BEN & SARAH: A MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI
Writer Jeff Conine began researching and writing Ben & Sarah: A Murder in Mississippi after discovering that one of his students was the sister of once notorious murderer Ben Darras, who is doing life without parole at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, for his part in the sensational murderous rampage inspired by the movie “Natural Born Killers.” The case was famous in part because megawriter John Grisham was a friend of the first murder victim in the case who was shot and killed by Ben and his cohort Sarah. Grisham campaigned against Oliver Stone for making the movie that inspired Ben and Sarah to commit copycat murders. Eventually Stone and Time-Warner won the First Amendment case after it dragged on in the Louisana courts. Ben and Sarah’s story was the subject of a recent Discovery Channel investigation. But this is Conine’s story as his alter ego, Caine, journeys to the prison to interview Ben. In a parallel universe, he lives out his own descent into the heart of darkness, an adventure that takes him to The Blues Club Ground Zero that in reality is actor Morgan Freeman’s Club in Clarksdale, close to the prison. Boryanabooks is proud to present these excerpts from Conine’s story.
FIRST, SOME INFORMATION ON THE BACKGROUND OF THE NATURAL BORN KILLERS MURDERS FROM CRIMELIBRARY.COM.
In the 215 years since the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing, among other things, the right to free speech, it has undergone many test cases. In the mid-1990s, it underwent yet another test when a motion picture, its well-known director, the production company that released it, and a number of other principals were sued by the victim of a “copycat crime” inspired by that particular movie.
The movie was titled “Natural Born Killers” and its director was Academy Award-winner Oliver Stone. Its release in 1994 inspired a young couple from Oklahoma to set out on what they planned to be a killing spree that left one person dead and another paralyzed from the neck down.
When 18-year-old Benjamin James Darras and his 18-year-old girlfriend Sarah Edmondson left their rented cabin in Oklahoma on the morning of March 6, 1995, little did they know that their actions would result in a First Amendment test case that went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. Little did they know, also, that their actions would pit one of Hollywood’s top directors against one of the world’s bestselling authors in a clash of titans. The only thing on the couple’s mind that particular morning was to have fun and mayhem and duplicate the deeds of another couple in a film they watched multiple times.
Seven years after their crimes, through numerous court hearings and appeals, the First Amendment rights of Stone and the other defendants were upheld, but at a heavy price. Despite a preponderance of evidence that young people are influenced to commit violent crimes by what they see in the media, and despite numerous instances of “copycat crimes,” the media was basically absolved of blame for the actions of these perpetrators. A dozen deaths and other violent incidents on two continents were linked directly or indirectly to “Natural Born Killers,” yet the media and video game companies continue to depict violence in such a way as to almost glorify it.
On the one hand in the case was the right of a film’s writers and director to free expression of their creative efforts. On the other hand was the contention of the plaintiffs and their attorneys that freedom has its limitations. In the 1919 case Schenk v. United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great Supreme Court Justice, delivered a landmark opinion that, while free speech is indeed protected by the Constitution, no one has the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater — or incite others to commit acts of violence.
How this case made its way into the international headlines is a story that began in a small Oklahoma town for two people on hallucinogenic drugs with an obsession for R-rated movies, and it ended in tragedy for two innocent people.
SYNOPSIS OF BEN & SARAH
After the opening inciting incident – a brutal murder in Mississippi ten years before the present action – Caine, a broken-down writer, makes his way to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman to interview the murderer of a friend of a famous Mississippi writer. He checks into a room above a blues club and the next day goes to the Farm and begins his interview.
The main story opens at this point:
Ben and Sarah, two eighteen-year-olds from Oklahoma, one poor, one rich and privileged, meet at an anachronistic would-be hippie Commune near a university in Cherokee county, OK. They fall in love, a love magnified and twisted by their indulgence in LSD. Freaking out over family and love pressures, the already unstable girl convinces the boy that they must leave town. They take a gun and set out on an odyssey of perverse discovery. In Hernando, MS, they copycat a popular violent film when the young man kills a random stranger in pointblank cold blood (the first scene). They proceed to Louisiana where the girl shoots a woman in a convenience store. They flee to Florida to Disneyworld where the boy has a strange epiphany.
Meanwhile, Caine, the interviewer, haunts the blues club downstairs from his room. He falls in love with a phantom loner, who has fled husband and family, and with her they wander the northern Delta, paralleling Ben and Sarah’s love in short nocturnal scenes, reflecting the main story as it unfolds during each day’s prison interviews. Caine is torn between the prison trauma and the joy of this much younger self-destructive stranger, while blues play in the background and drink flows (and LSD is introduced near the end) over the five days framing the main narrative.
The main narrative (constituting the majority of the story) starts in Oklahoma as the couple falls in love, then leaves town, through the murders in two states, then goes to Florida. An epilogue dramatizes their capture by the F.B.I. in Muskogee, OK, some months later and their extradition to Louisiana. The girl is steadily going insane, the boy trying to control her. Neither realizes the irony of who is in fact in control.
The writer and perp, meanwhile, become brothers, shrink- patient, priest-penitent, father-son during the intervening short scenes of interviews at the prison which is straight (nonfiction) dialogue.
In the end the couple returns to Oklahoma where the girl self-destructs and gets both of them arrested.
The woman leaves Caine at the famous Clarksdale Crossroads at midnight of the final night, but everyone takes something from the experience. He will see the woman again briefly in the last scene.
Muskogee, Oklahoma, is a small city of just under 40,000 people in the eastern quadrant of the Sooner State. It is perhaps best known for Merle Haggard’s late-1960s song, “Okie From Muskogee,” that became a pro-American, anti-hippie anthem during a turbulent era in our nation’s history. Depicted as a bastion of patriotism where real men wear leather boots and “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,” Muskogee was home to Sarah Edmondson. She was born on July 26, 1976, just three weeks after the nation’s Bicentennial.
But, despite Haggard’s boast that “we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee; We don’t take our trips on LSD,” by the ’90s, young people in eastern Oklahoma were doing just that. Including Ben Darrus and Sarah Edmondson. The drug culture that began in the large American cities and college towns in the 1960s had filtered down to small town America within the span of a generation.
Their lives couldn’t have been more opposite. Sarah was an honors student in high school, born into a wealthy and influential family in Oklahoma politics. Her father, James E. “Jim” Edmondson, was a longtime district court judge for Muskogee County, elected in 1983. Her grandfather, Ed Edmondson, was a U.S. Congressman who ran twice for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. Her great-uncle, James Howard Edmondson, was governor of Oklahoma from 1959-1963, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate caused by the death of his predecessor. In keeping with the family tradition of public service, Sarah’s uncle, Drew Edmondson, has been Oklahoma’s Attorney General since 1994.
Sarah had everything in the world going in her favor; looks, intelligence, personality, popularity, and no shortage of political connections. Had she chosen to go into the practice of law and keep alive the Edmondson family tradition of public service, she would no doubt have received plenty of encouragement and financial support from her prominent, well-connected family.
Ben Darrus’ background was very different from Sarah’s. Hailing from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, not far from Muskogee, his father was an alcoholic. He divorced Ben’s mother twice, then later committed suicide. Ben dropped out of high school and had a history of drug abuse and psychiatric treatment.
Sarah graduated with honors in May 1994 and spoke to her parents about possibly pursuing a career in journalism. However, after three weeks in a junior college, she dropped out and took a job as a waitress to repay her parents for tuition. In January 1995, she tried college again, enrolling at Northeastern Oklahoma State University in Tahlequah, but she dropped out the following month. In all likelihood, it was while attending college there that she met Ben.
If Ben had a negative influence on Sarah, it was only because the potential was already there. Since her early teens Sarah had a history of drug abuse and psychiatric problems. She underwent “severe emotional stress” following the death of her grandfather, Ed Edmondson, in December 1990. Soon after that her best friend committed suicide and several other friends were killed in an auto accident. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital at the age of 13 and, after an eight-week stay, she continued therapy as an outpatient.
EXCERPTS FROM THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS OF JEFF CONINE’S
BEN & SARAH: A MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI
As cars whizzed by, the Maxima seemed to wither and hug the shoulder of the interstate heading south, as if a life raft adrift in ill concrete seas. After a few miles it swerved sharply over the solid white lines, just making the random rural off-ramp. It proceeded down to the stop sign at the bottom, and lingered. After thirty seconds the driver took a right and drove a hundred yards. Two pairs of eyes within the car aligned and locked briefly to the left. There an office building of sorts was positioned on the west side of a warehouse. Considering the rural locale and region, the warehouse looked as if it had something to do with cotton, though the out-of-state occupants probably didn’t know that. What concerned them in that brief instant of consideration, then tentative dismissal, was the lone pick-up truck parked out front. It seemed forlorn, of a homespun March Sunday afternoon. Before the eyes were cast away they registered a glow of an early lamp which somehow seemed to filter and affect the haze outside, yet hardly illuminated it. The crawling car slowed further, then sped up, but kept well under the speed limit. Searching.
The Maxima crept down the two-lane. The country was bare of population and retail business and hard industry, rural. The car slowed once again, then turned right onto a gravel road. Fifty yards up the eyes scanned a string of trailers scattered across the flat landscape, various older model pickups, Chevys and Fords, parked to their respective sides, the abodes a plethora of flaking paint and peeling siding with uniform weedy and ill-kept gardens. Everyone seemed to be home, but no lamps burned.
The gravel road ended a hundred yards past the trailers near a deserted rust-colored barn pocked with discrete gaping holes. An arm attached to a pistol by a hand jutted from the shotgun window. A .38 sounded twice in the cool air, demolishing the Sunday peace. The Maxima hung a U-turn, then sped up, slowed into a left turn, and retraced its path to the office-cum-warehouse. It pulled up in front and idled for a couple minutes before the driver turned off the ignition.
Inside the car a young woman with straw-colored hair reached into the glove compartment for a knife and stuck its sheath into her back pocket. The young man concealed the firearm under his poncho. They kissed. Neither appeared nervous, but slight hand tremors appeared as the woman reached for the door handle, though her determined expression seemed to belie them.
They emerged from the car and paced in tandem up to the open door, where the girl took the lead with a half step. She gripped the screen door handle, the wire mesh of the aluminum door rendering oblique any view of the interior. The girl opened the screen door and entered, followed by the male.
The office was Spartan: bland walls in need of paint, just a chair or two and a desk situated to the couple’s right behind which a man in a yellow checked shirt buttoned at the top button was seated, apparently hard at work. Cowboy boots peeked from under the desk, topped with Levi hems. On the desk, backs to the couple, were photos propped up in cheap cardboard. To his right and behind him was a door.
He looked up at the girl, seeming to appreciate her cute looks and petite frame. His hand began its trek up to his thinning hair. His index finger grazed its beginning grey, then as if once again possessed of its own practical mind, retreated back to the desktop to flounder. The man was middle-aged. The beginnings of a pronounced pot-belly loomed up from the edge of the desk top like a checked sunrise as he moved back an inch or two from the desk. He moved his reading glasses further down his nose. His obliging expression inquired her business without a word. A smile might have been next, even without a word from her.
She said they had taken a wrong turn and had ended up God-Knows-Where and that they wanted to get back to Memphis, could he direct them back?
The middle-aged man with falling chin and thinning hair did not answer. Did not have time. When the male youth stepped up beside his lover and pulled the .38 Smith & Wesson, the man’s mouth could only gape. No word emerged. The youth raised and pointed the pistol. The room silenced, rarified into vacuum. The cosmic mute button somewhere had been hit.
The burly man started to his feet as he and the boy pinned each other with their eyes, the girl forgotten. Timeless. The air pumped back into the room and pressed painfully in on both men, as if sixty leagues below the ocean without protection or tanks.
Strange throat emissions dissolved the dream, though these animal noises seemed otherworldly. The man’s gagging dominated the room, became horrible to hear. It obliterated the moment, robbed it of its drama with its paradoxical pathetic humanity.
The young man pulled the trigger. The bullet left the chamber, spun through the barrel and tumbled into space, as if in slow motion. Smoke crammed the room in an instant. Time sped up, became urgent. Simultaneously both males seemed to realize the bullet had strayed, had missed its target, the larger man’s head.
All hell broke loose. The man backpedaled to the rear door to his right.
The girl fled the room, the young man’s eyes momentarily diverting to her. This bought time. The middle-aged man turned the rear-door handle, and disappeared with a quiet click of door housing.
Outside the girl paced, and glanced back and forth from her Maxima to the warehouse, her head tics so rapid that it appeared she was shaking her head emphatically.
She paced to the driver’s side, touched the handle, hesitating.
She started for the front door once again.
The young man jerked the rear door open to a storage room with no egress. After losing the test of strength over the door, the older man, squatted in the corner. It appeared the first shot had, in fact, hit paydirt. The older man was wiping copious blood from the side of his head near his ear. His expression seemed one of wonder and perplexity. How had he lost the door to the shorter weaker man, it seemed to ask? The graze wound was enough to send him into shock might have come the answer. Which he came out of as the young man once again confronted him in the dim light of the storage room. The larger man jumped up and charged the slight young man and grabbed both of the latter’s hands. They struggled, but the young man’s adrenaline proved superior to the older man’s residual shock. The young man freed his gun hand, placed the barrel to the left side of the older man’s forehead, and shot him pointblank.
It was all over. A fountain of blood geysered from the dying man’s forehead as the man crumpled like a limp dollar and slumped to the dirty linoleum onto his side. The blood lessened, and then abated altogether. He was motionless. The young man seemed hypnotized with the doings. His eyes dilated, his face shone even in its shock.
The sound of the front door shook him out of the trance. The two lovers exchanged looks. The boy calmed, the girl shook, but not hysterically. Both silently searched the room. Then the young man turned the dead man over, stuck his hand in his back pocket and angled for his wallet. He pulled it out and the duo left the office.
Once back in the car, the girl once again drove. She pulled out of the parking lot, stopped, then reached over and squeezed her lover’s hand.
“I love you,” he said.
A minute later the girl pulled up onto the south onramp of I-55. A few miles down the man noticed he was covered in blood below his belt.
A mileage sign indicated, “New Orleans.”
Caine crested the arc of the Helena Bridge, leaving the state of Arkansas at midpoint, on two lanes constricted by earthy dirty silver spans. A flash of morning sun strobe-blinded him briefly, his eyelids shuttering, then opening, as if through a new lens, the vista suddenly new, changed to the core. Caine had missed its metamorphosis. His stomach jumped, then quelled. His lungs inhaled this new atmosphere, even through the window glass, the transaction in beat with the whirr of the air conditioning of his older model Ford. All these sensations seemed apt. His vision clarified a moment later as he descended into the state of Mississippi. He stole a glance into the deceptive calm of the river a hundred yards aft. For a protracted moment, he fancied his eyesight telescopic, as if from Owl Creek Bridge, his other senses keen in tandem: catfish breaths tingled the hairs of his arm, his inner vision drifted into mud-bubbled universes, magnifying miniscule eddies into waterspouts. Foreign impressions insinuated themselves, mixed ejaculations, overlapping metaphors: “Big Muddy…Old Man…Delta…Faulkner.” These quietly uttered words dissolved into a final-verdict gut awareness of his destination: the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, The Farm. The words rendered everything concrete now, as real as the long-ago rapid reports of pistols, now cracking off the brown water. Mixed Blues licked in his head, sad and exhilarating, as he drove out onto the blacktop of the flat Delta landscape. Heat-shimmered cotton fields lay to his right. To his left, a gambling resort loomed from nowhere, without logic, pointless and tacky, pastel-colored, a Bible Belt mirage, The Isle of Capri. Caine would not go there. Not this time.
“Welcome To Mississippi,” the sign read.
Caine thought of the op-ed piece from the Oxford American he’d read ten years before in his cabin in Oregon, a literate, persuasive piece long forgotten until reprised by accident by a writing student whose brother was incarcerated at Parchman Farm. Written by a popular author on behalf of a slain friend, the latter shot twice in the head by an eighteen-year-old kid from Oklahoma, whacked out on acid. The kid’s girlfriend, also eighteen, claimed months later when she pled out to armed robbery and attempted murder in Louisiana that she and her boyfriend had watched Natural Born Killers over and over on LSD before they left Oklahoma to go on a shooting spree, followed by a trip to Disneyworld in Florida.
When the killer’s sister happened into his life Caine knew he was fated to write Ben and Sarah’s story.
And now here he was a year and a half later in the state of Mississippi, approaching the turnoff from Highway 49 to 61, just thirteen miles from The Crossroads.
Caine turned up the air conditioning, thinking of Robert Johnson, the bluesman who had sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the Muse at the other meeting of Highways 49 and 61 down the road, decades before.
Caine wondered what choice he would make to snag the Muse. That there was no alarm to this question didn’t bother him.
A right turn led to Clarksdale, a left Tunica, the latter a billion dollar Biblical blight, the supermarket of gambling resorts ascending from the fallow cotton fields of northwest Mississippi.
A quarter mile later, he spied the Clarksdale arrow near a boarded-up flaking church, once white, now grey, to his right on the four-lane.
Caine almost overshot the turnoff to North Clarksdale, thirteen miles from the turnoff. He veered to the off-ramp, passed the turnoff to Highway 6 to Batesville and Oxford, and bumped down the decreasingly rutted main road into town, past abandoned stores and gas stations, stretches of pointless uncurbed weedy sidewalks, unbordered and indistinguishable from the pavement. Just past Martin Luther King Drive he spied his first and only pedestrian, a black man in checked shirt and khakis that could’ve been fifteen or fifty. He shuffled along, head cast down, in steps that melted into one another, a slow and hesitating gait as if to go backwards instead of forwards would’ve made just as much sense. Caine could see the cap on his head was so worn that its logo was faded into the same uniform color as the blank black face beneath. As Caine crawled by, the man looked over briefly as if mystified that the old Ford had overtaken him.
After a stop sign, and the first seedy motel (they became increasingly better as one approached the main drag), the road hit a major intersection with a three-way signal, marked by a Exon station stuffed with cars, a chicken eatery, and a couple of nondescript industrial stores with faded signs albeit obvious business out front. Caine absently glanced to his left recalling the cross street, Desoto Avenue, which picked up highway 49 south towards the prison.
The Crossroads. Caine only briefly glanced up at the elevated guitars to his left, as if to take a longer look would jinx him.
Beyond this intersection the two lanes squeezed under a railroad trestle. Atop the trestle three train cars, one tank and two freighters, stood frozen in time. It was obvious they hadn’t moved in decades. No one seemed to notice or care or was the worst for it on account of the town must have been just as impoverished then as it was now. Rust and flaking paint supplemented their legacy, while ugly lanky invading weeds reached up their skirts like adoring fans. These weeds seemed to sprout everywhere Caine looked. He capitulated to them with a nod, granting their perverse beauty, their abundance, their aesthete. Anything that flourished was worthy.
Beyond the trestle the road elevated and morphed into the 161 four-lane main drag through town. Like the obnoxious weeds, the businesses flourished along these two-plus miles of fast food joints, good and bad restaurants, three or so chain motels, and a glut of small businesses, failed and otherwise, all naturally capped with a Wal-Mart at the end.
Caine pulled into a gas station, put in a half a tank, then called the proprietress of the Delta Cotton Company apartments to let her know he was in town. He heard a hesitant smile on the other end and was encouraged. She told him she’d meet him there.
He backtracked, made a left on Desoto Avenue Street, ducked under another trestle with a sibling cluster of rusted and weed-clumped cars atop, and turned left again after the sign announcing, The Delta Blues Museum. He stopped and headed down Third Street in downtown Clarksdale, past old and new: a couple of city buildings in new brick, a long ago defunct grocery, a row of new buildings along Blues Alley, a theatre, a bank, another seedy motel. At each street – Sharky, Issaquena, Yazoo – was a four-way stop. Everyone drove bit by bit in Clarksdale, the speeder the oddball, downtown drivers touched by molasses. Combined with the heat of late spring Caine caught this sweet feeling; he felt good and slow and mellow with the pace.
On Delta Avenue he turned left again and headed the block or so to the Ground Zero Blues Club, past the Delta Amusement Company where on his first overnight trip here he had watched ancient lively black men laughing and talking sports, on their knees shooting dice, as one by one they would repair to the counter to pour a taste from a Lazy Susan of overturned and jiggered whiskey bottles. Caine hadn’t seen the like of that contraption since he was a kid in the Grand Avenue Irish-Italian bars of South City. Here, on Delta Avenue, in Clarksdale, in the Mississippi Delta, sipping Beam at three in the afternoon seemed the right thing to do; it couldn’t have been otherwise. On the other side of the street from Delta Amusement was the blues club adjacent the Delta Blues Museum.
He slowed at the curb and inched his way up over the high driveway into the parking lot. He parked, then leaned forward and crooked his gaze upward to the steep white-framed windows of the second story of the former cotton grading warehouse. He turned off the car and waited for the heat to filter in. In the quiet of a Sunday, Caine heard Robert Johnson licks in his head. As the heat filtered into the car and his forehead poured sweat, and the licks became more pronounced, Caine decided once and for all that Johnson had been right. Clarksdale might have that effect on a body. So might the blues.
Clarksdale was simply a very poor town, in a very poor county, in a very poor state. But humane social services weren’t everything, nor were stately mansions and white skins and Lincolns, (though all the latter were much in evidence up off Friars Point Road). Clarksdale, where Caine would stay for the duration, no matter how many trips over and how many hours of interviews, was the heart of The Delta, the home of the Delta Blues. Downtown was the heart of the heart: the Delta Blues Museum and the Ground Zero Blues Club.
The heat forced him from his car. He shuffled up to the sidewalk and looked to the corner, then listed a zigzag down around the front of the club to the opposite side. On the east side was an expanse of cement, an uneven, terraced part-alley, part-remnant foundation. It undulated to Sunflower Street at the back of the club, an arterial that abutted the Sunflower River which lie fifty yards yonder and which was mostly dry. This river, Caine knew from history, led to Sunflower Landing on the Mississippi River, the Old Man, one of the first developed cotton loading docks on the river.
He walked a few paces down on the other side, then backtracked.
Out in front, on the street, standing five feet below the former-dock-cum-club entrance, he surveyed the building. Upstairs in the ancient cotton grading warehouse, its outside proudly swarmed with graffiti, its warped loading dock smothered with stuffed sofas, its windows foggy and provocative, the music played four nights a week. Upstairs in this ancient building, crumbling-looking from the outside, were completely refurbished apartments, polished floors, high windows, full kitchens, good beds. Plus: no TVs, no phones, no jacks for the internet, no music save the music downstairs four nights a week. Heaven.
He walked up onto the dock. His eyes absorbed the colorful graffiti, then glazed, then became passive, and were, in turn, absorbed. He got lost, what with the long drive and the heat. He drifted off in inchoate, incoherent jiggles of countless signatures and drawings as they wriggled snake-like on the outer wall of the club. Dizzy, he backed into a sofa and flopped down. He thought about how easy it was to go crazy, to flip out, and about Ben and Sarah. They had shot innocent people, he never did. Could’ve maybe, but didn’t. Why them, he wondered, Ben, a poor Mormon boy from Tahlequah and Sarah, a rich Muskogee girl from a politically powerful family. He didn’t, they did. Johnson did, he didn’t. Yet.
Early the next morning Caine retraced the few blocks back to Desoto Avenue from Delta through lower downtown, swung a right, ducked under the railroad trestle and headed south. At the crossroads he sped up to make the light, the elevated crossed guitars to his left a blur as he bumped over the 161 bypass main drag and continued across. Ahead Desoto turned into Highway 49. It began at some indeterminate point beyond a strip of light industry, a medley of commercial hardware concerns, city offices, and the recently erected agriculture annex of the local community college, the latter located on the high ground near Friars Point Road. He rattled over the two or so miles of two-lane at thirty-five and passed the unmarked city limits. Then the road widened to four lanes as the grey monolithic interchange to the main highway loomed ahead. He passed the turnoff to Memphis. Out of nowhere Hernando, the site of the first shooting and murder, by Ben, just twenty miles south of Memphis, insinuated itself. He dispelled it. He took an easy breath as he drove out into the patchwork of cotton fields streaked with bands of green ahead.
He sped up to fifty-five and settled into the straightforward twenty-six mile drive to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. He pressed against the steering wheel in isometric stretch, fluttering his fingers at the windshield as if hexing the monotone vista. He smiled, his faculties alive, grateful for the previous night’s rest. The Ground Zero Blues Club downstairs from his digs was silent last night. Though music would play all week because of the club’s upcoming anniversary, Caine whispered thanks for last night’s peace.
This stillness of the former cotton grading warehouse had seeped into Caine’s psyche bit by bit, imposing special order, a quiet in the company of ghosts perhaps. After last night, Caine thought nothing more sublime than the quiet of a deserted blues club of a poor Mississippi small town with history, of a Sunday downtown. He reckoned he ought not be any more specific than that, ought not utter anything about all those abstract ineluctables that risk banality once spoken: something about history, about the penury of the material and richness of spirit; something about that elusive term, Soul. However evasive and untranslatable this element Caine felt strong, fortified for his mission, as if imbued with the souls of the three hundred years of Clarksdale and the northern Delta. That was enough.
Faulkner had helped as well. After checking in and eating yesterday, he snuggled up with Faulkner’s Old Man. He reread it slowly, from time to time finding his lips silently moving. Caine travelled to Oxford, Mississippi for the first time the year before and couldn’t help thinking about the disparity between the two halves of northern Mississippi on either side of Interstate 55. Scant though this glimpse of Delta and hill country, he saw the real contrast of the towns, Oxford and Clarksdale. To an outsider that is. To an outsider this apparent breach might force a gasp.
Yet he realized, even as an outsider, how palpable the atmosphere of Mississippi, so heady and textured and uniform as to be uncontradictory no matter the physical features. Even with locales as contrasting as Clarksdale and Oxford: dramatic differences in hill and trees and cotton, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, white and black, genteel white tradition and blues. As Caine read through Faulkner’s Old Man in the quiet of the tomb of a Clarksdale Sunday, he smiled and cried. And he couldn’t say whether the tears were from delight or from the gut knowledge he would never understand, or be, Mississippi, never really partake in this world except as an outsider. Despite Caine’s chameleon nature, he would never be anything but the outsider here. That dictum was etched over every everyman’s face, whether it be a pair of Owl-Creek distantly-imagined eyes staring back from a cotton field phantom or a shopgirl ringing up a fast food item or a gas station attendant handing back change to him, the eyes seeing the stranger, and acknowledging same, neutrally.
No matter. Like Old Man’s Parchman convict, Caine would soldier like Sisyphus. As Old Man’s inadvertent hero had withstood the rapture of catastrophe, the tests of water and earth, only to be willingly “tricked” back to his snug warm tent at The Farm, Caine would compose and tell the story he was here to tell, and return. And where’s the harm in returning to prison, or to the academic nunnery? What else did a man have but his warm version of prison? But only after re-proving himself to dispel self-doubt in an aging life, a last gasp of saintliness. It wasn’t like Caine had a life anyway.
As he focused once again on the outside flat vista of cotton field and water-miraged two-lane, he panicked in sudden dislocation. He sensed the cameras on him, as if in a movie, — or out of it, as the lone viewer in a theatre. In whatever capacity he was participating in a world he could never touch. His insides tossed, then quieted. He sighed as the water tower of Tutwiler came into view ahead. Just beyond was the private prison facility some bureaucratic genius had dreamt up a few years before. As he drove abreast of the area around the prison, he snatched a few fearful glances, registering its razor wire, concrete slits-for-windows, and Darth Vader hues. Otherworldly, eerie, deathly. As he sped up and passed it and gawked backwards, he could hardly believe that real flesh-and-blood people were within those walls, either working for a living as guards, or incarcerated as criminals. As grim and tough as Parchman, within its gates was a living breathing organism, monstrous and vibrant.
On the other side of Tutwiler Caine strained his eyes for the fork in the road ahead where, he knew, just over the elevated railroad tracks, Highway 49 branched, one east to Indianola, the home of B.B. King, and one west to verdant rolling hills of Greenwood. A couple minutes later, around a slight bend, he smiled once again as he clicked over the railroad tracks. Johnny, the supervisor of the extension program at the prison, told him when he had given him directions down here two months before that these split highway 49 branch routes were the only state highways in the country that officially read east and west and went north to south. He veered right to 49 West. More cotton fields came into view, broken here and there by the intermittent boarded up gas station with prices announcing a more stable world, shotgun shack, and farmhouse speckled by rusted and wrecked chasses of farm equipment and automobiles. The occasional combine would hog the road, and dust up the landscape like something out of War of the Worlds.
Halfway through the tiny town of Rome a sign announced the mileage to Parchman, three.
A minute later Caine saw a ‘SLOW – PRISON AREA’ sign which cautioned the motorist to keep going, except in emergency. The speed limit slowed to 30 miles per hour. Up ahead about four hundred yards was the turnoff into Parchman. Caine slowed to the limit, then slowed again, veered into the right lane and made the short ninety degree turn to the main gate. His heart skipped even though his hands remained steady on the wheel and his breaths even.
The guard station lie just inside the turnoff to his left. Built low and painted institution green, it was all window-paned, at least its east and south walls. Three uniformed corrections officer manned it, one at the switchboard, one in the door threshold, and one peering through the glass. All were female. The gate barrier was on its way down after letting in a brace of prison worker cars. Between the gate and Caine a car with Louisiana plates idled. One of the guards, a chunky black woman with shades, the one at the glass, marched out of the station and stopped. She surveyed the driver in the idling car and motioned her to park her vehicle and get out. The gate raised and the woman complied. When she got out, Caine saw the driver was a young attractive woman whose initial look of confidence abruptly dissolved in the measured gaze of the corrections officer. After she exited her vehicle, Caine winced. The twenty-something woman looked clearly out of place with her corn-rowed hair, laced granny blouse, pair of faded bell bottoms with patches, and sweatshirt with a band logo and sandals.
“Dumb,” he thought. Maybe some visiting progressive social worker or psychologist, or maybe even a professor like him doing some state-sponsored study, only with permission. Whoever she was, she hadn’t dressed the part to at least minimally reflect enough gravity to enter a maximum security prison. She would have problems, he thought.
As the first guard paced up to the Louisiana car, the second guard emerged from the station and approached Caine’s already rolled-down car window. He met her neutral look with a discreet smile. She cocked her head.
“Name’s Caine. I’m headed to Unit 30, the Faith Based Initiative. Dr. Johnny, the coordinator there, arranged it with the deputy warden,” Caine said, sparkling in his confident nicely pressed shirt and ironed khakis.
The second guard arched her eyebrows and indicated the rear bumper of the Louisiana car, saying, “Pull it up behind her, and I’ll check the list, sir, just a moment.”
As she backtracked she waved three cars through the still-raised gate like a maitre de and repaired to the structure. Caine pulled up to the young woman’s car fifteen feet beyond the gate and noticed the first guard’s bottom half sticking out the back door. The attractive white woman stood by with a wan expression, one foot raised and listing back and forth. Caine looked back into the station and saw the second guard’s eyes scurrying up and down what must have been the clearance sheet. She frowned after two passes.
Then two events happened simultaneously. The first guard emerged from the Louisiana car, seemingly flustered, and took a step towards Caine’s Ford as his eyes scanned the official federal plaque listing contraband items a foot outside of his shotgun window. He froze on one: the ban on recording devices and cameras. They had confiscated his tape recorder last trip. Now, when he had been warned, he realized his cheap 35mm was in plain sight on his car seat, just out of eyeshot of the guard. He fingered it as the first guard stopped at the taillight of the car ahead, then took a second step.
“Shit,” Caine uttered, smiling at the first guard apologetically.
Before she took another step, the first yelled from the doorway that she couldn’t find his name, and that she’d have to phone Administration.
Meanwhile the Louisiana woman managed a determined expression and said, “Can I go?”
The second guard turned abruptly as if reminded of something she wanted to forget. “I don’t know why you reckoned you could just breeze in here during the week,” she said, “when you should’ve come here on the weekend and taken the prison bus to the gym like most folks does.”
The white woman took a letter from her purse and held it up. Before she could say a word, the first guard dismissed it and said, “Tell it to the Cap’n…he on his way here now.”
In that few seconds Caine inched his fingers over the camera, clutched it, slid it over the edge of the seat, then coughed, bent with the cough, and tossed it cleanly under the driver’s seat.
He inhaled deeply, knowing how stupidly he could’ve torpedoed his sweet situation from the get-go. A nine-ninety-five Walmart camera and a blown clearance could’ve screwed up the works.
Caine exhaled, got out of the car, and trundled into the guardhouse.
More cars were waved through. Inside, Caine repeated his destination to the first guard who was still on the phone. She shushed him, spoke into the receiver, then hung up. She told Caine the Unit 30 Captain was tied up. Caine saw a personnel chart by Unit on the wall and scanned the first page. He took the clipboard off its hook, turned to page two, then page three.
He pointed to a name.
“Why, you just making yourself home here, ain’t you, honey?” she said.
Caine shrugged and returned her smile. “Could you just call Unit 30 and talk to Johnny.”
“Okay,” she agreed. She phoned, apparently got an affirmative response, then nodded, smiled again, and sent Caine on his way.
Fifty yards down the main road, he looked into his rearview mirror and saw the young woman still pacing by her car.
During his first short trip here Caine was too confounded to register much of an impression of the prison area, outside of a fatigued awe. Now alert and rested and oriented as to destination, he allowed his eyes to scurry about the vastness of the prison, and appreciate its massive dimensions. He learned during his last trip that the penitentiary covered well over 18,000 acres. He knew it was over a mile to the right turn he would take onto an arterial road. Along the way, the gaps between buildings abutting the ample thoroughfare like openings in fence slats allowed him a kaleidoscopic perspective. He saw too that the prison environs reached over the fields far beyond any perspective. For the next mile along the road was every kind of structure of every size and style and color, though mostly white. He encountered every kind and size of vehicle coming at him. Framed houses with picket fences and dainty gardens, communal houses with Unit Signs in front, large resident homes just inside the gate – he reckoned trustees, guards, and administrators lived almost side-by-side; storage sheds from flimsy aluminum to thick-walled, sheet-rocked, wooden and oversized, some obviously housing agricultural machinery, some busses and cars; carpentry and paint and wood shops; a gym; and a dining hall or two. Along the way were cars, buses, trucks, and farm equipment. In the distance, way yonder out in the expanse, he glimpsed from the gaps in the buildings combines working, chugging eerily out of earshot.
Once he was out of sight of the gate it seemed incredible that he was within the walls of one of the toughest prisons in the country. No walls violated movie convention with grim reality, he thought. It was a vibrant rural community with no Tutwiler barbed wire, here at least, and a slough of conventional houses, barns and shops. Almost no uniforms walking around, also no prisoners.
Where was the security, he wondered.
Just before the turn, the road bottlenecked to one lane where they were doing road work. As he deferred to a car coming through, one of the workers waved. He waved back and proceeded to the right turn.
Up this second road was breathtaking expanse. On his left, for at least a couple miles that he could see, every kind of industry was represented – automobile, metal, agriculture — each facility parsed along the road in city-planned precision, in large metal buildings and compounds spaced apart at increasingly uneven intervals as one traveled north. Not only a small town, he thought, but a thriving one. If you took the resources of the dozen towns and communities clustered for twenty miles in any direction and combined them, Parchman would out-produce them many times over, he guessed, at least judging by the glut of rundown homesteads and abandoned buildings he met since Clarksdale. On his right was a great stretch of cotton fields, none fallow. He remembered reading that in Faulkner’s day, and decades before, for that matter, Parchman was Mississippi’s answer to losing legal slavery after the Great War. If you were young and black and spit on the street, it was Parchman, if you stole a loaf of bread, it was Parchman, if you slaughtered a family, it was Parchman. He wondered how much of that held truth nowadays. It was moot. Caine knew that Unit 30, where he was heading, held mostly dangerous prisoners, serious offenders, albeit Christian, smart, and in the process of becoming educated via the New Orleans Theological Seminary. He was the educator, at least on paper.
In the distance, about a mile or so, he saw his landmark, the auto shop, a gigantic tin and steel jerry-rigged, albeit sturdy, compound of maybe two hundred square yards, surrounded by a yard chock full of official prison cars, visitor and prisoner busses, trucks, auto parts, and heaps of scrap metal.
Just beyond was his destination.
He passed the compound, drove a quarter mile, then turned into the lot, parked his car, and checked his watch. A little after eight. He checked his satchel. Notebook, typed pages, a couple of books. He thought of his confiscated tape recorder (no one had told him), but at least they had given back his wallet (no sum over twenty dollars allowed in). This time he decided everything was in order, took a deep breath, got out and then proceeded to the first outbuilding checkpoint.
Caine trod up the slight incline, turned, and entered the double doors of the innocuous-looking structure. Once inside, he turned to the right, and was assaulted by the brisk air conditioning. He kept to the right and crossed the room to the guard cubicle. Through the thick glass, a handsome black woman guard with premature silver hair shot him a neutral look, which turned bemused and friendly. She motioned him up to the glass and slid out the tray.
“You remember me?” Caine said.
She nodded with a slight smile. “You the man lost his key marker,” she replied, the smile growing as she deposited the clipboard in the drawer.
Caine felt his face flush. “I know the drill this time,” he said as he picked up the sign-in sheet and dropped his car keys in the drawer.
He signed in: DATE, PRINTED NAME, TIME IN, DESTINATION, PURPOSE OF VISIT, TIME OUT, SIGNATURE. He filled in the appropriate information, including Unit 30A, his destination, and teaching, his purpose. Another guard, a white guy, appeared out of nowhere, smiled and said in a lazy Mississippi drawl, “I remember you, too, from last time. I expect you know your way…” as he walked him to the back of the station. Caine didn’t really, but said he did as he opened the door to the world of Unit 30.
And now he remembered: fifteen feet from the friendly guards and bright white-walled rooms was a short expanse of dried lawn dominated by fifteen feet of cyclone fence topped with swirls of razor wire. Caine hefted open the unlocked massive door using both hands on this first ring of security, then swung it closed behind him, in slow motion as might a child, not a hundred-and-eighty-pound man. He then proceeded to the Unit 30 administration building situated thirty yards ahead at a forty-five degree angle. He gingerly walked the deserted band of sidewalk to the front door of this structure, entered and pushed through to the back of the building where the counter and thick glassed cubicle lie. Within this cubicle were no friendly faces, though he had three to choose from. Behind the counter was a guard who shoved another sign in sheet clipboard across to him and requested, “Name?” while holding another sheet.
He watched her eyes scan the sheet. “Not here. Where you going?”
“Thirty-A, Faith-Based Initiative, Johnny Bley cleared me for the week. I’m a teacher.”
The guard looked over her shoulder abruptly as if feeling the approaching presence of a bald middle-aged grey-uniformed man all spit polish and stern accompanied by a tall oblong beer-gutted black guard at his side.
Caine uttered, “Oh shit,” again, this time mentally.
“Cap’n, this man say he a teacher going to Doctor Bley’s.”
The Captain looked Caine over silently, then said, “First I’ve heard. Let me phone.” He picked up the phone as the black male guard asked the female, “Shake him down?”
“Might as well,” she shrugged.
“Step in here, please, sir.”
The two, Caine and the male guard, stepped into a side room where Caine volunteered his grip for inspection. The guard merely eyed its insides for a couple seconds and slid it back across the counter to Caine. Then he came around and patted him down perfunctorily, smiled dimly, “You fine.”
Back in the main room, the Captain said, “You’re okay for the week. You know where you’re going?” Caine indicated he did and thanked him.
This interlude affected the spring of Caine’s step as he negotiated the last fifty yards of warming pavement. This area was a patchwork of lawn and building demarcated by a grid of cyclone fence, seemingly without purpose in places, despite the neat right angles. The fenced areas included some for recreation — basketball courts, exercise area, maybe a baseball diamond. What astounded him on this second trip was the limitation of the greenery. Nothing existed but dried lawn, no flowers, bushes, shrubbery, trees. Straight ahead, on the other side of the prisoner processing area, was the Unit’s Dining Hall. Caine angled towards the processing area, reached it, and turned the doorknob. It felt sticky. He remembered it had last time. He entered the unlocked facility.
Inside it was gothic: windowless, dim, dank, creepy as hell. Directly inside the door and straight ahead was a row of mesh cages running the width of the structure with a brace of showers at its end. To his left along the short corridor separating the room were a number of changing cubicles with seats and wooden curtain rods, no curtains. He paced the ten yards to the cages and turned left. His eyes turned to slits as he walked their length to the desk against the far left in the corner near the back door. The black guard ignored him while he and an inmate conversed. Their uniform expression bespoke intruder and Caine fully agreed.
Then both, as if reconsidering, uniformly nodded a curt hello, and the guard jerked his head to the back door. As Caine walked by the desk, he sensed a presence in the end cage, then movement out of the corner of his eye. He glanced back as if acting out some biblical drama. Two dark faces peered back at him from the shadows of the end cage. He shrunk from the fearful white eyes and black silence, as if they had been conjured out of Conrad’s Darkness.
Caine was overwhelmed by a grief he couldn’t describe, a fleeting grief that departed in a flash. Though fleeting he knew then and there and forever those eyes would be embossed on his brain. He would see them again.
Once out the back door of the prisoner processing facility Caine stopped, leaned back against the wall, and took a long breath. He looked up and found himself once again enclosed by cyclone fence, but in familiar territory between two buildings – the kitchen and dining facility and the Unit 30A, the faith-based university extension. Separating them was a ramp and loading dock for deliveries to the kitchen and dining hall. He took a step towards the glass of the office area of the extension. Inside he saw Johnny and Ben, with a couple of other prisoners. Johnny looked up and grinned and pointed to Caine’s right.
He remembered. He walked into the anteroom, signed in, flirted with the short, pretty, pleasantly chunky young female guard there and then entered Unit 30A to interview Ben.
On the first day, the visiting teacher joined the crew. They all squeezed into the first of two office cubicles situated in front of the main university extension complex. This complex included two large main rooms, a corridor separating them from the office and a sprinkling of smaller rooms of varying proportions. If not for the white shirts and green-striped dungarees of Ben and his mates, most lifers, one might surmise from the obvious amity an affable tableau of friends meeting together for coffee after some professional function.
In five minutes the teacher looked relaxed enough as he leaned back in his fold-up chair with a cup of coffee that he had just oozed out of the ancient coffee urn. Doctors Bley and Caine exchanged banter. The cons seemed to approve of this visitor. With their wall-cultivated super-instinct they might have thought Caine didn’t much look like a college professor, despite the pressed white button-down shirt, equally pressed beige khakis, and ankle-length brown leather shoes, no article in any current style. They might’ve even gotten the impression that the teacher was presentable merely because he had to pass muster to enter, but might’ve had mixed feelings about respectability, that he drew the line somewhere. For example, they had to notice that unlike Johnny Bley, Caine’s shirt hung down loose and untucked.
Another was Caine’s face. His was a face that didn’t match his calling. Scars white with age, extended from his left ear to some point under his chin where they coalesced and disappeared under a long-ago trach scar, only for traces to pick up again at his other ear. One didn’t get the idea of a car wreck. One also noticed his left brow had at some period in the past been sewed up. Though two front crowns were in evidence, if one looked carefully within, chipped teeth were as well. But one didn’t get the chance often in the first minutes of his visit; Caine’s laugh was guarded, if sincere. And his voice, well, it intoned self- and existence-satire, droll upon droll, something in its tone stated, “Please don’t take me too serious, but take me serious enough.” Lovable, funny, self-effacing and dead serious.
Johnny Bley, the director of the extension, was a compendium of opposites. Handsome, now or once (one wasn’t sure), his large six-foot-four frame was incongruently overweight, but neatly compacted, as if he had reached a threshold of weight capacity, then illogically against all things metabolic, kept growing and yet seemed to retain some skinny features. But his eyes, Bley’s eyes, at odd moments, even in the casual conversation now, would flash hollow and obsessed. His eyes intense, too intense, gave themselves away constantly and guardedly in those measured flashes. His flannel cotton shirt tucked in at his girth neatly was plaid. As was Caine’s, marginally professional. One sensed, however, that Johnny Bley was the consummate professional. His voice, relaxed with its easy Louisiana drawl, could in a second frighten, move one to laughter, or inspire, with the slightest modulation. If one were reading his eyes all the while that is. One could with little effort place him in time: the pot dealing college firebrand at Western Alabama University of the Seventies, the street pro in New Orleans in the Eighties, the absolutely straight-up and Christian gentleman of the Nineties – and now the new century. He probably wasn’t as old as Caine, though this was moot since both men looked younger than they must have been.
It was in the late nineties and the new century that Johnny had begun to make things move according to his Christian calling. One wasn’t in the least surprised that he had spent eight years at Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, once even tougher than Parchman, and, against all odds and reason and bureaucracy, had established a university Faith-Based extension such as he had here. Unscathed, Christian, and convinced of his calling, Johnny inspired instant affability and confidence in many, but probably not all. At base he remained the maverick, no matter the obsessive Christianity. So was Jesus.
No doubt that was why he and Caine instantly clicked. Despite the absurdist creed of one and the Southern Baptist creed of the other, these two men were brothers under the skin. How else to explain Caine’s carte blanche now, the electronics on tap and the liberal visitation hours? The present tableau bespoke a connection between the two men, both mavericks, both united, both seeking some truth from the mission Caine was embarked on.
That mission was Ben, who presently sat near the door of the inner cubicle, fiddling with the computer and microphone, setting it up for the first of his interviews with Caine.
Somehow Ben was odd man out here, he seemed not to fit. While Bley and Caine looked and talked as if they could fit in this room, with the other occupants – an impossibly thick nose guard of a black man, with skin like sandpaper and an expression that would freeze water; an equally muscular traditionally handsome, black-haired and loquacious, mesomorphic white about thirty-five (who had in fact once been an embassy guard, and did have the spit-and-polish look of the Marine, even in his Parchman dungarees); and a slight but perfectly toned scarred man with a twisted ironic mouth, ruddy skinned with a fuck-you look (that said, “Take me deadly serious if you mean me harm, otherwise chill” – this was the artist of the group, yet as dangerous as any of them, smart, but regrettably had known nothing but institution life). In this group Ben seemed not to belong.
Ben was short and slight, a hundred and forty and no more than five-seven tops. He wore thick glasses, a bemused and concerned expression, as if not quite getting the joke or meaning always but only too happy to let one on him slide so long as he did not lose respect. His eyes were at once pained and intelligent; he was always quick to laugh. He showed no other emotion as a rule, and perhaps this indicated his ability to shoot a man twice pointblank in the head and later make light of a bit of residual brain matter on his shoe to his girlfriend as they lazed in a cheap New Orleans motel, (the joke though probably covering up his mounting if not apparent hysteria).
Ben would never get out of this world, the world of Unit 29 and Unit 30A.
Unit 30A had once been a large shop. Beyond the inner office window was a corridor separating the two offices from the main extension classroom. Adjacent this classroom was an open area about one third its size. At the end of the corridor abutting the open area were two or three rooms where a student inmate could play a musical instrument, or watch movies, or study, or read the Bible, or bullshit, activities they also did in the open area. Once a machine shop, it had been razed and refurbished. The main room in which classes were held was maybe five hundred square feet with three rows of long wooden tables running lengthwise to either boundary, with a ribbon of wooden desk area skirting the room, under which were hard chairs to accommodate the fifty-eight or so students. The students studied everything from Biblical History to English Composition to Greek Language (Dr. Bely was eclectic, a quick study who taught most of the courses, from the arcane to the traditional, though some teachers were brought in from the outside for week-long classes, most from Johnny’s place of origin, New Orleans and some from local schools. Caine was not typical; he would teach an unpaid experimental writing workshop, but he was there for Ben).
On the other side of the main room from the office were a couple rooms windowed off from the classroom. One was a studio of sorts where Rob painted and did his posters and sketches. An artist of some talent, Rob’s claim to fame at Parchman was running a successful forgery ring from prison some dozen years before. One could see his easel propped up against the left wall from the office.
Caine would look out through the glass at odd moments during their preliminary small talk. He appeared to be figuring out the lay of this peculiar land, as if trying to discern the peculiar atmosphere. His face was perplexed at odd moments.
“Well, I’m going to let you guys go to it,” Johnny said, raising his bulk like a complaint Lazarus self-conjured, “C’mon guys, we’ve got a class.”
“See you later, sir,” the black man said, nodding then looking at his colleagues.
The others were equally cordial.
Caine stood and moved past Ben to the second office where Ben indicated the second of three chairs. The room was stuffed with three desks and two ancient computers. He sat down again, close to Ben who straddled the doorway. He extracted three file folders from his grip and fanned them out on the minimal space on the cluttered desktop. He looked at the muddy surface of his Styrofoam cup. His expression turned nauseous, as if the lukewarm contents were more than he could take.
“More, Dr Caine?” Ben indicated the cup.
“We’re beyond ‘Doctor’, ain’t we?” Caine said, handing him his cup. “Yeah, if you don’t mind.” He surrendered his cup.
While Ben refilled Caine’s cup, Caine opened a file on whose cover was scrawled ‘PERSONAL NARRATIVE’. He riffled through the hundred-plus pages of single- and double-space absently. The black of the text competed with the blue of the penned notations replete with question and exclamation marks and observations jammed between lines and filling the margins.
He sighed as if once and for all daunted.
Ben returned with the hot coffee. He stood flush with Caine, hesitated, then offered the cup. When Caine looked up, the two men locked eyes.
“Jeff,” he said.
“Thanks, Ben. Sit.” .
Ben resumed his seat in the connecting door’s threshold. The IBM laptop that Caine had donated to the New Orleans Seminary remained on the edge of Bley’s desk near the connecting doorway with an attached cord and microphone strung in and propped between the two men on Caine’s desk.
“We ready, Ben?”
Ben unhooked the microphone and tapped it. “H-e-l-l-o Cleveland,” he said and smiled. He played it back. Caine nodded approvingly.
They talked for five minutes.
Then: “I guess I’d better say this, Ben, before we get into it,” Caine sighed. “I have my ideas on this. Maybe prejudged, maybe not, but I have my own takes on your facts that aren’t necessarily in line with your own as you tell them in your narrative.“ He paused, took a sip from the coffee and winced. “I’ve read your narrative obsessively and I can’t shake my main overriding thesis.” Caine drifted, his tone appeared as cold as his expression.
He regarded Ben, who said nothing for a few moments.
“And what might that be?” Ben asked finally.
“That if you or Sarah had left that cabin with a gun individually, alone, one without the other, that probably no one would’ve died,” he replied. “But together? The moment that you and she put that gun in the trunk and left together it was a dead bang certainty that a person was going to die, like the sun rises in the east or night follows day. End of story.”
Ben colored and thought. He nodded his head.
They sat for a minute silently.
Then: “Where do you want me to begin?”
Caine shrugged. “How about at the beginning?”
He smiled, then Ben smiled.
“At the Commune near NSU in Tahlequah?”
“Yep, January, 1995, a million years and miles ago, another world,” Caine replied. “Tell me about the Commune and meeting Sarah.”
Small talk forgotten, Ben began: “I guess every small college town has one, the place for all those people who don’t fit. They aren’t jocks or popular or rich or accepted by the mainstream.” Ben’s eyes fixed on a point just above Caine’s glasses as if his forehead was marked. “Oddballs. They find each other by some mystical power and form a fraternity of their own.”