Trigger Warning: Suicide, murder
When I was nine, my father nailed an iron hoop into the trunk of a coffeetree on the tract of land we owned across the creek. We didn’t have enough on that side to do much with, only the quarter acre on the southside was ours, but my mother wound some grapevine across the fence that marked the boundary line.
Estill Bradley never played ball with me, partly because he was almost grown when I was a kid, and partly because his late father and my father had shared a few words about the border. Estill was cordial enough, and his mother was downright pleasant, but they only came to us and we only went to them when something needed doing.
The bark of the tree inched around the back of the hoop over the years. The pressure slumped the rim downwards, but not so bad I didn’t play there still. There was no court and the hoop was far from regulation but the ground had been beaten into smooth dirt and the woodline provided plenty shade.
It was May 25, 1957. Saturday. I had to look up the date in the library newspaper archives but I remembered what day of the week it was because I wasn’t at school and hadn’t graduated yet but wasn’t at church, either.
That morning the grapes on the fence that separated our land from the Bradley’s were meager guardsmen. Gaps in the grapevine showed clear through the fence, which was barely four feet tall, anyway.
Irma Bradley was working in her garden, canvas sack half-open in one hand, picking the early half-runners off the stalks.
I was playing Horse. The hoop wasn’t good for much else, then. I lined up the backwoods equivalent of a free throw and took it. The basketball struck the bump at the rear of the hoop as he shot her.
I whipped my head around. The ball bounced back.
Estill Bradley stood on the edge of the garden. He held a pistol out and down, but loosely, like he wasn’t aiming anymore. The sun stained the side of his face orange.
He looked at me. I saw a vein in the side of his neck thicken. His thin lips, pale and dry, eased open.
“Tell Early he’s a son of a bitch,” he said.
Then he turned his head towards the hillside behind the garden and put the barrel against the bottom of his chin and pulled the trigger. The bullet blew through a clump of hair at the top of his head like a breeze. He fell into the yard.
A car flew past on the highway like a clay train, bringing with it a wind that sent the leaves in the trees across the way waving. The driver might have even honked. Then I was left alone with their bodies.
I inched sidelong through the yard to the edge of the fence, placed my hand atop the fence post, and turned out to face them.
Irma was in the tomatos. Her fall had knocked over a pair of stakes, dipping the thick vines held between them. Her left arm was over her head, fingers stretched at the hillside, and her right arm had bent at the elbow so that its half-closed fist was parallel to her shoulder. The flats of her shoes were turned to the highway.
There might have been fifteen feet between them.
Estill lay flat on his back in the yard, his right knee buckled upwards and his left leg straight out. His left arm had curled across his chest. His right hand was in the grass between his hip and the pistol. Its index finger had been bent back from the weight of the gun when it fell from his grasp.
Tires skidded onto the gravel shoulder. I turned to the highway. A short, overweight man in a stained white shirt thudded out of a pick-up truck and came sloshing down the mild bank towards the garden. It was Tommy Marcum. He owned one of the gas stations over in Globe.
“They dead,” he said.
I didn’t tell him what happened. It seemed plain enough. Tommy pulled a gray handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his face with it. He looked from the dead to the living.
“Anyone been by?” he asked.
Tommy folded his handkerchief in a square and stuffed it back into his pocket. “I’m gonna run down the road and call the sheriff. You plan to sit tight?”
I swung my shoulders to gesture across the creek. “I live over there.”
“I know where you live,” Tommy said, without annoyance. “Is Early home?”
“They’re down the road visitin’.”
Tommy nodded. “Okay,” he said.
He went running, or near to it, up the bank and to his pick-up. He caught his breath by the hood. Then he got inside, started the engine, and eased down the road. He was past the house before he swung off the shoulder and into the right lane.
I looked over Estill Bradley: the pistol beside his hand, the undershirt that peeked above the V of his button-up, the dust on the tips of his shoes. I walked around from behind his head to stand beside him. His eyes were open, clear, slanted downwards.
The tip of his tongue shone in the space between his teeth. His bottom lip drooped a bit, like it had been stung and was swollen.
He looked dull, almost stupid. I was terrified of him, and some nights, I still am.
I glanced up when I heard them running around the front of the house. It was George and Frankie Prater. The father was in front of the son. George’s arms were still caked in grease from the machine shop.
“Lord,” said George, slowing, “He weren’t kidding.”
George stopped a couple feet from Estill and Frankie stopped a couple feet from George. I moved away from the bodies to where I was parallel with Mr. Prater. I don’t know why but I felt embarrassed somehow.
They looked over the scene, both their eyes drifting back and forth from mother to son to mother, but George looked slower and George looked harder and George didn’t look away. In the end, Frankie turned around to face the highway, hands in pockets, almost like he was about to whistle.
“Frankie,” George said, his face set like a brimstone preacher, “Go get the gas can.”
Frankie Prater was an obedient son. He was probably grateful to leave. He strode across the yard and swung around the front of the house and, finally pulling his hands out of his pockets, disappeared behind the oak tree.
George settled his gaze on me.
“Did you hear it?” he asked.
“I sorta saw it,” I said. “I was playing ball on the other side of the fence when it happened.”
George looked over the grapevine and then back down at Estill. He spat away from him and wiped his mouth.
“Did he say anything?”
I couldn’t bring myself to repeat it, then.
A roadster pulled over on the opposite side of the highway. It was bright blue, freshly painted. A log truck went barrelling by. Then a man with slicked back hair stepped out and crossed the road. The girl in the passenger seat stayed put.
The man looked like a Sparks. He might have been a cousin of one. He came to a stop near the corpses and pulled a hand-rolled cigarette to his lips.
“Ain’t this Estill Bradley’s place?”
George answered. “He shot his mother dead.”
“Son of a bitch,” said the Sparks man. “We poured concrete yesterday. He lent me a dollar.”
“You can keep it.”
One car on the side of the road brought others. An old jalopy slowed down to roll past the garden and pulled over onto the near side of the shoulder. Junior Hogge, wearing his trademark Stetson hat, yelled out the window.
“Is that George Prater?” Junior had so thick a holler accent it sounded like he pronounced it izat.
George yelled back at the old man. “There’s some bad business down here, Junior. Irma Bradley’s been killed by her boy Estill.”
The old man looked down the road and then over at us.
“Did you get him?”
George shook his head. “He got himself.”
Junior spit dark water out the window. “Ain’t that a shame,” he said. “I got my grandbaby in the backseat. Better run him home.”
He rose a wrinkled palm. We waved back. Then he drove away.
The girl had waited enough. She stepped out of the roadster, eased the door shut behind her, and started to cross the highway. The Sparks man whipped his head around at her so fast he almost lost his cigarette.
“This ain’t nothing you want to see Laura Jean.”
Laura Jean didn’t let that stop her. She reached the bank and eased her way down it, her black shoes sidling down in delicate steps.
George sighed at the girl. “Maybe you better take her home, son.”
Laura Jean walked up between me and her ride. She stared down at Irma Bradley with big soft eyes. The Sparks man looked over at her, shrugged, and dropped his cigarette down onto the yard.
“I ain’t her keeper,” he said.
Laura Jean nodded at the dead woman. “That’s my momma’s second cousin.” She wrapped her hands together at her waist.
A pick-up truck pulled onto the near side of the shoulder. It was Tommy Marcum and he had parked in about the same spot as before only facing the opposite direction. Frankie Prater was riding in the bed.
Frankie hopped out, reached over the bed wall, and pulled out a gas can. He went around the back of the truck as Tommy went around the front. Frankie, even though he had to take care with the can, was down the bank and with us well before Tommy.
“It’s full,” he said.
George took the gas can. He tested its weight with a lift, glanced over at Laura Jean, and then turned to the Sparks man.
“You take her home now,” he said.
The Sparks man smirked. “I already told ya -”
George grabbed him by the neck of his shirt, pulled him tight, and breathed into his face. “I’m about to burn this bastard. You think Ranze wants her to see that? You think he’ll blame me or you more?”
Then he pushed him back. The Sparks man swayed, glared around at us, and took hold of Laura Jean’s arm.
“We’re leaving,” he said.
She didn’t resist. He lead her gently enough up the bank, across the highway, and to his car. He even opened the passenger side door for her. No one spoke until he had driven away. He didn’t look twice at us.
Tommy Marcum blew his nose into his handkerchief. He cleared his throat like he was spitting chaw. “You mean to do it?” he asked.
George looked down at Estill, over at Irma, and then he put the gas can on the ground. He walked around to the dead man’s head and bent down and grabbed him by the shoulders of his shirt. He pulled him away across the yard.
Both Frankie and Tommy had to step out of the path. They parted on either side and didn’t move to help.
George dragged him five feet or so and then he let go. Estill’s head cracked against the earth. George, breathing heavy then, went back to the gas can. He spun the cap off, stuffed it in his pocket, and walked over to Estill.
A car pulled into the driveway on the other side of the oak tree. I saw Frankie glance that way but I was zeroed in on the body.
George tipped the spout of the can forward and sent gasoline splashing down onto the corpse. He covered his feet and his legs and his chest and his head. The liquid wetted his hair and dripped down the sides of his face. The smell came on us.
“Pa,” said Frankie.
George poured it on.
“You ain’t gonna burn him, George.” It was Clarence Tackett. He wasn’t wearing his deputy uniform but we all knew who he was. He had his gun on his belt but his hand was nowhere near it.
George froze. The last few drops fell. He stood straighter and lowered the gas can and turned around.
“You aim to protect this son of a bitch?” asked George.
Clarence didn’t so much as shrug. “You’re tampering with the scene of a crime. You already moved the body. The sheriff wouldn’t like it none at all if you went and desecrated that corpse. I think the best thing for all of you to do is go stand over there against the bank. I want you fifteen feet back. And I’ll arrest any man disobeys that order.”
George stared at Clarence for a long time. The rest of us stared at George, Clarence dead on, Frankie from the side, and me and Tommy Marcum tried to read his mood through the back of his skull.
“He’s burning, anyway,” he said, and then he walked away. Frankie followed first, but Tommy and I didn’t linger long.
Even more folks came before the sheriff did. Ed Walker was there and Vernon Clack stopped by and Ida Fisher even brought her two little boys. I remember hearing her say, “That boy didn’t love his mother.” Clarence eventually talked her into leaving but she returned once she had dropped her kids off somewhere.
It was the hour before dark when Sheriff Parker, two more deputies, and the ambulance arrived. One of the deputies had a camera. He took pictures of everything except the crowd lined up against the highway.
The ambulance men loaded Irma onto a stretcher. Then they loaded the stretcher into the back of their ambulance.
The driver walked back down the bank and asked something quiet of the sheriff. He shook his head and looked over the faces of the gathered.
“Is that your truck, Tommy?”
My father fell in beside me. The slack brim of his hat bowed down over his eyebrows. He turned his mouth towards my ear and whispered. “Go home, Donnie.” His breath smelled of whiskey and apples.
I slid behind my father and past Ed Walker and then I walked parallel with the garden until the fence. My basketball was at the edge of the dirt court below the coffeetree. I didn’t pick it up.
I turned by the hoop in the trunk and looked back.
The deputies moved towards the body. I watched them carry Estill Bradley up the bank and then deposit him in the bed of Tommy Marcum’s truck. I guess he wasn’t worth an ambulance.
Lee Blevins lives in Lexington, KY. You can follow him on Twitter @BleeSevens or visit his sad, bare-bones website byleeblevins.com.