Bourbon Penn 13

The Very Civilized Execution of Walter Grimley

by William Jablonsky

The town of Patience had tolerated Walt Grimley’s excesses for a long time without comment. He’d lost himself after Miranda died, we’d reasoned, and was owed a wide berth. Even when he got violent and crazy, we forgave, because that was our way. Then, one afternoon at the farmers’ market, Walt drank himself stupid and exposed himself to Julie and Joyce Grebcik, ages sixteen and fourteen, and we knew something had to be done.

We came at sunset on a moist, warm evening in late June, on foot, horseback, the narrow little foot-propelled scooters everyone used when the gas pumps went dry. Some were dressed in funeral suits and lace dresses, because if we were going to decide a man’s fate, we ought to take it seriously. Others came in T-shirts and jeans, because suits and dresses were a thing of back-in-the-day and didn’t matter anymore. We gathered at what used to be the city hall: an old, squarish, chocolate-brown brick building with golf ball-sized pockmarks in the façade. Crabgrass and knee-high fescue grew out of cracks in the walkway. The last mayor and his staff from back-in-the-day had papered over the windows before fleeing to god knows where, and the paper had gotten moist and gummy and stuck to the glass.

Someone lit a kerosene lantern so there could be a little light. Inside, there was an inch-thick coat of gray dust on everything, and the air smelled like stale, moldy bread. Despite the somber occasion, we were vaguely excited — this was the freshest, most spontaneous thing that had happened here since the coy-wolves ate Nora Brimeyer and we had to go into the woods and shoot them all.

Once everyone was seated, we all stared at Roy Martinez, a short, thick man with a wiry black goatee and an old fedora. Roy looked around to see if anyone else would take charge, and when no one did, he shrugged and stood up. “Okay, then,” he said. “We all know why we’re here.” He pulled out an old slate chalkboard from the storage closet and asked us to list our complaints against Walt.

The charges were thus:

1.) Drinking himself stupid and violent on that awful corn whiskey he distilled in his barn, then beating Seth Riley, the schoolteacher, into a puddle of blood and broken teeth;

2.) Selling two jugs of the aforementioned spirits to Shane Dobson, age sixteen, who then rode his horse through the south wall of the old First Methodist Church and died (subsequently, the horse had to be shot at the scene, which was an awful sight);

3.) Shooting Paul Foreman in the ass with an old Glock after he caught Paul picking wild strawberries from a bush Walt claimed was on his property, though that patch of land had been in Paul’s family since before any of us could remember. Paul still had to walk with a cane as a result.

4.) The aforementioned lascivious advances toward Julie and Joyce, which, while not as tragic, nonetheless served as the final straw.

Roy sighed. “Anything else?” A few of us whispered comments about Walt’s smell, which was like armpit sweat and hamburger grease, but that didn’t seem reason enough to do away with a man.

“In that case,” Roy said, crossing his arms over his big belly. “What do you propose we do?”

Pete Grebcik, a tall, wiry wolf of a man in a black short-sleeve dress shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, stood up. He wore an old faded blue cap with a red “C” on it, tilted low over his eyes. In the low light you couldn’t see his face, which made him even scarier.

“I got a shotgun back home,” Pete said. “Just say the word and I’ll blow his goddamn head off.”

It was known that Pete feared no one, and could do the deed if need be. After those two bikers showed up in town fifteen years ago looking to loot the place of food and gas, Pete confronted them in Casey’s Tavern with a crowbar, and ten minutes later they were running for their lives. Both Julie and Joyce sunk low in their seats, looking up at him with fear. They’d never before seen what some of us had — the ugly, wild animal side of Pete that was capable of anything.

“He took liberties with my girls,” Pete said, his deep gravelly voice cutting through the low rumble. “A man ought to take care of that himself.” A few, the ones who’d been there and seen what he’d done with the crowbar, clapped. Most looked down at the floor, or at the people sitting around them, eyes darting about to see who was in favor of it, and who shared their discomfort.

“Hold up there, Pete,” Roy said. “We don’t behave like that, and you know it.” We murmured our agreement. This was Patience, not Dodgeville or Hazel Green, where they’d hang anybody for anything.

“So what are we gonna do about it?” Pete asked.

“There’s got to be some kind of precedent,” Roy said. He turned to a very old man in a wheelchair, in white overalls and a red plaid shirt, sitting a few feet from the chalkboard. “Bud?”

At ninety-seven, Bud Carlson was the only person with any real memory of way-back-when. Roy had asked his grandkids to bring him, to provide some much-needed perspective.

Bud, whose skin had turned pale gray, scrunched up his face so that his two white bushy eyebrows nearly became one. “If I remember right,” he said in a soft, gravelly voice, “they’d lock up a man like Walt for the rest of his life in a little room with bars on it, and he’d just stay there until he was dead.”

We began to chatter nervously. The thought of being cooped up like that, with no view of the sky and no open spaces, made some of us queasy.

An old lady said, “Did they feed him?”

“Yep,” Bud said. “Kept him going like that for years and years. Probably would’ve been kinder to put him down.”

“Well,” Roy said, “maybe that’s off the table.”

Pete stood up again. “We can’t just leave him be. We gotta do something.”

The room was tense — this was Patience, after all, where we’d stayed civilized when every other place had seemingly gone to hell. Part of that meant letting go of small things. But where Walt was concerned, our forgiveness had gotten us nowhere.

Everyone nodded.

“Sounds like we’re set on the what,” Roy said. “Now it’s just the how.”

He sent a small group of us three doors down to what used to be the public library: a flat-roofed building with rusted-out yellow siding. A few of us pored over the thick, cream-colored books with tiny print and attempted to penetrate all those long sentences and clauses. What we all agreed, after our eyes lost focus and our heads hurt, was that the way-back-when was damned complicated.

None of the options were attractive: beheading by sword or guillotine was too brutal, and we’d have to use a cleaver anyway. Hanging was out as well — someone found a book chapter that said sometimes people’s heads came off, and angry as we were, we couldn’t do that to Walt. We didn’t have poison gas and couldn’t think of a single reason why we’d ever need such a thing. Bullets were for deer and wild turkeys and, if we were lucky, the occasional boar. And someone would have to pull a trigger or a lever or swing an axe. Everyone knew Pete would, but that’d be messy and unpleasant.

For a minute, everyone fell silent, like maybe we should just call it off. Sooner or later Walt would drink himself to death in his hovel outside of town, and then we’d be rid of him. But the burden of civilization did not allow us to shirk our duty like that.

With no good options, and a desire to have something to show for our efforts, we sat down amid the dusty shelves and devised a plan of our own. We had but two ground rules: it had to be humane; and we all had to have a part in it. It took a couple of hours, and there was some heated disagreement, but in the end we arrived at an acceptable solution. We made some sketches, and a list of things we’d need, then shuffled back up the street to show Roy.

He sighed, long and loud, and looked at the floor. “You sure about this?”

We nodded, reluctantly.

“If that’s the best you can do,” he said, “I guess it’s time to fetch Walt.”

• • •

That night the fireflies were out in force, and the junebugs buzzed around the ears of the posse marching up the dirt road toward Walt Grimley’s house. Their footfalls made no sound, and they did not speak. Roy wanted to wait until dark, when Walt would be in the bag and less likely to put up a fight. Andy Snow, who at seventeen was already six-foot-six and half again as broad-shouldered as any man in Patience, followed close behind, carrying a length of nylon rope — sisal would’ve dug into Walt’s wrists and ankles, and this had to be humane. Roy picked him because he was strong enough to pull a horse cart by himself, and because despite his size and strength, he was babyfaced, with big blue eyes and a blond fishbowl haircut — hardly a sight to inspire terror. His parents objected, but he said he could handle himself, and they knew it. With them were the Skoal twins, Jeremy and Jason, age nineteen, smaller but wiry, with narrow dark eyes set deep in their skulls. Each of them carried an axe handle, just in case. No blades, we’d agreed — this wasn’t to be a massacre.

Roy took point, unarmed. He was brave like that.

When they arrived at Walt’s house, he was sitting on the porch swing with a metal cup in his hand, shirtless and barefoot in overalls, brownish liquor dripping from his greasy yellow-gray beard. Miranda would never have let him get like this, but she’d got cancer twenty years ago and there was no one left to treat her.

Walt did not look up at them.

“Walt,” Roy said, “We’re gonna need you to come with us.”

Walt glanced up at Roy, chuckled. “About time. Where’s Pete?”

Roy knelt down in front of Walt, slowly, to show he wasn’t a threat. “He’s not here. We’re trying to handle this the right way.”

He glanced at the white rope in Andy’s hands. “You boys come to hang me?”

“No, Walt,” Roy said. “Just come with us. Please.”

Walt gulped down his paint-thinner whiskey and got up, joints crackling. He started to stumble, but Andy steadied him with a big arm.

“Here, Walt,” Andy said. “Let me give you a hand.” He picked Walt up off the ground and carried him piggyback up the dirt road.

They didn’t have to use the rope.

• • •

They kept Walt in Nora Brimeyer’s house, a red brick ranch with ceramic deer in the yard. If a man was set to die, we thought, he might as well enjoy decent accommodations before the end. The place had been empty since the coy-wolves ate her, and no one had come to claim it because squatting in it felt unseemly. Everything inside was exactly as she’d left it: thin peach curtains open enough to let in just the right amount of light, Damask rugs, fine Amish oak table, porcelain tea set in the middle of the dining room table — everything immaculate but for a fine layer of dust. Andy and the Skoal boys sat Walt on Nora’s white fainting couch and set about the place with feather dusters. When it was done, Andy and Jeremy stayed behind to look after him — no way Walt was getting past the both of them.

Some of the men went out the next day and dug a deep hole in the old park out by the river, lined it with cement, then fixed a manacle to the bottom.

In the meantime, Andy took it upon himself to give Walt a proper shave and haircut, and drew him a bath with water he’d heated on Nora’s wood-burning stove. Some families brought him grilled chicken and corn on the cob to set his health right, and after a few days he was almost back to himself again, like the man who used to play the mandolin in a bluegrass band at the county fair, back when there still was one. When he plucked the strings his eyes would close like he was in a state of bliss.

After a week, Walt looked like a new man but for the drooping bloodshot eyes. No one knew how to make that right.

• • •

The day Walt Grimley was to die was a Monday, and a pleasant one. The weekend had been warm and muggy, and hard rains had knocked all the lilacs down off the bushes in our front yards, and everything in and around the town of Patience seemed sad, but beautiful too. We held a meeting that morning, because it seemed like we were hesitating for no good reason. After some spirited debate, we agreed that if Walt had to die, we ought to at least have the decency to let his last day be a good one.

Fred Gackle, who raised pigs down the river, cooked Walt up some pork ribs with bourbon sauce, which had been Miranda’s specialty and Walt’s favorite thing, and sent it over to Nora’s. Later, Andy said the first bite brought a tear to Walt’s eye.

And we decided there should be music, so Floyd Burwell went up to Walt’s place and retrieved his old cherry-sunburst mandolin that sang like a wind chime. He spent that morning restringing it and fiddling with the bridge to get the sound just right. His daughter Ella could play almost as well as Walt before the nerves in his hands went, and she spent the afternoon rehearsing a number with her brothers to send him off.

Pastor Rickey went up to Nora’s house that morning to give what comfort he could. It was well-known that Walt was a godless man who hadn’t set foot in church since well before Miranda passed on, but we hoped Pastor Rickey could be a kind presence upon whom Walt could unburden his troubled heart. Andy, who’d been standing watch outside, said Walt broke down after about an hour, and finally let the Lord back in. But Jeremy, who’d been smoking on the back porch, said Walt just asked Pastor Rickey about the weather.

• • •

Because it was such a pretty day, sunny but not too warm, with the smell of wild clover in the air, Andy decided to walk him the eight blocks to the old marina. We stood on our front stoops and watched as he passed by. It took us a minute to realize it was Walt. His skin had lost its gray tinge and looked healthy and pink. The dingy yellow had been washed out of his hair, which sat neatly on his head in a silver pompadour, and instead of his threadbare overalls Andy had put him in a gray houndstooth suit they’d found in one of Nora’s closets — one of Skip’s, that she’d kept around after he passed away. The occasion demanded a certain formality, and Skip’s old clothes were the only ones that fit the span of Walt’s big round shoulders. They hung on him like loose skin over bone, and the shoes were a size too big, but it was the best we could do.

Walt looked up at us as he passed; to a man, we looked away when his eyes met ours. It was only once he shuffled past, those big black dress shoes kicking up the dust on the street, that we followed. We had a part to play in this. A responsibility.

• • •

When the procession arrived at the boat launch, Ella and the Burwell boys were waiting, instruments in hand, the boys in suits and Ella in a cream-colored lace dress. Walt’s mandolin looked huge strapped against her chest, because she was only ten, and petite. Walt lifted his head and looked at her for a minute, as if he was trying to remember the feel of the instrument in his hands, his fingers sliding across the ebony fretboard. She smiled sweetly at him. He looked away.

Until that moment, most of us hadn’t really looked at the hole, because if you didn’t look, it wasn’t real. It gaped like a maw about ten feet from the boat ramp, about as wide as Walt was tall, a good twelve feet deep.

There was a little leftover rainwater in there from the storms, and someone asked Walt if that was okay, or if he’d rather they siphoned it out to start fresh.

Walt shrugged.

Everyone glanced around at one another, at the blank expressions on our neighbors’ faces, at Walt, who was busy staring at his shoes, then at Roy, who we all felt should set things in motion.

“Anything to say, Walt?” he asked.

Walt shook his silver head.

“You understand why we have to do this?”

Walt nodded.

Roy nodded to Pastor Rickey, who read the passage from Romans about falling short of the glory of God and finding redemption, which we questioned because Walt was a non-believer and it seemed a little late now. But Pastor Rickey was aggressive that way. The older folks liked it.

“Walt,” he said, “You’ve got one last chance. Care to repent and unburden yourself?”

“No thanks,” Walt said, and Pastor Rickey snapped his Bible shut and stepped back into the crowd.

“All right, then,” Roy said. “Let’s get started.” He gave the band their cue, and Ella started playing a bluegrassy version of “Nearer My God To Thee.” It was probably wasted on Walt, but the notes she played were slow and sweet and beautiful.

Someone lowered a ladder into the hole. Andy had been standing watch over him so he didn’t accidentally fall in, and started to lead Walt over to the edge. Walt, who we hadn’t bothered to tie up because he’d been cooperative up to that point, took a couple of hobbled steps toward the ladder. He stopped for a second, stared down into the hole.

Then he ruined everything by trying to run.

The band stopped playing and just stared. He tripped twice, getting grass stains on his borrowed suit, and a little space opened up around him. His eyes were big and wild, and no one had ever seen them so white before. He glanced over at Ella, and started to make for her. We figured he either planned to grab that mandolin and use it as a weapon, or maybe take poor Ella hostage while he tried to make his way out.

Ella screamed.

Before he could lay a fingertip on her, Andy tackled him from behind and held him in a bear hug on the ground.

“I’m so sorry, Walt,” Andy said, tears in his eyes, as he trapped Walt in an unbreakable half-nelson. “I gotta do this. Just take it easy.”

Walt struggled for another ten or fifteen seconds, then went limp. It was no use — Andy could give a black bear the fight of its life — but we like to think that he finally accepted his fate as just and true, because just then, Walter Grimley began to cry.

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, Walt,” Andy said, rubbing his back. “It’s gonna be over soon.”

Roy sent Ella home, because she was scared and there didn’t seem any reason to make her keep playing after that. Andy went in the hole first, holding the ladder so Walt didn’t slip, untied him, secured the manacle to his ankle. We were uncomfortable with it, but otherwise Walt could just hold his breath and float to the top, and nobody wanted to have to hold his head down. Nobody except Pete.

Walt just stood there looking at his shoes, like the shame of what he’d done had finally set in, and then he was ready.

Andy asked Walt if he was all right.

Walt nodded.

Andy climbed out and pulled the ladder up behind him.

Roy steeled his nerve with a deep breath, then looked up at all of us gathered round. “Best get this over with.”

There was a stack of wood and plastic buckets lined up near the old boat ramp, which had deep cracks in it with pigweed and thistle growing out of them.

Roy took a bucket and filled it with brown water from the river, then poured the water into the hole, careful not to dump any on Walt’s head. Even with all he’d done, we wanted to spare him that indignity. “Sorry, Walt,” he said.

Each of us followed: fill, dump, set the bucket back on the ramp for the next person. Walt looked up at each of us as we poured the river water in, maybe a sign that he forgave us. Everyone said “Sorry, Walt,” as we dumped more water in.

It took hours — the hole was deeper than it looked. Walt stared the whole time, even after the water came up to his chin.

“Don’t hold your breath, Walt,” Roy called to him when he’d floated up the length of the chain. “It’ll just make this take longer.”

“Sorry,” Walt said in his gravelly voice, his mouth just barely out of the water. “Can’t help it.”

“S’okay,” Roy said, and motioned for the next person to come.

Then the water was just over his head. It was dark from all the silt, so all we could see was Walt’s face, cheeks puffed, eyes wide open and looking up at the surface. A few more buckets went in. Walt’s hands went to his nose and mouth, like that would be enough to keep the air in. Only natural. The body wants what it wants.

Walt grasped for the surface, bloodying his fingertips against the concrete.

A few looked away then. They had to. We didn’t blame them.

Then whatever air was left in his lungs bubbled out, and he started grasping at his throat and thrashing. Even Pete turned away. Because it was our duty, the rest of us watched until the thrashing stopped and Walt sunk to the bottom of the hole, and then we couldn’t see him anymore.

A few feet from the hole, his back turned to Walt’s final moments, Andy Snow began to cry. A few of us, who couldn’t bear to watch Walt any longer, shuffled through the grass to pat Andy on the shoulder and tell him he’d done well by Walt.

After a while, when we were certain it was over, Roy and a couple of the boys fished him out, wrapped him in some towels, and took him by cart to bury him on his own land, next to Miranda, we think. He’d never marked her grave.

“I need a drink,” Roy said when it was finished.

We set for home after the burial, uneasy but thinking that we’d done the right thing, and that all in all, it was a good day in Patience. On the way back, we could overhear Roy and a few others talking about what to do with the hole now that it was over. When we first made the decision, we’d agreed to fill it back in, for safety’s sake — couldn’t have kids playing around it — but a few of us wondered aloud whether we should just put a fence around it instead, in case we should need it again. We’d probably have to have another meeting to talk about it, but it would have to wait. We were all sick to death of meetings.

We went home, drank our homemade whiskey to quell the unease, went to bed like always. That was life. No other choice.

But we didn’t sleep, because behind our eyelids all we could see was Walt’s face at the end, his gaping mouth, eyes big and round and desperate. Instead we stared up at our ceilings, looked over at our husbands and wives to see if they were still awake too.

And we wondered aloud, in whispers so the children wouldn’t hear, if it wouldn’t have been better to have let Pete take that shotgun to Walt. More humane. Quicker, at least.

In the early morning, hours before sunrise, some of us who lived near the river heard a noise outside our windows, like metal scraping against stone. Nattie Palmer, a known insomniac, was up smoking the first-class weed she grew in her greenhouse and swore she saw a sasquatch walking in the shadows, big and black, with a swatch of white-blond hair over its eyes. On its shoulder it carried what she claimed was a tree branch with a human head affixed to the end, and it was whistling a tune she didn’t recognize, though when she told us it sounded a lot like the tune Ella had played.

In the morning, the hole had been filled with rocks from the riverbank and covered over with a thick layer of dirt. Whoever had done it had worked all night and had the strength of four, maybe five men. But for the patch of dirt, you could hardly tell anything had happened there.

No one complained. Whoever’d done the deed did a damn fine job: a few handfuls of grass seed and in two weeks, maybe less if there was ample rain, the grass would grow back and everything would be just like it was — smooth, green, and unspoiled.

William Jablonsky teaches fiction writing and interdisciplinary humanities at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. He is the author of two books, The Indestructible Man: Stories (Livingston Press, 2005) and The Clockwork Man (Medallion, 2010). His stories have recently appeared in Asimov’s, Shimmer, From The Depths, and Cutthroat.