Category Archives: Story

About About

777777jj

About leaned against a rough tree in the deep darkness, his breath coming in huge, ragged gasps. About wasn’t born with the name. His dad argued and fought to name him Beauregard, after a civil war general who later spent his life advocating for black civil rights. About’s dad died the day after he was born, however, when a tree fell the wrong way and crushed him. “That’s enough of that name,” his mom had solemnly pronounced and told everyone that his name was “About.”

His friends back in his small Kentucky hometown high school nicknamed him “About Dead,” after a line drive hit him in the chest while playing second base as a freshman on the varsity team. About was one of the best baseball players anyone had witnessed. When the ball hit him, his heart stopped for four minutes. While resuscitating him, his Uncle Desi, who was also the volunteer coach for the team, died of a heart attack himself. About’s story briefly made the national news, probably due to the incongruous death of his Uncle while reviving him. The day About got out of the hospital, his mom drove him directly to the cemetery to bury her brother Desi. About never played another sport.

His breath slowing a little, About estimated he ran for twenty minutes, ignoring branches tearing against his shirt, arms, and face. There was no illuminating moon in the night sky, and the light was dim. The dozens of small cuts on his face and arms itched with a fiery intensity.

About survived a mass shooting in 2005. A bullet shattered three of his ribs, and another traveled from his left armpit and exited near his spine. About was at Eastern Kentucky University to give one of his friend’s kids a ride back to school after a holiday break. He stopped for a cup of coffee near the university after dropping Christine off near the common eating area. He sat by the window to people watch. Across the street and not too far away, a disgruntled ex-employee of the university opened fire with a gun he stole. Because About was nowhere near the shooter, no one inside the diner initially understood what had happened. A policeman who sat in an unmarked car near the scene fired four shots. His report book remained unfinished in his lap. One of the bullets instantly killed the active shooter when it entered his left eye and exited the back of his head, even though the officer fired from a seated position inside the car. Two other shots miraculously traveled across the street, exploded through the coffee shop window, and hit About as he sipped his coffee. About was in a coma for ten days afterward, during which time the officer who stopped the shooter killed himself. The fourth bullet he fired struck and killed a woman sitting on the low wall on the edge of the street. In a coincidence, the policeman had been on duty just two days since a paid suspension following a shooting during a domestic violence call. The victim in the home shooting was the Aunt of the woman sitting on the wall near campus. As for About, he no longer believed in coincidences.

Five years later, when his truck was hit from behind by an unseen drunk driver, he went off the side of a steep valley road, tumbling end over end for fifty feet. He lay there bleeding for four hours until a passing local driver noticed the missing guardrail and investigated. Two surgeries later, scars traversed his back and right arm. He was whole, though. Many nights he lay in his restless bed wondering what force saved him. As he lay in his truck at the bottom of the ridge, he hallucinated and talked to someone or something he couldn’t quite see. While in the hospital, he vividly dreamed whatever it was at the bottom of the holler followed him to the hospital, too. The voice insisted it wasn’t his time to depart. Six months later, the drunk driver turned himself in to the Kentucky State Police. He was already dying of pancreatic cancer. About told him and the Staties that he forgave him and to let him live the rest of his life in peace.  The drunk driver died of electrocution five days after reporting to prison.

People laughed at his nickname. “What do you mean, ‘About Dead,’ is your nickname?” Almost everyone asked. He politely recited the fact that a freak accident in boot camp almost killed him. It did, however, kill six new recruits and the drill instructor who’d served twenty-seven years in the Army. His friends became superstitious when he came back to his hometown to recuperate. The Army sent a Colonel to ask him to accept an honorable discharge on medical grounds. Truthfully, the Army was superstitious about the incident and didn’t want About back for reasons unrelated to his injuries. His friends dropped the ‘Dead’ part of his nickname. Kentucky grandmothers have preached for generations that it’s best to not jest at the things we don’t understand. Afterward, depending on how much interest the other person showed, he’d list off the other near-misses. Most people became uncomfortable. If he noticed their discomfort, he had a litany of jokes to appease them. He often said, “You can find me in the “About Section,” he’d say and laugh. If he was feeling particularly humorous, he would tell them that he was the brother of “Mostly Dead,” a joke he stole from The Princess Bride.

A year ago, About abruptly left his hometown and moved to another Kentucky town, one with about twice as many people as his hometown. He couldn’t tell his few remaining friends that he’d seen something in his peripheral vision. Often, as dusk approached, he could feel its long shadow behind him. He’d look, only to see the encroaching greyness of night. There were nights he lay motionless in bed, slowing his breathing, and waiting for an hour with his eyes closed to slits. Though he could see movement in the dark and shadows, he never spoke to it or acknowledged that he was aware of it. Whatever it was, it followed him to the middle of Kentucky, not too far from Mammoth Cave National Park. Because of his previous injuries, he had a full-body scan. This eliminated the possibility of a physical cause for his hallucinations. About would have preferred a definitive physical reason for his hallucinations.

As insomnia took its toll, About asked his co-worker Styles if he could stay in his cabin the following weekend. “Sure! It’s about time. You’re going to love it. Nothing but deer, fish in the creek, and a million trees to keep you and whoever you’re taking with you good company,” Styles said good-naturedly. He knew About didn’t have a girlfriend. “Watch out for bears, though. They don’t talk much.” Styles was rich due to his parent’s wealth. He still worked in the County Clerk’s office to keep himself busy. No one could believe that someone so friendly could be so rich. Coincidentally, Styles had the entire county map memorized, as well as almost every song written between 1980 and 1988.

After work Friday About drove the back roads across Highway 70 and Joppa Ridge. Style’s cabin was at the literal edge of the dense treeline. It seemed to be all porch. It had a hanging porch swing on one end and a netted sleeping area on the other. Styles often slept on the porch or out on the ground in a sleeping bag thrown near the firepit about twenty feet from the cabin. About noted that Styles had kept his promise; there was a massive pile of firewood and fallen tree limbs to feed the sizeable firepit. About took his supplies out of the back of his truck and carried them inside. He didn’t need much to keep him sustained. The fridge was well-stocked.

Around eight o’clock, About poured himself a few fingers of scotch from the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a bag of Style’s homemade beef jerky. He went out on the porch and sat on the stone steps. He left the gun inside. He couldn’t imagine how he’d need a gun. He knew that wildlife would not approach the cabin. Not tonight, anyway. The shadow would keep them at bay. About no longer felt foolish for thinking that way.

As the light faded, About sipped from his glass of whiskey and took another bite of the delicious beef jerky. Somewhere in the distance, a loud crash echoed. About didn’t flinch. He knew it was just letting him know it was out there. About downed the remainder of the whiskey and put the bag of jerky behind him. He clasped his hands and listened. Every few minutes, a crisp breaking of a limb would echo. The sounds made a long arc to his left. They stopped. About realized he had almost entirely stopped breathing. For at least an hour, no sound stirred. Forests are not dead places, even at night. Something is always on the hunt for food. No fireflies blinked across the expanse of grass leading up to the dirt road. The quiet was total and intoxicating.

As the ice settled in his whiskey glass, About jerked back to consciousness. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the shadow was behind him in the total darkness, sitting on its haunches near the door. Just as the thought coalesced, a board on the long porch groaned and settled. About felt the ridges of his scars light up with goosebumps.

About stood up slowly and then gingerly stepped forward down the steps and toward the firepit. He fished a lighter out of his pocket and flicked it. The light seemed unimaginably bright in the total darkness. He bent in the windless night and put the flicker of flame against the kindling and grass under the wood piled in the firepit. Immediately, a whoosh of flame shot up. About stepped back, but did not turn. Within a couple of minutes, the fire was going intensely. Careful to avoid turning his head toward the cabin, About threw more wood on top of the wood already in the firepit. He continued to throw it on, even as the ends began to hang over the wide edges. The fire roared.

About circled the edge of the firepit, away from the cabin. He kept his eyes downcast. Somehow, he sensed looking at it directly would provoke it. He picked up the longest remaining limb as he edged around the firepit. The fire continued to grow in intensity. It cast shadows of its own, as sparks crackled and made their way upward to disappear. On the opposite side of the firepit, About used the long limb to push and cajole the limbs and fire to an even greater height.

About dropped the limb on the fire. As he did, he looked up, squinting between the flames reaching upward. Through the fiery tendrils, he saw it. As his heart leaped, it saw him. Moments later, About realized that he was running. His ears filled with the screech of the shadow. He didn’t decide to run. His body took control. Twenty minutes later, he was panting in the forest, leaning against one of the million trees around him, weirdly remembering the baseball game that almost killed him.

Behind him, something cracked and broke.

About stood up and turned.

It was time.

He had always been in these woods, forever, a shadow of his own making.

*

If you visit Mammoth Cave National Park, build a fire and sit beside it. As the night encroaches, listen.

As the shadows pass over you, don’t look closely.

 

A Visit From The Unknown

stars-733096_1280

 

This is a story written by a friend, one which details a family member experiencing a brush with the unknown…

*

About a ten-minute drive from the interstate, the farmhouse sat on a dirt road a mile or so off the main highway that passed through a tiny community. The house had gray, wooden steps that led onto a nice wide porch with the front door beyond. A few miles further down the road were woods—the best kind for hunting deer and other game; not too dense to navigate but dense enough to provide a good home for wildlife.

It was a Friday night like most Friday nights. She was at home with the company of only her dogs and the television. Her husband was an outdoors man—a farmer and a hunter. He was out hunting that night in the woods close to home.

It was dark out but not yet late enough for the 10:00 newscast, and she decided to get ready for bed before the news came on. She rose from her favorite chair and started for the bedroom at the back of the house. Closely on her heels followed Mindy, a sweet, rescued dog named for the lead female in her favorite TV comedy, and Peanut, a happy beagle. The other dog Jake was with her husband in the woods.

As she reached the middle of the kitchen, something powerful stopped her in mid-step. She didn’t know what it was, but it caused the hair to stand on the back of her neck, and she broke out all over in a cold sweat. At the same instant she froze, Mindy and Peanut froze too and began growling; their hair raised along their backs from head to tail. Nausea from fear swept over her briefly before her legs unfroze, and she darted to the bedroom to grab the gun her husband had placed in the nightstand several years ago.

She had never wanted, much less felt the urge, to use a gun, but she had been instructed on the mechanics and knew instinctively now was the time for it. She snatched the gun from the drawer and rushed the dogs into the bathroom—the only room in the house with a lock.

She and the dogs crouched along the north wall of the small room, near the toilet and as far away as possible from the east-facing window and west facing door. Gripped with fear and gripping the gun tightly, she waited…for what, she didn’t know…while the dogs continued growling that growl that comes from deep in a dog’s throat when it means business and intends to protect the person it loves.

They stayed this way for what felt like an hour when, in fact, only ten to fifteen minutes had passed. Suddenly, the sound of someone banging on the front door and a familiar voice frantically yelling her name broke through the fear that had electrified her and the dogs.

She ran to the bathroom door and emerged to find her husband bursting into the house and running toward her, asking what was wrong and if she was okay. All three dogs were now alternating between barking urgently and growling in warning.

She quickly told him what had happened. He sent her back into the bathroom, and he ran back outside to search the property for signs of an intruder. He searched everywhere—under the house; inside the doghouse, the pump house, and the storage shed; behind the carport. He even went to the edge of the field that flanked the house on three sides and flashed the light into the darkness looking for a telltale sign of an unwanted visitor. After exhausting every place that could be searched, he returned to the house where they double-checked the locks on all windows and exterior doors.

Finally, they sat. Exhausted physically and emotionally. Dripping sweat. They compared stories and timelines, reliving details as they talked. At the same time she was frozen with fear in the kitchen, he was several miles deep into the woods and also paralyzed with fear. His fear was caused by a bluish-gray, smoky light that appeared suddenly; floating nearby. Jake began barking and baying at the light while running toward it. As it hovered, Jake “treed” it as a hunting dog trees an animal. The light continued to glow. At the same time, the man heard the voice of his father who had passed away only a few months before. His father’s voice clearly and strongly stated, “Get home to her!” Stunned and staring wildly at Jake and the shadowy glow, he heard his father’s voice a second time, “Get home to her!”, adding an urgent and forceful, “NOW!”

The man jerked the handlebars of his three-wheeler toward the edge of the woods and pushed the gas lever as far as it would go. The engine revved, the machine jumped, and the wheels spun crazily as he raced toward the tree line to reach the clear path at the edge of the woods. As she, Mindy, and Peanut braced in the bathroom, he and Jake flew down the edge of the trees to bypass an irrigation ditch and reach the relative smoothness of the dirt road. Yanking the machine to the left, he barreled down the road toward the house and soon saw the light from the bathroom window in the distance. He wished desperately for the three-wheeler to go faster.

As he skidded into the yard and slammed the brakes, he cleared the three-wheeler and jumped straight from the ground to the porch. Flying over the steps, he landed at the front door and began frantically beating the door while yelling for his wife. As he and Jake burst through the door, she came running around the corner from the kitchen into the living room.

There would be no sleep that night. Instead, they sat for the longest time comparing their memories, timings, feelings, and gut reactions. They analyzed it over and over for missing pieces and how the parts they did have fit together. There was one fact they never acknowledged or discussed. He had, at some point, wet his pants from fear.

To that point in their lives, neither of them believed in “ghosts,” but, from that moment on, they believed without reservation that his father’s visit to him in the woods that night is what saved her. Still unknown is from who or what.

 

It Watches

final

 

A friend wrote a chilling account of something that happened to a family member years ago, in a place where most could easily imagine things unknown to us, ones which still move around in the old forests and marshes of the South.

For those of us who don’t believe in ghosts, apparitions, or supernatural forces, it’s a story that makes the doubters hesitate. Maybe we’ll get to see it, perhaps not.

Even though my friend’s last story was read by well over 100,000 people, she’s reluctant to share this one, even anonymously.

I just thought I’d share the fact that there’s an incredible story floating around that might never see the light of day, no pun intended.

I made a picture to convey the feel of the story, even though the story is told as it was experienced: through a lens of terror.

Whatever it was, I fear it still lingers in those forests, biding its time.

 

 

 

A Meeting Among Friends (Story)

88888

 

For the last five years, Rich and Bike took the time to meet me at Blakes Diner at least twice a week. We used the pretext of breakfast to get together. We had no real schedule. Blakes was at the epicenter of  a map of each of our houses. Outside, near the road, a sign proudly bragged, “Home of the World’s Best Biscuits.” We often joked we should sue them for misleading marketing. The biscuits at Blakes were a lot of things, but good wasn’t one of them. Each of us would meticulously order a breakfast plate. None of us ate anything except the hash browns. For purely antiseptic reasons, we doused them in Louisiana hot sauce before eating. The coffee was incredible, though. Each of drank at least four cups per visit.

Earl, the owner, was the cook. He was a retired Navy man. His idea of good food was “a lot of it.” Everyone loved him, and he was often asked to run for mayor of our quiet little town. If he missed a day, his wife cooked in his place. She was not lovable. If a tourist or someone passing through made the mistake of coming in and saying something critical, Earl’s wife had no qualms about tossing an f-bomb grenade on them as they scrambled to escape the diner. The Yelp reviews provided a reliable map to determine on which days Earl was absent.

After we initially started frequenting Blakes for breakfast, Rich casually asked Earl who the namesake Blake was. “I got the signs for free from a surplus sign shop.” It seemed like a logical enough reason for the three of us. “Why is the word ‘Blakes’ missing an apostrophe and upside down?” Earl turned away from his stove for a moment. “I wanted people to look at the sign and have questions. Curious people tend to come inside.” Rich slapped the table and said, “Good enough for me!”

Rich retired as a policeman after getting shot four times in the neck and chest ten years ago. To his wife’s surprise, he went back to college and finished his degree and then earned his accreditation as a teacher. He worked a day each week as a substitute and also tutored a few of the local kids who needed it. Bike, however, was one of those people who could earn a dollar just sitting on a park bench. For several years, he somehow made a decent living buying and selling obscure bicycle parts to enthusiasts and collectors. As for me, I retired at fifty-one. My partner bought out my half of the business we mutually owned in exchange for a comfortable annuity. I spent most of my days walking and reading. I had decided I’d get a new hobby once I depleted the town library book collection. Bike kept interrupting my plan by handing me a surprising variety of great books he found online. While I never saw him reading, I was certain he read voraciously. His vocabulary was stellar, and he loved using words no one would dare use in normal conversation. “Logomaniac,” he’d say, as if the word meant something to us mortals.

Alice, the veteran waitress, asked me, “Hey Kirk, are you going to eat your food this morning?”

“Is it safe?” I asked her, winking.

“Safe isn’t a real thing. This isn’t the Marathon Man, although I would like to pull a couple of your teeth.” Alice smiled. We did the dance of wit every time we met.

“I’ll let you get back to your other tables, Alice.” She laughed. Except for us, there were only two other diners, and both sat at the counter chatting like old friends. In this town, we figured they probably knew each other’s business already.

“Bike, Rich, you need nothing, so I won’t ask.” She placed a full carafe of coffee on the edge of the table we shared, knowing she’d find it empty when she cleared the table.

Bike quipped, “My jentacular needs are indeed all addressed, Alice.” Both Alice and Bike looked at each other as if a duel were imminent before smiling. Rich laughed, but without the habitual large smile I’d grown used to.

As Alice walked away, Bike threw his inevitable parting shot, “Were that your voice would be as euphonious as your figure is lithesome.” I couldn’t help it. I snorted, even though technically Bike offered a compliment hidden in an insult. I’m certain Alice smiled as she departed, though I couldn’t see her face as she moved away.

For a couple of minutes, we alternated between drowning our hash browns in hot sauce and gulping coffee. Like all great friends, we didn’t need an intensity of words to keep us company. Earl hollered across the diner, “Enjoy your food, gentleman!” and waved his spatula in the air in our general direction. We saluted with our coffee cups, another of our many rituals.

For fifteen minutes we gossiped. We’d deny it amounted to that outside the confines of the diner. Our conversations were stuffed with anecdotes, riffs, one-liners, and a barrage of rapid-fire nonsense once we started talking. Through it all, Rich was almost his usual self.

As I stood up and climbed out of the booth, I threw a $10 tip on the table. Bike waited until I was out before moving. Rich also stepped out of the booth and turned his back toward the counter. He took his right hand out of his jacket pocket. In his hand, he held a pistol. He laid it on the table and quietly whispered, “I need your help. I haven’t needed this in years, but I think I’m going to.”

Bike stopped and sat back down as all three of us looked at the gun. “Holy howitzer!” He whispered.

 

Lucille And The Witness Tree

white (2)

 

It was July 1976. Much of the country feverishly celebrated the bicentennial. In the small town of Pleasure Heights, Arkansas, Thomas Deerfield was anything but happy. He wasn’t unhappy because of the near-100 temperature or the fact that his neighbor’s dog stole one of his boots off the porch again. His Lucille died in February of an exotic cancer that erupted from nothing the week after Xmas. They were married for forty years, the day she died. Lucille expected 1976 to be a great year. She’d made plans to drag Thomas to see the American Freedom Train at least once. Thomas had no interest in seeing the train. He’d rather have put his feet up under the shade at his brother’s cabin by the pond a few miles east of town. Lucille loved fireworks, parades, rodeos, and the sing-alongs by the creek near downtown.

“It’s time to see the world, Thomas. We’re retired and the world ain’t coming to us.” Lucille had a way of telling her husband nicely what he was going to do.

“I can see  my entire world right here,” Thomas told Lucille as he grabbed her hand and winked provocatively at her across the table. “If I want to see the world, I’ll climb the Elm tree by the square,” he said, using one of his favorite and tired jokes. Lucille laughed and pretended to do a fake shot of whiskey as she rolled her eyes at him.

On July 4th, most of the town’s seven hundred and forty-one inhabitants stood on the square silently watching in awe as 72-year-old Thomas climbed one of the oldest elm trees in the state. It was a witness tree, and fifty-five feet tall. Unlike some other largest trees in the state, its circumference was twenty feet. Like so many other people in Pleasure Heights, Thomas had proposed to Lucille under the huge canopy of the elm tree. It had witnessed over two hundred years of different names and faces marching past it and sitting under its majestic foliage.

Most of the townspeople came to the square to eat hot dogs, watch the small parade featuring a mix of children and adults as they played their musical instruments and strode awkwardly around the expansive square. Afterward, the person voted “Most Civic-Minded” would take his or her place on the base of the absent Robert E. Lee statue. In 1958, someone had stolen the entire statue, a theft that everyone within a hundred miles still discusses heatedly. Some theories were wild, such as the one that Postmaster Evans often told. It involved both aliens and communists. No one could figure out how he’d combined those two unlikely groups. It was impossible to go to the diner for lunch without hearing the Postmaster Evans bring up his theory.

No one noticed anything unusual about Thomas as he walked across Main Street and toward the giant elm. I saw him as he walked, but thought nothing of his arrival. Everyone knew him, and many offered their hellos as he walked past them. Fire Chief Raymond used a ladder to stand on as he addressed the commencement of the parade. Thankfully, he didn’t sing his announcement this year. The Chief was one of the immensely likeable people who loved singing, but was tone deaf. He seldom noticed the pained expressions on people’s faces as he treated them to his latest rendition from the radio.

Thomas picked up the ladder, folded it, and continued walking until he was under the tree and about one third of the width of the overhead canopy away from the massive trunk. He propped the ladder and sat on the second rung. He removed his work boots and socks and laid them neatly at the bottom of the ladder. He removed his hat and stuck it on top of his boots.

Without fanfare, he grabbed the ladder and climbed it. As I watched from the edge of the street, his head disappeared into the leaves above him. I watched as one leg went up and then the other. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching. Most people were eating and talking a mile a minute as the kids of the town ran amok, filled with soda, hot dogs, and popcorn. Thomas slowly moved his way back and forth across the horizontal limbs. As he found a spot that supported his weight and allowed him to boost himself up, he climbed to the next limb up. As he climbed, he moved closer and closer to the middle of the tree. At that juncture, the largest limb went slightly to my left and became precarious.

As Thomas reached about halfway, Jim Peters saw me craning my neck and asked me, “Watcha’ watching? A movie?” I shook my head ‘no,’ and pointed. After a few seconds of staring up where my finger pointed, Jim excitedly said, “Who is that?” He said it loud enough for several people to take notice. Within a minute, about a quarter of everyone in that large cluster of people were looking up into the elm tree.

There was a collective chorus of “Who is it?” from multiple angles.

“It’s Thomas Deerfield,” I said, loudly.

“Bull! He’s at least 70,” argued Phillip Douglas. Phillip owned the tire shop and loved saying ‘bull’ or its more vulgar counterpart at least once a minute. “Yes, he’s 72,” I told him. I could hear the name Thomas being echoed across the growing crowd. There were a few gasps from the older ladies as they tried to imagine someone that age climbing a tree. They’d never be able to scold another rambunctious boy for climbing again, not after that day.

I gave up my vantage point and moved back. Instinctively, so did a lot of others observing the tree climb.

“We love you, Thomas!” someone half-jokingly shouted from behind me.

In a testament to the town’s spirit, it didn’t occur to a single resident that Thomas might be on a quest to hurt himself – or that he might fall, even though the likelihood of that outcome was obvious to anyone who’d dare climb any tree taller than thirty feet high.

Like a wave, the chant started from nowhere and subtly grew. “Thomas! Thomas! Thomas!” In a few moments, even the smaller children were chanting.

We all stood in awe as Thomas continued to climb the branch he chose to get as close to the sky as possible. When he could go no further, he stopped and braced himself against the bark of the elm tree.

“I can see the whole world from up here, Lucille,” Thomas shouted over and over. “I can see it! And ain’t none of it got you in it!”

It was a moment of pure collective joy, and most of us laughed.

We stood, watching, holding our breaths for something we couldn’t identify.

“I’m coming down!” Thomas shouted.

To my surprise, most of us below applauded, our hands thunderously giving our approval to the spectacle. It took Thomas thirty minutes to get down low enough to find footing on the ladder again. Several male townspeople were there to help him the last few inches. When Thomas stepped off the ladder, we all applauded again.

Pleasure Heights didn’t just celebrate the bicentennial of the country. It celebrated a life on that 4th of July. Even though we didn’t vote on it, we all started calling the elm tree “Lucille,” a name it still carries today, even in the book someone wrote describing all the old trees in the state.

Thomas lived to be 92. He spent the 20 years after Lucille died immersed in the social life of the small town his wife had loved. He sang, led the town’s parade a few times, and often sat outside the diner saying hello to everyone who passed. He died on Independence Day in 1996. My son June found him sitting under the Elm tree near the square, his hat pulled under his eyes, his back against the tree he stood under as he proposed to the love of his life all those decades ago.

I got a call from the new Chief of Police around 9 a.m. He told me June was at the square with his bicycle and needed me to come as soon as possible.

An hour later, after they’d taken Thomas’ body to the funeral home off Highway 37, June asked me what happened to Thomas. Since June was old enough to know the story, I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “June, love finally caught up to him. He went to the see the world.” Although June didn’t understand what I meant, he hugged me. We both smiled as we walked to stand a moment under the witness tree’s canopy. The heat was almost unbearable without a breeze. I looked up, and told June, “You wouldn’t believe it, but I was here when Thomas climbed almost to the top of this elm tree…”

For Lucille.

For love.

Opal

johnny franklin terry 3

 

1960

Opal was doing as she always did during the early hours of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. She was walking up and down the rows of uneven headstones in Piney Cemetery. From time to time she’d encounter a snake slithering about, but she never got startled when one got under her feet. Most creatures, animal and human alike, seldom bother you if you allow them to do whatever it is they do.

She and her husband of forty years lived in a small house off Rich Road, near where it intersected with Mopac Road and 39. The roof was tin and most of the sides of the house were covered in tar paper disguised as bricks. Opal kept a line of rose bushes across the back of the house. She insisted that Earl let them grow wild, a demand that often caused Opal to laugh as she heard her husband cursing at the thorns as he got too close. She often reminded him that her garden’s size more than compensated for the hassle of dealing with the roses.

After her husband Earl retired from police work, they moved from Little Rock back to Monroe County. They got the place Earl’s brother Frank inherited from their eccentric parents. Frank took off for Mississippi when he found out Earl and Opal wanted the old place. He claimed it was because the mosquitoes were so bad here. “Like birds,” Frank would say, over and over. It made little sense, either, because the mosquitoes on that side of the Mississippi were worse. Earl opined that perhaps the generous availability of good barbeque and moonshine might have contributed to his brother’s enthusiasm for a move. Frank liked to associate with people who might otherwise catch his brother’s attention. He loved saying things like, “Bad apples still make good wine.”

Earl had donated most of the extra land around the house for the farmers who owned property nearby. Not only did it save him having to pretend to keep it presentable, but the farmer would drop by and give him beans or corn from another crop in repayment. When the crops were in full bloom, their house would be rimmed by cotton or beans. Earl swore he’d never farm, unlike many of his family. Earl didn’t ask for signatures or handshakes; he expected people to honor their word.

As for the Rich community of Monroe County, it was mostly a place of good souls. There were a couple of mean drunks and a pair of men who enjoying hitting their wives. Most of the angry drunks learned their lesson a few years ago while Opal lived in Little Rock. Melvina Mull came home one night after church to find her husband sitting on the porch with a shotgun and drinking whiskey. Though the details are still argued about, the little community woke up Thursday morning to the news that Melvina had enough beatings and opted to put an ax in the forehead of her husband. She was arrested and charged. The trial was held a week later. The jury acquitted her after 2 minutes of deliberation. Judge Bryant just shook his head and said, “Justice is swift in these parts.” The judge did take a moment and recommend that Melvina might reconsider getting remarried if the urge to do so arose.

Many people in the Rich community lived such private lives that they didn’t see how oddly they often behaved. As for loyal neighbors to be counted on, all of them were fiercely willing to lend a hand to anyone, anytime. The austere farm life often demanded precisely that. Many of the locals had no indoor bathrooms. Almost all used wood heat and left their screened-in windows open day and night.

Away from the prying eyes of her infernal husband, Opal could partake of a bit of dry snuff. She could spit wherever she wanted to that way. Her neighbors snickered behind her back. The idea of walking sounded bonkers to everyone she knew, especially once she turned sixty. Opal walked to Brinkley more than once, which was eleven miles. Monroe was closer, but the mercantile wasn’t always open. Opal was in great shape despite her taste for both snuff and alcohol. She kept a big garden and built chicken coops or a storm shelter for anyone who needed one. While living in Little Rock, she had challenged several men to arm wrestling. All but one left with a new outlook on feminine toughness.

She skipped her walk on Wednesdays because her Wednesday night gospel duties included providing at least one dish and one dessert. She took great pride in preparing for the church meals, much to the chagrin of her husband, Earl. He’d sit on the porch and complain about starving away to skin and bones. As far as Opal could tell, it would take a grand bout of going without a bite to eat to starve him out. Anyway, Earl thought she’d given up her snuff. He hadn’t found the supply of strawberry liquor, either. Opal kept it in a bleach jug, one she’d washed until it had no bleach smell. She carefully drank a cup of it each night after supper. That liquor had saved her marriage frequently. It also helped her to sleep during the nightly ritual of Earl snoring so loudly that even the dogs would howl for a few minutes. The mutts weren’t hers, though. They belonged to that no-account neighbor about a half-mile down the road. They spent more time under her porch and in the shade at her house than they ever did at Cousin Spendly’s tin-roofed house. Everyone called him Cousin, which was odd because as far as she could tell, no one much claimed to be his kin.

Some mornings, Opal would see Old Lady Elvertie riding her three-wheeled contraption down the road, her long skirt making it look like she was moving along by magic. Opal had encountered a drunk or two sleeping it off in the cemetery over the years. They’d mostly been coming back from Monroe or Blackton after drinking too much. Ever since the railroad spur from the lumber mill had been closed, the drunks were becoming less frequent. The spur line was falling out of repair; in some places, bushes and grass were growing wild. Sometimes a tractor would go by a little too fast, creating a dust storm that left nonsense in her teeth for an hour after it had passed. Opal would make a note of it was and make sure to get on the party line and mention it, so word would get out that someone’s husband was speeding and causing a commotion.

After so many years of marriage, Earl didn’t require much maintenance. He’d drink at least 6 cups of coffee and eat toast. Sometimes he’d eat biscuits from the day before. He’d eat bacon, eggs, and sausage too, like any good Southerner, but he preferred to wait until lunch to un-notch his belt and stuff himself senseless. Opal would always make a tin of biscuits.

Last night’s church service had been particularly lively. Reverend Samuel pounded the pulpit as if he were calling Satan himself to come to have a word with him. The congregation had been worked to a frenzy, resulting in them drinking a record number of glasses of iced tea after the service.

Most Wednesday night services in the summer were sparsely attended due to the crops but last night was a surprise. Even Jasper, the area’s only known atheist, showed up at the service. He told everyone that it was his job to keep the pastor honest. Everyone loved Jasper and his dry sense of humor. Jasper also had almost all of the New Testament of the King James Bible memorized, and on a couple of occasions had been used as a Bible when one wasn’t available. Jasper’s wife Emelda was a devout Methodist, which was strange, as she’s been attending the Baptist Church around the bend for twenty years. “I’m Methodist,” she’d say, almost without thinking. She was just about the most Baptist Methodist anyone could ever meet.

As Opal neared the eastern end of the cemetery, she shielded her eyes against the sun, which had been up for about forty-five minutes. With no warning, she fell into an open grave without realizing she was approaching a hole in the ground. There was no mound of dirt piled carelessly to one side to draw attention. Her straw hat tumbled to the side while she tumbled headfirst into the freshly dug grave.

On the way down, she thought it would be the death of her. As she braced herself to hit the soil on the bottom of the pit, she found herself instead falling on top of a body.

The person under her didn’t jump or push away, which she found to be strange. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like icicles as she realized that the person under her was dead.

Being practical, Opal stood up in the grave. Opal had seen many bodies during her husband’s career. Truth be told, she was less skittish about it than he was. Her head was still a foot under the rim of soil. Most graves weren’t dug six feet under. This one seemed to be deeper. Since the person was dead, it wasn’t going to do her any harm. Not unless she couldn’t get herself out of the grave. Likely, no one would visit the back of the cemetery for a full day. Shouting like she’d chopped a finger off wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention either unless someone was going by slowly. No one on a tractor would be able to hear her. She resisted the urge to look down at her companion in the grave.

She stood on top of the body and jumped with as much force as she could muster. Her arms cleared the edge of the grave, and she pulled and scratched at the grass to get leverage and crawl out. Just as she was beginning to slide back down in the grave, a pair of hands grabbed hers. Opal screamed like a squirrel had jumped from her drawer of unmentionables.

She felt herself being dragged from the grave. She fell face-first in the grass and then rolled over to see who had helped her out of the grave. The sun was behind her rescuer, and all she could see was a blinding silhouette without much form.

“Mrs. Opal, what are you doing in the bottom of a grave?” Pastor Samuel asked. His voice was unmistakable. For a pastor, his voice sounded like that of someone who’d spent a lifetime in the coal mines. To the horror of more than one of his church members, the Pastor loved smoking. He preached many sermons about the benefits of the vice. Opal wouldn’t be surprised if Lucky Strikes didn’t pay to have their logo placed on the steeple of the church.

“I ain’t practicing, if that’s what you’re getting at, Reverend.” Opal continued to lay in the grass, shielding her eyes.

“I came by to put flowers on Ivey George’s grave for his wife. She was feeling poorly last night and asked me for the favor. I’m on my way to Henderson’s Corner to see Emma Lou.” As Pastor Samuel talked, he leaned down to offer a hand to Opal. She grabbed his hand and yanked herself up much more quickly than the Reverend expected. For a moment, he wondered if he might topple over into the grave.

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear my old Ford as I pulled in over there,” the Reverend said as he waved vaguely toward the entrance marked by an overhead arch. “I saw you dive into the hole just as I pulled in.”

As Opal looked over toward the Reverend’s ugly old car, she stopped. Pastor Samuel noticed that her eyes went a little wide and looked around too. “I didn’t dive in there…” she started to say, her voice trailing off. Opal curiously looked around the grave and wondered where all the excavated dirt from the hole went.

On the edge of the road, Old Lady Elvertie stood, both feet planted on either side of her three-wheel bicycle. She had her hand over her mouth and looked like she was in shock.

Opal waved toward her.  The Reverend took a couple of steps toward her to give her a shout to let her know that all was well.

No sooner than he had moved toward her that Old Lady Elvertie jumped up on her pedals and began to madly push up and down on them. She was fleeing the scene like she’d seen a familiar ghost.

Opal and the Reverend laughed as they watched her scramble away from them. They stood by the grave trying to decipher where all the dirt from the grave had gone.

“It just beats all,” the Reverend decided. Opal declined the Reverend’s offer to drive her back to the house as he walked back to his ugly Ford to get the flowers.

Thirty minutes later, Opal walked back up the dirt and gravel driveway in front of her house. It didn’t occur to her that she hadn’t mentioned the dead body in the grave to Reverend Samuel. It seemed to be relevant now that it crossed her mind again, especially since he hadn’t mentioned one, either.

Earl was waiting, his legs hanging off the closest end of the wooden plank porch. Two of Cousin Spendly’s mutts were underneath him, beneath the porch, both lazily watching Opal approach.

“Did you have a commotion, Opal?” Earl was grinning and full of himself.

“Whatever on Earth do you mean? Have you gone soft in the head?” Opal was a little sore from doing gymnastics into the boneyard.

“Mildred called in a tizzy. She said Old Lady Elvertie stopped in at her house, babbling about seeing Pastor Samuel bring someone back from the dead, straight from the grave. Mildred couldn’t get much sense out of her. She said Old Lady Elvertie drank a hot cup of coffee in one swallow and took off again.” For Earl, that was a speech.

“Like all rumors, part of that’s true. I ain’t dead yet, but the Reverend did yank me out of a peculiar grave. And there was a dead body in it.” Opal was flustered. Earl was going to pick and poke at her for forgetting to mention that the grave had a body in it.

At the mention of the dead body, Earl’s right eyebrow shot up like a startled bird. Opal could see ten years of wrinkles disappear from her husband’s face. His day would be filled with questions as his old skills and days investigating people doing stupid things came flooding back.

Expecting Earl’s attempt at humor, Opal scolded him. “Yes, I know graves are supposed to have bodies in them!”

“I’ll give Sheriff Bryant a call, if Mildred will get off the line. He might be interested in a body.” Earl stood up and started stamping his feet. The edge of the porch had put the back of his legs to sleep. His nimble mind was already racing though.

 

*

Sheriff Bryant stood near the grave that Opal discovered earlier. As always, he was dressed in overalls and a cowboy hat. His star was pinned on the shoulder of his overalls. He didn’t wear a uniform. “I’m one of y’all,” he was fond of saying. If he carried a gun, it was often shoved into one of his pockets as an afterthought.  Earl stood next to him, shaking his head in disbelief. “Where did the dirt go?” had been uttered at least a dozen times. The dirt’s disappearance seemed more perplexing than the body at the bottom of the grave.

“I called Deputy Win to bring a ladder and his sons over here. There’s no use in one of us jumping down there and getting stuck until they get here.” Sheriff Bryant never hurried. His dad was the same way. People joked that the old Sheriff Bryant took a week just to get to his own retirement and would be late arriving at his own death.

*

I’m seventy years old now. I can’t believe sixty years have passed since Opal found the unidentified body of a woman in that grave. Her husband Earl got deputized to investigate the alleged murders. After he decided that Pastor Samuel had killed the woman, the quiet community almost erupted in a civil war. Although I was just ten when it happened, I can still smell Opal’s roses blooming behind her house, even though those roses were plowed under in 1993 when the farmer who owned the land grew tired of renting the house to a series of poor occupants.

That time and place has vanished, but not a day passes that I don’t wish I could go back and relive 1960 in Rich. I could have saved Opal and her retired husband from the disruption in their lives.

If you’ll give me a few minutes to consider how I can tell this story and do it justice, I’ll collect my thoughts and get back to you…

I’ll leave with a picture I have of Opal and Earl. I can look at this picture and feel the excitement for life that Opal radiated. She wasn’t my kin, but she was my kind of person. I’d love to live in her world again. I’d trade all the money I’ve made to walk in that world and sit on her porch.

Ransom’s World

bench-in-a-forest

Ransom stood at the kitchen sink, the book folded open in front of him, the fingers of his tired right hand forcefully holding the pages down so he could see them. Minutes before, he casually opened the book and skimmed the first paragraph. Minutes later, he was on page six and his mind was in the new world created by the book he underestimated.

He briefly looked up, across the wide living room, and out into the rainy street, trying to extricate himself from the clutches of the book. He failed to note it wasn’t raining when he started the book or that the cup of coffee next to him on the counter by the coffeepot had long cooled. He began devouring the thickly layered plot. Each word seemed interminable as his eyes flashed across them, vivisecting the complexities of language and people inhabiting the pages. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the words were somehow written in a foreign language.
*

Last Saturday afternoon, Ransom went to Birdsong Books in a town over from him. It was his little secret place, one filled with books of both beauty and content. Minutes seeped past him at an alarming rate while he walked the shelves inside. It was the embodiment of how he felt while discovering new worlds inside of books.

“What are you looking for?” a small voice asked him. Ransom looked up from his shelf to see a young girl standing about five feet away from him. In her hands, she held a sloppily bound book.

“Everything,” he replied, with a smile and mischievous wink. He could already tell that the girl was interesting. Her hair was pulled away from her face and the ponytail was stuck haphazardly along the right side of her head.

“It’s a good thing I found you here. I’ve been waiting to give you this.” Upon pronouncing the words in her little musical voice, she stepped forward and extended the book toward Ransom. Without thinking, Ransom reached out and accepted it. It weighed much more than he expected. His hands cradled the sides of the book as he took it, as the pages seemed slightly loose inside it. It reminded him of the sensation of being handed a cage with a restless animal inside it.

Behind him, a book fell from a shelf. Ransom momentarily turned to see what had fallen. When he turned back toward the girl, she was gone.

“Hey!” Ransom weakly shouted. He quickly went around the shelves, only to see the owner looking at him with an odd glance.

“Yes?” asked the owner.

“Oh. Did you see the girl who went by? She handed me this book by mistake.” Ransom was certain he was being pranked. The girl certainly seemed capable of such an endeavor. The owner, although witty and personable, wasn’t the type to participate in shenanigans, however.

“If she handed it to you, it was no mistake.” The owner peered at Ransom knowingly over the rim of his glasses. The edges of his eyes belied a slight smile forming on his face.

Ransom handed him the book, and the owner skimmed through it. “It’s not mine. That much I can tell you for sure.”

The girl was nowhere to be found inside the bookstore.

After a few minutes, Ransom took the book home with him. He placed it absentmindedly on the table adjacent to the front door and forgot he had done so. Until this morning, when he awoke, certain that he had been dreaming about the girl he’d met at Birdsong Books.

In the dream, the ponytail girl sat on a bench next to him, pronouncing each word as she lovingly read a page from the book open in her lap. Ransom heard himself say in the dream that the girl sounded like she was reading out loud in italics.

The girl turned to lock eyes with Ransom. “You must finish the book! Time is escaping.” She grabbed his arm with her small fingers. In the distance, someone played a xylophone with keys tuned to be slightly off.

Ransom woke up fully energized as he started his morning routine. While starting coffee, he looked across the kitchen bar counter and to the front door. Next to the door sat the book. As the coffee brewed, he could hear xylophones, ones which sounded familiar and provocative. Without realizing he’d done so, Ransom went to the book, picked it up, and returned to the kitchen. He poured a cup of coffee and flipped open the cover of the odd book.

As he began to read, the xylophones filled his ears, and the world slipped away.

It All Started at Taco Tico

Capture

 

“It all started at Taco Tico,” is perhaps the best opening line for a personal story that’s ever been written.

When I was younger, I was a band geek. It probably saved my life – and not just in the sense it gave me relief from an otherwise certain depression and the ability to get away from my house.
On one occasion, it helped me avoid a beating.

Because my parents were negligent to a degree almost unequalled, I walked more than the average student. Until near the end of 9th grade, you would have undoubtedly failed to believe this, as I was fat, and not in the humorous Weird Al way.

After some event after school, my mom and aunt failed to materialize to pick me up. They were probably worshipping on Budweiser’s altar. I had two choices: invent Uber or start walking. On the way across the practice field, I found someone’s trumpet mouthpiece and put it in my pocket. For those souls denied exposure to band, such a mouthpiece is made of solid metal and a few inches long. I put it in my pocket so I could try to return it to the owner the next day. Unlike me, trumpeters had to pay for their own mouthpieces and instruments.

I walked up to highway 68 (now 412) and westward. By some miracle, I had two dollars in my pocket. I  went to Taco Tico, a restaurant that once was legendary among some of us in the community. The building is across from Susan’s restaurant. Everyone in Northwest Arkansas has stories about events and food at Taco Tico. I could get 4 rice tacos for a dollar. I sat and ate the tacos. This sort of thing was a luxury for me. I left to walk the rest of the way to my cousin’s house on Ann Street.

As I crossed in front of Taco Tico, something whizzed past my head and hit the pavement with a thud. I turned to see some sports car (they were all the same to me) go past, with an arm and upraised middle finger for my inspection. By the time I was crossing Carley Road across from K-Mart and in the area where Walgreens now stands, I heard someone revving an engine loudly. The corner was a gas station for years, a cracker crust pizza place, and a gaming business that seemed to be in trouble constantly.

The same reddish-colored sports car that had greeted me earlier was in the parking lot. Two idiots sat in the front with the windows down, both shouting clever insults at me. Both of them were upperclassmen. I didn’t know their names, but both were football players for Springdale.

It was obvious they weren’t on their way to a Mensa meeting. They looked like a happy couple.
I walked as close to the edge of the lot as I could. The driver gunned his engine and rolled ahead of me to block me. As I started to walk around, the driver jumped out and called me a f*g. If I were in that place and time again, I would undoubtedly tell him it was more likely he and his passenger were, given they drove around randomly at all hours, and that they looked like a happy couple. When I didn’t answer him, he took a couple of steps and punched me in the stomach and then shoved me as hard as he could. I fell backward and to the ground. I had learned through my Dad’s violence that sometimes faking a more severe reaction might save me a punch or twenty. The driver spit in my direction and headed back to his car. Not that it was important at the time, but I wondered why so many males thought that spitting added any machismo to their personality.
I started to grab a rock but instead remembered the mouthpiece in my pocket. I took it out and threw it as hard as I could manage. My terrible aim somehow disappeared in that split second as the mouthpiece left my hand and arced with incredible speed toward the car. It thunked against the small rear passenger window. The glass immediately splintered. Admittedly, I threw the mouthpiece with the intent of hitting the bully driver directly in the face.

The driver froze, and his mouth fell open. “What the…,” he started to say. Without thinking and without hesitation, I ran directly toward him. It surprised him, and as he reached out to grab me, I ducked sideways and darted around the front of the car and kept running. The driver ran after me instead of jumping into the car. I could hear the passenger yelling. Within a few seconds, I was outpacing the football player by a huge distance. I turned, running backward, and told him he should run his legs more and his mouth less.  I knew the area well and ran directly to the barbed wire fence and hurled myself over it.. I turned to see that the driver had abandoned his pursuit. He had to run back to the car before he could pursue me. I ran through the field, angling away from Carley road. It took me quite a while to run back to my aunt’s house, as I couldn’t be sure that the two idiots weren’t going to follow the roads and find me.

Despite me fearing for my life the next day at school, I had no options. Bullies were a big part of school life for students. It was pointless to tell anyone. Football players were mostly untouchable. I’d made the mistake a couple of times in junior high and then during high school of trying to “tell on” football players for some fairly dangerous behavior. It didn’t go well for me. It is part of the reason I don’t hold any of the coaches in high esteem, even those with huge scoreboards or statues with their names emblazoned on them. I don’t care that everyone seems to have other, higher opinions about the people we shared in common.
At the end of the year, the driver of the car pretended to lunge at me in the hallway. Although I flinched, I immediately and regrettably said, “I’m not your type,” as I dodged away. He wasn’t amused. The other droolers with him looked at him in almost shock. I walked away,  certain I was going to be tackled in the hallway.

More Than A Goodbye

Capture

The April day grew long and the sunlight now angled across the buildings awkwardly, blinding anyone with their head held erect. The alleys of this small town held their secrets. I watched the sun’s prisms of light for a moment, even as I pulled the door closed. Though I thought I was devoid of the ability to command my foot to press the gas pedal and depart, my body treasonously did its part.

Despite the certainty that glancing back might rend me into two unholy halves, I peered into the rearview mirror.

Behind me, he raised his arm, tentatively waving toward me as I drove away.

It was more than a goodbye.

A Case of Identity (Chapter 1)

20171019_053224

As the second client left the office with a grin of satisfaction, Clive slowly leaned back in the antique office chair, his feet splayed out in front of him, partially hidden by the ornate desk. At age forty-three, he had never expected to realize his dream of becoming a lawyer, even if it finally happened in a small place outside Walmart’s hometown. The modest storefront and all the trappings that accompanied it had cost only $2,300 for six months, not a bad price to start one’s dream. Ms. Elber, a lady between sixty and two hundred years old, offered to have the place cleaned and all the clutter removed, but Clive insisted on doing it all himself. She dropped all her concerns when he counted out twenty-three one hundred-dollar bills. Ms. Elber was accustomed to some strange tenants along main street.

Today, he made over six hundred dollars by agreeing to execute two wills. Tomorrow he would visit the county probate office and match his new clients against existing wills. Clive understood that most wills were needless and predatory. One of the client’s nephews drove his uncle to Clive’s office for the appointment that finished his day. When he asked about a will for himself, Clive handed him a simple will and told him to write it out himself and sign it with witnesses, and save himself a few hundred dollars. “Is that legal,” the younger man asked. Clive grinned. “As legal as my right to practice law. Arkansas allows for holographic wills. There are simple notes on the back of the form. Come back to me when you have an issue that’s more complicated.” Clive could see the look of appreciation on his client’s face.

Two years ago, when the idea that he might actually achieve his dream occurred to him, he had been a gas station attendant at one of the flashy convenience stores off the interstate on the west side of Mississippi. At that job, like all others, people found him to be quick-witted and inevitably tried to motivate him to be in charge or to show ambition. For Clive, none of it mattered to him. An office, a nice car, a huge group of friends; none of these drew his interest. Over the decades, he had amassed over four hundred credit hours of college under three different identities, learned five other languages, and could discuss any subject reasonably well, no matter how arcane it might seem. Clive had once pretended to attend the University of Memphis so he could be a member of the Collegiate TriviaBowl Team. He had to drop out of the team after they defeated the University of Arkansas at Little Rock 52-to-7 in their first TriviaBowl. The Arkansas team was undefeated until that contest. Even the judges at the competition seemed convinced that the Memphis team was cheating. The older judge of the two assigned to the TriviaBowl challenged Clive directly by asking him four rapid-fire questions regarding WWII. To the judge’s surprise and embarrassment, Clive easily answered the questions without hesitating. Clive controlled his urge to answer in more than one language.

Clive’s fellow Mississippians often did a double-take when Clive would answer a question with both humor and brevity. One customer who often stopped at the convenience store where Clive worked was a lawyer named John Bannon. More than once he told Clive, “You should be a lawyer!” Clive inevitably said something clever in return, such as, “Point me to the Ethics Removal office, and I’ll do it.” John always laughed at whatever Clive said in response. John told Clive that he had written a letter of recommendation for him if he ever wished to pursue a law degree.

More than once, Clive had considered moving to Virginia or Washington, both states which allowed someone to take the state bar exam without attending law school. To determine whether he could pass, Clive read several dozen law books from the State of Virginia. Using a questionable contact who worked in ‘security’ at one casino, Clive took the bar in February by posing as a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. Much to the joy of the real graduate, Clive passed the bar exam on the first try. He seemed crestfallen when told that the test was easier than expected. Clive couldn’t convince himself to do it on his own and finish with an apprentice program in Virginia. It seemed like a waste of time to possess all the knowledge but yet needlessly be required to work for free under another attorney for three years.

Clive was involved in petty crimes throughout his life. He tried shoplifting just to determine if he could get by with it (yes, he could – over and over), stealing cars and then returning them, hacking into low-level databases, impersonating bank officers, teachers, real estate agents, and undercover detectives. After a few years, he discovered that the reality of life was that anyone could do anything with a little preparation, a dash of confidence, and the right appearance. There were many times when Clive would shake his head in disbelief at how easily people saw what they wanted to and ignored anything that violated their expectations. Not once had he been caught or held accountable, even when he tried something with no preparation.

On a blistering and humid August day two years ago, Clive opened his mail and discovered a jury summons from the Desoto County, Mississippi clerk’s office. Unlike everyone else, he welcomed the opportunity to serve. He had spent many days throughout the years sitting in observation of trials, listening, watching, and learning the vocabulary and movement of the participants. Twelve days later, he was chosen to sit on the jury panel for a homicide case involving ex-police officer Curtis Burrow. Clive made it to the jury by pretending not to know much of anything and by adding a deep accent to his usual speech patterns. Clive noted that people who spoke more slowly and seemed a little dim were astronomically more likely to be picked by the prosecutor. There was no doubt that the police officer had killed his brother; both the evidence and the defendant’s face trumpeted his guilt. Nevertheless, as an experiment, Clive swayed his counterparts on the jury not to convict Curtis Burrow. When the impatient jury first voted, it was 11-to-1 to convict, with Clive being the sole juror voting “not guilty.” By lunch, it was 7-to-5. And by supper, it was 1-to-11, with the jury foreman threatening to boycott any further discussions. The foreman was the manager at a local farm equipment supplier. He felt it was his duty to protect “common sense and decency.”

The next morning, Judge Louis Jordan called the jury back to the humid, musky courtroom to talk to them about the necessity of being unanimous. Clive watched as the red-faced foreman, the last holdout for finding the ex-cop innocent, stood up and said, “We’ve decided your honor.” The judge’s face could not have registered more surprise as he sent the jurors back to register their verdict. 15 minutes later, the courtroom went silent as the foreman stood and announced, “Not guilty.” Even the defendant’s lawyer Everet Stacks seemed to have stepped into an alternate reality that bore no resemblance to the world he had expected that morning.  Everet had already wasted ten minutes telling his client to expect a guilty verdict, followed by life in prison. Both client and lawyer stood, mouths open in surprise as the judge’s gavel banged twice at the bench.

“You are free to go after processing, Mr. Burrow,” Judge Jordan told the surprised defendant. “Thank you, jurors, for your time served and your civic service.” As he banged the gavel, everyone could see him shaking his head in disbelief. The prosecutor seemed like he was struggling to find words to voice as he shakily rose from his end of the table. It was his first loss as a prosecutor in a murder case. He had already paid for campaign signs for the next election. The idea of working as a criminal defense lawyer in Desoto County frightened him. Clive approached the tables and shook both the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s hand. The ex-policeman just stared at him when he said, “You owe me one. And don’t look so guilty after you kill the next guy.”

Clive’s secret had been one he had learned over and over as an adult: listen carefully to people and plant small seeds of doubt; water them a little and the predictability of what they would do next was rarely in question. A truth bathed in multiple small lies always met more acceptance. If he could convince a jury to let a murderer walk away, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine he could become a lawyer by merely deciding to do so. As things become more complicated, most people tune out. Clive owed this cynical lesson to a series of stepfathers his mom dragged home on alternate weekends. Most of them were sociopaths with little to teach him, except for the harsh lesson about gullibility.

As Clive got up to leave his office on his first day of work in Northwest Arkansas, he turned and winked toward the back wall where both purported his law license and a framed picture of Joe Pesci from “My Cousin Vinny” were on display. It seemed too obvious, even to Clive. “Too on the nose” was the common expression. He believed in giving people a fair shot at figuring things out, even despite the risk. People would see what they wanted to, and most people assumed it was a lawyer in-joke to see Joe Pesci’s picture in a lawyer’s office.

Deciding to impersonate a lawyer was the best decision of his life, and he couldn’t wait to discover what day two might hold for him. As he turned off the lights and turned the lock to close his little storefront office, Clive had no way of knowing that he would soon find himself in the middle of a conspiracy. Against the backdrop of the small town he had chosen, it didn’t seem possible. In a year, six people would be dead. He would have a story to tell, if he lived long enough to tell it. If Clive could see the future, he’d wonder whether the headline would indicate he was a lawyer or not. Being dead had never seemed much of an inconvenience to Clive.