It happens every year in the middle of the summer. Tomato plants bloom, the cicadas come out and the days are so hot you have to mentally prepare yourself with a pep talk for the walk across an asphalt parking lot to your car. When the rain does come, umbrellas become an afterthought, something you visualize on the top shelf in the hall closet where it normally lives. Stifling heat adds another layer of “just something you get used to” when you live in the South, and you’re lucky to find respite in a lake or a swimming pool, even if you have to sneak into a backyard to find one.
While extended summers living in a warm climate allow me to live in sandals and sundresses and sip the perfect “skinny” margarita for most of the year, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the feelings the summer season stirs up for me every year. Here’s the deal: I miss my daddy. After thirty years, something internally still tugs at me to remember that day in July 1992 and all the other days I had with him that came before. I’m compelled to remember my feelings — the good ones and the bad ones that never go away – and every emotional struggle that crops up just when I think I’ve moved on. It’s why for years I couldn’t enjoy the summer to its fullest extent; I held myself back out of sadness and resent. But as time passes, I’m still baby stepping into loving the summer with the same abandon that’s normally associated with a five o’clock happy hour because it’s Tuesday.
This was my life, and daddy my north star. And I know how it feels for anyone who loses so much because of someone else’s decision – whether an impulse or premeditated – and then to be lost for years trying to find the way back to the “before times,” now an impossible reach. This life established the benchmark for my own, what I wanted to achieve and how I spent my leisure time. This blueprint was all I had and with my mom’s and with daddy’s support, I’d find my way to building my own version. I hoped I’d find a way, but I didn’t want to without daddy. This lake was his wheelhouse, and his knowledge, whatever he could share, I devoured. And that’s why I want to know: what was his last day like?
Daddy’s party of six, now made up of Johnny, Sam, his wife Kristi, Frances and Stueart Pennington and now Sandra Locke, backed out the black Excalibur cigarette boat from Margarita Bay and headed toward Marion Anderson to drop off his friends. The Andersons had a baby girl waiting at home for them. Marion Anderson Road has been in Sam’s family for years as Marion was Sam’s grandfather and former sheriff, and some of the houses there are quite a site. If you’re ever riding around the lake, you may even recognize University of Arkansas Football Coach Sam Pittman’s lakefront iron statues of Razorback Hogs, which had replaced an enormous metal marlin statue installed by a previous owner (my college roommate’s dad, as a matter of fact – small world!).
As one of daddy’s oldest friends since elementary school, he hosted a wedding reception for Stueart and his new bride Frances earlier that year at the pool house at Beacon Manor, the white high-rise condominium building on the northeast side of Lake Hamilton. According to guests at this party, Scharmel told a couple of daddy’s other lifelong friends to their face: “Johnny is getting new friends when we’re married.” Who the fuck did she think she was?
During her questioning with the police, Sandra and Det. Ronnie Smith of the Little Rock Police Department wanted to know exactly what was said the night she spent time with Johnny Burnett.
Smith: Was he talking about Scharmel?
Locke: I’m not sure how to say it either.
I love that dialogue exchange. I love that the police and the witness were trying to pronounce the bitch’s name correctly. It’s something she’s apparently dealt with all her life. And I referred to her as a bitch because, well, you’ll see. But also she seemed to get so butt-hurt every time someone pronounced it wrong. I actually feel sorry for her having to always correct people. What a miserable way to live if she always lets it get to her. I’ve had people call me Michelle or Jennifer for whatever reason, and it’s no big deal. But Scharmel is a unique name. And by age 35, couldn’t she have found a more emotionally intelligent way to handle the situation? I mean, she’s the one with the weird French name, and then her brother is a simple Jeff.
On the other hand, Sandra didn’t know Johnny’s friends that well, but she was getting along with them like a normal person. She wasn’t competing as a new “NG,” she was just a friend who’d run into a group of peers having a good time. I imagine there must have been a comment about Sam and Kristie Anderson’s home when they were dropped off at their dock, and Frances and Stueart started kidding around and said, “You know, Johnny has his,” meaning his lake house at Beacon Manor. “You’ve got to see it.” The foursome circled back south to Beacon Manor.
This condo, y’all. I’ll never forget it. A corner unit facing the southwest, #802 Beacon Manor was just two floors below the roof with an enclosed balcony to add square footage. First, daddy had a craps table in that space. Then later on, he got rid of the craps table and added a blackjack table. I tried to learn both games, but I also remember it being really boring when I was ten years old. There was also a slot machine, maybe two, which were technically illegal to possess. Daddy had a vintage Seeburg jukebox sitting against a small, mirrored wall. That’s the jukebox I got to keep for myself (and I’ll get it working again one of these days!) The wall-to-wall hunter green carpet accented the rest of the walls covered in either a goldleaf wallpaper or a red or teal wallpaper with black velvet flocked designs. Permanently affixed to the upper kitchen cabinets painted in black lacquer were photos of Oaklawn thoroughbreds standing in the winner’s circle with the owners, trainers and jockeys. This is how the condo we all called “little Las Vegas” was sold to him, and daddy never redecorated. Rumor has it the kitchen is still the same with the current owners.
According to police files, Sandra detailed the events of the night as best as she could. Stueart and Johnny spent what felt like hours reminiscing about high school, talking about the crazy pranks they pulled and the fun they used to have. She recounted how they simply talked about their entire life together.
“He was just in a good mood,” Sandra said. “He was in a wonderful mood.”
“Apparently, they went to high school together?” Det. Smith asked.
“Oh, I think even it goes beyond that, and he and Stuart were just like brothers. And they talked a lot about his dad and his mom, and the condo. I don’t know if you’ve seen it or know anything about it, but it’s kind of unique, it’s kind of like a cas….well, you’ve been there I’m sure. Anyway, there’s [sic[ interesting things on the wall and we were just talking about things like that,” Sandra said.
Sometime between 2:30-3:00 a.m. early Sunday morning of July 19 – really the beginning of the last day of daddy’s life – they drove Frances and Stueart back to their home on the lake.
Nighttime boat rides on the lake are special because you’re basically alone on the dark water and can speed as fast as you want. You’re just out there under the moonlight and the stars. That night, the waning gibbous moon shone bright. He and Sandra drove back to Beacon Manor, feeling the wind on their faces and blowing their hair, hopping the small waves they had made earlier, which were now making their way back from the shore to gently rock the Excalibur. His last nighttime boat ride and she got to spend it with him. I hope it was special.