Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 2

1967

Ernie sat handcuffed to a wooden table.  He wore an orange jumpsuit with a number stenciled beneath the left shoulder.  His lawyer sat across from him, thumbing through a legal pad.

“I told you,” Ernie said.  “I didn’t have anything to do with that fire.”

Melvin Little glanced up from his notes.  At thirty years old, he was fifteen years younger than Ernie, but he carried himself like a man who knew things.  

He peered over the pad at his client.  “You owned the property, didn’t you?  You took out the insurance.  You tried to collect the money.  Using another law firm, I might add.”

“Man, is that the problem?  The other lawyer?  What was I supposed to do?  You were trying to rob me.  Fifty percent of the insurance money?  Come on.”

“And now look at you," Melvin said.  "Fifty percent of nothing is nothing.”

“I told you.  I’ve got some money put away.  I’ll get you a retainer.”

“Well, besides the nothing you’ve paid me so far, you haven’t given me a lot to work with, Ernie.  Maybe if you’d stayed with me to begin with instead of going with that country-ass knucklehead, Brady, I could help you more.  Maybe if you'd spoken to me before the police found all those empty gas cans in your garage.”

“What was I supposed to do?  Throw away good gas cans?”

Melvin lowered the pad to his knee.  “Look, you did right by firing Brady and coming to me.  That’s a start anyway.”

“He said I was gonna do thirty years," Ernie said.  A vein bulged near his temple.  "For what?  I didn’t do anything.”

“Well, two little kids died in that fire, Ernie.  And I’m sorry, but you’re gonna have to do some time for that.  Maybe if you’d come to me sooner, I could’ve helped you more.”

“How much time?” Ernie asked.  His eyes narrowed to slivers.

“I worked out a deal for you, Ernie, and it’s a good deal.  It’s the best deal you’re gonna get.”

Ernie stared across the table.

Melvin glanced down at his legal pad.  “Fifteen years,” he said quietly.  He kept his face pointed at the paper, but his eyes darted up in time to see Ernie’s fists crash down on the table. 

“Fifteen years?  That’s the best you can do?”

Melvin set the legal pad on the table, uncrossed his legs, and leaned toward his client.  “Ernie, I’m the best lawyer you’re ever gonna meet.  Fifteen years is the best anyone’s gonna do for you.”

Ernie closed his eyes and breathed in deeply.  Once calm, he nodded his head.

“Hell,” Melvin said, “with good behavior, you’ll be out in seven.”

“Seven,” Ernie said. “I can do seven.”

“You’ll be alright, man.  You got friends in there.”

“Enemies too.”

“Don’t think about that,” Melvin said.  “You’ll be out in a blink of an eye.”

With deliberate slowness, Ernie blinked.

“Well,” Melvin said, “maybe just a tad longer.”

Chapter 3 posts Sunday August 30, 2015

Monday, August 24, 2015

Blood Cries Chapter 1


Blood Cries
By
Christamar Varicella

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?”
“I don’t know,” Cain replied.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
The Lord said, “What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.”
Genesis 4:9

Chapter 1
1964

A rolling gurney emerged from the house escorted by two African American paramedics.  The patient—Evan Hall, 65-years-old, originally from Montgomery, Alabama—wore an oxygen mask over his face that clouded with each irregular exhalation.  His eyes opened wide with fear.
 
“Don’t worry, Mr. Hall,” Kevin, the younger of the two paramedics, said as they rolled down the driveway.  “You’ve had a mild heart attack.  We’ll have you at the hospital in no time.”

The back door swung open and the two men lifted the gurney into the waiting vehicle.  The car was long and white, more of a hearse than an ambulance, but it served both purposes.  The side panel advertised, “Ernie’s Ambulance and Funeral Services.”

Ernie drove while Kevin attended to Mr. Hall.  Ernie popped the stub of a cigar into his mouth.  “So how old is this dude?”

“I don’t know,” Kevin said.  “Sixty.  Maybe Sixty-five.”

“Might as well take the scenic route.” 

Kevin adjusted the patient’s oxygen mask. “He’s only kidding, sir.”

“I ain’t joking, Mother Fucker,” Ernie said.  “And stop wasting all that oxygen.  That man is breathing fine on his own.”

Kevin shrugged, removed the oxygen mask.  As he turned to store the gear, Mr. Hall reached up weakly, his labored breathing audible.

“I think he has asthma,” Kevin said.

“Stop thinking and start using your head,” Ernie said.  He rolled down the window part of the way and spat out a few loose bits of tobacco.  “What’s the question you should be asking?”

“This is Mr. Hall, Man,” Kevin said.  “He used to give me candy outside the drug store when I was a kid.”

Ernie glared into the rearview mirror.  “He’s probably a child molester.  What’s the question you should be asking?”

Kevin sighed and then replied in a monotone voice, “Is he worth more to us dead or alive?”

“That man is seventy years old,” Ernie said.  “He had a good run, didn’t he?”

“I guess so,” Kevin said.

“It’d be a shame to see his family struggle with all those doctor bills.”

“I suppose.”

“And he’s got life insurance, does he not?”

“I don’t know.  Probably.”

“I know he’s got the money to pay for a funeral service because he’s already paid it.  His wife came to the shop not three years ago.”  Ernie adjusted the mirror.  “It looks to me like Mr. Hall is turning blue.  Even if he does survive, he ain’t gonna be worth much more than a plate of Brussel sprouts.”

“He does look blue,” Kevin admitted.

“If you think about it, we’d be doing him a pretty big favor,” Ernie said.

“He was a good man,” said Kevin.  “I would like to help out his family.”

“I bet they would appreciate it.”

Kevin reached behind Mr. Hall’s head and removed his pillow.


Mr. Hall tried to lift his trembling arms, but they fell to his sides.  A small cry escaped his lips, just before the pillow came down on his face and smothered him.

Go to Chapter 2


Saturday, August 22, 2015

Blogging My Next Novel


Two months ago, I started blogging again because the new Harper Lee book was out, and I felt like I had a few things to say about that and about Lee’s connection to my first novel.  

Everything I'd read prior to that decision emphasized the importance of writers maintaining a web presence, and blogging felt like a good way to check that box on my writer's to-do list.  

It also forced me to write quickly and on a regular routine.  

After posting three times a week for a mere two months, I have seen modest growth in the number of visitors to this site and in the number and variety of referrals.  But, for the moment, at least, I seem to have run out of things to say about Harper Lee.  

Then, earlier this week, I had another idea for a way to continue blogging.

I know, I know, blogging is dead.  Go back to 2005 and maybe I'll have something.  But I'm not worried about that.  This isn't about selling a lot of novels or building a massive following.  This is more about writing and publishing regularly.  It's also about improving upon my earlier work.

For various reasons, I have never been completely satisfied with The Reverend.  It wasn't the story I set out to tell, and I never thought I did the true story justice.  For years, I've had the gnawing feeling that I could have written a better novel.  

And so, after discussing the situation with my wife and with a few trusted friends and family members, I've decided to give the story another try. 

Harper Lee described Go Set a Watchman as “the parent” of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I'm hoping The Reverend will eventually be seen as the parent of my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Blood Cries after a verse in the book of Genesis.

I plan to start posting chapters this week.

While some chapters will naturally cover the same ground as The Reverend, the new book will consist entirely of new writing with a reader-friendly focus.  In other words, it will heavily feature dialogue and swift moving action.

I’ve read that it is not good practice to blog your novel.” Publishers may not wish to take a chance on previously published material and blog readers tend to be a different audience than novel readers.  In fact, people don’t go to blogs looking to read novels.

That said, I’m not planning on shopping Blood Cries to traditional publishers.  I plan to finish the book by December and then publish it myself in the spring or summer. 

Also, by posting chapters on my blog, I hope to gauge interest in the novel, gather feedback from readers, continue my new writing regimen, and continue to maintain a web presence on the off chance that it actually brings new readers to my work.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.  Look for the first chapter to post this Tuesday August 25. The chapters promise to be short and quick, so I may post as many as three per week on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays.  

If you are interested or like what you read, please subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the space provided at the top of the home page.  

I look forward to working with you.

Christamar Varicella


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Truth and Fiction at the House of Hutchinson


On Sunday, August 16, 2015 I posted a freshly written book chapter inspired in part by a description of an unreleased novel by Harper Lee.  You can find the chapter here.

Attorney Tom Radney gave the description to Charles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and to myself prior to his death in 2011. 

For further inspiration, I looked to the work of reporter Jim Earnhardt, who published an account of events that happened at the funeral where Reverend Willie Maxwell was shot and killed.  On Monday, June 20, 1977, three articles appeared on the front page of the Alexander City Outlook under his byline.  I also drew inspiration from a 2008 conversation with Earnhardt and former Outlook editor Al Benn. 

Benn inspired the character of Arnold in the chapter and his reporting for the Outlook also influenced the piece.

The chapter began with a fictional argument between Jim Easton and his editor Arnold over whether or not to bring a camera to the 1977 funeral of a young girl.  In the 2008 interview with Earnhardt and Benn, the reporters told me that a discussion had taken place, but it was decided that they would not bring a camera. 

Following the shooting, Earnhardt called Benn, who then came to the funeral home and snapped a picture of the Reverend, dead and slumped in his pew.  He showed me the picture and told me he was saving it “for when Hollywood comes calling.”

I liked the idea of starting the chapter with an argument because that is how Harper Lee began To Kill a Mockingbird and by writing this chapter I was, ostensibly,  channeling Harper Lee.

According to Earnhardt’s coverage at the time, the chapel was “hot and crowded.”  Estimates of the size of the crowd, appearing in various news outlets, varied from 200-400 people in attendance. 

In my discussion with the reporters, Earnhardt mentioned a metal folding chair causing a commotion that led a uniformed officer to charge in with his hand on the holster.  It was not Earnhardt, however, who knocked over the chair.  He did mention that he was the only white person among 400 people and he wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible.  For my chapter I wanted to establish some measure of tension right away and this seemed like a good place to start.

The reporters told me they had heard rumors about family members of the victims taking revenge on the Reverend, but they did not believe them credible. 

My family lived in Alex City at the time, less than a mile from the funeral home.  My mother told me that she drove by and saw everyone outside on the lawn.  She also told me that a woman who worked for our family said.  “I almost went to that funeral.  I thought they were going to kill him at the cemetery.”

Earnhardt’s article entitled “Maxwell gunned down at funeral,” described Mrs. Maxwell’s display of grief. “Mrs. Maxwell, overcome during the viewing, was led back to the red-velvet pew where she had listened to the eulogy.  Her husband cradled her head in his left arm.  He had a handkerchief in his left hand, a fan in his right.”
According to the same article, the man who shot Maxwell, Robert Burns, was apprehended by police officers Ennis Berry and James Ware.

The same article quoted a relative of Ellington’s as shouting “You killed my sister and you’re gonna pay for it.”


Although it did not appear in newspaper coverage at the time, according to the transcript of the jury trial of the State of Alabama vs. Robert Burns, following his arrest, Burns was heard saying, “I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again.”  The statement was ruled inadmissible.  The prosecutor continued to try and find a way to get the jury to hear the statement, and became a source of contention between the district attorney and the attorney for the defense.  A bout of shouting and name-calling ensued.  

Monday, August 17, 2015

An Open Letter to Marc Maron


Dear Marc,

Congrats!  No, not for your success; that only makes you marginally special.  You deserve congratulations because, according to my calculations, you’re the new Oprah Winfrey.  You did it, Man!

As you may recall, Oprah emerged from humble beginnings.  She worked as a weather person before moving to California, starting her own talk show, attracting a huge following, incorporating and expanding into additional properties, and accumulating a massive amount of power.  With a single word, she could elevate a book to bestseller status or bequeath a new car to every member of a studio audience. 

Oprah retired some time ago.  The last I heard, she had ascended to heaven on the back of an angel.  Don’t worry, she isn’t dead.  She winters there, and the angel was purchased from a private collection.

For a while, the void of the O vacuum was filled by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but they could only do so much, and now they've moved on to do other things.  It's up to you.

So far, I have been pretty impressed.  You landed President Obama and Ian McKellen in the same week.  Those guys are definitely O-level guests.  And now, every time I turn on the TV, you’re there, yammering on about something just like O used to do.

There’s only one thing left to do now.  We need to test your power.  I think we should select a little-known author, have you plug his book, and see if the book becomes a bestseller.  I know of the perfect candidate.  His name is Christamar Varicella (no relation), and he wrote a book called Dinosaur Ghost.   

Dinosaur Ghost is kind of a cross between a sci-fi parody and a satire of republican politics. The story goes like this: Dinosaurs come back from extinction and start eating republicans.  But why?  Is it because of the republican stance on fossil fuels (fuel made from fossils!) or does it have to do with what really killed the dinosaurs? (Gay marriage!)
  
All you have to do is to go on your show, say you read the book, you loved it, and you are making it your first and final selection in your book club.  Let’s see what happens, shall we?

Your friend,


Christamar Varicella

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Channeling Harper Lee

Last week, I wrote about the found manuscript pages of a crime novel that some are attributing to Harper Lee.  An Alabama attorney was quoted in the piece, describing how Lee intended to begin her story.  Since we may never get to read Lee’s version, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take that basic premise and synthesize it with information I gathered while researching another book on the subject.  This is a draft, so if you have thoughts or suggestions, please let me know in the comments section. On Thursday, I will provide a breakdown of what is truth and what is fiction, and where I obtained my information.  CV

The Reverend

By Christamar Varicella

When Jim Easton stepped into the House of Hutchinson, two hundred people turned their heads and stared.  He would have preferred a less conspicuous entrance into the funeral home, but, upon reflection, no other outcome seemed possible. His was the only white face among the sea of mourners; he was likely the only reporter; and he was certainly the only person carrying a bulky leather haversack.  

“I knew it,” he thought.  “I never should have brought my camera.”

Jim had been assigned to cover the event for the Journal, but the idea of taking photographs had been a topic of disagreement with his editor, Arnold. 

For Jim, the matter was simple.  “I can’t take pictures. It’s a funeral.”

“But what if something happens?”  Arnold asked.

“It’s a funeral.  The thing that counts has already happened.  Besides, I don’t want to be the inconsiderate asshole that brings a camera to a funeral.”

“So, put it in a briefcase.  No one will ever know, and that way you will have it if you need it.”

“I don’t have a briefcase.”

“So, we’ll find you something.”

What Arnold found was a beat-up leather satchel.
 
“I can’t wear this,” Jim said.  “It looks like a purse.”

“This is 1977.  Men carry purses now.”

“Not in Alabama.”

“Well,” Arnold said, already backtracking, “that’s okay because this is not a purse.  It’s a haversack.  Military guys use them all the time.”

Jim stared at his editor, but decided further argument was futile.

Now that he was in the funeral home, he wished he had continued to argue.  He felt a hundred pair of eyes scrutinizing his every movement.  He could hear the whispers in his mind if not his ears.  “There’s that white reporter.  What’s he doing here?  Who does he think he is?”

“Excuse me.  Pardon me.  I’m sorry,” he whispered as he shuffled and bumped his way through the crowd. 

It was a hot day, even by southern standards, and air conditioning was nonexistent in this part of town.  People fanned themselves with their bulletins as they listened to solemn organ music.  Water beaded on Jim’s forehead.  He could feel the sweat stains growing in his armpits.  His necktie gripped him in a chokehold. 

Finding an empty patch of floor against the back wall, he honed in on an unfolded metal chair leaning against the wall.  Seeing no reason to suffer through the service standing, Jim reached for the chair, meaning to quietly unfold it and then settle into invisibility, but instead the chair slid from his hand, skidded across the hardwood floor, and clanged down like a fire station alarm bell. 

For the second time in five minutes, two hundred heads turned to stare at him.  Officer Josh Stevenson, one of the police officers dispatched to the scene to maintain order, burst through the doorway with his hand on his holster.

“Sorry,” Jim said, waving first to the crowd and then to policeman.  “It was just a chair.”  He carefully returned the chair to its leaning position.  “I guess I’ll stand after all,” he said to no one in particular.  Stevenson’s eyebrows furrowed in judgement.  He lingered for a moment, making his disapproval apparent, and then returned to his post just outside the chapel doors.

For the last few days, rumors had been floating around suggesting that one or more of the victims’ family members planned to deliver vigilante justice unto Reverend Baxter.  Jim received three separate tips, each claiming that someone planned to shoot the Reverend at the cemetery and then shove his body into the open grave.  Of course, such an act of revenge would have been most disrespectful to the sixteen-year-old girl now displayed in a casket at the front of the room, the person everyone had, ostensibly, come to show their respect for today.  No doubt Mary Anne Harper would not have wished to spend eternity with her murderer sprawled atop her casket.  

Jim rarely subscribed to rumors or conspiracy theories.  The claims of voodoo hadn’t held water and he doubted these revenge fantasies did either.  These were not sophisticated city people.  They were country folks.  Their imaginations sometimes got the best of them.

Looking through the crowd, Jim found the casket at the front of the chapel just below and to the side of Reverend Tisdale’s pulpit.  A line stretched from the open coffin to the chapel’s entrance.  At the front of the line, the mother of the deceased leaned over her daughter’s body and wept loudly.  She wore a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, with a black scarf twisted around her neck.   She was theatrical in her grief.  She threw herself into the casket and wrapped her arms around the girl.  “My baby,” she cried.  “Oh my poor baby.”

No one should ever have to bury a child, Jim thought.  His own mother had said the same thing to him after they put his brother in the ground.  His eyes followed the woman—Ophelia was her name—back to the third pew.  She fell against the red velvet cushion, and scooted next to her husband.  Reverend Baxter stretched an arm around her, allowed her to bury her head against his neck and shoulder.

The Reverend.  Jim could hardly believe he’d had the nerve to show up, but on second thought, of course he did.  He’d always maintained his innocence.  But if you asked a hundred people in town who was the man that placed that girl under the axle of a ’74 Lincoln Continental, ninety nine of them would have named the Reverend.  They’d say he placed her neck perpendicular to the rotor so it practically took off her head when he kicked away the jack stand, and the car came crashing down on her.  In all likelihood, she was already dead by then, strangled or suffocated.  Nobody goes under the car to change a tire.

As the last of the line finished paying their respects, the other reverend in the room, Reverend Tisdale, began his service. 

“This is the hard part,” Jim thought, “Paying attention to a Baptist minister during a sermon.”  He tried to focus on the words coming out of the preacher’s mouth—something about Mary Anne going home to meet the Lord—but church wasn’t a part of his constitution.  His mind and his eyes traveled back to Reverend Baxter, sitting there in the third row, holding his wife—in all likelihood the mother of the girl he had just murdered.  Occasionally, he patted his forehead with a handkerchief.

Jim rubbed the sleeve of his jacket across his forehead and sent drops of saline raining down to the floor.  “That’s it,” he thought.  “I’ve had enough.”  If Arnold wanted someone to suffer through a sermon in Hades, he should have done it himself.  Nothing here was newsworthy.  As quietly as he could, he slipped through the crowd and headed toward the exit.  The front doors were propped open to let in a breeze, and Jim looked to the entering sunlight as a passage to salvation.
 
A sudden jostling of the crowd caused him to fall against an elderly woman.  As he apologized and struggled to right himself, he became aware of a commotion behind him.  “Uh oh,” Jim thought.  “This is it.”

He would find out later that a relative of the girl who had been sitting on the front row—Jim hadn’t even noticed her—suddenly jumped up and turned to Reverend Baxter.  “You killed Mary Anne,” she screamed, “and now you’re gonna pay.”

Everyone scattered. Even Ophelia pulled away from her husband as a man on the front row—a man in a green suit—followed the lead of the screaming girl.  He stood up, produced a pistol from the inside pocket of his jacket, calmly turned toward Reverend Baxter, and fired three bullets in quick succession.

The room exploded in pandemonium.  People flooded toward the exits, scrambling over each other and knocking over flower arrangements in the stampede.

Jim, who had turned back toward the eulogy after the girl screamed, suddenly found himself in the path of a descending mob.  His reportorial instincts kicked in and he fought his way against the current, bouncing up and down like surfer heading into a stiff wake, but instead of waves he faced a torrent of panic-stricken people in their Sunday finest elbowing him as they desperately fled the mêlée.  Jim fought his way through the multitude and headed toward the smell of gunpowder.

“What the hell am I doing?” he thought as he fought toward the shooter.  “Am I crazy?  What am I going to do when I get there?”

A pair of uniformed officers, pistols drawn and pointed toward the ceiling, flanked him on either side and then surged ahead of him.  Probably best to go in behind the police, Jim thought.

A woman screamed as she ran by, shielding a child with her arms and head.  “Don’t let them hurt my baby!”

Another woman managed to swing open one of the windows and was trying to crawl through to safety.  Her legs, stubby little ham hocks, were kicking in the air as she became lodged in the crevice. 

Reverend Tisdale ducked under the pulpit, but the organist, Jim suddenly realized, continued to play.
Jim’s hand slid into his handbag as he made his way down the back pew. 
All of the mourners and spectators were gone now, and only one figure remained among the long benches.  Jim focused on the slumped body, its head pointed up to the ceiling, staring with lifeless eyes.

 Jim pulled out his camera, and began turning the wind lever.  The two police officers had descended on the man in the green suit.  His arms were already behind his back.  One of the officers was saying something to him.

Jim came down the aisle, slowing down at the third pew.  He looked at the dead man.  His long face was streaked red.  A little stream had opened up from a hole beneath his left cheekbone.  The blood red down and then turned left at the pencil mustache, detoured around his mouth and down his chin.
Jim looked from Baxter to the man in the green suit.  He was calm now; he wasn’t even breathing heavily.  “I’m glad I did it,” said the man.  “And I’d do it again.”


The police officers shoved him forward.  They had already exited into the afternoon sun when Jim remembered that he had forgotten to take his picture.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

It Began with a Phone Call in the Middle of the Night


In last Thursday’s Post, I wrote about the “found” manuscript pages some are attributing to Harper Lee and how I believe those pages were actually written by Tom Radney, the Alabama attorney who enticed Harper Lee to Alexander City in the 1980s to research a crime novel centered around one of his clients.  According to news sources, the four pages of manuscript describe the first phone call from the infamous Reverend Maxwell to the attorney who would keep him him out of jail despite the suspicious deaths of five of his family members.  Today’s post includes an introductory quote from Radney, followed by an exerpt from my novel, The Reverend. – Christamar Varicella

“Let me tell you what I think you need for a start as far as my involvement with Reverend Maxwell.  I had never heard of Reverend Maxwell.  I got a call about two in the morning, which is not unusual in law practice.  Somebody’s in trouble, they call you.  And he called me.  He said, “Mr. Radney, they’re down here at my house accusing me of killing my wife.  Would you come down and help me?” … I said, “Reverend, I don’t know you,” and I said, “I have to have a down payment.” – Tom Radney, former attorney of Reverend Willie Maxwell, in a 2008 interview.

June 29, 1969
3:43 am

The bleating of a rotary phone lifted Melvin Little from a deep sleep. 
“What?” he grumbled. 
His wife jabbed him in the ribcage with the receiver.  “You have a phone call.”
Blinded by the light of the bedside lamp, Melvin rolled over and squinted at the clock on his nightstand.  “Good God, is that the time?” he asked, but his wife had pulled the covers up to her chin.  Her breathing settled into a steady rhythm. 
“Hello,” he muttered into the phone.
“Is this Mr. Little, the attorney?”
“Yeah,” Melvin answered.  His eyes were closed again.  By his half-conscious reckoning the stranger’s voice belonged to a colored man. 
“This is Reverend Baxter.  I’m at my house.  The police are saying I killed my wife.”   
Melvin vaguely remembered the name, but couldn’t picture a face.  He sat up and wiped his eyes, trying to adjust them to the light.
“Why’d you call me?” 
“I need a lawyer, Mr. Little.  They say if you’ve been accused of murder, you’re the man to call.”
Melvin smiled.  “Is that so?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“Have you been charged?”  His mind, like his vision, came into focus.
“The police are searching my home.  I think they’re going to arrest me.  You have to help me, Mr. Little.  I did not do what they’re saying.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss.  Do you have any money?” 
“My wife had an insurance policy.  I could pay you with that.”
“How much is it worth?”
“The policy is in my name.  It’s for eighty thousand dollars.”
“I’ll take half.”
There was a pause at the other end of the line. 
“Yes sir.  That will be fine.” 
“Where are you?”  He flipped back the covers, swung his legs off the side of the bed.  His feet searched the cold floor for his slippers.
“Do you know where Highway 11 and 22 cross?”
“Yeah.”
“I live about a mile east on 22.”
“Don’t say anything until I get there.”
Melvin dropped the phone on his sleeping wife.  “I have to see about something,” he said.  Doris snored as he made his way to the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, he located the crime scene.  A pair of squad cars from the sheriff’s department and two belonging to state troopers—all with blue lights flashing—lined each side of the two lane highway.  He parked behind a trooper and stumped up the driveway.  This must be Baxter’s house, he decided.  He slowed his gait as he passed a brick house with newly painted trim and white shutters in the windows—a house befitting a preacher.  The lights were out, so he continued toward the crossing beams of flashlights floating in the trees up ahead.  When he reached the back of the house, he glanced over at the purple Lincoln town car parked in the wraparound driveway.  It had a retractable roof and white leather interior —a flashy car for a man of God.
Melvin stepped into the wooded area behind the house.  His loafers weren’t built for the great outdoors, and his left shoe became entrenched in the mud.  “Goddamnit,” he barked.  He wobbled precariously as he navigated his foot back into the grip of leather.  He cursed again as he examined his clothes in the early morning light.  There was mud all over the cuffs of his favorite slacks.  “Somebody should have told me I’d be wading through this slop.”
He fought his way through the woods, following a line of yellow police tape that marked the victim’s final path until he found his way to the clearing.  Up ahead he could see a group of uniformed officers gathered around a pecan tree whose limbs sagged under the weight of several hanging bundles. 
An officer noticed him stumbling out of the forest and came up to meet him.
“What the hell are you doing out here, Melvin?”
“I came to make sure you boys weren’t planting evidence.”
“Aw, Melvin.  You know we wouldn’t do that.” 
Sherriff Ford nodded and gestured toward the pecan tree.  “Hell of a thing,” he said.  A toothpick jutted through a gap in his teeth.
Melvin heard a gentle crackling sound, like raindrops dropping from the leaves after a rain shower.  “What’s that in the trees?” he asked. 
“See for yourself.”
Melvin ventured closer.  His mouth dropped open as he came close enough to distinguish the suspended objects.  Half a dozen headless chickens dripped blood into little pools along the base of the tree. 
“Looks like he killed the nigger woman first,” Sheriff Ford said cheerfully as he walked Melvin through the crime scene.  “Then he started wasting fowl.  Chopped their heads off on that little stump over there then strung up the bodies like tinsel on a Christmas tree.”   
Two deputies, who had been standing in front of the victim puffing cigarettes and chatting absently, stood aside so Melvin could view the gruesome spectacle.  His gaze shifted from the dead chickens to the woman below.  A black woman, around forty, with her arms tied down at the waist, sat motionless against the base of the tree.  Her eyes were wide and empty of life.  Her body was punctured with numerous stab wounds.
Melvin curled his nose at the sight.  “What’s her story?” he asked. 
The Sheriff flipped open a small notepad.  “Her name is Shirley Baxter.  Thirty nine years old.  Unemployed.  Married at the time of her death to the good Reverend William Baxter, currently in custody.” 
“That’d be my client,” Melvin said.  He put his hands behind his back, paced a circle around the tree as he meditated on the circumstances, momentarily forgetting the raining blood, which now splattered down on his foot.  He lifted his foot into the air and scowled.   
The representatives of law enforcement chuckled merrily.  A deputy shook his head.  “You should’ve worn your huntin’ boots.”
“I paid forty dollars for these loafers.”
“What’s a matter, Melvin?  You act like you’ve never seen a voodoo killin’ before.” Sheriff Ford said.
“Is that what this is?”
“That’s what the colored folks are saying.”
“Are they now?”
“They are indeed.  They say our chief suspect is a practitioner of the black arts.”
“This is the first I heard about voodoo.”  It surely would not be the last.
Melvin turned to the sheriff.  “You say you have the reverend in custody?” 
The sheriff dropped his toothpick on the ground and then pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket.  He was a big man with a belly like a bass drum.  He lit his cigarette with a Zippo lighter and then blew a stream of smoke into the air above his head.
“I wouldn’t show him the respect of calling him reverend, but yeah, he’s in route to the jailhouse as we speak.”
“What’s your evidence?”
“The rope came from a hook in his shed.  There’s another coil just like it.  Found a hunting knife under his bed.  Looks like a match.”
 “What about motive?”
The sheriff waved his hand dismissively.  “Aw Melvin, you know how these folks are with their women.  He was probably running around with another gal, and when she raised a stink, he put her on the butcher’s block.”
“Along with all them chickens?”
Sheriff Ford coughed and spat on the ground.  “Who the hell knows?  Probably some crazy pagan nonsense brought over from Africa.”
“How can you be sure it’s the same knife?”
The sheriff pointed at the corpse.  “The blade looks to fit them holes, but we’ll have an examiner test the body. Also, there’s a GBI man on the way out here to look over the crime scene.  He’ll probably have his people double check.”
“What’s his name?”
 “Detective Abel.  You know him?”
“I see him around from time to time.  He’s testified against a few of my clients.” 
Abel was as capable as his name implied.  He’d worked for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for several years and had earned a solid reputation for detective work.  Melvin hoped the sheriff and his boys would disrupt the crime scene and destroy any other evidence Abel might find.  He turned to go, but the sheriff stopped him cold with a line intentionally delivered to sound like an afterthought.
“We also have an eyewitness.”
“The hell you say.” 
“Saw him coming out of the woods half naked with a shovel in his hand not four hours ago.” 
“Where’s the shovel?”
“We’re looking for that.”
“Well, let me know when you find it,” Melvin said as he wandered toward his car.  He looked calm, but in his head he cursed this horrendous piece of luck.  The prosecution had, in all likelihood, the murder weapon and enough circumstantial evidence to convict his client.  It didn’t help matters that the Reverend was black and the jury would be chosen from a pool that was majority white.  If Baxter copped a plea, the insurance wouldn’t pay out on the policy. 
Melvin berated himself for taking the case in the first place and vowed never again to agree to anything before having at least one cup of coffee. 


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

MFA Highlights:The Hot Dog Story


Every night of my first ten-day residency at Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing program included an impromptu party on the second floor of the Seelbach Hotel.  There, students and faculty, poets and fiction writers, best-sellers and wannabes alike would sit and talk and drink bourbon and listen to one of the poets play rowdy songs on an acoustic guitar. 

Nine out of ten of those nights, I reluctantly abstained from the festivities.  I had work to do, a strict schedule to follow, and it was all I could do to meet my obligations, but there was one night—only one—that I allowed myself to join in the fun.

I don’t remember much about the evening other than the exhilaration of communing with my fellow students and with an assortment of accomplished writers that included the author of a national bestseller, an Oprah pick, and a recently-nominated finalist for the National Book Award.  Oh, and I remember lots and lots of drinking.

The next morning, I lay in my hotel room with red eyes, a crushing headache, nausea, and an upset stomach.  The entire program was scheduled to take a field trip to the Glass Factory that day—I forget why; it had something to do with exploring other modes of art—but I chose instead to put a pillow over my head and pass the morning in the fetal position.  Once I felt well enough to stagger out onto the street, I found a burger pit and finished off my lingering hangover with a quarter-pounder and a plate of fries.

After an uneventful afternoon, my grease binge continued at the university dining hall where I went for one of my prepaid dinners.  It is important to note that it was foot-long hot dog night.

I set my backpack down at an empty table and headed for the buffet line.  After filling my tray, I headed back to my designated spot where I hoped to read a book and quietly eat my meal, but as I scanned the lunchroom for my table, I discovered something horrifying.  Sitting across the table from my backpack was Sena Naslund, co-founder of my program and the author of several books, including the international bestseller, Ahab’s Wife.  

Now, maybe it was the fact that I was seeing her through the eyes of a student, but in my mind Sena had acquired certain mythic qualities. She was a genius—a guru of sorts—who had ascended into the upper echelon of literary society, where she could enjoy the company of the rich and famous alike while being idolized by her students.  It did not occur to me that maybe she was a very down-to-earth person, who, like me, just wanted to have a nice dinner in the cafeteria on foot-long hotdog night.  

Since entering the program, I had not yet had so much as a simple conversation with Sena, but as I stood frozen in the middle of the dining hall, contemplating whether or not to abandon the backpack my late brother gave me as a high school graduation present, I realized that this would certainly be the day we finally exchanged words.  All I could think was, “Oh crap.  This woman is going to ask me about the Glass Factory tour.”  One bit of luck was on my side: Sena seemed deeply engaged in conversation with another student.

I quickly formulated a plan.  I would sit down at the table, eat my foot-long hot dog as fast as I could, and then basically run like hell from the cafeteria before she had a chance to say hello.  I didn't say it was a very good plan, but it was the one I followed.  I sat down and immediately began stuffing hot dog into my mouth as fast as humanly possible.

I had maybe three quarters of it in my mouth before Sena finished up her conversation, turned to me, and said, “So, what did you think of the Glass Factory tour?”

I paused mid-chew.  My cheeks bulged with a reservoir of bun and pig parts.  Helplessly, I looked across the table and found another first-year student.  Sena continued to stare at me expectantly. There was only one thing to do.  I gestured to my overflowing mouth and then across the table to the other student.  Sena followed my cue.  Politely turning her head, she transferred her question to me to the other person. 


With her attention redirected, I finished the rest of my hot dog and then quietly slipped away.