In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  Bobo was three years older than Perry, and she adored him; he was her only toy, a doll she scrubbed and combed and kissed and sometimes spanked. Here was a picture of the two together bathing naked in a diamond-watered Colorado creek, the brother, a pot-bellied, sun-blackened cupid, clutching his sister’s hand and giggling, as though the tumbling stream contained ghostly tickling fingers. In another snapshot (Mrs. Johnson was unsure, but she thought probably it was taken at a remote Nevada ranch where the family was staying when a final battle between the parents, a terrifying contest in which horsewhips and scalding water and kerosene lamps were used as weapons, had brought the marriage to a stop), she and Perry are astride a pony, their heads are together, their cheeks touch; beyond them dry mountains burn.

  Later, when the children and their mother had gone to live in San Francisco, Bobo’s love for the little boy weakened until it went quite away. He wasn’t her baby any more but a wild thing, a thief, a robber. His first recorded arrest was on October 27, 1936—his eighth birthday. Ultimately, after several confinements in institutions and children’s detention centers, he was returned to the custody of his father, and it was many years before Bobo saw him again, except in photographs that Tex John occasionally sent his other children—pictures that, pasted above white-ink captions, were part of the album’s contents. There was “Perry, Dad, and their Husky Dog,” “Perry and Dad Panning for Gold,” “Perry Bear-Hunting in Alaska.” In this last, he was a fur-capped boy of fifteen standing on snowshoes among snow-weighted trees, a rifle hooked under his arm; the face was drawn and the eyes were sad and very tired, and Mrs. Johnson, looking at the picture, was reminded of a “scene” that Perry had made once when he had visited her in Denver. Indeed, it was the last time she had ever seen him—the spring of 1955. They were discussing his childhood with Tex John, and suddenly Perry, who had too much drink inside him, pushed her against a wall and held her there. “I was his nigger,” Perry said. “That’s all. Somebody he could work their guts out and never have to pay them one hot dime. No, Bobo, I’m talking. Shut up, or I’ll throw you in the river. Like once when I was walking across a bridge in Japan, and a guy was standing there, I never saw him before, I just picked him up and threw him in the river.

  “Please, Bobo. Please listen. You think I like myself? Oh, the man I could have been! But that bastard never gave me a chance. He wouldn’t let me go to school. O.K. O.K. I was a bad kid. But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you don’t know. A brilliant mind and talent plus. But no education, because he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That’s the way he wanted me to be. So that I could never escape him. But you, Bobo. You went to school. You and Jimmy and Fern. Every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you—Dad and everybody.”

  As though for his brother and sisters life had been a bed of roses! Maybe so, if that meant cleaning up Mama’s drunken vomit, if it meant never anything nice to wear or enough to eat. Still, it was true, all three had finished high school. Jimmy, in fact, had graduated at the top of his class—an honor he owed entirely to his own will power. That, Barbara Johnson felt, was what made his suicide so ominous. Strong character, high courage, hard work—it seemed that none of these were determining factors in the fates of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense. Not that Perry was virtuous, or Fern. When Fern was fourteen, she changed her name, and for the rest of her short life she tried to justify the replacement: Joy. She was an easygoing girl, “everybody’s sweetheart”—rather too much everybody’s, for she was partial to men, though somehow she hadn’t much luck with them. Somehow, the kind of man she liked always let her down. Her mother had died in an alcoholic coma, and she was afraid of drink—yet she drank. Before she was twenty, Fern-Joy was beginning the day with a bottle of beer. Then, one summer night, she fell from the window of a hotel room. Falling, she struck a theater marquee, bounced off it, and rolled under the wheels of a taxi. Above, in the vacated room, police found her shoes, a moneyless purse, an empty whiskey bottle.

  One could understand Fern and forgive her, but Jimmy was a different matter. Mrs. Johnson was looking at a picture of him in which he was dressed as a sailor; during the war he had served in the Navy. Slender, a pale young seafarer with an elongated face of slightly dour saintliness, he stood with an arm around the waist of the girl he had married and, in Mrs. Johnson’s estimation, ought not to have, for they had nothing in common—the serious Jimmy and this teen-age San Diego fleet-follower whose glass beads reflected a now long-faded sun. And yet what Jimmy had felt for her was beyond normal love; it was passion—a passion that was in part pathological. As for the girl, she must have loved him, and loved him completely, or she would not have done as she did. If only Jimmy had believed that! Or been capable of believing it. But jealousy imprisoned him. He was mortified by thoughts of the men she had slept with before their marriage; he was convinced, moreover, that she remained promiscuous—that every time he went to sea, or even left her alone for the day, she betrayed him with a multitude of lovers, whose existence he unendingly demanded that she admit. Then she aimed a shotgun at a point between her eyes and pressed the trigger with her toe. When Jimmy found her, he didn’t call the police. He picked her up and put her on the bed and lay down beside her. Sometime around dawn of the next day, he reloaded the gun and killed himself.

  Opposite the picture of Jimmy and his wife was a photograph of Perry in uniform. It had been clipped from a newspaper, and was accompanied by a paragraph of text: “Headquarters, United States Army, Alaska. Pvt. Perry E. Smith, 23, first Army Korean combat veteran to return to the Anchorage, Alaska, area, is greeted by Captain Mason, Public Information Officer, upon arrival at Elmendorf Air Force Base. Smith served 15 months with the 24th Division as a combat engineer. His trip from Seattle to Anchorage was a gift from Pacific Northern Airlines. Miss Lynn Marquis, airline hostess, smiles approval at welcome. (Official U.S. Army Photo).” Captain Mason, with hand extended, is looking at Private Smith, but Private Smith is looking at the camera. In his expression Mrs. Johnson saw, or imagined she saw, not gratitude but arrogance, and, in place of pride, immense conceit. It wasn’t incredible that he had met a man on a bridge and thrown him off it. Of course he had. She had never doubted it.

  She shut the album and switched on the television, but it did not console her. Suppose he did come? The detectives had found her; why shouldn’t Perry? He need not expect her to help him; she wouldn’t even let him in. The front door was locked, but not the door to the garden. The garden was white with sea-fog; it might have been an assembly of spirits: Mama and Jimmy and Fern. When Mrs. Johnson bolted the door, she had in mind the dead as well as the living.

  A cloudburst. Rain. Buckets of it. Dick ran. Perry ran too, but he could not run as fast; his legs were shorter, and he was lugging the suitcase. Dick reached shelter—a barn near the highway—long before him. On leaving Omaha, after a night spent in a Salvation Army dormitory, a truck driver had given them a ride across the Nebraska border into Iowa. The past several hours, however, had found them afoot. The rain came when they were sixteen miles north of an Iowa settlement called Tenville Junction.

  The barn was dark.

  “Dick?” Perry said.

  “Over here,” Dick said. He was sprawled on a bed of hay.

  Perry, drenched and shaking, dropped beside him. “I’m so cold,” he said, burrowing in the hay, “I’m so cold I wouldn’t give a damn if this caught fire and burned me alive.” He was hungry, too. Starved. Last night they had dined on bowls of Salvation Army soup, and today the only nourishment they’d had was some chocolate bars and chewing gum that Dick had stolen from a drugstore candy counter. “Any more Hershey?” Perry asked.

  No, but there was still a pack of chewing gum. They divided it, then settled down to chewing it, each chomping on two and a half sticks of Doublemint, Dick’s favorite flavor (Pe
rry preferred Juicy Fruit). Money was the problem. Their utter lack of it had led Dick to decide that their next move should be what Perry considered “a crazy-man stunt”—a return to Kansas City. When Dick had first urged the return, Perry said, “You ought to see a doctor.” Now, huddled together in the cold darkness, listening to the dark, cold rain, they resumed the argument, Perry once more listing the dangers of such a move, for surely by this time Dick was wanted for parole violation—“if nothing more.” But Dick was not to be dissuaded. Kansas City, he again insisted, was the one place he was certain he could successfully “hang a lot of hot paper. Hell, I know we’ve got to be careful. I know they’ve got a warrant out. Because of the paper we hung before. But we’ll move fast. One day—that’ll do it. If we grab enough, maybe we ought to try Florida. Spend Christmas in Miami—stay the winter if it looks good.” But Perry chewed his gum and shivered and sulked. Dick said, “What is it, honey? That other deal? Why the hell can’t you forget it? They never made any connection. They never will.”

  Perry said, “You could be wrong. And if you are, it means The Corner.” Neither one had ever before referred to the ultimate penalty in the State of Kansas—the gallows, or death in The Corner, as the inmates of Kansas State Penitentiary have named the shed that houses the equipment required to hang a man.

  Dick said, “The comedian. You kill me.” He struck a match, intending to smoke a cigarette, but something seen by the light of the flaring match brought him to his feet and carried him across the barn to a cow stall. A car was parked inside the stall, a black-and-white two-door 1956 Chevrolet. The key was in the ignition.

  Dewey was determined to conceal from “the civilian population” any knowledge of a major break in the Clutter case—so determined that he decided to take into his confidence Garden City’s two professional town criers: Bill Brown, editor of the Garden City Telegram, and Robert Wells, manager of the local radio station, KIUL. In outlining the situation, Dewey emphasized his reasons for considering secrecy of the first importance: “Remember, there’s a possibility these men are innocent.”

  It was a possibility too valid to dismiss. The informer, Floyd Wells, might easily have invented his story; such tale-telling was not infrequently undertaken by prisoners who hoped to win favor or attract official notice. But even if the man’s every word was gospel, Dewey and his colleagues had not yet unearthed one bit of solid supporting evidence—“courtroom evidence.” What had they discovered that could not be interpreted as plausible, though exceptional, coincidence? Just because Smith had traveled to Kansas to visit his friend Hickock, and just because Hickock possessed a gun of the caliber used to commit the crime, and just because the suspects had arranged a false alibi to account for their whereabouts the night of November 14, they were not necessarily mass murderers. “But we’re pretty sure this is it. We all think so. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have set up a seventeen-state alarm, from Arkansas to Oregon. But keep in mind: It could be years before we catch them. They may have separated. Or left the country. There’s a chance they’ve gone to Alaska—not hard to get lost in Alaska. The longer they’re free, the less of a case we’ll have. Frankly, as matters stand, we don’t have much of a case anyhow. We could nab those sonsabitches tomorrow, and never be able to prove spit.”

  Dewey did not exaggerate. Except for two sets of boot prints, one bearing a diamond pattern and the other a Cat’s Paw design, the slayers had left not a single clue. Since they seemed to take such care, they had undoubtedly got rid of the boots long ago. And the radio, too—assuming that it was they who had stolen it, which was something Dewey still hesitated to do, for it appeared to him “ludicrously inconsistent” with the magnitude of the crime and the manifest cunning of the criminals, and “inconceivable” that these men had entered a house expecting to find a money-filled safe, and then, not finding it, had thought it expedient to slaughter the family for perhaps a few dollars and a small portable radio. “Without a confession, we’ll never get a conviction,” he said. “That’s my opinion. And that’s why we can’t be too cautious. They think they’ve got away with it. Well, we don’t want them to know any different. The safer they feel, the sooner we’ll grab them.”

  But secrets are an unusual commodity in a town the size of Garden City. Anyone visiting the sheriff’s office, three underfurnished, overcrowded rooms on the third floor of the county courthouse, could detect an odd, almost sinister atmosphere. The hurry-scurry, the angry hum of recent weeks had departed; a quivering stillness now permeated the premises. Mrs. Richardson, the office secretary and a very down-to-earth person, had acquired overnight a dainty lot of whispery, tiptoe mannerisms, and the men she served, the sheriff and his staff, Dewey and the imported team of K.B.I. agents, crept about conversing in hushed tones. It was as though, like huntsmen hiding in a forest, they were afraid that any abrupt sound or movement would warn away approaching beasts.

  People talked. The Trail Room of the Warren Hotel, a coffee shop that Garden City businessmen treat as though it were a private club, was a murmuring cave of speculation and rumor. An eminent citizen, so one heard, was on the point of arrest. Or it was now known that the crime was the work of killers hired by enemies of the Kansas Wheat Growers’ Association, a progressive organization in which Mr. Clutter had played a large role. Of the many stories circulating, the most nearly accurate was contributed by a prominent car dealer (who refused to disclose its source): “Seems there was a man who worked for Herb way back yonder around ’47 or ’48. Ordinary ranch hand. Seems he went to prison, state prison, and while he was there he got to thinking what a rich man Herb was. So about a month ago, when they let him loose, the first thing he did was come on out here to rob and kill those people.”

  But seven miles westward, in the village of Holcomb, not a hint was heard of impending sensations, one reason being that for some while the Clutter tragedy had been a banned topic at both of the community’s principal gossip-dispensaries—the post office and Hartman’s Café. “Myself, I don’t want to hear another word,” said Mrs. Hartman. “I told them, We can’t go on like this. Distrusting everybody, scaring each other to death. What I say is, if you want to talk about it, stay out of my place.” Myrt Clare took quite as strong a stand. “Folks come in here to buy a nickel’s worth of postage and think they can spend the next three hours and thirty-three minutes turning the Clutters inside out. Pickin’ the wings off other people. Rattlesnakes, that’s all they are. I don’t have the time to listen. I’m in business—I’m a representative of the government of the United States. Anyway, it’s morbid. Al Dewey and those hot-shot cops from Topeka and Kansas City—supposed to be sharp as turpentine. But I don’t know a soul who still thinks they’ve got hell’s chance of catching the one done it. So I say the sane thing to do is shut up. You live until you die, and it doesn’t matter how you go; dead’s dead. So why carry on like a sackful of sick cats just because Herb Clutter got his throat cut? Anyway, it’s morbid. Polly Stringer, from over at the schoolhouse? Polly Stringer was in here this morning. She said it’s only now, after over a month, only now those kids are beginning to quiet down. Which made me think: What if they do arrest somebody? If they do, it’s bound to be somebody everybody knows. And that would fan the fire for sure, get the pot boiling just when it had started to cool off. Ask me, we’ve had enough excitement.”

  It was early, not yet nine, and Perry was the first customer at the Washateria, a self-service laundry. He opened his fat straw suitcase, extracted a wad of briefs and socks and shirts (some his, some Dick’s), tossed them into a washer, and fed the machine a lead slug—one of many bought in Mexico.

  Perry was well acquainted with the workings of such emporiums, having often patronized them, and happily, since usually he found it “so relaxing” to sit quietly and watch clothes get clean. Not today. He was too apprehensive. Despite his warnings, Dick had won out. Here they were, back in Kansas City—dead broke, to boot, and driving a stolen car! All night they had raced the Iowa Chevrolet through
thick rain, stopping twice to siphon gas, both times from vehicles parked on the empty streets of small sleeping towns. (This was Perry’s job, one at which he judged himself “absolutely tops. Just a short piece of rubber hose, that’s my cross-country credit card.”) On reaching Kansas City at sunrise, the travelers had gone first to the airport, where in the men’s lavatory they washed and shaved and brushed their teeth; two hours later, after a nap in the airport lounge, they returned to the city. It was then that Dick had dropped his partner at the Washateria, promising to come back for him within the hour.

  When the laundry was clean and dry, Perry repacked the suitcase. It was past ten. Dick, supposedly off somewhere “hanging paper,” was overdue. He sat down to wait, choosing a bench on which, an arm’s length away, a woman’s purse rested—tempting him to snake his hand around inside it. But the appearance of its owner, the burliest of several women now employing the establishment’s facilities, deterred him. Once, when he was a running-wild child in San Francisco, he and a “Chink kid” (Tommy Chan? Tommy Lee? ) had worked together as a “purse-snatching team.” It amused Perry—cheered him up—to remember some of their escapades. “Like one time we sneaked up on an old lady, really old, and Tommy grabbed her handbag, but she wouldn’t let go, she was a regular tiger. The harder he tugged one way, the harder she tugged the other. Then she saw me, and said, ‘Help me! Help me!’ and I said, ‘Hell, lady, I’m helping him!—and bopped her good. Put her on the pavement. Ninety cents was all we got—I remember exactly. We went to a Chink restaurant and ate ourselves under the table.”

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