November 27, 2011 § 4 Comments
This isn’t goodbye, quite.
Yesterday marked a thousand days and thus the end of this endeavor. The last entry should have been last night, but then I wouldn’t have had this wonderful photograph from Antarctica that shows last evening’s partial eclipse of the midnight sun. And anyway, I was out with my son doing Christmas stuff.
Which has been part of the ongoing problem with A Thousand Days. It started out well, a story a night. But that’s hard to sustain because more and more life intervenes. Life profound, and life mundane. Lists of story ideas grow longer. They write themselves in my head, these stories, but somehow never make it to the page. An old friend of mine uses voice recognition software to get over this particular kind of writer’s block, but it works about as well as that stuff on your cell phone– and well, that’s one more frustration I didn’t need to sign up for.
Just Wednesday I was promising someone that no matter what I was going to make the last story “Why I Live Where I Live,” a love song to Dayton, (and an old idea borrowed from 1970s era Esquire magazine.) And I was going to do it before Friday. But there was broccoli salad and Sagaponack corn pudding to be made and a long drive north to my uncle’s and then the festivities of the holiday. Black Friday came and went (without a visit to a box store I might add) padding around barefoot in my pajamas half the morning. Before I knew it the partial eclipse of the sun (visible only from Antarctica) came and went, along with that last story idea.
Part of this is Billy’s fault. My old friend, a magical character equal parts vulnerability and bon vivant died last fall, just before his 53rd birthday. He slumped over at his computer watching an obscure YouTube video of a Scandinavian singing “Lucky Old Sun.” He was supposed to go out to a club that night to promote his latest musical obsession, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, but he never showed, which was not Billy’s way at all. It was such a miracle that he’d lived so long, careening around Boston on his Vespa, (and if it was after dark he was toasted) that I suppose we all thought he’d live forever. He didn’t and since the very night he died I’ve been trying to write about him and failing. Maybe another time. I was haunted though. I felt like I had to write this piece for Billy before I could get on to the veritable laundry list of other subjects I wanted to tackle.
To wit- How to Save Christmas (I think), obituaries, stop lights, muskrats, insomnia, animal wars, Orville Wright, the aforementioned love song for Dayton, and a little piece about Lisa Spinks, a young woman who was brutally murdered by someone she thought was her friend. A half-dozen others. And Billy’s story, which finally is writing about ghosts. But there will have to be some other forum for all of those.
I am very grateful to those who stuck with me, even when I gave them little more than a gossamer thread from which to hang. The comments, support, suggestions, controversy and conversations that swirled around the blog entries have been remarkable, and somehow along the way I got to be an expert on Crooksville pottery on the strength of a single article. I’ve had heartfelt thanks and heartsick outrage left in relatively equal numbers of messages. (Only one time did I hear from an attorney, and once I took his name out he went away. Apparently he didn’t care what I had to say about his client.) If I’d had the will and fortitude to keep writing about murder victims, this really could have been something. But just like my old friend and mentor Steve Huff found, I discovered that writing about violent crime all the time eats away at your soul. Of course, other topics speak to me, and I always intended to get to them, if only I hadn’t been so busy doing whatever it was I was doing.
A Thousand Days has been as neglected and forlorn as an outgrown pony. There it sat on the Bookmark Bar, just waiting for me to click it and start writing. But I was out of the writing habit and without a deadline, I became a dilettante. I’d meet people who said how much they enjoyed my pieces and it would make me sad. I wasn’t worthy of their accolades. Jesus, a whole year went by without a single effort, and before that it had been almost six months. I needed something to make writing routine again, part of the day-to-day schedule, as regular and necessary as breathing.
So I’ve made myself a new project, 30 Days Notice. It is a very short-term blog, and I’m not sure that it will be pretty. I’ll start December 1 and write through December 30. I promise you (and myself) that I will write every single day, no matter what. What month could be more challenging than December for that– when we are all over-scheduled and trying to fit a few more hours into every day? I’ll have to train my family to stop their constant stream of interruption, or I’ll have to learn to ignore them. It’s clear that waiting for them to go to bed to have peace in the household doesn’t work anymore. In December we’ll have house guests. There may be Migraines (I hope not, but I’m a realist.) I know there will be Christmas parties, school functions, shopping, wrapping, shipping, cards, dogs, friends, family. All those will have to make room while I shoehorn the most essential thing back into my life.
How appropriate, then, to end with something as transitory as an eclipse. Something is hidden, but only for a moment. The curtain has dropped on this show. A Thousand Days is finished, but you get to be along for the ride (if you want) while I find my feet again, and with that, discipline and self-respect. If we’re lucky, perhaps it will be entertaining.
October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments
The State of American Manners
One evening last week we stopped in at Target to pick up laundry detergent and a birthday card. We were hardly in the door before a gaggle of teenage girls eclipsed us, shrieking with laughter. I’d stopped to browse in a bin of inexpensive toys and they snatched and grabbed at things right in front of me, as if I were not even there. They jammed “roast turkey” hats onto their heads and screamed with the hilarity of it all.
“It’s animal day tomorrow, we have to get these!” one shrieked. A blonde girl knocked into me reaching for something in a bin. She seemed not to notice.
“That would be freaking awesome,” another roared, doubling over with laughter. They gobbled and cackled in their roast turkey hats, screaming with delight at how ridiculous they were, overcome with how amazing they would be at school tomorrow. The noise rolled over me in waves.
Then, like a whirlwind, they moved off towards the clearance racks in the women’s department, tossing and shrieking and laughing all the way.
I like kids. I even like teenaged kids. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the midst of laughing, silly, hysterical group of girls. No doubt I’ve irritated plenty of adults in my day. (Though the presence of someone my mother’s age would have inhibited me a bit.) But these kids, these nice upper middle-class, well-fed, privileged girls were behaving like, well, savages.
No sooner had their whoops and wails faded from earshot, they were replaced by something even worse. The detergent aisle of this store is directly across from Girls Clothing. There, in a shopping cart, a little girl about five was screaming. Sobbing. Her mother, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss, went on browsing like she was totally unaware of her daughter’s meltdown, examining the details on a sweater collar or holding up a pair of leggings for size.
It was everything I could do not to march over there and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and what on earth gave her the idea that it was okay to “teach her daughter a lesson” at the expense of everyone in the store.
I held on to the shelf of Tide, knuckles white. The little girl continued to wail, hiccupping, sobbing some more. That spot, just above my left eye, began to throb. Finally, the girl’s father came and wheeled the cart away, the child silent in their departure. I suppose she’ll grow up to think it’s okay to knock into other shoppers and shriek in public and throw merchandise around in stores.
My husband and I talked about the two sets of rude people as we drove home. It seems we’re spending more time talking about rude people, lack of decorum, the inconsiderate among us. This is what happens all day long in public America—we’re running amok.
Drivers no longer merge onto highways, they barge. I’d point out that “yield” seems to mean nothing to people, but really stop signs don’t carry much importance either. Communities have had to install cameras at busy intersections because so many people blast through long after the light’s turned red. (Apparently Dayton has $450,000 owed them in unpaid red-light tickets.) People speed up so that you can’t enter the roadway in front of them.
They either park so sloppily over the painted lines that they take up two spaces or they intentionally take up two spaces so their precious vehicle doesn’t get dinged by some ten year old flinging open the door of the mini-van. They tailgate. On the interstate, they pull in front of you from the adjacent lane with inches to spare, just enough space provided you don’t speed up one more mile an hour. (Which of course they would do if you were trying to get in front of them.) They blow their horn if you don’t jackrabbit into the intersection the minute the light turns green, and God forbid you actually STOP before making a right on red. They pass on double yellow lines. They pass on city streets. Taking to the public thoroughfare is more and more like something out of Death Race 2000.
The police promise and threaten to be more active in going after aggressive drivers. If they are, it’s not having much effect. A City of Kettering police officer once stopped my husband for driving too slowly. We were meandering home in our Saab on a Friday evening, doing about 25 mph on a quiet city street. No doubt he thought “sporty car going slow equals drinking.” He was wrong. He said to my husband “Well, at least try to go the speed limit.” Excuse me?
When another driver actually allows me to merge into the lane in front of them, I am always surprised, and respond with a wave, “Hey, thanks!”
In Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, Peter Handke wrote that our cars are our kingdoms and in them we are kings of our own tiny empires. Tonight, a man in a minivan (arguably the worst category of drivers) pulled out from a gas station, crossing the road directly in front of us. He pushed past another car waiting for the traffic to clear and turned left across four lanes of traffic, in a cacophony of screeching brakes and blaring horns. He was on his cell phone and seemed not to notice. We may have constructed a cocoon, a paradise of “I,” but we are not islands unto ourselves. Everything we do in public affects someone else.
Not that the sanctuary of home life exists anymore. My husband is a fan of political commentary and talking heads inundate our living room with a constant stream of lies, scandal and notoriety. I suggested once that we go on a diet from this kind of television, if perhaps that would help us feel less at odds with our fellow Americans, less despairing of their behavior. There’s just no way that you can listen to a steady infusion of this stuff and not feel pissed-off. Just a week, I suggested, but we haven’t tried it yet.
Certainly there’s no haven from rudeness in cyberspace. It would be hard to imagine a playground where people are less courteous. The comments made on newspaper sites, forums for various hobbies and the ubiquitous Facebook go right past rude and often into the muck of verbal abuse. And I’m guilty of the same. Without the nuance of gesture or inflection, we are quick to take offence. Freed from inhibition by distance and a shell of anonymity, we post things that we would never in a million years say to someone’s face.
Sometimes this even happens between real life friends. A comment is made, a retort follows. Maybe the response was meant wryly or with a kind of nudge—but the recipient only sees the naked type on the screen, devoid of charm or affection, and the offense is laid bare. Friendships, some long-standing, end over these exchanges.
Staying connected via the cell phone has become a kind of hallmark of rudeness. Not just those texting or talking while they pull into oncoming traffic, what about the people who won’t get off the phone in the drive-thru of the fast food place, or the check-out line at the grocery store? Of course the reverse is true also. How aggravating is it to deal with a cashier who won’t look at you or speak to you or is too busy chatting with a colleague or flirting with the bagger to exert the minimum amount of grace required for his or her job?
One afternoon at Kroger, even though I was in a hurry to be somewhere else, I stomped off to find the manager to complain about just such a cashier.
“Oh, that surprises me about her. She worked at Elder-Beerman’s for forty years, ” he said, not bothering with an actual apology. I guess after 40 years in a pretentious department store, there’s no need to acknowledge the lowly grocery store customer.
Of course, there are still the garden variety bad manners: a cousin and his wife who have yet to thank us (by note, by email, in person or on Facebook) for the wedding gift we gave them. (A really nice stockpot, but maybe they were offended that we didn’t use their registry?) Of course, they haven’t thanked us for baby gifts either. Or the kennel club meeting to which I brought a lemon-raspberry cheesecake and one person, one person said thank you. It’s not that we do these things to be thanked, we make these gestures out of affection and goodwill, but you know it would have been nice to have the effort acknowledged.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’ve been perfect in this regard. I haven’t. Sometimes I have failed terribly at etiquette. I know the thank you notes for our wedding gifts went out far too late. I know I have been sharp when I didn’t need to be. Once I beeped my horn at a pick up truck about to back into our car in a parking lot and the driver jumped out, rushed back and spewed invective all over me. Not knowing then what I know now, I gave back as good as I got. He went back to his truck briefly and returned with a large handgun. Thankfully, passersby intervened before our lack of manners took a tragic turn.
Though I’ve never drawn a gun on anyone, I too have indulged in a few spectacularly public temper fits. Years ago, a man took the last table at an outdoor café, racing in front of us (laden with a tray of food) and sitting down to read his newspaper. We argued about his right to the table when he had not yet purchased food. When he turned his back to me and sat down, I slapped him hard across back of his balding head.
On an evening more than a decade ago, a woman in grocery store line behind me started piling up my groceries on the belt, so she could take her groceries out of the cart sooner. She said something about not wanting her bread to get crushed. It didn’t amount to more than some angry words and still today, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d come even more unglued—that I’d thrown her bread on the floor and stood on it. If you’re going to have Bad Manners make it a real production number rather than just this day to day loss of civility that’s gnawing away at reasonable discourse.
But I didn’t. And these days I think I could handle it a bit more deftly. (A lesson learned from the gun-wielding nutcase in the parking lot.) That’s a large part of what makes manners—stifling one’s emotional impulses for the greater good.
The other part is making the effort to acknowledge the others whose lives intertwine with ours, no matter how slight the connection. A wave to an acquaintance still serves to show that we are open-handed and unarmed. A smile begets a nod, even among strangers. Holding the door for other people is still generally appreciated, though there will occasionally be louts that sail through without a word as if you are a uniformed doorman.
Among my books are half a dozen navy blue volumes, each of them a different edition of the Emily Post Book of Etiquette, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s. I have found them in thrift shops and book sales, each one cast off as something no longer necessary. It’s amusing to read about silverware arrangements or what sort of hat is appropriate to wear to tea, or the proper wording to decline an invitation to lunch.
People think these kinds of manners are archaic, and some of them are. Gentleman are no longer required to walk on the outside of the street to protect their feminine companions from harm. (Though it might not be a bad idea.) You will not be the scandalous talk of the town if you fail to use the correct fish service.
The essential elements of manners are still consideration and kindness, and they are still essential. Yet we are uncertain about them at time, reflected in the popularity of Judith Martin’s charming “Miss Manners” character (who has surely penned as many books as Miss Post by now) and the syndicated newspaper columns dealing with ethics. It’s as if we don’t remember quite how to behave—or we know how to behave but we want someone to share our outrage at the boors with whom we have to contend.
Living among others is a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems a series of missteps, other times we find ourselves gliding along gracefully with a minimum of effort. You lead.
Show a little consideration. Say please when you ask your teenager to take out the trash. Turn off your cell phone and stow it while driving. Let another driver go in front of you. Count to ten. Slow down. Don’t tailgate. Stop and smell the roses. Turn off the television. Write the thank you note, or at the very least, the thank you email. Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Take your exhausted child home. Remember that you may be having an uproarious great time but the person next to you may be infirm or in pain. Don’t interrupt your wife on the telephone to ask her something trifling. Give a little extra. Stop listening to angry people, especially those that are overpaid. Smile at strangers. As our mothers instructed us when we were little more than babies, play nice.
I’m going to work at it too.
June 26, 2010 § 2 Comments
a street opera
by Larkin Vonalt
We’ve just turned off the television, the Lakers winning Game Six of the playoffs, when we hear the voices, shrill and angry.
“Don’t you touch me, nigger, I’m done with you! You get this bitch off of me! Get — off me!”
A male voice rumbles in answer. We can’t make out what he’s saying, but he’s angry too. I look at my husband.
“They’re at it, again,” he says.
We are assuming that the ruckus is from the brick house on the corner. A young couple lives there and their arguments are frequent and loud, interspersed with booming parties and out-of-season fireworks.
The damn fireworks had been going on all afternoon and into the evening, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. It makes the dogs crazy. Earlier that very afternoon a guy the next block over had one go off in his hand. We heard him screaming until the ambulance enveloped his cry with its own. It’s a long time to scream, and it was gut wrenching to hear him. Even if it was his own fault.
Looking out the dining room window, I can see fireflies flittering in the treetops. At dusk, they’d risen from the grass like sparks. The house on the corner is silent.
“No, it’s not the people in the brick house.” There are more voices now.
“Don’t you come around here, anymore, bitch. You’ve got no business, here!”
“Get the hell away from me, you ho. You better be watching your own man, you just stay away from-.”
“He ain’t yo’ man, you stupid—” There’s a loud slap, followed by screaming.
The women are on the lawn of the house across the street. “It’s Garrett’s,” I tell my husband.
You can only see through our front door in a place about four feet off the floor where there is a flaw in the frosted glass.
“Don’t look through there, they’ll see you,” my husband says.
He’s right, you can’t look through that door without being backlit, hunched over to peer out the dime-sized area of clear glass.
Garrett Wilkerson had been the first person to welcome us to the neighborhood. He’d done some handyman type work for the house’s former owner and when he came over to introduce himself, he explained that he’d been asked to “keep an eye on the house.” In fact, he only had one eye. The other was clouded, the result of an industrial accident years ago. A one-eyed man asked to keep an eye on the house. For the longest time, I couldn’t get my head around that. Now, when I thought of Garrett I didn’t think of his eye at all.
He’d grown up in the rambling white frame house across the street and lived there still with his brother Junior. When we first came to the neighborhood, his mother Miss Pearl still lived there, but she has since gone on to Assisted Living. She wouldn’t be pleased with the rumble now spilling out across her front porch and on to the lawn.
“It’s that woman, again isn’t it? That woman Junior was involved with,” my husband says. A car door slams and I peek out to see a little white car pull away from the curb and roar away.
“Yes, I think so.”
The police had been drawn to the Wilkerson’s house several times because of Junior’s lady friend. Late one winter night, she’d gotten a ride to Junior with a guy she’d met in a Cincinnati nightclub. Turns out the car they rode up in was stolen. When they’d stopped in front of the house, a passing cop had run the tags. In a kind of “kick ass and take names later” operation, everyone in the house had been forced outside in their nightclothes, and handcuffed up against the squad car.
Garrett explained all of this the next day when he came over to return the snow shovel he’d borrowed.
“I told Junior that she wasn’t gonna be nothin’ but trouble, but he doesn’t listen to me.” Garrett spent some time locked up when he was younger, he doesn’t like trouble. A few weeks later he reported that Junior “was done with all that.” Until tonight, presumably.
Our front bedroom looks out across the wide avenue between us and the Wilkerson’s. I go upstairs, turning off the hall light so that I will not be seen in the open window. It isn’t nosiness that sends me there (okay, well maybe a little) so much as concern. They are still shouting across the street, and too often on this side of town, arguments end in a hail of bullets.
The scene before me could not have been set any better by August Wilson. A middle-aged man leans against a porch pillar, his arms crossed. Another man sits on the front steps. In the yard, half a dozen women are in a loose circle. Many stand with their hands on their hips. In the dark, I can’t quite make out their faces. We know Garrett so well now that I would recognize him even in the dark. He is not upon this stage.
One of the women slaps the other and she is shoved, hard, across the lawn. A man standing in the shadows steps forward to catch her, wrapping her up in his arms and holding her there. The slapped woman is screaming at the pair.
“Bitch, I’ll fuckin’ kill you—“
That’s enough for me. I take the cell phone out of my pocket and turning my back to the window to shield the lit screen from view, I dial 911. Later I will learn that my husband is calling the cops too.
I explain the situation carefully to the 911 operator. She is asking me questions about us, and our telephone number and did we want the officers to come by our house too?
“No, no, no. These people are our neighbors. We like them. We just don’t want anything awful to happen, and things are definitely heating up over there.”
“Okay, I’ll make a note of that. We’ve got cars on the way.”
The first car to arrive isn’t the cops though. It’s the little white car that had peeled out ten minutes before. Oh shit. When people leave an argument and come back again it often means they’re coming back with a gun. Shit, shit, shit.
Within seconds though, the police arrive, running lights only, no sirens. Blue red blue red blue red blue red blue red blue. When I see the officers get out of the car, I laugh a little. They’re white. White men wading in to a hornet’s nest of angry black women.
But they move slowly, hands off their weapons, palms forward, fingers spread. “Now, let’s just settle down,” one says, but he says it gently, like he’s talking to a group of small children. Blue red blue red blue red, the lights flash.
On the street, another officer stands next to the driver of the white car, a woman, as it turns out. She’s holding a sleepy toddler in her arms.
Junior’s former lady friend, sobbing now, walks with a cop back to the car, their faces colored alternately blue and red in the flashing lights.
“Kiss the rings, bitches!” she turns and yells at the women watching her go. The officer pats her shoulder and she shrugs it off angrily. “Don’t you touch me!”
Another woman yells something back from the steps, but the catcall goes unanswered. Junior’s old girlfriend allows herself to be helped into the passenger seat of the little white car, while the other woman tucks the baby into a car seat. They leave in a more measured pace, given the gaggle of police cruisers still lining the avenue.
The other officers retreat down the steps, gently, gently. The blue and red lights stop. Sitting on the edge of the porch, the aggrieved woman, the one who’d been slapped, begins to scream and howl. A cop trains his car spotlight on her, sitting there, rage pouring out into the summer night.
One of the officers approaches the shrieking woman.
“Now, come on. It’s late,” he tells her. “People are trying to sleep.” She nods at the cop, stands up and stomps off into the house, Junior on her heels. Who would have figured that Junior, an ordinary-looking fifty-something black man would have these kind of problems?
The cops are getting back in their cars, doors slamming. One cruiser drives away at high speed, lights flashing, sirens blaring. There’s some kind of trouble somewhere else, but the others don’t follow.
On the porch, the man still lingers against the pillar watching the women on the lawn.
“Did you hear what that bitch called me? I shoulda yanked her in a knot.”
“That ho. Who does she think she is anyway. That brother is lucky to be rid of her, crazy bitch.”
“Did you see when she slapped—I couldn’t believe it”
They are playful now, shadow boxing each other. One pretends to push; the others spin away, all grace. A big girl in a pale yellow sundress sings a line, all gospel and soul.
“Damn, she’s gonna sing now. Girl, don’t sing.”
“I can sing if I want to.”
“Oh Lordy, let’s go inside, it’s la-a-a-te girlfriend.” The women begin to filter across the lawn, and up the porch steps.
The girl in the yellow sundress turns and faces the street. Can she see me in the window? Perhaps Tony next door is sitting out on his porch.
“Jeeeesus loves me, this I know,” she sings. It isn’t the jaunty Sunday school hymn I learned. It is something far more beautiful than that.
“For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong; they are weak, but He is strong.” Her face is tipped to the sky, her arms flung wide.
“Yes! Jesus loves me! Yes! Jesus loves me!,” she belts out, “Yes! Jesus loves me . . . . . “
And then, with a sweet hush, she finishes “For the Biiiiible. Tells. Me. So.” The last note hangs for a moment in the summer night. She turns and walks up the steps into the house.
Shrouded in the window across the street, I want so much to applaud.
June 10, 2010 § 2 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
JC, this one’s for you.
On Saturday morning, I got up early and went out. I drove 12 miles to an upscale grocery in the suburbs, stood in a long line, chatted with people, bought three lobsters, stood in another long line to have them cooked, brought them home (12 more miles), took one to pieces, used it to make a lobster omelet for my husband who took three bites and said “I don’t care for this.”
That’s the story. My husband objects to this story. He says that he ate “half” the omelet and that’s more than three bites. It’s more than three bites if you’re two years old. We’re talking two eggs and about a third of a cup of a lobster. How many bites can there be? Anyway, I finished eating it for him and he thinks that’s adequate compensation.
It was a great dilemma for me whether or not to buy the lobster in the first place. We’re in the midst of a serious family crisis involving our grown-up daughter. We need every dollar, so who am I to go frittering away the stuff on things so inessential as lobsters? And yet, they were only $10. That’s three times what they would be on the Island. But this is land-locked Ohio, where the only lobsters usually available are those miserable creatures stacked in grocery store tanks.
I sort of remembered that when we were newly wed in Montana that my husband humored me with a special Lobster dinner date at the Grand hotel the next town over. Larry the owner had gotten a bushel of lobsters shipped in from Boston and of course they cost the earth. They’d been cooked too long and were tough. Then there was all that business with plastic bibs and drawn butter and linen tablecloths and some kind of terrible white wine.
I know that there are other songs the lobster sings, and thinking that those might elicit more enthusiasm from my spouse, I head down the garden path to the car.
The parking lot of the upscale grocery is very full. Christmastime full. Last year they were out of lobsters in two hours. Inside, the line runs past the machine where they make the fresh mozzarella, along the deli case promising an English Ploughman’s lunch, past the island of organic strawberries ($6 a quart) up to the bakery cases full of petit fours and tiramisu. I find my place at the end, behind a man in a gray t-shirt. He isn’t particularly hairy, but from behind his shape makes me think of a silverback gorilla.
The line is long, but it’s moving quickly. A man comes by with a pad and a pencil. Is there anything I’d like from the deli while I’m waiting? I’d love a stack of pancakes, but that doesn’t seem likely so I just smile and shake my head. “No thanks.”
A foreign woman comes along with a bottle of white wine (“on sale today for just eleven dollars”) offering samples. I can see in the line ahead of me that plenty of people have taken her up on it.
“Not at nine in the morning, thanks just the same.”
“Well,” the woman says. “It’s nearly nine-thirty.”
We’ve rounded the corner, and I can see the mound of lobsters up ahead, stacked up on a fixture like so many little brown grapefruit. I see the drill: tell the man how many you want, he puts them in a bag and you take the bag to the cashier, and if you like you can stop outside and have them cooked. I’m glad I don’t have to look them in their little eyes (on stalks, yet) and choose. You, and you, and you. Your luck ran out today, lobsters. Really, though, their luck ran out some time ago.
In front of the pile of lobsters is a conventionally handsome young man. He could be a day trader or a hedge fund manager, but he is dressed very improbably in a polo shirt and a pair of melon-colored foul weather bibs. The press release from the grocery had promised that there’d be someone from the lobster boat on hand, but this is one super clean lobsterman.
“Three,” I tell the other man, the one packaging the lobsters, and I look away, down the wine aisle, as he chooses. He hands me the bag (white, with a red lobster on the side) and smiles. I take it and make a beeline for the cashier. When the bag rustles in my hand, I feel slightly ill. That’s ridiculous, I know. Look at all the people standing in line to pay for their white bag of arthropods. Over in that line a mother and her daughter, who looks about eight, are delighting over the antics of their little rustlers. I mean, what is the matter with me? It’s not like we’re leading veal calves up to the checkout.
A nice woman about my age, which means not as young as we used to be, opens up her check stand and motions me over.
“There are three,” I say, and I can hear the apology in my own voice. “I wish I could just get a ticket or something in here and pick up the cooked ones outside,” I confess. “I can’t stand feeling them moving around in the bag.”
“I know,” the woman commiserates. “I can’t either.”
Outside, there’s another line of people waiting to get their lobsters cooked. Though this line is shorter, it’s slower, the cooking and cooling of lobsters being a bit more complex than just packing them in a bag. I am sandwiched between a couple who moved here from New Jersey and a woman who grew up in Wiscasset, Maine and is now talking to her mother on the cell phone. It seems the lobster guy knows the man who runs the local lobster pound. (That’s lobster-wholesaling operation, by the way, not where they take stray crustaceans.)
“Brendan Ready,” the woman is saying into her phone. “Yes, he says he knows Albert.”
At the front of the line, under a white tent, lobsters are being poured from bag to kettle and fished from the kettle into a trunk full of crushed ice and water. There’s a kind of festival atmosphere, and if you saw a photograph of the scene you might think it was taken on the coast somewhere. Standing there though leaves no doubt that we are smack dab in the middle of Ohio.
Brendan Ready is mingling with the crowd, answering questions like “How long do I cook them at home?” (Fifteen minutes.) And “How do I keep them alive until it’s time to cook them” (Put them in a crisper under damp newspaper.) And “Do you ever get sick of lobster?” He laughs.
“No, I never get sick of it. I could eat lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Later I will look up the “Catch a Piece of Maine” phrase that’s emblazoned on his polo shirt. It turns out to be a company in Portland that seems to have made a very successful business selling the idea of a sustainable fisheries model through direct marketing and online sales. Website photos of the company’s other lobster boat captains include those of men who look like they do go down to the sea in ships.
Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey are discussing with Miss Wiscasset the different eating habits of people when confronted with a lobster on a plate. Miss W. is shocked at the people who don’t eat every last bit.
“Well, not the brain of course,” she says, referring to a collection of ganglia that amounts to about the same as a grasshopper’s brain. We all take great relief that a brain that size is not contemplating the meaning of life as it’s tossed into a pot of boiling water.
“I can’t believe some people who just eat the tail and the claws and throw the rest out,” she continues. “There’s meat in the legs, and the tomalley is a great delicacy.” Mr. and Mrs. Jersey don’t look quite convinced.
“Well, sometimes there’s just so much lobster that you don’t have time to mess with much beyond the claws and the tail,” I say. They all look at me as if they hadn’t noticed that I’d been standing there next to them for the last fifteen minutes. “I grew up on Prince Edward Island. We ate a lot of lobster.”
We are at the head of the line now and Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey hand over their two lobsters in a bag, and someone puts two other cooked lobsters in a bag and off they go. Before I know it, I have three cooked lobsters in a bag in my hand and I am headed for the car. The three I carried from inside the store, feeling their every rustle in my viscera, those have just been dispatched to lobster heaven, and in fifteen more minutes, when I am nearly home, they will be sent home with someone else.
There was a lot of lobster for us on the Island. My stepfather was a doctor there, and at times one lobsterman or another would turn up with a bushel of lobsters fresh from the pot. I remember one afternoon the lobsters arrived very much alive. A large pot was set to boil on the old stove and my stepsister and I tossed them in a few at a time. Though the claws were pegged with wooden plugs, the lobsters were still lively and could easily twist from your hand.
“I’d like to be, under the sea in an octopus’ garden, in the shade . . .” I sang, tossing the flailing lobster in headfirst. Splash! Children, if not cruel, are certainly callous.
Those little wooden pegs, as it turns out, were the sole industry of the tiny Acadian town of West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where they were hand-whittled. It was an invention that revolutionized the lobster industry, and in the 1930s West Pubnico rightfully declared itself “The Lobster Plug Capital of the World.”
Unfortunately the pegs broke through the membrane of the lobster flesh and allowed for bacteria to collect there, a potential source of contamination. By the mid-eighties, 500 million wooden plugs later, the last of the pegs are gone, replaced with rubber bands.
The bands, like the pegs before them, make the lobsters not only easier to handle, but keeping them from killing and eating each other.
“Oh,” you say with dawning awareness. In fact that’s one of the reasons lobsters are not farmed like oysters and shrimp and salmon. The other is that it takes five to seven years for a lobster to reach market size and that’s a long time to be feeding something that keeps trying to eat the rest of your inventory.
Lobsters are sorted and banded on the boat, using a tool that looks something like needle nosed pliers to stretch the strong bands over the claws. This is a point where the little beasts can lose their claws, making them culls. Claws get caught, break off, and lobsters will sometimes shoot off their own claws. (There should be a joke I could make here, especially since a claw-less lobster is called a “pistol,” but it just won’t come.)
The Commercial Fisheries News has advice to minimize claw loss due to banding: “Hold the lobster in one hand by the base of the carapace while banding with the other hand. If the lobster is too large to hold in one hand, place the lobster on a surface and hold securely. Both of these options give the lobster a sense of security, for it is not dangling in mid-air.”
Lobster traps (also called “lobster pots” which leads to all manner of semantic confusion) are baited with flesh: herring, hotdogs, chicken necks, mackerel. A 1997 study in Prince Edward Island found that lobsters caught with mackerel were weak and lethargic. Perhaps it’s their version of a turkey dinner.
After the second world war, a company called LobLure (not to be confused with contemporary lobster scent bait of the same name) experimented with a wide spectrum of artificial bait ranging from women’s sanitary pads soaked in herring oil, bricks marinated in kerosene and, inexplicably, white coffee mugs.
The bait bag is tied to the sill in the kitchen, that’s the first chamber of a lobster trap, the one before the parlor. Some traps have more than one parlor. Wooden traps are still in use, though wire mesh has become popular. All of them are to have a door large enough to let the immature lobster recognize the error of his ways and show himself out.
When the traps are pulled, “shorts” and berried hens are thrown back, the others are sorted and banded; or if you’re lucky and they’re cooking on the Miss Jeanne M., are thrown straight into the pot.
An average “hen” lobster will produce 8000 eggs or “berries” at a time. It takes ten months for the “berries” to hatch into baby lobsters, or “crickets” as they’re sometimes called, and the colder the water the longer it takes. For every 50,000 eggs it is estimated that only two will survive to market size. All the lobstermen throw back the hens with eggs, along with the crabs and occasional eel that makes their way to the parlor.
Dr. Jelle Atema from the Boston Marine Biology Laboratory describes the mating of lobsters as “poignant” and involving a gentleness that is “almost human.”
When the hen is ready to mate, she seeks out the male of her choice in his lair, Dr. Atema explains. There she molts, shedding her shell to expose “her naked vulnerability.” (Atema’s words, certainly not mine.)
At that point the male could either mate with her or just eat her, but he chooses the former, turning the hen’s vulnerable body over unto her back. The male lobster, all dominance in hard shell, pointy legs and mouthparts, inserts his first pair of swimmerets, which are rigid and grooved, and passes his sperm into the female’s soft body. Dr. Atema observes that the female lobster will remain in the safety of the male’s den for about a week until her new shell hardens.
No matter what you’ve seen on television, lobsters do not mate for life.
To ensure not being pinched by the lobster en route from trap to sorting table (or again, if you’re lucky, traveling trap to boiling pot) the lobster must be held by its carapace, the long solid shell between head and wickedly articulated tail. Being smacked by the under side of their flipping tail hurts almost a much as being pinched. It doesn’t take long to pitch one in the pot, though and lobster eaten on the boat where it was caught has no match in any restaurant.
Traps are marked with buoys identified by the lobsterman’s license number. Occasionally whales get caught up in the lines between traps and buoys, other times the lines are cut, by storm or mishap or rival, leaving the “ghost trap” on the floor of the sea to go on catching lobsters forever and ever, amen.
Giving lobsters a sense of security. Tender mating rituals and ten months to produce the youngsters (crickets!). Kitchens and coffee cups! No wonder we have such mixed feelings about consigning them to their deaths in a vat of roiling seawater and steam.
Even Alice in Wonderland is loathe to admit that every lobster she’s ever known is one she’s eaten, choosing her words very carefully as the Mock Turtle teaches her the Lobster Quadrille. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?
Some “animal rights” radicals have repeatedly brought up the issues of cruelty (though really how seriously can you take an organization that calls fish “sea kittens”) and various theories have been floated in response to make cooking lobster more “humane.” Some suggest a gentle steaming. Others suggest putting the lobster in the freezer for a few minutes to lull it into sleepy complacency. The truth of the matter is those are worse.
Lobsters die immediately upon contact with boiling water. Any residual twitching is a nervous response, not unlike (but less sophisticated than) the chicken running around after her head’s been cut off. As for lobsters “screaming” in the pot, they have no vocal cords and thus no way to scream. The sound is made by air escaping the carapace.
Still, though, we don’t generally handle our food while it’s still alive. (Okay, oysters, in fact are still “alive” while traveling down my throat, but it’s really a stretch to anthropomorphize an oyster.) People try hard to disassociate the living lobster from the lobster recipe, even going as far to refer to them as “bugs,” and insects and lobsters are both arthropods. Yet whole threads exist on websites like Chowhound musing the question of how to kill a lobster.
Some recipes call for raw lobster meat—and it’s true that if you use “boiled” lobster meat in puff pastry, bisque, omelets and the like that the meat will be tougher. I’ll just have to live with that, because I am not willing to take up a cleaver to butcher a living creature even if said creature is just a step or two above earthworm on the evolutionary scale. I’d rather have someone else dump it in a vat of boiling water and go on in my ignorant bliss.
The last time I’d had a lobster was October 2007 at the Red Lobster restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know, I know. Lobsters start to die little by little as soon as they’re taken from the sea. Their life in a tank is a kind of purgatory. Occasionally a particularly large or charismatic lobster will be “rescued” by a customer to be returned to the ocean. They rarely survive the trip back.
Of course, the Red Lobster restaurant charged “market price” which would have paid for two other entrees, and they brought out the melted butter and the bib. But they forgot to crack the tail with a kitchen knife and they couldn’t find the crackers. I asked the waiter to take it back to open the shell. When he brought it back, it seemed they’d taken a hammer to it. We didn’t end up paying for it finally, but even so, the lobster was so rubbery it was hardly edible. We had to go by a burger stand on the way back to the hotel, which is what we should have done in the first place.
Lobsters used to be so plentiful on the New England coast that after a storm, they’d pick them up on the beach and distribute them as food for widows and orphans. They made a regular appearance on the tin plates of prison inmates. Some employment agreements stipulated that the employee would not be made to eat lobster more than twice a week. Then, around the middle of the 19th century, someone figured out how to successfully transport lobsters to urban centers around the country and fresh lobster became a luxury food. Which brings me back to the remaining three pounds of fresh lobster (at $6.50 a pound) in my kitchen in Dayton, Ohio.
I can hear the shower go off upstairs. Carrying a cooked lobster in one hand, I tiptoe up the stairs, and standing to one side, use the lobster’s claw to scratch on the door to the bathroom.
Scratch scratch scratch.
“What is it?” my teenage son asks from within.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Scratch scratch scratch.
“Yes?! What IS it?”
Scratch scratch scratch.
The door flies open and I wave the lobster at him.
“Argh! Mom! You killed it didn’t you?!” I’m laughing so hard I can hardly catch my breath.
“No, no—ha, ha, ha” I rattle the lobster gently. “They killed it for me.” He rolls his eyes and shuts the door.
In the kitchen, I whack the length of the tail with a chef’s knife. There’s so much tomalley I’m worried that something’s awry. I know some people love the dark green goop, that which serves as liver and intestines for the lobster, but it’s not my thing. Plus, with the rise of toxins in the ocean, I’m not keen on ingesting the lobster’s filtering system. I rinse the tail meat in the sink.
The claws have a kind of milky white jelly in them, that’s the cooked “blood” of the lobster. It’s not dangerous, but has little taste and I rinse that off too.
The last lobster is also overly full of tomalley. I wonder how many calls the upscale grocery has received from people concerned that their lobster was bad. I’ve never seen tomalley in this kind of quantity, but maybe that’s the norm now.
While I’m pulling apart one of the claws, the lobster draws blood as the sharp edge of the pincer slices my thumb.
“Dammit!” I drop the claw in the sink and raise my thumb against my mouth. “Ouch.” I have to go wash my hands and find the band-aids before I can return to making the lobster salad.
Lobster salad is for lobster rolls, my idea of culinary heaven and my last attempt to persuade my husband and son into the league of lobster lovers. It’s the meat of two lobsters, a teaspoon of green onion, a stalk of celery chopped fine, the squeeze of half a lime, a teaspoon of hot sauce and a tablespoon or two of mayo—just enough to bind it together.
This is the kind of lobster I dream about eating. If I were on death row, this is the meal I would ask for. Lovingly I spoon the mixture into the grilled-in-butter hot dog rolls. My husband eats one, but there’s not much enthusiasm. Julian seems to be finishing his, so I offer him another.
“Uh, no thanks, Mom. I’ve had enough.” When I pick up his plate, I see that he has eaten the lobster roll, but around the lobster, picking out the chunks of meat, which litter his plate.
I give up. I am resigned that lobster will join that pantheon of other things I love but They Will Not Eat. Banana pudding, coconut cream pie, crème brulee, watermelon, summer soups, tomatoes, salad caprese, steak tartare, sushi, clam chowder, mussels in saffron cream sauce, oyster stew and now, lobster.
Long, long ago in Boston, I regularly drove north to Revere Beach for lobster rolls at Kelly’s Roast Beef. A seaside joint, it’s open nearly every hour of the day (with a two-hour break from three a.m. to five a.m.) every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. No matter the weather or the season, you walk up to the window and order your lobster roll (some people do get roast beef I guess) and bite down into absolute bliss.
We usually went at night. I don’t remember all the people that went with me to Kelly’s. My ex-husband, I’m sure. I know my mother went at least once because she still talks about it. Girls in summer frocks and combat boots, skinny boys with new tattoos, friends home from Paris and people I could hardly stand; all of us at the window bathed in a pale blue fluorescent glow—the sea stretching out behind us inky black.
I don’t remember all of them because when I think about going to Kelly’s Roast Beef I think about all the times I went there with Joe. He and I worked together and every day was punctuated with theater, gossip and lunch. We adored each other, but you know, not like that. Or maybe it was like that. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance? I could count on Joe to hold my hand, to hold my head up, to keep me from drowning in self-pity and self-loathing.
He loaned me his leather motorcycle jacket when I needed to wear a leather motorcycle jacket. (And not just any leather jacket, either, but a Schott, like Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One.) There’s a photo of me somewhere in that jacket, looking just as brave as I needed to look.
Not that there wasn’t trouble in paradise. The worst fight we ever had was over a shower curtain, and it was bad. We didn’t speak for weeks. And when we did speak again, we got in my Volkswagen and drove to Revere Beach for lobster rolls.
Lobster rolls consumed in companionable silence in the Victorian pavilion across the street, the waves whispering along the shore. We hear the lullaby of the sea, as we go lightly across the sand. We were so beautiful then, and too distracted to even know it. Joe went to New York to be a playwright; I went to the land without lobster.
I haven’t been to Kelly’s in nearly twenty years.
It isn’t the same, quite, eating lobster rolls in the kitchen of my house in Dayton, Ohio, on a summer night, thumb bloodied and bandaged. With my eyes tightly closed I taste the lobster roll: buttery crispy hot dog bun, cool, tangy dressing, lobster sweet and resilient, redolent in my mouth. And there it is, the spell of the lobster’s song: I taste and just for an instant, I am again at the edge of the sea. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?
January 8, 2010 § 3 Comments
Today I learned that this essay, which was submitted in September for an essay contest (how cheesy, anyway) was not chosen as one of the finalists. And so I am liberated to share it with you, a much better fate for it and me. Thanks to all of you for your continued interest and enthusiasm, both much appreciated. — L.V.
Working without a Net
an examination of “growing up”
by Larkin Vonalt
My mother murmurs in her sleep. I touch her shoulder, whisper her name. She looks up at me in the half-light of the hospital room. I wake her now to say goodnight so she won’t wake up later and wonder where I am. Bending to kiss her face, I tell her I will see her in the morning, an old childhood spell. If you say it, it must be so. I would stay later, but the parking garage closes in a few minutes.
My mother is recovering: they have reworked the roadmap of her heart. It is a serious surgery, but also a routine one. As I push the button for the elevator, exhaustion tumbles over me like a rogue wave.
It is a wave of profound relief, of fatigue, of loneliness. My mother’s sisters have been here too, and her brothers and cousins and friends, but they are all at liberty to go home and think about something else. I wish I could call my father, but my father is dead. It’s a long walk to the car.
These days, I’ve been thinking about aerialists. How they work with utter faith that all the connections will connect, that the ropes will hold, that they won’t look down, lose their balance and topple. At the circus, there’s a net of course, but out where men and women walk the high wire, out there over Niagara Falls, between the ill-fated towers of the World Trade Center, over the Grand Canyon, there’s no net.
That’s what this feels like: no net. For years, that safety net was such an integral part of my life that I never even really thought about it much. Most of my life I’ve been proclaiming my independence. From the time I was old enough to walk and climbed out on the porch roof to see what that was like, I was asserting myself. As a kid, I repeatedly got into trouble for going too far, too fast, with the wrong people and never with permission.
As an only child left to my own devices, I explored empty houses, railway viaducts, the view of the world from the back of a horse. I had the moxie of the unvanquished. Even when we moved to England and the lunch ladies made me cry because of the way I held my fork, my stepfather stepped in and set them straight.
Robert Frost wrote cynically that home is where when you have to go there they have to take you in. That wasn’t my home. My home was more akin to that of Max, king of the wild things. When I got home from my adventures, dinner was still hot. Home was where you could get a Band-Aid, a dollar, an oatmeal cookie, and it was where you better be if it was after eight o’clock on a school night. Even as I struggled against the rules, and the confinement – I wanted to fly! – my sense of confidence grew from knowing the safety net was always there.
Even after coming home meant coming home for the summer, or coming home for Christmas, I relied on my parents. They would help with the rent. I could turn to them for airfare home. Birthdays and holidays brought something wonderful in the mail. It was almost like being a grown-up.
There were visits filled with a mix of applause and admonition over dinners I never could afford on my own. There were manila envelopes full of clippings, there was plenty of advice and occasionally strenuous objection—at those times I resisted, protesting, “Look, I’m twenty years old, I know what I’m doing!”
Once, when my Volkswagen lost its clutch, I parked it in the landlord’s garage until I could save the money to fix it. Finally after six months of being able to save nothing, I gave up and called my father, and he sent me $350. It turns out it was just the clutch cable: $35. I had money for that! I can’t remember what I used the car repair bailout for now.
One summer when I was 22, I came home for a visit. My job had been difficult; school wasn’t going well, I was in last throes of an awful relationship. I just needed to rest for a bit. When my mother and I pulled into the driveway, before me was a huge painted sign propped up along 30 feet of fence. It read “Welcome Home Baby Girl!” That night in my childhood bed, I cried with relief at being home. But two days later, I was fractious as a racehorse, wanting to get back to my real life.
I was a girl with two fathers, and when I married, I walked unescorted up the aisle. Not wanting to hurt the feelings of my father or my stepfather, I decided I would make the trip alone. I was a grown woman, after all, how hard could it be?
I watched from the church doors as little girls, my husband’s daughters, danced and spun along the sidewalk in their lawn dresses, the skirts twirling and lifting, the bridesmaids ushering them into procession.
Then they were away, down the aisle in front of me. The Church pianist played the opening notes of Clair de Lune. Those first steps — I might have been a spindly-legged foal; they were so uncertain and shaky. I would not have been more nervous stepping out onto a tightrope.
Maybe it would have been better to have asked all of them, a phalanx of parents to walk with me to the altar. Or maybe it was better that I learned I could do it myself, even if I felt a little shaky. There is a kind of exhilaration in being afraid and doing it anyway.
Even newly married, with two children thrown in for good measure, and certainly feeling every inch the adult, I never had to work without the net. If we were short for a family vacation, a check arrived in the mail. Every occasion was marked not just with a stack of presents in a brown cardboard box, but a butter yellow check inside each and every greeting card. We knew the checks would come, and we grew to depend on them.
Then the unthinkable: my stepfather left us one August morning. It was eleven years ago, he was brushing his teeth in a London flat, when he shot away straight to the sun. The coroner said the heart attack was so catastrophic that he was dead before his body hit the floor.
My mother had been with us that summer, and she stayed on, and that part of feeling safe slipped away. The house on the river was gone, there were no more trips to the Florida coast, no more sitting on the porch watching the dolphins play in the water. There were no more funny postcards or elaborate floral arrangements. Never again the voice on the telephone, seeing what I needed, what I celebrated, what I mourned.
Then my father died of cancer, not unexpectedly, and yet his death took my breath away. This was the person who had been my rock, my right arm, one of my very best friends. He supported me in every venture I took on, whether hare-brained or brilliant, never letting on which one he thought it was. His death left me feeling not like I had slipped from a high wire, but like I had become untethered from a spacecraft, utterly alone in a strange place, with no idea how I might get home.
Yet, I did get home. I put one foot after another across that chasm of grief, and arrived on the other side. Now there is nothing left of my brilliant childhood but me and my mother, and that relationship is changing. I am learning to take care of her, to make sure she has what she needs, to watch her while she’s sleeping, to cast our old childhood spells for safe-keeping.
So I learn to work without a net, to stand on my own two feet, and in turn, my husband and I become the same for our children, for our son who is “Nearly fifteen, for Pete’s sake, why can’t I go” and for our eldest daughter who, though she is all grown up herself, needs us in particular right now, and for our younger daughter, who pretends not to know us, but knows in her heart that we are always there for her, as she flies through the air from trapeze to trapeze to trapeze.
November 6, 2009 § 2 Comments
This piece originally appeared in June 2008 on True Crime Weblog, the website of noted crime writer Steve Huff, and appears here with his kind permission. This case remains unsolved.
by Larkin Vonalt
The woman is screaming into the television camera. There are words coming out of her mouth, but all you really hear is rage. Rage, and despair. The pain is writ so large upon her face that even at a distance one cannot help turning away out of respect. The camera pans from the shattered woman back to a twenty-something television reporter. The reporter smiles, embarrassed, and with a tilt of her head, brightly offers her reprise to the night’s top story.
Hours before, Tammy Walker trod the hallways of the city morgue, her own green mile, to identify the body of her daughter. 77 days earlier she and her husband filed a missing person report for Heather Nicole Walker, age 18. The police, by their own admission, never looked for her. Heather’s family and friends ran off flyers of the missing girl, posting them everywhere they could think of. Now it was all for nothing. When they’d turned out the lights the night before, there had still been hope, dangling on a string. There was still a chance that Heather would come banging through the door of the house on Gummer Street. Today, with the rising of the sun, that string snapped.
This evening Tammy Walker has returned to the alley where her daughter was found in a trashcan. Surely screaming can be the only reasonable response.
Dayton, Ohio is a city of 157,000 people. The crime rate falls somewhere between that of Baton Rouge and Rochester though violent crime in Dayton is significantly less than both those cities. Last year the Chief of Police was pleased to tell the media that Dayton had enjoyed its second straight year of diminishing crime.
In the days following the discovery of Heather Walker’s body, the police defended their lack of action.
“Many adults go missing throughout the year,” Sgt. Chris Williams told the Dayton Daily News, adding that “very few” turn out to be victims of foul play. They offer this information without apology. They are just cogs in a slowly grinding machine, one with no capacity to look for the needle in a haystack that is a girl lost in the streets.
Heather wasn’t the high school valedictorian. She wasn’t an accomplished coed at a prestigious university. When the media speaks of her they don’t use words like “gifted” or “promising” or “popular.” As if death wasn’t insult enough, they drop labels on her like stones: Troubled. Habitual. Runaway.
Heather’s parents had reported her missing before, six times in point of fact. But this time, Robert and Tammy Walker had been emphatic with the police: she had not taken her cell phone, or her wallet. In the past she had always called to let them know she was okay. Not this time. It didn’t matter that Heather’s absence was more sinister this February than on past occasions. She had passed that magic age. 18: you can’t buy a beer, but you can be tried as an adult, serve your country and be liable for your own debts. Oh, and the police won’t look for you anymore.
Mary McCarty, a Dayton Daily News columnist, chastised the police in a May 1 editorial for arbitrarily dismissing reports for missing individuals over 18, citing her own son, a 19-year old High School senior, as evidence of how childlike we still can be at that tender age, suggesting that the “cutoff” might be a little later. McCarty quotes Kettering, Ohio Police Sgt. Craig Moore deftly sidestepping the issue: “That’s a societal thing; we’re simply following state law as it is written,” Moore said. “That would be a change for the state of Ohio to make.”
The Walkers’ coltish daughter, half-woman, half-child, had early on seized the privileges usually reserved for adults, and did not bridle easily to the very adult responsibilities of raising her young son. The running away began when she was pregnant and reached epic proportions after Devin was born. The sixth time the police brought Heather home, just over a year ago, she left again ten minutes later. There would not be a seventh time.
Though suburbanites fear the predominantly black west side of Dayton, these blocks—east of Keowee, north of US 35—these are really Dayton’s mean streets. But like the natives of South Boston and the Bronx, the residents of East Dayton take pride in their gritty neighborhood, wearing their survival like a badge of honor.
Largely white, it is an area plagued with vandalism, theft, prostitution, homelessness, drug abuse and murder. The kids here ape black culture, posing on their MySpace pages and YouTube videos with rolls of cash, guns, bottles of Jagermeister. They imitate the speech, the dress, the swagger of the ghetto. It might be comical if it wasn’t so deadly. They’ve got the rims, the grills, they throw up the signs, pose for photos at the gravesites of their friends.
It isn’t just Heather they mourn, but also Andy Rush, who died Easter Sunday last year, accidentally shot in the head by his best friend, Tommy. His “Moms” had died just a few days before that, of cancer. Younger brother Mikey eulogizes all of them on his My Space profile. A few days ago there was a reference there to Heather, he called her his “future wife;” but to look at the profile now you’d never know they were friends. A guy’s got pressures, you know.
Heather wasn’t much of a diarist; she started four or five MySpace pages, but was never a regular presence there. Even so, the media noted that those pages were “laced with obscenities.” On both the pages that she got off the ground, she fusses about Devin’s father, Justin James Holbrook. “And for those bitches who want my baby daddy, go ahead and have him. He may look good to you and everything, but the thing is he has nothing to offer you, he don’t even have anything to offer his own son.”
On one of Heather’s early, abandoned profiles, Justin commented “hey if u ever get on here n check ur shit delete me from ur friends cause i dont want u to know nething bout wat i do so do me a favor n delete me k.” Their son, Devin, was about three months old then, and Heather was out the door as often as not.
It’s the pictures on Heather’s profile that finally provide a real glimpse of the girl behind the pose. Heather, laughing. Heather scowling, and yes, Heather (and a friend) stacking gang signs. Heather vibrant, her arms bare and smooth, a curtain of shiny hair, a wide, wide grin, goofing for the camera. Heather alive.
As a juvenile, Heather Walker had brushes with the law; shoplifting a pair of shoes, joyriding in a stolen car, the details carefully spelled out in the local newspaper days after her body was discovered. There is no record for her as an adult. She had dropped out of Belmont High, but she wasn’t alone in that. Four out of every ten students there don’t make it to graduation. On “academic watch,” the Dayton public high school features a “computer technology theme,” but has no school website. 93 percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
On Wednesday, February 6, Heather is thought to have been on her way to a birthday party for her older brother, Rob. She is seen about 7:30 in the parking lot of Sam’s Market, a down-at-the-heels corner grocery on East Third Street, two miles from home, three blocks from where her body will be found. By Saturday morning, she has still not come home and her parents turn to the police. The police follow procedure as for any missing adult, other than those considered “endangered.” They issue a 72-hour alert, and when it expires, they forget about her.
Eleven weeks later, on a warm April morning, three passersby wend their way down an alley half a block off East Third. One of them spots a pair of shoes hanging out of a city-issued trash bin. Deciding to take the shoes, they cross thirty feet from the alley to the edge of the abandoned building where the green plastic can rests. Reaching for the shoes, they make a horrible discovery. The shoes are still on Heather’s feet.
Heather’s friends bring balloons to the site. Balloons, and stuffed toys. Letters, poems, photographs of their lost friend. It is raining, the notes run, the photos smear, the candles flicker. In the rain, in an alley in a gin-soaked neighborhood, her friends weep, stunned with grief. A photograph of Devin visiting Heather’s shrine shows a beautiful and bewildered little boy.
Heather’s father has mapped his grief upon his chest, an image of Heather; peaceful, contemplative, is newly tattooed there. Two dozen of his Mixed Martial Arts students file past, their heads bowed. Bushi Combat, where he teaches, honors Heather on their website. All that combat training, and no one to save her. Robert Walker does not rage into the television camera as his wife does, but it is clear that the death of his baby girl has broken him.
The coroner issues a statement that Heather Nicole Walker had been dead “for a while,” yet her parents identify her in the hours immediately following her discovery. While her father concedes there was decomposition, he ventures that “her head hadn’t been bashed in or anything.” It’s unlikely Heather spent eleven weeks in the trash can, as the mild Ohio spring would have rendered her to state that no one would ask a parent to contemplate.
On the box that houses her ashes, the date of death is March 1, 2008; an estimate arrived at with the help of the medical examiner. It begs the question. Where was Heather for the 23 nights between February 6 and March 1? Was she captive? Was she frightened? Was she cold?
No cause or manner of death has been established. There were no signs of trauma on her body. She was not stabbed or shot or strangled. There was no blunt force trauma. Determining asphyxiation after a certain point of decomposition is very difficult. Life isn’t like CSI: lab tests take weeks, sometimes longer, to complete. Sometimes the answers never come.
As if rushing to pre-empt the media’s speculation, Robert Walker muses to a Dayton Daily News reporter that his daughter might have died of a drug overdose. Without the toxicology reports, the Montgomery County Coroner is not willing to make that leap yet.
The Coroner’s office director Ken Betz told the paper that he “cannot support that, because pathologists have not officially determined when and how Heather Walker died.”
If the cause of death is revealed in the toxicology report, it may well put an end to any homicide investigation. Without evidence of having been dosed against her will, the best the D.A. can offer her parents in that circumstance is the possible charge of “abuse of a corpse.” That is, if they ever find anyone to charge.
Drug overdose or not, no one is buying that Heather climbed into a trashcan on her own. Why would someone go to such lengths to conceal an accidental death? Or was their means of disposing of the body some kind of cruel joke? Though the house near the site is empty, the grass is kept mowed. Heather’s father said he talked to the people who had cut the grass just a few weeks before his daughter’s body was found. “They said that trash can was not there when they mowed,” he told the Dayton paper. “Someone killed Heather. I am staying on this.”
Heather Walker: daughter, mother, sister, friend. Not just lost, but stolen.