Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pretty Boy Floyd Redmond

By Roger A Wilbanks

I pushed play on the micro cassette recorder. “So you knew the man on the back of the headstone, this, ‘Pretty Boy Floyd Redmond?” I asked. I pointed to the slab of stone in the photograph I held.

“Yeh, I knew the fella but he weren’t no pretty boy, I kin swear to that! That fella was ugly as homemade sin. He had a face that woulda got him arrested in any county.”

The old man before me was so far past drunk he gave it an entirely new level of adjective. His eyes were the color of pale oranges and his face was as red as a Christmas bow. He was a chain-smoking blister on humanity’s heel, but he had the story I was after.

“What is the story behind that headstone?” When renovations to the county courthouse last July unearthed a hidden room sealed for decades, the headstone made headlines because of a poem painted on it’s backside detailing the life and death of a man called ‘Pretty Boy Floyd Redmond’ The headstone bore on it’s front side an inscription detailing it as the grave marker for a one Julius Warfield 1907 – 1932. I traveled from New York to Bangor, Maine looking for the story behind this poem. My investigation around town eventually led me to a bar called the Anchor’s Rest where I was introduced to the wobbly gentleman slurring his speech before me, Mr Red Taggart. For the fee of a few pints of stout, Red promised me the story behind the hastily scribbled poem. It was a good un too, he said.

“But it ain’t that simple, nope. Telling you bout that poem would be just the icing on the cake. You need to hear the full thing. That sack of crap was the worst human being alive I know. I was there. I saw the man with my own two eyes. Worst human being I ever had the misfortune to meet.” He drew long on his cigarette, coughing it back up in a fit when he had his fill. “That poem was too good for him, I tell ya. We shoulda just burned his scrawny ass and been done with him. What he done.”

“And what did Mr Redmond do, exactly?”

“Well like the poem says, he blow into town all ‘I got this and I got that’. We local boys just laughed at him good-natured on account of he was just so plain ugly. Jim Wherrit give him the name ‘Pretty Boy’ on a joke and it just stuck. But that sumbitch liked it! Thought it was a mighty fine compliment. Can ya believe that? Ugly mug like his and being called pretty as a joke, only he don’t get the joke. He thinks we mean it! Told you he was stupid, didn’t I? Couldn’t read a lick. Had this stamp he says he got made in Atlanta with his name on it. Only it left off the ‘Pretty Boy’ part. He’d stamp his name and just scratch a PB in front of it and think he was all that. Always smiling, too. Told ya he was stupid, right?” He trailed off as he looked at his almost empty glass of stout and I motioned to the waitress to bring me another. “Thank ya sir.” He wheezed.

“So, he was stupid?” I led.

“Yeah. Dumb as a sack of hammers. That didn’t stop him from trying to run things here tho. This was during prohibition, mind ye. We was getting our hooch from across in Canada and brewing our own beer in the cellar of this very tavern! Cops stayed offa us on account of we never sold it to outsiders, just ourselves. Anyways, this Floyd thinks he’s gonna just breeze into town and run things, on accounta he been to New York City and he says he seen how it was supposed to be like. Well, we get ahold of him one night and pounded him until he didn’t wanna run things no more.” He cackled. “End of story. We thought at least. See, there was seven of us. Me. Tom. Jim. Julius over there and Walter, Sonny and Monty. Monty’s pa owned the tavern and we was all strapping youths full of piss and vinegar. We was the security. When some fancy Dan comes waltzing into town trying to run things, especially one as stupid as this fella, well…we was the education committee. We took that creep into the alley one night and pretty near broke every bone in his scrawny body that we could get our hands on. Doc Presley took him in for free cause the creep was broke. Julius took his wallet when we pounded him and got three hundred dollars outta it. That was a lotta money back then, and we split up between us. So the Doc takes him in and puts him into one of these rope contraptions that holds him all up in the air.” His mimicry of the practice of traction was almost funny. “He looked like some buck all trussed up and ready to be cleaned and gutted. Looked funny cause he was so scrawny. Well, he doesn’t stay this way long. The creep healed up real fast. Guess it musta been his creepiness.”

“God does like the misfits,” I said.

He paused to consider this statement and continued. “So he hightails it outta town just as soon as he can walk and we don’t see no more of him for a few weeks. Next month rolled around and the creep comes back to town all serious. Doesn’t talk to no one. He goes to the tavern, this here tavern and sits there all day plain as all get out. Acting like he owns the place. Well Jimmy, Julius and me are sitting here playing darts. He comes in all struttin like a peacock and sees us. He tells Deloras, the bartender, he wants a beer then he looks over at us and says ‘Do or die.’ Like they is some kinda magic words or something. Anyway, he drinks his beer and walks out like nothing ever happened. Scrawny creep comes in every afternoon, when he knows the cops were watching, and does the same thing. Orders a beer like he owns the joint and looks at one of us and says ‘Do or die’ and walks out. We can’t do nothing to him cause the sheriff is watching out for him. We got off with a warning for hurting him before so we had to be careful.” He stopped talking for a moment to down the beer that had just arrived in one gulp, took another long drag from his cigarette that again fought its way back out like an escaping prisoner of war and continued. “We had to wait for the right time to have a little ‘Come to Jesus’ meeting with the creep. We thought the time was right when the cops got a call and had to leave. He walked out fast then without saying his ‘Do or die’ crap and we followed him. He ducked into an alley and we went in there after him only to come face to face with a gun. That’s when he plugs Julius right between the eyes. Drops him dead on the spot. Then he says ‘Do or die’ again and starts firing some more. He misses us on account of him being so stupid and took off running like a little punk up towards Bull Hill. I went and got the others while Jimmy took care of Julius. We tore after him then and we was gonna give the little creep a reckoning. We followed him up to Bull Hill but he was already on the top and he had a lot more guns. We had a rifle and a few gats so we returned fire. I tell ya, that was one helluva fight. One helluva fight we had that day.” He trailed off as he looked at the now empty glass before him. Again, I motioned for the waitress to bring us another pint and when a replacement magically appeared, my guest took it in his hands and began to drink but stopped short.

“We didn’t kill him.” He said.

“Pardon me?”

“I said we didn’t kill him. Not in that fight. We run out of ammo and so did he. We both went clack clack at the same time. That chicken shit took off running again and we followed him. Don’t get me wrong, we woulda killed him if we could have but he got hit by that grocery store truck. Right over there.” He pointed across the street. “Smashed right into him and knocked him a good thirty or so feet. He landed just out of reach of the bar door here. That’s why we said he was stocking shelves in hell now.”

“Just so I am clear on this,” I began, “You beat up a man seven on one. You put that man in the hospital with multiple broken bones. When this man comes back to town to get revenge, you chase him to his death after engaging in a firefight with him that you admit would have ended in his death if you had better aim. You tell me all this and then you say, no…you insist that you didn’t kill him?”

“Ayuh. That truck done him in. Beat us to it.”

“Ok, I see what you mean. But why the poem? Whose idea was that?”

“Mine.” The old man beamed. “I wrote it on Julius’ gravestone after we buried him. Then we dug up that creep from the pauper’s graveyard and reburied him under Julius so he’s always be on top of him. Some kids trashed the graveyard in ’57 and the headstone got messed up. It was evidence and I guess it just kinda got lost till they started doing all that work on the courthouse this summer. That’s funny.” He said.

“What is that?”

“Funny the stone just up and reappears now that I am the only one left. I outlived all them guys and you see how I smoke and drink.”

“That does seem ironic, I admit. I have to confess I have been following the story of Pretty Boy Floyd Redmond for a very long time though, sir. I found it funny that he had the nickname however. I never knew that. He was always Floyd Redmond as far as I knew. Pretty Boy Floyd…that is funny.” I began to laugh.

“But it was a joke! He was ugly as a bear and stupid as one too! He just didn’t get the joke!”

I could not control myself. I laughed like I had just heard the funniest joke in the world. I had been tracking down the life of Floyd Redmond, former minor league pitcher turned small time mob enforcer from Des Moines for decades. The trail always ran cold when he left for a trip up north from New York in 1931, leaving a wife and newborn son Cory Redmond behind. Cory Redmond relocated to New England to escape the shadow of his father’s small-time yet dark past and began a family of his own. His son moved back to New York to make a name for himself as a writer and was soon enjoying a career as a crime novelist until he read a newspaper column detailing a mysterious headstone that turned up in Bangor. He rushed up the coast to investigate. My laughter continued as I rolled up the sleeve of my polo shirt to reveal the tattoo on my shoulder of my family crest with my Father’s Motto on it and the gasp that escaped Red Taggart’s throat seemed almost solid.

“What? What is that?” he choked.

“This is my family crest. ‘Do or die’ has been the Redmond family motto for over 500 years.”

The fear that crept over the specter of a man before me was all consuming. His eyes darted across the street to look for a policeman that wasn’t there. I met his gaze with soft eyes and said only this.

“Don’t worry Mr Taggart. I am not here for revenge. By all previous accounts the man you knew, my grandfather, was indeed a worthless human being. He abandoned my grandmother when times were at their hardest. I have been trying to track down the details of his life after he left my grandmother for most of mine. My father was very tight lipped about him you see and I didn’t have much to go on but the name. I know now that he didn’t abandon my grandmother, because he died here, in this place. As I sit before you, the man responsible for his death, I have to admit I am mixed up a little, however. There is a small part of me that wants to burn you down right where you stand. That part of me wants to inflict 80 years of pain on you for depriving me of my grandfather. That part of me doesn’t win the argument though. The part that wants to thank you for giving me this gift wins. You have shown me that we have been wrong about Floyd Redmond all this time and for that, sir, I would like nothing more than to thank you.”

It was with that that I stood up and left. It was with no small dose of satisfaction that I stuck him with the tab.

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