Lane Thibodeaux 0000-00-00 00:00:00
The East Texas red clay stuck to my trousers like wet coffee grounds. A drenching April rain had left the streets awash with streaks of dirt and clay from the runoff, but I had gone with formality over utility and worn a suit. A tall man in a uniform of sharp creases and the stride of a gazelle bounded toward me. The uniform bore the shoulder boards and bars of a Captain for the System. Somehow his neat uniform had avoided the stain of the clay. Some folks just have that gift. “Have any trouble finding it?” The voice from the long, tall Captain was sonorous, low. “Not really. I attended the university here in Huntsville. My last year here, I lived about a half-mile from where we’re standing.” I gestured in the direction of what I thought was east. “Then you know this place, eh?” “We called it Peckerwood Hill. It’s larger than I remember.” He frowned at the name. “Unfortunate title, even for aninmate pauper’s cemetery, don’t you think?” The rebuke in his tone was unmistakable. “Another prison system captain cleaned it up some years ago. The cemetery is named after him. Little more than 20 acres in all.” I turned a little crimson and decided to change the subject. “Any family attending?” “Don’t think so. The final instructions he left were pretty specific. If the body wasn’t claimed, he wanted us to notify you, guess because he was your client. Far as we can tell, no one had exercised visitation with him in a month of Sundays.” “Former client. It’s not a lifetime commitment,” I corrected. I took a few steps toward the casket. It was gray, with handles down the sides, unadorned, but nice. I mentioned as much to the Captain. A smile twisted on his face. “What’d you expect — a pine box? We may lack a certain formality, but everyone is treated with respect here.” “Then just us and the burial crew?” I turned my head and gestured toward the four inmates nearby. “There’ll be one more. The victim’s husband requested notification. I called him same day I talked to you. Your client was aware of the request.” He pointed back toward the red clay and caliche road I had driven up on. “I think that’s him driving up now.” “Former client,” I corrected again. “And you’re kidding me, right?” I was almost incredulous. “I didn’t know he was coming.” “I didn’t know either. All’s I did was notify him.” He took again the sonorous tone that brooked no nonsense. It was a tone I figured many people under his charge heard when the Captain wanted to get a point across. “And, would it have mattered? Excuse me for a moment,” he said politely as he bounded with those long strides to greet this new, unexpected mourner. Four men, all in prison-issue white, maintained a discreet distance while watched loosely by a uniformed correctional officer wearing a straw hat. Their white jailissue clothing was stained by the same East Texas clay accumulating on my suit. The large course gloves they wore wrapped snugly around the handles of the shovels they each held. You could see the burial site a little more than 100 yards away from the center of the cemetery where we were gathered under a wood and brick canopy. One of the men, I guess the senior inmate, sat on a green tractor with a frontend loader a discreet distance away. Behind the tractor was a small white trailer. I was conjuring an image of the tractor scooping dirt into the grave when the Captain and a man in jeans with a white shirt and navy blue coat walked up beside me. I looked at his feet. Work boots. He, unlike me, had come prepared for the East Texas clay. He was heavier than I remembered, but then time had added weight to us all. The Captain, doing double duty as Chaplain, walked past me and up to a small podium and began speaking words that drifted by me like pine needles in the April breeze. *** In all, I adjudged the service lasted around five minutes. Then, with an almost indistinct motion from the Captain, the tractor moved into position and the inmates slowly put their shovels to the ground. In this place, everyone pulled double duty. The tractor doubled as a hearse and the inmates as pallbearers. They moved slowly, respectfully to the casket and carried it to the trailer. The green tractor jumped into gear and the inmates moved with it walking two abreast toward the gravesite. We fell in behind the poor man’s hearse and caisson, with the Captain leading us for that final walk of 120 yards. We lacked only a band and a funeral dirge to make it proper. “She loved wildflowers,” the man in the jeans and boots said as we moved toward the patch of dirt and red clay that marked our final destination. “I think it was their uncertainty. Some years they would fire entire landscapes. Indian paintbrush, bluebonnets, and especially the yellow lantana. In other years, short seasons with almost no flowers.” I looked at a patch of wildflowers sprouting next to a 30foot pine tree as we passed. “The wet winter should mean a good year for them.” I paused and said hesitantly, “I know this is all a bit awkward.” “Just a little.” Sarcasm tinged his voice. I felt my neck begin to turn red. “Did you come just to spit on his grave?” He stopped in his tracks and turned. “No, but I don’t think anyone would begrudge me doing such a thing.” He glanced up at the sinewy pine tree we were standing under as the little funeral march continued without us. “You know, I still remember your jury argument. ‘Suspend the work of death until he dies in prison, alone in God’s time, not the Government’s.’ It was persuasive.” Surprised he could recite it verbatim, I said, “And I guess it worked, if you consider dying in prison with no one but us to bury him a victory.” He ignored me. “I hated you for a long time because of it. You became sort of a surrogate, a target of my scorn, grieving, and resentment. It’s the reason I’m here.” “So you want to spit on me instead? You’re going to have to get in a long line.” He turned his head toward me. “If I have reasons for watching this man being put in the ground, you think you know them. You haven’t explained why you’re here,” he said suddenly, directly. “A dying man asked,” I responded just as directly. “I’ve wrestled my own demons here of late.” “Yeah, I’ve heard.” “Some falls from grace are more public and newsworthy than others. Occupational hazard of trial lawyering, I guess.” “I guess,” he agreed. “Well, recovery is one of the reasons I’m here. A year ago I don’t think I would have made it to this place.” Our little funeral procession came to a final stop and I noticed the thick plywood, one-by-fours and two-by-fours around the excavated grave. The inmates quickly began to piece together a wooden vault to encase the casket in its final resting place. My companion tilted his head toward the green tractor and nodded. “He wrote me, you know. Sent it care of the prosecutor’s office.” He did not look at me. “I very nearly didn’t open it. I took it with me and read it at her gravesite on the anniversary of her murder. I forget which one. After, I called his unit and asked to be notified when he passed.” “It must have been some letter,” I said, genuinely surprised. “Wasn’t so much what he wrote, although it was important.” He turned his head sideways and looked directly at me. “You know, I let the resentment choke me so much that I wasn’t fit to be around. I focused on what was easy — him,” he looked up at me, “and you.” He looked down again. “It was all a convenient fiction, I guess. What was really eating me up inside was that I didn’t keep those promises I made to myself during our years together to make it right with her.” He looked at me again. “I buried that letter with her that day with a garden trowel I had brought to clean her gravesite.” We had grown silent by the time the inmates finished their work with the vault. One by one each walked slowly to the trailer, placing his hand on the casket in an act of reverential, final farewell. Then, in an instant, the casket was being lowered by straps down into the plywood reinforced vaulted grave. The tractor de-coupled from the trailer, ending its duty as hearse. The tractor’s front-end loader then began refilling the red clay to its place in the earth. One of the inmates came near to us, shovel in hand, waiting for the tractor to finish. “Knew him well?” I asked, referencing the laying of his hands on the casket. “Didn’t know him at all, wasn’t housed at my unit. We’re just cemetery detail. But we say goodbye to them all.” There was a cross-shaped headstone a few steps away from where we stood, a short distance away from where the tractor was doing its work on the cemetery’s newest addition. “Why does this headstone have only a number on it?” I asked. “Lots of the old gravesites don’t have names, just their inmate numbers,” he said in a slow drawl. “Guess in the old days the system never got ’round to puttin’ a name with the number. We bring our own carving templates with us now. We may misspell a name occasionally, but least they’ve got a name.” My companion then commented on something that had escaped my notice. “Something’s missing here.” He gestured with a hand toward the cemetery. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something’s wrong, out of place.” “No flowers,” the inmate in the dirty smock answered. “Flowers is what’s missin’. We’re out here three, four days a week, pulling weeds, mowing grass in summer, and I’ve never seen no flowers.” As recognition wafted over me, I knew what was to be done. *** The florist shop was where I had remembered it to be, much to my surprise. My stained slacks and shoes tracked up that shop something awful. I think it drew the ire of the nice woman whose job I figured was mainly to fill wire orders and prom corsages. She helped me pick a nice floral spray and then carefully wrapped them in paper for me. When she rang me up, she asked what occasion I was buying them for. I just thanked her and paid. I saw the wildflowers bouquet from some distance away. The purple, yellow, orange, and pink melded together in a symphony of spectral colors. I stopped and looked down at my client’s gravesite, now a mound of red clay and topsoil, barren except for the spray of newly picked wildflowers at its highest point. I leaned down and picked them up. Lantana, bluebonnets, paintbrush, and wine cup pruned simply and elegantly by someone who knew how. They were bound together with a piece of stem. I replaced the wildflowers arrangement just as he had left them and walked the few feet to the granite cross with no name. Slowly, I removed the paper protecting my offering and placed my own bouquet of flowers at the bottom of the headstone of numbers next to the new gravesite. I stood back, closed my eyes and drew a long, deep breath of the pine-filled air. LANE THIBODEAUX graduated from South Texas College of Law and is certified in criminal law and personal injury trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He, his wife Beth Ann, and their three children reside in College Station.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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