Journal of Writing & Environment

The second time Henry Sayles thought about shooting himself, he’d spent the night at the hospital questioning a twenty-year-old kid. The kid’s grandmother, tired of listening to him scream and rave behind his locked bedroom door, had broken in with a crowbar and found him curled on the bed, rabid with pain. A few days before, Sayles discovered, the boy’d been down at the old Jackson farm in Bullston, stealing anhydrous ammonia with a friend for their dealer. They got a tenth before and an 8-ball on delivery, though Sayles knew what they’d stolen would net the cook much, much more. When they’d snuck out to the farm, the boy had been so high, or maybe so nervous, that his hands shook, and he’d spilled some of the anhydrous on his pants. Didn’t think it was any big deal, not with an 8-ball on the line. Once he’d come down and the pain kicked in, he was terrified of what would happen when the doctors found meth in his system, so he decided to wait. Sweat it out. By the time his grandmother had brought him in, the skin of his right thigh had boiled to hamburger, and one of his testicles had near melted away. Sayles got the story out of him in bits and pieces, between the boy’s sobs and pleas for someone to do something. “I can’t get it back,” he kept saying. “How am I gonna get it back?”


Bullston, Illinois, was established in 1907, a glorified mining camp in service to Greater Middleton Coal & Coke, and though at first the workers lived in a maze of shanties, once the Russian Orthodox came in and built a church, the beginnings of a town sprang up almost overnight. Families crowded into the new houses as they were being built, and dirt roads shaped themselves under the weight of men in boots. For those who wouldn’t venture down into the depths, or couldn’t, the land was good and fertile, and the woods outside town fell in swaths.

For years, Bullston thrived, with the schoolhouse built in 1909, and Troy’s Family Theater that same year, and the Church of the Nazarene coming up across from the Russians. By 1913 the town boasted a population of just under a thousand, but after the mine explosion in 1914, when 51 men were lost to the depths, as fatherless families suddenly struggled to make ends meet, the mourning fled home to relatives left back east or to the groups of migrants heading west. For a few years, it seemed the town might sink right back into the dirt from whence it came.


Henry Sayles knew he wanted to be a cop from the age of six, when he got tired of watching his father knock his mother around. One night, young Henry took an orange plastic baseball bat to his father, bashing him first in the gut, and then in the face when the man fell over, shocked. The bat was narrow, though, and hollow to boot, so the blows hardly felt like more than puffs of air to Wade Sayles, who’d put away six shots of cheap whiskey down at the Sportsman’s. Laughing, he took the baseball bat away from Henry and threw it out the front door, into the scraggly yard, and praised the boy for his guts even as he took off his belt to whip him.

Henry Sayles never told anyone that story.


A body could say the meth epidemic came to Franklin County back in the eighties, when everything seemed to be developing, when the towns were a little bigger, before the mine finally closed down for the last time, but back then amphetamines were just something a man took when he had a double shift and needed to keep going a little longer. But by the turn of the century, wasn’t a soul in Bullston or Benton clocking overtime, it seemed, yet there were more people on uppers than ever. “Ain’t nothing much to do anymore but fuck,” Chess Lafarge said to Sayles the first time he was arrested, “and crystal makes fucking a hell of a lot better.”


Henry Sayles hadn’t ever gotten around to getting married until he was almost forty, and by then he was too weary to find a young woman, so he courted Rusty Jackson’s widow Emily. Emily had once been a young bride to an older man and so was someone Sayles thought might be fairly well and settled and okay with a man just a bit older. Emily had a boy named Silas and a dog named Woofer, and a year to the week after he took her on a Sunday drive, they were married down at the Church of the Nazarene. Sayles was a little nervous around young Silas for a time, but the boy had nightmares and his mother was a heavy sleeper, so it was Sayles who took to comforting him at night, and when Silas started to call him Daddy after his eighth birthday, Sayles swelled up with pride.


Up one highway from Bullston and down another you’ll find the town of Benton, Illinois, the seat of Franklin County. Here’s what people know about Benton: George Harrison stayed there once in 1963 on account of that’s where his sister lived, and for a long time, her house was a bed-and-breakfast with a little museum inside. A couch where the Beatles sat, framed photos, that sort of thing. Enough to be Benton’s claim to fame. Just George Harrison. That’s it. The end.

Henry Sayles always liked that story, though it was barely a story at all, because George Harrison seemed like the Beatle that had the most sense. His haircuts weren’t quite as dumb and whatnot. Sayles should have spent most of his time in Benton because that’s where you had to run ballistics and because his office was there, but work kept him out in the county more often than not, and he lived outside Bullston anyway. But when he drove into Benton, he’d always try to pass by the sister’s house, a bright little bungalow, and every time, he’d think: goddamn, if it was only easy enough to just let it be. Now the house was just another house, though maybe in a bit better repair than most, and the new owners had closed down the B&B and sold off all the artifacts, piece by piece, until Benton’s claim to fame was nothing at all, and if that wasn’t one hell of a metaphor, Sayles didn’t know what was.


When he was a young cop, Henry Sayles hadn’t wanted to kill himself, just everyone else. Seemed to him that folks were trying real hard to do nothing much but shit on each other all the time, over and over again. His first year on the job, he did things, real things: he pulled a woman out of a burning car, confiscated six pounds of Mexican marijuana, and talked Danny Barwood off a bridge over the Big Muddy after his wife left him. The bridge wasn’t much and the Muddy even less, which took a little buzz out of the accomplishment, but Danny still shook his hand every time he saw Sayles, was always thanking him, and that was worth something. After that year, seemed like all he did was stop men from beating their wives, wives from beating their husbands, and find children who’d been left alone for hours while their parents sat at Spud’s or Raylene’s. He wasn’t sure anymore that anyone should have children, or dogs, and he went home most nights and put away half a bottle of Jack Daniels just so he could calm the rage enough to sleep.

It was the four wheeler accident, though, that really changed him. He was closest when the call came in, out on 149, but he didn’t get the details until he got to the scene and saw the semi, front end covered with what looked like mud. A man lay in the middle of the road—the driver, Sayles figured—sobbing in turns for Jesus to help him and take him. A cow, Sayles thought, but then he saw the handlebars caught in the truck’s grill and he rolled the cruiser to a stop and stumbled out to puke in the ditch beside the highway until his throat felt like he’d swallowed acid.

Even the investigators couldn’t say for sure what exactly happened, but best they could figure was that those boys, both fourteen, thought it would be fun to try and ramp the highway. Dale Carroll brought his four-wheeler, and Chet Buckner had stolen both the keys to his father’s truck and some old junk lumber from his back shed, and they’d spent the morning building a big ol’ ramp that should have done the job. If the boys had thought enough not to build their little project by one of those twisting highway curves. If the truck hadn’t come along at just the right time. If the ramp hadn’t crumbled at the end because the wood was rotten, changing their momentum altogether.

Sayles wanted to be mad at someone―at the truck driver, for existing, for being on his route, at Chet Buckner’s daddy, Evan, for not paying better attention, at the boys themselves for being so god-awful stupid―but no matter how he came at it, he could only think it was just one of those things, a horrible freak accident that left those boys spread over twenty feet of highway, and instead of getting mad, he went home and sat for fifteen minutes with a shotgun in his mouth, listening to John Lennon telling him boy, you gotta carry that weight, while tears ran down into the stiff collar of his uniform.


For some reason, the closing of the Bullston library upset Henry Sayles more than most of the things he’d seen in his tenure as county sheriff. Back in the late ’70s, when he was in high school, he remembered the mayor setting aside room in the town hall, a converted church building, for everyone to start gathering library resources. For five years or more, Friends of the Future Bullston Library collected books, papers, historical artifacts, and more, and stored them in that room while they planned, considering tearing down the old elementary school building, or maybe clearing the lot where Doyce Lafarge’s diner had burned. Sometime in the mid-eighties, though, plans for the library building fell to the wayside, and that town hall space became a reading room, and some time after that, everyone just started calling it the library. Wasn’t much to it: old editions of the Bullston News Betty Lawrence got bound up, two long shelves of childrens’ books donated by town mothers, and tapes to rent (later, even DVDs). People gathered there to talk and read, and some of the women hosted craft classes. Sayles himself learned to knit a little, before he got married, though he never had much time to pursue it. He’d enjoyed it, though, the counting, the way he could lose himself in the rhythm of knit and purl.

But once the library in Benton got computers, there didn’t seem to be much use for the Bullston library anymore. Weren’t as many mothers bringing children up to story time, either, and no one to keep the shelves dusted after Betty Lawrence passed, or to care for the old papers, so Reverend Johns suggested they just shut the place up. Sayles didn’t think much about it at first, not until one day when, without thinking, he’d driven over to town hall and parked his cruiser, meaning to look something up in one of the papers from the forties, a picture of a family outside the Church of the Nazarene, but it came to him suddenly that the room was closed. Someone would probably let him in, but knowing that didn’t seem to make him feel better, and he had to drive off real fast to get away from the burn crowding into his nose.


If someone could have asked him before he did it, Henry Sayles wouldn’t have said there was any one thing that drove him to put a bullet in his mouth. He couldn’t have pointed to one thing and said yes, that was it, it was seeing Big John Lawrence turned into an old man overnight, three fingers of his right hand gone in a lab explosion. It wasn’t the pressure of having his nieces delivered to his doorstep after he’d had to arrest his own sister for possession with intent to deliver, for negligence and endangerment, for putting at risk the very two girls he took into his care. It was the weight of it all: the shrinking town, the loss of everything, the way there was no money to fight off the vise tightening on Bullston from all sides.

He left a note for his wife on a piece of her stationery, powder blue with flowers crowding the margins. I love you, angel, he wrote, but you can’t beat this. There aren’t any answers and no help’s coming. Slowly he worked off his wedding ring, wincing at the way the band had settled deep into his finger, and laid it there on the note. She would want it, he thought. Hoped.

Henry walked out into the garage, where no one much went but him, and where the mess might be a little easier, where it might blend into the grease and oil from his truck. His iPod, a gift from Silas and the girls, lay on the toolbox lid, a little silver square. He clipped it onto his collar and fumbled with the slick plastic earbuds. He was sweaty, though the garage was cold. He wiped his hands on his trousers, but the stiff fabric of his uniform wasn’t much good for absorbing moisture.

When he hit play, at first only a deep and echoing silence rang, and then Paul McCartney poured into his ears: Take these broken wings and learn to fly. Henry Sayles sat down on his work bench, and with his eyes closed, drank two shots of whiskey, thinking: there is no more weight to carry. There is only this moment, this nothing. Just this.