When Houston Anderson died, there was no way it could have been murder. The man died on the job and there’s no way there could have been a conspiracy about that. It was in broad daylight, in front of everyone, and we all saw him holding the wire. We all saw the current rage through his body. And we all saw him die.
There was no way it could have been murder. But Uncle Alvin said it was.
At the funeral home, he claimed there’d been a conspiracy. He was the first to say it, right there by the casket, in front of Houston’s wife. She was standing there, baby crumpling up her black dress. “I think somebody killed him,” he said. “It just ain’t right.”
My uncle Joe told him to shut up, that there wasn’t no conspiracy. “You see conspiracies in everything,” Uncle Joe said. “This was just an accident plain and simple.”
“No. I know Houston. Houston was the safest man on the job. Never did a job without his gloves on.”
“Well,” said the wife, “he didn’t wear his gloves this time.”
And he didn’t. There wasn’t anything murderous about a lineman forgetting to wear his gloves. Even the safest lineman at the power company. If a man forgot his gloves, he forgot his gloves and it was his own fault.
Houston’s wife was sitting down now, the grief painting wrinkles across her cheeks. “Them wrinkles’ll stay,” Grandma said. “Them are the kind what don’t come from old age.”
Uncle Alvin and Uncle Joe were still arguing at the back, even as the funeral began. “I tell you Alvin, it would be in your best interest to keep quiet about this.”
“Oh,” Uncle Alvin said, “so you sayin’ the murderer’s here in the funeral home, gonna
shut me up, too?”
“No,” said Uncle Joe. “I’m sayin’ it’s tacky to talk so loud during a funeral.”
And sure enough, by this time, half of the room had turned around to stare at Uncle Alvin—the pallbearers, Houston’s momma, everybody but his bride and his baby, looking at Uncle Alvin like they wished he’d just shut up so they could bury the man.
“Well,” Uncle Alvin said, “I’ll be quiet about this now, but I’m calling Sandy McGill in the morning.”
Sandy McGill was the sheriff. He had been in office long enough to get used to Uncle Alvin’s theories. “Everything,” he told Uncle Alvin, “is not murder.”
“Have I ever said it was?”
“You came to me when Albert McCrae accidentally got smashed by his dump truck bed.” Sandy stood up and started dusting the pictures in his office.
“Well, that was suspicious,” said Uncle Alvin. “I mean, a man found out in the field by himself, his head sandwiched underneath the bed of a dump truck. You tell me that’s normal.” Uncle Alvin rose from his seat and started following Sandy around the room.
“Well,” Sandy said, “what about the little girl that was run over by the Borden truck?”
“Come on.” Uncle Alvin just looked at him. “That man didn’t even look in his rearview before he backed up. You tell me he didn’t try to hit that little girl.”
“Who intentionally tries to run over a little girl, Alvin? And besides, she made it through okay.”
“If you say so. I say she still limps a little on her right side.”
“Everything,” Sandy repeated, “is not murder.”
At church, Sandy told the preacher he didn’t know what had gotten into Uncle Alvin. “I mean, he comes to my office once a week now. Everything is a conspiracy nowadays. I think we need to send him to Western State.”
“I’m a preacher, Sandy, not a psychiatrist.” The minister just looked at him. “I know you think Alvin’s off his rocker, but I don’t think he’s harmful. And besides everybody knows not to believe a word he says.”
Of course, this was the real shame. Before his daughter’s death, Uncle Alvin was one of the most trusted men in the county. “I know she was murdered,” he said. “I know it.” And with those words, he became the county conspirator, concocting conspiracies for any death beyond the ordinary.
Now, every so often, there really was a murder in Carper County. And sooner or later, the sheriff solved it. But truth be told, people where we lived just had a freaky way of dying and that was all there was to it. Uncle Alvin’s daughter died in one of those weird ways, one of those kind of stories you couldn’t make up if you tried.
And honestly, Uncle Alvin wasn’t the only one who thought it was murder. Uncle Joe did, too. And for a while, though he wouldn’t own up to it, so did Sandy McGill. He investigated her death off the cuff, wouldn’t talk about what he found, just said it was suicide and we all should know it.
But we didn’t all know it. We didn’t all think it was murder, but we all knew it wasn’t suicide. Fifteen years later, we told people it was some freak medical accident. Just another one of those odd deaths that struck our county. Johnny Carter, who tripped while he was walking to the tractor, had his tobacco spike in his hand, accidentally drove it through his heart as he fell. Sally Clarkson, who slipped on some water in the kitchen floor, broke her neck. Nobody ever just has a heart attack here. Nobody ever dies like a regular human.
It’s gotten to where if you did happen to die a semi-normal death, that in itself was suspicious enough to warrant a visit from the sheriff.
“Just fell down the stairs, huh?” Sandy McGill and the preacher stood in the church basement, looking at Miss Evaleen’s body.
“Yep. Just fell. We all seen it.” The church body stood there, hovering over hers, wishing there was something they could do besides pray.
“I don’t know,” said the sheriff, “looks suspicious to me.”
Since Miss Evaleen’s death was so seemingly normal, so cut and dry, the sheriff investigated it thoroughly. “We have concluded,” he said, “that Miss Evaleen died when she fell down the church stairs. No conspiracy involved here people.”
Miss Evaleen was buried the next day and at her funeral, Uncle Alvin didn’t say a word.
Later that afternoon, the preacher came to me. “You’ve got to do something about your Uncle Alvin,” he said.
“What you expect me to do?”
“I don’t know, but you gotta keep him in check. Sandy wants me to recommend him for Western State.”
“But you’re a preacher,” I said, “not a psychiatrist.”
“That’s what I told him. But Sandy can send him himself. He don’t need none of us.”
“Oh, come on,” I told the preacher. “Uncle Alvin ain’t that bad off.”
“That’s what I told Sandy. But I don’t know if he’ll listen to me. I mean, he interrupted choir and everything to come talk.”
“So Uncle Alvin thinks the whole world’s been murdered. What’s so dangerous about that? You got to be dangerous before they can send you to Western State.”
“Well, only danger I see Alvin posin’ is if he’s right. Then he’d be a big danger to whomever it is that wants him to shut up.”
After that comment, even I had to wonder if Houston Anderson’s death wasn’t murder. Even though I had seen it myself, watched him as he stood up there in that bucket truck, holding the live wire in his hand. It was the worst thing I had ever seen in my entire life, a sight I’d never forget, but it couldn’t be murder. No matter how badly all of us wanted it to be somebody’s fault, it wasn’t murder.
“Uncle Alvin,” I told him, “not everything is murder.”
“You go to the library,” he said, “you go to the library and research it and find out if there isn’t some way that coulda been murder, if there isn’t some way that wire coulda been dead, then somebody sent the juice to it as soon as he put it in his hand. You tell me there’s not some physical way he coulda been killed. You go to the library and find me proof that it couldn’t of happened.”
“I don’t need to go to the library,” I said. “Ain’t no way it could happen.”
“Ain’t no way for a man like Houston to forget his gloves either,” Uncle Alvin said, “but he did.”
So I went to the library. I’d been a lineman for fifteen years, but there was something in the way Uncle Alvin said it that made me wonder if he couldn’t be right. I spent an entire weekend at the library and didn’t find a thing I didn’t already know. “No,” I told him, “no way this was murder. Everything is not murder.”
Uncle Alvin hated it when people said that because he always thought they were talking about more than the case at hand. When they said “everything” instead of “this case” or “this time.” Those were the times when Uncle Alvin thought they were talking about his daughter, when they were saying he just needed to let her memory lie.
“Allison was murdered,” he said. “I know it in my heart. I’m the one who found her.”
Uncle Alvin walked in on Allison, her body lying cold in the kitchen floor, her neck slit from one side to the other, her blood congealing all around the slit like she’d been dead for days. “There weren’t no murder weapon,” he said. “No weapon at all.”
Some of the family said she had suffered one of her seizures, been cooking or something and on the seizure came, the knife shaking violently away just after it shook its way across her throat.
Sandy McGill said she had done it on purpose.
“Then where’s the knife?” Uncle Alvin asked. “You show me that knife.”
Sandy McGill said she must have thrown it from her body, dropped it on the way down.
Uncle Alvin said the murderer took it with him, that there wasn’t no knife covered with blood in his kitchen.
“And that means there’re multiple crimes,” he was still saying years later. “One being the murder, and another being tampering of evidence. Not to mention the son of a bitch stole my knife.”
“But what was the motive, Alvin?” asked the preacher.
“Didn’t need no motive. Don’t you ever watch TV? There are these men, see, mean men that just go around killin’ people. People just go around killin’ other people, just like the McCrae boy. Just randomly kilt out there in the field.”
“The support on his truck gave way. That was an accident.”
“They’re all accidents,” Uncle Alvin said. “Or at least that’s what they say.”
That time, the preacher’d managed to calm him down. But now, after Houston Anderson’s death, Uncle Alvin wasn’t going to give up. “The man always wore his gloves,” he kept repeating. “Always.” He looked at me. “Didn’t he train you to wear your gloves?”
“And wasn’t he the safest man at the power company?”
“It was a conspiracy, I say. Somewhere somebody did something to the current, maybe they threatened to kill his wife if he wore his gloves in the bucket that day. I don’t know. Something. But a death like that just ain’t right.”
“Now, Uncle Alvin.” I sat down my drink. “You really are going too far.”
But he wouldn’t let up. He went to Houston’s widow’s place to ask her about his safety habits, if she had seen anyone suspicious talking to Houston in the days before his death, gotten any weird phone calls.
Uncle Alvin went to the library and read every article on electrocution he could find, not only accidental deaths like Houston’s, but intentional electrocutions, like the death penalty. By the time his research was through, he knew almost as much about electricity as I did.
“You can’t bring her back,” Grandma said.
“This ain’t about Allison.” Uncle Alvin sat at the dinner table, moving his fork across the plate. “It ain’t about her, Momma.”
But it was about Allison. It had to be about Allison. It wasn’t about anything but Allison and we all knew it.
“You can’t bring her back,” Grandma said again and picked up his empty plate.
After this, Uncle Alvin kicked up the search. He started going to the scene of the “crime,” interviewed the people whose power Houston was trying to restore, put an ad in the paper for witnesses to come forward.
“He’s really gone too far,” Sandy McGill said. “I’m gonna have to ask the state to lock him up.”
“Now, now,” said the preacher. “He may be a little out of control, but he ain’t dangerous.”
Then Uncle Alvin dug up Houston’s grave.
“Now that’s a crime,” said the sheriff and he threw Uncle Alvin in jail.
“Everything,” he told him as he shut the cell door, “is not murder, Alvin.”
“No,” Uncle Alvin said, “but this is.”
Uncle Alvin sat in that jail cell three days before he died.
The bailiff said it was a heart attack, plain and simple. “No way it could have been murder. I stood there and watched it myself. He got up from the bench, gripped at his heart, and fell over. Man was dead before I could even call 911.”
The sheriff looked at the bailiff, then looked at the body again. “Well, clearly, there ain’t no conspiracy about that.”
* * *