by Tim Gilmore, 4/9/2017
“I got to ask you somethin’,” Debbie says. “It’s about a memory my mama had that bothered her all the rest of her life.”
She’s come to me in a hurry. We sit side by side in foldable metal chairs. Her voice is gruff. The funk of recent cigarettes fumes violently in my nostrils. Her eyes and hair sag wearily.
“First, though, you are the man who wrote the book about Ottis Toole, right?”
It’s the penultimate performance of Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, the play the gracious and brilliant director Ken McCullough asked me to adapt from my 2013 book about the enigmatically sad pseudo-serial killer.
I tell her I am and that I’m intrigued.
“Now, this Toole,” she says, leaning forward and looking up at me earnestly. “He have a partner that he rode around with?”
“He did,” I say. “Henry Lee Lucas.”
She nods once. “And this thing that happened, it was 1978, year I graduated high school. What year did Toole go to jail?”
I tell her how Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas met at a downtown Jacksonville homeless shelter on Valentine’s Day, 1976. I mention Ottis’s pyromania, how George Sonnenberg died in that East 2nd Street housefire Ottis set. I tell her Ottis was arrested for arson in 1983, and once in jail, set out wildly on a murder confession spree.
Debbie nods again. “The dates work out right,” she says.
I ask her about her mother.
“She used to work in the toll booths on the Fuller Warren Bridge, you know, taking the tolls as cars went through. You ’member them tolls?”
I say I do. The toll booths stood on downtown’s Fuller Warren, formerly the Gilmore Street Bridge, from 1954 to 1988.
“So one day,” she says, “this big heavy car comes through and these two men’s in the front and they got a dead woman sittin’ up in the back seat. My mama never got over it. She seen that dead woman’s face for the rest of her life.”
“How did she know the woman was dead?” I ask. “She was sure the woman wasn’t just sleeping?”
Debbie nods once. “They had her all fixed up like she was alive, but anybody could tell that was a dead woman.”
“What did your mother do?”
“She couldn’t call nobody from the toll booth. The next car comes up, she says to the driver, ‘You see that car in front of you? You follow that car and get the license plate. They got a dead woman in that car. You get that license plate and you stop somewhere and call the police.”
“So what happened?”
“Never did know.” Debbie looks earnestly into my eyes. “In your research, did you ever come across a police report like that?”
“No,” I say. “I never did.”
Debbie looks to the polished stone floor and shakes her head from side to side.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“I guess whoever they was, they got away with that one. We always wondered. That dead woman’s face. It burn’d a reflection in my mama’s mind. That dead woman’s face was there until the day my mama died.”