The Right Eye of Justice
Audra Stern shot Ollie Kovak in self-defense. At least that's what the court decided, after a week's worth of deliberating. It had been building to that point for some time. Some said as far back as VJ Day. The nation had barely closed the door on WWII when we found ourselves bivouacked outside of China on a tiny strip of dirt called Korea, and things just seemed to get worse after that. Colton is like any other small American town, patriotic and peaceful— to a point. I guess we passed that point the day Audra put a bullet through Ollie Kovak's chest out there on Trenton Road.
The only reason I know so much about it is that I happened to be there at the time. Not exactly right there—but there nonetheless. And I must say I saw it coming. If it wasn't her, it'd be somebody else. You can't be different in small towns like Colton. It doesn't pay to be different in any way, especially political. I must have told Ollie a hundred times he ought to keep his opinions to himself.
"Ollie", I said to him, "you're peculiar to people. They don't like folks that disagree with the President. Same as sassing your daddy. They won't stand for it." He'd just jerk his chin at me and go on with whatever he was doing at the time. He's a good man, that one, but stubborn as a cowlick, ever since we were kids. His family moved here when his daddy lost his job in Chicago and thought he'd find better luck in Atlanta. But when their car took out and fell apart on the road down, he had to find work quick to feed his wife and five hungry kids. That's how they lighted here in Colton. Of course, Mrs. Kovak never fully unpacked her bags here, hoping they would make it back to Chicago when things got better. They never did.
The Kovaks were what you might call "tolerated" by the town. They talked funny and acted different. Some called them Yankees when they first came, and nobody really trusted them. When Ollie and me became friends at school and I asked him to come home with me one day, my daddy said to let well enough alone. I was eight years old, and the only other time I'd heard my daddy say that was when he caught me playing with Emmett, a boy who used to meet me half way from colored quarters to toss a ball. But I went back just the same, right up to the day Emmett came to tell me his mama said he had to play in colored quarters from now on. And that was just the year before. But I did continue to play with Ollie at school, and he liked me a lot. I think it's because I picked him first when our class was choosing up sides for basketball his first day at Millsap Elementary.
Audra Stern was a grade behind us, but her friends were in our class. Every boy in school except her brothers was in love with Audra. She always looked like she stepped off the pages of a Hollywood magazine. Her mama kept her so polished and primped the younger girls didn't want to play with her. It was her beautiful hair mostly. Her mama kept changing it. One week she'd come to school with it swept up in pretty barrettes, and the next it would be long and bouncy with ribbons, and then the next it might be chopped off in a red page- boy. She wasn't spoiled so much as she was just pampered. People were always doing things for her, things she ought to do for herself. Not me, though. I had three sisters, and I knew for a fact that girls could carry their own books—large stacks of them. But Ollie took pity and lugged them home for her sometimes. She was struck on Ollie all the way through school—on account of the dimple in his chin. "Just like Errol Flynn in the movies" she told everybody, though most of us never even heard of old Errol. She'd seen him in one of her mama's movie magazines, I guess, like some of the other girls.
In fact, the Rialto was the only picture show in town, and I don't remember seeing anything but westerns and cartoons there the whole time I was growing up. That's what the 1950's were all about in small town America, that and the drop drills at school. They kept telling us nothing was really wrong and nothing was going to happen, but we knew better. We knew the Russians were gong to send a bomb to land slap on top of us while we slept. "They come by night", the older boys told us. "It's in every big city newspaper you read," they said. We were all plenty scared, too—all except Ollie. He got beat up one day for calling Johnny Welch a liar when he told us Kruschev was on his way to Colton with his Red Army to blow us all up. Ollie asked him how a whole army got into the country without being seen, and Johnny Boy shoved his fist down Ollie's throat and asked him how come he didn't see it coming. After that, he told everybody that Ollie was one of them—a Red spy. "They ain't from Chicago at all," he'd say. "They're from Moscow, Russia. And Ollie is one of Khrushchev's Commie kids."
Normally, folks would just turn a deaf ear to such childishness, but for some it had the ring of truth. Vern Hack, the town butcher, for one. He ran the closest thing to a deli the town ever had seen, over next to the Piggly Wiggly market. Karl Kovak and his wife bought nothing but Polish sausage from him, sausage he had shipped in from St. Louis. And Mrs. Kovak raised her kids on sauerkraut and latkes and other foreign foods. And they never went to church in town. Once a month, they'd drive all the way to Memphis to some mysterious church where they spoke a different language. Ollie finally told us one day that it was Catholic, but we didn't believe him because there was a Catholic church twenty miles from Colton—a lot closer than Memphis. I regretted that, too, because I wanted to believe. We never talked about it again after that day.
In high school, Ollie made the football team his freshman year. He was only average size, but he was fast and had a powerful throwing arm. His daddy and mama did not support it like most parents would. He was wanted at home, where he could help look after the younger ones and study his books. Mr. Kovak said it was the job of every member to give their all to the family. Everything must be for the good of the many, not for oneself, he'd say. Ollie never tried out again for any sport after that, and I was secretly glad. Some of the boys' parents wouldn't have accepted a foreigner playing quarterback or being captain of the home team. Besides, Ollie had other talents. He was clever and real smart in school. He hardly ever missed a day, and he kept his grades up better than any of us. That is, till the day he caught the Audra Stern bug. Heaven knows she'd been shaking the bait long enough. I guess it was only logical—the best-looking girl in school expects to be with the best-looking boy. To be honest, though, Audra fanned her flame under so many other boys it was also logical that Ollie would be envied and hated.
"You ain't going out with that Kovak boy," her daddy would tell her. "He ain't even American. Them Kovaks are fine right where they are—in their own place!" This I heard straight from Audra's brother, Todd. He didn't feel the same way his daddy did. He didn't see any difference between himself and Ollie except what they ate at home. He also knew Audra would cause Ollie trouble someday. Todd was a peacemaker, and I guess he got plenty of practice at home because he always ended up settling fights on our block. Every time one kid threatened to murder another kid, he'd be right there to talk them down. He single-handedly relieved Buddy Rogers of his pellet gun one day when he had Ollie in his crosshairs. You just can't beat Buddy Rogers at marbles five times in a row without paying for it somehow. But Ollie never flinched, not even when Buddy swore he would put his eye out. He would not be bullied. I think Todd was struck on Ollie, too, for his courage and sense of justice.
After high school, when boyhood friends joined the army or took over their fathers' businesses, lives just seemed to drift apart somehow. Even in the same town, we lived in different little worlds, all new and full of questions and fears that come with adulthood. Audra eventually eliminated reasons and barriers that separated her and Ollie, and there was nothing left but that they should elope. Mr. Stern was less happy about the matter and got a lawyer to fight it afterward. He didn't consider it a marriage at all—Christian or legal—and turned his back on her when he was told to butt out.
By this time, Ollie's daddy had grown ill and unable to carry on. Ollie took his place at the mill, inheriting the same prejudice he had faced growing up. Olin Mills was the town's bread and butter, and it was run with an iron hand by offices in St. Louis. Otherwise, Karl Kovak would never have been given a job in Colton. But just because he was rescued and put to work at the mill didn't mean the others had to welcome the man, just tolerate him—him and his sausage and kraut and brown mustard and foreign accent. The man never cursed and he had no use for football or television or unions. He stayed in his place, like they expected him to do, a place in life they despised, though never having been there themselves. Foreigners could never quite be trusted.
The hunting season may have ended in marriage, but Audra was soon longing for more. It would never again be enough to simply carry her books or the wash basket or the grocery bags. The TV now told her she would not live to be thirty. Ike would soon be turning over the country to a Commie Catholic, and the end was near—according to reliable sources somewhere. Folks in Colton would shake their heads when it was mentioned in the streets, and some had even dug crude underground shelters from the bomb. And if it was to be her last days, Audra wanted to grab up as much life as she could while it lasted. She wanted dining and dancing and fine, expensive things before the party ended.
There were arguments and fights and settlements and flare-ups at home. Ollie urged her to avoid the TV news for a while, long enough to regain her stability and reason, a plea she blatantly ignored. There was news daily of new fighting in Asia and Africa, right on the heels of Castro's takeover in Cuba and his new partnership with the Russians—and just off the coast of Florida.
Not to worry, Ollie tells her. He explains the situation from Russia's perspective, too. They would annihilate themselves if they bombed the U.S., he tells her. The radioactive fallout would contaminate their food and kill all their plants and animals. They could not survive any better than we could if we dropped a bomb there. They know that, he says, and so do we. Still, Audra longs for the security of her father's arms, her mother's love. They feel as she does. They believe in fallout shelters and life afterward. They believe in striking first.
The days tick by and Audra's fears are only heightened by daily TV and newspaper reports. The baton had finally passed to the idol worshiper who would bring down the nation and every living soul in it. "It's in the Bible," Burt Stern tells her. "Wars and rumors of wars and all the rest of it." Khrushchev, according to many, was sitting over there with his finger on the hot button, laughing and pointing at us. And all the Commies Joe McCarthy exposed were out there spinning webs and helping him along. Colton was an insignificant little smudge on a map of nowhere.
Things could not be contained with love and reassurance, and Audra is not alone in her fears and desperation. Town meetings are called to discuss matters. Tempers flare and nothing good is accomplished. There is talk of sealing off the town, a measure even the mayor calls silly and insane. "Colton sits right smack dab in the Bible Belt," he says, "and just who do we have to fear among good Christian people?"
Burt Stern speaks up and says they ought to be looking for anybody who is suspicious, people who are not Christians because everybody knows Communists don't believe in Jesus Christ. "It's time to flush out the enemies once and for all!"
The Kovaks was one of the few families that did not attend these meetings, not that it would have helped things. They kept quietly to themselves, as always, going about their daily routines. None of the children— all nearly grown now—mentioned the matter in their parents' presence. They knew the golden rule: Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and it is not my right to change it. According to Mr. Kovak, this is the only way to preserve dignity and human rights. He did not fear the townspeople, but he did find offense in their words. They had never been forced to live under tyranny, but he could see fear in their eyes and in their hearts. He understood it as his children never could. It was a haunting and destructive force they feared, a way of life they could not abide. These things he knew without benefit of TV or radio reports. He could read the signs, a language he acquired while still at his mother's side in the old country. They were everywhere and speaking loudly to a mind that listened. This he tried to convey to his own children by action and deed.
The town folks saw it differently—at least many of them did. It was the Kovak silence that had stirred them up. They could not accept it as privacy. It was secrecy, and that had to mean something sinister. The whole family was reserved and guarded, ever since the first day they hobbled into town, never really discussing things about themselves or their home life, leaving people to guess or make up meanings.
Ollie and Audra took it to bed with them now, dividing themselves along family lines. With Ollie's every reassurance that Communism was not pounding at the town gates, Audra became more uncertain. He showed her no fear or contempt for Castro or Khrushchev or communism, the way she had been raised to think and feel. What about all those drop drills and emergency evacuations at school? Was he not afraid even then? And if not, why? It had become too much to ponder. She felt as if she were seeing him for the first time, as if he'd been wearing a mask all these years. Her father was right, she decides: The Kovaks are not like us.
The Bay of Pigs skirmish has resulted in the deaths of many American soldiers...the television blares. Carl Beecher, a boy from home, was among the casualties. War had come to Colton in the form of mangled remains. A sign of worse things to come, people said. It wasn't long before Russia parked nuclear bombs in Cuba, and President Kennedy was wringing his hands—the way the TV told it. Most folks in Colton didn't believe that. He nearly got the country in a war over the Bay of Pigs mess, and now this. Poor Carl Beecher was laid to rest out at the Colton cemetery without knowing that the Commie Catholic President was at war with America, too, people said.
Tensions were running higher than ever at home, and Ollie knew it would only get worse with a world teetering on the brink. It is a situation he pondered deep and hard and for days on end. The afternoon sun was red against the autumn clouds and thinning treetops the last day he came strolling home from the mill. Audra was sitting there on the front porch with a shawl draped around her shoulders. He waved from a distance, but she gave no response. It had been so long since they had communicated. Her daddy kept her stirred up and worried all the time, warning her to leave Ollie before it's too late. He even bought her a pistol, for her own peace of mind, but Ollie wouldn't allow it in the house, which only added to their suspicion. But Audra did not give it back. Today she waited for Ollie to reach the porch steps then pulled it from her lap and fired a single shot into his chest.
It was a neighbor that called for an ambulance. Audra passed out cold, and they had to haul her in for observation. Clearly, she meant for it all to end there, but the shot ricocheted off a chest bone and missed Ollie's heart. There were no witnesses, except Mrs. Carrier, who called for help. She saw Audra fire the shot, but she could not judge whether it was provoked. Ollie had no weapon, but the court saw things differently.
The Kovaks—for the very first time since they moved to Colton—appeared at the town courthouse. The whole family. Ollie stood tall and proud when the judge waved him up to the stand. Lawyers volleyed back and forth for three days trying to prove and disprove that "words and fear are weapons". Audra's lawyer claimed that she had been "mentally and emotionally manipulated by a Communist sympathizer". She had been denied the basic security of a handgun given to her by her father, and was "forced to accept the ways of foreigners." Ollie did little to defend himself. He had no need, he felt, to respond to false charges and hearsay testimony. His lawyer thought differently and said so, but later agreed that it would have made no difference in the long run. The Kovaks sat quietly the whole time, watching the wheels of American justice at work. They were never called to the witness stand. They never expected to be. The judge ultimately accepted the jurists' decision that she had acted in self-defense, motivated by fear.
Naturally, there would be an appeal of the court's decision, but not by Ollie Kovak or his lawyer. The Sterns were an old, established family in Colton, and Todd Stern was the smartest of the bunch. He had gone on to become a lawyer, and, by the time the ink had dried on the final court documents, the appeal had been filed. Believing that justice must be absolutely blind, Todd Stern would have a hand in seeing to that on behalf of his friend and boyhood idol, Ollie Kovak.
Audra filed for divorce the day after the court decision and returned to a world safe from outside opinions and un-American views. Ollie was left to pick up the fractured remains of his life and carry on. In the meantime, President Kennedy had made Khrushchev blink first in a test of wills, and the nuclear weapons he had parked and aimed at us from Cuba were all carted off back to Russia. But Cuba remained under Communist rule, and some would later say that Castro had Kennedy assassinated just to get even. In the end, the trial in Colton was not so much about the attempted murder of Ollie Kovak as it was an attempt to slay the menacing shadow of fear, something Karl Kovak knew well.