By Jeff Crook.
Six years have passed and Candy is still pissed that LeRoy Felt didn’t get THE CHAIR. She wants to see that retard fry. She wants sparks. She wants all the lights in the county dimming from the strain on the electrical grid. She paid her ticket in grief and now she just wants to see her damn show so she can finally go home to Shakespeare, MS and live the life of peace and beauty to which she is entitled. But LeRoy Felt got off with life in the state penitentiary for the man he’d killed. Her man.
So after the trial Candy visited once a month just to look at LeRoy Felt, just to sit on the other side of the dirty glass and stare holes in him and let it be known that out here in the world there is still one woman – one woman by God – who remembers LeRoy Felt is alive when he should be dead, dead, dead by all that is just and holy. She never even spoke to him, not in all these six years. Just stared, as though she needed to rekindle the flame of her hate on a monthly basis, like taking communion or going through menses. And he sits there on the other side of the smeared glass and looks back at her, because she is a visitor, and he doesn’t get many visitors. The two hour drive is too much for his mama and daddy, who never have more than five dollars to put in a gas tank all at one time.
It was three months before he even knew who she was. After one of the guards told him, he picked up the phone and said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Payne, I’m so sorry,” over and over even though she refused to pick up the phone on her side of the glass. She didn’t want to hear what LeRoy Felt had to say. She didn’t need to hear it. She could read his lips easy enough. He had soft lips, like a girl’s lips almost, and sometimes when he came to the glass his lips were busted and swollen and his eyes blackened, but even that wasn’t enough, not nearly enough to balance against the ledger of her own suffering.
Here she is – forty-five years old, widowed and childless, too old to get married and start a family, too young to give up on love entirely. Nor hope, nor despair either. She doesn’t feel old, but the men who pay attention to her now seem so much older than her James when he was murdered, brutally, with a hoe handle, by LeRoy Felt – age seventeen.
Candy never spoke to him, especially not at the trial. She’d never even heard his voice. For some reason, she was afraid to hear it. She was afraid it would be some pathetic retarded moan escaping his soft, effeminate lips. She was afraid LeRoy was too stupid to truly understand how utterly he had destroyed her life. She wanted to tell him how he’d left her, bereft and unfulfilled, bearing her loneliness like the whole sky upon her shoulders. So today, this day, in this, the sixth year of his sentence (her sentence, really), Candy finally picks up the phone on her side of the glass and hears LeRoy’s voice for the first time.
“I am truly sorry for what I done, Mrs. Payne.” His voice is gentle, mellow, with a slow, earnest Mississippi drawl that she finds disarming.
“What’d you kill him for?” Candy asks, her own voice harsh, quivering. She already knows the circumstances – how her James picked up this boy hitchhiking in a November thunderstorm, saved him from pneumonia probably, and that he killed James for his trouble, beat him to death with a hoe handle in the front seat of James’ El Camino while they were stopped at a railroad crossing waiting for the train to pass. She doesn’t want to relive that moment. She doesn’t want to know how James died. She wants to know why.
LeRoy says, “He tried to unzip my pants.”
She leaves the receiver dangling and runs to the parking lot and stands by her car with the wind rippling up her skirt while she tries to light a Capri cigarette with a 49-cent disposable cigarette lighter that keeps blowing out, until in her frustration she throws it at a parked sheriff’s car. She slides into her powder blue Mustang convertible and drives away with the top down and the unlit Capri still dangling from her lipstick.
When she returns three months later, she has come to terms with all that, because deep down she had known all along about her James – what he did on those Saturdays when he was gone all day and half the night. But she had never owned up to it, never suffered for it as she should have. They’d kept most of James’s dirty business out of the trial and they made sure LeRoy never took the stand, because James Payne was County Treasurer, Vice President of the local Republican party, and youth minister of the First Baptist Church of Shakespeare.
But even that didn’t make what LeRoy did right, even if LeRoy had been honestly mistaken about the whole thing like the public defender had intimated at the trial without ever coming right out and saying it. So she returns to the penitentiary with a mission – to save LeRoy’s soul and give her husband’s death and her own loss some purpose and meaning, however small and mean.
But when he sits down on the other side of the glass, it being July now, and him with his prison shirt stuck to his sweaty body and his arms and face tanned and his hands rough with calluses, she notices that he is more handsome than she remembered. He doesn’t have that thick-neck, hang-lip retard look about him at all. He looks almost normal.
“Are you saved, LeRoy?” she asks, a little breathless from the walk.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and been baptized?”
“I been dunked once.”
She clicks the heels of her paprika-red Danskos against the concrete floor. He is a young man, not even thirty. Life on The Farm doesn’t seem to have worn him down at all. Probably, he is too stupid to know how hard his life is. Prison is the best thing for him. Keep him occupied. At least he is Baptist. She doesn’t have to break him of any Mary-worshipping nonsense first.
“It’s funny what they call this place, don’t you think, LeRoy?” she asks.
“The penitentiary. It has its root in the word ‘penitent’.”
“Don’t that mean ‘sorry’?”
“Not just sorry, LeRoy. It means sorry enough to be willing to suffer.”
“I don’t know too many folks willing to suffer, Mrs. Payne. Not even the guilty ones. But I am sorry for what I done. I wanted to tell you that at the trial, but the judge wouldn’t let me.”
“I imagine not.”
“Honest to God.”
“Of course.” She leans closer to the glass. Her blouse droops a bit in front. LeRoy leans forward, and Candy lowers her voice as though she wants to share a secret. “So tell me LeRoy, are you saved?”
“I reckon not,” he says.
Candy doesn’t know how to respond to this. Even a Methodist will say he’s saved, just to end the conversation. “Don’t you believe in Jesus, son?” she asks.
“It ain’t that I don’t believe, Mrs. Payne. I just ain’t never met him. There’s a preacher comes around here about once a month. That’s about as close as I get.”
She leans back in the folding metal chair and uncrosses her legs. “Jesus is everywhere, LeRoy. Jesus is with you now. He’s just waiting for you to let Him come into your heart and wash away your sins.”
“I didn’t know I was keeping Jesus out, Mrs. Payne. He ain’t never spoke up.”
“He’s asking now, LeRoy. He wants in. Won’t you let Him into your heart?”
“Yeah, I reckon so.”
Candy lies in bed and prays hot tears of joy for what she has brought to LeRoy Felt through her witnessing. But after she falls asleep, she finds herself on the other side of that glass partition without a thought of the Lord. Or James.
The next morning, she drives back to the penitentiary to continue her ministering. She wants to find out if a Baptist minister can be brought in to rebaptize LeRoy. At the sign-in, she asks the guards if LeRoy had been preaching or witnessing to his fellow inmates. They say he got in trouble, again, for drawing a picture on the wall with his own shit. He’s always doing that, they say. For punishment, he isn’t allowed visitors for a month. So Candy drives the two hours back home, sorely disappointed and feeling punished herself. She sits in her den with her scrapbook from the trial and pages through the newspaper clippings. In the grainy yellowing photos, LeRoy wears a suit too big for him, looking like a lost little boy at a trial he doesn’t understand. Her memories are of a vacant-eyed soulless monster who felt no remorse for brutally murdering her husband. But that vacant stare, she now realizes, was not for lack of a soul. He was just a baby.
And looking at the pictures from the trial, she comes to realize that LeRoy has aged after all. He’d been a boy when he murdered James Payne, a mental child lashing out with a man’s strength against an unwanted sexual advance. But now LeRoy Felt is a man. And it is a shameful waste, she thinks, that it takes a prison to turn a boy into a man when that man can do no one any good at all locked up for the rest of his life.
After dinner, she calls the penitentiary and asks what it was that LeRoy painted on the wall with his own feces and they say, “A picture of Jesus, Mrs. Payne.”
So Candy waits her month and they are anxious days, sweltering through the month of August waiting and oftentimes wondering what LeRoy might be doing at that particular moment while she tends her tomatoes or puts up peas for the winter. She wonders if LeRoy is thinking about Jesus. What do prisoners do in their cells at night? she wonders. She drops to her knees and prays to God for the patience and the strength to bear her trials, knowing in her heart that it is her worry for LeRoy’s soul that keeps her up nights.
August slouches into September and Candy drives out to see LeRoy and ask him why he painted Jesus in shit on the wall of his cell.
“I was an artist before they put me in here, Mrs. Payne.”
He looks like they haven’t been feeding him. His face is pale with dark violet bruises in the hollows of his gentle eyes. Before, he’d been brown as a nut from working outside. They hadn’t just denied him visitors. They’d given him thirty days in Solitary for expressing his artistic spirit and the longing of his immortal soul. In feces. All for want of a daub of paint and a bit of canvas. The injustice of it makes her so mad she could just spit.
“God is an artist, too,” she says.
“I never thought about Him that way.”
“His creation is the greatest work of art that has ever been created. Look at the trees and the lilies of the field. Look at the mountains and the majesty of the sea. Look at the beauty of your body
She didn’t mean to say that. A hot stinging blush rises from her breasts to her neck and ears. Her lips tingle, and oh! how her nipples do throb. James never did know what to do with her nipples. She crosses her arms and switches the phone to the other ear.
“When I paint, I can’t never finish nothing,” LeRoy says. “I ain’t never happy with the way it looks. Do you think God is that way, too? That He ain’t never finished with creation? That He’s all the time going back and adding a little red here, taking away a tree there, painting a bird in the bush?”
“All things are possible in Jesus,” she says while her heartbeat bumps in her ears. She digs a stick of Dentine from her purse and slips it into her mouth, just to give her jaws something to do.
“The guards have been talking about you, Mrs. Payne.”
“Is that so? What did they say?” She smacks insolently at her gum, knowing the guards listen to their conversations.
“Some of it I can’t say to you. But they been asking me questions. Like, why do you keep coming out here to see me? Me who killed your husband. They ask me, did I kill Mr. Payne for you?”
“They what?” The tiny pink ball of gum almost falls out of her mouth.
“Yessum. They say, did I kill him for you? Did you hire me to do it? A detective was in here last week and he ask me about it, too.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him I done it because Mr. Payne grabbed ahold of my tallywacker. I didn’t mean to kill him. I just wanted him to stop. I didn’t know he was your husband.”
“What did he… the detective say?”
“He said I ought to tell the truth. That I might get out if you hired me to do it or tricked me into it with sex or drugs or whatnot. That the judge might understand and be lean-something.”
“But that isn’t the truth, is it?”
“Yessum. But he said you and me was lovers and that was why you keep coming back and talking to me, to make sure I ain’t going to ratfuck you.”
“Yessum. That’s what he said. I told him that I ain’t never laid eyes on you until that day at the trial, and then when you started coming out here, I didn’t even know it was you because you had colored your hair and cut most of it off, which was a shame because it made you look like an old lady. I’m glad you’re back to wearing it long again. And he said, ‘Don’t you think she’s a fine looking woman to be coming all the way out here to talk to the retard that killed her God damn faggot husband?’ And I said, ‘Yessir, she is, but I don’t know why she want to talk to me.’”
“Yessum. But then I begun to wonder myself. Ain’t you found another man yet?”
“Another man? What do I want with another man? And whose business is it anyway?”
Candy is going to write a letter to Judge Wiley when she gets home. She’ll find out which detective has been out here saying dirty lies behind her back, and she’ll see to it his ass is fired, toot sweet. She won’t stand for it, by God, not for one minute, not after all she’s been through. She knows people who can make things happen. She tells LeRoy so.
“I’m stuck in this place for the rest of my life, Mrs. Payne. I ain’t never getting out. But you’re still a good-looking woman. You could get any man you wanted just by snapping your fingers. I am sorry that you suffer on my account. If they’d ever let me out of here, I’d make it up to you somehow.”
“Don’t you worry. And you just keep telling them good-for-nothing police academy rejects the truth, you hear? You stick to the truth and Jesus won’t let you down.”
“Yessum,” LeRoy says.
She leaves to write her letter. But once she is home and has her good stationery in front of her and the pen in her hand, she finds she can’t write the first word. She sits at her writing desk, the very desk where she penned a book of poetry that was published ten years ago now, and not a word of poetry since James died, staring out the window at her sorry garden. And then the words come in a gush, recasting her years of grief – and frustration – in the form of a letter to LeRoy Felt. She lists the many ways he can make up for the loss of her husband. And when she runs out of paper, she takes a long hot bath, and drinks a glass of Chablis, and rereads her letter, folds it up, and puts it in her bureau. She climbs into bed not caring what the detectives, and the guards, think about her and LeRoy Felt. Let them think what they want. She knows in her heart that she and LeRoy are innocent. They are joined in their love of Jesus. “Jesus, yes, Jesus,” she says, over and over again.
“Can you read, LeRoy?”
“I’d like to write you letters, but I didn’t know if you could read. They tell me you’re mildly retarded.”
“I didn’t do so good in school, except for art class. I always liked to draw trucks.”
She brought him a box of colored pencils, and watercolors, and an art pad, but they confiscated the pencils and paintbrushes at the door. “They won’t let me have a brush. They think I’ll grind it into a shiv and kill somebody,” LeRoy says.
“You can use your fingers to paint. But I want you to stop painting Jesus on the wall with your feces.”
“All right, Mrs. Payne.”
“I want you to call me by my real name. I want you to call me ‘Candy’.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Crook is the author of four published novels, two unpublished novels, several unfinished novels and 35 published short stories (including this one) in everything from Pindeldyboz and Eclectica to Murky Depths and Nature. He blogs here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 15th, 2009.