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The Night Train
Jayrod stood at the edge of the gully, paralyzed with fear, as the thick vine swung toward him for the third time. Horace Plunk and his two hangers-on, Bobby Greenhall and Tony Farse, hadn’t seemed a bit scared when they swung across, but nothing ever scared them. In the distance he heard the tinkling of the bell - her bell - the bell even Horace Plunk didn’t dare ignore. Below he saw the tangle of honeysuckle and briars. Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle……
“Grab it fatass!” Horace taunted as the vine came within reach.
“He’s skeered,” Bobby said. Jayrod closed his eyes, bit his lip, and swallowed the lump in his throat. The vine hit the fingers of his outstretched hands and he grabbed it. It felt rough in his hands, like a rope badly twisted and peppered with burrs. He opened his eyes and pushed off with his feet, toward his classmates, knowing he hadn't pushed hard enough. Over the ditch he swung, trying not to look down as he passed halfway, then three-quarters, until his feet touched the red dirt where his tormentors stood ready to push him back should he manage to find his balance. They didn't have to. A toehold proved not enough and he swung back toward the other bank, missing it by several inches. Like a pendulum he swung, back and forth, to and fro, until his hands slipped and he spiraled downward. Briars ripped the flesh of his bare legs and arms as he plummeted ten feet to the bottom of the ravine.
“Jayrod broke the vine!” Horace laughed. “Big fat Jayrod!”
At first he thought he was blind, or blurred, then he realized it was his glasses. One lens was missing and the drastic difference in vision between left and right gave him the sensation of being knocked in the head. Glasses were a big deal. A huge deal.
“Think he’s dead?”
“Nah, he ain’t dead, Bobby. He’s just too fat to get up,” Horace said.
The bullies cackled themselves giddy while Jayrod felt around for the missing lens in the tangle of briars and weeds and pine seedlings. He wallowed out quite a circle by the time he managed to get to his feet. Something cracked beneath his left sneaker and it sounded like glass.
All at once Horace and his gang fell quiet, then scampered away like mice, leaving him in the bottom of the gully to find his own way out.
Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle. The sound of Mrs. Snitch’s bell was muffled but unmistakable. Climbing out was impossible. Both banks went straight up. He looked left, then right, but the thicket was taller than he was and blocked his view. Every way he turned he was met with briars that ripped at his arms and at the tender white flesh of his half-naked legs. There was nothing to do but pick a direction and hope it led somewhere.
The next few minutes seemed like an eternity. Off in the distance he could hear the vigorous shake of the bell. One step at a time he pushed back the briars, trying not to stick his fingers and thumbs, until the gully widened and grew shallow enough for him to climb out. As he neared the picnic area he could hear Mrs. Snitch’s aggravated voice.
“Where is Jayrod? Has anyone seen Jayrod?”
“No ma’am,” Horace said. “Maybe he got lost in the woods or something.”
Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle…..
Mrs. Snitch told the children to finish their lunches and be sure to throw their brown paper bags and empty milk cartons into the trash can. And don’t wander off. No sense losing the entire fourth grade class. Every few minutes she snapped her bell and asked if anyone had seen Jayrod. He watched from the bushes, ashamed to show himself because of the rip in his shirt, and because of the bloody scratches on his arms and legs, and because of the broken glasses he held in his hand.
Tinkle! Tinkle! Tinkle!
Jayrod swallowed hard and stepped out of the bushes.
Scarlet Tanner glanced up from her half-eaten pimento cheese sandwich and saw him first. She was pretty with her pink pigtails and white sundress. “There he is, Mrs. Snitch! And he’s peed his pants!”
Jayrod looked down. It was true. True in a big way. What he had thought was sweat from his exertions was pee. Probably from the fall, or the impact of it. He wanted to turn and run back into the bushes but he knew Mrs. Snitch would drag him out again with her bell.
“Get over here this instant Jayrod Nash!”
Jayrod took a step, then another, toward his classmates. Blood trickled down both arms. His shirt was ripped and useless for anything but his mother’s rag box. Juice from the leaves he had ripped off the vine on his way down had left his palms sticky. Bits of grass and weed were matted into his thick brown curls. Numerous stickers from the briars dotted his chubby legs. His face was almost red enough to hide his freckles. He was bloody and in pain from head to toe, but no one noticed any of those things. All they saw was the big dark piss stain ringing the crotch of his shorts.
His classmates gathered quickly. What had been a loose group scattered amongst half a dozen picnic tables tightened like a fist. Twenty fourth graders at one picnic table, and all of them laughing at him. He also learned that when Mrs. Snitch says let’s have a look at you she means the class, not just her, for she took him by the earlobe and led him to within a few feet of the cackling children. She twisted him, and turned him, and looked him up and down. Hard as he tried to stop them, tears began to roll down his face. Snot tickled his nose. If he sniffed he would snuffle, and if he snuffled he would cry, so he let the snot seep out onto his lip.
“Fine mess you’ve made of yourself,” she said. “What will your mother think of me?”
“Jayrod pissed his pants,” Horace Plunk said.
“You watch your language, Horace Plunk, or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap again.”
After what seemed an eternity, she ordered the children back to the bus. Jayrod watched them as they stuffed their wax paper wrappers and empty juice containers into their brown paper bags and tossed them into the steel trash can chained to a pipe that was cemented into the ground. His stomach growled. There was one bag left in the box atop Mrs. Snitch’s table and it was rightfully his.
“Can I ha..have my lun..lunch?”
“Lunch? Why I’d think the last thing you would want right now is more juice.” She dumped the box, bag and all, upside down into the trash can and gave him a shove toward the bus.
Pap walked along the edge of the road dragging a burlap tow sack half full of aluminum cans. The combination of cans colliding and burlap scooting across the coarse chip-and-seal surface made a noise not unlike a flat bastard file being pulled across a dull lawnmower blade. In his right hand he carried a wooden mop handle with a 16 penny nail sticking from one end like the point of a spear. He spied a beer can at the bottom of the shallow ditch and stooped forward to stab it. The nail pierced the soft metal and came out the other side as the can collapsed. Beer dripped from the point of the nail as he swung his catch around and raked it off into the sack at his feet. Sometimes he pretended he was spearfishing along some stream in Alaska instead of supplementing his social security on a dead-end road in Johnson County, Mississippi.
Television made Alaska look like a paradise, but he hadn’t trusted TV since Walter Cronkite retired.
The sack followed him across the rough surface of the road as he walked back toward home. Up the slight grade he trod, until the road leveled off and he could see his Radio Flyer wagon on the shoulder. Dragging the sack was easier than pulling the wagon because the sack would follow him down into the ditch and up the bank on the other side if need be. When the sack was full he would empty it into the wagon and start again. The trick was in coordinating wagon location with sack filling, and that varied depending on what day of the week it happened to be. Monday mornings were usually his heavy haul days, but Friday mornings ran a close second because the factory handed out checks on Thursdays. Most days he parked the wagon where it needed to be. He had been at this for a long time.
When he stopped for another can he heard the monotone buzz of the factory, like a swarm of locust that never stops devouring the landscape. He removed his straw hat, looked up at the blue sky, and wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. It shouldn’t be so hot in May, but Pap didn’t believe all the talk about the earth burning itself up. A breeze kicked up and felt good against his sweat-soaked shirt. Cans awaited, so he trudged onward.
Halfway to the wagon he heard a pickup approaching from behind. It was still a ways off, but he knew by the roar of its tires against the pavement it would be a 4x4. Probably some teenager who didn’t know the road petered out just past his driveway. Deek Norton had lived just long enough to get the road named after him when Johnson County adopted the E-911 system years ago. By all rights the county should have named it Jones Road, after Pap, because everybody knew Deek Norton was in bad health and had no kin to speak of when the renaming commenced. But Deek probably hadn’t called the supervisor a son-of-a-bitch for not dragging the ditches so the water wouldn’t flood over the road every time it rained.
Had the road been named after him, Pap might be inclined to stab up some of the fast food sacks and cups the workers tossed out their windows. They were a dirty bunch and he wondered if they littered their own roads the way they littered his. Sometimes it seemed they brought their trash from home just to throw it out as they marched to and from the factory like worker ants in service to their queen.
Pap snickered at the thought of Davis Khane as a queen. Queen Khane, furniture magnate. He stabbed a Pepsi can and swung it into his sack.
The roar of the approaching truck intensified until it overtook him and sped past with a whoosh of wind. Something solid hit Pap in the left shoulder and sent him tripping to the ground, more from surprise than from the force of the impact. He landed on his hands and knees. A Bud Light can tumbled through the air and landed against the ditch bank with a thunk. Pap scrambled to his feet in time to see the muddy red Dodge disappear over the hill.
“Up your butt Bobby John!” He jabbed at the sky with the mop handle as he yelled. He knew the truck because he had climbed into the bed of it and pissed down the driver’s door one Tuesday afternoon in the student parking lot at the high school after he discovered it belonged to the young thug who had thrown the brick at him while he was mowing beside the Ag building. High school kids have no respect for janitors. Nor do principals and teachers, considering the lack of fanfare his retirement had generated.
But what did he care? Somebody else had to clean up after them now.
He crossed the ditch and scooped up the can, knowing by the wallop to his shoulder it was near full. He put the can to his lips and drained it dry. If he’d had a cell phone he would’ve called the sheriff and told him he had a drunk running the roads, but the only phone he owned was attached to his living room wall by a black wire, and that was almost a mile away. He picked up his sack and dropped the can inside with the others. At least the young hooligan had quenched his thirst.
Pap walked on toward the wagon with a dent in his pride and a fire in his gut. It occurred to him that Bobby John had but one way out and that was past him. His eyes searched the ground until he found a nice fat rock he could ball his fist around. He bounced it in the palm of his hand a couple times to test its weight, then slipped it into the side pocket of his overalls. Once when he was a boy he had killed a squirrel with a rock, so he supposed he could hit a red Dodge.
Half a dozen feet from the wagon he heard the distant roar of mud tires again, like a swarm of honeybees coming back to the hive. He slipped his hand into his pocket and closed it around the rock. When the truck topped the hill he withdrew his hand and cocked his arm. Bobby John punched the accelerator as Pap hurled the rock with every ounce of his hundred and fifty pounds behind it. The truck dropped into passing gear and lurched forward, but it was too little too late. The rock hit the windshield just above the inspection sticker and shot so high up into the air Pap lost sight of it. Bobby John yelled something that got lost in the noise of his aftermarket pipes.
Pap’s lips slipped back from his toothless gums and he snickered so hard his body trembled. Even Stevens, as his wife used to say.
June 13, 1987
“Order! Order! Quiet down or I’ll clear this courtroom!”
Judge Franks pounded his gavel, red-faced. Sweat soaked the armpits of the white shirt beneath his robe. Ninety people packed the fifty-seat courtroom. The air conditioner labored against the heat from so many restless bodies. Along the back wall and down both sides stood the latecomers, shuffling their feet against the hardwood floor, clearing their throats, and grumbling at the slothful pace of justice. At the start of the day the crowd had been evenly mixed, male and female, but attrition had made it decidedly masculine as the afternoon wore on and the women succumbed to full bladders while the men held their water like camels. Dozens hung outside the door, eager for a chance to slip through and fill the voids. Such exchanges were frequent and the noise aggravated the judge.
The cavernous lobby inhaled and exhaled people, up and down the high bank of concrete steps facing the court square. It was an old building, with old habits. Toward the center of the square, a whip-thin man wearing an Ole Miss ball cap tended an oversized charcoal grill at the foot of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Every few minutes the man opened the grill and sent up a mishmash of smells. Pork, beef, chicken and charcoal smoke.
For nearly an hour the tantalizing smoke had drifted into the courthouse and soaked the crowded room with its carnival-like smell. The aroma was impossible to keep out with the doors opening and closing fifty times a minute. Inside the courtroom, feet shuffled against the scarred hardwood floor. Muffled coughs, sneezes and grunts agitated the judge. The prosecutor chased his point like a hound trailing a rabbit, but the hare was wily, and refused to run a straight line. Sheriff Porter sat with his chair tilted back against the wall next to the jury box. His fat belly spilled over his belt and threatened to untuck his shirt.
At the back of the room the door opened and a woman squeezed out. A short bald man elbowed his way into the gap. The newcomer gnawed feverishly at a skewer of kabobs.
“How much,” the man next to him asked in a hush.
The newcomer held up three fingers.
“Three dollars for them little chunks!”
Heads turned toward the disruption. Judge Franks looked up and swung his gavel. “Order! Get that food out of here! This is a courtroom, not a snack bar.”
The newcomer ducked back out the door and the prosecutor picked back up in mid-sentence. Sheriff Porter dropped the front legs of his chair to the floor with a thud and summoned a young redheaded boy with his finger. The lad slipped from his mother’s lap and scaled the railing that separated the audience from the players. A whisper from the sheriff sent him darting out the side door and across the street to the square.
The prosecutor leaned against the front of the jury box, wiped his forehead with a powder blue handkerchief, spun on the heels of his spit-shined black slippers and jabbed a long bony finger toward the young defendant. “There’s only one way to deal with a vicious murderer, and it’s your job … no, it’s your duty as children of God Almighty to find Dale Alvin Criss GUILTY!”
Those attending echoed: Guilty!
Judge Franks raised his gavel but didn’t bang. The crowd silenced itself. The prosecutor patted his damp forehead with the handkerchief and withdrew to his table.
The young defense attorney rose from the table he shared with the accused, glanced back at the audience, then stepped forward. Halfway through ladies and gentleman of the jury his voice cracked. A tremendous roar of laughter spilled over the railing and engulfed the room, infecting those in the jury box as it went forward. Even Judge Franks showed some teeth. The attorney cleared his throat, stepped toward the jury box, then looked helplessly toward the bench. Judge Franks banged his gavel three times, then twice more, then again, until the laughter gave way to silence.
“This is …”
“Speak up, boy,” the judge interrupted. The crowd chuckled as one.
The defense attorney frowned at the jury, took a deep breath, and uttered what may well have been the shortest summation in judicial history: “This is my first criminal trial. I hope it will be my last. I’ve done everything in my power … to plant the seed of doubt into your minds. Reasonable doubt … that’s all the law says you need to find my client not guilty of this heinous crime with which he finds himself charged. I trust you’ll do your duty.”
Porter winked at the prosecutor as the wet-behind-the-ears attorney returned to his seat with his chin to the floor. The young defendant buried his face into his hands. The side door opened and the redheaded boy slipped through and passed a wooden skewer, generous with meats, potato wedges, and peppers, to the fat sheriff, who patted the boy on the head and fell on his meal with vigor. No money had changed hands during the transaction.
Judge Franks eyed the sheriff as he stuffed his mouth with pork and sucked the juice from his fingers and thumb, then he dismissed the jury. As soon as the door closed behind the last juror he recessed the court and the mass of people rushed the door. Two deputies stepped forward and lifted the defendant by the armpits and escorted him into a tiny room off to the left. His lawyer ducked out the door on the opposite side, the one the boy had used, and planted himself on a bench in the shade of a gum tree.
An hour passed, then another, before the jury sent word to the judge that it had reached a decision. The attorneys were summoned and the defendant ushered back to his seat behind the table. Word of a verdict swept the courtyard like wildfire, until the room again bulged with people. More this time, until the door couldn’t be closed. Threats and curses from the deputy whose job it was to keep the door closed had no effect. Nothing short of violence would keep them back. All fell quiet when the judge entered the courtroom.
After the necessary formalities, a portly man, fortyish, with a toupee that screamed toupee, rose from his seat in the jury box and eyed the judge. In his hands he held a slip of paper which he passed to the bailiff, who handed it to the judge, who nodded as he read it to himself. Judge Franks passed the paper back to the bailiff, who returned it to the foreman.
“The foreman will now read the verdict.”
The man stretched his five-foot-six frame as far as it could reach and tilted his head back to bring his bifocals into line with the text. “We, the jury, find the defendant, Dale Alvin Criss … GUILTY!” A thunderous cheer arose.
MURDER! MURDER! MURDER! The chat started somewhere outside then squeezed through the open double-doors and flooded the courtroom. The defendant grew pale and looked ready to bolt. His lawyer patted him on the shoulder and stuffed his documents back into his briefcase. Someone yelled fetch a rope. Sheriff Porter tilted his chair forward and spoke something into his radio that sent half a dozen deputies scrambling to the wooden railing. The ladies in the jury box grew wild-eyed, like zebras with a lion in the bush. The lion charged. A cousin of the victim leapt the rail, knocked a deputy aside and made it halfway to the judge’s bench before the judge stood and pulled a .45 from beneath his black robe. A young deputy threw himself at the man and wrestled him to the floor.
The sight of the judge standing with a gun in his hand subdued the crowd. His small gray eyes, set narrow on his crimson face, looked like bullet holes as he peered angrily out over his courtroom. Wagging the gun at them he shouted, “I’ll shoot the next son-of-a-bitch who twitches!”