Going to school and working at the IGA afterward was not my idea of a fun time. We couldn’t live on Granny’s money from Grandpa’s pension alone. The house we lived in was not mortgaged but there were other bills. I confess I had a few things I liked to have. I liked going to the movies with my friends. Fast food was a weakness I had no desire to give up on. The occasional date with a girl cost a few bucks even if we went really cheap. My biggest expense was the money I’d been setting aside to buy a car. I knew it wouldn’t be a new car. No one except Max from Max’s Chevrolet dealership and Joe Ford from the Ford dealership across the road drove new cars. I always wondered who bought the shiny new cars that sat in their showrooms. It certainly wasn’t anyone in our town. But every year when new models began to appear in television ads the showrooms had the same new models on their floors. The real moneymakers were the old cars in the back lot. Those were the cars that sold. Those were the cars I would choose from.
As weeks went by and no answers were forthcoming from the strangers who entered and exited the various town businesses the rumors began to fly. The notion of a flooded cemetery had long since floated off with the last of the muddy waters from the river banks. Local news which came from the county seat eighty miles away stirred those waters up with talk of suspicious circumstances. It was Sunday afternoon and Granny was in the kitchen making a roast chicken. I was getting ready to watch a baseball game, the Yankees versus the Red Sox. I wasn’t a big fan of either team but I did like baseball. I had played for years growing up and my bat and glove still gathered dust in a closet somewhere in the house.
The evening news was just beginning when I switched on the channel for the game. Pictures of our downtown, the river, and the outside of the community services building slid across the screen. The reporter stood outside talking to some of the seniors and single moms herding three or more kids with snotty noses who had lined up for commodities or what some of us jokingly called government cheese. It was funny watching the guy in his nice suit and tie talking to some woman holding a boogery toddler on one hip, obviously keeping enough distance so he didn’t get slimy streaks on his navy blue. Then he dropped the bombshell.
“What do you think of reports that the bodies found in the river were the victims of a prolific serial killer?”
I recognized the washed out blond he was interviewing from the market. Her kids usually ran through the store grabbing bags of candy and boxes of sweetened cereals off shelves, begging for them like sugar addicted maniacs. She never returned the products to their assigned shelves. She just stuck them wherever she passed and the kids would run and find something else to toss in the shopping buggy for one of us stockers to round up and replace later.
Now the mother with the kids from hell was staring at the reporter as though he had told her the winner of the Publishers Clearing House lived in our town. Her head turned from left to right, a strange expression of something akin to fan fever lit up her eyes. “A serial killer here?”
The reporter tried to cut her off and explain just the bodies had been found there but mama was lined up for her fifteen minutes of fame and she wasn’t about to let it get away. “I thought something was funny when all them bodies turned up. There’s crazy people in this town. I’m not surprised.” She pulled her kids closer as though protecting them from an axe wielding maniac hiding behind the camera. “I hope they find him and fry his ass.”
This last statement caused the reporter to turn away and the shot zoomed in on his obviously distressed face as he went on to inform viewers that state investigators were looking into the possibility the bodies had been secreted somewhere upriver for a number of years. “The bodies of girls and young men along with the body of Floyd Vann, a former resident who disappeared six years ago, remain in the custody of the state police. Federal investigators have been called in to assist in the investigation.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard the loud crash behind me. I turned to see Granny standing there, pale as a ghost, not mumbling, with the shards of her white corning baking dish scattered around her feet.
“Granny!” I saw the fear in her eyes and I knew it had to be scary for an old woman to think there was a crazy killer running around town. The idea that said killer might have taken the life of her husband, the man she thought had deserted her, must have been pretty hard to wrap her head around. I put my arms around her shoulders. “It’s okay. I’ll clean this up.” I guided her into the kitchen and pressed her to sit at the table where a bowl with partially peeled potatoes sat. “You stay put. I’ll get this.”
Taking the broom and dustpan into the living room I began to carefully sweep up the pieces of the dish, bending to coax a few thin shards from between the wood slats of the floor. I was carrying the dustpan back into the kitchen and telling Granny I was going to run the vacuum over the floor to be sure I got all the pieces when I heard her sniffling. I emptied the debris into the kitchen trash can and turned to reassure her. As soon as our eyes met she began to sob, softly at first, then louder until she was wailing.
Granny had never made a sound like that, at least not in my presence. I just stood there, one hand holding the dustpan and the other hand hanging loosely at my side. Then she said what she said and I dropped the dustpan and dropped into a kitchen chair across from her.
“I killed him. When I found out what he was, what he did, what he was doing, I bashed his damned brains in.” That released the flood of words that had been dammed up for years.
“I thought he was cheating. I thought he had to be having an affair. I’d believed it for years. For years.” She was staring at the kitchen door as though it was a time portal and she could see into the past as clearly as she could see me sitting there. “I watched him go out that evening. He had that bad boy look that said he was wanting something I could never give him. I went into the garage where we kept the washer and dryer. I kept getting madder and madder. The washer was on spin cycle and it was shaking and rattling. I realized it had slipped off the wooden blocks he’s put underneath to keep it level. I bent down to shove a block back underneath the lower corner; sliced my finger right open. I was cussing and swearing and went to dig around on his bench for a bandage or something. Pulled on that old cabinet he had stuck back in the corner of the bench and it came falling down spraying nuts and bolts and screws all over. I was really pissed off then.” Her eyes grew darker and she squinted at the door. “I started pushing those little pieces into drawers not paying attention to whether they were mixed up or not and then I noticed the cardboard pressed into the wall where the cabinet had been. One corner of it stuck out. It’s funny but I remember the way it smelled in there that day. I pulled out that piece of cardboard and the envelopes came flying out. I almost didn’t open them. I guess I knew.”
I wanted to tell her to stop talking; to tell her I didn’t want to know. But like her I was pretty sure I already knew. I looked down at her hands as they twisted on the table, the joints swollen with arthritis. I remembered those hands, swelling free, as they bandaged cuts, cooked meals, wiped my fevered forehead when I had the flu one time. Then I imagined them opening long white envelopes.
“There were pictures. Those old Polaroid kind you can’t get anymore. It wasn’t the cuts or the marks that bothered me as much as the looks in their eyes. They all looked the same. Their eyes were opened real wide and glassy, just staring. Only they weren’t seeing anything because they were dead. More than a dozen, some with things like scarves tied around their necks like fashion accessories. I put them all back in their envelopes. Then I went inside to make sure you were in bed. I took them with me when I got into my car. I knew where I was going. I didn’t have to wonder where he was anymore. I knew where he was.”
“Where?” My voice came out squeaking like a boy entering puberty.
In some of the pictures I saw the old fireplace from his grandfather’s house. That house had lost its roof years before, walls were falling in, but that old stone fireplace stood as strong as the day the house was built.” Granny sighed heavily. “Maybe you don’t need to know anymore.”
I didn’t prompt her. I waited. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear the rest. Her eyes flitted over the Louisville Slugger that leaned against the wall by the back door. I turned my head slowly following her gaze. A sick feeling spread through my body and I could feel bile rising in my throat.
When I turned back she was looking at me. Our eyes locked.
“There was an old root cellar. They were all sitting down there, most of them naked, just sitting in a big circle all facing a chair in the center. I imagined him sitting there looking back at them. I knew what he did to them. I knew what he did looking at them. I knew because when I snuck in he was busy with his hand. Busy the way he sometimes got when he’d sit on the front porch and the little girls and boys from the neighborhood would come to play with you.”
She leaned forward, “Did you know I played softball in high school? I was good too. Most girls didn’t play but I liked it. I liked the feeling of the heavy bat in my hands, the swish sound it made as I swung at a ball, and the crack it made when it connected sending the ball flying out into the field.” Granny sighed. “That was the last time I swung a bat, that might I bashed your grandfather’s head to pieces. I left him there with his audience, the weeds growing up all around the foundations of the house, more than half the ceiling inside the house, and the wooden storm door that led to that older root cellar covered with the heaviest rocks I could drag to bury it.”
Granny stood and went to the kitchen sink. She held to the edge and I could see her body trembling. “Every year when the rains came I would imagine that root cellar filling up with water like an indoor swimming pool in an upscale hotel. It certainly was exclusive.” She laughed bitterly. “I never imagined them getting out and floating down here. I guess he was coming to see me and he brought his lady friends with him.”
I suppose I should have told her then. But she was already so wounded. She didn’t need to know. I’d read about it in the library in Newtown. Sometimes it skipped a generation. It did in our family. I guess if I ever have kids they’ll be okay. But I hope like hell I’m not around when my grandchildren grow up. That old root cellar is going to get really crowded. Although I may find a place further away from the river.