Falling in Love

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Downtown, the couple picked up their marriage license, sufficiently impressing the clerk that he escorted them out and stopped traffic as they crossed San Jacinto.

Barnett shuffled across with his walker, and Niecee, who at 73 was 15 years older, held onto his arm. They ascended the courthouse to the chambers of Judge Elizabeth Ray. Waiting through another ceremony that March afternoon in 1997, Niecee realized she was as nervous as the first time she had done this, more than a half-century before. But not Barnett. He seemed utterly blissful, and Niecee loved him for that.

"I do," she said in her honey-sweet Southern way. Barnett said he did, too, but he couldn't get the ring onto Niecee's finger. She put her finger into her mouth and pushed the ring on with her teeth. Married at last, again. Niecee smiled and kissed her man.

Back at her place, she helped him take off everything she had helped him put on -- the medium-blue suit she had chosen because it matched her skirt, the blue shirt she had selected, whose buttons and cuff links his fingers could not maneuver. Barnett and Niecee lay down together on her pink, lacy bed. He was "passionate yet gentle and considerate" -- just the man for her. And Niecee was lying there, musing over their future, when the telephone rang, and she was told to put her husband back where she had found him, for he was a ward of the state.

She discovered Barnett Garrison in the nursing home. He was not the man he used to be, and Niecee Wolcik was glad of it. She had heard he was a playboy, and she couldn't have loved a man like that. It wouldn't have worked out.

In old newspaper pictures, Barnett looks vaguely like Nicolas Cage, a hulking fellow with a grin that might at any moment become a glower. At Rice, where he briefly held a track scholarship, Barnett was huge for a miler -- about six foot four and 220 pounds. His teammates said he was rough and rowdy, "kind of a crazy guy." He wore a look on his face that said, "stay out of my way, or I'll kill you," Taylor Jones recalled, and he was the only freshman the football players declined to haze. Jones remembered him as a thug.

His teammates said that maybe school wasn't as fun as he thought it would be. Whatever the case, in 1958, Barnett dropped out of Rice after only a year. He began spending his days working as an electrician with his father, and his nights cultivating his social life. At some point, Barnett became the owner of several nightclubs. And living as he did in this town at that time, being something of a connoisseur of beautiful women, Barnett eventually crossed paths with Candace Mossler.

She was "the all-time all-American femme fatale," according to Esquire magazine, but that honor came later, of course, with Barnett's generous help. At the time, Candace was simply a Georgia farm girl whose previous husband had been found stabbed 39 times, a few years before. Narrowly escaping a murder conviction, Candace had been left wealthy but more lonely. The River Oaks set no longer attended her soirees. The man charged as her accomplice, Mel Powers, was no longer her lover. So one evening in 1970, during a party in her mansion, Candace was looking for friends when her eyes fell upon the electrician. The lethal look that scared others away drew her closer. Spotting him across the room, Candace said, according to legend, "That man is mine!"

She was 24 years older than Barnett's 32. She confessed only to 17, and thanks to the kindness of time and the plastic surgeon, she looked younger than that. Genes or the plastic surgeon had afforded Candace a tremendous, heaving breast. The murder had afforded wealth. Barnett stared down on this 95-pound female package, and what else could he say but "I do"?

They were married in a quiet church ceremony in July 1971. Barnett quickly learned what Candace could do for his career. In the Chronicle announcement the next day, he was promoted to electrical engineer, and in the Post, to electrical contractor. All signs were that Candace loved her man. She no longer needed a man for money, and this one dressed well and carried a gun. Candace began flashing new diamond rings around, telling reporters Barnett had bought them for her "because I am the best friend he ever had." On the wall of her office, she hung the picture of a kitten on a satin pillow. Barnett had written there, "My love for you is infinite."

It was infinite to the extent that Barnett would never recover. Some people still think Mel must have come between Candace and Barnett, but those who knew the couple say they had been drinking and feuding on August 13, 1972, when she locked herself in her bedroom. Barnett stormed off to one of his clubs and returned later that night, drunker. All the doors were locked, and Barnett had no keys. In a house of 62 rooms, there must have been easier points of entry than those on the third floor, but Candace's room was up there, and the police concluded Barnett was trying to get to Candace. They found his shoes on the lawn below, a sock balled up inside. On the steep slate roof, they found scuff marks and a gutter torn away. Barnett had fallen into the long summer night, 16 feet per second per second, head over heels for Candace Mossler.

Like Candace, Niecee grew up on a farm, and like Candace, she took the first man out of there. But Niecee's farm was in Texas, her man was not rich, and during World War II, she arrived in Houston as the wife of a stevedore.

"I probably mix a little realism with my romanticism," she says. When the stevedore began beating her, Niecee had a child by him, thinking a child would change things. The child only locked her in. Niecee worked in Pasadena factories, raised her daughter and stood by her man for 20 years. In 1963, after her daughter came of age, she packed up her clothes and left.

She developed a preference after that for men more wounded than wounding. If Candace was a destroyer of men, Niecee became their nurse -- "the Florence Nightingale syndrome," she called it. Thus, when her best friend committed suicide, Niecee offered to the widower the concern she had extended to the friend. She took care of the man's children, cried with and consoled him. She offered wisdom: "The heart that finds love once always searches for it again." Niecee became his friend and, in 1965, his wife.

They lived in a little house on the banks of the San Jacinto River. O.C. Wolcik, like Barnett, had been a track star in high school, and ever after was known as Speedy. He cut sheet metal for a living, and Niecee worked as a receptionist in a doctor's office. They taught Sunday school together, held hands at parties, grew old without conflict. "It was a safe love," said Niecee. "A storybook marriage."

A friend described Niecee's life as "boring." A pastor who knew her 30 years said he "couldn't think of a thing unique about her in any way." Speedy's brother, Marvin, said "Niecee was pretty strong-headed." He lived beside the couple and recalled that when Niecee gave an opinion, she would say, "That's how we feel, isn't it, Speedy?" And Speedy, who never said much, would nod his head.

"She was the kind of woman who made a man think he was doing what he wanted to do," said Marvin, "when really he was doing what she wanted him to do."

The butler came at 10 a.m., and found Barnett beneath Candace's window, unconscious in a pool of blood.

Candace was still in her room when police told her the news. She became "incoherent," the news stories say. Barnett was taken to Methodist Hospital and placed under the care of the best doctors. For six weeks, he lay in a coma, and when he emerged, Candace bought a Cadillac and Ferrari for the doctors, and took her man, such as he was, back to the lair.

There he lay.
"On or about April 16, 1973," according to Candace's divorce petition, "without the knowledge or consent of the Plaintiff, Barnett Garrison was taken from his residence by his parents." Candace called them, but they told her Barnett would not be coming to the phone or returning to her home. Again and again, Candace called and had others call for her. She never got through. Candace wrote letters, sent flowers and gifts, offered condolences when Barnett's father died. Much of it came back in the return mail.

It took lawyers to get them into the same room again. When Barnett refused to be left alone with his wife, Candace realized at last that her lures no longer affected him. She concluded that her husband had been "brainwashed" against her, and in 1974, she filed for divorce.

The lawyers were still haggling two years later, when Candace, stuffed with painkillers and sleeping pills, was found dead in a Miami hotel room. They haggled on. In the end, Candace was buried beside her murdered husband, and the crippled husband was given $500,000 for his perpetual care.

Barnett went on with his life. He was variously described in this period as "a nice man," "a hell of a nice guy" and "a very funny guy for someone severely brain-damaged." In the Sugar Land subdivision of Venetian Estates, he settled in with his mother. He had trouble walking, neighbors said, but got along quite well aboard a large tricycle. He mowed the yard and did odd jobs. Barnett's social life consisted of his mother's garden club meetings and Bible study groups and coffee with the neighbors. Gaston White said Barnett would appear with his empty mug and his dog ("He loved his puppy dog"), and sometimes they would watch movies together, and sometimes Barnett would sit on the back porch and smoke his pipe. He spoke haltingly and never had much to say. When the Whites asked about his accident, Barnett answered with only a word. "Crazy," he murmured and shook his head.

He stopped coming outside when his mother grew ill. For 20 years, Maude Emily Garrison had been Barnett's protector, and as she was dying of cancer, she began arranging for his future. There were two other children -- Barnett's twin sister, Annette Schmidt, and a brother named Gary Garrison -- and Maude Emily went to some trouble to keep them from Barnett. In her will, "after lengthy and careful consideration," she declared that Gary must deliver a written promise never to interfere in Barnett's estate, or Gary's share of Maude Emily's property would go to charity. Later, she added a proviso that anyone who contested this will also would forfeit their right to benefit from it.

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.

"I said, 'Barnett, what do you want from me?' and he said, 'I don't know,' and I said, 'You want to make love to me, don't you? Well, I might enjoy that, too.' "

But rules forbade Niecee from going into his room, or Barnett from leaving the premises. Niecee left the matter alone and set about doing the things that signified her claim on a man: mending Barnett's clothes, ironing his shirts, shining his shoes. She even cleaned his dentures, though that made her queasy.

Barnett, meanwhile, seems to have begun plotting. He told Niecee he would find a way for them to be together, and around Christmas, the guest, with his walker, tried to walk away from the Guest Home. People were sent to bring him back. When Barnett was invited to his sister Annette's Christmas party, he thought he had found the solution: He told Niecee she was coming with him, but Niecee said she hadn't been invited, and it was against the rules. The car came for Barnett, but he wouldn't get in.

So they went on as usual with their conversations at her desk. Nearly everyone had learned of Barnett's crush, if only from the way he ogled Niecee. Her feelings for him, however, were not widely known until the dance on Valentine's Day, when Niecee slowly waltzed with Barnett to "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," the staff watching in awe.

As her position at Sugar Land Oaks became more tenuous, Niecee's place with Barnett grew stronger. Annette misinterpreted Barnett's restlessness as only a longing for freedom, and trying to appease him, she gave permission for Barnett to leave the Guest Home each week for archery practice. This had done the trick.

Every Saturday, Niecee began meeting Barnett at Viking Archery, telling the driver she would take it from there. Barnett, who had a severe tremor in his right hand, never did hit a bull's-eye that Niecee saw, but then, they didn't spend much time at the range. Niecee would help him into her car, and they would go for sandwiches and cappuccino. Then they would go parking at Richmond State Park.

"I said to him, 'Barnett, you know, this is hell, at our age, to be sitting in the park doing this heavy smooching,' and he said, 'Yeah, but you know, it's kind of nice.' "

Being a sensible 73-year-old woman, Niecee never let things get too out of hand. There in the car with his arms around her, she often just wanted to talk. Before long, Niecee was telling Barnett that she was not a plaything and was not here to play games. It was either all or nothing. She would be the only one in his life, or she wouldn't be in his life at all. "I told Barnett, 'I'm sorry your marriage was not a good one. Mine was, and I will not accept anything less.' "

Barnett did not run away, and Niecee began talking practical matters. She said her 1994 Cutlass suited her fine, but he was a big man, and if he wanted a bigger car, she wouldn't object. As for furniture, perhaps they could reupholster her old couch. She would want her grandchildren welcome in their home. Also, she would like him to know she had donated her body to medical science, and did he have a problem with that? Barnett said he didn't, as long as the cadaver had his last name.

He never mentioned anything about a guardian or his rights as a citizen, but Barnett did sense his family would come between them. He told Niecee there would be hell to pay if they got married. She asked to stand beside him as they faced their problems, and that was as close to a proposal as they got. Barnett agreed to everything. Marriage was just something they agreed on together.

Niecee quit her job at the rest home. She returned a few days later and signed the register "Niecee Garrison," and took her man home.

"Are you sleeping with my brother?" Annette asked.
Barnett's hunger had indeed been sated, but on the telephone, Niecee only replied, "We're married." Shrieks and squeals then, not of joy but of horror. Niecee's sister-in-law shouted, "It's the money! It's the money!" And she told Niecee to return Barnett immediately, or face charges of kidnapping.

Niecee hung up the phone. She didn't think she could be charged with kidnapping; on the other hand, she didn't want to go to jail. She told Barnett it was time to go. Hurry up, she said.

They rushed back to where they started, back to the front door of Sugar Land Oaks. When they pulled up, Barnett's sister was waiting, along with his nephew, Curtis O'Brian, and a policeman. As Curtis came for Barnett, Niecee went directly to the officer. "Are you here to arrest me?" she asked. He said no, and she showed him her marriage license. The officer looked at it but did nothing to stop Curtis from taking her husband. As Niecee recalls it, Annette rushed forth, wagging her finger, telling Barnett, "You're going to be medicated and put in lockup because of this slut!"

"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."

The romance novels she reads do not end that way. Niecee tired at last of talking to herself. She became the new receptionist at a rest home called Parkway Place, and though she hasn't fallen in love again, she can't swear it won't happen. After the annulment, she quit writing Barnett. She signed off:

"No matter how long I live, I'll remember ... the feel of your strong arms holding me, the look in your eyes as you made love to me.... There will always be a spot in my heart that says, 'I belong to Barnett Wade Garrison.' God bless and keep you always. Love, Niecee."

E-mail Randall Patterson at randall_patterson@ houstonpress.com.

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