Leaving hectic city life behind, LuAnn Hagerdorn Garrett returns to her hometown of Tallagumsa, Alabama, with her reluctant husband Eddie and their three small children, just as her father and longtime hero, Mayor Newell Hagerdorn, is about to launch his candidacy for governor. But LuAnn’s newfound security is shattered when her father is suddenly named the prime suspect in a racial killing that happened over fifteen years ago. Suddenly, LuAnn must fight against everyone she loves and everything she believes to prove her father’s innocence.
But as eye-opening secrets from the past begin to surface, she’ll find herself forced into a painful confrontation with her own moral values.
Excerpt from No Defense
I hurried down the wide marble hallway of the new county courthouse planned by and named after my father; the clicking of my high heels on the marble floor echoed behind me, skipping a beat when I hesitated in front of the massive wooden doors to Courtroom G. I took a deep breath, bracing myself, then I firmly grasped the brass handle on the right and pulled the door open.
Once inside the spacious courtroom, I tried to stare straight ahead and ignore the blur of people watching me. I willed myself not to bite my lip, a nervous habit I’d had as long as I could remember, one that had been mentioned by some reporter in one of the articles about my family after my father, Newell Hagerdorn, the mayor of Tallagumsa, Alabama, and the leading candidate for governor, was indicted for murder.
The courtroom spectators seemed to be seated according to their sympathies, reminding me suddenly and absurdly of a wedding celebration where the bride’s family and friends take the left section and the groom’s family and friends the right. The organizing principles here, however, were my father and the crime with which he was charged.
The first three rows on the right side behind the prosecutor’s table were occupied by the dead boys’ mothers and their supporters, a rectangle of black in a sea of white.
Members of my own family-my mother, Gladys, my sister, Jane, and her husband, Buck, as well as my husband, Eddie-sat just one row back from that group.
As far as I could tell, the rest of that section was filled with reporters, many of whom I could now identify by name. Ben Gainey, from the Washington Star, was there, of course. This was, after all, his news story, his coup, the kind of story young reporters dream about. Since reopening the fifteen-year-old unsolved civil rights murders and marshaling piece by piece the evidence that ultimately led to my father’s indictment, Ben Gainey had ascended to the now familiar role of reporter as hero.
It was not enough that Ben had rooted around in the past that had been buried with our town’s infamous crime and come up with my father. Far worse-as more than a few news articles had pointed out-was that my relationship with Ben, my involvement in his work, and my participation in his investigation had been critical to his success.
And so I suffered under the unbearable weight of my own guilt as I approached the defense table, kissed my father good morning, and wished him good luck. Ever calm and cool, he reached for and patted my trembling hand. The sharp contrast between his composure and my distress suggested I was the one on trial here, not him.
I sat down in the first row of seats behind the railing separating my father and his lawyer from the crowd.
A few people reached over the back of the pewlike bench and patted my shoulder, offering comfort.
Someone behind me whispered, “We’re with you, LuAnn. Don’t worry, hon.”
I turned around and forced a small smile. Members of the sheriff’s department, the mayor’s office, and our many other champions and friends filled the rows on the defense side of the courtroom.
To my disgust, Lucas Terry, the imperial wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and some of his deputies sat in the back row. At Terry’s wave, I felt my face redden and I quickly turned away.
The night before, after finally getting my six-month-old twin boys to sleep-no easy task, as they were teething—I’d fallen into bed exhausted but sleepless at the prospect of what the next day might bring. I started to cry. I’d cried plenty lately but had tried hard not to fall apart in front of my four-year-old daughter, Jessie. She must have heard me, though, because she appeared in the bedroom doorway wearing the Star Wars T-shirt my husband, Eddie, had forgotten when he moved out.
The T-shirt was a ridiculous fit, so long the hem dragged the ground with each step and so wide the short sleeves reached her wrists. Still she’d insisted on sleeping in the shirt every night since her father left.
Jessie stood still and watched me cry. Her golden brown hair fell around her shoulders, and her green eyes were open wide, filled not so much with fear as curiosity.
“Take a deep breath,” my daughter ordered, mimicking my advice whenever her emotions got away from her. “Breathe in slowly, Mommy. Slowly.”
I did as I was told, caught my breath, and somehow controlled my crying. Then I patted the bed, and Jessie ran across the room and jumped up next to me. I gathered her into my lap and kissed her lightly on the forehead.
“Are you sad?” she asked. She spread her father’s T-shirt over her toes.
“Just a little. Now that you’re here, I’m fine.” I wiped the last tears from under my eyes and smiled.
“Why were you crying?” She ran a finger along my cheek.
“That’s a long story,” I said.
“Please,” she begged. She tugged at my nightgown.
“Let’s see,” I said. I set her on the bed, stood up, and crossed the room to the bookshelves. A sudden wind heralding the predicted early fall burst through the open window as I passed. I slammed it shut, shivering slightly.
On tiptoes, I reached up to the top bookshelf, pulled out the blue and gold photo album that contained bits and pieces of our lives over the last year, and brought it back to the bed.
Jessie and I lay on our stomachs over the photographs. She opened the album, which looked heavy and large in her small hand, then I flipped past the pictures taken during the winter months of 1978. When I reached the April 1978 photos from the dedication of the Newell Hagerdom County Courthouse, I stopped.
I pointed to a picture of Jessie. “Oh, look at you in your sailor dress. I bet you’ve grown an inch in just six months.”
“I look like a little kid there,” she said in her most mature four-year-old voice.
“Remember that day, Jessie?” I asked her. “We were celebrating the opening of your granddaddy’s new courthouse. I guess I’d say all of this mess started that day.”
“You mean the twins?” she asked profoundly, pointing in the picture to my bulging eight-and-a-half-months pregnant belly.
“No.” I laughed. “Hank and Will are messy, but we love them. Right?”
Jessie made a face and stuck out her tongue. As many times as I’d explained it to her, I had no doubt that she held the twins accountable for our move from Atlanta, Georgia, to Tallagumsa, Alabama, and for her father’s leaving us not long thereafter.
I turned the album page and stared at the photograph that had been printed in all the Alabama newspapers the day following the courthouse-dedication ceremony. Mother and Daddy, my sister and her husband, and Eddie, Jessie, and I were standing on the top steps of the courthouse, the water from the fountain arcing in the background, all of us smiling-even Eddie, who hadn’t been thrilled to be in Tallagumsa that day.
Although the ceremony dedicating the courthouse hadn’t been nearly as happy as it looked in these pictures, if I had known what was to come in the months ahead I would have savored those hours. Perhaps then I would not have been so willing to turn all our lives upside down.
Just hold the scissors right there by that pretty red ribbon, Mayor,” Scotty Scott said. “A little higher. Right there. Good.”
Scotty, the photographer for every official Tallagumsa event over the last fifty years and the skinniest man in town, moved his tripod and camera a few feet, balanced his sunglasses on top of his crew cut, and squinted into the viewfinder.
“Now smile, Newell,” he said. He snapped a picture of my father standing next to the dedicatory ribbon strung between two of the courthouse pillars and tied in a huge bow.
“Open the scissors,” Scotty said. He took another picture.
“Now cut that sucker! Sure hope the courthouse don’t fall down.” He laughed at his own joke.
Daddy laughed too, somehow managing to look dignified and fun-loving at the same time. His dark hair was gray just around the temples. His green eyes sparkled. Ever the politician, for the dedication of the courthouse he’d worn a navy-blue suit, red suspenders, and a white dress shirt. Thin red and white diagonal lines striped his yellow tie.
While Scotty completed my father’s individual photographs, the rest of the family waited its turn to join him. Eddie, Jessie, and I were on the east side of the steps, where Jessie had ample room to run and play without getting in the way. I w ted sitting down: Eight and a half months pregnant with twins, no one dared begrudge me this breach of etiquette. My sister, her husband, and my mother stood talking among themselves not far from Scotty.
Most of the people who’d attended the morning dedication had gone ahead to the reception at the Tallagumsa Steak House, two blocks down First Avenue. A dozen or so people lingered on the steps, talking with each other and watching Scotty in action.
“Stand next to your name over there on the wall, Mayor,” Scotty said as he carried his camera across the courthouse landing. He took three pictures of Daddy standing under the brass letters that read: “Newell Hagerdorn County Courthouse.”
“I don’t know if I can take much more of this!” Eddie complained to me. “The way everyone’s acting you’d think we were in the White House Rose Garden with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and not at some podunk county courthouse affair.”
I looked up at Eddie from my seat on the sun-warmed granite steps. He was leaning on one of the courthouse pillars, smoking a Salem and staring wearily at my father and Scotty. Tall and good-looking, with straight black hair and gunmetal eyes, he was still in good shape from his years on the college track team.
Eddie had tried to abort this trip, arguing for the last few days that he couldn’t possibly take a day off with his workload as political cartoonist for Atlanta’s City Paper. After I made it clear to him that Jessie and I would come whether or not he did, he stayed up until three in the morning to meet a newspaper deadline, then grudgingly accompanied us on the two-hour early-morning drive west to Tallagumsa for the ceremony.
The new Greek Revival courthouse, built to serve a population of almost one hundred thousand people, took up a full city block of the small town of Tallagumsa. It could be reached on any side by climbing two steep flights of stairs to the massive landing, which led to the entrances. On the west end of the landing was a large square fountain in which the water rose up out of the mouth of a bronze fish hovering above a sparkling pool of water. A bronze statue of Confederate veteran Elijah Ellis bore a sword skyward, guarding the east end of the landing.
Jessie hopped over to where Eddie and I waited. With each hop, the pleats of her sailor dress flew up, then floated back to cover her tiny thighs.
“I’m hungry,” she announced, pulling on my sleeve.
“As soon as the pictures are taken we’ll eat at the Steak House. Come here, sweetie.” I kissed her cheek and handed her a penny from my pants pocket. “Throw that in the fountain and make a wish, but be careful not to get in Scotty’s and Granddaddy’s way.” She hopped off.
“I have a wish,” Eddie said. “That this will be over and we can go home.”
“You never like being here, do you, Eddie?” I asked.
“Nope.” He looked down at me. His intense gray eyes blamed me for having dragged him here. “Especially when it’s some trumped-up celebration in honor of your father.”
He took a final draw on his Salem, dropped the butt, then stepped on it, grinding it into the granite, where it left a dark smudge on the pristine stonework.
“It’s not just for him,” I said. “It’s for the whole county.” At Eddie’s skeptical grin, I laughed despite myself “I know you think that’s pompous and stupid sounding, but that’s the point of Daddy’s whole career-to better this county and this state.”
“That’s why the courthouse is named for him and why we’re waiting for his pictures and why we’ll go listen to his speech. Not for the good of Newell Hagerdom-no, of course not-but for the good of us all. You just can’t see past his act, can you?” He sat down next to me and kissed my neck. “But I love you anyway.”
“I love you too,” I said.
I looked around for Jessie, who’d thrown her penny into the fountain and then disappeared around that side of the building. “Jessie,” I called.
She reappeared, walking slowly, as if each step were too much for her to bear. “Can we go now?” she asked. The diversion offered by the penny toss had lasted about two minutes.
“Sorry,” I said, as sympathetically as I could.
Her face flushed bright red and she began to cry. “But I’m hungry and I’m tired!”
“At least it isn’t hot,” I said.
Although it was barely April, in Alabama we’d had our share of April scorchers. In fact it was a perfect spring day, the temperature in the midseventies, the blue sky dotted here and there with innocuous white puffs. A mild breeze carried only the suggestion of warmer days to come.
“Why don’t I take her over to the park?” Eddie stood up and wiped off the back of his jeans.
The dogwood trees, azaleas, tulips, and daffodils in the park, nourished by two weeks of rain in early March, were in full bloom. Built at the same time as the courthouse with private Garden Club funds raised largely by my mother, Gladys, and my sister, Jane, the oasis of green had beckoned to Jessie all morning. “That’ll take too long,” I said. “We all need to wait here, Jessie-Scotty said so. I know it’s hard to get up so early and then just hang out here doing nothing. I have a great idea! How about this? As soon as we finish, you can get a candy bar at the Steak House-any kind you want and before your lunch.” I crossed my heart. “Only a little bit longer. I promise.”
I tried to sound soothing as I pulled her toward me and hugged her, but she pushed away from me, ran around the legs of the Confederate soldier, and sat down at the base of the statue’s marble pedestal.
“Next time we come here, LuAnn, you’re going to have to bribe me too,” Eddie said.
“LuAnn, y’all can come on over,” Scotty called a few minutes later. “Gladys, Jane, Buck-everybody who’s family right here, on the top steps of the courthouse with the mayor.”
“At last,” Eddie mumbled under his breath. “Jessie,” he called. “Show time.”
She walked over to us.
“See?” I said. “I told you it wouldn’t be long.” Before getting up I wiped Jessie’s tear-smudged face with a Kleenex from my pocket. “One of these pictures will be in the newspaper, so try to look happy. Both of you.”
“Let’s go, let’s go, Annie Hall,” my brother-in-law, Buck Newton, hollered as he bounded toward us in his slightly rumpled suit. He wiped the sweat from his wrinkled forehead, pushing a handkerchief back across his balding head.
I held out my arms to Eddie, who groaned as he pulled my unwieldy pregnant frame up to a standing position.
“Coming, coming,” I said.
“Annie Hall” was Buck’s attempt at a humorous reference to my outfit-a white maternity shirt, polka-dot tie, black vest, baggy pants, and a floppy man’s hat-as well as a compliment on my looks. Unfortunately, any physical similarity between the movie character and me was far more apparent when I wasn’t on the verge of giving birth to twins.
My dark brown hair was pulled back in one long braid down my back. Hoping to give my face some of the definition it had lost as puffy cheeks replaced high cheekbones, I’d recently added a thin layer of bangs that almost touched my dark eyebrows.
Though Buck tried to hide it, there was an undertone of irritation in his voice. I knew my clothes bugged both him and my sister, Jane. Not long ago Mother too would have taken the time to make an unflattering reference to my appearance, but around the time Jessie was born she began to look past me. Why bother with me, clearly a lost cause, when she could try to mold Jes?
Buck crammed his handkerchief into his back pants pocket and slapped Eddie on the back.
“Y’all are quite a pair,” Buck said. “Annie Hall and-who do you think you are, Eddie? Clint Eastwood? Or the Marlboro Man? Couldn’t you borrow a suit from a friend, big guy?”
Eddie had on Levi’s, Frye boots, a dress shirt, and a tie. He was not a hick dressed up to go to town; but an individualist who refused to wear a suit to the courthouse simply because he was supposed to.
The three of us walked toward the rest of the family.
“Why do you worry so much about how LuAnn and I look?” Eddie asked. “At least I don’t look like a lawyer, Buckie boy.”
“Well, I am a lawyer,” Buck said.
“No shit,” Eddie said. “Not something I would brag about if I were you.”
“Y’all don’t start in on each other,” Mother pleaded when she heard Eddie and Buck exchanging the usual insults. “We all want the pictures to turn out well, don’t we?” she asked sweetly.
“Yes, ma’am.” Buck hitched up his pants to just below his bulging stomach and tucked his loose shirttail in.
“Good,” Mother said.
Over the years my mother had taken the art of being a political wife to new heights, submissive to the point that when standing next to my handsome father she seemed to fade away. Daddy had just turned sixty. Mother was fifty-seven, but she looked older than he. With her thick blue-framed glasses, short curly gray hair, and pale wrinkled skin, she looked like the grandmother she was. She and Jane shared thick ankles, which I had been spared, and large breasts, which I had missed out on. For the ceremony Mother had chosen a navy gabardine skirt, a white silk blouse, and a red, white, and blue scarf around her neck. A small gold American flag pin held the scarf in place.
“You go in back, LuAnn, Jessie in front of you, and Eddie next to you, on the left,” Scotty ordered. “Newell, you and Gladys stand next to LuAnn, and Jane and Buck should be next to Gladys, on the right here.
“It looks good,” Scotty continued from behind his camera. “Smile!” He took two pictures. “Now y’all come on over next to those main doors, the middle ones.”
“Maybe you should sit, LuAnn,” my father said as the group made its way to the front entrance. “Are you all right standing so long?” He looked up at the sun, which was almost directly overhead. “Is that sun too much for you?”
“I’m just a little tired, Daddy.”
“A little? A little? You look totally exhausted,” he said. “Pretty as a picture, dear, but tired. I’m worried about you. I want you to know that. When the babies come, something’s got to give. Where you live, how you live, it just won’t work anymore. You’re not college kids anymore, and I’m not going to let you kill yourself to prove some stupid point.”
Eddie looked at me and smiled-not a real smile but an “isn’t that typical of your father intruding in our lives” smile.
“We’ll survive, Daddy. We always have,” I said, although I wasn’t so sure.
“You haven’t always had three children under the age of four, no help, and no money.” My father grabbed my upper arm and stopped walking to emphasize his point. Everyone else stopped with us.
“You know how he loves to take care of you,” Mother said lightly.
“And how she loves to be taken care of by you,” Eddie added with a slight edge to his voice.
“Why doesn’t Jessie come stand next to me for this one picture since our outfits match?”Jane asked when we were assembled in front of the entryway. She stood with her lips pursed and her hands on her ample hips, waiting for an answer.
“Scotty was in charge of these pictures last time I checked, Jane,” my father said sharply, shaking his head.
Jane pretended not to hear what Daddy had said, but I caught the hurt look in her dark brown eyes. She quickly turned away and busied herself with running her right hand across her bouffant hairdo.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Go on over next to your aunt Jane, Jes.”
Jessie, who adored her aunt Jane, hurried over and stood in front of my older sister. From a distance, anyone who didn’t know better would have assumed that they were mother and daughter. Save for the minor differences in dress waists and shoe heels, they were dressed in almost identical outfits, down to their navy velvet headbands.
This was not a coincidence. Just a few days earlier, Jane had sent Jessie the matching outfit specifically for this occasion. If Jane’s doctors ever managed to get her pregnant and keep her that way, I wondered whether her fierce attachment to my child would abate.
“Oops,” Scotty said. He snapped his fingers. “Everybody relax a sec while I put in some more film.” He removed a roll of film from the camera, leaned over, dropped it in his black camera bag, and took out a new roll. He was about to reload the camera when he stopped to talk with a man I’d never seen around Tallagumsa.
“Now what’s Scotty doing?” Eddie asked. “Let’s go, how ‘bout it? Chat on your own time, Scotty!” he yelled.
Scotty shook hands with the stranger. The man was almost as tall as Eddie and slightly bigger-boned. He had sandy blond hair, dark eyes, and a pleasant smile. A camera hung from a strap around his neck.
In a small southern town it wasn’t hard to tell who fit and who didn’t, and this man didn’t. His khaki pants and burgundy polo shirt weren’t made of polyester or a double knit, and his hair-like Eddie’s, just long enough to touch his back shirt collar and cover the tops of his ears-was considered fashionably long in Birmingham or Atlanta but didn’t conform with Tallagumsa notions of style.
“Y’all don’t mind if this reporter fellow takes a few pictures too, do you?” Scotty asked us.
“Happy to have him,” Buck answered for everyone. “Right, Mayor?” he asked my father.
“Where you from, young man?” my father called out.
“Washington, D.C.,” the man said. “I write for the Washington Star.”
“You aren’t one o£ those fellows Woodward or Bernstein, are you? You know, from the Watergate thing?” Buck was thrilled at the prospect. “Come to think of it, you look kind of like Robert Redford.”
“Wrong paper, Sherlock,” Eddie said.
“I think it’s more likely he’s that reporter friend Junior Fuller’s been talking about,” my father said. “Ben something or other.”
“That’s me. Ben Gainey.” He gave us a little salute. “Is Junior around? He said I should meet him here, but I’m afraid I’m a little late.”
“He’s at the reception already,” Buck said, “at the Tallagumsa Steak House down First Avenue, that-a-way.” He pointed to his right.
“Lucky Junior,” Eddie said. “I’ll be dreaming about Steak House food tonight; I’m obviously never going to get any today.” He folded his arms across his chest and looked annoyed.
“Mr. Gainey, I’m Buck Newton,” Buck said, “and this is the future governor of the great state of Alabama, Mayor Newell Hagerdorn. Looks like Paul Newman, doesn’t he? Don’t you think that’ll be an asset in the next election?”
“Buck!” my father interrupted: “How many times do I have to tell you not to talk about that?”
“That you look like Paul Newman?” he asked.
“You know damn well what I mean,” Daddy said, seething. “It’s not the time or the place.”
“Just trying to help.” Buck grinned, oblivious to how mad Daddy was at him.
Buck had been my father’s campaign manager in the last mayoral election, and he relished the possibility of running his gubernatorial campaign.
“Pleased to meet you, Mayor.” Ben Gainey hurried over to shake my father’s hand. ‘junior’s told me all about you and your town. I’m looking forward to interviewing you for my book if you have the time.”
“Happy to oblige,” Daddy said. “just let us know. We’ll do anything we can to help you.”
Like most successful politicians, my father was able to sound sincere regardless of his true feelings. He’d told me earlier that day how concerned he was about this reporter friend of Junior’s portraying Tallagumsa in an unflattering light.
“You’re at the top of my list, Mayor Hagerdorn,” Ben said.
“Not that it’s unusual, but is everybody here going to suck up to your father all day long?” Eddie whispered to me.
“Stop talking, y’all, and smile,” Scotty yelled as soon as Ben Gainey rejoined him. Ben raised his camera to his eye, and he and Scotty snapped several pictures. In between photos, we talked.
“Who is that guy, Newell?” Eddie asked.
“A friend of Junior’s from law school who’s a reporter now. He’s writing a book about the New South and thinking about featuring Tallagumsa in it,” my father said. “If he decides to write about us after visiting this week, he’ll move here next month.”
“That would be incredible good luck,” Buck said. “He could give us a big step up-I mean, give you a boost, sir. Bring national attention to your campaign.”
“Come on,” Eddie said incredulously. “He wouldn’t know the real South if it walked up and bit him. I can look at him and tell you he’s just another South-basher come to air all our dirty laundry and remind the rest of the country what racist hicks we are. No reporter comes to this town to write about the state college. They come to write about Jimmy Turnbow and Leon Johnson. That’ll really do you a lot of good, Newell.”
“Goodness, Eddie,” Mother said. “You must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed today.”
“I’m sorry, Gladys, but I’m tired of this Yankee holier-than-thou attitude toward the South. They’ve got plenty of their own problems. I’ve had enough of this South as a bastion of evil crap.”
“You’ve done a lot of cartoons critical of the South yourself,” I pointed out.
“As a Southerner, I’m allowed,” he replied.
“Just one or two more shots,” Scotty sa1d. “Go over to the fountain and sit along the edge. Don’t jump in, Jessie,” he joked.
We dutifully crossed the landing to the fountain and sat one by one along the broad ledge.
Daddy detoured toward the Confederate statue, took his jacket off and hung it on the soldier’s bent left arm, then joined us.
Smiling, we all looked toward Scotty and Ben Gainey.
“Mr. Gainey’s not interested in our past, Eddie,” Jane said after the first snapshot. A gust of wind blew the collar of her sailor dress up over her face. She forced it down with her palm and continued. “Junior said he wants to focus on all the progress we’ve made, the changes, the good things. And he does too think the state college is important.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Eddie said.
“Do I detect a note of jealousy?” Buck asked. “I bet you’d give away LuAnn to be the political cartoonist at the Washington Star.”
“I’m not his or anyone’s to give away, Buck. And leave Eddie alone, would you,” I said.
“I for one think we’ve put those dark days behind us,” Mother said.
“I hope not.”
“Oh, LuAnn,” Jane said. “What is that supposed to mean?”
I couldn’t see Jane’s face since she was in front of me, but I was sure from her tone that she was grimacing.
“Cross your left leg over your right, Gladys. And smile, Jane!” Scotty said, confirming my suspicion.
“Just that lately everyone seems so anxious to sweep the civil rights movement under the rug and pretend nothing horrible happened here or anywhere else in the South,” I said. “I don’t think it’s right. I also don’t think it’s smart or productive.”
“I agree with LuAnn’s last point one hundred percent,” my father said.
“Big surprise,” Jane said, too quietly for Daddy to hear her.
“Everybody look that way and smile.” Scotty pointed at the fountain.
As we complied with his request, Scotty and Ben Gainey raced to the other side of the fountain and took the last few more pictures.
“So, what are y’all sitting around for?” Scotty finally asked. “Get on over to the Steak House-everybody’s waiting on you.”
“Ever thought about comedy as a line of work, Scotty?” Eddie asked.
“No. Have you?” Scotty replied, grinning.