A small southern town suddenly discovers the power of one young boy.
Dust to Dust
Asphalt was now the norm, although there were still dirt roads in parts of Morris County, mostly within the tiny towns still clinging to life far from the major centers. The dirt itself, sun-baked and ground to primordial atoms, morphed into a beige talc every year by the early summer, blanketing houses, yards, and cars. Folks knew the stronger winds of autumn would scatter the drab ubiquitous blanket - and that sweeping it away was a pointless endeavour, one good thunderstorm, or dying gasp of a hurricane and all would sparkle again.
"Shit-stained baby powder," said the old folks, even though, truth be known, they still preferred the dirt to the steady encroachment of pavement, with its constant need for maintenance and repair. Not to mention how it radiated heat, enough to melt running shoe rubber if you stood too long.
"Ashes to ashes" Reverend Archibald would declare. He always made a big production out of squeezing two fistfuls of the powder for the graveside mourners. They'd watch in a trance as fine grains sifted through his fingers, then caught the ever-present breeze, drifting away like gun smoke through the tall yellow grasses.
Absurdly hot ten months a year, Morris County enjoyed a brief reprieve in January and February - southern winter, sweater weather the residents would say, but still no need for coats or gloves - even socks were of minimal value, reserved for the rare doctor, business person or state trooper.
For those who pined for a quaint bygone era, the town of Fisher's Bend provided an easy down-home feeling - laid back, but by no means lazy - jobs were plentiful thanks to the courier company rooted at the end of Jeremiah Street. Five years ago, when the company arrived, house prices soared, remaining strong ever since. Peanuts compared to big city prices but a huge payoff for the original townsfolk - some of whom could still remember building their homes by hand.
Younger homeowners rejoiced at the doubling, sometimes tripling of their home's value, whereas many old folks remained in a state of disbelief and scorn. Vinyl clad twigs and sticks, they'd say about the new dwellings that seemed to pop up overnight, wouldn't know quality if it bit em!
During the construction of the massive courier hub, the town was petitioned for, and approved, the creation of an executive subdivision on the east side of town, designed to house the management big-wigs from Boston - unwilling to relocate without guarded gates and video-cams. The water treatment plant near the Andrew Jackson Dam was also new - built and paid for by the courier company as part of a development deal with the town and county. Deal with the devil some said, others chalked it up to the benefits brought by the unyielding march of progress.
The reservoir at the Jackson dam was very big, bigger than Hailey's swimming hole and Denver's pond put together. Denny fished there every single day, always with his back to the ugly grey facility, a pristine view of the river and serene forest stretching for miles in front of him. He knew the spot like the back of his hand, every concrete chip and metal post, every grate covered intake and swirling eddy. Every square inch of the dam was his oasis and sanctuary.
Townsfolk never fished the reservoir, always telling Denny he was wasting his time. "Nothing in there worth catching or eating, Denny. Nothing of size can get past the filtering system and into the reservoir, and anything small gets sucked into the feeder pipes and spit-out on the spillway at the bottom of the dam.
Denny ignored them; he'd been patiently fishing the reservoir since completion, when all the big dusty trucks left town. He'd never snagged a cushy factory job at the distribution facility - too stupid and slow said the consultant man, better fit for farm hand or street cleaner. Denny dismissed the appraisal - stupid consultant man.
Denny was twenty-four and quite aware he was special, different from the other townspeople. That suited him fine as he didn't want to be like the grown-ups, especially the consultant-man, with his black tie cinched around his sweaty burnt neck and those fancy brown shoes, sanded raw at the sides by the gritty dust. Gotta wear boots around here, thought Denny, stupid man.
He also knew what the locals said behind his back and, on occasion, to his face. The High School kids were the meanest; they'd call him retard or dummy when they'd pass on the street or when he sat on the banks of the reservoir, fishing rod in hand and his big bag of worldly possessions at his side. Opie they nicknamed him, or Denny the dummy, dumb as a bag of hammers they'd shout as they drove past the water's edge, music always blaring.
"Opie," he'd mumble out loud and shake his head. "My name is not Opie, my name is Denny, like the restaurant in Pensacola."
Every year in late spring, Denny would attend the town picnic on the first long weekend in June, which culminated in the big fishing derby on the Monday, now sponsored by the courier company for the pleasure and pacification of the townspeople. However, each year the derby officials would turn him away before he even got close to the tiny dirt road that led down to Turtle Lake. Their excuse surrounded a need for parental permission, on account of him being slow.
Denny didn't have parents, at least he didn't think so. They were either dead or left town or something, but since he was nearly twenty-five he figured, why would I need a parent's signature? I'm a grown man, and I'm absolutely not slow, I can run very fast if I want to.
The townsfolk just laughed, calling him 'The Tard' and sometimes far worse, a 'poison' or a 'cancer', infecting their perfect little community, a true embarrassment. "There's one in every town," said the consultant man from the courier company, "every community's got one, I wouldn't concern yourselves, it's quaint."
I'm not poison, Denny thought, and I'm not a cancer, a person cannot be a cancer, cancer is a proliferation of anaplastic cells, a disease of rapid uncontrolled cell growth, not a person. Cancer is a bad disease, a disease you have to fight and kill. I am not a disease. They're all so stupid.
Over the years, Denny had concluded that most folks in town were bad people, not at all like the good people on his TV, the folks who always learned a valuable lesson every week and cared for each other. Bad people don't care. Besides, their stupid little community wasn't perfect at all. He'd watched it for years, the gossip, theft, fights, hatred and segregation. He knew about their lust, infidelity and all the other terrible things the townsfolk did. Most of all, Denny knew he wasn't stupid, not a tard, not a dummy, and most importantly, he knew he was a better person than those mean name-callers.
Late June and Denny's favourite perennial event had arrived once again. The annual fishing derby and picnic weekend was already a great success and Derby Monday looked like a record breaker. Denny, pole in hand and nodding at everyone he passed, approached the registration table, a massive grin erupting across his sunburned face. "I wanna fish Mr. Judge," he proclaimed loudly.
A man with a camo hat, deep tan and white beard looked up from his binder, "Go home Denny, this ain't for you, this is for the good people of the town."
"But Mr. Judge, I am a townspeople!" Denny's lip was quivering.
"You're a ward of the county Denny, and you've got no guardian here, nobody to supervise you. I can't let you in the derby son." The judge seemed genuinely sympathetic.
Denny slowly turned away from the desk as a small crowd gathered around him.
"Go home Opie." yelled someone from the group. Everybody laughed, some even snorting out their beer.
Opie, I don't know who this Opie is but that's not my name, my name is Denny, and I'm not poison, thought Denny as he ran home yet again, just as he had every year before. How can a person be poison?
Denny burst into the small shed he rented from the widow Darrow and threw himself on the cot beside his big bag of everything. A monthly disability check from Morris County covered the meagre rent, leaving plenty of money left to choke the little shack with books and magazines. Science books, astronomy, chemistry and even biology - a voracious reader, Denny could polish-off five or six college-level head-scratchers between a pay period.
The tiny shed was full to bursting yet cleverly organized for multiple uses. The desk doubled as a clothes hamper, the mini refrigerator, cushioned on top, worked nicely as a comfy stool and the cot made for a fine reading spot and occasional crying place. He'd heard grown men never cry in public, so he'd save up his emotions, waiting for the right time to bury them deep down in a pillow.
That next morning he was back at the reservoir, cross-legged on the steep bank, bobber and bait in the water, staring at the ripples and swirling currents near the intake pipes of the water treatment plant. The sun broke over the willow trees near the far end of the marshy bank and warmed his face. He'd already dismissed the events of the previous day and sat with a smile, contently sipping a can of soda, listening to the bubbles fizz and hiss. A can full of snakes, he'd say to Mrs. Darrow - she was such a nice lady and shared her sodas on those hot summer nights when Denny couldn't sleep.
Mrs. Darrow felt like a mother, or at least what Denny thought it must feel like to have a mother. She would help him do his laundry, not gonna do it for you young man, and let him use her cleaning supplies or tools, and she always shared her favourite soda with Denny, since it was all she ever drank. Denny would tell her how unhealthy it was, but it didn't seem to make a difference. Each night she'd pop out to the shed with two ice-cold Cokes. He suspected there was a little more than Coke in her glass, but he never asked.
The soda ritual became the best part of his day, stargazing and chatting with the Widow Darrow. He suspected she also enjoyed his company and respected him, treating him as a grown up and never calling him names. She's the only good person in the whole world, Denny thought.
Adjusting his big bag of everything so it wouldn't topple over and spill its precious contents down the embankment, Denny moved his hand around inside to ensure everything he needed was still there. Preparation was always the key to a successful day, the previous night he'd paid special attention to the many things he would need, anticipating a long arid day in the sun.
Luke and Andy from the mill slowed their giant pick-up truck as it neared the reservoir, southern rock shattering the morning stillness like a foul ball through a church window. Two massive graphite fishing-poles bobbed and swayed in the back of the truck while bait boxes rattled from side to side.
"Hey retard, gonna catch a shark today?" shouted Luke and they both laughed hysterically. Andy floored the truck, spinning the tires and spraying gravel over Denny and churning up the water around him. "You missed a great derby yesterday, Opie, Dan Everest caught a fucking whale!" They erupted again in laughter, which quickly faded with their dust down the winding lane that led to town.
Denny just smiled and waved as they raced away, happy they'd left him alone this time. They had beaten him before when their breath smelled like whiskey. They were very bad men who got in fights or went hunting at night with flashlights taped to their rifles - Jacklighting they'd call it, even though it was forbidden. Denny knew there were many others just like them, multiplying as each year went by, spreading throughout his little town like a disease. Like a cancer.
It was a Tuesday when the big green trucks and helicopters arrived, each doing their best to scatter beige talc in the air, adding to the town's foggy blanket of neutrality.
The army men moved up Main Street slowly, playing a funny game of hide and seek. At first, they would pop behind parked cars and then scurry like crabs across the street to another vehicle or the cover of a mailbox. They came to a halt in front of the town administration offices, where the mayor and town officials worked. Then, just like in the movies, they posed in funny positions - some lying down, some on one knee and a few behind cars, peeking over the hoods.
Denny sat outside of the Mayor's window on the small veranda that overlooked the street. Legs crossed, he grinned at the approaching troops from a large white wicker chair adorned with patterned cushions. Green floral prints with bold yellow magnolias clashed heavily with Denny's red shirt and his blue canvas shorts.
One army man moved in very close and then rudely pointed a rifle at Denny's head, asking him questions in a very serious tone. His main interest surrounded all the dead bodies scattered throughout the town, by the Army's count there were over three thousand, in homes, businesses, and many more up at the courier warehouse. They lay in the streets or on the sidewalks, some were still in their beds or sitting at office desks while others hung out of idling trucks and cars.
"Coke-a-Cola?" asked Denny, displaying his best southern hospitality, "it's what all us good people drink here in Fisher's Bend." He smiled and thrust a cold, wet can toward the soldier.
The corporal jumped, almost squeezing his trigger in pure reflex.
Denny shrugged and placed the can back in the ice-cooler. "People can't be poison," he announced, adjusting his baseball cap and brushing the dust from his bare feet. "People can only be good or bad; they're either the disease or the cure. It took me a while to figure that out, but now it all makes sense. In my town, good people only drink soda, and the bad people drink the tap water."
The corporal slowly lowered his rifle as a pale wave of horror spread across his face. "Who are you?" He asked almost timidly, his voice cracking as the scope of the genocide hit home. "What did you do?"
"My name is Denny, like the restaurant, Mayor Denny, and I run the fishing derby here in town."