BiographyWriting SamplesPublished WorkBook for SaleContact
Picture of Sybil Smith In a Nice Place

Available Now - Hanna Duston's Sister The two policemen walked gingerly down the narrow path leading from the railroad tracks into the pine woods. They had to cross a swale where fern and cattails grew, and the dark water oozed up over the tips of their shoes. The younger man, who was leading, swore quietly. He was handsome, short and well built, with a high and tight hair cut like the kind they wear in the Marines. Behind him, the older cop smiled.
“Hey Book, don’t you like wading?” he asked.
“Fuckin’ swamp,” Book said. At the edge of the pines they stopped and Book unholstered his gun. Joe, the older man, opened the snap on his holstered gun but left it in place. Then they moved forward abreast over the pine needle carpeted forest floor.

They did not have to go far before they saw the tent. There was a man sitting out front in a Adirondack chair. He had grizzled white hair down to his waist and a long beard. His face was tan, in odd contrast to his light hair. He did not move.
“Police,” Book yelled. “Put your hands up!”
The man sat like a stump, umoving.
“Police,” Book yelled again.
The man didn’t even twitch. He looked like an illustration, a kitchy statue for some tourist attraction.
Book made a huffing sound. He did not like being ignored.
Joe, the older cop, appeared to make a sudden decision. “Cover me,” he said. “I know him.” Then he moved into the cleared area and approached the tramp as if he were coming for a social call.
“Hey buddy,” he said. “What’s up?”
No answer.
As he got closer he could see the crime scene. A man lay on his face near the ashes of the fire pit, his head outlined in blood. The tramp held a fox pup in his lap, and it too was dead. It lay cradled in the tramp’s arms with its head in the crook of his elbow. There was a shovel next to the tramp. Joe walked closer.
“Sippy?” he asked.
The man said nothing.
“Ah shit,” Joe said, in a kind voice. “Your fox is dead.” As he talked he walked towards the fallen man and crouched down next to him. A crow called and he could hear a mosquito whining near his head.
“I never met anyone who had a fox for a pet,” he said. “I had a crow once.” He reached down and felt for the man’s carotid pulse. As he suspected, the guy was dead.
“He ain’t goin dancin’ anymore,” Joe said.
At this Sippy swung his head in Joe’s direction, with great effort, as if his spinal cord needed oiling. The sorrow in his eyes was so palpable it seemed to jump the air between them. Joe felt it hit him.
Then he heard Book coming up, fast.
“Get on the ground,” he screamed. “Get on the fucking ground.”
Sippy rose slowly from his chair, carrying the fox. He turned towards his tent and tottered towards it. Book went up behind him, tripped him, sat on his back, twisted his arms around, and secured his hands with plastic cuffs. He stood up breathing rapidly. Then he pressed a button on the radio hitched at his shoulder and said, “Unit two to dispatch.”
“Dispatch,” a voice replied.
“We’ve got a 10-35 in the pine woods near the railroad crossing at Mill Street. Send the mobile crime unit.”
“10-4,” the radio replied.
“Do you need back up?” the voice crackled.
“Negative,” Book said. “Send the coroner too.”
Joe went up to Sippy. He crouched near the prone man and rolled him gently, so he could pull the dead fox out from under him. Then he lay the pup on the ground near Sippy’s head. Its eyes were open, but the corneas were filmed by death.
“You should wear your gloves Joe,” Book said. “Fucking thing could be rabid.”
Sippy spoke then, for the first time. “She’s not rabid,” he said, “less you bit her.”

***

Book went to the cruiser for some crime-scene tape. Joe stayed with Sippy.
As soon as Book was gone Joe helped Sippy up, and sat him back in his chair.
“I want Foxy,” Sippy said.
Joe got the fox and put it back on Sippy’s lap. He crouched in front of him.
Then, in a gentle voice, as if he were telling a bedtime story, he said, “You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right anything you say can be used against you in a court of law.”
He paused here and fixed his eyes on Sippy’s left boot. It was bespangled with a delicate spray of blood.
“You have the right to an attorney,” he continued, “and if you can’t afford one a public defender will be appointed. Do you understand these rights?”
“Fuck rights,” Sippy said. “I need my Mad Dog.”
Joe laughed. “You got a fox, what you need with a mad dog?” he said, but he understood. He rose and went into Sippy’s tent. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light he noted the kerosene lantern hanging from the roof pole. The bed, in the center, was a nest of various odd scraps and blankets, and other belonging were stored around the edge. There was newspaper, some needle nosed pliers, a length of rope, a tarp, duct tape, dried noodles, peanut butter, a water container, dry dog food and a leg-hold trap. Right near the door was a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 fortified wine. He unscrewed the cap as he went back to Sippy.
“I can’t undo your hands,” he said.
Sippy tilted his head back. Joe held the bottle to his lips. He watched Sippy’s throat moving and remembered what it was like when he was young, feeding calves. He had loved how they tugged at the nipple he held, their eyes wet with pleasure. And he remembered, too, the calf whose legs were broken when his father pulled it with a chain from the cow. Joe was eight, but he was smart. He’d splinted the legs, and fed the calf, and washed it and changed its bed, till his father got annoyed that he was wasting his time, and shot it in the head with a .22. Joe wouldn’t swear that killing his father hadn’t crossed his mind.

When Book came back he found them there in that strange tableau, Sippy with his fox, and Joe holding the bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.

***

The story Joe heard later, when Sippy made his statement at the station, was not a complicated one, at least in its details. Sippy lived here, in the tent. There had been more people here, a year ago, but during the winter there was a three-day ice storm that coated the whole northeast, and three of the homeless had died. That was when Joe met Sippy, because he had gone to the homeless encampment after the storm, realizing the men might be in trouble. Sure enough, one had fallen asleep in the woods and died. Two others were near death in their shanties. Sippy had been found in his tent, and was sent to the hospital, where his toes were amputated. When he healed Sippy had found he could still walk pretty well with a pair of stout work boots. Sometimes his feet swelled but that was no matter. The hospital had discharged him to a shelter, and he left at the first opportunity.

It was spring by the time he got back. Walking home on the tracks he’d crossed a culvert and seen two fox pups playing with a bone. After that he went there everyday and gave them bologna, or sardines. One day he’d found just one pup. The other was missing and there was no sign of the mother. After three days he took the pup home, and named her Foxy Lady, which was soon shortened to Foxy.

What was complicated was the feeling. Sippy had thought his heart was frozen. It felt like a lump of cold meat in his chest. And it wasn’t till he found Foxy that it began to thaw. Sippy didn’t expect much. He’d given up on life long ago, and gotten down to basics. Booze, food, a place to sleep, tobacco, some sun, the view. Foxy was a bonus. He loved the way her small body felt in his hands, he loved her yellow green eyes and the way she yipped when the train whistled. He loved how, when he tied her to a tree, she spent a lot of time with her head cocked and occasionally sprang into the air and came down hard on her front feet. That was how she hunted bugs. Sometimes her lead got tangled in the bushes, and she looked in his direction, as if to say, “Hey Sippy, get off your duff and help me.”

He had, on occasion, walked her into town on a lead when he went for supplies, but he noticed that he attracted a lot of attention, and he heard whispers about rabies, so he knew if he wasn’t careful some do-gooder might take her away. People these days didn’t know squat about animals. Anyone with any sense would know she wasn’t rabid, because she was bright eyed and alert and her coat was a shining muff of red and white fur. Sippy brushed her every day, and she wore a flea collar. It made him angry that people thought she was rabid, just because she was a fox, and the two went together in people’s heads. That was how it was with him.

He began to wonder if a vet would give Foxy a rabies shot, so she could wear a tag, but when he went into town and asked the girl at the veterinarian’s office she sniffed the air and said it was illegal to keep a fox. So he began leaving Foxy at the camp when he went into town.

That day, in August, he’d run out of Mad Dog 20/20 and had gone to the nearest place to get some. As he left a train came, but he didn’t think much about it till he got back to the camp. As he approached he heard voices, and he crept up till he saw two men standing by the fire pit. They were drinking, and laughing. They were young, and had tattoos and one had a pierced lip. Sippy’s stomach dropped, and he prayed, hopelessly, that Foxy was okay. As he walked towards the two men he saw her, still attached to her rope, at the foot of a pine tree. She was dead, beaten bloody. Sippy kept walking, and went into his tent. The bigger man called out. “Hi Buddy, you live here?” with false joviality. Sippy felt anger flash from his heart into his arms and legs, but he kept his head. He put down his Mad Dog and got a shovel from the tent and walked back outside.
“Yeah I live here,” he said. “Nice ain’t it?”
“Was that your fox?” the bigger man asked. He had a fat sloppy belly.
“Yeah,” Sippy said.
“It tried to bite me and I killed the fuckin’ thing,” the guy said, and laughed, as if he was proud that he could kill a defenseless fox pup tied to a tree. The other man snickered. By that time Sippy was next to the larger man, and he leaned on his shovel.
“I guess I’d better bury it,” he said. Then, suddenly, and with surprising strength, he lifted the shovel and brought it down on the big man’s head. The man , drunk as he was, saw what was about to happen, but when he crouched and ducked it only made Sippy’s task easier, because the shovel had farther to fall. It hit his skull with a surprising crack and the man fell. Sippy whacked him a few more times, while the other man looked on goggle- eyed, and like the coward he was, backed away. Then he turned and ran. It was he who had gone to the police.

***

Joe had been a policeman for almost thirty years. He’d joined when he got out of Vietnam, and stayed, till he worked his way up to Sergeant. He never went any farther because he didn’t want to. It was not the paperwork he liked, it was the people work.

He was glad he was retiring soon. The world had changed in ways he didn’t like. When he’d first been on the force a policeman had been a combination of nurse, social worker, soldier and priest. Most cops knew the towns they worked; they’d grown up in them. They’d been allowed to use their human judgment, to add feelings, history, common sense. Kids who were caught drinking were brought home. Men who beat their wives were given stern warnings, and if that didn’t work, they might be given a taste of their own medicine. People were allowed to have wild pets. They didn’t have to register their dogs. People who had fist fights were separated and later forced to shake hands. Joe admitted that sometimes this might have been wrong, but what happened now was wrong in a different way. Laws were good, but there were gradations in every law. Laws had to be flexible, like rope. The new men, like Book, wanted them to be iron bars.

Book had gotten his nickname from Joe, when they started working together. He did everything by the book. In every situation he thought up the worst-case scenario, and then proceeded as if that were about to happen. Also, he had no feel for country people, or for poor people. As far as he was concerned, Sippy was a vicious, useless scrap of human scum. Joe knew better.

***

Sippy was held for a couple of days in the holding cell at the station. During that time Joe visited him, because he was “working the case.” Not that it was much of a case. Sippy intended to plead guilty. There was no mystery to solve, except the mystery of human passion. They talked a lot about Sippy’s early life, when he was still Alfred Pelletier.

Joe would sit across from Sippy, at the table in the interview room. Sippy’s beard had been shaved, he’d done it himself, because the other inmates called him Santa. His hair wasn’t cut, but it was braided in one long braid and held with a strip of cloth. Sippy looked younger with his beard gone, and his face was pale where the whiskers had been. In the beginning he wouldn’t talk much, except to say, “the bastard had it coming.” But Joe plied him with smokes and sodas and like a kid, Sippy opened up. The way Sippy’s eye lit up at a cold Coke, the way he opened it carefully and took the first small sip, told Joe all he needed to know about Sippy’s life; that he could be tamed with such small things.

They didn’t talk about the crime, at first. Sippy started with where he’d grown up, on a farm in Barnet. A hill farm, which grew nothing but a crop of rocks each spring. They talked about cows. Sippy’s father, Perly, had had Holsteins and a few Jerseys. A Jersey bull too, and wasn’t it a mean son of a bitch? Joe nodded, smiling. Jersey bulls were mean. Sippy guessed it was because they were small. Had Joe ever noticed, there was nothing meaner than a small man? Joe laughed. There were a lot of small men in the Marines.

What the new guys like Book didn’t know was that this talk, this desultory examination of farm lore, and life lore, was the way to begin. This small talk was like a warm balm applied to Sippy’s chest. It gradually softened the layers of armor away, and left the soul open and ready.

As bad as the farm was it was better than St Jay, where they’d moved when Sippy was ten. His father worked in a mill. He took to drink, and the rest was downhill. Sippy, the oldest of three boys, had begun stealing stuff from the store, stuff for his mother. Bread, oleo. She knew it, too, but what could she do? She was sick by then, with skinny legs and a belly round and hard as a chunk of wood. And a bad smell. Sippy’s father told her she was a useless cunt, couldn’t even fuck no more. It was cancer.

When she died the state took the kids. Split them up. Sippy didn’t like his foster family, they were religious nuts. He’d run away, and been sent to reform school.
From the way Sippy’s face clouded over, Joe could see that this was where the worse damage had happened. Sippy grew silent. He could not say what it had been like. He’d never known the words for it.

This was where the skill really began. Like a surgeon, with a probe, Joe explored the wound. And deep inside, almost hidden by tissue and blood, he found a boy bent over a table with his pants down. He heard the terrible piggy noises of the man behind.
“Reform school,” Sippy said, fiercely. “The only thing they reformed was my asshole.”

***

The last time he saw Sippy, the day before Sippy went to the big house in St Johnsbury, Joe brought him a book. He’d gone to Borders in Burlington and found it. It was called Twilight Hunters; Wolves, Coyotes and Foxes. It had a lot of nice, shiny pictures. Joe knew Sippy couldn’t read very well.

Sippy took the heavy book with a softness in his eyes that let Joe see the boy he had once been; before he was whipped and shamed; before his life turned to shit, and there was nothing left to do but die or live it out. Sippy had chosen to live it out as best he could, numbed by booze, mostly alone.

And then, into the twilight of his life, had come a being full of life and energy, one who loved Sippy without any second thoughts. Joe understood why Sippy had killed the man. He’d seen in Foxy a lost innocence, not unlike his own, and with those blows he’d said No. No. No. No.

Joe looked down on Sippy’s white head, the hair parted now, and thinning. He studied the fine shape of the skull and imagined the dovetailed plates of bone. A shiny white scar traversed Sippy’s scalp from back to front. Joe reached out as if to touch it, but stopped himself before he completed the gesture. Sippy didn’t notice, he had flipped to a picture of a red fox asleep on a warm rock in the sun. He was crying silently. A tear followed the furrows of his face to the end of his bent nose and fell on the picture. He wiped it fearfully with his arm.
“Sorry,” he said to Joe.
“It’s your book,” Joe said.
“Will you bury her?” Sippy asked. “In a nice place?”
Joe knew that she’d been taken as evidence and frozen. And after Sippy was sentenced she’d no doubt be burned. But Sippy, lost in another time, didn’t know that. In his mind she still lay on the pine needles, being picked clean by the bugs she’d eaten.
“Yes I will,” Joe said, solemnly. “In a nice place.”
He looked into Sippy’s eyes and saw him imagining the place already, furnishing it with trees and clear water. Hanging a sun in the sky and then, a moon.
He stepped closer and took Sippy’s hand, still needing somehow to touch him.
“Let’s shake on it,” he said.

Top of Page  |  Back to Writing Samples