A fisherman discovered the body of a two year old blond girl inside a blue Sterilite utility box on a sandbar in the Galveston Intercoastal Waterway on October 29, 2007.

Imagine you’re a fisherman, going about the hard labor of your day and you find a dead toddler.

The Galveston County Sheriff’s Office determined the unidentified child had been dead for several weeks and for purposes of the investigation referred to her as Baby Grace.

News affiliates distributed a Baby Grace sketch. A grandmother in Mentor, Ohio, who hadn’t seen her blond granddaughter since May called the Galveston Sheriff’s Office when she saw the sketch. Her son later gave a DNA sample. It matched.

Baby Grace turned out to be Riley Ann Sawyers.

Working around three skull fractures and severe decomposition, that forensic artist deserves a promotion. Imagine that’s your job, drawing portraits of the dead.

I guess this story nagged at me because I was in Galveston at the time, for the first time, attending a conference.

What a dump, I thought as I drove into town.

The area has some pretty things; sprawling resorts and Victorian mansions and slices of beach. But turn off the main drag (or get lost for thirty minutes, as I did) and you’ll cruise by a lot of people sitting on rotten porches smoking cigarettes and looking poor in the middle of the afternoon.

It’s not hard to picture bad things happening inside falling down houses.

Yet when Kimberly Trenor and her cyber boyfriend were arrested for Riley’s murder the community was shocked, outraged, hungry for blood.

Whenever a parent murders a child, people call the act “unthinkable”.

A lot of adjectives come to my mind, but not “unthinkable”.

Think.

Imagine you’re 18. You’re a high school dropout. You’re a teen mother. You’re from a low socio-economic background. You don’t have many friends. Your relationship with your high school sweetheart/baby daddy ended a few months ago, when you had him arrested and charged with domestic violence. You are isolated. You are alienated. The child you didn’t plan on having fills your days with banal chores. The monotony is endless, suffocating.

Don’t touch. Where are your shoes? Put that down! Time for bed. Don’t touch that. No you can’t have that. Stop crying. Say thank you. Brush your teeth. Did you brush your teeth? I said brush your teeth. Did you brush your teeth? Did you hear what I said?

To escape life’s myriad disappointments, you spend hours online playing World of Warcraft. You meet a 24 year old guy from Texas. He becomes the only interesting part of days that drag on like decades. In private emails you exchange tips for killing monsters and retrieving magical artifacts.

Your new cyber boyfriend sends you expensive gifts and eventually invites you to move in with him in Spring, Texas.

You inform your father you’re leaving and stuff your belongings and toddler into the car, driving from suburban Cleveland to Spring, near Houston.

At first the change is exhilarating. A wedding takes place on June 1. You’re an honest woman now.

But the summer is brutal in Texas and it wears on even the best of nerves. Your new husband is not so great in the parenting department. Your hyper toddler needs controlling, and his ideas are primitive and cruel. But you go along with it.

One day the correctional plan goes awry. Something snaps. Your new husband beats your daughter with a belt, holds her head underwater, throws her across the room and ultimately kills her. You help him wrap her body in a purple towel and stuff it inside a blue Sterilite utility box. The box will sit in a shed for two months. The two hottest months of the year. When your father calls, you lie and tell him Riley’s sleeping or playing. Which she might be – only, in heaven.

When summer’s over you and your new husband take a drive. The blue Sterilite utility box gets thrown into Galveston Bay, as if guilt and remorse could be so easily disposed of.

It’s a relief not to have the box in the shed anymore. But you know what you’ve done.

On December 13, 2007, both Kimberly Trenor and Royce Clyde Zeigler II were charged with capital murder.

Trenor’s attorneys maintain that Zeigler had Riley on a “disciplinary program” that went too far. The blame shifting begins.

I find their poor parenting uninteresting. Sad and terrible, yes, interesting no.

AN EYE FOR AN EYE scream the message boards.

I get upset when communities get upset about these things. The mob mentality, the collective grief and outrage seem so disingenuous, so contrived.

How can anyone be genuinely outraged when poor and stupid people commit heinous crimes, considering how indifferent we all are on a daily basis to other people’s circumstances?

It approaches the highest levels of hypocrisy.

Want to be indignant and demand justice? Frequent your local Wal-Mart. Intervene every time you spot a teen parent smacking a toddler. Offer to babysit and help out financially. Then you can act as self-righteously as you want when the child is fatally tossed across the room.

Calling a crime “unthinkable” and “monstrous” also lends a sensational air to a poor, stupid person’s shitty decisions. It imbues a person with Otherness, allows us to disassociate their behavior from their humanity, from our own humanity, when in reality Kimberly Trenor is little more than a young, selfish asshole, psychologically unready for parenting.

Trenor and Zeigler made horrible decisions, for which they may receive humanity’s harshest punishment.

We’re so eager to label them insane, psychotic, crazy. But the scary truth might be they’re just dumb and bad.

The kicker?

Trenor is several months pregnant with Zeigler’s child.

As you sit reading this she sits in the jail’s medical unit awaiting trial.

If they make it to trial.

Last week Zeigler attempted suicide.

Would have made a lot of people happy had he succeeded.

UPDATE: On June 26, 2008, CPS took custody of a baby boy born to Trenor.

UPDATE 2: Trenor was convicted of capital murder in February 2009 and is serving a life sentence. Zeigler was also convicted of capital murder in November 2009. He received an automatic life sentence. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

1

At six, the old man teaches her to play poker.

They sit at the kitchen table while her grandmother cooks dinner and her baby brother watches intently as he teaches her the basics of cards. Aces are the highest, then kings, and so on. She likes the face cards best because they seem to wink at her and whenever she has them in her tiny hands, she always wins. She picks up on it quickly and by the time dinner finds its way to worn tabletop, she’s beaten him ten times over and has accumulated a somewhat large pile of pennies.

He lets her keep the pennies, much to her mother’s chagrin. Her father, on the other hand, thinks it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen.

2

At eight, almost nine, her grandmother passes away and the house changes. The old man’s smiles become rarer and it takes him longer to acknowledge things than it had before her grandmother had gone into the hospital and never came home. It lasts a little over a year and then, suddenly, he is himself again.

Well, almost himself.

Even at nine, she knows he’s different. He has to be, her child mind reasons, because she is. Maybe no one notices it, maybe she never makes a show of it, but she is different. Slightly cracked in the same way a beloved China teacup often is.

By the time she turns ten, it’s like the tide has come in and washed it all away. They move on.

3

She’s twelve when he teaches her how to bet perceptively during a poker game. They sit at the kitchen table with a deck of cards between them and a pile of pennies and he teaches her how to win.

‘Don’t bet too high outright, they’ll know your hand is big and they’ll fold. You won’t get anywhere.’

He picks up his cards and, after considering them for a few seconds, tosses three pennies into the center.

She consults her cards – three sixes, a two, and a misplaced jack – and matches his bet.

‘Dad says you were shot, back in the war.’ She doesn’t really know what the war was, but she knows it wasn’t Vietnam. Her dad was in Vietnam and the old man is much older than her dad.

He tosses out three cards, waits for her to toss out her two, and then deals them each a set of replacements. ‘Yep, in the leg.’

Her two new cards – another two and a new seven – don’t really help, but she adds three more pennies to the pile anyway. ‘Did it hurt?’

He matches her three pennies. ‘Yep.’

‘Who shot you?’

‘Germans.’

‘Did they know you?’

She doesn’t mean the question to be sarcastic, but that’s how it comes out and she freezes. The old man looks at her over the tops of his glasses and she feels herself blush.

‘Grandpa,’ she starts, hoping to apologize for her momentary lapse in respect.

He begins to laugh, loud and hard, and she blushes a little more. ‘Nope, they didn’t,’ he says once he regains his breath. ‘Probably a good thing, too.’ He tosses his cards down – four eights – and leans back a little in his chair.

She puts her cards down. ‘Because if they had, they’d have shot you twice?’

He laughs even louder this time and pulls the pile of pennies toward him.

‘Been talkin’ to your dad, have you?’

She thinks back to what he said about keeping her cards to herself. She looks at him with what she hopes is a good poker face and shrugs. ‘Maybe.’

4

She’s nineteen and she knows something is off.

It’s Christmas Eve and they’re up at the house to exchange gifts and visit. This is her second Christmas in college and she’s glad to be home. The old man is happy to see her and he’s moving around fairly well, despite the fact his leg has gotten more arthritic and he’s a year older than he was last Christmas. They’ve gotten him a new cane and a really warm flannel shirt that she picked out and his favorite candy. It’s a simple Christmas, but he’s a simple man and she knows he’ll love his simple gifts.

‘How’s college?’ he asks her when she sits down next to him and kisses his cheek.

He smells clean and his cheek is scratchy from a five o’clock shadow he forgot to shave off.

‘It’s good. I’m glad to be home.’

He looks at her and his eyes can’t seem to focus and for a minute the world stops spinning.

‘Liz?’ he asks in a soft voice.

Liz was her grandmother, a woman who died ten years earlier.

She shakes her head very slowly. ‘No, grandpa. It’s Meg.’

His eyes come back to rest on her face and he smiles, reaches out and pats her cheek. ‘You look good, kid,’ he says.

She smiles. ‘Thanks. You look pretty good, too, old man.’

He laughs and she tells herself that she imagined the earlier moment. It’s easier than accepting the old man is finally getting old.

5

She’s twenty-one when they move him into a home.

It’s a combination of Alzheimer’s and a stroke no one knew he’d had and the realization that they just can’t take care of him anymore. To her, it feels like they’re abandoning him, though she’d never speak those words aloud to her family. It isn’t her place and she doesn’t know everything, just the bits and pieces that filter down from her mom.

She decides to visit him on her next trip home. She drives to the nursing home and tries not to hyperventilate in the parking lot. She isn’t good with sick people, isn’t good with hospitals and what they mean. It’s hard when it’s someone she knows and it’s terrifying when it’s someone she loves.

She asks for his room at the front desk and is led to it by a nurse she knows, the mother of a boy she went to high school with and who she sees occasionally when she’s home. The nurse tries to prepare her for it, tries to comfort her before the door even opens, but she very gently pushes her away. This is something she needs to do on her own – she hasn’t told anyone she’s here for the fear they would have wanted to come with her.

She opens the door and says hello.

He is positioned on the bed, sitting upright and staring at his hands. At the sound of her voice, he looks up and a wide smile crosses his leprechaun face. It makes her happy to see him smile and she returns it with one of her own.

‘Hi, Liz.’

Her smile falters slightly.

‘It isn’t Elizabeth, grandpa. It’s Meg. Your granddaughter.’

He looks at her and his demeanor changes. He isn’t smiling at her anymore and the expression on his face isn’t one she’s ever seen. She imagines it’s the same expression he turned on the Germans all those years ago and it makes her heart stop.

‘I don’t have a granddaughter,’ he says, his voice cold and confused.

She backs out, closes the door, and runs to her car. She doesn’t speak for a day and when she finally does, she tells her father and it is the hardest conversation they’ve ever had. The doctors ask her not to come back and she can’t help but feel like it’s her turn to abandon the man who taught her how to bluff and what fresh blueberries taste like straight from the bush.

It breaks her heart.

6

She’s twenty-five when the old man passes away.

She flies home for the funeral and a very somber Thanksgiving meal and she spends two days trying very hard to be strong for her dad. Her brother helps, as does her mom, and she manages to make it through her stay without too much sadness.

In the middle, there is laughter and alcohol and the opportunity to spend time with family members she does not see often enough and they all wonder if the old man knew this would happen, that his death would finally bring them all together for a holiday dinner.

It’s two weeks later, when she is back in Maryland and she has a chance to slow down, that it hits her. She’s on the commuter train, on her way home from a long day at work, and she’s reading a book about baseball – the old man’s favorite game. She thinks about her memories, about the million little things he taught her. Before she can stop herself, his memory invades her senses completely and she’s overwhelmed by his death, by the fact his mind was gone for so many years before his body joined it.

Surrounded by people she does not know, she cries heavy, salty tears for the memory of her grandfather and for the memory of the old man he once was.

In loving memory of my grandfather, Winston Hunt, the best old man a silly girl like me could have ever asked for.

Photoa

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was

A pedantic, phonics-slaughtering,

Pell-mell pedigree of a pencil-pushing Peter Principalist

With a penchant for Petrol-sniffing petrographists

And Colin Farrell’s penis

An open letter to Maggie, my neighbor’s black Lab:


P1020968



Dear Maggie,

I think your name was Maggie. You were a black Lab, and you lived in a small kennel made of chain-link fencing and wood in my neighbor’s backyard. I peed on you one evening when I was about seven years old, on a dare from a few of my friends. We were standing around your kennel, looking at you, when suddenly it occurred to me that I had to urinate. I mentioned my condition to my friends, and one of them suggested that I pee on you, for fun. And then the rest of them said, “Yeah, I dare you.” And so I did.

I remember you ran back inside your doghouse once you realized that I was peeing on you. And then I ran home.

My mother got a call from your mother a few minutes later. Apparently, she had seen the whole incident from her bedroom window. On hearing the news, my mother was horrified, and fittingly, I was grounded for the better part of a week as punishment. I also had to walk over and apologize to both you and your mother in person. I can only hope that you forgave me. I really felt bad about peeing on you, in the pit of my diminutive soul. I always thought that you were a really cool dog, and I secretly wished that you were my own.

Sincerely,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


An open letter to God, Creator of the Universe:


God



Dear God,

When I was a kid, I was forced to go to church, and I was advised by my elders to believe in you. On many occasions, while seated uncomfortably on a hard wooden pew, listening with grave confusion to the rambling of a large, avuncular preacher, I turned my gaze heavenward and prayed in your direction. Almost every time, I prayed that you might provide some sort of definitive, supernatural evidence of your ever-abiding existence.

Dear God, I’d pray, could you please shoot a beam of purple light through that window up there above the altar, so that I can know for a fact that you’re actually listening to me?

Or:

Dear God, could you please blow out that candle sitting over there by the piano, so that I can know for a fact that your powers are actually real?

Naturally, on every such occasion, my heartfelt prayers went unanswered. My pleas were met with an altogether deafening silence.

Here and now, as I enter the prime years of my adulthood, I certainly wouldn’t expect you to trouble yourself with any of my petty requests issued forth in prayer. I can imagine that you are an incredibly busy entity with plenty of universal responsibilities to attend to. I wouldn’t think to bother you.

At the same time, I continue to find myself troubled by your total lack of regard for the innocent requests that I made as a young boy. One would think that a being as powerful and compassionate as God could trouble himself momentarily to shoot a beam of purple light through a small stained-glass window for the benefit of an innocent child.

No offense or anything, but the fact that you ignored me is pretty fucking lame. Hopefully, you will see fit to change your protocol for the next generation of good-hearted inquisitors.

Stay black,

Brad Listi
Los Angeles, CA


DAY 1

After exchanging the obligatory pleasantries, I sat down at his desk across from him.

I explained to the man that I hadn’t been to a dentist since I moved here, over four years ago. I assured him that I flossed pretty regularly and had a pretty good diet and that, apart from the fact that I was in the bitter two-week psychological throes of quitting smoking, that nothing really alarmed me bucal-wise or was noteworthy.

He stood up and directed me to the chair.

Everything about the man was broad. His head was wide but properly aligned. I’d say he was in his early 50s. His belly commanded respect and signaled the direction he wanted you to go.

The soft drone of its motor filled the office.

I eased back into a supine human horizon.

Kiptobin16b

The light illuminated my widely opened mouth and in went the metal objects: the little circular mirror and elongated metal toothpick with the extension cord.

He poked around a bit, mentioned something to his assistant, a young olive-skinned woman named Susana. He was about to put the objects back into my mouth when he stopped and said a sentence that included the word ongos, or mushrooms.

I couldn’t be sure but it it sounded like he said something to the effect of, “It’s absolutely amazing the amount of fungii that live in our mouths. It’s like an enormous planet of its own existing in there.”

He sounded like he was smiling underneath his face mask, like what he just said was a revelation that had never occurred to him before I became supine and he stuck his gloved hands in my mouth.

He started calling out numbers to his assistant who quickly annotated them in my peripheral vision.

“Do you wet your toothbrush before brushing your teeth?”

Sí.

He chuckled and then spoke in metaphors behind his mask: “If you go hiking in the woods and your shoes get really dirty – how do you clean them? You use a shoe brush, of course, but do you wet it first? No, you don’t. Why? Because wetting a brush before brushing is like turning dirt into mud. You’re just spreading it around.”

Pués, la verdad es que nunca me lo he fijado.

“So stop wetting your brush before you brush your teeth.”

Vale.

“Do you rinse?”

Por supuesto.

“You need to start filling a small cup with 2 parts tap water and 1 part oxidized water.”

Agua oxigenado?

“Yes, swish it around in your mouth for a least a minute and spit it out.”

Ok.

“But don’t rinse with regular tap water after. Just leave it in there.”

Y Listerine? Puedo utilizarlo – no?

“You can but it’s pretty expensive and not good for your stomach.”

Pero no lo traigo.
“But I don’t swallow it.

“The choice is yours.”

The motor’s drone started and soon I was upright.

He explained they needed an x-ray and that I should go and get one as soon as I could, then make another appointment.

I walked out of his office, my head filled with mushrooms and hydrogen peroxide.

That night I brushed my teeth without wetting the bristles for the first time. My mouth produced enough salivia to make it one of the most fulfilling and serendipitous brushings I’ve ever had.

***

DAY 2

A week later, I slide the x-ray across the desk. His thick spectacles were nestled comfortably at the end of his nose and the upper rim divided his pupils into two planes.

He looked down at the little chart of my mouth with my numbered teeth, then up at the x-ray.

He looked down and up again.

I sat in silence, wanting to say something.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Up.

He looked like someone famous, a Latin American writer.

Down, up and down and up he looked.

Gabby Marquéz?

Kiptobin16a

Perhaps. Sans ‘stache and with boxed spectacles.

A minute passed while he was comparing the x-ray to the paper teeth chart.

He finally spoke: “Número treinta y tres, veinte y cuatro…y…cuarenta y siete son sospechosos. Parecen interrogantes.”

Certain numbered teeth were suspicious. They had interrogators in there and needed to come out or be filled or muted or whatever dentists in Spain to with interrogators.

“You have three cavities, he said, two small ones and one bigger one.”

Damn.

“Schedule another appointment and we’ll get them taken care of.”

I hate to admit this but I didn’t love Cien Años de Soledad very much. His short stories are hard to match but that book was exasperatingly long and magically neutral for me. I do, however, think I understand why it’s considered a modern masterpiece and hold no ill-will toward people who esteem it so.

***

DAY 3

“Susana’s not here today,” he said, “so we’re only going to fill one of your cavities. You can come back when she’s here.”

I laid back in the chair and he put on the gloves and mask.

He poked at my teeth: “There it is.”

He pulled out various jars of cream and a needle and placed them on the swivel table that was dangerously close to the chair. He reached over and grabbed what looked a futuristic hair dryer, only it was for teeth. He set it on his lap.

“A woman came to my office last year and she had a yellow tongue and was complaining about how bad her breath was. So I put my hand on her stomach for a second and felt pockets of air. I asked her how often she went to the bathroom and she said once a week. Once a week? How often to do you eat? She said every day about 2 or 3 times per day. Well you should go to the bathroom at least that many times. Or at least twice. You can’t shit just once a week. “

Why are you telling me this?

“Do you know what she did? She complained to the head office that I was attempting to touch her. She also said that I invited her to a party.”

Well, you did lay your hand on her stomach. And you are a dentist, not a doctor.

“But I’m a doctor too. I’ve studied Eastern medicines.”

Uh. Huh.

“My boss called me in after that and interrogated me, asked if I was trying to pawn off this new-age claptrap on my patients. I told him that a fusion of Eastern and Western medicine would save the world from suffering. Have you ever read a book called ‘Meditation as Medicine‘?”

He pried my mouth open, sticking two mini cotton tubes in and started drilling.

“Our bodies are comprised of energy. Have you ever been talking to someone and suddenly you feel that you don’t like this person, you don’t like the energy he or she is giving off?

I think I know exactly what you are talking about at this very moment.

“Well those are poles clashing.”

The sound and sensation of metal drills on teeth rank up there next to sticking my hand into my Proctor-Selex blender set to level six, puree.

“There is aligned and misaligned energy. If you are in touch with your energy and you know how to channel it, your potentialities are limitless. I once saw a woman who had a brain tumor the size of an egg. She channeled her energy fully on the tumor and it was gone in four days.”

Kiptobin16c

That’s incredible.

“I have a friend who’s a doctor in the US named Deepak Chopra and I was on a retreat with him and some other dentists. All the other dentists were textbook Western practitioners. Deepak and I were discussing channeling energy and how if much of the world had this insight, many of the problems in the world would cease to exist.”

Deepak Chopra is a dentist?

“So these dentist naysayers were making fun of us when we were outside talking about this and he told them, ‘Pick a rock’, which they did. He looked at it, focused his energy, aligned it and the rock exploded.”

That’s incredulous.

Kiptobin16d

He stopped drilling, took his thumb and pressed down decisively on the soft part under my tongue, a part which, when I think about it, has probably never been consciously touched by anyone.

I wondered if he was trying to align my energy, and if he was, that it was somewhat discomforting.

He took the tooth dryer and began drying off the filling.

You’re not Spanish – aren’t you?

“No, I’m Columbian.”

Marquéz for sure.

The room started to fill up with something.

I felt imbued with positivity in spite of all his chaotic malapropisms.

He returned me to my normal sitting position.

“There you go. Listen, the world is full of things you would never believe. There’s this thing called Tantric sex where it recycles the natural energy in one’s body. Talk about alignment. The thing is you can’t ejaculate.”

Please stop.

“When you ejaculate, all of the energy or ‘chi’ as they call it gushes forth. In that gush lies much of your energy and pretty much all of your alignment.”

I know, I read ‘The Multi-Orgasmic Man’.

Kiptobin16e

Well, most of it. Skimmed through some parts.

“So you can have full body orgasms, you just can’t ejaculate. It’s absolutely–“

Please.

“incredible. Tell you what – I’ll bring you this book ‘Meditation as Medicine’ when you come in for your next appointment. When will you be back – next week? How about Tuesday at noon?”

Stop.