“Well, well... if it ain’t Bobby Lee Darrow,” the police officer said, leaning against the door frame of the beat-to-hell Camry, before poking his head in and taking a sniff. “Thirsty, are we?” he asked.
“Hello, Officer Leeman. Just on my way home,” Bobby replied.
“Mmm... mmm... mmm. Boy, I’ve seen stupid plenty in my days, but ain’t met nobody more stupid than you.”
Bobby tossed the empty bottle of beer to the passenger-side floorboard then passed his driver’s license, registration, and insurance card.
“Won’t have the need of these anytime soon,” Leeman mocked, accepting all three. “Ain’t never seen anyone chug a bottle of beer while operating a motor vehicle with a cop parked right alongside. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Bobby held up a hand to deflect the flashing blue lights of the patrol car angled just in front of his bumper. “I’d be a freakin’ billionaire if unlucky breaks were made of gold,” he mumbled, unhitching his seatbelt.
“What’s that?” Leeman snapped.
“Nothing,” Bobby replied.
“Okay, boy, get on outta there.”
Bobby cut the engine and stepped from the vehicle.
“Think you can walk the line?”
“I ain’t drunk.”
“I’ll be the judge of that. Start walking... to the back of the vehicle.”
With the beam of a flashlight burning bright in his eyes, Bobby walked without a hint of unsteadiness. Leeman watched while a second officer searched the vehicle.
“How much have you had tonight?”
“Just the one,” Bobby replied.
“Yes, sir. I left the liquor store five minutes before you pulled me over. The receipt is on the front seat.”
“Celebrating something, are we?”
Leeman pointed to the trunk. “Okay, go ahead on now, you know the drill.”
Bobby spread his legs and placed both hands on the rear spoiler.
“You know I ain’t got no weapons on me or in the car,” Bobby said.
Leeman patted him down up one side then the other. “I’m looking for needles, not weapons. Got any on your person?”
“You know I don’t do drugs.”
“Any in the car?”
“You know I don’t do drugs.”
“I reckon that’s what you tell all your friends and your mamma. Anything in the vehicle I should know about?
“Maybe a little wacky weed?”
Bobby shook his head. “I’ve never taken drugs or smoked a joint in my life.”
“Well, something sure as hell is affecting your decision-making abilities tonight.”
How about this horseshit town, the people in it, and your fat ass, Bobby thought.
Leeman inspected his license. “Well... how ’bout them apples,” he said with an animated cadence. “Hey, Marty, you ain’t gonna believe this. Come on back here.”
The second officer exited Bobby’s car, holding a six-pack of Bud Light—minus one—and a fifth of Jack. “Whatcha got?”
“Get a load of this,” Leeman said, stretching his arm with license in hand, spotting it with the flashlight.
“No way,” the second officer said, “a birthday boy.”
“Yeah, twenty-one all of fifteen minutes.”
“How about that? I was born in ’89 too. What are the odds of something like this happening?” the second officer asked.
“Better than the odds he’ll get in court.”
Bobby held his position, ignoring their laughter. Should’ve put the damn beer in the Pepsi can, he thought. It’s why you have it in the first damn place.
“All right, boy,” Leeman said, his laugh dwindling, “let’s get you to the lockup.”
Bobby instinctively drew his arms behind his back.
“You like how that feels?” Leeman said, tightening the cuffs around his wrists.
“Seems to me you do. But it’s like my daddy always told me, show me a repeat offender, and I’ll show you stupid.”
“I ain’t stupid. Stop callin’ me that.”
Leeman grabbed his arm and swung him around square. “Is that a fact? You pull up to a stoplight and chug a bottle of beer with a cop sitting right next to ya? Ya get busted multiple times for underage drinking and driving, swiping hubcaps, political signs, food from grocery stores, and one suspension after another at school, and that makes you a goddamn valedictorian?”
Bobby hung his head and retreated a step. “I ain’t stupid, is all.”
“I sure as hell would like to know your definition of it then. You keep this up, boy, and you’ll get more than a full dose of stupid in prison. Read him his rights, Marty.”
They led Bobby to the black-and-white Talladega City patrol car, its signature seal glowing bright from vehicles passing slowly to catch a glimpse of the arrest.
“Do you understand the rights I’ve just read to you?”
“Yes, sir,” Bobby said.
“With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak with me?”
Leeman secured Bobby’s head, then eased him into the back of the car. “I think your nine lives is up, boy,” he said, slamming the door.
Bobby leaned his head against the front seatback, surfing his conscience, recalling the many brushes with the law he’d endured, no thanks to a father who died when he was nine, a single mother who had no idea how to handle such a rebellious hellion, and a modus operandi developed early on that influenced his opinion that the world, and all the people in it, were full of shit.
He reflected on a junior high history teacher once told him, as he dragged him down the hallway to the principal’s office, “Son, no way, no how, does anyone waltz through life the way you do and not pay the piper. Your ass kickin’ is coming. You mark my words.”
Bobby took a deep breath then released. He was right as rain.
“Should we stop by your momma’s house to say hello?” Leeman mocked over his shoulder.
Bobby stared out the window and kept his mouth shut, refusing to take the bait. Leeman had done the same thing the last time he’d hauled him in—and succeeded—slapping him with an additional charge of resisting arrest.
“Wait ’til they send you to the state house. Talk about comfortable. You’ll get three squares of tasteless hash, a nice steel cot, and get to take a shit and wipe your ass while another convict watches you from three feet away. Not to mention, you’ll have your choice of a hundred boyfriends.”
“What about my car?” Bobby asked, ignoring the jabs.
“I’d think that’d be the least of your concerns at the moment.”
“I left some personal stuff behind.”
“Marty put your liquor back, parked it in the McDonald’s parking lot and locked it up. We got your keys right here.”
“I ain’t talking about the booze. I left my checkbook and keys to my apartment in the console.”
“You won’t need none of that. Someone else’ll have to bail your ass out, if you can find anyone. I’m betting you’ll be spending the night with us.”
Sergeant Max Miller chuckled, as Officer Leeman dropped his prisoner off at the booking desk. The sergeant rubbed the stubble on his chin as if exhausted before leaning back and crossing his arms.
“What in the world is your problem, Bobby Lee?” he asked, peering through thick-lensed glasses. He tugged at his shirt collar to gain relief for his meaty neck.
Leeman removed the cuffs and directed Bobby into a chair facing the desk. “See you in court.”
Miller tossed a pen onto his desk. “I just don’t know what to do with you anymore. Is this the life you want, Bobby Lee? Do you enjoy breaking the law?”
“No, sir,” he said, redirecting his eyes to the floor.
“You think this is what your father would’ve wanted for your life?”
“I don’t need to hear about my father’s wishes from you.”
“Okay, tough guy, then, let’s talk about your poor saint of a mother.”
Across the room, three officers struggled to control a man screaming he was the second coming of Jesus.
“Don’t you care what you’re doing to her?”
“My family is my business,” Bobby replied.
“Okay, Bobby Lee... okay. Keep it up. This ain’t your youth when ya got caught stealing that car. This ain’t juvie. You keep on this path and see how much worse things turn out. I’ll tell you this, in the state house, you won’t have a pot to piss in. Those boys’ll eat a punk like you for breakfast then shit you out for lunch and not think twice about it. You can take that to the bank.”
Miller waved for assistance. “Get him outta here,” he ordered. “Cell four.”
The officer escorted Bobby down a long corridor to a grouping of six holding cells, all adorned with heavy steel doors and stenciled roman numerals painted blood red. He opened door four. Bobby stalled just past the threshold.
“Momma? What are you doing here?”
“How’d ya figure I was here?” Bobby asked.
“Does it matter?”
“No, but I only got arrested a half hour ago.”
“A friend of mine had the pleasure of spotting you on Ferguson Street standing behind your car in handcuffs. She called me out of the kindness of her heart.”
The cell door across the hall slammed shut, sending the sound of steel-on-steel ringing off the walls. Bobby glanced toward the door then to his mother. The room seemed to shrink. “I don’t know why they had to call you over one lousy beer.”
Mrs. Darrow crossed her legs, smoothing out wrinkles in a simple, pale-yellow cotton skirt, locking onto her son’s eyes. The look on her face could’ve scared a snake out of its skin. “Just look at you. You haven’t shaved in two years, your clothes are a mess... I just don’t understand you.”
“I’m sorry, Momma. It’s not like I was drunk or driving under the influence.”
“This time,” she said, shaking her head. “Sorry is all you ever are. It ain’t enough to be sorry. You saying sorry don’t mean a thing anymore... to no one.”
“It was just one beer. It’s my birthday.”
“Well, happy birthday, son. I guess turning twenty-one makes you a man.” She moved to the edge of her seat. “You listen to me,” she said pointing. “Drinking and driving doesn’t make you a man. Going to prison doesn’t make you a man. A man is made by the goodness he stands for and walking in the path of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“It was just one beer.”
“Just one beer. How many times have I heard that? How many times have I had to come down here and bail you out? You do what ya always do, then go on your way as if you was the only one walking this earth.”
“I was on my way home, honest. I went straight to the liquor store and wasn’t goin’ nowhere else.”
“I don’t care,” she said, wiping a building wetness from her eyes with the tip of a Kleenex. Make all the excuses ya want. You can blame whomever you want. The only person you care about is yourself. You expect the world to mold to you instead of trying to improve yourself to adapt to others. You create all this trouble and expect everyone to feel sorry for ya because you still blame your daddy for your lot in life.”
Seeing his mother wipe away tears, as he’d forced her to do many times, always rekindled the memory of a nurse pulling a white sheet over his father’s face.
“Your father did his duty to serve and protect our country. Instead of blaming him, you should be dedicating your life to living the way he wanted ya to live.”
“How would I know how he wanted me to live, Momma?” There wasn’t time to know.
No sooner had his father retired from his military career, and years away from both wife and child due to nonstop trips overseas, than his health declined. Bobby’s memories included only a man who could not speak, could barely move, and continual trips from home to the emergency room. There was no time.
Mrs. Darrow placed her purse on the metal table separating them. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “You’ll never appreciate and respect the man he was or the commitment he made to his country. You’ll never accept that he loved you, despite what he was going through. You’ve set to stone the man you are and will be—no job, no future, nothing to commit to, nothing suggesting you’ve got an ounce of maturity or respect for yourself or others. You spend all your time running around with punks who’ll only lead ya into more trouble. I can’t take it anymore, Bobby Lee. I’m ashamed of you. You’ll just have to learn to live with the consequences of your choices.”
“Don’t ya think I wish every day I could’ve had a game of catch with him, or gone fishin’, or campin’, or anythin’ like other boys got to do with their fathers? We had no relationship. He was too busy dyin’.”
“I’m sorry, son,” she said, rising to her feet. “I won’t bail you out again. I won’t pay another court cost or lawyer fee. Do you understand me? I’ve wasted thousands of dollars on you, and for what? So, you and the rabble ya run ’round with can continue your devilish ways? Is this the life you’re craving? If so, then you got it... but you’ll do it on your own.”
“Momma, it was one beer. I was on my way home.”
She shook her head. “I’ve tried to teach you right from wrong. God knows I have.”
“I’ll pay ya back... I promise.”
“No, not this time.” Mrs. Darrow walked to the door and knocked. An officer released the tumblers.
She stepped into the hallway. “Bobby Lee, one of these days you’re gonna learn this world doesn’t revolve around you and doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. It’s up to each of us to make the best of every disappointment and find a way around it.”
“Momma, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too, son. I’m sorry you don’t have the first clue what it means to be a man.”
Bobby managed to coax his best friend Trevor out of bed, with the promise of breakfast, and a quick payback, to bail him out and pick him up at the county jail.
A stack of pancakes at Huddle House hit the spot, as Bobby relayed his latest run-in to his lifetime pal, who’d endured similar marks against his record.
“Eh, don’t worry, Bobby Lee,” Trevor said. “They’ll slap you on the wrist. You know... a fine, traffic school, somethin’ like that. At least you weren’t shit-faced. The worst that could happen is they’ll swipe your license a few months.”
“Yeah, I don’t know. With my history, I reckon I may be in for a little more than that.”
“Who’d that cop say you’d be up against in court?”
“He didn’t say,” Bobby said, adding another layer of syrup to his stack.
“Hope you don’t get Cannon.”
“Yeah. Now there’s a prick if there ever was one,” Trevor said, pointing a toothpick.
“You faced him?”
“Nah, I didn’t, but my cousin Leroy did. That asshole sent him to the max at Kilby.”
“Wait a second,” Bobby said, scratching his head. “Cannon. I think he was a friend of my pops. I think my mom told me they served together in Vietnam.”
“Well, if you’re lucky, maybe he’ll remember that. When do you appear?”
“They didn’t waste much time, did they?”
“No, but I’d rather get it over with. Reckon if they send me to jail, there ain’t no better time for that than now, since I ain’t workin’.”
Bobby pulled along the sidewalk at #4 Haller Street, slipped his Camry between two pickups, then entered the twenty-by-twenty basement apartment as the morning sky gave birth to dawn.
The single-room flat, with built-in kitchenette, toilet, and corner shower, proved a steal at $85 a month—utilities included—and a lucky break, considering he’d been fired from a local county feed and seed co-op two weeks prior.
“We’ve had a bad year and need to make some cuts,” the boss had told him.
Bobby’s chronic oversleeping and failing to work consistent full shifts seemed the likelier reason for his dismissal.
No matter, he’d managed to sock away enough dough to pay for the damp and dark basement through the end of the year, but beyond that, God only knew.
Following a quick shower and a scan of his mail, he crawled into bed, flipped the radio to his favorite southern rock station, and read again the instructions for his court appearance.
Nine o’clock... be prepared to pay any court-ordered fines... personal checks accepted.
He let the document slip to the floor as he rolled onto his back, staring at the unpainted drywall ceiling dotted with cobwebs and water stains.
“What the hell are ya doin’ with your life?” he mumbled, covering his eyes with a forearm, replaying the conversation with his mother.
You’ll never accept that he loved you, despite what he was going through.
“He was too busy dying,” Bobby whispered, before falling fast asleep.