After Class

“Hey, Miz Patterson.  Good class!  See you next week!” Briana Jones yelled out the car window, her shrill voice competing with LL Cool J blaring from the radio.  Then, the driver, probably the Ronald she wrote about in her personal essays—the one responsible for the bruises on her smooth, mocha arms—gunned the engine and sped away.

Grace Patterson smiled and waved as she walked to her car.  She’d finished teaching her English Composition class at a small downtown business college.  In a cynical mood, she thought Briana’s compliment was a hopeful bribe that the carelessly written essay she turned in tonight would be graded leniently.  Sometimes I wonder why I’m not retired, or more accurately, why I didn’t stay retired.

Get a grip.  It goes with the territory.  She drew a deep breath.  The classroom was stuffy tonight, and it felt good to be outside.  In late September, even at 10 p.m., the air was still pleasantly mild.

She strode down the partially lit street, mindful of her posture.  She knew the recommendations for off putting a predator.  Hold your head up, walk determinedly and quickly. She was not exactly uneasy, nor did she see anyone threatening; she was merely informed and cautious.

Grace had taken early retirement from her job at a state agency writing research proposals and had gone back to her first love, teaching.  She usually got a great deal of satisfaction from working with the students who attended her classes.  For many of them, the college represented a second chance.  Some had been high school dropouts who later took their GED.  Most had completed high school and had families to support.  Many were single mothers, divorced or never married.  They juggled work, child care, and finances.

And what better thing should she be doing with her life?  She and her husband of 25 years had long ago divorced.  Her son, George Jr., lived in Cincinnati, and her daughter Karen, with whom she had a strained relationship, lived in Cleveland, both 3-4 hours away.

George, her former husband, had been an alcoholic, as her father had been.  Her psychiatrist had tried to point this out subtly.  “So Freudian!” he might as well have said.

Ironically, George’s young second wife had apparently helped him find the strength to give up the bottle.  Now, Karen reported that her dad attends AAA meetings and is a doting father to his 3-year-old daughter.

Grace and her son, George, Jr., who preferred to be called Ken, short for his middle name Kenneth, found these developments galling; they were unable to forgive and forget the years of shame from psychological and physical abuse.  Karen, who had always seemed to be able to touch a soft part of her father not accessible to Ken and herself, was frequently in contact with him, establishing a relationship with the stepmother, who was not many years older than she, and her stepsister, who played with her own daughter, 4-year-old Connie.

Grace felt that Karen blamed her for not being able to provide whatever it was that her father needed to quit drinking.  Once, she had referred to her as “codependent.”  Stunned and hurt at Karen’s attitude, Grace found it increasingly difficult to maintain a relationship with her.  She was managing to do so, only because she wanted to see her granddaughter.

Her teaching made her feel useful and helped keep her mind off personal problems.

***

Bobby Ray Baker was cruising with his brother-in-law, Dale Jenkins.  Both had had a few beers and a few tokes.  Bobby Ray had been in several scrapes—brief jail stays for a DUI, drunken brawling in bars, and possession of a small amount of marijuana.  Dale had served time for dealing drugs and had been out of prison for only two months.  Aside from moderate drinking and smoking marijuana occasionally, he was trying to go straight for his family, wife Darla and two young sons.  So far, he’d gotten only temporary day labor jobs, but he was hopeful something better would come along soon if he stayed out of trouble.

Tonight, Darla had kicked Bobby Ray out.  She told him he was a bad influence, and she couldn’t have him in her house anymore.

Dale said, “Okay, okay.  I’ll take him out and see if I can find him a place.”

They parked in Dale’s Ford truck in a dark corner of the First Methodist Church parking lot to finish a six pack.  Bobby Ray was singing along with Garth Brooks’ “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places,” and reached over to turn up the volume.

“Hey, man, cool it!” Dale said.  He turned the volume back down.  “We don’t want to attract no attention here.”

“Oh hell, Dale, police ain’t hanging around churches.  They’re out chasing the crim-i-nee-al element!”

“Just the same—ain’t no use in takin’ chances.

“You got any money for more rock, Dale?”

“Nah, just change.  This six-pack did it.”

Bobby Ray tapped his foot, keeping time with the music.  “Look, I really need it, man.”

“Can’t be helped.  Look, we got to get down to the homeless shelter before they close you out.”

Bobby Ray rolled down the window and spat.  “Here’s what I think of the homeless shelter.”

“Darla ain’t gonna to let you in.  She is definite.  I know my wife.”

“Darla don’t love me no mo-o-re,” Bobby Ray sings, then changes to “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light.  You don’t have to sell your body tonight.”

“Shut up, Bobby Ray!  Ain’t gonna be no singing at the shelter.”  He starts the car.

“I see somebody!  Maybe she can help me out.”  Bobby Ray opened the door and jumped out.

He has spotted Grace Patterson walking on the sidewalk between the church and the adjacent building.

“Damn it, Bobby, don’t!  I don’t want no trouble.  You understand?  Get back here!”

Bobby Ray darted into shadows where he could find them, watching her as she headed toward her car in the middle of the nearly empty lot.

Bobby Ray followed.  A few feet from her car, she pushed the unlock button on her key, and he shouted, “How ya’ doin’ there, Miz Robinson?”

Shaken, she managed to respond in a rational tone.  “You must have me confused with someone else.  My name isn’t Robinson.”

“No, you’re the one I want to see.”

He was close enough that she could see the recklessness in his eyes and smell the alcohol on his breath.  Trembling, she dashed for her car, but fumbled her keys dropping them on the pavement.

She reached down to grab them, but he snatched them first.

“Come on, Miz. Robinson, I’ll trade you—keys for cash.  Help out a poor addict.”  He dangled the keys in her face.

Grace still trembled, but not with fear.  All her caution vanished, swept away by a furious brushfire of anger.

“I’m not giving my hard-earned money to a good-for-nothing drunk.  I spent 25 years with a drunk like you.  Leave me alone, you miserable sonofabitch!  Get away from me!  Get a job!”

“Don’t you call me a sonofabitch!”  Images of rejection from significant women swam through his drug-battered, alcohol-soaked brain.  The ninth-grade English teacher he spat at before he walked out of school for good.  His mother screaming at him that he was good-for-nothing like his father.  His sister kicking him out of her house earlier in the evening.

He grabbed at her purse.  She held on and kicked his shin.  He plowed his fist into her jaw twice.  She fell, hitting her head on the pavement.  Then he kicked her once in the ribs.

Dale drove up, skidded to a stop, and jumped out of the car.

“Oh Jesus!  Jesus, Bobby Ray, look what you’ve done done.”

He jerked Bobby Ray away from Grace Patterson, then bent down to examine her.  “Lady, lady,” he pleads.  “Say something.”

No response.  He began to cry.  “Shit, Bobby Ray!  Shit!  What is the matter with you?”

“She shouldn’t of talked back.  She should’ve been smarter than that.”

Dale felt for a pulse in her neck and got none.

“You in big shit now, Bobby Ray.  We in big shit.  She’s dead.”

“Nah, can’t be.  I just messed with her a little bit!”

She is dead!”

“Nah, can’t be.”  But now he’s looking scared.  “What we gonna do, Dale?”

“Let me think.  Let me think.”

Bobby Ray started to open Grace Patterson’s car door.

Dale grabbed his arm.  “Fingerprints, stupid!  You ever watch CSI?”

Bobby Ray was now gulping deep breaths— hyperventilating.  “Don’t call me stupid!”

“Look, Bobby Ray, we got to get out of here.  We got to get out of here quick “

Glaring at Dale as though he’s responsible for the whole mess, Bobby Ray held up the keys to the car and pushed the trunk button.  He then bent down and put his hands under her armpits and dragged her to the trunk.

“Give me a hand, brother-in-law!  You’re in this, too.”  He clenched his fist menacingly.

Reluctantly, Dale reached into his truck, found an old pair of work gloves, and picked up her feet to help heave the body into the trunk.  Bobby Ray wiped the keys with his shirttail and threw them in the trunk and closed it.  Then, he picked up the purse from the pavement and jumped in Dale’s truck.  “Come on, Dale!  Don’t stand there like you’re stupid or something!”

***

Grace Patterson’s car went unnoticed for two days.  Then, it was impounded.  A wrecker hauled it away and her identity as owner was established by the license plate.  A message was left on her phone, followed by a notice in the mail.

Ken Patterson also left a message on his mother’s phone, Saturday, and wondered why she didn’t return his call by Sunday evening.  He called Karen who reluctantly agreed to make the trip to check on her mother if she could not be reached by Tuesday.  On Monday night, Ken received a call from the dean of the business college.  His mother hadn’t shown up for work, hadn’t called, and couldn’t be reached by phone.

Ken called the police who searched the car and opened the trunk.

The police were unable to find witnesses or fingerprints.  The case drew the attention of the local paper, which ran articles about Grace, quoting school administrators and some of her students:  “Mrs. Patterson went out of her way to help me.  Nobody taught me grammar in high school.”

At the funeral, Ken sat alone, grim and ashen, a few seats away from his sister and her family.  Earlier, he had planted himself in front of his father and threatened to make a scene if he and his new family came to the funeral.  Karen protested, but, noting her brother’s resolute fury, acquiesced, saying, “I’m sorry, Dad.  Just go home, please!”

As the weeks wore on and the case went unsolved, the paper ran articles about the need for more police patrols in the downtown area.  The school adopted a new policy that female workers who taught evening classes should have escorts to their cars.

***

Two years later …

Ken Patterson sat at his desk measuring the man across from him.  As a public defender for the first seven years of his career, he had learned to keep his expression neutral and wait for the telling detail that would reveal the person.  Now, Ken worked for a private law firm that specialized in environmental cases—a career that was much more satisfying to him in many ways—but sometimes he missed the adrenalin rush of his former job.

The man who introduced himself as Dale Jones had insisted on seeing Ken, saying that he had some important information about a case.  Ken was skeptical but alert.  He knew that valuable information sometimes came from unlikely sources.  He suspected though that the man wanted to see him about something having to do with an old case he had handled while a public defender, a case no longer relevant to his interests.

Appraising Dale Jones’ appearance, he saw a man who was about 5’7” and slight of build with light brown hair pulled back into a rubber-band secured pony tail.  He wore baggy jeans and a jacket that looked too thin to keep him dry on a rainy spring day.  He looked down and out, but determined to do better.  Evasive, but at the same time, earnest.

He began telling his story so obliquely that it took Ken a minute or two before he realized the man might be talking about his mother’s murder.  At that point, he abruptly leaned forward, fighting the urge to lunge across the desk, grab the man by the throat, and demand that he cut the roundabout crap and tell him everything he knew NOW.

Dale Jones wasn’t stupid.  He saw the anger, the tensing of Ken’s body.  Gripping the arms of the chair and readying himself for a quick exit, he said,   “Look, man, I think maybe I made a mistake.  Sorry for taking your time.”

“No!  No!  Sit down!  Look—if you know anything about Grace Patterson’s death, tell me!  If you didn’t do it, I promise to do you no harm.”

Dale Jones began again, and Ken knew that if he wanted to find out what Jones knew, he’d have to appear dispassionate and ask the right questions.

“It was my brother-in-law what did it.”

“You mean,” he swallowed, “killed Grace Patterson.”  He couldn’t say my mother.

Jones nodded.

“How do you know he did it?”

“He tol’ me.  One night, him and me had a few beers, and he tol’ me.  Said he didna’ mean to do it, the only time he ever killed anyone.  A mistake.  Swore me to secrecy”

“How do you know he was telling the truth?  Maybe he just read about it in the paper and made up a story.”

“He showed me the proof.”  He said proof in a self-important way that made Ken narrow his eyes.

“What proof?”

“Her purse and her driver’s license.”

Ken tensed but remained a sculpture of controlled emotion.  The police had never released the information to the public that those items were missing.

“You’re sure it was Grace Patterson’s driver’s license?”

“It had her name and her pitcher.  The pitcher looked like the woman in the paper.”

“This was over a year ago.  And you still remember it?  That’s hard to believe.”

“I … I just remember it, that’s all.  She was a teacher, warn’t she?”

Ken sat unmoving and silent.  Dale wanted to run again, but he was trapped by Ken’s measuring glare.

Finally, Ken, ask in the deliberately calm tone of an attorney, “Where is Bobby Ray Baker?  What is he doing now?”

As the conversation proceeded, Ken began to figure out why Dale Jones had come to him.  This man, allegedly his mother’s murderer, was blackmailing Jones to gain favors.

Jones’ mother-in-law had died, leaving her 30-acre farm to Jones’ wife, Darla. To Bobby Ray, her son, she had willed a sum of money that he quickly spent on liquor, drugs, and women.

They had the farm, but he didn’t have a job.   Darla had a job as a nurse’s aide, but her salary didn’t cover all the expenses.  He said he wanted to go straight and not deal drugs, but because he needed money, he had planted marijuana on the back acres of the farm.  Bobby Ray had found out and demanded a cut, or else he would tell Darla about Grace Patterson’s murder.  Now, he was camping in an old building on the property, but he wanted Jones to lean on Darla to let him live in the basement of the farmhouse.  He wanted money, and he frequently wanted to borrow Jones’ pickup which he drove while drinking.

“I come to you because I can’t afford more trouble with the law.  I … I just thought … you being a lawyer and all.  Maybe you’d know how to keep me out of it.”  He paused.  “I unnerstand there’s a reward.”

Ken’s ferocity returned. “Look, I need to see that purse and driver’s license—evidence, you understand . . .”

Stammering, Dale said, “Look, I … I gotta check on it.  I’ll call you.”

“When?  When will you call?  He pulled a business card from a drawer and slid it across the desk.  “How can I get in touch with you?”

“You can’t call me.  I’ll call you back, I promise … soon … maybe a week.”  Dale made a quick exit.

As soon as the door closed, Ken threw off his suit jacket, grabbed a lightweight hooded nylon jacket he sometimes used for jogging in cool weather, and ran to the stairwell.  He ran down the ten levels, tying the hood tightly on his head and pulling it down as much as he could over his face.  He also removed his reading glasses, shoving them into the jacket pocket.

He emerged from the stairwell just in time to see Dale’s back disappearing out the revolving door.  He followed Dale, stopping once to peer intently into the window of Macy’s when Dale looked back over his shoulder.  He was grateful that the day was overcast with a steady drizzle.  Dale disappeared into a parking garage.  Ken quickly ran to the garage exit and stationed himself nearby so he could have a clear view of the vehicles that came out of the garage.  The third vehicle was Dale’s pickup truck. Ken memorized the license number.

Back in his office, Ken reflected on how his mother’s death had affected the family.  His significant other, Charlotte, an attorney, had walked out on him.  She told him he was withdrawn and morose and refused to get grief counseling.  Maybe that was true, but he’d expected her to care enough to stick with him.  His sister Karen had also separated from her husband.  She’d become somewhat paranoid in her thinking and believed her husband was unfaithful.  He didn’t know if this was true or not.  Tall and striking, Karen had once worked part-time as a model for local retailers. Though she had nurses’ training, she now worked only on temporary assignments—saying it was hard to deal with people’s problems since her mother’s death.  Ken thought that Karen regretted her differences with their mother.  Connie, his niece, was fearful and cried a lot.  She didn’t understand what happened to her grandma.

He fixed himself a fresh cup of coffee, his third of the day, and realized that something had come alive in him again.

The results of the license number search revealed that the truck belonged to a Dale Jenkins, not Dale Jones, and the address was in a rural area in Vinton County some 5-6 hours away.  Now, Ken knew approximately where to locate Jenkins.  For the first time, he had some real hope of solving his mother’s murder.

Three days went by, and Ken hardly slept.  He was in a state of manic alertness and self-doubt.  He considered contacting the police, but didn’t.  This was personal, and he wanted to see it through as far as he could before turning it over to the authorities.  He’d seen how they’d bungled some cases.

***

On the following Saturday and subsequent weekends, Ken returned to the area.  Partially disguising himself, he let his beard grow and wore a baseball cap, shabby clothing, and sunglasses.

It was farm country with animal smells.  There were many old farm houses with peeling paint and grey weathered barns.  Less often, there were well kept white houses and red barns with white trim.  Some homes were trailers on concrete blocks with junk cars in the yard.  The roads were straight and flat with farm fields on both sides but sometimes turned abruptly into sharp curves and hills in wooded areas.  At one point, a road cut across a former quarry with steep sides and no fence or other barriers to prevent a car from plunging into the abyss.

Jenkins had told him that Bobby Ray borrowed his truck to go to a tavern on Saturday nights, so late on a Saturday afternoon, Ken parked his rental car on a dirt side road and watched the main road for Jenkins’ truck.  At 7 o’clock, the truck sped by, the baritone of George Jones floating from its open windows.

The truck was parked outside Joe’s Bar & Grill.  Ken walked in and slid into a booth where he could see the man he thought was Billy Ray sitting at the bar. The man was slender and of medium height.  He had shoulder-length, dark hair and an olive complexion that would make him attractive to women.  He was engaged in small talk with the bartender.  Ken ordered a burger with fries and coleslaw with an Amstel and pretended to dial someone on his cell phone.

That night as Bobby Ray drove home, his vision bleared by drink, he saw a car stopped by the side of the road.  A tall, slender, dark-haired woman stood beside the car with the trunk open.  She hailed him as he drove by.

“Oh, hell,” he said, skidding to a stop several feet past the car.  Woman needs help.  Who knows, she might be grate-ful.

He backed the truck up and parked in front of the car.

“Oh, thank you for stopping!” she said.  “My car just sputtered and stopped.  I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help or give me a ride to town.”

“Well, lemme see.”  He slid behind the steering wheel and turned the key.

He felt the cold muzzle of the gun on the back of his neck.

“Get out very slowly with your hands up,” growled Ken.

“Who are you?  I ain’t got no money, if that’s what you want.”

“That’s not what I want.”  Ken ordered Bobby Ray into the back seat, handed the gun to Karen, locked the door, then went to the opposite side and slid in beside him.  Karen trained the gun on Bobby Ray, while Ken turned on a flashlight.  Its beam illuminated a newspaper article with a photo of Grace Patterson and the headline “Murder of Local Teacher Shocks Community.”

“What do you know about this murder?”

“I don’t know nothin’.  I ain’t never seen that woman before.”

“We have new information about the case and …”

“Are you the police?”

“No, we’re not the police. . . .  You might find us scarier than the police.  Let me introduce us—Karen and Ken Patterson—Grace Patterson’s children.”

Bobby Ray said, “I don’t know nothin’ about her.”  Then, he sat in sullen silence.

Ken said, “Okay, we’ll try something to see if it improves your memory.”

He motioned for Karen to get out of the car, then opened the trunk, got a rope, pulled Bobby Ray out, tied his hands behind his back, and jerked him to the ground.   Bobby Ray kicked and screamed, but Ken tied his ankles together.  Then, the two of them heaved him into the trunk.

Bobby Ray struggled and yelled, “You can’t do this!”

“Yes, we can!  We can and we are!”  Karen yelled back at him.

She thought of her mother—her life so carelessly snuffed out, her body dumped in the trunk—and she ran to the ditch and vomited.

Ken slammed the trunk shut and went to her, putting his arm around her shoulders.

“I know, sis . . . I know.”

He drove the truck to a wooded area, and Karen followed him in the car.

He parked the truck, got into the car, and they drove away from the countryside onto the highway.  To drown out the muffled sounds from the trunk, they tuned the radio to a hard rock station, turned the volume as high as bearable, and drove for about an hour, then pulled off on a secluded road.

They stopped and opened the trunk.

“I’ll ask you again, Mr. Baker.  What happened the night my mother was murdered?”

“Look, get me out of here.  I’ll tell you.”

They lifted him out of the trunk but didn’t untie him.

“I know where you got your information—from Dale Jenkins, my brother-in-law.  But I bet he didn’t tell you that he was the one who killed her, did he?  She yelled at him and he knocked her down and hit her head on concrete.  That’s how it happened.  It wasn’t my idea to rob her, but I had to help him put her in the trunk.  Now, he wants to get rid of me.”

“I don’t believe your story, Mr. Baker.  I want to see her driver’s license and purse.  I want you to take us to the place where they’re hidden.”

“I ain’t got them.  Honest.  Dale’s got them.  I don’t know where. . . .”

Ken motioned to Karen, and they lifted him into the trunk.

No, no … don’t put me back in here!  I can’t stand it!  Take me out.  I’ll get them things from Dale and bring them to you, but I can’t do it tonight.”

“No deal, Baker. You need to think about it some more.”

Ken closed the trunk, and, once more, they drove silently, this time fifties’ rock filling the space between them to mask sounds coming from the trunk.

After several minutes, Karen said, “I haven’t heard any noise for a while.  We should check on him again.”

When they found a place to stop, Ken went into the bushes to relieve himself.  Karen opened the trunk.  Bobby Ray was silent.  She thought he’d fallen asleep.  She shook his arm, but he didn’t respond.

Ken!

“I’m coming.”

“Ken, something’s wrong.”

“Come on, Baker, stop playing ‘possum.”

Her nurse’s training kicking in, Karen felt for his pulse and got none.

Ohmygod, Ken, I think he’s dead!”

***

They placed the body in the bed of the truck.  Then, Ken drove the truck, and Karen drove the car.  She followed him to a side road that appeared to lead only to a junk yard.  There, she parked the car and got into the truck, and Ken drove to what was known locally as Quarry Hill.  Actually, it was two moderately steep hills forming the sides of an arc.  It was sport for local teenagers to go down one hill too fast to get the roller-coaster thrill of the dip as the car ascended the other hill.  There were no guard rails—only some large rocks along the side to deter a plunge into an abandoned rock quarry on either side of the road.

Ken crossed the arc, driving toward town, then turned around and headed back the other way.  Halfway down the first hill, he stopped.

“We have to work fast!  Help me put him in the driver’s seat.”

When Bobby Ray’s body was in the driver’s seat, Ken took off his jacket and used it to wipe the truck free of fingerprints, then used it again to prevent more fingerprints as they pushed the truck down the embankment.

“Ken, I see headlights coming!”

They ran and then rolled into some bushes.  The car passed by without incident.

They walked back to Ken’s car, hiding once in the ditch to avoid being seen by a passing vehicle.

***

The murder, apparently drug-related, rocked the small, rural Vinton community.  Its citizens associated such crimes with urban environs, not thinking about the fact that sizeable marijuana harvests needed the countryside to hide and grow.

The local, weekly newspaper reported that Dale Jenkins was found face down with a bullet hole in his chest in the middle of a marijuana patch on the property of his wife, Darla Jenkins, the former Darla Baker.  Much of the marijuana appeared to have been harvested recently.  Mrs. Jenkins reportedly knew nothing about the marijuana.  Dale Jenkins had served a 3-year prison term for drug dealing, but he was trying to go straight.  He had promised her that he would not deal in drugs for the sake of their two children, ages 6 and 8, but he was worried about family finances.  Mr. Jenkins’ death followed closely the death of Mrs. Jenkins’ brother, Bobby Ray Baker, who died in a truck accident on Vinton Co. Route 14.  The coroner reported that Mr. Baker had apparently suffered a stroke while driving, and the truck plunged off Route #1 into the pit of the old gravel quarry.

Darla Jenkins found a plain brown envelope in her mail box a month after her husband’s death.  It contained two crisp hundred dollar bills with a note that an anonymous donor wished to help her financially in raising her children.  The envelopes came monthly for the next three years.  She told no one about the money and used it well to help her children.  Eventually, she married a widowed farmer who lived nearby, and they lived an uneventful life together.

Karen Patterson divorced her husband, remarried and had a son by her second husband.  Ken never married but was a doting uncle to his niece and nephew.  He was also a Big Brother to two boys living with their mothers in single-parent homes.  In his work, he fought for environmental justice.

Ten years after the death of Dale Jenkins, Ken was killed in a head-on collision with a van.  In a bank safety deposit box, Karen found a handgun and her mother’s wallet and driver’s license. She disposed of the gun by dropping it into the river but kept her mother’s belongings.  She told no one about these items, but the scenarios they presented would disturb her thoughts and her sleep for many years to come.

 

Bio for Barbara Kussow:

My essay, “Writing for Literary Magazines after Retirement,” appears in Writing after Retirement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014; ed. by Carol Smallwood and Christine and Christine Redman-Waldeyer).  My fiction has appeared three times in The Storyteller and twice in Wild Violet.  One story placed 27th in the annual Writer’s Digest genre short story category in 2010. My poetry has been published in Kaleidoscope, Dos Passos Review, Hospital Drive, Wild Violet and other publications.  Essays and book reviews have appeared online and in local papers.

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