“They came and took my dad away to serve some time,
But it was me that paid the debt he left behind.
Folks said I was full of sin because I was the next of kin.”
—Creedence Clearwater Revival, ‘Porterville,’ Creedence Clearwater Revival (1968)
The Donna Collins incident was probably the final straw in my relationship with Culver County, the single event that drove me away from Drury for good. Maybe not, though. Maybe I’m just being dramatic, some whiny pussy that couldn’t deal with a little hardship. I don’t know, I really don’t.
The only thing I can tell you is that, whether it was real or just perceived, I felt the whole town turning against me after it happened. To some extent, I had grown used to the looks. Stares from people at the café, whispers at the gas pump across from me, it all became normal after Tommy’s diagnosis, and it only got worse after Mom’s death. Of course, those particular looks were all about pity, “Oh that poor boy” and all that shit.
After Donna Collins, it was different. The pity turned to suspicion…even blame. When it came to problems in my childhood, my father was generally the logical scape goat. The whole Donna Collins affair simply served as affirmation that Marvin Kauffman was cancer in human form, no different from the disease that ate away Tommy’s body in a matter of months. How much blame he truly deserved for everything was irrelevant. I had been looking for a way out for a long time, and Donna Collins offered me a clean break.
Since the day he left our family, all of the stories involving my father either started or ended at Garrett’s Tavern. Like most men whose job lies outside of the strictly legal confines of polite society, Marvin Kauffman’s ‘job hours’ were less than regular. Most of his business took place at odd hours of the day and night. Because Garrett’s opens at 8 am to accommodate the third shift of the Crown Mine, the bar is open nearly twenty hours each day.
My father would either slink in to Garrett’s at 8 am to end a long night of doing God knows what by hanging with the third shift crew, or he’d show up at five o’clock with the commuters and bed-room community-types. Either way, he’d wear the mask of a normal, working class man, even though he was anything but normal or blue collar. Knowing my father, I would say that he enjoyed the contradiction. For all his faults, he has always been a man who could appreciate irony, especially the bitter kind.
My guess is that none of the third shifters ever had to explain a suitcase filled with bricks of cocaine to their eight-year-old sons, and I’m sure that none of the commuters ever had to ask their wives to take them to the emergency room to attend to a broken hand, at least not one that was broken from a pounding against another man’s skull.
In any case, sometime in January, about two and a half months after my mother took a fatally direct drive off of Baird’s Bluff, my father stopped by Garrett’s for an early-morning drink. According to the witnesses interviewed for the local paper, there was nothing particularly unusual about his appearance or demeanor that morning. Of course, in a small town like Drury, the local paper is the one institution that doesn’t know the real story.
The gossip mill, the truest and most reliable form of Drury media, said that Marvin had been up for three days straight, supervising some of Gil Grady’s upriver supply runs. It isn’t too hard to figure out how he managed to stay alert for a three day job. Even when he was still living in our home, Marvin often turned to meth or cocaine the way normal people turned to Advil or a cup of black coffee.
In any case, the story that followed wasn’t too surprising. My father, after three days of uppers and no sleep and a few hours of sipping on Johnny Walker Black on the rocks, decided to get in his car and drive home. He probably never even saw her. He probably could barely see at all.
Of course, like with most major scandals, the facts of the case weren’t really the problem, it was the details of those involved that created the issue. Had my father been just any average, run-of-the-mill drunk with a mild narcotics habit, the prosecution would have been swift and decisive, but no one directly employed by Gil Grady is an average, run-of-the-mill anything.
By the same token, had he run over one of the numerous penniless, faceless denizens of Culver Country’s lower class, the prosecutor could have swiftly and neatly swept the whole event under the nearest rug. Unfortunately for everyone, Donna Collins was not exactly a member of the Schell family. In fact, she was a prominent member of Culver County’s richest family. Her grandfather had owned Culver County Savings and Loan before Gil Grady’s father had even taken control of the Piedmont Inn. By East-Coast standards, the Collins family was probably only upper-middle class, but in Culver County, their wealth was akin to royalty, and second only to Gil Grady’s vast fortune of blood money.
I’ve often wondered about the idea of destiny, the simple twists of fate that dictate our daily lives. What if Marvin had decided to have one more, or (heaven forbid) one less, cocktail that morning? What if Donna Collins had lingered in Cooper’s Pharmacy for a few seconds longer, browsing the magazines or picking up a pack of gum? Anyone who has experienced tragedy has an intimate knowledge of the cruelty of chance, but most normal people don’t stop to think about it.
In fact, nobody stops to think about any of it until lightning strikes in their own living room, be it a terminal diagnosis or skidding tires on gravel-covered pavement. I’m sure the Collins clan never thought about it. With their vast wealth, their land holdings that covered half of Culver County, their well-manicured lawns and comfortable brick homes. They must have felt invincible, impervious to the kind of tragedy that affected the common riff-raff that lived up and down the river.
On that morning, though, Donna Collins stepped off the curb at exactly the wrong time, and she proved, once again, the only history lesson that is really worth learning: most human beings value money more than just about anything, but fate, or God, or whatever you want to call it? He just doesn’t give a shit.
I should have been somewhat immune to the months of turmoil that followed. After all, there was a reason I moved in with David’s family after my mother’s death. The whole town knew that he had walked out on our family, and I never made any secrets about my feelings for my father.
In the end, though, blood truly is thicker than water. That’s the kind of stupid, hackneyed cliché that folks in the Midwest just love to spout. As a rule, I try to avoid those when I can, but when you grow up hearing an idea over and over again, it’s pretty hard to shake. Anyone who’s ever stood on a bluff to watch rising flood waters or tried to skip stones across a strong current, they know a thing or two about the phrase thicker than water. The phrase means something to river folk that other people just can’t understand.
It was everyone’s belief in that particular phrase that linked my name to every conversation that followed Donna Collins’ death. The whole incident set off a debate that had been brewing below the surface for years, even decades. Everyone within a hundred miles knows how Gil Grady makes his money, and whether they admit it or not, they tend to reap some benefit from his various elicit activities. At the same time, though, there has always been a strong contingent of folks who wanted to rattle the cages, looking for change.
Modern-day teetotalers looking to ‘clean up’ Culver County.
Donna Collins’ ill-timed exit from Cooper’s Pharmacy proved to be the spark that lit the fuse on the powder keg. She became a martyr and a figure-head of the anti-crime crusaders, and, at least in terms of Greek theater, I took on a small but important role in the whole drama. Donna’s sons, especially, her oldest son, Jack, became the faces of the tragedy, the visceral reminder of the direct consequences of Gil Grady’s various enterprises.
As the son of the villain, I became the perfect foil. Jack was popular and well-liked, a three-sport standout athlete. Quarterback, point guard, and short stop, the holy trinity of small-town gossip and admiration. As high school students go, he was a gladiator and a champion, and people loved him.
I, on the other hand, was nerdy and quiet, and prone to the biggest social sin of all—keeping to myself. While Jack was an example of the epitome of success, I was the very worst kind of failure. I was utterly forgettable.
The only thing that made me memorable was a thing that tied me, in a bizarre way, even more closely to Jack Collins. We both had experienced tragedy, two young boys with dead mothers. For some reason, people looked at that simple fact and drew deeper connections. My mother’s death went from being the source of dinner table conversations about tragedies, to being an example of some kind of twisted, cosmic irony.
One thing, of course, didn’t have anything to do with the other. My mother’s death had nothing to do with Donna Collins, and I had nothing to do with my father, and none of these strange parallels that people were drawing had absolutely any basis in fact. Even Gil Grady wasn’t really involved, at least directly. Yes, my father had spent three days doing god knows what for Gil Grady that morning, but Grady didn’t drive him to Garrett’s, and Grady didn’t put him behind the wheel of that truck.
In the end, though, public perception could give two shits about logical fallacy. The town, and the whole county for that matter, was going to believe whatever the hell it damned-well pleased. If that included making some kind of bizarre, misguided comparisons between me and Jack Collins, well that was how it was going to be.
Like I said, a lot of it was probably in my head, and I’m sure I often heard whispers that didn’t exist and saw glances that were never really thrown, but some of it was very real. From the beginning, for example, Jack Collins had made me his personal whipping boy for the whole experience.
After Tommy and my mother, I wanted nothing more than to finish out my senior year in relative obscurity, but Jack Collins made that impossible. He was relentless in his constant attacks. Shoves into lockers from out of nowhere…minor pummelings in empty stairwells…barely muttered curses from his legion of followers as I walked down the hall. I told myself that I didn’t care, that the constant hate and derision meant nothing to me, but of course that was a lie.
The truth is I didn’t deal well with it at all. I had never wanted to be the center of any attention, let alone the bulls-eyed target of Jack Collins’ searing hatred.
Though I felt terribly isolated, I wasn’t alone. David and Mark, of course, were fiercely loyal, and there were others on my side, too. Mostly the division occurred along economic lines. In Drury, the train tracks ran north and south, right alongside the river. As a result, the phrase ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ never meant much in Culver County. Of course, that fact alone never kept people from finding dividing lines. For us, there was no ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ but there were those who lived ‘north of the crick’—the ‘crick’ in question being Sugar Creek, which separates old Drury from Sugar Creek Hills and Edgewood Golf Course. People with money, or at least people with ‘respectable’ money, lived in brick houses in Sugar Creek. Those that didn’t lived in small or crumbling houses south of the crick.
The death of Donna Collins turned the entire county into a grand social experiment, separating those who despised Gil Grady from those whose hands were dirtied in some way by his criminal schemes. The school, however, devolved into a much less-nuanced social experiment, one that is as old as society itself—the haves versus the have-nots.
It all finally culminated during the second week of May. We were only a few days away from graduation, and I was, mercifully, only a few months away from heading off to school at Whitehaven College, an act that I thought would mean leaving Culver County forever.
It was the end of the day, and I found myself throwing clothes in a bag in the boys’ locker room after a PE class. I had been annoyed to even be taking the class in the first place, but my advisor had assured me that, senior or not, I needed another PE credit to graduate. Before I could pack my things and slip away, unnoticed after the last bell, Jack Collins burst through the door with two of his minions in tow. I don’t know if he somehow knew I was there or not, but he seemed to start almost immediately, as if he’d had a speech prepared even before his hands hit the door.
“Well,” he said, “if it isn’t the low-life, little piece of shit river rat. Your Dad kill anyone else today, Rat?”
At first, I tried to ignore him, as I always did, but I could feel something growing in me that I could not contain. A white-hot burning, like charcoal exposed to a steady puff of air.
I don’t really remember what he said, a few random insults, a stray accusation.
I do remember looking up at him as he hovered above me. Staring up at his nose hairs, watching little bursts of spittle waft through the air and drift down towards my face.
A few days earlier, I had put a small baseball bat in my bag. It wasn’t like a real bat or anything. It was a tiny, novelty item that my Uncle Randy had bought for me. Not long before Tommy died, he’d taken me to a baseball game. He lived a few hours away, and he’d come to visit. Before he left, he offered to take me out of town to a few days. To get away from everything. I found out later that they were making Tommy’s funeral plans. My mother felt it would be too stressful, so she’d ask him to take me.
All in all, it was one of the few fun experiences that I can remember from the time period. I’d never been to the stadium before, and I loved the experience. Walking under the stands and out through the gate that led to our seats, the field coming into view as we walked up a few steps. I had literally never seen anything so bright and green in my entire life.
Before we left, he bought me a baseball hat and this small, novelty bat. It was maybe a foot and a half long, but it was otherwise a replica of the real thing. “You have to have a souvenir of your first time at the park,” he’d said. After a few incidents of Jack Collins’ friends hounding me on the walk home from school, I began to feel like the small bat had a higher purpose.
As I listened to Jack Collins’ hate and derision, I found myself reaching in the bag and wrapping a fist around that small, wooden cylinder. I’ve heard people describe these events as an ‘out of body experience’ or some kind of ‘mental break.’ I would say that anyone who talks to you about losing their mind and having a mental break is full of shit. You don’t really leave your body when you lose control. There’s nothing mystical about the experience. Maybe the experience is different for others, but for me, there was no drifting away at all. If anything, it was the opposite. Time slowed down to the point that I could feel the impact of every last savage blow.
Later, when the principal asked me why I used a weapon, I gave him a straightforward and honest answer. I could have never beaten Jack Collins without a weapon, and once I had taken one swing, there was no turning back. Though I would have never admitted this, in some ways, it was almost premeditated. I had decided, weeks before that I wasn’t going to put up with the bullshit anymore. For probably the first time in my life, I was going to fight back, with everything I had.
The assault didn’t end until the bat literally broke in two on Jack’s face. I remember the horrified look on his friends’ faces, the minions who had stood by in mute horror through the whole fight. They simply stared in disbelief. One of them, a chubby back-up guard on the football team, even seemed to be trembling. He was wringing his lands and mumbling to himself after it was over, staring down at the toe of his white gym shoes, speckled with a few drops of Jack Collins’ blood.
I remember looking at my blood-soaked hands. When the bat broke, it had left a large gash on the inside of my right palm. Looking down at the bloody mess covering my arms and hands, it was impossible to tell the difference between the blood that had seeped from the cut and the blood that had splattered from Jack’s rapidly swelling face.
The bat wasn’t exactly a legitimate weapon, but it had done the job, at least for a while. I remember looking down at him and thinking, what would have happened if the bat hadn’t broken? Would I have even stopped?
Of course, my senseless attack on Culver County’s sweetheart drastically reduced the number of people standing in my corner. There were calls for swift and decisive action from the principal. I think he did his best to strike a compromise that would appease the masses, though everyone seemed to feel as though I got off easy—three days suspension a few days before final exams. My grade point average didn’t even drop.
Jack, on the other hand, missed the regional baseball game with a black eye and slight orbital fracture. The rumor was that a scout from the University of Iowa was sitting in the stands, which only upped the ante on the Kauffman legend of depravity.
If you ask me, he didn’t have much of a chance of getting a big-time scholarship anyway, he was only five foot ten.
I’m sure that I’m supposed to feel worse about the whole thing, but Jack Collins is at the tail end of a very long line of more recent regrets. Whatever atonement is required for that particular offense is just going to have to wait.
Somehow, my pummeling of poor Jack Collins in the boys locker room seemed to bring an end to the wrangling in town. It was as if both sides through their hands up in disgust and went home, sure that this latest incident vindicated their side. It was the pre-social media equivalent of a prolonged Facebook fight. The wrangling between the Collins’ wealth and Gil Grady’s sleaze had drummed up loud accusations and grand pronouncements, but in the end it all subsided with a little bloodshed and wringing of hands. By the time the backroom deals were struck, my father was sentenced to three years in prison, out in twenty months if he didn’t screw up. Jack recovered and got a scholarship to a junior college a few hours away. Last I heard, he had flunked out and impregnated a co-ed, but who was I to throw stones?
As for my father, I really didn’t have much desire to ever see him again, but for some reason, I decided to go visit him once, during my first year at Whitehaven, just before I stopped going to classes all together. He had only been there a month or so, and something deep inside was pulling me to visit. I had barely spoken to him when we were living in the same town, and yet I got in a car and drove four and a half hours to a state prison in Southern Illinois.
The place was a converted insane asylum that was built around the turn of the century. It was redesigned to be a medical facility for the state prison systems, but overcrowding was forcing them to house a few hundred non-violent offenders. That was one of the ideas I thought about as I made the trip down, Marvin Kauffman as a representative of the non-violent masses. You didn’t need to look much further than that to find direct evidence to prove that the system is fucked.
It wasn’t as though he was ever abusive, not to me or Tommy, and certainly not to my Mom. He never hit any of us. In fact, he rarely even raised his voice. Despite that, I never had any doubts that he was a violent man. The violence followed him around like a cloud. The late nights, the sordid odd jobs—all the general slime that went along with being a henchman for Gil Grady—it hung on my father like a stench. If my mother asked him about his day, he would grunt and glare a warning to us all. It was not to be discussed. He wore his sins around his neck like a twenty-pound chain.
When I got to the prison, I had to wait about an hour, standing outside the gates, shuffling in a cold rain. When they finally opened the gates, they had us all wait again, all of us dripping puddles on the floor as we sat in a poorly heated waiting room inside the main doors. Why had they made us wait an hour in the rain? It was hard to say, but there was nothing any of us could do about that, and we certainly weren’t going to complain directly.
I was expecting to communicate through thick glass, each of us talking into a scratchy-sounding, bacteria-covered phone on the wall. Instead they lead us into a large room filled with small, circular tables. We sat and waited for another twenty minutes before the inmates arrived. For most of the people in the room, this was a joyful reunion. One mother, who had been weeping openly all morning as we waited, began screaming and hugged her son as he walked into the room. A plump, disinterested woman in a guard’s uniform walked over and tapped the woman on the shoulder almost immediately.
Systems like these are based on control, and exuberant hugging is one of those breaches of protocols that the strict order simply will not tolerate. “One more time, and you’ll be removed, ma’am.” The guard said, pointing towards a blue plastic chair next to a table. The mother sat and nodded, mumbling her apologies and hanging her head like a disciplined puppy.
When Marvin walked up to me, we gave each other a hesitant nod and sat. The chubby, perm-haired guard did not need to worry about boisterous displays of affection from either of us.
I don’t remember exactly what we talked about as we sat around. Certainly, there wasn’t anything earth shattering. We did not talk about our problems, or connect on some deeper level. The possibility for catharsis was lost between us long ago. Nevertheless, it had seemed important that I visit. To actually see him in that place, dressed in a jumpsuit issued by the Illinois Department of Corrections.
I remember spending much of my time watching a little boy at the next table. I assumed that the man he was visiting was his father, and the boy appeared to me to be about four or five, although I’ve never been very good about guessing ages and that sort of thing. The kid spent the whole time laughing and running around the table in circles, playing typical kids’ games. I wondered if the kid was old enough to remember this. Would he look back when he was fifteen or sixteen years old and remember playing with his old man at the prison?
When time ran out, we both stood up. For a second I thought he was going to try to hug me, but instead we shared an awkward hand shake.
As I started to walk out, he finally said something meaningful. “This is your birthright, you know?”
I turned and looked at looked back. “What?”
“This,” he said, gesturing to the visiting room. “All of it. It’s your birthright. It was mine, and now it’s yours. That’s why I couldn’t stay around you guys. That’s why I left.”
It was the first and only time I’d heard him give any reasoning for walking out. To say it was too little, too late is an understatement that borders the absurd. I shrugged and walked away without another word.
It was the first and only time I visited, and we didn’t talk again for five years.