Skip to main content

Still There, Lying Gently

ISSUE:  Summer 1992

Every day I waited outside the double doors for the deputies to bring him in from the holding cell. The first day I turned my head away when I heard the hollow bang of the metal. I was afraid to meet the naked eyes of a murderer; afraid it would jinx me. I didn’t want to take any chances with luck. I was on a roll.

The same clusters of people gathered around the pale wooden benches in the courthouse hall every day. We nodded, sometimes spoke to one another. Occasionally, we regrouped slightly, like guests at a cocktail party where we were too polite or too numb to take notice of the schoolroom-colored benches and institutional green walls. They recognized me from my dangling cameras and lens covers, my juggling of notebooks and papers, my dashes to the pay phone down the hall. A large blond man once held two newspapers in front of me and said, “Which one are you?” I pointed to the Jacksonville paper. I recognized them as witnesses who had testified or would testify, as plain-clothes deputies, detectives. I remember the ballistics expert with slick black hair wearing a tailored blue suit and smoking a cigarette through a filter. He never sat on the benches but stood at the opposite end of the hall, directly across from the holding cell. Mostly though, I remember Lila. At the other end of the hall, the double doors swung open into the courtroom. On the bench closest to the doors, the seat beside the gray industrial ashtray, that was where Lila sat.

She was the attractive brunette I’d noticed from the start sitting in the same seat every day near my post by the double doors. Smoking and drinking coffee from Styrofoam cups, she would half-smile at me, and we would talk about the heat, clothes, the quality of the coffee. We borrowed matches from each other. A week later I learned her name.

Some of the names and faces I already knew, but since this crime took place five counties away and involved three or four sets of police officials, most were strangers. Bob Frankel was not a stranger. Frankel was the county’s chief detective and liaison with the press. We were friendly. During this trial, it was his job to search everyone with a metal detector before we went through the double doors. He had a card table set up at the top of the stairs so no one could get down the hall without passing him. Frankel and I joked about the metal detector the first day; I giggled as he ran the steel instrument up and down my body, inches away from my clothes.

“Sorry,” he whispered, “I have to do this with everybody. An awful lot of people want to see him buy the farm. You can’t kill a cop and a pregnant 21-year-old. Not in this part of Florida. Maybe down in Miami.”

“You think he’ll fry?” I asked, shutting my purse, which had been briefly searched. I’d watched his hairless hand flutter my bank slips and gum wrappers. “Even with all the appeals?” I was talking quickly, relieved that I’d pulled a joint from the purse lining before I came in.

“That’s why they’re being so careful. Yeah, he’s gonna fry.”

“I remember the exact words: “So that electric current will pass through your body, da duh, da duh. May God have mercy on your soul.”” I said this so he’d remember it wouldn’t be the first death sentence I’d ever heard. It would be the second. And not the last for the summer—there was a codefendant in the Hollister murder case, and his trial had been severed from Brown’s.

On Monday the brunette sitting on the oak bench asked me how to pronounce my first name. I asked about her name. “Lila,” she said.

“Well, Lila, it’s starting up.” The week-long jury selection was over. A venire of 200 prospective jurors had been summoned. When the prospective jurors were being questioned, I sat in the courtroom writing letters to old friends, doodling in the margins of the yellow legal pad, glancing over the judge’s head at the wall clock. It was a Fifties style, no numbers, just sharp brass slivers set in the wall. The two clock hands were almost the same length, and I always had to think a minute about the time. Today the prosecution would start its case. The jurors padded past us and went through the double doors, escorted by two bailiffs. The faces of the jurors already looked tired, impassive. The Friday before, the jurors had watched, bewildered, as the court clerk tagged pieces of evidence with string and paper like sales tags in a department store.

“One tire, size 155 radial, evidence number 47. One pair blue jeans, size 9, evidence number 48. One Miss America doll, lot number 5749, evidence number 49. One Pantry Pride. . . .”

There were 89 pieces of evidence. Pieces of a puzzle that would fit together to show a macabre picture, tell a horrible story, that much the jurors knew. But even later when the witnesses pointed to evidence number 25 or 88, the jurors looked baffled.

For Friday, the last day the evidence was tagged, I had written what we call an “advance” on the Willie Lee Brown trial and background on the Hollister murder. This was the second paragraph.

Leah Jean Hollister, 21, was seven months pregnant on Feb. 21 when she was abducted from a Pantry Pride parking lot, raped and shot through the head. Brown, along with co-defendant Jack Riley, Jr., will also face charges for manslaughter in the death of Mrs. Hollister’s unborn child. Both men were convicted of killing Sheriffs Deputy Larry Covert. Covert was killed only hours after Mrs. Hollister’s body was left in the woods. On June 1, Brown was sentenced to death for Covert’s killing, and Riley was sentenced to life imprisonment.

A heavy clang and the rattle of leg irons silenced those of us around the benches. By now I didn’t turn away; I stared. I could feel myself growing mean. If I could have, I would have stepped right up to Willie Lee Brown and said, “You did it, didn’t you,” to get something good for the next day. But the deputies held back the crowd with outstretched arms. Maybe my meanness came from writing, in some form, these two prepositional phrases every day: “in the brutal killing of 21-year-old Leah Jean Hollister.” For variety’s sake, I sometimes wrote that Brown was, “charged with the murder of,” sometimes “accused in the slaying of.” Maybe it was Brown himself, who yawned and dozed in the courtroom from 9 to 5 and earned my indifference to him. Maybe Ed was right. Ed was the publisher of the small-town local and covered the trial sporadically himself. From about 5:30 to 7 at night, Ed would sit in my tiny office drinking beer while I typed up that day’s story and sent it to the main office 60 miles away with a push of a computer button.

“It’s an awful thing,” Ed said, leaning back in an office chair, his feet on my desk. “And you’re working ten hours a day.”

I looked up. “I’m making Page One or B-One every day. This is the biggest thing since Ted Bundy. The biggest thing they’ve had in this one-horse town.”

“There was a girl like you on the Orlando Sun. She covered courts for years. One day she woke up and thought, “I can’t do this any more.” She wrote a column about it. Became a kinder-garden teacher.”

I had to laugh. A kindergarten teacher.

“That could happen to you,” Ed said, “Or are you waiting for a call from The New York Times?


“Like Hunter Thompson says: “To work for the Times is to suck from the biggest mother tit of all.”“

After Brown was led into the courtroom, the jury would file in; then the judge would enter from his chambers wearing a black robe that zipped up the front. My place in the processional came after the defendant’s, and, once inside, we’d all wait for the bailiff to intone, “All rise,” the same way every day, like a bird call.

The Monday that the prosecution started its case the judge came down the hall past the bench where Lila and I sat. He was wearing street clothes, and he nodded at me. I thought that was admirable since I’d ignored his written request to limit pretrial publicity. I’d thrown his letter in the trash can. He had called my boss, Mac.

“Just what did you do with that letter from the judge,” Mac said.

“I threw it in the trash can.”

Mac thought that was cute.

Lila aimed her cigarette at the passing judge. “He seems like a nice man,” she said to me.

I was glad to know her name, glad that anyone spoke to me at all. The lawyers had coached the witnesses and jurors not to speak to the press, and they kept their distance carefully, as if I radiated an evil of my own.

“Yes,” I said, “He is nice. And good-looking.”

We exchanged smiles of girlish pleasure. I guess that never stops, I thought. Lila looked about 45.

“Are you a witness?” I asked her. She nodded yes, her spine straight, and I walked through the double doors, happy in my new red sundress, confident I’d get something good for tomorrow.

Inside the prosecutor tapped his half-glasses and studied me. I knew he wanted to say something sharp so I turned away. There had already been one change of venue because of pretrial publicity, and he didn’t want a second one. He leaned over the railing to my front row seat.

“Enjoying yourself?” he said.

I tried to smile, but his steel voice made me cower.

“I see you got your “background,”” he said the word in my voice to mock me. “Your “background” without me.”

I offered up my hands to say, “It’s my job,” but my arms felt too heavy for the gesture. I knew he wanted to see how tough I was. He peered at me for a moment; his eyes swam like aquarium fish behind the bifocals. He stared at me until he seemed to know he had gotten to me. I felt my face grow warm; I could be gotten to. Later on that morning he would use that.

The background story went something like this:

Brown and Riley were captured early Feb. 22 after a high speed chase when gunfire was exchanged with police officers in two counties. They fled on foot in an orange grove and were apprehended after a five-hour search that involved about 200 law enforcement officers.

When Brown was captured, he was serving the last year of a five-year probation after a five-year prison term for the attempted rape of an elderly woman. The charge had been reduced to attempted rape because the 82-year-old woman, a snake charmer in a passing circus, had been blinded during the attack and could not positively identify her assailant.

“Had been blinded” was all I could come up with. Brown had scratched her eyes out. I got every detail I could on the snake charmer. That was great stuff. And there were endless sidebars. My favorite was the 24-hour police guard assigned to Brown after an attempted jailbreak. The guard had played against Brown on rival high school football teams. I found a 1964 file photo of him in his football uniform and sent it to the main office by Greyhound bus.

According to my friend in the main office, the publisher walked up to Mac in the newsroom right before deadline one day and said, “She can really cover court. Great color stuff. Give her anything she wants. Give her Bundy if she wants him.” I was so hot I could have done a color story on the courthouse coffee.

When the prosecutor turned his back to me to face the file-laden table, I looked up at the wall clock, a sunburst of brass, and looked behind me. The large blond man who spoke to me during jury selection was there, with a bejeweled woman, who looked past me. Why wasn’t Ed here for the opening statement?

The prosecutor paced and gestured in front of the jury. I made notes; it was pretty good stuff. Then he grabbed at something on his table, a stack of heavy looking paper, and held it to his chest. He stood sideways, the rectangle of white like a stark vest against his dark suit.

“These photographs are so horrible, so brutal, that they were ruled as inflammatory and thereby inadmissible. Inflammatory. Prejudicial. That means too horrible. You won’t be seeing these pictures.”

He flipped the pictures and splayed them face up behind his back. I gasped. A loud intake of breath. The jurors swiveled their heads like mechanical dummies. One woman juror caught my eyes, and we couldn’t let go. She put her hand over her mouth. The picture was a closeup of the victim’s face. Long brown hair framed masses of black-purple and deep red. No eyes, no nose, just black pools. It looked like her face had been blown off with her hair intact. The prosecutor sat down and evened out the pictures on the table edge. He folded his arms and leaned back, satisfied. It had worked. The jurors saw my face, a mirror of horror.

The bailiffs led the jurors single file out to the cars that would take them to the Wayside Inn, the only decent motel in town. I was driving behind a police car packed with jurors. On the street to the Wayside, every newspaper box had been covered with a black cloth shaped like an executioner’s hood. I was going to the bar at the Wayside to meet Ed and Tommy for beers. That was our nightly ritual on weekdays. After I filed my story, I’d meet them there, then we’d progress to the Pompano Bar and later, if we were up to it, a bar on Highway 17 called only “Bar ‘N Grill.” The sheriff’s deputies called it “The Gun and Knife Club.” Early one morning Frankel called me at my office to warn me against that bar after he’d seen my car parked there. Both he and Ed tried to warn me against Tommy.

Tommy had left town on a football scholarship to some college in Georgia, but something happened and he ended up in Vietnam. Something happened there, too. I knew he was screwed up about Vietnam. He kept a gun underneath his bed and he had nightmares. But God, he was beautiful. He made a living, still makes a living, as an eel fisherman. On a slow news day, I did a feature story on eel fishing. He took me out on his boat, and I snapped my camera as he pulled the eel pots in and checked his catch. With the river shimmering around us, the eel frantically gyrating in the bottom of the pots, he turned to me and said, “Gotta minute? Wanna beer?” In my story I called the eel fishermen “farmers of the sea.”

In the Wayside Inn bar, Tommy and Ed sat at a table looking over the newspaper. Tommy pointed at Brown’s mug shot over my story.

“Don’t he give you the creeps?” he said.

“Nope. Well, yeah. I don’t know. One boiler-maker, please. Let’s go eat shrimp on my expense account at the Captain’s Table.”

“The Harbor is better,” Ed said.

“I see enough of The Harbor,” Tommy groaned. Tommy bartended there on weekends. Eel season is short. Ed and I would sit at his bar and play games with the lemons. Ed could fold a cocktail napkin over a lemon, twist it and make it look like a crab walking.

“Captain’s Table then,” Ed said, “Two more over here. She wants to act like a big shot with her credit card.”

“Can we go to the Bar ‘N Grill later? Let’s go to the Bar ‘N Grill,” I said.

Tommy nuzzled my neck. “Will you sing “You Can’t Be a Beacon”?”

Ed rolled his eyes. “Let’s get take-out chicken and sit on Tommy’s dock. I’ll buy if you’ll fly.”

Tommy left to get the chicken, and Ed and I had another beer.

“Looks like you’d take up with one of those lawyers,” Ed said.

“I’ll tell you a secret. A woman’s secret. There is nothing like a redneck in bed.”

Ed winced. He didn’t think women talked like that.

“Besides, you don’t know the men up North. They have angst.”

“What do you think Tommy has?”

Ed’s eyes looked grayer to me. “Tommy’s a cowboy. I’ve got myself a cowboy.”

The next day the prosecution put a 7—11 manager on the stand. She was wearing a white blouse with blue splashy flowers on it. She identified Brown, pointing a shaky finger at him, and testified that on February 21 Brown and Riley had purchased a teddy bear, some socks and a Miss America doll. She said they acted “fidgety” and returned the Miss America doll in a few minutes, demanding their money. They walked up and down the aisles, she said, they “fiddled with things in the store.” She surprised me by crying. Already? I thought, before the bad stuff? The prosecutor kept letting her stop to compose herself, offering her glasses of water. This is going to take all day, I thought. She had been called to identify the victim’s car and testify that Brown and Riley had driven it to the 7—11.

“And you alerted the police because of their suspicious behavior. Am I right? I’m reading from your deposition,” the prosecutor said. “You called the police from the back storeroom, and you waited there. Then you heard the shot outside the store. What, in your own words, what did you do after you heard the shot.”

“I went, I went outside and saw Larry.” She started sobbing.

“That would be Deputy Larry Covert. Where was he when you saw him?”

“On the ground, in the parking lot near, near a car. They took off in it.”

She identified the teddy bear found near the body and a gun, a .357 magnum, not the gun that killed Larry Covert but the gun that killed Leah Jean Hollister. Brown and Riley had wrested Covert’s gun away from him and killed him with it. I’d read about this in some old newspaper clips. I knew parts of the story the jurors would never know. That she and the deputy had been friends; that the deputy had died with his head in her lap. I had imagined that she sat on the asphalt, warm blood filling her skirt, the night air cool around her bare shoulders. I noticed the defense attorneys were looking edgy. Evidence of the deputy’s death had been surpressed as prejudicial. If the 7—11 manager slipped up, they could jump up and move for a mistrial.

Then one of the prosecutor’s assistants rolled a tire over to the witness box. The prosecutor stopped the tire with his palm. I knew he was hot to get that tire accepted into evidence and then prove it was on a car belonging to Leah Jean Hollister. Then he would reiterate to the jury that Mrs. Hollister’s mutilated body had been left in the woods an hour before the 7—11 woman sold some socks and a teddy bear to two muscular orange pickers who randomly picked things off the shelves, tossed cans of Vienna sausages back and forth like basketballs.

“Your honor, may we approach the bench?” the defense attorney spoke.

The defense was going to object to the tire as evidence and the judge would decide with the jury out. A proffer, they called it. Another delay. I looked at the numberless clock again. The bailiffs led the jury to the anteroom and the defense attorney stepped up close to the woman in the blue-flowered blouse.

“Do you think you could tell the difference between a size 155 radial and a size 165 radial?” He smiled sickly at her as if he were almost sorry for someone stupid enough to miss a joke. “Or even a non-radial and a radial tire if the two were together in this room?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” she said, anguished.

On redirect, the prosecutor took off his glasses and said wearily, “Describe the car, please,” and she described the car owned by Leah Jean Hollister.

In police documents, Brown claimed he and Riley had planned to steal the Hollister car to use as a getaway when they robbed the 7—11. It was Riley, Brown told police, who raped Leah Jean Hollister and shot her through the head as she begged for her child’s life. Riley said it was Brown.

After the 7—11 manager’s testimony, I slipped out the double doors close behind her. Just technicalities, I could split. There must have been an early recess anyway that day because I remember fixing my makeup in the ladies room down the hall and hearing the leg irons clatter. I dropped my mascara wand in the porcelain sink bowl and the echo in the empty tiled room sounded like machine-gunfire.

Ed and I were on our third beer when Tommy met us at the Bar ‘N Grill. I was the only woman there. As Tommy was coming through the door, Ed said, “I don’t like this place. You know, somebody got shot here last year right on that stool.” He pointed.

“That stool?” I stared at it as if I could learn something. The black vinyl was ripped at the corner, beige-colored stuffing hung out.

“How can you even come here?” Ed said.

I nodded toward Tommy, who grinned at me and parted a group of men in baseball hats with his arms. “He and a tire jack can protect me from the Devil himself.”

I could tell Ed wanted to leave early, but I felt at home there, with the smell of stale beer, the neon pink of pickled eggs in a large jar on the counter, the Miller High-Life sign on the wall beside an old magazine nude. I made Tommy play the jukebox, and when Donna Fargo’s voice came on, I sang with her: “You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine.” It was like going to a party every night.

Riding home with Tommy in the pick-up, I leaned my head on his shoulder. The empty eel pots rattled in the back.

The prosecution was about to conclude its case, and I was glad Ed came that day. I had sat through days of boring testimony. They were being careful all right; the prosecutor had scheduled 57 witnesses. Ed and I were whispering when I saw Lila walk in, escorted by a bailiff. I wanted to say, “I know her,” but I didn’t really know her.

She stated that her name was Lila Brewster and that she was the owner of a pet grooming store across from the Pantry Pride. Had they skipped a question? Relationship to the defendant, to the victim? Oh, the Pet Salon, near the Pantry Pride parking lot.

She testified that Leah Jean Hollister had stopped by to chat before she’d gone grocery shopping. The reference to Pantry Pride meant something to the jurors; a few leaned forward in their chairs. They had seen the grocery bags being tagged into evidence. The bags were found in the back of a car in an orange grove. When Willie Lee Brown put a knife to the woman’s throat in a grocery store parking lot, he threw the bags in the back seat, shoved her inside the car, and drove.

The prosecutor brought a cardboard box and sat it in front of Lila. She looked in and picked something up.

“Can you tell me what you see, please. Can you identify for the jury what is in that box.”

“These are a pair of blue jeans with a butterfly embroidered on the knee. She was wearing them.”

“Wearing them when she stopped by your shop?”

“Yes. On February 21.”

She had been coached. She was a good witness. She was careful not to say “maternity blue jeans,” careful to keep out any evidence of pregnancy for the next trial—the manslaughter of the unborn child—this careful attention would ensure that trial’s success.

There was no cross-examination of this witness, and I was surprised at that. The next witness, I knew, would be a medical expert called to testify that blood found on the blue jeans was identified as both the victim’s and the defendant’s. I glanced above the judge at the gold points on the wall. Then I heard Lila step down from the witness box. As she walked from the stand to the doors, I saw that her shoulders were shaking, shaking hard the way some people do when they are sobbing uncontrollably. I thought she must be awfully nervous, but it was a puzzle; she’d seemed laid back to me. Then the large blond man and the woman with him pushed through the swinging doors and went out right behind Lila. I looked at the closed doors. That shaking, it was like shivering, like she was shivering with cold. I kept picturing her shoulders; it was a visual echo.

I wrote a sidebar on courtroom security that night so I was late meeting Ed and Tommy at the Wayside Inn. I drank faster to catch up.

“I’ve got an idea,” I said. “Let’s go get a six-pack and go down to the dock.”

“I been at that dock all day, honey,” Tommy said.

“Want to go for chili at the Pompano Bar?” Ed said.

“I want to do something at the dock. Let’s go.”

For fun I rode to the dock in the truckbed with the eel pots. The sand on the truck bottom scratched at my legs, the pots bumped my thighs and I couldn’t get comfortable. Tommy made the eel pots with heavy chicken wire. There was a funnel-shaped opening on each pot where the eel could slither in to get the bait but couldn’t wind its way out. I asked him once why the eel couldn’t wind around and escape. He said they just couldn’t find their way out once they were in. Down the bumpy dirt road, the pots rattled. I put my arms over them and pressed down hard to stop the noise.

The river water looked dark and murky below the wide gray boards of the dock where I dangled my feet. I crumbled up Doritos to feed the fish. Ed was telling Tommy about some football game, and Tommy just said, “Really?” every few minutes.

“You know what I want to do,” I said, “I want to shoot a gun into this water.”

“No way you’re touching my gun,” Tommy said.

“Please, I’ve never fired a gun. Let me shoot it. Just once.”

“No.” Tommy walked up the dock to his cabin, and I turned, saw how some of the gray board sunk with his weight.

“Don’t torture him,” Ed said, “Let’s go to the Pompano for chili. He’ll find us when he gets over it.” Ed grabbed the Dorito bag, and I followed him with the beer, looking back.

Tommy didn’t meet us at the Pompano, and I drove to my beachhouse alone. I woke up around five, when it was still dark, and the first thing I thought of was Lila and how her shoulders shook as she left the courtroom. I sat in the kitchen and waited for daybreak. The defense would start today, and there really wasn’t a defense. I thought it would be another week before the sentencing.

Now every day one or another of the defense attorneys would ask me out to lunch. There was a tall one and a short Italian one, and I thought they were comical. They were clearly afraid of their client. But the state of Florida was paying for their time and travel, their martinis and meals, their motels with the swimming pools and dark empty bars. They were away from their wives and eating seafood every night.

The short Italian one pressed the lunch issue.

“But it’s useless,” I said. “You won’t tell me anything about the case.”

“But I’m in love,” he said, throwing his arms up like an opera singer.

“You’re not alone,” I said, lifting one eyebrow.

“That’s a good line, A really good line.”

We liked each other after that, but I never had lunch with him and could not know that one day I would make a virtual career of having lunch.

The tall defense attorney made some little show of talking with Willie Lee Brown. Skirting the table where Brown sat with his 24-hour guard, the attorney took small steps, staying as far as he could from his client. He addressed the jurors, pointing a yellow pencil.

“You’ve heard all these horrible things, but they’re not going to prove to you that Willie Lee Brown pulled that trigger.”

He re-called the pitiful 7—11 woman manager; tried to show that Riley bossed Brown in the purchasing of the teddy bear and socks.

“Couldn’t you see a “leader-follower” pattern in the way that they bickered?”

“No,” she said painfully, “I was scared.”

I was scared, too. I was undone. There had been an outburst from Brown that morning. This was the way it appeared in my story the next day.

Before the proceedings, the 32-year-old defendant beckoned to reporters in the courtroom, telling them he did not like the jury, that his co-defendant committed the murder, and that he escaped from jail because he was mistreated.

As the Lake County man was chained, shackled and led out of the courtroom, he called to a reporter over his shoulder, saying, “They’re trying to keep me from telling my story.”

It seemed a polite way to sum up a near riot. Instead of “called to a reporter,” he yelled and screamed at me. Me. The bailiffs converged upon him. Frankel rushed over to me and tried awkwardly to cover me with his body. I was struck speechless. The uniformed men had seemed to emerge from the walls themselves. The jurors looked frantically about for an escape hatch.

At recess I dashed for the sanctuary of the ladies room. Lila was there combing her hair.

“Oh, hi,” she said.

I joined her at the mirror and fished in my purse for a hairbrush.

“Need to borrow this?” She held out her comb.

“Yeah, thanks, I do.”

“Is it over?” she asked.

“No. Just a recess. It’ll be over soon. I hope.” I combed my hair and she lit a cigarette.

“You married?” she said.

“No. Not me. I don’t think that’s for me.”

“I lost my husband six years ago and remarried recently. Take it from me. Get married. Have a big family. I have six children.”

I handed her the comb. She put it in her purse and pulled out her wallet, taking a sheaf of pictures from it. She spread the pictures in front of me with her hand like a deck of cards. She pointed to the last one.

“This was Leah Jean.”

The same long brown hair I’d seen in the other picture. This picture showed a beautiful, almost ethereal face. I saw by the black bodice drape that it was a senior high school photograph and had been touched up; a face without a flaw, a smile that looked perpetual.

“Beautiful,” I mumbled, “She’s beautiful.”

Lila turned and started to push through the door of the ladies room. She stopped. “The laundry though. You wouldn’t believe the laundry with a big family.”

I stayed in the bathroom and put my forehead on the towel dispenser. I wished I were the kind of person who could cry easily and instantly at sad things, touching things; that cleansing kind of crying that forces the person to smile stupidly when it’s over. At the same time I realized that the prosecutor probably withheld the fact that the owner of the Pet Salon was the victim’s mother so that she wouldn’t appear biased, eager to blame. I knew then that I had just had a glimpse of the greatest sorrow that there is. Ever. And I knew that I would pass up the greatest sidebar ever—the victim’s mother. Suddenly I remembered crawling into my mother’s lap even when she said, “You’re too big for this.” She would hold me anyway, and I would sit there, smelling something warm and sweet and pretend that I wasn’t too big and that this, this was all there was. Ever. The towel dispenser felt cold. I wished that I could go home; that I could somehow go home and sit down next to my mother at the dinner table; that somehow my mother was alive again.

Outside on the benches in the hall, I sat close to Lila. She introduced me to her husband, the large blond man, and her sister, the bejeweled woman who sat beside him throughout the trial. The sister told me she was from Michigan and wanted Lila to come visit her for a week. She just bought two Dobermans, the sister told me. When I heard the rattle of the leg irons, I felt myself lean closer to Lila as if I could cover her like a shield.

Ed was sitting in my desk chair when I came in the office. He held up a bottle of Scotch. His cowboy boots seemed to point to the sky as he recrossed his ankles and let his heel thump on my desk.

“I’ve been answering your phone. I can’t believe your calls. Your boss, U.P.I., The Miami-Herald. You made Page One again.”

“Gimme that,” I said, pointing to the bottle. I took a sip, then another one. “It’s over. He took the stand and acted like a maniac. The defense attorney put his head on the table. The world is full of animals. That maniac has snakes in his head. Snakes.”

“You think the Herald is gonna offer you a job, big shot?”

“Yes, I do.” Ed brought me back to myself again, or rather someone I aspired to be, and someone he thought I already was. I hated to admit it, but that was one of the reasons I liked being around him so much. When he walked in a room, calling me “big shot” and sprawling in any available chair, my spine would straighten and I got about two inches taller.

“The jury’s deliberating,” I told him, “Ten bucks says they come back with a guilty verdict in 20 minutes.”

“You’re on. I say one hour, guilty verdict.”

“Where’s Tommy? Let’s go drink and wait it out.”

I called in the story from the Pompano Bar, drunkenly stringing phrases together. “Convicted here today in the brutal slaying of. . .”I leaned against the wall with the pay phone receiver on my shoulder, a finger in the other ear to shut out the music from the jukebox. “The defense argued . . . just a minute.” I faced the wall and read the penciled phone number for “Denise.” There was no use. I was too distracted. The copy desk would have to fix it, pull the background from my earlier stories.

I bought a round of drinks with my ten-dollar bill and left the change on the counter.

“Let’s dance,” I said to Ed, pulling his arm. Tommy was staring at the ceiling, in one of his morose moods again.

There was a ten-day respite before the sentencing. I took time off work and stayed in Tommy’s river cabin, making coffee in the electric skillet that served as a stove. Some mornings I sat in my bathrobe on the dock and watched the waterlilies float by the pilings under the gray planks. Nights I would wake up sweating, thinking, “That’s her mother.” One night I woke up alone and followed a sound I’d heard. Tommy was out back repairing the eel pots, painting them with tar.

“Can’t sleep?” I asked.

He put his head down and said, “A bad dream,” and I thought it must be Vietnam again. I looked at his hands and saw tar dripping from his fingers. I could tell him about Lila, I thought. I could tell somebody. Instead I wrapped my arms around his neck and rocked him. This was the closest we ever came to being close and with this, I violated our silent agreement that we were staying cool, we were on a roll.

I began to have nightmares about war. In one dream Tommy was running down a dirt road toward me carrying the body of a child. The body was slipping through his hands like cooked oatmeal. It was his cry that woke me. I could no longer talk easily to him, and sometimes when I met his eyes I saw something raw and had to turn away. We drank more than ever.

At the sentencing Lila sat behind me with her family. I didn’t have to, but I wrote down the exact wording. “So that electric current will pass through your body in such a way that it renders you dead. May God have mercy on your soul.” The judge stood, his head obscuring the brass points of the sunburst clock. I hurried out of the courtroom so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lila’s husband hugging her. Now. I could do it now. Interview both of them. Her husband was there wasn’t he? To dilute things? I couldn’t do it. I eased past a bailiff standing by the wooden benches smiling and watching me, and for some reason that made me want to try it, to go back in there. But it wasn’t my story anymore. It was her story. It wasn’t a story at all.

I checked with my answering service at the office. They had logged two calls from the Herald, the woman said. “Oh,” she added, “Your boss left a note. Here it is. “You want Bundy; you got him. If you write an advance, be sure to say he’s linked to the murders of 30 women, linked not charged. Can you get to Tallahassee on Saturday.” You have a nice day,” she said. I smiled. My willingness to work on Saturdays was legendary.

Mac still sends me a Christmas card every year and signs it, “Can you work this Saturday? Regards, Mac.” He considers me as being on some sort of sabbatical. He’s like the jurors in the Hollister murder trial; he can’t see the other picture. Next time I’m down his way, I’ll take him to lunch. He’s somewhere in Texas heading up U.P.I.

She’s somewhere in Florida or maybe Michigan, visiting her sister. Tommy is somewhere on the river, I suppose. Some summer nights when the heat half-wakes me, I think of him and imagine I feel his rough hand still there, lying gently on my inner thigh, as if his had been a permanent touch. And I still think about Lila. I can still see her shoulders shaking; see myself sit bolt upright in bed, realizing it: “That’s her mother.” And then I know her pain, for only a second, but I know it nonetheless. I feel it come; it sits on my chest. Then I know all grief and know how it grows exponentially and how many people it touches; how ignorant it is, how it lashed out like the caught eel, frantic, hitting every side of the pot.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading