I knew there was trouble even before I came through the screen door. The blinds were awry and the child’s toys were strewn on the carpet. Leni wasn’t the type to leave a room that way. She couldn’t tolerate a tilted frame on a wall, much less the view I was taking in as I passed through the living room: couch cushions tossed, television speared by a baseball bat, a fist-sized hole in the wall. As I stood in the destroyed house, I had the feeling that I was in the process of making a very bad decision, but I made myself walk down the hall.
No one was home. When I saw the cigarettes in the kitchen, a cheap brand and about twenty of them stamped out in a saucepan, I knew the husband had been there. I’d never met him, but I’d heard him described as evil and I knew he made a habit of smoking where Leni told him not to smoke. I called the police from the phone on the kitchen wall and said I thought my friend was hurt, her infant daughter kidnapped. As evidence, I used the handful of hair in Leni’s color, vampire red. It was torn out in the bathroom near the sink. There was no blood, but the mattress was shredded to ribbons and stuffing bulged out of all the pillows like guts. The pink dresser drawers in little Kati’s room hung empty and her Cinderella bedding was gone.
The police told me to lock the doors and stay inside until they got there in their cruisers and I obeyed at first, shutting and locking the front of the house, but then the back of the house was so dark and in such a state of disturbing array. Every last thing was pulled out of the fridge and a full set of steak knives was stabbed into a cooked chicken on the floor. I imagined a man with a serrated blade emerging from the pantry and ran out the back, leaving the door swinging open on its hinges.
Up the hill, McCallister’s Gravel was fenced by chain link that was easy to climb. I sat on top of a house-sized mound of white rock. From there could see Leni’s trailer and about three-fourths of her property. If her husband wanted to kill me with a knife, he’d have to invent a way of moving silently over gravel. That, or he’d have to grow wings and land on me. All I could do was wait and watch, which was nowhere near enough to keep my mind from wandering into darker and darker territory. I was already imagining the worst: Leni taking punches to the head, Leni dragged around the house by her hair, Leni left to die in the woods. And then I started seeing the same things happening to me.
It was one of those times I wished I’d never quit smoking, a neutered regret that lead to others. Pretty soon I was wishing I’d stayed in bed that day. Then I was lamenting the day I was born. Why hadn’t my mother, a woman with no talent or inclination for mothering, stopped at three? Why didn’t someone take her aside and say, “Enough is enough, woman. You’ve put enough strife into the world”? Then I wouldn’t be in this mess, watching for a murderer in a half-forgotten trailer park on the edge of nowhere.
I lived with Leni for six months when I was sixteen and trying to stay out of the system. She was a distant cousin and old enough to say she’d serve as legal guardian. I called her out of the phone book and begged her for a place to stay. She told me, “Sure honey, only I hope you’ve got some money for things. I sure as hell don’t.” When we met she said she was sorry we looked alike on account of the fact that she was so damned ugly. Then she laughed. “I’m only joking,” she said. “You’re as pretty as a little plum. Meanwhile, they ought to take me out with the trash.”
She had a brother who was away somewhere, the army or maybe in jail. And she let me stay in his room, but I wasn’t allowed to touch or move anything in there. She wanted it exactly as he left it, down to the camo throw pillows arranged on the bed. We didn’t talk much, mainly went about our business, and in six months I had enough money saved to get a cheap place on my own. Part of the deal was she’d claim I was still living there until I was legal, but only if I stopped in every month for a meal. And then after I was eighteen, I just kept going back to Leni’s because it was the closest thing to family I’d ever known.
When she told me she was married it was by way of explaining why my key didn’t work in the door. “You don’t see him for five years and then he blows right in,” she said. “At least this way I’ll hear him before he gets inside.” She was pregnant even then but didn’t know it until later, papers for the restraining order already filed. That’s when he started hanging around more. He’d break in, smoke down a whole pack of cigarettes in her kitchen, and leave before she got home. She had him arrested three times. Told me to stay away and so I did. When I finally thought better of it and came back, she had a beautiful blonde baby and an old rifle leaning in an umbrella stand near the door.
All I knew was, her husband thought he was the kid’s father even if Leni said he wasn’t, and he was serving out a sentence that kept getting longer because he couldn’t play nice in jail. He once arranged to send a letter inside a children’s book instructing the girl to slit her mother’s throat and come to him. “He doesn’t know a one year old can’t read yet,” she said. “Or maybe he thinks I’m going to read this to my kid aloud.” She said jail had soured his mind against all women. And then she said if she ever disappeared I’d know who’d done it. “Rick Merrick,” she said. “Remember that name. That’s who did it if I’m gone.”
The police never did come. It was dark when I left my perch on the rock. I knew I wasn’t going back inside that house after nightfall, but I wasn’t keen to leave it wide open in back where any stray punk could wander inside and destroy the place and any hope of finding Leni and her girl. I was in the midst of developing a long reach for the knob, my body configured like a relay sprinter’s, when I heard a car ease into the drive. I pulled the door shut and went flat beneath the big propane tank in the yard, my head just high enough in the grass and leaves so that I could see the place and not be noticed.
I knew it wasn’t the police when they jimmied the lock and walked inside without knocking or speaking. Then the lights went on and I could see through the crooked blinds that there were two men, both about the same height, both dressed in jackets that could have been military issue or hunting gear. They made quick work of bagging things up and cleaning; they straightened the blinds and moved room to room. Within twenty minutes, they were all through the place. They nearly murdered me with fear, coming out the back with their big black plastic bags, but they only walked through the yard, scanning for debris, and did not take note of me below the tank.
Five minutes later, they were back in their car with the bags and pulling off with the slow ease of the deliberately casual. Something is up, I thought. And it is not good. I had fifteen minutes to catch the last bus back into the city and a twenty-minute hike to catch it. Every sinew in my body twinged with the urge to bolt. And I knew Leni would tell me to do it. “Get out of here, girl,” she’d say. “Forget about me and get on with your own damn life.”
But Leni always expected the worst from people. She wasn’t friendless, but she kept a low profile on account of the fact that she assumed nobody redeemable would consider her worthy of attention. She was so unused to being addressed politely that kindness of any variety charmed her, which made her an easy mark for predators. I think she half expected me to rob her when I moved in. Not that she ever suggested in any way that she found me suspect or criminal. She was used to being used. How do you give up on a person like that? It would be like punishing an orphan for the fact of her parents’ death. You’re alone, so you deserve to be forgotten. If I walked away, I’d have to decide to hate myself forever. And I guess I wasn’t prepared to do that yet.
I knew I could get into the house through a utility hatch beneath the bathroom plumbing, having done it once before when Leni locked herself and her baby out of the house. Going in that way seemed safer somehow, with less risk of being spotted and less broken glass, but it was also terrifying. Like willingly steering into a black hole. I pulled aside the white trim around the base of the trailer and slid through the dark on my back, feeling for the latch, loamy musk of clay all around me. I let myself think of snakes and moved faster. Once inside, I was afraid to turn on any lights, so I slid behind the shower curtains and sat in the tub. I suppose I was waiting, monitoring the scene, holding down the fort. The fact that it might very well be the dumbest thing I’d ever done in my life sat hot like a bullet in my mouth.
Before I found a safe place to stay with Leni, I was more fearless at night. I’d sleep anywhere, but was partial to a moldy squat in the woods, where I’d often fall asleep playing solitaire on my busted apart sleeping bag. One night the floorboards gave out and I came to with a card on my right eye. I thought I was dead or half blind. When I realized I wasn’t, I put the card—a five of hearts, as it happens—in my pocket and went right back to sleep. That night in Leni’s heavily bleached bathtub told me the extent of my domestication. A cat would jump on the roof or a branch would move on a window and I’d know her asshole husband was ready to whip back the shower curtains and stab me in the neck. When the curtains finally did part, I’d long come to think of these things as paranoid dreams. Instead, it was a pair of uniformed cops.
They grabbed me by the arms and pulled me out, knocking my head on the toilet on the way through the door. “Who the fuck are you?” they said. “What the fuck are you doing in here?” They never gave me a chance to respond. Out in the yard, the sun like white rock in my eyes, I couldn’t see their faces. I threw up my arms, but only glanced every other kick to my head and back. When I finally focused on the thing in front of me, it was a metal toilet in a holding cell. It kept moving on me when I’d try to focus but I managed to catch it and vomit inside. I saw dried blood in my eyelashes and passed out on the floor.
A few days later, I was in a clinic and a male nurse was telling me I’d be fine if I stopped resisting treatment. “I’m not resisting,” I said. I tried to say things. My mouth was all water. My teeth were sinking nubs. “What you need is a good dose of common sense,” he said. He scrubbed my arms, legs, and chest. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not trying to cop a feel. I like my ladies with a little meat on their bones.” He tapped talcum into my crotch from a pink plastic bottle and stood me up. There was a metal mirror. I looked like a broken tree branch inside it. “Look at you,” he said. “Almost pretty.” This was my cue to punch him in the balls, but the only revenge I could manage was to vomit. He cleaned me again, roughly this time, dressed me in white scrubs, sat me in a chair, and wheeled me out. “Rotten piece of trash,” he said.
For about an hour, I sat in a room with ten or eleven other women, all of them in similar predicaments. Some of them may have been prostitutes, given the amount of makeup still smeared on their faces, but others looked like long-haul truckers, hair buzzed in the front and long in back. Nobody seemed interested in conversation. A television chirped in an upper region. And then a trucker grabbed one of the prostitutes by the hair and shoved her into the floor. Zero provocation. I wheeled myself into a corner and prepared to kick anyone who came near me. I told myself to aim for the teeth and then fell almost immediately into a sleep that felt velvety and eternal.
Then I was sitting in an office that belonged to an official in a suit. A detective? He didn’t identify himself and there were no clear signs, no badge or nameplate. He asked me how I was feeling and took his time coming around a desk to take my chin in his hand and wince at my eye. “Nasty,” he said. “Wish that hadn’t been necessary, but you were out of control. They tell me you tried to bite off an officer’s ear.”
It was possible. I’d done worse when mortally threatened. But my gut told me he was full of it. “What am I doing here?” I asked him. “Are there charges against me?”
He told me they’d sorted it all out. They knew who I was because they’d found my purse in the tub and matched my name to the one given in the 911 call. He said it was all a mistake, but it was better to err on the side of safety. “What if you were the killer?” he said. “We had to rule out that possibility.”
“Leni’s dead?” I said. I thought of her wide face, upturned in a pile of leaves, black lipstick particulate clinging to her lips. “Where did you find her?”
He didn’t answer. I could see in his face he wasn’t sure what I meant. “My cousin,” I said. “Did you find her?”
He turned abruptly and reached into a stack of papers. “That’s the thing,” he said. “We don’t have any record of a person like that.” He set a file folder in my lap and dropped into a chair behind the desk. “That’s all the research,” he said. “You’ll even see a transcript of your 911 call in there. But there’s no record of anyone named Leni living in that place. And there’s no record of the two of you being related.”
“We’re cousins,” I said. I thought of the long, ambiguous line between us. The uncle by marriage whose cousin married Leni’s mother when her father died. “A few times removed.”
He tapped his shirt pockets and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. I’d have chosen a single Merit over immortal life if he’d offered, but he didn’t. He lit up and strolled around his office in a thoughtful way. “All that being said,” he said. “We’ve got a murder to deal with. What can you tell me about your relationship to McCallister?”
It took me a beat or two to match the name to the gravel pit and the local pill mills. I knew only what everyone knew, which was that McAllister set up shop in the early 90s when moron legislators loosened the laws around pain med prescriptions. He’d been running millions of blues through his so-called clinics since. It was common knowledge he laundered his drug money through property, first buying up foreclosed ramshackles, then grocery and liquor stores, then land. And that’s how he came to own pretty much all of Portsmouth, including the lot where Leni’s trailer sat and the gravel operation where I’d perched while waiting for the police. So, like a lot of people, I knew McAllister, but I wouldn’t know him to see him.
“There’s no relationship,” I said.
His mouth was a taut red line, cigarette perpendicular. I knew I had to offer some sort conciliatory information or find myself in a cell again. “I climbed the fence and sat on some rocks there after I made the 911 call, but I’d never been in there before. All I know is, my cousin paid rent to the owner so she could plant her trailer there. She said the guy had her do some work cleaning up the office when she couldn’t match the bill. That’s it.”
“So you admit you broke into the place,” he said. “Go ahead and deny it if you want but the security cameras place you there for four straight hours.”
“I was waiting for the police,” I said. “I didn’t expect it would take you a day to get there.”
“It was a busy night. Higher priority calls.”
The idea that there was a ranking system to violent crimes rankled me. I knew where people like Leni and I fell on most lists, but I’d done a pretty good job up until that point pretending that the world was slightly more just. “If there were cameras, maybe they caught what happened at my cousin’s house,” I said. “She was gone when I got there and the place was a mess.” He seemed about to shrug, as though to say, what’s so strange about a mess in a trailer home? I added, “She’s got a husband who hits her,” and immediately regretted it. Now he had all the parts he needed to float his clichés in the trash parade he was no doubt inventing in his mind.
“The security cameras weren’t angled that way,” he said. “But they do give us a clear picture of you.”
“Then you already know I didn’t do anything but sit on a pile of rocks all night.”
“McCallister,” he said. He wagged his cigarette at me. “There was a murder. Happened in a utility shed about fifteen yards from where you were sitting. At least thirty rounds dropped. And you want me to believe you had nothing to do with it? With your record, I don’t think so.”
I thought about it. Wouldn’t I have heard something like that? “Unless it happened in complete silence, it didn’t happen while I was there,” I said. “I was pretty keyed up and scared. I would have noticed any sign of a gunfight.”
“We can hold you indefinitely, if you’re not telling the truth,” he said.
The last time I’d been locked up, I was only a child. I spent two months in juvenile detention because I’d taken a swing at a foster mother who made me sleep and eat in a hall closet. And during that time I’d learned how to endure all manner of questions, accusations, indignities. I summoned what I knew of the law. “Believe whatever you want,” I said. I let a bit of spittle fly into my speech. “If you can’t come up with legit charges within the next ten seconds, you and my lawyer can sort it out. Meanwhile, I’m going to be standing in front of the first camera I can find, showing everyone my black eye and the teeth falling out of my head.”
I let him count out the full ten in silence, maintaining eye contact all the while. It took an effort to stand, but I managed by balancing myself on the Windexed desk. “And I’m taking this with me,” I said. I waved the folder at him and he made no move to take it back, so I staggered out the door and down the hall in my prison scrubs and flip-flops. No one tried to stop me, though they all seemed to take me in, pausing in their tasks to gawk. When I made it to the parking lot, the first thing I did was ask a white haired loony on a bench for a smoke.
“Cigarettes will kill you,” he said.
“Do I look like I’m worried about dying?”
He looked me full in the face as he held out his lighter. “You got to learn to take better care of yourself,” he said. Then he sang a song for me. Beat up girl, looks like hell. Beat up girl, she wants to cry. Beat up girl, she’s going to die.
The inside of my apartment looked more depressing than it had the last time I’d seen it. Before, I would have said I was going for a pared down aesthetic. Streamlined, simple, no fuss. Now it was clear to me that I’d accomplished bland desolation. The place was criminally bleak, not to mention dirty. It made me feel sheepish about the kind of life I’d been living. I made enough money at my computer job to buy nice furniture, but instead I hauled in twelve-dollar thrift store couches and a closeout mattress from Big Lots with a dent in the middle. The curtains on the windows were old bed sheets I’d dressed up with a bit of pathetic fringe at the top. My only pan sat greasy on the stove and I had a sticker in my front window that warned of an attack dog I didn’t own. Warning, it said. Pit bull on premises.
Maybe I’d learned how to live and work in the world, but I’d never let my transient self recede far enough to become a normal kind of girl. Now I wanted scented candles in wall sconces and beaded throw pillows dotting a plush sofa sleeper. I wanted a dozen sophisticated black dresses in my closet, all variations on the same vaguely academic theme. I wanted advanced cutlery in my kitchen and a coffee table topped with Mexican tiles. I knew it was only my brush with death that made me want these things. On a normal day, I would have taken great pleasure in leaving on my dirty boots as I flopped into bed. Today I felt so lucky to be alive that I considered undoing the laces before I pried them off my feet.
Here’s what I thought I knew: I’d somehow managed to time the previous evening so that I happened to show up to dinner just late enough to miss Rick Merrick raging on my cousin and then climb into a gravel lot just after the murderer hired by a notorious pill boss made his escape. The fact that I walked out the back door of Leni’s house just as a pair of goons came in the front door to do a sweep of the property did not escape my accounting, nor did the likelihood that the police who grabbed me out of the tub were members of a task force expecting to find armed thugs in the house. I was lucky they didn’t shoot me dead before I’d had a chance to wake up. Then of course there was the ordeal in jail. Anybody could have poked me in the side to get rid of me. Or they could have left me in a cell to rot for weeks, months, or even years. With Leni gone, no one would have come forward to testify to my innocence or ignorance. As far as the police were concerned, she didn’t even exist.
I didn’t know who would claim my things in the event of my death. I had siblings, but I wasn’t sure they’d know me to see me, and both my parents were long gone. The friends I had weren’t the kind of friends who’d want to inherit my junk drawer of a life. They were drinking friends—people who recognize you in the bar because you were there the night before. And my job wasn’t the kind of job that took much note of no-shows. The data entry business is like a game of musical chairs—the job gets smaller as it gets longer until there’s only one desk left in the office. Most people aren’t equipped for that kind of stress and irregularity, but I got off on not knowing how long my latest gig would last or how much it would net me.
I was imagining the landlord boxing my things, holding up the items in my limited wardrobe—white tank top, white tank top, white tank top, black jeans—when I realized I might as well have been counting sheep. I was about to fall asleep on my feet. My bed, unmade, the fitted sheet clinging to the mattress on only three sides, was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. My dreams were black, lights out, nothingness. A grave I was walking through or a mammoth cave. Then I dreamed Leni was sitting at the foot of my bed, her weight rolling me into her. She was wearing a sugar colored angora sweater and a green scarf over a shaved head. She had her little girl in her lap and was bouncing her.
“I thought you were dead,” I said.
“I am,” she said. “But you’re making it really hard to rest in peace.”
Leni wasn’t one for teary shows of emotion, but she let me throw myself in her lap and cry. “It’s OK,” she said. She patted my head and Katie imitated the motion, setting her little pink hand in my matted hair. “I know you were only there because you care about me. I just wish you’d had the good sense to give up and walk away.”
“I knew you’d say that,” I said. I wiped my nose in my sleeve and pointed at her. “You never place any value on yourself. It’s one of your biggest flaws.”
She laughed. “Maybe you’re right, but I know I didn’t crawl out of the grave just to be insulted by you,” she said. “You got anything nice you could say to me? I could use a few kind words about now.”
The neon sign on the Chinese place across the street turned the room a red-bottomed ochre. “Leni,” I said. “You’re mixed up in some dangerous shit.”
“Listen, I feel awful about what happened to you. I really do. But I’m here because I need to tell you to back off. What you saw in the house wasn’t what you thought you saw, but it was meant to look that way and I need it to stick with certain people.”
“What about the police?”
“What about them?”
“They gave me a file. It says you never existed and we’re not related.”
She laughed and set Katie on the floor. The girl toddled over to the coffee table and played with a pair of earrings and a bracelet strewn there. “Well, they’re at least half right,” she said. “If we’re related, we’d need a magician to prove it.”
“You took me in because you pitied me.”
“I took you in because you needed a place to stay.”
She lifted Katie and let her play at fitting an earring into her ear. Bands of light shifted the tone in the room to a hollow, fractured blue. “Look, Annie, I know you feel like you owe me something, but you don’t. You’ve got to find a way to let me go and live in peace with the fact that you tried.”
“That’s something you’d say,” I said. “But you’re also a mother now and a real mother would want to know that her daughter was going to be OK. She’d want to murder whoever put her kid in danger.”
“What do you know about real mothering?” she asked and was gone. Try as I might, I couldn’t conjure her again and I woke sensing that something precious had been stolen from me. Across the kitchen counter, I set out all the papers in her file. No record of anyone residing at that address, no record of anyone responding to that name, no record of any of you miserable people at all. It only took me a few hours to bait the local PD into downloading a Trojan designed to delete all of their files. I felt no guilt, no remorse whatsoever. If all it takes is a Budweiser bikini and the promise of a peep—click here to see my huge tits!—to cripple your operation, you probably deserve to go down.
Three days later, I went back to Leni’s trailer and found only a burned out husk with such horrors inside as a melted baby doll speared on a piece of blackened aluminum siding. I knew how they’d done it, exploded the whole thing apart like a firecracker, because the propane tank was still sitting topless in the middle of the heap. The message, such as it was, was clear: full erasure. Maybe it didn’t matter who sent it. One of McAllister’s heavies, angry cops, Rick Merrick, Leni herself. It was all the same. Though a string of similar messages found their way into the local rag—apparently there was an arsonist targeting meth labs and pill docs in the area—this particular explosion went unremarked upon, unnoticed. Maybe the birds would mourn their feeders blown off the nearby tree branches, maybe the feral cats Leni habitually fed would feel the sting of empty bellies and whine, maybe the few stray cyclists to whom little Katie had waved as they motored past on the bike path would wonder where that pretty girl and her strange mother had gone. But, otherwise, Leni’s home would sink into the hungry mouth of the woods as though it had never stood upright and no one would be the wiser—not even the mailman, who had long since failed to deliver this route.
I took the lapse, the systematic failure to properly acknowledge human tragedy, personally. And I’ve described it to you now, in this way, and by these terms because I must take great care to rationalize and explain what happened five years later when I chanced upon Rick Merrick in a riverside bar. You have to understand: I wasn’t looking for him. By that time, I’d largely written off hope of any justice for Leni or her daughter. I was in cognitive behavioral therapy, for Christ’s sake. I had a steady girl, a hypoallergenic cat, and a lucrative work-from-home tech job to go with it. I had a goddamned library card with fines for overdue audio books on it. But that’s not to say that I’d didn’t simultaneously keep a detailed plan of action in wait. In the event that I ever came across the bastard or anyone affiliated with him, I was ready to set in motion a plan so strenuously considered that its steps were tattooed on my ever-loving mind.
It was one domino hitting the next the moment I recognized his name on the credit card receipt tucked under his foamed beer stein. It was his signature that drew my attention—a grand flourishing of ball-penmanship that suggested a wild bravado. It was so unreadable that I wondered what his name actually was. Rick Merrick, though it looked like a dolphin nudging the seafloor the way he signed it. You have sealed your fate, I thought, with your own asshole signature. I tucked my long baguette of a pocketbook beneath my arm, spun on my heel, and walked to my luxury sedan without a word spoken to my compatriots at the bar. When Rick Merrick emerged not three minutes later, I tailed his gray Honda to a shitty motel across the river. I waited to see which room he’d lumber into and then dialed a memorized number with a cell stashed inside my console.
Within about two hours, I was joined in the parking lot by a pair of professional miscreants for hire. They were trained to extract information from unwilling informants and I’d engaged them in a long-term contract with the understanding that if I ever needed them, there’d be ten thousand dollars on the other side of a successful interrogation. If I never needed them, they’d have a free and easy five thousand sitting in their bank accounts. What could they lose? The miscreants knew what I wanted to know and they knew I had exactly zero qualms about the rough tactics required to extract it.
I took a considerable risk by waiting for them in my leather-upholstered boat of car on the dark side of the Ohio River. The idea was that I should be far, as far away as possible from what happened as to be reasonably free from any suspicion that might follow the violence required, but there were details I wished to review. Perhaps time had softened me. Maybe I’d become a micromanager in my maturity. I don’t know. I told them to leave his balls alone. I told them to use the specter of McCallister if they had to, but to pose as cops for as long as possible. I told them there was a bonus in it if he was willing to lead them to Leni’s grave. They went into the room, the pair of them quiet as leather on linoleum, and came out twenty minutes later with a map more detailed than my wildest hopes. At the end of a circuitous dotted ballpoint line on a Motel 6 pad, there was a careful square labeled body. Next to that square, there was a smaller square, also labeled body.
“He expressed regret,” they told me, “but he didn’t seem all that sorry.”
“Why is here?” I asked them.
“Mother’s funeral,” they told me. “He was in the pen a long time. Says he’s trying to make amends.”
I wired them the money from my car. And that was it. That should have been it. I followed Rick Merrick that night. He emerged from his room with a jacket over his head and threw himself into his Honda and sped off. I followed him the next night and the next and the next. I was invisible to him because he’d never registered my presence. He’d seen me—we’d been introduced—but he’d never really seen me. Eventually, I dropped all precaution and sat next to him at the bar. Eventually, he took to telling strangers about the cops who’d tried to arrest him but they weren’t cops and he knew that now, but what he didn’t know was who was after him.
“Was it you?” he asked more than one man in the bar. “Was it because I fucked your girl that one time?”
He asked me. “Was it you? No, it couldn’t have been you. Who the hell are you?”
I was nobody every time.
He got so drunk that it was easy to follow him to the river and watch him fall in. I didn’t even have to struggle with him. He went down and I kicked him over the embankment. He rolled log-like and then sank. I saw his head come up for air, once twice, gone.Well, I thought, that takes care of that problem. When I got home, my girlfriend asked me where I’d been night after night, a shade of anger in her voice, and I told her I’d been visiting with an old friend.
“Anyone I should know?” she asked.
“No,” I told her. “Sometimes there’s a reason old friends are old friends.”
She nodded and we went to bed. Never discussed it again.
Despite the fact that McCallister was still a loose end, I let a sense of contentedness and ease slip into my living. I considered it futile to plot. I had no idea how to do somebody like him and never had. My only hope was to wait and pray that someone else did the job for me. There were other pushers in town. They may have been less organized than McCallister, but there were more and more of them all the time. Occasionally, one would off another and I’d read the paper with expectation, but our guy always seemed to emerge unscathed. The police called it a gang war, but it was more like prohibition hillbillies bombing competitor stills. Until some decent legislation found its way onto the books, the region would have to deal with some explosions. So, we waited and waited, pharmed up to the gills in the meantime.
On Christmas Eve of that year—like a special surprise from a morbid-as-hell Santa Claus—McCallister was found dead and deposited at the top of a heap of snow-covered rock at McCallister Gravel, butt of his own gun shoved someplace uncomfortable. They left the gruesome details out of the paper, but it was easy enough to draw the picture with my mind—a pleasure in which I indulged repeatedly. I raised a glass of red wine, toasted the Christmas tree, and that was that. The end of the Leni saga. That should have been the end.
The spot was one I think Leni would have liked. It was about a mile into the woods behind her trailer—or where her trailer once stood upright. By the time I finally got up my gumption to dig and know for sure, the burned out husk was a rumpled pause in a sea of low green. I walked straight back and found the creek Rick Merrick had drawn in a deep blue line. The old bridge was right where he’d marked it and a series of Sycamores standing like white-sheeted ghosts in the wood. Now is probably the time when I should tell you that Leni was the first person to tell me she loved me. It had never occurred to before that this was possible—that I could be loved.
“I love you, girl,” she said. “I love you for just who you are.”
She said it in the way you’d tell your sister you loved her right after she’d said something stupid and alienated the whole wedding party or insulted your parents’ way of being in an accidental sort of way. Only, I’d just met her and we weren’t even really related and she didn’t know I was gay—I didn’t know I was gay—but she’d guessed it about me and wanted to make sure I knew it was OK.
“I love you too,” I said. And I said it in the way that you silently thank someone for saving your life.
And so you can imagine why, when I got over myself and went into the woods to find her, I went there alone, armed only with a lame little gardening shovel. There were no officials present, no police task force, no investigative archeological team, not even my steady girl. I intended to pull back the dirt, make sure, and then leave them both there, Leni and her pretty daughter, Katie. This is the place I would visit when I wanted to pay my respects—at least I had that, I told myself. That’s what my fifteen thousand had bought me. But then I dug and dug and dug and didn’t find anything. I dug up the creek and down. I dug a thousand holes over the course of many years and never found a single human bone, nor any evidence of a burial of any kind.
I was left with several possibilities to mull with obsessive frequency. In the end, I decided that Rick Merrick may have been innocent of the murders or he may have been guilty of them. Either way, the map was bogus, probably constructed under duress from the miscreants, who wanted their bonus. Either way, I’d been had. I’d watched Rick Merrick die in the water, picturing the square next to the smaller square on the paper, while Leni and Katie, alive or dead, were somewhere else. When I called the miscreants, threatening exposure, they told me something I’d never known: Not only had Leni’s husband confessed to murdering her and her daughter, he’d also confessed to doing some hits for McAllister, bumping junkies and lighting their squats on fire.
The next logical step is to tell you that Rick Merrick deserved it anyway. I could turn record of his convictions for domestic abuse like the peel of an apple in one long coil, I could lift the rock on his childhood and show you his baby sister running nude through the streets with half her hair burned off, I could trace with my finger the path of decay he wrought in the wide world. But what could it matter to you or anyone that a piece of trash stood by while another piece of trash sank in the Ohio River? So, I’ll reveal instead that he knew me in that final moment. He didn’t know who I was but he knew me as his murderer. And it felt like enough. And I was glad. Judge me if you will. The water in the creek near the plot I still regard as Leni’s final resting place is as cloudy as the gray of her baby Katie’s eyes. She would have been thirteen this year—no longer a little girl. I like to imagine her as the kind of teenager who smiles even though she might be feeling down. Leni would have raised her that way. She would have taught her girl to cling to the bright side, even though it can be tough to find one in a blue town.