Hardy Gosnell discovered carved soap bars in his sister’s attic three days after her ill-attended memorial. At first he thought he’d uncovered a cache of elementary school art projects. Already Hardy had thrown boxes of stuffed animals, photo albums, cancelled checks, Christmas ornaments, and unattended mouse traps through the pulldown attic stairs hatch. He’d not envisioned what Jeannie’s death might entail afterward, and was surprised that she’d ever written a legal will with strict directions to have herself cremated. Additionally she’d left a spiral notebook—My Death scratch-printed in blue ink on the cover—right on the dining room table. He wondered how long it lay there, if she turned to it occasionally in order to add more urgent thoughts and needs. Her last entry included the name of a man named Buck Whatley who specialized in estate auctions. She instructed Hardy to contact him as soon as he could, for Hardy to sell the house and belongings before a certain nostalgia set in. In the back of the notebook she’d quoted an article she had read, and the statistics of how heirs should not always act irrationally in regards to the time between burial and house sale. Jeannie left the combination to a safe filled with savings bonds, and a stack of cash—unless their mother lived past the age of 112, she wrote, every bill could be paid easily. Plus, there was an insurance policy, not much, but enough to pay off the funeral home. Jeannie placed a large exclamation point after both easily and home.
Hardy Gosnell’s wife assured him that he needed to pack two suitcases, take his time, get everything in order, and ask people if Jeannie’d been sick. Evonne pointed out that the medical examiner and coroner might request an autopsy right away, but if they didn’t, hospitals were supposed to offer them free of charge according to some show she’d seen on television. She said, “Go on down there and spend some time in the house getting everything done. Save what you want and need, and sell what you only want. It’s not like you don’t have the time right now.”
Hardy said, “How long does it take for an autopsy report? Did she ever mention cancer to you, Evonne? Did Jeannie ever say that she had cancer, or MS, or something like that?”
Hardy and Jeannie Gosnell’s parents weren’t dead. Their father took off right before Jeannie was supposed to go to college, when Hardy was fourteen. Their mother showed the first signs of dementia at age sixty, moved into a nearby nursing home in Forty-Five, South Carolina at age sixty-two, but showed no signs of weakening physically. If anything, she seemed to walk more erect, and kind of swung her arms like John Wayne swaggering, or like a bodybuilder holding grapefruit beneath his armpits. Jeannie used to call Hardy up in Greensboro and say how she thought the nursing home kept a weight room hidden somewhere behind the kitchen.
And Jeannie Gosnell hadn’t mentioned any illness. She continued to work as an administrative secretary for the dean at Anders College—where she’d eventually turned down a full scholarship twenty-seven years earlier—right up until the day before Spring Break. The dean, a man named Hubert Childers, showed up at the remembrance service held inside the college’s student center and told Hardy, “She seemed happy. I don’t want to get personal none, but did she kill herself? Was there a bullet hole in her temple? I read an article one time about how women won’t usually shoot theyselves in the head ‘cause they want to still look pretty in a casket. They shoot theyselves in the heart, or cut they wrists, you know.”
Hardy shook his head. “Did she seem depressed?”
“Not more than anybody normal,” the dean said. He hiked up his pants and stared at what in actuality was an empty urn. Somebody had collected a handful of photographs of Jeannie and taped them to sheets of black poster board, which were then propped up on easels borrowed from the art department. The dean said, “No one’s actually happy around here, you can imagine. Say, you want to go drink a beer after this thing, over at this pool hall we all go to? Later on I’d like to take you over to my office and show you my collection of fountain pens. You still writing that syndication column of yours? I don’t remember hearing of it lately.”
Hardy Gosnell would say later that at this moment he understood his sister’s broken heart. He said to the dean, “Maybe I’ll drop by your office later. I’ll probably be here for a couple weeks, or at least back and forth until everything’s settled.” He looked at the poster boards. In most of the photographs his sister held her mouth wide open, as if taken by surprise. In the early pictures her hair was pulled back in a ponytail or bun, but as she grayed and wrinkles sprang up around her eyes, her hair fell down to her shoulders. Later on Hardy would also notice how she went from buttoned sweaters to blouses not found in any Forty-Five women’s clothing stores.
He didn’t mention how, in his sister’s instructions, she asked that her ashes be spread secretly at the entrance to the Sunken Gardens Lounge, and behind it at a long window, and at the door to Cottage #3 behind the bar.
Mr. Leon Gosnell disappeared from his wife and two children right about the time the rest of the country enjoyed the self-help convenience of photocopier centers. In 1979 Forty-Five still depended on Gosnell Printing, one block off Main Street, situated on Waller Alley between a bail bondsman and a liquor store. Leon Gosnell’s father was a printer, and over the years the Gosnells were in charge of every businessman’s and merchant’s card and stationary, any pamphlets needed by the local bank, the college’s literary magazine, and so on. Young Hardy Gosnell worked inside the print shop from an early age, and his father half-jokingly named him Vice President of Broken Font and Hickeys when Hardy turned nine, for he had a propensity for finding faults in his father’s work. Jeannie Gosnell helped her father once she learned to drive, which, in the end, became the family’s undoing. Mary Gosnell, nee Mary Riegel Abney Nicholson, had “married down” according to her family, and refused to work at Gosnell Printing, although she enjoyed hosting the annual Christmas party for Leon’s few employees and all of his clients. It should be noted that, although the Gosnell men worked daily with their hands, they amassed a fortune in Forty-Five seeing as Gosnell Printing was the only business of its kind in a sixty-mile radius. In 1978, a year before Hardy Gosnell’s father’s disappearance (he ended up in San Francisco among a curious troupe of other Forty-Five adult male expatriates) the family fortune reached 1.6 million dollars.
Soon thereafter Jeannie Gosnell, on her way to deliver a twelve-gross box of business-sized envelopes to Forty-Five Lanes, drove by the Sunken Gardens Lounge. She saw her mother’s Mercedes parked off to the side, between the bar and the creek, but not in one of the spaces allotted for anyone wishing to rent one of the six one-room“cottages.” According to Hardy Gosnell, it wasn’t uncommon for his sister or him to drop by Sunken Gardens to buy beer to go, that carhops worked the parking lot and didn’t question age or abilities. But although Leon and Mary Gosnell both drank—and Mary wasn’t one to hold her liquor well—like their friends, neighbors, and church colleagues, neither of them partook in public bars, lounges, or watering holes.
Jeannie parked the company delivery truck—her father believed that the 1974 Mazda pick-up’s rotary engine would change the world—beside her mother’s car and entered the lounge where she found three friends of her father (according to Hardy these were Misters Satterfield, Culbertson, and Beasley) playing hooky from work. Before anyone could speak, a fourth friend of her father’s (a Mr. Wingard) came banging through the door yelling, “Old Mary’s hot today!”
Mr. Beasley tried to cover up what was going on; he supposedly said, “Maybe you need some coolant. I still think it’s crazy giving your car a name.”
But Jeannie understood what went on, that while she and her little brother worked after school and summers at Gosnell Printing, her mother drank and whored around behind the family’s back. Jeannie ordered an unopened can of Schlitz, took it outside, threw it against her mother’s windshield twice, and delivered the envelopes. According to Hardy Gosnell, his mother came home insisting that a rock flew off one of the gravel trucks on highway 25, but then Jeannie told on her, right in front of Leon and Hardy. Leon left for San Francisco within the week. He didn’t set up trust funds for his children or wife. Hardy and Jeannie refused to operate the business, though they probably could have done so. Mary Gosnell made some half-hearted attempts to undergo rehab out of state, Hardy finished high school and received a full scholarship to study journalism at Northwestern, while Jeannie remained in the two-story Victorian house where “she could make life as miserable as possible for those who needed reminders.”
There were no prospective buyers for Gosnell Printers, and their two ancient presses were moved into the Forty-Five Museum as tax write offs. Hardy Gosnell concentrated on his studies, and wrote home infrequently. Jeannie sent off for books and taught herself art history while working as a secretary.
Kinko’s opened in 1983.
The brick Gosnell Printing building got condemned, then bulldozed, and the lot never sold.
Hubert Childers couldn’t teach, and he wasn’t much of a scholar. He moved to Anders College from a two-year institution in Kentucky where he chaired a makeshift sociology department. At Anders he taught for three semesters, underwent execrable evaluations from both students and his department chairman, then somehow applied for and received two grants to study long-term effects on the local citizenry of a cotton mill town lacking both navigable rivers and a famous or notorious native son or daughter. When Hubert Childers was featured in the local Forty-Five Platter, some people at the college believed that he might turn out to be the most famous person in all of Graywood County, that he would bring them fame. But then some of his colleagues straightened out the populace: If anything, Hubert Childers would only bring them attention no southern town would want.
“We only hired him because the government said we needed someone like him. We did the best we could: We didn’t get no full-fledged, or half-and-half. Hubert Childers ain’t even a quarter,” the Vice President for Academic Affairs told everyone in the community. “He’s one-eighth, which technically makes him one them octoroonses. But since Anders College ain’t no longer a private institution, we had to meet some standards. We had to hire Hubert—and he’s a good man—in order to get our funding. And to keep up our hopes of being reaccredited one day.”
Hubert moved to Forty-Five with his white wife Murella. She took a job with the county’s one public library and marveled over how many different kinds of books had been published that weren’t available in the coal mining town where they once lived. Because Mrs. Childers squealed daily—“I can’t believe we live in a town with four grocery stores!”—everyone loved her, and everyone felt better about living in Forty-Five in general and South Carolina in particular. “I can’t believe that me and Hubert landed in a place with a drive-in movie theater, an automatic car wash, and pigeons that’ll eat bread crusts!” Murella Childers walked to and from work, wore dresses that could have been bought at a store that specialized in Mennonite apparel, and started a Young Mothers’ Book Club called Just Say Know. If she’d’ve gotten her teeth fixed she could’ve run for town council.
Lucky Hubert Childers received an early sabbatical in order to work on his supposedly groundbreaking paper, but more often than not only locked himself in his office at the college and stared at his desk. He grew a slight beard, shaved it off, grew a goatee, and shaved his head. He hung a mirror in his office. “Maybe you should create a list of questions for a random sampling of people here in town,” Jeannie Gosnell said to her boss two weeks into his scholar’s block. “A list of questions and a list of groups. You know—eighteen to twenty-five year olds; twenty-six to thirty-four; thirty-five to forty-four. Then you got your whites and blacks. Then you got your socio-economic classes. Men and women.”
Hubert Childers looked at his administrative assistant and smiled. He said, “I think you might be on to something. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t really know what I’m doing. I mean, I know what I’m doing seeing as I have a Ph.D. in sociology. But this project might be more than one person can handle.”
Jeannie Gosnell thought he might be flirting. She remembered clients of her father flirting with her when she delivered their business cards—usually these clients handed her the very first one out of the box. During those times, and with Hubert Childers, too, she involuntarily curtsied. To Hubert she said, “I haven’t done much reading in the social sciences, but I could maybe help research whether anyone’s felt low self-esteem because no notorious visual artists have emerged from towns without navigable rivers.”
Hubert Childers didn’t call it a date. He asked Jeannie Gosnell if she drank. He asked her if she played eightball. He said, “I’ll pay you money to help me do the research and write this thing.”
This was in 1994. Jeannie Gosnell’s mother lived on the brink of full-blown dementia at home with her daughter. Jeannie had recently received her ten-year pin for working at the college, eight-plus years as a secretary in the humanities department, the remainder with Dean Childers, a man whom she’d later tell a black female attendant at the nursing home, “I can’t tell if he’s Greek or Italian. He’s got to be one or the other. There are movie stars who aren’t as olive-complected.”
The attendant knew the truth by this time, of course, for word spread all over Forty-Five that the local college was run by a part-black man. And so did Jeannie, though she’d talked herself into believing that the Vice President for Financial Affairs spread rumors out of jealousy.
Jeannie said to Hubert, “I’ll do it.” He didn’t know if she meant drink, play pool, or help write his research.
Murella Childers ordered two books for the library in 1999. One of them was a biography of the Bigham family—a cluster of hard-edged, relentless, tobaccoland South Carolinians who supposedly poisoned one another from generation to generation. The other, Arsenic Omelet: A Collection of True Crime Murderous Recipes, was one of those gimmick books that showed up with a measuring spoon attached to the back cover. Murella secreted both books out of her workplace, kept them in the trunk of her car, and read them during lunch breaks, parked in the square in Gruel, some eight miles from the library.
Murella knew of her husband’s genetic background, for she’d been to the reunions. She also felt intuitively that all white women—especially ones from last-hill cotton mill towns brought up on myth, rumor, and innuendo—secretly fantasized about black men, even part-black men who could, as they said around Forty-Five, “pass.”
After the trial, in a diary later found shoved between two misshelved biographies of Lizzie Borden and Harriet Tubman, Murella Childers wrote on December 24, 1999:
“I know that Hube’s having an affair with that little white trash no-it-all (sic) secretary bitch of his’s (sic). And I know come tomorrow he’ll say we need milk or something, and go over to her big-ass house where she just recently kicked out her crazy momma. Maybe I’ll even ask that Hubert take over some my homemade special nut bread. I can see them now—both them sitting around eating my nut bread, then later both complaining of stomach achs (sic) not knowing my special ingredients.”
On December 26, 1999, she wrote:
“Am I supposed to wash my hands with this dumb little carved piece of soap she sent back with Hubert? Is it supposed to be set out on a table, like a sculpture? What is it, anyway—a rabbit? A rat? It looks like one them Chinese calendar signs. A anteater? Hubert said he’d never been inside her house up until now (lie!) and that he was surprized (sic) at how she’d decorated it. He said the woman’s sewing machine looked like a (sic) old printing press.”
At the trial, None of Murella’s coworkers understood their friend’s alleged obsession. They said she never missed a day of work, and that she was instrumental in operating an adult education program at the library, that she reveled in teaching reading classes, that she coordinated the yearly literacy association’s fundraising spelling bee, and that Murella’s hobbies included needlework, entertaining, gardening, and search-a-word books.
“They’re signed and dated. Did she ever say anything to you about this? Each one at the bottom says ‘Gosnell.’ There must be a million of the things. Did she talk to you about it?” Hardy asked his wife. “I mean, it seems to me somewhere along the line my sister would’ve said something like, ‘You know, I don’t watch much TV seeing as I spend all my time carving bars of fucking soap.’ Doesn’t it to you?”
Evonne knew that he would be calling. She fixed a bourbon and Coke without ice so he wouldn’t hear the ice clinking over the telephone. “You know that she and I didn’t talk, Hardy. I don’t know why you men think that sisters-in-law keep a secret line of communication open at all times. Last I spoke with Jeannie must’ve been six years ago. She said I reminded her of y’all’s mother. And she wasn’t smiling when she said it. She wasn’t doling out a compliment.”
Hardy had boxed up everything that he’d take home, which consisted of one photo album, a scrapbook of items from the Forty-Five Platter about his winning the National Cryptogram Championship as a senior in high school, the good silver and china. He took the carved soaps and arranged them in order chronologically, some carved back when Jeannie must’ve been a child, then a lapse of six years, then the later ones beginning in 1994. Already he’d donated Jeannie’s clothes to the Goodwill store, even the teddies and camisoles and frilly lace underwear that he assumed were gag gifts—maybe at her thirtieth or fortieth birthday party, from practical-joking coworkers. Why would anyone have so many thongs and crotchless panties, working as an administrative assistant at a bad college? Why, in Forty-Five? He said, “You’d think that soap would melt up in an attic. There are hundreds of these things. Do me a favor and get on the internet. See if you can find out if she’s some kind of folk artist we didn’t know about. Or see if anyone else is out there making a living out of little soap sculptures.”
Evonne said, “I’ll get right on it.”
Hardy heard her sarcasm. “I know you’re drinking. Your voice echoes from your mouth being too close to that glass of bourbon you got with no ice in it.” He heard his wife set the glass down on the kitchen counter.
“I’ll get on it, I’ll get on it. If you ask me, your sister reverted back to her childhood. Maybe it’s something genetic. Maybe your sister started showing the signs of whatever summarized your mother.”
Hardy thought, Summarized your mother. That’s not the right word. It sounds right, but it’s not. He thought, Maybe my wife would’ve read more of my columns in the newspaper if the paper was called J. Jill Catalog, or Highball Times. “I don’t know,” he said. “Did I get any calls?”
“No. Wait. Yes. I forget. Let me listen to the answering machine.”
When Evonne hit Play, it cut Hardy off. He said outloud, “Maybe I’ll just call up good old Lester at the paper. Maybe they’ll let me back on board if I make some promises.” He thought, This would be a good mystery kind of story—about a sister who took to carving soap bars in a small town, but never got the recognition she yearned for and possibly deserved.
He walked to the dining room table and picked up what appeared to be a tiny man. Was that a goatee on his face? Was it a cane–or a penis–he held? Hardy thought, The first thing I should’ve done after being accused was say that it was a coincidence—all of those columns over all those years, chances were a person with no life whatsoever could find some kind of secret and subliminal message. I should’ve said it was a coincidence. I shouldn’t’ve admitted it right away, he thought, and laughed.
The telephone rang. Hardy looked through the box and found another goateed soap man, another cane or penis, this one pointed out accusingly. Jeannie Gosnell’s voice came out on the answering machine—Hardy jumped—saying, “We’re not here at the moment. Please leave a short message and we’ll call you back.”
Evonne slurred out, “I know you’re there. I know you’re there, Hardy. Pick up, pick up, pick up.” She paused. “Well, you got a message. Somebody wants to interview you on the radio. I think he’s from one of those liberal shows, you know. He said you’re his hero.”
Hardy waited. He stood the soap upright and picked up what looked like a factory smokestack. When Evonne hung up, he hit Play on the machine and, after three hang ups, heard Dean Hubert Childers say, “Where are you? I’m here. Where are you? I guess you’re on the way. If not, I just got word that the college will pay for you to go to the conference down at Ole Miss-Taylor, too. I’ll tell you more later.”
Hardy thought, I will hold off any interviews for national television.
Forty-Five, South Carolina had been a railroad town back when the cotton mills thrived. As has been thoroughly researched and pointed out in Railroad Towns and Houses of Ill-Repute: The Economics of Prostitution, Backroom Politics, Alleyway Clinics, and the Transportation of Dry Goods Across America by DeMint, Sanford, Inglis, et al, with a rail system came establishments that proved fruitful for both the economy and other-way-looking members of the constabulary. When the town of Forty-Five voted to take up its tracks through the middle of what ended up being “a twelve-lane Main Street,” all but one of the noted cathouses closed. The Sunken Gardens Lounge—out on highway 25—remained in business, though mostly as a juke joint. Only the occasional traveling salesman, bachelor party attendee, celebratory drunken defense attorney, sixteen-year-old farm boy, protestant minister, curious housewife, roofer, social worker, liquor store owner, drive-in (both movie and food) employee, housepainter, or college dean (as it ends up) ever inquired about the rental of one of the twelve-by-sixteen foot cottages speckled among weeping willows and magnolias on the banks of a non-navigable and unnamed stream. Adulterers and fornicators-to-be parked their cars in shade, walked up to the back of the bar, and approached a window. There, someone—usually a young black boy who either quit school or never attended—said something to the effect of “One night or partial?” An entire night cost twelve dollars. Partial went for eight. No ledger exists that may prove who carried on official or unofficial dalliances, though the owner of the Sunken Gardens Lounge, Red Edwards stated, “I believe that Professor Childers and his assistant needed the quiet and solitude of a tucked-away cottage in order to complete his book. Jeannie Gosnell came from an upstanding family, and she wouldn’t be a part of any adulterous shenanigans. Neither would her mother, brother, or father. Now, I never saw a copy of the finished product, but from what I understand it’ll put Forty-Five on the map one day soon. Much like that book written all about Gruel did for that town.”
When asked about Jeannie Gosnell’s mother’s alleged coupling with misters Satterfield, Culbertson, and Beasley—as reported by Mr. Wingard—Red Edwards slid all three empty tip jars across his worn linoleum-topped bar. He said, “Funny how it takes so much money to reinstall a memory.”
Hardy Gosnell visited the Sunken Gardens three days after his sister’s service, after unpacking and packing and re-unpacking her entire collection of carved soap bars. Gosnell carried his sister’s diary—he found it beneath a box of carved devils and/or ragoyles—into the roadhouse.
“Goddamn. You got to be Leon Gosnell’s boy,” Red Edwards said when Hardy walked into the lounge. Hardy closed the door behind him. He held his sister’s diary in his left hand. The Persuasions’ “Sixty Minute Man” trickled off the jukebox in the adjacent room where the pool table stood. “I remember when you used to come in here sometimes saying you bought beer for your daddy.”
Hardy smiled, and stuck out his hand. “I haven’t been back to Forty-Five in a number of years. Good to see you again, Mr. Edwards.”
“Did I hear right that your sister passed? Was it your sister or your mother?” Hardy sat down at the six-stool bar. He looked back to see if Hubert Childers played pool. From his position Hardy could look past Red Edwards and see the window for cottage guests. “I can’t keep up. It used to be that only strangers died.”
Hardy Gosnell ordered Jim Beam with no ice and a can of whatever beer seemed coldest. He’d not had a drink since losing his job, or since telling Evonne that perhaps she needed to slow down her own drinking. He said, “Jeannie. My sister.”
“Uh-huh,” Red Edwards said. Hardy watched to see if Edwards would make eye contact. He didn’t.
“I got her diary right here,” Hardy said. He drank half the shot of bourbon. “She writes in here that she used to spend quite a bit of time back thataway.” He pointed with his can of Pabst. He’d known, too, about his mother’s drunken forays behind Sunken Gardens, and how Jeannie’s dinner table tale forced their father’s decision to leave. Whether he’d admit it or not, deep down Hardy viewed the Sunken Gardens Lounge as a springboard for everything that had gone wrong in his family members’ lives, that without the cottages out back his father wouldn’t have realized his homosexuality, his mother wouldn’t have drunken herself into whoredom, and his sister would’ve matriculated to college and graduate school, and might be a dean herself by now. Hardy Gosnell would see his life differently, also, without the Forty-Five roadhouse. He’d’ve gone to college, certainly, but come back home to run the printing business, maybe settled down with a high school sweetheart, and would’ve never transformed into the kind of syndicated journalist bent on injecting nearly unrecognizable secret codes within his weekly articles.
Red Edwards feigned a need to wipe the counter. “You retire early? I used to hear about you. I believe they had something in the paper somewhere along the line just recently that you got fired, or retired, or took a leave of absence, that right? I forget.”
Hardy opened his sister’s diary and read what he already knew: “Hubert told his wife. Then he called me and said she (Murella) wouldn’t let him leave her. Hubert told me it might be best if I found another job at the college, if not elsewhere. And he told me that Murella—a name that reminds me of some kind of atrocious breakfast drink—wasn’t as nice as she always seemed. Well, neither am I.”
“Another shot, Mr. Edwards,” Hardy said.
“Now I remember. You had some kind of way of inserting every other word so it came out ‘The president’s an idiot,” or ‘Impeach the president now,’ or something like that. Am I right? Goddamn. That takes some balls.”
In what might be one of the most uncanny turns of history repeating itself, some high school kid from Charlottesville, Virginia invented a software program that uncovered what would be, under any other presidential administration, a harmless prank at best. The student, Casey Ballantine III, reigned as the current Cryptogram Champion of America. He planned to enter Georgetown in the Fall, and later either work for the CIA, FBI, or become a prosecuting attorney.
Hardy ordered another can of Pabst. The jukebox seemed stuck on playing the same song. “It was a little more complicated than that,” he said. “But that’s the gist of it.”
Red Edwards said, “If it was your sister that died, has your mother already died, too?”
Hardy Gosnell nodded.
No one can prove that Murella Childers tested her recipes on albino squirrels, but between 1999 and 2004 the albino squirrel population of Forty-Five, South Carolina—at one time second in the nation—dwindled from over sixty in and around the Anders College campus, to zero. Dr. Langley Robertson, a local veterinarian, said, “We don’t keep official records, but I would say that we have had more cases of pet poisonings over the last few years, as compared to other years. Of course, much of this could be explained by deforestation in order to build subdivisions, which causes field mice and rats to move into residential areas, which causes people to set out D-Con and other pesticides. Then when a dog or cat eats the poisoned rodent, the rodenticide works as an anticoagulant in said household pet.”
No one can remember having eaten anything cooked and served by Murella Childers at one of the thrice-yearly, attendance-required college functions (opening of school year gala, Christmas party, end of school year fete) that, over the years due to budget cuts transformed into a potluck occasion wherein full-time part-time lecturers arrived with potato chips and beer, while the tenured professors and their spouses brandished Pyrex casserole dishes brimming with Noodles Buenos Noches, Forty-Five Surprise!, Anders Artichoke Dip, et cetera. “I kind of remember her bringing a loaf of bread,” recalled Dr. Floyd Nicholson, chairperson of the Political Science department. “It was either homemade bread, or rice pudding. I gets (sic) them confused.”
Head librarian Dorothy Cheatham at The Graywood County Public Library noted, “Murella was never late for work. She always brought her own fingertip protectors. She was quick to catch young boys dawdling in front of the National Geographics in our magazine nook, and never gossiped when one of the newly-hired professors from over at Anders College came by to scan the Chronicle of Higher Education for another job. She didn’t talk down to any of us, even though Hubert was a dean over there. I do remember, though, one time—maybe about four or five years ago—one of our volunteers had a toddler who accidentally ate some Dran-o. They had to rush that child over to Graywood Emergency Regional Memorial, you know, to pump his stomach and keep him overnight, I believe. Looking back on it, Murella had a strange fascination with that child’s well-being. I mean, she didn’t hardly know the volunteer, but she made a point of getting off work and going over to the hospital to stay with the little boy. A couple days later she came back to work and said, ‘I thought he’d’ve bruised more internally. I thought he’d’ve hemorrhaged. I guess Dran-o ain’t what it used to be.’ Then she sidled over to the Classics—she liked our collection of classics—and started reading The Shining. I remember all of this ‘cause I said to her, ‘Don’t you start reading that book and get all scared. I seen the movie. It’s scary.’ And she said, ‘They made a movie?’ Some people, you know. Always got their head in a book.”
At Murella Childers’ trial, Dorothy Cheatham would be a witness for the defense. The part-time volunteer’s son would also take the stand, though it was a risk. First off, what were the chances he would remember anything from back when he spent two nights in a hospital room at the age of three? Secondly—and it was never proven if the Dran-o did the damage, or if he was already another genetically unfit resident of Graywood County (which held a higher percentage of birth defects and mentally-challenged children than other South Carolina counties, or states in the southeast, or anywhere in the world outside of the surrounding area of Chernobyl). Murella’s lawyer merely wanted to portray his client as fit, and caring, and wrongly accused by the community.
The prosecution, according to rumor, tried to subpoena Stephen King.
Mrs. Gosnell didn’t attend her daughter’s remembrance service. Hardy had called the nursing home and spoken to one of the attendants, but after hanging up he wondered if one of the patients picked up the telephone over there. The woman barely spoke recognizable English—Hardy couldn’t tell if she were black or white, but knew that she wasn’t Latina—and Hardy was fascinated by how she kept a high-pitched “um-hmmmmmm” in extended ways at inappropriate times of the conversation. Hardy asked for her professional advice on the situation, explained how he’d not seen his mother in some years, asked if his mother even remembered anyone. He introduced himself, identified his mother, and said, “Did my sister come over there and see our mother very often?”
“Little Jeannie? Little um-hmmmmmm Jeannie come over here oncet or twicet a week I’d um-hmmmmmm say. Bring over food for your um-hmmmmmm momma. No. No. She never recergnized anyone um-hmmmmmm really. Half a loaf of bread.”
Hardy listened to the woman and tried to visualize where she stood inside Forty-Five Longterm Care Facility, which a half-century earlier was an ell-shaped elementary school for African-American kids. Hardy said, “I might just come over there a little later and kind of feel my way around as to whether I should tell her or not.”
“Um-hmmmmmm. Half a loaf. Said she ate half a loaf, her momma ate half a loaf. Sometimes we eat that bread, too, seeing as um-hmmmmmm your momma can’t finish it before it goes um-hmmmmmm hairy on the crust.
For a moment Hardy Gosnell convinced himself that it was his own mother talking on the other end, and he envisioned some kind of trustee system at the nursing home, or a co-op wherein the patients took turns working the front desk. He had just found some more carved soap pieces in the slight crawlspace beneath the ancient wooden house–these sealed in three old metal Coca-Cola ice chests. He lugged the chests into daylight, washed his hands of cobwebs and the fine floating silica he’d stirred, and left them in the backyard to inspect later.
Gosnell drove by Sunken Gardens on his way to Forty-Five Longterm. He would later say that he saw Dean Hubert Childers getting out of his car, parked off to the side between the bar and the cottages out back. And Hardy would admit that he initially wanted to “perform a sniper attack of sorts,” and offer the dean a scenario as to what Hardy thought happened to his sister. At the time, he understood her demise to be caused merely by a broken heart, by the realization that most adulterous husbands never leave their spouses, and so on. Daydreaming, he saw him sitting down next to Childers at the bar, and jerking his head as a sign for Red Edwards to make himself scarce. Then he’d pull on the dean’s tie hard and say, “How many years have you been fucking my sister?” Or: he would burst open the door to one of the cottages, find Dean Childers in a compromising position with another administrative assistant—or a student—and say something to the effect of, “I still have plenty of friends in the world of journalism who’d love to break this story.”
But he knew that he needed both a camera and a tape recorder. Gosnell drove on to his mother’s nursing home, signed in, and waited for the receptionist to direct him toward the correct semi-private room. The receptionist wasn’t the same woman with whom he’d spoken earlier. This new woman had a peculiar speech impediment—a stutter of the long pause-tongue-clucking-in-between variety. When she introduced herself Gosnell heard, “Hello, Mr…tick, tick, tick…Gosnell. I guess…tick, tick, tick…you’re here to see your…tick, tick, tick…momma.” She might’ve been the same age as Hardy, and said her name was Bertha. Hardy thought, Who has named a child Bertha since about 1905?
He said, “Yes, ma’am. I called earlier but I think I talked with someone else.”
Bertha didn’t respond. She walked around the horseshoe-shaped front desk and led Gosnell to the very end. Men and women alike eased their wheelchairs down the sadly-lit linoleum corridor. Hardy passed some of the healthcare workers, all of whom, he said, “kept the same expression on their faces as that of slow children when first placed in an algebra class.” More than a few residents either screamed or laughed from their beds nonstop in various stages of dementia. “She’s…tick, tick…strong as a…tick, tick, tick…ox…and one of my favorite…tick, tick, tick…here.”
“Hey, Mom, it’s me, Hardy,” he said.
His mother, indeed, looked as though she’d hired a personal trainer and undergone Pilates workouts. Her hair was a mess, though, springing out in all directions. And bruises freckled her arms and legs somewhat. She said, “Where’ve you been? See what happened? You went and told them, and now they’ve put me in a nuthouse.” At first Hardy thought she held a channel changer, but then noticed how it was a plastic and metal grip strengthener. “If anything, you’re nuts.”
Hardy said, “You’re not in a mental ward, Mom.” He sat down on a plastic-upholstered Morris chair. His mother’s roommate stared at the ceiling with her mouth open. “It’s Hardy.”
“I had one fling. And then you ran off. Even in the Bible there were people who had flings. They weren’t sent to the nuthouse.” Her gums had receded into her skull, Hardy thought. She appeared to be able to show her bicuspids’ roots. He wondered if the nursing home had a dentist who came by regularly.
Hardy realized that his mother wouldn’t comprehend her daughter’s death, but he felt it necessary to say the words aloud. Should there be an afterlife, he figured, he didn’t want his mother accusing him of keeping Jeannie’s death a secret. “Jeannie’s dead. They’re still waiting for the autopsy report. Somehow she seemed to know about her upcoming demise, though—she wrote down everything I needed to do, and what had already been done.”
Mrs. Gosnell said to her roommate, “Leon! I’m not going to whittle another little man until you quit stealing my underwear!”
Hardy realized that his mother carved soap, then his sister. He thought, What an odd thing to pass down from mother to daughter. He said, “Okay. Everything else is fine. Except my wife drinks too much. Do you remember Evonne? And I lost my job because some computer freak invented a software program that sniffs out terrorist propaganda, though what I was doing didn’t really have anything to do with terrorism. It had to do with free speech.”
His mother turned toward him. She grinned and said, “I still have the record around here,” and released the grip strengthener. Then she began humming, loudly, what her son would recognize, later, as the theme song to I Dream of Jeannie.
What got Hardy Gosnell in trouble ran nationwide on June 6, 2005:
Last month my wife told me that it was time to go out and shove a fertilizer spike into our blueberry bush. Let me say right now that we planted this bush back in 2000, and it hasn’t produced any fruit yet. I’ll admit that I talked to the stupid bush that first season, but by the third year I shook it, spat on it, and threatened to kill the thing. Even the birds wouldn’t light on it, that’s how useless it became. The bush seemed to represent everything wrong about the American Dream: how if one were to work hard, one would get his or her rewards. If I took care of the bush, then that bush would spawn new ones, et cetera—that’s what I thought. On top of all this, I didn’t know that my neighborhood association’s board of directors would raise so much hell for my not taking care of the bush, then sending me a warning once I decided to hack it to pieces, soak the stump with overpriced gasoline, and burn all traces of it from this planet.
The half-page essay went on in detail about how Gosnell and his wife Evonne planted trees each year in order to help the atmosphere, for they sometimes felt sad for never having children. He went on to write about how whenever they felt as though they’d wasted their lives on this planet, one of their friends’ children got arrested for housebreaking, or indecent exposure, or drug possession with intent to distribute, or destruction of public property. Gosnell went on—without naming any of his old friends, so these accounts could not be verified—to list the times his friends’ children flunked out of college, incurred horrific debts, impregnated youngish girls, got impregnated by youngish boys, accidentally hit pedestrians in a crosswalk, and so on. He concluded by saying that, outside of the blueberry bush, his trees, plants, shrubs, and bushes never made him feel like a failed parent.
In past columns he’d ranted about how the government should subsidize the nicotine patch industry if our politicians were indeed serious about the nation’s health. He had listed out how the entire American pharmaceutical industry remained surging and afloat because of his generation’s offspring’s reliance on pills to counteract the effects of chemical imbalances probably caused by luncheon meat additives, but not in this particular article. Also, he had already raged on about America’s involvement in needless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and about her disinterest in genocides occurring in African nations without oil beneath their land. He didn’t go into any kind of diatribe about how his wife finally received disability after sixteen years of teaching high school students, that she now drank twelve hours a day, that no one had the balls to admit wrongs in No Child Left Behind, nor backbone to stand up to inexorably litigious parents. Over the past decade Hardy Gosnell had tackled every questionable action taken by the U.S. Congress, Supreme Court, Office of the President, military, FBI, CIA, and so on.
“You need to let the well refill itself,” Evonne told him. “With your high blood pressure, and it’s only going to get worse with frustration. Why don’t you take a month off and write only about little puzzles? Like how come the organic milk I buy has an expiration date about a month ahead from buying it, while the big companies put out milk you almost need to drink before leaving the store. Write about how we have tulip poplars and redbuds and rose of Sharons springing up in the backyard, but you can’t seem to coax the blueberry into finding a reason to live.”
Gosnell and his wife sat on their back porch during this discussion. She drank a vodka tonic. Hardy said, “It might be ‘roses of Sharon,’ instead of ‘rose of Sharons.’ Kind of like ‘attorneys general,’” which made him want to write a column attacking the Chicago Manual of Style. He said, “You might be right.”
Two days after Gosnell’s innocent column ran, his loyal readers emailed over 250 complaints that he’d lost his edge. Three days after the column, he got a call asking him to clean out his desk. Somebody from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation would show up presently, as would two men from the FBI. Casey Ballentine III, the reigning Cryptogram Champion, had tested Gosnell’s column in the Find-a-Traitor software program, and come up with this: Shove a spike into bush. Bush seemed to represent board of directors. Burn this planet.
“You can’t fuck around like this anymore, Hardy,” his publisher told him. “All that stuff about bush, they’re not sure if you’re making a statement about the president, or being pornographic. Either way’s too much. Maybe by the next administration I can bring you back on board, but for now I have to somehow talk them into believing it was a harmless prank, and that I’ve let you go for insubordination.”
Other writers that overheard the conversation said that they were surprised at Gosnell’s apparent nonchalance. His only reply, according to all involved, was “What? The president and pornography? What’re you talking about?”
While Hubert Childers attended his administrative assistant’s remembrance service, Murella Childers straddled Adam Barnette as she had been doing off and on for the past six years. She never considered that their relationship might be revenge-oriented, that she only chose Adam because he was one of Hubert’s first (and only) students during that first year at Anders College. Adam completed his degree in sociology. He minored in geography. When he had applied for the job, he pointed out to Murella Childers that his background was perfect for the position—he understood people of all socio-economic strata, and he had a good sense of direction. Murella had said to him, “So you were in my husband’s Intro to Sociology class, is that right?”
Adam said, “Yes ma’am.”
She said, “Now, there’s no need to call me that. We’re not that far apart in age. What are you, twenty-five? Twenty-eight?”
“I had to work my way through college. It took me some time,” Adam said.
“You’re a big fellow. They don’t have a football team at Anders. Did you play baseball, or basketball? Let me guess. You threw that long spear they got in track.”
“No, ma’am, I never had much use for sports, to be honest. I love books, I promise. I ain’t just saying that ‘cause of this wonderful job opportunity. I guess I got so big because I growed up on a farm. We still got part of it, too. Since Daddy died I been helping my momma, you know. Mostly we raise beef cattle and chickens. Sometimes hogs. I can tell people all about good farm books, if I get the job,” Adam had said. He sat forward in Murella’s tiny office. “I mean, if they ask. It’s not like I’m going to go around making everyone read that book about those talking animals what turned out to be communistic.”
No one can know for certain, but it might have been at this point where Murella thought, They have to keep rat poison on a farm. She said, “I have a good feeling about you. You, with your norms and mores. And roadmap.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Adam said again. “Plus, I know how to take apart a engine and put it back. At least I can on a 1965 Ford 4000 four-cylinder tractor. A bookmobile shouldn’t be all that much different.”
Murella crossed and recrossed her legs. She smiled. She’d spent summers on a farm with her uncle. She said, “I imagine our new used bookmobile has a similar bore and stroke.”
Adam Barnette didn’t take enough psychology or literature courses to understand nuance, irony, symbolism, passive-aggressiveness, or cause and effect.
He still didn’t understand Murella’s motives as she straddled him inside the converted bread truck step van during Jeannie Gosnell’s thin remembrance service, the inside walls filled mostly with romances and westerns, plus the occasional biography of a woman scorned by a rich man before divorcing him well. “Do you know what day this is?” Murella asked him.
“No. No, I mean, it’s Wednesday, but it’s also your anniversary here at the library. I couldn’t find a six-year pin to stick into your lapel so this will have to do.”
“It do,” Adam said. He had almost become comfortable with Murella, though he wished that she let him take off his shoes. He always felt as though he stepped in manure at dawn while setting out hay, that she could smell it, and that she would wrongly accuse him of not being clean. “Six years!” Adam said. “We should celebrate in some way or another.”
“This isn’t good enough for you anymore?” Murella said, her face tilted upward scanning the Harlequin titles.
“I mean, maybe we should put even more adventure in it. Why don’t you let me drive to another spot in Forty-Five. Or maybe once we could do it some time besides at lunch. I know this’ll sound bad, but I’ve always wanted to do it in a church parking lot. Or a car dealership.”
On the upthrust Murella looked out the front window. She watched what ended up being Hardy Gosnell’s estate auctioneer approach the front door of the Gosnell house. “I like stability,” Murella said. “We’re always close enough to the library should there be an emergency, and we’re far enough away from Anders College should my husband ever venture somewhere else besides his office and the Sunken Gardens Lounge.”
The auctioneer left his card wedged between the door jamb and door, balanced atop the knob. He left. Later, Adam Barnette would say that it was on this day, at this moment, when Murella mentioned how she no longer had a rodent problem at home—after all these years—and Adam didn’t need to bring her more poison from the farm.
Hardy Gosnell could’ve gone home to see Evonne. He had time. It wasn’t but a four-hour drive. There was no rush to take care of the Gosnell estate seeing as Jeannie had, indeed, taken care of all questions. But Hardy called his wife, and knew inherently that she stood there by the answering machine. He left his message. He said that the hospital’s medical examiner or coroner—he got them confused—thought that he should be around when the autopsy report came in. Also, the estate auctioneer wanted to have a walk through of which lots Hardy’d amassed throughout the house. He needed to contact the family lawyer, a termite inspector, a lawn service professional. None of this was totally true. The medical examiner, Dr. Teddy Bishop, reported that he had to look over Jeannie seeing as she wasn’t fifty and because there was no sign of a violent death. Jeannie had a slight trace of acetaminophen in her bloodstream. Osteoporosis was in its beginning stages. She appeared to have suffered at least two slight heart attacks over the past year. Her liver appeared healthy and her lungs showed no signs of asbestos or other carcinogens. The fingers on her left hand had been broken, and never healed properly.
“Did you look hard at her liver? I mean, I know she was drinking pretty much every day, though it might’ve only been beer. And I have this funny feeling that there was something more to it,” Hardy said to Bishop.
“You mean like she maybe either took her own life or someone done it for her?” Teddy Bishop looked defeated. He looked to Hardy as if he was once a regular, well-respected surgeon who somehow got relegated down to morgue duty.
Hardy had dealt with small town hospital officials in the past, as both journalist and concerned friend. He said, “Oh, I know it’s hard to explain, but I just have this feeling. I’m not going so far as to say that I have ESP or anything, but I just have this feeling. I don’t have any verifiable documentation, but trust me when I say I had some feelings about Iran-Contra. Wine as an antioxidant. Life on Mars.”
“Huh,” said Bishop. “We don’t get much of that around here. Pretty much people die of natural causes or causes that are evident—there seem to be a lot of men who die holding something in their hands—and that’s about it. I sign what I got to sign. But if you want, I can send her organs up to one of those places for a more in depth report. In Columbia, I guess. I got the address around here somewheres. I think it’ll take a month or two for final results.”
Hardy said, “I think we should do that. Just to ease my mind, you know. And my mother’s.”
“I’ll let you know,” Dr. Bishop said. “I’ll keep you in the loop.”
Hardy said thanks, then on his way out of the hospital’s lower floor turned and said to Teddy Bishop, “What kinds of things in their hands?”
“Golf clubs, chainsaws, and guns, I’d say right off the bat. Their own peckers, of course.”
“What about the women?”
This entire conversation is according to Hardy. No one at Graywood Emergency Regional Memorial would talk to the press. Hardy admitted that, perhaps, he never did get everything straight as to the series of events as they took place between coroner, pathologist, medical examiner, and so on. He said that it all became a blur, and he admitted that at times he might’ve confused what actually happened and what scenarios swirled around in his imagination. When contacted in Columbia, the toxicologist said, “Not only do we not discuss the causes of death of South Carolina citizens, there’s a law that says we don’t have to.”
Hardy found ways to hang out at the Sunken Gardens Lounge, and he kept notes as to Dean Childers’s habits. The man drank vodka in the day—usually with tonic—and beer or bourbon at night. He didn’t come in with his wife. Twice Hardy heard someone say, “You remember that time you and your secretary…” but by the time Hardy turned his head, the dean had made eye contact and shut the man up.
“How did that ever turn out?” Hardy finally asked the dean one night. “How did that study of yours ever turn out—that big sociological study? Jeannie used to tell me about it, but I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I got too wrapped up in my own life to really listen.”
“She was a dutiful administrative assistant,” the dean said. “She was the best. The college will miss her greatly.”
Red Edwards said, “Among a few select others,” from behind the bar, and laughed out two grunts. Hardy asked him to repeat himself. Red Edwards said, “I didn’t say anything. Talking to myself.”
“I came across my sister’s diary, Hubert. I know all about it. I know how y’all had an affair over the years, and I know how you maybe promised at some point to leave your wife, and I know that in the end you couldn’t do it,” Hardy said. He’d used this same line doing interviews, back before he had his own syndicated column. Hardy Gosnell prided himself on calling a person’s bluff, of looking an interviewee in the eyes and telling a lie. He often remarked to Evonne that he might take her along to Las Vegas one day, or see if he could get a job as the president’s press secretary.
Hubert Childers ordered two drinks from Red Edwards. He said to Hardy, “Nice try.” He said, “I know you’re upset about your sister, but don’t go trying to blame everything on me, Bubba. That ain’t the way we do things around here, and you should know it more than anyone else. What with your father. You got any grievance, vice, suspicion, or secret theory, you either keep it to yourself or move far away. There ain’t no in-between here.” Hardy could’ve sworn he heard Childers barely mumble “traitor” beneath his breath.
He’d heard it already, here at the bar. The closest newspaper that carried his column was either in Columbia or Asheville, a couple hours drive in separate directions. But somehow the patrons of the Sunken Gardens Lounge knew all about the kid with the software program, Hardy’s demise as a syndicated columnist, and so on. He imagined that these people had become so obsessed and enamored with his life that they also knew about Evonne’s drinking habits, her affair with a man who sold ergonomic chairs in the back room of his antiques shop, the increasing despair that came on in a childless marriage.
Hardy ordered a longneck bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, only to slap it down hard sideways on the counter—and he was surprised that it broke off into one long shard, just like in the movies—and stuck it up to the dean’s neck. “I know. And I’ll find out,” he said.
No one seemed bothered or surprised, no one looked threatened. Red Edwards said, “You’re cut off, Gosnell,” in about the same tone of voice one might use to display disappointment at an ordinarily housebroken dog. “Go on home and sleep this one off.”
“I’m as patriotic as the next guy,” Hardy said. “And even if I weren’t, at least I’m not a murderer.”
Dean Hubert Childers stood still. The brown glass jabbed lightly at his jugular. He said, “You’re kind of proving my point. To answer the question, my research came out that people brought up in a town without famous past residents will find ways to get their names in the paper, no matter what.”
Hardy backed off. He placed his makeshift weapon on the bar and shook his head a few times. Two college kids looked through the open back window in order to rent a cottage for a couple hours. One of them yelled “Hey, Dean Childers!”
“Are y’all renting a room in order to study, I hope?”
“Yessir,” the other said. They both laughed. “We gone study some biology.”
“Good men,” said the dean. “Don’t take too many No-Doz.”
Hardy apologized to Red Edwards. Edwards poured him a double shot of bourbon in a plastic to-go cup.
If Hardy Gosnell had the time, money, and chain of acquaintances he might have been able to understand how colleges and hospitals had friends in the state legislature, how legislators only had to raise eyebrows once as a sign for pertinent facts to be swept beneath a large and lumpy rug that pretty much encompassed the state. He might’ve understood that a medical examiner could send off human organs—or send off other human organs—for testing, along with a note that reads something like, “I’ve been told that these will turn out negative in regards to toxins of any sort,” or whatever.
But Hardy only had himself and his intuition. He found himself driving aimlessly around the countryside more often than not. He donated the carved soap collection to the Forty-Five Museum after the director promised that he would never discard them. The director said, “I’ll catalog them proper-like, and set them apart from the others we’ve got here. Soap. Dogwood. Oak. Seems like every Forty-Fiver’s had a carver in the family tree at one point or another. I don’t know if it’s like that elsewheres.”
And then he found more and more reasons to visit the library. He would eventually call Buck Whatley and say that he changed his mind about selling the house. Hardy would go home to Evonne once, in order to rent a U-haul truck. He’d not know, sitting at a study carrel in the public library, waiting for Murella to look up and smile at him, that she’d eventually slip up some six months later—thinking that she’d gained his trust—and admit to wanting to poison a good half-dozen men and women associated with the college.
They would be in his old childhood bedroom. She would be in mid-orgasm, with the backs of her knees tight to his shoulders. Hardy would laugh outloud afterwards, thinking, Certainly she wouldn’t put poison down there.
“What’s so funny?” Murella would ask.
Hardy would think ahead about how he’d finally get a lawyer from out of state. He envisioned sitting through the trial and, already, understood that he would have to show no emotion when the jury returned a not guilty verdict. Much later, maybe in a decade, he saw himself sitting on the front porch, a knife in one hand, a branch of hemlock in the other.