Mr. Johnson

Al Billings

by Al Billings

When I first arrived in Austin, in 1986, I found myself doing a lot of pickup work, gardening, painting kitchen walls, whatever helped to pay the bills.

I lived with a roommate who had gotten involved with another man’s wife, and they were having a lot of problems. I avoided them whenever I could, and refused to take sides.

Bob, the cuckold, would run into me from time to time, and one day he asked me to help him with a small construction project. I guessed that he was just trying to get next to me because he wanted to bitch about my roommate running off with his wife, but he held his mud and didn’t complain, and neither did I, because I needed the money. I’m not sure that he even understood why he’d hired me. Bob was, in fact, a walking time bomb, and I could smell the anger bubbling below the surface of his rigid, artificial grin. And to make life more complicated, he and his wife had a young son who was plagued with both emotional and physical disabilities.

Bob picked me up one Saturday morning, and we headed out to Granite Shoals, near the town of Marble Falls, a parched, quarry-riddled plain about an hour’s drive northwest of Austin. When we stopped for gas, one of the locals welcomed me to “God’s Country,” but any fool could plainly see that if it had really belonged to God, Granite Shoals hadn’t been high on the Lord’s list of aesthetic priorities.

Bob’s client was an old Texan named Mr. Johnson, and our task was to complete a handicap ramp for his wheelchair-bound wife. Bob explained to me that Mr. Johnson could be ill-tempered and quarrelsome, and prone to letting off steam by shouting at whoever was standing nearest to him.

When we arrived at Mr. Johnson’s house, Bob further confessed that Mr. Johnson had never bought a building permit for the project, and that despite the efforts of most of the officials in Granite Shoals to force him into compliance, the construction project was, in fact, illegal.

We slid out of the truck, and I started hauling tools up towards the house. Mr. Johnson came to the door, called for Bob and invited him into the house. I got a quick look at the old man, a skinny, dyspeptic coot dressed in wrinkled khakis and worn cowboy boots. He had an ugly and quarrelsome look to him, and I was happy to be standing out in the yard.

I could hear Bob and Mr. Johnson conversing in what seemed to be a normal tone of voice. But suddenly, Mr. Johnson started sounding a little testy, and so did Bob, and I could hear vague mutterings concerning the quality of Bob’s construction work and the amount of money Mr. Johnson owed him.

Just about the time that Bob and the old man started warming up, the Burnet County Sheriff arrived.  He slid out of his cruiser, hitched up his gun belt, adjusted his Stetson for dramatic effect and looked off into the distance.

“Ha-do,” he said.  The Sheriff looked distracted, and mournful. It was obvious that he didn’t want to be there, and he might have been reflecting upon the distasteful complications that his position entailed.  By now, Bob and Mr. Johnson where going at it hammer-and-tong, each of them elevating both the levels of their voices and the richness of their profanity.

The sheriff looked at me and said, “That ol’ sonofabitch don’t have a permit to do the construction on his house. I’ve come out here about twenty times, and so have the building inspector and the county attorney. Not a one of us can get him to pay up.” He climbed the steps to Mr. Johnson’s front door and gently knocked.

Mr. Johnson whirled around, spotted the sheriff through the screen door and cut loose. “You godamn sons a bitches are just tryin’ to take my money. All them godamned sons a bitches in town tryin’ to take my money! Fuck you, sheriff! You can kiss my skinny godamned ass, you sonofabitch!”

Looking at Mr. Johnson’s half-rotted shotgun shack, it occurred to me that Mr. Johnson, struggling to care for his disabled wife, might not have been able to afford the work he’d hired Bob to do, and was too proud to say so. All older native Texans were raised on the mythology surrounding the battle for possession of the Alamo, and to this day slide easily into a sort of siege mentality, a default position that they take in with their mothers’ milk. Mr. Johnson was William B. Travis, and the rest of us were the Mexicans. He had backed himself into a corner, and metaphorically, lacked the horsepower to shoot his way out of the confrontation.

The sheriff stood his ground, but it was obvious to me that he’d rather have been in Hell with his back broken than to be standing on Mr. Johnson’s porch. Urban dwellers watch too much television, and tend to conflate sheriffs, marshals and Texas Rangers into a single, imposing icon twirling a pair of pearl-handled six-shooters, ready to blast away at the least provocation. In fact, Texas sheriffs are good, mostly patient elected officials who abhor violence and will do almost anything to avoid it. Trapped within the complications of small-town politics, they’re expected to organize charity events, feed the poor and humor daft old ladies who believe that outlaw gangs have taken up residence in their tool sheds. And they also have to contend with citizens who jovially greet them on street corners while secretly believing that the current Sheriff is a corrupt idiot who’s leading the town to perdition, and that if their candidate had been elected instead, things would be a whole lot better. It’s possible that the sheriff was contemplating all those rich ironies as he confronted Mr. Johnson. And despite the sheriff’s obvious legal authority, it could be said that Mr. Johnson had the sheriff by the balls.

The sheriff shot me a long, mournful glance, and sighed. “I just hate this bullshit,” he said. “Here it’s a Saturday, and I oughta be out fishin’, and here I am dealin’ with this ugly old bastard. He’s too old to put in jail, and if I did it, I’d never hear the end of it.”

He glanced down at his watch, and then at me, and said “Well, it’s about dinner time, and my wife’s puttin’ food on the table right now. Can you boys take care of yourselves?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fine and dandy,” said the sheriff, who touched the tip of his Stetson with his right index finger, slid behind the wheel of his car, whipped it around and slowly trundled down the road.

December 1, 2010 1:03 pm

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