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A Fool’s Errand

by Sophie Jones

An essay from the Spring 2019 issue.

by Sophie Jones | Voices | Spring 2019

Image by Bridget Conway

Carol was beaten to death in her house at the edge of my hometown. There, the developments disintegrate into desert; empty lots and unpaved roads melt into furrows of granite, cheatgrass and manzanita creep back over property lines. When I was little, my dad and I often went exploring in the scrubby dells behind Carol’s neighborhood, tearing the surveyors’ tape off ponderosa branches and pulling their stakes out of crumbly soil. The small-town cops found her body tucked halfway beneath a tipped-over bookcase, as if there by accident. She was wearing a lavender camisole; she had eaten a salad for dinner.

Did my mom and dad sit me down to tell me about her murder, as they’d done with the other things parents are obliged to explain to their children; death of other kinds, divorce, sex? I lingered after dinner to hear the adults speculate, gleaning what I could before my mom ushered me away. I learned how to avoid the topic with her, how to pursue it with my dad. Alone in the privacy of traffic, riding in the front seat—a novel, grownup realm to which I had only just gained access—I calculated the right moment to turn down the radio and ask him a leading question.

Carol’s killer left no fingerprints, no DNA. No murder weapon was ever recovered.

The story of the murder is a good one; now, I tell it at parties. It is scandalous without reflecting too badly on me or my family, depending on which details I choose to share or withhold. Sometimes my delivery is too glib. I am too familiar with the facts of the case, or else in an attempt to prove detachment––from my hometown, my parents, the murderer, the victim––I let too much slip too casually. Both listener and storyteller find themselves too close to the crime to justify morbid interest any longer. That evening, Carol went for a three- mile run in the half-wilderness beyond her backyard. She texted her daughters, she called her mother. She sustained seven blows to the head. She did not feed her terrier dinner. The small-town cops discovered her corpse, wrapped it in a tarp, and transported it to the city in the back of the coroner’s pickup.

That evening, Carol’s ex-husband Steve went for a long mountain bike ride. He had a spare key to Carol’s house, their daughters’ childhood home. There was a club missing from his golf bag. He owed Carol alimony. There were incriminating Google searches on his computer; Steve claimed he was writing a crime novel.

Good true crime writing maintains distance. The writer must know how to tear some facts from court transcripts and police reports, and how to imagine others out of thin air. They must be able to deftly weigh these against each other so the reader never pauses to wonder how the writer could know such things. The writer must decide which details to include—that Steve’s younger daughter made her father a vegetable stir- fry the night of her mother’s murder—and which to omit—that my father and the murderer learned how to roll a kayak in the brick-red spring runoff of the Pariah River their freshman year of college; that the two remained best friends for twenty years until a final rift a few years prior to the murder.

Then, there are details about the case that I’ve almost certainly made up: that Steve entered the house before Carol did and unscrewed all the light bulbs. This can’t be true, because she was home for hours before his arrival. I must have read that somewhere else, about someone else.

Writers omit details about the murdered, or else, as readers, we skip over them. They are too frightening and too small. Get too close, and pain ceases to be palatable.

Steve killed Carol in midsummer, in the desert, in the evening. It might still have been light outside when she died. I imagine that Steve and Carol’s two daughters are the same ages as my sister and myself; they are several years older.

After Carol’s death, my dad began a true crime memoir about her murderer. In his writing, my father is a distant narrator; detailed catalogs of Steve’s skillful manipulation of the legal system, the media, his family, friends, and neighbors. His relationship to my father isn’t mentioned. This is true at least for the drafts I was allowed to read.

The true crime author’s authority comes from their closeness to the story. But if the writer neglects to maintain a strategic tension—allows slippage between what is real and what is embellishment, or confuses sordid details with truly sickening ones— they risk losing their reader. The writer is revealed to be a fabulist, or worse, a leech; simultaneously self-serving and -pitying. When the author becomes too close to the story, their credibility is threatened and they become a character themselves.

I was eleven when Carol was killed and seventeen when Steve was sentenced to life for the crime. I went to middle school and high school, and my dad stopped writing his book. A notable true crime author wrote a brick-sized paperback about Carol’s murder; my dad is quoted on the last page. My parents got divorced, and my dad moved back to the town where I was born, the town where Carol died. Like hers, his house is in a peripheral cul-de-sac that meanders into the scrub oak and granite dells, a landscape of eroded pink stone fractured by new construction. The town is bigger than it was when we moved away.

When I visit my hometown, my dad and I still hike in the dells but rarely pull the surveyors’ tape, it’s a fool’s errand– the houses will go up regardless. One late afternoon, halfway up Granite Mountain, my dad pauses in the shade to consider the sheer, patinated cliff face above us. He and Steve used to rappel there, crack climbing up and then lowering each other back down over and over until backing off the precipice was second nature, until the trust was absolute. He points to a jumble of house-size boulders at the base. Steve could easily have clambered to some anonymous crevice and secreted his bloodied clothes away.

I peel off my shoes and socks and swish my feet in the shallows of a dammed reservoir outside of town. I can feel the ominous sucking current of the dam’s spillways. A year after the murder, the city dredged this lake for the missing golf club and found nothing. My dad and I climb to a fire look-out on top of nearby Mingus Mountain. Directly below us, nestled in the ponderosa, a nameless pond shines like a silver dollar. My dad thinks it is more likely Steve disposed of the weapon there.