“–Dahmer was actually relieved when the police finally caught him.”
“Yeah, because it was like a compulsion for him. Same way an alcoholic wants to stop drinking, but he can’t because he’s always thinking about that next drink.”
“Sure, that’s what he said, I mean I bet his lawyers told him to say it, but he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t enjoy…”
Then I’m out of earshot and I can’t hear the little storybook couple making pleasant chitchat in their Toyota. Husband and wife, maybe, although things like that aren’t as important as they used to be. She’s beautiful with her blonde hair and perfect makeup. He’s slightly below average in the looks department, with shapeless jowls, round-framed glasses, and the sloping shoulders of a man who spends more than the usual amount of time cringing in front of a computer.
Must make good money. Probably some kind of engineer.
She can’t be thirty yet, but she’s pushing it. How long before she gets that itch to get a little payback on Mr Shapeless Jowls for stealing her youth and beauty?
God, I hate the human race.
The walking trail around Andrew Jackson Elementary School is about half a mile long. Paved with asphalt and good intentions. Parents who want to show off how supportive and caring they are to their little hellspawn flock together in the parking lot just before the kids get booted from the state-run educational institution for the day. The mothers sit in their cars and worry about sexual predators getting their hands on their children. The fathers (still a minority even in our day) sit in their cars and pray that this show of paternal devotion will be enough to get the old ball and chain to swallow it the way she did back when they were dating.
The normal parents aren’t anywhere near the parking lot, because school buses exist.
And me? I just happen to be in the area on my afternoon walk. Stretch the legs. Get the blood moving. Take a moment to admire the little pink cherry blossoms on the tree that grows near the shadowy corner of the track.
Really, I’m just here for my walk, honest, I don’t even like kids.
I’ve turned the corner by now and can’t even see the parking lot anymore, let alone Blondie and Mr Jowls. Weird that they’re both here. Or is it so weird? No, no it’s completely normal, people do that all the time.
Maybe they really are a fairytale couple. Just love each other so much they even want to go about their daily errands together. Or maybe they only have one car–granted, at a glance you’d figure they’re a couple of young, energetic, upwardly-mobile young professionals. But you never can tell, I mean maybe one of them has a horrible secret. Uncontrollable expenditures and all that.
Really, I’m only at the school because it’s convenient for my afternoon walk. It’s not like I’m intentionally trying to spy on this young couple and their beautiful seven-year old daughter, who favors her mother so much but has her father’s chestnut brown eyes.
I like children, really. They’re wild little creatures who haven’t yet been beaten into the restricting shapes of acceptable grown-up life. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any of those romantic delusions about childhood innocence, I know better than that by now. Watch a little boy using a pocket knife to dissect a worm he found in the front yard and tell me about the innocence of a child. See the knife cut into the worm’s skin, watch it writhe as the guts and fluid spill out. Observe the child become bored as he leaves the flesh scattered across the sidewalk, twitching at steadily growing intervals.
Maybe the kiddo has a future in medicine or life science.
No, it’s not the innocence of childhood. Children can be thoughtlessly cruel in a way an adult could never manage. They haven’t learned the subtle cruelty that makes up the majority of what we call civilized life. And maybe that makes them innocent, in a way. They haven’t learned that one must pay for cruelty by being cruel to oneself. They’re innocent because they haven’t been taught to feel guilty.
Anyway, I’ve turned another corner now and there’s the parking lot in front of me. A little more crowded now, with wrinkled women complaining about their husbands and coworkers to other wrinkled women who complain about their husbands and coworkers. This one has a minivan. This one wears a humorous T-shirt: “Mommy Needs her Wine.” This one twitchily lights a cigarette while Wine Mom in the next car over shakes her head in disapproval.
But who am I to judge? We all need our little anaesthetics to get us through the day.
But I do judge. Maybe that’s my anaesthetic. Or one of them, at least. (School hasn’t let out yet, getting close though, our little seven year old angel should show up any minute…)
Maybe I’ll sit on the swings in the playground, I’d hate to miss the rush of the children out the front door. Nobody would think anything of that, I mean not that I’m worried because I know my intentions are pure.
I sit on the swing. It’s blue and the chain creaks as I absentmindedly sway backwards and forward. I would swing on it like I used to with Erin, back when we were seven years old together and we’d laugh and swing all day. Because we were just friends, in that innocent sort of way you can still be friends with a girl when you’re too young and innocent to know you can’t. Anyway, I would swing like that, but I can’t because I feel the eyes of every neurotic mother on the parking lot boring their drill bit gazes into my skin. I’m sweating even though it’s a cool springtime afternoon.
Probably they aren’t all staring at me. But it’s not like I’d know if they were. Women have sharper senses than us, you know, because in the short term they’re more likely to be the prey than the predator.
It wasn’t my fault. Erin never would have blamed me, anyway, I mean, not that she had the chance. And it was her idea, anyway. And I know what you’re thinking, of course he’d say that, but it’s true. But no… of course it was my fault, it was all my fault! I should have told her I had a bad feeling about wandering into the new section–all those houses under construction with loose gravel, sharp iron protruding at all angles, and concrete basements yawning from beneath the loose frameworks.
It was her idea, though. You’ll say that’s just me reconstructing my memory to avoid responsibility, but if you’d asked either one of us in those days we’d have told you. Erin was the leader of the group and I was delighted that she allowed me to play second fiddle. Maybe I have a follower’s nature, you could say, but even in those days I felt a horrible anxiety about making my own decisions. You should have heard what a hard time I gave my mother, agonizing over which ice cream to pick at Dairy Queen.
So of course Erin was the leader. She was a natural at it, plus she was taller than me, which always helps. And one summer’s evening when the lightning bugs were already glowing, she told me, “Let’s go into the new section and do some exploring.”
I didn’t want to go. I know I’ve already told you that, but it’s true. Anyway, you already see where this is going, no need to stretch it out with my objections that, “It’s almost dark already!” or, “Everything’s probably still slick from the rain yesterday!”
Erin heard my complaints and responded to them with all the confidence of a natural-born leader: “Come on Eric, don’t be such a little weenie.”
So I followed her. And even though the new section of the neighborhood was only four or five blocks away, the setting sun had fully gone down by the time we got there. Only a faint whitish glow limned the outline of the hill to the west. Piles of dirt and gravel stood out like funeral mounds to the left and right of the lightless street. Frameworks of houses loomed like the playtoys of a gigantic child at play with her dolls. Greenish pinpricks of feline eyes peeked out now and then from the darkening night.
(The blonde mother in her Toyota makes eye contact with me as I laze on the swing. But only for a moment.)
How many times have I rehearsed this story in my memory? Even when I try not to repeat it, I repeat it. Trying to find all the moments when I could have saved poor little Erin. The clockworks in my mind keep ticking back to that night, over and over and over…
I have to go back and prevent it.
But I can’t. So I have to go back and recreate it.
I could have refused to go, of course. She wouldn’t have gone on her own. Sure, she would have teased me and called me a little weenie for a week, but that’s no price to pay to have her back. To have her here, laughing, living, breathing with me.
Or even without me. I’d heard rumors that she’d let Thomas from the fourth grade kiss her over the weekend. And I’m not a jealous man, and I definitely wasn’t a jealous man then. I was only seven years old, I can’t have wanted to get my petty revenge on her.
And it was only a rumor anyway, I didn’t see her let him kiss her.
But I could have prevented it. I could have said that the framework house she wanted to climb looked too rickety and loose for us. Could have said it. Must have said it.
Or I could have pointed out the water pooling in the bottom of the basement. But Erin had climbed halfway up the scaffolding by then, so it’s not like there was any malice in my keeping silent about it. Breathlessly, I scrambled up the frame after her, almost slipping once on account of the water dripping from the steel and soaking into the woodwork. All I could think of was how beautiful she appeared in the starlight. The light of the full moon would have complimented her long blonde hair so well. But reality makes no exceptions for our aesthetic judgements.
And when she slipped, barely catching herself after a fall of nearly five feet, I could have said, “All right, that’s enough, Erin!”
You’ve had your fun. You’re scaring me. I’d hate to see you hurt. I’d only live a half life if I lost you.
(The bell rings, dismissing the students to the custody of their progenitors. I straighten up in my swing as the first of the children files out the front door, peering after a flash of yellow.)
“I’m gonna cross over the foundation!” Erin laughed.
“Don’t,” I said, eager to see her do it. “The rails are too far apart, you’ll never make it.”
It’s only hindsight that makes me imagine the concrete foundation filled with six inches of water at the bottom as a gaping, drooling mouth.
“Such a weenie,” she said, leaning her long graceful limbs out across the abyss. “Anyway, you’d better be right after–”
I could have caught her as she fell. I’m sure of it. You’ll say I couldn’t have reacted fast enough. You’ll say I wasn’t strong enough to hold her, that my child’s arms weren’t long enough to reach her. But I could have saved her. I know I could have.
It was just an accident. There’s nothing I could have done. I murdered her. It’s not my fault.
The fall broke her legs and she couldn’t get her head above water. She didn’t struggle for long.
I screamed. Shouted “No!” Reflected, ludicrously, that Erin wouldn’t be letting Thomas kiss her again.
My hands and feet soaked and a lock of her hair in my pocket, I headed home to report the unfortunate accident. Police, but they’d never seriously suspect a seven year old. Ambulance, but only to remove the corpse. Her weeping parents, but of course they didn’t blame me for anything.
It wasn’t my fault.
I sit on the swing at the playground of Andrew Jackson Elementary School, reach a hand into my pocket. A lock of hair waits in there, bound in a ribbon the color of moonlight. I squeeze it and remember my dearly departed friend.
There are others, back home, in all shades of yellow. Gathered over the many years.
Somehow I’ll save you, Erin. Somehow I’ll save you.
Our seven year old angel emerges from the front door. The springtime sun itself isn’t brighter than her shining hair.
A boy walks up behind her, pecks her lightly on the cheek. The metal of the swing chain digs painfully into my clenched fist. He might be two or three years older than her. Maybe he has a future in medicine or life science.
The angel accepts the kiss with natural grace and heads to the Toyota where Blondie and Mr Jowls sit in wait. The family drives off and soon they’re out of sight.
God, I love that girl so much.
Minutes pass. The school buses and the parents’ cars all leave, by and by. Hours pass. The teachers leave, satisfied that good work has been done today. Only I remain. When I’m alone I swing high on the swing set, high and free as I once was with Erin.
With joy in my heart, and pain. I know I’ll have another lock of blonde hair by the month’s end.