Chapter 11

Baggy rushed into my office late the following morning with the hot news that Lucien Wilbanks had just withdrawn his motion to change venue. As usual, he was full of analysis.

His first windy opinion was that the Padgitts didn't want the trial moved to another county. They knew Danny was dead guilty and that he would almost certainly be convicted by a properly selected jury anywhere. Their sole chance was to get a jury they could either buy or intimidate. Since all guilty verdicts must be unanimous, they needed only a single vote in Danny's favor. Just one vote and the jury would hang itself; the Judge would be required by law to declare a mistrial. It would certainly be retried, but with the same result. After three or four attempts, the State would give up.

I was sure Baggy had been at the courthouse all morning, replaying with his little club the venue hearing and borrowing the conclusions of the lawyers. He explained gravely that the hearing the day before had been staged by Lucien Wilbanks, for two reasons. First, Lucien was baiting the Times into running another large photo of Danny, this one in jailhouse garb. Second, Wilbanks wanted to get me on the witness stand to peel off some skin. "He damned sure did that," Baggy said.

"Thanks, Baggy," I said.

Wilbanks was setting the stage for the trial, one that he knew all along would take place in Clanton, and he wanted the Times to tone down its coverage.

The third, or fourth, reason was that Lucien Wilbanks never missed an opportunity to grandstand in front of a crowd. Baggy had seen it many times and he shared a few stories.

I'm not sure I followed all of his expansive thinking, but at that moment nothing else made sense. It seemed such a waste of time and effort to put on a two-hour hearing, knowing full well it was all a show. I figured worse things have happened in courtrooms.

* * *

The third feast was a pot roast, and we ate on the porch as it rained steadily.

As usual, I confessed that I'd never had a pot roast, so Miss Callie described the recipe and the preparation in detail. She lifted the lid off a large iron pot in the center of the table and closed her eyes as the thick aroma wafted upward. I had only been awake for an hour, and at that moment I could've eaten the tablecloth.

It was her simplest dish, she said. Take a beef rump roast, leave the fat on it, place it in the bottom of the pot, then cover it with new potatoes, onions, turnips, carrots, and beets; add some salt, pepper, and water, put it in the oven on slow bake, and wait five hours. She filled my plate with beef and vegetables, then covered it all with a thick sauce. "The beets give it all a purple tint," she explained.

She asked me if I wanted to say the blessing, and I declined. Praying was not something I had done in a long time. She was far more gifted. She took my hands and we closed our eyes. As she spoke to heaven the rain tapped the tin roof above our heads.

"Where's Esau?" I asked after my first three large bites.

"At work. Sometimes he can get free for lunch, often he cannot." She was preoccupied with something and finally said, "Can I ask you a question that's somewhat personal?"

"Sure, I guess."

"Are you a Christian child?"

"I'm sure I am. My mother used to take me to church on Easter."

That was not satisfactory. Whatever she was looking for, that wasn't it. "What kind of church?"

"Episcopalian. St. Luke's in Memphis."

"I'm not sure we have one of those in Clanton."

"I haven't seen one." Not that I'd been searching diligently for a house of worship. "What kind of church do you attend?" I asked.

"Church of God in Christ," she answered quickly and her entire face had a serene glow. "My pastor is the Reverend Thurston Small, a fine man of God. A powerful preacher too. You should come hear him."

I'd heard stories about how blacks worship, how the entire Sabbath was spent at church, how services ran late into the night and broke up only when the spirit was finally exhausted. I had vivid memories of suffering through Episcopal Easter services that, by law, could run no longer than sixty minutes.

"Do white people worship with you?" I asked.

"Only during the election years. Some of the politicians come sniffing around like dogs. They make a bunch of promises."

"Do they stay for the entire service?"

"Oh no. They're always too busy for that."

"So it's possible to come and go?"

"For you, Mr. Traynor, yes. We'll make an exception." She launched into a long story about her church, which was within walking distance of her home, and a fire that destroyed it not too many years earlier. The fire department, which of course was on the white side of town, was never in a hurry when responding to calls in Lowtown. They lost their church, but it was a blessing! Reverend Small rallied the congregation. For nearly three years they met in a warehouse loaned to them by Mr. Virgil Mabry, a fine Christian man. The building was one block off Main Street and many white folks didn't like the idea of Negroes worshiping on their side of town. Hut Mr. Mabry held firm. Reverend Small raised the money, and three years after the fire they cut the ribbon on a new sanctuary, one twice as big as the old. Now it was full every Sunday.

I loved it when she talked. It allowed me to eat nonstop, which was a priority. But I was still captivated by her precise diction, her cadence, and her vocabulary, which had to be college level.

When she finished with the new sanctuary, she asked, "Do you read the Bible often?"

"No," I said, shaking my head and chewing on a hot turnip.


Lying never crossed my mind. "Never."

That disappointed her again. "How often do you pray?"

I paused for a second and said, "Once a week, right here."

She slowly placed her knife and fork beside her plate and frowned at me as if something profound was about to be said. "Mr. Traynor, if you don't go to church, don't read your Bible, and don't pray, I'm not so sure you're really a Christian child."

I wasn't so sure either. I kept chewing so I wouldn't have to speak and defend myself. She continued, "Jesus said, 'Judge not, that ye be not judged.' It's not my place to pass judgment on anyone's soul, but I must confess that I'm worried about yours."

I was worried too, but not to the point of disrupting lunch.

"Do you know what happens to those who live outside the will of God?" she asked.

Nothing good, I knew that much. But I was too hungry and too frightened to answer. She was preaching now, not eating, and I was not enjoying myself.

"Paul wrote in Romans, 'The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.' Do you know what that means, Mr. Traynor?"

I had a hunch. I nodded and took a mouthful of beef. Had she memorized the entire Bible? Was I about to hear it all?

"Death is always physical, but a spiritual death means eternity away from our Lord Jesus. Death means an eternity in hell, Mr. Traynor. Do you understand this:'"

She was making things very clear. "Can we change the subject?" I said.

Miss Callie suddenly smiled and said, "Of course. You're my guest and it's my job to make sure you feel welcome." She took up her fork again and for a long time we ate and listened to the rain.

"It's been a very wet spring," she said. "Good for beans but my tomatoes and melons need some sunshine."

I was comforted to know she was planning future meals. My story about Miss Callie and Esau and their remarkable children was almost complete. I was dragging out the research in hopes of spending a few more Thursday lunches on her porch. At first I had felt guilty for having so much food prepared just for me; we ate only a fraction of it. But she assured me that nothing was thrown out. She and Esau and perhaps some friends would make sure the leftovers were properly put away. "Nowadays, I only cook three times a week," she admitted with a hint of shame.

Dessert was peach cobbler and vanilla ice cream. We agreed to wait an hour so we could pace ourselves. She brought two cups of strong black coffee and we moved to the rocking chairs where we did our work. I pulled out my reporter's pad and pen and began making up questions. Miss Callie loved it when I wrote down things she said.

Her first seven children had Italian names - Alberto (Al), Leonardo (Leon), Massimo (Max), Roberto (Bobby), Gloria, Carlota, and Mario. Only Sam, the youngest and the one rumored to be on the lam, had an American name. During my second visit she had explained that she had been raised in an Italian home, right there in Ford County, but it was a very long story and she was saving it for later.

The first seven had all been valedictorians of their classes at Burley Street High, the colored school. Each had earned a PhD and now taught in college. The biographical details filled pages, and Miss Callie, rightly so, could talk about her children for hours.

And so she talked. I scribbled notes, rocked gently in my chair, listened to the rain, and finally fell asleep.