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Ed McClanahan: A Reading

In Living by Words, Ed reads an excerpt from a novel in progress. To show a little of his working process, he also provided the manuscript pages showing how he put together the reading.



      Probably I should warn you in advance that this reading is rated about PG-13.
      Those happy few among you have read my novel The Natural Man (still available at fine booksellers everywhere) may recall that the story is set in the late 1940s in the little Kentucky town of Needmore, the county seat of Burdock County, and that the protagonist and point-of-view character is a teenager named Harry Eastep. For the last couple of years, I’ve been working on a sort of left-handed, latter-day sequel to The Natural Man called The Return of the Son of Needmore, in which Harry Eastep, in his retirement years, comes home to Needmore and, in the mid-1990s, gets called to jury duty in a murder trial. For this reading, I’ve cobbled together several courtroom scenes, of which Harry Eastep, sitting in the jury box, is the observer. Also, in light of the fact that this material is obviously inconclusive, I’ll tell you in advance that when Oodles Ockerman, another Natural Man retread, appears on the witness stand, the reading’s almost over. When you hear the line “The memory haunts him still,” you’ll know it’s time to burst into thunderous applause.


The Return of the Son of Needmore

      Court day, and in the great courtroom on the second floor of the Burdock County courthouse in Needmore, the county seat, everything’s in place. The judge is on the bench, the jury’s in the box, the opening arguments have been heard, the first witness for the prosecution, Sheriff Lester E. “Letcher” Stallcup, is on the stand and testifying, the lawyers are busy with their yellow pads and pencils, the defendant morosely awaits his fate.
      The spectator section is perhaps two-thirds full, with the largest block of seats occupied by Langenfeltners, relatives of the accused, doughy, small-eyed women and furtive, feral-looking men, mewling infants and muttering old grannies, grubby urchins and cud-chewing old uncles with spitcans in their palsied hands, two long-haired teenage boys in greasy olive-drab fatigue jackets and cat-hats that advertise the B&M Live Bait Shoppe & Cafe, a diaphonously skinny girl with a lavender streak in her hair and a tee shirt that declares “If I Wanted to Hear from an Asshole, I Would’ve Farted” ..., Langenfeltners all, Langenfeltners to the bone, some few of their number apparently not recently conversant with the amenities of soap and water, for a thin graveolence hangs upon the overheated air of the courtroom, like the fumes of some faraway asafetida factory.
      The object of all this activity and attention, the defendant Otho “Shifty” Langenfeltner, stands accused of having improved the mind of his landlord, the late Garvice Pincherd, by ventilating it right between the eyes with the victim’s own .32 Special, at the victim’s own front door. Shifty is a squat, swart individual distinguished not only by the above-mentioned low birth, but also by a skulking nature, a constitutional inability to look his fellow creature in the eye—hence the nickname—, and a lengthy criminal record suggesting a special penchant for the act of arson. Happily, this is the first time he’s been charged with murder. And with the possible (however unlikely) exception of the defendant himself, there is not a soul in this courtroom—including the judge, the jury, the attorney for the defense, and all the Langenfeltners from the mewlingest infant to the most dotard old granny—who does not believe in his or her heart of hearts that Shifty Langenfeltner is guilty as charged, and that he is pleading not guilty mostly because he is also constitutionally incapable of telling the truth (which a guilty plea would necessarily entail) under any circumstances whatsoever, even when doing so might redound in some small way to his credit or advantage.
      Untold generations of Langenfeltners, that aromatic lineage, have infested the large but thoroughly worn-out farm known locally as the Old Pincherd Place, serving untold generations of Pincherds as a convenient gene pool of indentured servants. Langenfeltners till the Pincherd acres, log the Pincherd woodlots, milch the Pincherd kine, and annually refresh the Pincherd septic tank even as they had, in bygone days, performed the same service for the Pincherd outhouse. They live where, within the memory of man, Langenfeltners have always lived, at the head of a holler on the backside of the Pincherd farm in an ignoble little encampment of dilapidated doublewides, rusted out housetrailers, schoolbuses on blocks, a variety of unpainted plywood shacks and shanties, even an old Wonderbread truck that crouches, wheelless, in the barnyard, like a monstrous shoat exiled from the hoglot.
      Despite innate Langenfeltner churlishness and legendary Pincherd miserliness, the two clans have coexisted for three-quarters of a century, lashed back to back in mutual need and mutual rancor, squabbling like barnyard fowl over a diminishing supply of table scraps as the farm that sustained them all fell inexorably into ruin around them. “Mark my words,” their neighbors had been solemnly intoning for the last sixty years or so, “one of these days some Langenfeltner is gonna kill him a Pincherd.”

* * * *

      Now the Commonwealth’s Attorney, a pale, unbaked biscuit of a youth by the name of Ronald Spriggins, is on his legs, sauntering back and forth before the court in a highly edifying display of the latest law school fashion in three-piece Glenn plaid suits (a handsome model of which graces his pudgy form this morning) and stroking his beardless chin in deepest cogitation, as if he intends to polish that mottled and none-too-prepossessing feature to a high gloss, to the greater glory of his suit.
      The case against the murderous and incendiary Mr. Langenfeltner, as it is now being developed by prosecutor Spriggins, comes down to this: 1) That the late Garvice W. Pincherd, the last of his noble line, respected landowner, pious deacon of his church (though many years defunct in his tithes), and all-around pillar of the community, did perchance discover that his tenants, Langenfeltners beyond number, were availing themselves of the fallow ground between the rows of the Pincherd cornfield to cultivate, for fun and profit, a substantial crop of marijuana. 2) That said pillar of the community, shocked at his tenants’ cavalier disregard for the rule of law (to say nothing of their apparent intent to defraud their amiable landlord of any share of either the fun or the profit), did then and there direct all Langenfeltners to absquatulate his property forthwith and forevermore. 3) That the defendant Otho Langenfeltner, as chieftain of his barbarous tribe, having sulked and skulked about the property until Garvice left that afternoon (to pay a call on a certain widow lady he’d been courting twenty miles away in Limestone), did subsequently proceed to utilize his landlord’s own tractor to plow under not just the marijuana but the entire cornfield, as well as the Pincherd vegetable garden, the Pincherd front yard, the Pincherd flowerbeds, and finally the Pincherd family graveyard, right up to the headstones. 4) That after Garvice Pincherd returned late that evening to this scene of vengeful carnage, the odious defendant had the temerity to present himself at Garvice’s front door, where he wrested Garvice’s weapon from him, put a bullet between that worthy’s eyes, and took off for Tennessee. There, in the town of Bunchburg, he was eventually arrested on a charge of vagrancy, and his sanguinary past caught up with him.
      A couple of hours into Sheriff Stallcup’s testimony, Mr. Spriggins has succeeded in establishing incontrovertibly that the victim is indeed dead, and that he died of the bullet between his eyes, and not of his subsequent fall to the floor. Needless to say, the intrepid Spriggins has already been much hampered in his pursuit of Truth—Truth as he sees it—by countless interruptions and interferences on the part of his adversary and opposite number, Mr. E.P. Carboy, attorney for the defense.
      “Now then, Sheriff,” Spriggins ventures, in a voice that hasn’t altogether finished changing yet, despite his having recently passed, in point of age, the quarter-of-a-century mark. “Now then, in your opinion—”
      “Ob-JEC-tion!” roars E.P. Carboy, who is on his legs now, a pear-shaped six-and-a-half-foot tower of flab and probity, spouting jurisprudence in a voice quite as tremendous as Spriggins’s is small. “Requires the witness to indulge in unalloyed con-JEC-ture! Res ipsa loquitor, as we say! In other words, post hoc ergo propter hoc, so to speak! And may we also remind the court, inter alia, of the doctrine of illegitimus non carborundum sunt, wherein the damnum fatal, as it were, is prima facie evidence, a priori, that ...”
      So unmanned is the fledgling prosecutor by the iron logic of the great man’s argument that he doesn’t even look to the bench for a ruling—which is perhaps just as well, for the judge, a wheezy, dyspeptic old political bagpipe named Hoover Swarp, is at the moment gazing out the window in a state of advanced non compos mentos, demonstrating a perfect mastery of the judicatory art of sleeping with his eyes open.
      E.P. Carboy—“E. Pluribus,” the courthouse crowd has dubbed him—delivers himself of a few more Latinate effusions as he retires to his seat beside his scowling client. Judge Swarp bestirs himself out of his torpor long enough to mutter “Sustained,” then turns his attention back to his window and applies his powerful intellect to counting the blackbirds on the electric line outside, and immediately puts himself back to sleep again, still with his eyes wide open.
      “Um, allow me to rephrase that,” squeaks Mister Spriggins. “Now then, Sheriff, when you arrived at the scene of the cri—of the alleged crime, did you—?”
      “Wadn’t no legend to it,” Sheriff Stallcup interposes. “The man had a bullet hole in his damn head.”
      This observation of course inspires another prodigious eruption from Mount Carboy, which eventually rouses Judge Swarp from his slumber, whereupon he summons both counselors to the bench and instructs them, sotto voce, to keep it the hell down and get the hell on with it, and further advises the witness against volunteering answers to questions he hasn’t been asked yet. But before the somnolescent jurist’s re-count of the blackbirds reaches ten, Spriggins has again bumbled into objectionable territory, and Carboy is, of course, again objecting mightily.
      In the jury box, Harry Eastep slides lower in his seat and, taking his cue from the bench, composes himself for a little open-eyed nap of his own. His trial, like Shifty Langenfeltner’s, has only just begun.

* * * *

      As noted, during Garvice’s penurious tenure (Squire Skinflint, the Langenfeltners called him) the Old Pincherd Place had long been in a state of slow decline. In the Squire’s latter days, his fencerows had become impossible snarls of rampant honeysuckle and multiflora rose laced with rusty, broken barbed wire, his once-verdant croplands and pastures miniature forests of scrub cedar and hackberry and hedgeapple saplings, every hillside on the property—and there are many—deeply etched by gullies and washes. “There ain’t a teacupful of topsoil on the whole place,” people said, more or less accurately. The surviving livestock, aside from the Langenfeltners’ hogs (not to mention the Langenfeltners themselves) and a pair of tough little burros that Garvice had installed to eat his annual crop of thistles, largely consisted of cowsuckers, coons, possums, groundhogs, skunks, and other incumbents of a similar stripe. The only vegetables in the garden when Shifty Langenfeltner famously plowed it under were polkberries and skunk cabbage; the last flowers had bloomed in Garvice’s flowerbeds some twenty years ago, when his wife Ida was still alive to tend them; and when Shifty’s plow turned to the stony soil on that dear old soul’s gravesite, it was the most attention anyone had paid to that tiny, blighted plot of ground since the day they planted her.
      To complement his saving ways, Squire Skinflint had also inherited, from a long line of Pincherds, a visceral disinclination either to throw—or worse, to give—anything away, with the consequence that the barnlot was a dinosaur graveyard of several generations of abandoned tractors and hay balers and manure spreaders, and those outbuildings on the farm which hadn’t simply collapsed of benign neglect remained standing due solely to the sheer volume of junk that was stuffed inside them. The smokehouse was full of castoff household appliances—cookstoves, iceboxes, primitive refrigerators, wringer washers, kitchen sinks, rusted-out washtubs and chamberpots—, the woodshed was packed to the rafters with bits and pieces of ancient implements harkening in origin all the way back to the crankcase of a McCormick tractor bought brand new by Garvice’s great grandfather in 1907, the chickenhouse was a repository for old beehives, hog troughs, scalding boxes, rabbit hutches, empty nail kegs, incubators ...
      And the ancestral home of the genus Pincherd, once among the finest farmhouses in all of Burdock County, was now a sagging, swaybacked gray hulk that hadn’t seen a coat of paint in forty years, the two great stone chimneys at its either end leaning inward as if each yearned for the other’s embrace, rain gutters drooping from its eaves, warped clapboards springing like unruly cowlicks from its outer walls, broken windowpanes plugged with wads of yellowed newspaper, the porch floor tilted like the deck of a slowly sinking ship. After Garvice became a widower, he had moved his marriage bed, a huge old four-poster, into the kitchen and closed off the rest of the house, which was crammed with several generations of accumulated household furnishings, massive old armoires and bedsteads and horsehair couches and the like, most of them piled high with hundreds and hundreds of back issues of the scores of unread magazines Garvice had been subscribing to for years, in a dogged but futile effort to win the Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes.
      No will having been discovered after the Squire’s abrupt departure for (let us hope) a better world, it appeared that, still resolutely giving nothing away, he’d gone to his grave intestate, and that his niece, Nadine Swinford, would consequently fall heir to all of the above-enumerated riches he’d been unable to take with him. Shifty Langenfeltner, some hinted, had done Nadine a great service—an inference to which she took violent exception, protesting indignantly that she had loved her Unkie Peench all to pieces, and would happily forfeit her entire anticipated fortune to spend just one more hour in his delightful company.
      But then a few months later, while the appraisers were taking inventory of the estate in preparation for auctioning off Garvice’s property and household effects, someone came across a hand-written will at the back of a drawerful of exhausted flashlight batteries, leaving everything to a Mrs. Della Waddle, proprietress of Wadella Hall, a “gentleman’s boarding house” in Limestone. This time, Nadine called her beloved Unkie Peench an old rip, and declared that he had got exactly what he deserved.

* * * *

      By mid-afternoon on the first full day of the Langenfeltner trial, Harry and (he suspects) the rest of the jury would happily exonerate the defendant altogether if only they could hang his attorney by the shorthairs in his stead.
      E.P. Carboy, Esq., is the colossus of local pettifoggery, a very large fish in a very small pond, Moby Dick in a brandy snifter. From his high-heeled, pointy-toed lizard-skin cowboy boots to his pomaded pompadour (with a vast expanse of pinstripes in between), from his gold-nugget cufflinks to his diamond stickpin to the orotund profundities that fall from his lips like pearls before swine, he is every inch a barrister, and a damned expensive one at that. Operating out of lavishly appointed offices in a refurbished antebellum manse in Limestone, a prosperous tobacco-market town twenty miles east of Needmore, he has represented scoundrels and reprobates in every corner of the Commonwealth, specializing in defending the state’s most celebrated (and affluent) murderers, swindlers, deviants, and well-heeled wardheelers, with the occasional beleaguered widow or black-lung coal miner or ill-used tenant farmer chucked, pro bono, into the mix for seasoning, to assure the public that he’s a man of the people. He’s a masterful obstructionist, obscurantist, and obfuscator. He is, as they say around the courthouse, as full of shit as a plugged duck. There’s talk he plans to run for governor.
      As to how such a paladin came to gird his loins and go forth into battle on behalf of an apparently impecunious polecat like Shifty Langenfeltner, there are three separate and distinct local schools of thought: Conventional wisdom holds that Shifty is another of E.P.’s charity cases, the ones he takes up out of the goodness of his calculating heart. Others maintain that the Langenfeltners have squirrelled away a fortune in marijuana money, and can afford as many E.P. Carboys as they require.
      But the insiders’ favorite theory—as Harry had been hearing it propounded for weeks before the trial began, during his daily coffee breaks at the White Manor Cafe—has to do, first of all, with the fact that these are difficult times in the tobacco business, thanks to the federal government’s interference with humankind’s inalienable right to mummify itself in advance of need. In Limestone, the result has been that a number of the enormous old tobacco sales warehouses around town now stand empty, abandoned ... and insured to the rafters. Predictably, a few months ago the first and largest of them, the great BurleyBucks Warehouse—owned by a consortium of Limestone plutocrats headed by one E.P. Carboy—went up, appropriately enough, in smoke. Otho Langenfeltner was, of course, beyond suspicion, being at the time still a reluctant guest of the state of Tennessee. But according to reports at the White Manor Cafe, his nephews—those two likely lads in the cat hats—had been observed lurking about the BurleyBucks, butanes at the ready, on the night it burned. Down at the White Manure, the jury has long since drawn its own conclusions—and the verdict is that E. Pluribus Carboy might’ve got a little quid pro quo on them lizard boots of his.
      Just at the present moment, late in the afternoon, the great mouthpiece has stifled his customary eloquence in favor of an oily intimacy as he cross-examines Garvice Pincherd’s nearest surviving relative, a thrice-widowed niece by the name of Nadine Swinford, witness for the prosecution. It was Mrs. Swinford—a bulbous, tureen-shaped woman with an ice cream sundae of caramel-colored wig piled upon her head—who discovered her uncle’s earthly remains, just inside his front door on the morning after Otho Langenfeltner allegedly arrived for that very final contretemps with his landlord. As an homage to those of her conquests who had pre-deceased the happy Mr. Swinford, his lady had insisted on being sworn in by her name in full—Hazel Nadine Ockerman Worthington Turnipseed Scales Swinford.
      Oodles Ockerman. One fateful moonlit night when Harry was a pup, more than forty years ago, he had seen Oodles at her bedroom window, naked as a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound oyster on the half-shell. The memory haunts him still.


© Copyright Ed McClanahan. All rights reserved.
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