Johnson was a record keeper, with a tidy mind. It took only a minute to discover that the cabinet was mostly filled with old lesson plans, outdated grade books, notes on projects half completed, and half a hundred personal profiles of his students. Johnson was clearly a good teacher, with a real feeling for his students. After an hour I knew which students were addicts, which ones were being beaten at home, which ones Johnson suspected were being sexually abused, and which ones he thought had a real chance to make it out of Garberville.
I didn’t want to know about his students, but what Johnson chose to say about them told me things I needed to know about him.
At four-thirty, he came home, unlocked the door, dropped a pile of papers on a chair by the door, and called, “Charlie!” The chunky old gray cat that had kept me company while I went through Johnson’s records got out of my lap and loped toward his master. Johnson saw me then, sitting with my back to the wall in a shadowed corner of his living room.
He didn’t say anything. He just opened the screen door and let the cat out. Then he looked at me and waited. He knew his world had just fallen apart. He didn’t know how, or why, but he had known for years that it was coming. I could read that between every line he had written, and I had been reading his life all afternoon.
I gestured toward the sofa. He moved over and sat down.
Silence filled up the room.
I said, “Tell me about Susyn.”
He closed his eyes. Twin tears broke loose and streaked his cheeks. I had hit him hard, where he was most vulnerable. He said, “What do you want to know?”
“When did you see her last?”
“Last Christmas? Seven months?”
“Do you know what she has been doing with herself?”
He shrugged. I waited. There was no fight in him. She had torn the heart out of him years ago, and left this shell behind. The divorce had told me part of that. The letters that she had written him after the divorce had told me the rest.
Johnson seemed to sink into the couch. He wiped his face and shook his head. I said, “She has been trying to murder the woman I love.”
The sound that escaped him was somewhere between a whimper and a sigh. It was the saddest sound I had ever heard.
“Who is Jim Davis?” I asked.
A look crossed Johnson’s face, like a ripple of wind across still water. Fierce joy.
“Good,” he said. “I’m glad.” more tomorrow