Imagine a sticky, early August morning, around three o’clock. It is dark, the moon blocked by clouds, no streetlights, a siren in the distance, medics running to a heart attack. Imagine a man out on a bike or walking a sick dog, or maybe a woman who works at a bar and has just finished the late shift. In a car or on foot or on a bike—it doesn’t matter. This stretch of road is rarely used; it’s dark and development has yet to come, so there isn’t much through traffic. Just a lonely street on a high bank above a muddy black canal that smells of salt marsh. A desolate piece of road below a span of highway that towers twenty-four feet above.
The passerby is startled by what looks like a body lying in the road beneath the bridge span. Let’s say it’s the body of a young man, just a day away from his thirtieth birthday. His body is so badly broken that he will live only one day past this milestone.
Let’s say the man has been lying there for hours—or no, maybe he has just fallen from the span above. The north- and southbound lanes are separated by a distance of thirteen feet. Could a man jump the span between these two structures? Is this what he was trying to do when he fell?
Let’s say the medical examiner rules the cause of death “undetermined.” There’s not enough information to say exactly what happened, except that he fell. Although . . . could it have been death by natural causes, something difficult to detect hours after the fact and camouflaged by the traumatic injuries: an asthma attack, maybe? The possibilities are endless. Or what about death by suicide? Could it have been an accidental death? Even a homicide: could he have been pushed? No one knows.
There can never be closure. Imagine how that must feel: the cause of your son’s death, your brother’s—undetermined.
Let’s say most everyone writes this guy off as a drunken fool. I did. I remember thinking, What kind of idiot would try to jump that span? Most of our small, tight-knit community quietly thought the same, but out of respect for the family, particularly out of respect for the young man’s father—a local business icon, a man the townspeople all knew and loved, a man who donated to local charities, sponsored various community events—no one voiced their sentiments, at least not out loud. Still, in my mind’s eye, I pictured the young man jumping. Maybe stumbling along in a drunken fog. Thinking, Fuck it, man, I can do this! And yet, there must have been an instant as he fell to his death, or maybe as he lay there, broken, in the black marsh stink, when he knew it wasn’t such a good idea after all.
I’ve thought about this on and off for nearly two decades.
Well, let’s say that a year after this man’s death, I became a cop in the town whose jurisdiction ended just feet from the dark road where the young man landed. I was thirty-eight years old then, not much older than this man. His sister and father still had a business in town, located on a prominent thoroughfare. Sometimes at night, when I was on patrol, I’d see the father in the lighted windows, still working. I’d wonder about him, about them.
I’d heard this man was devastated by his son’s death. I heard from a bartender friend of mine that before the fall, the young man, his father, and his sister had often frequented his bar. My friend described them as a tight little unit, full of love and laughter, strong bonds of joy and affection. The bartender told me that after the son’s death, the father’s complexion became pale, his eyes sunken, his back and shoulders bent. I imagine the father tried desperately to make sense of his son’s senseless death. He died a broken man, broken as his son had been broken, albeit in a different way. In fact, the father tried—and failed—to get a law passed that held drinking establishments liable for the actions of their patrons even though it was never concluded that his son had been served in a bar that night. In truth, he’d last been seen at a private party. But maybe that didn’t matter to the father. Maybe his effort was just a small way to extinguish some of the excruciating grief he felt over the loss of his son, whose name . . . well, let’s say it was Ray or Mark or maybe Teddy. That’s the name of my son. He wasn’t yet born at the time of this other “Teddy’s” death. I can only imagine the grief—no actually, no, I can’t imagine. I love my son beyond life. If anything were to happen . . . No. I can’t imagine it. I won’t. The weight of grief is beyond my empathy; there is a veil of sorrow so thick that it suffocates.
But as I said, all of this was long ago. Let’s say it’s now seventeen years later, and I’m not thinking of this man, this “Teddy” who fell to his death. In fact, I haven’t thought of him in a few years. It’s my father’s eightieth birthday, and I’m planning a surprise party for him. I go to great lengths to gather my extended family. We have a long history and deep friendships in this town where I now live, where my father now lives, though my mother and brothers have long since moved away. It’s not an easy trip to my home. Say I live in a small farming town in the Midwest, or an isolated community in the Pacific Northwest or maybe a tiny beach resort in the mid-Atlantic. Wherever it is, it’s hours from any airport, a difficult trip for my two younger brothers, who have made the Gulf Coast their home. Still, they put pressing business aside to make this journey, giving their old father great joy by marking the milestone—eighty years. Imagine the look on my father’s face when he sees all his sons together for the first time in . . . five years, maybe? A decade? Can it have been that long?
Let’s say that the surprise party happens on a weekend in May, and the weather is perfect. The smell of barbeque smoke from the backyard grill drifts through the open living room windows. My brothers’ children dart in and out of the house with my kids. The women are dressed up. Imagine the family clustered into small groups, gossiping, reminiscing, catching up. Let’s say my cousin, the black sheep of the family, shows up uninvited. He’s been in prison, and though he’s not entirely a bad guy, he isn’t really a good guy, either. He’s what I call a wrong-place-wrong-time guy, the type of dude who flicks his lit cigarette into the woods during a drought. With malice? Maybe, but probably not. I’d say it’s more recklessness. He uses poor judgment, then blames the government, his parents, maybe his wife, maybe me, for his failures. Maybe his name is Jack or Robert, but let’s call him Michael.
Michael may be reckless, but he’s also incredibly kind, the one who has taken on the task of caring for his widowed mother. He’s the type of man that young children—my children—are naturally drawn to. He’s an enigma. My brothers and I are fond of Michael; he’s our favorite cousin. We all had memorable experiences with him during our youth, though almost exclusively these memorable experiences were intense and lawless. Is this why we’ve all distanced ourselves from Michael? Over the years we’ve changed, grown up, but he hasn’t tempered his recklessness.
Let’s say Michael is there in a small group with my mother, my youngest brother, and me. We’re reminiscing. We’ve got drinks in our hands; we’re laughing. The sun is just setting, and the long fingerlike light rays cast hard shadows around the room. It’s the perfect evening. And let’s say—imagine this—that out of nowhere, Michael turns to my youngest brother and says, “Remember when we were at that party with Teddy and we caught that ride in the back of that pickup with those rednecks? And then fucking Teddy started talking crap and one of those rednecks threw him out of the bed of the truck right off the bridge! Holy shit, man. Remember that?”
For a split second, a split second that lasts for hours, I can’t move. I’m hoping, praying, that I didn’t hear what I just heard.
Let’s say I’m looking at my brother and I can see the same shock and horror on his face that mine must show. I realize this is real. I realize this is a kind of confession. The implication of what I’ve just heard races into perspective.
“Fuck, Michael, what the fuck! I’m a fucking cop,” I say. “For Christ’s sake, you’re talking murder!”
My throat burns as if I’ve been shouting but I must have whispered because I realize the other guests are oblivious. They chat, nibble, drink, laugh. The hard ambient light changes the planes of their faces as they turn or move or lift a glass or lean forward to talk to my father. Most of the guests are sitting in the dining room. My daughter’s homework is still piled at one end of the table and Michael is confessing to having witnessed a murder as easily as if he’d just mentioned that the forecast is calling for rain tomorrow.
My brother reminds Michael that he didn’t live here in those years, back when Teddy was found under the bridge. He had nothing to do with it. He looks stunned. Maybe Michael is confused, or maybe he just wants to believe that someone else shares this story, or maybe here, with family, Michael, who has been carrying this knowledge and guilt for so long, feels he can finally let the story pop out. Maybe he thinks it’s the right time. I don’t know. I will never know.
Let’s say my reaction doesn’t make an impression on Michael. Let’s say he doesn’t pay attention to my brother’s stunned look. Let’s say he just continues in his high smoker’s voice that comes partially from his stomach and partially from the very back of his throat: “Fuck man, Teddy was drunk. You know how he was, how he always talked shit. And that fucking hillbilly told him to shut up. But, you know Teddy, couldn’t keep his mouth shut so that asshole threw him out of the truck and off of the bridge.”
“Jesus, Michael,” I say again. “I’m a cop. Do you realize what you’ve just told me?” I realize I’m shouting, and drop my voice. Luckily no one’s paying attention to us. Even my mom seems oblivious. “What did you do,” I say, struggling to control my disbelief. “Why didn’t you call the cops?”
Let’s imagine—because he’s my cousin, after all, and I want, need, to believe if not the best of him, at least not the worst—so let’s imagine Michael and the others in the truck drove down under the bridge to check on Teddy that night. Maybe they found him broken on the road, and maybe they thought he was already dead. Maybe Michael panicked and jumped from the truck and took off. Let’s say he ran to his parents’ house and told his mother what happened. And let’s say his mother, because she knows Michael’s propensity for trouble and because she loves her son and is scared and knows there is nothing anyone could do if Teddy was already dead . . . let’s say she tells him never to mention it. And let’s say he doesn’t, not once until years later at a family reunion, my father’s eightieth birthday, when he casually mentions this murder to his cop cousin.
And what does the cop cousin do with this revelation? Let’s say I’m shocked, numb, parch-mouthed and unable to think clearly. What do I do, and who do I call? I don’t know. Do I imagine, again for a second, that I didn’t hear correctly? Should I keep it a secret?
He’s my cousin, after all.
It was nearly two decades ago.
But it was a murder.
I can’t keep that quiet.
There is no other way to imagine this part. I call one of my detectives and tell him what I’ve just learned. He gives me the number to a detective in the jurisdiction where this murder occurred, a jurisdiction that borders mine. Unless someone needs the cops, even the people who live there might never know it’s considered a separate jurisdiction. The fire department, water, sewer—it’s all the same. But a different police agency handles their calls. It’s hard to consider this is someone else’s problem, but it is.
Let’s say the detective in this jurisdiction tells me that I need to contact the state homicide division. He gives me a name and number. Let’s say I make the call. I tell the guy at state homicide about this unsolved, unsolvable seventeen-year-old murder. That’s what it is. Let’s say his division is overwhelmed with several recent murders and let’s say they are solvable, that with these homicides there is a chance of making a difference. Let’s say, too, that the homicide detective wasn’t even a cop when Teddy was killed. Still, he asks me to do some legwork on the Teddy murder, dig up as much as I can—the who, what, where, when. Let’s say I do what I can, though there’s not much available information. Still, I forward what I can find to the state homicide guy, and because I’m scared—I don’t know what this might mean for me, for my family, for Michael—let’s say I cover my ass by also copying the correspondence to my own administration: my lieutenant, my chief. In other words, I do everything I can to report this crime; there’s a paper trail to prove it. No one can accuse me of turning a blind eye for the sake of my family.
And then I wait.
I wait, and I hear nothing at all from the state’s homicide division. And I would hear something if the case were going anywhere, because I was a witness to Michael’s disclosure. Let’s say I get no acknowledgement of what I’ve reported, not even from my own administration. Nothing. Not a word. What should I think? Should I realize that justice doesn’t always prevail? Or maybe that justice is a matter of focusing on the cases where justice actually has a chance? Is this wrong? Why not spend precious resources on justice that can actually make a difference to the victims and their families? Why open old wounds in a family—Teddy’s family—that may have healed? Is it worth causing that pain when there’s no chance of finding the killer? Because there is, in all likelihood, zero chance of ever finding him; zero chance he’ll ever be brought to justice. And if that’s the case, why should I expose my family to what may come from a new investigation? But isn’t my cousin culpable? Isn’t my aunt? I don’t know. Let dead dogs lie, I tell myself; the world will never know the difference.
Except I know the difference.
And what do I do with this knowledge?
Let’s say I write it in an essay if only to bear witness, to say this happened. And yes, it’s a true story, but let’s say I do everything I can to protect those involved. I want this to be enough.
But is it?
AUTHOR’S NOTE: When I realized this story wasn’t going to be further resolved by the police, I wanted to tell it, but I was still working as a cop and it was sensitive to my family and community, and I just thought, no way. Around that time, my wife was teaching an “experiments in fiction” class and came across this speculative form. She hadn’t seen it in nonfiction and though I wasn’t crazy about the story she showed me, I immediately thought, I could do this with the story of the homicide. It was fun to create alternative details to the actual ones; it gave me a lot of room to play, as well as a measure of comfort that I was protecting my family and possibly “Teddy’s” family. In the end, though, I realize that everyone is still exposed. Perhaps not as much as if I’d told the story in a more straightforward way, but I wonder if you can ever really get enough distance from the stories that are close to home?