Aaron Crown should not have come back into our lives. After all, he had never really been one of us, anyway, had he? His family, shiftless timber people, had come from north Louisiana, and when they arrived in Iberia Parish, they brought their ways with them, occasionally stealing livestock along river bottoms, poaching deer, perhaps, some said, practicing incest.
I first saw Aaron Crown thirty-five years ago when, for a brief time, he tried to sell strawberries and rattlesnake watermelons out on the highway, out of the same truck he hauled cow manure in.
He seemed to walk sideways, like a crab, and wore bib overalls even in summertime and paid a dollar to have his head lathered and shaved in the barber shop every Saturday morning. His thick, hair-covered body gave off an odor like sour milk, and the barber would open the front and back doors and turn on the fans when Aaron was in the chair.
If there was a violent portent in his behavior, no one ever saw it. The Negroes who worked for him looked upon him indifferently, as a white man who was neither good nor bad, whose moods and elliptical peckerwood speech and peculiar green eyes were governed by thoughts and explanations known only to himself. To entertain the Negroes who hung around the shoeshine stand in front of the old Frederick Hotel on Saturday mornings, he’d scratch matches alight on his clenched teeth, let a pool of paraffin burn to a waxy scorch in the center of his palm, flip a knife into the toe of his work boot.
But no one who looked into Aaron Crown’s eyes ever quite forgot them. They flared with a wary light for no reason, looked back at you with a reptilian, lidless hunger that made you feel a sense of sexual ill ease, regardless of your gender.
Some said he’d once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, expelled from it for fighting inside a Baptist church, swinging a wood bench into the faces of his adversaries.
But that was the stuff of poor-white piney woods folklore, as remote from our French-Catholic community as tales of lynchings and church bombings in Mississippi.
How could we know that underneath a live oak tree hung with moss and spiderwebs of blue moonlight, Aaron Crown would sight down the barrel of a sporterized Mauser rifle, his body splayed out comfortably like an infantry marksman’s, the leather sling wrapped tightly around his left forearm, his loins tingling against the earth, and drill a solitary round through a plate glass window into the head of the most famous NAACP leader in Louisiana?
It took twenty-eight years to nail him, to assemble a jury that belonged sufficiently to a younger generation that had no need to defend men like Aaron Crown.
Everyone had always been sure of his guilt. He had never denied it, had he? Besides, he had never been one of us.
* * *
It was early fall, an election year, and each morning after the sun rose out of the swamp and burned the fog away from the flooded cypress trees across the bayou from my bait shop and boat-rental business, the sky would harden to such a deep, heart-drenching blue that you felt you could reach up and fill your hand with it like bolls of stained cotton. The air was dry and cool, too, and the dust along the dirt road by the bayou seemed to rise into gold columns of smoke and light through the canopy of oaks overhead. So when I glanced up from sanding the planks on my dock on a Saturday morning and saw Buford LaRose and his wife, Karyn, jogging through the long tunnel of trees toward me, they seemed like part of a photograph in a health magazine, part of an idealized moment caught by a creative photographer in a depiction of what is called the New South, rather than an oddity far removed from the refurbished plantation home in which they lived twenty-five miles away.
I convinced myself they had not come to see me, that forcing them to stop their run out of reasons of politeness would be ungenerous on my part, and I set down my sanding machine and walked toward the bait shop.
“Hello!” I heard Buford call.
Your past comes back in different ways. In this case, it was in the form of Karyn LaRose, her platinum hair sweat-soaked and piled on her head, her running shorts and purple-and-gold Mike the Tiger T-shirt glued to her body like wet Kleenex.
“How y’all doin’?” I replied, my smile as stiff as ceramic.
“Aaron Crown called you yet?” Buford asked, resting one hand on the dock railing, pulling one ankle up toward his muscular thigh with the other.
“How’d you know?” I said.
“He’s looking for soft-hearted guys to listen to his story.” Buford grinned, then winked with all the confidence of the eighty-yard passing quarterback he’d been at L.S.U. twenty years earlier. He was still lean-stomached and narrow-waisted, his chest flat like a prizefighter’s, his smooth, wide shoulders olive with tan, his curly brown hair bleached on the tips by the sun. He pulled his other ankle up behind him, squinting at me through the sweat in his eyebrows.
“Aaron’s decided he’s an innocent man,” he said. “He’s got a movie company listening to him. Starting to see the big picture?”
“He gets a dumb cop to plead his cause?” I said.
“I said ‘soft-hearted,’ ” he said, his face beaming now.
“Why don’t you come see us more often, Dave?” Karyn asked.
“That sounds good,” I said, nodding, my eyes wandering out over the water.
She raised her chin, wiped the sweat off the back of her neck, looked at the sun with her eyelids closed and pursed her lips and breathed through them as though the air were cold. Then she opened her eyes again and smiled good-naturedly, leaning with both arms on the rail and stretching her legs one at a time.
“Y’all want to come in for something to drink?” I asked.
“Don’t let this guy jerk you around, Dave,” Buford said.
“Why should I?”
“Why should he call you in the first place?”
“Who told you this?” I asked.
“Sounds like shaky legal ethics to me,” I said.
“Give me a break, Dave,” he replied. “If Aaron Crown ever gets out of Angola, the first person he’s going to kill is his lawyer. That’s after he shoots the judge. How do we know all this? Aaron called up the judge, collect, mind you, and told him so.”
They said good-bye and resumed their jog, running side by side past the sprinklers spinning among the tree trunks in my front yard. I watched them grow smaller in the distance, all the while feeling that somehow something inappropriate, if not unseemly, had just occurred.
I got in my pickup truck and caught up with them a quarter mile down the road. They never broke stride.
“This bothers me, Buford,” I said out the window. “You wrote a book about Aaron Crown. It might make you our next governor. Now you want to control access to the guy?”
“Bothers you, huh?” he said, his air-cushioned running shoes thudding rhythmically in the dirt.
“It’s not an unreasonable attitude,” I said.
Karyn leaned her face past him and grinned at me. Her mouth was bright red, her brown eyes happy and charged with energy from her run.
“You’ll be bothered a lot worse if you help these right-wing cretins take over Louisiana in November. See you around, buddy,” he said, then gave me the thumbs-up sign just before he and his wife poured it on and cut across, a shady grove of pecan trees.
* * *
She called me that evening, not at the house but at the bait shop. Through the screen I could see the lighted gallery and windows in my house, across the dirt road, up the slope through the darkening trees.
“Are you upset with Buford?” she said.
“He just doesn’t want to see you used, that’s all.”
“I appreciate his concern.”
“Should I have not been there?”
“I’m happy y’all came by.”
“Neither of us was married at the time, Dave. Why does seeing me make you uncomfortable?”
“This isn’t turning into a good conversation,” I said.
“I’m not big on guilt. It’s too bad you are,” she replied, and quietly hung up.
The price of a velvet black sky bursting with stars and too much champagne, a grassy levee blown with buttercups and a warm breeze off the water, I thought. Celibacy was not an easy virtue to take into the nocturnal hours.
But guilt over an impulsive erotic moment wasn’t the problem. Karyn LaRose was a woman you kept out of your thoughts if you were a married man.
* * *
Aaron Crown was dressed in wash-faded denims that were too tight for him when he was escorted in leg and waist chains from the lockdown unit into the interview room.
He had to take mincing steps, and because both wrists were cuffed to the chain just below his rib cage he had the bent appearance of an apelike creature trussed with baling wire.
“I don’t want to talk to Aaron like this. How about it, Cap?” I said to the gunbull, who had been shepherding Angola convicts under a double-barrel twelve gauge for fifty-five years.
The gunbull’s eyes were narrow and valuative, like a man constantly measuring the potential of his adversaries, the corners webbed with wrinkles, his skin wizened and dark as a mulatto’s, as if it had been smoked in a fire. He removed his briar pipe from his belt, stuck it in his mouth, clicking it dryly against his molars. He never spoke while he unlocked the net of chains from Aaron Crown’s body and let them collapse around his ankles like a useless garment. Instead, he simply pointed one rigid callus-sheathed index finger into Aaron’s face, then unlocked the side door to a razor-wire enclosed dirt yard with a solitary weeping willow that had gone yellow with the season.
I sat on a weight lifter’s bench while Aaron Crown squatted on his haunches against the fence and rolled a cigarette out of a small leather pouch that contained pipe tobacco. His fingernails were the thickness and mottled color of tortoiseshell. Gray hair grew out of his ears and nose; his shoulders and upper chest were braided with knots of veins and muscles. When he popped a lucifer match on his thumbnail and cupped it in the wind, he inhaled the sulfur and glue and smoke all in one breath.
“I ain’t did it,” he said.
“You pleaded nolo contendere, partner.”
“The shithog got appointed my case done that. He said it was worked out.” He drew in on his hand-rolled cigarette, tapped the ashes off into the wind.
When I didn’t reply, he said, “They give me forty years. I was sixty-eight yestiday.”
“You should have pleaded out with the feds. You’d have gotten an easier bounce under a civil rights conviction,” I said.
“You go federal, you got to cell with colored men.” His eyes lifted into mine. “They’ll cut a man in his sleep. I seen it happen.”
In the distance I could see the levee along the Mississippi River and trees that were puffing with wind against a vermilion sky.
“Why you’d choose me to call?” I asked.
“You was the one gone after my little girl when she got lost in Henderson Swamp.”
“I see . . . I don’t know what I can do, Aaron. That was your rifle they found at the murder scene, wasn’t it? It had only one set of prints on it, too—yours.”
“It was stole, and it didn’t have no set of prints on it. There was one thumbprint on the stock. Why would a white man kill a nigger in the middle of the night and leave his own gun for other people to find? Why would he wipe off the trigger and not the stock?”
“You thought you’d never be convicted in the state of Louisiana.”
He sucked on a tooth, ground out the ash of his cigarette on the tip of his work boot, field-stripped the paper and let it all blow away in the wind.
“I ain’t did it,” he said.
“I can’t help you.”
He raised himself to his feet, his knees popping, and walked toward the lockdown unit, the silver hair on his arms glowing like a monkey’s against the sunset.