The Last Juror - Page 8

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Prior to the bankruptcy, and my unlikely rise in prominence in Ford County, I had heard a fascinating story about a local family. Spot never pursued it because it would've required some light research and a trip across the railroad tracks.

Now that the paper was mine, I decided it was too good to pass up.

Over in Lowtown, the colored section, there lived an extraordinary couple - Calia and Esau Ruffin. They had been married for over forty years and had raised eight children, seven of whom had earned PhD's and were now college professors. Details on the remaining one were sketchy, though, according to Margaret, his name was Sam and he was hiding from the law.

I called the house and Mrs. Ruffin answered the phone. I explained who I was and what I wanted, and she seemed to know everything about me. She said she'd been reading the Times for fifty years, front to back, everything including the obits and the want ads, and after a moment or two offered the opinion that the paper was in much better hands now. Longer stories. Fewer mistakes. More news. She spoke slowly, clearly, with precise diction I had not heard since I left Syracuse.

When I finally had an opening, I thanked her and said I'd like to meet and talk about her remarkable family. She was flattered and insisted that I come over for lunch.

Thus began an unusual friendship that opened my eyes to many things, not the least of which was Southern cuisine.

* * *

My mother died when I was thirteen. She was anorexic, there were only four pallbearers. She weighed less than a hundred pounds and looked like a ghost. Anorexia was only one of her many problems.

Because she did not eat, she did not cook. I cannot remember a single hot meal she prepared for me. Breakfast was a bowl of Cheerios, lunch a cold sandwich, dinner some frozen mess I usually ate in front of the television, alone. I was an only child and my father was never at home, which was a relief because his presence caused friction between them. He preferred to eat, she did not. They feuded over everything.

I never went hungry; the pantry was always full of peanut butter and cereal and such. I occasionally ate with a friend and I always marveled at how real families cooked and spent so much time at the table. Food was simply not important around our house.

As a teenager I existed on frozen dinners. At Syracuse it was beer and pizza. For the first twenty-three years of my life, I ate only when I was hungry. This was wrong, I soon learned in Clanton. In the South, eating has little to do with hunger.

* * *

The Ruffin home was in a nicer section of Lowtown, in a row of neatly preserved and painted shotgun houses. The street addresses were on the mailboxes, and when I rolled to a stop I was smiling at the white picket fence and flowers - peonies and irises - that lined the sidewalk. It was early April, I had the top down on my Spitfire, and as I turned off the ignition I smelled something delicious. Pork chops!

Calia Ruffin met me at the low swing-gate that opened into her immaculate front lawn. She was a stout woman, thick in the shoulders and trunk, with a handshake that was firm and felt like a man's. She had gray hair and was showing the effects of raising so many children, but when she smiled, which was constantly, she lit up the world with two rows of brilliant, perfect teeth. I had never seen such teeth.

"I'm so glad you came," she said, halfway up the brick walkway. I was so glad too. It was about noon. Typically, I had yet to eat a bite, and the aromas wafting from the porch were making me dizzy.

"A lovely house," I said, gazing at the front of it. It was clapboard, painted a sparkling white, and gave the impression that someone was usually hanging around with a brush and bucket. A green tin-roofed porch ran across the entire front.

"Why thank you. We've owned it for thirty years."

I knew that most of the dwellings in Lowtown were owned by white slumlords across the tracks. To own a home was an unusual accomplishment for blacks in 1970.

"Who's your gardener?" I asked as I stopped to smell a yellow rose. There were flowers everywhere - edging the walkway, along the porch, down both sides of their property line. "That would be me," she said with a laugh, teeth gleaming in the sunlight.

Up three steps and onto the porch, and there it was - the spread! A small table next to the railing was prepared for two people - white cotton cloth, white napkins, flowers in a small vase, a large pitcher of iced tea, and at least four covered dishes.

"Who's coming?" I asked.

"Oh, just the two of us. Esau might drop by later."

"There's enough food for an army." I inhaled as deeply as possible and my stomach ached in anticipation.

"Let's eat now," she said, "before it gets cold."

I restrained myself, walked casually to the table and pulled back a chair for her. She was delighted that I was such a gentleman. I sat across from her and was ready to yank off the lids and dive headfirst into whatever I found when she took both my hands and lowered her head. She began to pray.

It would be a lengthy prayer. She thanked the Lord for everything good, including me, "her new friend." She prayed for those who were sick and those who might become so. She prayed for rain and sun and health and humility and patience, and though I began to worry about the food getting cold I was mesmerized by her voice. Her cadence was slow, with thought given to each word. Her diction was perfect, every consonant treated equally, every comma and period honored. I had to peek to make sure I wasn't dreaming. I had never heard such speech from a Southern black, or a Southern white for that matter.

I peeked again. She was talking to her Lord, and her face was perfectly content. For a few seconds, I actually forgot about the food. She squeezed my hands as she petitioned the Almighty with eloquence that came only from years of practice. She quoted Scripture, the King James Version for sure, and it was a bit odd to hear her use words like "thou" and "thine" and "whither" and "goest." But she knew precisely what she was doing. In the clutches of this very holy woman, I had never felt closer to God.

I couldn't imagine such a lengthy devotional over a table crowded with eight children. Something told me, though, that when Calia Ruffin prayed everybody got still.

Finally, she ended with a flourish, a long burst in which she managed to appeal for the forgiveness of her sins, which I presumed were few and far between, and for my own, which, well, if she only knew.

She released me and began removing lids from bowls. The first contained a pile of pork chops smothered in a sauce that included, among many ingredients, onions and peppers. More steam hit my face and I wanted to eat with my fingers. In the second there was a mound of yellow corn, sprinkled with green peppers, still hot from the stove. There was boiled okra, which, she explained as she prepared to serve, she preferred over the fried variety because she worried about too much grease in her diet. She was taught to batter and fry everything, from tomatoes to pickles, and she had come to realize that this was not altogether healthy. There were butter beans, likewise unbattered and unfried, but rather cooked with ham hocks and bacon. There was a platter of small red tomatoes covered with pepper and olive oil. She was one of the very few cooks in town who used olive oil, she said as she continued her narrative. I was hanging on every word as my large plate was being tended to.

A son in Milwaukee shipped her good olive oil because such was unheard of in Clanton.

She apologized because the tomatoes were store bought; hers were still on the vine and wouldn't be ready until summertime. The corn, okra, and butter beans had been canned from her garden last August. In fact, the only real "fresh" vegetables were the collard greens, or "spring greens" as she called them.

A large black skillet was hidden in the center of the table, and when she pulled the napkin off it there were at least four pounds of hot corn bread. She removed a huge wedge, placed it in the center of my plate, and said, "There. That will get you started." I had never had so much food placed in front of me. The feast began.

I tried to eat slowly, but it was impossible. I had arrived with an empty stomach, and somewhere in the midst of the competing aromas and the beauty of the table and the rather long-winded blessing and the careful description of each dish, I had become thoroughly famished. I packed it in, and she seemed content to do the talking.

Her garden had produced most of the meal. She and Esau grew four types of tomatoes, butter beans, string beans, black-eyed peas, crowder peas, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, collards, mustard greens, turnips, vidalia onions, yellow onions, green onions, cabbage, okra, new red potatoes, russet potatoes, carrots, beets, corn, green peppers, cantaloupes, two varieties of watermelon, and a few other things she couldn't recall at the moment. The pork chops were provided by her brother, who still lived on the old family place out in the country. He killed two hogs for them every winter and they stuffed their freezer. In return, they kept him in fresh vegetables.

"We don't use chemicals," she said, watching me gorge myself. "Everything is natural."

It certainly tasted like it.

"But it's all put-up, you know, from the winter. It'll taste better in the summertime when we pick and eat it just a few hours later. Will you come back then, Mr. Traynor?"

I grunted and nodded and somehow managed to convey the message that I would return any time she wanted.

"Would you like to see my garden?" she asked.

I nodded again, both jaws filled to capacity.

"Good. It's out back. I'll pick you some lettuce and greens. They're coming in nicely."

"Wonderful," I managed to utter.

"I figure a single man like you needs all the help he can get."

"How'd you know I was single?" I took a gulp of tea. It could have served as dessert - there was so much sugar in it.

"Folks are talking about you. Word gets around. There are not too many secrets in Clanton, on both sides of the tracks."

"What else have you heard?"

"Let's see. You rent from the Hocutts. You come from up North."


"That far?"

"It's an hour away."

"Just joking. One of my daughters went to college there."

I had many questions about her children, but I was not ready to take notes. Both hands were busy eating. At some point I called her Miss Calia, instead of Miss Ruffin.

"It's Callie," she said. "Miss Callie will do just fine." One of the first habits I picked up in Clanton was referring to the ladies, regardless of age, by sticking the word "Miss" in front of their names. Miss Brown, Miss Webster, for new acquaintances who had a few years on them. Miss Martha, Miss Sara, for the younger ones. It was a sign of chivalry and good breeding, and since I had neither it was important to seize as many local customs as possible.

"Where did Calia come from?" I asked.

"It's Italian," she said, as if that would explain everything. She ate some butter beans. I carved up a pork chop. Then I said, "Italian?"

"Yes, that was my first language. It's a long story, one of many. Did they really try to burn clown the paper?"

"Yes, they did," I said, wondering if I'd heard this black lady in rural Mississippi just say that her first language was Italian.

"And they assaulted Mr. Meek?"

"They did."

"Who is they?"

"We don't know yet. Sheriff Coley is investigating." I was anxious to get her impression of our Sheriff. While I waited, I went after another wedge of corn bread. Soon there was butter dripping from my chin.

"He's been the Sheriff for a long time, hasn't he?" she said.

I'm sure she knew the exact year in which Mackey Don Coley had first bought himself into office. "What do you think of him?" I asked.

She drank some tea and contemplated. Miss Callie did not rush her answers, especially when talking about others. "On this side of the tracks, a good Sheriff is one who keeps the gamblers and the bootleggers and the whoremongers away from the rest of us. In that regard, Mr. Coley has done a proper job."

"Can I ask you something?"

"Certainly. You're a reporter."

"Your speech is unusually articulate and precise. How much education did you receive?" It was a sensitive question in a society where, for many decades, education had not been stressed. It was 1970, and Mississippi still had no public kindergartens and no mandatory school attendance laws.

She laughed, giving me the full benefit of those teeth. "I finished the ninth grade, Mr. Traynor."

"The ninth grade?"

"Yes, but my situation was unusual. I had a wonderful tutor. It's another long story."

I began to realize that these wonderful stories Miss Callie was promising would take months, maybe years to develop. Perhaps they would evolve on the porch, over a weekly banquet.

"Let's save it for later," she said. "How is Mr. Caudle?"

"Not well. He will not come out of his house."

"A fine man. He will always be close to the heart of the black community. He had such courage."

I thought Spot's "courage" had more to do with widening the range of his obituaries than with a commitment to the fair treatment of all. But I had learned how important dying was to black folks - the ritual of the wake, often lasting a week; the marathon memorial services, with open caskets and much wailing; the mile-long funeral processions; and, lastly, the final graveside farewells fraught with emotion. When Spot had so radically opened his obituary page to blacks he had become a hero in Lowtown.

"A fine man," I said, reaching for my third pork chop. I was beginning to ache a bit, but there was so much food left on the table!

"You're doing him proud with your obituaries," she said with a warm smile.

"Thank you. I'm still learning."

"You have courage too, Mr. Traynor."

"Could you call me Willie? I'm only twenty-three."

"I prefer Mr. Traynor." And that issue was settled. It would take four years before she could break down and use my first name. "You have no fear of the Padgitt family," she announced.

That was news to me. "It's just part of my job," I said.

"Do you expect the intimidation to continue?"

"Probably so. They are accustomed to getting whatever they want. They are violent, ruthless people, but a free press must endure." Who was I kidding? One more bomb or assault and I'd be back in Memphis before sunrise.

She stopped eating and her eyes turned toward the street, where she looked at nothing in particular. She was deep in thought. I, of course, kept stuffing my face.

Finally, she said, "Those poor little children. Seeing their mother like that."

That image finally caused my fork to stop. I wiped my mouth, took a long breath, and let the food settle for a moment. The horror of the crime was left to everyone's imagination, and for days Clanton had whispered about little else. As always happens, the whispers and rumors got amplified, different versions were spun off and repeated, and enlarged yet again. I was curious as to how the stories were playing in Lowtown.

"You told me on the phone you've been reading the Times for fifty years," I said, almost belching.

"Indeed I have."

"Can you remember a more brutal crime?"

She paused for a second as she reviewed five decades, then slowly shook her head. "No, I cannot."

"Have you ever met a Padgitt?"

"No. They stay on the island, and always have. Even their Negroes stay out there, making whiskey, doing their voodoo, all sorts of foolishness."


"Yes, it's common knowledge on this side of the tracks. Nobody here messes with the Padgitt Negroes, never have."

"Do people on this side of the tracks believe Danny Padgitt raped and killed her?"

"The ones who read your newspaper certainly do."

That stung more than she would ever know. "We just report the facts," I said smugly. "The boy was arrested. He's been charged. He's in jail awaiting trial."

"Isn't there a presumption of innocence?"

Another squirm on my side of the table. "Of course."

"Do you think it was fair to use a photograph of him handcuffed, with blood on his shirt?" I was struck by her sense of fairness. Why would she, or any other black in Ford County, care if Danny Padgitt was treated fairly? Few people had ever worried about black defendants getting decent treatment by the police or the press.

"He had blood on his shirt when he arrived at the jail. We didn't put it there." Neither one of us was enjoying this little debate. I took a sip of tea and found it difficult to swallow. I was stuffed all the way down.

She looked at me with one of those smiles and had the nerve to say, "What about some dessert? I baked a banana pudding."

I could not say no. Nor could I hold another bite. A compromise was called for. "Let's wait a while, give things a chance to settle."

"Then have some more tea," she said, already refilling my glass. Breathing was difficult, so I reclined as much as possible in my chair and decided to act like a journalist. Miss Callie, who'd eaten far less than I, was finishing a serving of okra.

According to Baggy, Sam Ruffin had been the first black student to enroll in the white schools in Clanton. It happened in 1964 when Sam was a seventh grader, age twelve, and the experience had been difficult for everyone. Especially Sam. Baggy warned me that Miss Callie might not talk about her youngest child. There was a warrant for his arrest and he had fled the area.

She was reluctant at first. In 1963, the courts ruled that a white school district could not deny admission to a black student. Forced integration was still years in the future. Sam was her youngest, and when she and Esau made the decision to take him to the white school they hoped they would be joined by other black families. They were not, and for two years Sam was the only black student at Clanton Junior High School. He was tormented and beaten, but he quickly learned to handle his fists and with time was left alone. He begged his parents to take him back to the Negro school, but they held their ground, even after he moved to the senior high. Relief was coming, they kept telling themselves. The desegregation fight was raging across the South and blacks were continually promised that the mandate of Brown versus Board of Education would be carried out.

"It is hard to believe that it is now 1970, and the schools here are still segregated," she said. Federal lawsuits and appellate decisions were pummeling white resistance throughout the South, but, typically, Mississippi was fighting to the bitter end. Most white folks I knew in Clanton were convinced that their schools would never be integrated. I, a Northerner from Memphis, could see the obvious.

"Do you regret sending Sam to the white school?"

"Yes and no. Someone had to be courageous. It was painful knowing he was very unhappy, but we had taken a stand. We were not going to retreat."

"How is he today?"

"Sam is another story, Mr. Traynor, one I might talk about later, or not. Would you like to see my garden?"

It was more of a command than an invitation. I followed her through the house, down a narrow hallway lined with dozens of framed photographs of children and grandchildren. The inside was as meticulous as the outside. The kitchen opened to the back porch and from there the Garden of Eden stretched to the rear fence. Not a single square foot was wasted.

It was a postcard of beautiful colors, neat rows of plants and vines, narrow dirt footpaths so that Callie and Esau could tend to their spectacular bounty.

"What do you do with all this food?" I asked in amazement.

"We eat some, sell a little, give most away. No one goes hungry around here." At that moment my stomach was aching like never before. Hunger was a notion I couldn't comprehend. I followed her into the garden, moving slowly along the footpaths as she pointed out the herb patch and melons and all the other delicious fruits and vegetables she and Esau tended to with great care. She commented on every plant, including an occasional weed, which she snatched almost with anger and flung back into some vines. It was impossible for her to walk through the garden and ignore the details. She looked for insects, killed a nasty green worm on a tomato vine, searched for weeds, made mental notes about future chores for Esau. The leisurely stroll was doing wonders for my digestive system.

So this is where food comes from, I thought to my ignorant self. What did I expect? I was a city kid. I'd never been in a vegetable garden before. I had many questions, all banal, so I held my tongue.

She examined a stalk of corn and was not pleased with whatever she saw. She tore off a snap bean, broke it in two, analyzed it like a scientist, and offered the guarded opinion that they needed much more sun. She saw a patch of weeds and informed me Esau would be sent to pull them as soon as he got home. I did not envy Esau.

* * *

After three hours, I left the Ruffin home stuffed yet again with banana pudding. I also left with a sack of "spring greens," which I had no idea what to do with, and precious few notes on which to write a story. I also had an invitation to return the following Thursday for another lunch. Lastly, I had Miss Callie's handwritten list of all the errors she'd found in that week's edition of the Times. Almost all were typographical errors and misspelled words - twelve in all. Under Spot, the average had been about twenty. Now it was down to around ten. It was a lifelong habit of hers. "Some folks like crossword puzzles," she said. "I like to look for mistakes."

It was hard not to take this personally. She certainly didn't intend to criticize anyone. I vowed to proofread the copy with much more enthusiasm.

I also left with the feeling that I had entered a new and rewarding friendship.

Tags: John Grisham Thriller