“Well, that closet’s empty.” Carrie set down the armload of dusty boxes and briskly wiped her hands against each other. “What have you got there?”
“What—oh, just a box of letters Mom must’ve written to Dad over the years.”
“Really? I didn’t think your folks were ever separated for any great length of time. I mean, it’s not like he was in the army or anything.”
I patted on the mattress indicating my cousin should sit. “No, but for years their vacation schedules were not compatible, so Mom would take us kids with her leaving Dad behind. This box is full of postcards and letters she sent, so he would feel included.”
“Here, let me read one.”
“I think it’s kind of romantic, her writing and him saving all of her letters.”
“Hmpf! They weren’t all romantic. Here’s one where you guys visited Aunt Vickie, but your brother Marty got sick and threw-up along the way.”
I lifted my head out of the box on my lap, “Oh, yeah—I remember that trip. Mom pulled over, so Marty could puke, but he didn’t make it all the way out the door.” I smiled from ear-to-ear, reliving the memory of my brother’s misery. “Mom did her best to clean it up, but we were a long way from civilization, had to drive with the side-window down the all the way to Vickie’s just, so we could stomach the smell.”
Carrie curled up her nose and laughed. “Those were the good old days, weren’t they?”
I laughed in return but could only nod my head in assent.
“Hey, Lucy, what’s that big envelope in the box?”
“I don’t know, it is kind of thick.” I pulled out the tan Manilla envelope and set the box aside. “It’s marked Georgia 1966. It’s Mom’s handwriting.” I dumped the contents of papers, postcards, and Polaroid pictures onto the bed. We spread them out, treating each like a precious jewel. “I know what these are—they’re the letters Mom sent back to Dad when she, Grams, and your mom, went cross-country to see Uncle Mick graduate from Army Ranger School.”
“Oh yeah, I remember now. Pretty gutsy for three ladies to drive from Los Angeles to Fort Benning, Georgia, alone.”
“Well, you know Grams would never travel alone, and as for our moms—they weren’t called the Dynamic Duo for nothing.”
We laughed again, but it soon subsided when we realized we were talking about people we would never see again in this lifetime. “I wonder why Mom saved all this?”
“How do you know Uncle Andy didn’t save these letters?”
“My dad wasn’t sentimental. No, Mom must’ve saved these, but for what reason?”
“Lucy, let’s take a break. We don’t have to finish cleaning out the house today, do we?”
I sighed and looked around the bedroom, crammed with the dusty boxes each holding items my late mother had deemed precious. “No, I suppose not.”
“Good, let’s read these letters and find out why Aunt Jo wanted to keep them.”
It felt more like an expedition than snooping at my mother’s past. “Look, the journey starts here.” I picked up a postcard marked El Paso, Texas. “I wonder why they didn’t send a card before reaching El Paso?”
“Well, why would they? When Aunt Jo and Grams left Los Angeles, they drove straight through to our house in Tucson. Jo probably just called your dad from our house.”
“You’re probably right. Let’s see what she says, ‘Made it straight through to El Paso. Travelling with Mom not as bad as we thought. She sleeps a lot, but we must make sure to walk her at the rest stops for leg circulation. It’s like traveling with a puppy.’”
We laughed at the comparison of our grandmother to a dog. This trip had meant a great deal to Grams. Being a war widow, she and her children were extremely close. Of course, it would’ve been faster to fly, but in the mid-1960s, cross-country airfare for three was cost prohibitive. Train travel was out of the question as well, with Grams insisting “cinders would get in her eyes.”
It was decided the three women would split the expenses by driving from Los Angeles to Columbus, Georgia, in my Aunt Rainey’s new station wagon. The age of the car provided a sense of security on the road, and the size allowed for much needed space at rest stops.
“I’ll read the next one,” offered Carrie. “It’s postmarked Tyler, Texas.”
“What? They didn’t make it out of the state?”
“Here, wait a minute.” Carrie leaped off the bed and made for the hallway. She returned with a colorful oversized paperback book. “I remembered I saw an atlas in the boxes from the living room.
“Now, let’s look up the map of Texas.”
I traced my finger following Interstate 20 along the way. “My goodness, Carrie, they travelled over 350 miles and still didn’t make it to the next state.”
Carrie cocked her head and shrugged. “Well, Texas is a big state and with them stopping often for Grams …”
“Yeah, yeah, I get your point—now what did the card say?”
Carrie eyes flashed left to right as she quickly read the backside of a faded postcard of Big Tex, a giant statue of a cowboy which looms over the Texas State Fairgrounds. “Pretty much what we figured, slow going with Grams, and getting hung up in traffic between Fort Worth and Dallas.”
“Sounds exciting,” was all I could add with a touch of sarcasm. “Where did they go from there?”
Carrie picked up a postcard with a southern plantation pictured on the back. “Looks like they drove straight through to Jackson, Mississippi. She complains about how the weather went from a dry heat to a muggy one. ‘Thank God for air conditioning,’ she writes.”
“Well, the Land of Magnolia Blossoms is known for its humidity. It’s probably another reason they took Rainey’s car. Air conditioning was considered a luxury feature in those days.”
“Oh, look, Lucy—this letter has the same date as the postcard, but postmarked from Meridian, Mississippi.’
I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. “Hmm, why did Mom send two notes in one day? Open it up and find out.”
Carrie opened the fragile looking envelope and perused the even more fragile looking sheets of paper. “Here, you read it. You can read your mom’s writing better than me. Besides, it gets kind of scribbly in places.”
“Scribbly? Let me see?” She handed over a letter written in a script much like my mother’s but looking more like the time I had forged her signature in sixth grade. “She must’ve written this while Rainey was driving.
I’m writing this note because, if I don’t, I’m probably going to blow up! I’d talk to R about it—I’m sure she feels the same as I do—but we can never have a moment’s privacy with Her around! Okay, I admit it, you were right about how stressful travelling this far with my mother would be. I’ll let you have this one, but only this once. She’s constantly complaining about the humidity and how she feels closed-in, even though she has the backseat to herself.
Everywhere we have sent a postcard, we’ve stayed the night, except for the last one from Jackson. We’ve been making…’
“I think it says frequent stops. They must’ve hit a bump or something.”
“Well, go on—it sounds like Grams did something dumb.”
I rolled my eyes at Carrie’s assessment of our maternal grandmother, God rest her soul. “Where did I leave off…frequent stops…oh, yeah…
‘…trying to accommodate her, and I admit, stretching our legs, too. We left Texas early and managed to drive straight through Louisiana with the intention to stay the night in Jackson.
Now, I admit, I have been completely focused on either the road or the map, and I’m sure R has been, too. But, Mother, who doesn’t drive and won’t read because she claims it makes her sick, sits in the backseat and talks incessantly—chatter, chatter, chatter, about anything. To top it off, she’s starting to repeat her stories! But, none of this explains why I’m writing to you now.
All the while, Mother has been noticing and making comments about the scenery, including about how the population has been going more from ‘light to dark’. Geez, this is the deep south, what did she expect? Fine, Mother is of a certain age where the races didn’t mix, but when she refused to get out of the car to eat at a restaurant because there were ‘too many Negroes around and she feared for her safety’…well, it was more than R and I could handle. We told her, if she wasn’t getting out of the car to stretch her legs, she could just sit there, and we’d bring her something to eat.
I tell you, Andy, I don’t think I have ever been as angry at the kids, as I was my mother. R and I got out of the car, locking the doors behind us, and went inside to order dinner. Yes, there were Negroes there, but most of them were the serving staff. I know it was spiteful, but we took a booth and ordered for ourselves, with a sandwich to-go for Mother. It was then, we decided to change plans to finish the rest of the trip by driving straight through to Georgia without stopping to sleep. R is taking the first shift, and when I’m through with this letter I’m going to try to get some sleep, so I can spell her in a few hours. We brought Mom the food and offered to take her to the ‘White Only Bathroom’, but she just stubbornly sat in the back seat eating her BLT.
Thanks for being there to read this, Andy. I miss you and the kids, and the sooner this trip is over, the sooner we can be a family again.
Love you, Jo.’”
Carrie started laughing as she threw herself back onto the bed. “Oh—my—God, Lucy, Grams was prejudiced?”
I folded the letter to put back in the envelope. “You lived in Arizona most of your life, Carrie, you don’t remember her like I do. I can see her being that way. I remember her telling me there were certain neighborhoods we weren’t to go visit. Times have changed, but truthfully, I don’t think I remember her ever willing to be around black people.”
“Well, I guess we know where our moms got their stubborn streak from.” Carrie propped up on one elbow and looked at the remaining papers on the bed. “Hmph, looks like there’s no more letters, just various receipts for gas and such. Oh, here’s pictures of Uncle Mick in his uniform.”
I, too, turned to lay on the bed to look at the smiling faces, familiar yet free of decades of age yet to come. There was our uncle, a proper young soldier with his green beret cocked to the right. Some showed him with his mother and sisters, proud smiles wiping away any hint of exhaustion. “That can’t be all to this trip, can it?”
Carrie sat up and reached inside the Manilla envelope again. “There’s another envelope wedged in here.” Out came a legal sized envelope with the crest of a national motel chain along with a Columbus, Georgia, address in the upper left-hand corner. “Well, at least we know they made it, going by the return address, but, why is it so thick?”
She withdrew the enclosed letter, but as she pulled it out and opened the several pages to read, a small piece of paper fell out onto the floor. We mostly ignored it figuring we’d come to learn its importance once we read the letter. I sat up close to her, our bodies touching like conspirators, as we silently read the letter together.
Well, you’re never going to believe what happened now …”
* * *
Thursday, 11:48 pm
The new model Ford station wagon, so filthy with dust it hid the true color, pulled up before the office of the pleasant looking motel. The driver, weary from the journey of several hundred miles, shut off the hot engine and quickly rolled down the windows hoping for a non-existent breeze to stir the warm air now entering the car.
“Rainey, the motel sign says, ‘No Vacancy’, why are we stopping here,” came the high-pitched voice from the backseat.
“I know, Mother, but this is the motel Mick got us reservations for. ‘No Vacancy’ doesn’t include us.”
“C’mon, get out of the car. Let’s hope they have air conditioning in the office, I’m gonna melt if I have to sit in the car any longer.”
“Oh, Jo, you’re just exaggerating. Now, you want to know what hot summer nights are like, let me tell you about my childhood on the prairies of Minnesota …”
“Yes, Mother, you’ve told us before.”
“Mother, Jo’s got the right idea, let’s all go into the office together. Roll up the windows and lock the doors, everyone, we don’t want anything stolen while we’re in there.”
Jo Garrett exited the passenger side and stretched, grabbing her purse with one outstretched hand. Her mother, Verna Brodie, had slid from the center of the backseat to the door, but hadn’t opened it yet. Jo put her purse in the crook of her elbow while she locked and closed her door. It was her task to open the door for her mother to exit. A diminutive woman, Verna stood practically a head smaller than her other daughter, Rainey, the car’s driver. With their mother free, the two women escorted her from either side as if she was a prisoner expecting to bolt away, into the motel’s office.
A bell tinkled as they entered a brightly lit room, surrounded on three sides by glass walls. Before the fourth wall sat a high counter, a wooden door behind it, the only other exit. The air-conditioning was on yet set so low it caused the women in their sleeveless blouses and Capri pants to shudder. “There’s nobody here.”
“Yes, there is, Mother, they probably just go in the back after regular business hours.” Rainey walked up to the counter, the front weighted down with racks of area maps and colorful event brochures. “There’s another bell here. Maybe they didn’t hear the first one.” A couple more dings on the desktop bell and the backdoor opened to admit a mature couple in bathrobes.
“I’m here, I’m here, you can stop with the bell, please.” The man removed a pair of reading glasses from the breast pocket of his robe and perched them on the end of his nose. “What can I do for you ladies?” Unlike his movements, his speech was slow as he elongated his vowels. “Didn’t you see the ‘No Vacancy’ sign?”
“That’s right, we’re plumb full up,” chimed his wife, noticeably ready for bed with her head full of curlers.
Rainey presented her identification for the manager to read, “We have a reservation. My name is Rainey Patron, my brother, Mick Brodie, made it for us weeks ago.”
The manager ran his fingers over the booking digest, “No, there’s no room reserved for a Rainey Patron.”
“That’s right, every bed we have is full,” his wife added. Her speech more rapid than his, excited over being disturbed so late.
Jo presented her driver’s license, “Well, maybe it’s under the name of Josephine Garrett.”
The manager ran his finger again over the register. “Nope, no ‘Garrett’ either, sorry, ma’am.”
Jo’s shoulders slumped as she took her identification back. “Mick said he had made all of the arrangements—are you sure there’s no reservations for Mick Brodie?”
“I’m tired, when do we get to go to our room?”
“Yes, Mother, we’re all tired.”
“The manager’s trying to figure it all out, we just have to be patient.” Rainey’s response was more tolerant than her sister’s. “Look, sir, we’ve come from Los Angeles to Fort Benning for my brother’s graduation on Saturday. My brother, Mick Brodie, made reservations at this motel for the three of us.”
The manager perked up at the sound of the grand event at the fort, “The graduation you say?”
“Yes, sir, and we’re very tired from driving and would like nothing more than a shower and a bed.”
“And not necessarily in that order,” added Jo.
“Cyrus,” the manager’s wife piped in, “if the reservation was made in advance, let’s look at the paperwork. I’d hate to think this would be our error.”
The manager flipped through a file he had pigeonholed in front of him. “Brodie, you say?”
The three tired women nodded in unison.
“Ah, here it is! Yes, reservations for three under the name of Mrs. Verna Brodie.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” sighed Rainey.
Ever the skeptic, Jo questioned, “Why would he put it under mother’s name, she doesn’t drive?”
“Does it matter? At least he found it. Then you have beds for us?”
“Yes, ma’am, we do, but they’re not available for another twelve hours or so.”
Simultaneously, the three women began to speak, Rainey surprised, Verna confused, and Jo annoyed.
“You said we had reservations?”
“When do I get to lay down.?”
“Wouldn’t you know it, leave it to Mick to screw things up!”
“Ladies, ladies, please calm down. There was no…a…’screw up’ as you say. Mr. Brodie made the reservations—three adults, three days—but they don’t begin until tomorrow.”
Jo looked at the watch on her wrist. “It’s already tomorrow, it’s after midnight.”
“Oh, dear, dear, dear,” clucked the manager’s wife, shaking her head.
The manager clasped his hands, “Yes, ma’am. You see, our check out time is 11:00 am with check in any time after 1:00 pm. We weren’t expecting you for at least twelve more hours.”
Jo threw her hands in the air, “Great, Rainey, what are we going to do for the next twelve hours?”
“I don’t get to lay down?”
“Not yet, Mother.” Rainey’s voice was patient with her mother and the manager. Too tired to argue she asked, “What do you recommend we do, sir?”
“Well, I suppose, we can call around, and if you can find a vacancy, we can get you a room for the night.”
“But, we’re from out of town. Hell, we’re not even from this state.”
The manager’s wife gasped at Jo’s use of profanity, but quickly recovered remembering the woman was under duress. “Cyrus, with the graduation on Saturday, I’m sure most everyplace is full up.”
Jo placed her forearm on the counter’s edge to rest her head. “Uh, I think I’m getting a headache.”
“Tell you what, I’ll start making some phone calls to see if I can find a motel with space for you three. In the meantime, why don’t you follow my wife into our quarters. She can give you a place to sit and maybe some water while you wait.”
“Yes, yes, please come around the counter. Let me show you some Southern hospitality.”
Jo took her mother by the arm and led her around the counter. The thought of sitting on something other than the front seat of the station wagon helped to discharge some of her frustration. Rainey was following close behind but stopped with the manager’s warning.
“I can’t guarantee there won’t be a motel close in to the city. You may have to drive to one of the outlying communities.”
“That’s okay, if you give me directions, I’m sure I’ll find it.”
“No, ma’am, I don’t think you understand. You might have to drive through some neighborhoods where—to put this delicately—you don’t want to stop at night. Do you get my meaning?”
Rainey nodded and replied, “Yeah, sure, we’ll be careful.”
* * *
Friday, 2:10 am
“The bathroom’s right in there, Mother. Jo’s bring up the rest of the suitcases.”
“If we’re just spending the night, why do we have to bring in all of the suitcases?”
“Because, we’re not leaving anything of value in the car for someone to steal while we sleep.” Rainey closed the bathroom door behind her mother, leaned on the casing and sighed, thankful this portion of the journey was over. She kicked off her shoes and joined her sister coming through the door with a suitcase handle in each hand and a train case tucked under her arm.
“Leave the door open. The manager said he’d bring up the roll-away bed right away.” Jo dropped the luggage on the floor and threw herself on the bed. “I don’t even think I’m going to change my clothes. I could fall asleep right here.”
“How does it feel?”
“Like I’m lying on a concrete slab.”
“That good, huh?”
“What do you expect in a room decorated from paneling to the furniture in Georgia pecan.”
Rainey had plopped herself in one of the two kitchen chairs provided in the room, placed at a round table, the top large enough to accommodate a game of solitaire. She propped her feet on the other chair and faced the open door. The exhaustion of the day was creeping up on her as she spoke without moving her head to look at her sister. “You’d better get up, I don’t think a proper lady would allow herself to be seen spread-eagled on a bed, even if she did have all her clothes on.”
Jo groaned as she sat up and swung her feet over the edge, to look out the door as well. “You do realize the manager would know the room number, he doesn’t really need the door open?”
“Yup, I think it’s his subtle way of allowing the room to air before the air conditioning kicked on.”
“You’re probably right, this room smells of stale cigarette smoke. Listen, there’s someone on the balcony, it’s probably him now.”
Both women sat expressionless waiting for the owner of the footsteps to come to their door. The man who walked by was not the one they expected. He hadn’t a roll-away bed with him, yet he moved in slow motion as he passed their door. He was wearing a trench coat, unbuttoned and held back with hands in his pockets. He had no hat but was attired as a business man with dress slacks and button-down shirt. It wasn’t his unseasonable attire which made him standout. It was the fact that his fly was open, and he was presenting a full erection.
Jo and Rainey sat motionless like mannequins, eyes never moving from the open door. Jo finally broke their silence, “Did you see what I saw?”
Never turning her head, Rainey replied, “Yup.”
There were steps again on the landing, this time coming from the opposite direction. Still in their same positions, both women watched as the same man walked by in silence, fully exposed, the sound of his footsteps fading away to nothing.
Verna finally emerged from the bathroom. Her attitude much improved from earlier in the evening. “Why is the front door open?”
“The manager is bringing up your bed,” replied Rainey, never taking her eyes off the door.
“Well, that’s just silly,” she countered as she moved towards the front of the room.
“Leave it alone, Mother, those were his instructions.” Jo, too, was still sitting on the bed, legs hung over the side, hands resting on the edge. Her expression blank as she stared at the landing beyond the door.
Soon, there was the squeal of wheels as first the folded bed, and then the man pushing it entered the room. “Do you ladies want me want open it for you?”
Jo stood up and turned to the waiting man, “Did you see another man on the landing? A guy in a trench coat?”
“Why, ma’am? Did you see a man on the landing go by your room?”
Rainey stood up, her eyebrows knit together. “You know who we’re talking about don’t you?”
“Well, there have been reports. He—he didn’t do anything, untoward did he?”
“What’s this, girls? Did something happen while I was in the bathroom?”
Ignoring her mother, Jo stood as well, “Yes, the man was an exhibitionist. I thought you ran a reputable place?”
“I do, ma’am. There’s been reports, but always in the morning, never when it just happened.” The manager flustered, “Oh, my, excuse me, ladies, I need to call the police,” and off he trotted out the open door.
Rainey followed behind him to close and lock the door.
“Oh, my, a flasher!”
Jo moved past her mother towards the roll-away. “He did more than just flash, Mother. C’mon, let’s make your bed.”
* * *
Friday, 4:40 am
“Maybe, we should’ve left Mother behind at the motel. At least someone would be getting some rest.”
“Now, Jo, you know she would only have fretted about our being gone and probably done something wacky like…like call our husbands.”
“Ooh, yeah, point well taken. But really, there’s nothing she can tell the police, she was in the bathroom the whole time.”
“I know—shush, here she comes. At least she doesn’t look too shook up.”
“Now, Mrs. Brodie, you just sit on down here while my officer gets you a cup of tea. Comfortable?” The detective escorted Verna by the arm all the way to the empty chair by her daughters. His manner just oozed the type of southern charm reserved for leading men in the movies. “I’ll be right back, now.”
Jo leaned in close and spoke softly, “What did they ask you, Mother?”
“They just asked who I was and what I saw. It was all very nice, such a sweet gentleman, the detective, he said I reminded him of his mother.”
“But, what did you tell them?” prodded her other daughter.
“The truth. I am Mrs. Verna Brodie. I live in Los Angeles, California, and I am traveling with my daughters to see my son graduate from Ranger School.”
“Ooh, you didn’t tell them Mick’s name, did you?”
“Well, Josephine—I wasn’t going to lie.”
Rainey patted her mother’s arm, “You did right, Mother. Now, what else did you tell them?”
“I was in the bathroom after our long trip, and when I came out, the manager was dropping off my bed, and everyone was talking about some pervert, that’s all. Was there more to it?”
“No, no, you did right. Oh, look, here comes your tea.”
The young police officer, no older than her son, approached carrying a steaming paper cup. “Here, you are, Miz’ Brodie, it’s mighty hot. Y’all sure you don’t want no sugar or cream?”
“No, thank you, officer, this will be fine.” Carefully, Verna took the cup and nodded before the young man walked away. “Now, wasn’t he a sweet-natured boy?”
“Yeah, just like a honey bear with a gun strapped to his belt.”
“Josephine, don’t talk like that.”
The ladies sat in silence observing the workings of the small police station surprisingly alive with activity so late in the evening. Everywhere they looked was gray, the walls, the desks, the chairs. Whether it was from the décor or the lingering cigarette smoke was anybody’s guess. Any “color” provided was from the perpetrators being paraded by various policemen, all dressed in the same dark blue uniforms. Before them stumbled a drunk being escorted to the jail cells to sleep it off … a lady of the evening, to the booking desk for processing, her face caked with make-up smeared at the lips, shirt and skirt racing each other to meet in the middle … a Negro youth claiming his innocence for breaking curfew, “They ain’t no crime in just getting some air, is ‘der?”
Finally, the detective who had taken Jo and Rainey’s statements at the motel came walking down the hall. “Ladies, no, just Mrs. Garrett and Mrs. Patron, would you come with me?”
Jo reached for her mother’s free hand. “Why just us?”
“We have put together a line-up of possible perpetrators, and we’d like to see if you could identify them. Your mother, by her own statement didn’t see anything, so she can wait here. My officers can look after her.”
“Then you caught the man?”
“Yes, Mrs. Patron, while I was taking your statement at the motel, a man was picked up nearby, and if you can give us a positive identification, we’ll book him for indecent exposure and trespassing.”
“Can we go back to the motel when we’re through, Detective? We’re awfully tired.”
“Yes, Mrs. Garrett, after this, you can leave.”
Jo bolted up, dropping her mother’s hand, “Well then, let’s do this.”
The detective escorted the sisters down the hall to another wing of the police station. They came to a closed door with an empty chair sitting outside. “Mrs. Garrett, would you wait here while we work with Mrs. Patron?”
“Sure, why not.” Jo sat down, crossed her legs and mumbled under her breath as the door closed leaving her alone in the hall. “Age before beauty, I guess.”
She looked at her watch and wondered how much longer they would be there. Check out was at 11:00 am, so going back to the motel would give them … maybe … four good hours of sleep. After about eight minutes, the silence was broken with the sound of muffled laughter, then the door opened, and her sister exited. The detective stepped halfway out the door and indicated with a hand it was Jo’s turn.
She entered the room, dark and claustrophobic. One wall was half-filled with a sheet of glass which looked onto another room, only this one was brightly lit. When the door closed behind the detective, all light came from the adjacent room. “Mrs. Garrett, this here is Officers Keene and Marlowe. They’re here to witness your comments during this procedure.”
Jo noticed one of the officers when she entered the room, but it wasn’t until the door had closed did she realize the third man in the room. “Uh, hi there.” She quickly raised and lowered her hand to acknowledge their presence.
One of the officers reached up to a switch and spoke into what must have been an intercom. “Send ’em in.”
The door in the other room was on the opposite wall than what she had entered, indicating no access to the hallway where her sister was waiting. Through the door walked five men. They were different ages, races, yet clothed similarly. They lined up on a low riser with numbered stickers and stood before a wall decorated with parallel stripes at six-inch intervals.
“Okay, stop right there and turn towards your left. Face the mirror, put your hands in your pants pockets and wait for further instructions.”
The detective, standing next to Jo, revealed, “What you say can’t be heard by these men and this is a two-way mirror, so they can’t see us.
“Now, Mrs. Garrett, do you recognize any of these men as the one from the landing, the one who exposed himself?”
“Well, left to right, the first man is way too old, and the one next to him is a Negro. The man on the landing was White, definitely White.”
“Take note of that, officers. Yes, go on.”
“They’re all wearing trench coats, but the one on the far right is wearing jeans. It’s not him, this guy wore dress slacks.”
“Uh-huh, anything else?”
“His slacks were dark, but I don’t believe they were striped, so it has to be Number Four.”
“Think, Mrs. Garrett, you’re making a very important decision based on whether or not there is a pin-stripe on his pants.”
Jo looked up at the detective. “No, I’m not. I also saw his face.”
The detective stirred. “You didn’t mention that before. When did you see him?”
“When I was coming down to get my luggage. I passed him on the stairway.”
“Did he say or do anything?”
“He kind of gave me a salute, you know like this.” Jo raised her right hand to her forehead, barely touched it, and withdrew it just as fast.
The detective walked over to the intercom. “Number Four, give a quick salute with your hand.” The man, using his right hand, did as he was instructed and then put it back into his pants pocket.
“Yes, yes, that is the man, what do we do now, detective?”
“Officer Keene, here, will take you and your sister back to where your mother is waiting. I’ll be with you shortly.”
The door opened to find Rainey leaning against the opposite wall. “Well, are we all done?”
“Not yet, the detective said to wait with mother and he’ll be right with us.”
They found their mother where they’d left her, chin resting on her chest, her light snoring ignored by those around her. The sisters took their seats on either side, and gently shook Verna awake. “C’mon, Mother, we’re going back to the motel in a few minutes.”
Verna raised her head and blinked repeatedly, forcing them to focus. “About time.”
“Say, Rainey, I thought I heard laughter before you came out of the room. What happened?”
“Nothing. When I said I wasn’t positive about an identification, they asked why.”
“And what did you tell them?”
“I told them, ‘I wasn’t looking at his face.”
* * *
Friday, 10:35 am
“Damn, it, damn it, damn it!”
“Now, Josephine, don’t swear, it’s not ladylike.”
“Mother, I’m so angry, if I could throw pottery at the wall instead, I wouldn’t need to swear.”
Rainey unlocked their motel room and tried not to laugh. “C’mon, Jo, Mother, let’s change our clothes and pack up so we can check out of here.”
Verna looked at her watch, “But our other hotel room won’t be available until 1:00 pm.”
“I know, Mother, but after we check out we can find a place to eat and just rest until then.”
“Of all the nerve, making us go to court to testify against that creep!” Jo threw her purse on the bed and kicked off her high heels. “We didn’t even have time to eat between leaving the police and having to show up for court.”
Rainey opened her suitcase and started arranging her things. “Yes, we know, Jo, we were there, too, remember.”
“And did you see the way they were dressed? I felt like a sore thumb, being all dressed up. I swear, we and the attorneys were the only people dressed professionally.”
Verna laid her hat on the table and shook her head. “They just do things different down here, dear. You know, I recognized some of the people from the police station last night.”
Rainey walked out of the bathroom, arms loaded with hairbrushes and cosmetics. “Of course, you did, Mother, that court arraigned the overnight arrests. And you shouldn’t complain, Jo, if we hadn’t given sworn testimony this morning, we would’ve been subpoenaed to come back for a trial.” Tossing things into her train case she mumbled, “Lord knows I don’t ever want to come back here.”
Jo opened her mouth to continue her complaint when a knock on the door interrupted her. She looked at her sister who just shrugged.
“Well, isn’t one of you going to open the door?” asked Verna.
The second knock was interrupted when Jo opened the door to find a well-dressed man, one hand raised to knock, the other holding a fedora. “Yes, may I help you?”
“Mrs. Garrett, or are you Mrs. Patron?”
Rainey walked up behind her sister. “Who wants to know?”
The man reached into his inner breast pocket and removed a thin, bi-fold wallet. Opening it, he flashed a certificate identifying him as Special Agent Timothy Merton of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “May I come in and speak with you ladies?”
A subdued Jo motioned from him to come in. “Yeah, I suppose. Please, sit down at this table, there’s not much room in here.”
“And, if you don’t mind, we’d like to leave the door open.” Rainey pushed through to stand next to her sister. “It gets a little close in hear with too many people.
“Mother, this is Special Agent Merton of the FBI”
“The FBI, oh my, what now?”
He sat down at the other chair across from Verna, resting his hat on the table. “Ladies, please sit down.” Nodding to the sisters, he then turned his attention to their mother. “Mrs. Brodie, you’re a hard person to find.”
“You’ve been looking for me?”
“What does the FBI want with our mother?” a defensive Jo asked.
“Actually, we’ve been looking for all of you.” With a sweeping gesture, he motioned to the three of them with his palm up as if to placate their worries.
“Still doesn’t explain why you were looking for us.”
The man took a spiral notepad from his pocket and flipped through the pages. “Well, Mrs. Garrett, you are Josephine Garrett, right? Yes, well, when your mother told the detective last night her son, uh—Mick Brodie, was graduating on Saturday from Ranger School, we went to him to verify you were who you claimed to be.”
Rainey squinted her eyes and shook her head. “Wait, that was only a few hours ago. What did you do, wake Mick up to talk to him?”
“Well, we didn’t, his commanding officer did. About 5:00 o’clock this morning, he confirmed his mother and sisters were driving across country to see him graduate. He told us which motel he had reserved for you, but you weren’t expected to arrive until today.
“So, you can imagine our confusion when we went to the motel and found you not registered.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you were looking for us in the first place?” Rainey asked in a flat yet firm voice.
“Well, Mrs. Patron, we had to make sure you really existed and were not some sort of plants sent to ruin our investigation.”
Verna’s mouth gaped. “Oh, my, what’s this all about!”
“Yes, Agent Merton. What is this all about? What do you mean ‘ruin your investigation’?”
“Well, Mrs. Garrett, the exhibitionist is one of our agents. He has been here undercover for the past several weeks investigating a case along with the U.S. Army about smuggling on base. Your testimony this morning probably blew his cover and ended his participation in this case.”
“Agent Merton, he blew his cover all by himself.”
“Uh-hum, yes, Mrs. Garrett. I suppose he did. Well, after not finding you at the first motel, and missing you at the courthouse, I finally was able to catch up with you here.
“I see, you’re packing to leave.”
Rainey stood up and walked to the door. “Actually, we’re just stepping out to get something to eat. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’d like to get ready.”
“Oh, if you don’t mind, I could just sit here and review my notes while you’re gone, and if I need to ask you more, I’ll be here when you come back.”
Jo joined her sister at the door. “I don’t think so, Agent Merton. Good day.”
“Uh—yes, let me leave each of you my card, in case you think of anything else…or…”
“Or what, Agent Merton.”
He threw down his business cards before picking up his hat. “Probably, nothing.” He bowed slightly to Verna and moved towards the door but stopped and turned. “Good day, ladies.”
Rainey closed and locked the door. “You know he would’ve gone through our things if we’d left him here alone.”
“Of course. Well, what do we do now?”
“Well, Jo, we do what we planned. Pack our bags, check-out, and go have lunch. He can follow us all the way back to the other motel if he wants.
* * *
We sat in silence as I rested my hands, still holding the letter, in my lap. Finally, my cousin came alive, “Geez, Lucy, why is it we’re just finding out about this now?”
“I don’t know, this story is so fantastic.” I smiled, lips agape, and shook my head. “I guess they were trying to protect us.”
Carrie shrugged and reached down to pick up a business card laying at our feet. “Oh, look, I wonder what this paper is?” It was embossed with an emblem and engraved with a name. “Timothy Merton, Special Agent, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Oh, Lucy, what was the name of the FBI agent your mom mentioned in the letter?”
I flipped back to the last couple of pages of the letter and read, “‘…man identifying himself as an FBI agent named Merton, asked if he could come in…’ Oh, Carrie, this has got to be the same guy.”
“Then it’s all true.”
“Why wouldn’t it be true?’
“Why didn’t they tell us?”
I raised my eyebrows and shook my head. I had no answer to give her. It was then I noticed writing on the back of the card. Taking it from Carrie’s hands, I read, “Call if you ever need assistance.”
“Call who? What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know, but I do know it’s not Mom’s writing, so I guess it must’ve been this Special Agent Merton, fellow.”
Carrie took the card from my hands to read the back for herself. She flipped it over to read the front, and then the back again as if making sure they hadn’t changed from the first time she read them. It was then, the doorbell rang.
“Were you expecting anyone?”
“No, but it’s probably just a florist. They’ve been dropping off flowers since the obituary was published.” I left the bedroom and walked the hall towards the front door. I opened it to find just what I expected, an arrangement of flowers left on the doorstep. I picked it up to set on the side table while I removed the card. Opening the little envelope, I expected to read kind sentiments like all the others I had received. “Carrie!
“Carrie, get down here right away,” I screamed.
“Lucy, what is it? What’s wrong, hon?” She hurried to my side and put an arm around my shoulders as if to stem off a chill.
Wordlessly, I handed her the card from the flowers.
“Sorry for your loss, T. Merton”
Carrie’s eyes were wide as she mirrored my own shocked expression. We both headed to the still open front door to pop our heads out. Like two beings with one mind, we looked in opposite directions first before slowly bringing our gaze back to the front, and then to each other. Nodding, we assured ourselves we were completely alone, stepped back into the house, and closed the door, making sure to lock it behind us.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:
“Georgia, 1966” is a piece of original fiction. It is based on a true adventure three of my relatives had when they travelled cross-country by automobile. The names have been changed to protect the welfare of the author.
P.A. O’Neil has been writing professionally for four years. In that time, her stories have been featured in multiple anthologies (many of them international best-sellers), as well as on-line journals and magazines from several continents. She released her first collection, Witness Testimony and Other Tales, in April 2020 in both ebook and paperback. It has met with great success. She and her husband reside in Olympia, Washington, with her adult children living nearby. Links to stories she has had published online, go to her Publication Resume in the Notes section of her FB page, for links to books which feature her stories, look under the Photo section. Follow her career on the Facebook author page, or visit her Amazon author page: P.A. O’Neil.