The Last Juror - Page 34

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The parole hearing was front page news in The Ford County Times. I loaded the report with every detail I could remember, and on page five let loose with a blistering editorial about the process. I sent a copy to each member of the Parole Board and to its attorney, and, because I was so worked up, every member of the state legislature, the Attorney General, the Lieutenant Governor, and the Governor received a complimentary copy. Most ignored it, but the attorney for the Parole Board did not.

He wrote me a lengthy letter in which he said he was deeply concerned about my "willful violation of Parole Board procedures." He was pondering a session with the Attorney General in which they would "evaluate the gravity of my actions" and possibly pursue action that would lead to "far-reaching consequences."

My lawyer, Harry Rex, had assured me the Parole Board's policy of secret meetings was patently unconstitutional, in clear violation of the First Amendment, and he would happily defend me in federal court. For a reduced hourly rate, of course.

I swapped heated letters with the Board's lawyer for a month before he seemed to lose interest in pursuing me.

Rafe, Harry Rex's chief ambulance chaser, had a sidekick named Buster, a large thick-chested cowboy with a gun in every pocket. I hired Buster for $100 a week to pretend he was my own personal legbreaker. For a few hours a day he would hang around the front of the office, or sit in my driveway or on one of my porches, any place where he might be seen so folks would know that Willie Traynor was important enough to have a bodyguard. If the Padgitts got close enough to take a shot, they would at least get something in return.

* * *

After years of steadily gaining weight and ignoring the warnings of her doctors, Miss Callie finally relented. After a particularly bad visit to her clinic, she announced to Esau that she was going on a diet - 1,500 calories a day, except, mercifully, Thursday. A month passed and I couldn't discern any loss of weight. But the day after the Times story on the parole hearing, she suddenly looked as though she'd lost fifty pounds.

Instead of frying a chicken, she baked one. Instead of whipping mashed potatoes with butter and thick cream and covering them with gravy, she boiled them. It was still delicious, but my system had become accustomed to its weekly dose of heavy grease.

After the prayer, I handed her two letters from Sam. As always, she read them immediately while I jumped into the lunch. And as always, she smiled and laughed and then finally wiped a tear. "He's doing fine," she said, and he was.

With typical Ruffin tenacity, Sam had completed his first college degree, in economics, and was saving his money for law school. He was terribly homesick, and weary of the weather. To boil it all down, he missed his momma. And her cooking.

President Carter had pardoned the draft dodgers, and Sam was wrestling with the decision to stay in Canada, or come home. Many of his expatriate friends up there were vowing to stay and pursue Canadian citizenship, and he was heavily influenced by them. There was also a woman involved, though he had not told his parents.

Sometimes we began with the news, but often it was the obituaries or even the classifieds. Since she read every word, Miss Callie knew who was selling a new litter of beagles and who wanted to buy a good used riding mower. And since she read every word every week, she knew how long a certain small farm or a mobile home had been on the market. She knew prices and values. A car would pass on the street during lunch. She would ask, "Now, what model is that?"

"A 71 Plymouth Duster," I would answer.

She would hesitate for a second, then say, "If it's real clean, it's in the twenty-five-hundred-dollar range."

Stan Atcavage once needed to sell a twenty-four-foot fishing boat he'd repossessed. I called Miss Callie. She said, "Yes, a gentleman from Karaway was looking for one three weeks ago." I checked an old section of the classifieds and found the ad. Stan sold him the boat the next day.

She loved the legal notices, one of the most lucrative sections of the paper. Deeds, foreclosures, divorce filings, probate matters, bankruptcy announcements, annexation hearings, dozens of legal notices were required by law to be published in the county paper. We got them all, and we charged a healthy rate.

"I see where Mr. Everett Wainwright's estate is being probated," she said.

"I vaguely remember his obituary," I said with a mouthful. "When did he die?"

"Five, maybe six months ago. Wasn't much of an obituary."

"I have to work with whatever the family gives me. Did you know him?"

"He owned a grocery store near the tracks for many years." I could tell by the inflection in her voice that she did not care for Mr. Everett Wainwright.

"Good guy or bad buy?"

"He had two sets of prices, one for the whites, a higher one for Negroes. His goods were never marked in any way, and he was the only cashier. A white customer would call out, 'Say, Mr. Wainwright, how much is this can of condensed milk?' and he'd holler back, 'Thirty-eight cents.' A minute later I would say, 'Pardon me, Mr. Wainwright, but how much is this can of condensed milk?' And he'd snap, 'Fifty-four cents.' He was very open about it. He didn't care."

For almost nine years I'd heard stories of the old days. At times I thought I'd heard them all, but Miss Callie's collection was endless.

"Why did you shop there?"

"It was the only store where we could shop. Mr. Monty Griffin ran a nicer store behind the old moviehouse, but we couldn't shop there until twenty years ago."

"Who stopped you?"

"Mr. Monty Griffin. He didn't care if you had money, he didn't want any Negroes in his store."

"And Mr. Wainwright didn't care?"

"He cared all right. He didn't want us, but he would take our money."

She told the story of a Negro boy who loitered around the store until Mr. Wainwright struck him with a broom and sent him away. For revenge, the boy broke into the store once or twice a year for a long time and was never caught. He stole cigarettes and candy, and he also splintered all the broom handles.

"Is it true he left all his money to the Methodist church?" she asked.

"That's the rumor."

"How much?"

"Around a hundred thousand dollars."

"Folks say he was trying to buy his way into heaven," she said. I had long since ceased to be amazed at the gossip Miss Callie heard from the other side of the tracks. Many of her friends worked as housekeepers over there. The maids knew everything.

She had once again nudged the conversation to the topic of the afterlife. Miss Callie was deeply concerned about my soul. She was worried that I had not properly become a Christian; that I had not been "born again" or "saved." My infant baptism, which I could not remember, was thoroughly insufficient in her view. Once a person reaches a certain age, the "age of accountability," then, in order to be "saved" from everlasting damnation in hell, that person must walk down the aisle of a church (the right church was the subject of eternal debate) and make a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

Miss Callie carried a heavy burden because I had not done this.

And, after having visited seventy-seven different churches, I had to admit that the vast majority of the people in Ford County shared her beliefs. There were some variations. A powerful sect was the Church of Christ. They clung to the odd notion that they, and only they, were destined for heaven. Every other church was preaching "sectarian doctrine." They also believed, as did many congregations, that once a person obtained salvation then it could be lost by bad behavior. The Baptists, the most popular denomination, held firm in "once saved always saved."

This was apparently very comforting for several backslidden Baptists I knew in town.

However, there was hope for me. Miss Callie was thrilled that I was attending church and absorbing the gospel. She was convinced, and she prayed about me continually, that one day soon the Lord would reach down and touch my heart. I would decide to follow him, and she and I would spend eternity together.

Miss Callie was truly living for the day when she "went Home to glory."

"Reverend Small will preside over the Lord's supper this Sunday," she said. It was her weekly invitation to sit with her in church. Reverend Small and his long sermons were more than I could bear.

"Thank you, but I'm doing research again this Sunday," I said.

"God bless you. Where?"

"The Maranatha Primitive Baptist Church."

"Never heard of it."

"It's in the phone book."

"Where is it?"

"Somewhere down in Dumas, I think."

"Black or white?"

"I'm not sure."

* * *

Number seventy-eight on my list, the Maranatha Primitive Baptist Church, was a little jewel at the foot of a hill, next to a creek, under a cluster of pin oaks that were at least two hundred years old. It was a small white-frame building, narrow and long, with a high-pitched tin roof and a red steeple that was so tall it got lost in the oaks. The front doors were open wide, beckoning any and all to come worship. A cornerstone gave the date as 1813.

I eased into the back pew, my usual place, and sat next to a well-dressed gentleman who'd been around for as long as the church. I counted fifty-six other worshipers that morning. The windows were wide open, and outside a gentle breeze rushed through the trees and soothed the rough edges of a hectic morning. For a century and a half people had gathered there, sat on the same pews, looked through the same windows at the same trees, and worshiped the same God. The choir - all eight - sang a gentle hymn and I drifted back to another century.

The pastor was a jovial man named J. B. Cooper. I'd met him twice over the years while scrambling around trying to put together obituaries. One side benefit to my tour of county churches was the introduction to all the ministers. This really helped spice up my obits.

Pastor Cooper gazed upon his flock and realized I was the only visitor. He called my name, welcomed me, and made some harmless crack about getting favorable coverage in the Times. After four years of touring, and seventy-seven rather generous and colorful Church Notes, it was impossible for me to sneak into a service without getting noticed.

I never knew what to expect in these rural churches. More often than not the sermons were loud and long, and many times I wondered how such good people could drag themselves in week after week for a tongue-lashing. Some preachers were almost sadistic in their condemnation of whatever their followers might have done that week. Everything was a sin in rural Mississippi, and not just the basics as set forth in the Ten Commandments. I heard scathing rebukes of television, movies, cardplaying, popular magazines, sports events, cheerleader uniforms, desegregation, mixed-race churches, Disney - because it came on Sunday nights - dancing, social drinking, postmarital sex, everything.

But Pastor Cooper was at peace. His sermon - twenty-eight minutes - was about tolerance and love. Love was Christ's principal message. The one thing Christ wanted us to do was to love one another. For the altar call we sang three verses of "Just As I Am," but no one moved. These folks had been down the aisle many times.

As always, I hung around afterward for a few minutes to speak with Pastor Cooper. I told him how much I enjoyed the service, something I did whether I meant it or not, and I collected the names of the choir members for my column. Church folk were naturally warm and friendly, but at this stage of my tour they wanted to chat forever and pass along little gems that might end up in print. "My grandfather put the roof on this building in 1902." "The tornado of '38 skipped right over us during the summer revival."

As I was leaving the building, I saw a man in a wheelchair being pushed down the handicap ramp. It was a face I'd seen before, and I walked over to say hello. Lenny Fargarson, the crippled boy, juror number seven or eight, had evidently taken a turn for the worse. During the trial in 1970 he had been able to walk, though it was not a pretty thing to behold. Now he was in a chair. His father introduced himself. His mother was in a cluster of ladies finishing up one last round of goodbyes.

"Got a minute?" Fargarson asked. In Mississippi, that question really meant "We need to talk and it might take a while." I sat on a bench under one of the oaks. His father rolled him over, then left us to talk.

"I see your paper every week," he said. "You think Padgitt will get out?"

"Sure. It's just a question of when. He can apply for parole once a year, every year."

"Will he come back here, to Ford County?"

I shrugged because I had no idea. "Probably. The Padgitts slick close to their land."

He considered this for some time. He was gaunt and hunched over like an old man. If my memory was correct, he was about twenty-five at the time of the trial. We were roughly about the same age, though he looked twice as old. I had heard the story of his affliction - some injury in a sawmill.

"Does that frighten you?" I asked.

He smiled and said, "Nothing frightens me, Mr. Traynor. The Lord is my shepherd."

"Yes he is," I said, still warm from the sermon. Because of his physical condition and his wheelchair, Lenny was a difficult person to read. He had endured so much. His faith was strong, but I thought for a second that I caught a hint of apprehension.

Mrs. Fargarson was walking toward us.

"Will you be there when he's released?" Lenny asked.

"I'd like to be, but I'm not sure how it's done."

"Will you call me when you know he's out?"

"Of course."

Mrs. Fargarson had a pot roast in the oven for Sunday lunch, and she wouldn't take no for an answer. I was suddenly hungry, and there was, as usual, nothing remotely tasty in the Hocutt House. Sunday lunch was typically a cold sandwich and a glass of wine on a side porch, followed by a long siesta.

Lenny lived with his parents on a gravel road two miles from the church. His father was a rural mail carrier, his mother a schoolteacher. An older sister was in Tupelo. Over roast and potatoes and tea almost as sweet as Miss Callie's, we relived the Kassellaw trial and Padgitt's first parole hearing. Lenny may have been unconcerned about Danny's possible release, but his parents were deeply worried.

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