Growing-Out Jericho

FICTION

By WILLIAM R. WOODARD

Vengeful teenagers dyed my golden retriever pink to get even with me for kicking them off Jericho Island. I was shaving Penny’s once-platinum locks to the skin when Kera called.

“Gus,” she said, “I know what happened. Is Penny okay?”

“She’s fluorescent pink,” I said. “How’d you find out so soon?”

“The kids posted a video on the Internet. It’s all over school.”

Kera, my ex-wife, taught at Rehoboth High School.

“You tell them to laugh it up now,” I said. “But you tell them to get their asses to the beach Sunday afternoon. Watching me push that pile of rocks into the gulf will sober them right up.”

“You will not.”

“It’s done.”

“This has to stop,” she said. “This little feud of yours has gone far enough.”

“Of mine?”

“You know it started because you declared the island private property,” she said.

“It is private property!”

“It’s never been treated that way before, so the kids don’t understand why you can take it away now. Jericho has always belonged to Rehoboth’s teenagers.”

“Oh, really?” I asked. “Are ‘Rehoboth’s teenagers’ going to pay land taxes and liability insurance on it? No. But their parents will damn sure sue me as soon as somebody gets hurt.”

“Nobody’s sued you yet. Just take down the signs so things can go back to normal. Why not let them fool around out there like people always have?”

This was the kind of communism I’d been combating for weeks. Communists have short memories. My family, the patriarchs of Rehoboth, had kept four generations of these people employed in our shipyard, but all those Christmas trees and prom dresses we’ve paid for over the decades were forgotten just as soon as I kicked them off my island. I told Kera that this was not the People’s Republic of Mississippi. This was the Copelands’ Republic of Rehoboth, and, as long as I was Augustus Copeland IV, Jericho Island and the fort were mine.

The island sits 75 yards offshore from Rehoboth Beach. At high tide, it’s smaller than most Wal-Marts. The word fort, as applied to Jericho, meant three 20-foot-tall sandstone walls cornered together, with the longest span in the middle. It had no roof and no floor, just mosquito clouds above and beige sand below. Circular rings of leftover campfire soot dotted the sand inside the fort, and the gritty stone walls were densely tattooed with verses of the same redneck graffiti you find spray-painted across rural overpasses anywhere in Mississippi. “Bo loves Becky,” “Tonya’s a slut” and a thousand similar variations stretched across the ancient stone like fluorescent skin. The south wall was Rehoboth’s high school football museum. Here, starting lineups were immortalized by rows of jersey numbers spray-painted to remain in pre-snap formation for eternity. The fort was our town yearbook—and hatchery.

Ever since there were teenagers on Rehoboth, they’d been screwing in the fort. It was tradition. Every fall, after football games and in spite of repeated warnings, teenagers stormed Jericho’s beaches like sea turtles on a moonlit mission to procreate. I had no moral objection to this, but my attorney told me I was crazy to let it go on unchecked.

“It just takes one,” he said, “and they’ll clean you out. Some kid will get drunk and drown, and you’ll be ruined.”

He told me that he had another client in Copiah County who left an abandoned gravel pit unattended, and that it served the same purpose for its town’s youth. He said some kid got lit out there one night and wrapped his pickup around a pine tree. The owner of the pit had to sell off the land to cover the settlement.

“At least put up some signs,” he said. “Go through the motions.”

It was good advice, so I had a few dozen fence posts stuck into the sand around the perimeter of the island. I put “No Trespassing” signs on them, like the lawyer said, and went on with my business. They did not go unnoticed. The next Saturday morning, all 36 of them were planted in my office’s front yard. Fine, I thought. I had them dug up from my yard, brought to Jericho and then set back into their original holes. To discourage any further vandalism, I had each post set with an 80-pound bag of concrete. I knew damn well those kids were too lazy to dig up that much weight. I was right. The following Saturday morning, Sheriff Jack Warner, an old friend of mine, knocked on my door. He looked grim.

“Gus,” he said, “I need you to go out to Jericho and take down those signs.”

It seemed that communism was contagious.

“I own that pile of rocks, Jack! I have a right to post it as private property.”

“Not those signs,” he said, “the new ones. They’re, well, offensive.”

Rather than pull up my 80-pound sign posts, the brats had made their own signs on unevenly cut plywood squares. They had nailed their signs over mine. A jagged, barely legible, football-player print said, “Gus Copeland Eats Roadkill.” A looping, cheerleaderish script read, “Gus Copeland Humped My Yorkie.” The “I” was dotted with a heart. The other 34 signs made similar accusations.

I spent that Saturday at Jericho Island with my brother pulling their signs off mine. While we worked, several dozen high school kids loitered at Rehoboth Beach and screamed obscenities across the pass at us.

“You all right?” Uriah asked.

“Fine,” I said. “When can you get a crew out here?”

Uriah owned a fence company. I had him build a 10-foot chain-link fence around the perimeter of Jericho at the high-water line, and then I planted the “No Trespassing” signs back inside of it. This did not go over well in Rehoboth.

I expected the teenagers to be pissed, but the fence hit a nerve with everyone in town. Fishermen—friends, associates and even kin—griped about not being able to fish from the beach anymore. The birding club bitched about not being able to visit Jericho’s stunted oak trees to see the fall warblers. The withered old ladies who sunned at Rehoboth Beach complained about the view being ruined. I dealt with this swiftly and directly, as would any respectable Southern patriarch. I put a one-page ad explaining my actions in the newspaper I owned.

“This is nothing personal,” I wrote. “It’s just the way it has to be because of liability insurance issues. Please respect my decision, as I will have anyone who trespasses on my property arrested and prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law.”

My decree did not have its desired effect. I was met with more opposition from every direction. The first open hostility I encountered was at my church’s bake sale. The same portly, flower-clad ladies who had bored me with copious details about their grandkids, dead husbands and medical conditions for decades would only speak to me in a series of measured, one-word responses.

“How’s Hanna?” I asked Mrs. Cochran.

“Good. Engaged. Graduating,” she said.

“How’s the new grandson?” I asked Mrs. Summerall. “I believe I heard he will be called Jake?”

“James. Fine,” she said.

“Is your fibromyalgia getting any better?” I asked Mrs. Ratcliff.

“No,” she said.

This concerned me. To elderly, genteel Protestant ladies, brevity is the equivalent of jihad.

Tensions continued to escalate. Brother Elton quit asking me for money. My spot on the Board of Trustees at the Pilgrim United Methodist Church came up for election under mysterious circumstances. I lost. The paper, my paper, quit coming. I was patient, as leaders must be from time to time, but it became clear that the populace of Rehoboth needed some additional encouragement after they sprayed my azaleas with herbicide. I took out another ad.

“This lawlessness will not be tolerated,” I said. “You are all better than this. I know that this mischief is the work of a few bad eggs, but the fact of the matter is that the rest of you are allowing it to happen.” The ad went on to speak convincingly about civil responsibility and respecting laws, even if you don’t fully understand them. Below the ad, I told them that this would be the final warning. I didn’t want them to mistake my patience for passivism. I fully expected my grace to be appreciated, but I underestimated the militant nature of Mississippi communists.

What I call “The Insurgency” began in August, two days after the second ad ran, when someone put jellyfish in my mailbox. The fiery goo got under my fingernails. My house got egged or rolled nightly. They faxed pornography to my office. They put my name and phone number in seedy Internet personal ads. Finally, when I was eating dinner at the Coffee Kettle, someone chained the bumper of my Cadillac to a light pole. When I left, I pulled out onto Highway 90—my bumper did not. The people in the restaurant, with whom I’d just shared my evening meal, were all doubled over laughing as I unchained it from the pole. Fine, I thought. If that’s how it’s going to be.

My third ad in the Rehoboth Register was far less cordial than its predecessors. I summarized how both my property and my person had been attacked solely because I made a decision to protect the youth of our town from themselves. I told them it had become clear to me that the trespassing and vandalism had more to do with poor parenting than bad kids, and that perhaps the same parental shortcomings were allowing the violent campaign against me to continue. “In the absence of any parenting whatsoever in Rehoboth,” I wrote, “I will have to step in to implement a proper disciplinary structure. Any future act of vandalism, aggression or ill will directed at me or my brother will result in one wall of the fort on Jericho Island being leveled.”

I told them the shorter walls, on the gulf and bay sides of the fort, would go first, and the big wall, if it was still standing, would be torn down last. I told them that I realized this seemed harsh, but the future of the fort was in their hands. I wrote that my terms were final and non-negotiable, and would be enforced without hesitation. Finally, I reminded them of when Moses had the Levites slaughter 3,000 Hebrews for their lawlessness and disobedience, and I pointed out that my position was far more gracious than his.

They took Penny when I was playing golf on the Sunday after the ad ran. She was returned, pink, late that night. The dye had even set into her whiskers. After I hung up with Kera, I finished shaving Penny and called Uriah.

I let six days pass. Then, on the following Sunday, when the beach was crowded, I put an extended-boom excavator on a barge. A tug pushed it across the pass, and the operator tracked it right up to the fort. My subjects looked on silent and horrified as three well-placed extensions of the boom reduced the south wall of the fort to rubble. Boys cursed, girls cried, and justice was served. I recorded the demolition from my boat in the pass, then uploaded the video onto the same Web site they’d used to broadcast Penny’s defilement.

I knocked the rest of the fort down after they turned three armadillos loose in my office. The detective who investigated the incident said he heard this was commonly done to slumlords in Mexico.

“They catch ’em with cast nets, and then they sling ’em through the slumlords’ windows,” he said. “Then them ’dillas just do what they do.”

They root. They dig for grubs through hardwood floors. They tunnel through walls. They get thirsty, and they scratch through copper piping looking for water. They flood your office ankle-deep. And they carry leprosy, so your gutted office has to be sterilized by a specialty environmental contractor so that it’s safe to return to work without exposing your employees to medieval plagues. I called Uriah again.

The revolution had not spared him. His business was suffering, and his weak-willed wife had buckled under the strain of aristocracy and fled to Jackson to stay with her mother. He had also been armadilloed. The vandals smashed one through the windshield of his ’67 Stingray while he was working out at his gym.

The sum of these two despicable deeds warranted the destruction of the fort’s remaining two walls. I declared November 1, 2003, to be Jericho Day, and I took out another ad in the paper. I provided cotton candy, free hot dogs and drinks, and even a zydeco band from Louisiana. The whole town gathered at sunset to watch me and Uriah besiege the fort with our rented excavators. When it was rubble, I killed the gobbling diesel engine and took in the view of Rehoboth Beach across the pass. Dozens of blank-faced, humbled citizens stood reverently, mouths agape, as the dust we’d stirred up mixed with the blaring zydeco and drifted over them in clouds.

Uriah and I started getting death threats. As we were both living single and in fear of being either killed or armadilloed again, we decided to remove ourselves from the grasp of the mob. We would build a fort of our own on Jericho. The Spanish originally used Jericho to fight off the British and a slew of pirates, the Confederacy used it to fight off the Union (for a while), and now the Copelands would use it to fend off the communists and horny teenagers. I bought a used R.V. and a 1,000-watt generator, and we set up shop on Jericho behind Uriah’s fence. Site work began immediately.

First, we replaced Uriah’s chain-link fence with an eight-foot quarried-limestone wall. I knew it was a sign of providence when I realized the masons were speaking Spanish.

“The original masons spoke Spanish, too,” I told Uriah. “This is a sign that Fort Copeland will stand for another 200 years.”

We built a lean-to porch onto the front of the R.V. and a deck off the back. I hung baskets of ferns from the joists of the lean-to and placed a smirking garden gnome at each side of the front door. The place was cozy in a patriarchal-bachelor sort of way. We planned the layout of Fort Copeland under the lean-to in the mornings. We sat on the back porch in the afternoons, sipping scotch and lording over our misguided subjects like proper Southern aristocrats, drunken and aloof. All was well until the invasion.

“Open up!” they yelled. “It’s time you get what you got coming!”

It was two-thirds of a fifth into the afternoon when they came. We were taken by surprise.

“Come reap it, you greedy old bastard!” another voice yelled.

We hopped inside the R.V., stepped across the living room, and peeked out the blinds. There were a dozen or so bottle-toting football players flanked by emotional, if not hormonal, girlfriends who seemed to be pleading for retreat. They had jumped our wall at low tide. One of them had an aluminum bat and was teeing-off on my hanging ferns. Another was pissing on the gnomes.

I stumbled through the door without thinking. A flat-faced kid with an underbite stopped yelling mid-sentence, and I put a fist through his front teeth. He went down, but the others rushed in on me.

“I swear to God I’ll put one of you in the hospital!” I yelled, picking up a warm, slippery gnome and holding it up over my head.

“We just want to get Barry,” they said, nodding to their friend on the ground.

“Fine,” I said. “Come back and I’ll have your nuts.”

I dropped the soiled gnome in the sand and noticed that they were all still looking at me. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and raised my right arm, a reflex.

Ping! was all I heard.

My arm went limp, and I collapsed. Uriah bull-rushed the kid with the bat. Others started kicking me. The rest jumped on Uriah.

I woke up in the middle of a lecture from Sheriff Warner.

“Your people have always been crazy, Gus, but I never heard of one as vindictive as you.” He turned around and tossed a plastic-framed picture into my lap. I tried to sit up, but my left arm was handcuffed to the bed. He came and held it up to my face. It was me and him, maybe 15 years ago, on the beach at Jericho. He was holding a little kid with a flat face and an underbite.

“Oh, God,” I said.

“You were so drunk you didn’t recognize Barry?”

“I was drunk. But those damn kids broke into my property and threatened—”

Jack lunged forward and grabbed me by the throat. “You knocked out one of his teeth and cracked another. It took 11 stitches to close up his bottom lip. You remember the fat kid with the bat? Uriah broke his jaw.”

“Shit,” I said.

He let go of my throat, closed his eyes and shook his head. “Those kids didn’t do anything we wouldn’t have done before I grew up and you went crazy. You’ve been putting the screws to these people, Gus, and those kids called you on it. They went too far, but as far as I can see, you gave them every reason.”

“Where’s Uriah?”

“Next door.”

“He all right?”

“You mean other than his concussion, his wife leaving him and his business going under?”

“I know.”

“The hell you do. She’s gone to Jackson, and now he’s all busted up with nobody to take care of him. As for his business, the last fence he built was yours. People saw him put up that fence on Jericho and wrote him off, too.”

“He’ll be fine,” I said. “People will forget and move on.”

“No way, not here.”

“What now?” I asked.

“I’m either charging all of you or none of you. The rest let it slide, so it’s on you. But if it’s over, it’s over. No money for property damage or medical bills or any other subsequent bullshit that you can think of.”

“Fine,” I said. “Let it go.”

I was discharged the next morning. I couldn’t drive, so I walked down Main Street to the Coffee Kettle. I was learning to sign my name left-handed when Barry Warner, the sheriff’s fort-baby, came in and asked if he could sit down with me. His mangled bottom lip looked like the seam of a baseball.

“Mr. Gus,” he said, “could I talk to you about something?”

“Sure.”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry for all that we done to you. My dad said I had to make things right, and I’ll do whatever it takes. I don’t know how it got so out-of-hand.”

“You had encouragement.” I said. “There’s blame to go around.”

“You was an ass about it,” he agreed, “but we made it personal.”

“Why?”

“I guess because we took what you did personally. You just taking the fort from us wasn’t right. You know my granddaddy’s initials were on those walls?”

“Jack’s old man?”

“Yes sir, in the southeast corner. He put ’em on there before he shipped out for Korea. Daddy’s name was up there, too.”

“Jack plus Annie,” I said.

“Yep, with his football number.”

“I remember,” I said. “Forty-four. We all put our numbers up after we won district.”

“Your numbers,” Barry said, “that’s right, your numbers. The bricks were yours, too, in a legal way—but not the numbers. Not the ‘Gus loves Kera.’ Those were yours no matter what, just like Daddy’s was his and mine was mine, ’til you pushed the fort down, anyhow.”

I swallowed hard when I thought about his dad. Jack: fat, bent-over Sheriff Jack Warner who still limped around from a botched 1970s ACL repair. Any evidence of the all-state free safety was gone, pushed onto a rusty barge and loaded into dump trucks. I thought about the night that me and Jack signed that wall, him standing there lean and knotted with muscle, a soggy joint in one hand and can of orange spray paint in the other. I thought about getting Kera pregnant later on in the moon shadows that stretched out from the ancient bastions, beckoning us in. I thought of all this, and a wave of cold sweat broke over me. I had to make it right.

I paid for Barry’s breakfast and slid out of the booth. The following Tuesday I spoke before the city council.

“I want to start over,” I said. I told them I had done a great many stupid, nasty things and that I’d spend as long or as much as it took to earn their forgiveness. I told them I’d rebuild the fort, an exact replica, using as much original material as I could find. I said I would put Jericho Island into a trust of some kind, and it would be once again available to the public. For my coup de grâce, I promised that the fort would be rebuilt by Jericho Day of the following year. Sheriff Warner spoke after I did, and he called for a moratorium on vandalism and ill will toward one another. They clapped and even cheered a little. Invigorated by the warm reception, I set out to rebuild Jericho.

I contacted the National Park Service, which in turn liaised with a dozen or so historical renovation experts. I agreed to endow the island to the park service and to fund the construction of the new Fort Jericho as long as they met my attorney’s demands, which they readily did. Once the necessary administrative approvals had been made, the design process began. I wrote a check for a four-digit retainer, and the architect began working on renderings. His conceptual design was approved, and the consultants began to debate the specific details to be included in the project. Conflicts arose over the size of the bastions, the depth of the cannon bays, the positioning of the cannons and the thickness of the exterior walls.

Finally, after three weeks of academic bickering and strongly worded e-mails, the park service’s committee of experts all signed off on the drawings. The job went out for bidding a week later.

The lowest bid was 40 percent over budget. The architect said “value engineering” could be done, but it would delay construction several weeks and also render a less authentic building.

“Then let’s proceed,” I said. “Only the best for the people of Rehoboth.”

By the end of the year, men and equipment clambered over Jericho like hermit crabs. Pilings were driven, concrete was poured and thousands of period-correct pavers were set to form the brick floors. Scaffolding was soon stood up around the entire perimeter of the fort, and the granite walls rose up phoenix-like out of the brown sand. The special museum-design contractors came next. They brought a dozen Confederate cannon replicas from a foundry in Michigan. They hung antique Spanish tapestries from Barcelona. One month before Jericho Day 2004, they finished installing all the Confederate paraphernalia in the lobby. I took my boat out to the gulf to take in the new fort.

It was massive. The south elevation was tall, angular and perpendicular to the sky. The four towers reached higher even than the steeple of the church across the pass. The cannons peeked out of their bays, and the 14-foot Spanish cedar doors stood heavy and foreboding. Anyone could see that no expense had been spared. Rehoboth would love me again.

The grand opening on Jericho Day was nothing short of spectacular. I ran ferries back and forth across the pass to bring visitors to and from the fort. The National Park Service presented the Jericho Island Museum of Southern Post Colonialism, and I was given a plaque for my generosity and civic virtue. As a special surprise for me, the park service arranged for a restored Spanish galleon that was visiting Mobile to sail right up to the fort and fire a cannon salute toward the gulf. Newspapers in three states ran stories about the reconstruction, and several television news crews were at Rehoboth for the celebration. I had given the town more than they ever could’ve imagined, but it still wasn’t enough.

I took Barry out to the museum before the festivities started. He said it was nice, for a museum.

“They ain’t gonna let us come out here at night no more,” he said. “Where we gonna go to mess around?”

The church ladies were nostalgic for the old fort.

“Isn’t this amazing?” I asked them.

“Too fancy. Knockoff. Bricks too clean,” they said.

I asked Mr. Davis if he liked the handicapped-accessible fishing pier that I had built. It was state-of-the-art, 200 yards of wheelchair-accessible boardwalk projecting out into the gulf. Now the old men could take the ferry across and fish as long as they could roll around in a wheelchair. I thought it was a nice touch.

“It gets in the way,” he said. “I miss the open beach. Everywhere I look I see that damn thing.”

The birders fussed about the construction scaring off the warblers.

“They’ll be back next year.” I said.

“Doubt it,” they replied. “All the activity will run them off for good.”

Disgusted, I walked back to my old place and watched the fireworks off my balcony. I’d moved back in when I gave Jericho to the park service. The phone rang.

“You’ve been busy,” Kera said. “We’ve been watching the coverage of
Jericho Day.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It went well.”

She told me Uriah and Rachel had moved in together in Jackson. They were giving it another go. I’d figured that, as I hadn’t seen much of him since I started building the museum. I said it was probably for the best. Then she asked me what I had hoped for.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You’re disappointed, aren’t you?”

“A little.”

“What did you expect?”

“Gratitude,” I said. “Forgiveness.”

“That’s asking a lot.”

“You forgave me,” I said.

“It was a lot, and I married someone else.”

I looked down at Penny, and I ran my fingers through her silky fur. In the interceding months, her coat had grown out long and golden.

“Penny’s a blonde again,” I said.

“Of course she is. Healing is all time’s good for.”

After I hung up with Kera, I thought about the old fort’s weathered sandstone, its rounded edges, and how the coarse grit would roll beneath my palm as I slid it along the wall. Across the dark pass, an angular silhouette towered over the gulf like a skyscraper in a soybean field, its sharp corners flickering beneath the fireworks. I wondered how long it would take the stone to heal.

William R. Woodard grew up in Louisiana, but has always cherished his Mississippi roots. This is his first published story.


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