Fall in the south is a welcome time of the year. It’s when searing temperatures and unbearable humidity finally give way to crisp breezes and crimson streaked sunsets. Air conditioners are switched off and windows raised. It’s a time for high school football, sweatshirts, and the harvesting of crops, such as cotton, soybeans, and tobacco. Peanut farmers also begin their harvests by digging into the soil, exposing their subterranean crops, the fruits of their summer labor. The scent of freshly turned dirt combines with the familiar fragrance of the sun-drying legumes. Together, their earthy odor fill the air. For many, this is the first formal announcement that another summer has indeed passed.
On this particular autumn night, the night that One Eye’d Joe went on a binge of smoking crack and drinking more than his fill of Mad Dog 20-20, a heavy harvest moon hung low in the night sky, casting long shadows across fields, backyards, and empty parking lots. There was a nip in the still air, and blades of grass were stiff and brittle, coated with the first frost of the season.
Deep in the folds of the city, One-Eye’d Joe was desperate. He and a friend had spent the last their combined dollars on a few crack rocks, smoked them, and were now looking to sustain the high, any way they could. And, with each man suffering from a thousand-dollar-a day habit, there were no limits on what they’d do. None.
One-Eye’s nickname came about after he’d gotten into a rather nasty fight with his brother. The older sibling, Willie, was on the losing end of the battle, so he grabbed the nearest weapon at hand to even the odds—a small stick—and attempted to gouge his brother’s face. The stick penetrated Joe’s right eye, leaving him permanently blind on that side. The injured eye eventually turned dull and milky white, a very distinguishing feature in each of Joe’s many mug shots.
A few years later, during a three-day drinking spell, One-Eyed Joe returned the favor by jabbing brother Willie in the eye with a broken bottle. Willie now has the matching milky left eye to Joe’s right. To add insult to injury, and more irony than this story can stand, the brothers had a small dog that had only one good eye. I don’t know how that happened, and I dare not try to imagine.
One-Eye’s crack-smoking best friend was a male prostitute who resided in a rat-and-roach-infested, pay-by-the-week hotel, where he performed oral sex for other men. His fee was twenty-dollars for each sex act—enough for one rock. He and One-Eye had been close friends since junior high, and had been in and out of jail and prison throughout their entire lives.
One-Eyed Joe had been locked up at least once for nearly every crime imaginable, short of murder, but his specialty was B&E—Breaking and Entering. He liked to slip into homes while the owners were away on vacation or out for the evening. He was not normally violent, and he didn’t like confrontation. As a rule, Joe was very passive, but had been known to throw a punch or two, if cornered. Together, these two thugs didn’t weigh 220 pounds, and it would surprise me if they had a full set of teeth between them. Crack smokers are not known for their good hygiene habits, and the teeth are often the first thing to go. As a team, the two thugs reminded me more of Abbott and Costello than the hardened criminals they aspired to be.
On this night, though, the two had spent every dime they had on crack, and, as usual, they craved and needed more—a lot more—and Joe was struck with an idea as to how they’d get it. He thought about a job he once worked as a truck-stop fuel attendant. Yes, the two bumbling crooks decided to rob Joe’s old place of employment. Their plan in its entirety was to wait until the fuel-desk clerk was alone, and then rob her at knife-point.
The truck stop sits just outside the south edge of the city limits, just off the main highway. It had been in business for many years under the same ownership. The proprietors of this hole-in-the-wall truckers’ haven still believed customers should never have to pump their own fuel, and that an attendant should smile and wash the customer’s windows while they waited. That particular job had been Joe’s during his three-week tenure.
The company’s old-fashioned ways were charming, but added to their vulnerability when it came to hold ups, because they simply didn’t believe in computers or high-tech security. In fact, their only telephone, a wall-mount unit, was the old-fashioned, finger-holed dial type that takes just a little too long to ring up 911.
The truck-stop’s greasy spoon restaurant served breakfast twenty-four hours a day, and advertised a different lunch and dinner special for each day of the week. This particular Thursday night was liver-and-onions night, and the aroma of fried onions and greasy, brown gravy hung in the air immediately surrounding the restaurant. At approximately 10:30 p.m., business was so slow, the night manager sent the only waitresses home early, thinking she and the cook would be able to handle things for the rest of the shift.
The desk where the truck drivers paid for their fuel was in a separate building from the restaurant. That part of the business was enjoying a better-than-average night, and the lone clerk, a older woman with big hair and gnarled and twisted arthritic fingers, was managing the workload just fine. She was well-liked by the drivers, and they normally spent a few minutes shooting the breeze with her before getting back behind the wheel.
One-by-one, both long- and short-haul truckers swung their big rigs off the highway and into the lot for refueling. While they waited for their tanks to fill, they topped off their thermoses with fresh, hot coffee and stopped in at the desk to hear the latest gossip.
At 10:45 p.m., One-Eye’s partner-in-crime drove his beat-up, faded blue Chevy Malibu past the teal Kenworth at the pumps and into the far corner of the truck-stop parking lot, just out of reach of the amber light spewing from the rows of tall sodium-vapor lights. The car reached the end of the lot and its driver turned it around to face the truck stop. He shut off the motor.
The Kenworth pulled out, and a candy-apple red Peterbilt—the last truck in the lot—sat idling at the pumps while the driver said his goodbyes to the clerk. The two criminals, still high from hours of crack smoking, watched as the driver climbed into his rig and, with a whoosh from the air brakes and a grinding of low gears, he eased the Peterbilt out onto the roadway.
From where One-Eye and his partner sat, they could see the clerk through a window, soundlessly going about her routine, tallying fuel totals and taxes. Not once did she lift her head to look into the parking lot. Had she done so, she’d have seen the two men watching her every move.
The 911 call came into the police station at 11:00 p.m. on the dot. The frantic clerk said she’d been robbed by two men, one of whom wielded a six-inch steak knife. She said she didn’t recognize either of them, but one of the two had a bad eye. She said it looked as if he was blind in the bad one, because it was white and milky-looking. When they called me out to investigate the armed robbery, I first swung by my office to pick up a photo of One-Eyed Joe. I was pretty sure that it was he whom the clerk had described. Who else could it be?
I showed the clerk the picture and she positively identified One-Eyed Joe as the robber. So I drove to his house and found a car parked in the grass near the front door. It matched the description of the get-a-way car. The hood was still warm.
I had arrested One-Eye many times in the past for his various crime sprees, and not once had he ever shown any violence, much less had a weapon of any sort. However, since the clerk said he had brandished a knife this time, I didn’t take any chances and called for back-up to meet me at the house.
Once help arrived, I knocked on the door. In a matter of seconds, the door opened and a very high Joe stared me in the face. The good eye darted from side to side, looking first to my right eye, then to my left. The white eye eerily followed suit.
He spoke first, “I guess you come after me about what we done at the truck stop.” I told him that yes, that was my reason for being there.
“I done it,” he said. “At least me and him together done it.” He pointed inside the room to where his partner sat on the linoleum floor beside a short coffee table—the only piece of furniture in the house that had not been sold or cut up for firewood. On the table top was a broken-off boom box antenna, a makeshift pipe for smoking crack, and several bits and pieces of aluminum foil—the wrappings for the crack cocaine.
The two chatterboxes wouldn’t stop talking, an effect of smoking crack, and I didn’t want any problems in court with their unending, babbling confession, so I promptly advised them of Miranda, something I’d do a few times as their high dissipated, just to be sure they understood the words and their meaning (as if they didn’t already know the drill by heart).
I handcuffed each of them and drove them back to my office for further questioning. Along the way, One-Eye explained—between tears and sobs—that he was grateful for us catching him so soon. He went on to say he was scared and worried that he would have killed someone to get the next piece of crack. He told me he had no control over his life. I believed that statement to be true. The men were so high and so desperate for the next hit, that they would’ve done anything to get it, including murder, which, they’d said, was next on their list. They’d planned to go back to the truck stop to kill the clerk and then steal the company safe.
I often wonder just how many people have come that close to death, without knowing it. How about you? Has there been a “One Eye’d Joe in your life?” Someone who’d thought of killing you, but didn’t because of a last minute intervention. Or, will you meet your “Joe” tomorrow?