70 Willow Street was a typical white farmhouse tucked under the massive limbs of several oak trees that had just started to show their autumn colors. It had a wrap around porch with rocking chairs, ferns, and other potted plants filling the spaces in between the front windows. A wooden porch swing hung at the far end. Large white columns supported the roof, which was the floor of an equally sized balcony outside the second floor windows where more white furniture and greenery created quaint vignettes overhead.
The house had the look of an old plantation home, but was what we called Nouveau riche in the South. New money. It resembled an antebellum mansion, the kind you find in the Homes & Gardens of the South Wall Calendar that you can pick up in any greeting card shop or tourist center near the end of the year. I’m sure it was the center of attention and a must-see during the local holiday home tour. But it was a newer home, built only about ten years ago mimicking the “ole South.” Despite it still being a symbol of wealth, the same way a fine home was back in the day, it was still a poor imitation.
When Cotter and I pulled into the circular cobblestone driveway, there was a brown dairy cow grazing on the front lawn. Its utters were swollen from not being milked in a few days. It didn’t seem phased by the car as I slowly pulled up next to it. Cotter opened the back door and jumped out before I had killed the engine. He approached the cow and began patting it on its side near the rump. It never looked up from its grazing. Its swishing tail popped him in the face. He swatted it away and moved closer to the front end of the cow.
“Be careful, Cotter,” I said, opening my car door.
“She don’t bite,” a thick Southern voice called from the porch.
I looked over to find a black woman in a maid outfit and apron standing on the porch with a broom. It seemed the house was more like the old South than I thought it was.
“Nanny Rumbley,” the elderly black woman said, introducing herself, as she came down off the porch to greet me and shake my hand. The few teeth she had were tobacco brown and her hair was pulled back into a tight silvery bun. “Dis is Cotter, I ‘spect?”
“Yes, this is Cotter. Are you the house keeper?” I wasn’t sure how I should refer to her and hoped I had not offended her.
“Yes’m. House keeper, maid, nanny, whateva you choose to call me. I tend to Mrs. Faulk’s home and sees after the children.”
“Mrs. Faulk?” I asked.
“Mrs. Pauman’s daughter. Her husband is Mr. Joseph Faulk.”
“Oh, yes! I’m so sorry. I wasn’t familiar with her married name.”
“I’ll go let her know you here,” Nanny said, bowing with a curtsy and a wave of her apron like addressing royalty. I caught myself rolling my eyes, not at her since she was just being respectful, but at the act itself which no human should have to do these days. Not now, and certainly not here.
I looked over at Cotter who seemed content with petting the cow on the lawn, so I left him standing there.
I turned back toward the porch, hearing the spring of the screen door stretch as Nanny opened it. She stepped back to allow a small blond headed boy walk out. He hurried over to one of the rocking chairs and sat down as if he were playing a game and that chair was base. He flinched his shoulder as the screen door slammed behind him when Nanny went inside. His feet dangled in front of the chair and he just looked off into the distance, not seeing us.
Not wanting to startle him, I slowly climbed the stairs to the porch. He cocked his head, listening, but did not turn his head in my direction.
“Who’s there?” he said.
He turned his head toward me, but we did not make eye contact. It seemed he still didn’t see me standing just a few feet away from him now. And then I realized that he indeed couldn’t see me. The little boy was blind.
He looked to be only six or seven years old. He had golden blond hair cut into a bowl forming a perfect line around his head with a straight line of bangs across his forehead that shined in the morning sun. I wondered if Nanny placed a soup bowl over the boy’s head and did the cutting herself. A heavy sprinkle of freckles dotted his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. He was a bit chubby – not fat – but you could tell if he looked anything like his father, he would grow up to be a large stout man. His blue eyes looked empty.
“Hello?” he called out with impatience.
I had not been standing there long. I felt like I’d just come across a deer on a trail through the woods, and I didn’t want to disturb it. I just wanted to observe. I felt bad for not immediately answering him and relieving the worry caused by his handicap.
“That’s Frankie,” Cotter said from behind me. He’d stopped petting the cow and was walking up on the porch, passing right by me and over to the boy.
“Cotter?” the little boy asked.
“Hi, Frankie,” Cotter said, reaching for the boy’s hand. When he did, Frankie jumped to his feet and wrapped his arms around Cotter’s waist to give him a tight hug.
I heard the screen door stretch open again behind me. Nanny was holding the door open for Mrs. Faulk, who rushed out onto the porch and reached for my hand giving it a dainty shake.
“Good morning, I’m Anna Mae Faulk. Cotter’s sister. I really do appreciate you driving him all the way out here.”
“It’s nice to meet you, and it was my pleasure. Cotter’s a sweet boy.”
“Would you like to come inside?”
“Yes, please. Cotter, are you okay out here?”
He and Frankie had sat down next to each other in the rocker. He looked up at me and nodded. Nanny smiled graciously, holding the door for us as I followed Anna Mae into the house.
I had a pretty good guess of what the inside of the house would look like, and I was right. We walked into a grand foyer with a wide staircase that led up to the second floor. Double doorways led to rooms to our left and right, and a hallway along the side of the staircase led to the back of the house.
One of those front rooms was a formal dining room with a massive mahogany table that seated eight. The table was covered with a white tablecloth and set with fine Damask china and crystal water goblets. A fresh floral bouquet of white roses and baby’s breath stood in the middle of the table beneath a low hanging polycandelon type chandelier. Silver candelabras flanked each side.
The other room was a formal sitting room or tea room with lavender floral print Victorian furniture and tall end tables covered with lace doilies. Tiffany torchiere lamps on the tables reflected pale church window colors across the tabletops.
Oversize gold gilded frames adorned the walls, holding up glossy fake oil paintings of a bowl of fruit in the dining room and a bouquet of flowers in the sitting room. Expensive tastes provided on a local department store budget. Sconces flickered on the walls with electric candle light.
Like the outside of the house, what I’d seen of the inside so far was all show. I almost expected Nanny to step up and collect five dollars from me to begin a guided tour, telling me about how some General had taken up residence here during the Civil War or some sinister coffee tradesman had been shot on the staircase and his ghost haunted the mirror above the fireplace.
The house was a complete anomaly compared to the small four room log cabin that Cotter and his mom had lived in. And “lived in” was quite appropriate because the Faulk house felt like a museum, just lacking the red velvet ropes.
“Frankie is your son?” I asked.
“Yes. You probably noticed he’s blind. Been that way since birth, but he does well. Goes to a private school.”
I could tell right away Anna Mae was a true Southerner, always willing to provide more information that what you asked for. It made my job easy when people loved to hear themselves talk. And they always have a story to tell.
“How many children are there?”
“Three. I have another son and daughter. Frankie is the youngest. He’s six, going on seven. Lea is ten, and Joseph Jr. is twelve.”
“Are the other children here?”
“Yes, Lea and Junior are upstairs. I’ll have Nanny call them down in a bit so you can meet them.”
Nanny had disappeared down the hallway and returned with a silver tray of two glasses of iced tea with a sprig of mint in them. She offered it to me and I reached for one of the glasses despite not being thirsty. I pulled the mint from my glass and left it on the tray. Nanny smiled at me with a sincere grin, but was probably calling me a prude under her breath. I didn’t care. Such garnishments were a waste in my eyes and while I could appreciate Mrs. Faulk’s attention to detail, I thought it was just another pretentious element to her persona of being a Southern Belle.
And she certainly was not. Instead of a rich velvety dress made from the draperies, she wore a silky blue blouse and matching knee-length skirt. The beauty shop hair style and the strand of pearls made her seem a bit June Cleaver. It looked too much like a costume for her. I’m sure the Loxley cabin roots were dyed and covered up thanks to her stern husband’s ways and his inherited family fortune.
“What about Mr. Faulk?”
“He’s on a hunting trip in Loxley,” she said.
“Yes, he left this morning. He went there to take care of mother’s affairs and then plans to spend a few days turkey hunting.”
This sounded odd. If Mr. Faulk was planning a trip to Loxley, why didn’t he arrange to pick up Cotter before his return to Monroeville? And what affairs did Mrs. Paumans have that needed to be attended to?
“Will there be a funeral?” I asked.
“We’re having her cremated. No service,” she said.
“And the cabin?”
“Mr. Faulk will arrange to have it cleaned and then put on the market.”
For someone who had just lost her mother, she didn’t seem too upset. She also didn’t speak to Cotter when she came out on the porch. Loved ones, especially family, usually embrace and shed tears during a time like this when they are reunited after a tragedy. Since Cotter had spent the last two weeks in a teen home, that told me Anne Mae had more than likely not gone to Loxley when her mother first went missing. Her husband now gone to Loxley to see to her mother’s affairs confirmed my suspicion even more.
I did not think Anna Mae was hiding anything, but I did suspect she’d turned her back on Mrs. Paumans and Cotter a long time ago, probably right after she married into money. I knew the town of Loxley well and there were plenty of poor white trash girls walking around the truck stops and hanging out in fast food parking lots eager to shake the dust of the town off their heels if the right businessman came passing through looking for a pretty thing to go on his arm. I was sure Anna Mae had been one of those girls.
“Is Mr. Faulk a farmer?” I asked.
“Yes, cotton, wheat, and soy beans.”
“I thought he might be in dairy.”
“There was a cow on the front lawn.”
This sent Mrs. Faulk into an immediate panic. “What? Again? She belongs to Mr. Sook whose farm is back behind ours. She must have gotten loose again. Nanny, go see to Holly.”
Anna Mae rushed back to the door and opened it herself. Nanny flew by her after putting the tray down on a hall table.
“Who is Holly?” I asked.
“The cow!” Anna Mae yelled. Her tone took me by surprise; I suddenly felt like a servant myself.
“Of course,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief as if I should have known the cow had a name.
She let go of the screen door, but I caught it just before it slammed shut in my face. I walked out onto the porch. Anna Mae was on the steps and Nanny was in the yard, running around at a loss for which direction to go.
“Which way she go? Which way she go?” Nanny called out, flailing her arms about.
Anna Mae looked over at the boys who were still sitting in the rocking chair with that sad look of content I was accustomed to now.
“Cotter, where did the cow go?” Anna Mae asked.
“She walked home,” he said.
Nanny stopped and looked at Anna Mae. Her arms froze in the air in a “what should I do now” position.
“Go!” Anna Mae yelled, pointing with her arm fully extended in the direction the cow must have gone. Nanny scurried off and disappeared around the side of the house. For some reason, I was reminded of the Wicked Witch of the West sending flying monkeys off to get Dorothy.
“Will you excuse me a moment? I’m going to call Mr. Sook. I’m terribly sorry about all of this,” Anna Mae said, walking back up the steps and into the house.
I shrugged and just stood there. I was rather enjoying the whole charade. I didn’t see what the harm of a cow on the lawn was unless a steamy cow paddie on the fresh sod was reason for worry. I assumed it was.
“Holly was hungry,” Cotter said.
“I guess the grass really is greener on the other side,” I said out loud to myself.
“Mr. Sook won’t answer the phone,” Cotter said.
“He’s dead,” Cotter said.
Frankie just sat there, not moving, not smiling, like maybe he was deaf too, or just heavily medicated.
I had only slightly dismissed the fact that the ghost of a dead man had hitched a ride with us to 70 Willow Street, but now this was getting even stranger.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Holly told me.”