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
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
“Judge wants you!”
“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
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
“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
“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
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
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
“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
“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.
There was another pause.
“You go by E.M., though?”
“E.M.’s what white folks calls me, 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
“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
“It’s a serious charge, Mr. Gillmore”.
“You might go to the penitentiary.”
“And the Arkansas State penitentiary is not a very nice place .
. . you understand that?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“You have anything, Mr. McPherson?” said the judge, turning
“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
“You hear that, Mr. Ryan?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“Okay, Mr. Gillmore, you hear?”
“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.
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
“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.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ryan. “Not
McPherson, stepped forward, “Excuse me, Mr.Ryan, did you say
“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.
A long pause.
“Mr. Gillmore,” said the judge finally, looking at Micah.
“You wanna plead not guilty?”
“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
“And this is your desire?”
The judge leaned over, thought for a moment, then motioned with a
“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
“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
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
“Bringing it back?”
“That’s the assumption,” conceded McPherson with a slight
snarl of the yellow teeth, “but it’s still stolen property, your
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,”
“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
“Yes, sir,” said the clerk gladly, making a quick note in the
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
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
“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
“That’s fine, suh,” said Micah, sitting while Ryan remained
“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
“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
“I didn’t think it’d he’p none if I was too friendly.”
Ryan laughed, then said, “I ain’t too popular, Micah.”
“They figured they was punishing me . . . then the judge realized
everything and felt bad . . . we were lucky to have him today, you
“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,
“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.
“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
“That was a piece back.”
“Three year ago.”
“Yeah, how … how’d you quit?”
Micah smiled broadly, then asked, “You wanna quit?”
“I was asking about you.”
“I thought you might,” said Micah.
“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?
“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
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
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?”
“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.”
“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.
“Did you know you weren’t supposed to take that truck?”
Judge Ryan, I pleads innocent.”
“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