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Calhoun County, 1968
It was a hot winter day. It was more like summer. Down by the river, Poppa Joe Greasy Dick had decided to open up the bait shop. His real name was Joseph Dickman, but everyone had called him Poppa Joe Greasy Dick since he was a young man. He was a dirty man, hence the name. He lived in a grubby trailer behind his shop; the shop was far larger than the trailer. He shared the trailer with his daughter, Fanny. The girl‟s mother, now dead, had named her Fatima, but everyone called her Fanny, because people thereabouts were small-minded and cruel. They had small, dumb eyes that glistened with pleasure when someone suffered an accident or reversal of fortune, or especially if news came of a death. Fanny was slow, some said due to poison that she had ingested. It was rumored by the petty locals that poison was also how Poppa Joe had ridded himself of Fatima‟s mother. The local men treated Poppa Joe with a show of respect, but inwardly they envied him his secret knowledge of poison, as they reviled their carping wives. Most of them had been driven to the altar by unwanted pregnancies. Their home lives were solemn and bitter.
Those driven to extramarital affairs had few choices on the backwater. A housewife might get a quick screw off a colored handy man, but she had to mind not getting pregnant. The men always had Fanny, who Poppa Joe whored out for ten dollars a lick. She was pretty, in a tow-headed country way. She had freckles and pale skin. Fanny always lay quietly motionless while the repressed husbands grunted and sweated and discharged their squalid pleasure into her. There was no chance she would get pregnant. “Something was wrong with her pipes when she was born.” Poppa Joe would always proudly explain, if ever asked. “Don‟t worry. She kin screw all you want.” The girl drifted in and out from the yard on summer days when she had no callers, or went down to the river to watch the boats. The fishermen often hooted and raised their beers as they passed, and hollered her name and laughed. More often than not she hid in the dense growth there and soaked her bare feet in the lapping water, and fondled a bracelet that her mother had once worn, until Poppa Joe would holler, summoning her back to her work bed, or to fix his supper.
A dusty road ran along the riverbank. A battered house was at the end of the road. It had once been a store. Now, a tall, weathered-looking young man lived there. His name was Tar Williams. He was bent and coughed often. He lived in the back of the building. In the big front room there were still shelves and racks, but Tar Williams rarely went into the front of the store. Two rooms in the back were all he needed for his simple bed, small stove, and scant food. His mother had run off with a Yankee when he was three. His father had died and left him the store, but Tar had never reopened it. No one knew where he made his living from, or what he did with most of his time, as he was seldom seen by
anyone. Old timers still called the gray building Williams‟, like it was still a store. Most young folks though it haunted or abandoned. Today, Tar Williams was abroad and stealthily making his way along the marshes near the boat ramp. Over his shoulder he carried a heavy sack. He came at last to a flatbottomed boat that was hidden in the reeds, and stopped. In the boat sat Grace Thorpe, with glittering little eyes and red hair. He was small of frame, with a pot gut like an underfed child. His open mouth showed yellow, pointy teeth. Tar Williams waded into the shallow water and dropped the sack into the boat. He said nothing. “Well, come on,” the little man in the boat hissed. Spit sprayed from his mouth when he spoke.
In the death of afternoon, they made their way down Cane Creek, a brown tributary that curled away from the Coosa River. The little red-headed man paddled. Tar Williams sat in the stern of the little boat and said nothing. “Don‟t go gittin‟ all soppy on me.” Grace hissed and sprayed. “We gone git us some money and ain‟t nobody gone be the wiser fer it.” They traveled a spell down the creek, until it wound back towards the river. This bend in the creek took them close behind Poppa Joe Greasy Dick‟s bait shop. The outline of the building showed in stark relief against the red light of the dying sun. The trailer squatted forlorn beside it. “Everybody‟s down gone into town, and he‟s setting out there alone with all a that there money they made last night!” Grace repeated to Tar the reasoning behind the raid.
The previous night there had been a football game in the nearby town of Ohatchee. The home team had won; several husbands and lonely bachelors had paid for a date with Fanny. Thorpe had watched them come and go from his flatboat. He had been snagging for catfish. No one had seen him, there in the darkness. Tonight there was a rodeo in Ohatchee, the first in several years. Everyone would be in attendance, except for Poppa Joe and Fanny, who never went anywhere. Thorpe had planned everything, but he had no guns. He knew that Tar Williams owned several, Tar‟s father‟s old guns. Tar had brought two along. The guns and bullets were in the sack. Tar had never had a woman and Thorpe had promised him they would both have Fanny. This promise is what had at last made Tar come along. “Better be careful, Grace, they‟s alligators on the bank the bank yonder.” “Hell, I ain‟t scared of them „gators, if‟n they git to close, I‟ll let „em have it!” Thorpe pulled the bag to himself and forked out the weapons. Both were pistols, one a lean automatic, and the other a Western style revolver. He held one in each hand and hooted, “Come on ye scaly bastards!” Tar shushed the smaller man and pulled him down into the boat. The redheaded man flushed, and nodded slowly. “You‟re right, wouldn‟t want to warn them we‟re a comin‟.” He sat back down in the boat set the guns down. He picked up the paddle. “Not much further.” They slid up onto the bank. Up the slope of the hill from the water they could see lights in the trailer. “They probably just settin‟ down to dinner.” Grace grinned. “Maybe we‟ll get to eat us something, too.” Tar loaded both guns silently, and gave the automatic to Grace. It
was time. “Let‟s go,” spat Grace into the falling darkness, and Tar followed him up the hill. The sunlight disappeared.
The trailer yard was full of junk. There were old cars and farm equipment, rusty buckets and just plain trash. There was just a little space between the trailer‟s front door and the back door of the bait shop. The bait shop was a big block building that totally hid the trailer from the highway, but that did not matter, because the highway was dark and empty. Grace stepped between the two buildings and kicked at the front door of the trailer, once, twice, three times, but the door did not budge. “Here, here, I‟m a comin!” They heard Poppa Joe Greasy Dick holler from inside, and through the drapes they saw the pot-gutted old man coming through the front room. He flung the door open, and there he stood, grizzled and unshaven, wearing a maroon bathrobe over a t-shirt and dirty boxers. On his feet were socks. He wore no shoes.
“Watch ya‟ll need?” Poppa Joe asked in a low, sultry voice, raising his eyebrows a little, like they were all three in on a joke. Grace put the barrel of the pistol in his face. “Git back inside, you dirty bastard.” He hissed, and pushed with his left hand on Poppa Joe Greasy Dick‟s chest. The older man stepped back, and almost tripped over an Ottoman, and took a quick step back over it, and fell into an easy chair. The living room of the place was neat and well-appointed, Tar noticed. He had expected something else, something more like where he lived. It made him uneasy, as
this place was more like a home, and he felt out of place there. He stood there with the revolver in his hand, unsure what to do next. “Where is it?” Grace asked Poppa Joe, who sat in the chair watching him. Poppa Joe did not look afraid. “Where‟s what? Poppa Joe asked Grace, and Grace stood for a second and chewed his lip. He looked at Tar and then at Poppa Joe, and pointed his gun at Poppa Joe some more. “Don‟t play dumb with me, you trashy sonvabitch. I want to know where the damn money is. I‟ll shoot yore fat ass and find it myself, if I need to.” “Why, I don‟t have no money here. I don‟t keep no money in my house. Except for starter money for the store.” “That‟s a lie. I know you got money in here. You‟ve had men in here for that whore daughter a‟yor‟n, and y‟all hadn‟t left this here house, so that money‟s got to still be here somewheres.” “Oh, no, you got it all wrong, there, young fella. There was a group of fellas come by yesterday, and they visited with my Fanny, shore enough. But it was in trade, you might say; you see, I owed them money for a bet I lost on a football game.” “I think you‟re talking bullshit! I want that money!” He screamed at Poppa Joe, but averted his eyes to Tar Williams. “He‟s a lying, I say.” Tar said nothing; suddenly, from the rear room of the trailer came a sleepy voice, “What‟s happening out here, Poppa?” Fanny tiptoed out into the cone of light that surrounded the three men. “You better start tellin‟ the truth now, old man.” Grace growled low and menacingly, clearly including the newly appeared Fanny in his revised threat.
Poppa looked at Fanny, then Grace, then Tar; his eyes went back to Grace, before he said anything. “I‟m telling you the truth, I swear it. You can look all you want, ain‟t no money here.” “I bet you know where it‟s at, don‟t you sugar?” He asked Fanny. “What you say? You made all that money, didn‟t you?” “I never saw no money, mister.” Was all Fanny said. “See? I told you mister, now if you‟ll just leave, it‟ll be like it never—“ A violent bang filled the room as the gun went off in Grace Thorpe‟s hand. A tiny hole appeared in Poppa Joe Greasy Dick‟s chest, and blood squirted from it exactly like a water fountain squirts water, in the same tiny arc, and a stain spread on his t-shirt like spilled wine on a white table-clothe, in a wide circle around the hole. Poppa Joe fell back, against a sofa, and sat down heavily. His eyes grew dim and he fell over into the floor. “Goddamn it.” Grace said softly, and looked down at the pistol in his hand, which was still pointed at the crumpled figure. “I didn‟t go to do that.” He looked over at Fanny. Her eyes were wide, and her mouth was covered with her hands. As he watched, her eyes rolled back in her head and she keeled over in the floor. “What in the hell did you shoot him for, Grace?” Tar said at last. “I didn‟t go to, the damn thang just—I don‟t know—it just went off in my hand.” “Bull shit! Now what are we gonna do?”
“We gotta get rid of her.” Grace nodded to the prone figure of Fanny. Tar turned to Fanny, and then back to Grace. “Now you just hold on. She ain‟t done nothing.” “She seen us you fool! She‟ll tell everybody Tar Williams and Gracie Thorpe done this here killing! You want to go to prison?” “I ain‟t killed nobody.” “Aw, so it‟s like that? You was here with me, and when it goes to trial, you bet your ass they won‟t take no pity on you, seeing as how you brought the guns along. Now, use your damn head for something. We‟ll strangle her and find the money and get the hell out here.” “Wait a second. I got a better idea.” “Don‟t waste time.” “I‟m not. Listen to this. Suppose Fanny here got tired of being whored out by her old man, and she done the shooting.” “But she saw us--” Tar held up a hand. “Wait, just listen. She killed him, then she got so distraught about it, she went down to the river and drowned herself.” “Why would the cops believe that was what happened? Easy, We‟ll just put her fingerprints on the gun and then throw her in. She‟s passed out, We just gotta carry her down there.” “Well, shit that‟s a pretty smart idea, Tar.” Tar nodded slowly and kept talking. “Then, we just come back up here and take our time a looking for where the old man hid the money.”
“Shoot, Tar, I was wrong, you sound like you planned this little get-together, instead a me.” Tar smiled and picked up fanny. She was a little thing, for sure. Probably weighed about ninety pounds. “Follow me.” Tar told Grace. The two men went back out the door that they had come in. They walked back down to where the boat waited in the darkness. “We‟ll just row out a ways and dump her in, so the current gets her. Keep and eye out for other boats.” “Everybody is at that damned rodeo. Ain‟t gone be no boats.” “Just the same, keep a eye out.” Tar said. “All right, all right.” Grace hissed and spat. “See anything?” “No,” What about over yonder?” Tar pointed with an oar. “Where? I can‟t see shit out here.” Grace stood and squinted. Throw the bitch in already.” Bang. Bang bang, went the gun in Tar‟s hand. Grace Thorpe‟s body fell over board and slid into the cold water of the Coosa. Tar Williams turned the boat and calmly started rowing for shore. Fanny opened her eyes. “It it done?” “It‟s done.” “So we can go away now?” She put her arms around his neck, hugging him tightly.
“Soon. We have to talk to the police first. Remember what happened?” “I remember.”
Deputy Pate was writing. “So you were all just about to sit down to supper when someone came in the back door?” “That‟s right.” Tar was nodding. “He just kicked the door in and come in. Reckon he thought we were at the rodeo. He looked real surprised to see us in here.” “Did you know the man?” “Surely, I sold him the gun myself a couple of months ago.” “What happened then?” “Poppa Joe got up and ran at him, hollering. They were shouting about some money. He shot Poppa Joe, and I pulled my gun and shot at him. I think I might have hit him as he run out the door.” “Looks like you did. We found a boat adrift out on the river with blood in it, and a gun.” Tar nodded. “I hope I‟m not in no trouble. It‟s just, well, he murdered poor Poppa Joe right in front of us. I was terrified of him hurting Fanny.” “Sounds like a pretty good case of self-defense, Mr. Williams, although we will need your weapon for evidence for a while.” “No problem. I‟ve carried a weapon for years, never dreamed of shooting nobody with it.” Deputy Pate nodded. “I know just what you mean.”