© Dale Wiley, 2017
Other works by Dale Wiley:
There Is a Fountain (Paperback)
There Is a Fountain (e-book)
The Intern (Paperback)The Intern (e-book)
The Intern (audiobook)
Southern Gothic (Hardcover)
Southern Gothic (e-book)
The Jefferson Bible
Copyright © 2017 Dale Wiley
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We was drunk as trainrobbers by nine in the morning as we glided on down the highway heading for Mt. Vernon. It was me, my secretary Janice and little Donna Phelps. I had had the pleasure of Donna’s company the night before, but had picked up Janice before we left for good measure. Nothing like having a spare just in case. I had the top down on my red 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, and the sun was terrible hot. I imagined it wouldn’t be long before one or the other of my companions would be taking off some of those cumbersome items of clothing that they were currently wearing, and they was already plenty uncovered.
Donna kindly favored clothing skimpy enough that if a disco broke out, she would be right in style. Her cut-off shorts were right and left little to my over-taxed imagination, and the halter top told the rest of the story. Janice wore jeans and a blouse that looked elegant and timeless.
“This,” said Janice, making sure she would be compensated, “Is a helluva way to spend a work day.”
It was a glorious morning, towards the hind end of April, and the world was as green as the felt on a poker table. My clematis was goin’ crazy back at the house, and so were the magnolia blossoms, although I was highly disappointed in my attempts at orchids. They was making me look kind of shabby, and I didn’t appreciate that. I was half-beginning to think they just wasn’t going to grow in southern Missouri, and that would mean I owed a lot of apologies among my friends with green thumbs, who had been telling me that very thing for a whole year. If they didn’t work out, I would try some Rattlesnake Plantain orchids next, which were supposedly native to our region.
The year was 1978, I believe, or maybe ‘79. Donna put the Waylon Live album in the eight track, and there we was transfixed by Waylon singing Jimmie Rodgers. T for Texas, T for Tennessee. If there’s a better album in the world you tell me what it is and I’ll fight you for it. I know that one by heart, and I’m especially partial to that song, when Waylon is tellin’ you about that damned old Thelma, the one who made a wreck out of him. Waylon is playin’ those loud, syncopated lead runs all low down on his guitar, and ol’ Mooney - who once wrote “Crazy Arms,” the Hillbilly National Anthem, takes the steel lead and runs away with the thing. I can’t sing but I sure tried. Donna gave me a kiss on the cheek, and Janice looked all jealous. I pretended to tip my cowboy hat to her, which I had removed due to the convertible, and she blushed. All was good. Least, I hoped it was, because the Judge was behaving all unusual.
All I knew was that he wanted to see me, and that he was goin’ to send me to Memphis. That was all right by me: it was Friday, and I didn’t intend to work anyway. I believe that any work done on a Friday is arbitrary, capricious and communistic, and if I did much of anything other than sit around and pour a finger or two of Maker’s Mark for my lawyer friends, you can be sure it was a jury trial or something terrible important. Otherwise, I’d try to high-tail it on out, to Okie City, or Hot Springs, or somewhere where there was cold beer and warm women, my two main requirements. I have a few others, like the aforementioned good country music and the Cardinals on the radio, but a man must have his core values. Mine are cold beer and warm women, not necessarily in that order.
I guess I was half-curious, because, like I said, it was a little strange for Judge Pinnell to ask me over like this. I had gotten the message the night before: Get the hell over here when you get up, and be prepared to be gone this weekend. Sounded like my kind of assignment.
We pulled into about three parking spaces on the square, and I slithered out from behind the wheel. The girls were going to stay and play the radio and sun themselves, which was all right by me. I snuck a peek at them as I headed in. Boy, they was shiny! Donna was showing off her blond hair, somehow managing to keep that blue halter top up where the State of Missouri wanted it. Janice’s dark brown hair and darker eyes melted my heart. I always say don’t ride your breedin’ stock and don’t breed your ridin’ stock, but Janice had been hunnin’ up to me a little more lately and I just might make an exception. If you’re goin’ to make a mistake, make sure it’s a hell of a good story. Trouble is, even with that extra hunnin’ Janice made it really hard to tell if she’d really go through with it. She always played it close, and that made her all the more desirable.
I put my cowboy hat on, then just as quickly took it off when I came to the threshold of the courthouse, a marble edifice of considerable importance to me. I had tried jury trials, settled personal injury cases and otherwise been a defender of the accused in that place. A “defender of the accused” is just a defense attorney, but somebody told me that, and I just thought that sounded a lot more influential, so I adopted it into my vocabulary. The place had been built around the turn of the century, back when we could build impressive places that fit their function. I don’t think we can do that anymore. Just give us wood paneling and air conditioning and we’re all fine. My boots caused a scene every time they hit another oak stair, and I sounded like I was trailing a dozen head of cattle, but I finally made it up to the second floor, where I got to play to my audience.
I stopped in the clerk’s office and tipped my hat to all the girls. Most of them was glad to see me, but Patty still wouldn’t look at me. She was either mad or embarrassed after what had happened at my Kentucky Derby party the spring before, but she wouldn’t speak to me to tell me which.
“Eleanor, you look pretty as a lily,” I said, which made her straight out blush. I thought that for the right kind of evening, or weekend, Eleanor would be an ideal companion. She was young and still impressionable, but she held herself with the free grace of a lady. The year before, she had caked up a little, but all them cookies had slid right back off, and she looked magnificent.
“You never fail to suprise, Steve.” She said, shaking her head, but happy to play along.
“Well, let me know if I do. That will mean I am not on my best behavior, and need to be reprimanded.” She laughed at that, but her look lingered for a second too long. I needed to come back and see her again. “Maybe even spanked!” She playfully slapped me on the shoulder and I was on my way.
“Well, the judge told me vociferously to come and visit his quaint abode,” I said, waiting for them to respond.
“English please?” Eleanor loved to tweak me.
“He told me loudly to come up and complain about the Cardinals!”
I hopped on around them, towards the judge’s office.
Judge Pinnell kept an office just behind the clerks, and he barked out something or other as I knocked. He was the only judge in the circuit that rated a window air conditioner in his office, but he ran it so much that it was starting to warp the new paneling. His law school diploma sat kinda crooked, but he had moved his autographed Stan Musial picture so it could hang straight.
I came in to find him behind a dozen thick files on his desk, looking like he had just bitten into something sour. He was staring at a half-empty tumbler of scotch. In other words, things was about normal.
“Soutee,” he said, “I saw those girls out t
here. Did I say anything about bringing girls on this trip?”
“You didn’t say I couldn’t,” I pointed out, and I could see the corner of his mouth twitching, but he avoided smiling.
“God, I want to die and come back as you.”
We small-talked for a while, about baseball, and a case or two that Judge had been involved with when he was a young man. I have learned more about the law from a bunch of half-drunk judges sittin’ in their offices than I ever did from any law professor. Somewheres in there Judge poured me a drink or two (okay, it might have been three. Math was never my strong suit. Old Tom Strong once told me, he was a trial lawyer. All he knew to do was divide by three), and I kindly accepted each one of them. Can’t turn down the Judge, now can you? Whatever this assignment was, I figured it didn’t require too terrible much sobriety.
“I’ve got a problem,” he finally said.
“I do too. It’s my orchids. They ain’t a bloomin’.”
The judge rolled his eyes. “I can’t help you with that, and I didn’t ask you to come over here to talk about your flowers.”
“Well they’re shamin’ my garden anyway.”
He sighed deeply and changed the subject. “Damn it Soutee! It’s Smitty.”
I could hardly think of anyone who was less of a problem. Smitty had been the bailiff in Lawrence County for a hundred and twenty years, a nice guy who everybody liked. He didn’t mess around that I knew of, even though he had a wife even a drunk man would turn down, and went to church on Wednesday and Sundays.
“Now Judge. Smitty can’t be a problem! I’ve known him all my life. Used to shoot out street lights so him and Sandra could park. Now what could he have done?”
“The son-of-a-bitch ran off with $25,000, that’s what.”
For once, I was silent. I couldn’t imagine it. I looked at the Judge and saw he was takin’ it hard.
“What? I don’t believe it.”
“In that jury trial that Walt and Bonnaker had yesterday, there was some money from a drug deal that was evidence.” He shook his head. “Walt didn’t want the defense to have it, and they didn’t want the prosecutor to have it, because one of the issues was whether there were any fingerprints. So I sent Smitty to take it back to the evidence room, across the street. That was noon yesterday and I haven’t seen him since.”
He shook a pill out of a bottle on his desk and washed it back with some whiskey. I slammed back the whiskey the Judge had given me, knowing I would need more. This was sobering me up way too fast.
“Now Judge, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because I very much appreciate the invitation, but why in the world would you ask me to go and look for him? I’d probably take the money from him and tell him to go on to Mexico, and lie about how much I got back.”
He grinned all gnarly at me. “That’s exactly what I want you to do. I’m not gonna stand in the way of justice, but I also wouldn’t be alerting the Mexican authorities.”
“What do you think brought this on?” I asked. It still surprised me greatly.
“His paycheck or his pecker. Always one or the other.”
We was headed to Memphis because that’s all Smitty could talk about of late. His son was about the only person around our parts who ever got to play minor league baseball, and he was currently starring in his second year with the Memphis Chicks. Smitty was real proud of this and would tell everyone about Mark being there for a second year, not really realizing that wasn’t necessarily a good thing, being on the same team for two years. It generally meant you wasn’t getting’ any better, or that someone up ahead of you was gonna keep you from goin’ any farther. We just smiled and listened to all of Smitty’s stories, cause hell knows none of us had gone that far.
Judge and I had talked about was there any other place that he might be, but we couldn’t think of any. The night before, Judge had gone and visited Smitty’s wife right after she had talked to the Sheriff , talked to her real solemn, and asked her was there any place he might be. She told him the same thing she told the cops: She didn’t have no idy, that Memphis was all he ever talked about. “That car of his could practically drive itself there,” she told Judge before breaking down in his arms.
So I was headed down Highway 60 at 10:30 in the morning, potentially hours behind the Sheriff if he had gotten up and dusted off the donut flakes on his lap and headed out (which I kindly doubted) and five or six stiff drinks ahead of most Americans. Janice took out the 8-track of Merle Haggard playing Bob Wills and to give us somethin’ first rate to listen to. I think Merle sings those songs every bit as good as Tommy Duncan. That probably ain’t a popular opinion, but I sure feel it. His “Right or Wrong” sounded just as good as ol’ Bob and I’ll stand before Congress and swear to it.
We made it into West Plains and gave a salute to Jan Howard, Preacher Rowe and one of our crowned jewels, the Thin Man From West Plains, Porter Wagoner. Normally I would have stopped and had a drink, but I was on a mission and falling behind. I just still couldn’t believe that Smitty was behind all of this. I began to wonder if we were barking up the wrong tree by going to Memphis. We passed into Arkansas and right around where the road starts to get twisty around Hardy, I had an idy. I pulled over, made sure the girls didn’t need something to top them off, and went to the payphone just up from a store offering a Wilburn Brothers special t-shirt. The Wilburn Brothers are from Hardy, if you didn’t know that. But I’m assuming you do.
I called the judge’s office. Collect. Something I’ve never had to do even with the escapades I’ve pulled. He answered on the first ring, and accepted the charges.
“Judge, I’m gonna keep on heading towards Memphis, but I want you to see if you can find a number for Mark. Memphis is a big place, and I need to know what he knows.”
“I’ve got the number right here. It just rings. But I’ll be happy to give it to you.”
I was glad he was ahead of me, and wrote down the number. I tried it before I left the phone, but he was right. It rang like a salvation army pro, and I finally got back in and continued our journey.
But oh those mountains! Oh the glory! The road takes you right through all of that scenery that had handled Indians and settlers and all of those creatures that lived just beyond the lip of the road. I always wondered about the scene unfolding on the other side of the hill, maybe a hunter making a play on a spring turkey, maybe a majestic buck giving a look of deep need and animal desire to a pretty little doe who was buying what he was selling. The fall leaves that had looked so vibrant just months before had now just become a carpet for the whole thing, and that glowing green, almost gaudy in its perfection, dominated nature in those hills, making us all bow to its perfection. Or at least it did that to me.
You don’t have to get far out of Hardy, though, before the landscape changes. The verdant mountains of my sweet Ozarks home changes into the flat delta land as the path gets closer to the Mississippi River. The winding mountain roads go by quicker than you think, and then you’re left with all that farmland, the cotton fields and rice fields. Just thinking about that labor made my back hurt, but Donna was in the middle of a whiskey-induced nap, and Janice looked puzzled.
“Do you have a theory?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It just doesn’t make any sense with what we know.”
I was influenced by my surroundings. “Maybe he’s been plowing a different field down here in Memphis.” I winked for good measure.
She rolled her eyes. “I just never got any indication he had one thought of that in his head. My picture of him is probably going to Mark’s game and keeping score, just sure he had discovered heaven.”
I hoped she would say some more, so I used that lawyerly trick of staying quiet.
“I used to go to church with them, and Smitty seemed to be someone who was thoroughly happy with his life.”
Jonesboro came into view. There was a Holiday Inn on the left where I made the acquaintance of Mrs. Nancy Privett
, who I heard recently is back to being a single lady, where she belongs. I remember the way her set of pearls set on her neck, and the way she bit her lip when she wanted a kiss and knew I needed to find her number and renew the acquaintance. I saw Elton’s Palace, an old beer joint that fancied itself a cut above, a couple of streets down from the motel, and was transported to a night of drinking and debauchery that led to our night of exquisite ecstasy time I was doing a deposition on the chief of police there. We rolled through the town, but those little memories, like shots of whiskey, gone as quick as a taste but the effect still lingering, played out like a silent movie as I rolled down the road. We was only about an hour from Memphis.
I looked at Janice awful serious and told her the most important news of the day: “We’re this close to Memphis. We are constitutionally unable to play any music which is not made by the great Mr. Sam Phillips.”
She playfully tossed a wadded-up tissue at me. “What does that even mean?”
“Sam Phillips is one of the great musical geniuses of the world. He discovered my favorite, Jerry Lee along with Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash and” I removed my cowboy hat to pay the proper respects. “The dearly beloved and equally departed Elvis Presley.”
Janice made a full salute, and as the wind blew her hair and her big brown eyes held the light for a second, I could see the incredible beauty this woman possessed. I had never had the pleasure of her bed, and now, sitting with her, Donna so out of it she hardly even mattered, I realized I could fall for this woman. On one level, I fall for every woman I try to spend time with, but there was something different about her, something delightful and maybe not easily attainable. I invited her because I wasn’t sure she would lead me into her garden, and that was intoxicating. She smiled at me, and maybe sensed what I was thinking. We let the moment linger as Carl Perkins sang “Honey Don’t” like it was a command performance.
We was coming down 55 straight into Memphis. That ol’ dog track was staring me in the face in West Memphis, begging like a cheap whore for some of my money and attention. I thought about giving it some, but then that trifecta that failed for me the last time and the thought of Smitty in some sort of mortal danger kept me away. He needed to be in mortal danger to keep me from straying, but it worked. As we were almost back in town, Janice jumped back over into the back seat. Donna had been stirring, but when she woke up, she was ready to go.