Authors: Pete Dexter
Tags: #National Book Award winning novel 1988
Paris Trout was never a contributor to this
community," he wrote. "All he did was take. And in the end
he took his own mother and two of our finest citizens, and he owes a
debt for that. The repugnance one feels in this matter is not
lessened by the fact that the killer ought to have been in jail at
the time this grievous act was committed for another act of murder,
which was overlooked because the girl was colored .... "
The editorial went on to the bottom of the page.
Hanna Trout read the first two paragraphs and put the paper aside.
She did not need the Ether County Plain Talk to tell her about Paris
Trout. And when Sheriff Edward Fixx called her that same week about
opening the safes, she said that he and the federal government could
do what they wanted.
It did not seem to her that what was inside belonged
to her anyway. On an order from the coroner, the sheriif and two of
his deputies had already searched Paris's room at the Ether Hotel and
found nine pistols, loaded and cocked, two shotguns, and a .30
caliber lever-action carbine. They had found a steel plate beneath
his mattress, stacks of canned food, and several sheets of glass
fitted to cover the floor. There was no money, no indication of where
it was. An investigation by officers of the Southern Bankers
Directory showed that Trout had sold 866 acres of timber in February
for $117,000, and had liquidated Trout & C0. the month before,
receiving a payment slightly in excess of $170,000 from an Atlanta
investment firm. The assets of his bank, which were estimated
at $400,000, had vanished.
All that was left were the house and the store and
the five safes inside. Hanna Trout signed the authorization without
reading it. She had put her house up for sale. She sensed she was an
embarrassment now, much as her husband had been before that Saturday
morning. There were stories, of course: that she had the money
herself, that her husband had gone crazy when she threw him out.
There was a story that she and Harry Seagraves were
lovers, but that one died early, out of respect for his wife.
Hanna Trout had gone to the funerals — Harry
Seagraves and Carl Bonner were buried the same day — and no one had
offered her an arm or a kind word. Of course, there had been no
offers in that direction before, when Paris Trout was only an
Before what he was and what he did had changed the
place he lived.
* * *
HARRY SEAGRAVES WAS BURIED in the family plot in the
shadiest part of Ether County
Memorial Park. His stone read:
WAS OUR BEST AND OUR KINDEST
Carl Bonner lay in a newer Part of the cemetery, near
the street. His marker was flat on the ground and carried only his
name and the dates of his birth and death. You would never guess,
looking at it, that he had been the youngest Eagle Scout in the
history of Georgia or that a generation of Cotton Point children had
suffered in the comparison with his example. . You would never guess
that a perception of the future died with him.
Paris Trout and his mother were buried a day later,
in separate parts of the cemetery.
There had been no church funeral for him, and only
Hanna and a few of his blood relations came to the graveside. He went
into the ground in a section of the cemetery where no one visiting
the graves of Harry Seagraves or Carl Bonner or his mother would
accidentally stumble over his name on the way in or out. The ground
there was hard, and there were spots where grass would not grow.
The place looked poisoned.
There were no trees, and
there was no shade, although in some seasons the late-afternoon sun
dropped behind the Monument to the Unknown Confederate Dead in such a
way as to cast a shadow across his grave.
* * *
A LOCKSMITH WAS BROUGHT in from Macon at county
expense. He spent two days in the hallway of the store, going from
one safe to another, and was unable to open any of them. By the
second afternoon his curses were audible on the street.
At the end of the second day he told Sheriff Fixx,
"Those ain't ordinary," and returned to Macon.
Edward Fixx informed all interested parties —
including agents of the Internal Revenue Service — that the safes
were not ordinary and the locksmith from Macon had left. A week later
two federal agents stepped off the train from Atlanta, escorting one
Ralph Guthrie, of Leavenworth, Kansas.
Mr. Guthrie was in handcuffs and was taken to the
Ether Hotel and given the best room available.
In the morning he ate steak and eggs at Richard
Dickey's drugstore and then walked between the agents from the
restaurant to Paris Trout's store, smiling in a boyish way at the
women — it did not matter if they were young or old — and did not
seem even slightly embarrassed by the circumstances or the handcuffs.
Once inside, Ralph Guthrie looked at the safes and
began to laugh.
Edward Fixx did not appreciate a man in handcuffs
laughing at his situation. "Can he do it or not?" he said.
One of the agents considered Fixx in a Yankee sort of
way and said, "Let him finish laughing, and we'll find out. It's
a professional courtesy."
When Ralph Guthrie had finished laughing, he spoke
directly to the sheriff; "Edward," he said, "you got
yourself a problem. These here safes are Belgian."
The sheriff also did not appreciate being called
Edward by somebody in handcuffs.
Ralph Guthrie looked around at the walls and said,
"You wonder, don't you, how safes like that end up someplace
"Can you do it?" one of the agents said.
Ralph Guthrie shrugged. "I can get in. There
ain't no safe you can't get inside, but I got to blow it."
"Here?" Edward Fixx said. "Downtown
The safecracker shrugged. "You can move these
somewhere else, I'll be glad to wait. They might weigh a thousand
pounds .... "
Edward Fixx did not like the idea of a safecracker
setting off an explosion in Cotton Point, but the federal agents
assured him that Mr. Guthrie was as careful as a surgeon, and if it
were not for his weakness to brag and spend money, he could never
have been caught. The sheriff had one of the agents write that down
and then agreed to the plan, and the safe blowing was set for Sunday
afternoon. The police blocked off Main Street for two blocks on
either side of the store and pushed the crowd back that gathered
along the edge of Georgia Officers' Academy's campus to watch until
none of them could see anything.
Ralph Guthrie and the federal agents were in the
store most of the afternoon, setting the charges. Edward Fixx sat in
his cruiser on a side street a block and a half from the store. The
cruiser was fresh out of the body shop — he'd smashed it one way or
another four times in the last year — and had that new-car feeling
again, and Edward Fixx wasn't about to expose it to a brick shower
because some Leavenworth safecracker used too much nitroglycerin.
A few minutes after six o'clock Ralph Guthrie and the
federal agents walked out of the front of the store, in no hurry at
all, crossed the empty street, and sat down on the curb. A minute or
two later there was a muffled explosion, followed by a cloud of smoke
that rose from behind the store.
The explosion shook the ground but did not as much as
crack the front windows of the store. The men waited a few minutes
more and walked back inside. Edward Fixx drove his cruiser to the
corner and got out, leaving the door open. He did not like a
professional safecracker inside with no one local to watch him. He
found them in the back, coughing in the dust and smoke. The five
safes sat exactly where they had been, but the doors were ajar, a few
Sheriff Fixx," one of the agents said, "if
you would get a pencil and paper, we can itemize the contents as we
take them out."
It took them half an hour, but Edward Fixx stopped
writing a long time before that. There were more than ninety bottles,
each one filled approximately a third of the way to the top with
urine. Each bottle was labeled, date and time. "Urine passed
from the body of Paris Trout, eleven o'clock A.M., this eleventh day
of March 1954. To be used in the event of my death for evidence I
have been poisoned."
Edward Fixx was not about to write them down one at a
There was also a sealed white envelope which held
several hundred pieces of clipped fingernails and another envelope —
this one light brown and containing a single sheet of paper full of
columns of numbers that seemed to be a code or a map.
After several months in the hands of U.S. Army
decoding experts, however, the numbers were discovered to be the
combinations to the five safes themselves.
* * *
THAT WAS AS CLOSE as anyone came to Paris Trout's
money, it was as much of an explanation as he ever gave.
Hanna Trout sold the house and moved to Savannah,
where she taught school as long as she lived. Sometimes, looking out
over the playground from her office window, a child would catch her
eye, someone awkward and dark with legs as thin as bones, and she
would think of Rosie Sayers.
The child was never in her dreams, though. She had no
claim on Hanna Trout.
In her dreams everything was dark. She could never
see the walls or the floor or her own hands. She would stumble,
catching herself a moment before she fell, and then stumble again.
Always moving toward a voice that called for help.
The tripping frightened her — she remembered there
was glass on the floor — but in the dark, at the bottom of things,
she always kept on. In her dreams she knew the voice.
And when she woke from that other place, grabbing at
the roll of the mattress for some purchase to break her fall, she
would hold herself still for as long as the dream was fresh, trying
to hear the voice again, but the fear would pass before she could
bring it back.
And then it was gone.
And she would lie in the dark until morning
sometimes, wondering which one of them it was.
August 16, 1987