Mystery Only to Some
When my parents heard about the sudden death of Coach Miller’s father, they just assumed that he had died of a heart attack. But later in the week, after an autopsy, the coroner reported that the body contained heavy traces of arsenic. My parents were particularly interested in the case because Coach Miller, the old man’s only son, was married to their daughter’s sister-in-law. He was also my math teacher.
Coach Miller was a tall, gangling man with a shock of unruly brown hair and grey eyes. Daddy called eyes of that color “gander eyes.” I realize now that he was still a young man when he began to teach math and coach basketball at our school. But as ninth-graders, we thought all of our teachers were old except the brunette just out of college who taught typewriting and shorthand. At recess she even played games with the grade school kids and jumped rope sometimes. But Coach Miller was hardly old; he was probably only in his early thirties when he joined the faculty at Dillon School.
Coach Miller was popular with the students, especially with the athletes. He enjoyed the basketball practices in our new gymnasium and the games with the teams from the other rural schools in the county. But I never thought he liked being the classroom. He was restless, often pacing back and forth in front of the blackboard like the red fox my parents and I saw in a small park in Hugo, Oklahoma.
After the time for Mr. Miller’s father’s funeral services was announced, the principal said he would excuse absences for those pupils who wanted to attend. Along with the majority of those in my class, I chose not to go. One girl who did go told us that before the corpse was taken from the Miller farm house to the Baptist Church, Mr. Miller had the students line up and file past his father’s coffin. He told each one to whisper his/her name to the corpse while filing past the coffin. I was relieved that I had declined the invitation to attend the funeral service.
After Coach Miller’s mother died a few years before, his father married a widow named Annie Coppedge. The couple lived at the Miller homeplace approximately ten miles from our school.
I never thought about the death or the funeral I declined to attend until one night at supper Daddy said, “The sheriff took old Mr. Miller’s neighbor Roger Bryant to jail. They’re sayin’ that he poisoned the old man.”
Daddy said that Bryant was a bachelor and that he had heard that Bryant spent quite a bit of time at the Millers’ house.
“Did the sheriff arrest Miller’s wife?” Mamma asked, starting the plate of cornbread around the table. She never took any bread until the rest of us had served ourselves.
“No, Annie Miller ain’t in jail—yet,” Daddy replied.
Later in the week I gathered from a remark Mamma or Daddy made, again at the supper table, that Bryant and Annie Miller were lovers.
Daddy turned to me. “I wonder how your teacher is takin’ his daddy’s death now that he knows he was murdered,” Daddy said.
Before I could answer, Mamma asked “Seth Armister is the jailer, ain’t he?” A new sheriff had just taken office, and Mamma didn’t know what changes, if any, he had made in personnel.
“Yeah, he is. An’ you remember that Armister and the Millers used to be neighbors before Armister give up tryin’ to raise cotton on them rows of gullies he called a cotton farm. He got the job as jailer and moved his family to town.”
“I heard that Miz Armister took it real hard when Miller’s first wife died. The two women was close friends,” Mamma said. She pushed her chair back from the table, stood up, and walked to the stove in order to bring more cornbread to the table.
“I don’ thank Bryant will be gittin’ any favors from Armister or his wife while Bryant’s in jail,” Mamma said, as she sat down. At meal time she always kept the seat of her chair angled toward the stove because she usually got up several times during the meal to bring more food to the table.
When Coach Miller came to our classroom the day after his father’s funeral, he joked with the athletes whom he expected to play basketball that fall. Later, however, he kept looking out the windows as if his mind were out among the clumps of bois d’arc trees where Mr. Bennett’s cattle were grazing. He was supposed to be reviewing us on long division. After class I heard Coach Miller tell Lanny White, one of the basketball players, that he appreciated Lanny’s attending Mr. Miller’s funeral.
On Friday morning of the week following the funeral Coach Miller came to math class a little earlier than he usually did. Dwight Trump, one of the basketball players, called out to him, “Hey, Coach, did you like the picture show last night? I seen your truck parked in the alley beside the courthouse. I jus’ thought you prob’ly took your son to see Shane.”
Dwight was the only member of our class with a car of his own. His parents gave him a Model A Ford coupe, which he drove to school and sometimes to the county seat. Before class that morning, Dwight told several of us that the night before he and Cindy Overton, who was in the eleventh grade, had gone to the roller skating rink in the county seat. Then they had driven to the courthouse square where they sat for awhile in Dwight’s car. The square is where the teenagers in the county who had cars liked to hang out.
All of us looked closely at Mr. Miller after Dwight asked him. We were curious about his reaction to Shane, the feature that week at the picture show. Coach Miller stared at Dwight as if he resented the question. The silence in the classroom made me uncomfortable, as did the frown Coach Miller wore. His reaction was out of keeping with his usual behavior. Most days he had rather joke with the class than explain a problem, and he left the impression that he could take a joke himself if you didn’t go too far.
Everybody but Dwight was tuned in to Coach Miller’s bad mood. I was hoping he would drop the subject after he saw Coach Miller’s displeasure. We were surprised when he asked another question: “How’d you like the scene in the barroom when Alan Ladd bluffed the bad guys? Last night I thought about goin’ to see Shane a second time, and if I had, I could’ve asked you right after the show ended how you liked it.”
“Yeah. Great scene,” Coach Miller answered. Then he wheeled to the blackboard as fast as he moved in the gym sometimes when he was dodging a wild basketball. He began to copy percentage problems on the board. “Solve these problems,” he barked, “and then I’ll have some of you write your solutions on the board.”
After several students moaned, Coach Miller turned to look sternly at all of us. We got right to work on the problems.
At lunch I sat at the table where Dwight was sitting. Nobody brought up the question that Dwight asked Coach Miller. I guess they thought Dwight was embarrassed about the way Coach reacted.
When I returned from school that afternoon, Mamma called from the kitchen as I was opening the back door, “Roger Bryant was found dead in his jail cell. Your daddy heard the news at the store this mornin’.” I wondered whether Coach Miller had already heard about Bryant’s death when he came to our class that day.
The driver of a grocery truck told Daddy earlier that day that the jailer found Bryant’s corpse slumped against the wall when he took grits and coffee to the cell. According to what the driver heard at the warehouse, there was dried blood on the back of Bryant’s head.
On the following Saturday a report of Bryant’s death appeared in the weekly newspaper. According to the reporter, the sheriff assumed that the death was a suicide. However, he had not concluded the investigation before the paper went to press. As far as I can recall, the sheriff did not issue any further details in the next few weeks.
I have heard of prisoners hanging themselves with a belt or a rope made of bed sheets, but the report in the paper did not specify that either a belt or a rope was found in Bryant’s cell. Bryant’s neighbors said he was not the kind of man to take his own life, certainly not by battering his head against the plastered walls of the cell.
One Monday morning a couple of weeks after Bryant was found dead, the principal came to our math class. He strode into the room and turned to face us. “Class, Mr. Miller won’t be here this morning. As a matter of fact, he won’t be coming again—at all. He has resigned, effective immediately,” he announced.
“Where’s Coach goin’?” one of the basketball players asked.
“To Dallas. He decided to look for work there—whatever he can find. Mr. Snead has agreed to coach basketball this year,” the principal said.
“I’ll teach your math class for a few days till we can find a teacher,” the principal said. We knew that he once taught math before the Board hired him as the principal.
Bryant’s funeral service was held without much publicity. Although he had not been convicted of murder by a jury, almost everybody in the county believed that Bryant was guilty. I did not consider the question then, but now I wonder whether Annie Miller attended the services. Maybe she stayed away from the church that autumn afternoon, since the talk over the county was that it was blackberry juice from her pantry that contained the arsenic that killed old Mr. Miller. The victim’s death may have been caused from his drinking the juice from blackberries the old man himself had picked. Now that Bryant’s life had paid for the murder of the old man, my parents thought it unlikely that any charges would be brought against Annie Miller.
Was Roger Bryant present when old Mr. Miller drank the poison? Did Bryant drink a glass of the pure blackberry juice as the two men sat on Miller’s porch that humid afternoon? Was Annie Miller in the kitchen preparing a meal, a final supper for her husband? These are questions that come repeatedly to my mind, even now.
I never saw Coach Miller again. The principal’s wife came in later that fall to teach our math class. She turned out to be a good teacher. The gymnasium burned to the ground in December, and the basketball teams had to practice on a dirt court the rest of the season. Mr. Snead did his best, but the team members mostly coached themselves. All the games were played at schools that had gymnasiums, so I never saw any of the games. Maybe it’s just as well because our teams won hardly any of them.
Someone at the crossroads store told Daddy that Coach Miller found a job driving a truck for a bakery in Dallas. To my knowledge he never taught a math class or coached a team again. Dwight never found out whether Coach Miller liked Shane. As a matter of fact, I do not know to this day whether our teacher went to the picture show the evening Dwight spotted Coach Miller’s truck in town. Maybe he had another reason for parking near the jail.
Robert Cowser teaches composition and literature at The University of Tennessee at Martin. He also tutors offenders at Northwest Correctional Complex. His poetry has been published most recently in St. Anthony Messenger and in Chiron Review. The Journal of Southern History recently published one of his reviews. He contributes monthly to texasescapes.com, an on-line magazine.