This weekend I have been throughly enjoying the short stories that John Grisham weaved into a most entertaining read, “Ford County”. From the front lawn to the kitchen table the book has been in my hands more often than not this weekend. “Ford County” takes readers and fans of John Grisham back to the famed beginning of his books.
It was in the fictional southern town of Clanton, Mississippi that Grisham started his books with “A Time To Kill”. If there is anyone unfamiliar with Grisham let me be the first to say that graphic violence and sex are left out of the books. Solid narratives and wonderfully weaved stories are penned by the devout Baptist Grisham. Each of his books can be labeled a fun quick read.
So it is in Clanton we find old mansions of the towns white elites on the opposite side of the track from the poor and modest homes of African-Americans. There is often a deep southern feel to the books, compelling characters, and a mention of fine southern cooking in each story. In one book, and the title escapes me now, an older woman invites a young lawyer to lunches of the most amazing foods, many of them grown in her garden. The butter beans on the plate can be smelled through the words Grishman pens. His books are that good.
While there are spins and twists as he takes his legal dramas on a fast track, there is also another side that Grisham fans are well aware of. His other writings such as ‘A Painted House” that takes us back to some images from his childhood in Arkansas, or “Skipping Christmas” alerts us to his skill and breadth as a writer.
Such is the case with “Ford County”.
On of the stories in this book is “Fetching Raymond,” where two white-trash brothers drive their mother to a nearby prison where their brother is to be executed for murder. Raymond has used his time on death row to write bad novels, poems and endless letters. Since Grisham is opposed to the death penalty this story is gripping and tense.
I offer a snippet of the story here with a strong recommendation for this book to be in your hands come next weekend.
Mr. McBride ran his upholstery shop in the old icehouse on Lee Street, a few blocks off the square in downtown Clanton. To haul the sofas and chairs back and forth, he used a white Ford cargo van with “McBride Upholstery” stenciled in thick black letters above a phone number and the address on Lee. The van, always clean and never in a hurry, was a common sight in Clanton, and Mr. McBride was fairly well-known because he was the only upholsterer in town. He rarely lent his van to anyone, though the requests were more frequent than he would have liked. His usual response was a polite “No, I have some deliveries.”
He said yes to Leon Graney, though, and did so for two reasons. First, the circumstances surrounding the request were quite unusual, and, second, Leon’s boss at the lamp factory was Mr. McBride’s third cousin. Small-town relationships being what they are, Leon Graney arrived at the upholstery shop as scheduled at four o’clock on a hot Wednesday afternoon in late July.
Most of Ford County was listening to the radio, and it was widely known that things were not going well for the Graney family. Mr. McBride walked with Leon to the van, handed over the key, and said, “You take care of it, now.”
Leon took the key and said, “I’m much obliged.”
“I filled up the tank. Should be plenty to get you there and back.”
“How much do I owe?”
Mr. McBride shook his head and spat on the gravel beside the van. “Nothing. It’s on me. Just bring it back with a full tank.”
“I’d feel better if I could pay something,” Leon protested.
“Well, thank you, then.”
“I need it back by noon tomorrow.”
“It’ll be here. Mind if I leave my truck?” Leon nodded to an old Japanese pickup wedged between two cars across the lot.
“That’ll be fine.”
Leon opened the door and got inside the van. He started the engine, adjusted the seat and the mirrors. Mr. McBride walked to the driver’s door, lit an unfiltered cigarette, and watched Leon. “You know, some folks don’t like this,” he said.
“Thank you, but most folks around here don’t care,” Leon replied. He was preoccupied and not in the mood for small talk.
“Me, I think it’s wrong.”
“Thank you. I’ll be back before noon,” Leon said softly, then backed away and disappeared down the street. He settled into the seat, tested the brakes, slowly gunned the engine to check the power. Twenty minutes later he was far from Clanton, deep in the hills of northern Ford County. Out from the settlement of Pleasant Ridge, the road became gravel, the homes smaller and farther apart. Leon turned in to a short driveway that stopped at a boxlike house with weeds at the doors and an asphalt shingle roof in need of replacement. It was the Graney home, the place he’d been raised along with his brothers, the only constant in their sad and chaotic lives. A jerry-rigged plywood ramp ran to the side door so that his mother, Inez Graney, could come and go in her wheelchair.
By the time Leon turned off the engine, the side door was open and Inez was rolling out and onto the ramp. Behind her was the hulking mass of her middle son, Butch, who still lived with his mother because he’d never lived anywhere else, at least not in the free world. Sixteen of his forty-six years had been behind bars, and he looked the part of the career criminal—long ponytail, studs in his ears, all manner of facial hair, massive biceps, and a collection of cheap tattoos a prison artist had sold him for cigarettes. In spite of his past, Butch handled his mother and her wheelchair with great tenderness and care, speaking softly to her as they negotiated the ramp.
Leon watched and waited, then walked to the rear of the van and opened its double doors. He and Butch gently lifted their mother up and sat her inside the van. Butch pushed her forward to the console that separated the two bucket seats bolted into the floor. Leon latched the wheelchair into place with strips of packing twine someone at McBride’s had left in the van, and when Inez was secure, her boys got settled in their seats. The journey began. Within minutes they were back on the asphalt and headed for a long night.
Inez was seventy-two, a mother of three, grandmother of at least four, a lonely old woman in failing health who couldn’t remember her last bit of good luck. Though she’d considered herself single for almost thirty years, she was not, at least to her knowledge, officially divorced from the miserable creature who’d practically raped her when she was seventeen, married her when she was eighteen, fathered her three boys, then mercifully disappeared from the face of the earth. When she prayed on occasion, she never failed to toss in an earnest request that Ernie be kept away from her, be kept wherever his miserable life had taken him, if in fact his life had not already ended in some painful manner, which was really what she dreamed of but didn’t have the audacity to ask of the Lord. Ernie was still blamed for everything—for her bad health and poverty, her reduced status in life, her seclusion, her lack of friends, even the scorn of her own family. But her harshest condemnation of Ernie was for his despicable treatment of his three sons. Abandoning them was far more merciful than beating them.
By the time they reached the highway, all three needed a cigarette. “Reckon McBride’ll mind if we smoke?” Butch said. At three packs a day he was always reaching for a pocket.
“Somebody’s been smokin’ in here,” Inez said. “Smells like a tar pit. Is the air conditioner on, Leon?”
“Yes, but you can’t tell it if the windows are down.”
With little concern for Mr. McBride’s preferences on smoking in his van, they were soon puffing away with the windows down, the warm wind rushing in and swirling about. Once inside the van, the wind had no exit, no other windows, no vents, nothing to let it out, so it roared back toward the front and engulfed the three Graneys, who were staring at the road, smoking intently, seemingly oblivious to everything as the van moved along the county road. Butch and Leon casually flicked their ashes out of the windows. Inez gently tapped hers into her cupped left hand.