Note: This is my Valentine’s Day gift for all of you. I’ll leave it up for a week until Feb. 21, and then I’ll take it down and make it available on Kindle only. Love you! — Joanna
Detweiler smiled at me as I handed him a tall glass of iced tea. “I think you should go.”
I turned from him to our kitchen window. Summer in St. Louis can be oppressive, and today was no exception. Each morning, moisture condensed on our windows, thanks to the A/C inside and the moist heat outside. Old washcloths worked well to sop up the liquid and clear the glass so that we could see outside. The lawn rolled on and on, a thick green carpet, perfect for welcoming bare feet. The happy shrieks of our two older children brought a smile to my face. They loved running through the sprinkler, an activity totally new to our adopted son, but one that my teenaged daughter had enjoyed every summer.
“It’s a long drive.” My face scrunched into a frown. “Three and a half hours.”
“Good. That’ll give you two plenty of time to get caught up.” Detweiler came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. “Kiki, you two were friends for a dozen years. I know how much you miss your relationship with Mert. I bet she feels the same about you, honey. She’s offering you an olive branch. Take it.”
“Taking the olive branch is one thing. Driving all the way to Vincennes, Indiana, is another.” I turned so I could look into my husband’s amazing green eyes. “That’s a long, long branch, isn’t it? Okay, she wants to be friends again. Or does she? Is it possible she needs a co-pilot, and I’m the only person available? Maybe she doesn’t really even want me to go along with her.”
“You are over-thinking this. Seriously.” Detweiler leaned in close and kissed me lightly on the lips. “If she didn’t want you to come along, she wouldn’t have invited you. Mert asked you to go with her to Indiana because she wants to spend time with you. Quit being so suspicious. Now tell me—what did she say you two would be doing?”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he had that look in his eyes. He’d already decided I should go. I still had my doubts. Sure, Mert and I’d been best friends since that fateful day we’d met in the cleaning products aisle in Home Depot. But all that had changed when she blamed me for her brother’s involvement in a kidnapping and shoot-out. As much as Mert had loved me, she loved her brother more. I understood that; I didn’t like that she refused to take into consideration the fact that he’d cooked up a scheme that backfired.
“What are your plans?” Detweiler prompted me. As usual, he smelled of Safeguard soap and light cologne. He wasn’t a guy to soak himself, but he always smelled good.
Resistance was futile. I released the tension in my body and enjoyed the comfort of my husband’s arms. “It’s an opportunity to spend time with an old friend of hers who could use a little support. She called it a watermelon festival, whatever that is. Mert assures me that it’s a major big deal in Vincennes. In fact, the town used to be called The Watermelon Capital of the World.”
Detweiler threw his head back and laughed heartily. “Who knew?”
“There you have it. If I decide to accompany my friend, I’ll meet a friend she hasn’t dropped. Oh, and did I mention that we’ll be driving three and a half hours to stuff ourselves with all the watermelon we can eat? Woop-de-do. Do I know how to live it up or what?”
Again Detweiler laughed, but this time the sound was richer. “Lighten up, babe. It’s summertime, and the melons are easy. I predict that you and Mert will have a blast.”
“Right.” I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. In my heart of hearts, I knew he was right about one thing: This was my chance to mend fences with Mert. I missed her terribly, although if I was to be totally honest, I also feared her. What if we became close again only for her to dump me again? It had been hard enough to live through those feelings of abandonment once in a lifetime. Did I really need to set myself up for it to happen again? A dull ache began in my throat as I remembered how much her rejection had hurt me.
The idea of spending three and a half hours in a vehicle with her did not thrill me either. If she got ticked off again, there would be no escaping from her anger.
The festival sounded like it might be kind of fun. At least I’d come away from the trip with great photos for my scrapbook. I like watermelon. I like it a lot.
“Okay,” I said. “You’ve convinced me. Watermelon festival here I come.”
Mert insisted on taking her truck. This made absolutely no sense at all, because I suggested that we borrow Sheila’s white Mercedes sedan. It’s a dream of a car for highway driving, and because my mother-in-law is still in Texas for rehab, the Mercedes car has been sitting idle in her garage.
“A Mercedes in Vincennes? Might as well get ourselves a bullhorn and announce we’re stuck-up visitors from out of town. No, thank you. No way.”
So instead of riding in luxurious comfort, I climbed into Mert’s candy-apple red Toyota pickup. Looking past the dead ferret she’s tied to the radio antenna, I waved to my assembled family, doing my best to keep a cheerful look on my face. Detweiler, the three kids, and our nanny waved back from a secure spot on our lawn. As we pulled away, I fought a lump in my throat. Yes, I needed a break, but I sure would miss everyone.
Other than to ask, “Are you ready?” and “Is that all you’re bringing?,” Mert hadn’t said a word to me. She took my small overnight bag, tossed it into the truck bed storage locker, and slammed the tail gate shut. We drove the next ten minutes in total silence. I considered asking, “So this is how it’s going to be? A long weekend and hard feelings?” Instead, I told myself to be nice and find something conciliatory that might serve as a conversation starter.
“How’s life, Mert?”
“Fair to middling.”
As she navigated our way through Webster Groves to Highway 44, I focused on the pretty flowers on porches, window boxes, hanging baskets, and lining sidewalks. St. Louis loves to spruce up with the changing seasons, and Webster Groves is (to my mind at least) the prettiest town in the metro area. I particularly like how joyous the geraniums are this time of year. They have a very patriotic look to them as they burst with color right as we approach the Fourth of July. Even now, four weeks later, the heads were still full of color.
I tried again. “Remind me who we’ll be visiting and how this person is related to you?”
“We gonna see Corva. She ain’t a relative.”
“Oh.” I wasn’t sure how to follow up on that. Ask open-ended questions, I reminded myself. That’s the way to get people to open up. “How do you know her?”
“We was friends as kids. Stayed in touch all these years. When we could, we’d visit each other. Whoever had the money or the time would do the traveling. Mainly, we’ve been pen-pals.”
“Wow. Pen-pals. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of people staying in touch as long as you two have.”
The sun glinted off the chrome of Mert’s candy-apple red truck, giving me the perfect excuse to put on my sunglasses. The dark lenses allowed me to study my friend without her knowing it. Mert had aged in the past six months. The crinkles at the edges of her eyes fanned out like spiderwebs. The grooves on either side of her mouth had deepened. She owns a tanning bed and uses it year round because she claims it makes her look younger. I’ve argued it also ages your skin. She disagrees, but the proof was on her face with its leathery surface. I moved my gaze down to her hands. She wears Playtex gloves when she cleans, but for the first time, I noticed how knotted her knuckles were and how scarred the skin was.
Mert was getting old. A lump formed in my throat. I remembered how she had reached out to me when we first met. How she had stood by me when George died. She had been loyal as the day was long until she thought I’d endangered her brother. Johnny was younger than she was, and she felt incredibly protective toward him. In fact, Johnny himself had told me that she couldn’t accept the fact he was a grown man who was capable of making his own decisions. Sadness crept up on me the way a cat hunts down a sparrow, and when it pounced, I couldn’t breathe. I pulled out my inhaler and took a puff.
“Asthma getting to you?” She stared straight ahead while we sat at a stoplight, getting ready to pull onto I-64, which becomes I-64-40, but everyone always calls it “40.” The road is the east-west artery that pumps the lifeblood of traffic in and out of St. Louis, only pausing for heart attacks like major wrecks once or twice a month.
“I guess.” I put the inhaler back in my purse.
“That time of year, ain’t it?”
“I’ve been thinking about getting allergy shots.”
“Probably should. St. Louis is a big bowl. All the fumes from cars just sit there. Our air quality stinks. You’ll probably breathe easier in Vincennes.”
“Where are we staying?”
“Holiday Inn. It’s on the outskirts of town. Probably the nicest place in town. Got a pool. Did you bring a suit?”
“We can stop at a Walmart on the way, and you can pick one up.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I grinned. “I’m always up for a trip to Walmart.”
That made her laugh.
Okay, it wasn’t exactly a heart-to-heart conversation, but we were making progress. The temperature had changed from chilly to lukewarm. Taking another stab at learning about Corva, would have to wait. We were crossing the state line into Illinois, and the traffic was heavy. Big trucks rode parallel to us, the walls of their trailers boxing us in. While I appreciate all the goods we get from these long-distance drivers, the size of their trucks can be intimidating, especially when you’re sharing the road with them. I glanced over at Mert, as the two semis pulled past us. She was keeping tabs on the rearview mirror. “Look at that,” she said, “Will you? Behind us.”
I twisted in my seat, turning as far as I could against my seatbelt. Out of the left corner of the back window, the Arch gleamed like a silver band embracing the cornflower blue sky.
“It’s so, so beautiful!” My heart squeezed tightly in my chest.
“I know. Ain’t it? I guess it’s purely corny, but I always get teary-eyed when I see it. You’d think it would get old—”
“But it never does.”
There it stood, majestic and proud, a symbol that only our city could claim. The arch is an example of a weighted catenary, the idealized curve made when you hold a weighted chain or cable upside down by its two ends. Although it looks solid, it’s actually hollow inside. Nine hundred tons of stainless steel form the outside skin. The Arch’s designer, Eero Saarinen, intended this surface to catch and reflect the ambient light. Indeed it does. The Arch is both a monument to the past and a reflection of the changing world around it.
“Did you know you can see that there monument for 30 miles?” Mert asked. “But I think this is the best view of all.”
“I do, too. I love it. I’ve always told Anya it’s a big smile, welcoming us to St. Louis no matter how far we roam.”
“To me, it’s sort of a hug, you know?”
“Yup, I do.”
Who’d have thunk it? Our shared love of the Arch went a long way—30 miles maybe—toward repairing our friendship.
Instead of taking Interstate 64 and staying on the highway, Mert decided we would take Route 50, the back roads, to Vincennes. I enjoyed watching the scenery change. The small towns along the way with their old-fashioned town squares charmed me. By the time we got to Carlyle, Illinois, we both needed a potty break. As we pulled into town, the number of cars towing boats surprised me. Then I saw a sign for Carlyle’s beaches.
“How could that be?” I wondered out loud.
“It’s Lake Carlyle they’re talking about. Illinois’ largest man-make lake. A spillover from the Kaskaskia River,” Mert explained. “Makes it a prime spot for bald eagles to nest. Keep your eyes on the trees. Look for a white baseball. That’s what the top of a bald eagle’s white head looks like.”
I forget sometimes how much she knows about the world. When you’re friends a long time, details fade. Maybe this trip was exactly what we needed to get back to admiring each other. I hoped so.
Walmart’s iconic blue sign beckoned and soon we were inside, grabbing carts. Cruising up and down the aisles brought back another dose of harmony. I tarried in the craft section, seeing what yarns and scrapbook papers were available. Mert disappeared. I thought nothing of that. After all, we weren’t joined at the hip. There was a restroom at the back of the store, so I made a beeline for it. On my way there, I found socks on sale and tossed two pairs in my cart. After doing my business in the john and washing my hands thoroughly, I pushed my cart toward the food section. A bottle of Ménage À Trois wine was on my list, as was a variety of cheeses, crackers, grapes, carrots, hummus, GrapeNuts, cashews, almonds, and a bag of trail mix. By the time I finished, I had enough food to feed an Artic expedition. From foods, I went to the bathing suits. Since it was the end of summer, I didn’t hold out much hope, but I did find a half-price suit, black with big red posies, in a style that I hoped would be flattering. With any luck, I wouldn’t look like a whale who had rolled in wallpaper.
Tossing the suit into the cart my arm, I wandered around the store. I picked up a couple of tawdry magazines, and a bottle of bug spray. Mert was nowhere to be seen. I tooled over toward the checkout lanes. The clerk solemnly rang up the goods, never smiling once, no matter how cheerful I was or how much I tried to engage her in conversation. The purple streaks in her hair brought out the red rims of her eyes. I played my “Benefit of the Doubt” game, offering her the benefit of the doubt and conjuring up all sorts of reasons she was in a grumpy mood. Maybe she had a sick kid at home. Maybe she’d gotten into a fight with a co-worker. We all live such solitary lives, like icebergs there’s more to us that meets the eye. I was signing my credit card statement, when I glanced up and spotted Mert guiding her cart into a checkout lane.
Her buggy was filled to overflowing with diapers, shampoo, baby toys, baby food, canned goods, cereal, popcorn, dried milk, baby powder, deodorant, kitchen cleansers, laundry detergent, fabric softener, and three books for babies. My mouth probably dropped open, but I quickly recovered and helped her unload her haul onto the moving belt. The total on the purchase astonished me, but Mert didn’t seem fazed. She handed over her credit card and went to work tying the tops of plastic bags shut to prevent spillage. I helped too, and we loaded the filled bags back into Mert’s cart.
Blinking away the bright sun, we strolled outside, pushing our carts to her truck. Inside the storage deck went the dry goods. She’d also purchased a small Styrofoam cooler. All our perishables went into that. “We’ll grab ice at the gas station,” she explained.
“There’s sandwiches here at the Kwik Stop, or we can go through Mickey D’s drive-up.”
“Might as well check out what they have at the gas station.” I added with a shrug. Inside the Kwik Stop was a large cooler stocked with food. I found an egg salad on whole wheat that looked delicious. Mert got a roast beef with Swiss cheese and two bags of Goldfish crackers. We both grabbed bags of SunChips and four bottles of water. Back on the road again, we munched happily. My curiosity finally got the better of me. “Why all the supplies? You certainly bought a lot of stuff.”
“Corva’s fallen on hard times. She’s taking care of her grandbaby, Jillian, who ain’t but a year old. Since she lives on social security, making ends meet is hard. Iff’n it weren’t for government assistance with her healthcare, she’d have to do without her meds.”
My heart ached. “That’s very kind of you to help her out.”
“I got everything in the world going for me. My son’s in school. My daughter is married. I got a good paying job. Corva was married to the world’s biggest butthole. He was a farmer who owned a lot of acreage you see some of it as we drive into Vincennes. Acted like a real big shot, you know? Liked to load up his Harvestore with grain, but then he wouldn’t sell it. That’s real common among farmers, you know? They get sorta personally attached to the grain. Corva nagged and nagged him to sell, but he kept passing up opportunities. Most of that there grain went bad. Then the market had a downturn. He sold what he could, but he lost a ton of money. He had a heart attack while he was out in the field. At the funeral, Corva found out he owed money everywhere. She lost the farm. Like most farm families, on paper the farm included their home and their vehicles. That meant she lost everything. She found a little house in town, and she’s been squeaking by ever since.”
I understood how it felt to worry about money. I’d been through a similar circumstance when my husband died, and I learned what our real financial situation was. Along with the struggle to make ends meet came the more painful realization that he’d deceived me. Frankly, I couldn’t tell you which part was more painful.
“That’s awful,” I said. “What a terrible spot to be in.”
“Yup. That wasn’t the worst of it, neither. Right before her husband died, they learned their daughter was addicted to drugs. She kept using even though she was pregnant. After Corva’s husband died, their daughter had her baby. Guess who’s left to pick up all the pieces? Corva.”
The last hour and a half of our drive seemed to fly by, probably because the tension had gone down a considerable amount. Returning to this safe topic, I asked Mert, “How did you meet Corva? No, let me guess. Another hardware store, another city?”
She laughed. “Nope. Corva and I were in foster care together. We bonded immediately. She’s older than I am, and she looked out after me.”
Mert swallowed furiously. Tears had gathered along her lower lashes. Mert doesn’t often get choked up, but she was definitely on the verge of crying. I could hear it in her voice as she continued, “Matter of fact, I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for Corva. She took a beating that’d been meant for me, and she did it because she knew it would have broken my spirit. I couldn’t have survived it. That whooping nearly killed her, and she’s a tough cookie. Our foster dad, Elmer Dolby, finally wised up and called an ambulance to come and tend to Corva, or she wouldn’t be alive today. His wife got her jollies by smacking us with whatever came to hand and then locking us in an old outhouse for days at a time. Corva was bleeding internally bleeding after Mrs. Dolby got done with her. Old Elmer went out to the garage to get a tool from his toolbox, and he spotted blood on the ground. He took a closer look and realized the blood was actually flowing out from under the walls of the outhouse. His curiosity got the better of him, and he opened the door, and…and…”
She stopped. I opened a bottle of water and handed it to her.
“So he done opened up that door, and Corva tumbled out onto the ground. She was white as a piece of toilet paper and just about as limp.”
“But she lived,” I said, trying to find a positive spin.
“She did. They had to remove her spleen, but she made it.” Mert gulped half the bottle and pinned it between her thighs. “I wouldn’t have made it. She always says I would have, but I wouldn’t have, and we both know it. I’d been thinking seriously about tying a rope around my neck and ending it all. Another beating would have made hanging myself look like the easy way out, for sure. I owe Corva. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t be here today.”
“I know what it feels like to owe somebody,” I said, and I reached over and grabbed her hand.
She gave my fingers a squeeze and sent me a weak smile. “So do I.”
Using the back of her hand, she wiped her nose. “This here’s what they call ‘fly over’ country. Land flatter than the backside of an old maid. Ain’t nothing to break the monotony. Acre after acre of corn, almost ready for harvest.”
I watched row after row of golden-yellow stalks as they scrolled past my window. The drying plants reminded me of sturdy yellow soldiers whose feet were planted in rich black dirt.
“I can’t imagine anyone eating that. When I go to the grocery store, I always look for ears with the green leaves still on them.
Mert snorted with laughter. “This ain’t the type of sweet corn you boil and eat. This here corn’s turned gonna get turned into ethanol. Some of it goes to feed livestock. You try to munch on this, and you’ll break off all your teeth.”
To me, corn was corn. I couldn’t believe I’d been so dumb.
Sensing my discomfort, Mert changed the subject. “Let me tell you some about Vincennes, okay? Way back in 1702, a French military man came down from Canada with 34 officers. He and his buddies got to this particular spot on the Wabash River and decided it would be jim-dandy for trading furs. Six decades before the voyeurs crossed the muddy Mississippi and settled what became St. Louis.”
“That’s the French word for fur trader. Sure, there’s controversy about whether Vincennes was really the first permanent settlement in Indiana. The original landing party didn’t stick around for long. But it’s generally agreed that the Frenchie and his group were the first non-natives in Indiana. Thirty years later, the French came back and tried again. They built themselves a fort and named it after their leader, François-Marie Bissot, Sieur de Vincennes. Sieur is French for ‘sir,’ and in this case, it means he was a gentleman of the court.”
Mert shook her head mournfully. “Poor François-Marie. He got crosswise with the Indians. During a war between the French and the Chickasaws, he was taken prisoner. They done burned him at the stake down in Fulton, Missouri. Even though his story ends there, the little fort he established kept on going and growing. At one point, Vincennes was the capital of the entire Northwest Territory. Later, it was the capital of the Indiana Territory. The population reached its high point in 1980. Twenty thousand residents. Since then, it’s lost between 2 and 3% a year.”
“There ain’t much. Employment is health care, manufacturing, and retail in that order. There’s a couple of small manufacturers. Median household income is about $40 thousand. By comparison, three of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs are in St. Louis, and their median household income is four to five times that of Vincennes. Median household income in the whole US is $59,000 or so.”
“That’s very interesting,” I said and I meant it.
Because Mert’s primary source of income is her cleaning business, people assume she’s uneducated. Nothing could be further from the truth. She has a college degree with a major in history, and she is a voracious reader.
“How does Corva keep body and soul together?”
“She gets by on money from an insurance settlement. Ellen—that was her daughter—she had an accident.”
“Is that how her daughter became an addict?”
“No. It’s complicated. Let me back up. Corva and her husband had been fighting over the grain in the Harvestore, and naturally they were distracted. So Corva blames herself that Ellen got involved with a boy who introduced her to drugs. As you can imagine, Corva and her hubby were not happy. One thing led to another and Ellen broke off all communication with her parents. Ellen didn’t even show up for her father’s funeral. Like I told you, it was at the funeral that Corva discovered the truth about her financial situation. The night before ever’thing was to be auctioned off, Ellen showed up at Corva’s door. Middle of a snow storm, which they don’t get often down here, which is why it’s extra memorable. When Corva opened the door, Ellen handed over her six-week-old baby. She said, ‘I can’t cope, and I’m likely to hurt her.’ Of course, Corva took the child. Over the next couple of weeks, Ellen would pop in and out. She would drop by and then leave. I told Corva she needed to get custody, to make sure she had the legal right to her grandbaby, but Corva didn’t agree. She told me that Elle was trying to get her life together. Going to meetings, getting therapy, and such. I guess that’s true enough, because Ellen managed to stay clean long enough to pass the urine screening and get hired on at a local factory, one that makes them tiny homes. It really seemed like that girl was turning a corner. For maybe two months, things were really looking up.”
Mert shifted her weight restlessly in the driver’s seat. Her fingers drummed on the steering wheel. Agitation came off of her in waves. Sharing this story was hard for her.
“Meanwhile, the baby—her name is Jillian—had all sorts of medical problems because Ellen had been using when she was pregnant. See, when a mom is using, her baby can be born with an addiction. After coming into this world, the child goes through withdrawal. There’s seizures, diarrhea, jitters, weight loss, fever, vomiting, and gagging. That’s just the short list. Them symptoms can last as long as six months. Corva really had her hands full.”
“Di she talk to Ellen about custody?”
“Yeah, but only because I pushed and pushed. She called me right after Ellen signed away her baby. Corva was sobbing because Ellen had said to her, ‘There. I’ve done it. I got nothing left to live for.’ Corva told her that she had her daughter to live for. Ellen shook her head and said, ‘Mama, I love her, but I can live without her, and I can’t live without drugs. I know they’re bad for her, but I just can’t give them up. I can’t imagine life without them. I can’t!’”
“Wow.” I shook my head. I’d heard something similar from my mother-in-law Sheila as she was talking about booze. The power of addiction was astonishing.
“I feel guilty because maybe I done the wrong thing. Maybe I made matters worse.”
“How could you possibly think that?”
“Two days after she signed them papers, Ellen walked into the path of a piece of heavy equipment at the factory where she worked. A co-worker said she’d be awfully quiet all morning, and she looked kinda weepy. Shortly before quitting time, she took off her apron and her safety goggles and the ear protectors. The supervisor said she looked like she was in a dream when she walked right in the path of a pallet loader when it was backing up. Corva suspects she did it on purpose so there’d be money for Jillian.”
“Was Ellen on drugs when it happened?” But before Mert could answer, I corrected myself. “She couldn’t have been, could she? If she had been on drugs, they wouldn’t have paid out a settlement, right? The factory wouldn’t have been responsible.”
“According to the autopsy, Ellen was clean, but there’s all sorts of drugs that don’t show up in your system. I figure it was suicide. She couldn’t get off the drugs, she couldn’t stay away from her baby girl, and she’d dumped her baby on her mother. That only left one way out, suicide.”
My throat ached with grief for a girl I’d never met. Sure, I’d heard over and over that drugs were incredibly powerful. But Ellen’s story brought it home to me with a sharp clarity. I knew firsthand how strong a mother’s desire to raise her child was. Yet, drugs had been even more powerful than that instinctive urge. Was it courage or cowardice that propelled Ellen to step into the path of a piece of heavy equipment? Had she stopped to consider the impact her choice would make on the driver of the pallet loader? Or the pain her co-workers would feel? She must have been desperate.
Mert used the back of a shaking hand to wipe her eyes. “Yeah. Tragic, ain’t it? Most of the settlement money has been set aside for Baby Jillian because she’s likely to need extra help as she gets older. Corva lives on practically nothing. Breaks my heart to see her struggle the way she does. Once a month she gets that settlement check, takes out a little to buy necessities, and banks the rest for the baby’s future. Corva don’t allow herself nothing extra. I sort of suspect she’s punishing herself. Thinks she shoulda, coulda been a better mom.”
“Yeah. I imagine so.” I mumbled that one word under my breath. Punishing oneself was also a concept I understood. What a sick puppy that made me!
The closer we got to the Wabash River, which is the dividing line between Southern Illinois and Southern Indiana, the more the landscape changed. It was subtle, showing more and more indications of habitation. All sorts of roadside stands dotted gravel roads. A few were sturdy structures that suggested they had been there for years. Others were makeshift, including a small pop-up canopy that sheltered a man sleeping in a lawn chair. Next to him was a crate and a folding TV dinner tray full of tomatoes. Traffic, such as it was, increased. Now we weren’t the only pickup truck on the road. Billboards sprang up around us like gigantic weeds. A few gas stations dotted the roadsides with neon signs competing for our attention. Mert pulled smoothly onto a cloverleaf marked with several. Vincennes exits. She guided her truck as it banked gently along with the curve that employed centrifugal force to keep us on the road. “I remember when this here interchange was built. They said it couldn’t be done, but then some smart boy figgered it out.”
In short order, we arrived at the Holiday Inn. I stayed in the truck while Mert ran inside the lobby to get key cards for our room. She came back with two key cards and a photocopied map. Marked in pink highlighter, I traced the route to our room. It was on the backside of the building, second floor. Mert parked, we grabbed our bags, and climbed a set of stairs to our room. The place looked very nice, and I admired it out loud.
“They just did renovations,” Mert explained as she put her clothes in a dresser. It took us mere minutes to pee and unpack. We decided to leave any perishables in the cooler and in the truck, since a portion of them were going to Corva anyway.
“Ready to meet Corva?” The lilt in Mert’s voice suggested she was having trouble tamping down her excitement. “It’s almost four now. We can visit for an hour or so and then go get dinner.”
“Sure. Sounds like a plan. Shouldn’t we invite her to come and eat with us?”
“No. She’s got this weird thing about eating in public. Won’t do it.” Mert shrugged. “I guess we all have our weird things, huh?”
And so we were off, back in the truck, driving down quiet streets, gazing at small houses set back nicely from concrete sidewalks. There was a quiet, small town feel to Vincennes that was appealing, despite the clear indications of poverty. We were driving down 13th Street when Mert turned the truck to the left, pulling over to a concrete curb. The entire block was built on a small hill, giving every house a sloping front yard. Mert had stopped in front of a faded gray and Craftsman perched above a short flight of crumbling concrete steps. Although the place looked broken down, the setting still had a sort of shabby beauty. A sugar maple with generous limbs rose out of the boulevard, that narrow strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street. The tree seemed both oddly majestic and out of place. Over the years, the root system swelled up under the sidewalk, causing the squares to buckle and crack.
“Watch your step when you get out. The sidewalk is uneven,” Mert said. She turned off the engine and grinned at me. “Here goes nothing.”
But before she climbed out of the truck, she rummaged around and grabbed one of the two bags of Goldfish that she’d purchased at the gas station. “Jillian loves these.”
She tucked the package into the waistband at the back of her jeans so they could be a surprise. After she locked the doors on the truck, we took the stairs up the small hill to a level spot where there were more steps, these leading to a front porch with an accordion-style baby gate blocking the entrance. Toys were scattered all across the floor of the porch, except for directly under the yellow metal glider. We stepped over the baby gate, and Mert knocked on the front door.
“Coming!” A voice yelled from inside, but it was muffled by a low hum. I listened more closely and realized I was hearing box fans set inside open windows.
“Corva turns the A/C off when she ain’t babysitting other kids in the neighborhood. Costs too much for her to use it all the time. The money she gets from babysitting helps out some but not enough to pay any real bills,” Mert explained.
She pointed to a good sized tree on the right side of the front porch. “That there is a tulip tree. It puts out blossoms shaped like tulips only green and orange.”
“Never heard of that,” I admitted and made a mental note to look up the species on my phone. The tulip tree branches shaded the sparse flat area that passed for Corva’s front lawn. Sad little wisps of grass poked through soil here and there, like the remaining hairs on a bald man’s head, but the lack of sun stymied any real growth.
The front door flew open. A scrawny woman with an odd haircut grabbed Mert and hugged her tightly. The friendly embrace gave me the chance to look Corva over carefully. Her hair had been cut in a sort of Mohawk-style, three inches long on top and shaved at the sides of her head. The color was arresting, as most of it had been dyed a bright maroon. However, the gray roots had grown out a good two inches. Corva’s nails were long and painted a bright yellow. Her cotton shorts were bright yellow and orange, and her sleeveless blouse was a paler shade of yellow. The description that popped into my head was, “Plucked chicken.”
“You must be Kiki.” Corva stuck out a work-roughened hand and offered mine a hearty shake. “Come in. Make yourself at home.” She held the door open for us and encouraged us to walk into a dimly lit living room. The box fan in the front window stirred up a powerful breeze, but it wasn’t enough to truly cool down the living room. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I made out a toddler sitting in the middle of a braided rug and playing with a stuffed bunny. The little girl looked up from her toy as I took a seat at one end of a sagging sofa. The couch had been covered with a flat cotton sheet patterned in yellow flowers. The floral fabric didn’t match anything in the room, but it appeared to be clean.
Mert crouched down next to the little girl so that they were eye to eye. “Hey there, sweetheart. Don’t you remember me?”
The object of her affection was a plump toddler with skin the color of a caramel macchiato. Her hazel eyes that were bright with intelligence. Adorable braids tied in ribbons formed a halo around the child’s head. Succumbing to an attack of shyness, the child picked up a large stuffed bear and buried her face in its fur.
Corva scooped up her granddaughter, leaving the bear behind on the rug. “Jillian? Aren’t you going to give Auntie Mert a kiss? She drove a long, long way to see you.”
“Hey, sweetheart.” Mert straightened up, reached over, and ran a finger lightly along Jillian’s arm. The child shyly pressed her face into her grandmother’s shoulder.
Mert wasn’t about to give up. She grabbed the abandoned stuffed animal from the floor and offered it to Jillian. “Is this your teddy bear?”
The little girl sent her a sideways glance. “Mine.”
“Does he have a name? Does he like Goldfish? I think I’ll feed him some Goldfish.” Mert reached back into her waistband and pulled out the small bag of Goldfish crackers. The introduction of cheddar-flavored crackers caused Jillian to put aside all her fears. The little girl made a wild grab for the whole bag and threw herself at Mert. Corva chuckled as she relinquished her granddaughter, allowing Mert to hold the baby, the crackers, and the teddy bear.
“Go’fish!” Jillian squealed with delight.
“You can have them, honeybun, but you have to sit next to me while you eat them, okay?” Mert and Jillian joined me on the sofa. There Mert doled the Goldfish out, one at a time, while getting caught up with Corva. The conversation didn’t include me, but I didn’t mind. They weren’t being rude on purpose; they were simply excited to see each other again.
“Where are my manners? How about a nice glass of iced tea?” Corva stood up and asked us after a half hour had passed. “Sweet or not?”
“Sweet for me,” Mert said.
“Iced tea sounds terrific. Unsweetened, please.”
Mert moved Jillian off her lap and tucked her into the space between us. “Corva? While you get us some refreshments, I’ll go grab a few things from the truck. Kiki? You just stay here, okay?”
As Mert left the living room, I asked our hostess, “May I help you get the tea?”
“No.” Realizing how brusque that sounded, Corva blushed. She wrung her hands as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Was it possible she was intimidated by me? I found that hard to believe.
“No,” she repeated, “but thanks but thanks for offering. Let me get it. You just relax, sit a spell, and keep an eye on Jillian. I’ll be right back.”
It felt odd letting the two women do all the work, but someone had to keep an eye on the baby, and I was qualified for the job. At first Jillian did her best to ignore me while she happily fed a cracker to her teddy bear. Rather than push myself on her, I leaned back and soaked up my surroundings. One word came to mind: sad. In front of me was a maple coffee table. The top had been scarred with cigarette burns, water glass rings, and gouges. At the far end of the sofa sat two large plastic bins that held more toys and board books, all in a jumble. The only seating besides the sofa was an old recliner. It, too, wore a floral sheet as a covering. To the right of the recliner was a spindly side table, and on it sat a thick library book by Charles Todd, one of my favorite authors. Faded wallpaper peeled off the walls in big drooping sheets, revealing crumbing plaster and in one spot, wooden slats. A fireplace should have been the focal point of the room, but the hearth had been boarded over with an unpainted sheet of plywood.
The only newish item in the room was medium-sized flat-screen TV perched on a cheap entertainment unit.
Corva reappeared, carrying a wooden tray, three glasses, a sugar bowl, a spoon, paper napkins, Oreos on a plate, and a pitcher of iced tea. Her attempt at being gracious tickled me. I longed to tell her, “It’s cool. I’m not here to judge you.” But that would only make matters worse.
Before Corva could set down the tray, the screen door opened and Mert staggered in, burdened by all her Walmart purchases. A few of the plastic bags dropped to the floor, slipping from her grasp. Frozen in place, Corva stared at the pile. “Mert, you shouldn’t have.”
“I’m that there little girl’s godmother, ain’t I? How come you’re thanking me and getting all mushy? You don’t even know what’s inside all them bags. Could be a lot of nothing you want.”
“I know you. You’re awful kind to me.” Corva put the tray on the coffee table and hugged Mert again. “You shouldn’t have. Really.”
“But I did.”
“Yeah, you did. Let’s drink our tea before all the ice melts. I told Jillian we were going to the Watermelon Festival tomorrow. You still up for it? How about you, Kiki?”
“Good. The kick off for the parade starts at noon, but we’ll need to leave here early. I gotta get down to the bank to cash my monthly check. They’ll close up an hour before the festivities start.” With a sideways look at me, she added, “This is really something worth seeing. People come from all over for our parade. It’s famous.”
We spent the next twenty minutes listening to Corva brag about the Watermelon Festival. I kept a pleasant smile on my face, although her descriptions of the floats and festivities sounded pretty lame to me. Funny. I don’t think of myself as a “big city” person, but I guess I’ve become one after living in St. Louis for nearly fourteen years. Mentally, I chided myself for being such a snob.
While Corva rattled on, I sipped my tea, watching as Jillian climbed down and cruised over to the plastic tub at the end of the sofa. She found a brightly colored board book. Carrying it over to me, she set it onto my lap. “Weed?” she asked.
“Of course I will read to you.” I helped her climb back up onto the sofa. She smelled delicious, a mix of baby powder and traces of cheddar. Side by side, we explored a book about baby animals while her grandmother and Mert talked about local politics.
A little later, Mert suggested it was time for us to leave. We thanked Corva for her hospitality, kissed Jillian, and hopped back into Mert’s truck.
We ate at a nearby steakhouse, one of those chains you find in every town. I felt a little guilty that we were having steak when Corva wasn’t joining us. Mert picked up on my mood. “I think she hates eating out ‘cause I’d insist on picking up the check, and she knows it. She’s got her pride. I don’t want to take that away from her. You saw how upset she got over that junk I bought her from Walmart.”
“Yes, I did. You’re a very generous person, Mert. I only wish I could do more for Corva, too.”
Mert picked up a piece of parsley and nibbled it. “You can keep her in your prayers. That would make a world of difference.”
I let Mert pay for dinner as long as she let me pay for a bottle of wine to take back to the room. On the way back to the hotel, I phoned Detweiler. He assured me that all was well at home and the kids were watching a movie. I said I loved him and I wished him goodnight. “You got yourself a good man,” Mert said.
Back in the hotel room, it felt like old times as we sipped and chatted about everything and nothing until finally we fell asleep.
The next morning I wore a pair of cut-off jeans and a red, white, and blue striped blouse. The color matched my new Keds, designed by Taylor Swift in a similarity patriotic color scheme. Mert dressed to “show off the merchandise.” She wore a tight pair of white Capri pants, a white blouse knotted at her midriff. To one shoulder, she’d added a small plastic pin that was supposed to be a slice of watermelon. On her feet were white FitFlops with fake gems on the straps. Rather than waste time eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we drove through a McDonald’s. She ordered the Egg McMuffin Sandwich, a hash brown, and a large Coke. I had the sausage and egg burrito and a large iced tea. By the time we pulled up in front of Corva’s house, we’d finished our food.
Corva met us at the door. She was dressed in a pair of navy polyester shorts and a fluorescent pink top. Jillian wore a sweet pink-and-white striped sun suit with a matching fabric hat. Both were excited, and I was pretty sure they’d been waiting impatiently for us. Because Corva’s old yellow Toyota Corolla already had Jillian’s child seat in it, we took it instead of the truck. I didn’t mind sitting in the back with Jillian. From that cozy spot, I could enjoy the scenery.
Downtown Vincennes brought back memories of a time of innocence. Most of the storefronts were old, ancient even. Big glass display windows were the norm. The ubiquitous big chain operations hadn’t gotten a foothold here. Or maybe they weren’t interested in shoppers who lived in this part of Southern Indiana. Mert and Corva could rattle off the provenance of the local stores, explaining the complex relationships between the namesakes and the current ownership.
The two old friends continued to point out places of interest. They chuckled as we passed the movie theatre that had once showed free films to kids in the summer. Corva .and Mert explained that the theatre had been their first chance to experience air-conditioned comfort. We progressed slowly down Main Street, until we arrived at a busy corner where Corva pointed out a local bank. At a red light, Mert switched seats with Corva who hopped out. Behind us, a car full of young men revved their motor. We must have found a busy intersection, because one of the boys climbed out of the car behind us at the same time.
“Idiots,” Mert grumbled as she made a right turn with the Toyota. The car full of joyous young men continued to follow us closely.
“I guess that’s to be expected when there’s such a big event.” I was trying to be conciliatory, but I wished the boys would back off. A car is a two-ton deadly weapon and should be treated with respect. The loud music the kids were playing caused vibrations that rattled our windows.
At the next corner, Mert turned right again. “This is a rotten day to be doing her banking, but Corva ain’t got a choice. She closed down her checking account some time ago because Ellen got access to it and drained all the money. That girl left her mama bouncing checks all over town. It took Corva months to straighten that mess out. She swore she’d never use a checking account again. I told her she was being silly, but she didn’t care. Sure, she wasn’t the person at fault, and the bank shoulda noticed that it wasn’t her signature on the withdrawal slips, but shoot-fire. Who cares about a middle-aged woman with a druggie for a daughter? Nobody wearing a suit and tie, you can bet. When you’re flat busted and you’ve got a problem on your hands, folks ain’t very forgiving.”
Having been in similar situations after my first husband, George, died, I totally understood what Mert was saying. However, being a business owner, I also understood the bank’s point of view.
We made several trips around the block, waiting for Corva to come back and join us. Twice, we were treated to the obnoxious roar of that same carload of young boys. Talk about your high spirits! They’d rolled their windows down to make it easier to whistle at pretty girls on the sidewalks. At last, Corva race-walked up to the passenger seat and took her place next to Mert.
“Got it.” She patted her purse.
“Good deal because them boys are stepping on my last good nerve,” Mert said. “I was thinking we could visit the George Rogers Clark Memorial. Kiki loves taking pictures and making scrapbook pages. That’s probably the prettiest building in this here town, except maybe for the Old Cathedral.”
“That’ll work. We can park the car over there at the visitor center, stretch our legs, and walk around. Jillian will enjoy being outside. I got her stroller in the trunk.”
The huge memorial was visible from the street, rising up like a Roman temple from the simple grounds. Concentric rings of white marble stairs led up to a floor that supported a colonnade of 16 Doric columns. On top of that was a smaller, saucer-like dome of marble, sitting like a cap on top of the columns.
“Gosh,” I said as I helped Corva unload the stroller. “This is impressive.”
“Ain’t it?” Mert smiled as she settled Jillian into her seat. “President Grover Cleveland had it built, and FDR dedicated it. We’re standing on the spot where the British built Fort Sackville to safeguard their interests in the Illinois Territory. It was one of several forts north of the Ohio River that the Brits held with help from the Indians. Then the Revolutionary War came along. George Rogers Clark volunteered to lead a secret mission to win back those strongholds. He was right sneaky about how it done it, too. First he sent people ahead to gather intelligence. Kinda like modern day spies. Francis Vigo was one of them. His statue is out there, and we’ll see it when we leave. Vigo loaned Clark money and supplies, but most of all, he told him the British wouldn’t expect an attack during the winter. That was all old George Rogers Clark needed to know. He led 170 men on a 200-mile trek east from Kaskaskia, Illinois, through the snow and ice to get to this here spot. The British were holding Fort Sackville, the fort that protected Vincennes, but they only had 40 soldiers. Clark used banners to make his force look like they was 500 strong! But the real coup de grâce was when a party of Indians loyal to the British returned to the fort from a hunt. Clark had them hacked to death in a public execution. That put the fear of God into Hamilton, the British commander, and he surrendered. Although Clark done this country a great service, like a lot of veterans, he didn’t get what was due to him until too late. Creditors chased him most of his life. Eventually he had a stroke, lost his leg to amputation, and finally died.”
The image of being hounded for money sent a shiver through me. Corva misinterpreted it. “Let’s get outta this sun and go inside,” she suggested, slinging her purse over her shoulder. Mert and I each grabbed a side of the stroller to help Corva lift Jillian up the steps into the open monument. There we marveled at seven floor-to-ceiling murals, detailing Captain George Rogers Clark’s strike at the British in the heart of Indian Territory. Beaming down on us from the center of the Roman-style temple was a seven foot bronze statue of George Rogers Clark.
Even Baby Jillian was quiet as we slowly examined the huge paintings. However, our quiet inspection did not last long. While we stood in front of the scene where George Rogers Clark was reading a proclamation to settlers, a group of rowdy teenage boys came inside. I couldn’t tell if they were the same ones we’d encountered on Main Street or not. Their voices were expanded by the stone surfaces. Moving in a scrum, like a riled up rugby team, they jostled their way toward us.
Mert threw them a dirty look. “There goes the neighborhood.”
Without discussion, we left. For fifteen minutes or so, we enjoyed the grounds of the memorial. I couldn’t help but hum “Back Home Again in Indiana.” Our location on the banks of the Wabash River proved amazingly scenic. I snapped a lot of pictures in happy anticipation of making cool scrapbook pages. In between taking photos, I texted Detweiler and told him he had been right to encourage me to come.
Corva glanced at her old flip phone. “Gosh. Look at the time. We’d better hustle, or we won’t get a good spot.”
She tucked her phone into her back pocket. It was easier for her to grab it from there than to retrieve it from the bottom of her purse. I totally understood that. Inevitably my phone swims to the bottom of my bag.
Corva led the way back to the downtown. Mert and I followed her like ducklings marching behind their mother. The crowd was already gathering. People were setting out folding lawn chairs, marking their territory along the parade route. We found an open space next to a couple Corva knew, the Shambockers. They moved aside to allow Corva to slide in sidewise with Baby Jillian on her shoulders.
The parade truly exceeded my expectations. I love marching bands, and six local groups of young musicians high-stepped their way past us, playing Sousa tunes and pop hits. In between came floats that seemed a bit dated, although those riding them wore huge smiles and many of the riders were kids who seemed to be having the time of their lives. Float riders and their escorts on foot tossed pieces of wrapped candy into the crowd. It was great fun trying to catch cellophane-wrapped treats. Mert must have gotten two handfuls!
In addition to the floats and bands, there were convertibles of every make, color and model cruising past us. Riding on their folded tops were pretty girls dressed in elaborate ball gowns. These fair maidens waved and blew kisses and threw more candy, taffy colored to look like watermelon slices.
For Jillian, the highlight was a variety of costumed characters from cartoons and books. Mert loved the tumblers and baton twirlers from a local dance school. Corva’s fave was a tricycle pulling a display of license plates from all fifty states. At the conclusion of the parade, the mayor grabbed a microphone. Over the loud-speaker, he announced that the Farm Bureau had a special treat for all of us. There were free watermelons being given out in the visitor parking lot where we’d left Corva’s car. Since we were at the end of the route nearest the lot, we were among the first to line up at the pickup truck dispensing the melons. We decided that we didn’t need more than two. One apiece would be too many. I volunteered to hold Jillian so that Corva and Mert could grab places in line. While I watched, volunteers handed down plump green melons to each of my friends.
The two women laughed and talked as they struggled under the weight of the melons. Corva still had her purse slung over her shoulder. “My keys are inside. Can you grab them, Kiki? You’ll have to open the trunk for us.” She rotated to one side, jutting out her hip as a way of underscoring what she needed me to do. While keeping a firm grip on the baby, I unsnapped the flap and dug around in Corva’s handbag. As I did, my fingertips brushed a thick roll of bills, the cash from the bank, but I also found the keys. Because I couldn’t bend over very far with the toddler in my arms, I had to do a half-curtsy to fit the Toyota key into the lock on the trunk. A satisfying click told me that I’d succeeded in unlocking the storage space. I took a step back as the trunk flew open.
As I did, I heard a shout. The noise startled me. A sharp push from behind sent me stumbling forward. I instinctively wrapped both arms tightly around Jillian, pulling her close to my chest.
“Stop!” The scream came from Mert.
My knees almost buckled, but instead I went with the force from behind. For a second, I tipped perilously close to falling. At the last half second, I righted myself.
“Let go! Let go!” Corva yelled from behind me.
Now that I was steady, I did a fast pivot. I turned in time to see Corva throwing her weight to one side, battling someone who was tugging at her purse. Of course, her first inclination was to grip the melon harder, but as soon as she realized she was losing the battle over her handbag, she let go of the fruit that was weighing her down. The green globe hit the pavement with a loud splat.
Surging forward, Mert dropped her melon, too. It hit the ground with a thunk. Pieces flew up as through there’d been an explosion. Corva grabbed her handbag by the straps and pulled. A young man with a baseball cap tugged low over his eyes was equally persistent about keeping a grip on his end. Mert gave a loud rebel yell and aimed herself right at the thief. At the last minute, Corva’s purse straps broke. The guy went flying backwards, but managed to feet on his feet. He was off and away in a flash. In less time that it took to ask, “Are you all right?”, the bandit had disappeared into the crowd.
At the police station, I gave my statement first while the two friends cleaned themselves up. They looked pretty silly, because watermelon guts and seeds had stuck to them. There was even a pinkish stain on Mert’s Capri pants. Corva looked like someone had drawn black polka dots all over her.
When I was done, while Mert and Corva gave their statements to the police, I helped Jillian eat applesauce from a small plastic cup. The treat had been provided by one of the women working at the police department, and I silently blessed her for her generosity. Not surprisingly, Jillian was fussy. The whole escapade in the parking lot had upset the baby. Corva had been stoic, Mert was hopping mad, and I was feeling pretty low myself.
But I also couldn’t help wondering, “Why had the thief targeted Corva specifically?” There could only be one answer: He knew Corva was carrying a wad of cash. That meant he either knew her habits, he’d seen her get the money, or he’d seen the cash inside her purse.
Corva and Mert came out of the interview rooms almost simultaneously. They shook their heads in disgust. Rather than ask questions there in the police department, I kept my mouth shut. On the drive home, the two women despaired of Corva ever seeing the cash again. I could see they had a point. The thief had run off with something that couldn’t be traced. Therefore, it was highly unlikely it could be returned.
“I’m an old fool.” Corva sank down into the recliner, holding Jillian who was trying to nod off. We were all drinking iced teas from Wendy’s my treat. “I know better. I should have come back and put the money away the minute I had it in my hands. Even if we got to the parade late, it wouldn’t have mattered. The money woulda been secure enough, ‘cause I got myself a safe bolted to the floor of the closet.”
“Or you should have opened a new account. Now that Ellen’s gone, it should be okay.” Mert didn’t sound judgmental, just weary. “Now I guess you’ll just hafta pray they’ll find that creep.”
“But how did they know to target Corva?” I spoke quietly so as not to wake up the baby.
“What do you mean?” Mert frowned at me.
“There were a lot of people there, grabbing their watermelons. Why did that creep go after Corva’s purse?”
“What are you talking about?” Mert snarled at me.
“Think about it,” I persisted. “Why did he target Corva? He could have gone after other women. Other people. There were a lot of people who could have been targeted. But no. He went Corva’s purse as if he knew what was inside. That tells me he knew what he was doing. Maybe he knows Corva. Or he saw her in the bank.’
“You might have yourself a point there.” Corva’s mouth sagged. “But that don’t do me one bit of good, Kiki. If they don’t catch him.”
I had to admit that was right. My stomach growled. “Have you got any good pizza delivery places here? I’ll buy us dinner.”
We stuffed ourselves with pizza and the chocolate chip cookie that came with. After helping Corva clean up, Mert and I told her and Jillian goodnight. The drive to the Holiday Inn was tense. Mert wore an angry sneer on her face.
“Of all the stupid things to have happen.” She pulled up on the emergency brake. “I can loan her the money, but that ain’t the point.” And to answer her own question, Mert pounded the steering wheel. “I bring that woman nothing but bad luck. Nothing!”
The next morning, Mert was not in a better mood. She didn’t say a word to me, and from the expression on her face her silence was the good news for the day. As much as I’d enjoyed myself previous to the theft of Corva’s purse, I now remembered why I’d been reluctant to spend more time with Mert. She could be awfully moody. When she was upset like this, she became totally illogical. Right now, she was a one woman trauma center circling overhead and ready to land on anyone who got too close. I could tell by the way she snarled at her suitcase, the door lock, and the elevator that she was spoiling for a fight. We ate breakfast at the hotel, packed our things, and headed for Corva’s place. As we rode quietly in the truck, I dreaded the visit with Mert’s friend.
I’d spoken to Detweiler briefly the night before. He had promised to call down and talk to the officer who’d taken the report, but honestly, what good would that do? He had no influence here. Even if this had happened in St. Louis, it would be a difficult crime to solve. Random incidents always are. Besides, how would we identify Corva’s money? We couldn’t. Who cared whether a down-on-her-luck woman was the victim of a purse-snatching? She hadn’t been stabbed or shot. Big deal.
Except…it was a big deal. A really big deal.
When she opened her door to us, Corva’s face was blotchy and swollen from crying. She certainly didn’t greet us with any enthusiasm. It was as though we were the last people on earth that she wanted to see. I said hello, but Corva only grunted a reply. Baby Jillian was down on the rug, surrounded by her toys. Before I could take my accustomed seat on the sofa, Corva’s cell phone rang. She answered in one word replies, but as the conversation proceeded, her face brightened. When she hung up, she said, “They got a suspect. They want us to identify him in a line-up.”
On the way to the station, she learned that a group of young men got plastered in a local bar. After acting rowdy, they were asked to leave. When they refused, the bouncer called the cops. To add insult to injury, the drunks resisted arrest. While processing them to lock them up, a sharp-eyed officer noticed the thick bankroll of cash. Unfolding the bills, he discovered Corva’s receipt.
“But they won’t prosecute unless one of us can pick him out of a lineup.” Corva explained as she carried Jillian. Mert walked on ahead to open doors, and I brought up the rear. A receptionist wearing a police uniform buzzed us into the building.
“Shouldn’t be too hard to ID the creep,” Mert said. Her arms were crossed over her chest as we stood in the foyer.
“Except he had that baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. I didn’t get a good look at him. Not good enough to put him away.” Although she had Jillian in her arms, beneath the hem of Jillian’s sundress, I could see Corva wringing her hands.
“You’ll know. Trust me.” Mert’s comment came out like a growl. “This guy got to be put away. Next time he’ll take someone’s money, and she’ll never see it again. That just ain’t fair.”
I kept my thoughts to myself. Although Mert wanted revenge, and stormed around like a wasp whose nest was under attack, Corva was more like me. She hated the idea of hurting anyone, anytime. “What if I get it wrong? What if I can’t be sure?” Her hesitancy slowed her steps as we followed a female officer down a hallway into a waiting room.
“What’ll I do?” Corva asked.
“You’ll do your best.” I patted her arm gentlly.
The Vincennes police didn’t waste any time. They’d been waiting for us. One at a time we were escorted into a conference room with a two-way mirror. The officer in charge gave each of us instructions. A line of young men walked into the room. All wore baseball caps. First Corva was asked to identify the thief. She came out shaking her head. “I pointed to one of them, but I worry I’m wrong!”
Mert disappeared into the viewing room. When she came out, I could tell she was torn. Her brother Johnny had been sent to prison, so she knew the devastating impact it would have on a young man’s life. Still, she was angry and rightly wanted justice. “I ain’t sure, but I’m pretty confident I picked out the right boy.”
I was last, and a little surprised that my input was even necessary. I had only caught a glimpse of the attacker. However, I realized that if I chose the same man as my friends did, I would help them both feel more confident. As I waited for the men to line up, I closed my eyes. I tried to revisit that moment in time. I opened my eyes and imagined the moment when I heard the yell and—
My eyes snapped open. “Number Three. That’s him for sure!”
The cop conducting the lineup walked over and stood beside me. “Are you sure?”
“Positive.” I smiled. “You picked the creep up last night, right? He hasn’t changed clothes since yesterday. Look at Number Three’s pants. Down near the hemline. See? There are three watermelon seeds stuck to his jeans. That happened when the watermelons burst. That’s your guy.”