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Where Trouble Sleeps.

SEND ME TO THE ELECTRIC CHAIR

Alease Toomey sat at her dresser, putting on lipstick, getting ready to take her son up to see the electric chair for the first time. She blotted her lips on a Kleenex, reached for her comb. Her dresser top held the basics only--a jar of Pond's cold cream, a bottle of Jergens lotion, Elizabeth Arden rouge and lipstick, hand mirror, hairbrush--all on a starched white table doily.

She thought about little Terry Daniels, just down the road. Why not take him along, too? Seeing the electric chair might be especially good for him, and certainly his mother wouldn't be taking him up there. And it would be nice for Stephen to have some company along. She blotted her lipstick again on the Kleenex, softened the glare.

TERRY'S MOTHER, INEZ, squinted through the door screen. As Mrs. Toomey explained the purpose of the trip, Inez considered the dress Mrs. Toomey was wearing, a clean white dress with big blue flowers. Mrs. Toomey's hair was shiny and had nice waves in it, and little Stephen was so neat, wearing pressed navy blue shorts and a yellow shirt with a collar, his hair pushed back in front with that butch wax it looked like. She didn't have Terry's pants ironed. But he had some that was clean. Somewhere back in there.

As Mrs. Toomey talked, Inez began to realize that what Mrs. Toomey was about to do was exactly fight for Terry at this time in his little dragged-along, up-and-down life. Her hand touched the screen. She looked over her shoulder and said, "Terry, go get on some pants and shoes. Find some clean pants and a shirt." Boy would go naked to the grocery store if he had a chance. She'd done blistered his ass twice for running naked in the yard. Last time was yesterday when she saw him standing on that tire, pissing in the hole.

"We'll just wait out here in the swing," said Mrs. Toomey.

IN THE SWING, Stephen sat next to the wall and held his mother's hand. His feet didn't reach the porch floor. The chain creaked up at the ceiling. He looked across the hot paved road at the gas station-Train's Place. He knew to take his eyes away. Train's Place was where men drank beer and said bad words. Stephen knew the evil names of two beers: Schlitz and Blatz.

Through the window screen near his elbow he saw the foot of a bed, a rumpled white sheet. He'd never seen an unmade bed in the daytime. The unmade bed made the room seem wild. He heard Mrs. Daniels's voice in there: "Where's 'at other sock?"

"I'on't know."

"Didn't you have it on yesterday?"

"No."

"Do you want me to whup you?"

"No."

"You say No ma'am."

"No ma'am."

"You say No ma'am to Mrs. Toomey, you hear? She's taking you up to see the electric chair, and you listen to what she says and don't you take them shoes off, or nary piece of your clothes... Do you hear?"

"Yes... Yes ma'am."

As they got in the car, Terry's sister, Cheryl, rode up on her bicycle, leaned it against the steps, and waved to Mrs. Toomey and Stephen.

The way Cheryl was shaped all over, the way her head and her body came together like an angel, made her look to Stephen like the woman who came to him when he was almost dead on the desert after he'd been fighting Indians. Cheryl sometimes talked to him when he sat on the porch steps at the grocery store. She would sometimes even sit down beside him.

ALEASE LET STEPHEN and Terry sit in the backseat together. That way they could talk, and she could kind of hear what they talked about.

"Did you know Mr. Jacobs's got a electric paddle in his office?" Terry asked Stephen.

"Terry honey," said Alease, "I don't think that's true about a electric paddle. I think somebody made that up." "That's what Leland said."

"Well, I don't believe that's true. That's a rumor. A rumor is something that's not true. Not usually true."

Stephen rolled his little metal car up and down his leg and across the seat.

"Can I play with that?" Terry asked Stephen.

Alease looked in the rearview mirror. "Stephen. Let Terry play with your car."

The strong, acrid odor from the fertilizer factory came in through the open windows.

Stephen handed his toy car to Terry and said, "I got about five more."

They bumped over the railroad tracks, past a row of shotgun houses, some with flowers on the porch.

"I got a big wood one," said Terry. "Leland's got a real one with wheels on it that come often a scooter."

They drove past the Dairy DeeLight--where June Odum, a neighbor, worked part-time. Alease decided they might stop by on the way back for a little reward if Stephen and Terry behaved. She wasn't against a little reward for herself, either.

"Now, the reason we're going to see the electric chair," said Alease, "is so you-all can see what will happen if you ever let the Devil lead you into a bad sin. They'll put you in the electric chair and electrocute you. And little sins can lead up to big sins."

They drove past red clay road banks, past green pastures with cows, wood outbuildings, fishing ponds, some pastures holding a line or two of thick black-green cedar trees. They passed a man in a dark gray business suit changing a flat tire.

JUST EAST OF Birmingham, Alabama, big splotchy raindrops hit the dusty windshield of a northeast-bound, black, four-door, almost new, stolen 1950 Buick Eight. Jack Umstead looked for the wiper knob, found it. He was very satisfied with the feel of this big Buick. The horn sounded like it weighed a hundred pounds. He kept patting the dashboard, and when he'd stopped for coffee in the sunshine, before the rain started, he had walked around the front of the car and touched the chrome hood ornament. It was shaped like a rocket ship. The heavy wipers worked with a clean, wide sweep--wider than any he'd ever seen--and at two speeds, fast and slow. He needed the fast. In fact, it was raining so hard he might pull over and stop for a few minutes. He didn't need a wreck, and the nose of some highway patrol man sticking in his window.

BACK AT THE blinker light, Inez sat in her big soft chair inside the house where she could look out from the comfortable darkness. She picked up her L&M from the ashtray. She liked to sit in her big chair and prop her feet on the cane-bottomed chair, with her smokes, matches, and ashtray on the little round table beside her. She liked to look out through the screen door from back in there where it was dark. She liked to watch the men over at Train's Place, drinking beer and talking. Beyond that she could see what was going on over at the grocery store.

Sometimes she went back to bed. She didn't like to cook especially and they didn't have company anymore now that Johnny had started drinking again. So sometimes she just gave up and slept. She deserved it. She'd had a hard time keeping her family going, except for Cheryl, who had made it all the way through high school and was turning out all fight. She hadn't heard from her oldest son, Todd, in months. He was somewhere in Memphis, working at a gas station, he'd said.

AS THEY PULLED in and parked, Stephen's mother said, "See how big the building is? That's because there's so many prisoners."

Stephen looked at the tall fence beside the walkway--with barbed wire along the top--at the giant brick building, bigger than the hospital, sitting below a quiet blue sky with moving clouds so white they almost hurt his eyes. He reached for his mother's hand.

"See up there?" she said. "If they try to escape, that guard will shoot them. That's a shotgun he's got."

Stephen knew a gun would shoot an Indian and they'd fall down before they had a chance to go scalp a white man. He'd never seen a scalping close up in a movie. He wondered what it looked like up close. Did they get every bit of the hair, or just a hunk from the top? Why did that kill you? Why didn't a big scab just come?

The guard at the double gate said, "Yes ma'am. What can I do for you? Hey there, boys."

"I'm Mrs. Harvey Toomey. I called ahead to see about y'all showing these boys the electric chair."

"Oh, yes ma'am. We got a note about that." He opened one large gate, then another. "Just push the buzzer at that second door and Buddy'll let you in. How old are you boys?"

"Seven and a half," said Terry.

"Six and a half," said Stephen.

"This one's mine," said Alease. She touched Stephen's head.

These men in uniforms, Stephen knew, found lost dogs, fed milk to babies. On the outside--in their faces--they looked kind of hard, but inside they were perfect. They were prison guards. Maybe he'd be a prison guard when he grew up, stand up there in that high room at the top of the fence and hold a shotgun all day long and then go home to his wife for a good supper. And if he got in a fight with the prisoners and got shot, his beautiful wife dressed in white would rush to him, kneel over him, take care of him and talk to him. She would rub his forehead with a damp, white cloth.

AFTER THE BOYS and mother were gone, the tower guard asked down to the gate guard, "What'd she say?"

"Show them boys the electric chair." He shook a Lucky Strike up out of a pack, lit it with a flip-top lighter that had a rising sun on the side. "They won't but six and s'em year old."

"I wish I'd brought Dennis up here once a year or so from the time he was about two years old. Maybe he'd a stayed in school and made something out of hisself."

"You can't ever tell. When'd he drop out?"

"Eleventh... tenth. Somewhere in there. I think he made it to the eleventh in some subjects. He never did get a chance to play football because he couldn't get up to a damn C average."

"That's a rule that never made no sense to me. What the hell difference does it make what your average is if the only thing you know how to do is play football?"

"Yeah. Well, that was pretty much Dennis's story. Still is. He's thirty-one years old and the only thing he still knows how to do as far as I know is play football. But it's doing him less and less good, I'll tell you that."

"He still driving the drink truck?"

"Yeah."

"He can do that, can't he?"

"Oh yeah."

"Well..." The guard took a draw, blew smoke. "A man needs a skill."

"Yeah. That's for sure. But I'll tell you one thing: Some skills are better than others."

"Well, yeah, that's true. That's true."

INSIDE THE PRISON, a guard led Stephen, his mother, and Terry through a big metal door, several other doors, and finally to a thick door with an eye-level window about the size of a saltine cracker box.

"You boys come on over here and I'll show you the switch first. My name's Sergeant Floyd." Stephen noticed that he walked with a big limp. "Here it is. Now. There's the white, which is off. The green means ready. And the red is zap. Now the executioner can't see the prisoner from here, you see. Here, stand on this stool."

Stephen looked, saw a chair made of dark shiny wood, not as big as he thought it would be, on a low platform. Straps hung to the chair arms and legs and a light-colored canvas bag hung from the top of the chair back.

His mother looked over his shoulder.

"What's that bag?" he asked.

"That's what they put over his head," said Sergeant Floyd, "so you can't see his face when he gets fried. That's something you don't want to see."

"Let me see," said Terry.

"Let's let Terry see," said Stephen's mother. She placed her hands under Stephen's arms and lifted him down.

Terry stepped up, looked in through the window. "Where's the electric paddle?" he said.

"Oh, they just got them at school," said Sergeant Floyd. He looked at Stephen's mother and winked. "Now, this chair though--our bad people up here use this chair twicet... first time and last time." He looked at Stephen, winked again.

Stephen pictured an electric paddle--something shiny metal about the size of a lawnmower set up on the corner of a big desk. You bent over in front of it and a metal paddle hooked to the side of it went rat-tat-tat-tat-tat about a hundred miles an hour.

"I don't think you can teach them too soon," said his mother.

INSIDE THE DAIRY DeeLight, Alease saw June Odum waiting behind the serving window. She wore a little white Sealtest ice cream hat. It seemed as if June's big sad face--as round as the moon, with dark bags beneath her eyes--filled up the entire little window.

"How y'all?' said Mrs. Odum. Her whole body, everything about her, seemed sloped downward somehow--lines out from her eyes and her mouth, her shoulders, all sloped downward.

"Just fine, June. How you doing today?" Alease placed her purse on the counter. "Y'all go on over and sit down, son." "Oh, I'm doing all right, I reckon," said June.

"We want to order three banana splits. These boys have been real good today."

June pulled three bananas from a bunch in a fruit bowl and began her work. She picked up her lit Pall Mall from a MIAMI FLORIDA ashtray and took a draw. The cigarette tip brightened, then dimmed. She moved slowly, as if she were underwater. She made the little grunting sounds she always made while she worked. "Where y'all been? Mmph."

"We been up to see the electric chair."

"Oh?"

"I don't think you can start teaching them too young."

"About... electricity?"

"About right and wrong."

"Oh, yes... mmph." Hard vanilla ice cream curled into the dipper. "Well, one thing for sure--you just can't beat the electric chair for putting a mean man to death. That gas is too easy."

June smoked and worked, and in a minute she placed three banana splits in the window opening.

"Oh, my."

At the table, Stephen asked, "What do prisoners get to eat?"

"They eat bread and water. Maybe a few vegetables."

"Can a prisoner be a Christian?"

"Yes, but that would be hard. Anybody who accepts Jesus as their saviour is a Christian."

"So there might could be a prisoner in heaven?" A speck of whipped cream stuck to Stephen's lower lip. Alease wiped it off with her napkin.

"That's right. But there probably wouldn't be many."

Two soldiers came in and ordered chocolate milk shakes. "Are they in the army?" asked Terry.

"Yes," said Alease. "The army has the brown uniforms. The navy has the blue."

"Has the war started?"

"I'm afraid so. But this one won't be so big, I don't think."

STEPHEN AWOKE to his mother's touch and voice: "It's time to get up, Stephen."

Stephen remembered. "Can we do Feed the Pigs?" He hadn't played that game in a long time.

"Are you sure? Aren't you a little too old for that?"

"No ma'am." This was the best game in the world.

"Here," she said. "Put these on--and this, then come on out on the porch."

He'd gone to sleep holding her hand, as he always did. He'd reached over from his bed to hers, and he awoke to her voice. Just before and just after sleep were times when nothing bothered him, scared him, hurt him, got after him, worried him. Before sleep was when she read him a story or two from Aunt Margaret's Bible Stories, and then they said their prayers. Some of the stories were scary sometimes.

He got out onto the porch as fast as he could, crawled up into the wooden swing, turned, and plopped down.

His mother sat facing the swing--eggs, sausage, and toast in a plate in her lap. She pushed the swing to get it going, stuck a bit of egg with the fork, gave the swing another little push.

"Come here, little pig," she said. She was looking out toward the road.

He looked too. Drops of dew reflected morning sunlight.

"Come here, little pig. I got you something to eat. You come on over here, now. Get you something to eat."

On his next swing forward Stephen mouthed the food.

His mother lowered the fork toward the edge of the porch floor. "Here you go, little pig." Gasp. "Why--what in the world happened to your food, little pig?'

More egg, a bit of sausage. "Little pig, come here, little pig. I got you some good food this time. Here you go little pig...

Now, what... what in the world happened to your food, little pig?"

Stephen saw his black kitty. "Inky just crossed the road," he said, chewing.

"He did? Well, I need to go get him. He'll get run over. Where did he go in the woods?"

"Right across from the mailbox."

"You got to help me keep an eye on him. He must've got out when I emptied the trash. He's your cat now and you've got to watch out after him like David--and Jesus--did with the sheep. When one little sheep didn't come home at night, they'd go out and look and look until they found him. They never gave up until they found the one lost lamb."

JACK UMSTEAD, DRIVING north in his Buick Eight, said to himself, "Rusty Smith, Rusty Smith, Rusty Smith." It was a name he hadn't used in a while. He was listening to Roy Acuff on the radio sing "Great Speckled Bird." It was just a real pleasure to drive this fine automobile.

He wondered how many people in the world said "automobile" and how many said "car." Probably divided about even. That was one of the things that could be known if there was just a way to know. There was a number of people who said "car"--a specific number--and a number who said automobile, and a number who said both, just like there was a number for the grains of sand on earth. Just no way to know all those numbers. And then there were things you couldn't know, like "why" things. Why was hot hot and cold cold--well, maybe that could be known, but it was more complicated. It wasn't just a number like the grains of sand. But even the number of grains of sand would probably be harder than that: figuring out what was a grain and what was a tiny rock. You'd have to do more than count.

After driving past and coming back from the other direction, he pulled into a place called Alligator Jimmy's Fried Catfish Eats. He always drove into and drove out of an establishment in the direction opposite to his real route of travel. Next door to Jimmy's was a little zoo there and a few other places of business across the road. He'd passed a motel within a mile. Two churches back there. He was just outside Atlanta, Georgia, and didn't see why he shouldn't stay here a few days if it felt right. Then if a particular store looked ripe, why, he'd relieve it before heading north.

Umstead, since he'd never heard the call to be a Christian, and couldn't come to believe he was supposed to hear it, had decided some time back that he would more or less live off the land. The one thing he didn't want to do was pretend to himself that he was a Christian, which as far as he could tell was what all Christians did except maybe one or two preachers he'd met. He didn't want no part of halfway.

"What can I get for you?" The man wiped the table with a wet-looking cloth. That had to be Alligator Jimmy.

"I'd like some breakfast. Two over easy, bacon crisp, grits, and toast."

The man turned and shouted to the kitchen, "Two over, bacon, toast." He turned back to Umstead. "It was all crisp this morning. Coffee?"

"That's right. Black. Are you Alligator Jimmy?"

"Yep."

"My name's Rusty Smith and I'm just driving through from Columbia." They shook hands. "Some of my kinfolks used to live around here somewhere and I'm trying to track them down."

"Pleased to meet you, Rusty." Jimmy raised the rag and pointed. "Is that a Buick Eight you're driving?"

"Sure is. Mighty nice car. I like it a lot."

"I been threatening to buy a Chrysler. My daddy always wanted one. Went to his grave wanting one."

Umstead wondered whether or not he ought talk to this guy about something like cooking as a art or cooking as a science. He'd wait until after he got his food. "You only live once," he said.

Now, he didn't mind pretending he was a Christian to somebody else. That could be fun--if the situation was right.

From Where Trouble Sleeps by Clyde Edgerton. Copyright [C] 1997. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing Co., New York, N.Y.
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Author:Edgerton, Clyde
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:3625
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