"I thought I did," Butch said without conviction.
"I don't believe that," she said.
"The check's in the mail," Leon said.
"I don't believe that either. We all agreed to send him $100 each, every month, twelve months a year. It's the least we can do. I know it's hard, especially on me, livin' on Social Security and all. But you boys have jobs, and the least you can do is squeeze out $100 each for your little brother so he can buy decent food and pay his lawyers."
"Do we have to go through this again?" Leon asked.
"I hear it every day," Butch said. "If I don't hear from Raymond, on the phone or through the mail, then I hear it from Momma."
"Is that a complaint?" she asked. "Got a problem with your livin' arrangements? Stayin' in my house for free, and yet you want to complain?"
"Come on," Leon said.
"Who'll take care of you?" Butch offered in his defense.
"Knock it off, you two. This gets so old."
All three took a deep breath, then began reaching for the cigarettes. After a long, quiet smoke, they settled in for another round. Inez got things started with a pleasant "Me, I never miss a month. And, if you'll recall, I never missed a month when the both of you was locked up at Parchman."
Leon grunted, slapped the wheel, and said angrily, "Momma, that was twenty-five years ago. Why bring it up now? I ain't had so much as a speedin' ticket since I got paroled." Butch, whose life in crime had been much more colorful than Leon's, and who was still on parole, said nothing.
"I never missed a month," she said.
"And sometimes it was $200 a month 'cause I had two of you there at one time, as I recall. Guess I was lucky I never had all three behind bars. Couldn't've paid my light bill."
"I thought those lawyers worked for free," Butch said in an effort to deflect attention from himself and hopefully direct it toward a target outside the family.
"They do," Leon said. "It's called pro bono work, and all lawyers are supposed to do some of it. As far as I know, these big firms who come in on cases like this don't expect to get paid."
"Then what's Raymond doin' with $300 a month if he ain't payin' his lawyers?"
"We've had this conversation," Inez said.
"I'm sure he spends a fortune on pens, paper, envelopes, and postage," Leon said. "He claims he writes ten letters a day. Hell, that's over $100 a month right there."
"Plus he's written eight novels," Butch added quickly. "Or is it nine, Momma? I can't remember."
"Nine novels, several volumes of poetry, bunch of short stories, hundreds of songs. Just think of all the paper he goes through," Butch said.
"Are you pokin' fun at Raymond?" she asked.
"He sold a short story once," she said.
"Of course he did. What was the magazine? Hot Rodder? Paid him forty bucks for a story about a man who stole a thousand hubcaps. They say you write what you know."
"How many stories have you sold?" she asked.
"None, because I haven't written any, and the reason I haven't written any is because I realize that I don't have the talent to write. If my little brother would also realize that he has no artistic talents whatsoever, then he could save some money and hundreds of people would not be subjected to his nonsense."
"That's very cruel."
"No, Momma, it's very honest. And if you'd been honest with him a long time ago, then maybe he would've stopped writing. But no. You read his books and his poetry and his short stories and told him the stuff was great. So he wrote more, with longer words, longer sentences, longer paragraphs, and got to the point to where now we can hardly understand a damned thang he writes."
"So it's all my fault?"
"Not 100 percent, no."
"He writes for therapy."
"I've been there. I don't see how writin' helps any."
"He says it helps."
"Are these books handwritten or typed up?" Leon asked, interrupting.
"Typed," Butch said.
"Who types 'em?"
"He has to pay some guy over in the law library," Inez said. "A dollar a page, and one of the books was over eight hundred pages. I read it, though, ever' word."
"Did you understand ever' word?" Butch asked.
"Most of 'em. A dictionary helps. Lord, I don't know where that boy finds those words."
"And Raymond sent these books up to New York to get published, right?" Leon asked, pressing on.
"Yes, and they sent 'em right back," she said. "I guess they couldn't understand all his words either."
"You'd think those people in New York would understand what he's sayin'," Leon said.
"No one understands what he's sayin'," Butch said. "That's the problem with Raymond the novelist, and Raymond the poet, and Raymond the political prisoner, and Raymond the songwriter, and Raymond the lawyer. No person in his right mind could possibly have any idea what Raymond says when he starts writin'."
"So, if I understand this correctly," Leon said, "a large portion of Raymond's overhead has been spent to finance his literary career. Paper, postage, typing, copying, shipping to New York and back. That right, Momma?"
"And it's doubtful if his stipends have actually gone to pay his lawyers," Leon said.
"Very doubtful," Butch said. "And don't forget his music career. He spends money on guitar strings and sheet music. Plus, they now allow the prisoners to rent tapes. That's how Raymond became a blues singer. He listened to B. B. King and Muddy Waters, and, according to Raymond, he now entertains his colleagues on death row with late-night sessions of the blues."
"Oh, I know. He's told me about it in his letters."
"He always had a good voice," Inez said.
"I never heard 'im sang," Leon said.
"Me neither," Butch added.
They were on the bypass around Oxford, two hours away from Parchman. The upholstery van seemed to run best at sixty miles an hour; anything faster and the front tires shook a bit. There was no hurry. West of Oxford the hills began to flatten; the Delta was not far away. Inez recognized a little white country church off to the right, next to a cemetery, and it occurred to her that the church had not changed in all the many years she had made this journey to the state penitentiary. She asked herself how many other women in Ford County had made as many of these trips, but she knew the answer. Leon had started the tradition many years earlier with a thirty-month incarceration, and back then the rules allowed her to visit on the first Sunday of each month. Sometimes Butch drove her and sometimes she paid a neighbor's son, but she never missed a visitation and she always took peanut butter fudge and extra toothpaste. Six months after Leon was paroled, he was driving her so she could visit Butch. Then it was Butch and Raymond, but in different units with different rules.
Then Raymond killed the deputy, and they locked him down on death row, which had its own rules.
With practice, most unpleasant tasks become bearable, and Inez Graney had learned to look forward to the visits. Her sons had been condemned by the rest of the county, but their mother would never abandon them. She was there when they were born, and she was there when they were beaten. She had suffered through their court appearances and parole hearings, and she had told anyone who would listen that they were good boys who'd been abused by the man she'd chosen to marry. All of it was her fault. If she'd married a decent man, her children might have had normal lives.