"Don't be too relieved," Driggers replied. "With all the industrial pumping going on, salt water has already begun to seep into the aquifer, and it will soon be unusable. Then we'll have to drink the filthy water from the Savannah River. And my poison couldn't make that water any worse than it already is."
Jim Williams held Driggers's card between his thumb and forefinger, imperiously weighing the pros and cons. Luther Driggers was a friend of long standing, but Williams recalled how Driggers had ridiculed him for not being clever enough to dispose of Danny Hansford's body before the police had come, implying that Williams had been guilty of murder and therefore should have removed the evidence. Driggers's card went onto the Out stack.
Williams hesitated again when he came to the card of Joe Odom. Joe had first made it onto Williams's guest list upon his marriage to his third wife, Mary Adams, whose father happened to be chairman of the board of the C&S Bank. That marriage had catapulted Joe into Savannah's highest social circles. By the time of his divorce, he had become such a popular figure in his own right that Williams continued to invite him to his parties despite his increasing financial embarrassments. Lately, however, Joe Odom's fortunes had taken a precipitous plunge.
In July, the landlord of Sweet Georgia Brown's had padlocked the bar, evicted Joe for nonpayment of rent, and sued for arrears. Joe filed for bankruptcy. Mandy, who had lost more than $5,000 in the collapse of the bar, took her losses in stride until she happened to overhear Joe referring to another woman as "my fourth wife-in-waiting." With that, she stomped out of the Hamilton-Turner House, swearing vengeance. Her revenge took a particularly devastating form, as Joe learned when he looked at his newspaper one November morning and saw the headline ATTORNEY JOE ODOM INDICTED FOR FORGERY. ATTORNEY JOE ODOM INDICTED FOR FORGERY.
According to the article, Joe had been charged with seven counts of faking the signature of Mandy Nichols, his partner in the "now-defunct jazz bar" Sweet Georgia Brown's. The seven checks totaled $1,193.42. Forgery was a felony offense punishable by up to ten years in jail.
Joe knew at once what Mandy had done. She had sifted through the canceled checks from the Sweet Georgia Brown's checking account-the account they had put in Mandy's name because Joe's name had been anathema to every bank in Savannah-and she had picked out seven checks that Joe had signed in her absence.
Joe stood in his front hall, newspaper in hand, absorbing the enormity of the crisis before him. It dawned on him that the sheriff would soon be arriving with a warrant for his arrest, so he pulled on a shirt and a pair of pants, climbed out a rear window, jumped into his van, and headed south on I-95. He had no intention of spending the weekend with sheriffs, bail bondsmen, and lawyers. Not this weekend anyway. The Georgia-Florida football game was on Sat.u.r.day, and Joe would definitely be there. Nothing took precedence over the Georgia-Florida game. Ever. Not even a felony indictment.
"The sheriff can wait," Joe said when he called friends from Jacksonville to inform them of his whereabouts. "I'll be back on Monday."
Upon his return, Joe appeared in federal court and told the judge that the seven checks were not really forgeries but rather an unorthodox way of doing business. He pointed out that one check had been made out to the linen service, another to the phone company, and another to the plumber-all to pay legitimate expenses for his and Mandy's business. He produced de posit slips showing that he had put more money into the account than he had taken out with the seven checks. He concluded by saying that if he had really intended to commit forgery, he would have taken more than $1,193.42.
But forgery was forgery regardless of the amount. Furthermore, Joe could not quite explain why the two largest checks had been made out to cash. In the end, he had no choice but to plead guilty. The judge sentenced him to two years' probation, stipulating that as a first offender he could wipe his record clean if he made restitution within a year. If he did not, he would go to prison for the remainder of his term.
Jim Williams put Joe's card squarely on the In stack. Yes indeed. Joe Odom would be the man on the spot for a change, the man on the receiving end of the opprobrious glances. Joe would take it all very much in stride. Williams admired that about him, his resilience. Despite his mounting problems, Joe was still the gregarious, table-hopping, good-natured man-about-town. In fact, it was Joe Odom's smiling face that first caught my eye when I arrived at the party.
"Well, it looks like you'll have a happy ending for your book," he said. "I mean, just look around you. Jim Williams isn't a convicted murderer anymore, and I won't be a convicted forger just as soon as I pay Mandy the one thousand, one hundred and ninety-three dollars and forty-two cents I don't really owe her. We're all out of jail, and it's party time again. If that isn't happiness, what is?"
I was mulling over Joe Odom's formulation for happiness when Minerva appeared before me in a black-and-white maid's uniform. She was carrying a tray of champagne glasses. Guests gathered around and helped themselves, and when the tray was empty Minerva moved closer to me.
"I need to git me some devil's shoestring," she said under her breath.
"What's that?" I asked.
"It's a root. Some people calls it 'the devil root.' I calls it my baby, 'Cause it works good for me. I didn't bring none with me, though, and I need some before midnight. Trouble's brewing. It's that boy again."
"Uh-huh. He's still workin' against Mr. Jim."
"But what can he do now?" I asked. "Jim Williams has been acquitted. He can't ever be tried again for killing Danny."
"There's plenty that boy can do!" Minerva said. "He don't need no murder trial to cause h.e.l.l. The boy died hatin' Mr. Jim, and that's the meanest kind of curse you can have against you. It's the hardest one to git undone."
Minerva's eyes narrowed. "Now listen," she said, "I need to git me some a that root, and I know where there's some growin'. It ain't but two-three miles from here. Mr. Jim can't take me there on account of this party goin' on, so what I need to know is, will you drive me?" I nodded that I would, and Minerva told me to meet her in the square by the monument at eleven.
If the angry ghost of Danny Hansford was hanging heavy over Jim Williams's party, it did not dampen the mood even slightly. Sonny Seiler was present, rosy-cheeked and smiling, accepting congratulations for his acquittal of Williams and condolences for the recent death of Uga IV, who had been felled by kidney failure at home while watching a Georgia basketball game on television. The bulldog mascot was buried in a private funeral service near Gate 10 of Sanford Stadium, alongside the graves of Uga I, Uga II, and Uga III. Seiler chose a successor, and within two weeks the state of Georgia sent him a new license plate for his red station wagon: UGA V. UGA V.
Blanche Williams, who had been the soul of stoicism throughout her son's ordeal, wore an evening gown and a pink corsage. She p.r.o.nounced herself as pleased as she could be. She was eighty-three, she said, and now that her son was safe the good Lord could take her anytime He pleased.
Jim Williams was decked out in black tie and Faberge cuff links. He circulated among his guests, laughing heartily and displaying an ease and contentedness he had not shown in many years. He raised his eyebrows slightly when I told him I had agreed to take Minerva on an errand later on.
"I think she's going a little overboard this time," he said, "and I told her so. I'm afraid she may be getting too fond of the twenty-five dollars I pay her each time she does a little rootworking for me. But it doesn't matter. She'll never cost me a fraction of what I've had to pay my lawyers."
At eleven o'clock Minerva and I got into my car, and in a few minutes we were heading west on the road toward the airport.
"It's growin' wild just this side of an overpass," she said, "but I don't remember which overpass."
We pulled off the road at the Lynes Parkway overpass. Minerva took a flashlight out of her satchel and thrashed around in the brush. She came back empty-handed. She had no luck at the second overpass either. At the third, she foraged farther afield and returned carrying a handful of weeds and roots.
"We got the roots," she said, "but we ain't through yet. Now we got to go see the head man."
"Dr. Buzzard?" I asked. I was beginning to suspect I had been duped into taking part in a long and involved expedition. Dr. Buzzard's grave was in Beaufort, an hour's drive each way.
"No, not him," she said. "He done all he's gonna do. We're gonna see the real real head man now, the only one who can put a stop to this thing." She did not elaborate, and in moments we were riding east toward the beach, open fields and marsh grass spreading out into the darkness on all sides. head man now, the only one who can put a stop to this thing." She did not elaborate, and in moments we were riding east toward the beach, open fields and marsh grass spreading out into the darkness on all sides.
"Jim Williams doesn't seem as worried as you do about Danny Hansford," I said.
The oncoming headlights glinted off Minerva's purple lenses. "He is worried," she said softly, "and he should be. 'Cause I I know ... and know ... and he he know ... and know ... and the boy the boy know ... that justice ain't been done yet." know ... that justice ain't been done yet."
She stared ahead, unblinking, and spoke as if in a trance. "Mr. Jim haven't told me nothin'," she said. "He didn't need to. I seen it in his face. I heard it in his voice. When people talks to me, I don't hear the voice, I see a picture. And when Mr. Jim spoke, I saw it all: The boy fussed at him that night. Mr. Jim got angry and shot him. He lied to me, and he lied to the court. But I helped him anyway, 'Cause he didn't mean to kill the boy. I do feel sorry for the boy, but I always takes the side of the living, no matter what they done."
We crossed a low bridge over the inland waterway onto Oatland Island. After taking several turns, we came to a boat ramp that led down to the edge of a wide creek.
"Do you want me to wait here?" I asked.
"No, you can come too," she said, "but only if you keep real quiet."
We left the car and walked down the ramp. The air was still, except for the sound of a small motorboat somewhere out in the middle of the creek. Minerva looked into the darkness and waited. It was the night of the new moon, she said, which was why it was so dark. She said new-moon nights were the best nights to do her kind of work. "Before I left my house tonight," she said, "I fed the witches. That's what you got to do when you havin' trouble with evil spirits. You got to feed the witches before you do anything else."
"How do you do that?" I asked. "What do witches eat?"
"Witches loves pork meat," she said. "They loves rice and potatoes. They loves black-eyed peas and cornbread. Lima beans, too, and collard greens and cabbage, all cooked in pork fat. Witches is old folks, most of them. They don't care none for low-cal. You pile that food on a paper plate, stick a plastic fork in it, and set it down by the side of a tree. And that feeds the witches."
The motorboat's engine clicked off. An oar splashed in the water.
"That you, Jasper?" Minerva called.
"Uh-hunh," a low voice answered. A shadowy form was taking shape twenty yards offsh.o.r.e. It was an old black man in a slouch hat. He was paddling a small wooden boat. Minerva nudged me. "He ain't the head man," she whispered. "He's just takin' us to him." Jasper touched his hat as we got in, then pushed off with the paddle and started up the motor again. As we moved into the blackness, Minerva dipped her handful of roots into the water to clean off the dirt. She broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. The boat rode low in the water. I sat perfectly still, afraid that if I made the slightest movement we might capsize.
A solid wall of trees rose before us on the opposite sh.o.r.e. It was a forbidding black mass without a single light visible. Jasper turned off the engine and paddled until the boat sc.r.a.ped the sand. We all got out. Jasper pulled the boat onto the sh.o.r.e and sat down to wait.
Minerva and I climbed to the top of a low rise. Slowly, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I became aware of dense shrubbery around us and of the ghostly drapery of Spanish moss. We moved deeper into the trees, and I began to make out solid shapes rising from the ground-obelisks, columns, arches. We were in Bonaventure Cemetery. I had come to this place many times since Mary Harty had brought me here on my first day in Savannah, but never after dark. I recalled now what Miss Harty had told me-that late at night if you listened closely you could hear echoes of that long-ago dinner party with the burning house and the guests proposing toasts and throwing their wineglasses against a tree trunk. All I heard tonight was the wind sighing through the trees. Then it occurred to me why I had never come here this late: The cemetery shut its gates at dusk. We were trespassing.
"I don't think we're supposed to be here now, Minerva," I said. "The cemetery's closed."
"Can't do nothin' about that," she said. "Dead time don't change for n.o.body."
"But what if they have a night watchman?" I asked.
"I has worked this flower garden many times and never had no trouble," Minerva said firmly. "The spirits is on our side. They will watch over us." She shined her flashlight on a piece of paper with a hand-drawn map on it.
"What if they have guard dogs?" I asked.
Minerva looked up from her map. "Now listen," she said, "if you're afraid to come with me, you can go back and wait with Jasper. But make up your mind, 'Cause it's already twenty till midnight."
In truth, I was beginning to feel the protective force of Minerva and her spirits. So I followed as she set off, map and flashlight in hand, mumbling to herself. Bonaventure at night was a vast and somber place, nothing like the friendly little graveyard in Beaufort where Dr. Buzzard was buried and where boys played basketball on a floodlit court a hundred yards away. Before long, we came upon a somewhat more open terrain with a few scattered trees and modest tombstones in orderly rows. Minerva paced off several rows and turned right. Halfway down the row, she stopped and looked again at her map. Then she turned and shined the light on the ground behind her. "There it is," she said.
At first I saw nothing. No headstone, no tomb. But when I stepped closer I noticed a small granite tile set into the ground, flush with the sandy soil. The beam of Minerva's flashlight illuminated the inscription: DANNY LEWIS HANSFORD MARCH DANNY LEWIS HANSFORD MARCH 1, 1960, 1, 1960, MAY MAY 2, 1981. 2, 1981.
"That's him," she said. "That's the head man in this thing. He's the one that's causin' all the trouble."
Deep double tire tracks bracketed Danny Hansford's marker. Utility trucks had apparently driven back and forth over his grave. There was even a spot of crankcase oil on the gravestone. It made a silent mockery of Danny's boast that he would get a big tombstone if he died in Mercer House. Minerva knelt in front of the marker and gently wiped away the loose sand.
"Pitiful, ain't it?" she said. "Now I know why he haven't let go. He ain't happy here. He got a nice oak tree and a dogwood overhead, but he ain't happy." She dug a small hole next to the grave and slipped a piece of root into it. Then she reached into her shopping bag and took out a half-pint bottle of Wild Turkey. She poured a few drops into the hole, then put the bottle to her lips and drank the rest.
"You can drink all you want to when you're at the grave of a person who loved to drink," she said. "You'll never get drunk, 'Cause the dead will take the fumes away from you. By the time you pull the top off the bottle, they done beat you to it. You can drink for hours. Mr. Jim told me the boy loved Wild Turkey, so I give him a little drink to get him in a better mood. Me, I like to dip snuff. When I die, you can carry me my favorite snuff. Peach or Honeybee. Put it under your lower lip when you sit by my grave."
Minerva seemed in a better mood herself. She dumped the contents of her shopping bag on the ground and motioned for me to step back and give her room. Then she began to speak in that faraway voice.
"Where they got you now, boy? Has they got you in heaven? If you ain't in heaven yet, you wanna git there, don't you? 'Cause, face it, boy, you gonna be dead a lonnnng lonnnng time. So, now listen. The only way you gonna move up is if you time. So, now listen. The only way you gonna move up is if you quit playin' with Mr. Jim!" quit playin' with Mr. Jim!"
Minerva leaned to within a few inches of the gravestone, as if whispering into Danny's ear. "I can help you, boy. I got connections! I has influence! I has influence! I knows the dead. I will call on them and tell them to lift you up. Who else gonna do that for you? n.o.body! Do you hear me, boy?" I knows the dead. I will call on them and tell them to lift you up. Who else gonna do that for you? n.o.body! Do you hear me, boy?"
She c.o.c.ked an ear to the grave. "I think I'm hearin' somethin'," she said, "but I ain't sure what it is." Minerva's hopeful expression slowly turned into a scowl. "Sounds like laughin'. Dammit, it is is laughin'. He's just laughin' up a storm at me, that's what he's doin'." laughin'. He's just laughin' up a storm at me, that's what he's doin'."
Minerva gathered her paraphernalia and stuffed it angrily back into her bag. "Dammit, boy, you ain't no better than my old man. I swear you won't git no help from me."
She rose to her feet and headed down the row of tombstones, lurching and muttering. "You think you had a hard life, boy. h.e.l.l, you ain't got no idea. You never had no bills to pay, no kids to feed, no house to clean. You done had it easy. Well, you can just lay there now. That'll teach you."
Minerva charged through the darkness, the beam of her flashlight bouncing ahead of her. We passed the graves of Bonaventure's two most famous residents, Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken-Mercer's epitaph affirming a hereafter in which angels sing, Aiken's raising the specter of doubt and of destinations unknown. Danny Hansford would have to chart his own course now. Minerva had washed her hands of him. At least for the time being.
Once we were back in the boat, she lightened up. "I'll leave him lay there for a while," she said. "Let him worry he missed his chance to git raised up into heaven. Next time I come he'll be glad to see me. I'll carry him some Wild Turkey and some devil's shoestring, and I'll give him another chance. Oh, he'll back off Mr. Jim by and by. Uh-huh. Then I'll raise him up, and he won't laugh at me no more. You wait and see. Him and me is gonna be such good friends, he'll be givin' me numbers before long so I can play 'em and git me some money!"
Less than a month later, on the morning of January 14, 1990, Jim Williams came downstairs to feed the cat and make himself a cup of tea. After doing that, but before picking up the newspaper from the front stoop, he collapsed and died.
News of Williams's sudden death at the age of fifty-nine immediately gave rise to speculation that he had been murdered or that he had taken an overdose of drugs. But the coroner announced that there had been no indication of foul play or drug abuse and that Williams appeared to have died of natural causes, most likely a heart attack. After an autopsy, the coroner was more specific: Williams had died of pneumonia. This started another rumor-that he might have died of AIDS. But Williams had shown no signs of being ill; in fact, only a few hours before dying he had attended a party where he had been in good spirits and in apparent good health.
Minerva, of course, had her own idea about what had happened. "It was the boy that done it," she said. A little-noticed detail of Williams's death lent an eerie ring of truth to her p.r.o.nouncement. Williams had died in his study, in the same room where he had shot Danny Hansford. He had been found lying on the carpet behind the desk in the very spot where he would have fallen eight years earlier, if Danny Hansford had actually fired a gun and the shots had found their mark.
Two days after Williams's funeral, I paid my respects to his mother and sister at Mercer House. As I was leaving, a horse and carriage came clopping around the square and slowed to a stop in front of the house. From the sidewalk, I could hear the tour guide telling her three passengers that General Hugh Mercer had built the house during the Civil War, that the songwriter Johnny Mercer had grown up in it, and that Jacqueline Onassis had once offered to buy it for $2 million. To this by-now familiar routine, the tour guide added that filmmakers had used the house the previous spring to shoot scenes for the movie Glory. Glory. But she said nothing about Jim Williams or Danny Hansford or the sensational murder case that had captivated the city for so long. The tourists would leave Savannah in a few hours, enchanted by the elegance of this romantic garden city but none the wiser about the secrets that lay within the innermost glades of its secluded bower. But she said nothing about Jim Williams or Danny Hansford or the sensational murder case that had captivated the city for so long. The tourists would leave Savannah in a few hours, enchanted by the elegance of this romantic garden city but none the wiser about the secrets that lay within the innermost glades of its secluded bower.
I, too, had become enchanted by Savannah. But after having lived there for eight years, off and on, I had come to understand something of its self-imposed estrangement from the outside world. Pride was part of it. Indifference was too, and so was arrogance. But underneath all that, Savannah had only one motive: to preserve a way of life it believed to be under siege from all sides. It was for this reason that Savannah had discouraged Prudential from establishing its regional headquarters in the city in the 1950s (and why Prudential ended up in Jacksonville instead). It was why Savannah had given Gian Carlo Menotti's Spoleto U.S.A. Festival the cold shoulder in the 1970s (and why the festival finally settled in Charleston). Savannah was not much interested in what went on outside Savannah. It had little enthusiasm for the popular culture, as headline entertainers like Eric Clapton, Sting, George Carlin, and Gladys Knight and the Pips discovered when they brought their acts to Savannah and found themselves playing to half-empty auditoriums.
Savannah spurned all suitors-urban developers with grandiose plans and individuals (the "Gucci carpetbaggers," as Mary Harty called them) who moved to Savannah and immediately began suggesting ways of improving the place. Savannah resisted every one of them as if they had been General William Tecumseh Sherman all over again. Sometimes that meant throwing up bureaucratic roadblocks; at other times it meant telling tourists only what was good for them to know. Savannah was invariably gracious to strangers, but it was immune to their charms. It wanted nothing so much as to be left alone.
Time and again, I was reminded of what Mary Harty had told me on my first day in town: "We happen to like things just the way they are!" I had no idea how deeply that sentiment ran until a revealing incident occurred late in my stay. The Chamber of Commerce hired an outside team of urban consultants to study Savannah's economic and social problems. When the consultants submitted their final report, they appended a note saying that in the course of their research they had asked twenty prominent Sa-vannahians where they thought the city should be in the next five, ten, and fifteen years. None of them had ever given the matter any thought.
For me, Savannah's resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world. inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.
All the characters in this book are real, but it bears mentioning that I have used pseudonyms for a number of them in order to protect their privacy. Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events. Where the narrative strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.
I owe a great debt of thanks to several dozen Savannahians who appear as characters in this book, some under their own names, some under pseudonyms.
In addition, a number of people in Savannah, who are not necessarily portrayed in these pages, were helpful to me in various ways: Mary B. Blun, John Aubrey Brown, Peter and Gail Crawford, Mrs. Garrard Haines, Walter and Connie Hartridge, Jack Kieffer, Mary Jane Pedrick, and Ronald J. Strahan.
Two people have won my everlasting affection and gratitude for their energy and enthusiasm in guiding this book into finished form: my agent, Suzanne Gluck, and my editor, Ann Godoff.
For critical readings of the ma.n.u.script and other forms of advice and counsel, I am also grateful to Stephen Brewer, Rachel Gallagher, Linda Hyman, Joan Kramer, Russell and Mildred Lynes, Carolyn Marsh, Alice K. Turner, and Hiram Williams.
Of all those who helped me, however, no one took a greater interest, nor followed the progress of this book more closely, than Bruce Kelly. A Georgian, a landscape architect of extraordinary genius, and a true friend, it was he who suggested I write this book in the first place and who, more than anyone else, remained supportive and encouraging throughout the long years I took to do it.