Chapter 41

In the nine years since I'd bought the Times, I had never left it for more than four days. It went to press every Tuesday, was published every Wednesday, and by every Thursday of my life I was facing a formidable deadline.

One reason for its success was the fact that I wrote so much about so many in a town where so little happened. Each edition had thirty-six pages. Subtracting five for classifieds, three for legals, and about six for advertisements, I was faced each week with the task of filling approximately twenty-two pages with local news.

The obits consumed at least one page, with me in charge of every word. Davey Bigmouth Bass took two pages for sports, though I often had to help with a summary of a junior high football game or an urgent story about a trophy buck shot by some twelve-year-old. Margaret put together one page for Religion and one page for Weddings and another for classifieds. Baggy, whose production nine years earlier had been feeble at best, had succumbed almost completely to booze and was now good for only one story each week, which, of course, he always wanted on the front page. Staff reporters came and went with frustrating regularity. We usually had one on board, sometimes two, and they were often more trouble than they were worth. I had to proofread and edit their work to the point of wishing I had simply done it myself.

And so I wrote. Though I'd studied journalism, I had not noticed a propensity to produce vast amounts of words in short periods of time. But once I suddenly owned the paper, and it was time to sink or swim, I discovered an amazing ability to crank out windy and colorful stories about almost everything, and nothing. A moderately severe car wreck with no fatalities was front page news with breathless quotes from eyewitnesses and ambulance drivers. A small factory expansion sounded like a boon to the nation's Gross National Product. A bake sale at the Baptist Ladies' WMU could run for eight hundred words. A drug arrest sounded as if the Colombians were advancing unchecked upon the innocent children of Clanton. A blood drive by the Civitan Club carried the urgency of a wartime shortage. Three stolen pickups in one week had the feel of organized crime.

I wrote about the people of Ford County. Miss Callie's was my first human interest story, and over the years I tried to run at least one a month. There was a survivor of the Bataan death march, the last local veteran of World War I, a sailor who had been at Pearl Harbor, a retiring minister who'd served one small country congregation for forty-five years, an old missionary who'd lived for thirty-one years in the Congo, a recent graduate who was dancing in a musical on Broadway, a lady who'd lived in twenty-two states, a man who'd been married seven times and was anxious to share his advice with future newlyweds, Mr. Mitlo - our token immigrant, a retiring basketball coach, the short-order cook at the Tea Shoppe who'd been frying eggs forever. And on and on. These stories were immensely popular.

However, after nine years the list of interesting people in Ford County had very few names on it.

I was tired of writing. Twenty pages a week, fifty-two weeks a year.

I woke up each morning thinking of either a new story or a new angle for an old one. Any bit of news or any unusual event was inspiration to puff up a piece and stick it somewhere in the paper. I wrote about dogs, antique trucks, a legendary tornado, a haunted house, a missing pony, Civil War treasure, the legend of a headless slave, a rabid skunk. And all the usual stuff - court proceedings, elections, crime, new businesses, bankrupt businesses, new characters in town. I was tired of writing.

And I was tired of Clanton. With some reluctance the town had come to accept me, especially when it became obvious I wasn't leaving. But it was a very small place, and at times I felt suffocated. I spent so many weekends at home, with little to do but read and write, that I became accustomed to it. And that frustrated me greatly. I tried the poker nights with Bubba Crocket and the Foxhole gang, and the redneck cook-outs with Harry Rex and company. But I never felt as though I belonged.

Clanton was changing, and I was not happy with its direction. Like most small towns in the South, it was sprawling in all directions with no plan for its growth. Bargain City was booming, and the area around it was attracting every fast-food franchise imaginable. Downtown was declining, though the courthouse and the county government would always draw people. Strong political leaders were needed, folks with vision, and they were in short supply.

On the other hand, I suspected the town was weary of me. Because of my preachy opposition to the war in Vietnam, I would always be considered a radical liberal. And I did little to diminish this reputation. As the paper grew and the profits increased, and as a direct result my skin got thicker, I editorialized more and more. I railed against closed meetings held by the city council and the county Board of Supervisors. I sued to get access to public records. I spent one year bitching about the almost complete lack of zoning and land-use management in the county, and when Bargain City came to town I said way too much. I ridiculed the state's campaign finance laws, which were designed to allow rich people to elect their favorites. And when Danny Padgitt was set free, I unloaded on the parole system.

Throughout the seventies, I was always on a soapbox. And while this made for interesting reading and sold papers, it also transformed me into something of an oddity. I was viewed as a malcontent, one with a pulpit. I don't think I was ever a bully, I tried hard not to be. But looking back, there were fights I started not only out of conviction but also out of boredom.

As I grew older, I wanted to be a regular citizen. I would always be an outsider, but that didn't bother me anymore. I wanted to come and go, to live in Clanton as I saw fit, then leave for long periods of time when I got bored. Amazing how the prospect of money can change your future.

I became consumed with the dream of walking away, of taking a sabbatical to some place I'd never been, of seeing the world.

The next meeting with Gary McGrew was at a restaurant in Tupelo. He'd been to my office several times. One more visit and the staff would start whispering. Over lunch we again looked at my books, talked about his client's plans, negotiated this point and that one. If I sold, I wanted the owner to honor the new five-year contracts I'd given to Davey Bigmouth Bass, Hardy, and Margaret. Baggy would either retire soon or die of liver poisoning. Wiley had always been a part-timer, and his interest in chasing subjects for photos was waning. He was the only employee I'd told about the negotiations, and he had encouraged me to take the money and run.

McGrew's client wanted me to stay on for at least a year, at a very high salary, and train the new editor. I would not agree to this. If I walked away, then I walked away. I didn't want a boss, and I didn't want the local heat that would come for selling the county's paper to a large firm from outside the state.

Their offer was at $1.3 million. A consultant I'd hired in Knoxville had valued the Times at $1.35 million.

"Confidentially, we've bought the papers in Tyler and Van Buren Counties," McGrew said, late in a very long lunch. "Things are falling into place."

He was being almost completely honest. The owner of the paper in Tyler County had agreed in principle, but the documents had not been signed.

"But there's a new wrinkle," he said. "The paper in Polk County might be for sale. Frankly, we're taking a look at it if you pass. It's quite a bit cheaper."

"Ah, more pressure," I said.

The Polk County Herald had four thousand readers and lousy management. I saw it every week.

"I'm not trying to pressure you. I'm just putting everything on the table."

"I really want a million and a half bucks," I said.

"That's over the top, Willie."

"It's high, but you'll earn it back. Might take a little longer, but look ten years down the road."

"I'm not sure we can go that high."

"You'll have to if you want the paper."

A sense of urgency had arisen. McGrew hinted at a deadline, then finally said, "We've been talking for months now, and my client is anxious to reach a conclusion. He wants to close the deal by the first of next month, or he'll go elsewhere."

The tactic didn't bother me. I was tired of talking too. Either I sold, or I didn't. It was time to make a decision.

"That's twenty-three days from now," I said.

"It is."

"Fair enough."

* * *

The long days of summer arrived, and the insufferable heat and humidity settled in for their annual three-month stay. I made my usual rounds - to the churches on my list, to the softball fields, to the local golf tournament, to the watermelon cuttings. But Clanton was waiting, and the wait was all we talked about.

Inevitably, the noose around the neck of each remaining juror was loosened somewhat. They quite naturally got tired of being prisoners in their homes, of altering their lifelong routines, of having packs of neighbors guard their homes at night. They began to venture out, to try and resume normal lives.

The patience of the killer was unnerving. He had the advantage of time, and he knew his victims would grow weary of all that protection. He knew they would drop their guard, make a mistake. We knew it too.

After missing three consecutive Sundays, for the first time in her life, Miss Callie insisted on going to church. Escorted by Sam, Esau, and Leon, she marched into the sanctuary on Sunday morning and worshiped the Lord as if she'd been gone a year. Her brothers and sisters embraced her, and prayed for her fervently. Reverend Small revised his sermon on the spot and preached on God's protection of his followers. Sam said he went on for almost three hours.

Two days later, Miss Callie slid into the backseat of my Mercedes. With Esau beside her and Sam riding shotgun, we hurried out of Clan-ton with a deputy behind us. He stopped at the county line, and an hour later we were in Memphis. There was a new shopping mall east of town that was all the rage, and Miss Callie dreamed of seeing it. Over a hundred stores under one roof! For the first time in her life, she ate a pizza; she saw an ice rink, two men holding hands, and a mixed-race family. She approved only of the ice rink.

After a full hour of Sam's atrocious navigating, we finally found the cemetery in south Memphis. Using a map from the guardhouse, we eventually located the grave of Nicola Rossetti DeJarnette. Miss Callie placed a bouquet of flowers she'd brought from home on the grave, and when it became apparent she planned to spend some time there, we walked away and left her in peace.

In memory of Nicola, Miss Callie wanted Italian food. I had reserved a table at Grisanti's, a Memphis landmark, and we had a long, delightful dinner of lasagna and ravioli stuffed with goat cheese. She managed to overcome her bias against bought food, and, to protect her from sin, I insisted on paying for it.

We didn't want to leave Memphis. For a few hours we had escaped the fear of the unknown and the anxiety of the waiting. Clanton seemed a thousand miles away, and that was too close. Going back late that night, I found myself driving slower and slower.

Though we didn't discuss it, and the conversation grew quieter the closer we got to home, there was a killer loose in Ford County. Miss Callie's name was on his list. If not for the two dead bodies, that would have been impossible to believe.

According to Baggy, and verified by research in the Times archives, there had been no unsolved murders that century. Almost every killing had been some impulsive act where the smoking gun had been seen by witnesses. Arrests, trials, and convictions had been prompt. Now, there was a very smart and very deliberate killer out there, and every one knew his intended victims. For such a law-abiding, God-fearing community, it was inconceivable.

Bobby, Al, Max, and Leon had, at various times, argued strenuously for Miss Callie to go stay with any of them for a month or so. Sam and I, and even Esau, had joined in these rather vigorous requests, but she would not budge. She was in close contact with God, and he would protect her.

In nine years, the only time I lost my temper with Miss Callie, and the only time she rebuked me, was during an argument about spending a month in Milwaukee with Bobby. "Those big cities are dangerous," she had said.

"No place is as dangerous as Clanton right now," I had replied.

Later, when I raised my voice, she told me she did not appreciate my lack of respect, and I quickly shut up.

As we crossed into Ford County late that night, I began watching my rearview mirror. It was silly, but then it wasn't. In Lowtown, the Ruffin home was guarded by a deputy parked in the street, and a friend of Esau's on the porch.

"It's been a quiet night," the friend said. In other words, no one had been shot or shot at.

Sam and I played checkers for an hour on the porch while she went to sleep.

The waiting continued.