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My memoir: Gun Needle Spoon begins with the last years of my heroin addiction, my consequent descent into crime, primarily armed bank robbery, and my eventual incarceration. My final arrest was June 25, 1997, and I look back at the person that I was then and wonder who that person was. He certainly is not who I am today. Over the last 18 years I have worked hard to instigate such an internal psychological change. If you had told me then that I’d become a recovering drug addict, a published author and a college instructor, I would have laughed and told you, “no fuckin’ way, dude!” Heroin addiction’s mental and physical stranglehold combined with the junkie tunnel vision of procuring the drug at all costs, mentally altered me from the person I was meant to be and the direction I was heading. In 1977 I was an artistic kid at art school right as punk rock hit the radar and the music world exploded, flash-forward twenty years later, I was a semi-illiterate career-criminal facing a 25 to Life Sentence under California’s Three Strike Law, and wondering how the hell it had all turned out so wrong. Patti Smith said, “I never thought I was gonna make 30.” Well, I never thought I was going to make 21. It has been a long road to get to who and where I am now, and it makes me wonder what the “1997 Patrick” would have to say to the Patrick of today. 

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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

In light of today’s tragedy in Newtown, CT, TNB is re-running this essay, originally published on August 28, 2012.  Thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, their families, and survivors. —Editors

 

Early in the morning on June 25th, about a week before I arrived in my new hometown in western Pennsylvania, police here opened fire on a car of three black man speeding towards them, killing the driver, 27-year-old Elip Cheatham.

According to eyewitness accounts, the events of the night are as follows: A shooting occurred at Edder’s Den, a bar in what most of us would euphemistically call a “rough” neighborhood. One of the victims was a friend of Cheatham’s. Cheatham and another friend loaded the 20-year-old with a leg wound into the back of Cheatham’s car and drove towards the hospital. Blocks away, they encountered a police blockade, and this is where accounts begin to splinter.

Michael Kardos is one of those great, nice guys who doesn’t piss people off and doesn’t behave like some chest-inflating, flea-bitten ape. So it’s not surprising that he wrote a book about a great, nice guy who, in general, doesn’t piss people off or act like some loamy-smelling jungle animal. The great guy in Mike’s book, however, gets into a whole lot of trouble—more trouble than you and I, hopefully, will ever have. The Three-Day Affair earned starred reviews in Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publishers Weekly, which named it one of the best books of Fall 2012.

Here are six questions for Michael Kardos:

 

Anyone who doesn’t find the beach at least a little bit disturbing hasn’t really thought about it enough.

I spend a lot of time at the beach in the summer, and it’s hard not to notice the darker side of the ocean after a while: the crime-scene bleakness of a beach town in the rain, or the wind-whipped days when the breakers seem intent on your bodily destruction. So I was excited when, a few months ago, I came across an L.A. Times article musing on the “fascinating light-dark duality” of that city’s coastal playground. The article looked at the beach through the lens of California crime writers from the golden age of pulp to today, and lined up a stellar reading list that included Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dorothy B. Hughes, Leigh Brackett, Horace McCoy, and others.

Suddenly I realized that the beach and noir go together like sunshine and skin cancer.

It all depends on where your victim’s been.

Knives to the vitals, crowbars to the knee
might rack the mind less tortuously than
a kite whose shreds hang from a winter tree,
limp. Or a bedroom stale with lingering sweat.

The gut that matters isn’t yours, it’s his.
What squirms in it? His woman, naked, wet?
The sneering clerk at County Services?

Find out, poeta. Give him what he wants:
his own despair, not yours. Take it in hand.
Ignore its less-than-savory provenance,
its images hauled in like contraband
by metered goombahs and their capo, rhyme.

Strike with it hard, it kills. Most of the time.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

In the beginning of last year The Government Accountability Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, released a report on offshore tax havens. It was long. I knew it was going to be long because it was a PDF that took nineteen hours to download.

Prior to being expelled from the team and subsequently the school for stealing Coach’s cell phone, deleting all of his contacts to conceal the stolen item, then turning around and selling said stolen phone to another player, Delonta was a college basketball teammate of mine.

Delonta was no taller than 5’6″ with shoes. He was, by all means, an unlikely candidate for the sport, particularly on a roster of towering trees on the hardwood. However, Delonta had freakish athletic ability evident in his lateral quickness, vertical jump, and uncanny ability to create sufficient space between him and the defender, which allowed him ample time to get off the open shot. He was a sharp shooter who lived mostly behind the 3-point arc, but once inside the paint lived predominantly above the rim gliding by and above defenders over a foot taller.

He had a shiny head that he shaved regularly, a bright smile, and hands the size of our starting center, Stanford, who was well aware of Delonta’s pilfering past and prior misdemeanor convictions.

“Keep a close eye,” Stanford had said when Delonta appeared through the double-doors on the first day of tryouts.

After Delonta made the roster and our first away game scheduled, I was in Coach’s office shooting the breeze about our potential for the season when Stanford moseyed in through the door. He folded his giant body into the lone chair beside me in Coach’s office. He slouched a bit, positioned his elbow on his knee, and propped his face in his hand.

“Coach,” Stanford said, “I don’t care if the locker room door is bolted shut with a logging chain and a 5-inch thick padlock, I’m not leaving my shit in the open for sticky fingers to snatch. I’m telling you Coach, your golden boy is a thief and will pick the pocket of more than just the opposing player.”

Coach was The Redeemer in a way. He was all about second chances. No one was flawed in his opinion, only misguided, and could be put back on the straight and narrow with the proper mentor—someone who could identify the struggles of the individual and help them overcome it. One way of doing that was to be part of a team, an interconnected group of individuals whose success depended on the whole of the team and not on one individual. It was a way for a kid turned sour to turn good again. He could play basketball as well as earn his degree, and with an education came a better future and more open doors.

“I’ll pay close attention,” Coach responded, trying to appease Stanford. “But give him a chance, will you? People change.”

Stanford rose, sort of shook his head a little and unwillingly agreed to give Delonta the benefit of the doubt—for Coach’s sake.

For the short time I knew Delonta, he was a likeable guy and could tell a story with the best of them. On our third road trip that season, Stanford sat in the back of the bus with his headphones in, nodding along to the music in his ears. His left leg was stretched out and straightened in the aisle.

The entirety of the team went through their pre-game road rituals.

Jerel began freestyling.

“I like that,” Chris said in response to Jerel’s freestyle before beginning his own.

Then Buck jumped in.

Then Juan.

Keshawn Pickens sat beside me and Bird Owen and Palmer to the right of us.

My ritual consisted of reading Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive, every road trip—a habit that, more than anything, grew out of superstition.

“I think you’d appreciate this,” Coach had said to me, handing me the book prior to one of our away games.

That night I went out and scored 19 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out eight assists in a win. Therefore, as a rule of superstition, it became a necessity to read Drive every trip while twiddling a crumpled Dennis Rodman trading card between my fingers for hours on end as I read.

Delonta initiated his road ritual that day, a ritual that would only last approximately two more games before being banished from the basketball team for good.

“I have a story,” Delonta began. He licked his lips and rubbed his thumb against his heavy eyebrow, a habit of his that accompanied the onset of a brief narrative.

“When I was in first grade, I was a good speller,” he started. “So I’m standing up there in front of the school in the auditorium. The year-end Spelling Bee. The Big Finale. It’s just me and another kid. We’re the only two left. Everybody else has been knocked out. Kids sitting down, still crying ’cause they missed a word ten minutes ago. One boy had to be picked up and carried offstage by two people because he was so upset he lost. Me and this other kid are going back and forth; the judges trying to make one of us slip up. My moms is in the front row, smiling. Proud of me.”

“‘Bicycle,’ the judge says.”

“‘B-I-C-Y-C-L-E,’ I respond. My moms gives a big thumbs up.”

“‘Hydrant,’ another judge follows.”

“‘H-Y-D-R-A-N-T,’ the other boy spells.”

“We’re neck and neck. It goes on like this for a solid two-three minutes. Neither of us falters.”

Delonta pauses. Jerel has stopped freestlying, as have Chris and Buck. All eyes are on Delonta except Stanford. He’s still in the back of the bus. Sleeping. Leg stretched out.

“Then the judge says, ‘Crayon.’ My smile gets this big.”

Delonta smiles from ear to ear.

“You stupid,” Bird says to him, laughing.

“So I’m thinking, ‘I got this Bee.’ This kid doesn’t have a chance. I’m taking home the gold today. ‘Crayon,’ I respond. ‘C-R-A-,'”

Delonta pauses again.

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-‘”

“I’m picturing my crayons in my hand, coloring. My favorite color green. I’m smiling. I’m gonna win the Spelling Bee. My moms is smiling. Everybody in the auditorium has their attention focused on me. The principal is looking at me. My teacher.”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A, Crayon.'”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta,’ the judge says. ‘That is incorrect.'”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A,’ I spell out again.”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta.’ He looks at the other kid as if to give him a chance to spell it.”

“‘Crayon. C-R-A-Y-O-L-A. Crayon,’ I say, crying. My moms is up from her seat, walking hurriedly toward the steps to the stage. The principal is nodding his head at the assistant principal. The auditorium is in complete silence. The kid who had been crying for ten minutes because he spelled a word wrong ten minutes ago has stopped crying. He’s looking at me.”

“‘That’s how they spell it on the box,’ I say to the judge.’That’s how they spell it on the box!'”

“At this point, my mom has whisked me from the stage and taken me behind the curtain. Her hand is over my mouth. My feet are dragging the ground.”

“‘Crayon,’ I hear the other kid say, ‘C-R-A-Y-O-N, Crayon.'”

“I’m throwing a temper tantrum, protesting to my mom and telling her they are cheating. My mom is whipping my ass behind the curtain. And everybody’s clapping for the other kid who just won the spelling bee.”

Less than a month after telling this story, Delonta was expelled from the team after Coach’s cell phone went missing and was traced to another player on the team who it had been sold to. Whether or not Delonta’s failed attempt at winning the coveted Spelling Bee championship in 1st grade after being robbed of the crown on account of corporate branding and product monopolization was the result of his descent into a life of crime and kleptomania is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, his theft did result in his banishment from the basketball team for good; and though Delonta may have been a kleptomaniac, it was never suspected he was a pathological liar and had made up the Spelling Bee story. Stanford would later transfer on scholarship to an apprentice school in Norfolk and be zapped by a high voltage of electricity while working as an apprentice in the shipyard. He would be okay.

Fin.


I have been condemned. It’s okay. This is what happens. It was a long time coming. Actually, I don’t know how I eluded it for as long as I did. Luck, I guess. But I always knew that someday there would be a reckoning. I always sensed the day would come when I would have to pay. There are consequences to the things we do. This is just the way it is. Without them, it’s not life, it’s not real. We must suffer for our mistakes. For our crimes. This is the way it must be.  

I know how it all came about as well. I knew then. I’m not that ignorant. You’re young, and your heart aches. It won’t stop. You don’t know why. It just does. A drag here, a sip there, looking for a tiny bit of relief, something to dial down the furious turning of your mind, the relentless twisting. Trying to make sense of the contradictory emotions. All of it seems to accumulate in your soul. It becomes the depository for the pain. You try this and that. It turns out to be fruitless of course, and by the time you find out it’s far too late, but for so long it seems possible, to turn a mirage into something real. So you play with the salts, they fade, the half-life shorter and shorter, you start mixing this with that, waving your hands through the smoke.  

Eventually it stops working and still your heart aches. Your heart breaks. It breaks again. And again. You keep taking the drugs because you know it will happen again, and you just can’t bear it once more. You want to stop. But you can’t. It’s too late now. You try this, you try that, but every time the pain seems worse,  heavier, a dull heat somewhere inside, baking a part of you into something solid, a hard shell forming over your heart, fused with the flesh.

One day you wake up on a floor somewhere. You have nothing. Absolutely nothing. The illusions and delusions are gone. You see clearly. You feel like a fool. You’ve wasted so much time. You did. No one else. This is where you should stop. Find a way. Before it’s too late. Stare it down and start over. Shout. Scream. Yell for help. But you didn’t. You couldn’t. It was too terrifying to face. And you felt like a weak, useless, piece of trash for not being able to confront it, and begin anew. So you dig. You begin a tiny excavation, searching for the bottom. For years it goes on, miraculously, nothing happening but things changing hands, you sell and others buy, exchanging death sentences. Somehow it keeps the end at bay. Deeper, deeper, you go. You know that you are going the wrong way and you hate yourself for it. Your mind wants to stop and turn around. Your heart has dreams. But they were locked up now, out of the light, trapped inside the stone. It was your body that was in control now. Your body that was taking you down this horrible path. It was your flesh that caused this. It was the criminal. It must pay. Not for the crimes against society, and not by them either. You must punish yourself. For the real crimes, the inability to be what you wanted to be, what you thought you should be. For not being good enough, for not being strong enough. For not being able to love. For not being able to stop.

I must punish myself. No one else seemed willing to do it. I had to do something. I couldn’t blame it on anyone else. After all, it was I who had thrown my life away. It was I who’d broken the hearts and shattered the dreams of my loved ones, few though they were. It was I. The others, they found it within themselves to give me chance after chance. Try though I did, I could not take them. I felt undeserving. Maybe I have too much pride. Maybe, not enough. Did I deserve forgiveness? I don’t know.  It’s irrelevant now. There must be consequences or it would all be meaningless.

There was no trial. No lawyers, no courtroom. They weren’t needed. You knew you were guilty. And once you sentenced yourself, you knew what to do. Shot after shot, you carpet-bombed your flesh, until the highways were obliterated and all the trees turned to ash. Still, you kept on, wandering from place to place, burying land mines, planting pockets of black tar heroin, dope to be detonated at a later date. You buried them in the muscle, in the flesh. You dug deep. They did not dissipate and go away. They sat there like markings, give-aways, tattoos but deeper, of the thing you truly were. Black. Shapeless. Permanent, like ink. One day it will bubble up through your skin to the surface and someone will use it to write your fate on a scroll, to be read aloud in the public square on the day of your execution.

And now it is over. The sentence was real aloud and carried out. It was not as severe as I had expected, merely to live with the destruction. I have paid. Maybe, a little too much. Maybe, not enough. Only time will tell. I paid a pound of flesh from one side of my buttock, and another pound from the other. Just to be sure I took some from both arms and both calves as well, along with a few shards of bone for good measure. You always felt like an open wound, unprotected, vulnerable, and so it makes sense that is what you became. What remain now are scars, where the cavernous wounds once were. The things I will have to live with, fragile, delicate, ugly. Bloodless tissue, shiny like plastic. My hip is damaged, the bone dissolved from infection, one leg now shorter than the other and my hands don’t function correctly, the wires severed. This is my punishment. And yet it did not end me, as I had thought it would. I am still here, wondering why, and how.  Playing with words instead of smoke. Hammering with a hammer called hope, trying to break into my heart.

Six Chambers

By Matthew Baldwin

Essay

On a late spring day in 2001 my sister’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend crashed the pool party she was throwing at our house in the suburbs and shot two people on our front porch. He used a small, snub-nosed revolver from a distance of less than ten feet, firing off all six rounds. Five of them hit their mark.

This isn’t my story. I wasn’t even there; I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, living in my own apartment and diligently working on my senior thesis. I’ve struggled to tell it before, as fiction, in poetry, by inserting myself into the narrative as a character, but it felt disingenuous then, and it feels disingenuous now. I don’t even know most of the people involved, and what details I have stem from one or two eyewitness accounts and a brief glimpse at the police report. And yet, even though I wasn’t present for these events, I cannot deny they’ve had an effect on me.

I will try to tell it as best I can.

*****

What I know is this: Daniel and my sister had been broken up for a few weeks, and he was having so much trouble letting go she was forced to get a restraining order. He turned up at the house drunk, and very likely tweaking on crystal meth as well. Accounts conflict as to whether the gun was hidden in the waistband of his jeans or the back pocket, but whatever his intentions were when he let himself into the empty house, he came packing. He wandered through to the backyard, where twenty or so of my sister’s friends had been drinking cheap beer and doing cannonballs off our diving board for a few hours, and immediately got into a shouting match with my sister. I don’t know what was said exactly, but I do know that when Daniel refused to leave several of the guys at the party took it upon themselves to escort him back out front, using their presence as a crowd to shepherd him. At first it worked; he went willingly, if begrudgingly.

No one thought to call the police.

When they made it to the front yard things changed. Maybe someone said something to provoke him, maybe some faulty synapse in his little tweaker brain misfired, but whatever the reason Daniel went on the offensive, drawing the gun and threatening the crowd with it, even though he had a clear path of escape to his truck.

Alcohol and adrenaline combined create a potent brew for stupidity, and after a second or so of shocked paralysis, one of the partygoers decided to do an extremely brave and absolutely foolish thing: he launched himself forward in an attempt at a flying tackle, but being drunk, only managed to stumble and get Daniel around the ankles.

Daniel shot him four times at point-blank range, opening up angry red blossoms in his chest, stomach, pelvis and thigh. He then fired the last two rounds into the crowd, apparently at random. One shot struck someone in the forehead, but the thick bone deflected the bullet sideways instead of allowing it to pass through. It opened up the skin of his right temple like a seam, right down to the skull. He was concussed and bleeding badly, but alive. Before anyone could do anything else, the now-unarmed Daniel fled in his truck.

My sister’s girlfriends kept her hidden in the house while this went down, and I think it was one of them who finally decided that calling for emergency services might be a good idea.

The aftermath was—perhaps unavoidably—anticlimactic. Both victims survived their injuries, though the first one spent the better part of the week in the ICU. When the police searched Daniel’s apartment, they found no sign of his drug activities aside from a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (he likely went straight there after the shooting and cleaned everything out; I would’ve). After two days as a wanted man Daniel surrendered to the police, and because he’s half Mexican and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was considered a high flight risk and denied bail by the court. It was months before the case went to trial, and when it did Daniel got off with a slap on the wrist; since he plead guilty to a charge of attempted manslaughter, had been a model inmate in the county lockup, and hadn’t actually killed anyone, the judge sentenced him to a couple of year’s probation, with credit for time already served. He walked, though the restraining order remained in effect.

The blood of the two shooting victims left stains on the pavement of our porch and front walkway.

We never figured out where that sixth bullet went.

*****

I look at these words here, that I’ve written and rewritten, and I don’t know what to make of them. I do not know how to respond to the knowledge that this happened, that this violence brought itself to our very doorstep to further mar the home where I spent the majority of my childhood, even though by that point I was already gone, having deliberately distanced myself from the unhappiness that already resided there.

What they don’t tell you about a gunshot is that the impact doesn’t just strike in the here and now, it ripples backwards in time to damage the past. A bullet wounds not only flesh, but memory as well.

None of us live there anymore. Once her divorce from my stepfather was final my mother sold the house, and she and my sister found new places to live. I finished my degree in Riverside and moved to New Orleans for graduate school. But the karate studio I teach at now is in the same neighborhood, and from time to time I pass by the house. When I do this is always the first thing I think of.

It’s the damndest thing. As I say, I wasn’t there, and yet the mind is a tricky machine; it combines this information with the knowledge I already possess to create the synthesis of a memory, one that I can turn and walk through, moment by moment, room by room. I know the exact path Daniel walked from our front door to the back. Though I didn’t know any of my sister’s friends at the time (she and I have always sailed different social seas), I knew the kind of people she hung out with, and my imagination fills in the details: their baggy shorts and sideways ball caps, cans of Bud Lite and crumpled packets of Marlboros. I know the crack of the shots and the smell of cordite; I’ve seen gunshot wounds up close and personal, and will never again require my imagination to recreate them.

By happenstance, I was in town that weekend, taking a brief respite from the rigors of my thesis by attending a friend’s barbeque. I first learned about the shooting when the ten o’clock news ran a report on it. The reporter stood just down the street from our house, but out of the corner of the frame you could see the yellow police tape marking off our lawn. I remember feeling a riot of emotions when I saw that: fear, anger, worry, and even guilt that I hadn’t been there to do something about it.

But not surprise.

I think I’d been expecting something like this to happen for a long time.

I met Daniel once or twice, and wasn’t impressed. When we were in high school my sister’s taste in boyfriends always ran towards bad boys, the kinds of knuckle-dragging aggro meatheads who spent their spare time either in detention or on the lookout for things to stuff firecrackers into and watch explode, and Daniel was no exception. It was only a matter of time before one of these troglodytes engaged in some spectacular criminal violence.

No one knew about the drug dealing, though; my sister took pains to hide that from us, even after they’d broken up. She also hid his fondness for firearms. I’ve thought about that gun a lot during my attempts to write this. I cannot imagine what Daniel was planning on doing with it. It would be too easy to write it off as junky behavior, but I think that’s a fallacy. High or not, he had the foresight to load it, bring it, and to conceal it when he came inside. Was he intending to force my sister to take him back at gunpoint? Did he anticipate a shootout with some of the other people at the party? My sister had told him about my martial arts training–was one of those rounds meant for me, in case I was there and caused him trouble?

I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

One thing I can say, though, is that this episode forever ended any infatuation I had with firearms. I’m not looking to overturn the Second Amendment or outlaw the NRA, but I sure as shit don’t want a gun anywhere near me. I refuse to allow them into my home, and any invitation to go down to a gun range and fire off a few rounds is met with a firm “no, thanks.” And I reject, whole cloth, the entire notion that they are in some way “for defense.” The act of penetrating a human body with explosively-propelled bits of metal is designed to be fatal, and there is nothing defensive about that. As far as I am concerned, a gun is the unearned power to take the life of another human being, available for purchase far, far too cheaply.

We’ve reached the end here, and I still don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know how to articulate the emotions this stirs up. I’m angry, and I want to be angry, I believe this anger is deserved, but I do not know where to direct it. My sister, for all her lapses in judgment, did everything in her power to push Daniel out of her life, and it isn’t her fault he clawed his way back in. Daniel has long since disappeared; if there’s any justice in the world he was picked up for another violation and is now doing time. I suppose this could be thought of as a warning, about how we sometimes invite those people most dangerous to us into the innermost areas of our lives, even though–because–we know they might very well cause us harm. We’re moths in a world of candle flames.

But that doesn’t really help. I’m still angry. Angry because, eight years on, those bloodstains are still there, enduring all of the effects of time and weather, of bleach and scrub brush.

And in my mind, they always will be.

labianca interior

Jerry and Mary Neeley used to own the best video store on the east side of L.A. That’s where I met them, and since they closed shop two years ago to sell movie collectibles online, we’ve occasionally met for coffee and talk of, among other topics, true crime. We’ve also kept in touch by e-mail, and last week Mary sent the following message:

As you know, the 40th anniversary of Tate/LaBianca is this August 8th & 9th. (Technically, the 9th & 10th because both parties were killed after midnight.)

I wanted to go to the LaBianca house around 1am on the 10th to see if anyone else shows up. Would you be interested? I don’t want to walk up there alone at 1am.

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.