Fiction November 2012


The irony of getting away with something was that you were your own executioner. In a pang of remorse, you could open your mouth and change your life.
Eric Ogden

You think of that night endlessly from your imprisonment, the decisions made, the chain of mistakes. It had begun with your two buddies, a fifth of cheap vodka, and half a gallon of orange juice; one of these friends had suggested the confrontation. He said this kid, Barry, was cutting in on your girl—well, she wasn’t even really your girl yet, the flirtation was just in its formative moments—something that you, at sixteen, had no intention of allowing.

He’d been walking home, at night. He worked at a burger place in town and, even drunk, you’d known a spot to intercept him. Again, at the suggestion of your friends. There he was, his backpack slung over his shoulder, looking at you as if not even sure who you were. You’d decided you would rough him up, and he’d decided to fight back, and you’d picked up a rock, and you’d swung it at his head. A minute later he was on the ground, dead.

You think of how, as drunk as you had been, you instantly sobered. The discussion was quick, and its determinations would last a lifetime. You waited for him to somehow come to; soon enough he was irredeemably cold. But you three had decided by then. No one would tell. No one would try to explain that the moment was one of passion and mistakes. In your long memory, telling wasn’t even part of that shaky conversation, your voices all gone weepy and scared.

You took the rock, with its rime of blood, and threw it in a pond. You filled Barry’s backpack with other rocks and into the pond that went, too. You were driving your old Pontiac, and the first odd decision was to drive home, go in your bedroom, and strip the top sheet off your bed, to bring it back to the scene as your buddies waited, hidden in the nearby woods with Barry, the body dragged in by the feet. You got your mother’s gardening trowel from the nail in the garage. Then her garden claw.

By the time you drove up, watching for headlights, you had calmed a bit. You were thinking now, your head clicking with logic and forethought that were a revelation in themselves. Your buddies had kicked the blood under dirt, and you wondered as you came back if they had been talking of turning you in. Apparently they had not.

You wrapped the body in the sheet and drove to a place you thought would work. Again, the choices made: A place close to your house, less than half a mile. But a place far enough away from other houses, and with somewhat yielding ground. The three of you, all high-school athletes, did not tire that night, rotating through the clawing and digging, going deeper, no sloppy shallow grave here. When his sheet-wrapped body went into the groundwater that had gathered at the bottom, you felt for that glorious instant as if the problem was now solved. You all filled the hole with dirt and stomped it down, then drove to the ocean at dawn and walked into the surf, fully clothed, emerging salty and bloodless.

This was ’72. You think of forty years gone past, and the girl. For days after, you did the calculus, of risk and probability. You realized in that panicky first day that his wallet had gone into the ground with him; everything had not been fully considered. You and the other two never spoke of it directly again, and you weighed the human factors you could not control. You sensed, by the light of day, some shrill and growing prospect of being caught. Then you got lucky. Barry, the aspiring hippie, had been trying to get her to take off with him, hitchhiking with backpacks, cross-country. He did not get along with his parents; he craved adventure and escape. She told the police she guessed he must have gone, then she keened at her presumed abandonment. You heard about that at school and felt a surge of both relief and fury, that Barry had made the plan and that she had apparently considered it. You hated her for choosing him.

The conclusion was simple. Barry was deemed just another wandering soul, a longhair, a dreamer. He’d return in due time. The only thing was that your mother could not stop going on about the missing bedsheet. Where did it go? How do you lose a bedsheet? “Now you’ve broken up the set,” she said. You heard her telling the neighbor about her son’s mysteriously losing a sheet, and you wanted to make her stop.

The girl: Barry gone, you dated her for a few months, but found you had nothing to talk about. She turned out, in fact, to be mildly irritating, and that was that.

Senior year: Thinking back over the decades, you are appalled to consider how little you worried about what had happened. In fact, you barely thought about it at all. In your mind, It (you could not bring yourself to use the more specific word) wasn’t even your fault. You’d been egged on, drunk, by the other two. You met other girls, and you played your games, and you avoided the vicinity of the grave. You were an adolescent; you did not dwell on things that might ruin your fun.

Your buddies: you realized that they would not talk, even when drunk. Besides, the three of you were no longer that friendly. Typical teenagers, you all had found other interests, other friends.

College: those were the years when you needed to tell yourself what you were, and what you were not. So: You were a good person. You were not violent. Indeed, in those years you became milder and milder, almost as if shedding the ill-thought fashions of your youth like a bad sweater. Changing times. You held that memory in your stomach, but you functioned, actually, well. It had been three years then, and no one was going to find out. Then you went home for Thanksgiving and you saw bulldozers edged up toward that place. A new housing tract. You spent the weekend sleepless, telling yourself that even when the body emerged, the police would have no suspects, no motive. But the soft ground in which your secret lay was wetland. New environmental laws had been passed, and the housing tract stopped fewer than a hundred yards from where the body lay buried. The next spring, you told your parents you were going to stay on at your distant school, do summer classes, accelerate, and when you were done with that, you stayed on as a grad student. When those unbidden memories occurred, those predawn panics, you pushed deeper into your studies, forcing the ghosts away. You graduated with your parents and sisters smiling at your side for the picture, and then you moved farther west still.

In love, you married. Some nights you felt so intimate with her that you wanted to tell her, felt you had to. Felt she would hold your secret and love you still. But then one odd night, an awkward dinner, and you weren’t so sure you two were always in tune. The marriage evened into something mellow and a bit more distant, and the impulse passed. When you had children, you tried to be good. The business flourished, and the money came in without much struggle.

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