Holding the machine gun was one of the perks of the job if you could call it a perk and if you could call it a job. Billy Lee Williams had gotten himself fired for trying to take down the upstairs church annex with it so that’s how I got his job. The machine gun was really a museum piece without a museum for it to go to so it had been assigned to the Shepherd Police Department back when such things were legal. One of the guys in World War Two had brought it home with him somehow and it had sat in the police department’s store room collecting dust since.
Billy wasn’t really that right in the head which is why they hired him to begin with. Doctor Williams wanted his boy to have a job and even at forty-seven Billy was just an older kid. What to do about the upstairs church annex had been the topic of conversation since one of the struts had cracked. Long before it had been a church the building had housed a turpentine plant and they had a big tank set up on a steel frame right beside the railroad tracks. Why anyone would think to build a church in the turpentine factory was one thing but building an annex on that steel frame was another. It was quite an engineering feat to behold and Scott Adamson, who was a marvel at building, made it look quite sharp. But the annex was much higher than the church downstairs and the steps up to it were steep. Back when there were a lot of people in Shepherd, well, at least more than there is now, they needed the room. Folks drifted off, people moved away, and then Reverend Pierce built that nice prefab metal church just outside town, away from the railroad yet, and that sealed it.
And even the railroad was weird in Shepherd. The water tank once served as the location where the town’s fire truck filled up, when it had one, so the railroad let Shepherd build a road around the track. That mean when the railroad used the spur line they had to make sure there wasn’t a car or a truck on that road. They still use that spur line to shuffle the cars around coming out of Downing so they nixed the idea of just pulling the annex down because it would fall on the tracks.
Billy thought to bring the issue to an end by opening up on the steel struts with the machine gun. Another fifty rounds and he might have, too. He put a dozen holes in one of them, nicely placed, and another five or six in the other before the gun jammed and the police got there. Everyone was lucky none of the rounds hit anything or anybody out there, but one of them did hit the water tower. It made a dent but it didn’t break through. That’s how I got the job. I told them I’d go up and look if they’d give me Billy’s job and they did.
Comes a time in life when a man wants to just coast to the end. I knew I could put ten years in with Shepherd and then hit sixty-two. I had a check from the Army and I was going to get another for putting ten years in with the city government, so that would be enough to keep me alive and fishing until…, well, until I died. There wasn’t a whole lot else left for me to do.
I married one of the Colson twins, Cloris Colson and I wished it had been Doris. They had lived next door to us when we were all kids and I always thought Doris was nicer. When you grow up with somebody that’s a twin you can tell them apart easy but it was always a little spooky how close they were in what they did. They never talked about dressing alike but sometime more often than not they’d show up for work wearing the same outfit. They were devilish good partners at Spades which was the card game everyone in town played. But I wound up with Cloris after Doris got married first. I think we both settled for someone just not to be alone. We spent most of our time together staying out of each other’s way and playing husband and wife when company came over. I had been calling Cloris, “Roxy” since we were kids because I hated her name. She waited until we were married for five years before she told me she hated being called Roxy. I understood that. I got the nickname from calling her “Clorox” and then shortening it to Roxy. So for about thirty years I never really used her name at all or called her anything at all.
The end came just a couple of years ago. Doris was over and she was bent over getting something out of the refrigerator at our house and just reached over and grabbed her butt. I was going to claim it was dark and I thought it was Cloris but Doris surprised me by backing up into me and there for about ten seconds we stood there pressed close together. She had gotten divorced the second her youngest had walked across the stage at High School and our youngest was long gone, having gotten married and moved off twenty years ago. But there we were, standing so close my breath was moving her hair about and about the time it occurred to me I ought to do something about all this Doris walked out of the house without turning around or saying a word. Cloris came in after work and packed a few things and told me we could do it simple or hard, it was up to me. Three hundred dollars later a lawyer drew up the papers and that was that. Neither of them ever spoke to me again.
So I was standing there holding the machine gun when the Mayor walked in and he looked more than a little startled. No, it wasn’t loaded but everybody was paranoid about it now. He shooed me away from the police station and told me to go down to the upstairs annex and make sure the contractors knew what to do. I was a glorified go-fer without the glorification and I knew it. The contractors were from Downing and they wanted to hear how the annex got to be, or at least they pretended to want to hear the story, so I told them. I showed them the dumbwaiter no one used because it was spring loaded and a little dangerous, but I liked playing with it. It would hold about twenty pounds and when you released the level it shot up to the second floor and stuck there until the other lever got pulled. When it dropped that set the spring again. The Mayor showed up and told me to stop pillaging. I’m pretty sure he never knew what that word meant.
The railroad guy came up and told me they were going to back a couple flat cars in and I liked to ride on them when no one was looking. The sound of those heavy steel wheels rolling on the tracks made a sound that seemed ominous and unstoppable. I liked the way the wind felt on my face, too. There on the ground it was hot and humid but once the flat car started moving there was a breeze. I got on one and it occurred to me it was going a little too fast and I might get knocked down when it linked up with the next. If I jumped I knew my knees were going to get wrecked. But the car slowed just a bit and when the links mashed together there was a jolt but not as bad as I thought.
South Georgia is filled with building like where the upstairs church annex sits. There’s an open spot on Main Street where there was once a hardware store but now only the brick walls survive. It’s like a church in there, too, all quiet and peaceful even if Holly’s older daughter spray painted her name there, “Deena” in blue paint. I like to eat my lunch in there when the weather is nice and think about all the people and stuff that has passed through the store. I think about Deena and why she was here and what she was thinking, but that one is still in her teens. She won’t stick around Shepherd any longer than it takes her to find a ride out. Somebody will unwrap her one day, on a nice bed, or maybe on the floor, and maybe they’ll plan it or maybe they won’t, but deep inside Deena a baby will start and maybe that kid will grow up to see where mom grew up, if there is anything left here by then.