I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
We used to all come outside when the streetlights came on and prowl the neighborhood in a pack, a herd of kids on banana seat bikes and minibikes. The grown-ups looked so silly framed in their living room and kitchen windows. They complained about their days and sighed deep sighs of depression and loss. They talked about how spoiled and lucky children are these days. We will never be that way, we said, we will never say those things. We popped wheelies in pursuit of the mosquito truck, which was a guarantee on humid summer nights. We rode behind the big gray truck, our laughter and screams lost in the grinding whir of machinery, our vision blurred by the cloud of poison. We were light-headed as we cruised our town—the dark deserted playground of the elementary school, the fluorescent-lit gas stations out on the service road of the interstate that scarred the rural landscape, past the run-down apartment complex where transient military families lived, past houses that were identified by histories of death, divorce, disaster. Sometimes we rode up to the hospital, a three-story red brick building that stayed lit throughout the night. We hid in the shrubbery of what was known as the lawyers’ parking lot, a spot near the courthouse rumored to be the scene of many late night rendezvous between people you would be shocked to see—mothers and fathers you would never suspect doing such things while their spouses and children lay asleep in their beds.
We rode way out past the tobacco warehouses and the railroad tracks, past the small footbridge where we used to play Billy Goats Gruff, our idea of who was scary enough to be the troll ever changing. We rode on, out to the local kennel, where one imitation bark could set off a satisfying round of howls that continued long after we’d ridden off in the direction of Bells Econo Lodge, where we slipped fully clothed into the warm green water of the fenced-in pool, our cutoffs and T-shirts weighing us down as we bobbed and paddled back and forth. Sometimes we just floated there, buoyed by the constant rush of cars on the interstate and the still patterns of stars overhead.
One night we stopped and sat in a circle under the streetlight on my corner. We avoided the gaping storm drain across from us, home of many lost baseballs and bracelets and shoes. Only a few of us had ever been brave enough to go down into the dark muddy box in search of lost items. Those who did surfaced with vows never to do it again. This night we talked about “Laugh-In” and took turns imitating the stars: “sock it to me” and “one ringy dingy” and “verrry interesting.” One boy, tall with a freckled complexion and ears that stuck out from his head, was a bit of an outcast at the junior high school. But here in the neighborhood where he had lived his entire life, he fit in. This night, he told how he had ridden his bike to the emergency room earlier in the day and seen a woman whose face was torn away, a child with a broken leg that dangled from its hip like a bruised banana, another woman who had tried to kill herself on aspirin and failed. He said he heard them pump her stomach. He heard her vomiting and begging to die behind a curtain meant for child patients, its little farm animals in primary colors swaying back and forth with the movement of the tall oscillating fan in the corner. “It was so weird,” he told all of us, who hung on his every word. “The incongruity of it all.” His acute observations and large vocabulary that brought laughter and scorn in the classroom were accepted—really expected—by the neighborhood crowd. We counted on him to bring us the kind of news that left us weak in the knees and too nervous to sleep.
One girl was planning to stay out this whole night. Her parents were out of town and her older brother didn’t give a damn what she did as long as she didn’t tell that his girlfriend was going to sleep upstairs in his lower bunk. If she wanted to, she could smoke cigarettes and rummage through her parents’ drawers for signs of their sex life. She could drink some wine and watch TV all night, go door-to-door at dawn stealing the milk and the Krispy Kreme doughnuts that were delivered to doorsteps.
We talked that night, as usual, about the murder-suicide house, which was just two blocks away, a tidy brick colonial with a bricked-in herb garden—long untended—complete with a sundial. Some nights we dared to creep into the yard and collect sprigs of mint and lavender that we would rub and sniff for a long time after. We knew all the details of the house’s story even though everything had happened a whole generation before, when our parents were growing up here. There was the murdered woman, an accomplished violinist. It had been her desire to teach the violin, but when there was no real interest in town (who, after all, actually owned a violin?), she taught voice and piano lessons. There was her husband, the suicide man, who had once lived in Chicago, a detail that was always included to mark him as an outsider no matter how many years he had lived in town. There was their one son, who came back from his home in California to bury them both in an expensive mausoleum at the center of Hollydale Cemetery. Before the son left town, never to be heard from again, he told people that his parents had made a suicide pact. We were left wondering which was worse: to have one parent a murderer or to have both parents choose to depart this earth without a thought about how it might affect your life? Theirs were not the only suicides in our town; there were more than we would ever have guessed, but we took turns telling what we knew about reported hunting accidents and accidental overdoses, whispering as if the deceased might suddenly step from the thick pine woods behind us.
We also talked about the famous Hank Carter, said to have been a genius who “crossed the line.” None of the parents explained exactly what the line was or how crossing it happened or if there were warning signs. All we knew was that Hank was proof you could go from being a clean, well-dressed high school student who solved difficult calculus problems and aspired to be a NASA engineer to being a disheveled, bearded man who wore a cowboy hat and boots and rode around on a moped with a pistol and other weaponry attached to his belt and a Bible tied to the handlebars. Sometimes Hank threatened to shoot dogs and cats and the tires of expensive cars, and other times he preached, though no church in town had ever claimed him as one of its own.
We were discussing it all this night in July 1970, the summer of the Jeffrey MacDonald hearing. Jeffrey MacDonald was the man charged with murdering his whole family—two little girls and a pregnant wife—on the army base nearby. He claimed to have seen a band of hippies enter his darkened home. He said he heard them saying things like acid is groovy and kill the pigs just before performing an atrocious reenactment of the Manson Family murders. It had happened back in February and it was what the grown-ups discussed over their highballs and cigarettes, coffee and Jell-O, and Saturday night T-bones ever since. Had this good-looking surgeon, brilliant enough to have gone to Princeton, really butchered his young family? Was it possible that someone so smart and skillful could lose his mind, just snap and go into a bloodbath frenzy? To tell the truth, many kids had not slept through a night since February. Our minds were full of images of the beautiful young and blonde Mrs. MacDonald and of her babies and with the bits of gory detail the adults stopped describing whenever we passed through a room.
“My God,” the tall freckled boy said. “Like we don’t read the newspapers, too.” And then he recited newspaper accounts of the state of the bodies, leaving us more light-headed than the mosquito truck had.
“Hank Carter has crossed over; he might snap even more,” one of us inevitably said, and though the whole town had proclaimed Hank harmless, there being no reports whatsoever of his ever hurting any person or pet, I could never look him in the eye, even when he yelled in a booming, slow-as-molasses voice, “I say, girl, have you got the correct Eastern Standard Time?”
Back then, when I wanted the time, I went to the phone and dialed 739-3241 and a man would say The correct time is 8:02 PM and 40 seconds. I must have called him 20 times a day. He became a security blanket of sorts. Even now, almost 30 years later, I can close my eyes and hear every beat of his mechanical voice.
* * *
We were too old for kick the can and too young to make out. We were restless. We had learned a lot about murder that year. We knew that most of the time a person knows the person killing them. We had learned that alcohol and cigarettes would begin to kill off people we loved. Some of the grown-ups who sheltered us were disappearing from their windows like fade-outs, images lifted from the earth in poofs of smoke, puddles of drink. We were learning that, to be lost, a brain didn’t have to be blown out all over a ceiling like in the murder-suicide house at the edge of town. We knew people whose brains were slipping down a long easy slope. There was a teacher we loved who got us confused with our parents. There was a man well loved in town for entertaining at children’s birthday parties (a mediocre magician with an aging pet monkey) who had ended his own life.
“He was queer,” said some older boys who had taken to hanging out in our neighborhood. “He was an old cocksucker.” These were the same older boys who, one dark night that very summer, forced the freckle-faced boy to go down on them and then told us about it. They called him queer and they called him cocksucker and it didn’t seem to occur to them that they were the ones who had demanded the act of him, that they were the ones who had pulled his serious young face into their damp bitter crotches and issued their orders. Did it occur to us?
* * *
So we did have to wonder about death. The slow poisoning of lungs and livers and brains. The pact a couple might make to end it all. The savage stabbing a man might fly off and commit. A kid—never the hunter, always the prey—whose only crime was that he was scared and too tired to fight back and who, when he could no longer live with the pressure building up in his mind, chose to treat himself with a gun barrel forced down his throat. But the boys who promised to share a beer with him out in the dark woods near the highway probably didn’t make that connection. They probably grew up to drink their own highballs while their own children played outdoors, riding their bikes past the latest sites of domestic unrest.
As grown-ups, you have to stop and wonder what people are thinking, or not thinking. Do those boys, grown into the bodies of men, carry that death around in their pockets? Do they ever, at the height of sexual climax, see that boy there, his sad eyes pleading Let me go?
And the suicide pact story, who knows if it was true? There was the note the son found, but how do we know the son didn’t write it himself as a way to protect his dead parents? Or maybe the husband wrote it after he killed her. Maybe it was a murder of hatred, a murder of passion, and then he left behind a legacy of mutual love and decision. We will never know.
* * *
There was another house in town, a beautiful Victorian with a little circular tower. It was surrounded by an ornate fence, each iron picket the shape of an arrow. I loved the house and its fence until I heard that there had once been a terrible car crash on the corner. A young passenger, a boy, was thrown through the windshield and onto those iron arrows. It had happened 20 years earlier when my parents were teenagers, back when the interstate didn’t exist, back when people didn’t know the danger of smoking the very tobacco that so many had helped to harvest. I tried to get the image of the speared boy out of my mind, but I was never able to pass that house without seeing him pinned there under the blue sky of a beautiful October afternoon.
That image, and the one of the middle-aged woman, violin in hand, son living elsewhere, begging for her life, hang on in my imagination. Sometimes the violinist’s face gets confused with that of Mrs. Colette MacDonald. The stories of one person begging, another taking, run parallel.
It is said the MacDonald house remained vacant and untouched for years. The food in the freezer, the valentines out on display. I could not imagine my father in such a fit of rage, but some of my friends said they could imagine theirs that way. Some kids had seen their parents drunk. All of us had overheard at least one really bad argument. Most of us had seen our parents cry, and even for those who glimpsed only the briefest losses of control, the memories remained vivid. Our parents were as vulnerable as we were. Anyone, grown-ups and children alike, could die at any minute. They could disappear as quickly as a car crashed into a tree, or a trigger was pulled, an overdose or undetected cancer cell flowed through the bloodstream; their hearts, livers, or lungs might shut down, some with warnings, others without.
We all had experienced the desire for breath, the burning ache of our lungs when we shot up from the deep end of the motel pool to the surface of light and gasped for air, when we tumbled from our bikes, dizzy and high, to roll in someone’s front yard and spit out the taste of mosquito poison. The wonder of that first full breath. Jeffrey MacDonald claimed in his trial to have given mouth-to-mouth to his wife. He claimed that he could hear the breath exit through her chest as quickly as he delivered it. Too late.
* * *
The last time I ever saw Hank Carter he was directing traffic around an accident at an intersection near the high school. We all stopped to watch him there, cowboy hat pulled low, beard long and unkempt, billy club swinging from his belt. He wore mirrored sunglasses and moved quickly, pushing bystanders over toward the curb as he tried to make the two men involved in the fender bender sit down and breathe into paper bags. When he was dismissed from his post by a policeman, he reluctantly returned to his motorbike, which a crowd of us stood around. It was old and rusty. Ropes, flashlights, and fast-food bags were crammed in the basket on the back along with the Bible, yellowed and swollen from exposure to the weather.
“What’s doin Hank?” one of the boys yelled in a slow mimic. “Shot anything lately?” Traffic was moving by then and we were ready to move on ourselves. We were in high school. We had afternoon jobs and study dates. We had a prom to plan and decorate.
“Nothin but some old mean blue jays,” he called back, mounting his bike like it was a horse. “There weren’t nothin’ left but a few feathers and some bird gut.” He pulled a blue feather from his back pocket and waved it back and forth, laughing until he began to cough and wheeze, a cigarette burning to ash between two fingers of his waving hand.
The boys liked to keep Hank talking. They liked to get him riled up over some topic far removed from the moment. They wanted his ranting and raving but not directed at them. It was a fine line they walked; a minefield of topics guaranteed to set him off. He hated dogs that barked when he rode past them. He’d like to see their vocal chords tied up into knots. That would leave them silent. “I hate a damn barking dog,” he said. “I hate ‘em like I hate a communist. I’d shoot me some dog if the law would allow it. They should’ve let me loose in Vietnam.” He didn’t believe that men had gone to the moon. He said all that stuff was filmed right down near the coast. “Down where you girls strip naked and grease your bodies to get that tan. The Lord would not like that.” He laughed and shook his head. “The Lord would not like that one damn bit.” He thought that women should not be allowed to drive cars, especially the really young women and the really old women and the foreign women. “A woman is good for one thing,” he said, and the boys egged him on. “Not for cooking,” he said, and adjusted his mirrored sunglasses, which made it hard to know what he was staring at. “Though I’d not turn myself down a meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Don’t need one for cleaning, neither,” he said. “I can operate me a Hoover as good as any old woman. Got me a Hoover so goddamned powerful I can use it to rake up yards if I take a notion.”
“So, you got yourself a woman, Hank?” one of the boys asked. Asking this kind of question was like playing Russian roulette. He might laugh but he was just as likely to fire his pistol into the air and command some goddamn respect for the weaker sex. He often preached about Adam and Eve, which was exactly what the boys were hoping for. He could go on for hours about how that naked harlot was put there in the garden for one thing and one thing only until she took up with that devil snake and got it in her evil mind that she wanted herself some knowledge other than making some babies to populate the earth. “She was nothing but a rib,” he said, “and Adam had every right to kick her ass.” He said, “The great and almighty plan was not supposed to take such a turn.”
Everyone knew that as a high school student he had dated Emma Mosby, a girl who grew up to marry another town boy, one who went off to school and then to the Korean War and then back to school and became a surgeon and then chief of staff at the hospital. They lived in an old house in the center of town, a block Hank circled endlessly. He was dating Emma Mosby when he began to cross over. One day he was telling her how much he loved her and explaining how suspension bridges are built and the very next week he arrived at her house suited up like someone going to a rodeo and complained of all the racket the dogs were making, those cussing belligerent damned dogs. Emma Mosby’s time in love with Hank Carter was something that everyone knew about but no one discussed. “Emma doesn’t deserve to have that dredged up,” the grown-ups would say.
But that day at the accident was the last time I ever saw him. The boys hoped for an angry answer but Hank just shook his head and laughed. “For me to know and you to find out,” he said. “You find out and I’m likely to reward you with a dollar bill or two.” He mounted his bike and the group cleared a path for him.
“Hey there, girl,” he drawled when he saw me standing there. “Do I know you?” He lifted his sunglasses to reveal clear blue, much younger looking eyes than I would ever have expected. “Are you the one been calling up to my house and hanging up? Or asking is my Frigidaire running or have I got Prince Albert in the can?” I shook my head, my face hot. I wanted to look away from him but I was afraid of making him mad.
“Not me,” I said, while a chorus of boys behind me sang out things like Yeah right. Sure. You want us to believe that?
“If that’s what she says then that’s what she means, you bunch of stupid boys.” He turned on them then, patted the big gun strapped to his hip. “You all look like a pack of mean old junkyard dogs to me. Damn Nazi mongrels.” Everyone froze while he twirled his gun and then eased it back into the holster on his belt, alongside his big silver flashlight and the billy club. “The good Lord hates the Nazis and the commies and the ignoramuses, and I’ve been put here to keep a watch. Ain’t nobody gettin’ by me.” He laughed his loud laugh and then turned back to me. I’ve known you forever, girl,” he said. “I know your whole life like a book. I always have and I always will.” He shook his head and dropped his glasses back in place. “Don’t you ever forget that.” He made a clicking sound from the corner of his mouth, the kind of sound that someone might use to accompany a wink, though now his pale blue young eyes were hidden again. I nodded. No one spoke until he cranked his bike and rode well past the intersection as he headed out toward the service road.
* * *
I was a senior in college when I got word that Hank Carter had died. I was two hours and light-years away, I was in a place where my memories were something I could bend and shape into a suitable representation of who I was. I hung out at an old house at the edge of campus where there was always a gathering of students listening to music and drinking beer, discussing philosophy and religion and the fate of the world. My hometown paper said Hank died of a heart attack. Those among the huge outpouring of viewers said he looked small lying in his coffin without his hat and boots, his face shaved smooth. They said he looked like a normal person. Receding hairline. Wrinkles around his eyes and on his pale white throat that had always been protected by a red bandanna and the scraggly beard. They said he died at 12:00 noon, and for several months after that, when the bell of the Methodist church chimed the hour, people would pause over their lunches to comment how they missed seeing Hank riding through town. Until he died, they hadn’t taken into account how many times a week they saw him—helping at accidents or collecting litter along the highway or just riding his motorbike through town.
* * *
As a child, I had a contest with myself to see how many times I could call the time service before the minute lapsed. It was a reassuring thing to do. And now other numbers I called often crowd my mind like secret codes: 3642 and 5756. If I could be in a Twilight Zone episode, it would be the one where the phone line has fallen down onto a grave so that calls are placed from beyond. If I could write my own episode, it would involve a phone line that could connect us back to those old places. Just dial and you get your grandfather in his wheelchair, his tired old collie curled beside him; your grandmother in her kitchen with Mason jars sterilized and ready to receive tomatoes and pear preserves; the neighbor saving her mail so when you got home from kindergarten you could use her jewel-handled letter opener—razor sharp—to slit the white envelopes of her bills and the pale ones of letters; the old aunt who kept a jar of peppermints for children and who always spoke with her hand covering poor dental work, her head tilted just slightly; fathers walking up from the 18th hole on late Sunday afternoons while mothers bundled their children into big warm towels as they stepped from the pool, eyes red and stinging from the chlorine; the freckle-faced boy, waiting on his bike, ready to race through the summer night with the sound of an ambulance on the highway. Won’t one of you please, please, please go with me?
* * *
I would call the people I knew growing up who have since died. I would ask how life had taken them there. Did they beg or did they pass in silence? Did they embrace life or reject it? Were there memories that at the very last minute filled their minds and swaddled their fears? And like a director, I would call for lights to come on in every house in town and for every person who had ever lived there to step outside and take a long deep breath on this average summer night.
Jill McCorkle is the author of seven previous books of fiction, five of which have been named New York Times Notables. A native of North Carolina, she lives near Boston with her husband, their two children, several dogs and a collection of toads. Her latest book of short stories, Creatures of Habit, will be published by Algonquin Books in October.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee