Recipient of the 2012 William Faulkner Literary Award (Third Place)
Mississippi Alcohol Beverage Agent Buford Oliver scanned the giant oaks and hickories reassuring himself they would protect everyone from what was about to happen. He gave his rookie partner a thumbs up, closed his eyes and pressed his hands over his ears as young Claude Landry was about to get his first taste of blood in the dangerous world of liquor-law enforcement.
Seconds later squirrels leaped, and birds scattered.
Dirt, rocks and splintered wood rained down around the two agents and the sheriff’s deputies that came along to witness the show. Along with dirt and rocks came shards of scrap medal and the musty stench of rotten corn mash and stale whiskey which was all that was left of the oldest moonshine still in Mississippi. Buford Oliver was obsessed with this moment since the day he strapped on the state issued revolver, and swore to uphold the badge. Six sticks of dynamite finally put the crown jewel in his career, and marked the end of an era in which the Tyners dominated the illegal whiskey business in Mississippi since the end of the Civil War.
Two months later Booger Tyner stood before Judge E. William Douglas in the Circuit Court of Bougahatta County and pleaded not guilty to manufacturing illegal whiskey. The cocky kingpin of the illegal liquor business in Mississippi winked to his fans in the courtroom that came to witness the final aftershock from the blast of Agent Oliver’s dynamite.
Cars and pickups with red mud caked on their fenders and bumpers filled every parking space in Mashula, Mississippi. When latecomers claimed the bank’s parking lot, bank President Lester Pullin cussed about it to bank employees as if it were their fault but never called a tow truck.
Across the street from the courthouse in a café called Mam-Maw’s Kitchen, Rebecca Drew doubled her usual menu to accommodate the crowd where patrons shared tables beneath wobbling ceiling fans stirring hot steamy air and cigarette smoke into a vanishing vortex. Once an old Jitney Jungle, the diner now emitted a blended aroma of fried chicken and cornbread and onions and hamburgers. Behind its squeaky screen door advertising Barque’s Root Beer, a coin operated Bougahatta Journal dispenser leans beside the upright cooler where Rebecca kept her deserts.
Rebecca served homespun goodness but she was always short of help. Her one waitress, Faye Martha Mazingo was hovering at seventy years old. Faye Martha went about her business of taking orders, serving food and humming Your Cheatin’Heart at her own pace and not about to get in a hurry. The court crowd made no difference to her. But Mam-Maw’s was the only show in town save for the Dixie Oil station out on the bypass where all they served was fried chicken tenders and something they called tater-babies. Greasy as the chicken and tater babies were, the overflow from Mam-Maw’s usually made their way there to eat.
Otis Drummer wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to make a few extra bucks off the trial.
He dug out his familiar CLEARANCE SALE signs, placed them in the window of his dry-goods store. He cut the prices on slow moving items and jacked up the prices up on hot items. People joked about Otis’s little ploy but it worked. Besides Otis wasn’t the only one to exploit Booger Tyner’s day in court.
The bookie at Sammy’s Pawn Shop gave odds on Booger’s conviction. The only person in town who was not doing things differently that day was an old one-armed man everybody called Uncle Big’n. He sold boiled peanuts out of the back of an old green Dodge pickup. A hand painted sign on the side of his truck read “P-Nuts Boiled or Parched.” The day he retired from the GM&O Rail Road Uncle Big’n laid claim to the corner where a century old water-oak provided shade from the July sun. A claim nobody challenged. Uncle Big’n was massive at six foot three in his prime. His one arm punched the strength of two but the former railroad foreman was now bent and thin from birthdays and years of toiling on the bridge gang. His creosote stained overalls hung limp and baggy from his shoulders. Too many cans of Prince Albert smoking tobacco caused him to fight for breath as he spent his days in a lawn chair beside his old Dodge where he allowed customers to pay and make change on the honor system.
Every morning an old black man named Theodore was waiting for Uncle Big’n with two cups of coffee from Mam-Maw’s. The two old railroad veterans spent their days together reminiscing and planning the fishing trip they knew they would never take. They laughed at the police when they threatened Theodore with a citation for riding his motorized wheelchair in the street, but their threats were hollow and they knew it. Local reporter Mary Grace Spicer of the Bougahatta Journal penned a scathing editorial about Theodore being a traffic hazard but retracted it after the black funeral home withdrew its ad in the paper.
Heads turned as Uncle Bign’s kindly demeanor went sour. A sight seldom seen, a seething anger filled the eyes of the gentle man as he watched a black Crown Victoria with three antennas and an Alabama tag pull into the sheriff’s parking lot. Uncle Bign’n yelled at the two Mississippi State Alcohol Agents. “Do y’all really believe that Alabama tag is fooling anybody?” The agents ignored the old man and the large black lab that wandered up, sniffed the Ford’s tires and then trotted across the street and peed on the constable’s pickup.
“Dang whiskey agents. A dog won’t even pee on your tires. What does that tell you Theodore?” Uncle Big’n mumbled as he waved at Booger and his lawyer entering the courthouse.
The nine o’clock trial drew a dedicated mix of supporters and adversaries of the defendant.
Most of them got there two hours early filling every seat in the courtroom. Scary looking men chewing tobacco leaned against the walls and crowded the steps. It wouldn’t be long before the air conditioner would offer little reprieve in the century old courthouse.
At precisely nine o’clock Judge Douglas took the bench, flanked with the American flag on his left and the Mississippi State flag on his right. A large medallion bearing the state seal hung on the wall behind the judge’s chair and a stick-on NO SMOKING sign decorated the front of the Judge’s bench.
Judge Douglas summoned a female deputy to his bench, and whispered to her. She waded into the spectator section filled with young men and women with tattoos wearing tee-shirts advertising everything from a Hank Williams Jr. Concert, to Vacation Bible School and Dale Earnhardt. The Judge ordered the deputy to escort a young girl with a screaming baby out of the clammy smelling courtroom. A well-dressed young woman with reddish hair claimed her empty seat among the rag-tag crowd of onlookers as a loud crack of the judge’s gavel brought the courtroom to order. Proceedings moved fast from that moment. Spectators were treated to more detail than drama as the trial proceeded without incident. Booger sat motionless as the state’s witnesses, one after the other made their case to the jury.
Booger’s defense for the most part was no defense. He opted not to take the stand hoping the jury would somehow find him not guilty, or maybe reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. If nothing else, he hoped for a hung jury. Deputies and state agents pounded Booger with damning testimony for two grueling hours before the jury retired to consider its verdict. And then the waiting game began.
A few people tip-toed out of the courtroom for a smoke or a drink, but most of the crowd stayed glued to their seats still anticipating the drama they came to witness. One exception was the well-dressed redheaded woman. She left the courtroom picking her way through the curious gathering, not to be seen again.
Rivalry in the courtroom between Booger’s kin and his enemies made Sheriff August Murphy nervous. Very nervous. He had seen this mood in the courtroom during murder trials. Today was different. The Tyners were a different breed. They thrived on trouble and contempt for the law. Raised eyebrows and stares between the Tyners and those who rallied for Booger’s conviction had the potential of turning ugly and violent if the stares made contact. The Sheriff, his five deputies and the two state troopers he requested for extra security would be hard pressed to contain the situation if the Tyners got rowdy.
Sheriff Murphy noticed an elderly lady in the rear of the courtroom with her Bible in her lap, her head bowed and praying silently. He prayed that the Tyner clan would to go back to the swamp and take their pals with them before they stirred up trouble.
Booger read the mood of the courtroom too.
He knew Crazyhorse, J.W. and the rest of his cousins were capable of creating serious chaos if things went bad for him. But he couldn’t worry about them for now. His mind dwelled on the twelve men and women on the jury. A chiropractor, a black school teacher and a preacher called Brother Bernelle worried Booger but the jury was what it was and there was no turning back.
Booger peered out the window at Uncle Big’n selling peanuts. He must be close to ninety years old Booger thought. He feared he might never see the old man again after today. He tried to focus on the view from the window but his eyes kept racing from the window to the clock and then to the door which the jury would march through and announce where he would spend the next ten years of his life. Time stood still for the tormented whiskey maker. His eyes raced faster, bouncing uncontrollably from window to clock to door.
For the first time in his thirty four years, Booger felt helpless and out of control, especially with an empty space in his boot where a little five shot .38 had always been his constant companion. He knew this day would come. It comes for every moonshiner sooner or later. It wasn’t jail he feared. It was the thought of being torn from the woods and the muddy waters and the blue skies of Bougahatta Swamp. He feared what would happen to his cousin and best friend Billy Maynard Crosby, a challenged kid who depended on Booger for his very livelihood since his parents died in a tornado.
With the testimony over and the jury out, Mary Grace Spicer and revenue agents Oliver and Landry had mentally begun their celebration. The agents gloated and patted themselves on the back as Mary Grace giggled and patronized the two men. Mary Grace fancied herself as some sort of local celebrity who began crusading against moonshiners when she started dating Brother Bernelle. She was focused on Booger and the guilty verdict which would validate the story she had been sitting on since the day the agents busted him and dynamited his still.
Chatter from spectators faded as the bailiff entered and announced,
“The jury has reached a verdict.”
Every eye was on the jury foreman. Speculation was rampant in the courtroom and tension stretched from wall to wall with the Tyner clan on one side and Booger’s antagonists on the other. Somewhere in the mix sat a few innocent onlookers who just came for the entertainment. When the last juror was finally seated, the bailiff stepped up to the bench, gently nudged the judge on the shoulder and said. “Wake up judge. The jury is in with its verdict.”
Judge Douglas composed himself to conceal his short nap and whispered. “Which case are you talking about, boy?”
“The Booger Tyner case, your honor.”
Judge Douglas sat up in his chair took a swallow of water and said. “Yes yes. Of course Booger Tyner. Old-man Jug Tyner’s grandson. Jug Tyner made the best shine money could buy.”
A sharp crack of his gavel called the noisy crowd to order. The gray haired old judge leaned back in his chair, tugged at his bowtie and then commanded. “Read the verdict of the Jury Mr. Forman.”
Booger gazed at his lawyer but the stoic stare on his face brought no comfort to a man who was seconds away from either walking out the front door a free man or being escorted out the back door in handcuffs. .
“We the jury find the defendant Burkett G. Tyner also known as Booger Tyner guilty as charged.”
A few folks in the courtroom cheered but most booed. Again the Judge rapped and demanded order. Mary Grace and the two agents gloated at the bailiff’s words, hugging and shaking hands at news of their victory. Mary Grace sneaked her phone from her purse and sent a text message to the newspaper office.
Booger sat motionless and pale.
His mind flooded with memories of the years he spent with his grandfather who he called Papa Tyner tending the whiskey still that made the Tyners a good living for four generations. He recalled the night Papa Tyner let him run his first load of shine in a plain-jane V-8 Ford he modified to outrun the law. And then there were the painful memories. He would never forget the night his mama woke him up when he was seven years old and told him his daddy blew a tire on a run to Memphis. A young lawyer named E. William Douglas delivered the eulogy at his daddy’s funeral.
Was it worth it? Hell yes he thought. He stood before the court for doing what Tyners had always done, making whiskey, good whiskey to quench the thirst of those who booed as well as those who cheered his arrest.
The judge rapped his gavel once again, chastised the audience for their disrespect and then ordered Booger to rise and face the court. “Burkett G. Tyner, the jury has found you guilty of manufacturing illegal whiskey. Your grandpa Tyner stood before this very court fifteen years ago. The jury found him not guilty. I’m afraid, young man, that you have not been so lucky. This offense is a serious breach of the laws of Mississippi and will not go unpunished in Bougahatta County. I hereby order you to pay a fine of one dollar and sentence you to serve three days in the county jail. Sentence suspended.” The judge then locked eyes with Booger, pointed his finger at him and declared. “And don’t ever let me see you in my courtroom again.”
Stunned and confused,
Booger asked his lawyer if he heard the Judge correctly. Equally stunned, the lawyer breathed to Booger. “You are the luckiest man I ever represented.”
Booger’s first-cousin Crazyhorse plowed through the crowd, grabbed Booger with a bear-hug and shouted. “Let’s celebrate Booger.” More cousins and friends from the swamp lined up to hug their celebrity. Blood flowed to Booger’s face once again as he anticipated his life after moonshine.
The praying lady shouted. “Halleluiah!” Hugged Crazyhorse and Booger and then shocked Mary Grace with a bird finger in her face.
Word from the bench spread faster than the two unwelcomed agents could make a dash for their car. “Good riddance! Take Mary Grace with you.” Uncle Big’n shouted at the two agents.
With a bag of peanuts in his hand the old man called to Booger. “Come on down here Booger and have a free bag of peanuts on me.
Booger’s cousin Billy Maynard pushed his way through the crowd of hero worshipers, slapped his cousin on the back and asked. “What you gonna do now Boog?”
“First things first B.M. Right now I’m going to take Uncle Big’n up on that bag of peanuts. I haven’t eaten in three days.
After three weeks, Booger mustered the courage and returned to the spot where the famous Tyner whiskey still once stood.
Squirrels were still storing nuts for the winter and birds were still singing just as squirrels and birds always do. Unlike his life, the dynamite was but a small interruption to their lives. Leaning against the same hickory tree that had protected the agents from the blast, he pondered his family history. He slid down the smooth bark to rest on the moist Bougahatta soil and pondered his future.
Booger thought, the still was destroyed and rebuilt at least a dozen times in the last hundred and fifty years and he didn’t intend for his life to change, but he made a vow to Judge Douglas and he did intend to keep it. With his decision made, Booger slowly rose and announced to this faithful cousin. “B.M., the world ain’t seen the last of Booger Tyner yet. We’re setting up across the line in Chickaloosa County out of Judge Douglas’s jurisdiction. The Killabrews are all gone and there is no competition there. We’ll open a café in that old gin building over there as a front and put the new still down in the swamp behind it. Let’s go”
For the next two weeks Booger and B.M cleaned and remodeled an old cotton gin in Chickaloosa County for the home of Booger’s new enterprise. A hand painted sign on sheet of plywood nailed to a light pole read, BOOGER’S BURGERS & BAIT NOW OPEN.
With the new restaurant open for business, Billy Maynard was stocking the worm bed with night-crawlers when Booger told him, “From now on I’m gonna sell my bait and feed the folks here in Mashula all the burgers and catfish they can eat. It won’t be long before I add a fine jewelry and ATV repair shop right across the road from the gin.”
“Yeah Boog. I can see it now, Booger’s Fine Jewelry and ATV Repair. How about a tire shop too?
B.M.’s words barely cleared his lips when a lady carrying a bulging leather briefcase walked in. Her auburn hair twisted tightly into a bun matched the dark scarf around her neck. The sound of her high heels resonated on the pinewood floor as she zeroed in on the table where Booger chopped onions.
Booger was no rookie at spotting trouble. He knew she wasn’t there to eat catfish or to buy bait. He began wiping his hands down the side of his jeans as he watched the prim and proper lady advance down on him.
Pointing to the large black iron pot on the stove, Booger greeted the lady with the grin that most women could not resist. “Afternoon ma’am. I’ve been cooking and stirring and tasting this gumbo all day. Best you’ll ever eat. Grab a chair and I’ll fix you up a bowl. On the house. Or maybe you’d like to try the house special, one of my Booger Burgers with extra cheese.”
“Are you trying to bribe me?”
The stone-faced inspector replied as she flashed her health department ID.
The laminated ID card meant little to Booger but he replied. “Not a’tall ma’am, but you don’t look like you’re dressed to set a trotline. Iced tea with that gumbo? I would offer you a beer but the state won’t issue me a license. Besides that you don’t look like the beer type. Sorry I don’t have any wine to offer you either.”
The inspector clutched her ID card tightly and told Booger. “I’m not concerned with your beer license or no beer license. I’m Ms. Killabrew. I’m here to inspect this bacteria farm you call a restaurant.
Looking around at everything he had left after his costly trial, an angry Booger told Ms. Killabrew. “Go right ahead with your inspection Ms. Killabrew. The minnow tank’s out back and kitchen is right over here by the worm bed.”
Cutting her piercing eyes toward B.M. and the worm bed she replied. “Yes Mr. Tyner. I see that quite clearly.”
With pen and clipboard in hand she cruised Booger’s place, making no attempts to mask her dismay. She stopped occasionally and placed her finger tips near the fixtures but was very careful not to touch anything as she worked her way from worm bed, to minnow tank, to kitchen and finally back around to the dining area. From time to time you could hear a not-so-subtle gasp and obvious UH-HU. Occasionally she would look at Booger, roll her eyes and shake her head as she worked her way to the end of her checklist.
Ms. Killabrew paused at a dining table and picked up a bottle of Tabasco sauce with two fingers and held it at arm’s length she demanded. “Why is this Tabasco sauce not in the refrigerator Mr. Tyner?”
As Booger’s cool demeanor was stretched to limit he answered. “Refrigerator? Are you kidding me? There ain’t a germ on the face of the earth that could survive in that stuff.”
Booger hesitated with a sneaky grin spreading across his face
He asked her. “Wait a minute, are you kin to them Chickloosa County Killabrews?
Careful to avoid eye contact, she cleared her throat and answered. “My relatives are of no concern here Mr. Tyner.”
“Roscoe Killabrew made the second best moonshine that ever came out of the woods. Him and my grandpa had an agreement. When one of them got put in jail the other would go bail him out. Good fellow Old Man Roscoe was. Back in the old days when river sand, got scarce, he’d send Eugene over to borrow some from Papa Tyner. He always paid him back. No ma’am. Papa Tyner never worried about Old Man Roscoe Killabrew for a second.” Booger paused and chose his words one at a time. “Them boys of his. Well that was a different story.”
“River sand?” She asked.
“Oh, that’s what we called sugar in moonshine business. Doesn’t really fool the law but it keeps them wondering what we’ll come up with next.” He answered with an innocent but sly grin that only Booger Tyner could get away with.
“What do you mean about the boys?” She asked.
Booger took great pleasure in reminding the high hatting inspector that her kin were cut from the same cloth as the Tyners.
Booger told Ms. Killabrew about the clan. “Junior never had lick of sense. Drank himself to death. Lamar was bad to steal. Nobody knows what became of Runt. He shot a fellow over a jug of moonshine, left this part of the country and never been heard from since. Eugene was a cut above. Best one of them Killabrew boys.” Booger paused again in search for the right words. He looked down and said. “Too bad he got killed in a gunfight with a bunch of revenue agents.”
After relating the painful story to her, Booger regained his charm and snappy wit. He grinned and told her. “He had the prettiest little-ole skinny daughter. When he came over to borrow sugar from Papa Tyner I used to pick at her about her red hair. That was so long ago.” As his grin faded from slyness and charm to melancholy Booger finished his story. “I gave her a tiny arrowhead I found down by the creek. Not sure what became of her either. Somebody said she and her mama moved to the Coast after Eugene got shot.”
“And just what makes you think Roscoe Killabrew’s whiskey was second best?” She snapped.
“Cause didn’t nobody make better moonshine than my grandpa. If you don’t believe it, ask Judge Douglas.” Booger answered.
“Well that explains a thing or two. Did you ever try any of Mr. Killabrew’s whiskey?”
A little shocked and a little amused Booger replied. “Oh no ma’am. Not his or nobody else’s. Papa Tyner told me that stuff was made to sell not to drink.”
With a sniff of her turned up nose, she replied. “Like your gumbo? Now Mr. Tyner if you don’t mind I have work to do here.”
After what seemed like a lifetime to Booger and B.M., Ms. Killabrew completed her inspection of Booger’s café and then sat down at one of the tables, opened her laptop and pounded on the keys. Booger tried to ignore the woman with the power to padlock his business. Waiting for her comments was like waiting for the jury all over again. She finally called Booger over and told him. “I’m giving you one week to clean this mess up. I will hold my report until I see how things look around here like next Friday.” She handed Booger a list of her demands, closed her lap top and walked out with the same stiff pace as she had walked in.
Billy Maynard kicked the side of the worm bed and told Booger. “That’s got to be the meanest woman on this earth. She’s meaner than Mary Grace and more dangerous than six sticks of dynamite. Move this. Move that. Get the worm bed away from the stove. I don’t care what she says Booger, I ain’t about to wear no hair net. And I wash my hands every day.”
B.M. double checked his hands and said. “Next thing you know she’ll demand we stop making our own stink bait out of the left over catfish nuggets.”
Reassuring his cousin that everything would be alright Booger told Billy Maynard. “Maybe not B.M.. She did give us a second chance.”
True to her word, Ms. Killabrew returned the following Friday wearing the same scarf with her auburn hair draping like silk over her shoulders. She ditched her business attire for a pair of well-fitting jeans and her makeup was a little glossier. She took a quick look around and shocked Booger with a brief but subtle smile and nodded her head and told Booger. “I knew you could do it Mr. Tyner. I see you moved the worm bed outside. That’s a good start.”
Bewildered by her remarks Booger asked her. “Does this mean I pass your inspection?”
“That’s not what I said.” She retrieved a folder from her briefcase and said. “We’ll see. There is one more thing.”
Her attire and compliment was encouraging to Booger, but B.M.’s words about her bounced around in his head. “Ma’am if you will just tell me what I need to do to pass this inspection I’ll—–.”
“Yes, but before I do, could you tell me more about the shootout where Eugene Killabrew was killed?” She asked
Booger thought there must be more here than just nosey curiosity. He told her. “It’s not a story with a happy ending ma’am. If you must know I’ll tell you.”
“I must know.” She said with a determined tone.
Booger cleared his throat more than once giving the redheaded lady time to change her mind about hearing the details of a deadly shootout. But she never offered to back out. His voice was soft and reluctant as he related the tragic story.
“Uncle Big’n told me all about it. He was helping Eugene run off a batch of shine that night. They didn’t know it but a whole pack of alcohol agents were hiding in the woods about to hit’em when they heard a gunshot. It was in the winter time. Uncle Big’n figures it was probably somebody night lighting a deer but the agents thought the Killabrews were firing at them and then all hell broke loose. When the smoke cleared Uncle Big’n had a load of buckshot in the arm. Almost bled to death.” Booger hesitated to give her one last chance to call it off and then he finished the story. “And Eugene was dead. Uncle Big’n swore they never fired a shot at the lawmen.”
She looked Booger in the eye and asked. “Do you believe your uncle?”
Relieved that the story was finally told he breathed a sigh and answered her. “Oh he ain’t my uncle ma’am. Everybody just calls him that. Uncle Big’n never told a lie in his life. He had no reason to lie about this. The judge said Uncle Big’n had suffered enough with his arm shot up the way it was and dropped the charges against him. That man hates revenuers until this very day. Say, do you know what ever became of that skinny little girl with the red hair?
She ignored Booger’s question and then answered. “Before I can complete my report there is one more thing.”
What is it going to take to get this woman out of my hair Booger asked himself?
“I must try a bowl of your scrumptious smelling gumbo and see if it passes my taste test Mr. Tyner.”
“You mean my gumbo?” He asked.
Booger served the health department inspector a generous helping of his shrimp gumbo and he handed her a bottle of Tabasco sauce from the refrigerator and replied. “It’s on the house ma’am. Now if you’ll excuse me I have to see to it that B.M. washes his hands. He’s finished stocking the worm bed and it’s time for him start frying the fish.” With a twinkle in his eye Booger replied. “Oh, and just call me Booger.”
The auburn-haired beauty slowly removed the scarf and what Booger saw dwarfed the blast that wrecked his still. A homemade necklace with a tiny arrowhead hung around her neck.
Ms. Killabrew slowly lifted the spoon to her lips and tasted the spicy concoction then replied. “And you may call me Genie.”
Booger found his way to the kitchen, closed the door and told B.M. “In the morning I want you go see Earl in Greenville and tell him I won’t need that load of river sand after all.”
The dazed and star-struck Booger took a deep breath and walked back out to the dining area to face his destiny.
by Ralph Gordon (See more about Ralph here)
featured photo compliments of Free Digital Photos