CHAPTER FOUR

Wednesday, January 3

On the morning after Slugger Janx’s disappearance, when Martha May Janx found her boy lying in his own urine on the floor of a cell in the jail of LaFourche Parish, she would not have recognized him as her son if they hadn’t already told her he was the only one in there. A chubby white jailer with sideburns from hell and a reddish blond mustache a walrus would envy stood several feet from her with his thumbs jabbed down behind his uniform belt. He wore no gunbelt, assumedly so little old ninety-eight pound Martha May couldn’t overcome him and take it away.

Martha May’s eyes welled up with tears, and her chin started trembling as she laid eyes on her boy and convinced herself who this blob of battered, once-proud manhood was. Martha May’s wrinkled skin was a color somewhere between copper, bronze, and chocolate, washed out by an application of cream. Her husband Charley was responsible for the depth of their son’s skin color, and even other black people laughed at him and told Charley if he sat in the dark with his eyes and mouth closed it would take a bloodhound to find him.

The jailer glared at Martha May for only a few seconds before growling in a deep but nasally voice of the Deep South, “You shut your mouth and stop blubbering, woman, or yer goin’ out. I got more important things t’ do than listen to an old nigger woman caterwaulin’.”

Martha May knew enough about her world to bite down on her tongue, slam her eyes shut, and hold back her tears until they gave up and retreated into her soul.

She turned and fixed her eyes on the jailer’s collar. “Sir, may I go in with him?”

The jailer stood and relished in torturing her with silence. Finally, he said, “I guess so, but start t’ bawlin’ again an’ I’ll just walk off an’ leave you in there ’til you rot.”

He walked close, and the meek old woman edged far to the side, careful that no part of her body or clothing made contact with him because she could not risk any offense. The door squeaked open, and the man spoke like he was talking to a dog. “You got five minutes, then you go home.”

Martha May went in the cell. She intuited the jailer’s urge to shove her, but he didn’t. She assumed that was not so much out of politeness as it was because he didn’t want her to contaminate his hand.

Martha May Janx was some seventy years old, she thought. Seventy, sixty, eighty—it was much the same, in her world. Living the life of a modern-day sharecropper made a body old, and remembering one’s real age only caused them pain. Her knees clanked and rattled as she sank down to the floor by her boy. She thought the hem of her dress might have gotten some of his urine on it, but it was the least of her worries. She was looking at her shell of a son who suddenly she was not so sure would live through his treatment here if she and Charley couldn’t do something about getting him out.

Bryant appeared to be unconscious. She whispered his name, and he didn’t move. She wanted to reach out and caress his face, the way she had before he went off on the Greyhound to join the Army, so proud to be going to serve his country. But she looked him over carefully, and she couldn’t find one place on his face that wasn’t bleeding, or swollen, or both, and her touch would only bring him pain.

“Bryant,” she whispered, wishing the jailer would leave . . . or die. “Bryant, it’s Mama. Can you wake up for me?” She never believed he could. She wondered if he would wake up ever again. But to her utter shock, he started to move his hand, and after fumbling around on the floor for a while he found her knee and gave it a squeeze. His eyes appeared too swollen to open.

“I’m good, Mama. I’m good. You should get outta this place. This ain’t no kinda place for a lady.” Martha May understood the words from Bryant’s swollen and scabbed lips only because his brother, Baby, was mentally retarded, and he talked in much the same manner that Bryant was talking now. She wondered if that was one more way that Baby was a blessing in her life—although people told her and Charley that Baby was no blessing at all, but a curse on them for doing something bad.

“This lady can take whatever they gives her, Son. You hear me now? I can take whatever they gives me. What do you need, Son? What can I bring you?”

“You ain’t bringin’ him nothin’,” the jailer growled from the hallway. “Keep talkin’ about illegal stuff an’ I’ll throw you outta here so hard you’ll think you sprouted wings.”

The outer door opened, throwing a yellow triangle of light into the cellblock before it shut again and keys rattled outside. The jailer and Martha May turned to see in the doorway a squat, florid-faced man in a gray tweed suit and scuffed shoes. He wore a yellow bowtie that contrasted nicely to the redness in his face, even in the dim-lit cellblock.

“Mornin’, Puckett. I help you?” asked the jailer.

It wasn’t hot in the room. In fact, it was below the cool side. But the newcomer, Puckett, brought a white handkerchief to his cheeks and dabbed them like a dainty debutante touching a napkin to the corners of her mouth after a bite of quiche.

He let his eyes adjust to the dark of the place as they scanned along the row of metal boxes the prisoners of Lafourche Parish called home. “Mornin’ yoreself, Mims,” said Puckett through lips so loose-sounding Martha May wondered if they could hold spit. “Help me? Oh, Judge sent me t’ look at yore prisoner. That’d be him, I s’pose.”

Jailer Mims glanced over at Martha May as if checking to see how visible she was in the half-light. “Well . . . Yeah. You can see a nigger woman kneeling by him, can’t you?”

Puckett stiffened. Martha May meant to look away any time, but that change in Puckett’s demeanor kept her attention. “Now you well know Judge don’t like that talk, Mims.” Puckett’s voice wasn’t commanding or even loud, and he didn’t even look Mims in the face as he dabbed at overgrown eyebrows with his handkerchief. Martha May thought he must have gotten a thousand dollars’ use out of that fifty cent rag.

“Now we c’n both see the ol’ man ain’t here, is he?” Mims countered.

Puckett’s glance, at last, came up and settled into Mims’s face, and there was something hard that Martha May hadn’t expected in his wide blue eyes. “I don’t like it much either. An’ I wonder what Judge would think of bein’ called that.”

With those words, spoken in a soft tone while eyes as hard as stainless steel stabbed Mims in the face, stubby little Puckett brushed the jailer off like flicking a bug off his shoulder.

He walked past Mims as if he were nothing but an ancient stain on the wall that no one noticed anymore. Stopping at Bryant Janx’s cage, he brought both hands up to the bars, giving the bars a close and personal study of disgust before setting his hands on them, the one hand still holding onto his kerchief.

“You Mrs. Janx?”

Martha May stared up at the non-threatening newcomer and felt threatened, because he was white, and she was something else. “I am, yes sir.”

Puckett’s eyes came down to study her son, lying in a heap of former humanity on the cold concrete floor. “He’s a big boy. Soldier, I hear?”

“Yes sir, he was.”

“That bein’ what prompted his appearance in our fine establishment,” added in Puckett. Martha May sensed a tone of sarcasm and distaste in his voice.

“Yes sir, I think. They been callin’ ’im a baby killer. I don’t think he like it.”

Puckett pursed his lips. “No, I don’t imagine. I was early in Korea myself, ma’am. So’s you know. Soldiers should be treated better. Wasn’t their choice to—” He stopped himself and waved the handkerchief around like he was chasing off a fly. “Anyway, no matter. That’s the way some folks are now’days. What we gonna do with yore boy, ma’am? What’d they set his bail at?”

“Nobody will tell me, sir. They done told me it uz too high for me t’ pay anyhow.”

Puckett’s florid, round face seemed to pinch together. Without looking to the side to honor Jailer Mims with a glance, he said, “What is this man’s bail, Mims?” There was no hiding the disdain in his voice.

“Five thousand dollars.”

“Five thousand— Good hell!” Puckett clenched his teeth and turned his head to pierce the jailer with those cold blue eyes. “Good— What kind of justice is that? There’s no way this family could pay that.”

Mims smiled with tight lips. “Ask the old man—if you love ’im so much. He’s yore judge.”

Puckett drew a long, deep breath. Martha May saw it only because she was watching him closely. He seemed to be striving to keep himself under control. His next words were significant in that he dropped any pretense of friendliness or respect for Mims.

“Jailer, I suggest you get in here and clean this man up, and while you’re at it, clean his cell. With bleach.” He reached down and pried a huge silver watch from his pocket and snapped open its lid, peering at it closely. “In one and a half hours it will be dinner time—for me and for Judge. I plan to bring him back down here with me then, and I assume this place will be nice and clean—if you get my drift.”

Mims’s face hardened. He tried to look tough, but he succeeded like a melting bowl of strawberry ice cream. “Fine. And yer time’s up. You too.” He speared Martha May with a manly look he couldn’t make work for Puckett.

Martha May looked down and scanned her son’s face and body for a moment, holding back her tears. She decided a shoulder was the safest thing to touch, and she gave it a squeeze. “I’ll come see you again, Bryant. You be strong, Son. You in our prayers.”

She stood up as Mims opened the cell door, and she stepped into the hall with her eyes fixed on the floor, just like any well-trained woman her color would do in Thibodaux, Louisiana. And all the while, inside her soul, she hated Jailer Mims with all the vehemence of a lioness and wished she had a knife to drive through his spine.

*          *          *

By the time evening fell, Slugger Janx had been visited by his mother, attorney Lawson Puckett, who said his colleagues knew him fondly as “Law,” a Judge Pandra, a doctor, and two janitors who thoroughly cleaned his cage with Clorox and water while he sat on a stool in the one next to it. The jailer then let him back in, with a new set of jail clothes and two fresh-smelling blankets.

Law Puckett came back later, when he was off work for the day, and looked around Slugger’s cage. He sniffed the air, processed what his nose had learned for several seconds, then nodded quietly.

“Hello again, Bryant.”

“Most call me Slugger.”

The corners of Puckett’s mouth tipped up. “Slugger? Okay. Slugger it is. Looks like they cleaned things up. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it back when Judge came. I had to take care of another matter, away out in the country, and it pressed me from being here.”

Slugger nodded. “It’s no problem. That judge was nice enough.” Because of his fiercely swollen lips, he could hardly understand his own words, even when he already knew what he was going to say. He was surprised when Puckett didn’t even blink.

“Judge is a good man. Only thing, I thought I could get him t’ lower your bail.”

Slugger looked up at him, with a steady, honest gaze he had learned as a G.I., not as a black man in the South. He didn’t say anything, just waited.

“But, he wouldn’t. Five thousand dollar. That’s what he set it at, and that’s where it sets, like a statue o’ Stonewall Jackson. He says the only way he would lower it is if you had someplace else to go and somebody to get you there—immediately, and safe. Otherwise, you go outside this jail, and soon’s somebody knows it, you’re dead. Judge won’t have it on his conscience. And so . . . I have to respect what he says, because Judge is a good man, an’ he wants justice much as anybody. He just don’t want you dead on account o’ him.”

Slugger nodded. He hadn’t thought about that aspect of his bail. He hated the fact that it made sense, so here he would sit, just like a slave of old. Serving his country as a brave soldier came down to being about as meaningless as the turd of a stink bug on a hot sidewalk.

“How long I gonna be here then?”

Puckett sighed. “Well, son, that’s the question, ain’t it? I wish I had that answer. Here’s another question, because the answer for this one will tell the answer to the other: You got someplace else to go, do you? Or money to get somewhere?”

“Sir, I got nothin’. No check from Uncle Sam, no nothin’. My Mama and Papa, they can barely feed theirselves and my brother. We got nothin’, and no way t’ get nothin’ ’cause the Army said they didn’t need me no more an’ put me outta work like a used up donkey.”

Law Puckett reached inside his tweed coat and fished his handkerchief out. “I’m sorry, son. Real sorry.” He chuckled. “If they’d ever pay a public defender a real wage, I’d bail you outta here myself and send you up to Chicago or somewhere. Listen—Slugger, right? I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon. Now that I know what they’re doin’ around here with you, I’ll be here every consarned day, too—you can count on that just like the sun comin’ up. And thank you for your service of our country, young man.”

With that, pudgy little Law Puckett turned and walked to the door, rapping on it with his knuckles, then passing through when someone opened it from the other side.

The cellblock fell into shadow, and Slugger Janx leaned back on his bunk and rested the back of his skull against the hard wall. He found that part of his body was about the only several square inches that didn’t hurt.

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