A Passel of Plumeria

by Robert Levin














This time the news was
completely delivered in under a minute, but I caught it and it made me rise
from my seat.

 

“Yes!” I heard myself say to
the TV. “Yes! Of course!

 

It was 1992 now and while
years had passed since Walter and Anna Marie were an object of media interest I,
for one, hadn’t forgotten this couple. I'd first become aware of them—and been as
aghast at Walter's actions as everyone else—on the evening of the incident, an
evening in July of 1985, when New York TV stations carried reports from their South
Florida affiliates. It wasn’t until the fall though, when they made the wires
again on the day Walter was sentenced, that they got a serious grip on my attention.





What transpired at the
sentencing had also triggered a major focus on Walter and Anna Marie in the
Miami Herald and the Kendall Star, the journal representing the Miami suburb in
which they lived, and I was, for the next few mornings, a regular customer at
the out-of-town newspaper store on Broadway and 72nd Street. As I'm inclined to
do, I was thinking about the breadth of human resourcefulness in response to
the horrific knowledge of being mortal, about the variety of remedies, usually
subconscious, often implausible and sometimes abhorrent, that we've fashioned
for the mother of all anxieties. And albeit a strictly visceral reaction at
this stage, I was, upon seeing the headlines, at odds with what these papers
were making of the extraordinary events at the sentencing. In step with the
newscasts I'd watched, the Herald referred to Walter and Anna Marie as the
"Demented Duo" and a piece in the Star was titled "The Twisted
Psychology of a Victim." But notwithstanding my quarrel with what struck
me as limited vision, both the Star and the Herald published extensive articles
that promised details, and details being what I wanted (and was gratified to
discover—they would buttress my faith in my instincts) I read everything. I
found the Star especially valuable. It ran interviews not only with Anna Marie,
who recalled entire conversations with Walter almost verbatim, but with family
members and others. And it printed numerous photographs, images of the incident
site among them.



 



Twenty years old at the time,
Walter was five nine and squarely built with unruly shoulder-length hair that
shrouded much of his angular face but failed to wholly obscure a profusion of
severe acne scars. Although he had his share of friends, one of them a
confidante who was interviewed at length, his inclination was to keep to
himself, and snapshots from his early childhood—he was the youngest of four
boys—revealed that his perpetually dour countenance had been a lifelong
characteristic. From the week following his high school graduation through to
the incident date, Walter worked as an auto mechanic at a popular gas station
where he was reputed to be indolent and less than tidy when it came to the
simple tasks but was also known as a talented problem solver. He'd procrastinate
about the easy things, and leave a wrench in a gear shift or oil stains on a
steering wheel when he was finally done. But in respect to a car's more elusive
issues he would engage and persevere until he'd produced the correct diagnosis
and solution. His declared ambition was to eventually own a repair shop. His
preoccupation, however, was Anna Marie.



 



Anna Marie was two months
younger than Walter and a full head shorter. If she could claim prominent
breasts and large green eyes with long and thick lashes, she was hardly, at
least insofar as her appearance was concerned, a woman you'd expect a man to be
obsessed with. Her nose was too big, her cheeks too fleshy, her chin too brief,
her bottom too broad and her "dirty" blonde hair (which she wore at
shoulder length or pulled into a ponytail) too stringy. A brother of Walter's described
her as "maybe a six." Employed since high school as an assistant
manager in a supermarket in Kendall's largest shopping center, she lived in a
two-bedroom apartment with her mother who was suffering from an abundance of
ailments and essentially house-bound. It was the same apartment in which she'd been
raised. Her father, a building construction worker, had died on her ninth
birthday, not long after he was trapped in a fire ignited by a gas explosion. She
was an only child.



 



Walter and Anna Marie met in
their junior year of high school and that was when, as another of Walter's
brothers expressed it, the "simple teenage crush that just got crazy"
commenced. Walter had apparently been love-struck the instant he saw Anna Marie.
They were in three of the same classes and in the opening weeks of the term he
maneuvered to sit near her whenever he could. (He would lean towards her to capture
her fragrance, to study her face and to watch for the bra straps that tended to
slip below the short sleeves of her blouses.) But she showed no interest in
him, never so much as glanced in his direction, and his natural shyness
exacerbated by the inflamed condition of his pimples in this period, it was
beyond him to make a move on her.



 



Then, on a midweek morning in
late October, she was passing his desk and tripped over his book bag which
happened to be protruding into the aisle. She crashed against the desk in front
of his and he heard her groan. Seizing the opportunity to help her, he felt the
cool flesh of her arm in his hand and would "forever remember" the
"electrical current" that charged through him when they made this
first physical contact. As she composed herself, pressing her fingers to her
forehead—she was in evident pain—she took a hard look at him and smiled.



 



"Is this your way of
flirting?" She said.



 



Walter, taken aback, his face
hot, had no answer. He only gaped at her.



 



"The book bag," she
said, still smiling. "Well, it worked. My name's Anna Marie. What's
yours?" She held out her hand and he noticed a welt beginning to form over
one of her eyes. "I could have croaked," she said. "But I'm
still here."



 



Dating by the weekend, Walter
and Anna Marie were "going steady" in a matter of days and they
defined their relationship that way for a full year. "Sixteen! The best
year of my life," Walter would say. Much of their time was spent in Anna
Marie's room. Down a long hallway from her mother's and largely unchanged since
her girlhood, the capacious room was painted pink and all but consumed by a
collection of gargantuan ragdolls and oversized, multi-colored pillows strewn
on the bed and the floor, and they'd talk spiritedly there for hours at a
stretch.



 



As a rule Walter had little
to say about himself and spoke mainly about cars. He could name the make, model
and year of every car on the road. But on one evening he told Anna Marie that
he'd never felt "wholeheartedly loved" by his parents. Walter's
parents owned a modest one-story house a short bus ride from Anna Marie and Walter
shared a bedroom with his second-youngest brother—which accounted for why Anna
Marie seldom reciprocated his visits. His father was a mid-level executive at
an auto parts company and his mother a part-time bookkeeper. They were depicted
by the Herald as "intensely private people" and few in the community
were personally acquainted with them. "Don't get me wrong," Walter
said. "They're okay. They've done what they were supposed to. They haven't
abused me or anything like that. But I never get the strokes my brothers get. I
think—my mother mostly—they didn't want another kid, definitely not another
boy, and that I probably wasn't supposed to happen."



 



In turn Anna Marie, who was
enamored of horror films and would chatter about their plots in every detail,
abandoned her favorite topic to tell Walter
about her father in the ICU after the fire. "He was in God-awful
pain," she said. "Even though he was taking morphine the pain just
overwhelmed it. He was in agony and couldn't move 'cause they had him strapped
down. Then he breathed funny and passed away, just like that. All that pain, it
was for nothing. What's the point of pain if you don't live through it? If it
had been something he had to feel to stay alive, that would be one thing. But
then he died. I still dream about it. And about dying like that myself."



 



They also made out a lot. The
both of them still virgins, they brought each other to climax with their hands.



 



In their first year Walter
would experience facets of Anna Marie that served to strengthen his feelings
for her. She'd shop for acne ointments and then apply them to his face herself.
Walking next to him on the street, she'd suddenly, for no particular reason,
grab and embrace him. But she was not without some troubling aspects.



 



Given to a seemingly willful
carelessness, she'd often march across streets against the light and in total
disregard of flowing traffic. And habitually leaving her opened handbag on a
restaurant table or chair when she went to the ladies room or was engrossed in
conversation, she was time and again a victim of theft. (After one such event
in Walter's company, he took to holding her bag when he was out with her.)



 



What's more, there were
stretches that could last for several days in which she'd become listless and
distant. The loss of her attentiveness upset Walter. But so did her
unhappiness. He couldn't stand to see her in distress. He wanted her to feel
good. He needed her to feel good.
"What happens to her happens to me," he said to the friend in whom he
confided. "It's like my nerves are soldered to her nerves."



 



For Anna Marie, what was most
impressive about Walter in this beginning year was his "gentle
nature" and the "incredible generosity"—the steady flow of presents
and flowers—that accompanied it. But vying for top spot with those distinctions
was his "slovenliness." His schoolwork notes were such "an
unholy mess" that she had to spend entire days organizing them for him.
And his "indifference to personal care" was "almost a
joke." He'd wear the same shirt for a week. His sneakers had holes in
them. Though she loved his long hair it was "insistently unkempt" and
she wished he would "style it more." Sometimes his "seedy"
appearance was "seriously aggravating." More often than not it was
"endearing."



 



They had their first real sex
when they were seventeen. Walter deemed the milestone near to spiritual. Anna
Marie thought it was "good," but that something was missing. "Do
you have to treat me so delicately?" She asked the next time they slept
together "Why don't you push me around a little?" But he couldn't do
that. Hurting her was the last thing he could do. She frowned at him and he
felt chastened and inadequate.



 



And it was during the year
they turned seventeen, and not long after she'd asked Walter to take her
kayaking in the Everglades and he'd exclaimed—"Are you kidding? With the alligators?"—that Anna Marie
remarked to a friend: "Walter's pusillanimous."



 



"Pusill-what?" the
friend said.



 



"Funny word, huh?" Anna
Marie said. "It came up in a crossword. It means he's chickenshit. He's so
sweet to me, which I love. But sometimes he's too timid. It's all sugar and no
spice."



 



It was also in that year that
a shift occurred in their relationship.



 



A new reality began, Walter
soon realized, on the day an older boy gave Anna Marie a ride on his
motorcycle. When Walter connected with her later she was wearing a heavy
bandage on her ankle. "It still stings," she said breathlessly.
"We skidded on a slick patch and we actually grazed the ground before he
got the bike upright again." She lifted the bandage to show him the burn.
"Do you think it'll leave a scar?" He saw her eyes widen at the
prospect. "It was scary," she went on, "especially when I felt
the scrape. But now I feel terrific, like indestructible—is
there anything better?"



 



A few days after that she broached
the idea of an "open relationship." She would date other boys and he
could see other girls. "From time to time and just, you know,
casual-like," she said.



 



In a voice he didn't
recognize as his own, Walter said, "You're my girl."



 



"It won't be so different,"
Anna Marie said. "We'll still be together. Most everything will be the
same. There'll just be times when one or the other of us will
be...indisposed."



 



Walter was in all imaginable
misery. What, he wanted to know, did she mean by "casual-like?" How
could she be sure that he or she wouldn't get attached to someone else? And
what about sex?



 



After Walter's sentencing, Anna Marie would tell
her interviewer that all she'd wanted was to "have some fun." Her
response at this moment was to erupt in a fit
of giggles and, when that was done, to reach out and touch Walter's face.
"The Acknomel's working great," she said. "That's good. We'll
get some more." (In a separate article, her high school grade advisor was
quoted as saying that although Anna Marie was "not stupid," she was
"a bit of a space cadet with little or no self-awareness.")



 



Inasmuch as a life without Anna
Marie was inconceivable to him now, and fearful of antagonizing her, Walter
declined to challenge her proposal. He reminded himself that she still wanted
him close, that she still needed him. It was only a phase she was going
through. In no time at all things could revert to where they'd been. With the
exception of him seeing other girls, which was out of the question, he agreed
to the arrangement she asked for.



 



As it played out the
arrangement would last nearly three years, years in which, and despite the fact
that the routines of their relationship were not appreciably altered, Walter
was obliged to live with a tension that varied in degree but never fully
dissipated. Unable to feel that his place in her life was secure—she was his
girl and she wasn't all at once—he was also burdened with a new and abiding
apprehension about her physical and emotional well-being.



 



Anna Marie, who'd anticipate
her dates with unabashed excitement and who spoke openly with Walter about them
(as openly, he assumed, as she dared to since she consistently denied having
sex), would be "indisposed" once or twice every couple of months. It
was always with guys she referred to as the "devil-may-care ones" but
who Walter regarded as "dangerous" or "sketchy." One was a
drag-racer, another was into hang gliding. Most of these boys failed to
sufficiently "share their passions" with her and were summarily
dropped, while those who did include her in their activities, and in whom she
sustained an interest, quickly cut her
loose. In both cases, but principally the latter, which would initially induce
periods of extreme elation, weeks of depression could follow. Never gloating or
vindictive when she was down, Walter was, on the contrary, sympathetic and solicitous.
He admitted to jealousy, but increasingly perceiving himself as her "guardian"—if
the spells of melancholy weren't worrisome enough, her fervid descriptions of
her adventures with the drag-racer and the hang gliding enthusiast,
respectively chronicling near collisions and violently shifting wind currents,
horrified him—he maintained that "all that really mattered" was Anna
Marie's welfare. That she'd return from dates she labeled her "best"
with a smarting cut or contusion "concerned" him, he imparted to his
confidant, "more than anything else."



 



In the hope of dissuading her
from pursuing "outside engagements," and reasoning that he would be
with her should she be in jeopardy, Walter, at one point, and as inimical as it
was for him, determined to emulate the boys Anna Marie was drawn to. Though he
dreaded an affirmative reply, he offered to take her up on her Everglades idea.
But it was too late. Her sense of him was already fixed. "Harry, you know
you don't want to do that," she said, slowly shaking her head and cupping
his cheek with her hand.



 



A few months after they'd
graduated from high school, the month of his eighteenth birthday, Walter had
left home and along with the purchase of his first vehicle—a pickup truck that
he could use for work—he'd rented a furnished room in Anna Marie's immediate
neighborhood. That room remained his place of residence until the day of the
incident.



 



From his close proximity, and
with his newly acquired wheels, Walter began to surreptitiously trail Anna
Marie when she went on her dates. His purpose, he said, was to be there for her
should she require his assistance. Pressed by his confidante, he conceded that
he was also motivated by a need to see for himself "just what she was up
to." As chance would have it, the proceedings Walter witnessed were
confined to the stuff of ordinary dating. But while it never became necessary
for him to go to Anna Marie's aid, what he observed was enough to cause him no
small measure of grief.



 



Walter, generally at night,
would find himself chain-smoking and sipping beer in the pickup outside a club
or movie theater Anna Marie and her date had gone to. (He kept an empty
gasoline can on the floor under the glove compartment to urinate in.) Clocking
every couple in the crowds that emerged from the place he was
monitoring—feeling his blood jump when he saw a girl
wearing her colors—he would, once he'd spotted Anna Marie and the guy she was
with for sure, start his motor and set out after them. Most of the time the guy
would bring her directly back to her apartment house. In these circumstances, Walter
would park as close as he could get to the house—sometimes recklessly close—and
stick around to see what she did. Anna Marie, Walter was invariably relieved to
note, took no one inside. But when she lingered too long in the car, or if
there was a more than perfunctory kiss at the door, it would take all of his will
not to shout to her to break it up. There were also nights, less frequent but well-nigh
unbearable, when she'd go to the guy's digs. On those occasions, Walter would wait
for as long as it took for her to rematerialize in the entranceway—in several
instances hours elapsed—and to either be driven home by the guy or to hurry
into a cab that had been ordered. Although she'd eventually buy a car of her
own, Anna Marie rarely used it for her liaisons.



 



On nights Anna Marie was with
someone else and Walter was, for one reason or another, unable to follow her,
he would, beginning at eleven o'clock, call her on her personal line to see if
she was home yet. If she answered he could go to bed. If she didn't answer he
would call her at 15-minute intervals until she did. He couldn't sleep unless
he knew she was home. When he heard Anna Marie's voice Walter would hang up
without speaking and she never questioned him about the calls.



 



At 2 a.m. on one such night,
and well into the arrangement's third year now, Anna Marie's phone rang
two-dozen times with no response and Walter felt something he hadn't felt
before, a fierce and consuming anger. He wished that Anna Marie had engaged in
one of her foolhardy exploits and that an accident had resulted, a disfiguring
accident that would make her repugnant to other boys. But merely allowing this
thought to enter his mind made him as angry with himself as he was with her. It
was so far removed from what love was supposed to be about. And he would never
want Anna Marie to be his woman because she had no other options. He wanted to win Anna Marie. Indeed, in the
circumscribed world of his fixation, a world that had narrowed more and more with
the inception of the arrangement, nothing less than his very life depended upon
her freely and fully giving herself to him. To claim her by default would kill
him just as surely as losing her would. He recognized, of course, that the
prospects for a positive outcome weren't good. The arrangement itself was ample
evidence of that and if further signs were needed, whenever he tried to discuss
a future together she changed the subject. The problem, his gut was telling
him, was that he wasn't loving her enough. But what did that mean? How
much more could he love her than he already did? He didn't know. He did know that she wasn't happy, not even
with the arrangement. Not really. He'd begun to think of her—the perception
bruised his heart—as some kind of pain junkie, and he viewed the boys she went
out with as her dealers. They wanted a sexual score and she was, certainly now
and then, trading her body for the hurt they promised. If they delivered she'd
get high for awhile and then all raggedy and strung out when she got cut off.
"It's just sports and games anyway," she'd said to him on one of her
low days and after an especially vivid recurrence of that bad dream. "Most
of the time it's no better than a scary movie. No souvenir afterwards to prove
the point. You know what I'm saying?"



 



What she was saying had, like
the reason for her chronic discontent itself, baffled him. And believing that
her equanimity was his to secure, and that its achievement would assure her
devotion to him, he'd continually—he was doing it now—ransacked his knowledge
of her looking for clues to what he was missing. Thus far, however, his incessant
brooding had yielded only frustration. But when he called her again, and she
answered this time, which caused a wave of affection for her to flush through
him, but also, and confusingly at first because his anger was gone, restored the
notion of a maimed Anna Marie to the foreground of his mind, he had what
amounted to an epiphany. He understood, and would convey to his confidant with
a remark the astuteness of which astonished me, that "It isn't pain and
injury Anna Marie gets off on, it's the feeling of surviving them." But that
wasn't the whole of it. The rest, which he was careful not to disclose until a
jailhouse exchange with his friend following the incident, was the realization
that had arrived with his insight of what loving her enough meant and of what
it might demand of him.



 



Shortly
thereafter, on an afternoon he was at work and under the assumption that she
was too, Walter received a call. "I'm still here," were the first
words Anna Marie uttered. She was in an airfield phone booth twenty miles from
Kendall. A boy she'd recently encountered and mentioned only in passing to Walter
had taken her sky diving and once they'd landed remembered an "urgent
matter he had to attend to." She was "busted up and stranded." Walter,
doubly disturbed by her uncharacteristic omission of advance notice about the
date, found her holding her wrist. "I tripped when I touched down,"
she said. "I tried to break the fall. I think I might have fractured
something." He rushed her to an emergency room where the diagnosis was a
simple sprain. In good spirits for a week, about as long as it took for her
wrist to heal and for her to grasp that the boy had blown her off, she
gradually became pensive and withdrawn. Then, in the midst of her despondency,
the cycle was in motion again. A guy she'd met at work, another motorcyclist,
had asked her out and she had accepted.



 



"I
don't know," Walter said.



 



"I
thought we had an understanding," Anna Marie said.



 



"I
don't know," Walter said.



 



"Walter,"
she said, "what do you want from
me?"



 



"I
want you to be okay," he blurted. "To be okay and to love me."



 



"You
are so sweet," she said, plainly moved by his statement and stepping
towards him.



 



He readied
himself for a passionate clinch but what he got was a kiss on the cheek.



 



Confronted
by a parade of cars, all of which, and oddly, required new batteries, Walter
was backed up with work and well on the far side of his regular hours. The
minute he finished he climbed into the pickup and set out for Route 1, the
highway that would take him the 150 miles to Key West. He'd been experiencing a
turbulence in his chest the entire day and warring thoughts were roiling his
brain. A long drive would maybe pull him together.



 



Once he was past Key Largo's
garish strip of motels, fish shacks, hamburger stands and gift shops, the road
opened to water on both sides and there were stretches in which no land could
be seen. To be on this road in the middle of the ocean ordinarily blew his
mind. But there was no thrill in it this time. This time what was happening in his
mind shut out his surroundings. Holding the wheel steady against occasional
squalls, he kept his eyes on the asphalt and the traffic in front of him. He wanted,
right now, no wondrous seascapes or stunning sunsets, only the pickup's motion
and the grind of its engine. He could just as well have been driving through a
tunnel. He stopped solely for gas and to relieve himself, and never turned the
radio on. Arriving at Key West in three hours, he drove half the length of the
island where he made a right turn and then another right onto an avenue that led
him directly back to Route 1. By the time he returned to Kendall, deep into the
night, in a light rain and to streets empty and hushed, his heart was still
beating too hard, but his head was clear.



 



With the temperature and
humidity in the mid-nineties and the sun fiercely radiant, Anna Marie, a
self-described "sun freak," was outside on her two o'clock lunch
break. Dressed in shorts and, to absorb every ray, flexing and extending her
already deeply tanned legs, one and then the other, she was perched on a metal
railing at a short distance from a small group of similarly sun-worshipping
colleagues in the section reserved for "Associates' Vehicles"
adjacent to the shopping center's parking lot. Across from her was the familiar
vista, shimmering now in the dense heat, of a giant Macy's, a Chinese
restaurant, an ice cream parlor, a RadioShack and the Winn Dixie she worked
for. The center's expansive parking area, in the foreground of her view, was
bounded by palm trees and only a quarter full. The people passing through it
were mostly housewives and young children. Somewhere close magnolias were in
blossom, while just overhead two blue and white tree swallows chased each other
back and forth, stirring steamy breezes strong enough to feel in her hair.



 



When a mosquito invaded the
space behind her sunglasses and bit her eyelid, Anna Marie had a sandwich in
one hand and a bottle of soda in the other. Placing the sandwich on her lap,
she removed her glasses to rub at the itch, but she rubbed too vigorously and
the sandwich slipped from her lap and dropped to the ground. As she was bending
to retrieve it with the hand that held her glasses, she pressed the glasses
against the pavement and broke off a stem. Crouching in front of the railing,
she set the soda down and took the glasses into both of her hands, wondering if
she could fix them. It was at this moment that Walter's pickup, coming from the
left, pulled to a stop on the roadway a few yards in front of her.



 



She didn't see that it was Walter's pickup. From
the angle at which she was positioned she was facing directly into the sun, and
the pickup was only an amorphous shadow in the wicked glare. She identified it
by the clamor of the always unfastened chains and tire irons that rolled around
its body whenever he began to move or to brake.



 



She could hear Walter
disembark and hear, as well, that he'd left the motor running. She expected to
hear the driver-side door slam shut behind him but, in this regard, there was
only silence. Then, as he came around the back of the pickup—himself a gray specter
in the impossible light—his movement halted and, she could tell by the clunk
and the creak, he opened the passenger-side
door. Was he planning to take her somewhere, and in a hurry? Was there an
occasion that she'd forgotten? He knew she was working.



 



He started to approach her
and appeared to have something with him, an object that, bouncing along with
his gait in a corner of his darkened mass, was of a lighter hue. She thought it
must be a gift. Then, as he got closer and the object got brighter, she
thought—she was convinced—that it was a passel of plumeria, her favorite
flower. He was about to present her with flowers. But as she proceeded to
stand, the murkiness dissolved and she saw that he was holding a can, an opened
rectangular can colored a brilliant yellow with green and white lettering. She
was staring at the can when Walter, now no more than a foot from her and
without a word, jerked it at her face. The can contained battery acid and she
received the searing liquid with a long siren of a cry that was joined by the
sound and the smell of a hamburger sizzling on a charcoal grill.



 



"It was like he threw
fire at me," she would later recount how the splash of acid felt to her.



 



The sunglasses Anna Marie
still had in her hands fell from them and were crushed beneath her weight as
she collapsed at Walter's feet. Weeping loudly, she was clutching her fist to
her eye. Walter swiftly lifted her and, cradling her with the palm of his hand
under the back of her head, carried her to the pickup. Ignoring red lights and
stop signs—and dogged by a horn-honking band of appalled witnesses—he drove her
at great speed to the nearest hospital's emergency room where he'd been
arrested.



 



TV and newspaper coverage of
the assault, which excoriated Walter (and caused his mortified family to refuse
any contact with the press for months), was predictably lurid. It faded though in
just a couple of days with reports that Walter had pleaded guilty and that he'd
be confined in a Miami jail to await sentencing. Anna Marie would remain in the
hospital for a week or so. She'd undergone a surgical procedure and more were
planned. One of them, perhaps a year away, would likely involve the excision of
her left eye. A palliative care specialist forecast a "lifetime of
moderate to severe discomfort" in the afflicted space.



 



Aside from a freelance
photographer's attempt to sneak into Anna Marie's room on her second night at
the hospital—he was promptly apprehended—Anna Marie was not pursued by the
media at the hospital or when she was discharged and there were no indications
of what was to follow.



 



The sentencing proceedings
were held in late October, on a fall day that was unusually sweltering even for
Miami and in a courtroom in which the cooling system had failed. The windows
were thrown open, but there was little movement in air rapidly soured by some
fifty perspiring bodies. Moreover, an hour from the appointed time would pass
before the judge, a tall, skeletal man in his sixties, made his appearance.
Despite his tardiness he was in no hurry to get to the bench. A clearly casual
ten-minute conversation with the bailiff took place before, in shirtsleeves, he
assumed his position. At this juncture Anna Marie, who was sitting in a front row
with an aunt and across an aisle from Walter's parents and brothers, stood up.
She'd misplaced, that morning, the white cloth patch she normally used in
public now to conceal the damage the acid had done (that it had to have been a
frantic morning would presently become obvious), and wearing instead an
accessory she might once have donned on a New Year's Eve—enormous,
rhinestone-studded cardboard-framed glasses with plastic electric-blue-tinted
lenses that did succeed in masking all of her upper face—she said, in a voice
astonishingly resonant, that she hoped "His Honor would consider probation
for Walter."



 



"What did you say?" The judge shouted.



 



"I couldn’t bear to be
without him,” Anna Marie said, turning toward Walter who was shackled to a
chair at a table near the bench. Walter had been keeping his face down and
lifted it then. He'd endured, while in jail, a compulsory haircut and the acne
remnants, fully visible, were accompanied by newly inflicted bruises.



 



The spectators reacted to Anna
Marie's words with startled exclamations and much murmuring. The judge was
apoplectic. Quivering with rage, he said that he had a daughter of his own and
that if something "so depraved" had been done to her he would have
"blown the dirt bag's head off with my shotgun.” Anna Marie’s plea was
"ludicrous" and would have no mitigating effect on the sentence, he
said. In fact, given the “unconscionable cruelty of the act,” Walter was going
to get ”every bit of what was coming to him."



 



According to the judge, what Walter
had coming was seven years in a Florida state prison.



 



As Walter, shuffling in his
leg irons but with his head still raised, was led away, the judge summoned a
now hysterical Anna Marie and her aunt to the bench. In her discombobulated condition,
Anna Marie had knocked her appurtenance askew to reveal a melted-shut left
eyelid and the raw, mottled meat, speckled with tiny white pustules and
stretching from her hairline to the edge of her nostril, that was the flesh
surrounding it. The judge, blanching at the sight of her naked wound, advised Anna
Marie to seek counseling. “I don’t need counseling,” she sobbed. “I need Walter.”
(Subsequently the judge would tell someone that, “The girl is as sick as the
perp. It’s as if she welcomed what he did.”)



 



Most everything I've related
here I would learn on the succeeding mornings when I perused the regional
dailies. But what in particular had led me to balk at the blanket derision Walter
and Anna Marie elicited, and then to read every word printed about them, was
the video I saw when I turned on the news later that evening. Anna Marie, in
her comical shades, was emerging from the courthouse and her indignation lit up
the screen. Visibly spraying saliva, she sputtered to a cluster of confounded
reporters, and before any of them had a chance to speak: "Walter's the
whole package. I would have floated right off the world if he hadn't been
around. He makes me feel safe."



 



"I'm still here,"
she added, and then stalked off to a waiting car.



 



So seven years afterwards,
with the accuracy of my instincts long since confirmed to my satisfaction but
anticipating no further word—seven years was, after all, a long time— you can
guess what the sudden announcement was.



 



Below a new picture of a
grinning Anna Marie—she seemed to be wincing slightly and the left side of her
face, from which a conspicuously prosthetic eye stared, was discolored and
mildly tumescent but perfectly smooth—the caption read:



 



“Victim of 1985 acid attack, Anna
Marie Woods, marries her assailant, Walter Parchman, upon his release from
prison.”



 



In my mind I offered my
congratulations. They would be, I expected, something like all right.



 



 



 







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