My daughters were snuggled away in a queen-sized bed in my parents' guest room, and my wife and mother had bid my father and I good night. We sat in the family chair -- he in his great chair that had been a gift from his children several Christmases earlier, and I reclined on the couch.
It was the most pleasant holiday season of my life. My wife, June, and I had two years taken jobs in the Washington, D.C., area, and trips to the great family farm in central Illinois were infrequent. Both of us came from large families, and missed the great family gatherings that ensued each holiday season. But this year, I had gotten a large year-end bonus, and June had earned a rare two-week vacation in reward for a draining nine-month project that had netted her firm several major accounts. We spent six days with June's family in southern Missouri, and were completing a visit to my parents on the Illinois farm.
It was pleasant seeing my brothers and sisters. I was enjoying a bittersweet nostalgia; stretched out on the family couch in the hushed house that late December night. My father quietly smoking a cigarette; the smoke from his Winstons wafting to me; the television gently blaring as the newsman from the small town station warned of continued snow this holiday season.
"Looks like a white Christmas," my father said.
I drowsily glanced at the weatherman, who was hanging snowflakes on a map of eastern Missouri and Iowa, and western Illinois.
The snow had been slow coming; less than an inch accumulating, much to the frustration of the children and to the conflicting relief of the parents. We had a family dinner planned for Christmas, which was still two days off. Too much snow, and the dinner might be threatened, along with the traditional gift exchange.
"Dan," my mother called. "Could you and David run up to town and get me a couple of things for tomorrow?" My father pushed his large frame up from the great brown chair, and went to his bedroom to compile Mom's list. I dozed, the echoes of the news lulling me asleep.
Gently my father tugged my arm. "You want to go town? We can stop in and see who's at the General Store."
The General Store was a unique entity in tiny Liberty, Illinois. A combination grocery and hardware store, it also held a singular position as a gathering place of the men. A large backroom where tables and benches were strewn was the setting for dialogue, discussion, conversation, gossip, rumor and stories. My earliest memories are of being snuggled into my father's great frame, listening with rapt attention as men told stories. I remember an old World War I veteran's account of a grim battle on some forgotten European front; tears staining the teller's face as he recounted the death of comrades. Years later, I remember hearing the grim tale of a returning Vietnam Marine veteran who told those there how he lost his left arm.
Not all the stories were tragic. I remember an uncle's telling of his battle with a chicken-hungry raccoon ended with a misplaced farm truck getting a window shot out, and my father's own droll account of plinking four young squirrels out of a nest with a .22-caliber pistol. When he shot the first squirrel, it leaped from the tree and tumbled to the ground where Dad sat. His siblings, curious as to where the unfortunate brethern had gone, one by one, stuck their heads out the nest, and were similarly plinked.
Going to the General Store (the "General Stories," Mom called it) was a treat, and even now at the age of 40, I looked forward to my appointment there.
It was cold; barely a dozen degrees above zero. Bundled up in coveralls and work boots, Dad and I took the four-wheel-drive GMC pickup to ensure our safe return. The drive to Liberty was about six miles and weather might deteriorate should the story-telling be good that night.
As the windshield wipers danced and the GMC heater belched out dry, hot air, I reflected on my other visits to the General Store. Each small farming town I've been to has such a place. It may be the barbershop where men go to just visit. It may be a tavern, where big men while away hours playing pool and talking politics. In Liberty, it was the tired, red-bricked General Store, owned by the same family for generations, now run by a square-shaped, bull-necked man named Steve Walden, fourth-generation owner/operator of the General Store.
The General Store is located next to what used to be Regional Bank and Trust, a bank built in 1892. When drive-through windows and ATMs became de rigueur, the bank bought three acres at the edge of Liberty, and Walden bought the bank building. He tore out one wall (so he could save money on a liquor license, he said), and had a community bar and grill on the bank side, and the store on the other.
In the back of the store was where the stories were. As Dad parked the truck, I felt the eagerness tinged with realism. Men don't tell as many stories as they did just a generation or two ago. In nine out of ten visits, the stories fell flat. Empty bragging about sexual or physical prowess; mindless dribble on local politics; energetic arguments over local high school football and basketball. Yet every tenth visit, you got a real story; a real meat and potatoes story. And that's why you kept coming back.
"Evening, Dan," said Walden. "How's the drive?"
"Blacktop's a little slick, but if you keep your head, you'll do fine," said Dad.
Walden nodded at me. I nodded back. Even though I was 40 years old, I knew I'd be Dan Daley's "oldest boy;" the one who got a job in Washington. My other siblings lived within 20 miles of Liberty, yet shared my fate. In a small community, you are your parents' "boy" until both your parents die. It's not outgrown until your parents die. I've seen seventy-year-old men referred to as their ninety-three-year-old father's boy.
"Anyone else here?" Dad asked
"There's a few in the backroom," said Daley. "Jerry Rushing and his boy; Sheriff Warren's here, too."
I liked Sheriff Warren. He was about twelve or fifteen years older than me, and had been Sheriff of Adams County for twenty years. He was a big, gentle man; bright. He'd gotten into law enforcement right out of college. He'd attended the University of Illinois at Champaign for two years on a football scholarship and, after a raging argument with an offensive line coach, transferred to Boston College where he was recruited by the FBI after graduation. He logged six years with the bureau, and quit because he "got tired of arresting accountants and bankers instead of real crooks." He came back to Adams County, joined the sheriff's department, and worked his way into the top job.
He had common sense, and combined that common sense with a thorough understanding of the law. At age fifty-five, he could benchpress four hundred pounds and run a mile in under six minutes; qualified with his sidearm both left- and right-handed, and wore glasses only to read.
As we pushed through the store to the backroom, I felt the eagerness return. Sheriff Warren was noted for two things: The quality of his law enforcement department, and the excellence of his stories.
The backroom was a large, hard-wood floor room with a side door that led to the bar next door. There were benches and tables scattered about the room, and a large, oil-fired furnace kept the backroom comfortable. I noticed that Steve Walden had also added an overhead furnace that would periodically kick on, and blow warm air across the large room.
Sheriff Warren sat at a chair, sipping a beer from the bottle. Off work, he allowed himself the occasion comfort of these hardy farming men, and would share his law enforcement stories with them in exchange for their approving nods, and support.
The room had about a dozen men; I was surprised by the turnout so close to the holiday. My father, meanwhile, pushed in, said hi to the sheriff and took up a bench near the oil-fired furnace. When there was a lull in the various conversations, he gently nudged the sheriff.
"Haven't seen you in awhile," said my father.
"You and that pretty wife of yours haven't had me over," said Sheriff Warren. He smiled at me. "Been keeping the old man out of trouble, Davey?"
I shook my head. "He spent the first twenty years of my life keeping me on task and on track, and the next twenty years telling me I shouldn't have been so serious and should have had more fun," I said. "But for an old fart, he's a good ol' boy."
There was a gentle laughter, but I saw something flicker across Sheriff Warren's face. "It's important for a man to value the worth of his parents," said Warren. "I noticed that the older I get, the smarter my old man gets. We didn't see eye-to-eye on anything 'til I turned 40; now there isn't anything we disagree on."
He paused, reached into a side pocket, and pulled out a pack of Vantage cigarettes. Picking up a candle off the table, he lit the cigarette, and took a deep drag.
"We all grow up, and one of the hardest things for a man to do is to let go of his kids," began the sheriff. "But it's even more important for the kids to learn when to let go of their father."
Warren looked at me. "Do you remember the Harris boy?"
I nodded. "I remember him. He was nothing but a bully. Pushed me around until I was a sophomore in high school. The twins were freshmen then, and big enough to count for something. The three of us faced him down in a back hallway at school after he bounced me off a locker." Dad looked at me, surprised. "Harris didn't like big guys or numbers, but he sure was quick to push your face in the dirt if he thought you couldn't or wouldn't do anything about it," I said.
"That was the Harris boy all right," said the Sheriff. "Too bad he never learned his lesson. He might still be around today."
And that's how the story began.
The big overhead heater clicked off. As the heating element cooled, it made clicking sounds. Also, I heard the dozen or so big men there shuffling around their chairs and benches to take up better positions for the sheriff's story. I, meanwhile was caught up in bitter memories of Harris -- a big, mean kid with nothing but a bad attitude. Our little school district had two bus schedules -- one schedule picked up the kids who were junior high and high school age, and it ran about an hour earlier than the other. For one year, I was separated from my younger twin brothers, and Harris tormented me ruthlessly. He had a variety of stunts -- he'd lurk behind a bus seat and kick my books and schoolwork out of my hands as I walked onto the bus and hunted a seat. Or he'd pound my shoulder and say "Hey, Pussy!" while the bus was rolling. I'd been taught you avoided fights; you put on a good face, complain to people in authority, and things got fixed. But when you snitched off Harris, all you got was more trouble. I suffered miserably until I was reunited with the twins the next year. My younger brothers, Brad and Steve, were 15 months younger than me, and we looked like we came from different families. I have the size and delicate features of my mother. The twins, identical in every way, inherited the height and mass of my father's side of the family. When they were 12, Brad and Steve were already nearly six feet tall and weighed over a hundred and seventy pounds -- four inches taller and thirty pounds heavier than me, the eldest son. Harris left me alone on the bus when the twins started riding. Instead, he transferred his animosity to the school hallways, where he stalked me (and other impotent victims) for sport.
I suffered his insults gamely through my freshman year. I knew from experience that once the twins were in the high school, he'd leave me alone.
When I was a sophomore, and the twins freshmen, Teddy Harris was a junior. When the twins came over to the high school, Harris tried to change his tactics so neither of my younger brothers saw his actions. But midway through the first semester, Harris dropped his guard.
It was just before first hour, and I was loading up my locker. I carried a lot of things -- I was in band and was packing the cornet I played, and I was playing junior varsity basketball so I had to tuck away uniform and workout clothes. I had nearly everything stacked when Harris came behind me, reached up, and jerked all my books out on the floor.
Frustrated, I pushed him away, and bent over to pick up my books.
I remember how surprised Harris looked when I shoved him. I'd been training to be on the basketball team, and my upper body strength had improved. But Harris was about six-feet three or four, and weighed 230 pounds, and he couldn't let an underclassman push him.
I'd gathered up a notebook and was holding it in my right hand when Harris pushed me against the locker and pulled my left arm behind me. "Pushy little pussy," he hissed in my ear. "What are you going to do now, you little piece of crud?" And he twisted my arm higher as if he meant to break my arm as an example to his other victims.
I felt tears welling up. I couldn't move; couldn't kick Harris. I knew he was just going to hurt me and hurt me and hurt me, and that no matter what I did, he'd come around and hurt me some more.
"Didn't you hear me you little pussy? What are you gonna do now?"
I closed my eyes to the pain, to his hissing bad breath and to the despair I felt; the despair that I knew would never go away. I knew that Harris and I were at a turning point, and the situation was going to get ugly. I was used to the humiliation and the pain that Harris would inflict on me, but that day, I believed that the pain wound never stop, and that the humiliation would never end.
And I opened my eyes, and saw the twins moving toward Harris and me, faces grimly set.
"I'm not going to do anything," I said, looking over my right shoulder. "But those guys; they're going to kick your ass." Harris looked back. He was a bully and vicious, but he could count. And at fourteen, the twins were already tall as Harris, and only slightly lighter.
Harris let go of my arm and shoved me, to make it look like he wasn't afraid. I hit my locker again. I regained my footing, and my confidence soared.
"Teddy," I said, rubbing my arm. "My stuff's scattered all over the floor. Would you please help me pick it up?" His lip was curling to snap back some obscenity when Steve slapped him on the back of the head with the open palm of his hand.
"Don't talk back," said Steve.
"Pick it up," said Brad.
"Or we'll kick your ass," said Steve.
Harris looked at me. "This ain't over," he said.
Steve hit Harris again, with a fist this time, and hard, and I heard the commotion you hear in a high school when a fight breaks out; the running down the hall to get a teacher or tell the principal; kids shifting to get a better look. Harris bounced off the locker, and as he spun to face the twins, I kicked him. I kicked him with all the force I could muster, backed with years of frustration and futility. I kicked Harris in the stomach and he dropped.
"Wrong, friend. It IS over," said Steve.
"Pick up the books while your down there," said Brad.
"Or I'll kick you this time," said Steve.
Harris looked at me with hate in his eyes, and something else. He was afraid. Of me. OF ME. Yet he couldn't let go of that drive to save face, to bully me just a little more, to ride me a little more. But to do so now or ever again in the future would mean a beating the likes of which he'd never had, except perhaps at the hands of his father. He was afraid, but it was the fear of a cornered carnivore, confronted with a prey that had suddenly grown fangs and claws.
"Break it up! Break it up! Break it up!" Harris seemed relieved. It was our principal, a gregarious, friendly man who -- try as he might -- couldn't quite fit into the small town mentality. Before he got to us, Brad stepped in front of him to quietly plead our case and obscure the view. Steve bent over and hissed something into Harris's ear. Harris blanched, gathered up a few of my things, pushed himself up and handed me my papers.
The principal, brilliantly delayed by Brad, never knew for sure who the participants were. He saw the Harris boy leave, and assumed that whatever happened had been resolved with hallway justice. He issued a couple of stern words to Brad, and turned on his heel.
"What did you say to Teddy?" I asked Steve.
Steve smiled. "I told him to count his friends in the hallway. Who, other than the principal, would try to stop us when we started stomping his butt. And there's no one, brother. No one."
Harris never bothered me again.
Sheriff Warren started to speak.
Teddy Harris was mean. I don't know whether the meanness came from a parent who'd lost sight of how to raise his kid, or if he was just born mean. I know that for the years I've been in law enforcement here in Adams County, he'd been a thorn in mine and everyone else's side.
He just treated everyone with contempt. To Harris, there were three kinds of people: Victims, potential victims, and people you left alone. As Davey says, he was mean, but he wasn't stupid. I guess I can tell you this now; I made him on a couple of buglaries out in the country, and figure he was good for six or eight more back in Quincy. But he was bright for a thief; he took only things that couldn't be positively identified; he never trashed the place; he took stuff that insurance companies would pay up on with little debate. How a guy that big could get into and out of a house as fast as he could is beyond me, but he was slick. He came by it honest, though. Harris's old man was a career criminal, and I doubt Teddy went many days without a beating.
Just before he dropped out of school, Teddy got the hots for one of his neighbor's daughters. You guys know Kirby Caine's girl, Crystal? She's a pretty girl, and she and her family lived just a couple of miles from the Harris clan. Well, you know Harris. He didn't just date her; he stalked her, and beat or intimidated anyone who came near her.
I think she was flattered by his attention at first. I mean Teddy wasn't half-bad looking. But I'm sure she got tired of his tormenting, and wanted to break it off a couple times, and Teddy just wouldn't put up with that. He'd pop her a couple of times, beat the crap out of any other likely boyfriends, threaten her dad and mom, and just generally make her life a living hell. Whenever they were on the outs, he'd stalk her and scare away anyone who'd do anything nice to her or for her. Her dad was sickly, and she didn't have any brothers or any other relatives to stand up to Harris, so I think she was resigned to living a miserable life with Teddy.
They'd been an on-again, off-again item for about four years when, during one of their off-again phases, Teddy smacked Crystal pretty hard. She went to the Blessing Hospital Emergency Room, which was starting to be like a second home for her.
There, she met Jason Samuels, and her gritty life turned up.
If you know the Samuels family, you know that there a cliquish lot. I've had a couple of minor dealings with them on a professional level. About 12 years ago, a guy broke into the house of one of Jason's uncles. The uncle wasn't there, and the burglar terrorized the wife and the two girls that were. One of the girls got out of the house and ran to Jason's house to call us in, and we caught him coming out with his arms full of junk, and two women hog-tied on the kitchen floor. The State's Attorney files charges, and Judge Price, you all know Judge Price, set a real low bond. So this yahoo called his mommy who posts his bond, and five hours after we've got him charged, he's on the phone, threatening the victims.
Here it gets a little fuzzy. Evidently this poor dumb crook goes into a bar, has a few drinks, and is lured outside by some young blonde. When he gets to the blonde's car, five big men pull a potato sack over his head, and every time he squawks, they hit him with a bar of soap dropped in a sock. He's trussed up, dumped into a trunk, and hauled out to one of the levees on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, and there he's beaten half to death. When the Missouri Highway Patrol boys found him, this guy was laying on the highway only semi-conscious. Every one of the joints on his fingers had been broken. His left wrist was crushed, his right kneecap shattered, and his face was sliced to ribbons, evidently with a chainsaw. After he got out of the hospital, he asked that his bond be set aside, and he pled straight up to all charges and asked for the maximum sentences, all to run consecutive. That was 12 years ago, and I understand that every time he comes up for a parole consideration hearing, he starts crying and asks not to be let out.
There was never any evidence, but I took that to mean that the the Samuels family were people to leave alone. I see some of you nodding; I think you'll agree that they're decent folks, but don't cross them.
Jason was the fifth boy of Ben Samuels' six sons, and Ben was -- still is -- the patriarch of the lot. Jason was in the hospital the same time Crystal was just by accident. You remember Jason? A klutzier man I've never met. He was always bumping into things and hurting himself. Ben used to tell me that he wouldn't let Jason play basketball because the boy'd trip on the foul lines.
Anyway, just by accident, Jason is on a cot near Crystal when Crystal comes in. They strike up a conversation -- Jason was always a talker, got that from his mom -- and before she knows it, Crystal's agreed to go out with Jason, once he gets his arm out of a sling. They set a date, agree to meet in Quincy at one of the theaters, and both go their respective ways for stitches.
Well, Teddy didn't like this. He followed Crystal to town where she met Jason, and jumped from his pickup and starts charging Jason, waving his fists and swearing.
"You stay away from my woman," he shouts.
Jason just looked at him. Poor Teddy's luck was never good. As I understand it, Ben Samuels knew a little of Crystal's history, and had three or four of his sons tail Jaon, just in case Teddy started some crap. So when Teddy rushes Jason, all he sees are Samuels boys. And like Davey said, Teddy Harris was mean and a bully, and would punch a woman, but he could count. He left Jason, and Crystal alone, and after they courted a couple of years, they got married.
It was a good marriage. Jason worked at the railroad, and Crystal went back to school to first get a diploma, then start college. Teddy Harris kept her from finishing high school and discouraged her from having any kind of life outside of Teddy Harris. But Jason was a good man, and he wanted her to be able to stand on her own feet in case somtheing happend to him. Ben always said Jason was afraid he wouldn't be around long -- even as a kid, Jason would draft wills and prepare final documents. But in Crystal, he discovered a woman who'd been trapped, and suddenly freed. She was so full of life that she built Jason up, and they started looking for a place to live.
After a couple of years in an apartment in Quincy, they bought a farm about six or seven miles north of here, the old Simmons' farm. Jason wasn't a farmer, but he liked having some acreage and animals. He'd hunt some, and the place had two good-sized stocked farm ponds. They bought a dog, a smart little collie; got a station wagon, and started planning a family. Eighteen months after they bought the place, Crystal had a boy, Jason Junior. Jason got promoted on his railroad job, and Crystal was just about finished with college, and JJ and the collie dog just ran amok in the house. After she got her degree, she had the second boy, Dustin, and Dustin and JJ ran their parents' lives. I don't mean in a mean way; I mean the kids were taken care of and went everywhere with their folks. Dustin was always really quiet, even as a baby, but JJ always had something to say . . . .
JJ Samuels stood at his father's grave, his head bowed solemnly. Old beyond his years, JJ visited with his father in a one-way monologue that only those who've lost a parent at a very tender age might understand.
JJ's dad had been gone for a year, and JJ, now nine, felt the immense responsibilities of family life. And it overwhelmed his courage. He took up his bicylce, despite what Teddy had repeatedly told him, and with his collie, Sadie, pedaled to the cemetery.
"I understand I am the man now," he prayed softly, "but it's a little more than I can handle. I know you wanted Mom to be happy, and I think she is, but our new Dad, Mr. Harris, is, well, he's sometimes mean to me and Dustin, and Mommy. And he tells us that if we tell anyone about what he's doing, he'll hurt us even more. I know Mom wants me to, but I don't like Mr. Harris, and I'm not going to call him Daddy because he's not my Daddy, and I wish you were here to help me understand all this and sort it out because I just can't understand. Mrs. Hill, she's my third grade teacher, she said that if you don't understand something, talk it out because sometimes the answers will come to you but I think she was talking about homework problems and not these kinds of things. She's nice to me, nicer than Mrs. Buttons was last year. You probably knew Mrs. Buttons; she was about a hundred years old and probably was a teacher when your grandfather went to school."
The gentle prattle of a engrossed, concerned boy. The dog shied away and whined; even Sadie Hawkins knew the wrath of Teddy Harris.