“Murderers are not monsters, they're men. And that's the most frightening thing about them” Alice Sebold
“Jealousy is the jaundice of the soul” John Dryden
THE DAY OF MURDER, OF SOUTH DAKOTA AND CORNFIELDS OCEAN DEEP
“Buh, buh, buh” said the boy. “Buh, buh, buh…”
He held the gun so tightly his fingers had turned white. “Buh, buh, buh.” That big old, rusty gun had lain in a battered desk drawer for decades, as far as anyone knew. It seems the boy was playing with it when the man burst in and started beating Ernie to death with a baseball bat.
Now Ernie, the boy’s older cousin, lay behind the boy, dead on the floor. “I had to pry the kid’s fingers off the gun,” Ernie’s friend said later. The 9-year-old had managed to overcome the rust and actually cock the pistol. But he couldn’t pull the hard trigger to fire it, which didn’t really matter since the gun had no bullets in it anyway.
Ernie’s friend carried the boy across the street to Al’s Tavern, a beer bar fixture in the little South Dakota town of my childhood for as long as anyone can remember.
There were no crosswalks in the little town then and no stop lights, nor are there any today. So that night, Ernie’s buddy had just walked cattycorner across main street from Al’s to check on his friend. It was an unusual move for him as he did love his beer. But that night he heard the door slam behind him at Al’s. He heard a loud voice ordering a beer, adding “I probably shouldn’t have hit him so hard, but the Son of a Bitch had it coming.” So when he heard that, Ernie’s friend put down his beer and walked across Main Street to the old brick building where Ernie was working. Most everyone knew of the affair; it was a small town, after all. But hearing about an affair is one thing, finding his friend, Ernie, dead, quite another.
Through the window grime he could see his friend lying face up, blood on his face and a blood pool on the floor spreading from the back of his head. And he saw the boy gripping that big old, four-pound dragoon of a gun.
Ernie’s friend opened the door, pried the boy’s fingers off the gun, and carried him over to Al’s. “Buh, buh, buh” the kid stuttered on until they entered the tavern. When the boy saw the man at the bar, he started screaming. And he did not stop, not even after the man fled the bar and rattled off in his old pickup. Not then, I’m told, and not for a long time thereafter.
They arrested the man that night, passed out cold in his single wide. The bloody Louisville Slugger was still in his pickup.
It was pretty much, as they say, open and shut. Except for one wrinkle. Ernie had a wife. And a bunch of kids. There was also a fair amount of life insurance, which paid double in the event of death by accident. Problem was, the policy excluded murder as an accident. The policy did not exclude manslaughter, just murder as judged by a jury of peers.
Years later, I was alone with my uncle in the hospital, a pretty rare event. As he lay dying of cancer, the room was generally packed with various relatives and his many siblings. Not this time. Two of my many uncles were as close to me as my Dad; he was one of the two. As we sat there, for some reason he starting speaking of that murderous night and what came after.
“My brother and I cracked some beers with the judge,” he said right in the middle of a much-told fishing story. The judge was an old school chum. Turns out small town Judges then could greatly influence what charges should be brought in violent cases. Over many beers, my uncles discussed the widow with the judge, the kids and the life insurance, undoubtedly a violation of numerous legal and ethical rules.
Even the coroner couldn’t figure out if it was the blows from the ash bat or Ernie cracking his head on the edge of the granite slab under the stove that caused his death. So it wasn’t too much of a stretch when Ernie’s killer was only charged with manslaughter. He was convicted, and sent away for just two years, to the horror and disgust of everyone. Yeah, Ernie was having an affair with the killer’s wife. The community condemned that type of behavior but could forgive it. They could not and would not forgive the murder of an errant breadwinner with a bunch of dependent kids. Since the killer’s conviction was for manslaughter and not murder, the life insurance paid off, double the face amount.
Two years later, free, the killer walked into Al’s and ordered a beer. He got no beer, leaving almost immediately after receiving what seemed to be a credible threat from the owner. This much talked about event was the first time in memory anyone had been thrown out of Al’s Tavern.
The man was a pariah, but being an outcast didn’t last long. “One day,” my dying uncle told me, “he just left.” He looked over at me. “It was the damndest thing. He just vanished. Left his truck, left his trailer, all his stuff. He even left his dog,” something unheard of in South Dakota. The man never showed up again. “I don’t want you talking about this,” said my uncle. “Except with my brother, if you want.” I never did talk about it, except possibly obliquely, I think, one time with his brother, my other much-loved uncle.
His brother, a great and good-humored man, shared many an adventure with me and was undoubtedly the best story teller I’ve ever met. One yearly event we executed together right up until his death involved our end-of-summer theft of sweet corn. My uncle knew of every farm growing the sweet corn we both loved so much and every field where the corn grew right next to the road. He grew his own sweet corn, of course, but as he said “another man’s crop always tastes better than your own.”
We had put our corn-filled gunny sacks in the truck and were standing on the gravel road staring out at the horizon-stopped corn field. I recall the wind blowing through the stalks and how much the field looked like it was rippling with waves.
“Look at that,” my uncle said. “Looks just like the ocean.” He gazed over the field. “You know,” he said, “you could bury anything in a field like that and, just like dropping something in the ocean, no one would ever find it.” We stood there for a few more moments in silence. Then we got back in the truck and took the corn home to my mother, who loved sweet corn as much as we did and shamelessly never once asked from where the gunny-sacked bounty originated.
Everyone’s gone now; my uncles, the judge, Ernie’s widow. Ernie’s kids grew up, always with a roof over their heads, food on the table and money in the bank. That little South Dakota town, Al’s Tavern and the building where Ernie was murdered are still there. So are the endless fields of corn.
When the wind passes over the corn, it still ripples like waves. The fields all look like the ocean when this happens…and I’m damned if I can remember by which one my uncle and I were standing when he pointed this out to me on a day so long ago.
Copyright 2019, Wayne D. McFarland. All rights reserved