Authors: Suzanne Berne
Tags: #Fiction, #General
a novel by
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
In 1972 Spring Hill was as safe a neighborhood as you could find near an East Coast city, one of those instant subdivisions where brick split-levels and two-car garages had been planted like cabbages on squares of quiet green lawn. Occasionally somebody's Schwinn bicycle was stolen, or a dog was hit by a car that kept on going. Once in a while we heard about a shoplifter at the Spring Hill Mall, six blocks away. But otherwise both the mall and the neighborhood always struck everyone as the most ordinary of places.
Then one summer evening around five-thirty, just as business at the mall had finished for the day, a florist named Miss Evelyn Crespo carried a box of orchid corsages out to her car for a wedding that night. She had parked far back behind the mall in a row of spaces reserved for employees, below a two-acre wooded rise. That time of day, the mall's triangular shadow cut upward across the hill like a wedge. As Miss Crespo slid
the corsages into her back seat, she heard what she thought was a cat mewing from the shaded half of the hillside.
The sun was in her eyes when she backed away from the car to look around. After a moment, the mewing came again, or something like it, a small, weak sound. Although she was a heavy woman, and the day was hot, she climbed partway up the rise toward where it flattened out, wading through the broken bottles, locust husks, and tangled creeper vines to see if the source of the mewing might be somebody's lost kitten. When she didn't find anything, she carefully edged back down toward the parking lot, once grabbing the branch of a laurel bush for support. Then she went inside the mall, locked up her shop for the night, waved to the hairdressers in the Klip 'n' Kurl hair salon, came out through the automatic glass doors to her car carrying the bridal bouquet, and drove off to Bethesda to deliver her wedding flowers. The whole experience lasted no more than ten minutes.
As it turned out, Miss Crespo was to recount the details of those ten minutes over and over in the next few weeks, first to the Montgomery County police officers who came to question her, then to a police detective, then to three newspaper reporters, later to her family and neighbors, and finally to her customers, who came into the shop to lean against her refrigerated display case of long-stemmed roses, tiger lilies, and baby's breath.
She described those ten minutes so frequently she grew sick of the sound of her own voice. She also ceased believing
that the details she recounted were true, which happens when you tell a story about yourself so often the words are memorized. Because what Miss Crespo had heard that mid-July evening was not a kitten mewing, but a young boy groaning behind a clump of laurel bushes, where not twenty minutes before he had been raped by a man who had also tried to choke him to death.
In her police report, part of which was published in the
, Miss Crespo said she had seen nothing unusual at the mall that afternoon. To her knowledge, none of the other store owners had seen anything unusual, either; most of them reported serving regular customers that day. However, an elderly woman walking her dog on Ridge Road near the big brick U.S. Defense facility did testify to seeing a boy talking to a man in a car just before five o'clock; the man, she thought, was balding, but she couldn't recall the color or make of the car. A bag boy at the Safeway, who was breaking down cardboard boxes outside by the Dumpster, heard a car skid out of the parking lot around five-thirty and looked up to see the taillights of a brown coupe, possibly a Dodge, or so he thought when presented with drawings of different car silhouettes. Neither the florist nor anyone else saw a man with a boy, and no one had seen anyone on the hillside that day.
It was Thursday, the 20th of July. The child's name was Boyd Arthur Ellison. He had just turned twelve years old. He couldn't help the police by describing his attacker because by
the time he was found very early the next morning, his attacker had come back and finished what he'd started.
's reporter later reconstructed events, the man who killed Boyd Ellison had seen the florist when she came out to her car with the box of flowers. Ducking and scrambling, he fled to a bushy stand of white pine farther behind the mall. From a distance, he must have watched her place the box on the back seat, watched her stiffen as she heard a noise. He must have watched her back away from the car, shade her eyes, and look up the hill, then make her slow way over the curb and up through the creeper, her broad face perspiring in the late-afternoon sunlight as she paused to listen again. She had run her nylon stockings in her search; she kept them to show the police. He must have seen her bend down with an irritated exclamation and lift her skirt hem to look at the pale ladder widening on her calf.
According to the police report, she had stepped within five yards of the boy; if she had turned slightly left, if she had looked carefully, she might have seen one of his bare shins, his foot in a white gym sock, half buried in leaves. But Miss Crespo was nearsighted. One of her small vanities was to avoid wearing her glasses in public. Even if she had turned left, even if she had looked, she might still have missed seeing the boy's bruised leg. What she should not have missed seeing, although perhaps she never brought herself to admit it to the
police, was a boy's black basketball sneaker, unlaced, which had tumbled down the hill and lay in the gutter under the curb, only a few inches from the front tires of her car.
At the inquest, Boyd's parents, Walter and Sylvia Ellison, both testified that the morning of their son's death imitated every summer morning of his life. His mother woke him at seven so that he could have breakfast with his father before Walter left for work at eight. According to what I remember, it was a bright, hot morning. According to what I imagine, the family had breakfast on their screened porch, as most of our neighbors liked to do in the summer. Like most fathers, Walter Ellison would have skimmed the newspaper while he ate his grapefruit. Boyd drank a glass of orange juice, ate an English muffin with raspberry jam and a soft-boiled egg from a china eggcup designed to look like a chick with an eggshell on its head. While he waited for his egg, he told his father about the book he was reading,
The Call of the Wild
, which my brother had read the summer before. Walter finished his toast, drank a glass of milk, kissed Boyd good-bye, and told his wife he would be home at the usual time. Then he kissed her good-bye, too, and left for work.
At six-fifteen, just as he was about to leave his office at the Federal Reserve, Walter Ellison got a call from his wife saying that she couldn't find Boyd. He hadn't come home after she'd sent him to the mall at four for a packet of straight pins and a carton of sherbet. Walter told her to phone the police and said he would be there as soon as he could.
It was Walter who found him. With over fifty men from the neighborhood, Walter had searched all night, swinging a flashlight under people's hedges, behind garages, through backyards, calling and calling and calling. The neighborhood men divided up into search parties of three or four, and each group sent runners periodically to find out if the other groups had discovered anything. Walter's group had picked across the mall's parking lot and found the black sneaker, but twice went right up the hillside past where the boy lay. Only the third time, as the sun was coming up, did they see himâdid his father see him. He got down on his knees and tried to cover the boy with himself while another man ran down to the parking lot to call an ambulance from the pay phone beside the mall.
Walter told the man who stayed with him that he thought he felt his son's heartbeat. But that was impossible, the coroner said later; the boy had been dead more than eleven hours by then. When the ambulance shrieked into the parking lot to take Boyd's body down MacArthur Boulevard to Sibley Hospital, no one had yet discovered the three-pound, conical piece of limestone, lying a few feet away under a laurel bush, that had been used to smash in the back of his skull. All his father knew, as he pressed his son against his chest and imagined the beating of his heart, was that he had been found.
Why I recall that particular grisly incident so exactly has something to do with my age at the time, and something more to do with what my family was going through that summer, and also with the fact that I knew, very slightly, the boy who had been murdered. But mostly it has to do with a kind of fanatic vigilance I practiced back then.
If you ask my mother what I was like as a child, she'll tell you that I was one of those little girls who never said much but who was always
, especially during fights. At every spat, every loud argument, every disagreement in the grocery store check-out line, there you'd find me, looking on. Though small for my age, I was the first one to push inside the circle during playground brawls, just out of range of the kicking and flailing, but right up close so that I could see everything. Later on in my bedroom I'd replay the scene, repeating bits of dialogue in front of my mirror, examining each insult and shove to figure out why it had happened.
I always wanted a reason. “Why?” I asked my mother, my father, anyone who would listen. “Why did it happen?” I was fascinated by how people managed to hurt one another, by what could make them want to do it. Not sentimentally fascinated; my interest in those days was mechanistic: I wanted the mainspring, the wheels and teeth.
So it's not surprising that although Boyd Ellison's killer has never been foundâone of those unfinished stories that sometimes happen in lifeâas a child I was so anxious to discover him that for a while I almost believed I knew who he was.
But to tell that story I need to tell this one, which is less sensational, except perhaps to those who have lived through something like it.
One cold February evening, as we were all sitting at the dinner table eating pork chops and mashed potatoes and speculating on whether it would snow, and whether if it did snow it would snow enough that the Maryland schools would close the next day, my mother suddenly turned to my father, who had been staring out the window, and said in a conversational tone, “I know you know I know.”
She might have opened her mouth to ask him to pass the butter, but another sentence had come out instead. A very strange sentence, I thought at the time. Without understanding what my mother was talking about, I recognized a clutch of implications. What did she know? And how could my father know she “knew” something and yet have to be reminded he had such information?
As the youngest of three children, I was used to being unenlightened during dinner-table conversations. I went on eating my pork chop. But it was impossible to ignore what happened next. My mother picked up her plate and, with a snap of her wrist, sailed it like a Frisbee straight across the dining room. China shattered. Mashed potatoes and gravy splattered against the wall and onto the blue carpet and sprayed my father's white shirt with grease spots. One half-eaten pork chop landed on top of the china cabinet.
It was an absurd and terrible moment, and in the way of such moments, also cinematicâwith that pork chop balanced on top of the china cabinet and my family staring up at it with open mouths, which made me want to laugh. Even my mother looked as if she wanted to laugh. Her eyelids crinkled and the corner of her mouth jerked up. But the next instant she reached over and one after another sent my brother's, my sister's, and my own plate spinning.
“I won't pretend I don't know,” she said. Then she stood up and left the room. We watched the kitchen's swinging door swing behind her. My father was still holding his fork.
Of course, for many people who grew up in the '70s, childhood was spent between parents, rather than with them. If parents didn't actually divorce, they certainly thought about it, often out loud, and sometimes requested their children's advice. I've heard horror stories about Christmases spent in
airports, scenes at high school graduations, photo albums with one parent or the other scissored out. I've heard so many of these stories that they're no longer remarkableâin fact, they have stopped being stories at all and have turned into clichÃ©s, and the more predictable the worse they are: the father remarries a witch who dislikes his children and turns him against them; the mother remarries a brute who likes her daughters too much. But any clichÃ© has a fact for a heart, and the fact is that marriages, like political alliances, broke up all over this country in the 1970s, which in the latter case at least had never happened before.