Riding in a car on a highway late at night was one of Roy’s greatest pleasures. In between towns, on dark, sparsely populated roads, Roy enjoyed imagining the lives of these isolated inhabitants, their looks, clothes and habits. He also liked listening to the radio when his mother or father did not feel like talking. Roy and one or the other of his parents spent a considerable amount of time traveling, mostly on the road between Chicago, New Orleans and Miami, the three cities in which they alternately resided.
Roy did not mind this peripatetic existence because it was the only life he knew. When he grew up, Roy thought, he might prefer to remain in one place for more than a couple of months at a time; but for now, being always “on the go,” as his mother phrased it, did not displease him. Roy liked meeting new people at the hotels at which they stayed, hearing stories about these strangers’ lives in Cincinnati or Houston or Indianapolis. Roy often memorized the names of their dogs and horses, the names of the streets on which they lived, even the numbers on their houses. The only numbers of this nature Roy owned were room numbers at the hotels. When someone asked him where he lived, Roy would respond: “The Roosevelt, room 504,” or “The Ambassador, room 309,” or “The Delmonico, room 406.”
One night when Roy and his father were in southern Georgia, headed for Ocala, Florida, a report came over the car radio about a manhunt being conducted for a thirty-two year old Negro male named Lavern Rope. Lavern Rope, an unemployed catfish farm worker who until recently had been living in Belzoni, Mississippi, had apparently murdered his mother, then kidnapped a nun, whose car he had stolen. Most of the nun’s body was found in the bathtub of a hotel room in Valdosta, not far from where Roy and his father were driving. The nun’s left arm was missing, police said, and was assumed to still be in the possession of Lavern Rope, who was last reported seen leaving Vic and Flo’s Forever After Drive-in, a popular Valdosta hamburger stand, just past midnight in Sister Mary Alice Gogarty’s 1957 red and beige Chrysler Newport convertible.
Roy immediately went on the lookout for the stolen car, though the stretch of highway they were on was pretty lonely at three o’clock in the morning. Only one car had passed them, going the other way, in the last half hour or so, and Roy had not noticed what model it was.
“Dad,” said Roy, “why would Lavern Rope keep the nun’s left arm?”
“Probably thought it would make the body harder to identify,” Roy’s father answered. “Maybe she had a tattoo on it.”
“I didn’t think nuns had tattoos.”
“She could have got it before she became a nun.”
“He’ll probably dump the arm somewhere, Dad, don’t you think?”
“I guess. Don’t ever get a tattoo, son. There might come a day you won’t want to be recognized. It’s better if you don’t have any identifying marks on your body.”
By the time they reached Ocala, the sun was coming up. Roy’s father checked them into a hotel and when they got to their room he asked Roy if he wanted to use the bathroom.
“No, Dad, you can go first.”
Roy’s father laughed. “What’s the matter, son? Afraid there’ll be a body in the bathtub?”
“No,” said Roy, “just a left arm.”
While his father was in the bathroom, Roy thought about Lavern Rope cutting off Sister Mary Alice Gogarty’s arm in a Valdosta hotel room. If he had used a pocket knife, it would have taken a very long time. He had probably brought along a kitchen knife from his mother’s house to do the job, Roy decided.
When his father came out, Roy asked him, “Do you think the cops will find Lavern Rope?”
“Sure, they’ll catch him.”
“I bet they never find the nun’s arm.”
“Won’t make much difference, will it? Come on, boy, take your clothes off. We need to sleep.”
Roy undressed and got into one of the two beds. Before Roy could ask another question, his father was snoring in the other bed. Roy lay there with his eyes open for several minutes; then he realized that he needed to go to the bathroom.
Suddenly, his father stopped snoring.
“Son, you still awake?”
Roy’s father sat up in his bed.
“It just occurred to me that a brand new red and beige Chrysler Newport convertible is a damn unusual automobile for a nun to be driving.”