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by R.T. Smith
Southern Cultures, Vol. 18, No. 1: Spring 2012

". . . Earl was a steady liar who never in his life solved a single crime, to hear my father tell it, an improvident soul prone to nocturnal misdemeanors himself . . ."

My father was hooked on one brand, Ancient Age,
always in pints perhaps to stow snug in the glove box
with the pearl-handled pistol, and likely to prove
he was a moderate man, and he would tell stories
of his partner Earl Thatcher, a devotee of excess,
intolerance and wrath, who’d slip away from dinner
to take a piss but slink back to the room, sneak a sip
from my father’s bottle and add water to hide his habit,
but Earl was a steady liar who never in his life solved
a single crime, to hear my father tell it, an improvident
soul prone to nocturnal misdeamnors himself, a bald
rascal who ran with underage women and ate Chinese
straight from the white box with sticks, an imposter
who didn’t know a six-cylinder from a V-eight.
He shortcutted the Miranda recitation, might slap
a suspect in private and believed the cuffs’ teeth were
meant to maim. They both liked their evening drink,
however, and would sit before the TV, sound down
to a whisper and compare notes, plan the next day’s
interviews and crime scene searches. It was arson
they were hired to unravel, usually by half-wits
eager for the insurance, and I’ve seen many pictures
of the pair in charred ruins, their coveralls streaked
with soot, remnants of an oily rag lifted on a stick
or pointing at scorched remains of some poor fool
who didn’t know his craft and chose the wrong
accelerant or was overcome by smoke. They both
smoked Camels, and Earl was portly, a smooth man
who liked his sleep and told crude farmer’s daughter
jokes when he wasn’t bragging, while my father
held himself to one jigger’s worth an evening
and stripped to his skivvies to enjoy his routine fifty
push-ups before retiring. Earl got fired, of course,
and my father laughed at the ways he tried to justify
his misdeeds, especially in expense account matters,
but years later Dad confessed he missed the game
of jockeying to see who’d leave the tip or rush
into a firebug’s house first, weapons at the ready,
and then he would go back to the kitchen cabinet
and pour a second dash of Ancient Age and prepare
to reminisce until he’d circle back around
to the ever-present pity that it was Earl who
told me about the darker methods of law officers
and who took me to the range with ample rounds
to fire at human silhouettes until I could deliver
a tight group in the kill zone, at which point I’d
swear with all of Earl’s extravagant cursing art,
praising the rascal who taught me to breathe
and squeeze the trigger and shoot for the heart.

From Southern Poetry Review; reprinted courtesy of the author.