BY ALL MEN’S JUDGMENTS
Charleston, South Carolina. 1995
“Could you open the window a little, dear? I’d like to look outside.”
Madeline did as her grandmother requested and pulled open the shutters to expose the sky.
“That’s better,” Liza said with a sigh.
She lay in her bed, where she now spent the better part of her days.
“Is there anything I can get for you?” Madeline asked the old woman.
“No, thank you, dear. I don’t think I’ll be needing anything for a while.”
Liza spoke with a delicate twang. Her Southern drawl had once been as thick as honey, but living in the North as a younger woman had deprived her vowels of a sliver of their charm. The one-time roundabout A’s and I’s had become more sharp and to the point.
Liza turned her head on the pillow and looked out the window. The sun began to emerge from behind a puff of white cloud and shone a ray onto her pale, weathered face. She closed her eyes and felt the warmth on her cheeks.
“He’s coming today, you know,” Liza said, her eyes still closed.
“Who is?” Madeline asked, folding the knitted blanket that had fallen off the end of the bed.
“What do you mean, ‘who is’?” Liza asked, opening her eyes and looking down her nose.
“Right. The writer. Yes, Grandma, I know he is.”
“He should have been here by now. He’s late.”
“I’m sure he’ll be along any time now.”
“Would you stop fussing already,” Liza said with quiet vigor.
Madeline placed the folded blanket at the end of the bed. She looked up at her grandmother and smiled.
“Come sit here with me,” Liza requested, patting the bed.
Madeline did as her grandmother asked.
“Now what did I tell you about running yourself ragged?” the old woman said. “I don’t need anything more than what I have right here. You just mind yourself for a while. Why don’t you go freshen up? There’s a gentleman coming.”
“What’s wrong with how I look?”
“There’s nothing wrong with how you look – nothing at all.”
Liza put her hand on top of Madeline’s. Madeline looked down at her grandmother’s thin, furrowed skin.
“I just want you to tend to yourself,” Liza continued with a smile. “You’re driving me mad with all this attention.”
“And who is this man again?” Madeline asked, knowing full well the answer.
“Nathaniel Bishop. He writes for the paper. I told you this just last night.”
“I forget these things. You know that.”
“Yes, well, I have a feeling you try to forget.”
“And whose son is he?”
“Well I’m sure he’s someone’s son, but I don’t know the name of his mother.”
“Then how did you –”
“Prudence Goodholm, God bless her heart, swears up and down that he is the finest writer in Charleston. He’s the son of one of her silly friends. Now get! Get on with you.”
Once again Madeline did as her grandmother asked, but not before leaning over and kissing her forehead.
“Good writer or not, it’s impolite to be late,” Madeline said before taking her leave of the room.
“I find it remarkable how you manage to dislike someone before you’ve even met them,” Liza said into the openness.
Her voice was not strong enough to carry into the hallway.
Liza turned her head and looked out the window once more. The sun was hiding behind a passing cloud. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and held it in her lungs. It was a warm summer’s day, and so far it was a good one.
Liza was soon enveloped by the quietude and began to doze off.
“How about this?” Madeline asked, holding out the bottom of the yellow sundress she had put on.
“You look beautiful,” Liza said. “A perfect flower.”
“I found it in Mom’s old closet.”
“I know you did. I’m the one who put it there. You look just like her, you know.”
“I look just like you, Grandma.”
There was a knock at the front door.
“That’ll be him,” Liza said. “Go and let him in, dear.”
Madeline headed down the stairs in no hurry. She reached the front door and opened it. The man standing there looked nothing like what she had expected. He was tall and slender and young. He looked right into her eyes and smiled.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Nate Bishop.”
He reached out his hand.
Madeline shook the man’s hand.
“Come in,” she said. “Grandma is expecting you.”
“I’m sorry I’m late. I don’t know the area very well.”
“You’re not from around here, then?”
“Minnesota, actually. There are parts of Charleston I still haven’t seen. This is one of them.”
Nathaniel entered and Madeline closed the door behind him.
Nathaniel’s hair was longer than that of most men she knew. He wore blue jeans and a T-shirt under a sports jacket. The jacket was thick and made of tweed, with colorful specks of thread interwoven into the gray. His brown leather shoes looked like they had long since seen their best days. He carried a small leather bag across his shoulder.
“Grandma is upstairs,” Madeline said.
“After you,” Nathaniel offered, holding out his arm.
Madeline began to climb the staircase. She stopped on the third step and turned to face the stranger.
“Can I ask what this is about?” she asked.
“You mean you don’t know?” Nathaniel said.
“Then your guess would be as good as mine.”
“So you’re not here for the newspaper?”
“Not that I know of. Didn’t you ask your grandmother?”
“I did, but she likes to have her secrets.”
Madeline and Nathaniel held their gaze on one another.
“Her room is right up here,” Madeline said, breaking the silence.
Madeline led Nathaniel into her grandmother’s room. Liza was sitting up in bed, looking spry, her white sleeping gown newly preened.
“Grandma,” Madeline said, “this is Nathaniel Bishop.”
“Nathaniel, this is Liza Meacham.”
“Let’s have a look at you,” Liza said.
Madeline moved out of the way so her grandmother could have a clear view of the man.
“Handsome,” Liza said. “Younger than I would have thought, though. You must be only a few years older than my granddaughter here.”
“I couldn’t say, ma’am.”
“I’m certain of it,” Liza assured.
“Can I get you anything?” Madeline asked. “A drink of water?”
“I’m all right for now, thank you,” Nathaniel replied.
“Why don’t you get comfortable, Mr. Bishop,” Liza offered. “I’m looking forward to speaking with you.”
“Oh. Well… certainly.”
Nathaniel looked around the room for somewhere to sit.
“Why don’t you take that chair right there? Pull it here, beside me.”
Nathaniel crossed the room and picked up a wood and wicker chair from in front of the woman’s vanity table. He placed the seat down beside the bed, precisely where Liza had requested, and put his bag down beside the chair.
“Madeline, why don’t you join us as well?”
“You want me to stay?” Madeline asked.
“I do… if that’s all right with you, Mr. Bishop.”
“It’s fine with me,” Nathaniel said with a smile.
“I’ll get another chair,” Madeline said, disappearing instantly from the room.
“So how do you like Charleston, Mr. Bishop? I understand you’re from up north.”
“I like it. Some of the finest people you’ll meet.”
Madeline returned with chair in hand. She placed it beside the window, on the opposite side of the bed from Nathaniel.
“Is everyone comfortable?” Liza asked.
“Sure,” Nathaniel said.
Madeline nodded in agreement.
“Good,” Liza said, stroking down the bed sheet on her lap. “Now you’re probably wondering why I asked you here, Mr. Bishop. And I intend to tell you. But would it be all right if I asked you a few questions first?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“What do you think of my granddaughter here?”
Madeline was clearly flustered.
“She’s… very pretty,” Nathaniel answered.
“It’s okay, dear, I’m only being playful. I’m sorry, Mr. Bishop. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I’m old, you see, I sometimes forget my manners.”
“It’s fine,” Nathaniel said, smiling again.
“Tell me, Mr. Bishop,” Liza said, “if I were to share privileged information with you – say, reveal something that might still be of interest to some – could I trust you to keep it a secret for some time?”
“I don’t think I understand,” Nathaniel said, after a moment’s delay.
“If I were to reveal sensitive things to you, could you guarantee me that you would not speak of them or write about them until the time came that I said it was all right to do so?”
“I suppose I could do that… if I’m understanding you correctly.”
“That is, of course, unless what you tell me could lead to someone being harmed or a crime being committed, or something like that. I believe I would have an obligation in those cases to inform –”
“Everything I mean to share with you happened a very long time ago, Mr. Bishop. I can assure you of that. The story cannot bring harm to anyone. There is nothing more to do with it now than to tell it.”
“Well, then, I don’t see why I couldn’t agree to keep it to myself.”
“Until the time comes that you will do with it as you wish,” Liza added.
“You are a writer, Mr. Bishop. Is that not true? You are not here for your handsome good looks alone. There will come a time when you will write about what I’m going to tell you. You are here to listen to my story. Once I am done telling it, it will be yours to write about.”
“As long as my granddaughter agrees that what you write is truthful and accurate.”
“Me?” Madeline asked.
“That sounds fine,” Nathaniel said.
“And as long as you do not print a word of this story until you receive word from me that the time has come for you to do so. Can you agree to that?”
“I think I can,” Nathaniel said.
“Grandma,” Madeline interjected, “why me?”
“Who better, dear? You’ll be here to listen as well. And I trust no one more.”
“But I don’t know anything about what you’re going to tell, or –”
“You know the difference between truth and lies, do you not? Surely I raised you well enough for that.”
“I’ve read your writing in the papers, Mr. Bishop,” Liza said.
“I don’t care for most of it.”
“What I mean to share with you is unlike anything you have written about before.”
“Well, I’ve always taken well to change, ma’am.”
“Do you think you might have it in your constitution to write an entire book?”
“That all depends, ma’am.”
“On how long your story is.”
“It covers enough events to fill at least one full book.”
“Well, then, Mrs. Meacham, I can certainly offer to do my best.”
Liza looked the young man dead in the face.
“Yes, well, I think that will have to do, then, won’t it?” she said. “So if we are all in agreement, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get started. If that’s all right with you, Mr. Bishop.”
“Do you mind if…”
Nathaniel fumbled around in the pockets of his jacket, finally pulling out a digital voice recorder.
“Do you mind if I record our conversation?”
“Not at all.”
Nathaniel pressed a little red button on the small machine and placed it on the bedside table. He took out a yellow notepad from his bag and removed the cap from his pen.
“Whenever you’re ready, Mrs. Meacham.”
Liza took a deep breath.
“Have you heard of John Dillinger, Mr. Bishop?”
“Of course I have.”
“What about Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow?”
“What about George Nelson?”
“Outlaws, all of them.”
“Ah, yes. And why are they famous, Mr. Bishop?”
“Well, because of their crimes. Because of what they did.”
“Undoubtedly that’s part of it. But why are they still famous today? Why do we even know their names at all?”
“I would imagine because they stood out from the average person. Because their stories were exceptional.”
“Exceptional indeed. But that’s not why we know their names today. All things considered, there were many exceptional people in those times whose names we do not know. In fact, probably many outlaws just like the ones I’ve mentioned.”
“So why is it that we know their names, Mrs. Meacham?”
“Well, Mr. Bishop, the reason we still know the names of those outlaws in particular is that they got caught.”
Nathaniel smiled. A moment of silence passed.
“Have you ever heard of Joseph Tilley?” Liza asked.
“No ma’am, I can’t say that I have.”
“And you?” she asked Madeline.
Her granddaughter shook her head.
“I’m not surprised,” Liza said. “Well, I’m going to tell you the story of a man named Joseph Tilley. It’s not likely one you’ve heard, as it all happened much before your time, of course. It’s a good story, one that must be told from the beginning if it’s to be told right.
“Now, my memory isn’t what it used to be, so you’ll forgive me if there are parts of the story that are less complete than others, won’t you? And, though I’ll do my best to retell it in its entirety, there are certain aspects that will need to remain untold, at least for the time being.
“Now the names I’ll be using will not be real, for obvious reasons. Likewise, you won’t find most of the places I speak of on God’s good earth.”
“Ma’am,” Nathaniel interrupted. “How will I be able to confirm the story if none of the names or places are real?”
“Oh, the people and places are real, Mr. Bishop. They’re very real indeed. They’ll just be called by different names for now. And I can assure you, for whatever it may be worth to you here today, that everything I’m about to tell you is true. In due time, I have no doubt, you’ll find a way to confirm that.”
“Grandma,” Madeline said, “is this about Grandpa?”
Liza smiled widely at Madeline.
“I didn’t know him very well,” Madeline said to Nathaniel. “I was only ten when he died.”
“I think you knew him well enough,” Liza said. “Well enough to know his character, don’t you think?”
“I suppose so.”
“Anyway, I have a feeling Mr. Bishop will help you down the path to discovery. Won’t you, Mr. Bishop?”
“I can do my best.”
“See? Just like I told you.”
Madeline was intrigued. She had never known her grandmother to be so mysterious, to be so unforthcoming that she left Madeline wanting, with no justification beyond an appeal for fortitude. She was curious. She was curious and excited at the prospect of learning about her grandfather. He had never spoken of his past and even shied away from the topic when it arose.
“You were saying…” Nathaniel offered.
“You were going to tell us about Joseph Tilley.”
“Indeed I was, wasn’t I?”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish