something he would rather not know.
“Purple heart, sheriff, purple heart! You didn’t know that?”
Slowly, sucking his lips and wiping away the hint of mayonnaise around them, Shelby stared out of his windshield at the water tower where Whizzer was shadow boxing.
“Purple heart?” Shel said. He nodded and thrust out his lower lip.
The minister’s tone grew passionate, but restrained. “The third ID. You know—dudes that went into Baghdad first. I thought you knew that?”
Shel recalled the images: the tanks, men with their faces cloth-covered, the night bombings, “shock and awe.” Whizzer was a part of all that?
“Well,” he said, snapping the plastic cover on the bowl. “That’s…uh…that’s impressive.”
“Old Whizzer was right up there at the front of that army riding one of those big tanks right into Baghdad. Can’t you just see him—all those monster machines and Whizzer at the head, the mightiest army in the world, old Glory flying above him and him beaming out that silly grin of his and those boys, thousands of them rolling down into that ancient city, righteous and heroic! Man, that must have been a sight to see! Just like Sennacherib and his army thundering down on Israel!”
The preacher seemed to see something Shelby couldn’t see. It seemed to be at once close by but far away. He extended his arm toward some distant point and squinted into the sky. “God’s army, tens of thousands, his own right hand of holy revenge, stretching across the horizon from farthest east to farthest west, chariots, horses, generals, thundering over the desert sand.”
Shel looked; he saw nothing but the sign for I-16.
He smiled, showing chicken stuck in this teeth, then wiped his mouth again with a paper towel. “Have some salad?” He held the bowl up to the window.
The preacher was not interested in salad. “I tell you, sheriff, a black, handicapped football hero vet who won a Purple Heart—you call me if I can help.”
Shel muttered as he watched the man negotiate the traffic around the square, then slide into his shiny black SUV and ease off.
“Call me if I can help! Call if I can help you start a race riot! Call me if I can have your fat honkey badge!”
He could feel his blood pressure rising.
He considered the situation. As much as he hated to admit it, the man was right. His hands were now officially tied. That Purple Heart was the final blow. If he had Whizzer arrested, he would be swamped with phone calls all hours of the night, blacks and whites, letters, emails, name calling in the paper. Ugh! He cranked his Crown Victoria and revved up until his fan belt squeaked. It wasn’t worth the hassle. He had to find another way.
He was already reaching for his Tums when his cell went off a third time.
“Nix the money. Word gets out we bribed him I won’t be able to show my face in town council. Get him down, Sheriff, now!”
The sound of seagulls was growing dimmer.
Two weeks into the protest the black choir appeared early Sunday morning to sing “Guide me Thou oh Great Jehovah.” They were dressed in phosphorescent blue. Shel watched from his patrol car. On the tower track Whizzer was asleep, curled up in a fetal position. It had just rained and the air was thick with heat and humidity as the choir arranged its aluminum bleachers below the tower. The sky was a washed-out blue and cloudless and the sun sat in it like a king receiving his court.
After the first hymn, Whizzer continued to sleep.
“Whizzer!” the choir director shouted up.
They continued with “”Shall We Gather at the River,” but it had no noticeable effect on the sleeper.
It was only when they began a loud, bass-thumping rap-gospel piece that he woke up. It involved a trio of high school girls who shook and wiggled to a powerful beat whose vibrations Shel could feel though his car. He munched a peanut butter and jelly sandwich he washed down with a Diet Coke. When did such trash creep into the church, he asked himself as he watched the girls gyrate. That’s what strippers in strip clubs do. The trio had grim, determined looks on their faces as their necks bobbed up and down and back and forth; beneath their choir robes their hips undulated in suggestive movements.
Whizzer hung over the rail, beside himself because of the music, as he gaped down at the dancers who by now had worked up beads of sweat on their brows and lips. Shel watched through his binoculars as Whizzer gyrated and leapt about in joyous synch with the music.
“Get down,” Stubbs said next to him as his fat neck bobbed back and forth. He seemed to be punching at some absent opponent.
Shel glared at him. The deputy stopped.
“Sunday morning,” Shel muttered, “the Lord’s Day, and what are we doing in One Round? A shell-shocked idiot is doing the bump and grind and church girls are swinging their butts.”
Later that afternoon Whizzer made a swing. He made it out of fraying tent rope and hung it on the track so that he could slide down into it and swing back and forth. Only one strand of rope held him aloft. He pushed himself high and far until he struck the side of the well and laughed as his rope spun him round and round and was twisted and he was forced to hoist himself up, hand over hand, to untwist it and try all over again. Whizzer beamed like a child on the play ground.
A shiny black car eased up next to the sheriff. The tinted glass groaned down: it was the mayor back from vacation. Sitting next to him on the back seat was a muscular, freckled, young redhead in tennis attire. The mayor thrust his combed-over head out the window far enough for Shel to see odd whelps on his neck. Passion bites! From the Hilton head tennis pro! Shel held back his laughter. The mayor dyed his grey hair black, but sweat made the combed-over strands bleed.
“Still no luck, huh?” the mayor said. He craned his head up to get a better look at Whizzer.
“You just get in from Charleston?” Shel asked, working a tooth pick.
“By way of Hilton Head,” the mayor said. “Cindy here’s the tennis pro over there.”
Cindy smiled, gave Shel a boozy pucker and crooked her pinky at him with the hand she held her whiskey sour with.
“You own land in Bulloch County, right?” the mayor said nonchalantly as he stared up at Whizzer. He shaded his eyes from the sun.
Shel threw the toothpick out the window into the grass. “That’s right.”
“And last year—you paid taxes on it, right?”
Small ripples ran back and forth across Shel’s massive jowls. He had that feeling he used to get in school when the teacher sets you up with a series of questions you know only to trap you with one you don’t. “I did. Why do you ask?”
“I dunno,” the mayor said, absentmindedly, drawing his head back inside the limo. He turned and his companion handed him a Whiskey Sour he took a sip of. He ripped the meat out of the slice of orange. “Had a weird phone call from the IRS. Asking questions. You know how that goes. Guess it’s nothing. Anyway, keep at it. Got to get him down—one way or another.” The mayor ripped off a smile and motioned for the driver to move on.
The mayor’s car pulled off, slowly, dipping until the bumper scraped.
Shel closed his eyes. Take a deep breath, he told himself. Slowly. Breath in, breath out. His heart beat faster.
“That whiskey sour sure looked cool,” Stubbs said, as he punched at his game boy.
Shel felt his chest cavity tighten. Somehow, the mayor had found out that he had cheated on his taxes! “That’s against the Law!” he shouted as he pounded on his steering wheel.
“Used to be, sheriff,” Stubbs said. He slid over and straightened his tie in the sheriff’s mirror. “You behind the times." He ran his tongue back and forth across his teeth. “Everybody’s all liberal now. Beer on Sundays, going to movies. ” He pretended to raise a beer can to his lips and acted drunk.
“What in Hell are you doing?” Shel asked.
“Just pointing out how behind the times you are,” the young man said as he slid back to his side of the car and his Game Boy.
Shel closed his eyes. He tried to breathe slowly. His doctor told him that breathing slowly was the secret to a long life.
It wasn’t a colossal cheat: twelve thousand dollars from two timber sales. The first time—five years before--was a slip up; but when no one contacted him about it, he decided to slip up on purpose. Until today he assumed no living soul knew of it.
The following day he met the sharpshooter on the roof. A jet was marking the blue sky with a white wake. Drifting up from the coffee shop across the street was the smell of fried bacon. The Sheriff hiked his leg onto the two foot wall surrounding the roof.
“We’ll try this one more day, “he said to the shooter as he focused his binoculars on the tower where Whizzer was in his swing.
The shooter knelt over his trunk, trying out various scopes. Shel noticed he had a tattoo on his forearm: “One shot, one kill.”
Behind the tower clouds were amassing one on top of another. In their bright whiteness there was no shade. Shel panned down with his binoculars from the clouds to Whizzer, bouncing around in the swing.
The shooter stretched out onto his stomach and brought his eye to his scope. “That’s plenty of time,” he said.
Whizzer pushed off the tower with his feet, then squealed.
“Fool,” Shel said, shaking his head, “he’s just a damned fool.”
He took the rest of that day off and made for the swimming hole on the Big Mammy River. The turn off Highway 80 onto the pulpwood road led his Ford into thick brush that scraped his doors and windshield and occasional vines green with sap, slapped at the metal. He rolled his window down to let the sweet scent of scuppernong flood in as he neared the river. After parking and rummaging through old magazines and tools in his trunk, he pulled out a rusty rod and reel, took off his shoes and socks and stepped out into the white sandy beach where as he boy had come to swim. The river made a bend here that caused the water to spread out until the black surface thinned and the eye could see the sandy bottom and minnows and tadpoles. A roof of poplar, pine and sweet gums kept the water cool even in the summer. This is where he smoked his first cigarette and kissed his first girlfriend. The dank, rich odor of the river filled him with longing for the peace of the past. From time to time the sun burst through the shade over head and startled him.
He had no delusions about the mayor. The man was ruthless. He would report the taxes without skipping a beat, revenge for Shel’s allowing One Round to become a national laughing stock. A deputy suggested a swat team to bring Whizzer down, but Shel knew that the public would perceive it as over kill. A SWAT team against a poor, helpless half-wit Vet? He was trapped. At stake was his future, especially his sandy beach with sea gulls and the water lapping at his toes.
What irritated him most was the knowledge that he had brought this on himself by egging Whizzer on in the coffee shop. Now he was sorry he had ever befriended the fool. He ought to be locked up in the VA where they were trained to deal with nut cases. When he reflected on it, he realized that he spent half his time as a law enforcement officer taking care of Whizzer. Well, no more. Once this farce was over, he would see to it that the man was locked away for good. If nothing else, he would save the taxpayers money.
He cast his line out and reeled the rubber lure in toward him slowly. After six or seven casts he began to feel the rhythm of nothing, of peace with no cares, of drifting with the breeze and the current. He cast his line far and watched the lure plop and he let it drift.
Why were good men like him punished? Hadn’t he been good to Whizzer? How many five dollar bills had he given him to leave the drugstore or the beauty shop or the jewelry store? The McDonald’s manager had even written him a letter thanking him for always helping Whizzer out. And who did they call the time he locked himself in the bathroom at McDonald’s? A locksmith? No. They called him, Shelby Sams. Or the night Whizzer broke into the drug store to steal candy? Shel had been forced to bribe the livid manager with money rom his own budget to pay for the damages.
Well, he was done helping out. Helping out just led to trouble. He thought about the prophets: Jeremiah thrust into a hole, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Job, a good man with a fine family. And Jesus himself. The best man. They were all decent men. Sometimes it seemed that everything was stacked against decent men.
He lay back and fell asleep on the sand. In his dream he saw the blond in front of the sun again. The gulls were calling gently and the waves were tickling his toes. Lying on his back, happy and giggling, he saw the sun go black as the blond stood beside him. This time she seemed less generous.
“Shel, sweetheart. Look at the sea!”
She pointed behind her and he sat up. From east to west the grey green sea was turning. Its glitter slowly faded until it became sand. Over the sand there was a cloud. At first it was only a low hanging cloud with ragged edges on top even though on bottom it was flat as the surface of the sea. He listened and thought he could hear a far away rumbling.
His cell sounded.
His car eased over the green grass to the base of the tower where a crowd had gathered. He switched off his engine and waited. The crowd was silent, watchful. The evening sun shielded itself behind the tower, its thick yellow spilled light over the tower’s edge. Those gathered were all observing Stubbs and several other deputies interview everyone who was present. Shel closed his eyes. He leaned forward with both arms on the steering wheel and something drained out of him. For the longest time he lay there feeling his heart pumping hard.
He finally forced himself up out of the car and made his way through the crowd. His body felt like a load of wet clothes.
He had landed on its back. One leg angled wildly away and one arm was wrenched behind. Blood pooled in the mouth, then spilled in rivulets into the eyes and ears until it trickled down onto the grass.
“Rope snapped,” one of the onlookers volunteered.
The rope lay under the body. Shel took it to the car where he reached into the glove compartment and put on his reading glasses. It was the kind used to secure tents, about one half inch thick. There was fraying at the top and bottom, but where it snapped, there was a clean cut.
He quickly turned his binoculars toward the drugstore roof. The plastic fold-up shield the shooter hid behind was gone. He cursed himself for hiring the man. “One shot, one kill.” Still, if he told no one, who would ever know?
Stubbs had flipped his clip on sunshades up. His pale chubby face was sweaty and he was breathing through his mouth as he bit his lower lip and bore down hard into a spiral-bound notebook with a stubby yellow pencil as if he were carving marble. The sheriff glared at him without expression, but he felt a flush of pride when a massive black woman threw her arms around the young deputy and sobbed and Stubbs blinked hard and seemed at a loss as he tried to reach around her and pat her on the back, but he regained his composure and gently led her into the waiting arms of a small man who had smoked a wooden tipped cigar down to the tip.
The grassy lawn began to fill up as the shops and stores around the square emptied. Business at the courthouse came to a halt. Clerks and lawyers and judges all crossed the lawn.
A puffy-faced peroxide blond lit up a cigarette and shook her head as she exhaled into the warm air. “It just ain’t right. Poor thing. Went to fight for his country and then wind up like this.”
There was a murmur of assent. Others shared stories. Some had known Whizzer in school; others had played sports with him. Others had taught him in school or Sunday school. Shel’s heart seemed to pump hard enough for two.
When he returned to the roof, the shooter had cleared out. He had even smoothed over the spots in the gravel where he had lain.
That night he sat at his computer. His body could have been filled with concrete. When he lifted his arms, the weight seemed to drag them back down. He typed up the report, but he didn’t indicate hiring the shooter or his suspicion that the shooter had shot the rope in two. He punched the keys, listlessly, his stubby index fingers jabbing. The guilt already weighed on him like a grave stone strapped to his back.
The funeral three days later took place in Warriors’ Corner, a section of the cemetery reserved for men and women who had served. The sky was a still, almost stony blue. Servicemen were everywhere, dressed in their snappiest brown and grey or navy blue uniforms. There were photographs of Whizzer taken back in his glory days as a serviceman and even farther back as a high school football star. Shel parked on a knoll and walked down a long grassy slope past dozens and dozens of small American flags toward the grave site. The blast from a twenty one gun salute echoed back and forth though the woods around them. Shel made his way through the hot, sweaty crowd. The black minister who had spoken with him at the square stood under the canopy at a podium. Gripping the podium with both arms outstretched, he told the grieving family members that when he closed his eyes he saw Whizzer, riding at the head of that proud army of Sennacherib when the Assyrians, acting as the right hand of God, came down on Israel and punished them. The crowd issued a loud “Amen!” “Preach on, brother!” He explained how they were all fortunate to have known a man who had given so much for his country. The women wept and the men blew their noses. He went on to talk about Whizzer’s suffering.
“It was only earthbound pain,” he said. “What Whizzer knows in heaven is unimaginable to us poor mortals estranged from God. Whizzer taught us a great deal as a town. We thought we were helping him, but we were wrong. Whizzer was helping us. He was our teacher. We were the disciples.”
His face brightened as he pounded the podium.
“And, brothers and sisters, I don’t know if there’s a place in heaven for killer free safeties, but there ought to be!
“A killer free safety! Preach on Reverend!” The crowd grew cheerful.
“Brothers and Sisters, Whizzer Noggs was a man to be reckoned with. I talk with wide receivers from Portal. I talk with wide receivers from Vidalia. I talk with wide receivers from Swainsboro. They all say the same thing. In 1975 they were scared to come to One Round. Scared to come to One Round!”
“Scared of One Round!”
“You know why they were scared of One Round?”
“Why were they scared of One Round, preacher?”
“Whizzer Noggs! Whizzer Noggs would blind side ’em. Crack their ribs like dry kindling”
“Like dry kindling!”
“Whizzer Noggs was the most feared man in his conference. A little bitty one hundred forty-pounder. Feared by the mighty and feared by the brave.”
“By the mighty and the brave!”
“And feared by the fat and happy”
“Feared by the fat and happy!”
“And brothers and sisters, there was one thing they all feared most!”
“Tell it on, Preacher! Tell us the deep down truth. The righteousness of God!
“They feared Whizzer Noggs because of three hundred years of suffering!”
“God have mercy! Three hundred years!”
“They feared the man who is down and out but gets up again and again.”
“Down and out but gets back up!”
“Won’t stay down. Just keeps on coming.”
“Won’t stay down!”
“Eyes shut from shots to the head, body aching with pain in his side!”
“Eyes shut and body aching!!”
“But he just keeps on coming. For three hundred years he just keeps on coming.”
“He just keeps on coming. For three hundred years. Preach on, you righteous man of God! Tell it like it is!”
The hill Shel trudged up seemed steeper than the one he came down. He never liked all the shouting and answering back and forth. A funeral wasn’t a cheerleaders’ convention, but then, he never expected them to know how to be solemn and respectful. When he reached his car, he had to sit inside with the AC running while he caught his breath. He chalked up what had happened as a risk you take to keep the town safe. Lawmen take chances, he told himself. Sometimes they pay off; sometimes they don’t. If they pay off, you get all the credit. If they don’t, the less known, the better.
He sat and watched the black folks pass by his car. Most were older. The women wore outfits that were stylish in the fifties: navy dresses with polka dot prints and straw hats. They waved or nodded since he knew most of them by name. He even knew where they worked and where they lived. That was the kind of community they lived in.
That night he pushed his fork around a plate of green peas and burned pork chop, but ate little. The little he did eat was tasteless. He dragged his body to the leather sofa where for three hours he numbed his brain with ESPN’s sports around the clock. By one AM he dropped off in his Barcalounger.
The water came up to his feet again and the sand pipers scuttered along the waves like little elves. Once again his goddess appeared. She wore a sun bonnet she had to hold down with her hand because the wind was so strong. She sat beside Shel on his big rainbow-colored towel and applied sun screen to his chest. Her fingers were long and thin and from time to time she would lift her index finger to his lower lips and slide the jelly-like ointment across his cracked kips.
Then she stood up, anxious.
“It’s time,” she said. With both hands screening the sun she peered out over the ocean as the wind blew her hat away until her hair streamed out behind her longer and longer. Shel stood beside her. Once again the sea was transformed into sand. The green grey was becoming dry, barren, flat. On the horizon, the cloud came on, tumbling, surging forward like an angry animal, silent at first, but gradually giving off a deep rumbling. The smoke revealed the outline of an army, horses, thousands, tens of thousands, with horsemen dressed in desert robes with golden blades raised high above their heads as they ululated and the high-pitched screams sent a slow chill up Shel’s feet and legs into his already shriveling genitals.
At the head of the army was a single rider larger than life. The rider was Whizzer, only his dread locks were gone; now his hair was full and black. It streamed out shiny behind a white robe that rippled and whipped in the hot wind. He had the face of a youthful conqueror, an Alexander or a Caesar, a warrior’s smile and a warrior’s golden features. On his leg was carved a name that no one knew and his eyes were burning into Shel like hot steel until he had to turn away. They were eyes that remembered who he had wanted to be; they also knew who he thought he was; and they drew down out of the future a world of guilt and sorrow that would mark him until the end of all his days.