This is how I used to imagine it happening. On Monday, January 4, 2010, at approximately 10:00 p.m., Lora pulled onto the shoulder of Interstate 44, rolled down her window and asked a hitchhiker if she could give him a ride. He is an older guy, someone she would have called “Sir,” the kind of older man that walks with that defeated kind of stoop in his stature. Of course Lora knew better than to pick up strangers. She wasn’t stupid or careless. But she had been coming home from a meeting at church and it was dangerously cold. I’m sure she would have contemplated her decision. She would have had some inner dialogue about how risky it is to pick up strangers. She might have even thought about my disapproval. She knew if I had been in the car I would have insisted she keep driving. But Lora was alone. I’m sure that this man, this hitchhiker, wasn’t wearing a suitable coat. He probably wore just a jacket, maybe even less. She would have thought about driving anyway, once he turned and she saw his face, but then she would have thought about the word cruelty and unlocked her doors anyway.
Once inside her Toyota Sienna, this older gentleman, not so old now that he was close up and out of the cold, would have said something reassuring to her. Lora would have smiled at him; maybe even gave him a polite laugh. But then, after she had turned up the heat a little, but before she could put the car in drive, he stabs her six times in her neck, chest and stomach. He pulls her body to the back of the van and takes the driver’s seat for the next 200 miles. He is a serial killer, probably, and Lora just another unsuspecting victim. This is what I used to imagine.
This is what I know. Her killer left her in the back of our van, parked at a Love’s Truck Stop, where they found her body two days after she had left our house for a meeting at church. The police couldn’t return her wedding ring to me, or her wallet. The killer took her license plates, her cash, even the little diamond earrings she always wore, which he would have had to take the time to remove, unscrewing the backs with his thick fingers. Her killer took everything.
The police told me she probably didn’t even know what happened, that it had happened that fast. No defensive wounds. Not even a single broken finger nail. They said when they found her she just looked like she was asleep, that she looked peaceful. Except for all the blood, one of them, the short one who forgot to take off his hat, felt like adding that part. Then both officers just looked at their shoes. I stood gripping the door, holding myself steady, trying to rearrange their words into a different truth. Then I felt tiny hands wrap around my thigh and a sleepy face burrowing into my side. The officers retreated. They left us in the doorway to watch the red eyes of their brake lights die away into the night.
When I heard the knock on my door, my instinct was to pretend I wasn’t home, to remain perfectly still in hopes that whoever it was would go away. Since the late night visit from the police, I’d been worn out walking the same steps back and forth from the doorway to my bed or to the couch. So many well meaning people, so much food and awkwardness, and the feeling each time I opened the door that I’d have to face another uniform delivering death, even if there was no worse death I could imagine. Except Jess, but the warm imprint of her body was always present in those first few weeks, when the days and nights held no real shape for either of us. There was only the need to stay close to one another.
But it was barely daylight, much too early for any neighbor and I knew only one person who wouldn’t fear waking me up. I peeled my body from the sheets, and from Jess. I put a pillow in my place and tucked the covers back around her tiny form. I had slept in my clothes and so I did my best to straighten them on my way to the door. That is where I found Lenore, on my front porch, holding a pie. Her hair, an ever lightening shade of blond to cover the gray, was standing higher than usual and the hair spray made it glisten in the sunlight.
“I woke up this morning and just had a feeling you needed a pie,” she said this holding it out to me like it was an offering. If I were a stranger looking her over, I would never guess that her only daughter had been murdered. The things I noticed, her chipped nail polish or the missing creases in her usually perfectly pressed pants, wouldn’t be enough to signify anything to an outsider.
“Come on in.” The pie plate was warm in my hands. A sure sign she wasn’t sleeping much either if she had produced a fresh baked pie by 7 a.m.
Lenore isn’t what I would call grandmotherly. She wears a pretty noticeable amount of mascara and keeps her shoulder length hair styled in the way of a much younger woman. But she wears it well. After Jess was born I would sometimes call her a “hip granny.” Yet, from the moment I first met her, I knew she had a sturdiness that is part of a different generation than my own.
We both knew that the pie was an excuse to check on me and Jess. To make sure there was food in the house and clean underwear. She had been doing this every few days since the police found Lora. The first time was just two mornings after, donuts and black coffee from a bakery in town. She delivered them dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and without a hint of makeup or hairspray. I think it is the only time I’ve ever seen her in jeans, or even a sweatshirt.
I walked to the dining room table with the pie and Lenore closed the door and followed me. I didn’t hear the usual clicking of her heels and I nodded toward her feet.
“Old lady shoes, I know. But they’ve scheduled me as a greeter today and those hospital floors kill my back.”
Neither of us had figured out how to grieve in a normal way. We knew we should need each other, but face to face with such an ugly truth, all we could do was talk about shoes or eat pie. We needed to be together, but at a safe distance.
“Won’t you get us some plates and a cup of coffee?” That was my cue to leave the room and grant her permission to mother us, privately, for just a few minutes. To gather toys from the floor and place them in a basket, to peek in our laundry hamper, and to fold the blankets left on the couch. I heard the familiar squeak of Jess’s bedroom door. I waited until I heard Lenore walking back before I poured the coffee.
“Still not sleeping in her room?” Lenore appeared. It was more of a statement than a question. I didn’t answer, didn’t need to, since Jess’s bed was still made from Lenore’s last visit.
“If you are out running errands today I could use some more ketchup. Jess assures me it is the only way she can eat my cooking.” Not that I had been cooking, but I was trying to be funny. Lenore only gave me a nod and a weak smile, her lips turning in, instead of up or down.
I pulled two mismatched mugs from our cabinet. The first was a blue one with a small chip near the handle. Lora had found it at a flea market the first year we were married and I remember she held it up for our joint inspection. It was hideous, a pottery project gone badly. But, just as she went to put it back on the shelf, she accidentally dropped it and chipped the handle. No one was around to know what she’d done, but she bought it anyway. You break it, you buy it, she said. I decided to put that mug back and pick another.
“I’ll get the cream, Hon,” Lenore opened our fridge and took a sniff from a small carton of half and half before following me to table.
We ate pie and we talked about Jess. I assumed Lenore continued to show up so early in the mornings so we could talk while Jess was still asleep. The usual verbal acrobatics of speaking around a little kid not required. That morning I began with the positive. According to her preschool teacher Mrs. Fairbanks, Jess had stopped kicking Nolan during snack time, a repeated occurrence that Jess could only explain as having something to do with his brown shoes. The rest was not so positive. The girls in the classroom had a tendency to play house and Jess, who had always been at the center of this kind of pretend business, was no longer playing. She might drift around the playground collecting things, rocks or leaves that she stuffed in her pockets for me to discover later, but she didn’t engage. That was the word the teacher used; engage, as if Jess was an engine that just needed to find the right gear.
“They encourage you to send her back, when frankly I thought it was much too soon, and now what? They act surprised she isn’t all baby dolls and playing nice?” Lenore sat back in her chair with a huff of disgust.
“Apparently, she got in trouble yesterday for roaring at the boys on the playground.” I tried to chuckle, recognizing that in a different time and under different circumstances, it could have been a funny story. “Mrs. Fairbanks said she thought at first they all might be playing some sort of make believe game about dinosaurs or lions, but—”
“But what? She’s four years old Tom. Maybe she just felt like roaring.”
When we both finished pushing the pie around our plates Lenore got up from the table and walked, without saying a word, down the hallway to my bedroom door. It was closed and she waited, her fingertips perched on the handle, until I followed.
“May I?” I gave her a nod. She opened the door, but she didn’t go inside. She leaned in and braced herself with one hand against door frame, while the other rested against her throat. She rubbed the ridge of her collarbone. All I could see around the angle of Lenore’s body was Jess’s foot, exposed and dangling.
Looking at Jess felt suffocating, like something was swelling up into my chest and filling my throat from the inside, a kind of reverse drowning. I watched Lenore and couldn’t help but wonder if she felt it too – the choking pressure of so much gratitude and despair.
When she left for her volunteer shift at the hospital, Lenore put her hand on my shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. We mumbled vague goodbyes and intentions as usual and I promised to give Jess a kiss for her once she was awake. I held the door open and watched her walk carefully to her car, willing the icy January air to resuscitate me.
In the first few weeks after Lora’s death, I tried to trick my brain into believing she was alive. I played What if and assigned her a different life, a trajectory that could have moved her far away from the awful thing that happened to her and to us. When my imagination could no longer redirect the course of our lives together, I pictured her without me. Living in Denver as a news-anchor or in Orlando as a lawyer, it didn’t matter if it seemed plausible, her death wasn’t plausible. It only mattered that I could will her into existence with my mind. She could be alive in St. Paul, or Newark or Phoenix, instead of dead and buried in St. Louis.
These thoughts always drew me to the same picture. On our mantel, in color but faded, is a photo with a small white crease in the corner that shows through the glass. In it Lora is a teenager, her high school graduation actually, and she’s standing under the arm of her dad. His name was Jack. It is my favorite picture of Lora and the one I looked at every day when I imagined her escaping to a different fate, it was a sort of reset button or time machine that could allow her to be born again in the world right from that moment. Her pale red hair was curly then, and her smile more of a smirk, telling whoever was behind the camera that she had it all under control. She looked as if she and the world shared a private joke. The wide blue sky of the Ozarks where she grew up seemed to share her optimism, whisking away every cloud. She is smiling so I can see her teeth, something I could ever only achieve with covert pictures. In the photo I can still make out the shade of her lipstick, a little too grown up for her age, and her right dimple.
Jack had taken off his suit jacket and sweat stains were beginning to show through his armpits, but he was either unaware or too damn happy to care about it. His own smile was just as big, just as cocky, as if he had just come from a conversation with another parent where he was saying That one there, she’s mine. Ain’t she a beauty? Good grades too! Lora was an only child, a girl graduating with honors, with a boyfriend with a football scholarship, and when they went fishing – an annual trip between father and daughter camping near the river – she could even bait her own hook without a flinch. Or so she told me a few times.
She was a daddy’s girl, no doubt. Even though by the time I met her, a college graduate with a small paycheck and an even smaller apartment, she had been without a father for nearly five years. On our first date she wore jeans and red high heels and drank from my beer without asking. When I asked what her folks did for a living she said, My mom volunteers at the Baptist Hospital doing whatever, and my daddy is dead. She said it all between bites of a bacon cheeseburger, matter of fact, and I couldn’t help but think daddy was something I had never called my father. And never would since mine was as good as dead to me, but I didn’t say that to her then.
Truthfully, I might not have asked her out again, except that when I kissed her goodnight, standing in the paint chipped doorway of her apartment, she touched my cheek with her hand and didn’t rush to move it. No one had ever done that before. It gave me a quivering feeling in my spine. That and her hair smelled incredible, almost like candy. And she had a really nice ass. I remember I liked the taste of her lip gloss and I smiled all the way home. I still wonder where she would have gone if I had never called her, loved her, married her. But the existence of Jess always pulls me out of those thoughts and back to reality – there is no present or future where I can reconcile one without sacrificing the other.
I woke up, blanketed in the silence of a hushed winter morning. Sometime in the night it had begun to snow and by morning the thick floating flakes settled like a like a spell over our house. It was early February, barely a month after Lora’s murder and the first night I slept in my bed alone. It was after nine and the fact that Jess hadn’t emerged from her room yet forced me up. I had been up and down in the night, checking to make sure she was sleeping okay, unable to sleep more than two hours at a time myself. Whatever fog of shock and disbelief that had kept me functioning through the obligations of death was beginning to lift and a feeling of panic and a sort of terror settled in its place – that I couldn’t sleep was just one side effect.
When I saw for myself that she was safe and asleep, I drifted off into the living room to stand in front of the windows that faced the woods behind our house. I fought the urge to pull on boots and walk the hidden path I knew existed under the snow, the one that snaked from our back door down the slope of our yard into a thick of trees. Trees enough to make me forget we live in a city. That had been Lora’s one demand. I had wanted a place in the city, as much as you can call St. Louis a city, but Lora wanted something in the country. We settled for a development in the suburbs that pushed against the boundary of a state park.
In the shoe tray were Lora’s hiking boots, dry mud crusted and shoe laces frayed. How long had they been there? Since November or was it after Christmas? Lora was always unpredictable that way, taking off into the cover of the woods behind our house with no warning or agenda – just to put some fresh air in my head she would say. I opened our back door and took a deep cold breath, imaging the air not going to my lungs, but into my head somehow, as if it could clear the mess of things right up. Make it all okay. I picked up Lora’s boots, ran my fingers with the grain of the leather, put them to my nose and inhaled their earthy human smell. And then I threw them as far as I could, their landing at the forest edge making only a slight puff in the snow that swallowed them whole. I closed the door and heard, barely above the whooshing of my heartbeat in my head, the sound of someone knocking on the door.
Anna Prior stood bundled and clutching herself on my front steps, her visit both long overdue and yet, completely unwelcome. I wish I had a proper definition for Anna, for her role in our lives, at least before the murder. But I don’t because I never really cared for her, the way she would talk over Lora sometimes or the way she has to touch every man she speaks to, on the shoulder or forearm, smoothing over her words with her fingertips. That I found her annoying was probably the extent of my interest in her. I guess I could say she was Lora’s best friend, but I’m not sure Lora ever used those exact words to describe her. She was just Anna and she had just always been around. Until Lora was killed and then Anna was her own kind of ghost, I knew she existed, but she was never present. Not in our house, not with a card or a phone call, only in her silence.
When I finally decided to open the door she was turning to leave. Her car wasn’t in the driveway, which meant she must have walked.
She turned at the sound of my voice, but didn’t climb the steps back up to stand in front of me, staying instead the three steps below near the driveway, forcing me to look down on her.
“Hey, Tom,” she gave me one of those phony empathetic looks. “I just came by to, you know, check on you and Jess. See if you need anything. I’ve been meaning to, before now, but…”
I didn’t know what to say to her. We both knew why it had taken her this long to show her face and I sure as hell didn’t want to talk to her now, but at the same time I couldn’t seem to dislodge the feeling in my gut that I did have something to say. I looked beyond her, to the bare tree limbs that seemed to be fighting each other in the cold wind. Winter allows you a certain amount of solitude, even in a Midwestern town with well intentioned neighbors, and the snowy world seemed at least momentarily quiet around us. It was fucking painful to look at her.
She looked down and sniffed, like she was crying, but she wasn’t.
“We’re fine here. Thanks.” I turned around and reached to close the door.
“I wish I could change it Tom.” Her voice went high and distressed. “Change what happened. I’m just so—”
“So, what?” I must have turned quickly or maybe it was my tone, I don’t know, but Anna’s dark eyes seemed to open up with surprise.
“Sorry. That’s all, just sorry. I just wanted to tell you that, and tell you, you know… that no matter what, Lora was a good person. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. Everyone thinks that, she was—”
“What do you mean no matter what? What the hell—”
Daddy I need your help. Jess called to me from the bathroom. I didn’t want Jess to see Anna. I turned my head, called back to Jess that I would be right there. When I turned around again, to tell Anna whatever I was supposed to tell her, to reassure her that it wasn’t her fault, that just because she had called and begged Lora to come to church that night after dinner, when we had our own family stuff to do and Lora felt guilty and so she went saying Anna really needs my help, she depends on me, that despite all that I didn’t blame her, that I understood it was no one’s fault but the man who had murdered her, and that of course I didn’t blame God either. But the words that I would have said to her, those kinds of words or something else pointless like them, just to get her to shut up, to get the fuck out of my yard, whatever it was that I would have told her, whatever lie was on my tongue, was left there, and I hated the taste of it.
Anna was gone, already walking down the snow covered sidewalk as if she was just out for some exercise, nothing more. I watched her walk away from us with a hateful sense of envy. I closed the door and helped Jess in the bathroom, which was out of toilet paper, and when Jess asked who was I talking to, I said, “No one important honey.” All I remember about the rest of that day was that we ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and dinner and we watched Curious George. I left Lora’s shoes in the backyard in their snowy grave.
The thing that kept me up at night was trying to recreate the scene in my head, to come up with any logical explanation for how X could equal Y, how the girl I loved with one dimple could equal a murder victim. All the official paperwork in the world didn’t have the power to explain it to me.
The police officer who gave me the official notification on my doorstep was not the same guy who found Lora’s body or even the same cop assigned to the investigation. The fact that her body was found two hundred miles away produced a pile of law enforcement bureaucracy bullshit that could drive a man mad. It meant liaisons and incompetent jerks in two counties, but it also meant I wasn’t really a suspect.
I had Jess and an alibi. I played Call of Duty on my Xbox Live with a guy from work. Then I made calls from my cell phone to her phone when she didn’t come home. Then more calls to Lenore when it got really late, who came over so I could drive to the church and call a few more of her friends. Not that any of that kept the cops from hovering that first week, from searching the house and our things, from asking me question after question, polite but never friendly. No bump in life insurance, no extra money in or out of our accounts, no fights overheard by neighbors.
When local cops finally decided that I didn’t do it, the officer who came to my door that first night came back and left me a card for a Sheriff Lamb in Stanford, some town I could only vaguely recall as an appropriate place to stop for a bathroom on the way to the Table Rock Lake. Sheriff Lamb was apparently the man who got the call from the truck stop clerk about a “suspicious” abandoned minivan. I remember the officer at my door using the word dependable to describe the Lamb, as if that word would give me any comfort. As if dependable could make up for that fact that everything was on the shoulders of a cop in a nowhere little town.
At first it seemed like things were happening with the case. There was a press conference, the local paper printed up a few stories. We’ll find the guy I was told. I believed them. A few weeks passed and I climbed out of my grief enough to call the Sheriff and get a status of things. No one had called me with any new information or if they even had any possible suspects. I was told, as if I was calling about a parking ticket, that Sheriff Lamb was away on vacation. I left messages and he did not return my calls; eight of them to be exact.
Sheriff Lamb was not available, I was told repeatedly and no one else had the authority to answer any specific questions regarding Lora’s case. One desk sergeant even tried to be a fucking comedian with me. When I told him that I had been calling for two goddamn weeks his response was “Sheriff Lamb must be on the lam.” When I didn’t laugh, didn’t even breathe out an amused chuckle or snort, he cleared his throat to sound official and said I could leave a message on Lamb’s voice mail, transferring me before I could object.
Lamb’s voice began to be familiar to me, croaking the same words into my ear about leaving my information, the correct spelling of my name. His voice colored with a bit of a southern accent, slow in a way that I wanted to believe suggested patience and not ignorance. I knew it shouldn’t matter to me what it sounded like, but when all you have is some disembodied voice to pin all of your hopes on, it’s a little hard not to make a big deal out of it. The last message I left was simply, “Please don’t make me keep calling you.” It feels fucking pathetic, but I didn’t add that last part except in my head.
The local officer who had the bad luck to deliver the news was Officer Fletch and he called almost every day in the first month to see how I was doing. I could barely stand the sound of his voice. But at least he had the balls to come to my door at 3:47 a.m. and knock and knock until I heard him, all the way in Jess’s bedroom where I was trapped, holding her close, filled with dread, but without the ability to do anything but wait. I had already done the driving around, the calling of friends, the desperate prayers of ultimatum and bargaining. Every time I heard Fletch’s voice all I could see in my mind was his sorry ass face, already sorry for his job and my life, standing at my door.
But he was an alright guy, young, no more than thirty and with a threatening unibrow and a habit of always calling me Sir, even in those moments when I commanded no respect at all. Called me Sir on my doorstep when I cried in the glow of the patrol car headlights; called me Sir when I saw him at an ice cream shop with a girl and he was dressed like he should be calling me Dude, called me Sir at the funeral when I felt so small like a child and he was so large standing over me; always Sir from him.
Officer Fletch gave me the initial police report. I’m not sure if he was even officially assigned to help me or if he simply did it because I told him no one else would return my damn calls. His first response when I asked for the report was to tell me to wait a few days, to think it over. But I’m sure he knew I wouldn’t change my mind because when I called him two days later he already had the report ready and told me I could pick it up at the precinct. When I did stop by to get it, it came with a card stapled to the top. Dr. Elizabeth Ellis. I pulled the card from the staples and slipped it into my back pocket.
I had the report for three days and had only managed to decipher about fifty percent of it. I pulled out a piece of printer paper at my desk and translated it into my own handwriting, like it was in code and I was six years old again playing some game from a cereal box. But the words I could translate from the law enforcement lingo were too agonizing to endure standing alone on the page, no context or explanation. Blood, twisted, seat, entry wound, cartilage, blue sweater, ear lobe, shock. Fletch politely agree to help me decipher it. When he offered to do this, I pictured him sitting down with me at my desk, going line by line, making it all make sense to me. Saying something like the reason this happened is because of this; look here at what he has written down, it explains everything.
Fletch simply sent me a new report, typed and official, even bearing Sheriff Lamb’s signature, the bastard apparently available and simply not returning my calls, too busy being a fucking asshole. The new report was crisp, delivered so quickly to me via Robbie my Postman that I imagined it might still be warm to the touch from a printer, might smell like the perfume of the office secretary who sealed it in the envelope, if they had such women in police stations, which I’m pretty sure they don’t. The report was four pages and even though I could read every word clearly, in the end, all I really saw in front of me was blood, twisted, seat, entry wound, cartilage, blue sweater, ear lobe, shock.