Narrow Road to the Deep North
I am walking down a narrow hallway. A phone rings. I come to an open door at the end of a hallway. The phone rings again. I stand at the threshold, convinced, as I often am, that the room I am poised to enter is, for a reason or reasons unknown or unclear to me, a room I should not enter. My mother appears. She glances at me in a distracted, ready to answer the phone way, then answers the phone. The house shifts slightly in the hot August wind.
My mother’s face changes. She is recovering from surgery, so my first thought is that the wound is hurting, but then she says the name of my aunt, her sister, her only sister, Nada, gone now, too-- a strange name perhaps for hispanophones, but she was christened so by Ted and Clara Nestegard, who spoke only English and Norwegian, and however strange her name might be, it is appropriate to this ominous and attenuated moment. My mother says “Nada” once, twice, three times. My aunt and uncle are due in town, coming up for a visit from Jackson, in southwestern Minnesota, where they farm a great many acres of corn and soybeans. When they return from this visit, the purpose of which is to cheer my mother, preparations for the harvest will begin.
But here is the news: my uncle will not participate in this harvest. He has been shot. He is dead.
I have told this story a number of times. The reaction is almost always one of disbelief. Because I appear to be telling the truth, listeners want to believe me, but for reasons I do not fully understand-- perhaps they do not either-- they want not to believe me, too. Murder in Lake Wobegon? There can be no murder in Lake Wobegon; it is not possible. Anything that disturbing must be absorbed by sly humor and transformed into pleasant melancholy, the deeper pools of which are fenced off by simple common sense. One cannot even tell the story of a murder there: the words fly up from the teller’s mouth as if caught in a tornado.
Which is not the worst way to live, but it is a narrow discipline and tends to make a certain sort of person feel unwelcome: me, for instance, at least in the way I saw myself then, a tiny male figure, neither man nor boy, on his back in a vast and neglected meadow of foxtail barley and timothy, under a boiling, luminous silver- and-green sky, telling a story that can be heard only as a roaring, seen only as a black cloud funneling from his mouth.
I told the story to a psychiatrist once. I was being bad in ways I do not want to recall, was depressed, had been identified as a candidate for a course in grief management and spiritual renewal-- and, more importantly, had begun to see the blackness of the whirlwind as composed of equal parts self-indulgence (fear of my own sudden death, fear of my own sudden murderousness) and shame over the uses to which I was putting or knew I would soon put the story. I told the story sensationally, for its shock value; I told it so that people might feel as sorry for me as I did for myself, told it so that I might be seen as having heroically withstood horror, told it knowing I would write about it and, while the rest of my family simply grieved, profit from it. As Barry Hannah’s narrator says in the story “Carriba”: “Murder is not interesting, friends. Murder is vomit. You may attach a story to it but you are already dishonest to the faces of the dead. . . . I knew I had no place arranging this misery into entertainment, a little Hamlet for busybodies and ghouls. . . . My whole professional life reared up in my mind. I was a hag and a parasite. I was to be grave and eloquent over their story. . . . They were to get nothing. I was to get fame and good bucks, provided I was interesting. A great sick came on me.”
Such was the tenor of my conversation with the psychiatrist. His response was remarkable. I realized only after I had fled his office that he had simply chosen not to believe me. I gave him the murder in précis, with a suggestion of the emotional discord I claimed to be experiencing, and he said, “That’s interesting.” I waited a good long while for him to continue. He was a kind of Kilroy behind his desk, getting smaller and smaller by the second. Just when he was about to vanish entirely, he said, “I make a special study of stories like the one you’ve just told me, but I don’t recall reading or hearing about this one. Where did you say it happened? And when? I’d like to check the papers. Your uncle’s name is. . . .?”
I said that his name had been, when he was alive, Art Storm. It struck us both, I think, as sounding made up, the name of a character in a bad novel (if you punch up art storm on the Lexis Nexis newspaper searching service, you get thirty stories on Robert Mapplethorpe and one on my uncle), so I said, “Arthur William Storm, Jr.” I then described where pretty convincingly but was shaky on when, which bolstered, I guess, my inquisitor’s sense that I was making it up, in a play, I guess, for sympathy. He wrote a prescription for Prozac and sent me on my way.
That was the last time we chatted. Now that I have gotten my facts straight, I want to share them. But I find I cannot recall the name of this psychiatrist, nor when I saw him, nor, precisely, where. The building was located in a downtown St. Paul backwater; the program was part of that city’s social service safety net; and the decor of the waiting room was dominated by fiery orange shag carpeting and dark imitation-wood paneling. My fellow clients either spoke in harsh whispers to themselves (“Not now, you fool, not here!”), turned in very small circles before the magazine rack-- which had dizzied and deflected me, too-- or stared, stonily or stonedly, into midair. They were both a fright and a comfort to me. Then there was the doctor-- elusive, peeping. I took the Prozac for a month; it, too, was both a fright and a comfort. I imagined I felt clear-minded, but predatory. I felt as if the number of rods in my retinas-- those receptors responsive to faint light-- had multiplied rather demonically. I could see in the dark and had lots of energy for the hunt but missed both the peace of deepening twilight and the nervous dread of a sleepless dawn. I failed to make my next appointment, failed to have the prescription refilled, failed to balance my chemicals.
A violent act in a violent culture: what of it? Violence can be both fun and rewarding, if you watch the right movies. And I do not mean only those on television or in theaters; I mean the ones we film day after weary day, loops of resentment and frustration and greed and fear and ignorance in which we get the last word, beat senseless those who have annoyed us, and sometimes even kill them, if the annoyance is grievously deep and can be shown to be the cause of a chronic social ill.
Arnold and Sly and Clint simply make entertainingly explicit the features and character of the man many of us daydream about being: a good man-- i.e., one who knows how to fight but appears to be reluctant to do so, one who is cool under psychological and moral pressure but can explode like a volcano when he needs to, a man not prone to doubt or confusion, a man of deeds not words, a man of action who can gather and manage the collective rage of the savagely annoyed and perfectly righteous people who have defined and approved his goodness, a man who can marshal the virtues and skills his employers say are pertinent and conducive to good public relations. I am talking about a man who can dodge bullets. What better man could we possibly hope for! A man who can see it coming, who can turn aside just in time, engage bad violence with good violence, use the flabby weight of the enemy’s badness judo-like against him and hurl him into the never-never land of soulless, heartless, mindless evildoers, a man who can perform the Alchemy of the Good Man: make the lead of superior violence into the moral gold of justice. Above all, I am dreaming about a man who can remain alive and in control, no matter what, forever.
My uncle’s a murderer, a Green Beret from what is always termed the “tough” Eighty-second Airborne, honorably discharged after the invasion of Grenada-- in which he saw action of an undisclosed sort-- and sophomore English major at Iowa State in Ames, knew all about this massive fraud. “Thank you,” his suicide letter read, “for keeping me alive so long.” The hero, hoodwinked and helpless. “Thank you for keeping me alive so long.” He was twenty-four.
I turned eighteen in 1974 and thus was spared the Vietnam that had troubled me so. Neither sincerely “born again” in Jesus Christ (I did walk down the aisle in answer to that call but really only to get the autograph of a Minnesota Twins pitcher-- either Jim Kaat or Al Worthington, cannot remember which now) nor apostate, I sometimes felt a Lutheran call to be obedient to the prince, to serve my country, and sometimes felt a Christian pacifism welling up in me. But I was also a fan of Heroic Violence. I even had a specialty: I was something, I fancied, of an after-dinner speaker, a guy who could mouth off while trading blows with pinheads.
For instance, the episode that precipitated me into the lair of the shrinking Kilroy: I fought a man on a highway. He had rammed my car from behind, enraged by the way I had gotten in line ahead of him, or “merged,” if you will. My first thought was to get his license plate number, and I tried to read it in the rearview mirror-- difficult even if he had not been hanging on my bumper. Then I decided I would get behind him. He took the next exit, but I was in a rather taut-handling little German thing and whipped in after him. Still, my only conscious desire was to get his number. Which I got, and began to calm down. But then we came to a red light. I pulled up behind him and then thought, I cannot pretend this has not happened. I will seek an explanation. So we tumbled out of our jars of formaldehyde, this sales rep and I, and before I knew what hit me, he hit me. “Is that the best you can do, Chumley?” I demanded to know, but before he could answer, I saw the famous red haze. I began to choke him with one hand, forcing him back to his car and wedging him between the open door and the frame. His arms snugly pinned, his face darkening, I drew back my free fist, in hopes of pounding his insolent face all bloody and askew. But I came to my senses and saw only the natural colors of a cloudy spring day in Minnesota. I released the man’s throat and stepped back. I was about to lecture him, but he came flying out at me and landed a good one right in my mouth. The light had changed, and traffic was approaching. I grabbed hold of him and threw him directly in the path of a big orange utilities maintenance truck.
The driver of the truck managed to avoid running over and killing my fallen foe, but the feeling that he had almost not, that the sales rep was dead and that I was responsible-- that has stayed with me. It is a perplexing feeling, not so much because it is not true, or because I am filled with shame, but because it is a good feeling.
It was one of the first times I had acted on an angry feeling, rather than stewing in my own bitter juices. While getting out of the car, approaching the other-- right up to that moment when I started smashing my fists against his window-- I was calm. I felt I was “in the right” and was merely going to “redress the wrong” that had been done to me; I was going to be forthright and reasonable. I had already noted the license plate number and was planning on only an assertion of righteousness, acceptance of which on the part of the sales rep would have short-circuited my decision to tell on him, as talking to the cops has always been the last thing I want to do. But the next thing I knew, he was sprawled on the road, and a huge truck was describing a screeching salient around him.
I acknowledged, privately, the shamefulness of my actions, noted the “mistakes in judgment,” and worked out the causes and effects, but I could not help but interpret it positively. I had appealed to no authority, handed off no responsibility, called out to no one for help or confirmation of what I believed was right and what I believed was wrong. This all seemed perfectly proper to me, even heroic. I had had a bone to pick with an asshole and had nearly killed him. I had understood, in a flash of violently heroic insight, that he was a bad guy, and I was a good guy, and neither of us was going to brook recourse to armed bureaucrats. And I nearly killed him.
What if he had had a gun?
What if I had had a gun?
I had wanted one for a long time. I knew some fellows who owned guns, and I liked them. I went to sporting goods stores and priced them, listened to salesmen describe them, picked them up and hefted them. I began saving money toward the purchase of one.
Television, computer, automobile, handgun: they were all the same to me, tools of American cultural welfare. When they were managed properly, nobody died. My adversaries would be only persuaded-- just as they would be by the rigors of any other religion-- and corrected.
My uncle’s killer did have a gun, a Ruger Security Six (a .357 Magnum revolver, serial number 156-52069) loaded with Peters .38 Special copper-jacketed hollow-points. It was his father’s gun, but having been a commando, he was no stranger to sidearms. I do not know if he killed anybody in Grenada, but I do know that he was said to have “come back changed” and that he had tried to kill himself once before. “The last time he attempted suicide he went to Missouri,” his father was quoted as saying in an Iowa newspaper. “There is no doubt in my mind he went to Minnesota to commit suicide.” The implication is that he could not, for some reason, bring himself to do the deed in Iowa, his home state-- an inability I found curious. Were I planning to do myself in, I would most certainly get the hell out of California, which I have designated as the last place I want to die, and go home. But home, of course, is precisely where they keep you alive so long.
The next question is, why Minnesota? “It’s strange,” said Eric Hagen’s mother, “but if you follow Highway 169 from here” (“here” being the towns of Ogden and Perry in central Iowa), “Jackson is almost straight north.” Put a ruler on the map, and fill the tank with gas. When you run out, you kill yourself.
Jackson is about fifteen miles north of the Iowa border and seventy east of South Dakota: coteau des prairies, the first step up of the great high plains from the Mississippi valley toward the Rockies-- the “true prairie” as it was sometimes called, the tallgrass prairie, grass as high as a horse’s back and occasionally even higher, up to twelve feet. It is often described as oceanic, a vast swelling sea into which despairing pioneer women cast themselves and drowned. But of that ocean nothing remains, as if ten million years have elapsed from the time my great-grandparents appeared on its shore-- geologic time, time enough for an ocean to vanish, exposing a bed infamously flat, across which, in pesticide dispersal grids, immense machines move.
For several years after his father’s death, my cousin, who farmed in partnership with him (and who found him on the porch), would sit high atop one of those machines in a little air-conditioned cube and listen to self-help tapes while he plowed or sowed or cultivated or harvested. Once in a while he would suffer what they call a “false heart attack” (which seems as “true” as the other kind to me). He would become suddenly overwhelmed by panic, feeling that his loss, his terror, was not in the past but was steady and continual and happening right now, and he would be rushed off to the hospital, where, after a while, the present would expand enough to give his heart, again, the space to beat.
The Des Moines River runs roughly north and south through the country, originating about forty miles to the northwest and emptying into the Mississippi at Keokuk, Iowa. The land for no more than a mile on either bank of the river is folded into hills, giving some parts of town a little elevation and a view, and altering the character of some of the farms along the river: basically, more livestock, less corn.
It was on one of these river farms that my aunt and my mother grew up and that I was born. When I think of farms, this one, and the one on which my father was born and raised (in northeastern Iowa), are the ones I think of: hill farms, polyculture, cattle, hogs, chickens, corn and wheat and alfalfa and sorghum, norghum and flax and beans, wagons and tractors tipping over on steep hillsides-- “Just roll with it,” my grandfather instructed my mother. There was no running water on the farm, no indoor plumbing. There were bedpans and buckets and pitchers and basins, an outhouse and a well. My mother carried water from this well every day of her life until she left for college. My life on the farm lasted only a month, but what a month! From there it was on to the unspeakable luxuries of Minneapolis: running water, central heating (the farmhouse had a single big woodstove, with a grate in the ceiling to heat the upstairs bedrooms), refrigerators, toasters-- luxury upon luxury, to the point where I now do not think twice about jetting to Europe or filling a large plastic bag every week with trash.
Rural America was pretty well electrified by the time my mother was born, which meant, for her, two or three lightbulbs and a radio. There was also a telephone. My mother speaks of her childhood as a kind of idyll of clean and happy poverty-- and the orange and the pencil that she got as Christmas gifts, the wood she chopped and the water she carried, do indeed seem integral to paradise. I grew up in the suburbs but can hardly bear to drive through them now. I do not even like reading novels set in the suburbs. My father, who left farm life eagerly at eighteen, saw, with his BBA and CPA diplomas, his income rise sharply the first eighteen years of my life, allowing him to present me with a profoundly different world upon graduation from high school than the one he and my mother had known. My brother and I had already been to California, to Florida (and if I now know a more desperate and corrupt Miami, I will never forget the way the palm trees rattled that first night in the hot, muggy wind), to Jamaica and the Bahamas! I had fished for, and caught, a barracuda. I had already known the impatience Liz Taylor was said to have known in the Joan Rivers joke about slow microwave ovens. I had already experienced the wave of hatred a motorist whose skills I judged to be subpar could excite. There was more money. Our standard of living was very high. You may have heard about this; sociologists and investment fund managers alike have been advertising the phenomenon for years: rising expectations.
I think rising expectations are what killed my uncle, actually. How, I cannot say, but I began to think of the .38 Special hollow-points emerging in the bright smoke of the muzzle flash as merely the exploding fragments of the grotesquely ignorant and self-righteous sense of expectation and entitlement that-- I began to think-- characterized American culture.
I knew nothing of the killer. I knew he felt strongly enough about what he had done to kill himself (“Justice will be done by me,” wrote the hero), but what I wanted desperately to understand, was how, step by step, he had come to my uncle’s farmhouse porch and shot him in the head. This is perhaps the way in which the story became a black whirlwind: uneven breathing in which inquiry became panic slowly rotating clockwise around a void, the void slowly sinking from brain to heart. The killer disappeared. I looked to his country and lo, it was murderous. Each inhalation took in more and more of the cultural atmosphere, each exhalation grew blacker and blacker. Everything about the United States seemed designed to encourage or induce murder: capitalism, technology, the law itself-- all nothing more than oppressive religions. I repudiated them, just as I had Christianity and the Lutheran Church that has aided-- not frightened-- and comforted many of the people closest to me, my mother and my father particularly, whose devotion is genuine and whose freethinking returns them again and again to the bosom of the Savior. And as I went about perfecting the terrible beauty of the black tale-- the writer of fiction assuming the pompous posture of truth-teller and coming more completely undone by the duplicity of it than he would have, had he simply told lies-- the little farmhouse on the prairie came to seem a psychic refuge. By the time I began to think seriously about the place, it had been abandoned for decades. I dreamed of inhabiting it like a character in a Beckett story, or like a Timon of the Great Plains, spitting and howling malediction.
It was not just that my uncle had been murdered, but that my uncle had been murdered and I could not make a living. My gifts were being rejected or ignored. My wife had left me once already and was drifting toward a second departure, and I felt sorry for myself: nasty country, run by knaves for fools, or vice versa, I do not know which. I closed my ears to the drip and hiss of agrochemicals, to the to the firm, quiet phrasings of agribusiness executives, and told myself that if I were not the lazy man of letters that-- at best-- I am, I would be working in a field somewhere , walking neat rows of beans like my grandfathers did. I walked around the farmhouse in my mind, saw the fireflies in the twilight, heard the grossly articulate speech of cattle and hogs-- the grunt, the bellow, the squeal, the moan-- and the black tale became a murmur and a plume of cigar smoke. Then, in that fairyland of peace and sociologically verifiable contentment, the phone would ring. The farmhouse disappears as suddenly and violently as if a nuclear wind had blasted it. I can see it up there in the tornado swirling down upon me, just like Dorothy’s house in Kansas.
The violent act in a violent culture: every one of us is familiar with the ethos of murder. As Freud pointed out, where there is a grave taboo there must also be a powerful desire. The most popular question in the story of my uncle’s killing quickly centered on the randomness of it: why would a Green Beret turned English major quit his job as a hired hand on a farm, drive one hundred and sixty-eight miles north, choose a farm out of the blue (the green, rather, a million acres of it), and shoot to death the first man he saw there?
It sounds like a joke: to get to the other side?
“We felt, I guess, all along that this looked like a random deal,” Jackson County Sheriff Pete Eggiman said at the time. The random deal of the rising expectation: the quintessence of our time and place. Randomness is all the rage, because cause and effect degenerate so quickly into name-calling and scapegoating. But insofar as randomness is a special effect or a magazine cover or a business fad, it is a useless idea, a fraudulent one, a dead end—because, after all the cool graphics and inspirational speeches, it is about precisely what it says it is not: control and manipulation. I used to write videoscripts for business seminars and was amazed to see so many people, day after day, equate excellence and chaos and huge profits. Mid- and upper-level managers taking a day or three off at a convention have a very different understanding of chaos than the guy who appears one fine morning on the loading dock, armed to the teeth and “disgruntled”: I want my job back, I want to feel needed, I know I”m weird, I know I lack people skills, but I am a human being anyway, after all, oh it’s too late, it’s too fucking late, I’ve killed someone. Chaos cannot be measured along a spectrum: there are six billion varieties of chaos alone, and the only taxonomy of importance concerns the ways in which these forms disguise and display their essence, the celestial matter at the bottom of the deep well (this is a line from Neruda to which I came via an epigraph in a book by Gina Berriault) into which artists are forever falling.
I am a novelist (proud to say so, and equally proud to admit that only one-tenth of one novel has seen the light of a bookstore) and operate under the belief that novels and people are ideally suited to each other. Reading a novel is all about the immersion of oneself in the comfortingly familiar incomprehensibility of life and living, in observant incomprehension, in the disorder and beauty of the houses and languages and minds build, in the disordered architecture of language itself. And of all the thoughts I have had of the murdering soldier and his short life, the most compelling is that he was a frustrated writer, that if he had so much as been able to begin to think about a novel of the invasion of Grenada, about a Green Beret who had “never wanted to be strong” (I am quoting his suicide letter again), all would have been well. He would have returned to Ames and Iowa State, continued to read, study literature, write. My uncle would still be farming. His friends would never have had to say things to reporters like, “He was gentle and affable, the nicest guy you could hope to meet.” My aunt too, I believe, would still be alive (only in my mind did she die of causes related to my uncle’s death; everyone else chalks it up to the tumor on her colon that was to be removed—prognosis for recovery, excellent—and the sudden heart attack—“sudden” in that she was not in any of the risk categories and was only sixty-four), and my mother would not feel quite so lonely, would not wake up every morning to memories of her sister, would not feel the need to wear my aunt’s sweater, trying to reconstruct the warmth of her hug. I would be hard at work on an unpublishable novel, not cashing in on private grief and the public taste for mayhem, Or maybe reviewing Eric Charles Hagen’s novel, listening to him on a panel with Tim O’Brien and David Rabe, though he was not that good a writer; although, on the other hand, the only work of his I have read was written at a time of profound emotional distress, and he had really only just begun.
Why? For what? Everyone has tried to help. I love mom and dad and Sandy and Mike and Jer and Julie and Tami—all those that tried their best. But I saw this coming in a walking dream, seems like years ago. I have to be so much alone, though I love the animals. I realize now I won’t leave this town. I’m not going anywhere.
Thank you for keeping me alive so long. There were beautiful times. I only wish I could come back.
I’m no criminal, just scared and falling.
Directed inward or outward—pain is still pain.
Sandy—I wish I could meet you again. Stay strong, your strength held me together for so long, I love you forever.
Not only couldn’t I change the world, I couldn’t even keep it still. There is such a surcharge of violence in me that is not safely directed at anything in this spectacular mystery of a world, though the violence may die, I will not survive as a piece of dust, a fallen leaf, tranquil, unawake, forever a part of this world, forever more at peace. No one should blame themselves for what I have done save me, and justice will be done by me.
I never wanted to be strong.
It is strange that the future can be foreseen, but not averted.
I am allergic to love, a fatal allergy, and in the end I have discovered courage, it is a calm (my first) and it is facing the world face to face, and only seeing the mirror.
end of game
will I quench this thirst
the drink is too ugly
the love lost
is too great
these are terrible times
I bring to the wind
the lightning storms
on the front porch
and the purrs and
knowing that then
I was home
I miss you
I miss the simple sanity
But those friends cannot die.
I’m not sure what I have done but I have a horrible feeling, win the battle to lose the war.
I wish I could explain
I wish there were words to express the love I never showed
I’m hearing voices, like, the whispers of last fall but stronger, all too clear
I am barely here.
The letter was written sometime in the late afternoon or evening of Friday, August 21, 1987, after the death of my uncle, in a room at the Danish Inn Motel in Tyler, Minnesota, a town a little less than a hundred miles northwest of Jackson. The motel was not open for business, but the owner sometimes rented rooms anyway. Hagen paid for his room with a fifty-dollar bill, which turned out to be quite important in knowing who killed my uncle. Once he had rented the room, he went for a walk. Passing Mrs. Bruce Meyer, he noted her pregnant condition and greeted her. “You’re pregnant,” he said, smiling and friendly. “You could probably use some money.” He tried to give her two fifty-dollar bills, which she declined to accept. Hagen carefully placed the bills on the sidewalk, weighting them with a chip of concrete. This was about 9:30 P.M., right around the time I had gone to my friend’s house with the idea of borrowing one of his hunting rifles, thinking, sooner or later I’ll be close enough to “this guy” (Hagen), and I’ll kill him. By eleven o’clock my “murderous rage” had passed, and Hagen had written his letter, crawled into bed, drawn up the covers, and killed himself.
“We knew Jackson was missing four fifty-dollar bills,” the Lincoln County sheriff said, illuminating the foundation of what we mean when we talk about closure. There was also “bloodstained clothing in the room not related to the suicide.” The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension ran ballistics and blood tests, checked Hagen’s fingertips, and found they matched prints on a red disposable lighter found between the porch (the porch!) of my uncle’s house and the driveway—it was spotted first by my cousin, who, according to deputy Leonard Rowe, shouted “Watch out for that lighter!” as if it were an exploded bomb.
And that was that. Special Agent Dennis Sigafoos put it this way in Item Seven of his “Report of Investigation”: “The homicide of Arthur William Storm, Jr., has been cleared. The perpetrator of the crime Eric Charles Hagen committed suicide ending this investigation."
Once upon a time, a young man who had been working on a farm in Iowa took his father’s car—a white Volkswagen with a black tail fin—and his father’s gun and drove north for three hours. A few miles west of the town of Jackson, Minnesota, he saw a remote and prosperous looking farm. He went to the door of the farmhouse. The farmer who lived there was in the kitchen making lunch. He heard a noise on his front porch and went to see who or what it could be. No one knows if words passed between the two men when they met. Some people believe that a struggle ensued, for life or death, for life and death, but a man who professed to know said that the few minor bruises he found on the two bodies did not indicate any such thing. Silently or not, struggling or not, the younger man shot the farmer four times, twice in the head and twice in the upper torso. There was a large and bloody hole in the farmer’s back, and smaller bloody holes in the back of his head, the hair of which was well known for its tendency to rooster-tail. When the sheriff’s deputy arrived, he noted that “it was real obvious the party had expired.” An investigation revealed the absence of four fifty-dollar bills from the farmer’s billfold, money he had just taken that morning at a coffee shop in town as a down payment for a truck he was selling. A cry went up that a vagrant, a drifter, a madman had appeared, had robbed and murdered, had fled, and was at large. But the truth was that by the time most people heard the story, the killer was dead.
Fifteen hundred people filed past the open casket at the wake. The farmer’s nephew, at the end of the line, was seen to thump his uncle’s hollow chest and cry out. At the funeral the next day, the church was filled with the sound of people sobbing loudly, people who made a point of being cheerful and strong in the face of disaster or misery or sorrow—or at least strong, or at least stone-faced and dry-eyed.
After the service, in the basement of the church where mourners ate plate after plate of cold cuts and hot dishes, roll after buttered roll, slice of ham after slice of ham, news that a young man who had killed himself in a town to the north had been “positively linked” to the murder of the farmer made its way through the crowd. Each person looked into the eyes of the person nearest, then quickly at another and another, saw tears filling those eyes and spilling from them in stern, exhausted relief, felt the force of a hundred spines burning like fuses, shook hands all around to keep those hands from trembling, and smiled, then looked away.
The subject of the death penalty sometimes arises when I tell this story. I am opposed to it, and I present myself as a “crime victim.” I say, murderous rage flashing whitely, blackly, in my mind, that if the murderer were alive today, I would want to forgive him. To which the obvious reply is that the murderer is not alive. My feeling, however, continues to be that once you get to know someone, it is hard to want to see them dead.
Plus, what is two plus two? It does not add up to a novelist weakening under a load of ominous dread, every day more and more frightened by—simply and frankly—other people. Clearly, the only way out is to find the well of other souls and drink from it.