CenterVille

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As the decades went by the story of little Carol Ann only became better as the years passed, and now, years later, deep in the pines, an old black man settled in for the night. He was a slightly stooped man, which didn’t show his inner strength.  He sported a light beard, but not from being groomed as was the fashion in Austin, where a beard was never quite finished, but always in the act of being grown. No, his beard was from not shaving on days he just felt too sore to do it.  He wore a plaid flannel shirt tonight to ward off the damp that was emanating from the pine trees that surrounded his place like so many druids waiting to take up some long forgotten ritual.  He had dark slacks with dark suspenders.  He was lean, and had no fat on him. After eating his nightly bowl of red beans and rice, he made himself a stiff glass of whiskey and water with two cubes of ice from his little “ice box” he kept on his porch.  The slight chill in the night air made it heavy even for September, and his could feel his lungs labor a bit as he breathed.  The doctor would call it asthma, but he called it old age, and had lived with it all his life.  As the years went by it was harder and harder for him to breathe out here at night, but he did not surrender to medicine, drinking his whiskey instead, until the air became lighter. His house was an unpainted shack, but it had a big front porch.  The boards were coming up on the ends here and there, and his old rocker wobbled on them as he rocked.  He lit his cigarette and puffed on it, drinking his whiskey and staring out at the night. What harm the cigarette did to his lungs the whiskey would repair; such is the balance of life.  His whiskey, and Camel cigarettes were all he had left at this late stage, and he did as he pleased.  His name was Manjang, just Manjang!  He never let anyone know if it was the first or last name, and many a bail jumper cowered in years past upon hearing that “Manjang” was at the door.  As Manjang would tell anyone, he lived by his damn self.  He did this same thing every night.

Manjang had never married, but lived a solitary life here in these woods. He’d hunted men before he got his Social Security, and this style of living fit him just fine.  He’d never saved a dime in his whole life.  He lived on what he had.  When he made good money back then he lived well, and now he lived as he had to, making ends meet and not asking anything of anyone.  The bonding companies in Houston or Austin would call and Manjang had just the technique, and the will to track a man anywhere he needed to, and bring him back. He still had an outhouse, and if the county hadn’t put in electricity he’d have gotten along just fine without it.  He had no TV, but did like his ice cubes. His shack sat in a clearing with the tree line not far from him.  There were scattered pines between him and the thick of the forest, and in some of them he’d hung an ornament.  It made little tinkling sounds when what little wind the pines allowed in these woods moved them, but that wasn’t their real purpose.  Their real purpose was hidden in his heart, dark secrets that he carried from his years as a man hunter.  There was a red dirt road leading up to the place from the county road. The road was rough, but he had an old Jeep he took the four miles into town and anywhere else in the woods that he desired to go when it would start up, and all through these pinewoods hung the chimes that he’d placed there.  Each night was the same.  Jim Beam and cigarettes until he got tired of them, and then retiring to his single bed. This night would be no different.

 

Centerville sits in the middle of a thick pine forest, strangely reminiscent of the place where you played during summer break. The kind of place where your grandmother lived. You just knew she was born old, and lived there all her life. Her house usually would sit off the main drag, at the edge of the woods and she had a name like “Nanner” or some other southern phrase that meant “little old lady who lives by the woods.”

Centerville was such a place, drawn from a distant time when things were much simpler, and people worked, and lived, and knew their place. The tall pines impugning their scent and shade to its streets, and the summer’s heat and humidity clinging to you like an antiperspirant you purchased at the dollar store, and now wished that you hadn’t. The town was the only clearing in the forest of tall pines, which lurked at the edge of it as if waiting to take the land back again and swallow it up.  If you grew up in Centerville, you knew all the old usual stories about hapless travelers who’d wandered down the wrong road back into the woods never to find their way back to civilization again. These stories were likely just that, stories because no one ever came “to” Centerville they just “passed through” on their way to Houston, or Austin, or anyplace other than Centerville.  The state highway split the town right down the middle, and divided it into two equal halves and there were the usual run down cafes, and unpainted shops one finds when they pass through a small rural town.  There were no national “chains,” because Centerville didn’t need national chains. There was a bar-b-que shop situated directly across the street from Centerville’s one and only “convenience” store. It was owned and operated by a family of Pakistani immigrants from New York who’d been the last “big” news in Centerville.

If you had passed through Centerville at different times during the year you would notice that that highway was always “under construction” and they never seemed to finish it, becoming worse and worse as the years dragged by, and heaven forbid you should ever pass through the town at night because the plastic barrels on the road, and the signs that accompanied them were never right, invariably leading one to several potholes, or false detours making the unlucky traveler very glad when he was finally leaving Centerville, and heading back to the main portion of the highway, and the sanity of the civilized world once again! For the stranger, or traveler, going through Centerville at night gave a sense of foreboding, fear, and loneliness that one gets in the woods; in the dark.

Centerville had no Wal-Mart, no large grocery store, and no beer!  It was a “dry” town, as many in the state were, clinging to the legacy of prohibition that, failed bit of foolishness that empowered the mafia so long ago.  Oh, not that the residents of the town did not drink, they did, but since you could not purchase alcohol in the town, if you desired to indulge you had to get on the state highway, and go ten miles out of town where a lonely, but well supported liquor store sat on the side of the road in the “county” where such things were allowed.  There were no synagogues, no Catholic churches, and no vagrants in Centerville. There was a Baptist church at one end of town, and the “People’s Assembly Church of God in Christ” directly situated at the opposite end. The congregations therein were split right down racial lines as surely as the state highway split the little town.  The Baptist church was mainly for the white community, and the People’s Assembly was black.  It was not that there was an issue there; it’s just that that was the way it had always been, and that was the way it always would be.  There were never any problems because everyone got along in Centerville because everyone in Centerville knew their place. The “People’s Temple” had been pastored by Elmo Taylor for several years.  He came to town, a single man, and took over the church from the retiring minister who had made what was his life there.  Elmo dedicated his life to the church, and to the community on “that” side of town.  He was loved, and respected by the black community.  Opposite his church, on the other side of the tracks was the Baptist church, pastured by a meek, mild, Baptist preacher, who’s only forceful statements were when he railed against the liquor store out in the county (where such things were allowed.)

The law enforcement in town consisted of the two-man police department that worked out of a small wood frame building over near the bank.  There was a small window unit air conditioner which hung haphazardly out of the window on the side and provided the sound of air conditioning, if not any cool air of any merit. With what little ever went on in town the two men could handle things just fine.  They never set up speed traps because there was absolutely no way a human being could do anything near the posted speed limit in the torn up streets of Centerville anyway, much less speed!  There were absolutely some times that both officers were home with their families, their phones forwarded, and so it goes without saying that the town had no jail because that would require someone to be at the police station at all times.  Should anyone ever need to be arrested (which was highly unlikely) they would simply have to be taken to the county seat some twenty-five miles away and incarcerated there.  Any real investigations would be handled at the county level by the district attorney Nelson or Billy Ray, his chief investigator.  Beyond that was the state department of public safety, better known as the highway patrol, which had the equipment and diagnostics needed for crimes more serious than a drunk driver.  That was in case any real crime happened, because the last and biggest criminal event in town was back in 1947 when little Carol Ann Baker disappeared from the schoolyard.  The townspeople searched for days with no luck and then her battered and violated form was found in the pines, at the edge of a stream, known in those parts as a “bayou.”  It was obvious that the little twelve-year-old had been the victim of a deranged pedophile who, after having his way with her, had bashed her little head in with a rock.  Though everyone knew the killer had been Johnny Johnson he was never captured or convicted of the crime.  He was the dim-witted son of a bitch named Velma Johnson who had no husband, and waited tables in the bar-b-que shop, sidelining as Centerville’s only working prostitute.  The townspeople had put up with Johnny, made fun of him, but considered him to be of no consequence, that is until they found little Carol Ann. At any rate, he was never seen again in Centerville, and everyone believed that when he realized what he’d done he simply went far away so he would never have to face justice for the crime that he’d committed.

After that the town settled pretty much into the life that it lived to this day. Oh, every now and then some hunter, or hiker would be lost in the pines, but that was “normal” for Centerville.  They would find them, dead of exposure, or just dead with no real cause, but those things happened in the woods, and if you were a true citizen of Centerville you knew never to wander much past the tree line. If you grew up in the little town you would certainly know all the ghost stories emanating from the pines with all the gory details about little Carol Ann waiting like a she-devil for any grown man who dared to intrude within her domain.  And the stories had some foundation because there were more than a few disappearances in the woods around Centerville, few more than the law of averages would allow. The only thing that threw a monkey wrench into this ghostly theory was old Manjang living in his shack in the woods. He had made his living in Houston chasing down bail bond jumpers until he finally showed up in Centerville, and purchased a small “tourist cabin” situated three or four miles from the Centerville city hall.  The old man would drift into town to check his mail at the post office every day except Sunday, and no one ever dared to ask him about spirits or carryings on out in the woods because everyone in town knew that Manjang was a man of no nonsense. He kept to himself and didn’t have time for such things as gossip, or the welfare of anyone else but his “damn” self!  It was widely known that he carried a pistol, and had used it, indeed would use it again with little or no provocation what so ever!  He had no dealings with any of the occupants of this one-horse town and they steered clear of him! No one knew where Manjang had come from and no one in Centerville wanted to pry.

There were three schools in Centerville.  There was the elementary school, where little Carol Ann had been abducted, a middle school, and a high school, all appropriately named “Centerville” this or that.  The football team never won a game in the high school circuit, and no student from Centerville ever ran off to become a famous movie star or writer or anything. Every once in a very blue moon someone would leave the little town and venture to exotic places like Houston or Austin, but they never came back.  They would simply never be spoken of again. They would never again be seen at the “Dairy Dream” eating ice cream, and would never show up in church anymore.  Like a dead thing that no one wants to turn over for fear of the smell.

The community had one funeral home that naturally was locally owned and had been operated “with dignity” for the last fifty years by a local family of funeral directors whom everyone in town knew and naturally gave all their business to when the need should arise. There were no racial lines drawn there because there was simply no place else to go when you went!  There was a chapel at the home, but it was rarely used because everyone who passed was either Baptist church or People’s Assembly and the two preachers took care of the need of a service. When death reared its ugly head the funeral would be conducted at either one of the churches, and one end of town or the other will be clogged with cars because everyone knew everyone in Centerville. The funeral home had been founded by Randal Pulhman way back in the depression. He’d operated it “with dignity” for a number of years, his sons coming in behind him, and the business had done well.  Randal had embalmed little Carol Ann, or what was left to be embalmed. That was a closed casket affair if there ever was one. The rock that had crushed her little head in had been a very large rock indeed, and had so disfigured her face that literally her own mother would not have known her. Even Randal Pulhman was taken aback by the ferociousness of the attack. In his point of view there was absolutely no reason at all to kill the little girl; that is unless she knew her assailant, and that went on to further prove that it must have been Johnny Johnson.  The sexual assault further proved it had been Johnny because he was an “idiot kid” and everyone knew that “idiot kids” were over sexed!  There was a big funeral; everyone came, and little Carol Ann was laid to rest in the graveyard near the Baptist church, where she rests until today, or rather her body rests until today, because everyone knows that her spirit, maddened by her untimely death, prowls the woods around Centerville taking vengeance on the male population whenever possible.  Or so the local legend told.

The Pulhman Funeral Home prospered and grew all through those early years and Randall Pulhman became a very wealthy undertaker, but, as it comes to us all, and indeed came to all of Randall’s customers, death came to visit him one Sunday afternoon while he was consuming turnip greens and ice cream on his porch.  What he had taken to be acute indigestion turned out to be a heart attack and they found him sprawled in his antique rocker with his melted Blue Bell ice cream all over his favorite “Dallas Cowboys” T-shirt and his pants full of shit.  He was buried in the same graveyard as little Carol Ann, “with dignity.”  With the passing of the patriarch the family felt the need of hiring outside of the family to fill the shoes of the senior undertaker, and the very fact that there no other undertakers in the family left to fill his shoes so this dilemma led them to Leon Chisholm, aspiring young mortician born and raised in Dallas, Texas, married to the young and comely Heather.  One more thing was added; Leon was black!  This dazzling urbanite seemed to fill the bill quite well for the chicken fried funeral home, and they rolled out the red carpet enticing him to see things their way.

For years it had been an issue as to the care of the black patrons of the funeral home.  Certain things were different in this area, but had never been addressed properly by the establishment and therefore were merely tolerated by the black community as a whole who had no place else to take their departed.  The surviving members of the firm decided to change this by deliberately hiring a black funeral director and he would be the one who would handle the funerals that required his special attention.