Southern Literacy Statement: My friend Sam told if I’m tellin the truth I can wander around a little but if I’m puttin out a stretcher I better stick to the straight and narrow and repeat it exact. So I’m stickin to the truth, mostly.
1. I am The Bard of Machipongo Virginia and got the T-shirt to back it up.
2. Machipongo is three miles south of Nassawadox. Hell, look it up.
3. I used to live in Louisiana and worked with Rednecks who did not know the Dukes of Hazard was a comedy.
4. Redneck is a proper noun and takes a capital R.
5. You’re not from around here, are you?
*Sensitive subject matter, it seems prudent these days to let readers know about such things.
Last Call at the Sunset Lodge
It was not my habit to drink beer at three in the afternoon. It was not my habit to drink anything at three. But I had made a large sale and this was my first opportunity to celebrate. Paper machines are not office equipment. Takes a five story building more than a football field long to house one and I had sold three. International Paper hadn’t bought from anybody but Beloit and Black Clawson in over twenty years. So if I needed a reason, I had it.
When I got the barmaids attention I ordered a Pilsner Urquell. The place was jammed, but a table opened as I paid for my beer. I hustled over and claimed it. Dallas-Ft. Worth was twenty-two years old and they’d built for the future. Still, it was overcrowded. Or maybe Christmas travel had started early. I missed Love Field. They had a news stand where all the concourses met. It sold books. Real books, not just thrillers and trashy romance novels.
I was reminiscing about Love Field when he showed up at the door, holding a cup of coffee and looking for a place to sit. There was no room at the coffee shop next door. I waved, got his attention, and pointed to the empty seat. He took it, and a deep slug of his coffee. Then he thanked me. He was a tall man, medium build, parted his hair on the right and did not wear glasses. He had on a dress shirt, blue, no tie, wore black dress pants and black penny loafers. In 1995 penny loafers were still in style. He had dimes in the little slots you stick a penny in. He looked to be in his late forties, early fifties. He never gave me his name. He wasn’t just white. He was pale. Like he’d been sick a while.
I asked him where he was from. He said he’d just flown in from San Angelo on Royale. Then he took another slug of coffee. I waited for more but there was nothing. I had plenty to talk about and did. I had made my best price yesterday and put a strong penalty in the contract for late delivery, strong enough to let them know I wasn’t bluffing on the delivery date. IP let salesmen give their presentations in order of preference. It was Beloit, Black Clawson, and me.
Being last gave me an advantage and I used it. When I was done they put their heads together for a moment and then told me to wait outside. I knew I had a chance then. Then they opened the door again and told us they’d call at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. One machine for sure. I just knew it. But it was all three. Thirty-five million bucks!
I stopped at the convenience store by the plant, got out my phone and called the home office. Told them to cancel the layoffs and to hire on. They told me to get on the next plane to New York City. The president wanted to shake my hand. My plane takes off at 5:30. He’s taking me to dinner. Called the wife and told her.
He congratulated me. Asked if he could get another coffee here. Told him no, that he’d have to go next door again. I offered to buy him a beer. He said, “No. Beer is bad for the liver. Coffee’s good for it.” He went to get another coffee at the shop. He came back with another twenty ouncer. We sat at the table a while not speaking.
Then he straightened up, looked at me, then down at his coffee. “I went to San Angelo to kill a man.” He continued talking to his coffee. This is the story he told, best as I can recall.
I was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base. Got there in 68. Met my wife at the college January of 69. She had a scholarship at Angelo State. By September we planned on getting married. One of her professors warned her, if she married me, she’d lose her scholarship. Seems like bullshit now. It was real back then. If a man had the scholarship and married someone from out of state, nothing. But a woman would lose her scholarship. State law. We were Catholic. Went to church, St. Joseph’s, off base. We went to our pastor with the problem. He had a cousin at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Acuña. Right across the bridge from Del Rio. We got married on Thanksgiving. Not that they celebrate it in Mexico. They do now, in the border towns. But not then.
Didn’t tell anyone. Kept it quiet. We got a little house, a converted garage really. Living in sin is what they called it on campus. I kept my quarters on base. Shack rat is what they called it there. We didn’t care. We were married.
We had our problems. Keeping it secret from her folks. They tended to visit. Keeping it secret from my commander. I was in intel so transferring wasn’t a problem. TDY’s, that Temporary Duty Assignment, were. No notice and gone for a month or two. Once it was four months. They got to be a problem. But we lived with it.
She rode a Honda 90 to school. It was only a mile and a half. Wore an old field jacket and helmet. Said it discouraged wolves. That’s what she told Reinhardt, the cop who pulled her over and was shocked to find out she was a girl. Said she was doing 40 in a 35. She said, “Bullshit.”
Nobody had ever told him he was full of it before. At least, no girl had. He let her go. Honked his horn every time he saw her. Took to calling her “Honda”. Got promoted to detective. She didn’t see him for a while. Then he showed up at our house while I was TDY. That got to be a real problem.
We finally told her parents. Her Mom was glad to hear it. Her Dad not at all. I was something he stepped in and could not wait to scrape me off his foot. Still, they kept the secret.
There were other problems. She got depressed a lot. I came home from TDY one day and she was going to Germany in a week. Going to be gone the whole semester. That was a jolt. But the state department was paying. Part of a job she had lined up for when she graduated. She came back early. That was a relief. She took a full load every summer. The semester in Germany had set her schedule back. Still, she was graduating in December, one semester ahead of her class. I was getting out in October, the twentieth.
That scared her. She told me, “Up until now it felt like we had been living together because I’m in college and you’re in the air Force.”
“But we’re married,” I protested.
“I’m just telling you how I feel,” she said.
I should have listened. A week later, October the 18th 1972, I came home and the house was quiet. I found her in the bedroom. She put plastic sheeting on the bed and used a .22. Shot herself in the head. The plastic didn’t work. Blood was everywhere. I called the police after I held her a while. Two uniformed cops showed up. One took me to the living room. A few minutes later Detective Reinhardt arrived. He went into the bedroom. Spent a minute or two in there and came back and arrested me for murder.
Tells me, “Shot herself with the left hand, wrote the note with her right. Be surprised how many boyfriends make that mistake.”
I explained that she was ambidextrous, could and did write with either hand. Pointed to a painting that she had done with both hands. Told him I wasn’t her boyfriend. I was her husband. Reinhardt didn’t hear a word. Just lit a cigarette, blew the smoke in my face and told me to come with him. They ran a paraffin test on me at the station and slammed me in a cell. Left me in cuffs. He had me pulled out an hour later.
“Her old man says you’re a liar. She’s right handed and you ain’t married. Time to help yourself is running short. You tell me what happened, I’ll put in a word for you. That offer only stands until the paraffin test comes back.”
I told him I’d wait on the test because I was innocent. I managed to fall down a lot on my way back to the cell. You might think it’s hard to fall with two deputies escorting you. Believe me, in Texas, it’s easy. An hour later they were back wanting my shirt. Two hours later they brought me back to Reinhardt.
“How’d you do it?”
I had to wait for him to light a cigarette before he answered. He was chain smoker. Liked to blow smoke on his suspects. If they smoked, it made them want one. If they didn’t, they’d talk just to get away from him. Probably taught him that in interrogation school or something. It didn’t work on me. Just made me want to go for his throat.
“Shoot her in the head without getting any residue on you,” he finally said. “We’re gonna test everything. Got the trash from your house down in the lab now. Your neighbor’s trash is next.”
“I did not kill my wife.” I was crying.
“Tears ain’t gonna help you, boy. Tell me now and beat the chair. Tell me after we get the lab results back and you’ll fry.”
This went on a long time. The deputies took me back. I fell again, but their heart wasn’t in it. I asked to be let out of the cuffs. They said they couldn’t. They had their orders. I stayed the night. At five in the morning somebody brought me a tray. Let me out of cuffs to eat, then put me right back in. At nine they brought me back to Reinhardt’s office. He was furious. I had fooled him somehow.
I told him I hadn’t fooled anyone. And I wanted my phone call.
“Sure,” he said. “What’s the number? Cause I ain’t letting a dangerous man like you out of his cuffs.”
I gave him the Security Police’s direct number. He dialed it and held the phone. Sat close and blew smoke in my face. A captain answered. I told him who I was, where I was, and why. He got my colonel, and they came out and got me. Took some doing, but they did it. On the way back I told them I had changed my mind. Reenlisting seemed like a good idea now that my wife was dead. The colonel just nodded.
The funeral was the second Saturday after she died. By then my case was all cleared. My wife had been ambidextrous. She committed suicide. Her father apologized. He didn’t know what got into him, even offered to pay for the funeral. I took him up on that. I’d taken out a loan from the credit union for it. Bout wiped me out. I got back everything but what I paid for the funeral plot. I was stuck with that. Left me almost broke. But I had a steady income. Broke was temporary.
It was at the funeral things started to go south. Her mother still hadn’t shown up. She’d been hospitalized on hearing the news. It looked like she might be in for a long haul. I sat up front with her father in the same pew. Didn’t want to. But I did. St. Joe was filled with students and faculty. Detective Reinhardt showed up. Slipped in next to me. I thought that was a little strange. He smelled like he been smoking. Course he did. The man was a chain smoker. Knew I didn’t smoke. Probably burned one just before he came in. Just to piss me off. He started whispering during the mass.
He carried on about how he was going to get me. He knew I did it and he was going to prove it. There was no statute of limitations for murder. He was going to fry me. He quieted down for the sermon. It was about patience, the need to wait. Stayed quiet till after communion, then started in again. I was ready to throttle him. He wouldn’t leave and I didn’t want to make a scene at my wife’s funeral. He left just before the blessing.
When I stepped into the parking lot, he was blocking me in. I asked him to move. He just grinned at me and blew smoke. I got in the car and waited. A little while after the lot cleared he left. I drove to the cemetery. Nobody was there. I asked. Somebody had called, said the funeral was cancelled.
I drove to the house. My clothes were in the closet. Other than that, the house was clean. Books, records, a German naval bridge coat my wife picked up overseas for me at a thrift store, all gone. Even the dishes. If the colonel hadn’t sent a couple of airmen out to get my car when I got arrested, her dad probably would have got it too.
Found out later he put the casket on a flight and flew away.
A week later I was TDY to Da Nang, two weeks that turned into three months. Picked up a stripe and a purple heart. Came back for a month and then off to the Pentagon. Same job, bigger desk. I was off on TDY most of the time. Stripes came like clockwork. Made chief three years back. Never did marry again.
Would have stayed for thirty, maybe more, but my health went south. Took a medical retirement. Didn’t want it. Didn’t have a choice. Kicked around the house a bit. Got to thinking about Reinhardt. He hadn’t crossed my mind in twenty years. All of a sudden, he was all I could think of. I couldn’t stand the thought of him living longer than me.
I made a two week reservation at a hotel in Florida. Then drove north to Boston. Paid cash the whole way. Picked up some fake ID’s and a gun, a .25 Beretta. Went to Harvard Library. Used their computers. Found what I needed and left in fifteen minutes. Stopped in Hartford on the way back. Used a second ID to rent a room. Slept six hours. Got up, burned and flushed both ID’s.
Caught a plane to San Angelo. New ID. Paid cash. Rented a car when I got there. Got a room and was at the police station in the morning. The young lady at the counter didn’t want to do it. The records were in the basement. I explained who I was. Showed her my ID. My real one. Told her the story of our wedding in Mexico and why. Left out the arrest. I had to be sure. This seemed to be the only way. She went to pull the file.
It took an hour to find it. She copied it in a couple of minutes and took my money. Told me there was a café across the street if I wanted to read it now. I did. The file was six sheets. The next door neighbor had heard the shot about three hours before I got home. I was listed as a live in boyfriend, cleared by the time and two paraffin tests, one on me, one on her. There was a note. They gave it to her father. There was no copy. Which I thought odd, until I realized that note had to have been to me. Wouldn’t look good having a copy of a note to me, if you gave it to somebody else, would it?
I dove to his house. He was retired now. I would kill him and be done with it. I’d had to use my real ID to get the file. If they caught me, they caught me. But he’d be dead. That was the important thing. He’d be dead. Pulled up at his house. A car was in the drive, a 91 Impala, blue. His car. I had checked. Thank you, Texas DMV. I got the gun out of the glove box, went to the door, and knocked. I stood in the watery sunlight for a bit and knocked again.
I heard a small voice. “It’s open. Come on in or go away. I don’t care.”
I opened the door and went in. It was quite a shock. The Reinhardt I remembered was five foot ten and weighed 225, 230. This man weighed 150, maybe 160. He was in a chair working a jigsaw puzzle. It was hard to get a good read on his height, but he wasn’t five foot ten anymore. He was on oxygen. Tubes from a green tank went to his nose. Crutches leaned against the chair. He didn’t have a left foot. He did have an ashtray. It was full. He looked like my dad just before he died.
“You Bill Reinhardt?” I asked.
“What’s left of him, anyway. Keys are on the table by the door.”
I looked to the small table to my right. There were two sets of car keys and an envelope on it. “I didn’t come here for your car.”
“Then what the hell you want.” He put his puzzle piece down. Turned his oxygen off and lit a cigarette. “Am I supposed to know you?” I told him my name. “That suppose to mean something to me. Cuz it don’t.” He went back to his puzzle, then stopped, his hand in midair with a piece. “Wait a minute. It’ll come to me.” Thirty seconds to a minute went by. He spent the time coughing. “Honda. You’re Honda’s boyfriend. Man, I wanted to fuck her so bad. You had her locked up though. Couldn’t get close. Thought I was gonna get some for a while. Dropped in whenever you were out of town.” He put his cigarette out and turned his oxygen back on. “Then the boss called me in and told me to lay off. Said she’d been complaining.”
“Yeah. She told me about it when I got back.”
“Well set yourself down and tell me what you been up to.”
“Why’d you do it?”
“What? Try to frame ya, you mean?”
“I didn’t. Not at first. Her old man called you a liar and I believed him. I wanted to believe him. Chief calling me in and giving me the riot act over chasing a piece of pussy. Sure I was mad. Good and mad. Then her old man fingers you and I was glad. Time I found out he was lying, I didn’t care. I just wanted you to pay. I volunteered to block your car if needed. Tried to get you mad enough to do something dumb in church so I could arrest you. You didn’t bite.”
“Did you give him the note.”
He thought for a while. “No. I tried. He wouldn’t take it. Read it but wouldn’t take it. I burned it in my ash tray after he left.” He turned his oxygen off and lit another smoke. “Wasn’t to him anyway. It was to you.” He looked at me. “I really did believe you wrote the note at first. Talked about you nice. Said it wasn’t your fault. Kind of thing that cuts either way. Could have been you or her. It was her handwriting. You could have held a gun on her though. That why you’re here?”
“There’s a gun by my bedside. In a drawer. My old service revolver. Bought it off the department when we went to full auto. Shoot me. Put it in my hand. I won’t fight you.”
The expression on his face said he was serious.
“No. I’m not killing you. I came here to, but I changed my mind.”
“Come on, man.”
“No. Do it yourself, if it’s that important.”
“I don’t want to go to hell.”
“Fine time to get religion,” I told him. I got up and left. Dropped the Berretta in the trash when I got gas. Took the next flight out. Here I am. On my way to Florida for some fishing.”
I looked at my watch. Quarter to five. Told him I had to catch my New York flight. Got up and left and I never thought on it for years. Last week I was listening to the radio, NPR, a show on liver cancer. I was waiting on the hardware store to open. Been retired since 2012 and the wife is still finding things that need fixing. Anyway, I was going to turn it off when the doctor says he always asks his new patients about their coffee intake. Sometimes he gets a funny response. “They’ve given up booze and drugs and now they think I want them to give up coffee. No. It’s not that. I want them to drink more coffee. It’s good for the liver.”
All of a sudden I remembered him. He was pale and drank coffee because it was good for the liver. His health had gone bad, and he had to take an early retirement. I began to feel uneasy. He never gave his name. But he did give me Bill Reinhardt’s name. And the whole thing was supposed to have happened the day of my sale, my big sale. My only three bagger.
When I got home I sat down at the computer and plugged him in, name, town, and date. Nothing. I changed the date. Left off the day and just put in December 1995. There he was, Bill Reinhardt. Two days after Christmas they were going to take his other foot. When the crew came through the door to take him to the hospital, he was waiting for them. He asked them for time to smoke one last cigarette. He smoked it, thanked the men, and ate his gun.