Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Family Portrait (2/12)

Another gust of wind whipped up, this time knocking over a couple of photo evidence markers I had set up—little yellow A-frame indicators with numbers. Seemingly capricious, marker number 4 next to the discarded wallet simply tipped over, while marker 7 next to a dried pool of blood slid across the gravel about five feet toward Dr. Halleck’s state vehicle. As I scrambled to reset them, I was surprised to hear Sheriff K continue his soliloquy, the disturbance providing little more than a semicolon to his reflections.

“These days I don’t dwell on these big-picture questions. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to become numb to the lying, cheating, robbing and killing that I see on a daily basis. No, if I did that, well, shit, I guess I’d go ahead and stick those damn nails into my head too!” He looked at Deputy Beaumont, Carl and me to see if his words registered on our faces. “No, of course not. You gotta rise above the madness…for your own sanity. If Darlene can face adversity the way she does every damn day with such grace and courage, heck. It’s about the little things in life.” The sheriff’s words only confirmed my view that his wife’s health was competing in his mind with the work at hand. “Darlene’s way of coping is digging around in her vegetable garden. Didn’t Socrates or one of those thinkers of old say that all we can really do is cultivate our garden?” Originally a philosophy major in college, I had the correct answer to his question, Voltaire, but I wasn’t about to offer it up.

Cognizant of becoming too ethereal (though he’d use a more straightforward word like reflective or even philosophical), Sheriff K abruptly switched gears. “You got that vehicle description in your report, Marcus?” A hulking oaf of a man in a sheriff department visor cap was making his way toward the sheriff.

Deputy Urquhart had been responsible for cordoning off the area and keeping the public at bay, but only a handful of people in this backwoods township were standing around, most of them in front of the Andy Griffith convenience store sipping sodas and gawking like idiots. Now the deputy was taking down information, likely to be rewritten later at the station. The sheriff was really just keeping him out of the way, with the understanding that he absorb as much insight from his elders as possible. Sheriff K clearly had an avuncular relationship with his young deputy, appropriately enough, considering Urquhart was his nephew!

Marcus was a big boy, the kind you’d see in a red and black flannel shirt, Corona bottle in hand, leaning up against his Chevy pickup and chewing the fat with buddies about the Razorbacks, an unlettered post-Sunday commentary contributing yet more noise pollution to the city’s suburbs. He lives in a home with a framed blue-eyed Jesus on the wall, a mama’s boy who like his father carouses and womanizes most days but will recite the Lord’s Prayer on Easter. They say an acorn never falls far from the oak tree.

“Yes sir.”


The sheepish look on Marcus’s face was priceless. “2006 Chevy Tahoe. Champagne color….”

“Whoa! Hold on, Cochise! What did you just say?” The deputy had a raccoon caught in the smokehouse kind of look, as my eighty-year-old neighbor used to say. He went through the description again, his lips moving but his mind wondering what he got wrong.

“I have, uh, 2006 Chevy…”

I had already figured out the source of Sheriff K’s irritation. He was a no-nonsense guy; he didn’t much care for fancy ways of saying something simple. For the record, I’m quite the opposite. If life is a painting, if it’s a snapshot of time in which one forges meaning, to fill the existential vacuum, or in layman’s terms, if it’s what we make of it, I want to have at my disposal the biggest palette possible, all the better to savor the nuances, enhance every observation, or enrich each experience. I already mentioned I’m a stickler for details; my ex-wife will testify to that.

“Christ, Marcus! Isn’t that a light brown SUV? What’s this champagne?” Sheriff K used a voice that, to his mind, I’m sure, best mimicked the way a French homosexual would say champagne. I’d never tell the sheriff that I drove a Peugeot sedan during my freshman year in college.

“You want to call it tan or beige? Then do so. But… You got me swearing, Marcus. Now don’t go telling your ma I took the Lord’s name in vain. She’s still getting on me for church attendance.”

Dr. Halleck and I caught each other’s eyes as if to say in jest, Yeah, he’s the county sheriff, believe it or not!

Sheriff K carefully stepped around the body and walked the five or six yards to the Tahoe. “How about that tow truck?”

“Jerry’s on his way,” said Deputy Urquhart.

“I should have known.”

“He’ll be here in twenty minutes. He said he’s exchanging trucks at the…”

Sheriff K cut the young deputy off. “Marcus, that’s good enough. I don’t need a blow-by-blow.”

Jerry Lekranović, a Serbian-American who for obvious reasons doesn’t go by his given name Jerko, at least not in print, operates his own Auto Repair and Towing service with over ten employees, and he won’t let you forget it. Nor does his exclusive working relationship with the sheriff department diminish his pride. Despite his accent, he fancies himself a good old boy, and is a regular at the courthouse poker night along with Sheriff K and Deputy Beaumont. He initially got his way into this exclusive club, I’m told, by offering to bring some imported Slivovitz that, he assured everyone, would make them forget about their Jim Beam.

He could have any one of his underlings bring the truck, but when it comes to homicide, he sniffs blood and wants to be at the scene. He likes to put on a tough front, and uses his height to intimidate, like LBJ used to do, I’ve recently read; but it doesn’t work on me, not that I’m around the guy often. Some think that his second wife left him because of his arrogance and the fact that he perennially reeks of deer urine. I’m not discounting these infelicitous personal attributes, but I happen to know that Karen, a petite, pretty forty-year-old administrator at the technical college who seems to choose the wrong men in her life, had her reasons. As you’ll soon enough discover, I’m more interested in her biography than Jerry’s.

“Beth, do you have an estimate on time of death?” Sheriff K was finished with Deputy Urquhart.

She had already performed a hasty, preliminary check on the victim to assess, roughly, how long the victim had been dead; but for good measure she felt around the body again. “He’s been here for 10 to 12 hours.”

“He’s been dead for 10 to 12 hours anyway,” responded Sheriff K.

Dr. Halleck instantly caught his meaning, a corrective to her assumption. I think the sheriff was already operating under the premise that the homicide originally occurred elsewhere and an individual or probably two killers brought their victim to this site for reasons unknown. “We’ll confirm this at the forensic lab by midnight,” she assured him.

Sheriff K turned to his senior deputy. “Nobody saw this vehicle or body for twelve damn hours?” Deputy Beaumont looked around him and gestured with his hand as if to say, Who would be walking around this hellhole? And the vehicle is partially concealed by a dumpster. The sheriff knew what he meant and let out a sigh of frustration.

“The tavern owner’s on his way,” reassured Deputy Beaumont. “He must have seen something.”

Just as the deputy spoke these words we could hear rotor blades of a helicopter slicing through the blustery afternoon, getting louder and louder. Channel 7’s Sky Eye Chopper finally came into view and swooped down from the twilight sky, hovering above the crime scene with a swirling light. Taking the Lord’s name in vain in response to Marcus proved to be mere warm-up, evidently, for I heard a series of more creative, colorful curse words under Sheriff K’s breath at the sight of the helicopter; I won’t bother to recount them, for the sake of Marcus’s pious mother.

Why he got so worked up like that when he knew the news crew was coming is beyond me. We all knew. The Mueller County Sheriff’s Department information officer had phoned Deputy Beaumont who in turn made the announcement. Sky Team 7’s doing an aerial report, so be forewarned. It’s possible that the sheriff missed the memo, since he was the last one on the scene. It was his day off and he had taken Darlene to a surgical oncologist for a consultation in Little Rock.

The aerial coverage had been arranged in part because Sheriff K has a reputation for giving on-the-scene reporters little access and much aggravation. Sometimes he can be cordial and accommodating, however; it just depends on the crime, the reporter, and of course his capricious mood. For this reason the press has tried to screw him over, portraying him as either a media ham who likes to trumpet his merits in the spotlight or a dangerous maverick whose big city ways don’t work here in the sticks. The latter charge is ludicrous when one considers his family roots, on his mother’s side, in this county.

Once the crime scene is circumscribed, he treats it like his own living room. In most cases you might get fined or arrested for crossing police tape without authorization. God help you if you cross his barrier; that’s a declaration of war. He has no open door policy with any reporter, not even the relatively new, attractive 40-something gal I’ve seen him and Deputy Beaumont eyeball.

When I watched the news on TV later that night, I could only make out Sheriff K from his grey cowboy hat. They played his brief statement to the press via telephone over the visual shots from the chopper. The first time I actually saw Sheriff K was on TV in a suit and tie; he appeared in one of those crime shows giving his perspective on a famous homicide case. Last week, at a press conference on new policies at the county prison, he looked weary and stilted, unsure of himself, stumbling over a few words, not at all the commanding presence on the TV show or at the crime scene presently described. Maybe his less-than-stellar performance in recent days accounts for the phone interview on the evening news.