Thomas Burns slammed his hand against the steering wheel of his ’46 Chevy truck, the Old Stovebolt. The night was foggy as hell, and the narrow two-lane road could get real tricky right where the truck was following the curve. He grabbed a tin cup from the dashboard and spat a thick brown stream of tobacco juice through his teeth into its sloshy bottom. All this damn fog made him slow her down, and he lost time, which he never did. It wasn’t his reputation.
He always hit the mark just when he was supposed to, just when everybody needed him to. Charlie and Earl, the boys from Beardstown, had been moving moonshine for years now. They expected results, and they liked the kind they got from him, the kind that didn’t make them worry and didn’t make them answer questions. Even though he knew there were just middlemen, he watched everything they did, and it was clear, to him, at least, that they called the shots around here in the backwater lowlands. They were greasy and spiteful, and they would gut you for two dollars, but they were the doormen and he wanted in.
They took deliveries and moved them to Des Moines, Rockford, or Chicago, the big daddy, where everything happened and where Thomas wanted to go. He wanted a chance to play with the guys who ran the game. It really didn’t matter anymore how he got it. He just knew he had waited long enough, and he was overdue to catch a break.
He had been working with Tug and Lemon for four years, mixing up the shine and then delivering it to one of the boys in Beardstown, though, lately, it’d been mostly Earl. Tug earned his name the hard way, shoving so much food into his face that he almost couldn’t work at the still. Charlie knew some guys from Browning, an edgy little town full of cold men, just a few miles northwest of Beardstown, and they came down and showed Tug how he needed to get his fat ass to work by carving out a piece of it and leaving it in his freezer like a slab of bacon. Lemon got his name because he was always squinting or frowning or, as Thomas thought, constipated. He never smiled, always all puckered up, except after he had a couple Mason jars of some of their good moonshine, when his face relaxed and just looked blank. He was quiet and did his job but rarely spoke to anybody, even though Thomas had tried to get him going a few times by putting down his beloved Chicago Cubs, which were his only passion, but that only earned him a few grunts and one of Lemon’s infamous twisted sneers.
This night, though, he left Tug and Lemon behind him. He was doing his real job now, getting the shine to its drop off point. The last time he’d made a delivery, he’d overheard some of the men talking with Earl about a Mr.Butterfield. They’d said he was coming from Chicago to check out the operation and get a taste for himself of how they did things down here. Thomas knew this was his chance. He’d asked Earl about Mr.Butterfield, trying to find out more about this new player and weighing his chances of meeting him. Thomas always liked Earl and definitely respected him, even if he didn’t always feel at ease around him, and he thought the feelings, at least, maybe, the respect, were mutual. Earl even laughed with Thomas about introducing him to Mr.Butterfield and telling him how great a deliveryman he was. Thomas knew that if he could get that introduction, he could impress Mr.Butterfield enough, with all his on-time deliveries and the quality of the moonshine he and the boys produced, to really get noticed by him and other people more important than Charlie or even Earl. He thought if he played it cool, he could really change his luck and start living a life that was much better than just being a deliveryman, no matter how good at it he was.
Maybe, he could finally get out of that godforsaken shit hole of a house and move Irene and his two kids somewhere nicer. They deserved to live some place that didn’t have a roof that leaked in four places whenever it rained and was cold as a witch’s tit in the winter. He knew he hadn’t been much of a father or husband—always brooding over his lot in life, how he had missed out on so much. But they had to know he was trying.
He didn’t talk much himself, and he never could get across what he meant to say anyway, especially to Irene. He hoped she knew he was doing everything for her and the kids. He’d built their house himself, but he was no carpenter, slapping up wooden beams just to keep the thin walls from collapsing. He’d seen her frowning to herself about boarded windows he’d never finished because he got distracted, or the cracks around the door that never let her keep the house warm in the winter. But she never said anything, she just stuffed sheets where the drafts came in and peeked through slats in the wood for a glimpse of sunlight. She made do, but she shouldn’t have to, Thomas thought.
He never dreamed he’d be running moonshine. They had other plans, a normal life for her and the kids, not one where they always wondered when he’d be coming home. Hell, or if. He knew she worried about him and the kids, and “the big picture,” as she always said. But he had a new plan now, and he just needed a little more time. The knot in his gut told him that if he could meet Mr.Butterfield and get his feet in the door, everything could change. The man from Chicago could snap his fingers and give them a better life. He knew it. He just needed Irene to be patient with him a little longer, and he knew he could make things work. Whenever she talked about the big picture, he kept telling her that, but he told himself even more.
He’d gotten his hands on some JoeLouis pomade and greased back his hair, something he almost never did. The importance of tonight, what it could mean for him and his family, was why he wore his undershirt beneath his flannel. He didn’t know if it made any difference or if Mr. Butterfield would even care, but he wanted to create an impression of himself that lasted longer than a couple hours, that made him remember Thomas all the way back to Chicago. He wanted to be the man he talked about, when he reported back to the men in the expensive pinstripe suits. He wanted Mr. Butterfield to forget about Charlie and Earl and remember him, all his hard work driving through shitty weather, all the sacrifices he had to make with his family, whatever it took—just so he was remembered.
Thomas always took the back roads to avoid speed traps, but tonight, the fog clung so tightly to the sharp curves it made it almost impossible for him to keep up the speed he wanted, even on roads he’d covered for years. He didn’t want to push the truck too hard. He’d just replaced a carburetor, and he couldn’t afford to keep swapping out parts, not now, at least. He pushed his thumb and forefinger hard against his eyes to keep him awake. He knew these night trips were part of the job and, maybe, the most important part. That’s what he thought, since nobody could run the moonshine in the middle of the day without the risk of the cops picking up on something. He could usually speed down these back roads, except when the damn fog lay like wet cotton right across the slick black highway.
Still, nobody knew these roads as well as he did, not since he started making his deliveries three years ago, when Tug and Lemon decided he was the best man and driver to make the runs. It didn’t hurt that he had lots of practice driving through hazardous conditions, when he drove jeeps and supply trucks to the men on the line in the Battle of Saipan during World War II. Sometimes, it seemed like he hadn’t heard the crashing of the mortars for 20 or 30 years, but then he had to remind himself he’d only been home for seven. So much had happened—Irene, the kids, Tug and Lemon—and he almost didn’t remember when or how.
He came back from the war with shell shock, and now nothing moved the same for him. It was always a little too fast or a little too slow. His Purple Heart really didn’t mean shit, since he could barely remember how he got it. He couldn’t stay calm; he was always edgy, twitching at loud noises, almost any noises. And he was angry, annoyed at everything, yelling at the kids or Irene for no good reason, for the smallest things, and it didn’t get better like the doctors said it would. Each year, he had to push harder to keep it together, and it pissed him off. Hell, he pissed himself off, and no matter what he did or how hard he tried, it all just came back around in some goddamn looping cycle he couldn’t break. Everything changed after he got back, but mostly, he knew, he changed the most.
Since before he left for the war, he knew he had a steady job waiting for him. It was at Red Monroe’s filling station and repair shop, where he’d worked for as long as he could remember, since he’d been 11 or 12 years old. But the war was long and Red wasn’t young, and even though he wrote up some notes, saying Thomas inherited the business when he died, it turned out they weren’t legal enough, and Thomas didn’t end up with shit. When he got back from WalterReed after Saipan, the job and the business, everything, had fallen nice and neatly into the bank’s hands. After a lot of wrangling, it only left him angrier and without a steady source of income, until he finally stumbled across Tug and Lemon and this job, delivering 180-proof moonshine to the boys in Beardstown, which just happened to sit conveniently right on the edge of the Illinois River.
Thomas hated thinking about Red and the shop. It made him angry, and his head throbbed. He couldn’t change a damn thing about the past, and he couldn’t get rid of the pain in his head without a good dose of bourbon or, lately, some of the shine. He pushed down on the accelerator, and the old engine wheezed with disapproval. Without Old Stovebolt, this job would be gone, too, and nobody would remember his name, no matter how dead on dependable he might be. For the rest of the way, then, he gritted his teeth and took her nice and slow, down narrow roads he knew too damn well.
He’d worked with the boys at the still all day and the night before that, making sure the shine had an ass-kick to it, but not too much of one, or those pussies up north wouldn’t be able to handle it. They’d caught shit about that before. It didn’t come from Mr.Butterfield and his friends but the people who bought the booze and tried to drink it for pleasure. Thomas had taken most of the heat, though, since the transporters knew his face best of all. After the guys at the still thought the liquor was about as good as they’d ever tasted, they had to make sure everything was sealed and carefully packed and loaded in different sized Mason jars and Ironstone jugs in the back of Old Stovebolt. It was hard work, and he needed some sleep, but first things first. If he didn’t get this delivery there on time, he could forget about needing any more JoeLouis pomade.
He flipped his headlamps off and on again, as if the effort might make their light penetrate the fog. It didn’t work. He drilled his right fist hard into the seat. When his fingers came back full of yellow, spongy foam, he looked down and saw the crater he had just imploded in the cushion. Ah, Christ, he thought, and he knew he’d have to find something to keep the damn foam from getting all over the floor of the truck or tracked into the house. Maybe, he could make one last raid to the filling station, which he reasoned should have been his anyway, if old Red had known when to die. He thought there was still plenty of electrical tape lying around the place that he could use to keep his seat together. He still had the truck creeping along the road, now there was a hole in the seat, and he had a long stretch of Route 125 yet ahead of him.
Finally, after another 20 minutes of plowing through the rolling white wall of fog, he almost passed the sign on the side of the road, the one he thought he’d missed or sure as hell hoped he hadn’t. He slowed Old Stovebolt gently, so as not to shake the cargo too much. Then, after coming to a complete stop in the middle of the road, he backed up about 10 feet to make sure he wasn’t seeing some desert mirage, like some guys at the VFW had told him they’d seen over in Africa. But after looking three times and furiously rubbing his eyes to keep them from tricking him, he was positive he was in the right place, the usual place. He wasn’t lost after all. Damn right, he wasn’t, he thought, the sign read, “Beardstown 3 Miles.” If that was a mirage, it was the best one he’d seen in a long time.
His thoughts turned briefly to those men at the VFW again. There were all veterans from the same war, just like him, and they shared a bond, he guessed, that no one else could know. Maybe, he wasn’t just like the boys who fought in Africa, against Rommel and all those goddamn desert Nazis, but his dreams and memories were just as vivid and woke him in cold sweats even seven years later. When he was working at the still late in the night and heard a coon or possum snap a twig, he saw Jap soldiers hiding in the shadows, in between the trees, bayonets drawn. There were times at the still, when everyone was worried about getting caught and each man kept a shotgun at his side, that he frightened himself, not to mention Tug and Lemon, after he swung his rifle in the face of some sniper Jap, only to hear his name called in the distance. No one was there, just like for the guys at the VFW.
Thomas worried sometimes that it all might happen when Irene and the kids were around. Just like his impatience and temper, every day, he pushed those images—that Jap soldier bearing down on him with a pistol and a scream or the air raid siren he heard every few hours—as far as he could to the back of his mind. He never wanted Irene or the kids to turn into the pictures in his head. The doctors had told him the flashbacks would fade, too, but they hadn’t. That’s why, whenever Irene talked to him, he put all his focus onto her face, made sure he only saw her, even if he didn’t hear a thing she said. It was the safest trade off, he thought.
He took a long deep breath, refocused, and turned the truck, driving through an intersection without stopping. He made his way to Fourth Street, the main drag through Beardstown, which was a river town mostly, though the railroad ran through it as well. This town was like a hub, and spokes from it stretched into Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, and even Kentucky. Even though it wasn’t in its prime anymore, not like 25 years earlier, when Capone came there to let things cool off in Chicago, it was still a busy place with busy players.
Charlie and Earl always kept a constant looming eye on all the unsavory folks that came and went on the river, making sure nobody ever threatened their operation. Thomas knew that Fat Billy Pike, the owner of the Duck Blind tavern, ran a standing poker game above the bar, and it was invitation only, unless someone vouched for you, which was rare, since everyone constantly cheated. PatsyConnolly was burly and loud, a bleach blonde who ran her own saloon and a small time whorehouse on her second floor. She only had a few girls and didn’t do much business, except in the late summer, when the river was really hopping with barges and fishermen. She had an arrangement with the police chief, ErnestWhipple, just like Charlie and Earl did. He was a tall, rubbery man, who kept everything running smoothly, as long as he got his “business arrangement fee” out of the deals, and everybody made sure he did.
The railroad moved supplies and people up and down the state, keeping some small shops open, especially The Silver Moon Café, which was just off the depot. Thomas stopped there a lot on his way through town and swore it had some of the best catfish for 200 miles. A lot of the town worked at the flourmill, but some people from all over the area made a living off the river, whether it was from the barges that brought cargo up the Illinois to Chicago or running bait and tackle shops—or bootlegging.
Still, Thomas never fooled himself, and he wasn’t naïve to the fact that Beardstown had a history, a reputation for being a hard town. People worked until sunset or later, but they sometimes played until sunrise. In most blocks, there were, at least, two taverns for every church, and most of the pews were empty. They earned the nickname of river rats.
It didn’t matter to him. He could see himself living that kind of life. He could imagine himself working on the barges, loading and unloading crates of corn or beans, building muscle and confidence each day. Eventually, he wouldn’t need Earl to vouch for him with Fat Billy, since people would know him, and he’d buy into the game on his own. Irene could make real friends and, maybe, join a crochet circle or a bridge club. The kids could go to a real school, and they’d learn something and have a chance. It would take some getting used to, but he could see it, even if it was still a long way down the line.
When he was younger, it didn’t take a lot to get him emotional, and he hated it. He was gangly and shy, awkward and lonely. He always wanted to be stronger with thicker skin, so the other guys his age would respect him more and not keep walking over him. He knew he grew up a sucker and a punch line, but that all changed when he went to work for Uncle Sam. First, he was stationed in the Mediterranean, fighting Mussolini and his fascists, but after four months and a quick Purple Heart, he was redeployed to the Marshall Islands. Eventually, he found himself at Saipan, where his life changed forever. The war had toughened him in ways he never expected, and he was glad for that. He wasn’t a scrawny boy any longer, and he knew his way around a gun and a bar, not to mention a woman.
He thought that he and this town could make a good fit. He drove slowly down Fourth and watched women in tight dresses, hanging like addictions on the broad shoulders of beefy, drunken men who had spent the day heaving hundred pound crates from nameless barges. He heard lots of heavy laughter mixed with the occasional “fuck you” yell that might lead to a fight later. There was music from the Hit Parade coming from Patsy’s Tavern on one side of the street, while the low twang of sultry country oozed from under the closed doors of the Duck Blind on the other. He could hear it all even from inside the truck late on this damp November night.
He liked what he saw, and it reminded him of his times on leave and the Chinese or Korean girls he met. They gave him sake and massages, and he gave them his week’s pay. He knew that everybody needed to blow off steam at times, whether it was after a long day at work or during a war. At least, he figured these guys wouldn’t need 10 days of penicillin like he and his buddies got treated with too many times. He didn’t care, though, and he wouldn’t change it then or now.
Many nights, he left his problems at the bottom of a glass of JimBeam. He forgot about money troubles or the house or Irene and the kids, covering them with the brown sheen of bourbon. Lately, it wasn’t bourbon or even a glass, just clear moonshine and a Mason jar, but the results were the same. He forgot and unwound for a couple hours before the cycle started again. He liked those nights, even when it was just him with Tug and Lemon, and wished he could have more of them. He wanted to find a reconnection to some of those days. Those times were easier, like when he played gin with Tug for a penny a point and neither of them ever paid, and it didn’t matter. Then, there was the time Lemon opened up to him about growing up near Jacksonville and how his crippled brother went to a special school, and he and Thomas each drank a full Mason jar of shine and thought about life in the silence of the still. The thought of times like that made him smile a little, and it made him thirsty again.
He scooted Old Stovebolt slowly through the town, turning off his headlamps out of habit, keeping his own head low. He finally made his way to the levee drive. He turned right and followed it around the north side of town, where the river stopped its encroachment. Thomas relaxed a little, knowing he was far enough away from the main part of town to avoid any unnecessary attention from the cops or other wandering or curious eyes.
On his right, the river unrolled like a fresh sheet of wax paper, and though the fog still hung low, he rolled down his window and breathed in the water’s crispness. He had spent more time in Beardstown the last six years, making deliveries and forging a place for himself, than he ever had when he was growing up. He always thought he needed to live in the country, far from too many city folks, wannabes who didn’t know what life and hard work and responsibility really were. But since he had met a few people and seen the town clicking along like an engine’s pistons, working and playing in an easy repetition he could understand, he thought about this place in a different way. He had never lived there, never thought about it, but it crossed his mind now. He heard the river sloshing along with him as he drove, and he knew that if he wanted, and things worked out tonight and down the road, he could call this place home.
Hell, he smiled to himself, he might even call Chicago home. Irene had grown up just outside of Baltimore and lived there until they got married. He knew she liked city life, with all the hat shops and beauty parlors, full of red-faced, cackling women, gossiping under hairdryers about whose husband got caught with a young and bouncy piece of ass that wasn’t his wife. She didn’t have a lot of friends where they lived, stuck out in the timber and surrounded by more corn than he figured she’d ever seen. Chicago would give her some stability, some small piece of her old life before him, he thought, and the kids could really grow up proper.
But even as he thought about how Chicago might be good for Irene and the kids, his gut churned, and he felt his head throbbing again. He knew he could never go. He didn’t know that life, didn’t understand it, didn’t want to try. Sure, he’d go there, if Mr.Butterfield told him to, and he’d do whatever he was supposed to, but he couldn’t imagine life without The Silver Moon Café or even Tug and Lemon. He grunted and gritted his teeth, deciding right then that Chicago wasn’t for him, and it wasn’t for his family.
Eventually, the levee drive ended at the opening of Myers pond, and he had to turn Old Stovebolt on a hard left to get close enough to unload the moonshine at the banks of the pond. He knew how the turn and loose gravel road were steep and treacherous, not something you wanted to travel down, he thought, no matter how short the distance, especially when the ass end of your truck was full of thousands of dollars of booze. He hadn’t truly been scared since his last day on Saipan, but this road always made him nearly piss himself. Old Stovebolt crawled foot by foot and, sometimes, inch by inch, and Thomas rode the brake hard, as small bits of rock ricocheted off his tires and through the night air.
After 10 grueling minutes, he reached a partially level spot of ground, covered in high grass and still more gravel. He leaned his head against the back window of the truck cab and sighed deeply to himself. He stretched his fingers to get some color back in his knuckles. But before the tingling stopped, he heard and felt the loud smack of a hand thumping against the windshield.
“Hey, Tommy,” a large crusty man with larger and crustier hands smiled through the glass, as he swung the door open as wide as it could go and landed one of those hands squarely on Thomas’s shoulder. “How the hell are you? It’s about time you made it.” Thomas looked at the man’s leather skin and gnarled white whiskers to see if he was still smiling, and he was. He hated when anyone called him Tommy, but with Earl, he made an exception, as if he had a choice.
“That damn fog,” Thomas said, getting out of the truck and shaking his head. “It’s a son of a bitch tonight, but it’s sure as hell good to see you, Earl.” He looked up a full foot to stare Earl in the eye. He was huge, an intimidating looking man with amplified muscles, even through his neck and jaw, that seemed to advertise how he gave them special time and attention every day. He had wide shoulders and bright white teeth, and his hairline receded a bit, though no one noticed or said so, if they did. He used to work on the river, loading and unloading barges, and slowly building his reputation as a crafty businessman who was quick on the uptake and wouldn’t tolerate anyone trying to shit with him.
He had been meeting with Earl like this for the last six months, ever since Charlie had disappeared. Earl told everyone that Charlie had just gotten tired of all the pressure and needed a break, and he just wanted to go fishing with his grandson, but he’d keep in touch. No one really believed this, including Thomas. A few people murmured, far from Earl’s earshot, that Charlie had gotten a visit from some of those Browning boys, just like Tug had, and now Earl ran the show.
When Thomas first met Earl a few years ago, he had tried to act like the war hero, like he was one who was taking over, making the deliveries and eventually the decisions. Over drinks one night at the Duck Blind, Earl and Thomas were talking and laughing, mostly because Thomas was making fun of Tug and Lemon, going on about how they were just a couple of redneck hicks who really didn’t know much about anything and did whatever Thomas told them to. After a couple more drinks and a few more jokes, without seeming to think about it, Earl slammed Thomas’s head into the table. Earl lifted him up and looked at him, talking slowly and easily.
“I like you, Tommy,” Earl had said, “but I’ve known Tug and Lemon for 15 years, and they ain’t near as dumb as you say they are.” He handed Thomas a napkin to wipe the blood away from his nose. “You’re a damn good deliveryman, and I want to keep you around for a while. So, why don’t we have another drink or two, talk about something else, look at Millie’s ass over there,” he paused and motioned to an overly friendly waitress with red hair and a short skirt, “and, then, get you on your way back home?” Then, Earl waived Millie over to their table, smacked her on her ass, and ordered another round.
Thomas had agreed to the drinks and Millie’s ass, and the two men hadn’t disagreed on much since then. Thomas knew he had been too cocky, but now he also knew that Earl’s idea of a good time was always just that, whatever Earl decided. Still, even though he knew Earl’s answer to most problems was a violent one, and he felt safe in betting that included Charlie, he refused to go back to the days of his youth, when the bullies threatened him or, if that didn’t work, beat the shit out of him. He needed to make it clear to Earl that he respected him but wasn’t going to lie down in the dirt for him. He hoped meeting Mr.Butterfield might get him some more of Earl’s respect, as he glanced at the big man in the hazy light and listened for his response about the fog and the night’s driving conditions.
“Yeah, I know,” Earl said. “I just want to carve out a piece of it, so the moon can shine down here.” He pulled out a long hunting knife from inside his blue wool coat. Thomas saw it had an intricately cut serrated edge and a blade still bright enough to see in the darkness. It wasn’t just for show. “I been worrying about those outboards making it here on the river.” He spun the knife handle between his fingers and, finally, slid it back out of sight. “Christ, I reckon they’ll make it,” he smiled broadly, “or me, you, and the rest of the boys’ll have us a hell of a good goddamn party, ain’t that right?”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Thomas smiled back, and he finally noticed the other four men standing around the bank of the pond. They were faceless in the shadows, and even as Thomas recognized them and nodded in their direction, he just as quickly dismissed them. Earl tossed a smoldering Camel on the ground by his feet, pulled another one from his coat pocket, and lit it, in one circular motion. Thomas knew Earl was a chain smoker, and he envied him now, waiting for the outboards and, more important to Thomas, Mr.Butterfield. Thomas had given up Marlboros for Red Man two years earlier, though, when Lemon had to stomp out one of his butts and give him a rare rebuke about not blowing them and the still all to hell.
After another half an hour of talking about the Cardinals’ starting pitching for next year, the quality of the moonshine, and the weather, when the other topics dried up, all six men turned toward the far end of the pond. They heard the distant humming of outboard engines, and through the dense white sheen, they started to piece together the outlines of four motorboats headed in their direction. Thomas actually felt a surge of excitement, the rush of really talking to Mr.Butterfield exhilarating him more than any buzz from the moonshine or the thought of the women with their willing bodies outside the Duck Blind. Before the outboards even reached the pond’s edge, he almost expected one of Earl’s men to surprise him, walking out of the shadows, and introducing himself as the “boss.” Thomas’s mind flushed with adrenaline and anticipation, and he pictured Mr.Butterfield in a pinstripe suit with a long cigar, thanking him for all this valuable hooch and taking the risks of all the deliveries. In Thomas’s mind, he heard Mr.Butterfield say all this in a calm and measured voice that reminded him of his sergeant over in Saipan, addressing the troops just before Thomas’s last day there.
The problem was he didn’t see anyone, and he only heard the outboards getting closer. He really didn’t know what to expect, but he thought or, maybe, just hoped for a better welcome, a little more concern about his drive with the fog. He was always here when they wanted him, whenever Earl called, even though all they wanted was the moonshine. He did his part, just the way they wanted, and brought them everything Tug, Lemon, and he could make and shove into the back of Old Stovebolt. The money was good, but he wanted more than just a wad of cash shoved in his face and a night spent waiting for the outboards.
“Hey, Earl,” Thomas said, as he dug his heel into the sand as if to steady him, “you know how last time I was over here, you were telling all the guys and me about some of the folks from Chicago coming down this way to see how things were going?” He kicked his toe against a rock, and he tried to look as relaxed and unassuming as possible. He didn’t want to come across as desperate or enthusiastic, and he tried to make it sound like it was just a question among friends. “Is he still coming?”
“Who?” Earl looked around and then down at Thomas, as if he’d been distracted from a much more important thought. “What are you saying, kid? Something about Chicago?” Earl looked confused and more than a little annoyed that Thomas had switched his attention from the outboards.
“Remember, Earl?” Thomas pressed a little harder. “I think you said his name was Mr.Butterfield.” Thomas knew damn well that was the name, and so did Earl, he thought to himself. “You said he wanted to see how the operation was running and, especially, how everything was going with the deliveries. I figured he’d already be here.” Thomas’s voice turned a bit sarcastic, as he answered Earl, but this was too important for the big man just to act like he forgot it. His muscles tensed in his arms, a sign of his impatience, which he didn’t really want Earl to see. He jammed his hands hard into the pockets of his Army jacket.
“Tommy,” Earl turned and looked down at him with a condescending look and an eerily pleasant smile on his face, “I think, maybe, I said something a few weeks ago about how some people was asking about our deliveries. But I don’t remember saying anything about a Mr.Butterfield.” He patted Thomas on the shoulder with one of his massive hands. “Besides, we don’t get a lot of out-of-town visitors down here, sure as shit, not ones from Chicago. Maybe, you just got your wires crossed somewhere.” His grin got wider and he shook an index finger above Thomas’s head in mock disapproval. “Now, don’t you listen to close to anything old Tug says. You know he ain’t always all there, and I think he probably tests out the moonshine a little too much, if you know what I mean.” Then, Earl let out a belly laugh that almost made him double over and seemed a little too jolly to Thomas.
He clenched his fists involuntarily and was glad they were hidden from Earl. He shifted his weight, almost hopping from one foot to the next, as if he were cold. He was actually starting to sweat a little, though, and he wanted to lash out at Earl. Even if he could never land a punch on the man, he wanted to verbally beat him down, carve out a slice of his ass, no matter if it left no scars. He’d take a pound of flesh regardless of how he could get it.
“Earl, I didn’t hear it from Tug or Lemon,” Thomas said, almost without moving his lips. “I heard it from you. How would they know if somebody from Chicago was coming down here? You’re the guy with all the answers, and that’s where I heard it, right from you, last time I was here.” Thomas’s entire body stiffened, and he looked hard up at Earl, but the big man was still looking through the fog toward the far end of the pond. “Don’t tell me you forgot that now, goddamn it, Earl.” Thomas’s voice grew stronger, but the boats’ engines drowned out his courage.
“The outboards,” Earl yelled, ignoring all the energy Thomas had just burned up. “Here they come,” he motioned to the four men, and Thomas looked that way, too, his shoulders slumping with resentment and regret.
As the boats reached the pond’s edge, each man sitting in the back hoisted the motor up out of the water and rested it on the seat. The metal blades still made a slight whirring sound, as they hovered in the air, just off the boats’ back edges, to avoid being stuck in the sand and silt. Thomas saw that there were two men per boat, one to sit in the back and steer and one in the front, sitting like a sentry with a double-bored shotgun, to make sure nothing happened to the cargo. Each pair of men got out of the boats quietly, pulled them far enough up the bank to keep them from drifting, and tied them down.
At this point, no one was talking or joking. The eight men from the boats, plus Earl’s four, worked methodically and quickly, unloading the bed of Old Stovebolt and transferring, with great care and precision, every last ounce of alcohol into the outboards. Thomas and Earl stood back silently and watched the display. Though both men had seen it many times, they were still impressed, especially Thomas, since he wondered if he’d ever have a chance to bring another delivery like this or if he’d catch another glimpse of Earl’s favorite knife.
“Earl, I didn’t mean nothing bad before,” Thomas said, looking at the sandy mud beneath him. He never shifted his gaze from the same few inches of ground, while he focused on keeping his breathing steady. “I’m just sick of nothing going my way. I come up here, seems like every other week, and nothing changes. I feel like I’m just stuck in the same old goddamn rut.” Thomas felt a little more courage because he knew everything he said was just a bunch of lifeless words to Earl. “I just need something to break my way once. Know what I mean?”
“Abso-lutely,” Earl smiled, dragging out the word and showing all of his bright white teeth. He was satisfied with how the men were transferring the moonshine from the truck to the boats. “I know you had a long day, Tommy, but ain’t we all? Why don’t you go get yourself a drink or two and then head home? I hear Millie’s working tonight.” Earl reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a roll of bills. He slapped his hand against Thomas’s chest and slid the money into his front shirt pocket. “That’s a little more than usual,” Earl said with his smile fading and his hand still resting on Thomas’s chest. “For all your extra trouble.”
Thomas looked down at where Earl shoved the money. He pulled down at the bottom edges of his jacket, straightening himself and pulling his head up. He closed his eyes and breathed in the cold night air.
“I guess this is where I’m supposed to thank you for all you done for me, ain’t it?” Thomas tilted his head just slightly toward Earl. “Well, thanks, Earl. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all your generosity and you looking out for me.” Thomas had wanted his words to cut Earl and make the arrogant son of a bitch see things from his perspective, but he knew they lacked any real power to back them up. Now, he just wanted to go home.
“That’s okay, Tommy,” Earl said to the air, fixing his gaze again on the outboards. “We all think we hear stuff sometimes, but, then, it all turns out to be nothing.” He crossed his arms on his chest, and even through the wool, Thomas could see him flexing his immense biceps. “You just need to listen better.” He raised his left hand and wagged his finger again at Thomas. “That, there, is the lesson for you here, Tommy. Next time, you just gotta make sure you listen to what people really say and not what you think they say.” Earl suddenly smiled and looked pleased with himself. “Now, that’s some good advice there, yes, sir.” He looked back down at Thomas. “Some good shit there.”
Thomas looked up at him and managed half a smile, his anger and courage draining away. “It sure is, Earl,” he nodded and turned his head to the outboards. “It sure is.”
They both watched the 12 men load and secure the last of the moonshine into the boats. With a precision Thomas hadn’t seen since his days in the Army, the men unmoored each boat, pushed them back into the pond, flipped the motor into the water, and were gone. The fog was starting to lift, and they could see the boats as they reached the end of Myers pond and moved into the river.
Thomas realized, then, before the sun came up, that it was time to head home, back to Tug and Lemon and Irene, and he did. He offered some casual goodbyes and headed for the truck. Earl told him he’d be in touch soon, and Thomas, fingering the wad of cash in his pocket, knew he would.
My name is Tyler McHaley, and I am an author and political advocate. I write in a variety of forms, such as short stories and poetry to name just a few. As a person with a disability, I’m also very involved in advocacy as it relates to more social justice for everyone, especially other individuals with disabilities. I am proud to appear in the inaugural issue of 13magazine