Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Martin Naparsteck has published two novels, War Song and A Hero’s Welcome, and a short story collection, Saying Things. A short film based on one of his short stories in Ellery Queen is being shot in Australia for release in the U. S. He is the book reviewer for the Salt Lake Tribune.
Once there were this man who tried to kill my daddy. I saw him. It happened just about three years back, when I was still little, in the second grade.
My daddy owns this coal company in Petroleumville, which isn’t so much a town as it is a bunch of farms and houses scattered around the hills. My daddy owns this white wood building which is only a small office not much bigger than the walkin closet my mommy got in her bedroom, which is right next to daddy’s bedroom, which don’t have a walkin closet. And next to the white building is a gray building, like the color of ships in old war movies on television, and it’s big enough to fit the two coal trucks my daddy owns. My brothers drive the coal trucks for my daddy. They drive them to one of the coal mines the Stanton Brothers own; they own three all together, the kind where they have big shovels and dig the coal out of the earth without having to make a mine, and they dump the coal into some type of machine that cleans it and breaks it up, and after it’s broken up, it’s put on trains and a little is put on the trucks and my brothers drive them to the houses of the people who buy the coal. Used to be they would drive them to some factories, but all them factories that made parts for drills that gets used in the oil drilling business are closed now, and not a lot of people use coal in their homes no more, they use oil or gas, so we don’t make a lot of money.
Sometimes I feel real bad about that, cause if I didn’t come along my daddy might not need so much money and maybe he and mommy could live better on the less money they make. I don’t know how old daddy and mommy are, but they are old. My brother Jacob is thirty-one and my brother Jimmy is thirty, and me, my name is Jennifer, my mommy was too old to give birth to me when I was born. I know that, cause mommy told me.
Sometimes, not a lot, I drive with Jimmy or Jacob when they are delivering coal to somebody’s house, somebody out away from Petroleumville or Helper or Price. Those two are towns. People back in the woods, sometimes they have coal furnaces yet. Once I drove with Jimmy and his girlfriend up to Salt Lake City on a Monday night, family night, like the Church says, in one of the coal trucks, and we saw the Jazz play. They lost. By a lot. It wasn’t one of the years they had a good team. I didn’t have to sit in the middle. Marcy sat there, and I could see when Jimmy shifted the gear, that truck has a lot of gears, a lot more than the car mommy drives, he would let his hand slip off and touch Marcy. I probably wasn’t suppose to see that. I didn’t think much of it back then, but now when I think of it, I think someday I want a boy to touch me like that. I would ask Marcy about how it felt, but she ain’t Jimmy’s girlfriend no more and he doesn’t have a real girlfriend now, not one he can touch, and I can’t ask mommy, so I guess I got to wait to talk to somebody. Maybe I can look it up in a book in the library.
The man who tried to kill my daddy weren’t so much a man as he were more a boy. I learned after it happened he just graduated from high school two months before it happened.
Daddy used to have four trucks but he had to sell two of them on account of so few people buy coal these days. For his office he bought this real old gas station, a Conoco one, that were out of business a real long time. It had only one pump but it still worked. The road it is on don’t get much traffic no more, not since a new road were built even before I was born, and nobody takes that road to go down to Salt Lake City no more. So the Conoco station closed up. And daddy bought it. But he didn’t sell no gasoline or oil or do no repairs. He put his coal trucks in the garage part and he had some arrangement that somebody come and fill up the underground tank. He put gasoline in the trucks from the old pump. He wasn’t allowed to sell gasoline to nobody, cause he didn’t have the right kind of license to do that. Sometimes I pumped the gas into the trucks. I would go inside the building, flip the switch, just like a light switch, and when I were done pumping, I would go back inside and flip the switch off. If the switch weren’t flipped on, nobody could get no gasoline out of that pump. Sometimes I helped daddy read the gauge that were inside this little door on the pump and we would know how much gasoline were still in the underground tank. In the spring when I were seven, daddy began to notice that about once a week 15 or 20 gallons were missing sometimes. The gauge said so. He asked Jacob and Jimmy if they took the gasoline, not that he would have said they couldn’t of, but they said they didn’t, and daddy believed them and so did I. "Some fuckass been’s pilfering my gas," daddy told mommy one night. "Did you call the cops?" mommy asked him.
That were kind of a silly question, since mommy knew Petroleumville didn’t have no police department. If you needed a cop you called the state police, and their place were up in Helper, nearly 20 miles away, a half hour away on the roads between here and there.
The boy that tried to kill my daddy tried to do it by running him over with a pickup truck, a dirty faded red Chevrolet with lots of rust and the back filled with pieces of rotting wood and oil rags and things you could see meant he never cleaned it out.
My daddy fixed his trucks by hisself and he shoveled lots of coal and he also worked the small beet farm we had so he was always dirty. His fingernails were brownish black and his hair were greasy and his shirt always were half in and half out. Jimmy were just like daddy, dirty, sloppy but two inches taller. Jacob were like mommy, clean neat, his shirt always tucked in, but two inches shorter than daddy. Mommy were neat, and she looks like she used to be pretty. But now she just looks tired. Only three times my daddy and Jimmy get cleaned up. To go to the church on Sundays and to go hunting in the fall and to go to the temple, which they don’t do but maybe twice each year. Daddy takes a long shower and shampoos his hair and wears his suit to go to church, and he does the same except he wears his orange suit to go shoot a deer. Every year he gets one, and every year Jimmy gets one and Jacob gets one. I got one once, last year, and daddy had it cut up and some of it’s still in our freezer in the basement.
Daddy did call the cops and he had a long conversation with them on the telephone. "Can’t send nobody out til morrow," he said when he got off the phone. Could tell he was pissed. Next day a state trooper cop came in his blue and white car and met my daddy at the coal company office. The cop said, "We can patrol this place a little more often, but I have to be honest with you, we can’t put an officer here full time. Doubt we can do much good."
"Well, shit," my daddy said, "might as well sit out here myself with my gun, get the fucker myself."
The cop waited a few seconds to reply, then he said, "Now look, Mr. Marivan, I understand your frustration, but don’t do anything you’re going to regret."
"You saying the law says I can’t protect my own property?" my daddy said, like he was taunting the cop.
"I ain’t saying that," the cop said, like the taunting had worked, and then he said, "I’m saying no judge and no jury is going to look kindly on it if you go and shoot some kid for stealing a little gasoline."
My daddy said, "I ain’t aiming to shoot nobody, just protect my property."
That night, after dinner, daddy got all cleaned up, with a shower and shave and shampoo, but instead of putting on his Sunday suit or his hunting orange he put on some brown slacks and a blue shirt and he tucked in his shirt and Jimmy did the same. And they went down to the coal company. I weren’t allowed to go and Jacob had a date with a fat girl. Not fat, but chubby. I didn’t like her. I was glad when he dumped her a few months later. Daddy and Jimmy took their hunting rifles with them. I was still up when they came back round midnight and told mommy nothing happened. The next night the same thing. I asked if I could go and daddy said no, that he didn’t want me to get hurt. The next night the same thing, only this time, Jacob went with them. And the night after that were a Friday, and I kinda pleaded this time with daddy. I said please as pretty as I ever said it. Jacob said, "Can’t hurt nothing, pa, the kid just sits there." So daddy let me go.
The boy who tried to run over my daddy with the pickup truck were the scared type. He were tall and thin, real skinny, and he looked like you could knock him over with the flick of your finger, not only cause he was small, but cause he always looked nervous. I remember him from the supermarket where he worked, stocking vegetables and fruits on the open shelves, how his boss would snap at him, and he’d look like a sheep ducking his head as if that would make the boss go away, but it didn’t.
Daddy kept the lights turned out and Jimmy sat in his car in a real dark part of the lot and me and daddy and Jacob sat in the garage near a window where we could see the part of the lot that was lit up by the light out there. It lit up the pump area and just by the door to the office. It was real dark except for that light. There are no lights on the road and the nearest house is at least a quarter mile away. Daddy said I couldn’t listen to the radio, but we talked. Jacob told some jokes about President Reagan and daddy laughed real hard at them. I told a joke about Mrs. Clekson in school and daddy and Jacob kind of laughed, you know how adults laugh when a kid tells a joke and they don’t think it’s funny but want to pretend they do. It’s OK, my feelings wasn’t hurt. Daddy said it was midnight and maybe we should go, but then he said, without nobody answering him, "Let’s wait a little more." He ran his hand up and down the barrel of his gun. Jacob’s gun was leaning against the wall. Jimmy out in his car had a shotgun. Daddy wouldn’t let me take my .22. "Almost one," Jacob said. "Want me to check on James?" "Yeah, go out and see how’s he doing," daddy said. But just as Jacob started to swing open the garage door, headlights became visible down the road and they slowed down, and this vehicle pulled real slow into the lot, stopped, and then moved up to the pump. The passenger side door swung open and we heard some boys laughing, and someone got out and ran kind of jogging like to the office door, put his shoulder against it, kinda lurched, and the door opened, and without going inside, he reached in with his hand. You can reach the pump switch from where he stood. Then he jogged back to the pump, took the nozzle off its hook, went to the driver side with it, near the back, and took a rag out from where there shoulda been a gas cap, and put the nozzle in. The motor were still running and the truck needed a new muffler, so it were real noisy, but I could hear a car door open and could hear Jimmy yell, "Drop down on the ground you god damn sons of bitches," and I could see his shadow and the shadow of the shotgun, its stock against his shoulder, the barrel pointed at the truck, and the boy with the nozzle just ran away, not to the truck passenger side, but toward the garage, like either he were going to run into it or around it, and Jacob swung open the door and ran up to the boy and stuck out his leg, and the boy tripped and I could see his face hit the gravel real hard and Jacob put his foot on the back of the boy’s neck and aimed his rifle at the boy’s back, and he shouted, "When my brother tells you to drop, you drop, you son of a bitch."
Just then the motor of the truck reved and daddy went running out of the garage and he stopped about 20 feet the garage side of the pump and the truck were on the other side and it did a real sharp U-turn so it could head out to the road and were driving kinda perpendicular to where my daddy stood, and daddy put his rifle up to his shoulder and yelled, "Stop in the name of the law, I’m making a citizen’s arrest," and the boy in the truck I could see him give my daddy the finger, and that made me real mad, and the truck conked out and died, but the boy must of turned the key and the thing cranked over real quick and my daddy yelled, "Get out of that vehicle, son, get out," and the boy spit out the window, at my daddy, but of course the spit couldn’ta reach him since they were at least 30 feet apart, and the boy he smiled real broad then and gave my daddy the finger again, and peeled his wheels, but the truck slipped in the gravel for a second or two, and a blast and a sharp flame came out the end of my daddy’s gun, and immediately the horn of the truck began to blow and blow and blow and blow like it wouldn’t stop, and then I could see the boy’s head laying up against where the front windshield should of been, but it was gone as was the side window, and the boy on the ground under Jacob’s foot started screaming, "You son a bitch, you son a bitch, you son a bitch, you son a bitch." Jacob poked him easy with the open side of the rifle and told him to shut up, and he did. Later Jacob said he could smell the boy shit his pants soon as the gun touched the side of his face.
I come out of the garage then, but Jimmy yell, "Jenny, don’t get no closer to that truck, now, ya hear." So I stopped and Jimmy and daddy went to the truck and talked to theirselves and then they go over to Jacob and the boy on the ground, and I’m standing only maybe three feet away, and Jimmy says to the boy, "Your friend shouldn’ta tried to run over my pa. If he hadn’t a done that, he would still be alive."
"You son a bitch," the boy said, and Jacob poked him again.
Then my daddy went into the office and he called the state police cops and I listened. He were trying real hard not to cry, but his voice made it sound like he were. When he hung up, he said the state police cops said everybody should just wait until one of them got there. Then he called mommy and told her what happened. He told us, "Your ma’s coming down."
Seemed like forever fore the state police cops arrived, then all a sudden, three cars come screaming in and one of them box trucks they use for ambulances now a days. The boy Jacob tripped, we let him just stand there, but the police put handcuffs on him right away. Then they took daddy to one side and talked to him, then to Jimmy, then to Jacob. Finally one of em says, "We have your permission to talk to her?" He pointed at me with his chin. I were holding tight on to mommy. "No, you do not," mommy snapped. "No, you do not." The officer said, "OK," like he was accepting having just lost at a game of basketball in our driveway. Then we all went home.
Early the next morning, daddy he called a lawyer. Got the name out of the yellow pages. And it was in the papers the next day too. The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune and even the television stations. Jacob went out and bought the papers. The stories said my daddy shot and killed the boy and that the police were trying to figure out whether or not it were justifiable homicide. I knew them words. I’d heard them on TV many times. Late in the afternoon we all drove up to Salt Lake City and met with the lawyer. Mostly I waited outside while daddy and mommy and Jacob and Jimmy talked to him. The secretary gave me a sucker. Root beer. I didn’t like it. I don’t like root beer.
Daddy didn’t much talk about what happened the next few days, at least when I were around, but Jimmy or Jacob picked up the newspapers every day and it were on TV on the news, and this is what happened: the state police cops said they weren’t gonna file no charges, that that were up to the DA to decide, and the DA said he couldn’t make no decision until he got a final report from the county coroner, and the county coroner said it weren’t up to him to determine whether the shooting were justifiable homicide or not, that he were gonna leave that up to a coroner’s inquest. I ain’t never hear of a coroner’s inquest fore that. The paper says it were very unusual. It kind of like a jury, but it got only six people on it, and they would hear the testimony of all the people who seen the shooting, and they would make a recommendation to the coroner who would then make a recommendation to the DA who would then make a recommendation to a grand jury. The lawyer my daddy hired, Mr. Harold Hairston, told us one day that they were all just passing the buck and the coroner would do what the inquest jury said to do and the DA would then do what the coroner said and that grand juries always do what DA’s say to do. I already knew that last part from cop shows on TV. So about a week later we all got dressed up like we was goin to church and just before we left, daddy he took me into the kitchen and poured me some raspberry juice and said, "Jenny, honey, I told Mr. Hairston I don’t want you to have to testify, cause you is just a little girl and it would be too much for ya, and mommy agrees, and Mr. Hairston said that cause of you being so young, they can’t make you testify unlessun me and mommy agree, but he also said that he don’t know how this here inquest jury is gonna vote, says if it’s just me and Jake and James against that boy, maybe they’ll believe the boy, and if that happens, maybe I will get charged with manslaughter and then maybe I would have ta go to jail, and Mr. Hairston says he’s real certain that if you testify, you being a little girl and all, the inquest jury will believe you, and if you do testify I want you just to tell the truth." Then daddy looked at me real careful and I hoped he wouldn’t cry in front of me. I love my daddy and don’t want him to cry. Then he said, "Now the truth is you saw that boy try to run me down, and you saw me jump out of the way, and you saw that I din’t mean to pull the trigger and that the boy would be alive if he din’t try to run me over." He stopped talking for a long time and looked at me like he were trying to judge my face, trying to read what were inside my head. Then he stood up and put his arms around me so I had to stand up too, and he said, "We’ll decide later today if you are gonna testify. Whatever happens and whatever you say, I love you. I love you very, very much." Daddy didn’t often tell me he loved me, but I know every time he sayed it he meant it. I love him too.
Funny, what he told me were like he told me when we went to church on Sundays and I had to give testimony. He always told me when it come my turn to just stand up in front and to tell the truth, and the truth were that Jesus were my savior. So I said that a dozen times in the church and then one day I asked daddy what a savior is and he said a savior is somebody what saves ya, and I said I didn’t know that, and he said, see the truth is something ya know ever fore ya know the details.
It were a hot drive up to Helper, and when we got there we went to the county courthouse. It were a real old building, red brick with a tall steeple like a church bell tower, and it were built at least 100 years ago, and it were in a setting like a park, and it had lots and lots of red and yellow and blue flowers around it and it all looked real pretty. When we got inside, Mr. Hairston took us to a room and asked daddy if I were gonna testify, and mommy said, real stern like, "Not lessen she got to. It ain’t easy on a little child."
Then we went into the courtroom and the coroner, a Mr. Thomas Tomkins, he explained how this proceeding were not really a trial and the inquest jury would only make a recommendation and based on that recommendation he would make a recommendation to the D.A., Mr. Lyndon Milers, and that things here would be kind of informal. Then a state policeman cop got on the stand and took the oath and he told what he knew and said he couldn’t tell from his investigation whether or not the dead boy, whose name were Eddie Reese, really did try to run over my daddy. The six people in the inquest jury were five men and one woman. The woman were maybe 25, and two of the men were older than daddy and the other three were about Jacob and Jimmy’s age. The five men all wore sport jackets. Two had ties. The woman wore slacks and a blouse buttoned at her neck. She were very pretty but a little chunky. One of the men were bald. All six of the jury people listened real hard, you could tell by looking at their faces. After the state policeman cop, the next person to testify were the other boy, the one who flicked the switch. His name were Slate Hodges, and he were the best friend of the dead boy. He said he could see from where he lay on the ground that my daddy put the rifle to his shoulder and aimed real careful at his friend. Then he said, "He murdered him, the son of a bitch." The coroner banged his gavel, but he didn’t have to, it weren’t like in the movies, nobody in the audience said anything. The room was filled. Five or six people were taking notes like they were reporters, but the rest were ordinary people, far as I could tell. Maybe some of them were relatives of the dead boy and the Hodges boy. The coroner said, "Son, try not to use too much profanity," and the Hodges boy said, "Just telling the truth like I took the oath to."
Then daddy and Jacob and Jimmy testified, and they all said the truck were goin straight at daddy and he jumped to the side and the gun went off by accident, since daddy’s finger were on the trigger, and they said if daddy didn’t jump out of the way at the last minute he would of been hit. And they all said also that the Hodges boy’s head were turned away from the truck and he couldna seen what happened, and the lawyer for the dead boy’s family asked Jimmy how he could see the Hodges boy’s face if he were on the other side of the lot, and Jimmy said, "I seen it real good, real good." Then the lawyer for the dead boy’s family went up to the coroner, who were sitting in the judge’s seat, and Mr. Hairston joined him, and then the coroner told the inquest jury people to leave and wait in the other room, and then the coroner asked daddy and mommy if they would agree to have me testify. "You don’t have to agree to that if you don’t want to," he said. Mr. Hairston came over and said real quiet, "I watched their faces, and my guess is the jurors think this Hodges kid might just be believable. Especially the bald man and the woman. I’d guess they could talk the rest into recommending charges. All they have to do is convince the others it’s just a recommendation and that a criminal jury should really be deciding this." Mommy whispered to daddy and daddy whispered back. Then daddy leaned over and whispered to me, "I’m real sorry I got to put you through this, honey, but I want you to testify and to tell them the truth just like we talked about. Can you do that for me?"
I said, "Yes, daddy."
And daddy said, "I love you sweetie," and mommy hugged me.
The coroner called the inquest jury people back in, and I were sworn in. Just like in the movies and on TV, I said I would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Then Mr. Hairston asked me questions and I told him about going with daddy and Jimmy and Jacob that night and about telling jokes about President Reagan and about the pickup truck pulling into the lot just before we was all gonna go home. Then he asked me, "Could you see everything clearly?" and I said, "Yes, sir, I could." "Could you see your daddy holding his rifle?" "Yes, sir, I could." "Could you see your daddy shoot his rifle?" "Yes, sir, I could." Then he said, "Tell us the best you can remember, Jenny, in your own words, what you saw in regard to the actual shooting."
I breathed real deep. I wanted to tell the truth. I didn’t want daddy to have to go to jail. I remembered the truth. Just like daddy helped me remember it. I said, "That truck were trying to run over my daddy. That man who got shot were trying to kill my daddy and my daddy jumped outa the way and his rifle went off and that poor boy got killed, and I wish he hadn’t been hurt, but he shouldn’ta tried to kill my daddy." I paused and looked at the coroner and then at the inquest jury members and then at the Hodges boy, and then I said, "It were a combination of self-defense and an accident. I saw it all real clear like."
Then Mr. Hairston said, "Thank you, Jenny. I don’t have any further questions for you."
The lawyer for the dead boy’s family then stood and said, "I have no questions either." He sounded like someone sounds when they’re playing basketball at the playground and they’re way behind in a one on one game and they say they don’t wanta play no more.
The coroner told the inquest jury people to go into another room and talk about what they heard and when they were ready to let him know. Me and mommy and daddy and Jacob and Jimmy and Mr. Hairston went down the block to Emerson’s Ice Cream Emporium and we ate sandwiches and drank Kool Aid drinks, but before we could get done, a man in a brown uniform came from the courthouse and said the jury were ready, so Mr. Hairston paid the check real quick and we walked in a real hurry back to the courthouse. When we got there, the jury inquest people were already sitting in their seats and the coroner asked them if they had reached any conclusions, and the woman stood and said, "Yes, sir, we have," and the coroner asked them what that was, and she said, "We believe there is not enough evidence to conclude that Mr. Marivan deliberately shot Eddie Reese and that therefore we recommend that the coroner write a report saying the shooting was an unfortunate accident."
A bunch of people in the courtroom cheered and clapped and a few others swore. One said, "Shit, he got away with murder," but another said, "Finally a man has a right to protect his property." The coroner he banged his gavel and everybody were quiet. He thanked the inquest jury people and said, "These proceedings are closed."
On the way home I sat in the back seat of the car between Jimmy and Jacob, and mommy and daddy were in the front, and it seemed strange to me that none of them talked about the inquest jury’s recommendation. They talked about the Jazz and about how they’d have to sell a truck to pay Mr. Hairston and how the beet crop didn’t look too good, and Jimmy said he could go to Salt Lake City and get a job and send some money home, and mommy said she didn’t want to sell the house, and I tried to listen to them, but I couldn’t. I thought and thought and thought about how I always wanted to tell the truth, that I couldn’t be a good girl unlessun I told the truth, that telling the truth didn’t so much seem like the right thing to do as it were the natural thing to do. Something inside me always told me to tell the truth, so when I were on that stand I had to tell my brain that the truth were I loved my daddy very, very, very much, just like he loved me. Testfying to myself that that were the truth made it easier for me to say what I said. That was three years ago. I was real little then. I’m not so little now.