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A Lesson Before Dying
Read by Lionel Mark Smith
Read by Roger Guenveur Smith
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Based on Ernest J. Gaines' National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel, A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Louisiana Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young illiterate black man, is falsely convicted of murder and is sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, the plantation schoolteacher, agrees to talk with the condemned man.
I WAS NOT THERE, yet I was there. No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be. Still, I was there. I was there as much as anyone else was there. Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them. Both are large women, but his godmother is larger. She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds. Once she and my aunt had found their places—two rows behind the table where he sat with his court-appointed attorney—his godmother became as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps. She never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement. She just sat there staring at the boy’s clean-cropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer. Even after he had gone to await the jurors’ verdict, her eyes remained in that one direction. She heard nothing said in the courtroom. Not by the prosecutor, not by the defense attorney, not by my aunt. (Oh, yes, she did hear one word—one word, for sure: “hog.”) It was my aunt whose eyes followed the prosecutor as he moved from one side of the courtroom to the other, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand, pounding the table where his papers lay, pounding the rail that separated the jurors from the rest of the courtroom. It was my aunt who followed his every move, not his godmother. She was not even listening. She had gotten tired of listening. She knew, as we all knew, what the outcome would be. A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die. Though he told them no, he had nothing to do with it, that he was on his way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when Brother and Bear drove up beside him and offered him a ride. After he got into the car, they asked him if he had any money. When he told them he didn’t have a solitary dime, it was then that Brother and Bear started talking credit, saying that old Gropé should not mind crediting them a pint since he knew them well, and he knew that the grinding season was coming soon, and they would be able to pay him back then.
The store was empty, except for the old storekeeper, Alcee Gropé, who sat on a stool behind the counter. He spoke first. He asked Jefferson about his godmother. Jefferson told him his nannan was all right. Old Gropé nodded his head. “You tell her for me I say hello,” he told Jefferson. He looked at Brother and Bear. But he didn’t like them. He didn’t trust them. Jefferson could see that in his face. “Do for you boys?” he asked. “A bottle of that Apple White, there, Mr. Gropé,” Bear said. Old Gropé got the bottle off the shelf, but he did not set it on the counter. He could see that the boys had already been drinking, and he became suspicious. “You boys got money?” he asked. Brother and Bear spread out all the money they had in their pockets on top of the counter. Old Gropé counted it with his eyes. “That’s not enough,” he said. “Come on, now, Mr. Gropé,” they pleaded with him. “You know you go’n get your money soon as grinding start.” “No,” he said. “Money is slack everywhere. You bring the money, you get your wine.” He turned to put the bottle back on the shelf. One of the boys, the one called Bear, started around the counter. “You, stop there,” Gropé told him. “Go back.” Bear had been drinking, and his eyes were glossy, he walked unsteadily, grinning all the time as he continued around the counter. “Go back,” Gropé told him. “I mean, the last time now—go back.” Bear continued. Gropé moved quickly toward the cash register, where he withdrew a revolver and started shooting. Soon there was shooting from another direction. When it was quiet again, Bear, Gropé, and Brother were all down on the floor, and only Jefferson was standing.
He wanted to run, but he couldn’t run. He couldn’t even think. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know how he had gotten there. He couldn’t remember ever getting into the car. He couldn’t remember a thing he had done all day.
He heard a voice calling. He thought the voice was coming from the liquor shelves. Then he realized that old Gropé was not dead, and that it was he who was calling. He made himself go to the end of the counter. He had to look across Bear to see the storekeeper. Both lay between the counter and the shelves of alcohol. Several bottles had been broken, and alcohol and blood covered their bodies as well as the floor. He stood there gaping at the old man slumped against the bottom shelf of gallons and half gallons of wine. He didn’t know whether he should go to him or whether he should run out of there. The old man continued to call: “Boy? Boy? Boy?” Jefferson became frightened. The old man was still alive. He had seen him. He would tell on him. Now he started babbling. “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me, Mr. Gropé. It was Brother and Bear. Brother shot you. It wasn’t me. They made me come with them. You got to tell the law that, Mr. Gropé. You hear me, Mr. Gropé?”
But he was talking to a dead man.
Still he did not run. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t believe that this had happened. Again he couldn’t remember how he had gotten there. He didn’t know whether he had come there with Brother and Bear, or whether he had walked in and seen all this after it happened.
He looked from one dead body to the other. He didn’t know whether he should call someone on the telephone or run. He had never dialed a telephone in his life, but he had seen other people use them. He didn’t know what to do. He was standing by the liquor shelf, and suddenly he realized he needed a drink and needed it badly. He snatched a bottle off the shelf, wrung off the cap, and turned up the bottle, all in one continuous motion. The whiskey burned him like fire—his chest, his belly, even his nostrils. His eyes watered; he shook his head to clear his mind. Now he began to realize where he was. Now he began to realize fully what had happened. Now he knew he had to get out of there. He turned. He saw the money in the cash register, under the little wire clamps. He knew taking money was wrong. His nannan had told him never to steal. He didn’t want to steal. But he didn’t have a solitary dime in his pocket. And nobody was around, so who could say he stole it? Surely not one of the dead men.
He was halfway across the room, the money stuffed inside his jacket pocket, the half bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand, when two white men walked into the store.
That was his story.
The prosecutor’s story was different. The prosecutor argued that Jefferson and the other two had gone there with the full intention of robbing the old man and then killing him so that he could not identify them. When the old man and the other two robbers were all dead, this one—it proved the kind of animal he really was—stuffed the money into his pockets and celebrated the event by drinking over their still-bleeding bodies.
The defense argued that Jefferson was innocent of all charges except being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There was absolutely no proof that there had been a conspiracy between himself and the other two. The fact that Mr. Gropé shot only Brother and Bear was proof of Jefferson’s innocence. Why did Mr. Gropé shoot one boy twice and never shoot at Jefferson once? Because Jefferson was merely an innocent bystander. He took the whiskey to calm his nerves, not to celebrate. He took the money out of hunger and plain stupidity.
“Gentlemen of the jury, look at this—this—this boy. I almost said man, but I can’t say man. Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this—this—this a man? No, not I. I would call it a boy and a fool. A fool is not aware of right and wrong. A fool does what others tell him to do. A fool got into that automobile. A man with a modicum of intelligence would have seen that those racketeers meant no good. But not a fool. A fool got into that automobile. A fool rode to the grocery store. A fool stood by and watched this happen, not having the sense to run.
“Gentlemen of the jury, look at him—look at him—look at this. Do you see a man sitting here? Do you see a man sitting here? I ask you, I implore, look carefully—do you see a man sitting here? Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand—look deeply into those eyes. Do you see a modicum of intelligence? Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan—can plan—can plan anything? A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa—yes, yes, that he can do—but to plan? To plan, gentlemen of the jury? No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans. What you see here is a thing that acts on command. A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn. That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder. He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes. Ask him to name the months of the year. Ask him does Christmas come before or after the Fourth of July? Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition. Ask him to describe a rose, to quote one passage from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery? Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying ‘man’—would you please forgive me for committing such an error?
“Gentlemen of the jury, who would be hurt if you took this life? Look back to that second row. Please look. I want all twelve of you honorable men to turn your heads and look back to that second row. What you see there has been everything to him—mama, grandmother, godmother—everything. Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her well. Take this away from her, and she has no reason to go on living. We may see him as not much, but he’s her reason for existence. Think on that, gentlemen, think on it.
“Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful. For God’s sake, be merciful. He is innocent of all charges brought against him.
“But let us say he was not. Let us for a moment say he was not. What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.
“I thank you, gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart, for your kind patience. I have no more to say, except this: We must live with our own conscience. Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience.”
The jury retired, and it returned a verdict after lunch: guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree. The judge commended the twelve white men for reaching a quick and just verdict. This was Friday. He would pass sentence on Monday.
Ten o’clock on Monday, Miss Emma and my aunt sat in the same seats they had occupied on Friday. Reverend Mose Ambrose, the pastor of their church, was with them. He and my aunt sat on either side of Miss Emma. The judge, a short, red-faced man with snow-white hair and thick black eyebrows, asked Jefferson if he had anything to say before the sentencing. My aunt said that Jefferson was looking down at the floor and shook his head. The judge told Jefferson that he had been found guilty of the charges brought against him, and that the judge saw no reason that he should not pay for the part he played in this horrible crime.
Death by electrocution. The governor would set the date.
WHEN I CAME HOME from school that afternoon, I saw my aunt and Miss Emma sitting at the table in the kitchen. I was sorry now that I had come directly home, because Miss Emma was the last person I wanted to see. Just like everyone else in the quarter, I knew what the sentence was going to be, and I didn’t want to have to look into her face. I hurried to my room with the satchel of papers that I had brought from school to work on that night. After laying the satchel on the table that I used as a desk, I sat down on the bed as quietly as I could. Neither my aunt nor Miss Emma had seen me come in, but they knew it was the time of day for me to be there. I tried to think of a way to make a quick appearance in the kitchen for courtesy’s sake and then leave. I didn’t want to look into that face any more than I had to.
It was late October, and though I wore a wool shirt under my jacket, I was a little cold. I thought how nice it would be to sit inside the Rainbow Club in Bayonne. I had a lot of work to do, but I didn’t feel like being here, not as long as Miss Emma was in the house. I couldn’t hear a sound from the kitchen. I wondered if I could sneak out of the house before my aunt saw me. I got up from the bed, and I was near the door when I heard footsteps in her bedroom. I hurried back to the table and took some papers out of the satchel. When she came into my room, I had sat down at the table and was pretending to read. She stood looking at me.
“Ain’t you go’n speak to Miss Emma?” she said.
“I was going to. I was just looking over some papers.”
“She want talk to you.”
“What about?” I asked.
“She can tell you.”
“I have to go to Bayonne, Tante Lou,” I said. “Something for the school.”
“I’m sure this won’t take all day.”
“The store closes at five, Tante Lou,” I said. “It’s almost four now.”
“You can spare a few minutes,” my aunt said. “ ’Specially today.”
She didn’t say any more. She didn’t have to. She was sure I knew what had happened.
We looked at each other a moment, then I looked down at the student’s paper that I had taken from the satchel. The fourth-grade writing was nearly illegible, but even if it had been typed I would not have been able to concentrate long enough to read it. My aunt, standing back watching me, knew I was not reading.
I pushed the papers away and followed her through her room, back into the kitchen. Miss Emma sat at the kitchen table, staring out into the yard. I started to speak to her, but I wasn’t sure that she even knew I was there.
“Sit down, Grant,” my aunt said.
“I can stand, Tante Lou.”
“Sit down,” she said.
She sat down first, next to Miss Emma, so that I would have to sit opposite both of them. In this way they could look at me at the same time, or take turns.
“How are you, Miss Emma?” I said.
“Making out,” she said.
She stared out into the yard, my aunt looked down at the table, and I waited, afraid to even think what Miss Emma might want to speak to me about.
Miss Emma was in her early or mid-seventies; my aunt was in her seventies, and I figured they were pretty much the same age. Miss Emma’s hair was gray and combed up and pinned on top. I had noticed her floppy brown felt hat and her overcoat on my aunt’s bed on our way back into the kitchen.
Her name was Emma Glenn, but no one except her closest friends and the white people on the river ever called her anything but Miss Emma. Her husband, who was dead now, had called her Miss Emma, and she had called him Mr. Oscar, and that is how we on that plantation had grown up addressing them. Except for Jefferson. He called her “Nannan” and he had called Mr. Oscar “Parain”—godmother and godfather.
Miss Emma continued to stare into the yard, but I was sure she was not seeing anything out there. There was nothing out there to see but the jimsonweeds and crabgrass, and the rows of cane that ran parallel to the yard and about a hundred feet away from the kitchen where we sat. Miss Emma was not seeing any of that. She was remembering, she was thinking; she was not seeing.
“Called him a hog.”
She said that, and it was quiet again. My aunt looked at me, then back down at the table. I waited.
“I know he was just trying to get him off. But they didn’t pay that no mind. Still give him death.”
She turned her head slowly and looked directly at me. Her large, dark face showed all the pain she had gone through this day, this past weekend. No. The pain I saw in that face came from many years past.
“I don’t want them to kill no hog,” she said. “I want a man to go to that chair, on his own two feet.”
I waited, not knowing what was coming.
But she was finished talking. Now both she and my aunt looked at me as though I was supposed to figure out the rest of it. We stared at one another a few seconds before what they expected began to dawn on me.
“Wait,” I said. “Wait.”
Neither one said a thing until I started to get up, and my aunt told me to sit back down.
“Sit down for what?” I asked her.
“Just sit down,” she said.
I settled back on the chair, but not all the way back. I was ready to get up at any moment.
“He don’t have to do it,” Miss Emma said, looking beyond me again.
“Do what?” I asked her.
“You don’t have to do it,” she said again. It was dry, mechanical, unemotional, but I could tell by her face and by my aunt’s face that they were not about to give up on what they had in mind.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked her. “What can I do? It’s only a matter of weeks, a couple of months, maybe. What can I do that you haven’t done the past twenty-one years?”
“You the teacher,” she said.
“Yes, I’m the teacher,” I said. “And I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”
“You watch your tongue, sir,” my aunt said.
I sat back in the chair and looked at both of them. They sat there like boulders, their bodies, their minds immovable.
“He don’t have to,” Miss Emma said again.
“He go’n do it,” my aunt said.
“Oh?” I said.
“You go’n do it,” she said. “We going up there and talk to Mr. Henri.”
“Talk to Henri Pichot? For what?” I asked her.
“So you have the right to visit Jefferson.”
“What’s Henri Pichot got to do with this?”
“His brother-in-law is the sheriff, ain’t he?”
I waited for her to say more, but she did not. I got up from the table.
“And where you think you going?” Tante Lou asked me.
“To Bayonne, where I can breathe,” I said. “I can’t breathe here.”
“You ain’t going to no Bayonne till you go up the quarter,” she said. “You go’n see Mr. Henri with me and Emma, there.”
I had walked away, but now I came back and leaned over the table toward both of them.
“Tante Lou, Miss Emma, Jefferson is dead. It is only a matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months—but he’s already dead. The past twenty-one years, we’ve done all we could for Jefferson. He’s dead now. And I can’t raise the dead. All I can do is try to keep the others from ending up like this—but he’s gone from us. There’s nothing I can do anymore, nothing any of us can do anymore.”
“You going with us up the quarter,” my aunt said, as though I hadn’t said a word. “You going up there with us, Grant, or you don’t sleep in this house tonight.”
I stood back from the table and looked at the both of them. I clamped my jaws so tight the veins in my neck felt as if they would burst. I wanted to scream at my aunt; I was screaming inside. I had told her many, many times how much I hated this place and all I wanted to do was get away. I had told her I was no teacher, I hated teaching, and I was just running in place here. But she had not heard me before, and I knew that no matter how loud I screamed, she would not hear me now.
“I’m getting my coat, and I’ll be ready to go,” she said. “Em-ma?”
MY GRAY ’46 FORD was parked in front of the house. Tante Lou, in her black overcoat and black rimless hat, and Miss Emma, in her brown coat with the rabbit fur around the collar and sleeves and her floppy brown felt hat, followed me out to the car and stood back until I had opened the door for them. Not only was I going up to Henri Pichot’s house against my will, but I had to perform all the courtesies of chauffeur as well. After they had settled in the back seat, filling it completely, I slammed the door and went around to the other side and got in. I could feel my aunt’s eyes on the back of my neck for shutting the door as I did. Miss Emma probably would have looked at me the same way, but her mind was on other things.
As I drove by the church where I taught school, I thought about all the work I had to do. And I reminded myself that I had to see one of the men on the plantation about getting a load of firewood for the heater. I tried to remember who had brought us the last wagonload of wood. Fifteen or twenty families sent their children to the school, and I always made it a point—they expected it of me—to ask them to do something for the school during the six-month session. I would ask one of the older children to tell me who had brought in the last load of wood.
I stopped at the side gate to Henri Pichot’s large white and gray antebellum house. When my aunt started to get out of the car to open the gate for me, I told her to keep her seat because I had nothing to do all that day but serve. I felt her eyes on the back of my neck again, then on the side of my face as I pushed open the gate, and on me directly as I came back to the car. After driving into the yard, I had to get out again to shut the gate. Since the side entrance led from the quarter to the house, Henri Pichot never used this gate. Only tractors, wagons, and trucks used this entrance, and over the many years, they had cut just as many ruts across the yard. I must have hit every one of them, driving up to the house. My aunt never said a thing, but I could feel her eyes on the back of my neck. I was not aiming for the ruts, but I wasn’t avoiding them either. I could hear them bouncing on the back seat, but they never said a word. After parking under one of the great live oaks not far from the back door, I turned around to look at my aunt.
“Am I supposed to go in there too?”
She looked at me, but she didn’t answer me. She thought I had hit those ruts on purpose.
“It was you who said you never wanted me to go through that back door ever again.”
“Do I have to keep reminding you, Grant, this ain’t just another day?”
“He don’t have to go,” Miss Emma said for about the hundredth time. She was looking at me but not seeing me, and not meaning what she was saying, either.
“He’s going,” my aunt said. She was definitely seeing me. “Mr. Henri won’t come to him.”
“Oh, yes, I keep forgetting that,” I said. “Mr. Henri won’t come to me.”
After a minute of grunting and straining, they were able to get out of the car. I followed them into the inner yard, up the stairs to the back door. The maid, Inez Lane, had seen us come into the yard, and she opened the door for us. Inez was in her early forties, I suppose. She wore a white dress, white shoes, a blue gingham apron, and a kerchief on her head. She had a dark mole on her left cheek. She nodded to my aunt and me and spoke to Miss Emma.
“I heard,” she said.
“I would like to speak to Mr. Henri if he’s home,” Miss Emma said.
“Talking to Mr. Louis in the library,” Inez said.
“Like to speak to him if he don’t mind,” Miss Emma said.
Inez nodded and left us. I looked around the kitchen. I had come into this kitchen many times as a small child, to bring in wood for the stove, to bring in a chicken I had caught and killed, eggs I had found in the grass, and figs, pears, and pecans I had gathered from the trees in the yard. Miss Emma was the cook up here then. She wore the white dress and white shoes and the kerchief around her head. She had been here long before I was born, probably when my mother and father were children. She had cooked for the old Pichots, the parents of Henri Pichot. She had cooked for Henri and his brother and sister, as well as for his nieces and nephews; he did not have any children of his own. She cooked, she ran the house; my aunt washed and ironed; and I ran through the yard to get the things they needed to cook or cook with. As a child growing up on this plantation, I could not imagine this place, this house, existing without the two of them here. But before I left for the university, my aunt sat me down at the table in our kitchen and said to me, “Me and Em-ma can make out all right without you coming through that back door ever again.” I had not come through that back door once since leaving for the university, ten years before. I had been teaching on the place going on six years, and I had not been in Pichot’s yard, let alone gone up the back stairs or through that back door.
I saw both my aunt and Miss Emma looking around the kitchen. Some things had changed since they left, others had not. The big black iron pots still hung against the wall. But the wood-burning oven that I had known and that they had known had been exchanged for a gas range. And a big white refrigerator had taken the place of a smaller icebox. The war had changed all that. After so many of the young colored men had gone into military service or left the plantation, there was no one to chop the wood and haul the ice. And when they left, so did the old people, my aunt and Miss Emma.
I did not hear Inez knock on the library door or hear her call, but I did hear Henri Pichot’s voice: “Yes, Inez, what is it?” Then, a moment later: “Who?” And a moment after that: “Did she say what she wanted?” And later: “Go back there and ask her what she wants.”
Inez came back into the kitchen.
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