Mom handed me the cash and keys and sent me to the bank to get the cashier’s check. “If they give you any grief ’cause of your age,” she said, “tell ’em to call me.”
They didn’t, because my cousin Clint was working the counter. I hadn’t known he worked there. I hadn’t known he was in town. Or sober. But he was, and he told me, “Bail’s a bitch, ain’t it? What’d Lyle do, purchase some shit that he shouldn’t have? It’s called medicine. It’s legal. The quantities you buy it in shouldn’t matter.”
Well, Lyle had really done more than just the buying, we all knew that, but maybe Clint didn’t know that ’cause he hadn’t been in town at the time so I just nodded and didn’t say anything.
The jail was only a couple of blocks from the bank, so I decided to walk. I’d been driving for four years now, having been first plopped behind the wheel by my father at age ten, so that I could maybe get some work done on the farm. Of course, the farm folded and Dad killed himself, but Mom and Lyle kept me driving. Mom didn’t like to drive because it hurt her wrists, she said, so when I wasn’t in school I drove her to the market to get groceries. I’d been pulled over only once, and Mom was given a ticket and forced to get back behind the wheel. We paid the ticket with the money Lyle provided us, and the next day I was driving again. I think I even passed that same officer. If he saw me, he didn’t do anything. Probably realized it wouldn’t do any good.
But I was going to the jail, and there were bound to be a lot of deputies there, so I decided to walk. Better safe than sorry, Lyle always said, even though he didn’t follow his own advice. Sometimes I wondered how smart my brother really was. I mean, if a man can’t follow his own advice, can you really trust him?
It wasn’t a typical July day. Normally in southern Illinois, the temps get up there, and it gets humid, and everyone with an air-conditioner has it going. But that day, the weather was hotter, and it wasn’t humid because we hadn’t had any rain in over two weeks, and the farmers were starting to bitch. You couldn’t turn on the radio without having the DJ say how terrible this dry spell was, like everyone and their mother cared about how the crops turned out. The sign at the bank said it was a hundred and nine degrees, which meant it was really about a hundred and five, which is still pretty hot. My shirt was already stuck to my skinny frame, because the Ford didn’t have functional A/C, and with the windows down, the air hit you like a hair-dryer, but it was better than keeping the windows up. The bank had been nice inside, though it smelled kind of funky, but I couldn’t linger because Lyle was wanting out, and I’d never really been fond of my cousin Clint. I’m pretty sure he was the one who first got Lyle into the business. Or at least, he hadn’t tried to stop him.
Halfway to the jail, I stepped inside the Walgreen’s and bought a can of Cherry Coke. I could’ve stolen it easy—the cashier was busy with some migrant worker who kind of spoke English—but I decided to pay for it. Didn’t know why; it just felt wrong to steal something before going to get your brother out of jail. That’s the kind of sentiment Lyle would’ve laughed at, but maybe that’s why he was in jail and I wasn’t.
The jail is on the opposite side of the square from the courthouse. There’s a tunnel that runs under the streets; it’s pretty neat, actually. In fifth grade, we took a field trip there. We got to have a mock trial in the main courtroom—with a real judge presiding—and then we were led down into the tunnel. It’s well lit but still gloomy, like you know a lot of bad people have passed through it, and they left their finger grease on the walls. Most of the girls in the glass were scared. I held Samantha Feldmore’s hand, even though I didn’t think she was that cute (she developed a couple years later, right before she moved away). Our teacher, Mr. Cliff, and the chaperone, Ginny Gleason’s mother, kept a careful eye on all of us, while the deputy giving the tour explained how convenient the tunnel was, how it had sheltered African American demonstrators back in the race riots of the early 1860s. At the time, I thought that made the tunnel part of the Underground Railroad, but apparently these African Americans had already been free. And anyways, they’d all been lynched eventually, or run off. I Googled it at school one day.
The tunnel comes out down in the jail, which is beneath the Sheriff’s Office. At the time, the cells had been empty; I guess the convicts being held there had spent that part of the morning elsewhere. Was it like a vacation for them? Did they get to eat a decent cheeseburger? The cells hadn’t been dirty—later, I’d learn the term “drunk tank,” and the connotations that came with it made me think that the cells had been cleaned a couple of hours before we arrived—but they’d been small. Pacing room only, Lyle told me after he’d first spent the night in one. They’re meant to hold you, not house you.
The Sheriff’s Office itself is a flat brick building that doesn’t look very secure. I had watched that old John Carpenter movie on Netflix—my friend Billy has it; Billy’s parents don’t like me, because of Lyle and maybe Clint, but they can’t say anything because they’re Democrats and they have to be nice—and this building looks nothing like it. I can’t picture an arsenal inside. If a gang of toughs descended on this place, it would fall in five minutes, tops. But then again, that Carpenter movie had been set in California, I think, and California is a whole different world. Chelmsford doesn’t have gangs. We have other stuff, but we don’t have gangs with automatic weapons.
I stood outside for a moment and made sure to wipe my bangs away from my forehead. I’d found that I looked younger that way, and small town cops like kids who look young. That’s something that Lyle taught me, back when he still looked his age. If you looked young, then the police automatically assumed, way back in their brains, that you weren’t aware that what you were doing was wrong. Some kind of paternal instinct.
I opened the door, and the cool air that hit me felt like a little puff of Heaven. Like the first bite of a grape snow cone. I must’ve stood there for a moment or two, just basking in it, because the receptionist said, “Come on in, son, don’t let all the cold air out.”
The place wasn’t exactly a refrigerator, but I closed the door and walked up to the desk. I was told to take a number. I took one—twenty-seven—and then sat down with my back to the plane glass window.
It didn’t look like a Sheriff’s Office. Of course, this was just the front room. It looked like any other office; not that I’d been in many, but I’d seen them on TV. A waiting area is all it was. The real action, the deputies and everything, was in the rest of the building, behind the receptionist. In fact, as I was scrutinizing what might be back there, a deputy came out through a wooden door without a window in it, as though what happened behind it, the wheels of justice, was classified. The deputy nodded at the receptionist, winked—she wasn’t pretty, but I guess he was being friendly—and then went outside. After a minute or so, I heard a car engine start up, and then a cruiser pulled out into the street. I watched it.
The other people in the lobby with me were familiar—I’d seen them at Wal-Mart, probably. One of them I was pretty sure had a kid in my grade. They were all neatly dressed, calm, reading magazines from six months ago. About eight people, all of whom looked patient and professional. Not sweaty like I was, in my t-shirt and denim shorts and mud-splattered Reeboks. I looked like a criminal; they looked like the jury.
I waited about forty-five minutes. Police officers came and went, and lawyers too. I could tell the lawyers because they wore suits they bought at Carson’s or Kohl’s, carried expensive-looking briefcases, and never had to wait more than thirty seconds. Every one of them was rude to the receptionist, but she didn’t seem to mind, like she was used to it by now. When they strolled into the rest of the building, that wooden door slamming shut behind them, they did so as though they owned the place. When they came out again, they looked exactly the same. All but one came out alone; the exception was a man in his middle-thirties, accompanied by an older man who clearly hadn’t showered in a few days, wearing clothes that stank.
Finally, my number was called. I approached the receptionist and put the cashier’s check on the counter. “Lyle Cagle,” I said, and waited.
I could have taken a seat, but I wasn’t sure how long the process would take, so I remained at the corner of the counter. The receptionist went into the back, then returned, and didn’t seem to notice me. Stuff happened. After about twenty minutes, the door opened, and Lyle came out, escorted by a deputy.
“Little man,” Lyle said, and lifted his hand. “Hit me.”
I gave him a high five. His skin was clammy. He was almost as thin as me, unshaven, with oily hair and stained clothes. One of his incisors was almost completely brown; the others were on their way to yellow. He wore old shoes, blue jeans, and what was once a Packers t-shirt. He wasn’t wearing socks, and he smelled. He saw me looking him over and said, “It’s like the Ritz down there. Ain’t it, Fredricks?”
The deputy harrumphed and said, “I’m tired of bringing you in and letting you go, Cagle. You aren’t a damn fish. Next time we land you, we might just keep you.”
“And eat me?” Lyle laughed. “I should tell my lawyer.”
“You should get a lawyer, much as we haul your ass in.” The deputy looked at me. “Son, you take your brother home, and if you’re smart, you and your mamma do your best to keep him there.”
“Robert’s smart,” Lyle said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “He’s on the honor roll. Our mother, now…”
We left. As soon as we stepped outside, Lyle gasped. “Goddamn,” he said. “Where the hell are we, Iraq?”
On the walk back to the truck, he told me about the jail. “It smells. Musty, like something’s beginning to rot. And the sort they keep down there…I was the only one not drunk when they hauled me in. And the type of drunk dumb enough to wind up down there, they don’t got no sense of decency or privacy or nothing. Piss wherever the fuck they want. One of ’em tried to piss on me. I slammed his face into the bars. Three times. I think that’s why they kept me so long this time. Tried to work some sort of assault charge out of it. Finally realized it was self-defense. Man could’ve had AIDS or something, you know?”
At the bank, Lyle saw Clint through the window. “Wait here a minute,” he said, and went inside. I leaned against the truck, watching them. Clint came around the counter. They high-fived and talked. Another teller watched them. Then some fat lady came and stood near Clint’s register. Clint saw her, clapped Lyle on the shoulder, and went back to work.
Outside, Lyle said, “You wanna drive home?”
He had me stop at Casey’s for some smokes. He had one lit before he even left the store. Getting into the truck, he offered me one. I shook my head. Never saw the point of smoking. The last cigarette I’d had left an ashy taste in my mouth for three days. Lyle claimed to like it—said it grew on you after a while, became sort of familiar. I figured he just didn’t taste it anymore.
“They had a clock down there,” Lyle said, “a fancy digital one, so I always knew what time it was, what day it was, all that shit, right down to the second. Digital clock, you know, ’cause some of the people that get locked up are too drunk to read a regular one. What they called?”
“Analog,” I said.
“Right.” He repeated it, getting it wrong. “Anyways, yeah, that was about the nicest part of it. Oh, and the coffee wasn’t too bad. Not gourmet shit, but not as bad as you’d expect.”
He finished his cigarette before we left city limits. Tossed the butt out the window. Then he said, “So, how’s Mom? Mad?”
I affirmed that she was. But she’d been mad at him before, so Lyle shrugged it off. “Well. That money had to calm her somewhat. I paid my own damn bail, didn’t I?”
Our farm had been north of town; that’s where the farmland was. When the place folded, and Dad shot himself, we moved south of town, to a small house nestled in the forest. There were a lot of them out there, more than you’d think, but you had to take winding drives to get to them. A lot of times, strangers showed up out front, having taken what they thought was a road. Lyle liked to wave an empty shotgun at them and scare them off. Said it was like shooing crows.
The two-lane highway heading south of town is hilly, with the forest drawing close on both sides. Lyle stuck his head out the window, letting the hot breeze blow his hair back. “Guess I could use a trim and a shave,” he said, bringing his head back in. Grinning at me, that brown tooth like a wink.
Then he got serious. “You hear from Michelle? Did they get her too?”
I shook my head. No word on her. Most likely, she’d split. She did it the last time Lyle got busted. Just up and went to her parents’ house in Indiana for a month. Didn’t understand that no one was really interested in her.
“Guess I’ll have to hit up one of my other bitches,” Lyle said. He held up his hand. “Little man, you’re big bro’s a playa!”
I turned off the highway onto a smaller road. Lyle began to fidget in his seat. Probably thinking about how angry Mom was. I told him she’d be okay after a few days.
He said, “Yeah, yeah, well, it’s not her, man. I made some people angry, gettin’ caught this time. Nobody big, not like the fucking Mexicans or anybody. But, hey, I don’t like people being angry with me. Makes me nervous.”
After a few minutes, he added, “You remember Jim Small? Big Jim? It was his stuff. He covered my ass, made sure nobody could prove anything, but it was his stuff, and that’s the second time I’ve gotten jacked with his shit. He ain’t gonna like this. Already sent a guy inside to tell me. Guy said, ‘Big Jim’s wonderin’ how far he can trust you, how many times you’re gonna get busted before you decide to start talkin’.’ Like I’m gonna rat anyone out. Your big bro’s not a rat.”
I nodded. The road narrowed. Now, if we met a car coming the opposite way, one of the vehicles would have to get in the grass at the shoulder. Which would be difficult, because the tree branches would scrape the paint away if you went too far off.
“But Big Jim knows me,” Lyle said. “So your bro’s gonna be okay. Big Jim maybe a little irritated, but like Mom, he’ll get over it.”
Something was in the middle of the road up ahead. A small something, hunched over. A few yards out, I pegged it for a raccoon. I slowed, waiting for the animal to move. It didn’t.
“Shit,” Lyle said. “Fucker ain’t scared of anything. Badass.”
The raccoon’s mouth hung open, and every couple of seconds its body shook. Like it had a bad cough.
“Must be sick,” Lyle said. “Rabies, maybe. Or dysentery. Shit. Hope there’s not an outbreak. Someone told me the coyotes are starting to come back.”
He leaned over and honked the horn. Twice. The animal didn’t jerk, didn’t move, just sat there, shaking.
“Run it over,” Lyle said. “Put the bastard out of its misery.”
Instead, I eased the Ford to the side of the road. A branch brushed against the truck, making a muffled shrieking sound. I inched forward. When I was beside the raccoon, I took a moment to stare down at it. Its eyes were closed, and I thought that there was an expression of agony on its face. The thing didn’t even know we were there.
When we were past, I resumed normal speed. Lyle didn’t say anything for a while. He turned on the radio, but the reception was bad, so he turned it off. Eventually, he said, “I would’ve run it over, man. Just squashed the fucker.”
I nodded like I agreed with him. Kept driving. Sweating. I thought about how cool the Sheriff’s Office had been, and thought about asking if the jail had been as cool, but I didn’t. I wondered if maybe the raccoon was just tired of the heat. Or just tired. Even raccoons had to get hot and tired. On a day like that. It was possible.
Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois. He is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com or on Facebook.