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.

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