When Jackie Barron was doing something real bad—like running in the house or talking back to his grandmother—she would grab aholt of his arm and say, “Boy, if you keep actin’ out your Uncle Isaac is going to come and get you and put you in the pokey!”
Jackie’s uncle was the sheriff in Hutchins County, Tennessee, and Jackie stayed a little while with Uncle Isaac and Aunt Norrie every summer. They lived right there on the first floor of the jailhouse in Coal Creek. You had to walk up a real steep staircase to get to the lockup, which was on the second floor, and Jackie liked to play up there in the cells, which were usually empty.
The summer when he was ten years old was the summer when he met the prisoner whose name was Alonzo.
Aunt Norrie had picked Jackie up in their ’41 Ford—they had an old Packard station wagon that Uncle Isaac used when he was doing sheriff work—and they talked about all kind of things on the drive back to Coal Creek. Jackie always liked talking to Aunt Norrie because she was interested in just about everything that there was, and she talked to him just like he was a grownup.
When they pulled up at the jailhouse, Uncle Isaac—looking to Jackie like he was ten feet tall—was headed for the backyard carrying one of them great big pots that he’d probably took off a moonshiner when he busted up his still. One time Jackie heard his granddaddy talking to his buddy from the Mason’s Lodge, and his granddaddy was saying, “You ever notice how Isaac don’t never arrest the moonshiners? ‘Course he don’t. Before he got Jesus, he used to be one of their best customers. Isaac may be a lot of things, but he’s not no damn hypocrite.”
The sheriff stopped long enough to ruffle Jackie’s hair and say, “You behave yourself and keep your Aunt Norrie company, boy. I’ll see you at supper.”
That was just about all Jackie would hear him say all summer. At first he used to worry that his uncle didn’t like him, but Aunt Norrie said, “No, he loves you, Jackie; he’s just not one for a lot of talking. He doesn’t talk all that much to me, either. In the days when he was drinking you couldn’t shut him up, but those days are gone. Sometimes I almost miss them.”
After Jackie put his clothes and stuff in the room they always saved for him, he came back out to the living room, where Aunt Norrie already had the ice-tea and the checkerboard all set up.
While they were playing, Aunt Norrie said, “I’ve got a surprise for you — we’ve got us a prisoner who’s been here over a month! He did something real bad up in Kentucky, and we’ve got to wait for some papers before we can send him back. His name is Alonzo.”
“Can I go up and look at him?” Jackie said.
“You don’t go ‘look at him,’ Jackie. He’s not a caged animal. I’ll take you up and introduce you as soon as we finish this game.”
After hearing that, Jackie had trouble concentrating on checkers (he won anyway). He figured the man named Alonzo must be somebody really special; he didn’t remember anybody ever staying there in the jail for more than one night. About the worst that ever happened in Hutchins County was when some of the soldiers back from the big war with Hitler and Hirohito would get in a fight at the beer joint out on the highway. Uncle Isaac would bring them in and throw them in a cell to sober up. The next morning he’d just holler at them and let them loose. Isaac thought they all ought to be treated like heroes, and he wasn’t about to drag them up in front of no judge.
When Aunt Norrie took Jackie upstairs the prisoner was stretched out on the bunk in his cell, with his head propped up on a pillow that looked just like the pillows in Jackie’s room. All the other cells were empty, with mattresses folded up on top of the bedsprings.
There was a bucket of soapy water with a mop in it just outside the prisoner’s cell. The door was standing wide open.
“Alonzo, you ought to pull that cell door shut when you’re in there, “Aunt Norrie said. “This is a jail; you know.” They both laughed and Alonzo pulled the door to, so that he was looking at them through bars.
Jackie could see that the man wasn’t young—he hadn’t shaved, and his whiskers had enough white to show that he was forty if he was a day. He’d grabbed his blue denim work shirt and put it on, but Jackie had seen some wiry arms sticking out of his undershirt. He wasn’t a big man like Uncle Isaac, but he looked like he could take care of himself in a fight.
Aunt Norrie said, “Alonzo, this is my nephew Jackie; he’s about the smartest little boy you’ll ever meet.”
The man named Alonzo laughed and said, “I’m pleased to meet you; I ain’t known a lot of smart people in my life.”
When they were going back downstairs, Jackie whispered “What did he do?”
“You know I don’t talk about that kind of thing, Jackie,” his aunt said. “Every prisoner’s innocent until the court says he’s guilty. Let’s just say, I don’t hold with what he did, but love can make a body do some terrible things.”
“Is it all right if I go back up there tomorrow?”
“I don’t see why not,” Aunt Norrie said. “He’s not really a bad man in his heart.”
The next day, Jackie woke up to the sound of a hammer. When he peeked outside he saw it was Alonzo, nailing some boards together on the back porch. He looked up at Jackie and said, “Somebody’s gonna break their neck on these stairs,” and went back to hammering.
After breakfast, Jackie went outside and found Alonzo mowing the yard in front of the jail. Aunt Norrie was around the side of the building, pulling some weeds out of her little garden. When Jackie bent down to help her, he whispered, “Is it safe for him to be out like this when Uncle Isaac isn’t here? Aren’t you afraid he’ll escape?”
Norrie smiled a sad kind of smile and said, “I don’t think he’d run away, no matter what. I think he’s just tired of running.”
When he’d finished with the grass, Alonzo put the lawnmower away and said, “How y’all doing over there with them weeds?” Aunt Norrie said they were doing fine but Alonzo came over and helped them anyway.
After supper that night Jackie went upstairs with a new book Aunt Norrie gave him, and settled down in one of the cells. Everything was quiet for a while, until Alonzo stuck his head in the cell door and said, “What you reading?”
Jackie told him, and Alonzo asked him if it was any good, and Jackie said he guessed so; he hadn’t but just started it, and they were both quiet for a minute. Finally Alonzo said, “I ain’t much with books. I got nothing against them, but I didn’t have a whole lot of schooling. I wasn’t but seventeen when I got married. I got lucky, though. My wife’s daddy was in the railroad union—that’s the best union they is, you know—and he got me a good job. And I was good at it.”
“Why did you quit?” Jackie said.
Alonzo snorted. “I didn’t have no choice,” he said. “After what I done, I just took off running. But them railroad years paid off—that’s how come I always knew which trains I could hide on without getting caught.”
Jackie could tell that Alonzo was the kind who didn’t stop when he started talking, so he just listened.
“That worked fine until I made the mistake of being with a Hutchins County moonshiner when your uncle made a raid to shut him down. I always knowed white lightnin’ was gonna get me in trouble someday. If I’d of just bought me a Co-Cola somewheres I’d still be out there on the road.
“The sheriff was about to turn both of us loose until he recognized me. My face is on one of them Wanted posters he’s got downstairs. After that he didn’t have no choice but to haul me in.”
Alonzo seemed to be in a real good talking mood, so Jackie worked up his courage and asked why he was a wanted man.
“Because of my wife,” Alonzo said. “She was a good woman—beautiful woman. Real beautiful woman. Voice all soft and warm; put me in mind of Dale Evans. Her name was Nola Jean but I just always called her Sugar Pie. It was the right name for her. She was sweet as sugar. And she smelled like pies right when they come out of the oven.”
“What made her want to put you in jail?”
“Well, it wasn’t all her fault. It’s just, I come home early one night after I’d been away for a week on the Louisville-Cincinnati run. Her and my friend Jim-Bob Ellis was right there in my bed together. When you get older you’ll understand why I had to do what I done.”
“What did you do?” Jackie asked.
“I kilt her,” Alonzo said.
“Why’d you do that for?”
The old man just shrugged his shoulders, but his face got real sad. “Wasn’t nothing else I could do,” he said. “I come from good church-going people and we don’t believe in divorce.”
Jackie was real quiet for a minute. Now Alonzo wasn’t just a nice man he could talk to. Now he was like somebody in a picture show. “Did you kill ’em both right there and then?”
Alonzo looked a little surprised. “Naw,” he said, “that wouldn’t of been right. Like I told you, Sugar Pie was a fine, fine-lookin’ woman. And if Jim-Bob had of been married to her and I wasn’t? I reckon I’d of done the same thing he done. So I didn’t figure I had any right to kill him.”
After that, Jackie spent a lot of time with Alonzo, helping out in the yard, and sometimes reading to him. Aunt Norrie brought up a kitchen chair for Jackie to sit on in Alonzo’s cell.
The summer was almost at an end when the sheriff from Kentucky came to haul Alonzo away. Uncle Isaac and Aunt Norrie and Jackie were there to say goodbye, but they really didn’t know what more they could say.
The Kentucky sheriff put Alonzo in handcuffs for the first time, and even slapped leg-irons on his ankles. “You don’t have to do that,” Uncle Isaac said, real quiet. “He ain’t going to give you no trouble.”
The Kentucky sheriff jerked on the chain, spit a little tobacco juice on the ground and said, “You damn right he ain’t. He got away from me once and nobody gets away from me twice. That ain’t the way we do things in Kentucky.”
Jackie was sad to see Alonzo go, but he was glad he had met him and talked to him. He even understood why Alonzo had shot his wife but not the man who just couldn’t resist her. Like Uncle Isaac, Alonzo didn’t want to be no damn hypocrite.
Jim Butler, a New Yorker who was born in Eastern Tennessee, has managed to preserve some tenuous grasp on reality in spite of spending many years as a publicist at ABC. While there he wrote a book about the making of The Winds of War and, in the process, survived (and was awed by) Robert Mitchum. When no one was looking he also wrote many magazine interviews. In the ‘60s he wrote lyrics for singers including the young Cass Elliot, The Bitter End Singers, and The Serendipity Singers. Several were recorded, but you’ve never heard any of them. His only previous internet publication was a story in Sunday Salon.