As for my Southern Legitimacy, I was born in Southern Indiana but my parents quickly relocated to Clarksville, Tennessee and then my adopted hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. As an Army kid I moved around a lot, but always seemed to return to the Sandhills and Central North Carolina, which play a supporting role in this story. I now live near the Dead Mule headquarters in Winterville and teach at East Carolina University.
The man in the hat turned on his heels and glided to a door that lead, as best as my uncle Jimmy could assume, to a pantry or storage room. When the door opened a light flooded into the kitchen, but Uncle Jimmy said he didn’t see the man’s hand move to trip the wall switch.
It was plain that he wanted us to follow him, so we did. The writer lady went right after him and Mr. Spofford was behind her. When I got to the door I saw that it was a staircase. The walls were made of concrete and really narrow. It was wide for a set of stairs, but I could have easily touched each wall with my hands outstretched.
The light that had come on was caged, you know like those exterior lights at a dock yard. I remember the stairs were concrete and each was capped with a strip of metal that was crosshatched in the way that’s done to prevent people from slipping. These pieces of metal were all worn down in the middle as if a million feet had stepped on them, the edges nearest the wall weren’t as worn down. It seemed weird because the stairs emptied out into a room that seemed like it had never had the first person in it.
The group descended the concrete stairs, each footstep a jagged rasp that combined to a confusing symphony. Metal conduit followed the slope of the ceiling, secured at intervals by industrial light fixtures that cast a minty green light, just bright enough for the members of the small party see the person and stair step in front of them.
When we got to the bottom of the stairs, and listen that was a longer way down than I would have ever imagined at first, we all stopped because the man with the hat stopped. He seemed to be waiting for something. It could have been minutes or hours that we waited, I don’t know I was gettin’ kinda sweaty nervous at that point. And then he stepped forward into the darkness and flipped a switch that lit up a large room, like the size of the gymnasium that the Presbyterian church had built for their school, you know what I’m talking about?
I did, I told him.
Then the writer lady started to ask the man in the hat really skittery questions, machine gun fast like when people get nervous or after a car crash or something.
I was just as nervous as she was. More nervous that I had ever been and before I even realized it I spoke up and said that I didn’t even know that this place existed. I had lived in the same county my whole life and never even heard mention of this place. Then I looked over and saw the man with the hat – his face didn’t budge but his eyes told me that I shouldn’t have said a word.
The man with the hat turned to face Flor Miller. He told her that this facility was built during the Great Depression and World War II. At the start of construction men were satisfied simply to have work. By its completion, many who couldn’t enlist to fight in Germany and Japan were involved work that was classified, the ends unknown to those directly involved.
So you’re saying that this underground facility, out in the middle of nowhere, was built by the government, Flor Miller asked. Why, what was the purpose?
This place was constructed by a group of like minded people who were motivated to help others, the man in the hat said. This facility was constructed for service to mankind.
The man didn’t say anything else. He just turned and walked to a heavy looking metal door across the room. The lights sent some shadows down between the door and the doorframe. As we walked to the door the coolness of the air pressed down on us like a heavy fog. Right then I wanted more than anything to bolt back up the stairs and run as fast as I could to anywhere other than that place.
The man in the hat reached the door and it opened effortlessly, Jimmy said. The group passed through the door and entered a hallway which resembled an old hospital, or what passed as an old hospital in a movie or on the television. The floors were of tiled linoleum, the colored speckles in the tiles were reflected in the two-toned walls, the blueish off-white above separated from the glossy seafoam below by a wide plastic handrail. Anemically humming neon lights gave a slightly yellower cast to the air, but it was no less oppressive and claustrophobic than the concrete staircase.
We walked through the hall, which was wide and never seemed to end, and every so often there was a window that had wire mesh embedded in it. I couldn’t see in the widows because there wasn’t enough light and the widows all had drawn curtains on the inside anyway.
What kind of horseshit story is this, I asked Jimmy. Do you expect me to believe you this time?
I can’t make you believe me, but every word I’m telling you is the truth. I swear it.
Alright, I told him. Keep going.
So as we were walking we came to a set of those swinging double doors that they have in hospitals and they opened without anyone doing anything to open them. They just opened up. The writer, she just kept following the man in the hat and Mr. Spofford turned around to look at me, to see what I was doing. He looked sweaty, like a dog that knew it was about to get beat.
As we passed through the doors everything changed. We passed a woman in a white coat like doctors wear. She was pushing a metal cart with some paperwork and vials with a milky looking liquid in them. She didn’t exactly turn her head away from us as we passed her, but she didn’t look up at us either. The man in the hat just kept walking.
I don’t expect you to believe me, but this is what happened next. We entered into a room, sort of like a reception room at the hospital, but slightly larger and more open. There were some chairs against a wall and the first person I saw in the room was an older man who was almost dancing around in circles. He didn’t notice that we were even there.
Jimmy was right, I didn’t trust a thing he had to say. He told me there were other people in the room wearing some kind of uniform, like pajamas. They all stared blankly ahead. Some sat in the cloth-covered plastic chairs against the wall, others meandered about. Oblivious, he said, which struck me as a big word for my uncle to use.
Then what, I asked.
Then what? Then I lost it. I looked over at Mr. Spofford. He was petrified.The man was still wearing his hat and he and the writer were lost in a conversation that I couldn’t keep track of due to a ringing in my ears that had grown to make me sick to my stomach. I had a sudden need to get out of that place. So I turned and walked back through the swinging doors, trying not not make myself noticeable, and stumbled down the long hall. I heard behind me the flat voice of the man in the hat telling Mr. Spofford to keep me from leaving and Mr. Spofford saying that he would handle it. Thats the one certain thing I can remember.
So what did he do, I asked? Jimmy’s face was bone white and tense with the memory. That was the first moment that I felt a reason to believe his story.
I don’t know what Mr. Spofford did, but I ran. I ran as fast as I could down that green hallway and stumbled up the concrete stairs. I ran so fast, like when you were a kid and wanted your mother to gobble you up in her arms to protect you from the scariness of the dark, so fast that I fell several times up the stairs. I cracked my shin and cut it open but I didn’t stop running. Even when I made it into the big empty house. I didn’t stop to shut that closet door. I flew out over the back porch and out into the sunlight and ran. I just ran until I got to the main road and kept running until I couldn’t any more.
I left that woman in that place. I don’t know what happened to her. I need someone to forgive me for leaving her there, I need someone to tell me it wasn’t my fault.
Jimmy said the writer, the house, the man in the hat – none of it – was ever mentioned by Glen Spofford, as if it had never happened.
After several weeks of Jimmy’s story worming its way through my soul I sent a note to an old college friend who now worked for the state fixing computers. I had already used all the resources within my reach to find a Flor Miller in the age range of the woman Jimmy’s story described with no success. If anyone could find a Flor Miller, it would be my friend.
The following day I received a call during the noon hour. My friend called on his phone to avoid record of passing me information that he shouldn’t have had access to.
He had found a Florida Miller in her sixties who was in an assisted living facility in Greensboro. She had been transferred there when the Dorothea Dix mental hospital was closed. This Florida Miller was a ward of the state.
I extended my thanks and my sent my regards to his family.
Would I be able to meet with Flor during visiting hours this weekend, I asked the curt woman at the other end of the phone call. She was a friend of my family. Yes, but only during posted visiting hours, she told me. Don’t expect much from Ms. Miller, the woman said. Ms. Miller hasn’t spoken to anyone in decades.
The following Saturday I made the two-hour drive to Greensboro. I still have no idea why I did so. Maybe I was concerned for a woman I might never meet. Or maybe it was to give Jimmy one last shot at redemption, to see if he wasn’t making the whole thing up. More than likely it was because I believed every word, but unlike Jimmy, I didn’t want to be absolved.
I walked through the front door of the building. The heat and humidity of the August day was barely cut when I entered the lobby. How could these people stand it being so hot in here?
I signed in on a photocopied form held tight to the top of a rusted metal clipboard. The pen was taped to a piece of string looped through the metal spring. The fat little troll of a woman who passed for security at the desk was visibly uncomfortable in the polyester uniform that tugged across her belly. She handed me a sticker with a handwritten date and time and motioned for me to adhere it to my shirt pocket.
I walked down a short hallway, the stifling air pocketed with the shrieks and yelps of the insane. I reached a locked door and pushed the button on the call box. The door’s lock clicked and I pulled it open. Once in the room I was met by a petite younger woman with a wide, welcoming smile.
Who are you here to see, she asked.
Flor Miller. Florida Miller.
Well, Ms. Miller should be very happy to have a visitor, she said. Its been many years since anyone has come to see her. I didn’t know she had family, to be honest.
I told the woman with the smile that I wasn’t family, but a friend of the family. She told me that Ms. Miller, thats what everyone called her, had not spoken to anyone since she had been at the facility and there was no indication that she had spoken to anyone well before she arrived here.
What do you know about her, I asked. What happened to her that she was committed?
I don’t really know, she said. She was found decades ago wandering through the back streets of some small town south of Asheboro. Ms. Miller was dressed in rags and wouldn’t talk to anyone. Other than clean clothes and greying hair, she said, there hasn’t been much change in her condition.
I was lead to a smaller room that could be monitored through a large bank of windows from the reception area. A small woman sat in an institutional chair at a cheap, institutional table in an otherwise empty room. Boxes of old puzzles were stacked at one end of the table. The smiling woman indicated that the woman at the table was Flor Miller.
I took halting steps to stand behind a chair directly across from where the impossibly small woman sat. She had caved in on herself, her face was drawn into a calmly pensive scowl. She wore a pink terry cloth robe knotted at the waist with cheap slippers covering feet crossed under her chair. She stared at the wall at the end of the table, unmoving.
I was sure she would hear my heart smashing out of my chest with apprehension, but she never flinched, even as I pulled the chair out and sat to greet her.
Flor Miller, I asked? The only words that I could get my anticipation-dry mouth to form sounded foreign to my own ears.
Florida Miller? Is that your name?
Ma’am, I’m a friend of your family and I’m checking up on you, I want to make sure you are OK, I lied.
We sat in a silence that seemed to not bother her in the same agonizing way that each second urged me to stand up and leave. She’s not going to talk, I told myself. This was a waste of time.
Green Knoll, I blurted out, unplanned. Does that mean anything to you?
The rustle of shortly cropped hair on the woman’s head was the first sign of recognition and I nearly leapt from my seat. Shit. Oh, shit. What is she doing? My eyes flashed through the window to see if the attendant was watching, but she was disinterestedly talking on the phone.
Green Knoll? Her voice was almost unrecognizable as human from lack of use. What do you know about the Green Knoll?
Her eyes were no longer clouded, but there was little that could be considered human in her gaze. She stared at me like a child’s baby doll, eyes unmoving, unblinking.
Nothing, I told her. Well, I don’t know much, but I was hoping you could tell me.
Her stare was painful. I tried to pull my head away, to close my eyes and not bolt from the room.
Green Knoll.My friends at the Green Knoll are very helpful.They helped me. I needed help and they were willing to help me. They are so friendly.
I was confused. I wanted to puke. I wanted to leave.
What do you mean, I asked? Who helped you? What did they help you with? Why haven’t you spoken to anyone in so long?
The questions tumbled over themselves in my head and in my throat. I wanted to know everything about this woman and the house at Green Knoll and the church she was investigating. What had happened to her in that place underground?
Her face glowed from the afternoon sun splashing through a fixed window located near the ceiling. The daylight accentuated the lonely years spent in this lifeless place now etched wrinkly across her face.
Florida Miller stared at me and asked simply – who are you and do you need help, too? My friends can help you. Oh, they are so very nice and helpful. Who are you?
My mind went blank and the skin on my back raised up cooly. I can’t be here.
Go, run. Go now.
I’m no one, I told Flor Miller as I stood up, the plastic covers on the end of the metal chair legs scooting across the polished linoleum floor as I pushed the chair back and turned from her.
I’m no one.
for Part I, click here