Buddy Gillespie just turned forty-two and stinks of chewing tobacco. It’s 7pm on a hot July night and he should be killing mosquitos and swinging his baby girl like a dead cat in the muggy confines of his trailer park home. Instead, Buddy scratches at his left eye and hefts his recording equipment up a notch, checking the view-finder twice. He clears his throat with an easy roll and spits a little brown lump that doesn’t quite make it as far as the river, some 100 feet below.
He’s on assignment, here in some hick town covering local news in the muddled heat. Buddy swats a bug from his tattooed forearm and clocks the fancy footwear of Sally Polanco, the station’s main girl upfront and already made-up for tonight’s live-to-camera item. Thirty three, beautiful in a hard-faced way and Hispanic, Sally Polanco would rather be downtown and ignoring her husband in a winebar than interviewing a succession of small-minded country hicks about the state’s recent spate of racially-motivated hate crimes. But what are you gonna do?
Buddy acknowledges Polanco with a nod. The lighting guys are almost finished setting up, and above his head cicadas buzz in the warm updraft from the river. Down below, barely visible past the craggy off-juts of the canyon, the brown water crawls to a deep and spectacular ravine. The evening air is like soup; even Polanco, crisp and brown-skinned, shines like a moon in the half-light. Her white shirt wilts in the heat like a bunch of dead flowers.
Buddy feels the camera slipping on his sweat and readjusts its position across his shoulder. His ex-wife used to say he was strong as an ox and laugh, rubbing one red-nailed hand between his shoulderblades. He thinks about microwave meals and the long drive home, and turns to watch the interviewees get primped and pulled up for the camera. There are three of them, grotesquely fat and sweating against the plyboard barriers marking the steps downstream. Gators, he thinks. Overstuffed gators with big bellies and tiny peabrains.
They wanted ‘local colour’, that’s why they’d sent Polanco on the three-hour round trip to this dump. Georgia was reverberating with backlash and petty injustices. Black folks. White folks. Cops shooting blacks and getting bad press. They’d have a lot to say, she was told. Train your team on a couple of human dumpsters and make a sorry song and dance out of them. Take that, America. See what we house still?
Larry Fey is one such specimen. Already she caught his eyes sliding over her brown thighs appreciatively, fat beads of sweat like insects on his pale, heavy brow. Hulking and massive, Larry has been smartened up for TV; one of the runners wrestled him into a plaid shirt two sizes shy of optimum coverage and the buttons strain to cover his flabby stomach. Larry Fey sways like a well-adjusted alcoholic and white spittle flecks the corners of his mouth. Sally Polanco thinks of baby drool and shudders. The guys tasked with warming him up for interview report that he’s as dumb as a post, but Sally feels uneasy just breathing in his same fetid air.
Larry’s son Tommy is cut from the same cloth as his paw. Standing just five foot six but solidly built, he smells like damp sweat and takeaway food. Polanco got told he had a file already, but small-town justice would wipe the slate clean at eighteen. He’s now seventeen, and the beating he and his friends gave Everett Wood – a fifteen year old black boy, natch – is still in print, just like Wood is still in hospital.
Buddy – camera poised and eyeing Eleanor Fey, the last of the interviewees speculatively – doesn’t think much of blacks but curls his lip at those who beat their chests about it. The Wood beating didn’t make it to the local papers in his parts but even he, Buddy Gillespie, dropout, washout and divorcee, knows people like the Feys are pondlife. Eleanor whines like a washing machine and fiddles with the heavy gold earrings that bat against her fat neck. She knows very little about her husband anymore, and even less about her son. She’ll defend him though. That’s what Southern mothers do. Hell, that’s what all mothers do.
Polanco’s started talking to the big guy now and Buddy zooms in, feeling sick. He focuses on Larry’s meaty forearms, unspent strength idling against the makeshift fence. Larry’s saying something about hometown loyalties but sound isn’t Buddy’s department. He captures the big guy’s brow furrowing at some smartass comment of Polanco’s and shifts to cover his son fidgeting to his right, uncomfortable with the camera up in his space. Tommy Fey – young, dumb and full of cum – has always believed his cards were marked from the start, and his knuckles bunch and curl behind his back. Fucking cameras. Fucking hacks coming to wheedle out of him his ‘views’ on a changing America. It isn’t changing for him. Fucking –
Like a cameraman’s wet dream, Buddy hears the crack of the fence before it splits. Tommy’s marshmallow face twists in surprise and plops down from Buddy’s viewfinder, out of shot. There’s a wet thud – the camera hitting the ground or Tommy Fey’s puffy body smacking against the sides of the canyon, Buddy doesn’t know which but he’s scrabbling against the ground, pulling his lean and leathery body against the overhang, tobacco forgotten and foul against the roof of his mouth. And he’s thinking bad things happen to good people, but that’s not strictly true. Sally Polanco is screaming to his right to stop recording and Larry Fey is sliding down the bank, yelling for his son. Eleanor is vomiting, and her freckled face floats to his left like a sea-green pufferfish.
Buddy thinks that later they’ll have to spend hours – days, re-watching the footage. With mud and shit up his nose he crawls as far as he can safely go, eyeing the sludgy trickle of the river through fronds of bracken and swamp plants. He can’t see a fucking thing. Larry Fey is hollering for his son like a wounded rhino and Sally Polanco is popping Xanax like candies and Tommy Fey isn’t making a sound. As he hauls himself upright, Buddy rids himself of the old tobacco, picks up his camera and starts re-recording. Guy’s got to make a living. This is America, after all.