By the time they reached the highway, all three needed a cigarette. "Reckon McBride'll mind if we smoke?" Butch said. At three packs a day he was always reaching for a pocket.
"Somebody's been smokin' in here," Inez said. "Smells like a tar pit. Is the air conditioner on, Leon?"
"Yes, but you can't tell it if the windows are down."
With little concern for Mr. McBride's preferences on smoking in his van, they were soon puffing away with the windows down, the warm wind rushing in and swirling about. Once inside the van, the wind had no exit, no other windows, no vents, nothing to let it out, so it roared back toward the front and engulfed the three Graneys, who were staring at the road, smoking intently, seemingly oblivious to everything as the van moved along the county road. Butch and Leon casually flicked their ashes out of the windows. Inez gently tapped hers into her cupped left hand.
"How much did McBride charge you?" Butch asked from the passenger's seat.
Leon shook his head. "Nothing. Even filled up the tank. Said he didn't agree with this. Claimed a lot of folks don't like it."
"I'm not sure I believe that."
When the three cigarettes were finished, Leon and Butch rolled up their windows and fiddled with the air conditioner and the vents. Hot air shot out and minutes passed before the heat was broken. All three were sweating.
"You okay back there?" Leon asked, glancing over his shoulder and smiling at his mother.
"I'm fine. Thank you. Does the air conditioner work?"
"Yes, it's gettin' cooler now."
"I can't feel a thang."
"You wanna stop for a soda or something?"
"No. Let's hurry along."
"I'd like a beer," Butch said, and, as if this was expected, Leon immediately shook his head in the negative and Inez shot forth with an emphatic "No."
"There'll be no drinking," she said, and the issue was laid to rest. When Ernie abandoned the family years earlier, he'd taken nothing but his shotgun, a few clothes, and all the liquor from his private supply. He'd been a violent drunk, and his boys still carried the scars, emotional and physical. Leon, the oldest, had felt more of the brutality than his younger brothers, and as a small boy equated alcohol with the horrors of an abusive father. He had never taken a drink, though with time had found his own vices. Butch, on the other hand, had drunk heavily since his early teens, though he'd never been tempted to sneak alcohol into his mother's home. Raymond, the youngest, had chosen to follow the example of Butch rather than of Leon.
To shift away from such an unpleasant topic, Leon asked his mother about the latest news from a friend down the road, an old spinster who'd been dying of cancer for years. Inez, as always, perked up when discussing the ailments and treatments of her neighbors, and herself as well. The air conditioner finally broke through, and the thick humidity inside the van began to subside. When he stopped sweating, Butch reached for his pocket, fished out a cigarette, lit it, then cracked the window. The temperature rose immediately. Soon all three were smoking, and the windows went lower and lower until the air was again thick with heat and nicotine.
When they finished, Inez said to Leon, "Raymond called two hours ago." This was no surprise. Raymond had been making calls, collect, for days now, and not only to his mother. Leon's phone was ringing so often that his (third) wife refused to answer it. Others around town were also declining to accept charges.
"What'd he say?" Leon asked, but only because he had to reply. He knew exactly what Raymond had said, maybe not verbatim, but certainly in general.
"Said thangs are lookin' real good, said he'd probably have to fire the team of lawyers he has now so he can hire another team of lawyers. You know Raymond. He's tellin' the lawyers what to do and they're just fallin' all over themselves."
Without turning his head, Butch cut his eyes at Leon, and Leon returned the glance. Nothing was said because words were not necessary.
"Said his new team comes from a firm in Chicago with a thousand lawyers. Can you imagine? A thousand lawyers workin' for Raymond. And he's tellin' 'em what to do."
Another glance between driver and right-side passenger. Inez had cataracts, and her peripheral vision had declined. If she had seen the looks being passed between her two oldest, she would not have been pleased.
"Said they've just discovered some new evidence that shoulda been produced at trial but wasn't because the cops and the prosecutors covered it up, and with this new evidence Raymond feels real good about gettin' a new trial back here in Clanton, though he's not sure he wants it here, so he might move it somewhere else. He's thinkin' about somewhere in the Delta because the Delta juries have more blacks and he says that blacks are more sympathetic in cases like this. What do you thank about that, Leon?"
"There are definitely more blacks in the Delta," Leon said. Butch grunted and mumbled, but his words were not clear.
"Said he don't trust anyone in Ford County, especially the law and the judges. God knows they've never given us a break."
Leon and Butch nodded in silent agreement. Both had been chewed up by the law in Ford County, Butch much more so than Leon. And though they had pled guilty to their crimes in negotiated deals, they had always believed they were persecuted simply because they were Graneys.
"Don't know if I can stand another trial, though," she said, and her words trailed off.
Leon wanted to say that Raymond's chances of getting a new trial were worse than slim, and that he'd been making noise about a new trial for over a decade. Butch wanted to say pretty much the same thing, but he would've added that he was sick of Raymond's jailhouse bullshit about lawyers and trials and new evidence and that it was past time for the boy to stop blaming everybody else and take his medicine like a man.
But neither said a word.
"Said the both of you ain't sent him his stipends for last month," she said. "That true?"
Five miles passed before another word was spoken.
"Ya'll hear me up there?" Inez said. "Raymond says ya'll ain't mailed in his stipends for the month of June, and now it's already July. Ya'll forget about it?"
Leon went first, and unloaded. "Forget about it? How can we forget about it? That's all he talks about. I get a letter every day, sometimes two, not that I read 'em all, but every letter mentions the stipend. 'Thanks for the money, bro.' 'Don't forget the money, Leon, I'm counting on you, big brother.' 'Gotta have the money to pay the lawyers, you know how much those bloodsuckers can charge.' 'Ain't seen the stipend this month, bro.'"
"What the hell is a stipend?" Butch shot from the right side, his voice suddenly edgy.
"A regular or fixed payment, according to Webster's," Leon said.
"It's just money, right?"
"So why can't he just say something like, 'Send me the damned money'? Or, 'Where's the damned money?' Why does he have to use the fancy words?"
"We've had this conversation a thousand times," Inez said.
"Well, you sent him a dictionary," Leon said to Butch.
"That was ten years ago, at least. And he begged me for it."
"Well, he's still got it, still wearing it out looking for words we ain't seen before."
"I often wonder if his lawyers can keep up with his vocabulary," Butch mused.
"Ya'll're tryin' to change the subject up there," Inez said. "Why didn't you send him his stipends last month?"