Tuesday, June 02, 2009

This one's for Miguel...

(Eds of a feather flock together...This story was inspired by a real-life Ed: you see how much I disguised the first name. You'll find this Ed's cousin over at MichaelO's. This story is, glory be, what?, sixteen years old...)

BIG NED

My grandmother’s one unbreakable rule: No pictures with your sunglasses on. See for yourself, you can check out all the family albums. I’m not saying we didn’t try, late afternoons lined up in the back yard for the big family pictures. Year in and year out, she’d haul us out to the magnolia tree where you’d find grown men and women stomping and crunching leaves like some King Family choir gone berserk. Granny dodging in and out of the commotion, pulling ears and jerking us into place. With the blazing sun setting in our faces, she’d give the command and glare as the last of us to bent to her will. In the early days, you’d find a few testy ones among us, but as the years passed, the photographer usually got his pictures in under a minute. It’s funny what gets to be important.

Several years back, I spent one Thanksgiving counting all the alcoholics, addicts, divorces, bastard children, cheating husbands, cheating wives, mental cases, and suicide failures in our midst. Sodom’s own spawn running around crazy through the crackling leaves, while some five foot tall harridan raged and foamed on about eyewear. In any given picture, three to five children were likely to be misinformed as to the exact identities of their daddies. In some cases, the exact sperm donor was just a little farther down the assembled chorus line. But, were we ever harangued about our moral infirmities? Indeed not. Did we smile pretty for the camera and stare into the wall-eyed sun? You bet your life.

Big Ned Loomis finally died up at Parchman last week. I read in the paper awhile back that he was doing poorly and I thought then that he might go at any time, though you couldn’t tell from the picture they ran of him. It was a file photo from twenty years ago, back when he was on the City Council and before he made History. I was surprised they didn’t run the usual picture of him jogging in his jail trusty garb. Maybe the reporter who followed the Big Ned story got tired of that one, or maybe out of respect for a dying man, he decided to run a shot of Big Ned back in his glory days. Though I didn’t know the actual photo, I knew the pose by heart. It was Big Ned leaning sideways into his council chamber microphone all mean and nasty and sticking his pointy finger in the mayor’s stricken face. During the four years of Big Ned’s questionable public service, I must have seen that pose a million times. It’s no wonder they keep file photos—who needed to keep snapping the same damn shot over and over again? Of course, I’m saving the best part for last. Underneath the nine foot tall portrait of General Jebediah B. Zeb, in the historic council chambers of City Hall, leaning—like I said—all mean and nasty into his microphone like a frothing and rabid disc jockey from hell, one-term councilman Big Ned Loomis, with his trademark sunglasses. On. Did I make copies of the photograph for Granny? You bet. Am I still in her shit house? Without parole, buddy, without parole.

Big Ned was never really big in a physical sense, and he didn’t always make like Foster Grant for the cameras either. From high school on at least, he was five foot two, and—to the best of my knowledge—he always had the flat top haircut. He was a year ahead of me at Purblind High School, very quiet and soft-spoken. He ran the school store his junior and senior years—from what I could tell, single-handedly. I never saw him with friends, much less girlfriends. The year I ran track, I’d see him early mornings out at the store, counting school supplies and book covers. The year of my junior-senior prom, he came up with the idea of selling corsages out of an old refrigerator he hooked up in the store, an idea that made the school a killing and earned him a special citation at Class Day. Never mind that the corsages looked like leftover lettuce from the cafeteria.

I find that you never really know what you know. Your brain goes around storing up garbage and taking pictures, and you never know what’s on file until somebody or something comes along and punches the right button. Then, thunk: another bag of hard candy memory drops into place. One week after graduation forty years ago and I’m not sure I could have told you just who Ned Loomis was, and yet here I am one week after his death and I can see him plain as day bent low under the yellow bug lights of his store going through the lost and found. I’d run a couple of laps, checking my time by the big clock over his head. In the yellow light, he looked ghostly, not quite real. After his inspections and inventories, he’d make sure that all the books were lined up perfectly with his hands. About the time I finished my laps, he’d drop the metal screens over the windows, looking lost about what else to do. I’d catch him sometimes out behind the football stands, just staring at the gravel like he’d lost his way.

There are a whole lot of Neds out here in the world, but what is it, I wonder, that turns a speck of Purblind history into a Councilman Big Ned? When Purblind brought him back years later for his induction into the Alumni Hall of Fame, all anybody could scare up was a picture of him out back at his store, with his flat top, white t-shirt, jeans, and black Converse sneakers. It was shot from the back, but there was no mistaking who it was. Those clothes were his uniform, and who else would it be at the store? I saw the TV coverage of his triumphant return and wondered if Big Ned himself knew who that skinny kid in the photo was. Throw a seersucker suit and a pair of sunglasses on the kid and there wasn’t much physical difference, but no rabid dog ever sold me a box of pencils and an iceberg lettuce corsage for Maxine Hardaway.

I’ve never exactly had my own time in the limelight, so by the time I left Purblind to go off into the real world, I was just trading up a size in anonymity. I’ve seen, through the years, big winners in high school go on to claim their rightful places in the halls of glory, but I’ve also seen my fair share of inverse Cinderellas and Cinderfellas: head cheerleaders turned fat gum-popping cashiers at the Jitney, and Mr. Studbuckets turned bald grease monkeys at the gas pump. Every once in a while, I’ve run into the occasional high school nobody who stepped out of the pack, but usually with a little thought I could recall a hint of what must have been cooking even back in the grisly green halls of Purblind. Still, nothing—nothing—prepared me for the apotheosis of Big Ned Loomis. He was exactly the kind of toadstool I’d expected to find straightening screwdrivers in the back of a hardware store on Capitol Street.

Well, I got the hardware store part right, but he wasn’t in the back lining up car manuals. The first Big Ned thunk in my memory bin came along in 1963, with a picture in the paper of still not quite Big Ned splashed across the front page of the paper, wielding a Louisville Slugger and asserting, according to the accompanying story, his right to choose who was and was not welcome in his store. There was the circle of earnest black faces surrounding him in the showdown on West Capitol Street, and I might add that both Ned and his several adversaries were breaking Granny’s rule right there on page one.

Depending on where you stood in the wars of commerce, Ned Loomis was in short time either a folk hero or the latest local incarnation of the White Satan. I can’t say that I was anymore enlightened than Big Ned, but I had either a sanity or cowardice that kept me from wielding baseball bats in public. I wasn’t likely to defend my own driveway, if it meant playing batter up! to a fervid choir of earnest faces. My older brother Norm, who’d actually had a few classes with Ned Loomis back at Purblind, spent some time down at the scene, albeit by accident. He’d spent the morning at the zoo with one of his unbiological daughters when, upon leaving, they were caught up in a surge of people in the street. Hard to believe that he would miss the rumblings while at the zoo, but that’s brother Norm for you. Once into the swell of people, non-child in hand, he worked his way through the crowd up to where snarling Ned was holding forth. He said later that it felt like a trick in time, like he had stumbled back through time to Ned and the old school store. The girl’s cry of alarm woke him from his trance. Held in place by the crowd, the color of his skin involuntarily aligning him with torrid Ned, Norm said he suddenly panicked and felt a cold dread sweep through his body. For all his stupidity, Norm is a big man, and generally fearless at that, but this battle scene broke him. Amy, the child with him, said he wept.

A year later, I was not the only one who saw the irony of Captain Ned Loomis at the head of a phalanx of National Guardsmen ordered out to escort a bedraggled group of frightened black children through a swarm of angry white parents soon to be Big Ned Loomis’ core constituency. The paper, noting the irony, ran a split photo montage on page one this time, Captain Ned on one side and the Louisville Slugger on the other. Folks that know say it was that bit of liberal media treachery—liberal media in Zebtown?—that spawned the monster of Big Ned. Pals of mine in the Guard say he swore an evil revenge the day he had to go out and uphold the Law of the Land. Two weeks later, he threw his hat into the ring for the councilman race. In a contest that pitted two huge, squealing race-baiters, Big Ned thrashed the four term incumbent. To no one’s surprise, his most rabid supporters took to wearing sunglasses and sporting bats with BIG NED emblazoned in red.

It was during that first campaign that Bernie came to light: Bernice Ann Loomis (nee Wiggins), Purblind class of 1953, wife of candidate Big Ned, mother of one daughter, Traci Marie. Unlike Ned Loomis, who I had to be thunked to remember, I remembered Bernie Wiggins Loomis right off the bat. She carried Traci Marie through most of her senior year at Purblind, and the father was definitely not the skinny kid lost in the gravel. Rumor had it, she had partially carried a couple of others through earlier academic years. I wondered at the time what Traci Marie’s ex-All City quarterback daddy thought as he watched his daughter on TV, waltzing into Westside Baptist Church on the arms of his old girlfriend and the adult version of the boy he spat on because he felt shortchanged at the school store.

ike most TV cynics, I figured all the church antics were just pitched at getting out the solemn white holy vote, but several members of my family witnessed to years of sighting a family threesome hooked in three-pronged mealtime prayer by interlaced raised index fingers, most often in a scarlet red booth at the downtown Primo’s. It was only after Big Ned started hitting page one on a regular basis that Mama and my siblings were able to figure out the identities of the vestal trio. It didn’t surprise me that skinny Ned Loomis might know his own personal version of Our Lord, and it certainly didn’t surprise me that Bernice Wiggins would be well into an adult life of washing her teen sins away. But I had a hard hard time seeing Jesus ever carrying councilman Big Ned on His back. I had a hard time seeing Big Ned ever letting Him.

You would have thought that Big Ned had ridden into City Hall on a tidal wave of white support guaranteed to topple our narrowly re-elected Mayor in four more years and raise Big Ned to the top for years to come. Such was the sentiment for the first year and a half, with the atmosphere in council chambers most reminiscent of Saturday night wrestling matches over at the Armory. Big Ned, in sweaty seersucker, eyes behind black shades and looking like a crazed acolyte, daring our weak and genteel mayor to throw the first punch. Councilman Ted Tilton, off to the side, primping for the cameras, clearly without anything so much as an informed opinion.

What actually happened to that tidal wave was this—it swept right on out of the city limits, leaving Big Ned four years later screaming at a bare army of his army of hate, those too poor to even move out to Rankin County, for god’s sakes. You could sense he knew when the jig was up. Three weeks before the election, he stopped going through the motions. All three of the incumbents—Big Ned, primping Ted, and the enfeebled mayor—were thrown out on their asses.

Those of us who marveled at the rise and fall of Big Ned went through about a ten year dry spell before he made History. We picked up the occasional tidbit in the back pages of the paper. Three years after his ousting, he graduated first in his law school class. A few years later he won a suit against the City, filled by a group of disgruntled white homeowners. Most of us figured Big Ned had been representing himself with a couple of Bernie’s relatives thrown in for good measure. On the military front, my Big Ned radar caught the occasional story of Big Ned’s promotions in the National Guard’s Quartermaster Corps. I’d get a picture of a flat-topped skinny kid taking inventory and lining up M-16’s on the rack. By the time he made History, he was a full bird colonel.

It was my sister Angie who got the biggest of the big stories first. She called Mama who called me and said to turn on Channel 12—they were running a Big Ned bulletin. There behind the talking head of Mary Halston was the burnt out Pinto believed to hold the barbecued remains of former city councilman Ned Loomis. I looked on stunned as news clips rolled of Big Ned’s mean and nasty career, bookended by the Hall of Fame snapshot and the grief-stricken faces of his wife and adopted daughter. It was then, off in my own dream, that I got the clearest pictures of those mornings out at the Purblind track, me and that skinny kid sealed in some strange time capsule of fate. I wondered if what he saw in the gravel out back of the stands was his own fiery end.

I did not go to the funeral. The closest I’d come to him since those mornings at the track was voting for him the first time, a dubious excuse at best for intruding upon his family’s grief. His other supporters were not so considerate. It was standing room only at Westside Baptist. Friends who were there said that Pastor Freeman, ever one for the good opportunity, managed to pass the collection plates three times before the service moved on out to Lakeside Cemetery. Colonel Councilman Big Ned got himself a twenty-one gun salute.

Only it wasn’t Big Ned they were saluting. Three months after the funeral, Bernie Loomis reported that she’d been finding large sums of money deposited by wire in her bank account. Shortly thereafter, she started getting strange phone calls from a man identifying himself as General Kurtz. Working on some hunches, the local sheriff’s boys found this General Kurtz in a Motel 6 selling encyclopedias in the Houston oil suburb of Deer Park. His real name—and old rank—was Colonel Ned Loomis. In death, Big Ned had bumped himself up a notch and given himself that elusive brigadier’s star. Movie fans in the press reminded us dullards of Marlon Brando’s madman Kurtz character in the Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, and the real smarty pants writers weighed in as how the original Kurtz was a civilian madman in some jungle classic book that most folks at William T. Hoohaw High School, but certainly not Sturdy Q. Purblind, had read back in junior English class, while we were laboring through Of Mice and Men. I’d never read the book, but I’d seen the movie. Most of what had stayed with me was that part at the beginning when the whole jungle goes up in a flash of orange flame. I suppose Big Ned must have somehow seen himself in the bald dome of Brando’s mumbling head, but I imagine he looked damned hard into that flaming jungle, too.

Of course, the truly rabid Big Ned loyalists had no problem seeing a Second Coming in Big Ned’s return and incarceration. Most of us, however, turned to the grisly business of pondering just who it was got barbecued in the Pinto. Big Ned was of no help to our speculations. Lawyer that he was, he knew the State had the burden of proof, a burden they did not carry. Big Ned’s roast never did get identified. The best the prosecutors could do was nail Big Ned with insurance fraud. Given the hefty sentence and subsequent years of denied parole, you can bet the president of Lamar Life Insurance felt he got burned right alongside that poor slob out in the sticks.

Big Ned did not get to Parchman without one more squalid piece of controversy. Folks up in Camden started talking about some khaki-doffed man who looked awfully familiar, jogging the streets during lunch hour traffic. That was Big Ned’s last living appearance on page one—flat top, khakis, running shoes, sunglasses. His loyal batboys, ever the optimists, figured he must have run all the way down from Parchman, like a piss-ant Napoleon returned from Elba. As it turns out, he hadn’t even gotten there yet. Beds were full up at the penitentiary, the press were told, so while awaiting his eventual transfer, Big Ned was being held in a special cell at Sheriff Hunt’s posh county jail. That special cell must not have a lock on it, said one smart-ass reporter, Yankee no doubt. At the press conference, you could practically hear the punishment Bubba Hunt was cooking up in his brain for the scribbling fool. No, Sheriff said, Big Ned’s appearances in the Camden streets were part of a special rehabilitation program for first time offenders. Never mind that a dozen other less than Caucasian first time inmates, who’d never been near a gas can and a powder blue Pinto, were consigned to gin rummy games on the premises, with mangled card decks missing the Anti-Christ sixes. I am sure that Big Ned, as a master of dusting inventory, had no trouble getting on Sheriff Hunt’s good side. A few of us did wonder, though certainly not loudly, if Bubba Hunt didn’t himself know who was in the Pinto. That piece of news would have made a nice trade for jogging rights. But, two days after the brouhaha, Big Ned got his trip to the State Hilton.

There weren’t any new pictures of Ned Loomis after he got sent up. The jogging picture turned file photo and got slapped on the occasional parole rejection story. Scuttlebutt was that Big Ned was a model prisoner, so you had to figure Mr. Lamar Life had bigger friends on the parole board than General Kurtz. I was waiting for at least a movie of the week to shed some light on things, even if everything got made up—as it no doubt would. The family and I would sit around casting the thing, figuring out who should play Big Ned, Bernice, Traci Marie, and all the other supporting cast. Though he wasn’t near short enough, we figured Duvall was a lock for Ned. Granny kept trying to cast Shelley Winters as Bernie, at which point negotiations usually broke down.

Well, no movie of the week ever came to pass, though Norm said I ought to write the screenplay, wasn’t nobody bird-dogged Big Ned’s story like I had. By the end of the decade, Ned’s notoriety had dropped so low I was fearful he wouldn’t even make the paper’s top ten stories of the decade, but the Big Ned reporter must have lobbied hard: Big Ned slipped in at Number 9. That, of course, precipitated yet another round of casting negotiations, but Granny was still sticking with Shelley Winters. I had to admit that I was beginning to see it, too.

I did go to Big Ned’s second funeral. I’m not sure why, I certainly didn’t feel anymore worthy than the first time. No color guard this time, no guns, no bats, and a paltry sprinkling of died-in-the-wool loyalists. I guess I’d had a Big Ned somewhere inside of me so long that I needed to go out there and bury him, too. I’m in the picture, the one they stuck on page two of the Metro section, such had Big Ned’s star fallen, by the time he checked out for good. If you look real close you can see me back in the sixth row, over to the right. The one with the sunglasses.

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11 Comments:

Blogger MichaelO said...

Lord have mercy! You are prolific. I'm half way into this story and I have to quit, as duty calls and time waits for no hermano. I'll get back to it this evening. I'm loving this!

2:37 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

'Mano Miguel: Thanks for the mental nudge to haul this one out of the closet...

4:36 PM  
Blogger MichaelO said...

Pascual. I have to say, you have an acute ability to transcend social lines. You convincingly convey idiosyncracies of your characters regardless of race or social status. It's just right on my friend. Really liked the highschool history on old Ned. I feel like I was right there. Big Ned and his baseball bat. Reminds of that nutjob who was selling Obama T-shirts with Curious George's picture on it last year. Some folks were buying 'em... As for Ed, Edd, and Eddie, it just goes to show that truth is stranger than fiction.

8:42 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Miguel: Thank you for the good words, amigo. Ned/Ed was a monster, but it's monsters that grab us, no? Glad you're writing and excavating along with this blog-tribe, spurring us on with your encouragement and awesome contributions...

8:46 PM  
Blogger alister said...

Michael! My money’s on no one can keep up with Mr. Brilliant-and-Prolific here. Now if you can…well, you’re a genius, too ;-)

Mr. B-and-P, this here rips, is packed solid with one hilarious grouping of words after the other, from start to finish, no breaks. It’s brilliantly worded. I can barely stand it! I’m feelin’ short-changed of brain cells and IQ points! What I want to know is why—when you know I’m low down—why you got to go and do up a rapid-fire spewing of your genius like this??? ;-)

9:02 PM  
Blogger Sepiru Chris said...

Dear Murat,

I would have sworn this was a lived experience.

The versimilitude you convey is breathtaking.

Stuff like this should be published. For profit.

I'm just playing and learning; you are fantastic.

Short stories are finally coming back, look at the prominence that Alice Munro is finally getting from a wider, critical audience.

Tschuess,
Chris

9:24 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Chica: Blame it on the Eds. I can't speak for Miguel, but this boy's got too much time on his hands, and he fears the Ali-tsunami that is headed for Blogovia.

Mind the circuits, darlin'.

9:31 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

Chris:

More largesse from your good self. It weren't exactly lived, but I certainly breathed the air my final two years of high school in Jacksonmiss.

And yes, I did go several rounds, casting that Ed/Ned Movie of the Week. Duvall, hands down. But, I still ain't buying Shelley Winters.

Peace, my brother.

9:37 PM  
Blogger alister said...

Pfffft! There is only a kiddie-pool ripple headed for Blogovia this week!
Please to mind yourself if you comment >:-(

9:52 PM  
Blogger anno said...

At first I thought you were writing about one of the family reunions I used to attend, until you introduced Big Ned Loomis and I realized that, no, you were writing about someone far more interesting than anyone who ever showed up at any of the metro parks of Butler County Feels like a cross between All the King's Men & To Kill a Mockingbird, mixed in with your own perfect pitch characterization: wonderful, and rich.

3:02 PM  
Blogger murat11 said...

I do thank you, gracious Ms Anno, though I will cower beneath the shadows of RPW and HLee. It was fun to trot Ole Ned out again to take the air...

4:05 PM  

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