Table of Contents
   A Lesson Before Dying
   Leadtext: I WAS NOT THERE, yet I was there
   No, I did not go to the trial, I did not hear the verdict, because I knew all the time what it would be
   Still, I was there
   I was there as much as anyone else was there
   Either I sat behind my aunt and his godmother or I sat beside them
   Both are large women, but his godmother is larger
   She is of average height, five four, five five, but weighs nearly two hundred pounds.Once she and my aunt had found their places - two rows behind the table where he sat with his court - appointed attorney - his godmother became as immobile as a great stone or as one of our oak or cypress stumps
   She never got up once to get water or go to the bathroom down in the basement
   She just sat there staring at the boy's cleancropped head where he sat at the front table with his lawyer
   Even after he had gone to await the jurors' verdict, her eyes remained in that one direction
   She heard nothing said in the courtroom
   Not by the prosecutor, not by the defense attorney, not by my aunt
   (Oh, yes, she did hear one word - one word, for sure: "hog.") It was my aunt whose eyes followed the prosecutor as he moved from one side of the courtroom to the other, pounding his fist into the palm of his hand, pounding the table where his papers lay, pounding the rail that separated the jurors from the rest of the courtroom
   It was my aunt who followed his every move, not his godmother
   She was not even listening
   She had gotten tired of listening
   She knew, as we all knew, what the outcome would be
   A white man had been killed during a robbery, and though two of the robbers had been killed on the spot, one had been captured, and he, too, would have to die
   Though he told them no, he had nothing to do with it, that he was on his way to the White Rabbit Bar and Lounge when Brother and Bear drove up beside him and offered him a ride
   After he got into the car, they asked him if he had any money
   When he told them he didn't have a solitary dime, it was then that Brother and Bear started talking credit, saying that old Gropé should not mind crediting them a pint since he knew them well, and he knew that the grinding season was coming soon, and they would be able to pay him back then
   The store was empty, except for the old storekeeper, Alcee Gropé, who sat on a stool behind the counter
   He spoke first
   He asked Jefferson about his godmother
   Jefferson told him his nannan was all right
   Old Gropé nodded his head
   "You tell her for me I say hello," he told Jefferson
   He looked at Brother and Bear
   But he didn't like them
   He didn't trust them
   Jefferson could see that in his face
   "Do for you boys?" he asked
   "A bottle of that Apple White, there, Mr
   Gropé," Bear said
   Old Gropé got the bottle off the shelf, but he did not set it on the counter
   He could see that the boys had already been drinking, and he became suspicious
   "You boys got money?" he asked
   Brother and Bear spread out all the money they had in their pockets on top of the counter
   Old Gropé counted it with his eyes
   "That's not enough," he said
   "Come on, now, Mr
   Gropé," they pleaded with him
   "You know you go'n get your money soon as grinding start." "No," he said
   "Money is slack everywhere
   You bring the money, you get your wine." He turned to put the bottle back on the shelf
   One of the boys, the one called Bear, started around the counter
   "You, stop there," Gropé told him
   "Go back." Bear had been drinking, and his eyes were glossy, he walked unsteadily, grinning all the time as he continued around the counter
   "Go back," Gropé told him
   "I mean, the last time now - go back." Bear continued
   Gropé moved quickly toward the cash register, where he withdrew a revolver and started shooting
   Soon there was shooting from another direction
   When it was quiet again, Bear, Gropé, and Brother were all down on the floor, and only Jefferson was standing.He wanted to run, but he couldn't run
   He couldn't even think
   He didn't know where he was
   He didn't know how he had gotten there
   He couldn't remember ever getting into the car
   He couldn't remember a thing he had done all day.He heard a voice calling
   He thought the voice was coming from the liquor shelves
   Then he realized that old Gropé was not dead, and that it was he who was calling
   He made himself go to the end of the counter
   He had to look across Bear to see the storekeeper
   Both lay between the counter and the shelves of alcohol
   Several bottles had been broken, and alcohol and blood covered their bodies as well as the floor
   He stood there gaping at the old man slumped against the bottom shelf of gallons and half gallons of wine
   He didn't know whether he should go to him or whether he should run out of there
   The old man continued to call: "Boy? Boy? Boy?" Jefferson became frightened
   The old man was still alive
   He had seen him
   He would tell on him
   Now he started babbling
   "It wasn't me
   It wasn't me, Mr
   Gropé
   It was Brother and Bear
   Brother shot you
   It wasn't me
   They made me come with them
   You got to tell the law that, Mr
   Gropé
   You hear me, Mr
   Gropé?"But he was talking to a dead man.Still he did not run
   He didn't know what to do
   He didn't believe that this had happened
   Again he couldn't remember how he had gotten there
   He didn't know whether he had come there with Brother and Bear, or whether he had walked in and seen all this after it happened
   He looked from one dead body to the other
   He didn't know whether he should call someone on the telephone or run
   He had never dialed a telephone in his life, but he had seen other people use them
   He didn't know what to do
   He was standing by the liquor shelf, and suddenly he realized he needed a drink and needed it badly
   He snatched a bottle off the shelf, wrung off the cap, and turned up the bottle, all in one continuous motion
   The whiskey burned him like fire - his chest, his belly, even his nostrils
   His eyes watered; he shook his head to clear his mind
   Now he began to realize where he was
   Now he began to realize fully what had happened
   Now he knew he had to get out of there
   He turned
   He saw the money in the cash register, under the little wire clamps
   He knew taking money was wrong
   His nannan had told him never to steal
   He didn't want to steal
   But he didn't have a solitary dime in his pocket
   And nobody was around, so who could say he stole it?
   Surely not one of the dead men
   He was halfway across the room, the money stuffed inside his jacket pocket, the half bottle of whiskey clutched in his hand, when two white men walked into the store
   That was his story
   The prosecutor's story was different
   The prosecutor argued that Jefferson and the other two had gone there with the full intention of robbing the old man and then killing him so that he could not identify them
   When the old man and the other two robbers were all dead, this one - it proved the kind of animal he really was - stuffed the money into his pockets and celebrated the event by drinking over their still-bleeding bodies
   The defense argued that Jefferson was innocent of all charges except being at the wrong place at the wrong time
   There was absolutely no proof that there had been a conspiracy between himself and the other two
   The fact that Mr
   Gropé shot only Brother and Bear was proof of Jefferson's innocence
   Why did Mr. Gropé shoot one boy twice and never shoot at Jefferson once? Because Jefferson was merely an innocent bystander
   He took the whiskey to calm his nerves, not to celebrate
   He took the money out of hunger and plain stupidity."Gentlemen of the jury, look at this - this - this boy
   I almost said man, but I can't say man
   Oh, sure, he has reached the age of twenty-one, when we, civilized men, consider the male species has reached manhood, but would you call this - this - this a man? No, not I
   I would call it a boy and a fool
   A fool is not aware of right and wrong
   A fool does what others tell him to do
   A fool got into that automobile
   A man with a modicum of intelligence would have seen that those racketeers meant no good
   But not a fool
   A fool got into that automobile
   A fool rode to the grocery store
   A fool stood by and watched this happen, not having the sense to run."Gentlemen of the jury, look at him - look at him - look at this
   Do you see a man sitting here?
   Do you see a man sitting here?
   I ask you, I implore, look carefully - do you see a man sitting here?
   Look at the shape of this skull, this face as flat as the palm of my hand - look deeply into those eyes
   Do you see a modicum of intelligence?
   Do you see anyone here who could plan a murder, a robbery, can plan - can plan - can plan anything?
   A cornered animal to strike quickly out of fear, a trait inherited from his ancestors in the deepest jungle of blackest Africa - yes, yes, that he can do - but to plan?
   To plan, gentlemen of the jury?
   No, gentlemen, this skull here holds no plans
   What you see here is a thing that acts on command
   A thing to hold the handle of a plow, a thing to load your bales of cotton, a thing to dig your ditches, to chop your wood, to pull your corn
   That is what you see here, but you do not see anything capable of planning a robbery or a murder
   He does not even know the size of his clothes or his shoes
   Ask him to name the months of the year
   Ask him does Christmas come before or after the Fourth of July?
   Mention the names of Keats, Byron, Scott, and see whether the eyes will show one moment of recognition
   Ask him to describe a rose, to quote one passage from the Constitution or the Bill of Rights
   Gentlemen of the jury, this man planned a robbery?
   Oh, pardon me, pardon me, I surely did not mean to insult your intelligence by saying 'man' - would you please forgive me for committing such an error?"Gentlemen of the jury, who would be hurt if you took this life? Look back to that second row
   Please look
   I want all twelve of you honorable men to turn your heads and look back to that second row
   What you see there has been everything to him - mama, grandmother, godmother - everything
   Look at her, gentlemen of the jury, look at her well
   Take this away from her, and she has no reason to go on living
   We may see him as not much, but he's her reason for existence
   Think on that, gentlemen, think on it."Gentlemen of the jury, be merciful
   For God's sake, be merciful
   He is innocent of all charges brought against him."But let us say he was not
   Let us for a moment say he was not
   What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this."I thank you, gentlemen, from the bottom of my heart, for your kind patience
   I have no more to say, except this: We must live with our own conscience
   Each and every one of us must live with his own conscience."The jury retired, and it returned a verdict after lunch: guilty of robbery and murder in the first degree
   The judge commended the twelve white men for reaching a quick and just verdict
   This was Friday
   He would pass sentence on Monday.Ten o'clock on Monday, Miss Emma and my aunt sat in the same seats they had occupied on Friday
   Reverend Mose Ambrose, the pastor of their church, was with them
   He and my aunt sat on either side of Miss Emma
   The judge, a short, red-faced man with snow-white hair and thick black eyebrows, asked Jefferson if he had anything to say before the sentencing
   My aunt said that Jefferson was looking down at the floor and shook his head
   The judge told Jefferson that he had been found guilty of the charges brought against him, and that the judge saw no reason that he should not pay for the part he played in this horrible crime.Death by electrocution
   The governor would set the date.© 1993, Ernest J
   Gaines