Anthony Otten

The Judge's Son

Toward seven o’clock, Obadiah came down from his boardinghouse room above the tavern, intent on a walk in the blue night air. The windows at the courthouse stayed bright that evening, long after the clerks had departed. Oba strolled beside the offices and listened, with anonymous pleasure, to the men musing and arguing behind the glass, reckoning new alliances, sketching new territories.

            Oba had been in the neighboring county when he’d heard of the Judge’s death and felt a sudden hunger to return to Stoleback, the place of his raising. He stayed there for five days, waiting for the visitation. Nothing tethered him to his apartment in the other city except a lease under the name of Guy Yearwood and a debt, under the name of Harold Dawn, to the local bail bondsman for skipping his arraignment on fraud.

            The Judge’s house was far from Stoleback, so that people would know he was not fully a part of the town he oversaw. The house looked like a Confederate general’s imagining of a Greek temple—Corinthian columns and a cane bottom chair on the veranda where Socrates could sip his mint tea. Oba followed the other mourners through the stately tunnel of maple trees that led from the road to the house. He glanced behind himself every few moments, as if waiting for a child to follow. The other people on the path ignored him. He was not as welcome there as a Stoleback fellow, but neither was he some bachelor or vagabond, someone lonesome and sinister. The fatherly distraction in his eyes said he belonged with somebody; his invisible family ushered him out of their suspicions and brought him to the Judge’s door.

            On the veranda a frog-necked man with a red bowtie was saying, “You never know when it’ll come. Mine could be any day. Look at FDR last year—he went right after dinner. Middle of the afternoon.” Oba went into the empty hall. To the left was the parlor, where death was closest but the conversation was loudest. He loitered for a minute between the porch talkers and the mourners at the casket. He was always at the rim of things, a traveler of peripheries and outskirts. He thought of himself this way and liked it. A glass cabinet by the stairs carried photographs of Judge Greene’s family and ancestors, tintypes and albumen prints, including one of the Judge himself next to the propped corpse of his father. A blur of animation clouded the Judge’s features, but his father’s face was caught with the exquisite clarity found only in the dead.

            Oba approached the casket, where Judge Greene’s son and a small detachment of visitors were discussing which states they were from—the safe, factual kind of conversation that strangers and cousins have in times of upset. The Judge looked exposed in an unnatural way, like a turtle robbed of his shell.

            “And where do you come from, sir?” the Judge’s son asked him.

            Oba looked up, conscious of the separation between him and the gathering. “From going to and fro on the earth,” he said. His gaze traveled to the rug, where on any other day the Judge’s grandchildren might have played in the sun.

            “No address?” the son asked. “You must be a traveling preacher. I’m sorry to say Pastor Hollings beat you here.”

            Laughter. “Now, if he’s a preacher,” an old woman said.

            “I only say because of your hat,” the son continued. He had a collection of white shaving scars on his chin. “I’ve only ever seen preachers wear a black hat when it’s sunny out.”

            “Never indoors, though,” a skinny man said, his smirk tight on his skull.

            The Judge’s son put his hand across the casket to Oba. The Judge’s first sight, if he were resurrected at that moment, would have been the spidery tangle of their fingers meeting over his face. The son wrenched Oba’s hand as he spoke. “Name’s Glenndell Greene. What’s brought you here, son? You weren’t ever in front of Dad’s bench, were you?”

            Oba nodded at the Judge’s remains. “You reckon you’ll run to replace him?”

            Glenndell separated his hand from Oba’s. “We’re all still in the throes of grief here. I haven’t given it a thought.”

            “But will you do it?” Oba asked. “You must’ve had the notion. He was getting up there in years.”

            “Now, see here,” the skinny man started.

            Glenndell leaned toward Oba as if this would seclude them into their own conversation. “Nobody’s waiting on me to run,” he said. “All I do is own a humble eating place downtown. Man like me shouldn’t start thinking he’s somebody.”

            Oba tilted his head. “But here you got that law degree and you’ve never used it.”

            “How would you know about my little detour down at State?” Glenndell asked. His voice seemed to question why he had allowed Oba to stay here this long.

            Oba told Glenndell his name. Glenndell looked away and his smile grew.

            “Wouldn’t know you from a thief on a cross,” he said. “But I thank you for coming.”

            Oba glanced at the Judge once more, memorizing the settled texture of the skin around his cheekbones. “We’re all waiting to be him,” he said, and turned to leave the house. He ignored the curse and sudden movement from one man who sounded ready to come after him, the hushed words of discouragement from Glenndell, the sensation that a swarm of eyes was following him out under the maples and the darkening sky.

            The sound of the courthouse bell made a silver ceiling over the town. Oba leaned against a pillar and tore pages from the Bible he always carried in his hatbox. He dropped the pages and they twisted and fell near a statue of last century’s chief justice of the state supreme court. Doves panicked and ruffled into the air. He waited for the sheriff’s deputy across the lawn to notice and judge him a public nuisance. The fare at the tavern was only just satisfactory, and he had wondered if the jail served anything better. It would be cheaper, he knew that. If he was not impressed there, he would sample churches the next night. There was an old clapboard one nearby—Free Will Assembly of the Lord—so decrepit that it likely spent all its proceeds on alms and mission suppers.

            “You a reverend?” somebody asked. A couple stood on the steps below him, neither old enough to have voted in the last election. The girl held a snap purse close to her breasts as if it were a charm that permitted them to be there.

            Oba crammed his black porkpie into the hatbox at his feet. “This isn’t a preacher’s hat, you know. I don’t frankly know where people got the impression.”

            “It’s just I saw you with that,” the boy said, pointing at the Bible under Oba’s arm.

             “What, you need somebody to marry you?” Oba said. “I’m not much for marrying. Never got into it myself. How late are you, honey?” he asked the girl.

             She made a scornful shape with her mouth and blushed. “She ain’t late,” the boy said. “We’re in love.”

            Jesus, Oba thought.

            “They said a justice would be in there.” The boy’s face was a storm of freckles, which looked dark in the sun. “We just need us a witness.”

            Oba hesitated, considering. Then he stuck his hand toward the boy. “Reverend Bendy Oaks,” he said. “Mandatory Assembly of the Lord.”

            “I’m Presbyterian,” the boy said.

            “And what are you?” Oba asked the girl.

            A look of intellectual discomfort crossed her face. “I’m nothing.”

            “She’ll be Presbyterian come morning,” her beau said with a laugh, and the three of them thanked and excused each other through the entrance. Oba navigated his bride and groom past a rush of scarlet-faced men, upstairs to the county clerk. His eyes snatched an image from whatever door they passed—a deputy pressing his hands into a desk in the sheriff’s office, two custodians arguing over the repair of a lamp, and last, an old man alone in the property and vital records department, counting dollars from a thick coil of bills. Oba paused there long enough for this sight to sprout into a possibility inside him, a purpose.

            An electric fan thundered in the county clerk’s office, whirling papers off the counter where the girl, whose name was Lois, and the boy, whose name was mumbled, were united in marriage. The justice of the peace signed the license and disappeared as if he had done something embarrassing. Oba had to pause before he signed, trying to remember which name he had told them.
Rev. Ben D. Oaks.

            “That’s a solid name, Reverend,” the county clerk said. “Where do you preach?”

            “Anywhere he gives me the word,” Oba said. “No roof can contain my faith.”

            “Ain’t he the nuts?” the groom said. He invited Oba to a lunch afterward at Greene’s restaurant, the one run by the Judge’s son. Oba declined. He usually lunged at complimentary meals that didn’t ask any chicanery of him, but plump little Lois was already giving him a look that cautioned against going anywhere with them.

            “You keep your dowry,” Oba told them. “You’ll need it for all the chaps you’ll have.” They waved and walked downstairs and he was happy for them and happy he would never have to see them again.

            In the records office, Oba found the old man standing at his desk and stretching. “Not on lunch, are you?” he asked. “I’m aiming to register a sale of property with you all.”

            The clerk gave him a contrary smile. “Always said there’s nothing such as lunch. Breakfast, dinner, supper. How I was brought up.” Content with this introduction, he said, “Come around here. I assume you’ve got the deed?”

            He seemed not to notice the door’s click sealing them into privacy. An Olivetti typewriter sat at the desk next to a bottle of hair tonic that the clerk snatched into a drawer. “Got bushels of checks in there, I’ll bet,” Oba said, studying the locks.

            The clerk livened with the look of someone rarely allowed to explain his job. “You’d think, you would, but we get a gracious plenty of farmers in here paying their annual due.” Then, with a gleam of special confidence, “Poor fellows hardly can write an x. But they know cash, they do.”

            Oba lifted the hatbox and set it against the partition as if to rifle for a deed. His eyes lowered to the clerk’s brittle hip, where a circlet of keys hung like a dragonfly. The clerk patted dust off the shade of his desk lamp, either offended or unnerved at the lack of an answer. “You need something signed, I’m a notary public.” Then he asked, “You have a proof of purchase?” When Oba said nothing after a minute, his smile lost its teeth.

            “You might could clean your ears, son,” he said.

            An old fellow questioning his senses—this pried a smile from him. He waited only the moment needed for the clerk to realize this transaction would not occur as he’d thought. Then Oba smashed the hatbox across the man’s face. He heard a startled snort of breath, and a crack like ivory or porcelain breaking. The clerk spun away and sprawled on the floor. His hands grasped his mouth. “Durn,” he said. “Tooth.” Oba watched him lift his head and probe the recess of his mouth. He bent and detached the keys from the clerk’s belt.

            He turned to a file cabinet behind the clerk’s desk, marked BIRTH, and tugged on the drawer labeled G. It didn’t yield. The clerk moaned and pulled himself on his elbows away from Oba’s feet. A fleck of blood oiled the floor where the man’s face had been. Oba ignored his noises as if they belonged to a fly stuck on the windowsill. He applied each key to the drawer with unshaking hands, a darkened brow his only sign of displeasure when the tumbler refused to click. 

            Circumstance was his accomplice and his accuser here—he had to trust that the old man worked this shift alone, that passersby would assume the office locked for lunch. He forced his mind into the heads of people strolling on the courthouse lawn, unaware of the events happening behind the windows. He felt around him the curtain of ignorance that was his keenest tool.

            In one lithe movement, the clerk righted himself and stumbled up. Oba dropped the keys so he could subdue the man again, but the clerk seized the typewriter and swung it at Oba’s head. The machine made a heavy swoop of air, a groan that came through its keys, as it passed Oba’s face. If he hadn’t danced away from its arc and fallen on his back, the blow would have opened his skull and emptied twenty-eight years of life on the floor.

            The lamp clattered off the desk. Its bulb busted on the clerk’s shoe. The typewriter’s momentum stole it from his fingers and sent it crashing against the birth records cabinet. Panting, the clerk stooped and picked the keys from among the glass and hurried toward the door. Oba jumped onto the desk and leapt the partition just before the clerk would have shouted into the hall. He pressed the man’s arm into his stomach and drove him back against the window. The unsecured panels of glass opened and the clerk hung a few inches over the sill, then a few inches more, over an empty height and the blazing pavement. The clerk held the keys far from the sill in his right hand, dangling them as if to insure he wouldn’t be dropped. Oba held him by his tie. His vision narrowed with a gray mixture of panic and excitement.

            “Give them here.” Oba stuck his hand as far out the window as he dared. If he were invisible to the people on the sidewalk, the clerk would appear to be leaning outside and checking the gutters for bird nests. “Give them or I’ll let go.”

            “You’re fooling,” the clerk said. His eyes held a shade of conviction, and the desperation that lies behind any conviction. “You won’t get anything if you drop me. Pull me back in and I’ll open it for you myself.”

            “Or try to brain me with your finger-picking doodad,” Oba said, and loosened his hand around the tie. The clerk slid backward and released a cry. Oba tightened his grasp again.

            The clerk looked at him and seemed to catch something, some hint of the eventuality that Oba himself had not yet determined. He flung the keys past Oba’s shoulder, as if to appease him. Then the clerk opened his lips and hawked a bloody shard of tooth into Oba’s face. The fragment struck his cheek and fell on his collar. His disgust was so complete that he didn’t hear the clerk’s gasp when he let go of the tie. He flicked the tooth off his shirt and dug madly at the stain with the fingernails of both hands. He barely realized what he had done until a visceral sound of impact stopped the scream, like scissors slicing a ribbon.

            The street next to the courthouse was abruptly mute. Oba crept toward the window and put his head out into the stilled air. A trio of men in slate suits stood agape on the path, and a few shopkeepers and patrons from a diner were crossing the lawn to see the fallen thing.

            The clerk’s limbs were spread on the stone. Red fluid gathered around his head like a satin cushion. All the man’s thoughts about lunch and farmers soaking into the earth and the sidewalk cracks. Oba couldn’t reach the word
blood—words felt alien and slippery in that instant, broken from their moorings to things. He retreated from the window just as logic told the witnesses to look up.

            The fluorescent lamps over the sinks bathed the room in sour light. Oba shut himself into one of the stalls. His ears sieved the air for footsteps. Only a few seconds later, the deputy turned and ran down the hall. His boots made a rapid echo on the staircase.

            He rushed back to the cabinet, trying to remember which key he had tried last. Finally one of them meshed with the tumbler; the drawer sprang open. He rifled through the files and found what he hoped would be there. He lifted it from its place, stowed it in his hatbox. Then he turned a triumphant look on the office and swung open the door.

            In the hallway a sheriff’s deputy faced away from him, staring out a window at the scene on the path. His hand lay on the gun in his holster. Oba froze for a mortal moment as two corridors of options opened before him. The first was to go back into the office, lock it, trap himself while they scoured each room for a suspect. He sent that instinct down into the basement of his brain and chose the second—walk with soft steps behind the deputy and enter the men’s room that was open across the hall.

            The fluorescent lamps over the sinks bathed the room in sour light. Oba shut himself into one of the stalls. His ears sieved the air for footsteps. Only a few seconds later, the deputy turned and ran down the hall. His boots made a rapid echo on the staircase. Oba read the various offers and proposals scratched into the door—he wondered how many convicts had used this room before their final transport to the penitentiary—until the absence of voices convinced him that the spectacle outside had emptied the second floor. He left the bathroom and hurried downstairs, forcing himself to ignore the promise of unattended cash in the nearby office. He dug the porkpie from his hatbox and was busily adjusting it on his head when the deputy galloped back through the entrance. His gun was in his hand, the barrel lowered to the floor. “Where you out to, sir?” he asked. The question sounded more like
Where have you been?

            “I’m glad to see a uniform,” Oba said, straightening. “My cousin Lois and her man just got their marriage license upstairs. I went to the facilities and now here I can’t find them.” He reached to tap the deputy’s arm. “You seen a young fellow and his girl around?”

            The deputy shrugged past his entreaty and began loping up the stairs. “You need to get out this building and wait with the officers,” he called back. “There may have been a murder on this property.”

            “I’m hoping they didn’t leave me,” Oba said, as if he hadn’t heard the warning. He noted the mention of more police as he went outside. Somebody must have reached a telephone in the minutes since his last glance at the lawn. 

            He walked past the courthouse pillars willing his heart to slow and his hands not to pluck at his buttons. The crisp flatness of the lawn allowed him a vantage on the clerk’s body. A uniformed man, likely the sheriff, was bellowing at the crowd to remove itself from around the corpse. Standing apart from the gawkers, two aproned colored men were swapping muttered observations. The sheriff’s attention lit on them and he almost bowled them to the ground pushing them away. “Isn’t it lunchtime, boys!” he yelled. “You get on back!”

            Oba hadn’t intended the clerk’s fate, and he drew no pleasure from the man’s harm, but he couldn’t help feeling a private enjoyment for his responsibility. To know the cause of something gave a man special power over it, as if he himself were the originator of all events. His accountability almost drove him to go up and ask the police who the man was, if they knew his family, if they had arrested anyone. But that kind of indulgence would only endanger the pleasure of escaping unknown.

            The colored men were walking across the lawn and drawing eyes with them, unmindful of Oba yet still growing closer. He turned from them and went toward the tavern. A strip of paper with typewritten scripture blew past his foot, and he didn’t recognize it as a shred from his own Bible until it was stolen up into the air.

            The news of death continued to rouse people from their midday fugue and bring them out of the groceries and hairdressers along the street. They flowed toward the source of interest like blood toward a cut, while he alone walked away.

            Two days later was Wednesday, and Oba used the evening to visit churches. He hung at the back of each service for enough time to see whether Glenndell Greene was there. He found him at the finest Baptist church in Stoleback. It had a weathervane that spun with the force of a bomber’s propeller, and at the entrance, electric lights that baked its members as if they were chickens on a butcher’s rotisserie.

            Oba darted into the Greenes’ pew during the song of invitation, when sinners were called to come and repent. Though there were seats remaining, this bench was undoubtedly their claim. “How’s the world, Papa Greene?” he said under the blast of the organ.

            Glenndell stared at him with dawning dread. He was in his middle forties, weakly handsome in a way that could have sold toothpaste or war bonds in a Newsweek ad. “If it isn’t our visitor,” he said in a flat voice.

            “You reckon I could join you all for supper?” Oba tried to lean around Glenndell’s bulk. “It’d be swell to get acquainted with Mother.”

            The hymn had climaxed and begun to weaken without any converts. As the flock seized their hats and purses, eager to disperse, Glenndell’s wife looked past him and saw Oba. She was a shrunk-headed lady in a blue calico dress. “Excuse me,” she said.

            “This is a pal of mine I met at Daddy’s service,” Glenndell said before she could continue. “I got a contract with him to paint our rentals.”

            “What call was there to bring him to church?”

            “We’re meeting at the restaurant tonight. Just us two.”

            His wife gave him a look of resignation so automatic that Oba figured it was habitual. “Business after church,” she said, but her offense seemed to lie elsewhere.

            “Loretta,” Glenndell said. “The Lord understands.” He and Oba backed out of the pew to let her pass. A compact young man, his hair coiffed and parted, glanced at Oba as he nudged into the aisle behind his mother. He looked like he had half recognized someone but not known how to say it. “You take care of her,” Glenndell said after him.

            “That my brother?” Oba whispered once they had meshed into the crowd.

            Glenndell’s hand pounced on his shoulder. “We’ll not be flapping our jaws in here.”

            “Then let’s go someplace God can’t eavesdrop,” he said, and let Glenndell guide him up the aisle.

            “Loretta can drive,” Glenndell said. “I taught her. If she can’t, it’s her own self that’s the problem.” He spoke more to himself, as if rehearsing for an argument over his unannounced plans.

            In the restaurant, Glenndell chose a table by the kitchen. The propped door blocked Oba from a view of the other patrons. A basket of buttermilk fried chicken was set before them by a disembodied black hand that vanished around the door. Oba ate, and Glenndell watched him with fear and a sort of unwilling curiosity, like he would a copperhead he’d found under his porch. “There any stewed apples back there?” Oba asked. “I could do with some of those and some honey.”

            Glenndell smiled. “You’re here because somebody made a mistake.”

            “I know it,” Oba said, licking a spot of grease from his lip. “That somebody’s you. And the thing you made is me.”

            Glenndell smiled into his lap now. “I’m sure your people, probably your mother—”

            “Your whore.”

            “—that she or your grandpa or some drunk stepdaddy raised you to think that. But your mother and I only went to school together. Old Jeff Davis High. There was never any business with us.”

            “Not in the daytime.” 

            Oba saw Glenndell’s mouth shudder at the edge.

            “There’s no proof of what you’re thinking, son.” Glenndell’s eyes monitored the restaurant’s attention, seeing how many tired Wednesday night people would notice him talking to a door. “I just took you out and fed you for plain kindness. Nothing else.”

            Oba brought his hatbox to his lap and dug in it. He removed a bluish-black mimeograph sheet covered with typescript. “What’s this now?” Glenndell asked.

            “My birth certificate.” Oba pointed at each part of the name typed on the sheet. “Obadiah. Pleasance. Greene. Born to Virginia Lee Pleasance, August 16, 1918.”

            “You don’t look it,” Glenndell said. “I’d have trouble believing you’re that old.”

            “Your signature at the bottom.” Oba tapped the name.

            Glenndell was silent for a moment—mustering the incredulity he needed, Oba reckoned. “You’re playing a rusty with me here. This is a forgery if I’ve ever had my eyes on one.”

            Oba stowed the certificate back in the hatbox. “You don’t believe it, get the Registrar of Vital Statistics on the phone. He could testify.” Suddenly he leaned across the lacquered table. Glenndell’s eyes shrank and hardened. “You were just eighteen,” Oba said. “Like as not you were so stupid you figured a man has to sign if it’s his baby, no matter if he has the gumption to stay around.” He hovered there. “You think folks will mark your name on a ballot after they see this in the paper?” 

            Glenndell’s head crumpled toward his shoulders. “Nobody can go without mistakes in life.”

            “How many folks leave them in a shanty with no heat? Or to rot in the boys’ reformatory?”

            “But I sent her money!” The words exploded from Glenndell’s lips with regret already circling in his eyes.

            Oba’s legs weakened and he thumped back into his chair. “I don’t care what you sent her. I’ve come for my rightful share. Just give me the third I’m owed.”

            “I won’t sell my house. That’s family property. But I could give you one of my rental places. They’re out back of this diner.”

            “However you want to divvy it. It’s your money.”

            “There’s a girl, too,” Glenndell said. “I have a daughter.”

            “I’m down to a fourth, then.” Oba paused. “But I didn’t see her at church.”

            “She’s away at the missionary school.”

            Oba laughed. “I’ll take my third till she shows up for her claim. And while we’re waiting on little sister to get back, you can start running for judge.”

            “But I thought this business was to stop me running.”

            “Oh, you’re wrong there,” Oba said. “You will run. You will be the judge, like everybody’s thinking. I wouldn’t have it different. Because when you’re in that black robe, that’s when this family matter will really start being useful. I have ideas in my mind for this town, this little Greene kingdom.”

            One of the cooks, a colored man with pale creases in his palms, arrived to collect the basket. Oba turned away. He and Glenndell waited for the cook to leave, but the man lingered by them, shifting, pulling his lips back against his teeth. “What do you want, boy?” Glenndell asked in irritation, and the cook motioned to him. Glenndell rose hugely from his seat and followed the man into the kitchen. He returned a minute later, without the cook, and the expression on his face told Oba that his power over the situation had disintegrated.

            “You been up the courthouse lately?” he asked with a swollen grin.

            “No, sir. I won’t register to vote till there’s somebody worth voting in.”

            “My kitchen boy there says he saw you up in a window,” Glenndell said. “You were the fellow hanging some man out over the street on Monday.”

            A cramp formed in Oba’s heart. “If he thinks that’s true, why doesn’t he report me?”

            Glenndell smirked. “Sheriff’s as likely to deputize him as believe him.” He hitched forward in his chair. Oba could smell the Vitalis in his hair. “You and I have got each other good here,” he said. “I’ve already figured up my offer. You won’t get my money, and you won’t get to hang around with that little paper. What you’ll get is a hundred dollars and a ticket on the next train out of the station on Beal Road. Headed south, one way. Leaving tonight. You’ll get that and your freedom. You’re still young, lots of years in you. Think on that.”

            Oba nodded, but only to acknowledge that he had heard. His face was blank of feeling. All his considerations, the machinery of his plans, sagging and splintering under him. Reason told him to capitulate, though he was sick with the thought. He would have to be satisfied with giving the man a scare. “You got cash back there?” he asked.

            Glenndell took him through the kitchen, amidst a hades of steam and cooks, and counted bills to him from a safe in a narrow office. “There you are,” he said. “And here’s ten more for that train.”

            “Wouldn’t a Greyhound do?” Oba asked. “I like being on the road.”

            “Train’s got a meal car.” Glenndell patted his neck. “You looked awful hungry in there. This’ll keep you fat for a while.”

           Oba let himself be pushed into the alley. The door shut without a sound behind him. The reek of decayed meat and animal presence lurked here. Facing away from the restaurant were three skinny, peeling frame houses on their own street, hung with signs promising vacancy and a low lease. These were the rentals, he thought. He offered me one of those. I could have. But that damn cook.

            Instead of leaving, he loitered at the alley’s corner. He was too numb to yield his plans to someone else’s, and would rather have stayed here, queasy from his meal and the stench of boiling garbage, than callously admit that everything he had pictured for years was undone. He wasn’t waiting for anything, but a few minutes later, as he brooded, Glenndell emerged from the restaurant and walked up to one of the houses. He unlocked it and went inside. Grasping at a hope not yet formed, Oba crept along the alley. A shadow made a darker spot in the dark window above him, and he heard the clicking of a rotary dial. Glenndell’s voice came through the wall in fragments. He was speaking into a telephone. Oba raised his eyes toward the wires strung between the houses’ roofs. He climbed the porch of the next house, elbowed a pane of glass from the door, and fumbled inside until he felt the latch.

            The kitchen was barren, a stew of cobwebs. But there was a phone in the hallway. He lifted the receiver with delicate fingers so the click wouldn’t be audible. With his breathing hushed, he listened. Glenndell’s voice barreled over the party line.

            “—I don’t care if you have to wait up all night. You wait. This is your money to worry about, too, you know. I’m out a hundred and ten as it is.”

            “Daddy,” a younger male said. “What if he goes to a different station?”

            “I told him where to go. It’s the only station in town. He’s skinny, but don’t think we’ll have it easy with him. Looks wily, like he could fight.”

            “Can I borrow your Winchester?”

            “God’s sakes, boy,” Glenndell said. “I wouldn’t trust your jumpy finger. Just get that quicklime out the cellar and I’ll think of whatever else.”

            “If he’s whipped so easy,” the younger voice said, “then how could he be any harm? Why should we trouble with it?”

            A sigh warmed the line. “Because,” Glenndell said, “things spread if you don’t take care.”

            The heavy Bakelite of the receiver sweated against Oba’s ear. He set it down. He would have torn it from the phone if Glenndell were unable to hear him. He let the conversation continue, the son’s resistance eroding under his father’s determination. He returned to the porch and grabbed his hatbox and trudged down the road, the weedy road built for tenants that had failed to appear. On his way to the station—he had been raised here, he knew where Beal Road was—he stopped at the office for the county newspaper. It was shut for the night. He sat on its doorstep and scrawled a note on the file that held his birth certificate.
This is proof Glenndell Greene had a bastard son by a young girl. Print it if he runs for judge. Or print it anyhow.

Below this he added,
Call the state if you want confirmation. I give my permission. And he signed his name, his real name.

            He dropped the envelope in the office’s mail chute and heard it fall into a tray. He didn’t feel one pang doing it, either.

            The air smelled of coming rain. Spires of black cloud floated at the horizon, but his plans couldn’t be touched by weather. He stood. He reckoned that the sheriff was still looking for him, that his face and even his name—one of them, at least—might be known within a week. Soon there would be even less of a place for him than before. But he would go out to Beal Road tonight, and meet them, and there claim his inheritance. Glenndell would loathe even the tree that grew over the poisoned earth where they put him. For both of them knew that the only real things in life were power and vengeance—the first for its own sake, and the second to take back the first.


Anthony Otten has published work in Grasslimb Journal, Hot Metal Bridge, Coal Hill Review, Wind, and The Louisville Review. “The Judge’s Son” is adapted from a novel he is writing. He earned a BA in English from Thomas More College and now works in higher education. 


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