Falling in Love

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

"I have my rights!" Barnett was saying, but Curtis was there to answer, "No, Barney, you don't have any rights. You're just like a little-bitty baby." Barnett said he didn't understand, and Curtis said he knew Barnett didn't understand, but he still didn't have any rights.

Niecee heard Barnett call her name, but Curtis said no, she couldn't come. They shuffled away, the doors closed behind them, and Niecee drove home alone. The next day, when her doorbell rang, she was served with a court order forbidding contact with her husband.

In his absence, Barnett somehow filled an even larger space in her life. Niecee admits she became obsessed. He had always been something of a blank slate, and now that he was gone, she undertook to discover who he was. She went to the library to read old newspapers. She went to the courthouse to read about money and legal status. Nothing she saw affected her feelings: Barnett was her man. She had found him and would not easily let him go.

The showdown was held in the Fort Bend County court of Judge Thomas Stansbury, during the hearing for the permanent injunction. Hisses of "gold digger!" greeted Niecee when she arrived. Barnett's family had done their own preparations. A private detective had looked into Niecee's past and had failed to find anything exciting. Another doctor had been paid to re-evaluate Barnett. Dr. Martin Steiner did the examination on April 24, 1997, but Barnett thought the month was February and had no idea of the year. He had trouble recalling his own birth date. He didn't know the name of his nephew, who had brought him, or that this person was his nephew. Barnett didn't even know what city he was in.

"Certainly, he has some limitations," Niecee allowed. But she accepted Barnett for what he was -- a brain-damaged man in need of love. Niecee thought it was obvious Barnett's family didn't love him. In the guardian's report, Annette had sworn she visited Barnett 200 times in a year; Niecee was at Sugar Land Oaks for six months and saw Annette twice, both times after she was called about a problem.

If loving Barnett was such a chore, why not relinquish it? Niecee said caring for a man was what she did best. She had planned to ask Barnett's family for the salary she would forfeit to care for him, but being a practical woman with simple needs, Niecee decided she only needed the $2,000 a month that was paid to the nursing home.

Her love for Barnett was "sweet and pure." The home she had in mind would be "filled with love and warm fuzzies."

The court listened to this kind of talk but was finally swayed by Dr. Steiner, who said Barnett could never have understood the marriage ceremony. Niecee even heard that Barnett didn't know what he was doing when he consummated their union. But she had been there: she knew that if there was one thing Barnett understood, it was that.

Nonetheless, she was permanently banned from her husband. Barnett was not asked what he thought and was not in fact there.

He was somewhere in the pastel halls of Sugar Land Oaks, but when a visitor came for him, the new receptionist didn't know where. Before she looked, she called an administrator, who called Annette Schmidt, who said the message should be relayed that Barnett was unavailable.

Annette was not available either. Messages to her house were finally returned by Gary Garrison, who said, "I think you need to talk to me." He said Barnett had caused the family a lot of "agony and anguish," but he didn't want to talk about that or about Niecee. He really didn't want to talk at all.

Niecee had trouble saying good-bye to Barnett. It was easier with Speedy because he had died, she said, whereas Barnett was still there, behind the walls, just beyond her reach. She was allowed to get to him only by letter, and so Niecee wrote scores of letters, addressing them as Candace had to Barnett's family, hoping they would pass them on. Niecee kept copies for herself, and taken together, the letters have the tone of a daydream, of a woman speaking to herself of love.

"Darling, when on the long nights your arms are empty," think of her, she wrote.

Darling, "just the other night as I lay in bed and watched the moonlight play among the leaves of a tree," she thought of him, she wrote.

Barnett could be anything she wanted him to be, and Niecee decided finally, she wanted him to be someone else -- not a gentle man but a brave one who might scale the walls and come to her in the night.

"I want to know what the young Barnett would do in this situation," she wrote. "I trust you have the same courage. I certainly hope so, for I could never love a coward."

But Barnett never appeared in her window. He never responded to a single letter. Last March, when Judge Stansbury declared their marriage "null and void," her daughter asked if Niecee would commit suicide. "Good lord, no," said Niecee. "I'm not that type."

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