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Home > The Last Juror(15)

The Last Juror(15)
Author: John Grisham

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."

"Memphis."

"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."

"Voodoo?"

"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?"

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