Little puffs of smoke appeared behind the tires as the jet’s brakes hit the tarmac. The aircraft taxied across the busy runway where the adjacent planes were lined five deep waiting for take-off. I stood near Gate 3B awaiting Gabby’s arrival. After minutes of no activity, a stewardess appeared and removed the rope. The first passenger stepped forward and then several more. A petite woman, carrying a bag half her size, paused as she walked up the ramp. I spotted her first. “Gabby,” I yelled, waving my arms, “over here!”
Her smile was brilliant and her teeth glistened like pearls as she grinned at me. Her hair was much shorter now and accented her striking beauty. She wore glasses now too. “Let me help you with that,” as I took the bag from around her shoulder. We hugged as if we were kids again. “You look great, Gabby.” Then she embraced me for a second time. “Thanks,you too.”
We went to the baggage claim, and as we waited for her suitcase we briefly began catching up, talking about our children, Collin, and her second husband. She now had three daughters with him and one son from her first marriage. We flipped through our wallet photos of our children and bragged about their achievements.
“How’s Liz?” Gabby asked.
“She’s scared and confused,” I explained.
“I can’t believe this is happening all over again. How’s Mrs. Townsend doing?”
“She’s hoping Liz makes bail. Her hearing is this morning.” Gabby spotted her luggage and swiped it from the conveyor belt.
“Did she ever remarry?” referring to Mrs. Townsend.
“No.” I answered. We continued talking about Mrs. Townsend and Liz until we heard a voice over the intercom. “Flight 123 from LaGuardia now arriving at Gate 6A.”
We hustled our way through the hectic terminal. Sherry was one of the first people to walk up the ramp. Not surprisingly, her voice preceded her.
“Oh muy Go-ad!” she said when she saw us.
Her accent was astounding. The years of being back in the city seemed to have strengthened it. And she spoke loud enough for others to hear, as though that’s what she wanted. Attention was nothing she ever shied away from. “How the hell ah’ ya?” She dropped her Gucci bags and just barely wrapped her arms around us. Her face was still dramatic; the makeup was more subtle than when she was a teenager. Gabby embraced her first, then me. It was great seeing her even under the circumstances.
It was an hour’s drive back to my house. Sherry made several more business-related calls from a large bag phone which she connected to my cigarette lighter.
“You are on personal time, right?” I hinted.
“I am,” she remarked, “just had to check on a client.”
“Can we call Mrs. Townsend to see if Liz made bail?” I asked. Sherry handed me the phone and guided me through making the call. My days home with the boys didn’t afford me the luxury of a mobile phone. I fumbled with it before I was able to make the connection. It rang only once. “Hello.”
“Liz, is that you?” Her voice was crackled due to the static.
“Hi Pepper, where are you?” Liz asked.
“We’re on our way.”
“They’re both here, Liz. I told you they’d come.”
As I drove, Gabby and Sherry made small talk. Gabby talked about her children but Sherry seemed distant. She didn’t even fake it very well. I think Gabby got the hint when Sherry managed to twist a championship soccer game story into some man getting acquitted on embezzlement charges. Somehow Sherry found a comparison between them.
Sherry bragged about her partnership in her law firm, her half million income, her company car all of which we were proud of her for, but it would have been nice if she could reciprocate those same feelings. Our lives were too mundane for her; Gabby was a counselor for abused women, a menial job at best. Liz was a beautician on Executive Boulevard, and in Sherry’s eyes, I was the biggest failure. I left a career on television to be a stay-at- home mother.
“Do you ever think about what you want to be when you grow up?” Gabby asked Liz.
“A nurse. I’d like to be the kind that works with babies.”
“You mean the kind that deliver babies in a hospital,” Gabby tried clarifying. Her forehead was filled with wrinkles as she searched for the medical name for it. “Or the kind that works in a doctor’s office?”
“That’s a pediatric nurse,” Sherry stated.
“That’s the kind,” agreed Liz.
“What about you, Sherry?” Gabby asked. Sherry took little time to contemplate her answer, “I’m going to be a prosecuta’ in a large city and put away the scum of the earth. I’m neva’ getting married.” She went on about how a husband would stifle her plans. “And, I’m neva’ eva’ having kids! I don’t want to be some uneducated mom who has to clean up afta’ her lita’ all day, no offense to your mom, Gabby.”
“What about you, Gabby?”
“I haven’t really thought about it too much, but I guess a teacher would be cool, if not, a singer.”
Gabby sang in St. Ann’s children’s choir and was often the soloist. She had a powerful voice for such a dainty person. We used to listen to our records and give Gabby a hairbrush, which doubled as a microphone and she would stand in middle. We’d pretend to be the Supremes and Gabby always got to be Diana Ross. We even registered ourselves for the talent competition on the night of the Bicentennial. With Gabby as the lead vocalist our chances of winning would be pretty good.
As for me, I had no formal plans in mind for my future but I was too young to exclude children from being a part of it.
Nostalgia overcame me as we pulled up Justice Drive. Sherry acted casual, but I have to believe it brought back fond memories for her as well. Sherry hadn’t been back since her mother passed away, and it had been even longer for Gabby. This was her first return since her father had relocated to Texas.
The corner store was no longer in business; it had been converted to a mini-mart. The majority of the houses were the same - a few had been painted. Gabby’s went from olive drab to white with black shutters. We slowed outside Liz’s house. Red and white Begonias lined the walkway to the front door. The yard was painstakingly manicured and the hedges formed perfect rows beneath the front windows. The exterior part of the house was neatly painted but the roof had a few missing shingles.
“Remember when you got caught stealing something from old man Fester’s store?” Gabby reminded me. “It was a pack of gum,” I recalled, “and my father made sure I never went in there again.”
“Remember when we skipped school and walked to the mall?”
“And Sherry, you put that gaudy makeup on us.” Sherry nodded but remained distant as if we were never any significant part of her past. I could tell it bothered Gabby, but I wouldn’t allow Sherry’s dismissive attitude to keep me from reminiscing. “I do Gabby, didn’t we try to get in to see Jaws that afternoon with Sean and Danny?”
“What ever happened to them?” Gabby asked. “I have no idea where they are now?” Sherry finally felt the need to add something to the conversation, “What was that fat kid’s name, you know… the one with all the rolls?” Gabby looked up from the back and our eyes made contact in the rear-view mirror. “Oswald something, wasn’t it?” Sherry added. I was actually quite surprised she had remembered Butch - nothing about Gary, just Butch.
“Butch, Herman… Oswald… Butcheviwietz,” I told her.
“Jesus Peppa’, you rememba’ everything.
“Just the things that matter most,” I responded. I still didn’t tell Sherry who Liberty’s newest police chief was. It was Butch. I couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she would come face to face with both Gary and Butch.
I pulled up to Liz’s house and put the car in park. Without thinking, I sighed aloud. “What’s that for,” Sherry questioned.
“I guess I’m nervous,” I answered.
“Jesus, Pepper, you act like one of us did it,” she snapped back. Gabby later told me that if looks could kill, I’d have put her six feet under.
“Sherry, it’s murder charges for Chrissake!”
“If she didn’t do it, she’ll get off,” snapped Sherry.
“What do mean if she didn’t do it? You were there, Sherry. You know she didn’t do it!” a ticked off Gabby responded.
“She could have gone back,” Sherry mumbled.
“What? You don’t mean that!”
“Gabby, the murder went unsolved for two decades because Liberty’s bogus police department had their eyes up their asses. How hard did they work to prove everybody’s alibis…come on, were we really where we said we were?”
Sherry had a point. The investigation was shaky at best. But I wasn’t about to lead any guilt toward Liz, not after everything she had been through. My gut told me she didn’t do it. And for me that was good enough.
“Let’s get one thing straight, Sherry. You can pretend you don’t remember Danny and Gary. You can act more important than us,” my face was turning crimson with hostility, “we may have thought you were cool then, but guess what? We’re all grown up now. So, don’t act as if you had nothing to do with Mr. Townsend’s murder! None of us forgets who concocted that God damned plan!”
“Jesus Peppa’! Don’t get your panties in a bundle,” Sherry snapped back.
“Calm down you two. This won’t help Liz when we get inside,” urged Gabby.
I raised my hand up to her much like a crossing guard would do to stop traffic.
“Wait Gabby, I’m not finished yet! Liz’s freedom is on the line, and if it means telling the police everything that happened in order to clear her, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. Take that to your New York bank and…”
“Stop Peppa’!” Sherry yelled, “You’re right. Whateva’ we can do for Liz… I’ll do.”
My hands were trembling from the verbal thrashing. She studied me for a moment, then stretched her left hand over to mine and held her pinkie in the air, as juvenile a gesture as it may have been, we interlocked pinkies again. I was surprised Sherry had remembered our handshake. It was the very pact we used to keep Liz’s secret.
The front door opened to Liz’s house. Her appearance had dramatically changed from when I had seen her earlier at the county jail. It was as though she were throwing a social event. She was dressed up, hair covered with enough spray to trap flies, and her face was caked with makeup. I couldn’t help but wonder if all her preparation had something to do with insecurity she may have felt when she was around us as teenagers. Gabby jumped out of the car first to greet Liz. They embraced. Sherry stepped out next. As she walked up the sidewalk, I could see Liz primp her hair behind her ears. I was sure Liz was just a smidge too impressed by Sherry; she always had been. Sherry’s hug was much less authentic but Liz didn’t mind, nor could she tell.
“I can’t believe you made it.”
“Me neitha’,” a smug Sherry joked. I stepped on her toe, like mom did when I spoke too much during church.
“Whatever we can do to help Liz,” Gabby offered.
“Where are you both staying?”
“At my house.” Her look went blank as if we were having a slumber party and she weren’t invited.
“Did they place any restrictions on your bail?” Sherry asked.
“Just can’t leave town,” answered Liz.
“Then why don’t you stay at Peppa’s too?” Sherry suggested.
Liz’s face perked up, “I’m supposed to meet with Gary but I could come by later.” I felt bad for the words Sherry and I had exchanged earlier. It was classy of her to include Liz.
Mrs. Townsend pushed the screen door open. A rich chocolate aroma drifted towards us. “Why don’t you ladies come in? I baked some brownies.”
“Some things never change,” Gabby said. She was first to press through the front entrance, each of us greeted by Mrs. Townsend with a lively embrace.
Liz’s great room hadn’t changed much; the carpeting had darkened from its once, vibrant shade of orange. The couch was early American and the printed fabric from the seat cushion was barely visible. A pair of old swivel rockers rested near the far wall and a heavily used crocheted afghan was thrown over the back of the sofa. It too, was hues of orange and rust, very seventies. I remember it being Liz’s eighth grade home economics project. She and Gabby crocheted for months until it was complete. The curtains were about the only updated treatment in the house. They were simple beige sheers, which replaced the old heavily lined drapes. We each rested on the archaic furniture, maybe it was the comfort we felt being together again, but things just felt right.
It was fairly odd the way in which Mrs. Townsend had kept the outside of her home. Everything was just so perfect, not a flower out of its place. Inside was a different story. I likened it to how she carried herself - always dressed in her Sunday best, hair and make-up nearly flawless, yet I wondered if she could be so impeccable on the inside. How could she be so blind as to what had happened to Liz as a child?
A tall man wearing a taupe colored suit, entered from the kitchen with a tattered briefcase in his hand. I immediately recognized him to spite his maturity. The only evidence of his wavy black hair, were the few remaining straggly locks around the base of his ears and above the nape of his neck. The top of his head shone like a cue ball. He wore tortoise shell frames and carried an extra thirty in his mid-section.
I could see that neither Gabby nor Sherry recognized Gary at first. I have to admit, a small part of me was elated to see Sherry’s face when Liz introduced him as her attorney. “You remember Gary Angeli from when we were kids. He’s representing me,” she said. Gabby looked at him and then me, “Wow, Gary! Nice to see you again.” They exchanged a generous hug. Sherry’s eyes popped. She gave him such an obvious once-over look. “Oh- muy- Go-ad! Gary Freakin Angeli! No way!” He walked over to the chair where she was sitting.
"Sherry, you look terrific.”
“Did you expect any less?” she jested. Although he hugged each of us, he pecked her softly on her left cheek.
“No. No, I didn’t,” he responded.
“I didn’t know you went to Lawr’ school,” she conceded. “You would’ve if you weren’t so self-obsessed back then.”
“Ouch, I guess I deserved that, but you know…life’s a bumma,” her accent became thick again. It was funny how she could strengthen her accent when it pleased her.
Sherry and Gary had broken things off after the night of the Bicentennial. Gary was right; Sherry was a little too narcissistic. Once she left for college, they lost touch - funny how things work out.
“What are you doing with yourself nowadays?” she probed. I’m sure that was Sherry’s way of finding out if he was available. “I’ve got my own practice here in Liberty, we have three girls, and I coach soccer in my spare time.” I could see Sherry’s ears tune in when he said, we.
“You’re married?” Her transparency was obvious to me. I wondered if the others sensed this.
“Yes, been married for eight years now.”
“And you’ve got three girls? You must be busy.”
“My wife is busier than I am. Between school, soccer, their friends -you know how it is.”
On the contrary, Sherry didn’t have the slightest idea of what it would be like to have children, yet she pretended to be interested. “Oh, so your wife is,” the tone in her voice became condescending, “a stay-at-home mom.” I could see the enjoyment Sherry got in downplaying his wife. “Actually, she juggles our girls around her job. She’s a pediatrician. She’s got quite a following.”
“How nice,” Sherry mumbled.
I’m embarrassed to say I took some enjoyment from watching Sherry squirm. Again, life’s funny that way -it has a way of biting you on the ass when you least expect it. And Sherry’s bottom would be sore for days to come.
“We have plenty of time to catch up later, but for now we need to focus on Liz.” Gary said, as he pulled out some files. He spread them across the coffee table, careful not to let the edges of paper touch the brownies. “Now from what I can see, the only thing they have is your diary…”
Sherry interrupted, “You kept it in your diary for Chrissake!” A humiliated expression crossed Liz’s face, the kind that resembles a puppy being scolded.
“We all kept diaries,” Liz snapped back.
“I kept one too,” Gabby added.
“It’s not the fact that you kept the diary, Liz. It’s what you put in it,” Gary said, as he flipped through the pages until he came across a small yellow tab.
“Right here… ’The look in his eyes at the end of the day almost makes me physically sick. I wish he were dead.’ That’s all the motive they need right there.”
Gary still didn’t know about Liz’s past with her father. We never did know if Liz had told anyone else. I assumed by now she may have entered some kind of therapy or counseling but she never mentioned it in any of our correspondences. I couldn’t imagine her functioning in everyday life without facing up to that demon at one time or another. As a beautician she must have gossiped for hours on end with her clients, but I don’t suppose she trusted any of them with her deepest secret.
“Most kids hated their parents when they were teenagers,” Sherry defended Liz. Gary looked at Sherry then Liz, “True but…”
“But what,” I said.
“Well. They found blood near the path. “Jesus Gary, we all hung out there. Any one of us could have left blood there.”
“I know Sherry, but that’s just it. Now we’re fortunate enough to have DNA testing which we didn’t have in ’76. The DNA proves Liz’s blood was near the crime scene. “What does that mean, Gary?” Gabby inquired.
“It just means they have stronger evidence against Liz.”
I thought for sure Liz would finally speak up and tell Gary what happened that night but she said nothing, as did the rest of us.
“I need for each of you to think back to the night he was murdered. Do you remember anyone else being there?”
Liz continued to remain silent. It was killing me. I wanted to tell Gary everything.
Instead, I froze. Sherry was calling all the shots. She knew the law better than anyone of us. We took our cues from her.
“Gary, we told Officer Simms we were out there but we never saw anything.”