Phillip McMath


fisherG5.jpg (35941 bytes)It was the middle fifties in New Bethany, Arkansas—a Delta town, small and agricultural. A red brick courthouse, squaring four streets of ramshackle stores, was defended by Civil War cannon and a Confederate stone soldier of weathered gray standing at attention in that frozen immortality of all such monuments.

Unnoticed, a young, slightly heavy-set lawyer trudged through the August heat toward the courthouse’s front door. He entered a main corridor running straight through end-to-end. As always, he encountered a certain smell—oil mixed with dust and rotting wood. The floor was brown-stained wood, the walls wood, then halfway a faded blue plaster covered more wood that went up to a high ceiling. Pinned against these walls were personal announcements, community alerts, legal notices, recruit posters, FBI mug shots and two dusty picture frames—black and whites of dead Judges bequeathing their frowns to the citizens of Wattensaw County.

Of course, there were offices—set like large doorless cells: Auditor, Sheriff, Tax Collector, County, Probate and Circuit Clerks. The courtroom was upstairs. The Circuit Judge was in and things were crowded. It was not difficult to tell who belonged. Those that did, stood or sat in the offices or courtrooms, or walked in the halls, with that tired smugness of all small-town power. Those that did not sat on benches, smoked, stared, shuffled, lingered, walked and talked tentatively, shyly, unobtrusively, in and out of those same halls, offices and courtrooms with the self-conscious restlessness and quiet bewilderment of the powerless.

The lawyer ambled down the corridor. He wore a rumpled blue suit and carried an old leather briefcase. He was late. He was unsteady, sweating and avoided looks as he headed for the stairs.

“Ryan?” a skinny white man yelled out, emerging behind him through a doorway.

“Yeah,” said the young lawyer, glancing back but not turning around.

“Judge wants you!”

“I know.”

“He’s been waiting,” said the man, following him to the foot of the stairs.

“I know, I know,” said Ryan, huffing up slowly to a landing, which turned him around in the direction of his tormentor.

The man followed but did not ascend. He was bald and middle-aged with wire spectacles. He smiled sardonically, with obvious malice.

“He’s got a case for you, Ryan,” he added, in a mocking tone, emphasizing the word “case” as if it were the dirtiest word he knew.

Ryan paused on the landing, looking backwards. He was now facing the man and hallway of people, all staring at him. He had wanted to pass through unnoticed, but now there was an audience.

“I know . . . I know . . . he called me at home.”

“You’re appointed,” added the man, ramming the point hard as he could.

“I know,” Ryan repeated tiredly; barely audible.

The man laughed.

“Got yourself a big case . . . sure have . . . a big’un,” the man said, looking over the crowd for approval.

Ryan stood mute, out-of-breath, his face flushed. He wiped his forehead with a dirty handkerchief fumbled from a pocket.

“Big case . . . hah! Nigga case, nigga stole a truck,” said the white man. He laughed again, his laughter echoing down the hallway.

“I’ve gotta go,” said Ryan, looking away, then going up the stairs, stuffing the handkerchief in his coat.

“Reckon we’ll need a jury, Ryan?” said the man loudly, craning his neck, watching the lawyer disappear. Then he turned, grinning proudly back down the hall, sharing his triumph with expressionless faces whose eyes followed him till he disappeared through the doorway again.

Ryan huffed up to the second floor. There was a clump of lawyers standing, smoking and talking near the landing. Ryan mumbled and went past them and through double doors into the courtroom. It was packed, hot and stuffy despite the high ceiling, the open windows and fans creaking.

“Ryan’s here, your honor,” someone said proudly.

Ryan ambled with little short steps past the bar’s swinging doors to another group of lawyers hovering in a cluster like hard-back beetles over a morsel of manure.

“Mr. Ryan!” said the judge in obvious irritation.

“Yes, sir,” answered Ryan quietly, the wad of lawyers opening for him to pass, then closing, diverging, then coming together again like a swarm.

“Mr. Ryan,” said the judge again.

“Yes, sir,” said Ryan, louder.

“The Court has been waiting, Mr. Ryan.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Ryan, coming up to the bench and leaning against it.

Judge Saunders: He had been appointed to fill a vacancy; was not from the Delta, but from the Ozarks and spoke with a twang rather than the soft Southern lilt of East Arkansas; was short, fat, with a round, pink face. In his robes he looked even shorter, fatter and pinker. Now he leaned over, getting closer to Ryan, emerging like a marsupial from a black pouch.

“Mr. Ryan, you’re late,” he said.

Ryan leaned forward, their faces inches apart.

“Yes, your honor, but...”

“Just have a seat and I’ll take you last,” interrupted the judge, motioning to the jury box where more lawyers were lounging in fatuous self-satisfaction.

Ryan turned meekly toward the box.

“Don’t leave till we get to you,” added Saunders.

“Yes, sir,” said Ryan, shuffling over, trying not to step on toes as he found a seat away from the others—alone near the open window.

It was busy. One-by-one prisoners were brought forward. They were pled, bonded and deferred for sentencing, or plead not guilty, and were set for trial. They were old and young, black and white, had friends and family, or none. Some were remorseful, some defiant and others apathetic. All were poor—powerless.

The judge frequently asked for names. Ryan sat impassively—not smiling or laughing. He was hot, sticky and sick. He wanted nothing more than to go home.

After an hour there was a recess. He waited. When everyone had left, he walked into the hall, slipping into the restroom. Entering a stall, he locked the door, sat when he didn’t have to, and opened his briefcase. There, among crumpled papers, was a pint of vodka. He drank heavily, put it back, came out and chased it with tepid, rusty-tasting tap water sucked out of his hand. Then returned to an empty courtroom. He sat again. A breeze struggled with the oak outside, then slipped through the window into the room. The air and drink mixed and, for a moment, everything was all right again. Ryan closed his eyes and searched for sleep. The sickness evaporated.

“Mr. Ryan!” said the judge.

Ryan opened his eyes.

“You’re next,” he added, crooking his finger.

Ryan got up and shuffled over.

“Yes, sir,” he said, leaning against the bench.

“I’m appointing you on this case.”

“Yes, sir,” said Ryan quietly.

“Read it,” said the judge to the clerk seated at a table to his front left, where a small nervous woman with thick glasses, wearing a faded cotton dress, fumbled through papers.

“The State versus Ephraim M. Gillmore,” she said meekly, barely getting it out, then gave a number, scribbling assiduously as she finished.

“This the last one?” asked the judge.

“Yes, sir,” she said, again just audible, looking away.

“Where’s the defendant?”

“He’s coming now,” said the prosecutor, a tall man named McPherson, who loomed over the clerk’s table in intimidation.

The judge surveyed the room. Some few lawyers remained. They smiled and whispered. Then the door opened and a black man was brought in by a white deputy. The prisoner wore orange prison clothes and was handcuffed. He was guided forward, past the bar, through the little swinging doors and up to the bench. He was medium built, with dark shiny skin and curly hair with flecks of gray. He was in his late thirties and seemed in good condition.

“You’re Ephraim M. Gillmore?” asked the judge.

“Yes, suh,” said the man quietly.

“E.M.,” said the prosecutor, coming over and leaning on the bench.

“What?” asked the judge.

“E.M., your honor, that’s what folks call ‘em.”

“That right?” asked the judge.

“Yes, suh,” said the prisoner.

The judge looked at a file handed up by McPherson.

“What’s the ‘M’ for?” asked the judge, after a pause.

“Micah,” said the man.


“Yes, suh.”

There was another pause.

“You go by E.M., though?”

“E.M.’s what white folks calls me, suh.”

“And blacks?”

“Micah, suh.”

“Why not Ephraim?”

“Daddy name Ephraim.”

“I see . . . so you go by Micah.”

“Yes, suh, but whites call me E.M.”

“Well, Mr. Gillmore, you are charged with . . . grand larceny ...”

“Yes, suh.”

“Understand that?”

“Yes, suh.”

“Stealing a truck . . . ,” interrupted the prosecutor.

“What?” asked the judge, irritated.

“Nigga stole a truck, your honor,” said the prosecutor, smiling, revealing crooked, yellow-stained teeth.

Whispers drifted from the little audience, then quiet laughter.

The judge looked at the prosecutor, then at the prisoner.

“You understand . . . understand you’re charged with stealing a truck?”

“Yes, suh.”

“It’s a serious charge, Mr. Gillmore”.

“Yes, suh.”

“You might go to the penitentiary.”

“Yes, suh.”

“And the Arkansas State penitentiary is not a very nice place . . .  you understand that?”

“Yes, suh.”

A pause.

“Well, Mr. Gillmore, I don’t have to, but I’m appointing you a lawyer . . . been doing it all morning . . . .”

“Cain’t pay no lawyer.”

“You don’t have to . . . he’ll work for free.”

“Yes, suh.”

“Mr. Ryan here is your lawyer,” said the judge, pointing to Ryan with a pink little finger that flicked quickly out from his fist and back again.

Micah man looked at Ryan and Ryan looked at him.

“Yes, suh,” said Micah.


“Yes, suh, I understands.”

“He okay?”

“Yes, suh.

“Good, well, I’m going to give you a chance to talk …in the corner … over there, just the two of you, then you can plead … guilty or not guilty, understand?”

“Yes, suh.”

“You have anything, Mr. McPherson?” said the judge, turning to him.

“Nothing your honor, except Ryan and E.M. here, need to know that if he pleads not guilty we gonna insist on a whole lot more time than if he pleads guilty . . . we’ll recommend a year if he does that . . . pleads guilty . . . otherwise it’s ten or better . . . you know; if he puts us to the trouble of swearing a jury and trying him and all . . . then it’s lots more time at the farm,” said McPherson with a slow smile of satisfaction.

The judge turned back, looked at Ryan and Gillmore, one to the other.

“You hear that, Mr. Ryan?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Okay, Mr. Gillmore, you hear?”

“Yes, suh.”

“Okay,” said the judge, in a lecturing tone, “Now take your client over there ‘bout ten minutes and talk . . . decide what it’s to be . . . meanwhile we’ll be in recess a little while.”

“All rise!” boomed the bailiff, lifting halfway out of a seat in the jury box.

The judge rose and waddled into chambers. The deputy sat in the gallery, lounging in the front row, eyeing Micah and Ryan.

They shuffled into the box, sat, whispered quietly, then, before the recess was over, returned and waited in front of the bench. Finally, the judge came back. The little audience of lawyers had evaporated, leaving only the clerk, the bailiff, the deputy and McPherson who now came in belatedly as if the whole thing were already far too much trouble for a man such as he.

“All rise,” boomed the bailiff again, as the judge creaked back down into his seat.

“Well,” asked the judge, “What’s it to be?”

“Not guilty, your honor.”

“Not guilty?”

“Yes, sir,” said Ryan. “Not guilty.”

McPherson, stepped forward, “Excuse me, Mr.Ryan, did you say ‘not guilty?’”

“Excuse me, Mr. McPherson, but I’ll take the plea, if you please,” said the judge.

“But your Honor …,” said McPherson.

“You sure, Mr. Ryan?” asked the judge, turning to him, not letting McPherson finish.

“Yes, sir.”

A long pause.

“Mr. Gillmore,” said the judge finally, looking at Micah.

“Yes, suh?”

“You wanna plead not guilty?”

“Yes, suh.”

“You understand you run the risk of more time . . . of doing more time . . . but if you plead guilty, the prosecutor here will recommend a light sentence? You understand that?”

“Yes, suh.”

“And this is your desire?”

“Yes, suh.”

The judge leaned over, thought for a moment, then motioned with a finger.

“Mr. Ryan, do you agree with this . . . is this your recommendation?” he asked in a loud whisper, leaning over to Ryan.

“Yes, sir. I agree.”

“But we’ll recommend a year, Ryan,” said McPherson, stepping up to join the huddle.

“He’s not guilty, Mac,” Ryan said, not looking at McPherson.

“Hell, Ryan, we caught the boy red-handed.”

“Okay, what’s the story?” asked the judge, leaning back again in his big chair, making it creak even louder. “Let’s have it . . . all out ...everything … I want to hear it all.”

Ryan motioned to Micah, who now stepped between the two lawyers.

“I want Mr. Gillmore to hear this, so I don’t get it wrong,” said Ryan.

“Fine,” said the judge, looking closely at Micah, “tell us,” he added.

Ryan took a breath and began: “Well, sir, Micah here, worked for Lutz Lumber Yard . . . driving a truck . . . has for a year . . . the same truck he’s supposed to have stolen. He drives it every day, and on the day in question, at the end of work and all, parked it in the yard where he is supposed to, like always, and heads home in his own pickup. Then, well, it’d been raining a lot, and when he got on that muddy road near his house he gets stuck. Couldn’t get it out no matter what, so, he hitched a ride back to Lutz’s . . . gets the truck he drives all the time. . . I mean, it’s his truck at work he hauls lumber with . . . keeps the keys in his pocket, goes back to where he’s stuck and he and his brother pull out the pickup … then he jumps in the Lutz truck and is bringing it back, returning it, and has a wreck . . . totals it . . . nobody is hurt or anything, but the truck is finished off. Lutz’s mad . . . and here we are. It’s our position Mr. Gillmore borrowed the truck . . . without permission. . . didn’t see any harm . . . been driving it every day for a year now. . . thought it was okay . . . in other words, no intent to steal . . . implied consent is the way I’ll argue it, your honor. Except for a couple of DWI’s, he’s never been in any trouble. We’ll move for dismissal.”

The judge leaned forward.

“Is that right Mr. Gillmore, did Mr. Ryan tell it right?”

“Yes, suh . . . that’s ‘bout right.”

Then the judge turned to McPherson who had managed a retreat back to the clerk’s table, which he now leaned against.

“Is that about it, Mr. Prosecutor?”

“Well, he stole the truck, your honor, and Lutz is hot . . . something’s gotta to be done. . . they’re a big payroll around here ….”

“How far from the property was the wreck?”

“About a mile,” said McPherson.

“Anyone else involved?”

“No, sir, he was in a hurry and run in a ditch. He knew it was wrong . . . there’s no implied consent. He knew there’s a strict policy against personal use... we can prove it,” said McPherson, pulling himself up to his full height. “Mr. Lutz hisself will testify to that.”

“But returning it?”

“In a big hurry because he knew it was wrong,” said McPherson.

“Bringing it back?”

“That’s the assumption,” conceded McPherson with a slight snarl of the yellow teeth, “but it’s still stolen property, your Honor.”

The judge paused, then said, “Doesn’t your office have other things to tend to in Wattensaw County, Mr. McPherson?”

“Well, Lutz don’t like his property stole,” he said, stepping away from the clerk’s table toward the judge as a means of resuming the offensive.

“He drives it all the time . . . just borrowed it, really,” interjected Ryan.

“That’s not how Lutz’s feels . . . he wrecked it ...,” said McPherson, turning quickly on Ryan.

“That was the real crime, wrecking it? Right?” said Ryan, staring at McPherson. “No wreck … no crime …”

“He broke the rules,” whined McPherson.

“Then fire him and be done with it,” said the judge quickly.

“They already have,” said Ryan, pressing home the point he’d been holding for the right moment, like a general committing his reserves, “there is no reason to do anything else.”

“That right, McPherson?” asked the judge.

“Of course,” said McPherson, now withdrawing all the way back to the clerk’s desk again, nudging against it for support, adding, “but he broke the law.”

The judge shook his head, rubbed his little fat hands as if he were washing them, then said, looking at the prosecutor, “Well, okay, if you want, you can, but if the evidence supports this, I’m going to dismiss . . . you understand . . . you’ll be wasting county time and money. . . you hear? The boy’s lost his job and been in jail several days already … and I won’t let it go much further if his story plays out.”

The prosecutor drew himself up, then in a wounded self-righteous tone said, “Judge Saunders, you’re from the hills, but here in Wattensaw county, we go to put one or two niggers in jail from time to time or they’ll just run wild . . . it’s a fact of life around here. . . don’t mean to be disrespectful or nothing, sir, but that’s the way things gotta be done … here . . . in the Delta, I mean . . . cain’t have it no other way . . . no, sir. Lutz keeps a drove of ‘em and they gotta make an example now and again. Gillmore here done wrong and knows it . . . theft is theft . . . cain’t put no other light on it. . . that’s all I have to say, sir,” said McPherson, looking down at the clerk for moral support, but she turned away instead, refusing to meet his eyes. Frustrated, he leaned over the table and began to flip through her files again as if he were ready for the next case. She dropped her hands into her lap and stared out the window, leaning back slightly with a frown as if McPherson had bad breath.

“Is that your final say, Mr. McPherson?” asked the judge.

“Yes, sir, it is,” said McPherson sullenly, not looking up, still thumbing her files rudely.

The judge looked at the clerk, who turned now from the window to the judge with a sad but urgent look.

“Madam clerk, let the record reflect that the case of the State of Arkansas versus Ephraim Micah Gillmore is hereby dismissed,” said the judge.

“Yes, sir,” said the clerk gladly, making a quick note in the file.

McPherson flushed, and straightened up.

The judge rose.

“All rise,” said the bailiff, standing.

The clerk and deputy stood as the judge exited, closing his chambers’ door with a mild slam.

The deputy freed Micah who shook Ryan’s hand but said nothing, and left. Everyone else had disappeared. Only the bailiff remained—expressionless—waiting patiently to lock up.

Ryan walked into the bare hall and down the empty stairs. He then trudged the few blocks to his old, white two-story house, with four columns, sitting on a back street. It needed paint but still had a certain disheveled charm. He would never move. A marriage had failed, and a sister was in Mississippi. There was just Ryan now and his house, the house and Ryan—inseparable—his inheritance—his security at the end of the day—that and the vodka.

He came in the back door, tossed his briefcase and fixed a drink, a big one, gulped it, then fell on the couch and into a restless sleep.

The phone woke him after dark with a wrong number. He ambled into the kitchen, fixed a sloppy sandwich, and drank a beer while eating at a small dirty table. He never ate in the dining room, just dusted it some—leaving things as his mother had before her death—silver, expensive china, and old furniture, which was never used. Ryan remembered her leaving the house for the last time, knowing she would never see it again, walking out and not looking back, leaving without so much as a glance—not turning around or speaking - just leaving.

He got up, switched back to vodka, then put on a record from his scratchy LP collection. “Body and Soul,” November l0, l938, Roy Eldridge, now filled the room.

Then he picked up a plate encrusted with yesterday’s egg and shuffled to the sink. Should he wash it? He leaned over, turned on the cold hot water, letting it run. Would it change? It did, finally, so he plugged the sink and added some unmeasured soap. The thick white liquid swirled slowly downward to the syrupy rhythm of saxophone and piano, like a thousand hangovers on a thousand ruined mornings -– then a trumpet picked up things—a peppy comment lifting his spirits—the soap curling ever downward—the sax and piano following—Ryan stirred the water into a bubbly froth as it finally started to get warm.

There was a knock.

“Who is it?” Ryan said, surprised, turning off the water, listening.

It knocked again, louder, at the back door.

“Okay,” said Ryan, drying his hands and going over. “Okay,” he repeated, peering through the door.

It was Micah. Ryan could barely make out his dark form standing in the night, the dim kitchen light dancing delicately across his face.

“Micah!” said Ryan, opening the screen door.

“Yes, suh, it’s me, Micah, Mr. Ryan.”

Ryan felt embarrassed.

“Come on in,” he said, stepping back.

“Yes, suh, Mr. Ryan,” said Micah, walking into the kitchen tentatively.

“I’ve already eaten . . . you want something?”

“Thank you, suh, but I don’t need nothing.”

“Well, sit down,” said Ryan, motioning to a chair at the table.

“That’s fine, suh,” said Micah, sitting while Ryan remained standing, uncertain.

“Can I get you a drink,” he said, now going to the cabinet and fumbling quickly through unmatched, half-dirty glasses.

“Coke be fine,” said Micah quietly.

“Don’t you want something else? I’m gonna have a real drink . . . care to join me?”

“No, thank you, suh. I don’t drink, but you go ahead on, if’n you wants to.”

“Okay,” said Ryan pouring the drinks, then handing Micah the bottle of coke with a glass of ice, going back, retrieving his fresh vodka, returning and sitting opposite.

“I hopes I didn’t come at no bad time, Mr. Ryan,” said Micah.

“No, not at all. I just took a nap and ate . . . glad you came . . . I mean, we didn’t visit much . . . you kinda disappeared . . . I turned around and you were pretty much gone.”

“I didn’t think it’d he’p none if I was too friendly.”

Ryan laughed, then said, “I ain’t too popular, Micah.”

Micah smiled.

“They figured they was punishing me . . . then the judge realized everything and felt bad . . . we were lucky to have him today, you know?”

“Oh, yes, suh . . . that olden would uh hung me, sho.”

“Yeah, and Saunders’ the one they’re really mad at now, not me, they figure he let down the side.”

Micah smiled, sipped, then said, “Well, Mr. Ryan, suh...”

“Ryan,” he interrupted. “Call me Ryan, and you don’t have to call me, sir … I feel like we’re friends, Micah.”

“Yes, suh,” said Micah.

They both laughed nervously.

“Well, Ryan, I jes wanted to thank you proper like ….”

“I’m glad. I mean, we kicked McPherson’s ass pretty good, didn’t we?” smiled Ryan, warming to the drink and his victory.

They both laughed again, more relaxed now.

“Yes, suh, we done that, Ryan,” Micah said.

“You said you don’t drink?” asked Ryan.

“No, Mr. Ryan ...”

The jazz album kicked into a very scratchy rendition of “I Surrender Dear,” Coleman Hawkins and the Chocolate Dandies, May 25, l940.

“Oh, let me turn that off,” said Ryan, starting to get up.

“No, no . . . I heard Coleman in Chicago.”

“Yeah? So, you like jazz?” said Ryan, sitting again.

Micah nodded.

“But you don’t drink?”

Micah shook his head.

“Never met anyone who liked jazz who didn’t drink . . . I wanna drink from the first note,” said Ryan wistfully, then added, “but I drink a lot … I guess.”

Micah smiled a slow smile.

Ryan reflected a moment, then asked, “How ‘bout the DWI’s?”

“That was a piece back.”




“Three year ago.”



“Yeah, how … how’d you quit?”

Micah smiled broadly, then asked, “You wanna quit?”

Ryan shifted.

“I was asking about you.”

“I thought you might,” said Micah.

“How come?”

“This morning.”


Micah nodded.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, see, Mr. Ryan, when I come up there . . . this morning. . . walked in from that damn jail, into the cou’troom . . . and I seen you standing there all red and all . . . caught the smell . . . I knowed I’d found my kinda lawyer.”

“Why didn’t you say something? Complain?”

“No, suh, not me, I had what I wanted. You wasn’t bad-dog drunk nor nothing, jes kinda felling bad, and I knowed I’d found one of my own . . . no, suh, I was glad to see you, sho was.”

Micah smiled and played with his coke, sipping, then rolling the edge of the glass around and looking down at the ice, like he saw something important in it, then up again, sheepish like.

Ryan sat back and said, “You think I’m a drunk, huh?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“But you believe it?“

“Didn’t say that neither.”

They looked at each other for a moment while the music played.

“But you don’t drink?”

“Cain’t afford to.”

Ryan thought for a time, gulped the vodka, then got up and went to the cabinet for another.

“How did you do it . . . quit . . . Micah?” he said, pouring.

“It’s a long story.”

“I want to hear it,” said Ryan, returning, sitting, leaning forward for the first time.

Micah sighed, then told the story he had come to tell.

“Well, Mr. Ryan, I come into this world confused . . . I guess. . . always was. I don’t know . . . I just sorta felt different. My daddy, Ephraim, aside from sharecropping, was a Baptist preacher and we was always going to church, all the time, Sunday mornings, night, Monday night, Wednesday . . . and all times in between. This made me different from the other kids. I never did fit in, always felt outside . . . apart from . . . never part of. ‘Cause daddy was a preacher, I tried to act tough and all, just to prove I wa’n’t different nor nothing. Always getting into some kinda of trouble, fighting and stuff like that, nothing really bad tho’ I thought I was bad, but weren’t as bad as I blew myself up to be. We never had nothing much, and I worked at this and that to get some kinda pocket money. You know, farm work, worked on the Shaw plantation some for Mr. Conrad, that kind of thing . . . doing what I could. My mama give me what learning I got. She worked hard to teach me to read, write and such, or else I wouldn’t knowed nothing . . . that ole school was a joke. Anyway, then, well, long in early high school, I discovered whiskey … remember my first drink like it was yesterday, it was real special … knowed I’d found a friend . . . sure nuff . . . my bes’ friend . . . Mr. Ryan, it was the thing I was looking for . . . it made me feel . . . well . . . like other folks I thought was important looked like. . . like I thought they felt . . . now I know they don’t feel as good as they look, so I was all wrong ‘bout how great they looked, but I didn’t know that then. I thought I was the only one who didn’t have it all right in my insides. . . so, the booze, it was the thing that let me have confidence and filled me up, fixed everything that was wrong in a snap.”

Micah snapped his fingers.

“But it wasn’t long ‘fore I started getting in trouble, went to school drunk onct and my daddy whupped me; me a grown teenager ‘bout as big as he was, but he done it anyway. Then, behind that, I run away and never come back for the longest. I caught the bus to Me’phis. I thought Me’phis was the greatest place in the whole damn world, but then the newness wore off, and I went on up to St. Louis, then Chicago . . . gots odd jobs ...just enough to keep going . . . drinking all the time, never really stopping, then out to California . . . never met a drunk who didn’t want to go to California . . . I stayed at my older sister’s. . . for about a year. But she got tired of my drinking, and I promised her I’d quit, got a little job, done great . . . for a time . . . helped with rent and groceries, being real good like, then one day I went to the store and got drunk and never went back . . . wound up in New Orleans and pan-handled tourists and pimped a little and got into scrapes here and there . . . wonder I didn’t get kilt . . . no one can stay sober in New Orleans for very long . . . no way … not there . . . but I could go to them ole soup kitchens . . . move around, keep moving, see, always moving, get sumpin to eat . . . live … live jes to keep drinking. Then I got thowed in jail . . . sobered up in there . . . boy was that hell . . . ever had the DT’s in jail, Mr. Ryan? They don’t give a damn if’n you live or die, man, not in there. Anyway, behind that little deal, I stayed sober enough to hop a freight and come on home here to New Bethany. I walked in the do’ pretty much sober, and everybody was glad . . . real glad . . . Mama cried . . . afraid maybe I was dead or something. Then I swore on our big black family Bible not to drink no mo’. . . or the Lord strike me dead. That made everybody happy . . . ‘specially Mama . . . they believed me . . . no one would go back on that . . . not when they done swore on the big black family Bible. Then I got another little job ‘round here and stayed home . . . sober. . . now that was hard, staying sober like that . . . then Daddy died .. and, I don’t know, it wasn’t long after that I went to the store again and didn’t come back. Wound up in Me’phis again. Stayed there, got sober, got a job, got drunk, lost the job, got sober, got a job, got drunk and lost the job . . . round and round I went, like a cat chasing his tail. Mr. Ryan, this went on and on, and I thought my head was going to explode. But I hung on, got sober again, got married, went to the store again, and my wife run off, got sober to get her back, and then lost my job . . . then lost my car . . . ‘cause I didn’t have no job . . . first one thing then another . . . it was hell sure nuff... went back out to California, and my sister took me in for a little bit. Had to lie to her and promise I never drink . . . but it was a lie. . . I had already done swore on the Bible . . . got drunk, and the Lord ain’t done nothing noway . . . not one damn thing that I could see, so, I knowed I’d be drunk again . . . and so I lied, stayed with her, rested up, then disappeared, this time to Chicago. It was worser … each time it was worser, it was jail and out, jail and out, pan-handle . . . even robbed some . . . I was at the end, Mr. Ryan . . . the end . . . didn’t know nothing else to do. Then one day I was drunk with some winos in a park somewhere, I dunno just where . . . somewhere sharing some ole rot-gut wine and one of ‘em tells me I’d be all right, but I jes had a drinking problem.”

Ryan laughed. Micah laughed. Then they both laughed together.

“That’s right, he tells me I gots a drinking problem; a goddamn wino! Hah! Well, hell, I laughed so loud and hard everyone in that damn town musta heard. But then this ole wino, he says to me, ‘You know, Micah, you gots something to sober up fo’ . . . we don’t, dats the difference.’ What was he talking about, man? What the hell did I have to sober up fo’? How was I different from them winos? See, I wasn’t even like them . . . couldn’t fit in even with them guys. But I never forgot what that wino done told me that day. It never really lef’ outta my head … not really. Then one day, I was on a bar stool at the tail end of a long hard drunk and a little voice said, spoke up to me, ‘Micah, son, you cain’t go on like this no more, no suh,’ and so I climbed down off’n that ole stool, so damned drunk I cain’t hardly walk, and somehow I gets me a cab and goes to the nuthouse . . . in Chicago. I fights through the DT’s in that goddamn nuthouse . . . and walked around in that place with all them other nuts . . . bumming cigarettes and shaking like a dog shitting peach seeds, then one day, after my nerves settled, and things gets better, I realized what done happened. I was locked up as a hopeless drunk …they was right, cause I was hopeless . . . I was scared to get outta dat place . . . I couldn’t lie to myself no mo’. . . I was fresh out of them ole tired lies. Then, this little colored friend of mine, name Jeffrey … never forget him … he had friends come during the day that brung cigarettes, and we was friends and everything . . . well, Jeffrey, he tole me ‘bout a white fella that was coming to talk to us drunks and if’n I went to this meeting we could get some mo’ cigarettes, and coffee and cookies, and stuff, so I went. This white man come sure nuff, and he had a book with him, and the room was all full of drunks jes like me.

“I expected this fella to preach ‘bout doing bad and the wages of sin and all, and wag his finger in my face and all that sad shit I been hearing all my damn life . . . preach and preach . . . you know. . . like my ole man always done and everyone else.”

“I know,” said Ryan, drinking.

“Well, right, you know, guess you do, but Mr. Ryan, he don’t preach nothing, don’t wag no finger, or give me no Sunday school lesson shit about sin, or nothing like that, he jes tole what had done happened to him . . . see, he was a drunk, too, jes like all the rest of us . . . and he jes tole us about his drinking life and how he got sober and that was that. Hell, man, I didn’t know what to say, I mean that little scrawny white man done knocked me completely over. So, I goes up to him . . . after he was done and all, and I ax him, ‘What should I do?’ and he knocks me down again, plum out, ‘cause he says, ‘Fella, what you do is yo’ business, I jes tole you what I done.’”

Ryan drank again.

“Well, I got his book and read it. He give it to me. I went to some mo meetings, and when I gets out I kept going and then I come home . . . here . . . cold sober.”


“Sober. That was three year ago las’ month, and I ain’t drunk now since I left that damn bar stool in Chicago . . . so, Mr. Ryan my life is like a broken vase, and I been busy gluing back all the pieces … that’s what I been doing for these here three years … gluing back all the pieces of my life ….”

Ryan sat back, then asked, “Why are you telling me this?”

“Cause you ax.”

“You think I’m a drunk, too . . . you came here to tell me this, huh, am I right, Micah?”

“No, I didn’t do it for you, Mr. Ryan, I done it for myself. What you do is yo’ business,” said Micah, then finished his coke and smiled wryly.

“You want some more coke?”

“No, thanks.”

“I’m gonna get another drink .. if you don’t mind?” said Ryan, getting up, going back to the cabinet.

Micah nodded, listening to the music really for the first time since telling his story, moving his head slightly to the rhythm.

“So,” said Ryan, pouring the vodka, then tonic over ice, “I’m curious about these meetings?”

“Want to go?” asked Micah.


“There’s a colored one in Me’phis. White ones’ too, but I cain’t tell you ‘bout them. It ain’t like Chicago. I’ll have to take you to a colored one.”

Ryan came back slowly and sat.

“Would they have me?”

“You be with me.”


“Next week.”

“Call me.”

“Good,” said Micah, standing up. “Thanks again for what you done this morning . . . and for the coke. I gotta go.”

Ryan got up, unsteady on his feet, and held out his hand, “Thanks, Micah, thanks for coming.”

Micah shook his hand.

“Tell me one thing, though,” asked Ryan.

Micah stopped.

“Did you know you weren’t supposed to take that truck?”

Micah laughed.

“Oh, Judge Ryan, I pleads innocent.”

Ryan laughed.

“I better be going,” Micah said, turned and went out quickly, disappearing into the night, the screen door slamming behind with a loud noisy slap, then there was silence.

Ryan still stood behind the table. He had wanted to talk some more. Then he heard a dog barking as Micah walked past, down the white man’s street. He stood listening to the barking. Then he went round to the door and stood, looking out till the dog finally hushed, then it was a quiet summer’s night again with nothing but the sound of crickets and the blinking of fireflies. He stood for a moment, staring out, then returned, fixed another drink and thought about things. Sitting alone there in his house, so full of ghosts—his mother, father, sister and wife—his lost youth—lost boyhood, when the house had been new and full of life—warmth—laughter—not yet filled with dust, debris and the dead. Ryan decided to get very drunk and did, finishing the vodka, playing more jazz, listening to Dexter Gordan, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Hot Lips Page, then passing out on the couch; not waking till the sun streaked through a dirty window, floating dust particles all around like half-lost memories, forcing open his eyes; making him think yet again about Micah; making him wonder and think.

He went to the meeting in Memphis with Micah, did that and then to more meetings with him, and gradually, over time, stopped drinking. But, then a year later, Micah got drunk and disappeared. Ryan stayed sober—got elected judge, sat where Judge Saunders sat—but still lived alone in the old house; listening to jazz and wondering, wondering about Micah; what became of him, and why Micah had been able to give him something that he had not been able to keep for himself. He never saw Micah again.