The long hot summer of 2018 is the crapehanger of American antiquity. Just look at the harum-scarum decorating of the Oval Office. The touch of a Martha Stewart intern. They got air-conditioning in there. Cool as the shade under banana trees. Chairs covered in human skin. The Thomas Kinkade portrait of Old Hickory dusted off. Makes you wonder how they scrubbed shadow out of that trim white paint.
It’s as though — from the consensual inertia with which the birthday cake-flavored wall came down, the wall’s willingness to be crumbled — jailhouses were once designed and constructed to be penetrable by outraged mobs of pale rat-catchers inbred of the synthetic gene pool on the Mayflower. Three sledgehammers — one each with our names on them — awaited six hands, as a bride awaits her groom, three middle-aged, married (to a mouth, a voice, a pair of crossed legs, a scream, a rose), white fathers of three named Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or was it rather this: Matthew, Mark, and Luke awaited the sledgehammers to find them. The hammer always finds you, like a heat-seeking missile. A sledgehammer is the assegai of God: see what it can do to a man’s fleshy face, which is not a concrete wall, even though it looks like one.
When they struck with sledgehammers at the jailhouse, they struck at the chips on their shoulders. The chips went flying. Rumors of rape did little to lighten the load of the chips upon their shoulders. The walls crumbled like wet birthday cake. Matthew, Mark, and Luke hauled out Shipp first, Smith second-last but one, and then me, last as usual, but I never minded, being last you get the convenience of seeing what’s coming down the line, in order of age, oldest to youngest, so there was some logic to it. As done in Hamelin. Logic flourishes amidst the hurry-scurry and the farrago, such as Thornton Dial was fond. We would skip the courthouse, straight to the trees. The courthouse was ugly and grisly as ever, and even today a Martha Stewart intern might gag its soul, squeeze it dry a little deader. Such crucifixions of the polis cannot be gay. Judges in Lexonic periwigs huddled over the portentous flumadiddle of their law books. Shouting flatulent judgments in high-sounding Latin. That was on a good day. Nonesuch good day when the shoulder chips flew. Shipp, Smith, and myself, after some colloquy, in which we debated the merits of meliorism, the possibility and desirability of extropianism, at last agreed that it was prudent to go in order of age, oldest to youngest, and to go screaming. That our voices in this crab bucket might be heard. Out to the corner of Third and Adams, where the judge’s groundskeepers tidied and nursed the maple trees just for the occasion. The rat-catching mob foregathered about the hanging trees, united in their purpose as a single waspish, sullen person.
Shipp took a lick. Another lick. So far so good. What started simply as a lick from a hick became a licking. Another lick. A kick. The licking became a kicking, and that kicking a beating, and Shipp’s right eye distorted like a deluxe red apple fattening on his face. And we didn’t have to wait long before the beating became a suggillation. Shipp gave as good as he got. Got better than he gave, too. Die on your feet! Come at me, bro! he shouted at the rat-catchers, to no avail. For they came at him. They came at Smith. They came at me. They came at us all. As done in Rwanda. I was Hutu, Smith was Tutsi, Shipp was Twa. The red apple bulged bigger than the red dot on the face of Jupiter. Smith, I believe, though I am no coroner, no county medical examiner, not by a long shot, Smith was already without the generally accepted medical and spiritual signs of life — heartbeat, pulse, cares — when they hanged him in the square. I tried to call for a timeout, but Polyphemus is blind and cannot see my hand-signaling. Hanging a corpse in the courthouse square for the vultures, rubberneckers, and postcard makers, a lesson to the sons of Shipp and Smith.
Because this was a moment in local history to be fondly remembered, Lawrence Beitler was called upon to take our picture. This was before the religion of Instagram. The selfish iconography of the selfie. A man hanging unconscious from the courthouse maple cannot exactly take his own picture. Beitler’s equipment shot us with light. We smiled big and white. I have good teeth. Correction: had good teeth. Now my teeth are catawampus, carious tombstones. Smith’s teeth, on the other hand. Smith’s teeth were bad before the beating, before Jupiter broke out on his face.
The rope is on hand. As if there is an assistant waiting stage right, or stage left, who tosses Matthew, Mark, or Luke a rope on cue. Every lynching has its anonymous assistants without whom the chips could not fly. Let us acknowledge the service — to community, to the Mayflower, to the public good — of the many unsung assistants who frequent the country’s many courthouse squares with rope in their pockets. Hanging a corpse is, at its most literary acme, a symbol, like the moon, like the roses are symbols of lunacy and love, respectively. The town would hang an elephant, if it could. And circus workers in Duluth. The town’s love affair with symbols. I have seen townfolk fistfight, go to blows, over the body of a dead relative. This town is renowned for fistfighting. Gladly, would I skip my own funeral for a good fistfight. Matthew, Mark, and Luke versus Shipp, Smith, and me. Mano y mano. Progress happens one funeral at a time.