Grief does a funny thing to a man, it never kills him quick, it rips and tears at him. Its claws dig into his being and it takes the humanity that he once possessed and perverts it. It does so until he is no longer a man but a husk of that what he once was. He lays bare on stained mattress and he feels everything. He feels the pain and the sorrow, but he also feels joy. It is that joy that ultimately kills him, for he knows that he will never feel it again, nor should he.
I want to tell you a story about grief today. It is not a story much different from any other, and it starts with a man who grew up in a small town in Indiana. This small town was no different from any other either. It felt the sting of heat in the summer and the bite of the chilly air when winter came through. The year was 1945 when this man was born a pink happy baby put into the loving arms of a mother and an already proud father. The man was still a boy when the draft came and he was sent off to the jungle to fight a foreign war. But when he came back with blood on his hands that he would spend the rest of his life trying to wash off he was no longer that boy who people knew. It started with the bottle, the only thing that could mute the screams or calm the shakes. But this man was gifted with luck and he met a woman, this next part is the same as every story goes. They fell in love and soon the broken man found himself in a family that he knew he never deserved. It was years until the man felt that same feeling that he had become accustomed to in the jungles of his early adulthood, and it all started with a drifter.
He was roaming through town not looking anywhere in particular for anything in particular. But whatever he wasn’t looking for the drifter found with that woman and her child. There lives a darkness in every man, and with some of them it lives on the surface. The drifter was dark as night and evil dripped from his skin like oil, poisoning the water and soil wherever he went. The drifter took his time with the woman and her child and by the end anything good left in that day or that town was rotten and stinking. The man found the drifter and killed him, he did so much more but the end result was same; the death of the drifter. The townspeople couldn’t prove it, they might not’ve wanted to. There hadn’t been a murder in that town in so long most people had forgotten how to say the word. They let the man sit in his own prison, soaked with booze and covered in ash. This story may start with this man but it does not star him, this story stars a teenager who for most of the man’s life was barely even a thought in his young parents lives.
The year is 1985 and the teenager is 17 he lives in the same small town, which is still unremarkably normal. It’s perhaps the normal nature of the town that allows such abnormal events. The world that consisted of three gas stations and two general stores had forgotten the crime that shook it 20 years ago and they had forgotten the man too. The man hadn’t forgotten though, and he still drank his dinner at the bar every night. The teenager was popular in school, he had friends and the girls attention, but most importantly he had a future out of that town and it didn’t require him to pick up a gun or put on fatigues. The teenager met his sweetheart early in his life but they loved each other and they both knew it. The teenager worked at the gas station filling and washing cars. He would see the man sometimes when he stopped by to get gas or buy cigarettes. The man was skinny now, no longer the strong man he once was, and he looked more broken than he ever had in the years after the war. The teenager figured out early in life that war, even with its hell, is nothing compared to finding out what you truly are. The man killed people in the jungles, he saw true horrors and they stood in his mind like unwelcome guests. It hurt him that he was able to kill, and it hurt that he made it back, and it hurt him when his family was killed. It ruined him though, to see what he did away from a war in some abandoned factory with a wrench and some gasoline, to a drifter that nobody knew. The teenager watched it in his eyes, a swirling void. The teenager wanted to talk to the man, so desperately he wanted to talk but he was always scared of doing so. That maybe if the man spoke to him he would become sickened by his words, he was never able to meet his gaze. When the man would feel the teenager looking he would think back to his own adolescent wonder of the world and its evil.
The storms came strong in the summer. A swirling tempest ripped through the town and it seemed that with it came the feeling of corruption. That maybe the storm turned up all that was good on its back and that all that was bad and wrong came in with it. The teenager talked with the towns people as they cleared branches after the storm, they talked of the farms and how the storm had ruined their chance of a bearing year. Most of all though, they talked with gossip that dripped from their mouths like drool. Small towns often ran on it, they lived in a world of their own creation and the topics they needed for conversation were of their own creation as well. The teenager wanted to dislike the gossip of small towns but he always felt himself being pulled into the stories of adulterous spouses and of their children with drug problems. He fell through his work, his strong arms moving the branches and the debris. It was an attempt to clean a dirty town but it achieved the same result as cleaning a shattered widow, the shards may sparkle but they sit in muck. It was late in the day with the sun hanging low and the heat clinging to people’s clothes when the body was found broken and disgraced. Words of God, mercy, and shock were thrown around with their weight in breath. The disgrace of a such a young girl brought some to their knees and others kept clearing those branches. This town like many others of its size felt God within each of their words and saw Him dancing in their fears. God stood atop this town like a parent. It didn’t matter if He was real or even if they thought He was real, He punctuated every single thought.
The murdered girl was beautiful and it was within this beauty sat a distinct sadness. The look that was forever stuck of her face sent a wave of disgrace through the town. It wasn’t the the crime or the blood, or the dirt that covered her bare body it was curiosity. Who did it? Was it the old man who lived in the broken house? Was it the run kids with the parents out of town? Was it the jealous housewife envious of her youth? The truth is that it didn’t matter who it was, and it didn’t matter to the murdered girl or the teenager or the man. But to the towns people what did matter was what it meant. It meant that the evil would show through. This town had a nature of evil to it, the town was as evil as normal life is. This town was origami, folded cardboard that fell to the ground in pulp and mush whenever it rained. As the walls would slip away you could see the rotting sheep off from the slaughter. The smell would stick in your nose if you ever smelled it, but after a while your nose would get tired. After so long of smelling the rot everyone in the town could only smell sweet jasmine and grass, as it lifted up from the farms. This murder woke the town’s noses up and all of a sudden they could smell the rotting meat and shit stuck in the streets and dripping from the walls. They felt sick, sick of their own corruption and of their blindness to it. The gossip of the town changed from background noise to suspicious curiosity. The honey sweet taste of normal gossip was replaced with the metallic taste of blood. Someone slept in a bed each night softly drifting off all the while knowing what they did. The murdered girl had blond hair that fell to her back and hugged her shoulders like it had life to it. She brought a light with her wherever she walked. The beauty she held was a reflected truth in the world. That maybe there is the possibility of good, that all you need to do is try to be good and that all the ugly was simply the result of evil being evil. It was an enviable trait, and in the end it resulted in her death. Her vibrant colors a stark contrast of all that was grey and dull in the town, carrying a scent of cool air and linen instead of rot. She was a constant reminder, as constant as a bleeding wound open and pulsating, of the sinister nature of all that was around her. Maybe the town killed her, or at least the idea of her so that they wouldn’t have to look at their own perverted reflection in her mirror faced at life. The teenager knew the murdered girl, she was his sweetheart and with the loss of her he would lose something more. In the days that followed eyes wandered, looking with a heightened and curious speculation.
The sheriff was older and stocky, as if he walked out of a western movie and into a small town ready to wrangle the outlaws. But all he ever found was hot coffee and noise complaints. It was his first week as a fresh cop when the last murder in this town had happened, and now he was less prepared for it than before. The sheriff looked to God and his deputies for help. He’d become accustomed to the idea of the sleepy town. Shuttling drunks to the jail for the night and scolding vandals. When the smell of death found its way into his nose as he stood in a usually vacant morgue he couldn’t help but detach himself from his comfort with the town. His world, already small began to shrink around him suffocating him in its smallness. A noose of guilt and sorrow tightened around the town as the months dragged on. The chilled air blew through the snow dusted alleys as winter was ushered in. The teenager walked the streets late every night, his breath hanging in the air. The aching hole left by the murdered girl opened his spirit to the elements. He wasn’t sure of what missed inside of him, but he looked at the man differently now. He looked with a familiar recognition. He had always known what had happened to the man, everyone did, it was a common topic in the town. Even they refused to acknowledge him it was still good gossip, almost a tall tale in its tragedy. Something so violent and so visceral that it made people feel dangerous just to talk about it. The man stumbled through the streets every night, trying to gain back what he only had for a fleeting moment. He walked the same streets as the grocer, the housewife, the mailman, or the sheriff. But they didn’t walk in the same shoes as him, they didn’t see the world’s tainted smog. He coughed and choked on the pollution that snaked its way into your lungs. The teenager started to choke on the smog as well, it stung his eyes. The man saw the darkness sit upon the teenager’s shoulders and felt a pity with the sight of it. He wanted to tell the teenager to forget, to move on, to be better, he wanted to tell the teenager to never let the emptiness and the darkness eat him. That as hard as it may be, it would be harder to live with nothing. The teenager fell into the days as the search slowed. There wasn’t really any reason in particular that the town started to accept the murder would go unsolved and there wasn’t a good reason that it fell out of their minds. Maybe they wanted to forget it, that if there was nobody to give blame to then it would be easier to call a tragedy. Giving a face to the monster that lurked in the shadows made the horror stories less easy to tell.
The man walked up to the teenager one day, standing in the back of the corner store he spied him buying meaningless items. Throwing the pack of cigarettes on the counter and stuffing crumpled ones into the attendant’s hand he did everything with complacency. The man opened his mouth to speak, but the greeting never came and words found themselves lost and afraid. The teenager looked to the man, standing close and wanting to talk.
“Either say something or fuck off old man” the teenager stated turning quickly on his heel and leaving the store.
He died a month later, walking to the old mill that stood over the town like a silent guardian. People would argue for years why he went there, if it was to jump and die in a quick and permanent splat, or if he just wanted to see the whole town in all its forever tainted glory. But that doesn’t matter either the teenager jumped and that was that.
Here we are at the end of this tale, many will say it was a sad one, one of loss and death. Why is that? Is it because you have seen the loss and death littered in this town? This was story of life, and its unremarkable common aspects. You have known no names of those hurt or of those that are evil. The man lived the rest of his life in that town, regretting one thing and it wasn’t murdering the drifter, it was not acting. In the end five lives were lost the woman and her child, the drifter, the murdered girl, and the teenager. None of them got what they deserved, and one final ruined life was that of the man. Broken as soldier, broken as a father, broken as a man. It was all in this small town just as normal as the one next to it or the one after that.