Pain Might Go Away
When Lester Hardin stood before the judge, he had just turned twenty-three years old. His hair was greasy, cut and trimmed low across the top of his crown with long knotted strands straddling down his collar.
The jail suit provided for him was made of denim dyed in indigo and made from cotton, the blue material faded and blotched with white stains. Over the past century it had been worn by many men. Old Man Ernie wore it for selling moonshine during prohibition, Roquin Elle just for being a black man during a time when it was illegal to be so, Mister James because they thought he was having his way with the youth and maybe he did, it was never proven but he might have, he got convicted of it anyway, and there was Little Thom who wore it proud after he killed a Senator and a known murderer and then his own father and Doc Dillie Shakes, well, everybody knows what he had done, and so he wore the same outfit as them all, exact same cloth Lester wore too.
Lester’s eyes were as burnt candles with only the wax still glowing when he stood before the judge. Set into his sockets was the beaten gaze that the jail suit personified, mangled and beaten and dead and still dying. These were his eyes, and how they were too when they took his mugshot like drawing a poster for an outlaw of the old west.
It was not his first stint to prison and he doubted it’d serve as his final. It was easy for him, making money in jail and without the cost of having to do honest labor. His sister would smuggle in Oxycodone, Fentanyl, cat tranquilizers, horse tranquilizers, LSD, mescaline and heroine. The guards didn’t care. They felt like they were in some redneck version of a Martin Scorsese picture.
His sister wouldn’t cry when she’d come see him, like most of the other visitors did—bringing in boxes of tissues and dark tinted sunglasses and veils over their faces to cover their eyes, talking about how So-and-So finally died and they weren’t there or how their offspring were fatherless or how they can’t pay the bills because they can’t work more than three jobs—and finally losing control of their emotions and just bawling-crying right there in front of everybody. They cried all the time, most of them did, most of the time.
Sister never did though. She had been born with dirt and blood in her fingernails and didn’t cry even then, her first moments on earth. He loved her so. She was born not two full minutes before he was and she would hold him in their bed when they were growing up, while their mother brought home a new man to screw her brains out for a few minutes and then beat her all night until she’d quit whining, until she was all but dead.
When they were seventeen, they decided it was good enough reason to flee from that house, and then they lied on their birth certificates and were married in a courthouse. Last June she became pregnant with his seed and last Autumn she overdosed.
The judge’s eyes peered up from the sheet of paper beneath his breath where he read the charges and almost shrieked boyishly from what was written. Something kicked the back of his throat and the words he spoke were sharp and scratched and shattered, sounding similar to a train braking. Screeching against the earth.
The light bulbs perturbed over his face and he took off his glasses and tried to wipe off the awful expression he contained, and his eyes scrolled up and down the paper like twin moons rising and twin suns setting. He whispered Jesus and Goddamn Christ.
“Now, killing a man accidentally in a barfight, or even doing it with conviction—I’d have more compassion on such admission of guilt to that crime.” He shook his head. “I mean what does that even sound like, two dogs killing each other. No, goddammit—”
“—You sure you wanna know, sir, your honor?”
“—Don’t say it, I said. God no, I don’t want to know about it.” He turned over the sheet of paper to the next page and then appeared fatherly, casting out from his somber soul an infinite sum of disappointment. “And possession of methamphetamines with seven dozen Coca-Cola bottles containing ephedrine, sink cleaner, brake fluid, Big Bob’s plant fertilizer, nail polish, paint thinner.” Then he quit reading and hung his head.
His chin turned gravely from shoulder to shoulder. “Son. My grandma used to drink from those Coca-Cola bottles, in the Depression. It was a gift from her parents even though they had nothing. No money, absolutely nothing. They had dust on their clothes and that was all. And every so often, maybe four times a year, her parents would buy her a Coca-Cola bottle and it was the greatest thing in the world to her. She’d cry when she’d tell that story. And now you’ve ruined it. Furthermore, you had enough of these bottles to get the whole goddamn county high on crystal meth. Everything that had ever been fought for, for you and people like you is all been wasted. You are the earth’s scum and the trash of this world.”
“Your honor, I sure wish I was sorry.”
He was sentenced to three years, thirty-three days in Georgia State Prison. He knew the deal, he would be given three meals a day, a state appointed therapist who would listen diligently to his every thought, have the opportunity to earn his GED and his health and livelihood would cost the government eighty-eight dollars a day. That ain’t too bad, he thought.
He had almost joined the Marines once, before he was married, but the recruiter got so excited when telling him about it, he admitted his life in service would be valued at the price of a bullet. Now his life was almost worth ninety dollars daily. He felt awfully rich.
He knew he’d come back once they released him. God willing he’d watch his last breath, hovering above him, a cloud as though casting out his own heavenly proverb, right there in Georgia State Prison. He knew he never was anything but the son of a bitch, that his soul could never be corrected, that he’d never be made straight in this world.
The javelin hammered down against the oak of the judge’s bench and the chains on his ankles shuffled as he crossed the carpet.
Crown of Old Men
The boots belonged to my grandfather. They are not easy to wear. It takes both hands to pull one of the boots up by the straps and they ride almost all the way up the calf. There’re golden fireflies engraved on the soles and there’s dust that clutters down from there. There’s a bullet hole in the left heel and a faded blood stain. They’re colored brown and red as it were the sun and the dirt itself which manufactured them. They were made from the skins of Tennessee cattle and white-tail Georgia buck and bull shark. The leather over the years has been caked some and the lined cracks appear throughout the boots how cracks come into stone. They’re old but they still walk pretty good. There’s still the smell of thoroughbred war-horse in them. They were my grandfather’s and he gave them to me for my thirteenth birthday, about three years before they fit me just right, about three years before he passed away from earth.
He was a carpenter and wore the boots each day he rose from bed and went to work. He framed a lot of houses. The Rapture Community in the woods he built entirely from stone and wood from antique logs and did the landscaping too with the fountains and flowers and birdfeeders, digging up and stocking the twelve-acre pond with trout and bass and catfish, filling it with natural water from the Leotie Creek. He did it for cheap, using limestone from the Blue Ridge mountains but it looks expensive. I saw not too long ago a community very similar where each house to live in costs about half a million dollars. The community my granddaddy built doesn’t cost but what a trailer home costs. He’d never build anything that wouldn’t be affordable and never would build anything if it didn’t look good in his own eyes. The people who live there even still don’t have a salary but what a plumber or schoolteacher might make. They can afford to live there though it was always important to him that they could.
He built the churches too. The Catholic one and the Baptist one. He did this in his spare time, without pay. They tried to pay him but he refused.
He built the courthouse and the school and two bars and a motel fashioned after a pioneer’s cabin that Daniel Boone would have stayed in. The President at one point on a nature tour did stay there. It’s on record that he admired the fireplace an awful good bit and wanted one just like it. My grandfather installed it and he supplied the logs for it too, to keep it burning through the winter.
I used to split the logs with him. It’s because of him that I work with my hands to this day, odd jobs—splitting logs or installing windows, planting gardens or working with the horses and the cows in the fields at my uncle’s farm. That’s my mama’s brother. I work in these boots that were once worn by my grandfather for the better part of eighty-eight years. I feel his breath over my shoulder when my palms bleed, whispering that’s good, that’s good grandson.
The boots were purchased by my grandfather’s maternal great-grandfather just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, in February of 1862 with his first paycheck. The boots cost two dollars and thirty-four cents. He had a pregnant wife at home and they wrote each other weekly until he died, save for his few months in a Confederate prison camp. I still have three of those letters. He addresses her as Firefly. He was issued Army boots, but he believed those government boots to be hard and mean and bitter on the horse when he’d hug his ankles into its ribs.
He was wearing these boots that are now mine when he escaped the Rebel prison in the winter of 1863 and walked eleven hundred miles north, behind enemy camps and under their siege of the country, and was enlisted into the Third Pennsylvania Cavalry. He carried the flag at Gettysburg until he was shot off his horse, and he fought the rest of the day with his feet trodden against the earth, amidst cavalry charge and gun smoke.
It was the Fourth of July when they found his body, barefooted. In all, it had taken seven bullets to steal him from earth. He was surrounded by a pile of Confederate corpses. He didn’t depart gently. He was smiling up at the stars dancing in their performance of The Northern Lights in the sky as it were a canvas casting a reflection against the glinted eyes of the dead down there.
It was a Rebel who got his boots and returned them to his wife, saying that he was with him when he passed, and it was a request and one of the last things the dying man had spoken, to return his boots to his family, and so he did.
These boots are nearly two-hundred years old now but they still walk pretty good. Long as there’s dust and country somewhere, they ought to tread another two-hundred years. With every step it seems as though their sole carves into the earth the soul of my own blood.