ELIAS ANDREOPOULOS - CHAMBLISS
Elias Andreopoulos is an odd job man, and he does his odd jobs throughout the US. He has worked as an avocado picker, a traveling salesman, a supermarket cashier and a janitor. Last year, at age 34, he went to the beach for the first time.
Chambliss by Elias Andreopoulos
Part I: Birthday
Robert Chambliss worked at the same trucking company as my Pa. He came over our house for dinner on my 12th birthday, September 14th, 1963. My Ma made all my favorites: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, biscuits, cornbread and sweet potato pie. I ate three plates of food and drank six cans of Dr. Pepper. My stomach expanded so much that I broke my belt, which annoyed my Pa because he would have to buy a new one.
After dinner, my Pa and Chambliss went for a walk to discuss business. I had hoped to play baseball with my Pa like he promised. As I waited, I tossed a baseball to myself with the soda and food sloshing around my stomach. I grew bored of my solo catch, so I took my baseball bat. I aimed for the street, which was approximately two hundred feet away. I doubted I had the strength to hit the baseball there, but hoped I could. It would boost my confidence when trying out for the baseball team. I threw five pitches to myself before making contact, a mere dribbler that bounced twenty feet.
I wanted my Pa to pitch to me. It was unfair he was spending so much time with Chambliss on my birthday. With my frustration boiling over, I threw up the ball and swung as hard as I could. I hit the ball high and deep into the sky. The trajectory showed it was on path to land on Chambliss’ car windshield. I prayed to God for a miracle during that second the ball was in the air. Too bad God never listened to me. There was a loud shattering of glass. My instinct was to run away, but it would do no good. I would be beaten harder than if I confessed immediately.
My body began shaking when I saw them approaching. Tears uncontrollably dripped from my eyes. I had not planned on that, but was thankful, because it would make me look more innocent.
“What the fuck happened to my car!” Chambliss screamed.
I was hoping he had compassion, but saw none. He looked like a child throwing a tantrum examining his car, like there was nothing worse than a broken windshield. I considered blaming a black person. I didn’t because Chambliss was a Klan leader and would hurt, maybe even kill, whoever he thought ruined his car. My Ma told me not to believe the rumor, but I heard that Chambliss killed a black kid that broke his mailbox. They never found the body and the kid was listed as a runaway. I could not let that happen. Contrary to what everyone around me believed, I didn’t think blacks were bad.
“Who did this Little Martin?” Chambliss angrily questioned.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered.
“It was you?”
“I didn’t mean to Mr. Chambliss!”
“I don’t believe this!” He threw up his hands in disgust.
“I’ll pay for it. I’ll work every day, even quit school!”
“I need this car tomorrow! Can you get me five hundred dollars tomorrow?”
I looked down because there was nothing I could do. My Pa would have to somehow muster money he did not have to pay for it, maybe rob a bank, because we did not have a dollar to our name. I wished the day would end, a sad feeling to have on my birthday.
“You’re always screwing up you dumb kid!” My Pa yelled and struck me across the face. My nose began to bleed and I held my sleeve against it. My Pa had never hit me before. He didn’t want to and his face showed it. It was all to impress Chambliss.
“I’m so sorry,” I muttered.
Chambliss laughed to himself. “You don’t have to do that Doug. Little Martin will learn his lesson.” His demeanor changed into joy, which terrified me. “I have a job for Little Martin. If he does it right, I’ll forget what he did to my car.”
“What?” I asked.
“Your Pa said you don’t mind colored folks. Is that true?”
I didn’t know what to say. If I admitted that I didn’t feel hatred towards them, Chambliss would have gotten angrier, but I didn’t want to lie either. “I don’t know,” I said.
Chambliss looked at me with a disappointed face. I stood there, unsure of what to say. “Say how you feel son,” my Pa said. “And be honest, because Mr. Chambliss will know.”
“They never gave me any problems,” I said, not wanting to be strong about the issue.
“Were you always so short and thin?” he asked.
“That’s good because of the job I mentioned. It’s an important job, one that your Pa needs you to do because of all the card games he loses. You know your Pa is the biggest gambling loser in the county?”
It all made sense. All of my parents fights, how we always had to cut back when there was nothing to cut back on, how our car barely ran and why we could never fix it. I looked at my Pa and saw shame in his eyes. He never wanted me to find out, especially from somebody else’s mouth.
“So what am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“It’s a surprise for a friend. You’re going to have to plant it tonight.”
Part 2: Paternal Conversation
I sat in my room doing nothing for hours, waiting for Chambliss to come for me. I chewed my lip and picked at my cuticles to pass the time. My nerves were getting the better of me. There was a knock on my door and my Pa came in. He sat next to me and rubbed my knee, unable to make eye contact.
“Mr. Chambliss telephoned,” my Pa started. He opened his mouth to continue, but couldn’t. Whatever he was going to say was going to be bad. “I can’t go with you. Mr. Chambliss said the car is full and if I followed, I would draw too much attention.”
I remember the horror I felt. My Pa’s presence would have helped me complete my mission. I expected my Pa to stand up for me. I was his only child after all. But judging from his tone, he was staying home like the slave he was to Chambliss.
“Can’t you ask him again?” I pleaded. “I don’t want to be alone!”
“I don’t think so Martin.” He shook his head and patted my back.
“Please Pa, please!”
He got up and weakly said, “Sorry.” He left my room as I cried my eyes out.
Fantasies of running away and never returning shot through my head. I felt sorry for myself, something I had never done before. I grabbed onto my pillow and held it, trying to get all the comfort I could from cotton and feathers. I waited for Chambliss to come, feeling desperately alone.
Part 3: The Plant
I sat in the passenger seat of a car with Chambliss driving and three men in the back. Nobody spoke. I had no idea where I was being taken. Everyone smoked a cigarette with smoke filling the car. I thought about how much I missed my Ma. She tried not to show it, but she cried since Pa told her I was going alone. She must have felt great fear entrusting her only child to an alleged murderer.
The car stopped and Chambliss turned to me. “There’s a bag in the trunk. You’re going to put it under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church.”
I don’t know why I agreed. I guess it was my fear of finding out the price of my disobedience, but I should have known better. “What do you mean under the stairs?” I asked.
“The stairs are made of wood. There’s a hole small enough for you to sneak under.”
“Okay,” I said.
“We don’t got all night!” a man yelled from the back.
I exited the car, rattled from the hollering. I went to the trunk and unlocked it. The only thing inside was the bag I was to plant.
Chambliss stuck his head out the window and motioned for me to come to him. “Whatever you do, don’t look inside of the bag. Am I understood?”
I carried the bag to the church, which was a quarter mile away. They wanted to be far away in case something went wrong. If only I had stayed inside and not played ball, I would have been sleeping in my bed. But the more I thought about it, I realized I was pre-chosen. My Pa owed big money and I was the one to pay off his debt.
I reached the stairs and looked about. If I was caught, they would ditch me and turn me in as the mastermind of what they planned. I crawled under the stairs through the hole. I was not given a flashlight, so I had to reach out with my hand to make sure I wasn’t bumping into anything. I rested the bag against the building. I was tempted to look inside, but didn’t, adhering to the wishes of the coward I feared.
I crawled out, with all sorts of garbage clinging onto me. An old black man walked up to me. He smiled a mouth of yellow teeth and rested his hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing down there?” he asked.
“I thought I saw money down there,” I lied.
I was terrified because a potential witness was talking to me. The Klan was up to something bad. I had the power to stop it, yet I was too afraid to take a stand because of the dangers my family would encounter.
“I have a granddaughter about your age who sings in the choir at this church. I can’t wait until I see her in a couple of hours!”
I smelled the alcohol on him. I felt better because he wouldn’t remember our meeting. “That’s nice,” I said and walked away, feeling spooked.
“Take care!” he screamed out and laughed to himself.
I went to where the car was, but it was gone. I looked across the street and around the bend, and saw nothing. The bastards ditched me. I wished my Pa was there. He would have stood up for me. Then again, he allowed me to go in a car of strangers to do Klan dirty work.
I had two courses of action. The first was to find my way home and never mention what happened. The second was to find out what I planted and if it was bad, get it removed. And that was what I was going to do. I was no longer afraid of Chambliss. He was a coward who needed a kid to do his dirty work. My life didn’t have to be ruined because my Pa owed money. We could change our names and move far away where the Klan wouldn’t find us.
I saw a police cruiser waiting at a stoplight. I ran to it with my hands out, looking like a lunatic. The officer rolled down his window and asked, “What’s the problem son?” The cop was middle aged, clean shaven and had a trusting demeanor.
“I was forced to put something under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s a bomb, I don’t know!”
“Hold on now. Speak slowly. Who told you to do this?”
The cop got out of the car and put his hand on my shoulder. “Calm down son.”
“And he just left me alone. I’m so scared!”
“Sit in the car son, let me take you home.”
“And you’ll find out what’s under the church?”
“Absolutely, I’ll radio it in.”
As a child you are taught that the members of law enforcement upheld the ideals of society. They stopped the bad guys, simple as that, putting their lives on the line to do so. I was wrong. I got home safely that night, but that cop did nothing about the bomb. It killed four innocent girls. I killed four innocent girls.
Part 4: The Confrontation
Five years passed. I never spoke a word about that night, not even to my parents. Each of us carried guilt about that night. Chambliss never went to the house again with my Pa’s debt paid with the blood of four little girls. I never saw that cop again. He probably told Chambliss about my attempt to backstab him. If he did, the Klan never retaliated. We moved to Wyoming a couple of months after, where my Pa got work through one of his Army buddies. We were poorer, but at least we weren’t in Alabama.
The move did nothing to alleviate the devastation I felt. I had a chance to stop what happened, and if I really wanted to, I could have. Being twelve years old is no excuse for allowing a mass murder to happen. It didn’t matter if my Pa was scared and weak. I could have been the bigger man and taken a stand. I did my best to block it out, but burying it only made my pain worse as time progressed. I enlisted in the Marines in hopes of getting sent to Vietnam and my wishes were granted. All I wanted was to die for my sin like I deserved.
I saved up for a ratty old car and drove to Chambliss’ house. For years, I played our confrontation in my head. It would start with me verbally overpowering him and end with me stabbing him right through his heart. I would watch him fall to the ground and writhe as his pathetic life exited his wretched body. The car, whose windshield I broke, stood in his driveway. I took the knife from my pocket and slashed the tires. I wished I had my baseball bat to do worse.
I went to the front door and knocked. Birds chirped in the background. The door opened. It was Chambliss. He looked pathetic, dressed in dirty rags with a long cigarette flopping in his mouth. Someone who I thought had power and prestige was a backward hillbilly.
“Is that you, Little Martin?” he asked with a laugh.
“Yes Chambliss.” The bastard still called me Little Martin, even though I was taller and stronger than he ever was.
“It’s Mr. Chambliss to you.”
“You don’t deserve anything before your pathetic name!”
“If you’re bitter about the church, don’t bother. It happened. Get over it. I know you ratted on me, too bad the cop was on our side. You’re lucky I didn’t go after your family. With the Klan, when you snitch on one of us, you snitch on all of us. And don’t think you fooled us by moving to Wyoming.”
“You’re a real humanitarian.”
“Why are you here anyway? If you came to kill me you would have done it already.”
I pulled out my knife. He smirked. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a pistol. He pointed it at my head. “I can end your life and nobody would know, and even if they did, I got the Klan to protect me. How much jail time did I get for the church? Remind me.” He laughed, gloating his repugnance to me. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could brag about killing four little girls.
“Fuck you!” I yelled, unafraid to die. My insides were already dead because of him.
“When are you going to Vietnam?” he asked, not drawing his gun away from me.
I stood without saying a word.
“Just don’t get yourself killed kid. What you did wasn’t your fault.” He turned around, leaving his back turned to me. He knew I didn’t have the guts to stab him in the back. He closed the door and I stood there, feeling unaccomplished. I threw my knife in disgust at a nearby bush. I hoped one day he would be punished for the atrocity he committed, and unfortunately, I did not have the guts to punish him.
I walked to my car prepared for the long trip to Wyoming where I would only have my thoughts as company. I volunteered for Vietnam because there was a chance I would never come back, a desperation attempt to forget what I did. But in Vietnam I can save lives and be an asset to my comrades and country. But whatever I do, I will never bring those four girls back. I have to bear that burden for the rest of my days.
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