But Peckinpaw keeps its secrets buried deep. Muddy's almost-more-than-friend, Bobby Marshall, knows that better than most. Though he passes for white, one of his ancestors was Frannie Crow, a slave hanged a century ago on nearby Hark Hill Plantation. Adorning the town square is a seat built from Frannie's gallows. A tribute, a relic--and a caution--it's known as Liar's Bench. Now, the answers Muddy seeks soon lead back to Hark Hill, to hatred and corruption that have echoed through the years--and lies she must be brave enough to confront at last.
Kim Michele Richardson's lush, beautifully written debut is set against a Southern backdrop passing uneasily from bigotry and brutality to hope. With its compelling mystery and complex yet relatable heroine, Liar's Bench is a story of first love, raw courage, and truths that won't be denied.
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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By Kim Michele Richardson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Kim Michele Richardson
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The Scars of Others
August 11, 1972
It could've easily been left unnamed, but like most small towns carved out from the back roads of Anywhere, USA, Peckinpaw, Kentucky, had its staple—its Liar's Bench. Used for both the telling of tales and for courting, the bench sat on the curb, nestled between two geranium-filled copper pots positioned in front of a Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner dream-themed leather goods store: the Parton & Porter. Next door, the scents of peach cobbler and chicken fried steak wafted out from the Top Hat Café and onto the bench. And in western Kentucky, a good cornerstone was the strength of any town, tale, or courtship just as sure as the bench's weathered planks of oak and wrought-iron arms and legs cradling it were the support for its tale spinners and sinners.
Now, you didn't necessarily have to be a liar or a courter to sit on Liar's Bench, just maybe the better liar or courter at the time. My daddy, Adam Persis Summers, was a good one. Liar, that is, when he sat on this bench and swore to my mama that he hadn't betrayed her.
But Mama's next husband, Tommy Dale Whitlock, had proved to be the better courter and liar three times over.
On this very bench, he'd promised my mama, Ella Mudas Tilley, that he would always love her—but he cheated. He swore to protect her—but he beat her. He vowed to honor her—but he buried her under six feet of rich Kentucky soil.
Mama only lied once. She promised Tommy she'd never leave him—but she did.
Today, on my seventeenth birthday.
The legacy of the old bench—what it had heard, what it had borne witness to—sat like a deep scar covering broken bones, bones that hadn't healed right and never would. I'd known as much from the first time my grammy Essie warned me of its taint, to the day I'd sat on it and accepted a friendship ring from my ex-boyfriend, Tripp Seacat, not so long ago. But the very worst was way back when: the day I'd spied Tommy Whitlock holding my mama's hand here on this bench, snugged up tight as a tick, and telling tall tales.
There'd been plenty of talk about Liar's Bench being cursed—whispers of how it had soaked in the wrong of Frannie Crow's death. Of how those lies would splinter into anyone who sat upon its weather-beaten wood. And on more than one occasion over the years, a God-fearing citizen of Peckinpaw would even go so far as to take up a petition to burn it. But the elders wouldn't hear of it. When I'd asked Grammy Essie, who was also the town librarian, why not, she'd quoted St. Jerome, saying, "Muddy, the scars of others should teach us caution."
And so the elders would quiet the naysayers, insisting that the bench served up a dish of "cautious reminder" to others.
But everyone knows that liars and their willing sponges don't heed warnings. That's why I have been, on occasion, firmly in the camp that would like to see it burn.
Today, this bench seemed like the only place that could soak up my grief. I sat down on Liar's Bench, lit a match to my gasolines-oaked thoughts, and wept red-hot tears.
Moments later, Daddy walked up behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and squeezed. "Thanks for waiting," he said, circling around the bench to take a seat. Closing up his law office always took a while since he had lots of important legal papers that had to be locked up. I ran my thumb across each finger of my right hand, picking up speed. Continuously gliding, ticking off my rattled thoughts.
"Muddy, everything's going to be okay." Daddy noted my longtime habit, and lifted my hand and squeezed.
He grew quiet for a spell.
"Sheriff wants me to meet with him as soon as possible."
I turned and looked up at him. He paused, drawing his lips back to his teeth. "I'm so sorry, lil birdie, real sorry. I don't know what to say. It isn't right losing your mama like this ... and on your birthday, too." His eyes filled up same as mine. "Ella was a good mother, a good woman.... There's not a day that goes by that I haven't wished it had turned out differently between us. I'm sorry, Muddy. I'm so sorry." A breeze stirred as the silence lengthened around us.
Normally, I'd light into him for calling me Muddy. Instead, I shuttered my grief-soaked eyes, leaned into his shoulder, and inhaled the comforting blends of his woodsy aftershave. For this moment, I let his mistakes with Mama slip away. My thoughts became mercifully numb, suspended somewhere between calm and pandemonium.
"Before I forget, baby, Pastor Dugin called and asked to drop by this evening. I told him that would be fine." I nodded my consent. "Muddy, there's something else...."
I met his eyes and saw the flatness that meant bad news was coming; like the time he'd told me my dog Charlie had been hit by a pickup. Then, again when Grammy Essie crossed over, and soon after, when Papaw had followed. Now, my mama was dead, too. What more could there possibly be?
"Nothing's official yet, but they're strongly leaning toward ruling this a suicide."
I stiffened. "Suicide? No. No way! Everything was just fine when I visited her Thursday...." I ran my hand over my face to swab off the sorrow left trailing down my cheeks. "I don't believe for one minute Mama took her life!"
Daddy shook his head and studied his secretary as she crossed the street toward his courthouse office. "Me neither, baby." Weary, he pulled himself up. "I'm so glad you got to see her yesterday.... Right now I'm fixin' to head on over to Ella's to talk with the sheriff and the coroner. I'll take you on home first."
I stood to face him. "No, I have to see her. I'm going with you." I planted my feet firmly in front of his.
He cleared his throat, ready to lend argument and put his foot down with me.
I crossed my arms. "I'm old enough to go with you. I'm seventeen now—an adult."
Daddy cocked his head and shoved his hands deep inside his pockets. "You sure 'bout this?"
My throat locked up, forcing out a croaked, "Yes." With a shaky hand, I grabbed the back of Liar's Bench, leaving one more lie to soak in and feed.CHAPTER 2
The Better Liar
By the time we reached Mama's, I was having second thoughts. Despite it being one of the hottest days of the year in Kentucky, a cold shiver slid over my body. I peered upward to distance myself from the crime scene before me and watched the choreographed movements of a flock of birds veer, then turn in an unpredictable fashion, erratically stippling the summer skies. Their puzzling flight was punctuated by the intermittent cries coming from inside my mama's house, those of my seven-month-old baby half sister, Genevieve.
Daddy flexed his jaw and I saw his soft gray eyes darken to cavern-cold. "Daddy ... Mama wouldn't kill herself. And that one trooper said she did it in front of baby Genevieve...."
"Shush, baby." He squinted his eyes to keep out the broiling sun, intent on the exchange of conversation nearby.
We watched Sheriff Allen, aptly nicknamed "Jingles." It was a well-known Peckinpaw fact that you could hear him coming long before you saw the glint of his spit-polished gold badge.
Jingles unsnapped his official oversized jail key ring from his utility belt and pulled off another ring that held his rabbit's foot, a metal horse-head bottle opener from the Dixie Brewing company, and his lucky Indian head penny, then ducked into his car to place a set of keys in the ignition. He grabbed his clipboard and jingled his way back and forth across my mama's front yard, pausing to talk to the different officials scattered around. He stopped a few feet from us and tapped his clipboard's pages with a pen.
The sheriff sneaked a peek at me, then shuffled a little farther away so that he was partially hidden behind a police cruiser. But not far enough away that I couldn't hear.
I listened in horror as Jingles explained to the state trooper standing beside him. "I'm not gonna call it yet, Herb.... And nobody's gonna put much stock in the neighbor's statement, him being touched and all.... Hell, it does look suspicious, what with how many times Ella showed up for her shift wearing sunglasses to hide Whitlock's marks."
"And with him stoned out of his mind on LSD and God-knows-what-else, he could've done this," the state trooper chimed in. "And then there's her suitcase—out and half-filled. Looks to me like she had enough of living with him, not just in simply living."
Suitcase? I tried to remember if I'd seen one when I was visiting her yesterday.
Jingles shook his head. As his voice softened, his words slowed and slid easily away. "Some days that gal would jus' sit at that desk of hers an' refuse to take off those sunglasses, all the whiles, she's busy fussin' about them florescent lights hurting her eyes an' making her head pound...." He clucked his tongue and sighed. "Lil Ella couldn't have weighed more than ninety pounds soaked, him, damn near two hundred. Damn pillhead!" Jingles turned and spat. He handed the clipboard to the trooper.
"Your desk clerk talked to Whitlock at about ten this morning?" The trooper looked over the notes.
"Yeah, 'bout an hour ago. Hettie had called to see why Ella'd missed her shift," Jingles said, and pointed to the house. "If ya need to talk to her, she's in there taking care of the baby until Child Welfare gets here."
I looked at Mama's home—the bare windows curtained with nothing more than bird droppings splattered down the panes. It was hard to believe that a banker's daughter and a once-prominent member of the Peckinpaw community lived in this rundown old clapboard, held together by peeling paint and thick moss layered over shadowed boards. That she'd been living her life just pennies shy from collecting a government draw check.
I silently prayed that she'd walk out arms wide, ready to cradle me and make this nightmare go away. I'd sent up the same prayer the day she went off to the big city with Tommy and left me here in Peckinpaw with Daddy. That bright summer day right before my ninth birthday, when I'd felt my childhood halved like an onion, leaving me trapped between the tear-stained slices of Before and After. That split, that cold gloom cast across my heart, always dogged me, forever measured into my past and present.
My legs wobbled, a darkness threatened. Then rage filled my core, swelled and bruised, bringing back function. I was shocked by my sudden anger toward Mama and her death, and at everyone I felt was responsible.
Daddy must have sensed it, too. He grasped my elbow and urged me to sit down on the grass. Intent on unlatching my hurt and finding a target, I jerked away. "You! It's your fault! You drove her away with all your lying, your cheatin'. You. You and this Podunk town!" I waved my arm. "The founding fathers got it right when they named it Peckinpaw. No wonder Mama couldn't stand living here. Nothing more than a place where chickens peck and horses paw!"
Wounded, Daddy took a step back. "Muddy, you're ... you're having a nervous spell. You go wait in the car and I'll be along after—"
Before I could collect myself, clanging bells and cheerful music toppled his words and my regret. We both turned and watched a Mister Softee ice-cream truck—painted with candy-colored cartoons and treats—grind its gears and come to a halt alongside the police cruisers.
For a moment, a glint of my long-ago summers, chocolate-kissed smiles and cotton-candy scents, crowded out the dark. I'd loved Mister Softee's jaunty carnival song even more than his confections: It had lassoed the nights, matching my delighted squeals and proving a balm for the bruises of childhood, both the kind you could see and the sort you could only feel deep underneath your skin.
The Mister Softee driver, Joey Sims, a boy from my biology class, slid back the large square window of the truck. His dark eyes popped out like buckeyes in buttermilk as he craned his head out to study the scene.
Baby Genevieve's screams drifted outside again, jolting me back to the present. Sims turned his head, and his neck stretched toward the house like a snapping turtle targeting a minnow. I took a step back, trying to hide behind Daddy before Sims's eyes could grab hold of me.
Jingles hollered across the road, "Move along, Sims." He waved his arms in the air. "This here is a police investigation. That truck ain't due to sell treats 'til after supper, son."
Sims ducked back in, slammed the window shut, and took off. I knew that in less than an hour, he'd have told everyone about the something horrible going on out at the Whitlock place. By nightfall, the town would be buzzing with gossip and speculation. I worried about my boyfriend, Bobby Marshall. Well, not exactly my boyfriend ... but getting close. Still, I wished I could reach him before Joey found him first.
I drew in a weary breath. It didn't matter, nothing mattered except Mama.
Jingles leaned over to Herb and flipped through the pages of his preliminary report. The trooper pointed. "See this? The coroner said if that damn living room rafter would've been dry-walled over instead of partially exposed, this wouldn't have happened. But, then again, she went out to Whitlock's truck and got his rope to throw over the beam. So if she was that determined, who knows? Her keys were found in the cab of the truck...."
Rope ... the rafter? I turned to her truck. Oh, dear God, had Mama gone and done that.... A protest lay strangled in my throat. No. It couldn't be.
Mr. Harper from Harper's Filling Station pulled up behind it. He backed his wrecker up to the rear of Mama's truck, then climbed out and unwound the metal cable from the winch, drowning out everyone's conversation. After he had Mama's vehicle hooked up to his, Mr. Harper smoothed back his oily brown hair and grabbed my mama's pocketbook from inside her truck. I'd bought it for her this past Mother's Day. Now, old man Harper was soiling it with his dirty paws, speckling the white leather with dollops of black oil grease and tobacco juice. I lurched forward to snatch it from his fat hand, but Daddy latched on to my arm and cut me a warning look. Mr. Harper startled and pinched his catfish mouth shut.
He strolled past, clutching the purse to his smelly union suit. Jingles took the purse and thanked him for retrieving it; then he asked Mr. Harper to tow the truck on down to the jail lot. "We'll have it searched later for possible evidence," Jingles told the state trooper.
My half sister screamed yet again, chilling the air, wounding like a knife. I pulled to the cry, but Daddy sidestepped me. "No, Muddy. That's a crime scene they're working. The baby will be fine."
My insides knotted.
Jingles adjusted the brim of his uniform hat. "Poor lil baby Genevieve." He sighed heavily. "That sorry piece of pig shit Whitlock always whopping up on Ella. The missus and I tried to talk her into going to Louisville or Nashville to get some counseling help.... Damn, I'd hoped when I gave her that dispatching job down at the station, it would help some." He turned to the side, spat out a wad of tobacco.
"Hell's bells. It's all a coin toss," Jingles went on. "I still think Whitlock's too much of a coward for the likes of that in there. A crazy dopehead, a drunkard, and always good for a petty slap or sucker punch, but I have my doubts about him bein' a murderer."
I took a step closer to Jingles.
Jingles dug into his back pocket, pulled out his Boker knife, then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out his Warren County Twist. He slowly cut himself a generous fresh plug and stuffed his jaw. Wagging the knife at the state trooper, he said, "Doc Lawrence examined her body and it shows Ella's bruises are fresh. All I can do is wait 'til the bastard sobers up, question him, and hope I can make some sense out of it all before he lawyers up. Meantime, I'm bookin' him for abuse of a corpse and illegal possession of drugs. Most I can do right now." He tucked the Boker back into his pocket and pulled a handkerchief from another, wiped his mouth, then brought it up to his nose and gave a loud honk.
Excerpted from Liar's Bench by Kim Michele Richardson. Copyright © 2015 Kim Michele Richardson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Liar’s Bench starts with a hanging of a slave, Franny Crow, unjustly. I knew at that point I was hooked. I am so interested in the southern history. A time so different from now, where the color of your skin matters in everything you do. The story then continues in 1972 with Mudas (love the name) finds her mother hung in her house with her baby sister witnessing the entire thing. Mudas then starts her mission to find out who really caused her mother’s death. While hiding her plans from her father, she makes many discovers about people in the community. Rumors she heard are proven true and her well being is put on the line. Mudas’ strength shows. When she puts her mind to something it happens. Mudas’ relationship with Bobby is also discovered. I found it interesting to see how the different people in the community reacted to it. Some accepted it or just didn’t pay attention, while some refused service or called him names as he passed by them. That is hard for me to swallow, I understand that this was the way of the south, but I do not see the world in color. Bobby, being from the “wrong” part of town, understands that this is the way of the world. He tries to protect Mudas from hearing and seeing this wrong doing. Once I started Liar’s Bench I could not stop reading. I loved the history, the story, the community, the mystery, and mostly, Mudas and Bobby. I cannot wait to check out more from Kim Michele Richardson. This is a book I highly recommend everyone picking up and reading.
3.5 stars, rounded The hallmark, and oft referred to landmark in the small town of Peckinpaw Kentucky is the Liar’s Bench. Built from the remains of the gallows, it is built to remind townsfolk of the lies (mostly laid at the feet of racism) that caused the need for them in the first place. Now a century later, it appears that similar things are happening again – What Richardson does really well is the storytelling, even when the elements and characters muddled slightly for me because of the different interconnections, the story was intriguing and wanted to be read. I think there was some dulling of the message and impact from the convoluted and not always pretty interpersonal reactions – racial tensions, histories, secrets long held and actual reasons forgotten. I would have preferred a more defined and less indecisive main character in Muddy. And the “passing for white” Bobby Marshall just frustrated me. There are plenty of moments that do actually highlight this debut to make Richardson an author to watch. Experience, more focus on a few key issue rather than sidetracking with each new conflict or issue to explore it more fully and lose its impact in the exploration would have helped. Gods know, racism is a multi-layered, many headed hydra of a beast, and reasons are historical, societal, cultural, and emotional. Never an easy subject to tackle the broader issue, and while this was an admirable attempt in trying to pick out one element, others intruded and muddied the waters. I will, however, look forward to more by this author. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.