The couch in my father's medical office has heard many terrible truths: revelations by the doctor (you're sick; you're dying; they couldn't get it all), confessions by the patient (my husband beats me; my father raped me; I want to die), but always-always-truths about the patient.
Today the truth about the doctor will be told.
I can imagine no other reason for the sudden summons to his office. It requires a conscious effort to control my anxiety as I sit on that worn leather couch, waiting for him to finish with his last patient of the day.
After the Payton women left our house this morning, Dad took his old pickup truck to work so that Annie and I would have the BMW. Having no desire to endure the glares of the local citizenry, I spent the morning in the pool with Annie, marveling at how well she moved in the water and fighting a losing battle to keep her skin covered with sun block. Mom and I had tuna sandwiches for lunch, Annie a bowl of SpaghettiOs. When the two of them drove downtown to buy Annie new shoes, I retired to the library and read T. Harry Williams's Huey Long on the sofa until I fell asleep.
The telephone woke me at four-thirty p.m. I hated to chance answering it myself, but I thought it might be my mother.
"Penn?" said my father. "Can you drop by my office about five? Alone?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"I think it's time we had a talk."
"Okay," I said, trying to sound casual. "I'll see you at five."
I went to the bathroom and showered off the chlorine from the pool, then dressed in chinos and a polo shirt. Dad's office is only a couple of miles from the house, so I read another twenty minutes in Huey Long. When I fell asleep, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, speaking from the "imperial klonvocation" in Atlanta, had just announced that he was going to Louisiana to campaign against Huey because of his pro-Negro policies. The Kingfish stormed into the press gallery of the state senate while the legislature was in session and announced that if that "Imperial bastard" crossed the Louisiana state line, he would shortly depart "with his toes turned up." The Klan leader wisely elected not to test the Kingfish's sincerity. As humorous as it seemed in retrospect, Long could all too easily have backed up his threat. I could see how dictatorial power might be an asset in solving sticky problems like racism. Of course, that road also leads to the crematorium ovens.
When I got to my father's office building, I used his private door. I'd known Anna, his chief nurse-an attractive black woman-for most of my life, but I was too curious to spend even ten minutes reminiscing about old times. I sat on the couch opposite his desk and waited in the lingering haze of cigar smoke.
During his first fifteen years in Natchez, Dad practiced in a sprawling downtown house. This was the era of separate waiting rooms for "colored" and white, but his only nod to this convention was a flimsy wooden partition set up in the middle of the room. On any day you could find whole families- white and black-camped out in that great room, kids playing on the floor, parents eating from bag lunches and waiting to see the doctor on a first-come, first-served basis. His new office, convenient to both hospitals and sterile as a hypodermic needle, runs like any other doctor's-almost. He has rigidly scheduled appointments, a gleaming laboratory, and modern X-ray facilities, but he still routinely brings everything to a standstill by spending whatever time he feels a patient needs for examination, commiseration, or just plain conversation.
At last his strong baritone filters around the door. The volume tells me he is bidding farewell to a geriatric patient. Old people comprise the bulk of his practice now, as his "patient base" has aged with him. Anna leans in and gives me a smile, then closes the door behind Dad. He squeezes my shoulder as he walks past and sits in the big chair behind his desk.
This is how I picture him in memory: white lab coat, stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck, ensconced behind mountains of incomplete medical records, drug samples, and junk mail. He reaches into a small refrigerator behind his desk and takes out a Dr Pepper, which he offers to me. When I decline, he pops the top and takes a long pull from it, his eyes watering from the sudden shot of carbonation.
"I'm in a bad spot, Penn," he says in a frank voice. "I apologize for being an ass the other night. It's not easy for a father to admit weakness to his son."
I nod awkwardly, imagining a future when I am certain to fall short of Annie's idealized image of me. "Dad, there's nothing you can tell me that will change my opinion of you. Just tell me what's going on so we can deal with it."
He clearly doubts my statement, but he's made up his mind to talk. "Twenty-five years ago," he says, "your Aunt Ellen got into some trouble."
My mind is spinning. When he said "twenty-five years ago," I thought he was going to start talking about Del Payton. But Payton was killed thirty years ago. The shift to my mother's younger sister, Ellen, throws me completely.
"She was divorced and living in Mobile, Alabama. Ellen was about your age now, I guess. Dating a guy there. He was a year or two younger than she was. Name was Hillman. Don Hillman. Your mother and I didn't know it at the time-at least I didn't-but Hillman was abusing Ellen. Beating her, controlling every word and action. Your mother finally convinced her that the relationship was going to end badly no matter what she did, and Ellen tried to break it off. Hillman didn't take it well. I advised Ellen to go to the police. Then I found out Hillman was the brother of a cop over in Mobile. A detective. This was 1973. Nobody'd heard of stalking laws."
"I hope you brought her here."
"Of course. She stayed with us for a summer. You remember, don't you?"
I do. For most of one summer our hall bathroom became an exotic world of hanging stockings, lacy underwear, cut-glass perfume bottles, and blue Noxema jars.
"Hillman called the house a few times after the breakup. Late, drunk out of his mind and railing, or else hanging up. One night when he didn't hang up, I told him if he came to Natchez making trouble, he'd be a long time getting back to Mobile. The calls stopped. After a while Ellen wanted her own place, so I rented her an apartment at the Windsor Arms and got her a job at the Jeff Davis."
He takes another slug of Dr Pepper. "As soon as she got her own place, strange things started happening. Slashed tires, eggs on her door, more juvenile crap. One morning she found her cat at her door with its throat cut. I called the Natchez police, but they couldn't find Hillman anywhere in town." He closes his eyes and sighs. "Then he raped her."
A shudder of horror accompanies my amazement. Families are mazes of secrets, and none of us ever knows them all.
"Hillman was waiting inside her apartment when she got home from a date. He beat the hell out of her, raped her, sodomized her. Then he disappeared. Ellen was too shaken up to swear out charges. I had to sedate her. I got the Natchez D.A. to call the Mobile D.A. and make a lot of noise, but Ellen would have been a shaky witness at best, even if I could have gotten her to press charges. And Hillman's brother was a cop, remember? The Mobile D.A. didn't sound excited about making trouble for him."
I nod in sympathy. The old-timers in Houston told me a thousand times how tough it was to get rape convictions before feminists changed public perception of the crime. And the cop angle was a serious complication. Nothing is more incestuous than Southern law enforcement. Everything is personal relationships.
"Needless to say, things were pretty bad at home," Dad goes on. "We tried to keep it from you and your sister, but your mother and Ellen were at the end of their rope. Peggy was driving her to Jackson every three days to see a psychiatrist."
I remember this too. Mom taking Aunt Ellen to the doctor all the time. "We thought it was her ovaries or something."
"That's what we told you. Anyway, two weeks after the rape, Hillman started calling again." Dad is clenching and unclenching his right fist on the desk. "I never felt so goddamn impotent in my life."
I don't know what's coming, but the hair on my forearms is standing up.
"About this time, Ray Presley happened to come see me about his blood pressure. You know how I get to talking to patients, and Presley always had a good story. He saw that I wasn't myself. He asked what was bothering me, and I told him. He'd been a cop, after all. I thought he might have a suggestion."
He'd also done a hitch in Parchman prison, I think, but now does not seem the best time to bring that up.
"Ray heard me out, and he didn't say much. Grunted a couple of times in the right places. You never know what he's thinking. So we're both just sitting there, saying nothing. After a while he says, 'So what's this shitbird's name, Doc?' I didn't say anything for a minute. Then I told him. We shot the bull for a few more minutes, and Ray left. Three weeks later, the Natchez D.A. called and told me Hillman was dead. Somebody'd shot him in the head and taken his wallet outside a topless bar in Mobile."
"At first I was relieved. But somewhere in the back of my mind I was worried about Ray. He'd always appreciated me taking care of his mother, and some part of me wondered if he hadn't taken it into his head to get rid of my problem for me."
"A month later he came back in to get his pressure checked. I told the girls I was too busy to talk, but he slipped into my office and waited for me. When I went in, I asked him point blank if he knew anything about Hillman's death."
"He told me right out he'd killed the guy."
Dad shakes his head. "Just like saying, 'I fixed that flat for you, Doc.' He gave me this funny smile and told me not to give it another thought. Said I didn't owe him anything. Just get back to doctoring and living. Those were his exact words."
"Tell me you reported this to the police."
Having watched my father make moral choices that cost him money and friendships for years, I am stunned by this answer. "That's accessory after the fact, Dad. Five years in the pen."
"I realize that. But the situation was more complicated than you know."
"You hadn't committed any crime until you kept Presley's confession from the police."
"Listen, damn it! Ray must have seen how he upset me. Because twenty minutes after he walked out, he came back and handed me a zipper pouch. Inside it was a pistol I'd lent him about six months before, a forty-five."
My heart slaps against my chest wall. "He killed Hillman with that pistol?"
"No. But he was always borrowing things from me back then. Guns, books, my Nikon for a stakeout, that kind of thing. You know I can't say no to anybody. Anyhow, I'd lent him another pistol about a year before, a little featherweight thirty-eight. So, when he handed me the forty-five, I asked about the thirty-eight." Dad takes a deep breath and exhales slowly. "He told me it had been stolen."
I close my eyes as though to shield myself from what is coming.
"He told me not to worry about it, that he'd get me another thirty-eight. But he was really telling me that reporting the murder wasn't an option. He'd killed Hillman with my thirty-eight, and he still had the gun. If I tried to report him, he could tell the police that I'd asked him to commit the crime and had given him the gun to do it."
"How soon did he start blackmailing you?"
"He didn't mention it again for twenty-five years."
"He had no intention of blackmailing me, Penn. Ray Presley idolized me back then. Still does, I think. But last year he got prostate cancer, and he doesn't have health insurance. He needed money, so he started getting it wherever he could. For all I know, he's blackmailing ten other people besides me. The point is, he had me over a barrel. I couldn't see any option but to pay him."
"Why didn't you call me when he first came to you?"
"Do you really have to ask? I was ashamed. Because of me, a man was murdered."
"You had nothing to do with that! You didn't solicit the thing, for God's sake. You couldn't know Presley would kill the guy."
Dad dismisses this rationalization with a wave of his hand. "Do you remember Becket?"
"The movie or the historical archbishop?"
"The movie. After Becket makes his moral stand against King Henry, the king is alone in the palace with his nobles. These so-called nobles are a nasty bunch, greedy, violent, and drunk. And though King Henry loves Becket, he says out loud: 'Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?' And of course they do. They go to Canterbury and murder him with swords."
Sometimes I wish my father had less rigorous moral standards.
"Henry knew what he was saying, Penn. He knew the company he was in. And that made him guilty of murder. That's why he submitted to the lashing by Becket's monks."
"You're not a king. You couldn't know what Presley would do."
Dad is too wracked by guilt for me to get through to him. "I've spent years thinking about this. I didn't know Presley would kill the man, but when he asked for the name, I knew he might do something. I'd treated his parents for free, and he felt indebted to me. He'd just gotten out of prison. From the moment I told Presley that name, Hillman was bound to get hurt, maybe killed. There's no getting around that."
I know what it has cost my father to admit this. He may even be right. But that's not my primary concern at this point. "That's not how the law would see it. Technically, your only crime was accessory after the fact. And the statute of limitations ran out on that in 1975."
"What about the gun?"
"That's another story. If Presley will lie to the D.A. and say you asked him to kill Hillman, and that you gave him the gun-and if he still has the gun-that adds up to capital murder. It puts you in line for what I've got to witness in two days. Lethal injection."
"That's what I thought."
"Why did you decide to tell me this today?"
"You want to find out who killed Del Payton. I know you do, and you're right. Maybe you even have an obligation to do it. But the road to Payton's killers runs right through Ray Presley, because he worked on the case. I knew you'd eventually go see him, and if you did, you'd probably find out about this. He might even hit you up for money. I wanted you to hear the truth from me."
"The hell with Del Payton. There's only one thing to do."
"Go to the D.A. before Presley can. Tomorrow morning we're going to walk in there, tell the whole story, and demand that Presley be arrested for murder and extortion."
Dad raises both hands like a supplicant. "I've thought of doing that a hundred times. But why should the D.A. believe me?"
I think of Austin Mackey, district attorney and former schoolmate of mine. Not my first choice for a sympathetic confessor, but we go back a lot of years. "The D.A. has a lot of discretion in a case like this. And it's possible we could sting Presley. Wire you before meeting with him. Videotape a blackmail payment."
"You're underestimating Ray. Since he started this, he's talked and acted as though we were partners from the beginning."
"Mackey would probably insist that you drop the Payton business, Penn."
"I dropped it the second you told me about this. We don't have any options. We've got to come clean, and Mackey's the man we have to see."
Dad seems to sag behind his desk. "If that's what you think, I'm prepared to do it. It'll be a relief, no matter what happens. But even if Mackey decided not to prosecute, wouldn't I still be subject to prosecution in Alabama?"
He has a point. "Yes. Anywhere that an element of the crime took place. But I can get Mackey to talk to the Mobile D.A. for us."
"Hillman's brother still lives in Mobile. The cop. I checked two months ago-Wonderful. Even if Mackey does his best to convince the Mobile D.A. to lay off, my father's life will be in the hands of the Alabama authorities. And that comes pretty close to unacceptable risk. That's why Dad has not come forward before now.
"Presley has cancer," I say, thinking aloud. "How long does he have to live?"
Dad shrugs. "His oncologist thought he'd be dead before now. But he's still ambulatory. Ray is one tough son of a bitch. One of those I always say is too damn stubborn to die. He could live another year."
"A year isn't so long. We could keep paying him till he dies. Pay his medical bills."
"That's what I've been doing so far. It's getting damned expensive."
"How much have you paid him?"
"A hundred and sixteen thousand dollars to date."
I shake my head, still unable to believe the situation. "Over how long?"
"Seven or eight months. But he wants more. He's talking about needing to provide for his kids now."
"That's the way it is with blackmail. It never stops. There's no guarantee it would stop with his death. He could give the gun to one of his kids. He could leave documentary evidence. A videotape, for example. A dying declaration. You know, 'I've got cancer, and I've got something to get off my chest before I stand before my maker.' That kind of thing is taken very seriously by the courts."
My father has turned pale. "Good God."
"That leaves us only one option."
Something in my voice must have sounded more sinister than I intended, because Dad's eyes are wide with shock. "You don't mean kill him?"
"God, no. I just told you his death wasn't necessarily a solution."
Relief washes over his face.
"Everything depends on that gun."
"What are you suggesting? That we steal it?"
"No. We buy it."
Dad shakes his head. "Ray will never sell it."
"Everybody has a price. And we know Presley needs money."
"You just said it could be a meal ticket for his kids for years."
"Presley knows me. By reputation, at least. I'm a nationally known prosecutor, a famous author. If I stand for anything, it's integrity. Same as you. I'll show Presley a carrot and a stick. He can sell me the gun, or he can watch me go to the D.A. and stake my reputation on convincing the authorities that you're innocent. I have contacts from Houston to Washington. You and I are pillars of our communities. Ray Presley's a convicted felon. At various times he's probably been suspected of several murders. He'll sell me the gun."
A spark of hope has entered Dad's eyes, but fear still masks it, dull and gray and alien to my image of him. "Buying evidence with intent to… to destroy it," he says. "What kind of crime is that?"
"It's a felony. Major-league."
"You can't do it, Penn."
His hands are shaking. This thing has been eating at him every day for twenty-five years. Long before Presley's blackmail began. God, how he must have sweated during the malpractice trial, worrying that Leo Marston would learn about Hillman's murder from Presley, his paid lackey. I saw this situation a hundred times as a prosecutor. A man lives morally all his life, then in one weak moment commits an act that damns him in his own eyes and threatens his liberty, even his life. Seeing my father in this trap unnerves me. And yet, to get him out of it, I am contemplating committing a felony myself.
"You're right," I tell him. "We've got to take the high road."
"Talk to Mackey?"
"Yes. But I want to feel him out first. I'll call him tonight. Maybe stop by his house."
"He won't be home. There's a party tonight, a fund-raiser for Wiley Warren." Riley Warren-nickname "Wiley"-is the incumbent mayor. "Your mother and I were invited, but we weren't going to go."
"Mackey will be there?"
"He's a big supporter of Warren's. You're invited, by the way."
"No. By Don Perry, the surgeon hosting the party. He stopped me at the hospital after lunch and asked me to bring you along."
"Why would he do that? Especially after the story in the paper?"
"Why do you think? It's a fund-raising party, and he thinks you're loaded."
"That's it, then. I'll talk to Mackey there. If he sounds amenable, I'll set up a formal meeting, and we'll figure a way to sting Presley."
Dad lays his hands on his desk to steady them. "I can't believe it. After all this time… to finally do something about it."
"We've got to do something about it. Life's too short to live like this."
He closes his eyes, then opens them and stands up. "I feel bad about the Paytons. I feel like we're buying me out of trouble by burying the truth about Del."
This is true enough. But weighed against my father's freedom, Del Payton means nothing to me. Blood is a hell of a lot thicker than sympathy. "You can't carry that around on your shoulders."
"Back during the sixties," he says, hanging his stethoscope on a coat rack, "I was tempted to ask some of those Northern college kids over to the house. Give them some decent food, a little encouragement. But I never did. I knew what the risks were, and I was afraid to take them."
"You had a wife and two kids. Don't beat yourself up over it."
"I don't. But Del Payton had a wife and child too."
"Mom told me you patched up two civil rights workers from Homewood after the doctor over there refused to do it. They were beaten half to death, she said."
He looks disgusted. "I did take the Hippocratic oath, goddamn it."
"I guess that Homewood doctor forgot it."
Anger and shame fill his eyes. "It wasn't enough. What I did was not enough."
I stand and take my keys out of my pocket. "Nobody white did enough. Payton's killers will pay sooner or later. It just won't be me who makes them do it."
Dad takes off his lab coat and hangs it on the rack. "If you don't, Penn, I don't think anybody else will."
"So be it."