William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost, and his recent work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Oxford Magazine, Sequestrum, Solstice, and elsewhere.
Something in the Way
When I was twelve, Jeffrey Dahmer had been wandering around town. Not him physically but what was left of him, the marks made by him. His trial reopened all the things he had done, the lawyers and the specialists and the media holding up his acts like unrolling long-forgotten film in front of a bright light, taking us back to where it all started and ended, showing us over and over, article after article after news coverage after talk show after expert opinion, about the intersection of sex and violence. People wanted to see this animal pay.
After the trial started in the new year, we moved into a ranch-style house, very Brady Bunch with its long, sloping driveway (perfect for the new-but-used Volvo my father had bought) and a den nested in the front, perfect for morning coffee and breakfast, which was more for my parents (my mother specifically) because I was still in the Pop-Tarts-and-Pringles phase, plopping myself in front of the television. A large tree shaded the den, and its window faced the yard that I would mow eventually in the spring but was brown and crusted with frost and sleet when we arrived. The den, a spot for a garden under the den’s window, and the large hallway separating what would become my bedroom from what would become my parents’ bedroom convinced my mother we needed this house.
Over Christmas we packed up and moved from the apartment where we had lived for years, and shortly after (a handful of days, in fact), many of our new neighbors came out of their homes and welcomed us. Talk soon rolled over from jobs, the great school district we all lived in, which church we went to, and the neighborhood itself to Jeffrey Dahmer and what he had hid for so long under our noses.
Several of our new neighbors, most if I remember, claimed to have known someone who worked with someone who was married to someone who went to church with one of the police officers who eventually wrestled Jeffrey Dahmer to the floor of his apartment six months ago in July. This talk, this rolling over from domestic concerns to what he did and that he needed to pay, often happened during breaks my father and I took from shoveling the snow or when the neighbors would stop by for a beer (my father’s) or a glass of white wine (my mother’s), and they would sit in the den with the big window facing what would be a very green yard when spring finally came. It had become a ritual in that first month there in the new house. Shortly after mid-morning, the other neighbors waddled out and shoveled their own driveways and salted the sidewalks, everything cracking and dissolving, and us kids either helped, avoided helping, or simply played in the snow with each other. Making yellow snow was a popular game we played, once we snaked our way between the fences, with no one watching us in the big, undeveloped field and forest behind our houses.
These neighbors shoveling ice and black snow or leaning back in the new chairs around the den’s table, sipping beer or a glass of white wine, would ask my father how we liked the new house and the new neighborhood, where he was working before he got the new job (they congratulated him on keeping his job and getting a promotion during a bad economy), how many miles on the Volvo he had recently bought, where we lived before. And then they would stop, either planting their hands on the shovel or spinning their glasses on the den’s table, which concerned my mother because it was new and there weren’t enough coasters, and they would all say that they all knew then, when news broke after some of Jeffrey Dahmer’s photos had been leaked and the trial reopened up his acts and snippets from the court transcript were printed or aired on the six o’clock news, that sick things happened in his kitchen and in his bedroom, that it was obvious, given the way Jeffrey Dahmer looked, and it was only a matter of time before the cops no longer brushed off the smells that the neighbors complained about, but some of these neighbors (ours, not Jeffrey Dahmer’s) knew that Jeffrey Dahmer would do something to get himself caught. “They always do,” said one neighbor. But they all saw it coming; they could see it in his face. Even my mother, after seeing Jeffrey Dahmer’s picture in the paper or on television and hearing how he behaved in court (unapologetic, even cocky), claimed to have known that it was obvious that something was “a little off.”
Our church’s pastor talked about him one Sunday during a sermon, about which I don’t exactly remember, other than it was February and before Valentine’s Day, and he probably talked about unconditional love, the wellspring love of Christ and God, the power of love to forgive and forget, the importance of monogamous love, one love with one person.
That Friday after school, I had given Pam Simmons a small polished jewel that I learned to smooth in shop class, a bluish-purple stone no larger than a rabbit’s foot, and told her how much I liked her after she had her best friend (Melissa White) tell me that she (Pam Simmons) had two crushes—Jim Morrison and me—and that she (both Pam and Melissa) wanted me to know that she (Pam) didn’t stuff her bra.
During church hymns, my mother always sang with a tremulous soprano voice, like birds fluttering over treetops when you scare them walking into the woods, and I remember that one Sunday in February, almost a month after we moved in to the new house and the Volvo’s backseat had really become my space, Revered Harris stood on the front step, in front of the congregation, combing over his thick white hair, and he mentioned Jeffrey Dahmer, who had smiled throughout his trial more times than he looked remorseful. I knew of whom Reverend Harris spoke, but not what.
After service was over that Sunday, I talked with my friend, Matthew Barnett, and he asked me to go to Gibson’s for lunch, which my mother nixed because it was too expensive, and I asked him if he wanted to go to the mall later, after my parents and I ate at the all-you-can-eat Sunday special at Black-Eyed Pea.
On the way from lunch and hanging out with Matthew at the mall, I sat in the back seat of my parent’s new car, the Volvo station wagon that my father bought used after he got the promotion and the ranch-style house, and he slowed down on Meyer Street, braking behind another car that had slowed down too. The two lanes of traffic on our side halted completely. My mother wondered, “What’s going on?” My father, the volume clicking and popping, turned down the radio, which had begun its program on recapping the last week of Jeffrey Dahmer’s trial before it went to verdict. The program plowed up how things like that could happen in the Heartland, how if Dahmer had God in his life, this may not have happened, that pornography is a contributor to violence.
As each car idled in the eastbound lane, the westbound traffic empty and ghostly, not one single car driving by, a figure in boots, coat, and hat emerged from the exhaust, the cold air, and the red taillights of the car stopped in front of us. He nodded and re-bundled himself in his thick coat, waving with black leather gloves at my father, who rolled down the window. The cop talked to my father and mother (mostly my father). He told my father to “sit tight… There’s a dangerous situation ahead, that’s why we’re stopped here. We’ll let you get moving when it’s safe again.” He looked at me, who, two hours before, had eaten my usual Sunday special of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans, finishing it all off with a large bowl of vanilla ice cream smothered in caramel syrup, and, after church and the usual lunch, had met Matthew at the mall, taking on his usual dare (but which had become unspoken by then), as we cruised the second level of the mall, past Orange Julius, Hot Dog on a Stick, and SunCoast, to steal a Penthouse from the bookstore, sliding it, when the man working behind the counter wasn’t watching, into a Thrasher, and buying that magazine with the surprise inside, me hoping and sweating that the man working behind the counter wouldn’t open Thrasher and find February’s Penthouse Pet of the Month spilling out her softest parts to us all, instead of “Simple Plans to Build A Backyard Half-pipe.” All those times I never was caught, and remembering now that the man behind the counter was middle-aged and balding and talked to Matthew and me for a long time every time we came in, grinning, excited, looking up at us and the skateboard magazine bloated in the middle, and talking to us the many times we went in the store to slide Penthouse into Thrasher, I can’t help but see his face and associate him with being a “little off.”
But this cop, who emerged from the exhaust and glowing taillights, looming over the grey concrete and in the greying air, talking to my father, assuring my mother, looked at me, not from the corner of his eyes, like sometimes the obese security cops did at the mall when Matthew and I quickly walked past them. On that Sunday, this cop took a few seconds to turn his head and see me sitting in the Volvo’s back seat with a Styrofoam box of leftovers from Black-Eyed Pea and the February issue of Thrasher, bulging in the middle for such a slim magazine stocked with images of tricks and the latest skateboarding gear and clothes. The cop looked right at me, and after he told my father to sit still, situation under control, the cop thanked us (mainly my parents) and waved goodbye before trudging down to the next car and tapping on the driver’s side window and probably said the same thing about why we were all stopped, about the dangerous incident up ahead on Meyer Street, just on the other side of low-lying grey clouds overtaking the bridge. The cop nodded and waved to the driver behind us, the headlights shutting off, sitting, before he moved on to the car two cars behind us, and on and on down the cars stuck in east-bound traffic in February weather. The cars backed up on the road for a mile, visible with their lights randomly on, like eyes in a forest, all of them idling or shut off as the grey weather sunk lower from the bridge up ahead.
My father turned the radio’s volume up, and Jeffrey Dahmer’s acts were described in detail, again and again. “The accessibility of porn and sex is too easy,” one of the guests said, and another guest, agreeing with the first guest, brought up the need to keep adult things out of sight and, therefore, she knew, out of mind from children and minors and that Tipper Gore had started the conversation by taking a stance with the Parental Advisory stickers on music. On and on they talked, picking apart sex and violence and what was wrong with America, and stitching Jeffrey Dahmer’s acts to the opinions that seemed to fit best.
My father didn’t change the station, but the descriptions ended anyway because, we were then told (breaking news) that a man armed with a gun had stopped traffic on Meyer Street.
“That’s us,” my father said, shaking his head.
“Oh God,” my mother gasped, “what do we do?”
“Sit here like he said,” my father answered, lifting his thumbs off the steering wheel, leaning back, and flicking on the Volvo’s seat warmer.
“Were those gunshots we heard, not a car in front of us?” my mother covered her mouth and pressed her face closer to the window, the glass fogging up.
I looked through the front windshield and could see another figure pacing back and forth across the street with a long stick in his hand, a figure much leaner than the cop. I sat in the back seat and drew on my own fogged-up window, an X here, a smiley face there, and a narrow triangle (isosceles is what I remember my math teacher calling them) and two full breasts with nipples until I wiped them away. I needed to get home, and slip the Thrasher’s secret content between my new mattress and new box springs, adding it to a few other magazines and ripped-out pages that I had been collecting over the year since I met Matthew in algebra class and we went to the mall or to one of the convenience stores with the magazine stand at the back of the store, by the packages of Slim Jim and the swirling electric colors of the Slushy machine.
Sometimes when we went to the mall, strangers would talk to me, such as the bookstore employee working behind the counter every time we went in there for magazines. Sometimes it happened near the food court, where several men who looked like either Jeffrey Dahmer or the employee working behind the bookstore counter, hung out, eating by themselves, unwrapping their meals from Sbarro or Gyro Station.
My mother told me it could happen at the mall, because men like Jeffrey Dahmer, and men who look like Jeffrey Dahmer, cruise malls. And I think it happened once in front of Macy’s while I was waiting to be picked up by my parents before my dad bought the Volvo. This was before Jeffrey Dahmer’s trial started. The man who worked behind the counter at the bookstore asked me if I needed a ride, and his hands were very cold and clammy when he shook my hand, clammy like my own hands when I went into the bookstore or the convenience stores down from the mall. But then Matthew’s parents came back around, in their nice champagne-colored Suburban, and Matthew’s mother asked me, after rolling down her foggy window, if I wanted a ride. In the past they had asked the same thing when picking up Matthew, but they had stopped asking me after I kept saying no. But this time they asked, and the man who worked behind the counter at the bookstore walked away without saying anything else to me. One time I did say yes (to Matthew’s parents), and my mother, who was on her way to pick me up, panicked and assumed Jeffrey Dahmer had kidnapped me and little pieces of me were in his freezer in his apartment. But Jeffrey Dahmer had already been arrested and either sat in the courtroom or waited in a prison cell until the trial resumed for the day. The secret contents of his freezer had already been discovered, because that was last summer when his neighbors, who were interviewed many times, were adamant about their calls to the police about the smells emanating from his apartment, that those calls were ignored, and that they knew all along something fishy was happening in there. Besides, I was in the Barnetts’ champagne-colored Suburban. We left the entrance to Macy’s, and the man who worked behind the counter at the bookstore slouched his thin frame into a rusty, dirty sedan. After a few minutes of silence, I finally laughed with Matthew in the far back seat because I had the issue showing Penthouse’s Pet of the Year for 1991 with a lollipop in her mouth, and Matthew had a pack of cigarettes that he bought with quarters in the hallway of Sears Automotive when no one was looking. Things were looking good until I got home.
“He just walked in,” my mother fumed into the phone, slamming it down onto the wall. “Where were you?”
“Matthew’s parents brought me home.”
“Don’t ever do that again. I was so scared. I didn’t know where you were. What is that?”
“Another? How many do you need? Go to your room. Your father and I will talk to you later. There’s a killer at large, and he likes young boys. Copycat crimes are next,” she repeated, word for word, from a serial-killer expert on one of the talk shows.
I went into my room, closed the door, and put away the 1991 Pet of the Year, unfolding and then folding her one more time. Back then, Tonya loves Journey, Led Zeppelin, and Mötley Crüe. Back then, her Turn On’s include considerate and smart men; arrogance and slobs are her Turn Off’s, back then. Born in Texas. Wants to own a horse ranch and go to veterinary school. She fit nicely next to an in-depth interview with Tony Hawk, whose gear I’d been wanting but would have to go to the skate shop on my own or with Matthew because my mother had heard from the new neighbors that a lot of drugs and violence and teenage sex happened with those skaters because they (the new neighbors) had seen them hanging out at the mall.
“Billy boy?” my father knocked, “you ready to talk?”
It was a slap-on-the-wrist talk.
“Don’t do that when you could have called first…or have Matthew’s parents call. Simple stuff like that, OK? We love you. We don’t want to lose you. Dinner’s almost ready.” And he walked on down the long hall, leaving behind the smell of his new cologne, which had begun reminding me of exploring the woods after it had snowed, this cologne that he started wearing after he earned his promotion at work, which was where we were headed that Sunday afternoon after church, after lunch at Black-Eyed Pea, after the mall with Matthew, using Meyer Street, so he could show my mom and me his new office.
The snow was really falling when we eventually got there, east-bound traffic lengthening past the spinning lights of the police and ambulance and news trucks, my father not wanting to slow down past what happened to the gunman, but having to drive slowly over the fresh snow crunching under the tires. “All-wheel drive,” he winked at us in the Volvo and picked up a little speed once closer to his office.
I was amazed at the number of CADs and computers he had. He said he now had a team of five designers and engineers. “So proud of you,” my mother said, kissing him in his big office with a large, plush, leather chair. Outside his office, in the main work area, he fired up one of the computers and one of the large printers sprawled next to it, and handed me a large mouse pad that had thin white lines over its dark-blue sky-surface, like graph paper, and he clicked on the stylus wired into the computer. I drew several circles and squares, several lines running through the shapes, mainly circles with circles inside, until I needed to use the restroom. I asked him where it was, he pointed it out to me, and when I went in, I found a stack of Playboys on top of the tank. I ripped out the images that caught my eyes before finally urinating, stuffing the pages in my new church slacks, leaving the bathroom and drawing again at the CAD. I asked my father for a soda (Pepsi), and I chugged it, knowing what would come next.
Minutes later, after drawing and printing, I walked into the bathroom again, and before peeing, I collected more pages from the ones I hadn’t yet scoured, stopping when I reached the bottom with an old issue of People and Jeffrey Dahmer on the cover. He looked like an engineer who could work for my dad, wearing his glasses and a five o’clock shadow and a pocket protector filled with pens and pencils, someone who could sketch new valves for transporting oil and water, the latter being my father’s new expansion project, which, when it matured in a few years, paid for my first new-but-used car. I used the same road (Meyer Street) the gunman trapped us on, cruising past all the new developments (fast-food restaurants, big-chain stores, and larger houses) starting to engulf fields and forests behind neighborhoods.
We later found out from our neighbors who knew a cop in Milwaukee PD that the gunman, who had had stopped traffic and waved his gun, eventually took off his clothes, because why not take off your clothes in the advent of a snowstorm while standing in the middle of a major street, stopping traffic, and popping off a few shots in the air? If he was out there with a gun, terrorizing the city (this was before terror meant terrorist and everyone was alert for terrorists), why not strip naked? What did he have to lose? I imagine I’d do the same thing, if I had taken it that far. They’d just throw indecent exposure on top of threatening the public, obstruction of justice, and traffic violations.
Sitting in the Volvo’s back seat that Sunday, with the leftovers from lunch and the Thrasher in my lap, I thought the gunman could have ended up in the same prison with Jeffrey Dahmer because this was Milwaukee in winter, just before the weather teases us like teeth, sunny one day, one more snowfall the next, just when the flowers open up, which would irritate my mom because she spent so much time and effort in her new garden under the den’s window at the new house that she ended up getting a knee pad and working her hands until they had carpel tunnel syndrome, which gave her the reason to not cook so much, resting her hands, which meant we had to eat out more. By then we could finally afford Gibson’s, and not just on Sundays. But back then, it was church, Black-Eyed Pea, mall, on our way to my dad’s office, using the road that the naked gunman was on that day just before Valentine’s Day, snow staring to fall on the highway, the SWAT team’s large tactical vehicle rumbling past us, the officer who talked to my father and stared at me, motioning us all back, “Watch out for the car behind you, but we need you to back up. Back up.”
And so we did (back up) a little more, a little more, out of the frame, until the SWAT team’s truck had room to engage the naked man with the gun in his hand, who, I was able to catch a glimpse of, had a long shaggy beard and long brown hair darkening from the snow falling and melting in it. And then we were allowed back into the frame, moving forward, past it all. Yes, I looked. Yes, it was cold. Yes, the SWAT team shot him when he advanced on them. Yes, I saw the body bag as we drove beside it. Yes, the snow fell, tumbling down, thicker, heavier, like it sometimes does in magazines or on television, the image focusing on the weather’s slow descent, nothing else in the picture, no sounds, the image of nothing else but nothingness, grey and white, the place and the time surpassing the characters, who have nowhere else to go.