Aunt Ruby tried to save me at the courthouse, but I don’t think her evangelism had the intended effect.
Although I always thought she sounded like the goose in my grandpa’s pond, Aunt Ruby was the lead alto in the Mount Zebulon Church of Christ Ladies’ Choir and Garden Club. My dad, having married a woman “outside the Church” as Aunt Ruby once described him, was Methodist.
Aunt Ruby wanted to instill her moral virtues in me, and decided that I should miss school and sit with her in the courthouse to watch the trial of Victor Bertanelli, the portly Italian mobster from Hot Springs (or Chicago, depending upon the time of year) who, according to the paper, at the sprightly age of nine, had the fortune to survive the Titanic’s fateful journey. “You need to observe first-hand what happens to the scourge of society,” my aunt declared, “when they fail to adhere to standards of Christian moral decency.”
It was my sentence for putting a frog in my sister’s doll crib. Aunt Ruby wanted me to miss school and sit in court in rigid bench sits that rivaled any church pews. My aunt considered it punishment. I was happy to be out of school, even if the price was a sore backside.
“Mr. B,” as he was more fondly known, had been accused of “running an unlicensed gambling hall” and “keeping a disorderly house.” Apparently, the previous jury found him so charming after laughing at all of his jokes during his testimony that they couldn’t agree on a verdict. So, Mr. B was scheduled for re-trial in front of a new jury in Mount Zebulon’s district court.
I was ten years old at the time and stayed up for three nights in a row, cleaning my room, until my father told me that a “disorderly house” referred to the cleanliness of the women who lived in the house and not the rooms. As long as Aunt Ruby and my sister bathed regularly, I would not be arrested.
When Mr. B was brought from Garland County into Albert County for trial, the sheriff decided, instead of releasing a bootlegger from the recently constructed (and overcrowded) new jail, that he would risk holding Mr. B in the old jail at the top of the courthouse. Until Mr. B’s arrival, the former jail had been relegated to protecting old files and voter registration cards. The newspaper later quoted him defending his decision: “I was simply being resourceful.” Mr. B became the final prisoner held in the third floor jail, which also coincided with my morality lesson from Aunt Ruby.
The courthouse, a three story structure built in 1921, rose squarely in the middle of Mount Zebulon’s main intersection. In front of the second-floor courtroom, an open, narrow stair curved up to the third floor: the old county jail. Two people meeting on the staircase cannot pass without embracing each other. No one ever understood why the staircase was built so narrow. I wondered whether the architect and builders believed such a narrow passage would make jailhouse escapes much more difficult.
This fact, however, had given concern to the county judge who campaigned on the fear that if the courthouse ever burned (as rural courthouses were once prone to do) then the county’s troublemakers would find their new home six feet under ground. Thus, construction of the new jail began after the judge’s uncontested re-election.
Aunt Ruby had vehemently opposed the new jail. “A fire would wipe them out once and for all, anyway. I don’t see what the problem is with using the third floor,” Aunt Ruby said to my father. She made it clear that she did not want the county commissioners to approve the construction of the new jail. “Besides, our school library needs those funds,” she would argue. Sometimes, it was the hospital. Other times, it was the city streets.
“Now, Tulip,” my father had responded (it always irritated my aunt for her brother to call her that), “if the courthouse burns down with an occupied jail, then the Mount Zebulon Church of Christ will lose half its members.”
“Moreover,” Dad continued over her protests, “the presiding sheriff — a member of your congregation might I add — would have a hard time getting re-elected, as half the voters in the county would be related to those held in the jail that burned to the ground.”
Regardless of where she thought the money was needed most, or to whom she complained, Aunt Ruby failed to recognize that the judge pushed and won the cause for a new jail. Shortly after construction ended, the sheriff, smitten with excitement over the expanded capacity to hold the drunk and belligerent, created his own Sting Operation. His first target: all county bootleggers.
“Tulip,” I remember Dad asking over a Sunday dinner, “how is your sheriff’s Operation Moonshine?”
“Humph,” grumbled Aunt Ruby. “At least he’s taking action instead of just talking about our problems. He’s your sheriff, too, you know.” She paused for a sip of sweet tea. “Besides, that’s not what it’s called.”
“Really?” said Dad, with the same tone he used when I explained that my unexcused absences from school were a mistake by the teacher. “Just how effective does the sheriff think he’ll be if the lead alto of the Church of Christ Ladies Choir knows the details of his plans?”
My aunt looked at my father the same way she always looks at me. “It’s Ladies Choir and Garden Club.” She took another drink. “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand. He’s a good Christian man.” Aunt Ruby liked to emphasize words.
“Oh yes,” my father mumbled. “I forgot that he’s been known to counsel lonely wives at the cemetery late at night.” I’m not sure what my dad meant by that, but Aunt Ruby did not discuss the virtues of the sheriff again.
After Operation Moonshine, the deputies had filled the cells so quickly (most of the bootleggers were easy to find, the deputies having only visited them the weekend before) that they forgot to leave room for Mr. B. Thus, the sheriff’s decision to keep Mr. B on the third floor of the courthouse. The newspaper headline over the debacle read: “Too Much Booze for Sheriff?” Aunt Ruby attributed that phrase to my father, despite the fact that he did not work for the newspaper and did not know any one who did.
“You would think he’d have been brought to Jesus by nearly drowning on the Ti-tanic,” Aunt Ruby sighed as we walked to the courthouse on the day of Mr. B’s trial. “Yet, some people are bound to relent to their moral flaws.” I had no idea at the time what it meant to “relent” to one’s “moral flaw,” but I suspected it had something to do with why my aunt escorted me to the courthouse instead of sending me off to school.
We arrived at the courthouse and proceeded past the clerk’s office, its shelves full of mysterious three-foot tall, red-leather books, and up the wide curving staircase to the second floor. The dark courtroom walls were panels of timber, probably made from the last primeval megaliths before cotton completed its migration like a weed through southern Arkansas. Aunt Ruby chose our spot in the public seating area beneath one of two massive bronze and glass chandeliers, resembling dim yellow eyes of a giant grasshopper, watching me in the cavernous jungle. If I survived this battle between relenting versus decency, I vowed only to fish with crickets instead of grasshoppers.
On the second day of trial, Aunt Ruby and I waited outside the double doors leading into the dark courtroom when we heard the sliding of metal pins and squeaking of hinges somewhere overhead. We turned to see two deputies bring Mr. B, dressed in his striped jumpsuit and handcuffs, down the narrow staircase from the third floor to the courtroom after his noon meal.
“He ate a whole fried chicken, two helpings of mashed potatoes and fried okra, four biscuits drowned with a cup-and-a-half of gravy all washed down with three quarts of sweet tea,” I had heard a lady in the clerk’s office whispering to Aunt Ruby, when we returned for the afternoon.
“Can you believe… when children at the orphanage…” Aunt Ruby gasped, unable to complete her sentences. Somehow, for her, any excess was only fully appreciated when compared to the plight of an orphan. Even if Mount Zebulon itself did not have an orphanage.
The wooden stairs groaned under the weight of Mr. B’s tree-trunk legs as he slowly waddled down each step, with one deputy in front and one deputy behind him. After four steps, he wedged himself between the wall and the railing.
“He did THAT on purpose!” decreed Aunt Ruby as she clasped my shoulder.
The white-haired deputy, whose most exciting moment as a Court Security Officer had previously been an attempt to rescue a stray coondog from a collapsed Nativity scene in front of the courthouse, stood three steps below the Italian and tried to pull him free by his handcuffs. “You push an I’ll pull,” he said.
The other, younger deputy, who had received a medal of honor for rescuing a deputy and a stray coondog from beneath a collapsed Nativity scene and was the Hero of the Year for my first grade class, stood two steps above the Italian and tried to push him forward. The five minutes of pushing and pulling wedged Mr. B between the rail and the wall with his cuffed hands aimed straight ahead as if ready to dive down the steps into the Little Missouri River.
“I do believe he’s stuck, Earl,” said the white-haired deputy to the other. Rolls of fat bulged over the railing, as the stairs popped and rattled like a string of Black Cat firecrackers. I feared/hoped the entire staircase would disappear and merge with the first floor.
Mr. B’s wife, or Mrs. Bertranelli, a wiry pale woman whom I had not seen until that very moment, began yelling and crying, to which Mr. B responded with his own yelling and crying. They might as well have been speaking in tongues at a revival, as no one in Albert County (much less Mount Zebulon) could ever have understood them. Regardless of their language of choice, they spoke far too fast for any native resident to comprehend.
The older deputy stood below Mr. B, scratching his head, while Deputy Earl continued to push. Sweat dripped from Mr. B’s balding head.
The initial audience of three spectators below the stairs – myself, my aunt, and Mrs. Bertranelli – grew to include another Court Security Officer, four attorneys, the county clerk, the judge, half the jury, two other schoolmates of mine, and five men from the lumberyard who had apparently heard about the foreigner stuck in the courthouse staircase. Everyone gathered to see the two inartful deputies attempting to dislodge the overweight Italian, screaming and arguing with his wife in some unknown language.
Shortly thereafter, the ladder truck, accompanied by the hospital’s only ambulance, arrived with the full volunteer fire department force, adding six firemen and a dog to the crowd on the second floor of the courthouse. If this was punishment for my misdeeds, then I surely was in heaven.
“Judge is callin’ the doctor,” muttered someone in the crowd. “He’ll know what to do.” Even Aunt Ruby’s preacher appeared and ushered himself to the front next to us. He nodded at Aunt Ruby and added his hand on top of hers, still on my shoulder. My arm tingled from the loss of blood as Aunt Ruby squeezed the significance of her lesson into me with her fingers. If anything, I was going to relent to Aunt Ruby’s biting grasp and not adhere to any standards of decency at all.
Finally, one of the men from the lumberyard, who couldn’t stand the extraordinary display of futility any longer, yelled: “Saw through the guardrail!”
“Sounds good to me!” someone shouted.
“Why not?” said a female voice.
Another added, “He may be right.”
My friend Timmy, the barber’s son who always appeared when anything unusual happened, was sent to the lumberyard for two hacksaws. When he returned, the crowd ushered Timmy through to the older deputy who rested one saw on the Italian’s back for Deputy Earl to retrieve; they quickly cut through the wooden rail.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Bertranelli banged her clenched fists on the chest of the third deputy, acting as a supervisor of the crowd, as she tried to rush past him up the staircase for some unknown reason, thereby adding to the traffic jam. I crossed my fingers in my pocket, secretly hoping she would succeed.
Suddenly, the piece of railing popped free from the support posts. As it flew across the hall from the release of tension, the piece of wood struck Mrs. Bertranelli on the left shoulder. To the grace of the third deputy, she promptly sat on the floor, muttering and cursing to herself. As the crowd of spectators broke into uncertain applause, Mr. B, now freed from the narrow railing, fell forward very slowly toward the white-haired deputy. The older deputy quickly turned and hobbled down the last few steps while Mr. B slid behind him like a runner into home plate. My aunt sighed heavily. The doctor, already at the courthouse, thus had two patients to tend, Mr. B and his wife, and the judge recessed court until further notice.
Aunt Ruby never took me to the courthouse again.