Falling in Love

Barnett Garrison had a way with women. And women had their way with Barnett Garrison.

Instead of asking family to care for Barnett, Maude Emily turned to a lawyer friend from church. James Shoemake applied to be Barnett's guardian, and shortly afterward, Gary and Annette did, too, though Gary soon dropped out.

It was necessary before the appointment to certify Barnett non compos mentis. This was done with the help of Barnett's neurologist, Dr. Arthur Ericsson, who checked off a list of things he thought Barnett could not do: drive, vote, seek employment, make medical decisions, spend money "in excess of $0" or decide whether to marry. "A total lack of any judgment," the doctor wrote.

By February 1995, Maude Emily was dead when the court appointed Annette "guardian of the person of Barnett Wade Garrison" and Shoemake guardian of the estate. Because Barnett was an incapacitated person, his money would go to his closest relatives when he died, unless, of course, a wife survived him.

Niecee finally got Speedy to leave the house beside the river for a small condominium in the western part of the city. When he was stricken there by Alzheimer's, she nursed him for six years, and they had been married for 30 when he died in 1995. Niecee didn't cry at the funeral. She said, "I was a good wife, he was a good husband and we had a good marriage. Now he's gone, and I have to go forward."

By this time, her red hair had gone gray, and her skin had begun settling into folds, but in her eyes and smile, Niecee still bore evidence of beauty. Setting forth to find a job, she told employers that most of her references had died, and most of her workplaces had been demolished. They told Niecee she was young at heart. Finally, they told her she was just the person to be the new receptionist at Sugar Land Oaks Guest Home. Niecee said, "I am the best damn receptionist you'll ever find," and happily accepted.

This, in Niecee's memory, is what happened then:
Sugar Land Oaks Guest Home is a long brick building on a shadeless plot of land. The guest home is actually a rest home, but management didn't like guests resting near the front door, and so it was part of Niecee's job to roust them. One afternoon in October 1996, she says she was doing this when she told a big, slouching fellow, "Wake up. You're about to fall out of your chair."

Barnett's eyes fluttered open then, and he said to Niecee, "You don't know what it's like to wake up from a dream and see a beautiful angel."

Niecee, who had not heard such words from a man in many years, was deeply flattered. Barnett asked her for a date, and she told him her husband had recently died. When he apologized, she said, "No need," and he asked again. She said she was too old for him. He said he was used to older women. She said it was against company rules.

But Barnett kept returning to the foyer, keeping his eyes open, mutely staring. Niecee couldn't help but look him over, too. He shuffled and trembled, but someone told her his handshake could "bring a strong man to his knees." Niecee watched Barnett sink small fortunes into the snack machine. She marveled at his hunger.

Finally, she leaned over her desk and began speaking with him. Barnett could never remember her name, so he called her by her middle name, Mercedes, which always rang a bell. When he told her that she talked too fast, she slowed down. When he seemed to be searching for a word, she provided it. She said, "Barnett, I make you think, don't I?" and Barnett agreed that she did. Niecee asked him questions, and she took it as a compliment to her intuition when Barnett told her he really didn't have to answer her questions. All he had to do was wait, and she would answer them herself.

One day, she brought him chocolate-covered cherries. Another day, she said, "Barnett, why didn't you ever get married? Was it that instead of making one woman miserable, you wanted to make a lot of women happy?"

And Barnett told her then about the woman who had made him miserable -- not the details, just that he had been married to Candace Mossler, and she had been "a real roadrunner." Niecee gathered there had been some discord between them, but that really wasn't her concern. Barnett was strong and nice -- certainly the most agreeable of men. And now she had learned he was single. Niecee began flirting with him, and when people on the staff told her about the accident, Barnett's brain damage, her devotion to him only grew stronger. She had found another man she could help.

That Thanksgiving, no family visited Barnett, said Niecee, and Barnett, as usual, spent the evening sitting with her, drinking coffee. The night grew cold and rainy. Niecee got up to clock out, and when she returned, she found Barnett had left his coat. She took it to his room, and he said he had meant it for her. Niecee said, coyly, "It'll smell like perfume when you get it back," and Barnett, showing a bit of the old snap, leaned out the door to kiss Niecee Wolcik, who did not resist.

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