Don't The Governor Writer A Pretty Hand
by Richard Lutman
The day after his release from prison Cass Franklin returned to his weather beaten cabin in sycamore grove at the foot of Blue Mountain and plugged in his TV. He needed the comfort it brought him. He turned it on and the picture rolled just as it always did.
“Damn thing!” he said and hit the top of the set with the broad palm of his gnarled hand. The picture rolled in two compact lines across the screen. “Damn thing!” He hit it again, this time striking the side of the set sharply. The picture righted itself and he reached over and turned it off, then turned it on again. This time there were no lines. The screen illuminated the room with a familiar flickering light.
He stretched, tendons creaking in his arms. Then feeling restless because he had nothing left to do, he walked to the window wondering if things would be the same as they had been before he had been sent away.
The early morning mists made everything seem fresh and new. The glow of his charcoal kiln by the barn burning through. He had spent the first hours after his return preparing the kiln. The work had kept him busy and he had little time to think about anything else. He missed his wife and the way it had once been. One bony hand held the curtains apart so that he could see the road in front of the house. No one was coming and he wondered if anyone would ever come again. The damp and cold made him uncomfortable. She was gone. Dead three years this April. He needed her right now more than ever. He’d been unable to see her buried because the warden wouldn’t let him out even for a few hours.
He heard the ducks rasp in the marshes half a mile away and thought about how good it would be to go hunting again. He remembered the times he and Red Hollander had risen before dawn and gone to wait in the reeds for the coming of the birds. Those were the days that meant something.
Footsteps crunched on the hard-packed earth, and he looked through the curtains again. Red stood in front of the porch with his duck gun in one hand and wore the same faded overalls, blue jacket and crumpled hat that Cass remembered and missed.
Cass opened the door and stood on the porch, shivering slightly in the chill air as he stared at his friend. He stepped down the stairs. Red looked too freshly shaven and a little bit grayer. Cass felt his chest tighten with the excitement of seeing his old friend.
Red began to smile. “Don’t look much different. Thought somehow you would.”
Cass laughed and shook his friend’s hand.
“You know something; I never thought you’d get out,” said Red. “I wasn’t sure you’d been set free until the sheriff told me. Even then I couldn’t believe it. He said you’d done your time and then some. Came as soon as I could. Been sick. Don’t feel as good as I used to. When I saw the ducks comin’, I started to feel better real fast. Had to walk. Truck fell apart.”
“I always told you that truck of yours would die sooner or later.”
“Yeah, I guess you did,” said Red. “I thought it would go on forever. But it didn’t. Plumb rusted through. Just like we’re going to do someday.”
“Thanks for looking after things.”
“I have some whiskey,” said Cass. “Come on in.”
“Plumb dry,” said Red.
Red followed back inside and watched Cass take two glasses from the cupboard above the sink. Red leaned his rifle against the wall and took a seat at the table. Cass poured out the whiskey into the glasses, then sat. Red took a drink and made a face.
“It’s some of Ike’s special stuff,’ said Cass. “Found a bottle of it on the steps when I got back here.”
“Bet he still uses gasoline to give it that bite,” said Cass.
They sat in silence, watching the shifting patterns of light through the curtain on the floor. The TV buzzed.
“Just like old times,” said Cass.
“Yeah,” Red said picking at a piece of straw that was caught on his sleeve.
“I don’t know what happened, Red. I’d still be there but for the pardon. Guess they don’t like old men like me in that prison. I was the oldest there; just about everyone called me “Pops.” They let me work the charcoal kilns, was almost like home. Did it for nine years. Because of my age it didn’t make much sense to work on roads or in the machine shop. Besides, making charcoal meant that I didn’t have to talk to a lot of people. Think they knew that.
“See this?” said Cass, holding up a piece of paper he took from his shirt pocket and unfolded it. “The pardon from the governor. I was one of the lucky ones he selected before he left office.” The signature was neatly written at the bottom of the neatly typed sheet of ivory-colored paper.
“Wish Becky was here to see this. She believed in me to the end. Didn’t know she was dead until the warden told me. Still don’t believe it. The day the warden told me I thought he wanted to see me about getting out.
“Did I ever tell you how I met her?” he said. Before Red could answer, Cass continued, “I used to sit for hours on the porch of my place in Preston City, watching the planes on their approach to the airport. I could never get over the feeling it gave me. How could something that big ever fly. Those big pieces of metal coming down as if they were ducks onto a pond – some even tipped their wings as they came in.
“I went on like that for a year and half, sitting, counting planes, looking at my watch to see if one was early or late. I knew all the schedules by then. One day at Christmas, carolers from across the river came around, and when the singing was over, each one gave me a poinsettia. Hers was a white one.
“Becky was the last in line. She wore a faded print dress with big yellow flowers on it and a light brown coat. She wasn’t pretty; there was just something about her. She was skinny, too. We found out later that we were both from the same county in southern Georgia.”
Red coughed and poured out another round for each of them. He hooked his heels under the chair and sat back waiting for Cass to go on.
“I remember she stroked the back of my hand while giving me the plant. Her name was Becky Richmond then, and she missed Georgia as much as I did. Though she’d made a lot of friends, most of them made fun of her ways. Her father had run off to Detroit a few months after she was born and her mama had sent her three brothers and Becky to a church school because she wanted them to know God early in life so they wouldn’t run off too. She didn’t have anyone favorite when I first met her.”
Red scratched his arm then stretched.
“That was on a Saturday. She came back again the next day. Showed up early. We sat under the trees and talked of hoeing cotton and trips each of us had taken to Natchez. And how good black-eyed peas tasted when you cook young okra with them in the same kettle.”
Red nodded his head.
“Funny how we both knew that okra was cooked just enough whenever the peas cracked and the seeds slipped out. She came back every day after that. Damn, they never told me until it was too late … ”
“You all right, Cass?” said Red.
“It’s the whiskey. Not used to it yet.”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” said Cass. “I’m a tough one, you know that. Remember when that rattler bit me? I lived to tell about it. But losing her … ”
Cass looked at the TV where figures on a game show jumped up and down. He got up turned it off and watched the screen become a white dot. “Glad you came by. You never wrote much.”
“You know I always had trouble writing letters,” said Red. “How was it in there?”
“Food wasn’t bad,” said Cass.
The bouquet of hardwood from the charcoal kiln drifting past the fences covered the nearby fields. It was a fragrant reminder to Cass of what he had missed while in prison.
“Just like old times,” Cass said again. “You and me with nothing to do but sit around, waiting for the charcoal, talking, drinking and making ready to shoot the ducks. Still got my old shotgun. Found it where I left it. Only thing my pa ever left me. Don’t shoot like it used to, but hell, its almost as old as I am now. Figure I’ll be making just enough with the charcoal to get by on. Not like it was.”
He picked up an odd-shaped piece of charcoal from the table that had ragged edges.
“Feels like balsa,” he said. “Burn all day. Remember when people from out of state used to come to buy it. Don’t know who’ll come now. A lot of the county folk are more curious about me than wanting charcoal. How about another drink?”
He passed the bottle to Red.
He stood up and lurched into a back room where he searched about the closet. Then he returned.
“Here it is,” he said returning to the kitchen holding a small suitcase. “The tape machine. Remember when I ordered it in Trinity from the general store. Took them three weeks to get and cost me over thirty-five dollars. A lot of money. I thought Becky would never forgive me. She got used to it, though. Caught her talking into it once. Nobody interested in it now. You on your banjo and me sitting with Becky listening, singing when we knew the words.”
Cass put the machine on the table, threaded up the tape, plugged it in and turned it on. They heard the machine reach speed, then the sound of Red singing, high and faltering as he caught the tune, his banjo plunking behind.
He shut it off and studied his hands where he saw the deep, cold light of the early winter across their palms. He lost himself in them. It was a habit he’d gotten into in prison.
“How’s everyone doing?” said Cass after awhile.
“Pete got married to a woman from Webb’s Hollow,” said Red. “Don’t see him much anymore. Guess he’s happy.”
“Got tired of working that land of his, sold out, and went to California,” said Red. “Haven’t heard from him in two years.”
“What about Ed?”
“Killed when his still blew up,” said Red.
“Good way to go as any.”
Two pheasants squawked like an unoiled gate in the trees below the house.
“Have they said anything?” asked Cass, breaking the silence.
“Not yet. A fight’s a fight and you beat Rand Dawson good.”
“He was found dead. I claimed I was innocent, but it made no difference. He had no right to call Becky poor white trash. ”
“His kin weren’t happy about you being release.”
“I did my time!” said Cass as he rose to his feet and took his shotgun from the wall. “Let’s go, enough talk. The ducks are waiting. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”
They walked outside and started toward the marsh where the water was as gray as the clouds above.
“Winds going to have a bite to it later,” said Cass.
They found a place among the tall grass of the marsh where they crouched low and waited.
Two ducks came in low and fast. They saw the men and kept going. Cass and Red watched, scanning the horizon.
Another duck slowed as it prepared to land near them. Cass stood up, snapping the shotgun stock to his shoulder. The duck swerved. The shot charge caught the bird square and it dropped, floundering with a broken wing, and swam randomly.
Cass tried to reach the bird. It surfaced, then dove into the weeds. The gray water stilled.
A pair of ducks flew overhead. Both men stood up and fired. A double report smashed and the birds dropped almost on top of them.
“Becky never liked me to shoot anything,” said Cass. “Couldn’t understand why I did it. But she got to like duck after awhile. Cooked it up real good for the holidays.”
Paper leaves crackled underfoot as they walked back to the house. His charcoal kiln glowed in the coming dusk.
Cass took another drink from the bottle he’d brought and began laughing, too drunk to stand anymore.
Cass took out the pardon and studied the signature again.
“And don’t the governor write a pretty hand?”
Richard Lutman lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and currently teaches short story classes as part of Coastal Carolina University’s Lifelong Learning Program. His fiction has appeared in Crazyquilt, Verdad, Slow Trains, The Green Silk Journal, Dark Sky Magazine, The Bicycle Review, Epiphany Magazine,The Pettigru Review,The Newport Review and WritingRaw. Lutman was a 2008 Push Cart Nominee and has won awards for his short stories, nonfiction and screenplays. A chapbook of his flash fiction was published in June 2009 and a long narrative poem in 2011 by “The Last Automat Press.” Find out more on his website, www.WordRealm.net.