When you write about murder it’s best to start with a few facts. The first one is this: The man killed was somebody’s father and husband and friend and uncle. Fact number two: So too was the guy who killed him.
When you write about murder, begin with police reports. Police reports, while not artfully written, can tell you all kinds of revealing things. They can tell you that your uncle’s body was found seventy-five feet away from a police call box. They can tell you that the killer used a .38 blue-steel revolver, an Arminius Titan Tiger, serial number 023805. From police reports you can learn what the victim was wearing and what he had in his pockets.
When you write about murder, even if the murder happened over thirty-five years ago, be sure to accompany your dad, an ex-homicide detective, when he goes to inspect your uncle’s car, a 1971 maroon Lincoln Continental. Pay attention when your dad’s explaining to his then sixteen-year old son—just by looking at the car—how it must have happened. “One guy in the passenger seat, another in back. The guy in the passenger seat fired the gun.” Pay attention when he explains glass and blood splatter. If you can, turn your head away from the car every minute or so. Breathe in the cold outside air. Try as hard as you can to ignore the hair splattered on the driver’s side and stuck on the head rest. Don’t worry about the stench. No matter how many times you try, you’ll never be able to describe it to anybody.
When you write about murder, regardless of how many scenes you visit or police reports you read or cops or witnesses you interview, you’ll never be able to fathom why good friends of your aunt and uncle — friends who lived directly across the street from them — bought the Lincoln, forcing your uncle’s then ten-year-old daughter to have to see it every morning she left for school, each day she went out to play. When you write about murder, understand that why the guy killed your uncle is the easier question to answer. Why his friends bought the car he was murdered in will remain forever inexplicable.
When you write about murder — say the murder of a family member — always be sure to justify yourself within the text. Never pretend you’re justifying it to yourself because you don’t have to, but not everybody will understand. Say something like this: “Somehow I always knew much of what happened to my uncle had become a family fiction. Maybe it was the way the story never changed, as if one detail out of place would cause the entire narrative edifice to come tumbling down, resembling a collapsed cathedral, its glory betrayed by the sudden clutter of its bricks. For whatever reason I have remained selfishly, seriously curious for over thirty-five years. I know I loved him, and I’m hoping this love is enough to attempt to tell his story.” When you write about murder, ask yourself if love ever has a thing to do with any of it.
When you write about murder, don’t be too excited when your reporting reveals what you had suspected. It’s unseemly. It’s beneath you. As you ride down the elevator in the Justice Center in Cleveland, try hard to hide your glee — yes, your fucking glee — upon learning that at the time your uncle was murdered other men also claiming not to be gay were robbed and beaten at Edgewater Park. It seems some kids were preying on closeted gay men, luring them down to the lake’s edge with the promise of sex, and then robbing them. It was a good scam, until the kids went too far and killed somebody who put up a fight.
When you write about murder ignore your uncle’s marriage to your aunt, how it must have been for her after the separation; what it must have been like for him before.
When you write about murder, pay heed to the woman at the coroner’s office who warns you about one of the autopsy pictures. She says you don’t have to pay for the one if you don’t want to. You thank her but insist on seeing all seven. She says ok and hands them to you, back first, so the photographs face her. “What relation was he to you?” she asks. It should be a simpler question but has gotten considerably more complicated. Story to storyteller? Subject to writer? Nephew to…? “He was my uncle,” you tell her. “Three and a half years ago my daughter came through here,” she tells you. “That was hard.” “I’m sorry,” you say. “You do what you have to do, huh?” When she says this you almost think you hear her ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
When you write about murder, for Christ’s sake, stop what you’re doing long enough to ask a helpful woman about her murdered daughter. The story will wait. Your soul is in peril.
When you write about murder work hard to get the details right and the right details. Drive a 1971 Lincoln Continental. Hold a .38 blue-steel revolver, an Arminius Titan Tiger. Visit Edgewater Park at 6 p.m. on Friday the 13th, December, the exact date thirty-five years after the murder. Be sure to remember how much has changed. A tree grows a lot in that time. So don’t assume anything. Get pictures of the time and place and study them for clues of the way things were, whether the murder was last month or long ago. Check with the weather bureau so you have right weather on the right day.
When you write about murder, never forget you’re writing about human beings, and never forget you must transform them into characters. People who had one precious life, just like you, and then that life was gone. Remember that the whole life was not defined by a murder — only ended by one. Do months of reporting and researching and soul-searching and rationalizing and then give it your best shot. When you write about murder, do not make up a single thing. Remember: this is somebody’s father or husband or uncle Don.
“On the night of the murder, Don maneuvers his 1971 Lincoln into the entrance to Edgewater Park and moves slowly up the drive to Perkins Beach, where, unbeknownst to him, a guy named Barnes waits, finishing take out chicken, and sipping a can of R.C. Cola.
“Perhaps Don checks himself out in the rearview mirror, slips his glasses into their black case, nods in a knowing way that he likes what he sees. Although he’s still wearing his work clothes, light gray pants and matching work shirt with Houghton Elevator sewn over the right shirt pocket and his name stitched over the left, he looks fine, dapper even. His brown dress shoes ease up on the accelerator as he nears the portal to Perkins. The temperature this close to the lake is only a couple degrees above freezing; Don’s lucky he wore his blue nylon work jacket.
“He backs into a spot along the cul-de-sac, turns off his headlights, and then the engine. To his left and across a more inland section of the shoreline, the lights of Cleveland shine through the oncoming darkness. He sees the Terminal Tower. Behind him sit leafless trees, and beyond the trees a black drop-off to Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes. On the other side of the cul-de-sac stands a 63-year-old statue of German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner’s beret-topped head angles away from Perkins Beach; his coat looks as though it has been blown open, and he holds a sheaf of music in his left hand. Don gazes around casually, noncommittally, perhaps clicking the ballpoint pen in his shirt pocket or fingering the yellow-handled pocket knife in his pants.
“When he sees the young man approaching his car, does Don’s heart pick up speed? Does he quickly rehearse his lines or does he know the drill? Does he check his hair one more time, frustrated by the tinges of gray growing above his ears? Does he lower his power windows a bit to convey a welcome? Is this the first time, the first time he’s fantasized about, the time he’s forbidden himself to fantasize about? Does his conscience tingle with the electric knowledge you get when you know something’s wrong and you do it anyway, as if you’re moving through everything you are and know to enter another place, whose passage you’ll only worry about once you’re safely back on the other side? Is this why, when the killer destroys the fantasy by pulling out his gun and demanding money, Don can’t possibly give it to him? Can’t possibly give in to him?”
When you write about murder, it is here you’ll write about four bullets entering a body and killing a man, somebody’s father, husband or uncle.
When you write about murder and then wonder why you did, find an old photograph from Christmastime, 1960 something. Stare at Uncle Don and Aunt
Dee standing in front of their wooden mantel. Two Christmas stockings—still a few years away from being three—hang behind them. In the background, in front of a window covered with soft, white, cotton curtains, a saint with a crown of gold and a gown of white stands atop a corner cupboard with glass doors.
Uncle Don’s arms are wrapped around his wife’s waist. Her right hand holds his left wrist. Your aunt’s smile at his holding makes her beautiful. Uncle Don’s smile rules and lines his face. Their smiles appear to be evidence of something, true evidence. Of something good. Of a story worth telling. They seem, at this captured moment in time, two people possessed of all the love that can possibly exist in a world where people are murdered, and where other people presume to write about it.