Read More: A brief interview with Jayne Moore Waldrop
Every morning around seven, men on heavy equipment returned to their work of demolishing the old town within view of Lester Elliott’s cell. With the new lake rising, lapping beyond the ancient riverbanks, they moved more quickly, even working weekends to finish the job. The sounds of front-end loaders and excavators came through open windows in the prison’s thick stone walls, windows shaped like narrow slots, designed for ventilation not egress. The noise bothered some of the inmates who complained they couldn’t sleep for all the ruckus, but not Lester. He had always been an early riser, and he liked watching life outside.
From his cell on the third floor of the penitentiary, which itself rose high on a bluff above the town and river, Lester looked through his tiny slot window, the view unobstructed by mountains or trees. Across the river stood a big brick home, the only house opposite among vast river bottoms that stretched for miles. As a crow would fly across the broad and open sky, the home was directly across the Cumberland from his cell.
A guard had told him years ago, when Lester first arrived, that the distant place was called Between the Rivers, a narrow strip of land bordered by the Tennessee on the west and the Cumberland on the east. And year after year as he served his sentence, he watched the house as seasons unfolded, as members of the farm family or field hands worked the land. To Lester, the place was like a dream, a mirage he was unlikely to reach.
From the outside the prison looked like a castle perched high above the Cumberland River and since its construction in the 1800s of dark gray limestone quarried nearby, it had housed men considered the worst, most violent offenders in Kentucky. One of its cellblocks was death row, a small area reserved for those waiting to be executed in the electric chair installed just steps from where they slept each night.
Lester became a resident of Eddyville twenty years back after his conviction on an armed robbery charge. At a grimy filling station in Shelby Gap, he and his buddy Sam had stopped for gas on their way to pick up a blue Chevy for Pal’s Used Cars in Prestonsburg. Pal bought cars all over east Kentucky, and he paid Lester and Sam a $20 bill per vehicle for delivering to his lot. It was easy work.
They had gotten out to stretch their legs while a pimply faced kid filled the tank.
“What’s your name, boy?” Sam said.
“Jesse, sir,” the red-headed teenager said, looking at Sam with enormous dark brown eyes. The eyes reminded Lester of a milk cow’s, slowly blinking, showing little emotion. He still remembered those eyes.
“Don’t forget to clean that windshield and check the oil,” Sam said.
“Yes, sir.” The boy methodically completed the tasks as requested.
“You working here by yourself, Jesse?”
“This morning I am. Daddy went to town for some parts.”
Lester saw Sam studying the boy, but he didn’t think much of it. Tired and hungover from a card game at the Curve Bar the night before, he wanted to head home and climb back in bed as soon as they delivered the car.
“Got any coffee in there?” Lester said to the boy. His voice sounded dry and weary.
“No, sir. Daddy didn’t make any before he left, and I don’t know how to. We got cold pop, though.”
While the boy topped off the tank and replaced the gas cap on the dark green Plymouth, Lester reached through the driver’s side window for his billfold.
“Don’t worry about it, Lester. I got this,” Sam said. As the boy walked back toward the concrete block building to write up the $3.58 ticket, Sam followed.
As Lester unwrapped a fresh piece of gum, he heard a single gunshot. He thought it came from inside the building and ran toward it, hoping Sam was okay. When he approached the door, he saw Sam pulling out two cold drinks from the Nehi Soda cooler. Lester turned toward the short counter where the cash register sat. The concrete block wall was splattered bright red. Lester’s heart pounded and his stomach rolled. He peaked over the counter. Jesse lay sprawled on the floor, brown eyes open, head surrounded by a halo of blood.
“What the hell was that for?” Lester shouted.
“Something about that boy pissed me off,” Sam said as he opened the pop with a shiny metal opener tied to the cooler with a piece of hay rope. He offered one to Lester, who shook his head and stared, unable to speak or piece together Sam’s calm generosity of the grape soda and the dead boy behind the counter.
Sam had always had a mean, crazy streak, Lester knew, but he hadn’t expected this. He felt unable to move or to grasp what had just happened. As a kid, Lester had watched eleven-year-old Sam twist off the heads of newborn kittens and throw them down a well. At the time he also had felt paralyzed, unable to stand up to Sam or make him stop. Today Lester had stood outside, a few feet away, unaware of Sam’s intentions or that he had taken the pistol from the glove box. […]
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Jayne Moore Waldrop is a writer, recovering attorney and former book columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Still: The Journal, New Madrid Journal, Minerva Rising, New Limestone Review, Paddock Review, Kudzu, and Deep South Magazine. Her stories have been selected as Judge’s Choice in the 2016 Still Journal Fiction Contest; as a finalist for the 2015 Reynolds Price Fiction Prize, the 2016 Tillie Olsen Fiction Award, and the 2017 Still Journal Fiction Contest; and an honorable mention in the AWP Intro Journals Project. A 2014 graduate of Murray State University’s MFA Program in fiction, she serves as literary liaison for the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky.
Read More: A brief interview with Jayne Moore Waldrop