Rudell Bostic was sleeping in a Super 8 off Highway 51 in Carbondale, Illinois the night they arrested his fifteen-year-old son Johnny for vandalism and curfew. He worked as a service manager for a company that designed and manufactured electrical power distribution equipment for underground mines, which made him responsible for repairing his company’s equipment every time something broke down. Things broke down a lot in mines, so Rudell got sent to places like Carbondale or Hazard, Kentucky more often than his wife cared for. The company had shipped him off to crawl down shafts in Mexico and Guatemala and Guam, and one time even Egypt.
His wife Eleanor called his room at the Super 8 in Carbondale sometime after 2:00 a.m. to report Johnny’s arrest. Rudell was dead asleep when the phone rang and many of her details were lost, but he gathered that Johnny had snuck out with a group of boys and got caught vandalizing someone’s property.
Rudell held the beige motel phone to his ear and watched the cord sway with the air conditioning. “OK,” he said, “and?”
She said nothing at first. “What do you mean, ‘and?’”
“And what are the police going to do about it?”
“Officer says he’ll get an official statement tomorrow. He wants to question the boys one by one.”
“Right. And what do you want me to do about this? I’m in goddamn Carbondale.”
“You have to be here,” Eleanor said. “You’re his father.”
Rudell gave himself a few seconds to breathe. The middle of the night seemed the wrong time to start a fight that he had felt her building toward for months.
“I know that,” he said. “That’s why I’m here. Working. To provide.”
The line cut dead. That was Eleanor’s version of taking a few seconds to breathe.
Demand for coal had flatlined with the Clean Air Act, so companies were laying off miners quicker than you could blink, and all but the biggest companies were folding or selling out. Fewer mines meant fewer orders for his company, so they had cut back to one serviceman, meaning Rudell got sent to every job that needed service. Eleanor told him she thought he was on the road more often than he was at home. He hadn’t done the tallies, but she might be right.
He got up and made a pot of weak coffee from the cheap coffee maker that counted as an amenity in the Super 8 in Carbondale. The pot was small and the machine was nondescript black plastic. Brown crust stuck to places both inside and outside the machine, and the glass carafe was stained heavily. He drank the coffee and headed to the mine to finish the job he had driven all this way to do, which proved to be nothing more demanding than installing a new voltage regulator and capacitor.
The good news was he was able to put in a day’s work and start the drive back home to West Virginia before lunch. The bad news was his eldest was a criminal, a fact his wife blamed him for.
He knew his relationship with Johnny had strained. Talking to a fifteen-year-old boy seemed impossible, but seeing that boy only a few times a week didn’t exactly open up their relationship. When Johnny was little he had thought Rudell was magic—he could fix anything and could do no wrong. Rudell knew his son no longer thought that. He wasn’t even sure the boy loved him, not really. How could you know?
The service van didn’t have a tape deck, so Rudell scanned stations looking for classic rock or country, just about anything that wasn’t talk or Top 40. The heavy stomp of “Iron Man” made him take his hand from the dial. That riff brought him back to high school, ditching gym class to get stoned in Dayle’s car with Sabbath on the 8-track.
In a way, he was almost proud of his son—Johnny was a quiet kid, a little too much of a goody-good for his own wellbeing, Rudell thought. Hell, at Johnny’s age, he was getting into all kinds of trouble, though never with the law, but only because they never got caught. Johnny had started to act out lately, started to get in trouble at school, and his mother blamed Rudell. She thought Johnny was pushing his luck because his father wasn’t home. She might be right, but still, part of him was glad to see Johnny push the rules a bit.
But on the long drive home he began to think differently. Sure, when he was Johnny’s age, he had done a lot worse, but now, in his forties, with a career and a mortgage and a name in the community, Rudell had begun to want people’s respect, not least of all Sheriff Woods, who had been his friend for going on thirty years now since they were boys in the creek hunting for crawdads. Having a friend elected Sheriff made Rudell feel important, but he knew it also meant keeping his family name clean. Johnny’s arrest threatened that. Rudell was not sure what he would say to Sheriff Woods when he got home. Boys will be boys? That felt too easy, and he worried the Sheriff would think Rudell was trying to take advantage.
He made it home to Black Bear Creek in that space between dusk and full dark and found a Sheriff’s cruiser blocking his driveway—not Sheriff Woods’s beat up cruiser, but a shiny new one—parked catty corner across the opening to his driveway, so Rudell pulled the service van into the grass of his yard.
Rudell walked through his front door. There on the sofa was a young officer in a dark brown uniform, his pistol hanging bulky from his belt. The table lamp cast a weak, beige light that made the room seem dimmer than if no light had been on at all, but the beams fell perfectly on the officer sitting at the corner of the sofa. The officer’s pistol looked plastic, more like a toy than an actual weapon, and that made the gun somehow more terrifying as it bulged from the young officer’s hip.
Johnny sat on the loveseat and stared at the floor, refusing to look at his father, but Eleanor turned to him as soon as he opened the door. She was close to tears, sitting on the loveseat next to Johnny and rubbing his back.
The officer rose from the sofa. “Mr. Bostic? I’m Deputy Timmons.”
They shook hands.
“Your daddy Dayle Timmons?”
“Yes sir,” the deputy said. The way this younger man kept calling him “sir” made Rudell feel old and tired, especially since he knew the deputy held the power in this situation. And the thought that Dayle’s son was now an officer of the law almost made him laugh.
“I was friends with your daddy, way back when. Tell Dayle I say hello.”
“I will, sir.”
“Well, deputy,” Rudell said. “I got to say, I don’t know much about what’s going on.”
“That’s what we’re just getting around to.” Timmons sat back on the sofa. Rudell perched on the arm of the loveseat next to Eleanor, but Johnny still wouldn’t look at him. Rudell wondered which man Johnny was more afraid of, and he hoped the answer was his father.
“We received a complaint last night from a resident on Power Line Drive,” the deputy said. “Boys were throwing rocks at a satellite dish. I took the call, and found the boys a few blocks from the complainant’s house. Now, I went back over there today and looked at that man’s yard, and there were a good thirty or forty rocks in his yard, all around that satellite dish, which looked all beat to hell.”
Rudell caught himself about to laugh again. He’d been more than prepared to put the fear of God the Father in the boy, but it was just a damn satellite dish. He would personally go to Power Line Drive and write the man a check for a new one if it meant he got to come home, take a shower, eat a warm dinner, and go to bed without thinking about any of this.
“Tell me the truth, son,” the deputy said. “You throw rocks at that man’s satellite dish?”
“No sir, I never,” Johnny said. “I swear.”
The officer glanced at Rudell, and it seemed clear Timmons did not believe him, and neither did Rudell. Rudell knew all Johnny’s tells, so he saw the lie for what it was.
“John Michael,” Rudell said to the back of his son’s head. “Tell the truth now.”
“I swear,” Johnny said.
“If he says he didn’t do it,” Eleanor said, “he didn’t do it.”
That was just like her, always quick to believe one of her babies. She was gullible that way, in a way that Rudell’s own mother never had been. Had the cops ever picked up Rudell, his mother would have taken a switch to him until he couldn’t sit still long enough to spin these lies.
The deputy shook his head like he had never heard something so foolish. “You’re telling me none of you boys threw rocks at that man’s satellite dish, when I already told you I counted a good forty or fifty rocks in that man’s yard?”
“Nah,” Johnny said. “No sir. Them other boys, they threw rocks at the satellite, but I never did.”
“See,” Eleanor said. “It was those other boys! I’ve warned him about that Tyree boy. I’ve warned him again and again, and now that boy and his friends have gone and gotten Johnny in trouble.”
The officer looked up at Rudell. He was certain that Timmons knew Johnny was lying and that Rudell knew it too. The room felt warm, like the heat was running, but he knew there was no reason for that. The two men made eye contact and the lie stretched taut between them.
“Son,” Timmons said, “lying to an officer is a crime. You threw rocks at that satellite, didn’t you?”
Johnny began to cry, which embarrassed Rudell. His son was close to being a man, and he wished he would take this like a man.
“Didn’t you,” the deputy said.
“I swear,” Johnny said. “I never threw no rocks at that man’s satellite dish. I swear to God.”
Rudell was supposed to say something here, to choose sides. Johnny seemed to read the situation and finally turned to his father and pulled a frantic face.
“Daddy,” Johnny said. “I promise I didn’t do it.”
He could defend his son, or he could tell the officer what he knew to be true, that his son was lying as clear as day, a fact he read in the officer’s face. He could defend his kin or he could side with justice, but he could not do both, and he knew either choice would be wrong.
“Look, deputy,” Rudell said. “If the boy says he didn’t do it, I guess he didn’t do it.”
Timmons shook his head, wrote something in his pocket notebook, and flipped the cover closed.
“Today’s your lucky day,” Timmons said. “I already talked to all the other boys, already got all their statements. And all five of them, every single one of them, says Johnny didn’t throw any rocks. Out of all fifty or sixty rocks I saw in that man’s yard—hell, more like seventy now that I think about it—they say your Johnny didn’t throw a single stone. Hard to believe, but there you go.”
Rudell wondered why those other boys would lie for Johnny. What would be the point of standing around and watching your friends chuck rocks and not pick up a single one yourself?
“What’s going to happen to them other boys?” Rudell said.
“They’ll all plead guilty in juvie court and get community service. Nothing bad.” Timmons rose and headed for the front door. “We’re charging Johnny with curfew. Means he’s got a file now. He gets picked up again, for vandalism, curfew, underage drinking—shit, smoking a cigarette in public before he’s eighteen—and we’ll remember this.”
The deputy shut the door behind himself and the cruiser pulled out of their drive. Johnny wiped away his tears and turned his head away from his father. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Rudell felt a rage build up inside him, a rage at his son and his wife for making him a liar. His own father would be disgusted with him if he could see him now.
Eleanor pushed one hand against Johnny’s back. “You go on to bed,” she said. “We’ll all talk about this in the morning.”
“He’s lying,” Rudell said as soon as Johnny was out of the room. “We both know that.”
Eleanor said nothing at first. “Well, what matters is, Johnny isn’t getting into any trouble.”
“Maybe not with the law,” Rudell said. “But he’s in trouble.”
He had been on the road so long that when he shut his eyes all he saw were double lines of brake lights and headlights against the back of his eyelids. He was tired and he was hungry, but most of all he was a liar.
“It’ll be better coming from you,” Eleanor said. “You’re his father. Community service, anything the law might do to him wouldn’t make no difference.”
Rudell’s parents would have punished him hard enough that he never dreamt of vandalizing again, but this was a different age. Folk were soft now. Making the boy clean litter off the side of the highway, making him sweat and feel shame, that would do him more good than taking away his Nintendo 64 would. Shame and sweat, that was the answer.
“First thing in the morning,” Rudell said. “I’m taking him over to Power Line Drive, and I’m going to make him apologize personally. Then he’s going to pick up every single one of those rocks, and I’m going to watch him mow that man’s yard.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Eleanor said.
“Well I do,” Rudell said. “And I’m his father.”