I’ve heard it said that jail stinks of despair. What a load. If jail stinks of any emotion, it’s fear: fear of the guards, fear of being beaten or gang-raped, fear of being forgotten by those who once loved you and may or may not anymore. But mostly, I think, it’s fear of time and of those dark things that dwell in the unexplored corners of the mind. Doing time, they call it—what a joke. I’ve been around long enough to know the reality: It’s the time that does you.
For some time, I’d been bathed in that jailhouse perfume, sitting knee-to-knee with a client who’d just gotten life without parole. The trial had damned him, as I’d told him it would. The state’s evidence was overwhelming, and the jury had zero sympathy for a three-time loser who had shot his brother during an argument about who’d get control of the remote. Twelve of his supposed peers, and not one cared that he’d been drinking, that he was cracked to the gills, or that he didn’t mean to do it. No one cared that his brother was an ass and a felon in his own right, not the jury and least of all me. All I wanted was to explain his appeal rights, answer any legal questions, and get the hell out. My fee application to the state of North Carolina would wait until the morning.
On most days I was ambivalent, at best, about my chosen profession, but on days like this I hated being a lawyer; that hatred ran so deep that I feared something must be wrong with me. I hid it as others would a perversion. And this day was worse than most. Maybe it was the case or the client or the emotional aftermath of one more needless tragedy. I’d been in that room a hundred times, but for some reason it felt different this time. The walls seemed to shift and I felt a momentary disorientation. I tried to shake it off, cleared my throat, and stood. We’d had bad facts, but the decision to go to trial had not been mine to make. When he’d stumbled from the trailer, bloody and weeping, he’d had the gun in one hand, the remote control in the other. It was broad daylight and he was out-of-his-head drunk. The neighbor looked out the window when my client started screaming. He saw the blood, the gun, and called the cops. No lawyer could have won the trial—I’d told him as much. I could have had him out in ten, but he refused to take the plea arrangement I’d negotiated. He wouldn’t even talk about it.
The guilt may have been too much, or perhaps some part of him needed the punishment. Whatever the case, it was over now.
He finally tore his gaze from the jail-issue flip-flops that had known a thousand feet before his and forced his eyes to mine. Wet nostrils shone in the hard light, and his red eyes jittered, terrified of whatever they saw in that jigsaw mind of his. He’d pulled the trigger, and that brutal truth had finally taken root. The trail had wound its way across his face as we’d talked for the past few hours. His denials had sputtered to a halt, and I’d watched, untouchable, as hope shriveled and died. I’d seen it all before.
A sopping wet cough, his right forearm smearing mucus across his cheek. “So that’s it, then?” he asked.
I didn’t bother to answer. He was already nodding to himself, and I could see his thoughts as if written in the dank air that hung between us: life without parole and him not yet twenty-three. It generally took days for this brutal truth to bore through the bullshit tough-guy act that every dumb-ass killer carried into this place like some kind of sick birthright. Maybe this joker was smarter than I’d given him credit for. In the brief time since the judge handed down his sentence, he’d grown the lifer stare. Fifty, maybe sixty years behind the same redbrick walls. No chance of parole. Not twenty years, not thirty or even forty, but life, in caps. It would kill me, and that is God’s own truth.
A glance at my watch told me I’d been in there for almost two hours, which was my limit. I knew from experience that the smell had by now permeated my clothes, and I could see the dampness where his hands had pawed at my jacket. He saw the watch come up and he lowered his eyes. His words evaporated in the still air, leaving a vacuum that my body settled into as I stood. I didn’t reach to shake his hand and he didn’t reach for mine, but I noticed a new palsy in his fingers.
He was old before his time, all but broken at twenty-three, and what might have been sympathy wormed into a heart I’d thought forever beyond such things. He started to cry, and his tears fell to the filthy floor. He was a killer, no question, but he was going to hell on earth first thing the next morning. Almost against my will, I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He didn’t look up, but he said that he was sorry, and I knew that this time he truly was. I was his last touch with the real world, the one with trees. All else had been pared away by the razor-sharp reality of his sentence. His shoulders began to heave beneath my hand, and I felt a nothingness so great, it almost had physical weight. That’s where I was when they came to tell me that my father’s body had finally been found. The irony was not lost on me.
The bailiff who escorted me out of the Rowan County Jail and to the office of the district attorney was a tall, wide-boned man with gray bristles where most of us have hair. He didn’t bother to make small talk as we wound through the halls packed with courthouse penitents, and I didn’t push it. I’d never been much of a talker.
The district attorney was a short, disarmingly round man who could turn off his eye’s natural twinkle at will; it was an amazing thing to watch. To some, he was a politician, open and warm. To others, he was the cold, lifeless instrument of his office. For a few of us behind the curtain, he was a regular guy; we knew him and liked him. He’d taken two bullets for his country, yet he never looked down on people like myself, what my father had often called “the soft underbelly of a warless generation.” He respected my father, but he liked me as a person, and I’d never been sure why. Maybe because I didn’t shout the innocence of my guilty clients the way most defense lawyers did. Or maybe because of my sister, but that was a whole different story.
“Work,” he said as I entered the room, not bothering to get up. “I’m damn sorry about this. Ezra was a great lawyer.”
The only son of Ezra Pickens, I was known to a few as Jackson Workman Pickens. Everybody else liked to call me “Work,” which was humorous I guess.
“Douglas.” I nodded, turning at the sound of the office door closing behind me as the bailiff left. “Where’d you find him?” I asked.
Douglas tucked a pen into his shirt pocket and took the twinkle from his eye. “This is unusual, Work, so don’t look for any special treatment. You’re here because I thought you should hear it from me before the story breaks.” He paused, looked out the window. “I thought maybe you could tell Jean.”
“What does my sister have to do with this?” I asked, aware that my voice sounded loud in the cramped, cluttered space. His eyes swiveled onto me and for a moment we were strangers.
“I don’t want her to read about it in the papers. Do you?” His voice had chilled; the moment had not played well. “This is a courtesy call, Work. I can’t go beyond the fact that we’ve found his body.”
“It’s been eighteen months since he disappeared, Douglas, a long damn time with nothing but questions, whispers, and the looks that people give when they think you can’t tell. Do you have any idea how hard this has been?”
“I’m not unsympathetic, Work, but it doesn’t change anything. We haven’t even finished working the crime scene. I can’t discuss the case with a member of the defense bar. You know how bad that would look.”
“Come on, Douglas. This is my father, not some nameless drug dealer.” He was clearly unmoved. “For God’s sake, you’ve known me my whole life.”
It was true—he had known me since I was a kid—but if there was any cause for sentiment, it failed to reach the surface of his lightless eyes. I sat down and rubbed a palm across my face, smelling the jailhouse stink that lingered there and wondering if he smelled it, too.
“We can do the rounds,” I continued in a softer tone, “but you know that telling me is the right thing.”
“We’re calling it murder, Work, and it’s going to be the biggest story to hit this county in a decade. That puts me in a tough spot. It’ll be a media frenzy.”
“I need to know, Douglas. This has hit Jean the hardest. She’s not been the same since that night—you’ve seen it. If I’m going to tell her about our father’s death, I’ll need to give her some details; she’ll want them. Hell, she’ll need them. But most of all, I need to know how bad it is. I’ll need to prepare her. Like you said, she shouldn’t read it in the paper.” I paused, took in a breath, and focused. I needed to visit the crime scene, and for that I needed his agreement. “Jean needs to be handled just right.”
He steepled his fingers under his chin, as I’d seen him do a thousand times, but Jean was my trump, and he knew it. My sister had shared a special friendship with the DA’s daughter. They’d grown up together, best friends, and Jean was in the same car when a drunk driver crossed the centerline and hit them head-on. Jean suffered a mild concussion; his daughter was nearly decapitated. It was one of those things, they said, and it could just as easily have been the other way around. Jean sang at her funeral, and the sight of her could pull tears from Douglas’s eyes even now. She’d grown up under his roof and, apart from myself, I doubted that any one person felt her pain the way Douglas did.
The silence stretched out, and I knew that my arrow had slipped through this one small chink in his armor. I pressed on before he could think too much.
“It’s been a long time. Are you sure it’s him?”
“It’s Ezra. The coroner is on-scene now and he’ll make the official call, but I’ve spoken with Detective Mills and she assures me that it’s him.”
“I want to see where it happened.”
That stopped him, caught him with his mouth open. I watched as he closed it.
“Once the scene is cleared—”
“Now, Douglas. Please.”
Maybe it was something in my face, or maybe it was a lifetime of knowing me and ten years of liking me. Maybe it was Jean after all. Whatever the reason, I beat the odds.
“Five minutes,” he said. “And you don’t leave Detective Mills’s side.”
Mills met me in the parking lot of the abandoned mall where the body had been found, and she was not pleased. She radiated pissed-off from the bottom of her expensive shoes to the top of her mannish haircut. She had a pointed face, which emphasized her look of natural suspicion; because of this, it was impossible for anyone to find her beautiful, but she had a good figure. She was in her midthirties—about my age—yet lived alone and always had. Contrary to speculation around the lawyer’s lounge, she wasn’t gay. She just hated lawyers, which made her okay in my book.
“You must have kissed the DA’s ass to get this, Work. I can’t even believe I’ve agreed to it.” Mills stood only five five or so but seemed taller. What she lacked in physical strength, she made up for in smarts. I’d seen her shred more than one of my colleagues who had presumed to challenge her on cross.
“I told him I won’t leave your side, and I won’t. I just need to see. That’s all.”
She studied me in the gray afternoon light and her animosity seemed to drain away. The sight of a softening expression in a face rigorously trained against such things was vaguely repellant, yet I appreciated it nonetheless.
“Stay behind me and touch nothing. I mean it, Work. Not one damn thing.”
She began a purposeful stride across the cracked, weed-filled parking lot, and for a moment I was unable to follow. My eyes moved over the mall, the parking lot, and then found the creek. It was a dirty creek, choked with litter and red clay; it flowed into a concrete tunnel that ran underneath the parking lot. I could still remember the stink of it, the chemical reek of gasoline and mud. For an instant, I forgot why I’d come.
It could have happened yesterday, I thought.
I heard Mills call my name and I tore my eyes away from that dark place and the childhood it had come to represent. I was thirty-five now and here for a very different reason. I walked away from it, walked to Mills, and together we approached what had once been the Towne Mall. Even in its prime, it had been ugly, a prefab strip mall sandwiched between the interstate and a power-transfer station that chewed at the sky with towers and high-tension lines. Built in the late sixties, it had struggled for years with imminent closure. Only a third of the stores had had tenants as of a year ago, and the last one had fled with winter. Now the place crawled with bulldozers, wrecking balls, and itinerant workers, one of whom, according to Mills, had located the body in a storage closet at the back of one of the stores.
I wanted the details and she gave them to me in short, bitten sentences that the warm spring breeze could not soften.
“At first all he saw were ribs, and he thought they were dog bones.” She threw me a glance. “Not bones that a dog would eat, but a dog skeleton.”
I nodded foolishly, as if we weren’t talking about my father. To my right, a hydraulic jackhammer gnawed concrete. To my left, the land rose to the heart of downtown Salisbury; the buildings there seemed to gleam, as if made of gold, and in a sense they were. Salisbury was a rich town, with a lot of old money and a fair amount of new. But in places, the beauty was thin as paint and could barely hide the cracks; for there was poverty here, too, although many pretended there was not.
Mills lifted the yellow crime-scene tape and ushered me underneath. We entered the mall through what used to be a double door, now a ragged mouth with crushed cinder-block teeth. We moved past boarded-up storefronts to the last in the row. The door was open beneath a sign that read nature’s own: pets and exotica. Nothing more exotic than rats had been behind those plywood sheets for years—rats and the decaying corpse of Ezra Pickens, my father.
The power was off, but the crime-scene unit had set up portable spotlights. I recognized the coroner, whose pinched face I would forever remember from the night my mother died. He refused to meet my eyes, which was unsurprising. There had been many difficult questions that night. From the rest, I got a few polite nods, but most of the cops, I could tell, weren’t happy to see me. Nevertheless, they moved aside as Mills guided me through the dusty store to the closet at the back. My gut told me that they moved out of respect for Mills and my father more than they did for any grief they might imagine me to feel.
And just like that, there he was, ribs gleaming palely through a long rip in a shirt that I had forgotten but now remembered quite well. He looked something like a broken crucifix, with one arm outflung and his legs folded together. Most of his face lay hidden beneath what looked to be a candy striper’s shirt still on its hanger, but I saw a porcelain stretch of jawbone and remembered whiskers there, pale and wet under a streetlamp on the last night I saw him alive.
I felt eyes upon me, and they pulled me away. I looked at the gathering of eager cops; some were merely curious, while others, I knew, sought their own secret satisfaction. They all wanted to see it, my face, a defense attorney’s face, here in this musty place where murder was more than a case file, where the victim was flesh and blood, the smell that of family gone to dust.
I felt their eyes. I knew what they wanted, and so I turned to look again upon the almost empty clothes, the flash of bone so pale and curving. But I would give them nothing, and my body did not betray me, for which I was grateful. For what I felt was the return of a long-quiescent rage, and the certain conviction that this was the most human my father had ever appeared to me.
Copyright © 2006 by John Hart