I started Boaz Elementary School in mid-August 1960. I remember the first day. Mr. Chambers’ Bus #9 stopped at our mailbox at 6:30 a.m. and I stepped into another world. I had figured I might be one of the first on the bus since it was so early. I was wrong. Scattered around the front half of the bus were my neighborhood friends, all friendly, polite, clean-mouthed, and evidencing the six years of Bible teaching and tough love poured out on us by Brother G. The back half of the bus was overflowing with the heathen. I didn’t know any of them, but soon learned they all were sons and daughters of a group of tenant farmers just north of Double Bridges. From the front of the bus I could see their dirty faces and torn clothing as they stood in the aisle way or sat on the back of the bench seats. And, the worst part, I could hear the filth spewing from their mouths, dirty words, half of which I had never heard. I was glad to find a seat beside Billy Baker in the front row right behind a bus-driver that seemed oblivious to everything around him.
I was lucky. Only one of the heathen clan wound up in Mrs. Gillespie’s first grade class. Frankie Olinger didn’t stand a chance against this beautiful soul who welded words like swords if the need arose. That first morning, before the first bell rang, this Godly saint had Frankie, with clean hands, arms, and face, facing the overgrown black-board, sitting straight-back in a student’s desk, right beside her own giant oak desk at the front of the room. I don’t know what she said to him in the coat room as she unwound his cockiness from the moment we all walked in from the bus. The other bus riders, being older than me, went to separate rooms. Only Billy Baker and myself, and Frankie Olinger, wound up in Mrs. Gillespie’s room. I quickly learned that the other 24 students were city kids who probably had never hoed a row of cotton, pulled an ear of corn, castrated a single pig, or eaten a boiled rabbit leg.
By the end of the first week, I knew I was already miles ahead of most everyone in the room when it came to reading and writing. Mother had made sure this would be the case. However, there was a group of five boys who ran a close second. It didn’t take long the first day of school for me to learn that they were from five prominent Boaz families. They made sure everyone around them knew their fathers were a big-church pastor, a home-owned bank president, a rich car-dealer, a more-rich hardware and building supply owner, and a most-rich real estate developer. By the end of the first week, these five, Wade Tillman, Fred Billingsley, James Adams, Randall Radford, and John Ericson, semi-included me in a group they were contemplating allowing in their small circle of friends. Including me, like anyone else, was strictly strategic. I was as big or bigger than any of them except Randall, and I was smart. Even at six years old these five had already learned the art of the deal from the feet of their fathers, the masters of a booming but clannish town. Out of this group, my pick was Fred Billingsley. He was the quietest of the bunch and seemed to appreciate me helping him solve a simple arithmetic problem after lunch on Thursday, our fourth day of carving out a new life. Several years later I would find out he was a little different from the other four members of his group.
Other than enduring the body odor and foul mouths of the Double Bridges gang during my bus rides to and from school, my life for the next five years was maybe the best time so far. I did extremely well in school. My faith in God grew by leaps and bounds all thanks to Brother G, and life at home with Dad and Mom, Mama El, and Gramp’s laid down deep abiding lessons of how a bi-vocational lower-income family could exchange touches of love amidst the long hours of caring for chickens, tending a gigantic garden, and cultivating 30 acres of corn and cotton.
My world came tumbling down at the end of my Fifth-grade year. It was during Spring Break. Gramp’s and I were fishing in our pond, one he had helped his father build with a pair of overgrown mules two years before the turn of the century. It was late afternoon and after we had caught a stringer full of Brim, everyone as big as one of Gramps’ hands. I was walking around the shallow end of the pond casting my line out into the middle without a float trying to snag a catfish laying on the bottom of the pond. Gramp’s was fishing from the center of the dam, sitting under the outstretched limbs of a hundred-year-old oak.
Just as the sun sank behind the row of Loblolly Pines on the west side of the pond my fishing pole jerked out of my hand. I had to scramble to keep from losing it. I grabbed it right before it slithered into the edge of the pond. It took me what seemed like an hour to haul in the ten-pound catfish. When I had it off my hook and safely away from the pond’s edge, I held it up and hollered, “Look Gramp’s, bet you never caught one this big.” For some reason, I had not looked over towards Gramp’s during the whole time I was dealing with the big Cat. When he didn’t respond to my ribbing was when I saw something I will never forget. Gramp’s was lying on his side with his face next to the water’s edge.
I dropped the Cat and raced to Gramp’s. When I reached him, I thought he had died. His face was towards me and his eyes were closed. I managed somehow to turn him over and around, with his head now higher than his feet. I remember I almost let him roll into the pond. I put my ear to his mouth and nose and could tell he was still breathing. Then, he opened his eyes. “Gramp’s, what’s wrong?” I said.
Barely audible he managed to say, “It’s my heart, I’m dying.”
“No Gramp’s you can’t die. I’m going to get help.”
“Micaden, it’s no use. Stay with me, please.” Gramp’s said with a tear running down his left cheek.
By now it was nearly dark. We had brought a kerosene lantern and I used a match from my pocket that Gramp’s always made me carry. The light revealed the hollowness and distance in his eyes. I was only eleven years old but had seen enough death in the eyes of piglets and calves, even rabbits and squirrels, to realize I was losing the one person who I loved more than anyone in the world. I almost felt ashamed thinking this because I dearly loved my Mom, my Dad, and my Mama El. Gramp’s and I had something unique. Dad didn’t have a lot of time for me with working two jobs. Gramp’s was always at home and it was there, at the house and farm, that we were together most every minute of the day when I wasn’t in school or in church.
“Don’t die Gramp’s. I can’t live without you.”
“Listen to me Micaden. You are stronger than you think. You can do whatever you set out to do, but stay true to God. Don’t go looking for trouble, it’ll find you. But, don’t run from it when it comes. Fight it head on. Don’t be fooled by the world. It might not be what you think it is.” It took Gramp’s five attempts and at least ten minutes to say these words.
“I promise you I will. Gramp’s, I need to get help.” I said, tears running down my cheeks, my heart racing with fear.
And, that was it. Gramp’s stopped breathing, his mouth fixed open like he was a baby bird waiting for its mother to drop in some food. But, it was his eyes that I will never forget. Still hollow, glassy, now lifeless. I sat and stared into his open eyes for minutes before running back across the knee-high corn, through the pasture gate, across the Bermuda pasture, and around the garden to the back porch of our house.
As I ran, I recall thinking that Gramps’ spirit was with Jesus. But, I hadn’t seen any sign of that when I considered his eyes and face. I had heard Brother G preach many a sermon on how at death the body returns to the dust of the ground but the soul is immediately in the presence of our living Savior. Just like the calf we had lost at birth only three weeks earlier, Gramp’s was dead. But, unlike that calf, someday, at Jesus’ Second Coming, Gramp’s would rise with a new body and fly to glory to be reunited with His spirit at the right hand of the Father. For now, and probably for the rest of my life, I would never walk alongside Gramp’s as he strolled through our two chicken houses looking for dead birds. I would never sit next to him at our oak dinner table. I would never watch him plant a garden or pull ten ears of corn to my one, even if he did have only one leg. Death had descended and Gramp’s was gone.
Mother and Mama El were both coming out the kitchen door onto the back porch when I screamed, “Gramp’s is dead.”
"Honey, you need to get up. We need to leave in 10 minutes." Dad said knocking on my bedroom door.
At first, I was clueless what he was talking about but then I remembered I had promised Dad nearly a week ago that I would go with him to WQSB and sit in with him at a talk show.
I shot out of bed, showered, and grabbed a honey bun as we walked out the door.
Dad and I arrived at the radio station right on time, a few minutes before his scheduled air time. Scott Larkins, the talk show host, met us in the reception area.
"Hi Scott, this is my daughter Ruthie. She is an important part of the Church's exercises and I like her to be in the trenches with me as much as possible. She will be in the ninth grade at Boaz High this year." Dad said.
"Hello Ruthie, and nice to meet you. I'm glad you came. Are you open to fielding a question or two this morning?" Scott said.
"Well, uh, I hadn't really thought about that. I just came along to be with Dad and to learn more about the issues as seen by your callers. But, I guess I could, if you and Dad think I can handle it."
"Great, let's go on in and get set-up." Scott said as he led us into the studio where he handed headsets to Dad and me. I felt my stomach turn over when I set down across from Scott and besides Dad with a microphone in front of me. I wished I were anywhere but here.
Scott then told us how his Call-In Talk-Show works: "Laura, my assistant, is behind the scenes, so to speak, fielding the calls before they reach us. This is to make sure, or hopefully make sure, that we don't get surprised with some lunatic and or vulgar call. When we are ready for our next call, and assuming she has one waiting for us in queue, Laura will tell me—you won't hear this over your headsets. She will say something like, 'we have Jim with a question on line one.' I will press the line one button on the phone and we will be live with Jim. Please keep in mind that we are live and the listening in world can hear everything anytime that sign up above me is lit up."
I looked up and saw the large "On the air NOW" sign on the wall up behind Scott. I looked over at Dad and he mouthed "no sweat, piece of cake." Easy for him to say. Has he totally forgotten that I am a child? I also found it interesting that Scott hadn't given us any advice whatsoever about what to say and what not to say. I guess that shows the reality of live radio.
"Okay, here we go." Scott said as the bright green “On the air NOW” sign came on filling the studio with what I suspected were a zillion photons. I imaged this is how a person feels in a hospital operating room when she is lying there waiting to be cut open.
"Good morning to you and thanks for tuning in to Straight Talk here at WQSB Radio. Today we have Joseph Brown and his daughter Ruthie. Joseph is the lead pastor at First Baptist Church in Boaz. Ruthie is a ninth grader at Boaz High School. We are talking today about homosexuality and the recent U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that gays and lesbians now have a constitutional right to marry. And, of course we are interested in how this affects churches and pastors. Now, let's take our first call.
Good morning Thomas. Welcome to Straight Talk. What's your question?"
"Pastor Brown, will you perform gay and lesbian marriages?" Thomas asked.
"Hello Thomas and thanks for your question. No, I will not. First, let me say that my position is not because I hate homosexuals. I do not. I, in fact, love them because they too are God's children, made in His image. But, I do not condone homosexual behavior. The Bible says it is a sin. The Bible is God's Holy Word, and I believe the Bible." "Our next question is from Tina." Scott said.
"Pastor, I have heard and read that homosexuality is not just something someone chooses to be. I've heard it said that it is caused by a gene. How do you reconcile your belief with this?" Tina asked.
"Hi Tina and thanks for your question. The Bible says homosexuality is a sin. This tells me this type conduct is something someone chooses to engage in and they have a choice. I am not a scientist, but I question whether your gene question has been proven. What you have heard is just someone's opinion. I believe the Bible is clear, as we see in the book of Romans, people can become blinded to the truth and do all sorts of things that are not in keeping with God's will. Thanks again for calling Tina.”
"Okay folks. We are going to take a commercial break and be back in two minutes." Scott said.
The "On the air NOW" sign is no longer lit.
"Your answers are clear and concise Joseph."
"Here is everybody a bottle of water." Laura said as she came in and handed Scott a note.
"The next caller, has a question for Ruthie. You up to it?" Scott asked me.
"I guess so. Hopefully, it won't kill me. Do you know the question?" I asked.
"Yes, your Dad says he won't marry gays or lesbians. Do you think your Dad would allow you to have gay and lesbian friends and secondly, do you think your Dad would marry one of your siblings if they were a homosexual?" Scott said.
"I guess I can try to answer that."
"Welcome back everyone to Straight Talk. We have a question for Ruthie from Daron. Hello Daron, what is your question?" Scott said.
"Do you think your Dad would marry you and your female partner if you asked him to? Obviously, this is just an assumption. I am not saying you are gay." Daron asked.
"Hello Daron. I truly don't know what my Dad would do in that situation. I love him and know he loves me and his family. But, I also know he is a man of principal and is fully committed to God and His Word. I suspect my Dad would try to counsel me and show me that I was acting more from emotion than anything. Whatever he decided, I believe we would still be father and daughter. I can't see that changing." I said.
Straight Talk continued for another half hour or so with the most common questions being whether the Supreme Court's ruling would lead to a deterioration in religious freedom, and the government forcing pastors and churches to marry homosexuals. And, it came up again, the question of whether a person is born either heterosexual or homosexual.
After the program, we chatted with Scott a few minutes and drove home. The only thing Dad said about the program was that he was very proud of me for coming with him and answering my question the way I did. He told me he loved me very much.
Dad dropped me off at home and didn't get out. He was needed at Church and said that he would see me tonight at supper.
It was almost 9:30. Sarah's Mom, along with Sarah, Lisa, and Ryan, would be here soon. We were going to Guntersville Lake for the day. Since middle school this had been an annual event—kind of a celebration. Our last real fun day before school starts back. Today, it felt more like a funeral. I kept replaying the question I was asked at the radio station. What played most in my mind was my response to the caller's question.
I heard a car horn honking just as I closed the front door behind me. I looked out and saw the gang was right on time. I went to my bedroom and grabbed my bag and headed out.
“Where’s Ryan?” I asked, getting in the back seat with Lisa.
“He didn’t complete his chores yesterday, so his dad wouldn’t let him come.” Sarah said.
As we drove to Guntersville, Sarah's mom, Mary, asked me if I had completed my Biology homework. I told her no, but that I had plans to do that tonight. She also asked what my parents thought about the evolution book. I told her I haven't even told them.
"That surprises me Ruthie. You better show that book to your dad and mom. I suspect they will have quite a bit to say about it."
"I will. What do you think my parents will say?"
"I suspect your dad will be rather upset. You know Christians don't believe in evolution. It is totally contrary to the Bible. And, you know how your dad feels about the Bible." Mary said.
"I guess you are right. I don't really know anything about evolution. All I have heard is that it says we came from monkeys." "Did you bring your pink bikini?" Lisa asked.
"Yes, of course. You know my parents would let me have a two-piece bathing suit. Especially with these boobs."
"A one-piece, bottoms only, would serve you best most righteous Ruthie." Sarah added.
“Okay girls, let's grab a bucket of chicken and fixins and y’all will be set for food.” Mary said.
After she bought lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken, she drove to the City Park along the river. Mary let us out and said she would be back by four.
Lisa, Sarah, and I spent the day wading in the river, sunbathing on the man-made beach, and eating a ton of chicken and biscuits.
"Apparently the river and the Guntersville City Park doesn't attract any good-looking guys. All I have seen all day were toothless grounds keepers." Lisa said.
"Well, guys are over-rated anyway." Sarah added. But, that hot babe over there in your pink bikini would light up anyone's world." Sarah said looking at me.
"She does have an awesome body but the type of special friend we are talking about needs much more than that. I say boys, or as Sarah thinks, girls, have something to offer that guys don't. And that is heart. You know girls have real emotions and can share their feelings. I like that." I added.
"Well, it's obvious for sure now. Ruthie is gay." Lisa said.
"Don't say that. I am not gay." I blurted out in defense. If I didn't deny this before my best friends who would? In the pit of my stomach I felt like I had just lied on the witness stand, in the courtroom where Jesus was on trial, and the prosecutor was questioning me to find out if there was enough evidence to convict me of being a Christian. I felt like I was going to throw up.
The rest of the afternoon moved like a snail.
"Sarah, I'm here." I heard Mary yelling through the pine trees. We gathered up our things and walked to her car. The ride home was quiet. I couldn't say anything. But, I did think. I thought a lot about that girl in her pink bikini.
Monday morning came too soon. I even skipped my walk to Oak Drive and back. Emily had stayed until nearly 1:00 a.m. It was like her and Camilla had performed a well-orchestrated double-team exploration into my sordid past. I was fortunate both loved me, even though for two hours or so I wouldn’t have bet a nickle Emily had the will or capacity to accept that the responsibility for the breakup and divorce of her parents was complicated and that blame lay at the feet of both her mother and father. This morning, I had mixed feelings whether we all had made the right decision. Emily would move in with me, for now, while she settled into her new job at Gadsden Regional Medical Center; Camilla would remain in her Sundown Apartment; and I would try my best to leave my investigative bent at the office while I was at home.
I had just sat down at my desk with a cup of Blair’s coffee when my iPhone vibrated. It was Joe. “Good morning Joe. Field work first thing Monday morning?” I asked.
“Uh, actually, I slept a little later and just left Grumpy’s.” It was a local diner. A good place to eat a cheap meal and to hear even cheaper gossip. “I just heard some news. Haven’t confirmed anything, but, if true, it hits pretty close to home.”
“Okay, you can tell me.” I said, wishing I wasn’t always so damn impatient.
“Lawton Hawks was found dead late last night. He was murdered. I knew you would want to know.” Joe was right. He knew that Lawton Hawks was Camilla’s father. He didn’t know they weren’t close, in fact, they were estranged. But, he was still her father.
“What else have you heard?” I realized that rumors and gossip were often false but sometimes there were slivers of truth rolling off a few yelping tongues.
“He was found behind the new Dollar General being built on East Mill Avenue, just right up the road from Grumpy’s. It seems two guys on the construction crew found him behind the dumpster sitting out back. I’ve noticed in passing there is a tall wooden fence along the back side of the property. I suspect it was a fairly secret place to dump a body.” Joe said. I could tell he was driving because I could hear his radio in the background. It always was on and always tuned to WQSB in Albertville.
“Anything else?” I asked.
“That’s about all, but I’ll keep you posted. I should see you late afternoon. Just to let you know, I worked several hours over the weekend. That’s why I’ve been a little lazy this morning.”
“No problem. Joe, you’re doing good work. Keep it up.” I said, knowing full well I wasn’t fully satisfied, heck, I wasn’t even half-way satisfied. But, that didn’t mean Joe wasn’t doing a good job. I couldn’t help but recall Adam Parker’s statement he had written sideways along a January 1, 1981 journal entry: “I will be eternally grateful that my parents instilled in me the deep longing for dissatisfaction.” I understood, at least in part, what Adam meant. Some people seem to thrive on dissatisfaction. I was one of them.
After hanging up with Joe, I called Camilla. She was still home. Since it was Monday, she was off today. As my phone rang the third time, I was feeling like I should have returned home to see her. When she answered, I rationalized a phone call was appropriate since her and her father were the furthest thing from close.
“Hello handsome, you already missing me?” Camilla said. I could picture her in the kitchen, sipping coffee, and staring out the windows above the sink across the back yard and towards the pond. She loved seeing the ducks when they were swimming. At times, depending if the ducks were in their favorite spot, you could only see their heads above a wooden fence rail. The elevation of the house and pond created a weird scene. Camilla had said more than once, “sometimes I feel like those ducks, my head is disconnected from my body. I live in my head and I’m paddling around with invisible feet trying to find my way.”
“Baby, I’ve got some news. It’s about your father.”
“My father. Remember. I don’t acknowledge having a father.” Camilla said, saying pretty much what I had expected her to say. Funny, I had wanted all weekend to ask her a few questions about her past, including some details concerning her fully dysfunctional family. Now, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision to listen and respond to Camilla’s questions and to leave mine for another day.
“Camilla, I’ve just heard that your father is dead. He was found this morning. Right now, all I have is gossip. He may have been murdered.”
“It doesn’t really surprise me. I’ve kind of expected something like this. For years I fantasized about killing him myself. He had a subtle way of pissing people off. I don’t know how he was able to be elected five times to the Boaz City Council.” I think Camilla would have kept talking. I wasn’t sure exactly how this was affecting her.
“Why don’t you come hangout with Blair today. You two could go out for lunch. I wish I could join you, but I have to go to Guntersville.”
“Thanks Connor. I do appreciate your concern, but I’m okay. We can talk more about it tonight if you need to. Bye, drive carefully.” As she ended our call I suspected she was struggling just a little more than she was revealing.
All I knew about the root of Camilla’s dislike, almost hatred, of her father, was that a few years ago he had dumped his wife, Camilla’s mother, Darlene, and taken up with Rita Cranford, a woman nearly ten years his senior. In Boaz, and probably most everywhere, the natural pattern is for a man to seek out a younger woman. I had some experience with that. Of course, everywhere else wasn’t Boaz. It had its own mystery water.
And, every other younger woman wasn’t Rita Cranford. Even though she was probably sixty years old, she looked twenty-five, well, for sure, no more than forty. It must have been in her genes because it sure wasn’t because she had been pampered. Her husband, Billy Cranford, and Rita had started Brite Look Cleaners in the late seventies. At the time of Billy’s death, 2009, I believe, they had a three-store chain with locations in Boaz, Albertville, and Guntersville. It was common knowledge that if it hadn’t been for Rita’s work ethic and business acumen, Brite Look Cleaners would have struggled to survive.
Camilla hated Lawton as much for marrying up as she did for dumping her mother. I knew she would always blame him for the onset of her mother’s Parkinson’s, and for his unwillingness to provide more than a penance of support after she became unable to work.
My meeting Monday afternoon was with Mark Hale. He is one of two detectives with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department. Mark and I have known each other since 1992 when we both attended the police academy. We both worked as patrol officers with the city of Dothan. In 1996, he had stayed on as a sergeant while I moved on to work at Bobby Sorrells, Investigations. Eventually, Mark left the police department and went to work for the Houston County Sheriff, working his way up to detective. Our relationship had become tense, to say the least, when I was arrested for the murder of Brandon Gore. Our solid friendship deteriorated more over the following fourteen months I was in jail. Our relationship was only semi-restored in 2014 after my acquittal. It was two years later before I saw him again. Sometime in mid-2014 he had taken a job with the Madison County Sheriff’s office because his latest girlfriend lived in the small Marshall County town of Grant.
Long story short, things didn’t work out for Mark in Madison County and so, in the summer of 2016, he accepted a detective position with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department. Over the past year we had made great strides in fully restoring our friendship, and our working relationship. As much as we could, we exchanged information. It was this reason I had called him late yesterday afternoon. I wanted and needed his thoughts on the Adam Parker case. Now, I had two reasons to talk with my old friend. The Lawton Hawks case would currently be getting his and his partner’s full attention.
I had driven over the causeway into Guntersville when Mark called my iPhone. “Sorry buddy, bad timing I know. I should have called you an hour ago. I’m back in Boaz. It’s going to be later before I can meet.” Mark said. I could hear the squawking of a police radio in the background.
“I just past Publix’s. Should I wait on you?” I could have gotten pissed for Mark wasting my time letting me drive all the way to Guntersville. But, I didn’t. I valued our friendship and didn’t know exactly how strong it was given our rocky past. More importantly, I needed him. He was a valuable resource.
“Probably not. I may be here a while. I suppose you’ve heard of the murder right up the street from your office?”
“I’ve heard some rumors.” I said.
“Pull in to Burger King and grab you a cup of coffee. I’ll call you back in no more than ten minutes.” Mark said, whispering to someone that he was coming.
“Okay, will do.”
It was twenty minutes before Mark called. I was halfway through my second cup of coffee. “Sorry again, this scene’s a party.”
“I appreciate your time. I know you’ve got your hands full, especially now. I’ll not take much of your time. What can you tell me about the Adam Parker case?” I asked.
“That it’s not a case. Have you not seen the autopsy?”
“Then, you know Parker died of natural causes.” Mark said.
“Maybe, maybe not. I received an email from Parker’s daughter last night. She’s in Chicago burying her father as we speak. Marissa, the daughter, said her father’s latest physical exam shows that he was in almost perfect condition. She attached a copy which included a statement by his doctor that his heart was as good as any twenty-year-old that he had ever examined.” I said having pondered this since reading it earlier this morning.
“Still no case. Connor, you know the Sheriff’s office doesn’t pursue cases without a reason, a reason that, at least at a minimum, indicates there has been a crime, that the victim died from criminal actions.”
“I know. I know. But, I’m getting those vibes.”
“Connor, let me stop you right there. The expert of all experts in criminal investigations, the one and only Bobby Sorrells, would rip your tongue out right now if he heard you.” Mark said, and I knew it was the truth.
“You’re right. ‘Objective facts don’t have feelings, and neither should you.’ I can hear him now. By the way, he’s in town, working on a case with Dalton Martin, a triple homicide out of Jackson County.” I said.
“Listen, I wish I could help you, but I can’t.”
“Mark, are you telling me that nothing, absolutely nothing, has crossed your mind, or your desk, that seems even a smidgen odd in regards to Adam Parker’s death.” I had to ask because I knew enough about Mark that he had a great imagination, one that he allowed to roam freely but while at the same time didn’t influence his final conclusions. That was reserved strictly to objective facts.
“I really need to go.” Mark said but then paused and hummed. This was Mark thinking and pondering, filling the air with a virtual hand, outstretched, palm open and facing towards on-coming traffic. STOP. WAIT.
The humming got boring. “One thing, and it’s probably about as relevant as the color of the red-light at the intersection of Highways 431 and 168 the moment Adam Parker’s body was discovered.”
“Now, you’ve got my attention. If you believe there’s not a chance in hell that its important, I have itching ears.” I was simply wasting breath, Mark was a solid detective.
“His car, Parker’s car, was not parked the way he normally parked it.” Was Mark trying to be funny?
“How would you know that?” I asked.
“It’s called investigation.” Mark said drawling out the thirteen-letter word.
“Can I ask how you determined this?”
“After the Boaz Police Department called our dispatch I drove to Boaz. They were extra cautious and wanted us to look, just to make sure it wasn’t anything suspicious. While there, I queried a few star-gazers. One girl, I think a student, said that Parker always pulled into his parking spot beside the science building. He had a designated spot since he was a professor.”
“So, you’re saying when his body was found in his car it had been backed into his parking spot. Right?” I asked.
“Yep. Now you could care less what color the light was.” Mark said, at first confusing me.
“Hey man, you figure it out. I’ve got to go.” Mark was about to hang up on me when I thought to ask.
“Quickly, do you remember the name of the student who told you that?”
“Hold on, I’m sure I jotted it down in my black-book.” Mark didn’t hum but a few seconds. “Goble, Natalie Goble.” See you Connor.” Our call ended.
By now I was over halfway back to Boaz. The remaining eight or so miles all I could think about was why would Natalie Goble be hanging around a possible crime scene. I let my imagination loose. As I drove into the parking lot behind Connor Ford Investigations I thought I caught a glimpse of Paige Todd in the background.
“I’ll have four eggs over-easy and a pound of bacon.” Ryan Radford said as the young and shapely waitress multi-tasked writing down his order and fending off his left hand that was attempting to rub her lower back.
“You’re going to die at 40 if you don’t lay off all that fat.” Fulton Billingsley said. “You may be as tall as your dear late father, but he used his head, worked out and ate sensibly.”
“What’s so important we meet today and not Sunday’s as usual?” Justin Adams asked sipping a steaming cup of coffee.
“I have a final walk-through at 7:00, so let’s make this quick. This is my biggest sale in Pebblebrook.” Danny Ericson mumbled as he wolfed down a stack of pancakes. “And, Fulton, if you call a meeting, make sure you show up on time.
“Are you going to answer my question? Justin said motioning for the newest, and hottest, waitress at Grumpy’s Diner, to come take his order.
“Two words. Katie Sims.” Fulton said just as Ryan moved his hand across his throat indicating for Fulton to go silent until Tina, the waitress came and went.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Danny said. “We promised a decade or two ago to never mention the lovely Katie.
“She’s in town. For good.” Fulton always liked being rather terse.
“For whose good?” Ryan asked.
“Stupid. She’s moved here from New York City. She’s teaching English at the high school.” Fulton said almost becoming windy.
“How do you know this?” Justin asked.
“I didn’t see her, but she came to the bank yesterday afternoon to open a checking account for her daughter. I saw it early this morning on the New Accounts printout.” Fulton said alternating looking at each of his three friends and scanning the dining room for potential eavesdroppers.
“I say this doesn’t even justify a quick heads-up on the phone, much less a meeting. What’s the big deal?” Ryan said cramming three slices of bacon into his mouth at one time.
“I agree.” Danny added. “She doesn’t know anything. We made sure of that. Even if she did, all we must do is deny everything she would say. By the way, where is Warren? Why is he not here?”
“Nashville. A pastor’s conference of some sort. He’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll tell him then.” Fulton said eating the last spoonful of his oatmeal.
Ryan let out a low groan as he looked over at Tina two tables over. “I wouldn’t mind having that for breakfast. Come to think of it, I have an idea. Why don’t we do us a little replay with the lovely Katie. She liked it rough, just like me.”
“Ryan, get your mind out of the gutter. We’re not teenagers anymore.” Fulton said regretting having to spend a minute with the crude and vile Radford.
“As Ryan says, what’s the big deal?” Justin asked, looking at Fulton.
“Cullie Sims was born September 23, 2003. I saw it on her account application. That’s exactly nine months after our little roll in the hay with Katie Sims. Doesn’t that strike any of you as more than mere coincidence?” Fulton was always the most serious of the sons of the Flaming Five, the fathers who broke every high school basketball record within a hundred miles when they thrilled audiences during the early seventies.
“Let me make sure I understood you. Exactly. You are saying that one of us, including Warren, is the father of Cullie Sims?” Danny asked, laying his cell phone face down beside his plate.
“Right. How could it be anything else? I don’t know much about genes and science, but it seems to me that one of our little sperms found its way to one of Katie’s little eggs.” Fulton’s statement surprised the other three. It was so out of character for him to attempt any humor.
“I say you’re making too much of this. That was nearly fifteen years ago. What would she gain from bringing it up now? We would deny it and she would look silly. Even if she proved that I was the father of Cullie, couldn’t I say that we had had consensual sex and had never been told Katie became pregnant.” Justin said.
“Let’s hope, at the worst, it would be that simple.” Fulton said looking for the time on his cell phone. “I have to go.”
“Me too, Danny added.
As the four went their separate ways it wasn’t a stretch to guess that each of them, today, and Warren, tomorrow, would spend countless minutes and hours pondering the potential affects from Katie Sims moving to town.
"What time are you planning on going to school to register?" Mom said, standing just inside my bedroom door. I had just opened my eyes and hadn't yet had a thought, about anything, much less school. Summer-time Monday's are not supposed to be about work, responsibility, and preparing for my future.
"I've decided not to register. I'm skipping this year, but I promise I'll register this time next year." I said to Mom. Never would I have said that to Dad.
"Okay girl, let's finish this discussion at breakfast. I'm just finishing up your favorite--blue-berry waffles and bacon."
"Okay, that's a bribe I cannot refuse. Be there in five." I responded with mixed feelings.
Whether I truly want to or not, I have no choice. Registration is today or tomorrow, and I have plans tomorrow with Sarah, Ryan, and Lisa. So, it must be today. I must admit I am a little excited. Only once in a lifetime does one start high school. Well, I guess I could just fail this year and start over next year. But, that wouldn't set well for my future, at least according to Mom and Dad.
"These are the best waffles I have ever had, and the bacon is just like I like it, thick and meaty. Thanks Mom." I said as I chowed down. I was surprised that I was so hungry even though I hadn't worked out any at all.
"You’re welcome. I thought I might need to do something to warm you to the idea of our Mom and Daughter morning I have planned."
"What are you talking about?" I asked.
"Registration and shopping. You need to register, and I need to meet with Gina McWhorter your school's liaison with Snead State's dual enrollment program. After we finish up at Boaz High, we can go shopping for you a few school clothes."
"Oh great. Like I'm starting middle school again and need my mom to hold my hand as we enter the big and dark prison." I said.
"It's not like that at all. You can do your thing and I can do mine. I'll act like I don't know you. Of course, our holding hands will be a little suspicious."
"Funny, funny. I guess I can put up with you at school for such a short and uneventful time, if you will promise to buy me a pair of pink Reiker's." I said.
"Deal. Now, get ready. It is already nearly nine."
Mom and I walked in the main entrance to Boaz High School, without holding hands. I was relieved.
We both went inside the school's office, which is close to the main entrance and right off the atrium. Mom went straight to Ms. McWhorter's office beside the principal's office and I walked over to talk with Mrs. Newsome, the head of registration.
"Hi Mrs. Newsome, I hope you had a nice summer. I'm here to register."
"Thanks. I did enjoy my time off. Now, let's see. Ruthie Brown. Here's your packet. I see you will be in the ninth grade and will have all the required courses: Algebra I, English, World History, and Biology I. All I need is your two elective choices."
"I have decided I want to take Poetry and Art." I said.
"Okay, we still have openings in both. One other thing, you probably know Mr. Hickson retired at the end of last year. Dr. Ayers is the new Biology teacher. She asked me to give each ninth grader a copy of a book that will supplement the standard science textbook. Here it is, and I need you to sign this receipt.
I signed the sheet Mrs. Newsome slid in front of me even before looking at the book, Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne. I was a little jolted to see a book with such a bold and controversial title. I can already see some interesting dinner time discussions forming on the horizon. But, what do I know, I was an eighth grader just a few weeks ago. I took the books and a copy of my new schedule that Mrs. Newsome handed me.
"Oh, I forgot to give you this," Mrs. Newsome said. "It is your reading assignment in the supplement. Dr. Ayers has assigned some homework to complete this week. Enjoy the rest of your summer."
I walked out of the school's office and into the Atrium. I had two competing feelings. I was a little pissed about having to read school stuff during my last week of summer vacation, and I had a sick feeling that I had just been tossed a hand-grenade.
While I waited on Mom I saw Ryan coming down the stairs from the faculty office suite. "Hi Ryan, have you registered?"
"Yes, and I’ll be in your Biology class since I got that special waiver last year and took geometry and trig. Have you registered?" He said.
"Yes, I just finished."
"So, you have your new book in Biology?" Ryan asked.
"Yes, what do you make of this? I doubt if Mr. Hickson would have started us off in this way."
"I was dumbfounded when I saw the supplement. So, I thought I would go meet Dr. Ayers and find out if she was a witch or an angel. She is neither. Seems very nice. Truly professional. We even had a short talk about Biology and her evolution book. She said that her philosophy is simple. Expose students to the issues, arguments for and against. Thorough analysis was her words. She said she believes most students are smart enough to reason their way to the truth." Ryan said.
"Well, that sounds okay. Oh, here's my mom. We are going shopping. Her payment for me letting her come along. See you Wednesday night at youth group."
"Did you get the Poetry class you wanted?" Mom asked as we walked outside and to the car.
"Yes, I am glad we came today. If we had waited until tomorrow, it might have been too late. I’m surprised there are so many 9th and 10th graders interested in Poetry."
"Great, let's go check out those sneakers." Mom said.
After two hours of shopping and a salad at Crater's we arrived home before 2:00. A good time for a nap. But, I just couldn't go right off to sleep. Instead, I thought of Mom and how different her life was growing up and how lucky I was to have her as my mom and to have the life that I do.
Mom grew up in New York City. Like my dad, she was born in the late 60's. Mom's parents were what I call high society folks. Her dad was a judge hearing mostly civil cases, mainly white-collar type cases. Her mom was educated as a nurse but quit working shortly after her and my granddad married. She became interested in politics and charity. Mom always said she grew up learning, in an intellectual household. But, it was cold as ice. She didn't really experience a loving relationship with her parents.
Mom went to private schools all her life and then went on to college at Yale, where she earned an undergraduate degree in Political Science. Her father wanted her to go to law school, but she thought living her adult working life in the courtroom before a judge was only a tad better than marrying a preacher. So much for Mom's decision-making abilities.
Instead of a law degree, Mom decided to continue her interest in government and political behavior. Rejecting three horribly cold years in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Harvard Law School, she journeyed south to Duke University in Durham, North Carolina where she earned a Master of Arts in Political Science. Fully addicted to education, research, and writing, she came even further south to Atlanta and Emory University where she earned her PhD in Political Science.
It was at Emory that she met Dad and her plans of becoming an Ivy League professor were forever abandoned. I guess love is blind as they say. It is weird, but interesting, what two people in love will do to be together. It's like all reason goes flying out the window.
Why was Dad at Emory? I think Mom had that question when they first met. He looked more like a logger or oil rig worker than an academic type. But, he proved her wrong--not that he isn't ruggedly handsome. Fact is, Dad was a student at Emory University, 'smoking' his own education addiction in the Candler School of Theology. By the way, Dad had received his undergraduate degree in History with a minor in Biblical Studies at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. It seems Dad was destined to be a preacher from age 12. He someway fell in love with hellfire and damnation preaching. At age 12, Dad started going with his friend Joey to First Baptist Church of Selma where his father brought down thunder and lightning.
Mom and Dad met in the Divinity School's library at Emory University. Mom had never been in this specialty library until that momentous day. She always found everything she needed on the shelves of the School's main library. Dad had been studying at a corner carrel but shortly before Mom arrived his friend Carl had asked him to babysit his desk in the reference department while he took a fifteen-minute break. During this fifteen minutes, Mom had appeared asking about a book that dealt with Christianity's influence on the U.S. Constitution or Congress, or something I now forget. She said she was shocked by what Dad said and would never forget. According to Mom—Dad adamantly denies it— he said: "Yes, we have that book and I can get it for you very quickly if you will agree to seriously consider marrying me in the next two years." Dad says he was way too shy to have even thought something close to this outrageous statement. I've always liked Mom's response. "I will consider it, but I'll need more verifiable and trustworthy information before I will promise to seriously consider it."
They both agree they had coffee in the School's main library cafe the next day. They were off to the races as they say.
Sounds like Mom and Dad had a great start—even if some or all the events and conversation were less than true.
Mom and Dad had a wonderful love story that unfolded over the three years they both attended Emory University.
I'm ready for that nap.
It was too cold over the weekend to visit DeSoto Falls, just south of Mentone. It was a favorite spot since it was last September, Labor Day weekend, that we had descended the stairs to a visitor viewing area and had first discussed getting engaged. Looking back, it was a lamebrain idea. Not that Camilla had been too rude or disinterested. She had commented, “your kind of weird Connor Ford, a true romantic man would have simply gotten down on a knee and presented me with a diamond ring while asking if I would marry him. You are too scared, thinking you had to do a little investigative work before making any type commitment.” She had been right. I was fortunate that she hadn’t asked me to call her a cab. I was also lucky that I had found Mother’s ring in my middle desk drawer the following Tuesday morning. Camilla had cried when I, on bended knee, after coming in, unannounced, to Serenity Salon, and popped the big question. I loved how Camilla put up with my slow but steady attempts at becoming a true romantic.
Camilla and I spent Friday night through Sunday afternoon in the Orange Room at the Mountain Laurel Inn, braving the near-zero degree, howling-wind weather, only once. And that was Saturday afternoon to venture across the street to the Wildflower Cafe, only to find it closed due to frozen water pipes. We had quickly returned to stand beside a roaring fire in the giant rock fireplace at the Mountain Laurel Inn, the quaint bed and breakfast that was becoming our favorite weekend getaway.
Being locked away for nearly two days with the gorgeous Camilla was unlike the last time when my movements were fully restricted. I’m not sure why I had brought up my prison days when I did. I probably should write a book, a type of instruction manual on how not to be a true romantic. It was after nearly setting our pants on fire standing beside the fireplace. We had retired to the Orange Room and easily slid beneath the sheets. It was only a moment after Camilla had convinced me I was still man enough to meet her almost insatiable desires, that I had said, “prison was the most boring time of my life.” She, not surprising, now that I’m looking back, had thought I was expressing my boredom over her sweet smile, and her smooth, sensuous, and steady kisses. It was my quick thinking that had saved me. I was able to clumsily quote a little stanza from my favorite poet, Donald Hall, and his poem Love Is Like Sounds:
Love is like sounds, whose
Hang on the leaves of strange
trees, on mountains
As distant as the curving of
Where the snow hangs still in
the middle of the air.
Rolling onto our sides, her left and my right, had spun-up a slight smile on her natural face, untarnished by Mary Kaye. I had attempted to give her my interpretation, “love is like my moans and groans that hang on these strange orange walls.” Her sly smile had transformed into a wave of laughter. She finally had responded, “you’re totally weird Connor Ford, but at least you make the effort to touch my heart. You’re a keeper but a lifetime will be needed for you to reach those distant mountains.”
I had not been the only one to mention the past. After our love-making we had stayed in bed until dinner downstairs. She had never asked me much about mine and Amy’s relationship. The only thing Camilla knew specifically was that I had caught Amy in an affair in 2012. For some reason, she was interested in details. Pretty much during the entire two plus years we had been dating, she knew only a framework of my past. I thought it strange that she had waited until shortly before our engagement to probe into such a natural subject—the background of the one you have just promised to marry. She wanted to put flesh on the past skeleton of my life.
Camilla started at the beginning, more specifically, the beginning of mine and Amy Vickers’ relationship. I was open and honest. I knew from experience that dishonesty in any degree was no way to build a sustainable foundation for any two people, especially two people who were promising to spend the rest of their lives together in holy matrimony.
I had shared how Amy and I had met at Boaz High School and had started dating when I was in the eleventh grade and she was in the tenth. It was, for me at least, true love. I thought it was for Amy. Until I learned several months later that she had lied to me. It was in April of 1971 that a friend of mine had shared with me a rumor he had heard. That in the ninth grade, Amy had dated Brandon Gore and that he had gotten her pregnant. When I confronted Amy about it she at first had denied even having sex with him, much less becoming pregnant. I shared that the love I had for Amy enabled me to forgive her after she finally confessed. She made me believe that she had made a mistake, that Brandon Gore was three years older than her and had manipulated her into having sex. One time and that she had never been pregnant, never even thinking she was pregnant.
The rest of the weekend was spent answering Camilla’s questions. I never got mad or even frustrated with her. Although it continued to puzzle me why she had waited so long to bring up the past, I was patient and wanted to be as open as possible. She covered a lot of ground, about twenty-five years of my life. I think she agreed with me on the importance of honesty and trust in our relationship. As we drove back home on Sunday afternoon, I felt I had violated my own rule by withholding the fact that Amy’s affair had been with Brandon Gore, the same Brandon Gore she had sex with in the ninth grade.
We arrived home just a little after dark. I felt Camilla and I both needed a little breathing room, so I drove to the office. I opened my email and soon became bored with a long list of questions Bobby had left me concerning a couple of witnesses in my report. My mind couldn’t get interested in his case. But, my newest case flooded my mind when I noticed the keys to Adam Parker’s home and office still lying beside my computer.
I drove to the one-story rental house on West Mann Avenue, just past Snead College. From the outside, it looked old, virtually the same age as all the other houses surrounding the school. Inside, was a different story. The house had been completely remodeled. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean, bright, and had the feel of simple elegance. The walls were all painted beige and the floors were oak hardwood with a natural finish. I must have misunderstood Marissa. I thought she had implied her father’s house was, at a minimum, fully disheveled. I had been expecting to have to hold my breath as I squeezed between piles of books and mountains of garbage. All six rooms were neat and tidy: two bedrooms, a study, a bath/laundry room, a den/kitchen combination and a large sun-room across the entire back of the house. It was obvious the sun-room had been added when the house was remodeled.
I had ignored Marissa’s note in the middle of the den floor when I had arrived, choosing instead to take a full tour. After playing with the automatic blinds built into the glass windows out back I had returned to Adam’s study and the journal entry Marissa’s note had suggested I read. She had left it open on the giant roll-top desk in the corner. The entry was dated January 1, 1981. It was over a page long. Adam was in the ninth grade at Dearborn High School in Chicago. His parents, both professors of linguistics at the University of Chicago, were the cold cerebral type.
Adam shared his deepest thoughts about what a horrible Christmas vacation he had as his parents tried to instill in him the importance of good grades and setting goals at an early age. Adam used some graphic language to describe how his father castigated him about his laziness and his unwillingness to deal with reality. It seems Adam had made a B on his first semester report card, the first grade less than an A he had since second grade. It was particularly damning because it was in English.
Marissa had boldly written in her note for me to read the sideways writing that Adam had apparently written much later than the first day of 1981. It read, “it was that Christmas holiday that I first realized I would never be able to please my parents, but for some strange reason (one I will forever be eternally grateful. Reader, I’m not fully sure what I mean here.) I will be eternally grateful that they instilled in me the deep longing for dissatisfaction.”
I had carried Adam’s 1991 journal out into the sun-room when my iPhone vibrated. It was Camilla and she was suggesting I come home. Emily was there wanting my help. I turned off the lights, locked the door and drove home to Hickory Hollow, the log cabin my dear parents had left me in their Joint Will.
December 1, 2017
Professor Olivia Tillman walked down the long corridor to Lecture Hall 201 in the Harborough Tower to her final lecture this semester. After her presentation she was leaving for an extended leave of absence to return to her hometown of Boaz, Alabama to support her father and brother who are facing criminal charges.
As usual, the large classroom was crowded and noisy. The 150 or so male and female students, were first and second year students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and most came from Christian homes across the Southeast United States. As Olivia stood behind the lecture podium and opened her notebook she noticed three older men sitting side-by-side across the front row. “Good morning to everyone and especially to our three visitors.”
The oldest looking of the three, a man at least 70, short and stocky with a mountain of flowing gray hair that made his body look too small for his large head, stood as the other students grew still and silent, “Professor Tillman, I’m Bert Davis and this is Pete Appleton and Ralph Kindle. Our lovely wives asked us to join them here today for your last lecture.” Minnie Davis, Sarah Appleton, and Bernadette Kindle were three older students who both delighted and frustrated Olivia. It seemed they wanted themselves, almost believed themselves, to be the professor of Olivia’s New Testament History and Formation’s class.
“Nice to meet you and welcome to our class.” Olivia said with a smile and then looked out over an ocean of youth, all struggling to square what they had been exposed to this semester at the feet of Professor Olivia Tillman who for the past six years had filled the shoes of professor emeritus, Harrison Bolton, who retired in the summer of 2011. Her students were not the only ones who had struggled. Olivia, from the mid-1980s until 2011, had served as Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas where she had taught various subjects related to Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Early Christianity, and Baptist Heritage. During Olivia’s last five years at Southwestern she had experienced the complete devolution of her faith. Skepticism and unease since the loss of her husband in 2008 had grown into a private but exhaustive exploration of every aspect of her long-held beliefs. Ultimately, the struggle to say and teach one thing to her Divinity students and live and believe quite the opposite, had heralded the complete transformation of her professional life, including a move to the secular world of Chapel Hill where Olivia was focused on teaching historical truths.
Bert responded with, “we’re excited to be here, and I apologize for interrupting. We’ll sit here and be good students.”
Olivia looked up and scanned the entire classroom. “Tomorrow is your final exam. Today, I will review. I strongly suggest you listen and take good notes. You might hear something important.” Olivia said fully present in body, but the true location of her mind was another matter. She was worried sick about her brother Wade, and father Walter, both former pastors of First Baptist Church of Christ in Boaz. Leading this church was a long tradition for the male side of the Tillman family. In addition to Walter and Wade, their forefathers, Rudolph, Morton, and Waymon had also held the same position. And currently, Wade’s son Warren was the head pastor at the Southern Baptist Church.
As Olivia glanced at her notes she wondered if there was something else working in her deep subconscious. She felt almost a foreboding spirit descending into the depths of her mind and heart.
“Class, first recall that we don’t know, historical evidence does not reveal the authors of the four gospels that made it into the final version of the Bible. We do know they were not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Clearly, they were not written by the named person. These gospels were written by highly literate Greeks, not uneducated peasants such as Matthew, Mark, and John. Luke could have been some sort of doctor, but it is undisputed he spoke Armenian and not Greek. It is difficult, impossible to write in the Greek language if you do not speak that language. Recall, evidence indicates that the Gospel of Mark was written somewhere around 65 to 70 A.D., with Matthew and Luke following a generation later, say around 85 to 90 A.D. and the Gospel of John, most likely, around the year 120 A.D. It is important you note that there were many other competing gospels written during these same time frames and none of them were chosen to join the biblical canon. It may have been, in part, because of some of their more fantastical claims, such as Jesus, as a young man, a carpenter, causing some furniture to suddenly appear, or some lumber to mysteriously stretch to the lengths needed. Know that all original manuscripts are lost. And, what manuscripts we have are all copies of copies of copies, all containing countless discrepancies. As to the Bible, the earliest complete manuscript we have is dated around 900 A.D.”
Olivia spent the next hour covering a variety of topics her New Testament class had covered during the semester, including the Apostle Paul’s writings from 25 to 35 A.D., where he admitted his knowledge of Christ had come strictly from revelation and not directly from man. Other topics included Second Peter; other forgeries; a mini-lecture on how an illiterate peasant became an itinerant preacher and later developed a reputation of being the son of God. At 11:45 a.m., Olivia completed her lecture and dismissed the class. As she was gathering her things, Sarah Appleton approached the podium and asked if she had a few minutes to talk to her and her five friends.
“Sure, I’d be happy to, but I do have a lunch appointment at 12:30, downtown Chapel Hill.”
“Minnie, Bernadette, and I know your story, but our husbands don’t really believe we have been totally honest. They simply don’t see how a devoted Christian could ever leave the faith and stop believing in the existence of the Christian God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Do you mind giving them a short version where they can hear it, pardon me, from the horse’s mouth. No disrespect intended of course.” Sarah no doubt was the queen bee of the sizzling six, the three older ladies and their husbands.
“I’m always willing to share my testimony, nobody knows it better than me. Thanks again Bert, Pete, and Ralph for coming today. It is an honor to meet you. I suspect you already know this, but you guys have wonderfully inquisitive wives and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with them this semester. They each remind me of myself in so many ways. Now, let me say it is virtually impossible to give you, in the few minutes I now have, a full representation of every stage I went through in abandoning my faith and belief. So, keep that in mind.
“I grew up in Boaz, Alabama in a devout Christian home, my father, his father and on back for generations were all Southern Baptist preachers. From the time I could walk and talk I was sold out on Jesus and Christianity. I spent as much time in church as I did at home. I followed my father around like I was his shadow. From junior high throughout high school I was the ring leader of our youth group. My number one priority was sharing the gospel message. About the only regret I can recall from my high school years was failing to evangelize an eleventh-grade boy who had come to Boaz for one year. He was there with his father who taught at the local college on loan from a big school in Chicago. After high school I devoted the next ten years to earning four college degrees including a double masters and a Ph.D. in theology. After three years teaching at Liberty University’s School of Divinity, I spent the following 24 years at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas, first as an associate professor and then as a full professor.
“In 2008 I lost my husband of nearly thirty years to cancer. Up until his sickness and death my faith had never faltered. Of course, there had been times of doubt. Looking back, these periods all revolved around some science subject. When Jack got sick I started reading about cancer and cancer research and got interested in chemistry and biology, and my reading expanded to a few atheist authors.
“The big turning point came in 2009, some three years or so after Jack’s diagnosis. I was sitting in my bedroom lounging chair early one morning having my devotion as I had done thousands of times during my life, when it hit me that I was living a lie. My thoughts centered on prayer and a study Harvard professor Herbert Benson had conducted in 2006. I had recently read several articles about the study, even read the peer review article in the Journal Nature. The results clearly showed that prayer didn’t work. Over 1800 coronary artery bypass surgery patients at six different hospitals participated in the study. It was a double-blind experiment, meaning no one, including the patients, their doctors, and anyone else involved with the study, knew which patients were being prayed for and which were not. Members of three congregations were asked to deliver the prayers, using the patients’ first names and the first initials of their last names. The bottom line was that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery.
“I knew this study, in of itself, didn’t absolutely prove that prayer didn’t work. But, it sure got my attention and it triggered my interest and motivation to further explore my relationship, and beliefs, concerning prayer. After weeks of research and contemplating my own life, I realized that I truly had no proof, real proof, that prayer worked. Oh yea, I had countless stories, from my childhood, my youth, my almost half-a-century as a Christian adult, that, at least on the surface, indicated the power of prayer. But, that morning in 2009, I let it finally penetrate my closed mind that prayer, praying to the Christian God, worked about as well as praying to Santa Claus or Zeus. I got so frustrated sitting in my chair thinking what a fool I had been all my life to buy into Christianity. Finally, after an hour or so of growing angst, I literally threw my Bible, Oswald Chambers’ devotion book, my journal, and several commentaries out of my lap and across the floor hitting against my bedroom dresser.
“This led to more and more thought, contemplation, exploration, and exhaustion over the next two years until I finally was forced, internally, to confess to the Seminary’s Dean that I had to resign and why. After a few weeks of job-hunting, I wound up here at Chapel Hill. Now, I’ve never been happier from a spiritual standpoint. Of course, I’m still human and must deal with the same type things as all people do, including Christians.” Olivia tucked her notebook under her arm, shook hands with all six of her entranced visitors, thanked them again for coming, turned towards the exit, and walked away.
“Professor Tillman.” Sarah said standing up.
“Yes?” Olivia turned and said.
“Please know, we will be praying for you.” Sarah said as seriously as though she was standing before the twenty members of her Sunday School class at Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church.
Olivia smiled, waved, and continued toward the exit.
I was born January 1, 1954 to Billy Joe and Mary Sue Tanner. Until I moved to Atlanta in 1973 for college, we lived on a 40-acre farm, in a two-story, Amish style house, three miles east of Boaz in the Arona community. It was my grandfather’s birthplace. My grandparents, Frank and Elma Tanner, had lived there all their married life working the farm and caring for his widowed mother until her death in 1953. My parents married and moved in with Gramp’s and Mama El in 1944 when Dad returned from Italy after the Army discovered he was only 16 when he enlisted.
My parents were the hardest working folks I have ever known. My Dad was a weaver at Boaz Spinning Mills, working six nights a week from 10:30 p.m. until 6:30 a.m. He then returned home to help my Mother complete the early morning farm work that she and I started before sunrise. By 9:30, Dad had finished his chores and breakfast and had gone upstairs to sleep for five or six hours before rejoining my Mother somewhere on our 40 acres to toil until 6:00 p.m., to then catch his ride to Boaz with neighbor and co-worker Calvin Conners.
Mother, a city girl from Albertville, knew nothing of farming but had no choice but to learn fast. After marrying, Mother spent a month with Gramp’s learning how to grow chickens, plant and maintain a garden, hoe cotton, and a dozen other tasks before his Diabetes cost him a leg and sent him to Gadsden to rehab for three months. Although short on experience she was extremely long on patience and determination. For as long as I can remember, the legend was that on Christmas Eve morning 1946 my Dad had come home tired and unusually depressed spouting threats that they should pack their bags and move to Detroit for him to make ‘good money’ at General Motors, and that he just couldn’t continue working two jobs for so little results. The story goes that Mother rolled out her own threat. “If I ever again hear you say that you are quitting, that you can’t do something, then I’m leaving you for good. Do you understand?” Losing Mother would have destroyed Dad. She was the light of his life. The story goes that Dad never breathed the ‘can’t’ word again. It was also the only time that I heard of him being depressed.
Gramp’s had started growing chickens for Boaz Poultry Company in 1932. The Depression was gaining momentum every day. Gramp’s had two neighbors who were pleased with their eight-year-old decision to build two specially designed buildings that housed thousands of chickens from the time they were just a few days old. He didn’t make the decision easily since it was the first time the home place had ever been mortgaged. In the end, Gramp’s believed it really wasn’t much of a risk when you compared it to the only other option which was to starve to death or quit farming altogether. It turned out his decision was a good one. The two poultry houses stabilized the farm, and later gave Mother a job and the ability to always be home when I was there.
My first memory of Saturdays as a kid was when I was three years old, at least that’s what Mama El told me. After breakfast, she took me to our garden and taught me how to pick peas. She told me I could tell when to pull them from the vines by looking at the plumpness of the pod, their hardness, and by their color. She made me watch her pick half a basket of Crowder peas before she let me pull one. Then, she taught me about peppers and tomatoes, and returned to the house. That Saturday, I picked two bushels of peas, and a basket full of tomatoes. I left the peppers alone, thinking they were not quite ready but also thinking Mama El might be testing my judgment. Compared to most every other Saturday I remember, that first working Saturday was a vacation. Normally, I was up and out by 4:30 a.m. helping Mother in the broiler houses, although I was often doing this by myself by age 10 if Mother had garden vegetables to can and freeze. After this task was completed, I worked in our corn field, milked Molly our cow, castrated pigs if we had a new litter, cut, split, and stacked firewood, and mended fences. If all this didn’t fill up my Saturday there was always something Mother and Mama El needed help with either in the garden or on the back porch shelling peas, snapping green beans, or cutting corn off the cob. During cold weather, we always had four hogs to slaughter, butcher, and ready for grinding into sausage, or for salting-down in the big wooden meat box. I was only six when Gramp’s let me use his Marlin lever-action 22 Rifle to kill a 400-pound hog just right to have it fall over on the big wood sled we used to scald off the hog’s hair. Saturdays were always work days on the farm until I went off to college.
Mother said she got her grit and determination from God. I’m 91 now and have never seen a more God-fearing person. I’ve been told that I was only three days old when I made my first appearance at Clear Creek Baptist Church. This was Mother’s doing no doubt. From then until I started attending First Baptist Church of Christ in Boaz when I was in the tenth grade, Mother made sure I was in church every Sunday morning and night, and every Wednesday night. But, attendance was only the minimum requirement. Mother read the Bible to me since I was born and made sure I had my daily devotion and prayer time for thirty minutes before I went to bed at night, although there were times that I forgot. And, reading my Sunday School lesson was even more important than completing my homework which, according to Mother, I would never be able to choose to work and live away from the farm unless I completed every single assignment in full. In math, she always demanded I write out every step of the calculation no matter how simple it was. As for Dad, he was not against God, Christianity, and the Church but chose to remain relatively silent while letting Mother and Brother G be my spiritual guides.
Brother G was, as I learned after I begin attending the big church in town, a Christian Fundamentalist. He, without doubt, believed the Bible was written by God Himself and that obviously, there was no error in any verse throughout its sixty-six books. To him, and me until many years later, God had been around a long time, forever in fact. He created the world in six literal days and made man in His image. Out of His love He sent His Son, born of a virgin, to die for the sins of all mankind, and to be resurrected forever to welcome believing sinners to His presence after death or His return in the clouds, whichever came first. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, were all the same and all different. That was confusing, but I believed whatever Brother G told me. I never questioned him because he spoke the truth, the truth that comes only from the Bible. I read my Bible most every day, said my prayers, and lived as though the Holy Trinity was watching my every move and hearing my every thought. Throughout my growing up years I loved God with all my heart. That’s what I was taught to do. It was real. God was real to me. I believed He walked with me and talked with me. Without Brother G and Mother, I would have drunk moonshine, smoked cigarettes, and got naked with girls. Only by God’s grace, did I walk the high road to life and peace.
No matter what road I walked throughout my life I always had fond memories of my growing-up Sunday afternoons. Often Clear Creek Baptist Church had ‘dinner on the ground.’ After Brother G’s voice boomed his last and hoarse gasp, the ladies moved the towel-covered dishes filled with choice casseroles, vegetables, breads, pies, and cakes, from the small kitchen at the back of the church outdoors, laid tablecloths on the long concrete table that the men had built on the creek side of the church years before I was born, and spread a collection of food that would outrank the biggest Baptist churches in North Alabama.
After eating two days’ worth of food, me and every boy and girl out of diapers would take to the grass-barren field beyond the creek to play whatever sport was in season. From baseball to football to basketball. And, starting in 1959, to soccer, after a family of Hispanics moved in the old Elkins’ home place. Sometimes we played until it was time to go back inside for Training Union with Sister G, Brother G’s wife. Other than the absolute minimum chores that had to be done, Sundays were for worshiping God and relaxing. I dearly loved Sundays.
Once again, I had not slept well. It was the sixth night since Cullie and I moved back to Boaz. The dreams, virtual nightmares, were no doubt triggered by sleeping in my bed, in my old room. I hadn’t slept here since 1996 when I finished college and moved to Los Angeles. During the intervening twenty years I had visited at least once every couple of years, but I had always made sure I slept at a local motel.
I had to make some changes. Maybe I would ask Nanny Bev, my grandmother, if I could have mother’s room upstairs. That was probably a bad idea. Mother, Darla Sims Radford, may be needing it herself. Her husband, Raymond Radford, is in some deep shit with the law, accused of a multitude of crimes, including murder. Mom hasn’t been too open about her situation, but I suspect Raymond’s grandson, Ryan, will pressure Mom out of the sprawling Country Club mansion if his grandfather is convicted and sent to prison. Maybe, a new coat of paint and some different bedroom furniture will chase out the demons who have homesteaded my room since I was a kid.
I pulled on a sweatshirt and a pair of jogging pants and walked down the hall and into the kitchen. It was 4:30 a.m. and the coffee was waiting, thanks to my automatic coffee brewer that I had brought. I couldn’t help but feel bad over the scene Bev and I had when Cullie and I had moved in. Nanny was a creature of habit, hated change, and believed anything smart enough to make coffee without your presence was also smart enough to be a spy.
The thought also reminded me of why Cullie and I were here. Bev was growing more senile by the day and Darla was too preoccupied to even see the trouble Bev was in. It should have been apparent. Nanny was going on ninety years old but had a daughter whose dream had become a nightmare.
Darla was my biological mother, but I could hardly call her mom or mother. It was Nanny who had raised me. Darla had gotten pregnant at her high school graduation party in May 1972. She was still a kid herself. But, not one incapable of hooking up, eventually marrying, Raymond Radford, the man whose son, Randall, was one of the ones Darla had sex with that fateful graduation night. Raymond left his wife of twenty years for the young and pretty Darla. To his credit, he had offered to raise me, let me live in his big house. Nanny would not have it and literally made Darla sign me over for adoption. I doubt if I would ever forgive my mother for throwing me away.
Early morning was my time. It was now such an ingrained habit, virtually like breathing. Since high school I had been a scribbler, finding deep satisfaction in putting words on paper. During college I had learned a lot about the craft of writing, but my short stories seemed hollow, uninteresting plots, and my characters were too narrow. It was my first teaching job in Los Angeles where the early morning routine became the habit it continues to be. Before my day job began I had already written at least a thousand words towards my current story. I owe my students, rather their seemingly unbearable lives, for transforming my writing from a head knowledge to a heart-throbbing adventure. My life, for the first time, had discovered meaning. I finally had a purpose and it was two-fold. Create stories, short and long, that moved people, entertaining but also helping them discover something that made their lives more bearable or maybe even spurred them to reconstruct their circumstances and become a whole new person. The second purpose was to inspire my students to read and to write, to learn the power of words, others and their own, to gain experience the cheap way, by traveling, hiking, swimming, flying, dreaming, alongside others, as told in words, stories, as they made their way through life.
This morning was the first in seven days that I had come down to my writing spot. I had adopted this corner of the little used basement, windowless and a little damp, while I was in high school. Back then I was not a daily writer, scribbler was really what I was, but it was here that I attempted to fictionalize Darla’s story. It’s hard to realize how the little snippets I wrote, hardly the makings of even the most rudimentary scenes grew over the years into Out of the Darkness, my novel that won me the PEN/Faulkner prize for best fiction in 2002. During the twelve or thirteen years it took me to complete the story it evolved far away from where it had begun, Darla’s consensual sex with Randall Radford and the other four members of the Flaming Five, as they were called because of their basketball prowess, her pregnancy, and my birth nine months later. The one thing that I had learned to write, Out of the Darkness, was that horrible life experiences do not have to define one’s future. That’s what my protagonist had learned. I still had a way to go before this principle settled in my mind and heart as easily as my habit of rising at 4:30 a.m. every morning.
This morning I had worked on another project that I had put in a desk drawer nearly two years ago. Out of Control was born after that fateful night in December 2002 when I was gang-raped by the sons of the Flaming Five, including Ryan Radford, Raymond’s grandson. Sporadically over the past fifteen years I had attempted to gain momentum, but I always seemed to hit the wall. It was like my mind and my body were fighting each other. I guess it was because I was too close to the event. It had happened to me and my entire being, to protect itself, fought my every effort to relive the horrifying two plus hours. Maybe, now, back in the dark and dingy basement, where my only prize-winning story had sprouted, I could convince my writing mind and heart that our lives would benefit, maybe even begin to thrive, by going deep to destroy the demons that were assaulting me lying upstairs in the bed of my youth.
At 6:15, I returned to my room, showered, dressed, and drove myself and a waiting Cullie, to Boaz High School. It was my first day as an English teacher and Cullie’s as a ninth-grade student at the high school I had graduated from in 1991. I hoped our time here would be as rewarding as the last six years at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in New York City. For reasons that were not difficult to list, I doubted things would be as good.
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 2002 and I was home for Christmas. It had been a whole year since I had visited my mother and my grandmother in our hometown of Boaz, Alabama. This year, unlike the previous five years where I had stayed in Los Angeles fully focused on my high school teaching and writing, I had seen them in April when they had flown to Washington, D.C. to see me awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in the Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library.
I had driven my rental car from the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport and arrived in Boaz late afternoon on the 23rd. Instead of going straight to mother’s house east of Boaz on Bruce Road I opted instead to drive west on Highway 168 to old downtown Boaz to see if the fountain in the center of town was active or lying dormant. It had become something of a tradition for me after my grandmother had shared her story of how she had met her second husband, Raymond Radford. I loved Mama Bev’s oft repeated statement, “love is never stagnant, it is bursting forth, new every day.” It was, to me, a silly and too simple an expression. I had never known anything but the stagnant type of love. When I parked and walked to the center of town the fountain was worse than stagnant. There was no water anywhere in sight. The huge basin that fed the fountain was empty.
I never saw anyone. I was walking back to my car parked in a dark parking lot on the south end of town and past the little building that housed the two public restrooms when someone grabbed me from behind and forced a black hood over my head. The whisper of voices told me there were several of them. I was shoved into the back of what had to be a van and driven for miles. I knew I was going to die. I couldn’t sit up but could feel a combination of hard and soft hands traveling across my bare legs. One quick stop by the van and I could hear the vehicles tires rolling across a graveled road.
I was removed from the back of the vehicle and led inside a tent. I knew it was a tent by the smell. Everyone knows that Army tent smell. Over the next hour I was laid across a bed covered with what had to be an animal skin and raped by at least five men. They made lots of sounds. The man inside me would moan and groan. The bystanders would laugh and jeer. The only words I ever heard was, “teach the little bitch to not write about Boaz.” Maybe I shouldn’t have set my one and only novel, Out of the Darkness, in my hometown.
When the five had each taken a couple of turns each thrusting inside me without a single condom, they drove me back to town leaving me behind the public restrooms. That day, I never saw one of the men nor the vehicle they were driving. They left me hooded and tied up, tied up just enough for them to make their getaway before I could untie my hands and remove the hood from my head.
It was as though they wanted me to know who they were. I did. But, I never went to the police. Instead, I drove to McDonald’s and went inside to the restroom, refreshed my makeup and straightened my clothes the men had hastily redressed me with, drank a cup of coffee, and drove home to an eager mother and grandmother worried that my plane had been late.
That was nearly fifteen years ago, nine months before Cullie, my beautiful daughter was born. When I first saw her face and the sweetness of her smile, and felt the tenderness of her skin, I swore to myself I would forget the horror of that night, and instead, invest my life keeping Cullie safe and focused on the good all around her.
Richard L. Fricks, Author
I became a private fiction scribbler in 1994 while I was in law school. In November 2015, I took the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge to write 50,000 words towards a book. In May 2016, I published God and Girl. Over the next nine months I wrote over 140,000 words towards another novel. It is now on life support in a desk drawer. Since then, I've written and published: The Boaz Scorekeeper, The Boaz Secrets, The Boaz Stenographer, The Boaz Schoolteacher, and The Case of the Perfectionist Professor. (the first book in The Boaz Sleuth/Connor Ford series). I’m currently editing The Boaz Safecracker. Also, I'm currently drafting two novels: The Boaz Scholar and The Boaz Stalker. Thanks for reading my little stories.