The Last Juror - Page 29

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The following week I devoted an entire page to the war controversy I had created. It was covered with letters to the editor, seventeen in all, only two of which were even somewhat supportive of my antiwar feelings. I was called a Communist, a liberal, a traitor, a carpetbagger, and, the worst, a coward because I had not worn the uniform. Every letter was proudly signed, no anonymous mail that week; these folks were fired-up patriots who disliked me and wanted the county to know it.

I didn't care. I had stirred up a hornet's nest and the town was at least debating the war. Most of the debates were one-sided, but I had aroused strong feelings.

The response to those seventeen letters was astounding. A group of high school students came to my rescue with a hand-delivered batch of their own. They were passionately against the war, had no plans to go fight in it, and, furthermore, found it odd that most of the letters the prior week were from folks too old for the armed forces. "It's our blood, not yours," was my favorite line.

Many of the students singled out particular letters I'd printed and went after them with a hatchet. Becky Jenkins was offended by Mr. Robert Earl Huff's statement that "... our nation was built by the blood of our soldiers. Wars will always be with us."

She responded: "Wars will be with us as long as ignorant and greedy men try to impose their will on others."

Kirk Wallace took exception to Mrs. Mattie Louise Ferguson's rather exhaustive description of me. In his final paragraph he wrote, "Sadly, Mrs. Ferguson would not know a Communist, a liberal, a traitor, or a carpetbagger if she met one. Life out in Possum Ridge protects her from such people."

The following week, I devoted yet another full page to the thirty-one letters from the students. There were also three late arrivals from the warmongering crowd, and I printed them too. The response was another flood of letters, all of which I printed.

Through the pages of the Times, we fought the war until Christmas when everyone suddenly called a truce and settled in for the holidays.

* * *

Mr. Max Hocutt died on New Year's Day 1972. Gilma knocked on my apartment window early that morning and eventually got me to the door. I'd been asleep for less than five hours, and I needed a full day of hard sleep. Maybe two.

I followed her into the old mansion, my first visit inside in many months, and I was shocked at how badly it was deteriorating. But there were more urgent matters. We walked to the main stairway in the front foyer where Wilma joined us. She pointed a crooked and wrinkled finger upward and said, "He's up there. First door on the right. We've already been up once this morning."

Once a day up the stairs was their limit. They now were in their late seventies, and not far behind Mr. Max.

He was lying in a large bed with a dirty white sheet pulled up to his neck. His skin was the color of the sheet. I stood beside him for a moment to make sure he wasn't breathing. I had never been called upon to pronounce someone dead, but this was not a close call - Mr. Max looked as though he'd been dead for a month.

I walked back down the stairs where Wilma and Gilma were waiting right where I'd left them. They looked at me as if I might have a different diagnosis.

"I'm afraid he's dead," I said.

"We know that," Gilma said.

"Tell us what to do," Wilma said.

This was the first corpse I'd been called upon to process, but the next step seemed pretty obvious. "Well, perhaps we should call Mr. Magargel down at the funeral home."

"I told you so," Wilma said to Gilma.

They didn't move, so I went to the phone and called Mr. Magargel. "It's New Year's Day," he said. It was apparent my call had awakened him.

"He's still dead," I said.

'Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I just saw him."

"Where is he?"

"In bed. He went peacefully."

"Sometimes these old geezers are just sleeping soundly, you know."

I turned away from the twins so they wouldn't hear me argue about whether their brother was really dead. "He's not sleeping, Mr. Magargel. He's dead."

"I'll be there in an hour."

"Is there anything else we should do?" I asked.

"Like what?"

"I don't know. Notify the police, something like that?"

"Was he murdered?"


"Why would you want to call the police?"

"Sorry I asked."

They invited me into the kitchen for a cup of instant coffee. On the counter was a box of Cream of Wheat, and beside it a large bowl of the cereal, mixed and ready to eat. Evidently, Wilma or Gilma had prepared breakfast for their brother, and when he didn't come down they went after him.

The coffee was undrinkable until I poured in sugar. They sat across the narrow prep table, watching me curiously. Their eyes were red, but they were not crying.

"We can't live here," Wilma said, with the finality that came from years of discussion.

"We want you to buy the place," Gilma added. One barely finished a sentence before the other started another one.

"We sell it to you..."

"For a hundred thousand ..."

"We take the money..."

"And move to Florida..."

"Florida?" I asked.

"We have a cousin there ..."

"She lives in a retirement village..."

"It's very lovely..."

"And they take such good care of you..."

"And Melberta is nearby."

Melberta? I thought she was still around the house somewhere, sneaking through the shadows. They explained that they had placed her in a "home" a few months back. The "home" was somewhere north of Tampa. That's where they wanted to go and spend the rest of their days. Their beloved mansion was simply too much for them to maintain. They had bad hips, bad knees, bad eyes. They climbed the stairs once a day - "twenty-four steps" Gilma informed me - and were terrified of falling down and killing themselves. There wasn't enough money to make it safe, and what money they had they didn't want to waste on housekeepers, grass-cutters, and, now, a driver.

"We want you to buy the Mercedes too..."

"We don't drive, you know ..."

"Max always took us ..."

Once in a while, just for fun, I would sneak a glance at the odometer of Max's Mercedes. He was averaging less than a thousand miles per year. Unlike the house, the car was in mint condition.

The house had six bedrooms, four floors and a basement, four or five bathrooms, living and dining rooms, library, kitchen, wide sweeping porches that were falling in, and an attic that I felt certain was crammed with family treasures buried there centuries ago. It would take months just to clean it before the remodelers moved in. A hundred thousand dollars was a low price for such a mansion, but there were not enough newspapers sold in the entire state to renovate the place.

And what about all those animals? Cats, birds, rabbits, squirrels, goldfish, the place was a regular zoo.

I had been looking at real estate, but, frankly, I'd been so spoiled by paying them $50 a month that I found it hard to leave. I was twenty-four years old, very single, and I was having a grand time watching the money accumulate in the bank. Why would I risk financial ruin by buying that money pit?

I bought it two days after the funeral.

* * *

On a cold, wet Thursday in February, I pulled to a stop in front of the Ruffin residence in Lowtown. Esau was waiting on the porch. "You trade cars?" he asked, looking at the street.

"No, I still have the little one," I said. "That was Mr. Hocutt's."

"Thought it was black." There were very few Mercedes in Ford County and it was not difficult keeping track of them.

"It needed painting," I said. It was now a dark maroon. I had to cover the knives Mr. Hocutt had painted on both front doors, and so while it was in the shop I decided to go with a different color altogether.

Word was out that I had somehow swindled the Hocutts out of their Mercedes. In fact, I had paid blue-book value for it - $9,500. The purchase was approved by Judge Reuben V. Atlee, the longtime chancellor in Ford County. He also approved my purchase of the house for $100,000, an apparently low figure that looked much better after two court-appointed appraisers gave their estimates at $75,000 and $85,000. One reported that any renovation of the Hocutt House would "... involve extensive and unforeseen expenditures."

Harry Rex, my lawyer, made sure I saw this language.

Esau was subdued, and things did not improve inside. The house, as always, simmered in the sauce of some delicious beast she was roasting in the oven. Today it would be rabbit.

I hugged Miss Callie and knew something was terribly wrong. Esau picked up an envelope and said, "This is a draft notice. For Sam." He tossed it on the table for me to see, then left the kitchen.

Talk was slow over lunch. They were subdued, preoccupied, and very confused. Esau at times felt the proper thing to do was for Sam to honor whatever commitment his country required. Miss Callie felt like she had already lost Sam once. The thought of losing him again was unbearable.

That night I called Sam and gave him the bad news. He was in Toledo spending a few days with Max. We talked for over an hour, and I was relentless in my conviction that he had no business going to Vietnam. Fortunately, Max felt the same way.

Over the course of the next week, I spent hours on the phone with Sam, Bobby, Al, Leon, Max, and Mario, as we shared our views about what Sam should do. Neither he nor any of his brothers believed the war was just, but Mario and Al felt strongly that it was wrong to break the law. I was by far the biggest dove in the bunch, with Bobby and Leon somewhere in the middle. Sam seemed to twist in the wind and change daily. It was a gut-wrenching decision, but as the days dragged on he appeared to spend more time talking to me. The fact that he had been on the run for two years helped immensely.

After two weeks of soul-searching, Sam slipped into the underground and surfaced in Ontario. He called collect one night and asked me to tell his parents he was okay. Early the next morning, I drove to Lowtown and delivered the news to Esau and Miss Callie that their youngest son had just made the smartest decision of his life.

To them, Canada seemed like a million miles away. Not nearly as far as Vietnam, I told them.

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