I'm gonna try one more time. It's the best I got. Looks like it's all there. But thought so before. Tough being a luddite.
What measures the man
in his mother’s eyes?
A mother’s love dams,
protects and lies.
A thin, bright white band of light stretched across the northwestern horizon. Gray clouds extended away from the light as far as I could see in every other direction. The anticipation of clear skies to the west could be misleading. The forecast predicted scattered thunderstorms for the rest of the day.
I pulled into a liquor store and bought a half-pint bottle of Jack Daniels, bribing fluid, and a large bag of Skittles. I filled the car up with gas and drove to Joe Kendall’s mother’s house. Even the Joe Kendalls of the world have mommies, I guess. I lazily munched Skittles as I tried to access the Army Ranger training, remedial or not and prepare myself for the encounter.
The homes in this area of Tarrant County were few and far between. The closest house to the Kendall’s was about a quarter-mile away. The chalk-rock road I’d turned onto from the paved street led to a dirt driveway. I parked on a patch of weedy grass to avoid the mud next to an old, beat-up, rusted truck. It had four flat tires and a severely cracked windshield. The house was one-story, small, with a screened-in front porch. It looked deserted. The screen was ratty and pulled loose in many places. The door that had at one time opened into the front yard from the porch was missing. I could see the main wooden door of the house through the opening. Black roofing tarpaper had been nailed up along the outside of the walls but it was peeling away from the structure everywhere. Fallen shingles from the roof littered the ground around the home. I felt like I had driven into the Great Depression. short white wedding dresses
I slammed the car door and a wet, malnourished, mongrel dog came running and growling at me from behind the house. His tail was between his legs but his teeth were bared, and he stopped warily in front of me. I carefully reached into the car and grabbed the Skittles. I tossed him a few, which he ate cautiously, and then handed him a few from my hand. He sniffed, scrunched back, came closer, and then ate them, licking my hand when he had finished. I threw a bunch of Skittles on the ground and walked to the front door. I’d made a friend for life.
I knocked hard and yelled, “Mrs. Kendall?” Nothing. I knocked again, harder. “Anybody home. Hello.” I heard a noise. It sounded like one person moving. The door opened an inch. A discolored gold chain kept the door from opening further. False security. A mild nudge from me would splinter the jam. A single, wrinkled dark eye and part of an old nose peeked at me. A faint, sickening odor escaped from the opening.
“Mrs. Kendall? Hi. I’m Cole Evans. A friend of Joe’s. Is he home?”
“Joey ain’t got no friends.”
“We met in the joint. I liked him. He said when I got out, to look him up and we’d get a beer. He gave me the address.”
She kept eyeing me like that mangy dog. Probably had her teeth bared but her mouth was hidden by the door. Maybe I should give her some Skittles. “It’ll be good to see Joe again. Is he home?”
Her hand crept up to the lock. It was old and withered like it was dry and mummified skin wrapped around the bones.
“Joe said his Momma was a looker. He sure wasn’t lyin’. It’s nice to meet you.”
I held my hand out like I wanted to shake hands. She slowly unhooked the lock and opened the door. I took her hand in my mine and searched the space behind her with my eyes.
“Where is he?”
“He ain’t home.”
The bad odor smelled worse without the door to block it. Mrs. Kendall was stooped, hunchbacked, short and emaciated. Her arms and face were bony too. Dark circles engulfed her sunken eyes. Long, gray, dirty hair hung on her shoulders and down her back. She wore an old, floor-length dress that covered most of her. It was black and mottled and frayed at the bottom where it scraped the floor. At one time it could have been purple. She had not bathed in a while but that was not the odor I was smelling. It was dark inside. No lights on. The place looked like it had not been dusted in years. Everything was a dull brown and covered in spider webs. From my limited view, the furniture was old and falling apart. A couch was heavily taped and missing a leg.
“I sure hope I didn’t miss him. It’s been a long time. I can’t believe he already forgot about me. We had us some times.”
“Joey ain’t got no friends. What’s he done now?”
I wanted to look around the place. She couldn’t stop me if I tried. I didn’t want to force my way in, but I have to know if he’s hiding.
“Did some animal die in here, Mrs. Kendall? Let me just see and I’ll dispose of it for you.”
“Why’re you here?”
I tried to move past her. She stepped in front of me.
“I ain’t stupid. He ain’t here. I ain’t seen him in a while.”
“Well, that’s OK. I’ll catch him later. I’ll still get rid of that dead animal for you, though. Probably some squirrel or a nest of rats died behind a wall.”
I moved past her without waiting for approval. She seemed resigned to this and asked me to excuse her while she went to the “ladies room”. I checked all the rooms and closets, the attic, and the crawl space beneath the house. Nothing but puddles of water from the leaky roof. I started for the bathroom. She stood in the doorway. She held an old picture frame in her tiny skeletal hands, and she was starting to cry.
“Little Joe ain’t taken no other little girl, has he?”
Her words knifed through me. I cut the act. “I don’t know.”
“Look at him.”
She handed me the picture. It was dust-free. Joe was maybe three or four. His hands were clasped in front of his chest, and he was laughing. He was a cute, little red-headed boy.
“He was always a happy child. Mommy’s little angel. People thought I called him Little Joe because of Bonanza. That weren’t it at all. He was my little angel.”
She looked up at me. Tears were coming fast now. She took the photo back and held it against her chest as she crossed her arms against her breast. I went past her and pushed the soiled shower curtain aside. Joe Kendall’s rotting, naked body had a large exit wound in its chest. I almost vomited. I swallowed hard and looked at the wall. There was a bullet hole. It was centered in the middle of a thick splatter of dried blood and guts.
Mrs. Kendall let out a loud mournful, wailing sob that would have been scary even in the caverns of hell. She shuffled up next to me, wiping her eyes with her dress and stared down at the body, seemingly composed again.
“It weren’t his fault. It was mine.”
I had to strain to hear her.
“I didn’t stop his daddy. I’d hear him screaming, Mommy, Mommy. But I was too scared to help him. After a while he’d quiet down. His daddy raped and ruined my boy. And I let him. I turned my little angel into a monster.”
“What happened here, Mrs. Kendall?”
“I killed my baby.”
I turned her aside and helped her from the room.
“We best be gettin’ to town,” she said. “I’d like some tea before we go. You want some?”
“Sure. That’d be real nice.”
We walked into the kitchen and she filled a pan with water. She turned on the stove and sat down at the table across from me. We waited for the water to boil.
“Joey was kind to ‘em in his own way. He never hit those girls. Course they’s hurting inside now, cuz what was done to ‘em, like little Joe. And he always let ‘em go where he was sure they’d be found.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I know it don’t count for much,” she said.
“Did you ever see any of the girls Joe picked up?”
“No. He’d tell me about it. Come cryin’ to me. Telling me how sorry he was. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t help himself. Like some sickness he couldn’t get well from. He’s been good for a few years now. It’s been a long time since he done it. I’d knowed different. He never kept secrets from his momma.”
She got up and pulled two cups from the pantry. She poured the hot water into them and sat back down. She took a sip. Neither of us had a teabag in our cup.
“Do you want cream and sugar?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
She didn’t move to get me any or tell me where they were.
She smiled. “I like it plain myself.” She took another sip. “How is it?”
I pretended to take a drink of the hot water. “It’s delicious.”
“Don’t get company much. Little Joe didn’t want to go back to prison. They don’t treat his kind too good there. He was scared. Scared like I ain’t never seen him before. He’d done it again. Last week. Got another little girl.”
“He said he wanted to kill hisself but he was too scared to. Said some voice in his head that sounded like Daddy told him to hurt that girl. Crazy talk. He knew what they’d do to him in prison. Said he’d rather be dead. Said he deserved to be. Wanted to be. I was real careful not to let my little angel see it coming. Lord knows he’d suffered enough. I got his daddy’s rifle and shot him dead.”
Mrs. Kendall froze and stared off somewhere to a place that nobody could go but her. She didn’t blink or stir for a good minute. She sat as silent and stiff as a church gargoyle. Her sudden release from wherever she’d been startled me.
“Would you mind combing my hair before we go? I’d like to be presentable.”