She Had No Enemies

A Memoir

By

Dennis Fleming

For Mickey

2

CONTENTS Prologue Part I 1. Outsiders 2. Disbelief 3. Hearts And Souls 4. Things You Can’t See 5. So What? 6. Mona Lisa Smile Part II 7. Jesus On Velvet 8. This Is Me 9. Mischievous Elves 125 10. Over The Edge 143 Part III 11. Life In Flashes 12. A Zero Not A One 13. Cooking With Fire 14. Letters

3

PROLOGUE

My youngest sister, Mickey, has been eighteen for more than twenty-five years now. That’s
how old she was in the summer of 1980—when he murdered her. Anthony J. LaRette, Jr. was from out of town. We’d find out later, much later, that he was also a serial killer. The police placed the number of his victims—all young women—at two dozen, but he claimed to have raped and killed thirty. When LaRette murdered Mickey, he took the other eight members of my family with him. He didn’t physically kill them, but Mickey was the only family member who shared an unconditional love with me. Without her, I was left alone. Whatever grieving process allows people to gain closure with loss had somehow passed me by. I took the capture of her killer, a thirty-year-old married man from Kansas, as something more than just a break from my emptiness and mourning. Everyone else in our family wanted him dead—I wanted to beat him to death. LaRette’s capture released me from two agonizing weeks of confusion, anger, and frustration, not knowing who had killed my little sister. I thought my relief would come when I was finally able to accept the finality of Mickey’s death—but I was wrong.

Although most of us were broken in some way growing up in the chaos of our family, Mickey emerged intact.

You are responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose. –Antoine de Saint-Exupery

4

Outsiders

From Mom’s first child when she was nineteen until her last at forty she was either pregnant,
nursing a newborn, or trying to get pregnant again. She and Dad managed about one birth for every two pregnancies, an eight-for-fifteen batting average. Had all Mom’s pregnancies been successful, I would’ve had fourteen brothers and sisters. We kids never thought about the size of our family until we grew older and saw that some of our friends didn’t wear their older siblings’ worn and out-of-date hand-me-downs. Their shoulders revealed none of the bruises from punches that accumulated as they rolled down the pecking order. My older sister, Joanie, got stuck helping Mom raise most of us. Joanie said it was the main reason she never wanted children of her own. She had already done that. Mom’s parents abandoned her and her younger brother in their childhood, and their maternal grandmother, a huge woman whom we called Big Grandma, raised them. Both she and her husband were German and spoke with thick accents. She referred to our car as a machine. Whenever we visited Big Grandma, she made us sit on plastic-covered furniture or play on the polished linoleum in the sunroom. She handed out hard candy piece by piece and if you tried to grab an extra nugget, she’d smack your hand with her thick sausage-like fingers. Nein! Running wild, the way we did at Little Grandma Fleming's house, was strictly verboten. I think that the life Mom lived— staying at home with her children, pregnant, or with a newborn—was her way of making up for the loving atmosphere that had been missing in her own childhood. Seeing Mom pregnant while bottle-feeding an infant was a common sight in our home. I asked her why she wanted so many children, and she said she was happiest when she was at home, cooking, doing laundry, toting a baby, watching a toddler, and resolving the issues of the older children. A simple goal that needed a dedicated partner—not Dad

5

Dad was lean and hard, like a callous. He was an alcoholic and could be violent—and by staying with him, arguing with him, and allowing him to beat both her and her children, Mom enabled his addiction. Ever since Dad lost the 1958 Democratic primaries for state representative, things had been going downhill. Over the years, he lost businesses and jobs, and eventually went bankrupt. He’d go months without work, but he always found money for booze. During one of Dad’s longer stretches, we ate moldy bread and cupcakes—things the day-old bread store either discarded or sold for pig slop. In his old age, Dad ran ads in local papers and traded junk. He called himself The Professor of Conology and claimed he always got the better part of a deal, yet his deals never seemed to work out. His Achilles heel was his belief that he was smarter than he actually was. If Dad wasn’t scheming, he was pushing some invention. One of his brainstorms was a hotdog roaster—a homemade fork made from a strip of flattened metal that he had split on one end and had shoved into a piece of wood he had whittled into a handle. A pair of wires—actually six feet of lamp cord—ran from the base of the handle to a plug. I was afraid to touch it, but he was a union residential electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, so I figured he had to know something about basic electricity. He stuck a couple of fat hot dogs lengthwise on the tines and pushed the plug into a wall socket. Before the circuit breaker blew, sparks sprayed out of the wall socket, there was a loud pop and smoke poured from the wooden handle. The dogs spit end-to-end, their centers burned black—but the rest of the meat was pink and still cold. Mary Michelle (we called her Mickey) was the last child, the third of three daughters. Even at eighteen, she was still the baby of the family. She was born when I was twelve. Curly blond hair and hazel eyes like the rest of us, she made us a family of ten.

6

***

I left home when I was seventeen. We lived in St. Charles, Missouri, a town of 60,000, thirtyfive miles west of St. Louis. Mickey was four at that time, and after I left, I didn’t follow her life closely, but we continued to have a special connection. Over the next three years, I tried to find myself in experiments with various psychedelic drugs and wound up living on a diet of milk and peanut butter and sleeping in my beat up ’53 Chevy in Texas. I needed a way out, so I enlisted in the Marine Corps, just after the peak of the Vietnam War. During my four-year hitch in the Marines, I crisscrossed the country moving between military bases in California, Florida, Arizona, and Washington, and then back to California. In 1972, my entire squadron—500 men and 12 fighter jets—was given forty-eight hours to move across the country from California to Virginia and board an aircraft carrier. I spent a year traveling around the Mediterranean Sea with over 5,000 Marines, Navy men, and 70 jets on the USS Forrestal. I lost track of everyone in my family, except for Mickey. Mickey and I corresponded often that year. I sent her little dolls from Athens, Istanbul, and Barcelona. She loved the female Greek dolls, wearing gowns under short vests of red, blue, and yellow (still my favorite colors); the satin Spanish dolls, in dresses trimmed in lace; and the male Turkish dolls in their tasseled fez hats. Mickey kept the dolls in her bedroom, and she sent me colorful pictures she’d drawn on construction paper. Each picture put an extra bounce in my step for days afterward. I never got that feeling from anything else. Once she glued a piece of black construction paper onto the back of a calendar cover (one of those 11” x 14” calendars you hang on a nail in the wall and unfold each month). She drew two

7

pictures on white paper and glued them, one above the other. The top picture was of two hotdogshaped butterflies floating in a blue sky. The butterdogs hovered on wings (simply wider versions of their bodies) above a rounded patch of green and brown earth. She colored the sky and earth to the edges of the paper. She’d drawn both butterflies crudely, but it was clear which one represented me. I was about three times her size and green with yellow wings. Her butterfly was yellow with pink wings. She floated between my butterfly and a large brown tree with a cloud of green leaves. In the lower left corner, she had printed her initials in pencil, M.M.F. The smiley faces on the butterflies were radiant. I knew what she was trying to say. With me at her side, she could safely hover in the world, and it hurt me to think about how, like the rest of us, my baby sister had spent many nights feeling frightened and unsafe. I remembered the night I threw Dad into the picture window. Mom had been home from the hospital a few days following a checkup for a heart problem. It was summer and hot. I was seventeen and sleeping in my bedroom. A crash from the living room woke me. I jumped up and ran to see what was going on. An amber glass ashtray was wobbling upside down among cigarette butts and beer on the hardwood floor. Dad had Mom pinned by the neck in the Naugehyde recliner and was pounding on her chest. He flashed his alcohol-yellowed eyes at me, and then continued driving his fist into Mom’s sternum. I yelled for him to stop, but he ignored me. Dad was a construction worker and ox-strong. I was afraid he was going to kill Mom, so I grabbed him, pulled him away from the chair, and body-slammed him onto and end table that broke apart on the floor amid the wet cigarette butts. He stumbled to his feet, slipped on the beer and pulled over a standing lamp, darkening the room.

8

That’s when Mom started hitting me, screaming, “Leave him alone, Denny! He’s your father!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I decided at that moment that I no longer cared. “You can both go to hell!” I shouted. “You want to die, Mom? Go ahead! Let him kill you!” I stomped through the kitchen to the den and flopped onto my back on a heavy slate billiard table—one of his temporary possessions, destined for sale. I stared up at the ceiling lights, thinking, “Let the son of a bitch kill her. Then he’ll go to jail and leave us alone. Fuck them both.” The commotion continued in the living room as if I’d never interfered. Then I heard a different sound from behind me—like kittens mewing. I sat up to light a cigarette and saw six-year-old Susie and Mickey (who was four). They were standing in the kitchen entry, cowering helplessly against Mom’s desperate pleas and Dad’s threats to put her into the ground. Susie cried out something about Dad killing Mom, but I just flicked cigarette ashes onto the green felt and spit out, “Good. Maybe they’ll kill each other.” The stupidity of my statement angered me even more. What a goddamned pity. Those two little girls had never known life without this lunacy. At least I could remember a time when Mom and Dad hadn’t fought, we’d gone to church as a family, and I’d felt loved. Little Mickey was clutching her pillow like a life preserver and shivering hard like she was cold. Mickey jumped each time we heard a punch land with a thump behind her. The girls were so innocent and helpless. How could our parents put them through such hell? I ground the cigarette into the felt and leapt off his billiard table. As I rushed past the girls, I motioned toward the den. “Get in there—and stay there!”

9

When I reached the living room, Dad had Mom pinned in the recliner again, so I grabbed him by the T-shirt and pulled him to the floor. Mom scrambled out of the chair and ran away. I guessed she’d finally had enough. Dad tried to get up, but I kicked him back down again with an intensity that frightened me. I checked around the room, looking for something I could use to crack his head open. I suppose using Mom as a punching bag had sobered him up. He rose to his feet, but I shoved him into the recliner, buried my left knee in his stomach, and began pounding him in the chest. What the hell, why not? He had a bad heart too. To my surprise, Mom came back into the room and began whipping me with a coat hanger, screaming, “Stop it! Stop it!” “He’s trying to kill you, Mom! Are you crazy?” While I fought to get the coat hanger away from Mom, Dad struggled to his feet and came at me. I knew that if his strength and senses returned, there was no telling how far he’d go. He might even go for his gun. I grabbed him by the hair and belt and rammed him headfirst through the sliding glass below a large picture window that faced the front yard. The thought of him lying there with his throat sliced open excited me—until I thought of the consequences. What if he died? I’d probably go to jail. He lay slumped on the shattered glass of the windowsill, a summer breeze gently moving the dangling curls of his greasy hair. He took a deep breath and slowly pushed himself up to a seated position. Mom knelt beside him and checked him over—no blood. “Look what you did to your father,” Mom said. “He’s not my father,” I said, “He’s not anybody’s father.”

10

That was in 1967, and the last day I lived at home. I swore that one day I’d get my little sisters out of there, too, but I never did. I had stopped Dad from killing our mother that night—and thirteen years later, on the courthouse steps in St. Charles Missouri, I’d stop him from killing Anthony J. LaRette, Jr. at his pretrial for murdering my baby sister, Mickey. After Mom and Dad divorced in 1970, Mom was able to move into a clean, quiet, peaceful neighborhood, but Dad continued to bother her for years, slashing her tires, sending nasty letters to her boss and making crank phone calls to the house. Finally, he grew tired of it all and left her alone most of the time. Whenever I think back on my childhood, I recall those ugly images. It’s a curse, something Carolyn See refers to in her book Making a Literary Life as an Irish memory—the ability to remember the grim details of one’s life, but few of its beautiful moments. Maybe the reason I only have beautiful memories of Mickey is because none of them were bad. Dad eventually felt guilty for all his bad behavior. On holidays and birthdays, he’d pick up the girls and take them on shopping sprees, spending far more on them than anyone thought he could afford on his social security and union pension checks. Mom and the girls were able to live comfortably and in peace. Mickey sent me another picture that she called the sugar plum tree. She had drawn arrows pointing at two of many purple balls on the limbs and had written, “This is the sugar plum tree. That is you. This is me.” It seemed strange. There I was, on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the Mediterranean, occupied with my duties as an electrician, keeping our phantom fighter jets in the air. And here were these sweet drawings from my cute little sister. They pulled a smile from somewhere deep within me. I loved the

11

little girl who had drawn and sent me the pictures—young, innocent, and delicate. I tucked them into my footlocker for safekeeping. Years later, I was moving a box of files and found Mickey’s sugar plum tree drawing. At that moment, I had the time to reflect on the picture—and I could feel the love crying out from it. At eight years old, she had focused all her energy on a picture depicting herself and one of her five brothers on a family tree. The sugarplums looked alike, but two were special. To Mickey, the twelve years between us didn’t matter. To her, we were the same. A feeling we shared of being outsiders had been there long before she could verbalize it. Mickey’s picture made my heart ache because I had only seen part of that when she’d sent it to me. *** After I got out of the Marine Corps, I married my first wife, a Southern California blond named Charlene who went by her nickname Chaz. I attended California State University at Fullerton and planned to graduate, but one weekend in July I phoned Mom—and everything changed. Candy, my brother Mike’s wife, was visiting Mom, and Candy answered the phone. We hadn’t spoken with each other in over four years. When I asked how she was doing, she joked that she was doing as much as she could. “As much of what?” I asked. “Whatever you’ve got!” she said. I recognized the tone in her voice from my old drug days. It said, “Let’s talk dope.” Candy was the mother of four children, one of which she already had in tow when she met my brother. Mike began cheating on Candy during the first year of their marriage, and he strayed further and further from any kind of healthy relationship.

12

Before I joined the Marines, I had been as deep into drugs as my brothers. One reason I had enlisted was to get away from that culture, but Candy’s comments worried me. What about the children? With both parents into dope, what chance did they have? Someone should watch over them. I didn’t know what I could do, but I had to do something—more than a short visit. Chaz had never lived anywhere except Southern California, but she could see how worried I was and understood that I needed to go. With the exception of Dad’s two-day visit the previous summer—a bungled con had made it necessary for him to get out of town and lay low for awhile—I hadn’t seen my family in four years. The next weekend, the landlord let us out of our lease and we sold everything we could at a swap meet at a converted drive-in theater in Santa Anna. We gave what was left away, and then dragged the rest of what we owned to Missouri in a rented trailer. A severe thunderstorm caught us one evening as we drove east across the Kansas prairie. We could see the horizon for miles in every direction. The radio crackled and high winds threatened to push the trailer over. Thunder shook the car, and lightning either struck the ground like vertical spears or came clawing down to earth like long boney fingers. As a Midwesterner, storms didn’t frighten me, but this one freaked me out a little, and poor Chaz, born and raised in southern California, was a basket case. An earthquake she could handle, but she’d never seen anything like that storm. She squeezed my right arm, shook and screamed so much that I had to stop at a liquor store, buy a bottle of whiskey, and then sit, drenched, as I watched her chug a quarter of it in fifteen minutes, but it was worth it, because it worked. Chaz slept through the storm and most of the rest of the way. We reached St. Charles seven hours later.

13

I had made several calls to Mom before we left California, so the entire family, including Mom, Dad, and my seven siblings, should have known that Chaz and I were coming. I expected most of them to be waiting. It was after midnight on a moonless night when we drove into a city neighborhood of small bungalows set on lawns of weeds and un-mowed grass. We pulled up to the curb in front of Mom’s house. The front lawn slanted upward for ten yards from the uneven sidewalk to a two-bedroom house dwarfed by its relatively large front porch. The lights were off. One of my younger sisters was waiting there alone, a small silhouette sitting on the porch high above the street. She ran down the stairs and jumped into my open arms, crying and burying her face in my shoulder. I thought the young girl I held was probably Mickey, but I didn’t want to hurt Susie’s feelings if I was wrong. I’d been away four years. Mickey would be fourteen now, two years younger than Susie and still roughly the same size. I took a chance and asked. “Are you Mickey or Susie?” She slumped in my arms for a moment, and then tightened her embrace. I could sense her joy melting into disappointment and sadness. “How can you ask me that, Denny? How can you even doubt it’s me?” I felt foolish and disappointed that no one else had been waiting for us. None of them had met my wife. Susie was spending the night at a girlfriend’s house. Mom was asleep in her bedroom, and my brother, Mark, was sleeping in his van in the backyard. At least he had come. We woke them, and then sat in the kitchen and talked for an hour. I kept catching Mickey staring at me, but whenever I’d acknowledge her, she’d cry and leave the room. Mom kissed her new daughter-in-law on the cheek and then went back to bed. Chaz was disappointed at our reception and over the next few years, she’d form varying opinions about each

14

family member. Yet, she never forgot the sight of me holding Mickey—and the love that passed between us. Seeing Mickey again was my homecoming. *** My relationship with Mickey was unique, unlike my muddled relationship with the rest of the world and the family. My nature is to be funny. I’ve rarely passed an opportunity to make a fool of myself, the more ridiculous the situation, the better. I love the attention, love being in the spotlight, with everyone waiting for me to do something else to make them break up. Laughter feeds my spontaneity and making people laugh, making them happy, makes me feel good. More importantly, it makes me feel needed. People who don’t even know me like me. As long as they’re laughing, they’re not judging—and I feel perfect just being me. I’ve never quite felt integrated into society. Whether it’s at work, a church meeting, or even with my family, I feel isolated—an outsider. However, I feel that I bond with people when I’m making them laugh. I’m part of them because I have something to offer them. Losing Mickey was like losing the world, yet we were so far apart in age I didn’t have the chance to know her, really know the tangible things about her—favorite color, movies, ice cream. Four siblings separated us, and by the time I was fifteen, I was doing everything I could to avoid Mom and Dad. The best way to do that was to stay away from home—putting distance between their violence and me. I couldn’t live with them anymore. But a feeling detachment from the family connected me to Mickey. I wondered if the two people who raised me were my real parents and I thought I was the only one in my family to feel that way. However, one afternoon I picked up Mickey and we drove to the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL), where I’d eventually receive my undergraduate degree. She

15

wanted to sit in on a class. On the way, Mickey became quiet and reflective. Something was on her mind. “Can I say something that might sound crazy?” she asked. “Sure,” I said. “You have to promise that you’ll take me seriously.” “Yeah, of course. What is it?” “No, really, Denny. You joke around a lot, but this is serious It’s weird, so don’t be goofy about it, OK?” “All right, I promise.” “Sometimes I feel like I’m adopted.” I smiled and I touched her shoulder. She didn’t have to say another word. “I understand,” I said. “You feel like you’re betraying the family.” She nodded, tears beginning to slide down her cheeks. “Want to know something funny?” I said. “I’ve felt that way since I was about your age.” “I feel terrible. What can I do?” she asked. “Nothing. You have to be yourself, Mickey. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if we’re not the only ones who feel this way. Mom and Dad don’t act like parents—at least, not what I think of as parents.” Mickey and I loved our brothers and sisters. We just felt as if someone had dropped us into the wrong family. *** UMSL was a pedestrian-looking set of buildings within the city limits of St. Louis. Unlike other schools whose letters are pronounced as letters—UCLA, NYU, and USC, UMSL was

16

pronounced as an acronym, Umzle. There was a campaign to replace that epithet with UM St. Louis, but it failed, and Umzle stuck, like an unwanted nickname. The day Mickey accompanied me to school was a light-class day. After giving her a tour of the campus, I had only one class to attend, Inorganic Chemistry—an easy introduction class, made difficult by its brilliant and demanding teacher, Dr. Charles Armbruster. Well studied in the sciences and the arts, Dr. Armbruster made it clear that he knew he had a reputation for being tough, but he told us that he had a good reason. Many of us would go on to careers in medicine or pharmacy, and it was his job to weed out the weak so that we’d discover early whether we had what those careers required. According to his reasoning, Dr. Armbruster was doing us a favor. Of course, most of us didn’t see it his way, but no one wanted to tangle with the eloquent Renaissance man. Along with his intellectual credentials, Dr. Armbruster was handsome—about six feet tall with neatly combed dark hair, and always wore a sport coat, crisp shirt, and tie. Rumors surfaced weekly about the attractive women (none of them students, apparently) accompanying him to cultural events around town. When Mickey and I entered the lecture hall, her eyes grew wide as she looked around. “It’s like a movie theater!” she said. I left Mickey standing near the doorway and then went down to talk to Dr. Armbruster, who was standing next to the podium at the base of the stage. I pointed up at Mickey and asked if she could quietly sit in on the class. Dr. Armbruster immediately strode up the aisle, weaving between arriving students. Mickey looked as if she was going to run, but Dr. Armbruster offered his hand and with a broad, confident smile, leaned toward her as if she were made of crystal and might break. He was utterly charming, and when Mickey blushed, her face reddened, like an overripe tomato. She couldn’t

17

hide it, and it stayed long past its biological purpose. She extended her right hand while her left hand shook as she tried to cover her mouth. Mickey’s awestruck reaction to a college professor—and not a movie star or rock star—made me proud of her. She looked at me with a shrug that said, “Help?” Dr. Armbruster waved his open hand toward the empty seats, telling her to sit anywhere she’d like then he returned to his podium. During the drive home, we talked about how Mickey would one day attend a university, and when she was excited, Mickey’s bright blue eyes always seemed to shine and to reflect more of the world. She was full of life—full of potential. *** All five Fleming boys got along with their sisters, but I wasn’t always the first brother Mickey turned to for advice. One summer evening, she dropped in on one of Mark’s parties. She was sixteen and had been crying. I was concerned about her being at Mark’s shindig. Booze was everywhere, and pot made the rounds like an hor d’oeuvre. There were also hard drugs: psychedelics, amphetamines, and barbiturates. I saw a syringe once and immediately split. I had a no-fault policy on needles. At party in Houston once, I saw two speed freaks melt amphetamine tablets in a spoon. To separate the waxy coating from the dope, they drew the liquid through a cigarette filter. They had only one needle, and the dude waiting for his fix lost his cool and nearly yanked the needle out of the other’s arm halfway through his shoot. I watched as the dope took over the first guy. His metamorphosis from mania to post-orgasmic afterglow really shook me. He had gone through all that trouble to become normal. After that, I left any party where I saw a syringe. Over the years, I usually drank more around my family than I did in other social situations, and

18

the more I drank, the more I craved a cigarette. It didn’t take much. I ended up smoking after about three beers. At Mark’s party, Mickey saw me and began walking toward me. I quickly crushed my cigarette into an ashtray. She looked at the ashtray and then at me. “Why are you smoking?” she asked. “Beer brings up old habits, I guess. What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “Mark. He thinks I’m a slut.” Her face, reddened from crying, grew redder. I pulled Mickey close to me and we hugged. I knew Mark would never have said something like that unless it was a joke—a bad joke, maybe—and one that Mickey hadn’t gotten. “Have you been drinking?” I asked. “I only drank part of one beer, Denny,” she said. “You know I don’t drink.” “Well, then, what’s this about?” “My boyfriend wants to have sex. He says that we’re at that point in our relationship. Sex is important to him and he doesn’t want to wait. I told him I’m not ready, and when I asked Mark what I should do, he just laughed and said, What’s the big deal?” I held her for a few moments, envious that she had gone to Mark first, yet grateful at the same time, because without thinking, I might have given her similar advice. I wasn’t a good person to seek advice from on the topic of losing virginity. I’d lost mine at thirteen to a friend’s twelve-year-old sister. Her name was Karen, and she and I made good use of the park across the street from our house in Washington, Missouri. We did it on a bench in the baseball dugout on the night the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show. If Mickey had come to me first, we might have discussed her situation. I might have probed into the length of her relationship and the kind of protection they were using. I might also have told her it might be time, but since she’d gone to Mark first, I knew where she stood, so I could support her—

19

and save face at the same time. “What does Mark think I am?” she asked. “Mark’s stoned, Mickey,” I said. “He’s not thinking about it seriously. Besides, let’s count Mark’s successful relationships. Ready? Let’s see…umm…nope, he hasn’t had any, zero! See? You’re the only one who can determine when you’re ready to have sex, and at sixteen, you probably aren’t, so don’t let what Mark says bother you.” She thanked me and when she left the party, she was happier than when she had come to me earlier. I had given her some good advice. Things often worked out that way for us. Unfortunately, Susie and I didn’t have that kind of relationship. It just never developed. I’ve never understood her. She’s a giving person, but she’s also skeptical about life overall. Even so, she’s managed to maintain a view of acceptance about people—almost to a fault, which has led her into some abusive relationships with men. I thought I had a special relationship with my sister Joanie until I realized that she had a way of making all her brothers feel special. Somehow, it made me jealous, and I wondered how she could speak so highly of Mark, who was smoking so much dope, or of Brian, who had a chronic problem with alcohol. Joanie admired Kevin’s independence. He had hitchhiked across the country and majored in music at North Carolina Central University, attending as a minority white student. Kevin met his wife, Lynn, in Charlotte, settled down, and started a pizza company that delivered movies. Mike was the only one who was in Joanie’s disfavor. Mike the oldest—six years older than I was—died of lung cancer in 1998 at the age of 52. I’d always thought Mike would be the first of the children to die—and to die penniless–since drug use in the 1960s had developed into a lifelong addiction. Considering how he neglected his wife and four children, I could understand Joanie’s feelings. We all had a problem with Mike, including Mom.

20

Mike had deserted his wife and children, and returned to them only to collect a little welfare cash. Mom cut him out of her will, an act that Dad assured us he’d negate upon his death by leaving Mike a disproportionately higher amount of inheritance. Dad never kept his promise—it was his last con. Dad had a special place in his heart for his firstborn child. Mike had been premature, short of six months, and in 1944, that was a dangerous situation. I heard stories about how Mike was in an incubator at the hospital, diapered in Dad’s new handkerchiefs. When Dad died in 1992, we paid an additional fee for a double-deep grave. We knew that Mike was also going to need a place to rest someday, but we hadn’t considered that he’d opt for cremation— so Dad sleeps unnecessarily deep, which is probably apropos. 2. Disbelief

On Monday, July 21, 1980, I turned in my two-week notice at work. I had accepted a position
with an independent drug-testing laboratory, with a thirty percent increase in pay. Our daughter, Megan, was six months old at that time, and the extra money made Chaz feel more secure. Our marriage was going through a bad period, and we needed a change. The job I was leaving was as a quality control microbiologist for a small cosmetic and toiletry manufacturer and I was tired of being a big fish in a little pond. Life, as a little fish in a bigger pond, was going to get better, with fewer bills, less stress, and a career in a more interesting field. I’d learned all I wanted to know about the microbiological attributes and the chemistry of personal care products: hand lotions, shampoos, conditioners, and bubble baths. The regulatory requirements for pharmaceuticals are more stringent than for cosmetics and toiletries. My new job

21

testing pharmaceuticals would be more important, and a step up in my career. One of my jobs was to test products by inoculating sub-samples into various microbiological media. Based on test results twenty-four hours later, I’d either release or hold back each product batch. The next Friday at about 11:30 a.m., I was in the plant, gathering samples of shampoo batches, when I heard my name blaring over the intercom. They’d probably tried my laboratory first, but the processing plant was noisy, with 5,000–10,000-gallon batch tanks feeding fourteen fill lines. I was just placing a red sticker on a fill line connected to a 5,000-gallon tank of baby shampoo when I heard the page through a lull in the noise. “Dennis Fleming, pick up line two. Dennis, pick up line two.” I didn’t want to miss the call, so I used the phone on a wood column fifty feet from my lab. A strange yet familiar voice came through static, like an overseas connection. It was my mother. “I can’t hear you, Mom. You sound like you’re far away,” I said. I had a mental image of her as a tiny person in the distance. I thought she was saying something about Mickey, but I couldn’t hear well enough to be sure. “Mickey what?” I asked. She repeated something about Mickey, but it made no sense. I jiggled the line connected to the phone, but it didn’t help. “What’s wrong, Mom? Can you speak up?” “Mickey is dead, Denny! She’s dead.” “Bullshit, Mom,” I said. “What’s really wrong?” I knew that something probably was wrong, but Mom tended to dramatize things—and I hated having to pry information out of her. “I’m telling you, Denny,” Mom said. “Mickey’s dead! Somebody murdered her.”

22

I didn’t believe her. “Murder? Mickey is dead?” I asked. “No, Mom. What happened? Was she in a car accident?” Suddenly, she was no longer far away or tiny. She was simply speaking with as much effort as she could manage at that moment, which wasn’t much. “She was stabbed, to death, in the house,” she said. “You have to come to the hospital right away.” “Stop it, Mom! Why are you saying all this?” “I had to identify the body, Denny. I’m at the hospital in St. Charles.” “Do they know how it happened?” Mom tried to say more, but I couldn’t make it out. “Tell me this isn’t happening, Mom.” “Please come to the hospital. Your little sister is dead.” I could only suppose that Mom needed some form of verification as to whether or not the horrible situation she was facing was real. “I’ll find out what’s going on, Mom. I’m on my way. I’ll be there as fast as I can.” I fumbled to cradle the receiver and twisted the chord in knots before slamming it down. What was it I had to do? In the midst of my shock and disbelief, I just stood motionless, staring at the wood column in front of me. The thick grain seemed frozen in a slide toward the floor. Like a computer program, my brain automatically told me what to do next. I had to tell Norm, my boss, that I was leaving. I started toward his office, but then I stopped. What was I doing? A coworker said, “That didn’t sound like a good phone call. What’s going on?” I turned toward him, but I couldn’t make out his face among the stacks of pallets. “That was my mother,” I said. “She was calling from the hospital. My little sister is dead.”

23

I turned away and pretended to check a release sticker on a nearby pallet of boxed hand lotion. I wiped the tears from my cheeks with the sleeve of my white lab coat. The faceless man mumbled something, but I couldn’t make out the words. As I entered Norm’s office and tried to speak, I couldn’t get it out. Norm was a former high school science teacher who’d found his niche in manufacturing. He was rarely in a bad mood. He motioned to a chair and said, “What’s wrong, Denny? Sit down. What is it?” I suddenly found myself sobbing in a corner behind the sample shelves at the back of the office. Facing an empty corner of the room, I strained to say, “Norm, my sister is dead. I have to leave and go to the hospital.” On my way out of Norm’s office, I could hear the distant voices of people who were talking to me and trying to console me—but I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. I was out of touch with reality—out of touch with myself. I was lost in an unfamiliar emotional place and didn’t know how to behave. My friend Tony Wippold came from his office in Purchasing. He grabbed my arm and led me toward the front door when a lab technician stopped us. Pat Farrell and I saw each other every day. Only a few weeks earlier, Pat had told me what it had meant to lose her brother. I could tell that it bothered her to talk about it, and I felt privileged that she had confided in me. I thought I understood the pain she must have felt. At that time, I had understood with my mind, but now something stole a giant piece of me, and I was screaming inside, shouting meaningless words into a vast nothingness. Pat threw her arms around me and whispered in my ear, her voice sincere and certain. Her words were strong, and for a moment, I believed her. “You will get through this.” ***

24

The drive to the hospital in St. Charles took about twenty-five minutes. Tony and I had been friends since I’d started with the company two years earlier. We shared a common love of intellectual pursuits—literature, politics, and art. The sun was high overhead amid a sky of drifting white clouds. I don’t remember most of the ride, except that everything seemed to be bright. We had the windows down to let the warm breeze in, and the day seemed to be just the opposite of what such a tragic day should have been. It always rains in movies when tragic things happen. Missourians usually suffer in the July humidity, but that Friday morning was dry and beautiful. I was grateful that Tony had volunteered to drive. I couldn’t have done it myself. He had to keep wiping his own tears as he tried to calm me. His steadiness made me realize how out of control I was at that moment. I was flipping back and forth between several emotional states—brief moments of rational thought, alternating with bursts of extreme sadness and anger. One moment I was talking with Tony, trying to understand what was happening; the next moment I bent forward, screaming and crying uncontrollably. An invisible force was pulling on my chest, trying to rip out a part of my soul. St. Joseph’s Hospital sat on a hillside overlooking the Missouri River three blocks to the east. When Tony dropped me off at the emergency room entrance, I thought about asking him not to come, but I didn’t want to be inconsiderate. Reading my thoughts, Tony sat tightly gripping the steering wheel with both hands, searching for the right words. “You need to do this with your family, Dennis.” He saw two of my younger brothers, Mark and Brian, standing near the emergency room door, smoking cigarettes and glancing toward the river or down at the sidewalk in front of them. “Call me if there is anything I can do,” Tony said as he pulled away from the curb. I hurried toward my brothers. I went straight to Mark—the calm quiet one—and said, “Is it true? Is Mickey really dead?”

25

Before Mark could say anything, Brian interjected. The youngest, Brian had never grown out of his childhood habit of pushing his way into conversations. “We’ve got to find the son of a bitch before the cops find him!” he said, throwing his cigarette down and toe-twisting it into the sidewalk. “Then we gotta kill the motherfucker.” Mark’s face, which was normally red from working outdoors in the summer sun, had lost its color. He looked toward the river and added, “Some sick fucker did this.” In the waiting room, I found Mom sitting near a phone behind a small counter, which seemed appropriate, since it felt as if she’d just called me two minutes earlier. Her face was pale and streaked from crying. I was mad at her, but I hugged her anyway. She always got things confused when she was upset and then got everyone in a panic. She lit a fresh cigarette from another half-smoked one, and I took one from the pack and lit it. The ashtray on the counter in front of her was already full. “Are you absolutely sure about all this, Mom?” In my mind, I still held out the possibility that maybe Mickey had only been badly hurt—but dead? It just seemed impossible. Mom always made things seem worse than they were. “Mom?” I asked again. She covered her face with her hands and began to cry. “I had to identify her body, Denny. Her throat was…and she’s been stabbed.” A nurse walked up and placed her hand on Mom’s shoulder, rubbing in circles below the base of her neck. Even as a professional, she seemed far too calm for someone involved in the murder of an innocent teenage girl. I asked the nurse if she was positive that Mickey was dead. “Yes,” she said softly, showing no emotion. How could she be so autocratic, so unaffected as she rubbed Mom’s neck? It seemed amazing to me that she wasn’t as upset as we were.

26

The nurse pulled a chair toward me. “You have seen her, seen the body?” I asked. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Fleming. Would you like to sit down? Can I get something for you?” Mom stood and for the first time she showed some strength and said, “His name is Dennis." “I want to see her,” I said. “Can I see her?” A different nurse approached us and said, “Dennis, my name is Beth. I can give you something to calm you down?” “I don’t need anything to calm me down!” I shouted. “I just want to see my sister! I just want to look at her, that’s all!” There seemed to be a time lapse between the words I was yelling and the realization that I was yelling them. Each passing second felt like an hour, as if I was drunk on adrenalin. Across the room, another nurse was busy trying to calm Mark and Brian, who were talking over each other’s sentences as they loudly asked their own questions. Beth told me she’d ask the attending physician if I could see Mickey’s body. To no one in particular I screamed, “I’m OK, goddamn it. I don’t need anything. I just want to see my sister. I have a right to see my own sister.” A doctor came through a set of double doors. I thought I saw a trace of sympathy cross his stoic face. “I understand that you want to view the body, Mr. Fleming,” he said matter-of-factly, “but I’ve closed the examination, and since this is a case under investigation, we’d have to get legal authorization to reopen it.” “No!” I screamed. “I have to see her! I have to see her dead body.” “I know that hearing what I’ve just told you is difficult, and that you’re having trouble accepting this traumatic event, Mr. Fleming, but your mother has already identified the body.”

27

“I know!” I said. “Mom told me that, but I still want to see her!” “Look, Mr. Fleming,” the doctor said, the tone of his voice changing, “your sister played on my daughter’s softball team. I knew Mickey, she was strong, and there was only a small chance that we could save her. I opened her chest, but the heart had been damaged.” The way the doctor said the heart sounded cold and clinical. “Her heart,” I shouted. “Her heart. She’s a person!” Everyone at the hospital was treating us so cordially, so calmly. Couldn’t they see what this was doing to me—to all of us? “I’m very sorry for you and your family. Please try to understand—this isn’t something that a loved one should see. As I said, I’d have to follow several legal steps to reopen the examination, and you really don’t need that memory. It will be far better if you remember Mickey as she was.” In my heart, I knew the doctor was right. It made no sense for me to see Mickey’s bloody, abused body—but I still couldn’t believe that she was dead, and no amount of third-person testimony could have made it seem real. Mickey was only eighteen. She’d just graduated from high school and would soon be going to college. I’d heard people who’d lived through traumatic situations say it all seemed surreal, and now I knew exactly what they meant. A part of me knew I was in denial. My older sister Joanie arrived with her husband, Bob Dowie. Joanie always received the family news before I did, and somehow I knew that she was going to act as if she hadn’t heard anything about Mickey’s murder. I was right. She walked up to me. “What is going on?” she asked. I always hated when my siblings acted uninformed so they could draw the spotlight. I knew that someone had to have called Joanie or she wouldn’t have been there. So she knew exactly what was

28

going on. I snapped, “Mickey’s in there somewhere. She’s dead. Somebody cut her throat and stabbed her in the heart. That’s what’s going on—and you goddamn well know it!” Joanie reached for Bob, and I wondered whether she really hadn’t known or whether she was in denial, too. After a few moments, she regained her composure. “Damn you, Denny! Bob called me at work and then picked me up. He told me we were going to the hospital right away. That was all! Now you’d better be lying about the rest of it!” Joanie looked at Mom and realized that I wasn’t lying. I hugged her and tried to apologize, but she felt like stone. The doctor who had spoken to me took her aside and began to speak to her in hushed tones. A moment later, Joanie screamed and I realized she had awakened to the fact that the nightmare was really happening. I went outside, walked down to the river, and sat on a wood bench. I thought it would be foolish to pray. After all, why would God grant me anything special? I was an agnostic, but I had prayed in the past—for peace or for someone else. I thought of God as a non-associated deity, undefined by a particular religion, and I never expected a direct response to my prayers. Maybe I’d never been humble—truly humble. The truth was I didn’t know if I could be humble. It required a modesty I didn’t possess. I prayed at that moment anyway—I prayed like never before—and it was honest. I’d never felt so honest in all my life. I was prepared to believe anything, to do anything for Mickey, so I prayed as earnestly as I could. “Dear God. What can I say to you? Am I a fool for coming to you now? I feel foolish, but I have to beg. I’m going to ask you for something. It’s not just for me—it’s for my whole family. Please give Mickey back to us. Heal her and give her back.”

29

I slid off the bench and knelt in the dirt. “I don’t think anyone knows exactly how you do things, God. Maybe you plan things, maybe you don’t. Maybe randomness is part of your scheme, or maybe you control everything, every detail— but I’m asking you now, please change this situation. You can take me instead of Mickey. I’ve lived longer, and I know I should pay for some things, but Mickey doesn’t deserve to die this young, and in this way.” Life and death and God. What was the point? I thought I had some idea of what life was all about—about the big picture—but I didn’t know anything. My little sister was gone, lying dead on a slab in a cold examination room. Only hours before, she’d been alive, I was at work, and everything was fine—but nothing would ever be the same again. It would all change me somehow, in some way— I felt sure. It would change all of us. There was no sense to it, no reason, and no way of looking at Mickey’s death that would put it into perspective. It was like a bomb thrown into a daycare center. What could have caused this horror? Mickey couldn’t have brought it upon herself. Had she smarted off to some scumbag who had then paid her back? I felt cold and I was sweating struck with the horror that someone had meant to kill her and had then killed her that way. I could have made sense of a car accident—that’s what I’d thought it had been as first—or an overdose experimenting with drugs. Eventually, I might even have put together reasons for a suicide, but Mickey’s death hadn’t been her decision. Someone could have chosen not to do it—but did it anyway. *** Mickey’s murder shocked the quiet town of St. Charles. Many people in Mom’s neighborhood couldn’t live with the horror of it. They knew Mickey as a good, clean-cut kid. They’d asked her into their homes to baby-sit their children.

30

The vicious nature of the murder—her palms and forearms slashed from futile attempts to fend off the killer’s knife, her throat slit from ear-to-ear, her heart punctured—disgusted them. Investigators found sandals and cut-offs, common apparel worn by many neighborhood girls, in a large bloodsoaked circle of carpet in the living room. They found her panties lying on the linoleum kitchen floor where the killer had attempted to rape her as she was dying. They were all unnatural events—evidence of evil to many in our quiet neighborhood. Several families moved out of their apartments or sold their homes. Susie and her one-year-old son had also been living with Mom and they all moved in with Joanie until the police apprehended the killer. After years on death row and many interviews, investigators connected Anthony LaRette to twenty-five other rape/murders. He had raped several of his victims after killing them, but in Mickey’s case, he had left quickly. Fifteen years later, on the day of LaRette’s execution, in a November 29, 1995 interview with The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, my brother Brian said that he’d called Mickey about an hour before the murder. They were supposed to spend the afternoon at the park, but when he called later to remind her, the line was busy. A few minutes later, he called again, but a police officer answered, making Brian the first to hear the news. Had Brian gotten a busy signal because Mickey had pulled the phone off the hook? A thick trail of blood ran down the wall from the bloody kitchen phone. That may have happened after LaRette had dragged her, fighting and struggling, into the kitchen. With the phone off the hook and Mickey’s screams likely to alert the neighborhood, LaRette might have thought he’d lost control of the situation, had lost the opportunity to rape her, and fled. We’d learn years later that LaRette always raped his victims—he never simply killed them. He thought Mickey was dead, and he had slipped out of the house and scurried down the sidewalk, trying

31

not to draw attention to himself. Then he drove off in a borrowed car. Mickey was strong. Her wounds would have kept most people down, but she somehow rose from her pool of blood and tried to run, smearing the white kitchen walls with red streaks in the process. Was she searching for the phone? Twenty-five years later, I still see those red streaks in my mind. 3. Hearts And Souls

The Missouri River seemed muddier, wider, and faster than usual. I don’t know how long I sat
there. The sky had grown grey and rain was threatening. The day had finally caught up with events as I sat on a park bench—thinking about my baby sister’s body lying on a cold slab in the hospital behind me. I decided not to test God. If he’d heard me and had decided to save Mickey’s life, someone would tell me—I had no doubt about that. Later that afternoon, I found myself talking to detectives, deputies, and other members of the Major Case Squad, an emergency team assembled for crimes like rape and murder, but I don’t remember anything specific about that first night, except talking to the police. My mind was a jumble of confusion. I remember volunteering to help them track down leads. They also sent my brothers on various missions, designed to help solve the case—and to keep five angry brothers busy over the next several days. I’d receive assignments, and then I’d meet with squad members to tell them what I’d discovered. Then they’d give me a new assignment, but even today my memories of that whole process

32

come back like flashes of scenes from a long-forgotten piece of film noir—or like pieces of a nightmare I should have written down. Those scarcely recalled memories aren’t attached to anything, beyond riding with my brother-in-law, Bob, in his car, driving in endless circles. The police had apparently paired me with Bob because he was relatively calm and rational. He drove around patiently, providing me with a steady diet of cigarettes, coffee, beer, an occasional shot of whiskey, and even pot when we’d run into it. Late at night, we’d sometimes stop at a Quick Stop gas station. I’d step out into the milky white or yellow glow of their three a.m. neon lights and feel trapped in another dimension. It was as if I was standing at the very top of the earth, bathed in a hellish incandescent light, where nothing else existed in the darkness beyond its boundaries. I knew that I’d eventually leave, travel somewhere, and then return to that strange light once more—in a surreal cycle that would never end. During one of several stops at Bob and Joanie’s, an officer took me aside while we were standing on the manicured lawn. He was excited because he had a lead, and he hoped to be the one to find Mickey’s killer. “I've talked to a lot of people tonight and one thing I know for sure,” he said. He put his hand on my back the way I’d once seen a father comfort his son after the boy’s team had lost a football game. “Your sister was about as straight an arrow as you can find, and I’m praying that the son of a bitch runs. It’ll save a lot of bullshit and taxpayer money. If they take him in, the fucker will probably get off light somehow.” Although it seemed fitting for me to feel that way about Mickey’s murderer, cops weren’t supposed to think like vigilantes. I felt uneasy listening to him. He was a professional, and professionals weren’t supposed to talk that way. His reaction seemed calculated and objective. He was angry, and I could understand that, but he wasn’t the one who was living with a piece of his heart

33

missing. I thought if anyone does away with that animal, it should be one of us, and I wanted it to be me. The officer was trying to make me feel better, and whether he was the one to catch the killer or not, I wouldn’t complain. Earlier that same evening, Anthony LaRette arrived at the home of Richard Roberson, a friend he’d met a few months earlier. LaRette had been staying with Roberson, who I heard lived a few miles from my mother. According to Roberson, LaRette was in a good mood, telling jokes and laughing during their spaghetti dinner together. He thought that he’d left Mickey dead. He’d tossed the knife into a river, thinking he’d made a clean getaway. LaRette would have been shocked to learn that Mickey had run out of the house shortly after 11:00 a.m. and had alerted the neighbors across the street —a last desperate act that eventually allowed police to pinpoint the time of her death. Investigators added a few minutes to the time (10:48 a.m.) on a grocery receipt for lunch items Mickey had purchased to give her time to make the 100-yard walk back to the townhouse. (They’d found fresh lettuce on the kitchen countertop.) The police could determine a fifteen-minute period in which the killer had struck. If Mickey had died in the apartment, several hours could have elapsed, perhaps as many as five, before Mom or Susie returned home from work, and the police would have had to issue a broader time frame in their public appeal for assistance, but Mickey’s run for life gave them a narrow time window. A woman heard the news and the specific time and told police that she was in the area about 11:00 a.m. She recalled seeing a man fitting the police description near the apartment building. He was walking quickly and seemed nervous, which attracted her attention. She had then watched LaRette drive away in Roberson’s cream-colored convertible. (LaRette had told Roberson that he needed the car for a job interview.)

34

Months later, during one of LaRette’s two pretrial hearings, Roberson testified that two days after the killing he had given LaRette a ride home to Topeka, Kansas, 294 miles away. As Roberson prepared to return to St. Louis, LaRette had given him some advice. “If you get any problems down there, call me. I’ll take care of them,” he had said. Roberson said he hadn’t understood what LaRette meant, but when he returned to St. Louis, he saw an article about the murder and realized that the police were looking for his car. The man who’d had dinner with him, joking and laughing heartily two days earlier, had committed a brutal murder just hours before. Roberson immediately called LaRette and said he had to talk to him, but LaRette didn’t want to speak on the phone. At LaRette’s trial, nearly a year later, Roberson elaborated on the call. “I said he had to talk to me because it involved me in something, and I asked him why he did it. He said he didn’t know.” Roberson and LaRette talked several times by phone after that first call. St. Charles police sergeant Patrick McCarrick monitored one of those calls, in which LaRette told Roberson he had seen Mickey cash a check at the grocery store and followed her home with the intent to rob her. He then slipped his driver’s license under the door latch to gain entry, but Mickey confronted him. He told her he wouldn’t hurt her if she’d remain quiet and let him leave. Roberson testified that LaRette had told him that Mickey began yelling at that point. He knocked her down, stabbed her, and cut her throat when she ran past him. LaRette said that he had panicked and had no other choice. After talking with LaRette, Roberson called a car shop, telling them his car needed a new paint job quickly, but the man at the shop had heard the newscasts and became suspicious. He contacted the police—and set the stage for LaRette’s capture. The afternoon of the murder, the police sealed the apartment’s exterior and doorways with

35

yellow tape. They gathered what evidence they could, including blood samples and hair fragments that didn’t match Mickey’s. They also dusted for fingerprints. The next day, they asked me to see if Susie was up to taking them through the apartment. Mom was a wreck and had already said she’d never enter that building again. Since Susie and her one-yearold son shared the apartment with Mickey and Mom, she might be able to spot something out of the ordinary, something the police might not have noticed. Susie didn’t blink at the request. Like the rest of us, she hadn’t slept since Mickey’s murder and had been drinking and self-medicating. She was pale and fragile, but led several detectives through the apartment, room by room. Exhausted, I followed. Maybe I’d see something. Susie walked through the place as if trapped in someone else’s bad dream. She showed no reaction to the blood-smeared walls in the kitchen or the 3’ x 3’ patch of blood on the living room carpet. I stayed in the living room as Susie led them upstairs. Squatting near the carpet stain, I wanted to see something—a vision, perhaps. I was hoping that I could somehow see what happened—an instant of it, even—or maybe a face. “Let me see his face,” I prayed silently. “Please let me see his face—or where he is right now. We need to stop him before he does this again. Just his face will be enough.” I looked around the room, hoping for a vision, frightened that I actually would receive one. The same emptiness filled me that I’d felt the day before by the river near the hospital. I rose to join the others upstairs, but stopped beside the upright piano at the base of the stairway. Years earlier, Mickey had showed me how to play one simple tune, “Heart and Soul.” She had taught me how to play the rhythm and the melody, but not simultaneously. I could never coordinate my hands to do both. We always ended our piano tinkering by playing “Heart and Soul.” I never grew tired of it. We’d switch parts, from melody to rhythm and back, driving everyone except ourselves crazy.

36

We’d stop only after my fingers had grown so tired that even Mickey couldn’t stand it anymore. If Joanie happened to be around while we were playing, she’d yell, “For Christ’s sake, Mickey, teach him something else. You’re driving us nuts!” She’d spit out the word nuts as if one word contained every awful thing about our family. Joanie explained away a lot of behavior by questioning a person’s sanity. So did Mom and Dad. They were always arguing over who was truly certifiable, each bringing more authentic-sounding jargon to the table as the exchange progressed. Many of their arguments centered on bedroom issues, problems they never discussed aloud. Mom would tell Dad, “You’re crazy, Joe. You’re a lunatic!” He’d throw back, “You’re the goddamn crazy one.” She’d yell, “No. You’re really crazy. You’re too nuts too know it!” Then he would yell, “You’re paranoid!” One of them would hit below the belt. Mom would lower her voice, and it took on a sinister tone—a murderers threat—in the center of the receding echoes. “You’re going to end up in the bug house, just like your brother. A certified manic depressive.” He’d quiet down too. “Hey, I’ll take a test any day.” They’d get into Dad’s education level. Mom would contend that he’d never finished the eighth grade, but Dad would swear he had. “You couldn’t even pass an eighth-grade exam,” she’d say. “What makes you think you could pass a test for mental stability?” Then Dad would drop the big one. “Your own mother didn’t want you—goddamn crazy fucking bitch.”

37

We never knew when their hate debates would escalate into physical abuse, so we either laid low or left the house. *** Mickey and I would never again play “Heart and Soul” again. I examined the piano closely. There was no blood, but the wooden sheet music stand above the keyboard was broken. It had splintered, and a brass screw on its base was bent and pushing the wood apart. Had he knocked Mickey into it? It might have been a byproduct of family horseplay—but maybe not. Had the killer thrown her into the piano just inches away from where Mickey and I had laughed and tapped the keys? Then something occurred to me. She must have screamed during the struggle. Had she cried out for me? Had she cried out for Mike or Mark or Kevin or Brian? Mickey had good relationships with all of us. The question would continue to haunt me. Had Mickey cried out for me? As far as Susie knew, the music stand on the piano had been intact when she left the house Friday morning, or at least, she was unaware if it had been broken. Mom later confirmed the damage probably occurred during the struggle, which brought the ugliness of Mickey’s death even closer to me. *** Suspicion and confusion infected my every thought during the two-week manhunt for Mickey’s murderer. Everyone was a suspect, from Mom’s boyfriend of five years to the young man who had dated Mickey for the first time the night before. The brutal way she died, the deep stabbing and slicing, and the attempted rape, had marked the killer as a man. I couldn’t help any of Mickey’s male friends grieve. I could not allow myself to get close to any of them, to share their sympathies. They were all suspects. I had to pull away. Mickey’s wake and funeral were nightmares. She’d been a popular student and had played on

38

the school’s softball and basketball teams. Many people had known and liked her. Trembling, wailing teenagers, held upright by stronger companions, dragged their feet into the funeral parlor and past Mickey’s open casket. Many were close friends from her graduating class. The horrific nature of the killing had upset them all, and they hadn’t slept well over the weekend. Until then, the worst thing most of them had experienced was their parents’ divorce or having a friend injured in a car accident. None of them were prepared to see Mickey lying in an open coffin; her chin pulled toward her throat, which made her look heavier, but hid a deep, ear-to-ear knife wound. That wound, we found out later, and the multiple stabs to the heart, were the killer’s trademarks. Lying in her coffin, Mickey didn’t appear to be at rest, as if the terror of her last moments had refused to remain hidden beneath the mortician’s makeup. As an agnostic, I have to hope there’s something beyond this life—a place where Mickey is happy. At her funeral, I wanted to believe Mickey’s last moments of consciousness had released her from the horror of her death, but despite the mortician’s cosmetics, her face refused to comfort me. Besides the physical evidence—the blood-soaked living room carpet, the blood-streaked kitchen walls and phone, and Mickey’s wide-open purse with $100 in cash clearly visible— investigators managed to piece together the events of the day from the accounts of eyewitnesses. They obtained testimony from a woman who’d given LaRette the time, from a girl who’d seen him while riding her bicycle, and from a cashier at a nearby store. A woman in the store parking lot had seen LaRette get into a car and drive away after the murder, and a married couple across the street had seen something that day they’d never forget. Robert Presser, a young man who worked nights for the railroad, had been watching cartoons in the front room with his three-year-old daughter while his wife, Dale, was upstairs. Then something outside had caught Dale’s attention. Through a bedroom window, she’d seen Mickey running from the

39

rear of her apartment and directly toward the Presser’s front door, bleeding and naked, except for a bikini top pushed up around her neck. Dale had screamed and rushed downstairs to open the door, but her husband, Robert, stopped her and locked it as Mickey banged on the door. Robert had told Dale to take their daughter upstairs, grabbed his shotgun, and ran out the back door and around to the front of the building, where Mickey had collapsed on the front porch. At the pretrial hearing, in an attempt to discredit Presser, LaRette’s defense attorney asked about his actions. “What were you planning to do with that shotgun?” “I was going to make sure that whoever did that to Mickey Fleming wasn’t going to do it to my family—or anyone else.” At the trial a year later, Presser testified that he’d covered Mickey with a sheet. “She tried to say something, but I couldn’t understand her,” he told the jury. Finally, there was LaRette himself, who eventually confessed to the killing, though he later tried to retract his statements. At the pretrial hearing, the prosecuting attorney pointed out that LaRette was familiar with the confession format. LaRette had signed similar documents for a rape confession six years earlier, but said that he’d been given medicine that had inhibited his ability to understand what he’d signed. He claimed that he’d tried to kill himself as the police had begun to close in on him, and his unsuccessful attempt had left painful superficial wounds on his neck, so he’d asked for and received medication. He insisted that the drug had confused him enough to sign a murder confession— but that drug turned out to be aspirin. *** The events surrounding her death was like a made-for-TV movie. Around 10:30 a.m. on a

40

warm, bright July morning, Anthony J. LaRette, Jr., 30, medium-to-heavy build—a serial rapist and murderer—knocked on the front door of a house in a quiet middle-class neighborhood. He asked the woman who answered the door if she could tell him the time. As she turned to look at the clock on the wall behind her, LaRette wedged his foot between the door and the doorjamb, but fortunately, the woman’s husband entered the living room from the hall to ask who was at the door. LaRette politely apologized for bothering the couple and left. Fifteen minutes later, LaRette spotted a twelve-year-old girl on her bicycle and drove around the block several times to observe her. He was in a tan convertible that he had borrowed from a man he’d recently met and rented a room from a few days earlier. The girl finally sensed that something was wrong and remembered what her mother had told her to do when strangers made her uneasy. On LaRette’s third pass, the girl quickly pedaled home. At approximately 11:00 a.m., the victim, a tall and tan eighteen-year-old, Mary Michelle Fleming, known to her family as Mickey, was preparing a salad in the kitchen of a two-story brick apartment. She and her sister, Susie, shared the apartment with their mother. Susie had left for work earlier after dropping off her one-year-old son with a sitter. Their mother, Millie, was also at work. It was Mickey’s first summer after graduating from high school. She held a summer job, but hadn’t felt well that morning and had taken the day off. She needed fresh lettuce for her salad, so she left the building through the back kitchen door, leaving it unlocked, and walked two blocks to a supermarket. Mickey was wearing cutoffs, sandals, and a bikini top, which was the fashion that summer. Just as Mickey stepped out of the apartment, LaRette cruised by. Mickey entered the store, where she encountered familiar smiles. LaRette parked in the lot and waited, then watched her walk the hundred yards back to the apartment. He got out of his car, walked to the apartment and entered

41

through the unlocked back door. *** By the time of Mickey’s wake, I’d been without food and sleep for almost seventy-two hours. I managed to drag myself through the ordeal and the funeral, trying to look strong for my family, but inside I was empty—one of the walking dead. Every time I dropped into a chair, I brushed against one of the huge flower arrangements that filled the funeral parlor. Kids tended to go overboard with large ornate cards and loads of flowers. My heart tried to go out to those horrified teenagers, but I felt hollow and useless. Their tears and their obvious respect for Mickey comforted me more than anything I could do for them. The thought that Mickey would be the first to leave us had never entered my mind. Why would it? She was the youngest, played sports, and was averse to cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. She was the healthiest and the most fit, the gem of our family. The murderer had breached a part of me, a part that had been physically connected to my heart —a part that only Mickey and I shared. My soul? LaRette had torn it out of me, and the only thing that had rushed in to fill that hole was hate. I wanted to be the one who found the man who had done that to Mickey, to me, and to my family. I wanted someone to lock me in a room with him so I could kill him barehanded. Shooting him, or stabbing and slicing him up the way he had killed Mickey, wouldn’t have been enough. I wanted to beat him, to strangle him, and to dig my nails into the soft tissue of his abdomen. I wanted to reach under his ribs and rip out his still-beating heart. Then I wanted to spit in his face as I watched him die. In the Marine Corps, they’d trained me to kill, trained me to puncture eyeballs and extract them, trained me to knock out the enemy and then to dispense with him any way I wanted. I’d never unleashed those skills, but a raw, violent, passionate hatred was seizing me and giving me the perfect

42

reason for putting my training to use. Two detectives tracked LaRette to his home state of Kansas and captured him two weeks after he’d killed Mickey. By the time of LaRette’s pretrial three months later, I would have regained enough sense to stop Dad from killing him with a razor. 4. Things You Can’t See

We nicknamed our baby sister Mickey because of her middle name, Michelle. Her first name,
Mary, seemed too church-like, but the name Mickey was cute and less foreboding than the name of Jesus’ mother. I also was a Mickey Mouse fan, and Mickey was the littlest member of our family, like a mouse, so it made sense. She was born on December 8, 1960, a holy day of obligation and mandatory Mass attendance in the Catholic church. The date was set in 1854 when Pope Pius IX made official Ineffabilis Deus, the church’s long-held belief that God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus the Christ, conceived free from the stain of original sin. Mom honored that holy day by naming her youngest daughter after the Virgin Mary. Christians believe that Christ died violently for a very specific purpose. I found Mickey’s death to be meaningless. LaRette had selected her with as much thought as travelers give to choosing a roadside restaurant. The incomprehensibility of his act filled me with rage and a hatred so intense that I could feel it swallowing me and tainting my every emotion—but I couldn’t let it become a part of me. I desperately wanted to honor my sister by creating something positive from her brutal death and by doing more with my life. That way, Mickey’s death would make the world better in some way.

43

One of Mom’s friends knew that Mom had named Mickey after the Virgin and brought a small green plant in a ceramic Virgin Mary planter to the funeral parlor. It was a simple thing, an eight-inch bust of Mary with her hands folded in prayer, her head tilted slightly to the right, but that four-inch, thin-leaved plant, though comparatively small, stood out among all the other oversized flower arrangements with their giant ribbons and large cards. Assembly line ceramics look cheap and tacky, but who was I to criticize someone’s taste, especially at a moment like that? That Virgin Mary planter had an aesthetic quality that I appreciated. It reminded me of a sculpture titled Mademoiselle Pogeny, by Constantin Brancusi, and I told Mom about it. I’d seen a Mlle. Pogeny series, different stages from different periods of the artist’s life, at the St. Louis Art Museum. The early stages resembled a woman in prayer, but his later pieces were abstract, as were most of Brancusi’s works. The Brancusi exhibit had inspired me to attempt to turn a large oak stump into a mother-andchild sculpture. I tore into the wood with a hatchet and hammers, and I ruined several screwdrivers. Oak is an extremely hard wood and probably the last choice for carving. I lacked training and common sense, and I grew frustrated and finally gave up. That ended my sculpting career, but I continued to be interested in the subject. During the next several years following Mickey’s funeral, Mom would point out the Virgin Mary planter to me when I visited her home. She remembered I appreciated the planter, albeit for reasons different from the obvious religious ones, and it pleased me. Each time she pointed it out, I’d nod and say, “Yeah, Mom. It was a thoughtful gift.” The day of Mickey’s funeral, we stood and watched as Mom grew hysterical during her last moments with Mickey before we carried the casket out of the parlor. She grabbed the handles on the side of the casket and began screaming and rocking it. Two parlor attendants couldn’t pull her away, so

44

I took a step toward her but a powerful hand pulled me aside. “I’ll get her,” Dad said, brushing aside the attendants. He pulled Mom away so hard that I thought the casket was going to crash to the floor. Mom stumbled back and Dad held onto her, both of them nearly falling. It had been many years since I’d seen any real tenderness between them, but that day, they stood in the funeral parlor, comforting each other. They’d been divorced for a decade, during which Dad had been nothing but contemptible and mean-spirited, yet at that moment, he was the only human being who could console her grief. When we reached the grave site, I heard people sobbing. Had I been a pallbearer? How did I get to the cemetery? I couldn’t recall. I felt numb and disconnected and couldn’t empathize with the sadness swirling all around me. Police officers I recognized from the investigative whirlwind of the last three days were mingling about in plain clothes. I approached one and he told me they were observing the crowd and watching the cemetery periphery. Perpetrators of such crimes sometimes watched the burial of their victims as part of their ritual. Some of Mickey’s high school friends had brought their parents along for support—and every face I didn’t recognize became a suspect in my mind. The night before the murder, Mickey had gone on a first date with a twenty-year-old man named John. Some Major Case Squad cops had gone to his place of employment shortly after the murder for an extended interrogation. They had then taken him into custody and had spent hours each day since the murder trying to get him to break down. John had led the police to his apartment, where he showed them his extensive collection of knives and primitive weaponry openly displayed on the walls. He was understandably anxious about Mickey’s five brothers, all of us construction workers, who might have found a reason to go after him —especially since we’d all degenerated to Dad’s behavior, knocking back shots of whiskey and beer to

45

try to drown our pain. Cocked and ready to fire, any one of us could have gone off if we thought we’d found the animal who had killed our baby sister. John had come to me a few days before the funeral, sweating and looking scared though bloodshot eyes, but I couldn’t honestly tell him that I believed his story. For all I knew, he could have been lying. John was skinny, smoked, and wore a mustache. He didn’t seem like Mickey’s type at all. His date with her the night before would probably have been their last. In my stressed-out condition, it wasn’t hard to imagine Mickey turning down his advances that night, causing him to return the next day and kill her in a rage. As they lowered the grey casket into the ground, I felt helpless, pathetic, and inadequate. Wasn’t there some way that I could honor Mickey better than just letting them shove her into the ground? Someone had placed a bunch of red roses at the side of the grave, and I decided to lay one on the casket as a symbolic gesture of my love for her, but the roses had been tied together with wire and I had trouble untangling a single flower. Tears blurred my vision as the casket began going down. Frustrated, I ripped one rose from the bunch, but as I did, a piece of wire tore into my finger. I yanked the wire out, and my finger started bleeding. I leaned across the grave and tried to place the rose on the rounded top of the descending casket, but the rose began to slide off, so I quickly adjusted its position until it stayed put. As I pulled my hand away, I could see what a mess I’d made, smearing the top of the casket with blood. I had made a spectacle of myself. My gesture of love, a single flower, meant to symbolize that my heart would always be with Mickey, had come across as melodramatic and cheap—a delicate rose, ripped from its family in anger. Instead of honoring Mickey, I had drawn attention to myself through my botched gesture of love. I turned away from the grave. My knees buckled and I trembled. I

46

seemed to be carrying the weight of the casket on my back and I wanted to lie down. My next-door neighbor, Anne Gantner, and her best friend, Patricia Bucciero, tried to comfort me with hugs, but all I could think about was holding my bleeding hand high to avoid dripping blood onto their white blouses. *** Many years earlier, my dad had experienced losing a sister in an eerily similar way. When Dad was in the Navy, a janitor found his twenty-four-year-old sister early one winter morning in an alley behind a bar in Chicago. The janitor was entering the bar through a back door when saw the body in the snow atop a coal pile. Dad went AWOL to return to Chicago and eventually ended up in a hospital with a temporary “nervous condition.” Dad lost a sister and I lost a sister. I worried that something would happen to my daughter, Megan. *** At the grave site, I looked around for Mom, and finally saw her sitting in a car parked at the cemetery’s edge. The passenger door was wide open. How had she gotten there so fast? Had she been unable to watch them lower her youngest child into the ground? I decided to be strong for her sake. I was the college boy, the smart one, the ex-marine. She needed some way to believe that things would be OK. Mom sat motionless, staring at the dashboard. She was in shock or deep in prayer. I knelt beside her. “It’s terrible, Denny,” she said. “We don’t deserve this.” I started to put my arm around her to tell her that no one deserved such a tragedy and that we’d get through it, but the idea seemed absurd. Our family couldn’t even get through a barbeque. Instead, I burst into tears and began babbling like a baby, saying, “Who killed my little sister,

47

Mommy? Who took Mickey away from me?” I put my head in Mom’s lap and we cried together as she stroked my hair the way she used to when I was five. Later, I thought about what Mom had said: “We don’t deserve this.” Had she thought that Mickey’s death was punishment for the Fleming family sins? Mom had a profound sense of Catholic guilt, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if she had transformed the entire horrible event into something that had been our fault. Strangely, I’d had similar thoughts at the grave site myself—and I was an agnostic. As I cried with my head buried in my mother’s lap, I suddenly realized that no one could have blamed me for losing control. Nothing I might have done to try to honor my sister could have dishonored her. At that moment, I was glad that I’d bled on Mickey’s coffin. That way, she had taken part of me with her into the ground—and it seemed entirely fitting. *** That night as I tried to rest in my bed, I looked over at Megan who was asleep in her crib. We had moved her into our bedroom, feeling a sense of comfort in having our precious new daughter close to us. Chaz lay beside me and we held hands and tried to relax, but the random, senseless, and violent nature of Mickey’s murder had shaken her, too. I was having some success controlling my breathing, four counts inhaling, eight counts exhaling, trying to calm myself and quiet my heart, which, as a runner, I monitored regularly. It was beating a rapid 130 beats per minute, my running pace. The window air conditioner labored to keep the three-room apartment cool, but the air was clammy. I sat up, looked at Megan, and I thought about how proud I’d been at her birth and how beautiful she was. I thought about an idea that had floated around in my head at the funeral. Perhaps

48

we should give Megan the nickname Mickey. “No way!” I thought. I would be confusing emotions between my sister and my daughter. I would not subject my daughter to that. “Life is strange,” I said aloud. “One life ends, another begins.” “Megan has an angel to watch over her now," said Chaz. She tightened her grip on my hand. "Her Aunt Mickey.” At exactly that moment, the mobile above Megan’s bed began to turn. It played a few notes of its tune and the room began to glow. Mickey was somewhere—everywhere—in the room, and I felt her spirit pass through me like a cool breeze. “Can you see the white glow? Do you feel that?” I asked. “I felt something,” Chaz whispered, as if she didn’t want to wake Megan to whatever had entered the room. I tried to rationalize reasons for such an event. For instance, Megan’s mobile had a windup mechanism that might have gotten jarred when we moved the crib into our bedroom, or Megan might have jarred something in the mechanism when she rolled over in her sleep (although the room had been quiet and we hadn’t heard any movement). Perhaps our senses had manufactured the glow by extrapolating a spiritual event from a random noise and a fear of the unknown. There had to be a rational explanation. For years, I doubted the authenticity of a metaphysical event, until I encountered other occurrences that also defied explanation. In fact, there were several extraordinary circumstances surrounding Mickey’s murder and the eventual execution of her killer, some fifteen years later. However, certain events following Mickey’s death, and the death of my mother four years later, were so strange that I had either to write them off as exceptional coincidences or admit that they were

49

genuine metaphysical events. Mickey was telling us that, yes, she was going to watch over Megan. *** Several days after Mickey’s death, Dad decided to offer a $5,000 reward for information leading to her killer’s capture. I happened to be driving by St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Charles when I spotted St. Louis TV reporter, Al Wiman, whose national affiliate had assigned him to cover medical stories. Al was waiting for a crew to set up a camera and lights in front of the building. I stopped the car and introduced myself as Mary Fleming’s brother. Al immediately stopped what he was doing and asked what he could do to help. I asked if he’d announce Dad’s reward offer on the news. I said that his station would be getting a scoop by making the announcement first. Al explained that the media considered such requests more like public service announcements than scoops, and that family members should make such appeals in front of all the local stations. I hoped to talk Dad into making the announcement, because a car accident had left an ugly scar above my eye, making me camera shy. More importantly, I didn’t want to come across to my family as trying to grab the spotlight by going on TV. I knew it was an irrational feeling, but I didn’t want to tarnish my association with Mickey in any way. Al Wiman and representatives from other local stations and newspapers met us at the sheriff’s office a few hours later, and Dad made his appeal. He identified himself as Mickey’s father and offered $5,000 to anyone who could provide information leading to the capture of the man who had killed her. As he spoke, Dad looked different. Even in the bright lights, I wasn’t looking at the father I was used to seeing. He looked tired and seemed lost, taking direction from the TV crews. We used to joke about Dad’s hands. His skin looked like the skin on a turtle’s neck, wrinkled

50

and leathery, and his fingers curved like vulture talons. His were hands made powerful from years of squeezing wire cutters, but at that moment, they appeared weak, limp, and shaking. Suddenly, I realized that was how people outside the family sometimes saw Dad—people who’d express disbelief when they heard us talk about his rampages. “Not Joe!” they’d say. “Joe wouldn’t do anything like that. How can you say such a thing?” The man in the bright lights, standing in front of the cameras that day was a humble, small, sympathetic man. How hard it would have been to imagine him yanking chunks of hair out of his wife’s head or bending her thumb backward until it snapped. Who would have envisioned that fivefoot-ten; 165-pound man loading a high-powered rifle, forcing me onto a living room couch, pressing the cold barrel into my forehead, and warning me not to get up or he’d shoot me? I wondered if we were at the same police station where they’d taken Dad the night Mom had stood between him and the riot squad and talked him into dropping his gun before they took him away by force. *** That episode had begun one night in our living room when I was still in high school. Dad sat in his favorite chair and asked Mike for a light. Mike tossed him a box of matches from across the room, but Dad missed and the box caught him on the side of the head, knocking his glasses off. “Watch what you’re doing, you dumb ass,” Dad said. It drew an explosive response from Mike. “Learn to catch, you old fart.” Dad stood and told Mike to either leave (Mike lived across the street) or he’d throw him out. That was enough to cause Mike to cross the room. “Go fuck yourself,” Mike said. Then he smacked Dad in the head, sending his false teeth

51

flying. Mike nearly ripped Dad’s tattered T-shirt off as Dad tore himself loose and ran into the master bedroom. I hid in my bedroom. A moment later, Dad came out of his bedroom and walked down the hall, loading a rifle. Seeing him walk by, I tried to jump him from my bedroom doorway. I got my hands on the rifle, but he grabbed me by the throat. He pinned me against the kitchen wall with one hand and he pushed me toward the ceiling until the heels of my feet were off the ground. Mike pulled Dad off me and threw him to the ground, shouting, “Pick on somebody your own size!” I went into the living room while Mike ran out the back kitchen door. Dad caught me on my way out the front door and pointed the rifle at my chest. Then he motioned toward the couch. “Sit down,” he said, tapping the cold barrel against my forehead. At that moment, Mike stuck his head through the kitchen doorway and Dad went after him. That was my opportunity to run out the front, where I met Mike coming from the side of the house. We ran across the street, jumped into Mike’s black Ford, and sped away, ducking as much as we could. Dad took several shots at us, and a couple of rounds pinged the side of the car. I knew that the odds of a bullet hitting me were slim. I used to hunt rabbits with Dad. He might hit a rabbit standing still, but every time one popped up and ran, Dad would miss. Then I’d take a shot and bring it down. Even so, I’d seen the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and experts had said that at least one bullet had entered and exited Governor Connally’s body and bounced around in the car. Despite Dad’s poor aim, I curled up into a ball on the floor of the Ford. We drove to a small food market on old Highway 94, normally a ten-minute drive. We arrived in five. Mom was working the evening shift there, even though Dad was against her working because it got her out of the house and away from him.

52

Mom called the police, and Mike and I followed her home. We could see flashing red lights as we came over the hill and slowed to enter our subdivision. Ours was the second ranch house on the right. We saw three cops in bulletproof vests squatting on the street behind their car. Two had pump shotguns and one had a megaphone. They had already coaxed Dad to the front door. He was standing in the doorway and the livingroom lights behind him put his face in shadow. A tiny red light glowed from the cigarette he held in his mouth each time he puffed. He held the rifle loosely in one hand, the barrel pointed toward the ground. He was smart enough not to come out pointing a weapon at the police. Mom hurried toward Dad, against a police officer’s order to stay in her car. She stopped a few yards in front of Dad, blocking his silhouette from view. The cop with the megaphone called out, “Mr. Fleming, put down the rifle and come out onto the lawn.” “I’ll shoot the first man that sets one foot on my property,” Dad said. Mom started to shriek. It was a nervous combination of anger and bewilderment, one we’d heard many times whenever she was facing a situation that was almost too much for her to bear—and those situations usually involved Dad. “No, Joe!” she pleaded “Put down the gun. They’ll shoot you!” “Fuck them!” Dad shouted. “Get out of the way, Millie!” Mom stood firm. “Are you trying to get yourself killed?” The police waited out the situation, since Dad hadn’t moved and Mom had put herself between them. “I won’t let you do this,” she said. “You’re going to have to go through me, Joe. You’re going

53

to have to shoot me first.” Mom and Dad stood silently for a few more minutes, and then Dad dropped the rifle on the ground. Instantly, the police rushed forward, cuffed him, and took him away. I was disappointed. From the moment I had seen the police officers in riot gear, I’d begun to hope that the old man had finally gone too far. Finally, they were going to shoot him down—but like always, he managed to stop in time. He’d be out of jail by morning and we’d all have to behave as if nothing had happened. *** As the press conference continued, Al Wiman asked Dad, who was sweating under the hot video lights, why he thought that offering a cash reward would help find his daughter’s killer. Though I hated to admit it, I envied Dad, because he’d spoken to Mickey the Sunday before she died. The sound of her voice was only five days away in his mind, but it had been several months since I’d spoken with her—and I couldn’t even remember what we’d talked about. “Those animals out in the jungle will do anything for $5,000,” Dad said. “Maybe one of them is on drugs and needs a fix. I really don’t care what they do with the money. I just want my daughter’s murderer caught. She was a straight-A student in school, and everybody loved her. She had no enemies that I know of. She was a girl that any father would be proud of.” Dad was sniffling by the time he’d finished his last sentence. What was going on? Were we seeing a soft side of our father? He seemed to be the same Joe that I’d seen crying at Mickey’s funeral Mass—but when was that? Why couldn’t I remember anything about the Mass except the coffin and the tears running down Dad’s face? It sent my mind reeling. There he was again, giving us exactly what we needed—empathy and sympathy—but I knew the video lights and close-ups weren’t revealing the real Joe, the Dad I knew.

54

That Dad wouldn’t have helped anybody. 5. So What?

Following the funeral, my life became even more difficult. I went back to work a week after
Mickey’s death, still shaken. Mickey’s killer was still on the loose, and the responsibilities of raising a child had increased the stress between Chaz and me, even though it had been there before Mickey’s death. I couldn’t focus at my new job. Our department chief had taken a three-month maternity leave my first day, passing management responsibilities to her assistant. Luckily, he sympathized with my emotional state. She would have fired me within a month. I had hoped that my new job would take me away from the assembly line mentality of the toiletry company, but it turned out to be merely another assembly line, this time of laboratory analysts performing repetitive tests and analyses on hundreds of routine procedures. We called them cookbook methods. I learned later that I had replaced a man with a Microbiology degree from the University of Missouri at Columbia. (I didn’t yet have my degree then.) He’d been at the job nearly two years and was good at it—working sixty hours a week. Before they hired me, the company vice president had asked how much I wanted in salary. He met my request, which, I found out, was more than the salary of the microbiologist I had replaced. I let that figure slip in casual conversation to fellow workers, which angered the other analysts and caused problems for my boss. My sister had only been dead a week, we still didn’t know who had killed her, and I was starting what would turn out to be the most stressful job of my life. As people heard about Mickey’s murder, they tried to comfort me, but one chemist rushed into my laboratory, introduced himself, and began a tirade against murderers, rapists, child molesters, and

55

society’s inability to rid itself of those plagues. He was more upset than I was and started spouting his hatred of people who would do such a thing and what should be done with them—most of his remedies involved some type of torture. What really bothered me was that he was upset that I was at work and not out hunting for Mickey’s killer. “You love your sister, right?” he said. “You should be ready to sit in jail for killing her murderer. No one would blame you. So what if you give up some of your freedom? Freedom comes at a cost.” I told him I wasn’t going to let hatred become a passion for me. “I don’t know how you can say you love your sister and still be here at work while the maniac is running free,” he said. That did it. I don’t remember what I said to him, but that asshole left my lab and stayed away for a week. *** Twenty-five professionals worked continually on the case, ten officers from St. Charles and fifteen from the Major Case Squad. St. Charles police detectives Richard Plummer and Michael Harvey eventually tracked down Mickey’s murderer and caught up with him at his sister’s house in Topeka, Kansas. It had taken them two weeks. Harvey and Plummer had been concerned about a molestation earlier in the week at a park near my Mom’s house. A man had abused a boy. The detectives knew most of the local offenders and were suspicious that the perpetrator was from out of town. They wanted to interview the boy, but after talking with the child’s parents, they realized that the boy had been severely traumatized. They would have to wait. When LaRette killed my sister, the detectives felt they’d missed an early chance to track and catch him—and that Mickey might still have been alive as a result—but they never established a

56

connection between the boy and LaRette. LaRette wasn’t at his sister’s house when Plummer and Harvey first visited. They staked out the house and in a few days, they seized their man. LaRette had repeatedly stabbed himself and had sliced his neck from ear-to-ear, but the wounds didn’t kill him. The authorities released a photograph that would haunt us for the next two years. A string of Band-Aids applied vertically over the cuts that ran straight across his neck gave the illusion that he was wearing a primitive necklace. He had always sliced his victim's throats and stabbed them, but when he’d done the same to himself, he’d lived, mocking his victims. Plummer and Harvey took LaRette to a Topeka police station and began interrogating him. Initially, he admitted killing Mickey, but then he began to make up stories. In one story that he returned to several times during his hearing and trial, he claimed to have picked up a hitchhiker. He gave the hitchhiker a ride and dropped him off at his girlfriend’s, which happened to be my mother's apartment. The hitchhiker said he’d return with some money the girl owed him, and would give LaRette some cash for gas. LaRette claimed that he’d waited in the parking lot at the supermarket, but when the hitchhiker didn’t return, he went into the apartment and found the hitchhiker standing over Mickey's bloody body. LaRette said he struggled with the hitchhiker, but he managed to get away. The account made LaRette look like a hero, but things didn’t add up. Why would LaRette wait in the parking lot? Why bother leaving the car to check on the hitchhiker? The story might have worked, but LaRette blew it. He implicated himself by giving the detectives a detailed description of Mickey’s wounds—information the police hadn’t made public, so how could he have known? *** Throughout the search for Mickey’s murderer, Plummer and Harvey had kept us up to date on the investigation. Then one night, Chaz and I were watching the evening news on TV—it must have

57

been close to 10:15. For once, they weren’t covering the murder story, and I was relieved. The phone rang and I picked up. It was Plummer. He told me they’d found the killer and he’d already signed a confession. I thanked him and told him how much I appreciated all the work he and Harvey had done for my family and me. He was gracious, saying he was just doing his job. When I hung up, Chaz and I hugged each other and cried. Mickey’s death had threatened to overwhelm Chaz. Since the night we had arrived from California, she and Mickey had become good friends. What was I supposed to do at that point? Should I call family members and tell them the good news? I was ecstatic, and for the first time since Mom had called me with the news of Mickey’s death, I was happy. I decided to call the television stations and tell them. I grabbed the Yellow Pages, wrote down several numbers, and began calling one station after another, telling them that the killer had been found. St. Louis has three local affiliates of ABC, CBS and NBC, and a local station, KPLR. The KPLR news came on at nine-thirty, so it was too late to catch their newscast. I surfed between the other three channels, hoping they’d verify the information and spread the news. Station after station made the announcement, showing the same awful picture (Mickey’s graduation photo) that they’d been showing every night for the last two weeks. The news anchor of one station was handed a piece of paper as he was on the air live and read, “This just in." An update on the murder investigation of St. Charles teenager, Mary Fleming—” That was another thing I thought only happened in the movies. After the newscasts were over, I started calling everyone I knew—family and friends. I usually went to bed around eleven, but I didn’t fall asleep until two or three that morning.

58

After the news of LaRette’s capture, people approached me at work about it. They congratulated me and said they were glad for me. The hate-filled asshole who had approached me a week earlier entered my laboratory for the first time since I’d told him off. He started telling me how the system would let me down. The murderer would get a few years in jail, he said, and would then be free again. He added that I should be banging on the door of the police station, trying to get my hands on LaRette so I could kill him myself. “You have to prepare yourself for his release,” he said firmly. “Get yourself a gun and be waiting when the son of a bitch is set free—and if you don’t get him at that moment, go hunting for him.” “Where on earth did all his rancor come from?” I wondered. The rage that had subsided in me following LaRette’s capture began to resurface, and I lashed out at him. “What do you know about killing anyone?” I asked. “You have no idea what I'm going through. You come in here and tell me all this crap.” I told him to get the fuck out of there and leave me alone. Fortunately, he left the company, and I no longer had to deal with him by the time they executed LaRette fifteen years later. *** At the preliminary hearing in November 1980, Plummer and Harvey gave testimony about their August 7 interrogation of LaRette in Kansas. Plummer said LaRette had started crying and had admitted stabbing Mickey, telling them that he hadn’t meant to hurt her. According to LaRette’s statement, he had only meant to burglarize the apartment, but had found Mickey changing her clothes. He then grabbed her and told her not to scream. All he wanted to do was leave.

59

According to Plummer’s testimony, LaRette confessed that Mickey had promised not to scream if he let her go, but she began screaming. LaRette told Plummer, “That’s when it happened. She lied to me, just like my wife and motherin-law.” At that moment, an attractive brunette about twenty-five years old stood and left the courtroom. The look on her face told me she was LaRette’s wife—the liar, according to LaRette’s statement. Over the course of the trial, LaRette used many objective expressions to describe the brutal murder, saying “that’s when it happened,” as if he’d been only a casual observer; “I panicked,” as if he was more afraid than Mickey; “I had no choice,” as if he had been ordered to murder her; And “I did it,” instead of “I killed her,” What he should have said was, “I followed the cunt into the apartment to fuck her. She said she’d let me if I let her go. She lied, so I stabbed her hard, right in her heart, but that wouldn’t shut her up. I smacked the bitch in her ugly, screaming head and stabbed her again so I could get her clothes off and fuck her before my cock got soft. She got up and ran into the kitchen, so I slit her throat, but she grabbed the goddamn phone! Everything happened so fast I wasn’t sure if she answered the phone and somebody heard us. I threw her on the floor and got her panties off. I wanted to fuck her alive. She was a goddamn mess. Somebody had to hear all the yelling. I had to get out of there. She was dead anyway.” We never got to hear those words. They were too close to the truth. At a hearing in January 1981, a St. Charles County circuit Judge ruled that LaRette voluntarily gave his August 7 statements to Plummer and Harvey in Kansas and the confession was admissible as evidence. Due to a foiled escape attempt by LaRette in September, police doubled security, having two deputies escort LaRette instead of one. The court granted the defense a change of venue, to Warren

60

County, forty-five miles west of St. Charles. When the hearing resumed, LaRette took the stand for the first time. He claimed he’d been without sleep and hadn’t eaten for three or four days when he gave his statements to Plummer and Harvey, implying that he was so tired that he might have confessed to a murder he hadn’t committed. He said they had given him painkillers for the wounds he’d inflicted to his neck and chest, implying he was under strong medication and hadn’t realized what he was saying. However, Plummer and Harvey both testified LaRette was alert and unaffected by any drugs he may have been given. The prosecutor read from the official record: the painkillers were aspirin. I heard someone joke, “I murder people when I’m hungry and I take aspirin, don’t you?” We laughed nervously, but as I turned to Chaz, she said, “Pathetic.” The prosecutor asked LaRette if anyone forced him to make the statements. “In a manner of speaking, yes,” LaRette said. “They told me that if I’d tell them the whole story and it checked out, I’d be on my way home.” During one of the brief breaks, Susie and I talked outside the courtroom. One of her girlfriends borrowed my cigarette lighter. The woman was obviously pregnant and looked as if she could have the baby any minute. Susie took me aside before I could say anything to the woman, whispering, “Don’t say anything about her baby, Denny. She lost it.” “She lost it?” I said. “She looks like she’s going to have it any minute.” “They only told her this morning—the baby is dead. They’re going to take it tomorrow. It’s better not to say anything about it.” It didn’t seem real. What other tragedy was going to happen? It seemed to pour more darkness into an afternoon filled with talk of murder and rape.

61

One of the prosecutors came out of the courtroom and asked Susie if she’d look at some pictures of Mickey that had been taken at the hospital. They were going to ask Susie to look at them during the trial, and he wanted to prepare her. We sat on a bench together, but I couldn’t look at the photos. As badly as I’d wanted to see Mickey at the hospital that day, I didn’t have the strength to see photos of her at that moment. What if I looked at a picture and lost control? LaRette was just in the other room, and I could probably get to him if I tried. I couldn’t risk it. I was irrational, and anything could happen, so I didn’t look. Susie examined the pictures and identified her mutilated sister with the same stoicism and courage I’d seen in her when she led the police through Mom’s apartment. Where had that come from? Later, two officers led LaRette to the front courthouse steps outside. Handcuffed and in leg irons, he stood waiting for the paddy wagon to take him back to the city jail as the officers stood on each side and held his arms. I followed Dad as we walked through a corridor leading to the front steps —and LaRette. Suddenly, Dad pulled a window scraper from his pocket, the type that holds a single-edge razor blade. He pushed out the blade and whispered over his shoulder, “Watch me take care of that motherfucker.” Being a lifelong con man, Dad knew people who knew other people, and he also knew how to set things up—so it didn’t surprise me when the officers stepped away from LaRette, leaving him bound and unprotected. Dad had his window of opportunity, and he went for it. A lifetime of snipping wires with wire cutters had given Dad a handshake that could make you cry, and I knew that he could come close to severing LaRette’s head—but somehow I managed to grab his arm, struggle with him,

62

and to hold him back. “Don’t, Dad!” I said. “The son of a bitch isn’t worth it.” “I’ve lived my life,” Dad said. “Let go of me!” Dad’s window of opportunity closed the instant I reached out to stop the assault. One officer took away Dad’s razor, and then both officers returned to their places beside LaRette. As we waited for the wagon, I was still shaking from Dad’s outburst. I carefully moved into a position where I could stand face to face with LaRette. He looked past me at first, but then we made eye contact. I didn’t know what I was going to say, but when I finally gathered the nerve to speak, I found it difficult to say anything. I was afraid I’d burst into tears, but I wouldn’t have him see that. “You killed my sister,” I said. He smirked and shrugged, saying, “So what?” He was calm, as if I’d just asked him for the time of day. I don’t know what I had expected him to say, but his reaction seemed odd. At that time, we didn’t know he was a serial killer, but once we learned that, it made sense. Mickey was just one woman in a string of murders and rapes and other than the fact she was his last, he didn’t see anything important about it.

*** Following Mickey’s murder, I focused on death. I wanted to kill LaRette myself, and worried that a Major Case Squad officer or one of my brothers would get to him first and take away my opportunity. One insidious aspect of the hate I felt for LaRette was that I felt obligated to carry it. Somehow, letting it go would have challenged my character. How could I not hate him and still feel good about myself? I’d taken a couple of psychology courses in college and I understood suppression and

63

repression. I knew the dangers of burying powerful emotions. Love is a complex emotion—but so is hatred, and to disregard it and its causes can be dangerous. Hatred gets inside of you and entangles itself with other parts of your psyche. It can burst forth in any number of irrational ways, spoiling relationships, tainting decisions, and ruining careers, confusing the very idea of who you are. When a child experiences violent hatred or perverted love, that child must suppress it in order to survive, but when violence or perversion is strong enough and covers many years, the damage to that person’s psyche can manifest in horrific deviations from normal behavior. The single shock I had experienced, even if repressed, wasn’t going to alter my psyche enough to set me on a path to serial murder, but in the beginning, I had a strong need to kill—so strong that I had no doubt at all that I’d kill LaRette if I ever got the chance. I even prayed for the opportunity. My hatred for LaRette continued for weeks. I couldn’t ignore it. It was like the pressure at the bottom of the deep end of a swimming pool, but I couldn’t swim away from it, and every day I could feel myself weakening. The storm followed me everywhere and I had to deal with it again and again. It grew stronger every day, and every day I felt weaker. I didn’t like to think that my character was weakening, so I chose to feel the emotion grow. I seemed to have two choices: live with the struggle or subdue it. It was becoming a part of me, taking precedence over all my emotions: joy, fear, humor, and even anger. Even worse, it was interfering with my feelings for Mickey. I couldn’t think of her without feeling immense hatred for the man who’d shown her the very worst in what a man could be before taking her life. Loss and hatred pulled at me constantly, and I wanted to kill LaRette. I would never have forgiven myself. I felt myself becoming angrier and less loving every day, and it was a destructive feeling. Nothing good could have come from it—nothing beautiful, nothing creative—and I refused to let it

64

cloud my feelings for Mickey. Nothing would ever diminish how I felt about her. I worked hard to come up with something about the way she died for which I could be grateful. Her suffering wasn’t prolonged—it could have been far worse. The grocery receipt had pinpointed the time of her final struggle precisely. If Mickey hadn’t run out of the apartment, Mom or Susie (and Susie’s toddler) would have found her mutilated body—so thank God she ran. The circumstances of her death all led to the capture, incarceration, and eventual death of a sadistic serial killer, who would never kill another innocent woman. Once my rage had subsided, I began to feel as if executing LaRette would accomplish nothing other than saving taxpayer money. I couldn’t think of anything that gained by executing a sick human being—except revenge. In a way, Mickey’s intense struggle for life finally won out over LaRette. Despite the holes in her heart, the knife wounds that dug into and across her throat, and a piece of knife that broke off in one of her lungs, Mickey’s desire to live had led to his capture—and he never killed or raped again. LaRette sat on death row for fifteen years. How many women would he have killed and raped during that time? After he’d been in prison for ten years, LaRette was asked what he’d do if he was ever paroled. Without hesitation, he said he’d begin hunting for women to rape and kill again. Had they executed LaRette quickly, they wouldn’t have afforded him the time to work through his conscience and to begin disclosing information about his past crimes. It took about ten years before he started talking at the correctional institution at Potosi, Missouri. Over the years, I made a few phone calls, trying to find someone who could get me an audience with LaRette. Richard Lee, of the Cole County, Missouri, Prosecutor’s office, was one man who frequently spoke with LaRette and had developed a trusting relationship with him.

65

I phoned Lee, who told me how he’d watched LaRette (who he referred to as Tony) carefully and had slowly won his confidence. After awhile, Lee would allude to certain aspects of a murder, and LaRette would speak in general terms about it. I didn’t like hearing LaRette referred to as Tony. It humanized him. Most of my family and many of our friends called him La Rat. I imagined institutional personnel calling him Tony. They probably called most prisoners by names that the relatives and friends of their victims would never think to use. I felt uncomfortable thinking of LaRette as more of a human being than a mad dog. Lee said that he would prompt LaRette casually to keep him talking, saying, “Hey, Tony, you see that story about the Florida case back in 78? That one’s baffled them for a long time. Was that one of yours?” LaRette would then slowly reveal things only the killer would know. According to Pat Juhl of the Pinellas County, Florida, sheriff’s office, LaRette “didn’t seem to want publicity…like other serial killers. He wanted to help, and he thought it only right to let his victims’ families know what had happened to their loved ones.” Eventually, Lee and LaRette’s conversations became more specific, until they led to aspects of cases in Florida, Kansas, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Nebraska, Virginia, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In as many cases as they could, authorities notified the families of LaRette’s victims, lifting the burden of not knowing who had killed the young women in their lives for so many years. A Catholic, LaRette wanted to confess his sins and to clean his conscience. Lee told me that LaRette had hopped on buses and traveled around the country, raping and murdering women. Over time, LaRette linked himself to some two dozen murders and rapes in ten states. He gave accurate details of his crimes and admitted to sixteen murders in Kansas and Florida alone during the 1970s, closing the book on many unsolved murders.

66

Many emotional healings must have come out of his confessions, but soon investigators LaRette didn’t know began contacting him, and he began to talk less. He wanted to stay on death row, promising to reveal more if he could. Meanwhile, the judicial system continued to turn down his appeals. 6. Mona Lisa Smile

Several months before Mickey died; I wrecked my pea-green Ford Falcon while driving home
from the UMSL campus, where I was studying for my degree in biology. The light was red as I sat in a left turn lane. I’d been sitting for about ten seconds when I heard the sound of tires screeching. It was close and I knew the vehicle had been traveling fast. Someone, I thought, was going to get creamed. I glanced in my rearview mirror in time to see a car slam into the back of mine, which pushed my car into the car in front of me. The shock of the impact drove me backward in my seat and wrenched my back. After a few moments, I realized that I wasn’t seriously injured, so I kicked the buckled door several times and it opened. The man in the car in front of me was also getting out and appeared unhurt. I thought I was OK, but when I started walking toward the car that had rear-ended me; I began to stagger, holding my arms out for balance as if I was teetering on a tightrope. An African-American man was sitting behind the wheel, wiping a red mechanic’s cloth around his watery eyes. The cloth was soaked and the man’s hands were shaking. “I’m fine. I’m sorry, man,” he said. “Are you OK?” “I’ve been better,” I said. “What’s wrong? Do you have glass in your eyes?” I hadn’t noticed

67

that his windshield was still intact. “No. I got acid in them. Is this the way to the hospital?” “The hospital is the other way—but you can’t drive like that,” I said. “I know, I know. I got this shit in my eyes and I ran out of the shop. I can’t see,” the man said. I heard sirens in the distance, and an ambulance arrived shortly. A few minutes later, the man (whose name was Ray) was on his way to the hospital. A cop also showed up and took insurance and license information. The rear end of my car looked like an accordion, but I was able to drive it home. Someone once told me that green cars are the most likely to be rear-ended. They apparently register as grass to the unconscious minds of other drivers and become invisible, especially in suburbs and in the country. White cars suffer a similar fate in snow-covered terrain, while brown cars blend in with the earth tones of fall, but the color green blends in with grass, which is present to some extent in all seasons except winter. So it turned out that my car might as well have been shouting “Hit me” to the traffic behind me. I wondered if Ray might have seen me more clearly if my car had been red or yellow. Miraculously, Ray suffered no permanent injuries. Whatever he had splashed into his eyes had stung, but was ultimately harmless. Since the car was still drivable, I bought new dining room furniture with the money Ray paid me for the damages. About month later, I was feeling better and stopped by Mom’s one Saturday. Mom was living on Oak Street, only four blocks away from the plot of ground where we’d bury Mickey two years later. Before I left, I spent some time playing piano with Mickey. We searched for the nasal trumpet sound Dad used to make each time he withdrew a grey, wadded handkerchief from his back pocket and blew his nose—it was a G natural. I asked Mickey to play “Heart and Soul” with me. She was just at the age when she was

68

beginning to lose interest in the piano, but Mom and Dad still kept it around. “Heart and Soul.” That song title means so much more than the innocent notes we played so many times, laughing amid the rising irritation of our siblings. Now that title only serves as a reminder that I lost a piece of my heart and a part of my soul. We all did. As I left Mom’s house that Saturday morning, Mickey followed me as far as the front porch. I had parked my wrecked grass-green Falcon across the street. The front bumper, bent downward from the impact, hung like an insect proboscis. Peeling paint exposed rust spots around the wheel wells, on fender creases and front headlights, and folds in the metal where the rear section had been crushed. As I pried open the driver’s door, the sound of raw metal grinding against raw metal broke the calm of the quiet morning. Mickey burst into laughter, pointed at the heap, and said, “How can you drive around in that thing? It’s the ugliest car I’ve ever seen.” I used to love watching comedians do impersonations on television. I’d practice doing them myself in the bathroom mirror, and when I couldn’t do an impression without laughing, I knew I had it down and I’d subject my family to it. My personal favorites were Ed Sullivan, Elvis, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Porky Pig, Jimmy Stewart, Edward G. Robinson, and (Joanie’s favorite) the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Each time that our family moved (seven times during my grade school years), I became the new class clown. I had a good sense of comic timing, and I could tell a joke. Mike and Joanie were my biggest fans—especially Joanie. She’d eventually reach critical mass and would beg me to stop before she wet her pants. I never met a man who laughed so hard that he peed, but apparently, that’s an issue with some women. In high school, I knew which girls were most vulnerable to my humor (I called them leakers)

69

—and they’d actually run away when they saw me in the hallway between classes. “Please stop! Stop it,” they’d beg. “I’m going to pee!” It was lovely to hear. They might as well have been saying, “You’re so talented and giving. You make me feel alive. I really like you.” Mickey was a leaker. Using humor as a way out of embarrassing situations came natural to me, so I pushed my shoulders up around my neck, adjusted an uncomfortable invisible necktie, and slammed the driver’s door shut. I became a used car salesman. “What, this car? Let me point out for you, if I may, beautiful lady, the many salient aspects of this unique vehicle.” I walked back and forth alongside the car and pointed out defects as if they were attributes. “First, you’ll notice the absence of hubcaps. This is a benefit we provide so you’ll never have to replace them. They’ve been pre-stolen. These patches of brown are pre-rust features. They come standard with this package.” I pulled the driver’s side door open again, sending a loud screech reverberating throughout the neighborhood. Mickey looked up and down the street, worried that a neighbor would come out and yell at me. “We’ve equipped the door, as you may have noticed, with a unique theft alarm disguised as a very loud creak. Some thieves don’t even realize they’ve set it off. Consider the urine green color. I notice that you’re a teenager. Permit me to be frank. You’ll eventually be a designated driver. Let's face it, one or two of your friends will probably throw up out the window. Well, this color will blend well with bile and the creases hide most of the chunks.”

70

Mickey stomped her feet, held her stomach, and jumped up and down on the porch. I had her! “As a safety feature, the car isn’t white, so you’ll never lose it on a snowy winter day. I see you’re concerned, Miss Prospective Car Buyer, with the rear end feature of this automobile. This is our exclusive patented pre-dent, a feature available only on our low-end, piss-green, Ford Falcon vehiclelike concept cars. You’re looking at the used car of the future.” She pressed her knees together and laughed hysterically. By the time I’d finished, I was laughing as hard as she was. “Stop, Denny, please. I’m going to pee!” She ran into the house and I drove off, still laughing as I turned the corner. As expected, my “used car of the future” brought practically nothing in trade when I bought a two-year-old, low-mileage Toyota Corolla. Chaz and I had a baby coming, and I thought it was time to get a dependable car. Mickey called a few months after Megan was born. She was trying to buy a car and needed a cosigner. Not having established credit anywhere, neither her bank nor the dealership would finance the car without the signature of someone with established credit. Chaz was against it, complaining, “How can you think of doing this? We need money ourselves. We have a new baby and we need every penny.” I wanted to do something for Mickey because she had turned to me to help. She might also have contacted any her other brothers or Joanie, or even Mom and Dad—I never asked. The point was that she had asked me, and I had good credit. Besides, some of our siblings couldn’t have gotten a loan for a go-cart. Chaz wasn’t being selfish at that time as much as being practical. Summer was approaching and we could only afford one window air conditioner to cool all three rooms of our entire second-story

71

flat. The heat and humidity would be almost unbearable, and not appropriate for a pregnant woman. St. Louis levies a one percent tax on people living or working within city limits. The tax helps maintain a free public zoo and art museum, and Chaz and I had gotten through the previous summer by making frequent trips across the street and through the zoo to the museum less than a mile away. Chaz had gotten pregnant in April, and several times during the peak summer heat we had spent hours at the art museum, reading and looking at the collection of paintings and sculptures. I never did give Mickey money for a car, so she never had a chance to own one, but she came close. Dad had set aside money to buy her a car, but he ended up using it for the reward he later offered for information leading to the capture of her killer—so I still regret not helping her when she asked. I know the danger of looking back at all the “could-have-beens,” but I can’t help thinking that if I had co-signed for a car, Mickey might have gone somewhere that morning instead of hanging around the house. I know such thinking can drive a person mad, but I can’t help myself. I dwell on the image of her standing on the porch laughing and the way she used to put one hand in front of her mouth as if she is so out of control that she was about to spit up. I remember Mickey reaching for the porch railing, steadying herself with her other hand, bending at the knees, and squeezing her legs together, trying to control a fit of laughter, trying not to embarrass herself by peeing her pants—all the while looking at me with gratitude for making her feel that way. I could always make her laugh. *** Soon after Mickey’s death, everyone in the family received a 20" x 15" framed color photograph of her. She’d spent a few weeks in Arizona with a high school friend that summer. The girl’s father was a professional photographer, and during the stay, the girls talked him into taking some glamour shots for fun. Shocked by the news of Mickey’s murder, the girl’s father felt moved to give us

72

a gift. Mickey was the only subject of the photo. With both hands, she was holding onto a thick tree branch and leaning backward from the upper left-hand corner. Her hands extended out of frame and her body bisected the photo at a forty-five-degree angle. Her face was in the upper right-hand portion of the frame and her thighs extended off the frame at the lower left. The background is a blur, yet I got the impression of three open garage doors about fifty feet behind her and a road or driveway crossing directly behind, horizontally dividing the picture. Mickey was wearing a white long-sleeve cotton peasant blouse and black slacks. The wide open-necked blouse came to her shoulders. She was tan, her skin darker than I’d ever seen. Her sunbleached blonde hair dropped straight down. If she had been standing, it would have ended in the middle of her back. She was looking into the camera lens, directly at the viewer. The Arizona sunlight dilated her pupils, intensifying her stare. I was a little bothered at the time that she was also wearing lipstick and false eyelashes, but it doesn’t bother me now. My little sister was maturing. Her hazel almond eyes were confident, giving no clues as to what she was thinking. I couldn’t interpret her smile, her red lips parting just enough to give a glimpse of her white teeth. It was a Mona Lisa smile, impossible to read, which made the pose even more interesting. Since first receiving it, I’ve stared at that picture often. It wasn’t sensational, erotic, cute, or poised. She might simply have been saying, “This is me. I’m at peace with who I am” and nothing more. Unlike her school photos, in which she appeared bored or distracted, that photo presented Mickey as an enigma. She will always be that way. ***

73

The tragedy of Mickey’s death put my relationship with Chaz into perspective, as it did with everything else in my life. Our marriage had been failing before Chaz became pregnant, and we probably would have struggled on for a couple more years. Chaz had grown to hate the Midwestern weather. When we divorced, she insisted upon returning to California. I could have fought her in court, but I knew she needed the support of her family, and her mother and sister were there to help her adjust to life as a single parent back in California. We signed the divorce papers in October 1980. I emptied our bank accounts, which didn’t amount to much, and borrowed money from Dad. He hung around a used car lot located at an intersection where four or five roads joined a one-way circle in north St. Louis. Instead of circling prey like a vulture, Dad played poker and waited for prospective buyers to land on the lot and select a bait vehicle—one that looked sharp, was priced right, but had serious engine problems—or lean in to read the fine print on the legally-required window sticker warning consumers they were buying the vehicle as is. The money Dad loaned me, combined with my savings, was enough to keep Chaz comfortable for a couple of months while she settled and found a job. On the Halloween following Mickey’s death, I drove Chaz and Megan to the airport. Knowing I was doing the right thing didn’t lessen the emptiness I felt as I kissed Megan goodbye at the terminal. I was sending my ten-month-old daughter 1,600 miles away. As I walked past the baggage claim and out into the cold parking garage, I could feel Megan’s soft plump cheeks on my lips and I dwelled on the image of her blue eyes and curly blond hair. Chaz would need good transportation in Southern California. When I heard that Mike was preparing to drive there to look for work, I paid him food money—he wouldn’t take any more than that —to tow and deliver the Toyota to Chaz. With the car gone, every few months I bought or borrowed a different junker from Dad, then

74

sold some of those lemons back to him. To minimize my embarrassment when driving those cars, I named them. A big white Buick, a creamy Plymouth Valiant, and a yellow Ford Pinto became the Great White Shark, the Turbid Tuna, and the Combustible Canary. The trial was nearly a year away, and by 1 November 1980, I found myself alone in our onebedroom second-story flat overlooking busy, noisy, Highway 40. My daughter was less than a year old and too far away. I had returned home four years earlier to look after my brother’s children, but had lost track of them shortly after I came back. Less than four months earlier, Mickey had been murdered. I thought I had dealt with Mickey’s death by grieving and I felt some relief when they caught LaRette. What was there to do after that but await the trial and follow it, in case something went wrong? There was nothing I could do but wait. I tried to brighten the kitchen of my flat by painting it orange with yellow trim—but it looked ridiculous, like a clown’s kitchen. I took some comfort in the fact I was alive and healthy. I wasn’t going to let the sadness of losing Mickey push me in the wrong direction, toward alcohol or drug abuse. I could always go for a beer with my friend Tony. He drank responsibly. We spent several nights with talk of art, politics, and occasionally a little religion. Tony was a devout Catholic, and I didn’t want to take him too deep into my break with the Catholic church, so I limited talk about that part of my past, afraid it would interfere with our relationship. With Chaz and Megan gone, I was getting lonely. In mid-December, my former next-door neighbor, Anne Gantner, called. She invited herself over, which I thought was dangerous, since I was lonely and vulnerable and I might do something stupid. Anne was attractive and personable—but she was also married. What if I made a pass at her? She assured me we’d be safe and came over one evening.

75

We had a glass of wine and talked. Anne explained that she had male friends and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize her marriage. When she left, I thanked her for the conversation and she stopped me as we walked to her car. “By the way, Pat Bucciero asked about you,” she said. “Really? Tell her I appreciated her coming to the funeral,” I said. “Of course.” “Now there’s an interesting woman,” I said. “Interesting. Is that all?” “OK, she’s intelligent and attractive, too.” “Yeah! She’s my best friend, so I’m biased.” “She’s really something.” “Do you mind if I give her your number?” I assured Anne that I didn’t mind, but I really didn’t think that Pat would call. Patricia Bucciero was cultured, probably too cultured for me. Born in Canada, she had moved to Rome, where she attended the only French-speaking high school there. (Like her mother, a Canadian, Pat spoke fluent French, English, and Italian.) Her father, a consul for the Italian government, had transferred to St. Louis with its large Italian community. Anne and Pat had become friends while in college. Pat had received her Master’s degree in English in St. Louis and was teaching English at an all-girl’s catholic school. Pat called and I met her at Anne’s house one afternoon. She charmed me with her wit, shoulderlength brunette hair, and mysterious dark eyes. She was twenty-two and every bit as refined in her mannerisms as she was refined in her speech. I figured she wouldn’t want anything to do with a thirtyyear-old working class divorcee still a year away from his B.A. in Biology. It wasn’t the first nor the

76

last time I would be wrong about a woman. I thought I was in love with Pat. For the first time in my life, I longed to be with someone all the time. We were a natural. Our interests in art and film were in synch, and we could spend hours discussing a book, film, or play. We read John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and then saw the movie, with Meryl Streep in the role of the complicated, sensual femme fatale. That afternoon, Pat and I made love in a passionate, erotic way I had never experienced before. We ran dizzy and giggling one afternoon from a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum. She introduced me to my favorite novel, Fifth Business, by Roberson Davies, with whom I would correspond and meet years later. Pat’s fashion sense drew attention to her and she took pride in putting together inexpensive articles to make ensembles that looked as if they’d come from an expensive boutique. We eventually decided to live together, and I moved into her apartment. For nearly two years, my infatuation with Pat blurred my thoughts about Mickey. *** Friday, August 7, 1981, a sunny afternoon like the Friday afternoon Mickey died, LaRette sat at the front of the courtroom in the heavily guarded Warren County courthouse, forty-five miles west of St. Charles. Unlike the snake-like Medusa hair, we had seen in his mug shot, LaRette's hair was short. The superficial scar around the base of his neck had healed, leaving no trace. Like a veteran actor waiting to go on stage, he gazed out into the audience and actually seemed to be enjoying the attention. I made a two-hour round trip each time I went to Warrenton—but I can’t recall any of them. LaRette was already a suspect in seven murders in and around his hometown of Topeka, Kansas, and in the murder of Mrs. Tracy Miller, a judge’s wife, in Manhattan, Kansas, on November 2,

77

1978. The patterns were similar. There were no signs of a forced entry. The killer had followed Mrs. Miller home, stabbed her sixteen times in the chest, and raped her. Then he had cut her throat and left her lying dead—while her fifteen-month-old daughter roamed unattended upstairs. LaRette’s wife, a woman whose life had to have been in constant turmoil, said that on the day Mrs. Miller was murdered LaRette had come home with a towel wrapped around his hand, which had been cut and was bleeding profusely. After viewing the design on towels found in the Miller home, Mrs. LaRette identified it as the same design on the bloody towel that her husband had burned a short time later. Two women who had been raped in Manhattan, Kansas, described a similar mark on the leg of the man who had raped them—and their descriptions matched a birthmark on LaRette’s leg fit. A motel receipt placed LaRette in St. Charles ten days before a murder that local police were pursuing. Someone had stabbed a forty-three-year-old woman, Patricia Modglin, eleven times in her bedroom and had then burned her apartment. LaRette sat at the end of a long table in front of the judge’s bench. Though I sat near the back of the courtroom, I could clearly see the profile of his face. Everyone could see his reactions to the exchanges between his defense attorney and the prosecutor. LaRette had a theatrical face with large expressive features. He listened, commenting with a shrug or a leer. Once again, society was victimizing him—and attitude he maintained throughout the proceedings. According to a statement submitted to the court by LaRette’s mother, Gertrude, he had been upset recently when he found his wife with another man in the backseat of a car. The prosecution ridiculed the statement as an attempt to gain the jury’s sympathy. LaRette’s hitchhiker story fell apart easily. Anyone else would have called the police or an ambulance to help the poor girl. Why hadn’t he?

78

The prosecutor showed the jury diagrams of the exterior and interior of Mom’s apartment, saying, “He didn’t come in there just to kill her. He cut her throat, tore her clothes off, and stabbed her twice in the chest as she was trying to get out the door.” A medical expert testified that Mickey would have bled to death from either chest wound. Friday, August 14, 1981, the judge instructed the jury about the requirements for a verdict. Specific guidelines differentiated various types of murder convictions: second degree, first degree, and capital. The jury deliberated a little over an hour and then returned with the first of its two decisions— guilty of capital murder. That was my verdict. LaRette’s face took on a pale hue. For the first time, he looked afraid. I could feel a weak sense of relief working its way through my dulled senses. A capital murder conviction could have only one of two outcomes. LaRette would either receive life with a minimum of fifty years before consideration for parole, or death in Missouri’s gas chamber. A death penalty must meet Missouri’s provision that “the offense was outrageous and wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that it involved torture or depravity of the mind.” At minimum, LaRette would get life and would be out of circulation until he was eighty. His life would be over, and that was good enough for me. The jury was instructed how to decide the second phase—life imprisonment or death—before they left the room. We filed out and waited out in the fresh air on the courthouse steps. It didn’t take long. Just over an hour later, we entered the courtroom, where we saw LaRette, reserved and expressionless, sitting up straight in his chair. I took a seat even farther back in the room. The trial had exhausted me. It had exhausted us all. The jury entered, and as they delivered the verdict—death—a loud “Yes!” broke through the

79

outburst of excited voices. I recognized it as Joanie’s voice. It contained anger and justification. It was her verdict, and I knew she’d finally be able to sleep from that moment on. I envied her. LaRette buried his face in his arms and cried. Someone later said that he also mumbled something about suicide. A final sentencing date would be set later. Dad said he was considering giving the $5,000 reward to investigators. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter interviewed Mom and Dad about LaRette’s sentence. Later, the headline read “Victim’s Parents Differ Over Death Penalty.” Quotes from both Mom and Dad appeared in the article. Dad had dropped his “animals in the jungle” metaphor and used a poker analogy, instead. “Actually, it’s too good for him. He got what his hand called for.” Mom held a different view saying, “I feel very sorry for him. I didn’t want him to die. I’m going to pray for him.” I didn’t get the relief Joanie and most of my siblings and friends got from the verdict. It reached my ears with no reaction. The guy was sick. They’d already decided to put him away for life. He’d never again kill or rape another woman. I didn’t have a deep-seated need to see him dead. I knew the feeling. I had carried it immediately after hearing what had happened to Mickey. Yet I had gotten rid of the hatred LaRette drew from me then because I had to. It was a wall blocking my love for Mickey. *** October 7, 1981, the day before LaRette’s final sentencing, another court sentenced his sixtyyear-old father to six months in the St. Charles County jail for trying to help his son escape in April. After denying a motion for retrial the next day, Warren County Circuit Judge Edward D. Hodge, an opponent of the death penalty, sentenced Anthony J. LaRette, Jr. to death by lethal gas. The date was set for November 16, 1981. One week later, October 14, 1981, LaRette filed an appeal, the first of the

80

more than ten appeals, petitions, and motions denied over the next fourteen years. The process is routine and delays a convicted person’s execution. I wasn’t in Warrenton for the sentencing, but I read about it in a St. Louis Globe-Democrat page-one article under the headline, “LaRette gets Death Penalty in Stabbing of Young Woman.” Judge Hodge stated that despite his own philosophy, he wouldn’t impose his own opinion on the law and it was his duty to uphold the Constitution. The article quoted him as saying, “I’m opposed to the death penalty. It brutalizes society. This person deserves it if anyone did.” The article said that LaRette’s behavior contrasted with his tears and whispered threats of suicide following the jury’s death penalty recommendation two months earlier. At his final sentencing, he became angry and sneered at the judge and the assistant prosecutor. This person deserved it if anyone did. In the picture accompanying the article, LaRette wore a dark leather jacket and a light shirt and tie. He was in handcuffs and leg shackles. His hair was shorter and trimmed and he had a mustache. Three officials led him down a stairway. A uniformed cop clutched LaRette’s right arm and a suited man had him on the left. A state trooper with sweat-stained armpits followed them. LaRette was looking down at the steps ahead of him. The article described how a reporter had tried to take LaRette’s picture, but he pulled the escorts down beside him as he lunged at the camera. I read another headline near the bottom of the page: “Raped Girl, 12, Decides Not to Have Abortion.” I wondered if they had caught that man. Was he her age or an adult? I couldn’t bring myself to read that article. It seemed as if a sickness was spreading.

PART II

81

Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves And Immortality. –Emily Dickinson

7. Jesus On Velvet

Shortly after I moved into Pat’s apartment, I met her parents. It was summer, and they were
visiting from Canada, where the Italian government, which changes like the weather, had relocated her father. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me and her mother wouldn’t stop asking me why I’d decided not to attend medical school. Pat went home that Thanksgiving, and when she came back, she told me that since I’d turned down two of her marriage proposals, it was time to test the strength of our relationship. She said we each needed our own space, which I took as the first big step toward a breakup. I moved out of Pat’s apartment and into a dreary one-bedroom flat in the city. I imagined Uncle Bud wandering through the place, unaffected by the ugliness around him. A few drops of ether had accidentally fallen into one of his eyes during a tonsillectomy when he was twelve and he’d been blind in that eye since then. The hideous wallpaper of my new flat could only have gone unnoticed by someone with poor eyesight. Brown flowers in the pattern made the background, which looked like fifty-year-old yellowed newspaper, even more depressing. Pat dropped by a few times over the next couple of weeks, but she wouldn’t stay. One night she

82

came by and cut the cord. Even though I’d known it was coming, I took it hard anyway. The most passionate woman I’d ever known, the woman I thought I was in love with, the woman who had asked me twice to marry her, finally left me alone with nothing. The next few weeks were miserable. I was in the middle of a training program for my second St. Louis Track Club annual marathon. If I could make the pace, I had been planning to try to enter the prestigious Boston marathon later that year. (The qualifying time for Boston was two hours and fifty minutes.) A year earlier, I’d run my first St. Louis marathon with no special training, running at my usual 7:22/mile pace, which had brought me to the finish line in three hours and twelve minutes. For Boston, I’d have to shave off twenty minutes, which I felt was in reach. I began running six to fourteen miles nearly every morning and could cover ten miles in an hour, but when Pat dumped me, all that changed. I started smoking and having more than a few drinks with friends after work. Running got more painful each day, so I made a ridiculous decision for the upcoming St. Louis marathon. I’d blow out the first ten miles in one hour, and after that, I’d pull back and run the next sixteen miles at just under seven minutes per mile. My strategy worked for the first ten miles, and I felt like a champion running not at the top of the herd, but damn near it. By thirteen miles, the halfway point, the effort had exhausted me. I jogged, walked, and sat. I was just walking off the course to quit when another runner patted me on the back and encouraged me to keep going. We were only a mile from the finish line. Before the breakup, Pat had promised me she’d be there—and she was the only reason I finished. My pace was a minute slower from the previous year, so there would be no Boston. Somewhat to my surprise, Pat was waiting for me. She congratulated me briefly and then left me standing among a crowd of exhausted runners.

83

For some time after our breakup, I’d been showing up unannounced at her front door, even though she had asked me to stay away because many of my visits embarrassed her in front of her friends or family. She never let me in, despite my begging and, sometimes, weeping. On my last visit, I gave her the medal the track club had given me for finishing the marathon. She thanked me and went back into her apartment. Before she’d even closed the door, I could see how quickly she re-engaged in conversation with a group of friends. She smiled as if I’d been some non-threatening stranger at the wrong apartment or she’d just picked up the mail. *** A friend at work told me to pick up a copy of the March 1982 issue of True Detective Magazine. He said there was an article titled “The Naked Beauty and the Berserk Knifer.” It was about Mickey. “Look for the issue with the cute woman in a sexy pose hanging from a metal stairway,” he said. On my way home from work, I stopped in for a newspaper at a busy convenience store. I wanted to show the article to my family and get the shock out of the way in private before any of them came upon it unexpectedly. Not wanting to rush in like a vulture and grab the magazine, I casually entered the store. There it was, between the tabloids and pulps, on display with all the other secondrate rags. Block-lettered captions such as: “Hog-Tied,” “Rape Victim,” “Homicide,” “Killed By Her Lover,” “Crime Shocker,” and “Murder” surrounded the magazine’s cover photograph like the discount tags that cheapen bottles of perfume or liquor. They were selling violence spiced with sex and degrading people—especially women. They had staged the cover photo to make the scene less off-putting. A blonde model in her late teens or early twenties clung to the railing of an exterior fire escape not more than six feet above the

84

ground. Her hair neatly trimmed, she posed with her red pumps planted on the landing in a kind of hanging squat. With her knees higher than her ass, the hem of her short dress gathered at the crotch, revealing as much leg as possible for PG-13. She stared out at me, her green eyes pleading, but with just a hint of desire. A man wearing a police officer’s hat and a blue short-sleeve shirt was grabbing her waist with his right hand and positioning his left to catch her butt when she let loose. He was supposed to be offering to help her down. I flipped through the pages and found Mickey’s senior photo—the same picture had haunted all of us during the two-week hunt for her killer. It showed up in the newspapers and again every evening on the six and ten o’clock news programs. I never liked that picture. Her long dishwater-blonde hair began straight and then billowed around her shoulders, making makes her face appear chubby. Her broad smile and intelligent eyes were absent and she was smiling indifferently at something or someone off-camera. Had she been upset that day? I would never know, but at that moment, I was looking her picture in a magazine directed at criminal behavior voyeurs. My sister-in-law used to read True Detective. I’d find them lying around my brother’s house and read a few articles. The crime scene details were explicit and always made me queasy. Seeing my little sister in a magazine like that put a knot in my stomach. I considered stealing the rag rather than paying the $1.25 to keep it in business, but I bought it. The article turned out to be remarkably accurate, which was a surprise. I’d always thought those magazines faked their stories. Although their stories were supposed to come from real crime records, I’d always believed that publishers paid writers to dream up the scenarios, changing a couple names and occupations. To my surprise, the story laid out the incidents and details of Mickey’s murder exactly as they had happened. The article described how investigators interrogated more than seventy people, including friends, co-workers, teachers, and classmates, and had arrived at the conclusion that

85

Mickey “was bright, attractive and popular, a woman without enemies, with everything to live for.” The article also showed one photograph of Mickey I’d never seen. She was lying where she died on our neighbor’s concrete front porch and was wearing medical anti-shock trousers, balloon-like pants that had been inflated to squeeze the blood from her lower extremities to her head to prevent oxygen loss in her brain. Her bloody feet were sticking out of the pant legs. Blood smears stained every part of the exposed concrete. I could see a tank for gas to inflate the pants in the foreground, and five men kneeling or squatting around her, trying to save her life. A man in the left foreground was adjusting knobs on a control box that regulated the pants. On the right, obscuring Mickey’s face, a paramedic was pressing down on her chest, trying to keep her heart pumping blood. Another man in the left foreground was tightening a belt on the anti-shock trousers. A stethoscope dangled from the neck of a man reaching into a medical bag in the background. The only person not wearing a paramedic shirt, the only man not busy, was squatting between the medical bag and the control box for the pants. He was wearing a white shirt and, although just a foot from the body, he was looking directly into the photographer’s camera, staring right at me. He was probably a detective staying out of the way, perhaps hoping that she’d say something that could give him a lead. The look on his face said, “She’s not going to make it.” Mom wanted to sue the magazine publisher, so I called a cop I had worked with during the hunt for LaRette. He said it was a matter of public record, and we couldn't do anything about it. He suggested that we drop the idea. ***

86

Everyone in the world outside my apartment seemed to be enjoying life and if not happy, at least content. They were busy running errands and fulfilling their missions in life. They had a purpose, but I felt dead and stayed inside where I was safe, smothering amid the rust-colored wallpaper, which began peeling and emitting an odor that, as I microbiologist, I recognized as mold. The lack of furniture made the apartment feel larger than it was—spacious and empty, just like me. At night, the old darkened hardwood floor made me feel as if I was standing in a void. Nothing was funny. I couldn’t be funny. An oil portrait of Pat hung on the bedroom wall. A friend of her family, a successful sculptor, had tried his hand at portraiture and Pat had volunteered. There were days when I thought it was ugly, and others when I thought it was OK—but I couldn’t seem throw it away or send it back to her. For several weeks, breakfast, which had always been my favorite meal of the day, made me sick. I usually ate big breakfasts, medium-sized lunches, and small dinners, but for some reason, breakfast had begun to disgust me. The sudden aversion was preposterous. Eggs smelled rotten. Fresh milk smelled sour and ruined my cereal. The steam from a bowl of oatmeal seasoned with butter and brown sugar made me want to throw up. Cinnamon toast tasted like gritty straw. I was losing weight. Running was boring, and taking a shower after a run failed to refresh me. I couldn’t even masturbate. Nothing interested me. Then one morning, before I’d gotten out of bed, I decided to kill myself. I knew I’d have to act fast or I’d back out. As soon as my feet hit the floor, I’d have to rush into the kitchen, grab a heavy carving knife, place the tip under the left center of my rib cage, and then, holding the handle firmly with both hands, I’d have to shove the knife as hard and deep into my heart as I could. If I hesitated, I’d blow it.

87

I jumped out of bed, ran into the kitchen, and went for the drawer containing the knife, but as I did, I ran into a familiar photo of my daughter, Megan suspended in the air directly in front of me. Where had it come from? There she was, right in front of me, her blue-green eyes, her golden hair, but she was sad. I’d never seen the picture before. It wasn’t a photo. It was an image, a mental image as clear as a photograph, hanging directly in front of my face. In my mind, I saw her growing up with the knowledge that her father had killed himself, a father she’d hardly known. I couldn’t die after seeing that image. It was a reason to live—but I knew I needed help. I was paying child support, living on my own, and still making payments on the car I’d sent to Chaz. I couldn’t afford a therapist, so I went to the V.A. hospital, fifteen minutes from work. After an interview during which I described my disinterest in eating and my thoughts of suicide, I received an appointment with a psychologist named Dennis Daley. Dr. Daley put me on a schedule of weekly visits and sedatives to relax and to help regain my appetite. I started with Valium and eventually moved to Librium. “We have to get your body healthy before we can get you emotionally healthy,” he said. Psychologists aren’t medical doctors and can’t prescribe medicine, so Daley had to get an M.D. from across the hall to write my prescriptions. The medication made me sleepy, but I became less anxious and my appetite returned. We never talked much about Mickey. Instead, we focused on my losing Pat. Why had it hurt so much to lose her? She and I had never planned to make our relationship permanent. I had turned down two of her marriage proposals. In light of all that, the fall I had taken when she dumped me, the depth of my depression, seemed far too deep. For nearly a year, I was unfocused at work and lived in a mental fog.

88

During one of my weekly visits, I entered the wrong waiting room one floor below Dr. Daley’s office. An unfamiliar receptionist greeted me, but it didn’t send up a red flag. We used temps at work all the time. She sent me to wait in a room. I’d been seeing Dr. Daley for about six months (about twenty-five visits), and I’d never been asked to wait before. I always went straight into his office. About ten people were waiting in the small room. I sat next to a man who needed a shave and smelled like old floor wax. A strange vagueness seemed to hang in the air. A woman in a faded blue wrinkled dress was standing near the wall, picking pieces of paint from it and closely examining them. The pungent man next to me asked if I had a light. “No,” I said. “Can you smoke in here?” He launched into a monologue, jumping from one topic to another with no correlation between subjects. He mentioned early TV shows, current events, and comic books. Had I noticed hairstyles lately? The entire time, an unlit cigarette dangled from his mouth, and he repeatedly interrupted his monologue to ask me for a light. After the sixth or seventh request, I looked the man straight in the eye and loudly and firmly said, “No!” He slowly drew back, looked at me as if I was out of my mind, pulled a cigarette lighter out of his pocket, and lit his own cigarette. I wanted to ask him if he was crazy. Meanwhile, the woman in the faded dress was kneeling and still inspecting the wall. I left the room and asked the receptionist if she would contact Dr. Daley and find out when I could see him. She looked at a scheduling chart then asked me to hang on a minute while she made a call. “Dr. Daley’s not on this floor,” she said, “but he’ll be right down.” I waited a few minutes until Dr. Daley came into the room, grinning.

89

“Those people are waiting for their monthly injections,” he said as he led me upstairs to his office. I wondered if I would end up in as bad of shape as those people. When I left that session, I took note of the stairway as I descended to ground level. It was white and nondescript. Each landing at each floor was identical. I always took the stairs. How could I have missed an entire floor? That was what I called my grey period, and I wasn’t even aware of the depth of my depression —even though an attempted suicide had initially driven me into therapy. My world was colorless. I couldn’t visit an art museum or see a film that interested me. Everything was ugly. When I tried to read a book or magazine, I’d keep starting over until I finally quit in frustration. After nearly a year of therapy, I realized that there was a link between my depression over losing Pat and losing Mickey. My relationship with Pat had replaced the missing piece of my heart taken from me by Mickey’s death. Pat had taken my attention away from the suffering of Mickey’s loss. Mickey had given the family its wholesome component. In the midst of the turmoil brought about by alcohol and drug abuse, violence and hatred, she had been an island of wholesomeness. Whenever I had a chance to say “I’m her brother,” I felt a sense of pride—not the usual emptiness, twinge of embarrassment, or shame I felt for my parents. I told Dr. Daley about my first visit home after boot camp when, for the first time, I was able to see my family objectively. The marine corps had granted me a thirty-day vacation following boot camp before sending me to a naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida, to attend an aviation school for electricians (avionics, they called it). On the way to Florida, I had stopped in Missouri to see my family. Mom had divorced Dad a year earlier. She was living in Harvester, a small town five miles from where I’d left Dad lying under a broken window five years earlier. Mom and I talked about boot

90

camp on the drive home from the airport. I’d cleaned up my act during boot camp. I was determined to make something of myself. During boot camp, I told her, I had discovered that my brain had survived the LSD, mushrooms, and other narcotics I’d taken back in the 60s. My test scores had been high in boot camp. I also told Mom that I was grateful to her for providing a home and good nutrition for me, despite her difficulties. At that moment, I was physically fit and confident in a way I’d never been before. I was proud of myself—proud to be a U.S. Marine. Mom was happy and cried for me. Later that evening, in the glow from the kitchen lights, Mom and I danced in the living room to one of her favorite songs, Anne Murray’s “Snow Bird.” She told me she was proud of me; proud of how I’d grown into a man, but I felt awkward. Something was missing. Mom loved me, but I wasn’t feeling it. I told her I had forgiven her for stealing my insurance money from a car accident six years earlier. Forgiving her seemed to be the right thing to do. Wasn’t it enough to erase six years of lies? *** The accident had happened at night. My friend Gary had lost control of his car when the brakes had failed on a two-lane blacktop country road. I could remember it clearly. We skidded out of control and slammed into a high embankment. Gary split his knee on the emergency brake handle and lost several of his teeth against the steering wheel. I smashed my right knee into the dashboard and dislocated my hip. My face broke through the windshield and tore a large section of flesh and half my eyebrow from above my left eye, fracturing the bones around my eye socket. Against doctor’s orders, I later slid out of my hospital bed and limped to the bathroom mirror. I’d always thought of myself as attractive and believed it when one of the grownups would say,

91

“There’s the cute one” when I entered a room. I was confident and had no trouble getting dates. I never had to ask girls out—they asked me. The mirror showed a tight grouping of sixty-eight stitches forming a black mass covering my left eye. I’d never again be able to close my eyelid completely. The wide scar left after they removed the stitches led to such high school nicknames as Cyclops. Six years later, after three plastic surgeries, a marine drill instructor would call me Clit Eye. Since I was a minor at the time of the accident, Gary’s insurance company had paid $10,000 to my parents. Some of the money went to pay my medical bills, but four or five grand remained. Mom and Dad decided to put it into a joint account, which would require both their signatures to draw out funds, but when it came time to make the deposit, Dad backed out. He said he didn’t want anything to do with the account if Mom was associated with it. He was trying to embarrass her, claiming that she’d spend the money and didn’t want to catch blame when she did. I asked him to sign the papers, which would prevent that from happening, but he refused. He wanted her to fail. Later, a family vacation to Mexico consumed most of the insurance money. Dad told everyone how Mom had financed the trip. I refused to participate. Except for me, Dad, and Mike (who had his own family), Mom took Mark, Kevin, Brian, Susie, and Mickey on a trip to join Joanie in El Paso, Texas. Joanie (then Mrs. Timothy Bay) was on her first marriage. Tim was in the army, stationed in El Paso. He and Joanie lived in a small house on the base. Juarez, Mexico, was a fifteen-minute drive away. Mom made several trips across the border and brought home the usual stuff, multi-colored ponchos and rugs, sombreros, and a prize possession—a portrait of Jesus on black velvet. On my sixteenth birthday, Mom drove me to the bank, withdrew $1,000 she’d managed not to spend, and handed it to me. I sat in the car thumbing though the bills in the bank envelope. I’d never

92

seen so much money. Why was she doing it? A guilty conscience? I was flunking out of high school, had no idea what I was going to do with my life, yet she had dropped a thousand bucks in my lap. I spent it on a used customized motorcycle, a gang bike someone had driven up from Florida. Dad saw me pull into the driveway on it and told Mom to buy a black dress for my funeral. I was supposed to get my hands on the rest of the money when I turned twenty-one, and right up to that day, Mom had always said she’d make good. Nevertheless, on my birthday, she said she’d lost every penny on bad investments that, for some inexplicable reason, she wasn’t able to disclose. (Joanie later told me that the bad investments had been gambling losses on horse races in Cahokia, Illinois.) I guess Mom had felt trapped and helpless most of the time and had taken my money out of desperation. She could take a family trip to Mexico—a trip with her children but without Dad. She could finally have some fun with six of her kids. Perhaps she felt that she deserved something after giving life to eight children, and she saw a chance—maybe her only chance—to grab a piece of the good life. She took that chance, and then put off paying for it for six years. As “Snow Bird” ended, Mom cried and told me she loved me. It was as close I ever got in adulthood to feeling it—and to believing that she really meant it. *** I was up boot camp early the next morning and went out for a run, which was an odd notion around our house. My youngest brother, Brian, had dived into the fitness explosion of the mid-60s, but that had been the last athletic activity in the household. None of the boys had shown any interest in playing sports beyond middle school, and Brian peaked in the seventh and eighth grade. He was the pitcher on the baseball team and then stepped right into the football season as quarterback.

93

Brian was the family’s best chance for a professional athlete, but during the summer before high school, he slid into the family paradigm of alcohol and marijuana and became the last to join the Fleming male tradition of dropping out of high school. The three girls graduated. That morning, I took off for a three-miler, running along a path near a residential construction site behind our house. About a hundred yards out, I heard someone yelling, “Wait, Denny. Hold up. I’ll run with you.” Mickey had taken a shortcut and I could see her running toward me, her dishwater-blonde ponytail bobbing from side-to-side and whipping her shoulders. She was nine at that time, and thin as a stick. “Let me catch up,” she said. “OK, but I’m not going to slow down. You’ll have to keep up,” I said. “Do you run every day?” “Usually. Once in a while I miss a day.” “Did they give you a gun?” “To a marine, it’s a weapon. Why?” “Can you shoot it any time you want to?” “I only practice. In case I have to fire it.” “Did you ever fire it at anybody?” “No, Mickey, and I’d only do that to protect someone. I’m like a policeman.” I stopped running and got down on one knee to look her in the eye. “Promise me something, OK?” “OK, what?”

94

“Anytime you ever see that Dad’s been drinking, you gotta promise me that you’ll leave the house or hide. Promise?” She nodded. I didn’t have to explain it to her. She didn’t seem disappointed that we had a father who was a drunk. She’d never known him any other way. She managed to keep up with me for about a mile. We talked about women marines and I told her that her best shot at getting somewhere would be to go to college and find a career. I was running faster than my usual pace, but I told her it was how I ran every day. When she grew tired, I told her that I had to keep going at the same pace. I was a marine, and it was part of my training. She finally gave up and went back to the house. I was proud of myself and of how fit I’d become. Mickey looked up to me. My life had a definite purpose. No one else in the family could say that. Marine corps boot camp had opened my mind, swept it clean, and filled me with so much propaganda that I had assumed a different personality. I was Private Fleming, USMC. I walked upright with purpose in each calculated step. I thought as a marine thought—all logic—marine logic. It would be months before I recognized a thought as my own.

95

8. This Is Me

Dr. Daley lit a cigarette and then offered me one, which I refused. I hadn’t smoked in months. I
began to realize that something fundamental was missing from my life. “She was like having another part of myself in the family—a better self,” I said. “You identified with her, with her potential.” “If Mickey and I were alike, she was a much better version of me.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and folded his arms. Then he leaned back in the chair and put his feet up on his desk. I had a feeling he was going to say something that was going to piss me off. “Have you ever thought about what your sister might be like if she lived to be your age?” “I figure she’d graduate from college and be a professional of some sort. Why?” “You have these wonderful feelings for Mickey, and you should have them. I don’t know whether you’ve considered that had this terrible tragedy not occurred, if Mickey had lived, what twists and turns her life might have taken.” I knew what he was getting at. Any number of things could have gone wrong in Mickey’s life. She might have succumbed to the environment around her. She might have wasted her talents. Anything’s possible in life. “I know I’m probably idealizing her, but no one knows the future. Why not imagine the best?” “Are you angry with me?” he asked. “No. Why, because you’re implying that Mickey might have turned out differently?” “Does it bother you that my name is Dennis, too?” I had never given it much thought. Of course, I had noticed that his name was Dennis. It

96

seemed absurd that he was asking if it bothered me. I started laughing. The more I looked at him, the more I laughed. He began to look like a cartoon—like a tan Elmer Fudd with hair. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m laughing,” I said. “Don’t be. I don’t care what you think of me.” “What if I quit therapy because I just didn’t like you?” “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.” Now I didn’t know what he was getting at, but it felt good to laugh. I hadn’t laughed in a long time. Instead of staying on the subject, I turned to talk of myself. “This might sound crazy,” I said. The irony of using that phrase in a psychiatrist’s office made me laugh even more. He took his feet off the desk and leaned forward in his chair. “What is it?” he asked. “What I’d really like to do is go to an island or a mountain where I can live in a Zen monastery until I discover my reason for being—my true calling in life.” “Who you are is more important than what you do. You need to explore who you are. What you want to do will come,” he said. “But that’s what I’m having trouble with. How do I explore who I am?” I asked. “Well, there’s the paradox,” he said. “You can find out who you are by exploring things you really like to do—fun things, enjoyable things.” Dr. Daley suggested that I consider doing something more practical than running off to a monastery. I told him that I’d read an article about how a person could get an idea of what they really want by imagining their success in any endeavor being magically guaranteed. Nothing that person tried could fail.

97

“What would you do?” he asked. “Something to do with acting and film—maybe comedy.” We explored several ideas. He suggested I think of it as a hobby and check some books out of the library or enroll in a class. “A hobby?” I thought. “Hobbies are for miniature train or stamp or coin collectors. I’ve never had a hobby.” “Have some fun with it,” he said. *** Following Dr. Daley’s suggestion and without a specific plan, I set out to find myself. My depression over Mickey was leading me to discover the artistic side of myself, the child under layers of physical and psychological abuse. After leaving home, I’d kept it down with drugs at first, and then with marine corps brainwashing. When I left the corps and entered the University of California, logic told me to major in science, rather than in the arts. Somewhere in my past, I had decided to read only books to improve my work or enrich me culturally, but after our talk, I began by reading books I liked instead of books I felt I was supposed to read. I read books on acting and enrolled in an acting class. I read and attended plays: Shakespeare, Sartre, Pinter, Mamet, and Beckett. I saw plays on film and I watched original films. I became interested in movies with intense psychological themes, powerful characterizations, and a strong visual language, particularly foreign and art films. I sought out the films of directors who used the medium as an art form as well as for entertainment: Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Kurosawa, Polanski, and Goddard. Overwhelmed by Apocalypse Now, I was unable to describe it to a man who stopped me in the theater parking lot and asked me if the film was any good. I fumbled for words and finally said it was a work of art—maybe

98

even a masterpiece. I saw most of my films at the Tivoli Theater, an art theater in the hip Delmar Loop area of University City. I often passed another older theater, the Varsity. Although it was only a couple of blocks west, I never saw a film there. The Varsity ran a lot of horror films, strange movies, and midnight films I’d never heard of. I was interested in film and theater that explored the boundaries of the form and the human condition. I assumed pictures like The Rocky Horror Picture Show wouldn’t appeal to me. People dressed like the movie’s characters formed long lines to see that film and to sing along in a kind of theatrical karaoke. Jesus Christ Superstar was as close to musicals as my taste got, and it was an opera. At the Varsity, the poster for the movie Eraserhead never disappeared for more than a few weeks before the film was back, scheduled for late night or midnight shows. The Eraserhead poster was a bland black and white photograph of a man in a black suit, white shirt, and a black tie. Bright white light backlit his hair teased ten inches straight up giving the impression his head was exploding. He was standing inside his own nightmare. The look on his face, partially hidden in shadow, was as if he was staring inside himself and confronting his own fear and resolute defeat. Every time I met someone who had seen the movie, they couldn’t explain it, so I finally decided I had to see it. At five minutes until midnight, there were only three or four other people in the seats as I walked through the lobby doors and into the screening room. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. With such a meager audience, I easily found a seat in the center section, about two thirds of the way back from the screen—the ideal place to sit. The theater was damp, old and in disrepair. The story and plot turned out to be simple. Henry Spencer was the walking definition of angst. His neighbor told him that a girl named Mary X had called and wanted him to visit her at her parents’

99

house, where she lived. Henry arrived, had dinner and learned Mary had delivered her baby prematurely. (Apparently Henry was the child’s father.) The child was deformed. Mary’s mother pressured Henry to take Mary and the baby home with him to his one-room apartment. The baby cried constantly, creating tension between Henry and Mary. Henry seemed to tolerate the noise, but Mary couldn’t stand it—or Henry’s indifference to her agony. Eventually, Mary deserted the child and Henry. The baby became ill and mocked Henry’s attempts to ease its misery, and he eventually killed it. Henry’s sympathetic character (portrayed in a stunning performance by Jack Nance) took the audience into a colorless neighborhood in a world held hostage by a cacophony of sounds that seemed to be telling their own story. When Henry brushed lint from his pajamas, the magnified sound seemed just as meaningful as the grinding metal, steam releases, and rumblings emanating from unknown sources in an industrial wasteland. I felt as if I was dreaming the entire experience, as if the movie had entered my head. The movie was unlike anything I’d never experienced before. Much of the film had a low-budget student-film quality, but despite what would have been limitations to a student, the filmmaker rose above them through beautiful cinematography. The filmmaker demonstrated a mastery of a sense of depth, composition, texture, metaphor, pacing, and editing—everything the medium had to offer. I experienced equal measures of horror and delight, love and hate, beauty and repugnance. The result was a masterpiece. If the film had been a painting, it could have hung in a gallery beside the works of surrealist and expressionist masters. When I left the theater, the world outside seemed to have changed. It had rained and the wet streets and buildings reflected the black night of the 2:00 a.m. sky. Streetlamps mirrored in the storefront windows vibrated with energy. I felt as if I was still inside the movie. If the director, David Lynch, could do so much with so little, I had a real chance to make films myself. Nothing had ever

100

inspired me so powerfully. At the time, I didn’t realize that I’d already seen Lynch's first post Eraserhead feature—The Elephant Man—another movie that had moved me deeply. That film had received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture. Over the years, Lynch’s work would prove what I had thought while walking home that night after seeing Eraserhead. David Lynch is an artistic genius. After several calls to universities and colleges around town, I found a class called “Sweat Dreams: Film, Freud, and Fantasy” at the Forest Park campus of the St. Louis community college system. RD Zurick taught the course. An eccentric artist and teacher, Mr. Zurick (Roy) shot and edited his own experimental films, personal non-narrative avant-garde works. He considered Eraserhead a masterpiece of surrealism and showed the film in his class. We became friends through our mutual appreciation of film as an art form. The following semester, I took Roy’s evening filmmaking class. Roy asked each student to outline a project for a Super 8mm film. Most students created music videos by editing images to a favorite piece of music, but I wanted to make a film with actors, locations, and sound. I turned in a screenplay for a fifteen-minute short homage to David Lynch, titled Mr. Dorman Lives in St. Louis. The film told a story through the eyes of a woman reflecting on her childhood. She recalled one day when she sold Girl Scout cookies to Mr. Dorman, a very strange man who lived in a noisy industrial complex. I based the main character, Mr. Dorman, on a chemist I knew at work, and a coworker, Robert Schindler, agreed to play the part. Bob had seen Eraserhead, knew the chemist I had based the character on, and understood exactly what I wanted. A woman in my department let her daughter play the part of the Girl Scout–the little girl came complete with her own uniform.

101

My paltry production budget allowed for film stock, hamburgers, and pizza for the few people involved. I shot and edited the movie, played harmonica for the sound track, and provided a voiceover. At 60 mph, I held a cassette recorder out the driver’s window of my car and recorded the rushing wind, which distorted when played loudly. It became my rumbling industrial sound effects. I collected audio samples from pieces of equipment at work: centrifuges, auto samplers, test tube vortex vibrators, and bottle shakers provided sound effects opportunities. I did everything but act in the film. A local studio transferred the film to ¾-inch production video, the kind TV stations use to capture on-the-scene news, which gave me more flexibility for final sound and picture editing. Over the next few years, Roy invited me to several film classes to screen Mr. Dorman. Two local high schools invited me to show the film and then to discuss it with students. Most people who’ve seen The Elephant Man or Eraserhead can see Lynch’s influence on Mr. Dorman Lives in St. Louis. I became a microbiologist by day and a filmmaker by night, which gave me a passion and a deep sense of fulfillment for the first time in my life. *** After I‘d cut the film and showed it at an open invitational screening at Webster University, my girlfriend at the time, Christine, urged me to apply to the Tisch School of Arts at New York University, even though my entire formal film experience was limited to one fifteen-minute student film. The thought of moving to New York terrified me, even if it meant success, but Chris had enough confidence for both of us. She had received her master’s degree in Music Performance from the University of Wisconsin, and she loved to play and teach. She had spent her elementary and middle school years in New Jersey. Her parents had recognized her musical talent and had enrolled her in a weekend music program at the Julliard School of the Arts in New York City. What do you have to lose? You don’t expect them to accept you, so why not see what

102

happens?” she said. The Tisch application required three things: a piece of the applicant’s original film (no longer than five minutes), a six-page screenplay containing one of several suggested themes (I chose betrayal), and an essay on why the applicant wanted to study filmmaking. I sent it off, thinking I’d wasted the $30 fee. The program accepted only sixty students a year—forty current applicants and twenty identified the previous year as having potential—from a pool of 500 applicants from around the world. One day, I received a letter. They hadn’t accepted me, but identified me as one of the twenty applicants who showed potential. Before the next school year, we’d have time to get ready for our move to New York. Chris found a teaching job at a prestigious school on Long Island. She’d teach and have the opportunity to gig around New York City, an artist’s paradise. I quit my job as a quality assurance microbiologist and we prepared to move to Brooklyn. One thing, though—Chris insisted that we get married. She had invested her years from high school through graduate school and beyond into her first marriage, but it had turned out badly, and she wasn’t about to support me for three years without some type of guarantee. Imperfect as marriage was, she said, it meant more to her to be my wife than just being my significant other. I understood how she felt, yet though ours was a passionate relationship, it was volatile and was destined to fall apart in a few years when my bipolar disorder kicked in, although we couldn’t have known that at the time. Even so, we were married. We argued in the car on the way to the ceremony, and I almost backed out. A month after the ceremony, Chris made another request. Since she was helping me fulfill my dream to become a filmmaker, she wanted me to help fulfill hers. Her father had died of Huntington’s disease, which meant that his children had a 50/50 chance of carrying the gene that expressed the

103

illness. Chris had waited until she was nearly forty before considering having children, an age experts said would significantly reduce the chance of her coming down with the illness. If she didn’t have the disease, her children would also be free from it. She was helping make my dream come true, so why shouldn’t I help with hers? She wanted a child and she wanted it soon to reduce the increasing risk of age-related complications. I felt honored that someone of her intelligence, accomplishments, and culture would want my child. We agreed to try, but even with a concerted effort, I figured we might not conceive for years. I was wrong. Within three months, Chris was pregnant. The move to New York became a moot point. Besides course study, a filmmaker has to make films, a collaborative effort and extremely time-consuming. I would spend any spare time helping others with their projects. If I failed to do that, who’d be there for me? It was a fulltime job. There’d be no time for a newborn. I didn’t see how I could manage it. I’d been a distance Dad to Megan, flying to California several times a year and flying her to St. Louis when she got older. I wasn’t about to be distant from my second child, so I decided to stay in St. Louis and learn to write. I felt I’d written a solid six-minute script, a betrayal-themed piece called Brian’s Lie, for the admissions writing requirement. The process of writing it opened new ways to tap into myself. I drew on experiences from different periods and relationships in my life. Writing the screenplay had been a fulfilling experience, and I thought I could stay in St. Louis and try to write a feature. Sean was born in the summer, sparing Chris some of her pre-delivery maternity leave. As a teacher, she had the summer off. She took her maternity leave during the first three months of the school year, and then returned to work. We put Sean in infant daycare two days a week and I stayed home with him the other three. I began working on a story idea for a feature film I had titled Children of the Lie. I took some film writing classes and seminars and managed to pick up a few writing

104

assignments. My previous employer contacted me about consulting on an as-needed basis. I could schedule my time as I saw fit. It was too good to pass up, and it paid well. Besides, I didn’t like having someone supporting me. Since I’d left home at seventeen, I’d always taken care of myself and couldn’t get used to producing no income. *** I was happy with my first film, but it wasn’t an original vision. It wasn't my vision. Legacy Productions, a nonprofit organization that helped local film artists obtain grants, was screening applications at that time. The money would come from other sources, but a board at Legacy decided who would receive funding. I applied for a grant for an experimental film, using my Mr. Dorman as an example of previous work. I submitted an application with a detailed shooting script for a half-hour surrealist film, Rest Room. Having seen some of the films Legacy had helped fund, I doubted that they’d select mine—a story about an attempted suicide in a public rest room. To my surprise, I received the grant. In the story, a man would enter an empty public rest room, intending to commit suicide. A man with cerebral palsy would then enter the room and need assistance. Through that interaction, the disabled man would save the suicidal man. The experience producing Rest Room was quite different from my crew on Mr. Dorman, which, not counting the actors, consisted of me. I had a makeup person, a script continuity person, a director of photography, a sound technician, about twelve people in all—a real film crew. I used every lighting technique and shooting angle I could think of to make broadcast quality video look like film. Some editing techniques involved the use of different stocks of super 8mm and 16mm film transferred to video and then edited. During the process, I realized that I was telling the story in six principal scenes. Inspired by

105

nothing more than intuition, I labeled the scenes #1 through #6 and edited the story so that it started at the end of the story, scene #6. Then, instead of working my way backward, I inserted scene #1 next. The final order of the film became: #6, #1, #5, #2, #4, and #3. That temporal reordering allowed me to put the audience into scenes unexpectedly. The suspense and tension of the work challenged viewers to put the whole story together in their minds. In that order, the story ended in the middle, when the man with cerebral palsy asked the suicidal man lying on the floor (hiding his knife), if he was epileptic. “No, but I’m OK. I’m OK now,” he said. I faded out on a freeze frame of the suicidal man. He had just lied to the man who was going to save his life—a wonderful irony the power of which would have been lost in a straightforward version. I felt that I’d produced something unique and original in Rest Room. Mr. Doorman and Rest Room ran on a local cable program, Mind Over Television, and one of the most respected film critics in town, Cliff Froehlich, reviewed them. Both reviews were excellent. I was thrilled. Mickey would be proud of me. Despite Chris’ belief in me and her support of me as an artist, we divorced when Sean was two —but I was able to maintain a closer relationship with him than with Megan. *** On my way to see Dr. Daley one morning, I suddenly began to notice color returning to the world: green leaves on brown trees, a blue sky, and cars so colorful that they looked like big toys. Dr. Daley said it was a sign that I was coming out of my depression. A month later, after a year and a half, we decided to end the weekly therapy sessions, but Dr. Daley cautioned, “It’s extremely important to remember the depth of your depression. You could easily go back there.”

106

9. Mischievous Elves

Mom never returned to the apartment where Mickey had lost her life. Mark, Kevin, Brian, and
I moved her into an apartment elsewhere in the county. The new place had room for the piano, but I let everyone know that I wanted it as soon as I found a place with enough room. Mom wanted to keep it, but told me it would be mine if something should happen to her or if she moved to a smaller place. Two years later, I got a call from Mom, saying that she was moving into a second-story flat in the city to be closer to work. I asked her if she could wait while I located a truck and a few volunteers to move the piano to my apartment. (I hate asking people to do anything for me, and especially to help me move. It’s an imposition, so I usually offer my friends money unless I know it will insult them.) I was broke when Mom called, so I told her I’d get around to it and asked her not to sell it. During the next few weeks, she asked me several times to come and get the piano. I was running out of time. “Let me know when you’ve reached the point that I absolutely have to take it,” I told her, “and if nothing else, I can put it in storage.” A few days later, Joanie called to tell me that Mom had settled into her new apartment—but there had been no piano. Mom had sold it—I just knew it. I visited Mom and saw that she had a new sleeper sofa—a fuzzy, plaid thing. “Don’t lie to me, Mom,” I said. “You bought this couch with money from selling the piano.” She began to cry and begged me not to tell anyone. She admitted that she’d sold the piano, but she refused to tell me who had bought it. “They’ll understand,” I insisted. “They’ll return the piano and take their money back. I’m going

107

to tell everybody what you did.” “No one understands. I need the money,” she said. “I don’t care what people think of you, Mom,” I said. “You knew what that piano meant to me. It wasn’t really yours, anyway. It was Mickey’s. Dad bought it for her.” I told everyone about the sale of the piano, including Dad, and a few days later, Mom called to tell me that he’d broken into her apartment and tried to beat her. He was drunk, and she beat him back down the stairs and into the street. I called Dad and threatened to put him in the hospital if he didn’t stay away from Mom. Threats were all he understood. Seeds of violence lie dormant in our family. All it took was a little moisture to make them sprout. Through both of Joanie’s marriages, she and Mom had remained close. They dined out on the weekends, saw movies, and drank together. They were the bedrock of the family structure. Mom always held Christmas Eve dinner at her place. Cousins I never saw all year showed up, usually unexpectedly. I’d smile, slip some cash into envelopes, and then hand them out as if I’d been waiting for them. Joanie always held Thanksgiving at her house. She was a great cook. It was a less open event, restricted to immediate family and ever-changing significant others. The piano incident ended all that, and neither Joanie nor Mom ever appeared at the other’s holiday gathering. Joanie deleted Mom from her vocabulary like a dirty word. No phone calls, visits, or invitations. It was harsh, but Mom deserved it, didn’t she? How could she have sold the piano? It was the most important item in my relationship with Mickey. Joanie had decided that she was finished with Mom’s self-pitying selfish behavior. Mom’s principles were nonexistent when money was involved—

108

and from that moment on, Mom was nonexistent to Joanie. “Of course she sold the piano. Haven’t you learned by now? She doesn’t care what it means to you or me. She only wanted the money,” Joanie told me one day on the phone. A year went by like that. It had been three years since Mickey’s death when Mom’s doctor diagnosed her with cancer and gave her only six months to live. She accepted the disease with humility, and I don’t believe she ever broke down about it—but Mom’s diagnosis did nothing to change Joanie’s attitude toward her. “Now she thinks everyone will pity her,” Joanie said. “Poor Millie—well, she’s not fooling me.” I tried to talk some sense into Joanie, but she wouldn’t listen. I called her one night, and though I pleaded and cried, she refused to meet with me to discuss it. “Come on. Mom’s dying,” I said. “You have this incredible gift, and you could bring real joy to her by simply walking into her hospital room. Mom’s in pain and doesn’t have long to live. Can’t you put aside the piano for that? I did.” Joanie wouldn’t budge. “She’s the ultimate martyr now. She thinks everyone will have to feel sorry for her. Well, she’s going to die without my pity,” she said. Nothing I said, nothing Bob said, nothing anyone said could change Joanie’s mind. Reduced to a physical body experiencing intense pain, Mom deserved sympathy. Someone once said that love fades, but hate lasts forever. Then it hit me. What had I done? The ugly emotions that I had let take hold of me—my anger at Mom and my desire to make her suffer for selling the piano—had led to more hatred, Joanie’s. I had told everyone about it, which had set them off in a chain reaction of hate. Joanie had exploded, and

109

Dad had found yet another reason to humiliate Mom. Brian kept bugging Mom about who she’d sold the piano to, right up to the end. I hadn’t forgiven Mom, yet I was begging Joanie to forgive her—I was a hypocrite. I moved to an apartment closer to Mom, since I’d be dropping by in rotation with Susie, Mark, and Brian. During one visit, Mom asked me to take the Virgin Mary planter off her hands. “I know you like it,” she said. “Besides, I can’t get that little plant to grow, no matter what I do. Maybe you’ll have better luck.” She was dying, but she wanted me to give life to something. “OK, Mom,” I said, “but I have a black thumb.” I’ve never given any plant the care it needed. Someone once gave me a cutting, which I kept in water. It grew well until the water turned foul and I couldn’t put up with the stink. Eventually, even minimal care was too much and I threw the reeking, rotting mass into a dumpster. Despite the fact that my degree is in biology, I skipped botany in favor of zoology and microbiology. Plants have never interested me. Chaz once decided to brighten up our apartment, so she bought a blue parakeet at a pet store. Mozart, a name the bird never lived up to, rarely flew around in his cage, but he chirped constantly. Most people thought the bird was cute. I didn’t. To me, he was like a noisy plant that shit. I took home the Virgin Mary planter and its green four-inch thin-leafed plant. I watered and fertilized it, but nothing happened. I moved it to several locations, but nothing happened, so after a couple of months, I left it on the floor near the front door and forgot about it. Some of us were concerned about whether Mom fully understood that she wasn’t going to recover. I volunteered to tell her and raised the subject one afternoon as I drove her home after a radiation treatment. She spotted a donut shop and asked me to stop and pick up a dozen for her. I

110

parked the car and decided it was time to quit avoiding the subject. Mom offered me money, but I refused. I couldn’t look at her. “I have to tell you how serious this is, Mom,” I said. “I know how serious it is, Denny,” she said. Of course it was serious. No cancer is funny. She opened her purse and pulled out a tissue dispenser about twice the size of a matchbox, a plastic bag with a miniature blue logo. She pulled a tiny white tissue from a slit in the top of the bag and soaked up the tears at the bottom of her eyes. She said something about splitting a dozen donuts and told me what kind she wanted, but what I heard in my mind was that dreaded word. I knew it had to come out—but I also knew that once it was out, it wasn’t going to go back in. “What are you waiting for?” she asked. “Mom, do you understand what’s going to happen after the treatments?” I asked. I still could not bring myself to say the word. Mom offered me a tiny tissue, but it would have been useless, so I used my shirtsleeve. “I know I’m still going to be sick for a while,” she said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. She really wasn’t getting it. She still seemed to be more concerned about getting donuts. “How long do you think that’s going to be, Mom?” “I know it’s terminal, Denny,” she said softly. She’d finally said it. She’d let it out—terminal. Yet strangely, nothing had changed. Mom apparently couldn’t see the correlation between the end of her therapy and the end of her life. “Get the donuts,” she said. “We’re just sitting here.” “It means it’s going to kill you, Mom—soon—within months.”

111

Mom looked up through the veil of tears covering her eyes. Then her eyes met mine, and I could see that she wasn’t sobbing. Instead, her words carried conviction and joy as she said, “I’m not afraid, Denny. I’ll be the first one to see Mickey.” I didn’t fall into her lap as I had the day we buried Mickey, but I became again that confused little boy inside, crying for my Mommy. I thought I was going be the strong one during that difficult conversation, but I turned out to be the one who was unable to handle the power of the emotions involved. Mom patted my shoulder gently as I wiped at the tears streaming down my face. “Go on,” she repeated. “Get the donuts.” “I’m sorry, Mom,” I said. “I can’t go in there like this.” “Ah, hell,” she said, snapping shut her purse as if that act put an end to any further discussion, “if anyone says anything, tell them you have a cold.” How incredibly strong she was! I was thirty-four, but she still saw me as her child. Mom understood everything—and she was at peace with it. She hadn’t been shrinking from the truth as we all had thought. She had faced it gracefully and let it make her wise. I entered the store, armed with my cold alibi. During Mom’s six-month battle with cancer, she refused to talk to Dad. They’d argued over something shortly before her diagnosis, and she’d told him to stay away and to stop harassing her about the piano. Amazingly, Dad had accommodated her wishes. “The next time I see you, you’ll be in a coffin,” he’d told her as they parted. As her treatments progressed, Dad called her one day and Mom told him, “Remember what you told me about the next time you’d see me? Well, I’m going to make your wish come true, Joe.”

112

She spent her last few weeks in a hospital, but she made sure to tell the staff that Dad was dangerous and not to let him see her. He tried to call and tried to get me to persuade Mom to see him, but she resolutely refused. Susie called one Saturday morning. She’d been with Mom when she died at about 2:00 that morning. Susie and Joanie had worked in various nursing homes and had seen many people die. “It’s something you don’t want to experience if you don’t have to, Denny,” Susie said. As my post-Pat girlfriend, Lori, and I were leaving my apartment to make Mom’s funeral arrangements later that day, I stopped at the front door and glanced at the Virgin Mary planter. Lori followed my eyes to the unremarkable four-inch-plant as I said something about how Mom was finally where she wanted to be—with Mickey. Lori gave my arm a comforting squeeze and we left. Unpleasant as it was, I walked through the wake and burial particulars with little emotion. It evoked the agony of making Mickey’s arrangements three years earlier, but in Mom’s case, it was effortless, because we’d all known she was dying. She’d arranged for a burial plot next to Mickey. Joanie didn’t attend the funeral. Dad got his wish of seeing Mom in a coffin, but he paid a heavy emotional price. A friend of mine from work saw him in the funeral parlor and asked, “Denny, who’s the old man sitting in the lobby? He looks sick. He’s awfully pale.” “That’s my father,” I said. *** Before Mom’s funeral, Lori and I entertained several family members: Brian and his wife, Diane, and Susie and her husband, John. We had a few drinks and talked about everything, it seemed, except Mom. Lori was sitting next to me on the couch when she seized my arm, shook with fright, and pointed at the planter.

113

“Look over there!” she said in a trembling voice. The others were unaware of my history with the plant. Susie turned around, took a slow drag off her cigarette, and said, “Hey, you finally got that thing to grow. What’d you do to it, Denny?” Lori wrapped her arm around mine, I towed her from the couch over to the planter, pointed to the foot-long stems, and two-inch broad leaves. I made a four-inch spread with my forefingers and said, “This plant was only this tall on Saturday morning.” The room glowed with the same soft white light I’d seen when my daughter’s mobile had spun that day so long ago. I could feel Mom’s presence—the way she finger-twirled her hair and chewed ice cubes while she read, the way she stoked a cigarette like a furnace before putting it down. Through that little plant, I knew that Mom was telling me she was finally with Mickey—and it filled me with an indescribable sense of calm. Lori, on the other hand, was far from calm. The rest of the night, she kept waking me up to talk, to hold her, or to escort her to the bathroom. We were less than two years into our relationship at that time, and suddenly a ghost had entered our home—one she wasn’t as familiar with as I was. I kept thinking of something Mom had told me at the donut shop: “I’ll be the first one to be with Mickey.” That little plant had been the second spiritual event associated with Mickey’s death. That afternoon, I took the planter to Mom’s funeral service. Dad told the priest about the plant’s miraculous growth spurt, but the priest wasn’t impressed. In the scheme of miracles, I suppose it was insignificant. I set the planter beside Mom’s casket and glanced at it occasionally, paying little attention to the

114

service. Instead, I concentrated on my positive memories of Mom. I remembered Mom drawing me out of warm, milky bath water and standing me on a furry toilet lid, wrapping a fluffy white towel around me, and squeezing my warmth into it while I floated in her hug. I remember that she smelled like peaches. She wiped me dry, patting me all over, and then ruffled the towel through my hair. I felt all aglow and loved. Her red lipstick had smeared from kissing me. She told me I had the most beautiful blue eyes and soft skin. I heard the gurgling of the draining bathtub, a soft, shallow sound changing to a deep, hollow echo before becoming silent. Somewhere along the line, I’d lost sight of Mom’s simple, good-natured spirit. When we still believed in Santa Claus, she created magic for us each year between Thanksgiving and Christmas—her baking season. She filled the house with the aroma of butterscotch, vanilla, and chocolate. On pie crusts, on the tops of cookies, and in the icing of Mom's cakes, we found footprints of tiny elves. Santa's helpers, Mom said, tiptoed around during the holidays, watching, evaluating, and keeping score on us before reporting back to Santa. Only adults could see them. We’d occasionally hear Mom talking to someone in the kitchen, and then she’d yell, "Hurry up, kids, an elf is stuck in the icing. Quick, before he climbs out of the bowl! Hurry!" We’d dash into her warm kitchen, but always too late. “Oh, you just missed him,” she’d say, frustrated that we always arrived too late, but there in front of us, we could see the evidence—tiny tracks in the dark chocolate icing at the bottom of the mixing bowl. We’d trace the little smudges of icing up the wooden ladle to the bowl's edge, where they’d disappear. "Look in the flour,” Mom would say. “He jumped down there." We’d then track the little marks through the white flour along the Formica countertop until they

115

vanished. That was where the elves mounted their invisible sleighs before they flew away, according to Mom. "Did you feel anything, like a wind against your face?” Mom would say. “That would have been his sleigh passing by.” I could feel that tiny wind on my face, so slight that it had to be an elf sleigh. We ate cookies that had tiny chunks missing, for which Mom apologized. Apparently, the elves couldn’t resist her cookies, either. Mom countered any serious probing into the authenticity of her stories by bribing us with icing-slathered spoons or bowls. Our reward depended on how we behaved and how the elves had evaluated us, which kept our questions to a minimum. They were elves, and elves were mischievous, but they had a job to do. Once, Mom brought me a sugar cookie and asked, "Denny, tell me if you think this tastes OK." I spit it out, saying, "It tastes bad! It’s salty." Apparently the little sneaks had put the salt in the sugar bowl and sugar in the saltshaker, so we had to set things right again. I heard Mom telling the elves that they’d have to stop playing tricks on her if they wanted any more cookies, pies, or cakes. The holiday season was Mom's special time. It was her chance to give us a real childhood and to help us forget the one Dad always took away when he arrived, sending us into hiding. When I finally realized that elves didn’t exist, I understood that inventing them was Mom’s way of showing her love for us. *** When they met, Dad was attracted to Mom’s long brown hair and lean body. She realized she’d made a mistake shortly after they married, but she couldn’t leave him. As a union electrician with an

116

excellent blue-collar salary, he provided good income for the growing family—when he worked. She couldn’t go against her faith and file for a divorce. The Catholic Church wouldn’t allow it. Mom was a more devout Catholic than Dad was. She attended mass, honored holy days, and took the sacraments. Early on, she encouraged Dad’s participation in services as well as the church’s picnics, fundraisers and other events, but later, she tried to dissuade him. He occasionally attended church anyway, just to annoy her, and it was an embarrassment to us, as well. He never sat with us, which was something good, I suppose. Instead, he’d find a seat in the back row, where he’d smoke cigarettes and irritate everyone around him. During one Christmas evening service, we heard him arguing with a man at the back of the church. “Put that cigarette out,” the man said. Dad was drunk and wearing one of his tattered, graying T-shirts. Mom had tried to throw them away many times, but he insisted on wearing them. Dad began to waving his cigarette, mimicking the priest dispensing incense vapors. He continued to swing his cigarette back and forth like a pendulum until Mom couldn’t stand it any longer. She kept her watering eyes aimed at the floor, gathered us up and we left. After that, she hounded him to stay away from the church, and eventually he did. It didn’t make sense that Dad would drop to his knees at the side of his bed every night to pray. Despite his drunkenness, violence, and pride in his ability to con people, he still held strong beliefs about Jesus and the Virgin Mary. When he was drunk, we could literally hear him hit the floor. He prayed every night until the final months of his life, when he could no longer kneel. By the time I was in my teens, I’d lost respect for Mom. I could never understand why she stayed with a man who beat and humiliated her in front of her children. She rarely stood up to him and

117

when she did, she paid for it with bruises and broken bones. Joanie later told me that Mom finally found a priest who told her what she needed to hear—yes, divorce was a sin, but Jesus had died for our sins and God would surely forgive a woman who divorced her husband to escape the repeated beatings and humiliations that were tearing her family apart. We never respected Dad. We feared him. *** Dad used to have a specific expression for when he wanted to emphasize that he was telling the truth—or in his case, not exactly lying. He’d place his right hand on his heart, raise his left hand and exclaim, “Hand to god!” In Dad’s case, that phrase was short for “May the Almighty strike me dead if I’m not telling the truth.” Invoking God was supposed to validate his words—after all, he was risking his life on their veracity. He used that expression every time he talked about his visions—personal and private appearances by the Virgin Mary. She never spoke during her brief visits, but her presence always reassured him that he’d emerge unharmed from whatever bind he was in at that moment. As often as Dad got himself in trouble, I think he probably saw her a lot. Nonetheless, after Mom died, the Virgin finally spoke to Dad, telling him that the next time he saw her would be during his last moments on Earth. Over the years, Dad had built several brick-and-concrete shrines housing two-foot-high white Madonna statues, arms at their sides and palms facing forward in acceptance, but two weeks after Mom’s funeral, he had a massive heart attack while building another one—and it nearly killed him. Dad underwent sextuple bypass surgery. They removed six arteries from his legs and grafted them into his heart. At the hospital, I asked if he’d seen the Virgin during the attack. He hadn’t, so he wasn’t worried. He recovered exceptionally well and then battled prostate cancer for a decade before it finally killed him. He was five years older than Mom, but outlived her by ten years.

118

*** Two weeks before Dad passed away, he told Mark, in whom he placed his trust, that each of us would receive $10,000 upon his death, except Joanie. Dad had cut her out of his will because she’d refused to reestablish her friendship with Mom. Mike would receive $30,000—his share, plus Joanie’s share, plus what Mickey would have received. When Mark told me about the money Dad was going to leave us, I laughed. The old man was proud of his accomplishments as a con man. Even when he lost, he loved to play the game, and he’d cheated me in the past, so why would I believe anything he said? He was always cheating someone. I needed a car once, and Dad had tried to sell me a car at what he called a reasonable price. He forgot that I had sold that same car to him a year earlier for practically nothing, since he’d told me that his mechanic had said the engine block was cracked and the car was worthless. Occasionally, though, Dad had tried to do the right thing. Shortly after I resumed my studies at UMSL, I ran desperately low on cash. The VA had lost track of my school benefits during my move, which I mentioned to Dad one afternoon at a barbeque being hosted by a friend of Dad’s who was trying to get him to help distribute porno films. Dad asked me to drive him to the bank. It was a hot day, so I went into the bank with him, where he withdrew eight hundred dollars (a couple of months’ worth of VA checks). On the way back to the car, he handed me the cash and said, “Here, Denny. My eyes are getting bad. Count this.” I counted the cash and then offered it back to him, but he refused to take it. “Keep it,” he said, “and pay me back when you get the VA money.” “I can’t take this. I don’t know when I’ll get the VA thing straightened out,” I said. “If you don’t

119

take it back, I’m going to throw it out into the parking lot.” “Go ahead,” he said, “but I’m not picking it up. You’ll just be wasting money.” I took the money and started repaying Dad at $40 a month. Several months later, I dropped by Brian’s one Saturday, where all my brothers were present. I offered Dad that month’s $40, but I guess he had decided to teach us a lesson. With pomp and bravado, he made an announcement, saying, “Hey, boys, listen. Denny has been faithful to his word. He’s been giving me the money he promised each month, true to his word—so I’m forgiving the rest of his debt. Denny, you don’t owe me anything more.” I thanked him, but when I tried to refuse his offer, he insisted—but so did I and continued to pay him until I ran into financial trouble again. Then I stopped. *** I was visiting Dad one afternoon when our conversation turned to Mickey. Dad’s face reddened and he started coughing. He drew his wadded handkerchief from his back pocket, snapped out its wrinkles, and hacked into a week’s worth of nasal residue. I knew the routine. He blew each nostril like a trumpet, and then blew a second time into the mess. If you closed your eyes, you could picture a pressure cooker releasing steam. Then he swiped the cloth side-to-side across both nostrils. We used to scatter like minnows when Dad pulled out his booger rag. Dad took me to the basement, where he pulled a green plastic box down off a dusty shelf. The box was about a foot long, about five inches tall, and seven or eight inches wide. "Here, take this,” he said. “I don't need it anymore.” The box was crammed with some forty newspaper clippings from local publications. He had apparently cut out anything about Mickey or LaRette from the Saint Louis Globe-Democrat, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Saint Charles Journal, and the St. Charles Post. He had no idea that I would

120

one day write a book about Mickey's death. All he knew was that cancer was winning the battle—so he was cleaning house. The articles dated from the day of the murder until after LaRette’s trial and conviction. The headline in the last clipping, dated October 11, 1989, read “Murderer Will Not Be Extradited.” The article focused on LaRette’s admission to the 1978 killing of Tracy J. Miller, a Kansas judge’s wife. I remembered how word of that confession had spread through my family. The victim’s family lived in the St. Louis area. Should one of us contact them? The Kansas attorney general had determined that the cost and emotional trauma to her family would have been too great. Tracy had a fifteen-month-old toddler when LaRette killed her. By the time of the article, that little girl was twelve, had a new mother, and was unaware of the circumstances of her biological mother’s death. I often thought about contacting Tracy’s family. Maybe I could bring them some further healing or something—I didn’t know. The comfort they got from LaRette’s capture had come by way of Mickey’s death. Did they want to say something to my family? After thinking about it, I decided it was too big of a risk. I might have brought up too much pain, so I never tried to reach them. When I saw the contents of Dad’s box, it felt like something I was supposed to have—reference material that I’d be able to use someday—and I was right. There was a point during the writing of this book when I needed some very specific information. Having sifted through my own memories as much as I could, I cleaned off the kitchen table, opened the box, pulled out the articles, and put them into order by date. I learned a lot from those clippings—things I’d forgotten, things I’d gotten slightly wrong, and things I hadn’t known before. For instance, LaRette had changed clothes on the day of the crime, but they ruled out the blood obtained from his jeans in Kansas. For some reason, perhaps poor sampling,

121

they said it was irrelevant. They also ruled out testimony from a forensic blood chemist with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, even though the blood matched Mickey’s—a rare blood type shared by less than one percent of the population. I also learned that in his closing arguments, the prosecutor had asked for the death penalty, saying that LaRette "was tearing her clothes off while he was cutting her throat and stabbing her in the chest. The way the defendant killed Mary Fleming that day was horrible. He didn't take it easy on her." LaRette had eventually become the twelfth convicted killer on death row at the Missouri state penitentiary. The state had revised its capital punishment law in 1977, bringing it into conformance with the U.S. Supreme Court guidelines, but the state hadn’t executed anyone since then. *** I had mixed feelings about stopping Dad from cutting off LaRette’s head on the courthouse steps that day. Part of me wanted LaRette to die, right there, and another part of me wanted Dad to spend his life in jail. I didn’t think exchanging a life for a life would make anything better. LaRette confirmed my feelings ten years later when he began recounting the details of his many murders. He sat in jail for fifteen years and spent the last five years as a practicing Catholic, an admitted sinner who recounted sin after sin. He revealed information that brought some relief and closure for the survivors of the wives, sisters, girlfriends, daughters, and mothers he’d slain. I understood some of what those people were feeling. My life had been miserable for two weeks, not knowing who had killed my baby sister or why—but the loved ones of LaRette’s other victims had experienced that same torment for years. In the end, LaRette was so tortured by guilt that he couldn’t wait for the execution day. It meant release.

122

10. Over The Edge

In October 1995, a month before LaRette’s execution, I heard a news blurb about it on the
radio. The execution date had been set. I contacted the maximum-security prison at Potosi, Missouri, where they were holding him and planning to execute him by lethal injection. They sent me an application form to fill out. They were going to allow one member of the victim’s family to witness the execution, and I had decided to make every effort to be there. I had to witness LaRette’s execution. He was the last person to be with Mickey while she was alive and conscious, and I’d be there when he died. Somehow, it completed a circle. I wrote two letters to LaRette at Potosi asking if he could recall anything specific Mickey had said during her last moments with him. Could he remember anything she screamed as he was killing her? I told him she had come from a large family and we’d appreciate anything he could remember. Asking those questions seemed insane, but only he knew what had happened. I wanted to know if she’d called out my name. In those final minutes, had she thought of me? Had I been in her mind and heart? I received a call from Angela Turnbow, a prison representative, who said she’d talked with LaRette about my letters, but he hadn’t wanted to deal with anything other than his preparations for the execution. Eight years later, on January 17, 2003, I received an email that explained why. Sergeant Marsha Baird in Shawnee, Kansas, responded to an email I’d sent to Tim Kniest at the Potosi Correctional Center. Kniest had told Baird that I’d wanted to talk to her about LaRette. Baird said that before the execution LaRette (she also called him Tony) refused to take sedatives before the start of the lethal injection sequence.

123

She said that Tony “wanted to be in control all during the entire procedure. In control—those two words sum up the way Tony committed his crimes and the manner in which he confessed to them. The descriptions he gave were always about what he’d done and the manner in which he depersonalized the victim.” Baird had reviewed tapes of interviews with law enforcement officials in Florida and with the FBI, and said that LaRette never veered from that pattern. “Normally, Tony would look off to the side and down to the floor when he began talking about a crime. This mannerism was so consistent; it became one of the ways we could distinguish if he was telling us the truth and when he was embellishing a story.” LaRette had limited the number of people who had access to him. Several crime authors failed in their attempts to solicit information from him. He didn’t want any books or articles dealing with his crimes published until after his death. Baird was aware of my attempts to correspond with him. “Your letters to him and his refusal to respond go hand-in-hand with his need to depersonalize his victims. To correspond with you would have made Mary (Mickey) and what he actually did too real and ruin his fantasy of events, which he translates into a loss of control.” *** One week before LaRette’s execution, I received a letter and an official document. The letter told me to report to the Administration Building at the Potosi Correctional Center, present the document and my driver’s license at the gate to the facility entrance by 10:30 p.m., and just after midnight on November 29, 1995, I’d be able to witness the execution of Anthony J. LaRette, Jr. I didn’t tell anyone, except my third wife Kathy. (I’d finally been lucky enough to find the woman for me. We are still together and have one son, Patrick.) On my lunch breaks, usually a fast food pick-up and drive to the nearby park, I wondered about

124

the nature of death. The mobile above Megan’s crib and the extraordinary growth of the plant in the Virgin Mary planter seemed to be signs of some kind of existence after death—a different life. If life continued after the body died, it made death the opposite of birth, not the opposite of life. I wondered. What was the opposite of life? Was it non-life, non–existence? Would I be witnessing the destruction of LaRette’s body, but not the elimination of his existence? Would his spirit be set free? I was channel surfing my car radio on my way to the park a few days before the execution, when I caught a piece of a talk show. The host, Bruce Bradley, was taking calls about the death penalty. Bradley was a passionate person, and his show frequently became lively. I heard the call-in number, but didn’t have a cell phone, so I continued to drive, repeating the number until I arrived at an Olive Garden restaurant two miles down the road. Several calls left little doubt about the host’s attitude concerning execution: the sooner we killed them, the better—and from what I heard, his audience was with him. I felt angry that no one was expressing anything other than how to get rid of people like LaRette. I thought I could offer some insight because the topic of serial killers had directly affected me. They were talking about executing people as if it was as easy as putting out the trash, but I was going to watch a man die in two days. I found a pay phone near the entrance of the restaurant, called Kathy and told her the station number and asked her to put a cassette in the recorder and tape the show. I couldn’t believe what was happening—hearing that program so close to LaRette’s execution date. If I could get through and tell the screener that I was actually going to witness an execution in a couple of days, I thought I could get through to Bruce. After several busy signals, I got the screener. She listened, and then put me on hold. When I got on the air, I told Bruce I listened to his show on my lunch hours and enjoyed it.

125

“You haven’t ruined one yet,” I said. “I thought you meant you enjoyed your lunch. What can I do for you?” I told him about my rage and hatred, and desire to rip out LaRette’s heart. He was empathetic, but when I suggested that executing criminals like LaRette might not be the best thing for society, his response was quick. “Who cares?” I made my rabies analogy, saying that if scientists had simply kept killing rabid dogs, they’d never have found an antidote. “Rabies is a physical disease,” he said. “This kind of thinking goes off in wheel-spinning territory. Jeffery Dahmer’s brain is preserved somewhere, so someday they might find a gene. Dahmer killed people and ate them! The problem is that people don’t want to accept that there are people who are just evil—immersed in their own evil.” Bruce used me as an example of a person, trained to kill in service to my country, who had later experienced the emotions of hatred and revenge but had managed to restrain myself. “You made a choice, Dennis. These murderers make the wrong choice. It has nothing to do with a quirk in their brain.” I covered one ear and spoke loudly over the background noise of people enjoying lunch, talking in the lobby, or passing by on their way to the rest room. The hostess kept glancing in my direction. I worried that she was about to tell me the phone was only for short calls. “If it were up to me, I’d have them locked away in concrete and studied. I don’t believe they’re born evil,” I said. “No, I don’t either,” he said. “Something in their environment, maybe parental abuse—”

126

“Maybe it’s their fault, Dennis.” “It’s their fault, but you’re not going to walk out of your house someday and announce that you’re pissed off and you’re going to kill somebody,” I said. “Neither are you, Dennis, because we’re not evil,” he said. “Well, if enough happened to us, we could,” I said. “I’m stunned with this conversation. I was with you until then. The point that you leave us with is that either you’re dead wrong or you’re a better man than I am,” he said. “Two possibilities might coexist. Maybe you have a better capacity for forgiveness and understanding, but I can’t go that far.” To make his point about choice, he gave an example of two women molested by their fathers. One woman eventually killed her two children. The second woman became Miss America. This, he said, showed that their decisions had nothing to do with their father’s abuse. People, he said, can overcome such stuff. I said that we should consider serial killing a mental illness and search for its possible genetic and environmental influences in order to learn as much as we can about its causes and try to prevent it. Otherwise, there was no hope. It would continue to plague us. I told him how I had stopped Dad from killing LaRette and that I felt that Dad showed me the razor because subconsciously he wanted me to stop him. “Telling me your dad showed you the razor as a subconscious plea tells me you’re too steeped in psychological study to be salvaged, Dennis. I think you’ve gone over the edge.” I laughed and thanked him. Then I got a table, and I felt that I’d done something right. The conversation must have made some of Bruce’s listeners think beyond the easy solution. I had the impression he didn’t really think I was dead wrong—and his suggestion that I might have a greater capacity for forgiveness and understanding comforted me.

127

*** On the day of the execution, I went to work as usual and didn’t mention it to anybody. I wasn’t calm, excited, or nervous when I got home—I felt numb. Kathy said someone from one of the local TV news stations had called to talk to me. I saw it as an opportunity to get the Arizona photograph of Mickey on the news. The picture hung on a wall at the end of our second floor hallway, next to the master bedroom. A woman reporter and a cameraman showed up at about 6:00. I led them to Mickey’s photograph and they got some footage as I said, “I hope you can use this photograph. It’s really her. Her expression is so much better than the high school photo that stations have always shown.” Then we began talking about the execution. The conversation turned toward why I was going. I became emotional. The reporter, to her credit, wasn’t rolling tape. Then she asked if she could. The camera pointed at me and I could feel the heat of its light. “No,” I said. She said something about how viewers would understand how I felt about my sister and the significance of my loss. Many would remember the coverage fifteen years earlier. I felt my face reddening and the base of my throat tightening. I wasn’t going to cry for the media. “No. I can’t do that.” Kathy came up and put an arm around me. “They want a sound bite, Denny. You should let people see what Mickey meant to you.” “She’s not a sound bite. All they’ll see is me getting upset.” I looked at the cameraman and said, “Turn it off.” I escorted them to the front door, said I hoped they’d use the picture, and then went upstairs to

128

put on a jacket and tie. After all, it was a kind of funeral, and I wanted to represent the family well. *** Potosi was about an hour southwest from St. Louis down Missouri Highway 21 toward the Ozarks. Like many small Midwestern towns, its large employers were a couple of factories. The YMCA provided year round recreation and significant employment as well. Nevertheless, an ugly elephant sits on 140 acres off Highway O near the cross section of Missouri 21 and Highway 8, about two miles east of town. The Potosi Correctional Center (the PCC) houses about 800 male inmates, maximum security and high-risk individuals—and men sentenced to death. All executions in Missouri take place there. Around 9:30 p.m. I pulled into a small gas station and convenience store just a few miles from Potosi and picked up a pack of cigarettes. I felt a sensation high in my stomach, as if I’d swallowed an entire habanero pepper. A shot of whiskey chased with a beer would kill it, but I didn’t want my perceptions of the execution altered—and I didn’t want the smell of the family weakness on my breath. Dr. Daley and I had discussed my nervous cigarette cravings. I sometimes wanted a cigarette, even though I had quit nearly fifteen years earlier and had run hundreds of running miles, including two marathons. “Look at it this way. It’s better than drinking or drugs. You smoke a pack of cigarettes, then stop. Big deal,” he said. “It’s evidence of the power of the nicotine,” I said. I turned onto Highway 8, drove about a mile, and then turned onto Highway O. The PCC was on the left. It was early, so I passed by. There was nothing remarkable about the building—concrete with the standard razor wire in whorls across the top of the wall. When I was seventeen, I had a job working on water towers for cities, factories, and a

129

penitentiary somewhere in the Midwest—not Potosi. It wasn’t a maximum security facility. They allowed me to drive my truck onto the grounds and I climbed the 100-foot ladder to the top of the tower. My job was to replace long, thin aluminum rods that hung inside the tanks from the ceiling. A DC current charged the rods and caused them to absorb the corrosive effects of the water. The system preserved the tank’s inner metal walls. While searching my truck, a guard found a carving knife I kept under the driver’s seat. I was seventeen, and the knife made me feel safe. I told them they could keep it. Armed guards followed me to the tank in an open grassy area. A couple of inmates who must have had liberal privileges approached and tried to talk to me, but the guards ran them off. The Potosi Correctional Center would make that place seem like a schoolyard. *** I’d passed a McDonald’s near the intersection of Highways 21 and 8. Never having watched a man put to death, I didn’t know what to expect, so I was reluctant to eat. I might throw up. I felt hollow and dizzy, so I entered the restaurant. The familiar odor of hamburgers and fries made me hungry. An oldies radio station provided typical nondescript fast-food ambience. The only patrons besides me were sitting near a window to the right of the entrance. A woman with coal dark hair behind the counter smiled and took my order. I filled a soda cup and sat at a small table under the seventies disco music bubbling from a ceiling speaker. A news blurb interrupted, talking about LaRette’s execution. I was staring at the speaker in the white ceiling when I became aware of two men, probably in their forties, debating who was wearing the uglier tie. One of them signaled to the woman behind the counter and said, “Hey, Miss. Excuse me, but we need an unbiased opinion.” He raised the lower part of his tie with the back of his hand while the other man did the same.

130

She could clearly see the patterns on the ties—neither of which I would have worn. “What do you think?” the man said. “I mean, my tie is pretty bad, but it’s respectable next to this guy’s. Am I right?” She leaned across the counter to get a better look at them. “Neither one of guys could be married. A woman would never let you leave the house wearing those things. Do they come with a volume control?” They all laughed—and I laughed with them. It felt good to hear people enjoying being with each other, and I could feel some of my tension slipping away. “Could you turn them down a notch?” she asked. Then she pointed at me. “Now there’s a man who knows a good tie.” To simplify my workday mornings, my style at that time was to wear white shirts so that any tie I wore wouldn't clash. If the pants worked, even off-color shoes could slip by unnoticed. That night I wore the tie my son Patrick had given me as a Christmas present. He had bought it at the St. Louis Art Museum gift shop, and it featured a reproduction of a Van Gogh’s only unsigned painting, Café Terrace at Night. I owned plenty of beautiful ties and received an occasional complement. Every day I wore Patrick’s one or two people would comment on its beauty. According to historians, Van Gogh had painted the picture one day and then offered it to the café proprietor in exchange for a meal. The man felt sorry for the artist and agreed, but he didn’t appreciate the painting, so he asked Van Gogh not to sign it. In the painting, a soft yellow light from the outdoor café spread out onto the cobblestone street and diminished into the night. I’d never thought much about that light before. The deep blue sky,

131

speckled with Van Gogh’s signature starbursts held my attention. Sitting in McDonald’s that night, Van Gogh’s café light reminded me of the yellow gas station lights I’d seen during my all-night rides with my brother-in-law following Mickey’s death. Acknowledging the woman’s compliment, I said, “Thank you. My son gave this to me for Christmas.” “Well, he’s got very good taste,” she said. The two men were staring at me. I raised the tie so they could see it better. Then one of them surprised me by asking, “Is your last name Fleming?” I recognized them. It was Plummer and Harvey—fifteen years older, but apparently still a team. As I walked over to their booth, they stood and we shook hands. “I never really had the chance to thank you in person,” I said. “We appreciate it, but we were just doing our job,” Plummer said. “You’re here for the execution, right?” Harvey added. “Yeah.” “You can follow us over there, if you’d like,” said Plummer. “I’d like that.” We talked about my family, with people scattered around the country and Mom, Dad, and Mike all dead. Then they told me how they’d managed to get LaRette out of Kansas, a state with no death penalty, and into Missouri, where there was one. They’d listened to LaRette admit that he’d killed Mickey and then immediately launch into his hitchhiker story. They also knew that LaRette was a prime suspect in the 1978 Tracy Miller murder at that time—and that LaRette had been arraigned in Judge Miller’s court for other charges, which meant the judge knew who he was. But Harvey and Plummer had worked hard to gain custody of their man, and they didn’t want

132

to lose him, so somehow, without breaking any laws, they managed to leave the Topeka station and drive toward St. Charles. Traffic slowed as they approached the state line, and they could see the familiar flashing lights of cop cars, so Plummer and Harvey started to worry. They knew what was going on. The judge had used his influence—pulling whatever strings judges pull to make sure LaRette stayed in Kansas. However, when they arrived at the front of the line, they realized it was a random sobriety check. They flashed their credentials to the officer and then crossed the state line, where the judge no longer had the pull to stop them. I followed Plummer and Harvey to the facility on Highway O and turned into the driveway past a group of demonstrators. Most were anti-death penalty advocates, but a few signs said things like “An eye for an eye.” I waited behind Plummer’s car as they checked in ahead of me at the guard station. The guard turned to look at me as Plummer pointed in my direction. I drove up to the guard and handed him my driver’s license and the papers I’d received from the state. He told me where to park, but I just followed Plummer and Harvey about a hundred feet into a surprisingly large parking lot and parked under a light post next to them. Again, a faint trace of ominous gas station light lay over the asphalt. Without a word, we walked toward the building, and I looked up at the stars, clearly visible in the cloudless night sky. The silence was making me nervous, so I broke it. “I guess this is nothing new to you guys.” “This is the first time for both of us. I don’t plan on any others,” said Harvey. “Me, neither,” said Plummer. “We’ve kept track of this animal from the beginning—any time he did anything. Motion for a new trial, certiorari at the U.S. Supreme Court, post-conviction relief, writ of habeas corpus, Eighth Circuit, you name it. Fifteen years. We’re going to follow this to the

133

end.” “Do you know if his parents are going to be here?” I asked. “Those crazies couldn’t get within a mile of here,” Harvey said. “I know his father tried to break him out of jail, but what about his mother?” I asked. “No way. She’s nuttier than the old man,” Plummer said. An official met us at the door and led us through a series of metal detectors, locked hatches, and barred doors. Inside, it was white and bright as if I had stepped into the source of the strange gas station light. We had to remove everything—change, wallets, wristwatches, belts, shoes, and my Van Gogh tie—keeping on only our shirts, pants, and socks. My pants kept slipping down and I had to pull them up. I think they gave us pairs of disposable paper shoes. Somewhere during the process, I found myself seated at a low gray table in a small nondescript room. A heavy woman sitting at the other end of the table leaned forward, gently placed her right-hand fingertips on a green pocket folder, and slid it over to me. This was going to be some kind of test. The folder contained an execution packet for the news media, a brief description of LaRette’s criminal activities and two recent photographs of him. The pictures were tightly cropped, medium close-ups, one in which he faces the camera and the other a profile in which he faces left. In both shots, he is holding a black, identification plaque—one of those reusable slates with white plastic letters imbedded into horizontal felt furrows. He is identified as DEPT OF CORRECTIONS, ANTHONY LARETTE, CP 12. Later, I discovered that all 90 male death row inmates were designated CP. There were three women on death row at the time. They were designated CPF. In an unexpectedly soft voice, the woman said her job was to make sure I understood what I was about to observe that evening. “The pictures in the folder are recent,” she said. She asked me how I felt about it; whether I

134

could witness the state of Missouri take this man’s life. The man in the photos didn’t look much like the LaRette I remembered. This man's face was expressionless, his eyes blank and staring into nowhere. He was wearing a white t-shirt. His hair was straight, oily and thinning, and he was losing most of it in front. In the back, where it was growing long enough to drape over a collar had he been wearing one, I saw a tiny rope or thin chord running from under his hair and thought it must be for reading glasses. He wouldn’t carry glasses dangling behind his back. I realized it was a thin braided extension of hair about six inches long—one small sign of individuality and rebellion. He’d gained weight—prison food—and his neck was thick. If I saw him in public, my first impression would be that he was not thinking. “I’m not here so much to watch him die. I need to be here when he dies, I said. “ I owe that to my sister.” Years later, I compared the prison photos with the photo they ran in the papers after they captured him—the photos that haunted me for fifteen years throughout the hearings and appeals. In the older picture, he looks detached, confident, and in control—thinking. A guard took us down a long hallway to an immense metal door that looked indestructible. Once on the other side, we stood in a short section of the hall and waited until an identical door at the other end opened. Once through that door, I felt like a prisoner. The world, as prisoners call it, was gone. A lock-down was in effect, which meant they had locked all prisoners in their cells—no exceptions. I imagined a background sound of hundreds of inmates, talking and yelling, some even laughing, which only deepened the silence. We entered a room, where we filled out some paperwork—I only recall something like a logbook for witnesses. Eventually, we entered a small theater of sorts, seating about ten. I took a seat directly in front of the only window in the room. Its horizontal blinds were closed. I didn’t know what

135

to expect when they opened. Would someone be standing there and say something, a statistical summary of LaRette’s life of crime? Would they mention his rape conviction in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1974, for which he’d received a five-to-twenty-year sentence—but had gotten out in two? Would they tell us that in August 1978, he’d received one-to-ten years for something he’d done in Topeka—but had served only one year in a county jail? Had he served only two years of that sentence, he wouldn’t have been able to murder Mickey that day. Looking around, I could see press badges on some observers. Several guards and other officials stood about ten feet to my left. No one spoke. I felt as if I was attending a church service and waiting for the priest to enter. “I’m here for you, Mickey” kept running through my mind. The blinds opened more slowly than I had expected, and I saw LaRette strapped to a hospital bed, covered with a white sheet in an empty white room. The head of his bed was against the wall. Tubes ran from the wall to the bed, under the sheets and into LaRette’s arm. He stared through a window across the room from me. A man and a woman stood watching. One of them was a researcher in criminology who had interviewed LaRette, and the other was Sergeant Marsha Baird, with whom I would correspond by email eight years later. A voice came over an intercom, announcing who they were about to execute, why, and how. The voice also described each chemical and its purpose as the injections began. As the first of the three injections, a tranquilizer, went into him, LaRette mouthed the words “I’m OK” to the researcher. Then LaRette closed his eyes as if going to sleep. The first injection was crucial. If it had been improperly administered, LaRette might have felt the pain of the subsequent drugs that would

136

eventually kill him. As the second injection hit him, LaRette’s body arched. His eyes briefly sprang open and he stared at the ceiling. What had he seen? His lungs strained for breath and his chest swelled, his stomach muscles rippling unnaturally. I thought he was going to vomit, but then he went limp. I watched the sheet quiver, almost imperceptibly, until the third injection finally stopped his heartbeat. At that moment, the disembodied voice pronounced LaRette dead. Officials standing to my left could have easily been standing at a funeral, which I suppose it was, in a strange sort of way. The state had taken a life, but out of respect for all life, they had accomplished the task honorably. Anthony Joseph LaRette Jr. died at 12:12 a.m. Any man facing imminent death and given the opportunity to make a final statement probably rehearses his words, to be clear so they come out correct. In LaRette’s final statement, he said, “To my family and loved ones, I love them and I’m sorry it had to come this way.” He said, “I love them,” as if he’d written his final statement for the authorities to pass on. He said he was sorry death had to come “this way,” as an execution for murder. His statement seemed to be an apology for the fact that his death had to be by execution, as if his death should have come some other way. “Of course it should have,” I thought. “That’s true for any of us. Who, other than someone with a painful terminal disease, would want to die by lethal injection?” Had LaRette meant to say that he was sorry his life and death had come to that? It would have been an apology for becoming a killer and a rapist and for being executed, but that wasn’t what he said. His statement focused on his death, not his life. Had he, even during his last moments on Earth, continued to disown what he’d done?

137

At that moment, the entire world seemed upside down. I had just watched the execution of a murderer—a man who had raped some of his victims after they were dead. He’d tried to rape Mickey while she was dying. In the eyes of many people, he had deserved to die. His death had been carried out in a well-lit, peaceful, solemn, aseptic environment. On the other hand, Mickey had been an innocent young woman, just out of high school, with a job and a future, beginning her adulthood. On a sunny July morning, her murder had begun in the living room, where it was dark. Mickey’s death had been brutal and bloody, and the horror of it had been senseless and pointless. I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around those two realities, even though I understood the state’s procedure and its desire not to stoop to the brutality of that man. The state hoped to rise above it, treating any life, including LaRette’s, with dignity. During his trial, LaRette had claimed that he’d covered Mickey’s mouth and begged her to stop screaming. All he wanted to do was leave quietly. He told authorities that Mickey had nodded, but when he released her, she’d acted like any other woman—like his mother or his wife. “She lied. They’re all liars,” LaRette had said. “So I killed her.” They caught LaRette lying throughout the trial, but only he and Mickey knew the truth—and certain things that never came out during the proceedings threatened to drive me mad. I wrote to him, hoping only that he’d remember Mickey calling out for help—calling out for me. Had I been on her mind and in her heart during her last moments? Had I been deserving of that? I recalled something the doctor had told me in the emergency room that horrible day. He said that he’d cut open her rib cage in the slim chance that he might save her. Then someone had added, “Perhaps it’s better. She was too long without oxygen.” Perhaps they were right.

138

A Post-Dispatch reporter spoke with me as I left the PCC, and quotes from Brian, Susie, investigators, and police appeared in the evening papers that night. Brian was quoted as saying, “Every night, every day, I think about Mary. I've been waiting for (the execution) ever since this man…killed my baby sister. I've been waiting for him to sweat blood. I don't mean to sound so bad, but this is long overdue.” LaRette had been on death row fourteen years, longer than any other prisoner. The papers quoted Susie as saying, “I’m thanking God that finally he’s getting his punishment." I wish I could have gained something from LaRette’s execution—catharsis or closure—but I didn’t. His death only satisfied my need to be there when it happened, as he was when Mickey died, but nothing ended, and I felt only sadness. Could we think of nothing better than doing the very thing all the LaRettes of the world do to solve their problems—kill them? We executed LaRette, knowing (according to the Post-Dispatch in a November 29, 1995 article, in a quote from Richard Lee of the Cole County Missouri prosecutor’s office): “He said he [LaRette] would cooperate in clearing up these cases as long as he remained on death row in Missouri. He had an amazing, simply phenomenally accurate recollection.” On Thursday after the execution, Pat Juhl, a Florida detective, was quoted in the Post-Dispatch as saying, “Just three weeks ago he had offered clues about several murders in Florida.” Richard Lee added, “He cried when he confessed. He'd relive (the crimes) as a way to clean out his conscience. He was very concerned about his salvation.” Lee also said that investigators had used LaRette’s Catholic guilt “as a tool to provide us with information.” LaRette must have thought he’d squared his account with God. He didn’t ask for a priest to

139

provide him with his last rites. Maybe he thought he was beyond redemption. A prison spokesperson, Tim Kniest, was quoted as saying, “His manner was cool. He chatted with prison (officials) up until the execution.” I believe LaRette felt forgiven. When I’d tried to contact him, a prison representative told me that LaRette was tired of death row and wanted to die and get it over with. So what kind of punishment had we ultimately given him? Which was more punishing—fourteen years on death row or death? Brian and Susie were quoted hours before the execution. Susie said, “I don't think he'll ever be able to redeem himself. He's caused too much pain for too many people." Brian added, “He's hurt too many people. Victims and their family members." The article carried a short description of my presence at the execution, saying, "Dennis Fleming, the brother of a LaRette victim, watched the execution as one of the state's seven witnesses. He gave the following account: Inside a dim, drab room, LaRette lay on a gurney with a white sheet covering him up to his neck. His face was pale, his mood calm. He turned his head to the female acquaintance and, in exaggerated syllables, mouthed ‘I'm OK.’ It was over. He was dead, and I felt an overall sense of sadness for the state of humankind. I believe justice was done, but I don't know if I can ever forgive him. Maybe God will grant him salvation. Maybe.” My email correspondence from Marsha Baird of Shawnee, Kansas, informed me years later that she had been the woman I could see from across the execution room. LaRette had said “I’m OK” to Dr. Brede, chairman of the criminal justice department at Kansas State University. I either must have been unclear in the interview or the reporter had gotten it wrong. They said I cried—but I don’t remember. Recently, I did an Internet search on LaRette and found a January 2001 article by a group called

140

Missourians to Abolish the Death Penalty. The article contained two paragraphs on LaRette, information I became aware of for the first time. The headline read, “Anthony J. LaRette, Jr. Executed 11/29/95.” The article said: “Anthony LaRette was given the death sentence for the murder of Mary Fleming of St. Louis in 1980. Records show that no less than eight institutions over thirty years diagnosed and treated LaRette for temporal lobe epilepsy. This condition resulted in him having seizures that caused him to go into a rage, foam at the mouth, involuntarily urinate, rip off his clothes, and black out. Upon waking, LaRette would have no memory of his actions. At various times in his life, these seizures occurred between one to three times a week, some lasting as long as forty minutes. At least one doctor reported that his assaults on women were probably committed during these blackout periods. It was difficult to find medication to treat LaRette because of other medical conditions he had. None of this information was presented to the jury.” The article then added, “Anthony LaRette, Missouri. Anthony LaRette had a long history of mental illness going back to his childhood when he sustained head injuries. Spent two years in a mental hospital. Discharged from the army because of mental illness, and spent several years in mental institutions or prison after that. A trial lawyer with no capital experience was assigned to him. The jury was left entirely unaware of LaRette’s history of mental illness, the symptoms of which included blackouts and hallucinations, and after a sentencing phase, which lasted less than an hour, they voted for a death sentence.” That made no sense to me. They found LaRette competent to stand trial, but that determination had been based upon his ability to understand the charges against him. According to federal law, the insanity defense would apply if LaRette was unable to understand the “nature and quality of the wrongfulness of his acts at the time of the commission of the acts…[because] of a severe mental

141

disease or defect.” Did he understand the nature and quality of the wrongness of what he was doing when he killed Mickey, though he understood later? However, the law stated that he had to understand it at the time he was committing the act. Had he? Mickey had to die so they could catch LaRette, who already had more than a dozen rape/murders on his resume. LaRette was mentally disabled, but did that excuse his actions? No—but our mental health system had failed to provide appropriate medical help for him. Our legal system had cycled him through with convictions and paroles. Long before he murdered Mickey, incarceration and hospitalization would have removed him from society.

PART III The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle 11. Life In Flashes

Now and then, I’d be talking with someone at a screenwriting workshop or writing seminar and
the issue of loss and its dramatic elements would pop up. I’d mention how I’d lost Mickey, and the universal response was that I should write a screenplay about her death and the resulting trauma on me and my family. The idea always made me shudder. I didn’t want to exploit my sister’s death. I once took on an assignment to write an outline for a feature film based on a true Civil War story. It required a lot of research and took me a long time to get into the storyline. I’d always enjoyed writing fiction, where anything could happen. How could I write a dramatic piece based on Mickey’s

142

murder without fictionalizing it? The result would be melodramatic and, in the end, I felt that I’d be ashamed. I thought that the story of how Plummer and Harvey had tracked LaRette to Kansas and brought him back to Missouri was dramatic enough. Perhaps I could lay out those events and hang the story on that plot line. Plummer and Harvey were friends and roommates in an apartment near the one Mom and Mickey had shared. I might be able to dramatize their efforts to get LaRette back to Missouri before Kansas decided to hold him for murdering the Judge Miller’s wife—but that idea never appealed to me. Ultimately, it would end up being a buddy movie, and shortly after I had developed a rough storyline, I abandoned the idea. However, the more information I gathered on serial killers, the more I felt I needed to do something with the material. We’ve learned a great deal about serial killers. They usually come from a background so emotionally, physically, and psychologically abusive that it shouldn’t surprise anyone when they develop severe socialization problems as adults. Serial killers tend to fit a pattern, a behavioral cycle that goes something like this: Beginning with a euphoria at the killing itself, for a brief moment, they feel totally in control. For a short time, they’ve conquered life. I read of one killer who murdered his son and had a spontaneous orgasm at the sound of the boy’s voice as he cried out, “Father!” A kind of reverence for the body follows the euphoric state. The killer may take a body part or piece of clothing as he hides the body—if he hides it. A relief phase then follows, in which the killer feels fulfilled, accomplished, and satiated. That’s the only truly peaceful phase of the process, because remorse and regret quickly set in and the killer becomes distressed over his actions. He feels a growing sense of guilt and wants to seek help, yet he’s afraid of the consequences. Psychologists believe that if

143

they can approach a serial killer during that phase, they can probably help him. A strong desire then pulls the killer out of the period of remorse. He needs to get rid of the pain. He feels trapped in a cycle and knows one sure way to get relief—he begins a new hunting phase. He may begin to follow several potential victims as he begins to experience an increasing need to again gain control—ultimate control—by taking another life. Once he identifies his next victim, he stalks her until he can make his move—and temporarily replace his guilt and remorse with the euphoria of killing. Over time, the burden of guilt becomes too great and serial killers begin to make mistakes. They let things slip and leave evidence, until they’re eventually caught—and secretly glad that the cycle has ended. LaRette’s detachment on the courthouse steps years earlier had disturbed me, and his shrug at my comment had insulted me. How could anyone be so indifferent to the murder of another human being? Over the years, I came to believe that his attitude was part of his false sense of relief that it would soon finally be over so he could rest. That coping mechanism kept him removed from the reality of his situation. I don’t think he understood that it was the most horrible event of our lives—and he couldn’t have empathized with us, even if he had tried. While researching serial killers, I came across lots of information about pedophiles, and a similar pattern of abuse began to emerge. The backgrounds of many, if not most, pedophiles, contain both physical and sexual abuse. Typically, men who sexually abuse children—fathers, brothers, uncles, acquaintances, or strangers—were abused themselves when they were young. Depending on the nature of the child and the severity and type of abuse, sexually abused children seem to develop in one of two ways. They may violently act out their repression, seeing sex as

144

a domineering and aggressive act in which they must take total control—rape and murder are the ultimate form of control. These abused children become serial killers. Other children may find a kind of twisted fulfillment in seeking the love they thought they were getting at the hands of their abusers. Through such a skewed perspective, those children who grow up to be pedophiles believe that they’re showing love to children, not harming them. The similarity between the backgrounds of serial killers and pedophiles gave me an idea to create an antagonist for my screenplay Children of the Lie. Who could be worse than a pedophile—a sexual predator who forever destroys a child’s chance for a normal life? Someone who blackmailed a child molester, forcing him to produce child pornography, and then profited from its sale. I created a character named Scoles and worked on Children of the Lie for several years, but a nebulous Mickey story wouldn’t let go of me—until a breakthrough came in 1994. Two other aspiring screenwriters and I attended the Austin Heart of Film Screenwriters conference in Texas. Roberta (Bobbie) Lautenschlager, Steve McNeal, and I had entered scripts in the competition. We already knew we hadn’t placed, but we went anyway for the seminars. Bobbie also went to schmooze. She’d been trying to find a production copartner for her screenplay, Joliba, a turn of the eighteenth century story based on Mungo Park’s search for the source of the Niger River. Bobbie and her husband had lived and worked as medical missionaries in Africa, and she’d become fascinated with Park’s story. Her friendly demeanor and lack of shyness were good tools. The conference was stimulating, and I was able to stop one of my favorite actors, Dennis Hopper, in a hall between classes. I asked what it was like to work with David Lynch during the film, Blue Velvet. “Lynch?” Dennis said, “Yeah, man, he’s a trip all right.”

145

I told him that I was watching TV the year they announced his nomination for best supporting actor for Hoosiers. He seemed surprised, as if he’d been expecting that it would be for Blue Velvet.” He looked up and down the hall, surveying it for any signs of the media, which I took as a yes. For some reason, I began to feel out of place at the conference. The Mickey issue was becoming a dark cloud over my writing. Later, Steve and I attended separate seminars, and afterward, I ran into him in the hall as he and several writers were talking with Christopher McQuarrie. Chris had won an Academy Award the previous year for his screenplay, The Usual Suspects. Steve and I had run into Chris at another screenwriting conference in Chicago the year before. At that time, he knew he’d received the nomination, and the awards ceremony was two weeks away. At that seminar, Steve had thrown his name into a hat with other novice screenwriters, and Chris had drawn it. So, for a half hour, the two of them discussed Steve’s story, Tattoo Cat. Steve said that he’d found Chris to be not only a skilled writer and speaker, but also down-to-earth and approachable. At the Austin conference, I thought it would be funny to interrupt Chris and Steve’s conversation. I marched up to them, looked Chris in the eye, pointed at Steve, and said, “Is this guy giving you trouble?” Steve was used to my antics, so he just stood there, waiting for Chris’ reaction, but Chris wasn’t so patient. “No, he’s not bothering me,” Chris said, “But you are!” Chris’ retort shocked me into realizing what I’d done. There I was at a screenwriter’s conference and a respected Academy Award winning writer was yelling at me, telling me to shut up. As I groped for something to say, Chris reached out, slapped my shoulder, and said with a chuckle, “Relax, man. I’m just jerking your chain.” I nodded, smiled, and then slinked away. What the fuck is wrong with me? I need to loosen up.

146

Bobbie told us it was a good idea to hang around the lounge at night. We could make contacts there. I blew it off the first night, but I decided to have a drink or two to see what might bubble up. I saw Bobbie coming through the crowd just as I was introducing myself to one of the conference’s sponsors, McCallan’s single malt scotch. “Dennis,” Bobbie said, “I want you to tell your story to someone.” Apparently, Bobbie had spoken to a woman who was connected to Larry McMurtry—a wellrespected novelist and screenwriter. McMurtry had real classics under his belt, like Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, and had won a Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove. Later, he’d receive an Academy Award for adapting Annie Proulx’s groundbreaking short story, Brokeback Mountain into a screenplay. I couldn’t imagine McMurtry’s agent being interested in a movie about drugs and pedophiles. “No, not your screenplay,” Bobbie said. “Tell her your sister’s story. Tell her what you’re trying to do with it. This is a great opportunity. Get a little advice. She’s right over there at the bar. Let me introduce you, and you can pitch the idea to her.” I didn’t think of it as a pitch. A pitch is a writer’s five to fifteen minutes in a pressure cooker, trying to sell a story to an agent, producer, director, or actor. Bobbie introduced me to Diana Ossana (whom I’d discover later was a novelist, producer, and screenwriter, sharing the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain with McMurtry). She turned from a conversation she was having and smiled. Poised and intelligent, with long blonde hair, Diana made me nervous. I could hear her thinking, “Oh boy, another newbie writer with a great story that, of course, will make a great movie.” Successful people attending conferences have connections, and they get used to pitches. Writers try to drop screenplays in their laps or deliver them to their rooms. Some of those people don’t mind;

147

others do. Ms. Ossana seemed indifferent, as if she’d agreed to talk with me as a professional courtesy that Bobbie had coaxed out of her. I described my problem, in which I had approached the subject from several angles and none of them seemed right. In fact, all of them seemed demeaning to Mickey’s memory. Diana seemed to become genuinely concerned and said, “You don’t want to write a screenplay. You need to write a nonfiction work—a book.” Standing wide-eyed and motionless, I must have looked as if I’d been drinking and the booze was just hitting me. “Write a book?” I asked. “Yes. Talk about your relationship with your sister, the impact her death had on you, and the hope you’ve taken away from her death. People need to know this,” she said. “Not a screenplay,” I said. “No. Just pour your thoughts and emotions out, and worry about whether the book will be the seed for a screenplay later,” she said. “I think you’re right,” I said. “I can’t believe someone hasn’t told you to write this as nonfiction. It’ll be good for you,” she said. I nearly burst into tears. I shook her hand and offered to buy her a drink. She kindly declined, wished me good luck, and went back to the conversation I’d interrupted. Her insight had struck something in me, releasing me from the constraints of dramatic structure and my concern that I might do disservice to Mickey. I was elated. I knew that what Diana had told me was the truth. I went back to my room and opened a spiral bound notebook that I had brought to the

148

conference. I started writing, at last free to write my feelings down, uninhibited and unconstrained. A full day of conference remained, but as far as I was concerned, it was over. Nothing mattered from that moment on except writing about Mickey. Steve came into the room, saw me writing like mad, and said, “What happened to you?” I told him the whole story, and he added, “I think you’ve hit on something, man. That’s worth the price of the conference.” A Rolling Stones lyric popped into my mind: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” The next day, I woke up late and dove into my writing again. Steve had left for a seminar. On my way to grab some breakfast on the first floor, I stood alone in the elevator and laughed at the irony of my having had to attend a screenwriting conference in order to discover a passion for writing a nonfiction book. Driving back to St. Louis, I was high with an excitement that felt as if it would never end. But after nearly a year writing about Mickey every day, I stopped. I began to wonder if I was kidding myself. Had Mickey and the way she’d died really had a significant impact on me or was I still obsessing over her because I hadn’t come to terms with the emotional trauma of her death? Had I blown my relationship with her out of proportion? I had spent far less time with Mickey than I had with Mike, Joanie, or Mark. Was I fooling myself about Mickey? Many episodes of my life—my near death experiences, the bizarre situations I had lived through, the people, and many funny and strange events came to the surface while I was writing about Mickey. About that time, I discovered a story form called short-short fiction (also known as flash fiction), which limits stories to 500–1,000 words. I was intrigued by how quickly flash fiction writers could take their readers in and out of emotions.

149

Then it occurred to me: what if I wrote my life episodes in a flash nonfiction style? A reader could pick up the book, read a three or four-page true story, and then put the book down. It seemed perfect for a world that was rapidly losing its attention span. Some of the stories would be sad, some funny, and some essay-like and thoughtful. At that moment, I changed strategies and began working on a book I called Life in Flashes. As far as I knew, I was creating a new form. For the next eight years, I tinkered with Flashes, and I’d occasionally pick up the screenplay and work on it—but neither effort proved satisfactory. I sent out the script, but the average agent’s pass would say something to the effect the story was “too icky.” On the other hand, the reaction to queries I sent out about my flash nonfiction fell between “I don’t know how to market a book like that” and “You’re nobody. If you were somebody, a recognizable name, I might consider it.” *** During the eight years I was working on Flashes, I worked my way up to vice president at the pharmaceutical testing laboratory—but I never stopped studying the arts. I took classes in poetry to sharpen my skills with imagery, short-short story writing to focus on character and incident, screenwriting because I love the dramatic form, and memoirs to help with Life in Flashes. Something —Spirit, God, fate, whatever it was—kept giving me signs associated with Mickey, and I sensed that something was happening. 12. A Zero Not A One

An opportunity with Kathy’s company presented itself, but to take it, we had to move to New Jersey, which fortunately was also my company’s only other location. So we put our St. Louis home on

150

the market in late August 2001 and had a stream of potential buyers until September 11. After that, all prospective buyers balked. No one wanted to make any significant financial moves. We moved to Plainsboro, New Jersey, and to get the house off our hands, we sold it in late October for ten percent less than we’d thought was our minimum. We finished the transactions by fax and FedEx and felt fortunate. The destruction of the World Trade Center towers affected everyone we talked to in New Jersey or New York City. Each person had known someone who had died—if it hadn’t been a parent, child, or sibling, it was a cousin, in-law, best friend, or neighbor. The mood was collective social depression, and we had moved right into it. We lived in an 830-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. When one of our two Boston terriers farted in the back bedroom, the stench would reach the front door at what seemed light speed. We put up a makeshift divider in the living room and Kathy used half of that room as an office. The apartment complex consisted of a series of bright yellow two-story units. After living for a decade in a three-story brick Victorian home, it felt as if we had moved into a motel. For the first time in my life, I was in a minority group. At least eighty percent of the apartment complex residents were Indian or Pakistani. We arrived a month after the terrorist attacks of September 11. When we had put our house on the market in August, people said, “Oh, you’re going to be close to New York City. How exciting!” After 9-11, we heard, “You’re not going to move that close to New York, are you?” It felt strange seeing dark-skinned people chatting in the parking lot or on their back porches at night. I was always forgetting the code on the punch button locks that secured the community laundromat and would have to ask a nearby neighbor, finding their thick dialect difficult to understand —but I tried hard not to be judgmental. The media bombardment about Osama bin Laden, the Taliban,

151

and al-Qaeda training camps made me uneasy during those first six months. One news story indicated that the next targets might be large apartment complexes. Our mail went through the post office in Hamilton, where an employee had become sick with anthrax. They sanitized the facility, thinking that terrorist letters had released spores, which delayed our incoming and outgoing mail for weeks. For the first time in my life, I was afraid to be in my own country. America had never been dangerous before—never. My colleagues at work counterbalanced my anxiety. Most of the scientists were Middle Eastern and I made friends with many of them. They introduced me to new foods in the company lunchroom or at their favorite restaurants. We were a quick ride from the laboratory to the Garden State Parkway and Islan, a small town populated almost entirely by Indians. Everyone called it Little Bombay. Our next-door neighbors. Sing and Kanna, became friends and we shared food and talk about their culture. Patrick made friends with several Middle Eastern children at school and in the neighborhood. He played tennis, swam, and rollerbladed with one of Sing and Kanna’s three boys, Arjun. Holidays we knew nothing about prompted one or more of our Indian neighbors to show up at our door bearing plates of exotic food. Neighbors burned oils outside their front doors to celebrate, made designs in white powder, and groups of shoes and sandals sat next to welcome mats at front doors. An article in the New York Times had caught my attention, describing an installation at the New Museum in SoHo, where Belgian artist Wim Delvoye had constructed an art piece called Cloaca 2000, a machine mimicking the human alimentary tract. Museum personnel climbed a stepladder and fed meals donated each day by city restaurants into a funnel at one end of Cloaca. The machine then digested the food and once a day it defecated the previous day’s meal. (In Antwerp, Cloaca turds were selling for about $1,000 at that time.) Kathy, Patrick, Sean, and I drove into New York City to see the

152

exhibit. The museum’s bookstore was having a used book sale, so I wandered in. I had about thirty minutes to kill before Cloaca had its daily bowel movement. I found a small book titled Brancusi vs. United States. Any Brancusi work brought Mickey to my mind because of an association to the Virgin Mary planter Mom had given me. The book wasn’t a biography or a conversation about his oeuvre—it was a court transcript. In 1928, Constantin Brancusi had brought a case against the U.S. government to determine the definition of art. The Brummer Gallery had planned to bring twenty of his sculptures to New York City for a one-man exhibition, but Customs officials seized the sculptures and ordered Brancusi to pay forty percent of their declared value, which came to $10,000. Customs refused to classify the sculptures as art or exempt them from tax. The gallery finally managed to obtain a transit visa, the show went on, and a court date was set. The trial would decide what defined a work of art. Edward Steichen, a painter, photographer, and friend of Brancusi, had purchased Brancusi’s sculpture, Bird in Space. To many, the sculpture—a thin, four-foot high, shiny golden tapered object— bore no resemblance to a bird. That piece was determined to represent the artist’s work and selected as evidence in court. Both sides of the case brought artists and art critics into the courtroom to testify. In the end, Brancusi won, because his critics were simply unconvincing. A judge ruled that Bird in Space was a work of art—principally because it served no utilitarian purpose and was purely ornamental. The court deemed the piece beautiful, symmetrical, pleasing to look at, and representing a new school of art that attempted to represent abstract ideas rather than true objects. I was just paying for the book when Patrick and Sean came rushing into the store. “Dad,” said Patrick excitedly, “Cloaca is going to poop. You’re going to miss it!”

153

I didn’t want to miss such a momentous event, and I wasn’t disappointed. The machine produced a turd anyone would have been proud of. However, unlike European museums, the New Museum wasn’t selling Cloaca dookie. When we got home, I read the Brancusi book and began thinking of writing a screenplay based on it. I’d have to research the full background to find a storyline, and though the case fascinated me, I wondered how I could dramatize it. Writing a courtroom drama didn’t interest me—but the debate over what constituted art, especially modern art, did. My position was that only artists and knowledgeable critics can define art— not members of the public. However, disagreement will continue—the Brancusi trial proved that. When I hear comments such as, “That’s not art. My five-year-old can do that. How did this get into a museum?” I know they’re based on someone’s personal taste. No one has the right to judge another person’s taste, but applying such statements as serious judgments about art is like asking someone with minimal reading skills criticize Don Quixote a universally recognized masterpiece of fiction. Some people may not like the book, but how meaningful are their opinions, since they’re not literary scholars? The Brancusi book inspired me to enroll in an adult evening class in stone sculpting at a high school in Princeton. *** Our complex of eight buildings was in a sea of similar apartments and condominiums. Walking paths snaked between them, all connecting at various points to a two-mile stretch parallel to nearby Deer Creek. Fifty yards of dense brush and tall trees separated the path from the creek. I jogged along the path or took strolls when I felt contemplative. After seeing Cloaca, I was strolling along the main path behind the apartments, unaware that it

154

was Good Friday. I was thinking about ideas for a Brancusi screenplay and admiring the twisted shapes of the trees in the woods when I saw another familiar path. It led to an abandoned tree house that someone had built long before. Patrick had discovered it, and he and I had walked the path several times sharing each other’s company. Patrick was my third child and the most uniquely individual. He followed no trend in music, dress, or attitude. He thought things through and excelled at anything he tried: music, art, literature, golf, tennis, etc. Chaz, raised Megan in California, and Megan was into fashion, makeup, dancing, and tattoos. Bright, extroverted, and hyperactive, Megan was probably bipolar, like me. Sean’s first love was music. Chris started him on the cello at age six. At thirteen, he switched to the electric guitar and in a few years played as if he’d been playing for a decade. He was passionate and talented. One-on-one talks with my children were always fascinating for me, especially because whenever two or more of them got together, their individual personalities merged and I became an outsider. Each time I finished a tree house chat with Patrick and returned to the main path, the same piece of unfinished concrete in the weeds caught my eye. One day, I decided to find out exactly what that structure was. The first two things I noticed didn’t seem extraordinary. The section of concrete I could clearly see sticking out of the brush was about two feet long and 2” x 2” square at the top. It looked like the leg of a primitive concrete chair. From the center of what would have been the bottom of the chair leg, a flat piece of rusted iron, about an inch wide, stuck out about four inches. I could see three dime-sized holes in the metal—for attaching the object to something? I stepped off the path and cleared away some weeds so I could see the object better. Part of it was perpendicular to the leg section. I got a grip where the two pieces intersected and pulled upward,

155

taking care not to wrench my problem back. I thought I was pulling on part of some great structure buried in the ground—the foundation of an old abandoned building, perhaps. After a few tugs, it finally moved a few inches. The thing was heavy. I slid it out of the weeds, and as I dragged it onto the main path, I realized that it was a crucifix, made from a low grade of concrete typically used on rougher types of sidewalks imbedded with small stones and sand. The rusty metal piece was on the bottom and had probably been used to attach the crucifix to another structure. Maybe its creator had designed it to bolt to a metal base. I stood it upright and held it steady. It was about three and a half feet tall and weighed about eighty pounds. I thought of the Brancusi trial. Not art. It has utility. I turned it around. Its maker had inscribed something on the other side. Pea-sized asymmetric white stones formed letters set into the concrete at half-inch intervals. It was a crude way to inscribe what I was beginning to realize was a grave marker. The letters R.I.P. ran down the vertical section above the horizontal, and a large zero made with stones was on the bottom vertical. Someone had gone through a lot of trouble. Had it been made for a pet dog or cat? Could the zero mean that the puppy or kitten had died before its first birthday? I became transfixed on the horizontal part of the crucifix. In large letters, formed with little white stones, was the name Mickey. I was about 200 yards from the apartment and didn’t feel up to lugging the grave marker there, so I dragged it back off the path, covered it with brush, and walked home, where I told Kathy about it. “It’s got Mickey’s name on it,” I said. “On Good Friday,” she said in amazement. “You found a crucifix on Good Friday.” The fact that it was Good Friday changed coincidence into synchronicity. Patrick overheard us talking about the spiritual connotations of the Virgin Mary planter, Brancusi, the crucifix, and spiritual communications, and he stopped me on the way to the bathroom, five steps from the kitchen.

156

“Do you really think you get signs from your sister and your mom?” he asked. “Yes, I really do.” I explained Jung’s idea of synchronicity, saying, “What appear to be coincidences that have powerful connections to significant things or events probably aren’t accidents. At least, that’s the theory.” “So what are you supposed to do with the crucifix?” he asked. “I think I’m supposed to figure out what it means and then do something by following my intuition,” I said. “Does your dad send you signs, too?” he asked. Patrick knew a lot about my father, including his alcoholism and violence. With a grin of sarcasm, I looked toward the ceiling. “I think the messages I’m getting are coming from up there,” I said. Then I glanced at the floor and added, “Dad’s too busy trying to keep cool.” We laughed at the idea of receiving signs from Dad. Everything about the cross seemed to make sense. I’d found it on Good Friday, which told me it was a spiritual sign. Considering my Christian background, I could relate to it, although I wasn’t a practicing member of any religion. In fact, I practice Soto Zen, which consists of sitting. That’s it. It’s about sitting and emptying the mind—not what I’d call a religion. The crucifix represents the Christian belief that Christ opened the way to salvation for all humankind. The Virgin Mary planter, its relation to Mickey’s first name, and the unexplained growth of the plant following my mother’s death all seemed to be strong connections to suffering and the release of spirit. The spiritual nature of those events made me think of the Holy Spirit, one of three

157

members of the Christian holy trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The trinity related to the significance of the number three, which has popped up in nearly all significant aspects of my life. I was the third child, I’ve had three wives (all with the same middle initial), I’ve had three children, screenplays generally have a three-act structure, and on and on. People say you can find anything if you look hard enough—but the number three has always seemed to jump out at me. The Mickey-Mom-Brancusi planter mystery brought in Jesus Christ, the Christian proof of eternal life and salvation through his resurrection on the third day. I believed that Mom had spoken to me through the plant and told me that she was with Mickey, but what was I supposed to do about the crucifix? Good Friday, R.I.P., and Mickey’s name all seemed connected, but what about the zero? Then it hit me, and I caught Patrick just as he was walking out the front door. “Patrick, you helped me solve the mystery of the zero!” I said. “Your question about your grandfather made me think about it. It’s the zero on Mickey’s headstone.” Back when the family learned that Dad had contacted one of his friends to make Mickey’s headstone, we all were afraid that he was going to produce something cheap and embarrassing. He all thought he should have talked with us first—and that he must have found a deal. However, Dad surprised everyone by buying a simple and attractive grey stone—but it contained a major flaw. Mickey had died in July 1980, but the headstone read 1981. We could understand getting Mickey’s birthday wrong, but the year she died was current when the stonecutter stamped. We joked that the carver Dad had hired was probably stoned when he chiseled the wrong date. “Dad went ahead and had the headstone set in place, anyway,” I told Patrick, “even though it had the wrong year of death. It’s something that has always bothered me, but no one in the family has

158

ever had it changed.” Patrick thought it over, as he did with everything, and said, “Maybe your dad does give you signs.” “Maybe he does,” I said. I let the conversation end on that optimistic note. The truth may be that neither Mom nor Mickey has talked with me through symbols. Those signs may have come from some other spiritual source speaking for them. The crucifix connected to Brancusi, Brancusi connected to the planter, and the planter connected to Mickey—but they connected so directly that it made me believe, if not in miracles, at least in something. Perhaps the spirits of people who die speak to us in a combination of secular and religious symbols, waiting for us to connect them. If I were a Hindu weaver, for instance, maybe the symbols would relate to Krishna and cloth. No matter how it happened, the symbols came, and I recognized their significance. During my two years in New Jersey, I flew back to St. Louis once or twice a month for work. Since we’d moved, my opportunities to see Sean were limited. Each time I traveled to St. Louis, I booked a flight that would put me there on a Friday evening and take me back to New Jersey on Sunday night of the following weekend. While I was there, I visited Sean as many weekday evenings as I could and he stayed with me at the hotel both weekends. Each visit was like a mini-vacation. During one trip, I packed a hammer and chisel set I had used in my sculpture class. Since I’d sculpted a piece of limestone in class, I’d try changing the one on Mickey’s headstone to a zero. Sean and I left the hotel one hot Saturday and set out for Mickey’s grave in St. Peter’s Catholic cemetery in St. Charles. Visiting her grave was always like stepping back into the burial day again. Faint images of people moved about in my head, and I kept looking at the spot where Mom had been

159

sitting in the car crying. In my mind, Mickey’s coffin hung suspended above the grave, a single red rose lying in the middle of a blood smear, my blood running down the side of the box. I also looked toward the periphery, where a cop had told me LaRette might be lurking, completing a ritual. A web of Major Case Squad members must have been in hiding, waiting outside the cemetery. I took Sean to the graves—Mickey’s next to Mom’s—and showed him the incorrect date, but Sean was thirteen and preoccupied with skateboarding and music. During my visits to town, I took him to locations in the city and county where he could grind curbs and jump steps while I watched. After I told him what I was planning to do, he walked back to the car, turned on the radio, and sat in the passenger seat with the door open to let in a faint breeze. The headstone was low, so I couldn’t carve on its front. It sat on a wide base on the ground, so I tipped them over and started chiseling on the one—but it only took a few strikes before I knew I was ruining it. The stone was just too dense. I’d have to take the next step in my mysterious journey of symbols. The Virgin Mary planter, the Brancusi, and the crucifix had all led me back to where it all began—Mickey’s grave—but I’d have to buy a new headstone and see what happened next. *** Kathy, Patrick, our two dogs, and I lived in New Jersey for two years. Halfway into our second year, we began to search for a house to buy. There was no debate about moving. Everyone knew that the cramped apartment was suffocating us. We wanted to stay in the same school district, but housing near Princeton was expensive and our house hunting left us discouraged—especially when we learned that our monthly property tax payment would nearly equal the mortgage payment. It had been a year since I had found the crucifix, and I decided it was time to bring it into the apartment. I’d known Easter would be coming soon, but I didn’t realize it was that day. I uncovered the crucifix and dragged it onto the asphalt path. I’d never lifted it completely off the ground, so I had no

160

idea how heavy it really was. I hoisted the cross onto my shoulder—and wrenched my back. The concrete dug into my shoulder bone and I was just hunching forward to get the crucifix aligned with a meatier part of my upper back when a familiar pain shot through my lower spine, but it would really hurt to put the cross down, so I decided to bear the pain until I got home. A few steps farther along, I heard a woman speaking in broken English. Since her sentence ended with an inflection, I realized that she was asking me a question. I was used to the thick accents of the area, but hers was different and hard to pin down. Maybe it was an offer to help. “Are you making statement?” An Asian woman wearing a full-length blue-and-white silk dress that reminded me of the saris worn by Indian women stood on the side of the path and offered me more room than I needed. “No. I just found this and I’m taking it home,” I said. “I thought you were—imitating Jesus. I thought you make statement.” “Oh, I see. No. I’m just taking it home.” I would have thought the same thing if I had seen someone carrying a cross on Easter morning. I had been focused on what the crucifix symbolized to me. All I could think about was the word Mickey across the vertical section.

13. Cooking With Fire

In November 2003, Kathy received a promotion. We moved to Holden, Massachusetts, a fourhour drive from my job in New Jersey. My boss, the company’s CEO, let me to drive to Jersey on Sunday nights, stay through Wednesday, and work from a home office Thursdays and Fridays. We

161

awoke on Thanksgiving morning to over a foot of snow. Holden was a charming small town northeast of Worchester, but we weren’t snowbelt people. The thought of using a snow blower as often as a lawnmower wasn’t my idea of suburban living. Nine months later, though, Kathy took advantage of another position—back in St. Louis! It was ideal. We hadn’t really settled in Holden, and back home, I’d see Sean more. The cost of living was also much less. I flew to St. Louis on one of my work trips, contacted two real estate offices, and followed an agent from each around the area. The house I wanted, one I’d seen on the Internet before arriving in St. Louis, was affordable. An architect had designed the house for someone with just my taste, but it was too close to a major highway and the traffic noise was unbearable. Apparently, they had built the house when the highway was due for widening and sound barriers, but state budget constraints had precluded building the barriers, leaving the homeowners stuck with a beautiful—but noisy—house. I looked at dozens of houses, but nothing else I saw that week was right. On the morning of my last day in town, I went jogging around a nearby shopping center, the Galleria. I called Kathy on my cell phone as I cooled down on the sidewalk in front of my hotel. She’d have to take some, if not all, of her ten days of relocation benefits and come to town. House hunting had burned me out. I was beginning to buy into the idea of spiritual communication. Events that had begun with Mickey’s death continued, and it was clear that they could show me things. Could they help me? Before I entered the lobby of my hotel, I asked the dead in my family, “Mickey, Mom, Dad, and Mike, it’s important I find a place here. Can you do something? It’s what’s best for Sean, Patrick, Kathy, and me, so I’d appreciate it.” An agent called before I’d had time to shower. He wanted to show me another house before I left town.

162

“Just one more, Mr. Fleming,” he said. “It’s a tad over your limit, but I think you should see it. We have just enough time to catch it during the open house if we hurry.” I didn’t want to go on any more trips—especially not to see a house that was over our budget. I wanted to relax, read a book, or see a movie. It was my last day and if I went house hunting again, I’d barely make my flight home—but the agent was enthusiastic and persuaded me. One more fucking house and that’s it. The moment I entered the house, I knew we had to have it. I called Kathy immediately, and she could hear the excitement in my voice, so she said, “Buy it.” Another couple had made an offer on the house. We didn’t want to chance losing it, so we offered the owners their list price, and we got the house. It was as if it fell into our laps. The house was in Chesterfield, fifteen miles west of St. Louis. A 4,000 square foot, ten-yearold, two-story with a finished basement—one of five homes on a cul-de-sac. After the $1400-permonth box we’d been living in during our two years in New Jersey, it was like stepping onto a luxury liner from a canoe. With the perfect house came perfect schools, a perfect location, and neighbors as perfect as neighbors could be. Coincidence? What are the odds? Another surprise was waiting, however. In July, my firm unexpectedly released me from employment, two weeks before Kathy and I closed on the house. Without knowing it, they’d done me a favor. I’d been seeing a therapist in New Jersey. We’d discussed my midlife crisis, how I would leave the pharmaceutical industry and live a creative life before I died. The therapist had suggested that since I had Kathy’s support, I should write down a plan to leave work. I set June 29, 2005, one day after my birthday, as the day I’d leave the pharmaceutical industry and enter my new life as an artist.

163

The company had been tightening and trimming, improving efficiency for several years. I was the second highest paid executive in the laboratory division. One of several people who reported to me, a director, had left the company, so I set about hiring her replacement—a well-qualified professional who’d eventually replace me. I didn’t want to leave the company in a bind when I quit, but that strategy hastened my own departure. Kathy had been successful in her own job, which was the reason for our three moves in three years. She’d taken on more responsibility each time and her income would support us. “Having them let you go was a good thing. You’ve been putting off leaving for a year now,” she told me. Since they released me almost one year early, it took away an additional year’s salary I was going to tuck away—six figures before deductions. The separation agreement they gave me, plus my unemployment insurance, was more than what most people made in a year. I wasn’t complaining. I was free! I resumed working on Life in Flashes. Again, agents either ignored every query I sent or passed on it. I began to paint with acrylics, but my writing lacked fire. We quickly adapted to not knowing when the dogs had broken wind. I set up an office in a second-floor bedroom, half the size of the entire New Jersey apartment. A set of bay windows overlooked the backyard and a small trail that wound its way down a slope in the woods and across a path to a creek. One of our neighbors had designed and built a kayak and navigated the creek to its junction with the Missouri River. Near the bay windows, I kept the crucifix and the planter. I’d found a decapitated Madonna lying on Mickey’s grave a decade after her murder and had carried the body and head from home to home with me for nearly fifteen years. I’d never sanded the flaky paint and repainted it. It seemed to be

164

time to do it. First, I reattached the head with grey resin that left a dark necklace around the Virgin’s neck. Then I set it back on the floor under the bay window. One afternoon, I was in my office, getting bored with writing about myself, when Kathy came in. “When are you going to paint the Madonna and hide the grey ring around its neck?” she asked. Then she added, “It’s eerie. It reminds me of how Mickey’s throat was sliced.” I sanded, primed, painted it white, and then drove to the cemetery in St. Charles. Someone had placed another Madonna—an unpainted one—between Mickey and Mom’s headstones. It had settled into the ground and was leaning toward Mom’s grave. I decided to level the ground under it, grabbing the twenty-five pound statue by its head. A slight shudder of residual Catholic guilt hit me for holding the Virgin Mother that way, but the design made it easy to carry. Besides, at least consciously, I’d discarded my deep notions of Catholic guilt in the seventh grade when the church had expelled me and my three brothers from school. The statue’s head fit into my palm, with one finger under its chin, the other four wrapped around the face and my thumb at the back of the neck. I noticed a large crack at the rear base of the neck, so I set it down. Decapitated Madonnas must have been a common problem, I thought, yet the statues seemed to be everywhere. I picked it up by its midsection and placed it in the trunk of my car. The unpainted Madonna stands on the kitchen floor near a plant by a floor level window—I haven’t fixed the statue yet. For nearly a year, I continued to write pieces for Life in Flashes about my intriguing life, apparently a subject about which no one cared except me. Except for a chapter about my exploits in marine corps boot camp and a couple of anecdotes from my childhood, all the time spent writing Life

165

in Flashes produced only a hundred chapter headings and a few lines describing what each chapter would contain. Several poems and short-short stories I wrote at that time were far better than most of what was in Life in Flashes. Early in November, I began to experience intense back pain and soreness in my lower left abdomen. My doctor diagnosed me with diverticulitis, an inflammation of the colon. He put me on antibiotics to kill the infection and scheduled me for a colonoscopy to confirm that they were effective. During the recovery period, I visited the doctor several times. He was concerned that I might require surgery in which they cut out a section of the colon and reattach it. During recovery, the patient wears a temporary bag. In worst-case situations, the can be permanent. It scared me. I became slightly depressed. The illness was threatening my life, or at least the life I’d always known. I continued to try to write and paint, but nothing was satisfying. The colonoscopy results were excellent. I’d fully recovered and with a slightly modified diet, I could stay healthy. At some point in the future, I’d probably need surgery. I began to look at my life differently. I’d reached the middle of my life and had faced death often. I felt the sense of urgency. My life was ephemeral, and I still hadn’t figured out what all the Mickey-related signs meant. One afternoon, I was stuck while trying to write a short piece for Flashes. It was about a concert I’d attended 1during a brief separation from Chaz. A woman at work had invited me to a concert by the rock group, Heart. They were playing to a huge crowd in an auditorium I had visited as a child when the St. Louis Shriners sponsored their annual circus. When I was seven, I tried to get Dad to buy me a chameleon lizard for a quarter. The tiny reptiles wore a harness tied to a string. The string was pinned to your shirt. I’d find the most colorful shirt to wear that day so I could watch the creature change colors as it roamed about my chest. My date brought some pot and we got high in the car before the concert. The parking lot was

166

full. As we drove down aisle after aisle, I fantasized that all the people were coming to see me do standup. Our seats sucked, second from the last row—the thin oxygen section. It was like watching the musicians on TV. Heart had a hard-driving sound. They opened with a song I’d never heard called “Cooking with Fire.” It had a strong drumbeat and I could feel each beat shake me with a wave of power, followed by an instant counterstrike from the wall behind. I envied the drummer. In my teens, I had learned to play drums by emulating Keith Moon of the Who, Ginger Baker of Cream, and my idol, Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham. They were the true power drummers of the day. I dropped by Mom’s the next morning, and Mickey came downstairs from her bedroom and plopped down on the sofa. I thought she was tired, but she wasn’t rubbing sleep from her eyes—she had been crying. She was having problems with another boyfriend. He didn’t want an exclusive relationship, but she did. She asked me for advice, and I thought about a song I’d heard at the concert, so I took her to a record store and bought her Heart’s new album, Dog and Butterfly. There was a song on the album with the same name, and it had moved me the night before. The story’s theme is about how to handle rejection. It’s about the wisdom an old man imparts to someone having a hard time understanding an ideal world. The old man uses a metaphor about a female dog trying to catch a male butterfly. Every time the dog jumps for the butterfly, she fails to catch it and falls to the ground laughing, ready to get back up and try again. I thought the key to the song’s lyrics was that the dog didn’t get frustrated and didn’t understand why she was laughing and crying—but knew she had to try to catch the butterfly. It seemed to be the perfect analogy, and Mickey understood it immediately. I felt I’d given her something special, something no one else could’ve given her—a lesson about love.

167

I was on the downside of a sinus cold and couldn’t stay focused. Other events from my past kept creeping in: the hermit who lived in his hand-built concrete fortress; Dad’s failed attempt to drive across a flooded road; and the time he drove into the back of the drive-in movie screen, causing it to sway in the middle of Samson and Delilah. All those memories were swirling around in my head, not letting me concentrate. I looked out the bay window, and then glanced at the concrete crucifix. When was I going to write about Mickey and how her death changed my life and all those signs, all the non-coincidental coincidences? I had to do something, so I decided to write about it, and if it was garbage, it was garbage—but I had to try to get this out of me. I saved what I’d written about the Heart concert, called up a blank screen, and wrote, “Nearly every day I think of my sister, Mickey. She’s been eighteen-years-old for more than twenty-five years now. That’s how old she was in the summer of 1980 when she was murdered. The man who killed her was from out of town. We’d find out later—much later—that he was a serial killer. I wrote until my neck hurt and then stuck a note on the lower left side of my computer monitor. It read: “It’s about Mickey’s death, how it affected me, how it affects me now.” Nine months later, around noon on a hot, humid midsummer day, with my first draft—some 64,000 words—finished, I’d written so much about Mickey that I felt I needed to write to her. When I wrote the words “Dear Mickey,” I instantly found myself emotionally back at the grave site the day we buried her—the day I had cried like a baby in Mom’s lap. I had to leave the keyboard because I was using the front shirttail of my white short-sleeve shirt

168

as a handkerchief, and it was soaked. I was afraid I’d damage the keyboard. Steve McNeal came through the unlocked front door and passed my converted dining room office on his way to the kitchen. He’d come by two or three times a month, set his laptop on the kitchen table, and work on his screenplay about Abraham Lincoln. Kathy had come upstairs from her basement office to get a cup of coffee. She and Steve began talking and distracted me. I stood up, hollered that I’d be back in a few minutes, and grabbed the first thing I could find to write in—a spiral notebook. I had spread that same kind of notebook on a bed in an Austin hotel room a decade earlier—the day Steve had found me in the middle of an epiphany, radiant with joy instead of attending screenwriting seminars. Since then, I’d filled dozens of spiral notebooks—with covers of blue, red, green, yellow, and black—about Mickey. I went downstairs, sat on the steps just outside the sliding door of the basement, wept, and finished my letter in the hot sun. It had taken a quarter of a century to work out my grief over the death of my sister. I finally had let my love for Mickey grow pure and natural, like sunlight warming a cold valley. Yet to do that, I had suppressed hateful emotions, burying them under an infatuation for a woman. Grief had resurfaced two years later as a misdirected depression when that relationship fell apart. After a year and a half of therapy, I had realized the cause. Still, I’d avoided facing the core problem. Instead of concentrating on a loss, I had focused on my creativity. But Mickey ultimately helped me become whole. She helped me reconnect with the artist in me. Grief must manifest itself. It keeps pulling at you, crying for release. My release came with a letter—twenty-five years in the making.

169

14. Letters

Dear Mickey,

Your death has shown me that something exists beyond my life. A consciousness, something, somehow gave me signs. I don’t know if what I received was from you and Mom and Dad or an other, perhaps God, but there’s something, and it’s a wonderful thing to know it’s there. If you’re there when this body of mine dies, I’ll find you, even if there is no bright light to go to, even if it’s dark. Jump into my arms, Mickey. I won’t ask if it’s you. I’ll just hold you. If I need light, I’ll find it, and I’ll look at your neck and hands and see them uncut, unscarred—hands that drew butterflies, trees, and sugarplums for me. Hands that wrote Mary Michelle Fleming in cursive, practicing, like we all do, variations until you made it your own special signature—one you didn’t get to use for long. I’ll hold you, stroke your long hair, and tell you I love you, though I don’t have to tell you—you know. Maybe that’s how it is. We see people the way we saw them in love. I’ll be with Mom, sitting on her lap as she sings and makes me feel special by showing me how, even at five, I could draw better than her. Dad will be lying with his arms outstretched on the living room floor. I’ll try to reach into his open hand, touch his palm, and pull away before his iron claw grabs me, drags me into his embrace, and tickles me. I’ll ride the two-lane highway between St. Charles and Washington with Mike. He’ll pull the car over and let me drive. I’ll steer the monster-sized Ford on the tiny ribbon of road, excited as I’ve

170

ever been, with my big brother there to guide me and watch over me. I’ll open a shoebox and pull out a pair of Hush Puppies, a gift from Uncle Bud. I I’d forgotten that I’d told him I wanted a pair of shoes like his during his last visit—but they’re the wrong kind. They have laces. They’re not slip-ons, and they have black soles instead of tan, gummy ones. They’re the wrong shape, too, long and not rounded. I’ll put them on and decide that they really don’t look bad. I didn’t ask for them, but he sent me a pair—and they made me feel loved. I’ll meet everyone in love that way. Maybe I’ll see your eyes again, big and blue, looking up at me from your impish smile. I’ll make you laugh and I’ll be happy just watching you. You’ll tell me I didn’t have to think of you so often because you knew I’d see you here. You’ll explain all the signs and why I received them. I rejoice thinking about it, and I’m crying, each tear a sentence or a paragraph. Evidence of my love. You’ve given me so much to believe in. I’m not afraid to die, but I’m still sad, knowing you died afraid and in pain. I’ll always carry that sadness. If I could change things, I would have stopped by that day to tell you I had the money to help you buy a car. We would have gone to lunch. You would have told me that you’d talked to Dad and that he was giving you some money, too. LaRette would have had to go somewhere else—but he would have continued to hurt others. He would have killed again. Your death gave life to his future victims, countless unknown women who are alive now because you tried so hard to live. Now I live with the knowledge of something greater, and it gives me hope for my children and grandchild, for my wife—for everyone. Thank you, Mickey. I don’t think that, during all those years of thinking about you nearly every day, I ever thanked you. How about that—your big brother thanking you? Give my love to Mom, Dad, and Mike, and tell Uncle Bud that I’m going to ask about his

171

adventures with Uncle Ed. I want to know more about those stories and about Francis and the house in Springfield, Illinois. He’ll know what I mean. Maybe Ed and Francis have different versions of those stories. I want to show you some of the things I’ve learned on Kathy’s piano—three blues chords that I play endlessly with subtle variations—though not well. Kathy always plays right after me to get the “bad taste” out of her ears. If I have the time, I’ll learn a lot more. I thought about asking you to play “Heart and Soul” with me, but I don’t think we’ll be able to fit it in. There will be so much to do, so many people to see, so much love to share. It’ll be my lifetime. It’ll be the drop of a tear.

Love always, Denny

The following week, I wrote another letter, which went like this:

To Anthony Joseph LaRette, Jr.,

Many police officers called you Tony, but I can’t do that. It’s too personal. It sounds innocent. I read that your father asked the courts to spell his name LeRette, which was the correct way. It makes me feel better—I can’t tell you why—to know that you died with your name misspelled. Mary Michelle Fleming was my sister. We called her Mickey. Mickey’s death gave me evidence of an existence beyond this one.

172

I was in a discussion about that recently, and someone said, “You know, crazy people talk about spirits and other worlds all the time.” It didn’t shake my understanding of those things. I didn’t see ghosts or spirits, and I had no automatic handwriting messages or tarot card readings. I didn’t seek the signs I received. They simply crossed my path and I took notice. I’m telling you this because I’m making an assumption. If Mickey, Mom, Dad, Mike, or any of my deceased family had anything to do with the signs, there’s a chance that they can hear my heart and soul. If they’re in some other place, perhaps you’re also somewhere and will hear what I have to say to you. Someone once asked if I’d ever forgiven you, and I had to tell them I didn’t know. Knowing your history of mental disorder, the seizures, the blackouts, and your head injuries, I blame our judicial and mental institutions for letting you (and other people like you) remain among the public. I know our internal biology can alter our perception of reality. I was reaching an altered state I didn’t understand as I approached a manic episode one day in 1992. Fortunately, I had a boss who believed me when I told him I didn’t understand what was happening to me. He thought I’d been snorting cocaine. Some of my coworkers had been complaining about my erratic behavior, of which I was unaware. The idea of running around nude was becoming more appealing each day. I thought it would humor people, not considering how they’d actually see me —as a crazy person, running naked. One symptom of a bipolar manic state is an increased sex drive. I went to San Francisco for a three-day professional conference one time, acutely unaware of my condition. I found something sexually appealing about every woman I saw: large, small, tall, short, even women who were clearly in their 70s. Teenage girls made me fantasize about their future development. They all turned me on, and I knew that was unnatural—but I didn’t know I was sick. I had sex with Kathy three or four times a

173

day and my orgasms were the most intense I’d experienced. I was lucky. Kathy encouraged me to see a psychiatrist. My boss insisted I go, or I’d lose my job. My knowledge of pharmaceuticals and experience with therapy led me to think that something had tilted the balance of my brain’s chemistry—but even with that knowledge, I had a difficult time booking an appointment the evening my boss sent me home. Kathy took me to a psychiatric health care facility where a psychiatrist, the facility director, told me I probably had bipolar disorder. It’s probably genetic. My crazy Uncle Ed was off the beam, according to Uncle Bud. They put Uncle Ed in the Nut House—the Booby Hatch. He probably was bipolar, too, but that was in the early fifties and they treated him with less sophisticated medications. Medications have kept me in balance, and I can feel things change when I run out. I get nerve flushes above my chest. Colors and light vibrate with a brilliant sheen. The meds work and I’m grateful for them. Because of you, Anthony, I researched serial killers and pedophiles. I’ve often thought about how a child abuser steals the life from a child—not their physical life, but their emotional one. Emotional destruction is never healed completely, no matter how much therapy they receive. They cope. I sometimes think about how your father tried to break you out of jail and about your plot to murder police officers and others you felt deserved it. I recall what Officer Plummer or Harvey said the night of your execution. He said your parents wouldn’t be there to help you die because they were as crazy as you were. Everything I’ve read about serial killers tells me that your parents had a hand in making you the monster you became. You took someone very special from me—and you made her last moments of life the most horrible imaginable. You took Mickey from my family and from her close friends, kids who didn’t need to see life’s horrors up close.

174

I can never forgive you for that. If it were up to me, Anthony, you would have sat in jail for the rest of your life, disclosing more information about other women you had raped and murdered. You and murderers like you would be subjects of intense study. We’d discover more about the causes of your behavior and would eventually stop you from being created—because I believe you were created. Your environment and your brain chemistry were out of balance, and we have to learn how to restore that balance. The cost of inaction is too great. If we continue to kill our problems, we’ll watch our children destroyed—and see them turn into killers. They will become like you, a monster walking sick and dangerous among us. I can’t forgive that monster. However, I can feel compassion for the child you were once. I can even love that little child—a child who probably took pride in sharing his father’s name. In a way, I can feel sorry for you because we all carry, inside us, the child we once were. Geniuses from Picasso to Einstein have told us that creativity comes from letting the child within us play—but that inner child has to be healthy. I can’t imagine we have the ability to destroy a soul. But if a soul, even one with a tortured mind, must pay for crimes of the flesh, then I trust you’ve paid. I can only hope that wherever you are, some kind of balance has been restored.

Dennis Patrick Fleming

175

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful