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Winter 2002, Volume 19.2

Fiction

 

L. L. LeePicture of L. L. Lee.

Cold November


L. L. Lee (Ph.D., Univ. of Utah) is professor emeritus from Western Washington University and a former Fulbright lecturer in Poland. He is the author of Vladimir Nabokov, and he has co-edited The Westering Experience and Women, Women Writers, and the West, among others.

 

The first time I saw Charles Grady was in the summer of my twelfth year. So many years ago, so many. I sat on the padded bench waiting for the barber to finish cutting my father's hair. The snip-snip of the scissors hardly disturbed the sleep-heavy afternoon; my father sat back with his eyes closed, luxurious, proud. My own eyelids fluttered. Quietly the door opened and the sound of the slow traffic came in. I raised my eyes to see who was there. An old man, gray-haired, his eyes rheumy, the rust-colored claws of his hands gripping the top of a weathered walking stick. He stared blindly at us.

"Wait, Charles," the barber said. "Wait. I'll be through in fifteen minutes."

The old man did not seem to hear. His eyes moved dreamily about the room, passing over me without stopping. "Hello, Charles," my father said. The old man's lips moved slightly as he whispered something, a dry sound like that of August grasshoppers flying. And then, crablike, far more agily than I would have thought, he stepped backwards, the door closing softly behind him.

"Oh Christ," the barber said almost tonelessly. He was a tall, fat man with a walrus mustache.

"What was he looking for?" my father asked.

"Damned if I know," the barber replied. "He never says. Just comes in. Sometimes stays to get his hair cut. Mostly though just like that. Comes in, looks around, and goes. Kinda eerie."

Now I knew who he was, the old man who lived in a sod-roofed house set half into the hill in Ashley ward, lived alone. And lived on what? I looked at my father, squinting my eyes.

"Charles Grady," he said.

"I know," I answered. "But, but what's he?"

The barber glanced down at me. "Crazy."

"No," my father said. "Not crazy. Not really crazy. You mean, you've never heard?"

I shook my head.

"He killed a man," my father said. "Killed three men. Executed, I guess you'd say. He was sheriff, oh, thirty years ago? Sheriff here. For about ten years, wasn't it, Paul?"

The barber hesitated. "Before my time."

My father grunted. "Well, anyway, he was sheriff for a long time. There was a killing down on the river. These three guys got drunk, tried to rob the storekeeper at Haxton. The old guy dragged out a gun, and they killed him and his wife. Got caught right after that, running for Colorado. It was an open and shut case. Six people saw them, saw them, anyway, run out of the store. The damn thing is each one blamed one of the others for the shooting, a different one. Nobody ever got straight which one actually did it, but it seems it was all done with one gun."

My father looked off into the past for a moment and then went on: "Like I said, Grady was sheriff. When those guys got convicted they were sentenced to be shot. And since Grady was sheriff, he had to get the firing squad together and direct the shooting. He wanted to resign but nobody'd let him, or maybe he thought he had to do it because he'd asked to be sheriff. Whatever it was, he did it. And then he resigned right afterwards. Resigned and just quit everything. Sat down in that little old cellar house of his and stayed there. He's got a son somewheres who sends him some money. The church people give him some too."

"Yeah," the barber said. "Yeah. But you ain't told him how those three guys died." He grinned hugely.

"That's just rumor. Nobody knows for sure."

"Shore," the barber said. "Would you tell it if you'd been there?" He looked down at me again. "They used to get `em drunk before they shot `em. Kind of made it easier for them, I guess."

"Paul," my father said, "that's enough. He's just a kid."

The barber stopped in mid-word, looking disappointed. I waited, open-mouthed. The scissors began their snip-snip again as the hot afternoon drifted on. Flies buzzed sluggishly across the ceiling.


I learned how the three men died. I was curious; I was twelve and excited. I asked my father questions, and he evaded me. I asked other people and was told stories that even then I saw as untrue. And so I went to find Charles Grady.

The log half-house, half-dugout in which he lived was only a single room, lit by two small, dirty windows in the front; the house ran deep into the hill, and in the darkness at the back squatted his ragged bed, sideways to the front door. Two chairs, a pine-board table, a kind of wooden cupboard with three shelves, a tiny cast-iron stove. The floor was dirt, littered with the debris of thirty years, or so it seemed to my child's eyes. Three or four times a month the old man swept it out, but his sweeping was haphazard, a slashing of the broom in the air, and then a slow blind push through the door of whatever he had caught. His little outhouse, around the turn of the hill, slanted wildly against the slope.

I came up to his door, hesitantly, in the middle afternoon, staring at its open, black emptiness, suddenly a small boy afraid. The old man was sitting on a straight wooden chair just inside. A book was lying on his lap. I halted, not knowing what I was going to say, not even sure perhaps why I was there. I could not ask "Is it true? What was it like?"

He stared at me for a long time, his eyes small and sunken, and my hands trembled. And then he laughed abruptly, a high, scratching laughter. "Come on, come on, boy. You scared? No reason to be scared."

I could not answer.

"You came to see the old loony, didn't you?" he said.

"No," I mumbled.

He stood up, a small, bent man, and came out into the hard Utah sunlight, carrying the book. His scraggly beard was dirty. "Take a look," he said, "a good look."

I tried to smile, backing away as unobtrusively as I could.

"But you don't have to be scared," he said. "I don't hurt nobody. I don't even hurt no flies." He smiled to himself, the brown remnants of his teeth barely visible.

Now he lowered himself to the ground, leaning back against the warm logs of his house, and then gestured to me to sit down too. "How old are you?" he asked without warning.

"Twelve," I answered, surprised.

"Ah." There was a long pause, and then he asked quietly, mildly, "You know what most people come out here to see me for, don't you?"

"No," I said.

"Not to see a loony. No, not that. They come out to find out what makes a loony. That's what they're interested in. What makes a loony. I guess some of them decide they know. Then they leave me alone. But I don't tell them anything. No, I don't tell them anything. Let me tell you, you're safe when you don't tell nobody anything." I did not understand him. He put his chin in his cupped, twisted hand, rested his elbow on his knee, and glared blindly at the valley in front of us. From down across the canal we could hear a tractor motor lug, come almost to a stop, and then roar again. The valley, green against its bare brown hills, was a cup, and I looked at it instead of him.

"You come here for that reason?" he demanded.

"No," I said. "I don't know what you mean." But now I did, and I was a liar.

He giggled, chittering, birdlike. I could not tell what he meant. Then he was silent again for a long while. At last he stirred the light dust in front of him with a crooked forefinger. The book lay beside him, and now I could see that it was the Bible. He put his hand on it as though to hide it from my eyes.

And once more we sat there in the dry, brilliant heat of midsummer, hearing the tractor mutter away into its distance, hearing under that motor the rising splash of the water in the canal falling over a headgate, hearing a grasshopper whir, stop, whir again. The old man sighed.

"I've got to go," I said. I stood up and gazed at the green valley in its canals. "I'll come and see you again."

"Oh," he whispered.


The rest of the summer I came, riding my bicycle over the paved road and then over the dirt road, whistling. At first we sat in a dead silence in the sun's glare. I waited for him to speak, but he would crouch like a warped statue under his broken hat and stare into an unimaginable distance.

Then one day he began, with no preliminaries, telling me stories of his childhood, that far away time when there were still Indians who passed through the valley hauling their pitiful goods, their children, sometimes their old women, on travois. And they begged from the white settlers, most of them hardly richer. "There wasn't no canals then," he said. "You dug your own ditch from the crick. My father killed himself tryin' to make a livin' out of that salt-grass and alkali ground over there on the south side of the valley. He come here too late. Our house wasn't no better than this one." He laughed mirthlessly, that scratching laughter.

And slowly my child's mind began to grasp his life, the poverty, the queer ambition to break out, the eight short years of country school, a marriage that went sour and ended, the sudden lucky break of being named a deputy sheriff. He was twenty-eight, and he was a deputy for six years.

But then he halted, circled backwards to the childhood, would not go past the days as deputy. "You were sheriff, weren't you?" I asked, deliberately ingenuous.

He shook his head impatiently, not denying, not affirming. But now he also began to shrink away from the sun, going inside the house into the heavy shade even though the days were slowly shortening. Yet always he talked, talked, sitting at last on his rumpled bed, his hand on his pillow, always facing the front door which he kept open as much as possible, even in the hard fury of a late summer thunderstorm.

"Why don't you shut the door?" I asked plaintively. The lightning dazzled my eyes, and I trembled before the huge thunder.

"Want all the light I can get," he said. "Don't want nobody sneakin' up."

Stupidly brutal, I laughed. "Nobody'd bother you. There isn't anything to steal."

He stared at me angrily for a moment, his left hand jerking, and then the light died in his eyes. Now he slumped backward on his bed, not looking at me. I sat in horror at what I had done.

August was almost gone before he began to talk to me again. Still, he went over the same ground only, stopping always as he came to the years of being a deputy. I did not dare ask more.

With September I was in school and could see him only on weekends. Nevertheless, with that cruel curiosity, I still pedaled my bicycle through the soft autumn warmth to sit in his one chair and listen to him, urging him wordlessly to make that leap into the future. I leaned forward and smiled. He sat facing the door, his hand always on his pillow, and talked, creating his lost world, that perverse Eden he had tried to escape. I knew now that he kept a pistol under the pillow, but it did not frighten me.

But at last I was bored. I fidgeted, played with my pocketknife. He saw my boredom and talked faster. And we slipped further into autumn. The first frosts silvered the corn shocks in the fields, reflected light back at the sky. The last geese barked across the high, thin clouds. I missed a Saturday, missed another Saturday.

But there was a flowing, late Indian summer of days and I came back to him, nagged by my curiosity. His door was closed. I knocked, heard his thin voice shout furiously, "Who's there?" I answered and his voice came altered, quiet, "Come in, son, come in." He was sitting upright in his hard chair, drawn back almost to the rear wall and the bed. He reached out his stiff, bent hand and I took it to shake, but he held on to me for a long moment before letting go. His Bible was on his lap, but he could not have been reading in that darkness.

We talked, a wandering talk. He did not mention his past, did not ask me where I had been. But at one moment I said, rather proudly, "My birthday's coming up. I'll be thirteen. And Dad's going to get me a .22 of my own." I had been using my older brother's.

He stared at me unblinkingly. "Your birthday? A .22." And then, with a grating slowness, "When?"

"This month," I said. "November 17th." I gaped at him.

"November," he replied, his voice dropping away. "November. It's here again. I'm losing track of time." And suddenly he bent his head, not looking at me, and began his story. "He looked like you," Charles Grady said, a tiny hover of sound, the words stretched out as though he were in pain. "He looked a lot like you."


The third man was named Earl Thomson. But he was not really a man. He was only seventeen, a small, thin boy. And somebody had made an error. "Maybe it was me," Charles Grady mumbled. "Maybe it was me. I honest to God don't know." Each condemned man was to be given a bottle of whiskey the night before the sentence was to be carried out, but the third bottle was never brought. There were twenty minutes between executions. The first two men, half-walking, half-carried, stumbled across the frozen bare earth to sit unseeingly on the wooden chair before the sandbags. They both died silently and quickly as the bullets struck them.

But Earl Thomson was sober, had been sober all the night long, waiting for that rising of the sun. It was a cold, yellow November sun. And when they came to get him, he fought, screaming. It took four guards to haul him to the awkward upright chair and tie him to it. He shouted his fear and pain and hatred at the execution squad who stood there numbly. They remembered only one sentence, "God damn you all! God damn you all!" At the last moment he hurled himself forward, but the chair twisted and he was lying on his side, his blindfolded face lying there furiously thrust out at the rifle muzzles.

"It was my job to tell `em to shoot," Charles Grady muttered. "It was my job. I had to do it."

The boy spun back heavily in the dirt as the rifles went off. There was a chill silence as Earl Thomson's legs kicked at the dust. At last Charles Grady walked stiffly forward and looked down, forcing himself to see that Earl Thomson was really dead.

And then Charles Grady went back home and resigned as sheriff.


He looked at me, his eyes demanding something. But I did not know what it could possibly be. I nodded my head at him. And then I got up and went out the door, out the door and home.

Had he, at last, satisfied my curiosity, that childish, sour, and, yes, cruel, unforgiving curiosity? And so I did not go to see him again. Or, rather, I went one last time. The November nights glittered with hard, distant stars, and you could hear the dogs for miles.

But on my birthday, carrying my new .22 balanced precariously across the handlebars, I rode my bicycle across the iron-hard frozen ruts of the road and climbed the gray clay hillside to his door. A broken wisp of gray smoke circled up from his metal chimney, but nothing more. Breathing hard, I knocked, knocked again, held my breath and listened, and heard nothing. I shouted. And again nothing. I stood there in the burning cold and waited. A door slammed in the far away, and I could see a few Herefords single-filing across a field. I wanted to try the door, but I did not dare. And so I turned away, frightened and heartsick.

My father drove us, himself and our two neighbors and me, back, the car keeping us warm against the cold. That cold struck us bitterly as we got out and stared up the hill. There was no smoke at all coming from the chimney now.

We tramped up the slope to the closed door and stood there in a small semicircle, my father holding me by the shoulder. "Charles," he called, his voice drifting off into the brittle air.

And then we waited. At last my father leaned forward and knocked. The door sounded hollow and distant under his knuckles.

"Call him," my father whispered.

"Mr. Grady!" I cried out.

And once more we waited.

My father knocked again. But now I went under his arm and, twisting the tarnished knob, pushed at the door. It rushed back, away from me, and I stood there leaning into the darkness and chill silence. Slowly my eyes focused, and I could see Charles Grady, lying on his side on his bed and facing the door. His hand was under his pillow, and I thought of the pistol and hung forward in the air.

"You've come?" he asked, his voice a terrible croak.

"It's me!" I shrilled. My father hauled at me, but I caught hold of the door jamb.

"Earl?" Charles Grady whispered. "Earl." My father swore under his breath and tried to break my hold.

"No, Mr. Grady, no, it's me!" I repeated, frantic.

"Earl," Charles Grady said. He heaved himself upward. Now his hand came out from under the pillow. In it was his Bible. It fell from his curled hand, and he slid face downward after it, over it, onto the bare dirt floor. We stood there a long moment, the cold wind blowing against our backs, and I knew already that I too would be guilty all my life. 

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