small town odds
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sunday

When he was lying still, he could feel every ounce of blood running through his head. Most of it seemed to pound through the swollen bruise above his eye. He thought he could actually hear the blood fall loose from its capillaries and into his skin with every whoosh of his pulse. The bed was as bare bones as they come. Just some cloth, covering a bit of filler, that was never intended to support a man's weight. But it was good enough for County. If you didn't like the accommodations, you were more than welcome to not come back. Eric had been reminded of that on a number of occasions.

He couldn't remember how he'd gotten there, or what he'd been doing just prior that had piqued the interest of the local law enforcement community. But hazy as he was on the details, he was clear about one thing. It was Gina's fault.

A thud echoed down the corridor, followed by the familiar footsteps of Deputy Daniel Moran. Eric stayed still to avoid the pain of lifting his head, but looked at Deputy Moran out of the corner of his eye.

"I'm innocent, Danny," he said.

"No," the deputy answered, "you're not."

"Well, shit," Eric sighed. He looked back at the ceiling and furrowed his brow. "Then what'd I do?"

"I already went through it once, Mercer," he muttered over the clang of the opening cell door. "I'm not reliving it for your benefit."

Eric slowly swung his feet to the ground and hefted his head upright. The pain was offset by a quick flash of light-headedness. "Well if I'm not innocent, why are you opening the cell?"

"Deke posted bail." He hooked his keys back onto his belt and walked into the cell. "I don't know why that half-wit gives two squirts about springin' you all the time, but I'm glad he does. Spares me the trouble of having to clean up after you when the booze or that shiner finally turns your insides out."

He stood, held still for a moment to steady himself against the air, then walked toward the deputy, through the barred door. "I'm not gonna puke," he said.

Deputy Moran smirked. "You always puke."

"We'll see there, Danny," Eric said as he slugged down the hall. "I'm not as predictable as you think."

Eric swung open the door to the lobby and was greeted by a one-man debacle. Deke Williams stood at the front desk, pressing his fingers into an ink blotter, making fingerprints on a scrap piece of paper and a mess of everything else he'd touched.

"Now Deke," Eric sighed, "you know Danny ain't gonna like this."

"What?" Deke said. "I never been fingerprinted before. Just thought I'd try it out. That's what it's here for." He held up the piece of paper, displaying two even rows of five smudged fingerprints along with a batch of other prints around the edges where he'd steadied the paper. "Pretty good, huh?"

The door to the cell block swung open and Deputy Moran looked at Deke and the fingerprinting workshop that used to be his desk.

"Aw dammit, Deke! What in the hell's the matter with you?" he said. He hustled over to his desk, looking for something he could use to clean up Deke's mess. "I swear to Christ, you two are purebred derelicts."

Deke began wiping the ink from his fingers with the paper he'd been using for his prints. "Oh relax, Danny. I was just foolin' around. Besides, Eric didn't have nothin' to do with it. He's no derelict."

"Is that right?" The deputy grinned and shook his head. "Then what the hell was he doing back there in that cell? Again."

Eric pulled his coat on and walked over to the desk. "C'mon Deke, let's get out of here. We'll see you later, huh Dan?"

"I'm sure," he answered as Eric pulled open the door. The bell above the door frame let out a clang as the autumn air blew into the room. Eric reached over with his foot to catch a few leaves that blew in with the wind, then pulled the door closed behind him without looking back.

Deke was over beside his truck, wiping his ink-stained hands on his worn-out jeans. "How's come Danny's so wound up all the time? Ain't like he's saving the goddamn world in there."

"I don't know, Deke. Maybe he's just sick of seeing us every other weekend."

Deke made a face like he'd just smelled a dead animal. "Why would he be sick of us? We're nice guys."

"Yeah, we are. But when your job's the law, we're just work."

Eric climbed into the truck and slammed the door shut. Deke's truck was the kind where you had to slam things to be sure they were closed. The doors, the glove compartment, the tailgate. Deke had once lost a whole case of beer when the passenger door popped open in a tight turn, sending the best part of his paycheck spilling out onto the road.

Eric was sitting in that seat now, looking in the little mirror on the visor, checking out the monstrosity that was once his right eyebrow. Deke was driving along the river on Route 2, a road that had been in need of some new pavement slightly longer than Deke's truck had been in need of a new suspension. So the constant jostling around didn't give Eric much of a chance to get a good look at his wound. He finally stopped trying and flipped the visor up with the back of his hand.

"Who the hell punches someone in the forehead?" he asked.

Deke just glanced over at him, then back at the road, trying to concentrate on his driving. These roads could get curvy before you knew it, and his truck didn't handle like it used to. When he glanced back over and realized Eric was still looking at him, he shrugged his shoulders.

"Well hell, I don't know," he finally answered. "I reckon he was probably aiming for your eye."

Eric flipped the mirror back down to take another look. "Well, he sure as shit missed, didn't he."

Deke glanced over again. "Pretty close though. I mean, an eye ain't very big. If that's what he was aiming for, he damn near got it."

In the mirror Eric could see the spot above his eyebrow was pretty red, almost brown in the middle, and half-swollen. He imagined it was going to be a long time going away. He'd never been punched in the forehead before. Plenty of other places, but never the forehead. Once he'd gotten kicked in the shin with full force. It swelled up and turned about every color imaginable before it finally settled on black and started creeping into his foot. Since a forehead and a shin felt about the same, Eric imagined he might just get a black eye out of this yet.

For a twenty-four-year-old man, Eric felt awfully worn down. Especially when it came time to get help with his memory. On the larger scale of things, he didn't know why he got into fights and thrown into jail. The best he could do was find out why he'd gotten thrown into jail on any one particular occasion. In this case, Deke knew. But he wouldn't bring it up until Eric did. He'd just drive the truck, look out at the river, and think about fishing. It was a simple bliss Eric had been studying in Deke since they were kids.

"So what happened, Deke?" he finally asked.

"What, you mean last night?" said Deke, still looking at the road.

Eric stared at him for a second. "Yeah," he answered with a shake of his head.

"Well, you know this time wasn't so bad. I mean, this guy was definitely lookin' for trouble."

"Who?"

"Just some hoopie from out Stern Grove. You was playin' pool there and he come up and said somethin' bout how he heard you like to fight."

Eric moaned.

"Yeah, but here's the thing. You didn't even do nothin'. You just told him that wasn't you and kept on shootin'."

Eric could hardly believe the story as it was being told. "Doesn't sound like me."

"Yeah, he didn't think so either. So he just kept at you, saying how you didn't look like much of a fighter at all and how he'd come all this way just to find out what you was made of. But you just kept on like he wasn't even there. Then finally I guess he'd worn his welcome, because he was just standin' there, runnin' his big ol' hoopie mouth like he had been for the past five minutes, when you took the cue ball up in your hand and punched him square in the face."

Eric flexed his fingers into a fist and released them. There was a cut on one of his knuckles and a tenderness in the bones.

"Well that musta fuckin' hurt," he said as he rubbed his fingers with his other hand.

Deke chuckled. "It musta, cause he went down like a turd in a toilet. That's when his buddies came in, swingin' their paws around like they was defending the hoopie universe. After that, it was just your standard Saturday night clusterfuck."

Eric let out a deep breath and allowed the disappointment in himself take hold. "So if there was this big pack of trouble, why was I the only one in jail?"

"Cause you were the only one who didn't run away," said Deke. "So that made you the only one staggering around with your tackle out, pissin' upside the building, telling Deputy Danny what a fuckin' pussy he is."

Eric put his hands to his face and rubbed his eyes with his palms. His hands smelled like stale beer, and nausea crept up on him slow. He wanted to lean on Deke's door in the hopes that it might pop open and spill him out over the ridge, down to the railroad tracks below. His muffled voice crept out from behind his hands.

"Fuckin' Gina."

Deke looked over at him, confused. "Naw, she wasn't there."

Eric sighed, "But I was."

Deke tried to keep his eye on Eric, looking for a clue, but he had to keep turning back to the road to be sure they didn't veer into the hillside.

"What do I owe you for bail then?"

"Aw, I don't know," shrugged Deke. "I still owed you some for helping me roof ol' Taggert's a while back. Buy me breakfast and we'll call it even."

Eric nodded his head and thought it over for a minute. The sun was reflecting off the river with an eagerness reserved for morning-time. The light flooded into his eyes and filled his swollen head, which made his stomach turn on itself.

"Can we do that tomorrow?" he asked Deke. "If Abby puts some of that mess in front of me right now, I could upchuck. And she'd probably take a thing like that personal."

"Yeah, tomorrow's good," he answered. As they came over the crest of the little hill that brought them into their town, they could see green and white flags hanging from all the telephone poles that ran along the highway. Homecoming was Friday, and the whole town was crazy with the idea that they might just beat Cedarsville this year. The Pinely Wildcats had a lot of potential, people would say. That 2-4 record didn't really reflect the quality of the team, they'd argue with whoever would listen. The team's coming together just in time for Cedarsville, they'd declare among their friends and neighbors. It was an annual state of collective delusion that had been validated just once in the past twenty years. Which would be enough to keep it going for at least twenty more.

"You want me to just take you home then?" asked Deke as they got about a mile into town.

"No," sighed Eric as he leaned his head against the back window of the truck. "I need to go by my folks'."

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Copyright © 2004 by Jason Headley