Sheldon Richards had been fired from two Sheriff’s departments before landing in Black Hollow. Corruption always found Black Hollow. Our hospital hired doctors that had been run out of other towns. Locals called the one surgeon “the butcher.” A friend of my moms got an appendectomy from him and he cut her from sternum to pelvis and she got a near fatal infection from a sponge forgotten in her abdomen. After he got fired from Black Hollow Hospital, the police were called several times because the butcher was hanging around the basement morgue, getting a little too close to the bodies. The largest section in the town newspaper was the police log, and the Black Hollow PD routinely hired undesirables from Baltimore and Washington.
Deputy Richards was among good company in Black Hollow. The rumor was that Richards sought refuge in Black Hollow after soliciting a blowjob from the underage daughter of a prosecuting attorney.
Richards had a reputation for recklessness and violence. He destroyed a police cruiser his first week in Black Hollow by t-boning an elderly woman in a four way intersection on his way to a landlord-tenant dispute. He fabricated a reason to ticket the woman and left her sitting on the shoulder, bleeding from her face . He destroyed a second cruiser visiting the wife of a state trooper in a neighboring county, outside his jurisdiction.
He once responded to a call of a man in distress at the McDonald’s parking lot. The man was lethargic and slurring his speech. Richards knocked on the man’s window and asked him to exit the vehicle. The man didn’t respond, so Richards broke the window with his flashlight, opened the door, and pulled the man to the ground. The man was unconscious and could do nothing to catch himself. He lost a good deal of the skin on one side of his face. The pictures were in the newspaper.
The rescue squad arrived and informed Deputy Richards that the man was in a diabetic coma.
The most recent incident involving Richards was when he ripped a local paraplegic preacher from his car in the same fashion. The preacher made the mistake of picking up a hitchhiker in plain view of a nosy old woman who called the police to report that a silver Honda Civic picked up a “shady looking” man carrying a shotgun. Richards pulled the men over, approached the drivers window with gun drawn and unironically asked the preacher to “step out of the car.” When the preacher couldn’t comply, Richards broke the window and drug the preacher from the vehicle, breaking his nose. No gun was found. The hitchhiker didn’t have so much as a joint.
After each incident, the Black Hollow PD closed ranks and protected itself. The diabetic, the preacher, and the old woman were paid off, and Richards was given time off with pay to think about what he’d done.
“Evenin’ Boys.” Richards turned on the light bar and stepped out of his cruiser. He was giant, broad shouldered, and bald. He swaggered with every step, and rested one thumb inside of his gun belt. “We got a complaint about trespassing. Pack it up. Get in your cars. Go home and don’t let me see you again tonight. Ya hear?”
I grumbled “yes sir,” and motioned to Steven to start back the way we came.
“Where you boys goin? I said, back in the cars. Go home.” Richards barked, pulled the flashlight from his belt, and shone it at us.
“Um,” I stammered. Anyone with a brain between their ears was nervous around the Black Hollow Police department, and Richards was its meanest officer.
“You got a stutterin’ problem?”
“We walked here.”
“Sure you did. Where from?”
“The Shop and Save.”
“We have permission to be here.” Jeb interrupted the exchange. The flashlight turned away and I took a deep breath.
“Oh.” Richards laughed. “Well, I’m glad we got that cleared up. Guess I’ll just get back in the truck and go.” Richards mimed like he was turning to go. “But wait, that’s right. I don’t give a shit what permission you think you have.”
“I work here. The owner knows we are here. He said it’s ok.”
“Look kid,” Richards rolled his shoulders back and stepped closer, “let’s make this easy. It’s the end of my shift. I don’t want the fuckin’ paperwork, ok?”
“Then let us be, man. We don’t want any trouble.” Del spoke up.
“Let me call the owner,” Jeb pleaded.
Richards cracked his neck and sighed. He returned the flashlight to his belt. “Ya know what kid? I’m feeling generous. I’ll play along. Call him.”
Jeb made the call. It rang through to voicemail. “This is Chipper Stevens, owner of Chipper’s Produce. Leave a message.”
“Fuck.” Jeb hung up and redialed.
Chipper answered after the second ring. “What do you want Jeb. Do you know what time it is.”
“Sorry for callin’ so late Mr. Stevens.”
“Yeah, Yeah. What is it?” Chippers voice sounded like it was filtered through cobwebs and cigarette smoke.
“I’m parked at the stand with some buddies of mine, and the cops are tellin’ us we have to leave.”
“The cops. They’re tellin’ us we have to leave.”
“Well, it’s private property, my property. I didn’t call em’.”
“But it’s ok for us to sit here right?”
“I don’t have a problem with it.”
“Thanks Mr. Stevens.” Jeb took a deep breath and let it out slow.
“Don’t bother me again with this shit.”
“Oh, while I got you on the phone. Come in a half hour early tomorrow. Need to do the floors.”
“Yes sir.” Jeb hung up.
Richards shrugged his shoulders and climbed back in the cruiser. He shut the light bars off and left without another word.
Jeb relaxed, and Steven and I returned to the group. “Shit, man. You stood up to Richards.”
“Well,” Jeb lit a cigarette. His hands were shaking. “We were in the right. I asked if we could be here. We ought to have some place to go where they can’t mess with us. Ya know?”
“Who called the cops?” Ken wondered aloud.
“It’s hard to tell.” Gray chipped in. “Probably some old lady, no friends.”
“Trespassing though?” Steven questioned, “Seems to me like you should have to own the place to call the cops on someone for trespassing.”
“Maybe he was just passing by and wanted to fuck with us.” I offered.
Jeb shrugged, “I think it’d of gone differently if ole’ Deputy Richards had been at the start of his shift and not at the end.”
Everyone joined Jeb in having a smoke. Collectively, we decided that we needed to take the edge off. The threat of an unpredictable and openly corrupt deputy had shaken us. I opened another cheeseburger and alternated puffing and chewing.
Headlights washed over us again only a moment later. “Jesus H. Christ,” Jeb was exasperated. “Who the hell is this now.”
Daniel’s car pulled in between where we were gathered and the highway. “It’s alright,” I said, “they are with us.”
Floppy was the first out of the car, “We were takin’ bets up there on whether or not one of you would be gone when we got here.” Floppy said to Steven and I.
“Gone where?” Steven asked.
“To the pokey,” Floppy clarified. “We saw the lights from the cruiser, who was it?”
“Richards,” I answered.
Floppy let out a long whistle, “I hate that fuckin’ guy.”
“How’d you get rid of him?” Daniel was leaning on his car. The doors were open and his arms were resting, crossed on the roof.
Jeb sidled up next to me and put me in a loose headlock, “Gonna introduce us Mikey?”
“Sorry guys, in the excitement I forgot that no one knows each other. Jeb, Gray, Del and Ken, meet Daniel and Floppy.” I pointed to each person as I called their name. “Jeb is the one that scared off Richards.”
“I don’t know about scared him off,” Jeb laughed.
“No, really, you guys should’ve seen it. Jeb told him to get the fuck out of here. I thought ole Richards was going to blow a gasket.” Ken piled on.
I caught Gray and Del grinning at one another in the dim light, Del spoke up,”yea, don’t be so modest Jeb. It’s about time someone told that crooked bastard how it is.”
Gray could barely contain himself, “just wait until we start telling that story around town.”
“You better hadn’t tell that story around town. It gets back to Richards that you all are telling people I told him off or kicked his ass or whatever, I’ll wind up dead in a ditch somewhere.” An edge of panic shook in Jeb’s voice.
“We got permission from the owners to be here. Jeb works here and knows the owner. Richards thought we were trespassing. He found out we weren’t, so he left.” I briefed Daniel and Steven.
“That’s cool that your boss lets you and your friends hang out here.” Floppy stepped forward and shook Jeb’s hand before moving on to Ken, Del and Gray. “It’s good to meet you all, I’m Robert, but everyone calls me Floppy.”
Gray laughed, “why Floppy.”
“Well,” Floppy started, “it’s because of my giant…”
“Ears,” Steven finished his sentence.
“It’s my ears,” Floppy groaned, having lost his chance to appear cool in front of people who didn’t already know him.
Daniel stayed by the car and waved.
“Sorry about him. He’s a little shy around new people. He’ll warm up to you.”
“Ha!” Ken laughed. “You talk about him like he’s a dog.” Ken stepped toward Daniel and extended his hand, “Good to meet ya buddy.”
Daniel took it and shook limply. Ken looked Daniel in the eye and frowned. “We gotta work on this one’s handshake.” He shouted over his shoulder toward the group. “Like an old fish.”
Daniel blushed. The others erupted in laughter.
“You can come on over.” Gray shouted above the din. We won’t bite unless you ask us to. Gray peaked at me out of the corner of his eye and winked. They were trying to be welcoming.
Hazing and talking shit was how new people were folding in to a male social group in Black Hollow. Most families in the town were working poor. Local traffic rarely featured a car less than a decade old. Most men maintained their own properties. My dad was a serviceable, self-taught carpenter, plumber, mechanic, and electrician. And his education was the product of necessity. My family, like many in Black Hollow couldn’t afford to pay someone else to cut down a tree or put new brakes on the family van. If your house needed a new roof, then you bought a case of beer and invited your friends to bring their tool belts for the weekend. In the absence of money, favor was the currency of greatest value. I spent long days with my father helping neighbors lay cinder block and paint siding with the unspoken understanding that our neighbors would return the favor if there was need.
The resulting microculture was one of mutual need and mutual prostration. No one could afford to be prideful. People were accustomed to tragedy. They were used to asking for help. Their neighbors had seen their lives laid low by job loss, alcoholism, and divorce. A harsh truthfulness, even with new acquaintances was a perverse byproduct. Undeserved pride was quickly detected and the prideful were cut down without hesitation. If Daniel wanted to act standoffish, he would be reminded that he was overweight, socially awkward, limp-wristed, and imperfect.
In his short interaction with Daniel, Ken had let him know that he could either join the group or have his ego relentlessly dissolved.
Daniel followed Ken around the car and lit a cigarette.