The Town Lies Awake Together


I spent most of June through late September taking the air in South America that year. It was the only time in history that I could see news from home in newspapers I could get ahold of in Havana. I always joke that it was a sign I am never meant to escape the gossips of Harkins.

In late August, my friend Chris tells me, the hive was absolutely swarming with activity that, without a context, would have been accountable only as madness. The sweltering heat of the muggy late summer was at complete odds with the bustle and near elation that comes upon a small town anticipating the start of a murder trial.

He said that Arlington Pew looked as disturbingly put together as he ever had, both in demeanor and attire. There has been a long running gag among the local fellas and the better renditions of it involve a fire breaking out in the middle of the night and neighbors rousing Arlington Pew only to find him answering the door fully pressed, dressed, and eager to entertain anyone in distress. I’d bet most every man ’round town has chuckled at that at some point in the past, only on account of it probably being close to the truth. I would also guess that many, like myself, felt a little close at the collar thinking about that joke retrospectively.

It’s true that Pew was not much of a pal to any fella and, for the most part, he seemed more eager for women’s or mixed company. I don’t know that anyone would have believed he had an enemy in the world, though most could only shake there heads to themselves if they considered him long enough.

Well, the way Chris tells it is as good as any I could gather from the reporter’s accounts I read, and the murmur and hum at the outset must have been audible three streets over, if anyone had stayed that far away to hear it.

They say it took Judge Hewlett more than a few wraps of his formidable gavel to get the crowds shuffled into some sort of order, and then there were the additional guards brought in who were still trying to get the doors closed and the halls outside reasonably emptied.

Murders always seem to fascinate men. Sometimes it seems from boredom with living they find excitement in considering those who are no longer doing it and the people who made their decisions for them. Sometimes it seems the grizzly nature of a murder keeps people interested. Other times perhaps the sheer weight of the hate or malice hanging upon the perpetrator is the draw.

In this case, I hold firmly that it was none of these. It was the first murder in Logan County in twelve years, and the first in Harkins in nearly six decades. It was not boredom or grotesqueness or a sheerly violent heart that drew the majority of the local crowds to the house of fair weights to hear the proceedings. It was, I believe, that every local man and woman wanted to ask Arlington Pew a simple question.

“Why? Why, mister Pew, did you decide to kill the boy Harry Clark in the middle of the ladies shoes department in broad daylight? Why did you kill a broke, young optimist when you were always so irritatingly polite and cordial to every difficult customer that regularly took the time to tread all over you?” No one had dared voice it, yet everyone needed to know.

“Order!” or something along those official lines Judge Hewlett called for; his additional guard made sure that he got what he wanted.

“How do you plead?” was the natural progression of these things.

“Not guilty, you’re Honor.” Slowly rising and slowly speaking, the thin man with thin arms had thin fingers splayed out with their ten tips across the oak tabletop.  His confidence bordered on elegance. The people of Harkins were awed.

“We plead not guilty on account of such immense emotional distress as to lead my client Mr. Pew’s into a temporary and recurring insanity. We intended to provide documented evidence of a recurring psychological condition rendering my client without his normal capacity for reason.” Mr. big-name-throughout-the-southern-states, Mr. happy-to-take-the-courtroom-as-his-own-playground, Mr. Timothy Grauers, lanky defendant in the most sensational cases, appeared only too pleased to have the judge cut him off here and remind him that his widely-reputed eloquence aught not take him off into various directions ahead of prescribed schedule.

“Ah-hem!” Mr. Pew, who had fallen completely out of most of the present minds as merely a blurry, peripheral speck at the far end of Mr. Grauers’s table, suddenly came sharply back into focus. The room deadened.

“I think we can wrap this up quite succinctly. I must say my wardrobe and hygiene have suffered greatly in the hands of the jail house facilities these past few days and I feel it my duty therefore to clear this whole business up immediately. The boy was shot, unfortunately, because of the sweat.”

Every ear remained at full attention.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Pew?” Even Judge Hewlett was unusually cordial in his puzzlement. “The sweat?”

“The sweat, your honor, yes. The sweat. It is common, albeit very unbecoming for some people to perspire in this season of the year. Some of you, due to your line of work or hygiene have greater tendencies than others. While I can accommodate this unfortunate tendency in its necessary place, I believe we can all agree that our illustrious McCavinaugh’s, the crowning jewel of this town’s society, is no place to come in such a state, let alone the ladies department. The disruption for the lady patrons, and Miss Trideux especially, was beyond consolation. The necessary action became apparent. It is a case of self-defense, your Honor. It is a case of defense of the class that is the ‘Lady.'”

Silence continued. The people looked to the judge like children, their eyes pleading for his authority to somehow make sense of this. His brow was furrowed, lip bitten in an almost nervous tell that none ever had or likely ever will see in his courtroom again. He stared deeply into the left rear or the ceiling for some minutes.

“Court is adjourned until tomorrow morning at ten am.” He finally muttered over a weak-wristed gavel knock.

The people filed out silently and orderly, as oppositely composed from their entrance as if they had been choreographed into a funeral procession. Barely a whisper rose. The defense council sat strewn out along the oak table glancing longways and in annoyance at his subject, who sat with folded hands and gazing up high above the judge’s stand. A halo was the only thing missing from the tailored picture of serenity.

Although I always promise him that I believe him wholeheartedly, Chris still swears hard at every retelling that not a soul spoke a word as the crowds dispersed across the lawn and the town square. He says he didn’t really hear many people speaking much in public for almost a week after that day, and when they did start back up he never heard anyone mention the trial again. It continued on in the same courtroom, with the same judge, jury, law men, and guards, but the crowd was gone. Only a handful of non-local gawkers and a myriad of significantly less-cramped newspaper men attended the ensuing battle, which was far shorter and less extravagant than Mr. Grauers intended. Both the local papers stopped covering the story before the case really took off, even though most of the big nationals ran a little front page blurb when the verdict came out. The insanity plea held up too easily for Mr. Grauers’ taste so that he was barely even necessary, and twenty years at Mooreston Sanitarium was the prescribed medication for Arlington Pew. I have heard rumor that his health has greatly deteriorated there and his doctors do not expected much in terms of his mental reform or life expectancy.

I learned quickly upon my return not to make mention of the events that transpired in my absence with just about anyone but Chris. McCavinaugh’s found a far less enthusiastic shoe salesman and apart from that the town tries its hardest to feel no change, to not accept the events of that August.

Occasionally I will have some writer friend from the city stop over in town and, from the comfort and safety of a cloud of pipe smoke in the den, Chris and I will recount for them the incident in the context of its local rejection. It is always hard to decide which is more complicated.

When I lie awake in the night, as I often do, I wonder if the whole town lies awake together, penitent and tormented by the immense secret which the whole world knows. We ride out the darkness to another dawn’s promise, another rest from the question.

– M. Landers, March 2014

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