The Killing Type

Andrew arrives in the town of Knosting after he has been fired from his job at a big-city university, and a series of murders start happening soon after. He decides to apply his research skills to investigating these in order to find the killer and to write a book about the case. Though still recovering from what he perceives as his poor treatment by the administration at the university, he continues with his investigation.

The murders persist, with the killer defying the serial pattern by dispatching his victims in various methods, instead of sticking to a single one. Andrew is unnerved when he receives an email from him, saying that his book will be unsuccessful and the killer will get away. During his research in the library, Andrew meets Tony, a quirky waitress with an interest in murder. The emails and murders still persist, and at first Andrew does not consider Tony to be a suspect. The citizens of the town are very upset as the murders add up and the police are not able to find even a suspect. The newspaper headlines scream for the killer to stop and for the police to do a better job. Andrew still regrets his failure to get published and tenured while at the university, but he stays focused on his investigation.

Hour of Our Death, Amen

Seeing Others Grieve

The group again, but much smaller than Will remembered it. He had competing urges: sit alone in the chair at the end of the semi-circle, or find out all he could about these people. He recognized at least one face from his first meeting, and he wondered about the half-dozen or more people who weren’t there anymore. Were they all healed? Had the camaraderie, the shared pain, the opportunity to vent and to get on-the-spot therapy from Eli-had that all accomplished what the poster on the telephone pole had promised? Will wasn’t sure whether it was naive or positive to even consider the possibility.

He worried about the alternative, people dropping out of the group as they might from an ill-considered cooking class which they’d seen advertised on the bulletin board but eventually discovered they had no time or inclination for. Or even worse: people feeling that they were too weighed down with grief to attend a grief class, the cure defeated by the virulence of the disease. Will remembered one woman in particular who hadn’t said one word and spent most of her time with her eyes directed downward at the space between her shoes. He’d seen her flinch once when the voice of one of the men rose sharply, and then again when Eli asked her a question and she eventually just shook her head silently, apparently unable to muster energy for any level of interaction. Will found it hard to imagine that someone like her had derived all the good possible from the group and was now happily on her way to a better life. What was she doing tonight? Why wasn’t she here? Why couldn’t anyone do anything to help her?

Eli was well dressed tonight, as if he had more life-affirming plans with less forlorn people later in the evening. Will resented that, even though he knew there was no good reason to do so. He wanted everyone and everything to be down here in the muck with him and the rest of these people that God had frowned upon. It wasn’t rational, it wasn’t generous, it wasn’t particularly mature, but that’s how Will felt on evenings like this, the temperature cold enough as it was and the wind chilling the air even more, his neighbor’s dog barking when Will was trying to read or get to sleep, his life generally falling apart in a flurry of pettiness and grief.

“Thank you all for coming this evening, everyone,” Eli was saying, and Will adjusted himself on his chair. “I see some familiar faces-you know who you are-and I see some faces that have been away for awhile, and”-he looked around the room, confirming-“I see some brand-new faces.”

Will caught the eye of a woman who was looking around the room as he was. She stared at him lazily, her gaze lingering much longer than it would in polite society where it might be mistaken for flirting. She was not quite looking at him, Will realized, as through him or past him, as if his face had just happened to get in the way of something she was staring at or somewhere else that she wanted to be. Her eyes seemed glazed over and when she turned away she just turned away, with no smile, no acknowledgement, no marking of the fact that a connection of some kind had been made and was now being broken.

“I’d like to know an activity that each of you did during the past week,” Eli said. “It doesn’t have to be dramatic or anything like that, but I’d like it to be something where there is a detail about it that you think is a positive sign. You know, that you reacted more positively than you would normally have expected, or you did something good and forgot about your own situation. Anything like that. Would someone like to start?”

Will felt he was back in junior high again, and had not done the assigned reading. The time seemed to drag but nobody spoke up.

“Will, would you mind getting us started?” Eli asked.

Will looked up. “Ah, listen, Eli, I’m not sure what you want exactly. Something positive?”

“Well, not the best news in the world necessarily-you know, winning the lottery or something-but just any situation, even something everyday and ordinary, where you think you were able to deal with it or react in a more po-deal with it better, you know, not let it get you down.”

Will smiled at Eli and shook his head.

“I don’t want to be crude or anything, Eli, or unappreciative. I mean, I do appreciate what you’re doing, but I hope you can understand where I’m coming from.”

“Please, Will, please say whatever is on your mind.”

Will took a breath, and smiled as he breathed out slowly and thought of his abandoned yoga classes.

“Well, the thing is, I guess, that I seem to have only two modes, and neither of them is very positive. I’m either powered down all the time, sort of depressed, where I really have trouble caring about anything or even doing anything. The other mode is negative, like a kind of low-level anger all the time. At no one in particular-well, at no one really at all, but I just feel that I have a burning and a tension in my gut that I can’t get rid of. I don’t know. This probably doesn’t make any sense.”

Will looked around quickly at the crowd just to confirm that he wasn’t crazy, that he wasn’t being relentlessly negative in a situation where a better man would simply pick up and move on. He saw people nodding their heads, though, and the second saddest woman in the group, the one who actually managed to make it there, smiled at him.

“I know where you’re coming from, Will, I really do, but-”

“Have you ever lost anyone, Eli?”

“Pardon me?”

“Has someone close to you ever died?”

There was silence and everyone was now staring patiently at Eli, waiting for an answer.

“Not really, Will. But I think one can extrapolate-”

“Listen, Eli, I’m sorry to interrupt. I’m not a rude person, I’m really not. But my opinion is that until you’ve gone through something like this, then I don’t think you can really know what it’s like. I don’t doubt that you’re a caring and intelligent person, but I also feel that you can only come to an approximation of what I am-well, of what we all here are going through.”

Eli looked straight at Will.

“You’ve probably got a point there,” he conceded. “However, I’ve not had a totally sheltered life, believe me, and in any case I do think that I also have good empathetic skills-you know, I think I can at least imagine the suffering that you, that all of you here, are going through.”

“Imagine?” Will said.

Eli sighed. “I think the main point I’d like to make,” he said, “is that this room, you, this particular bunch of people-you can all be good for each other. This room can be a forum for bringing up issues which perhaps wouldn’t come up otherwise in your regular life. I really don’t need to be the expert or anything like that. I’ve never seen myself that way in facilitating this group.”

“I guess that’s fair enough,” Will said. “And, listen, I didn’t mean to be a prick about it. Pardon my French.”

“It’s OK, Will. Now, would someone else like to tell me something positive about their week?”

One

Start with the baby. See it, see him, open his mouth for the warm sweet milk in the glass bottle with the sterile rubber nipple, see him cradled in his mother’s left arm, partially down the length of it, sloping from the arm to her lap—or gooey food, too, see him open his mouth for things like carrots and peas and asparagus, all mushed up and looking nothing like they should, swiveling precariously in the oval of a spoon, the goo always threatening to fall out, like a round fat boy in the chair of a ferris wheel.

He makes a sound that is barely audible in the midst of the cooing encouragement of the mother (“There you go, yes, ooops, just a little more, my love, there you go . . .”), the metal of the spoon hitting against the lip of the bottle as she scrapes off the excess, creates a mound of the right shape and size for a tiny mouth—he makes a sound, a soft gurgle of contentment that is not the sound of swallowing but is more like closing punctuation, a basic unconscious expression of how good and right it is to be loved and fed like this, given sustenance, kept alive. It’s one of the main sounds in his limited repertoire, somewhere along that continuum which has breathing while asleep at one end and crying for food at the other.

Today, the mother is sleeping and the father, though not exactly crying, is running around the house looking for his sleek new blue silk tie, the cool one with the off-center red oblong on it, growling when he looks in three obvious places and finds nothing.

“Shayla?” he shouts to his wife as he looks at his watch and starts to worry that he may not make his first meeting of the day. “Shayla?”

She is awake instantly, her maternal attentiveness kicking in even when it’s not necessary. She lies there for a couple of seconds, runs through a mental checklist about the coordinates of her son (yes, sleeping, check), looks over at the baby monitor, the one that makes the walkie-talkie sounds, sees that it is on but that there is no sound from his room, decides to check, is up, at his crib, and she hears another “Shayla?” while she is adjusting the soft wool blanket back over his legs.

She leaves the crib, closes the door of the most colorful room in the house about halfway behind her, and rushes downstairs. Her husband, Jason, is standing at the far end of the kitchen island, tieless.

“Will you stop shouting. The baby’s asleep,” Shayla says.

“Have you seen my tie?”

“Which one?”

“The new one, the blue one.”

“Honey, if it’s not on your little rack thing then I’m really not sure where it is.”

“You didn’t put it somewhere, did you?”

“Put it somewhere?”

“I don’t know, like, when you were cleaning up or something?”

“I haven’t seen it, Jason. Why don’t you just pick another one? That one with the dark blue and dark green stripes, kind of on an angle—that one would match that suit.”

Jason makes an expression with his mouth that Shayla can’t interpret, and then he shakes his head and brushes on by her. She follows him upstairs and snuggles back into bed while he spins his tie rack.

“The blue and green one,” she says, and then rolls back into her still-warm pillow, soothed by the amplified breathing sounds of their sleeping son coming from the baby monitor.

2

Jason has been eating badly since the boy was born. He jokes with Shayla, though he no longer thinks it’s funny, that he’s the one who has kept on weight after the pregnancy. He’s not sure what to make of it. Forget the tie, for example. He spent even longer finding one of the few suits that don’t fit him snugly: the pleats of the pants don’t splay, and the jacket hides nearly everything in its ample and numerous folds.

He feels self-conscious and Shayla encourages him to simply buy some new clothes and to have the tight stuff taken out. But he hesitates: he doesn’t want to legitimize the weight gain by acquiring a new wardrobe. That seems like giving up to him. Instead he hopes that he can just sneak by this little trouble spot, spend a few weeks sucking in his belly at work and rowing his heart out right afterwards. Lose weight and revert to his former self, before anyone even notices the aberration. He feels the least exposed as he drives his BMW. His leather portfolio, a rich brown, is on the seat beside him, and his jacket is draped gently over it, partially covering, partially exposing. The door shuts him into this luxurious privacy, this protective space, and as he drives he feels a power return to him, an integrity, a sense of independent direction. He doesn’t notice how fat he is and doesn’t think about work or the prospect of being with a family—even a family he loves—but being committed to them for the next fifteen, twenty, thirty years. Instead, ensconced in a leather seat and with no radio and no CD playing as Shayla always insists when she’s in the car, he breezes quietly but forcefully into work.

The route takes him through the extremes. He leaves their suburban home and wends through a community in which the stop signs are unnecessary because everyone would stop anyway, and the roadsides are studded with signs about a Neighborhood Watch that hasn’t had to do its job for years now. The cops are atrophying with dog-poo complaints and calls about teenagers who have the stereo up just a little too loud when mom and dad are out at The Lion King with the five-year-old sister.

He then does about a mile through the country, his favorite leg of the whole commute. His hermetically sealed power is raw but unnecessary, and the sleek German machine is an overstated contrast to the basic purity of road and trees and that little pond he always passes. It’s nothing but noisy distraction in the city. Everything seems to be running at a faster pace, but his car moves more slowly and he’s barely edging forward at all by the time he is descending to park in his building’s underground garage.

Boswell’s Secret

Monday, January 1, 2001

You always forget the details.

I was sitting up in bed last night after midnight—so, technically, the first day of the new year—using my little Sony tape recorder to make a cassette letter for my friend Austin. I answered the questions which he had asked me on his last one, but that amount of taping was about all I had energy for after three days of going to bed well after midnight, sleeping in late, and even taking unplanned naps on the couch when I had fully intended to watch TV. The extra sleep tends not to refresh me but rather to make me lazier than I usually am.

I laid the recorder on the bed at my right, among the folds of the sheets and comforter which would normally have been occupied by Lamara, but she was still at a New Year’s party thrown by her boss. I picked up Best American Short Stories 2000, and started reading a story by Percival Everett called “The Fix,” about a man who can fix anything—small appliances and the like, but he also brings a woman back to life—and about fifteen minutes later I was finding that the late-night reading was having its usual effect of putting me gently to sleep. I put the book back on the bottom shelf of the wicker night table, turned off the lamp, and then wiggled onto my belly down under the covers, flipping the comforter up to my neck.

I’d forgotten the detail about the location of the cassette recorder, and it clunked onto the floor at the entrance to the bedroom. Shit. I got out of bed and picked it up. At first none of the buttons I pushed did anything. I opened the compartment and removed the cassette, trying to verify further whether there was any hope that it might still be functional. It looked fine. I shook the recorder gently, thinking that I might hear the rattle of some small internal part which had been dislodged or broken, but there was nothing. I put the cassette back in, rewound it a little, and pressed Play. I heard my own voice talking to Austin, but the volume was very low, as if I were whispering some secret to him.

I was bothered by this silly little incident, to the extent that I had trouble getting to sleep. I positioned and repositioned myself for about an hour, checked the clock several times, and was just falling asleep at about 3.30 a.m. when the third-floor neighbor, she of the black clogs and inattention to civilized sleeping hours, clomped upstairs and (mercifully) immediately into bed. The main thing was the eerie symmetry of having read a story about a man who fixes things, commenting about that story on tape, and then breaking the recorder, thereby putting myself in need of a man who fixes things. Symmetry? Coincidence? Or just a random event completely bereft of significance in a universe that is utterly indifferent to me and my petty plight? But apart from all that, it just does not seem to be an auspicious way to start a new year, by breaking one of the chief means I use to communicate with one of my closest friends.

Tuesday, January 2, 2001

I woke up at about noon, Lamara still not in bed to my right, and to my left a broken cassette recorder on the night table, its tape compartment door agape like a face frozen in death. There was music playing, the first-floor neighbor sullying the silence this time, the volume turned justlow enough so that the lyrics were not discernible, but just loud enough so that I could hear and feel the rhythmic pounding of the bass from some boy band. It would have been less annoying if he’d had heavy metal cranked up full blast.

I turned on the radio, NPR on 90.9, and the guy was saying “Boston, Cape Cod, and the Islands.” I removed the cassette and the batteries from the recorder, closed its maw, and then tossed it cleanly into the waste paper basket, a distance of about ten feet. It was time to make a list of things I needed to do today, with number 1 being buying a new recorder. Then, in no particular order: rent movies; pick up shoes at the repair shop; get the oil and filter changed in the car; buy a new case for my laptop; get . . . It was all so pragmatic and dull that I set the pen and paper back down on the night table and got up.

Lamara had called New Year’s Day to say she wouldn’t be home till today, but it was now almost two o’clock in the afternoon and she still wasn’t here. I checked the voicemail just in case I had slept through a call she’d made, telling me that it was late and she was drunk and that the best thing to do would be to stay over at her boss Stan’s place, or something like that. But there were no messages. Just as I clicked the phone off, it rang.

“Hi, Jim, it’s me.” It was Lamara. “Happy New Year, honey.”

“Same to you. I was starting to get a little worried. What’s up?”

“Well, you know Stan. There was like a ton of champagne left over from midnight and he insisted that we all stay there until it was all gone. And then there was dancing and another round of food—I feel so stuffed—and then before I knew it was like four o’clock or something and I was exhausted and a bit drunk still, and so I thought the best thing to do was to stay over again.”

“Makes sense.”

I was getting that eerie feeling again, as Lamara was saying exactly what I had imagined she might say. Then again, staying over was the only logical explanation.

“When are you coming home?” I asked.

“Actually, that’s what I was calling about. I’m just helping them clean up a bit now, and then I’ll probably have some coffee, but then some of us, a smaller group, we’re going to stay for another night—you know, make it a good party. Is that OK? I should be back tomorrow some time, like in the early afternoon or something.”

“OK, no problem. I think I’m going to run out and do a few errands now anyway.”

“That sounds like a plan. I miss you,” she said. “And I missed you on New Year’s Eve. We all missed you.”

“Yeah, right.”

“Jim?”

“Just kidding. Listen, I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

“OK. I lov—”

Click.

Will’s Dead Wife

Will starts drinking more beer after his wife Joni is killed in a car accident. He has a bath with her the day she dies, but she leaves and drives to the airport for the trip to a conference, and is slammed into by an SUV going the wrong way up the exit, while Will is at home blithely watching a dumb infomercial on TV

Will has sex with a few people as he tries to recuperate from the loss of her, and then goes through a series other obsessions which distract him from his grief—astrology, healing stones, yoga. Nothing works, and his friend Vera worries about him. He continues to haul himself through uninteresting work days as a librarian for an advertising agency, but he spends most of his time drinking beer and reminiscing, reliving his intimate connected past with Joni.

In the end, Will attempts recovery and redemption in an unusual way.

Crushed Nuts

Chapter 40

I am sitting in a chair in a semi-private hospital room, waiting for my grandfather to die. Not waiting in the sense of wanting, but in the sense of having accepted what a couple of years of bodily deteriorations have reduced him to, and so simply attending the end. And, yes, often I do want him to die, only because he seems to be in so much discomfort. I want him to have a bit of peace.

“Hey, Billy, how ya doin?” I ask.

He says nothing, maybe because he simply does not hear mehis hearing has been bad for the last ten or fifteen years and he wears his hearing-aid reluctantlybut maybe because there isn’t much to say anyway. In happier times, before the sequestering in a nursing home and finally the hospital, his answer would be “Waitin for the time to die,” and now when that answer is literally appropriatewell, I am glad he doesn’t hear me, and doesn’t answer. A nurse enters the room.

She nods at me and then scrunches up her face into something approximating a smile. She walks over to the side of my grandfather’s bed.

“And how are we doing today, Mr. Albertson?” she asks him.

He doesn’t answer but just lies there. She lifts him up a little, adjusts him. She sets some pills on his nightstand and tells him she’ll be back later to give them to him.

“Now don’t you fall asleep on me, you hear,” she says. “I don’t want to have to wake you up and make it all harder than it should be for both of us.”

Billy says nothing. When the nurse leaves the room I go over to his bed.

“Hey, Billy,” I say quietly. I rub my hand over his short white hair, and the backs of my fingers along the stubble on his cheeks and chin. When he used to be more alert I’d tease him about his facial hair.

“Not gonna shave today, Billy?”

And his answer was always the same: “The world shaves me every day.”

The nurse returns about a half hour later.

“Time for your pills, Mr. Albertson.”

I help her sit him up in bed and I take the cup of water and the pills from her when I see her roll her eyes.

“Make sure he doesn’t just spit them back into the cup,” she says, and walks out.

Billy is trying to lie on his side.

“No, Billy, let’s take your pills first and then you can lie back and take a nice long nap.”

He looks at me. I offer the pills and he takes them from my hand. As he drinks, water drips down his chin and onto the hospital garb, like an ellipsis.

He hands me back the cup, and I see the pasty remnants of half-chewed pills at the bottom. It hardly seems to matter.

“OK, Billy, that’s OK. That’s good.”

I tell myself that I will make sure that he has them in his food the next time, crushed over some ice cream or dissolved in his beloved lime soda, but I find it hard to be as adamant as the nurse about the regimen. The man is dying. Why do his last years, or months or days, have to include badgering about medication of dubious effectiveness?

I throw the cup in the trash and settle him in for the night: maneuver him into a position about half-way between being on his back and being on his side; make sure his pajamas are not cinching him; make sure that he is covered up.

He has changed physically since arriving in the hospital. The most noticeable change is in his face, which is now sunken and gaunt. He looks like he is starving, shriveling.

He has undergone quite a divestment on his way to this place. He’s been removed from his comfortable little existence of domestic rituals in his daughter’s (my mother’s) home. Life used to consist of light meals, sweet milky tea, sitting in his armchair at the living room window, and naps. He seemed content even though he never really did anything. We would often arrive home to find him at the kitchen table, playing with a bit of thread, or coloring. The coloring bothered me at first because it seemed like such a blatant regression, but my mother convinced me that, as she put it, “it helps him pass the time.” The coloring books were filled out with no attention to representation or verisimilitude. They were populated with green horses with pink heads and orange hooves. Some of the people were completely blueface, hands, hair, clothing, everythingas if someone had thrown a can of paint over them. The sky was rich purple and the sun shone brown.

As soon as he arrived at the hospital he was stripped of the meager possessions he did havehis watch, his ring. He was relegated to skim milk in his tea, which reduced it to a greenish liquid which was also rarely hot enough. Meals were part of what the nurse called the Senior Plan but what Billy referred to as “mang”: healthful but bland. No fat, no salt. The first words out of his mouth after the tray has been set in front of him are: “What’s this ole mang?”

I often sneak in bad food to him. When the nurse leaves, I put the tray of good food to the side on his night table and start removing from my pockets the alternative Senior Plan: a couple of pieces of fried chicken, still warm in its tin foil wrapping, some hard candy. He devours them.

“Any tea?” he asks, and I take the thermos from my knapsack and pour him a cup the way he really likes it, with whole milk and lots of sugar. And by the time the nurse comes back, that’s what he and I are doing: the tin foil is scrunched up in my pocket with the candy wrappers, Billy’s mouth is cleaned off, and we are sipping tea in seeming innocence.

“He didn’t eat?” she asks, and I shake my head as seriously as I can and say that he doesn’t have much of an appetite tonight.

She leaves us and we just sit there in silence. He tries to turn himself on his side, but he’s weak and can’t manage it.

“Sam,” he says. “Sam, turn me over.”

I get up and turn him and he grunts a little as he settles into the new position.

“Good night, Billy.”

He’s half-asleep already. I go around the bed to the side he’s facing and ensure that he’s tucked in, that he’s not crimped or trapped beneath the sheets. Everything is fine. There are pictures on the night-table, mostly old ones of children and grandchildren, most of them in cheap frames lacking the glass. He’s got little pictures tucked in all corners of the frames, nearly obscuring the original picture. His beaten-up old wallet is there, too, all fat and ready to fall apart with pictures. Snaps, he calls them. “Sam, where’s my snaps? The nurses took my snaps.” I take the wallet back to my chair. I remove the pictures. Again, they’re his children and grandchildren, most of them in pretty battered condition. On the backs of some of them he has scrawled a date or some other annotation. The thing is that since he can’t read the writing is sometimes incomprehensible (“I can’t read, but I can spell hard words” is the way he puts it). On the back of a picture of me, he’s written “Samm” in a rough script that looks like it was done by a child or by a person with a nervous hand. There’s one of Wade, marked “Arn 280,” and one of our mother marked “Karno Bruck.”

There are notes and phone numbers in the wallet, too. Some change, no credit cards, no paper bills. I put all the pictures back in, and put it back on his night-table. I check him one more time, make sure that he is as comfortable as he can be. I touch him on the loose rough skin of his hand. I bend down and kiss him on the cheek.

“Good night, Billy.”