INTO THE SUNSET
Sheriff Sonny Beauchamp hooks his thumbs in his leather holster belt as he listens to Dent and Nagurski wax techno about the notorious amateur film that’s been making its way around town—the one featuring Mayor Bullfrog Bob Willis and his attaché, Midge Madsen, bumping uglies in the back bed of Bullfrog’s red Chevy pickup. Sonny’s been chasing down leads on the film for days now, and after the usual dead ends and detours, the investigation has led him here, to EasyStreet Productions. A commercial video facility in downtown Mills.
Dent and Nagurski are talking excitedly. But they’ve gotten off point. They’re jabbering away about some new kind of nano camera download manufacturers are now installing in late model cell phones, and poor Sonny’s eyes are glazing over from TMI.
“Whoa!” The grizzled lawman groans, calling a halt to the discussion. “Enough!” He raises his burly arms as if he’s slowing traffic at a carnage-strewn accident scene. Says, “Hell, boys. That’s all good and fine. But what I wanna know is, where can I get me a copy?”
The men look at him. Blank faced.
“Of the movie,” he says, churning the air with his thick, scar-mounded hand.
They continue to stare at him, and he says, “It’s for evidence, fellas. Not entertainment.”
The two geeks shuffle a guilty glance between them, and when they’re finished playing four-eyed-footsie, Nagurski—Tokyo Nagurski, the AD, AC, DP of the outfit—turns to the lawman, and cocks his head (the angle precisely calculated to suggest innocent indignation). “You’re not implying we have the film, are you Sheriff?”
Sonny rolls his toothpick over his tongue. Frowning. “Copies came from somewheres, boys.”
“I understand that, Sheriff,” Nagurski protests with a haughty little puff. “But we pride ourselves on being a legitimate business here. I mean, just because we have a dubbing facility—“
“Save it,” Sonny tells him. “I don’t know who’s got the original, and I don’t rightly care. Though I ought to. All I know is, I’m the only one in this town—hell, the only one in the whole state of Wyoming, probly—who ain’t seen the sonofabitch. So if you can scare me up a copy—which I know you can—it’ll save hell on all of us.”
Dent and Nagurski pass a guarded look between them. Dent tugs at the bill of his grimy red ball cap and pulls it low on his shaved, tattooed head. “If we admit to having possession of the film—even if it’s only a copy—won’t that make us accessories Sheriff?”
Sonny allows his pale gray eyes to fall to the carpet. Gives with a small guffaw and runs his finger under his nose. When he gets around to glancing up again, it’s to pin Dent to the wall with a look of pained exasperation. “You don’t wanna play lawyer ball with me, son,” he says. “You ain’t got the chops. Just get me the goddamn copy and we’ll call it even. I give you my word I’ll look the other way.”
“All right,” Dent agrees with a nervous smile. “Fair enough. Fine. Sure.” He glances around the room. Claps his hands together and rubs them, briskly, in a serious show of getting down-to-business. “Now, it could take a bit, Sheriff,” he says. “I might have to put in some calls to a few of our associates. Poke around a bit, and maybe make a withdrawal or two from the favor bank.”
“Or,” Sonny says, pointing to the cabinet directly over Dent’s head, “you could just copy the file over from one a the DVDs I’m guessin you got stashed in your cupboard there. Burn it to a thumb drive for me.”
Dent, red-faced, lowers his head and coughs into his fist. Nagurski checks the time on his Mickey Mouse watch. The two men, clearly busted, shuttle yet another back and forth glance, after which Dent looks up, cheerily, and announces, “No worries, Sheriff. We’ll get you what you need.” He goes to put his hand on Sonny’s back, but thinks better of it, and instead points to Nagurski whose guilty eyes have sneaked off to a dark corner of the room. Searching, no doubt, for a place to hide. “How about Toke here gives you the grand tour while I dig around? It’ll make the wait go faster.”
Mics and cameras are everywhere. Scrims, flags, gels, C-stands, playback monitors, dollies, jibs, apple boxes—they’ve got the whole nine yards here at EasyStreet. All instruments of the Devil, Sonny thinks as he strolls down the hall with Nagurski. A crack shot with a pistol could ruin six lives with a few lazy pulls of the trigger, but by God, an idjit with a cell-phone camera could mess up the likes of an entire community.
Sonny can only guess how many copies of the “movie” might have leaked into circulation by now. Fifty? A hundred? It’s gone viral as the kids like to say, and even if he does collar the joker who made it and somehow get his paws on the original—like the mayor demanded he do—what the hell difference would it make? You’d still need upward of a thousand of years to scour the earth of all the bootlegs. And after that, what about the Internet? Nosiree, Bob. Old Bullfrog wasn’t gonna like hearing what he had to say. But there was nothing to be done about it. The truth was the truth, and it was Sonny’s job as a civil servant to tell it straight. Regardless of who he was talking to, or what the blowback might be.
“Care for a snack, Sheriff?” Nagurski asks as they stroll into the break room with its heavy leather chairs, racks of trade magazines, and wooden bowls filled with oranges and apples.
“Thank you, no.”
Sonny nods. He lost his appetite three days ago when the mayor woke him from a sound night’s sleep, hollering into the phone about Midge Madsen’s husband, Gordy, who claimed he was going to kill old Bullfrog with a crossbow. Shit. Gordy Madsen was always threatening to kill somebody over something. But this time Sonny knew he’d have to take the bluff seriously on account of the nature of the complaint. Adultery, he told Mayor Bob after the mayor admitted to being involved with Gordy’s wife, was (for reasons hardly beyond understanding) one of those things that made some folks plum touchy. Just don’t get caught out in the open, unarmed, he advised the Mayor. Take that peashooter .25 of yours and keep it in your boot. And for Christ’s sake, whatever you do, stay away from windows and such. You make for too easy a target.
Then the rest of it came spilling out. The bigger truth of what had happened. The revelation of the XXX home movie, and Sonny’s instant understanding that the mayor’s concern wasn’t so much Gordy Madsen’s crosshairs—fixed, though they may have been, on old Bullfrog’s privates—but the crudely-made film that Gordy and countless others had seen at the drive in the night before, and which the mayor now feared would fall into the hands of the mainstream (lame-stream, he called it) media.
“You think I’m stupid!” he’d croaked into Sonny’ ear. “You think I wanna see myself on The Jon Stewart Show? Huh? He was blowing hard, and his famous Bullfrog voice was in full throat. I want you to find the cocksucker that made it and throw him in the can! Beat his ass with a rubber hose if you have to! Just get him to cough up the goddamn master! You hear me, Beauchamp?
Did he hear him? Yeah, he heard him….
Nagurski wanders off into the kitchen to fetch Sonny a much-needed cup of coffee, and while he’s gone Sonny pokes through the magazines on the end table. Will he have to watch the film? That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, isn’t it? He figures he doesn’t have much selection in the matter, seeing as how he’s the lead (and only) investigator on the case and how there’s at least a slight chance it could offer a clue as to who its maker was. But still, he’d prefer to turn a blind eye if he could. He’s got no desire to see Bullfrog Bob’s hairy white ass (or any other part of his corpulent anatomy), onscreen or otherwise, and more to the point, he’s loathe to witness the sight of Midge Madsen acting out her libidinous, middle-aged desires with the scurrilous sonofabitch. It’s been forty-eight years and one giant heartbreak since Sonny and Midge were high school sweethearts, and though nobody knows it, the sheriff still carries a torch for her.
A rumor’s been floating around it was a boy named Lomax who shot the film. Recorded it from a high limb in the old cottonwood that overlooks the riverbank where Midge and the Mayor had parked that evening. It’s a theory that’s well within the realm of possibility, according to Dent and Nagurski, although both men agree that anything lensed from such a height—with such a primitive piece of technology—would certainly lack something in the way of production value.
“It’d look like the work of a rank amateur,” Nagurski said.
“Further proving our innocence,” Dent added.
Sonny, looking like a man who’d been put to the scourge, lowered his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. What he wanted to understand but seemed destined never to know, was how the goddamn thing magically appeared on the big screen at the drive-in theater on Saturday night. How an unsuspecting audience enjoying a rerun of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, could suddenly, and without warning, have been plunged into a jestsam of human smut. Confronted, as one terrorized witness later recalled, by a ‘two-story gluteal eclipse.’”
“Good question,” Nagurski said.
“Super good question,” Dent agreed.
Sonny doesn’t have much use for modern-day gadgetry. Mostly, he figures it to be a nuisance. One more way for people to annoy one another, or get into trouble that wouldn’t otherwise exist. He tries to stay up on technology as part of his responsibility to the folks who put him in office. But that said, he’s no true believer. In all the years he’s worn a badge, he’s never come across the firewall that could separate a pair of drunks in a knife fight, or seen the Facebook post that could sooth a grieving widow when she’d learned her man had been stomped to death by a crazed bull, or mangled in a haying accident by a runaway gleaner.
He picks up one of the magazines from the end table, Wired, and gives it a withering glance before tossing it down again. It’s some kind of craziness, he thinks, the way these newfangled devices bring out the ugly in people. Tempting them to petty crimes. Anonymous forays into psychological vandalism. There was a time when only big things bothered him, keeping him up nights, but anymore the opposite was true. Now it was the small stuff—the sharp little meannesses folks laid at one another’s doorsteps—that drove him to question the soul of humanity.
Nagurski appears at last with a mug of steaming black coffee and Sonny takes it from him with two hands, setting it aside. He rolls the toothpick across his tongue, and raises his chin. Points to a pair of closed doors on the other side of the hallway, one of which has a flashing red light above the jamb. “You fellas runnin a cathouse here, too?”
Nagurski’s eyes slant toward the door. He chuckles. “There’s a session in progress, Sheriff. That’s all. Red light goes on when the engineer’s recording.”
“Session?” Sonny picks up the mug, blowing steam away from the rim. Raises it to his mustached lips and sips daintily before setting it down again. “What kind of session?”
“Recording session, Sheriff. Voice-over announce. Wanna see?” Nagurski urges the lawman to follow him. “Come on,” he says. “You’ll get a kick out of it.”
They walk across the hall. Sonny, cup in his hand, follows Nagurski, who knocks quietly and opens the door so they can slip inside. The room is dimly lit, and the first sight to greet Sonny’s eyes is the engineer. A chubby, towheaded fella in tortoise-shell glasses, whose initial reaction to their entrance is a scalding frown. The engineer’s wearing a black t-shirt, the back of which shows a picture of The Flying Burrito Brothers, and his fingers are skating up and down the soundboard on a pair of sliding control buttons.
“Have a seat, Sheriff,” Nagurski says, emphasizing the word Sheriff for the benefit of the curmudgeonly engineer. “Looks like they’re just getting started.”
Sonny takes up a chair and sets his mug on the glass coffee table in front of him. Steers his eyes past the engineer’s shoulder, through the studio’s compound, soundproof window, into the recording booth where he sees two old boys in Stetsons and stock boots sitting side-by-side on a pair of tall upholstered chairs.
Sonny doesn’t know why, but the sight of the men—just a couple of old-timers like himself in pearl-buttoned shirts, faded Wranglers, and silver belt buckles—is an inexplicable comfort to his aging eyes. To his heart, really, even though being Sheriff he hates to think of himself as having one.
The older of the two men—the one with the crooked nose—reminds Sonny of Stump Cahill, a ranch hand who’d nearly cut off his ear with a whisky bottle during a barroom brawl out in Lander one summer. The other, lanky with slow easy gestures and a big white mustache, is the spitting image of Tom LeVeau. The outlaw who’d held up the Bright Spot over in Hiland back in the 70s, terrorizing its poor owner, Betty Evenson, into a fit of madness from which she never recovered, God rest her soul. LeVeau was doing a stretch in the state pen over in Rawlins these days. Betty Evenson was still in Hiland, but no longer among the living, buried now on a lonely hilltop cemetery beside her husband, Maurice.
“Rodeo Cowboys Network.” Nagurski says under his breath, yanking Sonny’s unwinding reverie out from under him. “They’re putting together a new show.”
The announcers are still wearing their Stetsons, but somewhere along the way they’ve donned headsets. They’re talking into their microphones through round, black foam buffers—popper stoppers, Nagurski calls them—jawing up a storm about livestock, riders, pick-up men, and the like.
Sonny doesn’t get it at first, who the announcer-fellas are talking to. But then he sees the monitor over the engineer’s workstation and realizes their comments relate directly to the action drifting across the screen.
Welcome back to the rodeo cowboy’s showdown, the one who looks like Stump Cahill, says, brought to you by… Wrangler, the official jeans and shirts of the Rodeo Cowboys Network…by Justin Boot Company of Ft. Worth, Texas, quality bootmakers since 1879…and by the greater Phoenix Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. It’s bareback riding, folks, and these are the guys to watch for…
The other announcer, the Tom LeVeau fella with the long red face and big, white, neatly trimmed mustache, breaks in on perfect queue.
This thing is power packed, Vern. We’ve got Chuck Lowe, a Texas boy, and former champion of the world, headin this thing up. He raises his eyes to what Sonny figures must be a second monitor attached to the wall inside the sound booth. We’re looking at some of the very best livestock in the world, he says. And this horse, Jamboree, of the Sankey Rodeo Company is no exception. This dude has drawn his riggin full!
Sonny turns to Nagurski. “I don’t get it. Is this here thing they’re doin live?”
Sonny turns back to the booth, his eyes going a little bit sad.
“The event was taped two months ago,” Nagurski says. “We’re just cleaning things up today. Checking the edit, laying in the sound. Posting the after effects. Like that.”
Sonny’s been to Branson, Missouri, Wall Drug South Dakota, and a tractor pull and threshing contest in Zwingle, Iowa, but he’s never seen anything as heartbreaking as what he’s witnessing here in the studio.
“You mean to tell me them boys don’t even go to the rodeo? They do all the announcin from a booth? Here in Mills? After the show’s already over?”
Nagurski shrugs, surprised. “Well, yeah, Sheriff. It’d be too expensive otherwise.”
Sonny’s eyes drift back to the screen, to the thick glass of the sound booth and the sight of the men behind it. Only he’s not really watching now. He’s just sitting there. Shaking his head. Remembering the jagged edge of Stump Cahill’s whisky bottle as it bit into his ear, spilling warm red blood down the collar of his shirt, across his chest in thin, sticky rivulets. He remembers the pain. Its excruciating clarity. The brutal way it cut through the bullshit of the moment, and laid bare all the lies and conceits he harbored in his heart.
Vern, the smaller announcer, is chuckling into his microphone. Well, he says to his mustached compadre in the ten-gallon-hat, you got a national finals buckin horse here, Mack. And a world champion cowboy….
Pinpricks of sweat break across Sonny’s heavy brow.
…and we’re looking at an 8 second ride with a divided riding system.
Nagurski sits forward in his chair. Brings his lips close to the Sheriff’s ear. Whispers, “You got air travel…hotel accommodations…the per diem…. It all costs, Sheriff.”
“Plus,” interrupts Larry Dent, who’s slipped into the room unnoticed and is now kneeling next to Sonny’s chair, “you can’t get clean audio.”
“True,” Nagurski agrees in a hushed tone. “Very true.”
Sonny’s breath won’t come. It’s like all the air in the room’s been used up. Or like a half-ton wagon’s been rolled onto his chest, and every word coming out of the announcers’ mouths is one more sack of grain tossed on its already over-laden axles.
You’ve got 80 points total,” the announcer named Mack says. And it’s split down the middle. Half for the man, half for the horse.
Sonny follows the path of the raging bronc as it kicks and bucks and bites its way across the monitor. The rider’s face is steeped in shadow, hat punched low on his head. An entry number pinned to the cowboy’s plaid shirt is flapping against his back, and in the dust-choked air his right arm, flung high, whips behind him like a standard.
The studio speakers are filled with the raucous sound of the crowd. The clanging of bells and the bellowing of horns. But all Sonny hears is the uncensored bliss of Midge Madsen’s honeysuckle voice, strange and delirious, calling to him through the drive-in speakers, and all he can feel is his stuck breath pounding against his chest like a blacksmith’s hammer. He smells her hair. Soft as rainwater. Tastes her mouth, as sweet as a ripe red apple. He’s dying for her, heartbeat by lonely heartbeat—because she should have been his—but just when he thinks his poor old ticker will collapse under the weight of its own treacherous desires, something happens. The jagged edge of Stump Cahill’s broken whisky bottle cuts the memory in two, and the thing that’s had him by the throat releases its grip.
This here’s a two-event cowboy, says the announcer named Vern. And a former winner of the bull riding championship in his native land of Canada.
Right, says Mack. On a horse called War Wagon….
The sheriff blinks, then blinks again. Turns from the monitor, and with a tired old grunt, takes to his boots, saying, “Well, boys. I believe I’ve seen enough.” Squaring his hat, he nods at the manila envelope in Dent’s hand, the one with the thumb drive inside. “I’ll take that.”
Dent glances at the package almost as if he’s forgotten he’s holding it. “Oh, yeah. Sure.” He gives it to Sonny—or starts to, anyway—but hesitates, and pulls the package to his chest. “Now remember, Sheriff,” he says, “me and Toke here, we didn’t have anything to do with this little project. Nothing at all.”
Sonny looks at him as if enough already. Plucks the envelope from the man’s timid fingers, and starts for the door. On his way down the empty hall the voices of the announcers give chase, echoing after him. Nipping at his heels like hounds. You know, pardner, I like this horse, he hears one of them say. Loner’s what he’s called. Not the easiest animal to get on with, and you can see why. He bails in the air, kicks out at about the same second….
# # #
"Into the Sunset" first appeared in the Flint Hills Review