By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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We all lurched forward when Mama braked and the car crunched to a sudden stop midway up our gravel drive. Following her gaze, we stared next door at the crisp green lawn of the Lee family. A wooden sign with red and blue letters hung across their side porch. It read, Welcome Home Walter, with small white stars across the bottom.
“Walter Lee’s home from Vietnam,” Mama declared.
“Jeremy from school told me he was crazy,” Violet said. She was my seven-year-old sister, and she always sat between Mama and me in the front seat. Dwayne, our older brother, sat in the back. He was thirteen, almost three years older than me.
“Jeremy’s crazy!” Dwayne snorted. For no apparent reason he slapped the back of my head.
“Nobody’s crazy, Dwayne.” Mama glanced in the rearview mirror. Dwayne fell back and looked the other way. “You did a good job on the Lees’ yard, Alan,” Mama said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, leaning forward to avoid any more of Dwayne’s antics.
We rolled the rest of the way to our attached, roofless garage. When our father’s heart came to a halt four years ago, many other things came to a halt as well: shopping for a new car and a new lawn mower, receiving expensive toys for Christmas, taking trips to Florida. But the most obvious was having a roof erected for our garage. Mama had explained how our father had intended to have a rooftop patio up there, where we would sit on warm evenings and drink iced tea, with wrought-iron railing and stairs down to the yard.
So we never considered the roofless cinder-block walls held together with two steel beams as sad testimony to an untimely death, but rather as a monument to a wonderful idea. As Mama steered the car into the garage, I looked upward at the door of her bedroom, which was supposed to have opened to a sunny patio but now opened to nothing.
“Alan, I want you to mow the yard tomorrow, OK?” Mama said.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
I had cut the Lees’ grass the day before using the new lawn mower that Mr. Lee had had shipped to our small town in Tennessee. Mr. Lee was a thin man with gentle manners. The way his mouth twitched from side to side, he always seemed to be at the beginning of a laugh, but in fact he hardly laughed at all. With his Texaco cap low over his eyes and his foot on the deck of the mower, he pulled the cord a few times with the choke off, then shoved the choke upward. He yanked the cord with both hands and with great care worked the choke back and forth. The engine rattled and sputtered, then revved and roared. Over the furious noise he yelled, “I’m gonna mark off some land!”
“Yes, sir!” I hollered back.
With a loud “Hoo-ah!” he pushed forward.
I watched and waited as he mowed the perimeter of a rectangle, stumbling around maple trees, avoiding the roots, and then, humpbacked, following the low bank that gently separated our yard from his. Finally he wheeled the mower back to me, and I took over.
He watched with arms folded, his mouth forming little circles like a fish’s mouth when you hold it out of water. I mowed within the lines of cut grass. Once I’d finished, he turned and walked off with his arm raised and pointing ahead of him. He looked like one of those explorers in a history book, gesturing toward the new frontier. I followed with the mower to the side yard. I outlined a square of sorts there, then cut the grass within it while Mr. Lee rested in the shade.
We worked the whole yard in that fashion. When we were finished, he dipped into his pocket and, in one fast motion, flipped two quarters simultaneously into the air. “Catch the birdies,” he said, and I caught each one. “Don’t tell your mother.”
“I won’t,” I said.
The payment was our secret. The agreement Mama and Mrs. Lee had negotiated, as a result of our own mower falling apart, was that I would cut the Lees’ yard for free, and in return we could use their mower to cut our yard. At the supper table Mama had justified it by announcing to everyone that since Mr. and Mrs. Lee were old — almost as old as her own parents — mowing their yard was a “good deed.”
I pocketed the fifty cents. Like two conspirators, Mr. Lee and I hunkered over the mower, which made clicking noises as it cooled, and refilled it with gas. Mrs. Lee came out and glared at her husband from the porch. She was taller and wider than he was. He held his mouth tight and walked around the mower, checking the choke and blowing grass off the deck. I was pretty sure they never talked to each other.
Mrs. Lee turned away, and, like a sailor gazing out to sea, she shaded her eyes with one hand and looked toward her apple trees, where, in a space of its own, a yellow rosebush flourished. A white post stuck up from the center of the bush, upon which sat a sturdy birdhouse. It was painted white with blue trim and had a prominent perch for the birds. Mrs. Lee never tired of telling everyone that the birdhouse had been constructed and mounted there by her son, Walter, just before he was drafted.
Two days later Walter Lee came home in a taxicab. Violet and I were in the front yard. Mr. and Mrs. Lee greeted him with open arms. He let them hug him but kept his hands at his sides. His cousin, Lehman, who lived down the road, was there, but they just stood facing each other, looking down, then sideways. The only one Walter Lee seemed happy to see was Sugar, the Lees’ dog, who jumped up and licked his face. Mrs. York was standing at the end of her drive, leaning on her wooden cane. With Sugar at his heels, Walter Lee broke away to help her cross the road.
Later that afternoon the men played horseshoes, and Mr. Lee shouted, “Hoo-ah!” each time his son’s horseshoe landed near the stake in the dusty pit. Mrs. Lee and Mrs. York sat on the porch and talked in low voices and watched the men. Sugar lay on the porch rug and dozed. Just behind the box hedge, Violet and I sat cross-legged in the grass and made clover necklaces. Thin shadows stretched across the yard, and the day softened into evening. Small swarms of gnats floated in the air. A mockingbird flew to the highest phone line and whistled softly into the evening haze over the clump and clink of horseshoes and Mr. Lee’s “Hoo-ah!”
The next day was cloudy and muggy, not a good day for mowing, but the grass was getting high. “Just mow the front yard,” Mama said, staring out the window. “And be sure to wash the mower off when you’re done. Don’t take it back dirty. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, standing at the door.
“Use the hose. Be sure to clean the grass from underneath.” She went back to her sewing, still talking. “The last thing I want is for Mildred Lee to say we don’t know what clean is,” Mama fussed as I went out the door.
I pulled the mower into our front yard. By the time I was ready to start it, I looked up, and there, in his yard, stood Walter Lee holding a shotgun in the crook of his arm. When he saw me, he grinned and waved. I waved back. He walked into the middle of the yard and swung the long-barreled twelve-gauge up to his shoulder. Dahoom!
I jumped backward and then saw feathers floating lightly downward above a fallen bird.
And so it began.
Within the hour Walter Lee had killed at least a dozen birds. With each blast, the twelve-gauge kicked upward, the red shell casing flew against the blue sky, and a dying bird flapped helplessly to the ground. I had barely started mowing when Mama called me back inside.
Mostly he shot common blackbirds and starlings, but on the second day Violet and I found two red-breasted robins in our backyard. One of the robins had its head blown off.
“We ought to bury them,” Violet said.
“I guess so.” I didn’t know what else to say. Walter Lee was firing often, and even though our brick home muffled each blast, we still ducked: Dahoom!
“Why doesn’t he stop?” Violet said, leaning over the two birds.
“He will.” I bent down beside her, hands on my knees, and looked at the jumbled pile of feathers. “Let’s bury them.”
We laid the birds side by side. I looked around for something to dig with and didn’t see Dwayne walk up with his BB gun. I was still searching for a stick when Violet screamed.
Dwayne was pointing the weapon at the bird that still had a head.
“It’s dead, Dwayne,” she said. She cupped her hand over the lifeless creature.
“Move your hand,” he said.
Dwayne set the long barrel of the gun on Violet’s hand. “It’s still alive. I saw it move.”
“No, you didn’t, Dwayne. Stop!”
“Shut up!” he said. He was uncomfortable. I could see that in his face. It wasn’t like Walter Lee, who seemed to be enjoying his shooting spree. I could hear Dwayne’s teeth grinding. He held fast with the gun. Violet knelt like a statue with her head bowed. The barrel rested just above the smooth skin of her hand that sheltered the robin.
“Dwayne,” I said, “the bird’s dead.”
He made a face. “ ‘Dwayne, Dwayne, the birdie is dead,’ ” he mocked.
Dahoom! We all jumped, and the BB gun fired: Punh!
Violet screamed and snatched her hand into her lap. Dwayne stepped backward, eyes wide, mouth open. Violet began crying, her hand between her legs. Then she suddenly stopped. She rubbed her hand and looked at it. No blood. The gun had misfired. Nothing had come out but air. Dwayne laughed, but not his usual laugh.
“Let me see,” I said. Violet held her hand out, and indeed there was a bit of redness but nothing else.
“You’re all right,” Dwayne said to Violet. He nervously aimed the gun at the bird’s head again.
Violet was breathing hard. She stood and looked at Dwayne with narrowed eyes. “It’s my turn now,” she said. She thrust out her hand, the one with the red mark.
Dwayne pulled the gun back. “What?”
“It’s my turn.” Violet motioned with her fingers. “Give me the gun.”
I was astounded when, after looking toward the house, he handed her the gun.
“Now, if you’re so brave, put your hand over the bird.”
She had him there. Dwayne knelt down with blinking eyes. He licked his lips. He placed his hand over the bird. “It was a mistake,” he said. “I wasn’t going to fire, Violet. It was a mistake, OK?”
“If it was a mistake,” Violet said, “the bird will protect you, but if you are lying, it won’t.”
She positioned the gun over his hand.
“You have to cock it,” he said. I couldn’t believe he’d told her that.
She struggled to pull the lever all the way. I could hear the BB’s rolling back and forth as she tried.
“I’ll do it,” I said. I cocked the gun and gave it back to her. Dwayne didn’t look at me. He knew we had him. Violet moved the gun back over his hand. I was holding my own hands tightly together. I suddenly wanted to stop her, but I didn’t know how. “Violet,” I whispered.
“Be quiet,” she said. I realized then that she didn’t want to do it either, but she couldn’t stop now. It had gone too far. Maybe it would be my turn next. Dwayne was sweating. I heard a dog bark. Then I heard our mother.
“Violet! What are you doing?” Mama was standing behind the screen door. “Dwayne, I thought I told you to put that gun up.”
“He’s helping us bury the birds,” Violet said, and she quickly handed the gun over to me.
“Two birds that Mr. Lee shot. We’re burying them,” I said.
“They’re robins,” Violet said.
Mama’s face softened. “Good Lord. Well, hurry up. And wash your hands afterwards.” She fidgeted with the dish towel she was holding. “And Dwayne, bring that gun inside and put it up without another word!”
Dwayne didn’t look up.
“Did you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I will.”
Mama disappeared. Dwayne dug a small hole and laid the birds in it. He carefully arranged the birds, covered them with fine dirt, and patted the mound with both hands. Then he stood up. I handed him the gun.
“Y’all need to put a rock over it or something. To mark it.” He turned away with the rifle over his shoulder, his head down.
At lunch on the third day Walter Lee was back at it. Old Mr. Lee brought him a chair to sit in, and Mrs. Lee brought out a serving tray with a plate of food. Walter set the food on the ground for Sugar and stacked four boxes of shells on the tray. Mrs. Lee went inside the house and didn’t come out again. You could hear old Mr. Lee going, “Hoo-ah!” whenever his son made a successful shot.
Dead birds lay everywhere. Mama stayed on the phone. The neighbors down the road were aghast, but what could be done? He was in his own yard, and he was home from the war. Mama kept the phone cradled to her ear and, with each series of blasts, rose and looked out the window. Dahoom! Dahoom! Two birds came fluttering down and flopped in the yard for a few seconds, then lay still, maybe with one wing pointing upward. We put up with it because, as Mrs. York said, “Well, at least it ain’t us he’s shooting at!”
There were flattened birds all over the road. Around three o’clock we thought he had finally stopped. The chair and tray were still there. Mama told me to go on and finish mowing the front yard, because it was supposed to rain.
I was half done mowing when Walter Lee came around the side of their house smoking a cigarette. He had the shotgun over his shoulder. He flicked the cigarette into an empty flowerpot. I stopped and waved. He raised the shotgun in the air to acknowledge me, then looked up at the darkening sky.
I could smell the rain in the air. I wanted to watch him, but I had to keep my eye on the yard so as to avoid the fallen birds. I tried not to mow over them because if I did, Poom! The feathers blew out the side of the mower in a black shower. The grass next to the road was the highest, and it became harder and harder to see the dead birds. Eventually I quit looking.
With just one more section to go, I turned, and Walter Lee was smiling at me. Then, his jaw set hard, he swung around. Dahoom! Dahoom! The gun roared and roared. Old Mr. Lee came out wearing his Texaco cap. I waved, but he didn’t see me. After a while the continuous grinding of the mower and the shotgun blasts merged into a bizarre symphony of engine and gunfire. The wind was rising. To my amazement small dust devils formed over the horseshoe pits and twisted and flitted over the Lees’ yard like exotic dancers on a green stage. This must be what war’s like, I thought. I kept mowing. I forgot all about the robins we had buried. I didn’t care about the birds anymore. I mowed grass and birds together. I think I mowed some of the birds twice. A few more shots rang out. I grinned and laughed, caught up in the whole roaring excitement of destruction.
The last square of grass took a good bit of pushing and pulling, but there were no dead birds there. After I finished, I turned to wave goodbye to Walter Lee. He was gone. Old Mr. Lee was gone. The chair and tray were gone.
I cut the engine and pulled the mower under the eaves so it wouldn’t get wet when it rained. The yard didn’t look as neat with all the random patches of black feathers like greasy stains on a tablecloth. All was quiet. I felt empty and strange. There was nothing moving except the wispy silver clouds caught up in the rising wind. I walked around to the back of the house and went inside.
Later that afternoon I had a cough, so Mama told me to go lie down and rest. She knew I liked to nap on her bed, so she said I could try to sleep in her room. “No messing with the door to the outside,” she called out to me as I climbed the stairs.
After I entered the large bedroom, I played at being Walter Lee. I twisted at the waist and shot imaginary birds out of the sky. I rolled across the bed and landed on the floor. “Pow, pow, pow,” I whispered with each shot. Then I tiptoed to the door to the outside, the one that was once supposed to open to a patio, and quietly unlatched it. I felt a thrill when I swung it open, but just as I was taking aim to fire through the doorway, a loud crack and three lines of lightning tore the sky. I saw the thorny black-locust trees bending and twisting in the flash of light, their branches waving like so many uplifted hands of horrified people. I quickly pushed the door closed and got into bed. Wide-eyed and still, I watched the reflection of the approaching storm in the heavy mirror of the oak dresser. Mama came in.
“You’re not scared, are you?”
“Good. Now, try to rest.” She arranged the covers, then left. I turned on my side, facing the door to the outside, as it began to rain. I felt myself fading into sleep. Suddenly — was it the next minute or the next hour? — I was startled by a loud bang!
The door to the outside had flown open and crashed against the bedroom wall with the violence of a gun blast. I’d forgotten to turn the lock. The wind soared into the room and slung everything around in a frenzy: paper, clothes, knickknacks on the dresser top.
Mama ran into the room, and our eyes met. “Mama!” I cried. In an instant she dashed to the open doorway and grabbed ahold of the door, her eyes squinting against the stinging rain. In one tremendous swing she banged the door shut and clicked the latch.
The storm surged against the house as Mama rested her hand on the bedpost. The thunder rolled over us, over the dead birds, over the Lees’ house, over Mr. York’s tomato fields, over Una Elementary School, over Mr. Ellis’s gas station and Mr. Smith’s general store, over the dark woods, over the rivers and lakes, over La Vergne, Smyrna, and Murfreesboro, over the eastern hills of Tennessee.
My mother wiped her face with both hands, then picked something up from the floor and placed it on the dresser. She looked about the room.
“That was something,” I said.
She smoothed my hair. “You’re not wet, are you?” Her hand was warm.
She took a deep breath. “See why I tell you not to open this door? It should stay locked at all times.”
“Now, not another word,” she said softly. She straightened the covers, then leaned over and kissed the top of my head. “Try to get some rest,” she said.
I snuggled beneath the layers of covers, and soon I was thinking about the birds. It was a tough life for them. As if it weren’t enough that Walter Lee was killing them by the dozen, they had to be out in that storm. My eyes grew heavy knowing that I was warm and secure and that Mama would keep me safe. She would keep us all safe, even Dwayne.
Sleep came slowly, as the moon rose over the low, dark hills. Mama was watching television in the living room. I could hear Walter Cronkite giving us the number of soldiers killed that day, his voice a soothing sound.
Paul A. Broome