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Authors: Michael Malone

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BOOK: Time's Witness
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I stood by the door in my wet raincoat a few more minutes. At a table beside me, a young freckled woman in a blue strapless evening gown sat alone, picking without much interest slivers of meat from a turkey carcass. She had a drunk tragic look to her, but it may have just been the smeared mascara. She said, “Know who you look like?”

“Me?” I shook my head. “No. Who?”

“You know who, he goes to the train station and it's raining and she doesn’t show up, and then she walks into his nightclub, you know the one.”


Casablanca
?”

“My mom rented the video. You look like that. I mean, your raincoat.”

“He was much shorter.” I sat down at the table and ate some of the turkey. I said, “George Hall just got a stay of execution.”

“Execution?”

“George Hall. The governor granted a stay. He was going to be executed tomorrow.”

She nodded. “Oh. The black man?”

“Yeah.” We watched Randolph's granddaughter pretend to be Diana Ross. Then she said, “Hey, wait, I’ve seen you before. Like on TV? Were you on TV?”

“Sometimes I’m on the news.”

“No! It was a magazine or something.”

I said, “Right. I’m the Hillston police chief.”

She slapped my hand, presumably for lying. “Come on! Give me a break.”

“Okay. I’m an investment banker. My name's Cuddy Mangum.” She nodded, but didn’t offer her own name, and as if by way of explaining her disinterest, she lifted the tablecloth so that I could see a ruddy young man sprawled in a dead drunk sleep on the floor, his head in her lap. “I don’t want to wake him up.”

I said, “Honey, you could leave his head on that chair, drive to Charlotte, and it’d still be there when you got back.”

She wanted to know why she should want to go to Charlotte, and I admitted I couldn’t think of a reason.

In the lobby, the fencers’ dates were taking their pokers away from them because tempers had apparently run high; one guy had blood running from his nose into his shirt front; I now recognized him as Mrs. Sunderland's grandnephew, the professional skier. The girl who thought men were silly was crying.

 

 

Downtown Hillston had made it through another day, and turned off its Christmas trees and its store lights and its six blocks of neon sleighs flying without any reindeer across Main Street with Santa holding tight to his toys. Somebody was still awake at the
Hillston Star
(probably Bubba Percy), a half-dozen lonesome people
still sat waiting in the coffee shop at the bus station, the Tucson Lounge was filling its dumpster with the night's rubbish, but the rest of Hillston had gone to bed when I drove up to the wide stone steps of the municipal building, flanked by two Confederate cannon that Cadmean had arranged to have hauled over from the old county courthouse. As far as I know, they’d never been fired. Sherman bypassed Hillston to the west, missing the surrender party waiting for him on the banks of the Shocco. According to a plaque, some of his stragglers did stable their horses overnight in a farmhouse near Pine Hills Lake; it's now the fanciest restaurant in town and a favorite with the inner circle.

Above the courtroom doors in the dark marble lobby, old Cadmean shook his painted blueprints down at me. Upstairs, the holding cell was asleep and peaceful. From the poster on my office wall, Elvis looked like he was having too much fun ever to get fat and sick and die. While I was checking in with Sergeant Davies, we heard loud shouts and sobs coming from the interrogation room. Hiram said, “Billy Gilchrist on a crying jag. Seems to think they executed George Hall tonight, and he's praying for him.”

Gilchrist, a local low-life alcoholic, had gotten religion about a year ago; it hadn’t stopped his binges, but it often gave them a remorseful flavor. I said, “Come on, Hiram, drunk prayers are still prayers, aren’t they? Seems like Christ hung out with lots of boozers himself.” Turning his back on me, Davies snapped paper into his old Royal and typed away.

Unlocking the interrogation room, I spotted Gilchrist literally on his knees, banging his head on the carpet, shouting and blotto. He took a tone with the Lord that explained why Davies hadn’t been sympathetic. “God, help me, goddamnit! Where are you, you fucker!” He was about sixty, wino-skinny, bleary blue eyes, yellowish-white hair combed forward over the baldness. He stank to high heaven—or wherever his prayers were going. When he saw
me, he sobbed, nose, mouth, and eyes all running. “He put me by myself! Get me outta here! Not my fault. Can’t stand be all lone. Ostrichized. Need a drink.”

I pulled him to his feet; he was so light he flew up like a paper puppet. “Billy, you need to get yourself calmed down. Stop that bawling.” I walked him to the corner where he’d dragged the pallet Davies had made, laid him down on it, and covered him up with a blanket. “The sergeant says you think they killed George Hall tonight? Well, they didn’t. Fact is, Hall got a reprieve from the governor. A
reprieve.

He snorted back tears in jerks. “Reprieve? Not dead?”

“No. Now, Billy, you lie back. We can’t have you keeping all our other guests awake. You can leave in the morning. George Hall, is that what's got you all upset? You used to be a pal of his or something?”

But Gilchrist had abruptly passed out, snoring. Safe and sound in the sleep of the dead drunk.

Home in River Rise, a grin of a moon was laughing at A.R. Randolph's bridge over the Shocco. My apartment was freezing cold, one of the strings of colored lights had burned out on the little spruce I had in a bucket with its bad side to the picture window. Martha Mitchell had pooped in the kitchen for spite right next to the magnetized swinging door I’d had specially built so she could lead an independent life. She was upstairs in my bed, burrowed under the quilt Alice MacLeod had made for me. “I got your message, Martha,” I said. “Bitch.” She gave me a nasty look, which I returned.

Yawning, I piled suit, cummerbund, tie, and shirt back in the rental box; even the cuff links came with the outfit. In the mirror I saw a tall skinny man with thick hair the color of tobacco, a bony face, and blue eyes. One day a long time ago Lee Haver came to school with a robin's egg. She held it up near me and said, “Cuddy Mangum, this is how blue your eyes are.” From then on, I liked my eyes best of my features, though my ex-wife, Cheryl, didn’t appear to single them out as anything special. Cheryl and I had some great times in bed, but the memory must have faded fast while I was sleeping solo in a soggy minefield; it's clear that a sense of history
wasn’t Cheryl's strong suit.

History's what I study. Time's witness, Ben Jonson called it, advertising Sir Walter Raleigh's
History of the World.
History of the world. Imagine thinking you could think that big. ’Course, Raleigh never finished the story. Twelve years on death row before they cut off his head. He ran his finger along the axe blade and joked, “A sharp remedy, but a sure one for all ills.” I’ve been told I’ve got a sense of humor, but I’ve got nothing to match that sailor.

Me, I study history in small sections. Even so, it makes me think, if God's doing the best job He can, He picked the wrong profession.

Mrs. Mitchell growled in her sleep when I pulled back the covers. I told her, “George Hall got reprieved because old Cadmean died. Now, you suppose God thinks that's pretty funny, Martha?” She didn’t answer, and I slid the top book off the stack by the bed.

chapter 4

When I wake up, it's usually with relief to find out my dream's not true. In this one, they’d accidentally locked me inside the gas chamber while I was trying to apologize to George Hall. I heard the hiss of that cyanide sack hitting the acid, and then two rows of witnesses just watched while I ran around, beating on the glass windows and the green metal walls. Most of these witnesses were people I knew. Nothing moved but their eyes. Tugging against the straps of his chair, George was missing his own death, he was so upset about me.

Saturday morning the phone rang too early; by the time it was clear to me I wasn’t getting gassed, and neither—today—was George Hall, I’d said yes to everything Sergeant Caleb wanted to know without hearing what it was.

“‘Yes,’ you’ll come on downtown, or ‘yes’ you’ll call her back? Chief?”

“Yeah, sure. What time is it, Zeke? Call who back?”

“Lee Haver Brookside. It's ten o’clock. I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Caleb, farm-raised, sounded appalled.

“’Course not. I was out sanding my walkway.”

“You still got ice out there, Chief? Golly, it's about sixty degrees downtown.”

“Zeke, start over. Mrs. Brookside called?”

What she’d wanted was to speak with me “officially” about an “important” matter. Told this was my day off, she’d asked if she
could call my home to “arrange” for me to “meet her” anyhow. I was curious, eager, and oddly annoyed. “Call Mrs. Brookside, tell her the earliest I can ‘arrange’ to come to my office is three, if she wants to meet me then.”

My phone's not listed. You put some folks in jail, they’ll hold a grudge ’til they get out. Once one of them rang my doorbell and threw a Carolina pancake in my face. I got my hand up in time, which was good for my future love life, because a Carolina pancake is lye and Crisco mixed in a batter and set on fire with a dab of kerosene. It burned right through my bathrobe sleeve and left an ugly scar on my forearm.

“And, Chief Mangum, we got a college kid in here Purley Newsome brought in for going seventy in a twenty zone, driving without registration, and resisting arrest. This boy says he told Newsome he wasn’t doing more than thirty, says Newsome took his registration away from him and ate it right in front of his eyes.” Zeke Caleb, day desk sergeant, was young, rawboned, probably never been west of the Appalachians or north of the Mason-Dixon line; he had Indian blood, Indian pride, and he wouldn’t lie if you held a branding iron to his neck.

“You believe this kid, Zeke?”

“He…well…Yes, sir.”

I rolled out of bed, shuffled through the carpet to wake up my feet, and drew the drapes back on my balcony slider. Winter sun almost blinded me. “Let him go. Is he out of state?”

“No, sir. Black boy from Kingston.”

“Okay, tell him to go to Motor Vehicles Monday, and they’ll give him a new registration. You call Darlene about it.”

“What about this speeding ticket?”

“Purley's going to eat it. I want him in the squad room at 2:30, and I want an audience there too. Whoever you can round up.”

Zeke rasped out a laugh. “Ohhh, he's ’bout bound to get hinky over this. Can I call Nancy? She's off-duty, but I sure hate her to miss it.”

“Let's don’t get vengeful on a maiden's behalf, Cherokee.” I suspected Zeke of being in love with Officer Nancy White, but neither one of them seemed to know it yet. I’d had to pull Zeke off
Purley Newsome after Newsome had hung a dead cat, with sexist remarks attached, in Nancy's locker. A week later, someone put deer rut spray in the heater duct of Zeke's Chevy Blazer, and Purley's denials didn’t much convince me. (The only redeeming feature to Purley Newsome's entire character's a relative one—by which I mean his brother Otis, who's the city comptroller.)

First thing I do every morning is race fat Martha down to the river and carry her back. She hates moving, and I hate moving in the cold; maybe because my folks were always running out of furnace oil about halfway through the month, I’ve got a strong dislike to blue lips and numb toes. But we do it, then Martha goes back to bed, and I turn on the radio.

While I ate breakfast (bananas and mayonnaise, toasted), did some wash, some windows, and some bills, WNNC played me “White Christmas,” which was just wishful thinking, then took me on a quick tour “around the world,” where folks were up to their usual tricks, crawling out from under earthquakes, crashing airplanes, swapping gunshots, and pilgrimaging to Jerusalem for Holy Week. “Around the nation,” a cold snap was wiping out Florida oranges; the country's infrastructure didn’t look good; and on his ranch, the president had chopped down in person a Christmas tree his wife had personally picked out. “Around the state” today, flags would be lowered on public buildings to mourn the death of a great Tarheel, Briggs Monmouth Cadmean; Monday, Andy Brookside was going to address a convention of black business leaders in Winston-Salem; and Governor Wollston had given George Hall a last-minute reprieve. Discussing this bit of news on “In My Opinion,” local evangelist Reverend Brodie Cheek announced that Governor Wollston was a spineless worm bought off by a Jewish-financed conspiracy of black agitators, liberal sob-sisters, and secular humanists in high places—like Andrew Brookside, president of that atheist breeding farm, Haver University. WNNC said that wasn’t necessarily their opinion, and Elvis sang “Santa, Bring My Baby Back to Me.”

Justin showed up while I was tucking a sheet around the bucket I had my Christmas tree in, draping the folds to look like a snow-field and setting up Mama's old plaster crèche scene on it. A sheet
doesn’t look a damn thing like a snowfield, the crèche was tacky to start with and now had only one wise man, plus Joseph's head was broken off, but family habits die hard.

Soon as the bell rang, Martha tore out of the bedroom like the Charge of the Light Brigade, but Justin told her, “Who are you kidding?” and she took offense and went back to sleep.

BOOK: Time's Witness
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