Reflections on a Family Murder

Ten years ago this month, a man my uncle barely knew walked into his home, punched him in the face and strangled him to death. He dragged his lifeless body across a cold marble floor, dumped him into a closet and locked the door.

Then he picked up the telephone and invited his friends over to the house for a party.

My Mom called me two mornings later. She recounted the detective’s story of how friends grew worried when my uncle wasn’t answering his telephone. His girlfriend and best friend drove to his home, peeked past the living room curtains and saw fast-food bags littering my fastidious uncle’s coffee table. That’s when they called the police.

The disbelief in my Mom’s voice was palpable. Or, maybe, I could not believe what I was hearing. Within hours my wife and I packed our bags and staggered into our car for the two-day journey to my uncle’s home.

While today the memories are as fresh as this evening’s news, I still struggle to understand the jumble of events I confronted that week.  The feeling of being blindfolded and drop kicked into an episode of “Dragnet” permeates the shards of images that surface:

  • A mustached detective in a crisply ironed white shirt standing in the hallway, hands on hips, declaring in a gravelly voice: “My bad guys” know to stay away from this block.
  • The odor of decay that lingered in the musty air of the closed-up house; the red fingerprint dust that coated tables and bookshelves as though the devil himself had rifled through my uncle’s belongings.
  • Combing through drawers and cabinets, finding papers, photographs and objects — piecing together a mosaic of someone’s life. Someone whom I had known all my life, but didn’t really know at all. Or someone I knew as a child whose perspective never changed when I became an adult.
  • Me sleeping on the dining room floor with a carving knife under my pillow after we heard some alarming noises outside. (It’s a miracle I didn’t stab myself in the ear.)

I remember standing on my uncle’s front porch with my father. A warm sun baked my left arm; my father’s face shadowed by the porch overhang. He glared at me, his voice hushed. “You tell me everything that’s going on. Your mother doesn’t need to know. But you tell me.”

I’d been trying to shield my parents as much as possible. Spare them the gruesome details, the trauma. Much like they had spared me from life’s tragedies and horrors when I was a child.

No different from how I now shield Penelope.

But I told him; told him everything I knew. When I was finished he looked out past the front lawn, past the houses, down the street to somewhere else. To another street hundreds of miles and fifty years distant. To a boy my Dad once knew. That boy is riding a bicycle delivering newspapers in a respectable neighborhood on a chilly morning. He stops at a house and as he flips the newspaper onto the front porch, the door creaks open. A middle-aged woman purses her painted lips and comments on the chill. She scans the sleeping neighborhood for signs of life. Seeing none, she beckons him inside. . .

My father finishes his story. My eyes are still stinging when the screen door slams.

I’m alone on the porch.

But I’m not alone really. I’m standing on my uncle’s front porch, but it’s a different porch in front of a different house hundreds of miles and twenty-five years distant. There’s the smell of fresh-cut grass and an ache in my young shoulders. There are glasses of ice tea sweating on a metal tray, and my uncle is melting into a lawn chair. “You might like these,” he says, handing me a couple of paperbacks.

He’s talking, but I’m scanning the books, reading the blurb on the back and the reviews. “The Holcroft Covenant.” “Operation Skydrop.” Not exactly Hemingway but still a curiosity to a kid who’s just getting out of The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys. These books are hundreds of pages long, small type, no pictures. Something resonates and an interest in books becomes a lifelong affair.

Since that week a decade ago, thoughts of my uncle always center around his terrible demise. He became labeled as: “My uncle, the one who was beaten and strangled to death . . .”

I realized not long ago the terrible thing I was doing. Bad enough someone had murdered my uncle; I had allowed that person to hijack my memories.

This discovery occurred as I stood in my living room before a locked bookcase which holds some of the greatest novels and poetry ever written. These books are beautiful editions; some signed by the authors. As someone who adores the classics, I treasure every book sitting on the shelves.

The books arrived in a dozen cardboard boxes about a month after my uncle’s murder. My mother thought he’d want me to have them.

——————

As a former newspaper editor, I would have sent this story back to the reporter and told him to fill in the blanks. So, here goes: two days after my uncle’s murder, police caught the man responsible. He planned a second party at my uncle’s home. The party guests arrived at about the same time the police did. They didn’t need Joe Friday to solve this crime. They found enough evidence to send the man to the state penitentiary for a very long time. My uncle’s ashes were shipped home a few months later. In a drizzly spring chill, my uncle, the book lover, was laid to rest in the family’s burial plot.

Discover the dream?

The dogs were taking me for a walk the other day when I stopped at the mailbox. Our mailbox, which sits across the road from our home, is rather oversized and resembles a dog house perched precariously atop a pole.  I think my wife actually mistook it for one because she once suggested I sleep in it. I forget what I did to warrant that, but I’m sure it wasn’t good.

I generally bypass the mailbox when walking the dogs. My beagles have no sense of direction, so carrying an armload of mail and dragging them along usually results in a paper trail of letters and catalogs strewn up the driveway. It’s also a little dangerous: One dog likes to attack horse trailers, and what exactly she’d do if she ever caught one God only knows. The other needs only the whiff of a shadow of a possum that lumbered through our neighborhood three weeks ago to dart off on its trail. Also, on days when I stop, the mail will include a box so  large that Carol Merrill should be standing in front of it. (OK, why can I remember the model’s name from “Let’s Make a Deal” circa 1972, but not where I put my damn car keys?)

As a gust of wind whooshed me up the driveway, a large snow-white envelope caught my attention. My first surprise was that it’s addressed to Penelope; the second was who it’s from.

I corralled the dogs into the house and dropped the mail on the kitchen island. My wife is currently on  a detox diet, which means that, by default, I am too. Not that she’s forcing me onto her diet, but I’d feel bad slurping up a giant plate of penne vodka while she’s nibbling on brown rice and broccoli. On this day, she’s stirring a big pot of hot and sour tofu cabbage soup.

Once a friend learned “we” were on this diet and asked if I’d lost anything. “Only my will to live,” I told her.

I called Penelope over. She was standing in her play kitchen pulling from her toy oven a wooden pizza that looked more appetizing than Bern’s soup. I held up the envelope, and Penelope scampered over.

“You have mail,” I said. She cocked her head and blinked uncomprehendingly. “Really, it’s yours. Take it.”

I extended the large envelope, and she tentatively reached for it. “Me? Mail?” I reassured her. She slowly ripped small pieces of the envelope as if she were peeling an artichoke.

Finally finished, she gasped as she pulled out the contents. Her eyes widened in delight. After all, it’s not every day a  three-year-old gets a glossy magazine promoting tourism from the Nebraska Office of Economic Development. I’m not sure why the good folks at the Nebraska tourism board think my daughter is the right demographic to pitch, but I confess my marketing experience is pretty much limited to the “3 Ps.” Yet I still can’t picture toddlers booking flights to Omaha to visit the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps or even the Kool-Aid Museum (with the rather eyebrow-raising slogan “Discover the Dream”).

Penelope loves her shiny new magazine. The first night before she went to bed she left it on the family-room coffee table, pointed at it, then me, and said, “No Papa.” I got the message: Keep your stinking paws off my magazine. She scampered off to the kitchen to repeat the admonishment to Bern.

The next evening, Penelope carried her magazine upstairs and wanted it read to her before bedtime. I conjured up a tale about a mythical, magical place called “Nebraska,” where Elmo and Mr. Noodle frolic when they’re vacationing from Sesame Street. Now, the guide has become a staple in our night-time reading selection. It’s not out of the ordinary for Penelope to want me to read “Polar Express,” “There’s a Wocket in My Pocket,” and “The Nebraska Tourism Guide” before shutting out the lights.

Our daughter may not yet be able to say her full name, opting for the shortened Pelli over the mouthful of consonants and vowels we bestowed upon her. But she can say Nebraska and Omaha.

Addendum: Recently Penelope received a second packet in the mail, this from the Texas Tourism Council, and a third from Rhode Island. If this continues, she may have all 50 states memorized by kindergarten.