Fiction November 2012

Clean

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.
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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.

Why, in your thirties, did you begin to obsess about the hidden crime? When you read the articles about DNA, and how it could tell of a long-past crime, did you begin to see a story that hadn’t been completely written? You became an insomniac. You played that one minute of your life in an endless loop on the pale wall of your skull. The phone suddenly felt as if it would go off. You would see a police car thousands of miles from your hometown and feel on edge. You worried in those years that your unmasking was imminent, but then nothing happened. During the holidays, you had your parents out for a visit to a warmer climate. Sometimes, your mother would start in about the missing sheet. You’d all laugh in reminiscence.

Your father died, and you flew back to take care of things. You went through his desk, sorting out his papers, tending to your mother. At the bottom of a drawer was a yellowed bit of newspaper, clipped down to a tiny headline and one-paragraph item. Local boy reported missing. Strangely, the photo in the paper, though blurred, didn’t match the memory in your head, of that face on the side of the road, turning to meet the judgment of your headlights.

Why had your father kept this? What did he guess? Did you make noise that night as you came and went? At the funeral, a Navy ensign played taps, and your mother got the triangled flag. Your father went into that neat, nearly surgically cut hole with his own secrets. You burned the newspaper in his kettle grill on the back deck, igniting some charcoal and then making a steak.

That evening, you left your mother’s house near dark and went walking in those woods. Twenty years had passed, more. You’d built a life now. In this cold ground was what would always threaten to change it. You had an exact memory of the spot he was buried, but that memory failed you, too. You could find no place that was at all like the place you remembered.

Flying home, you realized someone had to have been following all this. Were the police so sure of the hitchhiking story, even in 1972? Could they not have tried to look into it? Who was assigned to the case, and could he have known of you? But you saw no signs of any investigation. Maybe when Barry eventually did not return home, too much time had passed. Maybe they just didn’t care that much. But you knew a file must have been kept at the police station, and your desire to open that file and see what was written became instantly unbearable. You were 35,000 feet in the air, over the arrayed pivot-circles of Kansas, heading toward the sun. By the time you landed, you felt the anxiety was finally over. In long-term parking, you slipped into the leather seat of your German car as if it were a glove that fit you perfectly.

In your forties, you thought of the boy less, but when the memory came to you, it gave you an unremitting ache. You could barely remember who you were then, what urges drove you, or what aspirations you’d had. The indisputable irony was that the aftermath of it all had given you focus, and direction. Who would you have become instead, if It had not happened? You also felt a welling anger at Barry himself. If he was going to leave, why didn’t he just leave? Was this talk of hitchhiking just something to woo his wanted girl, or was he really going to do it? You thought about how, if he’d decamped a day sooner, or if you three had not drunk that plastic jug of orange juice and that bottle of vodka, that night would just be something forgotten, rather than a specific date on the calendar you suffered through each year, and from which you could count, to the very minute, your growing remove. The colors faded like a washed-out Kodachrome.

In the eleventh year of your marriage, you found out your wife had been having an affair. She confessed; you were shocked. Boredom, she told you tearfully. Someone else had offered escape, she said.

“I love you,” she said, “but you’re a dull, passionless person. You have no fire.”

She was right, but now wrong. You knew who the man was. For the first time in thirty years, the familiar urge came back to you, for the same reasons. The careful decades of telling yourself you were different now crumbled, in an instant. You could have done it again, right then, had you decided to. But you did not.

Instead you got up from the couch and went out on your deck with a drink (good wine, never the hard stuff) and looked at the sky and thought about the careful, boring man you had sculpted yourself into. No passion at all. Later, your tearstained wife came out and sat with you in the wind of sunset and said she wanted to try to work things out, for your daughters. Her love of your daughters made her want to stay with you and find the middle ground. You wanted badly to offer your forgiveness, as you badly wanted forgiveness for yourself.

Yes, you’d had chances for affairs, but you always held back. Your reason wasn’t strict morality, more the fear of the weight of yet another secret. The thought of that was just too heavy. You accepted life as it was, and you walked in the evening, to get air.

One night, a few years later, the phone rang and your wife held it in front of you, saying “It’s Dennis.” Dennis who? You heard the voice and you were back to that night. Dennis, your long-ago buddy, was not well. Lymphoma. Three or four months. He had the urge to tell, to unburden. He had thought about that night every day of his life, he said into the phone. He’d spoken of it many times over the years, he said, in the darkness of the confessional. Father Shea had told him his soul was now clean, even as it felt not.

“Dennis, I can’t tell you what to do,” you said to him. “We’re all different people now. Do what you feel you must. I would understand.”

“Thank you for that,” he said. “I guess telling would be easy for me now. I’ll be dead before I have to face the consequences. But I think we all should have.” You had the phone to your ear, listening to him. He was a stranger. As Barry had been. Someone about whom you knew nothing.

Dennis asked about your family then, and you told him. He said he had not heard from Jeff in years, no idea where he’d gone. When you hung up, you were giddy that the secret might come out. You were surprised, and gratified, at the relief you felt. For weeks you sat at your desk and prepared things, just in case. You slept straight through each night. You got on the computer and read about juvenile law. You were all sixteen when It happened. Had the three of you gone to the police that night, explained you’d been in a fight that went out of control, you probably would have been out by the age of eighteen. Now you quietly imagined the neat rectangle of a cell, with a thin mattress. The thought didn’t seem as foreboding as it had when you were young and felt the possibilities of life. This future now seemed orderly, calm. You had forgiven your wife, and you imagined and craved her own understanding. You had never given her the opportunity, never shared the secret. You concluded that this was why, in your entire life, you’d never felt true intimacy.

That night, you Googled Barry’s name, and found nothing. So many years had passed; who’d remember? Where would Barry’s name have been preserved? He seemed to have never existed. You remembered back in ’75, when word had quietly come that his parents had moved away, some new job, or escape from worries. But now, so long after, people would remember him. You lay down in bed against your sleeping wife and felt the powerful promise of the simplicity, and the real facts of your life.

But your conversation had apparently given Dennis the peace not to speak, or perhaps he had simply died before he had a chance. No one told you anything. After a long stretch of months in which a tap did not come on your door, you went to the online obituaries and saw that he was gone. You checked on Father Shea, and he too had passed, years before. Your younger daughter walked in the room, said you looked weird, and walked out. By dinner, you were who you were again.

Later that year, your mother succumbed, the story of the missing bedsheet forever silenced. Back in town to close the house, you now did not venture into the dark woods. You and your sisters sorted things out and renewed bonds. You promised to stay in touch, knowing you probably would not.

That evening, at a hotel by the airport, you watched local TV. To your shock, you saw a vaguely familiar face. A woman, real estate. She was the girl, from all those years before. You’d nearly forgotten her name. She was, like you, an aging person. Now she sold high-end real estate, and seemed to have had some ineffectual cosmetic surgery. She had a horsey, drawn face, and wore a giant rock on her left ring finger. Did she ever think of Barry? He’d only been a boy who made her promises then went off hitchhiking, leaving her out of his adventure. You wondered about it as you tried to sleep.

You flew home and idly considered the third of you, Jeff, somewhere out there with the other half of your secret. You sat on your deck and drank some wine and watched the sun set over the Pacific. Another day had elapsed between you and that night. You had come to this place, imprisoned by what you were, what you had done, never able fully to be inside the life you made. You imagined how you would feel to just live.

The irony of getting away with something was that you were your own keeper. You were the executioner: in a pang of remorse, you could just open your mouth and change your life. You felt almost as if you would. But, greedy, you always wanted to savor one more day, even as that day turned leaden with a memory that no longer went away. It could not be put aside as it was your senior year of high school, when something that had happened the year before may as well have never happened at all. Who were you? How did you find the way to make it just not be? Now, an older man, you decided that if the time came to tell, you would edit Dennis and Jeff from the story, a small act of charity.

The vast ocean shimmered below you, endless expanses in which things could be effortlessly hidden, even as what you looked at was only a knife’s edge along greater stretches past the distant horizon. Even as the silver surface only whispered of the dark depths, the things you could not see. This was your life now, orderly, calm. This was how things were now. Clean. You knew you would sleep as well as one might be expected to, all of us with our own given histories.

Edward J. Delaney’s novel Broken Irish was published last year. He is a professor of creative writing at Roger Williams University, in Rhode Island. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic and other magazines.
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