Of all the days of my 13th summer in Paskaloochee, none stands out so clearly as the day Bent Turner completely lost his mind. He had always been a little off; thus the name, Bent. What his true first name was I never bothered to ask. Bent he was to the town, the nomenclature applied with varying degrees of affection depending upon factors such as age, social status, or denominational affiliation. I say denominational rather than religious, for all in my hometown claimed kinship in the same faith, even if the particulars of practice led to some disagreements.
If you have ever been to Paskaloochee and are of an even mildly observant nature, then you are aware that there are as many churches as there are bars. The converse is also true, though I am not sure it matters much which way the fact it is stated. The point is that at any given hour, aside from a couple of hours before and after dawn, there can be found multitudes with heads bowed in resignation or uplifted in exultation, with tense hands being raised toward desperate lips, money being collected from those who have little to spare, and sorrows being washed away by powerful fluids. The venue in which this may be happening is of little consequence.
I bring this up only to provide some context for Bent’s tirade. To this day, no one is quite sure if it was the alcohol or the preaching that led him to City Hall that day. The county coroner weighed in after the fact and pronounced him, by means of some manner of forensic divination, inebriated beyond all good sense. I assume that meant he had been drinking prior to the incident. I cannot be too sure, however, since I have myself have often witnessed sermons which leave the average parishioner in an all-but-indistinguishable state.
Whatever the cause of his righteous indignation, at approximately 11:45 in the a.m. of August 20th, on what would become the hottest day ever recorded in Muddborough County (So far!), Bent Turner staggered across the lawn of City Hall. I was in the company of my good buddies, Kyle Powers and Matthew Lindle, as we rode our BMXs in the adjacent parking lot, bunny-hopping and popping wheelies with increasing daring. Kyle was marveling at the gleaming newfangledness of my bike – a birthday present I’d received only a few days prior – when his eyes gazed up and past me. His smile turned wicked, encouraging me to follow the line of his outstretched arm and pointed finger. There was Bent. In his formidable grip was the 20lb sledgehammer he used for various odd jobs, such as driving fence posts or the busting up concrete. It dragged and bounced behind him, tearing a dashed furrow in the well-kempt grass.
By the time it became glaringly obvious where he was headed and what he intended to do when he got there, the damage was already done. In a single motion, with a grace not normally afforded such a stupor, Bent grabbed a good, two-handed hold of that hammer and let it fly. At the end of its foregone arc sat the marble, Ten Commandments monument that had stood before the steps of City Hall since it’s mid-19th century inception. I, the freshly teenaged version of my present self, had not yet formed my own opinion of the faith that statue was intended to represent. So the absolute glee I felt to see that 20lb hammerhead – plus mass plus velocity plus practiced handling plus zealous enthusiasm – smash thunderously against that white, weathered stone was purely the rush of manly aggression in bud. It was like some skewed reenactment of Moses’ own frustrated dismantling of the original, venerated tablets and I thrilled at the imagery. Unfortunately, disappointment grasped hard at the heels of exuberance. I had hoped for a rent-in-twain or an utter-sundering, but the sledge merely chipped the polished face that proclaimed the law in the king’s English.
Bent’s slumped shoulders and uneven stance assured me that he commiserated. My friends and I hopped back on our bikes and pedaled hard towards him, certain that the show was far from over. We sped across the baking pavement as Bent upended the hammer, placing the head on the ground and the handle between his knees. He spit once on each of his palms and rubbed them together vigorously, like Mighty Casey digging in for that third pitch. Bent lowered his center of gravity and hefted the sledge again. As we kids turned hard and leaned the bikes, skidding to a stop, Bent twisted his spine on its axis and he gave it another go.
Wham and amen and hallelujah! A jagged crack spread across the face of God’s word like a torn page and a sizeable chunk of marble slid away, thudding dully into the sod. We all marveled at the revision the 20lb stylus had made in the ancient text.
…ORD thy God,
…ut of the land of Egypt,
…he house of bondage.
…halt have no other gods before me.
- Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,
or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above,
or that is in the earth beneath,
or that is in the water under the earth…
Even Bent paused for a moment to gaze in awe at the work of his hands. Had he not taken the time, he might have finished the job. But, alas, that was not to be. The rotundity of Councilman Bobby Cutis came cursing through the doorway of City Hall and bumbling down its wide steps of City Hall, whose marble matched perfectly the now-violated monument.
“Damn it all to Hell, Bent Turner! What in God’s name do you think you are doing,” cried Cutis, as he bounded across the lawn, hands grasping the waistband his suspenders fought to uphold.
“Obeying the law, Bobby,” bent replied calmly, “And in God’s name is exactly right.” Now, this is precisely what he said and whatever disagreement may persist regarding the remainder of events, there is no dissenting opinion here. The only point of contention is in whether or not he slurred his words as he spoke. Even I, one of the first on the scene, cannot be certain, as nearly a decade of Sunday School indoctrination could plausibly have led to bias. I carry no such bias now, but the memory is as set as the event itself and the difference between the two remains unresolvable.
Regardless of whether the man was drunk on spirits or the Spirit, Bent was determined to fulfill his mission. He raised the hammer again and Cutis, arms wide, threw his bulk between the monument and its destroyer. I am, even now, impressed at just how much of that marble behemoth he managed to cover. Do not mistake my commentary on Cutis’ girth as merely a cruel jocularity. His was not a condition of congenital misfortune or some metabolic misfire. The man was a glutton and prided himself on it.
Cutis face flushed red and anger overrode any notion of fear. Bent squinted his grey-blue eyes (Funny that I should remember their color, but not whether they were bloodshot?) and held the sledge at waist level.
“Out of the way, Bobby,” Bent stammered with patient frustration, “I mean to take it down to rubble, lessen my arms give out first.”
Cutis, his own eyes squinting in utter bewilderment, could only ask, “But why?”
Cutis flinched as Bent, with one, strong and veiny arm, seem to point the hammer at his head. In fact, Bent was pointing it over the man’s shoulder, drawing attention to the text chiseled into the monument.
“Number Two, Bobby. Number Two. No graven images of anything in the earth,” said Bent, with all the rumbly-voiced finality of a tent-revivalist. “Last I checked, the original tablets were in the Ark of the Covenant which, lost or not, is in the earth. Now, stand aside while I smash this idol!”
Cutis cringed again, but held his ground. “Bent, you’re just drunk. Them laws don’t apply no more.”
“Says who,” Bobby cried as he hefted the hammer back, with every intention of swinging it toward the monument resting in silence behind Cutis. The councilman’s resolve failed him at last and he lumbered out of the way, but a shout from behind us all stayed Bent’s hand.
“Drop that hammer, Bent Turner, and back away from Councilman Cutis,” came the raspy voice of Deputy Martha Pond. She was not the first female deputy in town, nor was she the most competent. But she was the sheriff’s wife, which meant she was the most respected deputy in town. This fact, in the context of what Bent next said, should have put us all in fits of laughter. But there was no time.
He wheeled about clumsily as he let the sledge fall back, its handle coming to rest on his broad shoulder. He disregarded the cocked pistol pointed at his barrel-chest and looked squarely into the aiming eye beyond. Cocking an eyebrow, Bent grumbled, “Ah. A shining example of Number Eight. Tell me, Martha, does your owner know you’re out here?”
Bent stepped ever-so-slightly toward the deputy when he asked that last bit and the hammer left his shoulder in a hurry. I freely admit that it might have been intentional. The craziness in his eyes, whatever its cause, was palpable to all. But it might also have been that he stumbled, due to the unevenness between the lawn and the slab of concrete on which the monument was erected. The reason is as lost as the choices of that day. All I can say with certainty is that the hammer on that pistol came forward – with a sound not unlike the Bent cracking the monument – and Deputy Pond wore a cold smile when it did so.
Bent stopped in his tracks, face instantly pale, and the hammer fell harmlessly to the lawn. I believe he said, “Number Six,” but those last words were definitely slurred. That I remember for certain. The rest is a blur. I think he fell to his right, like a toppled statue. I vaguely recollect pedaling home with the speed and urgency of fear. I believe I skipped dinner and went straight to bed. My next memory is waking well into the following morning, my eyes nearly glued shut with rheum. I seem to recall dreams of Romanized letters, appearing like carved wounds in pale, polished stone. Blood trickled weakly from them.
That was 20 years ago this coming Friday and so much has changed since then, even for Paskaloochee. Still, in all that time and all the living that has accompanied it, I have never heard – nor am likely to hear – a secular argument against state-sanctioned displays of religiosity that has quite the eye-opening perfection of that moment. It was not so much the clear validity in the premise and its obvious conclusion that impressed me so. Rather, it was the inherent, internal rightness of Bent’s action, which spoke volumes more than any sermon ever does or can. Bent, in his cogent inebriety, preached Truth with the tool of his trade and an idol was destroyed that day. It was an idol as supremely and foolishly worshiped as any other – the idol of tradition, the false god of nonmalleable, unreasonable writ. Its temples are everywhere: the worn and stained wood of the book receptacles on the backs of pews, the cramped shelves of libraries where they collect dust with countless others in their pantheon, even the sanctimoniously lit and bullet-proofed displays of the National Archives. Idols, one and all.
Of course, it is pointless to destroy them. Indeed, they should be preserved, that we may accurately and faithfully track the history of their errors and our own. They best show Truth by revealing falsehood. If only Bent’s hammer could have struck down idolatry itself! But I suppose such stonework requires an implement closer to its nature: equal parts dense and ephemeral and as precise as a surgeon’s scalpel.
Now, should you ever find yourself walking in downtown Paskaloochee, when the August sun is at the zenith of its track and tyranny, and should your feet bring you to the obtuse corner of Hamilton and Jefferson, take a moment to wander the green, unshaded lawn of City Hall. At its center, not too far from the marble steps, is a monument to the Ten Commandments. It is not the same that felt the blow of Bent’s hammer or the warm spray of his heart’s blood. This newer version has letters graven into which are a bit more modern in style. Perched upon it is the image of an eagle, leering like some carrion bird. But the marble is the same tombstone-white and the dirty rains of nearly two decades have stained it so that it mirrors the original.
Feel free to linger a while, for you are likely to be the only looking at it. It has long since receded into the unimportant background, just like the day it was threatened. Any sanctity it may hold is reserved for those moments someone mentions it in unflattering terms. Then, it becomes the Axis Mundi, the immoveable center of all things.
Speaking of immobility, Cutis is still with us, though his gluttony has now confined him to a wheelchair and an oxygen tank. The rest of the chief players of that day are around as well. Only Bent is gone. I am not so spiteful that I wish the others ill, but I do miss Bent terribly and wish things had gone more justly for him. Yet, a part of me cannot help but feel he got the better end of the deal. The farther I am removed from the time and place of his final madness, the more I wonder if he had not, in reality, become frighteningly sane. And the more I see and learn and ponder in this world, the more I feel Bent was the happy recipient of a mercy killing.