Inside Unfinished Business

Book Cover Prologue

Atlanta, Georgia (April 9, 1968)

       It was only Wednesday.  But already it had been a long week.  My boss had offered me the opportunity to cover the funeral of Dr. King I’d jumped at it.  It was the kind of break for which any young newspaper reporter would gladly give his left nut.  After the funeral I’d finished writing my story, coffee cup in hand, in the corner booth of an Atlanta diner.

       I called it in to the paper from a nearby pay phone.  I felt good about the piece, but it needed a follow-up.  There was still something missing.  For me the assassination and the ensuing riots had awakened old nightmares, the memories of a boyhood friend and a Saturday night lynching.  I thought I’d put them behind me long ago, but I was wrong.

       After nearly eight hours on the road I still wasn’t tired.  Maybe it was the three cups of coffee I’d downed at the Huddle House before I left Atlanta.  Perhaps it was the leftover adrenalin from the past two days, but I had that feeling I get sometimes when I’m running.  It usually creeps into me at about the third mile.  It’s as if I’m running inside someone else’s body.  It’s the feeling that I could run on and on forever.  Unfortunately in another mile or so I snap out of it and realize just how tired I really am.

       All week long I’d looked forward to this drive, thinking it might give me a chance to clear my head.  Tonight, though, as I watched the road unwind in front of me, like an old black-and-white newsreel of my life.  The scenes played out in my head, the small town setting, my family, now mostly gone, and that night ten years earlier when I lost two of my closest friends.

       Normally I wouldn’t have returned home this way, but I’d decided at the last moment to go visit my grandmother.  Once upon a time this was the most direct route from Atlanta to Tampa, but nowadays the interstate fifty miles east of here hums with traffic, tourists on their way to or returning from the Gold Coast, the Sun Coast, the Palm Coast, any damned coast, but certainly not Monrovia, Florida.  Monrovia is in a very different part of the state, one that a tourist seldom sees, unless his car breaks down or he gets pulled over by a cop.

       It was late spring.  The days and nights had grown warmer.  The sky was clear but for a few puffs of white against a star-studded, indigo sky.  From Cordele southward I passed cotton, peanut, and soybean fields, peach orchards and pecan groves.  The flicker of moonlight through the passing trees and brush created a hypnotic strobe effect.  The shadow of my convertible stood out in sharp contrast against the luminescent blur to my left.  Beneath the sound of rushing wind I could almost hear the low murmur of voices from the fields, the songs and chants of people now long dead and lying somewhere out there in the ground behind the small churches and homesteads.

       On long trips I prefer to drive at night.  The air is cooler.  There’s less traffic and fewer police.  Tonight I made pretty good time.  I slowed down for the occasional South Georgia town or speed trap, most of which I’ve come to know pretty well over the years.  The road beneath me felt as smooth as a bobsled run.  I let down the top on my Mustang and felt the wind in my now shoulder-length hair.

       I’d bought the Mustang as a birthday present to myself not long after I started work as a reporter for the Tampa Sentinel.  My previous car was the first one I’d ever owned, a two-toned red and white 1956 Chevy Bellaire.  It broke down one night on a darkened back street in Ybor City.  I walked all the way to downtown Tampa before I found a cab that would take me back to my apartment on Bayshore.  When I returned the next day there was nothing left of my car but the body, sitting up on concrete blocks beside the road.

       The Mustang had an all-white interior with leather upholstery.  I had wrapped the steering wheel and gear shifter in soft leather to enhance the feel of driving on long trips, and to soak up the sweat from my palms from the South Florida heat.  The V-8 engine let out a steady hum from beneath the hood.  The bug splats had begun to accumulate on my windshield.  I made note that I’d need to wash it as soon as I got to my grandmother’s house.

       Driving out of Atlanta I’d listened to a local FM radio station, but ]in South Georgia the only radio I could get were the clear channel AM stations, like WSB in Atlanta and WOWO out of Fort Wayne.  There were mostly talk shows.  They covered such topics as the war in Vietnam, campus demonstrations, the presidential primaries, and the riots following Dr. King’s assassination.  I got tired of listening to the inane drivel of the callers and decided to search again for some music.  I finally picked up a faint signal high up on the dial.  From out of the ether came the voice of Steven Stills and Buffalo Springfield singing “For What it’s Worth.” 

       Farther down the highway I passed a vintage Chevy pickup as though it were standing still. The Mustang seemed to drive itself down the narrow two-lane.  Somewhere south of Albany, the Cokes and the coffee finally caught up with me.  I stopped to pee at a wide spot in the road near the entrance to an unpaved driveway.  The straight, flat blacktop stretched into the empty darkness in both directions.  In the bright moonlight to my left lay an open field with what looked to be forty or fifty acres of soybeans or peanuts.  The tree-lined driveway made a broad curve into the distance, where, under a tall pecan tree, stood an unpainted wooden frame house with a rusted metal roof.  Its only light came from a yellow bulb on the front porch.  A whippoorwill whistled from somewhere across the field above the cacophony of crickets and cicadas, and an old dog barked at me from the shadows beneath the house.

       On the other side of the road, the lights of a large fertilizer plant winked at me above a distant tree line.  Its massive, gleaming cylinder seemed totally out of place here in the middle of nowhere.  It looked like the vanguard of some alien invasion, of which I was the only witness.  For a moment I thought I might pull out my Nikon.  I could take a couple of pictures, doctor them up later, and write an accompanying alien abduction story for one of those grocery store tabloids.

       As I stood there in the darkness and swatted at mosquitoes I thought about my girlfriend Colleen.  We’d met a few months earlier at a cocktail party in Tampa.  I called her before I left Atlanta to tell her I was going to take a detour to my hometown to visit my grandmother, and that I wouldn’t get back to Tampa for a couple of days.  I had a few days of vacation coming, and I wasn’t due back at the paper until the following week.

       She said she understood, and I assured her I’d be back in Tampa by Monday.   Little did I know…

       “I could clear up my calendar,” she said, “and drive up to Monrovia.  You keep talking about your grandma.  I’d like to meet her.”

       “Thanks, but I’m not sure if you’re quite ready for Monrovia, Florida.  I don’t know that you could handle such a rich cultural experience.  You’d never be able to go back home to Boston”

       “Seriously, it’s not that far from here.  I could be there in a few hours.”

       “Monrovia may be in the same state, darling, but it’s a world away from Tampa.”

       “Tom Williams, are you afraid I’m going to meet some of your inbred relatives, or perhaps some of your old girlfriends?”

       “Yes.”

       “Which ones… the relatives or the girlfriends?”

       “Is there supposed to be a difference?”

       Though we’d only dated for a few months I already knew this was the woman I wanted to be with for the rest of my life.  The night before I left for Atlanta, I’d asked her to marry me.  She said she’d think about it and get back to me.  As I gazed out at all the emptiness around me, I wanted nothing more than to be over on I-75 dead-heading back to Tampa to see her, but there were other things I knew I had to do.

       At seventy-eight, my grandmother had become frail.  I could hear it in her voice when I spoke to her on the phone.  I hadn’t seen her since Christmas, and I felt guilty.  She was the only family I had left besides my aunt and uncle in Pensacola.  I’d thought about calling her from Atlanta to tell her I was coming down, but I was afraid I might change my mind, so I decided to surprise her instead.

       The moon was low on the horizon by the time I crossed the state line.  In the east the sky had grown pale.  I passed a nondescript motel, lit only by a street lamp in the middle of an almost empty parking lot.  A few miles farther down, the road made a wide arc to the left.  Tucked into the curve was a small juke joint, decorated with strings of Christmas lights.  A poorly lit sign read “The Dew Drop Inn.”  Parked outside were two old cars and a battered pickup.

       The landscape materialized before me in the predawn light like a black-and-white photo in a developing tray.  Each turn in the road awakened another memory, the occasional cornfield or cow pasture, the collapsed tobacco barn.  A billboard advertised the Cheyenne Barbeque Ranch in Perry where my parents had taken me when I was young.  There were Burma Shave signs and ads for alligator farms and other cheesy tourist attractions.  The boy on the Coca Cola sign with his swept-back white hair and bottle cap hat smiled back at me through the rusting bullet holes like an old friend who had waited for me all these years.  But as I passed him, his smile became a sinister image in my mind, something more akin to a sneer.

       I passed the Jefferson County courthouse and the antebellum mansions and fast food restaurants of Monticello.  About forty-five minutes south of there, I turned left onto a smaller road.  A green and white sign read…

MONROVIA
20 MI.

       Most of US 19 was four-lane and in pretty good condition, but this road, known in the area as Tallahassee Highway had become broken and blistered in the relentless Florida sun.  Weeds reached upward through the cracks like the fingers of corpses clawing their way out of their graves.  The rutted out shoulders had become washboards.  The Palmettos and moss-draped pine trees were closing in on both sides of me.  In most places the trees stood together so tightly that the rattle snakes, opossums, and armadillos could barely get through.  There was a time, not long ago, when all of this had been farmland, but in recent years it had reverted to forests, thanks to timber subsidies, falling crop prices, and rising labor costs.

       By the time I reached the Pelahatchie River Bridge I knew that my return to Monrovia was about a lot more than just visiting my grandmother.  It came to me like muffled words from another room.  I heard it in voices that whispered from the rafters of the old hayloft where I’d played as a child.  I needed to know who had murdered Dana Padgett and who had lynched Jimmie Lee Johnson.  

       There was something else too, something lurking in the deep recesses of my memory like a boogey man in the back of a child’s closet.  I couldn’t quite see it yet, but I knew it was there.

       Of one thing I was quite certain.  My coming here had been not a last minute whim.  It was the culmination of a series of events that stretched back over the past fifteen years to a time very early in my life.

       I slowed to a stop and gazed into the languid currents of the dark river beneath the bridge.  A short distance away it passed beneath a canopy of overhanging trees and into a tunnel of absolute blackness.  Overtaken by a momentary vertigo I had the feeling that I might fall into that tunnel, like falling down a rabbit hole.  Unlike Alice, though, I knew exactly what lay at the bottom of this hole, and yet I drove on.

       Moments later I passed another green and white sign:

MONROVIA
10 MI.


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