September 10th, 1963
In Ashford County, there exists a true Mason-Dixon line culture. The pretentious sensibilities of the North melt into the generational poverty of the south. People want to be bigger than what they are, they want to get more than they have, they are collectively ambitious yet incompetent, poorly educated, and largely accepting of the doldrums they have placed themselves into. A few charismatic and seemingly vacuous individuals desire to eliminate the doldrums from their respective jurisdictions.
Mayor Robert Lee (no relation) was one such person. He was a strange character, who genuinely seemed to love the shithole that Rockwell was forced to wallow in. Rockwell found this hard to believe, but over time, he grew to have cautious respect mixed in with his distaste for the politician. The fact that Lee had known Rockwell’s mother when she was Sheriff helped superficially soothe relations between the two abrasive personalities, no doubt… along with the fact that Rockwell now needed the Mayor infinitely more than the Mayor ever needed him.
That “need” was the reason why Rockwell attended the mayor’s “New Ashford” speech, which, supposedly, would address a litany of complaints that had sprung up just a month and a half before the next mayoral election.
The mayor stood behind a wooden podium, addressing a swath of seats filled with fat, dowdy white women of dubious ages (their was youth hidden behind their gluttonous guts), old, sour men and pregnant 17-year-olds with doggy prams for their terriers.
Perhaps they were couples?
Rockwell may have hated Ashford, but he hated the people who lived in it more. He hated the greasers he had to constantly arrest for petty crimes, the housewives who would go ape-shit when they caught their husbands cheating, the husbands who would buy guns to kill their ape-shit wives and so on.
Mayor Lee shouted, “Good morning Ashford!”
A few pinches of clapping break through the combined howling of bayside breeze and crying babies.
“Today, we mark the beginning of a new Historic Ashford. A new Delaware. A day that would make our founder, the generous Lord Benjamin Pitt, proud! “
Mayor Lee motioned towards a statue of Lord Benjamin Pitt. The statue was made out of cast iron. The nose had fallen off long ago, and bird-shit covered what wasn’t rusted. What facial features remained legible were badly crafted to start with and were largely disproportionate with the rest of his body, leaving him looking terribly disfigured.
The crowd applauded, weakly. A few people eyed a group of soldiers who had just screeched in riding tanks and Jeeps.
“A bit late to the party,” Rockwell chuckled.
“Today, on the site of the Ashford County Historical Commission’s founding, I am here to announce to you, the good people of Ashford County, the next step. The next leap towards putting Ashford on the map! Ashford beautification! We’re rebuilding the boardwalk into a plaza that’ll rival the best Atlantic City itself has to offer! And that’s something to be proud of, Ashford!”
A band began to play in the background. The musicians played their poorly tuned instruments terribly. Still, they marched proudly on with cheaply made floats of plywood and paper mache, with the disinterested crowd now getting up out their seats and following the pathetic parade in tow, because really, what else was there to do? Men in suits, visibly jovial, walked up to the podium to shake the mayor’s hand.
Rockwell, still in his seat, observed the mayor and his cohorts silently. After watching the suits shake the mayor’s hand and join the parade, he walked briskly towards the podium to talk with the mayor.
“Great speech, Lee,” Rockwell said.
“Thanks, Sol’. Didn’t think you’d be here. Not with that terrible suicide case…”
“Oh, don’t worry about that, the military’s got it covered,” Rockwell smirked, nodding his head in the direction of the tanks. “The Star Spangled Banner” played stridently in the distance out of a megaphone attached to one of the tanks, heralding the arrival of the U.S. army. “High profile cases like that are bound to get sucked up chain of command all the way to the top. Not that I’m complaining, I’m perfectly happy dealing with arson and car jacking. The army can have as many suicides at it wants.”
The mayor chuckled. Rockwell truly believed that the chuckle was sincere, and that’s what made him furious. He couldn’t allow himself to believe that anyone could be so sincere, so amiable, and yet so powerful.
“I just wanted to ask you if you’d be willing to check with United Water about our water tower,” Rockwell blurted out.
“Straight to the point,” Lee chuckled once again. “What’s wrong with the water?”
“Well, Lee, my faucet’s been cloudy for days. I’m not talking regular cloudy, I mean this water… it’s just bad, it smells bad, tastes bad, it looks like that lake out by the DuPont chemical factory. And it’s not just mine, whole town’s brimming with that pathetic excuse for potable water. People are just starting buy bottled, you know that Alpine shit the Russians send over because it’s supposed to be ‘healthier’ for you.”
“Sol’, you know how badly the county’s budget was slashed. The state municipality workers don’t have enough money to keep the water tower’s filters in prime condition. I mean, it’s the reason why the police department had to absorb animal control.”
“So it’s your fault I have to spend my afternoons scooping up dead raccoons and poking at washed up sturgeons.”
“Solomon, it’s not what I want, but with the Russian embargo, Canada closing it’s borders, hell, this recession, my hands are tied behind my back, around my neck, across my legs and back over again.”
Rockwell grimaced. “We both know county isn’t cutting back due to the recession. I mean, have you seen the spending reports from state? Local and state governments are doing the exact opposite of cutting back, redirecting nearly all of their tax money towards defense and the military. All the money that should be going towards maintaining our water towers is going towards buying new tanks.”
Mayor Lee almost looked ashamed of himself. “Sol’, it’s the latest fad to deal with the latest scare: Communist ex-pats have everyone on edge. With commies at the doorstep and a depression on the horizon, water towers are the least of county’s worries right now. I’m sorry, Solomon, I really am.”
The mayor hurried over to join the parade, never stopping to look back at Rockwell.
Several hours after the mayor’s speech, Rockwell came upon a facility attendant sitting conspicuously near the entrance of a United Water municipality building. A tiffany lamp hanging over an Agatha Christie book illuminated her fat, pockmarked face. Demurely, she flipped through the book, page by page. This was her schedule. This was how she spent her mornings, afternoons, evenings, and nights. Her hair as carefully coiffed to look like Marilyn Monroe’s, as were her eyebrows. Her lips were painted sturgeon red, her cheeks covered with cheap blush.
Detective or dancer?
Thinker or seducer?
Who did she idolize?
Who did she want to be?
All at once, she looked up, started, and nearly fell out of her chair.
“Jesus! Who are you? Excuse me sir, are you supposed to be in here?”
Breaking from a trance, Rockwell asked, “Pardon?”
The facility attendant shouted angrily, “Are you supposed to be here?”
Rockwell looked around to make sure she wasn’t addressing someone else. He stepped forward from the facility entrance and asked, “Are you in charge of this facility?”
“Why, y-yes, I…”
“I don’t suppose anyone from the Mayor’s office has been down here today?
The attendant smiled coldly. “No not really sir. We don’t often get bigwigs from the mayor’s office down here. Just little old me! Behind my desk.”
She aggressively patted the desk behind her as one would pat a dog or a dying grandfather.
“Figures. You monitor the water tower?”
“Among other things.”
“Well then I think you’d have no problem telling just exactly why every Ashford sink and spigot within 3 miles of your water tower spits out cloudy, filthy water that smells like my grandma’s ass hair.”
“Hey, uh, I don’t know if you’re an inspector or with the military or something but really this isn’t any of your business. I’m just here to make sure nothing gets into the water. That’s my job.”
“No inspector here. Just a detective. Ashford PD. Now why don’t you show me just how good of a job you’ve been doing. You know, not letting anything get into the water.
Slightly shaken now, the attendant pursed her lips defiantly and said, “Sure detective. No problem.”
The attendant grabbed a key and led Rockwell up a ladder to the top of the water tower. Being slightly overweight, the attendant found it hard to climb the ladder, and halfway up, called down through gasps, “Detective, give me a moment.”
Rockwell called back up, “Take your time, I’m in no rush.” He noticed she was wearing high heels, specifically, the high heels that Marilyn Monroe wore in ‘The Seven Year Itch’. He shook his head, not out of disproval, but out of pity. It was there on that ladder that Solomon Rockwell decided he hated Marilyn Monroe more than he could ever hate Mayor Robert Lee.
Rockwell followed the facility attendant up the water tower once she had caught her breath. Upon reaching the top, the facility attendant opened a hatch with another ladder. Rockwell slowly stepped down the ladder with the same lethargy that possessed the dinner guests at the governor’s mansion. His steps, like tribal drums, accentuated his descent, the metal birthing echoes in the darkness, adding to the feral beat.
Rockwell stopped short down the interior ladder of the water tower, his attention and motion halted by a corpse, long decomposed, bloated and pale, floating face down in the water. Rockwell called up to the attendant to call for the police. Soon, police sirens could be heard in the distance, and not five minutes later, flashing lights colored the grass around the water tower red and blue. Muffled voices barked back and forth on police radios painting a picture of confusion. Two cruisers were parked, still running, on the lawn when Rockwell finally made his way down. Captain Powell was already unfurling crime scene tape around the edge of the water tower. Rockwell saw a young, clean-cut man getting out one of the police cruisers, and walked up to him.
“You the diver?” Rockwell asked.
“I am,” the man replied with a professional curtness. “What’s the deal?” he asked, yawning. It was already quite late. Likely, Powell had woken the clean-cut diver from a pleasant dream about photogenic people living in a futuristic, utopian paradise. Rockwell savored the thought that this dream had been interrupted, and savored the idea that he had been responsible for interrupting it.
“I counted one body, floating. The water’s probably about forty feet deep, but I couldn’t really see that far down on account of the water being so cloudy.”
“Alright then. Would you like me to try to drag the body out?
“No… actually why not. Go ahead. Forensics got cut anyways; I don’t feel like waiting for someone to come up from Sussex. Take pictures if you can.
“You got it.”
The diver reached into the trunk of the cruiser and pulled out a diving suit, which he promptly put on, save for the flippers and air mask. He pulled out a waterproof camera and a flashlight and strapped them to his side. Then, he climbed up the water tower letting his air mask dangle off the side of his face. Once he reached the top, he vanished underneath the metal.
“I should probably go up there too,” Rockwell muttered.
Meanwhile, Captain Powell fiddled clumsily with the tape, untangling it as he threw it over fences and picking up the roll when he dropped it. Rockwell climbed up a few rungs, when suddenly his ascent was arrested by an unintelligible shout from the diver. Both Powell and Rockwell looked up. The diver burst out of the top of the tower, ripping off his mask and jettisoning vomit over the edge of the hatch. Rockwell climbed up the rest of the way to check on the diver.
“You see that shit? Of course I’m not alright.” The diver’s voice was trembling.
“Yeah, I should’ve warned you. It’s best not to stare at it,” Rockwell chortled.
“I didn’t fucking stare at it! One glance was enough to send me packing. No sirree, I did not sign up for this,” the diver yelled.
He climbed down the tower, took off his wetsuit and diving gear and drove off in one of the cruisers. Rockwell watched the cruiser intently as it drove away. Rockwell rolled his eyes and climbed the rest of the way up the water tower.
From down on the ground, Captain Powell yelled out, “I ran out of tape!”
“What?” Rockwell yelled back down, straining his ears to discern a response.
Louder, Powell yelled, “I ran out of tape!”
Still louder, Rockwell replied, “Why the hell are you telling me?”
Taking a moment to think, the captain replied, “Dunno,” then shrugged his shoulders.
An awkward silence filled the gap of black night between the two. On the ground, the Captain stood in the harsh reds and blues of the police lights. On the water tower, Rockwell looked up at the night sky with only a flickering spotlight to light his way back down to Earth.
Powell yelled up once again, limply holding a tangled yarn ball of caution tape in his hands. “You think I should just leave it?”
Rockwell continued to stare up at the night sky. He did not give heed to the hierarchy of the police department. He didn’t ignore Powell out of a lack of respect, however, and Captain Powell knew this. The stars were just too distracting.
Captain Powell threw the caution tape on the ground in frustration and climbed up the water tower.
“The army sure is taking its sweet time to get here,” Powell said as he reached the top.
“I’m not complaining.”
Powell sat down next to Rockwell. Hesitantly inquisitive, Powell said, “You know, you seem awfully O.K. with all this.”
Rockwell took a butterscotch hard candy out of his pocket and stared off into the night as he unwrapped it. The plastic fell limply down to the ground.
“Not at all… just, the Ivanov suicide… when was our last violent crime, Powell?”
“I think ‘53. Yeah, ‘53, that’s it. Some guy got shanked in his groin over a game of high-stakes checkers. He survived, but suffered some complications from the wound.”
“Two bodies found within a week of each other. The floater probably died some time this month too, and from the looks of things, that one’s a suicide as well.”
“One would think, that with all these black people and Indians moving in from Lynchville we’d get more crime. Well, here’s our crime. Someone better telephone the mayor, once again I’m right after all.”
He said this last sentence with exasperation, but his genial nature prevented him from reaching full sarcasm.
“I mean, you know. I did warn ‘im. I said, Lee, we’re gonna get a real influx in crime I tell you. You cut Ashford PD it ain’t gonna matter for shit how many tanks we have. How the heck is he gonna make Ashford, “Delaware’s Atlantic City” if he can’t stop violent crime? Cocksucker’s probably never even been to Atlantic City. Our problem ain’t the Commies, it ain’t the Ruskies, it’s the colored folks. This mayor ain’t nothin’ but trouble for Ashford. Been that way for over five years. All this trouble with Lynchville spillin’ over like a bowl of black pancake batter ain’t making things any easier on us.”
Rockwell mulled over Captain Powell’s old country wisdom and casual racism, quietly lamenting the light pollution that obscured the blues and reds of the cosmos that he knew hid behind the darkness…
It was a sky that the Russians owned. The Americans no longer had a right to the stars.