The Common Kind
When I was in law school a long time ago my criminal law professor Joe Cheney told us it was not so difficult to get away with murder — if getting away with murder was all we wanted. “Say I get on a bus and ride to someplace where nobody knows me, say to East St. Louis in Illinois, and I get off that bus, dressed as I am in my little J.C. Penney wool blend suit and my thoroughly unconvincing rep tie with my Staggerlee .44 in my yuppie briefcase, and I walk into a gas station I’ve never been to before and I shoot the guy who’s minding the cash register,” Cheney would tell us. “I don’t rob the place, I don’t dawdle ‘round, I don’t help myself to none of the Moon Pies or fetch up a Co’Cola from the cooler and stand around drinking it. I do my business and go. If I’m careful — and not unlucky — I can just walk away from there, step off a few blocks and hail me a taxi and go right back to the bus station and ride on home before my wife knows I’m late for supper, I can get away with it.
“Happens all the time. There are lots of unsolved murders, and most of them aren’t real big mysteries. Somebody just happens to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Boom boom. “But the thing is, most people — outside of maybe them Leopold and Loeb boys, you remember from the Hitchcock movie Rope — aaccckk —” here he made a face and stuck out his tongue, “don’t see killing as an academic exercise. Most people see it in more, shall we say, biblical terms. They murder for revenge, for justice, because — pardon me ladies —‘the motherfucker had it comin’, boss.’”
Invariably the class would laugh at this, at the mild and dapper little law professor affecting what he imagined was the vernacular of the street. “I mean, some of them think that’s a legal defense. ‘He had it comin’.’ And, truth be told, in some jurisdictions in this state, it pretty much is. But that’s beside my point. My point is that most killers don’t kill in so-called cold blood, they kill in a rage. Maybe they do it on the spur of the moment, like it was just something they’d just thought of, and maybe they roll it over and over in their minds, maybe they let it linger there, an ember they nurse and blow on to draw it hot. Maybe they like that little nub of pain, maybe they like knowing that deep down there is a little speck of emotion they can draw on to obliterate all rational thought. Maybe it makes them feel alive — you folks should be acquainted with Monsieur Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, having as you all do a diploma from an accredited institution of higher learning, am I right, Miss Prince? I thought so — though you probably prefer Rimbaud to Baudelaire and Bob Dylan to either one of the Frenchies?
“In any case, even when you can’t call upon an educational background, even if you haven’t had the advantages that all you folks gathered here in this classroom have had, even if you don’t know that the Goethe boy couldn’t think of a crime of which he himself was incapable, you’ve got these feelings and sometimes the only way for you to go on with your own life is to do something irrational, something that just doesn’t make any sense to the cool, detached observer. This doesn’t make you crazy, it just makes you human. And because you are human, you are capable of murder. And because you are human, you’ll probably get caught.
“Because murderers aren’t real concerned with the consequences, and that’s why capital punishment doesn’t work as a deterrent for murders. I mean, you’ll stop horse thievin’ if you hang the horse thieves from the lamp posts — capital punishment works real good at cutting down on pilferage and it might even keep law students from fudging on their résumés, but a man who makes up his mind to murder has already written himself off. He doesn’t care what happens to him — least not at the moment. He’s dead to himself, he doesn’t care. He’s emotionally involved in the act, he is the act he’s yet to commit. He is the obliteration of his enemy — the source of his pain. Most of the time in a murder case, the cops get there and the murderer is still standing over the victim, either crying or taunting him. He doesn’t care about getting away with it.
“Most of the murderers get real good and worked up once in their lives — they feel this kind of big feeling — and then they’re exhausted. Sigh. They don’t want no more of it. It just takes too much out of your average human, who after all has been stuffed with all these guilt-inducing platitudes and mystic mumbo-jumbo and hardshell babtisk superstitions. After your spent murderer has — excuse me again ladies— shot his wad, he don’t want to do nothing but lie down in a cool dark place, maybe the grave don’t sound so bad to him anymore. “You don’t have too many recidivist murderers — a man who murders, most likely he’s taken care of his problem. Or he’s realized what he’s done. That’s why you go out to the governor’s mansion, the guy that opens the door for you, he likely killed his wife back in 1948. All them boys butlering around, they are all killers. One time killers, the common kind. Everybody has it in them, once.”
I know I recall Joe Cheney’s words imperfectly, though I hear them ring in my head. The brain works in odd ways. I remember snatches, a certain cadence and my brain calculates and interpolates. Confabulation, I believe it is called. I grew up to be a professional confabulator. Some parts I do know are verbatim — like his singling out Melinda Prince. She was a petite girl, with short black bangs and blue eyes. She had a small fair face, with miniature features crowded together in the center and a sharp chin. I always thought she was pretty but she wasn’t the pretty type, more the smart, rural rich type. Her daddy was the head of the police jury in Breaux Bridge. I never said more than a dozen words to her when we were in school together but six years after we graduated I saw her in a bar in Monroe and we had a nice talk about the old days. She was the one whose brother — Tommy, a New Orleans photographer — got arrested for killing his gay lover. Shot him while he was sleeping but beat the rap on some burning bed defense. He was in fear for his life, he said old Alphonse, a big steroidal country queer with a part interest in a Metairie health club — again I don’t know if this is real memory or confabulation — used to beat him fairly regularly.
Apparently, Miss Prince’s brother wasn’t much bigger than she was and possessed of the same delicate features. A few emergency room docs at Charity remembered him. Early one August morning he blew four holes in their 310-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. One of the police detectives told me bad old big queer Alphonse never stirred — the bullets just stuck deep in him, like BBs in Play-Doh, and he bled out. You’d think that the first one would have woke him up — at least that’s what I would have assumed — but the detective said Alphonse slept through his own murder. I guess it’s not something you’d mind missing. But Tommy Prince skated — like The Eric Heiden Story as told to Hans Christian Anderson. I will tell you right now and forever that the jury system is a wonderful thing. And the “he needed killin’” defense works a lot more often than the insanity defense. People can believe people need killing easier than they can let a man off just because he’s got emotional problems. I didn’t write about Tommy Prince — it happened in New Orleans and my newspaper is “aggressively local.” But I followed the wire reports. It was an especially interesting case because the defendant’s sister was an Orleans Parish deputy prosecutor at the time.
Maybe you’ve got the wrong idea. I want to say right now that I’m not a lawyer. About six weeks after Joe Cheney delivered his lecture on murder, I gave up law school. I punched a hole in the wall of my crappy little apartment, threw a bag in my car and hauled ass. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving and to this day some people don’t know where I went. Some figured I met with foul play, some figured the pressure got to me and I drove off into the woods and shot myself in the mouth. They figured I was the type to do that, and maybe I was. I was quiet and still and I sat in the back of the class with my baseball cap pulled down tight. I never volunteered for anything and if I was asked a question I’d answer in slow, low tones. I was just trying to keep myself from stuttering but I guess it sounded like I was annoyed. People stayed clear of me for the most part — I guess because I was a big messy kid who really had no idea about how things worked. All the people I went to law school with, people like Miss Prince, seemed real sophisticated to me. They held their cigarettes differently, they knew how to order drinks in bars and they wore different clothes than I did. Back then, it would have been tough to take me in hand, no one did and I felt like I felt. So I didn’t show up to class for a week and someone went round to check on me and I wasn’t there and there were signs that maybe I wasn’t in the best emotional health. And people started confabulating. I think most of them were disappointed when I showed up again, about three weeks after I’d left, to give notice to my landlady, pick up my things and officially move out. I cleaned the place pretty well but I didn’t expect to get my deposit back because of the hole I made. I said I was sorry and we parted on pretty good terms, I think.
Most people have a gift, something they can do better than most of the rest of us. I guess if you’re lucky you can sing like George Jones or play baseball like Roberto Clemente or figure out which stocks are going to go up. Some gifts I think are rarer than others — I mean the guy who plays second base for the Montreal Expos, he’s gifted, but not as gifted as Roberto Clemente — but we all have our gift. And my gift is that you can look right at me and not see me. You can talk to me and not remember it. You can look dead in my eyes, and half an hour later I’m a stranger to you. As gifts go, it’s a pretty crummy one I guess. It’s like the opposite of being a movie star. Nobody has ever called me ugly, nobody has ever suggested that I go on a diet or dress better than I do. No one notices me, not unless I make them. And I can make them, but I usually don’t. I figured I don’t want to fight my gift. I figured I’d better learn to exploit it. I got a job on a newspaper. People tell me things — or say things in my presence — that perhaps they should not. I am good at my job. I know about murder. I know about murder because it’s my beat. I am a cop reporter. My business card says “criminal investigations writer.” I hang around jails and squad rooms. I talk to detectives. More precisely, I listen. I become part of the furniture. Other reporters get shooed out of the room, or cause the conversation to dry up. Policemen just look at me, figure I’m where I’m supposed to be, all is right with the world. That’s how come I know about the things I know about. I am practically egoless, I am less than a presence. I am just a suggestion of a human being, an indifferent ghost.
You have guessed that I am not stupid. That’s right, I’m not. I’m not vain about my intellect either, I figure you either have a glimmer of intelligence, something flickering in your head, or you don’t. And the people who don’t, they are a dangerous minority. Not that smart people aren’t dangerous too. We’re all dangerous, You are dangerous. You could kill someone before the night is over. Oh yes, you could. I’ve seen it happen.
I’m not psychic. I’m not a spook. I have a gift but it’s no more extraordinary — no more inexplicable — than Clemente’s throwing arm or Possum’s voice. You have heard of WeeGee, Arthur Fellig, the photographer? He claimed he had a sixth sense, a preternatural alertness to the world that let him know something was going to happen before it happened. He picked up his camera one night and took a series of photographs. In the first photo there’s an old guy sitting on a bench. In the second photo the old guy is up and beginning to walk into the street. In the third photo, the guy is dead, struck by a car right as WeeGee was framing his shot. You tell me about that sort of thing. My gift is different, not the same. But I’ve been an eyewitness to three murders in seventeen years on this job. That’s a lot, that’s a really high percentage. No police officer in this city has ever eyewitnessed one murder in that time. Except for the four murders that we know have been committed by police officers from this department in that time. It is an odd thing to see a stranger killed before your eyes. Murder, at least the murders I have witnessed, is an intimate and unwieldy act. It is difficult to kill a human being, we are made tough.and ornery and bullets don’t always have the effect they seem to in the movies. I’ve seen a man shot in the head cuss the woman who shot him. Then he dropped to one knee and started crying. She shot him again, and he slowly folded forward and rolled on his side. She looked right at me. I know she did not see me. She was white blond, with bad acne scars, probably no more than thirty-five years old. She had one of those narrow, nervous rodent faces that might look sexy or well-formed in the right light, but never kind. She did not see me, but she knew that plenty of people saw her. It was a almost crowded bar. She didn’t care. She walked out to the parking lot, set the gun down on the hood of her car and lit a cigarette. She threw back her head and blew the smoke straight up into the air. I liked her, or at least I felt some solidarity with her. That son-of-a-bitch needed killing. She did not, however, skate. She is still in prison and I imagine she will be there for another ten years. I was not called to testify at her trial. There were plenty of other witnesses, what she did was not in dispute. I wrote a long piece for the newspaper about the crime. It was a good break for me.
I know how that sounds. That is why I say it. I am trying to be truthful, but I understand that this is just my truth. I am aware that I am bending it to my own purposes, that I am shaping and directing this narrative. I am ready for my close-up. My eyes are brown. Or maybe green, with brown flecks. Or gold flecks. Some people have told me they look red or at least rusty. I can’t say for sure. I am colorblind. To me, my eyes are the color of strong tea. My nose was broken when I was young, and once again when I was in college. It is not regular, but it is not a disaster either. At times, I can detect a slight occlusion of my right nostril — it is not as efficient as the left. Sometimes I think this causes me to snore. My hair is dark blond, what my mother called dishwater. Elvis Presley’s real hair color — he dyed his black — was something close to mine. My hair is fine, but not thinning. I wear it short and neat and parted on the left. There is a scar on my lip where a dog bit me when I was young. It makes a small white “m.” I have lost weight since law school and learned how to dress. I am well-paid, I live cheaply but I buy good clothes. It is not unusual for me to wear two-thousand dollar suits. None of my colleagues, none of the police officers I deal with, ever notices. My suits are good, but not flashy. My jackets have three buttons and a single vent. I buy my sex. I have the number of a good service, one that is too discreet to advertise in the alternative paper that would accept their advertising. They are expensive so I don’t use them often, maybe once or twice a month. Now you are beginning to judge me. That is too bad. You would like me, if I wanted you to.
I did not write directly about the second and third murders. I just watched them happen, then slipped away unnoticed. I filed stories based on what the official reports said, on what the detectives told me. I did not filter out the misinformation, or clear up any of the confusions. I did not make use of any of the specific details I had observed. And I don’t really want to talk about it now. I will say this: It hurts to die that way, to be killed by someone with whom you have a history, a bond. Worse than the dying is the knowledge that someone you might have loved is killing you. That is what I think.
I do not think my life is any more joyless than any other life. I have a lot of money in my 401K, I go to restaurants and I travel on my vacations. Because I do not waste my money I can afford what I want. I live simply but I do not deprive myself. I am invited to parties and I go and often I talk to people there. This is my choice, I could stand on the periphery, smiling and going unnoticed, but I think this is a misuse of my gift. I am a good listener and women especially like to tell me things about their lives. They sense I am no threat, that I am available to them in an uncomplicated way. They give me information, I have a way of seeming to care without petitioning for affection. So I am not exactly unpopular, just unthought of. Out of sight, out of mind.
I know that there is something about me, an edge that some people sometimes find uncomfortable, but most of the time I am able to keep it in check. I know how far I can go, when to simply let my voice trail off. I smile, I raise my drink, I am gone and in a few moments forgotten. I take with me what I take, nothing so tangible as a wallet or a stock tip, just a whiff of the other person’s essence, or soul. I can make use of this, I can dine out on an off-hand remark, I can parlay an unguarded comment into an alternative history. I have a file of numbers and names and addresses and passwords — if I needed to, if I wanted, I could e-mail the Pope. But I don’t cross some lines, I don’t take advantage. I work legit, I watch and listen but I don’t rifle files or press my ear to doors. I take what they tell me, what I see; it is enough.
For three weeks I was gone. I drove west, to the ocean. Then back again. I slept in my car, I showered at truck stops. It was an American thing to do. It was boring. I never told anyone.
She was fifteen or sixteen. I never knew her name. It is just as well. Had I heard it I might later have betrayed myself.
Most murderers are arrested at the scene. Most make no effort to conceal their guilt. Most of them are spent after the act, most of them are finished. Like Joe Cheney said, they shoot their wad and they want nothing more than to lie down where it is cool and still. They wait for the police, meek and smoking and maybe thinking about their sins. But sometimes you wait and the police don’t come. And after a little while, you stand up, you walk on. You leave it all back there, you walk towards the lights. And soon you are back among the living, wondering if it wasn’t a dream, it made so little difference. One day you catch yourself singing along with the car radio, tasting the wine. You catch yourself living and you wonder at the splendidness of your spirit. Everything, you think, is all right. People can get over almost anything, even their own deaths.
One thing about human beings is that they are lazy. Sometimes even when they don’t mean to be. There is a lot of pressure on police departments to “clear” homicide cases, to solve the mysteries they present the public. Unsolved murder cases are headaches. But sometimes there are opportunities. Our sheriff’s department cleared four murders off Henry Lee, our police department cleared two. I saw the deputies in the Western Sizzlin Family Restaurant with Henry Lee, feeding him a tenderized ribeye before they took him out into the pines so he could show them where he killed them. Henry Lee’s mama was a prostitute in West Virginia. When he was little he watched her have sex with a one-legged man. When he grew up a little bit he killed her with a steak knife. It was his first one. The deputies took Henry Lee out north of the city, down some dirt roads off the parish route. Usually he stuck close to the interstate but not this time, he told them. He was camping and she was a little whore he met near Plain Dealing. They’d been together for a couple of days. That was what he said. He said he shot her in the head. That was what he did when he just wanted to get it over with. If he’d been mad at her, he’d have hit her with a rock or strangled her. Maybe he did kill her. I know he killed his mama and probably that first one in Texas, the hitchhiker with the red-striped socks. In the end, he said he’d killed eight hundred — that was before it got ridiculous and he said he flew over to Europe and started killing people over there too. After he said that the Rangers wouldn’t let anyone else talk to him. Nobody could clear any more cases. I would guess he killed six or seven. Maybe more. Maybe less. He had that killer’s film, the crust they develop after they’ve done a couple. It gets easier with practice. The first time it’s like you don’t know when it’s over, you think it might be like in the movies when Jason keeps getting up and coming after you. Only you’re Jason and the movie doesn’t make sense. You get mad at them for dying, mad at them for not being dead. It’s a difficult position to put yourself in. Confusing. Some people think I’m something of an expert on serial killers, particularly Henry Lee. This is because I wrote a lot of stories about the murders they charged him with locally, because I worked with a Dallas journalist and wrote a couple of stories that said he couldn’t have possibly killed Geena Robart in Portland, Oregon on August 16, 1979 and killed Humphrey Flangon in Perry Hall, Maryland the next day. (Though I took pains to suggest it was possible, and even probable, that he did do all the local murders. And it is also highly likely that he killed a fifteen or sixteen-year-old Jane Doe whose bones were found bleaching beside the Centennial Wash outside Buckeye, Arizona.) People think I know him but mainly I watched a lot of his video depositions and read a lot of transcripts in a lot of county courthouses all over the country. I saw him that night in the Western Sizzlin, but I only really spoke to him once.
I spent a few minutes with him before they returned him to the custody of the Texas Rangers. I wasn’t supposed to ask him any questions about the specifics of any case. He was a small man with round shoulders and a wattled neck. His hair was greasy, gray and curled on top. His right eye popped a bit, and his teeth were crooked and his breath was bad. He looked at me with yearning. He grinned. I smiled back. “They treating you OK?” I asked. “Yessir, doctor,” he chirped. “They feed me good and don’t make me work and when I get back to Texas I can get at my paints again.” Henry Lee painted landscapes and still lifes. I understand you can buy them on eBay now, they cost thousands of dollars. He talked a little about his cell, about a quilt some woman had sent him. He talked about how he was better off now that he was in jail, about how he was tired of it all and not afraid of dying himself. He knew it could be hard, but he knew it could be easy too.
A few years ago this serial killer idea was in fashion. We were given to believe that the country was infested with these ambitionless drifters who killed for convenience, for pocket money or transportation, and then moved on. I am not convinced that journalists are any more necessary to the maintenance of the American experiment than washing machine repairmen or disc jockeys. But I do take some small pride in having, I believe, disabused the public at large of the myth of the serial killer. There have been one or two and there are certainly people who will kill you if they are desperate or annoyed or enervated, but the idea of a man — or woman, like that prostitute in Florida — who kills as part of his lifestyle is just a romantic myth, a spook story to tell the kids. Most people who get killed get killed for a reason. By someone they know. And the plain fact is most of them had it comin’, boss.
The second murder I witnessed occurred in front of a nightclub, down in the square. There had been an argument in a bar, and one of the guys, a yellow-haired country boy who looked like Kurt Cobain wearing Sears Toughskin cowboy clothes went out and got in his truck, maybe to sleep off his buzz, maybe to wait for the other guy to leave the bar. He told investigating officers that he was just thinking. At approximately ten minutes before two in the morning, the man he had argued with, a dude with thick features and close-cropped hair, left the bar with a young woman. The perpetrator got out of his truck brandishing a shotgun. He told the young woman to “step aside.” She did. Right before he was cut in half, Dude seemed to smirk at the kid. Kurt didn’t run, instead he set the stock of the gun on the ground, leaned over it like he was about to throw up and blew out his own throat. Suicide is homicide too. I counted that one as three.
Tommy Prince took my photograph a couple of weeks ago. A local art gallery had a deal where he set up his camera in their backroom, he draped light gray drop clothes over the junky furniture they had, got you posed and snapped you. They scheduled a sitting every fifteen minutes and charged only $250 for one eleven-by-fourteen black and white signed print — Tommy the artist’s choosing. — and a set of proofs. You could buy other prints if you wanted, and the framing cost extra, but all in all it was a good deal since Tommy normally charges $1,500 for a sitting. Most of the people who sit for these portraits want family shots, or photographs of themselves with their pets. Very few single men schedule appointments, and those who do are usually very vain. I thought I would use the Tommy Prince photo for my jacket photo when I publish my book. I wore a white shirt, a red tie, khakis and an Atlanta Braves baseball cap to the shoot. Tommy Prince liked the baseball cap.
“I want people to be
comfortable, to wear the clothes they usually wear,” he said as he made
some fine adjustments to his Hasselblad. “You’d be surprised — or maybe
you wouldn’t — at all the folks who show up in brand-new clothes they
just got at Dillard’s or Godchaux’s, all those tight collars and stiff
sleeves. Honestly, I tell them, ‘The camera senses fear. All that
tension is going to show up in the photograph. You don’t need to be
afraid of me, I’m sweet. I’m at your service. Now loosen that tie and
lose the coat, honey.’ I get them to laugh at the little homosexual, I
make them forget that I’m pointing a camera at them, that I’m stealing
their soul.” I made an encouraging noise. “That’s what it is, really,
it’s black magic. I get them in the camera and I’ve got them. My
favorite images are always the ones that make them look the ugliest, the
hardest, the least kind. And those are usually their favorite images
too. People don’t really want to be flattered — at least not the kind of
people who come to me. These are people who like to believe they have
taste.” He clicked and wound. Clicked and wound. Painless. “You look
great, cher. Now, look, I went and violated what I just said. People
expect that kind of patter. People expect me to swish and flirt and say
something outrageous. I could do that — I could talk about that cute
butt of yours, but that wouldn’t make you uncomfortable. You’re
completely comfortable, you really could be a model, a certain kind of
model at least, not one of those vulgar hunky International Male types
but something more smokey and dark. You could be in an advertisement for
absinthe or the embodiment of banal evil in a film noir. What do you
do?” Click. Wind. I told him. “Oh, I would not have guessed that. I
suppose I should know your name, but I never read the newspapers. I
guess you understand why? It’s nothing personal, I guess I should try to
keep up.” I told him I didn’t read the newspaper either, except for the
comics and the sports pages. He laughed, but it’s true. I don’t even
read my own stories once they’re published. I’m finished. “You’re not
going to write about any of this, right? Of course not, I’m old news now
and it would be unethical to come here and interview me without
identifying yourself. Plus I’d scream bloody murder and cause all kinds
of whoop-de-doo. And I’m not so self-absorbed as to think that anyone
really cares what this old queer is up to anymore. I’m not exactly
‘Where Are They Now?’ material. After all, I was ex-honor-rated. Found
most definitely not guilty.” I told him all I was interested in was
having my picture taken. And then I said I went to school with his
sister. “You know Lindy? That’s great, she’s more than a sister to me,
she’s a good one. I think she works too hard you know, and she’s had
some man trouble — haven’t we all? — but she is so normal sweet. I never
thought people could be as kind as her. You keep in touch?” I told him
I hadn’t seen her in more than ten years. That we’d had a chance meeting
in a bar in Monroe — as it turned out we were attending the same
conference on serial killers, a hot subject in the Eighties — and that
we’d had a good talk. She was a deputy prosecutor, I was a newspaper
reporter, and before that I had been the kid who’d run away from law
school. That was before Tommy’s bad business. That was, I said, a long
time ago. “Yes, I imagine I was quite an embarrassment to the family. I
was always an embarrassment to the family, but not to her, not until
that happened. I don’t know what you think about it, I don’t really
care, but I know it was something that had to be done. Maybe not by me,
but I was the one who got the call. I don’t remember anything about it,
about the facts of it I mean. I mean I know I was standing there with
the gun in my hand and blood was leeching out through the fabric, the
way ink does when a pen breaks in your pocket, but I didn’t know how I
got there, or what I’d been thinking. I know I did it and I know why but
I don’t remember ever deciding to do it. It was like I was an instrument
of the Lord or maybe the devil, no, the Lord because, for all the good
stuff — and sweetie, there was some good stuff — he was a bad man. “And
what was strange was the way I didn’t really feel anything except a
little ashamed that I’d ruined those sheets. I was just numb to it. And
that was what was so awful. “ I said I understood and he looked at me
in a way that signaled how preposterous he thought those words sounded.
(photo by Robert O'Nale)