A meeting took place in a smoke-filled room in a back office of the Jackson City Sentinel. Marvin Rosenbush sat behind a desk, chewing on the end of a cigar. In his cowboy boots, bell-bottom jeans, and Aerosmith t-shirt, he wasn’t the stereotypical image of a newspaper editor. He looked too young both for the desk and the cigar, and to Jim—only a year younger, just as shaggy-haired and unshaven—it felt as if the inmates had taken over the asylum.
“What about the link to the voodoo group down in New Orleans?” Marvin asked. “What are they called?”
“The Seven Sisters,” Jim said. “I haven’t been able to find anything. I think it’s a hoax.”
Not many years ago, the editor of the town’s only newspaper would have been a middle-aged white man, probably bald, and wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses and a button-down shirt and tie to the office. Ostensibly, he would be a Christian, though he might hold the views of an agnostic or an atheist in private. Never would he be a person in his early twenties and never a Jew. Never a Jew! But this was different world and people were starting to do things differently, even in the South. It seemed to Jim that they were able to make it up as they went along.
Like Marvin, Jim failed to adhere to stereotypes. He was pudgy both in face and body. His hair was thick and curly, approaching a state of ‘fro, and he sported the earliest traces of a beard on the edge of his chin and jawline.
“It’s the kind of hoax that sells newspapers,” Marvin said. He swiveled in his chair in little half-circles, anchored in place by his boots propped on his desk. He blew a plume of smoke into the air above his head.
“If it’s not true then I don’t think we should report it,” Jim said.
“I see,” said Marvin. “You’re a moralist.”
“It’s just so random and stupid. I never heard anyone talk about voodoo until this week, and now suddenly I’m hearing about it everywhere.”
“Well, if it is being said, then you can report that it’s being said. That still qualifies as journalism.”
Jim shook his head as he looked down at his notes. “Okay, so what about the funeral?”
“Cover that too.”
“Right,” Jim said. “Anything else?”
“Maybe you should bring a camera.”
“To a funeral?”
“I’m hearing a lot of talk. Besides, it’s Ernie Smith’s funeral home, and that place has a sordid reputation. There’s a chance something could happen. We don’t want to miss an opportunity.”
“Don’t you think, with my complexion, I’m going to stick out enough as it is? I don’t need a camera around my neck too. Besides, the police will be there. I seriously doubt anything will happen.”
“You’re probably right.” Marvin held the cigar in his mouth, spinning it between his thumb and forefinger. “But if, on the off chance, anything does happen, we’d have a major competitive edge if we had a camera there.”
Jim was right to think he would be noticed. When he stepped into the funeral home the next day, it seemed to him that two hundred people turned their heads and stared. His was the only white face among the sea of mourners. He was the only reporter. And he was certainly the only person carrying a bulky leather haversack.
“It looks like a purse,” he’d complained to Marvin when it was given to him.
“It’s the seventies. Men where purses now.”
“Not to a funeral!” His head dropped into his hands. “Why am I arguing about this? I’m not going to carry a camera and I’m not going to wear a purse.”
“You’re right,” Marvin said. “It’s not a purse. It’s a haversack.”
Jim tried to ignore the stares as he searched through the crowd for a place to sit. Every pew in the chapel was jammed with people, fanning themselves with their bulletins.
The heat outside was bad enough, but inside the brick building, without the benefit of air conditioning and stuffed with people, it felt like he’d stepped into an oven. Or Hell. Already, water beaded on his forehead and he could feel the stains growing in the pits of his shirt. His necktie gripped him in a chokehold.
Beyond the pews, it was standing room only, with at least three muddled rows of acquaintances of the family and other assorted gawkers. Jim thought he spotted an empty space along the back wall, and he headed in that direction.
“Excuse me,” he whispered. He pinned the haversack against his back hip with his hand as he slid through little openings in the crowd. He monitored the annoyed glances and grimaces on the faces of those who allowed him to squeeze passed m, until finally he landed in a small patch of floor he could call his own. It was just beneath a stained glass image of the arch angel Gabriel.
He viewed the chapel in the space between the heads of the people in front of him. The pulpit stood on a podium on the right side of the room. On the far left side was the organ, where some invisible organist played the introductory music. In between, placed on high in the center of the back wall, hung a large wooden cross. Below that, on the floor level, where it could be viewed by the walking multitudes, was the casket. One section had been opened, so that those who could get close enough could view the deceased.
He turned to his left toward a loud clanging sound and a ripple in the crowd. Two hundred other heads turned in unison and watched as a police officer burst through the open doorway with his hand on his holster.
“It’s nothing,” someone said, waving him off. “It was just a chair.” The message passed in waves through the crowd. “It was just a chair.” “A metal chair.” “Someone dropped a folding chair,” until everyone was satisfied that there was no cause for excitement. The policeman relaxed his shoulders and removed his hand from his firearm. With order restored, he returned to his post.
“Why am I even here?” Jim wondered. “What does Marvin think will happen at a funeral? Who would sully the memory of a sixteen-year-old girl on the day she is put to rest?”
He already knew what he was going to write: people were sad, the preacher said a few words. (He would have to listen to the eulogy long enough to pull a quote or two.) Everyone paid their respects to the girl. Everyone was sad. The end. It hardly qualified as news.
As the buzz of conversation faded, Jim noticed craned necks and heads turning toward the center of the room. He bounced from toe to toe jockeying for a position to see what was going on up by the casket.
A line had formed and stretched from the open coffin to the chapel’s entrance. At the front of the line, someone wept loudly. Jim locked in on what appeared to be the mother of the deceased leaning over her daughter’s body. 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, Cassandra, back to the second or third pew, where she disappeared from view.
Without the benefit of an unobstructed view, Jim’s imagination would have to fill in the blanks. She probably fell against the red velvet cushion and covered her face with her arms. He could still hear her loud sobbing. Her husband would scoot next to her and stretch his arm around her, allowing her to bury her head against his neck and shoulder.
The Reverend. Would he even show up? 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 name the Reverend.
The common narrative was that he’d placed her under the car, lined up her neck perpendicular to the rotor, so that 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 Lucy going home to meet the Lord—but church wasn’t a part of Jim’s constitution. His mind and his eyes traveled back to the place where Reverend Baxter was most likely sitting, holding his wife—the mother of the girl he had just murdered—, but he couldn’t see anything because of the crowd.
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 Hell, 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 went through them like he was entering the Promised Land.
Then he heard something, a scream. There was a great commotion behind him, and suddenly there were more voices, more screams. There was a quick clap clap clap of gunshots. Jim ducked instinctively as he turned back toward the chapel. The doorway swelled with people. As soon as they hit the open air, their formation broke and they ran in all directions. The noise rose to a hysterical pitch.
Jim’s reportorial instincts kicked in then. “You have to go back in there,” he told himself, but for the moment his loafers remained cemented to the sidewalk. He took a breath, and forced himself to move. He would have to fight his way through the descending mob. He bounced into the current of panic-stricken mourners like a surfer wading into the ocean. All around him, people screamed and pushed and fought and elbowed passed, and for a moment, Jim felt he would be swallowed in the melee. A smaller man would have been trampled.
He made little progress until the crowd dispersed, but it wasn’t long. The chapel evacuated in less than a minute. A pair of uniformed officers waited with him, and as soon as there was room, they charged inside with pistols drawn.
Jim’s hand slid into his handbag as he made his way into the chapel. It looked like Marvin would get his picture after all.
Go to Chapter 25