When you were that young and horny at the same time, and the only thing that stood between you and the deliciously compliant object of your affections was 300 miles of state highways through darkest Georgia, you tended to put the hammer down every single weekend. You’d be laying rubber down U.S. 1 at thirty seconds past the midnight end of your Friday newspaper shift; maybe a little sooner if no one on the city desk was keeping track.
At least that’s how Buck did it. His best time going south in the wee hours of Saturday morning so far was four hours flat, door to door, an average of 75 miles an hour. This was an impressive average when it included having to poke through no fewer than seven small towns notorious as speed traps to tourists from Miami to New York City. Which meant he really aired out that old Dodge 440 Hemi on the dark empty roads between towns, while graveyard-shift state troopers either cribbed a few hours sleep or drank coffee at isolated all-night diners.
Clarisse would open the door for him at her North Florida beach apartment, all little-girl sleepy in a modest floor-length gown against the onshore cooling of the predawn ocean wind. There was nothing beneath the fabric but the thrilling geometry of her compact curvy body, which he craved with an intensity that never seemed to flag. Shampoo and scented soap smells would rush out to mingle with the salt air. Then she would be up in his arms, kissing him deep, her nipples tenting the cloth of the gown and burning into him; any resemblance to little-girlhood burned away in a heartbeat.
Sometimes she would ruck her gown up around her hips and climb him right there, leaning against the closed door. She was light enough and he was big enough for that to work just fine. She would search for him one-handed behind his zipper and, finding, unfurl and tug him into position. When she fitted him where he belonged, she would make a low sobbing moan of pure hunger deep in her throat, and he would almost lose it right there…
Buck blinked and wiped away the sudden sweat that popped up on his forehead when that image brought the heat rising through him just as if it wasn’t Monday afternoon back at work; or as if he hadn’t gone through nearly a dozen condoms over the weekend. Not counting unsheathed fellatios and other variations. He remembered to push the elevator button for the third-floor newsroom.
“Hey Buck, you okay?” That was Brush, the nightside slot man, already in his shirt-sleeves, coming down the corridor from Snappy’s with several coffees in one of those cardboard drinks trays. “You just getting to work?”
“I was in Florida,” Buck said.
“Oh hell, you don’t have no fever then. You’re just fucked out is all. Don’t you ever slow down?” Brush leered and waggled his theatrical eyebrows.
Buck smiled faintly. He could slow down when he was dead. Or very old, though he didn’t think he’d ever be very old. Right now his life was perfectly balanced between all the weekend sex he could get with one of the most alluring women in the world and the week’s deadline excitement of daily newspapering. He lived day to day, deadline to weekend witching hour, and couldn’t imagine any other existence.
“Cat got your tongue?” said Brush as they went up in the slow elevator. “Or should I say pussy?”
Buck was trying to remember Brush’s given name. John, he thought. The newsroom legend was that Brush had been Brush ever since the Southern newsmen got their first look at his Viva Zapata mustache when he came down here to work from New Jersey. Everybody in the newsroom had to have some kind of handle, so as first man in the newsroom with lip hair, Brush was Brush. Buck was the second one with a mustache but it wasn’t nearly as luxuriant as Brush’s and nobody thought about giving Buck any kind of nickname. Buck was in a different category.
The elevator door rolled back on the noise of the newsroom: phones, typewriters, the chug of the newswires. “Hey, Buck?” Brush said, pausing.
“Calhoun-man’s on a tear already, okay? In one of his moods. He may jump you about coming in late.”
“What’s he upset about this time?” Buck said.
“His Excellency staged another purge. When we got in, the notice was on the board. He fired Secrist and Griffen and Hunter over the weekend. He made Calhoun-man the temporary acting interim managing editor. Again. You know how Calhoun-man hates the responsibility.”
Buck just shook his head and stopped at the water cooler to read the notice. The managing editor, Sunday features editor and the city editor, all in one swoop. His Excellency was the behind-the-back appellation the newsmen gave their asshole executive editor who had spent his whole career, thirty straight years, in this jerkwater town.
Though His Excellency had made it to the executive fourth floor at last, he had refused to permit the new managing editor to sign new press cards for the reporters. He said that he’d been signing them for twenty years and no cop or fireman or politician would recognize any signature but his. Secrist, the new managing editor, politely suggested that they reprint the cards with a signature block for the executive editor instead.
From that moment, Secrist’s fate was sealed. His Excellency had been sure the new guy was making fun of him in some obscure fashion; His Excellency made Captain Queeg look like a model of sanity.
Well, thought Buck with resignation, it is Monday for sure now. The work week starting with stupid newsroom politics in full sway, everybody hoping good old non-threatening Calhoun could protect them from more upstairs insanity when they should be getting on with the first edition of the week.
It was all so infantile. Buck didn’t understand any of it. He thought being a newspaperman was about the finest thing you could be in the world, but this newspaper clearly wasn’t the best place to be one. He didn’t like to think about that, because it threatened the perfect balance he had established in his life.
Buck saw Calhoun squatting like an overweight toad in the glass corner office, where Secrist had been Friday night. Calhoun’s blood pressure was never the best but today his color was high and mottled and it looked like he might stroke out right there. The armpits of his short-sleeved white shirt were already stained gray with sweat. Poor Calhoun; he was a fine news editor, quick at page layout, crisp at editing and with a deft touch for headlines. He’d worked here half as long as His Excellency had, and if he could weather these stressful tirades from upstairs he would probably be here for his whole career, but he never felt secure. He had no upward ambition toward Atlanta or Memphis or New York City like the younger guys, so he felt trapped. And he hated being the managing editor, interim or other, because it raised his profile upstairs.
Buck saw that Calhoun had his beady gaze fixed on him. When Calhoun saw that he had noticed, he raised a thick hairy arm and motioned Buck over. Buck felt the Monday tension knot in his stomach, driving out the last good weekend feelings. He wasn’t ready for this. Mondays were for coasting into the week, settling back into harness, sneaking out a couple times a night for a snort at the Magnolia Club to smooth the transition.
“Glad you could join us,” Calhoun sneered when he came up. “We can certainly use your brilliant reportorial skills in producing this evening’s edition. If you would be so kind.”
Screw this, Buck thought, getting mad. ‘Happy to help,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll get her on the streets, even with you stuck over here in the corner office.”
It looked like Calhoun started to puff up. But he paused and cocked his head. “Tricky, tricky, Buckster. Your words could be taken to mean that the edition will suffer from lack of my splendid layout and headline skills since I won’t be sitting on the rim to control Brush’s Yankee excesses, but stuck over here pretending to be a stuffed shirt. I could take it as a compliment.”
Buck had forgotten for a moment how clever Calhoun was — and how essentially decent. His sarcasm was misdirected at poor Calhoun. “That’s exactly what I mean, of course,” he said. “Whatever else could I have meant?”
Calhoun blew out a gusty breath. “I hate this shit. I do. But it’s no time to rock the boat, Buck. Even with your uncle drawing all the water he does in Atlanta, you might not be safe. It would be logical for this newspaper not to piss off your powerful Cracker clan — but sometimes His Nibs ain’t logical.”
There it was again about Buck’s special status. “Point taken,” Buck said in a chastened voice. “Sorry I was late.”
“Oh, that!” Calhoun waved it away as not worthy of notice. “The way you burn up our country roads, you had to expect to stop and chat with the state boys once in a while. If nothing else, to find out what kind of bootlegger mill you got under the hood of that old Dodge.”
“I got it from the state surplus auction in South Carolina,” Buck said defensively. “It was a state game warden’s rig. A cop car, not a bootlegger car.”
Calhoun’s color was better all of a sudden and he was almost smiling, in his element. “Sorry, Buck. I was remembering the old days when your grandpappy and his buddies burned up the Woodpecker Trail running hootch up from the Florida beaches.”
“My grandfather was a city fireman,” Buck said. “My grandmother’s brother was head of the vice squad, chasing bootleggers.”
“Sure, sure,” Calhoun said, relaxed now that he could trot out his detailed knowledge of the town’s complicated Southern relationships, as tangled up as any Faulkner novel. “This new sheriff now, that your uncle just got elected, was only a rookie patrolman on the city then, who let you play with his loaded .38 at the Fireman’s Ball. And Eliot Adlard was just an undertaker, not your grandmothers’ old boyfriend, and certainly not the local head of the Dixie Mafia.” Calhoun smiled reminiscently. “Those hearses moved a lot of spirits up the Woodpecker Trail that never wound up buried in any local graveyard.”
Buck didn’t really like this kind of talk. It reminded him of all the claustrophobic family ties and obligations and expectations that threatened the new symmetry of the life he’d made.
“Why do you bring up Eliot Adlard?” he asked with an edge in his voice.
“Take it easy, Buckster.” Calhoun held up a placating hand. “I was just talking to him a little while ago about a story. That’s all that made me think of him now. Say, I hear that Dodge of yours had the frame all stiffened up to tow those airboats the fish cops use over there on the coastal rivers. Damn bus corners like a Porsche, from what the trooper who stopped you today told me.”
Buck just looked at him. “You talked to the trooper?”
“Yeah, yeah. After that JP down in Reidsville cut you loose so you could get to work. The trooper is a cousin-in-law of mine, and he wanted to be sure you hadn’t run a bluff on them about the DeLong connection. Since you run a Florida plate on that thing, they thought they had a fat Florida tourist to pluck. Then you pulled your uncle’s name out of the hat.”
“I wrote that JP a check,” Buck said flatly. “I didn’t try to hide behind the newspaper’s name.”
“Why would you, when you got something better in your family ties? Relax, man. It’s just they were gonna toss you in the slammer down there and make you wire for cash money. Those speed traps don’t accept checks.”
“They accepted mine.”
“Of course they did. They were pretty sure you were who you said you were. The other reason my cousin called was to apologize for making a DeLong late to work. He said they all forgot your granddaddy had one daughter who had a couple of boys, and his captain hopes your uncle won’t hold it against the Patrol at budget time in Atlanta. He swore you were doing 120 or better past the state prison. He couldn’t catch you in his Ford Interceptor.”
“Well, a Ford,” Buck said. “What did he expect? But I stopped and waited for him at the Reidsville city limits when I finally noticed his lights way back there. I didn’t realize his radio signal was skipping or I might not have.”
“He told you that did he? He said he addressed you as ‘captain’ even before he knew who your family was. Because you had the courtesy to stop and wait for him, and you had good manners when he got there. He knew then you weren’t a damn Florida asshole.” Calhoun was having fun now. Telling a yarn was his favorite pastime. By the time the news crew assembled at the Magnolia Club for their post-deadline drink, he would have this one embellished with plenty of color. His own color was remarkably better and he sounded more like himself.
Buck shrugged. “He was being sarcastic of course.”
“Say it’s not so!” Calhoun crowed. “A sarcastic copper? Not an in-law of mine, Captain Buck. I think we got a name for you now, son.” He sobered. “Thanks, kiddo. Your shenanigans were just what I needed this rotten Monday afternoon.” He held up a half-sheet of copy paper. “Now go give Eliot Adlard a call. It’s about that bum that got run over out on U.S. 1. They buried him this morning. Go see the man at the West View Cemetery and view the grave. I want a front-page feature.”
Buck took the copy paper. “Who was he?”
“Nobody. That’s the whole angle. Do it up brown, Captain Buck. I want a tearjerker. His Nibs loves tearjerkers. Make the bar girls cry in their morning grits at the Huddle House and I’ll be your friend for life.”
Buck sat at his desk and called Adlard Brothers Funeral Home. The first dead person he had ever seen was at an Adlard Brothers funeral when he was six. The waxen stillness of the man’s face and folded hands had made a vivid and lasting impression. Funeral viewings were an important childhood ritual in his family. In recent years he had been back to Adlard Brothers more than once as time took its toll of older family members and his presence was required to represent his grandparents, who lived in Florida now.
They put him straight through to Eliot Adlard. “How is your grandmother these days?” was the first thing Adlard said. It was always the first thing the old hood wanted to know. They spent a few minutes with the required courtesies before Buck got down to business. He hadn’t known Adlard did pauper’s funerals.
“I view it as a service,” Adlard said dismissively. “The county pays us seventy-five dollars for an unclaimed. I kept him here long enough to make sure any next-of-kin would hear of the accident, but no one turned up.”
“There was a service?” Buck asked. Seventy-five dollars wouldn’t buy much, he figured.
“Actually there were three ministers at graveside,” Eliot Adlard said. “The pastor of Lakeside Baptist Church presided at the short service. The pastors of the Second Baptist Church and the First United Pentecostal attended.” He spelled out all the names. Adlard had a matter-of-fact delivery that Buck admired.
“The TV station sent over a crew. There were also several other persons who came just because they read about the funeral in the paper. They said it didn’t seem right for somebody not to be there, especially because of the way he died.”
On the way to the cemetery, Buck decided all over again that being a newspaperman was a fine thing to be, and Calhoun was a good guy. He was getting interested in this story now.
The guy at the gate house of the cemetery was expecting him.
“Ah yes, he had a nice funeral,” he said unctuously. “The county does try to do right by its unclaimeds, though all they can spend is seventy-five dollars for a burial. He was put to rest very comfortably I would say.”
Comfortably. Buck was scribbling in his pad. Calhoun wouldn’t let him get away with unctuous, but he wrote the word down anyway. He verified Adlard’s statement about TV cameras and attendance.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Oh, yes. A local florist donated some really lovely flowers, too.”
Buck wrote the florist’s name down but didn’t plan to give them the free publicity they probably expected. The cemetery man led Buck down across terraced steps among elaborate tombstones and well-tended family plots. He pointed to a faded gray awning against the far fence. “You can drive around to the pauper’s row,” he said.
Buck drove the big Dodge down and around and parked and walked over to the awning. The loudest sound in the stillness was the ticking of the still-hot Hemi.
The flowers weren’t anything special, but they were there and plentiful, enough to completely cover the raw red clay mounded beneath the awning. Some fresh white carnations tied with a clean lavender bow, some red and pink flowers Buck didn’t recognize, and a lot of ferns and greenery. Maybe he should rethink slipping the florist a plug; it was actually a pretty decent job.
A single yellow rose lay crushed into a boot-print in the loose clay beside the grave. Buck felt a sudden and surprising tightness in his throat and was glad the cemetery man had let him come down here alone. There was no marker.
He had the name on the piece of copy paper Calhoun had handed him, and information from the police report: William Simpson, no middle initial, no next-of-kin, no money and no past; medium height, medium build, brown and brown, age indeterminate and life history unknown. A small “WS” tattooed on the right wrist.
Out beyond the fence, somebody was burning leaves, a happy childhood smell. Somebody else was hammering ten-penny nails with sure, firm strokes, getting the job done. It was the kind of overcast Georgia day that couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether to turn cool or hot, clear off or rain. Buck stood there for he didn’t know how long, thinking of absolutely nothing. Birds called and twittered in the trees. A flock of pigeons settled into the cemetery in a swirling spiral of wings. Two peeled off the flock and flew back toward downtown, low over the faded awning.
Finally Buck snapped out of it and left. A few drops of rain spotted his windshield as he drove out of the cemetery and it was coming down steadily when he got back to the newsroom. He went straight to his desk without looking to right or left and got on the phone.
A.L Herbert, Calhoun’s piece of paper said. The desk sergeant told Buck that Herbert was a downtown beat cop on the night shift. Herbert called back from his home phone while Buck was making other calls, and he stopped to take it.
“I was walking down Broad Street in front of the Modjeska Theater,” Herbert said. “Simpson came up to me out of the dark and said he was sick. He was drunk, too. Holding onto me and trying to hold himself up. Not a big guy, maybe five feet eight, one-fifty. Had all his hair, sandy colored. Kind of a crew cut.”
“Color of eyes?”
The cop snorted. “Bloodshot.”
“Drunk, huh? The information I had said brown and brown.”
“Close enough,” the cop said. “He was soused all right. He said he was hitchhiking through town and that he had a heart condition, so I called the wagon. He didn’t seem like a bad sort. Just down and out.”
Buck wrote down the time of the contact: 2:23 a.m.
“Anything else you remember about him?”
“I asked him where he lived while we waited for the wagon. He said in Augusta, that he’d been working at a filling station over on Reynolds.”
“Mention which station?”
“Nope. I checked it out, too. None of those stations remember him. Probably just used a restroom over there and thought of it when I asked him, worried about a vag beef. Not that we bother about that anymore, if they’re just drifting through. Then just before I put him in the wagon, he said he’d been living here for 22 years.”
“But nobody called the funeral home,” Buck said.
“I guess not. Maybe he was so drunk he got confused.”
“How was he dressed?”
“He was wearing a pair of torn brown pants and a ripped jacket. His shirt was white, not too dirty. He had no hat and he was unshaven. That’s about it.”
The city court clerk told Buck that Simpson had suffered some kind of seizure in the anteroom of the court waiting to appear on public drunkenness. They called an ambulance and sent him to University Hospital, and the judge dismissed the charges. The emergency room nurse told Buck that Simpson was treated and released within the hour.
“Just DTs,” she said with a kind of sneer.
Next up was the county dispatcher. “He was apparently hitchhiking out of town that evening,” the woman said, reading from the log. “He was a hit-and-run victim on Highway 1. Apparently four or five cars hit him before anyone stopped…”
“Wait,” said Buck. “Four or five?”
“About that, yeah. The guy who called it in saw something getting hit and bouncing up, hit and bouncing up. He didn’t know it was a body till he stopped and looked. He said it made him sick. Roadkill, you know.”
“Dead at the scene?”
“DOA at the University Emergency Room, yeah. He had a city ticket for drunkenness in his pocket. They had to call that cop in who had arrested him to make the I.D.”
Hell, Herbert hadn’t mentioned that. Buck put in another call to the police station and kept sorting through the threads of the story. Somebody had done an inventory of the victim’s effects at the scene; the dispatcher listed them off for him: comb, empty wallet, tongue compressor wrapped in gauze, two prescription pill bottles and several scraps of paper with writing on them. One of the pill bottles bore the name of a pharmacy in Petersburg, Va., and the last name of the prescribing physician. The prescription had been filled a month ago.
“No,” the Virginia pharmacist told Buck on the phone now, “I don’t remember the man.” But she did know the doctor, and gave Buck his phone number. He turned out to be Petersburg jail physician.
“I treated this man after local police picked him up on the second floor of a residence,” the doctor said. “Four days before I saw him,” he added.
“Yes, he had broken in. The police figured he was going to steal something but just hadn’t got around to it yet.”
“How did you come into the case?”
“He was just before appearing in court on the breaking-and-entering when he had an epileptic seizure.”
“He had a note in his pocket from a doctor in Roanoke that he showed me. It said that he didn’t have long to live because of his condition. I examined him and confirmed the diagnosis. He was a very sick man. He didn’t say much to me, he didn’t even look at me. He just kept staring at the floor.”
“Very sick, you say.”
“He was not a young man. I told him his chances of longevity were very slim, wrote that prescription for him to help his seizures, and that was the last I saw of him.”
“Did he go to jail?”
“No. The police asked him where home was and he said Radford, Virginia. They released him from custody and gave him enough money for a bus ticket to where he said he was going. That’s the usual procedure in these cases.”
Two scraps of paper in Simpson’s pocket had Roanoke Rapids, N.C. and Roanoke, Va., spelled out, but no reason why. Nobody had thought to ask the man. Maybe he had memory difficulties, the Petersburg doctor suggested.
The cop, Herbert called again. “Yep, next thing I knew about him after I put him in the wagon, I was being called down to the emergency room to identify the body.”
Buck wanted to ask why he hadn’t mentioned this the first time, but refrained. At least he’d called back.
“Hell of a thing,” the cop said, “the way nobody even stopped. Just something in the road. But there was enough left to tell it was him.”
The clock was pushing around toward deadline. Buck kept paging back and forth through his notes, trying to find something he had missed.
The police in Roanoke Rapids had only one record of anybody by that name who fitted the victim’s general description, minus the tattoo. His last arrest had been in 1952 for two counts of illegal assault on a female. No disposition noted. Roanoke had one William Simpson, no charges specified in the records. This one had a middle initial, “D,” and had listed two brothers in Virginia as next-of-kin, but no cities or phone numbers for the siblings. Buck was running out of threads.
The City Rescue Mission in Roanoke had no record of him at all, despite the scrap of paper with the agency name and phone number in his pocket.
One last shot — a chipper sounding young Salvation Army girl in Columbus, Ga., promised to check her files when Buck told her about his last scrap of paper. She was back on the phone in half an hour.
“Mr. Simpson ate a meal here with us several days ago,” she said brightly. “But he didn’t pass the evening with us. We only prepare file cards on the ones who stay the night.”
“He had your number in his pocket.”
“All the information on him we had would be on that slip of paper he was carrying.”
Buck leaned back and cracked his neck, flexing his fingers. A lot of unanswered questions that were never likely to be answered. Little questions, like why a comb with the crewcut. Larger questions like the torn clothing and the empty wallet; had Simpson been rolled?
Largest question of all, what kind of life accounted for so little in its sum: roadkill not worth stopping to drag to the shoulder?
He looked back over his notes. He was beginning to feel Calhoun hovering, even if the man had never left his corner-office perch. Buck wondered if any of the drivers who had turned Simpson into roadkill had attended the funeral. There was nobody to ask that question. It was time to start writing.
He rolled paper into the typewriter, slugged it “simpson” in the upper left corner, and shuffled his notebook pages. He saw where he’d scribbled down “I told him go home/he said fla.” It was notes from the Petersburg jail doctor. Buck reconstituted the full quote in his mind. He had to get that up high in the story. He began to type.
“They buried William Simpson Monday morning. No middle initial, no next-of-kin, no money and no past. A small ‘WS’ tattooed on his right wrist, an empty wallet and a few scraps of paper in his pockets were all he brought with him into this county. He took less with him into a pauper’s grave in West View Cemetery. But he had three local pastors to say words over him and a handful of mourners who only knew about him through the newspaper, but thought someone should be there.
“’He was a very sick man,’ a prison doctor in Petersburg, Va., said of Simpson. ‘He said he might head to Florida. I advised him to go home…’”
Where, Buck wondered, was home? Nobody had used the phrase, but Simpson probably had been a snowbird, drifting south ahead of winter, drifting north again in spring, living off the fat of a land that was lean as far as drifters were concerned.
A life pared down to the bone; no complicated family ties, no occupation, no lusted-after woman. He was dying and he must have known it. Enough people had told him so. But he picked his spot to die, out on Highway 1, thumbing toward Florida one last time.
Buck was unaware of noise in the newsroom, of people moving around talking, of the rain slanting through the failing light outside. But in his peripheral vision he saw Calhoun raise his head from between his hands where he’d been moping on his desk in the glass cage. Funny how he was aware of Calhoun’s deadline worry and nothing else in the room, or the world. Clarisse hadn’t crossed his mind since he drove down to that faded awning, and she only crossed it now as a passing thought.
He typed a few more words, trying to feel if this was going the way it should. He saw Calhoun rise and start across the newsroom with an almost comically hopeful expression on his face. Calhoun was over his shoulder now, reading. “Petersburg? You got hold of this Petersburg doctor just this afternoon?”
“And others, in other towns,” Buck said. “I traced his last days as far back as I could. But I hit a brick wall. He came out of nowhere.”
“And to nowhere returned, out on Highway One,” Calhoun said, speaking in the cadence of a poem. “Like that Persian poet guy says. You got quotes from all those people?”
“Every one I could.”