The Last Juror - Page 26

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One year after I bought the newspaper, I sent BeeBee a check for $55,000 - her loan plus interest at the rate of 10 percent. She had not discussed the matter of interest when she gave me the money, nor had we signed a promissory note. Ten percent was a bit high, and I hoped it would prompt her to send the check back. I sent it, held my breath, watched the mail, and sure enough, about a week later there was a letter from Memphis.

Dear William:

I enclose your check, which I was not expecting and have no use for at this time. If, for some unlikely reason, I need the money in the future, then we shall at that time discuss this matter. Your offer of payment makes me extremely proud of you and your integrity. What you have accomplished in one year down there is a source of great pride for me, and I delight in telling my friends about your success as a newspaper publisher and editor.

I must confess that I was worried about you when you came home from Syracuse. You appeared to lack direction and motivation, and your hair was too long. You have proven me wrong, and cut your hair(a little) to boot. You have also become quite the gentleman in your dress and manners.

You're all I have, William, and I love you dearly. Please write me more often.

Love, BeeBee

P.S. Did that poor man really take off his clothes and shoot up the town? What characters you have down there!

BeeBee's first husband had died of some colorful illness in 1924. She then married a divorced cotton merchant and they had one child, my poor mother. The second husband, my grandfather, died in 1938, leaving BeeBee with a nice bundle. She stopped marrying and had spent the last thirty-odd years counting her money, playing bridge, and traveling. As the only grandchild, I was set to inherit all she had, though I had no clue as to the extent of her fortune.

If BeeBee wanted more letters from me, then she could certainly have them.

I happily tore up the check, walked down to the bank, and borrowed another $50,000 from Stan Atcavage. Hardy had found a slightly used offset press in Atlanta, and I bought it for $108,000. We ditched our ancient letterpress and moved into the twentieth century. The Times took on a new look - much cleaner print, sharper photos, smarter designs. Our circulation was at six thousand and I could see steady, profitable growth. The elections of 1971 certainly helped.

* * *

I was astounded at the number of people who ran for public office in Mississippi. Each county was divided into five districts, and each district had an elected constable, who wore a badge and a gun and whatever uniform he could put together, and if he could afford it, which he always managed, he put lights on his car and had the authority to pull over anyone at any time for any conceivable offense. No training was required. No education. No supervision from the county Sheriff or the city police chief, no one but the voters every four years. In theory he was a summons server, but once elected most constables couldn't resist the powerful urge to strap on a gun and look for folks to arrest.

The more traffic tickets a constable wrote, the more money he earned. It was a part-time job with a nominal salary, but at least one of the five in each county tried to live off the position. This was the guy who caused the most trouble.

Each district had an elected Justice of the Peace, a judicial officer with absolutely no legal training, in 1971 anyway. No education was required for the job. No experience. Just votes. The J.P. judged all the people the constable hauled in, and their relationship was cozy and suspicious. Out-of-state drivers who got nailed by a constable in Ford County were usually in for some abuse at the hands of the J.P.

Each county had five supervisors, five little kings who held the real power. For their supporters they paved roads, fixed culverts, gave away gravel. For their enemies they did little. All county ordinances were enacted by the Board of Supervisors.

Each county also had an elected sheriff, tax collector, tax assessor, chancery court clerk, and coroner. The rural counties shared a state senator and state representative. Other available jobs in 1971 were highway commissioner, public service commissioner, commissioner of agriculture, state treasurer, state auditor, attorney general, lieutenant governor, and governor.

I thought this was a ridiculous and cumbersome system until the candidates for these positions began buying ads in the Times. A particularly bad constable over in the Fourth District (also known as "Beat Four") had eleven opponents by the end of January. Most of these poor boys eased into our offices with an "announcement" that their wives had handwritten on notebook paper. I would patiently read them, editing, decoding, translating along the way. Then I would take their money and run their little ads, almost all of which began with either "After months of prayer..." or "Many people have asked me to run..."

By late February, the county was consumed with the August election. Sheriff Coley had two opponents with two more threatening. The deadline to file for office was June, and he had yet to do so. This fueled speculation that he might not run.

It took little to fuel speculation about anything when it came to local elections.

* * *

Miss Callie clung to the old-fashioned belief that eating in restaurants was a waste of money, and therefore sinful. Her list of potential sins was longer than most folks', especially mine. It took almost six months to convince her to go to Claude's for a Thursday lunch. I argued that if I paid, then we wouldn't be wasting her money. She wouldn't be guilty of any transgression, and if I got hit with another one I really didn't care. Dining out was certainly the most benign in my inventory.

I wasn't worried about being seen in downtown Clanton with a black woman. I didn't care what people said. I wasn't worried about having the only white face in Claude's. What really concerned me, and what almost kept me from suggesting the idea in the first place, was the challenge of getting Miss Callie in and out of my Triumph Spitfire. It wasn't built for hefty folks like her.

She and Esau owned an old Buick that had once held all eight children. Add another hundred pounds and Miss Callie could still slide in and out of the front seat with ease.

She was not getting smaller. Her high blood pressure and high cholesterol were of great concern to her children. She was sixty years old and healthy, but trouble was looming.

We walked to the street and she peered down at my car. It was March and windy with a chance of rain, so the convertible top was up. In its closed state, the two-seater looked even smaller.

"I'm not sure this is going to work," she announced. It had taken six months to get her that far; we were not turning back. I opened the passenger door and she approached with great caution.

"Any suggestions?" she said.

"Yes, try the rear-end-first method."

It worked, eventually, and when I started the engine we were shoulder to shoulder. "White folks sure drive some funny cars," she said, as frightened as if she were flying in a small plane for the first time. I popped the clutch, spun the tires, and we were off, slinging gravel and laughing.

I parked in front of the office and helped her out. Getting in was far easier. Inside, I introduced her to Margaret Wright and Davey Bigmouth Bass, and I gave her a tour. She was curious about the offset press because the paper now looked so much better. "Who does the proofreading around here?" she whispered.

"You do," I said. We were averaging three mistakes per week, according to her. I still got the list every Thursday over lunch.

We took a stroll around the square and eventually made it to Claude's, the black cafe next to City Cleaners. Claude had been in business for many years and served the best food in town. He didn't need menus because you ate whatever he happened to be cooking that day. Wednesday was catfish and Friday was barbecue, but for the other four days you didn't know what you would eat until Claude told you. He greeted us in a dirty apron and pointed to a table at the front window. The cafe was half-full and we got some curious stares.

Oddly enough, Miss Callie had never met Claude. I had assumed that every black person in Clanton had at one time bumped into every other one, but Miss Callie explained that was not the case. Claude lived out in the country, and there was an awful rumor over in Lowtown that he did not go to church. She had never been anxious to meet him. They had attended a funeral together years earlier, but had not met.

I introduced them, and when Claude put her name with her face he said, "The Ruffin family. All them doctors."

"PhD's," Miss Callie said, correcting him.

Claude was loud and gruff and charged for his food and did not go to church, so Miss Callie immediately disliked him. He took the hint, didn't really care, and went off to yell at someone in the back. A waitress brought us iced tea and corn bread, and Miss Callie didn't like either. The tea was weak and almost sugarless, according to her, and the corn bread lacked enough salt and was served at room temperature, an unforgivable offense.

"It's a restaurant, Miss Callie," I said in a low voice. "Would you relax?"

"I'm trying."

"No you're not. How can we enjoy a meal if you're frowning at everything?"

"That's a pretty bow tie."

"Thank you."

My upgraded wardrobe had pleased no one more than Miss Callie. Negroes liked to dress up and were very fashion conscious, she explained to me. She still referred to herself as a Negro.

In the wake of the civil rights movement and the complicated issues it had spun, it was difficult to know exactly what to call blacks. The older, more dignified ones like Miss Callie preferred to be called "Negroes." A notch below them on the social ladder were "coloreds."

Though I had never heard Miss Callie use the word, it was not uncommon for upper blacks to refer to the lowest of their kind as "niggers."

I could not begin to understand the labels and classes, so I adhered strictly to the safety of "blacks." Those on my side of the tracks had an entire dictionary to describe blacks, little of which was endearing.

At that moment, I was the only non-Negro in Claude's, and this bothered no one.

"What y'all eatin'?" Claude yelled from the counter. A blackboard advertised Texas chili, fried chicken, and pork chops. Miss Callie knew the chicken and pork would be sub-par, so we both ordered chili.

I got a gardening report. The winter greens were especially nice. She and Esau were preparing to plant the summer crop. The Farmer's Almanac predicted a mild summer with average rain - same prediction every year - and she was excited about warmer weather and lunch back on the porch, where it belonged. I began with Alberto, the oldest, and half an hour later she ended with Sam, the youngest. He was back in Milwaukee, staying with Roberto, working and taking classes at night. All children and grandchildren were doing well.

She wanted to talk about "poor Mr. Hank Hooten." She remembered him well from the trial, though he had never spoken to the jury. I passed along the latest news. He was now living in a room with padded walls, where he would remain for some time.

The restaurant filled up quickly. Claude walked by with an armload of plates and said, "Y'all finished, time to go." She pretended to be insulted by this, but Claude was famous for telling people to leave as soon as they were finished. On Fridays, when a few whites ventured in for barbeque and the place was packed, he put a clock on his customers and said, loudly, "You got twenty minutes."

She pretended to dislike the experience - the idea itself, the restaurant, the cheap tablecloth, the food, Claude, the prices, the crowd, everything. But it was an act. She was secretly delighted to be taken to lunch by a well-dressed young white man. It had not happened to any of her friends.

As I gently pulled her out of the car back in Lowtown, she reached into her purse and took out a small scrap of paper. Only two typos that week; oddly, both were in classifieds, an area that Margaret handled.

I walked her to the house. "That wasn't so bad now, was it?" I said.

"I enjoyed it. Thank you. Are you coming next Thursday?" She asked the same question each week. The answer was the same too.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller