At precisely 3:57 p.m., exactly as printed in the timetable, the train to Birmingham pulled out of Nashville station. The South Wind was scheduled to make an additional twenty-five stops before its final destination. If all went well, the train would arrive on time in Miami twenty-four hours later.
Of its seven cars, the last, an observation car, was the most popular because of the views from its rear windows and the bar and light refreshment service it provided. On this evening, the bar was closed. The kitchen was locked. There was no attendant. Before the last car had even cleared the end of the Nashville Station platform, something had gone wrong.
On a quiet day, he was a quiet man, unremarkable in most of his ways. But people couldn’t help liking Hefty Biggers. They liked asking him questions. It’s not that Hefty had a profound or unusual point of view, but people liked the odd way he had of giving an answer. Hefty didn’t mind the questions and he always tried to give an honest reply.
“Wha’s happenin’, Hefty?”
“Hefty, how you doin’?”
“Hey, man, Hefty. Wha’s up?”
“Nothin’. Real good. Not a damn thing,” he replied to each in the singsong voice of a man with not much on his mind.
Hefty didn’t go in for long conversations and, when he gave one of those honest replies, you could see the sad, tired eyes of an old milk cow. When he smiled, you could count the number of his teeth. The fingers on two hands would just about do it. He didn’t smile a lot, not because of missing teeth or because those eyes meant he really was sad.
“There just ain’t much reason for smilin’.”
Hefty wasn’t a young man, not anymore, but he wasn’t as old as he looked either. It wasn’t hard to guess why people called him Hefty. He had the broad, sturdy frame of a well-fed bear at the end of a long and particularly good summer. He liked to eat and he ate the wrong things. He liked to drink or maybe he had to. As you might expect, he took it all in and it all came back out in buckets. His bladder must have held a gallon or more and, when he went to the john, you could take a short nap, wake up and Hefty was still at it.
“Say, Hefty, didn’t you used to work for the Pullman or was it you worked for the Pennsy?”
“Whatever happened before Monday, I don’t hardly remember. But I think it was one or the other.”
Hefty spoke without looking up from the broom. As he pushed it past sacks of seed corn and beans, warehouse men who lounged on mounds of musty burlap raised their feet so that he could move the dust a little further down the damp, dark, aisles.
“How come you quit workin’ the road?” asked one of the loungers. “It was steady pay and beats pushin’ the dust around with that broom.”
Hefty didn’t mind taking a break from work. He leaned on the broom and wiped his face with his hat before giving his answer.
“I don’t like wakin’ up so far from my bed and I’m growin’ real fond of sweepin’.”
“Do you ever miss it?” asked another. “Ridin’ the rails or visitin’ big cities and seein’ the sights?”
“I never seen a sight I remember real clear and cities are so much bigger than I am.”
“What about that gal, Hefty?” asked a third lounger. “That maid down in Memphis that caused all the trouble?”
The milk cow eyes got a little bit sadder and Hefty’s hands tightened on the handle of the broom.
“It happened in Nashville and I don’t hardly think much about her no more. But I reckon she’s somewhere doin’ somethin’ she ought not to be doin’.”
“Listen, Hefty, how ‘bout a little taste of that bottle, the one you keep tucked in your back pocket?”
A serious frown crept over Hefty’s face and he made the broom pay for its leisure.
“I would . . . but there’s just enough left for me and I’m savin’ a swallow for Sunday.”
As he swept, he kept one hand on the broom. The other was clamped on the bottle.
“Hefty. You ain’t the snappiest of dressers.”
Hefty didn’t seem to resent the observation. Slowly, he surveyed his shirt and trousers. It was true they needed a lot more than pressing.
“Yeah. I guess that’s about right,” he said with a shrug. “I ain’t too particular about dressin’ up fancy.”
“You know man, it looks like you slept in them pants.”
“I did,” he replied with a yawn. “It helps me sleep better.”
The pants were wrinkled and a little too short. They seldom came off for a cleaning and a regular change of shirt might not have mattered that much. His shirts were always a little bit damp and Hefty didn’t smell like gardenias.
“There’s holes in your shoes, Hefty man, right there on the sides . . . by your toes.”
“I know,” he nodded and looked down at his feet. “I cut ‘em myself. I got corns and they need fresh air for breathin’.”
“You ever take that hat off your head?”
“You never know when it’s gonna rain,” said Hefty and tugged the hat down a little lower.
“Even inside? On a warm, sunny day?”
“I learned to play it real careful, with women and cards, and I don’t never mess with the weather.”
He leaned on the broom the way an old fence rail leans against a post, weary and sagging in the middle. The milk cow eyes were lost in a memory and there wasn’t much point in asking more questions.
She was on the smallish side and as slender as the edge of a sharpened knife. Time and babies would eventually have its way with her figure but, at seventeen, the future was a thousand miles away. She wasn’t even a pretty girl. Her mouth was a little too wide and her eyes a little too narrow but Arletta could turn a man’s head like she was the Queen of Sheba. Women knew her tricks and despised her for using them although, if they were honest with themselves, they might have used them too if they’d had a little of her boldness or lack of concern for the outcome. But, of course, it’s a rare day when people are honest with themselves.
Arletta worked for Miss Anne Wright. On this particular morning, a pleasant morning in early June, it was still too early for the heat to take a grip. Arletta was in the dining room of Miss Anne’s house, sitting in a comfortable chair. The chair was next to an open window that faced out onto a broad, covered porch. It was a typical southern porch, with a wooden, two-seater swing suspended from the ceiling. A pair of cane-backed rocking chairs was grouped around a lattice topped table. On the table were a pitcher of sweet iced tea, a plate of biscuits, a china bowl of apple butter and a platter of thickly sliced, salt-cured ham. With half closed eyes and a dreamy smile, Arletta listened to the breeze and the birds and the two elderly women who waited on the porch for Miss Anne to join them.
“I don’t know why she keeps that girl on. She doesn’t do a bit of work unless you watch her like a hawk.”
“Oh, it’s worse than that. She flirts shamelessly with anything in trousers and the women can’t get their work done either for keeping an eye on her.”
“My maid Inez told me she’s terrified of that man she keeps company with. She says that girl is poison.”
“They say she steals too.”
“I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. Miss Anne has such a soft spot for misfits and stray dogs. She could catch that girl with the family silver and she would just smile and say ‘now put that back, dear’ and everything would go on just as if nothing had happened. I’ve spoken to Miss Anne about the girl but, of course, she still works here.”
The other half of the subject of the conversation, Miss Anne, was still in her bedroom on the second floor of the house in which she had lived since the day she was born. She lived there alone, except for the cook, the cook’s husband who did the driving and all of the chores, and Arletta, her maid. The house was on the corner of an oak shaded block of similar houses, gracious and large, reflecting a nineteenth century charm. By the seventh decade of the twentieth, the house had begun to look a little bit shabby.
Miss Anne was given the honorific when she was a miss in the spring of her years and now, a full and comfortable lifetime later, the name still seemed to fit like a pair of white cotton gloves. The years had turned her hair the color of fresh snow and she wore it pulled back in a tight bun, but her cheeks still blushed with the healthy glow of a tender, pink rosebud. A single strand of natural pearls, delicate, refined and nearly perfect, adorned a slender neck each day of her life and defined her in appearance as well as in essential nature.
“Arletta,” Miss Anne called from the doorway of her bedroom. “Please come here child. I need some assistance.”
From the comfortable chair and an overheard conversation that amused rather than offended her, Arletta silently rose and strolled to the center staircase. She waited until reaching the hallway before answering.
“Yes, Miss Anne.”
At the foot of the stairs, she paused. A face in a large oval mirror, framed in gilt and as old as the house, looked back at her with a satisfied smile. There was nothing in that face that Arletta didn’t like.
“I’ll be right there,” she said and slowly put a foot on the tread of the first stair.
As she ascended, she let one hand glide along the banister. The other hung lazily at her side. There was no need to hurry. Even if there had been, Arletta was not a girl known for bustle, at least during her working hours. The day was a Saturday and, after the lunch dishes were cleared, Miss Anne always released her for the remainder of the weekend.
“After our luncheon is completed,” said Miss Anne, “you are excused dear. I hope you have something pleasant to do this afternoon. It’s such a lovely day.”
“Oh yes, Miss Anne. I’ve got lots of things to do and, of course, I spend Sundays with the Lord.”
Arletta fastened the clasp of a strand of nearly perfect pearls around Miss Anne’s neck then unfolded a delicate, lace shawl and draped it across her shoulders. She set a pair of white, cotton gloves on the dresser and stood with her hands folded behind her and waited. The smile on Arletta’s face was broad, genuine and thoroughly misunderstood by the older woman.
“Yes, child. I can see that you look forward to your day with the Lord.”
III. Wallace Lord
By late afternoon, the air throughout the house was completely still and stifling. The windows and doors were wide open but the smell of yellow perch frying in the kitchen saturated every inch of every room. It was a small house with small rooms and the layout didn’t give the air much of a chance to circulate. But, rather than escape the odor of the frying fish, four men and Arletta Payne remained in the kitchen. The men sat around a rectangular table playing cards, dealer’s call. Arletta circled them, spreading charm and Miss Anne’s French perfume on anyone who looked up from the game to notice. Her official job was to make sure the fish didn’t burn.
In the center of the table was a clear quart bottle containing the juice of newly fermented corn. The local bootlegger was known to throw in a car battery or dead skunk to give his whiskey some age and oak chips to produce a light brown color. The bottle was nearly empty but several more, in different shapes and sizes, sat on a counter, next to the sink.
The game had been underway since the previous evening and, by now, there were clear winners and losers. The losers outnumbered the winners three to one. The losers supplied the tension. The winner kept his head down and tried not to smile. He didn’t see much reason for smiling even on good day and this day was turning out to be particularly good.
“Hefty, honey, you gonna spend some of that money on Arletta?” She smiled in a way that most men found irresistible.
“There ain’t no money ‘til I step away from this table,” Hefty replied.
Arletta was a hard girl to ignore but Hefty was doing his best to keep his mind focused on the cards, the fish, the whiskey and the observation car of the evening train to Miami, in more or less that order.
“Play the damned card,” came a growl from across the table.
The growler was losing, bleary-eyed drunk and in a particularly ill-tempered state of mind. His name was Wallace Lord and, drunk or sober, winning or losing, he didn’t like Arletta sharing her charm with anyone but him. Tempers around the table were running as hot as a pan left on the fire and, at this particular moment, none of the losers in the game cared about anything but the cards and the pile of green and silver in front of one man.
“Arletta,” said Hefty, “be a good girl and see how that fish is doin’. I’m feelin’ kinda peckish.” Only a man on a winning streak at a dry table would raise the topic of fish in the middle of a serious card game.
“Fuck the fish. Play a card,” repeated Lord.
“I don’t see no new money on the table, Wallace. How ‘bout you show us some more of your wallet so we know you mean business?” Hefty forgot about the fish for a moment and forced a rare smile in the direction of the growler.
“My money’s as good as yours,” replied Lord. “Play a card.”
“Yeah, but my money’s on the table where you can see it. I don’t see nothin’ green sittin’ in front of you.” Hefty tried to smile. It wasn’t convincing.
Lord turned to the man to his right.
“Jitterbug, spot me five.”
“I only got three left,” said Jitterbug Rutledge.
Lord looked to his other side and saw three quarters, a dime and a nickel sitting in front of Horace Taylor.
“We’re playin’ on the come now. I got the deal and I’m callin’ it.”
Lord looked around the table to see if anyone had the guts to object. There was a brief shifting of chairs and a deep breath or two but little in the way of protest. Hefty thought long and hard about his next move. As the only one with any real skin left in the game, trusting the others seemed like a poor business proposition.
“Besides, Biggers,” said Lord “I don’t think you paid me enough for all that premium liquor you been drinkin’.”
Hefty ignored the comment and turned his head in the direction of the stove. Then he looked up at Arletta.
“I’m ready for some food, Arletta. Is that fish done yet?”
“Well, let me just see.”
As Arletta turned from the table, a hand lingered on Hefty’s shoulder. An index finger stroked his neck. A faraway smile was on her face as she looked at the pile of money in front of him. Hefty was aware of the hand, the finger and the smile but his eyes were fixed on Lord’s whose own eyes seemed ready to melt or explode from the intense heat behind them.
“You in or out?” Lord demanded with a snarl.
As he spoke, his hand slid from the table and rested on his calf. His fingers traced the rigid outline of the knife tucked in his sock. He leaned forward to glare at the man across the table, the one with the money.
“In or out” he repeated slowly. He could sense the answer and it didn’t make him any happier.
“Fish is done, boys. Come and get some . . . and don’t talk so serious.”
“Yeah. I think we take a little break now,” said Hefty, but he didn’t move anything but his lips. The other two men at the table leaned back in their chairs with looks that made it clear they wanted to be somewhere else, preferably in another county.
Arletta returned to the table and stood behind Lord. She knew who had the money but she also knew who had the knife and money on a dead man wouldn’t stay there long.
“Don’t you want some fish, Wallace honey?”
Arletta’s voice was gentle and soothing now. The time for flirting had passed. A dead man would mean a whole lot of trouble, no matter how much money he’d won. Lord narrowed his eyes and the clench of his jaw tightened then relaxed.
“Yeah, okay, fish. Then we sit back down and get real serious,” said Lord. He bit down hard on the stub of cigar in the corner of his mouth. He wasn’t through.
“I don’t like nothin’ about the way you been playin’ your cards, Biggers. I don’t know who taught you how to play but the game ain’t played like that around here.”
There wasn’t much Hefty could say to that and he didn’t try.
They didn’t eat at the table. The table was for cards and whiskey so the four men sat on the back porch and Arletta served them plates of yellow perch and sliced bread. They ate in silence. Everyone but Lord hoped that food and a little time to digest might improve the atmosphere. Even Arletta must have understood this. She poured whiskey into their glasses without saying a word and the men drank it like water as they ate the fish. Lord ate his share of fish too but he had other things on his mind.
In the warm, afternoon air, some of the men were beginning to doze. Breathing became slower and heavier. Heads drooped forward and jaws dropped to chins. In his hand, Hefty held a crust of bread that fell silently to the ground.
Lord quietly rose to his feet and motioned to Arletta to follow him back into the kitchen. The fire in his eyes said it wasn’t a request.
“Don’t get no ideas, Arletta.” Lord tried to keep his voice down but it had the force of a semi in low gear at the bottom of a steep hill.
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Just don’t get no ideas.”
“Wallace, you don’t make no sense. I don’t know what kind of ideas you’re talkin’ about.”
Lord grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer to him. He stared at her hard but didn’t say a word. His breath was hot and foul from drinking and smoking all night and the look on his face wasn’t meant to reassure. Arletta tried to pull her arm away but his grip was strong.
“Wallace, this ain’t funny. Let me go.”
“I catch you saying another word . . . just one more word to that fat son of a bitch and I’ll skin you alive. You understand me?”
“Then you better start winnin’ some money,” she said with a sneer.
Lord raised his hand to strike and the hold on her wrist tightened. Arletta ducked her head and waited for the blow. With her free hand, she tried to pry his hand from her wrist, tugging it back and forth, twisting it to free herself from his grip.
“Damn it, Wallace, you’re hurtin’ me. Let go.”
Arletta was a wildcat and her voice had carry.
Lord released her wrist and shoved her away with a curse. She bolted to the kitchen like number nine shot, scrambling in the direction of the porch. She glared back at Lord over her shoulder then laughed and scampered past Hefty Biggers who stood in the doorway. In Hefty’s right hand was a black, cast iron skillet.
Lord looked at Hefty, looked at the skillet then reacted like a bull seeing red. He lunged in Hefty’s direction, reaching down to his sock for the knife as he did. Hefty took a step back into the screen door. It slammed against his back just as the knife snapped open.
“Hold on, Wallace,” shouted Hefty. “That ain’t smart.”
“Fuck you, Biggers,” screamed Lord with fire in his eyes. “I’ll show you smart!” and the knife moved up like a flash.
So did the frying pan. It got to the side of Lord’s head first and connected with the sound of a watermelon dropped from a three-story roof. Lord was unconscious before he hit the ground.
“Is he dead” asked Arletta. The expression on her face held as much curiosity as it did concern.
“I don’t know,” replied Hefty. “But I doubt it.”
“It happened so quick. I’ll bet he don’t know what hit him,” whispered Jitterbug.
“I doubt that too,” said Hefty.
“Shit,” was all Horace Taylor could think of to say.
“I know Wallace,” said Arletta as she looked down at the man stretched out on the floor “and, dead or alive, he knows what hit him and who. He’s gonna be after you Hefty and so is the sheriff. I expect you might want to scoot.”
Hefty slowly nodded his head.
“Well, I guess I’ll be seein’ you, Arletta. I’m gonna miss you I suppose but God only knows why.”
It took about an hour before his eyes opened and his head cleared but, when they released Wallace Lord from the hospital, he knew exactly what had hit him and who. He also knew what he was going to do about it.
It was just a little past four when Hefty Biggers got to the Nashville station. The South Wind was gone. His job had probably gone with it. Hefty slumped down on a bench and considered what was left of the future. He had money in his pocket but a lot had happened. The day wasn’t over and it was unlikely to end well.
“You Harlie Biggers?”
“Yep,” said Hefty.
“You better come with me.”
Hefty looked up slowly at a man in a crisp tan shirt and six-pointed star.
“I knew it was gonna be you or Wallace Lord,” he said with sad, milk cow eyes, “and I thought I killed that man once today so I guess I’d prefer it was you.”
IV. The Tater
The cell door opened and a new man stumbled inside. He turned abruptly and stared hard at the door as it slammed shut, his face a struggle of panic and despair. He remained motionless for a moment, undecided whether to cry or vomit.
“Get comfortable, young Tater,” said a big man sitting on the floor.
There were two other men sitting with the big man around a pile of cards. A little color returned to the cheeks of the new man. He shrugged and looked down at the men playing cards. He was young, thin, not too tall and, suddenly, not as concerned as he should have been under the circumstances. All thoughts of vomiting had vanished.
“What’s that game you’re playin’?” he asked as he studied cards being drawn and discarded.
“Tonk,” said the big man.
“Tonk? What’s that?”
Hefty Biggers briefly considered looking up in the new man’s direction to see who wanted to know. It wasn’t worth the effort. He’d been in the cell since early last evening. The sun was up now and he was hungry, tired and increasingly annoyed. His face glistened with sweat. He answered but kept his eyes on the cards.
“Tonk, man. Don’t you know how to play tonk?”
“No. I don’t know nothin’ about tonk,” said the new man.
“It’s just like five card knock rummy.”
When the sheriff caught up with him the night before, Hefty was dressed for work. The shirt he was wearing was white and dressy. Now, it was untucked in the rear, rolled carelessly at the sleeves and just as damp from sweat as his face. He was wearing black trousers. The knees and seat were white with dust. The front of the trousers had once held a crease. In the back pocket, a black necktie was wadded into a ball.
“How much you playin’ for?” asked the new man.
“We ain’t playin’ for nothin’ right now,” said Hefty. “‘Cause we don’t have no money but we’re keepin’ score. If they give us back our money and cigarettes, we’ll settle up then. You got cigarettes?”
“Yeah, man. I got cigarettes.” The new man thought for a minute. “Well, they got ‘em but deal me in.”
That’s it,” roared Hefty. He slapped three fives down on a pile of cards on the floor. His eyes said triumph but there was irritation in the set of his jaw.
“This your first trip to paradise?” he asked the new man. His eyes never left the pile of cards.
“No, man. I been in plenty. How ‘bout you?”
Hefty grunted and drew a card.
“See,” said Hefty, “this is just a little misunderstandin’. There’s a young gal who knows exactly what happened. She’ll clear it all up. She’s just takin’ her damned sweet time gettin’ down here.” Hefty looked at the cards in his hand. The jaw set a little harder. “This whole situation ain’t nothin’ but a D stop.”
“A D stop?” The new man looked puzzled.
“Discharge only. No passengers get on, only off. You hit a D stop early, you can leave early, ahead of schedule. Fast and easy. Get it? You gonna play cards or stand there talkin’?”
The new man sat down on the floor between the two other men who stared at their cards as if hypnotic rays floated from them. Neither man spoke or looked at the newcomer.
“What you in for, young Tater?” asked Hefty.
“Bustin’ into a fillin’ station,” said the new man. “That’s where I got the cigarettes.”
“Man, that’s bad credit. They ain’t gonna let you keep them cigarettes.”
“That’s okay. I got some money too.”
“They ain’t gonna let you keep that money neither.”
“I only took the cigarettes,” said the Tater. “There wasn’t no money in the fillin’ station to take.”
“Damn,” snorted Hefty. “You are a young Tater.”
He looked at the two men on either side of the Tater.
“Don’t you two ever say nothin’. You expect me to be the spokesman . . . do all the talkin’ for everybody.”
The hypnotic hold of the cards relaxed for a minute and Flynn spoke up.
“The eskimo don’t talk.”
“What did you say?” asked Hefty.
“What was that?” the Tater chimed in.
“He don’t talk,” said Flynn. “I been with him a week and he ain’t said one word.”
“Then how do you know to call him the eskimo?” asked Hefty.
“Yeah, how come?” asked the tater.
“Well, just look at him. Look at that face, round as a pie plate, and ears like handles on a five-gallon jug. What would you call him?”
“Simple sumbitch is what I’d call you both,” said Hefty. “I ain’t Mr. Sociable and I ain’t playin’ with none of you no more. I’m gonna take a nap.”
With that, Hefty threw down the rest of his cards and curled up in a corner of the cell. A crumbled, waiter’s jacket served as a pillow. To play it safe, he kept one eye open enough to catch any sly or sudden movement in his direction. The Tater was too green and Flynn he judged to be harmless but he didn’t trust the eskimo. He didn’t trust any man who hadn’t said a word in a week. A lot could build up inside a man in seven days.
Without Hefty, the game quickly died. The Tater got up and stood with both hands on the bars. He rested his head on one forearm and hummed softly to himself, tugging on the bars back and forth with little effect. Flynn and the eskimo stared off into space. Silently.
“Harlie Biggers?” a voice from outside the cell boomed. It was a voice accustomed to being heard and obeyed.
The Tater jumped back from the bars. Hefty lifted himself to a sitting position with the help of an elbow.
“Get your stuff.”
“I ain’t got no stuff,” Hefty mumbled under his breath. “You got all my stuff, what ain’t still on the train.”
“Comin’,” he said, loudly enough for the man holding a ring of large brass keys to hear him.
The Tater’s jaw dropped and his eyes opened a little bit wider.
“Yeah?” The Tater’s face showed some of his earlier distress.
“You’re comin’ too.”
“Yeah,” said the Tater with a satisfied smile.
“I knew that gal wouldn’t fail me,” Hefty grumbled to the Tater.
The door of the cell opened and the chosen two stepped forward.
“Put out an arm,” said the guard and each man held out a hand to share a single pair of handcuffs.
“You two gentlemen are goin’ to county. Looks like you found yourselves some serious trouble.”
“I’m Leonard Grossmund and I’m gonna be ya lawyer.”
The lawyer thrust out his hand and the client looked at the hand suspiciously.
“Man,” said the client, “if they call me Hefty then they must call you peanut. You ain’t much bigger than a gnat.”
The only thing big about Leonard was his mouth—and his clothes. He must have had trouble finding shirts the right size because his neck was as lost in his collar as a boat on an ocean. Leonard’s face was the color of a pine plank floor, new but walked on some. His eyes were soft and liquid and revealed anything you chose to see in them. Hefty looked in those eyes and saw uncertainty.
“How’d you ever find your way out of Brooklyn?”
“Gettin’ out was easy,” said Leonard. “Gettin’ back may take some time. I came here to Nashville Lutheran Night Law School and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“It don’t look like there’s a whole lot of history to you. How old are you, young Tater?”
“Don’t you worry about how old I am,” replied Leonard with an unconvincing sneer. “I’m old enough to know you’re lookin’ at a year in county if you take the deal the County Attorney is offerin’.”
“A year for what?” asked Hefty. The expression on his face was genuinely perplexed. “Wallace Lord was up and walkin’ around before I made it to the train station. I didn’t hurt him no more than a cow tail swattin’ a fly.”
Leonard studied a piece of paper in his hand for a moment.
“Well, the charge sheet says armed robbery and felony assault. Says you took a hundred dollars while armed with a dangerous weapon. You take that to trial and lose you’ll be in Riverbend for the next ten years. You don’t have a record, do you?” Leonard talked fast and didn’t wait for answers. “Not bein’ from around here has plusses and minuses. On the plus side, they don’t waste much time gettin’ records from out of state which is good if you got a long record somewhere else.”
“I’ve never been in jail more than overnight,” said Hefty. “‘Cept for the last few days here. But how come they charged me with armed robbery. I didn’t steal no money. We was playin’ cards and Old Wallace got a little rough with Arletta. I expect she’ll set the story right. What’s the minuses?”
“You ain’t from around here.”
Davidson County Courthouse was the first building in Nashville to have central air conditioning. Beyond that, there wasn’t much Hefty Biggers had heard that was good about the place but then, after nearly a week sitting in the county lock-up, maybe that was enough.
The trial started on a Friday morning. It took about twenty minutes to pick a jury and the judge was expecting it would take another twenty minutes to get a conviction. He was looking forward to an early weekend getaway but the judge underestimated the last witness. By the time Arletta Payne finished giving her testimony, a screen test in Hollywood would have seemed like a child at play.
“Miss Payne, would you tell the members of the jury your full name and where you work?” came the first question from the County Attorney.
“My name is Arletta Suzetta Payne and I work for Miss Anne Wright on West End Avenue, right here in Nashville, not more than three blocks from this very courthouse. I been workin’ for Miss Anne for almost a year now. I do all the cookin’ and cleanin’ and, if Miss Anne needs anything, anything at all, why all she has to do is ask and Arletta is just flyin’ on her way.”
Arletta was wearing a flowered print dress and a Sunday school smile. On her head was a simple, white pill-box hat, trimmed with a pale pink ribbon of linen lace. The hat and dress belonged to Arletta. They were her proudest possessions. On her hands were a pair of Miss Anne’s white cotton gloves. Around her throat was a strand of near perfect pearls. Borrowing the gloves was a minor affair. The pearls were an entirely different matter.
“Objection,” roared Leonard, springing to his feet.
“And, what is the basis for your objection, Mr. Grossmund?”
The courtroom was empty except for the judge, the lawyers, Arletta and Hefty. It was a great cavern of a room with twenty-foot ceilings and the windows were open wide. Although the building was equipped with air conditioning, the city of Nashville was in the midst of another budget crisis and had ordered the air conditioning kept off unless the temperature rose above ninety degrees. The temperature in the courtroom was about eighty-nine and a half and the open windows let in air and enough noise to give a deaf man a chance. Combined with the heat, the participants were uncomfortable, irritable and barely awake but it was early in the proceeding and the judge was still willing to listen.
“Why, your honor, that answer is improper, irrelevant and unfair,” offered Leonard. Even with the windows wide open, each voice rang with a faint empty echo. Leonard thought the ring gave his voice a little extra character.
“All excellent reasons, I’m sure, Mr.Grossmund. Overruled,” said the judge. “Please continue with the witness.”
“Miss Payne,” the county attorney resumed, “where were you on the afternoon of June 26th of this year, approximately, no almost exactly, one week ago?”
“Well, let me think,” said Arletta. She put a fist to her chin and assumed an expression of deep concentration. “Was that the morning that Mr. Lord asked me to come to his house and cook some fish for him? I believe it was. Well, Mr. Lord . . . he’d caught some river perch and wanted to share it with his friends, Horace Taylor and Stanley Rutledge. Mr. Lord knows what a good cook I am and he wanted those fish . . . they were beautiful fish . . . cooked up just right. I use flour and cracker meal and, after I’ve dipped the fish in egg, I run ‘em back through the cracker meal and then I fry ‘em up in butter, nice and light, and you just eat and eat and still want some more.”
“Objection, your honor,” Leonard rose to his feet again, ready for a rematch. “I object.”
“Mr. Grossmund, this is the first time you’ve appeared in my courtroom, am I correct?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“I see. Have you ever been in anyone else’s courtroom? I mean as an attorney.”
“Of course, your honor. Lots of times.”
“Oh really,” said the judge, lifting an eyebrow. “That’s very enlightening. Then, I shouldn’t expect many more of your objections . . . unless, of course, you can actually think of a legitimate reason to object. I’m going to overrule your objection but,” and the judge looked to Arletta with the comforting smile of a very close relative, “Miss Payne, if you could answer the questions with just a little less of the entertaining detail we would all be most appreciative.”
“Oh, yes judge,” said Arletta but she had center stage and was in no hurry to move to the wings. It was now late morning and she was about ready to get to the meat of the meal. The judge prepared himself for a brief nap.
“Now, Miss Payne, we’ve established that you know Mr. Lord and we’ve established that he had caught some fish,” summarized the County Attorney.
“River Perch,” corrected Arletta.
“Yes. River Perch. And we’ve established that Mr. Lord wanted to share those fish with two of his friends. Now, you’ve told us that, at some point in the morning, a stranger came to Mr. Lord’s home. Do you see that man in the courtroom this morning?”
“Oh, yes. I most certainly do,” said Arletta with the same enthusiasm she had displayed throughout her testimony. “Why, that’s him right there, that gentleman sitting next to the little fellow who keeps objecting to me speakin’.” She pointed to Hefty. The Sunday School smile beamed from her face.
“Now, Miss Payne, if you could answer with just a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Did you know this man before the morning of June 26th?”
“No sir. I most certainly did not. I had never seen that man before that morning. He didn’t look like the kind of man I might want to know, nor Wallace . . . Mr. Lord neither. He looked a little bit devilish to me. He sure didn’t look like a gentleman.”
“Do you know why this man was there . . . in Mr. Lord’s home?”
“No sir, I do not but I got the strongest feelin’ he was there to see if he could borrow some money. Mr. Lord had some money on him and he was plannin’ on spendin’ it on showin’ me a good time. I’d been lookin’ forward to that all day and Wallace promised me somethin’ real special . . . for cookin’ up the fish.”
Hefty gave Leonard a swift elbow to the ribs and the little lawyer considered rising to object but, with the noise and the heat and his lack of previous success, decided the judge was probably now too deep in sleep to rouse.
“And, Miss Payne, do you know approximately how much money Mr. Lord had on him when this stranger arrived?”
“I believe it was near a hundred dollars.”
“Thank you, Miss Payne. That’s about the same amount Mr. Biggers had on him when the sheriff took him into custody. Did Mr. Lord lend this money to Mr. Biggers?”
“Oh no, he certainly didn’t. I couldn’t hear a word that was said but when Wallace . . . Mr. Lord handed over the money, that gentleman over there had a big fryin’ pan in his hand and he was lookin’ mighty cross. I don’t know why he had to hit poor Wallace . . . Mr. Lord so hard.”
“Did Mr. Lord do anything to provoke the attack by Mr. Biggers?”
“No sir. Not one single thing. Mr. Lord wouldn’t hurt a June bug. Why, everybody knows what a sweet man he is. Next thing I knew, he was sprawled out on the floor, mouth wide open and dead to the world . . . well, not actually dead, of course. That man had hit Mr. Lord right on the side of his head with the fryin’ pan. Knocked poor Wallace silly.”
Hefty grabbed Leonard by the shoulder and pulled the lawyer’s head as close to his mouth as he could get it. When he whispered, “What is she talkin’ about?” he left the lawyer’s ear hot, wet and ringing.
Without turning his head, Leonard ripped a scrap of paper from his notepad, scribbled on it briefly and passed the note to Hefty.
“You’re fucked,” was all it said and Hefty suddenly understood he was definitely that.
“Your honor,” said Leonard as he got to his feet. “I request a brief recess to speak to my client.”
In the hallway, Hefty paced silently and scratched at his head. When he came to a stop in front of his lawyer, he had those sad, milk cow eyes.
“Can you get me off with a year?” he asked.
“I’ll do my best,” said Leonard, “but, after this morning, you’ll be lucky to get two.”
Hefty got five years. Arletta was that good. And Leonard wasn’t. Wallace Lord got to keep the one hundred dollars and Arletta got to help him spend part of it. And, so ends or perhaps begins the sad story of Hefty Biggers. Five years in Riverbend is a long time to consider what you did wrong and what you didn’t. After that, well, Hefty kept movin’ the dust, answering the questions and tried not to think about things that happened before Monday.