Mayor Johnnie Holland banged the lectern with the official Town of Ranlo gavel and growled “This meeting of the town board of Ranlo is now in session”. The Honorable Mayor looked to his right and left to assure himself that the six town board members were all in attendance. There were three desks to his right, the fifties era wooden ones used in high schools, where you slid in from the side and had the area underneath for storage, and three more to his left, forming a rough semicircle with the Mayoral lectern in the middle. The furthest desk to his right housed Audra Harris, a long time member of the board; Audra was stout and unattractive, sixty years old with fading red hair. She was a widow who survived on social security and a small stipend she received from the local newspaper for writing a column called the Ranlo News, a weekly recounting of what passed for social life in the little burg. It appeared in the Gastonia Gazette Wednesdays so that the goings on over the weekend could be included. She also substitute taught at Ranlo Elementary School from time to time. Audra had been in demand a right smart lately, the randy chairman of the school board having hired a beautiful Cherokee Indian girl whose only educational qualification, as far as anyone could tell, was her ability to say “yes, anytime” to the School Board Chairman. The new teacher had a very serious drinking problem, which paved the way for Audra to fill in on most Mondays at the school.
Next to Audra was Tom Costner, a handsome well-tanned man of about fifty. Tom did about anything to make money, including distilling the best moonshine in three counties down on Oodley Creek. Although widely known by all, Tom’s manufacturing skills were never publicly discussed at board meetings. Proper and judicious dispensation of the potent clear elixir kept Tom Costner on good footing with the powers that be and out of jail.
Jay Robinson housed the desk directly to the Mayor’s right. Jay was a tall lean man who operated Robinson’s Feed and Seed down on the Lower Ranlo Road beside the railroad tracks. Jay was an accomplished horseman and served as sergeant at arms of the Ranlo Riders, a group who rode and partied together frequently.
To the left of the Mayor was Mae Henshaw, a woman of forty five who featured a busty hour glass figure and a perpetually red face. Mae was a redhead and had every bit of that well known temperament. Mae was a member of the Ranlo Riders, and was purported to be one of the more vigorous riders, sometimes going for hours.
Sloan Cronklin, a retired carpenter and rabbit farmer, was in the next place. Sloan was Top Wrangler in the Ranlo Riders, a name the group came up with to designate the second in command. Sloan loved his time with the group, and sometimes, when they couldn’t get enough, he and Mae would continue after the others had gone home. There was lots of farming country and trails locally so there was never a problem with having somewhere to ride.
On the far end of the left sat Blair Crouse. Blair was the local undertaker, a handsome man with platinum silver hair. Blair was wearing a dark suit and white shirt and tie, having come fresh from planting a guy over in Stanley at the First Methodist Church cemetery. Blair had dazzlingly white brand new teeth he had purchased in South Carolina from one of those places that pull all of your teeth and put in new ones the same day. Most days, including this one, he remembered to put them in. Blair’s time-honored saying was “I’m your friendly undertaker, the last one who will ever let you down”. Blair Crouse was the Trail Boss, the title of the leader of the Ranlo Riders, and was a most fun-loving fellow.
When Mayor Holland banged the gavel it was two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon; the Ranlo town board had been meeting at this time for decades. Ranlo shopowners and business people followed the time honored southern tradition of closing on Wednesday afternoons, so it just made sense to have the meetings then. The Mayor looked around the room and said hello to everyone, each board member responding with identical salutations of “good afternoon Your Honor”. It was indeed quite a search to observe anything honorable about the appearance of his honor; Mayor Johnnie Holland stood about five feet five, weighing in at every bit of two hundred eighty pounds, the bulk of the weight hanging over the waistband of his worn carpenter’s jeans. He wore a big silver colored belt buckle with a set of bull horns on it and his ample jowls shone perpetually red. As always the first part of the meeting consisted of going around the room and seeing if anyone had any special requests to bring before the Board; the townspeople were aware of who was on the Board and they were encouraged to approach members with any questions or recommendations——–Mayor Holland prided himself on having his finger on the pulse of any desires of the town folk.
Audra Harris was the first to go. “Mayor Holland, and board members, I have a request from a Mr. Medford. He is an elderly gentleman, and does not know how much longer he has to live, and wants to know if he can pay his commemorative tag fee on a monthly basis”. Five years previous, during tight budget times, the Board had instituted a requirement that all residents purchase tags for the front of their vehicles. The tags were of course provided by the Town of Ranlo and depicted the town’s name in large block letters beside a rendering of a large cotton mill alongside a river. The twelve-dollar price for the tag coupled with the town’s cost of five dollars per tag allowed a tidy profit of seven dollars per vehicle. “I tole Mr. Medford I would bring it up at the meeting, but I shore did not make any promises”.
Mayor Johnnie Holland put his thumbs under the waist band of his straining carpenter britches and said “Thank you, Audra; now is there any discussion?”.
“Well I don’t know ‘bout that Mayor”, said Sloan Cronklin, “we might be opening up a huge can of worms, what with that ordinance havin’ been in effect for so long. Next thang you know people will be wantin’ to wait til the last day of the year to pay their taxes, and then we’d be in a hell of a shape. And hell, that Medford has got the first nickel he ever made, so it ain’t like he can’t afford it. He makes a ton of money off that gravel pit down by the river and he don’t even have to run it—his boy comes up there from down east and collects the money ever so often. I don’t like this idea”.
“Now this ain’t about how much money somebody has or ain’t got, it’s just a simple request to do something a little different”, said Blair Crouse, smoothing his silver hair with his hand. “Now I personally know Mr. Medford and count him as a friend. I do know for a fact that he has prepaid his burial expenses as of five years ago and even picked out the casket, and it wa’n’t no cheap one. But this here is just a simple case of dollars and cents. It is highly likely that the town would have to employ another clerk to take care of this issue if we allowed it to come to pass, and you all know we can sorely afford that”.
Blair got a couple of “makes sense” and “kinda see where Blair is coming from” remarks from the group.
There were several other things said but nothing monumental and the Board finally voted six to zero against allowing Mr. Medford to make monthly payments on his tag. The final knife in the request came when the Mayor recollected that Medford’s name was on a list the town clerk gave him the other day, a list that showed Medford had neglected to pay his tag fee for the last two years.
It was easing up toward three o’clock when Mayor Holland glanced up at the clock on the wall just above the town seal depicting the cotton mill on the river so he quickly wrapped up any remaining business. The Board members had noticed the time also and several of them were looking at the door. It was time for Jimmy Lawrence to arrive.
At precisely three o’clock a slight bespectacled man of about thirty entered the room. As he approached the group Mayor Holland moved away from the lectern and seated himself in a desk that he pulled up from the side of the room. Jimmy Lawrence had a two-day growth of beard and a red face that always got more crimson as the meeting continued and controversies, real or perceived, came to the forefront. But at this moment he appeared calm as he walked to the lectern carrying his note pad. When he positioned himself he laid his pad on the surface, checked the crease of his khakis and his starched white long sleeved shirt, and began.
“Honorable Mayor and members of the town board. Once again I would like to thank you all for the opportunity to address you all at each of your meetings. I fully realize that I have attended and spoken at every town board meeting for the last two years and thus commend you for your patience”. At the mention of his faithful attendance everyone rolled their eyes, either inwardly or outwardly.
“And I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for acting so quickly on my last request. As you may recall I brought to you my concerns about the ambiguity existing relative to the business area of Ranlo. You notice I use a generic term for this area, and for a very good reason. It came to my attention that there were references being made to this specific geographic area as ‘downtown’, and also ‘uptown’. I brought you numerous newspaper articles showing you very explicitly that the two terms were being used interchangeably.” Jimmy Lawrence grinned at them as he closed in on the recounting of his great victory, exposing small pointy teeth. All of the Board members and the Mayor nodded in agreement, having learned long ago that if they appeared to agree with Jimmy Lawrence he tended to take up less of their time.
“I presented to you definitions of the two words, according to Merriam-Webster—–downtown—, toward or in the lower part or business center of a town or city. And then, according to Merriam-Webster, uptown—in the upper part of a town. You all so graciously accepted my most logical argument and I want to thank you for the sealed proclamation I was given stating that the Town Board would fastidiously promote in any and all of your publications, with proper exactitude, the precise and careful usage of these two very different words”. Jimmy Lawrence then flashed the pointy tooth grin and nodded to the Board.
“My God, we awready heard that shit one time and now we gotta get a recap, or as Jimmy would say a ‘recapitulation’”, Mae whispered to Sloan.
“I know sugar, this is cuttin’ into our ridin’ time”, Sloan grinned at the redhead naughtily.
Blair Crouse cleared his throat and looked at Jimmy Lawrence. “Mr. Lawrence, as always I am enjoying your visit, and even loved hearing about how you pointed out the incredible ‘uptown, downtown’ controversy which the Town Board acted upon so quickly and professionally, but I’ve got a funeral in Iron Station at four thirty, and as you know, the show don’t go on if ol’ Blair don’t show up with the dearly departed. So maybe you could move on to the fascinating order of business which has brought you to your midst”.
“Absolutely Mr. Crouse, I was just about to launch into that.” Jimmy Lawrence’s face turned a couple of shades higher, like he always did when he was about to bust loose with the latest horrific etymological or grammatical mistake that was being made in Ranlo.
Tom Costner was being as patient as he could be but couldn’t help but worry about that batch of Oodley Creek that was coming off this very afternoon. Tom knew that if he left Baxter tending to it too long he would be way drunk by the time Tom showed up, and there would would a lot of free shine being administered to Baxter’s buddies. “Yea, let’s get with it Lawrence”, Tom said in a loud voice.
Jimmy Lawrence’s face dialed up two more notches as he glared at Tom Costner, but just looked down at the lectern, consulted his notes, and launched into his talk.
“I am sure all of you are aware that there is a street named The Circle which loops in a semicircle off Glenwood Avenue, and I am positive that you are equally aware of a street named Lewis Circle, which loops off of Fairview Rd.” Jimmy Lawrence glared at the Board Members and his left eyelid started to twitch.
“Now Mr. Lawrence, I think you will agree that we of the Town Board have gone way yonder out of our way to accommodate you in your weekly visits, and have acted judiciously concerning all of your complaints, but for the life of me I can’t figger out where you are going with this talk about streets. What you want to do, change the names of streets that have been called the same thing as long as all of us can remember?” the mayor asked.
“Precisely, Mayor, precisely,” Jimmy Lawrence shouted, gripping the edge of the lectern and literally spitting out the words. “That’s God damn exactly what I want to do”. And with that Jimmy Lawrence shoved the lectern to the floor and charged the Mayor, knocking his desk over, and started pummeling him with his small hairy fists.
The Board Members sat transfixed as Jimmy Lawrence shouted and cursed at the Mayor as he assaulted him. “God damn right I want to change their names, ‘cause they ain’t circles , they are friggin semicircles, FRIGGIN’ SEMICIRCLES, damn it.”
By this time Sloan Cronklin had recovered enough to get over and pull Jimmy Lawrence off the Mayor. Then he pulled the leather shoestrings out of his brogans and tied them together, then tied Jimmy’s hands behind his back. Jimmy Lawrence sat on the floor with his bound hands and started weeping, looking up at the Board members as they stood in a circle around him. Jimmy was foaming at the mouth liked a caged cat on the way to the vet, globs of spittle forming at the corners.
“Merriam-friggin- Webster my ass”, Jimmy Lawrence croaked. “On page 761 sanction is described as ‘an economic or military coercive measure adopted usually by several nations in concert for forcing a nation violating international law to desist or yield to adjudication’, and then in the very next damn entry sanction is defined as ‘to give effective approval or consent’”. Jimmy Lawrence looked at the awestruck group, his face beet red and his eyes aflame with passion. “Do any of you idiots not see that these definitions are opposite, diametrically opposed?”, he screamed, and when he only received blank stares burst into tears and started rolling around on the floor.
“Well, I guess he got about two years out of this treatment, said Blair Crouse sadly. “That seems to be about the average reasonably sane time he has after a round of shock treatments up at Morganton at the crazy house. Right much of a shame, though, cause his hair had grown back purty nice there at the temples. Mae, why don’t you go on into the office and call his mama to come and get him; just tell her what happened. She knows the routine.”
Mae went to make the call and the men continued to stand around Jimmy Lawrence, just looking at him as if he were some kind of a freak at the county fair, like that deformed black man they had who was about two feet tall and could put his legs behind his neck. He had been called the frog man.
Jimmy had stopped weeping and rolling around and was watching his captors. “And then check this out, flammable means ‘capable of being ignited’, and inflammable means ‘flammable’. How the hell can that be? In is a prefix meaning not, so not flammable means flammable.” Jimmy Lawrence seemed to be running out of steam, and in a low voice said ”I guess that is too much for you bumpkins to absorb; y’all wouldn’t know a Merriam-Webster if it was up your collective asses sideways”.
Tom Costner was looking a little perplexed as he asked the Mayor “Who the hell is this Merriam woman he keeps talkin’ ‘bout?’. “Dunno”, said the Mayor, “mebbe some crazy woman he met up there at Morganton; I sure ain’t seen him around any women here in Ranlo, for damn sure”.
Jimmy Lawrence was back to staring at the men. “I took LSD several times, and it all goes to one spot in your brain and collects there, and sometimes a piece will break off and that’s what a flashback is,” Jimmy said.
The men continued to talk about Jimmy Lawrence like he wasn’t even there. “My uncle was on one of them LSDs in World War II, but I don’t ‘member him havin’ any brain problems, and to my recollection he never used a flashlight any more than anyone else did”, offered Sloan Cronklin. Mae came back into the room and said that Jimmy’s mom would arrive any second. “When I tole what had happened she said she had been expectin’ it any time, said she could always tell when he was about to go off mental,” Mae said, looking sadly at the mess in the floor and taking a tissue over and wiping his mouth. “Hate for his momma to see him all slobbered up like that”.
“Let’s take him outside,” said the Mayor. “Mrs. Lawrence will be driving up any second in that pink Cadillac she won for sellin’ all them Mary Kay cosmetics. She gets a new one ‘bout every other year.”
As the men hoisted Jimmy Lawrence to his feet he had one parting comment. “Some day you dumbasses will realize what a fallacious, inaccurate hoax Merriam-Webster is and then you will understand all about what I have been trying to show you for all these years,” Jimmy Lawrence flung at them. The pink caddy pulled up and they put him in the back seat, his mother sitting stoically at the wheel, not even looking at the Town Board as she pulled away.
A tear ran down Mae’s cheek as she watched them go into the distance. “Ya know, he must hate that Merriam girl something turble to call her such awful names as he did. I’d say that poor boy is suffering from a broken heart. Mebbe them doctors up there in Morganton can do something to help him through his love suffering”.
“Guess they could always hook that shockin’ equipment to his heart and see what happened,” said Sloan, winking at Mae. “Bout time for a ride ain’t it?”. Mae giggled , and the four riders took two healthy pulls from a quart jar of Oodley Creek shine Tom Costner had retrieved from his car and headed to the Ranlo Riders stable.