In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  During the first of his three years in prison, Perry had observed Willie-Jay from a distance, with interest but with apprehension; if one wished to be thought a tough specimen, intimacy with Willie-Jay seemed unwise. He was the chaplain’s clerk, a slender Irishman with prematurely gray hair and gray, melancholy eyes. His tenor voice was the glory of the prison’s choir. Even Perry, though he was contemptuous of any exhibition of piety, felt “upset” when he heard Willie-Jay sing “The Lord’s Prayer”; the hymn’s grave language sung in so credulous a spirit moved him, made him wonder a little at the justice of his contempt. Eventually, prodded by a slightly alerted religious curiosity, he approached Willie-Jay, and the chaplain’s clerk, at once responsive, thought he divined in the cripple-legged body builder with the misty gaze and the prim, smoky voice “a poet, something rare and savable.” An ambition to “bring this boy to God” engulfed him. His hopes of succeeding accelerated when one day Perry produced a pastel drawing he had made—a large, in no way technically naïve portrait of Jesus. Lansing’s Protestant chaplain, the Reverend James Post, so valued it that he hung it in his office, where it hangs still: a slick and pretty Saviour, with Willie-Jay’s full lips and grieving eyes. The picture was the climax of Perry’s never very earnest spiritual quest, and, ironically, the termination of it; he adjudged his Jesus “a piece of hypocrisy,” an attempt to “fool and betray” Willie-Jay, for he was as unconvinced of God as ever. Yet should he admit this and risk forfeiting the one friend who had ever “truly understood” him? (Hod, Joe, Jesse, travelers straying through a world where last names were seldom exchanged, these had been his “buddies”—never anyone like Willie-Jay, who was in Perry’s opinion, “way above average intellectually, perceptive as a well-trained psychologist.” How was it possible that so gifted a man had wound up in Lansing? That was what amazed Perry. The answer, which he knew but rejected as “an evasion of the deeper, the human question,” was plain to simpler minds: the chaplain’s clerk, then thirty-eight, was a thief, a small-scale robber who over a period of twenty years had served sentences in five different states.) Perry decided to speak out: he was sorry, but it was not for him—heaven, hell, saints, divine mercy—and if Willie-Jay’s affection was founded on the prospect of Perry’s some day joining him at the foot of the Cross, then he was deceived and their friendship false, a counterfeit, like the portrait.

  As usual, Willie-Jay understood; disheartened but not disenchanted, he had persisted in courting Perry’s soul until the day of its possessor’s parole and departure, on the eve of which he wrote Perry a farewell letter, whose last paragraph ran: “You are a man of extreme passion, a hungry man not quite sure where his appetite lies, a deeply frustrated man striving to project his individuality against a backdrop of rigid conformity. You exist in a half-world suspended between two superstructures, one self-expression and the other self-destruction. You are strong, but there is a flaw in your strength, and unless you learn to control it the flaw will prove stronger than your strength and defeat you. The flaw? Explosive emotional reaction out of all proportion to the occasion. Why? Why this unreasonable anger at the sight of others who are happy or content, this growing contempt for people and the desire to hurt them? All right, you think they’re fools, you despise them because their morals, their happiness is the source of your frustration and resentment. But these are dreadful enemies you carry within yourself—in time destructive as bullets. Mercifully, a bullet kills its victim. This other bacteria, permitted to age, does not kill a man but leaves in its wake the hulk of a creature torn and twisted; there is still fire within his being but it is kept alive by casting upon it faggots of scorn and hate. He may successfully accumulate, but he does not accumulate success, for he is his own enemy and is kept from truly enjoying his achievements.”

  Perry, flattered to be the subject of this sermon, had let Dick read it, and Dick, who took a dim view of Willie-Jay, had called the letter “just more of Billy Grahamcracker’s hooey,” adding, “ ‘Faggots of scorn!’ He’s the faggot.” Of course, Perry had expected this reaction, and secretly he welcomed it, for his friendship with Dick, whom he had scarcely known until his final few months in Lansing, was an outgrowth of, and counterbalance to, the intensity of his admiration for the chaplain’s clerk. Perhaps Dick was “shallow,” or even, as Willie-Jay claimed, “a vicious blusterer.” All the same, Dick was full of fun, and he was shrewd, a realist, he “cut through things,” there were no clouds in his head or straw in his hair. Moreover, unlike Willie-Jay, he was not critical of Perry’s exotic aspirations; he was willing to listen, catch fire, share with him those visions of “guaranteed treasure” lurking in Mexican seas, Brazilian jungles.

  After Perry’s parole, four months elapsed, months of rattling around in a fifth-hand, hundred-dollar Ford, rolling from Reno to Las Vegas, from Bellingham, Washington, to Buhl, Idaho, and it was in Buhl, where he had found temporary work as a truck driver, that Dick’s letter reached him: “Friend P., Came out in August, and after you left I Met Someone, you do not know him, but he put me on to Something we could bring off Beautiful. A cinch, the Perfect score . . .” Until then Perry had not imagined that he would ever see Dick again. Or Willie-Jay. But they had both been much in his thoughts, and especially the latter, who in memory had grown ten feet tall, a gray-haired wise man haunting the hallways of his mind. “You pursue the negative,” Willie-Jay had informed him once, in one of his lectures. “You want not to give a damn, to exist without responsibility, without faith or friends or warmth.”

  In the solitary, comfortless course of his recent driftings, Perry had over and over again reviewed this indictment, and had decided it was unjust. He did give a damn—but who had ever given a damn about him? His father? Yes, up to a point. A girl or two—but that was “a long story.” No one else except Willie-Jay himself. And only Willie-Jay had ever recognized his worth, his potentialities, had acknowledged that he was not just an undersized, overmuscled half-breed, had seen him, for all the moralizing, as he saw himself—“exceptional,” “rare,” “artistic.” In Willie-Jay his vanity had found support, his sensibility shelter, and the four-month exile from this high-carat appreciation had made it more alluring than any dream of buried gold. So when he received Dick’s invitation, and realized that the date Dick proposed for his coming to Kansas more or less coincided with the time of Willie-Jay’s release, he knew what he must do. He drove to Las Vegas, sold his junk-heap car, packed his collection of maps, old letters, manuscripts, and books, and bought a ticket for a Greyhound bus. The journey’s aftermath was up to fate; if things didn’t “work out with Willie-Jay,” then he might “consider Dick’s proposition.” As it turned out, the choice was between Dick and nothing, for when Perry’s bus reached Kansas City, on the evening of November 12, Willie-Jay, whom he’d been unable to advise of his coming, had already left town-left, in fact, only five hours earlier, from the same terminal at which Perry arrived. That much he had learned by telephoning the Reverend Mr. Post, who further discouraged him by declining to reveal his former clerk’s exact destination. “He’s headed East,” the chaplain said. “To fine opportunities. A decent job, and a home with some good people who are willing to help him.” And Perry, hanging up, had felt “dizzy with anger and disappointment.”

  But what, he wondered when the anguish subsided, had he really expected from a reunion with Willie-Jay? Freedom had separated them; as free men, they had nothing in common, were opposites, who could never have formed a “team”—certainly not one capable of embarking on the skin-diving south-of-the-border adventures he and Dick had plotted. Nevertheless, if he had not missed Willie-Jay, if they could have been together for even an hour, Perry was quite convinced—just “knew”—that he would not now be loitering outside a hospital waiting for Dick to emerge with a pair of black stockings.

  Dick returned empty-handed. “No go,” he announced, with a furtive casualness that made Perry suspicious.

  “Are you sure? Sure you even asked?”

“Sure I did.”

  “I don’t believe you. I think you went in there, hung around a couple of minutes, and came out.”

  “O.K., sugar—whatever you say.” Dick started the car. After they had traveled in silence awhile, Dick patted Perry on the knee. “Aw, come on,” he said. “It was a puky idea. What the hell would they have thought? Me barging in there like it was a goddam five-’n’-dime . . .”

  Perry said, “Maybe it’s just as well. Nuns are a bad-luck bunch.”

  The Garden City representative of New York Life Insurance smiled as he watched Mr. Clutter uncap a Parker pen and open a checkbook. He was reminded of a local jest: “Know what they say about you, Herb? Say, ‘Since haircuts went to a dollar-fifty, Herb writes the barber a check.’ ”

  “That’s correct,” replied Mr. Clutter. Like royalty, he was famous for never carrying cash. “That’s the way I do business. When those tax fellows come poking around, canceled checks are your best friend.”

  With the check written but not yet signed, he swiveled back in his desk chair and seemed to ponder. The agent, a stocky, somewhat bald, rather informal man named Bob Johnson, hoped his client wasn’t having last-minute doubts. Herb was hardheaded, a slow man to make a deal; Johnson had worked over a year to clinch this sale. But, no, his customer was merely experiencing what Johnson called the Solemn Moment—a phenomenon familiar to insurance salesmen. The mood of a man insuring his life is not unlike that of a man signing his will; thoughts of mortality must occur.

  “Yes, yes,” said Mr. Clutter, as though conversing with himself. “I’ve plenty to be grateful for—wonderful things in my life.” Framed documents commemorating milestones in his career gleamed against the walnut walls of his office: a college diploma, a map of River Valley Farm, agricultural awards, an ornate certificate bearing the signatures of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, which cited his services to the Federal Farm Credit Board. “The kids. We’ve been lucky there. Shouldn’t say it, but I’m real proud of them. Take Kenyon. Right now he kind of leans toward being an engineer, or a scientist, but you can’t tell me my boy’s not a born rancher. God willing, he’ll run this place some day. You ever met Eveanna’s husband? Don Jarchow? Veterinarian. I can’t tell you how much I think of that boy. Vere, too. Vere English—the boy my girl Beverly had the good sense to settle on. If anything ever happened to me, I’m sure I could trust those fellows to take responsibility; Bonnie by herself—Bonnie wouldn’t be able to carry on an operation like this . . .”

  Johnson, a veteran at listening to ruminations of this sort, knew it was time to intervene. “Why, Herb,” he said. “You’re a young man. Forty-eight. And from the looks of you, from what the medical report tells us, we’re likely to have you around a couple of weeks more.”

  Mr. Clutter straightened, reached again for his pen. “Tell the truth, I feel pretty good. And pretty optimistic. I’ve got an idea a man could make some real money around here the next few years.” While outlining his schemes for future financial betterment, he signed the check and pushed it across his desk.

  The time was ten past six, and the agent was anxious to go; his wife would be waiting supper. “It’s been a pleasure, Herb.”

  “Same here, fellow.”

  They shook hands. Then, with a merited sense of victory, Johnson picked up Mr. Clutter’s check and deposited it in his billfold. It was the first payment on a forty-thousand-dollar policy that in the event of death by accidental means, paid double indemnity.

  “And He walks with me, and He talks with me,

  And He tells me I am His own,

  And the joy we share as we tarry there,

  None other has ever known . . .”

  With the aid of his guitar, Perry had sung himself into a happier humor. He knew the lyrics of some two hundred hymns and ballads—a repertoire ranging from “The Old Rugged Cross” to Cole Porter—and, in addition to the guitar, he could play the harmonica, the accordion, the banjo, and the xylophone. In one of his favorite theatrical fantasies, his stage name was Perry O’Parsons, a star who billed himself as “The One-Man Symphony.”

  Dick said, “How about a cocktail?”

  Personally, Perry didn’t care what he drank, for he was not much of a drinker. Dick, however, was choosy, and in bars his usual choice was an Orange Blossom. From the car’s glove compartment Perry fetched a pint bottle containing a ready-mixed compound of orange flavoring and vodka. They passed the bottle to and fro. Though dusk had established itself, Dick, doing a steady sixty miles an hour, was still driving without headlights, but then the road was straight, the country was as level as a lake, and other cars were seldom sighted. This was “out there”—or getting near it.

  “Christ!” said Perry, glaring at the landscape, flat and limitless under the sky’s cold, lingering green—empty and lonesome except for the far-between flickerings of farmhouse lights. He hated it, as he hated the Texas plains, the Nevada desert; spaces horizontal and sparsely inhabited had always induced in him a depression accompanied by agoraphobic sensations. Seaports were his heart’s delight—crowded, clanging, ship-clogged, sewage-scented cities, like Yokohama, where as an American Army private he’d spent a summer during the Korean War. “Christ—and they told me to keep away from Kansas! Never set my pretty foot here again. As though they were barring me from heaven. And just look at it. Just feast your eyes.”

  Dick handed him the bottle, the contents reduced by half. “Save the rest,” Dick said. “We may need it.”

  “Remember, Dick? All that talk about getting a boat? I was thinking—we could buy a boat in Mexico. Something cheap but sturdy. And we could go to Japan. Sail right across the Pacific. It’s been done—thousands of people have done it. I’m not conning you, Dick—you’d go for Japan. Wonderful, gentle people, with manners like flowers. Really considerate—not just out for your dough. And the women. You’ve never met a real woman . . .”

  “Yes, I have,” said Dick, who claimed still to be in love with his honey-blond first wife though she had remarried.

  “There are these baths. One place called the Dream Pool. You stretch out, and beautiful knockout-type girls come and scrub you head to toe.”

  “You told me.” Dick’s tone was curt.

  “So? Can’t I repeat myself?”

  “Later. Let’s talk about it later. Hell, man, I’ve got plenty on my mind.”

  Dick switched on the radio; Perry switched it off. Ignoring Dick’s protest, he strummed his guitar:

  “I came to the garden alone, while the dew was still on the roses,

  And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,

  The Son of God discloses . . .”

  A full moon was forming at the edge of the sky.

  The following Monday, while giving evidence prior to taking a lie-detector test, young Bobby Rupp described his last visit to the Clutter home: “There was a full moon, and I thought maybe, if Nancy wanted to, we might go for a drive—drive out to McKinney Lake. Or go to the movies in Garden City. But when I called her—it must have been about ten of seven—she said she’d have to ask her father. Then she came back, and said the answer was no—because we’d stayed out so late the night before. But said why didn’t I come over and watch television. I’ve spent a lot of time at the Clutters’ watching television. See, Nancy’s the only girl I ever dated. I’d known her all my life; we’d gone to school together from the first grade. Always, as long as I can remember, she was pretty and popular—a person, even when she was a little kid. I mean, she just made everybody feel good about themselves. The first time I dated her was when we were in the eighth grade. Most of the boys in our class wanted to take her to the eighth-grade graduation dance, and I was surprised—I was pretty proud—when she said she would go with me. We were both twelve. My dad lent me the car, and I drove her to the dance. The more I saw her, the more I liked her; the whole family, too—there wasn’t any other family like them, not around here, not that I know of. Mr. Clutter may have been more strict about some t
hings—religion, and so on—but he never tried to make you feel he was right and you were wrong.

  “We live three miles west of the Clutter place. I used to walk it back and forth, but I always worked summers, and last year I’d saved enough to buy my own car, a ’55 Ford. So I drove over there, got there a little after seven. I didn’t see anybody on the road or on the lane that leads up to the house, or anybody outside. Just old Teddy. He barked at me. The lights were on downstairs—in the living room and in Mr. Clutter’s office. The second floor was dark, and I figured Mrs. Clutter must be asleep—if she was home. You never knew whether she was or not, and I never asked. But I found out I was right, because later in the evening Kenyon wanted to practice his horn, he played baritone horn in the school band—and Nancy told him not to, because he would wake up Mrs. Clutter. Anyway, when I got there they had finished supper and Nancy had cleaned up, put all the dishes in the dishwasher, and the three of them—the two kids and Mr. Clutter—were in the living room. So we sat around like any other night—Nancy and I on the couch, and Mr. Clutter in his chair, that stuffed rocker. He wasn’t watching the television so much as he was reading a book—a ‘Rover Boy,’ one of Kenyon’s books. Once he went out to the kitchen and came back with two apples; he offered one to me, but I didn’t want it, so he ate them both. He had very white teeth; he said apples were why. Nancy—Nancy was wearing socks and soft slippers, blue jeans, I think a green sweater; she was wearing a gold wristwatch and an I.D. bracelet I gave her last January for her sixteenth birthday—with her name on one side and mine on the other—and she had on a ring, some little silver thing she bought a summer ago, when she went to Colorado with the Kidwells. It wasn’t my ring—our ring. See, a couple of weeks back she got sore at me and said she was going to take off our ring for a while. When your girl does that, it means you’re on probation. I mean, sure, we had fusses—everybody does, all the kids that go steady. What happened was I went to this friend’s wedding, the reception, and drank a beer, one bottle of beer, and Nancy got to hear about it. Some tattle told her I was roaring drunk. Well, she was stone, wouldn’t say hello for a week. But lately we’d been getting on good as ever, and I believe she was about ready to wear our ring again.

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