Chapter 1: Send Me to the Electric Chair
sat at her dresser, putting on lipstick, getting ready to take her son up
to see the electric chair for the first time. She blotted her lips on a
Kleenex, reached for her comb. Her dresser top held the basics only--a jar
of Pond's cold cream, a bottle of Jergens lotion, Elizabeth Arden rouge
and lipstick, hand mirror, hairbrush--all on a starched white table doily.
She thought about little Terry
Daniels, just down the road. Why not take him along, too? Seeing the electric
chair might be especially good for him, and certainly his mother wouldn't
be taking him up there. And it would be nice for Stephen to have some
She blotted her lipstick again
on the Kleenex, softened the glare.
Terry's mother, Inez, squinted
through the door screen. As Mrs. Toomey explained the purpose of the trip,
Inez considered the dress Mrs. Toomey was wearing, a clean white dress
with big blue flowers. Mrs. Toomey's hair was shiny and had nice waves
in it, and little Stephen was so neat, wearing pressed navy blue shorts
and a yellow shirt with a collar, his hair pushed back in front with that
butch wax it looked like. She didn't have Terry's pants ironed. But he
had some that was clean. Somewhere back in there.
As Mrs. Toomey talked, Inez
began to realize that what Mrs. Toomey was about to do was exactly right
for Terry at this time in his little dragged-along, up-and-down life.
Her hand touched the screen. She looked over her shoulder and said, "Terry,
go get on some pants and shoes. Find some clean pants and a shirt." Boy
would go naked to the grocery store if he had a chance. She'd done blistered
his ass twice for running naked in the yard. Last time was yesterday when
she saw him standing on that tire, pissing in the hole.
"We'll just wait out here
in the swing" said Mrs, Toomey,
In the swing, Stephen sat
next to the wall and held his mother's hand. His feet didn't reach the
porch floor. The chain creaked up at the ceiling. He looked across the
hot paved road at the gas station--Train's Place. He knew to take his
eyes away. Train's Place was where men drank beer and said bad words.
Stephen knew the evil names of two beers: Schlitz and Blatz.
Through the window screen
near his elbow he saw the foot of a bed, a rumpled white sheet. He'd never
seen an unmade bed in the daytime. The unmade bed made the room seem wild.
He heard Mrs. Daniels's voice in there: "Where's that other sock?"
"I don't know."
"Didn't you have it on yesterday?"
"Do you want me to whup you?"
"You say No ma'am."
"You say No ma'am to Mrs.
Toomey, you hear? She's taking you up to see the electric chair, and you
listen to what she says and don't you take them shoes off, or nary piece
of your clothes ... Do you hear?"
"Yes ... Yes ma'am."
As they got in the car, Terry's
sister, Cheryl, rode up on her bicycle, leaned it against the steps, and
waved to Mrs. Toomey and Stephen.
The way Cheryl was shaped
all over, the way her head and her body came together like an angel, made
her look to Stephen like the woman who came to him when he was almost
dead on the desert after he'd been fighting Indians. Cheryl sometimes
talked to him when he sat on the porch steps at the grocery store. She
would sometimes even sit down beside him.
Alease let Stephen and Terry
sit in the backseat together. That way they could talk, and she could
kind of hear what they talked about.
"Did you know Mr. Jacobs's
got a electric paddle in his office?" Terry asked Stephen.
"Terry honey" said Alease,
"I don't think that's true about a electric paddle. I think somebody made
"That's what Leland said."
"Well, I don't believe that's
true. That's a rumor. A rumor is something that's not true. Not usually
Stephen rolled his little
metal car up and down his leg and across the seat.
"Can I play with that?" Terry
Alease looked in the rearview
mirror. "Stephen. Let Terry play with your car."
The strong, acrid odor from
the fertilizer factory came in through the open windows.
Stephen handed his toy car
to Terry and said, "I got about five more."
They bumped over the railroad
tracks, past a row of shotgun houses, some with flowers on the porch.
"I got a big wood one," said
Terry. "Leland's got a real one with wheels on it that come often a scooter."
They drove past the Dairy
DeeLight--where June Odum, a neighbor, worked part-time. Alease decided
they might stop by on the way back for a little reward if Stephen and
Terry behaved. She wasn't against a little reward for herself, either.
"Now, the reason we're going
to see the electric chair," said Alease, "is so you-all can see what will
happen if you ever let the Devil lead you into a bad sin. They'll put
you in the electric chair and electrocute you. And little sins can lead
up to big sins."
They drove past red clay road
banks, past green pastures with cows, wood outbuildings, fishing ponds,
some pastures holding a line or two of thick black-green cedar trees.
They passed a man in a dark gray business suit changing a flat tire.
Just east of Birmingham, Alabama,
big splotchy raindrops hit the dusty windshield of a northeast-bound,
black, four-door, almost new, stolen 1950 Buick Eight. Jack Umstead looked
for the wiper knob, found it. He was very satisfied with the feel of this
big Buick. The horn sounded like it weighed a hundred pounds. He kept
patting the dashboard, and when he'd stopped for coffee in the sunshine,
before the rain started, he had walked around the front of the car and
touched the chrome hood ornament. It was shaped like a rocket ship. The
heavy wipers worked with a clean, wide sweep--wider than any he'd ever
seen--and at two speeds, fast and slow. He needed the fast. In fact, it
was raining so hard he might pull over and stop for a few minutes. He
didn't need a wreck, and the nose of some highway patrolman sticking in
Back at the blinker light,
Inez sat in her big soft chair inside the house where she could look out
from the comfortable darkness. She picked up her L&M from the ashtray.
She liked to sit in her big chair and prop her feet on the cane-bottomed
chair, with her smokes, matches, and ashtray on the little round table
beside her. She liked to look out through the screen door from back in
there where it was dark. She liked to watch the men over at Train's Place,
drinking beer and talking. Beyond that she could see what was going on
over at the grocery store.
Sometimes she went back to
bed. She didn't like to cook especially and they didn't have company anymore
now that Johnny had started drinking again. So sometimes she just gave
up and slept. She deserved it. She'd had a hard time keeping her family
going, except for Cheryl, who had made it all the way through high school
and was turning out all right. She hadn't heard from her oldest son, Todd,
in months. He was somewhere in Memphis, working at a gas station, he'd
As they pulled in and parked,
Stephen's mother said, "See how big the building is? That's because there's
so many prisoners."
Stephen looked at the tall
fence beside the walkway--with barbed wire along the top--at the giant
brick building, bigger than the hospital, sitting below a quiet blue sky
with moving clouds so white they almost hurt his eyes. He reached for
his mother's hand.
"See up there?" she said.
"If they try to escape, that guard will shoot them. That's a shotgun he's
Stephen knew a gun would shoot
an Indian and they'd fall down before they had a chance to go scalp a
white man. He'd never seen a scalping close up in a movie. He wondered
what it looked like up close. Did they get every bit of the hair, or just
a hunk from the top? Why did that kill you? Why didn't a big scab just
The guard at the double gate
said, "Yes ma'am. What can I do for you? Hey there, boys."
"I'm Mrs. Harvey Toomey. I
called ahead to see about y'all showing these boys the electric chair."
"Oh, yes ma'am. We got a note
about that." He opened one large gate, then another. "Just push the buzzer
at that second door and Buddy'll let you in. How old are you boys?"
"Seven and a half," said Terry.
"Six and a half," said Stephen.
"This one's mine," said Alease.
She touched Stephen's head.
These men in uniforms, Stephen
knew, found lost dogs, fed milk to babies. On the outside--in their faces--they
looked kind of hard, but inside they were perfect. They were prison guards.
Maybe he'd be a prison guard when he grew up, stand up there in that high
room at the top of the fence and hold a shotgun all day long and then
go home to his wife for a good supper. And if he got in a fight with the
prisoners and got shot, his beautiful wife dressed in white would rush
to him, kneel over him, take care of him and talk to him. She would rub
his forehead with a damp, white cloth.
After the boys and mother
were gone, the tower guard asked down to the gate guard, "What'd she say?"
"Show them boys the electric
chair." He shook a Lucky Strike up out of a pack, lit it with a flip-top
lighter that had a rising sun on the side. "They won't but six and s'em
"I wish I'd brought Dennis
up here once a year or so from the time he was about two years old. Maybe
he'd a stayed in school and made something out of hisself."
"You can't ever tell. When'd
he drop out?"
"Eleventh ... tenth. Somewhere
in there. I think he made it to the eleventh in some subjects. He never
did get a chance to play football because he couldn't get up to a damn
"That's a rule that never
made no sense to me. What the hell difference does it make what your average
is if the only thing you know how to do is play football?"
"Yeah. Well, that was pretty
much Dennis's story. Still is. He's thirty-one years old and the only
thing he still knows how to do as far as I know is play football. But
it's doing him less and less good, I'll tell you that."
"He still driving the drink
"He can do that, can't he?"
"Well ..." The guard took
a draw, blew smoke. "A man needs a skill."
"Yeah. That's for sure. But
I'll tell you one thing: Some skills are better than others."
"Well, yeah, that's true.
Inside the prison, a guard
led Stephen, his mother, and Terry through a big metal door, several other
doors, and finally to a thick door with an eye-level window about the
size of a saltine cracker box.
"You boys come on over here
and I'll show you the switch first. My name's Sergeant Floyd." Stephen
noticed that he walked with a big limp. "Here it is. Now. There's the
white, which is off. The green means ready. And the red is zap. Now the
executioner can't see the prisoner from here, you see. Here, stand on
Stephen looked, saw a chair
made of dark shiny wood, not as big as he thought it would be, on a low
platform. Straps hung to the chair arms and legs and a light-colored canvas
bag hung from the top of the chair back.
His mother looked over his
"What's that bag?" he asked.
"That's what they put over
his head," said Sergeant Floyd, "so you can't see his face when he gets
fried. That's something you don't want to see."
"Let me see," said Terry.
"Let's let Terry see," said
Stephen's mother. She placed her hands under Stephen's arms and lifted
Terry stepped up, looked in
through the window. "Where's the electric paddle?" he said.
"Oh, they just got them at
school," said Sergeant Floyd. He looked at Stephen's mother and winked.
"Now, this chair though--our bad people up here use this chair twicet
... first time and last time." He looked at Stephen, winked again.
Stephen pictured an electric
paddle--something shiny metal about the size of a lawnmower set up on
the corner of a big desk. You bent over in front of it and a metal paddle
hooked to the side of it went rat-tat-tat-tat-tat about a hundred miles
"I don't think you can teach
them too soon," said his mother.
Inside the Dairy DeeLight,
Alease saw June Odum waiting behind the serving window. She wore a little
white Seal-test ice cream hat. It seemed as if June's big sad face--as
round as the moon, with dark bags beneath her eyes--filled up the entire
"How y'all?" said Mrs. Odum.
Her whole body, everything about her, seemed sloped downward somehow--lines
out from her eyes and her mouth, her shoulders, all sloped downward.
"Just fine, June. How you
doing today?" Alease placed her purse on the counter. "Y'all go on over
and sit down, son."
"Oh, I'm doing all right,
I reckon, said June.
"We want to order three banana
splits. These boys have been real good today."
June pulled three bananas
from a bunch in a fruit bowl and began her work. She picked up her lit
Pall Mall from a MIAMI FLORIDA ashtray and took a draw. The cigarette
tip brightened, then dimmed. She moved slowly, as if she were underwater.
She made the little grunting sounds she always made while she worked.
"Where y'all been? Mmph"
"We been up to see the electric
"I don't think you can start
teaching them too young."
"About right and wrong."
"Oh, yes ... mmph." Hard vanilla
ice cream curled into the dipper. "Well, one thing for sure--you just
can't beat the electric chair for putting a mean man to death. That gas
is too easy."
June smoked and worked, and
in a minute she placed three banana splits in the window opening.
At the table, Stephen asked,
"What do prisoners get to eat?"
"They eat bread and water.
Maybe a few vegetables."
"Can a prisoner be a Christian?"
"Yes, but that would be hard.
Anybody who accepts Jesus as their saviour is a Christian."
"So there might could be a
prisoner in heaven?" A speck of whipped cream stuck to Stephen's lower
lip. Alease wiped it off with her napkin.
"That's right. But there probably
wouldn't be many."
Two soldiers came in and ordered
chocolate milk shakes.
"Are they in the army?" asked
"Yes," said Alease. "The army
has the brown uniforms. The navy has the blue "
"Has the war started?"
"I'm afraid so. But this one
won't be so big, I don't think."
Stephen saw a Jap in his mind,
the one in the movie. He came up from behind the silver napkin thing that
you could pull a napkin right out of. He looked like a mad wasp, with
slanted eyes, and he was yellow, and up behind him in the dark came a
Korean. Stephen couldn't see what the Korean looked like. Maybe a little
bit like a stalk of corn. Something with lightning in his eyes.
One of the soldiers asked
his mother, "Is there any stores on down the road?"
"If you keep going on down
that way you'll come to a blinker light and there are three or four stores
"We need some supplies."
Alease and Harvey sat at their kitchen table next morning. They had sausage,
scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice, and coffee. Alease was feeling a
slight regret at not mentioning the electric chair trip to Harvey.
"I want you to build a flower
bed there beside the garage," said Alease. " I think you can do it with
posts for the two corners and then fill it in with some topsoil and mulch."
"I'll look at it, see if I
can't get some posts from behind the store or Papa's smokehouse."
Alease wondered when that
might happen. "And then will you build it?"
"Yes. That's what I'm saying."
"Maybe Stephen could help
you do a few little things."
"I took him to see the electric
chair yesterday--and Terry Daniels, too."
"Why'd you take Terry?"
"For the same reason I took
Stephen. To let him see what happens if you break the law, commit a sin.
Here, take this toast. I like it a little browner."
"I don't think I'd be taking
other people up there--other children--I don't think."
"I just wouldn't. It seems
like it's intruding."
"If his daddy had been taken
up there when he was a boy, he might not have turned out like he did."
"Well, I just feel like it
might be a little bit getting in their business."
"I stopped by there and asked
Inez." Alease cut a sausage link with her fork. "I wish you could have
gone with us." She chewed. "That store is taking a lot of time lately
it seems like." He was out there just about every morning before work,
nights after work, sometimes at lunch or when he'd get a half-day off,
most Saturdays--the last three or four--and then he'd be so tired he'd
sleep most of Sunday afternoon.
"Well...Steve ought to be
back sometime today."
"It looks like to me he could
have waited till tomorrow to go fishing. Since he don't go to church anyway."
"It takes more than one day."
"At least I wish he'd get
somebody else to help out some of the time. You've got a job."
"He can't afford it yet. But
I think he'll be able to before too long."
Alease poured herself some
"I do things with y'all,"
said Harvey. "And I'm teaching him to play baseball." Harvey sipped his
coffee. "I got to get on down there. I'll leave the car here."
"I'd like for all three of
us to do something some Saturday maybe. You hadn't had a whole Saturday
clear in I don't know when."
"Alease, I'm helping out Steve.
I have to help out my brother. He needs a little help, that's all. You
don't expect me to just sit by when I can be helping him out, do you?"
"No. but you've got a family.
Here, in this house."
"I know that."
Stephen awoke to his mother's touch and voice: "It's time to get up, Stephen."
Stephen remembered. "Can we
do Feed the Pigs?" He hadn't played that game in a long time.
"Are you sure? Aren't you
a little too old for that?"
"No ma'am." This was the best
game in the world.
"Here," she said. "Put these
on--and this, then come on out on the porch."
He'd gone to sleep holding
her hand, as he always did. He'd reached over from his bed to hers, and
he awoke to her voice. Just before and just after sleep were times when
nothing bothered him, scared him, hurt him, got after him, worried him.
Before sleep was when she read him a story or two from Aunt Margaret's
Bible Stories, and then they said their prayers. Some of the stories
were scary sometimes.
He got out onto the porch
as fast as he could, crawled up into the wooden swing, turned, and plopped
His mother sat facing the
swing--eggs, sausage, and toast in a plate in her lap. She pushed the
swing to get it going, stuck a bit of egg with the fork, gave the swing
another little push.
"Come here, little pig," she
said. She was looking out toward the road.
He looked too. Drops of dew
reflected morning sunlight.
"Come here, little pig. I
got you something to eat. You come on over here, now. Get you something
On his next swing forward
Stephen mouthed the food.
His mother lowered the fork
toward the edge of the porch floor. "Here you go, little pig." Gasp. "Why--what
in the world happened to your food, little pig?"
More egg, a bit of sausage.
"Little pig, come here little pig. I got you some good food this time.
Here you go little pig...Now, what...what in the world happened to
your food, little pig?"
Stephen saw his black kitty.
"Inky just crossed the road," he said, chewing.
"He did? Well, I need to go
get him. He'll get run over. Where did he go in the woods?"
"Right across from the mailbox."
"You got to help me keep an
eye on him. He must've got out when I emptied the trash. He's your cat
now and you've got to watch out after him like David--and Jesus--did with
the sheep. When one little sheep didn't come home at night, they'd go
out and look and look until they found him. They never gave up until they
found the one lost lamb."
Jack Umstead, driving north in his Buick Eight, said to himself, "Rusty
Smith, Rusty Smith, Rusty Smith." It was a name he hadn't used in a while.
He was listening to Roy Acuff on the radio sing "Great Speckled Bird."
It was just a real pleasure to drive this fine automobile.
He wondered how many people
in the world said "automobile" and how many said "car." Probably divided
about even. That was one of the things that could be known if there
was just a way to know. There was a number of people who said "car"--a
specific number--and a number who said "automobile," and a number who
said both. Just like there was a number for the grains of sand on earth.
Just no way to know all those numbers. And then there were things you
couldn't know, like "why" things. Why was hot hot and cold cold--well
maybe that could be known, but it was more complicated. It wasn't just
a number like the grains of sand. But even the number of grains of sand
would probably be harder than that: figuring out what was a grain and
what was a tiny rock. You'd have to do more than count.
After driving past and coming
back from the other direction, he pulled into a place called Alligator
Jimmy's Fried Catfish Eats. He always drove into and drove out of an establishment
in the direction opposite to his real route of travel. Next door to Jimmy's
was a little zoo there and a few other places of business across the road.
He'd passed a motel within a mile. Two churches back there. He was just
outside Atlanta, Georgia, and didn't see why he shouldn't stay here a
few days if it felt right. Then if a particular store looked ripe, why,
he'd relieve it before heading north.
Umstead, since he'd never
heard the call to be a Christian, and couldn't come to believe he was
supposed to hear it, had decided some time back that he would more or
less live off the land. The one thing he didn't want to do was
pretend to himself that he was a Christian, which as far as he
could tell was what all Christians did except maybe one or two preachers
he'd met. He didn't want no part of halfway.
"What can I get for you?"
The man wiped the table with a wet-looking cloth. That had to be Alligator
"I'd like some breakfast.
Two over easy, bacon crisp, grits, and toast."
The man turned and shouted
to the kitchen, "Two over, bacon, toast." He turned back to Umstead. "It
was all crisp this morning. Coffee?"
"That's right. Black. Are
you Alligator Jimmy?"
"My name's Rusty Smith and
I'm just driving through from Columbia." They shook hands. " Some of my
kinfolks used to live around here somewhere and I'm trying to track them
"Pleased to meet you, Rusty."
Jimmy raised the rag and pointed. "Is that a Buick Eight you're driving?"
"Sure is. Mighty nice car.
I like it a lot."
"I been threatening to by
a Chrysler. My daddy always wanted one. Went to his grave wanting one."
Umstead wondered whether or
not he ought talk to this guy about something like cooking as a art or
cooking as a science. He'd wait until after he got his food. "You only
live once," he said.
Now, he didn't mind pretending
he was a Christian to somebody else. That could be fun--if the situation was right.
Use of this excerpt from WHERE TROUBLE SLEEPS by Clyde Edgerton may be made only for
purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice:
copyright ©1997 by Clyde Edgerton. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of Random House, Inc.
Where Trouble Sleeps
- paperback: 260 pages
- Publisher: Ballantine Books
- ISBN-10: 0345426320
- ISBN-13: 9780345426321