“The naked man’s running again. Copy,” the sheriff said to the radio.
Clara had been rounded up into the back of Sheriff Johnny’s police sedan, cuffed and everything. The sheriff had been Dan’s year in school, and he had come over the house several times in high school after a practice.
“Johnny, can’t you see that this is just a misunderstanding? You know I ain’t a burglar,” Clara said.
“Enough of this, Mrs. Clara,” the sheriff said.
“And she had drugs!” Clara said.
“What kind of drugs, exactly?” the sheriff asked.
“Well, she had pipes!” Clara said.
“My grandfather has pipes,” Johnny said. “I have pipes.”
“Not that kind of pipe!” Clara tried again. “And she had pills. Like six of them. Just rolling around in a box. Not in a prescription bottle or anything.”
“Mrs. Clara Mae,” Johnny looked sternly at her through the rearview mirror. “Those were probably aspirin and Benadryl. I need you to hush up now. I’m taking you in and there’s nothing you can do about it. You might as well just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
The CB was sending Johnny out in the middle of rush hour. Clara could hear that runner was out at Miss Gilda’s again; evidently his nude route overlapped her trip to get the morning paper. Or else she was waiting for him. Clara pictured the horny old woman in her quilted housecoat peeking through the blinds and hoping—
The thought made Clara chuckle.
Catching the streaker meant driving out to Leatherwood Road. Leatherwood at 8:45am was about as bumper-to-bumper as traffic gets in Alabama, with everyone on the road to the plant. The police car slowed to a crawl, and Clara saw the car in front of them inching along.
He must be going 15!
The car was an older model spray painted matte black, its bumper adorned with a half dozen stickers with the American flag and advocating the support of Veterans. Maybe that was why the sheriff waited and waited, almost polite, before he finally flashed his lights to get the guy moving. Nothing… Clara could see Johnny eyeing the clock. He didn’t want to pull the car over. What he really wanted was to catch that freak nudist, if just to shut Miss Gilda up so he didn’t have to drive all the way to Bynum every morning. So Johnny put his lights on longer, but the guy still didn’t get a move on; instead, Clara could see the driver lifting his coffee cup and waving back to the Sheriff. The car was all over the lines, and other cars were honking like crazy.
They tailed the guy almost all the way to the plant before he finally realized he needed to pull over. Johnny had already run the guy’s plates during the slow-speed chase—Lord knows he had the time—and Clara had overhead the name. Not that she was eavesdropping. Mr. Bick. Mr. Richard Bick.
A name like Dick Bick’s enough to make anyone want to drink to start their day off.
When the call back that Dick Bick already had a warrant, Clara Mae started to wonder just exactly where Sheriff Johnny planned to put Mr. Bick exactly.
This seat is occupied.
The other car turned down a side street by the plant and pulled off on the shoulder. Johnny parked the patrol car behind him and walked up to the driver’s side. But before he could get to the door, the other car jumped forward several feet.
“What the hell, man?” Sheriff Johnny said, getting back in the patrol car.
They pulled up behind the other car again; Mr. Bick hadn’t gone far—maybe a hundred feet. Sheriff Johnny got out of the police sedan and started to the driver’s side, but the other car leapt forward again.
Clara watched as ol’ Dick Bick went again a few feet, and then—in what seemed like painful slow motion—did a 12 point U-turn in the loose gravel. Dick landed on the other side of the road, just parallel to the Sheriff, who was equal parts confused and royally pissed.
Then the car jerked forward again. Inside the car the man was pointing frantically, and while Sheriff Johnny didn’t see it, suddenly Clara understood: there were “No Parking” signs lining both sides of the road.
This fool’s afraid of a parking ticket!
Johnny, now irritated, slid a handcuffed Mr. Bick into the backseat next to Clara and again embarked on the pursuit of the streaker.
The two chatted for a minute before the sheriff hushed them. Come to find out, Mr. Bick had been kicked out of his house, so Mr. Bick was living in his car. An old Igloo cooler sat in the back floorboard, lid askew, naked hotdogs bobbing in icy water. Mr. Bick was just heading to work at the plant, probably still a little drunk from the night before. Clara thought Johnny probably would have let him go if it weren’t for the bench warrant. She felt a little bad for the guy. Dick Bick.
Johnny’s CB crackled to life. “Ten-eighty four, Johnny, What’s your ETA? Streaker spotted again.”
“Copy that, Mike. On the way. I’m headed up Leatherwood right at the plant.”
“He’s probably run right through the parking lot into that subdivision back there, what is it?”
“Little Brook? So what if I turn down Haunted Ave, and try to catch him in the cove?”
A voice piped up from the back, “Why don’t we try to cut him off at Southland? He’d never make it up that hill before we caught him!”
“We? There ain’t no we buddy,” Johnny said to Mr. Bick, then back to the radio: “Sorry, Mike, that’s just my bench warrant.”
“He does have a point, though, Johnny—”
Mr. Bick looked smug as he settled back against the seat. “Fine,” Johnny said. “I’ll try Southland.”
Johnny had seen his fair share of streakers, but this one made him feel uneasy. They’re usually either young guys—partying, hopped-up on drugs, in a full sprint—or they’re old guys. The old guys don’t really “streak” usually, they just saunter… mosey. Take a freeing stroll at dusk to get the paper. Wave at crabby old Mrs. Hannigan. Their own quiet little fuck you to their life, their neighborhood, this town. Honestly, Johnny looked forward to being an old fart: spewing cuss words from his stoop, hassling the bastards in the homeowners association, sitting in a dollar-store lounge chair in his back yard, bare-ass naked and scratching his balls.
Johnny thought this streaker must be a young guy. He’d covered a lot of ground already. Plus, the frat boys had a big bash last night at the “White House”—a mansion turned flop house, currently missing the 80% of the living room floor. You could see straight down to the basement, which had become a convenient trash receptacle, filled with old beer cans and the odd passed-out drunk guy. The “White House” was a couple of blocks from Miss Gilda.
“He’s over there in the bushes!” Clara Mae exclaimed.
“What is he, pissing?” Dick Bick craned his neck to see.
It was clearly not a young guy, Johnny thought as he got out of the car and neared the man, noting the wrinkly, bald back-of-head bobbing in the distance.
The man was facing away from the road off of the shoulder at the foot of the hill. He was a ways back from the road at the edge of the woods, a few feet away from the razor wire fence. He was doubled over, gut sagging heavily from his frame. As Johnny got closer he had two thoughts: the first: this man was violently ill. A blackness was spilling from him, and that was not figurative; wet black pellets shining in bile poured from his mouth. The tunnel of vomit reminded Johnny of spraying ceiling texture the way it covered the dead leaves on the ground. The shiny black and flecks of yellow sprayed a several feet radius in a multitude of little piles.
The second was that he hoped Clara could not see that it was Gerald.
By the time Johnny reached Gerald, he—stomach empty—was on his knees. He began twitching, rocking side to side as if in a spiritual trance, eyes rolling back into his head. His body went completely limp and melted to the ground, limbs quaking. Johnny grabbed Gerald to his bosom and pressed two fingers into his mouth, clearing it of the vomit—strange, slick black/yellow pellets—and tried to hold his tongue from slipping back into his throat. The sheriff held him, feeling his body clenching, then his breathing choke and fade. His body went still. Johnny frantically tried to remember CPR—was that where you push?—and finally radioed for help.
The sheriff had hoped that Clara couldn’t see, but she had seen, had seen the dead weight of her husband’s flesh piled onto the emergency gurney, had seen his skin white as the sheet they had lain over him, had seen the concern in the faces of the emergency workers, had seen the shakes of the head they shared among themselves, no, not gonna make it. Not this one.
She could hear the mumble of voices through the glass, and though there was distance between them she could hear the word
scattering through the crowd of emergency workers, the word echoed with surprise, incredulity, horror. Suddenly, Clara Mae realized that all of this was her fault.
When the sheriff got back in the front of the vehicle, he looked at her and knew she knew. His lips in the rearview mirror mouthed the words I’m sorry, but he didn’t voice them.
The sheriff started back up the patrol car. The ride was silent this time aside from something—a battery, a pen—rolling back and forth in the side pocket of the door whenever they came to a stop. Roll-l-l-l-THWACK. Roll-l-l-l-THWACK. Even Dick Bick knew to shut up, and Clara Mae thought to herself that Dick Bick probably never knew when to shut up.
She knew that Johnny still had to take her in, but it wasn’t until the station came into focus the reality of it set in: the smooth concrete monolith, stark walls punctuated by bricked up windows. Inside they took her things and put them in a box, and Clara thought the process reminded her of the “before” part of a colonoscopy. Bagged, tagged, and ready to be jabbed, a hospital technician had said when he thought Clara was out of earshot.
Vulnerable, she had felt then. And vulnerable was certainly the word now, as the sheriff opened the industrial door of the drunk tank. Inside was minimalist and smelly, with a scent that was not the honest newness of perspiration, but instead the smell of bodily function that had come and gone and dried and ripened, a collective bouquet of booze and piss and trash. It was the size of a coat closet, with one bench built into the wall like a shelf. The shelf-bench was not big enough to accommodate any position of recline other than sitting upright—or perhaps (in desperation) a very awkward fetal position. Clara hesitated, and the sheriff gave her a little shove inside.
“I will let you know as soon as I hear,” Sheriff Johnny said, locking her inside.
As the door closed, Clara tried not to wonder if Gerald was being sealed up as well, in body bag or body freezer.
Bag, tagged, and ready to be jabbed, Clara couldn’t stop her head from saying. She couldn’t stop the thoughts of scalpels and maggots, of viewing makeup and identifying the body. Inside her cell a big, fat fly buzzed loudly, and its song echoed in her head like he had landed in there.
There was only one window in the tank: a foot square, reinforced foggy glass that made the view of the outside cataract-blurry. But Clara pinned herself to door and hungrily watched the hallway—not because the view was of interest, but to remind her head that there was an outside. She watched the blobs pass back and forth—getting excited and nervous when one would pause in front of her cell, hearing in her head how they would break the news to her, feeling catharsis when the blob moved on. Clara watched and watched the blobs late into the night, until in her exhaustion she found what comfort was to be had from the cell’s bench.