Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Michael And The Monster

I remember the first time I was amazed by my mother. I was in the first grade and had a friend from my class over to play. Her name was Jenny and she had truly noteworthy speech problems. I don't know if she was ever diagnosed properly, and it's pretty unlikely she would have gotten any speech therapy, but on that day she was terrifically excited to share some news.

"I fodeeyed a roke!"

She had told me this several times, each time looking excited and hoping for some reaction from me. I had no idea what she was saying, so she just kept repeating it, hoping. My mother came into the room and Jenny tried the sentence on her.

"I fodeeyed a roke!"

And my mother, without missing a beat, repeated back to her:

"You swallowed a rock?"

"Yeah! Yeah! I fodeeyed a roke!" Jenny was thrilled someone finally got this story.

Her family lived on the outskirts of our neighborhood and every day they had two things working against them: they were poor, and people hated them for being poor.

They would have denied this, if asked, but it came across loud and clear in a million little comments muttered under the breath of  the grownups, and in the tone of voice they seemed to reserve only for this family, the Bakers.

Unlike most of the other families, who had moved into new or almost new houses, the Bakers had an older house that had once been white with green on the bottom. Many painting seasons had passed the house by, so each year the white grew a little dingier. The lawn didn't really look like a lawn but a burned brown field, scattered here and there with clover and dandelions.

Years later, when we were in the fifth grade, Jenny would comment to me about how she hated how ugly their yard was.

There was a row of rosebushes next to their back fence. "But those roses over there are pretty," I offered.

"Those. Those are from the funeral," Jenny would say, and her voice would drift off a little, like there was more to say but she couldn't think of what.

Her father was much older than her mom, and he was on disability. He spent much of every day sitting in a chair in front of the TV, wearing an old man back brace. Her mom was enormous and plain, with light red hair always pulled back in a bun. She never wore a trace of makeup and had the quietly pleasant look I associated with church people.

There were five kids in the family and they always looked neglected and underfed. They were thin, only kind of clean, and their pants were always too short and worn out at the knee. When we were younger, only the parents seemed to notice these things, but as we grew older, the other kids noticed them too, and they avoided Jenny, and started wearing the same look of disgust their parents wore.

The neighbors objected to almost every detail of them: their worn out house, their burnt lawn, the kids who wore rags, the father who didn't hold down a job. But the thing that bothered them the most was that they didn't watch their kids.

Maybe this really was the thing that offended them the most; maybe it was the thing that didn't sound petty and so they led off with that one and added the other complaints as details to add to the case. Often the topic would turn to the Baker's youngest child, a boy named Michael who had a developmental disability.

Of course, we didn't call it that back then. I don't remember what term was used, but the general observation was the child seemed much younger than his age.  He was blonde and had the eternally happy look that many intellectually challenged people seem to have. He viewed everyone as his friend.

One neighbor, Mr. Middy, seemed to despise the family more than anyone. He lived up the street from the Bakers and had to drive his car past their house every time he left or came home. He had two blonde daughters who resembled dolls more than children, and Mr. Middy had noticed the Bakers allowed their son to squat and move his bowels in the front yard.

"Like a goddamned dog! He CRAPS in the front YARD like a GODDAMMNED DOG!"

He repeated this complaint often, to anyone who would listen. It outraged him to think that his daughters might witness this spectacle and be scarred for life. He marched right over and complained to Michael's mom.

"We think he saw the dog do it and sometimes I think maybe he's pretending he's a dog too," she told him.

She told Mr. Middy this in a voice full of reason, like it made perfect sense and was kind of cute.

Mr. Middy would also comment to his neighbors about how the Bakers didn't watch their children but when he talked about it, he frequently added an ominous note: "You mark my words, someday something's going to happen to one of their kids."

And so their lives went on like that for awhile. Their kids went to school and had to sit next to well dressed kids, and they didn't get invited to anything, and the teachers took one look at them and didn't bother. The kids got older and felt how poor they were and they took it, day by day, with the same quiet peacefulness their mother had.

The other grownups hated them, but they seemed to fear them a little too. Or they feared looking at what they viewed as their worst nightmare. Maybe they feared poverty might be contagious, like a cold. Or they feared their kids might get used to the way that family lived and find it acceptable and set out to be just like them.

Then, for once, something happy was going to happen to this family. That's probably what they thought. They were going to a family reunion, and an actual campsite had been reserved. There would be tents and cookouts and hiking and friendly faces. In fact, it was probably the first time this family had gone anywhere, or had reason to pack anything in preparation for it. It must have seemed thrilling; for once, they were going to get to do what everyone else got to do, and they'd get to know how that felt.

But of course, it went bad right away.

When they met the man, they didn't know he was a monster. They thought he was just the guy who had rented the campsite right next to theirs. He was not a Suddenly Crazy type of monster. He was a Watching and Planning type of monster, the worst kind because they seem like everybody else, right up until the second they do the monster thing.

There were four Bakers on that camping trip: the mom, the dad, Michael (who had just celebrated his 10th birthday a few days before but who still seemed about five years old) and their second to youngest, 11-year old Beth.

The monster, who was 19 years old, took a dislike to the family right away. This raised no red flags for the Bakers, as they were so used to getting this reaction everywhere they went. The monster was different though: his dislike didn't take the form of dirty looks and snide remarks--it took the form of him making angry remarks about Michael and about the family in general, right to the faces of the Bakers. Then it got worse: he made verbal threats to physically harm the family.

I hear you wondering: Why didn't they leave? Why didn't they move to a different location, or better still, why didn't they get in their car and get the hell out of there?

That detail is a blank space in this story.

Maybe they'd gotten a ride from someone else and didn't have a vehicle of their own to take off in. Maybe they'd paid a lot for the campsite and had promised their kids for weeks and weeks. Maybe they didn't really believe the monster would hurt them; no one who disliked them had ever hurt them before.

How the Bakers reacted, I can't say. What I know is on that first day, the afternoon passed, and night fell, and the Bakers went to bed. The monster went to bed also, full of hatred for the family. What I think is this: he hadn't decided NOT to hurt them; he was deciding HOW to hurt them. If he beat them up, that hurt would be temporary; they would heal. I think he tried to figure out a way to hurt the family in a permanent way, one that would hurt and keep hurting for the rest of their lives.

On the second day of the camping trip there was a grand barbeque. Nephews and cousins and friendly chatter and running around and hotdogs and potato salad and ice cold pop. At some point Michael needed to use the bathroom and that was why when he was ten (but really much more like a five year old, due to his disability) he set off for the campsite bathrooms by himself.

I imagine him walking away. I imagine the echos of dozens of neighbors and the phrase they used to say about the Bakers: They don't watch their kids. I hear the sound of angry Mr. Middy saying: Mark my words, someday something's going to happen to one of those kids. It would be easy to place blame on the parents. Certainly, later on, a lot of people did. They didn't say so out loud, but they did.

But the kid I was (and at some level, deep down, still am) wants someone, anyone, to for once be kind to this family. Maybe there was a reason Michael was alone when he walked away. Maybe it had nothing to do with whether or not they kept an eye on him. If this family had been a wealthy one, that's the kind of thing people would say, so let's say it. Let's be human. Let's remember how random the world can be on any given day.

Maybe the mom or dad had planned to go with him and had told him to wait one second and Michael had just gone off alone. Maybe one of them had started to go with him and someone spilled her pop, maybe some kid fell down and scraped his knee and started to holler. Maybe Michael wanted to go by himself and felt proud he could do so. It was broad daylight, in the middle of the day. Maybe his mother thought it was safe.

Whatever the reason, he went off alone.

The monster watched Michael walking off alone toward the bathrooms, and followed him inside.

There are things I'll never know about Michael's death, little gaps between the known details.

At some point, the people at the picnic noticed Michael hadn't returned. We can imagine the progression of emotions: curiosity to wonder to worry to panic. Maybe the search began casually and then someone tried to get it organized: you look over here, we'll look on this side. At some point, the searchers would involve strangers: we're looking for a boy, he's 10. Describing what kind of clothes he was wearing. Trying not to panic, reminding each other he could turn up at any moment.

We can imagine the moment someone wondered if the police should be called. The fear that if they did that, it meant the child was missing. The decision being made: Yes we need to call them.

Someone had seen Michael after the time he'd left to use the bathroom. He'd been walking off with the monster toward a bridge that ran over a lake.

In fact, it was likely that by the time they started searching for Michael, he was already dead, left lying on top of the rocks beneath that bridge. Years later, I wondered who had heard this eyewitness tip and then set off for the bridge: the searchers or the police. I hope it was the police.

I hope it wasn't his mom and dad.

The monster had followed Michael into the bathrooms and at some point promised him candy. I don't know how they got to the area under the footbridge; maybe he told Michael the candy was there. The monster beat him into unconsciousness and then held him underwater and drowned him. And he did other things. Then he left the broken boy there and went back to his tent.

This is a point of confusion for me. The monster didn't leave. Did he imagine he'd never be suspected? Did he know he would be, and just didn't care?

The eyewitness saw him being the last person with Michael, and Michael was found that same day, but the monster wasn't arrested until the following day. That first night, did the other campers know he was a monster? Had some of them stayed that second night or had they all gone home?

The Bakers, now three instead of four, had they gone home that night? And when they arrived back at their house, greeted by their other children, what was that moment like?

In my mind I imagine their sad, faded house, filled suddenly with pain. I imagine the parents, trying to decide which words to use around their younger children, which details to include for the older ones. I wonder how they lived through that first night, or any nights afterward.

Months later, when Jenny mentioned those rosebushes in her backyard, I remember being confused. When she said they were from the funeral, I was thinking: roses at funerals are in flower arrangements; they aren't rosebushes in pots. I'd never been to an actual funeral but felt certain of this, based on what I'd seen of pretend funerals on TV shows. I didn't ask Jenny about it though; her spooky sad look told me not to say more.

As an adult, I wondered if the friends of the Bakers just didn't know better. Then it occurred to me: flower arrangements die. Rosebushes could be planted and bloom again and again. So maybe the Bakers had friends who had thought of that. I wondered at myself, that I should have been so quick to assume people who were poor must also be stupid. Maybe their friends thought rosebushes would be a nice idea. For Jenny I think it just meant that every time she saw them, she thought of the crime.

I was 49 before it occurred to me that my parents didn't go to Michael's funeral. I can't imagine why they didn't; he was a child in a neighborhood filled exclusively with families who had kids. The shocked grownups who read the story in the paper and followed the story on the TV news had known this little boy's face, had waved to him through passing car windows. In the club of Kids They Knew, Michael was a longtime member.

And yet they had not gone. In my mind I saw the images of the dozens of kids in that neighborhood, a jumble of gap teeth and ponytails and skinned knees, and wondered: if it had been him, if it had been her, would they have gone? And of course, for those other kids, they would have.

I remember all the adults wearing the same expression of shock and hurt and fear. It made their faces rigid and their voices lower. They exchanged the scant details known and then stood, not knowing what to say. The air went heavy somehow, filled with this new thing that had no words to describe it or make it make sense.

When Mr. Middy was around, there was another feeling, like a breeze of anger blown his way. The grownups seemed to be thinking their old thought: the family didn't watch their kids, but were keeping that sentence inside because it would be too cruel to say anymore.

Maybe they remembered Mr. Middy saying "like a dog! Like a goddamn DOG" and him saying"Mark my words, someday something is going to happen to one of those kids." Maybe they thought his words had been like an evil spell. When he was near, the eyes of the other neighbors went hard, and their mouths looked pinched.

I think he noticed because I remember him trying to say he hadn't meant he WANTED anything to happen, he was just stating the facts, that was all. I think he hoped someone would agree with him or pat him on the back and say "Sure, we know what you meant," but nobody did and a few months later, Mr. Middy packed up his wife and their doll-like daughters and moved away.

And the monster, the one who had hated the Baker family on sight, the one who had now injured them permanently, was put in a jail cell. A big talker, he was, and once they put a cellmate in there with him, he went on and on talking about the crime: admitting he had killed Michael and describing why and how.

The cellmate listened, and remembered the words he was hearing.
He would repeat them later, on the witness stand.

The trial didn't take long. The Monster pleaded not guilty but there were two witnesses who were devastating to his case: the eyewitness who had watched the Monster and Michael descending to the creek together and then, 20 minutes later, the Monster climbing back up alone, and the cellmate who had listened as the Monster admitted to the crime and then described it in detail.

There were photos that broke the hearts of everyone.

He was found guilty of premeditated first degree murder, and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison. Time started to go by and Michael's sisters got older: Jenny, the one in my class, dropped out of school when she was 16. She'd faded into the margins by then: people hadn't really noticed she was there so they didn't really notice when she left.

Beth, the youngest sister, the one who had gone on that doomed camping trip with Michael, started volunteering for a victim rights group. The group had reached out to the Bakers with kindness, probably the only people to have ever done such a thing. Eventually Beth received a seat on the board of directors. Then she went one step up from that and became the Executive Director.

Michael's parents, who were older than the other parents in the neighborhood, died, one at a time, of natural causes.

The Monster came up for parole in 2000 but Beth was there, reading a Victim Impact Statement to the parole board, trying to put into words the pain her family had suffered. The board denied the Monster's parole, not just that day, but every time it came up.

The Monster, who had entered prison at the age of 19, stayed there until his death, just last year, at age 59.

I tried to find my old friend Jenny on Facebook. I was hoping that maybe her life had taken a different direction. I wanted to look for that girl who as a child had fodeeyed a roke and I hoped to find a page filled with photos of a nice house, a good looking husband, a family of her own. I wanted to see a picture of the finished adult version of Jenny, one who had enough money, not just enough to get by but enough to have extra to spend on fancy outfits, nice vacations, maybe a zippy car.

But when I found her, there were only two photos. Both of them featured an older version of Jenny but with the same clothing style: worn out and ill-fitting. In the photos she stands awkwardly, seeming to not want to be there, looking at the camera not with a smile but with a cautious, weary look, as if she's worried about what may be about to happen.

I don't think losing her little brother did that to her. When I look at our first grade photo, Jenny is wearing the same look. In her world, hurt was already a regular thing.

I didn't contact Jenny. I left her alone. I let her slip back into the background, back to the place she'd always been.

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