- Let Patsy R.I.P.
It was GPS that brought me to this tiny railroad town in northeast Alabama, and, okay, maybe my predilection for anything Southern gothic too. But once I made it to Stevenson, I didn’t need the satellites to figure which house belonged to James Davis. The signs were everywhere—literal ones, I mean—including the hand-painted one that has replaced the train depot as the most recognizable landmark in all of Stevenson. It stands at the edge of James’ front yard, alongside the road that runs through here to Bridgeport. LET PATSY REST IN PEACE, it reads. There’s an assortment of smaller signs, too, posted on the façade of his two-story cabin: I HAVE SEARCHED FOR JUSTICE FOR 8 YEARS I HAVE NOT FOUND IT YET and ILLEGAL COURT ORDER BURIAL PLOT DESECRATION HERE, among others. Then of course, right next to the front porch, lies the grave where James buried his wife, whom he affectionately calls Mama.
It’s marked by a headstone, wide as a marriage bed and already carved with both their names, because he plans to be put to rest here too. Silk flowers sit atop the monument. More sprout from vases on either side. Each vase features two interlocking wedding rings. It’s a perfect set-up, arranged just the way James wanted it, except for one thing. [End Page 61]
Mama is no longer in her grave.
I climbed the steps of the porch, passed under yet another sign, this one alerting me I was entering MAMA’S HOUSE, and shook the hand of the man who three decades ago built this cabin from the ground up, while Mama sat in her rocking chair in the yard and watched every swing of his hammer.
James Davis invited me to sit in his living room, and fixed me in his gaze with a hard, determined stare. “I got one question to ask you, before you get in too deep,” he said. “Do you get intimidated easy-like?”
I wasn’t quite sure how to answer, so I responded with words I hoped were true. “No, not usually,” I told him. Which sounded smug, even to my own ears, so I decided to clarify. “I mean, I’ve been intimidated before, but maybe it doesn’t happen very often.”
He liked that I was from Georgia. He saw his state of Alabama as a vast iron fist that stifled a man’s right to his own property and choked off justice. He told me another writer from Birmingham had expressed interest in doing what I’d come to do. Apparently she had dropped out of sight, though. “I’ll betcha they got to her,” he said. “You being outside, it’s gonna be harder to intimidate you. I’m just wanting you to know ahead of time.” Then he enumerated our common enemies: “We’re fighting the state, the county, and the city.”
James was a desperate man, which likely explains why he welcomed my offer to tell his story. “I’m seventy-eight years old,” he said to me more than once. “I don’t have much time left.”
He wore overalls, a plaid shirt, and work boots, as though any moment now he’d need to interrupt our visit to go fix a carburetor, cut down a tree, or build another house. Then he led me on a tour of the premises. He introduced me to a box overflowing with court transcripts, newspaper clippings, and sundry items he had pledged would serve as a veritable pirate’s treasure to anybody wanting to get to the bottom of his complaints. “I got everything,” he promised. Problem was, his eyesight was so bad—his left eye shot entirely—he couldn’t [End Page 62] find anything he was looking for. He had a magnifying glass big as a handheld mirror but still it did not help overmuch. Occasionally he could make out enough of a document to determine he wanted me to take a look, and he had me read portions aloud so he’d know whether it was what he actually wanted to...