“That don’t look good.” Jimmy Saunders lifted his chin, pointing it beyond the windshield of his van. In the passenger seat next to Jimmy, Rex Ankiel saw blue oscillating lights in the late afternoon dusk behind the hill they were approaching.
As the van crested the hill, the source of the flashing lights became visible through the frigid March rain. Parked on the left side of the road was a police squad car, the vehicle’s azure lanterns rotating silently on its roof. An officer stood in the middle of the road, the back of his poncho reflecting the van’s headlights. He held a long flashlight in his right hand at shoulder height, the beam aimed down like a spear. Jimmy stopped the van several yards behind the officer.
“What’s he standing there for?” Rex asked, unable to see through the foggy wall of cold rain.
“There, in front of him,” Jimmy said. Rex squinted and finally saw the object the officer was examining –- a tree, its wide trunk lying across the width of the road, thin fingers of branches extending up. Remnants of bark and leafless branches lay on the pavement around the officer, now speaking into a communicator on his left shoulder.
Rex frowned. A high school senior in the rural town of Bark Bay, he couldn’t afford further delays in getting back to his family’s trailer, as practice with his school’s fencing team had run later than usual this Tuesday. Rex also didn’t want to test the patience of Mr. Saunders, the team’s new assistant coach, who’d reluctantly agreed to give Rex a ride when a long walk home had become the teen’s only other option.
The tree had fallen from a thick forest on the right side of the road. Rex saw an open field on the opposite side. “Can we get around it?”
“Not in this weather. Summertime, or maybe even winter when the ground’s frozen. But in this spring mud, we’d likely get stuck. Ain’t taking no chances, Slim.” Jimmy tapped the dashboard twice with his right hand. “I make deliveries in this van for my catering business. This vehicle goes into the shop, I’m screwed.”
Rex pointed his thumb behind them. “We could turn around and take the county road.”
“Didn’t you say you live a little way up from here?” When Rex nodded, Jimmy added, “Way that county road bends, circling back might take half an hour.” Outside the van, the officer continued talking into his communicator. “Let’s see if we can find out when they’re fixing to move this log.”
Rex sank back into his seat, puffed his cheeks, exhaled. He’d considered skipping practice that morning when his mother couldn’t get herself out of bed, but being on the fencing team was one of his few pleasures at high school. He was a frequent target of abuse for several reasons: his unusual height and thin frame, his family’s dependence on food stamps and welfare, and his absent father, whose Iroquois ancestry was evident in Rex’s face. When teachers or administrators weren’t within listening distance, students called him the Starving Scarecrow, Chief Scarecrow, Red Skeleton, and lately, the Iriqueer. Rex wondered how many of his abusers knew how close this latest insult came to the truth.
The fencing team, though, was different. Every student on the squad had some characteristic that marked them as different, unorthodox, odd, geeky, or just plain weird. During practice each Tuesday afternoon he was just Rex, a fencer, a teammate. Rex was glad he’d gone to practice that day. He just hoped this delay wouldn’t last much longer.
The officer stopped talking into his communicator, then turned and approached the van. “Guess it’s time,” Jimmy grumbled as he pressed the button to roll down his window. He then extended his arms across the top of the steering wheel, palms down, fingers loose. Rex understood the gesture’s significance; one of Bark Bay’s few African-American residents was identifying a reality Rex didn’t want to recognize existed in their small town.
The officer stopped and pointed his flashlight at the van, its beam flooding the cabin. Jimmy frowned but kept his arms extended over the wheel. The beam lowered, found the license plate, then raised back up. The officer took two steps forward, stopping outside the driver door and pointing his flashlight directly onto Jimmy’s face.
Squinting, Jimmy asked, “You make a call about getting that log out the way?”
“There’s a tow truck coming. Had dispatch call a shop soon as I got here.” The officer flicked his beam at the side of the van, then back up at Jimmy. “Does the owner of this van know you’re out driving it tonight?”
Jimmy scowled. “You’re speaking to the owner of this van. You must be new in town.”
“Two months, yes.” The officer stepped back and directed his light to the side of the van. He then lowered his flashlight, took several more steps back, then spoke again into the communicator on his left shoulder.
“Surprised I ain’t seen this rookie cop before today,” Jimmy said, his voice low and terse. “Usually only takes them a week to pull me over for something –- taillight out, rolling stop, forgetting to signal.” The rain began falling more steadily, drumming on the roof of the van.
Rex was uncomfortable with Jimmy’s tone. “I really appreciate you’re driving me home tonight,” Rex said.
“No problem, Slim.” Softness had returned to Jimmy’s voice. “Daniel really had you kyids working tonight.”
Weeks earlier, Rex had noted how Jimmy pronounced the word kid as if it contained an extra y, kyid. “Coach Dan wants us to be ready for our tournament this Saturday. You coming?”
“Weekend’s when I make my money, Slim. Bad enough Daniel has me come in to help on my off day.” Dan Jacobs was known as Mr. Jacobs when he taught English at Bark Bay High School but as Coach Dan when he led the school’s fencing team. When Coach Dan had introduced Jimmy at the first practice after the holidays, Rex and his teammates hadn’t known how to react. From what little they knew of him, Jimmy was reclusive, often terse, a perception reinforced by his saying just call me Jimmy, none of this Mr. Saunders stuff and if one of you fools calls me Coach Jimmy I’ll have you running laps out in the cold. His criticism was brusque, keep your fool back straight, you’re fencing not digging a ditch, but was proficient with the epee, Rex’s preferred fencing weapon, and nearly as tall as the lanky teen. In the brief time they’d worked together, Rex had begun feeling Jimmy would become more helpful to his game than even Coach Dan had been.
Outside the van, the officer looked up at Jimmy, then turned around and spoke again into his shoulder communicator. “If you got a tournament this weekend,” Jimmy said to Rex, “I’m surprised your friend Jolly wasn’t at practice tonight.” John Johnson, Rex’s closest friend on the team, insisted everyone call him Double-J. Jimmy, however, seemed to have his own name for everyone on the team.
“Double-J said he had to work. And you know he doesn’t like being called Jolly,” Rex replied.
“Jolly takes himself too serious. Where’s he work?”
“He’s a mechanic, at Lefty’s Auto Shop.”
“That’s where I go to get my van worked on. Surprised Lefty lets him work there,” Jimmy said.
“Because he’s a student?”
“More on account of his temper, Slim. Had one myself at his age, but nothing like Jolly’s. He’s always picking a fight with someone. Imagine he’s not too pleasant to work with.”
Rex laughed. “Double-J says being angry is what makes him a good fencer.”
Jimmy shook his head. “First lesson my coach taught me was to have a clear mind when you’re fencing, and you’re mind ain’t clear when you’re angry. Jolly needs to control himself. Needs a haircut too.” Double-J’s black hair extended well past his shoulders but he refused to tie it back, except when ordered by a judge during tournaments. “Surprised that boy’s mess don’t get caught in a fan belt or something.”
This was already the longest non-fencing conversation Rex had held with Jimmy. The teen decided it was time to explore a topic that had been percolating among the fencing team since Jimmy’s arrival. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
Jimmy snorted. “Got nothing better to do.”
“You obviously know fencing, but how’d Coach Dan get you to help with the team? He’s a teacher, we’re students, but you don’t have any connection to the school.” Jimmy’s pronounced Southern accent, combined with a refusal to discuss his background, had inspired rumors within the team about Jimmy’s arrival to Bark Bay in the first place. The speculation was often outlandish: Jimmy was on the run from the law or a debt he couldn’t repay; he had abandoned a family, a woman he’d never married and the children he’d fathered; his business went bankrupt and he came to Bark Bay in humiliation; he’d fled the south pursued by a mob of hooded Klansmen firing shotguns and brandishing a burning cross. Rex had ridiculed these stories and called out the not-so-subtle racism, but he needed facts to dismiss the lurid fictions.
“Total coincidence,” Jimmy replied. “I was working a party in December, and Daniel was one of the guests. Heard him talk to someone about being the fencing coach at the school while I was switching out a tray. Told him I’d been a fencer too, back in the day.”
“Never had no use for college, Slim. I went to a parochial high school, had this friend on the fencing team who talked me into going to practice one day. Damnedest sport I’d ever seen. Had a good time, so I went back the next practice. Wound up fencing all four years of school, then a couple more after that.” He looked over at Rex and smiled. “Once Daniel heard me say that, he took my business card and told me he needed a hand with you kyids. Called me the next day, and kept calling me until I said yes.” Outside the van, the officer turned around and walked towards them. “Guy must have an update,” Jimmy said, extending his arms over the steering wheel again.
The officer came up to the driver’s door and jabbed the beam of his flashlight back into the cabin. “Step out of the van,” the officer ordered.
Rex saw Jimmy’s jaw tighten. “Can I ask why?” Jimmy asked.
“I need to verify your appearance against the description of a person involved in an incident this afternoon.”
Jimmy stared back at the officer a moment. “Was this ‘incident’ at a gas station on Water Street?” Jimmy asked. “Around 2?”
The officer swallowed as wet snow mixed with rain continued falling on him. “A citizen reported a confrontation at that place and time with a man who fits your description.”
“An African-American male, right?” Jimmy appeared to be speaking more slowly than usual, as if he were silently editing his words. “There’s no reason for me to step out of the van, because I’ll confess to being the man involved in this so-called ‘incident.’ But there was no confrontation, officer. It was an argument of no consequence.”
“He says you threatened –”
“I made no threat, officer.” Rex had often heard this tone in Jimmy’s voice during practice: Listen up, I’m not messing with you no more. “I was returning to this van after buying coffee from inside the store when a man called out to me, saying I’d parked too close to his car. I showed him my wheels were within the yellow lines, then told him… to get lost. I then got in my van and drove away. This ‘incident’ was a dispute over a parking space. I can give you the names of a few people who were in the lot and witnessed our argument, and if you called them they would verify there was no threat made. But you have more important matters to attend to, officer. Such as finding out what’s taking so long to get this damn log out the way.”
The officer seemed unsure how to respond. Rex silently pleaded with him to walk away from the escalating tension. But the officer then cleared his throat and pointed the beam of his flashlight squarely into Jimmy’s face. “Get out of the van.”
“My stepping out into the cold won’t do anything to help with this log.”
“It’s my duty –”
“To investigate an argument over a parking space?” Jimmy’s voice was now simmering, on the verge of boiling.
The officer gritted his teeth. “I’m going to ask again –”
“The tow truck!” Rex followed his cry by pointing to the flashing amber lights that had caught the corner of his vision. The officer glanced at the approaching lights as the outline of a vehicle with a winch extending from its back became visible in the van’s headlights.
The officer looked back up at Jimmy. “Don’t move,” he commanded, then turned and walked towards the approaching truck. Rex looked over at Jimmy, whose face was tight with fury. The truck squealed to a stop, and the officer stepped over the fallen tree. “Well look at that,” Jimmy said, his voice cooling. “Jim Dandy to the rescue.”
The tow truck drove off the road, its wide tires digging into the soft shoulder, then reversed back onto the pavement, the tall boom winch at the vehicle’s rear now facing the fallen tree. The driver of the tow truck exited the vehicle and stepped forward into the beams of the van’s headlights as the officer approached. When Rex saw the curtain of black hair down the driver’s back, he gasped.
“Holy shit.” Rex glanced back at the truck and read the words painted on the rear fender: Lefty’s Auto Shop. “That’s Double-J.”
“Jolly?” Jimmy asked. Rex nodded silently, his attention on his fencing teammate. The officer waved down at the tree lying across the road; Double-J nodded, turning back towards the tow truck.
The officer then waved towards the van, and Rex saw his chest ripple with laughter. Double-J stopped and turned towards the officer, his face twisting into a scowl. The officer stopped laughing.
“This don’t look good,” Jimmy said. Double-J pointed at the officer and spoke, his words coming through the van’s open window. What the fuck did you say?
Rex sank into his seat. “Don’t be an idiot, Double-J.”
The officer pointed at the log, and Rex heard him ordering Double-J to proceed with clearing the road. Double-J’s face erupted in anger. Dumb-ass piece of shit…
Rex reached for his window control and pressed it down. He’d seen Double-J start enough fights, both verbal and physical, to know what was coming next. He watched in horror as Double-J stepped towards the officer and jabbed his right index finger in accusation, his angry voice becoming clearer as Rex’s window descended. You racist motherfucker…
“Shit!” Jimmy’s sudden yell startled Rex, who watched in disbelief as Jimmy thrust open his door and raced into the cold night air. Jimmy ran forward and jumped on the fallen tree, then pointed at Double-J -– “Get your ass back in that damn truck!” Double-J threw his arms up angrily as Jimmy continued pointing at him. “You’ve been called to do a job, so do it! I got no time for your foolishness, boy! Your friend’s back there riding in my van and I need to get him home, then get my own self home, and the only thing that’s keeping us from getting where we need to go is this damn log. You’re the only one with the ability to move this thing, so shut your damn mouth, get your sorry ass back in that truck, and get on with what you’re supposed to be doing!”
Double-J and the officer looked up at Jimmy, the blue and amber lights dancing across their stunned faces. Rex realized he was holding his breath.
“That’s right,” the officer finally said, pointing at Double-J. “Get this log off the road, immediately.”
Double-J didn’t seem to notice the officer as his eyes remained focused on Jimmy, who glared down at the teen. Finally Double-J turned his head and spat. Rex exhaled as he saw Double-J stomp back to the tow truck, the officer following. Jimmy jumped back off the log and kept his vision focused on Double-J and the officer as he walked backwards slowly until he reached the van’s door.
“Dumb-ass kyids,” Jimmy muttered as he climbed back into the van.
Rex closed his window as the hydraulic winch on the tow truck lowered. Double-J exited the truck and retrieved chains from a rear compartment. As he watched Double-J wrap the chains around the wide trunk and hook them to the winch, Rex sighed with relief. But then he looked over at Jimmy, muttering under his breath behind the van’s steering wheel.
The winch’s hydraulics lifted the upper portion of the tree off the pavement. The orange lights of the truck pulled out into the open field, dragging the obstacle off the road. The officer tossed large detritus of bark and limbs into the field, then waved the van forward as he stepped onto the gravel shoulder. Jimmy pulled ahead, stopping as he came up to the officer.
“We done here?” Jimmy asked.
“Move along,” the officer replied, without looking at Jimmy.
Jimmy nodded and drove past the dismembered remnant of the tree. He stopped the van next to Double-J, who was now retrieving the truck’s chains. Jimmy’s window was still open, and he called to Double-J. “That was really stupid, what you just did.”
Double-J smirked. “I knew what I was doing.”
“You see that bulge on his right hip? You don’t mess with people carrying guns, Jolly.”
“I’m not –-”
“Why weren’t you at practice tonight?”
Double-J pointed at the tow truck. “Working.”
Jimmy began rolling up his window. “Tell Lefty you ain’t working next Tuesday, Jolly.”
“My name’s not fucking –-”
The window’s ascent stopped. “Start of practice next Tuesday,” Jimmy said. “We fence to five touches, you choose the weapon. You beat me, I call you whatever you want. Until then, you’re Jolly.”
Double-J chuckled. “Saber. You won’t get two touches off me.”
Jimmy nodded. “See you Tuesday, Jolly,” he said as his window closed.
As the van pulled forward, Rex shifted uneasily in the passenger seat and looked over at Jimmy. The hum of the van’s engine, the rhythmic sweep of the windshield wipers, the soft patter of rain and wet snow on the metal roof… there wasn’t enough sound to distract from the awkward silence. When the van turned left at the second street, Rex finally said, “Hey.”
“What happened back there –”
“Was pretty fucked up.” Rex sensed this wasn’t the time for a follow-up question. “Only thing I want is to be left alone. Back in the fall it was some other rookie, a lady cop. She pulled me over, told me my tires looked low. I was like, Don’t tell me you’re stopping any white folk and checking their PSI. That day I decided to go to the station, tell them I was tired of this shit. Sarge said he’d tell his folks to leave me alone, but then he asked for my plate, and I was like, I ain’t giving you nothing, all you gotta do is tell your folks –-”
“Sorry.” Rex saw Jimmy stiffen at the interruption. “My family’s trailer –-” the slender teen pointed out and to the right — “it’s coming up.”
“Huh,” Jimmy said as he applied the brakes. “Here close on five years, but ain’t never been up round here.”
“Nobody comes here unless they have to,” Rex replied.
Jimmy steered the van into a small field of muddy dirt, barren save for random articles of trash: newspapers, plastic jugs, a headless doll. The van’s headlights illuminated the trailer, a sheet of cloudy plastic peeling away from a front window. The door opened wide enough to let out a large German Shepherd, which sprinted down the wooden steps and raced towards the van, barking loudly. Jimmy stopped the van and the dog leapt onto the driver’s door, the beast’s jaws snapping demonically at the window. Jimmy drew back, his eyes wide. “Damn.”
Rex rolled down his window and whistled. “Rocky, come.” The hound drew back from Jimmy’s door and ran over to Rex’s side. “You gonna talk to that sarge again?” Rex asked.
“Yeah. And I’ll keep going back, until the message gets through.” Jimmy rested his hands in his lap and looked out to his left.
“Sorry you have to put up with that.” Jimmy kept looking out to his left, so Rex wasn’t sure he was listening. “People around here, they’re mostly good, but sometimes they just… they have a lot of fear and ignorance too. And sometimes it gets the better of them.”
“Guessing you’re right.” Jimmy wiped his mouth with his right hand, then turned to Rex. “I’m also guessing you ain’t really talking about me any longer.”
Rex froze. Red Skeleton. Chief Scarecrow. Iriqueer. Jimmy nodded towards him. “There something you want to tell me, son?”
The teen shook his head and blinked. “No. No, sir.” He reached to open his door, but stopped on feeling Jimmy grab his forearm. The teen turned, his eyes meeting Jimmy’s stare, the look used by the new assistant fencing coach at Bark Bay High School when he was through playing with you.
“That fear and ignorance you mentioned, Slim, it’s everywhere. There’s no hiding from it. Sooner or later it’s gonna come for you -– you won’t know when or how, but there’s no stopping it. All you can do is be ready when it comes, and do all you can to meet it on your own terms.”
Rex nodded. “That why you didn’t get out of the van when the officer asked you?”
“If I’d stepped out this van, no matter what happened next, no matter what I did or said, I was a dead man. Only way to prevent walking into my funeral was to stay where I was, take some control of the situation while keeping my hands out where that cop could see them. You see what I’m saying?”
“Yeah,” Rex replied. “But I gotta ask, you running out when Double-J started arguing with the cop. What was that about?”
Jimmy scoffed and released his grip on Rex’s forearm. “Don’t get any ideas, Slim. Next time one of you kyids starts mouthing off to the police, I’m gonna sit back and watch them blow your fool head off.”
Rocky began to bark again. “I better get going,” Rex said as he rolled up the van window and opened the door. “Thanks again for the ride home.” He stepped out into the wet mud, turned to shut the van door, then paused and looked up at Jimmy. “You’re from the south, aren’t you?”
“Born and raised in Louisiana. Why you ask?”
“Just… curious. Louisiana’s a long way from Bark Bay. Mind if I ask how you wound up all the way up here?”
Rex expected a less cartoonish version of the Klansmen rumor, yet Jimmy didn’t respond immediately. Rex was about to apologize when Jimmy finally answered.
“Bugs. I hate bugs, Slim. Don’t like this cold up north, but least it keeps most of the damn bugs away.”
Rex doubted this explanation would dispel any rumors. “See you next Tuesday, Mr. Saunders.”
“Just Jimmy. I ain’t mister nobody, or coach nobody. You got that, Slim?”
Rex nodded, then closed the passenger door. Rocky resumed barking and pursued the van as it backed out of the dirt driveway. Rex turned and walked up the decaying wooden steps leading to his family’s trailer as the van pulled onto the road, Rocky continuing to bark until its taillights disappeared.
– END –
About the Author
Keigh Ahr is the pen name of Ken Rogers, a resident of Northeast Ohio. His fiction has appeared in the Scarlet Leaf Review, The Forthcoming Anthology, and the Take Five Anthology. His essay “Essential” was recently published in Voices from the Edge, a collection of essays by workers in front-line industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. While writing and reading are his favorite activities, he’s also fond of doing his own yard work, which he does reasonably well, and grilling, where his success has been decidedly intermittent.