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Library of Congress Control Number: 2010032866
ISBN 978-1-43919259-7 (ebook)
A GOOD MARRIAGE
April 11, 1930
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
My name is Wilfred Leland James, and this is my confession. In June of 1922 I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well. My son, Henry Freeman James, aided me in this crime, although at 14 he was not responsible; I cozened him into it, playing upon his fears and beating down his quite normal objections over a period of 2 months. This is a thing I regret even more bitterly than the crime, for reasons this document will show.
The issue that led to my crime and damnation was 100 acres of good land in Hemingford Home, Nebraska. It was willed to my wife by John Henry Winters, her father. I wished to add this land to our freehold farm, which in 1922 totaled 80 acres. My wife, who never took to the farming life (or to being a farmer's wife), wished to sell it to the Farrington Company for cash money. When I asked her if she truly wanted to live downwind from a Farrington's hog butchery, she told me we could sell up the farm as well as her father's acreage--my father's farm, and his before him! When I asked her what we might do with money and no land, she said we could move to Omaha, or even St. Louis, and open a shop.
"I will never live in Omaha," I said. "Cities are for fools."
This is ironic, considering where I now live, but I will not live here for long; I know that as well as I know what is making the sounds I hear in the walls. And I know where I shall find myself after this earthly life is done. I wonder if Hell can be worse than the City of Omaha. Perhaps it is the City of Omaha, but with no good country surrounding it; only a smoking, brimstone-stinking emptiness full of lost souls like myself.
We argued bitterly over that 100 acres during the winter and spring of 1922. Henry was caught in the middle, yet tended more to my side; he favored his mother in looks but me in his love for the land. He was a biddable lad with none of his mother's arrogance. Again and again he told her that he had no desire to live in Omaha or any city, and would go only if she and I came to an agreement, which we never could.
I thought of going to Law, feeling sure that, as the Husband in the matter, any court in the land would uphold my right to decide the use and purpose of that land. Yet something held me back. 'Twas not fear of the neighbors' chatter, I had no care for country gossip; 'twas something else. I had come to hate her, you see. I had come to wish her dead, and that was what held me back.
I believe that there is another man inside of every man, a stranger, a Conniving Man. And I believe that by March of 1922, when the Hemingford County skies were white and every field was a snow-scrimmed mudsuck, the Conniving Man inside Farmer Wilfred James had already passed judgment on my wife and decided her fate. 'Twas justice of the black-cap variety, too. The Bible says that an ungrateful child is like a serpent's tooth, but a nagging and ungrateful Wife is ever so much sharper than that.
I am not a monster; I tried to save her from the Conniving Man. I told her that if we could not agree, she should go to her mother's in Lincoln, which is sixty miles west--a good distance for a separation which is not quite a divorce yet signifies a dissolving of the marital corporation.
"And leave you my father's land, I suppose?" she asked, and tossed her head. How I had come to hate that pert head-toss, so like that of an ill-trained pony, and the little sniff which always accompanied it. "That will never happen, Wilf."
I told her that I would buy the land from her, if she insisted. It would have to be over a period of time--eight years, perhaps ten--but I would pay her every cent.
"A little money coming in is worse than none," she replied (with another sniff and head-toss). "This is something every woman knows. The Farrington Company will pay all at once, and their idea of top dollar is apt to be far more generous than yours. And I will never live in Lincoln. 'Tis not a city but only a village with more churches than houses."
Do you see my situation? Do you not understand the "spot" she put me in? Can I not count on at least a little of your sympathy? No? Then hear this.
In early April of that year--eight years to this very day, for all I know--she came to me all bright and shining. She had spent most of the day at the "beauty salon" in McCook, and her hair hung around her cheeks in fat curls that reminded me of the toilet-rolls one finds in hotels and inns. She said she'd had an idea. It was that we should sell the 100 acres and the farm to the Farrington combine. She believed they would buy it all just to get her father's piece, which was near the railway line (and she was probably right).
"Then," said this saucy vixen, "we can split the money, divorce, and start new lives apart from each other. We both know that's what you want." As if she didn't.
"Ah," I said (as if giving the idea serious consideration). "And with which of us does the boy go?"
"Me, of course," she said, wide-eyed. "A boy of 14 needs to be with his mother."
I began to "work on" Henry that very day, telling him his mother's latest plan. We were sitting in the hay-mow. I wore my saddest face and spoke in my saddest voice, painting a picture of what his life would be like if his mother was allowed to carry through with this plan: how he would have neither farm nor father, how he would find himself in a much bigger school, all his friends (most since babyhood) left behind, how, once in that new school, he would have to fight for a place among strangers who would laugh at him and call him a country bumpkin. On the other hand, I said, if we could hold onto all the acreage, I was convinced we could pay off our note at the bank by 1925 and live happily debt-free, breathing sweet air instead of watching pig-guts float down our previously clear stream from sun-up to sundown. "Now what is it you want?" I asked after drawing this picture in as much detail as I could manage.
"To stay here with you, Poppa," he said. Tears were streaming down his chee
"Go on," I said. "The truth is never cussing, Son."
"Such a bitch!"
"Because most women are," I said. "It's an ineradicable part of their natures. The question is what we're going to do about it."
But the Conniving Man inside had already thought of the old well behind the cow barn, the one we only used for slop-water because it was so shallow and murky--only 20 feet deep and little more than a sluice. It was just a question of bringing him to it. And I had to, surely you see that; I could kill my wife but must save my lovely son. To what purpose the ownership of 180 acres--or a thousand--if you have no one to share them with and pass them on to?
I pretended to be considering Arlette's mad plan to see good corn-land turned into a hog-butchery. I asked her to give me time to get used to the idea. She assented. And during the next 2 months I worked on Henry, getting him used to a very different idea. 'Twasn't as hard as it might have been; he had his mother's looks (a woman's looks are the honey, you know, that lure men on to the stinging hive) but not her God-awful stubbornness. It was only necessary to paint a picture of what his life would be like in Omaha or St. Louis. I raised the possibility that even those two overcrowded antheaps might not satisfy her; she might decide only Chicago would do. "Then," I said, "you might find yourself going to high school with black niggers."
He grew cold toward his mother; after a few efforts--all clumsy, all rebuffed--to regain his affections, she returned the chill. I (or rather the Conniving Man) rejoiced at this. In early June I told her that, after great consideration, I had decided I would never allow her to sell those 100 acres without a fight; that I would send us all to beggary and ruin if that was what it took.
She was calm. She decided to take legal advice of her own (for the Law, as we know, will befriend whomever pays it). This I foresaw. And smiled at it! Because she couldn't pay for such advice. By then I was holding tight to what little cash money we had. Henry even turned his pig-bank over to me when I asked, so she couldn't steal from that source, paltry as it was. She went, of course, to the Farrington Company offices in Deland, feeling quite sure (as was I) that they who had so much to gain would stand good her legal fees.
"They will, and she'll win," I told Henry from what had become our usual place of conversation in the hay-mow. I was not entirely sure of this, but I had already taken my decision, which I will not go so far as to call "a plan."
"But Poppa, that's not fair!" he cried. Sitting there in the hay, he looked very young, more like 10 than 14.
"Life never is," I said. "Sometimes the only thing to do is to take the thing that you must have. Even if someone gets hurt." I paused, gauging his face. "Even if someone dies."
He went white. "Poppa!"
"If she was gone," I said, "everything would be the way it was. All the arguments would cease. We could live here peacefully. I've offered her everything I can to make her go, and she won't. There's only one other thing I can do. That we can do."
"But I love her!"
"I love her, too," I said. Which, however little you might believe it, was true. The hate I felt toward her in that year of 1922 was greater than a man can feel for any woman unless love is a part of it. And, bitter and willful though she was, Arlette was a warm-natured woman. Our "marital relations" had never ceased, although since the arguments about the 100 acres had begun, our grapplings in the dark had become more and more like animals rutting.
"It needn't be painful," I said. "And when it's over... well..."
I took him out back of the barn and showed him the well, where he burst into bitter tears. "No, Poppa. Not that. No matter what."
But when she came back from Deland (Harlan Cotterie, our nearest neighbor, carried her most of the way in his Ford, leaving her to walk the last two miles) and Henry begged her to "leave off so we can just be a family again," she lost her temper, struck him across the mouth, and told him to stop begging like a dog.
"Your father's infected you with his timidity. Worse, he's infected you with his greed."
As though she were innocent of that sin!
"The lawyer assures me the land is mine to do with as I wish, and I'm going to sell it. As for the two of you, you can sit here and smell roasting hogs together and cook your own meals and make your own beds. You, my son, can plow all the day and read his everlasting books all night. They've done him little good, but you may get on better. Who knows?"
"Mama, that's not fair!"
She looked at her son as a woman might look at a strange man who had presumed to touch her arm. And how my heart rejoiced when I saw him looking back just as coldly. "You can go to the devil, both of you. As for me, I'm going to Omaha and opening a dress shop. That's my idea of fair."
This conversation took place in the dusty dooryard between the house and the barn, and her idea of fair was the last word. She marched across the yard, raising dust with her dainty town shoes, went into the house, and slammed the door. Henry turned to look at me. There was blood at the corner of his mouth and his lower lip was swelling. The rage in his eyes was of the raw, pure sort that only adolescents can feel. It is rage that doesn't count the cost. He nodded his head. I nodded back, just as gravely, but inside the Conniving Man was grinning.
That slap was her death-warrant.
Two days later, when Henry came to me in the new corn, I saw he had weakened again. I wasn't dismayed or surprised; the years between childhood and adulthood are gusty years, and those living through them spin like the weathercocks some farmers in the Midwest used to put atop their grain silos.
"We can't," he said. "Poppa, she's in Error. And Shannon says those who die in Error go to Hell."
God damn the Methodist church and Methodist Youth Fellowship, I thought... but the Conniving Man only smiled. For the next ten minutes we talked theology in the green corn while early summer clouds--the best clouds, the ones that float like schooners--sailed slowly above us, trailing their shadows like wakes. I explained to him that, quite the opposite of sending Arlette to Hell, we would be sending her to Heaven. "For," I said, "a murdered man or woman dies not in God's time but in Man's. He... or she... is cut short before he... or she... can atone for sin, and so all errors must be forgiven. When you think of it that way, every murderer is a Gate of Heaven."
"But what about us, Poppa? Wouldn't we go to Hell?"
I gestured to the fields, brave with new growth. "How can you say so, when you see Heaven all around us? Yet she means to drive us away from it as surely as the angel with the flaming sword drove Adam and Eve from the Garden."
He gazed at me, troubled. Dark. I hated to darken my son in such a way, yet part of me believed then and believes still that it was not I who did it to him, but she.
"And think," I said. "If she goes to Omaha, she'll dig herself an even deeper pit in Sheol. If she takes you, you'll become a city boy--"
"I never will!" He cried this so loudly that crows took wing from the fenceline and swirled away into the blue sky like charred paper.
"You're young and you will," I said. "You'll forget all this... you'll learn city ways... and begin digging your own pit."
If he had returned by saying that murderers had no hope of joining their victims in Heaven, I might have been stumped. But either his theology did not stretch so far or he didn't want to consider such things. And is there Hell, or do we make our own on earth? When I consider the last eight years of my life, I plump for the latter.
"How?" he asked. "When?"
I told him.
"And we can go on living here after?"
I said we could.
"And it won't hurt her?"
"No," I said. "It will be quick."
He seemed satisfied. And still it might not have happened, if not for Arlette herself.
We settled on a Saturday night about halfway through a June that was as fine as any I can remember. Arlette sometimes took a glass of wine on Summer evenings, although rarely more. There was good reason
That night we sat on the porch, watching the late light linger over the fields, listening to the somnolent reeeeee of the crickets. Henry was in his room. He had hardly touched his supper, and as Arlette and I sat on the porch in our matching rockers with the MA and PA seat-cushions, I thought I heard a faint sound that could have been retching. I remember thinking that when the moment came, he would not be able to go through with it. His mother would wake up bad-tempered the following morning with a "hang-over" and no knowledge of how close she had come to never seeing another Nebraska dawn. Yet I moved forward with the plan. Because I was like one of those Russian nesting dolls? Perhaps. Perhaps every man is like that. Inside me was the Conniving Man, but inside the Conniving Man was a Hopeful Man. That fellow died sometime between 1922 and 1930. The Conniving Man, having done his damage, disappeared. Without his schemes and ambitions, life has been a hollow place.
I brought the bottle out to the porch with me, but when I tried to fill her empty glass, she covered it with her hand. "You needn't get me drunk to get what you want. I want it, too. I've got an itch." She spread her legs and put her hand on her crotch to show where the itch was. There was a Vulgar Woman inside her--perhaps even a Harlot--and the wine always let her loose.
"Have another glass anyway," I said. "We've something to celebrate."
She looked at me warily. Even a single glass of wine made her eyes wet (as if part of her was weeping for all the wine it wanted and could not have), and in the sunset light they looked orange, like the eyes of a jack-o'-lantern with a candle inside it.
"There will be no suit," I told her, "and there will be no divorce. If the Farrington Company can afford to pay us for my 80 as well as your father's 100, our argument is over."
For the first and only time in our troubled marriage, she actually gaped. "What are you saying? Is it what I think you're saying? Don't fool with me, Wilf!"
"I'm not," said the Conniving Man. He spoke with hearty sincerity. "Henry and I have had many conversations about this--"