A Short Story: 'Mrs. Roberson'
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
So, here you are.
On a gritty hill in Texas, a small tarnished stake leaned lopsided in the dusty earth. A tin nameplate with the name Frances Roberson stamped across its soft middle formed a miniature cross. Here, in the pauper’s section of Evergreen Cemetery, it marked the spot of her eternal, narrow home.
I guess I’ll always know where to find you now.
I’d traveled 415.5 miles to find this bare testimony. From the sweet pine thickets of Arkansas to the windswept Kickapoo Valley, north of the Texas hill country. The jigsaw puzzle search for answers had stretched out for years. Through most of it, her youngest son had accompanied me.
Mrs. Roberson had been born a Harrison. I’d known her by that name – and a few others. But that was thirty plus years ago – before she’d escaped to Texas. I’d probably been in the third or fourth grade the last time our lives had grinded hard against each other. She’d been married at least twice by then. I hadn’t met the last derelict who’d shared his name by common law marriage. But, he’d probably shared more than most. Her men usually just shared her bed and her addiction.
Lifting my gaze to the horizon I watched a lone turkey buzzard drift on the mid day thermals. The sun warmed my back but not enough to start sweating yet. A light breeze brushed through the small stand of trees on the shoulder of the hill. Around me everything was peaceful, yet within my chest there was a tightness verging on depression.
I wonder how many name changes she wandered through?
Mrs. Roberson had given birth to at least three children. If there had been more, I wasn’t aware of it. The breeze teased the sparse, uneven grass much like the search had teased me. For three decades, I’d had no desire to find Mrs. Roberson. For the most part, I’d kept her out of my head. Then her youngest son had asked for my help in finding his sister. I’d done genealogy searches with some success, and knew that to find the sister, I would need to connect the dots by first finding the mother.
Annette appeared as a four-year-old, blonde headed cherub in the only picture her brothers had of her. Sparkling blue eyes connected directly to her heart; fluffy, blond hair caressed her shoulders; and there were chubby cheeks sitting above a mouth that smiled ‘I love you’. The picture was a grainy black-and-white, but that’s exactly the way I remembered her…the last time I’d seen her. Grown into a woman now, we could only guess at what she might look like.
Annette had been rudely brought into this world in the projects of Dallas. A pregnant Mrs. Roberson had left her husband in Arkansas, and moved in with her sister’s family in Dallas. She’d left her oldest son behind, with his father, but had brought her youngest with her. Together they’d moved into a projects apartment already crowded with nine souls.
One day, while everyone else was either at work or school, Mrs. Roberson’s time came. She locked herself in an upstairs bathroom, and there gave birth unassisted. Unassisted but not unobserved. A two-and-a-half-year-old Rex witnessed the entire process. Amid the blood and gore of breaking water, placenta, screaming, and the miracle of birth, he was the only witness to Annette’s entry into this world.
In what terrible ways would that affect a child?
As if to answer my own question, I turned to look at the man standing only a few yards away. Tall and slim, Rex had his arms folded across his chest, hugging himself tightly as if to keep his chest from bursting. He was staring blankly at the fire ant mounds that marched downhill to the patch of bull nettle in the valley. Between us the air crackled with the unasked question,
How are we going to find Annette now?
There was a special connection between Rex and Annette. Since that day in the upstairs bathroom, Rex had felt responsible for her. It was more than being her big brother; he had been her guardian, her protector. It was evident that he felt he had somehow let her down. I could feel his soul pushing mine aside, trying to make a connection, reaching out, trying to touch hers.
Shortly after Annette’s birth, Mrs. Roberson drug her two babies to Waco, where she got a job in a tavern. Soon she had a boyfriend, then a new job in another bar, and then another boyfriend. That seemed to be the cycle for the rest of her life.
Growing up, I’d spent part of my summer vacations in Texas, visiting my cousins. During those visits, I would sometimes cross paths with Mrs. Roberson and whatever husband she had at the time. Looking back, I doubt that any of them were really married to her. Anyway, that’s how I got to know Rex and Laroma Annette. They would sometimes visit my Aunt for a day or two. I got to play with them and became very attached to them both.
By the time Rex was six and ready to start school, Mrs. Roberson was ready to start a life free of children. Children got in the way of her main occupation, boyfriends and drinking. So she returned Rex to his father and older brother back in Arkansas. She would have given Annette to her first husband too, but he insisted Annette wasn’t his.
The next time I bumped into Mrs. Roberson, she was child free. I was told that she had given Annette to some friends of hers. She had not adopted her out, Annette had been given away.
“She’s staying with some friends for awhile,” is how Mrs. Roberson had put it.
In my search to help Rex find his sister, I had not been able to find any adoption papers. This was part of what was making the search so difficult. I had no clue as to a last name to use in my search. All I had was a date of birth, and a general idea of where Annette had lived at the age of four and five. For all I knew, her first name could have been changed as well as her last. None of their aunts and uncles seemed to know anything.
For that reason, I needed to find Mrs. Roberson. But finding her hadn’t been much easier. I knew three or four names she had gone by, but those were thirty years old. Every turn I made met a brick wall. No one had seen her or talked with her in those thirty plus years. I might do just as well by opening a phone book and picking a name. By now she could be anybody.
Then by pure luck, I stumbled across the best possible lead. Going through a box of old family photos, I found early employment records containing her social security number. I knew the proper government agency could tell me if it was still active. If I could obtain that much verification, maybe I could tug at the heartstrings of some unappreciated office worker and get them to tell me where she was currently working.
But that ploy hadn’t been necessary. The number was no longer active. And we learned that the owner of that number was a Mrs. Frances Roberson, and Mrs. Roberson was deceased.
We were given her employment records, and through that were able to contact her last employer. The employer had given us the name of the funeral home that had laid her to rest, and the name of the town in which she had finished out her life. That’s how we’d come to be in Evergreen Cemetery staring at this mute piece of ground.
“At least there’s a marker,” I said to Rex.
“I guess there’s that,” he said.
I turned and looked across Crockety creek, towards the small cluster of houses and businesses lying in the sun a mile to the east. The town of Lipan, Texas, named after a tribe of Apache Indians, is little more than a crossroad on the way to somewhere else. I wondered why Mrs. Roberson had settled here. Probably it was just a place where she didn’t have a past.
“We can check out the last place she worked,” I mustered some hope. “Maybe somebody she worked with will know something.”
Rex rubbed his face with the heal of his hand before turning back to the grave. It was more than grit and dust stirred by the capricious winds that was irritating his eyes. I’d known this woman who lay before us, but his memories of her were harder. It had been his portion in life to tend the everyday needs of a toddler when he wasn’t much more himself. He’d had to endure the long parade of men, the neglect, and the empty promises. He felt he’d let Annette down just as I’d let him down.
“We can try,” he said.
I wondered if either of us would ever again grace this lonely piece of God’s green earth. To listen to the still voices trapped in the wind, to watch the sun warm the earth, and to commune with a woman who’d found her children to be bothersome. Would either of us mend the torture in our hearts? Where was the sister?
I opened the driver’s side of the GMC truck. Rex got in on the passengers side. Taking one last look at the forlorn hillside, I whispered,