That's Some Handiwork There, Killer
For the dual sakes of maintaining continuity and credibility I’ve opted to recount for you my story, in its unadulterated entirety, as candidly and as objectively as I can possibly manage.
Let us begin with a quasi-introduction. I won’t tell you my birth name – you don’t need to know it – but for the purpose of fluidity you might think of me as “Jules”. If that doesn’t float your boat you might feel free to call me a name of your choosing, but that’s on you.
I’m sixty-four. I work a desk job and I don’t hate it. It pays me well enough and my colleagues have always been quite accommodating. I like to read and I read pretty fast. Magazines, newspapers, novels, dissertations, holy texts, pamphlets, fliers, theses, journals, biographies and autobiographies, what I call drift-paper – that’s looseleaf on the wind – shopping lists, catalogues, those catalogues of catalogues the thriftier echelons of society seemed in the early noughties to have gone mad over. If it’s written or printed or scribbled or jotted I’ll read it. I’m not so into television, much as I might like to be. The static gives me headaches. I have in my home cook’s repertoire sixteen dishes I’ve thus far mastered and another twenty-seven I got about a cat’s hair from perfecting before I was forced to stop cooking altogether. I studied marketing communications and public relations at a mid-tier east-coast college but I came up in a small semi-rural township a few hours beyond Chicago’s southernmost city limits.
The circumstance to which I was for all intents and purposes an unwitting spectator and from which came many a sleepless night and many a tired hour spent talking with shrinks would transpire in the good year of 1960. April 17th. Curiously I remember the day the most for the fact that it was precisely six full spins on the axis ahead of my tenth birthday.
That fuckin’ word. It still seems an arbitrary thing to have pondered so meticulously. I’ve wasted more than my share of time wondering and trying to figure out why I’ve spent almost forty-five years mulling over those three little letters. It irritates me to no end that all I have to show for those countless wasted moments is a somewhat believable yet still wholly unsatisfying theory that I must’ve been ardently counting down the days in the leadup to my clocking into the double digits club and my pedantic consideration of the word “six” is simply a reflection of the fact that at less-than-ten years old it’s easier and quicker for the homo sapien's brain to process and store smaller sequences of numbers and letters than it is to process and store details and implications and chilling stills that sit dust-laden and obscured by fonder memories like old Daguerreotypes in the murkiest recesses of my still pliable, still frightened-beyond-the-articulable brain and that’s why “six” took precedence over all else. Whatever the pathology behind my mild obsession, however, I only hope the obsession itself has proven clear enough a demonstration of the mental toll this soon-to-be-explained event has taken on me.
I recall acutely that the day in question was equal parts sunny and cloudy and that it rained at around two p.m. and that this rain forced all of us who lived and played in the cul-de-sac signed Parkview Close inside for the better part of an hour. Prior to the first clap of thunder that sent us all running for our respective front porches Johnny Bing and Lucy Koepp and David Luciano and Marcie Totes and my dog Duke and I had been standing in the road dodging with finesse each passing car and hitting at a drugstore-bought .99c baseball with all the strength and technique we could muster. Johnny Bing fancied himself a talented pitcher – he even called himself “Mr. Fastball” – and the rest of us, Duke excluded, took our turns wielding for a bat the pipe-thick trunk of an uprooted sapling elm Marcie had found in the woods behind her house earlier that day. It was as good a slugger as any other we’d ever had, and at that point in time we’d each of us been through more than our share of cheap grips.
The storm subsided toward three p.m. and we all, not wanting to forgo an opportunity to have more fun, reconvened at the top of the long cul-de-sac where Marcie’s single-storey redbrick home rested proud and modern and perfectly manicured on the corner. Usually we’d meet outside her place because Marcie’s mother was something of a showboater with her cooking and baking skills and on the better days she’d invite us in for blondies or sugar cookies or devil’s food cake – none of which my own mother approved of, by the way, but there wasn’t a damned thing she could do to keep me away from those sweet treats and we both knew it.
Anyway, the four of us and Duke waited outside Marcie’s house for a while hollering things of all sorts in a cohesive effort to draw her and her shanty bat outside. Still now I can envision the scene with about the same level of clarity as I could then, when I actually lived it through: the shallow spans of blooming aquilegia in Marcie’s yard coated by the afternoon shower in luminous beads that each caught and held their own tiny suns, the tall flowers nodding slightly in the wind; the droning of insects threading their ways through the underbrush, the day’s unwavering crispness and the fact that when you sucked oxygen down into your lungs it was as cool and as sweet on the palate as water because back then fresh air was still a thing.
When ten minutes had passed and Marcie hadn’t come out and her mother hadn’t shown either we decided instead (democratically, of course) to take the ball we’d purchased (with painstakingly acquired pooled funds) to another location whereat we could pass the time.
Now, David Luciano was always a bit of a soft kid, and what I mean by that is he didn’t have much of a heart in him. Bravado simply wasn’t a part of his gamut. Storms especially rattled him up good and proper and I could see, me being as sufficiently apt a judge of character as I was at almost-ten-years-old, that even though the storm cell had begun to dissipate he hadn’t yet retired the frightened expectation of disaster I saw in his mottled green irises right as we’d communally decided to make our ways home not an hour and a half earlier. So, as it were, when we started toward the corner store and empty lot of land another half-mile down the road if you were to turn left out of the cul-de-sac past Marcie’s house I had a nagging feeling that he’d make some kind of complaint or request for special provisions or treatment before we made it even halfway there. Wouldn’t you know I was right, too. A quarter mile from Marcie’s – that’s four hundred odd metres to you metric folk – he told me in confidence that he had a stomach cramp. I replied that he shouldn’t let it worry him and that we could still make a good time of our afternoon but it wasn’t enough to placate him and he mentioned it two or three more times within the following five minutes and I decided to publicly float the idea of having everyone meet again tomorrow as recompense for the fact that we wouldn’t be getting our full fill of fun today whether we arrived at the corner store/empty lot or not on account of David’s complaining. The rest of the group – that is, Johnny and Lucy – agreed we could hang together the next day but decided to press on with the current journey for reasons of their own. They were a little bit older than me, a little bit rougher. We all shot the shit at the pumping station beneath the bottom of our cul-de-sac from time to time and every now and then Lucy would bring cigarettes she’d stolen from her eldest sister and her and Johnny would smoke together and emulate “adult” behaviour. In retrospect I realise they were actually imitating the private habits of their parents and I now consider their expressions of artificial maturity to be more-or-less candid insights into their lives as they were behind closed doors. I was never bad enough to break the rules like they did, or like they acted like they did, but I was happy enough to experience vicariously a life of mild rebellion through my more senior neighbourhood counterparts. Anyway, they started up the road the way they’d already been heading and David and Duke and I were left to walk back to Parkview Close as a trio.
On the way home David asked me a bunch of questions. He was younger than me by about two years so most of what he asked concerned the varying degrees of incongruence in the meshing of all of our personalities that he’d been intuitive enough to notice by comparing his behaviours and mannerisms with ours, his peripheral interests with ours (peripheral in this case meaning the things we’d do in private versus the things he’d do in private, seeing as the times we actually spent together and in a group were only fair indicators of our clan-oriented commonalities), the things we’d study in school versus the things he’d study and so on and so forth, and I answered them all as best I could. After a time he broke through this mould of awkward banality and asked me something I found a great deal more intriguing, however: whether or not I’d ever seen a switchblade. I told him of course I had, that I knew all about them, what kid wouldn’t, those things are neat, and so on and so forth. These were lies. To my delight, though, he produced a switchblade from the depths of his pocket and dropped it with a wry smile into the open palm of my hand. I stopped mid-step to inspect it and David made a funny pivot on his heel to slow his momentum and watch me as I considered what I held. Where we stood we were probably an eighth of a mile from Marcie’s house and thusly from our home street. We spent a few minutes thereafter discussing how he’d dubiously acquired it (he’d stolen it from a toolbox in his father’s garage workshop – Mister Luciano was a well-off veteran with a lot of time on his hands and, again retrospectively, I can appreciate now that it was in fact a knife of the Hitlerjugend his father had brought home from the meatgrinders of Hürtgen Forest as a reminder of his service. Like you could ever forget it – my father was also veteran, and he’d suck-start a sidearm not three years later than the very day I’m now recounting because at that stage he couldn’t make it through a full night’s sleep without waking in fits of terror) and I dedicated a substantial amount of time to tracing my fingertips across the little insignias and engravings on the handle that said Blut und Ehre. We were both so rapt in the awe-inspiring craftwork and the fact that he’d had the cajones to steal such an important artefact of history from his father that we didn’t see or hear the lorry trundling laboriously over the many potholes and divots in the road until it was more or less next to us.
Lorries of all varieties were a common sight in that road. The two roads leading into and out of our town – one of which the road we’re travelling in this part of the story happens to be – acted as a conduit between highways and alternative routes for truckers who trucked all over the east and Midwest, so we weren’t at all unaccustomed to the roar of the engine block, the baritone clank of the motor. Some of us had even lost pets to them. We just hadn’t seen it coming – and much as you’d think I’m about to tell you David Luciano was forced by a tonne and a half of speeding steel through the drain grate we were standing over, I must report instead that he was in fact merely startled by the lorry’s passing (mistaking it for thunder and not the mechanical squeal of an ancient machine with more years of service to its chassis than he’d had hot dinners in his life), his being startled in turn causing him to take a wetfish grip on the blade as I handed it back to him at that very moment, and as luck would have it the heirloom slipped through his clammy, meagre fingers and dipped cleanly through the bars beneath our feet.
To save space I’ll condense for you the subsequent action: David lost his mind screaming this and that about how he’s a dead man walking, how his father could never continue to love a thief. David stamped his feet on the ground. David clawed at the grate and ran his hands along the edges looking for points of leverage. David asked me for help. I proposed we wait for an adult to come by. We waited for an adult to come by. After a half hour had passed an adult came by in some sort of wagon and when he pulled over to the curb we explained to him our predicament. Ten minutes passed during which the adult attached to the grate a hook and slackened rope that were each in turn attached to the rear of the wagon which upon rolling forward a grand total of twenty-five feet detached from the asphalt with an almost comical din the grate that had caused us the damned trouble in the first place. We thanked the kindly fellow and he said don’t mention it and he made no offers of further assistance nor did he ask us whether or not we needed the grate refitted but it didn’t much matter since as far as we could tell we had more-or-less had our problem solved for us by divine intervention or kamikaze. But David wasn’t going to descend that ladder. No, sir. Not a snowball’s chance. We argued back and forth about who’d be the lucky dignitary for what seemed like an age and I, having at that point grown sick and tired of loitering by the sidewalk, soon found myself negotiating on David’s behalf the grime-encrusted stepladder so I could recover and return the knife he was too yellow to retrieve himself.
It wasn’t a big space, that drain. Measurement-wise I’d say it was roughly seven by eight by six feet. It was dark as hell, though, and it stank to high heaven. Mould and rot and faecal matter somewhere much farther underground and festering in some service pipe that despite its likely thickness was simply unable to hold the stench. Parallel with the road irrigated rain ran steady and quiet in blackened sheets through divots in the floor that were connected at both terminals by smaller pipes designed to cordon and funnel the flow. On either wall of the drain, each jutting out about a half-yard and risen about three feet from the ground, were fitted pipes that apparently conjoined all the drains on the road. I assume that those larger ones were for transporting heavier flows of stormwater. These pipes were just barely wide enough to accommodate a person of roughly my size at the time – I was a slightly taller-than-average nine year old.
I can’t quite put to words the vibe I caught in that place. You could certainly say it gave me “the creeps”, but “the creeps” don’t satisfactorily describe how I was made to feel. I can I guess say that the most proximal verbal expression is that I became privy to a profound sensation of being crushed under the weight of some horrible, empty knowledge of this expansive and alien-looking plane of existence I shouldn’t have needed or wanted to be made party to. Like I’d had some god-awful lapse in judgment and the fact I’d stumbled upon this vast network of dungeon-like pits in the ground warranted my experiencing of insidious repercussions dealt by consciousnesses beyond reckoning. A single image that has reiterated itself in my mind more times than I can count for the entire course of my life since like a cold that lingers, the symptoms of which weaken periodically but never quite die altogether; the concrete lips of the large drainpipes wetted around the edges by a guttural surfeit, the throats of them choked by a depthless but somehow hollow abyss of utmost blackness. The discordant rhythms of dripping and distant machinery like the cooing of blind things that drag bellywise through the sewers and the sludge. I thought about running through the tunnels and losing my way. I thought about trapping myself in a narrow pipe and spending my last hours or days completely detached from the outside, the world above this concrete wasteland turning without me, my calls for help sounding a thousand times over within those lightproofed walls and heard only by vermin. I thought about almost every horrible thing a child with an overactive imagination could think of upon learning of the subterranean layers of his or her own city.
That all said, with a moment’s passing I realised the ridiculousness of these fantasies. How infantile they really were. None of it fazed me thereafter. One of the conveniences of my pre-pubescent experience, I guess, was that I didn’t have the frame of reference from which I could try to act and think like an adult (my parents were very much in the “don’t-rush-the-growing” camp of childrearing and thusly I was about as kid-like as a kid could get) – sometimes it just happened organically. Which I guess is what’s supposed to happen – but I see young people these days and I wonder. Anyhow, I remembered why I was down there in the first place and I decided to make quick work of it.
Now, I used to carry a box of matches. Don’t ask me why because I don’t really know. I can only say I recall a few times during which we’d lit minor blazes, but we were never firebugs or even close to firebugs. I guess I wanted to be prepared for instances in which I might need them. When you’re a kid you never can say for certain what kind of hijinx you’ll find yourself involved in.
So I struck a match and got to scouring. With my face pointed at the ground and the squalid bottom of the drain glistening with scum in the weak matchlight I scanned the scene with haste. The first match went out with a whispered sizzle. I lit another and found nothing and the second match died in the same fashion as the first. I lit yet another and still didn’t find shit. When the third matchhead ember dwindled I was about ready to throw up from the smell and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be down there when finding the knife was going to be so damned difficult anyway – even for the benefit of my conscience it was difficult to justify my staying – so I opted to make my exit. And at the precise moment I put my second foot to the third-to-last rung of that ladder, and for the second time that day no less, something not unlike magic happened: a delicate sliver of sunshine washed into the drain in a transient pole of mottled light that for no more than a second or two cut a path through the corruption and the muck congealing atop the floor of that loamy place and refracted in gleaming shards from the silver handle of the blade where it lay half-buried, as if pieces of the sun could catch like fire in the shattered face of a mirror, the reflections thrown white hot against the walls.
For a moment I revelled in the mystery. To live as witness to a coincidence of that magnitude. The very happenstance of moments such as those have helped me to arrive several times at at least a preliminary understanding of what people really mean when they say they’ve felt the touch of some higher power or something beyond our limited comprehension. God? I couldn’t say. Fate? Maybe, if you’re so inclined to see it that way. Whatever it was, though, it seemed miraculous even for that day and it still seems so after all this time. In truth I can’t always shut away the notion that it was by design and not by random chance that the light just-so-happened to illuminate the very part of the drain where the knife had landed. As though it was written in the blueprints and in the very bones of the universe to unfold exactly the way it did and no way other. Sometimes, though, I don’t care either way. If it was meant to be it was meant to be and I’d like very much to be able to put it down and let it alone.
Before long I snapped out of my stupor and called to David that I’d found it and I eased my grip on the ladder and dropped back into the drain and he shouted something in reply and Duke barked and slobbered and growled but I didn’t completely hear any of it because when I lit my fourth match to assist me in judging the exact details of the knife’s location I caught sight in the initial photoluminous glow of another curious thing: the merest suggestion of shape hung limply from the mouth of the pipe that lead toward the top of my street. I hadn’t seen it at first I suppose because I’d been directing most of my attention at the floor. And then it seemed, at least in passing, that the universe was a vindictive bastard indeed; that it had just then realised some avenue through which it could extol a grave preaching tailored to my situation specifically: it entertained the possibility that all of my phobic ticks I’d experienced upon entering the drain were in fact completely valid if not totally sensible. It was a perfect instance of exquisite horror and if I’d had half a mind in that juncture to do the most logical thing possible I would’ve abandoned ship immediately. The strange thing is, though, that I knew I couldn’t just climb that ladder and forget about it even though I might have liked to. It’s peculiar, adrenaline. I was sure I didn’t actually want to know whether what I thought I’d seen was anywhere close to what I’d actually seen but I was powerless against this contradictory and morbid compulsion to satisfy my curiosity at all costs. So…I did I guess what I had to do, I looked.
Over the lips of the pipe there dangled beneath the matchlight the small outline of a human foot, the now-tarnished shoes still worn, still buckled; the socks, without any flesh on which to grip, had sunk crumpled against raw anklebone. Beyond the maw, a vignette of a child-sized Sunday Best jacket that had been reduced by the filth of the pipe’s contents to a dappled, stinking piece of tattered fabric all overgrown with tall tendrils of mould that sat rigid in the dark.
He’d been there a long time. The smell was foul, acrid. I wouldn’t have needed to look at him to know he’d long since expired, but I did. It might be the worst thing I’ve ever seen. And in spite of my feelings of mute terror I might even have stood for longer if not for the fact that my match went out after the passing of only a few more seconds and in the murk of that hollow cavern I thought about what it would take for me to swap places with that dead kid or become his first peer in death and I concluded that in light of the very possibility his being there had anything at all to do with the drain’s being there then there must have been a chance I could be made to suffer through the same awful things that ultimately left him where he rested withered and bacterial and long since forgotten and propped up by rigor mortis as though in time he’d have crawled out of that pipe his own self. Let me tell you something I do know for certain, though: you never saw anybody climb out of a drain as quick as I did that day.
[We did get the knife back, by the way, from somebody who had worked the crime scene and deemed the story David and I had presented to him as “believable enough”.]
Months later, after all of this hullabaloo about my grisly discovery, they’d tell us the kid might have died by the hand of a man who had been travelling for around about a year from around about Jackson, MS and who for that same amount of time seemed to have been exercising a bizarre penchant for abducting children that exhibited the kinds of qualities he had I guess an “affinity” for, and for an indeterminate amount of time since the commencement of his journey, likely because he’d never been much good at playing guardian for long stretches, had joined the pantheon of Gacy and Fish and Bishop by escalating his crimes to medieval kinds of torture and ultimately murder – or so they seemed to think. I’d learn later that earlier in the good year of 1960 they’d had reports as far north as Manitoba of kidnappings that shared circumstantial similarities with the canonical four thus far proven victims of the man believed to be responsible, which would’ve made my little town a more of a dumping ground for the killer than anything else and not a point of any real significance other than the personal significance my neighbours attached to the notion that he’d even passed through here at all and not a single one of us had been wise to the fact we’d kept community with an insane for even the slightest piece of time. Here’s a fact you might find interesting, though: my discovery, and in particular the location of my discovery, birthed the popular theory that the man might have been a trucker – something the feds apparently hadn’t yet thought of given his erratic geographical pattern of deviancy – and this theory would eventually, almost thirty-five years later, lead to an arrest that, again eventually, paved the way to a conviction. I couldn’t repeat this man’s name because I had almost zero interest in following the case via the media but I was told by my mother that that was “the guy” and that the final notch in his belt was he said number twenty-six in September ‘89, although as I mentioned above only four of them were ever found and proven to be examples of his handiwork. I do know that the name of the boy I found is or was Thomas Brandt-Hauser. I know that he liked math and his favourite sport was groundhockey and that he wanted one day to be “the sheriff”. I know that he had been six when he was abducted from out front of a now defunct cornerstore in Germantown, Tennessee. Six when he died in the company of the man who’d snatched him up in the heart of America’s Bible Belt. Six when I found him. That his parents said at the end of it all that they’d have preferred not to know about what happened to their only boy, and that he’d been sleeping in that drain pipe for almost five months when they dug him out.
Time rolled on, though. Johnny Bing moved to California that summer after his father was offered a better job in Los Angeles and the last time I heard about him was in the eighties and I recall no specifics about what was said but I do remember being told that he was doing quite well for himself. Before I knew it a year had passed since April 17th, 1960. David Luciano moved uptown in June of 1961 to attend a Catholic school with a Brotherhood and all that jazz and from then on we ran in different circles. He’s a family man now, and I heard through the grapevine that despite his age he’s got a third little girl on the way. Duke succumbed to a respiratory infection just after Christmas of 1962 and my father to his own Colt .45 in February of ’63. As bitter as I used to be about it, I can’t say after having lost so much sleep myself to my own appalling recollections that I don’t understand why he did it. Lucy Koepp stayed living on Parkview Close until it was time for her to move away to college, although once Johnny and David left we didn’t really see each other at all but for when we’d pass one another on the street as we went about our business, and every time we’d put up this charade that we were both total strangers without any history whatsoever and we’d look past each other at hedges and trees and cars and we’d feign purpose in our respective paths until we were well clear of one another and for the rest of the time I knew her that’s the way it would remain. Marcie and I, however, having nobody else on the street with whom we could actively socialise, became very close. By the time we started middle school together we’d actually be dating, and we’d continue to date throughout our careers as students. Time kept on rolling, as it does, and after a while all of it became stuff that happened “a few years back.” Then it was ten years, then twenty-five. I blinked and I’d become an old man with my own kids and my own lagging debts and my own failed marriage of which to speak at the bottom of every frosted glass and at the end of every lonely night. I recall weddings, baptisms, parties, births, deaths, cross-country moves and job interviews. I recall good times, I recall bad times, I recall times of total ambivalence. I recall the women I’ve known and the indescribable flavour of purest air and the scent of blooming aquilegia.
If I’d only known how quickly all of this would pass me by. The old timers said it’d happen, but you’ve got to live it to feel it. The sun comes and goes, the moon hangs low in the sky, and I recall each night the way he rested: a sick man’s magnum opus displayed as such in the darkest gallery in the world, where the percussive echoes of falling droplets sound forever and rats need no matchlight to look upon such things and marvel.