Will Brown was suspected of having raped, robbed, and killed Patrice Lincoln, and he was still at large in the town of Riverton. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing talk about it. Whispers like the lapping currents of the river washed along the streets and buildings and flowed into and eddied around common areas and businesses like Parker’s restaurant where in private conversations people talked in low tones about the details of the crime. In more public conversations they shook their heads and loudly distanced themselves from what had been done to Patrice Lincoln, saying they sure hoped they’d catch Will Brown.
Parker knew Will Brown as the somewhat awkward young man who reluctantly joined a group of others down on their luck at the back door of the Callus when Parker doled out what paying customers had left on their plates that day. Will Brown had no blood relations in town and had only showed up in the alley behind the restaurant when things really weren’t going well for him. The first time Parker had seen him was when his plan to go to Chicago first ran aground about three or so years ago. He was leaning against an old brick wall with a kind of calculated insouciance that first day, the regulars quietly marking him as new with half-glances. He was about twenty-two and dressed in a dusty two piece double-breasted suit, threadbare from use and revelatory of thwarted ambition. In his gratitude for the food, on the three or four times when he’d shown up since, he’d always tipped his hat and smiled in a way that Parker had thought of as genuinely sweet but which, following news of the crime, Parker began to quarantine in his memory as possibly-mysterious and cryptic. Will Brown’s sometimes inappropriate chuckle, which erupted mirthlessly and too loudly at odd times and which called attention to him in unfortunate ways, had also seemed deprecatory and humble. Now Parker wondered if it had masked a menace beyond words. Whenever he was standing in the weedy gravel in back of the restaurant waiting for food– Parker recasts the event in his memory– there was always a strange energy back there, as if he was a misfit among misfits. He always kept a little to himself at these nightly sessions, sometimes delivering a joke you wished he hadn’t or forcing a wise crack a little too loudly and at the wrong time (something about the attempts at humor given his circumstances endeared him to Parker) as if he’d prompted himself to tell it in contrast to his customary and more natural silence after reminding himself (or remembering having heard somewhere) that he needed to be more affable because that’s what people liked, that that was the ticket to getting a leg up in the world. When Will Brown saw how poorly the crack had gone over, which it invariably did—the others waiting with him in the alley maybe grumbled for a minute or two but usually ignored him so completely it was as if he was a ghost—he’d retreat into the silence of the disappointed aftermath. In checking the details of what he knew about the man the way you do when something they’ve done, or may have, shatters the norm, Parker remembered that one time, about two years before Will Brown had gotten a job with Patrice Lincoln, he’d told someone he was living in an old sewer pipe down by the river. There was also something about trouble in Alabama, something that had forced his move North, a move that had been cut short but which Will Brown planned to resume once he’d saved up enough or extracted himself from whatever entanglements held him in Riverton.
Parker had also known Patrice Lincoln. She was tattered gentry, from a family who had been rich in both land and cash at one time, then land rich and cash poor, then simply poor like everyone else, though she’d never really wanted for anything. In Patrice’s father’s day there had been seemingly endless fields of tobacco rolling away into the distance, tended and harvested by tenant farmers, some of whom had descended from slaves. There were still a lot of black Lincolns in Riverton. Patrice’s brother, who was supposed to carry on the farm’s interests after the father died, died himself in an automobile accident on his way back from Memphis. At this time the mother was gone and the father’s mind was going and Patrice was dating a man who would go on to become a barber. Over the years, Patrice gradually sold off parcels of the land, first to other farmers, then to developers, so that it seemed as if the diminution of the expanse of her life and the Lincoln’s diminishing property were in perfect synchronicity. It seemed as if the sale of the duplex she owned on Frederica Street, the purchase of which had been funded by the sale of the house whose surrounding land had gradually dwindled to a three acre plot around the old brick farmhouse where she lived till diabetes clipped the barber’s life by about twenty years, would settle the very last of her arrangements and get her into the ground in some modicum of style, the last cents of the Lincoln money translated into a plot and a box one notch above the most basic. The exquisite perfection of this balance of dwindling life and means was interrupted by her murder, and, though they wouldn’t admit it, the interruption of this perfect balance of means and ways which many in Riverton had secretly been attending without knowing it, was part of what so troubled those (the majority) who rarely spoke to Patrice Lincoln. She didn’t seem to need or crave their words, seemed to float through her days by flitting from one small thing to another. Everyone had been forced to see her differently now that she was dead. They recalled how you’d see her on Main Street, stopping to suddenly focus on something in her path—an item in a shop window, a flower in a flower box—and she’d lurch toward it with great attention and evidence of an intense ongoing internal conversation before she’d move on to the next thing. She had come into Parker’s restaurant a handful of times, and had always sat by herself at the counter, something a bit fussy about her manner as if she was still buoyed, or expected to be in public, by her name, even as a competing voice seemed to rise up to tell her she shouldn’t be. You could see this dialogue—the assertion and the correction– play out before you in little twitches on her face. Patrice seemed to especially appreciate and light up in a peculiar way around Parker’s wife Jess, my grandmother, who also took an interest in Patrice. Jess took special care to see that she got what she needed when she came into the restaurant. An observant witness might have read an undercurrent, difficult to place, exactly, into a scene of Jess filling Patrice Lincoln’s coffee cup at the counter as they talked about the weather. This observant witness might have seen that, despite their difference in class—Jess’s people were all tenant and subsistence farmers since frontier days– there was something simpatico about the two of them. This observer, if he or she pushed long enough–(there’s rarely time for this kind of thought, of course, before one must turn back to more basic consideration in one’s life)– at just what was so unusual about the two of them, might have decided that they could have been, perhaps even thought that they should have been, good friends along with the impression that both harbored wings in dormancy and shared more than anything else the desire to fly away to a better life somewhere.
On her most recent visit to the restaurant, Patrice had looked older to Parker, as if suddenly, so that Parker noted again the way you freeze someone in their aging if you don’t see the person every day and the way age seemed to keep quiet till it manifested itself as if all at once. She was someone you kept track of in town, someone you knew or thought you did, someone whose story you followed, even if you never spoke to her. Parker suspected she must have been lonely despite being so well known, despite being kept track of. The next he heard of her, she was horrifically dead and there was a wide clamor for Will Brown who’d never struck Parker as someone capable of such a crime and who’d gone missing.
Three nights after the discovery of Patrice’s body, it rained all night, and it was still raining when Parker woke up from a dream that felt like a revelation about Will Brown. The dream had been so clear and vivid that Parker felt compelled to move quickly through the morning’s build into day to confirm what had hit so hard during the night. The children were still asleep. Jess was already up amid flour swirling in the first dim light of dawn and the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, making pies the way she did every morning. She’d seemed sadder, more inward since Patrice Lincoln’s passing. Parker patted her shoulder, and she nodded her acknowledgement as he walked out the door mumbling something about going down to the river, it sounded like, though the clattering screen door garbled it up.
He drove the Cadillac through the still dark morning, the rain still falling but less fervently so that its diminution seemed to coincide with the ebb of the vivid certainty that had come with the dream. Red and orange and gold leaves twisted down from maples, oaks, walnuts, and poplars to coat the street and the cracked sidewalks with their wet faces. Parker left the car at the riverfront in a seldom-visited place given over to the industrial and agricultural bi-products the town wished to will into the false oblivion of the river. In a moment of self-aggrandizing foresight and faith in progress the town had purchased then set aside a large concrete culvert sewer pipe they hoped one day to use. The pipe now sat, unused, perpendicular to the river, which sometimes rose to partially fill it. Even though it might have been mistaken for an old pipe, dug up and set aside, at one time the pipe had been a hopeful investment for the town, something they might have grown into but didn’t, or hadn’t yet. “Someday,” a booster of the town council might have proclaimed, “we’ll produce enough waste in our progress to warrant the use of a pipe like this which is the size of the ones they use in Louisville, Nashville, Memphis, Chicago.” Now, the unused pipe had been abandoned for a newer, more practical system half its size. It was surrounded by cat tails, poison ivey, and loblolly pines and blocked at one end by debris the river had deposited when it ran high.
Being in this part of town jostled the memory for Parker of the time he slipped on moss and dropped his first grade primer as he was washed down the semicircular precursor to the pipe now in use and into the river. Parker approached carefully, the sense that it was foolish to test a notion born in a dream increasing with the light. Will Brown was surely long gone by now. The spreading sense of folly gave way to titillation and dread when he thought he saw a shift of light inside the mouth of the pipe from ten or so paces. Did he also hear someone moving– a ringing echo of movement, the sound of footfalls? He stopped in his tracks, feeling breathless, tingles coursing to his fingertips. As if to court a more exquisite excitement, in spite of what he almost knew, and to confirm the dream, he stepped closer, listening. “Who is it in there?” he asked.
No answer came, but Parker’s faith in the certainty he’d felt in the dream returned full force, so strong were some images from the dream: the pipe in the rain, a flash of eyes, trembling pink fronts of hands. These combined with a present sense of Will Brown’s desperation and need, which Parker thought he could feel emanating from the mouth of the pipe. And was that also low breathing? into which could be read I’m alive; I deserve consideration. Justice.
Parker looked at the river rolling, its folds and creases, foam in an eddy and some debris near shore. It was a little higher from the rains of the last three days, just beginning to lap the bottom of the pipe on the river side, leaves tumbling into silt. “It’s me. Parker. From the Callus,” he said and waiting for a few moments in the heavy silence that met this declaration. “Are you scared? Did you do it?”
In answer, the sound of the river, in and among which might have been low breathing. Even for its quiet it seemed in the moment to be and came back to Parker in his memory as a loud moment: a consciousness churning in the darkness close by, the doubled sound that churning makes when it’s taken up by another mind.
“You should turn yourself in,” Parker said into the roar of this churning. “It’ll go easier for you. Look better.”
Parker wondered into the silence (adding to its weight and noise). Was he so eager to confirm his own dream as prophecy that he’d invented the movement, the breathing, the growing certainty that Will Brown was hiding in the pipe? He stepped closer to its dark mouth. An unmistakable sound registered deep within. What might have been footfalls echoed, what might have been the soles of shoes scraped against concrete. Joe Daniels from the shoe shop just down the block from the restaurant had come in not long after the crime scene was discovered and claimed a “colored boy” who fit Will Brown’s description had come in for a shine. Joe said the boy had glimpsed the story in the paper and left immediately, disconcerted. Parker took in a breath and stood a few moments in contemplation of what he should do, feeling divorced in a lifting way from the mundanity of a regular weekday even as he felt a tinge of guilt for the fact that this excitement for him carried no real danger.
Over the next three days, the tinge turned into a stronger current of exquisite guilt for knowing and not saying what he thought he knew about the whereabouts, or most likely, former whereabouts, of Will Brown. He also felt a growing sense of responsibility and had to remind himself that he hadn’t actually seen Will Brown. Before he slept at night beside Jess who one night said, “You can be alive and well one minute and the next on your way,” to which Parker had no ready response except “yep, that’s about how it goes, we’re all of us alive and dying and prone to whatever befalls us,” and in the mornings as they readied the restaurant and when he heard customers speculating on the whereabouts of Will Brown and whether he might strike again, he embroidered that shift of light in the pipe and the suspicion he’d heard low breathing and the sound of those footfalls into scenarios in which he collared Will Brown and brought him in for a trial and other scenarios, wholly different, in which he talked to Will Brown, ascertained his innocence, and helped him get away so that the real killer and rapist might be caught. He did not return to the pipe for these three days because he didn’t want to know anything more, didn’t want to court more responsibility or guilt. He listened to the speculation that flowed into and lapped about the restaurant about where Will Brown might be and when and whether they’d catch him and listened to Jess say, “you can be friends with people in secret, really connected to them, on an invisible frequency, like radio waves without being friends with them, though both of you know about it, meet in this secret space of dreams and unspoken things” –listened to everything concerning Will Brown with a weighty, pleasant, unease.
Riverton had never been so bad on race. There was a rickety divide between the races, Jim Crow certainly held sway, but the divide was mild and porous compared to some smaller towns in the vicinity where you wouldn’t ever want to be a black person out after dark. In these towns a rage that had its roots in a complicated snarl of sources including a lack of power, deep denial of a shared lot in that lack of power, a clutching need to aggrandize oneself over an officially-sanctioned lesser other, and boredom—festered in a few ignorant gullets, and spread to others, to helpless children, like a rash, an outbreak of easy, self-consuming excuses. There were some even in the town of Riverton whose certainty of Will Brown’s guilt, rage, an impatience for justice, and a confidence they were the ones to mete it out was frightening to witness. Parker caught snippets of this ugliness as anyone who happened to be white and just walking around town might: a word, mutual assurance that you were okay, right because white, sometimes, worse– flecks of spit flying, a flash of hatred in the eyes, a self-righteous, unbalanced reptilian timbre in the voice. There were those, even in Riverton, who would get up a posse and string the boy up if they found him before the law, some who were convinced the law would sit on their asses and let him go—this nigger who’d done this to a helpless old white woman who’d done him the kindness of taking him into her home and giving him work– see how they are?
The town had let Patrice Lincoln go lonely after the barber passed, one rung down in the perfect diminution, and she had hired Will Brown to help her keep a little garden and do the things a man would’ve done in the house. Hired him so she’d have someone to notice if she didn’t get up in the morning. If you listened to certain people talk about her now, you’d never know that none of them knew her, so convincingly did people who’d never had a real conversation with her tell her story now as if she’d been their saintly best friend. Perhaps that was the strange quality Patrice Lincoln brought and that she shared with Jess; they were both emblems for people other people carried close in secret, noticed, admired, even needed, without any visible acknowledgement. Jess’s silent frequency friendship. Parker knew exactly what she meant, and thought this might describe his relationships with many of those who showed up in and behind the restaurant including Will Brown who he tracked without their ever knowing it and who he suspected tracked him, silently traced his narrative.
One slow lunch day, just after the rush had passed, on the fourth day after he’d sensed Will Brown in the pipe, Parker wrapped a passel of biscuits and some sausage into a red-checkered cloth, carried it the half mile to the sewer pipe, and left it there on the lip where it glowed as if from its own light incongruous and inviting. He paused for a moment after he’d set it down, listening to the riverwater lapping on the bank and feeling a cool, wave-making wind off the water. He peered for a time into the darkness, trying to cast doubt on his former certainty, wondering if he was investing the stirring he’d sensed on the other side with more than was there, whether what he’d heard might have only been the sound of a retreating possum or raccoon, a stray cat. He looked around the lonely place surrounding the pipe, at the live sewer pipe down the bank that spewed waste into the river and the scraggly vegetation bent on recovering the ground it had lost. He’d already decided he’d tell anyone he met here that the food was for himself, that he’d come for a quiet lunch, knowing full well how strange it would look.
“In case you’re hungry,” he said aloud to the silence, looking down at his offering– the red and white checkered cloth under which the biscuits and sausage were still warm. “They’re looking for you pretty hot. I suspect they’ve already been by here.” Parker lowered his head and peered into the darkness. Just how crazy was he? He considered crawling into the mouth, but he stopped when a craving to return to the restaurant, to be back among the good smells, clinking plates, and jolly bustle over which he was privileged to preside, overtook him. When he began his retreat he had the impression of an intense, brightly-colored relief from inside the pipe that he couldn’t help but credit.
The next day Parker walked to the pipe again. He was curious about what state he’d find the food in and feeling as before that he was doing something illicit. The weight of the knowledge he was withholding information, possibly even aiding and abetting, rode his shoulders like a body. He knew heavyset Sherrif Bolsten with his freckled face and raspy voice and some of the boys on the police force who were looking for Will Brown. He got updates on the search when they came into the restaurant. Folks would ask them how it was going, speculate about whether or not people in town might be in danger. Parker wanted to ask them whether they thought Will Brown might be innocent, something no one ever asked, whether there might be other suspects, but he couldn’t bring himself to stand out in this way.
In the stories that have come to me through my father about Parker, he was always a willing, if quiet, crosser of the color divide. In addition to providing meals at the back of his restaurant to all manner of people forced for one reason or another into outcast or misfit status, it often came to light, usually long after the fact, the ways in which Parker had quietly helped many people. He helped them without trumpeting it, in some cases without even letting anyone but the person helped know about what he’d done. One time not long after Parker’s death and his funeral, which was attended by over three-hundred people, my father heard his own name ringing out in a deep bass on mainstreet Riverton, where he’d returned to help settle the finances of an errant relation. Suddenly on the air was ringing a form of his name no one had used for thirty or more years. “Davie, Davie!” the booming voice called out, when he’d been David at the firm and elsewhere for thirty or more years. He turned startled by the vacuum created by this sudden erasure of years, to see a colossal man approaching with a wide grin. The man gleefully crushed one of my father’s hands in two of his own. “Willis Gibbs,” the man said and waited for my father to remember the great tight end, Willis Gibbs, who’d gone on to play for the Razorbacks and to be a viable candidate for the Heisman. Some still argued it was a travesty Willis Gibbs didn’t win that year. “I was so sad when I heard your father passed,” he said, “So sad.” “Do you know your father used to give us money when I was little. Brought it by in a paper sack. Helped see us through some lean times.” My father had never known his father had done that. Stories like this poured in during the funeral, so that is seemed as if the outflow of what little wealth Parker had must have exceeded his income by some magic calculus that put one in mind of a spring gurgling up out of the earth.
When Parker returned to the pipe, the sight of the cloth, empty and folded neatly in the light at its lip, arrested Parker where he stood ten paces away. He looked behind him and at the abandoned territory all around– land the town would as soon forget, the river beyond.
When he reached for the cloth, a hand shot out of the darkness, grabbed his wrist, and pulled him a distance into the rank darkness.
No. That’s not what happened, though that’s how Parker wanted to tell it later and did tell it on occasion because that’s what he imagined happening, such was the effect of the surprise of hearing a voice speaking to him and the residue of another dream he’d had about the man, a dream in which Will Brown was wasting away, the bones under his face gaunt and skeletal as he tried to tell one of his unfunny jokes, so strong was the sense that this wasting was Parker’s fault given his suspicion of Will Brown’s innocence.
“Thank you Mr. Parker,” the voice whispered from the darkness. Now, the hand did come to rest, gently, but no less troublingly on Parker’s wrist over the checkered cloth.
“I brought some more,” Parker said, willing his voice not to quaver. He took up the first and placed on the lip of the pipe a second red and white checkered cloth into which was folded some fried chicken, more biscuits. He felt as if now he was at a precipice and no turning back, even as in another part of himself he remembered the crime and reminded himself he could still turn Will Brown into Bolston and the boys.
“I’m innocent, Mr. Parker,” the voice whispered in a soft hiss crackling with desperation. “I never did what they say. Ain’t left here but dead of night to drink from the river and necessaries. If I leave here, I know they’ll get me before I cross out of town. It’s all over if they do. They came one day, but I got a false back to this thing. I dig in deeper and cover the end.”
“I imagine they’ll look here again,” Parker said. “Surprised they haven’t already.” Parker checked his gut feeling about the man based on what he had to work with—the voice, the gratitude, the feel of the air around him– and found Will Brown innocent. Parker had always been one to trust instinct and offer faith whenever he could, even sometimes when he shouldn’t. He trusted his feelings about people. “Any ideas about who did it?” he asked. Where before he’d been certain that what he’d seen in a dream was real, now he was finding dreamlike what he knew was happening.
“No,” came the whispering voice from the edge of darkness. “I found her like that. I went out drinking. The place was broke into. They’ve already got me down for it, though.”
“You’ll get a trial.
Will Brown released the mirthless chuckle. “Hmmppph,” he said, an exhalation like an almost malevolent hiss. “Help me, Mr. Parker. I always knew you were a good man since I first came to the back of the restaurant.”
Parker was unlikely to pass this part of the story on to just anyone. This part he only told in certain company. If prompted he was likely to tell the story of the public hanging, among the last to be held in this country, to a wide audience. He was much less likely to ever tell about his interactions with Will Brown by the sewer pipe. What passed between Parker and Will Brown there retained for Parker the beveled-window quality of a dream, so that he doubted the events even in his later years. To dream of something then to find that place in your waking life was too strange to recover from. The events morphed in his memory in odd ways, difficult to account for. Did Will Brown’s face waver that way, as if some mad genius had painted him into that pipe? Did Will Brown grab him and pull him into the pipe? Was the pipe upholstered and did they sit in easy chairs? Those who got to hear Parker tell the whole story heard him tell how scared the young man was, his eyes, when Parker glimpsed them in the darkness, wide as silver dollars, his voice which had always been unsure and shaky, a blanket of quivers over his urgent whispers. What kind of life was it to live in the confines of that pipe? Why wasn’t he already miles from Riverton, halfway to Chicago by now?
My wife Angelica urged me to do some research to legitimize my project of working with my grandfather’s stories. I talked about going down to Alabama where Will Brown’s people were still supposed to be living, to find out what they thought of the events of Will Brown’s death on the gallows. There was going to be a Brown family reunion, it turned out, not far from Selma Alabama. I found myself on the phone with some matriarch distracted by the noisy voices of children, her grandchildren? all around her. She told me about the family reunion, though it was never clear she understood what I’d tried to explain, why I wanted to attend.
A day before the gathering, I drove to the matriarch’s house, a one story brick ranch on an immaculate yard surrounded by bouganaillia and kudzu.
“I’m working on a writing project. I’m telling some of my grandfather’s stories, and one of them is about the last public hanging in the United States.”
“That was Mazey’s great grand-uncle, I think,” said one of two large women on a floral patterned couch.
There are several children of various ages running all around the house. Two other women, one very thin and one heavier moving in and out of the kitchen.
“Why do we want to think about this? I’m trying to see my living family,” says the matriarch.
“He oughta talk to Charline,” calls one of the women from the kitchen.
“Mmhmm. That’s what I was thinking,” says the other woman on the couch, who I’m guessing is the matriarch’s younger sister.
“Charline’s got a Ph.D. She got into that stuff a while back. She’s writing a book,” says the thin woman, poking her head through the kitchen door.
“We got the reunion tomorrow. But you could talk to her, maybe, anyway. Charline’ll be there,” says the matriarch’s sister as the matriarch herself narrows her eyes in deep scrutiny and shakes her head mumbling something that starts with “why.”
Two nights later I drive down some winding dirt roads through thin pines. Before I get out of the car, I stay in it for a time listening to a dove’s steady cooing in a tree nearby.
For a time I follow the young woman who has been identified to me as Charline with my eyes trying to prepare myself to move in and broach the subject. At first I get some looks, see some whispers about me, but finally I’m ignored and move about the party like a ghost. It seems they’ve decided I’m someone’s boyfriend or an errant relation. Every time I’m about to try to talk to her, she’s engaged by someone else.
Then suddenly she’s behind me. “You’re interested in Will Brown,” she says. “You want to take a walk and talk,” she asks and she sets out before I have a chance to answer.
The gravel crackles under our feet and we move down the road between the thin pines to the dove’s tripartite coos. I tell her as much as I know from Parker’s side of the story.
“Near as I can tell Will Brown left here for three reasons. One, he had a falling out with his father. Two, this was no place for a black person to be back then and people were leaving in droves. The Great Migration was in full swing. That’s actually the subject of my dissertation. Three, and related and sadly ironic, he was nearly nabbed and lynched and saw his cousin caught and strung up for a trifle. So, he left and followed agricultural jobs up North with a vague notion of getting to some of our people who’d already moved up to Chicago.
“Nothing in his past suggests he was capable of the crime for which he was accused. I went through our family records, such as they are. And he was by all accounts a peaceful, sensitive soul. A little awkward, maybe. There’s one letter he wrote back home from Riverton. And then a spate of them once he was waiting to hang. What’s your interest here?”
“Just trying to get the full story. I might write about it myself.”
On my way out, I catch her eye and nearly reach out to engage her again, but one of her nieces, I guess, and two nephews beat me to it. They engulf her with their cries and she meets the cries in kind. I reconsider and turn away.
“How’d it go?” Angela asks when I talk to her on the phone later that night.
“Fine,” I say. I can’t tell her there’s nothing useable from this trip. “I miss you and the boys,” I tell her, already leaning toward the moment when they’ll run to me screaming “daddy daddy!” and I want to tell the matriarch and Charline Brown I understand the pull of the here and now, the joy of letting the present and the future flood in to overtake the past.
Even though at this time in the history of the country, 1936, public hangings were on the wane, the verdict following the trial came down that Will Brown was guilty and that he was to be publicly hanged. If he’d been found guilty of murder, he would have been hanged privately, but they chose to try him for the rape of a white woman, so his death would be public. His fingerprints were found in Patrice Lincoln’s room, and why had he run away? Was this the behavior of an innocent man? the prosecution wanted to know. His alibi that he was drinking with some acquaintances was dismissed, turned against him. The neighbors in the duplex swore they heard undue commotion around the time when Will Brown returned from his carousing that night. The town was over-ready to get closure in the case, all the talk having come to a boil. His lawyer was inept and mounted little defense above producing a few easily-discreditable witnesses who claimed they were with Will Brown but who seemed uncertain about when their night of drinking had ended.
Parker did not escort Will Brown to Sherriff Bolston, but when Will Brown turned himself in a day after their conversation by the pipe he cited Parker’s advice when he showed up at the courthouse as if offering a letter of introduction sure to set him on the road to a fair trial. Later that same day Bolston came by to talk to Parker, their former easy exchanges wiped out by Bolston’s austere scrutiny, no trace of gratitude or credit for all the meals Parker had served him in the man’s dimmed hazel eyes. This was the last time Bolston ever set foot in Parker’s restaurant.
Press from all over the country and even from some international organs came to Riverton to cover the spectacle. Many of the reporters were ready to pile their disdain on the hick town and state where such a thing could legally take place in this modern enlightened age .One newspaper in a Northern town, in an article very critical of the decision to have a public hanging, but nonetheless capitalizing on the hubbub leading up to the hanging, ran a history of public punishment from Roman times on as a lead-up to their story about the hanging. The build-up to the hanging coincided with the erection of the scaffolding, which gradually went up where a hotel called The Executive Inn stood for a time before it too was torn down, the place where Parkers’ children and grandchildren, of whom I am one, would gather for family reunions and their annual Christmas party.
In the final article of the series published in the Northern paper, the writer claimed the atmosphere on the day of the hanging was carnivalesque, like a big circus or picnic, and that the crowd cheered when Will Brown dropped through the doors.
Parker tells a different story. He allows that at first the atmosphere leading up to the hanging was circus-like. “Crowds came into Riverton you wouldn’t believe,” Parker would say when pressed to talk about it. Most of the residents didn’t know how papers all over the world were playing up the event. Parker’s restaurant on Main and Walnut was just one block away from where they’d built the scaffold. “People just came in droves, just came in droves,” Parker said in his tellings as if still surprised by the level of interest. He ordered doughnuts from a bakery and piled them up on the counter. He says he did this “time and time again and people just grabbed ‘em up as fast as I could put ‘em out.”
As the moment approached, the crowds around the scaffolding by the state garage grew bigger and bigger. Jess was home that day with a sick child. The restaurant quieted, and Parker stayed inside as long as he could stand it. He’d twice gone to visit Will Brown in prison, driven to see him by a sense of responsibility and guilt. Business had dipped noticeably after Parker was linked to Will Brown in talk around town. Steely stares from some quarters found him and some regulars stopped coming in. “Some of them never did forgive me,” Parker sometimes said with a strange smile. Once before the trial and once after the verdict he’d gone to visit Will Brown in his courthouse cell. On the visit before the trial, they assured one another that Will Brown had made the right decision and went over the evidence and alibis that would clear Will Brown’s name. Parker had promised him a ride to Chicago when a verdict of innocent came down, and Will Brown had smiled in a genuine way, but still quavery and a bit furtive, that haunted Parker for the rest of his life. On the second visit Will Brown refused to say anything, only sat buried in a sadness Parker wanted to help him bear but knew he couldn’t
A few months later, Charline Brown called me at home in Louisville and asked if I’d show her around Riverton. So, one Friday afternoon after work I drove up and met her there. We visited the sights she wanted to see—the duplex on Frederica Street where Patrice Lincoln and her boarder Will Brown had lived, the place where the scaffold had stood near the now-defunct and gutted Executive Inn, the pipe down by the river which, to my amazement, a quick push through a stand of loblolly revealed still there, faintly echoing the murmuring river. She surprised me by climbing inside the pipe, and I followed her. “Can you imagine it? Living in here? Being that scared?” she asked when we were still in the pipe, her voice muted but filled with wonder. I shook my head and said, “No, I can’t,” as I peered into the darkness in front of us, took in the scent of urine and mildew.
“Your grandfather brought him food here?” .
I nodded. “So he said.” I jumped out into the light.
“And convinced him to turn himself in?” she also jumped out of the pipe.
I nodded, and she said, “Hmmph,” and shook her head. She stared out at the river for a time in silence before we left.
She conducted research in the archives of the public library. I introduced her to my uncle Brink who told what he remembered of my grandfather’s story and told the story of Kingsnake Langley’s sojourn in Riverton and how the bluesman had taught him to play a scale on the piano that formed the basis for his own continued interest and development in the blues. Brink also told about how he’d driven Langley up to Chicago where he was bound and where he achieved the legend- in-obscurity status he still enjoys. She let me tag along as she tried to chase down leads in the black community. We both listened to a woman named Betty in a nursing home who’d been twelve years old when the hanging took place and who went to see it against her parents’ wishes. “No way I was staying away, this big deal in this town?” she said, volume raising toward the end of the phrase. Later, she said, looking at Charline, “you think it’s bad now. No chance for a black man accused of doing that back then, no matter if he did it or not!” Betty told us that her father saw her after the hanging, on his way back home. She thought she’d get in trouble, but her father was too stunned in the aftermath to remember to discipline her. She said she remembered a white man—she didn’t know if the man knew her father—stopping to tell her father, a tenant farmer who’d never done anything illegal his whole life, “Now, you remember that, boy. Any time you start to get any ideas.”
On our last night we went to eat at a famous barbecue place on the outskirts of town. I found endearing her willingness to moan with pleasure in my presence over the cornbread and brisket. Her book about the Great Migration, which would feature a portion of a chapter about her relative Will Brown and his hanging in the town of Riverton, would go on to become a best seller while my book about my grandfather moldered in my closet bound to a sheaf of rejection slips. Before we parted in the lobby of the hotel that had supplanted The Executive Inn as the place to stay in town, our parting stretched a few seconds longer than it should have. We smiled at one another over a pillowy tumult of tension, or so I chose to define it. I felt something, at any rate. She looked at me askance. I reached out my hand, feeling as I did so, like I was plummeting through space. She met my hand a little less than halfway, a half gesture whose casualness (it may have been an accident) made it even more delicious, my heart in the air as I fell. We touched briefly, the smallest graze, fires running through my arms in that place, before we both turned away. And I’ve kept contact with her through something like the invisible frequencies Jess described ever after.
Parker was troubled by two dreams he’d had about Will Brown since the second visit to his cell, which, like the prophetic dream that had led him to search the pipe, had felt so genuine that he came to think of them as revelations. Parker had thought he would keep the restaurant open, following the donut sale, which had gone over well, that he would sit out the hanging, but as the time approached, his curiosity and a silence in the pre-dawn restaurant intensified by the presence of the thousands outside, drove him to go out and witness the proceedings. He felt like he may be able to do some final thing for Will Brown. Where John Monroe’s Chevrolet is right now, Parker says, there was a vacant lot built up pretty high because St. Stephen’s Church used to be there. When they tore St. Stephen’s Church down they left a high knoll where the church had been. When he got up to the top of the knoll, he looked across a sea of people, a huge crowd milling as far as you could see– all of those faces–twenty thousand were supposed to be in attendance– turned in the direction of the empty scaffold. He read later that some people- -he hadn’t heard anyone say so directly—had arrived early to get right up next to the scaffold where they could see and even hear the body drop through the trap doors. In his more common public account, if he was asked about it, Parker would say, “How in the world could anybody stand to do something– stand anything like that?” As the time approached, three people gathered out on the platform. Sheriff Bolston had died of a heart attack sometime after the sentencing, and due to some arcane law and in the absence of a new sheriff, his wife was supposed to pull the lever that would spring the trap door beneath Will Brown. Beside Bolston’s widow stood a mercenary hangman who’d come in for the occasion, an expert at tying knots guaranteed to snap a neck quickly, efficiently, painlessly. Parker always shared in a particularly distant way, the detail that this man shared his last name. Parker sometimes added that years later he talked to Mrs.’s Bolston’s son, who lived right down the street from him, and the son told Parker that it’s true what people said: when the time came his mother wasn’t able to pull the lever and the mercenary hangman who shared Parker’s last name had had to hit her arm to knock the lever that tripped the trap door open beneath Will Brown.
Parker watched the crowd and waited, feeling the presence of the dreams he’d had about Will Brown strong in him. In one he’d felt his feet, which were Will Brown’s childhood feet, sinking into soft warm mud beside an Alabama river, sunlight green and starry gold in trees beside the swirling water. Parker awoke with the certainty that this was Will Brown’s own memory slipped through some porous boundary, broadcast through the empathetic air to come to rest for safekeeping with him. In the second dream Will Brown stood atop Parker’s Cadillac in the manner of a hood ornament whose title might have been Innocent Man Goes Free—posed in this manner with his face, which was free of the fear and uncertainty it had held in their last meeting, pointing north and west, chin tilted proudly in the air pointing at a promising life in Chicago. Parker drove fast and hoped with a bright defiant certainty those they passed were admiring Will Brown, as they should, as an emblem of effortless justice and deserving freedom.
For a time all those thousands of people stood around the scaffold without making a sound. Then the crowd began to squirm up near the front as they brought in Will Brown. Parker’s heart started missing beats, he always said in his account, as he realized “they were all about to watch somebody go into Eternity.” When he got to the steps leading up to the scaffold, Will Brown stopped on the first step and sat down. Parker found out later that he didn’t want to die with his shoes on. He sat on the bottom step and took his shoes off. Then he stood, turned around, and ran up the steps to the man who put the hood over his head.
Parker turned away. Something about the way Will Brown, faced with the prospect of Eternity, ran up those steps….
He could tell by the crowd when it was over. If you believe the outsider press, a great cheer arose when the floor fell out from under Will Brown’s feet. If you believe Parker, the drop was followed by a profound and seamless hush. Even if the crowd had been raucous leading up to the hanging and as it gathered in anticipation, after the floor fell, Parker said you could hear the river lapping its banks, the distant cawing of a crow. If there was cheering afterwards, Parker suspects it came from outsiders. He was always keen in his telling to defend Riverton against claims that the event was treated as a big picnic and those stories that seemed to want to emphasize above all else how cruel the people of Riverton were to do such a terrible thing, rejoicing and all. Parker suspects there must have been hundreds like him in the crowd who turned their backs, who couldn’t watch. “Where I was it was somber quiet,” he always said as if challenging his listeners to disagree. “There wasn’t anybody cheering, nothing like that, everybody was just almost scared to death. I was just– my heart was just in my mouth. I walked back down to my place. I actually heard one woman praying out loud: ‘Lord have mercy on this young man’s soul.’ And it was just quiet, people were just stunned.”
Back in the restaurant a man with a mid-western brogue, a Chicagoan, came in to buy one of the few remaining stale donuts. When Parker asked him what he thought of what had happened, the man said, “The boy got what he deserved,” which set loose the images from his encounters with Will Brown down by the pipe and in the prison and the dreams he’d had about Will Brown to replay. He was Will Brown as a child with his feet in the Alabama mud. He was driving fast with Will Brown atop the Cadillac as Innocent Man Goes Free. On another level Parker felt just how tremendously far he was from Will Brown and always would be.
The Chicagoan bit into his stale donut, cleared his throat, and gave Parker a look that snapped him back to the moment. Parker managed an empty smile and gave the man his change.
There are parts of the story Parker never told. If you were looking closely enough during his telling of the surface story of the hanging of Will Brown, you could sense it and know the rest. I always sensed it in him when he told as much as he could bring himself to tell. Jess sensed it in him, primed as she was to think about the quiet connections running between people, between herself and Patrice Lincoln, all the souls with whom you were friends on the invisible frequency never quite made manifest of thought and dream, even after death.
“Help me, Mr. Parker,” Will Brown had said when they met at the pipe, one side of his face visible in the dull autumn light, the other side lost to darkness. Parker thought for a moment during which he imagined driving Will Brown out of town in his Cadillac. He could see the blur of the road, mileage to Chicago diminishing on all the signs.
“Turn yourself in,” he said, “if you’re innocent, a trial will see you through.”