m_topn picture
Unbound Fiction
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Previously in Unbound Fiction:

"Everyone Please Be Careful," by Lucia Nevai (August 25, 1999)
"He's more than a pet, my baby, less than an actual socialized man."

"Fundamentals of Communication," by Thisbe Nissen (July 28, 1999)
"Communications is not my field. I teach Fundamentals of Acting I and II. I used to do the Dramatic Monologue, alternating semesters with Advanced Improvisation."

"Vigil," by David Gates (June 23, 1999)
"I had a fool thought -- probably due to that pill, because I could feel it coming over me pretty strong now. I thought that she'd lived a good long life and for that reason she'd been chosen to take Bonnie's place."

"Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," by Alex Keegan (May 26, 1999)
"The hens have been my livelihood, but this have not always been so. Once I was to be a teacher, then a collier, then dead underground, then dead from a bullet in the Great War."

"Introducing Unbound Fiction," by Katherine Guckenberger (May 26, 1999)
A note from Atlantic Unbound's fiction editor.


See an index of fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


September 22, 1999

The Bell Rope, by M. J. Clement

I  just want to say that my husband couldn't be here today, he's in the hospital, cardiac care unit, that's how broken up he is, in the hospital, he would have been here, he's been with me every day, he's been there for me since she passed away, she went up to heaven, our daughter, we sit at the table in the kitchen and we cry, two of us crying, I just hold his hand, and we can't figure out how it happened, how we lost our baby, since that day a year ago when she passed away, the kids and the grandkids are floundering without us, because we can't be there for them, they're floundering without their aunt, my lovely daughter, the family is split apart, because we can't be there, we're locked in ourselves, when the grandkids are playing in the house, we can't stoop to pick up a baby block, we just want to sit down on the couch and cry, that's all we do, and her sister, she talked to her sister just about every day, every day she would call her sister just to say, today's a hard one, but I'm gonna get through it and tomorrow's gonna be better, or I'm having a fine day today, and how are you, things are looking up, and that was the last phone call they had just the day before, the day before it happened, she said everything was swell, she had a big sales call she was going to make, coming up the next day or two, and that's what I want to say, that's what I want to talk about, she had a big sales call, she was good at her job, she had big plans for her job, she was a hard worker, and her sister talked to her the night before, and she was feeling happy about things, she was happy, we couldn't have any idea what would happen, and that's why my husband is in the hospital, just lying in his bed sobbing, can't get out of the bed, we were a close-knit family, we were about the closest knit family you ever saw, we were always together, always talking and laughing, when we were together there was always somebody laughing, and she came home for every holiday, my daughter, we saw her every single holiday, that's about how close we were, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't want to cause any trouble, no parent should have to go through this, death of a child is a cruel thing, no parent should have to live through what we've lived through, my husband and myself, and we aren't asking for much, we can't have our baby back, we can't have our girl back, and she was still a young woman, she never got to know the joys of motherhood, never got married in a church, we know we can't have her back, and we just want you to know how much we're hurting, how we have suffered and we're suffering still--

Prosecutor, flushed crimson, hefts himself from the chair, and their voices, his and hers, are locked strands of a musical invention, Thank you, I'm sure the court, I'm sure everyone here can sympathize with the depth of your grief, I'm sure everyone here can sympathize, we all know how hard it is when a senseless death like this one takes place, when tragedy occurs, because of the foolishness of one young man, because of one young man's bad judgment, and I'd like to--

Defense objects, is squelched, no further questions for the mother, and the judge rules she may step down, whereupon she is helped back into the audience beside daughter and son and relatives distant and near, and she wheezes breathlessly with the exertion of her testimony, and the prosecutor gasps asthmatically with the exertion of his case, so that the first impression a young reporter has of sentencing is that it takes place in a constrictive airless environment, a site of pulmonary distress, the mere possibility of breathing subject to intense judicial scrutiny, and the prosecutor dabs his eyes with a handkerchief as he organizes his bulk upon the bench and the judge addresses the courtroom, I'm letting anyone talk, anyone wants to say their piece here today so that we can examine all the potential sides of this sentencing issue, they should all feel free to speak, I invite you all to speak, this is a difficult case, everyone deserves a chance to speak, anyone at all who wants a chance to speak should speak--

Max has always been a good friend to me, says the park ranger when called next; the two often hunted together before Max's injuries, bounty of nature was their quarry, shotguns cocked and ready, plundering the land, vanquishing rodents and woodland animals, waterfowl, bucks, does, with flask in hip pocket, We used to see him in town, my wife and me, we'd see him in town, he was always a good friend to me, my wife was the manager of a restaurant, see, and that was the center of the social activities, so we'd see him and Sandra, the two of them, maybe go to the movies, socialize, have a dinner, I can remember a few movies we saw, mainly action pictures, they'd come to our house, Max and Sandra, we'd go to their house, you know, like people do, mainly just socializing, and we got pretty close, and he and I would go to his family's farm, maybe go hunting, grouse or quail, we'd be up with the sun, didn't talk all that much, and I never saw him drink, when we were out socializing, I don't know, two or three drinks, I'd say he had two or three drinks, same as anybody, a few drinks, which means I suppose two or three drinks or maybe three or four, I never saw him intoxicated, I only saw him intoxicated on a few occasions, he was only badly intoxicated a few times that I remember, that's all, I guess on two or three occasions, I'd say, same as anybody else, since Sandra passed away, I don't know, he's reclusive, he's a reclusive-type person now, I contacted him on a few occasions, I'd say, on one or two occasions, I'd contact him, invite him to go hiking, but he didn't really want to go hiking anymore, he mostly wanted to stay in, and my wife and I, we'd go to talk to him, but he didn't talk all that much, that's what I'm saying, we had moved out of town around this time, we had moved over to the Delaware area and we would call him, but he wouldn't answer the calls, occasionally when I was still in town, couple of days a week, he'd drive out to my apartment, but he didn't want to talk, he just mostly sat there, really depressed, I guess that's what you'd call it, in answer to your question, I'd say that I don't know if he has an alcohol problem -- is a man who has a drinking problem different from the same guy before he had one? is a sunset still a sunset for a guy who has a drinking problem? I've never seen him, your honor, drink more than a few drinks on a night, that's all I have to say about that, I never saw him be irresponsible, he was a good friend to my wife and me, and I sure feel sorry for how things turned out--

The ranger compulsively buttons and unbuttons the front of his double-breasted suit, hair immaculately combed, sits in a pew, now, at the conclusion of his remarks, at the edge of that impressive assemblage of family and step-family, assorted wives and lovers, shakes his head morosely, just as he tried to shake off the after-image of persistent questioning from the prosecutor, that southern gentleman who dabs his eyes, frontally, toward the boy reporters, cub reporters from the local broadsheet, in their twill shirts, as a ceiling fan turns lazily above, and the judge says again, I'm letting anyone talk, anyone who wants to contribute to these proceedings, so that we can examine all the issues on both sides of the case, so anybody who feels a need to be heard will be heard, and the bailiff (heavily burdened at the beltline with the tools of his vocation, with punitive imagery, with cuffs and club and sidearm) whispers to the court reporter who whispers in turn to the defense about lunch plans; and over the head of the court reporter, over the head of the bailiff, over the head of the judge, a slender, simple cord stretches up to the ceiling, disappears into a reinforced socket there, a loop at its perigee -- this cord that reaches from the first floor of this hall of justice up into the ceiling, where the bell may ring its change; this is in fact the bell rope by which the community is called to attention and it resembles a noose; as there is meanwhile a statue out front, the statue of the Confederate soldier, where they were all waiting, the families were waiting, an impossible duration this interval of waiting, upon the brick step of the Buckingham courthouse, and the cub reporters watched from a parked car, the procession of the family of the victim, and the shamefaced family of the convicted, beside the statue of the Confederate soldier, all these Yankees, from the North they have come, these Yankees from Detroit, from Boston; they have come for southern justice, to have settled the sentence in the case of a matter of a particular afternoon -- the one cub reporter jots in his notebook, No other way to put it -- upon the river James with its ecology of snakes and trout, with its canopy of willows thirsty upon the banks, God's country, drop any seed into this red clay and farms will prosper; where once on homemade rafts they might have punted from shore to shore along the James, a couple in the midst of courtship, in the flush of love, nowadays they ride the length of the river James in the inner tubes from enormous industrial tires, passing back and forth a polymer container full of drinks; they glide, Sandra and Max, pacifically down the river, into the past of the Commonwealth of Virginia, a pitcher of gin and tonics, or mint juleps, although the exact contents of the pitcher is in question, as the defense insists that Max did not know the contents and did not ask Sandra what she poured into the container during the early morning hours, as she, Sandra, apparently mixed this contested pitcher of alcoholic beverages -- according to exhibits filed by the defense -- for the lazy voyage upon the river James; so still that waterway, on a Sunday when they ought to have been in church, praying with their neighbors, their adoptive neighbors, their southern neighbors, at which point their very man of the cloth, the preacher from their congregation, is called, and he strides from the back of the audience to be sworn in:

Max came to the parish several Sundays in the last two or three months, can't say why he didn't come sooner, don't care to speculate, came to the parish obviously dejected, never did stay for coffee hour, never did become part of the parish family, but did agree to visit with me in my office, and I made there an effort to give him some advice about how to reconcile himself to God for what's happened, as I also advised him to continue counseling, feeling that counseling was a necessary component of the recovery or reassembly of his life, the period in which he tried to unburden himself of this difficulty and get back into the mainstream of Christian life, or into the mainstream of any life at all, like I say, God does not cause these things to happen, though God allows these things to happen, and which is the more painful of these alternatives is not for me to address, as I have not solved these questions myself and no man shall, for what is the Almighty's intention in the matter of accident or calamity, is accident a kind of evil, or is it a limitation of divine will, if such limitations really exist in the matter of the Divine? now, I don't believe that Max has much common sense, if you want to know the honest truth, I don't believe that Max knows what his emotions are, I don't believe Max can say what it is he's feeling, he's blundering in this heavy darkness, there is a burden upon him, and during most of these conversations I'm afraid Max was pretty silent and was able only to say a few words, nevertheless we should weigh his darkness, and we should weigh God's will for Maxwell, although I certainly would offer my belief that he should continue with his researches into the matter of spirituality, God help him, and continue weekly attendance at--

Was once in the military, the man of the cloth -- he admits as much under questioning -- and this must account for precision in the matter of speech and thought, for equanimity and poise upon the stand, while, in the meantime, out the great, paned windows of the eighteenth-century courthouse, during the tedious stretches of testimony, reporters watch black men in paint-spattered coveralls scraping and priming the detail on the courthouse, the rhythmical aspect of these labors like a sort of breathing, that's the way it sounds, like the punctuation between sentences, punitive and grammatical, and when there is a break in the ennui, the families gaze out through those portals, to where the larches and maples bend politely in the breeze, to where the black arms and black faces of these southern laborers appear, framed in the panes; all these court observers trapped in parabolic time, caught in systematic recurrences, silently yearning to be outdoors, chittering as the birds of the trees; there's a long such interval now, as the court prepares for the moment when Max himself will appear on the stand to argue for lenience, though he has been inconsolable all morning, a broken man, what torrents are there that can water down this tempest he has stirred up? what language can speak of it? he can't compose himself and has not been able to attend to the testimony of others, the short, black coiffure upon his fevered brow glued there with perspiration, his white, starchy dress shirt moist through, his blue blazer clammy and limp; still this is not his turn now, to speak, instead his father, of the investment firm of McCallister Grady, Ltd., rises, steeped in the idiom of his vocation, to offer a plea for clemency to the judge, who with steely eyes, peers over wire frames of gold:

My boy worked for some years as a local stringer for the deal I'm presently putting together involving the diversion of 401K or IRA monies into savings accounts exempted from federal, state, and local taxes expressly for the purpose of sending kids to private or parochial schools, an issue that has been heating up politically, your honor, for some time, especially here in the Commonwealth, where we now have the opportunity to restore choice to American parents, to allow them a choice in the matter of schools, and for some time my boy has been working for me in this, doing outreach and lobbying with local schools and state representatives, with schools associated with our local churches, with ministers and public servants, and he has done a good job, he's a tireless worker, he's good at talking to people, he can take a man out to lunch, look that man in the eye, let him know that he has only the most honest intentions toward him and his business, he was once good at this, good at an honest, hard-working approach to investment, and let me tell you, your honor, we think, as custodians of these accounts, that an honest approach is best for people looking for reliable conservative returns on investment, nothing speculative, purely in the public interest, we think that we can really bring aid to the people of the Commonwealth, this was our business plan, anyhow, though he's not the same now, my boy, he's not the same, your honor, I know what he has done, he knows what he has done, he's awake in the night thinking about it, I am awake in the night thinking of it, consider that dreamlessness, I think sleep is the first price exacted by way of punishment, and now when my boy comes into the office he sits by the phone, can't concentrate on his telephone duties, your honor, look at me, I'm almost seventy years old, I can't work the way I used to, I'm slowing down, I am running out of energy, I am not the man I was, your honor, when I had the patience for these large transactions, now I am just an older man working on his own, and as you know this idea of funds for education has been heating up in the electorate, now is the time when my boy Max could help his father with this, now is the time, well, a lovely young woman has been lost through his bad judgment, we concede that, your honor, my boy took a life, two families are shattered and that's a tragedy, there's none worse, but what virtue in leaving a man in a cell, when he could be out with me, attempting some good, how does confinement repair what he did? how does incarceration make Sandra's family peaceful? how does this punitive quarantine make this county stronger and more resolute? and I ask you wouldn't it be better to let a man like this go out into the city and use what talent he has for some good, where the less fortunate kids of Buckingham might get to go the finest schools that money can buy and bring some pride to families badly in need? maybe we can't have that now, your honor, maybe my family can't have this pride, but why deny it to others? let my boy do some good, your honor, use tragedy as an opportunity, and if you want, your honor, I can show you the books, we have all the necessary paperwork from the Securities and Exchange Commission, we have all the paperwork for the agencies--

The prosecutor steadies himself with one fleshy hand to address the father of the defendant on the matter of the young man's drinking: for example, has the father or anyone else in the family seen the boy procure or consume distilled beverages or spirits in the months since the accident; moreover, there is the matter of the anonymous letters indicating that the defendant has been seen in the taverns of the city, cheek upon the cool varnished planes of some bar, trying to drink off poisonous fluids in which are contained the revelations about himself and his bad luck, this according to a certain anonymous resident of the county; the defendant was seen drinking, on more than one occasion, and likewise speaking flirtatiously to younger ladies of the vicinity, uninformed young ladies, women not informed enough to know the identity of a suave, dark financier of this locale, but the father says no, he has not seen the young man drinking, has seen nothing of the sort, the letter of the law is hereby observed, C'mon, now, reporters conjecture, This fella is a drunk, what do you expect him to do? No one at all has ever seen this boy take a drink? This guy blows a .21 and no one ever saw him lift a glass to his lips? All this attention on the matter of what a man swallows is bound to make him thirsty, such that he is driven out of his poorly furnished and badly illumined one-bedroom apartment, driven up from news of the very crimes he has committed, driven up from the recognition of himself as murderer, sunderer of lives, destroyer of futures, malingerer in histories and destinies of families, to slake his thirst, to bake his wits, in some singular moment in which he can forget the acreage of debt upon this brow and drift in the blessed enterprise of intoxication--

Please your honor, the bow-tied and tweed-jacketed defense lawyer attempts, in his solicitous, some might say half-hearted way, but before he can call the defendant himself, there is a ruckus on the prosecution's side -- it is the victim's brother, who has squirmed impotently throughout the proceedings, now kneeling beside the hulking prosecutor, whispering in the prosecutor's ear, and the judge interrupts this exchange to say, Anyone wants to talk will talk, we want to give everyone a chance to be heard, and the brother, with his grand biceps and his abundant mustache, an auto worker, perhaps, from that venerable business of Detroit is sworn in to say, Your honor, we're just looking for a little justice here, we all know what happened now, let's not buy into a bunch of stories, we're just looking for a little justice here, what can you do for us? and sits again as quickly as first he stood, Are there further questions for this witness? the prosecution rests again, and now the defense calls Maxwell Neil St. John McCallister and he is sworn in, his posture as bad as it could be, slumping in the box, facing the judge, the room intolerably hot, despite the ceiling fans, whoever had the idea that justice could be served in the South during the warmer months was a true believer in cruel and unusual correction for there is no air in this judicial edifice, there is only exhaustion in the room, as the defense attorney takes Max through a tour of his early employment for defense contractors, his brief spell in law school, his employment for his father, then quickly dispenses with Max's prior conviction for driving under the influence, to which there are grunts of assent, meager replies, not so much answers as grudging admissions of the necessity of making some noise in the face of sentencing, and this is all scrawled upon the pad of cub reporters who will soon pass through the sports desk and then onto national affairs before they retire to become real estate brokers in Buckingham's thriving real estate market -- more subdivisions in the area than anywhere in the Commonwealth, excepting perhaps the Arlington area -- and the defense lawyer says to Max, Is there anything you would like to say to Sandra's family? wherein the punishment that best atones is primarily the forcible discussion of the crime, language itself is a sort of punishment, with its promise of cognition and meaning, and Max nods, begins to weep, I never would have done anything to hurt Sandra, which prompts one reporter to say to another, Well, I believe he killed her, though, and the defendant gasps, and then, unable to leave off from his abasements once begun, I never would have hurt her, I loved her, I never expect you to forgive me, because I can't forgive myself, I welcome your punishment, I don't know how much we drank, I didn't see Sandra mix the drinks, I don't know what she put in there, we didn't have enough food, I don't know how much food there was, maybe just a few cookies and some apples, she packed the food I didn't have anything to do with it, and we had an arrangement, I wouldn't let her drive because she had this D.U.I., and so I drove and I didn't tell her not to put on her seat belt, and she didn't tell me not to put on my seat belt, I don't know what happened, I lost control of the car, we were a mile from the house and we lost control of the car, I don't know, I don't remember anything about it, it was the middle of the day, the sun was an effrontery, and I loved her and something horrible happened and I shattered my skull and punctured both lungs and fractured five vertebrae that are all fused now, I flipped the car, and I had a concussion and I couldn't walk and it took four months to heal, and I don't know what happened, the car overturned, if I could figure out what happened, I would say it, if I could figure out how to apologize, I would apologize, if I could figure out what I have done, I would tell you what I have done, but I don't know except that I hurt someone whom I loved, apparently I had something to do with it, that's all I can say, the car flipped, I don't know how to stop being sorry, I wish I had never caused all the anguish that I have caused my family and my friends and Sandra's family, we were a mile from the house, we had drunk from that pitcher and we had watched the sun start to go down over the river, it was about five P.M. when we got into the car, we had this arrangement where I would drive--

And then on that wicked curve out by Montague's farm, though none of them in the courthouse was present, excepting Max who has no memory of it, still there's the automobile exhaust, the smell of scorched tires, the audible report of calamity -- windows shattering, mortality in the caterwauling of steel buckling, engines coming up through the dash, fenders warping, and more, the sound of the human body used as a missile, going through the windshield, bodies airborne, dream of men, bodies flying, Sandra bouncing and rolling almost fifty feet now, fifty feet, on the curve by Montague's farm, the Subaru going sixty to sixty-five, according to private investigators, listen as they speak, here is the mark the car made upon an old swamp maple by the side of the county road, here is the couple getting into the car one last time, again, before the eyes of the community, according to the laws of the county, in the manner prescribed by the original lawmakers here in the oldest of American counties if Virginia were an organism, if the community were sensate, it would gape as they wobble toward the car doors, laughing, sun-dappled, so drunk as not to be able to walk or talk, it would warn of the stationary object ahead, it would bewail the lacerations that follow, until who comes down the road next, but some neighbor upon his tractor, Montague himself perhaps, who drinks, who has lost children, who has lain awake nights sleepless and brooding, who has seen the children of neighbors lost; Montague places a call to the local sheriff's office, does not stop to comfort, the sheriff and his assistant high-tail it out to the scene, though the merrymakers of Buckingham County are unconscious now, Max and Sandra already unconscious, hours in an inner tube and two or three drinks, and then the legal plots and narratives spin out centrifugally for years, and their families gather, that group of citizens which has no choice but to come to a trial, to have southern justice meted out, Indeed, as everybody here has said this is one of the more difficult cases I have heard here in my courtroom, which is not to say it's the only such case I have tried, why just last month we concluded a vehicular homicide case that was quite difficult, as is this one, though this particular matter raises interesting issues, for example, I accept that premise that the victim shares some culpability for not electing to secure her seat belt, though the defendant shares some of this culpability for not reminding her to secure her belt -- as she likewise ought to have reminded him to do so -- and the victim shares some culpability in the matter of preparing the drinks on the day of the accident, though she certainly did not force the defendant to drink them, as he did not force her to drink them either, while the victim likewise shares some culpability in the matter of permitting an alcoholic to drive, no matter what the defendant says on the subject, I use the term alcoholic because of prior conviction and by reason of the unusually high blood-alcohol level measured in several discrete tests, and though the defendant is mute with remorse because of his actions, as the defense attorney has put it, so is the life of the woman he loved lost, through the bad judgment of both, though principally the defendant, since he alone lost control of the vehicle; and thus, given prior conviction for D.U.I. and parameters legislated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, I must hereby pronounce sentence at the pleasure of the county of Buckingham and all who reside therein--

Reporters poised, ball-points on their ledgers, ready to hawk the news, news of punishment, of the dark hues of local history in which we supposed we would not figure; we would be citizens spared a day in court, spared the gavel of a lifetime appointee, spared the sight of the bell rope that stands in for the community's old imperial voice. To the guilty, we're called kin.


Join a conversation on fiction in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More fiction from Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

M. J. Clement is the pseudonym of an author who has written several novels.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search