The ethics of the legal system in Memphis, Tennessee's Shelby County are once again under scrutiny. The community is demanding that the guilty be held responsible for their actions. The year is 1944 and a young girl, the daughter of a prominent attorney has disappeared. It is nearly 20 years before the culprit who kidnapped and murdered the girl is revealed, but he doesn't do one day in jail. He goes free. Is this justice?
"Dear Grandpop, how's it going? It rained here yesterday, but the sun's out today. I went for a run at the prison track. I usually run five miles a day, but today I ran nearly ten miles. I just felt so good running. It's a way to feel free. . . ."
The start of one of many letters from an innocent young man to his grandfather. The start of one of many letters from a young man home to the oldest surviving member of his family. Public polls and public perception tell us that those who "appear" to be most able to commit a crime, those who "seem" to possess inherently criminal behavior are, quite simply, guilty. When enough people believe one is guilty, fate is set . . . even if the majority is wrong. As recently as last week 15 men were set free in Texas for crimes they did not commit, crimes they spent time in prison for. How often does this happen . . . in America?
Spiral is a book that tells the fictionalized story of a man who finds himself thrust at the center of a heinous crime he did not commit. In a society quick to set the wheels of litigation turning, one American citizen against another, Spiral creates an insightful portrait of how deep the wounds of false accusations go into the souls of the family and friends of the wrongly convicted. After reading Spiral readers will be less abrupt to serve men and women "accused" of committing crimes they had no hand in with anger, threats and unrelenting punishment, and, with great hope, allow the words "innocent until proven guilty" to ring true in America
# # # #
The summer of 1934 was an unusual summer in Louisville, Kentucky. It was the summer children became scared to go outside and play.
Although they never said a word, not even amongst each other, the children knew through the many warnings their parents gave them something more fierce, dreadful and evil than ghosts, goblins and imaginary monsters was outside . . . maybe at the park, just around the corner from their family home, perhaps at the edge of the school yard. . . .
"Come 'ere, little girl," a wiry, middle-aged man said while he curled his finger. "Come on, now. I ain't gonna hurt you. I know you're going home from school. It's a long way. Come on with me. I'll give you a ride home so you don't have to walk all that long way."
The freckle-faced girl grinned shyly at the man who was leaning out of the side of a rusty, old pick-up truck smiling and winking at her. A moment later, the little girl sat on the passenger seat with the man. She giggled each time he reached over and tickled her.
In between a burst of laughter, the girl looked up at the man and asked, "What's your name?"
Four years later like a bad dream that would not end, evil snaked its way to Memphis, Tennessee and Tammy Tilson, a fiercely strong-willed woman, moaned, "God, help me," as she made her way from her bedroom to the bathroom. Her vision was blurred. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "Oh, God," she whispered while she neared the bathroom, "Who killed that little girl?"
It started yesterday evening when the news aired. Tammy had been in the kitchen cooking cube steak and mashed potatoes when she heard, "News Flash." She turned away from the stove and turned the radio up. "All of Memphis, a little girl is missing. The child was outside playing in front of her parents' home on Monroe Street when neighbors say they saw a Coloured man pick her up in a truck. Before the little girl's neighbors could race to her rescue, the man grabbed her and sped down the street. The little girl hasn't been seen since. . . "
That was last night. Now it was early morning, and men were still being ordered from their homes or right off the street to report to the police precinct. There, angry police officers lobbed a series of questions at them in loud, threatening voices.
The possible answers to the questions only brought more questions to Tammy. After all, her husband, Philip, was one of the men rounded up early this morning. He told her he had been working at their grocery store when cops came down to the store, their car sirens blaring, grabbed him by the back of his neck and snapped a pair of tight handcuffs around his wrists. They drove him to the police precinct and questioned him for five long hours.
Tammy glanced at a clock on the wall. It was six o'clock in the morning and her husband had only been home for two hours. She went into the bathroom, closed the door and sat on the toilet with her head between her knees. Life had never been easy for her. She'd grown up the daughter of a woman who took ill with "bad pressure" when she was only seven years old. Tammy couldn't remember a time when her mother played with her or spent longer than two hours out of bed. Oldest of her eleven siblings, from the age of seven, Tammy grew up taking charge and working as hard around the house and on her family's farm as a grown man. Even now she couldn't remember a time when she wasn't working. Not until she was grown and married did the hard work bring a reward. She and her husband were the first Coloureds in Memphis to open their own business at the center of town, a place usually reserved for companies owned by wealthy entrepreneurs and adult children of former politicians who hadn't outgrown riding their father's coattails. They were the first people in town to go door to door asking for signatures to sign a petition to have "mysterious" house fires on the poor side of town fully investigated. They stood up to the mayor when he told them "y'all ought to be grateful folks support y'all and allow y'all to thrive in these parts. Truth be told, in a lesser town, y'all would've long been dead . . . shot or something 'nother."
After she sat on the toilet with her head between her knees for a few minutes, Tammy looked up. She watched a caterpillar inch down the window and thought about her husband. He was good to her and their four children. She knew she was the only person he trusted.
All his life he'd "made-do" and kept his deepest thoughts to himself. He was like a locked door that would only open for her. If not for her, he wouldn't have told a soul he was the one who came upon his mother hanging from the barn loft. He was only six years old. All he knew to do was scream and run. Mothers didn't kill themselves he told himself while he ran to tell his father to hurry and get his mother down from the top of the barn. His mother wasn't dead. She was just swinging in the air. It was all so easy to believe until his father raced back to the barn with him. The tortured look on his father's face and the hard groans moving up out of his mouth made him step back and hide behind his father's thick legs. After he told Tammy the story when they were first married, he never said the words "my mother" again. To Tammy it was as if her husband had no mother. It was as if he was born straight out of his father's rib.
Seconds later, when Tammy heard her daughters talking in their bedroom, she stopped recalling the past, stood from the toilet and washed her face. She'd keep moving. She'd stand with her shoulders tall and walk like she didn't fear anything. For her children, she would.
"It's gonna be all right," she repeated to herself until she entered her bedroom and saw her husband, Philip, wrestling in his sleep. Her husband had never been in trouble with the law. The cops had no right to embarrass him in front of their customers, handcuff him and force him to go with them to the precinct, a place where justice was never allowed for the poor or the Coloured. While Tammy watched Philip try to sleep, she thought back to their first grocery store. If not for the store, her husband and she would just be farmers who'd never break even despite how many hours a day they worked. She almost smiled. She was the one who talked Philip into purchasing the large grocery store they bought seventeen years ago. She didn't even argue when he demanded that the store be named after his kin. Two weeks later the store was torched and burned to the ground. Tammy ran after the hooded men in the trucks and two police cars as they laughed and cursed their way back down the street, away from the burning store. "You bastards! God'll get you for this! God'll get you for this!" she shouted while she threw heavy rocks at the trucks and cars. She didn't stop throwing rocks until she heard one of the car windows shatter.
"We'll get another store," Philip told her that night while he sat next to her on the front porch cradling a shotgun in his lap.
"Do you know how much money we're out? Insurance company ain't gonna give us no money for the store. They'll say it was our fault the store burned to the ground."
"I know. I know." He reached out and tapped her hand. "We'll build a new store. And if those ignorant asses burn this one down, they're gonna get a load of what's in this here shotgun."
With the help of men in the community, they did build another store, nearly twice the size of the first one. The grand opening of Tilson's Grocery Store in Greasy Plank, a small town in Memphis, Tennessee's Shelby County, was the first story on the cover of Memphis Prize, the city's only Coloured newspaper at the turn of the century.
Most houses in Greasy Plank were small, wood structures. Most women in the town still pushed their laundry up and down splintered wood boards before they dipped the laundry in a tin pail of soap and water and hung the clothes on the line in the back yard. Roads were narrow and seemed to stretch for miles with there not being many businesses or shops nearby. Greasy Plank was country, a place where grass, dirt and weeds ruled over brick, mortar and concrete. The closest highway to Greasy Plank was twenty miles from the town. Strangers didn't stay in the town long. Old timers ran them out with hard stares and bitter gossip. It was a town that consisted of the memberships of four churches, New Mount Holly, the church the Tilsons attended, being largest of the four. Everyone in Greasy Plank went to church. Children from the town grew up and married former classmates. Adults stayed in the town until they died. The biggest business in town was Tilsons Grocery Store. More customers shopped at Tilsons than made deposits and withdrawals at the bank, visited the theatre or went shoe shopping on Beale Street.
Every night, with a loaded shotgun nearby, Philip and Tammy cleaned out the grocery store cash registers and counted money customers exchanged for clothing, meat and produce. Tammy placed the money inside a tin box beneath their bed. Monday, she climbed inside the family truck and drove through the business districts paying invoices. Other revenue remained locked in the tin box until she had time to get uptown to Beale Street to Shant's Savings & Trust Company and deposit the money in Philip and her account. Winter Tammy didn't go to the bank; instead, Philip and she gave money to the poor. Within the last month, twice, after the police chief refused to investigate a series of house fires, they lent two neighborhood families money to rebuild homes nightriders burned to ash. They also donated a large sum of money to a home for retarded children. Every donation they made was in the memory of a little girl named Bobbie Long. "Keep this quiet," Tammy would ask when she dropped the checks off.
Tammy turned and watched Philip run his hand across his face. She reached out and stroked his back until she felt his muscles relax. "Mama warned me," she whispered while she rubbed her husband's back. "Mama warned me a day like this would come." She sighed. The first seer in the family - that's what her mama was. She saw things happen long before they ever did. She went around trying to warn people. "That's what so hard about bein' a seer," she told Tammy when Tammy was a little girl. "When don't nobody else see what you be seein', folk go 'round callin' you crazy. Seers get they root off family trees, Tammy. Trace the root, Chil'! Trace the root!" All those years ago as a small girl, Tammy shook while she watched her mother's eyes roll in her head. Then she watched her mother press her head into her bed pillow, cough and wipe spots of blood away from the edges of her mouth. "Be careful who you let be on our family tree, Tammy. I done tol' ya. I done tol' ya. If'n you don't, gurl, yous gonna help birth a thing called crazy. Yes. Yes." Then her mother closed her eyes and died.
Shaking thoughts of her mother further into her memory, Tammy sat erect and reminded herself how much work had to be done. A man was coming by the store at one o'clock. He telephoned from Louisville, Kentucky yesterday morning. He told Philip he peddled written works for a living, particularly essays authored by Carter G. Woodson and Frederick Douglass, and thought Tammy and he could sell the books and pamphlets. Tammy argued and shouted with Philip for a whole ten minutes when he told her about the man. "You don't even know who that man is," she said. "We can't afford to go around trusting people, especially people we don't know, Philip. How many business people were calling us before we made a success of the store? Wasn't nobody coming around here before. Since we opened the store all kinds of people knocking on our door. People want to take a free ride on our name. That ain't happening. Nobody wants to see us win, Philip. Nobody. Every single prominent man right here in town wants to see us fall. No," she added shaking her head. "We don't need no outsiders coming around to stir the pot." When Philip responded to her with silence, she lowered her voice. "I just want us to have what we built together stay between the two of us. We did this together, Honey. It's ours, our children's and our grandchildren's, right on down the line." When he smiled at her, she reached out and took his hand inside hers.
Tammy rubbed her husband's back one last time then she pushed off the bed and walked into the hallway and looked inside her sons' bedroom. "What, Son?" She looked at the closed curtains and sniffed the strong odor of musk coming out of the bedroom. "Please open those curtains and windows."
David pushed the curtains apart.
She stood akimbo. "I'm waiting."
In one jerk, he finished parting the curtains and pushed the windows up. The lines in his forehead deepened since his mother entered the room. "Mama, I'm doing the best I can."
"I'm not talking about the curtains. What do you want?"
"Nothing. Never mind."
"Child, what all has been going on with you lately? Don't you know I've got enough on my mind as it is? I don't need you adding to my troubles." She went out of the room then she turned back and entered it again. "And if you think you're grown enough to come creeping in here any ol' time you feel like it, you best do some more thinking. I know you were out late last night. Don't think I don't know." She looked at him with a pointed brow. "Ain't nothing out late at night but trouble. Make sure you're in early from now on. Things are happening around here. Only fools stay out late at night." She mumbled. "Sixteen years old." Then she shook her head, turned and went downstairs.
At his side, his younger brother, Jonathan, sat up. His hair was disheveled; the corners of his eyes had a hard white crust on them, evidence of a long night of sleep.
Peering over his shoulder and looking at his brother, David mumbled, "Lay on back down, Jon."
"Who were you talking to?"
"Mama, and so what?"
"I just asked."
Jonathan gazed at his brother. "In a funk?"
David was silent. If he had to describe his feelings for his mother, he would say, "I love her. I hate her." His mother had always been hardest on him. These last few months he heaped his greatest disappointment upon her. He fell in love with a girl by the name of Margaret Armstrong, the daughter of a man his mother hated.
Jonathan looked over his shoulder at David. "Mama?"
David lowered his head into his hands. He was angry with himself for not having gentler, warmer . . . kinder feelings toward his mother, but he couldn't bring himself to deepen his love for her. Each time he tried it seemed she hurled an insult or a comment that relayed how deeply disappointed she was in his behavior at him. He peered up at his younger brother. "She's my mother. I'm supposed to love her." His jaw trembled. "I'm trying so hard to do that."
"You still leaving?"
"I don't know." He sighed. "I want to. That's the only way I'm ever going to learn to love Mama. I have to leave."
"Life ain't no fun when you live it full of regret, Man." David was silent.
"Everybody up! I'm cooking breakfast! If you're not down here soon, you won't eat!"
Philip jammed the pillow over his ears. He felt nauseous and thought about running into the bathroom to vomit. Glancing at the small, rotary clock on the nightstand, he saw it was 6:15. His eyelids felt like they weighed two pounds each. If he had left the store when he normally did, the cops would have never cuffed him. He'd have been home, and he knew no one wanted to confront him and his wife when they were together. His wife knew the law and would sue, but him - alone, all he could do was argue and plead for more time to set things straight. He'd been at the store late because one of the regular customers was shaking so badly when he came by the store last night he felt he had no choice except to stay with him. He listened while the customer talked about seeing a group of men climb out of a truck up on the railroad tracks. While his eyes ballooned, the customer swore to Philip that he saw the men dump a body into the river that ran just over the cliff at the back of the tracks. "Keep it to yourself," Philip coached the customer. "So long as you're living, don't you ever tell one soul what you saw. If you tell it, these backwards cops'll only think you did it, and you'll be the one to end up in jail or swinging from some tree with your neck broke out in the middle of nowhere."
Pushing off the bed, Philip swallowed rising vomit until it burned in his throat.
Down the hall, his oldest daughter, Melinda, hurried out of the bathroom. "Janice, you ready to go downstairs?"
Her twin sister Janice stood behind the bedroom door so her brothers wouldn't see her snapping her bra closed. "Yes. Mama said we have a lot of work to do today."
"We always have a lot of work to do."
Her bra fastened, she tossed Melinda a pair of wool gloves. "Here. Catch."
A vase of yellow tulips decorated the center of the large newly hewn table. The flowers seemed like a decoy, a sign of how much effort Tammy was putting into convincing her family that everything was all right. Above the flowers, sunrays came through the windows with a strong glare, and yet an ominous foreboding pointed at the family. The kitchen was numb with silence. A little girl was missing. She lived on Monroe Avenue. Her father was a lawyer. Investigators were already out knocking on doors.
Buster, the family's black and white spotted mutt, was in the back yard eating from an old dinner bowl Tammy decided she no longer needed. Tammy glanced out the back, screen door at Buster and wished someone at the table would speak.
David stared at the wall clock so hard he saw the minute hand move.
Beneath the table, Janice nudged Melinda with her foot.
Tammy turned from facing the screen door and sipped her tea. "Nice day, isn't it?"
"Sure is," Philip answered.
David chewed on the hot cakes. "So, Dad, you going to the fights tonight?"
"They're only on Saturdays," Philip answered.
Tammy pursed her lips. "Ain't nobody going no where at night no time soon in this here family."
Philip chuckled dryly.
"We cannot afford to get our names caught up in anything bad."
Philip raised his hand to signal his wife to be silent. Then he resumed eating his syrupy hotcakes.
She stared at him blankly.
"I ain't seen or heard nothing! You know what kind of night I had." He shook his head and grimaced. "You know what kind of night I had. I was only at the store late on account of working so hard. I don't know nothing about no missing girl."
"The kids might belie-"
His fist banged the table. "I work hard. I ain't never broke no law, and you know it. I'm not gonna sit here and let you try to say I was wrong for what happened last night. I ain't gonna stand for it."
Tammy was silent.
Philip sat against the spine of his chair.
Tammy jerked her head away from her husband and looked out the screen door. After he cleared his throat, Philip said, "Doctor told you about worrying so much. Why you think your pressure's up? You keep on. You're gonna work yourself into a real bad heart attack. Doctor done told you."
Tammy looked hard at her husband, as if she could stare the truth into him. "I know you haven't done anything, Philip. That's not what I'm trying to say. But I don't want this going on and on." She ran her hand across her face. "When them people come knocking, Philip, you gotta get to the bottom of this. You know they're coming back. You gotta tell them things just so they'll go away and stay away. If you don't, we could be going on with this forever."
"Let's not talk about this madness in front of the kids?"
Tammy sat still for a moment. Images of a little girl running through weeds and tall grass, hurrying away from death, flashed across her mind's eye and she cringed. She looked at her own children before she said, "You're right." She pursed her lips and nodded. "You're right. We'll talk about it later." She stood. "I hope you all liked breakfast. I made hot cakes because I know how much you all like them. If you're all finished eating, we gotta get moving. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Melinda, you and Janice, get these dishes cleaned up. Jon and David, go with your father. There ain't time for any of us to be fooling around." Her shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbows. "Girls, I'll be upstairs. We're going to strip these floors and clean the bed linen." She talked while she walked out of the kitchen. "Janice, you wash. Melinda, you dry. You two do it better that way."
After her father and brothers left the kitchen, Janice listened to her mother's footsteps until she could no longer hear them. Then she rested her chin in the palm of her hand. "I thought I heard Mama up last night. I don't think she slept at all. Somebody kept coming by here knocking on the door. Mama must have talked to I don't know how many people last night."
Tammy was standing outside the bathroom door when she shouted, "Stop the yakking and get to business!"
The sisters lowered their heads while they waited for the sink to fill with sudsy water. "I thought I heard Mama crying last night. I've never heard Mama cry before."
"You didn't hardly hear Mama crying. Mama never cries. Never. Nothing can make Mama cry. Mama's tough. Mama's strong."
"Yes," Melinda added with a tight brow, "But she's also human. When are you gonna see that Mama's human? She's only human, Janice."
Tammy raised her voice. "All right! I told you once!"
Janice whispered, "What do you think she meant about Dad telling things in a way so the cops won't come back? Dad doesn't know anything about that girl from Monroe Avenue?"
Melinda pressed her finger against her lips. "Ssshh, Mama's coming downstairs."
Tammy stepped inside the living room. "You two almost done?" She ran her hand across the coffee table. She frowned when she turned her hand over and saw dusts on her fingers. She exited the living room and then the kitchen as quickly as she entered them. "Hurry and finish." With her back turned, she didn't see Melinda roll her eyes. She went outside into the shed next to the rear of the house. She tossed rags and moved old pieces of furniture and boxes. "Where's that bucket?"
Janice hunched her shoulders and covered her mouth with her palm. "So what do you think Mama meant?"
"I don't know. Dad must know something. Somebody must have told him something." She raised then lowered her shoulders. "Maybe he saw a stranger around town or something. I don't know. I heard there's been some strangers coming around here." She stared into the sink. "Maybe Mama's trying to scare Dad into not staying down at the store so late anymore." She sighed. "I don't know."
The back door swung open. The porch area surrounding the back door, the area the three family dogs huddled and slept in was dirty with paw marks and loose dog hair. Tammy wiped her brow while she walked through the back door carrying a bucket. It was 7 o'clock in the morning.
At 3:30 that afternoon, Melinda, Janice and Tammy were finishing the last load of laundry-the bed covers. The brown and white house on Jeanette Place, in Shelby County, was clean. Melinda and Janice stood on the front porch staring into the sweating face of an angry police officer.
"Told you to let me in, Girls. I need to talk to your folks about some important business."
"My dad is away and my mama isn't down here right now."
Tammy ran down the living room stairs. "Melinda! Janice! Didn't you two hear me calli--"
The officer smirked when Tammy met his glare. "How, you doing, Tammy - Mrs. Tammy Tilson? How you doing?"
"Go upstairs, Melinda and Janice. Please. You two go now. Leave me alone to talk with the officer."
The police officer laughed. "Oh, now, Tammy. Don't be like that. We're all family around here. Small town folk. We all know each other. You know better. Call me Henry right out. Just say Henry."
Melinda and Janice were upstairs leaning around the top corner listening hard to what their mother and the police officer had to say to each other.
"You ain't got no right coming around here bothering with my children, and you well know that. I ain't gonna to stand for it. You and your other officer friends ain't about to harass me and my people. You ain't seen a fight yet, you come snooping around here again. It's bad enough y'all kept my husband down at that hell of a place last night." She squinted. "You better not ever cuff none of my people again. Do and you'll regret it like nothing you can ever think of."
The officer rolled his cover round and round in his hand. "You just make sure your husband's got a good explanation for why he kept your store open longer last night than the city permit allows."
"And you make sure your husband comes down to the police station to tell us what that good friend of yours, one of your faithful customers, told him last night." When he turned to leave, he pointed at her. "You make sure all that happens, Mrs. Tammy Tilson."
Tammy stood on the porch like a deep-rooted oak tree in a front yard. She didn't move until the cop drove down the street. Then she started wiping her brow and wondering why the last few summers in Greasy Plank were so hot, so full of the devil's bite.
She closed the front door and lowered her head. She choked back emotion until she heard her daughters calling her at which time she stood tall and walked toward the stairs.
"Is everything okay, Mama?"
"Yes, Melinda. Now please stop asking so many questions and you both come down here and help me pull something together for supper."
While they watched their mother's back move away from them and closer to the kitchen, Melinda and Janice looked at one another. So often when they communicated with each other, they didn't utter a sound. It was as if they were joined at the soul the day they were conceived. When challenged, they defended each other with loud arguments or with an eerie silence.
Denise Turney has 30+ years of writing experience to her credit. She writes columns for Indigo Magazine, New Citizens Press and NuNewspaper. She is the host of the literary radio program "Off The Shelf". She is the author of the books Portia, Love Has Many Faces and Spiral. She is online at http://www.chistell.com.
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