I knew Elmer Kimbell was a bad man long before I found those stories from the 1950s on the web about five years ago. Those stories certified my judgment in bolder detail than I could have ever imagined. Elmer was my mother’s second husband and he took every cent she had and then used her as a punching bag for 10 years before my mother gathered her courage and divorced him.
She died a few months after the divorce in 1977. She was 57. Because police had answered so many abuse calls at their little house in Jackson, TN they immediately suspected the worst, but the autopsy revealed death by natural causes.
There weren’t many redeeming details to my mother’s life after my father died. She became addicted to tranquilizers while I was still in high school. After he died, she took them in numbers that surely took her to the edge of death more than once. She could fool you with her ability to pull herself together for a time. But it never lasted. She was having one of her good periods when she met Elmer. She had taken a job cooking on boats that pushed barges up and down the Mississippi River. She had done well enough at it to be on the edge of getting union certification which would increase her salary and give her jobs on better boats. But before she could make that jump, she met Elmer on a low-paying job on a boat out of Greeneville, MS, near Elmer’s hometown. They may have made more than one trip together. I am not sure.
I left home at 17 and stayed as far away from her as much I could even before Elmer arrived. So, I do not have strong memories of how the marriage unfolded. My sister said Mama brought Elmer home in the winter of 1966 to meet her. Maybe I met him then, but I don’t remember it. After my father died, I felt I had no real home. I saw my mother as a whirlpool of disaster that would suck me down if I let it. The only way I knew to avoid it was to stay as far away as possible. I was not always kind in the ways I kept my distance. When a family starts to drown, it’s one person to a life jacket.
The first time I remember meeting Elmer was the day after they were married in Jackson in the spring of 1966. I got a call to come to the Holiday Inn on the north end of town. It was a month or so after I had ridden the rails to New Orleans. When I walked into the motel my mother, still in her night gown, introduced me to her new husband Elmer Kimball, a man with a face so red and weathered that you could see the booze dripping off him even before you smelled it. He was a bottom feeder, and in my mother he had found a woman too damaged to see that his party mask was upside down. Elmer was one of those drinkers whose view of himself expanded with every drink. And he had become so practiced at being a drunk that he sounded like it even when he wasn’t. One big story after another. That first day he was deep into his con about what an important man he was on the river boat, what a wonderful woman my mother was and about how good he was going to be to her. They had big plans, he said. My mother smiled knowingly at his antics but still showed a hint of pride. “He may be a fool but he’s my fool,” her face said.
I spent the next three years avoiding them. In the summer of 1969, I planned on avoiding them again. I had plenty of job options but the year in seminary had eroded faith in my decision-making. One possibility after another became roads not taken until I found myself in their house in Lexington, TN. My problem was that jobs weren’t equipped to give what I most needed, redemption. I had thought seminary a sensible move that would produce more good than bad, but I had counted on receiving more aid than I did and being able to volunteer my time to good causes. I ended up having to take a job for pay on a loading dock. I was disappointed early and never bounced back. I drank enough to identify with the priest in Tennessee Williams’ play “Night of the Iguana.” Most of my classes gave me little stimulation though the level of scholarship in them was outstanding. I am afraid my effort matched my interest. It was a bad year and I was about as messed up as I had ever been.
When summer came, I passed on more adventurous offers to apply for a job working with kids on a playground in Jackson, TN. I longed to feel clean and thought working with kids might give me some of what I had gone to seminary hoping to find. To do it, I would have to stay at my mother’s house, and I somehow convinced myself that would work. It was fine with her, but as I slowly discovered not so fine with Elmer, who in my vulnerability smelled blood in the water.
Mama was in a bad way when I arrived, alone and bed-ridden, almost unconscious from the drugs. But she responded well to me being there and seemed better than I could remember her for a long time. “I do so much better when you are here,” my Mama said, as if I had been there at all in the last five years. I knew that kind of talk was a trap, and my mother wanted nothing more from me than to take care of her the rest of her life.
I played two songs repeatedly that summer Johnny Cash’s “Peace in the Valley’ from the Live at San Quentin album and the Box Tops cover of Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released,’ redemption songs both, but redemption was only occurring in songs that summer. I was still waiting for “the lion to lay down with the lamb” and that day, “any day now” when “I shall be released.”
My mother and I did well when we were alone. Our peace, however, hung on a little string that that had some wretched knots in it. Elmer, you see, came home after a month to spend two weeks. This was his regular work period. His presence marked times of trial for both of us. Elmer made sure that I understood the rules for his house were not the same as my mother’s apartment where they had lived the first two years. If I was going to stay there, I had to obey his rules and not expect to sponge off him. Because playground work was not his idea of a real man’s work, I passed on the job to keep peace in the house. I did a little of his kind of work to satisfy him, but there wasn’t much decent work in Lexington, not even as good as the loading dock in Dallas. The only steady work was at the arsenal in Milan. Since I was trying to stay out of a war I thought was morally wrong, supporting myself with a war industry job was a conflict I couldn’t stomach though I tried. I almost left to go back to selling books. It had been only two years since I made $4,000 in eight weeks but it felt like a lifetime ago. I ended up using what little money I had to take a couple of literature courses at my old college. I paid for part of the tuition by working on campus. I would only have to get through a couple of more weeks with Elmer back in the house. I hoped that he would see that I was almost out the door and ease up on me.
Elmer returned shortly before the end of the summer, and my solution to the summer didn’t please him. I didn’t know how much till I came home one night and found him passed out on the couch and my mother with bruises on almost every part of her body. I had never seen anyone beaten so badly. She said she had tried to run and hide under the bed, but the bed provided no safety. With the butt of his shotgun, he had slammed away at her, caring little where the blows landed.
I can’t tell you how much I want to lie and say I confronted him or that I called my Uncle James, the sheriff, or even that I went out in the front yard and cried to the heavens for help. I have no worse confession to make than this one: I did nothing. In a few days, I left early for Dallas and except for taking both my wives to meet my mother, I never set foot in their house again when he was there.
Elmer and Mama lived out their private hell for seven more years. She would check herself into Western State Psychiatric Hospital periodically to get off the pills and have a vacation from him. Finally she gathered the strength to divorce him. The divorce had been final only a short time when she died of a heart attack. She had been out on a boat after years of not working, and she wasn’t up to it. She became sick from an infected tooth. She got off the boat in Memphis and took a bus home. When she opened the door of the house, a month of August heat hit her in the face. She had a heart attack before she could turn on an air conditioner. It was almost a week before anyone found her.
It took four of us most of following week to clear out the house. Elmer’s dog was still in a pen in the backyard, so we were looking over our shoulders most of the time expecting trouble. He never showed. I didn’t hear anything about Elmer until 1989 when one of my aunts told me that she read his obituary a few years before in the Jackson Sun.
Living or dead, he haunted my dreams. I have replayed that ugly scene of finding my mother beaten into massive bruises many times. Until he died, my fantasy was that I should have grabbed my old baseball bat from the hall closet and, before he could rise from his drunken sleep, broken both his arms and legs. After I found out he had died, my fantasies became more violent and I would beat him to death in dreams. Killing him after he was dead didn’t seem like much of a crime. But it didn’t bring much relief either because he never stayed dead. He was always around, waiting for one of my weak moments, to torture my sleep.
Every now and then I would do a web search to see if I could find out anything about him. My mother had said that Elmer bragged about killing a man though she never took the claim seriously. All her bruises to the contrary, she thought Elmer was mostly a blowhard. I searched anyway. and found nothing. Then one day about five years ago while searching under the name he had used when marrying my mother, I found the notation “Also see Elmer Kimbell.” When I searched for Kimbell, Google spit out about a dozen or more links to stories. All of them were related to the killing of a Clinton Melton in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi in 1955. This was the same county where Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager, was brutally murdered earlier that year. The Till case became one of the seminal civil rights movement’s moments when Till’s mother opened her son’s casket at the funeral , so people could witness the brutality inflicted on her son before he was murdered. The two men accused of the murder were freed after an hour’s deliberation by a jury even though there was substantial evidence against them.
A month after the Till case trial, another white on black killing occurred in Tallahatchie County. Clinton Melton, a black gas station attendant, was gunned down by Elmer Kimbell in a dispute that began over the amount of gas the white man had ordered. Elmer was driving the car of J. W. Milam, a friend who was of one of the defendants in the Till case. After Melton filled Elmer’s tank, Elmer claimed he had only an ordered a dollar’s worth of gas. Enraged by the cost of the gas, Elmer left in furry, only to return with his gun and killed Melton in front of three witnesses. The jury deliberated two hours longer than in the Till case, but in the end the verdict was the same. Not guilty.
This story is even worse than I have told it. Before the trial began a vehicle forced a car carrying Clinton Melton’s widow and two of his children off the road and into a bayou. The children were saved by a relative, but Mrs. Melton died. The death was ruled an accident, but opinion in Tallahatchie County remains divided largely along racial lines to this day on whether the motivation for the crash was accidental or criminal.
A kindly priest once told me once that I suffered from the sin of spiritual pride. I did not believe I could be forgiven. When I hear my burden named like that, I feel like a foolish man who turns his back on living in the here and now to dwell in the hurtful land of regret where no blow is ever softened, no mistake corrected, and no one ever forgives anyone. And so perhaps I hold onto this story of Elmer Kimbell not because I am central to it but because the slender cord that connects me to it winds its way around my neck and makes all the regret I feel palpable. I rub against it not because his sin was my sin, but because I feel somehow the need to regret this, if only as a distant stand-in. I am after all as practiced in regret as he was in hatred and because, in dreams at least, I know how it feels to hate someone you hardly know enough to kill.