You’ll have to trust me when I tell you that I didn’t intend to think of The Simpsons when I first saw the video of Michael Slager murdering Walter Scott. I take the issue of police brutality, excessive force, corruption, and downright murder far too seriously than to initially compare it to something as irreverent as The Simpsons. However, I can’t help but see the grim reality in something that happened on The Simpsons more than twenty years ago and what happened to poor Walter Scott on April 4.
What came to mind was episode 9 of season 6 of The Simpsons, “Homer Badman.” It originally aired November 27, 1994. In it, Homer stole a priceless Gummy Bear from a candy trade show. Before he could consume it, it ended up on the backside of the babysitter hired to watch the kids while Homer and Marge were at the trade show—she inadvertently sat on the Gummy Bear in the car when Homer drove her home. When Homer attempted to reach for it, the babysitter interpreted his grasping for sexual harassment. When she made her complaint public, Homer was vilified and the intimate details of his life were put on display.
Fast forward to April 4, and North Charleston, South Carolina police officer Michael Slager justified his shooting of Walter Scott by claiming that Scott posed a threat to his safety, if not his life, by seizing his stun gun. The story came unraveled when an unexpected video surfaced that showed Slager murdering Scott and then planting what appears to be the stun gun in question on him to legitimize his claim that Scott had taken control of it. The unexpected video has some air of divine intervention to it, too. Not only did it reveal the facts of the fatal encounter, but it was able to draw attention to an accusation of excessive force filed against Slager two years ago—an accusation that was never fully investigated, but of which Slager was somehow miraculously cleared. The North Charleston police department is suddenly breaking land speed records back peddling in an attempt to look at the accusation again and “properly” investigate it. It’s reasonable to assume that had the video of Slager murdering Scott not surfaced, all of this would have been covered up and swept away. That’s what we can expect all too often when the police are left to police themselves.
At the end of “Homer Badman,” an unknown video surfaced that exonerated Homer. It was shot by Groundskeeper Willie, who said he secretly videotaped couples in their cars. Marge summed up the ordeal by remarking on the idea of constant video surveillance, a phenomenon that was just rising in the social conscience of Americans at the time of the episode, but has since become a normal part of everyday life. The truth her remark captured is now far too realistic and far too grim for me to appreciate the humor originally intended. She said, “You know, the courts might not work anymore, but as long as everyone is videotaping everyone else, justice will be served.”
I subscribe to “The Time is Now,” a service through Poets & Writers that delivers a set of prompts to my inbox each Thursday; one prompt for poetry, another for fiction, and a third for creative nonfiction. The prompts have been underwhelming for the most part, but it hasn’t hurt to look at them and print them off for my students. A few have caught my attention; in particular, a creative nonfiction prompt from a few weeks ago: Write 100 words on a subject that’s been on your mind lately. The catch was that it had to be exactly 100 words. Baseball has been on my mind ever since pitchers and catchers reported, so I gave it a rip. In the least, it helped me create the year’s first blog post on baseball.
What day will you get away to the yard and settle in with a beer and a scorecard? It won’t be soon enough. The smell of grass won’t be thick enough in the air. The snap of 95 MPH cheese in the catcher’s mitt won’t be crisp enough. The crack of hardwood on horsehide won’t echo across the park just right. The 6-4-3 won’t be acrobatic enough; the take-out slide won’t be hard enough. Nine innings just won’t do for that day peaking over the horizon just now. You’ll have to return again and again until you don’t know when.
(continued from yesterday…)
The first thing I did was call the LGPD and ask if there was a form to fill out to file a complaint against an officer. Despite a number of phone calls throughout the end of the summer, I never got a direct answer to that question. The most I got was a hand-off to someone else in the department. The first person was Lieutenant Gritzner, who told me he was aware of my encounter from July Fourth and that I was correct in that Officer Buchburger should have identified herself to me upon request. He also intimated that he had spoken to her. I initially took that at face value, but now I doubt that conversation ever took place.
I next talked to Sergeant Hall and informed him that I planned to register a complaint against Officer Ward, and asked him what procedure I needed to follow. He told me I could tell him about it over the phone. That wasn’t going to work because it would be too easy for him to tell me whatever I wanted to hear, say he’d speak to Officer Ward, and then do nothing at all. I have little doubt that has happened before with the LGPD, and is probably their preferred operating procedure so as to give the appearance of accountability.
I ended up writing my complaint and sending it by registered mail to the LGPD and a Lake Geneva city councilman. That advice came from a website I consulted that explained when you make this kind of noise, the police can’t ignore it. Plus, the registered mail proves that all parties received the communication. You know, in case the police would ever dream up a scheme to say they never received a complaint.
Soon enough, I got a call from Sergeant Hall requesting my video footage of the interaction that shows Officer Ward threatening to break my phone and his other antagonistic behaviors. It seemed a dubious request to me since Officer McNutt assured me during the encounter that they were filming me. Nonetheless, I stuck a CD-ROM in the mail that showed what happened, along with a note about contacting me by mail.
What I got instead was a voice mail from Officer Hall telling me about Officer Ward’s right to seize my phone and what would have happened had I been arrested. None of what he said was relevant to my complaint. Those issues were never in question or even brought up by me, plus he was contradicting what Officer Ward confirmed with me during the encounter: That I have the right to record him performing his duty. So, I wrote another letter; this one to the Chief of Police. I made it clear that it feels like the LGPD is actively working to hide things, and regardless of how true that is, he needs to know that that is the perception. I asked him to look into the situation described in my initial complaint.
Chief Rasmussen handed the issue off to Assistant Chief Reuss, whose letter back to me stated:
“After a thorough investigation, I find that the actions taken by Officer Ward, Officer McNutt, and Officer Buchberger were lawful and showed no personal bias.”
Once again, the response I received had little to do with what I registered in my complaint. My complaint never mentioned the two other officers; nor did the issue of “personal bias” ever come up. Another thing he wrote gave me pause:
“I would never discourage a person from seeking resolution from a matter that concerns them, however my obligation remains to fairly and objectively view the information received.”
It wasn’t the mangled grammar and punctuation that caught my attention; rather, it was the absurdity of the statement. Of course he would never discourage people to seek resolution because he, and most everyone I encountered in the LGPD, seems practiced in running people around under the guise of internal accountability until they give up from frustration. It’s interesting to note, too, that the words “malicious threat” and “antagonizing behaviors” were never said by anybody but me. It seemed as if the use of those phrases by the LGPD would give them legitimacy.
In the end, I’m left thinking that accountability means little to the LGPD, and in that regard they are no different than far too many other police forces. I can’t see that situation changing until the idea of police monitoring themselves is abandoned. Thankfully, the police in general are on the nation’s social radar and we might start to see some significant changes in how law enforcement is managed. It’s too bad this hyper-awareness had to come at such a high price in numerous places around the country. Thankfully, my episode is little more than a $90 annoyance. Still, a lot more needs to be done to reduce my skepticism. And as far as building any amount of respect for the Lake Geneva Police Department, that might never happen.
(continued from yesterday…)
I’ve not made any attempt over the last few years to hide my skepticism regarding the police. I even wrote herein about an encounter I had with a Michigan State Police officer five years ago. I’ve had a pair of speeding tickets since then, so my personal business with the police has been minimal. What happened in Lake Geneva came well before any of the other highly publicized police disasters of last summer, and I’m grateful that my story is little else than a blip on a radar screen; still, it was my experience, and it was distasteful, and I think it’s worth writing about in the context of the current state of the police in our country.
My geographic location and reading habits are most responsible for my skepticism in regard to law enforcement. Lake County has been rattled by several police corruption and forced confession cases the last few years, one of which directly impacted a person with whom I work. Another case now appears to be tagged with police manufacturing evidence to impugn someone, and just two weeks ago another person who was falsely convicted based on a forced confession was released. My tax dollars are wasted because of these episodes, which really only amount to police wanting to look like they are doing their jobs and getting whatever numbers they need to please mayors who are hitching political campaigns to being tough on crime regardless of the legitimacy of the law enforcement tactics that get them their numbers. Add to these other cases I’ve read about in The New Yorker: another forced confession in the Chicago area that was recently resolved, a recent article about police killings in Alburqueque, NM (Rolling Stone covered the same issue the same week as The New Yorker), the constitutionality of stop-and-frisk policies, and malicious prosecution of an innocent teenager. Pile on what has recently been covered in The New Yorker and The Washington Post regarding civil seizure, and then the jackass who got national attention when he wrote I’m a Cop. If You Don’t Want to Get Hurt, Don’t Challenge Me, and I’ve got to wonder: How can a person not have a healthy amount of skepticism for law enforcement?
A few days after the unpleasantness on the shores of Geneva Lake, I reviewed the video I shot on my phone. I discovered exactly how many times I had asked Officer Buchburger to identify herself (five), and was able to hear again what Officer Ward had said to me. One of his first comments was that I would have to lower my phone because it could be a weapon. He also threatened to break it if I didn’t comply. His aggressiveness presented two problems. One, the phone is not a weapon, but Officer Ward had probably been trained to say exactly what he said so that he would have a modicum of defense if he was brought under investigation for anything that may have happened during the encounter. It was obviously a catchphrase of sorts that would keep him safe regardless of how ridiculous it seemed. What’s more, police officers don’t have the right to threaten harm to a person or a person’s property to get them to stop asserting their rights. Even if the phone had been a weapon, it wouldn’t have been broken at his whimsy; it would have been confiscated and put into evidence.
Later during the encounter, Officer Ward told me, “I’m gonna ask you again to keep your hands out of your pockets. You could have a weapon.” I did have my right hand in my pocket, as is my habit at times when I speak with people, but he was being antagonistic. He’d never asked me to take my hand out in the first place. After viewing the video, I was left wondering why he had never asked me if I had a weapon, or why he never frisked me. Not that either approach would have yielded any results—I didn’t have a weapon. It’s obvious in hindsight, though, that this is all de regueur for the police to try to escalate episodes to justify force.
I was incensed enough after watching my video to register a complaint against Officer Ward. I found lots of tips online about how to do that, and also uncovered some unexpected things about the public’s reaction to the antagonistic police state that has emerged in our country. It turns out that YouTube is flooded with videos people have uploaded that show police misbehavior, antagonism, and illegal brutality. It doesn’t surprise me that such an ocean of video exists—I just never had cause to search for them. I’ve come to think of this trend as a populace reaction to the television show Cops! Furthermore, there are fledgling organizations like Copwatch that were founded to do exactly what its name says. Judging by the tons of videos they have on YouTube, the folks at Copwatch aren’t popular with the police.
Last July Fourth could have gone better. I was in Lake Geneva along the lake shore enjoying the day with some friends. I had fired up the grill and was preparing to do some chicken and shrimp when Officers McNutt and Buchburger stopped by to tell me that grilling in the park was a violation of the city public burning ordinance. I countered that the City of Lake Geneva website said something different. The officers contended that grilling is only allowed in one park somewhere away from the lake shore. I showed them on my phone what I had read on the City of Lake Geneva website that led me to believe that what I was doing was fine:
Grilling & Other Fires: Fires for cooking are permitted in picnic areas, but only in grills provided or in a suitable device that contains the fire up off the ground. A permit must be obtained from the Fire Chief for any other fires within a public park.
I found nothing that indicated what a picnic area was, precisely, and thus believed what I was doing was fine. For that matter, I assumed that the dozen or so other groups in the immediate area who also had grills going read the same thing and interpreted it as I had.
It turned out that officers McNutt and Buchburger weren’t in the mood for deliberation, and especially weren’t in the mood for me to be asserting myself. Officer Buchburger seemed to be the most peeved (or at least quickest to rile when I didn’t acquiesce to her authority), and began demanding that I show her my ID so she could know who she was talking to.
I refused to produce an ID and told her she could call me “Sir” if she needed to address me. I suspected her real plan was to hold my ID to inconvenience me or check for warrants, probably both, to see if she could escalate things and have an excuse to be more aggressive in her enforcement of the law. After her second demand, I got out my phone and began recording what was happening. She refused several times to identify herself, and wasn’t wearing a badge that would identify her.
I realized I was in deeper than I wanted to be, and capitulated regarding the grill. We packed up our things and prepared to leave the park. Officers McNutt and Buchburger demanded that I stay. I asked if I was being detained. They said I was. I asked why, and they said because I had violated the public burning ordinance and they would have to cite me. I had extinguished my grill, though, so I told them I wasn’t violating the ordinance. They planned to cite me anyhow, not because of the grill at this point but, as far as I could tell, because I didn’t respect their authority and the citation was all they had to grasp at. They couldn’t cite me of their own accord, however, since in addition to not having badges, they also didn’t have ticket books with them.
I didn’t make it out of the park before Officer Ward showed up in his patrol car. In short time, Officer Ward threatened to break my phone, ran a background check on me, cited me for public burning, and made an all-around solid effort to antagonize me since he, too, seemed unhappy that I was asserting my rights and asking questions at every turn about why he was doing what he was doing. My guess was that, much like Officer Buchburger, he was hoping to goad me into reacting so he could be more aggressive in how he was enforcing the law.
I left the park about thirty minutes later with my grill and a $90 fine. What happened was only the start of an experience that has left me thinking that the Lake Geneva police do a lot more to reinforce negative police stereotypes than they do to effectively police the public and themselves.
…continued from yesterday…
Tim’s boots only got dustier with each step away from the farm, despite the damp soil and drops of dew that clung to the points of corn stalks poking out of the ground. It wouldn’t do to show up in Esther’s back yard like that, but the boots could be wiped off in the restroom at the train station where he’d stop anyhow to recomb his hair and wash his hands.
He tuned his ears to the sounds of the land as he walked. He wanted to take it all in, everything to be heard and then seen once there was ample light. It was his final chance to pack his sense memory, and it was as important to pack it as carefully as he had Slim’s Army duffle. A robin sang in a trilled tweet. There was the bluebird’s chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp, and then the squawk, squawk, squawk-squawk of the magpie. There was the low rumble of a tractor taking to a field. All of it was a chorus struck in anticipation of the sun soon to break the horizon.
The shuffle of his boots on the soil between rows soon formed a rhythm. His breathing fell in with the rhythm of the shuffle, and his heart beats followed. He felt a part of every living thing around him, as if a root system burrowing beneath the soil connected all of them, and that indiscernible strings and fibers from those same roots tethered even the birds in the sky and critters skittering among the trees. They all belonged to this place at this time; they all somehow made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. So immense was that greatness that it felt immeasurable. His thoughts fell to Iowa City, which laid in the direction of the rising sun but was too far away to fully reckon. What is life like when green veldts of gold-tipped corn don’t surround you like a blanket? What did late summer smell like there if not the sweet smell of corn rolling off the fields? Where was the inspiration among the limestone buildings and asphalt? It would come, wouldn’t it? He tried to clear his mind of all that was too far past the horizon to see, and focus instead on what was going to happen within the hour.
Once at the train station, he would purchase his ticket and ask Milt the ticket agent if he would mind the duffle for a few minutes. He would walk to Esther’s house, cutting down the alley that ran behind their property and come up the back yard. He would toss a pebble at her window. When she came down to the yard, he would explain everything, give her the poem from the last page of the leather-bound journal, and if nothing else, leave her with a kiss.
He had to be perfect. If he didn’t get this train, there was no way he would be able to see, much less talk, to Esther. The townsfolk would know he was leaving, and the news would spread like a brushfire. Some would make their way to the station; others would insist he wait for the train on their front porch or in the parlor. He’d be loaded with more food than he could ever eat or take with him. Esther’s ma and pa would be awake by the time the next train came through, and there’d be hell to pay if he tried something so bold as he was going to try within the hour. They were sleeping off their Saturday indulgence right now, so her pa was in no shape to charge into the yard again.
He would show Esther the thick stack of bills and explain its legitimacy. There was enough for him to establish himself in Iowa City and cover two years of expenses and tuition once the university accepted him. And the university would accept him. She’d have to trust him on that. Rising from the grass roots like this, it would be a great start for a poet, wouldn’t it?
He would find a job right away, maybe even on campus, and squirrel away everything he made. Soon, he’d send her a blank postcard and that would be the cue that there was a ticket waiting for her at the station the following Sunday morning. Once her folks gave in to their whiskey, all she would have to do is pack what she needed, and then slip out before they stirred. They’d marry right away so nothing and nobody could break their bond. Not ma or pa. Not the sheriff. No one.
She could do this, right? They can always mend fences later. But she could do this, right?
The full body of the sun had inched above the horizon by the time Tim arrived at the train station. He fished through the duffle and pulled out the envelope of cash and the leather-bound journal with the pink stationery tucked inside. He purchased his ticket, and then stuffed the envelope into the back pocket of his jeans. He handed the duffle over the counter to Milt the ticket agent, and then double-checked the train schedule. He had twenty minutes, exactly as planned.
He stopped in the restroom before he left and combed his hair and washed his hands. He wet his handkerchief at the water cooler and wiped the dust from his boots. Once outside, he felt a gentle breeze moving across the town. With any luck it would cool him as he walked and keep him below a sweat that felt inevitable.
He walked with his shoulders back and his chin up. It was an unfamiliar but quickly comfortable posture. He walked on the strength of his convictions. He was the only person still alive who believed this would work. It felt like somehow Uncle Slim and Aunt Joan were walking with him, and that Mom was watching from somewhere above. He strode to the rhythm of Aunt Joan’s words, you know you’re right for her… she knows it, too… don’t mind the rest. Don’t mind the rest. Don’t mind the rest.
Within a few minutes, he was standing at the edge of the Giles’s back yard. Sunlight was kissing the roof and working its way down to the darkened windows. It had already illuminated the top of the willow that hung over most of the grass. A cobblestone pathway led from the alley to the back door, cutting between a distended garden on the left and grass on the right. A tire swing hung from one branch of the willow, but the rope was frayed and ready to snap should someone try to take pleasure in swinging.
Tim found a pebble, tiny and smooth and perfect like it had grown in a field. He walked across the lawn and tossed it to Esther’s window. It dinked the glass, fell to the roof, and rolled to the ground. Tim picked it up and cocked his arm again. Before he could fire, the curtains in the window parted and Esther appeared. Her face lit up and she waved excitedly. Tim waved her down. She drew the curtains, and the window was again expressionless. The sun was almost touching it.
Tim imagined Esther tip-toeing through the house. She padded around a squeaky floorboard, eased her long legs over a footrest, and impetuously scratched the cat behind the ears as she passed. She would emerge in a moment, beautiful even with her sleep-saggy face, her blonde hair mussed but still lovely in its imperfect state if only because it was her hair. In his mind, he jumped ahead to the indeterminate time when she would step off the train in Iowa City in her lavender church dress, her powder blue sweater on her shoulders. He would sweep her in his arms and inhale her heavenly scent, feel her warm cheek against his, and for the third time kiss her.
She emerged from the back door, but stopped to gently place the door back in its frame. She wore jeans and a red Henley with the cuffs rolled to the elbows. She carried a small suitcase in her right hand. How could she have gotten ready so fast? She stepped quickly to him, reading the puzzlement on his face. “I knew you were coming.”
He pulled the envelope of cash from his pocket and showed it to her. “I know,” she said, covering the money with her hand on top of his. “Ain’t nobody seen you in the fields. My uncle’s been downright giddy. He told pa everything. Didn’t count on me hearing it. I asked him why he was so danged happy, and he was all smug. He said, ‘A man can just be happy, can’t he?’ I figured a girl could, too.” She giggled with her hand over her mouth, and then stopped to catch her breath. “I knew you were going somewhere. I just wanted to make sure I was ready. Call me crazy. Or a romantic. You’re heading to the train, right? It’s the only way out of here. Let’s get there. After that, I don’t care where we go.”
Tim looked at her, and again the words wouldn’t come. A smile broke across his face as bright and fresh as the sunlight that was washing most of the town. Esther took him by the hand, his feet again not really touching the ground. She looked into his eyes and pressed her mouth to his. When she finally released him, she looked into his eyes and giggled again. “Let’s go. It’s going to be fine. Don’t mind the rest.”
…continued from yesterday…
It had been five weeks since Aunt Joan died. Life looked a heckuva lot different than it had before her passing, and Uncle Slim’s passing last year. This is what Slim meant when he had told him that things rarely work the way you plan them, but you have to deal with them anyways. Tim understood now what it meant to be on his own. Like it or not, he was his own man, beholden to nothing and no one. There was no saying that he had to get on that train, or see Esther before he did, or even sell the farm to Mr. Giles. He could have held his ground and kept that land like a postage stamp in the corner of Giles’ tracts until Kingdom come.
Inheriting the farm, though, meant recognizing it was going to collapse sooner rather than later, which Mr. Giles knew but waited to remind Timmy until a week after Aunt Joan had gone to the Hereafter. Giles knocked late Sunday afternoon and requested a conversation. He was dressed in a dingy white shirt and faded overalls, which passed for formal enough for a late Sunday talk with a neighbor. His face was ruddy and sun-beaten. He had wet his hair and combed it back. Karl the banker stood behind him and peeked over his shoulder as Giles blocked the width of the doorway.
Mr. Giles sat at the kitchen table with his elbows on his thighs. His enormous gut sagged between his knees. He laid his notebook open on the table in front of him and poked with a crooked index finger at each point he had written down when he read it aloud: “Your farm is too big for one man to handle. It’s also too small to generate money to hire help. You and Slim could hardly handle it as he was getting on in years. It’s hard, hard work, and it put Joan…” Mr. Giles stopped and looked at Tim. When he seemed confident that he had his whole attention, he told him, “Timmy, you’re young, and as strong as any man in these parts. But you’re not always going to be like that. You think about the last year. You’ve been lucky to get the crops in and keep things up. Your whole life has been on these acres. This place is going to wear you down. You’ll be old before your time.”
Tim sipped his coffee and nodded. His hand slipped into his pocket and felt for the piece of folded pink stationery he had been holding onto for the past week. His fingers rested on it as he thought about Mr. Giles’ words. They were the naked and unperfumed truth, and weren’t unlike thoughts Tim had in the last year but had pushed out of his mind. Joan had seemed to want to broach the topic since Slim’s death, but admittedly couldn’t say the words for fear they’d become the truth. Instead, they carried on their duties both for each other and out of respect to Slim’s legacy. Things remained that way up until ten days prior when the rooster didn’t wake Joan and Tim found her cold in her bed.
Mr. Giles continued, “The tractor needs overhauled. Anybody who’s heard it can tell you that. And that truck isn’t going to last. This is to say nothing of the regular repairs to this house.” His eyes left Tim and darted around the walls and ceiling, surveying who knew what future repairs. He reached into the breast pocket of the dingy white shirt he wore beneath his overalls and pulled out a thick stack of bills. He set it on the table and pushed it to the middle. “This will be my only offer.”
He referred back to the list, again with the crooked finger. “It beats a broken back. Empty pockets. The bank at the door. No place to go. This way, you got cash in your hand and you can do what you wish. What kind of man wouldn’t take that?”
Giles looked to Karl, who looked to Tim and spoke softly. “He’s right, Timmy.” Karl managed a weak smile. He fidgeted with his string tie. “I know this isn’t a good way for things to end, but think of it like a beginning. You can make yourself a whole new future. It’s the practical thing to do. I think Slim and Joan would have told you the same.”
Tim hitched his thumbs into the bib straps of his overalls. Slim had told him he could trust Karl, and don’t be fooled if it seems he’s going against you. Karl knows the angles, and you gotta believe that he has things figured so they can work for you. He’s an honest man. He helped keep the family on the farm in some of the lean years.
Karl’s eyes darted to Mr. Giles, and then rested back on Tim. “Timmy, you ought to know that I talked to Slim a couple of times about the best way to provide for you and Joan when the unthinkable happened. He knew it was going to. A man carries a wound like that, he knows it’s going to take him eventually. Thank God he hung on like he did. He told me that when the time comes, you’d know the right thing to do. I think this is what he meant.”
Giles closed the notebook and stood up from the table. He pushed his sleeves up his forearms, and then stuffed the notebook into a back pocket. He turned to face Tim, pointing his gut directly at him. He produced a bandana and wiped perspiration from his forehead. Finally, he spoke. “Son, I’m going to leave here in one flat minute. You will never again see me on this property so long as I don’t own it.”
Tim rose and looked directly into Giles’ eyes, surprising even himself at how tall he was. He was one of the few men in the county who could stand so tall as to look directly in Giles’ eyes. It occurred to him that with Giles’ bloated body next to his tall, slender self, they looked like the number ten debating itself. He stifled the thought. He spoke. “Mr. Giles, I’ll take your money. But I have conditions.”
“Conditions?” Giles snorted. He looked to Karl. “Do you believe this? He might as well be Slim’s own true blood.”
Tim stood still, his thumbs still hooked in his bib straps. “If you have even a shred of respect for Slim and Joan and all they did, you’ll listen.”
Giles gave him a stern look up and down. When his sagging jowls relaxed, Tim knew for the first time that Giles, or anybody for that matter, was measuring him as a full man. Giles stuffed his handkerchief into a pocket and crossed his arms over his chest. “Go ahead.”
It took less than a minute for them to settle that Tim would accept the reasonable compensation for his inheritance. The money also bought him one month to remain on the farm and the promise of silence about the deal so he could tend to his affairs without being bothered. They shook on the agreement, the power in the grip of Mr. Giles’ clammy hand matched by the young hardness of Tim’s.
Tim studied the beaming face across from him. The stoutness of it and the shallow widow’s peak high on the forehead didn’t match at all with Esther’s slender cheeks and small chin. There didn’t seem to be an identifiable through line from Mr. Giles to his brother Pa Giles to his niece Esther. All Esther had must have come from her mother’s side. She was lucky not to be shaded so directly to her father, whose face Tim had last seen a year ago. At that time, it was as red as Indian corn. Beads of sweat blotched the bulbous nose, and his mouth spewed chaw as he yelled, “My daughter ain’t marryin’ no goddamn dirt farmer!”
He had barged into the moment when Tim and Esther stood in his back yard and kissed for the first time, hands-in-hands, facing each other, staring into the other’s eyes. It was almost ten o’clock. He came stumbling out the house with a double-barrel Winchester broken open in the crook of one arm and pointing menacingly at Tim with the index finger of his free hand. You’d think that nobody had seen young people in love. What did they think was going to happen at a dance?
Everything happened so fast that evening, like a dirt devil sprung up in a barren field before a storm. He had never been to a dance and there he was at his very first, the graduation dance. She had approached him, the quiet girl from the back of the room in literature class. Maybe she had smiled at him once or said hello.
She was smiling and biting her lower lip. She said, “I’d like to dance, Tim.” She grasped his hand and took him onto the dance floor. How could feet that were steady and reliable in the fields and barn be so clumsy on the hard wood of the gymnasium floor? An hour later and he felt what must have been intoxication from the floral scent of her perfume and the softness of her lightly starched cotton dress.
He offered to walk her home to buy more minutes of her company. Their silhouettes moved between houses whose front rooms glowed by candle light or whose front porches were lit by lanterns. The soft lights radiated off Esther’s skin. Had his feet even touched the ground between the school and the four blocks to her house?
The kiss had been a desperate ploy because he could not find the words to express the unexpected feelings. He was stuck in the wake of unexpected romance even after Pa Giles chased from the back yard. He was sure he wanted to live with his lips pressed to hers.
Slim and Joan picked him up in front of the school ten minutes later. By the time the truck rattled and lurched back up the driveway on the farm, he had found the words and laid the whole story out to them. The cab of the truck glowed in a strange light that must have come from the grins on the faces of his aunt and uncle. Slim switched the engine off, and the three of them sat in silence. Finally, Joan asked, “He said ‘goddamn dirt farmer?’ That’s just not right. He doesn’t feel that way about his own brother, does he? I’m tempted to march right to their house the next time we’re in town and ask him.”
Slim patted her thigh. “It’s been an eventful night, but my hip is certainly screaming. Let’s sleep on things and see what the morning brings.”
They walked to the end of the driveway at first light. Slim more leaned on Tim than walked with him. “Pa Giles gets some funny notions,” he said as they ran a chain around the end post of the fence and through the frame of the gate. “Same as Mr. Giles sometimes. It don’t help that their cousin is the sheriff.”
They clicked a padlock on the ends of the chain. Tim backed away and admired the effectiveness of their simple task. He couldn’t stifle a grimace.
“Enjoy these days, son,” Slim told him. He, too, was smiling again. The grin was so wide across his face that it was falling off the edges. “You ain’t done nothing wrong, and no sheriff is gonna make a deal about it.”
Tim ran his hand through his hair and shook his head. “Thanks, Uncle Slim.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t ever let no man intimidate you, Timmy. Always deal fair with ‘em, but don’t back down when you know you’re right. That’ll take care of most of your problems.”
They walked back to the house together, Slim with his arm around Tim. He was still plenty strong enough to walk with a little help.
They sat on the front porch and waited for breakfast. Aunt Joan brought out scrambled eggs with ham, biscuits with apple butter, hash browns, and whole milk. The thick scent of coffee hung on the porch even after they had finished the meal and were sitting quietly, surveying the front lawn and the barn and letting the day’s chores wait for a bit longer. It was quiet for a long time, until Aunt Joan spoke. “You know you’re right for her. She knows it, too. Don’t mind the rest.” She repeated the last part in a cadence. “Don’t mind the rest.” She paused, and then said again, “Don’t mind the rest.”
Slim nodded and pointed toward the road at an angle far to the left, where the sheriff’s truck was rolling towards the driveway. Dust billowed in its wake. Once he reached the intersection, the sheriff parked the truck and got out. He walked to the gate and leaned his forearms on it. He waved and yelled out, “Can you come out to the gate, Slim? We need to talk. Bring the boy.”
What followed was the longest walk Tim ever remembered taking to the road. Sure Slim’s hip was bothering him, but it felt more like he was taking a walk to nowhere in particular and enjoying the scenery along the way. He paced himself slow and easy, like the front porch swing of an evening when he’d sit there with Joan. Was Slim chuckling as they walked?
The sheriff sighed heavily when they finally stood before him. He tipped his hat and propped his boot on a gate rail. “Pa Giles said Tim was disturbing his property last night after the dance. Said he took liberties with his daughter. This true?”
Slim unhooked his arm from around Tim’s shoulder and stood on his own. “The way I heard it was that Tim here walked Esther home. Looks like the two of them favor each other. Did Pa Giles tell you the part about bringing his double-barrel into the yard and making threats?”
The sheriff took his hat off and wiped his arm across his forehead. He grasped his Sam Browne belt on both sides of his hips, and gave Slim a long look.
Slim continued, “When a man tips a bottle and carries on like that, that’s your disturbance.” He didn’t move, only stood there next to Tim and returned the sheriff’s look.
The sheriff stared into Slim’s eyes. Finding no weaknesses after what felt like a full minute, he spoke. “Pa Giles says for Tim to keep off his property and away from his daughter. Let’s make this the last we speak of it.”
He turned to walk back to his truck, but Slim froze him in his tracks. “We respect the limits of the law, sheriff. We expect you to do the same.” The sheriff half-turned as if to reply, but changed his mind. He climbed in his truck and went back the way he came, dust again billowing behind him.
The walk back to the porch was significantly shorter than the walk to the road, and it seemed like Slim’s hip felt so good that it was like it had never bothered him in the first place. He never said a word about it again. Two weeks later, Tim found him slumped on the ground by the chicken coop. He lay atop of bucketful of seed that had spilled when he collapsed. The leg that extended from his bad hip was curled beneath him in what looked like one final attempt to protect his vulnerability.
Tim would see Esther over the course of the next year if by chance he passed on his way to the hardware store or the post office or wherever an errand might take him. If he happened to pass the Giles’ house he might see her staring out the front window, looking for something. Maybe she was sitting on the front porch stroking the cat on her lap. She’d wave and manage enough of a smile to warm him inside. They’d see each other at Sunday services, and if they were situated just right they could sneak a sideways glance or a smile. There was always the hope they could talk in the courtyard after service as the congregation filed out and exchanged pleasantries, but without fail Pa Giles would clutch Esther’s elbow and walk her home without a backward glance.
She hadn’t been at the funerals. Not even death and the showing of one’s respects trumped the importance of keeping the girl away from the dirt farmer. She had been able to get him a note, though, which Mrs. Gunderson gave to him at the luncheon the church had put together after Joan’s funeral.
Esther had used a piece of pink stationery and had folded it in thirds with clean, exact creases. She wrote with purple ink in neat, precise cursive that could have been a model for a penmanship primer:
Dearest Timmy: I’m sorry about your Aunt Joan, and even sorrier I can’t be there. My parents forbade me, the same as they did with your Uncle Slim’s funeral. They can’t forbid my thoughts, though they would try if they knew how often you are in them. Love, Esther
Tim folded the note in half across the width of the tri-fold and kept it in his pocket. He had found himself holding it at times over the past month or running his hand in his pocket to assure it was still on his person. He finally laid it between the pages of the leather-bound journal to keep it safe from the rigors of the move.