The Sheriff was on his knees in the middle of an opening in a patch of woods about fifty yards from the bar. Tears were streaming down his face. His gut wretched with every breath his body forced him to take.
His deputy stood about twenty feet away - watching. Wise enough at this point in time to do absolutely nothing but wait. This was simply a part of the job; a part of the call to do justice and love mercy.
Oh how the Sheriff loved mercy. These tears and sobs - the vomit lying on the ground around his knees - were the only display of mercy that he’d been able to give today. Some people just don’t want mercy.
Most people think that mercy is just being soft on folks. They see it as the opposite of justice. Deputy Cower had thought the same thing when he first joined the force. He came to the Sheriff’s department here in Corpus Christi, Tennessee because he wanted to see justice done in the world. He spent the next five years of his life trying to understand something he heard Sheriff Alday say his first week on the force. The Sheriff had looked him in the eye in the middle of a training exercise and simply said, “Boy, if you want to make it as a cop you’ve got to learn how to do one thing; just one thing. When you figure that one thing out I know you’ll be ok and you’ll know it too. When you figure it out, you’ll understand your calling to law enforcement and you’ll thank God for the privilege to serve the people of this town. You just got to figure out how to do justice and love mercy.”
That was five long years ago. Now, today, it was finally becoming clear as he watched the Sheriff crying in the middle of the woods. The light clicked on. He was beginning to see.
The morning sun broke through the branches and leaves throwing his thoughts back to the beginning of this long night turned day. The official call came in about 9:30 the night before. It sounded like a simple drunk and disorderly down at the Hole in the Wall. When the two law enforcement officers arrived they quickly realized it was more than that.
Clark was at one end of the bar; a bottle of whiskey and three or four pistols in front of him. The deputy was never really sure if Clark was drunk or not. He didn’t really seem drunk. He was just sitting there inhaling a menthol King when they walked through the door. Three people sat at the table behind Clark: Avery, Roxy, and Aileen. Clark was watching them through the mirror behind the bar. The oddest thing caught the officers’ eyes when they surveyed the room. On the table were 4 or 5 pairs of shoes in a slightly crooked line.
When the two men walked through the door one of the patrons at the table attempted to move toward them. Clark simply said, “Don’t move Gay Doll,” as he picked up one of his pistols. Avery, AKA Gay Doll, rightly changed his mind and sat back down but he glared at Clark the entire time.
The two officers stopped at the far end of the bar and the night began.
The call to the station came after Clark had fired a single shot into the ceiling with one of his pistols. In the silence that followed he quietly told three of the patrons to sit at the table in the corner. Everyone else was simply told to leave.
As soon as the man at the table set back down Clark looked at the Sheriff and said, “Hello Rush.”
“Hey Clark. What’s this all about?” was the reply.
“What’s it about? You should know what it’s about. It’s about you not doing your job. It’s about the lack of justice in this town. It’s about evil being able to walk the streets without consequence. It’s about you being in bed with sin, my friend, and I am sick and tired of it. Something has got to be done. The law has got to be obeyed. Somebody has got to start enforcing it. Since you obviously ain’t gonna do it I figured I might as well get started. I picked these three because everybody in town knows about ’em but nobody has guts enough to do anything about it. I’m just sick of it and I’m not going to sit around and take this flagrant lawlessness any more. These three are going to pay. Justice will prevail in this city and I’m going to make sure of it.”
“Now Clark,” the Sheriff responded, “You know I want justice as much as you do”…
“Do you? Do you really? Mr. Almighty Sheriff? Everybody knows that Avery here breaks the law every single night. Why haven’t you done anything about it?”
“What are you talking about Clark? You and I have known Avery since we were kids. What has he done? What law has he broken?”
“Oh sure pretend that you don’t know. Have you forgotten that there is a law in this town against sodomy?”
“No, I haven’t forgotten.”
“Then why haven’t you enforced the law and done something about that little fagot Avery?”
“Do you know something about Avery that I don’t?”
“What do ya mean? You know as much as I do that he’s a queer.”
“I will give you that Avery has always acted a little queer but the law doesn’t say that a man can’t be different, that a man can’t be effeminate in some ways, that he can’t be soft spoken and have an excellent fashion sense like Avery. The law is pretty specific Clark, in our town at least, it says that a man can’t have sex with another man period. It goes even further than that Clark; the law tells me that I can’t enforce the law unless I have at least two witnesses to the fact. Have you ever seen Avery having sex with a man?”
“Good God no! That’s disgusting. Why would you even ask such a question?”
“Because that’s my job Clark. There has to be proof. Civil justice isn’t about allegations. It’s about facts. Even if Avery is having sex with men if it can’t be proven by two or three witnesses lawfully I can’t do anything about it. The law doesn’t give me the right to play God. In fact it is written to keep me from playing God. It’s written to keep you from playing God too. See if you go around saying Avery’s having sex with men – I keep saying it that way because that is the only activity that the law condemns in this matter - if you keep saying that and it’s not true and you press charges anyway; you’ll be guilty of perjury, of bearing false witness against Avery. Now you have the same right as Avery to break the law in your head without civil justice being brought to bear on you but if you make it official by trying to bring Avery up on charges and we find out that you are bearing false witness or that what you say can’t be proven then there’s nothing I can do - I have to punish you for perjury. The law here in Corpus Christi is pretty clear about that.”
“You’d do that? You’d bring me up on charges for saying something that everybody knows is true?”
“Clark, everybody doesn’t know it’s true. All everybody knows is that Avery runs like a girl and has a knack for fashion – that’s it. Nobody in here except Avery knows who Avery’s been sleeping with and so nothing can be done civilly. That’s why there’s a judgment day Clark, because men don’t know everything and can’t do justice perfectly in this life. If Avery is doing what you accuse him of doing he’ll pay for it. But it may not be in this life. That’s just the way it is. If we’re gonna be putting people in jail for what we think they’re doing we better start turning the whole town into a jail ’cause we’re going to need the space.”
Clark got real quiet. He paced back and forth around the three at the table. Then he went back and sat at the bar. He had his hands on two pistols. He put one of the pistols down and he lit another Menthol King. The Sheriff started to inch his way down the bar.
“You get any closer Sheriff and at least one of those people sitting at that table will be leaving here in the horizontal position. You might as well sit for a while ’cause I got some thinking to do.” He took a long drag off the cigarette and slowly filled the air above his head with smoke.
Time seemed to slow to a stand still. Clark just sat there sipping on his whiskey, looking in the mirror and talking to himself. You couldn’t really hear what he was saying but you could see his lips moving from the other end of the bar. After what seemed like an eternity he stood up again.
“Well, Damn it, law man, I guess we’ll put Avery’s case on hold for a little while ’til I get it figured out a little better. Let’s move on to Roxy over there.” Clark pointed the barrel of a pistol at her in the mirror. “Surely it won’t be hard to prove that she’s a whore.”
“Well, that’s probably easier to prove you’re right.” said the Sheriff.
Avery chuckled a little under his breath thinking about that one. Everybody knew what Roxy did for a living.
A smile broke out on Clark’s face too but it quickly vanished when he heard: “but there’s a problem.”
“Damn it Rush can’t anything ever be simple with you? What’s the problem?”
“It ain’t me, Clark, it’s the law. And this is the problem: in this town there is no civil punishment for turning tricks. It’s morally wrong that’s true but the law doesn’t give us the means to pour out any punishment. It rests in the hands of God.”
“But what about adultery? Don’t we have laws that punish adultery in this town? Everybody knows Roxy’s biggest clientele is married men.”
“There are definitely civil laws against adultery in Corpus Christi,” said the Sheriff.
It was at this point that Roxy spoke up, “Who the hell do you two think you are? There’s no way I’m just going to sit here and let you decide my fate without saying anything.”
Clark’s head spun toward the voice like that girl’s in The Exorcist. He shouted “nobody told you you could talk.”
“Nobody told you you could be an ass hole either but you seem to have managed just fine.” Roxy snapped back.
Clark put a back hand into motion but before he could connect the Sheriff interjected.
“Let her talk Clark. You owe her that at least for the way you’ve treated her tonight.”
Clark’s arm just kind of hung in the air for a minute or two. As it was going down to his side he made his way back to the bar and sat on the stool. He didn’t say a thing.
“Just because I can’t seem to keep the law doesn’t mean I don’t know the law. I know my rights and I know my wrongs. It ain’t any different for me than it is for Avery. You got any proof, any witnesses that can say they actually witnessed me having sex with a married man? I don’t mean seeing me in a car with a married man or even in a hotel room with one. That won’t cut it. I’ve got to be caught in the very act if I’m not mistaken. Ain’t that right Sheriff?”
“Clark, I hate to tell you but Roxy here seems to know the law better than you do.”
Clark’s face turned deep red, not from anger but embarrassment. He kicked the bar and threw his glass of whiskey into the mirror across from him. The glass and the mirror shattered and crashed down upon the bottles that lined the shelf below them. He slowly turned and faced Roxy. A quiet calm seemed to fall over him.
Then He condescendingly spoke “I’m sure I could ask around. Surely I could find a married man or two who actually had sex with you. I’ll just get them to testify.”
Roxy’s face went pale.
The Sheriff intervened.
“I’m not sure that will be as easy as you think.”
“Because the law is pretty clear about adultery. If it goes to court both parties – the man and the woman are to be charged and punished. For us here in Corpus Christi that means they get kicked out of town and they can’t come back. There is no double standard so that one gets punished and the other doesn’t. I don’t know how many Johns you’re going to find to testify against themselves.”
Roxy laughed. Clark threw an empty bottle at her from the bar. She ducked just in time and the bottle hit Avery in the leg.
“Stop it” he whined. “I don’t deserve to be treated like this. In fact, I have had enough. I just can’t take this any more.” He rose from the table and turned toward the Sheriff. “Rush, tell him to let me be. I have never done anything to hurt him; Never once. I don’t deserve this at all.”
He was begging with his eyes as well as his words.
“Avery, I’m doing everything I can to get you out of here” the Sheriff said.
Clark ended the conversation when he said, “He’s not in charge here anyway Avery so just sit your queer ass down in that chair and shut your mouth.”
Avery looked at the Sheriff who nodded his head slightly indicating that sitting was probably for the best at this point.
Clark let out a sigh that could have filled a Macy’s day balloon. “This is ridiculous - God damn it. Why can’t we just do justice? Why are there all these loopholes? I just want to see the wicked punished and justice done.”
The Sheriff concurred; “I want that as much as you do Clark but punishment is only just when it’s in the confines of the law. The law is the definition of justice.”
Roxy couldn’t help landing another well placed jab directly in Clark’s ego. “Plus the law puts limits on what can be done against people by law enforcement. Maybe we’ll all be judged for every bit of our law breaking on the judgment day, God only knows. I’ve been told and I read it too that God knows everything we’ve done, said, or thought and he holds us accountable for it all on the last day but we ain’t there yet. We’re here now. Maybe I’m making it harder for myself down the line I guess that’s probably true. I ain’t no Julia Roberts about to catch a Richard Gere and leave this life behind. That’s for damn sure. But I’m doing the best I can right now. You don’t know where I come from. You don’t know where I been. You don’t know nothing about me. I know I’m condemned, you don’t have to tell me that, I feel it in my bones everyday, but don’t you get off trying to say that you’re better than me ’cause you ain’t. You think because I know I’m a sinner I don’t read the law? I know the shape I’m in and right now I don’t want to change; mostly because of people like you. All you arrogant church people thinking you’re too good for the rest of us. When have you ever tried to find out something about me? When have you tried to help me? I hate to tell you but some of your church buddies pay my bills pretty damn good. Do what you gotta do here tonight but don’t give me any more of your holier than thou crap. You can keep that to yourself. And let’s you and me sit together on the judgment day and see who gets the hottest spot in hell.”
A thick silence settled on the whole bar.
The Sheriff broke in. “She’s right you know. In the present, in time and history God has placed limits on civil justice. It must remain within those limits or it ceases to be just and becomes tyranny. I won’t argue that adultery isn’t a punishable crime but just like Roxy said it has to be proven by two or three witnesses. It’s no different than for Avery. That is justice from the perspective of the law within the confines of history in the town of Corpus Christi. To cross the line, the boundaries of what the law allows, is to become a law breaker. To do that is to become unjust.”
Clark’s face had been growing red for some time. The veins in his neck looked like they were ready to explode. He pounded his fists on the bar and stood up. As he did so his bar stool tumbled end for end and landed next to Avery. Clark picked the stool up and smashed it on the table directly in front of Avery. Splinters and shoes flew everywhere.
“I am not a law breaker” – he screamed. “I’m a good man. I’m a longsuffering man but I am getting sick and tired of this town going to hell. I’m sick and tired of such weak little people getting away with breaking the law. I’m sick and tired of you not doing anything about it Rush. You and your ‘I need a witness,’ ‘I need proof’ that’s just the talk a coward, of a weak man. A strong man would make law breakers pay for their wickedness.”
Clark was pacing once again. As he walked and talked he was continually waving his pistols in the air like someone might wave their hands in the midst of a conversation. He paused for a moment…scratching his head with the barrel of a gun. He turned toward Avery once again. Blood was running down Avery’s face in a slow trickle. A splinter of wood from the barstool had pierced his cheek just below his right eye.
Clark tilted Avery’s head back with the barrel of his pistol. Then he looked him straight in the eye for a long time. Quietly he said, “Avery, are you a queer?”
Avery was soaked with sweat. Blood was dripping from his face. “Nnnnno Clark.” He stuttered. Not liking the answer Clark raised his voice and said. “Well, what the hell are you then?”
In a continual stutter Avery said, “I’m just a metro-sexual.”
“What the hell is that? Rush have you ever heard of anything as stupid as that in your whole life? What a crazy God damned world we live in. I should just blow your damn head off shouldn’t I Avery? Right off your shoulders. If I hadn’t known you since the fifth grade I just might. A metro sexual…a metro sexual.”
He pulled the hammer back on one of his pistols.
“Don’t do it Clark.” Sheriff Rush said as he pulled his own revolver from its holster.
“Go ahead,” Clark said, “add another injustice to your list of crimes. Go ahead and kill an innocent man.”
“Nobody said anything about killing anyone Clark and there won’t be any trouble at all if you just put that gun down. But I’ll tell you what; if you make a move on Avery I’ll put you in the ground before you can blink.”
“That’s just like you Rush, kill an innocent man and let a metro queer go free. But don’t worry these bullets ain’t for Avery. He pushed Avery’s head back hard with the butt of his gun and almost broke his neck. In what seemed like one continuous motion his arm went from Avery to Roxy. With the force of a boxer the back of his hand smashed into Roxy’s cheek. It sent her reeling. Blood flowed from the corner of her mouth.
Clark watched as she slowly pulled herself back into the chair. Their eyes were locked upon each other. If looks could kill they would have both been dead. When she finally made it back into the chair Clark casually sauntered over to the woman sitting very straight in the middle chair. He paused, composed himself and then said:
“I believe you know my wife Aileen. As a matter of fact I do believe you’ve known her for longer than I have haven’t you.” He paused for effect. “Oh that’s right, she’s your sister.”
Clark had moved around to the back side of the table. Avery and Roxy were now between Clark and the Sheriff. Clark sat down behind Aileen. She was tied to her chair. The pistol was pointed at her temple.
“What the devil are you doing Clark? Let my sister go.”
Aileen had been sitting there silent the entire time listening, watching and waiting. Tears were streaming down her face. Before the Sheriff had even arrived Clark had promised her that if she made any noise whatsoever he would put a bullet in her head. It was that simple.
“You know what’s amazing Rush? Well, really there’s two things. The first thing is that I have spent the last four hours with Aileen and it is the first time in 35 years that I haven’t had to listen to her crap. It is also the first time in those same 35 years that she’s ever paid any attention to me. You know I think she’s finally learning to submit.” He laughed under his breath at his own joke. “So I guess you could say I’m having a pretty good night. The best damn night of my entire marriage.”
“But why Clark? Why Aileen?”
“Cause I knew you’d pull this whole justice thing in some cockamamie direction, in some weird position to where you wouldn’t do anything to those two. Gotta have witnesses. Gotta have proof. Gotta pander to evil. That’s all you know how to do – compromise. I’m tired of compromise. I want justice plain and simple. Aileen here is my ticket to justice ’cause you know her and I know her and we know what she’s like. We both know that she is full of hate. She hates everybody. Nobody’s good enough for her. She’s an affirmative action hater. She hates Blacks and Whites and Jews and Catholics and Atheists. She hates everybody ’cept the Church of Christ and some of them ain’t on her good list. She don’t try to hide it one bit. How many times have you ever heard her say she hated somebody Rush: a thousand or more?”
“At least,” acknowledged the Sheriff.
“I didn’t mind it when I first met her cause it was always someone else. But something changed somewhere along the line and all that hatred turned on me. I couldn’t do anything good enough. I didn’t make enough money. I wasn’t good in bed. I didn’t do this and I didn’t do that. I wasn’t good enough for her. She’s made that clear every night and every day for longer than I can remember. She’s killing me.”
“Now Rush, I know you know that the good book says that hate and murder are the same thing. If you hate someone you’ve murdered ’em in your heart. Ain’t that right?”
The Sheriff was hesitant to agree but he knew that Clark was right. Somberly he said, “Yeah that’s right.”
“Hot dang we agree on something! Let me ask you this: Do you know anybody that’s witnessed…wait a minute YOU’ve witnessed your sister’s hatred haven’t you?”
The Sheriff knew where this was heading and he didn’t like it at all.
“No need to pretend you didn’t hear me, Rush; Let me remind you about last Saturday night. You were over at my house watching the game on TV when your sweet little sister began in on me. Can you tell me the last words Ailieen said as she stormed upstairs and slammed the door to her room? Can You?”
The weight grew heavy on Rush. It pressed down on him from above. He felt like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. His jaw clinched tighter. “She said, Clark, you are the worst thing that ever happened in my life. I hate you so much I wish you were dead.”
“Why I do believe that is correct Sheriff. Now if you heard her say it and I heard her say it then what does that give us?”
There was silence in the bar once again. A new level of fear flashed in Aileen’s eyes.
“Come on Rush, you can tell me, what does that give us?”
The silence continued.
“God damn it Rush you’re no fun. It gives us two witnesses now doesn’t it? It gives us the opportunity for justice, Sheriff. Precious little Aileen has murdered me with her tongue multiple times. She is a repeat offender. She could in reality be put to death for committing murder right now, couldn’t she Rush?”
Firmly and without hesitation the answer rolled off the lips of the Sheriff.
He simply said, “NO.”
“What the hell do you mean ‘no’? You’re a damn liar. You know the law. The law says hatred is murder. The law says murderers must die. The law says there have to be two witnesses. We got two witnesses. It’s time for Aileen to die.” He pulled the trigger back on the pistol, pulled Aileen’s head back against his chest, and put the barrel of the pistol next to her temple in one swift movement.
“CLARK!” The Sheriff shouted, “Don’t do it. Hatred is not punishable by the civil law in this town.”
“What? Give me a break. You’re just making that up to give yourself time.” He pushed Aileen’s head forward as he stood up and began to waving his guns again while pacing.
“I’m not making it up, Clark. It’s true. Hatred is not a civil crime. Yes, Aileen will be held accountable for her murder on the judgment day but her hatred is between her and God. Now the minute she crosses the line and acts on that hatred justice can be done but not before. Words may be sin but they do not have to be crimes. Of course we are commanded to love our neighbor, to be lawful and just toward our neighbor but there is no civil punishment for not loving. It may kill you on the inside but in Corpus Christi the powers that be can’t do anything to you for hating.” He paused to catch his breath.
“On the other hand, you put a bullet in Aileen’s head and I will pursue you with the law till you get what you deserve. The civil government in Corpus Christi can’t judge thoughts. It can only judge actions. This isn’t Tom Cruise in “Minority Report” where we can serve justice before a crime is committed. There is no such thing as preemptive justice in this town. This is the real world, Clark. This is God’s world and justice has to be done according to the law and the giver of the law has made it clear that hate is not punishable in time and history.”
“You just don’t get it do you Clark? The law gives humans the freedom to hang themselves on the Day of Judgment if they want to. You can rant and rave about the lack of justice but are you so arrogant that you can’t see your own sin? Even Roxy can see your sin. Not doing anything to merit civil punishment doesn’t get you off the hook on judgment day. It doesn’t make you better than Roxy or Avery or even Aileen. Did you forget that you were born wicked?”
“Look at your heart man – you hold a gun to your own wife’s head because she’s full of hatred. What does that make you full of? How much do you hate her and Roxy and Avery? Enough to use all three of them as a shield to protect your self? What is this really about Clark?”
“What’s it about? It’s about me. I’m sick and tired of being good. I’m sick and tired of not being able to do what I want. Roxy gets laid whenever she wants; by whomever she wants. Avery – well I’m not sure if Avery even gets laid but he does what he wants. I don’t get anything at all. I sure can’t remember the last time I got laid and I’m a married man.”
“I work my butt off trying to be good and what do I get – nothing – absolutely nothing. Oh wait… I get to get to be married to a woman who is so mean and full of hate that she wishes everyone was dead. Her constant bitching and moaning about people is like a leak in the roof that just continues to drip, and drip, and drip. My kids grew up and moved away from this God forsaken town just to get away from her.”
“When my old man died my younger brother took his share of the inheritance and headed to Las Vegas. He blew it all playing poker and black jack. I spent mine soundproofing my office so I could get a break from Aileen’s yipping and oh yeah”… He paused and a smile wickedly crossed his lips… “I got to buy me some nice pistols.”
He continued to smile as he once again pulled the hammer back on one of the pistols. He settled himself directly behind his wife and then he put the barrel of the gun just below Aileen’s jaw.
“I’m going to have peace today,” he said, “I’m not going to listen to her yap any more. I’m going to do what I want today. I’m going to do what I want. Don’t try and stop me either, just let me be.”
“You know I can’t do that, Clark. I’m sworn to protect the peace and uphold the civil law; even with regard to Aileen.”
“Go to hell Rush, I don’t want to hear about your pursuit of injustice.”
His finger began to slowly tighten on the trigger.
The Sheriff’s finger moved much more rapidly. He was aiming at Clark’s hand but he missed. Clark was startled by the sound of the shot. His hand jerked just enough to alter the destination of the bullet.
Rush’s shot hit the handle of the gun sending it moving in the same direction as his bullet. Clark’s finger continued to squeeze and the sound of his pistol’s shot echoed the Sheriff’s. Blood splattered the wall behind the table.
Avery screamed like a girl.
Roxy hit the floor.
So did Clark.
His own bullet had entered his face at an angle just above his jaw. It came out near the top of his skull. The blood pooled around his head.
Aileen, still tied to the chair, sat rigid and tense; tears flowing from her eyes, urine dripping from her chair.
Rush hung his head. It was not the time for emotion. He had a job to do. The deputy went over and untied Aileen. He called the paramedics in to take care of people’s needs and clean up the bloody mess.
The Sheriff did what a Sheriff’s supposed to do. It’s doubtful, however, if he remembers any of it; paper work, details, comforting his sister. He did notice that she was quiet for a change – deathly quiet. He knelt beside Clark’s body before they zipped it up in the body bag and took it away.
His deputy caught the end of a whisper as the bag was being closed “…enough rope to hang yourself.” But that was all he could make out.
The night turned into another day.
When things had quieted down the Sheriff excused himself and wandered past the cars in the parking lot toward the woods.
The deputy caught a glimpse of him just before he disappeared and followed him. Ten or fifteen minutes later he found him in a clearing in the woods…
Tears were streaming down his face. His gut wretched with every breath his body forced him to take. These tears and sobs - the vomit laying on the ground around his knees were the only display of mercy that he had been able to give today. Some people just don’t want mercy.