The Last Juror - Page 24

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In early December, I returned to Tishomingo County for a follow-up with Sheriff Spinner. I was not surprised to learn that the investigation of the murder of Malcolm Vince had produced nothing new. More than once, Spinner described it as a "clean hit," with nothing left behind but a dead body and two bullets that were virtually untraceable. His men had talked to every possible friend, acquaintance, and coworker, and found no one who knew of any reason why Malcolm would meet such a violent end.

Spinner had also talked to Sheriff Mackey Don Coley, and not surprisingly, our Sheriff had expressed doubt that the murder had anything to do with the Padgitt trial over in Ford County. It appeared as though the two sheriffs had some history, and I was relieved to hear Spinner say, "Ol' Coley couldn't catch a jaywalker on Main Street."

I laughed real loud and added, helpfully, "Yeah, he and the Padgitts go way back."

"I told him you'd been over, snoopin' around. He said, 'That boy's gonna get hurt.' Just thought you'd like to know."

"Thanks," I said. "Me and Coley see things differently."

"Election's a few months away."

"Yes it is. I hear Coley's got two or three opponents."

"Just takes one."

Again, he promised to call if something new developed, but both of us knew that was not going to happen. I left Iuka and drove to Memphis.

* * *

Trooper Durant had been quite pleased to learn that his threats were still hanging over the head of Sam Ruffin. Harry Rex had eventually delivered the word that the boy was still on the run but desperately wanted to come home and see his momma.

Durant had not remarried. He was very much alone and extremely bitter and embarrassed about his wife's affair. He ranted at Harry Rex about how his life had been destroyed, and worse, how his two sons were subject to ridicule and abuse because of what their mother did. The white kids at school taunted them daily. The black kids, their new classmates at Clanton High, were smug and made wisecracks about it.

Both boys were expert marksmen and avid hunters, and the three Durants had vowed to put a bullet into Sam Ruffin's head if given the chance. They knew exactly where the Ruffins lived in Lowtown. Durant commented on the annual pilgrimage many blacks from the North made at Christmastime. "If that boy sneaks home, we'll be waitin'," he promised Harry Rex.

He also had some venom for me, and for my heartwarming stories about Miss Callie and her older children. He guessed correctly that I was the family's contact with Sam.

"You'd better get your nose outta this mess," Harry Rex warned me after his meeting with Durant. "This is a nasty character."

I wasn't anxious to have someone else dreaming of my painful death.

I met Sam at a truck stop near the state line, about a mile into Tennessee. Miss Callie had sent cakes and pies and letters and some cash, an entire cardboard box that filled the other seat in my little Spitfire. It was the first time in two years she had been able to touch him in any way. He tried to read one of her letters, but became emotional and put it back in the envelope. "I'm so homesick," he said, wiping huge tears while at the same time trying to hide them from the truckers eating nearby. He was a lost, scared little boy.

With brutal honesty, I recounted the conversation with Harry Rex. Sam had naively thought his offer to stay away from Ford County but visit occasionally would be acceptable to Mr. Durant. He had little grasp of the hatred he had inspired. He did, however, seem to appreciate the danger.

"He'll kill you, Sam," I said gravely.

"And he'll get by with it, won't he?"

"What difference will that make to you? You'll be just as dead. Miss Callie would rather have you alive up North than dead in the Clanton cemetery."

We agreed to meet again in two weeks. He was doing his Christmas shopping, and he would have gifts for his parents and family.

We said good-bye and left the dining area. I was almost to my car when I decided to step back inside and use the men's room. It was in the rear of a tacky gift shop next to the cafe. I glanced out a window and saw Sam, very suspiciously, jump into a car driven by a white woman. She looked to be older, early forties. Iris, I presumed. Some people never learn.

* * *

The Ruffin clan began arriving three days before Christmas. Miss Callie had been cooking for a week. She sent me to the grocery store twice for emergency supplies. I was quickly adopted into the family and given full privileges, the highest of which was to eat whenever and whatever I wanted.

Growing up in that house, the children's lives had been centered around their parents, each other, the Bible, and the kitchen table. And for the holidays there was always a fresh dish of something on the table, and another two or three on the stove or in the oven. The announcement "Pecan pies are ready!" sent shockwaves through the small house, across the porch, and even into the street. The family gathered at the table where Esau rather quickly thanked the Lord yet again for his family and their health and for the food they were about to "partake"; then the pies would be cut into thick wedges, laid on saucers, and carried off in all directions.

The same ritual was followed for pumpkin pies, coconut pies, strawberry cakes, the list went on and on. And those were just the light little snacks that carried them from one major meal to the next.

Unlike their mother, the Ruffin children were not the slightest bit heavy. And I soon learned why. They complained that they were unable to eat like this anymore. The food where they lived was bland and much of it was frozen and mass-produced. There were a lot of ethnic foods they simply could not digest. And the people ate in a hurry. The list of complaints grew.

My hunch was that they had been so spoiled by Miss Callie's cooking that nothing would ever measure up.

Carlota, who was single and taught urban studies at UCLA, was especially entertaining when telling stories of the latest wacky food trends sweeping California. Raw foods were the current rage - lunch was a plate of raw carrots and raw celery, all to be choked down with a small cup of hot herbal tea.

Gloria, who taught Italian at Duke, was considered the luckiest of the seven because she was still in the South. She and Miss Callie compared notes on the different recipes for things such as corn bread, Brunswick stew, and even collard greens. These discussions often turned serious, with the men offering opinions and observations, and more than one argument erupted.

After a three hour lunch, Leon (Leonardo), who taught biology at Purdue, asked me to go for a ride. He was the second oldest, and carried a slight academic air that the others had managed to avoid. He had a beard, smoked a pipe, wore a tweed blazer with worn arm patches, and used a vocabulary that he must've spent hours practicing.

We roamed the streets of Clanton in his car. He wanted to know about Sam, and I told him everything. In my opinion, whatever that was worth, it was too dangerous for him to enter Ford County.

And he wanted to know about the trial of Danny Padgitt. I had sent copies of the Times to all of the Ruffins. One of Baggy's reports had emphasized the threat made by Danny to the jurors. The exact quote had been highlighted, "You convict me, and I'll get every damned one of you."

"Will he ever be released from prison?" Leon asked.

"Yes," I said, reluctantly.

"When?"

"No one knows. He got life for murder, life for rape. Ten years is the minimum for each, but I'm told weird things happen in the Mississippi parole system."

"So it's twenty years minimum?" I'm sure he was thinking about his mother's age. She was fifty-nine.

"No one's sure. There is the possibility of good time, which reduces the minimum."

He seemed as confused by this as I had been. Truth was, no one connected to either the judicial system or the penal system had been able to answer my questions about Danny's sentence. Parole in Mississippi was a vast dark pit, and I was afraid to get too close.

Leon told me that he had quizzed his mother at length about the verdict. Specifically, did she vote for the life sentence, or did she want death? Her response had been that the jury vowed to keep its deliberations a secret. "What do you know?" he asked me.

Not much. She had strongly implied to me that she had not agreed with the verdict, but it was nothing definite. In the weeks after the verdict there had been an avalanche of speculation. Most courthouse regulars had settled on the theory that three, maybe four, of the jurors had refused to vote for the death penalty. Miss Callie was generally considered not to be in that group.

"Did the Padgitts get to them?" he asked. We were easing into the long shaded front drive of Clanton High School.

"That's the prevailing theory," I said. "But no one really knows. The last death penalty in this county for a white defendant was forty years ago."

He stopped his car and we looked at the stately oak doors of the school. "So it's finally integrated," he said.

"It is."

"Never thought I'd see it." He smiled with great satisfaction. "I used to dream of going to this school. My father worked as a janitor here when I was a little boy, and I would come over on Saturdays and walk those long hallways and see how nice everything was. I understood why I wasn't welcome here, but I never accepted it."

There was not much I could add to this, so I just listened. He seemed more sad than bitter.

We finally drove away and crossed the tracks. Back in Lowtown, I was amazed at the number of fine automobiles with out-of-state tags that were parked tightly in the streets. Large families sat on porches in the frigid air; children played in the yards and the streets. Other cars arrived, all with brightly wrapped packages in the rear windows.

"Home is where Momma is," Leon said. "And everybody comes home for Christmas."

As we stopped near Miss Callie's, Leon thanked me for befriending his mother. "She talks about you all the time," he said.

"It's all about lunch," I said, and we both laughed. At the front gate, a new aroma wafted from the house. Leon froze, took a long whiff, said, "Pumpkin pie." The voice of experience.

At various times, each of the seven professors thanked me for my friendship with Miss Callie She had shared her life with many, had lots of close friends, but for more than eight months had especially cherished her time with me.

I left them late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve as they were preparing for church. Afterward, there would be gifts and singing. There were more than twenty Ruffins staying in the house; I couldn't imagine where everyone slept, and I was certain no one really cared.

As accepted as I was, I did feel the need to leave them at some point. Later, there would be hugs and tears, and songs and stories, and, though I was certainly welcome to experience all of it, I knew there were times when families needed to be alone.

What did I know about families?

I drove to Memphis, where my childhood home had not seen a Christmas decoration in ten years. My father and I had dinner at a Chinese joint not far from the house. As I choked down bad wonton soup I couldn't help but think of the chaos of Miss Callie's kitchen and all those wonderful dishes being pulled from the oven.

My father worked hard to seem interested in my newspaper. I obligingly sent him a copy each week, but after a few minutes of chitchat I could tell he had never read a word. He was concerned with some ominous connection between the war in Southeast Asia and the bond market.

We ate quickly and went in different directions. Sadly, neither of us had given any thought to exchanging gifts.

Christmas lunch was with BeeBee, who, unlike my father, was delighted to see me. She invited three of her little blue-haired widow friends over for sherry and ham, and the five of us proceeded to get tipsy. I regaled them with stories from Ford County, some accurate, some highly embellished. Hanging around Baggy and Harry Rex, I was learning the art of storytelling.

By 3 P.M., we were all napping. Early the next morning, I raced back to Clanton.



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