The Last Juror - Page 20

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For the first six months I lived in Clanton, I usually fled the place on weekends. There was so little to do. Other than an occasional goat roasting at Harry Rex's, and one dreadful cocktail party, which I left twenty minutes after I arrived, there had been no socializing. Virtually all the young people my age were married, and their idea of a blowout was an ice cream "supper" on Saturday night at one of the innumerable churches in town. Most of those who went away to college never came back.

Out of boredom, I occasionally spent the weekends in Memphis, usually at the apartment of a friend, almost never at home. I made several trips to New Orleans where an old girlfriend from high school was living and enjoying the party life. But the Times was mine for the near future anyway. I was a resident of Clanton. I had to come to grips with life in a small town, dull weekends and all. The office became my refuge.

I went there on Saturday after the verdict, around noon. I had several stories about the trial I wanted to write, plus my editorial was far from finished. There were seven letters lying on the floor, just inside the front door. This had been a tradition at the Times for many years. On those rare occasions when Spot wrote something that prompted a reaction from a reader, more often than not the letter to the editor was hand-delivered and slid under the front door.

Four were signed, three were anonymous. Two were typed, the rest handwritten, one I could hardly read. All seven expressed outrage that Danny Padgitt had escaped with his life. I was not surprised by the town's thirst for blood. I was also dismayed that six of the seven made some reference to Miss Callie. The first one was typed and unsigned. It read:

Dear Editor:

Our community has sunk to a new low when an outlaw like Danny Padgitt can rape and murder and get by with it. The presence of a Negro on the jury should wake us up to the fact that these people do not think the way law-abiding white people think.

Mrs. Edith Caravelle from Beech Hill, in a beautiful hand, wrote:

Dear Editor:

I live one mile from where the murder took place. I am the mother of two teenagers. How do I explain the verdict to them? The Bible says: "An eye for an eye." I guess that doesn't apply to Ford County.

Another anonymous author wrote, on perfumed pink stationery with flowers around the border:

Dear Editor:

See what happens when blacks are placed in positions of responsibility. An all-white jury would have strung up Padgitt in the courtroom. Now the Supreme Court is telling us that blacks should teach our children, police our streets, and run for public office. God help us.

As the editor (and owner and publisher) I had complete control over what was printed in the Times. I could edit the letters, ignore them, pick and choose the ones I wanted to print. On controversial issues and events, letters to the editor stoked the fires and got folks upset. And they sold newspapers, because that's the only place they could be printed. They were absolutely free and allowed anyone the forum to sound off.

As I read the first wave, I decided that I would print nothing that would harm Miss Callie. And I became angry that people were assuming she had somehow hung the jury and prevented a death sentence.

Why was the town so anxious to blame an unpopular verdict on the only black on the jury? And with no proof whatsover? I vowed to find out what really happened in the jury room, and I immediately thought of Harry Rex. Baggy, of course, would stumble in Monday morning with his customary hangover and pretend to know exactly how the jury split Odds were he'd be wrong. If anyone could get to the truth, it would be Harry Rex.

Wiley Meek stopped by with the town gossip. Folks were hot in the coffee shops. Padgitt was a dirty word. Lucien Wilbanks was despised, but that was nothing new. Sheriff Coley might as well retire; he wouldn't get fifty votes. Two opponents were already making noise and the election was half a year away.

One story had eleven voting for the gas chamber and one holding out. "Probably the nigger," someone had said, echoing the prevailing sentiment at the Tea Shoppe around seven that morning. A deputy guarding the jury room allegedly whispered to someone somebody knew that it was a six-six split, but this was widely discounted around nine o'clock at the coffee shops. There were two primary theories roaring around the square that morning: first, Miss Callie had screwed things up simply because she was black; second, the Padgitts had dropped some cash on two or three of the jurors, same as they had done on that "lyin' bitch," Lydia Vince.

Wiley thought the second had more supporters than the first, though many seemed perfectly willing to believe anything. I was learning that coffee shop gossip was useless.

* * *

Late Saturday afternoon, I crossed the tracks and drove slowly through Lowtown. The streets were alive with kids on bikes, pickup basketball games, crowded porches, music from the open doors of the honky-tonks, laughter from the men in front of the stores. Everyone was outside, sort of limbering up for the rigors of Saturday night. People waved and stared, more amused at my little car than my pale skin.

There was a crowd on Miss Callie's porch. Al, Max, and Bobby were there along with Reverend Thurston Small and another well-dressed deacon from the church. Esau was in the house tending to his wife. She had been discharged that morning with strict instructions to stay in bed for three days and not lift a finger. Max led me back to her bedroom.

She was sitting in bed, propped up with pillows, reading the Bible. She flashed a smile when she saw me, and said, "Mr. Traynor, so nice of you to come. Please sit. Esau, fetch Mr. Traynor some tea." Esau, as always, jumped when she gave orders.

I sat in a stiff wooden chair close to her bed. She did not appear to be the least bit ill to me. "I'm really concerned about lunch next Thursday," I began, and we laughed.

"I'm cooking," she said.

"No you're not. I have a better idea. I'll bring the food."

"Why does that worry me?"

"I'll buy it somewhere. Something a bit lighter, like a sandwich."

"A sandwich will be fine," she said, patting my knee. "My tomatoes will be ready shortly."

She stopped patting and smiling and looked away for a moment. "We didn't do a good job, did we, Mr. Traynor?" Her words were filled with both sadness and frustration.

"It's not a popular verdict," I said.

"It's not what I wanted," she said.

And that was as close to the deliberations as she would get for many years. Esau told me later that the other eleven jurors had sworn on a Bible not to talk about their decision. Miss Callie wouldn't swear on the Bible, but she gave them her word that she would guard their secrets.

I left her there to rest and went to the porch, where I spent several hours listening to her sons and their guests talk about life. I sat in a corner, sipping tea, trying to keep myself out of their conversations. At times I would drift away and absorb the sounds of Lowtown on a Saturday night.

The reverend and the deacon left, leaving only Ruffins on the porch. The talk eventually came around to the trial, and the verdict, and how was it playing on the other side of the tracks?

"Did he really threaten the jury?" Max asked me. I told the story, with Esau adding emphasis when needed. They were as shocked as those of us who'd seen it.

"Thank God he's locked up for life," Bobby said, and I didn't have the heart to tell them the truth. They were extremely proud of their mother, as they had been forever.

I was tired of the trial. I left around nine, drove slowly and aimlessly back through Lowtown, alone and missing Ginger.

* * *

Clanton seethed over the verdict for days. We received eighteen letters to the editor, six of which I ran in the next edition. Half of it was devoted to the trial, and this of course stirred things up even worse.

As the summer dragged on, I was beginning to think the town would never stop talking about Danny Padgitt and Rhoda Kassellaw.

Then suddenly, the two became history. Instantly, in the blink of an eye, literally in less than twenty-four hours, the trial was forgotten.

Clanton, both sides of the tracks, had something much more important to fret over.



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