SOLSTICE LITERARY MAGAZINE
Summer 2018 Featured Nonfiction
One cold morning in January, I wake before dawn and write down, It’s ridiculous to blame anyone else for our lives. Our lives are gifts that exist long before we enter them and go on long after we leave them, intact, just as they are. What we do and see and learn is what we need to learn.
I’m not sure where this comes from and I’m not sure I believe it, not entirely, but the fact that I am able to receive and record such a thought is a testament to forty years of hard labor in the fields of forgiveness. I grew up in a series of violent, sometimes brutal households, with adults addicted to drugs and alcohol, as well as gambling and sex and who knows what else. Pain. A lot of the adults in our lives, my brothers’ and mine, were addicted to pain, their own pain and the rush of inflicting pain on others.
My stepfather, Paulson, used to beat his son, my stepbrother, Sonny, with a wide leather belt and confine him to his rooms for days. I had two younger half brothers in my own father’s house, and I saw him commit the same kind of so-called punishments—whippings with a belt that went on, with breaks, for over an hour at a time. They never hit the girls, these men, but everyone got humiliated, forced to leave the table or sit at the table deep into the night, made to eat off the toilet seat, dragged out of bed.
Still, as I read and reread that short paragraph scrawled at first light, slowly I come to see the ways in which it might possibly, at least in part, be true. I can envision my life stretching far beyond what I know for certain, and that lends it a new spaciousness and grace. For a moment I am tempted to forgive everyone, a blanket amnesty. But when I think about Sonny, it is hard to give up blame.
By the time I was seventeen, I had gotten as far away as I could from those violent homes in Texas, to a boarding school in Connecticut. On a cold January morning, I stood in the drafty, green-tiled bathroom of the dorm, brushing my teeth. A girl who lived across the hall stuck her head in the door to tell me I had a phone call. I remember seeing her in the reflection of the mirror, partially fogged by steam from the showers. Phone calls got put through to the dorms between dinner and study hall, so a phone call at 7 AM made no sense, and it has always seemed to me that the moment I saw her in that cloudy mirror and heard her say my name, I knew what had happened.
My housemother let me take the call in her sitting room, where we were usually not allowed. My mother’s voice sounded small and childish.
There’s been an accident, she said. Sonny is dead.
What do you mean? I asked. How?
He was shot. On a street in Oak Lawn.
But I thought he was at OU, I said. I could remember watching him drive off in his black convertible 442, on a hot gray day in late August, headed for Norman, Oklahoma.
Well, he wasn’t. But listen, honey, don’t say all that. Just tell everyone it was a car accident.
The housemother got one of my roommates to walk me over to the infirmary, probably because I was crying so hard. The white-haired nurse didn’t know what to do with me, but soon our kind headmaster arrived, took me back to my dorm and found someone to help me pack.
In the car on the way to the airport, I felt painfully aware that my headmaster was doing me a huge favor driving me himself, and my Texas upbringing told me that I owed him, at the very least, some entertaining conversation. The women in my family, my mother and grandmother, great aunts and second cousins, were the Vestal Virgins of chat. The flame of small talk never went untended in our homes.
I considered myself a failure in that and most social areas, especially compared to all of them, vivacious beauties set to a low boil of flirtation. I was skinny and quiet and constantly being told that I thought about things too much.
After a lengthy silence, I asked him if he believed in heaven.
He was quiet for a few minutes before answering.
I don’t really know, he said. But I’m quite sure if there is such a place, your brother will go there.
At that moment I felt the gulf created by the lie my mother had concocted, the lie I had obediently repeated. And I thought, he wouldn’t say that if he knew the truth about us.
After my mother divorced my father, when I was a year old, she married Paulson, Sonny’s father, and the three of us moved into a dark brick Georgian house in Highland Park, one of the wealthy Park Cities suburbs just north of Dallas. At that point, Sonny was living out of state with his own mother and her new husband and their new baby, Robert, Sonny’s half brother.
A little over a year after the wedding, Sonny arrived at our house, a stranger. I would have been almost three, so of course I didn’t know anything about the story that had landed him there, though by the time I was four or five I knew there was a story, and I knew two things about it. One, some version of it appeared in the kind of newspapers that had huge pictures on the front page with headlines in red. Two, I was not allowed to be in the room when grownups looked at those newspapers or talked about Sonny’s mother.
Our parents were usually gone for at least half the year, to California or Jamaica, where Paulson was building a golf and beach resort. From time to time my mother hired a woman to take care of Sonny and me, a sort of nanny, though there was never anything crisp and starched about any of these women. I remember them vaguely—sweetly flustered Mrs. Bradfield, who used to put on a hat with a net veil every Sunday and take Sonny and me to the Christian Science church; Elfreida, who beat us with wire coat hangers; and practical Mary, who, when I woke up crying in the night, which I did frequently, would make me hot milk with butter and Scotch and honey and sing a little song about all the people who loved me. At the end of it, I would say, “But my mother doesn’t love me.” And Mary would say, “No, but I do,” and start the song all over again.
To Sonny and me, most adults were like the Texas weather—prone to ruin the picnic and completely unpredictable. When we were little and our parents were at home, they would have cocktails in the library with black pitted olives on ice as hors d’oeuvres. That would be a cheerful time, and I still remember the way the house seemed to breathe a sigh when they had their first drink. They also regularly had large parties that lasted through the night and sometimes into the next day. More than once I came home from school to find a group of men still drinking and playing gin rummy at tables in the living room.
Our house sat all alone on a sort of suburban island, next to a large vacant lot. For the first few years, Sonny and I had only each other and my mother’s sullen dachshund, Little Sir Echo, who had no interest in Sonny and me. And after we dressed the dog up in a baby doll outfit and rolled him around in a stroller, he ran from us whenever he saw us coming.
So Sonny and I were on our own. We found heavy cardboard boxes from the liquor store and set traps for squirrels. When we actually caught one, Sonny reached inside the box and got bitten. The squirrel took off, and Sonny had to have rabies shots in his stomach for weeks.
We made up a game called Going Over Niagara Falls, in which one of us would climb into a big cardboard box and the other would give the box a shove to send it down the front stairs. But we began to wear out the thick wool carpet, so we had to move to the back stairs—narrow, uncarpeted and steep, with a sharp twist at the bottom. Sonny went first and jammed the big toe of his right foot into the wall, almost breaking it off. I remember the huge circles of blood on the pale green dining room carpet as we went to find Elizabeth, the housekeeper, the one constant and source of comfort in our lives.
Once Sonny stole money out of Elizabeth’s purse and walked up alone to Worthington’s Five & Dime to buy us all presents—a handkerchief for Elizabeth, a life-size toddler doll for me, an airplane with an engine for himself. When Paulson got home and heard what had happened, he called Sonny into his room. As usual, I lurked outside the door listening, thinking that somehow I could avert the disaster I saw coming.
Where did you get the money?
I found it.
On the sidewalk.
Don’t lie to me about this.
He got a bad whipping for that and was confined to his room for a couple of weeks. He also had to fill two Big Chief notebooks with the sentence, “I will not steal and lie again.” The deadline was our parents’ return from a trip to Jamaica. But as the date approached, Sonny hadn’t finished, so I smuggled the remaining blank pages out to the garden trash barrels at the back of the deep yard. When Paulson came home, he compared the two notebooks, figured out what had happened and beat Sonny worse than ever. I hid in the closet in the next room, listening, knowing I was the one who had smuggled the pages out of the house and thrown them away.
Recently I heard a story about a basketball player who’d gotten a degenerative nerve disease later in life. He had a theory that some people just have a lot of luck, good and bad, but always plenty of it. Sonny’s luck was always bad. Inevitably he got caught, bitten, hit. Throughout it all, I tried my best to keep him out of trouble. I lied for him constantly. I hid things he had stolen. My job was to protect him. But it never worked.
Ten years ago, when my own son turned seventeen, I went a little crazy. It didn’t occur to me that my irrational, often overpowering fears about his future had anything to do with Sonny’s death. But the past has a way of forcing itself upon us by making the present unbearable.
My son was a sweet, intelligent, careless teenager. After school he played sports and worked as a film editor for a videographer in our neighborhood. He had a host of close friends and not a violent bone in his body.
But no matter how often we warned him about our family history with drugs and alcohol, when he came home and leaned in the bedroom door to say goodnight, I smelled beer and cigarettes.
If he was ten minutes late, I stood in the upstairs window, watching the street, waiting for the phone to ring. When it came time to apply to colleges, I became obsessed with the idea that he wouldn’t get in and, as a result, something terrible would happen. I could find no source of comfort. Fear ate me from the inside.
Finally, my husband asked me about Sonny. How old was he when he died? Nineteen. And how old were you? Seventeen. And what happened to him anyway?
My husband was at the sink and I was at the kitchen table in our partially remodeled two-family on a dead-end street in Cambridge.
Sitting there, I saw that there was a dark blankness within those years of my life. At the center of it was Sonny’s death. No one had told me anything. As a family, we had never spoken about it. As time went on, it was as if Sonny had never existed.
I looked at my husband and shrugged. I don’t know, I said. He was killed in a drug deal, I think.
You should find out, my husband said.
As Sonny and I got older, our parents’ drinking changed. It became more frequent and unpredictable. On some days my mother drank heavily at lunch. She hid bottles of wine in her lingerie drawer. Paulson sometimes stayed out all night. During their violent late-night fights, Sonny would sneak into my room and sleep in the twin bed next to mine.
Eventually, Sonny and I both found best friends with happy families and began to spend as much time as we could away from home. We hardly ever hung out together. I tried to give up the job of protecting him and take up a new job of protecting myself, doing well in school and meticulously avoiding trouble.
Sonny took the opposite tack. When he was eleven or twelve, he and his buddies stuffed a pair of blue jeans and a shirt with newspaper, doused the dummy in catsup, and dragged it out into the busy road in front of our house. A few minutes later, a driver headed down the hill and saw what looked like a dead body in the middle of the street, slammed on his brakes and caused a multi-car collision. The boys ran. The police came.
When Sonny got a BB gun for Christmas, he and his friends used it to shoot out streetlights. They found houses under construction and shattered the windows. The police came. As soon as he got his driver’s license, Sonny racked up a good number of speeding tickets until he discovered he could outrun the police in his 442.
When our parents returned from their travels and heard the stories, Paulson would go into fierce rages, beat Sonny and lock him in his room. I would smuggle food and comic books and bottles of Dr. Pepper up the back stairs.
Looking back, I have a sense that Paulson acted out of a panicked fury, as if trying to ward off certain disaster. As if he saw some version of Sonny’s life and death already taking shape. At one point he tied a string from Sonny’s bedroom doorknob to the knob of his own door across the hall, which he left ajar. I saw that string every morning for weeks, and then Paulson left town and it disappeared and never returned.
When Sonny was sixteen, our parents sent him to a military academy, which in our circles was the answer to the question of what to do with bad boys. The place was brutal and included the hazing ritual of throwing a pillowcase over a new student’s head in the middle of the night, wrestling him onto the floor and beating the shit out of him. This happened to Sonny more than once. He ran away a few times, the last time in the dead of winter. Eventually the police found him living in a box in an alley in Philadelphia, about forty minutes away from the campus. The school must have refused to take him back, because he finished his senior year at the local public high school in Highland Park. After that, everyone in our household thought he had headed off to the University of Oklahoma in the fall, to start college. We all stood in the driveway, Paulson and Elizabeth, my mother and I, and waved as the black convertible Oldsmobile pulled out of the driveway, the trunk heavy with stereo equipment.
Did the adults think this would work, when nothing else had? Did they believe that a frat-driven, alcohol-fueled, sports-crazy university would provide the magic missing element in Sonny’s life? Did I believe that? Or was it all a combination of indifference and dumb hope?
After the conversation with my husband, I order Sonny’s Death Certificate, which arrives in the mail a few weeks later. A physical fact, a document with a blue border and a set of dates, hours and minutes. I am flabbergasted. From the murk of our family past, where facts did not exist and a lie could replace any unpleasant truth, here is something solid with a government seal.
Sonny died on Monday, January 29, 1968, a few months after his 19th birthday in November. Once I have the date, I head to the Reading Room in Widener Library and scan the microfiche of the January 1968 issues of the Dallas Morning News. I find the story easily. YOUTH MAY FACE TRIAL FOR MURDER. Sonny smiles out from the picture, his mouth stretched to a stiff grin, his black hair neatly combed, his eyes glancing off to the side, as if he is checking to be sure he’s doing all right. For a moment this is confusing, because it looks as if Sonny might face trial for his own murder—which in that instant doesn’t seem impossible, given his luck.
The reported story is muddled and unconvincing. Sonny and a group of friends went to visit a young woman at a home for dependent girls, no explanation of what that term might mean. After the visit, they headed back to Sonny’s car and came across a group of younger kids, 16-and-17-year-olds, who were playing with a pair of binoculars. One of Sonny’s friends took a cigarette from one of the younger boys, who drew a .38 caliber revolver and told them all to stand back.
At some point, Sonny went around behind the boy and jumped onto his back. The boy twisted toward him, the gun went off, and Sonny fell to the ground.
“Police were summoned by a foster mother at the girls home, who was standing on the front porch. Funeral services will be held at 11:30 Wednesday…”
From the formal funeral announcement, I get the names of all the pallbearers, track them down on the internet and send out cards asking if they will talk with me. The following week, mid-August, I‘m walking down a hot Cambridge street where city crews are replacing the curbstones. It’s noisy and filthy, and when my phone rings I can barely hear the person on the other end.
I’m sorry, I say. But I don’t know who this is.
Rex! he shouts. Rex! How many Rexes do you know?
Rex. One of Sonny’s best friends, a cheerful kid with red hair and freckles. And suddenly I remember sitting on our kitchen porch after the funeral, talking with Rex and Mike, one of our cousins. We told funny stories about Sonny and sent one another into the adult party that had been going on for hours to bring back abandoned glasses of Scotch and Vodka. That may have been the last time I saw Rex. It may also have been the last time I talked with anyone about Sonny, or anyone who knew and loved him.
I am inexpressibly happy to hear Rex’s voice.
I walk to a shady park by the library and call him back. Right away, we fall into a long discussion of Sonny, of what he was like, of how much Rex’s family loved him, how sweet he was to Rex’s father who had MS and often used a wheelchair at home.
Sonny would push him all over the house, says Rex. Wherever he wanted to go. He really loved my dad.
Rex seems to have a paranoid conspiracy theory about Sonny’s death.
The truth couldn’t come out, he says. Because Paulson paid for the kid’s lawyer and it never went to court.
Why would Paulson pay for the lawyer? I ask.
I think he wanted to keep it out of the papers.
Yes, I think. That makes perfect sense. The boy was a juvenile, and there were witnesses. A good lawyer would plea bargain. If the case didn’t go to trial, the papers would stop reporting it. The whole event would disappear.
Rex lives in South Carolina but he’s headed home to Texas for a visit in the fall and wants me to come down to Dallas when he’s there.
We’ll go stay with my mother, he says. She and my sister Pam moved out to East Texas after my dad died. She’s almost 100 but she remembers everything and she lives in this big old house full of antique furniture and dolls and shit. Wait ‘til you see it. And Pam married a cowboy. They have horses, Texas trotters. She loves it out there.
Standing in the shade of a maple, talking with Rex on the phone, I realize that I am going back to Dallas.
Rex puts me in touch with two other friends of Sonny’s, boys I knew back in the day, though not well. They came on the scene long after Sonny and I had stopped hanging out together. Where he went, what he cared about, what he wanted—I didn’t know any of it anymore.
I write these men and hear back from them a few weeks later. The first to respond, Corcoran, tells me on the phone that Rex is sick, something to do with his liver.
But listen, he says, don’t tell Rex I told you that.
Corcoran says that Rex’s mother and sister are in South Carolina, because Rex is in the hospital. Corcoran doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong. He doesn’t think it’s very serious.
A month later, not long before I leave for Texas, Corcoran calls to say Rex is back in the hospital. This time it is serious, though he doesn’t say what it is.
A week later, he calls to say Rex is dead.
At first, this doesn’t seem possible. I just talked to him a few days earlier, though I kept my promise to Cork and didn’t ask about his health. And Rex never mentioned it.
I write Rex’s mother and sister a long note, telling them about getting to know him again and saying how very sad I am, which is true. It is both odd and oddly familiar not to have any clear idea about what has happened. I am sure of only two things—there is a secret, and it would be impolite to ask the details.
This is a theme of life in the Texas I have always known. You don’t get the whole story. You get the part that floats to the surface of polite speech, while all the rest lingers underneath, the bulk of the iceberg, unspoken.
When I was in my mid- twenties, I went home for a visit in the summer, in part to see my great uncle, my mother’s uncle. He had taught my mother to drive and then, twenty years later, taught me to drive. For most of his adult life, he’d been married and had a mistress, a woman he used to bring to family dinners and Christmas Eve parties. It had taken me a while to understand how unusual that arrangement was. But he was in his eighties and ill.
He and I sat on his back porch, drinking iced tea and looking out onto a lush wilderness of overgrown garden. He had occasionally told me stories about family members so I decided to try my luck again.
I asked my great-uncle why my mother’s father, the grandfather I’d never met, his sister’s husband, had killed himself.
He looked at me as if he’d just swallowed half a toad. Then he said, I’ll tell you one thing about your grandmother and that house they lived in.
She set a beautiful table every single night.
As used as I was to my family’s tremendous gift for indirection, I wasn’t prepared for this one.
You mean silverware and china? I asked.
Yes. Your grandmother had a lot of Mama’s things, and she was a fabulous cook. Well, you know that. She served a hot meal every single night.
This time I visit Texas late in the fall, but the air is still hot and thick during the day. I find myself thinking about Rex a lot. He felt strongly that I should find out exactly what happened to Sonny that night, and the memory of his enthusiasm for the project reassures me when I begin to wonder what I’m doing. The place feels both deeply, physically familiar and dangerously alien, a planet that looks like earth but has no oxygen. I can’t find a self that feels safe, that can breathe this air, so I concoct one—a writer doing research. Not a woman re-entering her past.
The first person I interview is my mother’s best friend from childhood, Nancy. She is in her 70s now but wears a full face of heavy make-up, skinny black pants and a bright tunic top. We sit in her day room, on deep couches covered in chintz, facing plate glass windows that look out onto a swimming pool.
Your grandfather, your mother’s father, was a wonderful piano player, she says, but a terrible drinker. He never showed up when he was supposed to, and he used to stay out all night. Your mother and grandmother would sit and wait for him, for hours, until your grandmother drank so much she passed out. Then your mother would put her to bed.
And this was early on, when your mother was a little girl.
How do you know all this? I ask her.
Oh, honey, everyone knew. This is Dallas.
She squints at the cigarette in her hand. I remember, she says, once someone had a birthday party at Lake Dallas, and your grandfather was supposed to pick up your mother. But he just never came. And she was so ashamed that she hid, and then walked miles and miles to a pay phone and found a ride home. We were little, eight or nine.
My mother likes to talk about a childhood filled with Aubusson carpets and Coromandel screens, homemade ice cream parties and iced tea served in tall frosted glasses. In reality, when the Depression hit, my grandmother’s family lost their money and my mother’s father shot himself in the late 1940s. By then, she and my grandmother were penniless.
When I ask Nancy about Paulson, she says he grew up poor and with a lot of brothers and sisters.
Oh, she says, waving her hand, five or six. I don’t know how many. I think his father worked on the railroad, maybe a switchman, and they moved around a lot. Very poor. He had problems, too, with the drinking.
I think Paulson tried to go to college, she says, but his father made him quit and get a job. So he parked cars in a garage downtown. And he made some arrangement with the men’s secretaries, so when the boss left the office to head home, the secretary called the garage, and Paulson had the car running at the entrance, air-conditioning blasting. His tips got bigger and bigger, and eventually he bought the garage, and then the building. And then he ended up owning most of North Dallas.
That last is an exaggeration, but not much of one. He was a brilliant, driven businessman, and he wanted Sonny to follow in his footsteps. That must count in part for the desperation. Paulson could not ignore the gap between who Sonny was and who he wanted his son to be. He thought he could beat some sense into Sonny, a popular notion at the time.
As dear and funny as he was, Sonny didn’t have a lot of sense. He lacked a crucial ability to consider what he was about to do and imagine the consequences. Maybe this was one reason I felt so responsible for him. Consequences were a clear and present source of panic for me. I could see a bright red line drawn from my mistake to a moment of terrifying adult anger. But Sonny made the same mistakes over and over—lying, cheating, stealing, speeding, running red lights, coming home late or not at all, coming home stoned and drunk. Once, after a date, I found all the lights on in the kitchen and Sonny under the table, our parents standing on either side, bewildered.
What’s going on? I asked.
Our parents looked at me, blankly.
Sonny, I said, what are you doing?
Oh, hi, he said, moving forward on his hands and knees so he could see me.
What are you doing? I repeated.
He looked a little disgusted with the stupidity of the question. I’m waiting for the bus, he said.
Sonny’s mother was just a beauty, says Nancy, and very smart and very athletic. She was some kind of skeet shooting champion.
Nancy takes a drink from her Bloody Mary. It is mid-morning and I’m drinking iced tea. Out the window, the kidney-shaped swimming pool seems to melt in the heat waves off the paved courtyard. It occurs to me that every house I’ve been in down here is furnished with huge chairs and couches facing the outdoor living area, also furnished with huge chairs and couches. A looking glass world.
Smelling the vodka and cigarette smoke, I realize how much I hate the place, the city, the county, the state. I hate the heat and the blasting air conditioning, the fact that everyone drives everywhere in cars roughly the size of dinosaurs—Hummers, Mercedes SUVs, RAM 3500s. Of course, there are a million versions of Texas, some glorious, some hilarious, but this is the one I knew and know. Most of all I hate the complacency. Sonny was not the only child of my parents’ set to be lost to drugs and alcohol, violence and stupidity—suicides, murders, car wrecks, boating accidents, drownings. It’s hard not to infer a causal connection between profound parental indifference (coupled with way too much money) and these disastrous outcomes.
They weren’t married very long, says Nancy. She left Paulson for this man she had met in Arizona. None of us knew him. It was very strange. They moved there and she had another baby, another boy. And then I guess she started having an affair with their next-door neighbor. She had a lot of affairs. So her husband found out and went next door and shot the man—killed him. And she got in the car and drove into some kind of ditch and killed herself. The whole thing was a shame. She was such a pretty girl.
This, then, was the story that had been reported in the tabloid headlines, all those years earlier, the story the children weren’t allowed to hear. Sonny’s mother was the ghost who lived in Paulson’s imagination, only one of the ghosts who inhabited that house with us.
As I’m listening to Nancy, I remember Sonny telling me about a day when his mother had run out into the front yard naked, screaming and crying. He was holding his little brother because she had dropped him.
And sitting in that chilled room with the Texas sun glaring off the water of the pool, I think that we were all, each of us in that family, haunted.
That evening, I have dinner with a few of my own friends from elementary and high school. During the conversation I explain why I’m in town, and afterward a man I dated back then, a lawyer now, walks me to my car. He says he knows some folks in the police force and might be able to help me out.
I’m not sure what he means, but I’ll take all the help I can get.
That would be great, I say. What did you have in mind?
I don’t know, he says, shaking his head, taking his time. Let me talk to them and see what I can find out.
A few days later, he calls my cell phone.
Hey, looks like I’m going to be able to get the documents.
The Homicide Report, the autopsy, and all the witness statements.
You’re kidding, I say.
Nope. They’re redacted. The names of the shooter and all the kids under 16 are blacked out. But my friend says everything’s there.
I have to pause for a moment to wonder why this has not occurred to me earlier, that all these official reports exist. I’ve done plenty of research in my life, but when I go back to Texas I tend to lose touch with my adult skills. Also, at heart, I simply don’t trust the place itself, Dallas or any of its institutions. The heat and money breed corruption. I feel as if I’m navigating a swamp.
That’s amazing, I say. God, I can’t thank you enough.
Not a problem. I’ll call you when I have them.
Rex had also put me in touch with Denton. He was a good friend of both Sonny and Rex. And he was with Sonny the night he was shot.
When I first talked to Denton on the phone, he was eager to tell the story. But once I’m in town, he’s hard to pin down. After making a few arrangements to get together, all of which he cancels for various reasons, we finally agree on a Chinese All You Can Eat Buffet restaurant. His wife comes along, too. They have started their own church, they tell me, and are very much a team. I have a clear sense she doesn’t trust me, and that’s why it’s been so hard to meet. It’s as if she thinks I’m out to gain something for myself, or as if I might be planning to blame Denton for what happened.
The restaurant is windowless, barnlike, frigid, with four or five rows of brightly lit steam tables in the middle of the vast space. The walls are lined with booths.
It’s been a really long time, he begins, carefully. It was a long time ago.
And then the memory seems to take over and he’s back in it again, eager to tell the story.
We were in Sonny’s car, and we had driven over to visit this friend, this girl who was in like a home for unwed mothers. It was me and Sonny, Mitchell, and two girls, Dawn and someone else. The people there wouldn’t let us see our friend, so we headed back to the car, and these kids were across the street.
Who’s Mitchell? I ask.
This friend of Sonny’s, Charles Mitchell. He was a—I don’t know, a jerk. He used to beat up people after school just for the fun of it. He got kept back a few grades and was a lot bigger than everyone else. I never could figure out why Sonny was friends with him.
Anyway, he says, Mitchell knew these kids, and he started saying that one of them owed him money for drugs, and if the kid didn’t pay him the money he would take his cigarettes. And they were arguing back and forth, and then Mitchell reached out and tried to steal the cigarettes out of the kid’s pocket.
He pauses, as if getting his bearings.
Nobody could figure out why Sonny was living with him, he says.
Mitchell? They were living together?
Yeah. When Sonny came back from Oklahoma—you know, from college—
And when was that? I ask. I mean, how long did he stay up there?
Gosh, he says. Not long. Maybe a week. And then he moved into Mitchell’s apartment—a real pit. I loved Sonny but he started to change. They did a lot of drugs, they sold drugs. They used to go over to Lee Park and lure gay guys into the bushes and beat them up and rob them.
His wife makes a little noise and shakes her head, slightly, as if she’s warning him off.
I never did that, he says. They just told me about it. Sonny did.
I try to picture Sonny beating up someone in Lee Park, in the dead of night. For years our pediatrician’s office was across the street from that statue of Lee on his horse. That’s my connection to Sonny and Lee Park, coming out of the pediatrician’s office, our eyes red from crying because we’d had to get shots.
It’s like Sonny sort of gave up at some point, says Denton. Maybe when college didn’t work out. He was afraid your parents were going to find out. I guess they did. And Paulson cut him off. So he worked in a car wash. And he got to where he just did whatever Mitchell said. But Sonny was going back to school, you know?
No, I say. I didn’t know.
Yeah. Some friend of his was at the University of Dallas, and he got Sonny to enroll there. He was supposed to start that day, like the day after the shooting. Ironic, right?
I nod. If Sonny had gone back to college, if he hadn’t been sent to military school, if he had tried harder, if I had tried harder.
Anyway, he says, Mitchell was huge. And he kept coming toward the kid, who was backing away, trying to get out of the way. Finally the kid just fires the gun, like in the air, or into the ground. And then it seemed like Sonny decided to get the gun away from him, so he went around behind the kid, and sort of jumped on him, from this little hill.
He raises his hand and shows me how high up Sonny was, just above the rim of the booth.
And when he did that, when he jumped on the kid, the gun just—he pauses.
Anyway, I went with him in the ambulance. I called my mom and dad, and they picked up that woman who lived at your house, who took care of you guys—
Elizabeth, I say.
Yeah, Elizabeth—because they knew her from church—and they all came to the hospital. Your mom and dad weren’t in town or something.
He lost a lot of blood, he says. Dawn wrapped a sweater around him, or laid it over him or something, and it was soaked, solid red. She held his head until they came. I told her not to move him, but she said she didn’t want his head to be laying on the ground like that.
In the afternoon, I go see Sonny’s aunt, his mother’s sister, a lovely, thoughtful woman who took in Sonny’s younger half-brother, Robert. She has been working at her church for the morning. She wears a navy blazer and khaki slacks, and her house is filled with pictures of her children.
My girls loved Robert, she says. And he was a sweet kid. But he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. He would do something dangerous or stupid, and then look so surprised when somebody got mad at him. He made it to high school, and then his father, who is an idiot, decided to take him back from us and give him a whole lot of money. Robert died not long after that.
I don’t have the heart to ask how it happened, her voice is so full of sadness.
You know, she says, I loved my sister, but I’ve always thought maybe she drank so much, when she was carrying those two boys, that it just affected them both.
I have done quite a bit of reading about what happens to a fetus when the pregnant mother drinks heavily. There are some physical characteristics, a smooth upper lip, close-set eyes, smaller eyelids. I can’t remember if Sonny had any of these, and I can’t tell by looking at the picture in the newspaper. To me, he just looks like Sonny. But some of the salient behavioral signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome are impulsivity and an inability to judge the consequences of an action. These I recognize.
That evening, my friend the lawyer calls and says he has the police documents. We meet for coffee in the Village, and then I drive to a quiet spot outside, on the banks of the creek that runs through Highland Park, our old neighborhood. A breeze cools the day’s heat and ripples the water. Swans glide by. From where I sit, I can see part of the yard of our second house, where we lived when Sonny died, the broad green lawn that slopes down to the creek and the pair of old magnolia trees that Paulson loved.
I keep thinking about the girl who wrapped her sweater around Sonny and held his head in her lap.
It is a moment of tenderness, a moment of entry, a place to walk into the story.
I would have done that, if I had been there.
And I realize that all this time, from the day I read the story in the newspaper, I’ve been thinking I should have been there.
The police report is surprisingly brief. The autopsy is hand written and a few words are illegible, but it conjures Sonny in a way I haven’t been able to do on my own. Physically. The grown man he had almost become.
External examination reveals a 72 inch well-developed white male weighing a estimated 175 to 180 pounds. Rigor is present and is complete. Posterior lividity and the body is cool. There are identification bands on the wrist…
The hair is brunette, slightly wavy, quite long. The irises are hazel. The [illegible] are not remarkable. Some fuzz on the upper lip. The neck is not remarkable except for a small amount of fuzz…
The arms are examined. Normal amount of axillary hair. Slight tanning to above the elbows.
That’s a pretty common thing in Texas, the tan forearm. Lots of times you see it on people who play golf or tennis. But with Sonny, his arms were tan because he was working in the car wash, detailing interiors and waxing exteriors.
The wrists and [illegible] are examined. No tracks are encountered. Left deltoid there is a ¼ inch bruised area which is greenish pigmented. No jewelry is present. The knuckles are free of injury. Some dirt beneath the nails…
He did have jewelry though. He had a gold ID bracelet with his initials on a thick gold band. I gave it to him, for a birthday, maybe his last birthday. He put it on right away when I gave it to him. He liked it a lot. Somehow, I ended up with it after his death and wore it for years, all through college.
At the bottom of the report there is a detailed description of the path of the bullet. It ripped through the bottom half of his trunk, split the iliac artery and lodged to the right of the sacrum. That would account for all the blood.
In the Police Report, there are five pages of brief voluntary statements from all the young people who were there. The first one is that of the young man with the gun.
I was born at Hattiesburg, Mississippi and have lived in Dallas 14 years.
My heart begins to break for this boy after the first line.
At about 6 PM, January 29, 1968, XXXXX and me were walking towards Oak Lawn from Knight, on Rawlins. XXXXXX had a pair of binoculars and we were looking through these, reading the signs on a store on Oak Lawn. While we were stopped looking through the binoculars, I noticed a group of 4 boys and 2 girls standing on the porch of a house across the street. They all left the porch and walked to a car parked at the curb. XXXXXX handed me the binoculars and as he did so he said, “Hey those guys are coming over here.” As I turned to look the boys were all around us. One of the boys said, “Are you all looking for some shit?”
Of course, he would want it to seem that he and his friends hadn’t started it. But I believe this version. It matches what Denton told me.
A boy I later learned to be Charles Mitchell reached over and took a package of Marlboro cigarettes from my shirt pocket. Another one of the boys tried to take a package of cigarettes from XXXXXX, but he refused to give them to him. The boy grabbed XXXXXX by the throat and started choking him. I yelled for them to leave him alone and when I did they all started for me. I pulled a pistol, a .38 revolver, from my belt and fired it into the ground and told them to leave us alone.
And then he tried to get away.
As I turned to run one of the boys grabbed me around the neck from behind with his arm around my neck and started choking me. We fell to the ground and he continued choking me. The gun went off. I don’t remember pulling the trigger. The boy choking me grabbed the pistol and told me to let him have it. Everybody was hollering and I knew I had shot somebody so I turned the pistol lose. I told XXXXXX to go call an ambulance. The boy with the pistol held it until the Police came.
I look up from the page at the darkening sky and water. Long shadows stretch out from the magnolia trees across the lawn of our old house. The sun is low, and a quarter moon rises just above the oaks that line the street. It’s so peaceful, after what I’ve been reading. Dallas has its beauty spots, I think, if you’re white and wealthy. And survive.
I picture my own son at sixteen and then imagine this sixteen year-old kid, sitting in a police station because he’s accidentally, shockingly killed someone. In another statement, I learn that the boy had found the gun in a drawer at his girlfriend’s house, earlier that day, and decided to bring it along to impress his friends.
He did not set out to shoot it. He did not set out to kill Sonny.
For years I have carried around all this blame, and now I come back to Dallas and can’t find anyplace to put it.
The water in the creek darkens as the light in the sky dims. In the house above this creek, where we lived when Sonny and I were teenagers, Paulson tied a string to his doorknob and tied the other end to Sonny’s doorknob. He wanted so badly for Sonny to be someone else. He wanted so badly to be someone else himself. He was afraid, all the time, that people would learn where he came from and know, then, he didn’t belong where he’d ended up. He was afraid Sonny would turn out like his mother.
I reread the documents.
Mitchell clearly knew the kids. He started the fight.
I remember what Denton told me about Mitchell’s father—a maniac who loved to start fights.
There is a well-known story told by meditation teachers about a farmer bringing
his goods to market at dawn, in a small boat, working his way upstream on a swift river. As the light grows and the mist clears, he sees another boat coming downriver toward him, fast. He begins to call out and wave his arms, but the boat keeps coming. As it gets closer, he starts to scream and swear. Finally the boat hits him and overturns his own boat, dumping him and all his goods into the river.
He surfaces, still yelling and cursing. But when he catches his breath and looks around, he sees that the other, offending boat is empty, has been empty all along.
The teacher then asks, Where is the anger now? Where is the blame?
The boat that carries the freight of our family histories, Sonny’s and mine, has never looked empty. It has seemed massed with souls, more like the ghost ship of the Ancient Mariner, for most of them are dead. I want to blame those grown-ups, the grown-ups in our lives back then, Sonny’s mother, Paulson, Sonny’s stepfather, my mother, Charles Mitchell’s father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father and back through time, the mothers and fathers, the cruel and the blind, the drunk and the careless. But how far back can you go?
And then there’s me.
I was determined to get out. I left at thirteen and stayed away as much as I could, spending vacations with friends and distant relatives, until I said good-bye to my family for good. I thought I had escaped unscathed. But children who survive families like mine almost always leave parts of ourselves behind. Because a child’s love for her family is feral and shameless. It will hold you in the trap if you don’t gnaw it off. I left behind a lot of love for my kin, Sonny included
I replaced it with blame and drugs, sex and music.
Over time I forgot the love.
The creek and the sky are luminous blue, dusk blue.
I begin to recall things I haven’t thought of in years, things I didn’t know I remembered.
When Sonny and I were little, Elizabeth used to walk us across the busy street in front of our first house to a shallow part of this same creek, where we would build stone dams to make wading pools. All around on the banks were tiny frogs. If you caught one and lay it on its back in your palm and rubbed its tummy, it fell asleep, almost instantly, like magic.
One summer we built a fort in the vacant lot next door to that house, up against the brick wall that bordered our own yard, and squirreled away all sorts of provisions—a metal box filled with bags of Fritos and a church key, a row of bottles of Dr. Pepper, sheets stolen out of the dirty clothes in the laundry room and a doll-sized pillowcase of coins we were saving for our escape. Sonny used to describe the car he would steal to drive us away, always a convertible.
Most things in life are not all or nothing. We love and ache, protect and wound. My trip to Texas has complicated the story of my family. Sonny and I were children. Our parents grew up in fear and shame, and so did we.
This does not feel exactly like forgiveness, but then our Hallmark culture has turned forgiveness into a sort of idiot erasure. I’m not sure I know what it means anymore. This feels more like stepping back, like seeing a bigger picture. The empty boat.
When we weren’t allowed to go into the lot anymore, we built a fort inside the low branches of one of the huge fig trees in the laundry yard, where the sheets hung on lines in the hot sun. Out there we had a wading pool, and one day a stray dog wandered in off the street. Sonny gave him a bath in the pool and stole some dog food from the kitchen. We kept him out there for a few days, hidden in our fort, until somebody found him and took him away.
Once we got baby chickens for Easter and one of them survived for a whole year. The following Easter we got baby ducks. The chicken adopted them as her own, and whenever Sonny and I put them in the wading pool to swim, she would run around the rim, fussing and fussing at them to get out and save their lives. Elizabeth and Sonny and I laughed until we all had to sit down on the baked earth of the laundry yard.
We pretended. We were bandits, rangers, the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Davy Crockett, spies and sheriffs. It was us against them. We had each other and Elizabeth, the laundry room, the laundry yard, our forts, the creek, the empty lot. On rainy days, we had the abandoned attic with its giant pool table and piles of carpets. Behind the pool cue rack was a secret door that opened onto a closet full of slanted shelves, a hiding place for liquor during Prohibition. Our hiding place.
We were children. We worked with what we had. And like so many children, inexplicably resilient, bound and determined to make a place for ourselves in the world, on our own for long stretches of time, we did that, together.