After the death of his friend Taylor, Lester decided to quit the pulpwood business. The forest had a claustrophobic effect on him and stirred up memories of jungle warfare, and the sight of the Reverend stirred up thoughts of hatred and revenge.
His brother Leonard had started a truck driving operation; he worked as an independent agent to various distributors and wholesalers willing to hitch their trailers full of goods to his semi and send him hauling across the country to retail outlets. That’s how Lester started running timber from local contractors to the lumber mill.
At first, he worried that this practice would bring him in contact with the Reverend, but for the vicinity Baxter ran a comparatively small operation and contact was limited. Only three or four times during Lester’s first six months did Lester pick up a load at a location where the Reverend held the timber rights, and only on one of these occasions did Lester actually see him in person. By then, the wood had already been secured to the trailer. Lester was sitting in the cab, completed paperwork in the passenger seat beside him, when he noticed the Reverend standing beside his crew chief wearing his black suit and making sure the account had been paid.
Lester set the transmission in gear quicker than he should have, causing a grinding groan that pulled the attention of the ground crew his way. Lester tilted his head just long enough for the Reverend to see his face, and Lester watched horrified as the old devil bared his teeth and tilted back, laughing and holding his stomach. Humiliated, Lester managed to get the truck in gear. He peeled a layer of red dirt off the road as he drove away.
His first few months he made only short runs, the farthest of which was to the paper mill in Prattville, but after he proved himself competent and reliable to his brother, he was assigned long hauls to places as far away as Kentucky and Ohio. It was on one of these, just after unloading a trailer full of sweet potatoes to a regional distributer, that he received a message from dispatch to call his wife.
It was four in the morning, and he hadn’t slept the night before. “What does she want?” he asked, speaking into a hand-held transmitter. He bounced in his seat on an uneven patch of pavement.
“Don’t know, but she said it’s urgent,” the voice from the CB squawked.
Lester pulled off of the interstate at the next exit and located a pay phone at a gas station. The sky was still black with night, and there was no one else around as he slid open the door of the phone booth. He stood inside the cramped glass and metal box—a standing coffin was how he thought of those things—, patting down his pockets for dimes before he remembered he wouldn’t have enough for long distance anyway. He spun the rotary dial for the operator and placed the call collect. The phone rang four, five, six, seven times. Just as he was about to slam down the phone, he heard his wife’s voice on the other end of the line, accepting the call.
“Jan, it’s me.” He slid open the door of the phone booth to let in the breeze. He liked the northern summer climate, which was much less oppressive than the wave of humid air he would soon be wading into once he made it back to Alabama.
“Did they tell you why I called?” Jan asked.
“They just said it’s urgent.”
He could hear her take in a breath. “Lucy’s dead.”
Lester pressed his forehead against the glass. Under the light of the gas pumps, a stray dog scampered up and sniffed at one of the garbage bins. “What are you talking about?”
“They found her on the side of the road like they did Taylor and those other ones.”
“Lucy? She’s only fifteen.”
“The wake is this afternoon. It’s at our house.”
He scratched at the peeling plastic cover that had once held a phone book before someone ripped it out. A tube of metal linked it to the booth. “Our house? Why’s it got to be at our house?”
“Better to have it at the Reverend’s?”
Lester fell silent for a moment. “Lucy. Jesus Christ, I don’t believe it.”
“You coming home?”
Lester balled his hands into a fist and pressed his knuckles against the glass of the phone booth, applying restrained pressure. He wanted to smash the thing, free himself from the box he was in and send the shards raining down on his head, but he knew it would do no good.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m on my way.”
The road turned into a blur of trees and tears and highway signs, coffee and caffeine pills, and always the memories. He remembered going to his brother Robert’s house that first time after they brought home their baby girl from the hospital. Lester brought her a stuffed panda bear. “That thing’s bigger than she is,” Robert said. Lester didn’t believe it at first until they put it next to the baby and sure enough it was almost twice as big. They took a picture, and throughout the next year, whenever Lester visited they took a picture of Lucy next to the panda bear to mark her growth.
He remembered birthday parties, barbecues, and watching football games on television while the little girl played with her dollies on the floor. “This is Amanda. She likes to sing in the Thanksgiving Day parade.
“That’s beautiful, Darlin’. Just wait and show me during the commercial.”
Lester had already shipped off to Vietnam when Robert died a car crash. He learned the news in a hole in the Kim Son Valley while the rain came down the poncho he had tented over him and made a sound like popping popcorn.
According to the letter from Jan, Lucy’s mother, Madeleine, an addict all her life, was in no condition to care for the child by herself, and no one knew what they were going to do with her.
Lester wrote back saying Jan should take her in, and she did for a while, but with Lester overseas and Jan overburdened already, he hesitantly offered his consent when he learned that another relative, cousin Cassandra, stepped forward and offered to care for the girl. Cassandra had never been the most reliable person, but she was married to a good man at the time, and no one knew the extent of her problem with alcohol. No one knew that within six months of taking Lucy, she and her husband would be divorced and she would be off on an extended binge.
Lucy was the first person Lester saw when he finally came home from the war. “Daddy’s home,” he called as he threw open the front door and stepped into his own home for the first time in what seemed like forever. He tossed his duffle bag to the floor and looked around for someone to hug, and there she was, sitting on the couch, reading a teen magazine. She turned around and her face lit up, “Uncle Les!” she shouted as she spun off the couch and ran to greet him.
“Look at you, little girl. You’re all growed up.”
She jumped into his arms and it was like she was the little girl he and Jan never had. “I missed you, Uncle Les. I’m so glad you’re home.”
He hit a rainstorm outside of Knoxville. Drops splashed down on the windshield so big and so fast the wipers couldn’t keep up with them, and the road dissolved in a watery blur.
His muscles tensed up. His arms straightened and his hands ached from gripping the steering wheel. Despite the pain and discomfort, he barreled down the highway at 80 mph. All he could think was, “That poor little girl.”
It was that thought that saved him. He thought about Lucy and others like her and it occurred to him that he would be no better than the Reverend if he drove his rig through the back end of a station wagon going 40 mph through the storm. He downshifted, dropped his speed to sixty, and a good thing too; a string of taillights lit up in front of him as traffic came to a standstill. He slammed brakes and came within centimeters of tapping the bumper of the car in front of him. If he hadn’t slowed down when he did, he would have killed everyone inside.
Four hours later, tense and dazed and grumpy from the road, he arrived at his home to find his driveway overflowing with cars that stretched around the block. He had to park his semi up the street and walk.
When he opened the front door, he found a crowd of people dressed in their Sunday clothes milling about his home, chatting, and sampling casseroles. His appearance generated a slight ripple through the mob: a few turned heads, a few tilted in greeting, but mostly his presence went unnoticed.
A circle of solemn faces occupied available seating in the living room. An elderly couple eating from a prepared plate, a young boy looking uncomfortable in an oversized suit and bored out of his mind, and the back of teenage girl’s head that caused him to freeze and stare. She was sitting in the same place where Lucy had sat when he came home that day from Vietnam. For a moment, he was sure it was Lucy and it was enough to erase the misery of the last sixteen hours. Then she turned and he saw another girl’s face and the misery fell back on him all at once like a bag of cement. It was Hannah’s girl, Laverne, now looking at him with a mix of confusion and judgement, and for Lester it was as if Lucy had died all over again; at that moment he knew then that he would never see her again.
He passed through the crowded living room in a daze. A line seemed to form in front of him and he worked his way through the gauntlet, shaking hands, nodding, and mumbling short phrases without registering to whom he was speaking. The house was so thick with people, he couldn’t even get to his room to change out of his road clothes. Everywhere people were chatting, even laughing, as if this was merely another social occasion, an opportunity to get together and exchange pictures of their kids, as if a young girl’s life hadn’t been stolen away.
The dining room table was populated with casserole dishes. A line of acquaintances, extended family members, and other people he only saw at weddings and funerals circled the table. They held plates in one hand and used the other to scoop up heaps of green bean casserole and squash, and stab their forks into slices of pork loin, while they babbled on about church gossip or the end of the basketball season. Lester hadn’t eaten in no telling how many hours but the thought of food revolted him.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, and Hannah weaved around him. She scooped an empty dish off the table and replaced it with a bowl of coleslaw. She offered Lester a sympathetic glance, but before she could speak one of the men standing around the table started chatting her up about her coleslaw.
Lester stood there, soaking it all in, trying to make sense of any of it, but just shook his head and squeezed through the crowd, heading for his bedroom. He needed to get away, to find a place where he could become himself, maybe lie down for a while, but he found that his bedroom, like the rest of his house, had been confiscated.
Several people crowded around someone in a vanity chair. His wife ran up to him, wrapped her arms around his body. “I’m so glad you made it home.” She pulled back, looked at him. “It’s been crazy.”
Lester looked around the room. “I can see that.” He spotted Cassandra sitting in his wife’s vanity chair, gazing solemnly into the mirror. “What’s she doing in my bedroom?” he asked.
“I’m sorry. She was making everyone crazy. I had to get her away and this was the only place I could take her.”
He could tell by the way her head was angled that she could see him in the mirror. He walked up behind her. “Cassandra,” he said.
Her shoulders sagged dramatically and she released a self-pitying sigh.
“Where is your husband?” Lester asked.
“Went to see his lawyer,” she said. “Wouldn’t even stay with his own wife during her time of need.”
Lester shook his head in disbelief. Why would she want that man to stay with her, knowing full well—How could she not know?—that she was likely his next victim. She needed attention more than he needed her life, he supposed.
Lester turned to his wife and gave her a look to let her know he had to get away from this woman. He made it as far as the hallway, where several men approached him. Lester recognized his cousin Charley, a stocky man in a sleek gray suit and bowler hat. Charley was too old to be traveling in groups, but behind him were two of his friends from school: Wilson and Cecil.
“Lester, I’m glad we found you,” Charley said. “We need to talk.”
“Have to walk and talk,” Lester said. “Can’t get no privacy around here.”
They headed toward the living room. “I’m sorry about that little girl, Lester. I know how close she was to you. My heart goes out to you.”
Lester nodded gravely. “Thank you, brother. That means a lot to me.”
“Listen, this may not be the time to mention this,” Charley said. “This is Lucy’s wake and I hate to pull attention away from one who deserves it, but Wilson here has something I think you need to hear.”
Lester looked up at Wilson. He was a large man with a large afro, wearing a rust-colored corduroy suit. Lester knew him as one of Charley’s friends that Lester’s Aunt Charlotte didn’t want coming around the house because he smoked reefers and made inappropriate comments at the supper table.
They entered the living room and suddenly everyone seemed to need to refill their plates, as the people in the room scattered, leaving all the sofas and chairs empty for Lester and his entourage.
One child had to be pulled out of the room by the arm. “But I don’t want any more meatballs.” “You get on outta here,” his mother snapped. “Go play outside.” Only Laverne remained, sitting on the couch and listening intently to the conversation.
“Tell ‘em what you saw, Wilson,” Charley said as they settled into a set of metal folding chairs.
“Now I’m normally not the type to go around snitching on folks,” Wilson began. The men nodded. “But this here is different. This is about an innocent little girl, and that shows that he crossed a line. I ain’t scared of the Reverend. I don’t give a shit if he does worship with the Seven Sisters. I don’t give a shit if he kneels down to the devil himself…”
“Just tell the man what you saw, Man.”
“Well,” he continued, “the other night I was driving to my girl’s house, over there in Angelwood, and I came up on a car that looked like it was broken down. So, I slowed down, you know, because I’m always willing to help out a brother in need. It looked like someone was changing a tire, but as I got closer I noticed a couple things that put me on alert. There was a man bent down and it looked like someone was lying under the car, so I thought there was someone hurt, and I was definitely going to stop and help, but then I seen who it was bending over her. Now, I didn’t know it was Lucy then. If I had, I would have called you right away. I didn’t find that out until yesterday when everyone else learned about it.”
“Did you get a good look at the man bending over her?” Lester asked.
“He wasn’t wearing his regular clothes, so I didn’t recognize him at first. He only wore a white t-shirt and work pants, but when a slowed down, he looked up at me, with this crazy look in his eyes, and he motioned me to keep driving. That’s when I saw that it was the Reverend.”
“Did you tell the police what you saw?”
“I told you. I ain’t no snitch.”
“What are the police gonna do anyway?” Charley asked. Anger entered his voice. “Did they do anything to help Taylor? Did they do anything to help the man’s own brother? Did they do anything to help his first two wives, and God only knows who else?”
“They couldn’t do anything.” The other member of Charley’s entourage, Cecil, spoke up for the first time. “He’s protected by magic.”
Charley’s face contorted in disgust. “Don’t be a damned fool.” Cecil faded into the chair where he was sitting.
“Ain’t nobody protected by magic,” Charley continued. “The man is protected by ‘I don’t give a shit.’ The police don’t give a shit. The politicians don’t give a shit. Until Lucy got killed, the papers didn’t give a shit.”
“If it was a white person he killed,” Wilson ventured, “the police would have locked him up after the first murder.”
“You’re Goddamned right they would have,” Charley said. “You think they’d let a serial killer run around here all these years, just walking around killing folks in plain sight, if his victims were white?”
“No, they would not have,” said Charley. “But the powers that be aren’t interested in using their powers to save us.”
Cassandra came in, skirting around the edge of the room. She sidled up to Cecil in his upholstered chair and looked at him mournfully until he noticed her and jumped up out of his seat. “You take my chair, Miss Cassandra.”
“We shouldn’t even be talking about this in front of her,” Wilson said.
“Why not?” Charley asked. “She’s got a target on her back bigger than anyone.”
Cassandra covered her eyes with the back of her wrist and sobbed. Only one corner of her mouth betrayed the beginnings of a smile.
“Somebody’s got to do something,” Charley continued. “And it ain’t gonna be the police. It ain’t gonna be the justice system. It’s got to be one of us.”
There was a long pause as silence took over the room. Lester noticed that it wasn’t just the people in the living room—Charley and his friends, Cassandra, and the girl Laverne. The bustle of activity he’d detected when he first entered his home had ceased entirely. During Charley’s rant, everyone had edged toward the living room, and now the whole house stood still, listening, absorbing everything being said.
“You all need to get on home now,” he said. “Finish up your plates and then go. I want to thank you all for coming, but we’ve got a funeral to prepare for, and right now I’m tired from the road.”
Charley looked at Wilson, and jerked his head toward the door. Cecil jumped up to follow them. As he passed by Lester, Charley looked him in the eyes and said, “Someone’s got to do something.”
Lester slapped his cousin on the back. “I know how you feel.”
People were moving again and there was a growing buzz of conversation. People said their goodbyes and dropped off their empty plates in the kitchen. It would take another twenty minutes before everyone cleared out, and after Jan took little Robert across the neighborhood to a friend’s house, Lester was alone.
Go to Chapter 24.